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Interview with the Afterfall lead designer

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Interview with the Afterfall lead designer

Interview - posted by JarlFrank on Wed 9 January 2008, 20:52:27

Tags: Afterfall; Intoxicate Interactive

Hello, my name is Maciej Prósiński. On internet fora I go under the nick 'Augustus'. I am the Lead Designer of the Afterfall project. This project has the ambition to rejuvenate the computer role-playing games genre, by both innovation and a return to unjustly abandoned excellent classical solutions.

What will be the focus of the game? A strong story with an interesting main quest, or a more free-roaming game with lots of different side quests?

The top priority is of course the plot, however, its structure is unlike the established standards. On the one hand, we have a rich story put in a repeatedly branching main quest with multiple endings. On the other hand, there are dozens of side-quests scattered throughout the game world, the most important of which are career quest chains in various organizations and extensive major quests regarding the most important events and processes happening in the game. An innovation in this area are bypasses, thanks to which while traveling, exploring and performing tasks, you may find new approaches to major quests, careers, or even the main plot.

Let me give an example which has been already used to illustrate this idea: you have a quest requiring you to infiltrate the structures of one of Warsaw's gangs. The employer will usually suggest 2 or 3 methods of achieving that. However, if at some point the hero becomes the champion of the Warsaw combat arena, the boss of that gang will come to him on his own, with a proposition of membership and high status. That is going to create a shortcut, bypassing a dozen or so tasks that you would otherwise have to perform for the group before you got close enough to the boss. Discovering all of them will be very difficult even with several passings of the game. Thanks to this method, the more important a quest, the more ways there will be to complete it, both obvious ones and ones scattered across the world as bypasses.

I think a relevant, though still a bit distant analogy is a certain moment in the plot of Baldur's Gate 2, when you had to get money for a sea voyage, but at the same time no one imposed a method to reaching that goal. The player had to explore the world and perform quests in order to collect the necessary funds. In Afterfall, many such moments are intertwined with periods of almost unbounded freedom, and short times when the player is swept away by the unfolding events.
The second priority is our system, which we intend to develop with time and employ not only with add-ons and a sequel to the game, but also with some of our later productions.

Will there be multiple solutions for quests, and different outcomes depending on your choices? If yes, to what extent? Do you have any example of a quest?

Quests will have many solutions, most of which will only be available to a player character with specific skills. Thanks to the plot bypasses you will often come upon completely alternative solutions, for example, to convince someone to help you, you will use acquaintance with some important characters. It is worth to mention that certain choices in performing a quest will bear various, sometimes long-term consequences. Some of the suggested paths may also prove to be dead-ends.

As for the endings, we have adapted for ourselves the brilliant, but for an unknown reason never repeated solution from Fallout – the modular epilogue. After finishing the game and watching the outro presenting the consequence of the path you have chosen, you will also be able to see the fate of the world and its individual locations which you have influenced by your actions or non-action.

We will not give specific examples of quests here – we do not want to spoil the players' experience and the ambiance of the game, when finally playing they think 'Heyyy… they wrote once about this quest, though!'

Talking about different outcomes, how will you be able to achieve them? Through different actions that you do throughout the game, or through a final choice at the end of the game?

Both, actually. At some point through the game, long before the end, the player is faced with a choice between two drastically different paths, and a whole consecutive chapter is a consequence of that choice. Nevertheless, even from those consequences you will be able to escape… or at least try, because if you get yourself into a cul-de-sac…

How will you be able to interact with NPCs [talk with them, steal from them etc.], and will there be NPC schedules like in Gothic or Ultima VII?

Conversation, pickpocketing, attacking or trade are standards. Apart from that many NPCs will be able to provide medical care, fix your gear, do some cyber-prosthetics or create objects from the provided components. Stealth action includes also knockout – a character who did not see who took their lights out with a gourd hit to the back of the head, will not blame anyone particular for it. Most untypical interactions will be effected via the dialog box. We wish to be able to present to the players virtually any event; if not with graphics or sound (which cannot render, for example, the smell of the sewer), then with the classic combination: narration plus black-out.
The NPCs have schedules, but the scope and mechanics of them is not as elaborate as in Gothic or Oblivion.

