Category Archives: Story

I’m not really a good person

I’m not bad person either. I’m more like… chaotic neutral.

I started working on Belladonna in early 2013, and shortly after that Anita Sarkeesian began releasing her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series. This means that by the time I watched the first episode I already had the whole story and all the characters of Belladonna planned out. Since then every new episode has presented me with new tropes and terminology, and admittedly Belladonna features practically every single one of these toxic tropes.

But! I have worked hard from the very start to make sure that it is an upside-down take on them.

I have a damsel-in-distressed character. She is even damsel’d twice.

However, the first time she engineers her own escape. She observes her situation, identifies an opportunity, formulates a careful plan and executes it to win her freedom.

Her new-won freedom is short-lived, and being the damsel she is she soon finds herself once again incapacitated by an external force. And this time she can only sit around and wait for her rescuer.

However, her rescuer is another woman!

And I do have a Woman in a Refrigerator – an underdeveloped female character whose only purpose is to get killed off and thus trigger the events of the main story. This character is mentioned briefly with a name, and presented as a love interest, but nothing much is said about her before she is murdered in cold blood just to anger and provoke her lover.

However, this is a story about bringing the dead back to life, after all, and this refrigerator’d woman later turns out to be the primary agent of the whole narrative!

Saarkasien’s latest video is about Ms Male Characters and the Smurfette principle. Belladonna uses these tropes as well. (Although no character will wear a pink or purple bow!)

msFrankenstein

The very first thing that happens in the game is that you are presented with a female version of Frankenstein’s monster. You are given some back-story, which also mentions a female Frankenstein, and the natural assumption is that they are the same person, since a game like this with as much as two interesting female characters is, in your prior experience, very unlikely. But what is the Smurfette is not in fact a Smurfette? What if there is more than one woman in this story? And if they both are female versions of a male Frankenstein’s monster, how is it that they are different from each other, unless they actually have other character traits than “being a woman”?

I’m walking on dangerous ground here. Sarkeesian’s general advice seems to be to avoid damsels-in-distress altogether and make games about other things. I am going the opposite direction, choosing to add a damsel on purpose and use the tropes to prove a point.

But who am I to handle delicate issues like this?

If you only play through the first half of Belladonna, lose interest and leave it, the game will appear really sexist and regressive. If you only see the part where the problems are presented, and skip the part where they are discussed, they will simply look like problems.

Moreover, if I fail to present the discussion part properly, and do not manage to provoke the player to analytic thought, similar scenario occurs.

I am not really a good person. I do not have great empathy, or a genuine interest in other people and their well-being. My approach to issues like these comes from the other axis of the D&D chart.

Not from Good or Evil, but from Lawful or Chaotic.

Like many indie game developer I want to be provocative, questioning and anarchistic. But here’s the thing:

Edmund McMillen, of Team Meat and Super Meat Boy, talks about this desire in Indie Game the Movie, and as example of provocative game design we are shown his earlier game “Cunt”. In this game you play as a disembodied penis firing projectiles at a grotesque monster vagina in the centre of the screen.

Does it upset the player? Yes.

Does it force the player to rethink her values? No.

This game only serves to reinforce the patriarchy and the rape-culture that we already have going. The penis is a brutal agent, and the vagina a passive and alien enemy. You may think you are chaotic, but you are simply following the already establish laws.

Joseph Fink, creator of the Welcome to Nightvale podcast, puts it like this:

fink

This is why I whole-heartedly support Sarkeesian’s cause. Because it is a challenge to game developers to rise up and change the medium, to question the established order and revolutionize the industry. Because following the same old patterns is lazy and cowardly, and if you truly want to be innovative and forward-thinking, these are the sort of systems you have to question.

And as an effect, a lot of people, of all genders and demographics, will also be a lot happier after the change. I guess that’s nice too.

Thank you for reading. Comments goes here: @HallinNiklas


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.