When I try to explain what Road Not Taken is, I cannot find the words. It's hard to pin the game down because it is such a mosaic of different ideas, themes, and goals. In fact, I learned by talking with Alex Jaffe, designer at developer Spry Fox, that the game actually contains two very distinct parts: the core gameplay of solving puzzles and a choice-based RPG. I was able to play some of the game at E3, and I left the demo with more questions than I had before. The art is beautiful and the gameplay seems promising, but it is a mystery to me if Spry Fox can bring together the very different parts of the game.
On the most fundamental level, Road Not Taken is a top-down roguelike. That's what developer Spry Fox calls it. Each playthrough can last up to 15 years, and upon failure or death, you start over as the son or daughter of your original character. The goal is to progress through as many years as possible, trying to reach the end.
But to progress through the seasons, you must complete a series of increasingly difficult puzzles. The puzzles I played all involved reuniting lost children with their parents. To do this, you must pick up the kids and move them to their mothers. However, you can't set things down once you've picked them up. You can only toss them, which can cover the entire area. Once you've returned the children to their parents, you must make combinations of trees using the same pick up-and-toss mechanic to progress to new areas. Often you need to solve puzzles like this before you can even return children to their parents because trees, animals or other obstacles may be between you and the parents.
Adding to the complexity is an energy system. You only have a certain amount of energy available to carry things, and the more you move, the more it drains. Thus, it becomes advantageous to attempt to fling children from far distances toward their parents to conserve energy.
However, this only explains half of the game. The other half is a surprisingly deep RPG. During time when you're not completing puzzles, you talk with computer-controlled villagers in the main village. Dialogue trees allow for complicated relationships and sidequests that create social interactions. According to the developer, this aspect of the game has gone so far as to become a full-blown life and romance simulator.
During my time with the game, I was not able to see any of the NPC interactions or the story, but I did play some of its puzzles and see its striking art. Snow swirled around my character, whose squat frame hid underneath a brown cloak that flapped in the wind. Cartoonish character design meshed well with the brutality of the wintry environments.
The puzzles I played were interesting and made me think more than I expected. I quickly realized that getting a child to his mother required more planning than simply picking the child up and dropping him off. The fact that I could only toss things forced me to think about the direction from which I picked children up, the direction from which I approached their mothers, and the amount of steps I was taking. These were only the most simple of puzzles, and Jaffe promised that they'd get significantly more complex.
But throughout the demo, I wondered about Spry Fox's ability to blend the story and the gameplay. How is the developer going to combine the RPG and puzzle mechanics? How is it going to make this a cohesive game?
To answer these questions, Jaffe explained the developer's philosophy to me as I played. The reason why the game is called Road Not Taken is because it is directly inspired by the Robert Frost poem of the same name. The game revolves around the decisions we must make in our lives, and as such the narrative portion of the game is not linear and there are multiple endings. But this translates to the gameplay as well. Spry Fox is creating environments so that you must choose how to approach each puzzle, giving you several different options for each in-game year. After he explained to me this thematic connection, I gained a little more confidence in Spry Fox to tie the game together.
However, so much of what makes this game interesting is hidden away in the minds of the developers. They have shown the smallest of portions of just one half of the game. And yet, I am eager to see if they really can combine a roguelike and a life simulator into a single game. Spry Fox's dreams for the game certainly give us a lot to anticipate when Road Not Taken launches this Fall for PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and PC.