Thursday, 20 April 2017

I have made a game!

I've made a game with Twine. It's called Re-Entry, and you can play it for free in your browser by downloading it from the Interactive Fiction Database.

The rest of the post is about what I was trying to achieve with the game, which means spoilers, so go and play it now! It takes about half an hour, you can't lose, and the ending changes depending how you behave. If you like it, please do rate it and leave a review on its IFDB page, then head back here for some behind-the-scenes goodness.

Finished? Great! So, my main objective with Re-Entry was to, well, make a game. I'd like to start writing for games, not just about them, so I wanted to make a portfolio piece.

I chose the plot and the setting immediately because I know from writing a science-fiction novel that building a world, keeping it coherent, and teaching the reader/player about it in a way that feels intuitive is both a delicate balancing act and an enormous amount of work. If I was going to spend most of my time on the game actually building it, I knew I would have to keep the subject matter relatively close to home. Not that the story is autobiographical - it's just that it's easier for me to write about a gamer with an ambivalent relationship to their hometown than to come up with a story about a demon-hunting space wizard.

After toying with the idea of a Gone Home-style puzzle structure, in which the protagonist peels back layers of their past by exploring their childhood home, I decided to make it a game about choice, rather than discovery. Discovery-style games allow the developer to separate the fabula and the syuzhet, retaining control of the fabula (the events of the story) while granting the player the freedom to craft the syuzhet (the way the story unfolds). However, I quickly realised that in the case of Re-Entry's protagonist, the series of events that led to their current situation was much less interesting than the way they could deal with the feelings that have arisen as a result, so I decided to give the player control over that while creating a mostly linear story.

I quickly settled on Twine as the best IF tool for my purposes. It's free, produces games as HTML files that run in browsers, and gives the developer a lot of control over structure. It also comes with a handy visualiser, so you can see how all the screens fit together to make the story. Here's a snapshot of Re-Entry's structure, showing a few scenes (clumps of squares, each of which represents a single screen):

Twine also supports variables, which can be used to make an inventory system. This is very useful for puzzle games, because the developer can "gate" certain areas (preventing players from opening a locked door until they've found the key, for example), but it can also be used to bestow stats on the protagonist. In an RPG, stats might take the form of HP, which could determine whether or not the protagonist can survive an attack from a monster, but in Re-Entry, they're used to track the protagonist's relationships with the people around them, as well as their self-image.

This in turn affects whether certain options are open to the player at various points in the game, as well as the way the ending plays out. Each of the main relationships has its own selection of mini-endings, with the most extensive and satisfying one in each case occurring when the player has built the relationship up to a certain level, and then taken a crucial conversation in a specific - but clearly signposted - direction. I hope this creates a good balance of long-term reward (the culmination of all small actions taken up until that point) and short-term payoff (the immediate reaction of the character in question to the protagonist addressing the previously unspoken tension between them).

The only problem with this is approach is one that faces all interactive narrative to some degree, and that is that in gamifying story*, it encourages players to think less about the emotional impact of their decisions, and more about the quantifiable outcome. Although I've tried to mitigate this by keeping the numbers that track the states of the relationships hidden from the player, in order to make the game fair, it's still relatively clear what the eventual outcome of each choice is going to be, so players will always have that in the back of their minds as they make their selection.

The other issue arising from the quantification of the relationship statuses is an ideological one. The behaviour of Sam, Ben, Ali and Jules can effectively be manipulated by the player's choices. For example, if the protagonist shows compassion towards their prickly stepmother Sam before finally apologising for their past behaviour, at the end of the day she will see a reconciliation with them. There is no random element to the NPCs' behaviour, and nothing to account for the fact that on such a sad day, Sam might not feel like making amends with her difficult stepchild. This means that the protagonist can make someone else's funeral all about them and still be rewarded for it; their internal "relationship" with their feelings about their recently deceased father may also be tracked, but it doesn't affect the way the other relationships play out.

A random element would alleviate this problem a little - maybe Ali is having a bad day at work and doesn't have the headspace to support the protagonist - but it still wouldn't change the fact the player is basically provoking the NPCs to try and get a reaction out of them. However, I did make it impossible for the protagonist to get back together with their ex-girlfriend, Jules, because I didn't want her to be reduced to a prize. I played Lynnea Glasser's Creatures Such as We before starting work on Re-Entry, and her thoughtful comments on NPC consent (also covered by Cara Ellison on RPS) really made me think about the place of romantic sub-plots, especially in games that, unlike Creatures, aren't about romance, per se.

My other concern is even more serious, and regards the way mental health is portrayed (or can be interpreted as being portrayed) in the game. It veers dangerously close to delivering a "just stay positive" message, wherein emotional distress can be alleviated only by behaving healthily. While I do believe that being generous with others and with yourself can contribute hugely to mental health, in real life mental health issues are far more complex, and are often rooted in things beyond our control.

Overall though, I'm happy with the way it turned out, I am inspired to embark on future projects, and I've learned a huge amount about IF over the course of the writing and development process. There is a brilliant community surrounding IF, so if playing Re-Entry and reading this post have piqued your interest, return to the IFDB for many, many, many more games. If the sheer quantity is daunting, then I can highly recommend Emily Short's blog, both for her game recommendations and her general insights into all aspects of interactive storytelling.

Thanks for playing!

* It might be a pitfall that faces all interactive narrative, but not all such games succumb to it. For example, The Banner Saga doesn't hint at the result of decisions until they have already been made thus forcing the player to go with their gut instincts.

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