We are the narrative team behind the chart-topping games Matchington Mansion and My Beauty Spa: Stars & Stories, as well as hundreds of other best-in-class casual games and interactive novels.
The Brunette Games team is passionate about story, and we love our stories best when they are interactive, when the person experiencing the story is not doing so passively but actively, interactively, as part of the story. A player is different from a reader. Players can shape their own characters and make decisions that affect how the story goes—and how it ends. Players want to solve problems, complete challenges. They want to win.
We are wordsmiths with a nerdy bent for logic, poets with pocket protectors, storytellers who know better than to let text get in the way of the game. We play a lot of games and read a lot of books. We also read a lot of games and play some books. We’re a rare breed in this industry and in the world, and that’s part of why we’re in demand and growing. The other reason is because we’re very good at what we do—we strive to be the best.
Making games involves a lot of hard work, sweat, and yes, some tears. So when the opportunity comes along to take a step back from the computer and celebrate, we take it.
That happened on a Monday evening here in winter, when our local game co-op hosted a big event. The St. Louis Game Developers Co-Op provides support, resources, events, and community to game developers in St. Louis, and Brunette Games is proud to be a member. Indie game development especially can be a lonely pursuit, so it's great to have a cooperative of likeminded solos and studios to tap for inspiration and commiseration.
One of the coolest aspects of membership in the Co-Op is the annual party - where the above patch is given to every developer who made a game that year. It's basic game theory: We came, we saw, we kicked their @#$; now we want the reward. And it works. The patches are fairly well coveted. Just ask Brunette Games team members Dexter Woltman and Tamsen Reed, who received their first one.
Lisa Brunette, Dexter Woltman, and Tamsen Reed, showing off their 2018 patches.
The most thrilling part of the evening was hearing all the games made by St. Louis developers in 2018. It was a loooong list!
We also had a little Brunette Games pre-party at HQ, which was an excuse to hang out a bit and enjoy the lovely gift sent to us by our friends at G5 Games. You really can never go wrong with chocolate and Champagne. We're proud of our work on G5's high-quality games Homicide Squad: Criminal Intent, Jewels of Rome, and for two years now, Survivors: The Quest.
We toasted to G5 as well as our friends at Cherrypick Games, whose games My Beauty Spa: Stars & Stories and an interactive novel series called Crime Stories we are also very proud to be a part of.
As some of you know, Dexter and Tamsen are both former students of mine from the game design program at Webster University. It was fun to have them bring +1s for the evening that also have connections to Webster: Sam Falvey, another former student of mine and a great artist, and also an artist and Webster student, Ellen Warning, whose acquaintance I first made in game form. Dexter had created a game inspired by her and submitted it for an assignment in my World Design class ("Ellen: The Game"). This might be the first time I've ever met the game version of someone first, and then met her in real life.
From L-R: Lisa Brunette, Tamsen Reed, Sam Falvey, Dexter Woltman, and Ellen Warning
Sadly missing from the festivities was our fourth team member, Elisa Mader, who represents Brunette Games in Seattle. But all was not lost, as her contribution was celebrated in absentia, and we sent her both a patch - she is after all an honorary St. Louis developer - and a pack of chocolates with Missouri pecans. She said she couldn't put them down.
Thanks to all our clients, players, supporters, friends, and family. You helped make 2018 a successful year of accomplishment and change for Brunette Games!
Ever since 1993’s live-action Super Mario Bros. movie, the trend of turning video games into movies has only grown stronger. In the past couple decades, gamers have seen many of their most cherished games make it to the big screen. The last few years alone have seen the Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider series arrive in theaters. Even now, gamers are expected to see both Sonic the Hedgehog and Pokémon get live-action adaptions in 2019. Yet, throughout all these adaptations, one genre that always seems to work is horror. Whether it’s the two-part Silent Hill movie series, or the six installment Resident Evil series, movies based off horror games seem to have staying power. And one thing that helps keep this trend interesting is that this horror movie treatment isn’t always limited to video games. Right now, escape rooms have become a growing trend as a type of physical adventure game, and it was only a matter of time before audiences saw it taking to the big screen as well.
