Geek Job Guru: Gained In Transition


I’d like to talk to you about “Loren, the Amazon Princess.”

You may think I’m talking about a Xena Ripoff, and admittedly Loren the character has a bit of a Lawless appearance if you get my drift. But Loren herself is not a TV character or a movie character, or the titular heroine of an Asylum film. She’s a character in the indie game that bears her name and title.

Now admittedly a game called “Loren, The Amazon Princess” isn’t a game whose title inspires confidence as it seems generic to say the least, and at worst like a bad film title (possibly of an adult nature). As I played the game all the way through, I would like to report that it is A) good, B) Most other titles would have actually been inappropriate as it is about her, and C) it’s a game worth analyzing for it’s repercussions to gaming – and thus possibly your career.

At first the game seems to be a slightly mismathed fusion of Visual Novel games and classic party-of-characters RPG. One has both dialogue choices and character-based battles with assorted creatures in a somewhat familiar fantasy world. So you have the romance and choose-your-own path plots of a game, the point-and-click iconic battles that we’re familiar with from various RPGs, and a visual novel look.

However in playing it, it began getting me thinking. As I got into it (and past some admittedly purple dialogue into the meat of the game), I realized that this game, by taking so many elements and combining them was not quite a Chimera, but something almost . . . transitory. A step to somewhere else.

It had many virtues:

  • The plot, though at time drawing on plenty of fantasy tropes, did deliver quite well, including romance, surprises, options, and multiple endings. At least one set of choices radically affected the RPG game play elements in a crucial scene.
  • The class system built on the standard RPG trinity of mage-warrior-thief. Every character was one “base” class plus one “personal class.” Warrior-gladiator, mage-elementalist, thief-assasin, etc. Each character was thus unique and familiar, and felt “appropriate.”
  • The battles were all about status effects and strategy and combining efforts, and got into some deligthful complexities. It wasn’t just Hit Until Die.
  • It plays fast and efficiently without a bunch of fancy 3D graphics – because said fusion didn’t need them.
  • Multiple difficulty levels, challenges – and even unlocking a no-battle story mode. The fusion gave me options.

Looking at these parts, I felt like I saw the first step towards some other type of game (much as I felt about Long Live The Queen, but even moreso). Around the familiar parts was something, and maybe we’d see a future game genre that this novel-RPG was a step towards, because “Loren” did this damned well.

This is why Indie Games Are Important.  They can be transitions.

The Transitionals, Transformationals, and Unusuals

A lot of Indie games are a bit like this really. A simple look of recent releases is telling:

  • * The aforementioned Long Live The Queen mixes RPG stats and a branching storyline to let you raise, and in most cases accidentally kill an anime princess in a colorful world that’s like Game Of Thrones learned how to take a Shower.
  • Starbound, the Terraria-influenced space adventure built on procedurally generated worlds, retro looks, crafting games, and more to make a game where the universe is randomly made – and you can farm, mine, build, and more.  It’s a bit of everything.
  • Eldritch merged a FPS, puzzle dungeon, procedural generation, and HP Lovecraft into one game.
  • The Orcs Must Die series and Dungeon Defenders created Tower Defense 3rd Party RPGs.

These are just things I played. As I look through other independent game titles there’s many things that are “this plus this” or “This, this and this”. Somewhere in these combinations is lurking not just the elements, but I think at times a new game that we didn’t have words for as we only had words for the parts.

Frankly, as a gamer, I am enthused about this because I like games. I’m also enthused as Shoot Bros II: Shooting More Pros In a Race Car is sort of wearing on me. Hell the last big games that felt innovative to me was Borderlands 2 (which franklyI think contained an experimental spirit), and Saints Row IV which pretty much was what would happen if a young Mel Brooks slammed a sports drink and made a game to parody other games. Mostly the gaming I see is starting to bore me as it’s samey.

Indie games seem promising to create entire new genres of games. Fortunately the environment exists for these “transitory” games to come into being.

Safe Isn’t Safe

As I and others have decried here and elsewhere, a lot of media companies take it safe. It’s why too many films look alike and why too many games look alike. There’s not room for innovation in safety, and even though monocultures collapse, most people seem to think it won’t get to them.

It probably won’t. It’ll just get to us.

Thus I don’t look to big game companies for innovation any more. Oh, it happens – see my above comments. But I don’t see it as a norm or even a reasonably prominent trend. I might even get bored with Borderlands . . . around game 4 or 5.

But Indie games give more room to experiment, and it’s there we can look to see new forms of game to emerge.

This is why something like Loren is important. Slightly disjointed, slightly imperfect, it was still a ride into something that felt right, something new, the beginning of a kind of game we could only describe right now in parts – RPG visual novel. Something where the sequel or the spiritual sequel could well be a new kind of game.

(And indeed, I see other games that make me think this is part of a trend that will birth something).

Loren wouldn’t have gotten made by a big studio. Someday it may inspire big studios (look how many RPGs adopted datesim elements), but I can’t see one actually going “yes, this will sell four million copies, and it has a hot half-elf anyway.” But it could exist due to Indie games.

A scan through upcoming indie games on steam or online will point you to lots of things (admittedly, many are based on Minecraft right now) that speak to something new being born.

Oh some of these ideas may birth monsters, but that’s also important.

A Chance To Fail Gloriously

But what if I hadn’t enjoyed the game? What if it was bad? That would actually have been good as I would have had evidence that these fused elements did not add up to an effective new game, or that it was done wrong. I’d have had a very good bad example.

This is the flipside of indie gaming – a chance for people to fail in their experiments so we can learn from them. We can dissect the failures, people can try again faster, or modders and others might just save a game from complete crapitude. We need a chance to see why some evolutionary offshoots weren’t viable, and you can’t always see that in the Big Titles – because even if they do manage to create an educational failure, that may be obscured by marketing, by the assumption it’s just big money and bad ideas, or us laughing at them.

We need transition games to see what’s going on and where. I can rather imagine that as gaming keeps being its crazy industry self, these findings will be more and more valuable. Someone’s going to get sick of playing the same old game after awhile . . . and blow us away.

Just Me And My Princess

Indie games are necessary now for a chance to see new genres emerge and succeed – or die – so we can learn from them. It’s not just risks here or there or on subject matter, but on whole new kinds of games that can be taken. I truly think this is something to appreciate – even in failures.

Realizing this, I can think a better dialogue can be made among gaming and creators. It an allow us to really learn together. When I see things like the mod community in Starbound I’m hopeful that more can come.

How hopefuly? I wrote a column because of one. Loren and my character may never have gotten involved in the game (she wasn’t my character’s type, but he did meet someone very nice), but she did steal my heart.

Also this is me. Do you know how much you have to do to get me to pony up $20 for an indie game? Loren, you were worth it.

Next game, call me, maybe?

– Steven Savage