It took developer Uppercut Games a long time to find City of Brass’ design linchpin.
The team knew that their game would be a first-person roguelike, and that it would be set in a procedurally-generated Arabian Nights city. But beyond its exotic setting, how could they make their game stand out in a crowd of indie roguelikes?
The answer came during the three-hour drive between Uppercut’s home city of Canberra, Australia to Sydney to show Apple the iOS port of its beautiful 2015 sailing adventure Submerged.
“What if we make a whip the thing?” said director Ed Orman. “Think about all the things you can do with a whip!”
It was an idea Orman had been considering for a while, having been thinking about one of City of Brass’ core inspirations, Derek Yu’s Spelunky. In Yu's classic platformer, your whip is a crucial tool used for defeating enemies and destroying objects, and Orman knew the two games were similarly structured to send players on a journey through a contained number of levels before reaching the end. Or (more likely) death.
But while City of Brass’ whip has many of the essential functions as Spelunky’s, its place in the game is very different. Wielded in the left hand, pressing the left trigger or right mouse button will send it lashing out to hit targets at medium range. Crucially, it doesn’t do any damage to enemies, instead pushing them back and stunning them.
"The one-two punch that’s taught in the first level of BioShock stuck with me as a design element."
Damage is instead dealt with the short-range flashing scimitar in the player’s right hand. In concert, the pair create a combat model that’s about manipulating enemy movement with the whip and finishing them off with the sword.
In other words, it’s about the one-two punch, something that also helped make BioShock’s combat so satisfying. Remember firing off from one hand the Electro Bolt Plasmid to shock a splicer into submission, and then bashing it with the wrench?
“The one-two punch that’s taught in the first level of BioShock stuck with me as a design element,” says Orman. “I always loved that combinatorial stuff, so once we came to the idea of manipulating enemies it pointed to BioShock’s one-two punch.” And he, along with several other members of the studio, know BioShock very well, because at 2K Australia they worked on it.
On a conceptual level, the whip immediately fit into the game. The team had already planned that enemies would have hit locations, and having lacked much of a plan for what to do with locational hits other than hit reactions, the whip suddenly opened up the opportunity to have a range of different effects depending on where it hits.
The nature of those effects were based on the kinds of enemies that infest City of Brass. Its procedurally-generated city is populated with the undead, so the natural response to whipping humanoid enemies in the leg was to send them falling to the ground. Whipping their head would stun them for longer to make up for the head’s smaller hitbox, or whipping their weapon hand would cause them to drop it. It would have no effect on torso hits.
This scheme was extended to every enemy in the game, but the team quickly realized that there was a problem. “We got a very homogenized, samey feel to everybody,” says Orman. So the team went back through the roster to introduce interesting wrinkles.
“These guys can’t be stunned because they’ve a cage around their head," Orman continued. "Or they can’t trip because they have no legs, and these can’t be disarmed because they don’t hold a weapon. You have to take away some of those things to keep the variety in there.”
And then, as more varied enemies entered the game, the whip’s place in the combat design found new niches. Shielded enemies can’t be whipped unless you hit their feet, and when fireball-hurling magic users were added, one member of the team suggested being able to whip the fireballs back to their sender, offering the opportunity to reward quick and accurate play. “That kind of interaction, whenever it sprung up we tried to pounce on it and gear it up.”
"If the whip does damage, it removes choices and it got fundamentally more boring. You just keep whipping guys and eventually they’ll die."
The golden rule was that the whip could never deal damage on its own. “There was actually a point where we discussed getting rid of the sword completely if the whip is our big thing,” Orman says. “But if the whip does damage, it removes choices and it got fundamentally more boring. You just keep whipping guys and eventually they’ll die.”
On top of that, City of Brass doesn’t require you to kill anything other than the several bosses strung out across the 14 levels it takes to complete a run, another reason why Uppercut needed to give players a tool that performs other roles. But even then, Uppercut found themselves breaking their rule because there are abilities that players can pick up, such as a flame upgrade, that sneak damage in. “It’s fairly rare,” says Orman to justify it. And besides, such are the affordances of systemically-driven games.
The sword was also designed to have a very specific cadence in the game, slashing with a deliberate sense to the tempo of its wind-up and cooldown that requires careful timing in order to be effective.
”The delay on the sword was partly to get that sense of stepping into an attack,” says Orman. “The way I use the sword is to anticipate; I’m two steps away from an enemy and I press the sword to attack so that one step forward puts me in range, and that feels like a more satisfying impact.”
The whip, meanwhile, expands beyond simply manipulating enemies. It can latch on to rings set high in the levels to allow the player to swing, gaining speed and height to give new opportunities for traversal. “Once you could avoid some of the traps that way, it really changed how we thought about the game. We added more abilities for movement in there, all because the whip was there. So it had a flow-on effect to pretty much everything in the game.”
And then Uppercut introduced extra elements (whipping flasks of oil makes them explode, for example) and more moves: a shove that can create distance from up-close enemies and push them into traps, and a whip-grab that will pull enemies towards you, serving as the ideal counter for shielded enemies.
“The whip-grab came on late; people are surprised we didn’t put it in earlier,” says Orman. “Our first implementation was that if you hit an enemy anywhere other than the hit locations, it should grab them and drag them towards you. It was disastrous, because now if you were screwing up you were making your life harder in unintentionally making enemies stand next to you. So that got changed rapidly, but we loved the ability, especially in a world with traps.”
Traps are a major part of the game, another direct inheritance from Spelunky, and as in Spelunky you can use the whip to trigger them safely from a distance, allowing you to move through them while they reset.
And from this idea more uses for the whip materialized. Whipping pools of molten rock later in the game will throw a fireball away from the player.
“It’s hard to use, but it comes up occasionally. Knowing you can get some effect out of traps is important,” says Orman.
This toolset, comprising timing and positioning, shoves and grabs, exploitation of environmental hazards, and traversal, provides rich choices for action. Whipping the distant skeleton swordsman in the leg to reduce its threat, for example, then lunging for the weaker runner zombie to kill it, and then whipping the oil flask to set the swordsman on fire. For experienced players, every action is deliberate and calculated.
“I think the one-two punch makes you feel clever,” says Orman. “It’s because you’re actually not treating the enemy as a bullet sponge. There are plenty of games I enjoy in which you do pile bullets into people, but the combinations and manipulation make you feel you’ve done something smart. When you whip a guy in the face then step in and do a finishing move, you feel you’ve done something smarter than just hacking away at a number system. That’s also part of why the health of enemies is actually not very high. We only have a couple of sword-sponges later on because you want to have that satisfaction.”
Other first-person roguelikes (like Ziggurat and Immortal Redneck) tend to trade on Quake-style traversal and twitch challenge, so City of Brass feels distinct in the genre for following Spelunky’s template. Like Spelunky, it demands that you learn how each enemy works and the best strategies against it.
And it all emerged from the whip. “Once we hit it and pushed it, the whip became everything about the game,” says Orman. “Nobody else was doing it at at the time, this idea of manipulation with a whip, let alone in an Arabian Nights setting.
Without the whip, I have no idea what this game would have become," he concludes. "We’d probably have leaned on magic, or some kind of world-manipulation mechanic, just because it’s what we find interesting. I’m glad we found it.”