On Making Two Games at Once and Other Creativities

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. 

And I'm so glad I did. 

Finishing both jams within the timeframe allotted involved some careful balancing of my time (outside of doing my day job and attending various family functions). Since the Finish It Jam ended first, I put a lot of my creative energy in completing the Bluebeard game. I outlined and drafted the final sequences of the game, and then tested the various choices to see if the three main endings would be satisfying, following by several rounds of proofing in an attempt to catch any and all typos.

At the same time, I initiated the planning phase for the Greenlight Jam, which involved researching what kind of game and story experience I'd like to create. I quickly decided on developing a creepy Bitsy*** adventure game — which was followed up by research, choosing and planning the narrative, and prototyping possible game mechanics. I've already written a bit about the ideation and prototyping process for the game. 

As I finished up and submitted the Bluebeard game to the first jam, I was ready to begin the hefty process of building the second game, which became known as What Lies Underneath. This involved learning how to make pixel art, constructing rooms and pacing the narrative interactions, building the story in conjunction with the gameplay, deciding what sections of the game cut and what to keep, hiring a songwriter (the amazing carrie z) to create music for the game, and putting in some final polishing of the narrative and gameplay.  

The result of a month and a half of intense work is the completion of two games — both of which I am immensely proud. And both are available to play for free in a browser. 

Bluebeard: An Interactive Tale — An text-based interactive narrative about a young woman weds a wealthy man who harbors deadly secrets.

What Lies Underneath — A creepy adventure game about unravelling family secrets.

Working on and finishing these two game projects taught me a few things about my writing process: 

  1. I can finish things. I already knew this, of course, having previously finished and published quite a few writing projects. But the mind is a tricky thing, capable of swarming you with self doubt. When I have a number of projects going at the same time (as I currently do), there will often be a gap between when I've started a project and when it's completed. That gap can feed into my mind's trickster nature and feed my insecurities — the result being a hell of a lot of self doubt. Jumping in and getting shit done does an amazing job of dropkicking those insecurities out of my personal orbit and reminding me that I am actually someone who can start, make, and finish things that I'm incredibly proud of.

  2. External deadlines are incredibly helpful to me. Although I have set up and even stuck to personal deadlines (as in, those created and monitored by me), I find that being beholden to an outside force — be it a publisher deadline, a writing group, a game jam, or some kind of challenge in which there is an expectation to deliver — can be incredibly helpful in driving me toward actually completing the project I'm working on, even when time gets scarce and the going gets tough.

  3. I really, really, really like game narrative design. One would hope that I liked it, since I've been pursuing it as a key aspect of my career lately, but sometimes a thing sounds good in your head and you don't know whether you'll like it until you actually try it — which I now have done. And I can tell you that, not only do I like game design, but I'm pretty sure I love game design. I am so incredibly excited to keep making all kinds of interactive narratives and games — and hopefully next time around I'll be able to jump on with a team for some collaborative jamming. 

  4. I need to ensure a healthy life balance, even when I'm grinding on a project. There were points when making the pixel art and levels for the Bitsy game when I would become so absorbed in the process, I would sit there working for six hours straight with no breaks to drink or eat anything. Not healthy. While it's cool to be in the flow, it's less cool to let the flow push you over into an unhealthy state — the kind of which can quickly lead to burn out. In the future, I need to figure out how to set timers or otherwise regulate and balance my time while I'm working. 

Making two games at once was an exhausting, educational, and wonderful experience. At some point I'll write something more in-depth about my development process and what I learned about making each game.

A screenshot from ˆWhat Lies Underneathˆ

Twine is an open source, browser-based tool that allows writers to make branching, choice-based narratives. It can also enable game makers to do a lot of other cool things with interactive text experiences, if you dive into the code a bit.

** A game jam is a challenge to create a game in a specified amount of time, from as short as a single day to as long as a month. The jam may have a variety of rules or requirements to create useful limitations, from using a particular development tool to incorporating a specific thing or concept.

*** Bitsy is a browser-based game development editor designed to make it possible for anyone to create simple adventure games using pixel art and basic gameplay (such as walking around, interacting with objects, and talking to sprites).   

Other Creativities

With the two game projects completed, I now have mental and physical space to delve into other projects patiently hovering in the peripheral. This includes a nearly complete poetry manuscript (it only needs an author's note), two other poetry book ideas, a half dozen essay ideas, a vast number of short stories, and the novel. 

At the moment, I feel most drawn toward polishing and sending out the nearly finished poetry project, as well as diving back into crafting and submitting more poetry. I never seem to be working on only one project at a time, however, so chances are, I'll be poking at some essays and short stories at the same time. 

Here's one of the poems I've been working on. This is part of a series of poems inspired by fragments of Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights":

The earth bubbles with life, springing 
forth yellowish green fields, blooming 
bulbous flowers in pale cream 
and crimson. The ground is alive 
beneath our palms, a throbbing, 
tickling sensation. The verdant growth 
is expansive, each blade of green 
blending with green, fields upon fields, 
rolling around us — and caught amidst
their immensity, we are so small. 

Good Reads

I think right now, at this moment in time in troubled history, there’s value too — if, let’s say, you’re having trouble getting yourself to sit in front of the story — in viewing your fiction as a box. It is perhaps a blood-soaked shoebox, or a gilded clockwork box, or a box of keys, a box of teeth, a box of gold, a box of bone, but this box is like a reverse Pandora’s Box. Instead of opening it to let All The Evil out, you’re opening it in order to put stuff inside of it. I think there’s value, at least for me, in viewing my fiction as a receptacle for whatever I’m feeling at the time — both in terms of generic emotions and also specific ones. If I’m angry at something, a story is a place to put that anger. It can be a place to put it, not to be rid of it, but to store it. But it can also be a place to put it in order to explore it, to unpack it, to rewire it. And the same can be true for sorrow, or worry, or joy.

The poem I always return to again and again is Maggie Smith's "Good Bones." Here's the opening lines: 

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.

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