Dave Justus is author of the first and many other games in the Lifeline series from Big Fish—including the eponymous original; Lifeline 2: Bloodline; Lifeline: Silent Night; and Lifeline: Halfway To Infinity—which have enjoyed nearly 7 million worldwide downloads to date. He is also the co-writer, with Lilah Sturges, of the comic books Everafter: From The Pages Of Fables; Public Relations; Fables: The Wolf Among Us; and more.
Lifeline games are games, but they're also novels. Part of the growing "interactive fiction" genre, the games are entirely text-based, with the reader making choices throughout. It goes like this: A stranded astronaut contacts you, asking for help in the form of a person to talk to as well as ask for advice. Sort of like if "The Martian" were a game instead of a movie, and you got to talk to Mark Watney the entire time he's stranded on Mars.
Lisa: How did you get involved in writing the Lifeline series? Did you have any background in the game industry? What was the genesis for the first game?
Dave: I came to Lifeline in a sort of roundabout way. The original game was being developed by Three Minute Games, a tiny three-man skunkworks within Big Fish. They'd had some minor successes, but they'd come up with the concept for Lifeline and wanted its release to coincide with the release of the Apple Watch. They offered the job to my friend Daryl Gregory -- who is one of the best writers I've ever read, and I thought as much before I ever met him -- but he was too booked to do it, so he very kindly suggested me for the position. Three Minute took a chance on me (I'd barely been published at that point), and gave me tremendous freedom under a very tight deadline. They knew they wanted about three days of gameplay, a sci-fi story with a nongendered protagonist in a "choose your own adventure" style, and they needed it in five weeks. Beyond that, I was free to do whatever I wanted... which was both amazing and daunting.
I had no background in games whatsoever, but I honestly think, in this case, that worked to my advantage. I'd been an avid NES gamer in my childhood, had spent plenty of time with Infocom games like Hitchhiker's Guide (whose DNA you can certainly see in Lifeline), and had played several Playstation games growing up, but the last one I'd really sunk any amount of time into was Tomb Raider 2, back in college. Once I graduated, I had very little "mad money," and I chose to apply that to comics (which I've been collecting since I was eight) rather than video games. But in the case of Lifeline, I think it worked out very well, because I wrote the game purely as a conversation. I wasn't thinking in terms of "power-ups" or acquiring weapons or typical video game structures; rather, I wanted it to feel as much as possible like the Player was receiving texts from a real human being. And the feedback we've gotten has largely indicated that that's exactly what people feel when they're playing: They're not controlling a sprite, they're talking to an actual person.
Lisa: How much text is in these games? As much as a typical novel, say 80,000 words, at least? Or far fewer? Also, you say they wanted three days of play, but I note there are breaks when Taylor is busy. What's the breakout between "idle" time and actual play? How did you figure out how long the breaks should be? What's the longest? The shortest?
Dave: The first Lifeline game is a little over 50,000 words -- more in the range of a novella, or possibly a YA novel. Because of the way I ended up structuring the game (in that I didn't really know what I was doing and wanted to give people the most bang for their buck), a Player who makes it to the end of the game alive will actually have seen the bulk of the game's text. Hopefully no passages that contradict any others, obviously... but I wanted to put as much info as possible on the screen.
Lifeline 2: Bloodline had almost twice as many words. It was very freeing for me, because I felt like I could go into so much more depth on Arika's character, her world, and her quests... but it was a lot to ask of the team on the other end, specifically in terms of translation to other languages. For subsequent games, we've looked for a happy medium in terms of word count: not so much that it causes panic attacks at the Big Fish offices, but enough that the authors can stretch their legs a bit and the Players can, we hope, feel satisfied with the end result.
The "idle" time was essential to Three Minute's concept of a real-time conversation; it takes time for the characters to walk to a new location, or to eat a meal, or to rest for a bit. The first "long" break in the original Lifeline comes when Taylor sleeps on the first night -- the Player must give Taylor some information that creates a life-or-death scenario overnight, and we wanted Players to be tense, anxious to see whether their advice had been Taylor's doom or salvation. I believe that the longest break is six hours (for a character to sleep); delays can be as short as a couple of seconds, if we want to employ them to help with the timing of a joke or something. I originally feared that the breaks would be a turn-off to Players, that no one would want to wait an hour while Taylor walked around a crater. And indeed, after one death, the games give you the option to switch off the "real-time" mode and play with no delays whatsoever. But what we found was that, overwhelmingly, the majority of Players chose to switch back to "real-time" after trying "fast" mode. The preference for the delays is considerable.
