Category: The Ultimate Video Game

The Ultimate Video Game: dev team

Now that I’ve established the main elements of my hypothetical point-and-click game, my thoughts have been turning to my hypothetical dev team, and who I’d have on it.

A recap of the game

In 2019, archaeologists uncover the IT basement of a 1980s bank. Pete, the architect sent to survey it for demolition, is captivated by the room and its perfectly preserved contents, and barricades himself in. He soon discovers that something sinister happened here, and using clues left by Head of IT, Earl, back in 1989, he is sucked into a story of government conspiracy and brainwashing. Who were The Suits, and what happened to Earl?

The game is an adventure point-and-click with parts told in flashback, and solving puzzles by toggling between Earl in 1989 and Pete in 2019; they work ‘together’ with the player bridging the gap between past and present.

Read more posts about the Ultimate Video Game >>

Who would help me make my ideal video game?

My team would consist of talented, enthusiastic and inspiring people who all have something valuable to bring to the mix. I’d embrace a team that questions my ideas, makes me consider things from all angles, and works together to ultimately deliver the best product possible.

Then we can all celebrate with a curry and a pint o’ grog.

David Fox and Ron Gilbert, programming and design

Ron Gilbert and David Fox drawnA no-brainer, really. Well-established veterans of the point-and-click genre and responsible for some of my favourite games (Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island, Thimbleweed Park), their experience of programming, storytelling and dealing with the many bugbears of game development puts them firmly at the top of my list. I’m a picky, meticulous person in both personality and career, so I’d need people on a par with that.

Some key mechanics of the game would be tricky – toggling between 1989 and 2019 to complete tasks, and some very strict puzzle dependency towards the end – so I’d need their expertise. Their gaming ‘morals’ would also be a perfect match – I’ve already mentioned there will be no dying, no hand-holding tutorials, and logical puzzle chains.

I followed development of Thimbleweed Park (play it if you haven’t!) via their insightful dev blog and podcasts, and have had some great interactions with them too (David’s just as friendly as you’d think; Ron as delightfully cynical).

So if we’re treating this as an ideal scenario with no holds barred, David and Ron would be there (with me nitpicking over their shoulders).

Matt Nikutta and Octavi Navarro, artwork and animation

Matt and OctaviNot so long ago I played Unforeseen Incidents, a wonderful, fresh new point-and-click adventure game. Matt’s hand-drawn artwork was what grabbed my attention – unique and beautiful sketches that capture such atmosphere (and humour, when appropriate). I’d love to see him create eye-catching backdrops of Pete’s office, the excavation, the buried IT room, and the final, dramatic scene when the building is demolished for good. His vivid close-ups would be perfect for animating Pete and Earl’s anguished faces, and for the dry, sinister styling of the Suits.

I’ve been a fan of pixel art for a while, and Octavi just blows me away. Another member of the Thimbleweed Park crew – but it’s his personal portfolio of amazing cross-sections that I find so mesmerising (I have one on my wall as I type this). His pixelated style would be perfect for injecting some 80s detail into Earl’s IT room – the big computer monitors, Depeche Mode posters, retro inventory items, the 80s verb design (see Gameplay) and other little Easter eggs and features.

Kim from Later Levels, project management

Kim3Who better to put in charge of planning and scheduling than the person who started it all? If it wasn’t for the Later Levels Ultimate Video Game collaboration this wouldn’t even be a thing. Kim’s a legend in my blogging circles. She’s awesome at bringing the community together and inspiring other writers, all while churning out great content on a much more regular basis than me! I bet she’d have some great ideas, too.

Story and dialogue… well, me.

Naturally, I’d want to protect and preserve the characters, story and messages that I’ve scoped out so far – so I’d need the be the one in control of that.

I’ve written for a lot of different audiences over the years – with the exception of video games. This would be the ultimate challenge, bringing together two of my favourite things. Writing my characters and their story into life would be incredible. All with the help of my wonderful, entirely hypothetical team of course!

