Living without a guitar is a little like living without an arm, so after a year of abstinence I bought one. My main stuff is still in storage, but this will let me make music again at least. Which in turn, has a way of putting the mind into creative mode. Which is good.

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Continuing the massive script edit, I decided to work on paper and was surprised how much easier it is to spot problems with your script. For some reason, superfluous dialogue and jumbled action parts are much more obvious on the page than on the computer monitor. It is also much simpler to correct these with a pencil than with a computer keyboard.

You can see how this method is much more immediate and the nice big print makes it easy to fully grasp the impact of a line of dialogue or an action sequence. You can write a lot of stuff very quickly on the computer, such as a first draft or a wide-ranging story edit, but for the fine work such as this, you can’t beat paper.

Example of an audio log and work being done to shorten it, giving it more impact. You can see the last couple lines simply struck, because you can’t end on a stronger line than “strike these people down”.

This is the first chapter / first level printed out for editing. The first 12 pages — the introduction — have gone through so many changes and edits that I lost count. They’re very close to rock solid now.

Script writing is not the most interesting part of game design to most people because it’s not as immediately impressive as level screenshots or videos. Nonetheless, it is very hard work and totally underappreciated by most gamers.

Spare a thought for the people writing your game. It’s more common these days than you might think, and it’s back-breaking work.

Kind regards.

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Rarely do I endorse products, but I will say that “The Nutshell Technique” by Hollywood script consultant Jill Chamberlain is probably the best writing book I have read so far. It’s been helpful.

Like all how-to authors, Jill is adamant about her technique’s merits. One should keep in mind that there probably is no one right writing method, but hers is pretty damn good. She bases it upon thorough analysis of dozens of Hollywood blockbusters, stripping them all to the bones, and points out the story elements they all have in common, and how they line up with the flow of Greek comedy or tragedy.

She has some videos on youtube that I find both entertaining and good.

The book has given me food for thought. I’m in the middle of a massive script edit for Scout’s Journey anyway, so paying attention to a few of Jill’s tenets can’t hurt.

Recommended.

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The opening of Scout’s Journey has been slashed from 8,000 words to 5,500 after I put the script under the microscope for the first time in two years. This means, as KIT Scenarist tells me, that the player gets control after 10 minutes now. For some games, this might still be considered long, but SJ is more story based than most.

I cut several scenes and kept just the best parts of others, focusing on the perspectives of major characters while losing a lot of fluff. Among it all, I cut a tutorial section, a phone call, lots and lots of dialogue, a little dog, a little girl, a bunch of soldiers and a raft of odds and ends. I kept most of the action, introduced antagonists earlier and dropped strong hints about a conspiracy surrounding Scout’s arrival.

In the rest of the first level, I removed or pushed back anything that breaks the sense of Scout being lost in an overwhelming catastrophe, and put some of the backstory in the first couple audio logs. There is generally more information in dialogue now instead of cutscenes, things being hinted at for the player to form their own impression of the events leading up to Scout’s arrival. Dialogue was really slashed in a lot of places overall, though.

I also pushed back all combat and decided that Scout will rely on stealth and cunning, underlining the fact that she is alone and outgunned, until after about the game’s halfway point.

As a result, the first level kicks off with a “B story” that brings inciting events, a lot of action and backstory, and introduces impact characters. This soon merges with the “A story” of Scout’s arrival and the circumstances of that. It’s all pretty streamlined and focuses exclusively on setting up the atmosphere and introducing the main characters and their conflict.

As for gameplay, it’s exploration, looting/collecting, light puzzles, a bit of lockpicking, a bit of stealth and light platforming.

Part 2 continues with the A story, with Scout finding some allies and being pulled into their conflict, and more on the B story relayed directly to Scout by friendlier B story characters. Gameplay there is heavier into stealth. Fighting might still arise if the player, say, decides to mess with a patrol, but it’s decidedly ill-advised.

Part 3 is all A story and Scout crossing paths with the main baddies. Gameplay there revolves around dealing with patrols and enemy camps, only to finally encounter Big Bad himself, kicking off a string of midgame story events and a big character development for Scout.

Lots of work, yay. But progress! It’s good to see how some heavy cuts make everything better, from action scenes to audio logs. The cut parts are not lost, rather now a nice pile of material I can pull bits and pieces from to embellish the main script where it fits.

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Spent the night poring over the SJ script, something I hadn’t done for two years, and trying out a variety of screenwriting software and other tools. It’s going to be so much work knocking this into shape.

It’s meandering, full of subplots and exposition casting light on past events, the minor characters and their relations, and the history of the various factions. While that stuff is nice — there are some genuinely fun and action-packed scenes that I regret having to cut — I decided to take a sharp look at anything that doesn’t:

  • feature Scout, the protagonist
  • alternatively, feature an impact character (not so many of those)
  • directly further the plot.

Having to mark some of these characters as “minor” is depressing, because they’ve been around so long and all have a backstory. Having to remove key scenes that explain how faction X came to be, or how they fought faction Y, hurts as well because these scenes tend to be entertaining and full of action. I like the virtual smell of napalm in the morning and the sound of explosions as much as anyone, but these scenes all lack a key detail – the protagonist.

