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November 04, 2012

I should have finished... Shadow of Destiny

Recently I played through Shadow of Destiny, an early PS2 title originally published in Japan and released here in North America in early 2001. I found a lot to admire in the game as a developer and as a player, though the narrative ultimately left me a little ambivalent.

What impressed me most about the game, as a developer, was the way the game was designed with respect to its likely niche audience and the uncertainties of developing for new hardware at a console transition, something which developers of games that don't typically reach Call of Honor numbers would be well to remember with a coming console transition today. Faced with growing requirements for asset quality and the lengthier time to create them, and the knowledge that they might only have traditional adventure game fans in a small percentage of an initial console install base, the designers worked out a time-travel story which could be set in a single location across multiple time periods; while certainly this still entails a sizable number of unique locations, it feels both familiar and new to investigate the fictional town of Lebensbaum across multiple time periods. This restraint -- to bow to the requirements of new hardware as far as user expectation graphically and to intentionally constrain your narrative to allow heavy reuse of these assets -- is likely a winning strategy that should be kept in mind for anyone looking at ways to cut costs, whether they be indies working on shoestring budgets or bigger teams facing the uncertainty and rising costs of changes in hardware or developers attempting new IP. If it's done early and conscientiously, the result can be a little gem of a game such as Shadow of Destiny, which feels as if each choice was made deliberately and organically, rather than a result of late, frenzied cost-cutting to make a target date or budget.

Before I describe the game's design any further, I need to briefly describe the game's narrative to situate the gameplay. The game begins when the player's avatar, a young man named Eike Kusch, is stabbed in the back and dies, only to wake a few minutes earlier in a coffee shop, knowing that your death is imminent and seeking to prevent it. It's a great maguffin to prompt play, and it comes with a time limit (and perhaps the game's first design choice): if nothing changes the timeline in the next half hour, Eike will die and the player will start again from that point. A mysterious fortune-teller nearby will help guide the player to the first set of adventure game objectives to prevent Eike's death¹. These involve changing the near future to prevent your own death; since you are unable to contact yourself directly which causes some sort of game-ending paradox, your only alternative is to interact with the environment and NPCs to find a way to prevent the conditions which permit your death. The game jumps around from the present day to the 1580s, the 1970s, and around 1902, taking you through different periods and in some cases introducing you to characters and allowing you to change the outcomes of their lives, particularly between the 1970s and the present day, though your efforts can have sweeping changes in characters when you go back to the furthest past.

The choice of having a time limit for play works particularly well here -- and at half an hour, it's a good-sized chunk but not so long that it's difficult to fit these into even a busy schedule. Saving can only occur after you've succeeded at one of these chunks, which works well to prevent the player from leaving himself in a position where succeeding is impossible². It also subtly pressures the player to keep moving and to explore quickly, but gives one an opportunity to explore the narrative's possibility space fully if one so desires. In the initial sections, I felt this time pressure very tightly and rushed to get things done, but as I grew to have a mental model of the town of Lebensbaum and where all the salient points of interest were on the map, navigation became quicker and easier and this time pressure wasn't at all severe; furthermore, the amount of the town available to traverse grows over time as the story opens up.

One design choice which works quite poorly is that time traveling is limited by resource gathering. There are, in each time line, several places where you might find these "orbs" which power the ability to freely move back and forth in time -- each transition takes up an orb, and I believe you can carry up to seven of them (represented by a meter, not by items in an inventory³). Though I realize this exists to be taken away in the storyline when your actions come into tension with the antagonist's goals, I nonetheless found this needlessly restrictive and overly "game-y". Since the player will always have at least one time orb to travel to where the narrative needs him to go, it's possible to travel to any time period with that orb, even if it might not be possible to get back to the present from there due to limited resources. Therefore, the developers had to script and build those timelines anyway, since a player might choose to go there, or find another way to limit those visits. I would have far preferred simply eliminating that mechanic; it didn't really goad me to explore to find more orbs, and it existed only to limit my freedom of movement, which was already somewhat limited by time.

One last word about the narrative: by the end of the game, I found myself somewhat ambivalent about how it would all turn out. At one point in the game, you are required to make a decision which appears to potentially change who two people can actually be (one woman is an ancestor, and the other becomes your love interest). The fact that these were interchangeable seemed very strange to me -- and indeed, although I knew I was making a choice that would have some sort of strange implication on my experience, it left me a little cold. These choices weren't really interesting; the relationships between the protagonist and these women were simply too thin to care one way or the other, and the results of one choice or another didn't seem all that dire. Branching storylines can be tough this way -- and in the case of Shadow of Destiny, where the ending can change at the very last moment, there's a complete lack of inevitability to the final outcome, and therefore it didn't really resonate with me.

That said, in the end Shadow of Destiny was a really nice model for small-scale development, limiting technical and artistic scope with some smart choices and delivering a neat twist on the adventure game formula, and I'm glad I finally finished it.

¹The first time I attempted to play this game, I somehow missed this bit of information, and found myself wandering the town of Lebensbaum until I ran Eike into another timeline version of himself and caused the game to end. While I understand players who scoff at objectives and the hand-holding that goes on with many modern games, I have to point out that the alternative is someone who picks up your game, misses some vital clue in the initial rush of a substantial amount of information overload, gets frustrated, and never picks up the game again. Striking a balance and offering the player hints when he goes astray for a long time is one of the principal design issues that face the traditional adventure game -- how long is too long to be frustrated?

²This is, of course, not the only good option here. One could allow for saves at any point, which is itself a not insignificant challenge, though quite manageable. At that point, however, there would have to be the option to restart a time-slice from the beginning, which involves both instructional challenges -- you must communicate this ability to the player -- and of course, additional development time to support both save-anywhere and resettability. The solution they went for here is both less complicated and less expensive, and is probably entirely the right one for them.

³The game departs from more traditional adventure games in that it has no inventory management at all. Puzzles are typically navigated by being at the right place at the right time, or by picking things up when you know just what you'll do with them. I like that it avoids the more obscure inventory and pixel-hunting puzzles of its Western brethren.

Posted by Brett Douville at November 4, 2012 04:53 PM