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Preview of Totems story and gameplay
by Messiah, August 7th 2009

Chapter One: Introduction

10tacle Studios Belgium is no more. Production on Totems, its flagship production for PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, stopped over a year ago. Now, in 2009, it should have been released.

This special preview will give you a very unique inside look at the story and gameplay of Totems. This article describes the way Totems could have been – if it hadn’t been cancelled. Before you read any further you have to keep in mind that everything that is written here is based on a work-in-progress game, therefore many things could have been very different in a final product. All statements given here represent my personal ideas and do not represent the opinions of the former 10tacle, it’s ex-employees or anybody else. They are simply what they are: my own notes.

Totems is officially described as “ a super-heroic platform game with tactical elements that let the player magically transform the world and story to their own style and skill.” In other words, Totems is the first tactical platform ever created.

What does that exactly mean? The following chapters will answer this question.

Chapter Two: Story

Unfortunately I can’t go into too much detail in this section, but I will try to give you some bits and hints at what Totems would have been about.

Totems’s story is very deep and mystical. It takes place on a forgotten island somewhere in the Northern Atlantic Ocean. The island was once fully populated but is now deserted and abandoned. People are gone but magical remnants of past spirits and vanished civilizations remain on the island.

The player controls a young woman named Gia who learns to harness the magical powers of four ‘totem’ spirits and uses them to prevent the return of an evil spirit that seeks domination of the world.

Gia’s story is about awakening, as she learns about her origin, the history of the island and how to restore balance in the spirit cosmos and the world itself.

From what we’ve seen on images and previews we know that Gia would have been able to use the magical powers (totems) of bear, monkey, cheetah and raven. In addition to these animal spirits she would have been able to meet other friendly or neutral spirits and battle against evil spirits and forces. The shaman cosmos consists of 14 different animal spirits. All of them are part of the story of Totems. For example, eagle helps the player as a guide, while rat and tiger attack the player and try to stop him. Others stay neutral, for instance turtle. For more details on the shaman cosmos you can still check out the Totems teaser website: http://herawakening.org

The island itself is divided into different regions (districts/levels) which the player can explore on his/her own. The game is non-linear and gives a lot of freedom to the player. All districts have their specific architecture and design including organic environments, highly industrialized cities and antique architecture.

Personal thoughts:
On the positive side, Totems seems to offer a very complex storyline. Players like me, who loves to explore complex worlds, would have been satisfied. The shaman scenario is very untouched and therefore fresh and unique. On the other hand this may have been a problem at the same time. The whole scenario does not appeal to a wider audience nor does a complex world and story attract many casual players. I don’t know if Totems would have been a commercial success. Maybe - maybe not.

The story itself is written for hardcore (Outcast-like) fans and the whole cosmos and its shaman spirit ideas are very complex and not easy to understand. My only fear would have been that this fan base would have been too small in order to make enough profit.

Chapter Three: Gameplay

Totems is all about graceful super heroic powers. The player should feel like a super hero making his own (free) decisions. Freedom, grace and awe are the experiences Totems should have provided.

10tacle Studios Belgium itself described Totems’s core features as:

  • One of the most fluid, agile and graceful characters and movements ever seen in video games
  • Easy to learn and easy to use intuitive animal powers
  • A fully interactive free-roaming world filled with elements that can be magically changed
  • Impressive super-heroic fights and stunts that use the environment
  • State of the art graphics and techniques
  • A mythical story set in a contemporary world

At the very core Totems is a 3D action/adventure platform game. The player can move around a challenging environment and battle against different enemies. Additionally Totems adds another parameter: tactics.

Its gameplay is open-ended and includes exploration, combat, race, puzzle and others. All missions provide special rewards such as: the acquisition of a new power, access to a new area, advancement of the story etc.
While the story itself is linear the player can determine its pace. There are optional bonus parts of the story and of the world for players willing to do optional quests/tasks.

What is truly unique about Totems are its interaction patterns. What the player can do at any point in the world given a certain situation (e.g. combat) is written into the 3D world. The game knows everything that is possible at a certain point in the world. Interactions (movement and combat) are pre-defined.

What does that mean?

In most action and platform games, there are buttons for certain actions. You press an “attack” button to shoot at an enemy and you press “jump” to jump. To master the game you need different combinations of buttons.

The gameplay in Totems works differently.

Buttons or keys don’t represent actions but methods. You have your four totem spirits on four different buttons. At any situation in the world you can press one of them. Given the specific situation and place a pre-defined action will happen.
In other words: The game will identify what kind of interaction is desired given the context. It takes into account the object’s position, other characters, howthe player moves when he/she gives the order, etc.

The following image illustrates some possible actions in certain contexts (using a particular totem spirit):

Combat works the same way. For example a simple “bear” attack throws your opponent back, but if another opponent is nearby and you position yourself successfully, you can send an enemy crashing into another. You don’t have to aim; the game identifies when such an attack is possible and, if so, chooses it.

Objects can also be used in combat. For instance, if you are between an opponent and a wall, you can point at the wall and press the “bear” button: if successful, the character will grab his opponent and throw them into the wall. All these magical attacks will produce huge special effects, like giant claws appearing on the hand when hitting an enemy.

The overall vision was that combat is “a ballet of fluid moves and magical superpowers”.

Ultimately the philosophy of Totems is that instead of giving the player a fixed set of powers to use throughout the game, the player can choose how to play where. This enables different approaches to the same goals and at the same time different outcomes in the actual gaming experience.

Personal thoughts:
The gameplay of Totems sounds very innovative to me. The world is free to explore. I can choose my own (tactical) strategies and change the game to what I want it to be. The game cleverly understands what the player wants to do in any given situation in the game. Sounds perfect to me, but at the same time a little bit too perfect.

With its innovative design comes Totems biggest problem: How can a 3D action game predict what the player really wants to do if he/she can change his/her mind every second in the game? How does the system know if the player wants to flee, jump, attack or do anything else? Traditionally the game knows that if the player presses “fire” he/she wants to fire and when I press “jump” I want to jump. Totems should have been different. In my opinion one problem could have been that the player may not have really felt “in control” because the game would have automatically defined in which situation which action happens. Of course the player would have had an impact on the result but a lot of the outcome would have seemed choreographed and therefore not in the player’s own hands.

Would have this vision of gaming ever been possible to fully function? I don’t know. I’m not an expert. What I do know is that the challenges were huge and that shortly before its production stopped, major changes in the game design were made to make it work better. I can’t say anything about this “changed” Totems, because I’ve never seen it, but from what I know is that the team behind Totems was very talented and clever and therefore I think they could have found a good solution for all the mentioned problems. It’s a shame we will never see the result!

Chapter Four: Closing Comment

Totems is “on-hold” or if you look at it from a negative side of view: “cancelled”.

Chances for it to be completed are nearly non-existent. This fansite exists since the very beginning of the game’s production and will still be around for some time.

I hope that this special preview and look into the story and gameplay of this extraordinary game will satisfy some of the fans that have waited for so long without ever getting the chance to actually see or play it. It’s not much, but more than nothing!

Yours, Messiah