Thursday, July 31, 2014

Write Hard with a Vengeance

I mentioned earlier that editing Hellenica’s dialogue would be worthy of a post on its own. And since I’ve done a fair amount of it recently, I thought I’d make a post about the various steps.

Phase 1 Assembly: I hammer the above freewriting notes into a scene. Usually I do this by picking out the lines I think are particularly good and seeing if I can arrange the rest of the dialogue to set them up. Oftentimes, I'll be ambivalent about the proper approach to a scene, so I'll leave both approaches in to see how my proofreaders react.

Phase 2 Proofreading: At this point, I share the scenes’ gdocs with various proofreaders and they read through them, commenting and suggesting edits for everything from grammar to characterization. I might ask some friends for additional help here depending on availability or area of expertise (such as making sure Nephele's engineering babble makes sense).

Phase 3 Fine Tuning: After the changes suggested above have been made. I make yet another pass at dialogue, either with Bergy or our relatively recently contracted writer, Siobhan Gallagher. These passes focus on tightening up the dialogue, and involve a lot of cutting extraneous lines and making sure each character is speaking in a way that is consistent with his or her voice.

Phase 4 In-Game Testing: The ultimate test of dialogue is seeing how well it works and flows in game. This is an exceptionally important test because while the preceding documents have a bunch of "if you previously did X, go here to doc A, otherwise go to doc B", all of these seams are invisible in the game, which makes any hitches in flow much more obvious.

Phase 5 User Feedback: This is another level of in-game testing, with the distinction that we usually try to get people not as intimately familiar with Hellenica's story. Since as developers we’re very familiar with the story and with information that's revealed in ANY of the various paths someone could take, it's easy not to realize that the party never got a specific piece of information on that playthrough. However, players less familiar with the story might be confused as to what's going on.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Hellenica Environments: Thebes

So, it's been a while since we've shown off a new location, but I have a secret to share. Between my last post about Corinth and this post, we've finished nearly all of the location art! Two quick reimaginings of existing locations remain, and then we'll be 100% complete with the location backgrounds. Praise Zeus!

Exultations aside, Thebes is today's focus. Or at least, Hellenica's Thebes, completely transformed by its railroads. Here's our inspiration:

"Thebes has the ambition and determination of a nation that's been on the economic and political rise for over a decade. Their wholehearted embrace of technology is evident everywhere, from the mechanical design of its buildings to the great factories which have turned the city into the most important manufacturing center in Greece, as well as the primary railroad hub."

And here's Daniel's accompanying sketch:

He definitely nailed the vibe we were hoping for, but we felt that overall, the scene was just a bit too modern for our game. Steampunk ancient Greece is a tricky setting, and we have to work hard to make sure our art doesn't stray too far out of line.

To address that issue, we brought the perspective down lower. Without modern construction materials, it would be impossible to build structures that tall. At this point, you can start to see some more traditionally Greek elements sneaking into the architecture, but it still felt a little too 19th century London. Onwards!

We nixed the windows, removed the arches, really pushed the columns, and traded out the gas lamps for torches. Overall, it felt much more Greek without sacrificing the vibe and the steampunk elements.

At this point, we were feeling pretty good about Thebes, so Daniel spent some time cleaning it up and working on the details. Here's the final version:

And that is Hellenica's version of steampunk ancient Thebes, railroad and manufacturing hub of the ancient Greek world.  The observant viewer might even find a clue about some of the other dealings that take place in Thebes. Let us know what your theories are in the comments!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Writing Hellenica 2: Write Harder

Picking up from the last post, at the beginning of 2013, early feedback convinced us to scrap our first draft of Hellenica and then start over. Some of the changes were structural, such as moving Nephele to the start of the game to place a greater emphasis on steampunk elements. But it was the changes to mechanics that would prove much more challenging.

With our limited art and cinematic budget, a large amount of Hellenica's story would have to be conveyed through writing. As an additional challenge, almost all the writing was dialogue, so most conversations were burdened with the need to convey to the player some important details without making the characters sound like exposition spouting machines. I struggled with this balance during the first draft of Hellenica, but eventually adopted a focused free writing method that improved the dialogue immensely.

Freewriting is a brainstorming technique where you write freely and continuously without regard to spelling, grammar, or sometimes even topic. This is usually done to overcome writer's blocks of apathy or self-criticism, but in this specific case my inability to meditate on what I was writing made the conversations sound much less ornate and technical, and much more human.

