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Developer Notes: Tamsen Reed's First 'Game Jam'!

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Abram Donovan and Tamsen Reed, next to their arcade game, Waste of Space.

Junior Writer/Designer Tamsen Reed is here to tell you what it's like to be a young indie game developer participating in her first Game Jam.

Here's Tamsen:

"You know, it’s not nearly as big a deal as you two are making it out to be.” There was an air of excitement as we descended into the basement of the St. Louis Science Center. I looked across at my friend and teammate, Kei, whose apprehensive energy radiated through the elevator.

You see, it was our first Game Jam. For the uninitiated, a Game Jam is an event where game developers come together to create a themed game in a very limited timeframe. We would spend from Friday night until Sunday night making a game with our teams. Many Game Jams take place in a location where participants can elect to spend the full 48 hours on-location to work. In this case, we could only be in the St. Louis Science Center until 10 pm every night.

For our third teammate and friend, Abram, this was not his first day at the proverbial rodeo. He’d done Game Jams in the past. He was being subjected to car rides of “What If” questions and endless anxious thoughts, which brings us back to his previous comment: "You know, it’s not nearly as big a deal as you two are making it out to be.”

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The 3-person team of Webster University game design students demo their finished prototype.


I’ll admit, he was absolutely right. I don’t know whether to credit our team dynamics or our self-knowledge about our abilities. It went so incredibly smoothly, I was unsure if we’d even participated in the event I’d heard so much about.

When we arrived on Friday night, we decided two things:

  1. We would actually sleep every night.
  2. We were happy to be in a group with just each other.

We plopped our stuff down at a corner table as we watched others walk around from table to table marketing themselves. It was likely what we should’ve been doing, but we were content just to spend time with each other.

The theme was announced, and everyone scattered. We were to make an arcade game based off of the exhibits that were on display at the St. Louis Science Center. There were some rules about decency because the main audience would be children.

Immediately, we jumped on their website to view a complete list of exhibits. We found an OMNIMAX movie that they show called “Australia’s Great Wild North.” Kei and I rattled on back and forth about an E.T.-esque game where you play as a dingo trying to eat/collect babies while dodging their mothers.

Abram saw an obvious collision between the rules on decency and baby-eating. So, we went back to the drawing board. Based on an OMNIMAX film on the International Space Station and the Makerspace exhibit, Waste of Space was born. Our game has been described as “Katamari in space,” which I think is accurate for a game where you attempt to construct a space station while trying to stay in orbit.

Abram was our programmer, Kei was our main artist, and I took on all the writing tasks as well as the managerial work. By the end of the night on Friday, we had a playable build of the game. So, we celebrated with breakfast for dinner at the Courtesy Diner. After eating an unconscionable amount of diner shrimp, we stocked up on food at a local grocery store. Our Schnuck’s snack selection was what you'd expect an 8-year-old might purchase if given free reign and $100. After deliriously laughing and dancing our way through the grocery store, we finally retired to bed.

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Fuel for the Jam.

 Saturday morning brought about some worries. Our game was crashing the whole arcade machine. I was concerned, but Abram took a quick look and just added some brackets (or commas? I won’t pretend I understand it). It was completely fixed.

Abram imported Kei’s art assets to replace all of his placeholders. I wrote some rules for the game. Kei and I created a background for the game. We were done. It was Saturday night. We were finished!

What do you do when you finish your game early? Increase your scope, obviously! So, we fled to my apartment to unwind with some Netflix comedy specials. While watching, Abram typed a few things into Unity and voila! We had a two-player mode.

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Get a load of this loading screen!

 We woke up a bit late on Sunday but made our way back to the Science Center for the final day. I wrote some instructions for the new mode, Kei made it look pretty, and Abram imported it into the game. We playtested a bit before resigning ourselves to doing homework for other classes that we’d neglected all weekend.

We unveiled our game to a receptive audience of game developers. Though we'd found time for sleep every night, we were still exhausted. I drank so many energy drinks that I couldn’t form coherent sentences. Despite our mental and physical exhaustion, we still managed to stay up for another 7 hours after the Game Jam.

One of the selling points of participating in Arcade Jam 2018 was that our games would all be on display at GameXPloration, a new exhibit at the Science Center. Unfortunately, we were unable to play our game when we visited. The arcade machine software was apparently broken, so they selected one game that would always be looping as a temporary fix.

We definitely thought the exhibit as a whole was amazing, despite the chaos that’s wrought when parents let their children loose on an unassuming new display. GameXPloration features multiple PixelPress set-ups, an oversized NES controller, racecar simulators, and an arcade machine full of games from local game developers. It’s also full of areas to play traditional games and brainstorm game ideas. The brainstorming areas really emphasize the importance of stories in games.

