Hero of Many – Context and Mechanics
There are multiple ways to engage a player in a video game, from presenting a mystery to be solved, to developing engrossing characters whose arcs are resolved by completing gameplay sections, to pure kinematic expression via consistent and stable (from a control point of view) mechanics. All of these points of engagement, however, can be used by other media. Real-life (history, science, engineering) can provide us with an infinite number of mysteries to be solved and problems to be crunched. Literature and film endlessly bombard us with interesting characters to follow and be fascinated by. Sports of one kind or another can provide us with skilful and engaging kinematics. This isn’t to say that it is pointless for games to engage on these levels – far from it, they are all valuable tools in crafting an experience. Where a “game” really comes into its own, though, is with its unique party trick – applying context to mechanics.
Enter Hero of Many, a touchscreen-based (iOS, Android) “Action-Adventure” (read: genreless) game released by Czech developer Trickster Arts. The concept is simple: you control a bulky, defenceless, ovum-like ball of cells floating in the murky depths, propelling itself toward your taps with unseen flagella. Alone, black enemy creatures can make short work of you, but by gathering energy orbs, and sperm-like soldiers, you can develop a highly mobile and lethal Praetorian guard that can reduce hordes of enemy soldiers to so much floating debris in seconds.
You begin the game patrolling neutral sea with your elite guard, when you are attacked by the black menace (linguistically, yes, there are racial overtones, but since by the nature of the story and world design discrimination by silhouette is difficult the colour scheme is a necessity, and the one chosen is the best fit for the mechanics). Your troops are decimated and scattered, and you fall or flee into a pit which becomes cut-off from your previous path. All this is non-interactive, but is executed with such visual economy that it is difficult to criticise. Breaking the scene down moment by moment reveals such a wealth of gameplay information that the game would hardly be able to start without it, Within these few seconds, we have established:
1) The sperm-like creatures move with the ovum
2) Black sperm will attack you
3) Attacks are performed by overwhelming with numbers
4) You can run away
5) You can hide from enemies that haven’t seen you
6) The smooth rocks can be moved by entities, and can block paths.
It should also be noted that the soundtrack as this scene plays out is superb, precisely echoing the emotions it wants you to be feeling and demonstrating part of the soundscape that will be used to aurally denote the state of the game, which is a matter we will get onto later.
The only sour note I have about this opening scene is not at all the fault of the game, but rather of the meta-context in which it is presented. Whilst in this case every element is presented obeying the rules by which the game is played, far too many games use cutscenes, especially opening cutscenes, to allow actions outside of the rules. This completely undermines the scene’s tautological value, and is something we really need to stop doing. By all means, create context, but no world element should ever be seen doing anything that it cannot do immediately afterwards (for a recent example, see Skyrim, a game which, first and foremost, establishes that prisoners are transported by horse and cart. Never again in the entire game do you encounter a horse and cart travelling the roads of Skyrim. Then it prevents you from exercising the freedom to run, even if it would be a daft thing to do, in a game that is all about freedom. Then it establishes that dragons can cause permanent environmental destruction. Let’s face it, the thing is a trainwreck). This means that the player will still have to re-establish the rules through play, since they can’t necessarily trust what they have been shown.
So now we move onto our moment-to-moment to gameplay, and within the first five minutes the game shows us every one of its general mechanics – exploration, collection of energy and followers, solving of environmental physics puzzles, hiding from enemies when underpowered, overwhelming enemies with numbers.
This is really by-the-book stuff, but it does it superbly, betraying an achingly agonised-over period of design that has truly nailed the basic components of an opening sequence. Where it goes above and beyond, though, is in the sound design.
Simply put, if you cannot play this game with the sound on, do not play this game. The complete state of the game is reflected aurally, from item pick-ups to friendly soldiers hiding away to aggressive enemies, through to the aural reflection of the game’s emotional state. The passage from hunted to hunter is perfectly communicated, encouraging you to push for the finish in the final battle of the level, or keep a low profile as patrols sweep by. It completely contextualises the few inputs you have at this time, flinging your troops into the fray or darting behind a rock for cover. This is triple-A sound design in a tiny package.
Whether or not this continues to work for you is going to be down to, in part, how you play it. As far as mobile games go, HoM has a metric tonne of content, and if you try to blast through it all in one session, the slow rate of introduction of new mechanics may leave you feeling a bit worn-out. There are one or two other issues, such as some of the monsters having particularly difficult to make out weak points, the reset of your soldier numbers at the beginning of each level and the invincibility of your last soldier diminishing the value of your individual successes or failures, and the difficulty in gauging the relative strengths of two armies once there are a number of different soldier levels involved. The stutter in gameplay as you go past a save point is not appreciated, and could be handled better, and there is one puzzle where I am still not entirely sure why what I did worked to solve it, but these niggles are tiny parts of what is a tremendously well realised whole.
Overall, Hero of Many is a game I have waited a long time for – one that understands the mechanics of a touchscreen whilst delivering player-controlled story, with a gorgeous aesthetic and sound design to boot. Everything from the way the floaty physics is incorporated into the setting of the game world to the careful use of cut scenes to establish motive screams “attention to detail”, and you can’t really ask for any more than that.
Not perfect, but demands the attention of anyone wishing to deliver a story by contextualising mechanics-which, as game designers, should be almost all of us.