Exploring New Pathways with “Waybinder”

Last weekend I launched my first entirely-self made project. Entitled Waybinder, it is a work of interactive fiction which I developed over the course of a few months. Just as with the other games I’ve worked on in the past 10 years, the process has been educational. But as well as being in a genre which is new to me, this endeavour has given me a lot to think about in terms of project scale, working with narrative, and even new angles on self-publishing.

The Project

It would of course be remiss of me not to suggest that one can discover what Waybinder is about by playing it. I released the game for free/donations on Itch.io, and because it is browser-based, it can be played on whichever device you’re using to read this article.

But to summarise: I describe this as ‘an interactive novella’ given that Waybinder is text-based, and much more narrative than ludic. The ‘game’ aspect of it comes through in the choices you make, and in a lightweight set of encounters with the Scots Gaelic language. Its overall plot culminates in a ritual which has variable outcomes.

Building Small

I would be lying if I said that Waybinder was built to any solid sort of plan. Above all it was intended to be a novel (and fun!) experiment, and as such I wished to leave myself enough room to work out how to write. I wrote it in Twine, much as I do for any other game projects — in iterations:

  • I started out with a few rough passages written in freeform style, to establish the protagonist and understand the tone I wanted to strike. These included the train journey into Baile Arainn (pacing), meeting the city’s Director (character interactions), and the train crash at Arkillen (action). By this point I already knew that the project would skew heavily towards prose, and that interaction would be facilitated by buttons containing short dialogue and actions.
  • Having now referred to a number of locations in this rough draft, I looked to a transit map I’d drawn up for the Metrowitch project. This formed the basis of a more detailed map, which I would draw alongside writing the game over the next few months.
  • I identified key locations I’d want the player-protagonist to visit over the course of the game, establishing what events might happen there and how they might be connected. This is also where I began to get some idea of possible mechanics, motivations and forms of ritual to be played out.
  • What followed was the bulk of the work: alternating between cartography and narrative design, making use of flowcharts and copious notes. I explain this in more detail later.
  • Finally, there was about a month of proof-reads, bug-fixing, story polish and UI work on the game’s presentation in HTML5. I worked to a checklist of features, either implementing them or crossing them off after realising they’d require a more substantial re-write of Twine’s engine than I was willing to commit to.

Shifting My Understanding of Narrative Design

Though I have worked narrative design before, most of the games which called for it were much more mechanical in nature than Waybinder is. In A Planet Wakes, for example, the narrative drives players from one terraforming site to the next and makes the effort feel more intense each time. But the game and environment still tell the game’s underlying story, even when this narrative is removed.

From the beginning of this project, I wanted to try making interactive fiction specifically because plot and character interactions would be much more prominent concerns. In games of this type, the experience is not (typically) broken by imbalanced obstacles or resources, but instead a more loose, organic type of flaw in the way words are arranged. My biggest challenge with Waybinder was, therefore, plot-holes and logical consistencies. Amongst the challenges I’d set myself:

  • paths when characters have either already met, or have not yet done so
  • actions which occur differently depending on the items you’ve found, or prior conversations you’ve had
  • maintaining player agency whilst striving not to write a passage for every street corner
  • constructing what is essentially a single ending, flavoured by the singular path taken up to that point

As mentioned before, I used plot notes to manage much of this — not least those which describe the game’s variables. I also considered a flowchart, but at first this presented me nothing more than an intimidating blank canvas. It was at this point I realised I could incorporate ritual into the game’s design as well.

Design by Tarot

Flowchart with four branches, leading to a single conclusion.
Fearing that even these few story beats might spill over into a much larger game, I designed what would turn out to be 80% of the final game as the first of at least two ‘acts’.

I began with the rough draft of Waybinder‘s story, which established one possible path. I based other branches upon four tarot cards, drawn at random. The imagery from these is what’s shown on the game’s UI, and one particular branch (The Magician) is directly referred to by one of the game characters. Each of these was drawn with only one goal in mind — to put the player in a particular frame of mind (hopefully the same as my own) when they would come to perform the ritual at game’s end.

I subtly re-interpreted these four cards (I: Magician, Queen of Pentacles, Page of Pentacles and Queen of Swords) in order to establish loose ‘moods’ for each branch: pro-activity, focus on details, and warding one’s self and others. The path I’d already laid out focused on character interactions, and an encounter from the protagonist’s past; this seemed a good fit for the two ‘warding’ branches. The other two branches would engage more with the world and events happening within it.

