Monday, October 10, 2016

Devlog Update: The Morphine Western Revenge (#4)

Gameplay footage of a rain skirmish.

In a Nutshell

The Morphine Western Revenge is not done, but as of this week, it is fully playable from start to finish. The past few months, I've finished the game's final two levels, implemented its opening cutscene, and made some final much-needed adjustments to the enemy AI. I also recorded and edited some natural sound effects (actual rain and thunder), which is something I haven't actually done before and had a blast doing. Just so ya know, the wind you hear in the game is fake - that's just me blowing into the microphone.

All that remains is playtesting and some UI work. While I am always hesitant to make predictions regarding release dates, it is hard for me to imagine the game being released any later than a month from now.

As with most pieces of media, the whole work is greater than the sum of its parts. Now that I have a clear sense of what the entire work actually is - a sense of how the story is paced, how the action plays out from start to finish - I'm pretty damn excited about it. Any pessimism I've had about the game in August has been dissolved. This is by far the strongest game I've ever made, as dark and violent as it is.

This will most likely be my final devlog for this project before release, so I'd just like to get a few more thoughts down regarding its development. Specifically, I'd like to talk about the project's central premise and greatest challenge - the adaption of a story from text to game.

The game opens with a campfire conversation.

Regarding Adapting a Novella into Game Format

Revenge, as I've mentioned, is based on Brian Cristi's free online novella The Hyperbolic Needle. Transferring a story with any faithfulness from literature to game is a pretty massive leap. Literature traditionally favors narration and internal monologue; games are traditionally a good medium for demonstrating the causal workings of systems.

While notgames, artgames, and walking simulators aspire to tell more literary stories, such narrative-focused games usually require stronger art direction and overall more production to be compelling (interactive literature being the exception). By contrast, creating compelling action games is mostly dependent upon having solid mechanics. While I can't speak for all game developers, I think that I can make a compelling action game much more quickly and easily than I can a purely story-driven game.

So, with Brian's blessing, the game became a shooter, despite the novella depicting only one violent encounter. The story itself, in both the novella and the game, is the story of a loner traveling through a valley (movement) to enact revenge (shooting). Moving and shooting are the core actions of a shooter game; it was undoubtedly the most fitting traditional game genre for the adaptation.

Once it became apparent that a truly faithful adaption would be impossible, I gave myself permission to take whatever creative liberties with the source material I wanted. Telling the story as I wanted to tell it, under the technical constraints of game development, while still hitting the same narrative, thematic, and emotional beats as the original, was a challenge. It's easy to complain about how the book/game/movie version of a movie/game/book isn't true to the source material. I now have a healthier respect for the unfaithfulness of these adaptions, and am able to forgive most of them. Except for Scott Pilgrim vs the World. The last two-thirds of that movie still disappoint me.

Regarding Horses

Game development, of course, contains many technical hurdles. One of the greatest advantages of literature is that there are virtually no technical restraints on what it can describe - it is as easy to write about a woman standing still as it is to write about a horse in motion. This is not the case in games. Animating horses is hard. Have you seen the way they move? It's fucking unnatural.

Probably one of the biggest changes between The Hyperbolic Needle and The Morphine Western Revenge is the removal of horses. The novella had a lot of horses in it. The game has no horses.

I'm sorry.

Regarding Storytelling

Needle is mostly lacking in dialogue or dictated internal monologue - it's almost entirely told through poetic narration. Because most of the action and scenery in Revenge is presented visually on-screen, most of that narration becomes unnecessary.

If you haven't read it, this is how Needle is written.

The specific storytelling method of Needle works because of it's consistency and poetic style. It is impossible to emulate its style through a visual game, but even attempting to approximate that style would be inadequate - simply narrating the events on screen would be boring.

