Developer Update #8 – Story & Narrative

Today we’ll take a look at the storyline of Core Decay, driving the player forward as they traverse the game’s 11 locations. Note that this does cover major plot points and contain full spoilers to the entire storyline, so if you would rather go in blind at the time of the game’s release, I would advice skipping this dev update!

Narrative Mechanics

Before getting into the story itself, let’s have a quick look at how it’s actually conveyed within the game. In addition to environmental storytelling, there’s two main ways the player gets exposed to the game narrative, both of which are entirely optional:

Data Logs

Throughout the levels, data logs can be found by the player. These logs are generally written from the point of view of facility personnel, and for the most part detail the unique backstory behind each facility the player visits.

Comlink Conversations

On multiple occasions throughout and prior to each level, the player will be hailed on a comlink device, which provides the opportunity to have conversations with key characters throughout the game. These are optional – the player does not need to actually open the comlink during a level – but if opened, they provide a way to delve deeper into the overall storyline of the game and get a deeper understanding of the motivations behind the mysterious organization behind the facilities that the player explores.

Game Intro

The year is 2089.

For decades past, the availability of natural resources has declined to the point of societal collapse. While a guise of government remains, the majority of nations are largely under the domain of massive corporations, the only ones in control of the remaining flow of vital resources.

Earth enveloped by natural and man-made disasters, ecological recovery is now a pipe dream. Late efforts were made, including the Borealis 1 installation – a multi-national project with the aim to restore the atmospheric composure of Earth – but all ultimately failed. There is no way back.

Yet there is a way forward.

At mankind’s darkest hour, in the most desolate place on Earth, a small diode flickers to life. Hastily wrapped coils receive a jolt of power. A large canister slowly slides out of a wall.

The crackle of a communicator is heard across the empty metal chamber.

Backstory

Core Decay takes place as civilization has begun to collapse past the point of no return. With no access to vital resources and enveloped by environmental disasters, nations have all but ceded control to powerful corporations, and those who remain are living out the final years of their lives with the knowledge that these years will be the last of humanity.

It is during this great cataclysm that you jolt to life within a cryogenic storage pod inside an abandoned, sinister facility, and is shortly thereafter contacted by a mysterious presence…

Game Events

This is a complete synopsis of the game storyline, and contains spoilers for all major plot points!

As the game starts, you are awoken by a mysterious entity, identifying itself as Echo and talking to you through a comlink device. While unwilling to divulge their identity or further information in general, Echo stresses the importance of your escape and reveals that you are currently located in a remote antarctic installation. Exploring the facility, you learn something significant is scheduled to happen in 5 weeks and find references to a cryptic Ascension Project along with coordinates to multiple hidden facilities across the earth.

After successfully destroying the antarctic facility and locating means of aerial transportation, you set off to one of these installations with the purpose of learning more, and over the course of several weeks explore four locations. In addition to finding a prison-like complex it appears you have visited before, you also learn of multiple secret projects related to cybernetic enhancements, artificial intelligence and more, along with multiple references of an elusive entity pulling the strings behind all these facilities – the Contingency Accord. Somehow these projects all seem connected…

At the fourth and final location known to you, you find records of an Icelandic installation known as the Borealis 1 – a well-known, globally financed facility intended to de-pollute Earth’s atmosphere. Originally hailed as the world’s solution to the atmospheric crisis, it was ultimately abandoned once more pressing environmental concerns arose. Traveling there, you learn that while it is indeed changing the composure of Earth’s atmosphere it is not to anything that could be considered breathable air. Furthermore, odd logs indicate that the Borealis 1 installation was constructed for a different, seemingly nefarious purpose to begin with. While not able to put together all pieces of the puzzle quite yet, the Borealis 1 does contain coordinates of several more installations, and so for several more weeks you keep exploring more sites in a hope to understand more.

These facilities slowly unravel the truth – the world’s remaining mega-corporations are all collaborating to reach an unknown goal, having formed the Contingency Accord many years back as a hidden network of conspirators. Concerned with the future survival of the human species above all else, the Accord seems to be pursuing drastic forms of human modification to reach that goal.

