I’ve made my first narrative game, y’all, and it’s out now in Sub-Q Magazine (click here to play). In it, you are woman who wakes up with little to no memory of who she is and how she got to an unfamiliar place. Luckily, the surroundings include an AI happy to help by sharing memories of your past. Figure out who you are, how you got this way, and who to trust going forward.
To be honest, first game seems a bit like a weird thing for me to say, since it isn’t my first non-traditional writing experience. I’ve been working on my Choice of Games full-length game for a while now, and I write for Zombies Run! – a long-form audio narrative that gets (and keeps) people running. Still, this is my first released piece of interactive fiction, and I couldn’t be more excited.
I’ll be talking about the coding and interactive side of things (including how I chose to write in Ink and how I dealt with my pantsing tendencies and the structure of coding at the same time) in a bit more depth in an upcoming guest post for Sub-Q Magazine, but in the meantime, I’m going to get into some details of how this particular narrative experience came about on this page.
Of course, one of the amazing things about interactive fiction is that you can’t experience all of the narrative at any one go, and your experience of the story (based on what you read and the order you experience it in and how you take it) could be very different than everyone else’s, including mine. To honor that, I’ll keep the story notes fairly spoiler free while taking a look at how I got from basic idea to a fully-fledged narrative experience.
The Origin Story: The original idea for this story comes from waaaay back (or so it feels like to me) when I first started on my writing journey, in 2014 or so. I was taking a class at the Gotham Writers Workshop and came up with the idea of a woman who has gotten rid of her memories and following her as she tries to piece things together. I actually went back and found that piece to see how it began, and it’s not bad:
I remember words, but not names. I remember to brush my teeth in the morning and close my eyes at night, but not why my body aches when I wake.
Then again, I like the new opening:
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES!
A woman is speaking to me. Her voice sounds…wrong somehow, but something about it makes my neck shiver, like she is licking her way up and down a part of my back I can’t quite reach.
The original story centered around the woman’s relationship with her husband and her child, and I really liked it, but couldn’t figure out how to get it from good idea to good story. I rewrote it once for the Gotham Writers Workshop and once again for my last week at Odyssey, and then I put it in the trunk. I couldn’t figure it out and figured I would get back to it when I could. Still, I held onto the character, as I do from time to time when there’s a character that I like more than the story I’ve written them into. I made up some more backstory for her, picked the actress I would cast if I had my way, put her in my Halfway Home for Forgotten Girls (what I call my Memory Universe) PowerPoint (yes, I have a PowerPoint), and left it at that.
Fast forward a few years and I was trying to figure out an idea for an interactive story when this concept popped into my head. What if the interactive element was being able to choose which memories to see and what to do about them? I knew the character a lot better than when I’d originally written the story and I’d written more in the universe, so I had a better handle on everything. Maybe now it would all come together. I’d ditch a lot of elements of the original story (the husband and child focus, the setting, and the main situation/stakes), but try to hold on to the identity of the main character. And with that, I was off to the races.
Stop! Revision Time!: The original draft of the piece was fine, but it felt a little flat to me. Part of that, I think, is that by coding and writing at the same time, it was easy to be more focused on the mechanics of the story than the narrative. Luckily, I got great notes from my wonderful editor Stewart and thought through ways to add some more depth. The endings were expanded somewhat, and I cut down a few of the memories by a line or two to leave space for the memory about Aunt Lisa, which had been cut along the way. Still after sitting with the piece for a day or two, I realized that the whole thing felt too straightforward in terms of the way the text was presented (all formatted the same way, much like a short story would be). Not only is that not the way that memories work in our minds, I think, it misses the opportunity to take advantage of the flexibility of an interactive format.
I decided to play around with text formatting to see if I could get some of the liminal feeling of thoughts that cross our minds when we try to look back, give the AI a more definitive text style, and even add a slight plot element to some of the way the text was formatted. I’m glad I did it – I think it adds to the experience. To be honest, I also thought about adding audio and visuals, and other bells and whistles, and maybe I will eventually do an interactive piece that includes all of that, but I’m happy with the way the story turned out and looking forward to the next interactive project (and possibly doing a game jam in 2019).
And that’s about enough (it’s hard to do these notes without saying too much!). I’ll talk more about the interactivity and coding elements in my Sub-Q Magazine post and I hope you enjoyed the story. And I’m curious – in the end, who did you decide to turn to for help, if anyone?
‘Til next time!