Mentorship: Kelly’s Story

March 3, 2019 by
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Congratulations to Kelly Hornung, who – like Maja – has completed her mentorship programme with us! Here Kelly discusses the piece she developed as part of the programme, The Dinner Party.

During my first conversation with Ian and Giles, I pitched to them a fully-imagined story that combined my deep interest in environmental economics and interactive storytelling. It was to be an Edward Gorey-inspired gothic tale that borrowed from the narrative philosophy of Punchdrunk’s theatrical productions. The setting would be crucial to the story, as would the details the player could find if they paid close attention to the action and the world around them. As a playwright, I was thrilled by the idea of diving into dialogue and subtext, leading to a dramatic ending that would leave the audience curious as to what had really happened. It was perfect in my head, but there was one issue: this needed to be relayed as a text-based game.

I’ve always been the kind of writer who is lost without an outline, so putting together a design document with references, inspiration, and instructions for mechanics was something to look forward to. I probably even overdid it with the amount of work I put in (a slide show for props and setting, a slide show for characters and conversation mechanics, etc), but I knew that there would be days when I didn’t feel like writing, and having visual cues to put me in the right mood for this style would help. One recommendation that Ian made was to ‘cast’ actors for the roles of the different characters, as giving a face and demeanour to your roles often helps out a team to understand your intentions. This would turn out to help me a lot as I started reaching out to artists.

Things were going smoothly and I had put together a nice little vertical slice of The Dinner Party, when it became apparent that the scale of the game would not work in Twine. The program started taking several minutes to open my files, and lagged and crashed whenever I tried to make the smallest changes. Ian suggested that I switch over to Ink, as it would offer a more flexible way to set conditions, as well as support the size of the game. I was hesitant about this change; I am not a strong coder, and past experiences dabbling with writing in Inky did not go well. But I took a week to sit down and commit to figuring it out with tutorials and practice scenes. Eventually, it made the most sense to go with Ink, even if it would take extra time to learn.

During development, I started putting together a soundscape to capture the mood of the piece and unsettle the player even more. It didn’t make it to the final version, but it was a great exercise in using another medium to tell the story! I ended up listening to my own composition quite a bit while writing, as it helped me better imagine what I wanted to achieve with each bit of dialogue.

Another thing for me to work out was preparing a title card. I knew that having an image associated with the game would help to increase visibility, and at least give the player a small clue as to what they were getting into. I spent a few weeks sketching out characters and considering adding in many illustrations to go with the events of the game, until it became clear that it would double my workload to also be the lead artist on this project! I started looking for an illustrator through #VisibleWomen on Twitter, and eventually came across the work of Julianne Friesen, whose style perfectly clicked with the tone of the game.

Eventually, we made it to playtesting! I was excited to share the first full draft of the game with others, fully aware that it might not work for an audience outside of my brain at all. But luckily, we heard great things! Not only was the feedback we received from our amazing playtesters thoughtful and constructive, but there were a lot of comments that were exactly the reaction I was going for. It was a breath of relief to know that not only were our designed mechanics having the appropriate effect on the players and progression of the story, but that the writing itself was complimentary to the action at hand and told a story that people were able to follow. Hooray!

Looking back over the process, there isn’t a whole lot I would change. Sure, there were weekends where I could have been more productive than others, and it probably would have been a good idea to pace myself a little better on a few late nights, but the program taught me so much about design and player experience that it was worth it to put the extra time in or take a break to process the next steps. Altogether, The Dinner Party took about 103 hours to make. (For reference, the research and writing of my undergraduate thesis over eight months was 74 hours) It was a tremendous effort and many of those hours were spent in a frenzy trying to make it all work together. And yet… I’m eager to do it all over again. Being able to spend so much time in this world and with these characters was a delight, and seeing how others were able to join me in that world was a truly special experience.

I wouldn’t have been able to put this project together without Ian’s guidance and support along the way. It’s easy to picture a writer in a room, typing furiously away at a computer while the words just flow of their brain and narrative magic pours upon the page. But what I’ve learned that is more realistic and effective, especially in games writing, is collaborating with others during each step of development. Having another writer to break apart my own processes and offer suggestions for a better working structure was tremendously useful for getting this project made, let alone teaching me about how writers work with game studios. Whatever project and creative team comes my way next, I’m ready!

Kelly’s grasp of theatrics and atmosphere has been top notch – she set out with a very clear aesthetic in mind and captured it very well. We love what she came up with. Check out The Dinner Party here, and let Kelly know what you think!

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