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Vidar Interview: “It’s Like Secret of Mana Got Depressed”

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    Vidar is a puzzle-RPG in which everyone dies. That seems like a big spoiler but that’s the game’s tagline. It’s an intriguing way of pitching a game, for sure.

     

    It’s also currently on Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight. But you don’t have to arrive at these pages blind as there’s a demo of Vidar that you can download and play right now. It’s a game with random storytelling and random puzzles. It’s about a town on the brink of collapse, and that was before the Beast arrived, tearing its citizens apart. Now it’s on its knees.

     

    Siliconera caught up with Vidar’s creator, Dean Razavi, to find out more about how the game works initially. Random stories and random puzzles seems like a lot of chaos to control, doesn’t it? Razavi discusses that, and also how you’ll have to replay the game a few times to get to know each of its characters, how people have played it and compared it to Lufia II and Goof Troop, and also why he dropped combat in favor of advancing the story.

     

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    You say that you have a background in law? How did you get into creating games and are you looking to pursue this full-time?

     

    Dean Razavi, designer: I do! I’ve actually been a litigator for the past four years, but my love has always been gaming. I’ve grown up with games, I’ve celebrated games, my wedding was game-themed.

     

    As a hobby for about 10 years now, I’ve staged what I call “Hunts,” large-format urban scavenger hunts that are focused more on completing challenges than finding something and taking a picture of it. At one point, my last one had my friends wearing mirrors on their backs and chests and trying to aim a laser pointer light to reflect on all of them – a real world Zelda mirror shield puzzle. All involve riddles of various forms, and a lot of times the players have to find unique ways to combine various tools they find. From all of these, it seemed like making video games was a natural progression, particularly a puzzle game.

     

    It’s definitely something I’m hoping to do full-time. Vidar is a passion project, and I set the goal in the Kickstarter to reflect that. It’s not priced to support me full time, but ultimately if/when Vidar takes off, I’d love to dedicate myself not only to supporting that game post-release, but to working on the next project.

     

    How did you come up with the concept of Vidar? It seems to be a unique idea. Do you know of anything else like it?

     

    You know, when I demo the game at events like MAGFest or Boston Festival of Indie Games, a lot of people have the response “Oh it’s like ________,” where the blank is different most of the time. Which is awesome! I love that the game reminds people of something they love in a vague way, but is itself something totally different. Some people compare it to Mafia/Werewolf, as in those games, someone different dies every night. Some people compare it to Lufia 2, a super puzzle-heavy RPG for the SNES. More than one person has told me it reminds them of Goof Troop. But so far, I haven’t found anything quite like Vidar.

     

    I’ve borrowed inspiration from a lot of different places. I love the mechanic in a lot of games which has you slowly populating a town. You get the blacksmith and she sells you better weapons, you get the alchemist and he sells you better potions. Even games like Sim City or Animal Crossing where you’re building up a central city are just tremendous fun for me, and I wanted to know what happens when you flip that on its head. What happens if the town is full of life and then slowly dies off and becomes a ghost town? And what happens if we do that randomly each game? Does it actually feel like progression, or does the player just feel like they’re losing everything? What happens if you get stuck with the beginner sword for the whole game because the blacksmith died on the first night?

     

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    Turns out, some of it works and some of it doesn’t – that last question about gear progression actually becomes a real problem. Once I cut combat from the game entirely and turned every NPC into a story-driven quest-giver, everything clicked into place. Progression feels great, and the random death mechanic game is actually a great driving force for the player to keep solving puzzles faster and faster. That’s how the core mechanic for Vidar clicked into place.

     

    As for the story, I began sketching out the idea for Vidar shortly after I lost a dear family member. He was in many ways a kindred spirit (had been a musician, then a lawyer, a foodie, a wonderful father and husband) and attending his funeral was an extremely emotional experience. I wanted to start to tell a story about how families and communities grieve, and about what loss means. Vidar doesn’t spend the entire game on the message – games like Actual Sunlight (which tackles depression brilliantly) and That Dragon, Cancer (which tackles cancer brilliantly) are there to handle tough topics with a much more delicate hand than mine. But loss, grieving, nostalgia, and making the most of life all permeate the story of Vidar.

