Project Mayflower

To teach myself new skills, I’ve been working on Project Mayflower.  It’s a Weird House game (more Aberrant than Haunted) that will be available for free download later this year.  

Today I’d like to discuss the work done thus far and what comes next.

How it All Began

It began with a vision. After seeing The Old Dark House, ideas flashed through my head: a map with increasingly bizarre and nefarious questions, along with a new way of engaging with dialogue in games. I had half-scenes I wanted to write, vague ideas of mechanics; but I didn’t have anything solid. My next step, then, was to solidify the mysteries. These would, after all, form the cornerstone of the experience. Everything about the game’s pacing and horrific possibilities would all spring from precisely was happening and why.

Working with a Knife

Once I had my story, I needed to pare it down. I knew I could easily spin Mayflower into a multi-hour title, but that’d take more time and effort than I could afford. I forced myself to remember I was only working on a demo piece, something to showcase skills and concepts. Editing the story down to be five to fifteen minutes was a trial, but one I enjoyed. It forced creative solutions, raised some interesting theoreticals, and evolved the mysteries in ways I’d not expected.

Tooling Up

Once I had the player’s journey planned, I had to begin making the game. I knew it’d be made in Unity, and I knew I wanted it to be a 2D top-down title. I spent some time researching on the Asset Store and purchased a few tools to help me build the demo. First was the RPG Map Editor by Creative Spore; the second was Playmaker by Hutong Games. I spent a lot of time experimenting with the tools. They’re easy to pick up, and goodness knows I don’t need much else to finish the project. The only other tool I’m eyeing right now is the RPG Conversation Editor by Creative Spore.

Planning Ahead

And that brings us to the present moment. So, what’s next? Already I have the basic map built, the story sketched out and standard character movements working. Following that, I have the following basics listed: create door triggers which take you to the appropriately horrible room; functional keys to unlock new areas and stave off enemies; triggers which reveal more of the House’s true nature; a unique system of non-modal dialogue; and a secret ending. All in all, it’s a seemingly straightforward path. But as all game designers know, there are a host of little complications I’m still working out.

As my freelancing life takes off, I’ve not as much time to dedicate to the project as I’d like. But I hope you’ll stay tuned for more updates, following #ProjectMayflower on Twitter!

To Edit and Be Edited: A Few Thoughts on the Writer/Editor Relationship

In my time, I’ve worked with editors and acted as one myself. Today, I’d like to examine that relationship. It should be one of trust and mutual respect. Editing is long, difficult work and all writing needs editing if it is to fulfill its potential. But an editor can help a writer realize their work’s fullest potential far more swiftly and painlessly.


The Writer

Oscar Wilde once quipped he spent a morning taking a comma out of a poem, then spent the afternoon putting it back. I’m not convinced he was entirely joking. Nothing can be taken for granted in writing. Every arc needs to be supported by strong scenes; strong scenes by strong beats; strong beats by strong lines; strong lines by strong words.

First drafts are rough things, like a sculpture chiseled into only a general form. And just as a sculptor must continue to chisel away at the marble, so too must the writer edit their words.

In my estimation, this is where the better part of the craft comes into play. It is here the writer works to ensure that their meaning is relayed as clearly and powerfully as possible to the audience. It is during this phase the writer must establish a critical distance – or perhaps it may be better said, attempt to adopt the audiences’ perspective –to make the work what it deserves to be. Writers need to be honest with themselves during the drafting stage; are these sentences flowing? have I properly established and revealed this character’s motivation?  is there anything in here that’s unintentionally awkward?

Everything must come under scrutiny, and it is – I believe, generally – the writer who must apply this scrutiny to the early drafts. But while a writer can make a good work great in isolation, that process is easier (and almost invariably produces better results) when the writer has an editor. Even so: early feedback is useful – invaluable, even – but the writer knows better than anyone what they are trying to relate.


The Editor

Editors offer something invaluable to the writing process: a fresh – and more importantly, professional – pair of eyes. A writer might be able to fool themselves, but they can’t fool their editor. Writers have every aspect of a story in their head when they write. By virtue of their proximity to their work, writers are in danger of believing things to be self-evident. Editors don’t have the context however and can point out when the writer hasn’t related something properly. Likewise, because writers look at things for so long, they are at risk of becoming blind to what’s in front of them. Editors can help save writers from themselves.

