Among the many innovative games featured at IndieCade 2016, one game stuck out to me as being particularly unique. Stone Story, developed by San Francisco based developer Gabriel Santos, is a RPG adventure with an intricate ASCII art style comprising the whole graphical component of the game. Its an experience that was unlike anything else I’ve played in recent memory, with an indirect approach to gameplay that forced me to reevaluate the typical mechanics of other games in the genre. After 20 days of being posted on Steam Greenlight, and with 3,000 community upvotes, Stone Story is well on its way to a Steam release. I talked with Mr. Santos in order to find out more about his highly inventive project.
What is your background in the game industry?
By trade I am a gameplay engineer. However, I studied classic, hand-drawn animation many years ago and I guess it stuck with me. Game design is something I have slowly developed over the 12 years I’ve been in the games industry. During that time I’ve made lots of mobile games and a few for PC. My last published work is Mountain Goat Mountain, an addicting infinite climber.
Prior to working on Stone Story, you also developed a simulation game (also featuring an ASCII art style) called Pyramid Builder over the span of three days. Comparatively, how long have you been developing Stone Story?
I had been studying ASCII art since early 2013, just for fun. Development of Stone Story came in 2014 on the heels of another canceled project. This aesthetic had been on my mind, and the time was right to make a game of it. Pyramid Builder is more recent. I took a break from SS to participate in the Ancient Technology Ludum Dare. It was a good opportunity to develop isometric ASCII and get something out the door. Reception has been good, considering it is such a simple game and the animations are nowhere near as polished as those in Stone Story.
What additional elements did you need to consider and prioritize for this project specifically?
My focus is always on the user experience. Can the player understand the mechanics? With Stone Story I wanted to go really far, organizing and introducing each mechanic in a way that maximizes organic learning and eliminates the need for tutorials. Designing the world has also been a specific challenge in this game. It’s something that has pushed way beyond my customary skills, and I’m still catching up to it.
ASCII characters make up the entirety of the visual aesthetic for the game. How did you go about creating the detailed animations and implementing them into the game engine?
Finding the style and developing the language took time and experimentation, but producing the art is similar to other projects. Look for references, try various designs, find something that feels right. The difference is that in Stone Story all the art is typed in plain text. I ‘draw’ the animation keyframes, then do a lot of copy/paste to fill in the frames and modify those to interpolate the movement. Some meta-data is added such as color, animation time and layers that parallax on top of each other. Finally, a custom ASCII particle system adds some of the magic.
Another unique element of your game is the gameplay itself. Unlike many other RPGs, players don’t have direct control over their character as they move across each scene. How does this impact the gameplay of Stone Story?
As a player I love RPGs, but I absolutely hate grinding minor challenges. Having an A.I. do the dirty work makes sense if I can leave the intelligent decisions to the player. This has enormous impact on the gameplay. It allows the player to kick back or even do something else, then re-focus when something important happens, such as a boss fight or when something new is discovered. Because of what all other games have taught us, it’s a paradigm that catches players by surprise. It took several iterations to setup the early stages of the game in a way that teaches this pacing and sets the correct expectations. In current testing everyone seems to get it.
Did you go into this project with this distinctive gameplay style in mind, or were there other ideas floating around that involved more direct interactions?
The lack of direct control is quite purposeful and the gameplay has been built around that since the beginning. There was a phase in early development, however, where the game really wanted to be a Roguelike. I tried hard to make it work, but the fundamentals of Roguelike mechanics were not melding with the lack of direct control. Eventually I realized the game was simply a western RPG, after which everything fell into place. Since then I have designed another ASCII game that plays more like a traditional Action title, but with interesting innovations. I plan to make it after Stone Story is completed.
What are some media experiences that have inspired or influenced the development of the project?
Stone Story wouldn’t exist without the influence of master ASCII artist Joan Stark. Finding her works online changed me from curious about the art form to completely mind blown, and that set me down the path I am now. Gameplay influences come from Diablo, Golden Axe, Candy Box, Minecraft and Little Alchemy, with Dante’s Inferno inspiring the world design in many ways. Games that came out while I was already making Stone Story, and that had some impact on the direction include A Dark Room, Summoner’s War, Clash Royale and Non-Stop Knight. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint where the inspiration comes from. I’m sure it’s a subconscious mix of everything we play through the years.
Stone Story is currently in development, and is planned for a Steam release on completion. You can check out the official development site at StoneStoryRPG.com, or view discussions about the game through it’s Steam Greenlight page. Be sure to also check out Gabriel’s Twitter feed for frequent updates about both Stone Story and other projects he is currently working on!