Survivors The Quest Feed

Announcement: Industry Vet Elisa Mader Joins Brunette Games

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Elisa will design, write, and edit from her home base in Seattle.

I realize it's been the season of announcements here at Brunette Games, but I've got another one for ya, and it's a really good one.

Let it be known that Elisa Mader has joined the team as a writer/designer. I first met this talented woman when I worked with her significant other at Cat Daddy Games nearly a decade ago. Back then, Elisa was beloved by her coworkers in the banking industry, but she was looking for ways to defect to games. Since I'd taken a turn as an editor with a financial services firm in the past, I got where she was coming from. And I also understood how exacting financial services can be. I knew she'd be a crackerjack editor, so when I was in a position to hire freelancers at Big Fish, I brought her into the fold. 

I've been her unofficial mentor ever since, and it's been awesome getting to see Elisa rack up experience points across her five years in games. She recently finished a stint at AAA studio Bungie, working on Destiny 2. Which is way more impressive to my brothers and most other hardcore gamers than anything in my strictly-casual background, so there you go.

Among other projects, Elisa will be pitching in on Survivors: The Quest, ensuring that we don't go stale on a title I've been designing and writing for two years and seven locations, including an alien crash-landing, jungle insurgents, a case of parallel dimension twins, and a volcanic vortex. I can't wait to see where she goes from there!

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By the way, if you think her blue streak looks great, wait till you see her current 'Blue Level: High' 'do.

You can read Elisa's bio on our LLC page, but here are some questions I asked her to answer for you, by way of introduction.

How would you describe your writing voice--in games and elsewhere?

It's always slightly ironic, and I sometimes manage to keep the alliteration and wordplay in check (but not always).

I love banter between characters. I start by imagining my characters as real people, even creating character sheets with little details about their back stories (nanny turned cyberpunk hero!) and oddball obsessions (robots! an irrational hatred for chocolate!) that may never see the light of day. Then, with these personalities clear in my mind, I let them play off one another in situations ranging from the banal (where shall we put this lamp?) to the outlandish (why is my poetry bot trying to take over the world?). The quirkier, the better!

I also like parentheses.

What's your favorite game story, and why?

Must I choose just one? I played the heck out of Diablo II back in the day, and it remains a model of an epic linear story that built and built and built in excitement. Its fantasy setting felt large, wondrous, and worthy of exploration. My interactions with Deckard Cain convinced me I was unraveling a great mystery, yet smaller quests for ordinary people reminded me what I was fighting for. The saving-the-world scenario can be overdone, but this was the first time I saved the world!

To turn that question on its head, though, I have a special love for games that let me imagine my own story as I go: the Civilization games, Stardew Valley, Subnautica.

But if we're talking about a game story I wish I'd written, there's Until Dawn. So. Many. Choices.

What drew you to game writing?

It was a slippery slope from editing! And it was more or less a precipice after my first experience writing for a game, crafting some branching dialogues and Shadowland BBS posts for Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun: Hong Kong.

My job was to flesh out an already robust and fascinating world in a futuristic, cyberpunk Hong Kong, and I set about asking myself, "What ground isn't being covered by the main campaign and missions? Let me tell those stories."

So I wrote long, meandering dialogues inspired by real life sources: Filipinos I'd seen in Hong Kong (I'm half Filipina, holla), Craig's List, poetry slams.

Then the developers at Harebrained told me, "Yeah, you've got to make all of that much shorter."

But that's where the collaborative magic happened: when we cut up my ideas, they became more playable. Punchier. Richer with Shadowrun lore and Easter eggs that others added. Game writing isn't a solitary endeavor, but I feel like my best work is both very much mine and the product of interactions that I can only call galvanizing.

What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the industry?

Do the thing. Apply for the gig. Write for yourself when you don't get the gig. Talk to people and convince them that you can do a gig when they hadn't planned for one. Seriously.

