One of my favorite games of the last few years was SteamBirds, a little turn-based game that is available on several mobile platforms, and that I personally played on Chrome. The developers of that title are also hard at work on Road Not Taken, a puzzler that is due to be released on the PlayStation 4, PS Vita, PC and Mac. While the game mechanics are significantly different, the game’s visual style and theming make me think about Don’t Starve, an indie fave of 2013 that garnered a strong following. The developers, Spry Fox, have posted a blog entry today, mostly discussing how they are bringing a tangible sense of progression to an otherwise fairly lightweight title. The commentary is interesting, but I have a few concerns about where this game is heading and how it will play out in the market that exists when it launches.
The developers have been concerned that, while the game offers a significant amount of depth, play-testers are not delving that deep. Perhaps they are misled into believing that the game’s 2D puzzle-oriented presentation layer is all there is to the title. While there is a large inventory of monsters that can be encountered in the game, and an equal number of weapons and tools that can be had if players figure out how the crafting system works, this wide variety of content will be for naught if the developers cannot figure out how to get at least a sample of it exposed directly; so that players are encouraged to go looking for more. The devs recognize this and are making efforts to ensure their content does not go to waste.
The team has come up with a few approaches, one of which is by giving the player a “Book of Secrets” at the game’s outset. The book is essentially a character log, if you will, that will represent your progress towards various mission paths. Right now, the book measures and displays your years of living, with a max lifespan of 15 years. Each mission consumes one year of life, so you will need to select your campaign missions carefully. The Book also holds any crafting recipes you have learned. You start the game knowing two. A major purpose of the Book of Life is to communicate the importance of crafting at the game’s outset. Players should be able to generate some fairly significant differences in their playthroughs, depending on how wildly unique your crafting efforts become.
One thing that concerns me is the game’s tone. It has high potential to be a bit depressing, as your character has a limited lifespan and you will always be managing, in someway, this limitation. The game is marketed as, at least partially, being a game about loss. Two of last year’s most popular non-publisher released titles were Don’t Starve and Papers, Please, both of which I have played, both of which were great fun for me. But I surveyed many gamer friends, podcast co-hosts, and others whom I would count among the hardcore indie crowd, and many of them had not played those two games. The most frequent reason given was that they appeared too depressing. I am a bit worried that Road Not Taken is heading down that same path. Some gamers are becoming less endeared to lightweight games that appear to be pretentious and carry heavy-weight messages.
The Comic Book industry has struggled with trying to evolve away from the “that is dark, so it has to all be dark” comics mantra that began with the adult and lonely themes of Frank Miller’s Batman stories of the late 1980s. There is a sense of goth- or depression-fatigue out there in the body of gamers that have been big supporters of independent game developers. There is not anything that can be done about that for Road Not Taken. I guess I just hope that there is more emphasis on puzzling than on pulling me through a siphon of how to deal with death and loss. We are keeping our eye on this one. But this might be one of those games that could benefit from a concentration on strong game mechanics and a little less with the story piece. Please feel free to check out the gameplay mechanics video below and then sound off! in the Comments below.