Lisa: Let me return to what you said about wanting players to feel as if they're talking to an actual person instead of "controlling a sprite," and how your lack of game-industry experience felt like an advantage to you. This might rankle seasoned game writers and narrative designers, since we're quite serious about our craft and its tradition beyond power-ups and what's "typical." Have you since become part of the game-writing community, instead of a sort of self-described outsider? Or do you still see yourself that way? I'm asking because text adventures in particular have a history and set of best practices that predate what we think of as video games today.
Dave: Please believe me when I say that the last thing I intended here was to cause offense. When I say "typical" structures, I only meant the things that I, personally, thought of as aspects common to NES and arcade games, based on my own history with them. As I mentioned, I'd also played many text games back on my old Apple IIe, and I was primarily drawing from my (admittedly fairly hazy) memories of those while trying to construct Lifeline.
I would definitely still consider myself an outsider when it comes to game writing. I'm in Texas -- nowhere near Big Fish or Three Minute, out on the West Coast -- and I don't wind up getting to attend all the expos and conventions with them. I would be very interested if you could point me to resources for the best practices that you mention -- I perpetually feel like I sort of stumbled into success with Lifeline, and I keep waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, "We know you're just faking it. It's time for you to leave." That day is going to suck.
Lisa: Great answer ;). I'll send you some links later on so you can join the game-writing party! Next question: Older players or those younger who've discovered the series anew might compare Lifeline to the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which were first popular in the 80s (I was a huge fan). Were those an inspiration for you?
Dave: They absolutely were. I was a voracious reader as a child -- the sort who would read the back of cereal boxes, just because they had words on them. My parents and grandparents, much to their credit, always indulged this behavior, so I had shelves and shelves of books, including probably two dozen or so Choose Your Own Adventure titles. The one that stands out in my mind, to this day, is Inside UFO 54-40, credited to Edward Packard -- it was a terrifying science fiction story, bleak to the point of nihilism, in which all paths led to defeat, and the best ending could never actually be reached. And it blew my tiny mind. It was the bridge between kids' books and adult literature for me. Once that book had broken me, I could not have cared less about Beezus and Ramona; I was ready for the Overlook Hotel and moon monoliths and Nadsat.
Lisa: I first came across your work back when I was with Big Fish, as manager of the narrative design team. How did the relationship between Big Fish and 3-Minute Games come about, in as much as you can share with readers?
Dave: I'm probably not the best person to answer this one. My understanding is that Three Minute were operating as a skunkworks under the auspices of Big Fish, coming up with all sorts of games like Feed Your Monster and Poll Party. Basically, they were testing different styles of games, different pay structures, seeing which combinations worked best. They had the idea for Lifeline -- from its style to its pay structure to its length, everything came from them. They had done the work in order to make the determination that this was the best admixture of elements... and they got it very, very right. How much I contributed to that, it's hard to say; they had laid the groundwork for me so well, all I had to do was step in and not completely fall on my face. I'm grateful every day that they set me up to succeed, and I'm happy that I was able to deliver something that achieved what they were hoping for.
Lisa: Let's talk about the structure for a Lifeline game. Branching choices can quickly lead to a very complex structure unless you create small branches that loop back to a main narrative, and/or employ the use of stats to track choices. How do you plot out the varying narratives in Lifeline?
Dave: The "complex structure" that you mention is something I ran into very quickly when I was working on the first Lifeline. Even when you only provide binary choices -- which, so far, is all we've done -- those branches can quickly grow out of control as each one doubles, then doubles again, until from a single node you've created a mountain. I had to train myself to weave the elements back together, to keep things from ballooning out of control. When I took on the original assignment, I thought, "Oh, this will be just like writing a short story." But it's not; it's like writing thousands of very, very short stories, of a few sentences each. It took me a painfully long time to make that distinction, but once I did, I was able to realize where I'd gone wrong, and start to plot out "nodes" where the threads were drawn back together. That made my work so, so much easier.
