I’m the sort of person who has to try hard not to think of ideas for books and video games every five seconds. For some reason that creative spark is always whispering to me, “Hey, here’s a subtle variation on what you just read/watched/played which would totally be a cool twist on the genre …” Most ideas turn out to be unoriginal rubbish after a few minutes of clear thought, but there are the odd few that I go on thinking about. In the case of game ideas, this also involves wishing I had a team of people to help me actually build the thing.
This is one of those ideas. It’s not my most ambitious, but it would still take several people a serious amount of time to make, assuming those several people are already experienced at making games. So this is purely for your interest - don’t ask me when the game is coming out!
The year is 1799, in a world somewhat unlike our own …
Pascal Cardona. An ordinary man working an ordinary job, murdered in an alley on his way home. No motive, no suspects, no witnesses. The kind of case which everyone expects to be kicked around the courts for a few weeks and then discarded as unsolvable. That should have been the end of the story.
But the young judge assigned to the case, apparently desperate to prove herself, keeps digging. And after several weeks of frustration, a woman comes forward and confesses to murdering the man in a jealous rage, and enlisting a magician to erase her trail. The sort of thing that happens all the time in this city. So that should have been the end of the story.
However, the judge still isn’t satisfied. She continues puzzling over the case for more than a month, until she is suspended for a minor infraction of court procedure. When her suspension ends she doesn’t return to work and is soon pronounced dead, just like all the other naïve idiots who meet their end in the gutters and sewers of this city. And that should have been the end of the story.
Except that now, months after her disappearance and nearly a year after Cardona’s death, my employer wants me to find this dead judge and kill her. So it looks like the story is about to get interesting …
Capra-Jano is a twin city nestled in an inlet between the Italian and Hungarian empires. With its dreamy canals and pastel-painted buildings it has been the premier tourist destination for the rich and famous for hundreds of years. Several generations ago the city’s residents graciously welcomed refugees from all over Bosnia and Hungary who were fleeing the fledgling Hungarian empire. This turned the eastern half of the city into a melting pot of cultures, while the western half stayed fiercely Italian. As the imperial powers on either side widened their reach, Capra-Jano became an essential trading port, helping to keep the uneasy peace between east and west. However, suspicion and distrust between Italian Capra and multicultural Jano is growing, and the smallest spark here could ignite a war between two of Europe’s greatest powers.
The city is ruled in theory by a hereditary Duke on the Italian side, and in practice by a complex network of mobs and street gangs. These play a big part in the game; you can choose who to go to for all sorts of information and favours, but those choices will often impact your relations with the other factions. Alliances between the gangs are shifting constantly, so you will need to keep up (or manipulate them yourself) in order to avoid misinformation and confrontations.
Characters and plot
Akos Mûtamid, the player character, is an ageing soldier turned spymaster. He came from Africa to Italy to join the Guardia di Pietra (Stoneguard), a legendary group of mercenaries whose arcane tattoos give them the power to transform into living rock for short periods of time. After leaving the Stoneguard for unknown reasons he came to Capra-Jano to start a new life as a bodyguard, but quickly discovered a love of espionage and blackmail, and rose to become head of the Duke’s intelligence network. However, he still feels like an outsider because of his race and accent, which are mocked even in supposedly tolerant Jano.
In short, Akos is like a cross between Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and the Hulk.
Lena Valeriev is a judge, a position which in this society involves not only deciding the outcome of legal cases, but also investigating and gathering evidence. As an expert poker player, she has an unerring talent for calling bluffs; it turns out that this is due to her latent illusion magic abilities. She trained in an unusually peaceful and decadent part of Hungary, so had little concept of just how much trouble her curiosity and enthusiasm could land her in. However, she’s a quick learner - quick enough to realise that her life in Capra-Jano is over. She is furious with herself for blowing this chance to do some good, but has resigned herself to working out how to leave the city and return to Hungary.
In short, Lena like a cross between Rey from Star Wars, Victoria Coren-Mitchell and Emily from Dishonored 1 & 2.
