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Making a Miracle with “miraclr”

Jenny Gibbons here, gearing up to tell you an honest and not-so-glamorous tale about the world of indie game development.

Going full-time indie

About nine months ago, my full-time job told me that I had to choose between keeping my job or “ceasing activity” with Woodsy Studio, my own company. It was an impossible decision. I had already poured years of my heart and soul into my work at Woodsy Studio, and furthermore, my husband–Malcolm Pierce–had recently joined me as a creative partner. All our dreams lay with Woodsy Studio. I could not give that up. But the studio was not yet making enough money to sustain itself, either.

Malcolm and I were lucky in that we had a decent amount of savings stored up from previous years of caution and frugality. We tried to look at the misfortune of my lay-off as an opportunity to focus all our energy into Woodsy Studio and make it our bread and butter. Although Woodsy Studio was not yet self-sustainable, at least we had three commercially published games occasionally bringing in money.

Illustration from Serafina's Crown

Illustration from Serafina’s Crown

Floundering in a sea of games

Alas, as any other game developer knows, the gaming market is brutal. Try as we might, we were unable to make a big marketing splash with any of our titles, whether old releases or new ones. Even now, I struggle to figure out where we went wrong. By a large percentage, people who play our games enjoy them and offer high praise: both critics and customers. The challenge lies in getting anyone to play our games at all. And of course, I know I’m not alone in this. The sea of released games continues to grow and flood stores every day. Only so many can survive by floating on the surface. We were drowning, but we refused to give up.

By July, we had been pure indie game devs for seven months. We were living the dream–but we were also broke.

Our seven months of focusing on Woodsy Studio confirmed for us that this is what we both wanted to do. We wanted to keep making games together, and we knew we had the potential to succeed. We just needed to create something that could excite people more than anything we’d yet produced.

Drastic times = drastic measures

In a moment of desperation, we put our heads together and tried to think of something we could do to save our studio in the little time our dwindling savings still provided. It all happened in about ten minutes. Malcolm blurted something about romancing angels, I suggested making it unfold in real time on phones, and everything clicked. We knew we had a fun idea that we could produce relatively fast and use to branch out to a new audience: the mobile market.

The two months since that moment have been a non-stop storm of writing, programming, and drawing so that “miraclr” could become a reality. Malcolm and I are both extremely creative people and very prolific writers. But we pushed ourselves harder than we’ve ever pushed ourselves before to make this project happen. We reached the point we normally would have called “burn out”–and we kept going, knowing that it was dangerous, but also convinced it was crucial to our long-term survival.

I programmed a complex story system based on real-time to handle channels, direct messages, and plot branches. Together, Malcolm and I wrote over 76,000 words of story content (but Malcolm wrote most of it). I drew 19 CG illustrations, a dozen character icons, and five visual novel portraits with multiple expressions. Malcolm figured out how to incorporate ads and notifications into both Android and iOS ports. All in two months.

Gabriel from miraclr

Burnt out, but proud

We’re exhausted. We’re burnt out. But we also know that we did everything in our power to create a fun, unique game that might be the key to saving our studio. Whatever happens next, I can say with full confidence that we took our best shot.

We sincerely hope that you enjoy “miraclr,” and that it enables us to keep providing quality interactive stories in the future!

miraclr Main Page

Let’s Greenlight Echoes of the Fey Episode 0: The Immolation!

Today we’re proud to release our first official trailer for Echoes of the Fey Episode 0: The Immolation and launch our Greenlight campaign with the hopes of releasing on Steam and other PC platforms simultaneously!

Episode 0 is a short prologue to Echoes of the Fey that we will be releasing FOR FREE in early 2017. This installment will take our players back to before Sofya Rykov was a private investigator and before she could use magic. In Episode 0, Sofya is an officer in the Human Empire with a (relatively) cushy assignment, guarding non-essential Leshin prisoners in the fortified city of Onigrad. Of course, anyone who has played Episode 1 or read The Prophet’s Arm knows that Onigrad is hardly the safest place near the end of the world.

