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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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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.

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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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Read the Dublin Murder Squad Series to Learn Character Design

3 Dublin MS Novels
French saved me from mystery genre burnout.

I used to read a wider range of books, and by that I mean I used to be much more forgiving as a reader. But as my reading and writing tastes have grown sharper, I've become a lot more discriminating. I'll start a book and give up on it if it's not working for me or can't compete with any number of extremely well written games or books or TV shows I have at the ready. I bet many of you are no different. After all, we're not going to read another standard mystery with all the tropes (tough-guy detective, a slaughtered female body found on page one) when we can watch Ruth Langmore successfully wrestle with her "white-trash" identity in Ozark.

One of the writers who's best captured my attention--and held it--is Tana French.

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Other images this page, source: www.tanafrench.com

When I picked up Faithful Place in 2016, I was pretty jaded, as a reader. I'd spent the previous five years reviewing, critiquing, and in some cases, rewriting hundreds--yes, hundreds--of mostly mystery-themed story games. During that time, I read a lot of mystery novels, everything from cozies to thrillers to classics. Before that, I'd interviewed four Northwest mystery authors for a Seattle Woman cover story. In 2016 I was nearing the end of my own mystery series--the Dreamslippers--inspired by the supernatural mystery games and books I'd enjoyed. By the time I stumbled upon Faithful Place in a used bookstore, I was in danger of becoming burnt out on the genre.

But Frank Mackey's riveting first-person voice reignited my love of mystery to a white-hot point. From the stunning open paragraph, I was hooked:

In all your life, only a few moments matter. Mostly you never get a good look at them except in hindsight, long after they've zipped past you: the moment when you decided whether to talk to that girl, slow down on the blind bend, stop and find that condom. I was lucky, I guess you could call it. I got to see one of mine face-to-face, and recognize it for what it was. I got to feel the riptide pull of my life spinning around me, one winter night, while I waited in the dark at the top of Faithful Place.

Full disclosure: I'm Irish enough to have had a grandfather with flaming red hair and who knew all the old drinking songs. Alas, he lived thousands of miles away from my military family and then passed away when I was only five, so I never learned any of his songs. But it's possible there's a cadence in the Dublin Murder Squad that appeals to me on some visceral, perhaps even genetic, level.

But I don't think you need to have a family tree that includes names like Sisley McKay and Skeets Larue in order for French's characters to resonate with you. They're incredibly well developed, authentic narrators who even when problematic gain your sympathy. 

Curiously, each Dublin Murder Squad novel was written from a different character's point of view. After reading just a few of the books in the series, you start to get a 360-degree look at the squad, as each character views his or her work from a unique perspective.

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The debut novel in the series--In the Woods--follows Detective Rob Ryan, a murder squad veteran who becomes undone by a case he pushes to investigate despite its connection to a cold case from his past; as a child, he survived what appeared to be a grisly attack. Though the brilliant novel averages at a bewildering four stars on Amazon--it deserves five!--it earned praise from the likes of NPR Correspondent Nancy Pearl, "A well-written, expertly plotted thriller," and The New York Times Book Review's Marilyn Stasio, who says, "Even smart people who should know better will be able to lose themselves in these dark woods." With a bit of elitism at work in the praise, Stasio nails French's literary writing quality, which should appeal to even readers who perhaps don't normally succumb to the allure of genre fiction.

These characters feel both fresh and authentic in part because they constantly thwart cliché expectation. Though French's debut centers on a detective driven to solve not just the case before him but the case in the past connected to his own deepest trauma, he remains (or at least tries to remain) detached, even matter-of-fact about it:

Contrary to what you might assume, I did not become a detective on some quixotic quest to solve my childhood mystery. I read the file once, that first day, late on my own in the squad room with my desk lamp the only pool of light (forgotten names setting echoes flicking like bats around my head as they testified in faded Biro that Jamie had kicked her mother because she didn't want to go to boarding school, that "dangerous-looking" teenage boys spent evenings hanging around at the edge of the wood, that Peter's mother once had a bruise on her cheekbone), and then never looked at it again.