I'm not a coder by nature. I use Twine as the basis for these games (and then a lot of proprietary processes happen afterward, most of which are beyond my comprehension), and in that program I do my best to branch and reconnect smoothly. It's a tremendously useful GUI for people like me, people who need their hand held throughout the process. No matter how carefully I've plotted things in advance, every Lifeline game has led me in unexpected directions; the story that wants to be told is, without exception, better and more interesting than the story I lay out at the beginning. I trust those feelings, trust that when Taylor or Arika or whomever pulls the narrative in an unintended direction, that I'm getting a real sense of what the story should be, instead of forcing it down avenues that aren't true to the characters. (This, by the way, is a fantastic way to drive the rest of the development team insane.)
Lisa: What's an example of a node? Also, did those driving the process have a sense of what came before so you weren't all reinventing the wheel? What you're describing here reminds me of the awesome discussion over at Choice of Games, where they do a great job of teaching newbies how to avoid this kind of ballooning while preserving the need for meaningful choices.
Dave: I think of nodes as "have-to" moments in the game. If, say, by the end of a day, Arika has to learn a certain piece of info, encounter a certain prop, have an opportunity to eat, and fight a specific foe, then I have four nodes for that day. If she can't move on without acquiring an object or having a conversation, then I know that, no matter how wildly things balloon, all roads must lead back to a single point. The order in which they're encountered may or may not matter, but generally speaking, these are the crucial passages; the Player's decisions upon hitting these nodes will have a major effect on what follows in the game.
Lisa: How many different endings could players get in a typical Lifeline game? How do you make sure those endings make sense for the previous choices made in the game?
Dave: Generally, there are a few deaths along the way. These are paths where the Player has made an egregious mistake, or else has willfully decided not to aid the protagonist. Those are, of course, the "bad" endings -- no one should be proud of killing their hero. Then there are the "good" endings, where the Player has done most things right, and has achieved an ending that is satisfactory, although not the best one could hope for. The hope is that the Player will feel good about these... but will still have a nagging sense that they should return to the game, and work for the best possible ending. And we'll tell you when you've achieved that; we want Players to know when they've gotten all the items, or defeated all the villains, or done the best they can. I write stories with Pyrrhic victories, sometimes -- blame Inside UFO 54-40 -- but there's always a "best" ending, and that's the canon ending that leads to the next game in the series.
Lisa: Does this ever backfire? It strikes me as different than most casual gameplay, where player character deaths are generally avoided. Do you lose some players by opting for Pyrrhic victories?
Dave: I had that fear at the outset, but to the relief of all of us, the Player reactions to character deaths seem to be a deepening of involvement, not an abandoning of the game. It seems to largely be the case that, if a Player loses Taylor by pushing the character too hard or by supplying incorrect information, there's generally a sense of culpability in the death that makes the Player want to try harder the next time. I've seen dozens, maybe hundreds, of people on social media expressing genuine grief and sadness over character deaths in the Lifeline games.
Lisa: (This last one's for my stepson, who loved the first game when it went viral at his high school a few years ago.) You set up Taylor as a gender-neutral character, an interesting choice. Can you talk about your reasons for that? My stepson notes that most of his classmates assumed Taylor was either female (most of the women did this) or split evenly between male or female (mostly guys).
Dave: The gender-neutrality of Taylor's character came from Three Minute Games, but I thought it was a fantastic idea. At that time, it was easier than I thought it would be to write such a character -- when gender signifiers are removed, you realize how similar a kick-ass male and female protagonist actually are. It's grown increasingly difficult, as Halfway To Infinity introduces a doppelgänger Taylor, to keep the pronouns correct -- but I'm happy to face down that challenge. Seeing so much fan art for the character has made me realize just how much room we've left for interpretation. I don't consider that there's a "right" answer at all. People who know me have told me that they see a lot of me in Taylor... but for every argument for "male," I see another one, just as convincing, for "female." I love that I don't have a definitive answer. I hope that I never do. I hope that I can continue to write a character that resonates with everyone who reads it.
You can download the game to your favorite device. See the Big Fish Lifeline page for more info.
Note: This post previously appeared on Cat in the Flock.
When Cookie Jam veteran Michael Witz approached me about helping out on the narrative for a sweet little game he'd been developing with his team at Redemption Games, I couldn't say no–just like the characters in this game can't turn down the tasty treats they're offered.
Sweet Escapes captured all of us here at Brunette Games with its cast of cute, quirky characters, getting our imaginations going at once. Adding conflict, mystery, and connection to the narrative, we wrote all 25,000 lines of dialogue–including an intro storyboard–and collaborated with the team on a few art changes as well to give the narrative more visual oomph. The result is a game that makes us truly proud.
