I'm Working on an Indie Game

Writing is something I've always been passionate about. Even when I was in the first grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I would write stories for my mom and illustrate them for her, and while I'm sure they well all pretty terrible (you would be hard pressed to find a child who had a good grasp on storytelling), the spark was there and it was burning. In high school, I took all the creative writing classes I could find, including one at the collegiate level, culminating in me writing a 40 page short story for my senior project. Today, I'm a university student double majoring in English with a Creative Writing Emphasis and Film Studies (my other passion, and one which luckily accompanies writing well), and I have grown tremendously as a writer in the past few years.

"But," you might be asking, "what does your life-long interest in writing have to do with working on an indie game?" A fair question, curious reader.

I have always been a fan of role-playing games, particularly of the fantasy and science fiction variety. The sheer immensity of the writing that goes into many of these games is astounding, and is often equivalent to a novel's length of work (or more). When games like Skyrim or Mass Effect are so rich with original lore, intriguing plots, and remarkable characters, it can be hard not to feel wholly immersed in the experience. That's what my goal as a video game writer. Can those goals be reached in a novel? Sure, but I can write a book on my own whenever I want, it takes a lot more to be a part of a team and have to rely on other people, and have them rely on you. I want to create a world that seems vibrant and tangible, and is at the same time susceptible to the whims and schemes of the player. Player freedom is important to me. The player's choices should be able to be as dynamic as the game world itself. I've set my ambitions for this project high, and while it will not be easy for me to achieve all of my goals, my hope is that the final result will be something I can be proud of and is something players will enjoy. This is my challenge.

The Game - Seelentanz

The game I'm working on is called "Seelentanz," (German for "Soul Dance" or "Dance of the Soul"), described as "a multiplayer roleplaying 'simulation' set in an immersive fantasy world. Essentially, it's an open world RPG with coop for up to 4-8 people (exact number still to be determined) aimed at hardcore RPG fans. Unlike most RPGs, there are no health points, mana, or even a HUD. Instead, combat is designed to feel lethal. Players (and enemies) have limbs that can be wounded, effecting gameplay. For example, if you take damage to your arm, your arm will be weaker and you will do less damage when you attack. If it is injured further, you may be unable to attack at all. You must also take care of your wounds, as wounds that are not mended will become worse over time. While this combat can be extremely satisfying if you manage to incapacitate an enemy, it can also be very dangerous for you, as even weaker enemies have the potential to severely wound or kill you if you are not careful. Essentially, the combat becomes more exhilarating by adding the possibility of death at every turn. The player thus becomes encouraged to think twice before jumping into an encounter against an enemy, and should instead find a safer resolution or at least plan ahead before fighting. The player must also sleep, eat, and drink to stay alive. Needless to say, this game will not be easy.

My goal for the story is to allow the player to resolve conflicts in any way they want, provided their character is physically capable of doing so. This would be hard enough on its own, but the added dimension of multiple players makes it much more difficult. I've been reading a lot about moral decisions and the good and bad ways they are presented in games. I found Gamer_152's blogs quite informative on this subject. I know I don't want to have the basic evil/good dichotomy alone, so developing a story that accommodates the many shades of grey that exist in morality is my first challenge. One of my biggest inspirations for the creation of the storylines for Seelentanz is Planescape: Torment. The complexity of how you can approach each situation in that game is quite amazing, and the story and characters are interesting enough that you actually care about them. Planescape's dark yet quirky tones are also worth noting. Another game that is inspirational for me is Dark Souls, particularly in the very dark nature of the story and world, as well as the understated nature of its storytelling.

Currently, I'm developing the world history for the game, and while we have very traditional fantasy races including Humans, Elves, Dark Elves, Orcs, and Dwarves (not my decision, this was decided by the project lead), the first thing I did was try to subvert the tropes and cliches of these races in unexpected ways. I can't elaborate on the specifics, but essentially I wanted them to appear fairly traditional on the outside but with a little bit of interest and investigation you discover things are not as they initially seem. This is something I liked about Dragon Age. The way you approach each quest having one expectation, only to find out later that you were only given half the story is a really interesting storytelling mechanic.

As a writer and a fan of video games, I don't want Seelentanz to be just another fantasy RPG. I want to write a story that gamers can really be excited about.

If you're interested in the project, please follow us on Indie DB and Twitter for updates. Any help spreading the word about our game is appreciated. Hopefully I'll be able to make more blogs about this as work continues.

Thanks for reading, Duders.

Posted by falserelic

Sounds interesting hope things workout for you man. Best of luck to you.

Posted by Simplexity

Good luck following your dream man, I wish I could do that.

Posted by Raven10

Some advice - Make your world simple enough for most players to understand, but deep enough that hardcore fans can get truly involved. One of the mistakes fantasy writers often make is creating complex histories that use tons of fake names that are difficult to read and impossible to remember. Use simple names and easy to follow plot lines but infuse them with added depth for people that want it.

