Hello all – welcome to this month’s Developer Diary. It feels like a lot has been achieved since the first Developer Diary at the end of last year. In this entry, I would like to give you a broad update, outline our revised completion dates, and talk a little about game design. We are aware that we need to balance giving exciting project details whilst avoiding spoilers – so, for the time being, we will focus on images and examples from the first few locations.
We ran a livestream session a couple of weeks ago in which the team and I answered questions posed by you. It covered a broad range of subjects from Gnostics through to pigs flying over famous London landmarks. It was great fun - thanks to all who joined us.
Minds are now focussed on the next milestone, which is due on Tuesday. The milestone-deliverable includes scenes 1-10 completed to alpha quality – ‘alpha’ being that the game is fully playable with art assets complete to a functional level. This will represent about a third of the total game. Milestones are taken seriously because they allow us to track development against the schedule, and, from this, we can re-evaluate delivery date and budget. As an aside, the next stage of polish is beta, which means that the game is effectively finished but with rough edges so that it could, in theory, be published. Between alpha and beta we set script lock – the point at which the script is finalised and voice recording and translations start. It is critical that script lock occurs at the right point in development. Once the script is locked the flexibility to change puzzles and tweak dialogue is lost – so it should be as late as possible. On the other hand, the translations and recordings of the non-English languages become the critical path – so in that sense the script lock needs to happen as early as possible.
This milestone also requires the GUI (graphic user interface) to be completed to alpha quality in relation to game interaction and inventory – both functionally and visually. In the next Developer Diary entry I will show you what we come up with, and explain how we reached those conclusions.
As I have mentioned, the stretch goal promise of adding characters and new sections provided a great opportunity to review the story and the game design. We added locations, puzzles and characters to create more open areas, and significantly re-wrote the second half of the story to provide a more dramatic and satisfying conclusion. Making these changes obviously has had major repercussions and it has taken the last couple of months to complete this work. The new story is now written, and the game design is complete up to the final act. As I previously warned, the additional elements have delayed completion – currently we are tracking a September 2013 release date but we are hoping to complete the game earlier. One problem is that, as with all creative processes, it is hard to foresee how long each process will take to get right – and generally things take longer than expected. But the response that we got from you all after announcing a delay was incredibly generous – thank you.
People often ask whether the design or the story comes first. In reality the two are interwoven because, uniquely, the puzzles in an adventure game drive the story and the story creates a context for the puzzles. This is unlike the majority of computer games whose linear narratives simply connect sections of gameplay providing a reward and motivation to progress.
Computer games have to work harder than linear media to create this motivation because the player has to solve puzzles – the experience in linear media being passive. This actually has a profound effect on the story structure. For example, a story will generally have an inciting incident, the point in the story that radically changes the life of the protagonist, and which sets them on the emotional journey that the story will take – effectively giving context and motivation. When watching a movie, an audience is prepared to wait for ten minutes or longer for the inciting incident to occur. However because computer games are interactive, and the player effectively has to work to progress, motivation and context must be provided right from the start. That is why, in adventure games, the inciting incident generally takes place during the introduction cut scene. All of these factors and considerations, and interconnected dependencies mean that writing stories for adventure games is more complex than for other computer game genres.
I am also regularly asked how we come up with our ideas. Well – it starts with a blank piece of paper and we brainstorm ideas, most of which get quickly discarded, but some of which work and are then developed. Ideas evolve and often radically change. Broken Sword – the Serpent’s Curse actually started as a half page idea featuring a Gaudi conspiracy, which reached its climax in the crypt of Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s famous church in Barcelona. I can safely describe this without spoiling the game because the game now includes no reference to Gaudi, nor will you get to visit Sagrada Familia. However the fascinating history of Gnosticism and the Albigensian crusades, which was also written on that blank sheet remains and provides the core background historical element.
