We’re All in This Together (2015): a dystopian text adventure about connection and mental health.

During 2015 I made a scifi-horror Twine called We’re All In This Together.

In the game, you play an “inspector” in a near-future London, tasked with rooting out individuals with a hallucinatory affliction by scanning their memories. The story unfolds through the protagonist’s daily work routine.

Gameplay revolves around using a “neuroscope” to scan your patients’ recent memories, before deciding whether to release or quarantine them. The neuroscope returns 3-line haikus composed of random memory fragments. I’ll do a technical write-up at a later date if there’s enough interest.

The first few scenes may take a little while to load, particularly on mobile devices, as this is where all the heavy-lifting is done in terms of preparing all these memory fragments.

It takes around 30 minutes to play and contains violent imagery.

There’s a bit of background information here about the game’s subtext and the broader cultural themes that played into its creation.

Getting started with storytelling in your game dev project

This post is intended as a non-exhaustive primer for anyone who is making games from more of a mechanics and art perspective and who might struggle a bit with story or narrative.

Let’s start with what those two words mean, because they mean different things. “Narrative” implies the existence of a narrator. While a story is a series of events – real or fictional – the narrative is the *telling* of the story.

So, let’s fast-forward and say we’ve already decided on the story. There’s some bad stuff going on in the world, because of an evil wizard. So far, so standard. But maybe the king was secretly involved? That’s slightly more interesting, but it’s only interesting if we don’t know it from the beginning.

That’s the difference between story and narrative; as narrators – in any medium – we can choose to withhold information until specific moments, when it would be more impactful to the audience to find out. Or we can reveal it in more or less interesting ways, for example, having information come from an unreliable narrator or be delivered in a way that it might be missed – like background clues in a murder mystery.

Once we understand that distinction, we can start to think of the difference between story and narrative in terms of the audience (or player) experience. When is it most impactful for the player to learn of the king’s treachery, and how should they learn about it? Reading a letter? Overhearing a conversation? A slow drip-feed of subtle visual clues on things, royal seals where they shouldn’t be, and so on?

This question of “how” brings us into design and production considerations. When I teach students to make narrative games, we often use an engine like Twine or Ren’Py which is meant specifically for creating interactive fiction. The reason for this is that the on-ramp to adding elements like voice-over, text-boxes, branching dialogue and so on to an action game in an engine like Unity or GameMaker is much longer.

So the first practical question should always be; “does this game need an explicit narrative at all?” How much background information can be inferred just through the environmental design?

Do we, as players, care why the dungeon in your action RPG exists? Perhaps not. But even if it’s not worth the time to implement a system that can deliver extensive background lore to the player, it might still be worth having the dev team work through these questions to help guide their design decisions – both aesthetic and mechanical. Knowing that the dungeon was built by a religious fundamentalist cleric, verses a scientist obsessed with cruel experiments, is going to give the whole place a different flavour even if it’s only at the level of decorative objects. But it might also have a relevant influence on gameplay flavouring when it comes to things like enemies and weapons, too.

After considering what story can be told through the environment, my next piece of advice would be to consider the cost of implementing each type of narrative device. A narrative device, broadly speaking, is any “method” for delivering story content. In a movie, this could be, for example, a regular scene, a flashback, a voice-over. Games use all of these, and more medium-specific methods (like, for example, object descriptions in the Dark Souls games).

I would then think through different ways of delivering parts of the story I want to tell, e.g:

  • in the environment during gameplay
  • between levels (not as cutscenes, but as short interstitials visa vie Darkest Dungeon or Mirrors Edge)
  • through found documents or recordings
  • through voice-over and/or text-boxes (let’s not even think about implementing player dialogue choices at this point, urgh).

The list above is, in my mind, ordered in easiest to hardest, or cheapest to most expensive, or however way you want to think of development effort/time.

Environmental storytelling is not cheap or easy to do. So why have I put it first on my list? Because it’s about making clever use of the part of the game that you have to develop anyway – assuming that you’ve already got an action/strategy game taking place in an environment of some sort. Things like “the city is ruined” or “the forest is haunted” are such generic tropes that we don’t even consider them storytelling. But they are; and the visual specifics of how the city was ruined, or why the forest is haunted, are interesting to explore, both as a developer and a player. How far can you get with placing “clues” to these questions in the environment before even having to think about having to include a different type of narrative device?