There's no reason I should have found a niche in gaming. I'm an introverted woman of color with a background as an academic (French medievalist! Holla?) and a paper-shuffling real estate analyst. But the video game industry embraces all kinds of backgrounds. You can become a huge success without formal education, if you can prove you can do the job. I worked hard and I played well with others, though I failed plenty lots. But I believed that my weirdo background and my chops could make games better, so I kept doing the thing.

And now I get to share my stories with the world.

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Elisa's motto is, "Go blue, or go home."

Join me in welcoming Elisa to the team with some supportive words below, especially if it's not about her hair. 

 


What Makes a Game Story Work?

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Clementine, from The Walking Dead. Image source: screen cap.

Last week, we talked about why story matters in games, looking at how we experience games as well as what data and market performance has told us. Now I'd like to dive into how to make story work in games. In my own narrative design, it comes down to these three elements:

  1. Conflict
  2. Mystery
  3. Connection

You'd think conflict would be a given, the default first step for any game designer working on a narrative project. But at least in my experience, you'd be wrong. I can't tell you how many games I've been asked to triage, and the first thing I see is that while there might be a lot of WORDS in the game, there's actually no story. Because there's no conflict. And without conflict, you have no drama, no story "stuff."

To quote my buddy Evan Skolnick:

The fuel of fiction is conflict.

    - Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques

Let's take an example from a highly successful game that managed to suck me in despite its lack of story. (Because that happens. All the time. Just because I said last week that story can make games better, and that's been proved by data, doesn't mean stories without games are failures. Or that every game needs a story. These are not absolutes, people.) Anyway, the game is Farmville 2: Country Escape. I love, love, love this game. But there's no story in the game because there is no drama. What it does have are a lot of cute characters with little vignettes about them that you may or may not read because they are pleasant little scenarios, but no more. There's no conflict and therefore no drama, nothing for any of the characters to struggle against or triumph over. To return to the quote from Jonathan Gottschall, there's no "suction of story" for your mind to "yield helplessly to." Maybe that's OK, but it seems to me if you are going to go to the trouble of putting a lot of words in a game, you can use them to craft a conflict and get some more suction.

The first way to create conflict is to use the nature of the gameplay itself, but creating a STORY REASON for the gameplay. For example, in Matchington Mansion, players get to restore and redecorate a mansion. So it makes sense for the first bit of drama to be related to that, as in, uh-oh, this mansion I just inherited is falling apart!

Matchington door
Image source: screen cap.

One of the most obvious ways to create conflict is to add an antagonist, as we did with the introduction of the character Rex Houston. He's the only surviving relative of the woman who left you her mansion, and he wants to take it from you--so he can raze it and build a casino on the site.

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Image source: Screen cap.

Now let's talk about mystery. Adding story can mean giving players something to investigate, but it's important to let them find the answer through gameplay, since this thing is a game first and a story second, most often. Then reward them with story reveals.

"Mystery" can apply to any genre, so it doesn't have to be a straight-up detective tale to give you that sense of something to discover or solve. In fact, I'm working on a game called Survivors: The Quest, and providing players with new mysteries to solve is getting me through hundreds of hours of new content in a game that I've been working on for more than a year.

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Image source: screen cap.

In Matchington, we gave players something to investigate in the environment itself, as part of the builder interactions.

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Image source: screen cap of in-development build.

Lastly is connection. While strict puzzlers like Tetris certainly have their appeal, players love game worlds filled with other people their player character can interact with. That's something that the aforementioned Farmville 2 has going for it, despite the lack of conflict. One of the best parts of that game is meeting a diverse crop of farmhands who help you find resources you can use in the game, like quartz from the mine, that you can turn into farm products, like a glass bottle for your wine.

Here we have your neighbor Edna Downing, a source of quirky amusement as she drops passive-aggressive comments like the one below or quotes from her downer poetry. But she also has a game reason for being there: She introduces players to the feature that allows them to visit other mansions.

Edna
Image source: screen cap of in-development build.

It's good when creating story in your games to think about C-M-C: Conflict, Mystery, and Connection. Watch these moments from The Walking Dead and see if you can spot conflict, mystery, and connection in them.

I'll be speaking on this topic this weekend at PixelPop! Hope to see you there.