In thinking about Rogue Academy I am reminded of another style of game, where you must navigate a predetermined timeline full of trouble, in part by going (in character) into the past, and in part by (out of character) reloading an earlier save. Thinking about that got me interested, in particular, in how to *present* a game like that, especially if, as with RA, the game is about getting one or more desired endings out of a complicated, randomly generated timeline.
1. The premise
Consider a game like Rogue Academy, which in concept is a time management sim with adventure elements and permadeath, set in an adventurer's or mages's academy. Let's list first a number of sorts of things that could be randomly generated in this world:
- * Academy Layout
- * Characters, their talents, habits, and wonts
- * Individual character events (X recieves a letter from his mother)
- * Social/multicharacter events (X and Y get into a fight in the cafeteria)
- * Location-based events (A bridge collapses, hurting anyone on it)
- * World events (A war starts, monsters attack the school, demon lord arises, etc)
- * Mysterious "fate" or magic forces eg Gods or Astrology (causes boosts or debuff to certain characters)
- * Nearby adventuring spots (Cave, forest, ruins)
- * Distant locations for character backgrounds, field trips, world events, etc (City, countryside, mountain, foreign places, holy places, etc)
Given that mess of possibilities and a consistent "Fate" seed per character that is not affected by player actions, a timeline is generated that describes what will happen to the students and teachers of the Academy and other notables in the life of the player character (arguably, this includes families of all students since any of them may become important to you). For example, on the tenth day of school, five students will be on the bridge when it collapses; if you are interested in saving any of them, you have to either make the bridge not collapse or keep them or all students off the bridge. To do this, you (the player) may need knowledge of what causes the bridge to collapse, and you may need to know why the character of interest was there on that day.
2. Seeing Fate
Because I am presuming a world of magic as part of the premise, it is not impossible for the character to be or become prescient and gain in-character knowledge of what the player knows; however, it is important to remember that when that is lacking, the character cannot make any reasonable argument to stop five people from crossing a bridge when presumably that have good reason to. How do you change fate?
The first thing to recall is that I want the game to have a constant fate, even if the pieces are randomly generated at the start. So, in meta terms, if you laid out a timeline of the game from start to end, you could place known events on that timeline with notes attached about what you know and why. Setting aside in-character knowledge, such a timeline helps track player knowledge and allows you to plan around events such as the bridge collapse.
If, unwittingly, your character happens to be crossing the bridge that day, they will be hurt or die with the rest; this may be good, bad, or game over depending on the severity of the incident and your luck and fate. If a character who you like or need later is crossing the bridge, you may have to distract them that morning, or even pick a fight with them if that's the only way to keep them from being hurt or dying. In a few cases where there is no way to get character knowledge of the event, you may have to do something stupid that ends up "accidentally" saving them. Alternately, if there is any way you can get an enemy to be on the bridge, even if you haven't met them yet, maybe that's all for the better.
The meta timeline view is not just for big things, though. An argument between friends may not appear on your timeline, if you don't see it, but weeks or months later the fallout from that argument changes something important. Even if you witness the argument in another timeline, you may not connect the dots; it's only by experimenting or being told that you know for sure that the later fallout is related to bad feelings between the two. Suppose for example one person is bullied; later, a seemingly unrelated character is killed, with the rumor being that it was murder. You discover that the bully and the dead person are in a relationship, and that the bullying involves taking away things that the victim cares about. It then becomes a deduction on the part of the player, or the character, that the murder was to punish the bully by taking away what he cares for. Preventing the bullying, or preventing the relationship, may prevent the murder.
3. Changing the Past
Going back and forth through time, as much fun as it sounds like in concept, is a grind. A poor interface would make you replay every decision from the start of the year until the point you want to re-experience; making the same choices results in the same outcomes while different choices give you different fates. But if you make small changes on accident, are they responsible for different outcomes?
I would suggest that the save/load game system be integrated into the timeline view as a necessary artifact of the mind-bending time elements of the game. This could be one of several obvious forms, for example, callout bubbles on a linear timeline, showing "3 saves" on a particular day each with different histories and different character stats. Alternately, a branching timeline could be used with the same bubbles; each known event makes a branch in the tree if it has had different outcomes. This tree looks very different depending on what you know; in the case of the bully event, if you are unaware that bullying went on but change who the bully is in a relationship with, there will be a branch where that changed, and one side has a murder while the other does not, or has a different murder. If you stop the bullying, the murders only happen if the bullying did, and it may be down to a matter of who depending on who the bully is in a relationship with. If the bullying victim happens to be on the bridge when it collapses, again the murders never happen. That may mean that the murders only show up after you save people from dying on the bridge!
