Narrative Design Feed

A Love Story in 27 Characters or Less

 

My latest game project was more like writing poetry than anything else. GSN Games asked me to create a love story for their popular game series, Bingo Bash. Here's the catch: The entire story had to fit into the tiny space inside a bingo room, and that meant each line had to be only 27 characters or less.

The room is called "Dear Diary," and it tracks the ups and downs of Linda, a floral shop owner. She's the type of woman who vows to do something nice for someone else every day... like paying for a stranger's Chinese takeout. Linda doesn't expect anything in return and leaves the scene before the recipient of her gift realizes it. But fate puts them at the same bingo night soon after... will romance bloom? Or will Linda's on-again, off-again boyfriend get in the way? Find out by unlocking the room and reading Linda's diary each time you level up!

It was a challenge to write a micro-plot, especially since I had to work with pre-existing art assets, and timing only allowed for small tweaks. I handled it by asking the awesome GSN team to add conflict elements to the diary images, which to me is the core of any story. I also sketched out the story beats first and then wrote Linda's diary entries from that, cutting back on some details to fit the smaller space.

I've written within a set character count many times in my decade in the game industry, but this was the tiniest. Composing within a strict limitation like that teaches you to, as the venerable writer's guide Strunk & White proclaims, "omit needless words." It's a great exercise in economy.

Which is why I chose to start my first-ever "Narrative Design and Game Writing" course this semester by asking my students to do the same. I made it a bit easier by leaving the theme and accompanying artwork open-ended. I couldn't share any of the details of my GSN Games project with them anyway, so I simply asked them to write a love story within the same space restrictions. They embraced the project and delivered on a wide range of stories, from two involving rocks (!) to a play on the idea of lovebirds to more serious fare, such as domestic abuse. Many described the project as presenting an opportunity for great creativity within the limitation. Some said it took them into more poetic language and compared it to haiku.

"Dear Diary" is available as part of the Bingo Bash app for iOS and Android and is free to play, with in-app purchasing. I'd love to hear what you think of the story; please comment below.

Dear Diary

 

 


The End of the Dream(slippers): Year in Review

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

When I set out to write the Dreamslippers series back in 2012, the self-publishing business was still bright, shiny, and promising.

Still, I wasn't sure if I'd go that route. I had to be convinced, and I was, in the end--by research that showed you had a better chance of making a living as a fiction writer if you went indie. Around a very demanding day job, it took me two years to write the first book. During that time, I shopped it around to agents and editors in traditional publishing, and I had an incredible amount of interest--just no follow-through. I worked on the book, getting a ton of feedback from alpha and beta readers--as well as some of those agents--and revising over and over. It wasn't my first book; I'd had an agent back in 2005 who shopped a short-story collection around. I'd honed my skill since then and felt confident about the manuscript. I talked to a lot of people, authors and agents and marketers and others. It seemed to make the most sense to take a leap into self-publishing.

Cat in the Flock performed well, enough to warrant further attention. A celebrity Hollywood director reached out to me about rights, I was interviewed by the Seattle Weekly, and I won my first indieBRAG medallion. This despite a homemade book cover and struggles with Amazon's category algorithms, which plunked the book in "pet noir" because of the title. 'Cat' referred to the protagonist's nickname, a shortening of her full name, Cathedral. There are no felines in the book.

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The original cover for Cat in the Flock.

Perhaps most important to me, the book was reviewed well by people whose opinions I trusted. The writers Jon Talton, Mary Daheim, and Corrina Wycoff all contributed praiseful blurbs. None other than the venerable Kirkus Reviews called it "a mystery with an unusual twist and quirky settings; an enjoyable surprise for fans of the genre."

According to some successful indie authors I've talked to, what I should have done right then was release two more books that year and keep going as fast as I could.

But I didn't. Writing and releasing Cat around the day job (and my own wedding, by the way) had been exhausting. So instead, I took a poetry manuscript out of a drawer and published that, too. Half the poems in Broom of Anger had already appeared in literary journals, and for some of them, I'd won awards. I was curious to see how it would do.

Broom of anger

It probably won't surprise you to learn that sales were pretty much non-existent. Poetry is a tough enough sell for traditionals, and self-published poetry, no matter the quality of the work nor the stature of the authors contributing blurbs, is a non-starter.

But I persevered. My husband and I had a change in our living situation when he was offered an opportunity to steer a grant at a small college in a small town... And the semi-rural life held appeal for us both. I stepped down from my management position at the day job and dropped to four days per week, which I would work remotely, from the small town. I hoped this would provide more time for the novel series.

I'd published Cat in late July of 2014 and followed it with Framed and Burning in the fall of 2015. From first draft to release, it took me nine months.

There's a lot that goes into self-publishing that takes up time. You could think of an iceberg, how you see only 1/3rd of it, the part above the water. The other 2/3rds of being an indie is everything ranging from reviewing voice actor demos for your audiobook to formatting the actual manuscript to writing a marketing plan. Most of it has nothing to do with the actual writing.

Framed and Burning garnered a good deal of critical success, most notably as a finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award. A huge fan of the celebrity librarian, I was awash with honor over that nomination. But the top prize went to a traditional author who already had a long list of such awards. I won a second indieBRAG and was nominated for a RONE Award, but sales were just okay.

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I'd worked diligently to professionalize my novel-writing business, forming an LLC and hiring professional editors, a book cover artist, marketing consultants, and so on. I researched social media, tried to get good at it, and bootstrapped as much as I could, making lovely connections in my small town, where people still treat writers as if we're at least minor celebrities.

Meanwhile, I'd made the decision to exit from the day job. It had been a heady, exhilarating, and at times, challenging, five years. I'd created a narrative design team, basically a group of game storytelling experts, and together we raised the bar on storytelling in the company's collector's edition games. Passionate about game storytelling, I wanted to continue to write and design games, but a no-compete clause in my contract kept me from any work that could be construed as "materially similar" for a blackout period of one year. So I tried my hand at some new genres, such as Smash Squad for WG Cells, and I wrote about games for several publications and my own blog.

And I continued to write novels. I released the third book in the series the week of the presidential election in 2016. 

