Friday, September 7, 2012

September Game of the Month: Dramagame Velvet Sundown

September's Game of the Month looks a little different than usual. A few weeks ago, I got an email from Elina Arponen of Tribe Studios with an invite to beta-test their game, Dramagame Velvet Sundown. (If it's a bit of a mouthful, it's only because Velvet Sundown is the first "scenario" in the Dramagame model.) Rather than a board game, this one is totally electronic.

Style and Gameplay

Dramagame is an online multiplayer roleplaying game. If one of the primary "axes" of roleplaying games is mechanical vs. narrative, then Dramagame is so far to the "narrative" side that at times it feels less like a game than like an interactive fiction exercise. That's not a bad thing, and it's intentional: there are few if any mechanics in Dramagame, and the stated goal is not to win or lose but to create an interactive, social shared experience.

A session of Dramagame--called a "show" to emphasize its narrative quality--lasts 45 minutes and can accommodate between 4 and 11 players. Each player is randomly assigned one of 11 characters, so chances are good that each individual game will turn out differently than the last. Unlike in many roleplaying games, there are zero NPCs; all the characters are player-controlled, and all the stories are player-driven. Much of the game is spent simply chatting with other characters, and the experience is the best when the most people are confident roleplayers.

To keep it a "game" at all, there are specific "quests" and tasks that each character is given. All of them involve interaction with other people: trading items, verifying identities, stopping trouble from breaking out, even uncovering hidden conspiracies. The only mechanical thing about it is that each item has a specific function, and deciding whether or not to use them can drive the story in vastly different directions.

Each show lasts only 45 minutes, so Dramagame emphasizes quickly establishing a character and jumping right in to make progress on your quests. As simple initial quests are completed, other more complicated ones can emerge; the best games of Dramagame weave a web that unites all of the characters into some dense tangle of plot lines. Shows are short on purpose; the game is designed for people who can't necessarily dedicate many hours per night to gaming but want to have a meaningful game experience anyway.

Analysis and Anecdotes

I've only been able to play through one show of Velvet Sundown, and even then I couldn't finish it because of some internet issues on my end. Still, it was great to see the game "work" as advertised--everyone quickly dug right in to the roleplaying and aggressively pursued their characters' goals. I got randomly assigned to play Mary, the first mate of the ship the game takes place on, and I was immediately alerted to three things I was supposed to work on: checking passports in my capacity as an officer of the ship (which seemed legitimate enough), scanning the IDs as an undercover agent of a corporation (which seemed a bit less so), and getting my flirt on with a dude named Cooper and convincing him to write me some poetry.

And that was only me--each of the four other characters presumably had their share of secret agendas too. It was a whole lot, almost an impossible amount, to get done in 45 minutes. That's probably intentional, too. If every character simply and quickly completes their quests, then there's no more narrative tension. As long as everyone still has something to work on, then something is still happening in the story. There was a lot of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" that emerged in my game, which makes enough sense but was still fascinating to watch given that "winning" isn't exactly the point of the game.

Elina says she and her team were influenced not only by computer games and RPGs but also by board games and even improv theater. There's a strong flavor of point-and-click adventure games, where one of the goals is to use items in combination or on other characters in creative ways. And the roleplaying side reminded me a whole lot of Burning Wheel, where each character is motivated by a set of personal beliefs and goals, and the game is about working with other characters to get that accomplished.

It's obvious that Velvet Sundown, and the whole Dramagame model, is still a work in progress. Tribe has clearly thought about their setting, and its details and back story, but so far not much of that detail has made it into the game. Similarly, the luxury yacht that the game takes place on doesn't have a ton of personality of its own; it would be nice to have an excuse to explore the ship and interact with it somehow. Tribe's plan is to work a lot more with Velvet Sundown, developing new features and content, and perfecting the model before moving on to develop new scenarios.

Overall Impressions

Dramagame is probably not going to appeal to everyone. There's not a lot of "play" in it, so Euro-game aficionados who delight in mathematically optimizing each turn of a board game probably won't find much here. Neither will RPG fans who are looking to play through eighty hours of an epic story and attain godlike powers by the end. But that's not exactly who the game's developers are targeting. Finally, if you're a hardcore console gamer interested in cutting-edge graphics and a lot of action, Dramagame might not be your thing.

On the other hand, if you're time-constrained and would like to have a meaningful, entertaining experience in a short time, you'll probably like Dramagame. Same goes if you've ever played a point-and-click adventure and wished it were multiplayer, or if the most fun RPG sessions you've ever played didn't involve a single die roll. Right now, the community is small and friendly--you might just as likely play with strangers from Denmark or the game's lead programmer--and everyone is excited and eager to hear feedback. At this point, there might be sort of a lot of feedback to give, but once Dramagame has time to grow, it should only get more fun.

Online, 4-11 players per game, 45 minutes, 13 EUR (about $17)