A new beginning
Years ago now, I started work on a small game called Shadows Behind the Throne. Initially I just intended it to be a couple of months project, to see how much I could do. I got surprisingly far, and released it on Itch.io, posting originally in the Something Awful thread for That Which Sleeps. That game, sadly unreleased, served as an inspiration for this in many ways, along with Crusader Kings II and Civilisations I, II, IV and V. The thread itself had devolved into people posting mock gameplay sessions, to trick others into thinking the game had been released, and I figured the best joke would be to make the game itself, and post it unceremoniously alongside this.
It turned out I had more free time than anticipated (my research masters' assessment overran by many months), and that I rather enjoyed making the game. And the people who played it were very supportive and enthusiastic, so I continued. Versions went by, and features were added, such as saving/loading, gameplay expansions and occasionally (not often enough) UI improvements.
This continued till version 13, which was the end of the "First form" of the game. After that, I decided to rebuild much of the game. I had a range of gameplay ideas I wanted to put into the game, a bunch of things I felt should be tried. My main process was to imagine a type of evil from fiction (The Ancestor in Darkest Dungeon, Dracula, The Innsmouth cult of Dagon, The Red Death by Poe, The Minotaur's Labyrinth), then to throw together some gameplay features which may someday allow this to exist.
Sadly this turned out not to be a good process. The game became bloated, confusing and unfun. I failed to keep gameplay cohesion in mind. The game didn't have a true core 'loop', as I tried to throw everything into it, and make it fully freeform. I tried to keep everything from the first game, and everything I wanted from other games, and new stuff alongside it.
Eventually, I ran out of time, but the game was flagging before then. It had lost its essential gameplay elements and became a mass of confusing messages.
A new beginning
Since then, my academic work has been far too pressing for me to manage to continue proper releases, but that all changed a few months ago. Chatting with a friend, he said he liked the idea so much he would code it himself. Aware that it was far more work than he may be expecting, I told him that instead we should collaborate on it, and see if we could restart the project.
Neither of us can contribute as much time as I used to (academic life is unrelenting with its pressure to publish), so progress is slow. Months of work have allowed us to salvage much of the previous code, and build it up into a new version.
This new version is open source, leaving open the possibility of forks to the project, as other try their hand at implementing ideas they think would work well. It also allows anyone to see how I implemented certain features (often badly, or for reasons which are no longer applicable). Exact legal situation to be decided should the need to decide ever arise.
We hope to continue working on the project, while keeping in mind the successes and the failures of the past project. Certain features are still needed for even a basic Version 1.0, such as saving and loading, maybe sounds, filling out all missing flavour text, a good balancing pass, but we were eager to release, to let people know that the project isn't dead.
Successes which we'd like to bring back are the fun gameplay ideas. I personally really liked the fog, and it should work well with the current gameplay setup, and many of the abilities of the Deep Ones need to return in some form.
Failures are those which add complexity without a very strong reason to exist. Cities don't need to be constructed building-by-building, as this just adds design overhead. Investigators don't need to go from city to city, this only made the map a confusing mass of units moving. My initial aim for investigators was a vision of a game in which your enthralled lives in a dark castle past a forest, and kills off anyone coming to visit, isolating their village from the world, trying to stay hidden from the world at large as they built up power. Sadly, this just isn't feasible with the current map setup, and the map can't easily be changed without altering all other gameplay loops. A good idea in the abstract, but not a good idea for this version of the game. (Of course, it being open source, feel free to try your hand at implementing it).
We aim to continue expansion around the core gameplay loop of political interactions, threat estimates by nobles being manipulated by the enthralled to keep them confused and conflicted, suspicion being gained and managed.
If new features are needed which would harm an existing gameplay feature, they should be implemented as a new gameplay mode. The undead were implemented in this way in a previous version, and that allowed the game to adopt a new form of core loop, without harming the existing game. This style of "Choose how the game will be played" seems the best way to allow mechanisms to co-exist without having them overwhelm the game.
The near term
The first goal is to get a Version 1.0 out. Save/loading, full flavour text for all abilities, clear the buglist, add a few abilities to Deep Ones, the Flesh and to the general political situation.
After that, expansion into new types of abilities would be investigated. Ideally players would pick which to take, selecting the form of evil they have access to, while keeping the basic political actions. Climate change, for example, possibly in the form of an army of darkness marching down from the frozen north or up from the scorched south, would be nice to see again. The fog, also, expanding outwards from your captured realm, allowing magics to be cast on those under its effects, was a mechanic I liked. Difficulty levels should also return, to help the beginners and challenge the veterans.
From then on, we'll have to see what's possible and what seems like it would be fun.
Anyway, thank you so much for the initial support, I hope to make these upcoming versions the best the game has had.
If you have any suggestions and feedback, of course, feel free to comment.
