Blacken: The Writing Process
Writing Blacken has been one of the most challenging creative processes, I've ever been through. I've never made a game before. I've never completed a story or novel. I've never programmed a game before, and I most certainly have never tried to put together so many things I didn't even know how to make.
When I set out back in the spring of 2015, I had a some sort of idea of the story I wanted to tell. But at the time, I didn't know the characters, the environments, the musical style, the sounds, the feel, the atmosphere, how to code it the best way, the game mechanics, the focus of the adaptive storyline and the motor behind everything.
All I knew was that I had an interest in aviation, fiction writing, music and programming, and wanted to combine it, and to see how far I could get on my own.
Ahead of me was an absolutely massive task. Not only would I have to invent thousands of puzzle pieces, I'd also have to put them together, and to get the final image just right. Before I realized it, I had created a mountain ahead of myself, with little to no climbing experience.
Nike was right
My first and biggest problem was that I had no attack vector on the project. I kept circling around it, trying to figure out how to write an immersive story, with compelling characters, compose fitting music, design atmosphere, etc. - and at the same time keeping it all within a realistic frame of what I could actually accomplish. Both limited by my skillset, but also by time. I still had to work a full-time job next to this endeavour. But along the way I came to a conclusion; A seemingly obvious one, but also one which is easily forgotten:
When I had circled around the project for long enough, I decided something. I told myself to just push through. Just do something, anything. I didn't care what. I just had to start working.
I often see creative people complain about how hard it is not to get distracted, and how hard is to be creative all the time. And yes, it is hard. It's really hard. But I made a choice to not end up in the lane of pessimism. I wanted to be pushing this project forward at all times. I chose to let doubt be doubt, and instead see where the writing, the composing and the programming took me. I'd rather suck and fix it, than getting nowhere.
And you know what? Roughly 4 out of 5 times I forced myself to just do, I not only got work done; Some of the best work in this project came out of those moments.
I, as a perfectionist, can spend so much time trying to get started the right way that it completely consumes me. I tend to forget there is no perfect start. There is no way around the iterations, the trials, the errors, the rewrites, the "kill your darlings". There is no way.
Another thing I found myself doing which led to letdowns was hunting the creative process. What I so deeply love about the creative mood is the evenings where you're listening to just the right music, you're riding on a wave of great material. Time and space have vanished from your conscience. Suddenly, it's 3AM, but you choose to keep to going. You see the sun go up, and you realize you'll have to survive work on Monster energy drinks. But you don't regret for a single second, because you were immersed, and you loved it.
The feeling you have in such a rush is amazing. And it becomes like a drug, I guess. I found myself hunting this. Trying to set the mood up. Going over playlists on YouTube, adjusting colored LED lights in my office, etc. But forcing it never yields the same result.
At the same time though, it's very frustrating not being able to invoke this process and feeling. And even more so, you have no idea when it's going to come back by itself; It could be in an hour, or in a year. You don't know. And when you have a ton of work ahead of you it's very difficult to just wait for it.
And I honestly believe the lesson I had to learn here, isn't that I should wait around. But more so that I really had to get in my head that the amazing evenings are not a common thing. They happen when they happen. The rest of the time we have to make due with what we've got; Much like a surfer, you must go in the water and all you can do is hope. The surfer can't do anything in the world to enforce a greater wave. They come when Mothernature damn well feels for it!
The writing process
I think any writer will say the same thing: There's no formula, there's no one thing you do to get inspired.
Most chapters in Blacken were inspired in completely different ways. Some were dreamed up on the bus to work, or the plane to Stockholm, or watching a great movie, or playing an awesome game, or staring into the ceiling in the middle of the night.
Once an idea was formed, I'd try to flesh out further details in my design document. I'd find photos and music for inspiration, as well. Some scenes were added to the game immediately, while others had to churn in my brain for a while. Mostly until I felt right about their purpose, and ability to tell that particular story segment.
When I felt right about adding a new location/scene, I'd go on websites with free images, to find a fitting set and piece them together. Following this, I'd write character dialog, not necessarily detailed or even remotely well-written. But, something.
Usually, with a few minutes' worth of dialog, I'd do the very same thing with the music: Compose something. Just enough to give me an idea of what it'd sound like, if I completed the track. For example, it could be 20 seconds of a piano playing a melody, where the final result would be a full orchestra playing the same melody, or variations hereof, for a couple of minutes. Sound textures were also experimented with at very early stages.
Having a dialog and a piece of music, which weren't necessarily complete, but half-way there, would give me a fairly good idea of how they'd work together. And just like that the process of moving them closer together had begun. I'd work a bit more on the dialog, then a bit more on the music, and then see how the new result worked out. Then either retrying, or moving on. This process would keep going until I was happy, sometimes spanning days and weeks of iteration.
When I went to New York in March 2016, I was cut off from making music. But I kept writing dialog and story, and kept creating new locations. This shaped a whole new approach for the second half of the game, and I'm actually very excited to see if it yields a different result.
Writing "St. Paul's Cathedral"
WAGNING: Spoilers ahead (however, they're kept to a minimum and all occur within the first third of the game)
"St. Paul's Cathedral" was a tricky one to get right. The scene has two objectives:
- To establish that the average person in New Hagen is scared of the ongoing political events.
- Have a talk to Abigail, and learn the truth about the demise of Mary and Mackenzie.
Originally, Jack visited Abigail in a trailer park. Other than that her story never really changed much. However, I did chose to dramatize her encounters with Russell to increase the believability in Jack's reaction.
But I never felt a strong response from the trailer park scenes. At least not in the form they existed in, around 6 months into production. Almost since day one I wanted some of the events to take place in a church, because it really allows for a lot of atmosphere. At the time the church was a lonely location and Abigail was a lonely character, so I put them together to see how it'd turn out. And frankly, I'm very happy with this match.
The music played during writing was mostly the Skyrim soundtrack.
I think this move shows exactly how I constantly had to balance tens of different factors against each other. Not only the story elements, but also the music, the sound, the atmosphere, the characters present, the dialog, previous and future events, etc. I had no final image, I simply had to try things out and see how it went.
The new location also changed Abigail's character. And this demonstrates how you sometimes get unexpected, positive results, when you just push through. I was suddenly inspired by the cathedral atmosphere, to add and show some depth of Abigail's character, primarily in her perception of God and religion. It also gave me an opportunity to stress that she's more mature than her age.
Another positive side effect of adding the cathedral to the game, was that it presented an obvious location to put the fear of the New Hageners on display - and that had the side effect of bringing out Jack's sympathetic characteristic.
Still on the road
"St. Paul's Cathedral" is a great example of how I've tried to assemble the many, many different pieces of the puzzle. A puzzle I didn't even know what looked like.
When I set sail back in the spring of 2015, I had a vague idea of where I wanted to go. But throughout the process the characters, the story, the visual style, the musical style, the game mechanics, the narration all kept changing. I allowed myself to follow this flow. I could've completed a generic, passionless game in a matter of months, but this project was never about just slamming another product on a saturated market. It was about seeing how far I could stretch my skills. And I've learned so many great things doing this, no matter what the final result will be.
And if you actually made it this far: I hope you found this writing valuable to you :) Thank you!