Posted On: 2021-01-04
2021 looks to be a writing-heavy year for me. As I am (finally) hitting the content-creation phase of development, my goals for this year are less technical than previous years, instead focusing more on what it will take to create a satisfying player experience in the long-term.
From very early in the project, I knew that the story* would be central to delivering a satisfying experience. As such, I've been working through the story in the background, ironing out details and making sure the plan and the tools fit each other. As I started executing on writing the first draft of the actual, in-game, story content I found myself trying out various different approaches to it - none of which stuck with quite the speed or consistency that I'd like. Taking a step back from the problem, I've since come to realize that one of my "non-negotiable" narrative goals is actually obstructing forward progress.
As I planned the structure, content, and available choices in the story, I strove to keep in mind the central theme of the project: reacting to the discovery of unexpected truths. Along the way, I gradually built up goals that could help to guide my writing to stay true to that theme. Of these goals, one has proven to be particularly difficult: to support players creating their own personalized journey through the story, complete with emergent story arcs fitting the player's values.
To put it bluntly, this is a crazy-ambitious goal - yet for over a year I've thought it was not just doable, but outright essential. I'd planned out interweaving narrative paths and created tools for slipping seamlessly between strands - only to find myself stumped as I try to start actually writing the thing. At any moment, the narrative possibilities explode out, exposing a staggering amount of options*.
As I've taken a step back to consider and plan how this year will unfold, it's become clear to me that writing every possible option in parallel is simply not realistic. Much the way a horizontal slice in software requires a lot of work without providing any (completed) value, trying to write all the branches at once will undoubtedly demand a staggering amount of work without creating a satisfying story arc for any player.
Thus, much the way vertical slices in software can incrementally add value without over-committing to too many features, authoring narrative vertical slices - one path from beginning to end - should make it possible to create a satisfying story far sooner than otherwise. Additionally, this focus helps anchor my goals and expectations for the short and medium term, giving me one concrete thing to strive for, rather than simply trying to accomplish everything at once.
Finally, and perhaps most notably, having a single strong story arc will make me much better positioned to decide whether offering players alternative (personalized) arcs is even a good idea. While the idea is appealing on paper, it is very possible that creating multiple competing arcs could result in a large number of mediocre stories - which is far less desirable than even a single strong arc.
In light of that, I have picked one specific arc that I think stands the best chance of being a rewarding experience for players, and I aim to author as much of that as I can over this coming year. I have no expectations of actually finishing that arc this year*, but I intend to get as far as I can nonetheless. I hope you'll follow along with me this year, as I share the lessons I will inevitably learn along the way.