Visual Narrative Feed

The Rock, Paper, Scissors Phenomenon

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I'm always encountering people who think game development is like what we believe rocket science to be--extremely technical and difficult, not a pursuit open to anyone who isn't an Einstein. As someone who is decidedly less than Einsteinian, I'm here to tell you that it's not. 

I've developed a talk meant to demystify game design and get the average person of any age excited about it. I've used versions of this presentation in college-level introductions to game design and with general audiences, including families with young children. It's meant for my special brand of highly interactive facilitated discussion; after all, games are an interactive medium, so why should our talks be any different? And I always start by getting the audience to play a simple hand game: Rock, Paper, Scissors.

You can see this in action here:

The above talk was for the St. Louis County Library's "Science in St. Louis" series, and I don't think I've ever had as much fun with any audience as I did this one. Singles, couples, and families with kids showed up, enthusiastic about the topic and ready to participate, and not a single person wanted to know if I'd worked on Fortnite! A really cute thing happened at the end, too, when two young boys asked me for my autograph. I'm just thrilled that they've got an image of a silver-haired woman in their minds now associated with the phrase "game design." St. Louis County Library

What's your biggest takeaway from this?


Giving Thanks for Great Stories: A Brunette Games Roundup

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Here at BG, stories make our world go round. But I think that's true for everyone, every day. Imagine what it would be like to live on a planet with no stories, no fiction; the concept of make-believe is utterly non-existent. That would be a sterile world, in my opinion. We need stories like we need air. They tell us who we are every minute, they help us make sense of the world, they connect us with our own emotions, and they foster empathy for our fellow humans.

With that in the background and in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday, we offer this roundup of the stories we're most grateful for right now. No doubt in anticipation of our official office closure this week, all of us gravitated toward binge-watch shows. 

Dexter’s Fascination with Fear

When it comes to popular TV shows and their spinoffs, it’s always hit or miss, with the vast majority being miss. However, one has astounded me ever since its debut: Fear the Walking Dead, a spinoff of the popular zombie drama, The Walking Dead.

The pilot premiered in August 2015. Unlike its parent show, which derives directly from comic book source material, Fear the Walking Dead strives for originality, often portraying elements of a zombie apocalypse never seen before. This is quite a feat, especially considering just how played the zombie genre is at this point.

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Kim Dickens as Madison Clark, in Fear the Walking Dead.

While Fear the Walking Dead’s first season was a bit rocky, it did get one very crucial thing right, which was its lead character. In a survival genre dominated by men slashing and bashing their way through hordes of the undead and the living, Fear the Walking Dead offered a lead unlike any other in Madison Clark, a middle-aged mother whose story is one of the most realistic, grounded I’ve ever seen. She’s not a veteran survivor. She’s not a trained killer. She’s just a former guidance counselor trying to protect her children. Played by Kim Dickens, Madison never fails to steal the scene. 

With its phenomenal writing, Fear the Walking Dead grew to become a truly exceptional show that often falls under the radar. Madison remains compelling as she leads viewers across the crumbling landscape of California, through pirate-infested waters, over the desolate lands of Mexico, and onto the barren, apocalyptic landscape of Texas. If you're looking for a strong, well-developed female lead, look no further.

Tamsen's Penchant for Pirates

The most compelling narrative that I’ve binged so far this year is Black Sails (available to watch on Hulu). The series is a Treasure Island prequel that has a very addicting storyline and lots of character development.

Though not for the faint of heart, the story follows the more political aspects and power struggles involved in the pirate lifestyle. There are definitely plenty of scenes riddled with sex and violence, but it doesn’t feel as gratuitous as many other shows. The pace never drags, and the pilot episode sets up the course of the entire series quite nicely.

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There are countless overarching plotlines, but the entirety of the show deals with holding on to their lifestyle in a rapidly-changing world.

I admire the interconnected, separate plotlines feeding into a larger story in Black Sails. This could be a valuable example to game designers who wish to create more open-world games, as many of the small plotlines seem to parallel the plot of a side quest. While sometimes side quests feel unnecessary and unrelated, the way the creators have everything feed into each other makes it more rewarding for the viewer. As a side note, I want to make a pirate version of Red Dead Redemption, so the inspiration is real.

