Video Games Inspired By My Daughter: Our Town, The Reckoning

This post began when I informed my children that we would be leaving them with the grandparental units while we went out to see “Our Town.” My daughter, Wednesday* asked what it was. So I told her it was a famous play. And in great excitement she asked, “Is there a movie? If it’s famous, there should be a movie! And a video game!”

These are the kinds of things that get me thinking. Probably a bad thing.

I hadn’t ever seen “Our Town.” But when I watched it, I just couldn’t stop watching it with an eye to making it into a video game.

The opening screen: OUR TOWN: The Reckoning scrawled across the screen over the typical shapes of a small American town: two-story sided houses with a small factory in the background. The smiling face of the Stage Manager rises over Our Town. Something about his smile is just a little bit… wrong.

Your character materializes on the siding, just outside the Town Square. Walking into Grover’s Corners, pop. 2,493, you notice that the numbers are faded, and you think the 2 might once have been a 3.

As you walk into town you see a number of buildings you can venture into. The General Store, the Newspaper, and the Hospital. There are also a number of houses that you can get into that are locked, and a few more that are abandoned.

If you stay out in the Town Square long enough, you’ll see an energetic figure talking to and about people going about the more or less cheery routines of their daily lives. As he touches them, their shadows grow a bit darker, but you might not notice that.

Stay in the Town Square too long, and he’ll come over to you. He’ll be very friendly. Maybe too friendly. He’ll ask your name, and you’ll tell him. He’ll be very excited to learn that you might be thinking of settling into Grover’s Corners. He’ll start telling you about the prominent citizens: the milkman, the newspaper editor, Mr. Webb who lives alone with his wife now that their children are dead, and Old Doc Gibbs whose wife died and left him living with his son. They raise his grandchildren together since his daughter-in-law also died. You notice that that this Stage Manager seems to know a lot about the folks who have died, and you think he actually told you when one of them will die, but you take his directions to the Hotel.

As you pass the Methodist Church basement, you hear someone call out to you. That’s creepy, but the young lady who has called your name tells you that you’re in terrible danger if you don’t come with her.

She introduces you to a few people hiding in the Church basement. It’s the only place that the “Stage Manager” won’t come. The only safe place. The young woman won’t tell you her name, just that it’s changed since she got out, and she’s trying to rescue her brother, but he won’t come with her. No one but him must know that she is here. She asks for your help.

As you go through the game, you are at first confused and later horrified as your choices take you into contact with the relentlessly cheerful people of Grover’s Corners, living on as they always have, with their town dying around them, their children dying young but staying here nevertheless. You avoid the increasingly ubiquitous Stage Manager, and you realize that this is not his name, that his name is something far older.

In desperation you ascend to the Graveyard atop the hill, but only in the day, and encounter the unquiet dead resting there, concentrating desperately on the weather and the stars lest they think too much on their stolen lives: lives stolen by Satanas Mephistopheles, who remains, ever the same, nondescript middle-aged… man? Woman? You can’t recall. And it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it waits and is watching for you to return and challenge it for the lives and souls of every human left alive in Grover’s Corners.

Will you withstand its power? Will you free Our Town..?

*Not her real name. But it SHOULD have been.

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Coming Apart At The Seams: Sandbox Games

Anyone who plays sandbox games knows about their “seams.” Well, maybe not. I just made up that term. But you know what I’m talking about: the places where you run into the edges of the sandbox and are pretty much forced into the realization that you are just playing a game, and it doesn’t have to make sense.

And yes, I realize that in some ways, this is inevitable. In others, it seems unimaginative, and in yet others it seems downright sloppy. I’m going to take some examples of each of these from the two games I’ve been playing the most over the past few years: Skyrim and Elite: Dangerous.

As far as the inevitable “seams,” the best example is that of borders. Eventually, you have to run out of playing field. An example of a really well-done “seam” is found in ED: the edges of the galaxy. It works because it feels natural. They even show extragalactic features such as the LMC and the GMC and M31. Why can’t you go there? Because human technology just isn’t that good. Makes perfect sense in the game universe: this is about as close as you can get to a seamless border. Skyrim is a bit less competent, but that’s the nature of the beast. Eventually, you just get to a place where your character runs into an invisible wall. You can’t leave Skyrim. I have to admit I don’t know how you’d solve that.

On the border of “inevitable” and “unimaginative” are the times in Skyrim where you run into someone who you really want to kill and discover that they are simply unkillable, or at least, unkillable yet. This has been the bane of D&D-like RPGs since they were computerized: your hero character who is supposed to be able to take down a Dragon God, and yet, cannot kill a shopkeeper and take his stuff. I’m not sure exactly how you do solve that. In the case of shopkeepers or very important plot-specific characters, especially in a magic-heavy environment, I wonder why it hasn’t occurred to the writers not to, for example, create 1) a giant alarm-spell that calls guards instantly to a scene of unjustifiable attack, coupled with 2) shopkeepers or nobles who always carry an emergency invisibility potion and sensibly use it an run the hell away when they’re attacked, leaving your character to 3) get dogpiled on by the guards, and 4) discover that they cam back as soon as you left out of boredom or being driven off by guards. Of course, once your character is up somewhere above 50th level, it still requires the game to explain why your character can’t essentially conquer the world single-handed since he is, after all, the person who is supposed to stop the Dragon God who wants to conquer the world single-handed. So there’s still a seam there (more on this later).

In the downright unimaginative corner comes a certain feature of ED that really annoyed me. Some systems in ED are permit-locked. The game won’t allow you to plot a hyperspace jump to them until you’ve accomplished something. A bit more on this in the next section.
Now, if you like thinking your way around problems like I do, you notice something: a shop in ED  really has two FTL drives. The hyperspace jump is the “fast” drive. It will take you anywhere from 8-40 light years in about ten seconds. But you get around each system using a “slow” FTL drive or “frameshift drive.” And when I say slow, it’s still really fast. Given time, it can build to speeds in excess of Star Trek‘s Warp 10. So you can’t JUMP to a permit-locked system, but given the time and patience, you could certainly just GO there…
Except you can’t. If you try, you discover that the star you have been heading for, which is a gigantic ball of hydrogen fusion and attendant planets when you jump there, is a mere point of light when you finish your hours-long flight. Sigh.
It occurred to me that a way around this would be to take a page from Zork: interstellar space is a dark place, and if you try to fly directly between stars, the odds are almost certain that You Will Be Eaten By A Space Grue. (For a really great classic SF story that uses this concept, read Cordwainer Smith’s “The Game Of Rat And Dragon.” It’s wonderful.)

And then you get to the truly sloppy stuff: Remember the permit-locks I mentioned earlier? Well, that makes perfect sense when it’s, say, the Empire saying that you can’t visit their capital system without a permit. It makes somewhat LESS sense, when its hundreds of stars out in the middle of nowhere and no one knows who has issued the permit or why. And yet there are several such regions in the galaxy. It’s pretty obvious this is the game designers saying DON’T GO THERE. SIGNED, GOD, but it looks pretty bad. Honestly, it would be better to do something like marking them all “No pilot has ever jumped to these stars and returned.” and making it an instakill if you do, with legends of the disappeared pilots in game.

So, those are my thoughts. I’d be interested to hear yours.