The Timeloops They Are a-Changin'
Paradise Never is a game I have been working on earnestly and full-time for four years. It's an "action rpg", by which I mean, a game where you can perform a variety of actions, and wherein you live a (hopefully) compelling story.
The highest level structure of the game is a 3-day timeloop. You and your friends accidentally start a revolution that ends badly, and you keep looping through trying to make different decisions to avert catastrophe. Decisions you make on a particular run-through will affect the island on subsequent plays, so for example solving a quest will change the nature of the characters involved in that quest the next time through. It's much more about alternate timelines or universes than it is about time travel, per se.
"An Alternate Universe" is a popular topic, in particular in sci-fi, and although the means to accomplish it tends to be exotic (for instance, the worm holes in Sliders) the reason it's effective is not because it's exotic or strange, but just the opposite: it's because it closely mirrors how we think about the world on a regular basis.
We are constantly imagining, "what if I did X instead of Y?" It's a major part of our decision making process for both big or small decisions: we try to imagine the alternate timelines that will happen based on our choices. In fact, we do it as much with the past as with the future, "what if I had done X instead of Y?" or even with events we have no control over, such as global political or natural events. Alternate universes are closely tied to the human experience.
For this reason it's a compelling and very relatable storytelling idea, and I think there is a lot room for it in games.
I recently showed Paradise Never at Calgary Expo, a local comic expo. But let's back up here a second.
For an action rpg in particular, you have many layers to the game design. On the bottom are things you are doing moment-to-moment: moving around, seeing things, opening boxes, attacking things, running from things, and so on. As you go up, you get to more complex or longer-term goals like collecting money or treasure for upgrades, trying to solve mysteries, or preparing for difficult encounters. At a higher level still, you are being led through a world and simultaneously, as a rule, a story or plot line, investing with characters and their struggles, and so on. And in-between these are a thousand other things, which all fit somewhere (and sometimes in more than one place) on the spectrum of high to low level.
The lower level stuff is very foundational to everything. If you can't move around properly, the higher level stuff will never become much of an issue, because you'll never be able to perform the lower level actions necessary to reach a higher level goal.
Playtesting is so important! I've done a reasonable job getting Paradise Never in front of people, but so far all the problems that have cropped up have been lower-level. There is a lot of complexity to what I'm trying to do. Partly that's due to what I want to accomplish, but mostly because that's just what it's like designing a videogame. Making sure it seems simple enough is a major task, probably the most difficult one.
So while I have been steadily working on the higher-level (read: timeloop story) aspects of the game, it's been very difficult to playtest them, because there's still been so much to improve to the lower-level stuff.
Calgary Expo was really the first time I have had the low-level stuff working well enough to see how the higher level stuff is really panning out. Also the environment was a bit more conducive to longer play sessions, which made this a truly great opportunity.
So: now that the lower-level stuff is mostly sorted, how about that higher-level timeloop stuff? Alas!
Playtesting is important, but I try to look at it as the last line of defence. You really have to think carefully on things as much as possible. You are both your own best and worst playtester: best because if you are mindful, you know what you are thinking, and worst because, well, since you made it, you know what you are supposed to be thinking.
All this is just to say, my own work on the timeloop mechanics hasn't been for nothing: the story as I was building it does, sorta, kinda, work. Players are experiencing the game how I imagined and designed it, barring some smoothing-out. This is a major feat in and of itself.
But then, building this part of the game in Paradise Never has been excrutiating. The central problem is this: the high level game design requires the player to run through it multiple times, since solving quests changes the island on subsequent play-throughs. But if the player invests too much on a particular run, they will feel deflated when they are sucked back in time. Their main progress is in the "meta game", i.e., how the island changes from run to run. But another part, and where the player will actually spend most of their time, is the main part of the game, and they will lose this when the timeloop resets. (Roguelikes face a similar problem; it's much worse here, but that's another post.)
The biggest part of the "main game" you lose is not, strictly speaking, mechanical. I can adapt the game so that e.g., the player gets to keep money, quest progress, or even items to some extent. What I can't adapt is their personal sense of loss that the place they were inhabiting is now gone. This is profound: the world generation for Paradise Never works very, very hard to create a sense of place, which is maybe the thing I value most as a designer. Like all good world generation, it's based on procedurally placing hand-crafted pieces, and in this case the procedural rules are very rich in how they relate these pieces to each other. It's one of the strong points of the game.
And the timeloop mechanic frustrates everything I've accomplished here, by destroying it over, and over, again.
That's not the only problem, but it's the biggest one. This rich sense of world, which for me is so central to the premise of an "action rpg", is being undone and perpetually frustrated by the highest level mechanic. Instead, they should cooperate fully.
So at the expo, unfortunately, I watched person after person being drawn into the game, starting to create a mental map of it's space, and then? Bouncing off as soon as they hit the first timeloop condition. It's brutal, because there is way, way more good than bad. The game is extremely rich in it's low-level mechanics, which can work amazingly well; but this just means it's that much larger of a let-down when the timeloop throws it away.