The Immolation is also the first installment of Echoes of the Fey we are developing in Unreal Engine 4, utilizing 3d backgrounds and dynamic camera angles for dialog sequences. Transitioning to UE4 has been a lot of work–especially since we’re working with all new environments!–but we’re sure that the work we’re doing on this short project will help us in the future. And we think that both fans of Echoes and new players will enjoy this introduction to Sofya, Heremon, and the world of Oraz.

If you want to see Echoes of the Fey Episode 0: The Immolation, click the link below and throw us a YES!

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Why We’re Making Our Next Visual Novel in Unreal Engine 4

We’ve been quiet over at Woodsy Studio for the last month or so, but with good reason: we’ve been busy! Shortly after releasing Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail on Steam, we decided to switch our development platform from Gamemaker Studio to Unreal Engine 4. This is no simple task. For Gamemaker, we had a very helpful base to build off of with ThinkBoxly’s EdgeVN system. With UE4, we don’t have such luck. There is a module for sale, but it seems unequipped to handle large multi-scene VNs, so we are building from the ground up using the UE4 blueprint visual scripting. On top of that, we’re converting to 3d backgrounds, which means re-making a lot of our general world assets to 3d models.

Most people are totally confused when we tell them we’ve decided to switch to UE4, and that’s without the troubles mentioned above. UE is best known for big-budget 3d games. It isn’t known for indie development or user friendliness. Unreal is total overkill for a visual novel, especially when the most GPU-intensive thing we’ve pushed out in previous games is a high resolution character sprite. So, why are we going to all this trouble to switch to an engine that is (on its face) worse for indie 2d development than our previous platforms?

To start, I need to go over the problems we had with Gamemaker. I don’t want to make this post a big list of complaints about GM–which I think is fantastic for certain kinds of projects–but addressing a couple of these is unavoidable. First off, audio files.  The way GM handles audio files was frustrating from start to finish. Importing them was clunky. We couldn’t make batch changes to groups of sounds. And a couple times, references to entire groups of sounds just disappeared.

These would be annoyances for any game, but because of the nature of our (partially) voiced visual novels, we had over 2,500 sound files in our game. Any task related to the sound was a huge ordeal for us and, in the end I think the sheer number of sounds ended up creating our other problem with GM: porting.

Our first (still work in progress) screenshot from Episode Zero

Our first (still work in progress) screenshot from Episode Zero

Before we switched to GM, Woodsy Studio was releasing its games on Windows, Linux, Mac, and Android phones. However, so far we’ve been unable to bring The Fox’s Trail to any platform other than Windows. The problem is different on each platform, but without going into too much detail, our suspicion is that our sounds (or more specifically, the size of our sound files–2.8 gigabytes before compression) have something to do with it.

Finally, drawing backgrounds has been one of our biggest hurdles. Every room requires a background and these are Jenny’s least favorite thing to draw. They are also large, contiguous sprites that are difficult to break up into 1024 x 1024 pieces to keep our texture page size down (which is needed for performance reasons, especially on mobile). Moving to 3d environments is theoretically possible in GM, but would require rebuilding a huge amount of what we’ve already  And it’s not what the engine is designed for.

I really do want to stress that Gamemaker Studio is a very good option for all sorts of games, we just decided it wasn’t right for us. Because going forward, these problems were only going to get worse. For episode 2, we’ll have the same–if not more–quantity of voice acting clips. We’ll want more backgrounds. And we might want to go to native a native 1080p resolution, at least for the PC version–further exacerbating file size and background creation issues.

All this added up to need to change. But again, the question comes up: why UE4? Why not Unity, which seems to be the favorite choice of indie devs everywhere? A couple reasons. No matter what engine we switched to, we were going to have to re-learn everything. Ren’py uses python and GM uses gml, its own language, so there was no real chance of transferring our knowledge perfectly over to either of our options.

A UE4 material we made for our visualization of a fey rift.

A UE4 material we made for our visualization of a fey rift.

Also, out of the (metaphorical) box, UE4 is fantastic at making your game look good. I don’t entirely know how the guts of either engine work, but it seems very easy to use the UE4 cameras and lights (as they are implemented without plugins) to make our art pop compared to what I’ve seen of Unity. And the material system lets (relatively) inexperienced programmers do some amazing things with shaders in a visual scripting interface.

