Congratulations to Diana Flindt who has completed her mentorship programme, working with Ian through lockdown. Here Diana gives us a retrospective on the work she did on her prototype piece, Beasts Within.
I started my project for Talespinners some time ago now, way back in ‘the before times’ of late 2020. Obviously, a huge amount has happened since then, so I was surprised to see that when looking back both at my original pitch and early design documentation, the core concept of Beasts Within has remained largely unchanged. It was always going to be about a character surviving and exploring. It was always inspired by the commercial scientific labs I visited and worked on while at university. The core characters and setting are the same too, though the level of detail they are explored in is far shallower than originally intended. The greatest change has been a drastic descoping of mechanics and player interaction.
The first draft contained a whole multitude of extra stuff. The monster was designed to be an AI that reacted to the noises the player was making (the first working title was 4’33”, in reference to John Cage’s famous piece of silence). The location had multiple levels with puzzle keys to move between them, and the active cast was far broader. With the experience I have now, it reads like a full five-year indie project! I’d like to revisit the ideas in future, but as-is, one of the biggest lessons learnt from this project is the practical reality of descoping.
Much of this descoping occurred due to unexpected external factors, and thankfully they weren’t all negative (though the pandemic of the last couple of years is certainly a significant one). Only a few months after starting work on Beasts Within, which I started as a QA tester with ambitions to move into narrative development, I managed to do just that. I moved into a content development role that’s allowed me to specialise in narrative, resulting in several published game stories to date. Beasts Within was meant to be my big portfolio project to use in narrative job applications, but it ended up being a highly valuable test run of a full production process, and of the hard graft needed to bring a game story to completion.
Descoping was part of that process. The changes were so dramatic that it wasn’t until around the stage of alpha testing that I really worked out what the final project was going to be about, and what interactions I could include to emphasise it.
In a word – control.
Or, more accurately – you are not in control.
In one of our early discussions of the project, Ian asked me to consider where the player would be standing relative to the action. This question stuck with me because player agency is a concept I’ve sometimes struggled to get my head around. It’s quite a subjective idea, varying in execution between games, and with different players wanting different things from it. I ended up using Beasts Within to interrogate the idea that the player must be the master of the game world by the climax of an interactive story. I introduced an important degree of separation; you might be helping and directing via text commands, but it’s your friend Alex who is experiencing the direct conflict. You can’t directly intervene.
And Alex is his own person. He can and will refuse to do as you ask at several key points in the narrative, in a manner that escalates with the tension. First a low-stakes refusal to steal, easily overridden; then a random dice roll low chance that he refuses your direction while exploring the first lab, and instead chooses to take the opposite path. Then, when confronted with a weapon, he refuses to pick it up, horrified that you would ask him to do so, and nothing you say will convince him otherwise. The very final choice is Alex’s alone, based on a calculation of what he’s seen so far.
This weighting of NPC agency over your own actually went down well with testers, and I think resulted in a solid miniature exploration of player agency within a directed story. Given more time, I could have further expanded on the idea – given Alex more dynamic text and changes in personality states based on what you ask him to do and the events he witnesses. I would also have expanded on the replayability aspect of the game, with checkpointing and accounting for the player’s memory on additional playthroughs.
As it stands, the project is one I’m proud of. Being able to complete it in parallel with my unexpectedly soon move from QA to story dev, and then again alongside my even more surprising jump from junior to mid-level, may have not been the original plan, but the practical experience has been invaluable. I’ve got another finished project notebook to add to my bookshelf, and a piece that is imperfect but mine and complete that explores one of the most fascinating areas of making narrative games. I look forward to the next one!
Congratulations, Diana, on getting through this project during difficult times, and it’s great to see the work you’re doing in the industry – best wishes for the future!
You can play Diana’s project live on Itch.io here: https://diana-flindt.itch.io/beasts-within