Solace State has seen both challenges and growth in 2019. We’ve also got a chock-full of pictures to share with you. Let’s celebrate our efforts from 2019 – from GDC, to Kinda Funny Games E3 showcase, to TCAF Comics x Games, and more!
Summer 2018 has been a season to remember for Solace State!
In May, Solace State brought on board Gabi (@UndeadOoze) working full-time as a programmer from May through the first week of June, then part time for the rest of the summer. We also worked with Silverstring Media (@Slvrstrng), narrative consultants, and Seage (@Seageart), 2D character artist, on contract throughout the last few months. Everyone has been contributing their utmost; Our first ambitious milestone was to make a submission to Indie MEGABOOTH. Indie MEGABOOTH for PAX West is one of the most competitive pavillions in the world to apply to showcase indie games to excited consumers.
In June, we continued to polish this build, and by the last week of June, I travelled to Utrecht, Netherlands, for the INDIGO 2018 Expo on June 29, along with 40 other games. Run by the Dutch Game Garden, most of the games are by the Dutch, and some are from European developers; Solace State was the only one invited from North America. From the event, we connected with Utomik, had three pieces of press, and was selected by XGN.nl as one of four best-in-show games. Later in July, Utomik even followed up to connect with me to do a live-stream!
On July 13, less than two weeks after my Netherlands trip, I traveled to New York City with an updated build to Game Devs of Color Expo that took in some of the earlier feedback to improve on its choice mechanic. We had been periodically improving on the game build since it has had a lot of public exposure and concentrated feedback from local devs. I also did a talk about how Solace State became a social impact game (full stream here). Both the game and talk were well received, with Solace State mentioned on 7 publications and shows, including Kotaku, NPR, Polygon, and Intelligame Radio. It was shortly after this trip that I realized how much I need someone to help me on vlogging, video promotions of development, and marketing in general.
I received some timely feedback that my business and marketing plan are weak, which is actually a blessing because it coincides with my gut feeling about how I should structure my company and project. After consulting with Ryerson Transmedia Zone (TMZ) Mentors, TMZ teams such as Blackout, Paere, and Cherrydale, non-profit leaders, friends working at tech titans, and other published interactive digital media studio owners in Toronto, I refocused on sharpening the company’s vision to create an audience-community that encourages social healing and advocacy for marginalized stories.
The hard work paid off. In July I received a wonderfully surprising email: That I have been invited to participate at Indie MEGABOOTH. I will be showing the game with new build additions at PAX West, in Seattle on Aug 31 – Sept 1, at the smaller, more experimental pavillion Indie MEGABOOTH’s MINIBOOTH!
I will be showing Solace State at #PAXWest2018‘s @IndieMEGABOOTH at the MINIBOOTH on Aug31-Sept1! #SolaceState is a 3D #visualnovel about a young hacker who comes to her political awakening with her friends in a sci-fi surveillance society. More info here: https://t.co/PWcS86yoMm pic.twitter.com/YPGqaMBi2D
— Tanya Kan 🔜 PAX West (@VividFoundry) August 10, 2018
Please stay tuned! After PAX, we hope to keep building more content and perhaps even a vlog or two about my experiences travelling to show our new Solace State demos!
Peace and love,
Tanya Kan reporting in: There’s been a lot of behind the scenes activity for Solace State! In the past 9 months, I’ve been focusing on a lot of very diverse moving pieces of work that I have not written about in a blog post yet.
First of all, we have a new-ish trailer with new music by Robby Duguay, and lots of new in-game footage. The trailer is edited by yours truly. Don’t worry, the text will slow down to a pace that you’re comfortable with reading in the visual novel for the actual playable build itself.
We’ve been expanding our team. CJ “Seage” Howlett have been working with us to create beautiful character art for Solace State! He has a fantastic fantasy and fashion arts background and he streams some of his art commissions online frequently on Twitch!
Here we are showcasing the game at Bit Bazaar at the CNE.
I haven’t done a speaking engagement since the last half of 2017, but Sept 2017 onwards was very eventful. I spoke at two industry events at Toronto International Film Festival (DIALOGUES 2001: An Immersive Odyssey and CONNECTIONS New Technology & Immersive Storytelling) and connected with documentarians who are doing some incredible work and wish to dive into VR and interactive story-driven experiences. I took the opportunity to describe how politically complex and engaged work is as necessary as ever within even entertainment media. I also spoke at Make Change Conference on social impact games; A talk that I hope to polish – and with more than 3 hours of sleep before its delivery – and harness parts of it later on as well. I also showcased the game at Dames Making Games’ first ever Damage Camp. Finally, a small chapter demo of Solace State was selected as an official selection at the Regent Park Film Festival. The chapter was very well-received and I thoroughly enjoyed the programming at that festival!
