Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The RPG Play Of: Naissance (Video Game)

I just played through NaissancE, a French video game. The first part of this reviews the game. The second discusses it with regards to RPG-play and has spoilers.

I got NaissancE as a STEAM recommendation--maybe because I liked The Stanley Parable? I'm not sure.

NaissancE is a first-person platformer which casts you as an unnamed female who begins in some kind of installation and then falls through the floor into a vast structure of unknown origin and purpose. The game is mostly done in black and white and the terrain seems to be largely composed of blocks--but it is in places, detailed and intricate. It is beautiful. It's big.

As a platformer, there are numerous sequences of precision jumping, leaping, and falling to your death. There is nothing to get: no weapons, and more or less, no monsters. You move from one majestic series of chambers to another, exploring, solving puzzles, and ... jumping and falling.

The game is very  spare with character and story--indications of what is happening are few and far between. There are titles to various sections that give you some clues as to what you might do there--but there is nothing to read, no voice-work, and so on. It is you, the vast, vast environment, and ... that's it. Well, except for the sound work which is every bit as evocative and dramatic as the visuals.

NaissancE does meticulous things with light and shadow: in many ways the game is an exercise in art-direction more than anything else. The puzzles were generally straightforward with only a few that had me scratching my head (I got through it without a walkthrough so I'm not sure whether a walkthrough exists or not). The game creators have made some of it overly frustrating and some some of it downright cruel--but on the whole, with breaks in between, I moved along at a reasonable rate.

The designers made several specific choices which seem designed to increase the pressure-level. First, and most unusually, there is a breathing mechanic that, when you run, forces you to press the left mouse button at certain intervals (a gasping noise and a circle on the screen tell you when) or else your vision goes dim and you (maybe) pass out? It's questionable: I can see how they said "In NaissancE you'll be doing a LOT of running so let's make running a kind of game/control-point."

On the other hand, the gasping noise is annoying and creates a heightened sense of anxiety that wasn't welcome and, in many circumstances of just traversing a big-ass landscape, adds interaction where it isn't wanted or needed. It also seems like you have to let up on the run-key in order to use the jump-key: this makes precision running-and-jumping puzzles extra hard for no very good reason.

Finally, the game utilizes save-points and several are pretty distant. This means you can get through something tough ... fall off a ledge ... and have to do it all over again. Fortunately their save-points are pretty well thought through so it's not horrible--but it means you'll suffer a lot of repetition and, since I couldn't tell when it was saving, I often wasn't sure when I'd reached a "safe zone" for having completed a task.

NaissancE is hurt by its lack of character and story: it shows you awesome landscapes but, devoid of any but the simplest narrative, it boils down to a puzzle / platformer. If you accept that reduction, then the vast periods of exploration seem a lot less defensible: why run around looking at things if nothing ever comes of it?

Perhaps the designers would say it's a work of art--meant to be experienced as much as played? I can kind of buy that given the artistic quality of NaissancE--but it's a much tougher sell for me. I'll also note that as a Steam recommendation it was on target. I am the guy they wanted to sell to: I don't want my money back. I wouldn't even give it a bad review. I will say this, if I'd been told that there was never any explanation for anything? I probably wouldn't have bought it save for a 1-2 USD sale-price (I stopped playing Limbo, a similarly beautiful game, when I learned there was no story-exposition at the end).

One of the things that drove me through NaissancE was wanting to see what was under the hood--and I finished it and I still don't know.

Let's talk about the RPG Potential ...

The RPG Play of NaissancE
NaissancE, as an RPG, would lack the first-person visual impact and (probably) the sound. Of course it's possible the GM could show evocative artwork and play the sound-track (and this is assuming, maybe, the game exists and the players can be treated to the pictures or something)--but mostly, for real-world traditional tabletop RPG, the GM would need to narrate the descriptions of vast halls, sheer drops, and light and dark, and so on.

And the GM would have to do it efficiently: long descriptions of complicated environments are not the friend of face-to-face gaming. It's also not clear what the mechanical focus would be. NaissancE isn't too far from a traditional dungeon if it were devoid of treasure and monsters: instead of Traps checks, you'd make your acrobatics rolls.

