Narrative Design Feed

When Your Friends Become the Story: A Narrative Beginning

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A screenshot from Ellen: The Game

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.

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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.

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The player makes an important choice in Paradise: The Sequel

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.

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The player enters New Dork City in Parallel: The Finale

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.


The Council: An Unappealing Game You Should Be Playing

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Tamsen Reed here with a review/narrative design analysis.

“It’s a really good game if you can ignore the visuals. And the voice acting. Plus, the dialogue is bad, too.”

My complex love affair with narrative role-playing game The Council has become something of a joke among my peers and friends. I’ll admit that my protestations may sound somewhat ridiculous.

Maybe it’s not a strong endorsement for The Council, an episodic RPG from Bordeaux-based Big Bad Wolf Studio. I don’t believe in misleading people. There’s a LOT you have to ignore in order to enjoy it. This game evokes so many mixed emotions that I can’t truly be sure if I hate it or if I love it.

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The PC is confronted by Cardinal Piaggi right as he enters the mansion. We can’t use the Diversion or Science dialogue options, as we haven’t unlocked them yet.

Yet, The Council succeeds because of its innovative use of RPG elements in a narrative-focused game. It makes for arguably a more interesting experience than is offered by most point-and-click adventures or Telltale Games. You play as Louis de Richet, a multitalented secret society member. As Louis, you navigate a 3D environment to solve puzzles and explore a mysterious island in the midst of a political meeting to find your missing mother.

Louis de Richet has a great many possible skills and talents, which are separated into three skill trees. Near the beginning of the game, you select one of the skill trees as your class: Diplomat, Occultist, or Detective. This gives you a baseline set of skills to start out with. As you complete chapters, the game alerts you to your successes, your failures, and ultimate paths you could’ve chosen. Each chapter earns you experience points that allow you to level up skills.

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Near the beginning of the game, you choose your occupation. This unlocks an entire tree of skills for you to draw on as Louis de Richet.

These skills prove quite useful in the main gameplay, where you manipulate political figures and investigate your surroundings in order to locate your missing mother. Each NPC has immunities and vulnerabilities to different skills. For example, in conversations with Napoleon Bonaparte, he may be immune to the Conviction and Politics skills, while he might be exploited by using Etiquette. The skills you select affect which dialogue options are available to you.  

Frequently, a character might approach you in a Confrontation—a high-stakes battle of wits where you have a limited number of mistakes you can make. In these player-vs.-NPC encounters, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents is vital. If you choose incorrectly and fail the confrontation, the consequences are tangible and, sometimes, quite harsh.  

Your skills also may assist you in uncovering clues and solving puzzles around the island. If you get stuck and need a hint, you can spend some of your limited effort points (which replenish at the end of each chapter) in order to use de Richet’s experience to give you, the player, some helpful information.

It is a game with high expectations when it comes to the player's intellectual capabilities. The only way to succeed is to thoroughly explore your environments and to think critically about the clues you uncover—though, for a game with such difficult puzzles, sometimes understanding its dialogue poses even more of a challenge.

I imagine that, in its native French language, the dialogue reads wonderfully. In the English version, there’s a laundry list of issues, the biggest of which is just awkward and clunky text that is frequently phrased in a stilted manner. A lot of the biggest offenders of this type seem to figure in Louis’s internal monologue, where he has such thoughts as:

“I absolutely need to find you, Mother”

“And if I can believe my vision, you don’t have much of a place in her heart”

“For crying out loud, why did you hide supplies in the middle of nowhere, Mother?”

Another issue is text that did not seem to be localized in any way, shape, or form. Localization, for anyone who may not know, is the process of editing text to make it more natural and logical for native speakers. It’s frequently text that’s been translated into English from other languages; however, localization may also occur if you have text native to the UK that you’d like to present to U.S. players. It’s an important process, seeing as unfamiliar and confusing slang may be immersion-breaking.

Another issue in The Council is the anachronistic language. It’s scattered throughout the game and tends to undermine the historical feel. Now, writing period pieces can be extremely difficult, and there is definitely room for some light anachronism, in my opinion. It disrupts the player’s immersion when, in a story that takes place in the 18th century, the main character says, “Pull yourself together, man.” Unfortunately, the quality of the voice acting sometimes draws even more attention to awkward phrasing and anachronisms.

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Throughout the game, you get to choose which path to follow. These choices carry quite a bit of weight, and most of the paths diverge quite drastically.

The tragic part is that most of the side characters are voiced reasonably well. The accents are fine, the dialogue seems believable, and the voice actors themselves seem to have changed the text in order to speak more naturally (which is evident in mismatches between the subtitles and the voice acting).

The main character is not handled quite as skillfully. For some reason, the choice was made to use an American actor who does not put on any sort of accent for his character (a Frenchman, born in Paris). It’s not just that they cast someone with an American accent… They cast a man who speaks in a whiney, Californian form of iambic pentameter. It’s what I’d imagine a production of Hamlet to be like if a casting director ever made the grave mistake of putting Hayden Christensen in the title role.

