Tales of the Knight Errant is a role-playing game without levels, boss fights, and experience points. Instead, it’s all about the decisions your character makes and how they affect the story as it unfolds. The game’s creative director Thomas Olson created it as his master thesis project, and he and his team are now working on fleshing it out into a full title, which will be available on iOS devices.
Olson showed off a short demo at the USC Games Expo at the University of Southern California earlier this month. I played as a gallant knight who was on an equally heroic quest of retrieving a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a fair lady. Olson told me that the ballad of the PB&J was actually just a throwaway story that the team created to test the game’s narrative engine — but people liked it, so they decided to keep it in as a showfloor demo.
The full game will have a different flavor. Among his inspirations, Olson counts Aesop’s Fables and Geoffrey Chaucer, the Middle Ages poet who is best known for The Canterbury Tales.
“The game is inspired by a mix of old school pen-and-paper RPGs and medieval allegorical storytelling,” said Olson in an interview with GamesBeat. “What I’d like to do is try to bring the depth of a longer epic role-playing experience, the personal insights and whatever you can get from playing these things, and bring that to a more casual audience by reducing the play sessions down and hearkening back to that short form allegory, so you concentrate it instead of step-by-step, blow-by-blow, all the grinding and whatnot. Just the most pivotal choices in the story, and then telling it concisely.”
The sandwich quest shows off how a meatier story might play out. I moved around a small overworld map, and whenever I entered a location, a small interactive fiction-esque bit of narrative popped up in the style of illuminated text. I could choose how I responded based on the feeling I wanted to convey — for instance, dutiful or dismissive.
Knight Errant will feature a collection of stories, each of which has its own map. In addition to choosing your actions and responses, you’ll also be able to select a starting location. Each tale will also get its own narrator, who provides a voice-over to what’s happening. This does more than just add atmosphere, though; Olson says that unlike other RPGs, which encourage players to embody the character, the narrator in Knight Errant serves to create a bit of distance.
“There’s a narrator between you and the story,” said Olson. “You’re saying what the knight would do, but you’re not the knight, right? You’re a character playing the knight, or getting to choose. And then the narrator will interpret what happens based on which knight you choose and who they are, basically.”
The narrator will also bring their perspective to the story. Even if you make a choice thinking you’re being chivalrous, they might interpret it as being arrogant or distasteful. Knight Errant is all about these shifting points of view. You will eventually be able to play through the same quests as various characters on different sides of the same conflict.
Olson says that even though the game is a “quasi-fairy tale of Europe,” it’s exploring certain historical events like the Crusades. One of the knights you can play as is a Templar, but you can also play as a Saracen, an Arabic warrior who was on the opposing side. A third character is a fictitious female Templar called a sword sister.
To capture all these different perspectives, Olson is hoping to recruit a diverse group of writers who will have their own takes on stories.
“I had a writer that was going to set the tone and write a style guide, and then they got hired at another company full-time. But they were genderfluid and very into the idea of playing with all this stuff,” said Olson. “If we get people from different backgrounds and different experiences to write versions of the story—my hope is that somebody writes the first version, and then it goes into writer pool, and somebody picks it up and says, oh, I have my own take on that.”
Knight Errant aims to also keep its play sessions short. Olson says that he doesn’t want to build “a game around mechanics that keep people hooked.” Instead, each story is brief and replayable, and with the system the team has developed, they’ll be able to create more types of stories. For instance, Olson says they could create a story about Vikings or stories that are satirical in nature, much as Chaucer did in his time.
“I definitely want to push modern things. But then I also want to include enough detail about the medieval world,” said Olson. “I don’t know if you ever read [Vicki Leon’s Uppity Women of Ancient Times], that series? It’s great. It’s all these stories of women through history where you never hear their stories, but they all did — some of them were terrible. Some of them were pirates or whatever. Some of them were in business. But they’re just these little slices of medieval life that you almost never hear about. I’d like to put in enough weird detail, on the theory that fact is stranger than fiction, to infuse some medieval stuff in there.”
The next steps for Knight Errant is to add some more polish to the demo, then Olson plans to raise funds. As part of his master thesis, he spent most of his time on laying the foundation of the tools he’ll need to create the full game. His lead engineer Anli Ji developed a user interface for the Unity plug-in Articy Draft, a narrative design tool, so that writers can easily start creating stories for the game.
Olson has already hit the books, doing research for the story’s full game. It will be interesting to see what little quirks of history he’ll be able to mine and turn into short stories — especially if Knight Errant will be able to refract those tales through perspectives that we don’t commonly get to see.