Elisa's Fascination with World Building

Possibly the best sci-fi TV series I've ever watched almost came to an end this year. But it didn't.

After three riveting seasons on Syfy, The Expanse (based on the novel series by James S. A. Corey) got cancelled, but after fans mobilized on social media to #SaveTheExpanse, Amazon Prime picked it up for a fourth season. Thank goodness!

So what's the excitement about? For me, it's how the series draws on science, sociology, and even linguistics to create three compelling cultures inevitably drawn into conflict. The Expanse takes place in our solar system, in a distant future where Earth and its rival Mars depend on mining in the Asteroid Belt for precious basic resources. The Earthers, Martians, and Belters coexist uneasily until a devastating alien "protomolecule" threatens them all.

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Much as you might despise Earth's scheming UN deputy undersecretary, Chrisjen Avasarala (played by the peerless Shohreh Aghdashloo), you can't help but admire her ardent defense of her beloved planet. I choked up when tough-as-nails Martian marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) sought her first glimpse of water on Earth after a lifetime on a waterless planet.

But it's the richness of the Belter culture I love most. The Belter underclasses have long supplied ice and minerals under duress to Earth and Mars but are themselves starved for resources. Living in low gravity has altered their very physiology; Belters' long, brittle bones and weaker muscles can't endure Earth's gravity. Yet, the Belters possess a fierceness and identity all their own. They speak a creole—based on languages as distinct as Chinese, Bantu, and English—that actors such as Jared Harris and Cara Gee (who play Belter leaders Anderson Dawes and Camina Drummer, respectively) convey so convincingly. Even Belter tattoos have messages behind them.

There are whole series to be written just about the Belters. Ultimately, that's the hallmark of robust world building: that the stories you write give rise to yet more stories.

Lisa's Obsession with 'Reality' Stories

I've written before about my guilty-pleasure HGTV binges... which is part of why I have not had cable since 2005, when I ditched the TV and its connections. That hasn't exactly stopped me from bingeing, but without the stream of cable I have considerably more control over my addictions. The current drugs are house-hunting and home improvement shows from the BBC on Netflix, starting with "Sarah Beeny's Selling Houses."

On this show, rival homeowners are each given a thousand pounds to bring their pads up to snuff, vying for the attention of one buyer, who will view them all. Beeny herself swoops in to plant key criticisms and advice for how to spend the thousand pounds, but of course many of them ignore her and head off the rails, usually both breaking their budgets and failing to solve the problem that drove buyers away in the first place. As someone who's on her fourth owned property, I find this entire process enormously entertaining.

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Absolutely, I was #TeamFrankie.

My obsession with British lifestyle doesn't end with the home but extends to all the "homely" (in the UK this is a compliment) things you can do in a home. Even though I can't eat flour, eggs, or sugar, when a new season of "The Great British Baking Show" drops, I have to watch it. But my favorite of them all is "The Great Interior Design Challenge," where a handful of amateur interior designers compete with one room and (again) a thousand pounds to prove their competence with the color wheel. Fantasizing about moving to the English countryside and renovating a "chocolate box" cottage with a thatched roof is just an itch I can't scratch enough. 

Luckily, all of this binge-watching is useful in my work on games. Consider it "research." I've used my deep, TV-acquired knowledge of home decor in my design and writing on Matchington Mansion. There's a whole premium scene in Choices: Veil of Secrets centered around the magnificence that is the English savory picnic pie. And for the interactive novel I'm working on now, I draw inspiration both for the settings and the characters I design from the stream of real people and their homes as they come and go on these shows. I enjoy the quirky texture of the average Brit, having his or her 15 minutes of fame.

What binge-watch story gets your gratitude--not to mention your screen time--this week? Tell us in the comments.

Other roundups you might like:

The Play's the Thing: December Game Roundup

Something Mysterious: December Reading Roundup

 


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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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.

 


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.