My name is Dexter Woltman. Not only am I Junior Writer/Designer here at Brunette Games, but I’m also an employee at Escape STL, a company that creates and operates escape room games. Essentially, escape rooms are games that see players locked in a confined space where they must work together to solve a series of puzzles and escape a room before the timer runs out. Much like most video games, escape rooms always have a story. Players are in there for a reason, and if they don’t get out in time, their lives are at stake. But what if these stakes were real? Director Adam Robitel tries to answer that question with Escape Room, a 2019 psychological thriller that pits six adventurous strangers in an escape room where the matter of life and death is a very real concern. As an employee at an actual escape room, I can say this film is both logically insane and satisfyingly enjoyable.
In the film, the six players enter the escape room much like any other group I’ve personally seen come through one of my rooms. They’re all there to play a game, and ultimately, they hope to win it. The six players in the movie are told they’ll receive $10,000 each for winning, which is already a much higher incentive than anyone would actually get for completing a regular escape room. The catch? This escape room has deadly consequences, but of course the players don’t know that going in. These players are also complete strangers to one another, having never met before being put in the room together. This introductory aspect of the team initially comes off as a bit odd. Typically, escape rooms are for groups of friends or families. It’s for people who want to have fun. Personally, I’ve never seen someone who wanted to be locked in a room entirely with strangers, but I’ve also never seen someone being offered $10,000 to do it.
Leading the film are stars Taylor Russell and Logan Miller, playing the respective roles of Zoey Davis and Ben Miller. They’re joined by fellow cast members Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis, and Nik Dodani, together forming the team of six players. Ben and Zoey are the first characters the audience is introduced to. Zoey is a socially inept college student. She’s a genius, but also too shy to speak out. Meanwhile there’s Ben, a young man struggling to make a living in a grocery market. While both actors give convincing performances, it’s Zoey who proves time and time again that her oddities are merely part of a larger, brilliant whole. Rarely do we get to see young women of color leading these types of films, and Taylor Russell never fails to go all-in with every scene. There’s also much to see with the supporting cast, with Deborah Ann Woll giving a noteworthy performance as a veteran struggling with ongoing PTSD.
Deborah Ann Wolf awaits the beginning of the game. Official trailer image.
The film certainly has interesting characters, but where it often falls short is with these characters’ interactions with one another. Right at the beginning, the only one of them that has ever even done an escape room is Nik Dodani’s character, Danny. Not only has he done an escape room before, but he’s done over 90 of them, making him quite the expert. His character acts as a vehicle for introducing the rules and logistics of an escape room, especially seeing as how an employee lecturing them on the rules, something I frequently have to do, just isn’t very immersive to the movie-going experience. However, despite being the only member of the team with any experience, most of the other characters just make fun of him. They think he’s weird, and they’re rather mean to him. One would think that if $10,000 were actually on the line, people would listen to the only person that’s done one of these things before. There’s also the matter of the two leads, Taylor Russell and Logan Miller. Separate, they're intriguing, but together, the characters just don’t make sense. There’s no real chemistry between them, and it makes their trust for one another seem uninspired.
What is inspired, however, are the games themselves. Escape Room takes its players through a series of several rooms. Most modern escape rooms actually have more than one room, but this movie takes it to a new extreme. Honestly, it makes real escape rooms look almost dull in comparison. Each room is brilliantly designed. Not only are they diverse, but they contain truly unique concepts you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Although this film certainly pays homage to such horror franchises as Saw and Hostel, albeit with considerable less gore, its concept takes it places no other film can go. The puzzles are also fresh, bringing unique ways of thinking to every challenge. Truly, it’s just a fun movie to watch. Even in areas where it lacks depth, it makes up for it with spectacles and action pieces that continue to carry the film forward.
The players enter a new room. Official trailer image.
Another highlight of the movie is its sense of danger. At first, none of the characters know that their actions might have lethal consequences. Even in the first room, what seems like danger they try to brush off as just an effect. However, when the first character dies, the reactions of the rest of the cast are truly intriguing. For the first time, these characters are aware of the danger. At that split-second moment, everything changes for them inside, and the actors portray it wonderfully.
In contrast, however, sometimes the danger is also almost distracting. As far as actual plot goes, this film doesn’t have much. It’s really just people trying to escape rooms, and that’s about it. The film spends so much time with its dangerous set pieces, it fails to develop an ongoing narrative. Even the Saw movies, which also feature people going from room to room, always features a secondary story that correlates with its main games. Sure, in Escape Room, certain characters develop in certain ways, but it doesn’t really pay off as well as one might hope. It doesn’t help that the film seems to kill off its more likable characters first, leaving its less likable characters to carry it through the end. By the time the players actually do reach the final room, it’s hard to really care about what happens to some of them. This is only weighed down even further as the film suffers through its final act. Almost as if it wasn’t sure what it wanted to do with its finale, when the actual escape room ends, the film just seems to stagger, jumping around, as if the show creators weren't sure how to wrap it up. It also feels like the movie ends 10 minutes too late as it tries to stuff what could have been two hours worth of conspiracies into just a few scenes. So while it’s an entertaining ride, it doesn’t hold a lot of substance.