The country was in upheaval with Trump's victory, and no one paid any attention to Bound to the Truth. I won a third indieBRAG for it, though. The medallion represents the top 10 percent in independent publishing, so it's a strong achievement, especially considering the volume of self-published works. I still think it's the best book in the series, but it launched to dismal sales and never recovered.

Brokenhearted, I had long conversations with two successful authors--one indie and the other a hybrid of traditional and indie--who both proclaimed the self-publishing bubble had burst. The hybrid author has gone back to 100 percent traditional. The indie is aggressively pursuing a career in scriptwriting, which she believes is the next big opportunity.

I pulled back on investment in the Dreamslippers series and made due with one final pro cover, for the boxed set. After a year, it's still sitting on Amazon without a single review, and sales have been poor. It's tough, because I know some indies who are still making an all right living. But they tend to serve niches (such as a Christian apocalyptic writer) that are ignored by New York publishing. They also usually have military pensions or are kept financially afloat by their spouses' incomes. 

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But frankly, it would have surprised me if I'd been able to make a living on indie books alone. I'd already survived the collapse of the journalism industry, and I understand that we are in the throes of a digital revolution that places primacy on the visual. I approached the entire enterprise with the idea that it was a huge experiment, and a gamble. While there are many things I might have done differently, on the whole, I learned a lot, acquired new skills and further honed old ones, and grew as a writer. The result is an award-winning novel series to my credit and scores of articles written by and about me and my work.

On balance, I'm glad I tried to become a full-time novelist, though commercial success proved to be an elusive beast. 

What continues to do extremely well for me is my work in games.

The one-year blockout from my no-compete clause ended in February 2017, and it was as if the floodgates opened. Without having to actually look for any work, it has consistently found me. By spring, I was already at full-time capacity, writing and designing games for Daily Magic, an old partner of mine from the day job, as well as a few studios new to me that were trying innovative game formats. 

I wrote and co-designed what could be considered a "game novel" or "interactive novel" called Sender Unknown: The Woods. It released in the "New Games We Love" section of the App Store and has been a top 10 in several categories. Gamezebo calls it "the next leap forward in mobile." Another writing/co-designing title for me, Matchington Mansion, has pretty much blown the doors off mobile with its popularity. I'm just now finishing up a "visual novel" for Pixelberry Studios, and it will release in March of this year. Additionally, I'm at work on a project for GSN Games, releasing in early 2018, and in talks with Jam City, a studio I've admired for some time. I'm also designing and writing levels for G5's hit game, Survivors: The Quest.

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It was into this exciting vortex that Webster University entered last summer, and with it, an opportunity to return to my roots--in two ways. One, as a professor of games and game design, as visiting faculty for the 2017-18 school year. Two, in St. Louis, where I'm, as we say, "from."

Some of you know I used to teach English at Pierce College, back in the early 2000s. I had tenure but left to pursue a writing career on my agent's recommendation and because I struggled to pay off my student loans on that faculty income. But I feel the classroom never really left me; I was destined to return and had already as a guest-lecturer at University of Florida and Seattle University.

My family is here in the area, on both sides of the river. I earned my bachelor's degree at Saint Louis University, and I cut teeth early in my career as a writer for the St. Louis Science Center and various city publications. I wasn't born here, having grown up a child of the Air Force with its mandate of frequent moves, but I attended part of junior high and all of high school in Illinois and still think of the Lou as "home." 

Honestly, I wasn't sure I could take on full-time faculty duties with the game work ramping up so quickly. But I hit it off with the faculty there, and it became an opportunity not to pass up. I knew of Webster University's strong reputation, and since the program is new and in need of leadership, there's a chance to put my stamp on something that could be key to the success of not just the school but the whole St. Louis region. What impresses me most is the seed of entrepreneurship being sown here by a small but quickly growing local game industry.

I've had to say no to some work, which is regrettable, but I feel reborn in the classroom. Teaching game design is in many ways a dream-come-true, and a fitting transition from all that dreamslipping.

Game-design

Image courtesy of Webster Today.

So here I am at year end, a novelist, game designer, and teacher. All the best to you in the New Year, and I'd love to hear from you by email or in the comments below.


New Release in Games: Matchington Mansion!

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I love a solid Match-3 game, and my latest release is that and so much more. In Matchington Mansion, you can hone your interior design skills while protecting your house from a mischievous cousin, unlock new rooms, renovate your kitchen and garden, and discover secrets hidden among the furniture – all with a cast of quirky characters in tow. You can even spy on the neighbors and check out their room design choices. 

As a (no longer closeted as of right now) HGTV addict, I said "yes" immediately when a producer with Firecraft Studios approached me about working with him on this game. It was a great opportunity to craft a robust narrative for the Match-3 genre, with an added sim mechanic in the form of home decorating and gardening! Like a match made in heaven for me.

Plus, those of you who've heard my game-industry presentations know I've talked about how games that don't seem to lend themselves easily to story could actually be much more popular with players if story were part of the package. Matchington Mansion proves me correct. The game released to featuring on the App Store and is currently trending at 4.5 stars on nearly 5,000 reviews on GooglePlay and 4.5 stars on more than 500 reviews in the App Store.

If you're a fan of my quirky character dialogue in the Dreamslippers Series, you'll see that writing style on full display here as well. Writing dialogue for your interior design bestie - not to mention villains like the scheming Rex Houston - was a fun challenge.

The game starts off with a twist on the "I've inherited a mansion" scenario... the woman who bequeaths it to you was a famous novelist. While living out the dream of getting your own mansion to fully customize to your liking, you uncover your late friend's secret life... and love.

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As always, the story is in service to the game. You'll decorate your mansion in this match-3 makeover puzzle game, design new home decor and furniture by matching pillows, power-up with levels, and renovate your entire house, including your kitchen and garden.

You'll have a blast as you match and swap pillows in a game to innovatively decorate your mansion, with these features:

  • Secrets, rewards, and an intriguing narrative – piece together all the hidden objects and learn new secrets
  • In-game characters to meet and interact with – follow their interesting stories while you play
  • Play levels with tons of room design options and thousands of DIY Decorations – unlock hidden areas for rewards
  • Power-up combos, incredible boosters, and tons of levels in a fun game of matching!