By what games or other media (movies, books) has Afterfall been influenced?

I think the greatest influence have been the stories by Phillip K. Dick, which are sci-fi classics. This author has particularly favored the post-apocalyptic setting, which he constructed in each story in a completely new and original way.

Also, there's been the fantasy writing of the Strugacki brothers, 'Deus Irae' by Roger Żelazny and P. K. Dick, the story 'Autobahn nach Poznań' from the 'Zapach szkła' (Smell of Glass) collection by Andrzej Ziemiański and many other, minor inspirations.

From cinematography, it must have been 'The Postman' and the 'Mad Max' series.
Among the games influencing our work, most are also classic for the genre: Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate series, KOTOR I and II, Deus Ex.... and of course both parts of Fallout. On the other hand, tactical games have also left their mark: Silent Storm and Brigade E5, and also stealth action games like Thief and Splinter Cell.

What effect will implants have in the game?

There are three main aspects to the functioning of implants. First, there are the many advantages that they offer. Implants can produce painkillers, stimulate adrenalin secretion, monitor your health, decrease fatigue, greatly impact some features, etc. Limb implants are an interesting kind. A cybernetic arm will not give you bonuses to your strength or precision. It will not give you any bonuses. A cybernetic arm has its own parameters of strength, precision, etc, which will replace the hero's parameters when it is used. Thanks to this there are many combinations possible. One (natural) arm may serve the hero for precise aiming, and the other – a strong and sturdy, but crude implant – may be used for hand-to-hand combat or delivering long, stable bursts from a firmly held submachinegun.

Second, there are purely practical problems with implants. Mainly, most of them are powered with electricity, an appropriate portion of which you must consume every 24 hours along with your food and water. Substituting limbs or organs with implants, you increase the amount of needed energy, while decreasing victual consumption. With advanced cyborgization all you need to live is a sizeable battery and some nutritious pap like in 'Robocop.' Still, the moment the player character substitutes one of his vital organs (like the heart) with an implant is a point of no return. From then on, the hero becomes completely dependent on energy and the condition of his cybernetic parts. Before that, when electrocuted, hit with a taser or EMP (from which you cannot hide behind a wall like you could from shrapnel), he would have to manage without the techno-boost, or with a temporarily incapacitated arm or leg. After crossing that line such events result in death. Implants obviously do not regenerate, but collect damage from combat and use, threatening with malfunction or failure.

The third aspect is cultural. The PC may encounter different responses from NPCs towards implants. They will sometimes be neutral, sometimes impress like a red Ferrari, but mostly incite aversion or hostility.

So implants can greatly improve some features. Arms and legs can improve your strength and dexterity, but in what way do the implants for inner organs improve your character's stats?

There are various cases, so let me present a handful. The first group of internal implants are add-ons to the organism. Among other things these can release different chemical substances into the organism (like metaamphetamine, painkillers, concentration enhancers) or regulate the production of neurotransmitters (e.g. increasing the level of adrenalin), or increase the oxidation of the blood (alleviating fatigue), or neutralize poisons and toxins. These functions may be automatic, or operated by a special panel. Implants of this kind have moderate influence on gameplay. Another group are replacement implants, which are only few. One of those is a high-performance artificial heart-and-lung set. Such a set will make stamina problems disappear, but its failure equals instant death. Like artificial arms and legs, internal replacement implants greatly influence gameplay.

Another question on implants, you said they require energy to work. How does your character consume this energy, and where do you get it from (batteries, small electricity generators)?

If an implant uses little energy, it will be charged from the energy sources in the equipment every 12 hours, while eating. If it needs much, the energy will be drawn continuously in units per minute or second. Some implants will draw a portion with every separate use. The consumption of energy, food and water has been designed in a way that would force a realistic approach to traveling, and at the same time spare the monotonous "manual" feeding of the PC for the players who are not enthusiastic about it. (Still, the manual feeding of the hero will be possible.)

