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Interview - posted by Elwro on Wed 8 October 2008, 03:18:30Tags: Cyclopean; Iron Tower Studio
Today we're talking with Scott, who recently shocked the gaming world (well, at least some part of it) by announcing Cyclopean, a Lovecraft-inspired turn-based isometric cRPG with lots of text.
1. Please introduce your project to those who are still unaware of it.
Scott: Cyclopean is a turn-based CRPG currently in pre-production under the banner of Iron Tower Studio. I am the Lead Developer and Writer. The game is inspired by the stories and mythos of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and takes place in several of Lovecraft’s fictional locations in 1923 Massachusetts. Based on the strength of the concept and some samples of the writing, Vince (of ITS) offered me the lead designer position for this second team, “Team Omega”, of Iron Tower Studio. Currently I am joined in my toil by Felix, a professional illustrator, who is working on concept art and portraits.2. Why do you think no proper Cthulhu computer RPG has been made yet?
A lot of people admired the effort put into Dark Corners of the Earth, but I suppose it was too actiony to be called a “proper” RPG. There have been protests here and there that Lovecraft’s work cannot be translated to a computer game at all, and especially not to an isometric, turn-based game. Perhaps that is what’s put people off in the past. It’s strange that HPL’s work has such a broad range of influence in so many different kinds of media, yet direct translations are almost completely absent. Maybe it’s just too grim for the mainstream. Compared to Lovecraft, Stephen King is like your grandma reading a scary bedtime story.3. With your writing skills (Click here and here for examples), why do you want to make an isometric, TB RPG and not an interactive fiction game (like e.g. Anchorhead), with lots of choices and stats?
I’m not interested in interactive fiction games and I’d like more than a hundred people to play it. More seriously, I was into interactive fiction when I was younger – beating Planetfall was one of my signature accomplishments, thank you – but now I want to make a game I would play.4. The sanity meter has to be an essential feature of a Lovecraft-inspired game. How will low Sanity level influence the gameplay? Will there be special quests for insane characters? NPCs who can only be met by those who have lost their mind?
Here I might ask: Why not include the fiction AND the graphics AND the combat? Answer: Because time spent on graphics and content takes away from work on the writing. In Cyclopean, the writing is going to be a major focus. That’s just not the case with the (vast) majority of RPGs, loud claims otherwise notwithstanding. Folks will have to read what I’ve put out there so far (more to come), and decide for themselves if it can carry the game.
A starting character will have a Sanity score of somewhere between 50 – 100. As conceived right this minute, the player will suffer a “minor neurosis” when his Sanity falls below 20, ie. a reduced base stat. This can be relieved by a good night’s rest. When Sanity falls below 10, the character is close to a complete breakdown. He may briefly wander at random, fumble and drop his weapon, accidentally injure himself, or freeze up during combat. Negative “shock” effects may also apply when the player takes massive (>10) Sanity damage all at once.5. We already know that sleep will be a method of regaining Sanity points. Don't you think that for those with low Sanity sleep should rather be a source of horrible nightmares filled with unspeakable horrors, forming a further risk of Sanity loss?
There will be no special quests for insane characters, however there is another “state” you can end up in, resulting from overexposure to Mythos creatures and events: Corrupted. A corrupted PC can see through the tenuous tissue separating the staid and sane world of men from the other dimensions and existences juxtaposed and sometimes overlapping our own. Exposure to these other worlds can be very taxing on one’s sanity. Unfortunately, corruption means the PC can also be seen by Outside entities perhaps better avoided. A player who chooses to serve a Mythos entity may seek out corruption and gain unusual benefits that balance the obvious drawbacks.
The effect of sleep on Sanity is something that will need to be reworked. I’ve already had some good suggestions, like a constantly diminishing Sanity resulting from lack of proper sleep, which would lead to hallucinations. Naturally I want a system that creates a challenge for the player without being an uninteresting chore or a burden.6. This brings me naturally to the following issue: will the Dreamlands make an appearance?
What’s key to me is that regaining Sanity and Life is not reduced to the red-bottle/blue-bottle method patented in the 80’s and endemic to CRPGs everywhere. I don’t want a player with 5 Sanity to just pull out a Stimpak and continue on. If the player is in Arkham, there’s always Sefton Asylum, but medical care isn’t socialized so it’s going to cost.
I was reluctant at first to bring the Dreamlands into Cyclopean, because I don’t want to spread my efforts too thin. Then also, wouldn’t the Dreamlands make for a great sequel?[/naive optimism] But when I saw Vince bragging about his 144(!) quests in Age of Decadence, I thought maybe I’d better include a few more areas. Right now I’m considering a dream journey to one location mentioned by Lovecraft that you couldn’t get to by bus.7. Your mechanics seems to have quite an elaborate set of stats and traits. Could you describe it in a few sentences and give examples of more unusual traits?