Here's the official description:
Match and build a delicious bakery of your own in Sweet Escapes! Conquer sinfully sweet Match-3 puzzles to build and design a village of sugary shops, with each bakery specializing in a different decadent dessert.
From fresh food and mouth-watering pastries to premium cookie delights, build your bakery to prepare and offer chocolate candy confections and specialty coffee drinks to your toon friends and customers.
Want more of a sugar rush? Blast through Match-3 puzzles to build your shops. Enjoy food and dessert-themed puzzles where matching the right candy pieces and combinations gets you a delicious victory!
Join JOY, a lovable rabbit and your dedicated assistant, on a tasty baking adventure. You can even meet her ever-growing crew of fun and hilarious animals.
Your animal friends are always there to help when you’re caught in a jam… unless the health and safety inspector has his way.
Resurrect a rundown bakery to world-renowned glory. Create a candy shop dedicated to every iteration of sugary, succulent sweets. Launch a high-end soda shop that takes the bubbly beverage to new dessert-themed heights.
Start building a town, baking delicious sweets and have a sugar-filled blast with Match-3 puzzle games in Sweet Escapes!
Sweet Escapes Features:
MATCHING PUZZLE GAMES
● Fun and enticing dessert-themed Match-3 puzzles.
● Find sweet, unique boosters and exploding puzzle combinations - an endless stream of indulgent fun and creativity!
● Match 3 - swap and match candy pieces to play!
● Stuck in a jam? Use power-ups to crush the puzzle!
BAKERY & TOWN BUILDING
● Design a virtual village of shops dedicated to delicious desserts.
● Redesign existing bakery & dessert shops and build new ones.
● You decide what each bakery looks like and what sweet desserts you want to make.
● Choose the mouth-watering items you want to make.
● Build the menu for your bakery – cookies, candy, pastries, and more!
● Offer special events to your customers.
● Tend to the surrounding land while planting and harvesting fruits and herbs for your recipes.
ANIMAL TOON STORY
● Watch a crew of lovable animals rally together to help you build and run your bakery.
● Every animal friend has their own unique talent and passion for dessert!
● Crush the challenge of the kooky health and safety inspector with his unpredictable visits and ridiculous list of demands.
Start a baking, building, Match-3 puzzle adventure with Sweet Escapes! Download now!
You can download and play the game for free using any device.
Once you've played the game, tell us what you think! Thanks for your interest in our work here at Brunette Games.
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I used to read a wider range of books, and by that I mean I used to be much more forgiving as a reader. But as my reading and writing tastes have grown sharper, I've become a lot more discriminating. I'll start a book and give up on it if it's not working for me or can't compete with any number of extremely well written games or books or TV shows I have at the ready. I bet many of you are no different. After all, we're not going to read another standard mystery with all the tropes (tough-guy detective, a slaughtered female body found on page one) when we can watch Ruth Langmore successfully wrestle with her "white-trash" identity in Ozark.
One of the writers who's best captured my attention - and held it - is Tana French.
When I picked up Faithful Place in 2016, I was pretty jaded, as a reader. I'd spent the previous five years reviewing, critiquing, and in some cases, rewriting hundreds - yes, hundreds - of mostly mystery-themed story games. During that time, I read a lot of mystery novels, everything from cozies to thrillers to classics. Before that, I'd interviewed four Northwest mystery authors for a Seattle Woman cover story. In 2016 I was nearing the end of writing my own mystery series - the Dreamslippers - inspired by the supernatural mystery games and books I'd enjoyed. By the time I stumbled upon Faithful Place in a used bookstore, I was in danger of becoming burnt out on the genre.
But Frank Mackey's riveting first-person voice reignited my love of mystery to a white-hot point. From the stunning opening paragraph, I was hooked:
In all your life, only a few moments matter. Mostly you never get a good look at them except in hindsight, long after they've zipped past you: the moment when you decided whether to talk to that girl, slow down on the blind bend, stop and find that condom. I was lucky, I guess you could call it. I got to see one of mine face-to-face, and recognize it for what it was. I got to feel the riptide pull of my life spinning around me, one winter night, while I waited in the dark at the top of Faithful Place.
Full disclosure: I'm Irish enough to have had a grandfather with flaming red hair and who knew all the old drinking songs. Alas, he lived thousands of miles away from my military family and then passed away when I was only five, so I never learned any of his songs. But it's possible there's a cadence in the Dublin Murder Squad that appeals to me on some visceral, perhaps even genetic, level.
