*The ranger enters the tavern and finds a table close to a window where she can watch the storm come in from the West…*
Hello, I’m Brooke, and I owe a lot to role playing games and video games for my love of writing. All those hours spent with friends writing character bios and posts were a blast and they were also making me a better writer.
Ever since Full Throttle, Sam & Max and Vampire The Masquerade *swoon* I’ve wanted to do it since I was a kid. I used to tell my sister stories with the SNES Mario Paint with Mouse, with bad illustrations (I made character sprites with the stamp tool).
Last year, I was offered the chance to be the writer on a Voxel Agents project, a new adventure puzzle game for iOS. I was pretty excited and I hoped that I would be good enough. It’s called The Time Project, because there is no official title yet (titles are so hard…).
I’ve been writing lots for the game already and I think we have a good story going but there is more to do! I’ve settled in with the team (they’re ridiculously friendly and talented bunch of people), and there’s lots going on in the office.
A few weeks ago, I asked the team (Henrik, Jon and Maya) if they’d be cool with me keeping a journal of our adventures with The Time Project. I’m interested in how other people make things, what their creative process is like, and I hope someone finds this interesting, helpful, entertaining, or at least something different and fun on their dashboard. 😀
Stay with me as I get the .gif etiquette right. Give me a hand if I stuff it up 😀
In the words of Patsy Stone: Cheers, thanks a lot!
Brooke says: Hi guys! When we have some time today, it would be great to get an updates picture of the team working in their natural environment.
Henrik says: Do I need to clean my desk?
Brooke says: I don’t know, I will come and have a look…
*The dusty tome opens*
In the beginning…
When I write, I like to thrash out a rough draft as soon as possible. The writing is always terrible (really terrible) but it creates some outlines of characters, settings and usually gives me an idea of the overall core of the story.
So, I was really interested to learn that this team does the same thing when they’re making games. They thrash out a rough prototype to see how it’s feeling and working.
Seems like a pretty universal concept. Test early, fail fast because that’s how to make your creative project better!
The Time Project has been a concept the Voxel Agents have been working on since around 2011. Different teams have produced different concepts and I find it cool to see how the project has evolved. So let’s take a look, eh Watson?
Henrik worked with some of the other Voxels on a prototype that took three days to knock together (which kind of blows my mind). Henrik tells me he made a few diorama inspired games in uni and was/is in love with Super Mario 3 for being one big stage play. When he showed me this, it blew my mind (I haven’t played this game since I was a kid so I didn’t realise just how obvious this concept was!).
And thus, Time-Travel Treasure Hunt was born!
It looks like a fairy tale pop-up book!
Time-Travel Treasure Hunt is a hidden-object game where you have to find stars hidden in the scene (keeping with our references to theatre). These scenes change over time and show a simple story that the player can reverse and fast-forward through at any time.
One of the things they learned was that giving the player the power to move time worked perfectly with the idea of looking for objects. Not only because it’s so pretty to look at and encouraged exploration but because it allowed for a pleasant surprise when things in the environment aligned ‘just so’ to reveal something new.
I feel fiction works in a similar way. I’m looking for ways to arrange elements in the story that leads to a surprise. But surprise doesn’t necessarily mean a ‘plot twist’. Maybe it’s a character decision or much like Time-Travel, a change to the environment that challenges the characters to act.
This surprise cannot be cheap.
They must feel somehow inevitable and attainable (believable) for the reader. It is the same for games like Time-Travel Treasure Hunt, the puzzles must be believable, attainable and, at their best, fun!
See what you think: Time-Travel Treasure Hunt is available online to play.
There a total of 10 stars. See if you can find them all. Time-Travel Treasure Hunt [35 MB] It’s a bit of a wait time on the download (sorry!).
Henrik talks more about the game over on the Voxel Agents blog and I should probably link to that, so here we go!
That’s the first phase. Stay tuned for more ancient history very soon 😀
*The vellum pages turn*
In just 14 hours, the game became something else, something more…
(I don’t know why I’m going with this dusty book motif, but hey, I am!)
Sometimes, writing is super hard. Sometimes it helps to just speed through and don’t think too much about what you’re writing. Other times, it’s fun to have write-ins with your fellow writerly peeps. National Novel Writing Month comes to mind. I haven’t done this challenge yet but I imagine the game development equivalent is something like…
…The 48 Hour Game Making Challenge held at the ACMI in Melbourne, that birthed the next iteration of the Time Project!
Henrik and other Voxel Agents took to a public space and actually only needed 14 hours to take the Time Project to the next level. Here is what the set-up looked like:
I get to live this every week, watching fellow creatives make games is interesting, each have their own idiosyncrasies and I look for them when I watch the time lapse video. I like watching Henrik’s headphones go on and off, as well as his hair becomes messier, haha!