Giving the player things to notice and work out for themselves is great, but if they are fundamentally trying to play an action game, they will miss a lot unless it’s repeated. My favourite element of playing Elden Ring was observing the in-world funeral processions and gradually developing my own theory about how they tied into the gameworld’s economy in some way. Is there a document or character somewhere in the game who might have told me about this instead? Probably, but I don’t care to speak to them (they’re probably a weirdo).

Storytelling through interstitials like comics and animatics can be a relatively cheap way to give some vital information – or to provoke a sense of mystery. But my advice would be to always lean toward the latter.

When I teach narrative design, I don’t lean much on traditional Narrative Theory, but one thing we do regularly use from Roland Barthes are the concepts of action and enigma, and of paying attention to the balance between these things. To put it as simply as possible, how often is your game/book/film telling its audience something, and how often is it making the audience ask by giving some incomplete information?

This interplay is fundamentally what gets people hooked on serial TV series like Game of Thrones or Lost. Every time one question the audience may have about the world gets answered, at least one more gets thrown open. So they have to stay to find out.

So, when you decide to put that little comic-book cheap-excuse-for-a-cutscene between your levels, make it count. Don’t use it to exposit any more than you need to – let the player do the finding out during gameplay – if they can.

Let’s take Darkest Dungeon as a best-in-class example. In the interstitials we see and hear “the Ancestor” who is generally fretting over something awful he’s done. But in true Lovecraftian style, there is usually a considerable delay between hearing someone express their feeling of regretful dread and seeing the source of it. The interstitials at the beginning of a game section are used to create a call of “what have I done?” which is usually answered by the player encountering some in-game abomination. At which point they roll their eyes and say “that pesky ancestor, he’s been at it again!”

Found documents and recordings can be a great way of meeting in the middle, telling a piece of story that’s been frozen in time, but allowing the player-character to reveal it as they’re exploring the environment. They also add a bit of human character to post-apocalyptic or ruined settings which might otherwise be lacking that kind of humanity.

If you’re going to use audio notes or diaries in this way, consider the following things:

  1. How can I chain together entries so that the player learns a bit more each one. How do I make it so that there is a point to listening to three of these rather than condensing it into just one?
  2. What is the player learning from this set of recordings? If it’s something simple and local to the level (like learning where a key item is hidden) is there some way I can contextualise this in the broader world-event to add more information? (e.g. “I’ve hidden the key in the thing, because otherwise the looters…” < like that but better).
  3. What is the “voice” of the person recording the message? What is their unique character? Even if it’s just someone who appears for two or three diary entries, some sort of unique turn or phrase or odd preoccupation or obsession will help to satisfy players who want your story fragments to feel like genuine story and not just key items in a safe-combination puzzle.

As with most creative tasks, the truth of “how is this sausage made” comes down to planning. Make a rough table, split up what I’m going to learn about both the story and its storyteller into three parts, and maybe think about how the tone of each might change, before actually trying to write or record any of the player-facing text or speech.

The great thing about logs/diaries etc. is that, although they may be somewhat overused, they do allow you to experiment with characters telling stories in-game without having to have the characters interact dramatically in real-time. Which leads us to…

… the last category I want to talk about, which is actual real-time dialogue, where an in-world character is speaking as a voice-over or using text-boxes. In terms of “how to do this well” you want to attend to a lot of the same things I mentioned earlier:

  • What am I learning in this scene/dialogue, as a player.
  • Is this the most interesting way to learn about it.
  • What is unique about the character talking to me? Why do I want to interact with them?
  • What questions are going to remain unresolved, so that I still have some sense of mystery pulling me forward in my mission/quest?

But, those creative questions aside, in terms of implementation, you should really exhaust all the other options on the list before you attempt to implement characters talking in real-time.

You have to pause the game in a way the other methods do not require, and you have to have events/triggers which are of a magnitude more complex to get this working. If you want characters to speak during gameplay, you’ll also probably need to do stuff with sound-ducking (although the same would be true of found logs too).

If you’re making a smaller project (like a student game, for example) will the multiple weeks it takes you to get all of this working be worth it?

