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The noir will be with you…always

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Even though Knee Deep’s a swamp noir adventure in a tacky little Florida town instead of a galaxy far, far away, it owes a lot to the Star Wars movies.

I first watched Star Wars in the cinema at Orlando Fashion Square in 1977. Nearly 40 years later, you’ll hear a little Han Solo snark in the grim quips of private investigator K.C. Gaddis. Monroe? He’s just a four-legged Chewbacca. Gary Buckingham and Eula Dean are the redneck replacements for C-3P0 and R2-D2. And, sure, maybe Remy Dixon’s a faux-Cajun mix of Jar-Jar Binks and Darth Maul.

I’ve loved the (original) movies since long before #MayTheFourthBeWithYou became a thing. So, it shouldn’t come as much surprise that I peppered Knee Deep’s narrative with references – some subtle and some as subtle as a wampa at a tauntaun rodeo. The end of Act 2, for example, puts Jefferson Dean Gallant and Robert Woodstep in the roles of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. Gallant laments that Romana Teague was the town’s only hope.

Woodstep responds: “No, Jefferson Dean Gallant. There is another.”

We’ve got moments similar Darth Vader’s first emergence in Revenge of the Sith (without the whining for Padme) and the destruction of Alderaan from A New Hope. Hey, there’s even a chute for our heroes to enter during an action sequence!

But you won’t find any Ewoks in the swamps of Cypress Knee. Just gators and, if you look really closely, maybe a swamp ape.

How about your favorite games? Any Star Wars Easter eggs hiding there?

Handling touchy topics in video games with care

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Jumper the gator, star attraction at Chief Roadside’s Wonderland in Knee Deep, eats diaper chicken: a frozen chicken swaddled in a disposable diaper.

Remy Dixon explains to blogger Romana Teague that Jumper eats diaper chicken because it reminds the gator of a chubby infant.

YouTuber Foehamner was playing through the finale of Knee Deep’s first act this week. When he reached that moment in the game, he declared: “Too soon!” He also noted it was “extremely unfortunate coincidence.”

After all, his playthrough streamed just a week after a 2-year-old boy was dragged by an alligator into a Walt Disney World lake and drowned.

Too soon? Maybe not. We released Act 1 on Steam in July 2015, nearly a year ago. I can’t deny the discomfort of it showing up in a YouTube stream so close on the heels of the Disney tragedy, though.

It’s not the first time Knee Deep struck a nerve for someone. Earlier this year, a reviewer opted against playing and writing about the game because it touches on the topic of suicide. This reviewer recently had lost a friend who took their own life.

I felt terrible for him and replied that I understood his decision.

The game ventures into other topical territory that might be uncomfortable: cultural insensitivity, racism, divorce, drug addiction, poor parenting, unemployment, organized religion, and gun violence. It’s a tricky minefield to navigate when you’re setting a game in a place that could be real (Cypress Knee is fake, but my native Florida – freaky as stories from there get – is all too real), referencing modern-day celebrities like the Kardashians and Justin Bieber, and confronting issues that our players may deal with too.

Of course, Knee Deep’s obviously not the only game to tread into sensitive turf. That Dragon, Cancer tells the story of a real child and a real family fighting in vain against a terminal illness while struggling with their personal faith.

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A serial killer stalks children in Heavy Rain. Child abuse comes up in Gone HomeLife is Strange includes a suicidal character. Kentucky Route Zero touches on economic woes, but with bit-graphic characters and a magical reality presentation. The upcoming Night in the Woods explores the economic struggles of a Rust Belt town with whimsical-looking anthropomorphic characters.

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It’s definitely a good idea for developers to find ways to present touchy topics with sensitivity and maybe a bit of distance. Taking away the faces from the characters in That Dragon, Cancer (for example) helps by pushing the experience away from reality. But it also opens the door for the player’s imagination to fill in the blanks (that could be MY child), which can be horrifying.

For Knee Deep, our saving grace may be that we’re just not too graphic about the hot-button triggers. We tell the story of Jefferson Dean Gallant’s baby – killed years ago by a gator named Merle – using one of the iconic diaper chickens on a hook at Jumper’s feeding time. One moment the chicken’s dangling over the pond. Lights go down. We hear a splash. Lights come back up. We see a slowly swinging hook with a shred of diaper.

We show people getting shot, but we don’t go full Tarantino with over-the-top bloodshed. Two people get crushed by a falling letter after the theater lights go dark. Someone’s electrocuted in a dunk tank at the festival, but that’s a lights-out moment like the diaper chicken.

Bad things happen in Knee Deep, but we never wanted to wallow in it. It’s meant to be satirical, evocative, and amusing.

The game’s a stage play. We aimed to present everything as theatrically as possible, opting to bend the narrative twists and presentation of the story enough to make clear it wasn’t real. Sure, the story takes place in modern-day Florida, but the Cypress Knee sets could be on a stage at the Durham Performing Arts Center in North Carolina.

