I missed my September post since I was a bit busy with PAX and working on getting some demos out to a small external audience, so let’s go ahead and use October to cover what I wanted to talk about next: the technician’s tools.
Tools have been a key part of the game concept pretty much since the beginning, but have gotten nowhere near enough development or design time as they’ve needed. Since I’m still aiming on getting The Technician ready for an Early Access release by the end of 2018, it’s time to play catchup on that front and bring a few of the tool designs into the game proper. As usual though, let me start with some general spitballing and summarizing of my current thoughts on how tools should work, what gameplay concepts I’m attempting to drive with them, and how I’m either succeeding or failing (spoilers: it’s mostly the latter) at doing so currently.
The Big Picture
Frantic puzzle solving and working under duress has more or less always been the goal, so: how do the tools help with that? Well, ideally they’ll serve a few different purposes and should:
1 – Give you more options to think about.
2 – Provide different (and hopefully fun) interactions for you to do in game.
3 – Add to the “push/pull” that brings you in and out of danger.
I should probably cover what these things actually mean (at least to me,) too. To the first point: when you’re reading a board and trying to figure out what it is you’re going to do, you should have several options at your disposal. This should make the puzzles feel less linear and give you more of a feeling of actually “hacking” the thing. As for the second: flipping switches and pulling cables starts to get pretty old after a while. Different tools should introduce different interactions to keep gameplay varied. Lastly: it turns out that pulling your attention back and forth between puzzle solving and getting shot at is a tricky thing to do properly. My current attempt to solving this problem is by distributing aspects of puzzle solving to require physical movement between tasks, and the tools are a key method of doing so.
Let’s look at what tools are currently kicking around in game and what they do. These tools are all part of “the kit,” a crate full of goodies that the technician and their cohorts have smuggled in to help them with the job or breaking in to whatever it is they’re breaking in to. The kit includes several traditional tools that the tech can grab and use, as well as several built-in, stationary components.
The injector is a pretty basic tool that has shown up in some previous posts and images. It’s a handheld device with a corded connector that can attach to several different component with the matching plug. Once connected, the technician can use the buttons on the device (or the buttons on their VR controller) to change the numeric value that the injector is sending. This is obviously most useful when dealing with the parts of puzzles that involve registers, ALUs, or other data-ful components, though any non-zero number will count as power for purposes of the ‘dumber’ components, as well.
The primary design aspect of the injector is that it’s physical and handheld. You need to grab the injector to move and use it, and you need to grab the connector on it to plug it into the various components you want to interact with. This means you’ll need at least one hand free to manipulate it, and the cord on it means you’ll need to be near the circuit boards themselves. The end result is that you’re in a dangerous area with your attention divided and frequently unarmed as you put your gun down to work.
The registers I talked about in a previous update aren’t the only components capable of storing data. These memory sticks (in a fairly liberal interpretation of RAM) can also store data, and can be move around from memory slot to memory slot. Updating the values in these is often not a simple as updating registers via the injector tool; enter the rewriter. The rewriter is built into the kit itself, meaning that the tech needs to move between the board and the kit as they use it, in contrast to the portable injector which the technician will often bring to the circuitry and leave there. They rewriter isn’t as immediate as the injector either – it needs time to access the mounted devices before it can read/write data to them. In some cases this might mean the player can take a breather in the relatively safer space where the tools are. On the other hand, sometimes the pressure of the encroaching guards can make those extra few seconds very costly.
The Neural Link
The ‘NL’ jack isn’t really a single tool, but rather a whole set of them. It’s also fills the role of a critical cyberpunk staple: cyberwear. This tool is physically attached to the technician at all times. To use it, the tech simply grabs the plug from behind their right ear and yanks it out. Similar to the injector’s plug, the NL plug can be connected to any ‘neural interface’ (or similarly labeled) connector found on various components. Once connected, the tech can interact with the target component via numerous internal programs.
Right now there are two programs to match the two current neural-enabled components. One is a brute force reader program designed for use with some of the blind registers that I talked about previously, replacing the injector-like handheld that you may have seen in that post. The other is an override function that enables you to alter the state of certain power nodes. This also replaces the other injector-like handheld that can be seen interacting with these “aux power” nodes in the announce trailer. Both of these programs take time; the reader takes time to access the target register, and the power override, while fast to activate, only functions as long as it is connected.
In both cases the tech is effectively leashed to the circuit board area by the cable attached to their head, making this another tool enabling puzzle design to dictate the tech’s positioning in the play area (and subsequently, in higher danger.) As I mentioned, it also removed several duplicate handheld tools, and thus the need for me to model and texture new ones (since I was, of course, just reusing the same asset for development.) This is just a happy coincidence and not abject laziness, I assure you.
The Injector, the Rewriter, and the Neural Interface are the three tools I have today, and hopefully you now understand what they are used for and why I created them. So how well are they helping to fulfill those primary goals I mentioned before? Unfortunately, not very. They’re a step in the right direction in some places; the injector is a straightforward way to interact with circuit data, the rewriter adds complexity and options to those interactions, and it feels fun to pull a cable out fo your head and plug it into the wall. However, there’s still a lot of work to be done both in tool creation itself and in leveraging them when designing puzzles. The ability to push/pull the technician around is there, but the variety of interactions and available options presented to the player still feels somewhat limited. I hope to remedy this as I continue to add new tools and components to the game, but in the meantime hopefully these ones are still fun for you to use!