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  • Design Challenges: Children Of Morta

    - Hamid R. Saeedy

  • 4. The Issue of Progression

    Each run in Children of Morta would take about 20 to 25 minutes to complete. This was a much longer time frame compared to other similar games; and once the player dies, they might not have made any tangible ludic and narrative progression. This is precisely what became a major cause for concern halfway through the project. We feared that players wouldn't experience a sense of progression after playing for a certain amount of time.

    Chapter Segmentation

    One of the major revisions that took place halfway through the project was progression segmentation; in other words, the progression was given a form of resolution. This revision entailed three major changes: First, the length of the levels in an area were shortened to convey a more coherent sense of progression. Second, specific checkpoints were implemented after finishing each area. Initially, the checkpoints were activated under the condition of completing the chapter but now each area had its own checkpoint and there are around three areas in each chapter.

    This decision did not have much of an impact on each play session's length but in general, it impacted the total playtime of the game. Third, focuses more on the narrative resolution of each area. In fact, we had considered one final boss for each chapter in our early design which was reduced to a total of five-including the final chapter-after the number of chapters was limited. But before any of that, we had designed and implemented a number of minibosses that the player would face in random events or side quests. The decision to break-up areas called for a change in the functional form of the minibosses to be considered as main bosses and to increase their number. As such, certain points were taken into consideration in each final area where the player would defeat the boss and return home to save the progress they've made. This was precisely the part we would be able to utilize to move the story forward.

    5. The Issue of the House's Function

    The house was important ludic-wise; it was also an opportunity to showcase the relationship between the Bergsons. Relationships that would need to leave a lasting impression throughout the gameplay. Initially, we believed that our characters would be able to fulfill the functions we had considered for them with their basic roles.

    Their mother, Mary, would cook for them. So we decided to prototype a system where the Bergsons would find and bring home different ingredients needed to prepare a meal. Those meals would temporarily buff the Bergsons. Alongside this cooking system, we also had prototyped a gardening system that would allow Grandma Margaret to use the harvested goods in her potions and also unlock more complex recipes in Mary's cooking.

    A CMS was starting to take root in the house that was not quite good. We didn't want the game's flow to fall off. In fact, our game didn't have that much of a slow pace to warrant players to devote a long time to resource management, growing and building different power-ups. It was also unclear for us at that point, how much progress would need to occur inside the house and whether all these slightly complex tasks of growing herbs and cooking would be as effective-in terms of progression-as power-ups inside levels and upgrades done through Uncle Ben's workshop. Also, would we be able to balance out this complicated and loaded system with the player's progression throughout the levels?

    Since there were no clear answers to these questions, we decided to scrap the prototype in the end. We couldn't devote time to both fixing existing issues while also creating an effective and uniform side system that would be in-line with the game's core loop. In the end, what we went with was certain house functions such as Uncle Ben's workshop and Grandma Margaret's alchemy table; both of which were implemented in a basic fashion whose shared resource would be gathered throughout the levels.

    6. Narrative Design Issues in a Roguelite Game

    Initially, we didn't have a clear vision of what kind of narrative and story structure could be implemented in the roguelike format. The basic structure for events, quests and also where the story would unfold were somewhat predetermined; but under what conditions, in what form and sequence they would be showcased was still a matter of much deliberation. Also, designing the world required much more time and care. In fact, the visual references needed to be more aligned with the environment and narrative arc. The game's opening scene didn't evoke a positive first impression from a story perspective. The heroes and villains' ambitions needed to be better outlined. There was also the matter of taking more care when designing the relationship of the Bergsons since it would be the focal point of the story; and finally, to consider other mediums through which to deliver the world's lore. Now, I will get into some of the measures taken to deal with the concerns mentioned above.

    Home Interactive Events

    The Bergsons' home could still be used as a conduit to create more narrative experiences. In fact, we needed events that would highlight the relationship between the Bergsons while also providing a better understanding of the main plot. Another way to look at it would be that these events cloud help the player keep track of the game's main objective.

    These events that were referred to as HIE were based on an idea where the main cutscenes of the game would have an interactive element but that never got implemented. So based on its structure, and the narrative needs of the game, HIE was used as another narrative delivery medium. The player would encounter one or a few HIEs at home and choose to see what happens when they interact with it. These events were mostly easy to pull off due to the art assets required and their narrative nature could repeatedly be used in different situations.

    Death in a Roguelike and Losing Sight of Game Objectives

    One of the main concerns when designing Children of Morta was the total game time and how narrative events should be distributed considering the game time. Admittedly, we had a game that was reliant upon the player's skill level to a large degree; this would have a significant impact on how long the game would be. This situation had created a paradox: More skilled players would probably bypass many of these narrative events and never experience them. Events that were a bit of an oddity in non-roguelike games since the player would have to die enough times to trigger them. These players would eventually discover the story much sooner than planned and would miss key plot points. This issue became a major challenge since game time was itself reliant upon the player's death rate and an important factor in designing the narrative, which in turn made balancing the game a difficult task to overcome.

    Players die in-game; some more, some less. The player who has not died would possibly not see much and the one who has died many times would stop seeing events after a while. There were many ideas. Should the game's flow be cut at some point and the player be forced back at home to watch the story unfold? Or would it be wiser to transfer some of those key narrative events from the house to the levels? What was obvious was that with the segmentation of levels and a more tangible progression system (which was previously mentioned) we had more room to flesh out the story. Therefore, we considered the template of returning the player back home after they defeat the boss of an area to be the default and placed all the main resolution nodes which progressed the story at home and after each boss is defeated.

    Due to multiple deaths during the game, the player might be susceptible to lose track of the game's main storyline and in fact lose sight of their main goal. Certain measures were taken into effect to resolve this matter. First, a basic objective system was embedded in the UI. Many of the events and cutscenes were also rewritten from scratch to convey everything that was necessary for the player to understand the story while staying on track. Finally, a narration was written for each of the starting rooms that would implicitly remind the player of their short-term goal in that level.

    To highlight the family's end goal, we needed a situation where a sense of urgency would be conveyed to the player. So for each phase of the game, a series of events were designed to indicate the spread of corruption in the world. Though this progression was also implicitly mentioned in the form of HIEs and also some cutscenes. The difference being these events would put the home in an irreversible state, making it seem as if the Bergsons are starting to feel the tension and no longer feeling safe in their own home which acts as a buffer for the sense of urgency.


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