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Match3

I hope you enjoy this game. Please feel free to email me with your feedback using this handy link.

From Reviews

"I highly recommend this game! It is fun and challenging and fantastic!" - Ami Weller, GooglePlay

"This is a cute little game that progresses along quite nicely. I like the storyline." -  Chrisp one, App Store

"I'm really loving this game. Enjoying far more than Homescape or Gardenscape." - Candace Orman, GooglePlay

"Addictive." Nate Nate, GooglePlay

"This is a lot of fun! Tiffany has a good sense of humor and I love her 🐈." - Diane Wood, GooglePlay

Download Now

The game is free to play, with in-app purchases.

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Sender Unknown: The Woods... Is Live!

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I'm thrilled to announce the launch of my latest game, Sender Unknown: The Woods, a collaboration with Daily Magic Productions. Here's the download link! The game is exclusive to the App Store until Oct. 4.

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Game Details

Through a text message, fate connects you with a total stranger. Now you are Morgan’s only hope to survive. Will you serve as a lifeline, or return to your own life and let a stranger’s fate go unknown?

Four friends are lost deep in the Ozarks, stalked by a madman. With your help, they’ll solve intricate puzzles, make difficult choices, repair their relationships, and save each other’s lives. 

Through text messages and images, you can guide them away from harrowing danger and solve a mystery. Your choices will determine who loves, who lives, and who dies. 

How much will you put on the line for a Sender Unknown?

Daily Magic Productions teamed up with award-winning author and game designer Lisa Brunette to bring you this interactive tale where the choices you make can change everything. Multiple paths through the game give you wildly different results—from romance to exciting twists and reveals to who survives the nightmare.

The game begins when you log onto an anonymous chat app for the first time, and a “sender unknown” reaches out to you—with a life-and-death appeal for help! Alone and lost in the woods, your new chat buddy, Morgan, must escape a broken-down RV surrounded by ravenous wolves. And that’s just problem number one.

Morgan’s friends and insulin supply are missing, and it seems the madman who took them wants to play games through the radio. He has a thing for riddles and traps—human traps, that is. 

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The ability to receive images means you can see the traps for yourself—and help Morgan survive a chilling nightmare!

At every game ending, you have the option to reset to your last defining choice, to the start of the last chapter, or back to the very beginning.

Stats add up as you play, and they can determine whether a choice you make succeeds, or fails.

Can you beat a madman at his own game—without sacrificing anyone? Will you help Morgan uncover the mystery that still haunts these dark woods?

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Features

  • Choose from 3 options at every decision!
  • Shape the story and build stats in 5 categories. Success or failure depends on your stats!
  • Open beautifully rendered images of crucial scenes and visual puzzles!
  • Engage with the story as it unfolds through real-time notifications!
  • Internet connection not required, and there are no in-app purchases. 

Points of Interest

Total Immersion — A new twist on the “choose your own adventure” genre allows players to become the hero in real time, and react in their own way, on their own terms. Your choices will determine how characters view you—and how the story unfolds. 

Brilliant Story — Lisa Brunette, author of the award-winning Dreamslippers Series and other works, provides her unique narrative vision and writing to craft a pulse-pounding mystery. With Sender Unknown: The Woods, Lisa’s one-of-a-kind talent gives players a down-to-earth and immersive adventure like no other.

Praise for Daily Magic

“The best kind of ghost story, filled with love, money, betrayal, and murder.” - Review of Dark Dimensions: City of Fog, Gamezebo 

“The visuals in Dark Dimensions: Homecoming are simply outstanding…” - All About CasualGame

“Captivating story that really draws you in.” - Review of Sable Maze: Norwich Caves, Gamezebo

Praise for Lisa Brunette

“Brunette’s portrayals… are nothing short of genius.” - Review of the Dreamslippers Series, On My Kindle

 “An enjoyable surprise for fans of the genre.” - Review of debut novel Cat in the Flock, Kirkus Reviews

“A mystery with teeth and wounds and loss.” - Review of Framed and Burning, Readers Lane 

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Product Details

Platform: iOS and Android smartphones/tablets

Genre: mystery / horror / puzzle

Developer: Daily Magic Productions

Release Date: 2017

About Daily Magic Productions

Daily Magic Productions is a dedicated, experienced, and effective international developer with more than 18 high-quality puzzle adventure titles released on PC and mobile platforms. With their no-nonsense approach to development, Daily Magic’s focus is now on delivering the best mobile free-to-play and VR experiences on the world market.

Since 2011 Daily Magic has been a powerhouse of Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure games for Big Fish, releasing several titles a year since their founding. From those experiences and rapid growth Daily Magic has built a strong and highly creative team of artists and developers ready to take on unfamiliar worlds, and build one-of-a-kind experiences.

About Lisa Brunette

Lisa Brunette is an award-winning writer and game designer. All three books in her bestselling Dreamslippers Series have won indieBRAG medallions, and the second book was also named a finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award and nominated for a RONE Award. Brunette’s game-writing credits include hundreds of titles, played by worldwide audiences in the millions, for Big Fish and other publishers. New games Sender Unknown: The Woods and Matchington Mansion both release in 2017. She also has a long list of bylines as a journalist, short-story writer, and poet. Her work has appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle Woman, Poets & Writers, and elsewhere.

A ten-year game industry veteran, Lisa Brunette has been credited on AAA console titles and bestselling mobile and downloadable games. She has worked for Nintendo, Take-2 Interactive’s Cat Daddy Games, and Big Fish, where she led a team of narrative designers. Now independent, her clients include WG Cells, Daily Magic, Magic Tavern, Pixelberry Studios, and G5 Entertainment. She is currently visiting assistant professor of game design at Webster University.


Upcoming Event: Casual Connect Seattle, July 31 - Aug 3

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If you're following me as a fan of the Dreamslippers Series, you've probably noticed I've been slipping more and more of my game writing and designing work into this here blog content. I love writing stories across the two mediums of books and games, and I think writing in both spaces makes me stronger in each.

I promise you that if you enjoyed the Dreamslippers, you'll love my writing in games, too. Case in point, Sender Unknown: The Woods, an interactive novel in the mystery/thriller genre, which releases this summer.