Gearing up for #tiff17! Excited that I’ll be presenting as part of a panel and a speed networking event! I’ll be partaking in DIALOGUES 2001: An Immersive Odyssey, and CONNECTIONS New Technology & Immersive Storytelling. Extremely keen to make new networks! #filmindustry #vr #newmedia #immersivetechnologies #solacestate #vividfoundry
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I have also been working on a lot of writing in November through January, and have grown in my confidence as a writer to develop a story of complexity that presents how difficult it can be for communities to protect each other’s livelihoods and bring about a more peaceable society.
Silverstring Media are always a joy to work with. They have helped me wrestle with some of the hardest questions, including how to write about societal dramas, to how to stay productive and energized as a writer. I can’t wait to share more about my writing process as we get closer to launch, because the questions that the Silverstring team have engaged me with have been so substantial. I have also worked with Silverstring Media on Matt Makes Games’ and Noel Berry’s Celeste to offer narrative consultation on East Asian representation, and this was a most enjoyable and inspiring experience!
At the same time, I have increased the amount of bizdev learning over the course of 2018, including attending an accelerated course at the Artscape Launchpad program and participating in Ryerson’s Transmedia Zone.
— Launchpad (@LaunchpadTO) October 18, 2017
Artscape Launchpad’s Creative Entrepreneur Program was fantastic in helping me reframe my mind around how to consider everything from the presentation of my business, to accounting, legal, marketing and grants. Launchpad brought in some great experts to walk artists through the process, and I highly recommend its classes and other events. Our cohort is fantastic and it’s great to learn from other artistic peers about their business directions. The whole experience has been very healing for me.
Transmedia Zone also gave me resources about pitching and offers a huge library of business development resources, and in the future I have their mentorship program to look forward to as well. I have been working with an intern at the Zone and engaging her with directions on branding and social media as I learn the material myself.
Bring that all together, I’ve been teaching myself more about social media use for branding, as well as taking advantage of my contacts in legal and accounting to ask questions to augment my learning. In turn, I have been getting more involved with consultation as an entrepreneurial artist, as well as engaging with community groups and legal thinkers to discuss about education and society. The community involvement helps ground my work as well, in a “bigger-picture” sense, and also helps me think outside of the box as a creative.
For the month of February and March, the bizdev side has been my focus, and it does take a lot of energy out of me. Grants and finding sources of funding have also remained at the forefront the last several months. From April onwards, I will be refocusing on strategizing set hours around writing, while I work on a bit of design during other parts of the day. We aim to have a new build out later this year to share with you all!
It was a joy to be interviewed by Lucy O’Brien, IGN Games & Entertainment Editor. We had a very reflexive conversation about some of the challenges that women face in the video game industry. What makes her piece stand out is that she examines deeply at our roots, our first spark of delight at finding game development as a viable path, to the systemic barriers, and finally to the actionable elements that can help us as an industry improve. Ms. O’Brien had interviewed 55 women and non-binary game developers from around the globe, and it’s extremely empowering to hear the stories that resonate with me. If there’s an equivalent to a palatial mural of our times on women’s experiences today in the games industry, this is that article.
Read about it here!
The no-girls allowed reputation around video games is further encouraged by years and years of mainstream advertising that has turned its back on the female gender (or sleazily revelled in its aesthetic). As video games continue to be primarily marketed towards boys and men, boys and men continue to primarily develop them.
… “To be honest, I would like to see a whole change in the way games are marketed,” says Vee Prendergast, a game developer from Perth. “Mainstream game advertising is still so male-oriented despite the target audience having completely shifted.”
This viewpoint is shared by Tanya Kan from Toronto, a game developer who frequently contends with the ill-educated idea that video games are, by default, ‘shooters’ or ‘gun games’, an idea as archaic as believing every video game console is called a ‘Nintendo’. “The moment I tell a bunch of strangers or friends I’ve not seen for a while that I make video games, they immediately think I’m going to make the next Halo,” says Kan. “I’m like, ‘I make pacifist games.’”