The game begins with Akos receiving information about where he might find Lena and musing over her story. Suddenly his headquarters is bombed and attacked by unknown thugs, resulting in the death of most of Akos’ agents and the destruction of the documents he gathered from Lena’s office. Akos himself narrowly escapes thanks to his Stoneguard abilities and goes in search of Lena, helped by his extensive network of contacts throughout the city. It turns out to be suspiciously easy to find her, so instead of killing Lena as he was ordered, Akos commits to helping her search for the truth. As the mystery deepens, the pair discover that they are at the center of a conspiracy that stretches across half of Europe …
The game is based on the standard open-world RPG formula; for most of the game you’ll be free to roam around Capra-Jano following whatever leads you happen to have at the time. The majority of the main quest is finding out why Cardona was really murdered, and unravelling the political conspiracy that he was caught up in. A lot of the time you’ll need to use Akos’ network of informants and debtors to get information or perform certain tasks, and the outcome will depend on who you choose to trust. For example, you might want a particular place to be unguarded one night. You can choose to bribe the guard captain (who might put a whole squad of guards on duty to show you what happens to people who try to bribe guard captains), get a kitchen hand to put a sleeping potion in the guards’ drinks (depending on whether that person owes you a favour), or get a gang to create a diversion (which may or may not be effective depending on the gang and your relationship with them). Those decisions will alter how easy it is for you to solve the case, and impact your standing with the different factions in the city.
The different factions also provide all sorts of opportunities for side quests. I’d like to avoid the standard “collect 10 of this specific thing” style and try to include missions which will impact the main quest or the outcome of the game. Like most RPGs in this style, there are multiple endings, which happen based on who you’ve chosen to trust and ally yourself with.
There is more of a focus on dialogue than combat, but it is possible to fight your way into and out of all sorts of situations. With the tactical combat system (reminiscent of X-COM) you’ll quickly discover that having Akos close to enemies and Lena supporting him from a distance works best. Then, of course, you’ll meet a bunch of enemies that force you to change that formula. Akos using his Stoneguard abilities for the first time in years is a handy way to make his skill progression believable, and Lena discovering her illusion talent offers plenty of opportunities to make up inventive spells and combination moves.
Themes and ideas
- Immigration and cultural diversity obviously play a key role in the relationships between people and factions in the game. The children and grandchildren of Hungarian refugees consider themselves basically Italian, but are looked down on by “true” Italian citizens. Making a stand one way or the other, or constantly sitting on the fence will change the attitude of various factions. On the other hand, this is a good opportunity to deal bluntly with the issue of accepting refugees. As even the most stuck-up citizens of Capra would say: “Back then they were hungry and scared, and we had food and shelter. How could we call ourselves human and not take them in?”
- Akos and Lena end up having a kind of impromptu father-daughter relationship, which I think is something that isn’t explored nearly enough in gaming. Usually an unrelated man and woman in a game will end up falling in love, or it’ll turn out that she was his biological daughter anyway, or whatever. I’d like to buck that trend and have an unrelated guy and girl who are just thrown together and bond despite their differences in age and background.
- I guess I’d also like to make some points about how hard it is to genuinely care about people you’ve never seen or met. You can’t travel outside Capra-Jano in the game, but some of the decisions you make could change the lives of millions. It would be nice to have a moment where all these abstract ideas about politics and espionage are suddenly distilled into whether or not someone you care about has a future. I know this is done all the time in fiction, but I wouldn’t like to forget it.
- Oh, and combat should matter. Like in most RPGs, you have the means and opportunity to turn into a serial killer. Unlike most RPGs, you also have the means and opportunity to knock out your foes instead of killing them, or (with Lena’s illusions) leave them quietly giggling to themselves and ignoring you. If you do decide to kill people, that should have repercussions — Lena will hate you for it, someone might find out and set the police on you, or you might hear their buddies making a tearful toast to their dead comrades. On the other hand, you’re supposed to be a feared spymaster, so if you’re soft on treacherous gang bosses and assassins then people will stop respecting you. Deciding how to deal with your defeated opponents should be an essential part of combat, not something that’s glossed over.
If you’ve made it this far, I applaud your perseverance! I’m afraid I don’t have a satisfying conclusion to all this rambling, but I hope you enjoyed the read. If you have ideas, suggestions or feedback I’d love to hear them, but like I say, don’t expect this game to be made in the near future. In the far future, who knows …