Now, onto the next game-related bit of news: I'm excited to announce I'll be speaking at Casual Connect Seattle at the end of this month as part of the 21st Century Leadership & Power in Diversity Symposium, which kicks off the conference on July 31. The symposium was organized by Women in Games and Contagious Creativity in conjunction with the Casual Games Association's United in Diversity Initiative. It's a full day to explore topics in diversity, leadership, and professional growth in the video game and digital media industries.

 My talk focuses on "Indie Pioneers! The Path Less Traveled." I will discuss the ins and outs of transitioning from leadership at a major game publisher to fending for myself as an indie writer and game designer. Lindsay Peck from Imagos Softworks and Robin Hunicke of Funomena will join me on the panel. (Lindsay might be a ghost, though):

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Casual Connect is the major industry conference for casual games, offering "inspiration from the most respected thought leaders in the games industry." I'm one of 250 speakers over 9 tracks representing the leaders in the next generation of games. Studios represented include makers of your favorite casual games: Candy Crush, Cooking Dash, Kim Kardashian Hollywood, Wheel of Fortune, Bejeweled, any of the HOPA titles you've played from Big Fish, and more. That means people will be there from Playtika, Glu, King, Scopely, FlowPlay, GSN Games, Viveport, Resolution Games, ConveneVR, SkyDance Interactive, Against Gravity, and of course, my one-person studio, Sky Harbor. Here's my speaker bio, by the way.

If you're attending the con, please stop by the panel, or feel free to reach out to me by email using this handy link. I'd love to meet up with you. Otherwise, wish me luck!

 

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The Cover for My Next Book Is a Loading Screen

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I'm excited to announce Unknown Sender: The Woods, my debut interactive novel produced by Daily Magic, releasing this summer. 

I hope you like the cover art loading screen*. It's rare for a writer to get credit on a game's loading screen like this, by the way. You can buy, download, and play it on your digital device like any other game, but since it's text-based and story-driven, the folks at Daily Magic decided to acknowledge that it's largely a written work.

The interaction comes in the choices you, the player or reader, make as you progress through the story. You log onto an anonymous chat app for the first time, and an "unknown sender" reaches out to you--with a life-and-death appeal for help. Alone and lost in the woods, your new chat buddy must escape a broken-down RV surrounded by ravenous wolves. And that's just problem number one.

Your texter's friends and insulin supply are missing, and it seems whoever took them wants to play games through the radio. This psycho geneticist has a thing for riddles and traps--human traps, that is. 

Can you beat him at his own game--without sacrificing anyone? Will you help Unknown Sender uncover the mystery that still haunts these dark woods?

 * For you non-gamers: The loading screen is what you see when the game content is loading onto your device. It's treated sort of like a book cover.


What Are Daily Magic and I Dreaming Up?

May 19, 2017
Here I am with Marianna Shilina Vallejo, CEO of Daily Magic Productions, taking an awkward selfie in their Greenwood studio. Awkward for me, anyway. Marianna is naturally photogenic!

Those of you who know me as author of the Dreamslippers Series might've missed that I also write games. With nearly a decade of game work under my belt, I'm something of a know-it-all when it comes to games, at least the story portion of them, and at least games with fairly accessible controls, such as your Wii or iPad. I guess you could say these are "casual" games--although what that means keeps changing. Let's just say I have never written for the type of game that is like what most people think of (usually disparagingly) when they think of video games: anything with a lot of blood and gore in which shooting/killing is the "play." Not that there's anything wrong with those, as some represent the finest storytelling in the medium. But the games I've worked on have been much more mainstream, the gameplay focused on solving mysteries and puzzles, using deduction and intrigue, and standard interactions such as "match three in a row."  

May 19, 2017
Cool gamer art at Daily Magic's Seattle studio.

For five years, I served as a sort of story consultant for Big Fish, where my team of narrative designers and I critiqued and edited games designed by studios all over the world. We dedicated ourselves to helping our partner developers make the stories in each game as compelling as they could possibly be. One of those partners was Russian studio Daily Magic Productions, which is how I first met Marianna Vallejo, pictured above.

As narrative designer on most of Daily Magic's games for Big Fish, I helped design and edit the Dark Dimensions, Sable Maze, Ominous Objects, and other series, so Marianna and I have in effect been working on games together since 2011. Flash forward to last fall, when we met to talk about working together as independents on something different than the hidden-object puzzle adventure games we made for years.

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I think this is a game. I don't know. We were too busy working to play it. Sometimes, that's how it goes.

Different, yes, but also building on what we know how to do well: tell stories in games, integrating the narrative with the puzzle play for the enhancement of both, and ultimately, the player's highest enjoyment.

Marianna and I were on the same page about what interests us in games and where we think they can go. We decided to make one together, and it releases this summer. I can't wait to tell you more about it! For now, here's the trailer: 

May 19, 2017
Marianna, demonstrating that yes, sometimes game designers work on actual paper documents! And see what I mean? This CEO cannot. Take. A bad. Picture.

What If How the Story Ends Is Up to You?

An Interview with Lifeline Writer Dave Justus

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Dave Justus is author of the first and many other games in the Lifeline series from Big Fish—including the eponymous original; Lifeline 2: Bloodline; Lifeline: Silent Night; and Lifeline: Halfway To Infinity—which have enjoyed nearly 7 million worldwide downloads to date. He is also the co-writer, with Lilah Sturges, of the comic books Everafter: From The Pages Of FablesPublic RelationsFables: The Wolf Among Us; and more.
 
Lifeline games are games, but they're also novels. Part of the growing "interactive fiction" genre, the games are entirely text-based, with the reader making choices throughout. It goes like this: A stranded astronaut contacts you, asking for help in the form of a person to talk to as well as ask for advice. Sort of like if "The Martian" were a game instead of a movie, and you got to talk to Mark Watney the entire time he's stranded on Mars. 
 
Lisa: How did you get involved in writing the Lifeline series? Did you have any background in the game industry? What was the genesis for the first game?
 