GDC17 was a great time, and I was happily surprised by the positive reception to Eviction Notice! Because of this, I want to share some of the core elements of design that drove me and the art direction that I pursued with this small-scale VR project.
Eviction Notice’s design premise is very simple. It is primarily a linear narrative where voice-overs are triggered by gazing at objects around the room, which causes them to vanish. The story is about a young woman who is being forcefully evicted from her home for political reasons. So the overall feeling is that the space becomes more claustrophobic as it empties out, even as you examine artifacts that bring up feelings of nostalgia, whimsy and melancholy.
Compared to some other interactive projects that I’ve created, the core design of the project remained the same today as it was from its outset. From the feedback the game received, it worked really well within the core strengths and technical limitations of the Oculus Gear VR (without controllers).
I went with an aesthetic that was developed from my other works associated with Vivid Foundry: Painterly, with colours like a more muted version of Wong Kar Wai’s films (In the Mood For Love, shown below). I wanted to create a sense of homeliness and of a fleeting moment in time (as sociopolitical impressions upon a person often are). Thus, the scene is set with a kind of smoggy, urban dusk.
I’ve always loved setting up lighting, and creating colours in both raster textures and shaders in Engine. Because this was built for mobile VR, there’s a lot more limitations for post-production, but it was thus an interesting challenge adjust the look between modelling programs and Unity constantly. That’s the fun part of being the sole level builder, to really have the fine adjustments and control over the look of the game.
Additionally, when I was travelling in East Asia in 2012, I spent some time with the Society for Community Organization, a non-profit organization for the life and dignity of those in poverty and an advocacy group for public and grassroots housing. I must’ve shipped back hundreds of dollars’ worth books from SOCO and overseas, many of which I offered to friends of the East Asian diaspora.
When reading their publications, I was struck by how the interior spaces photographed create deeply anthropological documentations to underprivileged groups, while simultaneously tell deeply personal, social stories about loss in family and community. I’ve also had the privilege of speaking to volunteers and locals there to discuss the plight of both the working poor and the shrinking middle class in East Asia, and the civil society ramifications of this. These themes thus embed inside my writing for the entirety of Eviction Notice.
These were originally research for Solace State, but some of my writing, stories and inspirations that didn’t make it inside Solace State made its way to Eviction Notice. Thus, the two interactive experiences share very similar visual language as well. In many ways, Eviction Notice is suffused with “happiness within sadness”, while Solace State is about “sadness within happiness”.* I’ve also studied civic engagement for a good few years both during and after my academic career, and sought to create an accessible story that doesn’t take the political complexities for granted. It was in having conversations with people regarding their expectations of public policy and civil society that helped me bridge the gap between writing academically to writing for interactive narratives. It’s conversations about family histories, their hopes and fears for the future, and how they seek to protect the things that are most important to them.
Thus, one of the biggest changes to the game from initial planning to its current iteration was actually the script. My friends Kwan and Jason offered the feedback that our early build with a voice-over soliloquy comes off as a lecture (which is only engaging if my politics are very similar to the viewer’s), as a cerebral experience rather than an emotive one. It led to one of my most important design changes, which was to implement an “I-spy” narrative framework to pick out the objects in a somewhat linear manner, with another voice in the room guiding the player.
Here’s one of the lines from my first script:
Compared with this one, after my design changes:
Following this, I’ve also had the privilege to work with Kaitlin Tremblay, whose narrative editing ensured that the dialogue is as evocative and natural as it can be. Afterwards, Chris Donnelly recorded Erika Szabo and I as the two characters whose voices now occupy Eviction Notice: Erika’s voice acting brought to life the owner of the flat, who is politically detained and fears for her possessions in her flat; My voice is that of her friend and the player character who helps her pack away her belongings.
Eviction Notice has proven to be an interesting project for me to direct, design and develop because of its small scope, but still maximizing emotional impact through visual and narrative design.
*Original quote about happiness/sadness attributed to Jungkook in a video behind-the-scenes about Run music video versus I Need U.
I’ve a delightful time speaking with Caty McCarthy, editor of Versions. Versions focuses on AR/VR/MR development at Kill Screen, including experimental works! She asked me questions about collaborative development of Eviction Notice and how it went from game jam to its current iteration with a collaborative team, how it contrasts with my work on my 3D visual novel Solace State, and how we hope people will take away from it.