As we were wrapping up our energy management system, to our surprise it turned out quite similar to a system of… mana. In many cRPGs set in a world where the use of magic depends on the consumption of mana, the hero possesses a pool of it and a pace of its regeneration. In Afterfall the hero may possess personal storage cells, the summary capacity of which is the energy reserve ready for instant use. The energy sources he possesses (like fuel cells), are responsible for energy production, that is, the pace of storage cells recharging. Most devices only require energy sources: a car, an artificial arm, lights, etc. are not too energy consuming even for an average fuel cell. No reserve needed here. In fantasy games such a situation took place when, for example, a magic aura took less mana per second than was regenerated. But, if the hero uses energy weapons, problems start, because without first-rate military storage cells he cannot fire even a couple of shots. Weapons of this kind use a large portion of energy in the moment of discharge, so you can only power them from the energy pool limited by your storage. Through most of the game, 2 or 3 shots from a plasma pistol at the beginning of a fight will be the only ones you fire for hours.

Also, the energy system aims for realism. An excellent example here is a powered suit – a hybrid object which, apart from giving protection, also consumes energy (the more you use its enhancing capabilities), but possesses its own fuel and storage cell. So, from the suit's reserve you are able to power energy weapons, and by switching off motion enhancement, save energy for other purposes. Another example: when a suit wearer is in a vehicle and needs no enhancement, the vehicle's engine can be powered from the suit's power source. But there is one more major difference between mana systems and the Afterfall energy system. Fuel cells run out.

On a similar note, what effects will mutations have?

Crucially, mutations are chaotic. If you do not protect your character from toxic substances, radiation and pathogens, you never know if after many days or even weeks of asymptomatic development, one morning you won't discover a benign mutation. Slight changes are no reason to panic. Usually you can hide them beneath clothes, and get rid of some of them surgically. Worse if you ignore that first warning, because you risk not only new mutations, but also progression of the already existing ones. Only some mutations have any practical benefits, most will only ruin your health or make you a social outcast. However, if the advantages do appear, they can turn the entire gameplay upside down, and paying a character who embraces mutations can be like playing a Wild Mage, werewolf or vampire. Mutations can improve strength, precision, speed, mental capabilities, they can make your character unpredictable for the opponents, resistant to pain, acutely perceptive, etc, and to a degree that no implant can provide. Forrest Gump would say that mutations in Afterfall are like a box of chocolates.

So will they be visible on your character as well? I mean, will big enough mutations be graphically visible on your character?

Of course they will. Mostly they will be made by textures, but some of the more serious mutations can for example take the form of growths. Sometimes so big, they prevent the use of armor.

Mutations seem to have both good and bad effects on your character. Is there any way to get rid of them once you got one, maybe by a cure or by an operation?

It is difficult, but in some cases possible. The first degree mutations which you cannot hide with clothes or otherwise, you will be able to amputate. Such procedures, however, will not only be expensive, but also will virtually always bring harmful and irreversible consequences. For example, a growth on the cheek after being surgically removed will leave a nasty scar, which will cause negative modification of the responses from newly met characters.

How will mutations and implants influence the NPC's reactions towards you?

Basically, implants in Afterfall are only am extrapolation of today's trends and technology, a simple consequence of prosthetics and later cyber-prosthetics. Many of the implants are no more invasive than the ones currently used (limb prosthetics, false teeth, breast implants, pacemakers, artificial cornea or eye lens, or internal hearing aids), but nevertheless, among the population of the Afterfall world the users of such devices may encounter mistrust, or even aversion and aggression. People do not have their views written on their foreheads, and you never know in whom and when the dislike of augmented people will outweigh the hero's good opinion. At the same time, the greater the degree of cyborgization, the less human the character appears to his interlocutors, even if they hold no grudge against cyborgs.