Finally, I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian and everyone using Unity because the common knowledge is that Unity is more user friendly just makes me want to go down the road less traveled. And we’ve discovered that this common knowledge might be wrong.

It has been just over a month and a half since starting the conversion and we already have a full dialog system set up (developed by us from the ground up), with working choice menus and overworld exploration like in The Fox’s Trail. We’ve built out our first environment and imported the first handful of scenes for Episode Zero. Converting to 3d environments has allowed me–a person who couldn’t draw if my life depended on it–to take over a portion of the art process, building 3d models based on our original drawings. This required learning Blender along with Unreal Engine 4, but for a long time the art burden has fallen entirely on one member of the team and I’m more than happy to finally help out.

An Episode 1 asset re-made in 3d (again, work in progress).

An Episode 1 asset re-made in 3d (again, work in progress).

At first, I likened trying to make a visual novel in UE4 to using a rifle to kill a fly. Yes, it can get the job done but it will be harder and a ton of overkill. Now, I’d use a different tortured metaphor: it’s like putting together Ikea furniture with powertools. It’s still overkill, but the power tools have a lot more uses than just putting together Ikea Furniture.

So, when is Episode Zero coming out? Right now, we’re tentatively saying “TBD: Winter”. And yes, we mean this upcoming winter. I don’t think we can commit to anything more than that, but since we have so much of the framework already done and Episode Zero is a smaller project, we hope that you’ll be able to enjoy the first visual novel developed in UE4* fairly soon.

*I don’t know if we’re really going to be the first UE4 VN. I couldn’t find any. Correct me if I’m wrong!

 

Demo-ing After The Fact: A PixelPop Retrospective

Watching strangers play your game is terrifying. It’s especially terrifying when your game is already released. The flaws you see can be corrected, but they can’t be contained. They are already out in the world, installed on the hard drive of everyone who has bought and played the game. Even if they are minor issues–even if you are incredibly proud of the game you put out there–the smallest of imperfections can drive you crazy because there’s nothing you can do to fix them for all the people who have already experienced them.

Despite that, we attended this year’s PixelPop Festival with a demo of Echoes of the Fey Episode 1: The Fox’s Trail.

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PixelPop Festival, now in its third year, is St. Louis’s annual gaming convention. It features competitive events, talks from developers and others in the industry, and of course demos of upcoming and recently released games. It ran from October 8-9 this year at a new location, the St. Louis Science Center.

There are a few reasons we brought Episode 1 to PixelPop. First off, right now we’re in a transitory period. If we’d committed to GameMaker Studio after finishing Episode 1, I’m sure we’d have a (very rough, very early) build of our next release, Episode 0: Immolation to show off right now. But we decided to make the rather huge leap to Unreal Engine 4, which necessitated rewriting our VN system from the ground up and learning how to make 3d environments. So you might say we’re a little behind schedule. Second, we wanted to test controller support before submitting a build for approval on console. Handing folks a controller at a convention to see how they use it seemed like the best way to get an idea of how accessible our build would be.

Fortunately, the results were great. We’ve brought our visual novels to various events, but none were more welcoming than PixelPop. Demo-ing a visual novel is never easy. VNs don’t have small, digestible chunks or “vertical slices” that can be carved out and used as a standalone example of the overall gameplay. We basically have two options: start players at the very beginning of the game and hope the first few scenes are compelling, or pick out a spot in the game we know is exciting and start players there.

For our very first demo at Anime St. Louis earlier this year, we took the later route. We skipped ahead in the story to when the player can control Sofya’s transformation into a cat, which allows them to spy on various characters and have a little freedom in the overworld portion of the investigation. We wanted people to see the beginning of the side stories, and see the very first hints at the mystery central to the game. Unfortunately, we found that people were just confused. Dropping people in the middle of the story left them with too many questions, and the core gameplay of a visual novel just doesn’t work if you don’t understand what’s going on.

