Sunday, May 29, 2016

Idea Garage Sale: Mice in the Alien Museum?

You have, of course, had story dreams, brilliant plots and situations that melted away and/or turned to nonsense as you woke. If you cultivate a certain habit of mind, you will start working on turning them into usable stories before you even wake up, and may even stave off the disappointment of realizing that it wasn't, in fact, brilliant for several minutes after waking. The one I had the other day sprawled out in so many directions that the viewpoint-I in the dream pulled out paper and started putting down notes, as fast as I could, and quickly came to realize that it sprawled way too much. I'd have to cut out 3/4s of the potential to make it a book; and all of the characters to make it an RPG campaign. But, as I woke and started putting my brain in order for the day, I realized that what I had here was a perfectly viable computer game scenario. Something I don't have the skills to develop, and insufficient force of will to learn at this juncture.

Or perhaps I should say that my creative engagement with the idea does not reach the threshold necessary to give me the force of will to learn. The subconscious doesn't care in the slightest whether you have the practical skills necessary to make the vision it hands you into something approximating reality. If it did, far fewer people would produce a sufficient number of works to gain the necessary skills to produce them (because the only way to learn this stuff is to do it, and you need an idea urging you on).

Anyway, the dream involved a small group of people who had been in some sort of aircraft (something orange and vaguely resembling a space shuttle) when it crashed in some isolated rocky frozen location. Deprived of all their communication technology and lacking almost all survival gear necessary to survive there, when they spy a set of Cyclopean metal doors set into a snowy cliff-face they have no hesitation about getting through them, though they assume it to be a secret installation of some government's. (Bypassing the security of these doors would presumably be the first challenge to solve in the game, but the dream hand-waved it, as all the Good Stuff was on the other side of the doors.)

Inside, they find themselves in a vasty shadowy warehouse/museum style place, full of computer banks and displays and stored modern human artifacts, all oddly mundane, but neatly labeled in a weird alphabet. Everything a modern human needs to survive is in this place, though arranged according to some inexplicable system, so that washers and dryers are on opposite ends of the place and there are no chairs anywhere near the tables, etc. Moreover, the place is frequented by Cyclopean metallic bipedal figures, who may be cyborgs or exosuits or straight-up robots, who are apparently maintaining the facility, but whose movements make no intuitive sense. Moreover, they don't seem to be using familiar senses - they can't detect a human running between their feet, but may inexplicably home in on one holding still behind a refrigerator. They are alien, truly alien - the survivors of the crash can't find a point of commonality that makes their behavior intuitive in any way.

The characters were all civilians who had deep distracting backstories and personal motivations that provided a lot of the sprawl my Viewpoint-I notetaker was trying to cut out. The game would ideally offer a selection of character avatars who could be played solo or in groups, possibly with AIs that could (simlike) run uncontrolled to allow a player to head-hop if she chose, all with individualized backstories and abilities that would affect gameplay. Pregame prep would involve choosing your team of survivors (I don't think the setting would lend itself to single-avatar play - you'd need to be in two places at once too often, given the hugeness and the lack of human-logical spatial connection among the exhibits), or perhaps being assigned one randomly and having to figure out how to make the best of it. You could have a lot of mini-adventures and puzzles, but the main three plot problems to solve would be:

1) Rescue/escape - using the materials at hand either to communicate with the outside world, or to repair the orange shuttle and leave.
2) Survival - as effective mice in this environment so full of useful stuff, yet so poorly designed from the point of view of human survival, dodging aliens whose behavior is bizarrely inexplicable.
3) Figuring out what in tarnation the aliens are doing here. Are they hostile, benevolent, or neutral? Are the scientists, soldiers, automata, reality TV stars? And what is the appropriate human response to whatever it is they are doing?

The biggest storytelling challenge here would be to establish the alien abilities, logic, and purpose in such a way that all the counterintuitive stuff in the warehouse's arrangement and the bipeds' behavior becomes logical when the character finally figures out the correct angle of view, without destroying the alien vibe. The chief coding problem would be to transfer that kind of logic to the AI, so that it behaves in a consistent manner that appears inconsistent.

I don't even play this kind of game. How in the world did I come to dream about it?