Ten Thoughts on Writing Adventure Games

Belladonna is a mystery point-and-click adventure in classic style. When the game starts
you wake up in an empty laboratory; a creation brought back from the dead. You
have no name, no identity and no memories. What do you do? You soon find a few
hasty journal notes, which gives you some hints as to who brought you to life
and why, but as you claw your way out of the laboratory and towards the big
world, you start to realise that more have happened to lead up to your
re-animation than you previously believed.

In many ways Belladonna can been seen not as a game, but more of a short novel, only
instead of turning the next page you actually have to walk over there. There
are many reasons I choose to make Belladonna into a game and not a book, but
the biggest one the experience of finding out more and more about the back
story, where player and the player is on exactly the same level. The
assumptions the player makes based on what is visible in the first level will
give the player character all the knowledge she has.

Now, I have never undertaken a task like this before. In fact, this is the first time
I work on a game production that has any type of complete narrative whatsoever.
But how hard can it be, right? I have written stories before, and I have made
games before, after all. Here are some of the difficulties and tricks I have
run in to:

1. How is the story delivered?

The story pieces mainly come in the form of lost journal pages, written by several of the
game’s characters, which you pick up and collect throughout the game. This type
of story deliverance in a games has been seen before; 2K’s Bioshock for
instance let’s you pick up cryptic, recorded messages hidden here and there as
by mischievous gnomes (that is, level designers).

In Bioshock, however, these story snippets are often more of an extra seasoning on
top of the massive narrative that makes that particular game what it is. It is
quite possible to play through the game without listening to a single one. In
Belladonna they are crucial to the whole experience.

As I mentioned above, what I am working with here is pretty much a novel, where all
pages have been torn out and scattered throughout a game. I will talk more
about what I do to intertwine story and gameplay, but the fact remains that a
big part of Belladonna is picking up pages of text and read through them. The
problem with this is: what happens if the player misses, or wilfully ignores,
one or several of the journal pages? She will lose track of the whole game
experience and everything will big a great mess.

So:

2. How do I know it really is delivered?

First of all: the diary pages are never hidden. It will be practically impossible for
the player to miss a page, unless she wilfully ignores it and walks right by.
But why are the pages from private journals and letters lying around right
there on the floor of the basement? The answer is of course that the game
design dictates that this would be a good place for the player to acquire this
information. My guess is that, right before the events of Belladonna takes
place, a “paper nuke” went off, with a huge blast wave that left everything
completely untouched, except every piece of paper in the castle, which was
scattered all over the place.  This gets especially ridiculous when you, by the end of the game, enter an old mausoleum that has not been breached for generations; only find a note on the floor
written mere weeks ago.

On top of this I am also working on a small particle effect, or a similar solution, that
will draw even more attention to the missing journal pages. I am even debating
a feature, where whenever you leave a room and haven’t picked up all the pages
the player character will mention that she thinks there are more to explore,
before leaving the room. The important part is that she does leave the room. I
do not want to force any player for go back and seek out every single secret in
order to proceed. If you really want to, against all recommendations, get to
the end of the game and not read a single line of text, you should be able to.

In conclusion, I try to make the act of picking up and reading a new page very
easy, and missing a page very difficult.

3. Continue making important things easy – the interface

I have also spent a great deal of time on designing the sort of inventory menu where
all the collected pages end up. Most of the time you will find the pages in
chronological order, but not always, and the story is told form a few parallel
viewpoints. To illustrate this I wanted a layout that showed in which order the
pages are supposed to be read. The current arrangement has two tracks that
follow each other in a loop. One track is the narrative of Belladonna herself,
and the other is the notes written by the doctor who developed the re-animation
process.

diary_mockup

Clicking a thumbnail will open up a big, readable version of the page, covering pretty
much the whole screen. But how do you know which thumbnail is which when all of
them just show some minuscule text you can’t read? I intend to work a lot with
the silhouette of the text, to make every page unique and distinguishable even
in thumbnail formant. I am also thinking of adding small sketches, doodlings
and maybe surgical notes on many of them. Each character will also get a unique
letterhead with his or her name, almost like a logo on the top of every page.
The result will be that every thumbnail will correspond to a specific page, and
the player will easily be able to open the letter she was looking for.

