Interview Feed

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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Women in Games, Story in Games: Two Videos

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Image source: @Wallstormer

Those of you who saw the buildup (part 1, part 2) and recap posts know all about PixelPop 2018, the highlight of the summer for many a game developer. I spoke on a panel discussion on women in games - one of the best treatments on this topic of the many I've taken part in. I also delivered a presentation on game storytelling, the official debut of the acronym "CMC," for the three main elements of game storytelling, as I see it: 

  1. Conflict
  2. Mystery
  3. Connection

If you wanted to come to my PixelPop talks and couldn't, never fear. You can watch both on video right here! Catch me now before I trademark CMC, and it all goes into the vault. (Kidding... I think.)

Conference Presentation

Panel Discussion

Hungry for more? Watch other videos here.

Correction: At the beginning of my presentation, I mentioned Cesar Chavez but meant to say Hugo Chavez. I seem to have a habit of flubbing a bit in the beginning of a presentation... until I get my footing, and then it's relatively smooth sailing after that. While I've done a lot of public speaking, especially for an introvert, I still get wildly nervous at the beginning of every talk.

 


What Would You Like to Read on the Blog?

 

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

It's been a while--since January, actually--since I've posted on the blog, and for that I apologize.

Long story short, I've struggled with what amounted to two full-time jobs for the past year, since I took that visiting professorship at Webster University, AND AT THE SAME TIME, MY INDIE GAME STUDIO BLEW UP. Don't get me wrong; this is a good problem to have these days. But when your priority list exceeds the number of hours in a given week, some things need to drop off, and sadly, this blog was one of them. 

But I've missed it. And you--its reason for being. As I look ahead to hopefully a more life-balanced rest of the year, I'm mulling over what this blog should and shouldn't be, and I'd love to get your opinion. So I created a survey.

It's short. Survey Monkey tells me you can take it in two minutes. If you've got two minutes to spare, please weigh in on the types of topics and guests you'd like to see on the blog.

The survey is completely anonymous. I'm not collecting any data on who fills it out or when or why or what your first-born child's name is, I promise. I will analyze the results in the aggregate and pay attention to any "other" comments you've written, no names or strings attached.

And if you'd rather share your opinion in the comment section below this post, feel free. The survey asks general questions about reading and gaming habits and interests, and then basically asks what you'd like to see here on the blog in the future. I'm all ears. Thank you!

In case you missed that survey link above, here's a button! Go ahead and push it! Or click on it! Just go there!

 

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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.
 
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'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. 
 
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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.
 
 

The Woman Behind My Book Covers: Monika Younger

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This week on the blog I've interviewed Monika Younger. Monika designed the book covers for all three of the Dreamslippers Series novels and the poetry collection Broom of Anger. She's a joy to work with, and I've loved every single one of her designs. A professional book-cover designer with more than ten years of experience designing for the major North American publisher Harlequin, she also designs covers for indie authors. 

Lisa: You've designed covers for Harlequin, including their mystery line. How did you get started with that, and what's it like to design for that publisher in particular? Also, please share one of your favorite cover designs for Harlequin.

Monika: The mystery line I design for is called Worldwide Mystery. Worldwide Mystery is an imprint owned by Harlequin (now Harlequin/Harper Collins). I started with the publisher in 2003 when I was hired as a full-time designer in their art department. I worked for Harlequin in-house for two years designing covers for their series books (Harlequin Romance, Harlequin Presents, Intrigue, etc.) and single-title books (MIRA, HQN). In 2005 I started freelancing and retained Harlequin as my client. I work with several art directors there, and they are all amazing people to work with. Freelancing work with Harlequin is now mainly focused on Carina Press (their digital line, which covers several genres) and Worldwide Mystery. 

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One of my favorite recent mysteries (which I designed) is Brooklyn Bones. For this title, I was given more flexibility to experiment with a new look for the author. It was a fun project to work on, which took me away from the usual photographic style.
 
Lisa: Tell me how you approach working with authors. You send us a questionnaire before you begin designing our covers. Why is that an important step?
 
Monika: To represent a story meaningfully and accurately on the cover, I need to be very familiar with it. And since I cannot read all the books I design covers for (I would be reading more than designing), I have to get as much information from the author as possible--a summary of the novel, character descriptions, setting descriptions, important visual elements, themes and meanings, etc. All this helps me to figure out what is the best approach for the cover design. Once I get as much information as I feel I need, I come up with two or three cover layout options to present to the author. Usually one of the selections is approved with or without further revisions. After the front cover is approved, I design the back cover and spine to complete the book jacket. 
 
Lisa: I get compliments on the covers you designed for the Dreamslippers Series all the time. What was your goal in designing these covers? Do you have a favorite of the three? Or is Broom of Anger your favorite? How was that project different for you?
 
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Monika: Thank you. I think Bound to the Truth is my favorite. The symbolism on that cover is very powerful to me. I absolutely love it.  
 
Broom of Anger was one of my all-time favorite projects. It was my first non-fiction (poetry) cover, and I had a lot of fun with it. As you know, there were many versions considered before the final was selected, and they were all fun to do. I don’t know how else to describe it but “fun.” I enjoy designing covers--playing around with graphic elements, photography, typography--and having it all come together on the screen is sometimes still magic to me.
 
Broom of Anger
 
Lisa: What other work do you do? What's your background?
 
Monika: In the last couple of years, I have been focusing on book-cover design, as it is my favorite area of design, but my training/education is in graphic design, so I can design anything from business cards to billboards and logos. I studied Graphic Design at Conestoga College. Previous to Harlequin, I worked full-time for a greeting card company and a full-service marketing firm in Mississauga.
 
Lisa: What do you enjoy about book cover design? What makes it special?
 
Monika: Books/novels/stories are interesting, compelling, and inspiring--and the cover has to reflect those elements. I love coming up with ideas and answering the question, "How can this story be represented visually so it will compel the audience to select it/engage with it?" It's a fun puzzle to solve. I love combing through stock photography web sites, font web sites, dissecting and altering images in Photoshop--I enjoy everything about it.
 
Learn more about Monika Younger's work at www.youngerbookdesign.com.
 

Dreamslippers Trilogy