I have an idea for a story (or actually, several stories, one of which I am trying to write now) set in an imaginary city. I have a pretty good idea of the general layout of this city, and I have a rough map sketched out.
But how do you do IF set in a city? I obviously don’t want to (and can’t) include every possible location in a city. But is it even a good idea to have such a city layout? Is including a city map as a feelie a nice touch or does it just make it feel like an RPG supplement? I’m thinking of trying to compress the actual map of implemented rooms so that you keep the general sense of direction without having to do a lot of walking on barely implemented streets, but I’m wondering how to do it.
Should I describe the sights on the way even if they are not relevant to the story? To make it specific: Low Street runs south from a central marketplace in the old town called the Round. At the south end of Low Street there’s a church. But the church is not relevant to this story. So how do I describe Low Street in the game? Skip the church entirely? Mention it in passing and as scenery? Figure out a way to make it important in the story? (This last idea might work specifically with the church, but that’s a one-trick pony - I can’t do that with every building in the city or it will be a very, very large game).
Another issue is about specific locations that I want the player to figure out. For example, you’ll find a letter with an address on the envelope (or something similar), and with that you can go to that address. But how do you design this in a good way? One idea is including the street the house is on, but block access to the specific house until you find the address. Is that acceptable or just frustrating? If you replay the story and you know where Alyssa lives, standing around in the street unable to go there is sort of lame. But so is barging in when the player character doesn’t know her yet. But then I guess using information as lock and key always has this problem.
Hansom cabs would be appropriate in this game, maybe that’s a way to use specific addresses. But you would still logically be able to walk all over town, it’s not bigger than that.
Do you guys have any thoughts on this? Or pointers to games that solve these issues in different ways.
Yeah, cities are annoying because they’re so structured. My advice is to abstract what you don’t care about.
As for the house:
You could try making the house stand out to the player only when they have the letter. There is no need to block the entrance artificially. When you get the letter, the house can shift from scenery (“Oh that’s my friend’s house, but I have no need to visit it”) to place-that-can-be-entered.
Also, level design that guides the player to the letter before they ever reach the house.
That’s all good advice, IMO, but still tricky to get right. There’s a fine line between making something too obviously a clue, and possibly breaking the fourth wall in the process (“That’s my friend’s house, but I have no need to visit it yet.”) versus being too subtle and risking the player getting stuck later because they already tried the necessary action before and assumed from the reply that it simply wasn’t implemented.
Personally, if in doubt, I’d prefer to err on the side of too obvious rather than too subtle. In any case, when circumstances change so that the action is now possible, it’s important to make the player realize (or at least suspect) it.
One specific solution I’ve seen used to good effect, in cases like the original scenario described above, is to have the player character refuse the action for personal reasons, but in a way that at least leaves open the possibility that the action might succeed if those reasons didn’t apply. For example, the default reply to entering a strange house might be “I don’t know who lives there, and I have no reason to bother them at this hour.” If the player persists, you could change that to, say, “Do I look like a Jehovah’s Witness?” or “You know, this is really not the kind of neighborhood where you want to just go knocking on random people’s doors.” Of course, you may need to adjust those responses if the player ever does have a potentially valid reason to try entering random houses (say, being chased by a pack of angry dogs), assuming you still don’t want it to succeed.
In fact, just spending that bit of extra effort on giving varied custom responses to not-yet-possible actions can be a good way to hint to the player that they’re not simply being brushed off for trying something silly or unanticipated. Or, at least, the player may be more likely to give something another try, even if they don’t think it’ll work, if there’s still the possibility of an interesting response.
You might want to have a look at Resonance and Slouching Towards Bedlam as a couple of games set in cities that take different approaches toward the map. Resonance has an included map and you can go around pretty much freely, but IIRC the locations all give you something to do; Slouching Towards Bedlam just implements a few clusters of locations and lets you travel between them by telling a hansom driver where to go. (Which it justifies in part through the PCs agoraphobia.) The city map in Resonance definitely is a nice touch that doesn’t feel like an RPG supplement, at least not to me. Resonance also does a good (some thought too heavy-handed) job of telling you where to go.
Absolutely I would make sure that you only implement the places you need to go instead of wandering around among barely-implemented streets. I could see having a couple of central locations with nothing to do but a lot of places to go (there’s nothing interesting in the Town Square but several interesting locations in different directions), but I wouldn’t go beyond that. Barely implemented rooms aren’t good.
For the church, you could prevent the PC from going in saying “You’re in no need of spiritual succor at the moment,” though they might fairly wonder why you’re talking about the church if it’s not important to the game. Maybe if it’s just mentioned in passing. As Porpentine said, abstract what you don’t care about.
I also think it’s playing fair to refuse to let the player go to Alyssa’s house until the PC knows her address. I suppose you might still need something like vyznev’s “You won’t go knocking on strangers’ doors” or something like that. Or you could even randomize the house number to prevent metagaming.
I actually thought of Slouching Towards Bedlam as soon as I wrote the bit about hansom cabs, although I don’t think that’s the route I’ll be taking - but maybe cabs can be useful to “teleport” around the city. Like the underground in Arcanum if you played that.
Oh, and isn’t there something in Anchorhead (Lovecraft again!) where you can’t find the way to the house before you’ve done something else? I seem to recall wandering around those misty streets without finding my way. But maybe I was just lost.
And no, she won’t be named Alyssa, I don’t know why I wrote that.
I was going to say, I have an idea for something that might involve wandering around an entire barely-implemented procedurally generated city in the endgame. But (1) that’s just an example of me liking to violate my own advice even when I know better, (2) with any luck by the time the player got there they’d know that they have to navigate to one prominently visible landmark, (3) that whole part of the game would be a secret anyway, and (4) it would probably count as trolling the player.
But if you want to go this way, definitely check out Aaron Reed’s Procedural Randomness extension!
I recommend Eric Eve’s Nightfall, which is set in a big and well-implemented city - here’s a non-spoilery map (PDF).
It’s geographically believable, and it achieves that without having to resort to endless filler locations. (While there are some locations where one is just passing through without doing much, none felt boring or superfluous.) There’s also a convenient way of navigating the city with a >GO TO … command.
If I recall correctly, some areas are not immediately accessible at the beginning, which provides some direction and helps to avoid overwhelming the player. The in-character reason for this is that the protagonist is looking for someone and first wants to visit the most likely places where that person might be, before running around the whole town.
Aaah! memories… My very first text adventure (here or here) handled with that kind of issues. Its entry at WOS states it’s a 2003 game, but that was actually the date I recovered it from an old printed BASIC listing, as the original disks were lost looong ago. It’s not of any use at all, as it is a Spanish game written for the ZX Spectrum computer somewhere in the late 80’s and has a ton of limitations that worked nicely in an 8-bit context but would be considered just plain unaceptable by modern standards.
The game was set in a sketchy yet recognisable reproduction of Madrid City with places you could acces either on foot or using cabs or the underground. Some plot trick involved that certain house would always be there, but you couldn’t get inside until you were invited (you had exactly to date some girl which, in a driven scene, would take you to her place to spend the night, which would lead to further chaos in order to get some object you would need later…)
I thought the house became accessible after you had the key… I don’t remember the fog, but I remember being grateful that the map was limited at the beginning of the game - so for me, I think it worked.
I was going to say that you could use a transit map - transit maps are not necessarily to scale, and they only show locations if they are stops on the line. But if you’re using hansom cabs, maybe it’s too early for that. On the other hand, older maps aren’t necessarily to scale, or full of detail, either.