I’ve wrapped up my Vertical Slice milestone this week. I intended to conclude this series of posts with a postmortem of the whole month, but I haven’t yet taken time to reflect on the current state of the game or figure out exactly what I’ve learned by doing this. I suspect that my current schedule is mildly untenable and I may need to scope down, but that’s a topic for another day.
As I mentioned in the brief update last night, the game is now NEON STRUCT: Die Augen der Welt, or simply NEON STRUCT where the subtitle won’t fit. The new name evokes “cyberpunk brutalism”, fits more neatly in small logos, and is easy to say and remember.
On Tuesday, I spent fourteen hours overhauling my engine’s save/load system. Eldritch had very minimal save/load needs: a single slot managed exclusively by the game instead of the player. (For debugging, Eldritch also had a quicksave/quickload function, but it was compiled out of the shipping game.) For NEON STRUCT, I wanted a player-facing save/load system that would allow players to save anywhere and retry sections of the game.
NEON STRUCT now formally supports quicksave and quickload (as first-class inputs, rebindable on the controls screen). It has a rolling autosave which periodically checkpoints the player’s progress into a cyclical buffer of autosave slots. (Hat tip to Tom Francis for doing that in Gunpoint and making me ask why every game doesn’t do it!)
Finally, there is a fixed number of savegame slots for the player to manage. I wanted to allow an infinite number of savegames, but my UI system doesn’t support scrolling lists. Without that, there’s not a great way to render an arbitrary number of items. Separate pages of 10 savegames each? It’s a solvable problem, but not one that seemed worth the time right now. If this turns out to be a real problem in testing, I can revisit it.
Aside from the big save/load feature, this week was mostly about finishing things that had slipped through the cracks in past weeks. I added readable news terminals, tablets with keycodes to discover, static deco meshes, character configurations, diegetic music, and more. There’s a lot more of this to do to meet my self-imposed “shippable quality” criteria, but I feel I’m on the right track.
In the late hours of Friday night, I finally whipped up a collectibles system. I knew since before this sprint began that collectibles would be an important part of levels in NEON STRUCT. They provide an irresistible incentive for a player to explore a space, and they are extremely low cost to add to levels. But the feature got deprioritized again and again, because it was uncorrelated with anything else I was doing and because I wasn’t sure what kind of MacGuffin would make sense for the player to collect.
I finally chose geocaches as the collectible object. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but I loved the irony—by signing geocaches, the player is willingly leaving a permanent record of her presence, in a game about trying to keep her presence a secret from systems which would record it without consent. I don’t know yet whether I will incorporate that into the narrative and systems, or just allow it to exist for the curiosity of those who notice the dissonance. Ramping up the enemy population in response to the player’s engagement with collectibles might create some interesting friction and feedback?
As I continue to write quest dialogue and incidental narrative, I am trying to let the tone of the game find itself, rather than prescribing it. The principal subject matter (right to privacy vs. mass surveillance) is important to me, but I do not expect or intend that the game will be a comprehensive statement about the real world version of that topic.
NEON STRUCT is an adventure story, set in an alternate history world with a deliberately 1980s sci-fi vibe. (“2015 as envisioned in 1985” was how I described it at inception.) It has something to say, but it needs to be entertaining as well. It does not need to take itself too seriously, but it does need to depict the subject matter in an internally consistent way. And because it’s a video game, it has to harmonize with the gamut of player behavior.
At the moment, I am settling into a comfortable place where the narrative—like the visuals—is a colorful, minimalist stylization of reality. Incredible things are allowed to happen because it is a work of fiction. Technology can be magic in this world. As long as the story is consistent in the way it deals with things, and as long as it does not muddy the message, I am comfortable letting it be more fantastic than realistic.