Areala's "What If..." Game Design series is a partially-serious, partially-tongue-in-cheek, completely-hyphen-laden look at what would happen if things that are not currently video games were turned into video games under her supervision.
Our first foray into this strange and uncharted world of would-be game design merges two of Areala's most favorite things: Dungeons & Dragons and adventure games in an effort to create the ultimate player-slaying nastyfest. I speak of none other than porting Gary Gygax's most infamous adventure to the digital realm. I speak of the world of Greyhawk, an isolated location, and a tournament-level adventure module that required brains over brawn and more than a little luck to traverse successfully. I speak of...The Tomb of Horrors.
A little backstory probably will not go amiss here for those of you who are not familiar with D&D before the introduction of feats, epic-level spells, and 1st-level characters that were more powerful than they had any right to be. But chances are, if you played in a gaming group in the 1970s or the 1980s, you or at least one of the people in your group had played through (or sadistically run other characters through) S1: The Tomb of Horrors. Most of them would never see their beloved characters again, and the module earned itself something of a reputation for being a "killer dungeon". For the author Gary Gygax though, it was no such thing. Yes, it could chop, cut, slice, dice, disintegrate, crush, maim, fold, spindle, mutilate and liquify characters better than any blender ever invented, but it was a cerebral adventure. Players were told going into it that they would have to play at the top of their games in order to best the Tomb and all its traps. In this case, it meant making very liberal use of powers available to their characters and high doses of common sense available to their players. Failure to respect the Tomb and its demilich creator, Acererak, would, at best, result in loss of limbs, and at worst, the loss of a character's very soul. So...why would any self-respecting character go anywhere near this meat grinder? Simple...treasure. And lots of it. Acererak accumulated all kinds of phat loot over the course of his life and unlife, and anybody who finds it could easily retire and live a lifestyle that would be the envy of kings everywhere.
Dungeons & Dragons has been brought to the digital world literally dozens of times over the years since its creation. DragonLance, Forgotten Realms, Spelljammer, Al-Qadim, and Greyhawk have all been brought to pixellated life on the PC, NES, Super Nintendo, Macintosh, Playstation 2, Xbox, and countless other computers and consoles. The Black Isle-crafted Planescape: Torment is considered by many gamers to be one of the best CRPGs ever created. And the games based on the property have been as varied as the license they are based on itself: Turn-based, real-time strategy, first-person, third-person, action/platformer, MMORPG...the list goes on and on. Some printed adventures have been based on the computer games ("Curse of the Azure Bonds"), while some games have been based on classic adventures that have been around for years ("The Temple of Elemental Evil"). All in all, D&D is ubiquitous in the computer gaming world. So...why no Tomb of Horrors? It's time to ask, instead, "Why not Tomb of Horrors?" And here's my answer.
The simple fact is, nobody's done Tomb of Horrors because, done the way Gary Gygax wrote the original adventure, it would get reviews that would make the Angry Video Game Nerd's screeds seem like perfect examples of high-court politeness and well-versed etiquette. The closest anybody has come thusfar is probably Eidos's "Deathtrap Dungeon," and have you looked at the review scores for that lately? Players don't like dying, they especially don't like dying repeatedly, and the vast majority of gamers out there simply wouldn't get the concept that Tomb of Horrors was trying to push: common sense and a little preparation work can succeed where the combined might of six major nations would fail. Have you ever watched a hardcore first-person shooter gamer play a survival horror title? Have you actually been able to stop laughing long enough to really watch them? Survival horror has different rules than shooters, like closer health monitoring, puzzle-solving, and resource conservation. In FPS design, not giving the player enough ammo is a game-killing flaw. In survival horror, the reverse is true: providing the player with too many bullets removes the fear that goes along with the need to make every shot count. So the most important question when it comes to designing the "Tomb of Horrors" is what genre of game should it be? Two good concepts for this in my opinion would be third-person 3D (like "Dead Space" or "Tomb Raider"), or first-person point-and-click adventure (like "Scratches"). "Tomb of Horrors" is better suited to the latter approach in many ways, especially because combat isn't a major part of the scenario and the player can take his or her time, and puzzle-solving plays a fairly large part in successfully navigating the dungeon. The former, however, has the ability to put the player directly into the surroundings via his or her avatar and get a better sense of his or her position within the dungeon. Also, when combat occurs, there won't be a need for any jarring transition to a different viewpoint since everything can very seamlessly be handled within the confines of the game engine. An inventory system, for looking closer at objects, reading clues and so forth, could work very much like Resident Evil, with the ability to examine and rotate objects 360-degrees. A map of some kind is essential, so we would need to either assign space on the screen for an automap, or else make it available via button press like Oblivion. A journal section to keep track of information and allow the player to write things down would also be helpful. For these reasons, if I was designing the game, I would go with the third-person 3D perspective with the inventory, journal, map and other options available on a second screen, and perhaps a toggle to let the player decide whether activating the inventory or map happens in real-time or if it pauses the game.
Now that we've gotten our history lesson and our presentation selection out of the way, we'll pause for the time being and pick up in later installments with ideas concerning player character choices, difficulty settings, puzzles and level design. And as always, your input and comments are very much welcome.