As such, at least a fifth of the pages need to be cut. 150 pages of script is too much. The program says the script is 180 minutes long, twice the length of a feature film. Now a lot of that is pure action, namely gameplay. Still… I’d like to get that number down.

This is one of the screenwriting softwares I’m currently testing. It’s not that Libre Office wasn’t adequate, but it tempts me to include colours, headlines, and images. That doesn’t further the script’s readability. A dedicated screenwriter (Trelby is pictured) doesn’t let you mess with the layout. It automatically picks the safest choices for you and provides only building blocks such as scene, character, and dialogue.

In Trelby’s case, the most common blocks are (mostly correctly) guessed based on what you’re writing, or you can press TAB to chose between them. If you need something less common, like a note, there is a popup menu. It goes fullscreen for a distraction-free experience and is very tweakable. A light theme is default, I just changed the colours.

These programs also feature reports and statistics; how many lines of dialogue does a character have? In what sequence do characters appear?

This can be incredibly useful in telling which characters are actually important and what the general flow of your plot is. Notice how Scout, the protagonist, has a line going almost straight through the plot (the topmost one), and how more characters are introduced gradually. (Some are counted twice because lines are marked as (V.O.), meaning the same character speaks from the off.)

Another good free scriptwriting tool is KIT Scenarist. I find Trelby has the edge where usability and simplicity are concerned, though both offer good distraction-free writing experiences. I also checked out Scrivener, a writing tool with many a glowing review, but I found the Windows version lacking and full of clutter. The better features are only available on Mac, and I don’t run MacOS.

A nice free tool (well, free in 500-word chunks) is Pro Writing Aid. It checks your text for many style problems (wordiness, passive language etc) in realtime. Very impressive. The full version is 20 bucks a month, which I might cough up at some point, but not yet.

Another helpful writing aid with a Google Docs plugin is SAS Writing Reviser.

One of the surprises about the SJ script is that there are several antagonists, but none of them are very important. Nothing I would call a major character. I guess it’s just not about beating the bad guy that much. It’s definitely not Batman vs The Joker.

Rather like Voldemort or even Sauron, SJ’s big bad is often mentioned but just a little of a douche. He does swing a sword in the endgame, but not to great effect. He looks scary, though. That’s where the logo comes from.

It’s nice getting back into game dev after all the craziness. It’s a lot of work, but work I can enjoy. In fact I’m itching to get things done.

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The “About” page is back, looking much like it did on spawnhost, but with MOAR CONTENT, including music from Scout’s Journey in FLAC format and many levelshots that probably haven’t been seen outside the #rmq IRC channel.

I won’t port old posts from spawnhost but I will maintain the site and have made full backups. I might implement things like a gallery again here, though.

I will have to sift through the script and do substantial edits there, and I need my workstation up and Blender running so I can get back to work. Now if only that PESKY virus would go away, I could get my household out of storage.

Is 2020 the worst year so far? Let’s all give it the finger. Let’s get up and do something.

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Once again it should be possible to sign up for e-mail notifications about new posts. You can do so from the sidebar or from the form added below every post (as long as I remember to add it!).

Spawnhost had a lot of subscribers at the time and I’ll try to port the mailing list to the new site or, at the least, send a mail to everyone on that list containing the new subscription link.

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What’s been up with me

Wow, first post in like a year. I apologize for letting down some faithful readers of my old blog. At least I did a wordpress update and splurged on some security features for this site. I’ll look at some plugins and finally setting up a subscription service again next.

I’m sitting in a cozy little downtown apartment typing this on a Macbook Pro, listening to some Smashing Pumpkins on youtube while the food is on the stove in my little kitchen. The work week is finished, capped by another Cisco exam. Things are newly good. But boy, what a slog it was getting there. I spent much of the winter in a sleeping bag on the floor with two electric space heaters barely keeping it above zero during the night. What happened?

I freed myself from living on the dole for a year by scoring a job in IT in the spring of 2019. At the time, I was sharing a house with two distant relatives who’d recently gotten into each other’s hair. They owned the house but didn’t live there. I was paying to stay. When it got to threats about auctioning off the house while I was still living in it (that’s how nice my family is), I packed all my things and had them put into storage. From then on, I crashed on the floor, living out of an old Army duffel bag, still shaping up for work every morning.

Like all amateur strategists, they didn’t commit with the auction thing nor with anything else. It was just psychological warfare. Nobody bothered to fix anything about the house including the heating. So it got close and closer to zero at night. So I got electric heating. I’m pretty sure I got pneumonia. Then I got an apartment.

It was a stroke of luck. Downtown, affordable, nice. I signed two days after first seeing it. I moved in there with three paper boxes, a duffel bag and a mattress. The taxi driver ripped me off. But I had a flat. Paying the deposit almost killed me. I managed.

Then Corona hit.

It’s going on three months of home office now. At times, it drove me up the wall. I got depressed. I had difficulty concentrating. I still didn’t have any furniture because I couldn’t take my stuff out of storage. I didn’t have a way to wash my clothes except by hand. I love cooking my own food, but sometimes I lived on the Viet Cong diet – rice in the morning, rice in the evening.

