18 August, 2016
My good friend Dave “Over00″ Toulouse released some new DLC for his game March of the Living. What you may not know is that I was the writer and narrative designer for the DLC. Dave provided a basic idea, and I fleshed out the story and wrote the content for it.
I’ll go into a bit more detail, but definitely go check out “The Three of Us”.
The writing engineer
I’ve had an interest in writing for a long time. I’m one of those programmer geeks who approaches things from more of a linguistics point of view rather than from a mathematical point of view. This has certain challenges in game programming, as it tends to make others see me as peculiar. A recent programming test I took had two questions: one for finding words in a square of letters, and one involving vector math and visualizing things in 3D. The first problem was easy for me, the second problem? I realize now that I totally botched the problem. Ah, well, I’ve expressed displeasure with programming tests before, and I’ll likely do it again in the near future.
But, this means that I can actually write, and write well. Not just non-fiction prose like this blog, but also creative fiction. This tends to surprise some people, who want to put me into the “engineer” box, with all the assumptions that go with it. This means that I’ve had to ignore my creative side when working in purely engineering roles.
Although, being an engineer did help. Dave originally designed the events to be in XML format. I’m not the biggest fan of XML, as it tends to involve a lot of typing for the tags, etc. (The 35,000 wordcount figure is without all the XML baggage, BTW!) But, I still wanted a way to spellcheck the content I was writing without having to worry about the XML tags. What I did was write a quick Python program using Tkinter for UI and PyEnchant for spellchecking. A little bit of simple pattern matching to extract the text, and I had a useful tool to help me editing all the writing I did!
Why have a story?
One of the complaints about the original March of the Living was that there wasn’t much story. The random events helped add a bit of story to the game, but it wasn’t planned as part of a coherent whole. Dave wanted to address that in a DLC, adding more of a coherent story for people to play through. And, he wanted to give the story replayability, so it wasn’t something you played through one and got bored with.
For this story, Dave wanted said he wanted a story about a pregnant woman, her husband, and their friend. He started to plan out the story, but realized that he just didn’t like planning out the story; he has told me before that he loves coding games but doesn’t like creating content. Since I had just left my previous job, I was eager to exercise my creative side that had gone dormant for a while.
So, I picked up some of his notes, designed an overall narrative flow, and created events that would reinforce this. Because most of the events are random, I had to plan for each event being mostly in an unknown order. However, I knew that the different zones would come in a specific order, so I made each zone on a theme. So, the events in the second zone build on the events of the first zone, etc.
Researching the story
An important part of writing is understanding, and you get understanding through research. Since I’m not a pregnant woman and don’t live in a zombie-filled apocalypse, I needed to do some research.
Let me tell you, there is some interesting articles out there going into more details about pregnancy and childbirth in the apocalypse than the standard person ever needs to know. tl;dr, it’s depressing as infant mortality was already pretty high before modern medicine and sanitation, and it gets worse in an actively hostile environment.
This meant that I had to deal with the fact that the baby might not survive. So, yes, the baby can die in the game. Actually, a lot of the characters can die, but the game will continue on. A lot of writing went into handling alternatives, such as if the baby is alive or not.
Writing is hard
Writing, like a lot of other game development, is a lot of work. Playing games is fun, but making games takes a lot of effort. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the work, but I put in some serious hours writing nearly a novel’s worth of work.
You might remember this post about “adding one more thing”, which was directly influenced by the work I was doing. Tracking all the different possibilities was tricky to do. I’m still worried that somewhere I made a mistake and a dead character might pop up unexpectedly in some branch I didn’t cull properly.
And, sometimes story just isn’t appreciated in games. Some people just want to shoot zombies, and that’s entirely fair. The blah, blah, blah of some story just doesn’t matter to them. So, some people might be a lot more excited about the crossbow weapon added to the game rather than the stuff I wrote. Writing isn’t always appreciated. I’m prepared for people to say they hated the story and just wanted more zombies to shoot with the crossbow.
The other problem here is that some of the content may never be seen by some people. If someone loads up the DLC, plays through it once, and never again, they’ll probably only see maybe about a quarter of the content I wrote. This means they’re reading a short story instead of a novel in a single playthrough. I tried to make it so that there’s enough going on to give the game replayability: you’ll have to play through many times to see all the content.
Building interesting characters
One goal was to make the characters more interesting. In the original game, the focus is more on the gameplay, with different characters being more about different scenarios than about different stories. Again, some people just want to blow away zombies, not read an emotional story about how parents deal with the possibility of raising a child in the apocalypse.
I had to give the characters a lot more depth and motivation. I wanted them to have more of a personality so that their reactions to the new events I added would make sense. Plus I had to allow the player some agency in seeing how to react to situations, and have the reactions make sense for the character. And I had to fit this in the existing game.
One topic I wanted to explore was death of loved ones. It’s the apocalypse, and escaping from the rotters with a pregnant woman is going to be tough. However, the game was set up so that there had to be a “main” character. We changed it so that we could have some primary characters that could die, but that took a lot of work on Dave’s part. So, Michael is still the “main” character, and if he dies it’s still game over, but you can continue on as log as he as something to live for. This means that if his wife dies but the baby survives, he can pick up the baby and continue on, fighting for the life of his child. This makes for a more interesting potential for emotional stories, even if it adds a ton more branching in the story.
A motivated woman
One thing I wanted to be mindful of was not to make the pregnant wife into a mere prop. It’s all-too-common to make the woman helpless in this situation, someone carried by a strong man to safety. But, that’s boring and not terribly honest. Mothers fight for their children! I focused on three things to help flesh out Jenny as a character.
First, I made her feelings important to the story. She tracks how she feels about her husband, Michael. If the player makes decisions that treat her poorly, she remembers those actions and her mood will change appropriately. To be fair, it’s not a deep simulation of a relationship, but it’s enough that player choices will have a significant influence on the story. And every choice isn’t a simple “praise her or criticize her?” You have to pay attention to how she reacts, and make choices that fit with her personality if you want to keep her happy.
Second, I gave her some agency of her own. In the main story she is the one who chooses where to go next. It’s always her choice, and this helps move the story along in a logical manner. She isn’t simply dragged along by the men!
Finally, I have some of the events be about her needs. One event I particularly like is when she finds some makeup. She’s worried that she’s not attractive, conditioned by society and not able to let go of that thinking even in the apocalypse. It’s a bit of a metaphor for how some women worry that their pregnant bodies aren’t attractive to their partner. How the player reacts to this, through the words of her husband, has an impact on the story.
There is more going on with the story as well, but I’ll avoid going into that as the information might tread into the realm of spoilers. One last thing I did was have a certain story state be determined randomly at the beginning. This influences the story in many aspects, including the ending. So, even if you get all the same random events and make all the same decisions, the story will be different if the beginning is different.
Go play it already!
The DLC is only $5 on Steam, and the core game is $15. Not bad for a quality game with great writing in the DLC! ;)
This Saturday I will do an Ask me Anything post! Well, almost anything. I’ll be particularly interested in responding to questions dealing with this DLC. So, get your questions ready!