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.

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