Given my error-seeking ways, I’d take care of QA, too.

That was fun.

I’ve had a blast fantasising about my Ultimate Video Game. I’d planned to explore more elements, but I think I’ve covered everything that’s important to me, and there’s only so far an imaginary project can go!

I’ve become quite attached to Earl and Pete, and often find myself daydreaming about their fates. I’m toying with the idea of turning this into a story project, where I’d write a chapter per post on a semi-regular (cough) basis, just for fun, and to see where it goes. But we’ll see.

 

The Ultimate Video Game: gameplay

image of an amusing puzzle dependency chart

An update on Question of the Month

So a few weeks ago it was announced that the Question of the Month/Ultimate Video Game collaboration has come to an end. It’s a shame, but totally understandable – I’ve found it a challenge keeping on top of these posts so I can only imagine what’s involved in running the whole thing! As such I’m really grateful to Later Levels and OverThinker Y for the opportunity.

That said, I intend to finish what I started! I’ve cultivated so many ideas along the way and there’s still more I want to explore from both a gaming concept and writing point of view.

So, on to the next element: gameplay.

(If you haven’t read the previous posts covering setting, protagonist, antagonist and plot, you might want to do that first.)

Gameplay and interface

Throughout this process I’ve been picturing the game as a 2D illustrated adventure, with an old-school LucasArts point and click interface (shocker). So there would be a pretty typical verb layout like the one in The Secret of Monkey Island – but with modern styling, a show/hide option, and slightly different verbs.

Image from The Secret of Monkey Island

Cut scenes would zoom in on the action in a more film-like way, with close-ups of our protagonists and the discoveries they make. Some of these would also be flashbacks, to tell bits of Earl’s story in the 1980s. Then as the player progresses there will eventually be a toggle button that allows the player to jump between 1989 Earl and 2019 Pete, playing parts of the game as each character. Which brings me to the next feature…

Puzzles

There will be a nice range of fairly typical puzzle types, including tile sliding, riddles, deciphering and inventory focused tasks – and maybe some mini games too.

As the game advances and Pete finds more clues left behind by Earl, a large portion of puzzle-solving will involve toggling between 1989 and 2019 – Earl and Pete will effectively work ‘together’, with the player bridging the gap between past and present. For example, if Pete needs to use a broken walkman in the present, the player can go back to the 1980s, play as Earl, and stop it from being knocked off the table in the first place. If he needs batteries for it, he can check where Earl hid them from his pilfering colleagues.

Towards the end of the game, there will be a significant puzzle that involves aligning events in the past and present in perfect timing (this will be the infamous difficult bit that YouTubers rage about).

The style of the game will change subtly when the player is in the 1980s, as both an atmospheric device and a reminder to the player which era they are currently in (since a lot of the scenes will take place in the same environment). For example: the verb selector will take on a more retro, pixelated look; artwork will be rougher; and the overall colour palette will be more restricted.

Depending on how, and how much, the player changes the past, this will be reflected in slight variations on the ending.

Structure and difficulty

The game will have three main chapters – the first is for exposition, story-growing and skill-building; the second introduces the back-and-forth time travelling; the third advances all those things and is much more frantic and potentially quite tricky. There are no difficulty settings and no hand-holding tutorials – you learn as you go.

But that’s okay because there will be infinite cloud save slots! There will be no dying, but the player may have to restart some puzzles if they fail. I’d also incorporate a checklist to keep track of important objectives and progress. Pete would view this on his smartphone; Earl on a hi-tech 1980s PDA.

Achievements, just for fun

80s raver: listen to 20 chart toppers
Bhaji barmy: eat 50 onion bhajis
Neon bangle-toots: collect all ten neon bangles
Pro Procrastinator: Complete Level 1 of Pipe Mania
Too kool for skool: spell ‘boobies’ on Earl’s calculator
Mind-boggling toggling: toggle between past and present ten times in 20 seconds

 

The Ultimate Video Game: plot

INXS-Kick-border

I’m thinking this might be the hardest element to write, and as such I’ve been putting it off. I mean cripes, I’ve been dusting.

