Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Vagueposting- The Static Dynamic

In the classic Silent Hill 2, there is a part that happens involving this chap where the player is knocked off a high place. When you hit the ground, you are automatically knocked to critical health from whatever health value you are at from before this encounter. Since it's basically required to have this encounter on a playthrough, since it gives you access to a new area, it's something everyone who plays the game will go through.

Isn't that interesting?

Think about it. This is a survival horror game, with limited resources for things like ammo and healing items, with a moment where the player is forced to take damage. This is especially important in Silent Hill 2 as one of the game's endings can be influenced by having taken a lot of damage. There is someone, somewhere, in the world who got the aforementioned ending because of this event- they just happened to be low on healing items when this event happened. Somebody else probably died to a monster afterwards because of the damage; or others had to expend a healing item that would have come in handy at a later portion. While interacting directly with the gameplay, this moment is a scripted event in a story that cannot be changed. This also is not a quicktime event or test of reflexes or planning, since it's something that will always happen that you have no imput or control over.

I think there is a really interesting overlap between these two different worlds of a game; the "game and the story" being normally separate entities, but instead being put together. It's uncommon for a game to actually waste the players ammo in a cutscene where they shoot their weapon, for example, and rare for damage in a cutscene to carry over either. What does this say about the game if it does happen?

The title of this post is a bit of an oxymoron.

When it comes to games, be them tabletop or of the video variety, there is a gradient between static and dynamic. Dynamic games would be games with more interactive, random, or changing gameplay elements that add more factors to any individual play session, where as a game more on the "static" side would be the opposite. More scripted, cinematic, or on-rails for a tabletop descriptor. Something at the absolute end of the "static" side would probably be something like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, where as the most dynamic possible would be a traditional game of D&D or something similar with a new adventure created on the fly by the dungeon master or players every session.

In the most static game imaginable, you might have multiple encounters with a monster or forced resource "checks" where the player loses some kind of counter or resource in scripted sequences. Some concepts like this already exist in tabletop games; such as needing one ration of food per day when away from civilization. This is a mandatory resource that can't be overcome with good rolls (except for maybe a Survival check, but it's not the same as health- you don't lose health every day and only need to use healing potions if you get a bad roll or make a mistake). 

In a game like this, everything or anything that happens could be set in stone and you are simply following along; like literally playing out a movie or a book, scene by scene, needing to make the various checks and expend resources at the right moments. Now I think most people would find a game like this very boring and somewhat pointless, myself included, but in my opinion, the concept of a game with scripted or set "moments" like this is an interesting idea space.

Consider a campaign where the players psychic or cyberpunk brain-to-computer hackerman by the rules lose a certain amount of health/sanity/magic points whenever they use their abilities. However, it is well established early on in this campaign that you must unlock the three computer terminals or mind-control the three lieutenants; thus creating a sort of anticipation and phase of preparation for that player. Because there is a set, established set of things that the player(s) must preform, this scripted "story" sequence becomes part of the game. In anticipation for this checkpoint, you can't expend too many of your magic points or else you'll have to roll on the psychic backlash table or what have you. And after the event, some of your resources are gone without being totally up to the player to decide how to use them.

Also, it should be noted here that a "scripted" or "set in stone" event may or may not even exist in the perception of the one experiencing it. You wouldn't be able to tell if everything that happens in your game was the result of rolls on a random table or predetermined- save for those things that don't flow logically or are thrust upon the players ala a railroad.

Unique Encounters
What exactly is the place of a scripted event or railroaded event in a game or sequence? Most consider it a result of poor GM/DM/QM decision making. I also agree that these are not as fun or interesting in tabletop games then they would be in a video game.

Another example of a similar concept are unique and specific encounters in a game; such as boss fights or enemies that are only fought once or with a specific gimmick. This to me is an interesting idea space; the idea of an otherwise free flowing "game" state that interacts with a set encounter. Tabletop games are rife with this sort of thing for obvious reasons; an encounter with bandits but the bandit leader has a magic weapon or a sorcerer that casts a specific spell, etc. However I consider this more on the dynamic side of this made up spectrum. In the world of video games however, we see something like this much more often, possibly because most of the gameplay is already relatively "static" in how the player can interact with the game world in such a way.