Eviction Notice is something that came up from a game jam in the Dames Making Games community in Toronto, and it only started in July 2016. So it’s a fairly recent game. Whereas Solace State precludes that by almost two years in terms of its ideation and its concept. I was doing quite a bit of research for Solace State, and it’s about civil rights, youth movements. I tried to find a very diasporic expression for it, something where from my own ethnic background I can compare and contrast it with the institution building in the west, for example through the Occupy Wall Street protests and so forth.
From the research that I did and interviews I did with individuals who are activists or politicians, I also wanted to create a spin-off. A different tonality regarding civil rights, or the loss of culture in a slightly different format. For something like Solace State, I was very focused on breaking away from first person, so everything about that is going against the idea of configuring people in a kind of first-person-shooter experience. I wanted to disrupt that. I wanted to look at a city in a different way, from a different perspective. Eviction Notice, however, is fully into first-person because that’s part of that appeal. You want to be immersed in that environment.
I had a great time on the evening of 2016-Nov-19 presenting to the wonderful community of Dames Making Games! I talked about my experiences so far developing Eviction Notice with the rest of my team. Eviction Notice VR is a game that first began in mid-July out of the Hyperreal Jam that Dames Making Games organized! I covered some challenges that we had developing for the Gear, especially focusing on art and production and narrative design. I also mentioned what worked well for us in terms of feedback structure and keeping everyone motivated.
Thank you for such a warm reception and support from the community! Here are some Tweets and Instagram from the event.
— Julia (@loudmouthjulia) November 20, 2016
— Erika Szabo (@erikaszabo) November 20, 2016
— a lowly henchwoman (@NatalieZed) November 20, 2016
— DMG (@DMGToronto) November 20, 2016
— Braydon Beaulieu (@BraydonBeaulieu) November 20, 2016
— Kaitlin Tremblay (@kait_zilla) November 20, 2016
A photo posted by Jonathan Levstein (@jlevstein) on
Part of the team was also in attendance! From left to right: Chris Donnelly, Sound Designer; Erika Szabo, Voice Actor (Tricia); Kaitlin Tremblay, Narrative Editor; Tanya Kan: Director, Executive Producer, Writer, Game Designer, 3D and Texture Artist, Voice Actor (Lana)
I had a great time presenting at U of T Biomedical Communications Alumni Association’s 10th annual Unconference on 2016-Nov-19! I presented a talk entitled “Designing for Narratives in VR and Visual Novels“. I talked about my modus operandi, and my method of designing from narrative-first then follow through with game mechanics, rather than the other way around. Along the way, I offered tips on how to hone in on a meaningful story, how to interview subjects to create great characters, and more.
— BMCAA (@theBMCAA) November 19, 2016
— BMCAA (@theBMCAA) November 19, 2016
Writing characters? Find someone in real life that represents them and talk to them. Builds realism, diversity and empathy. – @VividFoundry
— BMCAA (@theBMCAA) November 19, 2016
— BMCAA (@theBMCAA) November 19, 2016
Thank you for inviting me, BMCAA!
I am delighted that, since July 15, we’ve been working on Eviction Notice VR for the Samsung Gear. It’s something that we’ve contributed to whenever there is a moment outside of our regular work, and we have continually looked at ways that we can innovate on our way to tell a narrative story well.
One of the major changes was in creating a new narrative, one that moved from monologue to a much more conversational story. The vision of the game was always to clear a home due to a forced eviction for political reasons, and the player can piece together the culture within which this character lived. People who played the previous build found that it was cerebral and intelligent, but didn’t engage with the emotions. And it’s a story about forced evictions and injustices that can definitely tug at the heartstrings and make people care. The script that I wrote, in contrast, felt more didactic, almost like a political speech. So, after hearing this feedback and listening to the concerns of the team, I decided to write it so that it was a cellphone conversation between two characters, and the player is helping her friend pack up everything. This gave a level of narrative immersion that really helped tell a better serious story.
We also embedded some particle effects and visuals to make the space more interesting to look at. I think, in the future, the particles need to be designed better so that they all come from a similar style of art, so that you can really anticipate a uniform visual look.