It’s here that I also devised the idea of using artefacts for the actual ritual. These would act both as a focal point for the player, and an easy means of tracking which path they had taken. This would prove useful for later, diverging conversations.

Real-world examples of artefacts found within the game: a chair screw, railway token, sprig of heather and wild thistle.

With the plot arcs now in place, I was free to write whatever might come to mind for the characters and the world. I did so whilst populating a much more detailed flowchart. This in turn ensured that if a character, object or piece of knowledge entered the story at any point, I could cross-reference that with the more granular flowchart presented by Twine itself:

From Release, Onwards

All of this has happily led to Waybinder‘s completion and release. I kept it a small undertaking, making use of Itch.io’s platform with a smattering of promotion via bespoke Twitter and Instagram accounts. I have also begun submitting it to relevant games festivals in the hopes I might glean wider feedback, but also to see how play-testing is likely to be different.

I’m conscious (in theory if not in practice, yet) of the ways in which a piece of interactive fiction could succeed or fail at engaging its players, keeping them entertained, and bringing their time and effort to a satisfying conclusion. These factors are true for all interactive media. This is, however, by far the most ‘authorial’ project I’ve made. Its interface and play sessions also call for a different level of engagement, as it’s not a piece of work which could easily or satisfactorily be demonstrated within 1 or 2 minutes.

My basic hopes are that Waybinder is entertaining, and that the lessons I learned (and can now demonstrate) from its making may continue. I certainly intend to incorporate more narrative design into my generalised game design toolbox. Waybinder has, however, also served its initial purpose: to help realise an imaginary world which I intend to keep exploring. My next solo project began before this one: a 3D adventure, set some hundred years in Baile Arainn’s future. Having never before had a game world I could explore from multiple angles, I look forward to whatever lessons come from that as well.

Here’s to that journey.

Panoramic poster of a coastal scene, entitled "discover Bàgh Ceònomara". A line below reads "Hillcrest line 14, 28 mins from Central". After 5 seconds the graphic glitches, and briefly reveals Swedish text laying underneath before returning to normal.

Lyst Summit Write-up (part 1)

I’m certainly embarrassed by how long it’s taken me to get around to my Lyst write-up – things have been very busy in recent weeks – but in some many ways, it’s taken until now for me to actually process the glorious things which happened there. What follows is more of a travelogue than a simple game jam recap, split into two parts for your convenience.

Lyst Summit is a unique gathering on the subject of love, sexuality and romance in games, and its first event was held in early June aboard the MF William Jørgenson – a boat moored in København (Copenhagen), Danmark. I was honoured to be able to attend, so taking part in a fascinating series of talks, followed by a 48-hour game jam unlike any other. It was my first time visiting the Danish capital since a very brief change of trains last year, and I’m pleased to say it was as rich in friendship as it was in inspiration and creative output.

The "Love Boat" at Holmen
The “Love Boat” at Holmen

Continue reading “Lyst Summit Write-up (part 1)”

StarCraft II

I’ve been playing StarCraft II for a few weeks now, and I am impressed. This is the first Blizzard ‘RTS’ (real-time strategy) game I’ve played, and it’s easily changed my perspective on the genre and modern-day gaming. I’ve long enjoyed RTS games, but have typically played the same titles for a few years at a time. My experience of RTS games is pretty limited as a result. I tend to fare poorly in single-player games, and have usually leaned on co-operative modes for fun instead.

StarCraft II is beset by an audience of keen veterans; this much I knew from the beginning. Though I was excited about the game prior to its release, it was really only because the game looked glitzy and because I’d come to enjoy Blizzard games through my time in World of Warcraft. I haven’t played the first game, or any of its fantasy counterparts in the Warcraft series. Fortunately the game has been designed with newcomers in mind, and while the online matches can be a hostile place indeed, the single-player campaign serves up some friendly scenarios to help orientate us.

Continue reading “StarCraft II”

Falling for a Game

Will there come a time when narrative games can offer us a genuine feeling of attraction towards their characters?

I’ve recently been musing on the lack of character within our video games. To avoid any confusion, know that I refer to online and offline video games but not online-enabled encounters between individual players, which can spawn quite deep and engaging drama on their own, probably irrespective of the gaming platform. I want to understand if narrative games can ever support something film takes in its stride – empathy with the characters. Why? Empathy is just one of the devices cinema uses to draw audiences through a narrative, and it deepens the impact a piece can have. It can be formed through engaging plot or story, but most interestingly to me it can also be a little erotic.

