December 31, 2015 7:00 AM | Joel Couture
Despite stealth being a huge part of its play style, Overcurfew's Tidal Affair: Before the Storm (Tidal Affair) did not start off by concentrating on that genre. "The mind control mechanics were the first to come to mind. The stealth mechanic was second." says director Kevin dela Cruz. He was interested in a certain style of mechanic, one where the player could take control of enemies and turn them against each other. Adding stealth felt like a natural progression, and in the end, the two ideas fed off of each other to create a unique entry in the genre.
Tidal Affair is about a pair of thieves squaring off against dozens of dangerous, better-armed opponents. Manisha, the protagonist, has the power to control one opponent within a limited range around her, turning her enemy's power back on itself. To counteract this ability, Manisha herself is quite weak, and will die in a few shots. As such, players have to carefully use her powers to use enemies against each other while keeping Manisha out of harm's way.
It was the mind control that came first, though. Being able to manipulate an opponent would be fun to do, but there had to be a narrative or gameplay need for the player to do so. For a game about controlling enemies, the player would need to be dependent on the same foes that were out to kill them. This would require that the player character be incapable, or have a great deal of difficulty, in handling the situation on their own.
This would make sense of a weaker protagonist, one that would need to use cunning over brute force. "Stealth just seemed right for the feeling we wanted to convey when you use your mind control power." says Cruz. The stealth genre is all about using tools and your mind to get through a situation where you're outnumbered and overpowered. Also, where else would you find a better-equipped set of enemies than in a stealth game? Your opponents are naturally going to be strong and deadly in games of that genre, leading Cruz to choose it.
This also meant that Manisha's powers had to be limited. In keeping with the need for a weaker protagonist for a stealth game, her abilities had to have boundaries to keep her from becoming too strong. If she could control enemies at-will, not only would the game not be challenging, but it would render the stealth elements of the game useless. Why hide when you can rush in and take control of people? While mind control loaned itself well to a stealth game, it was the choice of genre that helped shape how the mind control would work. As such, most of Cruz's work was in setting boundaries for Manisha's powers, closing them in to keep the play interesting and challenging.
To do this, Cruz created a limited radius where Manisha could use her powers. "The placement of the radius in which you can control the enemy was thought out carefully, as was the amount of time the player was given before the magic bar runs out." says Cruz. This would force the player to sneak up on opponents to control them, which was an important factors in making the game feel right for the genre. It would also ensure that sense of the character's own helplessness was still in place. Being able to control people is great, but not when they hear you coming and shoot you before you can use your power.
The magic bar was another important limitation to keep that sense of weakness in place. The bar steadily drains as you manipulate one of the enemies, and when it's completely gone, you lose control. The bar does refill quickly once it's emptied, but it does leave the player vulnerable for a period of time with little to fight back with. Not only this, but the bar will empty completely the moment the enemy you're controlling dies, and has the added effect of leaving Manisha stunned and immobile until the bar refills. So, not only is your range limited, but so is your ability to use the power. In some ways, using it poorly can be more dangerous than not using it at all.
"We wanted to create a style that forces players to make strategic decisions and turn the odds in their favor." says Cruz. To do so, Manisha's limitations were created to get the player to think about their situation and create various strategies. Mindlessly taking control of foes and making them shoot each other to death would leave Manisha paralyzed and in a bad position with enemies closing in. You can't just run through the stages and take control of enemies, either. Making Manisha all-powerful would have made the game boring to play through a lack of challenge, but through the limitations that the stealth genre brought to her mind-control mechanic, things get more interesting again.
Getting this all to balance was the difficult part for Cruz. "There were some points during developments where things felt like they weren't coherent. At times, it felt like Manisha was either too fragile or ruled the world. It was tricky, but it never really threw us off." says Cruz. Manisha could use her mind control to instantly kill enemies, but having them die like that would damage her. You can let go of a controlled enemy to keep from running out your magic bar, and that enemy will be stunned for a few precious seconds, allowing you to find a new hiding spot. There is always a back and forth with every idea, working to keep from making the protagonist too weak or too strong.
Part of balancing also meant limiting some of the more powerful abilities the developers had in mind for Manisha. The ability to instant-kill without taking damage, swap positions with the enemy, or even come back to life after a failure were all tied to items you could pick up in the game, limiting the player's powers and encouraging careful play. "A lot of thought went into scattering the Patches (special abilities)." says Cruz. Adding too many power pickups would unbalance the game, but so would adding too few. It was all about finding that unique balance between being a fragile stealth agent and a powerful mind-controlling psychic at the same time.
The player's isometric viewpoint was also built with the mechanics and play style in mind. "The decision to go isometric made sense for what type of game it is. The mechanics required you to see ahead, so it just made sense. The isometric view helped the players see things preemptively." says Cruz. Sneaking up on enemies and coming up with an effective strategy was key, and the isometric view allowed the player to see a large portion of the play space all at once. You could take your time and plan without a corner cutting off your view or having some unseen enemy show up from behind an area you couldn't see. Cruz wanted you to plan out your attack carefully, and gave you a viewpoint that made that possible.
Still, balance is what makes that isometric view work really well. You can see a great deal, but enemies can hear gunfire from an even greater distance. You're given the tools to deal with a large, easily-seen situation, but there are still factors that are out of sight that could ruin your whole plan. As in everything else, it's in giving the players some great power, but giving that power a limitation that keeps the gameplay interesting. You can see a lot in an isometric view, but it doesn't encompass every factor. No plan will perfectly capture every possible element, adding in those fun surprises that create new challenges.
"We really wanted to push the genre into a different direction. We wanted to stay away from old traditions and offer something new to players." says Cruz. It started with giving the player great powers, and then asking how limiting those abilities could make the game more interesting in how it plays, what its story would be, and how the player can see the world. By keeping his initial idea firmly in-mind, Cruz saw ways to build onto it and bring something new to the stealth genre, working hard to balance it while also letting it evolve naturally.
Cruz's mechanic and genre choice fed off and necessitated each other, each filling in gameplay gaps and needs of the other to flow into a single, cohesive game. It took some work and testing, but it was the limitations of stealth and the great powers of mind control that shaped each other, each contributing to create that unique, challenging game that Cruz was striving to make with Tidal Affair: Before the Storm.
Tidal Affair: Before The Storm is available for $9.99 on Steam. For more information on the game and developer Overcurfew, you can head to the developer's site or follow them on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.