It kicked into overdrive when another school block started (I’m doing computer science). Germany is a little behind the curve on the digital things, a little not quite state-of-the-art. So the Corona school block has pretty much been “here are some links, please teach yourself, exam on Sunday. Have a lot of fun!” I mean, that’s madness at the best of times, but these aren’t the best of times.

I’m doing better now, though.

Trying to be objective, I’m a much better programmer now than ever. I’m doing GUI programming on Windows in C#, LDAP queries, crypto and regex in Python on Linux, and fixing PHP scripts in between. I’ve gained some serious C++ muscle as well. I never quite put C++ down because I still expect to do some Unreal development.

While most of my life was in storage, I’ve had a lot of time to look at things from a distance. That can be really helpful. I still don’t have my workstation PC, but I’ve looked at Scout’s Journey from all angles in my mind, over and over. Suffice to say I got a number of clues. I’m going to make some changes, pare it down a lot. Both the gameplay and the script need a lot of editing. It’s been a humungous collection of ideas. Time to cut it down, make it more compact without losing the essence. Time to flex that muscle.

Time to jump back in.

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Can’t beat paper

Let’s get back to some images of raw work – I’ve been mostly drawing and taking notes, because job and life have eaten most of my time lately. A wide number of drawing tools have been tested. Here’s a pic of my current workhorses. Stylefile markers, Pentel brush pen, Parker ballpoint, Faber Castell push pencil and leadholder, Staedtler and Sakura fineliners.

Real paper work. Blue ballpoint sketch of SJ Project 81 / Tempest rifle, from Project Banshee. I’ll change the model down the line for more flowing lines and details – Luminar prisms and bio-optical transformers. 😉

SJ level 4 – Scourge Fortress. Scene of a major fight between Scourge troops, the Herd and a coalition of Tribals, Luminar and Guardians. Ballpoint and marker.

Drone tank from a cutscene that’s not currently in the script anymore. The Herd were being attacked by EUFOR with these, main battle tanks and infantry, defending with Tempest rifles and missile turrets…

Checking out the Pentel Pocket Brush pen. Amazing stuff, very black and messy.

Notes taken for the script! Another major rework due. Chapter 1 – 3 make more logical sense now and have better flow. One scene builds on the other.

Useful synergies from the job: Python programming! Keeps the fingers nimble.

Until next time.

Character Portrait: Nkoyo

I’ll kick off a series of posts about SJ’s cast of characters, as part of working the winter’s accumulated changes into the script, with a char I haven’t explored on the blog so far.

Her name is Nkoyo (nuh-koyo for you English people), meaning “Woman can do everything”.

Nkoyo…

  • is Black (Yoruba).
  • never speaks or smiles.
  • has ritual scars.
  • has a strong sense of right and wrong.
  • is second-in-command of the “Banshees”, the game’s group of ex-military women who banded together for a better future.
  • is best buddies with Banshee leader Esperanza.
  • resents being drafted into the “Herd” faction of deserters, and has a burning hatred for Herd leader, Colonel Hastings.
  • secretly prays to (Yoruba god) Shango instead of the Herd’s god, the Star-Eater.
  • never forgot, and still feels bound by, her Army service oath even after deserting.
  • doesn’t trust people easily, and always suspects Scout.
  • can, and will, go toe-to-toe with any man.

Nkoyo was one of the early characters in Scout’s Journey (she was already in the 2013 draft), originally the sidekick of Esperanza, who in turn is a foil for protagonist Scout.

Esperanza is a tormented soul and the idea of having this very physically imposing, silent counterpart do the dirty work for her sensitive friend came naturally. They are a dynamic duo. And when Essie befriends Scout, Nkoyo begins to suspect her.

Nkoyo was a difficult character to write, precisely because she was so silent. She was quiet, violent and frightening. How do you approach that character?

Taking serious the Yoruba thing, without overstating it, was one step. An introverted African-European girl finds her peers in the group of women under Essie’s command. They become her tribe.

They allow her to express herself, ironically since she never speaks, but they interpret what she scribbles in marker on a notepad. Here, individuality is allowed, unlike in the rigid Herd faction, and she rediscovers her Yoruba culture in the worship of Shango, who like Nkoyo, “is known for his anger” (Wikipedia). It is her way to rebel: I’m different, deal with it.

Like Essie’s Christianity and Scout’s Goddess alliance, it is also open defiance of the Herd’s Star-Eater cult – I believe what I want, deal with it.

Why does anyone never talk? Let’s assume there is some kind of trauma involved. Maybe immigration. A dark, tall, violent girl with facial scars in a white, European schoolyard. Fight or flight.

She didn’t have a lot of lines in the script at the best of times, so the peculiarity was easy enough to accomodate. The player discovers spoken logfiles by the other characters — hers are written. The only other character whose logs are markedly different is Banshee engineer Giselle, who encrypts hers.

The silence provided a handle on her, for character development even, because of course she must eventually speak.

When no one else can.