By Rebekah Tran, Mission Designer
In Tabula Rasa there are many steps involved in creating the rich story line of the world. First of all, we’ve amassed an overarching story which includes lots of detailed back-story the player may never see and branches far out into plot twists and turns that we’ll touch on in future expansions. Next, that fiction is trimmed down leaving the content that the player will visit in game. This is then split amongst all the overland maps (the persistent maps that are shared amongst all players) in the game world. Each overland map then links to about three or four instance maps that provide more unique content for individual parties. It is here that we can more intimately progress the story for each overland map.
All that background work leads to the concept behind one of the instances I worked on, Torcastra Prison. Torcastra Prison is located at the southern end of Concordia Divide (a major overland map) deep in the bowels of enemy territory. Design for this instance really was a group effort between myself and several other designers for the Divide maps; however, it was important for us to have a prisoner here for several reasons. First of all, the players haven’t yet seen a prison at this point in the game, so it keeps things fresh. Second, given the fact that Divide is a completely war-torn area where the Bane and the AFS are fighting along a proverbial line in the sand, it just makes sense that there would be prisoners-of-war held somewhere. Once it was decided that this map should be a prison, I started working on the fictional and game play components of the area, while my teamed world builder (the game designer responsible for the creation, overall layout, and beautification of the map ) started creating the map itself.
My goal as a mission designer was to give players an interesting experience that also gives them the feeling that they are really in a war, and that they have a definite impact on the area they are playing in. As a result, when I started my mission design for Torcastra, it was important to me to ensure that it felt like players were starting a prison break from the get-go and not just told, “Oh by the way, this is a massive prison and here’s a prison cell or two to prove it.” The world builder did a fantastic job of creating a huge entry area leading up to the gates of Torcastra, so I decided to set up security bunkers, air strikes, and that fabled trip wire that you need to avoid in order to make the players feel as though they had really accomplished something once they reached those gates and secured the area. However, once they get past the gates, the difficulties have just started. There is a little surprise waiting just behind the prison doors, but, hey, I never said I was nice.
Another important element when creating the prison are the prisoners themselves. It’s a little bit of a let down to break into a huge prison and only have a few prisoners held within. Not only is Torcastra filled with a veritable honeycomb of prison cells, but those cells are also filled with prisoners. The missions were designed to flow from one into another, so once a player completes a mission which reveals the two codes needed to open the cell blocks, there’s something very satisfying about seeing the prisoners run out as a mob and head for the hills. Many times in games things will happen that aren’t very realistic and you dismiss it because it’s a game and not reality. It would have been easier for me to leave those guys in the cells and just open the door and fictionally say they’re free and good job, soldier. However, if that were me, I would have made a b-line out the door as well, so that’s exactly what I made the mob of prisoners do.
The climax of the instance comes when you receive the word about Airman Hamilton, an AFS soldier being held by the Bane in Torcastra. This mission presents players with one of many moral dilemmas and story arc missions that exist in the game. The difficult issue I had with this mission is that I wanted to give the players a choice on what to do that didn’t involve a text decision. As a result, once you uncover Airman Hamilton in his state amongst the experimental equipment, the player is told to either put him out of his misery (at his request) or to turn him over the AFS as they were originally commanded to do. In this case, the question becomes, do you do the “humane” thing and kill him or do you decide that you’re not an executioner and potentially subject him to becoming AFS high command’s guinea pig? Each decision has its own morally grey area to explore, and, on top of that, the decision will affect a series of missions that are available to from that point.
Ultimately, the goal was to make sure that Torcastra feels like a dangerous place where players get a taste of the horrible things that the Bane are doing to the AFS soldiers they capture. If the Bane are experimenting on Humans on Divide, one can only imagine what is happening in other parts of the Tabula Rasa universe. It only gets worse from here, and only the player can help the AFS save other victims of the Bane.