Whilst there are long-raging arguments about the portrayal of women in games, from the skin-deep female Samus Aran to everyone’s favourite scapegoat Lara Croft, I’m interested to know if a game character can one day enthrall me. I’d like a female lead who’s attractive and knows it, but doesn’t flaunt it – mature, likeable, respectable. There are also some brilliant arguments about morality in games amongst which I hold Manveer Heir‘s in good regard. But what could it mean to the player faced with a life-or-death decision if the plot involves characters to which they genuinely hold some attachment?

Amélie and Lost in Translation are just two films in which I fell in love with the female lead in some way. As cinematic works, both films deliver attractive actresses whom we quickly engage with at the surface level, in order to recognise that their characters are lovely. There’s narrative too of course, though this takes more time to endear us while a pretty face can sway us in a heartbeat. The ultimate result of both plot devices is that I, the viewer, want no ill to come to either Amélie or Charlotte and I will watch the fim right to the end in order to see that done. Our attraction to these characters is what sustains the narrative, therefore the films exist upon that premise.

So if games too are to offer engaging narratives, should they attempt to better characterise, or even eroticise their characters?

In my reading on this subject, I came across a 1973 paper entitled Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, by Laura Mulvey. Although the paper is mostly an application of Freudian and feminist theory to film, it offers some fascinating examples of erotic cinematography and what it does to its audience (by this, I mean any film which uses eros in its makeup – not necessarily erotic cinema itself). What’s important to bear in mind, given how different cinema and games are and should remain, is how one might apply lessons in erotica to interactive play, rather than tacking one medium onto the other with FMV sequences, for example. Luckily, the key device Mulvey identifies is identification, and games are getting pretty good at that.

Mulvey cites two types of audience-character identification within films:

  • Scopophilic instinct, in which the audience gleans pleasure from seeing someone on-screen as a sexual object. We watch a man or woman who knows him or herself to be desirable. Examples would include Moulin Rouge! (right), and Barbarella.
  • Ego libido, or letting the audience identify with characters on-screen. We watch and relate to someone watching somebody desirable. This is quite common and is almost always hung on the male character, who actively engages with a passive woman. It could be framed as voyeurism or a one-to-one encounter.

To my mind, only the second category really applies to games. Scopophilia relies rather more on the passive watching of a narrative, while some games specialise in manipulating ego. Some films, such as Mulvey’s cited example of Vertigo, will take a first-person perspective on such encounters, but it’s a tough device to pull off in film. Gamers are already hard-wired to identify on some level with a third-person avatar. Were they allowed to identify more often with NPCs this way, I believe it could make for some memorable encounters indeed.

Let’s say you’ve adopted a role as gunslinging outlaw of the Wild West, visiting a bar in town for the first time. At this point, all you (the player) know is what you’ve played up to now. There isn’t necessarily one overriding mission or reason for you being in this place.

You (reading as the on-screen avatar) come face to face with an attractive barmaid, and she welcomes you in with a subtle, charming wink. Some of the bar patrons behind her can be seen to look up at her. They admire her, and may very well be regarding you jealously. The barmaid moves away to serve the drinks she’s carrying, looking back with an inviting smile as she regards you a second time.

As you inevitable move to the bar (as is cultural habit, for “the glamorous impersonates the ordinary” – Mulvey, 1973), raised voices can be heard from a booth in the far corner. A brawl ensues, and the barmaid you just met is heard to scream and drop her drinks tray.

What I’m suggesting here isn’t particularly complex, for some games already create encounters in this vein. Some fascinating emotional and moral complexes can be exploited by these encounters, however:

  • Unless the player is not immersed for whatever reason (say, an interfering user interface or jarring cut from FMV), it’s quite likely they will respond to the barmaid’s cries. They will not require an on-screen prompt or mission statement beforehand.
  • Most players would assume, given the context, that a Western bar brawl will involve guns. If the game does not arm them on an events trigger – such as by moving from a cutscene to a UI with bullet chambers, health bars and kill points seen on screen – will the fact the player has been allowed to meet one or more of the lively patrons of this bar cause them to think even for a second about pulling their gun or not?

This point raises one element I’d particularly like to highlight – it matters not whether the inevitable happens and the player joins the fray, or indeed if preservation somehow enters them and they sit it out, so long as they’re later aware a decision was made, and that it was weighed emotionally. We could only enjoy such options in a world people somehow care about or lust after.

To expand on the mechanics of play, however:

  • I’ve known some games to feature fights in which at the moment ‘bad guys’ appear, the innocent bystanders become invincible, run away or worse, disappear altogether. If characters like the enchanting barmaid are unable to escape, will that prevent players from pulling the trigger? If they’re accidentally (or intentionally) shot, will the player feel genuine remorse?