— Tanya Kan (@VividFoundry) October 29, 2016
Yesterday we showcased our game for the first time at Akimbo Toronto Arts Show VR Showcase. One of the amazing piece of feedback we got from the showcase is that, the first time a player heard the voiceover react to something that she did in the game world (that is, looked at a laptop to put it away), it made her feel like the voice-over represented her actions and the gameplay felt that much more immersive. Another great piece of feedback we recieved is that the soundscape gave an embodied sense of the enclosed interior. However, those who are unfamiliar with the VR medium did take a while to get used to the gameplay and the visual space.
— Akimbo (@akimboart) October 29, 2016
We’re still going to continue to explore innovations in game design and mechanics to hopefully make Eviction Notice VR that much more immersive. This is just one of the first steps for us to approach mobile VR storytelling!
— Tanya Kan (@VividFoundry) October 29, 2016
Also shout-outs to some incredible Dames in VR, female-led teams who are doing some incredibly artistic experiences in Rift VR. Nicole Del Medico, middle, is showcasing Never Forget: An Architecture of Memory, and Kim Koronya is showcasing Globes.
The #HyperRealVR Jam was one of the most fun and involved jams that I’ve ever had. And we are still working strong on our current game on the Gear VR: Eviction Notice.
It’s hosted by Dames Making Games at Gamma Space, a community that I’ve known for years for being incredibly welcoming and warm. Right away, I feel at home, even though our newly formed team on Slack have never worked together before.
There are some step learning curves for some members of our team that they tackled with grace, quick thinking and flexible adaptation. Chris Donnelly created some amazing voice-overs and ambient sounds, and helped scope down the project to hone in on the key lines of dialogue that our 3D objects are associated with. Kat Pavlov did an amazing job by creating a lot of assets within the 3D low-poly game arts pipeline for the first time, including a table, laptop, two pill bottles, florescent lights, first aid kit, radio, and takeout box (that’s 8 objects, you heard). Ksenia Eic breathed life into the game space with some very nice textures within a low-poly pipeline that is completely new to her too! Mic Fok made sure everything works with coding wizardry, linking sounds and interactive objects together, that the fading and highlighting shader works and works beautifully. And I did a bunch of 3D stuff like bunk beds and the room and textures, mentored the others on 3D modelling and texture work, did general quality control, level designed the room together in Unity, tried to make sure the narrative script made sense, and probably made rambling dad jokes.
We did a bit of preparation work days before the jam. We knew going in that it would be a narrative and artistic experience focused on creating memories and feelings in the player, rather than a VR game about skill and gameplay. As such, because we only had two nights and three days to have a working game, we decided that it makes sense for me to do the narrative writing ahead of time to create a preliminary list of art assets that require 3D models. We had decided to have a fully custom modelled environment where you can interact with all the objects that your gaze lands upon. Once an object is active, the voice-over would tell a story about the memories behind that artifact.
The game started from an idea about cultural disappearance due to a forced eviction. This small scope allowed us to focus on a small space that can still be ripe for exploration and lots of detailed objects. I wrote a story that drew from the idea of the disenfranchised classes and their lack of political opportunity in a city full of corruption. In this way, it ties itself thematically to my larger project, Solace State. The game allows you to hear voiceovers of the protagonist as she picks up the items around her tiny flat, exploring shared communal memory across generations.
This was a really adventurous project because none of us have worked with the Samsung Oculus Gear VR on Android before. I have never developed for mobile, although I have some experience with the Oculus Rift DK1 and DK2. Thankfully, with Mic Fok’s familiarity with programming for Android, we created a level that demonstrated our main mechanics and feeling of the game at the jam. I also insisted on a low-poly pipeline because, at the time, we weren’t certain what hardware limitations we may be running into. This proved to be very helpful, as all of the art assets we created during the jam can be used again with baked lighting instead of realtime lighting, the latter which was much too heavy to perform for VR on the Note 5.
— Chris D. (@gruber_music) July 17, 2016
As of the second week of August, 2016, we are currently working hard on adding more presence to the experience. Right now, as you complete interaction with the artifacts, they fade away, until you are left with an empty room. We are adding more features that activate more interactivity through the gaze in VR, to make the experience more dynamic. Although all of the story has been written and recorded, we are adding more 3D assets that associate with those voiceovers.
I’ve had the honor to be interviewed by Conrad at Kill Screen. Our interview focused on how my political philosophy brought about an unusual aesthetic and game mechanics in Solace State, as well as many of my narrative designs and inspirations. It was such a fun conversation, and I’m so happy that a publication that I’ve been following for years has interviewed me!
