Life, loss and the beauty of the roguelike in Road Not Taken

Spry Fox creative lead Dan Cook opens up about Road Not Taken, the upcoming roguelike that weaves an impressionist narrative through emergent gameplay in a tale of harsh winters and losing one's way.
Spry Fox of Triple Town fame has a new game on the way -- a richly-designed roguelike called Road Not Taken. Here, the independent studio's creative lead Dan Cook goes into detail about the inspiration behind the game, its influences, and creating an impressionist narrative players will remember.

You've drawn on poetic and art influences for Road Not Taken. Could you talk a bit about what drew you to these points of reference?

Dan Cook: As a general statement, language is not built to talk about systems. So we struggle to communicate aspects of games with metaphors and comparisons. When I talk about my games, I find myself latching onto examples that are perhaps immediately evocative but require a little discussion to unpack. Pointillism for example is the act of building up a holistic image from a series of tiny dabs of paint. It came about due to emerging scientific theories on how light worked and how the eye perceived the world at a glance. We now think of these painters -- particularly earlier impressionists -- as profoundly emotional, but they came from a wonderful time where it was fine to use scientific thinking to experimentally push the boundaries of art. Much of the discussion about stories in games isn't all that interesting. Instead I wanted to explore an alternate theory of how we generate stories from fragmentary experiences. Stories, to an even greater degree than sight, are a post processing operation. You experience something quite disconnected... sounds, sights, rushes of hormones, a pumping of blood. Often that sits unexplored, dribbling piecemeal into your long term memory as you sleep. Occasionally you tell someone about it or are prompted to remember it. At this moment, a story is born. It is almost a wholly artificial entity and typically changes on retelling if not augmented by some technological feat like paper or video. The story leaves out 99 percent of what actually happened. It reconstructs critical details from sparse or missing moments. This is the nature of stories at a biological level, so what if we build games to fit that? Games are experiences. They are a process players participate in. They are not pre-processed at the moment of being played. As such, maybe we don't need the hyper detail and coherency of a full blown novel to create a story in the player's head. This over specification was seen in the rigid pre-impressionist artwork of the age. What if instead we batter the players with micro-moments of emotion and visuals? A little snippet of text. An evocative moment between a mother and a child. Generate ten thousand of these moments using all our art, craft and algorithmic wit. Paint a cloud of experiential moments and then let the player craft what they will out of that. This isn't particularly new... roguelikes and simulations have been doing similar things for ages. What is Dwarf Fortress if not a pointillist narrative?

In a way, the comparison of a game to pointillism is a very striking one, as you highlighted earlier. In a very literal sense all digital images work in the same way as pointillism does.

I love the term "pointillism" because it initially was an insult used by critics of the time, much like how armchair critics raised on the 3D worshiping propaganda of past console wars might sneer at the term "8-bit" or "retro." The rubrics used to judge obsessively-defined forms of the past are not necessarily appropriate to every new work. Nor for that matter should you ever listen to the current generation of critics. Wait for a couple crops to die off and cherry pick the ones who help pay your medical bills.

You mention in your recent blog post -- it was very evocative by the way -- how the game is about falling off the beaten path, so to speak. Gameplay-wise, it's a bit of a roguelike. How do you communicate a tone, or theme, if you will, if much of the player's experience will be procedurally generated?

I tend to think of the experiences of games as a probabilistic envelope of outcomes. Have you seen a pachinko machine? You drop a ball into it and the ball bounces around the pegs until it ends up in a slot at the bottom. Pachinko machines are obviously not a single linear sequence, but they are very much designed. You position the pegs, you say what lights up at what point. You run a vast number of simulations and test balls through the device and take note that none get stuck. Each ball is a person. The collision of the ball with the peg is a person making a decision in your game. From the viewpoint of an individual ball, it has taken a completely linear path through a game. From the perspective of the designer, you are carefully crafting a probability space for how the game might be played. Too much tension? Turn that down. Not enough moments of loss and regret? Limit these themed resources a tad more and voila. What is delightful about a roguelike or other procedural system is that instead of manually bending metal and repositioning pins in our machine, we can instead change a number and the whole contraption is instantly recreated from scratch. It is as if you had access to the fundamental physical constants of the universe and with a single keystroke you change the life paths of all future players.

Despite your blog post delving into some personal stuff, it seems clear from what we've seen of the game that it's fairly abstracted from your own life. I mean, unless you grew up around dire wolves and plague doctors. So I'm curious, what drove you to pursue a more mythic or fantastical setting as opposed to one which draws from the stuff of your day-to-day?

The things that go on day-to-day in my head are closer to dire wolves and plague doctors than autobiographical meditations on 90s punk bands. Also, you should visit northern Maine some January day. On the practical side of things, there are a couple minor benefits to the current approach: One, fantastical settings give a creator an opportunity to carefully peel back bandages on a sensitive topic. See [Minority Media's] Papa & Yo. Two, they also offer certain escapist players an entrance into the game. I'm not completely convinced that a realistic children-freezing simulator has a large market. Perhaps that will be a future experiment. Do you think it would make a good Kickstarter?

How much are you involved in the game's art direction? It does sound like Road Not Taken is seeking to unify its visual and gameplay design a good deal.

The artist on the game is the extraordinarily talented Brent Kobayashi. To be honest, I let him do whatever he wants. At Spry Fox, we build games with super small teams of very talented developers. It needs to be a collaboration and everyone on the team brings a big piece of themselves to the project. Our typical way of working is to write up some very short lists of what needs to be done and then trust everyone to do an amazing job. The first pass can be rough, but then we critique it and see how it might gel better as a coherent whole. Usually after two to 10 passes, we've got something that works. It is a pretty ego-less process since folks share the ultimate goal of creating an amazing game. So much of big team project management is about cutting or specifying. Yet, there's also a really important part of small projects where a developer is able to add little magical moments to the game. Because they were in that piece of code at the right time. And they saw an opportunity. And they had a rich enough understanding of the vision to add something that clicked in beautifully. And they had a personal inspiration that prompted them to create some glistening bauble of perfection. And of course they had the skill to pull it off. With the wrong team, the most brilliant art direction in the world will fail to produce a wonderful game. You can follow Dan Cook on Twitter at @danctheduck.

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