We’re sympathetic with anyone made uncomfortable by what happens during the course of our story. However, we’ve got no regrets about how Knee Deep plays out.

Knee Deep’s play is the protagonist

Act 3 Screenshot - Rattlesnake Final

Meg Jayanth – lead writer on the amazing globe-trotting adventure 80 Days – gave a talk during the Game Developers Conferenceabout the critical role NPCs can play in shaping a story and how they can subvert the usual expectations people have about a game’s protagonists.

Specifically, she wants to undermine the idea of an “entitlement simulator,” where the player’s inhabiting the role of a character that’s destined to win – whether it’s fame, fortune, or romance.

The protagonist doesn’t always have to be a winner. They don’t always have to get their way. They don’t always have to be a hero.

Sam Barlow, creator of Her Story, said at Wordplay in Toronto last year that he keeps a sign in his office that reads “The player is not the protagonist.” In that game, he subverts the idea of the player’s protagonism by occasionally showing the reflection of the investigator in the monitor.

These subversions found in 80 Days and Her Story are why those games deserve so much acclaim.

As Knee Deep progressed from one act to the next, we sought to subvert player expectations by at least partially sidelining the established main characters and letting the narrative unfold through player interactions with secondary characters. Instead of every scene focusing on either Romana, Bellet, or Gaddis, the final act touches on them for significant moments but mostly turns attention to characters such as Monroe, Woodstep, and Gallant.

None of the characters in Knee Deep are perfect. Well, except for Monroe. He can do no wrong, even when he’s impossibly driving a complicated piece of construction equipment. The three so-called “heroes” – blogger, detective, and newspaper reporter – all are deeply flawed and scarred. In the end, it’s up for interpretation what happens to them.

We want players to relate to all the characters they control during the course of Knee Deep, but – perhaps more important – we want them to feel free to shape the evolving story of the play. By shifting the narrative viewpoints, we sought (not so subtly) to make the player feel more connected to the story of Cypress Knee and the dramatic events during this crisis than any one character.

In Knee Deep, the play is the protagonist. The game’s about theatricality in politics, on the stage, and even in the news we watch on TV or read on blogs. You learn about the town through the central characters interacting with NPCs in the first two acts. In the third and final act, some of those NPCs turn to central characters and help drive the story to its over-the-top conclusion.

It’s not a game for everybody. That’s OK. It’s a game for people who want to shake up the status quo of the hero protagonist, who don’t mind shifting viewpoints, and who treasure experiences that don’t always end happily.

Balancing exposition and player agency in indie narratives

It’s a tricky balance, giving Moon Hunters a sense of random events without seeming repetitive.

“It’s my white whale!” declared Tanya X. Short of Kitfox Games, indie developer behind the mythology-based narrative game. “To some extent, it’s personal taste, but it also entails lots of attentive playtesting, and watching for how often someone chuckles or exclaims in surprise or gasps in realization.”

The game plucks encounters as if from a deck of cards, which runs the risk of feeling random and disconnected or repetitive. Finding that balance through testing helps with pacing, she said.

Moon Hunters is among several ambitious indie games with unusual narrative approaches in the IndieMEGABOOTH at Boston’s PAX East 2016.

Short strives to tell stories in Moon Hunters that gives players more agency in their choices of movement and encounters.

The player, she says, “is probably better at sensing what’s ‘too repetitive’ than the game’s generation algorithm – so giving them the means to seek out new content when they’re ready may be a smoother path than trying to force them into a linear set of encounters.”

Joe Russ, a developer with Mografi who’s working on Jenny LeClue, comes from a background of animation, film, and interactive.

“I like solidly plotted narrative arcs, with a twist, of course,” he said. “I also enjoy hyper-stylized and more experimental narratives. Character studies are also pretty fascinating. I guess I like it all!”

Like Short, Russ seeks balance “between the kind of story you want to tell and leaving enough space and tools for the player to discover and explore that story without feeling force fed.”

For Jenny LeClue, Mografi’s first narrative game, the team’s experimenting with permanent narrative choices.

“We have this idea that everyone influences the story in the game: Jenny, the Author, the Player, and us, the Creators,” Russ said. “So we have this concept of social story choices. Since it’s three volumes, we can let players make choices that affect the way we write the next installment of the game, changing the story in a permanent way.”

Edward J. Douglas, creative director of Flying Helmet Games and the game Eon Altar, worked on titles such as Need For Speed and Bioware’s Mass Effect series as a cinematic designer.

“At the moment, I’m obsessed with the serialized episodic form used by Netflix and the like – how can you tell a compelling one-hour story that feels complete from an emotional arc standpoint, but leaves you hungry for more in the plot department?” he said. “I feel in games we’ve mastered this ‘one more level’ urge from a gameplay standpoint, and sometimes nail it from a story standpoint, but not always from the emotional arc standpoint. Maybe some have, but I haven’t! Always learning and growing.”