Introducing what I call the S.E.D.I.W.P. system – the base stats are: Strength, Endurance, Dexterity, Intelligence, Will, Perception. There are nine available Skills (Mechanics, Mind, Deceit, Medicine, Arcanum, Physique, Clubs, Blades, Guns). Skills will range in value from 1-100, and maybe slightly higher, over the course of the game. The player earns a fixed number of skill points to spend each level-up. With skill points, you may purchase straight Skill increases, or Traits, which are special augmentations or rules tweaks. A Trait requires at least 25 points in its parent Skill. More advanced Traits require a higher Skill and sometimes have other prerequisites. Traits that are learned through study, like Pick Locks, require the player to access a library to purchase.8. Will our character be able to get some followers, or is the game a 100% solo affair?
Examples: With a prerequisite of 50 in Deceit, you can purchase Forgery. If the player has access to a writing desk and writing materials, he can forge signatures and other documents to forward his agenda. With a prerequisite of 50 in Mind, you can purchase Mesmerism. Mesmerism allows the player once a day to assist an NPC to recover lost Sanity, as well as opening up dialogue options in applicable situations.
Traits for Deceit, Mind, Arcanum and Physique have been revealed on the forum so far. I’ll add more from time to time.
I think readers will also be interested in my conception of optional Character Backgrounds.
I’m going to approximate the Fallout model of NPC followers: limited inventory control (no packmules), some AI options but not direct control over actions, no more than three followers. These people won’t follow you everywhere you go, either.9. Let's talk about combat. How big a role will it have in Cyclopean?
Combat will have a role comparable to that of games like Fallout, by which I mean there will be plenty else to do, but the tactical combat will be a draw for anyone who likes that kind of thing.
- What will the typical opponents be?
Typical opponents will be other human beings. Some of these people will be altered in unusual ways, or have arcane powers. In certain locations away from inhabited areas, you may also fight minor Mythos creatures. There will be no “fighting” major Mythos entities.
- What options are you going to make available to the character?
Currently planned are four combat skills: Fisticuffs (nested within the Physique skill), Clubs, Blades and Firearms. Thrown weapons may make an appearance, but I don’t consider them important enough to get their own Skill. There will occasionally be non-lethal combat options (ie. mercy), especially if the player uses his fists or blunt objects.
- How deadly will fighting be, and will death be the end for the PC?
The deadliness of the fight, and your opponent’s willingness to spare your life depends on the situation. If you resist arrest barehanded, the police will beat you down with a club but not kill you. Other times, it might benefit your opponents to capture you. Reaching zero Life in Cyclopean means unconsciousness, so there is also a chance, depending on your opponent’s appetite, that you may regain consciousness later and manage to crawl to a hospital, or be discovered by some good Samaritan.
There are also certain dialogues where you may be challenged to an entirely non-lethal fistfight.
To the question, Can I play through the entire game without combat? my answer is “I don’t know.” The main quest lines will all have non-combat solutions. For all other quests, I let the story drive the possible solutions and pick sensible ones, rather than automatically assigning 6 or 8 different solutions for every quest.
Alert readers will note there is no Charisma stat. Cyclopean will gauge a player’s performance in dialogue on a hidden Respect slider. An initial Respect score will be set based on the NPC’s general disposition and the player’s appearance and Background if appropriate. From then on, player questions and comments will influence the NPC’s Respect rating, which in turn influences the amount the NPC will reveal and determine his level of cooperation. A low Respect rating could result in withheld information, misinformation, or being attacked.11. And lastly, what do you think would be the 'essence' of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos? The small man catching a glimpse of the infinite? The fact that the one who lurks in the dark has tentacles? What sets Lovecraft's visions apart from the 'other' horror visionaries, so that it's him and no one else that you want to be inspired by in your game?
I dislike role-playing systems that rely on conversation stats, like Diplomacy, Gather Information, etc. In Cyclopean, I want the player to read and think about what’s being said, instead of clicking the highlighted line that indicates a Diplomacy check because he has a high Diplomacy. A player’s Deceit Skill will determine his chance of successfully lying. There are a few dialogue-related Traits, like Charm Opposite Sex, which will open dialogue options, but I intend to draw from all of the non-combat Skills for determining success. There won’t be any visual indication of which lines of dialogue rely on which stats. If a stat is being tested, which remember is only sometimes the case, the writing should at least hint at what is being tested.
I think everyone is on the same page regarding the essence of Lovecraft. Of his many fine qualities, subtlety is not one. It is the complete insignificance of man in the cosmic order, and his existence depending entirely on that insignificance, on being hidden away in a forgotten corner of the universe, out of sight of the horrific entities lurking beyond. For now.
Are there other ‘horror visionaries’? I read good writers, and good genre writers (in any genre) are very few indeed. There aren’t any other writers of horror fiction that I regularly read. The reason I chose Lovecraft is that he grabbed me by the guts when I first got into his stuff when I was 14 and I’ve never forgotten. His work isn’t clichéd and isn’t derived from other works that came before, or even mythology. He made his own cosmos from scratch, without animated skeletons and blood-sucking vampires. How many fantasy or horror authors can you say that about?
Also, there are no elves. This is a big selling point for me personally.
I’d like to finish by inviting Codex readers to peruse the Cyclopean forum at Iron Tower Studio. This game is a work in progress, and as long as you’re not going to try and convince me to change the basic format (isometric, TB, etc), your comments and feedback are welcome.
You heard it folks. Thanks to Scott for answering our questions - and best luck with your project!