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How Sacred Fire lets players control the narrative

We had a long chat with creative director Andrej Vojtas about the many interesting design choices that have gone into the upcoming RPG.

Sacred Fire is an upcoming story-centric turn-based RPG in the midst of a campaign on Kickstarter, and we thought we'd probe the mind of creative director and founder of Poetic Studio, Andrej Vojtas, about what's gone into the concept and the innovations it proposes.

GR: How would you describe Sacred Fire to someone who is not familiar with the game?

AV: Sacred Fire is a psychological role-playing game that is choice-driven. What we mean by psychological is that, in most role-playing games, the key to success is in skills and weapons, and our design focus is inward. Your self control and ability to overcome fear and control anger, that helps you succeed both in combat and in the story situations where you need to, again, control your two basic emotions, fear and anger, to be able to find the best solution in the conflict. It opens up the gameplay as you can also try to evoke these emotions in your opponent.

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One of our design principles is we want the player to be in control. It's a turn-based game, it's not twitch-based. You have the time to explore the situation and we expose the whole numeric role-playing game ruleset and model, so you know exactly why you're having a low chance of success in a situation and how to improve it next time around. Our writing principle is to never mislead the player into a messy choice or to no good outcomes, as we believe it breaks the immersion in storytelling in games, so the player goes "oh, okay this is a set up and they put a trap there for me, and now I don't really believe them anymore, I can't immerse myself in the story and engage with the character, I have to distance myself." At least this is what we get from designers like Sid Meier. There was a talk that inspired me at GDC, I think it was 2010, the psychology of game design (you can check it out here), where he describes the principle of an unholy alliance between the designer and the player. He says it like this: "I will pretend you are a good player and you will pretend my game is real."

So we think what many narrative games get wrong, like Telltale, is that they break this unholy alliance. They do it on purpose, and you kind of get used to it as a player, but we think it breaks the immersion you have and how much you identify yourself with the protagonist. It leads to a different experience, not necessarily a bad experience, but we want to provide a different one. That's why we always foreshadow what's coming. So we think the problem in the design of narrative games [is] you basically don't have to challenge the player. What is the challenge when I'm just choosing how the story should progress? And there are various solutions designers have come up with, one of them is quick time events, so the challenge is in pushing buttons. Another solution is the challenge in guessing what the writing has mislead the player into and what will happen, and other solution is to provide morally grey situations, etc. And it's all good, and our solution is we don't do quick time events, you have all the time you need, we don't mislead you, you always know what's coming and you have a chance how to avoid it. What we do is we introduce gambling, the probability of success for each choice, but it's not all random. You have willpower points so the player can boost the chance of success for a certain situation if you really want to, your character can put the extra effort to getting it right.

Sacred Fire

GR: So it sort of works like in Torment: Tides of Numenera where you have effort?

AV: Yeah, exactly, and you can use it also in combat to increase your chances, but the willpower is a limited resource so you have to strategise. My goal was to make the player feel like [they've] earned the right to make the choice, but it costs [them] something. And this also goes further, there is story branching in the story, but you don't have the influence inside the group of people who decide where the story goes. So the other NPC companions can overrule you and you have to compete for the social standing and the respect and renown in this honour-based culture, to have the voice, to be able to avert the tragic ending, and branch the story in a different way.

GR: We were wondering about that, because that's also something that perhaps sets it apart a little bit, the setting, you've chosen not a very traditional setting. What made you come to that decision?

AV: First of all it's a setting that inspired me and I found was culturally and visually inspiring, but I also identify with the small nation resisting a larger empire and I found that fascinating. But what truly matters to me is [to] explore how conflict treats solution. Simply, I try to make the game relatable to our current moral issues and lives, to give meaning to the story, and we do this by using psychology so we can explore conflict and resolution on an interpersonal level, and even on an internal level on how we resolve conflict within you. And then we use artistic writing, and we don't claim historical accuracy, and the story is very much dreamed up by the characters - they're pretty much like the movie The Last of the Mohicans - so the resistance war is this backdrop but an interpersonal conflict between the characters is what really matters. You'll spend most of the time exploring, so yeah, the inspiration was artistic and cultural, and then it was a good backdrop for a conflict resolution theme that is simply meaningful to me.

GR: When it comes to emotions, you talk about fear and anger, these are emotions that can be both of a resource and a hindrance if you will. How do you treat that? Can it go both ways?

AV: Exactly. So on the mechanic level, anger makes your attacks stronger, so it's like you said, it helps with something, but the attacks are less precise and from a certain level of intensity you start to neglect your defence, so that's anger. Fear is more of a hindrance. At low intensity, it can help you defend better, [however,] it weakens your attacks and then it starts to be a penalty on all aspects in combat, but mechanically you can overrule the fear with anger. It's kind of what the berserkers do in combat. So basically it depends on what kind of enemy you are facing, and it applies to them as well, so if you have an enemy, you're having a hard time hitting this enemy, but you don't have a hard time blocking him, so you want to enrage him, and he will drop his guard and his attacks will be stronger but you can handle that, or in reverse you try to intimidate him; so you'll have to read the situation.

So one key feature of the combat, [which] is also demonstrated in the developer's commentary [trailer], is that we wanted to do the flow of the battle to not be laborious and monotone. We built that opportunity to switch turns, but once the opportunity is charged, it should give you a chance to decide the outcome of the battle in a special event. So [...] the idea behind this is it makes for more dramatic combat, it's something you see in the movies, and not a lot in games, especially in turn-based combat. You just switch turns and it's all about positioning your party on a chess board, and it can drag on for a while, so we wanted to do something different. There's no chess board, you're always right there, the perspective doesn't change, it's this cinematic takes on your attacks and defence. It all builds up to one culminating moment or a moment where something interesting happens, like in the movies [they'd] use the environment to gain an edge or [use] the moment to assess the opponent's strength and from now on [they've] found a weakness in [their] technique, now you have this bonus to attacks. You use the opportunity to refocus and calm down and now you're like ice and effective and at the top of your performance. This is the kind of experience we want to bring to the combat. In the end we are switching turns, but the interesting stuff is going to happen soon.

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