After a very long incubation period, my game Lies Under Ice will be coming out soon. The beta is currently open!
I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the game as I come into the home stretch, as well as answer any questions people might have. Note: I don’t think there are any plot spoilers below.
- After writing Trials of the Thief-Taker I was offered the opportunity to write another game for CoG, which was nice of them as the last one wasn’t a major hit. I then promptly got a job running a bookshop, then started a PhD, and then had a child (he’s two now!) which all got in the way somewhat. I sent in the initial concept for Lies Under Ice six years ago! For over a year now, it’s felt at least 80% done, but the last 20% is 80% of the work. Very pleased it’s now coming to fruition.
- I wanted to do a sci-fi political thriller. As far as influences go, I had been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and that inspired some of the initial concepts, and I’ve long been interested in dreams and I always enjoyed the more mind/reality-warping Phillip K Dick novels or books like Frank Herbert’s Santaroga Barrier, and so all of that made a mark. Game-wise, one of my favourite CoG works is Aaron A. Reed’s Hollywood Visionary where you have this big project to manage which can go lots of different ways, while you also have competing social and work relations to balance. It’s not quite “what if Hollywood Visionary was about building a moonbase?” but it was certainly an inspiration for the broad structure of the plot.
Structure, Mechanics, & Lessons Applied
- I tried to learn some lessons from Thief-Taker. I suspect after Lies, I’ll have a new set of lessons. In Thief-Taker there are a lot of additional scenes that only trigger when certain conditions have met. This make the game very replayable, but people found it too short and a part of that was that it was too easy to end chapters early if some conditions weren’t met. In Lies, I used a lot more parallel structures, as well as more set-piece scenes with a lot of internal variation.
- Instead of scene that may or may not happen but plays the same each time it does happen, you’re more likely to get one of two or three parallel scenes, or a bespoke mix of about 6 out of 13 scenes based on what you built, or a scene that always occurs but which can be radically different on each playthrough. The upshot is, the average play-length is twice as long but the level of autonomy is still very high.
- Even considering the greater length, it shouldn’t feel railroaded. Thief-Taker was written so you could roleplay as an upstanding paragon of justice or a conniving crook or any shade in between. I wanted Lies to have a similar level of freedom of personality, but have a lot more hard forking decisions that greatly change the state of the world.
- The way Lies mainly accomplishes this is through base building (what you build and when has a big impact on what scenes occur), different political backgrounds (there are three geopolitical factions that you can pick from with characters and plots unique to each), as well dozens of the expected plot-driven choices with various outcomes (death, exile, promotion, destruction, creation etc.)
- In Thief-Taker there’s a lot of invisible variation: skill checks often have gradations of success with 3-5 different outcomes. But that’s not visible to most players, especially if they only play once, so it was often writing time wasted. I still wanted to have ways to mitigate failures and reward cumulative choices, so in Lies your skills always improve a little if you fail with them, and often additional factors can impact a check. (There are over 80 times in Lies where some additional factor can modify a stat check, and these modifying factors are always communicated to the player.)
- Friendships, romance, and reputation are all big parts of most CoG games. In Thief-Taker I took an unusual and unpopular approach to the romance which I wrote about in this blog post about NPC agency here. In that game, by the time you were offered each romance, the preconditions you needed to have were already checked: you either were the person the RO was looking for or you weren’t. I thought that was less slimy than the “change who I am to entice them” or “give them stuff until they like me” models that are common in games. However, no one liked it. Many people didn’t even realise there were romance options in the game, they were so hard to get. So for Lies I knew I had to take a different approach.
- Coming at it from another angle, I made getting into a relationship in Lies very straightforward, but (respecting NPC agency), I allowed the NPCs (as well as the player) to end things if they really weren’t working out. And if you split up, there’ll be a chance to date someone else in the future. Romance isn’t a huge part of the game, but the optional choices of partner are weaved through: there was a comment I got from Thief-Taker, that if you marry Lady Darlington you don’t see a lot of her afterwards, so I took that to heart. Everyone you could date is an integral part of the game the whole way through.
- Beyond relationships, most of the main characters are linked to different factions in the game. Your political opponent in the mid-game can be one of six characters, all depending on which factions you’ve favoured.
Well I wrote more than I intended here and I had more to say! First I am going to go attend to the latest test reports… but maybe later I will talk about some of the actual content that I’m excited about: the big science fiction ideas, and the cast of characters!