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We're using the Unity 2D framework, version 2019.1.3f1. The language is fully C# (a.k.a. Microsoft Java).
Be aware the latest build (commit description "SAVE BROKEN CANT WORK WONT WORK GAME BAD DELETE REPO THEN SELF") is broken. The 20th of November commit a1987a02acbafd78a71b36fe0a9091ea3dfecab9 is the latest stable version (I believe).
The code hopefully makes some form of sense, but the game has gone through many changes, so some bits of old code are still present (some of them because we intend to bring them back at some point). Params.cs is a good file to look at for minor changes, as it contains all ability costs/effects and AI behaviour values. If you've got any questions, just ask.
Good luck, hopefully you'll make something great.
Personally I find myself disagreeing with some of your assessments, but then again those have to do with what I expected from That Which Sleeps and not so much with Shadows Behind The Throne itself.
"Failures are those which add complexity without a very strong reason to exist. Cities don't need to be constructed building-by-building, as this just adds design overhead. Investigators don't need to go from city to city, this only made the map a confusing mass of units moving. My initial aim for investigators was a vision of a game in which your enthralled lives in a dark castle past a forest, and kills off anyone coming to visit, isolating their village from the world, trying to stay hidden from the world at large as they built up power. Sadly, this just isn't feasible with the current map setup, and the map can't easily be changed without altering all other gameplay loops."
The biggest issue here is that the mechanics you were going for are meant for a different thing altogether. I like the idea of city buildings, I really do, and part of the fun expected from TWS no doubt was taking isolated territories, turning them into fortresses of darkness, and then launch massed assaults on the frontiers of civilization.
And strategies like that is where TWS and SBTT differ the most. TWS had (or intended to have had) features that balances these different approaches out. For example, if I wanted to the above, then I did not need to worry about the nations of the world merging into a gigantic superpower nation capable of taking on all my combined armies by themselves. Sowing mistrust and causing misdirection is easy when the game takes a cue from, say, CK2 or EU4 and you have different cultures and religions - and this applies to both lore and gameplay. Why should I care about some distant threat with huge armies when right at home there is a potential risk of heretics rising up? Why should I team up with infidels to defend their borders when it would be easy to pick up the carcasses of their empires and spread my own faith (and potentially culture)? Even in real life threats like The Huns or Mongols were not enough for the various nations to set aside their differences and work together for a brighter future, and even if they had inevitable issues would have arisen as a result of such strange alliances. Hell, if anything the actions of the Huns basically struck severe blows to the greatest extant empires by exacerbating cultural differences and resource shortages, and the Mongols did basically the same.
Consider the 'clue system' vs. the 'evidence' approach Shadows has. Shadows has none of the above features (this is not a criticism or derision - merely laying out information), and the ones it does have do entirely different things. 'Evidence' is not meant to indicate that a greater threat, the nature of which must also be investigated, is looming on the horizon. It simply means that a noble is dealing in sinful acts that must be punished - lo and behold, this is exactly what happens in the game. 'Threat' carries no weight beyond 'danger'. Hence when summing up whether to team up with mortal enemies or not, nobles often choose to completely set any personal ambitions aside and join up with nemeses to defeat the player's forces. Clues on the other hand were explicitly not about the player's servant at all (who would accrue 'fame/infamy' overtime simply by performing actions too often/too great in power), but rather about the nature of the player's character. This is why in TWS's intended gameplay performing actions not expected of one's character was meant to be a good way to throw off heroes - hey, it turns out Karth (in TWS's lore the creator of Orcs) was not behind this game's manipulations, despite orcs being pushed to attack civilization over and over by eldritch forces.
Finally, consider your vision vs. potential playstyles. In-game tools provided, Not everyone is going to go for Dracula. Not everyone is going to for Deep Ones or Orcs either. Some will love political manipulation, others will hate it. Ultimately what you need to do is think what you want your game to do - not what you want the player to do. So far in SBTT what I have seen is a classic Light vs. Dark thematic centered around nobility, all eldritch elements have come second to it. Hence what you might want to do is either keep expanding things or rework the way your existing concepts interact with each other (for example you could make the 'Dark' faction more akin to stereotypical demons, even if you keep the Lovecraftian lore, as those would be more suited for a game based around court intrigue... With their contracts and infiltration and all that).
All in all I am glad that work continues on the game, but I just wanted to say the above the above to offer my perspective.
Edit: Also please excuse the language but damn, the itch.io interface still confuses me after all these years.
In regard to your first point, that That Which Sleeps allows for evil empires while Shadows does not, I hope to correct for this, and allow both.