Ultimately, the last of these facilities sees you neutralized due to a disguised trap inside its reactor core, and you once more wake up in an unknown location. Hailed directly by the acting director of the Accord, who turns out having transcended their humanity long ago, you learn their goal is to forcibly alter humanity into a new, cybernetic species in order to survive the complete destruction of Earth’s ecosystem. As it turns out, the Borealis 1 installation originally had a very different purpose – years ago, the Accord had planned to release an airborne virus that would sterilize 99% of the Earth’s population, forcing a complete halt to overpopulation. When accelerated environmental decline would mean that ecosystems were collapsing to the point beyond repair, however, this plan was abandoned in favor of instead changing the very nature of the species to survive even complete environmental destruction.

While originally facing great obstacles integrating organic and synthetic components, it was discovered that reducing a human to a neurologically “silent” state – death – acted as a primer for synthetic integration, and would allow a “reboot” to take place where the organic mind was mapped to a digital one, implanted into the now lifeless body, and synthesis was achieved.

Entropy made this impossible to perform long after death, but within a small window this was the gateway to hybridization. The Borealis 1 was thus altered to release a modified strain of its original virus. Rather than mass sterilization, it was primed to cause global death – and with it the means for the Accord to enact their global “Ascension” of humanity. Not only would this render the remaining nations of Earth unable to object, but also allow the forceful conversion of every human being and the integration of a compliance chip for absolute control.

Once aware of the Accord’s plans you manage to fight your way through the hidden facility, and make your way to its central control chamber which contains the operation protocols of the Borealis 1 station. Before getting the chance to interact with the controls, however, you are once again hailed by the acting director who offers a final revelation – had you not realized already:

Given that you have performed cybernetic upgrades throughout the entire undertaking, and cybernetic integration is only possible after death… your actual body has been dead all along, a surviving test subject of the final process. The antarctic site a cybernetic integration research facility, you had originally been taken in through the prison complex visited earlier and subjected to the Ascension Project firsthand.

The final piece of the puzzle falling into place, Echo reveals itself to be an agent of the Accord, having sought out the destruction of their own facilities in an effort to cover their tracks as well as evaluate the performance of their creation – but vastly miscalculating the efficiency of a single Ascended being.

The director continues: A profound question emerged early throughout the Ascension process. Mapping a human mind to a cybernetic one, and then re-inserting the same consciousness into a body physically lifeless and animated through machinery… does one retain their sense of self?

You realize that you are the living case that even a forcefully resurrected and augmented human experiences a state of consciousness, if only at a subjective level. Surely your sense of self-preservation would have you agree with the Accord’s motives?

The director argues their case: While their methods may be cruel and enforced upon the global population of Earth, it is also the only remaining means of survival. Borealis 1 has been engaged for weeks, and the vast majority of Earth’s population will have perished already. Even if the facility was to be destroyed, only small pockets of life would be left, and Earth is deteriorating so fast that not a single generation will survive – which would have been the case even if the Accord had done nothing whatsoever. The Accord, the director argues, would in time be able to build up an equivalent of human society, disengage the compliance chip, and return civilization to a state worthy of humanity.

You are given a choice – agree to let the Accord complete their scheme and ensure humanity’s survival… or disengage the Borealis 1 station, destroy the Accord facility, and let the last generation of humanity live out their lives – perhaps without hope, but on their own terms.

Developer Update #7 – New Weapons & Enemies

The latest Core Decay development progress sees the arrival of a new weapon and two new enemies!

The Coilgun

This 6 round shotgun fires electrically charged pellets that deal a significant amount of damage. Rate of fire is slow, but it reloads very quickly and can be extremely effective at long range. Once weapon upgrades are implemented, the Coilgun will be able to receive one of two upgrades – it can either make the projectiles bounce off walls, or change its weapon type entirely to fire a continuous electric arc.

The design of this weapon required it to support reloading – which Core Decay did not have as a feature. Thus, I also spent some time implementing proper reloads where each weapon (with a few exceptions) has a magazine independent on the ammo pool which it reloads from. It definitely makes it a bit easier to have weapons be more distinct from each other, with more powerful weapons able to be offset by lengthy reloading or small magazine sizes – and vice versa.


The Mite

The Mite is a small, fast-moving enemy – it has no conventional weapons, but seeks you out when nearby to self-destruct. It deals a lot of damage but is easily destroyed if you spot it before it can explode. Be sure to listen for its characteristic beeping noise, as it likes to hide in ventilation ducts!

