In the beginning there were ideas
Say that one has to start from the very beginning, before there was Blue, White, Brown or Black.
Over the module I have been thinking a lot about structure and choices in narrative. At the start of term I knew I wanted to make an adaption of a book. I first considered Paul Auster’s 4321, and soon realised I would barely just finish reading the 500 pager by the end of Easter. Then I started working seriously on Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, and went as far as to carving out a narrative structure and starting the dialogue script for the game. I thought I did a very clever job of it and even discovered a new way to interpret the story that was only possible in a video game medium. I was so excited at being able to touch on how the sequence in which we experience things can create entirely different meanings for the same events. Then it hit me how long the story would be to play, and even worse, how long it would have taken me to make it. I was terrified at the notion of not being able to finish, or boring the player with too many paragraphs to read, and ultimately decided to give up the idea.
With getting a more manageable scope in mind, I had a sudden burst of inspiration amidst lockdown, to take the player on a London tube journey, where you the unknowing player, get in at Holborn after visiting the British Museum and need to go to Green Park to meet a friend for tea. But the journey starts to get weird, and soon you work out there is a murder plot and someone’s life is at stake, and you have the only chance of saving him. I had envisioned each station and the tunnel in between forming little segments of plots, dividing the game into sections of visual narrative (arriving at the station) to a complete audio narrative (when the train enters a tunnel all the lights go out, so it’s pitch dark on the screen and you only rely on what you hear). Whilst in the dark, the train also goes back in time — so each time the train travels between stations it enters a different dimension, but as it arrives at the station you are in real time. The the clues are scattered across different dimensions of time and space. Essentially the player travels in time and geography to piece together fragments of information, but at the end realises they are investigating in the present a puzzle/crime of the past.
I had done a fair bit of research into haunted tube stations, the history of the TFL alongside Cold War spy stories revolving around Mayfair ( Mayfair being a historical spy den). However I was stuck at coming up with a convincing plot and characters and was anxious that it would take up too much time just to get the script done.
Whilst researching the TFL, I came across a pot of gold that was a body of archive footage of the London Underground. These videos, spreading across the late 50s to the early 90s absolutely fascinated me — they had a quality of not quite being a dream nor reality, suggesting both the past and the present. I was completely hooked on the videos and instantly decided to use them somehow. I thought I would make a video-based game (like Her Story), and still play with the idea on travelling in the same London Underground in different times. I was again almost pushing out the narrative, but now stuck at the storyline. Time was seriously running out. I also estimated that realistically this game would take three weeks of full-time development. so in the end it became yet another stillborn idea.
Oh and did I mention I have been slowly reading Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller throughout the term, with the hopes of using that structure for my game too…
At this point (the end of April), I knew I had to make a game, and I was absolutely conscious of getting the right scope to focus on, after having to downsize my story again and again. I even thought about making a detective game out of a crossword or logic puzzle. I needed something small enough so I can polish the experience a bit more.
I sat down at my desk. You are going into game jam mode, I said to myself, you have five days to make this game from scratch to build.
Detective plots are really just naturally fitting for narrative based video games. Then again I have always adored Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy and never found the right moment. Ghosts, the shortest of the three stories, kicks off with a spectacular first line:
“ First of all there is Blue. Later there is White, and then there is Black, and before the beginning there is Brown. ”
What a hook to draw people in! Without disclosing the plot, it already creates a desire to explore and investigate. And a great start for interactivity, as a novel has to be read in a set order of sequence, but in a game it is the player’s choice to get to know which character first, therefore creating a slightly different flavour of the story. I could immediately visualise the first scene of the game, and so I took it from there.
It looks six days to finish the game, mostly because that was the only time I had! I spent my first day and a half extracting the novel for the game script, and I also edited the videos used in the game. As I was writing the script I soon realised I could either be faithful to the story and do the complete storyline, but at the cost of bare visuals or polish, or I could cut the story in half but within that half make it as complete as possible. I opted for the latter.
A massive learning curve for me is knowing how much I can manage in a set frame of time, so I can commit to the narrative and deliver.
I spent my second/third day just getting the first scene set up in Unity and Fungus, grasping how to use the UI properly. I spent another day and a half fleshing out the game. Then the fifth day I spent on creating and implementing game art, and then sixth day tweaking and building. That is how I finally managed to make a game lean and clean, after a whole term of miscarrying nearly-thought-through ideas.