He noted the struggle of developing enough content to “create the illusion of choices resonant to the player.”

“This is where systems around emergent behavior are so great in creating unique experiences within a system, but this technique is seldom used on larger games that claim to be ‘story-driven,’” Douglas said. “This happens in part because the story will be something that ‘wraps around’ existing mechanics for a franchise or genre, rather than getting developed from the bottom up alongside game systems.”

As technologies mature to allow exploration of mechanics, he said, “we’ll be able to explore this a lot more across all tiers of the industry, including the AAA space. This exploration is one area where indie games have an advantage on AAA because they can take the kind of risks that a AAA game often won’t.”

“An allergy to exposition”

Short, the Moon Hunters dev, started writing short fiction in 2003, but got her start in interactive narrative design by making mods for Morrowind.

“I made a little cave where you could explore a half-underwater town of friendly draugh and mudcrabs, as I recall,” she said. “Later I would mod Morrowind more, to add a full quest-line in which you act as a servant-slash-spy in a new noble (and haunted) house.”

In narrative, she prefers to let players find their own way to the story instead of shoveling information at them.

“I have an allergy to exposition, possibly to my detriment,” she said. “I hate explaining anything, ever. I love letting the player (or reader) explore the narrative and find new layers of meaning, based on their own interest and understanding.”

In Moon Hunters, that’s made easier through non-player characters, interface elements, and encylopedias, she said.

Short’s a big fan of what Alexis Kennedy of Failbetter Games (Sunless SeaFallen London) calls “fires in the darkness.”

“The real world is structured this way to some degree, with individual people (characters) having their own motivations and opinions about what’s going on in the world (plot),” Short said. “This approach sometimes means that the connection between those ‘fires’ can be somewhat tenuous, if you’re not careful, but allows the player freedom in exploring and having a one-of-a-kind experience as a co-author.”

Russ, of Mografi’s Jenny LeClue team, doesn’t care for ham-handed exposition, either.

“I believe strongly in showing over telling,” he said. “Not that you can only show but, basically, don’t be lazy.”

He thinks games are great vehicles for letting the environment tell the story, which is “a solid tool to convey exposition.”

Sometimes the exposition must happen through dialogue, though. Then it’s on the writer to make it work.

“One approach I might use in writing expository dialogue is to have the characters multitask,” Russ said. “Say, create a silly or unrelated goal for the characters to be doing while also filling in the exposition. Say two kids are fighting over the last piece of pie at the dinner table while their parents try to explain how time travel works. It can help take the edge off what might be boring with a sort of fun-and-games element as well.”

Douglas, of Flying Helmet Games, established a rule for exposition on a recent game: “If the player only heard it, and didn’t see it or interact with it, presume they won’t remember it.”

That rule helped remind them it wasn’t always enough to just drop information into text or dialogue. “If we needed the player to remember it at a critical moment, we had to make it tangible,” Douglas said.

So they incorporated god entities – who wouldn’t become vital to the narrative until many hours into the game – into the art direction of the game.

“We designed very strong visuals around them, then used them all over the game – main menu screen, big landmarks in our early levels, branding, as well as in our intro video,” he said. “We also made lots of little ‘off-the-cuff’ mentions of them in dialogues connected to these visuals in the hopes that, when they did become a central part of the story, they would already be part of the players’ ‘mental landscape.’”

Agents of change

Russ admires the “story-first” approach of Oxenfree, which he played through in one sitting.

“It’s beautiful, and proof that story-focused games can be just as valid as very mechanic-heavy games,” he said.

He also enjoyed Limbo “for its ability to tell the tiniest, ambiguous, ambient story.” Russ said “it’s a reminder that narrative is a holistic experience and it can be applied like a fine mist or with the precision of a surgical scalpel. Both are valid and can produce interesting results.”

Douglas admired the work of the storytellers involved in Mass Effect 2.

“What I felt was brilliant in the writing of Mass Effect 2 was that rather than trying to pin the big moments of emotional change or decision on the player character…they abstracted it a layer down to your crew members,” he said. “The core of the game is a series of ‘episodes’ where you support a team member and then are the key ‘agent of change’ in their story, where you help them to resolve their own story.”

For Short, the globe-trotting adventure 80 Days was a narrative experience that truly left its mark on her.

“I was completely blown away by…its elegance and beautiful execution,” she said. “It’s very approachable in its format and aesthetic, yet has depth to keep you playing (reading) for many hours. For all that I love reading books, I often lose my patience with ‘visual novel’-type games with long passages, but 80 Days was one that kept me riveted, so that I was hanging on every word, curious how each character I found would return later in my journey.”