Mutations, in turn, especially not hidden or inconcealable, can make the character an outcast in many locations. They will force him to prove his worth to everyone, or to intimidate them to get his way. There are of course NPCs who are used to mutations and unbiased, as well as those who will remain intolerant whatever you do. The other side of the coin is mutant solidarity – societies of mutants that subscribe to this principle will always give another mutant an advance of trust, and possibly food and shelter. Fortunately, you can hide most mutations and live normally.

To sum up, both mutations and implants can be the key to otherwise unattainable super-human abilities, but also the source of many greater and lesser problems. Their advantages are enormous and incomparable with anything else… the same as their drawbacks. Implants in some way destabilize the game. Mutations are like playing Russian roulette or walking on a swamp – there is no balanced development here. Combining implants and mutations is even more hardcore.

What effects does the environment have on your character? Do you, for example, have to wear sufficient clothing in cold areas or take damage from the cold?

The issue of temperature is quite simplified in Afterfall. If an armor or clothes offer enough protection from temperature damage, heat or cold will not be doing any harm. The surroundings do however play a big practical role. The realistic cost of action and realistic damage dealt in combat make it worthwhile to seek cover from enemy fire or for the time of magazine change, to attack through windows, jump over fences, climb to roofs, etc. Every wall, pit or mound can have tactical importance. It gets even more interesting with stealth action. Then you have to look out for lights and shadows, the loudness of the surfaces, or sound sources which can drown out your footsteps. These mechanisms work two ways – if the character is high on drugs or adrenalin, he risks tripping (no pun intended) on terrain which is too difficult.

So the game comes with a stealth system. Do NPCs react accurately towards sounds and shadows/lights, similar to games like Thief?

Do they react accurately? Yes. Like in games like Thief? No. You must remember that the world of Afterfall is not comprised exclusively of the hero and his opponents, but is also populated, like many cRPG worlds, with many independent characters. In the games like Thief or Splinter Cell you could encounter a situation where an ordinary citizen or civilian bystander from the street hears the hero and begins to frantically search for him through every nook and cranny, just like the guards would. In reality, such a character probably wouldn't even pay any attention (plenty of other people around, why would this particular sound be suspicious?), or would even walk away, fearing he would be mugged. In Afterfall the different reactions, and the according creation of AI will surely be a considerable challenge for us. We are planning to implement reactions including sounding an alarm, informing other characters of suspicious movements or sounds, and finally searching for the intruder they have lost sight of, even throughout the entire location. The stealth system is not a number one priority at this time, though, so we don't know how much of these plans we will be able to execute.

How are female characters treated in the game? Are there any differences between playing a male and playing a female character?

It all depends on the NPC you are dealing with. Most of them know that women, like anyone else, have been hardened by the tough post-nuclear conditions, they had to manage as much as anybody, and are in every way equal to men. You will, however, find characters for whom a woman is nothing more than prey or even a commodity. On the other hand, many NPCs will be more friendly and sympathetic towards a female than a male character. Female NPCs will usually be neutral towards a woman, but can become more friendly or unfriendly towards a man. In this aspect we decided rather to pursue the path of realism of the fictitious world, often full of cruelty and prejudice, than that of political correctness, which under post-nuclear conditions would be nothing but fake.

And, last but not least, how is your search for a publisher going? Have you already found one or are you still searching?

Lately we have received a few offers, but we decided the conditions were not acceptable – in return only for jobs we would be denied control over the contents of the game, and the investor would be able to do anything with it, including replacing mutants with pink bunnies or rainbow ponies. The best offer so far, a cooperation with an ambitious, serious development studio that appreciates our goals, still has a major drawback: it could only come into effect a year or two from now, when the company concludes its current projects. Being aware of the fact that the further we are with our work, the better offers we are going to get, we continue working on the techdemo.

We'd like to thank Maciej for taking the time to answer these questions and wish him and the rest of the Afterfall team the best of luck in getting their ambitions fully fleshed-out in the final game

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