However, I don't think you need to have a family tree that includes names like Sisley McKay and Skeets Larue in order for French's characters to resonate with you. They're incredibly well developed, authentic narrators who even when problematic gain your sympathy.
Curiously, each Dublin Murder Squad novel was written from a different character's point of view. After reading just a few of the books in the series, you start to get a 360-degree look at the squad, as each character views his or her work from a unique perspective.
The debut novel in the series - In the Woods - follows Detective Rob Ryan, a murder squad veteran who becomes undone by a case he pushes to investigate despite its connection to a cold case from his past; as a child, he survived what appeared to be a grisly attack. Though the brilliant novel averages at a bewildering four stars on Amazon - it deserves five! - it earned praise from the likes of NPR Correspondent Nancy Pearl, "A well-written, expertly plotted thriller," and The New York Times Book Review's Marilyn Stasio, who says, "Even smart people who should know better will be able to lose themselves in these dark woods." With a bit of elitism at work in the praise, Stasio nails French's literary writing quality, which should appeal to even readers who perhaps don't normally succumb to the allure of genre fiction.
These characters feel both fresh and authentic in part because they constantly thwart cliché expectation. Though French's debut centers on a detective driven to solve not just the case before him but the case in the past connected to his own deepest trauma, he remains (or at least tries to remain) detached, even matter-of-fact about it:
Contrary to what you might assume, I did not become a detective on some quixotic quest to solve my childhood mystery. I read the file once, that first day, late on my own in the squad room with my desk lamp the only pool of light (forgotten names setting echoes flicking like bats around my head as they testified in faded Biro that Jamie had kicked her mother because she didn't want to go to boarding school, that "dangerous-looking" teenage boys spent evenings hanging around at the edge of the wood, that Peter's mother once had a bruise on her cheekbone), and then never looked at it again.
Broken Harbor's Scorcher Kennedy bursts into the reader's consciousness with a thrilling bravado that could be mistaken for typical tough-guy talk, if it weren't for the fact that the case ends up dismantling him in ways he can't possibly foresee:
Some of the lads can't handle kids, which would be fair enough except that, forgive me for asking, if you can't cope with nasty murders then what the hell are you doing on the Murder Squad? I bet Intellectual Property Rights would love to have your sensitive arse onboard. I've handled babies, drownings, rape-murders and a shotgun decapitation that left lumps of brain crusted all over the walls, and I sleep just fine, as long as the job gets down. Someone has to do it. If that's me, then at least it's getting done right.
Rob Ryan, Frank Mackey, and even Scorcher Kennedy must all three reconcile evidence in the present with memories of the past, though none of them look through rose-colored glasses at the past, nor are they scarred by it any more than they are affected by what's happening to them now. In this way French turns tried-and-true mystery fodder on its head, making the characters and their lives in the here and now the driver of the plot. You want to know what happened in the past, yes, but if you reach the end of the novel, and the past still hasn't revealed itself, it doesn't really matter. You've come to know the character fully, suffered and died and been resurrected with him, whether he finds the answers or not.
Perhaps French's greatest character design achievement is that of Antoinette Conway in the latest book in the series, The Trespasser. Conway's character is an achievement not because she's the most compelling of the series but because she thwarts our expectations best. A woman is a rarity on the Dublin Murder Squad, and of course the target of sexual harassment and hazing. Though tough beyond belief - she can physically defend herself against a stalker, she plays hardcore video games to unwind, and she does not believe in romantic love - Conway wrestles with a narrative of distrust that threatens to tear her away from a vocation for which she has a passion like no other.
The Associated Press says, "Tana French is irrefutably one of the best crime fiction writers out there," and I have to agree. For me she surpasses other faves - Gillian Flynn, Sophie Hannah - and the ones whose popularity I can't grok (I'm looking at you, Megan Abbott). I'm four novels into the six-book series and can't wait to dive into the other two. Interestingly, French's most recent publication is a standalone, The Witch Elm. It looks wonderfully compelling, but I do wonder if the Dublin Murder Squad will go on, or if French herself has had a bit of burnout.
If you've read French, tell me what you think of her work below. If not, does this make you want to become a DMS fan? I think game writers and book authors alike can learn a lot from her exemplary character development.
Note: This post previously appeared on Cat in the Flock.