The inclusion of a smaller enemy also solved an earlier design challenge – ventilation ducts were always safe havens, which made combat a bit too easy since you could just retreat into an air shaft whenever threatened. This way the player has to navigate these areas more carefully, especially since movement is slower and a self-destructing Mite is much harder to avoid. Since levels in Core Decay features a lot of these smaller areas, it is a welcome improvement!

In the future, Mites will also be spawned from the Mite Nest enemy – a large, slow-walking mech that can create new mites and drop them around the level.


The Sentinel

The Sentinel is the most common long-range foe appearing throughout the game. It fires volleys of slow-moving, target seeking missiles that are relatively easy to dodge away from in open spaces but presents a significant challenge in areas where movement is more restricted.

The missiles themselves deal splash damage, so simply dodging away from the actual missiles won’t be enough if standing close to an adjacent wall!

The best strategy when engaging a Sentinel is either dodging its initial volley and taking it out quickly with a few well-placed shots, or close your distance making it unable to fire.

In addition to firing volleys of missiles, this otherwise slow-walking enemy has the ability to make quick backwards jumps, letting it further its distance from the player if cornered as long as there’s space behind it to jump.

This enemy actually started out as two versions – one long-ranged with missiles and one engaging in melee. Later on the intention was to merge the two into a single enemy that could engage either at range or close up, but ultimately I found that it’s more fun to have different, more specialized enemies than a single one that can handle any situation. The final enemy – which can only engage at longer ranges – lets the player use this to their advantage and makes it either very challenging or very easy to handle depending on distance.

The addition of the backwards jump mentioned above means the Sentinel isn’t entirely helpless up close, but will definitely want to distance itself as far from the player as possible.

One challenging thing about designing most of these enemies is scale – for gameplay purposes it makes sense for most enemies to be able to walk through doors, which means that the size of the Sentinel is roughly as large as they get. I’m exploring the idea of larger, room-constrained enemies though!

The enemy model uses an IK-based rig to easily be able to handle realistic walking and firing animations, in a similar fashion to the Mite enemy.

Next up is another weapon, and after that a bunch of levels! Stay tuned for more updates in the future. 🙂

Developer Update #6 – The Campaign

This entry was supposed to be posted quite a while ago and look at the new enemy types, but they have been somewhat delayed due to both technical and health issues – so instead here’s a smaller update on the structure of the campaign!

Core Decay will launch as a singleplayer game with a semi-linear campaign. This keeps the project reasonably small in scope – although I would certainly love to expand upon the game with multiplayer capabilities post-release!

Levels in Core Decay

There are 11 levels planned for the initial release of the game. While I initially looked at procedurally generating level designs, I ultimately decided on a hand-crafted approach since it felt more in line with the old-school approach of the game and allows for more deliberate level design. To encourage replayability there is randomization in most other game elements, such as enemies and pickups encountered, the leveling system with randomized upgrades, and so on – but the levels themselves are static.

On the “Veteran” difficulty level, all randomized elements are completely disabled – for those who desire a fully old-school experience!

Level structure approaches

When deciding on how to actually structure up the levels, there were a few approaches to consider:

Linear
Levels follow each other in a completely linear fashion. Most older FPS games follow this pattern, and it has strong advantages in how it lets you ramp up difficulty and complexity in a well-designed manner, as well as progress the story naturally. It’s the worst of the approaches in replayability however and there is no player agency involved.

Locked branching
This approach has the campaign structured into phases, and within each phase the player can pick which level to play, locking the other choice out for that playthrough. This enhances replayability but means that twice as many levels have to be made for the same campaign length, and makes story progression more difficult.

Free branching
This is the same as the above, except unpicked levels are still played – the player simply gets the choice of which order to finish them within each phase.

Fully free
All the levels are accessible at once and the player can do them in any order. This offers the greatest player agency and replayability, but presents far more of a challenge in both storytelling and difficulty/complexity ramping.

The level structure in Core Decay

Ultimately I decided to go with a variant of the free branching approach. The campaign and its 11 levels are divided up into phases:

  • Phase 1: Consists of a single introductory level.
  • Phase 2: Consists of 4 levels which can be done in any order.
  • Phase 3: Consists of a single story-driven level.
  • Phase 4: Consists of 4 levels which can be done in any order.
  • Phase 5: Consists of the single final level.

