Secrets and Skeletons (and Floating Skulls)

I’m currently at a difficult, recurring phase in my career where I have a lot going on, and I’m working late on it most nights, but I can’t share any of it. Both publishing and the games industry thrive on secrecy. Almost everything I’m working on will have to stay bottled up—for now.

One thing I CAN share, though, is that I’ve been able to help Daily Magic Productions bring their virtual reality action-adventure game, The Witching Tower VR, to the English-speaking world. The Witching Tower VR is a dark fantasy game that casts the player as a prisoner of the eponymous tower cast into a cage on its roof. After earning a variety of necromantic powers, you must descend level-by-level through the tower and confront its queen. The Witching Tower VR is out on Steam and the Oculus stores now, and will be coming out on Playstation VR soon.

The Witching Tower VR.  I think I love the goggles the most.

The Witching Tower VR. I think I love the goggles the most.

My favorite games are story-focused and feature heavy elements of player choice. I’ve been reflecting on player choice and character.

It’s unfortunately easy, in games that allow multiple branching pathways, to leave players with the impression that they’re the only active force in the world, and other characters only exist to react to the player’s choices. They may say they have agendas on their own, but they don’t act on them.

For most games, this is almost certainly the safest choice to make. Going too far down a simulationist path, wherein non-player characters press forward on their own and make decisions outside of the player’s view, can be inscrutable and frustrating. Games like Jordan Mechner’s The Last Express can do this, but they’re often forced to limit their scale and require exceptional craftwork. Games that don’t want to have time-keeping as a major mechanic should probably avoid it.

But game storytelling, like most storytelling, is illusion. It doesn’t matter if characters actually move independently and make their own decisions if the players believe that they do. There are a variety of tricks, large and subtle, that can create that illusion.

The journal also spoiled who you could recruit by listing them like this.

The journal also spoiled who you could recruit by listing them like this.

One of the first RPGs I seriously delved into, Planescape: Torment had a journal section that featured lists of all the creatures and characters you had encountered so far (in the esoteric Planescape campaign setting, that was extremely helpful!). They also listed recruitable characters. In this, the journal made a small choice that shaped how I conceptualized those characters. It classified them as player characters rather than NPCs. Since it was my first big RPG, it had an outsized effect on how I conceptualized recruitable characters.

Even character-focused games like Baldur’s Gate or Dragon Age call their recruitable characters NPCs. PCs come with different expectations. Sitting down with PCs feels like playing a tabletop game, in which the other players can be expected to go off on tangents, and to be unpredictable. Playing Torment felt like sitting down in a tabletop group (also in no small part due to sharp writing).

When Torment’s PCs interjected into conversations or screwed up encounters for me, or starting fighting with each other, I took it in stride. When the NPCs in other games do the same thing, I just get annoyed. I don’t perceive of them as having agency. It’s easy to think of their quests and loyalty missions as lists to be checked off. Their interactions and mechanics are more transparent, and therefore more predictable.

It’s important to note that the “PCs” of Torment and NPCs of these other games are not mechanically distinct. None of them had actual agency. But their impact, in my memory, was distinct. The illusion had been crafted to make sure it was. And that—on the writing side of games, at least—is where the art is.