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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...

 


What's the Motive? Chris Patchell on Deception Bay

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I'm happy to bring back the popular "What's the Motive" series here on the blog. Author of pulse-pounding thrillers, Chris Patchell goes well outside her own comfort zone with her latest novel, Deception Bay.

Here's Chris Patchell:

My fifth novel, Deception Bay, is about mystery writer Austin Martell, who is called away from his life in New York to return to his hometown on Whidbey Island when he hears that his mother has suffered an accident. It doesn’t take long for Austin to find out that his mother’s accident may have been something more ominous. Austin soon finds himself in the center of a real-life murder investigation, with a killer who will do the unthinkable to keep the truth from getting out.

Here’s a bit of what’s in store for my readers…

The boat pitches and he loses his footing as he scrambles toward the cabin’s opening. He grabs hold of the ladder and climbs down into the darkness below. The water is already thigh-deep—as heavy as wet cement as he struggles toward the red light.

The radio.

Teeth chattering, he drives his legs forward, gathering the last bit of strength. Stumbling. Reaching. Grasping until he makes it. He tears the radio microphone from its perch. Thumbs the button. He screams the words out in a torrent of panic hoping somebody will hear.

“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is the Dreamcatcher. We’re three miles east of Deception Bay. We are sinking. Repeat. We are sinking.”

And that’s just the beginning…

What’s the Motive?

There I was, heads-down working on my next psychological thriller, when one of my author friends pinged me on Facebook with an idea. She and a few of her other author friends were putting together a boxed set of romantic suspense stories. Would I be interested in joining the fun? As an author, it’s good to stretch your wings and try something outside of your comfort zone, so I stopped what I was doing and gave my good friend Fiona Quinn a call. 

Not only is Fiona a good author, but like me, she has a keen eye for business. We chatted about the project, and it didn’t take me long to decide that this was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss. The boxed set Love Under Fire has been a whirlwind kind of a project. There are 20 authors besides me who have written original stories for the set.

Working with so many talented authors has been a fun and instructive experience. But what makes this project extra special, is that we’ve teamed up with a 503(c) organization called Pets for Vets. My dog, Sasha, was a rescue from a high-kill shelter. She was a mom at a puppy mill who was never properly socialized, and when she was finished delivering puppies, they dumped her. She’s a sweet little Yorkie just brimming with anxiety from living in a box for so many years. She’s a total nutter, and I couldn’t ask for a more loyal friend. What I love about Pets for Vets is that they pair shelter animals up with Veterans in need of support animals. It is a total win-win.

Pets4Vets

This project presented some unique challenges for me as a writer.

  1. There was a word count limit! Not to say that I’m pathologically long-winded, but my novels usually weigh in ~98,000 words. Deception Bay came in just under 60,000 words. While this may be easy for some authors, for me, this was no easy feat. I had to cut sub-plots and slash sections to stay within my limit. In doing so, I learned a valuable lesson that every writer should know—keep only what matters.
  2. The protagonist for the book, Austin Martell, is smart, funny, and a little on the narcissistic side. Smart and narcissistic? No problem, I’ve got that covered. But funny… I think I’m capable of being funny in person. I mean, if you and I are having a conversation, I may be able to come up with a witty line or two, but doing it on paper… That’s a whole other thing. Some days funny is a foreign language, and it takes time to layer humor into a scene. Then there are those magical days when as Jim Rennie from Under the Dome would say, you’re just “feeling it” and being funny comes naturally. Those days are pure gold, and I made the most of them when editing this book.
  3. And then there’s romance… Typically, I write hard-core suspense, so this story had me exploring my “softer side.” I’m really excited about the result. While Deception Bay is a departure from the dark suspense my fans are used to getting from me, I think they’re really going to love this story. The humor in the book is offset by some wicked intense scenes, and when Austin falls for the one woman who seems immune to his charms… Well… It makes for some pretty fun reading.

Challenges aside, writing this story was a labor of love. I started writing it a few years back. It was the thing I wrote when I was between other things, and though I loved the characters and the premise for the story, it didn’t fit in with my other books, so I set it aside. I never could fully shake the story though. Every now and then, I would pull it out and tinker with it. There were days when I would be hunched over my laptop giggling to myself while I was editing because spending time in Austin’s head was an awesome place to be. I hope readers agree. 

AdobeBio 
Chris Patchell is the bestselling author of In the Dark and the Indie Reader Discovery Award-winning novel Deadly Lies. A tech worker by day and a writer by night, she pens gritty suspense novels set in the Pacific Northwest.

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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.