Some in-level balancing also accounts for the fact that the player will be more powerful between levels as they gain equipment and level up – but the main jump in difficulty will be between phases.

The level select screen (work in progress, names obviously not final).

Since the levels themselves are set on facilities across Earth, levels are selected on a world map interface which also offers some opportunities for worldbuilding.

The narrative

Although there is a heavy story focus throughout the level, emphasis is still made to have this part subdued and mostly opt-in on account of the player. Those uninterested in the storyline will have an easy time not engaging with the vast majority of it.

For those who do wish the engage with the narrative, it is primarily conveyed through two parts – comlink conversations with a side character, and datalogs found throughout the levels. Some conversations – such as those between campaign phases – always appear, although are easy to skip through should the player desire. As for the story itself, I will cover this in a future dev update as much of it is still finalizing – but overall it will focus around themes of cybernetics, AI, human consciousness, corporatism and environmental decay. It’s pretty classic as far as dystopian sci-fi stories go, but should nonetheless prove somewhat interesting!

That’s all for now – the next dev update should hopefully be showing the new enemy types in greater detail!

Developer Update #5 – Leveling & Cybernetics

In this update we’ll take a closer look at how leveling works in Core Decay! The leveling system is an optional part of the game (disabled in the “old-school” difficulty level) but it significantly boosts replayability and is a lot of fun to engage with.

Experience & Levels

Experience points are rewarded for a few specific actions:

  • Defeating enemies (more specifically, picking up XP globules from killed enemies – these globules disappear after a short while).
  • Finding secret areas.
  • Finding XP pickups.
  • Successfully escaping the facility during meltdown.

Once you have gained enough XP, you level up. This does not make you inherently stronger in any way, but it does grant a single upgrade point.

Cybernetics

Using an upgrade point – which you can do as soon as you level up or save it for later – presents you with a randomized selection of 3 cybernetic modules. If you don’t want any of the 3, there is also a fourth “Gamble” option which randomly gives you a different one without the ability to preview it first.

Cybernetic modules are passive perks that provide the player with a variety of benefits. They have no level requirement to show up, but some cybernetics require others to be unlocked first. They are also grouped by rarity, with rarer ones simply being less likely to show up:

  • Core: the majority of cybernetics belong to this rarity. They generally provide smaller or one-time bonuses.
  • Advanced: cybernetics of this rarity provide stronger bonuses. They are often upgraded versions of a Core cybernetic but there’s also plenty of unique ones.
  • Prime: cybernetics of this rarity are far less likely to appear but provide potentially game-changing abilities.
  • Experimental: This is a special rarity – experimental cybernetics are as likely to appear as Prime ones and generally grant even greater bonuses, but they all come with a drawback that makes picking them a careful decision.

The final version of the game is planned to have close to a hundred cybernetics. Here’s a few examples, note that most names are not final and will be replaced with more loreful alternatives:

Core Cybernetics

  • Transcendent: When respawning, you now start with full health instead of half.
  • Vitality: Increases your maximum life to 150 (from 100).
  • Rearm: Instantly refills your primary ammo.
  • Scholar: Increases XP gain by 10%.
  • Breather: Instantly destroys all nearby enemies.
  • Energy Leech: You gain energy ammunition when taking damage.
  • Module Regulator: Choose between 4 cybernetics instead of 3 when leveling up.
  • Hacker: You can now hack computer terminals to get location information of nearby enemies. Hacking takes 6 seconds during which you are vulnerable.
  • …and many more!

Advanced Cybernetics

  • Regeneration: While detected by an enemy, you regenerate 1 health per second.
  • Eye Scanner: All enemies now display health bars.
  • Health Leech: You gain a small amount of health by damaging enemies.
  • Spectral: You can move through enemies. While inside an enemy, weapons cannot be fired.
  • Nanite Injection: XP globules now heal you for a small amount.
  • Rebreather: You are immune to toxic gas.
  • Advanced Hacker: You can now hack computer terminals to disable nearby enemies. Hacking takes 4 seconds during which you are vulnerable.
  • …and many more!