As with most advice I give, it’s not a hard and fast rule. Never say never. But sometimes the “cheaper” way to achieve something is genuinely better. If you want to make a first person shooter where the main character is constantly narrating things in a voiced-over internal monologue, that could be very cool, but there needs to be a good reason for choosing to do this, over other methods which might be easier (style and aesthetics can be reason enough – but you have to be able to justify them to your dev team).

Although I haven’t gone into any of these areas in massive depth, I hope this primer gives you what you need to start thinking about narrative in your games. Narrative is the method by which we allow players to encounter the story events. At the forefront there are two key areas; the form (narrative) and the content (story). In terms of content; trying to identify what would be most interesting or intriguing should be top priority. In terms of form, work through the different ways of delivering story and think about which gives you the most “bang for your buck” in terms of difficulty of implementation verses what it adds to the experience!

WAITT (2015): Post-mortem of an experimental Twine game.

So, a couple of Halloweens ago, I released We’re All in This Together, a creepy bit of interactive horror fic set in a near-future London. I’d been working on it for a few months, and I’d built a little game engine that let me create a mishmash of hopeful visions of what London might be like in 10 years, peppered with bits of surreal body horror.

One of the things that can feel really weird making art online is this: Often you spend time on something, you think a lot about it, you jettison it to an audience – every one of whom has every means of contacting you – and quite often you get very few queries back about what you said, made or meant, besides maybe the odd technical “how did you do that thing?” The philome.la page that currently hosts the work says it’s been played (read: started) the best part of a thousand times. Why so little interest in what it’s supposed to be about? Did people play it until the end (and there is an end)? Did I end up making something so cryptic that people just took it at face value, as a piece of sci-fi horror?

We’re in a time when a really strong feedback loop between a work and it’s creator can exist, but that doesn’t usually mean it will. Very few people filter through to my main Twitter account from @str_voyage, for example. And that’s fine.

I guess I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me to write this. So for the benefit of anyone who did want me to – but for whatever reason didn’t ask – here’s an explanation of where my head was at with WAITT.

As a project, this started with a very “gamey”, mechanical premise. I find it very difficult to write traditional branching-story style IF and, so, when I’m learning a tool like Twine I tend to go more for attempting to build gamey little systems with it. I admire people who can write traditional IF but I don’t think my prose-writing is really up to it just yet, and I am drawn to trying to make tools do things they weren’t really built for.

So there’s that, for a start. I’d worked out how to shuffle together a couple of sets of phrases to form haikus and then ask the player: “Are these phrases all from the Good deck, or are some from the Bad deck?” This quickly went from a murder-whodunnit toward the concept of scanning people’s memories as a sort of inspector and trying to work out if they had some sort of hallucinatory infection. There’s a strong thread of surveillance-phobia, thought-policey type stuff, and the imagery that comes out in these hallucinations is visceral and violent – it’s all stuff I’d tossed about in my angsty little brain years and years ago when I’d toyed with writing comics.

But as I worked on the project more and more the meaning sort of morphed into something unexpected. I had this thought at the back of my mind; what if the game’s ‘infection’ was actually trying to do something beneficial for people, and these weird visions and violent episodes they were having were more like a side-effect; their minds and bodies rejecting this new state of being that they weren’t ready for? Whether it was something alien to the world, or something man-made didn’t really matter – the idea was that it was trying to connect people together and some people were simply having a negative reaction to this.

Let’s face it – social media is a bit of a shit-show.

I’ve deleted my Facebook account at least twice, usually after some meltdown involving an argument with someone who doesn’t respect my boundaries or display what I’d consider a decent grasp of etiquette when talking to my friends. Twitter is frequently a place where the more toxic elements of 4chan, reddit, the MRA community and so forth will occasionally bubble to the surface, and too-frequently pick a fight with me. There are many occasions when I have given individuals far too much credit, far, far too much of my time and the benefit of the doubt when dealing with them.

So this is where WAITT started to turn into a bit of an allegory for me. There is a common criticism floating about that we tend to be creating or entering echo chambers where we don’t allow dissenting opinions. It’s the kind of thing cultural conservatives say when they feel unfairly shut down by LGBT activists, feminists etc. The thing is, we’ve heard the conservative point of view all our lives already – it’s still the status quo upheld by most of the institutions of our culture.

