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[encrypted] Takes the Deepest Video Game Genre Into Elusive New Realities

Niall Moody reimagines roguelike gaming with decryption, generative sound.
August 17, 2014, 10:30am
Screenshot from [encrypted]

In the gaming world, "roguelikes" are role-playing video games featuring tile-based mechanics and turn-based gameplay. Typically occupying the space of high fantasy, they seek to explore the labyrinths of the mind. But a new game created by UK-based designer Niall Moody (So Many Jagged ShardsExplosive Transcendental Circulatory System) seeks to turn the roguelike on its head, subverting it into an audio-visual alternate reality where users might hack their way into an entirely new version of the game.

Moody's high-concept roguelike variation began as an attempt to build an abstract set of glyphs for his already in-development [encrypted]. (Glyphs in roguelikes are typically characters set against colorful foreground and backgrounds.) What was intended to be a month-long project grew into something much bigger and experimental.

"[encrypted] was originally born out of a conversation with Jonathan Brodsky of Lucky Frame," Moody told me. "We were talking about roguelikes, and how their turn-based nature encourages the designer to focus on the game's systems, and the ways they interact with each other."

Instead of concentrating on roguelike gameplay, Moody wanted to fixate on the game's visual aesthetic with ASCII graphics. The fantasy roguelike Brogue, which has players descend into a subterranean dungeon to retrieve an amulet, proved a formative influence. But, Moody wanted to bring something new to roguelikes, while still harkening back to the genre's indie ancestry.

Moody also noted that [encrypted] isn't actually the game's proper title. The game's real name is contained in the four big glyphs on the title screen. So, [encrypted], he said, should also be described as an Alternative Reality Game (ARG). That is, all text in the game, including the title screen and the message display below the main game display, is encrypted English text.

Moody said it's possible to decrypt this text and discover an entirely different aspect of the game. Right now everything needs to be decrypted manually, but for the game's final release, Moody will add "hooks" so that players can code their own decrypter, making the game decrypt itself on the fly.

"At the moment, you'd have to decrypt everything manually, which would be fairly masochistic," he said.

As Moody noted, the game borrows heavily from  Michael Brough's Zaga-33and 868-Hack, as well as Lucky Frame's Nightmare Cooperative. What Moody likes about this particular lineage of roguelikes is the way they simplify and streamline the game mechanics in comparison to more traditional excursions into the genre.

"Typically, roguelikes have a lot of systems and numbers to keep track of: stats, status effects, XP/leveling, inventories, pets/allies, etc.," Moody explained, "and that's great, but it can make for some incredibly deep games with all sorts of fascinating strategies for the player. From a developer's perspective, though, creating a game like that is an enormous amount of work. There's a reason most of the big roguelikes have been in development for decades."

With [encrypted], Moody wanted to create a Brough-like game with fewer systems, one designed specifically to generate interesting interactions. He didn't want any text (English), aiming instead for abstraction, while still allowing players to intuit what is happening. As a result, [encrypted] will allow players to see that each enemy has a particular way of moving, or a specific action to perform. And, after a few plays, Moody said that gamers should be able to predict what will happen on any given turn.

What's also really interesting about [encrypted]] is that it deploys experimental audio alongside the abstract visuals. There are two parts to the game's audio. In the first part, the sound itself is entirely generated by the game, using a collection of synthesizer and audio effects algorithms. In a video Moody posted of his work on this "procedural audio," the sound and visuals "smear" and distort in almost psychedelic fashion.

Moody said that the game incorporates two subtractive synthesizers (where low-pass filters alter the signals' timbre), as well as kick drum, clap, and hi-hat synthesizers. These synths are then run through a sequence of audio effects including two granulators, one delay, a bank of eight tuned comb filters, one distortion, and one combined bit crusher and sample-rate reducer (toggled for explosions). This will result, as Moody described it, in a very dense, distorted sound, with a lot of interesting overtones and resonances.

The other part of the game's audio can be found in how the synthesizers are triggered. [encrypted] uses a small collection of simple algorithms to determine when to trigger each synth. This is carried out on a bar-by-bar basis, so each synth has an associated step sequencer, and the game periodically writes new patterns into that sequencer.

"The one exception is the drone (subtractive) synthesizer," said Moody, "which has the same pattern throughout the game in order to sustain its drone. Essentially, all the audio in the game is generated entirely from code; there are no samples, and no precomposed musical passages."

Moody explained that this means that, when listened to as a standalone piece of music, the audio would not work particularly well. But, in the context of the game, it adds to the game's mesmerizing tension.

"The game does a lot to put pressure on the player, with the constant enemy attacks and environmental hazards forcing them onwards," he said. "And this particular combination of synthesizers and effects and procedural patterns seems to really heighten that pressure."

As far as gameplay is concerned, [encrypted] mostly follows the usual roguelike mechanics. It's turn-based, and players can attack the enemies by bumping into them. This form of attack is, as Moody explained, a dangerous proposition, so picking battles carefully will be a big part of the game. And each enemy has a unique ability which players can collect and use themselves after the enemy is vanquished. The ultimate goal is to stay alive as long as possible.

Moody is hoping for a September release date, but said that could be a bit optimistic. His progress can nonetheless by charted at Make Game.