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This Game Jam montage brought to you by too many energy drinks to count, unless you're Abram, and there's code for that.

 Overall, the Game Jam was an adventure that reminded me of the importance of being a generalist and reinforced all the things I’ve learned during my time at Webster University. I think it’s an unmatched experience for developers (or hobbyists hoping to break into the development sphere) to explore their own skills and get some game titles under their belt.

If you’re interested in games and you live in the  St. Louis area, I can’t recommend highly enough the St. Louis Game Developer Co-op. They organize a multitude of events like Game Jams, educational presentations, and “drinkups” where you can drink and socialize with other local devs. 

 As long as I’m linking pages…

Here's some info on the GameXPloration exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center.

If you want to play our game, Waste of Space, it's also available online(I will warn you that it is incredibly hard on PC for whatever reason. Like VERY difficult.) Maybe we need to playtest it outside of a group of game devs...

 


Announcement: Brunette Games Teams Up with Cherrypick on Interactive Novel Series

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I'm thrilled to announce Brunette Games' collaboration with Warsaw, Poland-based Cherrypick Games. As soon as CEO Martin Kwasnica and I started talking, I knew we shared the same vision. He wanted to make exactly the game series I wanted to make: A choice-based collection of interactive novels targeted toward older female players.

The overall series title is Crime Stories, and Cherrypick will release several books this winter, beginning with Mistletoe Arrow. In this series debut, the player is a member of an investigation team working to solve a mysterious murder. The story takes them through the dark side of social media in a near-future world to answer the question, Who killed Jonathan Frank? The list of suspects includes Frank's bar buddy, a coworker, and an online rival, just to name a few. Or could it have been his estranged wife--or daughter? It's up to you to find the truth--and decide whether the killer deserves more sympathy than the victim.

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Sneak-peek scene for an in-development Crime Stories book. All images courtesy Cherrypick Games.

I'm consulting on the overall Crime Stories project as well as writing one of the books in the series: A domestic noir thriller, Woman on the Bridge. Each night driving home from work, you see a strange sight: The same redheaded woman, dressed in a royal purple gown, standing in the middle of a steep bridge that is notorious for suicides. Then one day, the receptionist in your office goes missing, and the woman on the bridge also mysteriously disappears. Are the two connected, and if so, how? Players decide what kind of person they want their character to be as they follow bizarre clues, avoid arrest themselves, and decide a murderer's fate in this powerful story set in Seattle.

Woman on the Bridge is my third interactive novel and sixth book-length work, all of them in the mystery genre. I'm really excited to bring new levels of character options to players, in terms of truly co-creating who you want your character to be based on the choices she makes both for herself and in relation to others. I'm also trying to push the boundaries of the interactive format, crafting meaningful choices without sacrificing plot cohesion. As a game writer/designer, it's a delicate balance between freedom and control, and I'm always thinking about the player as a character with will and agency, a very different kind of writing than when I'm working on linear novels.

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It's been a pleasure to collaborate with the Cherrypick team, as they're truly committed to the mobile audience of women 35+, and approach their players with real respect and a joyous enthusiasm for bringing them great stories in a game app package. Cherrypick was founded in 2014 and has 18 games to its credit so far with more than 22 million downloads.

Look for more announcements and updates here on the blog this winter. For now, here's the official press release:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - October 30, 2018 - Warsaw, Poland; and St. Louis, Missouri, USA -

Lisa Brunette, head writer/designer and CEO of Brunette Games LLC announces she has joined the Cherrypick Games team to help develop a new visual novel free-to-play game series, Crime Stories.

Visual novels have recently gained massive popularity amongst female users of mobile devices, making the genre a perfect fit for Cherrypick Games' portfolio of products.

In this upcoming release, players will take part in a dark investigation, filled with twists and turns, interesting locations, and colorful characters. 

“Unlike movies or book series, the 'reader' is not a passive recipient; she co-creates the script. Players make choices that the hero's fate depends upon, making the narrative part of Crime Stories a crucial aspect of the production process. In order to meet the expectations of players, we brought in a leading game writer/designer with a traditional mystery book series plus two visual novels already to her credit. Lisa is an award-winning author who's collaborated previously with Pixelberry Studios on their hit game app, Choices. She has also worked for Nintendo, Cat Daddy Games, Take-Two Interactive, and Big Fish Games, once the world's largest casual games publisher,” says Martin Kwasnica, CEO of Cherrypick Games.
 
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Brunette is an award-winning author, game designer, and novelist. Her creations for games include hundreds of titles with a worldwide audience in the millions. In the academic year 2017/2018 she was a visiting professor at Webster University, where she lectured in the category of games and their creation. In addition, she has guest lectured at the University of Florida Digital Worlds Institute and Seattle University in the past. Brunette was the script writer on the Choices book Veil of Secrets. 
 