One of the cool things about the Game Making Challenge was the general public could watch, ask questions and offer ideas about the project. The team were keen on making the most of the experience and set-up computers for people to wander into the ‘studio’ and make sound effects for the game. They also gave ideas about the name for the game and contributed to the artwork (very cool!).
The team crammed and crunched.
Time Trackers was born!
Is pretty, yes?
Definitely still has a diorama, fairy-tale pop-up feel!
Crammin’ and crunch’ certainly has it’s benefits. I feel for me, doing this on a second draft (much like the team has done here) would work better. I’d have a good idea of the basic concept and overall story, then I could focus on re-hashing and finessing some elements of the story that wasn’t quite working.
In Time Trackers, there is definitely a marked improvement in the way the observational puzzles come together.
We had a big puzzle brainstorm and discussion for the Time Project last week.
(Henrik’s puzzle book)
Henrik did a small presentation about his research into puzzles and explained that solving puzzles in a game is like learning a language. Needless to say, my ears pricked up—yup, I get this! Hold onto your swivel chairs, I’m about to get word-nerdy!
To get the language, you need to get the grammar.
Grammar is basically a crap-ton of rules for language (yes, thank you Brooke, revolutionary dah-link now I’m going to keep scrolling my dash for my new favourite OTP…)
But wait! It’s also true for writing stories!
Stories have rules.
When I’m writing, I’m setting up rules and I don’t even realise I’m doing it.
These rules ‘teach’ the reader about what is possible and not possible in the world the story is set in.
The genre of the story sets up a whole bunch of rules first off. Science Fiction? We know we’re going to have some futuristic technology, cool. Fantasy? Elves are ok but it is not ok if my elves are in a story with cyborgs. Unless you have some amazing mash-up world like Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series and she can do that because she has set up these expectations from the start.
Teaching rules = creating expectations
Same deal for games!
Puzzle games, in particular, present you with a language that you haven’t learned yet. So you have questions like: what am I supposed to do? How do objects move? What is possible?
This is usually what the first few levels of a game are all about. It’s also usually what the first few chapters of a novel are all about. You want to know what’s possible in the world, what’s going on and what’s going to happen.
As we progress through games (and stories!), we become better at the language. But we don’t want to be overwhelmed by it. We don’t want to be bombarded with every single rule right away. Start with the basics, start with what is relevant to the first few levels (or chapters). That way, we become immersed in the world by learning the rules and then, we become fluent by the end. With this fluency comes a feeling of mastery and achievement, we are ‘all in’ the world that’s been created.
Our aim for The Time Project is to create that feeling—that’s the good stuff!
Oh, look, more brainstorming ~~
We brainstormed with the aim of finding good visual metaphors that will allow us to convey the rules of our game.
To do this, we have been taking inspiration from books that already combine story and puzzles, Usbourne Puzzle Adventures!
I haven’t read these but Henrik and Maya introduced me to them and they look fantastic:
We thought how we can use colour to communicate what is possible in our game, eg. what objects can be moved. We thought about creating a new language for the game that associated fire with a symbol in the game world in order to merge the two, but we quickly realised this was too abstract.
That’s learning two languages! The ‘language’ of our game world, and the language of the puzzles. The equivalent would be asking someone to learn another language in order to read your book. Which is entirely possible if you’re Tolkien and have provided a language guide with your story world, and you might be the kind of person who has the time to do that, but that’s just too much for our little game!
(Language puzzles in The Emerald Conspiracy)
Writing a good story is like making a good game. It’s about setting up the rules and expectations.
We’re experimenting with our puzzle languages and thinking about how different types of puzzles have might have different languages. For example, puzzles that have to do with the environment require the player to know they can retrieve things like fire and manipulate the flow of water, and this might be conveyed with a glowing effect. And puzzles that ask the player to arrange symbols might be conveyed by runes etched into the rock face.
We’re not too sure yet.
But this is just the beginning of the story. When we have those expectations set up, the fun comes from playing with those expectations. That’s when you get plot twists and surprises that feel inevitable in hindsight because all along, you have been getting subtle hints… but we’re not quite there yet!
Ah, yes, here we are in our natural habitat. Such rare and majestic creatures.
Jon heads up the art production, Maya is our programmer extraordinaire, I write all of our words and stories, and Henrik is our game designer/puzzle-wizard.
They’re the official versions of our roles but like any small creative team, we wear a lot of different hats. We all weigh-in on design decisions and talk about what we love and what could be improved.
As you can see, we cleaned our desks for the most part~~
The plants in the background are new (and REAL so you can be sure we’re getting our oxygen). Now you know we’re real, too!