Dave: I came to Lifeline in a sort of roundabout way. The original game was being developed by Three Minute Games, a tiny three-man skunkworks within Big Fish. They'd had some minor successes, but they'd come up with the concept for Lifeline and wanted its release to coincide with the release of the Apple Watch. They offered the job to my friend Daryl Gregory -- who is one of the best writers I've ever read, and I thought as much before I ever met him -- but he was too booked to do it, so he very kindly suggested me for the position. Three Minute took a chance on me (I'd barely been published at that point), and gave me tremendous freedom under a very tight deadline. They knew they wanted about three days of gameplay, a sci-fi story with a nongendered protagonist in a "choose your own adventure" style, and they needed it in five weeks. Beyond that, I was free to do whatever I wanted... which was both amazing and daunting.
 
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I had no background in games whatsoever, but I honestly think, in this case, that worked to my advantage. I'd been an avid NES gamer in my childhood, had spent plenty of time with Infocom games like Hitchhiker's Guide (whose DNA you can certainly see in Lifeline), and had played several Playstation games growing up, but the last one I'd really sunk any amount of time into was Tomb Raider 2, back in college. Once I graduated, I had very little "mad money," and I chose to apply that to comics (which I've been collecting since I was eight) rather than video games. But in the case of Lifeline, I think it worked out very well, because I wrote the game purely as a conversation. I wasn't thinking in terms of "power-ups" or acquiring weapons or typical video game structures; rather, I wanted it to feel as much as possible like the Player was receiving texts from a real human being. And the feedback we've gotten has largely indicated that that's exactly what people feel when they're playing: They're not controlling a sprite, they're talking to an actual person.
 
Lisa: How much text is in these games? As much as a typical novel, say 80,000 words, at least? Or far fewer? Also, you say they wanted three days of play, but I note there are breaks when Taylor is busy. What's the breakout between "idle" time and actual play? How did you figure out how long the breaks should be? What's the longest? The shortest?
 
Dave: The first Lifeline game is a little over 50,000 words -- more in the range of a novella, or possibly a YA novel. Because of the way I ended up structuring the game (in that I didn't really know what I was doing and wanted to give people the most bang for their buck), a Player who makes it to the end of the game alive will actually have seen the bulk of the game's text. Hopefully no passages that contradict any others, obviously... but I wanted to put as much info as possible on the screen.
 
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Lifeline 2: Bloodline had almost twice as many words. It was very freeing for me, because I felt like I could go into so much more depth on Arika's character, her world, and her quests... but it was a lot to ask of the team on the other end, specifically in terms of translation to other languages. For subsequent games, we've looked for a happy medium in terms of word count: not so much that it causes panic attacks at the Big Fish offices, but enough that the authors can stretch their legs a bit and the Players can, we hope, feel satisfied with the end result.
 
The "idle" time was essential to Three Minute's concept of a real-time conversation; it takes time for the characters to walk to a new location, or to eat a meal, or to rest for a bit. The first "long" break in the original Lifeline comes when Taylor sleeps on the first night -- the Player must give Taylor some information that creates a life-or-death scenario overnight, and we wanted Players to be tense, anxious to see whether their advice had been Taylor's doom or salvation. I believe that the longest break is six hours (for a character to sleep); delays can be as short as a couple of seconds, if we want to employ them to help with the timing of a joke or something. I originally feared that the breaks would be a turn-off to Players, that no one would want to wait an hour while Taylor walked around a crater. And indeed, after one death, the games give you the option to switch off the "real-time" mode and play with no delays whatsoever. But what we found was that, overwhelmingly, the majority of Players chose to switch back to "real-time" after trying "fast" mode. The preference for the delays is considerable.
 
Lisa: Let me return to what you said about wanting players to feel as if they're talking to an actual person instead of "controlling a sprite," and how your lack of game-industry experience felt like an advantage to you. This might rankle seasoned game writers and narrative designers, since we're quite serious about our craft and its tradition beyond power-ups and what's "typical." Have you since become part of the game-writing community, instead of a sort of self-described outsider? Or do you still see yourself that way? I'm asking because text adventures in particular have a history and set of best practices that predate what we think of as video games today.
 
Lifeline fan art
'Lifeline' Fan Art
 
Dave: Please believe me when I say that the last thing I intended here was to cause offense. When I say "typical" structures, I only meant the things that I, personally, thought of as aspects common to NES and arcade games, based on my own history with them. As I mentioned, I'd also played many text games back on my old Apple IIe, and I was primarily drawing from my (admittedly fairly hazy) memories of those while trying to construct Lifeline.
 
I would definitely still consider myself an outsider when it comes to game writing. I'm in Texas -- nowhere near Big Fish or Three Minute, out on the West Coast -- and I don't wind up getting to attend all the expos and conventions with them. I would be very interested if you could point me to resources for the best practices that you mention -- I perpetually feel like I sort of stumbled into success with Lifeline, and I keep waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, "We know you're just faking it. It's time for you to leave." That day is going to suck.
 
Lisa: Great answer ;). I'll send you some links later on so you can join the game-writing party! Next question: Older players or those younger who've discovered the series anew might compare Lifeline to the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which were first popular in the 80s (I was a huge fan). Were those an inspiration for you?
 
Dave: They absolutely were. I was a voracious reader as a child -- the sort who would read the back of cereal boxes, just because they had words on them. My parents and grandparents, much to their credit, always indulged this behavior, so I had shelves and shelves of books, including probably two dozen or so Choose Your Own Adventure titles. The one that stands out in my mind, to this day, is Inside UFO 54-40, credited to Edward Packard -- it was a terrifying science fiction story, bleak to the point of nihilism, in which all paths led to defeat, and the best ending could never actually be reached. And it blew my tiny mind. It was the bridge between kids' books and adult literature for me. Once that book had broken me, I could not have cared less about Beezus and Ramona; I was ready for the Overlook Hotel and moon monoliths and Nadsat.
 
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More 'Lifeline' Fan Art
 
Lisa: I first came across your work back when I was with Big Fish, as manager of the narrative design team. How did the relationship between Big Fish and 3-Minute Games come about, in as much as you can share with readers?
 
