Week 1, overworld

This is an edition of Robin Sloan’s video game development diary.

Welcome! I’m very happy to have so many of you along.

I want to say thank you, in particular, to the readers who are not steeped in video games and their development—the readers for whom this newsletter is a bit of a gamble. You’re sure to encounter some jargon you don’t understand, and I want to encourage you to hang in there. This is a rich, fascinating world, and even my meager foray will, over time, reflect that.

You should, however, feel free to skip the really nerdy parts.

Let’s all just take a moment to appreciate the deep wonkiness of the k in the headine at the top of the page… and then dive in.


Last week

I’ll always begin these newsletters with a snapshot of what I’ve got.

Right now, I have got: a prototype game that, although excruciatingly minimal, has all the things: a branching story, a map, text presentation, audio playback.

You’ll find images of the game, as it exists now, further down in this newsletter, in the section about maps. There’s a lot to set up before that, though—this is the inaugural edition!


The total work

I’ll begin in the most basic way: why make a video game?

The reasons overflow. Just like books, video games have been formative aesthetic experiences for me, particularly in my youth. For me, media-making has always proceeded like this: I encounter something meaningful; I decide I want to produce my own version of that something; I learn how to do it. So it’s all reverb, really: impulse reflected back from material, transformed but recognizable. The material is me.

Deeper, now. Some days—not all, but some—I think video games must certainly be the 21st-century incarnation of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art” that draws upon and integrates all other forms. For Wagner, ca. 1849, opera was the Gesamtkunstwerk.

There is a lot in that whole formulation that’s questionable, but I will just plainly confess: for me, its allure is not. In video games, you get to deploy story and prose and graphic design and moving images and music—you get to “play all the keys on the keyboard.” (Is that actually idiomatic? Where is it from?)

Deeper still. Video games offer a kind of “critical infrastructure” comparable to the kind available to books, music, movies, and (maybe more recently) TV.

Why does this matter?

As you might know, I produce a lot of odd-shaped digital projects; this thread from a fictional social network (?!) is a recent representative. I truly love making these things, but/and I am often frustrated that the only “critical response” available is what I’ve come to think of as the “nod of approval.” I like nods, and I like approval—but I like real engagement even more. When you’re producing work in a genre that consists of… only that work… it’s a tall order to expect people to like, invent a whole new way of talking about things… just to talk about your thing.

But simply by calling something a game, you give people the framework—the permission—to evaluate it. To compare it with other things. To include it in lists!

You will see, as this project progresses, that it would have been perfectly reasonable to call it “an extremely enhanced e-book” or “a super-duper interactive digital story.” I struggled with terminology for a long time; I am now over it. This is: a video game.

Here’s one more reason to make a video game, entirely persnickety: I believe that almost all video games handle text very very badly. I mean that not in the sense of “prose quality”—which is a whole different conversation—but rather in the sense of typesetting and text presentation. There’s a lot to say about this, and I will, in due course, say it, at perhaps eye-rolling length. For now, I’ll just tell you that, when I play video games, their treatment of text frustrates me, and sometimes an upwelling feeling of “you’re doing it wrong!” can be a great motivator.


Sound snack

In each newsletter, I’ll include a bit of the game’s music and its production. The composer Jesse Solomon Clark and I share a Dropbox folder, and sometimes…

files just appear…

with names like gong_bath_2.mov.

(Tap or click the video to unmute it.)


The stack

I know many readers are curious about the tools I’m using. There is a LOT more to say about each of these, but, to start, I’ll just sketch out the stack:

As implied by the tools above, this game runs in a web browser. There are a few nice things about this choice.

First: the browser is a really good development environment. There are slick, powerful tools for inspecting layouts and measuring performance. You can bop over to the console at any time and crack open your game’s data structures, even compose little test functions on the fly. For readers unfamiliar with programming: it’s like having a live X-ray.

Which is important, because something is always broken.