The best solution was to have my protagonist monologue throughout the game to fill in the remaining plot holes and flesh out her character. This is something that Needle's protagonist (originally named Maya, unnamed in my version) almost doesn't do. We rarely hear her speech or thoughts. Probably my favorite aspect of making the adaptation was to take a silent character from one story, analyze her behavior and emotions, and try to put convey those aspects of her personality through her speech.

However, because the game is less poetic that its source material, I decided to discard much of the original story's spiritual and supernatural elements. This is partially due to my own secular worldview, but also because games as a whole are more usually more literal than the text. To make my adaption more grounded in reality was natural, given the medium I was working with.

That being said, some of the strangeness of the original story remains. Why is the man responsible for killing the protagonists' family and abducting her sister still living in the valley where he did it? Why do his men attack the protagonist on sight? Why is my level design so unnatural? The vagueness, openness, and non-literal elements of the original story gave me some permission for my game to break some of the rules of reality, which was often convenient.

But also, because games take so damn long to make, I had to trim the story to its essential elements. Namely: "Native American woman loses sister to soldiers, takes morphine, returns home, kills a guy, finds sister, [SPOILERS REDACTED]." Any story that fails to hit on these essential elements fails to be an adaption of The Hyperbolic Needle, so I made sure to focus on them. But a lot of the story - namely, the horses - has been omitted or entirely re-imagined.

That being said, I had a lot of fun incorporating as many non-essential story elements from the novella into the game as possible. Both versions of the story begin in a cave and end in a thunderstorm. The protagonist attacks people with her syringe. There are train tracks. There are exactly twelve enemies in the game's final level - a reference to the twelve angry men who attack Maya at the end of Needle. So on and so forth.

Overall, I managed to create a true adaption of a pre-existing story while still being able to tell it on my own terms. This game very much feels like my own work without losing sight of its inspiration, and in that regard, this has been a successful and rewarding undertaking.

Regarding Research

Here's where I admit that I am a bad man.

The extent of my research in making this game amounts to
1) Looking up pictures of the game's setting, Imperial Valley, California,
2) Researching the history of morphine and syringe usage, and
3) Quickly skimming through the history of Native American-US relations in southern California in the mid 19th century.

From my outsider perspective, Brian did research sufficient for his version of the story. But, because I am telling a story with different content and a more grounded style than the original, I had a responsibility to do further research.

I left some essential questions unanswered, such as: What tribe would the protagonist have belonged to? What would her name actually have been? What would she have believed in? Was the Imperial Valley known as such at the time? So on and so forth.

Researching the above questions would have added some authenticity, depth, and value to the game. Mind you, I did the next best thing and wrote around my ignorance - rather than make assumptions about the protagonist's culture, I deliberately left those elements up to interpretation. Part of the reason I felt uninspired to commit more research is because, admittedly, the game's story worked very well without it. The central plot point is that soldiers eradicated the protagonist's culture. Therefore, it's thematically justifiable that any references to that culture are absent.

I can make the above excuse, and I can make excuses about not having time to do proper research in such a short development cycle, but the real reason that I didn't do further research? Mostly, I was lazy. And at this point, the game is just about finished - I'm mostly stuck with it as it is.

This was my first attempt at making any short of historical game - everything else I've made so far has been cemented in fantasy, cyberpunk, and science fiction. So, it's only naturally that I made mistakes in my first attempt. However, I am tackling some sensitive subject matter in the game (actual genocide), and while I treated that subject matter with enough respect that I feel comfortable releasing the game, I feel as though I could have treated it with more respect.

I just hope that there isn't something super problematic about the game's political themes or portrayal of history that I'm overlooking due to my ignorance. I don't want to be another Ken Levine.

I don't think I am. But Ken Levine doesn't know he's Ken Levine either.

All that being said, I'm still mighty pleased about the story I'm telling. It's more than good enough as is, and I can't wait to share it with you. Thank you all for your support this far!

Also, shout out to Isaiah, if you're reading this. Keep programming cool stuff! Sorry for the naughty words.