It’s not a matter of the culturally progressive left needing to listen more. To put it more clearly; I believe echo chambers are a thing, but I don’t think this phenomena is equally distributed across the political spectrum, because conservatism was always-already grounded in not-listening. Not-listening, not-acknowledging, or pretending-to-have-acknowledged are all important parts of conservative political praxis.

I say this as someone who grew up in a place that voted single-issue nationalists in as members of the European Parliament because they thought it would help them kick immigrants out of their country. These people are loud, and there’s nothing they’re louder about than the idea that they’re being silenced.

What I see happening today on social media isn’t a blanket refusal to acknowledge differing views. What I see is reactionary elements losing their shit whenever anyone asks them to listen to something other than the status quo.

This is the allegorical heart of the silly piece of tech-noir body horror garbage I built 4 years ago. Communication should be a good thing. It should increase empathy. And you can make plenty of perfectly valid criticisms of our social media technologies and how they have this or that impact on our ability to properly communicate complex ideas. But when a group are so deeply entrenched in this sort of social Darwinism – that they see everything as a contest for resources of some kind – they can only react with derision and aggression toward the notion that they should listen to other people for a bit. Listening is conceding. Listening is losing ground. Listening is allowing one’s mind to be poisoned by the idea that you just might have a social responsibility to people you don’t even know.

People can already plug into a device that gives them access to millions of other brains, some very different from their own. And how do they use it? They find someone suffering and react with “triggered” memes and similar types of performative callousness.

There’s this level of perverse pride, a sense that “well, other people in my peer group and society at large are going soft and using people’s preferred pronouns but I’m the rational one who doesn’t listen to other people when they say they’re hurting”.

Nearly everyone has the technology on the bedside cabinet to spend 10 minutes reading or listening to something that might give them a unique insight into the internal life of another person who’s different from them.

But there are a lot of people who find this level of interest in the thoughts of others completely alien. The emotions, the beliefs, the subjective experience of others are pollutants. They reduce meaningful, theory-grounded terms to buzzwords and perform all sorts of deliberate misinterpretations to avoid these contagions, like it’s going to make them stronger, like it’s going to stop them being on the wrong side of history.

As a piece of sci-fi, WAITT is a pretty biased, personal concern about what would happen if something were to come along and make it easier for us to read each-others’ minds. And, of course, like a lot of speculative fiction, it’s clumsily commenting on the present rather than thinking about the future.


Haiku Gacha! (Twine)

Doing a bit of spring cleaning around my projects folders and found this… didn’t think much of it at the time but figured it’s probably worth publishing so other people can have a poke at it.

This is a very simple Twine file which generates trite emo haikus, with a timer which counts down to when the next one is available. Uh, enjoy, I guess?

Subverting combat mechanics in RPGMaker

Every so often I mess about in RPG Maker to see if I can trick the combat system into doing something it’s not designed for. Here’s a little animated .gif of an interrogation minigame… presumably for some sort of High Fantasy Buddy Copy thing.



The out-of-the-box RPGmaker combat system usually looks like:

reduce the enemy’s HP to 0 to end combat and win. Do this by using physical attacks (DEF save) and magical attacks (MDEF save).

In the above example I’m using HP as “cooperation”. The suspect drains their own HP with most of their actions, and the game throws a bespoke “win” event if you keep the suspect’s HP (cooperation) above 0 until a certain round. You can improve the suspect’s cooperation by either using Persuasion abilities (defended against by a stat called Suspiciousness) or Intimidation abilities (defended against by a stat called Courage).

The broader idea might be that, for example, you could reduce their defenses using bribery and the like.

A Strange Voyager’s earliest voyages

About 18 months ago I was lucky enough to be attending Videobrains in London when George Buckenham gave this talk on Twitter bots. George makes various gamey things and is also responsible for a site called Cheap Bots Done Quick (CBDQ) which is a lovely tool enabling non-technical folks like me to make bots to spout drivel across other people’s Twitter timelines. After following several of the bots George talked about – and inspired by a few more later in the year at #Procjam – I decided to set about creating some of my own.

I tend to have a lot of ideas floating around for settings and characters, most of which are a bit too grandiose for me to fit into a one-person hobby development project. For a while I’d been toying with making a swashbuckling strategy game drawing on my love of old Sinbad movies, the early 90s cartoon Pirates of Darkwater, and the 1985 choose-your-own-adventure book Seas of Blood.