Prime Cybernetics

  • Personal Shield: You gain a shield which can absorb damage and recharges automatically.
  • Final Stand: When taking damage that would otherwise kill you, you become invulnerable for 10 seconds and have unlimited ammo. After 10 seconds, you die.
  • Eye Scanner MKII: Enemies are now visible through walls.
  • Thorned: Enemies take damage when attacking you.
  • Master hacker: You can now hack computer terminals to make nearby enemies attack their allies. Hacking takes 2 seconds during which you are vulnerable.
  • …and many more!

Experimental Cybernetics

  • Synthetic Heart: Takes one life away, or reduces your health to 1 if you are on your last life – but gives you three instant levels!
  • Tesla Coils: Automatically damages any nearby enemies, but upon doing so also damages your armor. You will never take health damage from this.
  • Combustion: When respawning, an explosion kills or damages all nearby enemies, but you also respawn with less starting health.
  • …and many more!

You will note that some of these provide an instant, one-time bonus, whereas others are passive and will remain useful for the entirety of the game. The one-time cybernetics can be vital in turning the tide short-term, but it’s a careful balance of making sure you stay equipped with useful long-term upgrades as well.

Randomized vs. static upgrades

This particular approach to leveling and upgrades has been designed to provide a combination of replayability and player agency/customization, with an emphasis on the former.

For a while I was experimenting with a single static list of all upgrades, some locked by level, which the player could choose from each time they level up – similar to the approach used in the earlier Fallout games. While this does have the advantage of letting the player plan out their ‘build’ of cybernetics, there’s less replayability and seems to fit a bit worse into a fast-paced FPS where the leveling is more of a compliment than a huge mechanic.

Ultimately the randomization/rarity-based model means that you still have some agency (especially since some cybernetics require others) but mainly it’s about giving you a different experience each time you play the game.

The leveling system is enabled on the Normal and Elite difficulty levels. Since the leveling rewards are inherently based on chance, the system in its entirety is disabled on the Veteran difficulty which is designed to reduce randomization overall. This also makes Veteran feel more old-school and more reliant on level knowledge, which is by design – the Elite difficulty still provides a challenging experience with leveling enabled for those who prefer it.

Thanks for sticking with me on this very text-heavy developer update! Next week we’ll have a look at some new enemy types.

Developer Update #4 – The Roadmap

Update: Please not that the roadmap is somewhat outdated at this point. I’m still leaving it up for reference, but as of right now there is no specific target date for the public alpha release.

Welcome back to more frequent developer updates! Rather than go over specific game features, I want to take this opportunity to lay out a more detailed roadmap and path to the full release. I know this is highly appreciated by many, so I have spent some time detailing a schedule of game additions and releases.

The schedule is quite generous in terms of time since this is a one-man project and I’ll want to account for a variety of unexpected delays, but even so: any dates here are very much subject to change, and things may arrive later or earlier depending on external factors.

Fall 2019: Public Mobile Alpha

For the next several months, the main focus lies on finishing a playable mobile demo, with the primary purpose of gathering public feedback. This demo will feature two levels, a handful of enemies and weapons, and a vertical slice of the gameplay experience.

This demo will initially be available to Patreon backers – natively on Android, and on PC as a port of the mobile version (the full PC version will be available later during the beta stage.) A much as I would like to provide an iOS alpha as well, I currently lack the resources for this – definitely aiming to be able to do so for the beta though.

August

The remaining half of August will primarily focus on adding two additional weapons, both of which use all-new ammo types and will add some much-needed variety to combat:

  • The Coil Shotgun fires electric pellets and is highly effective at shorter ranges. While each individual pellet deals fairly low damage, the electric charge damages enemies over time as they are hit. It can be upgraded to make its pellets bounce off walls, or to fire a single electric arc turning it into a sustained fire weapon.
  • The Mine Layer fires small explosive charges that stick to enemies or solid surfaces. When hitting an enemy, they explode after a short delay. When hitting a solid surface they turn into proximity charges which explode once an enemy gets nearby. It can be upgraded to use EMP charges which has no area damage but disables enemies, or to turn the charges into tripwire emitters that link together – they cannot hit enemies directly but deal massive damage when used as a trap.