I feel I have these choices, then:
The conclusion to me is obvious: the low-level stuff, the world building, all of this is truly wonderful and what I love about Paradise Never. The timeloop concept is excellent and full of potential; we need more games that use this, it's such a natural fit. But, as interesting and full of possibility as it is, it has to go live in another game.
So long story short, Paradise Never is losing the timeloop mechanic, effectively in total. It will be structured more like a normal action rpg, and it will tell a story, but a huge chunk of work has to be sacrificed so that the rest can shine.
There is another side to this, which is actually more important than how the game turns out.
Progress on the story and related scenarios has been excrutiatingly slow. Partly, this is because I have to take into account quite a lot of branching paths. But more than that, it's because it's extremely difficult to compartmentalize scenarios.
Suppose I write an interesting scenario for a character. How will the player encounter it? Typically in a game, the start point for scenarios is placed spatially: the character is waiting at their house, or that cool spot in the forest, or in prison, etc. Once the player arrives at that place, they will pick up the starting thread for whatever that scenario is. Man: "I found something really interesting in Mackerel Cove, but it was underwater and I couldn't dive down!" From there, the player can proceed as needed.
But as for the starting point: it's spatial. The player can be led there in a lot of different ways, and if nothing else, will tend to eventually bump into it as they explore, which is the primary action in this type of game.
With a timeloop structure, however, it's much, much harder. The main story timeline is simply too pressing. Very soon the player will realize that they are going to be punished (and harshly) if anything goes wrong. So their main concern becomes what is happening in time, not in space.
So even if I place things spatially, the player will not tend to bump into them to get them started. Once started, assuming I can, I then also have a whole other host of related problems to keep them going. (Whether or not they are even enjoying this, assuming they are able to engage with it, is another question entirely.)
As a result, I have to make sure to build things so that the player will have opportunities to pick up the threads for each scenario in the course of proceeding through the main timeline, rather than at their own pace as they explore and progress spatially. This is miserably complicated to sort out.
The burden on me is extremely large to design for the timeloop mechanic. Every single sub quest and every game mechanic to teach has to be tightly woven into the way the main timeline (and meta-timeline) proceeds. I can make it work, to a certain extent, but every small addition becomes a major problem because the start point is so difficult to place.
Further, I can't have too many start points at one time, or the player will be overwhelmed. But they also can't be spread across the timeline, or the player will be stuck waiting before they can get to the one they want. It's a really hard problem. I had some solutions, but... god. Like. Ok.
I hate this aspect of the work, it's not fun for me, and is constraining in the worst possible way. Like writing a story but then making sure it can be read and understood from billboards while the player is riding past on a roller-coaster. Just. Why.
Speaking of mindfulness, I think I wasn't noticing how slow and how difficult it was for me to do this. Starting last year, I settled on releasing Paradise Never in chapters. This felt like a way to get something out soon-ish, which would feel great. I still like the idea of chapter-based releases; I think it's part of the future! (It still has to catch on more, however. That's another essay.)
But a chapter-based release is also daunting and risky: a Chapter 1 commits you to the rest, unless you are very clear (like I was with Cellpop Goes out At Night) that the other chapters might or might not get made. That's not a good option with a big project like Paradise Never.
I was reasonably close to releasing a Chapter 1, maybe a few months or so (translation: more than that, but still.) I had various plans to try and improve certain things within the current timeloop structure. But bottom line: it would have been very hard to make it good, and maybe impossible to make it be great.
Having (now) redesigned the higher level stuff, I have a lot of work ahead of me. But it's all enjoyable, easy work, and I'm extremely confident that Paradise Never will be great. The low level stuff and the actual quality of the underlying code is simply amazing; in a way, the requirements I placed on myself with respect to the timeloop structure were so severe that the game is now extremely strong on all other levels.
It's hard to quantify how much work I'm throwing away, but maybe 4 or 6 months. Not worth dwelling on, really, since I guess it's still part of what got me here. And it's also work I hated doing, which makes it fairly easy to toss aside.
The energy gained from now having only straightforward work is immense. The vast majority of the game and it's systems are unchanged. The world and it's characters are the same; they are now just going to be living different lives. The game has only taken a few days to reframe so that it works without the timeloop mechanic. I feel free to expand on some things I wanted to with the lower level stuff, but felt I couldn't afford to before, because dealing with the timeloop was so taxing. This has already been gratifying.
It feels a bit like taking the turtle shell off Goku. It will take time but I feel I can cruise steadily and enjoyably to the finish line, and that the final result will be somewhere like good to amazing.
I guess this Paradise Never that I will finish just exists in an alternate, happier universe to the other one I could have made. If that universe is out there... sorry, other self. I got the nicer end of the deal.
Maybe that timeline will rewind and you can come back and live mine. (Wait. Maybe it did.)