Motive is the main concern in most fiction in the mystery genre, whether that's a TV show like Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries or today's sophisticated novels in the domestic noir category. But when it comes to interactive fiction, where reader/player choice matters, motive is a little more up-for-grabs. If you were a nerdy kid like me in the 80s, you remember Choose Your Own Adventure books, with multiple endings and reader choice all the way through. This form enjoys a vibrant life these days, as evidenced by the many interactive novels we've worked on here at Brunette Games, such as released games Choices: Veil of Secrets and Sender Unknown: The Woods as well as three other titles currently in development.
We're big admirers of Choice of Games here at BG; though we've never designed a game for that platform, we enjoy playing them. So we reached out to Rebecca Slitt, author of the COG game Psy High. Here's her take on motive.
What’s the motive in Psy High? It’s whatever you decide it is.
Psy High is an interactive novel: on the border between a book and a game. As in all of the titles from Choice of Games, you the reader direct the action at every turn: you decide what the main character does and why. Not only that, but you get to choose the main character’s name, gender, orientation, personality, and goals.
The story in Psy High is a mixture of mystery, romance, and supernatural elements, inspired by “Veronica Mars” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” You play a teenager with psychic powers – clairvoyance and telepathy – who uses their gifts to solve mysteries. When an old friend asks you to investigate why your classmates are acting strangely, you discover a plot that could put the whole school at risk. You have to maneuver around your teachers, parents, and even your friends while using your magical abilities to uncover the truth – not to mention going to class, trying out for the drama club play, and finding a date for the prom.
The culprit has their own motive, but you figure that out – along with the culprit’s identity – fairly early. The more complicated question is: what's your motive? When you discover what's really going on in your high school, what do you do about it, and why?
Maybe you’re motivated by altruism: you want to do what will help the most people. That’s a noble goal, but it’s not always easy to figure out how to reach it. What helps one person might hurt another.
Maybe you’re motivated by affection: you see how all of these issues are affecting your friends and want to help them. Maybe you want to help your boyfriend or girlfriend, or do whatever it takes to make them happy, or just spend as much time with them as possible. The prom is coming up, after all, and what could be more important than that?
Maybe you’re motivated by power. There’s plenty of power to be had, both magical and otherwise, and plenty of secrets to uncover. Do you care about that more than you care about your classmates? More than going to college? More than anything?
Maybe you’re motivated by a desire to fit in. In high school, what’s worse than being different? You can try to reject your magical power, act like every other kid, keep your head down, study, and try to lead a perfectly ordinary life.
Or, maybe you think that the villain isn't such a villain after all. Maybe you realize that you share their motive: you think that their plan will make the school a better place, not worse. That’s possible, too. You can team up with them and use your magic to help them.
What this all means is that you get to choose the kind of story that you’re participating in. It can be a story about love conquering all: You can find your true love and draw on the strength of that bond to triumph over whatever challenges come your way. It can be a story about discovering deeper truths about yourself and the world: learning what you truly care about, what your values are, and how far you’ll go to defend them. It can be a story about rebellion: breaking every rule, fighting the power wherever you find it, showing the world that you’re your own person. It can even be a story about failure: No matter how strong or noble your motives are, there’s no guarantee that you’ll succeed – so if you fail, what meaning will you draw from that?
There are dozens of stories to be told inside the mystery of Psy High, each with its own motive. You get to choose which story you want to tell.
Download and review Psy High.
Follow Rebecca Slitt on Twitter.
Rebecca Slitt is an academic-turned-game-designer who uses her knowledge of medieval history to make sure that dragon battles follow the principles of chivalry and time travelers go to the right places in medieval London. She is an editor and author for Choice of Games, and has contributed to the tabletop RPGs Timewatch and Noirlandia.
Note: This post previously appeared on Cat in the Flock.
Here's Dexter Woltman with a window into the student assignment that helped him get a job in the game industry.
Before I was hired on as junior writer/designer here at Brunette Games, I was a student in Lisa Brunette’s class at Webster University. It was a narrative writing class, of course, and one that specialized in video games. Over the course of the semester, Lisa had taught us all sorts of useful practices and tips. When it came time for our final, we students were given a choice. We could either write the script for a game, or turn in an entire game we made ourselves. I did the latter, and it’s part of what led to my involvement with Brunette Games.