     

    Could you explain how the randomized storytelling works? How do you ensure that each story is cohesive with all of these random factors?

     

    Sure, it’s one of the key components in Vidar, the idea of a cohesive, meaningful, random story. Think about a game like Mass Effect, where there are clear decision points that branch that out based on whether the player does X or Y. The story tree in Vidar does that too, but at each little node (which in Vidar is represented by a new day) there’s an additional question that gets asked – who is alive and who is dead. So now there are several potential branches each day based on what I loosely call “the state of the game.”

     

    This big “tree” structure normally applies to a single game. In Vidar, it applies to each NPC – each of the 24 villagers has their own branching trees. So each villager has their own self-contained story that can reach a lot of different places before the villager dies, many of which solve an initial personality flaw. One example is Bernadette, the nun. She’s everything you expect from a zealous, bible-thumping woman of the cloth; she’s condemned most of Vidar to hell and believes that the Beast which is killing everyone in town is a divine messenger out to eliminate the sinners. If Borbalo the priest dies, she’ll lose the person who tempers her already out-of-control fire and really isolate from everyone else in town.

     

    Another possible branch involves Bernadette confronting Mihaly the musician (a fatalist, a humanist, someone very anti-religion) about the intersection of music and religion. Mihaly will ask the player to loot an old grave for a music box, and if the player complies the spirit of the former owner will not be pleased. The ghost will possess Bernadette and start wreaking havoc around town. Saving Bernadette might bring her around to empathizing with other people in town (and might also bring Mihaly to the church). There’s still another path where Bernadette starts volunteering at the hospital trying to care for the sick. Another where Bernadette is sacrificed in a different religion’s ritual.

     

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    Each NPC keeps track of their own progression, and that’s occasionally controlled with pacing. One of Bernadette’s first quests – a request that you quell various spirits – isn’t accessible until at least day 2 of the game. Well over half of the quests in the game have similar time-gating mechanics – only available once N number of people are dead, or it’s X day, or you’ve reached a particular room in the cave. They all have other requirements (you can’t get Bernadette’s quest about the spirits if Borbalo dies on the first night). That way, bigger development sections happen later in the game, there are climax moments towards the end, and the story still brews to a fever pitch at the last moment. Even though it’s random.

     

    Coupled with this, there are also Town Events in the game, and these are places where a lot of paths converge into something big. In the demo out right now, players can see one – “Cecilia’s House Is Burning Down.” At the start of the game, one of the streetlight’s in Vidar is leaking. The blacksmith can fix them, but only if she’s alive and if you’ve done her quest to get some ore. The alchemist is also trying to keep the lights on at night, and if you do his quest to get some extra oil, he’ll put it in that leaking streetlight. The combination of these things will light a spark, but if the city watchman is on patrol he’ll catch it and put it out quickly. If he’s dead, if he’s so depressed that he’s not on patrol, or if he’s become an alcoholic, there’s no one there to stop everything that’s happened. And a house will go up in flames, starting a new puzzle for the player. You’ll need to try to rescue Cecilia from her house, and where she goes to live after the event changes based on who’s alive and who’s dead. These are designed to tell the story of the town (instead of an individual NPC) but again, require the right combination of events which is based in part on the random order of deaths in the game.

     

    And what do players learn across all of these stories? Particularly in terms of the characters and setting?

     

    There is a consistent frame story in Vidar about the protagonist, The Stranger. He arrives in Vidar on his way to visit his always-deadbeat, now-dying father. And he ultimately decides to stay because he’s procrastinating, he doesn’t know how or whether to forgive his dad. So he’s using Vidar’s problems as an excuse to avoid his own. That whole story gets told in flashbacks every night in Vidar.

     

    Additionally, the town of Vidar actually once was something quite special, the capital of a kingdom with a lot of lore and legend. As players explore the cave, they’ll learn more about Vidar’s history, and that history will start to impact the plot. One puzzle deep in the cave involves animated skeletons and ghosts re-enacting a war that took place in Vidar over and over again. Some of the older NPCs have pretty strong memories of that war, and if they’re alive to talk about it, it changes their plots.

