Gathering Storm - Storytelling and more talk of combat systems

November 09, 2011

I wanted to sit down and write out all my thoughts as far as the plot of Gathering Storm and the characterization of all the playable party members, but then I thought better of it, thinking if someone were truly interested in this, it would be better if they experienced the story by actually playing the game. Suffice it to say, I have thought a lot about the story and continue to think about the story a lot. Most Flash RPGs I've played, and pretty much a lot of Flash games in general, sort of take the tropes of their respective genres and indulge and skewer them for comedic effect - in a sort of "Haha, this game's not really serious," sort of way. Frankly, it seems like rather lazy storytelling to me. I want with my whole heart to tell a story that is good in its own right and doesn't use one of the many crutches common to casual gaming. Now, as far as HOW I want to tell that story, well, that is fair game for examination. With a limited graphics dungeon crawl, I am basically reduced to dialogue, which most certainly cannot carry the full burden, so let me tell you about Phantasy Star 4. I love Phantasy Star 4. It is another game that I have played through way more times than I count. Is it in my top 5? Eh, objectively speaking, not really. The combat system is mostly mundane, there's very little customization of characters until the very end and the story is your standard "unlikely hero goes on quest to defeat the ultimate evil" affair. But it does one thing better than any other game I've ever played, and that is HOW it tells its story. Behold!
Interlaid comic panels! There wasn't really any animation in any of the story points. It all played out in these overlapping still panels that focused on the major points of what was going on. It was beautiful in its simplicity and also highly effective - more effective than any animation at the time could hope to be. And it was more than just a neat way to show the player images. The layout of the panels made brilliant use of space in more ways than I could describe. Some of the most telling examples are the method's use of blank space to highlight the smallness and isolation of the characters:
So am I using the method because it's the best way to visually enhance a story in a video game that I can think of? Of course. Is it an added bonus that it's actually a lot less work for me as opposed to animating story points? Abso-freakin'-lutely. Can I really do it justice and pull together the sort of emotionally resonating story I have in my head? I can only dream at this point...
So, anyway, speaking of things inspired by Phantasy Star 4, I also wanted to outline the last major gameplay mechanic I wanted to include. Two (inter-related) things PS4 got right with its combat system were combination attacks and macros. Combination attacks were special spells that occurred when two specific spells were cast by the characters one after another in the turn order. Instead of Chaz casting his fire spell and then Rune casting his wind spell, the two characters would attack at the same time, casting their respective spells to create a firestorm, far more powerful that the sum of the spell's combined parts. And it was always fun to watch them go off, because there was a large element of randomness to them. The turn order was highly randomized and the combination attack only went off if the two spells came one right after the other. If a monster - or even another party member - attacked between the two characters, then nothing special happened. If you wanted to cut down on the randomness, you had to go the macros, which was menu where, outside of battle, you could go in and program an entire round of combat for your characters. Even if Grys had the lowest speed, if you wanted him to attack first, you set him first in the macro and all the other characters would wait for him to do his thing before they did their respective programmed things. Monster speed, of course, was independent of this, so they would still usually go before Grys, but it gave you the advantage of determining the order of attacks so you could pull off the combos. It also had the added bonus of making combat go significantly faster. Instead of individually telling all your party members to just attack those silly trash mobs, you just selected the all attack macro. I really, really wanted to implement these two things into my game, but not enough to scrap my desire to not input all party commands that the beginning of a defined round. You see, you can't combine two attacks for a super-attack when the first half of the attack has already gone off when you're inputting the second half. Also, you can't program a round of combat for your characters when there are no defined rounds. I tried to think of a non-clunky way to do so, but failed miserably. The best I can do is add a wait command in combat so that the player has a little more control over the turn order. So then I got creative. I wanted attacks to chain off other attacks, so I introduced the idea of "charging" the air with different elements whenever an elemental attack was used. And then certain attacks react with certain elemental charges to produce an enhanced spell effect and consuming the charge. So let's say one character has a single-target defense increasing spell that, if cast in the presence of a force "charge," suddenly augments into a party-wide defense buff. So I could spend 4 turns having that character cast it on all players separately, or, right before that character's turn, I could have another character cast a force-based spell, then have the first character cast his defense spell. It reacts with the lingering force charge and BAM - party-wide buff. Of course, the first spell doesn't have to be right before the second. Charges linger in the air until they are consumed in a reaction or dissipated by specific dissipation skills, but the longer it lingers there, the more likely it will be consumed in an unintended reaction, perhaps by the monsters you are fighting, who could have their own attacks enhanced. These sort of generic elemental augmentations also make it less annoying to figure out the combinations of all the possible reactions. It's not, "This specific spell has to come right after this specific spell for the combination attack to work." Anyway, I'm pretty excited about the mechanic. I'm confident it will add a lot of extra depth to the combat. Players will get into situations like the chromatic ghost in my D&D encounter, where a boss will charge the air with an element, and the players will have to dissipate the charge before the boss attacks again with a powerful spell that has the potential to react with that charge to a devastating effect.

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