Going forward, we decided to start our demo at the beginning. Our game starts with a nice CGI, an introduction to the world, and then a short scene with a cat, all of which are at least conducive to drawing people in. This meant that the demo would not feature the full extent of the exploration/investigation, but we recognize that the story is the draw and that needs to make sense.

On the first day of PixelPop, we committed to our usual strategy of encouraging players to use headphones. The first few scenes are heavily voiced, and we’ve got some rad music we want people to hear. Convention demo areas are usually pretty loud, so we figured the best way to make sure all of it is heard is force headphones.

However, we quickly discovered yet another problem with demo-ing a visual novel. Even a small portion of the game–the first investigation sequence of the first day–can become a 30+ minute experience if a player gets into the game and goes everywhere they can. And there are pretty much two reactions we had to our demo. Either people immediately didn’t like the game (too much reading which, hey,I get it) and left after a minute, or they stuck around for a while and played through several scenes. We loved seeing people get deep into the demo, but with only one demo station, it limited the number of people we could engage. We put the game on a larger monitor to the side so passers-by could watch, but that wasn’t quite enough to entice anyone to stand and observe the demo. So we decided to bring a set of speakers for the second day.

Despite the loud demo floor, we found that the speakers encouraged people to stand and watch the demo, which for a visual novel is almost as good as getting them to play it. Granted, we had the opening music in our heads all day, but I think it was worth it.

All in all, we had a great experience showing off Echoes of the Fey to the crowd at PixelPop. We’d encourage any local developers (and any developers who can make it to STL with relative ease) next year to join us!

 

Echoes of the Fey – The Prophet’s Arm (Part 4) Final

This is part 4 of a multi-part short story detailing one of Sofya Rykov’s cases prior to The Fox’s Trail. Part 1 can be found here and part 2 is here.

The second Sofya stepped into the pub, every eye in the room was on her. There were a dozen Leshin seated throughout the surprisingly spacious tavern and every one was curious why a Human would dare to join them.

Normally, Sofya felt rather comfortable around Leshin. Spending so much time with Heremon over the last few months helped with that. But she’d rarely visited their side of the border, and mostly interacted with them as minority in post-occupation Vodotsk. This was different. Now, she was the only Human in the room.

“Do you see any soldiers around?” Sofya asked quietly.

“No one dressed as such,” Heremon replied.

“Good. I don’t see Braden here and I need a drink.” Sofya headed for the bar but Heremon grabbed her arm.

“We need to be careful. There could be an ambush.”

“They tied up their horses out front. Not a very good ambush, if you ask me.”

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Echoes of the Fey – Vocal Theme

Yesterday, we debuted the vocal theme for Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail. Check it out!

This is the first time I’ve ever (co)written a song for a game, so I thought I’d write a bit about the thought process that went into it. It all starts way back at the beginning of development, when we were brainstorming about the aesthetic of the project. For some important story reasons (specifically the motivation behind the Human/Leshin war) there was always going to be a light steampunk element to the world. Traditional steampunk is a little played out/a bit of a cliche, so we aimed for a variation on the idea.

The fledgling machinery of our world isn’t powered by coal or literal steam, but magic drawn from Fey rifts. It’s clean energy. The world isn’t (visibly) polluted by its use. So I guess our aesthetic is Clean Steampunk? I don’t know, that sounds like a bad Skyrim mod so maybe I just need to come up with a new term.

ANYWAY, we aimed for a musical style that would reflect fantasy with an ethereal sci-fi touch. And we immediately seized upon Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack for Legend as an inspiration. Now, I realize this is a somewhat controversial work to cite. Legend was originally scored by Jerry Goldsmith, who was replaced by the studio near the very end of production on the film. Tangerine Dream was chosen to (bizarrely) appeal to a more youthful audience, because apparently the kids were way into new age electronica in 1986. A lot of people prefer the Jerry Goldsmith score and think the TD score (completed in only a few weeks to meet the deadline) is dissonant with the visuals of the film. Jenny (my co-writer, artist, and composer on this project) think those people are crazy.

A few months into production, we watched Legend again and I was struck by the over-the-top cheesy ballad that closes out the film.

