Author Archives: Simon Jones

The Lift: complex conversations in Twine

I’ve written before about Twine, a game making tool aimed specifically at constructing choose-your-own-adventure style text games. If you heard about Depression Quest last year (probably for all the wrong reasons), then you’ll have encountered a Twine-built game.

Anyway, I’d previously been attempting to create an elaborate steampunk adventure based on an Arms Race comic script I’d written a few years back. It could have been quite fun but was far too enormous a project to be my first foray into making games. As you can see from my blog post about responsive characters, what I was really interested in was character interactions.

Fast-forward to now and I’ve got two strands of game-making going on. First up I’m still making my way through Tom Francis’ superb GameMaker tutorial series over on YouTube. That’s going OK. The other thing I’m now working on is a new Twine-based project, having put the Arms Race adventure on hold.

This new project is called The Lift and is deliberately extremely contained in its scope. It has two characters (including the player) and one location: a lift in a crappy apartment building. It’s entirely about the interaction between those characters, with the player dictating the relationship.

The goal is to make it feel extremely responsive and natural, with the conversation (or lack thereof) proceeding in a convincing manner such that the player feels engaged with the relationship. Depending on the actions of the player they might forge a new friendship or simply stand in silence as the lift ascends the building.

I’m trying to avoid simple Bioware-style Good/Neutral/Bad responses, instead favouring a less structured and more freeform conversation tree. I’m already finding out exactly why most devs constrain their conversation options! The approach I’m taking wouldn’t be practical for a larger project with multiple interactions, but given that the entire purpose of The Lift is the conversation I think it makes sense on this occasion.

Anyway, once it’s done I’ll be posting it up somewhere for free, at which point you can tell me whether I’ve created something interesting or messy. I’ll be blogging how I go, too.

First 5 Minutes: Proteus

I’ve wanted to try my hand at recording some in-game commentary for a while, with the above video being the first actual result. The idea is to play through the first five minutes of a variety of games, examining what they do well/not so well and generally discussing the importance of that first impression.

This first video takes a look a Proteus, a quirky indie game from a few years back which is still unlike anything else I’ve played.

It was a lot of fun to make the video, so I’ll probably do more.

The joy of an empty wilderness in The Witcher 3

Eurogamer published a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of the launch of The Witcher 3 this week, with writer Robert Purchese having been given complete access to the studio for three days. Prime Ministers visited, developers crunched deadlines, and controversy reigned briefly for no good reason over the game’s supposed ‘downgrade’.

The whole article is fantastic but one particular section jumped out at me, in which the game’s director is remembering the moment the ‘open world’ was first stitched together and made playable:

Something “really really scary” then happens in October 2014, at that first playthrough of the game. The great open-world is realised but it feels… empty. “We had these cool quests, this cool content, but nothing in between,” Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz says. “We knew it’s not enough,” his brother Konrad adds, “and we knew if we want to release an open-world game we got to fill it with interesting content, and we got a really short amount of time to do it.” It’s at this moment the question marks – points of interest – are born, all twists on around 20 templates dreamt up by a newly created and dedicated strike force team.

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One of the first things I did having played the game for a couple of hours was turn off those question marks. The game lets your customise your interface to a fine degree, turning each element on or off. Most of it I’ve left on because it actively aids gameplay without harming the story or setting – I have no problem with a minimap, for example, because Geralt’s sense of direction, as an expert hunter, and familiarity with the locations, as someone who has traveled his whole life, should be a lot better than my own as a player.

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Those question marks, though, don’t work for me. Everything else has to be discovered – markers for merchants and pubs don’t appear on the map until you wander past them, which makes sense. Active quests tell you where to go but that works most of the time, because someone’s probably told you where to go. The question marks simply appear magically after looking at noticeboards, despite the notices not providing accurate location information, thereby populating the map with things which Geralt simply can’t know about. It breaks the verisimilitude.

That’s not even the main problem. The real issue is that the question marks turn Witcher 3 into an Ubisoft game, with the developers being so terrified of the player becoming bored that they massively over-populate the world. You can’t go more than fifty metres before something else is clawing for your attention. It ceases to be a cohesive world and turns into a theme park. As you’re travelling from A to B you feel compelled to investigate every damned question mark – and ignoring them isn’t really a viable option, because you then feel like you’re missing out on the fabled ‘Content’.

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Turn them off, though, and the world becomes mysterious once more, and surprising. The events and locations marked out are still there, after all, and you’ll probably run into them, but it’ll be a genuine encounter rather than simply homing in on a question mark creates by some omniscient cartographer. As you ride along you’re not aware of a question mark lurking in the woods, so you’re not tempted to go tick it off. You can choose to go exploring in the woods, but that’s a genuine choice.

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It creates a sense of wilderness. And sure, that means it can feel like there’s not much going on between towns. But that’s fine. That’s how it should be, and it makes the world feel bigger and more real. If you spot something interesting with your eyes, you can check it out, otherwise you can enjoy the scenery and the journey. It feels like a proper journey with real decisions – when was the last time you pulled off the motorway every five minutes, just to check something out?

It’s not something that Tomaszkiewicz should have feared. The Witcher’s world, with question marks hidden, is the most compelling game world I’ve yet encountered. I refrain from using ‘fast travel’, instead choosing to ride between locations, even if the distances are great. That’s not because of all the Content I might encounter, but because the world is a joy to be in.

When a map is over-populated I’m actually more likely to use fast travel, simply because I can’t contend with being bombarded with so much information.

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Red Dead Redemption had a similar sparseness, which perfectly suited its depiction of a truly wild west. Mini quests every five seconds would have spoiled those moments of riding across the desert, storm clouds brewing on the horizon. It’s critical to have uninterrupted sequences of simply journeying – sure, you’d sometimes stumble across something going on, but you didn’t have the endless minimap distractions of an Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry game breaking your suspension of disbelief at regular intervals.