Seeing as I had a setting and theme but not much in the way of game-making resources, I decided this might be a good tableau on which to base my first big bot project. Most of my earliest attempts at bots were very much one-line jokes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that but I wanted to try to make something a bit more earnest, because I had a set of imagery I wanted to paint with, and because it seemed like a little bit more of a challenge. I had already roughed out the idea in Twine as a sort of self-playing game, so I had a little bit of the content generated upfront.

Early on, I established a set of rules the bot would adhere to. The bot would refer to itself as “we”, indicating a group of voyagers on the same craft, and it would also speak in relatively simple language. I wanted to imply that the voyagers were naive about the world and to maybe make the reader feel like they were part of the “we”.

On February 21st, 2016 I wrote the only hand-written passage for Strange Voyage – the pinned tweet meant to give context to the overall journey and identify the main characters as refugees in strange waters. Here’s a rough introduction to the workflow I developed in the first few weeks of the project.

First I would rough out a few sentences as examples of the type of stuff I’d like the bot to be able to produce. I’d be doing this in the notes section of my phone, on the train home from work. This let me start with a desired end product, and then work backwards from there to work out which broader concepts/structures/themes I wanted @str_voyage to be drawing on.

At it’s topmost level, the “origin” phrases that the bot can pick from look simply like this:

“#environment# #environmentcliffs#”,

“#weatherstorm# #environmentcliffs#”,
“#environment# #rituals#”,

“#weathermoderate#. #memory#”,
“#weathermoderate#. #environmentcliffs#”,
“#environment# #fishingevent#”

If you’re unfamiliar with how CBDQ works – or more specifically. the Tracery language it runs – each of the phrases above leads to a list of that name, and each of those lists can contain any number or words, phrases, sentences, or even links to other lists.

At the top level, the list above decides which kind of phrases can go with others within the same tweet. For example, fragments about bad weather should be kept away from fragments about play or joviality. Some of these categories ended up a lot broader than is suggested by their old names.

You might also have noticed a number of repetitions in the list above. The randomness in CBDQ is simple; one entry = one chance. This makes it quite easy to make an event rarer by adding more references to the phrases which should appear more regularly. I found this out early on when I introduced the concept of meeting other voyagers on different boats. It was just happening too often so I had to make some of the more desolate environmental imagery have a much greater chance of appearing. I would watch the feed for a day or two and then make adjustments like this.

In the first few months I would watch the bot’s output and self-favourite any tweets which seemed clunky. The two biggest issues I tended to notice were sentences where “a” would lead into a noun beginning with a vowel (e.g. “a archway”). I learned that nouns with vowels either need their own leading structures, or your text has to be structured in such a way that a/an is included in the noun entry.

I also found myself trying to reduce the complexity of some parts which were leading to long one-sentence tweets, where it was easy to lose sense before the end. Yeah, it’s nice the first time your bot tells you about the GREEN BIG GLOWING DIAMOND TREE, but once the novelty wears off you’ll realise it doesn’t really scan. One adjective is often enough.

For me, one of the really enjoyable moments in crafting a bot happens at the points where you’re able to feed new content back into your old passages. For example, a few months in I developed a concept of “treasure” including types of precious metal or stones. This was developed initial as something to be found in caves, or bartered with or for when meeting other crews. However, the descriptors that went into “treasure” eventually found themselves describing weaponry, and both weaponry and treasure would feature in the convoluted stories of the elders, and even descriptions of the sea itself. Sometimes, just scrolling through all the little bits that make up your bot so far can throw out interesting ideas about how you can link what’s already there, instead of constantly adding new stuff.

Press X to Nurture: on Fiction and Fatherhood

Jason Rohrer’s game The Castle Doctrine got some flak on release for how it instrumentalised wives and children as property to be guarded

Because most games are still primarily about agency – regardless of whether that is exercised through combat, racing or exploration – they can’t really convey to young male players what fatherhood is actually about.

Maddy Myers and Seb Wuepper both wrote some time ago about the proliferation of  games where the typical AAA grizzled dude protagonist is fleshed out a little and made more human by giving him a fatherly role.