Internal vs external actions
I believe there are two core ways of interacting with the political system (Shadows' core): From inside and from outside. I'd like, ideally, for both to be fully polished, and for the game to be playable with exclusively one or the other. Currently implemented is the 'classic' approach. You first act from inside a society, by managing political favour, evidence, suspicion and shadow. Eventually you win, and the evidence, suspicion and shadow mechanics become irrelevant for this society. Your fellow nobles are now mad, and so you no longer need to hide evidence from them (nor do you have anyone to give evidence to, as they are all at 100% themselves). At that point, your gaze turns outwards, and you begin to command your society to slowly expand into others. In order to do so, and in order to avoid a Last Alliance type scenario, you must use powers on societies without having an agent inside them.
Ideally, there would be a rather clear distinction between 'powers to use to help your enthralled on their political journey' and 'powers to use to destabilise other nations'. Finding dissidents and arming them to cause civil wars, getting hated rulers elected, causing potential allies to fear each other, distracting nations with your Unholy Flesh...
If a player then chose to only play the inside game, they should be able to kill off their enthralled, and start again in a new society, working their way up, while leaving the old society in a state of darkness. In this way, the player has chosen to only interact with half the mechanics: the powers from the inside. With future expansions, I'd like for the outside-interference powers to become sufficiently developed that they can stand alone, and a player could just start a small evil empire in the wastelands/frozen north/scorching south, and use their powers to cause enough civil wars and infighting that they can progressively invade the whole map. This mode would never have the player take an enthralled agent at all, and never vote once. In service of this planned flexibility, the map already deliberately leaves spaces for the player to work with. The cold and hot areas are empty, and the map generation will reserve locations for non-human societies if the climate map doesn't provide enough uninhabitable spaces.
Since both types of power are needed for the 'classic' game, it should be fairly easy to give a bit of a buff to the 'interact with a society from the outside' powers and package it up alongside an evil-empire type set of powers, where you can invest in expanding your forces and give them basic commands (as you already can with the Deep Ones).
As to your culture/religion/nationalism, I hope, possibly optimistically, to make the situation a bit more emergent and situational. I consider these as 'wedge issues', political points which you can bring up in order to divide voters and set them against each other (see gun rights in the US, Brexit in the UK, very polarising topics which can always be trusted to start an argument). Initially there are the economic differences, caused by provinces, which are designed to make large empires hard to manage, but I'd like to allow the clever player to find their own. Voting in an unpopular sovreign, for instance, can shatter a nation, and so a player should be able to find an unpopular noble and slowly bring them to a position of power in a foreign nation. Fears, I also hoped, would be wedge issues. A person near the Unholy Flesh could fear it, but the nobles far away would fear their neighbouring socities more. You could then cause them to argue over who is the major threat, until their society collapses due to inability to work together. Make wedge issues a thing the player creates, rather than just a set of default conflicts.
With regards to the rest, though, I agree. The clue system is different, and plays completely differently. This is simply a change in how I felt the game would best be played. This said, in previous versions there used to be "world panic", which allowed nobles to feel fear on a global scale, and respond collectively, unlocking new abilities in response to the growing threat. I believe I'll probably re-implement that capability at some point, bringing in some of the desirable features of That Which Sleeps.
And yes, the Lovecraftian aspect of the game is not really reflected in the mechanics. Madness and fascination, forbidden knowledge and dread realisation, I would love to have these in game, but must justify them in terms of how fun and balanced they would actually be. I'd like to push a bit harder in favour of it being Dark vs Neutral. I never intended the nobles to be in any way good people, they are politicians who argue constantly about their own petty concerns, and the fact that they occasionally accuse political rivals of witchcraft despite zero evidence is an intended feature.
Anyway, thanks for taking the time to comment, it was an interesting insight into the game, and it's flattering you took the time to consider it in such depth.
And, like you, I'd very very much like to play That Which Sleeps one day, if only it were possible. Who knows, possibly someone will take the Shadows repository and completely re-work it into playing like That Which Sleeps might have. One of my hopes by making it Open Source is that these gameplay avenues I'm not taking could be explored by someone else.
Good to see you back to work!
Essentialy, this kind of games need for sure a core loop, but more important need to be part of a coherent vision. Priority, priority, priority! Don't add new systems until base systems are working and game receive good feedback from players
Thanks for the link, I've read it and found it pretty interesting. I played the game itself, but never saw this post about it.
You're right that we need to ensure that the core element of the game is concrete and functional before expanding. I'd say that is the political system, and the player's interactions with it.
We've done a vast amount of stability testing for the system itself, to see if the AI is able to respond correctly to threats (identifying dark agents and removing them before the shadow spreads too far by itself), and to converge towards a semi-stable map state (no giant blob nations, but still unifying together).
Now we need to expand the options a little bit, then do a vast amount of testing of the player's actions (make sure no action is overpowered or underpowered) and general UI polish.
My 2 cents on this. Don't expand. Test, balance, test again. In this year I've learned sometimes as developer I want to add, add, add. But best for my creation ( maybe yours too? ) is to stop, polish, balance.
And of course explain, tutorial etc.. maybe some let's play on youtube could help too