The need to over-stuff game worlds speaks to a certain lack of confidence in the product itself. Witcher 3’s world is detailed and beautiful enough by itself, even if nothing happened in it. If it were just an empty world it’d still have a sense of reward to exploration. Of course, that isn’t the case, beacuse you know that at every town you reach you’ll find something interesting going on, courtesy of its beautifully written quests. Having those empty spaces in between makes every village and town feel like a proper refuge. Arriving at the city of Novigrad after days in the wilds has a palpable sense of returning to civilisation – the barber being the first port of call, obviously.

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Once you turn off all those markers you can relax into the world, rather than feeling the need to find every location and ‘beat’ the game. I do wish more developers would have faith in their worlds and let us truly get lost in the wilderness.

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Copy thoughts: Keeping it fresh

I’m hoping to do occasional articles like this, looking analytically at both my own work and that of others.

Software dev FXHOME just released PhotoKey 7 Pro, the latest version in a long-running series of image editing products. I’m the lead copywriter at FXHOME and was responsible for writing the copy for the new website. It turned out to be a lot of fun. You can check out the results here. Continue reading

ADoF writing notes: Instinct

Back in the flow of things this week, although this was one of those episodes that has to work really hard to not just be a load of exposition.

‘Instinct’ lays down a few ground rules for the dimension-jumping – such as it being location-locked, so that physical space in one dimension is the same as in another. Which clears up the mini-mystery of how they found themselves falling out of the sky in ‘Apex Predator’.

Fun fact: this chapter was originally going to be called ‘Allopatric speciation’, as I mentioned in the previous writer’s notes, before I realised that was a bit much. Don’t worry, though – there’s a lot of show-offy words coming up later on.

So, why call it ‘instinct’? It’s partly relating to Cal’s instinctual understanding of where and when it is safe to use his new ability, much like we can make quick judgements of time and space without needing measuring tape and a stopwatch. Humans seem quite good at judging trajectory and momentum, and that’s kinda how I imagine Cal’s power to work.

At the same time, in the second story arc we’re going to see some divergence of opinion, as Kay’s instincts tend to be somewhat different to Cal’s. Characters are at their most interesting when in crisis, as that’s when you get to see how each one reacts differently. Put your characters up a tree, throw stones at them, and see what they each do.

ADoF writing notes: ‘Vicariance’

And we return.

Theoretically this is simply chapter 14. Really, though, it’s chapter 1 of the second story arc. If the first arc was about introducing the world and Kay getting caught up in Cal’s world, we can now consider that part of the story finished and a new part begun.

Before beginning A Day of Faces I worked out a very loose 3-part structure. Part 1 evolved as I wrote it, twisting and turning into something slightly different. Major beats were still there – how Kay and Cal met, the climactic Aviary assault – but where everybody ended up at the end changed considerably, which had a knock-on effect on everything else.

Most of the last couple of weeks, since ‘Apex Predator’, has therefore been about restructuring part 2 and 3. And while the themes of the story have remained intact, the direction has shifted again. This second story arc is very different now to how I’d originally imagined it.

Crucially, it’s better.

Vicariance is a chance to get our breath back after the 3-parter finale to the first arc. I wanted to remind readers where the characters had got to, without fully explaining what was happening. It’s a chance to really start picking out the characters and Kay and Cal and where they differ – it’s all been fun and games so far, mostly, but now that they’re in a decidedly desperate situation it’s time to see how they each react under that kind of strain.

Kinda harder to do that with Marv, given he’s unconscious for the entire chapter. I’ll get to him soon. In fact, there’s a bit of a character inconsistency/plot hole there which needs addressing sooner rather than later. Nobody’s mentioned it, but I’ve noticed it and it’s annoying me.

I’m back to publishing weekly on a Monday, so stay tuned on my Wattpad channel. The next chapter is probably going to be called…’Allopatric speciation’. Because why the hell not?

Soundtrack: In The Beginning score, by Christopher Franke

New story: ‘Brain the size of a walnut’ + other writing gubbins

I’ve been more productive in 2015 than the previous couple of years put together. This may have something to do with my son being a couple of years older and thus my brain being slightly less frazzled.

Today I wrote a new short story, called ‘Brain the size of a walnut’. It’s about a sentient mouse. I’ve never written from the point of view of a mouse before.

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This came about due to me stumbling across a science fiction contest on Wattpad. It only needed 800 words, which was a good job as the deadline is tomorrow, and gave a choice of opening lines. I opted for:

“My only chance of escape involved a small, dark tunnel guarded by…”

All the usual sci-fi devices popped into my head: a spaceship, a monster, a space monster, a robot, a killer robot, an assassin…a space assassin. Nothing quite worked, so I went with the next obvious choice: a cat.

Really, it was a means to an end. I didn’t want the tunnel to dictate the story or character, and a cat was a good way to just get it out the way. But that clearly got my brain whirring in a peculiar direction, leading me to the natural nemesis of a cat.

And thus Greg the hyper-intelligent mouse was born. I quite like Greg. Though this is probably the one and only time I’ll write about him. It’s perhaps the most overtly comedic story I’ve written, and is inherently very daft.

Also today…

I also wrote my first new screenplay for what seems like (and probably has been) years. It’s called A View From The Gallery and is a one location, one actor short film. It’s designed primarily to experiment with digital set extensions and lighting.

Not sure what I’ll do with it. It’s in the hands of the It’s A Trap chaps at the moment, so I’ll see what they reckon to it. Regardless, it was good to flex the script muscles again after so long, and having been focused on prose for most of the year.

Writing makes me happy. Who’da thunk it?