May 24

2010

Don’t Start at the Beginning!

Posted by: Adam Strong-Morse | Comments (13)

When writing a ChoiceScript game, it’s tempting to think that you should write the game the way that it will be played:  start with the first vignette (maybe with some character-generation questions), then write the second vignette, then the middle vignettes, and finish with the concluding vignettes and epilogues (if any).  That can work, of course, but I don’t think it’s the most effective way to approach a ChoiceScript game.  In this post, I explain why and give my suggestions for how to pick a vignette to start with.

I’m assuming that by the time you start writing a vignette, you’ve already done some planning.  In a previous post, I described how we plan a ChoiceScript game and the materials we produce before we start writing:  a one-sentence capsule summary; an outline of all the vignettes; a dramatis personae of all the important characters; a draft list of global variables; a couple of vivid scene concepts; and any worldbuilding materials we need to get started.  All of those (except maybe the capsule summary) are still subject to change as we write–maybe a character who seemed important is turning out flat and uninteresting and should be cut, or maybe we should combine scenes 4 and 5 or add a comic relief scene between 7 and 8.

When I start writing the first vignette of a ChoiceScript game, I’m not trying to produce a finished product right then.  Rather, I’m trying to get the process going that will end with a really good, fun, interesting game.  I don’t want to ever write a vignette that then gets tossed entirely, but it’s happened, and if that led to the production of a better game, it was still a worthwhile process.  So that means I have to accomplish several things in writing my first vignette.

First, I have to get writing.  It’s all well and good to have the perfect outline or the ideal list of characters or whatever.  If we can’t turn that into actual, playable vignettes, it’s not a game.  As with any writing process, simply cranking out the text is an important part of the process.  Some of the text will be great; some will be terrible and get edited out or redone; and some will be okay and ideally get tuned up or made more punchy, but all of it matters.  And for most of us, momentum matters.  It’s a lot easier to write another chunk of your vignette, because you always write another chunk of your vignette each day than it is to sit down at a computer with a blank text editor scene and start writing from scratch.  So getting the ball rolling matters, because it’s easier to keep the ball rolling.

Second, I have to get a feel for the game I’m writing.  That means a couple of things.  It means figuring out the tone of the writing, the diction, the sorts of phrasings that fit the project.  Is the tone serious and epic?  Informal and snarky?  Melodramatic and flowery?  Any of those might be the right choices for different games.  Also, how much detail do we include?  Is it a sparse game, or a carefully descriptive game?  Is violence or sex alluded to but not shown, described in bloodless and circumscribed terms, described in evocative yet vague terms, or meticulously detailed?  But beyond the level of writing, it means getting a sense for the world I’m writing in.  What sorts of choices are reasonable?  How do people behave?  What do various settings look like, feel like, function as?  I find that a lot of issues regarding feel are best developed through writing.  I’ll have ideas going in, but I’ll need to actually start writing them to turn those ideas into concrete approaches.

Third, I need to have a sense of what’s next.  Usually, as you conclude a vignette, that will produce obvious links to the next vignette.  Conversely, you’ll know where the protagonist came from, and it becomes easy to fill in backstory.  And you’ll have an interest in revisiting the characters in that vignette when they recur later (or earlier) in the storyline.  Either way, having one completed vignette gives you room to right more and leads on how to do that effectively.

Fourth, I want to bring together all three of those points to talk some more about momentum.  In addition to the momentum of a routine, of physically writing more stuff every day (preferably, although sometimes that’s every other day or every Saturday or whatever your schedule can fit in), there’s another sense of momentum.  ChoiceScript games are labors of love, things we write not because it’s our job but because it’s our passion–we write the games because we really want to.  That’s true even for those of us for whom writing these games is part of our (sideline) job.  We could all get better paying work elsewhere, but it wouldn’t motivate us in the same way.  So that means that throughout any ChoiceScript project, remaining excited and determined is important.  There are slogs along the way sometimes–I don’t think anybody really likes getting a bunch of playtest commentary and going through and making small but important tweaks to make the game awesome, but it has to be done or the game will be only so-so.  But the key is to keep motivation high.  Start with a task that’s fun and exciting.  Finish it with more enthusiasm for the project, with a desire to do the next cool thing.  Sure, there’s going to be that vignette that the game needs but that nobody wants to write– but it’s a lot easier to write that when “hey, as soon as we have that vignette done we’ll have a playable draft game!” or “and when we’re done with that, the whole game will be in place.”  Similarly, the thing that gets us through the debugging/editing slog at the end is that we already have this neat game that we like, and when we’re done with that process we can actually release the game!  So a first vignette needs to be part of the chain reaction, driving the project along and making it easier to be excited, not sucking the energy out of the project.  In many ways, maintaining our drive and energy and excitement is the most important part of everything we do on a ChoiceScript game, or any other labor of love.