For example; in most games there may be a few generic enemy types. Zombies, zombie dogs, giant spiders, etc. Typically you'll encounter each of these separately in different arrangements. Zombie dogs fought in a hallway is different then zombie dogs fought out in an open field. You can manage one zombie easily but three or more is a hoard that you might find it hard to escape from, etc. If you were suddenly put into a room with a zombie and a zombie dog, that would be a unique encounter; do you shoot at the comparatively more powerful but slow and easy to hit zombie first? Or take care of the fast moving enemy while the slower one creeps up on you? However, this to me isn't a "unique" encounter, though it may be the only time it happens in the game, it is a shuffling of other "game pieces" in the world. However, if there was a random room where once you enter a giant spider crawls over the door to get out and starts spitting webs at you- with you unable to leave until you shoot the ranged monster, this to me would be a very unique and interesting, memorable sort of encounter. It's difficult to describe, but the concept of a "unique" once only asset in a game like that is very interesting to me. Even if you programmed a new enemy type, and only fight it once in a specific area (like most bosses in a game), it wouldn't feel as "unique" then if you had a special encounter with an enemy that did something specific like that.

One little indie game I quite like is an RPG called BUGGERWORLD. It's a bit of a shitpost game but is actually pretty unique in that regard, as every fight in this game is unique, with new art and mechanics each time. The game's scope is so small there isn't even any leveling up, you gain new abilities and/or increases to your base stats simply based on progression in the story- which is entirely linear. Therefore, each battle will be exactly the same from one player or one playthrough to the next. The only "dynamic" element between them would be which and how many healing/restoring items you found and bought in the game and how well you rationed them. Then, the fight itself involves your own player skill to find the right combination of moves and healing/attacking to prevail in the end. If you want to play it yourself I'd highly recommend it; it's only about two hours long and totally free.

In a similar vein, a long running concept I've always wanted to see explored was a game where every single encounter with enemies was wholly unique. As in, every fight has new enemies, animations, and slightly different rules. This concept is something I'm sure many also have; which is unusual and rare in the world of video games, but is actually in a sense the default in a tabletop game, as the player-driven creativity and different context of a fight or social encounter or dungeon crawl or whatever else lifts it automatically out of a generic "template" or creation of different "assets" ala a video game.

But if we really want to talk about a game that feels like a linear, hand crafted journey with what I'm talking about here; then check out Northern Journey. But more on that later.

Potential Uses & Gameplay Enrichment
The concept of games having these sorts of things is not new; and in fact are already named Set-Pieces, which I embarrassingly only remember now most of the way through writing this. I think a real advantage of set pieces is being memorable and shaking up the status quo of a game.

Tabletop and imaginary elf-games also use setpieces too; while I said above I think they're more common here then in videogames and are thus less memorable and notable when they happen, they are still far and away better in the tabletop genre. Mostly because they interact directly with the freeform and problem-solving nature of gameplay in a tabletop game.

Most DMs/GMs have probably already had a couple of really good setpiece fights. Powerful monster chasing you down hallways too tight for it to turn around. Daring stagecoach or train robberies. Combat on or in burning and collapsing structures; or a slowly flooding room, etc. Dangerous terrain that changes during the course of the fight makes for more interesting fights, even in theater of the mind. Of course, the other advantage of tabletop roleplaying games is that fighting is not the only thing you can be doing; but as a simulation of a fantasy world or "adventure novel" these setpiece events don't stick out from the norm as they are usually the norm. The only time they would be incredibly jarring and, thus, capable of capturing the imagination the way I described above was if the majority of encounters in the game were simple, repetitive, with little fluff or deviation. Just empty rooms with combat encounters that end up being resolved by rolling dice a lot and ticking health down and experience up. In other words, the most boring type of campaign imaginable. Hence, the entire concept of these encounters requires a certain degree of sameness in the rest of the whole; and with the unlimited imagination space of tabletop games it kinda defeats the purpose.

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