"As a fan of their hit game My Hospital, I was thrilled when Cherrypick Games reached out to me for collaboration on Crime Stories. Our visions aligned, both wanting to provide compelling stories and choice-based gameplay for an audience of older women," says Brunette.
 
“We are very happy that we were able to involve such an experienced person in developing the narration of our game. The success of her indie visual novel Sender Unknown, as well as her work on Veil of Secrets, are the best recommendation for Lisa’s skills. We believe that our cooperation will result in the creation of a hit in line with leading games on the market,” Kwasnica added.
 
For additional information, please contact Cherrypick Games or Lisa Brunette.
 
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Game Review: Who Killed Jason Leder? On 'Lifeline: Crisis Line'

 

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The "cover," or loading screen.

Junior Writer/Designer Dexter Woltman here with a game review for you. At Brunette Games, we're all big fans of the Lifeline game series, so I thought I'd take a moment to review Crisis Line. If you love the mystery genre, you should definitely check it out.

Who killed Jason Leder? That’s the question everyone is asking in Lifeline: Crisis Line, a game of interactive fiction that allows the player to shape the story as it unfolds. Written by Matthew Sturges, this mobile game sets the player in the position of a HelpText volunteer. After being contacted by Austin homicide detective Alex Esposito, the player is asked to assist in a murder investigation, one that spins a tale of suspense, mystery, and unexplainable circumstances.

Crisis Line is one of numerous installments in Big Fish’s Lifeline series, where players are put in contact with well-developed characters facing dangerous situations in real-time. Previously on the blog, Lisa conducted an interview with Dave Justus, the author of the original Lifeline installment and its various sequels, Lifeline 2: Bloodline, Lifeline: Silent Night, and Lifeline: Halfway to Infinity. This installment set squarely in the mystery genre proves the series has legs far beyond its first author.

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Your chat companion this time is Alex Esposito, a detective who unofficially deputizes the player into becoming his partner on a murder investigation. The victim is Jason Leder, a lawyer who had recently been put in charge of selling mysterious crystals with unexplainable powers. With the crystals missing and no suspects, it’s up to the player to help Alex progress through the investigation and solve the case.

While the original Lifeline story put players in contact with a stranded astronaut on a desolate moon, Lifeline: Crisis Line finds its main character in a less isolated environment, on the streets of Austin. With a populated setting and numerous characters for Alex to interact with, it feels as if there’s more to this world than just the player and the main character. In addition, the concept of Lifeline: Crisis Line also takes a different format. Rather than just trying to survive, as in the original game, in this one, players try to solve a murder. This allows the opportunity to choose which clues and suspects to follow, as well as orchestrate numerous interrogations and interviews with other interesting characters.

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However, with this expansion also comes a greater suspension of disbelief. Despite taking place in a more realistic setting than other games in the series, such as the original game’s desolate moon or Lifeline: Whiteout 2’s nuclear wasteland, it can be harder to accept that the player has been put in communication with Alex Esposito. In the populated streets of Austin, Alex could talk with anyone. There are several other people at his immediate disposal, from an official partner at the police station to his own sisters. The game puts a lot of emphasis on Alex’s career and his dedication to the law, yet he blatantly obstructs confidentiality to talk about private details regarding a murder case to a complete stranger on HelpText. However, there's a clever acknowledgement of this, with Alex sarcastically mentioning, “Usually I only open up to strangers on the Internet,” when talking about his difficulties with trust.

One core aspect of Lifeline: Crisis Line is its emphasis on choices. In this regard, Lifeline: Crisis Line is a triumph. In most situations, the choices the player is left to make truly do impact the game's story. There are only a few instances where choices feel irrelevant, such as Alex disagreeing with the player on whether to add Jason Leder’s wife to the suspect list, regardless of which choice the player actually makes. However, most of the time, the choices do feel relevant. Not only can the player make choices that determine Alex's survival, but the player can also frame choices regarding clues and suspects, all which play heavily into the ultimate goal of the game, which is to solve Jason Leder's murder. Depending on the player’s eagerness to explore or willingness to put Alex’s life in danger, it may be a lot easier - or more difficult - to reach that goal.

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The choices also allow the player to shape what kind of detective Alex Esposito is. One prime example is when Alex is interviewing a close confidant of Jason Leder. This confidant, truly heartbroken by Jason’s death, is presented in a very fragile state. It is up to the player to decide whether Alex should tell the truth about the gruesome reality of Jason’s death or instead tell the confidant that it was quick and painless, ultimately weighing emotion against duty. Situations like this are presented frequently throughout the game, allowing various opportunities to discover which manner of detective work is best needed for each encounter.

