Since Voyage to Farland has been tagged as a “Shiren clone” and I’ve embraced that concept (hey, Shiren is awesome so why not?) I thought I’d write out a few notes about my thinking as I developed the game. It’ll be completely stream-of-consciousness I’m afraid, but here we go.
I really REALLY like Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer. Just check the profile pic1. The game kept me company on countless morning and evening commutes on the KEIO line in Tokyo as I battled monsters in Fey’s Final Puzzle and levelled up the Borg Mamel. On some days after work, I’d board the train and a kid who I taught at the middle school way out past Takao would see me pull the DS from my backpack and I’d give him or her a sheepish grin. Our little secret -- wouldn’t do to have it getting around among the other teachers that Patoriku-sensei was addicted to DS gaming.
So I was an English teacher who liked Shiren, but an English teacher who used to be a computer programmer (these days they’re called “engineers” apparently), and I wondered all along if I could still do coding.
As I played Shiren, I often found myself wondering how I’d go about implementing certain mechanics in the game if I were the programmer. Take the blue translucent map overlay in Shiren, for instance. A quick look at the DS specs and it seems obvious that the map is a dedicated background layer with alpha blending.
Some months later I bought a DS flashcart to dabble in homebrew programming (honest!) and as winter came in 2007, with the trout fishing season long past, I started to experiment in earnest. The early builds of my “Peculiar Voyage” roguelike game were hilariously simplistic -- a single hard-coded dungeon floor, only one type of monster that had braindead AI. All it knew how to do was approach the badly drawn hero sprite even if it meant walking into a wall each turn. But it was a start.
In later builds, a couple of other monsters were added along with an engine architecture for keeping all their stats, ranged and melee special attacks, level, etc. The AI also improved -- monsters now knew if they were in the same room as the hero, whether they were lined up to inflict a ranged attack and if they weren’t in the same room, they knew how to head for a corridor, always searching for the player.
As the little experiment progressed, I knew early on that I shouldn’t just clone Shiren. Heck, I couldn’t even do that if I wanted to -- the credits for Shiren DS are a long list of developers who worked on the game from designers to programmers to artists, musicians, PR and on. Deviating from Shiren’s mechanics would allow me a bit of creativity and hopefully keep from angering Chunsoft.
One of the aspects of Shiren that I liked as an American was the fact that the background story was anchored in Japanese culture and mythology. I haven’t actually played a lot of western RPGs or dungeon crawlers, but just reading about them gets old pretty quickly. Orcs, mages, and knights are all great, but to me at least, they've become almost cliche.
So I decided early on to not make Voyage to Farland based on western fantasy themes. In fact, being completely naive in the realm of game design, a first sketch of Voyage’s background story was that it would be a Mystery Dungeon style game (roguelike with animated graphics -- yes, with graphics) and it would be called “Peculiar Voyage: Escape from Tokyo”. So naturally, some early monster designs included everyday monsters I encountered as I wandered Tokyo -- Obatarian, for instance, the nickname for “battalions” of middle-aged Japanese women who elbow you out of the way on trains or in crowded pedestrian areas. (Actually, nearly all of the middle-aged Japanese women I met were really kind.)
Other monsters borrowed heavily from my own interest in ghost stories and obscure horror films in a strange mix of Western and Japanese mythology. There was the Yuki Onna, the ghostly woman that lulls mountain people to sleep so that they freeze to death. She eventually became the GrayLady, a historical American ghost. But in the code, the #define for the monster is still YUKIONNA.
And there was Nosferatu, because standard vampires are boring, let’s face it, and Murnau’s silent film is not. There was also the Aka-oni, the name of a favorite watering hole in Tokyo but also the demon you cast out on the Japanese holiday, Setsubun. I’d made a goofy demon mask on a stick for the English classes and this creature made its way directly into the game as the Oni family of monsters -- animated demon masks on sticks that hop around the dungeon and “double smack” the hero when they attack.
Since all of those monsters hit pretty hard, I further borrowed a Shiren mechanic by classifying them as “undead” and made them susceptible to high damage when hit with medicinal herbs: the Absinthe-inspired Wormwood, and its little brother, Mugwort.
A Classless (video game) Society
One feature that many western roguelikes have that Voyage doesn’t is the ability to choose different player classes.
I’ll be honest -- I’m not convinced of having different classes in a roguelike. I don’t dislike them, I just don’t see the need. And after playing Shiren for years, I know that it’s not necessary in making a good roguelike game.
Both as a developer and an eventual player, I’d rather spend my time making interesting items, new monster classes and additional themed dungeons. I like that in Shiren everyone starts out the same. Every player has the same tools at hand (determined by the RNG). When I play Diablo II, a brilliant game in its own, I’m always wondering in the back of my mind how this run would go if I’d chosen a different class.
So Voyage doesn’t have classes. It has items instead2, with a fairly deep level of interaction among those items and the game’s monsters. Everyone starts out the same, as the stoic homeless wanderer “Hero”3 and your progress in the game depends on your patience, your reading of the riddle-like item explanations in the game and your perseverance.
Oh, and knowing when to fight and when to run!
Death Does Not Exist
But failure doesn’t actually mean death. This is another point I've borrowed (read: copied) from Shiren. :) Your character never really dies.
I won’t give away this aspect of the game’s story -- whether the Hero can start all over through reincarnation, or fantasy, or each run just being a dream. But it's never really death. Instead, the Hero is simply “vanquished”, falls to the floor and is somehow transported back to the oddly named “Wilderness Village”4 with the lonely child who always wants to play rock-paper-scissors and a few talking stones plopped down near entrances to buildings and caves.
Another thing I knew early on was that I wanted to make a hard game. Shiren is very hard, especially the later dungeons. There’s nothing wrong with a hard video game. Life isn’t easy. Everybody isn’t a winner.
Well actually that last platitude doesn’t apply, everybody WILL win Shiren if they have the patience and are willing to give it another go. The same goes for Voyage. In fact, the boss fight at the end of the first “Iya Gorge” dungeon is laughably easy if you’ve been paying attention.
Oh, and as an aside, I don’t recommend capturing the final boss monster in a Vial. Trust me on that one.
A Final Hint
Well, this is getting long-winded, so I’ll stop for now. There’s plenty more I could write down if there’s interest, but I’ve taken enough of your time for today. Give the game a try if you enjoy Mystery Dungeon style roguelike games. And give the fishing girl in the “Thatched Hamlet” an oatmeal cookie along the way. Trust me on THAT one, too.
1) The profile pic is a snapshot of my Mamel T-shirt -- the "mamel" being one of the first monsters you encounter in Shiren the Wanderer. I never did get a mamel plushie, though. :(
2) I'm being a bit snarky with that "it has items instead" line. It means the items in the game aren't just junk lying around. Shiren the Wanderer and Voyage to Farland have no junk items. Everything can potentially save your ass. Use a vial to capture and become a monster, but don't let a catapult toss one at you! Put a +4 WoodenShield into a MeldPouch after a +1 TitanShield and get a +5 TitanShield out. Eat Wormwood to restore HP or throw it at that undead Witch over there to instakill her...
3) Gamers worried about the "Damsel in Distress" trope may be interested to know that although your character is referred to as the "Hero", it's actually a girl -- and a pretty tough one at that!
4) The name “Wilderness Village” comes from the fact that I borrowed Daniel Cook’s Wilderness & Village tilesets for the graphics on the starting floor. And the Hero character and Oba monsters are modified from his Planet Cute set. As always, huge thanks to him for his generosity!