I feel kind of like a feature freak when introducing this system. It's certainly a system I didn't really think about until now. It was one of those things that I had to try out.
So what is the Language System in From Earth? Simply put, it's the system that allows players to learn the alien language, and speak it to the aliens. Until now, all the aliens have perfectly understood English, and they have followed your instructions and what you want one hundred percent. But after a talk with a voice actor I really started to think about how a Language System would work and what the benefits of it would be.
When I started From Earth, I tried my best to do a lot of Portal 2 type of puzzles. The kind of puzzles where you try to figure out the logics of "how do I get this crate here and be there to press that button at the same time." While I tried to design new items and machines to serve as elements for such puzzles, I found it difficult to design actual maps. Maybe it's such that I am more of a programmer by heart. I also tried hiring a few level designers from the Portal 2 mapping community, but it didn't work out.
I started to think that the focus in From Earth should be more about the interactions with the NPCs. Trying to understand them and have them understand you in turn. Getting items and trying to open doors or getting a crate into the right place would still be the motivation for set pieces. You are talking to this NPC so that you can get him to give you this item that you need to proceed. I felt this was a lot easier for me to design than trying to do complicated logic puzzles, something that would not even fit very well in a world where I tried to make the world seem like it had function.
One system I had tried earlier was the Gesture System. The player would have a set of gestures she could do, and possibly more gestures she could learn or unlock. The idea was that different aliens would react differently to different gestures. I was and I am still interested in non-verbal communication in games. I am really interested in having ideas and thoughts come through expressions and gestures and the sound of your voice, rather than the dialogue. So, players could communicate with aliens by hugging them. I had even planned a hi-la-ri-ous teaser trailer where we would show that the players had the choice either to fight their way through the game, or hug all the aliens and spread peace and love. Some aliens would blush and laugh, and maybe react a little bit more positively to you after you would have hugged them, others would push you away or even attack you.
This system wasn't very succesful. I didn't get too far on what the reactions could actually be. There wasn't really a lot of room there rather than just few different, random reactions from the NPCs. It was more like a silly, novelty feature of being able to flip off or hug the NPCs. For no real reason. So, it's probably not something we will keep in the game, at least not like it is. We might repurpose some of it as something that could be used to learn new words.
The Language System, however, seemed like a system that would work much better. I had already designed the alien language to a point where I could write longer speeches and instruction manuals with it. It would reinforce the NPC interaction system, putting even more focus on them. Players could still choose to go down the more violent route, choosing not to spend so much time making friends.
Currently the Language System works so that in the choreographed scenes, that the aliens use to speak most of their lines, there is sort of "metadata" about the words they are speaking. If the player is a certain hearing distance from them, they will learn that word if they haven't already. It will show a small prompt on the bottom of the screen that they have learned a new word. The word will then show up in their language menu.
The Language Menu is currently something that will show up on every NPC. You have two options, either single words such as "hello" or simple sentences. Simple sentences have sort of a fixed structure. You always have to include the verb in the sentence you are trying to build, and you always have to put it in a certain position. This was to help both defining sentences in the code, and helping to parse it. Once the player has selected a sentence they can speak it out. Zenaida will repeat all the words in an order.
The game will then try to compare the said sentence to a list of sentences defined in the code. You can say the same thing in many ways, with slightly different words and the aliens will still understand you. The code then returns an index that represents the sentence. That index is then used to find appropriate response from the NPC's Interaction System. The code also checks if the sentence the player said made any sense. The player could, for example, say "What is this?" without holding any item. Obviously, the alien would not understand what you mean.
While I am excited about the possibilities of the system, I am still worried about it. Even myself, having designed the system, have trouble remembering what the correct word for "what" is sometimes. I also need to make sure that the player has learned all the right words at any time, and that players who want to continue non-violently can't get stuck, because they can't unlock a certain word. I need to make the words that are most important (such the ones used to ask what items are, or ones used to ask to open doors) are easily unlocked by interacting with any NPC. I also need to make sure the aliens use words in situations where the player can pick up a little bit what they mean. We are also in dire need for voice actors, as hearing Zenaida's voice, and hearing the aliens speak the words will have a big impact on how the system plays. I will do a lof testing to see if the Language System really is something that should stay.
Another thing is that with the Interaction System, options like asking "What is this?" and "Where can I find X?" are there even before learning the alien language versions of those. If the player uses them, Zenaida will just say them in English. I am worried this might confuse the player, as they would just keep getting the "I don't understand" reaction from the NPC, but it might also help to hint to them, that the player can ask such a question. After unlocking the sentence for "What is this?" for example, Zenaida will repeat the alien language version from this short cut menu, and the player will no longer have to use the language menu for that.
Even before this system, I did have a "Item Knowledge" system. When you asked "What is this?" the player would learn the name of the item. After this the name of the item would show up on the HUD, still in alien language, of course. The player could also ask "Where can I find X?" and the NPC would try to find the closest matching item. Or it might trigger a choreographed scene if the level designer wanted so.
The Language System makes sense in the world of From Earth, and it's one that could really change the gameplay to something more interesting, but I am still not completely sure about it. I need to make sure it works correctly, that all the words are easy to learn and that the player can understand their meaning. I need to test that the Language System is something that is interesting to experiment with. Let me know what you think in the comment section below. You can also always ask me anything releated on the From Earth Facebook page or From Earth Twitter profile.
Looking for help
We are looking for any kind of help. While short contributions are welcome as well, we are specifically looking for people who have a little bit more time to spend for From Earth. We are looking for designers to spend more time, and give input on our fighting and item crafting system. We still need to design more puzzles, but we want to focus more on the interactions with the aliens as well as the fighting system.
While we are at stage where we don't want to add or change anything big (we are more likely to remove than add anything), we are looking for active help on fine tuning the gameplay. As I am currently the only active designer it's very hard to get constant feedback on all the different elements of the game. We need someone who has time and interest for the project.
We are looking for two different types of Level Designers. Firstly, we need people that can bring existing levels an aesthetic quality, and are experienced with lighting, texturing, and the general make up in Hammer. Screenshots and/or example maps are required.
We are also looking for general level designers, such as anyone who has a lot of experience designing different types of puzzles for games like Portal 2. Source engine or Hammer experience is not necessary. You only need to be able to design levels well, whether it is on paper or Google Sketchup or what ever you find best suited.
We are interested in finding help for the character models. We want to keep the existing rig so that we don't redo all the animations, but we want to improve on the look of the two human characters. The character modeller would need to be able to at least texture the model, and being able to weightmap would be preferred.
Most of the concept work will revolve around the industrial era Alien technology and architecture. Samples of previous work required. We already have a strong set of existing concept art for you to draw on.
Voice actors and actresses
We are currently looking for voice actors to do the male and female alien voices, as well as someone for the voice of Zenaida.
The aliens will be speaking an alien language specifically designed for this mod. Their dialogue is partly already written and ready for recording. Examples will be provided if you are interested.
We are interested on getting any help we can get, especially world texture creators and prop modellers.