Mentorship: Maja’s Story

February 22, 2019 by
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Huge congratulations to Maja Bäckvall, who has completed her mentorship programme with us! Here, she talks about the production of her piece Pilgrimage.

Like most people I know, I have a redacted number of half-empty notebooks in my home, dedicated to various unfinished or migrated projects. Before my first mentor talk with Ian for the programme, I went and bought (yet) another notebook: red, A4 format. Bright colours and big pages. At the back of my mind, some small doubts nagged. Wouldn’t this just become one more half-empty notebook in a bookshelf? A year later, the notebook is almost full. Notes from talking to Ian, illegible mind maps, first drafts of scenes interrupted by bullet points about medieval pilgrimage or space station ecosystems (bees in space!).

Relatively early on, we figured out that the game idea I had was too big for a portfolio piece. Instead, we decided that the finished product of the mentorship programme would be one chapter of the full story, but that I’d plan out the entire game. Most of the spring was spent doing this: writing a story bible, a design document with all the major plot points, background information and character descriptions. Looking back, I think this is the part of the mentorship that has taught me the most in terms of new skills. Not being a very organised person, I had rarely done this kind of preparation before, and never for someone else to potentially use. Ultimately, I want to make games with other people, and knowing how to communicate and refine ideas with others is central to that.

Having a full plot outline also made the actual writing much easier. These scenes had been inside my head for so long that when I finally sat down to get them out of there, I was surprised at how quickly it went. The most enjoyable full week I had in 2018 was honestly the one I spent writing the first working draft – blinds down against the horrible heat, alternating writing with playing Yakuza 0, experimenting with cold brew coffee.

Then again, one of the least enjoyable days of the year came at the end of that week, when Inky (the Ink editor) crashed, losing me almost all the markup I’d done. Lesson learned: Inky does not autosave. Apart from that Learning Experience™ (which was largely my own fault), I’ve liked working in Ink. It has a good workflow and makes for fun dialogue branching. The fact that it’s designed to be middleware makes it less than ideal for solo projects by someone like me, with no art skills and only rudimentary programming knowledge, but I’m happy to have it in my tool belt.

The chapter went through some minor reworking and polishing before another first for me: alpha and beta testing. In all, about 20 kind people – friends of mine and Talespinners associates – played through the chapter and filled out a questionnaire. Getting the answers back was such a confidence boost; I’d apparently written something that was understandable and enjoyable for other people? The best part was seeing the characters described. Improving how I write people was one of the goals I’d set myself for the project, and it was wonderful to see that my ideas had carried across to the players. Even better, several testers gave descriptions that made perfect sense, but which I hadn’t thought of.

Of course, not all the replies were positive. The format, tending towards interactive novel, didn’t work for everyone, and my style of writing didn’t click with some testers. That’s just how it should be; nothing will ever be right for everyone. In the end, I made a couple of relatively large changes to the chapter based on the tester’s responses, including adding a new scene and making the story branch more.

In general, the biggest obstacles during the mentorship have been external. A demanding job, an international move and dodgy mental health have all meant that I’ve had periods with very little time and energy left over. Ian gracefully worked with me at those times, but I did have to lower my ambitions on some aspects of the piece. Funnily enough, some of the things I cut to meet deadlines earlier in the year got added at the end, after the beta test.

From a practical point of view, I’ve learnt the importance of pre-planning – and of saving your files. Branching narratives simply get too messy if you try to plan as you go. Keeping track of how much time I spent on each task has proven very useful for forming a realistic idea of how many effective work hours I have in a day (pro tip: it’s less than you think). I’d highly recommend doing something similar for anyone starting out. I also now understand the limitations of solo game projects better; so many narrative problems could have been solved better through visuals or game mechanics I can’t produce on my own.

Apart from the skills I’ve picked up and the tips, great and small, I’ve received from Ian, the mentorship programme has meant actually taking my writing seriously. I came into this programme feeling slightly ridiculous about wanting to be a writer, and a game writer at that. Now here I was, with two professional writers who had never met me before apparently not thinking it was a ridiculous idea at all. That kind of quiet encouragement is priceless. I have a ton of things to learn and get better at, obviously, but I’m well equipped to do so now.

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with Maja – she brings a huge amount of historical knowledge to her work; if you need a medievalist, talk to her! Please do check out Pilgrimage, and let her know what you think!

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