It's been a weird time in the world, to put it mildly. Between the political climate, a global pandemic, and the ongoing day to day conflicts that drive our lives, the world has seemed a bit off kilter lately. One of the things that has kept me both stable emotionally and in touch with the global community has been Video Games.
Games have always been a relatively 'safe space' for me personally, but I believe the pandemic really opened a lot of eyes to their powerful draw. When you have nothing to do but sit around, playing a game becomes an almost necessity to stay sane and productive. I also believe it did a lot to show the power of games to bring together our disparate communities: Just look at the rise of Among Us and it's use by AOC to promote the get out the vote message.
Like any indie game developer, I often have a lot of ideas and not enough time to bring them to fruition. That was definitely the case up until the pandemic struck... I was also in the middle of looking for new day-time employment, and suddenly found myself in the opposite position: plenty of time on my hands and no idea what to do with it. Due to the ever present concerns of daily life, I wasn't feeling particularly inspired at the time, too focused on finding the right balance between trying to build a portfolio that would land a corporate job and preserving the fun and joy I find in programming without getting burned out by trying to do too much. So, I did what any reasonable-minded individual would do when faced with overwhelming concerns... I took a 'day off' and played a video game.
To be honest, I hadn't been playing games for quite some time. Though I am always mentally involved in game design on some level, it has honestly been a minute since I've sat down and had the time to really escape into a game. Two kids doesn't help :)
That day, however, the whole family had randomly gotten a break from online learning and the girls were being granted a 'movie day' to relax, so I felt ok taking a little time to explore this nifty Game Pass thing I had bought for the Xbox One over a year ago and had yet to try other than downloading a lot of games I never opened. I didn't have any particular game in mind, and at the time the first thing that popped up was a new title: Yes, Your Grace.
I'd heard of the game, knew it was a Kickstarter that had seemed to die off and then actually come through, though I had also heard some backers were still a bit disappointed with the end result, despite the good reviews the game had gotten. Because of that, I was a little hesitant, but I'd also heard you could finish the game in the course of a day, and that was honestly the deciding point, I only had the day, why not try it?
I'm not going to spend too much time on the actual play of Yes, Your Grace, even though I ended up both agreeing and disagreeing with the disappointed take. Its a really good game, and I highly recommend people play it. The best part is the story, so if you like a story rich game, you will most likely enjoy it.
What is important is how playing made me feel... and what it inspired. I've listened to a podcast (above) where Rafal Bryks, lead developer of Yes, Your Grace, discussed how his own inspiration came from watching an episode of Game of Thrones, and seeing the interplay between the political drama and the figurehead of the King on his throne. After playing through the first half-hour of the game, I began to get a similar feeling. There was something intriguing here, the way the story was broken up into the week cycle, the way it began with a nice cold open that trusted the player to catch up on the dynamics already at play, the way the story focused on the characters and your relationship with them, not necessarily on any high level 'beat the bad guy' trope, but still keeping that idea fully present and integrated into the story without it being the dominant driver. I really wanted, almost needed, to see how everything played out for the family, especially my youngest daughter... my little silly-pickle.
It probably took me a little longer than most, as I can be a bit of a save scummer, but I was able to finish Yes, Your Grace in under a day. For the most part, that is exactly how long it should have been, and that's what the story was built to support. Still, there were quite a few places in the gameplay design and the story where I felt like... that's a really good start... but I could make that just a little bit better, a little more thematically interesting to me. I want to be clear that I don't say this as a slight on Rafal or his team, I think they did a great job. I say that as a call out to other devs that it is ok to be inspired by other people, and to want to innovate and play off of someone else's foundation. We are a bit hard on 'cloning' these days, but imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery.
That being said, I wasn't inspired to make a clone of Yes, Your Grace. There were definitely aspects I wanted to carry over, but honestly what struck me most was how the plot perfectly lined up with an IP I had been struggling with for years. Brandon Sanderson talks about moments like these in his youtube talk on how he came up with Mistborn (seen below): Moments when you as a designer or author are struck by how well two seemingly completely different ideas suddenly match up and work well together.
I've always been into fantasy epics like those written by Brandon. My favorite author remains Robert Jordan for first creating the 'Wheel of Time' series, and interestingly Brandon was the person brought in to finish the series after Jordan's untimely death.
The thing I think Brandon does amazingly well is to tie his plots together with a well-though out and deep magic system, so that the two are so intimately connected that trying to get to the end of the plot naturally forces you to dive deep into the lore of the magic.