So those are my goals for writing a first vignette.  Notice that none of those goals, except maybe the third, are helped by starting with the first vignette.  The first vignette has its own set of constraints and requirements (that I’ll talk about at more length in a later blog post)–it needs to communicate the setting, sometimes provide an info dump of what the player needs to know, introduce and define the protagonist, get the feel of the game across, hook the player in so they actually play the game instead of fiddling with it for a minute or two and moving on (perhaps the most important aspect), often generate the starting scores for a set of variables and explain those variables to the player…  That’s a lot of stuff, and most of it is at best unrelated to the goals of building energy and getting the game writing process going full speed.  Some of it appears related, but really isn’t:  you want to convey the feel of the setting to the player quickly… that’s kinda like getting a feel for writing the setting, but they’re actually quite different.  Often, when you start writing the setting will be hazy, and as you write you will, over time, become comfortable and get a good feel.  If you do that while writing the first vignette, you’ll have an ineffective vignette for immersing the player in the feel.  Far better to write that introduction when you’re already comfortable.  If you start with the first vignette, you may well need to totally redo it later.

Also, because there are special constraints on a starting vignette, it’s harder to write than most vignettes.  It has to be grabby AND it has to explain mechanics AND it has to handle any character generation AND it has to present the setting without being a wall of text with no choices.  That means that it can be hard to get started, hard to develop much sense of momentum.  And that makes it a bad first choice.

Instead, I urge you to start with a really vivid, grabby, early-middle vignette.  Not one that’s crucial to the plot or the climax–for reasons similar to the first vignette problems, you want to write those when you’re comfortable, immersed, and in the flow.  But write a vignette that’s easy to write, that you can picture in your mind, that you know how it should feel, and that can get the ball rolling.  That will get you going, will get the game in place, and will position you well to, after writing two or three vignettes, tackle the first vignette now that you have some momentum and want to be able to play through the four vignette set that you’ve gotten going.

So that’s my advice:  don’t start at the beginning.  Start with a really grabby idea, a vignette you’re excited by and can easily picture and really want to write, somewhere in the early middle.  Get the process going, and get a feel for it organically, while you build up habits and narrative momentum that will help carry you over the humps in the project.  And then get writing.

(I should probably note at this point that this is probably the single piece of advice that we give that we’ve most frequently broken.  Choice of the Dragon:  I pretty much started with the first vignette, although it got completely rebuilt by the time we released.  Choice of Broadsides:  I started with the first vignette, although without the character generation material that we added in later.  Our current project:  I started with an early-mid vignette, but Heather (I believe) started with the first vignette for her writing.  But I still fundamentally believe that it’s good advice and that we’ve made trouble for ourselves in the past by not following it, and I’ll try to follow it in the future. :) )

Let us know what you think of this advice.  How have you started your ChoiceScript writing?  Has it worked well or poorly?

13 Comments

  1. Joseph says:

    Thanks for the post, Adam.

    I totally agree with the momentum thing. I’m the kind of person who absolutely needs the feeling of forward momentum in anything I am doing. I try to build my story by going totally nuts the first time I write it and throwing in a lot of random junk and different choices that may or may not lead to story branches I am definitely going to keep later on. My real effort goes into my story the second time I go over it, when I remove anything unnecessary and change things that are rather unrealistic or that have bad continuity. Sometimes I may extend branches a little, give the player one or two more places where they can make another choice or add a paragraph for the sake of story. Third time and onwards is when I refine the work and make it top quality, so people who play it say “Wow, that was incredible.” rather than “Okay, that was fun.”. I’m a perfectionist; I can’t help myself.

    P.S. Still can’t wait for your next game. Totally loving your current ones.

  2. Dominic Bishop says:

    Completely agree with this article, it pretty much sums up what Ive discovered – motivation is completely essential to a project such as this. My enthusiasm has been waning this past week, although I’m like that anyway, we all have our ups and downs.

    I’ve currently been trying to make my game from start to finish – start writing at the start and only writing chronologically. It’s been working so far for me with my novel, so I thought it would with this too. How wrong I was.

    So yes, perhaps it is best not to start at the start, as it were. Thanks for the article, it’s really given me my motivation back. I think I’ll start writing that vignette that I wanted to write to begin with.

