What does losing maximum sanity do for the player?

The mechanic of losing maximum sanity came relatively late in our prototype stage as I was thinking about ways to balance difficulty. I really like how it plays out, even this early in development while our game still has an unfortunate arcade-feel to it.

At the risk of speaking prematurely, I really like how the mechanic is shaping up, so I thought I’d talk about that.

How does it work?

Navigation and the way that areas link up is still something I’m actively working on (even more than I am the rest of the game), but the basic premise is that in Eyes Open, you’re venturing out of safe areas (cells) that act as save points and places for you to recharge everything you’re doing.  You leave a safe area, explore a bit, and then get back to recharge.

There aren’t any RPG elements or collecting aspects in Eyes Open, so there’s no real advantage to squatting somewhere; instead think of safe areas as check points as you navigate, or if you’re playing on hardcore difficulty, temporary reprieves or recharge stations.

As you interact with the environment, or stand nearby monsters, or otherwise have close encounters, not only your sanity decreases but your maximum sanity does as well.  The longer you spend outside of your cell, and the more time you spend interacting with monsters, the lower that will get, and your ability to recover from mistakes will steadily decrease.

Good things: It gives the player more choices to make

One of the things I love about Eyes Open is the way it forces the player to balance their different interests.  One of the big ideas behind the main character closing their eyes is to provide the player with an interesting choice – put people between a rock and a hard place and they’ll eventually come up with solutions to the dilemma: making dashes through rooms, blinking their eyes, finding corners to recharge in, and so on. The interaction between protecting your character from sanity loss or providing yourself with the needed information to progress is a constant short-term decision.

The maximum sanity mechanic provides players with a long-term decision on top of that as well; it gives you a limited amount of wiggle-room with the mechanics; you can abuse your sanity reserves and keep your eyes open all the time, knowing that in the long-term you might get into a situation where you need the sanity even more than now, or you can constantly hoard your sanity and put yourself in more danger in the short term.

It’s another way of forcing yourself to think rationally when you’re in a stressful situation, and introduce concrete costs to each action you take. Every decision has consequences.

Good things: It gives players some breathing room without lowering the difficulty too much

Eyes Open is (will be) a difficult game, but we’re not trying to make you lose.  The goal is to get players into a particular mental state: the more we stress you guys out, the more we want you to rise to the occasion and do amazing things.

But, assuming we do our jobs correctly, if you go into the finished Eyes Open like a standard arcade game or mini-roguelike, you will very quickly die.  The problem is that without some experimentation, especially on the early levels, it’s going to be very very difficult for us to get players into a different mindset, and to teach them the proper way to approach the game.  And while death can be a good way to do that, we don’t want to rely on it too much.  Death is a very real penalty for you to fear, not a teaching tool for you to embrace.

Giving players some initial wiggle-room to make mistakes in the early part of each level allows us to somewhat bridge the gap between cruel gameplay and hands-holding.  It’s not a perfect solution, and we still need to come up with creative ways for you to observe and learn about monster behavior without being reckless, but it helps.

Good things: It introduces a nice difficulty curve, driving tension forwards as you play

I wanted to introduce a good narrative arc of tension as you navigate through the dungeons, and that’s tough to do with a procedurally generated area.  The maximum sanity mechanic virtually guarantees that players will get more tense the longer they play, and that the final rush to get into a safe area will be narrow enough to be somewhat memorable.

I’m interested in players having a story that they can tell when they finish Eyes Open, and being able to use procedural generation to create a narrative is a really interesting concept to me. This helps with that goal.

What’s left to do?

Testing – a lot of testing. I’ve mentioned multiple times that the current build of Eyes Open feels too much like an arcade game for my taste.  That will change as we get larger maps and get map generation to be better; it’s an unfortunate side effect of the current state of our environments and the way that we currently do testing.

As we progress towards the final game, difficulty balancing, for monsters, sanity loss, and every other mechanic, is going to become enormously important.  We’re lucky that we’re working out of a college that gives us access to not only a lot of other game designers to test with, but non-gamers as well, so we’ll have a wide audience to bring in and just watch play the game. Still, balancing a big issue that needs to be acknowledged – neither Sean nor I are in a great state to playtest the game right now, because we’ve got pretty much every mechanic memorized like the back of our hands.

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