Writing games is awesome and hard, and I am becoming a better writer. I am also very tired.
by Natalie Zina Walschots
June 17, 2013
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In which I think about empowerment, improvement, and moving forward.
Last week, in the middle of NXNE, I attended the Exclaim! BBQ/party, sponsored by Jagermeister. There were free pulled pork sandwiches and Jager slushies and a lot of PBR in the hot sun, making me even more giddy and high-energy than usual. I was chatting with one of my editors there, who asked what I had been up to lately (aside from the ridiculous grind of live reviewing for NXNE). I answered that I was working on the novel, writing a theatre review, covering the MMVAs, “and I’m making a video game this month.”
He laughed at me, completely deservedly. This is also my way of apologizing for this post, which is later than I would have liked and essentially bundles three posts into one. Things will be slightly more reasonable now, though I am still maintaining an activity level that would kill the average person, so I’ll have a wee bit of precious time to write posts and play Ni No Kuni again.
The first weekend session didn’t see me sitting down an doing a heck of a lot of actual work on my game, but gave me the opportunity to have a series of conversations that have proved absolutely invaluable as I’ve moved forward. I was able to pick a programmer Cale Bradbury’s mind about the sorts of logic questions I would be running into in the game, and how to basically structure the if-then statements I would need to make the game run; I got to speak at length with David S. Gallant about writing and branching narrative, and how to keep the game as sleek and simple as possible for Junicorn purposes; and Beth Maher very generously gave me an in-depth tutorial on how to use Sprite Something to create awesome custom pixel art.
I ended up biking home and working most of the night, drafting out the entire narrative of my game from start to finish and beginning to clumsily work on the very first pixel art I’ve ever created. I had the same breakthrough then that I had when I was thirteen years old, just beginning to write and develop my own sense of narrative: just as I realized, through writing Dragonlance fan fiction an my own terrible baby pieces, that I could write the stories that I wanted to read, it occurred to me that I can make the games I want to play. I filled pages with ideas of games to make in the future before my long-suffering and human-endurance-level-possessing partner made me go to bed.
I sadly had to leave this session early because I was performing at NXNE, so I missed the rad Coding: It Doesn’t Have To Be Scary presentation (thankfully the slides were made available), but the exercise that we did during the first half of this workshop was dizzyingly useful: to use craft supplies to make a physical, workable version of the game. It’s hard to look at a pile of construction paper and pipe cleaners and not question the validity of the exercise for a moment, but this ended up being the most useful activity I’ve participated in with Junicorn so far.
Before this I knew the game’s narrative, I had a good grasp of the writing, and some idea of the mechanic, but actually making the game in a physical form made me think about it in a completely different way. I drew the maps of the house for the first time, including all of the rooms and stairs and the way that the characters could move between them. I wrote each scare out on a cue card, which are the main units of action and the way that the player character levels up, to see where they would be placed in the house. I was able to conceive of each item the player would interact with as a physical object, and see the different components that would be necessary for each scare. I realized each one needed to have two parts, a physical and an aural component, and determined how the player would achieve each one. I thought I had the writing mostly done before I did this; once I’d make my model, I realized that I had a lot more work to do, but also finished it quickly.
After playing around with several engines and not finding the mechanic to be exactly what I wanted, I reached out to Will O’Neill, the creator of Actual Sunlight, so as a few questions about the engine he’d used to make his game, which had the blend of action and text heaviness that I was looking for (RPG Maker VX Ace). In an incredible display of generosity, he volunteered to come out to the mentoring session and spent this entire afternoon working with me, walking me though an interactive fiction tutorial he’d specifically developed to help me learn to use the software, as well as the custom scripts he’d used to make his game. He showed me how to tweak the engine, and by the end of it we had a short interaction done. My brain felt spongy and over-saturated by the end of it, but I was able to go home, build a map of the bathroom, and that very night make a full interaction. It felt like magic.
As wonderful and useful as the workshops are, the mentors at Junicorn, who are so excited to help and generous with their knowledge and time, are what is really making this an incredible experience. I am starting to feel like I might actually have something playable by the end of the month.
I think I promised to be less excited the next time I wrote a post, but I am officially taking that off the table. It’s all excitement, all the time, until the Ghost game is done.
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