“I think I’m just playing the wrong Dad Simulators. I can’t empathize with playing as a character that has immense social and physical power and misuses it to hurt the characters in the game that I have come to like, seemingly at the game’s behest. I don’t want to play a game and feel as though agency and value has been misattributed to the incorrect person” – Maddy Myers

One problem I see is that these games – like the movies Taken, Leon or Man on Fire – all frame the paternal purely in terms of justification-for-force. Home-invasion thrillers like The Purge (or its videogame equivalent The Castle Doctrine) provide a fantasy world where being a “Good Dad” is synonymous with being an agentic, forceful individual who functions by dominating others.

Themes of protectiveness associated with fatherhood are just there to provide some sort of moral veneer to typical power fantasies related to directing physical force at other people. These games aren’t really about fatherhood in any real sense.

In my experience, early fatherhood isn’t an exercise in the sort of agency we associate with traditional videogames. For men, learning to nurture children is often about stopping trying to exercise so much control. Fatherhood requires us to unlearn everything we previously thought we knew about manhood. Yet there are still men in the world who believe that doing dangerous things like dressing up as superheroes and climbing tall buildings is an appropriate way to convince courts of their ability to nurture.

Having children has been a difficult adjustment for me precisely because of the reduction in agency it entails. I’m psychologically wired around things that are very difficult to do while carrying a baby around or playing Duplo with a toddler.

Childcare is The Sims or Jostle Parent. It’s a tamagotchi with a direct line to social services.


The boy’s experience of early separation and loss is traumatic. It leads to a strong desire to control his environment … Men see a hierarchy of autonomous positions. Women see a web of interconnections between people. – Sherry Turkle

Books and movies have generally done a much better job than games when it comes to helping me come to terms with this change.

We had our first child when I was starting the final year of my undergraduate degree. During my then-wife’s first pregnancy, one of the film geeks on my course leant me the DVD of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Eraserhead is one long nightmare sequence which, from where I was sitting, seemed to centre primarily on the horror of agency-loss. The protagonist – a stand-in for the director – is left alone with a sick baby to care for, and suffers various metaphorical castrations (the standard Freudian metaphor for a loss of agency).

Lynch likes to say that this is his most ‘spiritual’ movie, which I think is just his pretentious way of saying it’s the only movie he ever made which is primarily about his own feelings.

Why does a movie like Eraserhead exist? If men are bad at expressing themselves, its doubly true when their emotions are socially unacceptable; childish even. At its core, Eraserhead is about the selfish, stupid feelings that creative people have about becoming parents. When will I finish my magnum opus? How will I ever get to become heavyweight boxing champ now? The film allowed me to acknowledge that this is to some degree normal, even if it’s something that people don’t talk about.

A spiral of guilt. Feeling bad about wanting to do things that require focus and the use of both hands. Seeing your partner take to the whole thing more naturally than you. Finally seeing your inner child for the spoilt brat they are.

Will Self’s Book of Dave pretends to be a piece of post-apocalyptic scifi, but it’s primarily a parable about how our culture churns out men who are ill-prepared for fatherhood. Titles like The Last of Us fail to address this because their mechanics leave little room for dadly expressions that move beyond the vengeful or protective. They can’t correctly emphasise inaction. The medium won’t allow it.


Traditional videogames are poorly equipped to deal with a transition which is primarily about the diminishing of agency. It’s not rare to hear game designers raise these sorts of concerns. Lofty ideals about how there must be something more that games can be about. I’m not talking about the stuff of cutscenes and dialogue; but the mechanics that make the game a game.

Games stop feeling like games when they deny us agency. We start to call them slurry terms like “walking simulators”.

hockey dad
most contemporary representations of fatherhood in games aren’t a long shot off the “Hockey Dad” fighting game in a 2003 Simpsons episode

Being a grad student is a lot like being the presumed player of the latest open-world 500-hour completion sandbox game. You’re assumed to be the kind of person that can just show up whenever and play for 9-hour sessions. A teenager with a never-ending surplus of free-time and paradoxical cravings for fantasies of free-roaming.

As I moved through the Ph.D., things mostly went well on campus and at home. That’s primarily because I tried my best to treat the thing as a regular weekday 9-5. During the first year I only worked 4 days a week and had The Boy to myself on Fridays to do bonding and stuff. I’d usually be around at breakfast time, and home to cook dinner and put His Majesty to bed.