As a writer / programmer, I've always wanted to combine that narrative idea with interesting gameplay mechanics. For the last year or two, floating around in my head has been an idea for a game that features your classic 'rise from obscurity to become king' trope that would allow the player to journey from being a minor leader of a small clan of people and, somewhat Civilization style, build up the clan into a epic empire. The clan, however, is filled with people that have magical powers and abilities, so part of the problem for the Player would be: how do they go about getting them all in line, especially when faced with a clan member that has the power to wipe out the entire clan if handled improperly. To combat this, the Player has been gifted the Crown, an Ancient Artifact that levels the playing field by giving the player a variety of abilities that emulate or overwhelm the powers clan members can hold.
For an idea like that, there's inherently a lot of variability that could go into the design, and I had been struggling in getting the plot structure to match up with the wide possibility space engendered by the magical element system. I wanted a focus on dialogued interaction, where you could negotiate and barter for peace without getting into physical combat, but I still wanted there to be the potential that things could erupt and as the King figure you might need to step down from the thrown and put hands on people to show them who's boss.
I also believe that a good story needs to have a compelling beginning that leads to a naturally dramatic ending, and most of the examples I had for the style of game I was thinking were basically too open-ended to work. Games like Dead-Cells, Risk of Rain, Terraria, 20XX or 30XX: They all featured elements of the magic / combat system I wanted to employ, but while some were more narratively focused than the others, they all had a bit of an open-ended close to the story where you just progressively got stronger until you could beat the last bad guy, and that was game over.
Playing through Yes, Your Grace, what really got to me was the way the narrative was so well structured systemically, and that with a slight twist to the system, I could totally have the best of both worlds. That slight twist was to simply change the week system to a weekly day / night system, where during the day you could complete your Kingly Activities: handle petitioners and your people, play politics with other leaders, call for allies or attack enemies, and interact with your family and friends to both preserve and build on those relationships. During the night, we could switch to full platformer mode, where the focus is now on building your character's abilities and skills so that come the next day, they will be ready to face any new obstacles they might encounter.
It was that simple twist that let several ideas I'd been working on coalesce into a new fully formed IP: The Tribes of Tis'te. At it's most basic level, Tribes is definitely a spiritual successor to some of the ideas given birth in Yes, Your Grace. However, as it has grown, it has completely taken on a life of its own.
In Tribes, you will begin your journey as one of the Twelve Chiefs that rule the nation of Tis'te. For reasons both open to history and shrouded in mystery, the White Tower, seat of the High King of Tis'te, has lain empty for hundreds of years. The people of the Tis'te are extremely proud and loyal to their Tribe, and over time the divisions between the Tribes have grown strained and poised to fray. To add to that, the potential for a national disaster hangs over the heads of those in positions of leadership, as one false step could throw off the careful balance of power amongst the Towers that protect the entire land from the power of the Tempest. If a Tribe cannot find the Fyre to power their Tower, they leave the entire nation vulnerable. As the Chief of the Stonewall Tribe, you are privy to private information that in a few years time, there will be a Storm guaranteed to level your Tower and the entire Nation unless you are able to gather the immense amount of Fyre that will be needed to power the Tower's defenses.
This setting is ripe with potential for the Player to interact with and play off of, with a lot of room for variability and character builds. However, it also gives a clear cut narrative structure, from beginning to end. We start at a specific time for the Player, where they are given the information about the devastation to come and charged to protect their people. We end at the coming of the storm, where we see if the Player has been able to live up to their promise and earned the level of Fyre necessary.
This was the key element that playing through Yes, Your Grace gave to me, an impressive gameplay structure that told a cohesive story from beginning to end, while still possessing the potential to add a lot of possibilities within the mechanical space afforded by the plot. The player would always have a set time period to go through, but by allowing them to customize their style of play and adding in some small procedural elements to the daily activities, I could build a story-rich game that tied in with an amazing ability system and also had a lot of potential for re-playability, as there would probably never be enough time in a single play through to hit all of the different possible powers and problems.
So, since that moment of inspiration, I have been hard at work designing and developing this initial idea into a fully fleshed out game. While time to design and develop isn't always in my control, due to the daytime job and kids to raise, I feel like I've made more progress on this IP in the few months I've been working on it than in the 20+ years I've been playing around with the game industry.
A lot has been built, and I'm now at the point where I can begin to share this project with the rest of the world. There's still a lot in flux, but for now, if you're interested in supporting this venture, I'd appreciate it if you check out the Kickstarter for Tribes ! I'm not too confident we'll make the deadline, but I am extremely confident that there will be a playable product released regardless. I'm honestly too enamored of the game myself to let it languish, so please, be sure to watch this space for future news about development. More is Coming!