With a movie like this, there are also expected deviations from its source material. Its source material being actual escape rooms, that is. To start, it’s definitely a lot more extreme. While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of the wild costs it would have actually taken to make each room. And when one of the rooms practically destroys itself, I leaned over to the person next to me and told her how much of a nightmare it would be to reset it before the next group. From an employee’s perspective, this movie is downright impossible. But from a movie-watching perspective, it’s quite the thrill ride. After all, the film does still stick to the core of what makes an escape room what it is. There are puzzles, players, a locked door, and hidden means of escaping. One core aspect of escape rooms that might seem to have changed, however, is the timer. Escape rooms typically always have a ticking clock on the wall. It lets players know how much time they have to escape before it’s a mission failure. In the movie, however, the ongoing timer is noticeably absent. Yet, in an intriguing move, the movie replaces the actual timer with a timer that’s a bit more creative. Instead of a clock ticking down on the wall, each room has its own type of environmental timer. Whether it’s increasingly dangerous heat or an escaping gas, the players still always feel a sense of urgency. Even if there’s not a real timer on the wall, the players will still fail if they doddle for too long. It’s a move that strays from its roots, but keeps the film more fun.
Overall, Escape Room is an enjoyable ride. It takes a modern trend and evolves it into a theatrical set piece. While the story itself is lacking, it’s hard to expect anything too deep from this type of film. The movie certainly lives up to its promise of displaying an extreme escape room with death as an actual consequence. And, even if some of the character choices are dull or difficult to accept, Taylor Russell does a great job at keeping the audience engaged. The creators stayed true to the concept of an escape room, all while pumping the film with scenes meant to spike adrenaline and thrills. While this film may not leave a lasting impact on its audiences, it's sure to keep them entertained for a couple of hours. And with this kind of concept, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel in the near future.
I love a solid Match-3 game, and my latest release is that and so much more. In Matchington Mansion, you can hone your interior design skills while protecting your house from a mischievous cousin, unlock new rooms, renovate your kitchen and garden, and discover secrets hidden among the furniture – all with a cast of quirky characters in tow. You can even spy on the neighbors and check out their room design choices.
As a (no longer closeted as of right now) HGTV addict, I said "yes" immediately when a producer with Firecraft Studios approached me about working with him on this game. It was a great opportunity to craft a robust narrative for the Match-3 genre, with an added sim mechanic in the form of home decorating and gardening! Like a match made in heaven for me.
Plus, those of you who've heard my game-industry presentations know I've talked about how games that don't seem to lend themselves easily to story could actually be much more popular with players if story were part of the package. Matchington Mansion proves me correct. The game released to featuring on the App Store and is currently trending at 4.5 stars on nearly 5,000 reviews on GooglePlay and 4.5 stars on more than 500 reviews in the App Store.
If you're a fan of my quirky character dialogue in the Dreamslippers Series, you'll see that writing style on full display here as well. Writing dialogue for your interior design bestie - not to mention villains like the scheming Rex Houston - was a fun challenge.
The game starts off with a twist on the "I've inherited a mansion" scenario... the woman who bequeaths it to you was a famous novelist. While living out the dream of getting your own mansion to fully customize to your liking, you uncover your late friend's secret life... and love.
As always, the story is in service to the game. You'll decorate your mansion in this match-3 makeover puzzle game, design new home decor and furniture by matching pillows, power-up with levels, and renovate your entire house, including your kitchen and garden.
You'll have a blast as you match and swap pillows in a game to innovatively decorate your mansion, with these features:
Secrets, rewards, and an intriguing narrative – piece together all the hidden objects and learn new secrets
In-game characters to meet and interact with – follow their interesting stories while you play
Play levels with tons of room design options and thousands of DIY Decorations – unlock hidden areas for rewards
Power-up combos, incredible boosters, and tons of levels in a fun game of matching!
I hope you enjoy this game. Please feel free to email me with your feedback using this handy link.