But there was a creeping sense that I was entering a place that was unsuitable for people with young children. When you’re a dad in their mid-20s, academia is full of older folks who think you’re a bit young to have kids.

The archetypal grad student is a bastion of agency; working until 3am everyday, generally swanning about doing what they want most of the time. These assumptions were embedded in things like conferences, where I felt great guilt going away for 3 or 4 days to arse about drinking and using long words in self-indulgent contexts under the guise of professional networking.

I feel an ongoing conflict between wanting to have a “decent” job before the time my children are grown, and knowing that academia will most probably mean less money and more away-time than other more mundane things I could be doing. Combine that with the imposter-syndrome that comes with studying games in an old-fashioned uni with no games programme, and it has been paralyzing at times.

lee clem
press R2 to STFU and listen for once in your life

Fatherhood is like one of those bad escort missions, long ago consigned to game-design history by fans and developers alike. Children are mission-critical NPCs with bad AI and friendly-fire permanently on.

Some days I wish that the only requirement for being a good dad was punching a bunch of Bad Dudes in the face while looking cool. Then I remember I’m probably not alone, and that’s why The Last of Us and its ilk are so popular in the first place.




merging the mundane and fantastical in game design

A lot of games stick to the safe territory of superheroes, sci-fi and high fantasy, and for good reason. In these settings, the differences between people can be greatly exaggerated into noticeable differences in the way that characters behave in-game; their personalities, skills and abilities. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the merging of character personality, look and function in archetypes (the ‘fire’ character is lithe, quick, red and angry!) Videogames are often about shooty shooty, bashy bashy, so we use similar sets of crude numbers to represent what people are like (strength, agility, intelligence and so on) which aren’t necessarily relative to anything in reality. We use them because most players are familiar with them and because they’re easily relatable to stuff the player might want to do in-game.

How do the characters of the TV show Lost fit into traditional RPG class archetypes? What makes someone a Paladin rather than a Warrior? If Sawyer and Kate are both “Rogues”, do they represent different sub-classes of this archetype? Try the same exercise again with something even less fantastical (e.g. a ‘kitchen sink’ drama).

We make games in ‘tombs’ and ‘dungeons’ because these fantasy standards provide an environment designed entirely around navigating traps and monsters to find shiny stuff; a contrived assault course with some tentative link to reality. A dungeon can be relatively non-functional and abstract. So can a post-apocalyptic ruin. If everything is alien or ancient or destroyed then we don’t have to consider things like the logical placement of toilets in an office building. This is one of the reasons why Steam is so awash with procedurally-generated games with “dungeon” in the title.

I like epic dungeons and spaceships, but I have very little desire to make games set in them. Part of it is about maintaining a manageable scope*, but its also down to these settings being saturated. I don’t want to make a worse version of a game that already exists. I don’t even want to make a better version of an existing game, because ultimately I’m motivated by creativity and novelty. But that doesn’t mean I can’t take familiar tropes and make something fresh out them simply by turning them on their head a little.

a tongue-in-cheek approach to an existing ‘geek’ genre may be more achievable for new developers with less resources.

Recently, I’ve been playing with the idea of introducing the mundane into generic fantasy and scifi settings. Terry Pratchett’s discworld took the normally grandiose genre of high fantasy and delivered the same epic stories but in a much more grounded and tongue-in-cheek way, in a world where there are  guilds for Lawyers and Glassblowers as well as Rogues and Mages. Comedy science-fiction like Futurama, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Red Dwarf is also able to explore big ideas and ‘what if’ scenarios without taking itself so seriously it becomes cheesy and unintentionally hilarious. And there’s a sizeable amount of people for whom the staffroom banter and romantic subplots in Bioware games are one of the most memorable parts (self included). I would happily play Mass Effect and DragonAge games minus the combat – no joke.

Back in early 2014 and friend and I made a short jam game** about running a VR Parlour in a cyberpunk future. During the process we both realised that we were essentially making a game about jobs we have both done in our late teens (he used to work in video-rental place and I worked in a record shop). Even Papers, Please is about doing something mundane in a setting which could easily have been used for a AAA shooter like Just Cause or Homefront. Fallout Shelter is also a very mundane game set in a fantastical world. So are Recettear and Kairosoft’s Dungeon Village. Often these games can be a way of using ‘hardcore’ gamers’ existing tastes to draw them into more casual modes of play.

