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The Machine - A narrative aspect of The Little Acre

A look at how we deal with narrative by focusing on a particular aspect of The Little Acre.

Pewter Games Studios has strong narrative at our core. It's woven into our ethos and into the way we think we can contribute to gaming. The Little Acre will be our most complex narrative to date. The game is in the early stages of re-development and the story is already worthy of a text-only adventure, or at least I think so. Over the past week we’ve taken the original story (done by Chris and Ben as part of a masters project) and discussed it at length. The original story was really good, but rather than leave it as sacred, we began to question why things happen and how they happen. No plot-holes were left in and no acts of god were used as plot devices. I won’t go into detail on the entire plot (don’t want to ruin any surprises) but I will go over our discussions around The Machine.

hero concept

This bit won’t be a secret: The Little Acre features two styles of gameplay. In the big world, it’s a point and click game (think Deponia, Broken Sword etc.) In the little world, it’s a top down adventure game (eg. Zelda, Pokemon, Secret of Mana.) How do we shift from one to the other: the machine!

Right, so a machine has always been a constant in this transformation. We weren’t up for magic spells or magic potions, but a magic machine was spot on.

Originally the scene went like this: hero walks into shed; sees little creature; creature runs toward machine and disappears; hero investigates and finds small object; hero puts object in slot in machine; shrink.
Now, we had some issues with this on a second look.

  • If the little creature drops something, how does he get shrunk? 
  • When you shrink down, if the creatures can move back and forth, what’s to stop you wanting to instantly return?
  • If the creatures want you to accomplish something in the big world, why wouldn’t they just do it for themselves?

The core of the game is that the machine is missing parts and you have to go on quests to find them. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the bare bones. Initially the plan was that the lil creatures’ growth was limited, either to once a week or to only one at a time. Their goal is to be able to grow all the villagers at once. We started hitting on some issues with this quite soon, with nothing really in place to prevent them from carrying out their goals in the big world, especially without you ever noticing. Once the whole “their use is limited” angle proved a bit flimsy, we decided to get rid of their existing ability to grow. The player would no longer surprise a young creature in the shed. The idea was hard to get rid of, because it’s a great scene, but the overall story would definitely be stronger if it was sacrificed.

The creatures no longer had access to the big world. Now the only problem was: What allowed the hero to grow again but not the villagers? It was a tricky one, because it could have been a major plot-hole. It took days of discussing various methods, at one stage the hero just never returned, but we arrived at a point where everyone was happy and it made sense.

Here are the main angles we toyed with:

  • The Science Angle: We had a system based on matter and energy. The hero was much bigger to start off with, so when he shrank the change in mass caused energy to be stored in a battery, allowing him to travel but nobody else. The missing parts were going to be similar to capacitors which would allow for your energy to be used to grow the villagers. This could have made sense in a way, but it would have been way too complex to explain, especially to a player who had no concept of electronics and such. 
  • The Magic Angle: What if the device needed certain aspects of humans? So humans could travel but the villagers needed to be magically altered. The missing pieces would be magical aspects of humans. Along the lines of “Heart, Mind, Strength.” This was toyed with to the extent that the creatures could use the machine at various stages, but would be lacking a trait, so without “substance” they’d appear like ghosts. This again was getting a bit too complex and far fetched. Nearly too much magic for a magic based game.
  • The Physical Angle: This was the most straight forward approach, which turned out to be a pain. What if there was something physical about humans? They were naturally stronger than the villagers and could trigger the machine. The problem was that anything physical and simple can be overcome with multiple villagers or tools. We spent a fair while trying to figure how this could work, but the only ones that made sense were heading towards the magic territory.

Finally we arrived at our solution: Only humans can us the original machine. There are two parts that make it work. One to shrink, one to grow. When you shrink down, you discover the one to grow is missing. The villagers help you find it, and in return you help them find pieces to make their own machine which will emulate/enhance the original machine to allow them to use it.

Problem solved. It also allows use to clearly show the players progress by having the new machine at various stages of completion, which is nice.

So there you have some of the thought process put into our machine. Narrative can be tough work sometimes

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