Stealth Archer Metroidvania

Four weeks ago I spontaneously decided that I want to learn making a videogame. And it would be an isometric RPG like Baldur's Gate, Fallout, or Albion, because those looked technologically much simpler and like creating assets and environments would go much quicker. But the more I was planning out a roadmap for what kind of work would have to be done to make such a game, it's been starting to look at lot like the degree of challenge and amount of work to be done won't actually be meaningfully simpler and faster compared to taking on a first person 3D game. Whatever time savings there might be from going with an isometric perspective probably would be eaten up by the amount of writing that would have to be done for such a narrative-heavy type of game. And while I think most challenges with animated 3D models and fully 3D environments can be overcome by putting more work into them, unsatisfying writing is something you can't fix with just persistance and determination. And I'm actually not that interested in doing a lot of dialog writing in the first place.

So I have decided to explore ideas and concepts for a first person 3D open-world RPG. When I think of my fondest experiences with fantasy games, the things that were always the most engaging to me were wandering through the wilderness and sneaking through dark caves, taking in the fantastical and evocative environments while always on the lookout for enemies and monsters to spot first and outsmart them. I love Stealth Archer gameplay.

I also really love exploring grand ruins and dungeons to figure out their overall structure and how they came to be the way that they are, and what's recently and currently been going on in them. I love it when you can find new items or powers that enable you to do things you couldn't do before, and then feeling really smart when I remember places I've seen in the past where these new abilities would allow me to progress where there seemed to have been a dead end. I love Metroidvania game structures.

Now at the word "open-world RPG" most people will immediately think of some of the most massive games ever made. And of course, there's no way I could make something like Skyrim by myself with no experience. I am thinking of something vastly smaller than that. One river valley surrounded by hills and mountains, with twelve notable ruins whose interiors make up the bulk of the game. Instead of all of Skyrim, think only of a single hold. And probably one of the smaller ones. What makes it an open-world game is that all the twelve main dungeons and the three or four settlements can be visisted in any order by simply walking to them. In a sense, it's one big dungeon in which the central hub area happens to be on the surface rather than underground. The game that I am envisioning is also very simple on a technical level. What I am thinking of is something with the level of visual quality and detail like Morrowind and Arx Fatalis. These games had considerable numbers of people working on them, but that was with the technology and resources that were available a quarter century ago. Giving myself five to ten years to work on a game of this kind, I think this is something I might be able to make. Or to quote a certain game, "unlikely, but plausible".

My concept for this game is heavily inspired by just a handful of my favorite games, which all have become classics in their own right.

Thief: The Dark Project (1998)

More than any other game, Thief is my main reference for the core gameplay that I want the entire game to be designed around. Thief has always been one of my favorite games since it came out when I was just stsrting to get into videogames, even though I actually played the last two thirds of it and made it to the end only nine years ago. I also played the second game right after that, but even though it does have more refined level design, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as it switched the Sword & Sorcery themes of the first game for something more Steampunk. But man, what a game! In the 25 years since it came out, no other stealth game manages to surpass it. Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 are legendary stealth games in their own right, but a very different type of stealth game. The world and story, while fairly lightweight and actually quite conventional, make the game a very memorable experience and I simply love the gameplay of sneaking around in the shadows without the guards ever knowing that you're there, instead of carving a path through dozens of them with your sword. A lot of the game is spend sitting in a dark corner, just listening for the faint source of distant unseen sources before advancing a few meters and then doing it all over again. And I love it. The only downside with Thief is that the environments are all dull gray and brown (even that one mansion). Now with dynamic torch lighting and colorful glowing mushrooms, I think it would be even more amazing.

There's a lot of jokes being made about playing stealth archers in Skyrim, because they are very easy and very efficient, and avoid engaging with most of the game's combat mechanics. But Thief serves as a good example of how you can make an entire game that is designed from the ground up specifically for this style of play. And when you do that, you can create the environments and set up the challenges to specifically cater to that, which makes the whole experience even more fun and much more varied than it is in Skyrim.

Super Metroid (1994)

I've never been much of a Nintendo player. Some of my friends had a Super NES and some of the games they had were really cool. But when we got our own computer at home and I started really getting into videogames, the kind of PC games that came out at the time made Nintendo games look archaic and outdated. But Super Metroid is a game that was hugely praised on many occasions by a numberof pen and paper RPG designers as the shining example of a perfectly set up and structured dungeon crawler. I think this is the only game I later played on an emulator, and three decades later it still remains an absolute masterpiece. The Metroid games, and their Castlevania twins, look like typical platformers at first glance, but they really aren't about timing jumps and stomping on enemies while you cross a straight line level from left to right. Metroidvanias are big exploration games set in one giant dungeon with multiple branching and reconnecting passages that are blocked by various obstacles and contain special items that give you new abilities and powers. And the items that you need to overcome an obstacle that is blocking access to a new section is typically in a completely different area of the big dungeon. Basically you discover unique locks and unique keys, and its up to you to figure out which of your newly found abilities can be used to progress in previously encountered dead ends. And most crucially, typically there is more than just one way to gain access to a new area, so you're not required to progress through the game in just a single predetermined path. This aspect is something that I strongly want to include in my game concept. It gives you reasons to travel back and forth between the different dungeon and bring things that you learned or gained in one environment into others and make it a game of true exploration.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002)

This is another one of my favorite game of all times. (Which all somehow seem to have been released in the five years from 1998 to 2003.) Morrowind is considered by many people, and especially retrogame snobs like me, as the best of all the Elder Scrolls game, and perhaps the greatest open-world RPG ever made. Even though very clearly, this game is crude like hell and often can be total jank. But I think what really sells this game to its fans is the unique fantasy world it provides for you to explore. The land and culture of the Dunmer are unlike pretty much anything else that's ever been shown in a fantasy game, and perhaps in all of fantasy in general. This isn't just an oversimplified version of medieval Europe with hastily added magic. Morrowind is a place that really doesn't feel like anything else. And I love it to no end. While there's not a lot about the gameplay and mechanics of this game that I am interested in to emulate, the worldbuilding of Morrowind has been massively influential on my own Kaendor setting. And it's environmental and architectural design are my main references for the look that I want to create with my game.