Is it a good song? I’m not even sure. But it evokes a certain time in fantasy/action film making that is incredibly distinct. Legend wasn’t the first film or the last to end on a dreamy ballad that casually drops the title throughout. The Neverending Story and The Last Unicorn, for example. And if you widen the definition of the credit song ballad to take out the requirement of naming the title, you draw in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Princess Bride, and a ton of other films made from the mid 80s through the 90s.

Video games have their own version of this phenomenon. Final Fantasy games starting with VIII have prominently featured jpop ballads, and the Kingdom Hearts spinoffs have followed suit. Final Fantasy IX is probably the best one.

Final Fantasy XV is going to have a cover of Stand By Me by Florence and the Machine instead, if you want to know how bizarre things have gotten over at Square-Enix.

Thinking about these traditions gave me an idea: why couldn’t we do something like this for Echoes of the Fey? We were already shooting for a sound that invoked the fantasy films of the mid-80s. Why shouldn’t we have a vocal theme song.

This should have been a hell of an undertaking, since neither of us can sing. But we were lucky. The voice actress who plays Sofya in Echoes of the Fey, Amber Leigh, is also a singer. Once she said she was down to record the song, we knew we had to do it. Jenny wrote the composition and a version of the lyrics that, unfortunately, could have been seen as a spoiler for some of the events of The Fox’s Trail. That was fine for a song that played over the credits, but we decided that we wanted to use it as a promotional tool as well.

So I took a crack at songwriting. Let me tell you, it is not as easy as my previous experiences with penning lyrics: swapping words around in popular songs to make twitter jokes.

My first pass had the correct number of syllables on each line, but apparently it matters where you put the vowels (especially in a slow paced song) because I was trying to force Amber to hold some really terrible sounds.

So I did a second pass, and with Jenny’s help (and patience) we arrived on the lyrics we are using today. And we’re really happy with it! Our final product feels like a mix between the cheesy fantasy ballads that inspired us and the eerie Julee Cruise/Angelo Badalementi collaborations of the same era. Which is a fantastic result for me, since this project is all about mashing together fantasy and noire and making them kiss.

Hopefully you enjoy the song and I look forward to everyone playing the game that inspired it in (hopefully) a month!

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Announcing the World of Echoes of the Fey

Hey everyone, I suppose an introduction is in order. This is Malcolm Pierce, aka Redbird Menace. I helped out with Duma/debate dialog in Woodsy Studio’s last game, Serafina’s Crown, and I’m here to write about my involvement in the upcoming Echoes of the Fey, an ambitious multi-part visual novel series. This isn’t a new partnership by any means–I did court/debate dialog on Serafina’s Crown and she did music/art on The Closer: Game of the Year Edition–but this is the first time we’re going to fully invest on the same project.

Echoes of the Fey takes place in the realm of Oraz, a land split between Humans in the east and Leshin (the politically correct term for Elves in Oraz) in the west, with a great forest separating them. Leshin do not age and can use powerful sorcery called Fey Magic. Humans aren’t so lucky, though they eventually learned to build large machines—Fey Reactors—to harvest the magical energy used by the Leshin.

leshinThe activation of the Fey Reactors sparked a Leshin invasion of the East. Stronger, faster, and capable of magic, the Leshin thought the war would be over quickly. It wasn’t. Humans fought them tooth-and-nail with superior numbers and dragged the conflict out over thirty years. Eventually, Leshin sentiment turned against the war. The people overthrew their religious government and came to terms with the Humans. They restored the original borders and began a new, unstable era of peace. That’s where our story begins.

I know this sounds like a typical Lord of the Rings derivative, something I’ve been hesitant to write for long time. But it’s not. Echoes of the Fey is high fantasy with a twist: it’s not really high fantasy. It is a detective series, inspired as much by Raymond Chandler as J.R.R. Tolkien. The main character is not a king or a prince, and her goal is not a throne or the salvation of her people. She is a private investigator, and all she wants is enough gold to pay her rent and keep her in whiskey for the foreseeable future.