I caught up with Kan as she was returning from a talk about Solace State and the politics of affect at the Different Games Conference in Brooklyn. “The idea is that you affect others and others affect you consistently and continuously,” she said about Solace State. “There’s not one root cause of events, as is in contrast with, for example, Marxism and its modes of production. It’s much more indeterminable. What this means is that politics [are] very open and political change is bound to happen.”
Both of these interviews were a lot of fun and the journalists asked some really interesting questions! They also created interviews that had completely different angles, which was really interesting.A lot of new things have happened since my last update! I have been so busy lining up new builds, collaborating with new specialists, and also organizing around travel and work-vacations.
Pushed a new build in first week of April that has a new, tighter script, with completely revamped 2D art and new camera functionality. The demo build is about 20-30 minutes long gameplay, depending on how fast you read.
I am seeking some help in programming from Andrew Traviss (Fate Tectonics). He’s designed an isometric camera track system that replaces my previous one so that I can tween on a path. Hacking camera sequences are no longer on a linear path, which opens up so many new ways I can design the 3D world.
I am the sole 3D artist in the foreseeable future because of the uniqueness of the hack isometric camera sequences and how I can structure the level build around that, and also putting in the ergodic text associated with my narrative. This build had more texture optimizations and some extensions on primarily the Airport scene (first scene in the game).
A 2D fine artist, Ian Hsu, is very happy to provide conte illustrations for character art. This includes both gestural, full-body drawings as well as character expression portraits. It finally matched the look that I had in my mind, to create a more “mockumentary” or editorial look.
I also illustrated clickable objects in the same style and medium. They are then edited from photograph by me and put into the 3D game world as sprites and buttons.
Showcases and Talks
I talked about the influence of political theory on my game design for Solace State at two conferences: Intersections Cross-Sections Graduate Conference & Art Exhibition (henceforth ISCS, run by Ryerson and York University), and Different Games Conference in Brooklyn. The reception was very positive, and had some good playtesting feedback as well. People are excited to know more about the story and are curious about what they would find by the time they do find Rebecka, and what happened between the main characters.
— Kara☽ Stone (@karaastone) April 9, 2016
— Ansh (@lightnarcissus) April 9, 2016
— CS Wallace (@Hengde) April 9, 2016
— Priya Rehal (@Preezilla) March 12, 2016
— Eileen Mary (@elmahka) March 12, 2016
— LUDIC Arcade (@LUDIC_arcade) March 12, 2016
At ISCS in March, I had to showcase an older build that is very similar to the one shown at Canadian Video Games Awards / Bit Bazaar. At Different Games Conference, we were showing the improved art and camera mechanics for the first time.
Future talks and showcases
I am very lucky this spring to have received coverage from two different publications:
Femhype asked me about my process and methodologies as a game dev [see part 1 and part 2].
Kill Screen conversed with me about Solace State’s theoretical influences, narrative, and why I designed the gameplay as I did [see here].
Both of these interviews were a lot of fun and the journalists asked some really interesting questions! They also created interviews that had completely different angles, which was really interesting.
I have had the honor to speak with Miss N at Femhype about my unusual game development process and especially about what drove the development for my 3D Visual Novel, Solace State. Read the two-part interview here: [part 1] [part 2]
Miss N: A lot of your work revolves around narrative-driven games.
What drew you to making those kinds of games?
Tanya: I’ve always just made sense of the world through stories for as long as I can remember, as soon as I had the language to form sentences. Undergrad especially sharpened my desire to shape narratives through the study of media forms and power in governance. I’ve always wanted interactive ways to talk about society—even if they happen to be imaginary ones. And governance itself can be seen as having a structure that has constant rules and standards of play.
And much more! I really enjoyed this interview because Miss N knows just how to ask such interesting and diverse questions! Thank you, team at Femhype!
This post has been a long time in coming! My game dev and related work have been thriving. It’s been quite an adventure in December and January: I had a great time showcasing the first build at the Canadian Video Game Awards with Bit Bazaar, and I continued working on some build ideas for Solace State. I took some time off during the winter holidays to relax with family and friends, managed to catch a cold, started writing some short stories, and began a new teaching job at university in intro to 3D game arts. I also started networking a bit more to see if there are any local collaborators who can help me with character art, localization and programming.