I pretty soon realised that my story is very, very UI based — if you look at my Unity scenes, there is barely anything there except for the window. Even the videos were panels enabled and disabled by the UI. In hindsight this is postmodern to the core (I will explain later)…
Apart from the use of Auster’s writing (Ghosts in The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, Faber and Faber, 1987), the only other explicit artwork that I used in my game was the gorgeous window illustrated by Jose Guizar (see link), who has made a stunning collection of illustrations called Windows of New York. Almost all of the archive footage is sourced from the Kino Library. I made a Pinterest board for setting the aesthetic and tone of the game, but actually forgot to use it! (I guess it was with me in spirit) In my mind everything just came together — I knew I was aiming for a vague and ambiguous urban aesthetic, set somewhere in the past (50s — 80s), New York but never explicit. For the illustrations of Black I looked at black and white photos of men in the 50s for reference.
For the starting scenes (before seeing Black’s window), I went for a blueprint paper. It felt right, giving a sense of ‘you are the architect and this is the blueprint/precursor of the story’. Also the way the first sentence read oddly reminds me of the Bible (“In the beginning God created the world… And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light… feel the same vibe? No?) — So faintly, I place you the player in the role of God, in the blueprint of all things. In the beginning there is Blue.
The whole execution process was lean and clean, and because I spent so much time brewing all these stories in my head like a continuous daydream, when it came down to making the game, I knew exactly what I wanted and just went for it.
Spaces and Places
One of my guiding lights in making this game is a paper by Julia Kula, Lost in space, lost in himself: Paul Auster’s Ghosts and the postmodern city. (Yes I’m a nerd and like supplementary literary reviews to support my designs) Reading her paper in the evenings whilst the game was being made had filled me with thoughts.
Kula points out that traditional detective fiction often feature brave men with extraordinary smarts and determination, and uses the city as a map and its every element as potential clues to the puzzle, usually a crime. The postmodern detective fiction deconstructs that formula and turns the genre on its head, with these ‘anti-detective’ novels seeing the world, city, or text as labyrinth.
In the novel, the open space of New York and the enclosed space of Blue’s apartment signify the public and the private. But it also challenges traditional notions of space and place, by deconstructing them, and distilling them into blurred, disassociated, fragmented spaces. These all add to a sense of disorientation and feeling lost, or void of meaning. Such spaces, are “defined by the lack of any stable points of reference.”
Ghosts has spacial approach to storytelling, which fits well with the nature of interactive storytelling or narrative games. In designing the game’s visuals, I sought to distinguish the different spaces. In the beginning there is the abstract blueprint background, and I deliberately chose the wrong colours corresponding to the name of the colours, so the element of disassociation is present from the beginning. Then there are three main spaces in the narrative: Blue’s flat from which he surveillances Black, the urban cityscape when Blue is outside of the flat (Snow and Orange Street), and then Blue’s mental space when he drifts off or reads and imagines things. For Blue, the flat becomes a cell and somehow his imaginations seem more real than what he objectively observes. Thus the flat is represented in a more abstract manner, but the stories in Blue’s head, as well as the streets of the city are represented by videos with detailed content.
A deliberate design choice was to choose videos that did not exactly match their text, and this was a response to where novel describes a gap between reality and the words that represent them. The cityscape videos were accurate thematically, but not detailed enough for the player to identify a character within the video. Then for Blue’s flashbacks and imagination (the story of Gold, Grey, Black and White) I decided to find videos that were slightly more ambiguous, giving an atmosphere of rather than suggestions of real events.
With Gold’s story (the murdered little boy) I experimented with the video footage — it has absolutely nothing to do with the text shown. Instead you see footage of trees being cut down and a man chopping at one trunk, and yet hear another story about murder. I thought the juxtaposition made an impact, as you are forced to make meaning out of the two information. I was partly inspired by the concept of montage, apophenia and the Kuleshor Effect when we had our class on films and storytelling. And I thought the tree video gave a much more uncanny and dreamy quality and better fitted the game’s themes than if I were to go literal and use an old newspaper with murder on the front page.
A note on the soundscape — you will notice the game is predominantly quiet, and the only sounds that do appear is when Blue writes on his notebook, hurries to put clothes on and get out of the flat, and then finally at the end where (if you could make out) he sends off his report in a postbox. While making the game I wondered whether I should have provided a full soundtrack as most games provide. But instinctively it didn’t feel right — making you listen to one preset soundtrack in a way tells you how to listen and therefore how to feel. Making this game whilst living in an apartment block on a busy London street, my ears are surrounded by the sounds of the city all the time — if there is any kind of permanent ambience in the game, it is this. Paul Auster wrote that the story took place in New York but it could also be anywhere. Presuming most of us live a city anyway, why not let the player fill their ears with sounds of their urban life — it is more natural and more immersive.