Sofya

Sofya Rykov

Sofya Rykov is a veteran of the Great War and a victim of its final weeks. The daughter of a wealthy noblewoman, she had secured a cushy position guarding a Fey Reactor deep in Human territory. In the last days of the war, the Leshin launched a desperate attack on the reactor and detonated it, killing thousands. Well within the blast radius, Sofya should have died that day. But she barely survived, and in the wake of the disaster found herself with unstable magic powers that no Human before her has ever possessed.

Frightened of what Humans or Leshin might do to her if they discovered her powers, Sofya withdrew from society and now ekes out a living as a mercenary, investigator, and (occasionally) con-woman. She is assisted by her friend and doctor, a Leshin by the name of Heremon ir-Caldy.

Overworld character sprites.

Overworld character sprites.

Each chapter of Echoes of the Fey will start with a client, a mystery, and an angle that will force Sofya to explore her own magical abilities as well as the evolving relationship between humans and Leshin.

While the realm is nominally at peace, the truth is that new wars are brewing. During the conflict, Humans united under the banner of the powerful House Lapidus, which now asserts a claim to an empire that spans from the Leshin border to the eastern coasts of Oraz. Imperial troops spread across the land attempt to maintain Lapidus rule against other ambitious families and county governments. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, the new Leshin leaders—The Alliance of Free Cities—struggle to unite a people previously only united by their religion. New extremist factions have emerged in the wake of the old clerics disbanding.

Echoes of the Fey is centered on the Human border city of Vodotsk, a scarred city that had been occupied by Leshin forces for decades prior to the peace accord. Humans and Leshin, just months separated from a brutal war, struggle to co-exist peacefully. The ruling houses of the region are defunct and control of the city shifts between an interim county government and newly-arrived Imperial officers and sympathizers who seek to add the lands to the Lapidus tracts.

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The first full episode, The Fox’s Trail, involves a missing Leshin veteran and the youngest son of a wealthy Human house, Eduard Galkin. The Fox’s Trail will be a choice-driven visual novel with multiple endings and character side quests scattered throughout Vodotsk. In preparation, I (hopefully) will be releasing a free short story/novella The Prophet’s Arm, detailing an early case involving a key side character in The Fox’s Trail.

Hopefully all of this is coming in May 2016, but we know how things get delayed so I’m not ready to put a full release date out there for either the VN or the novella. We work fast and a good amount of the game is already finished but, you know, shit happens. As development continues, I’ll drop by the Woodsy Studio blog for story updates and character profiles. So stay tuned!

Making a Visual Novel in Game Maker

My first three games (Serafina’s Saga, Quantum Conscience, and Serafina’s Crown) were all made with Ren’Py. Ren’Py is fantastic software that is free, easy to use, and reasonably versatile. When I first started making Serafina’s Saga, I knew very little coding outside of HTML, and I was very grateful for a program that required no programming knowledge to get started. After going through the typical tutorials and regularly checking the forums for help, I was well on my way to completing my project.

With Quantum Conscience, I wanted to make something more unique, and to do that I needed to push beyond the standard VN boundaries into the land of programming. I was lucky enough to get some programming assistance from “CheeryMoya” & FunnyGuts” (twinturtlegames.com), who already had a basic infoscreen system I could use, and they gave me some helpful tips on adding a system for reading thoughts. At this point I still had no idea what I was doing with the code, but I was able to get a system up and working. Gradually, as I began to customize and tweak the code, I learned what each line or function meant and what purpose it served. Eventually I was able to add a little code of my own.

Around the time I finished Quantum Conscience, I knew enough coding to be dangerous, but I still couldn’t program something new on my own; I just knew how to mess with other people’s code. So I decided to take programming seriously. Inspired by a local group of women called Coder Girl, I signed up for Harvard’s free CS50 course online. I made it a little over halfway through the course, and although I never finished, I learned enough about programming to jump-start Serafina’s Crown and add the mini-game debate system completely on my own.

By the time I finished Serafina’s Crown, I felt confident enough to call myself a programmer. I also wanted to keep pushing into new boundaries and add more “gamifying” elements to future visual novels. Specifically, I wanted to add a simple world for the player to roam and explore in between cutscenes. Although I could add these elements to Ren’Py with a lot of programming, I wondered if it was time for me to try a new engine. I considered RPGMaker, but it doesn’t yet have enough graphics or porting options for my tastes. So I turned to Game Maker.