Another nice thing: a game that runs in a web browser doesn’t have to be a game that’s distributed via the web. You can easily wrap it up as a standalone desktop app or even an iPhone app. For programs that aspire to be “like real apps,” this process can be treacherous; for programs like games, which don’t require much beyond a rectangle and some colored pixels, it’s straightforward. (Some readers will protest: “But your JavaScript won’t run as fast as native code!” Gently, I will remind those readers that I am making a text-centric narrative game.) (Then, I’ll moderate my snark; there are, in fact, a lot of considerations to balance here, and I’ll get into them in future editions.)


The ecstasy of the airship

As this newsletter proceeds, I will spoil basically everything about this game. The sensibility here is definitively “you are working in the studio with me,” not “this is a very long and nerdy movie trailer”

So. Here’s the whole idea behind Perils of the Overworld.

Section of the Final Fantasy II overworld map

Section of the Final Fantasy II overworld map

Classic role playing games almost always feature a mode in which your character is roaming the regions between towns and dungeons; this zoomed-out macro view is called, by convention, the overworld, and a huge part of the fun of these games is the process by which the overworld opens up to you.

A river roars; you find a bridge. A mountain looms; you hunt for the rumored tunnel. The land runs out; you hire a boat.

In the game Final Fantasy II, released for the Super Nintendo in (could it possibly have been) 1991, there was a moment in which you boarded an airship and the overworld dropped into thrilling pixelated perspective. This airship opened fresh swaths of the game, revealed whole new continents. At one point, the game asked you to pilot the airship into position over a chasm, then descend into an entire underground kingdom.

This feeling of new regions opening up is the soul of overworld, and, by extension, the soul of these games. Maybe I’m projecting a bit; I will just speak for myself: it’s the scale at which I enjoy them. I tolerate the dungeons, the monsters, the battles… only so I can explore more of the map.

That accounts for “the overworld.” What, then, are the “perils of”?

Section of the Final Fantasy II overworld map

Section of the Final Fantasy II overworld map

The classic structure of an RPG (as well as its fantasy novel antecedent) has the character questing across the world, meeting people who have problems, helping them, earning their aid—“please, accept this amulet!”—and proceeding on the quest. But this structure overlooks an important emotional reality:

When you help people, you get attached to them.

In RPGs, it is posited that the urgency of the quest outweighs your allegiance to specific people and places. But what if that’s not always true? What if you arrive at a tavern, offer to help out in exchange for room and board, then discover you enjoy the work? What if, thirty years later, you own that tavern?

What does the passage of thirty happy years look like in a video game?

What if, in order to unlock a magic door, you must reforge a legendary sword, so you study under a great blacksmith… who pulls you aside one day to say, “You have a true talent for this. This town will need a new blacksmith soon. I’m leaving for the mountains; my father is sick.”

But I’m on a quest, you say.

“So you’ve told me. Here’s what I will tell you: this is important work. Not the swords; those are for show. I mean the horseshoes. The shovels.”

And you realize you’ve never been happier than you have these past two months; that you do have a talent for it, and that’s a new feeling, isn’t it? So you agree, and take over—and the magic door stays shut.

The idea is that you’ll play Perils of the Overworld over and over, starting fresh each time, an appealing loop. The game will be difficult, in the sense that you will probably lose: your character will, against your best efforts, find a place in the world. But this “game over” won’t be unpleasant. In fact, discovering all its different versions it will be a large part of the fun.

You are on a quest, and there will be monsters and dungeons in this game—but they won’t ever be what ends it.

These, therefore, are the true perils of the overworld: the good people in it, and the possibility, everywhere you go, of making a real connection.


The map’s question

I’ve often said that my favorite genre of book is simply “the ones with maps in the front.” A map kickstarts the engine of narrative even before the story has begun—what a great trick. A map asks: what’s that? How did it get that name? Who lives there?

A map can’t stand alone, of course. Its questions must be answered—some of them, at least. The tantalizing labels have to get “hydrated” into scenes and stories, or they sit there inert, even a little numbing.