I did however deliberately insert certain sound effects — these are tied to the actions that Blue takes. We the reader, although read in third person perspective, nonetheless presume the role of Blue. However in the entire game we never see Blue represented visually, only in words. Black is seen but never heard. So in return I made Blue heard but not seen. In a way Blue feels like a ghost to us just as Black feels like a ghost to him. I really like this reciprocation in a veiled, tentative way.
A final note on space and place! Going back to that earlier point of my game being postmodern because it is heavily reliant on UI elements — In Kula’s essay, she quotes Donald Ellis on “Poststructuralists very much want to cling to the idea that reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else”. In a similar way, game only exists when we choose to play it, otherwise it is just a pile of codes and commands. My thought is, if you looked at my Unity scene, the UI is hidden away and you only see blank spaces. Before I run it it does often strike me how empty and ghostly it felt…
“If in the detective story death must be solved, in the new metaphysical detective story it is life which must be solved.” — Michael Holquist
I must wrap up now. But there is so much I can carry on talking: on Auster’s novel itself, on narrative games… I’ll be as concise as I can.
I made a visual novel out of a postmodern detective novel, but then I think video games is inherently a postmodern medium, and faces all the complexities of the postmodern… When we talk about interactive fiction, we are essentially talking about fragmented storytelling, dividing segments of plot into blocks that can either represent time, or physical space, or mental space, or train of thoughts. And we give choices to the player on how they go about these spaces. We give them all these choices, but how meaningful and consequential are our choices?
Another issue that arises with fragmentation is that it has been inspected again and again for us to make meaning out of it — as in, if we want to comprehend how our choices have consequences, then we have to play it again and again — and so narrative games, depending on how you branch it, has a deeply iterative nature. For example, when I was designing for Life After Life, I realised the beauty of the narrative structure can only be appreciated if you play it at least three times, because only then you can sublimate from the singular experience to see how the bigger picture is interconnected in a complex way.
If in Ghosts “the breakdown of the detection process is always accompanied by the breakdown of the self… the man immersed in a space offering neither meaningful clues nor unquestionable truths … experiences the dispersal of his identity” (synthesising Kula’s paper) — This just actually reminds me a lot of The Beginner’s Guide. I hadn’t really thought of their similarity until writing this sentence actually. But let’s leave this for another discussion. You get the idea.
To sum up this extraordinarily lengthy postmortem: this game started long before I conceived the idea. Throughout my many explorations of time as space, place as space, I’ve really come to contemplate non-linearity in narrative games. Mapping the content of the game to the nature of the experience we are enabling — it’s an ongoing thought.
What went wrong and what went right (finally!)
- Didn’t have time to play it with other people to see how they feel about the game, so I have no idea how all my careful design choices were perceived! Did they get it, were they confused or bored or inspired? I think this is the biggest flaw, which is not to have that iterative stage of development.
- The novel isn’t completely covered in the game. I couldn’t manage the entire plot of the novel. It’s a shame really, because so many things are tied to each other, and by cutting the plot in half a lot of the ‘aha’ moments are lost… Finishing the story would have made the game much stronger, evidently, and more action would have taken place, making the game less static. But I estimate at production level this game should take around 45 mins to play. It’s out of my scope, but I really wish I somehow could have brought it all together.
- This is about the build — it distorts the screen and UI positions and sometimes just looks badly built. I’m not sure what the solution to this technical problem is — annoyed that it affects the playing experience.
- If I can do it again and have sufficient time, I would add more interactivity within the game. I’m worried that it feels a little static, but then it is a novella, so there is a fair amount of text to read through. But I’m also worried about inconsequential choices — ongoing thought…
- Before anything — I got the job done! Given my track record of over-scoping and scrapping ideas, I’m really rather relieved I did produce the game at a steady pace and delivered it on time. Phew.
- I am satisfied with my design choices, from the division and design of the space, to the choice of what sounds to have, to the fonts and the visuals — everything was what I had in mind, and I think visually the game is coherent with a clear sense of style, tone and polish.
- The pace is something I’ve spent a lot of time on. As it is still a novella to be read, I paid particular attention to the timing of sentences — how long they would take to read, and how the pace of reading curates a certain tone, warmth and experience. I think it reads well (I hope!)
- The animations worked to aid the story telling. I feel quite pleased about the little illustrations and animations I’ve drawn for the game. There are long paragraphs in the story that I have just conveyed through images. More importantly, I hope the sense of time slowly passing is really felt.
- The metaphysical / postmodern / theory side of things, whatever you call it. I have really thought this game through, and I hope in little ways it might be picked up from the reader/player? I think a lot of the ‘what went right’ is really a processing of trying to get things right, which is that massive chunk of thought process documented in the Places and Spaces section. It’s been a really great process, I know it might be cheesy to say, but every day of making the game I was a little inspired by the ideas flying around…
another interesting comment on Ghosts