Dave: I'm probably not the best person to answer this one. My understanding is that Three Minute were operating as a skunkworks under the auspices of Big Fish, coming up with all sorts of games like Feed Your Monster and Poll Party. Basically, they were testing different styles of games, different pay structures, seeing which combinations worked best. They had the idea for Lifeline -- from its style to its pay structure to its length, everything came from them. They had done the work in order to make the determination that this was the best admixture of elements... and they got it very, very right. How much I contributed to that, it's hard to say; they had laid the groundwork for me so well, all I had to do was step in and not completely fall on my face. I'm grateful every day that they set me up to succeed, and I'm happy that I was able to deliver something that achieved what they were hoping for.
 
Lisa: Let's talk about the structure for a Lifeline game. Branching choices can quickly lead to a very complex structure unless you create small branches that loop back to a main narrative, and/or employ the use of stats to track choices. How do you plot out the varying narratives in Lifeline
 
Dave: The "complex structure" that you mention is something I ran into very quickly when I was working on the first Lifeline. Even when you only provide binary choices -- which, so far, is all we've done -- those branches can quickly grow out of control as each one doubles, then doubles again, until from a single node you've created a mountain. I had to train myself to weave the elements back together, to keep things from ballooning out of control. When I took on the original assignment, I thought, "Oh, this will be just like writing a short story." But it's not; it's like writing thousands of very, very short stories, of a few sentences each. It took me a painfully long time to make that distinction, but once I did, I was able to realize where I'd gone wrong, and start to plot out "nodes" where the threads were drawn back together. That made my work so, so much easier.
 
I'm not a coder by nature. I use Twine as the basis for these games (and then a lot of proprietary processes happen afterward, most of which are beyond my comprehension), and in that program I do my best to branch and reconnect smoothly. It's a tremendously useful GUI for people like me, people who need their hand held throughout the process. No matter how carefully I've plotted things in advance, every Lifeline game has led me in unexpected directions; the story that wants to be told is, without exception, better and more interesting than the story I lay out at the beginning. I trust those feelings, trust that when Taylor or Arika or whomever pulls the narrative in an unintended direction, that I'm getting a real sense of what the story should be, instead of forcing it down avenues that aren't true to the characters. (This, by the way, is a fantastic way to drive the rest of the development team insane.)
 
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Lisa: What's an example of a node? Also, did those driving the process have a sense of what came before so you weren't all reinventing the wheel? What you're describing here reminds me of the awesome discussion over at Choice of Games, where they do a great job of teaching newbies how to avoid this kind of ballooning while preserving the need for meaningful choices. 
 
Dave: I think of nodes as "have-to" moments in the game. If, say, by the end of a day, Arika has to learn a certain piece of info, encounter a certain prop, have an opportunity to eat, and fight a specific foe, then I have four nodes for that day. If she can't move on without acquiring an object or having a conversation, then I know that, no matter how wildly things balloon, all roads must lead back to a single point. The order in which they're encountered may or may not matter, but generally speaking, these are the crucial passages; the Player's decisions upon hitting these nodes will have a major effect on what follows in the game. 
 
Lisa: How many different endings could players get in a typical Lifeline game? How do you make sure those endings make sense for the previous choices made in the game?
 
Dave: Generally, there are a few deaths along the way. These are paths where the Player has made an egregious mistake, or else has willfully decided not to aid the protagonist. Those are, of course, the "bad" endings -- no one should be proud of killing their hero. Then there are the "good" endings, where the Player has done most things right, and has achieved an ending that is satisfactory, although not the best one could hope for. The hope is that the Player will feel good about these... but will still have a nagging sense that they should return to the game, and work for the best possible ending. And we'll tell you when you've achieved that; we want Players to know when they've gotten all the items, or defeated all the villains, or done the best they can. I write stories with Pyrrhic victories, sometimes -- blame Inside UFO 54-40 -- but there's always a "best" ending, and that's the canon ending that leads to the next game in the series.
 
Lisa: Does this ever backfire? It strikes me as different than most casual gameplay, where player character deaths are generally avoided. Do you lose some players by opting for Pyrrhic victories?
 
Dave: I had that fear at the outset, but to the relief of all of us, the Player reactions to character deaths seem to be a deepening of involvement, not an abandoning of the game. It seems to largely be the case that, if a Player loses Taylor by pushing the character too hard or by supplying incorrect information, there's generally a sense of culpability in the death that makes the Player want to try harder the next time. I've seen dozens, maybe hundreds, of people on social media expressing genuine grief and sadness over character deaths in the Lifeline games. 
 
Halfway-to-infinity
 
Lisa: (This last one's for my stepson, who loved the first game when it went viral at his high school a few years ago.) You set up Taylor as a gender-neutral character, an interesting choice. Can you talk about your reasons for that? My stepson notes that most of his classmates assumed Taylor was either female (most of the women did this) or split evenly between male or female (mostly guys).
 
Dave: The gender-neutrality of Taylor's character came from Three Minute Games, but I thought it was a fantastic idea. At that time, it was easier than I thought it would be to write such a character -- when gender signifiers are removed, you realize how similar a kick-ass male and female protagonist actually are. It's grown increasingly difficult, as Halfway To Infinity introduces a doppelgänger Taylor, to keep the pronouns correct -- but I'm happy to face down that challenge. Seeing so much fan art for the character has made me realize just how much room we've left for interpretation. I don't consider that there's a "right" answer at all. People who know me have told me that they see a lot of me in Taylor... but for every argument for "male," I see another one, just as convincing, for "female." I love that I don't have a definitive answer. I hope that I never do. I hope that I can continue to write a character that resonates with everyone who reads it.
 
You can download the game to your favorite device. See the Big Fish Lifeline page for more info.
 
 

Upcoming Appearance: Author Reading at Ferris State University

Ferris U flyer

Personal appearances are one part of the author life I enjoy immensely, as I get to leave the writing cave and talk in person with readers and potential readers. I especially like university talks, as it's always refreshing to speak to students. I'm inspired by their energy and am always impressed by their thoughtful questions. Last year I spent a week at the University of Florida as a guest lecturer in game design classes and speaker at a summit sponsored by the school's Digital Worlds Institute. Last fall for the launch of book three in the Dreamslippers Series, I spoke at Seattle University for the third time in three years. This February I presented on a panel at the Associated Writing Programs conference, attended by many students and writing faculty. And next month, I'll be at Ferris State University in Michigan as part of the Literature in Person series.

