Congratulations to Stefano Zocchi, who has completed his mentorship programme with us, through times of lockdown and Covid! Here Stefano discusses the piece he developed as part of the programme, Project River.
Popular knowledge says that the first step is the hardest one. Reality is more complicated than that, but it’s true that setting things in motion is often a big problem – and deciding to submit my project for a mentorship spot wasn’t simple. Sure, impostor syndrome is something all creators are intimately familiar with, but in this case it was compounded by other considerations – one towering above many, the fact English is my second language and the fear that putting energy into narrative design would be a waste of time, considering the advantage every other candidate to the mentorship could have in that department.
But I wanted to at least try, and I wanted to give it everything I had. So I came to Ian with an idea: a cyberpunk story set in ye olde Europe – in dark and moody Milan, to be specific, far from the glitz and glamour and class divide of Gibson’s Sprawl or Dick’s San Francisco. A sprawling megalopolis vaguely based on the Blue Banana theory (Google that, it’s an amazing rabbit hole), rooted in a different culture from the traditional US fare, drawing from the city’s past and present problems – one above all, a system of regularly overflowing underground rivers and canals – damp, rainy, with a solid dose of noir and a varied cast of characters of different ethnicities and identities. Ian found it exciting as well, and – to my surprise – I made it through selection. We set on refining it and turning it into a great game that showcased my design and writing ability.
This is not what ended up happening.
Or rather this is the path we set on, but a path and its destination are two entirely separate things. And while I was focused on the destination at the start, the more time passed the more it was clear that the real treasure, if you pass me the sappy and overused and badly mangled metaphor, was the things I picked up along the way. The goal was to realize a vertical slice of a plan that was the size of an average indie game narrative – the full work was way more than a single person could handle in a year, especially while only hammering away at the keyboard at night and on weekends, so we settled on a proof-of-concept single chapter from the central part of the game.
That goal was reached, but I’ll get to that in a bit. I’ve been mulling over the Big Lesson I learned from the process for the past few months, at the end of a process that saw me go through a global pandemic, two separate job changes, and personal tragedies I would rather not mention, and I’ve come to a simple conclusion. There is no Big Lesson, but dozens of small, details-focused lessons that you cannot learn until you go through a proper production process. Taking an outline and going through with it from conception to playable prototype was an incredibly formative experience that gave me invaluable training and information.
Writing documentation is hard. Your descriptive ability and flowery prose work against you – dryness is the name of the game, and bulletpoints are even better. Flowcharts work like a charm while descriptive paragraphs force eyes to glaze over and cause confusion and friction; to someone coming from a humanities background like me, that was a tough but necessary lesson to learn. Ian, ever the patient martial arts teacher, hit me with more “do it again, but properly this time” emails than I can count until we reached a satisfying point – something that immediately paid off, as I was commended on my design-writing ability when I ended up applying to my first industry job.
Testing is complicated. First, nothing’s done until it’s done – finding volunteers is hard, and making sure they actually play and do your surveys even harder. Selecting your participants and your questions is complicated, with a lot of nuance and a certain level of iteration, and learning exactly what questions are worth asking and at what stage is an art in and of itself. People’s reactions to your work, when prompted for details, can be surprising – in both the extremely positive and extremely negative sense. Dealing with unexpected feedback never gets easy, but going through a couple dozen replies taught me a lot about how to handle curve balls and how to compromise when (inevitably, in game development) things require unexpected adjustments.
At the end of the day, I made something good. And now that it’s over, I realize it could be even better with more testing and some cleanup here and there – but that’s the thing: I now have a proven method for improving, testing, and refining any work I do. What I’m left with is a solid portfolio piece, a showcase of my writing abilities, but more importantly I’m left with the experience to repeat this process all over again – this time knowing the most effective methods and approaches from the start. I didn’t just learn how to make a good game, I learned a method, and methods are invaluable.
I could go on for pages and pages, but I’d be betraying everything I learned about brevity, so I’ll stop here. This project served a much more important purpose than the grandiose work I originally visualized it as, and I’m immensely thankful for it. I have a chapter of a game that I’m proud of but in which I still see faults and things that could be improved; and, one day, I will sand all the edges off. But this path has reached its destination, and the things I picked up along the way made for a much bigger treasure than the final destination I wanted to reach.
And I can’t wait to set out on a new trip.
Congratulations, Stefano, on getting through this project during difficult times, and we wish you all the success with your career!
You can play Stefano’s project live on Itch.io here: https://mrmandolino.itch.io/projectriverportfolio