I took an hour or so and put together a basic playable prototype in Tabletop Simulator, which I’m hoping to playtest soon! It’s a pretty simple take on the chapter The Crossing, in which Hazel must decide whether to leave behind the rabbits who can’t swim across, or risk all of their lives if the wild dog should catch them.
This represents something of a departure from the squad/rts/tactics idea concept that has been a staple of the game design concept so far, and I think that’s a good thing to question. It’s leaning much more toward loose adventure puzzling, with a sense of urgency, multiple solutions, and the main conceit that failure doesn’t mean and ending, but instead a progression into a different branch of the story.
For example, the fail case in this scenario is that the dog takes one of the rabbits. My thought is that this would open up a special next encounter in which they must mount a rescue to retrieve their comrade. Or, I could imagine that character coming back in the future, as a bit of a surprise.
In my first few conversations about adapting Watership Down to a game, some fellow game designers told me about Shelter and Shelter 2 by Might and Delight. In these games, you play as a mother badger and mother lynx, respectively, each with a litter of babies that they must lead around, feed, and keep out of danger. Shelter seems the more relevant piece to mine, since it focuses on (mostly) prey animals facing the dangers of a journey through the wild, toward a new home.
Warning: Spoilers below
Here are some of my takeaways:
The simple mechanic of bushes as cover is quite effective. It feels right that the cover should be an entirely safe zone, as well.
The bird is very interesting. It felt good that the bird travels in a repeating path; it doesn’t end up feeling stale of lifelike. And the sense of danger that the bird imparts feels appropriate tempered by the repetitive pathing. If the bird were any smarter or more random, that section of the game would feel absolutely awful and punishing.
The game missed an important narrative beat when one of my badger cubs was snatched away by the bird. In fact, since I was moving quickly toward cover, I know for sure that it had happened until I counted the cubs later.
The game felt very level-designed. It did not feel like wilderness. I believe there is room for a blend of open world with authored encounters. The manual level authoring was quite important for the bird encounter to work well.
Similarly to Leafcutters, Shelter uses color saturation of characters’ textures to show overall health—which in this case, seems equivalent to hunger and nourishment. It felt good to have information represented in the world, without a GUI. It was also a bit frustrating, however, because it was a bit overly subtle, and I didn’t realize until far into the gameplay that some of my cubs were hungrier than the others. I think that for Watership Down, I’ll want to further the techniques of conveying game state information via diegetic effects, whether realist or abstract.
The babies moving on their own felt very important. It gave me a sense of suspense, and forced me to watch them, slow down for them, and count them. I’d been toying with some ideas of having rabbit wander a bit in Watership Down, and this makes me feel much more sure of that direction. Whether they’ll each be directly controllable, or they’ll follow along with a single player character rabbit, I don’t know yet.