Ferris is distinguished by a small faculty-student ratio of 1:16, which means the courses are taught by professors, not graduate students. The university prides itself on its offering of in-demand majors, more than any other school in the state of Michigan. 

My host for the event is Dr. Deirdre Fagan, assistant professor in the Department of English, Literature, and World Languages. We met back in 2001 when I was in graduate school at the University of Miami, where she was a lecturer in the composition program. We lost touch for a time, but have reconnected through the magic of social media. She's a talented teacher and poet, and it's an honor to be her guest.

If you're near Big Rapids, MI, where the college is, please come by for the event, which is open to the public. Details in the image above. Besides the public reading on April 5th at 7 pm, I'll also be a guest in Deirdre's Creative Writing class that week, which is a private event.

A huge shout-out to Great Lakes Book & Supply, an independent local bookstore in Big Rapids. They will promote the event and stock my books as well.

Wish me luck at the reading and classroom visit, and I hope to see some of you in Big Rapids!


The Play's the Thing: December Game Roundup

  Game roundup dec 16

Here are three games on my to-play list this winter, and I hope to bring you some of these developers as guests on the blog in the future, too. This month I'm looking at interactive fictional mysteries with a common theme, that of isolation and connection.

Firewatch by Campo Santo

Firewatch is a mystery set in the Wyoming wilderness, where your only emotional lifeline is the person on the other end of a handheld radio.

The year is 1989. 

You are a man named Henry who has retreated from your messy life to work as a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness. Perched atop a mountain, it's your job to find smoke and keep the wilderness safe. 

An especially hot, dry summer has everyone on edge. Your supervisor, a woman named Delilah, is available to you 

at all times over a small, handheld radio—and is your only contact with the world you've left behind. 

But when something strange draws you out of your lookout tower and into the world below, you'll explore a wild and unknown environment, facing questions and making interpersonal choices that can build or destroy the only meaningful relationship you have.

Lifeline: Silent Night by 3-Minute Games

The hearts and imaginations of countless players worldwide were captured when the original Lifeline took the App Store by storm and became the #1 Top Paid Game, and now Taylor needs your help again in Lifeline: Silent Night! Acclaimed author Dave Justus returns with a suspenseful new story that plays out in real time, delivering notifications throughout your day. Keep up as they come in, or catch up later when you’re free. You can even respond to Taylor directly from your Apple Watch or iPhone lock screen without launching into the app. Your choices shape the story as you play. Simple actions can have a profound effect. Complete any single path in the game and then go back and see what happens when you make a different choice. Lifeline: Silent Night is a deep, immersive story of survival and perseverance, and it’s up to you to save the White Star before it’s too late for its intrepid crew. The fate of Taylor, and the world, is in your hands!

The 39 Steps by The Story Mechanics

Prepare to experience the original man-on-the-run thriller in a completely new way. In this digital adaptation by The Story Mechanics, be transported back to 1914 London, where Richard Hannay finds himself framed for a murder he didn't commit. Now he must escape the Capital and stay alive long enough to solve the riddle of The 39 Steps. There are secrets to be discovered, locations to be explored and - above all - an incredible tale to be told in this ground-breaking interactive novel.

Merry Christmas! I wish you hours of joyful play.

 


Why I Write What I Write: Going Against Violence Porn and Magic Mush

  Cruel_shoes

 One of the aspects of the mystery genre I appreciate least is the trope of violence against women. It's most obvious in the standard formula opening: A woman found dead, usually in an alley, maybe even a Dumpster. Sometimes she's nude, or in some state of undress. Usually, there's evidence of sexual assault. Often, she's a prostitute.

 When I sat down to write my first novel, I chose the mystery genre with the express intent not to perpetuate this scenario. I didn't want to read about yet another woman's body in an alley, and I certainly wouldn't write about one. Now, two years after I released my first novel, the question takes on even greater meaning, as a probable real-life rapist was caught with his female victim, in an alley even, and nonetheless let off easy. 

 This isn't just politics, though. This is overall a craft concern. Writing cliches is boring work for the writer, and I would expect it to be a boring experience for readers, too. 

 I'm not saying writers shouldn't write--and readers shouldn't read--books with graphic violence in them, or that depict female victims. My books tackle sensitive, potentially trigger-inducing subjects: sexual repression, gay self-hatred, child-rape pornography, incest. But I went to great lengths not to glorify or portray these scenes and subjects gratuitously. I didn't want or need to contribute to the world's repository of violence porn.

 The line, admittedly, isn't always right there in black and white, a complexity I explore in Framed and Burning:

And there she was, in triplicate. His wan heroine, his redheaded lady-child. She wasn’t yet eighteen, as he’d tried to capture in the budding quality of her breasts under a white tank top. She had an unnatural thinness about her as well, as if slightly malnourished. The whole time he’d painted her, he felt as if he wanted to save her. That was the attempt in painting her, to save her and rid himself of her haunting eyes at the same time. But he felt strongly now that he had failed. And in his failure, he’d simply failed her.

 Mick, like the female members of his family, is a dreamslipper: He possesses the psychic ability to pick up other people's dreams. But while his sister and niece use the ability to solve crimes, Mick uses dreams as inspiration for his art. He reflects on the morality of this:

In the quiet of his studio, Mick walked over to the unfinished painting that was inspired by that dream of Cat’s. He remembered the shock on her face when she saw it. So much trouble, he thought. He reprimanded himself for what suddenly amounted to cheating, taking others’ ideas and making them his own in his art. Was it ethical? He thought about Candace telling him basically to butt out of her dreams. And he thought of the haunting look in the girl’s eyes in the triptych. And of his own limitations, just now with Rose.

Mick picked up a large brush, dipped it into a can of black paint, and crossed out the painting. Then he began to fill in with black everywhere the cross lines weren’t. Soon, he’d covered the canvas in nothing but black. The painting was gone.

