Last time, I regaled you all with the frustration I was having with my brain picking up on an old game that it was interested in remaking.
Anyway, I realised that my frustration was in no small part because I asked the wrong question.
Ever see that film, “I, Robot” with Will Smith? The scientist guy gets killed and there’s a hologram placed in his lab with some pre-defined answers for Will Smith’s character. One of the first things the recording says is: “I’m sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right questions.” And at the end of the conversation, after Will Smith’s character figures out something important, “That, detective, is the right question.”
And so it was with Tower of Babel. It’s like a song that someone says a line from and then it’s stuck in your head all day and you can’t stop humming it or tapping it out, it’s stuck in my brain, and entwined with that, the question “How can I make it better?”
And that’s the wrong question, because it limits your field of response. It doesn’t matter how the question’s phrased, if it’s asking ultimately that question. E.g. it’s still equally flawed if we were to ask ‘what can I do to improve it?’
You see, the problem is we don’t have a qualification on the term “better”, so that for any subjective definition of the word ‘better’, our hands are tied. Changing any one element may make it subjectively better, but objectively we cannot know that – because we haven’t found out what is actually wrong.
There’s a thought for you: if we were to blindly change things in the name of improvement, we stand a reasonable chance of tripping over all our old friends, like solving the wrong problem (e.g. changing an aspect of the game that is carefully balanced and shouldn’t be altered, in the naive hopes of ‘improving it’) or a solution in search of a problem (nothing wrong with what we had, therefore any directional movement is potentially negative)
So, we need to flip it around. Instead of trying to push towards a ‘better’ place, we need to stand outside and look at the ‘worse’ place and figure out how to pull away from that. So instead of asking how I can make ToB better, I need to look at what’s actually wrong with it currently.
Then I start being able to make sense of the fragments of ideas I have, by asking what’s wrong. If you’re not interested by this game, or the things I’d do with it, you probably should stop reading, because there’s just a lot of talking after this that probably won’t interest you at all.
Firstly, the graphics. They’re 20 years old, and also mostly kept intentionally simple. The robots are all 3D models but look the same from each direction to keep rendering simple. It means that from any camera angle, you can’t actually tell which way a robot is facing.
So not only would I redo the graphics to look more modern, I’d also make sure that each robot was distinguishable at a glance (it is now, but only because it’s relatively abstract), and that you can also tell what direction it’s facing.
That also has an interesting gameplay twist: in the original, robots could turn near-instantly through 90 degrees. I’d probably make it more of a considered move, so that you get the panning motion as you turn, and make it slower than it was. It’d add a sense of immersion, and actually play more nicely, I think. I’d also speed up the robots’ movement, it takes about 5 seconds for them to move forward one step at present.
In fact, I’d probably go a bit further, and have it so that instead of articulated legs, it’d have two wheel runs, like a tank does, meaning it’d be able to turn on the spot, and would allow for new constructions like ramps between levels as well as using lifts as the game has currently.
Also this would affect the rotating robots: in some levels there are fixed laser and repulser robots, and some where they rotate every x seconds, but while you can tell the zapping and pushing robots apart, you can’t tell fixed vs rotating apart, and given that the game lets you look around a level with the cameras before everything begins (like before time limits kick in), that’s a fairly big thing to have to guess at.
I’d also look at revamping the sound. The original game had bland sound effects and little or no music, which gave it a fairly barren feeling, though in keeping with the game’s environment, I guess. I’d certainly add more sound effects, and probably a low volume music track in there somewhere.
But the real things to change would be gameplay related, and these would be the things to take most carefully.
The original game’s play was pretty finely tuned, but it had one interesting limitation: there were quite a diverse array of items, but not so diverse that too many permutations were possible, especially in the 8x8x4 playing field.
So, I’d definitely give more room to manuever. The main ToB remake goes for 16x16x6, while Triogical uses a 20x15x1 environment. Personally, I’m thinking there’s no reason why 32x32x16 should be avoided, provided that the robots’ movement is speeded up. Right now, crossing the landscape takes not a lot short of a minute, and that’s a bit too long, really for the size of it.
I’d also revamp the cameras, which also has gameplay considerations. In the original, the cameras were limited to viewing each robot in a first-person perspective, while most levels offered a mostly-fixed set of cameras, arranged one per each of the cardinal directions, and with a limited degree of freedom parallel to the world – the camera would move up/down/left/right in relation to its starting point, but never angle closer to the world (though you could zoom in/out)
I’d provide those cameras with the ability to rotate the world a bit more, so robots could look up or down from their current position, and that the world cameras were a bit more free-roaming. This of course has gameplay considerations because some levels rely on the fact that the cameras aren’t available or aren’t that helpful (like tower 006: “But Cameras Give The Game Away (Maze 1)”), but level design can deal with that.
I’d also adjust the storyline. The original puts your three robots as being sent by a bunch of friendly aliens who are betrayed and left to rust in the trap-filled remains of the biblical Tower of Babel, and you have to get the robots through and rescued by their owners. Instead, I’d have them as some sort of military R&D vehicles and started out in a series of training exercises, only for the military base to be attacked and the robots deployed into a ‘real’ world environment.
Lastly, I’d add a new robot type, and some new mechanics to the game. The main change would be a Puller robot. The original trio is shooter/pusher/activater-of-items, and a puller robot would mirror the Pusher but by having a tractor beam, it’d be able to solve different styles of problem. Especially if present in a level with the Pusher and a puzzle that seems like it might need the Pusher.
I’d also add conveyor belts as a mechanic. Whilst the behaviour of a conveyor can be mimicked with a fixed pusher robot (as is done quite beautifully in one of the early levels, entitled “The Magic Roundabout”, to push a block around a fixed circuit), it is trivially easy to break, if ever there are two objects in the line of one pusher. Having a conveyor would fix that.
I already mentioned having ramps, which for some levels would avoid the need of lifts, and provide a different method for intra-floor navigation, especially if there are potentially more floors to go!
Then, I’d break one of the rules about the original game, which concerned objects not being able to leave the play area. No block (or item/robot) can be pushed off an existing floor, not even on to a floor below, nor can a block (or item/robot) be pushed off the lowest level of floor. I’d like to see some circumstances where you can push an item between floors, and even off a floor entirely – right now, you cannot manipulate a lift with an item on it, so you can’t collect something from one floor and use it on another.
Lastly, and possibly most game-breakingly, I want to add a new style of level to it. Normal levels take the form of shooting targets (and remembering that the definition of ‘target’ is less rigorous than first might be assumed) and/or collecting a number of energy modules. I’d also add escort type missions, where you collect an item (could even be another robot, or other non-player actor of some kind) and escort it through the level to another place.
These changes are designed to reflect the problem with the game that, ultimately, there are only so many variations on a theme that can be used, only so many types of puzzle that can be presented with the given rules and environments.
Oh, and I’d probably give it a steampunk look and feel, just because that would make it awesome, partly because well-executed steampunk harks back to a time when form and function were not separate and opposite constraints, and it serves to differentiate from the otherwise relatively bland aesthetic form of the original.