My first few attempts to start a visual novel in Game Maker were extremely difficult and overwhelming. It took a ridiculously long time for me to get the tiniest parts of a text system working correctly. Then I found the Edge VN Engine by ThinkBoxly. It was well worth the price to get some solid code to start building a visual novel in Game Maker.

The Edge VN system was a sleek and solid platform from which to start building. But I still needed to build a lot; I remained a long way from the comfortable environment of Ren’Py to which I’d grown accustomed. I needed to add an in-game choice menu, a character costume layer system, character expression changes, branching dialogue systems, and a basic menu system altogether … all things that come default with Ren’Py. Fortunately, the EdgeVN creator, Luke Chasteen, was very helpful to me in my endeavors, and has since continued to add related features to his Edge VN engine.

Altogether, the transition from Ren’Py to Game Maker has not been an easy one. It has taken me several months to set up a coding environment from which I can comfortably write and expect to run smoothly like Ren’Py. Personally, I wanted to grow as a programmer, so I accepted the challenge along with the time sacrifice required. I continue to code other aspects of the game beyond the visual novel scenes, which in my case involves adding a 2D side-scrolling world with parallax layers, animations, and an inventory system. But now that I finally have a foundation with which to build my next visual novel, I am excited about all the possibilities ahead. The flexibility of Game Maker will allow me to add almost any gaming element to my visual novels that I desire.

New team, new visual novel!

A lot of things have been changing for me and my little studio over the last few months. Firstly, I got a new full time job in the games industry, and I have been very excited to work with a great group of devs, artists, and game testers. I’m learning a lot every day and that makes me happy indeed.

But I’m not done making my own visual novels, and although I technically have less time to work on them now, that will be balanced by the fact that my team is growing. Along with Malcolm Pierce, my co-writer for Serafina’s Crown, artist Wendy Gram will join the team for my next visual novel! The visual novel will also be created with Game Maker (thanks largely to the Edge VN Engine by ThinkBoxly) which will allow me to add more game-play elements into the story than in the past.

I can’t tell you much about the new visual novel story just yet, except that it will be a fantasy noir of sorts, with an all new world and all new characters. Here’s a peek at two of the main characters:

Artwork by Wendy Gram and Jenny Gibbons

Artwork by Wendy Gram and Jenny Gibbons

And here’s one of my compositions for the game thus far:

And for the last bit of news, from now on my games will be published through a collaboration with Thesis Games. I look forward to sharing more with you as game development progresses!

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Writing Branching Narratives (AKA Time Travel vs. Parallel Universes)

Over the last couple of years, I have discovered that writing stories with branching plot paths might be one of my favorite creative processes in the world… and also the most frustrating.

I experience the story as I write it.

I truly believe that every writer has a different style and process that works best for her, and while techniques exist to help any writer execute her vision, the truth is that there is no one or even best method for strong writing in general. Personally, I have always fought against the motto that a lot of writers intone when asked how to write: “Writing is editing,” they often say. “Writing your first draft helps you get your thoughts onto paper, but the true writing happens during your second, third, or even fourth draft.”

For me and my own writing style, that motto is bull shit. Yes, I believe that editing is important. Yes, I’m willing to admit that maybe I need to do more of it sometimes. But for me, something magical happens when I write that “first draft.” I don’t approach it lightly. I spend a lot of time thinking, planning, and feeling what I want to portray before I start writing. And once I do start writing, I feel as if my words come to life as I write them. I feel as if my characters are really in the room, saying what I tell them to say, moving as I tell them to move. I feel a bond between myself and the world I’m creating that is fundamental to my ongoing muse. I discover the story even as I’m writing it. The characters tell me more about themselves as I write them; they lead me towards the twists and turns of the plot, even if my outline disagrees with them.

Often, as I write that first draft, I will stop and rewrite some of my freshest paragraphs, tweaking small sections until the scene flows to match what’s in my head. Sometimes, I’ll need to change something earlier in the story to support something new that I’ve discovered while writing the new scene; if so, I make that change immediately.