Posted by ShadowConqueror

@falserelic: @Simplexity: Thanks, guys.

@Raven10: That was sort of what I was getting at about the races being more than meets the eye, so to speak. I want the depth to be there for those who want to get into it, but it's not required of the player if that's not what they want to do.

Posted by Raven10

I think you should make their unique characteristics a focus actually. Anyone who has played games for most of their lives can tell you how most fantasy plots go. It's incredibly hard to build a unique fantasy world because everything has been done to death. If you don't immediately shine light on what makes your world different than the past 500 fantasy RPG's that came out in the past decade then no one will give you a moment's notice. That needs to be true of your gameplay as well. You have the combat as a unique element and that system sounds interesting at the very least, but it isn't entirely unique. A similar system has been used in several games, the most popular one I can think of being the original Deus Ex. Many other older RPG's had a location based damage system. It's not a bad idea, and it is something that has become far less common in recent years so it could be a nice revival, but if that is your hook you need the story to support it. This is a visceral, brutal, unforgiving combat system, so your world needs to be likewise brutal and unforgiving. It needs to be more The Witcher than The Elder Scrolls. Finding a synergy in the tone of your story and the style of gameplay contained therein is key to creating a successful RPG. You need to create a world where the brutality of the action fits. Dark fantasy or low fantasy. Combine that darkness with unique visions of the races and you'll find success. Again, look at The Witcher. It took Elves, normally a noble and superior race and turned them into terrorists fighting for their survival. You need to capture some dark, unique element to each race and bring it to the forefront. The key for making it simple to understand is to keep it grounded in the present. Spend as little time as possible on the history of the world. Explain it, set it up, and leave the rest to be discovered at the player's whim. For all of its faults, Bioware is amazing at doing this. The codex system in both Dragon Age and Mass Effect can provide you with hours worth of reading if you care to do so. But in the gameplay the focus in on the current difficulties facing the player. Do I need to know that Vorcha are a incredibly unique species unlike any other one known in the galaxy? No, not at all, but it is cool that they spent the time to create that history if I care to explore it. In the game all I need to know is that they are mainly criminal lowlifes that look like lizards. And another key element of Bioware stories is that they take something on a massive scale and shrink it down to a human level. I care about the fate of the Krogans because I care what happens to Wrex and Grunt. Without them I wouldn't give a damn. Their inclusion gives something that is hard to comprehend (the extinction of an entire species) and gives it a human quality that I can immediately relate to. Adding that human element to something complex, like the fate of a species will keep the player involved in your fiction, even if they don't delve deep into those species' histories.

Just of note I have been taught by some of the best game writers and designers in the industry so I'm not just giving you this advice as someone who has never done this before. Writing a fantasy story in any situation is a huge challenge. Either you use predefined tropes and try to put a unique twist on them, as you are doing, and risk your story sounding like a copy of a dozen other books/games/comics or you try to do something way outside of the box with new races and new types of characters and risk it becoming far too confusing for any normal person to understand. And most of the time those unique ideas and races have been done before under a different name and your extra time creating all this special fiction was wasted. Suffice to say that while not impossible, writing a good fantasy story that is unique and that creates a ludo-narrative harmony is just plain damn tough. I wish you good luck as I have seen these ideas crash and burn far too many times for my liking.

Posted by ShadowConqueror

@Raven10: You raise some interesting points, and I appreciate the advice. I'll keep it in mind as the project progresses. I do not consider this undertaking to be easy, but I will do my best.

Posted by CJduke

Just curious, is this your actual job or are you doing this as a side project? Also will we be seeing this as a game published to buy somewhere like steam or will it come out for free? I'm really interested, I enjoy writing as well and have always dreamed of writing a epic fantasy novel, but between work, girlfriend, family, social events I don't have a ton of extra time to get into it and when I do have a lot of free time I end up playing video games. Its really cool to hear someones experience on this, I hope you keep blogging about it.

Posted by ShadowConqueror

@CJduke: Everyone on the team is doing this in their spare time, not as a profession. At this point, we do plan on releasing the final product on Desura and Steam, and we would also like to release alpha prototypes and the like for free.

Thank you for your interest in this rather large project of our. I'd certainly like to blog more about it as production continues, providing I come up with topics worth blogging about.

Posted by Raven10

@ShadowConqueror: I really don't envy you. It's so amazingly difficult to make a compelling fantasy world in this day and age and to then put it in a game and have that story enhance the gameplay and vice versa is just an insane undertaking. Keep us posted. I'd like to see how this turns out. The game I'm working on right now is called Broken and we have a twitter @brokenthegame and a Facebook page under Broken the Game as well. Follow us and we'll be sure to follow you back.

Posted by MistaSparkle

Sounds interesting, I hope things go well for you! I don't know if it means much to you, but I really like the title of your game.

Posted by PillClinton

Nice man, seems cool. Good luck.

Also, what're you doing for music and sound fx?

