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How To Play A Literary Classic
Published 2 years ago
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Kim is an open world RPG set in Rudyard Kipling's India.
I fell in love with Kim on holiday. As a colonial history buff, I knew I’d enjoy the setting but I didn’t expect to find Rudyard Kipling’s writing, which I only knew from If and The Jungle Book, so entrancing. Kim has it all: memorable characters, an exciting plot, stream of consciousness descriptions of Indian life and masterful turns of phrase. Kipling says more with fewer words than anyone I’ve read. It made sense when I learned that he and his father edited Kim for years before publishing it, each sentence was lovingly crafted:
Swiftly the light gathered itself together, painted for an instant the faces and the cartwheels and the bullocks' horns as red as blood. Then the night fell, changing the touch of the air, drawing a low, even haze, like a gossamer veil of blue, across the face of the country.
Inspired by Expeditions: Conquistador, Don’t Starve and FTL, I imagined a survival-focused roguelike in which you explore colonial India. I wanted an activity to break up the travelling. Expeditions: Conquistador had squad-based tactical combat, FTL had simplified space battles, what should Kim do? I didn’t want combat or stealth to dominate, it wouldn't have been true to the book plus it's well-trod ground. The clincher was realising that Kipling’s work had entered the public domain and branching narratives could use his own dialogue. The opportunity to work with a Nobel laureate’s writing and let players explore the world of a historical novel however they pleased was irresistible.
I started reading around the subject, first the broad sweep from early European traders through to partition and independence, then homing in on the British Raj and finally The Great Game, its 100 year struggle for Central Asia with the burgeoning Russian Empire. The remote skirmishes that swung this often cold war involved comparatively small forces led by young men operating beyond their borders and in secret. My guide to this little-known conflict became a hero of mine, Peter Hopkirk. A seasoned traveller in his own right, he shared a love for Kim with the explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, whom he quotes at the start of Quest For Kim:
I have read Kim again and again - I do not know how many times - and taken it on my travels. It is the only book of prose that I can open at random, at any page, and read with the same delight as if it were poetry.
Learning about colonial India and its inhabitants helped me design the mechanics of the game; to design the content, I needed to understand Kipling, the man and his work. I read everything he set in India and one and a half excellent biographies but there were also films and his house in Sussex to visit. As I wrote the GDD, I sketched out content to test how systems might work. I started with the map comprising 5 biomes from desert to the Himalayas. Today we have 22 spreadsheets imported into Unity via an asset, G2U. Their data controls everything from what proportion of a level’s inhabitants will be Hindus to what you might find in any of 14 types of dwelling, were you to sneak inside.
The biggest task has been creating branching conversations with the myriad characters of Kipling’s and our own creation. I’d read Kim twice already when I started my final and forensic pass but it never lost its lustre. This time I pasted the entire novel into a document and split it into discreet scenes. Then I trimmed and stitched these into dialogues involving 2 characters and a narrator. The best of what was cut became our loading screen quotes. I added dialogues from Kipling’s Indian short stories and some of my own for gameplay scenarios not yet covered. We’re up to 250 conversations now, each stored in a Node Canvas file, which also holds the logic for their branching paths. While I’ve tried to keep them from becoming too long, Kipling’s sublime prose has a habit of defying the scalpel!
I wanted Kim to be 2D, like an animated storybook. A graphic novel, The Clockwork Quartet had caught my eye and one of its creators had also made a music video with an art style similar to what I had in mind. He agreed to do some concepts which showed right away that we were on the same page. As assets arrived, we added them to our level generation algorithm and India took shape. Reference images and pencil maps of the historical layout of each town gave him what he needed to draw these levels. Further references provided inspiration for the items, food and weapons in the game. Next up were characters, made from interchangeable layered assets for feet, legs, torso, and head, all animated to stand, walk, run, fight, stagger and collapse. The main characters’ portraits were drawn from descriptions cobbled together from passages in the book. And with people came animals, (mostly) harmless decoration for our levels.
The animated storybook motif translated easily to the UI, our smaller panels resemble paper with an old-fashioned printing style font. We continued this idea in our time-passing animation, which appears when Kim sleeps, travels or reads one of the many books you can find in the game (books within books!) It can pause on the open page for as long as the game needs to load if required and each time you see it, the quote will be different. What better reminder that you are playing a book!
The world of Kim, Kipling’s India, is made up of 500 levels and all but the 17 towns are created procedurally based on a random seed. This means that no two games will be alike (unless you choose to use the same seed as a friend). As well as preset characters, whose information doesn’t change, the world is populated with procedural characters, which the game creates based on probabilistic rules. It looks first at which level the character is in, is it a town? If so, which one; if not, what biome and region is it in? This determines how likely the character is to be a certain religion and profession and this information in turn controls how likely they are to have a particular face, outfit, trait, item, weapon or amount of money.
The final ingredient was audio, which we wanted to remind the player where (and when) they were exploring. We sought out sounds from antique objects to evoke the Victorian era and match our UI: creaking hinges, scratchy handles and tooting trains. We knew that traditional music from 1880s India was unlikely to cut it with our audience but our composer used traditional instruments, to create a contemporary soundtrack, which echoes both Kim’s tense adventures and more contemplative passages, listen here!
Our curry isn’t finished yet though, even now. It is beguilingly quick to get a basic game up and running. What tends to follow is a dark middle chapter of endless tasks and just when you fear all hope is lost, your game slowly becomes fun. So it was for us but this final phase, in the months before and after our Early Access launch in April, has been incredibly satisfying. Feedback from players and time to properly play the game has helped us iron out countless niggles and add new features and polish. As our full launch in the Autumn approaches, we will keep at it but I’m starting (daring) to feel that we will be able to do justice to Kipling’s masterpiece.
Kim is available on Steam or GOG, follow us on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for our mailing list on our website.
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