And yes, they’re also there to kill darlings, which can be a hard job for a writer. But it’s a necessary good. Darlings aren’t just things the writer loves; they’re good ideas that don’t work, for one reason or another.  It can be difficult for writers to recognize darlings; and by definition, the first instinct is to be protective of them – but these are foolishnesses the writer must overcome. And often, editors are just the ones to help them.

Every writer has things they’re blind to, willingly or not. A good editor will do more than fix spelling and grammar: they’ll offer suggestions on structure and tone, of how ordinary sentences can be made extraordinary. They’ll work to strengthen words, sentences, beats, scenes, arcs. They’ll work to bring the best parts of the story out. They are no replacement for the writer, but neither is the writer a replacement for the editor. Working together, they’ll make the work be what it deserves to be.

An Apology for the Railroad

I’m often asked how to stop branching narratives from branching into infinity. It’s a question all narrative designers grapple with: how do I write a story that’s choice rich and enables player agency, but doesn’t explode the scope of my project? And how do I do that without railroading the player and getting them grumpy?

Today, I’d like to outline how I approach the question.

You’re Always Working on the Railroad

Player freedom isn’t a goal; it is a means to an end. More than anything else, what players want are engaging experiences. For a writer, that means creating immersive scenarios that link together. And if the writer does their job well, the player will only want one thing: to perform the next logical step of the story.

The truth is that players are happy to jump on a train and travel down the railroad if it promises to be a rewarding time. Besides which, it’s an often unspoken truth that players are always going to be on a railroad. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you’re creating a story, you’re creating a linear journey from a starting point to a finishing point. Even if you have a million writers writing a million branches, players will only be able to progress through stories in the ways they’re allowed.

Of course, there are ways to design content that allow greater degrees of player freedom as they journey from beginning to end – but even in the most open system, there’s only so much anyone can do. Their freedom is always going to be limited by how much content is in the game.

Work Backward to Build Space for the Player

The experience leads the player, not the other way around. If the story suggests that players can do more in the game than they are able (because you have relinquished too much control); or if the game suggests the player should be able to do more than your story allows (because you have not relinquished enough control) – players will be upset. You need to know exactly what the room for the player is in your story, then allow no more and no less – and suggest no more and no less.

The easiest way to set your limitations is to plan your story from the end – or ends, as case may be. Once you know the end(s) of your story, you’ll know where everything in your story needs to lead. That means you’ll be able to judge if every moment of your story is working toward that end; if each moment will justify for the player what they’re doing and what they’ll want to do next.

Once you have your end, it’s that much easier to find your start and fill out your middle. You’ll have a keener sense if everything fits together – if the pacing is right, if each step suggests the next. And if problems arise, it’ll be easier to pinpoint what’s gone wrong and where, and how to fix it.

(And, as ever and always, I’ll advocate player testing. The sooner you can get other eyes on your project, the sooner you’ll know what needs adjusting. Listen to what they have to say and make fixes accordingly.)

It’s All About Motive

Perfect freedom is omnipotence, and omnipotence is boring. What players want are to react to interesting things which happen to them. They want challenges to overcome, they want triumphs to revel in. And these things are available to those who’ve relinquished a degree of freedom. Writers can help give the context of these scenarios, they can help them arise in a way that feels natural, they can help the player become more invested in every moment as it comes along.

And if you can keep your players motivated at every step of your story, that’s the battle won. If you can inform them of what to think and feel and give them just enough room to express themselves – then you’ll have created a wonder of an interactive experience.

Closing Thoughts

Branching narratives aren’t about player freedom, but self-expression. It’s about creating a space where players can have a dialogue with the game. It’s important to remember that players don’t get to decide what the dialogue is about: the writer does. Likewise, the writer is the one who sets the pace and tone of the conversation. And if it’s a good, respectful conversation, you’ll find that your players are more than glad to sit down with your game for hours and hours at a time.