"I highly recommend this game! It is fun and challenging and fantastic!" - Ami Weller, GooglePlay
"This is a cute little game that progresses along quite nicely. I like the storyline." - Chrisp one, App Store
"I'm really loving this game. Enjoying far more than Homescape or Gardenscape." - Candace Orman, GooglePlay
"Addictive." Nate Nate, GooglePlay
"This is a lot of fun! Tiffany has a good sense of humor and I love her 🐈." - Diane Wood, GooglePlay
My latest game project was more like writing poetry than anything else. GSN Games asked me to create a love story for their popular game series, Bingo Bash. Here's the catch: The entire story had to fit into the tiny space inside a bingo room, and that meant each line had to be only 27 characters or less.
The room is called "Dear Diary," and it tracks the ups and downs of Linda, a floral shop owner. She's the type of woman who vows to do something nice for someone else every day... like paying for a stranger's Chinese takeout. Linda doesn't expect anything in return and leaves the scene before the recipient of her gift realizes it. But fate puts them at the same bingo night soon after... will romance bloom? Or will Linda's on-again, off-again boyfriend get in the way? Find out by unlocking the room and reading Linda's diary each time you level up!
It was a challenge to write a micro-plot, especially since I had to work with pre-existing art assets, and timing only allowed for small tweaks. I handled it by asking the awesome GSN team to add conflict elements to the diary images, which to me is the core of any story. I also sketched out the story beats first and then wrote Linda's diary entries from that, cutting back on some details to fit the smaller space.
I've written within a set character count many times in my decade in the game industry, but this was the tiniest. Composing within a strict limitation like that teaches you to, as the venerable writer's guide Strunk & White proclaims, "omit needless words." It's a great exercise in economy.
Which is why I chose to start my first-ever "Narrative Design and Game Writing" course this semester by asking my students to do the same. I made it a bit easier by leaving the theme and accompanying artwork open-ended. I couldn't share any of the details of my GSN Games project with them anyway, so I simply asked them to write a love story within the same space restrictions. They embraced the project and delivered on a wide range of stories, from two involving rocks (!) to a play on the idea of lovebirds to more serious fare, such as domestic abuse. Many described the project as presenting an opportunity for great creativity within the limitation. Some said it took them into more poetic language and compared it to haiku.
"Dear Diary" is available as part of the Bingo Bash app for iOS and Android and is free to play, with in-app purchasing. I'd love to hear what you think of the story; please comment below.
Note: This is the combined version of a two-part series on narrative design for games.
Clementine, from the The Walking Dead. Image source: Wikipedia
It would be easy to say that everything is better when you add a story to it. You know, like bacon, story makes everything better. But unfortunately, that has not always been the assumption in the game industry, where writers sometimes find themselves fighting for story territory in the games they're working on, or brought in too late in a game's development, when they're expected to shoehorn a story into a game that doesn't have one--and desperately needs one.
I've also seen story handled badly in games, which only perpetuates the problem.
But since the primary reason players come to a game is TO PLAY A GAME, it begs the question: Why does story matter?
We can approach this by first brainstorming from our own observed experiences. What does story add to the games you've played? What would your experience of the games be like if there were no stories?
As a writer first, and a gamer second, I'm someone who comes to games LOOKING FOR THE STORY. But the reason I'm drawn to games at times instead of books is for the interactive experience. I want to co-create the narrative, and that can mean anything from making choices that shape my player character, as I did in Firewatch and The Walking Dead, to uncovering clues about my character's past in the Gardenscapes series of Match-3 builder games.
I also want to play. I enjoy the hunt for clues, the Match-3 game, the strategizing, decision-making, and puzzle-solving. By the way, I don't like to kill in my games and kind of think it's weird that we associate video games primarily with killing, but I don't mind shooting at targets. I struggled with this aspect of The Walking Dead even though my victims were, um, already dead.
Next, to find evidence to support story's place in games, we might look at what experts have said. I like this quote from Jonathan Gottschall's book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human:
Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can't resist the gravity of alternate worlds.
"Suction" hits it for me. Just watch a person's eyes light up when you say, "Let me tell you a story..."
We can also look at this more scientifically, and more specifically about games, through data. The Entertainment Software Association surveys players annually, and they ask what drives their purchase decisions. Story is always a major factor.
Image source: www.theesa.com
Lastly, I can share what experience has shown me to be true about games. I've worked in the industry for more than a decade, and about half that time I spent at Big Fish, a major publisher of a wide variety of games.
Big Fish published its first game in 2002, an online version of mahjongg. So, not much story there, but the game did very well.