But when map and story work together, the resonance is profound. (This, by the way, is why I am so delighted that my novel Sourdough has a map on its first page. That map depicts the most fantastical place of all: the San Francisco Bay Area 😝)

Here’s a zoomed-in section of the universal benchmark. Note well its perfectly-calibrated style, its rough discursiveness; this map is clearly the project not of a professional cartographer but a studious hobbit:

Map of Middle Earth by Pauline Baynes

Map of Middle Earth by Pauline Baynes (I think)

Next, a zoomed-in section of one of my all-time favorites, the map of Earthsea, drawn by the great one herself, Ursula K. Le Guin:

Map of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

Map of Earthsea by the best there ever was, Ursula K. Le Guin

Notably, Le Guin drew this map before she knew what most of those locations were, or what they meant. This archipelago’s whispered “what’s that?” was therefore as much a question to her as to her eventual readers. Wonderful.

On Twitter, I asked for images of people’s favorite maps, and Eric Carrasco’s reply jogged a deep memory. His favorite is a favorite of mine, too: the map of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain drawn by Evaline Ness.

Map of Prydain by Evaline Ness

Map of Prydain by Evaline Ness

In terms of landmarks, this map of Prydain is a bit scant, but, in fairness: Prydain is a bit scant. It is the map’s graphic severity that grabs me—the flat checkerboard of those castles. Fabulous.

A minimalist, monochrome map seems like a good place to start. Here’s a snapshot of my current POTO prototype; it looks like shit, but/and, that’s the point. In a month we’ll flip back to this edition of the newsletter and go “oh WOW can you believe how far we’ve come??”

An uninspiring map

But of course: this isn’t just paper. It’s a screen, and there’s a 3D model lurking behind the glass. So we can do things… like this 😉


All the themes

Above, I dwelled a bit on the video game Final Fantasy II, which was utterly formative for me—just a half-step below my most beloved books. This was also true for my friend Matt Thompson, whose deep appreciation of FFII has lingered in my mind for many years. He has a way of talking about it, a way of framing it… so, as I was thinking about this newsletter, I messaged Matt and asked him if he had a moment to recapitulate that appreciation.

He replied with this single, multi-paragraph, essay-quality text message:

FFIV (for us purists) was the first time I ever got the power of epic storytelling. As the story progressed, it just layered on theme after mythical theme, using every new character as an opportunity to explore some of the deepest challenges of humanity. That sounds grandiose, but it’s true. The story begins with Cecil, the Dark Knight, on a quest to become a Paladin, a warrior of light, after he realizes he was fighting for a fallen king. Cecil’s efforts at redemption are thwarted by his best friend, Kain (not Abel, natch), who betrays him at his lowest moment, leaving him to certain doom.

After his first boss battle against an ice dragon, we learn that he’s made an orphan of a little girl, Rydia, by slaying her were-mother, who was only trying to protect her. She transcends her trauma by becoming a powerful black mage who needs no protection, able to summon her mother’s avatar in battle.

We meet the star-crossed lovers, Edward and Anna, whose father Tellah fears Edward, a mere bard, won’t be able to provide for her, and conspires to keep them apart. Little does he know that Edward is secretly the heir to a desert kingdom. But Edward and Tellah learn that neither love nor money can protect Anna, whose death at the hands of the final boss spurs Tellah to learn the spell that will end him and the boss at once: Meteo. Ultimate evil can of course only be vanquished by ultimate love.

Then there’s Palom and Porom, the chipper young twins who sacrifice themselves for their friends, earning honor and a sort of immortality by becoming forever entombed in stone.

Love, hatred, guilt, innocence, sacrifice, betrayal, mortality, immortality, art, money, redemption… It was the first story I loved that took on all the themes, character by character, vignette by vignette, and built a coherent world out of them. It was so satisfying. Better than the MCU.

A few minutes passed, and another message appeared:

Oh wait, I almost forgot, the characters go to the frickin moon. So throw that in there while we’re at it.

Next week

After a week of wiring components together and conjuring crude graphics, I can’t procrastinate any longer: I have to write the first draft of the first section of the game. As part of that work, I’ll produce the first version of a worldbuilding document. Mine will be more Le Guin than Tolkien: questions, not answers.

Here we go! Thanks for reading. You’ll be playing this game before long.

From Oakland,

Robin


This has been an edition of my video game development diary, sent by email every Sunday. You are hereby invited to subscribe: