Kill Your Darlings: When Writers and Game Designers Jam Together

by Doug Stark and Cailean McBride

THE Beyond Stereotypes: Literature and Videogames conference held at the University of St Andrews on June 20 & 21 endeavoured to explore the interfaces between the two media, how they inform each other, how they often come into opposition, and how that opposition could perhaps be resolved. Part of this event included a Game Jam, where small teams of academics, writers and games developers were given just about the duration of the two-day event to produce an original, playable game in response to the prompt: ‘A Place Long Forgotten.’ The title, revealed during a talk between academic, poet, and games enthusiast Don Patterson and games writer Rhianna Pratchett, could be interpreted in a number of ways.

Once the prompt had been announced, we were placed into teams, with us (Cailean McBride and Doug Stark) joining a pre-existing five-person team from the University of Abertay known as Techno Fluid Games. Along with the other groups, we split off from the main conference to work on our respective projects.

The first challenge was, of course, to interpret the brief. As mentioned above, there were numerous ways in which we could do that. One possibility would have been a literal interpretation based upon a ‘real’ place, a recreation of Atlantis or Pompeii perhaps, or a virtual reconstruction of an archaeological site. We quickly decided against this approach, feeling that we wanted an ethical dimension to the experience (our initial discussions in this direction also made clear that we were moving towards creating something that was not so much a game in the traditional sense as a virtual, interactive narrative ‘performance’).

The first concept that we settled upon was to present a shifting landscape based on memory, with the initial idea being that the ‘player’ takes the part of someone with dementia negotiating a space, conceived as their home, that proved to be unreliable, with shifting, displaced objects and so on. However, it was decided not to pursue this concept, partially on grounds of taste — it would have required more time and resources than we had at our disposal to do such a subject justice with the required amount of nuance and respect.

However, we were, as a team, still keen on the ‘unreliable memory’ concept and so we decided to repurpose it in some way, eventually settling on the concept of a police interrogation of a murder suspect, with the room to be explored and mapped now being the scene of the crime. The game would visually flip back from an interrogation room where loaded questions would be asked of the player before allowing them to explore the crime scene and manipulate objects within the room. Throughout, alternate interpretations of events to the interrogator’s are possible. In the crime scene, duplicate versions of the same object can be found in different locations – one where the interrogator says it is and one elsewhere. The ‘truth’ of the object’s location is fixed once selected by the player. So, who do you trust? The interrogator? Your avatar’s memory? Or can you construct your own story? In this way, a narrative slowly builds up, one which either confirms the interrogator’s prejudices of the player’s guilt, exonerates her of any wrongdoing, or does something else entirely.

While the development team set about creating the game assets, it was up to the writing team to flesh out this narrative, determine the exact nature of the murder scenario and write the ‘questions’ for the interrogator. At this point, we were still experimenting with ideas of multiple possible murder scenarios and multiple outcomes, branching out in an ever-unfolding decision tree.

The nature of these initial tasks meant that the development and the writing teams split off into separate groups. On reflection, this proved to be something of a mistake and it is probably at this point that we should have been pulling together and working in concert on the narrative direction of the game. It meant that, while there was still continued dialogue between the two disciplines, the narrative developed in complexity that was not being informed by what was technically possible during the time frame allowed.

During the day, we were visited by a number of other members of the Game Jam, conference, and their organisers. While these visits were welcome, and were useful in engendering a sense of camaraderie and interest in the Jam as a whole, they were of limited utility at this stage in the process. Perhaps future Jams might experiment with structuring visitations and progress sharing sessions. Largely due to a combination of visits, over-complicating the project, and inefficient pathways of communication between designers and writers, at the end of day one, there was a lot left to do.