September

September is focusing almost entirely on new enemies. The floating Probe that has been shown in footage so far – while adequate for its role as cannon fodder – is definitely a fairly static and boring enemy to fight. This month will see the addition of a number of enemies of various behavior and engagement ranges for much more interesting combat. Here are a few examples – not all of these will be added by the alpha release:

  • The Compressor is a repurposed mining bot which uses its front-mounted mandibles as a powerful melee tool. While slow to move and turn, they can activate a movement boost to rapidly close up on an unsuspecting player.
  • The Mite is a small ground-based enemy that acts as a small mine on legs. It is the only enemy type that can follow the player into smaller ventilation ducts, and can crawl on walls and ceilings. A characteristic ticking sound makes it easier to tell they are nearby.
  • The Mite Nest is a slow-walking construct that periodically spawns enemy mites. Its own weapons are weak so it generally makes sense to prioritize it as soon as possible to avoid being overrun. When defeated it consumes itself in a powerful explosion.
  • The Immolator is a powerful enemy you will want to flank – in the front the Immolator is equipped with a powerful blast shield which has to be destroyed before it can take damage, whereas at the back it features an exposed fuel tank making it an easy target. Its armament is no less impressive: It features twin-mounted kerosene cannons that covers the player in a flammable material, followed by a smaller top-mounted igniter that sets the kerosene on fire and causes massive damage over time. Strategic players can trick the Immolator into covering other enemies in kerosene, and then ignite it with one of their own weapons.
  • The Drone is fast and airborne, and features a single-use missile launcher capable of dealing a moderate amount of damage. Each Drone is coupled with a rearming station, and after firing it has to return to be able to launch another missile. While fast, small and agile, a player can pursue it to its rearming station where it is vulnerable.

October

October is dedicated to finalizing two fully featured levels for inclusion in the playable alpha. With this there will also be a number of new environment props added, such as billboards and unique props. The following levels are planned for inclusion:

  • AR-1 Cryogenics– cybernetic experiments were undertaken in this Antarctic facility serving as the introductory level of the game.
  • Axiom Hub – this installation, alongside 47 others of the same design, was part of a massive project aiming at draining Earth’s oceans. It features underwater sections and some other unique design features.

November

This is where the first playable version of the game is made available! I am currently looking at releasing the playable alpha at some point in November – the weeks leading up to this will mostly consist of bug fixing, optimization, and refining existing features.

Winter 2019/2020: Feature Complete

The following months will focus on getting all the game features fully implemented. Many are in already, but some remain and will be added here:

  • A weapon upgrade system which lets you find Upgrade Kits and specialize your weapons with upgrades of your choosing.
  • Environment hazards: Acid (damages armor heavily, health somewhat), lava (damages armor somewhat, health heavily), poisonous gas (damages health directly, ignoring armor), and electricity (highly damaging but only if armor is empty).
  • Many more cybernetic upgrades! The game currently features about 30, but tons more are being planned.
  • Computer terminals – find story and lore datalogs, and disable/control enemies with the Hacking cybernetic module.
  • More enemies, weapons, and levels.

Spring 2020: Public Multiplatform Beta

At this stage I aim to roll out a public beta on all 3 target platforms (Android, iOS, PC) – still with only a handful of levels, but with the core mechanics and content much more fleshed out since the alpha version.

The public beta will be open to everyone, although Patreon supporters will get earlier access.

Late 2020: Content Complete & Release

The final release is currently being planned for late 2020 as a pay-once title without any in-game microtransactions. Any Patreon supporters of $5 or more will receive the game for free on all platforms!

Beyond: Post-launch support, expansion packs

Post-launch updates will be grouped into two categories – smaller patches and larger expansion packs. The former focus on bug fixes, balance changes, and quality-of-life improvements and will roll out as free updates, whereas expansion packs will be paid and provide a larger amount of new content. There are no concrete plans for exactly what these expansions will contain as I’m focusing on making the release version of the game everything I have envisioned.

Hopefully this provides some insight into the development schedule and process. As mentioned above these dates are still very much in fluctuation and with a one-person development process there are a lot of things that can cause delays, but nonetheless it’s a schedule to try to stick to!

Next week’s development update will detail the XP and leveling system, and the cybernetics/perks the player gain as they level up.