Recap: this post is part of The Ultimate Video Game, an ongoing challenge set by LaterLevels and OverthinkerY. I’ve already covered the setting, protagonist and antagonist in earlier posts.

April’s element is the plot. This bit feels really strange for two reasons. Firstly, when I write fiction it tends to be a more organic process as I go along (read: I’m too indecisive to make plans and stick to them); and secondly, it goes against my instinct to reveal big spoilers! (Seriously.)

Am I just procrastinating further? Probably. So without further ado…

The plot

The game opens on a family of four eating at a table. The little girl reaches for a bowl while her father tells a joke that makes everybody fall about laughing. They are happy.

The view pans back and now we are looking at them through a window. Back further, and we can see the whole building. The facade is that of an old English stately home, nestled in the picturesque countryside.

The people in the window suddenly freeze, and as we pan back further a gold frame comes into view around the scene; it’s actually a painting. There’s an audible sigh. We realise we’ve been looking through the eyes of Pete, who is slumped at his desk and wishing he was part of the happy family he imagined living there all those years ago.

A phone rings, and the story begins here.

Pete, an architect, is sent by his boss to take photos of an old office floor that has been buried underground for years, recently excavated by archaeologists. His company plans to gut it and build on top.

When Pete arrives, he’s transfixed by the perfectly preserved concoction of 80s computer systems and pop culture memorabilia. He starts taking photos, and begins piecing together the lives of the people that worked down here under the dim glow of the computer monitors. The lowly IT department at Frankfurter Bank.

But the more he finds, the more he realises something isn’t right. He finds cryptic notes, suspicious floppy disks and strange photos left by Earl, the IT head. It’s as if he was leaving a trail of important clues for someone in the future.

In 1989, Earl is gazing at an INXS poster wishing he was Michael Hutchence. In between, he completes some minor bug fixes and starts work on a misbehaving PC sent down from the fifth floor. His lead systems engineer strolls over to the coffee pot. Earl throws a grunt his way and rummages in a drawer for his screwdriver. He closes it, and notices a stream of coffee making its way to his feet. He looks up at the engineer, who is standing motionless while pouring coffee into a definitely-already-full mug.

His team have been acting strangely, lately.

After a few more incidents like this, Earl identifies that the level of insanity in his team is directly correlated to the amount of time spent at their workstations, and begins to suspect something much worse than an over-indulgence in marijuana. My team are acting peculiar, and it ain’t the doobies. He notes with interest that there have also been an unusual amount of issues reported to the helpdesk, ranging from small glitches to spontaneously combusting printers.

We learn that the bank is being hacked by a shady government organisation known as the Suits. The purpose of the hack, it turns out, is to covertly test a new mind control program, by uploading thoughts to the network and infecting its users [don’t ask me how, I’m just the narrator]. Unfortunately for Earl, his IT team are the perfect test subjects – low-profile, hidden away underground and the least bit of interest to their peers. Earl must find a way to stop the infiltration and avoid having his own brain turned to mush.

Back in the present, Pete has barricaded himself in the underground office – much to the fury of his management – while he digs deeper into the mystery. He becomes emotionally invested. From what he can deduce, the Suits are now long gone, eliminated one by one by Earl or by something else. He finds himself desperate to know what happened to Earl… then the clues run dry. They just stop. Exhausted and disheartened, he decides to take a break. He hauls the copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text adventure from Earl’s backpack.

And then something strange happens. As he plays, the game starts returning commands as if speaking specifically to him. It’s spewing harsh warnings, threatening to fondle Pete’s brain if he continues to probe. At first Pete is amused (especially at the careless innuendo), thinking it’s part of the game (this is Douglas Adams, after all). But then it gets personal. Pete finds he was wrong about the Suits; one remaining evil genius still exists in the form of an AI – one that communicates (poorly) through a text adventure. It continues to rage, informing Pete that Earl is dead and his efforts are futile. Yeah, right.

