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Theming and Naming

I tend to make really abstract games. Auralux, my first full game, is about dots colliding in space. Bombball, my second, is about circles pushing each other around the screen. That’s my style! As a game designer, I’m primarily focused on gameplay mechanics rather than narrative, and I’ve always appreciated the mechanical freedom that abstract games offer.

Darknet is different. This time, my game actually has a strong narrative theme: Cyberpunk Hacking.

That said, I have to confess that it’s not really so different from the abstract shapes and mechanics in my other games. “Hacking” as represented in games and movies is pretty ill-defined, with a wide variety of depictions, all of which are bullshit (but fun). I see this as a major advantage! I get the best of both worlds: a strong narrative context and plenty of freedom in the game design. Even though “hacking” is not quite a blank canvas, it still feels a lot like I’m making an abstract game; Darknet’s cyberspace is built out of glowing hexagons and polyhedra, and I can define their meaning however I want. The world is well-defined mechanically, but narratively vague, and that suits me just fine.

There is, unfortunately, a major challenge that comes with abstract mechanics: naming things. If I ever want to formally tie the mechanics to the theme, or if I ever want to talk to the player about what they’re seeing, I need to give a name to all the objects and actions in the game. And I’m terrible at naming things.

The theme is somewhat helpful here, since I can borrow terms from computer security. The player has an attack that reproduces itself, so that’s a “virus”. A shield that makes hacking more difficult can be a “firewall”. It’s a cyberpunk game, so it needs to have some “ICE”. But already I’ve started to run out of well-fitting computer security terms. Not everything can be a “virus” or a “firewall”, and there are a lot more things that need names!

At one point, I ended up finding a network security glossary and pulling terms from there. Could I use “man-in-the-middle attack” anywhere? Or “DDoS”? What about “daemon” or “Trojan horse” or “rootkit”?

This devolves very quickly into the kind of faux-tech-speak that you often see in film and TV. It could be possible, in Darknet, to “drop an exploit into the root proxy” or “nuke the kernel sector with a logic bomb”. Because I’m designing the gameplay first and adding the terminology afterward, I’m essentially putting together a pile of jargon.

And I don’t think that’s a bad thing! I’m happy to reference the old, ridiculous fantasies of hacking. Darknet takes itself seriously, but I’ve never felt the need to make it realistic.

This does, however, reveal something uncomfortable about the game’s attitute toward narrative. I’ve written before about how I’m not in love with traditional cyberpunk (see Technolust for an example of a game that is). I quite like the cyberpunk hacking theme, and I’m trying to make it fit well to the mechanics, but there’s never been any question in my mind about which comes first: I’ll always prioritize better gameplay over better narrative. What worries me is that Darknet’s players might not have the same priorities. If they enter the game with a desire to feel like a futuristic hacker, I hope to fulfill that fantasy and to surprise them with great gameplay. But I ultimately care more about the latter, and I hope that they’ll still be satisfied with that.

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