I have long been fascinated by the Gnostic Gospels – heretical gospels written by disciples such as Thomas (the doubting one), Philip, and Mary Magdalene. These gospels contradict the teachings of the Canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and provide an insight into the conflicting ideas that were being discussed by Jesus with his disciples as recorded by early Christian writers. The mainstream church declared the Gnostic gospels as heretical and decreed that they be destroyed and the Gnostics persecuted. So effective was this that the gospels were lost and forgotten for almost two thousand years. But then, in 1945, in a small town called Nag Hamadi in Upper Egypt, an urn was discovered which was found to contain fifty-two Gnostic scrolls – unknown texts which create a fascinating alternative view of early Christianity.
My interest in the Cathars, the last significant Gnostic group, came indirectly from my research into the Knights Templar and my travel around the Languedoc in southern France. The Cathars were destroyed when the French king and his puppet Pope launched the devastating Albigensian crusade against them. The crusade was cynical and brutal. When the crusaders arrived at the first city, Beziers, in the Languedoc, which probably had a population of up to 30,000, they laid siege. 90% of the population were Roman Catholic – only 10% Cathar. However when the crusaders finally breached the city walls, and guidance was sought on how to distinguish between the ‘faithful from the heretics’, the Papal Legate, Arnaud Amalric, told the crusaders to ‘kill them all, God will know his own’. Every man, woman and child was massacred.
The Cathars’ final stand was in Montségur castle, perched majestically on a mountaintop high in the Pyrenean foothills. After a nine-month siege, the castle was eventually taken in March 1244. If you want to know any more of my thoughts on this fascinating history, then you may want to read an interview written by the brilliant John Walker at Rock, Paper, Shotgun:
Please go visit Montségur if you get the chance – it is a charming village and a lovely castle. As an aside, a few years ago I decided to take my children, who were then young, on the (make believe) crusader route to find a way to reach the castle from the back. The escapade ran into trouble when the terrain got very steep and rough, and ended badly when a stone scree collapsed, and I was knocked out by falling rocks. My wife showed no sympathy when I finally got back with cuts, bruises, and blood still flowing from a cut to my nose. Thankfully, particularly for my sake, the children suffered no injuries.
So – research and historical fact is a key stimulus for us in coming up with the story. Once we have the base of a story, and this historical theme, the next stage is to create a structure that will support great gameplay. This structure should avoid restricting the game to being too linear – instead the player must have the freedom to explore the environment and move forward on multiple fronts (both puzzle and plot), which come together for a major puzzle advance / plot progression. We call this multi-linearity and it gives the player a sense of freedom in the environment. To achieve this, we come up with a treasure map structure – to move forward the player must find multiple elements, any of which can be found in any order, and which come together to allow progression.
Only when the core story has been completed can we start to nail down low level design elements – to start designing to this level too early is futile because there will inevitably be changes which would require considerable rework.
We also need to consider great gameplay moments from which we can work backwards. Like the scene hinted at by the cover artwork with George grabbing Nico who is hanging from a cable car cabin, while they are being shot at by their mortal enemies, who rapidly approach… Designing the best gameplay experience is every bit an art as it is a science – there are just so many variables that need to be moulded around each other.
Personally I like to draw flow charts for the more complex scenes because it allows you to see how things interlink and ensures that the scene doesn’t develop in a way that is too linear. Below is the original logic for the start of the game. There is always a balance to be struck between ensuring multi-linearity and ensuring that the player doesn’t have to do too much before progressing: this risks them becoming frustrated. We actually simplified the structure (below) after implementing it, to allow the game to progress faster.
Frankly, the only way to really judge how well the gameplay works is to actually play it. I am a great advocate of the mantra: play and replay your own game. So I am really looking forward to this next milestone so that I can play the first 10 scenes and start the honing process.
I would claim (but I would, wouldn’t I?) that these conflicting requirements make it harder to write for interactive, than for linear media – and for adventures in particular. Television and film scripts are written in a standard script format, which effectively conveys the story and dialogue – bad scripts inevitably end up as bad production. In game design we don’t have an equivalent format – it is just too complex and multi-dimensional. There are also the constraints of the medium to consider, but that is a different subject - if you have an interest then I can talk about this in a future diary.
So, back to work – we have the final act to complete before the milestone date. Thanks for reading this month’s Developer Diary. Please let us know your thoughts so we can tailor future Developer Diaries to ensure that the information that we provide is interesting and relevant. And thanks, as always, for your magnificent support.