When will you know that I’m the fucking Arch-mage?

I WILL SCARE THE EVERYTHING OUT OF YOU!
I WILL SCARE THE EVERYTHING OUT OF YOU!

I always like to keep in touch with the new releases and one of the properties I always have a pulse on is the Lord of the Rings related stuff.  For the most part, those hack ‘n slash games were decent!  I enjoyed the early ones that came out around the time of the original movie trilogy.  Not really sure what’s happening now with The Hobbit nonsense but I’m glad I caught Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.  I rail on AAA a ton in my blog posts but here’s one thing that I really appreciate about what they do.  Because of their ridiculous budgets, huge teams, and oftentimes familiar properties to work within, they have a safe space to do some crazy things.

In SoM, you play as a ranger named Talion who has a badass wraith helping him out.  The combat looks cool in that it follows the Batman Arkham series of timed attacked and counters against many enemies at once.  Sure, you get some really cool wraith abilities to scare the shit and influence your enemies or spy on them.  None of this is as interesting as what they’re doing with enemy encounters… completely dynamic enemy personalities that tie into the story.

Holy what?  More after the jump…

Watching the video will explain in detail what this system does.  In a nutshell this impressive enemy memory generation system will create unique personalities of major enemy characters in the game.  They will have a history and react accordingly to it.  Talion, the protagonist, can interact with said enemies and affect their histories.  The enemies will then be affected accordingly based on your actions.  Basically, enemies know who you are and what you’re doing to them and will respond in a way that makes sense.

The points that I mentioned in the opening paragraph (budget, people, and familiar property) all add up to create a safe way to make this system happen.  Budget allows for the massive amounts of R&D that it would take to make these dynamic systems believable.  At the end of the day, my guess is that it’s partially relying on some kind of numerical or branching structure to evaluate valid combinations of history and memory.  To make it believable means you’ll need the money to research and then the money to pay the huge swaths of people to make it happen from design to art and everything in between.  Finally, the fact that it is set in a familiar setting, Middle Earth, designers and players already have a place where they can apply their expectations to.  It already takes a lot of work to create worlds that can accommodate complex characters so to create a world that takes into account a malleable, randomized, and dynamic personality is ridiculous.  I’m not sure what kind of indie studio you have at that point.  Or you just got lucky and have an amazing property to work with (Telltale).

Uncross your arms when you're speaking to me.  I'm the arch-mage!
Uncross your arms when you’re speaking to me. I’m the arch-mage!

The fact that NPC’s actually remember what you do to them is extremely important to me.  You know how many hours I spent in Skyrim becoming the arch-mage?  Way too many.  Finally, after those many battles against dragons and grinding my way through those silly quests I become the greatest mage in all of Skyrim.  I had an awesome pad at The College of Winterhold and had the respect of the other people at the college.  And then I stroll into town and stumble across Arnold Schwarzenegger guards and other NPCs who have no idea who I am or what I’ve accomplished!  “Who do you think you are, the arch-mage?” they ask.  “You should join the mages’ college” they tell me.  I”M THE GODDAMN ARCH-MAGE YOU IGNORANT FUCKS!

There is a ton of possibility with this and I’m wondering why people didn’t pay closer attention to this earlier.  A lot of systems included reading player actions like how endings are chosen but these intermediate evaluations never seem to take place.  It might have been a complexity issue and I can understand that.  However, if you build a game where you earn titles and then have no one know what’s up.  Really?  The player always wants to feel validated for what they do in the game.  The ending is just one point in the game.  What Monolith Studios (people making Shadow) is doing with these dynamic relationships is pretty exciting.  I even like how they elevate it to relationship management with their added UI to see how enemies relate to each other.  I don’t think other games have such a networked mesh of interactions.

I do have my concerns, though.  Dynamism always comes at a risk because it’s possible to get something terrible.  What kinds of safeguards are there to minimize really dumb combinations?  Most games put emphasis on the ending, pooling all your actions and realizing them in one final and glorious moment (kind of like Mass Effect 3).  It’s all very controlled via a branching structure—the designers know and design for every combination (although they wanted you to fill in the blanks with ME3, which made everyone rage).  Will Shadow’s ending become lukewarm because of a bad combination of enemies I end up getting?  I’d still argue that a linear story has the most potential of being able to create the biggest emotional response (The Walking Dead).  So, how linear is this game?  Even if it doesn’t hugely affect the end of the game, having a system (NPCs) that is keenly aware of everything the player does sounds incredibly rewarding.

Finally, someone will know that I’m the arch-mage.