With the help of Earl from the past, Pete takes down the AI and makes sure the mind control plan can never go ahead. He seals the gateway, and finally allows the building to be destroyed. At the end of the game Pete has one last task: to find Earl. Despite what the AI said, he knows he’s still alive. He eventually tracks him down, and makes his way to the isolated trailer park where he believes Earl has been hiding out.

When he gets there, he finds a grave. Another decoy, obviously. But then, in the church obituaries, he learns that Earl succumbed to a long illness shortly after he left the department. The AI was telling the truth; his death was nothing to do with the Suits. Just a cruel, bitter coincidence. That must be why he was in a hurry to leave clues – because he knew he wouldn’t be around to see it through.

Pete is crushed.

This last blow, and everything that has happened before it, throws Pete further into crippling loneliness. He can’t face going back to his meaningless, empty life – no job, an ex-wife who would now likely rinse him for everything he’s got, and a daughter who he’ll never get to see again. The pain would be immeasurable.

Then he remembers. Among other things, the AI had complained that its virtual environment was stuck in the 80s. It had absorbed the world Pete felt he always belonged in, instead of the bleak, vacuous present. He goes home to his computer and re-opens the gateway. Swallowing back tears, he uploads his consciousness, taking the place of the AI he destroyed.

The Ultimate Video Game: antagonist

antagonist

I’m trying my darnedest to keep up with the challenges posed by the Ultimate Video Game, because it’s fun and gives me an outlet for creative ramblings.

March’s element is the antagonist. I’m continuing with the ideas that came out of my setting and protagonists, because I want to finish what I’ve started – but who knows, I might jump in on the main competition at some point!

The game so far

The story is set in an abandoned IT room, excavated in 2019. Our heroes are Earl, head of the IT department in 1989; and Pete, an architect sent to renovate it in 2019.

The antagonist

It turns out the antagonist is a fundamental part of the game. This element brings Earl and Pete together, uniting them across time in a bid to uncover a conspiracy and set the past right.

1989

The antagonist takes the form of a shady organisation, known as The Suits, who are hacking into Earl’s IT network, though he doesn’t know it yet. Nor do we know their master plan – that will come later for the story element (I hope there’s a story element otherwise I’ll have to come back and edit this, which will be awkward).

The Suits consist of six members, ranging in age and background. Two are father and daughter; two are acquainted from their time in the police force; one is an ex-Army sergeant; and the other is the silent one in charge, a powerful presence with an entirely erased history. None of them question him – they simply follow.

2019

The more Pete delves, the more he gets sucked into Earl’s world. At first, he relishes the simple times of the 1980s, indulging in its music, tech and video games. But as the layers peel away he stumbles upon clues left by Earl revealing something much more sinister. The IT department was not as isolated as it seemed. They were watching, and waiting.

Earl thought it was over when the last of the Suits was found dead, but in 2019, in the flicker of the monitor, Pete discovers there are ways for our consciousness to live on.

The Ultimate Video Game: protagonist

protagonist

I really enjoyed the challenge of devising a setting for The Ultimate Video Game as part of Later Levels’ Question of the Month in January. I thought the winning entry by Hundstrasse was amazing and I really want to visit that world.

So February’s game element is the protagonist. There are two options set by the dev team: create a protagonist to reside in the previously winning setting, or create one for the setting you came up with.

Since a) I’m not great at writing characters, b) I’m short on time, and c) I’m void of ideas for the winning setting (see a), I’m going with the second option. This option isn’t eligible to win, but I wanted to do it for fun!

The abandoned IT room

As a reminder, the setting is an excavated IT room that’s been lying dormant since 1989, dug up in 2019 by some archaeologists. Everything is perfectly in place, as if its occupants left in a hurry.

Earl, the IT guy

Earl is one half of our protagonist duo. That’s right, I’m breaking the rules and having two, ha!

