If you want to get into the profession of game development, the first thing folks in the industry will tell you is to start making games. Fortunately, there is an abundance of tools available for artists, designers, writers, and other creators to dive into the process and craft of making games. The first games you create don’t have to be perfect, nor do they even have to be good. The point is to just learn from your successes and failures, and then continue making games.
My journey into making games comes from my passion for storytelling. I’m fascinated by how games can create unique interactive narratives that cannot be experienced in a strictly linear format. When I thought about making my first game, I wanted to draw on my existing skills as a writer and create a text-based game built that allows the player to make choices as they move through the narrative. Hoping it will help other first-timers, here are a few of the lessons I learned on the journey of making my first game, Bluebeard: An Interactive Tale.
Sometimes you need to move at a slow and steady pace towards progress, dipping your toes in the pool and inching in little by little until you’re used to the chilly water — and sometimes you need to just launch yourself off a rock, plunging straight into the center of the lake with the hope that you’ll make it back to shore.
Guess which one I’ve been doing over the last month or so.
I’ve realized for a couple of years now that I wanted to write and build narratives for games. And so, I’ve been learning about the art of game narratives, which is beautifully varied and complex — ranging from heavily scripted games like The Last of Us to completely wordless experiences like Journey, with a vast number of other variants along the outskirts and in between.
While I’ve been exploring game narratives, I have also been toying around with making interactive narratives myself. Or rather, I have been noodling on a single interactive text, a Twine* adaptation of the classic French folk tale, “Bluebeard.” Having written a retelling of the story, in which I explored a number of alternative endings, I figured it would be a relatively straightforward process to add gameplay choices that branch off to each of those endings.
Spoiler: It was not that easy.
After a period of struggling — not only over the process, but also due to the frustrations of trying to maintain a creative life amidst daily obligations — I realized I needed an extra push to help me get to done. Fortunately, I stumbled across The “Finish It” Narrative Game Jam** in May. The focus of the jam was to complete an in-progress narrative game or interactive fiction project between May 12-31. This seemed like a perfect way to push myself toward finishing my current project, and I immediately signed up.
A day or so after signing up for the Finish It Jam, I was told about the Greenlight Jam by a game writing friend. The Greenlight Jam featured a unique format, having multiple deadlines over the course of about a month (May 16th to June 19th), focused on the various stages of game design, from ideation to prototyping, production, and final release of the game. Drawn in by this concept, I had an Ah, what the hell moment and signed up before even considering the fact that the two jams overlapped or the incredible amount of work that would be involved.
Over the past month, I’ve been working on a couple of game projects — an interactive tale based on a classic folk tale and a narrative adventure. The first of these has been completed and launched and the second is currently in development.
Bluebeard: An Interactive Tale
After oodles of work, I finally completed my first Twine interactive tale. Bluebeard: An Interactive Tale is based on the French folk tale, “Bluebeard,” relating the story of a young woman who weds a wealthy man harboring deadly secrets.
The interactive tale features a branching narrative with a total of seven possible endings.
It’s been an interesting process adapting a linear tale into a text game with multiple endings (which I plan to write more on later). Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about crafting branching narratives, and I’m so proud of this project.
What Lies Underneath is a small narrative game built using the Bitsy game maker (created by Adam Le Doux), an open source tool designed to be simple enough for just about anyone to make their own games.
The game is being developed as part of the Greenlight Jam, which is designed to have participants work through each stage of the game development process — from ideation to prototyping, production, and release of the final product.
Thus far, I’ve worked through the first two stages, ideation and prototyping, for the game, which I shared a little bit about on Itch.io, where you can also play the prototype of the game.
Recently, I finished reading Character Development and Storytelling for Games by Lee Sheldon. The author has a long history of working both in the games industry, as well as in television and fiction — enabling him to draw directly form his own personal experience in a variety of mediums.
Sheldon’s book provides a significant amount of interesting detail about character creation (roles, traits, encounters, etc.) and the ways in which games differ from other storytelling mediums. He uses examples from a variety of sources, including classic literature, film, and television, as well as games, in order to provide evidence for the theories on storytelling, theme, and structure that he presents. He makes some interesting connections between these different mediums. However, sometimes his chapters are so heavy with references (many of which I’ve never heard of) that I sometimes found it somewhat overwhelming to process the lessons he is trying to impart.
My copy of the book was the first edition, published in 2004. While discussions of character and story are everlasting, when the book speaks about the future of games, it sometimes felt a bit out of date. Apparently, a second edition was published in 2013, which likely provides a more modern perspective and up-to-date cultural references.
Regardless, one section in particular presented me with a new way of thinking about story — namely, modular storytelling and how it can help blend gameplay and story into interactive narratives. And I was surprised to learn that classic literature could provide an early example of this kind of structure.