 In Bound to the Truth, the third book in the trilogy, the female victim is found dead in a hotel room, bound and gagged. While beginning with, and lingering on, the image of her dead body would arguably have given me a reliable commercial hook, I resisted it. For me it was more important for readers to come to know and care about the woman who becomes the so-called "vic." So many hardboiled cop show characters shorten the word victim to further depersonalize. This is supposed to be part of their character development, something they do in order to desensitize themselves to the work that no one wants to do. But still. Every "vic" becomes an abstract, a sea of female parts in an alley. To be grabbed, laughed over, brutalized.

***

 The other perhaps curious choice I made with the quirky, cozy/suspense mashup that is the Dreamslippers Series has to do with magic.

 These stories tackle the supernatural in a very realistic, modern way. My grandmother-granddaughter PI duo don't carry guns; they solve crimes using their ability to slip into suspects' dreams, supplemented by a host of New Age practices, not to mention tried-and-true investigative work. 

 I'd read books in which amateur sleuths with psychic abilities snap their fingers to unlock doors but somehow don't sense when the killer is following them. As a reader, these contradictions seem silly and frustrating. They're magic mush. I like to think stranger things truly do exist, but if they are there, they're subtle, unreliable, and decidedly unfocused. So I imagined what it would be like to have a psychic ability that functioned according to real-world rules, acknowledged here in a scene from Bound to the Truth:

Grace flashed on the silly ninja clown, and it gave her an idea. “Is there a way you can get close enough to the Waters’s home to dreamslip with Sam?”

“I don’t know, Gran. I’ve thought about it. The security is pretty tight out there. Unlike some of the other cases we’ve had, I’m not sure Mercer Island is the kind of place where you can get away with sleeping in a car out on the street. There’s also the possibility that I might pick up his kids’ dreams instead, or his wife’s.”

“Remember what I taught you about popping out of dreams you don’t want to be in, and of connecting with your target.”

“Yes,” said Cat. “But this super hero power of ours sure has its limitations..."

 Cat does find a way to slip into this suspects' dreams, putting herself in a precarious spot in the process. Throughout the series, dreams help the duo solve three murders and bust a child-rape pornography ring. The dreams are helpful both for what they tell us about the villains--and for what they don't tell us.

 These books haven't made me the next J.K. Rowling, though I'm grateful for and proud of the accolades, the numerous 5-star reviews, and the award noms. I know from my years at the story helm of a game-publishing company that there's often a disconnect between what the audience complains about and asks for and what they actually purchase. All I can do is keep developing my craft for a blend of commercial technique and groundbreaking newnesses that pushes the envelop and attracts a larger audience. Because the biggest lesson from the game industry for me is this: If the games don't sell, we all go home. 

 Buy the books.

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 Photo credit: Lisa Brunette.


The Play's the Thing: August Game Roundup

  Deduction and intrigue

Every so often, I'll bring you a roundup of games in the deduction and intrigue category. Here are four games on my to-play list this summer, and I hope to bring you some of these developers as guests on the blog in the coming months, too.

But first, a quick PSA. Reviews are a developer's life blood - and they're an easy gift to give. Just pick a star rating and write one or two sentences to provide other players a quick impression, or feel free to write more if you like. I've provided links below so you can follow these folks and review their games.

This month I've got two digital games and two tabletop. Let's start with the digitals.

Contradiction by Tim Follin

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Contradiction is an interactive crime drama game that uses live-action video for the entirety of the game play. It’s a brand new take on the concept of an interactive movie and brings the genre to a whole new level of playability.

Contradiction plays as smoothly as a 3D graphic game. You can wander freely around the game environment, collecting evidence and witnessing constantly changing events. 

However, the centrepiece of the game is interviewing the characters you meet, who can be questioned about all the evidence you’ve collected and things you’ve seen. The name of the game is then spotting contradictions in their answers, catching them out and moving the game along.

Review on Steam and the App Store.

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Psy High by Rebecca Slitt, for Choice of Games

Psyhigh

When the kids at your high school start developing psychic powers, you and your friends must team up to stop the principal from taking over the world! 

Psy High is an interactive teen supernatural mystery novel by Rebecca Slitt, where your choices control the story. It's entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination. 

Play as male or female; gay, straight, or bi. Will you be a jock or a brain? Popular or ignored? Use your psychic powers to help others, or to take what you want. Win a coveted scholarship, star in the Drama Club play - or lose it all and spend your senior year in juvenile detention. How much are you willing to sacrifice to get ahead in the world? 

Can you solve the case? Can you save the school? And most importantly, can you find a date to the prom? You can play the first three chapters of the game for free.

Review on Steam and the App Store.

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Now for the tabletop games, which are both cooperatives encouraging players to work together toward a common goal, in this first case catching Jack the Ripper. 

Letters from Whitechapel by Fantasy Flight Games

  Whitechapel

Get ready to enter the poor and dreary Whitechapel district in London 1888 – the scene of the mysterious Jack the Ripper murders – with its crowded and smelly alleys, hawkers, shouting merchants, dirty children covered in rags who run through the crowd and beg for money, and prostitutes – called "the wretched" – on every street corner.

The board game Letters from Whitechapel, which plays in 90-150 minutes, takes the players right there. One player plays Jack the Ripper, and his goal is to take five victims before being caught. The other players are police detectives who must cooperate to catch Jack the Ripper before the end of the game. The game board represents the Whitechapel area at the time of Jack the Ripper and is marked with 199 numbered circles linked together by dotted lines. During play, Jack the Ripper, the Policemen, and the Wretched are moved along the dotted lines that represent Whitechapel's streets. Jack the Ripper moves stealthily between numbered circles, while policemen move on their patrols between crossings, and the Wretched wander alone between the numbered circles.

Review on Amazon and BoardGameGeek.

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Mysterium by Asmodee

Mysterium

In the 1920s, Mr. MacDowell, a gifted astrologist, immediately detected a supernatural being upon entering his new house in Scotland. He gathered eminent mediums of his time for an extraordinary séance, and they have seven hours to contact the ghost and investigate any clues that it can provide to unlock an old mystery.

Unable to talk, the amnesic ghost communicates with the mediums through visions, which are represented in the game by illustrated cards. The mediums must decipher the images to help the ghost remember how he was murdered: Who did the crime? Where did it take place? Which weapon caused the death? The more the mediums cooperate and guess well, the easier it is to catch the right culprit.

Review on Amazon and BoardGameGeek.

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