Saturday, November 11, 2006

Steal This Game Design: Serial

A very controversial, decidedly adults-only type of game, this week. Another possible title could be "The Kill". If you are averse to casually or even clinically discussing the killing of another person, even if it's only in a fictional setting, like a book or a movie, then I would suggest you avoid reading the game concept below.


Serial is a game about a serial killer, ideally played by multiple players. It's a kind of macabre and more vivid version of the classic board game "Clue".

When the game starts, each player selects a character template (including the character's gender, appearance, and some basic background information, such as a job), three skills, three hobbies or special interests, and two faults. One of these players is then secretly told that he or she is the serial killer.

The game is played from a first-person perspective, switching to third person when necessary to better show what's happening (such as when the serial killer does his thing.) The players all start separated from each other, in a large but enclosed space, such as a large building. There can be other characters in the environment who are AI-controlled.

The Killer

The killer has a somewhat skewed perspective (such as fish-eye, or tunnel-vision) and can't just kill anyone he or she sees. Instead, the killer gets a tightening of the view, or the view turning red, accompanied by a noticeable increase in heartbeat when he or she sees a target. If there are fewer than 10 people (players and NPCs) in the area, only one target is designated at a time. If there are more, between 1 in 10 to 1 in 20 are designated as targets. The first target(s) is (are) chosen by linking some of the characteristics the players chose at the beginning: for example, if a player likes baseball, and the killer does as well (or absolutely hates it!) there is a chance that the first target will be that baseball fan.

The killer must then kill the target without the other players and characters realizing it, using the environment to lure the target away, or destroying the environment in order to block off certain passages. Various objects lying around can also be used as tools or as weapons, but to get the maximum score for a kill, the killer must find the "fetish" weapon, which is highlighted in a similar way as the target, when the killer sees it. To keep using the baseball example, the killer's fetish weapon might be a baseball bat, or it could also be an automatic ball launcher (like the ones used for batting practice) that the killer tweaks to throw balls harder and faster.

After the killer completes the first kill, another target is designated. The killer's goal is to complete as many kills as possible before getting caught.

The killer need not betray him- or herself: the best players will be able to act like they're part of the group of the other players, and not cause any suspicion.

The Potential Victims

The other players must use their talents to manipulate the environment and find the killer before he or she kills (or kills again...) Some characters will have talents that let them manipulate things others can't. For example, some weapons will only be usable by some characters, whereas others might know how to fix an electical panel to restore the lights, or open a mechanical door.

Some paranoid players might end up killing innocent characters. Others might decide to just find a place to hide and wait things out, because when you get killed, you lose all your points. Players who survive until the killer is caught or killed get points according to how long they've survived, while the player who captures or kills the killer gets more points.

Multiple Matches

The game becomes most fun when the same group of players stays through multiple matches (each match lasts until the killer is caught/killed or everyone else dies) with the killer role moving randomly from player to player between matches.

Points are accumulated between matches.

Graphics and Visual Presentation

Creepy and macabre should be the main keywords. Lighting should be moody and mysterious, environments should be inspired by the creepiest horror movies, as should the places chosen for the various possible scenarios.

Wounds on characters should be as realistic as possible: ideally, they should appear precisely where they were dealt. There is no "life bar": painful wounds cause red flashes or momentary blackouts, bloody wounds bleed until something is done to reduce the bleeding, and while bleeding continues, the character gradually turns paler until loss of consciousness happens. Basically, you don't accumulate hits until you die, instead, you risk dying if you're hurt badly enough, and some wounds cause you to "function" worse than normal. A character's health should be visible by simply looking at the character in the game, and for the player playing the wounded character, the consequences of the wounds should be obvious when moving or trying to do things.

Communication Between Players

If the game is played over a network that permits voice communication, the only possibility is "in-character" communication: this means that you can only talk to players that would be able to hear you in the game (i.e. within earshot). In a few cases, phones, intercoms or walkie-talkies might be available, but they will have to be manipulated realistically to be used. For example, if a pair of walkie-talkies is found, maybe the group might split up and have someone in each group designated to manipulate the walkie-talkie.

Characters can also scream, which will let their voices carry more, but not necessarily across the whole environment.

Bad Taste

This would likely be a very controversial game. In the end, the "vibe" in the game should be as close as possible to the best movies in the thriller, horror or creepy science-fiction genres. Things should be kept realistic, but always with the idea of keeping maximum impact (real life is rarely this creepy or dramatic.)

At every level, the game should be close enough to the movies in such a way that anyone who would condemn this game would automatically condemn the corresponding movies.

Additional Ideas
  • More than one killer. Do they have to work together, or against each other?
  • All killers: the players don't know it at the start, but they're all killers. They still get targets, and they must still try to behave "normally" so they don't get "caught".
  • Giving the "potential victims" a way out: if all the survivors can escape the place they're in without the killer escaping with them, they get a bonus. But it helps if the players can figure out who the killer is, first...
  • Adding in some fantasy, occult or sci-fi elements:
    • fantasy, as in trolls, vampires, werewolves, zombies, and fantasy-style magic,
    • occult, as in spirits, poltergeists and other ghosts, possession, demons, and occult-style magic
    • sci-fi, as in aliens, mutants, dimensional gates, teleportation, ray guns, bizarre gravity effects, energy force fields...

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