Mundanity isn’t a goal in itself. Sometimes games about mundane tasks such as managing a business or caring for a person or creature can become time-sinks which provide the same sort of pleasure as scratching your butt***. But I am noticing this pattern in a lot of my ideas. What if the player runs a crèche for the children of superheroes? What if the player runs a dating agency for Tolkien-esque fantasy characters?

In the next post I’m going to talk about all of this in relation to a 2-4 player card game I’m developing called Hook-Up Heroes.

*I spoke about issues relating to scope for new developers here.

**You can play VR Tycoon over at itch.io but it is very very broken.

***”Richard Rosenbaum offers a good explanation of how operant conditioning techniques are used in casual games to make them addictive.

My First Twine is a randomly-generated scifi-horror detective thing (of course!)

I’ve been meaning to get stuck into Twine for a while but had been putting it off until I had a real idea to work with. I’m a big fan of randomly-generated flavour text, and I’d been messing about with the theme of memory-hacking in my writing for years. In We’re All in this Together you play a “neuroscope” operator in a near-future London. There is a plague spreading which causes some sort of psychotic breakdown, and its your job to read the memories of your “patients” and quarantine those whose memories seem… iffy. The memory read-outs are presented to you as little stream-of-consciousness type poems, and if you are unsure you can “re-scan” a patient, at the expense of using up more of the day’s energy. alibi The way it works is as follows. The game has one rather long list of phrases which represent “everyday happenings” in the city. If the “patient” is infected (based on a random 1-100% chance, depending on how well you’re doing) then an addition list of phrases gets added, which are the “tells”. They mostly relate to desperation, feelings of aggression, and icky black goop dripping off of everything (because I’m edgy, hell yes). When a patient is scanned with the neuroscope, four of these one-liners is delivered to the player. The tension lies in the fact that, because it’s shitty near-future London anyway, it can be hard to tell what is a hallucination. In the above image, the two passages are as follows: Not infected: “The Big Smoke crawls / Lo-teks around a garbage fire / Warm tea with friends / Spat gum into a passing drain” Infected: “Lingering smell of rotting fruit / Skin beneath fingernails / Incisor meets a shoulderblade / Dub bass from a window up high” In the infected example, the first three phrases are drawn from the pool of “infected” memories, whereas the last one is from the regular memory pool. Next task will be to make it more “gamey” by adding and tuning the resource-management elements, making those “memory pool” lists longer to avoid repetition, and possibly add conversations between days, and events that might change a few things in the memory pool (for example, a

riot breaking out, or the nature of the virus changing after a certain number of days). I’m thinking about dropping that to three phrases at a time. Might make it more poetic, and more challenging potentially? You can try it out here. Probably, unless I change the title and then this link will probably die.

“Shadowy Assassins Spare Deserving Henchmen”

Being a videogame henchman used to mean a guaranteed early trip to the morgue. But recent reports suggest an increase in non-lethal techniques among vigilantes, with life insurance premiums falling as much as 30% in some areas. We interviewed one city guardsman who had experienced mercy at the hands of a masked criminal.

“Because of my ethnicity, I used to only ever get job offers as a middle-eastern terrorist,” the guard told us. “In retrospect, I’m glad I stuck it out and waited for something in dystopian law enforcement.”

“You’d think it’d be a more dangerous place to work, given the gothic architecture and omnipresent sense of doom, but at least the vigilantes here tend to show some mercy. All I got was a sore neck and a fine for replacing a lost keycard.”

“I was taking the usual, predictable route through the chapel – mumbling out loud about my wife and kids – when I found a colleague collapsed, full of darts. I bent over to check his pulse, and all of a sudden this silhouetted figure swept down from the cloisters, like the leather-clad shadow of a cat from a nightmare.”

But despite leaving work unscathed, the unnamed guardsman doubts his assailant’s altruism: “Although his weapons were non-lethal, there was a real sense he was only sparing me as part of some greater achievement.”

“You hear stories about others who aren’t so lucky; ripped to pieces by dark magic or cyborg gubbins. It’s one extreme or the other with these trench-coat types.”

Similar accounts came from a recent attack in Detroit, where an entire squadron of police officers were tasered unconscious and left in the building’s interconnecting ventilation shafts.