Thursday, October 24, 2013

Game Translation: Project Zero

The Project Zero series (aka Fatal Frame) are survival horrors which focus on therather terrible situation of having to perform an awful ritual to prevent some great catastrophe from occuring. Unfortunately in each incarnation such a ritual was improperly performed and so the catastrophe did happen. You play a poor young woman who stumbles into this situation. In the first game you are a girl looking for her brother who disappeared on a paranormal investigation. In the second game you are one of a pair of identical twin sisters whose twin starts to behave strangely before disappearing during the course of the game. In the third game you are a depressed young woman whose boyfriend died in a car accident while she was driving.

The game revolves around one primary mechanic. You can't fight back. You can't hide. You can only sometimes run as the doors will often seal around you when setpiece ghosts attack. What you can do, however, is use a mystical device called a Camera Obscura which is capable of injuring (or at least dissipating) the ghosts which you photograph. There are a few ghosts who are immune, at least until the final battle, but you can normally rely on your old trusty camera to see you through. You can even take pictures of ghost-touched doors or puzzles to get hints of what to do or where to go next.

There are puzzles in the game which are a little odd but the spiritual aspect to the game means they still make sense. Yes, you may need to arrange dolls on a particular platform to get through a door but that might be a religious observance backed by hidden mechanisms OR it could be a genuine appeasement to the ghosts which gets you pass. Either way, it works.

There are a fair few notes written by the dead which can be found about the place. Some are written by people before they died. Sometimes it's indicated that the notes were written after death. There are also ghost-stones which provide short audio logs that give a glimpse into the ghost's thoughts now that they are dead.

The main problem you will face in attempting to translate this videogame into the roleplaying medium is that there are few pen and paper games that can accurately model the use of the camera obscura. While you could simply provide the PC with the object, say that it deals a certain damage dice and go from there, it doesn't really capture the spirit of the thing. After all, you'd want the combat to be a little more interesting than "Roll Attack, now Damage, roll Attack, now Damage" to represent whether they take a picture of the ghost and how close the ghost gets before being pushed aside. It would also be  problematic to model the ghost's approach as in the game you can avoid damage by attacking. Having the ghost and the PC sit there attacking each other until one is whittled away to nothing isn't very fitting.

"I'm gonna tickle you...."
What you could do is only give the ghost an attack when the PC misses. In other words, if Mary misses her attack roll using the camera, the ghost can then get close enough to attack in turn. Otherwise the  ghost is repelled and must await an opening as it slowly glides forward again. This raises the tension a bit with the attack rolls as you now really don't want to miss but it doesn't make the damage roll any more fulfilling. So get rid of it. You could just have the camera deal a certain amount of damage, say, 1 point. Both the PC and the ghosts each have a certain amount of hit points. Most ghosts only deal 1 hit point worth of damage when they touch you but others deal more. Some will even instantly kill a PC though you need to be sure that the player gets clues of that level of danger beforehand. This technique reduces the number of die rolls, speeds up combat, and increases focus on the attack roll as it's really your attack / damage / dodge all in one. Now you *really* don't want to roll low.

So mechanically this game would be rather simple. In fact, you could possibly get away without skill rolls and simply assume the PC's actions succeed if it's possible, fail if it isn't and then build on the natural consequences of that. Perhaps simply leaving those very dangerous skill rolls to utter chance if a roll is needed at all.

As an example, roll 1d20. If you get a 10 or higher, you pass. Expressing decision making through gameplay can be a tricky thing outside of social situations. We're so used to having to roll for anything that might fail we forget that the consequences of success can be just as interesting. As an example, being able to climb a chain link fence should generally not be in any doubt. What you will find on the other side most assuredly is. If the player has to decide whether hopping the fence or approaching the gate is the best bet, it shifts the emphasis from the dice - "Can I climb it?" to the decision "Should I climb it?". When they clamber over the fence and are immediately set upon by a guard dog it adds extra weight to that decision than if the sudden guard dog was due to a failed stealth roll.

Of course the Game Master has to take care to not appear arbitrary. If every situation would bring the same result or, alternatively, the Game Master has no idea of the consequences until the player has made their decision, then the results become rather arbitrary and it loses some of its mystique.

Naturally in your plotting phase you will also need to create some terrible ritual which involves cruel actions against vulnerable innocents who are usually willing participants. You will also need to figure out what the awful consequences of any failures in that ritual actually were and what horrible thing the PCs may need to do to put it all right. Sacrifice a loved one? Sacrifice oneself to a fate worse than death? Force a victim back into their graves? It's this final gut wrenching moment when you realise that the best thing you can do is to duplicate the horrors of the past that really twist the knife in these games.

Anyway, a campaign based around the Project Zero series, or including elements of it, should appeal to Explorers who will get a real kick out of moving through such an eerie location, checking through each drawer for new notes and wondering what new situation is around the next corner.

Investigators will love the mystery and will eagerly put together all of the clues to try to piece together an understanding of what happened in the past, who was to blame, and what needs to be done to repair the situation.

Tacticians might not like how vulnerable they are and how difficult it is to make forward planning work as so much of the situation is both out of their hands and difficult to predict.

Action Heroes will find the lack of action to be more than a little frustrating. The combats will be simplified. At best they might have a chase scene to indulge in.

Communicators will enjoy the character development opportunities but will find the lack of opportunity to manipulate, politic and develop relationships to be a little dull.

If you want to check out the trailer, you can find it here. If you want to read up on the TV Tropes you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Beyond: Two Souls,  Gears of War, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, The Cat Lady, Outlast or Dishonoured. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.

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