Gothic (2001)

If Morrowind isn't the greatest open-world RPG ever made, then it's Gothic.

Gothic came out a year before Morrowind, and I think in almost every individual aspect of game design, it does things better. And to this day I remain convinced that the reason in nearly every single case is that Gothic does things smaller than other open-world games. The map is not actually that big if you measure it by size. It's a fairly small area.  Instead of playing any kind of person that you want, you play as one specific guy who has his own personality. The character stat system is fairly simple and covers only what it needs for this character in this story, instead of trying to be broad and have stats for all kinds of possible things that any player might want. Even the range of weapons and armor is very small. And what this game gains from this small scale in return is an incredibly high density. There are only three towns in the whole game, but a fairly sizable cast of notable NPCs. So everyone who is anyone is sitting fairly closely bunched together and are having individual relationships with their next door neighbors. And instead of going to every one of two dozen towns in a game once or twice and then never see or hear of it again, you keep coming back to the same three towns dozens of times throughout the entire game, from shortly after the beginning to almost the end. The world feels a lot more real and alive because of it. Since a lot of this game's quality rests on every NPC being fully voiced in a way that portrays an individual personality, I'm not actually sure how much of it I can take as things to include in my own game. But the main lesson I am taking away from its design is to go with depth instead of breadth any time it's possible. Gothic is an incredible showcase of how less can be so much more.

Stalker (2007)

This is a game that is very different from all the other games I have mentioned so far. Stalker is obviously not a high fantasy game, and it's really much more of a shooter than an RPG. At least how genre conventions for videogame mechanics are usually applied. But when you ignore the lack of experience points and character skills and only focus on the way the character interacts with the game world, it totally follows the ideals of what roleplaying games should be all about. And actually does that a lot better than a large number of greatly praised CRPGs. With Stalker being a first person gunfight game first, at least as its game mechanics are concerned, and a post-apocalyptic sci-fi game, there's not a lot about its technical aspects that would be relevant to the design of my game. But the world in which Stalker takes place does actually have a thematic and narrative structure that is very similar to the setting my game is going to take place in.

In Stalker, the story is set and revolves around an area that has been devasted by nuclear radiation and then ravaged by inexplicable physical phenomenons that border on the supernatural. While extremely hostile to human life, the Zone is also of incredibly high interest and value to research. Objects that have been physically altered by the strange phenomenons in the Zone fetch very high prices with researchers all around the world, and even with the whole place being fenced off as a restrictred and heavily guarded area, people regularly sneak inside without authorization to loot it and explore deeper into the unknown that lies at its incredibly irradiated center.

I had gotten bored quite some time ago with the typical fantasy templates of valiant heroes chopping up endless hordes of monsters and bandits, or blood-thirsty barbarians chopping up endless hordes of monsters and bandits, and had been looking for something else when I first started working on my early ideas for the Kaendor setting. Something that doesn't make the protagonists a bunch of seasoned killers with body counts in the hundreds (who inexplicably remain completely unaffected by the daily carnage) and where every problem is solved by killing everyone opposing them. It's fun for gameplay, but really is nonsensical for plausible storytelling and worldbuilding. Violence can be a really deep and fascinating subject and theme for a story, but not when it's made completely trivialized and boringly banal. What I settled on eventually is a world in which the typical "adventurer" type of person is not a killer for hire who wants from town to town asking if anyone needs to have and goblins, rats, and dragons killed today, but instead someone who has a deep and compulsive fascination with the supernatual and is drawn to descend into dark and dangerous places that normal people stay well clear off, to gain some kind of understanding of the true nature of reality. In the world of Kaendor, civilization as it exist in the present is fairly new, but all over the wilderness are the ancient ruins of previous inhuman civilizations that had access to great arcane knowledge and power. Fragments of which still remain burried after thousands of years, and which can be of incredible value to scholars and sorcerers trying to unlock the secrets of the Ancients. If successful, the pay is very good. But when it's money you are after, there are countless other ways that are not nearly as dangerous and frightening to normal people. Those who dare these great risks to both their lives and souls are drawn to it by their unquenchable thirst for occult knowledge.

The kind of gameplay that results from this premise is that combat is not the goal of the adventures, and in most situations really not desirable at all. The protagonists fight to save their own lives, and occasionally to gain access to a valuable tome or tablet, but even in those cases it's often not actually necessary to kill. It also means that this is a setting incredibly well suited to a game that provides a lot of material to go lore hunting as a player. All those ancient texts you find are not just treasures that you can sell to buy better equipment. They are also important sources to provide you with hints for how to interprate all the visual clues scattered around the environment about the origin and true nature of the strange ruins you're exploring. Stalker is a game that I think has a lot to offer in that regard for inspirations.