Short considers the game a landmark in game storytelling, calling it “probably the purest example of what narrative design is, at its core – shaping a dramatic player experience, by collaborating with the player directly.”

Boundless narrative opportunities

No matter whether storylines are branching or linear, Russ thinks computer games are a vital medium for narrative experiences.

“Even in very tightly controlled linear stories, players still have to move through the space and trigger events,” he said. “At the most basic level, they are part of the world, and they are causing the story to happen. And that’s so satisfying as a player, and so exciting as a creator!”

Douglas thinks the player’s power as an “agent of change” makes video games so perfect for sharing stories.

“The interactive medium is the only form of consumable art where the user is the agent of change of that experience, even to the point of changing the face of that world through their actions,” he said. “The opportunities for meaningful experiences seem boundless.”

Short just thinks we’ve all got insatiable appetites for stories from all around us.

“Humans love stories so much, I think they would be keen to tell and hear stories with just about any medium,” she said. “Computer, charcoal, dice, the bones of birds – we’re a species that thrives on patterns, learning, and communicating.”

As an example, she talks about her 4-year-old nephew, who already interrupts his father’s stories to suggest new paths and outcomes.

“Computers are really just a shortcut to support this, allowing more interactivity than ever before, with the listener having a participatory role in living out the story, making decisions, or even forming new worlds – not just in thought, but in an artifact that can then be shared with others.”

Waiting 30 years to become an overnight sensation

I’ve been waiting to become an overnight sensation for more than 30 years.

When I was still in high school, working in the tunnels beneath Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, I filled stockroom logs with strange stories that amused most of my co-workers but left supervisors baffled.

As a reporter at The St. Petersburg Times, I worked in a frontier bureau covering news in what was basically enemy territory held by The Tampa Tribune (a newspaper that’s now defunct after absorption by my former employer).

Against conventional wisdom, in the late 1990s, I started an original-theme space opera MUD called OtherSpace. The smart money would’ve been on yet another Star Wars game. I’ve been waiting for that game to make me famous for 18 years. I don’t think those guest appearances on the Sci-Fi radio show on WDBO count, as much fun as they were. Yahoo went and made a sci-fi parody show called OtherSpace and now people think I must’ve based my game on that. Almost mission accomplished?

In 2006, I joined the indie development team working on a post-apocalyptic MMO called Fallen Earth. The company name – Icarus Studios – should’ve been fair warning. The game launched, and it’s still out there, but it came when everyone wanted the next World of Warcraft and before the new zombie apocalypse craze. So it never quite took off the way we hoped it would.

And yet I still keep going. The indie life didn’t choose me. I chose it.

Now I’m a writer/designer for Prologue Games, a tiny indie studio in Durham. We’ve launchedKnee Deep to little mainstream fanfare – a familiar refrain for many indie studios that aren’t lucky enough to have their game discovered by writers on House of Cards or gabbed about onKotakuRock, Paper, Shotgun, and Polygon. Every day’s an uphill battle, trying to get noticed when every big game news website seems to cover only what the other big game news websites are covering.

It’s fitting that some of our best coverage comes from indie sites like IndieHangover.com andIndiegames.com or local print news outlets like Indy Weekly in Durham. We appreciate them a lot. But, you know, I’m just saying it’d be nice to see a unique project like Knee Deep – a stage play presented as a computer game mixed with a journalism simulator – given broader attention.

I don’t expect it to happen, though. Indie game sites, like indie devs, struggle to find an audience. The big sites don’t care unless we can add to their bottom line somehow. I can’t stress myself out over it. I’m the writer/designer and the marketing guru (for what it’s worth) at Prologue Games. We don’t have the advertising budget of BethesdaBlizzardUbisoft, or even Telltale. All I can do is keep doing what I do: promote Knee Deep, share other indie projects I find interesting, and wield my cranky old man/news editor cane as I try to shame major gaming sites when they waste space on something ludicrous.

And I’ll keep waiting, patiently, for that overnight sensation achievement. That’s what I do. Keep in mind that my football team’s the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. My basketball team’s the Orlando Magic. I’m an addicted underdog.

Independence is tough. It’s risky. It’s expensive. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

It’s an amazing feeling when your first indie project launches and you hear from people whoget it and love it. It’s painful when haters criticize it. But, in the end, what matters is that people talk about it at all. Art isn’t always commercially successful, right? We want to make money, yes, but we’re ultimately trying to create projects that stir imaginations, get people thinking, and offer unique experiences that players won’t find anywhere else.

Every minute on the job matters for an indie developer. Every second. If the game fails, that’s on you. Now do the next thing and hope it does better. If the game succeeds, congratulations! Now do the next thing and make sure it does just as well.

We don’t have to be in it to win it. We should be in it to matter and make a difference.

But it’d be nice to win too.

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Wes Platt

Lead storyteller. Game designer and journalist. Recovering Floridian.

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