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  • Design Challenges: Children Of Morta

    [03.03.20]
    - Hamid R. Saeedy
  • When we talk about a story-driven roguelike game, we neither only mean a video game with a mix of micro-narratives and a ludic loop, nor one that uses visual representations to convey an ideally coherent world. In fact, the most challenging claim in Children of Morta was bringing a plot-driven game together with gameplay that is mostly inspired by major elements of roguelike games.

    As one of the designers on Children of Morta, who was added around the first quarter of the project, also the narrative designer and writer for the game, I will try my best to run you through our design process and the challenges we faced along the way.

    1. Everything Starts with Family

    Children of Morta (henceforth referred to as CoM) was born in 2014 (almost five years before its final launch) through crowdfunding; and like many of its peers that sought funding on Kickstarter, it too presented a basic idea that was almost oxymoronic, namely, a story-driven roguelike. But there was also the retro and stylistic art of the game that depicted the Bergson family in the midst of a fictional world where their adventures would take place.

    Laying the Foundation

    After funding was secured, it seemed like the game wasn't going to be a mere roguelike or hack 'n' slash. CoM owes a lot to pioneering games like Diablo. However, while Diablo set itself apart by breaking the genre norms to incorporate real-time combat and balance out permadeath, CoM tries to achieve the same by returning to some of its classic roots. We wanted to stand by our promises of delivering a heartfelt story about the Bergsons and at the same time revisit the core elements of rogue-like games. This meant that the players were going to experience the story in between the procedural levels and the Bergsons' house. To this end, we required a form of permadeath for the playable characters, so the game had to flow without a checkpoint system.

    Birth of the Bergsons

    An important keyword used during the Kickstarter campaign was "family" and the fact that each of the main characters would be a part of it. This alone pushed our character development process a step above the class-character of RPGs. And since we needed the Bergsons to be a family, we had to portray their relationships in an authentic manner. This kept us busy well into the final months of development. Now let's go over how the Bergsons came to be.

    Initially, the game was supposed to be narrated in a book. So, players would see the book in-game and realize that they're reliving the stories within it. The book would retell the story of total strangers who would unite around a central plot. They would meet each other in an inn and while there, something evil would occur forcing them to band together and go on a heroic journey.

    But the Kickstarter campaign needed unique elements. Some of which were already made: In fact, our art style was reminiscent of impressionist palettes and most of our animations gave the player a certain "anime" vibe found in the works of Miyazaki. But what we lacked was something to hold together the narrative and the roguelike gameplay and emphasize this unique mixture. An element that would be our unique selling point. This was the concept of "family" which was the result of many a brainstorming session. The family angle was something that caught the attention of many of our backers; that's how a narrative-driven roguelike centered on a family named the Bergsons was able to surpass its goal on Kickstarter.

    Roguelike, Roguelite, Hack n Slash or ARPG!?

    Using genres to define a game has always come with issues regarding their interpretation. You'll be faced with definitions that don't refer to a single, uniform essence. But that's just how things are on crowdfunding sites, you can't really avoid this model of presentation since, in the end, you have a game that isn't finished and if you don't have the prototypes to be showcased, you'll need to introduce the game in ways people are already familiar with. So, these labels are actually handy when used properly. People are familiar with the bold characteristics of these definitions to a degree, even though each of them has been undergoing numerous changes during the last three decades.

    ARPG was the first one mentioned. But that alone wouldn't allow for the innovation we had in mind since there were already loads of ARPGs that were also narrative-driven. So we had to revisit the roots of the genre. But that didn't mean using turn-based combat even though early roguelike titles did function that way. Also being narrative-driven or more precisely, story-driven was something that would directly contradict what defined a roguelike game which made this a pretty big deal and at first glance our initial design would be understood as that. That's how we ended up adding permadeath and procedural levels containing random events alongside the story as the primary pillars of our design.

    Morta needed serious Hack n Slash, but not solely be a Hack n Slash, as many of the previous ARPG titles before it were not pure Hack n Slash games but also delivered a story. The Hack n Slash element of the game was in fact a knob for us to adjust the complexity of enemy behaviors and playable characters within the combat system. It was clear from the beginning that we didn't want to be a pure ARPG similar to Diablo and Titan Quest, nor a modern roguelike similar to The Binding of Isaac or Risk of Rain.

    Procedural Levels

    In CoM, the existence of procedural levels as a defining characteristic of the genre and also as a way of increasing variety and replayability can be summed up in three parts: creating levels with different geometries and visuals, spreading enemies in different ways across levels and finally chances of finding random items and power-ups. You also need to find a way to include micro-narrative events in-line with gameplay events. Even though your level design costs go down with this feature, the complexity and design challenges go up.

    The initial level designs were fairly simple; one could even say they visually resembled the level design of early roguelike titles. The levels consisted of separate, predesigned rooms that were connected through machine-generated corridors. The spread of enemies throughout levels was uncontrollable. The enemies would spawn in random places within a room, aside from the corridors, without a predetermined pattern. So, their spawn patterns were unpredictable for the designers.

    The visuals of the initial levels were made by placing ground and wall tiles in a grid formation. Right from the get-go, we noticed that the walls and ground were too flat and also the placement of the walls looked too bland. This was even more noticeable in natural environments. So, the decision to connect the walls to a tile before or after it was soon replaced with adjustable connections that can be even less than one tile. This feature gave us the ability to create a variety of geometric visuals that were not previously available in our initial prototype.

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