Because a time-tree becomes inordinately complex, a "minimap" version would be added in the corner of the screen. Highlight an event you've seen, this time around or otherwise, and the paths that have seen that event are highlighted in the tree--green for good, red for bad, yellow for neutral, with a special highlight if it's the same color but a different outcome (fewer people died on the bridge, but it still happened and is still "bad") The size and complexity of the time-tree depends on how much you have or have not seen in each timeline; it grows as you experience it. If you don't take the time to live out the rest of your student life, you may not realize that some choices were good, or bad; short-term investigation may not be enough to know for sure.
4. In character time travel
One of the most frustrating things about time travel games is knowing something your character doesn't. If your character KNEW that a bridge would collapse, he could just TELL his future girlfriend not to go; if he KNEW that a bully victim would become a murderer because of a certain incident, he could have the school staff intervene, or help talk the victim through his hard times.
My immediate idea as to how to pass knowledge through time is to use the stars, or the phases of the moon, but really any traditional "divination" magic has things you could play with. In the past, look at the sky; memorize the moon and stars. In the future, when the same stars or the same moon is overhead, focus on it and recall a particular past event. Back in the past, focus on the moon or star, which now contains a memory of the future. After a brief adjustment period, the character can use this to learn about an incident before it happens.
There are four major caveats here: First, the moon or star must match; second, only one memory may be on a star or phase of the moon (everything about it is included); third, the character may forget or dismiss past divinations if they are too far from the event, and fourth, you only draw from what the character knows, not what the player knows. That means that this sort of divination requires you to look at the stars shortly before a major incident, learn as much as you can about it, and wait for exactly the right phase of moon or for the right star to be visible in the sky (weather may prevent it, and some world events may cause constant bad weather).
Similarly, you can use for example shooting stars to coordinate knowledge sideways instead of forwards and backwards through time: if two alternate histories give you different pictures, a shooting star may help you consolidate all you know into one character. If you can coordinate a shooting star and lunar divination session correctly, you can pile a lot of character knowledge together and give yourself the perfect solution to a sticky problem. If it comes at the wrong time, though, you're out of luck.
Dreams are another plausible window through time. If your character dreams of the past, that dream may be carried backwards with some extra knowledge. This is a more random, non-player mechanism, although the character can learn dream magic if they try. As with dream magic, other divination magics may pick out important pieces of character knowledge from the past, future, or side timelines, but you are likely to learn those magics later in the game and they are not terribly reliable. Getting a divination done by an adult may change things, but they do not impart character knowledge in the same way.
It is not possible to pass skills back through time, nor objects, except with the highest of magics--but perhaps a teacher, staff member, or other adult in your character's life could do something to help, if your reputation precedes you...
5. Getting what you Want
In the end, the crucial question is how you want the game to end. Maybe you don't want to solve everyone's problems; maybe you only want to protect your friends. If you meddle too much in time, you will be known as a "hero" or "prophet" and that will forever dictate how people see you--which your character may not appreciate! If you are seen as a prophet in a corrupt nation, your future may be very dim, or possibly very short. If you are seen as a hero in times of war, you may do great things for a very brief time. If instead you focus on learning and becoming a great mage or swordsman, you may become an advisor to a crooked king and may be able to change the future of your nation--or not, if your heart becomes just a shade too black.
With all the many variables that such a simulation has, you could create a narrative about what goes on afterwards, charting the trajectories of yourself and your classmates. Maybe the greatest thing you can do would be to make sure a particularly evil young boy or girl doesn't make it out of school--your first time through, that may mean your death or imprisonment, but take your time and manipulate the school, the teachers, your friends and your enemies, and it may "just happen" and nobody will be the wiser.
Part of what makes it a key question is that the game start and end are random. In any particular random game you may simply not care about your classmates. In another, perhaps a hand-crafted start of the game, you may be incredibly invested in saving a character you made to represent your friend or love interest. Maybe you actually want to make someone else's life hell and don't care about anything else. The game is not about solving a story that is already written; it is about seeing what would be necessary to change fate in a given world.
6. Themes and lessons
Part of what I want this game to do is to give people a mental model of how hard they have to work and what they have to learn in order to change the world they live in. If you believe someone is being bullied, you may need to investigate, and doing so may save a life. If you believe someone is cheating, you can tattle on them, but you may lose a friend, gain an enemy, or influence teachers to crack down. Changing the way people feel about a subject or a person means knowing them, knowing why they feel the way they do, and then tailoring your response to them.
The game mechanics and the back-and-forth are an interesting way to deal with that, but more than that, they are a demonstration of the complexity of life. Small things come together to have large impacts; things that seem large may not. The world may one day simply change everything, and you may not be able to save yourself, or others. And only by exploring the world you live in can you hope to understand enough to be a real part of it.
With little doubt, this game concept is too advanced to be underestimated; a real attempt at it would be an amazing ordeal, and it is entirely likely that it would not be a commercial success. But it is also a fascinating study and, I think, worth the time and effort to create, if one only had the ability to do so.