If the game provided a more interactive mechanic for that (say a success point pool that would dwindle as you failed rolls, increasing the pressure--and maybe some way to recover them?) then it might be entertaining provided the length of play was dramatically shortened and you only had to cover like 3-7 "levels / challenges" instead of the game's approximately 38+.

For the video experience the designers added the running mechanic and the save-point mechanic to (probably) increase tension and immersion (the running mechanic does the opposite for me--but perhaps they and their playtesters felt otherwise?). For an RPG-version, you wouldn't do the same thing (there is no reason to have a specific running mechanic) but you might want to use the same pool of success-points (or whatever) for perception rolls to see better paths or safer ways to overcome something (or to solve a puzzle). Thus, the player might interact with large tracts of space by declaring they move through carefully (better spot-check) or blaze through rapidly (possibly draining points)--but you'd need some reason for them to want to hurry.

Reality doesn't need a reason: you get bored. This ain't great--and would be murder for a tabletop game where, if you intentionally bore me, it's kind of an insult (say the GM had a timer and if I said "I go slow" the GM would put 90 seconds on the clock and we'd wait that out--I'd be like "Eh ... the story here better be fuckin' awesome").

So you'd want to have other touch-points for player-mechanical interaction or just ditch that altogether.

The problem at the bottom of NaissancE is that there is no story. I saw a YouTube comment that suggested maybe they're making another game and it might explain more? Ehh ... okay. But it better get awesome reviews or I'm not buying it. I stopped playing the similarly beautiful and exquisitely designed LIMBO when I reached a frustrating puzzle and learned online the end of the game held no revelations. I was playing for that content--knowing it wasn't there killed my motivation.

I'd guess that the NaissancE designers meant their game to be experienced as art and would defend it on that ground--and they can: one of my drivers for finishing NaissancE was to see what the next environment looked like--but it's a poor motivator compared to a great or shocking story. If you told me there was nothing at the end-screen but credits? I might not have bought it.

In an RPG, this would be easy to fix (and, indeed, the genius of Portal, the best video-game ever, IMO, was that it was a Grade-A puzzle game that, by the time it stunned me with its brilliant character, an end-song I'd put on my play-list and quote at work, and machine gun turrets I felt sorry for, needed letters above A just to grade it with). In a tabletop RPG, extra story doesn't require any extra sound or art-direction--it just needs a few good ideas.

A Note: Falling Mechanics
I remember someone on an RPG website (I believe The Forge--but am uncertain if this was the origin, where I picked it up, or somewhere else) discussing the inclusion of 'Drowning and Falling' rules in traditional tabletop RPGs. My memory is that they were having a laugh at games that included those rules for "no reason" (other than, perhaps, unthinking tradition?). After all, how often did that come up? Couldn't the GM just hand-wave it? Did the inclusion of mechanics indicate that, maybe, drowning and falling actually were pretty darn important--regardless of what you might naively assume? Should the GM work a drowning or falling sequence into every game?

No one was sure.

I'll break it to you: the reason those rules were included was because if it ever, ever comes up, it's kind of nice to have those rules. Also: bad falling rules can warp the game in ways you might not like--and while it's easy to say if you fall off a cliff, you die, what happens if your tough guy jumps off a 3-story building? That's a much harder call--and it's entirely possible that'll come up in play. If your mechanics don't give you at least some guidance, the game designer isn't doing the players and GM any favors.

Those rules are there because they are good things to include.

While there's not (really) water in NaissancE, you do, actually, fall a lot. Some falls hurt you. Some kill you (you have no health bar so if you are hurt, it's temporary). If you were going to run NaissancE as an RPG, you'd really want falling rules.

The idea of a character lost in a vast installation that plays with time, space, gravity, and so on, is, in fact, pretty compelling. There are sequences in the game that I would actually steal if I were going to run it--or something like it. The sense of desertion and abandonment could be conjured up--but I'd want more characters of some sort.

I'm reminded of the Cube movies where groups of people are brought together in an alien and hostile environment. NaissancE lacks the hostility of Cube (which was actively trying to kill you) but adds a grandeur the movies didn't have. The game as delivered wouldn't make a great RPG--but with a few tweaks it certainly could.

* You can download Drowning and Falling, the RPG, here.


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