Of course, a lot of the material generated this way is meandering, awkward, or just plain dumb. So I needed to compensate by writing a large breadth of options. Most conversations in Hellenica are free written 3-5 different ways, often with different variations with regards to which characters do the majority of the speaking and tones. This gives us an extensive amount of material which is then edited and revised by a process that probably deserves its own blog post.

I continued writing in this manner (along with my programming development) for much of 2013. At first, my tools were very crude, requiring me to individually configure every bit of a line’s information and link it into a conversation accordingly. Eventually, however, I polished the tool to where I could copy-paste whole conversations from the google doc and have the tool set the speaker info and most of the conversation connections automatically.

Even so, writing was still proceeding at a glacial pace, so we began looking for further ways to ease the load. Around Christmas, we ran into Siobhan Gallagher, a short story writer who had been looking to cross over into video games.

At first we tried contacting her to write scenes directly, but the raw amount of background information, both in terms of the various paths through Hellenica and the assumed backdrop of ancient Greece around the year 420 BC, made it difficult for her to make full use of the setting. So, after hearing about my writing process, she proposed a different solution. She would take my free writing notes, that barely intelligible blob of free-form ideas, and hammer scenes out of them. This way, we could still get the really intimate references to our setting that only someone who had devoted  ~ 1.5 years to it could provide (such as Nephele nicknaming Scylax “the Scythian Scythe”), while still speeding the development process and having most of the final dialogue written by an experienced writer.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Writing Hellenica

This past weekend marked roughly the two-year anniversary of my beginning to work on Hellenica. And I thought I might mark the occasion with a review of how our writing process has evolved in that time.

The first writing done for Hellenica was just for world building. We wanted to flesh out what Greek steampunk was and to this end we wrote revised descriptions of the twelve main Greek gods as well as a new series of Greek myths. These were then discussed with Kurt, Bergy, and my mother (whose willingness to proofread every line written for Hellenica has made her somewhat of an expert on it) to help spur our brainstorming.

Thus, while these myths won't show up in the game, they inspired many of the ideas that would, including Poseidon's wrath towards Corinth and Nephele's job as a priestess-mechanic.

By late fall of 2012 we had a first draft of what a playthrough might look like, and it was riddled with flaws. One of the early issues was that I made an effort to write characters as having historically accurate views on gender. This ended up being distracting because it felt like every character, right down to Socrates, was a huge misogynist. Beyond that, characters frequently spoke in unnaturally overwrought dialogue (at the time, I was more used to writing essays). Additionally, our primary steampunk character, Nephele, didn't show up until a third of the way through the story, downplaying some of our setting's unique elements.

Bergy and others went over these flaws with me in sometimes excruciating detail. At the time, Bergy told me not to worry, I should probably expect to rewrite everything at least two more times. While his words of wisdom didn’t have the desired encouraging effect, they did end up being prophetic. But, that's a story for next week...

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Hellenica Characters: Xenophon

Last week I introduced you to Brasidas, the refined product of militaristic Sparta. This week, I'm introducing Xenophon from nearby Athens, who's much more scholar than soldier.

Xenophon still has some tough lessons to learn about combat, but until then, we wanted to make sure his enthusiasm for war shines through. He comes over-prepared for any encounter with his bag of scrolls and manuscripts detailing the tactics of his idols, and even a scytale!

To take it even further, we opted to replace his spear with his helmet and yet another bag of reference materials, as if he's just grabbed his things in a rush to make it out to the battlefield.

At this point, we were still trying to figure out the right facial expression for Xenophon. We wanted him to look enthusiastic and hopeful, not cocksure, so to that end we tried to round out the eyes and eyebrows and open up the smile a bit.


In parallel with the search for the right face, YDY cleaned up the image and worked out the colors. The traditional colors for Greek soldiers were white and a dark, royal blue. We thought the first rev strayed a bit too far from the source material. We've also been trying to stick to natural hair colors, so we had to nix the blue hair.

The other detail we had to work on was the shield. While we technically used the iconic Athena owl image at first, we just didn't think it looked great on his shield. We asked our artist to tie in the Greek colors and try out their own take on the owl, and I think the result speaks for itself!

Let us know what you think!