On Dec 5th and 6th, Solace State had its first outing with Bit Bazaar and the Canadian Video Game Awards Fanfest. Surprisingly, the vast majority people played through a 20-30 minute gameplay demo, which was beyond my expectations. I had set up the demo so that people can skip between scenes and levels if they wish, and practically no one took me up on that offer (unless they were manning a booth and had to run back to their responsibilities).
There were many experienced devs who shared their insight and feedback to me, and is it ever so valuable! Many people enjoyed the main game mechanic, namely the “hacking-scrolling text environment”. Most people seem to enjoy that part of the gameplay more than the straight-forward visual novel mode, and have asked if that part can be longer. They also “get” it right away as long as they know which keys to press (arrows or WASD), which means that it’s only been my communication about it on devlogs and social media without gameplay input that has been the real problem.
Second, the constructive critique of primarily other gamedev community members have helped me re-scope. A lot of the times, what I see as less-than-ideal in the game are also highlighted by fellow devs. It seems that I’m not far off the mark with my own self-assessment.
As much as I’ve been writing in some academic or professional capacity for about 9 years, writing for a visual novel game is a different beast from all the creative writing that I’ve hitherto completed. I tend to write much more like a novelist than a typical comic book, where a lot of the key identifiers of the protagonist is clear on the first page. Of course, there can be twists and back-stories down the road, but nonetheless, key motivations are already set up in the first ten, fifteen minutes. Solace State doesn’t quite have that. That’s not necessarily game-breaking, as narrative-driven games like Gone Home and arguably Dear Esther has created a much more gradual reveal of their characters’ vivid colours and internal contradictions. But I do need to balance between what I save for later, and what I reveal in the first ten minutes of the game.
On the flip side of the coin, I also have to remind myself to keep conversations and scenes to be more organic, and less utilitarian to the greater arc of the plot. Without a doubt, there should never be “filler material”. But, I also strive to describe those moments and beats that reveal something intrinsic about the characters and how they feel to each other, what they mean to each other. It’s these little moments where relationships can be built, and can fall apart.
What’s interesting, of course, is that games are becoming more of something that doesn’t get consumed in one sitting, whereas plays and films are. The middle ground to all of this is to emulate some inspirations from television drama, which takes a more episodic approach to its narrative arc. At least, this is the way that I have framed it, and it has helped me acknowledge which scenes may have too much detail, and others not enough screen time to develop the right emotional beats.
Again, it’s worlds different from writing an article or novella; My usual playgrounds, where a single line can leave one breathless with its impact.
There’s a few people who have pointed out the incongruity of the semi-cartoony character art with the rest of the universe, including the 3D environment and the tone of the writing. I happen to agree with them.
There are a few approaches that I would like to try out:
- Realistic-styled graphite pencil or ink sketches in black & white , which I am capable of producing myself, but can take half a day for a single expression
- A digital painting in lino-block style in black & white, which I or another artist can produce, and doesn’t take as long as the graphite pencil sketches. This would be in a similar style to what’s already produced in the mood trailer from Feb 2015
- Collaborate with photographers and a lot of modeling talent. This requires a lot of upfront collaboration and is highly reliant on what kind of new faces and talents I can find. I’ve started making some inquiries into this. It may be the most expensive, but may also be the one that creates the nicest effect, giving the game a semi-mockumentary feel. It might also cost me less time (see prototype below)
People seem to love wandering through the 3D environment as a purely artistic experience though, so I’m not going to change anything there. Just going to add more content!
With some feedback, I’ve decided to do a prototype of hack scenes that are more primary, cutting out the traditional dialogue format and UI typical to visual novels. There should be textual puzzles that must be solved within its bounds, as well as clickable objects to reveal more narration and dialogue. This is to ensure that the requisite narrative dialogue is met. Each scene should have an intertitle explaining Chloe’s goals, in her own words, so that the player knows what to expect in terms of narrative goals and broader trajectory.
In practical terms of the intertitles, the textual puzzles, and the clickable objects, it means that I should maintain a key plotline by consistently (re)defining where Chloe might find Rebecka with new sources of information. When we start off, we discover gradually who Rebecka’s last contacts are.
Key stuff on the to-do list: Upgrade from 5.2.4 to 5.3.x; Create Save and Load variables; Create a history log for dialogue; Create a variable mini-encyclopedia for all characters and places as they populate in the narrative; Improve on the pause screen.
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