Again, it doesn’t matter half as much whether the barmaid is killed or not – it’s the player’s reaction I’d like to test.

Without wishing to cast insult or sound egotistical, I cannot imagine these dilemmas playing out in the stereotypical game environment we know today. In fact I’d believe that a half-dressed barmaid too obvious in her flirtatiousness would fall under the player’s on-screen crosshairs and be killed, but not missed.

It is true that budgets and a stricter focus on gameplay (such as the mechanics of firing and reloading) may limit the depth of character we can portray in our incidental NPCs. I’m not saying there aren’t reasons for what goes on now, and nor m I saying that they should stop. Just as with cinema, I believe it’s likely that such games would represent an avant-garde, alternative branch of the medium. Die Hard would not be the fun film it is if the directors used Saving Private Ryan styled cinematography to frame each terrorist’s death.

Relating to these characters places great stock in narrative as the game’s foundation, rather than its play mechanic. Modern titles like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Bioshock and Call of Duty claim the crown in this field so far but these are games for whom, despite attempts to deliver gripping storylines, the qualitative measure is placed on total play time and the level of graphical detail. It’s a cultural quirk I believe can be excused, but heaven forbid we consider Peter Jackson’s King Kong a better film because it’s an hour longer and boasts a higher CGI budget.


Josef von Sternberg, an Austrian-American director known for featuring Marlene Dietrich in his work, is said to have welcomed his films being shown upside-down, so that “story and character would not interfere with the undiluted appreciation of the screen image.” Perhaps if we too decided to play narrative-rich games for their narrative delivered in a truly visual form, rather than worrying about goals and rewards, we too could find a new, immersive and ultimately beautiful medium.

Me and My Staff

A brief, personal musing on why inventory seems so important to me – even if it’ll get me killed one day.

Apologies for a much shorter, less-researched article as only the second entry in this new venture. Although calling my work this week “crunch” would be misleading, it’s certainly felt that way. Time for some good, old-fashioned personal conjecture.

Earlier this week, I was reminded of my biggest reason for not playing more so-called ‘role-play’ digital games1: I’m a very materialistic and sentimental person who often cannot bare to part with old items. I recently found this when agonising over the exchange of my two-handed Loksey’s Training Stick, with me since I was level 22, for a dagger and orb which gave me marginally better attack ratings. Part of my concern is power – seven levels on since I was able to actually use the stick, it remains twice as powerful a weapon as any I pick up from ordinary kills. The figures, comparing 117 damage to, say, 65, are a persuasive device. At a speed of 3.1 though, compared to daggers which can be struck twice, maybe three times in the same amount of time, it remains a weapon which deals heavy damage, but slowly.

When I came into use of an orb from the same dungeon, two levels later, I was given the chance to boost some of my personal statistics (such as armour) as well as equip a one-handed weapon, with these two objects replacing a two-handed staff very neatly. A warrior constantly chasing the best specifications might see this as a clear-cut decision – take the dagger out instead, as it has a higher DPS. I found myself arguing back against myself: “where’s the romance?”

My staff was earned during my guild’s first dungeon run – a fraught but thrilling run through Scarlet Monastery when I was but a low-20s warlock, surrounded by elite (tougher) enemies around 12 levels my senior. The staff and a number of rare armours, one of which remains unusable to me even now at level 38 are like souvenirs, bizarrely stubborn in their refusal to be usurped. I know that one day they will be obsoleted, but wish it weren’t so. There’s also an aesthetic choice to consider – does a warlock really look as good without a massive staff on her back? I think not. Powerful as it is, using a dagger feels like cheating, to me.

Ther are crossovers here to theory, which sadly I have not managed to tie together in one evening. The spanner in the works is that, while acting ‘precious’ over one’s appearance might appear indicative of a role-play mentality, I’m not really playing a role with Gemenar. I play roles with other characters, but as their motivations for existing in the first place are of a role-play bent, the contrast between playing statistics and keeping a hold of my haul isn’t quite so distracting.

I’m not sure that I have an answer to the dilemma. I persist in using weaponry which was once well above my par but is now approaching mediocrity, tempting fate with a banking system that’s already stocked full of useful items I’m not so attached to. Will there come a day when my engineered mithril casings are dispensed with, just to accomodate the Enchanted Golden Robe?

I can’t help thinking of a little voice saying “it’s my game and I’ll tempt fate by wearing severely sub-standard gear to battle if I want to”.

Notes:

  1. A 2008 article by MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler has me doubting the validity of that label.