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Broken Harbor's Scorcher Kennedy bursts into the reader's consciousness with a thrilling bravado that could be mistaken for typical tough-guy talk, if it weren't for the fact that the case ends up dismantling him in ways he can't possibly foresee:

Some of the lads can't handle kids, which would be fair enough except that, forgive me for asking, if you can't cope with nasty murders then what the hell are you doing on the Murder Squad? I bet Intellectual Property Rights would love to have your sensitive arse onboard. I've handled babies, drownings, rape-murders and a shotgun decapitation that left lumps of brain crusted all over the walls, and I sleep just fine, as long as the job gets down. Someone has to do it. If that's me, then at least it's getting done right.

Rob Ryan, Frank Mackey, and even Scorcher Kennedy must all three reconcile evidence in the present with memories of the past, though none of them look through rose-colored glasses at the past, nor are they scarred by it any more than they are affected by what's happening to them now. In this way French turns tried-and-true mystery fodder on its head, making the characters and their lives in the here and now the driver of the plot. You want to know what happened in the past, yes, but if you reach the end of the novel, and the past still hasn't revealed itself, it doesn't really matter. You've come to know the character fully, suffered and died and been resurrected with him, whether he finds the answers or not.

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Perhaps French's greatest character design achievement is that of Antoinette Conway in the latest book in the series, The Trespasser. Conway's character is an achievement not because she's the most compelling of the series but because she thwarts our expectations best. A woman is a rarity on the Dublin Murder Squad, and of course the target of sexual harassment and hazing. Though tough beyond belief--she can physically defend herself against a stalker, she plays hardcore video games to unwind, and she does not believe in romantic love--Conway wrestles with a narrative of distrust that threatens to tear her away from a vocation for which she has a passion like no other. 

The Associated Press says, "Tana French is irrefutably one of the best crime fiction writers out there," and I have to agree. For me she surpasses other faves--Gillian Flynn, Sophie Hannah--and the ones whose popularity I can't grok (I'm looking at you, Megan Abbott). I'm four novels into the six-book series and can't wait to dive into the other two. Interestingly, French's most recent publication is a standalone, The Witch Elm. It looks wonderfully compelling, but I do wonder if the Dublin Murder Squad will go on, or if French herself has had a bit of burnout.

If you've read French, tell me what you think of her work below. If not, does this make you want to become a DMS fan? I think game writers and book authors alike can learn a lot from her exemplary character development.

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Tana French.

Over the Wing and Into Your Heart

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Leaving St. Louis in the rain.

I love a good over-the-wing shot, and this one in particular makes me proud. I snapped it just before we taxied away from the terminal here in St. Louis this summer.

Shots like this capture the drama of travel, the wistfulness of leaving one place, and in this next photo, the excitement of arriving somewhere else, where mountains suddenly appear on the horizon.

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Heading westward, toward Washington state.

I thought "over the wing" shots were more of a thing, but a Google search reveals that "over the wing" means birds more than airplane wings. And I'm OK with that.

The reason wing shots work, at least for me, is because they provide a context for the aerial view. They orient the gaze to the perspective of the airplane passenger, nestled safely in her cabin, able to lean in and enjoy a view only brought to her by the miracle of flight, something called "lift." (We don't even know why lift works, but it does, reliably.) 

Years of studying visual narrative tells me these shots are also rich in story progression, giving us the beginning of the travel tale, the start of the journey. There's forward movement in the shot, too; even with a static image, we can feel the hum of the engines, the rush through clouds and air... All this begs the question, What happens next?

We can look at wing shots in terms of camera technique as well. The perspective in my St. Louis terminal shot above works, with both the ground striping and the wing taking your eye to the terminal, aglow in the early morning storm. The out-of-focus drops cast a watery mood. I had to work really hard with my little iPhone camera (new, still getting used to the updates) to get it not to focus on those window drops.

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Art from the sky.

In my Google search, I did find one blogger addressing "How to take a photograph out of a plane window," so apparently wing shots are kind of a thing, even if SEO isn't recognizing the phrase. Without thinking about it too much, I followed Darren Rowse's point #5, "look for points of interest." In the above shot, taken during liftoff over Missouri, the meandering rivers are the stars. 

Sometimes, you see something you don't entirely understand--and won't forget. This, over Salt Lake City.

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What's happening here, exactly?

If you know something about these colorful, divided lakes, tell me in the comments below.