This is actually more of a “writing diary” rather than a dev diary, because I’d like to talk specifically about the way I write, and how this relates to the game I’ve been making.
I’ve never been the sort of writer who plans things out in exhaustive detail. I know, I know, this is probably woefully self-evident from the nonsensical ramblings I’ve been posting here for the last 1,187 days (and more occasionally beforehand, too) but it works for me. It got me through all of school, all of university and what has so far been a relatively lucrative career in writing professionally.
Note that I’m not saying I don’t plan things out at all. (Although some better planning would have probably avoided that awkward double negative right there.) No, instead what I tend to do is get things firmly in my mind in fairly broad terms, then “fill in the blanks” as I go along. It’s not quite writing by the seat of my pants, but it’s also not doing a detailed, bullet-pointed list of every single point I’m going to cover over the course of the complete piece. It gives me a sense of structure, but also allows me the flexibility to veer off in another direction if I want to. Those of you who have read my past month-long creative writing endeavours on this site will have likely spotted the points in the (largely improvised) narratives where I had what I thought was a great idea at the time and proceeded down that path with gay abandon, sometimes to discover I’d written myself into a corner and promptly had to dig my way out somehow. (Oh, God. I shouldn’t have said that. You’ll all be looking for those moments now.)
Anyway, how does this relate to One Year Later? Well, quite a lot, as it happens. Writing an interactive game isn’t quite the same as writing a novel. Even writing a visual novel isn’t quite the same as writing a regular novel, since you (usually) have to deal with branching plot paths and whatnot. In the case of One Year Later, there is a linear path of “story beats”, for want of a better word, but each of those has several different possible things that could happen, and within those several different possible happenings comes a series of optional things that people might not see at all. These optional things let me play with various aspects of the characters while still allowing the plot to continue moving forwards.
This is all very vague, as I’m trying not to spoil things, but let me give you a specific example to make things a bit clearer.
Who wouldn’t want to go and have breakfast with Dax here?
Early in the game, the protagonist Amarysse wakes up bright and early in the morning and goes out into the city. As she’s leaving the inn where she’s staying, she’s accosted by Dax, one of the other main characters, who invites her to go for breakfast with him. If she accepts, they go for breakfast, they have a nice chat and various tidbits of information about both Ami and Dax are revealed, after which time passes and it becomes the afternoon. If she refuses (or, more accurately, defers his invitation until she has all the information available to make a decision) then she can go out into the city streets, where she comes across Feena, another one of the main characters, who invites her to go shopping. The player can only pick one or the other during this particular “time slot” of the game; both focus on Ami and a different main character, and both have the potential to reveal some new information, but they also exclude each other.
Someone who wants to go shopping with Feena, obviously.
This, naturally, presents a challenge in later scenes, where I can’t really refer to information in scenes that the player might not have seen. However, what I can do is use the built-in game mechanics to determine whether or not Ami knows about a particular subject, and if she does, trigger some different (or additional) dialogue to if she was discovering this information for the first time. An example of this comes if Ami chose to speak to Feena earlier in the game and revealed the information that Feena is, for some reason, not as happy as she could be. In game terms, hearing this information for the first time rewards Ami with a “topic” item called “Feena’s Worries”; later, asking Feena specifically about it when given the opportunity upgrades the topic item with new information (she’s not happy with her work), allowing Ami to then automatically pick up on little things that Feena says about her work and put them in context — something that she doesn’t do if she doesn’t have any knowledge of the topic at all, or if she doesn’t know that the thing that’s making Feena antsy is her work.
It’s very interesting (and challenging!) to write this way, as it really forces me to think about the characters and how they might have interacted in the past, and how that might inform their future interactions. One Year Later is a game all about dialogue and interpersonal relationships, so it’s important to get this right. I hope I do!
This particular piece of dialogue only shows up if, indeed, Amarysse discovered Feena’s real age the previous night — an optional piece of information that some players might miss.
What this brings me on to is something I suddenly noticed very consciously earlier on while writing some optional, missable incidental dialogue between Ami and Feena: I very much get “into character” while writing.
I say I noticed this earlier; I’ve actually been conscious of it for quite some time when doing more traditional writing — it’s one reason why I enjoy writing stories from the perspective of a first-person participant narrator — but it seemed particularly pronounced earlier. I very much felt like I was “inside the heads” of both Ami and Feena as they talked to each other about, frankly, fairly mundane things — things that those racing through the game would miss, but which those who wanted a deeper understanding of these characters would appreciate as a reward for thorough exploration and investigation.
The thing to be careful of when feeling like this, of course, is getting that characterisation across to the player, who doesn’t “know” these characters in quite the same way as I do. Since while I’m writing the dialogue between these characters I’m effectively “role-playing” them, hopefully this will give the dialogue a reasonably natural-feeling flow. This is something that I won’t be able to tell for sure until someone else who doesn’t know these characters at all plays the game — which is a scary prospect, for sure!
Anyway. That’s it for today. I’ve been doing some good work on the game recently and making some good progress. There’s not enough there to proudly show off in playable form yet (though there is just under an hour of “Stuff to Do” implemented now, which feels a significant amount!) but there will be before long. In the meantime, I intend to post some occasional thoughts on the subject of its development on this ‘ere blog as I (hopefully) continue to make progress.
One day you might even be playing it. Who knows?