    I think some other important advice to go along with this post would be two things –

    1) Enjoy what you’re writing, and write what you enjoy… and it helps to set yourself little targets or rewards if you feel yourself flagging.

    2) Don’t be afraid to break this rule if you have a clear view of what you want to achieve and how you can achieve it – and take breaks every so often if it means you do better!

    Cheers,

    Dom

  3. Adam says:

    Joseph: If the “going nuts” approach on a first time through gives you the momentum you need, great! I would find that very difficult, leading me to positions where I felt overwhelmed by the number of branches that I felt that I “had” to develop. But different people work in different ways, and the key thing is to find an approach that works for you.

    Dom: I think your additional pieces of advice are great, as is the idea of just skipping forward to another vignette if you’re getting stalled on the one you’re working on.

    Good luck to both of you on your projects.

  4. t says:

    MORE GAMES

  5. ',..,' says:

    I may be wrong… But are these posts, all “write ur own choice of …….. And let us host it” an easy way of getting out of writing a game? We dont even know witch game won the vote (VOTE FOR STEAMPUNK)
    if any fans of choice of game’s agree, plz post it

  6. ',..,' says:

    P.S, if i am wrong, plz dont get insulted, i am addicted to choice of games, and the lack of posts relating to YOUR games is making me wonder if there will ever be another choice of games game… And i realy want to know WHITCH game won the vote

  7. BR says:

    I agree with ,.., Who won the vote and is there ever gonA be another gme

  8. Adam says:

    …: There are going to be new Choice of… games. We have one game that’s undergone some beta testing, but is being adjusted based on feedback received. We have another game in development that we expect to begin beta testing by the end of the week. I’m hopeful that we’ll release two new Choice of… games by the end of June, although we’ll see–it wouldn’t surprise me if one of them slipped to July, or even both. We also have several other games that are in the early stages of development, but I don’t even have a guess as to when those will be ready for release. I’ll talk with my partners about whether we’re ready to reveal what some of our coming games are.

    All that said, you’re right that we’re trying to encourage other people to make games. There are only a handful of us working on games for Choice of Games. There are vastly more players. If even 0.1% of the players each wrote one game, that would produce many more games than we can produce in-house in a year. And we think that well more than 0.1% of the players would enjoy the process of writing games. We have a couple of new hosted games in the pipeline–those should release relatively soon. And we’re very excited about that, as well as about our internally produced games.

  9. ',..,' says:

    Kk thx, got it.
    P.s. My name is ‘,..,’ not …: the difference is one is a face with fangs and the other is 3 dots and a colon

  10. Dave says:

    hi there guys, cheers for the really helpful post. your games have inspired me to write my own, which should be interesting for a maths/phys student with no writing experience!
    keep up the good work and i hope to play your new game soon.
    D

  11. CPFace says:

    I appreciate all of the suggestions you’ve given, and I’m taking them to heart as I’m starting to outline my own game.

    There is one more thing I’d like to know, though. What does your beta/debugging phase look like? When you give a game to someone for testing, what kinds of instructions do you give them? Do you tell them to play the game in a particular way, or just let them go at it? What sorts of things do you ask them to look for?

    • Adam says:

      This has varied depending on the game. We do a heavy debugging phase before beta, using the autotester and the random tester, but that doesn’t catch logic errors–hey, didn’t that character die last scene? If we just had a big fight, why is my friend treating me as if nothing happened?

      Most of the time, we ask our playtesters to just play it and let us know what they think, if anything stuck out for them, etc. Sometimes, we know that something is potentially off, so we’ll ask them some pointed questions about it–what did you think of the relationship with Villeneuve? Did that work for you? How can we improve it? In a few cases, we’ve done things like “We have two different starting scenes. Pls try both, and let us know which you prefer.” We don’t typically tell them to play the game in a particular way, because we’re usually trying to test all of the “normal” ways to play the game. If person A decides to be as heroic as possible, and person B decides to be sleezy, and person C wants to be good but cowardly, and those are all available options, we want to know if A and C have a great time but person B finds it awful. (We might do a revision and then ask the beta testers to run through it “trying to be sleezy” to test that specifically, but we mostly don’t do this for the first time through.)

      We also try to have an expanding series of betas. First some alpha testing where we play it, then what we call “spouse-testing” where we ask our spouses, other Choice of Games people, and so forth to test, then progressively broader betas until we’re sending mass e-mails to all of our friends asking for testers. That lets us make some changes after the first round of testing, but still have fresh eyeballs to test the revised version.

  12. Enzo says:

    How do I change the title “My First ChoiceScript Game
    “?

Leave a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe

twitter fb rss

Subscribe by E-mail