In my gaming experience, I’ve found that convincing acting can make up for mediocre dialogue. Wonderful writing can distract from a so-so performance. But to have awkward writing paired with unconvincing acting? Ouch.

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Gregory Holm, just one character who exemplifies the strange (and creepy) animation used throughout the game.

It’s an absolute tragedy that a game with such an intriguing story and incredibly innovative mechanics is so unappealing to two of the senses. Nonetheless, I would heartily recommend this game to anyone with a vested interest in how narrative games are evolving and what they’ll look like in the future. Playing it has been a valuable experience, and, despite its writing flaws, the game has a logical flow and tells a very compelling, original story.

In short, the animation style may be uncomfortable, the dialogue could use additional localization to sound more passable to native speakers, and the voice acting sometimes makes me want to use steel wool as earplugs…

… but it’s also incredibly well-designed from a gameplay standpoint. With puzzles that truly challenge the player, sleek UI and menus, and a leveling system that affects how your player tackles verbal confrontations, this game is simply one that should not be ignored.


New Release: 'Lily's Garden' for Tactile Entertainment

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Last spring, I flew to Copenhagen for a whirlwind week of concept brainstorming with the top-notch team at Tactile Entertainment. The seeds of that work have now come to full fruition: Lily's Garden.

Here's the official game description:

Get your hands dirty in Lily’s Garden, our new FREE puzzle game! Help Lily restore her great-aunt’s garden to its former glory and rediscover her roots. Dig into a story full of twists and turns as Lily interacts with a cast of colorful characters. Plant the seed of romance with her handsome neighbor Luke, and keep her rake of an ex-boyfriend Blaine off her turf. Match and collect flowers in hundreds of unique puzzle levels to earn stars and grow your garden!

And the trailer:

While for business reasons I didn't stay on to write the game text for Tactile, I'm amazed by how much we accomplished in that whirlwind week, as is evident in the release version of the game.

What really impresses me about Tactile is that they prioritize both quality and emotional content in their games. Lily's Garden is only one example. What brought me out to Denmark last year despite a busy game studio and a full-time teaching gig was their dedication to the craft of game development, which you can see in their Bee Brilliant and Cookie Cats series of games. The team was terrific to work with, too, and if I have one regret about the insane 2018 I experienced in transitioning Brunette Games into a fully staffed studio, it's that I didn't get to see Lily's Garden all the way through to the launch finish line. But it's immensely satisfying to see the Brunette Games influence at work anyway. Even more satisfying is simply to play yet another awesome game from this talented team of Danes.

Here are some behind-the-scenes shots from my trip last spring. 

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Some of the Tactile gang in an after-work toast. The cozy, light-filled office definitely encourages folks to stick around...

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For most of the week, we were holed up in a conference room, brainstorming on a whiteboard. The great thing about this stage is that anything goes. The last thing you want to do when brainstorming is shut down any idea, no matter how seemingly nutty it is. You never know where something will take you.

I loved the views through the office windows. The light in Copenhagen, with the grey, wintry weather and combination of water, sky, and rain, reminded me a lot of Seattle.

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When Tactile first contacted me in early 2018, I played and fell in love with their Bee Brilliant games, getting serious heart eyes for the bee babies in the game. You can find plush toy versions of the BBs tucked in spots throughout the offices. Just typing this puts the bee baby theme song back in my head, in a good way.

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The other crush I developed on this one-week work trip was for Copenhagen itself. I sorely wished I'd had time to explore, but it was hard enough to sneak away during spring break from teaching. What I did see on my walks and bike rides left me wanting more.

The architecture is olde worlde magnificent. The city's recorded origins are in the 12th century, but archeologists have unearthed settlements dating as far back as 1020.

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As someone who's drawn to water but currently finds herself very much landlocked in the Midwest, I couldn't get enough of Nyhavn, a 17th-century waterfront that is one of the most picturesque I've ever seen.

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The citizens of Copenhagen are renowned for their embrace of the bicycle, with as many as 75% of city dwellers biking throughout the year as a form of transportation. One of my most memorable experiences was biking across town in the middle of snow flurries to meet with Tactile's CEO, Asbjoern Soendergaard. That's the moment I truly felt like a Dane.

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I hope one day to get to return to this incredibly captivating city. Until then, I'll play Lily's Garden, and remember my time at Tactile fondly. 

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New Release in Games: Matchington Mansion!

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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.

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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!

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I hope you enjoy this game. Please feel free to email me with your feedback using this handy link.

From Reviews

"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

Download Now

The game is free to play, with in-app purchases.

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Note: This is a re-post from the original, which appeared on www.catintheflock.com.


A Love Story in 27 Characters or Less

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.

Dear Diary

 
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