Sunday, December 30, 2012

Meriwether: An American Epic

Meriwether: An American Epic is another game trying to get funding on Kickstarter (and, currently, about $12,000 short, with a week to go).

But it's a lot different from most games in that it's historically accurate. In fact, it's been receiving donations from many different sources, including the Lewis and Clark Foundation, Humanities Montana, Humanities Iowa, and the ESA Foundation (which I assume is the Entertainment Software Association Foundation?).

If you're interested in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, you really need to take a look at this game. But what I want to highlight is their latest update on "Turning Player Choice into a Story":
Games depend on players making meaningful choices and seeing the consequences of those choices radiate throughout the game. But herein lies a problem for our game. By definition, history has already happened. So how can we allow players to influence the historical aspects of the game while still being true to it?

One answer we’ve come up with lies in the “facet” dialogue system in Lewis levels. ... Each of these facets is tied to one of the common roles Lewis had to play, but each carries a philosophy with it as well. Sometimes a facet you choose will chart a course of action, but sometimes it will help to create the kind of Meriwether Lewis you want to play. In other words, you’ll customize your version of Lewis to fit the way you want to attack problems in the game.

Each time you choose a facet, two things happen. First, the consequences of that choice immediately begin to play out. If you decide not to have Private Willard executed for falling asleep at his post (a real choice the historical Lewis faced, and a real choice in the game), expect some of the Corps to appreciate your mercy, but others to begin questioning your resolve as a leader. For you lovers of speculative fiction, this is where the game wanders into the realm of Alternate History and we get to explore all those “What If?” possibilities with which the Lewis and Clark Expedition tantalizes us. Second, Lewis gets better at using the facet you selected. The more you use a given facet, the more adept you’ll become with it. This is important because some dialogue options will only be available if you have a high enough skill in the necessary facet.

There’s a fifth facet to Lewis’s personality, one that I think really helps to make our character development unique among video games: “Melancholy.” You don’t gain skill in Melancholy as you do the other facets; in fact, you’ll probably want to use this facet as little as possible. But you will have to choose it sometimes. The Melancholy facet is meant to reflect the black moods, self-critical analyses, and temper that were all a part of Lewis’s character. Think of it as a thermometer that rises every time you engage in dialogue and don’t select it. Once Melancholy reaches its “boiling point,” you have to choose it in lieu of any other (more helpful) dialogue option. The trick for players will be figuring out how to diffuse Lewis’s Melancholy before it forces them to say something they wish they hadn’t to the wrong person.

What excites me so much about the Melancholy facet is that it uses gameplay to shed light on Lewis’s personality. In most RPGs, dialogue is used primarily either for info. dumps or quest assignments. When dialogue has a genuine gameplay aspect of its own, usually what players try to do is “say the right thing” to maximize their abilities or inventory in the game--"Oh, thank you for complimenting my outfit; now you may have the Sword of Pwnage +39!"--rather than thinking about “What would this character say in this situation”? In other words, one of the most essential aspects of the tabletop roleplay experience, acting in-character, is all but absent from the CRPG genre. Our facet system will not only encourage you to to develop a character that fits with your favorite way of tackling problems in a game, but, through the Melancholy facet, confront you with Lewis’s foibles and failings as a person. Taken together, we hope to present a nuanced portrait of a great American hero who also happened to be a flawed human being.

Brilliant, isn't it? I don't know how it's going to work as a game. In fact, there are a lot of interesting ideas here, and I'm not sure how any of them are going to work. As this implies, a historical game is particularly difficult, and this is about history more than it's about alternate history.

But this is why Kickstarter is so great. These are the kinds of experiments which are well worth a trial. If they fail, well, you'll only be out the pittance of your pledge. But success could mean not just an enjoyable game but other games also taking this idea and running with it.

If you like history or you like computer games - or both - take a serious look at this project. This isn't just another first-person shooter. Even if you like first-person shooters, you don't want every game to be like that, do you? Personally, I like to see game developers use their imaginations.


Chimeradave said...

It looks like something I'd want to play. I wonder what the advantage of building Melancholy would be though?

WCG said...

There is no advantage to Melancholy, John. In fact, it's disadvantageous. It's just a characteristic of Meriwether's personality, so you have to work with it, just like Meriwether did.

I think it's a brilliant idea, though I don't know how it will work as gameplay. But I hope we get the chance to try it. Ideas like this have to get a trial before they do us much good.

Chimeradave said...

I must have misunderstood or the video must have been unclear. Well, like you said, I hope I get to play it someday.

Josh said...

Dave, this is Josh, one of the designers of the game. Melancholy works the opposite of the other stats. It increases on a regular basis, but is reduced to 0 when you choose it. If it reaches a high enough threshold, all other options become disabled and you are forced to choose it. So, you're encouraged to diffuse it before being forced to choose it at an inopportune time. Sometimes there are other reasons to choose it as well, most likely making a more selfish choice.

WCG said...

Thanks for the explanation, Josh. Wow, you guys keep coming up with such fascinating updates at Kickstarter! I'm really pulling for you.

WCG said...

Josh, congratulations on meeting your goal on Kickstarter! Indeed, you beat it pretty solidly, I'd say. Pledges are almost $40,000 right now, well above the $35,000 goal.