Anyone who has known me for long knows that I’ve always had a habit of writing stories about my friends. In high school, it was short stories and books about friends. In college, it evolved into a different format... first movie scripts, and then games about my friends. Writing about friends is actually a great practice for any writer. It allows you to draw upon pre-established, deep, complex characters, and craft a narrative around them. It helps writers realize the complexity that comes into each character, and how every little quirk is just part of a larger whole. Once a writer understands that, it makes it easier to craft original, equally complex characters. I’ve been practicing my craft this way for a lot of years now, and I’m not even the only one on my campus who does it.
When it came to Lisa’s final assignment, I decided to create my own game using a software called RPG Maker MV. Coincidentally, during that same semester, it was my roommate Ellen’s birthday. To celebrate the birthday of one of my closest friends, I decided to make my game about her, which is the beginning of how Ellen: The Game came to be.
Ellen: The Game proved to be a successful venture for me. Clocking in at about three to four hours of game time, it was an enjoyable story about my friends and me living inside an actual video game. It also took itself very literally. In the game, my narrative counterpart had created the game world for Ellen, only for the characters to lose control of it to a mysterious villain. Not only did Ellen and my friends love it, but Lisa Brunette did, too, and that helped pave the way for me to eventually join Brunette Games.
Ellen: The Game also taught me a lot about game development as a whole. To start, it’s so much more than just writing a story. RPG Maker MV does a lot of the heavy lifting for creators, but there’s still a lot of programming and development that goes into the creation process. There are maps to account for, resources, limitations, items, et cetera. All of that had to be funneled into narrative. Just about everything a game needed, I had to create on my own. And when RPG Maker MV couldn’t match my preferences, I had to look to external sources for coding and plug-in management. It was a lengthy process, but also an enjoyable one.
Throughout the entire development process on Ellen: The Game, there were two things I learned that stuck out to me the most. The first was the value of honest feedback. As much as my friends loved the game, nothing is perfect. Bosses were too hard, the level cap was small, and the non-manual save system was limiting. The second thing that stuck out to me was narrative planning. When it came to Ellen: The Game, I thought of it more as a minor, personal project. A lot of the story was sort of made up as I went along, including the ultimate villain reveal, which happened to be a vacuum cleaner named Fuego. I knew that in the future, I had to plan out these narratives more thoroughly. I had to know exactly where I wanted my characters to be, and when I wanted my characters to be there. And that is exactly the mindset I carried into Paradise: The Sequel.
I began creating Paradise: The Sequel the summer after I finished Brunette’s class. A much more ambitious project, it was the next step on the road that eventually came to be the New Dork Trilogy, New Dork City being a primary location in the games that features hundreds of Ellen duplicates as its citizens. This time, I was much more prepared. I learned from my experiences with Ellen: The Game and came into the project with a full narrative outline, as well as with all the feedback I received from my first venture. Bosses were easier, the level cap was doubled, and now players could save on the fly. The story itself was also more ambitious, bringing the characters from the first game into the “Trash Bin” of the original game world. It ultimately led to a split narrative, with an important choice that brought players to one of two entirely different final chapters.
Paradise: The Sequel was a hallmark of my personal projects. It gave me a great experience with game and narrative development. By the end, it was about eight hours of adventure, if players included both endings, as well as the different post-stories attached to each one. By the time I was done with it, I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to finish the story and go out with a bang, which is exactly why I began developing Parallel: The Finale.
Parallel: The Finale has been my most ambitious project yet. Nine months in, and I’m still not finished with it. The story follows a large time jump and takes the characters to a parallel universe, doubling the cast with parallel counterparts. The narrative is also much deeper, now having characters deal with losses and personal developments. By this point, I had perfected the characterizations of my friends, and now I wanted to show how I could change them. I’ve also taken what I’ve learned from my time at Brunette Games, doubling down on narrative and emphasizing the value of teamwork by bringing in friends to help with character designs, narrative feedback, and custom animations.
What started out as a hobby grew into an academic project. What grew as an academic project led to a position, one that I can continually learn new things from that enhance my writing skills. Filled with passion and commitment, the New Dork Trilogy has been an incredibly momentous project for me. It’s something I will likely never forget. And now, as I evolve to new, exciting things, it’s very likely Parallel: The Finale will be the last story I ever write about my friends. As sad as I am to see that go, it’s almost like a final send-off for me as I graduate college, something that will drive me into the next era of adulthood. Ellen: The Game started a new chapter of my story, but it certainly didn’t end it.