Generally, this is my process. Although I go back and edit some later, those changes tend to be surface-level, polishing the pace and consistency of the story. My “first draft” is my most important, my most treasured, and often the closest to my final form of the story. This is not to say that I never go back and rewrite scenes or even delete scenes if necessary—that agonizing process writers love to describe as killing your babies. For me, the reason that it’s so difficult to go back and change something from my first draft is because it feels wrong. When I tried to describe this feeling to my sister once, I told her, “To me, that scene already happened. To go back and change it would be like enforcing time travel. It’s just… wrong.

This is just how writing works for me. When the story feels right, it feels right—it feels real—and I don’t just casually change it for the sake of wrapping my book or script into a perfect, tidy package. I’m not saying that’s a writing style to which every writer should aspire. It’s just what works for me, for better or worse, and that’s that.

Okay… so if you’re against time travel, how do you feel about parallel universes?

If re-writing means time traveling through your story, then writing a branching narrative means forming parallel universes.

This, I can do. When I first start creating parallel universes, it doesn’t feel wrong. It feels plain fun. “What if Blaire lets something slip in this scene, and Amalek discovers his secret? Well, let’s find out!” As I write an alternate branch, sometimes I have so much fun that I worry I’m being indulgent. But I can allow myself to do it anyway, because I want my audience to experience an outcome catered to their own decisions for the story, and this allows both me and the player to have fun in the process.

Writing branching plot paths also allows me to discover new aspects of my characters that would have remained hidden, otherwise. For example: while writing “Serafina’s Crown,” I actively fought against making Arken a romance-able character, despite the fact he’s probably my favorite character in the series. Next, I made the mistake of allowing the player to flirt with him, as Odell, on multiple occasions. And while writing one of those flirtatious branches, I felt both myself and Arken finally cave. “Arken wouldn’t ignore a cute girl flirting with him repeatedly,” I had to admit. “He just wouldn’t.” So at last, I started writing a romance path between Odell and Arken. In the process, Arken’s emotional baggage started rising to the surface, and resulted in some great scenes. Now, out of all the other romance possibilities for Odell, Arken is probably my favorite and most meaningful option.

So parallel universes are a blast! But, um, which one’s “reality,” again? Does reality even exist anymore?

Writing branching plot paths can be exhilarating, enlightening, and altogether very rewarding for both me and my audience. Until, like a bug flying into a spiderweb, I get trapped in it.

Wait... huh?

Wait… huh?

And this is when writing branching plot paths quickly transforms from being my favorite process in the world to the most frustrating and confusing ordeal. That “reality” I so enjoyed exploring and discovering when I started writing the story starts to slip from my grasp. While writing one branch, I’m distracted by thinking about what’s simultaneously happening in another branch. “Oh, Blaire and Amalek totally trust each other right now. Except… they were at each other’s throats just a minute ago! Wait, no, that was a different plot path.” I struggle to hold all the different paths in my mind until it starts to feel like a maze. Events start to lose significance to me as I write them, because they don’t feel like reality anymore, just one of many possibilities. And then the writing process which I initially found so exhilarating becomes purely exhausting.

Writing a branching narrative is difficult, plain and simple.

The moral of my story, I suppose, is that writing a story with significant plot branches is no walk in the park. It may seem like a blast at first, and you may feel as if the universe has opened up and given you permission to do whatever you please without consequence. But if you want your full narrative to remain a significant experience from start to finish, branches and all, then maintaining your plethora of plot paths becomes a trying task, indeed.

As I continue to write large interactive narratives (Serafina’s Crown will be my third), I search for ways to ease the symptoms of emotional melancholy and logical dizziness. Sometimes, I try to focus on one plot path at a time, so that I can give it my full attention before working on another. But this doesn’t always work, because for the sake of outlining and tracking production, I need to see all the threads of my spiderweb and how they connect to each other before I continue.

Difficult… but worth it.

It’s difficult. It’s exhausting. It’s emotionally draining and technically confusing. But if you push through the difficulty, writing an interactive narrative can be one of the most rewarding creative endeavors you’ll ever experience.