Earl is head of the IT department in 1989, shortly before The Big Untimely Accident, which I’m not allowed to talk about because this is strictly about characters, not plot. (I also wasn’t going to mention that parts of the game are played in flashback, but I guess that’s obvious now.)

Earl is a rising genius in the expanding world of IT, with a mechanically astute mind and an uncanny knack for troubleshooting. Unfortunately, he is also afflicted with a debilitating sense of apathy (thanks to Thatcher) and an addiction to onion bhajis. As such he spends his days slumped in the basement fixing minor issues and drawing what little enthusiasm he has from his younger, fresh-faced team mates.

In his younger days he was a looker. Now age has puffed his features, peppered his hair and made him stout (though that may be the bhajis). He wears army regulation khaki pants because they have lots of pockets to hold tools and attachments. His T-shirt is clean but faded, and when he sits down Cheetara grimaces from the folds.

Earl has a hard time convincing upper management about the importance of good IT infrastructure and rigid processes, to the extent that he is on the brink of throwing in the towel and donning a McDonald’s hat.

Pete, the architect

Back in 2019, Pete is the architect sent to take photos of the buried IT room for restructuring purposes. His company plans to gut it and build on top of it.

Pete is ambitious, but not on a psychopath level. He’s kind, with a creative eye and a built-in bullshit detector. He carries a picture of his daughter everywhere, but his wedding finger sports nothing but a rough indent. He buries himself in his work, trying to steer his company to support and protect the city’s historic landscape, instead of replacing it with flashy eyesores.

He’s a man of admirable precision, reflected in both his work and appearance; he’s always clean shaven, dresses casually but cleanly, armed always with a notepad, measuring tools and a Brompton bike.

He rarely indulges in anything, and will persistently be off sugar or caffeine – sometimes even cutting out random foodstuffs like potato or cinnamon. If you asked his colleagues they would say he’s self-punishing for something, but what do they know.

Very little, in fact. They wouldn’t know that he goes home and plays old video games. That he devours old books and is transfixed by old films. That he’s more content in the warm hug of the past than the grim, uncertain future. If they understood that, then they might understand his obsession with protecting old buildings.

If he could find a path to the past, he would blindly take it.

The Ultimate Video Game: setting and themes

floppy

In response to Later Levels’ Question of the month, I thought I’d take a stab at this!

The question is part of The Ultimate Video Game, a collaborative 12-month project to come up with the best virtual video game based on the input of contributors from the community.

This month it’s about setting and themes, so without further ado…

What would be your ideal setting and themes for the ultimate video game?

I’m not a fan of wandering far and wide in search of some ancient scroll or elusive relative. I like everything to be contained, so all the action can take place in a microcosm flourishing with detail and full of interesting objects and things to engage with.

So naturally I’ve gone for… drum roll… an abandoned IT room.

Wait! Come back! Not just any abandoned IT room – An abandoned IT room from 1989.

Stay with me.

During an excavation in modern-day London, archaeologists unearth the basement of an old office building. Despite the rest of the tower block being torn down decades ago, this floor is preserved in all its glory thanks to some sturdy masonry and a general ignorance about IT departments.

The room is a glorious mix of old tech and 80s paraphernalia. There are boxes of early mice and keyboards, floppy disks, software packages, manuals and a half-stocked vending machine. Posters of Depeche Mode and The Cure line the walls. The desks are strewn with empty tobacco packets and stress balls. There are cupboards and drawers, some still locked.

The techs had their entertainment figured out, too. There’s a Commodore 64 rigged up in the corner in front of some beanbags and next to it is a chart scrawled with top scores. On top of one of the filing cabinets a battered walkman is popped open, revealing a mix tape (SPOILER!)

Needless to say, the setting provides plenty of scope for foraging – particularly if this ends up being an adventure game (COUGH). Just imagine the range of inventory items and puzzle chains.

Everything in the room has laid dormant for 30 years, now awoken for the first time. Among the burgeoning technology and flecks of neon, a steely dampness hangs in the air. What were they really doing down here?