Thank you Ariel Cameron for your photography skills.
We are sending Henrik to the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) and Expo in San Francisco, he leaves on Sunday!
People from all over come to GDC to give presentations, take workshops, check out the new tech and talk to one another.
Henrik is hoping to chat to lots of game developers he admires. We’re looking forward to chatting to others, talking about making games and seeing your games!
We are also taking some of Time Project and we can’t wait to show you.
I have a feeling Henrik will be very energetic when he gets back! 😀
*More pages turn. A plot comes to the fore…*
In Time-Travel Treasure Hunt and Time Trackers, we shift through time by moving a timeline scrubber left and right. It is like fast-forwarding and rewinding a scene in a movie. The best way for the team to convey time moving is to have events unfolding as the player moves through time.
The team found that these little events (like boats sailing or a princess moving to her balcony at the top of a castle) were curious and delightful. There appeared to be small stories everywhere!
Players were moving the timeline scrubber to watch the these events unfold even though this wasn’t the object of the game, it was to locate the stars hidden in the environment.
The challenge of finding the stars was encouraging exploration of the story and vice versa! A kind of harmony was occurring between these little stories and gameplay.
It was only natural for the team to see what happened when story became a focus of the design. They decided to let players influence the events of a story by shifting time. For the prototype, the team used a popular story, Little Red Riding Hood. Why?
It was a way to ‘establish a language’, one that was universal for the team and for those testing the game.
Plus, fairy tales are plot driven, they have a clear sequence of events. Sticking to an old, established story allowed them to try this new game play and it meant they didn’t have to write a story before diving in! Besides, too much ‘newness’ for the prototyping process would be disorientating. It’s important to thrash out a first draft.
(Little Red moving through the market square, on her way to Grandma’s house)
Little Red Riding Hood, in it’s most distilled form, is a chain of cause and effect:
When Little Red Riding Hood sets out to visit Grandma, she encounters a wolf who asks her where she is going. She tells him and the Wolf decides to beat Little Red to Grandma’s house so he can feast on them both. When Little Red arrives, the Wolf is disguised as her Grandma… You know the rest!
We potentially have three stories that account for the same events from different points of view: Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf and Grandma. This prototype allows the player to ‘help’ the characters fulfil their needs in the story. Players get to see three different stories unfold by changing between these three points of view.
I joined the team a bit after this prototype was completed and I was fascinated.
Call me a control freak, but I love narratives that make me feel like I’m influencing events. These stories draw me in and give me sense of the world reacting to me and not ignoring me. Game of Thrones and the books written in the Vampire the Requiem world (that start here!) give me this feeling. So do games like Dragon Age: Inquisition (how I love thee). The prototype uses a similar premise.
The Little Red Riding Hood prototype revolves around players changing points of view to solve story-based puzzles. For example, they can help Little Red to Grandma’s house, Grandma light her furnace to stay warm:
(Grandma’s house – you can see some items that need to be collected and moved, like the key to unlock the cellar door to get some firewood for the furnace!)
One of the best things about this prototype was it allowed the team to explore the concept of branching narratives, switching scenarios and telling stories from different points of view.
It also led to the decision to scale back.
Henrik said exploring splitting timelines was “a dark rabbit hole.” While they had a lot of potential for fun, complex puzzles, this prototype lead to one very important decision.
The team wanted to stay focused on one thing: moving time.
They also realised how important story was to this project and decided to keep it in there.
That’s what lead to their decision to seek out a writer. And that’s how they ended up with me! 😀
In these ‘History of the Time Project’ posts, I have been slowly moving you from the past to the present unfolding a sequence of events. Whoa, this just got meta!
In my last chapter, I’ll tell you about the new direction of The Time Project. Some of which I am sure you have been able to guess…
Awesome news! The Time Project was nominated for Best Design and Best Visual Art at the Freeplay Festival.
We all rocked along to the awards night feeling quite proud to have been nominated along side of an extremely impressive line-up of games.
While we didn’t pick-up any wins, we were thrilled to have been considered. The team was very much taken by surprise by these nominations. We didn’t imagine our game was at a point where it would be considered for an award, little own two awards!
Push Me Pull You (House House) took best design and Movement Study 1 (What A Dreamer) collected the Visual Art award (the rest of the award results can be found over here!). Congrats!!!
Freeplay had it’s tenth birthday this year and went for ten days – it’s longest running time, yet! It also had an online festival as well which our programmer, Maya Violet, was working on as an associate producer (wooo!).
The Voxel Agents would like to thank all of the Freeplay staff and the board and all the other games and game makers for making such cool stuff. We’d especially like to thank the judges for seeing something in our little game.