The choices presented give players the opportunity to shape the game according to their own needs. One example is when Alex describes the details of the murder to the player and asks whether the player wants him to leave the gory details out of his description. Ultimately, this allows players to filter the game to their own sensitivities. There are also choices that allow players to either stay focused on the main story or allow it to be derailed at moments to explore the depth of Alex’s character. It entirely depends on player choice.

One distingquishing aspect of gameplay for Lifeline: Crisis Line is its “idle” time. Idle times are moments in the game when Alex is occupied with something and is away from the conversation, intending to immerse the player in a real-world environment. In the aforementioned interview, Justus remarked, “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.” Sturges upholds this aspect of idle time to good effect, often having Alex take breaks from HelpText to rest or drive. These idle times are also presented realistically, with one example being a drive taking 30 minutes instead of 15 due to traffic.

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Idle times also present players with opportunities to take a break from the game without becoming overly addicted. However, it should be noted that the game does also offer a “Fast Mode,” which skips the idle times entirely. But as Justus points out in relation to the original Lifeline game, “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.” It is true that playing in real-time does add a greater sense of depth to the story that makes it seem more vibrant and present in everyday life.

Further mechanics of the game also include the ability to rewind the story to previous choices and re-make them. For players curious about all the possible branches for each choice, this feature will be welcome. It also allows players the opportunity to go backwards in the story if they reach an untimely situation in which a choice has led to Alex’s death.

However, this also means that the makers of the game were aware of this feature and thus, more willing to create intense situations with a lot of potential for failure. At several points in the game, Alex finds himself stuck in a difficult encounter where every choice seems to lead to death, truly forcing the player to double back and examine the outcomes of each potential choice. While this may become infuriating at times, it does succeed in demonstrating the danger and high stakes of this particular murder case.

 Justus laid a lot of groundwork for the Lifeline series, especially regarding the Greens, an alien species often referred to as “Occupiers” that like to take host in living bodies and assume control of the body’s mind. The Greens are a primary focus throughout the series, with Lifeline: Crisis Line even being labelled as part of the “Green Series.” In most cases, the story of Lifeline: Crisis Line stands on its own. However, there are multiple instances where Sturges works to connect Alex’s murder investigation with the Greens. It’s not necessary to have played the other games to understand these moments of the story, but these instances do take prominence and often distract from the ultimate goal of solving the investigation.

The presence of the Greens in Alex Esposito’s story is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s nice for the game to reference other games in the series and maintain an overall narrative in the Lifeline universe. On the other hand, this alien story often distracts the player from the more grounded story of discovering who killed Jason Leder. Just when the game is cementing an emotional connection between Alex and the player, an alien shows up and traps Alex in a space-like realm, entirely withdrawing the player from the immersion of what should be the focus of the game. The aliens add a touch of surprise to the story, but it’s not necessarily the kind of surprise the game needs.

 

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Source, all images: 3 Minute Games.

The Greens distract from the main thread up until the ending moments of the game, which itself is a weak point to an otherwise fulfilling adventure. Without giving away any spoilers, the endgame does a great job of making players feel accomplished in their investigation of Jason Leder’s murder. However, the fault comes in the game’s very last moments, where even the best achievable ending of the game leaves Alex in an uncertain fate, ending on a cliffhanger that sets up a sequel that has yet to be seen. Even though HelpText assures the player they did the best they possibly could, certain players may not be able to help but feel their efforts less impactful than in other games in the series.

Lifeline: Crisis Line is a well-woven tale of mystery and suspense. Its main character is very well-developed and sure to entertain the player throughout the entirety of the story. Sturges takes the Lifeline formula and applies it to a new environment, cementing the player in a deep murder investigation that breathes new life into the series with a strong narrative and solid framework of mechanics. In addition, Sturges proves he can respect the original writer’s legacy by establishing the Greens as a factor in the story. While this factor may seem overly distracting to some players, others may appreciate its deep ties to the rest of the series. Ultimately, the promise of Lifeline: Crisis Line is to engage players in a choice-driven, real-time story. Not only does it succeed in this promise, but it may even surprise players with its extraordinary depth and numerous twists. All in all, this is an entertaining game with more strengths than weaknesses. However, the only choice that truly matters in Lifeline: Crisis Line is whether you’ll allow it the chance to entertain you as well.

Lifeline: Crisis Line is available now on the App Store and Google Play. It was developed by 3 Minute Games and published by Big Fish.

Full disclosure: Lisa Brunette is former manager of the narrative design team at Big Fish. She consulted on Lifeline: Whiteout.