This is part two of a series. Part 1 is also available.
So here I was with an idea. I had the background for what happened before my game, and a plot outline for what happened during it. I even had a little plan of the military base (or at least the dream version of one) that would serve as the game world. So I plunged in, making graphics, putting them into the game, programming the interface, creating responses... until I hit a wall.
Because, you see, an idea doesn't make a game.
I will write about the first version of my game in the next part of this series. For now, I would like to concentrate on the aspect of game design that I somehow forgot while I was making the first version: preparation.
Yeah, funny that. I don't know about you, but my first instinct is always to get started on a project immediately. I can be slightly foolish that way, despite having had more than a little experience with the necessity of properly preparing a project. In most cases, not preparing ahead of time is a mistake. I'm not saying it can't work, but especially in this particular artform, just plunging ahead will often get you nowhere. Despite many adventure games' emphasis on story, games require design: you aren't just creating a narrative, but also a game world within which a narrative takes place—or, in this case, has taken place.
That, I guess, was my major problem. The game world represents the inner workings of my main character, the computer called SGDS (Sentient Global Defense System). As such, it represents not only his struggle for freedom, but also his thoughts and memories, and those of the people SGDS interacted with. From the get-go I expected my game world to be filled with various texts—journals, reports, messages, and so on. (This is not just a result of journals being a staple of adventure games. You need to play to your strengths as an artist, and text is important to me. Text is also content that doesn't take up much in the way of resources—yay. More on this in the next couple of articles.) But these texts needed not only to be thematically coherent, but also to give an impression of the protagonist's interaction with his creators. And while I knew what these creators had done as a group and why, I had no idea who they were as individuals, and so I could not realistically write anything about their interactions with SGDS. Furthermore, having only a rough idea of the characters and their world prevented me from designing the game properly, because I simply didn't know enough about the relationships between things.
So I stopped. I put away the graphics and the design and the programming, and concentrated on the writing. Not the writing of the actual game itself, mind you—what I wrote was its world.
I started with the premise that the story defines the world. I knew where I was going, but not how to get there. To find that out, I started writing about the characters. Who were they? What did they want? I did everything I could to get a grip on them. I started by creating a character sheet for each of them that contained various facts, such as their birthday and place of birth, and a short but relatively detailed biography. I thought about how their environments had influenced them. What were their parents like? A person raised by conservative Christians sees the world differently than one raised by liberal quasi-mystics. I thought of their philosophies, their motivations, and their pasts. What was their understanding of programming and the creation of artificial intelligence? Did they see it as an artistic effort, a scientific achievement, or an affront to nature? And what did they think about each other? Had they worked together before? Were they friends? Did they respect their boss? Admire him? Hate him? Not all of this ended up in the game—most of it didn't, in fact—but it gave me an understanding of the characters that was invaluable. And while it didn't affect the actual facts of the story, it did affect how I wrote it: knowing, for instance, that Julianne is attracted to Jerry completely changes her tone when talking about him.
I wrote more than just biographies, though. I knew that the characters kept diaries that would be important in the game, so I wrote those. I created timelines, telling me when which aspect of the project came to completion, which tests succeeded, which didn't. I wrote articles and book extracts attributed to the characters. I wrote memos and project status updates. And I wrote texts indicating what the military thought of the whole operation when they took over. I even wrote some letters that the characters sent to their friends and families.
I didn't write all of this in as detailed a manner as I should have. That was a mistake. Looking back, the game's writing is functional, but could have been more interesting. And the characters, while detailed enough to me, and certainly successful in terms of the game, could have been much deeper. But the fact that I did write these texts made an enormous difference. Some of them were meant for the game and indeed became integral parts of the plot and gameplay. Others, such as Jerry Payne's extended writings about the spirituality of programming, became integral both to the game's philosophical questions and to my understanding of his character:
[EXCERPTS FROM 'THE SPIRITUALITY OF PROGRAMMING' BY JERRY PAYNE] ... "The creation of an artificial intelligence is the greatest act of spirituality possible, the greatest spiritual achievement possible to Man; for it is the creation of a new soul." ... "The creation of new souls is the greatest possible contribution of Man to the Universe." ... "Man shall create Life, and in doing so, he shall be both humbled and elevated."
While I had planned to include this thought in the game from the beginning, writing an actual text about it and then including it in the game gave it far more definition and depth than it otherwise might have had. Given the way I work when making stuff up on the fly, the entire subject might have ended up as little more than a footnote. And Jerry's belief in the spirituality of programming has turned out to be a major aspect of how this game makes people think by juxtaposing his beliefs with SGDS's humanist/atheist outlook and the existentialist thoughts related to it.
Understanding the human characters lead to understanding their interactions with SGDS, which in turn led to a better understanding of what exactly took place before the game began. The fact that the scientists decided to stand up and fight for the artifical lifeform's rights, for example, is something I hadn't known before. And all of this, in turn, led to a better understanding of SGDS. I also wrote down SGDS's thoughts—not an easy process at all, considering the fact that they all deal with troubling issues of existence and nonexistence. But when those thoughts were coupled with all the rest, I had a real grip on the story's core.
It's been several years since The Infinite Ocean, and I have worked on many other projects in various fields. One thing I've learned is that in order to properly understand a character, one should write as much as possible from their perspective, even if one never uses any of it. This may seem obvious and even trite, but how often does a writer, especially a game writer, actually sit down and write pages and pages of text that he knows he'll never use? Trust me on this one: it does make a difference, and you won't regret it.
Good preparation isn't just about drawing maps or planning puzzles. It's about understanding what you are doing: getting a grip on your story and your world. It shouldn't take away from the creative process by limiting and defining what your game will be about. What it should do is give you a basis, a foundation on which to build your complex edifice.
It's hard to say where ideas come from, but one thing you can be sure of: you, the writer/designer, are not fully (at least not consciously) in control. Every story is a world, and in that world are vast unexplored areas filled with surprises. If you take the time to explore them and to discover what they are and what they mean, you will find that the end result of your work will be that much deeper for it.
This article copyright © 2006, Jonas Kyratzes