Where are you headed?

A Year After Interning at Game Informer, I Made My Own Game

Our heroic scientist Riv makes her way through the Glass Forest.

Our heroic scientist Riv makes her way through the Glass Forest.

[note: if you want to play the game and skip my slightly self-indulgent words, click here!]

I am not a good journalist. Mediocre at best, and that's being polite. I found this out in one of the best ways possible: by interning at Game Informer. The magazine/website is read nationally by over 7 million subscribers, and is one of the founding publications in the field of games journalism.

Too bad I am a crap journalist.

My internship was an amazing experience, and the folks at Game Informer are top quality. I got to live in Minneapolis for a couple months and learn the ins and outs of writing for a publication with a gigantic, passionate readership. Over the course of my three month internship, a funny feeling dawned on me. The writing I was doing wasn't fulfilling. Not in the way cranking out a good short story felt.

It hit me while I was neck-deep in my final, overly ambitious, research-heavy feature: I like making stuff up. I like making stuff up way, way too much to be a journalist.

I didn't start writing when I was a kid so I could catalogue the world around me-- I started writing so I could consume the world, filter it through my brain, then create new people, places, and conflicts to get lost in. I live here, but my head is almost always elsewhere.

Thankfully, one of my fellow interns, named Hershall, experienced a similar revelation that summer. I resumed work on a derelict manuscript to feed my creative urges. He made a video game. More accurately, he taught himself how to code and made a game from scratch. I supplied the music, but he did all the design, art, and most of the playtesting. He dove in headfirst, and I admired his dedication. I knew he was someone I wanted to collaborate with in the future.

Months after our internship ended, Hershall reached out to me about his second video game. I accepted his invitation to join him as lead writer on the ambitious project. This ambition included multiple playable characters, multiple endings, branching dialogue, and a narrative focus with a strong female lead.

We didn't know what we were getting into. That was for the best.

Writing a novel is straightforward. Not easy. Not even close. But it's straightforward. There's no one playing your novel. There's no one trying to break your novel by messing with the artificial intelligence. There's no one skipping an entire area and twenty pages worth of story by glitching through a wall.

The writing process for The Blind World's script challenged my skills in ways I'd never experienced. Writing a video game brought a new set of variables and problems to solve. The game's transformation mechanic made my sessions especially complicated. I had to write multiple versions of every scene, based on which form the player character was in and what form the NPC had previously seen the player character in. I had to keep three distinct timelines running side-by-side in my head. If I were writing a novel or film, I'd have written one version and be done until revisions.

Then, there was the dialogue. Anyone who has written a novel or short story knows the tough decisions that come with writing dialogue. Come up with two or three great responses in a conversation? Too bad. Pick one. In The Blind World, one of our playable characters needed branching dialogue in her scenes. Instead of picking one perfect line, I needed two perfect lines. Those two lines would then need two perfect responses from the NPC. I was, essentially, writing two scenes side-by-side.

This became especially noticeable when I wrote a small backstory for the game's "villain." I was excited to implement the conversation. The short but punchy exchange brought more depth to the NPC. Here's the kicker: the mini-scene would only occur if the player was in a specific form and had satisfied a specific condition (an optional objective in the game's second area). I never would've worried about if I were writing a novel. An author never has to worry about a reader missing some key backstory or passage because the reader didn't achieve the right world conditions. It goes back to the level of control you want to have over your audience. Can you accept the fact that not every consumer of your work will experience everything you've written? It's easy to take for granted how much control you have when writing a novel. An author can go deep. All the way down the punctuation, really.

And then, there was the key question: was my script fun? Would the twists and turns of the plot translate into compelling gameplay scenarios? There were multiple revisions to my script focused on making the narrative more playable. Minibosses morphed into huge setpieces. Character motivations changed to accommodate revised quest design. The narrative details of the Vergil Serum were rearranged according to the capabilities of the player character and the final boss after balancing.

Working on The Blind World was a hell of an experience. I got to collaborate with three of my closest friends, all talented artists in their own right. I got to see my dialogue and characters come to life before my eyes. Watching a character I created run and jump and recite lines I wrote is thrilling. It's something I won't see again for a while At least until my novels and short stories all get adapted into video games.

So what's next? Now, our small four-person team has a game and soundtrack to promote while we work on our individual ventures. If you liked this post, please consider finding me on Facebook and Twitter. I'll be updating this blog weekly, with everything from movie and book reviews to original fiction to semi-serious musings on the craft.

Cheers!

I Had No Choice