Design Aesthetics: Or, Be a Fancy Pants, Damn it!

Bear with me. I promise this sincerely outlines the principles which underlie my approach to writing and designing – which is as much to say, the principles which underlie my understanding of aesthetics and the world-at-large. This is the framework by which I work.

The aesthetic umbrella

Allow me to introduce one of my great friends: Marsilio Ficino, a Neoplatonist scholar from the 15th century. In his Three Books on Life, Ficino lays out a system of the universe wherein everything has a cosmic sympathy – or, to put it another way, a universe where everything finds itself under an umbrella with like-things. For example, melancholy is under the umbrella called Saturn. As such, all aspects of melancholy are in sympathy with Saturn – such as colors, dark and drab; and sounds, sad and yearning; and tastes, rich and dour. Taken all together, one could say it forms part of the Saturnine aesthetic.

This is a gross oversimplification of a complex philosophy, of course. But it highlights something interesting. In our modern day, we still recognize these sympathies: we use them as shorthand to illustrate physical, moral, and intellectual characteristics. As a case in point, consider goths. We all have an image of a goth, their interests, even aspects of their character. Ficino might say that their aesthetic is unified in Saturn; that aspects which are sympathetic to Saturn are manifested and expressed through them. Even if we have different models of why these things all fit together, we still recognize that something unifies their aesthetic.

And this recognition is fascinating to me. We recognize that something unifies all these aspects into a whole; that somehow, these aspects are sympathetic to each other, that they belong (or at least work) together.

a complete work of art

Now carry this consideration into games. In my estimation, games are complete works of art , or Gesamtkunstwerk. Within games, one finds all arts unified into a whole: fashion, architecture, sound design, music, writing, programming, cinematography, and everything else there is. All of these discrete arts form an aesthetic whole. And to form a whole, they must exist in sympathetic union; lest the game be an incoherent mess.

Everything from the choices your player will be making; to how they'll mechanically make them; to why they’ll make them; to the levels where they'll be making them; to what avatar they'll use to make them – to all of that and more, consideration must be given as to what unifies them into a single experience and how.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. We’ll start with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It is, in the classical sense now, Gothic. Everything from the level and character design, the music and sound design, all re-enforce this aesthetic. The artists brought things of the same kind together. It is a sumptuous experience, rich in every detail, sympathetic in every aspect. And with a set of solid, fun mechanics, it’s a classic. A masterpiece.

Consider as well Octodad. Everything in the setting is intensely normal, suburban – though not realistic, but cartoonish. This plays to the mechanics (which is as much to say, the player character – the two are indistinguishable) extraordinarily well. Your goal is to control this Totally Normal Human, whose physics resists normality. The game knows what it wants to be – a funny, physics-based romp, where you're an octopus pretending to be human – and everything within the title works in tandem to be just that.

the sum

This, for me, is the crux of designing and writing – not only for games but for anything at all. I believe that ideas – or Inspirations, if you want to refer to my previous post on the matter – all have inherent aspects to them. To develop the Inspiration is as much about finding what fits as it is what doesn’t fit. It is about creating an aesthetic experience where all things are sympathetic.

Naturally, you can intentionally break your aesthetic. You can add aspects of your game which are weird, which are meant to be bizarre and unsympathetic. But again, to have the best chance of doing this well, you must do it intentionally: you must have the framework of what fits, first, before you can know what doesn’t fit - and thus, how you can make that which doesn't fit, fit.

The exercise of creation is an exercise of sympathy. It is about understanding the kind of thing you wish to make, what the aspects of that thing are, and how best to translate that into an experience. Art is the cultivation of an aesthetic experience; aesthetic experiences are collections of sympathetic aspects. Understanding this sympathy, for me at least, is the key to it all.

The Daemon Inspiration

Defining Inspiration

I would define artistic inspiration in this way: it is the moment wherein the artist discovers something worth sharing.

An inspiration is the starting point of any artistic endeavour. They are ideas, but more than that they are emotions, excitements. They are hang-ups, wake-ups, sections of the world elevated just high enough for us to stumble over. They are spirits that demand bodies – spirits who demand of the artist a vessel, a work, so they may live independently.


