Monday, June 29, 2009

Meren Vangit (Trapped by the Sea)


An HUT project, Meren vangit was my first serious attempt at interactive storytelling. It's a branching-structure adventure story set in the age of sailing. Its outcome is based on the player's interactions with various non-player characters. Graphically, it looks like a book that writes itself based on the player's choices.

The Team

There were five people working on this product:
  • Jarno Väkeväinen acted as the project lead and created the UI graphics.
  • Olli Katila drew the various pictures on the pages on the book.
  • Osku Kannisto composed several atmospheric pieces of background music.
  • Jukka Larja did the huge job of both programming the game and implementing a scripting language I used to write the game.
  • In addition to coming up with the concept, I designed and wrote the story.

Technologies I Used

  • Special, XML-based scripting language developed for this project.

Story Overview

The player takes the role of the captain of a small vessel that's trapped, through powerful magic, in a small sea area consisting of three small islands. He must travel between those three islands, interacting with their inhabitants, and find a way to reverse the spell. During all this, he must make sure his crew stays loyal to him.

The Crew

In order to keep his crew loyal, the player needs to understand their personalities. This creates the true challenge of the game. The members of the crew are as follows:
  • Phileas, captain and the player character
  • William, a brave, stern, and snobbish first mate
  • Humphrey, an old and experienced boatswain who doens't like being bossed around
  • Elmer, an old and superstitious carpenter
  • Benjamin, a self-learned Native American doctor who prefers the scientific world view
  • John, a charming and flirtatious sailor
  • Horace, a cynical sailor fed up with sea life
  • Edmund, Horace's romantic son
  • Hutch, a mean spirited sailor who listens only to force
  • Alice, a strong-headed stowaway
  • Emil, a young and incompetent cook looking for appreciation
  • Jim and Jesse, two fearful, thieving ten-year-olds
  • d'Argenlieu, a contemptuous noblewoman booking passage on the ship


The player spends most of the game traveling between the islands, having adventures on them, and interacting with the crew. The islands are as follows:
  • Lost Colony, a townful of people with European origin
  • The Native Island, a jungle island with a Native American tribe
  • The Desert Island
The player can freely travel between the islands. On each island, there are adventures to be had and choices to be made. Eventually, these adventures lead to uncovering the mysterious spell and the means to its reversal. The choices the player makes during the adventures affect the loyalty of the different crewmembers. For example, on the Native Island, Hutch semiaccidentally insults the natives: letting them punish him pleases Benjamin but displeases Hutch and also William (who considers the natives less worthy).

In addition, there are shorter pieces of story, picked semi-randomly from a pool, that take place during the voyages between the islands. Each of them describes some kind of a problem (such as a storm) or a conflict between the crewmembers (such as William and Humphrey disagreeing on maneuvers). The player's choices during these, once again, affect the loyalty of different members. (Chris Crawford calls these "interstitial stories" in his book Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling.)

Finally, as the player attempts to lift the spell, the group is drawn into a magical dream reality that draws on their personalities, tempting them to disobey the captain for different reasons each. Good relations with the NPC, as well as good understanding on their personality, are the key to winning these confrontations. If large enough number of the crew come through these trials still loyal, the spell is lifted and the journey can continue.


Based on the theory that you learn best from your mistakes, this was a giant step towards my enlightenment. Here are some of the lessons I learned:
  • Don't bite more than you can chew. 13 interactive characters and a wide-arcing storyline with magic, adventure, racial issues, social conflict, and romance is a little too much for 5 credit points. All the characters ended up with skeleton stories, with far too little for the player to base character understanding on. The plot moves ahead similarly quickly, with little attention paid to detail or refinement.
  • If you don't have time to do your research, stay clear of historical settings.
  • Sometimes simple is just simple. The personality model of the crewmembers is very simplistic: they have only one number to describe their attitude. This number is adjusted manually for each crewmember whenever the player does something meaningful. It'd have often made sense to distinguish between, say, frienship, respect, and fear (punishing someone, for example, causes fear but loses frienship). In addition, I had to manually adjust all 13 NPCs in lots and lots of places, which soon became tedious.
All in all, it was a good learning experience, with lessons I've already used in the development of Lies and Seductions. Interactive storytelling is a very interesting line of study, and creating this game only made me more enthusiastic about it.

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