A Long Way from A to B

posted by Joel on 23 Jul 2010

The Sanctuary 17 that stands before you now has come a long way from the early concept sketches that began this whole process.

The idea of making a new, enhanced Night Stalker is actually one I’ve been bouncing around for many years, but it wasn’t until we were getting towards the end of Where We Remain that I finally sat down and began work in earnest on a design document for what would eventually become S17. Taken directly from the original design doc, here is the original Overview of the game:

The PLAYER, trapped in a city where killer ROBOTS roam the streets, must make their way through the dark night with only a LIGHT to guide them and a GUN to defend themselves. AMMO is scarce, but the player has the benefit of a SAFE ZONE they can fall back to. Robots are not the only danger, as SPIDERS and BATS can also prove a nuisance; a lethal one, at times.

Obviously, some elements still persist from this original description, but S17 has grown substantially from that early iteration. At first, players were confined to a single maze, and after killing enough robots, would be permitted to move on to the next one. It was very linear, very arcade, and just felt like Night Stalker+.

I started to focus on the themes I wanted to really develop, exploration and isolation, and how to provide a larger context for what exactly was going on in this world. The first big revision switched from discrete levels to a radial layout made up of three “rings” of rooms, where each room was its own distinct maze. Players began in the center, and the mazes would grow more difficult in layout and enemies as the player pushed further away.

The center of the maze became the home of the player’s band of survivors, which was running low on energy and in mortal peril. The player’s job was to head out into the robot-infested maze and bring back the energy needed to keep the survivors going. Once the central bunker was on a better footing, the player would then have to find the exit to the surface and secure a path for the survivors to reach it by reactivating the security terminals in each maze along the way. In this version, activating a security terminal in a room turned it into a safe area, destroying any existing robots and preventing further robots from spawning there.

While this version of the game certainly had more going on than the previous concept, it had two major problems.  First, the player used energy collected from the robots to do pretty much everything. Energy represented ammo, it powered the player items, it turned on the terminals, and it was required to improve the bunker situation for the survivors. Now, obviously energy management still plays a critical role in the final incarnation of S17, but at this stage, it was simply too vital. The player was stuck collecting energy for the sake of improving their own ability to collect energy. The second problem was that despite a more open maze, there was little impetus to explore other than to find the exit when the player was ready to finish the game. New items were acquired by taking energy back to the bunker, so the player had little reason to stray from the easier, central rooms, grinding out robots for energy.

All in all, not a very satisfying situation.

It was at that point that we decided to focus more on the idea of leaving the underground, rather than building up a central bunker. In turn, the story evolved into one of exile — the player was now cut off from their safe haven and thrust into the darkness. It was at this point that we shifted the map into a grid pattern. The player began at the bunker exit, and their endpoint was the exit to the surface hidden somewhere along the edge of the grid. This was getting closer to what I wanted, but at this point the grid was generated with a random start and end point, and connections between rooms formed a larger maze. (We used a standard depth-first maze generation algorithm for this. — Chris) This had the effect of eliminating any sense of choice in terms of exploration, and also felt incredibly tedious for the player when they had to backtrack.

It seemed like the best way to get the full sense of exploration I wanted was to open the maze up completely. Sticking with the grid system, we made sure that each room connected to all adjacent rooms to create a far more organic ability for players to poke around at their whim. Items were moved into the randomly placed “supply” rooms as a bonus for discovery. On the story side of things, I finished a fleshed-out version of just how the player got into this situation, which lead directly to the creation of the “facility” rooms and the entire framework of communication with Rusty.

This is a somewhat trimmed-down version of the many iterations the project took along the way, but you can see that things changed an awful lot from day one. Next time, I’ll talk a little more in-depth about certain elements that didn’t make the final cut and ended up on the editing room floor…