Image source: www.bigfishgames.com
Next, the design team at Big Fish hit an untapped nerve in the market with hidden-object games (HOGs). They were popular with the older, mostly female audience--a demographic albeit ignored by developers at the time. HOGs harkened back to traditional I-spy games found in newspapers and magazines.
Image source: www.bigfishgames.com
The hidden-object game genre evolved quickly at Big Fish, and in a narrative direction that drew on a cultural legacy of text adventure games. The hidden-object puzzle adventure game (HOPA) was born. I've covered this in more detail over at the Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games magazine, but here's a trailer to give you an idea of how story-driven and cinematic the genre has become.
The reason for this move toward greater narrative content and development is simple: It helped sell the game. We knew from customer survey data and game performance that great stories made great games, and customers loved them.
So there you have it: Data, game performance, and playtesting feedback tell us stories make games better. But maybe you already knew intuitively that a good storyline sucks you in, no matter what the medium. What are your favorite game stories? Comment below!
Clementine, from The Walking Dead. Image source: screen cap.
Last week, we talked about why story matters in games, looking at how we experience games as well as what data and market performance has told us. Now I'd like to dive into how to make story work in games. In my own narrative design, it comes down to these three elements:
You'd think conflict would be a given, the default first step for any game designer working on a narrative project. But at least in my experience, you'd be wrong. I can't tell you how many games I've been asked to triage, and the first thing I see is that while there might be a lot of WORDS in the game, there's actually no story. Because there's no conflict. And without conflict, you have no drama, no story "stuff."
To quote my buddy Evan Skolnick:
The fuel of fiction is conflict.
- Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques
Let's take an example from a highly successful game that managed to suck me in despite its lack of story. (Because that happens. All the time. Just because I said last week that story can make games better, and that's been proved by data, doesn't mean stories without games are failures. Or that every game needs a story. These are not absolutes, people.) Anyway, the game is Farmville 2: Country Escape. I love, love, love this game. But there's no story in the game because there is no drama. What it does have are a lot of cute characters with little vignettes about them that you may or may not read because they are pleasant little scenarios, but no more. There's no conflict and therefore no drama, nothing for any of the characters to struggle against or triumph over. To return to the quote from Jonathan Gottschall, there's no "suction of story" for your mind to "yield helplessly to." Maybe that's OK, but it seems to me if you are going to go to the trouble of putting a lot of words in a game, you can use them to craft a conflict and get some more suction.
The first way to create conflict is to use the nature of the gameplay itself, but creating a STORY REASON for the gameplay. For example, in Matchington Mansion, players get to restore and redecorate a mansion. So it makes sense for the first bit of drama to be related to that, as in, uh-oh, this mansion I just inherited is falling apart!
Image source: screen cap.
One of the most obvious ways to create conflict is to add an antagonist, as we did with the introduction of the character Rex Houston. He's the only surviving relative of the woman who left you her mansion, and he wants to take it from you--so he can raze it and build a casino on the site.
Image source: Screen cap.
Now let's talk about mystery. Adding story can mean giving players something to investigate, but it's important to let them find the answer through gameplay, since this thing is a game first and a story second, most often. Then reward them with story reveals.
"Mystery" can apply to any genre, so it doesn't have to be a straight-up detective tale to give you that sense of something to discover or solve. In fact, I'm working on a game called Survivors: The Quest, and providing players with new mysteries to solve is getting me through hundreds of hours of new content in a game that I've been working on for more than a year.
Image source: screen cap.
In Matchington, we gave players something to investigate in the environment itself, as part of the builder interactions.
Image source: screen cap of in-development build.
Lastly is connection. While strict puzzlers like Tetris certainly have their appeal, players love game worlds filled with other people their player character can interact with. That's something that the aforementioned Farmville 2 has going for it, despite the lack of conflict. One of the best parts of that game is meeting a diverse crop of farmhands who help you find resources you can use in the game, like quartz from the mine, that you can turn into farm products, like a glass bottle for your wine.
Here we have your neighbor Edna Downing, a source of quirky amusement as she drops passive-aggressive comments like the one below or quotes from her downer poetry. But she also has a game reason for being there: She introduces players to the feature that allows them to visit other mansions.
Image source: screen cap of in-development build.
It's good when creating story in your games to think about C-M-C: Conflict, Mystery, and Connection. Watch these moments from The Walking Dead and see if you can spot conflict, mystery, and connection in them.