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AdventureX 2022: creating a multiplayer narrative engine

Whispers in the West, video game, box art, Wild West, outlaw, sheriff, deputy, cowboy, featured
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Adventure and narrative-based games are usually solo experiences.

You could play them with a friend alongside so you can talk over the various choices, or you might stream them and encourage viewers to help with the puzzle solutions. But generally speaking, they’re single-player experiences and it’s you in game alone.

Whispers in the West caught my eye during the Steam Next Fest back in June because it was different. I really liked the unique concept of Infinite Whys’ project: an online cooperative murder-mystery set in the far reaches of the Wild West. I could see myself playing it with Pete, friend-of-the-blog Phil and Ellen from Ace Asunder, ditching The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) for a while to become detectives.

When the title appeared on Kickstarter a month later, I got involved and made a pledge. While the base game would be free on Steam, backers of the campaign would receive a three-story downloadable content (DLC) bundle so they’d have more cases to solve. Each would be an hour long and would only need to be purchased by the host so friends could join in at no additional cost.

I played in the demo in June by myself, but up to four players can form a team and take part together. Each choose a role with different personalities and useful skills: a sheriff, deputy, cowboy and outlaw. They’ll work together to track down clues, make deductions and interrogate the residents of Brimstone before their time runs out. My guess is that it could potentially become quite heated when submitting your final deduction if everyone has interpreted the evidence differently.

4,027 upcoming adventure games currently listed on Steam. 310 of these come under the point-and-click subgenre. Only three of these are multiplayer titles.

Last weekend, Pete and I attended AdventureX at its new home in the University of Greenwich and had the pleasure of attending a talk by producer Yoyu Li. She was there to talk about the challenges the Infinite Whys team have faced while making Whispers in the West and it made for an interesting presentation. She gave some insight on the difficulties experienced in taking what’s primarily a single-player experience, and turning it into a multiplayer one which can be enjoyed by a group of friends together online.

Let’s start with the background first and share the statistics provided in the presentation. There are currently 4,027 upcoming adventure games currently listed on Steam. 310 of these (around 8%) come under the point-and-click subgenre. Only three of these (less than 1%) are multiplayer titles – and as Li said herself, the other two don’t count because they’re more like ‘escape rooms’. Her team have a background in making board games and like to play social releases, and so the idea for their project was born.

They made the decision to work with Twitch streamers as they knew the platform is a social one. To prove this, Li explained that over 40% of streamers have fewer than 100 average viewers but they keep going because they’re continuously motivated by the community aspect. In addition, the most streamed games are multiplayers or those which have a strong social element such as Dead by Daylight or Phasmophobia. These findings gave the team the inspiration and enthusiasm they needed to move forward.

The first challenge they faced was that multiplayer storytelling is non-linear by nature. When you play this kind of game, especially one with solid logic like a murder-mystery, everything you do and say should have an impact on other players’ storylines. There’s sadly a lack of tooling for this for indie games. The team started out using Yarn Spinner but found its visual element didn’t scale well as their project grew, so they decided to make their own narrative engine which would use condition-based switching.

The second challenge was one Li  framed as: ‘It’s you again, but I already gave your teammate the murder weapon.’ For releases like Whispers in the West, you need to keep a record of both the world and player states to ensure everyone’s experience remains in sync throughout their play. To do this, the team chose to track the items you have in your inventory, the characters you know and the labels you’ve acquired – for example, whether you’ve talked to the banker and if he complied with or refused your request.

The final challenge faced was that it’s harder to test a multiplayer title than a single-player one, and the team knew they had to test early and often when it came to their new dialogue engine. The solution was to create a Discord server where each channel represented a different location in Brimstone. While two colleagues acted as players, three others took the role of non-player characters in these channels to deliver dialogue. Eventually, this helped them build a playable prototype in Discord using a bot.

Li wrapped up her presentation by revealing that future plans for Whispers in the West include allowing players to create their own stories for the game. I’m terrible at writing fiction and am sure anything I came up with would either be far too simple, or overly complicated and never solved thanks to tenuous links between clues. However, it might be fun trying something like this for a social event like GameBlast23. And I know some friends who are great writers and would potentially love putting their skills to the test.

While there was no mention of the Kickstarter campaign during the talk, this advises that the DLC stories are due to be released around January next year so we don’t have long to wait. The Steam page also confirms that the base game is ‘coming soon’. The demo is still accessible there if you’d like to give it a go with or without friends, and a video is currently available on the AdventureX Twitch channel if you’re interested in watching the presentation in full. Thanks to Li for sharing her experience at the event.

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