Day two was far more productive. Although the team still split-up initially, rather than getting caught up discussing conceptual trajectories, each member focused on their tasks. Following the layout discussed on day one, the writers both produced a version of the dialogue to present to the team. Meanwhile, designers and animators finished the key game mechanics and focused on building the room and objects for the player to interact with. On reconvening around midday, the lead designers synthesized the two versions by choosing which questions they liked. This was harder than anticipated as each writer developed different personalities for their interrogator figure. Therefore, having chosen the final question list, the writers went over the dialogue one more time to iron out tonal inconsistencies. Everything was looking good. We even had a title now: Kill Your Darlings. Designers went back to finishing the game and the writers’ work was effectively done. With the free time, Doug decided to write a critical summary of the game to accompany Techno Fluid’s website. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision. It was crunch time.

As the deadline of 5.30 marched closer, it became clear that we weren’t going to finish. Our project had been ambitious and, in an ethical Jam with enforced breaks and strict time constraints, totally untenable. Our only hope was to try and salvage something to present. But our options kept reducing. At 2.30 it was announced that there was no way to run the dialogue in game – we would have to read it out over the gameplay. At 3.30, we could only finish the first half. At 4, only the first scene. At 4.30, we had a room but not the right objects to interact with. A decision had to be made: “We either present what we have or, and I am happy to do this, we stay up here working on the game and don’t present.” We decided to present. For the next hour, designers frantically tried to put together enough material to demonstrate key aspects of the game and Doug attempted to turn his critical summary into a short paper. At least the writers were involved again.

Having gathered what we could, we headed down to the presentation session, late. Undoubtedly, a highlight of the Jam was witnessing the resourcefulness and creativity of the other jammers come to fruition with a diverse set of games being produced in such a short time frame. When it came to the presentation, Doug learned that describing a game to an audience that can’t see it is significantly harder than one might imagine. Fortunately, the friendly and supportive environment the conference precipitated meant that subsequent responses and conversations were reassuring. At least people liked the idea of our game! Indeed, this was clearly a space for us all to learn and grow – even first time jammers like Cal and Doug.

Literature and Video Games: Beyond Stereotypes set out to create a space of exchange between literary scholars and game designers – it was never about making games. This held for the Game Jam itself which Dayna Galloway prefaced by sharing Ryan Locke et al.’s ‘The Game Jam Movement: Disruption, Performance and Artwork’ with all participants. The article proposes that a Game Jam is an artistic performance facilitating the formation of new relationships and new ideas. Essentially, Game Jams have the capacity to disrupt preconceptions about the video game industry, who makes games, how games are made, and ultimately, what it means to create a game.

Our title, Kill Your Darlings, intended to capture the multiple levels of the collaborative Game Jam process. On one level, it refers to the potential murder of a loved one within the digital game. On another, it refers to the iterative process of narrative construction and deconstruction as players acquire new information and form their own ideas of the game’s events. And finally, the title is a commentary on the difficulty of having those embedded in literary practices working together with game designers and animators. ‘Kill your darlings’ is a phrase often used by writers in reference to removing some of our best loved sentences, sections, and concepts from our work. In making our game, we killed a lot of our darlings. In doing so, we all learned about the challenges of creating a narrative focused game where designers, animators, and writers are involved from the start. Sometimes, to borrow a term used by Rhianna Pratchett at the conference, being a ‘narrative paramedic’ – a writer who smooths out the narrative towards the end of the game development process – seemed attractive and significantly less stressful than being involved the whole way through. Without doing this though, we from literary backgrounds would not have learned so much experientially about game design: terms, constraints, and the stress of the crunch. Certainly, more time needs to be spent thinking about how to effectively action the synthesis between designers and writers and integrate writing more deeply in the production pipeline.

In future, attempts at the confluence of game design and literary study might think how to do the inverse: have designers benefit from those with literary backgrounds. Designers understanding the value of those trained in the humanities is key for establishing meaningful connections between the industry and academy. Moreover, basic lectures on design, ludology, and narrative theory might be a useful practice to help bridge terminological gaps and facilitate conversation. Indeed, often the most powerful thing an academic conference can do is bring people together. This event succeeded in doing that. Our team – writers and designers – has continued to work together on Kill Your Darlings. We hope that future conferences and Game Jams aspire to form similar relationships.