Finding Inspiration

Nothing will get you nothing. Think of a flint: if you strike it against nothing, you won’t get a spark; if you strike it against the wrong thing, like wood or plastic, you won’t get a spark; but if you strike it against the right thing, like steel, you’ll soon have fire.

In this way, we too must strike ourselves against the right thing if we want spark. Inspiration is borne from experience, through contact with the world. It could be anything that does it: a scene in a film; a documentary; an overhead conversation; a good lecture; a quiet dinner; a misheard lyric. It’s simply a matter of finding what excites you, interests you, baffles you, wakes you up. It doesn’t always happen immediately. It can be arbitrary, as anything in life can be. It can strike weeks, months, years later – but only if you have the experience to begin with. Put yourself into the world. Be open to experience. Understand yourself and your feelings; let the rest happen naturally.


Using Inspiration

You’ve discovered something worth sharing with others. You’re convinced that this is an idea that’s worth standing independent of you. So, what’s next? Finding inspiration is only the start. Next comes the hard task of reverse-engineering.

Art is the translation of experience and emotion. For our purposes, it can also be understood as the translation of an inspiration into a work. After finding your inspiration, then, your next step is to understand what you felt and why. Once you understand that, you’ll have an idea of how to make others feel it – and once you know that, you’re ready to draft.

And remember: hold on to your inspirations, but don’t be beholden to them. Every project has long dark nights. Revisit your inspiration when you’re in the nadir. Remembering its worthiness will fortify you, making it easier to push through to the end.

Not only that, but one inspiration often leads to more. Revisiting your inspirations when you’re at a dead end will often lead you to new inspirations.

And remember, a lot changes over the course of a project. Material reality, your ability (and the ability of your team, if you’re working with one), as well as the new ideas you’ve encountered on the way, will shape your work in ways you couldn’t have foreseen. And that’s okay. If the soul of your project is unified and the body you’re constructing it is fitting, nothing has been betrayed. Inspiration isn’t a dogma. Nothing will ever be perfect and true. Don’t let perfect stop you from making something good.

Collateral: A Post-Mortem

In April, I wrote Collateral: A Twine game that’s part thriller, part revenge tragedy, part holiday horror. Players take on the role of Jamie, trapped with their roommate Joel in a remote cabin. A gunman dressed as a red angel pins them down. Inside the cabin are 25 briefcases, one for each day of the Christmas advent. Starting on December 1st, the red angel reads out a code to unlock the day’s briefcase.

If you’re interested in playing it before reading about how I wrote the game, you can play Collateral here.


Collateral is a little piece where a lot happens, as its two revenge tragedies play out over the course of 25 days. Because we immediately establish the rules, stakes, we’re free to start unraveling the mystery of why it’s all happening – revealing the past and present simultaneously and, in doing so, undermining the player’s ability to trust, which forces increasingly desperate decisions.

Crucial to the success of the piece is its timing. When are questions raised? When are they answered? Each reveal complicates the player’s understanding of their situation and ratchets the tension.  Pull one rug out from beneath the player, obliging them to hop to another – let them rest for a moment before pulling out that rug as well – then the other, then the next, until there’s only the bare floor. Then open that and swallow the player whole.

It’s a matter of timing. Give away too much too soon, and you’ll not only abridge your story; you'll have uninvested players as well. Give away too little too late, and they’ll quit the game out of boredom and go onto something better. Planting the seeds of doubt means giving them time to grow. There is a time to sow and a time to reap. Get it right, and you’ll captivate the player.


In Collateral’s inception and first iteration, however, I’d created a framing that made this pacing impossible. The story was mostly the same as the final version, with one crucial difference: in its original form, Collateral was a reverse revenge story. The player was not Jamie, the one caught up in the revenge; nor were they the Wainwright boy, the revenger; but they played as Joel, the one being revenged upon.

I’ve always wanted to write a reverse revenge story, where the evil has already been committed, and the player stands against retribution as it inexorably comes their way – where the player is Macbeth when the wood comes toward Dunsinane.

