Water. Cool soothing liquid, scathing burning steam. Hardly a topic worthy of discussion for an article in an online magazine about multiplayer game programming – or so it would seem. For the third issue of Idea Breeding, I have chosen an esoteric theme to show how it is possible to get ideas for your game out of any possible topic.
Almost everybody has had contact with this elusive substance at one point or another in their lives, whether during a daring crossing of a threatening puddle, by a random strike by airborne waterdrops, or simply hiding in a glass or bottle. It is so common that one rarely thinks about it.
Water as Decoration
Water can be used as simply as ornamentation in a game. Nothing really provides the feeling of a real living world like water – streams which break the monotony in fields and forests, waves crashing on the shoreline, occasional rain and puddle-building will cause every true Celtic warrior to tingle with joy. And it is certainly a better choice than the explanation that "underground streams" provide the water for all of the plants on the surface.
Water as an Obstacle
Rain also adds an extra dimension to games. Besides the obvious atmospheric bonus a nice trickle can provide, imagine the possibilities of a great rainfall. Rivers can expand and cause flooding, deserts can become deathtraps thanks to flash floods. And even a simple drizzle will cause your lovely dirt to become mud, and slow your travelling rate. And isn't being literally bogged down the secret wish of every man and woman?
Water as a Border
One important use of rivers and seas is that of a border. You may not want your players to go everywhere, so you'll need some type of barrier. While deep forests are simply irritating, and mountains may be unbelievable, a giant river or a sea can provide a more realistic alternative. However, it is important to keep the water irregular in form – straight rivers and square seas have caused the death of more than one game.
Water can even be used as a temporary border. Imagine keeping certain areas away until people are capable of breaching that border – special combat areas on distant shores only visitable if you learn the "swimming" skill, distant islands you can visit only after you earn enough money to rent a ship, or even after learning how to build a raft yourself. By making your players overcome this border yourself, you have easily created a "newbie" zone for beginners and kept the rest of the world for more advanced players – making it easier to decide the "challenge level" of encounters at both locations.
Water as Life
Many role-playing games concentrate on the importance of keeping your character fed, and provide many opportunities for feeding him. Some games allow you to win meat and other food after a hard battle, others have friendly inns selling loaves by the dozen, if not even providing you the tools for baking your own bread from the basic materials. The roguelike games shine in their feature of having to consume the dead corpses of monsters you slay to keep yourself alive (and hope that the flesh is not poisonous or has gone bad).
There is no reason why it shouldn't be possible to include water as a vital substance within your own concept. While it isn't necessary to force players to consume a liter of water every four game minutes, it might be useful to keep a "dehydration" meter for games where there is little chance of obtaining fresh water – for example in space, where you only have a limited amount of oxygen and water, or in a dungeon, where the brackish pools are not necessarily the tastiest. Or in a harsh desert, players may have to rip the heads off of lizards and pour the blood down their throats to get enough liquid. Little stuff like this can provide an extra bit of realism.
Water as Information
There are new age beliefs which claim that water has the ability to save information, to save its "experiences". Whether or not it's true in real life, this can lead to interesting possibilities in an online game world.
An alien race may encode its entire knowledge in water instead of silicon, making water pollution not only an environmental hazard, but a data hazard as well – pollution as a variant of viruses. An entire society could be developed whose members war against each other for their water-engraved knowledge, and who use certain distilled chemicals to sabotage others.
Another possibility would be a world of Aquamancers – a world where magic is too fickle to be inscribed in magical tomes, so it only exists in liquid form. Mages are powerful psychics who can "read" the contents of water after ingesting it. Whole industries form out of "mining" water for valuable information and spells. Evil mages kill in order to drink the blood of others and consume their information – a nasty variant on the vampire theme.
One Fish Down – Two More to Go
Ever since an ancient prophecy foretold the destruction of the world through the three Windfish, mankind has attempted everything to discover their locations and rid the world of their menace. After the first Windfish was discovered five centuries ago in the Great Ocean, great battles shook the world as fleets of ships attempted to capture and kill the gigantic thousand-foot monster, which retaliated by eating entire ships and using its powers to create devastating earthquakes. In the last three centuries, the oceans have been pumped dry, and during a five-day campaign the first Windfish was finally bombed out of existence.
The cities are now ruined, and all free liquid on the world is kept within gigantic dams on the Usher Plains. Apocalyptic cults worship the final two Windfish who are still hiding in unknown locations, and world leaders fear that the end times are arriving. The world has turned into a disintegrating dystopian police state.
Fear of water is now widespread, and a single, rare rainfall has been known to create panics and hysterical riots. People rarely drink the "devil's liquid", instead using cartridges to pump it directly into their blood. The military regularly flies over the world to discover free water and remove it as fast as possible.
In this world, the players arrive – to battle the cults who attempt to destroy the dams and awaken the Windfish, fight against their own water aquaphobia, and maybe, just maybe, discover hints of the location of the last two Windfish before they destroy what remains.