4. Fonts and readability

In the spirit of making the journal pages easy to read, let’s talk about fonts. I have
only just begun looking in to this, but I know that I want to give each
character its own font, and I want them to be sort of handwritten in style, yet
not at all messy and difficult to read. An idea is to actually write these
things by hand (or preferably find a friend with a decent hand to do it for
me), scan them and put that in the game. That could give a really nice result,
but the downside is that it will be a lot of work if something needs to be
changed or edited. Most likely I will work with computer fonts until the very
end, and then create a final, final, final version with actual handwriting.

frans01

5. The writing process

But enough about game- and graphical design, what is it like to actually write
stories? And how does one go about doing that? When I work with art and
graphics I often find it to be a very good practice to start drawing on paper
first. It has to do with clear design and figuring out what is the most important
thing about what you are drawing, but that is not what this article is about.

The point is that I applied the same principle to the writing process, and I even took it
one step further. It was past midnight when I turned off all the light and
started lighting candles. I sat down with a pen (ink is crucial, no eraser
allowed) and started writing journals by hand. The whole thing became something
of a performance art. This gave me an archive of text, which I could then start
working with digitally. Just like when I create artwork for games.

6. So what about long walls of text?

Originally my plan was to have quite short texts that were to be very to the point and
dense on information. Sitting down and reading though long texts can be hard
work (in fact, I’m surprised that you have gotten this far in this article) and
have I mentioned before that I am anxious to make these journal pages extremely
accessible and user friendly?

I am however working my way away from that. Partly because of the argument that if
you are playing a classic adventure game you kinda know what to expect from it.
I estimate that most of my target audience will be delighted to read every
single sentence, and scour the levels not to miss a single page. My other
reason is that my first attempts were very short and basic, and lacked any
literary quality. After all, I want this game to be a good read.

7. Research

This brings me to my next point. When I work with art (okay, yes I am originally an
artist) I often collect reference material. For this game, for instance I have
looked at the movies Nocturna and Frankenstein from 1931 among other things.
Can this method be used when writing as well?

Frankenstein_cover PrometheanTheCreated_cover

I am looking into Shelley’s Frankenstein, obviously, but also White Wolf’s Promethean
the Created
, which has a more modern flavour, for better or worse. Just like
with graphical references I am looking for things to write about, motifs, but
more importantly I am looking at style.

Frankenstein is actually written in the form of letters and journals form the characters’
perspectives. It is beautifully eerie rather than scary, which is exactly what
I am trying to achieve with Belladonna. I also notice that the book very rarely
describes events that happen, but instead the characters reactions and opinions
about the events. Prometheus the Created, a modern text and a roleplaying
rulebook rather than a novel, is more sensationalistic and “action-y”.  I suppose I am aiming at something in between.

8. My personal fear – renderings of deep emotion

This is more of a note for future problems I expect to encounter.  I know that I will have to write a text about Belladonna’s great love, and one about her great loss, and those two letters scare me. I have written short summaries for all the text in the game, and it
is embarrassingly clear that the text that are scheming and manipulative and
describe a strategic plan are very detailed in their first iteration, whereas
the texts about emotions pretty much are “here be love”.

How do I write about emotions without sounding tacky and silly? I intend to solve this
with more research, but as of now I have no clear idea about where to start. I
looked a bit at Sapho, as women writing about women is relevant in this case,
but ancient greek poem fragments wasn’t exactly spot on when it comes to style.
The search goes on.

9. Merging story and gameplay

When making games with story it is very easy to end up with a gameplay layer and a story
layer. This can for instance take the shape of a level of playing, followed by
a cut-scene, followed by another level. It is a tricky thing to completely
merge narrative and gameplay in to a fully interactive story.

The gameplay in Belladonna pretty much consists of walking around and looking at
things. In many ways, the reading through these journal entries is a large part
of the gameplay. What I try to do is making as many objects in the levels as
possible relate to the story. Paintings on the wall, names on graves and so on
are as much as possible connected to the story from the journal pages.  I also have a portion of the items you pick up and use in puzzle that I call “lore items”. Pretty much all physical object
that are mentioned in the story (these are mostly murder weapons, incidentally)
can be picked up as game items and used in the game.

10. The tenth one

Okay, so I didn’t really think this one through. I wanted ten points, because it is a
good number. But I don’t really have much more to say.  In summary, writing an adventure game is a strange undertaking, but I intend to be successful, and I intend to learn quite
a lot along the way.