Posted by ShadowConqueror

@MistaSparkle: Thanks. The title was something that sort of happened by accident, but we all agreed that it's worth keeping.

@PillClinton: We currently have people for both music and sound effects. Both are students, but we expect great things from them.

Posted by ShadowConqueror

@Raven10: I checked out Broken, and it looks interesting. I particularly like the bunny slippers.

Posted by Phatmac

Besides the dumb name this could be okay. Good luck.

Posted by indieslaw

Best of luck, I'm very interested in seeing how this turns out. I went to GDC Online last year, and split my time between the "Breaking in" track and the "Game Narrative" track. There was a lot of interesting stuff I learned there. I'm especially keen on narrative and story in the indie scene, so it'd be cool to follow a game's progress that has that kind of focus.

Posted by ZeForgotten

Cool name and I like what I'm hearing. 
Followed on Twitter (no indieDB account for me, and not creating one just for this. Sorry) 
Best of luck to you and the rest of the people behind this game

Posted by Raven10

@ShadowConqueror: Yea we wanted to give a visually distinct article of clothing for the main character, something that would stand out and make him immediately recognizable and the story focuses on his relationship with his pet bunny so bunny slippers, especially in a hospital setting, seemed like a perfect fit.

Posted by indieslaw

I've never actually heard of indie DB before now, I must have been living under a rock. Thanks for the exposure.

Posted by ShadowConqueror

@SoothsayerGB said:

That's all really interesting. Would like to see more of the Giant Bomb community making their own games. There are a bunch of smart folk lurking about.

How much of the process of making a game are you talking about? I would love to read more details about your team or just making a game in general. Like who/how many are programers? What programming language will you be using? Where are you guys located? Do you have an office?

Anymore Art?

Sounds really ambitious. Do you guys have any previous experience in games? Like with Add-on/Mods or Flash games. How is the name pronounced?

At the moment we have one member fully devoted to programming, but since we recently switched from from Unity to UDK we might need more. Originally we were using C# as our programming language, but I think that's changed since the switch to UDK. Our team members are located in various countries such as Germany, England, Portugal, Canada, and the US, so we don't have an office. However, we are all infrequent contact with each other, and everyone is connected via Dropbox and Redmine, and everyone has access to the most current game files. We believe that the best way for our team to operate is to allow everyone to have the same information as everyone else, so that they know what everyone else is working on at all times.

As far as art goes, there is a little bit on our Indie DB page, but we have more in the works. We also release weekly updates to keep people informed of our progress, which are usually posted on Sundays.

I took two years of German in school, so I believe the title is pronounced something like "Zee-lin-tants" but I may be mistaken. I do believe many of our members have previous game design experience, but I can't list any specific titles, unfortunately.

@videorob said:

Best of luck, I'm very interested in seeing how this turns out. I went to GDC Online last year, and split my time between the "Breaking in" track and the "Game Narrative" track. There was a lot of interesting stuff I learned there. I'm especially keen on narrative and story in the indie scene, so it'd be cool to follow a game's progress that has that kind of focus.

I've never actually heard of indie DB before now, I must have been living under a rock. Thanks for the exposure.

I'm glad you're interested. It is my intention to release more specific information for the story as we progress, but right now we are still in early development and there isn't a lot to show yet.

Indie DB is a great site for anyone interested in any aspect of game design, or even someone who just loves indie games. I'm glad you enjoy it.

@ZeForgotten: No worries about making an Indie DB account, you can still view everything we post without issue. Thanks for your support.

Edited by Slag

@ShadowConqueror: That sounds Awesome OP!

Hope it goes well for you and let us know when/where we can get this once it's ready.

btw since mentioned the Souls style of storytelling which I agree is way underused and very powerful way to tell a story in games,

I just finished Dragon's Dogma and I found it's ending to be one of the best I've ever encountered in a couple decades of gaming. Since the game didn't dictate the narrative or foreshadow very obviously (although it was there in retrospect) , the ending felt more immersive than any other I've ever played. I've seen a lot of comments of "it's crazy" etc, but I think that's actually counter evidence that shows how the ending worked.

A lot of people are criticizing the game for this, but often times I've noticed that gaming audiences always demand things that end up making stories they don't actually like (namely over-explaining everything and zero ambiguity). Fiction writers I know are often afraid to include things like ambiguity in writing for that reason to their detriment. I guess what I'm saying is the customer (or reader in this case) isn't always right or said in another way they don't actually know what they really want.

Perhaps Dragon's Dogma develop its' characters as well as it should have among other things, but this understated aspect of their story telling they did really well.

I don't know what your writing is like or what your story will be, but make sure the story works for you first. The fans will only lead you astray despite their good intentions. Stories are not written by committee. It will be a better product if you stay to your vision and use whatever writing chops you got.

Good luck!

Posted by ShadowConqueror

@Slag: I never gave Dragon's Dogma a chance after I saw the quick look, but I'll definitely check out what it does with its story. Thanks!