I think it's possible to write such a story. I think it can even be written in a space as small as Collateral, with more time and planning. But there is so much more for the writer to juggle in this situation, it was untenable.

First, the exposition is far more intensive – how and why did you do this? What have you done since then? What are you living for now? In the final version, the answer is just that you’re innocent and want to keep living your life, thank you. It’s an instant win because it doesn’t require the player to agree to anything of who they are or what they’ve done – there’s no controversial opinion to steer there, so you’re free to get into the story.

Second, it gives the player too much knowledge upfront to act on – why wouldn’t they run far away, or fight back, or go into hiding, or turn themselves in? Because they know so much, they’ll want to act upon that knowledge, as would indeed be their right to do. By keeping the player in the dark, revealing light slowly over time, you keep their available options in check.

Third, the themes of justice and grace are – in my estimation – far less abstract in Collateral’s final set-up than they are in the original. It’s easier to pass meaningful, considered judgment on another than it is yourself.


All of these problems were cleared away by changing the framing from Joel’s perspective to Jamie’s. My wanting to write the reverse revenge tragedy impeded my writing a good story. By killing that darling, I enabled the piece to be what it needed to be. I can only hope my darling takes no offense at being cut, and that I am in no fear of being cut by it in turn.

Grenade! Writing 500 Barks

You may have heard: I’m writing one grenade bark for every like on this Tweet. I’ve just finished 500. I’m hoping to write up to 1003.

It’s a long road to 500 barks – or pseudo-barks as they may be, since real grenade barks are snappier – but I’ve enjoyed several reveries on my way. When this exercise concludes I’ll do a post about writing barks well, but for now I’d like to discuss a few of my fancies.

Be Shameless:

The fear of the blank page is natural, especially when it’s an unusually large blank page. Staring at it won’t help – but starting on it will.

If you’ve been tasked with writing a large quantity of lines, start writing. Write down everything that comes to mind. If it’s obvious, write it down. If it’s trash, write it down. In the beginning, the most useful thing you can do is gather material to work with. You need clay to mold and that means digging through dirt.

Some of your lines will be good to use immediately, while others can be used with editing. Others still will need to be discarded entirely. In all cases, though, one idea may lead to another – worse ideas may suggest better ones, or they may suggest where not to dig. Keep writing until you’ve found what you’re looking for, then keep on writing.

Tell Stories:

Every interaction with the world is a story. Making a character’s bark specific to the character is always good practice. But characters change over time. Their language should change over time as well.

Some of my favorite barks were about “kaboom-beans”. They were basic barks, but instead of shouting “grenade!” the character gleefully shouted “kaboom-beans” in the hope that the phrase would catch on. Later, I wrote a bark where another teammate warned about “kaboom-beans” – only to swear unhappily beneath their breath for using the phrase.

The barks were characterful, succinct and informative. But more than that, they formed a mini narrative arc. Stories happen everywhere, even in the smallest spaces. Exploring the possibility of narrative in that space not only delights attentive players; it makes it easier (and more fun!) to write your barks.

Exploit the Medium:

Each medium contains possibilities that can only be explored in that medium. There are artistic opportunities on stage which cannot be replicated in film; the tricks one can use in writing a novel won’t carry over for writing a video game. This is not an original observation. I hope it may be a useful reminder, however, as I think it’s something we can take for granted. Taking stock of the opportunities and limitations of the medium can lead you to novel designs.

In this instance, consider the bark. Barks are often a response: when the when enemy AI throws a grenade, your ally warns you. In reflecting on this, two points came to mind.

First, the fuse. Why not have a longer fuse, so the AI can spout a slightly lengthier line? Depending on the experience you’re creating, it might be something worth playing with. Take stock of what you can control. Play with it.

Second, the order of events. Why have the grenade trigger the bark, instead of the bark trigger the grenade? Let characters spout a few lines, then interrupt it with a grenade. The narrative opportunities in this, it seems to me, are plentiful and worthy of further exploration.


We’re 500 barks down. Hopefully we’ll have 503 more to go. Next time, I’ll discuss the art of writing a good bark. See you then!