Last week we finished the prototype of “Die ochtend, in bed” with a grant from the Dutch Gamefonds and the Dutch Foundation for Literature for a literary game in collaboration with a writer and presented it to a jury in the Letterenfonds building in Amsterdam. Since this happened on our wedding anniversary, we decided to spend the night and visit the reopened Rijksmuseum the next day. In fact, Auriea went ahead to look at prints and drawings. And I did the presentation with our collaborator on this project, novelist Gaea Schoeters.
We showed the prototype running on my iPad, explained the concept and walked through its creation history. And now we’re waiting to hear if we get the grant for development of the complete game.
Die ochtend, in bed (That morning, in bed) is a fairly abstract presentation of a scene in Gaea’s novel De kunst van het vallen (The art of falling) in which the new lover (played by the computer) shows objects to the protagonist (played by you) who then says something about the object.
Initially we wanted to offer four ways of responding: truthfully, lying, evading or ignoring. I made a HTML 5 prototype in Tumult Hype with placeholder images and a computer-generated voice.
The design was inspired by our love for interactive CD-Roms of the 1990s. One of the ideas was to expand each object scene as a sort of puzzle to discover the four options.
Based on this prototype, Gaea started cutting up her novel and putting parts of it back together in a branching narrative.
I was quite excited to have a writer design our game. In order to get a better overview for myself, I first implemented Gaea’s design in a web-based Twine project.
How this played in a browser didn’t matter much to me. What I was interested in was the flowchart that Twine creates as you put things together.
Based on the initial HTML 5 prototype, I created a new one, with a design that cheekily refers to popular social media interface (for a brief moment I considered imitating Tinder). The voice clips are from a recording that had Gaea made earlier of reading her book for a library for the visually impaired.
I wasn’t happy with this prototype. I felt that the playfulness in Gaea’s novel of associating different stories with each other didn’t work well in an interactive context. I think this is because, as a player, we don’t trust the computer to make a meaningful connection and quickly assume it’s random. While in a printed book, we know very well that any juxtaposition is fully intended by the author. Another problem with this design was its complexity both to develop and to play with. I also felt it was way too long and Gaea was especially concerned that it felt endless and pointless, lacking some kind of conclusion. I was also bothered by how the four responses (truth, lie, evade, ignore) limited the emotional response a player was allowed to have.
While we agreed on what was wrong about the prototype, and on the kind of experience we wanted to create, we got into a serious argument when proposing solutions. For a while I was worried that we would not be able to continue with the experiment. But we worked it out and we arrived at a beautiful compromise that we are both happy with.
The solution lay in embracing the emotional effectiveness of a traditional narrative arc and using a combination of several short story lines rather than one long one. We chose a four stories of twelve plot points. You navigate from one plot point to another but you can only choose up to three consecutive plot points in a single story line. So the game forces you to jump around, even if you hadn’t done this spontaneously. To add variety, several plot points have multiple versions that the computer chooses between randomly.
We decided to use 3D models instead of images. So I programmed the final prototype in Unity, specifically to run on an iPhone or iPad. We chose a handheld platform because we like the idea that players can replicate the fictional situation of playing the game in bed. For some of the models we’ve used photogrammetry, which we intend to experiment more with. For this prototype Gaea made new recordings of herself reading the excerpts from the book.
The presentation of this prototype at the Letterenfonds in Amsterdam went very well. The people there were very friendly and they had arranged for two press interviews as well. I think we will learn next week whether they will grant us the money for the full production of the game. We would like to add a choice between male or female voice, and hire actors to perform the text. We want to add more variations to the plot points (this includes more objects as well), an introduction that sketches the fictional situation, improved the visual quality, add some effects here and there. And we want to do something with the final story that you play, maybe save it locally, or share it with friends to play back somehow.
If we don’t get the funding, I think we will finish the prototype on our own expense without expanding it, and release that. In either case, the game would be available for free, initially for iOS only. Hopefully we can do Android too.