'Dishonored' Staffer Goes Indie with 'Unwritten,' a Strategy Game about Storytelling and Survival

By Joseph Leray

We haven’t covered Roxlou Games’ “Unwritten” yet here at MTV Multiplayer, mostly because there are about a billion Kickstarter campaigns games that all look fascinating, that all deserve your attention and money.

Here’s the thing, though: “Unwritten” has actually been funded and comes courtesy of designer Joe Houston, who earned his stripes on Arkane’s “Dishonored” team. It’s a lot easier to cover games that have made it out of the purgatorial mire that is Kickstarter, so here we are.

In “Unwritten,” you’ll lead a nomadic tribe toward God Mountain, interacting with other tribes, finding food, and passing stories down through the generations along the way. The randomly-generated maps, enemies, and story elements, coupled with the game’s permadeath, have Houston and his team to calling “Unwritten” a “strategy rogue-like.” The big-picture set-up is simple: move your units, turn by turn, across a hexagonal map.

Siidenote: “Unwritten”’s premise actually reminds me of “The Lost Tribe,” a mid-90’s edutainment game that taught me everything I ever learned about bear-hunting and cave-paintings.

Back to “Unwritten”: the hook is that your nomadic tribe must pass its oral history down as time goes on -- these “story fragments” will help you barter with allies and negotiate with other tribes, but they’re also the metric by which your clan will be judged once (if) they reach God Mountain.

The game’s story beats are played out through a branching dialog tree: when two rival tribes meet, their leaders regale each other with stories and legends about their respective people’s adventures, accomplishments, and exploits. Depending on which stories you choose to present (which are actually based on your previous choices), rival leaders may become your allies or leave the bargaining table disgusted with your behavior.

unwritten

In a recent interview, Houston points out that most players of AAA games don’t buy into the idea that their choices are important. “It wasn’t enough to simply make the player’s choices change the world, you also had to communicate to the player how the world might have been different if they had gone another way,” he explains.

“Many players are rightfully jaded by the illusion of choice in games today, so developers face an extra challenge when offering something different,” he continues. He hopes to remedy this by making each story beat a practical, tactile part of the game’s diplomacy and survival systems, effectively forcing players to pay attention to the choices they make.

It’s ambitious stuff, and joins other strategy games like Jon Shafer’s “At the Gates” and Ambient Games’ “Death, Inc.” in highlighting the breadth and scope of the genre: it covers everything from the former’s historical realism to the latter’s soul-reaping management sim. “Unwritten” hopes to add fantasy storytelling inspired by “Indonesian story telling masks, Native American rattle sticks, Maori warrior shouts, Mongolian throat singers, and more” to the mix.

Look for Roxlou Games to release “Unwritten” for PCs in August.

[Rock, Paper, Shotgun]

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