Way back in the day, when I first started playing RPGs, I was mostly playing hack-n-slash games like Wizardry, Bard’s Tale, and NetHack. These games were great, but I found something totally new the moment I played Ultima VI. This game was no longer primarily about min-maxing your way through combat (though it had that). Instead it offered the opportunity to explore and build an entire world and meet characters that inhabited it. It came with a cloth map to help immerse you in that world. It even included a shiny polished “moonstone” to help transport the player into the game world--the same device used in the game’s intro to literally transport the Avatar from the present day into Britannia. This is the style of storytelling we want to emphasize in Meriwether. This game is about the characters you play and meet and the world (and time) in which they live.
I’m sure Meriwether is influenced in many subtle ways by the Ultima series, but one very obvious and deliberate way is through our character creation system. Starting with Ultima IV, the game always began with an encounter with a gypsy who asked you a series of questions which ultimately determine the details of the character you will play. The gypsy would ask you questions like “A local bully pushes for a fight. Dost thou A) Valiantly trounce the rogue, or B) Decline, knowing in thy Spirit that no lasting good will come of it?” Your choice would reflect one of the 8 virtues that were so important in the game, and impact your character in several different ways.
The first level of Meriwether takes place at Caspar Wistar’s home on the corner of 4th and Locust in Philadelphia (It’s still standing there today--you can see it on Google street view.) Jefferson sent Lewis there to train with some of the greatest minds of the time. Many men contributed to his education, but we chose to focus on three doctors: Dr. Caspar Wistar, Dr. Benjamin Barton, and Dr. Benjamin Rush. We felt that these three characters complemented each other well and also reflected the game mechanics we want to introduce at this point.
The level opens with some exposition to help situate who you are and what you are doing. The doctors then begin to candidly, but informally, quiz you on what they have imparted on you during your stay. Although these conversations use the same interface we do for the rest of the dialogue in the game, they also largely mirror what happens with Ultima’s gypsy. Here are a couple of the gruesome medical questions that Dr. Rush asks you:
Instead of being associated with virtues, Meriwether’s choices are based on Lewis’ facets: Leader, Soldier, Diplomat, and Scientist. (There is a 5th facet, Melancholy, but it doesn’t get introduced until the end of this first level.) None of the choices are right or wrong, but rather reflect a way that Lewis might have responded and how the player is choosing to play Lewis. Each of these choices gives you a skill point in the associated facet that can then be used to purchase related skills. For instance, you can spend soldier points to become a better marksman, or to gain stamina.
Because this level focuses on Lewis’s training, and because it’s the beginning of the game, it was clearly the perfect place to introduce some of the other mechanics. Benjamin Barton, the spirited botanist, guides you through the plant-discovery mechanic in Wistar’s garden. Then Dr. Rush teaches you how to play the medicine minigame by treating your generous host’s gout!
We’ve put a lot of effort into trying to depict these three characters accurately, both in their appearance and through their dialogue. Now we’re building out the physical space of the level: a single room of Wistar’s house, plus his garden.
Indiecade East was tons of fun! Carlos and I had the opportunity to demo Meriwether at their Show and Tell area. Here’s some of the press that came out of it:
International Digital Times
(You can also watch the talk I gave at Indiecade with Nik Mikros about a different game I’m developing called Killer Queen on YouTube.)
Next weekend I’m headed to San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference, and while I’m not officially demoing Meriwether there, I plan to have my laptop with me and will be showing it informally whenever I have an opportunity. We’re playtesting the game more often now, and continually revising little details. We’ve moved on from working on each level individually, to really focusing on the story arcs that span multiple levels and the general experience of how the game evolves over the entire experience. I know we’re finally getting close since we’re working on details instead of fundamentals!
Josh & the Meriwether team