     

    Beyond these two components, players will really need to play Vidar a few times to get the full stories of all of the characters since, inevitably, one will die the first night and you’ll just never get to know them. There are some “groups” in Vidar that tell some interesting stories – a group of five that came from another town right in the middle of that war I just mentioned. A group of heretics. Two lovers, and a very stressed out father. These groups also interact with each other, but over several playthroughs you’ll be able to get the “complete” picture of each of these groups.

     

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    It seems that the ending is always the same? Is the only reason to repeat playthroughs to learn more about the world, or are there unlocks to obtain for doing so?

     

    I’m not spoiling anything about the ending! Everyone accuses me of spoiling too much with the tagline (“An RPG Puzzler Where Everyone Dies”) that some spoilers are just not on the table. To answer the second question, the game is tremendously ripe for achievements (hopefully on Steam if the Greenlight campaign is successful!) which can only be achieved with the right random playthrough. There are also plans for a New Game+ which would allow you to control the order of deaths a little better, allowing you to force the game to show you things you didn’t get to see the first time.

     

    Vidar also has random puzzles. Are they random in terms of which ones appear or are they randomly constructed each time? Where do they appear and what kinds of puzzles are they?

     

    Yeah so puzzles are the second half of Vidar. The game flips between as much free time in town as you want, and then when you’re ready to start the day, you enter the Beast’s cave to try to find and stop the Beast. You have a limited amount of time to get as far as you can in the puzzle dungeon. At the end of that “day” (about 10 minutes right now, but subject to balance) your progress is saved and you’re teleported back to town, another person dies. So the game goes back and forth between those two “phases,” if you will.

     

    To make sure that the puzzles are still a challenge even if you come back to see a new story a dozen times, they’re also randomized. The better way to say it is random in terms of which ones appear, but we do several layers of randomization to make sure you don’t see repeats. There are three layers of “randomness” to the puzzles. First is the actual rooms you get while exploring the cave. In the ice area, you’ll get about 4 or 5 rooms filled with ice puzzles, but the game has 10 to choose from when placing them. Second is the path through these rooms. Each room contains anywhere from 2 – 6 puzzles, but you won’t reach all of them. Blocks and paths will be created to force you through in a particular direction to see only some of the puzzles. If in the demo you played the nun’s ghost quest, you’ll see this pathing thing right off the bat. The arrow at the entrance to the cave is either pointing right or down, forcing you to one of two possible puzzles. Finally, the last layer is the content of the puzzles themselves. The placement of the rocks and arrows and doors consists of a single option pre-designed just for that puzzle space. There are about 10 options per space, meaning that assuming you get the same room and same path as last time, it’s still unlikely you’ll get the exact same puzzle option.

     

    By using a puzzle bank like this, I can actually control flow while still keeping the game random. Sometimes I want to be able to teach you a specific skill (like how to jump on floating boxes in the Water Cave). I can have 30 different puzzles which use the mechanic in different ways but all designed to make sure you learn the skill.

     

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    I was also going to ask how the battling works in Vidar. But you said there’s no combat at all?

     

    There’s no combat in Vidar! It’s actually like Zelda without the combat – while you’ll have an inventory and equipment, those are items and tools used to help you solve puzzles and explore better. As I mentioned before, while original prototypes of Vidar had combat there were some real game design issues when particular NPCs died off. Plus, now that I’m almost 30 I feel like I don’t have the patience for random battles anymore – I just want to advance the story!

     

    If successful, what will the Kickstarter funding go towards? What can people get in return for supporting the game?

     

    All of the Kickstarter funding is for art assets unless/until we get to stretch goals. In the demo you can see the pixel art that Becca Bair has done for the game, and it’s gorgeous and wonderful. The intent is to capture the golden era SNES RPGs like Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger, but to take out a lot of the bright colors and desaturate all of Vidar. It’s not a happy game, it’s a nostalgic one. It’s like Secret of Mana got depressed.

     

    In exchange for helping us out, we have a lot of really great exclusives. The first bucket of things is actually designing content for the game – adding to the random puzzle bank, coming up with the names of the dead in Vidar before the game starts, or even coming up with quests and town events. The second bucket of things are exclusives – a physical soundtrack or boxed set of the game which won’t be available after the Kickstarter, access to the closed beta, etc. Of course, you can also just get the game (or a discounted two-pack) if that’s your thing.

    Chris Priestman

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