Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

21 July, 2012

Delving into Grimrock
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:40 PM
(This post has been viewed 6439 times.)

Hooray Steam sales! It gives me a convenient excuse to buy a game I've had my eye on for a while: Legend of Grimrock. My Storybricks co-conspirator Stéphane Bura had gotten the game near when it launched, and I made up my mind to take a look at the game when I got a chance. The Steam sale was that chance.

I'm a big fan of older RPGs, especially the ones based on grid movement. So, this last weekend I played through the entire game. Twice. So, yeah, I enjoyed it.

Let's take a look at some of the interesting design lessons we can take from this?

New mixes just fine with old

Legend of Grimrock is very obviously a game of the old mold. While playing, I was reminded of a list of puzzles from old RPG games I helped to compile. It still used the grid-based movement, which is viewed as outdated and old-fashioned. It also had things like limited ammo for ranged weapons and the requirement to find food and keep your characters from starving. But, the game had some modern touches, such as very nicely done 3D environments, dynamic lighting, etc. I felt the game combined the two aspects of old and new in a way that stayed true to both without much compromise. That was refreshing, and made it especially fun to play as it looked like a modern game but played like the older games I enjoyed.

It's also interesting to see how the difficulty setting affected things. On my first playthrough, the initial combats were tough but not too brutal. There were some tough fights, but I mostly reloaded due to my own stupidity rather than getting into a tough fight. Bumping up the difficulty, however, made the start much more difficult. I was reloading a lot as I got into some combats. However, even though there were some tough fights later, I noticed the fights generally getting easier as I went along in my second playthrough. If this was due to more optimized characters, more knowledge, or just the equipment curve, I'm not sure. But, it does go with that old-school feeling of mastering a game after a brutal beginning.

I thought it was also interesting how they offered different options to capture some of the older feel. You could choose to forgo the build-in automapping if you wanted to create your own maps by hand. (I was almost tempted to do this, because I had written a program to create maps in PyGame a little while ago, as I mentioned in that Might & Magic article I linked above.. But, the death of my laptop mean that I'd have to run the application on my desktop and swapping between the game window and mapping program. So, I opted for the lazy version. :)

On the nature of role-playing

As I also mentioned in that post on Might & Magic, I often use the names of my cats as party members. Yeah, it's a bit crazy, but who here isn't? :) One interesting consequence is that I tend to "role play" a bit with the characters. Not quite in the "speak in different voices and have party conflicts" way, but more in defining their personalities. When picking up food, I initially had one character named after a particularly selfish cat hold all the food. I had written a small story about him grabbing all the food first, which helped remind me which character was holding the food. (In real life, he'll often nab treats quick and growl at other cats you get too close to his treats.) While this isn't exactly the same as tabletop role-playing, it was interesting to notice myself doing that.

Generated vs. hand-crafted

It was really interesting playing a game that had what was obviously hand-crafted content. Everything was pretty much the same on my second play-through (although I was playing on a harder difficulty) with very small variations. But, the variety in equipment seemed very small compared to what I'm used to. Grimrock has only six types of weapons, and only 4-6 variations of each type. Add in a few non-magical "miscellaneous" weapons and you have a total of only 30 or so weapons. To an MMO designer, that sound like barely enough to test the newbie area with! :) But, the weapons all feel special when you get them, especially since you start with nothing. The upgrades come at a reasonable pace, and you notice each upgrade when it comes.

The levels are also set and crafted by hand. The map, secrets, and puzzles are the same in the second playthrough. This means the designer had a lot more fine control over things like pacing, upgrades, encounters, etc.

I couldn't help but compare Grimrock to The Fae's Wyrd, where everything was randomly generated. Equipment felt a lot more disposable, levels didn't always make sense, but the game was also intended to be played through multiple times. In the two months I worked on it, the game was still fun to play through for me. But, I could see how I was starting to "go through the motions" in Grimrock, especially through some of the mazes.

I think this is particularly interesting to consider, especially as the trend is toward more procedurally generated stuff. We saw a bit of this with MMOs, where the hand-crafted terrain of earlier games became generated automatically by tools, then edited by designers. People complained that the generated terrain felt more generic and less meaningful, mostly because it was easier to create more of it. I completely agree that the level design of The Fae's Wyrd is a lot less satisfying than other games, mostly because the level design has no meaning behind it other than to prevent the player from walking directly from the start to the exit of the level. In Grimrock, the level design is much more meaningful, as it sets the tone and pace for the player. Puzzles can have hints placed strategically before the puzzles without there being conflicts.

A small team

The core development team of the game was 4 people. The game itself wasn't one of those "developed over five years in spare time" deals, either. Pretty impressive for such a small group. Almost makes you think indie development is viable! :)

Overall, I really enjoyed the game. According to stories posted online, the next step is to release a map editor for the game for people to create their own content. Sounds like a fascinating addition to the game. I look forward to it. :)

What do you think? Have you played the game? Did you love it? What do you think about hand-crafted vs. generated content? Can generated content have meaning, or will it never be able to replace well-crafted content in games?

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7 Comments »

  1. I loved Grimlock, and the hand-crafted levels are a big part of why.

    For me, it was only fun for one playthrough and I wasn't interested in trying again. That's not a criticism though: The was well worth the cost for that playthrough. You could tell a lot of thought went into the level design - it wasn't just a random loot treadmill with ever harder foes, everything clearly *fit* together.

    With that being said, procedurally generated content absolutely has it's place, the developer just needs to recognize that the two are not interchangeable. For example, a game with "grimlock style" procedurally generated dungeons would be fine, if the game had lots of depth in other ways. Grimlock didn't have that added depth, so it had to come in with level design.

    Comment by Derrick — 21 July, 2012 @ 10:44 PM

  2. Grimrock is a lot like the "Eye of the Beholder" series which I loved dearly. There was a similar game with generated levels called "Dungeon Hack", a 3D/Eye of the Beholder style version of "Hack/NetHack".

    This should show the importance of story and handcrafted content.
    Because Dungeon Hack had way better and more interesting, challenging combat, was way better balanced and had more variety of mobs and traps, better graphics and all that.

    But it was BORING. I didn't play it much.

    Bioware always stresses the importance of story, and they are right in this regard. But Eye of the Beholder shows that you don't need fully voiced NPCs, cutscenes or videos. They would even get in the way of the game if overdone.

    With minimalist story telling game and story go hand in hand and make an otherwise minimal and bland story and a rather dull hack and slash a memorable experience!

    You mentioned puzzles and hints placed before them. It's just an example that a human hand in level design makes it much better. I don't think an even better random content generator could achieve that in the near or medium future. It takes of course a lot more time and effort.

    This said: Grimrock also starts with minimal story. But that's fine and okay, it sets the tone.

    Comment by Longasc — 22 July, 2012 @ 1:16 AM

  3. Grimlock has a lot of "story", though. Starting with absolutely nothing is part of it's appeal: You start out knowing nothing, and that makes every little bit you find, learn, or observe important. And this is what ties into the hand crafted level design. The player is starved for information, and everything he sees is potentially (probably!) relevant somehow.

    What is this place? What do these dreams mean? Who else has been here, and what happened to them?

    It's kind of like how, when designing a RPG, you'd consider how much magic you have. In a game with lots of magic (think traditional Dungeons and Dragons) a magic item, or a wizard, is uninteresting and normal. Not that this is bad, it just is what it is. Nobody is particularly impressed by your magic sword, and nobody cares about it's history. In a "realistic" type setting with very little magic, what there is is magical and amazing. In a world where nobody can simply elect to be invisible, a cloak of invisibility is unbridled awesome.

    Likewise, in a game where there is a story there, but it's hidden, unknown and mysterious. It gives the story value, and makes you much more interested in it. You need to seek it out, grasp for any little hints, all the while knowing you're not going to understand what's really going on until it's likely too late. You need to be active and engaged with it, rather than just noting it's presence while you play.

    Comment by Derrick — 22 July, 2012 @ 7:15 AM

  4. Derrick wrote:
    You need to seek [the story] out, grasp for any little hints, all the while knowing you're not going to understand what's really going on until it's likely too late.

    I disagree. I think that it's just as easy to ignore the story. You don't need to seek it out, you can ignore it just as well and address the combat and the challenges as they come. I think the less explicit story is probably more interesting to people who want the story. You could compare this to MMOs, where you have some people who read the quest text and try to find all the hidden references and allusions they can, while others just want to get a higher level and better loot faster than anyone else.

    So, for people who want story, having to go look for it does add an interesting element, but I disagree that a player needs to seek out the story.

    Comment by Psychochild — 22 July, 2012 @ 9:57 PM

  5. I love Grimrock too; there's so much nostalgia involved for me (hello Dungeon Master!) and the game is really true to its oldschool forefathers. it is also....quite huge! I am still not finished :D I loved the dream sequences first time I went to sleep....made me think about the potential of dungeon crawlers and how much more you could do with that very restricted genre. on the other hand it actually lives of being so in-explicit; I always felt DCs especially left so much to my imagination, the felt but unseen terror and anxious anticipation towards the next corner, that they became more immersive than many visually stunning RPGs with deep narratives could ever be.....interesting if you think about it. DCs certainly deliver on the first person experience and atmosphere which is what I truly appreciate.

    Comment by Syl — 23 July, 2012 @ 12:36 PM

  6. Funny -- I just finished Grimrock around the time this blog post went up.

    I found it enjoyable enough to finish, though by the end it was starting to feel like a bit of a slog. One thing I liked was the variety of the types of challenges provided. There were a few Doom 3-like "monster boxes" for excitement; there were a nice number of perception-oriented puzzles; and there were quite a few platformer-like action challenges that tested twitch-muscles. I really didn't enjoy that last type, personally, especially the one where you had to "catch" bolts from three heads that kept coming faster and faster. But that means it was probably good fun for those who are good at that form of play, and overall the variety in type and difficulty of challenges helped keep the game interesting.

    The one part where I felt more could have been done (without losing the sort of minimalist feel or requiring years more development time) was in the characters. I didn't feel the need for lots of BioWare-like story, but the RPG element felt oddly sparse. The skill progressions in particular felt so linear that this aspect of the game never really engaged me. Leveling up was just sort of OK. (As Dom Deluise put it in History of the World, Part I: "Nice... not exciting, but nice.")

    I'd have been more interested in a skill selection system that gave me more freedom to customize my character's abilities. Of course that would have led to players (like me) creating hybrid characters, which would have diluted the relatively pure fighter/rogue/mage archetypes. But I'm not sure retaining those types was really required; other than fighting actions, no distinction was made between classes.

    That's the other part of my gripe with the RPG model in Grimdark: other than some starting stats, a slower hunger rate for insectoids, and something about skulls for the Minotaur character I didn't choose, the existence of non-humanoid racial selection was largely wasted. For that matter, a character's sex was functionally irrelevant. Even the sound effects were the same for all races, classes, and sexes. Other than their class-based offensive abilities, characters never said anything, nor did they ever do anything, that made their race or class or sex distinctive and therefore interesting and meaningful.

    That didn't detract from the game, really. Grimdark is about beating up monsters and taking their stuff. But not doing more with race/sex/class choices made at the start of the game (assuming you took that option) did, I think, miss out on delivering useful value in a "roleplaying game." Assuming there's a sequel -- and I hope there will be one -- I look forward to character abilities and characteristics being better defined and having more impact on gameplay.

    All that said, it's a very good game if you miss old-school dungeon-crawlers, well worth the modest price.

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 1 August, 2012 @ 10:38 PM

  7. I also had my eye on Legend of Grimrock for a while and bought it during the Steam sale. For me, the best part about it was the nostalgia factor. It brought back memories of games like Wizardry and one of my favourites, Lands of Lore. It really blended the old-school, dungeon-crawling feel with shiny, new graphics. I enjoyed the puzzles in the game and the combat, for the most part. Plus those Goromorg statues creeped me right out.

    My biggest problem was the lack of story. It wasn't hard to miss a note or two which made what was going on unclear. There was also a lack of characterization for any of your party. I know many RPG games of this style treat the heroes as blank slates, but after playing so many in-depth, character driven games, I've now started to see this as a flaw. Even a little voice acting at the beginning of the game or a bit of banter between the characters would have gone a long way to make me care more about my party and the story. As it was, I found the game was a little too long and repetitive and I began to lose interest in the last few levels.

    Comment by Jasyla — 2 August, 2012 @ 9:54 PM

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