This is an edition of Robin Sloan’s video game development diary.
Welcome: to returning readers as well as everyone newly subscribed. If you missed it, week 1 sets up the motivation behind this project. All the previous editions are available over on my blog.
It’s time for a Perils of the Overworld update!
First, a quick recentering, for the benefit of new subscribers—of whom there are many; hello!—and old-timers alike.
Perils of the Overworld is a text-centric video game with a branching story. The “overworld” in the title intends to conjure the zoomed-out maps of classic Japanese RPGs—
—and the sense they gave me, as a young player, of invitation and possibility. Far more than than the battles or puzzles, it was that experience of a world opening up, small to big to huge, that made me love those games.
But this game is not straight homage to the JRPG map. It intends also to complicate or subvert the trope, because it is a game about finding a place in the overworld, not just plowing relentlessly through it. (You can find a dramatization of this in my first dispatch about the game.)
Okay, that should all be familiar to some readers of this diary. Indeed, that’s about as much as I’ve said about the game’s world up until now, and it’s obviously, er, quite broad. I’ve been able to skirt specifics using the time-tested procrastinatory practice of dorking around with code. But now, the game’s engine is fully functional, which is terrifying, because it means I have to actually write it. Ha! Ha ha! Haaa. Okay.
I’ve told you previously about my distaste for hyper-detailed worldbuilding. However, even a skeptical worldbuilder must, at some point, build a world.
Because, the thing is, it’s easy to turn your nose up at the “literalization” of worldbuilding when you’re working alone. Writing solo, it’s not so difficult to hold a shifting, multivariate fiction in your head; when you need to make a choice or a change, you do so silently and instantly, and you move forward. Honestly, it’s great. Writing that first draft, you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone!
But ah: what about collaborators? It’s a phase change, not gradual but definite; as soon as you add just one other writer, you need to explain yourself. This is why film and TV projects (as well as video games produced by big teams) have those thick story bibles, those reams of lore: to make explicit what is, or can be, implicit in a single writer’s mind.
Well, about a month ago, I commissioned an important piece of writing from an old friend—more on that in a moment—and it required me to actually articulate the basic premise of this world, which turned out (of course) to be totally worthwhile and fruitful.
Here, I’ll share a version of it with you.
In the mortal realm known as the Overworld, there was once a band of heroes, all with different backgrounds, different skills—a kind of high fantasy Avengers. For years, they guarded the realm against incursions from the world of the dead, often by venturing into the Underworld themselves on treacherous missions.
They were called the Perimeter League.
That’s all in the past; at the conclusion of a titanic battle, the gate between the Underworld and the Overworld was sealed. All of this happened way up in the north, where the boundary between worlds is thin to begin with, and now, forty years later, most people assume the Perimeter League never really existed. Surely, those were just stories, repeated and combined and exaggerated as they trickled south.
But, in this game’s introduction, you learn that the stories are true, and furthermore that the heroes are still out there, retired, living different lives. You learn this from an old man who shows you a deck of cards, each one bearing an illustration of a different member of the Perimeter League, 21 in all. This card game you’ve been playing, he reveals, stands for something that was real, and something that must be real again. It is an urgent matter, he says: the Perimeter League must be reassembled.
And you are the one who must do it.
He gives you the cards as your guide. Of course, you don’t know where the heroes depicted now reside or what they’re doing. But you were, let’s be honest, desperate for a quest, an adventure, a PURPOSE: so, off you go.
Exploring the Overworld, you track down the heroes of the Perimeter League one by one. They’re older now, their lives very different, and you learn that the battles in the Underworld didn’t go QUITE as reported. Furthermore, you learn that these heroes don’t want or need to be reassembled; they’ve found new satisfactions—indeed, new forms of heroism—in these new lives.
So you go from one to the next, one to the next, always hoping for a different answer. You choose where to travel, which hero to pursue, although it’s always generally northward, towards the place where the Perimeter League’s old citadel stands derelict. (Or… perhaps not entirely derelict…)
All the magic in this world has to do with life and death: the claims of the dead on the living; the ways in which life can be traded for power; various hauntings. The big gate between the Overworld and the Underworld is closed—the one you could march an army through—but there are other, smaller doors. More and more of them as you move farther north.
This is a high fantasy world, offering many of that genre’s tropes and pleasures, but/and, besides the life and death thing, it has a special interest in craft and care. Every fiction emphasizes certain details and systems while leaving others tacit; POTO will spend a more-than-average amount of time explaining how things are made and traded in this world, and how its people people look after one another.
The Perimeter League fought to kept the dead bottled up inside the Underworld. Of course, that wasn’t, and isn’t, right; the dead do have legitimate commerce with the living, just as the living have things they need from the dead. There’s a two-way relationship there. Many members of the Perimeter League have, in their retirements, learned that.
But there is one hero who remains remains unsettled, unrepentant, unmoored… and that hero has a plan.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a project must be in want of a progress bar.
The nonlinearity of this game and the attendant writing task was more of a problem than I realized at first. I could narrate a whole stream of contortions and angst here, but I’ll cut to the chase: I didn’t have a solid way of measuring my progress towards completion. I needed one.
So, I turned to my friend Wilson Miner. Wilson is known professionally as one of Silicon Valley’s great designers; he has worked at Apple, Facebook, Stripe, and the bygone, beloved music streaming service Rdio. However, the overwhelming majority of my conversations with Wilson over the years haven’t had to do with any of that, but rather story structure and game design. They have been very nerdy conversations.
And, over the past few years, they have turned also towards an object of Wilson’s deep study: the Tarot.
In my previous development diary, I wrote:
The game’s blackjack-esque mechanism has suggested some new possibilities for the story; there’s a way in which a deck of cards implies a cast of characters, archetypal, maybe even tarot-like. So, hmm, yes, what if your quest involves meeting the real people who have been immortalized, idealized, in this deck of cards?
The Tarot led me to Wilson, who I realized could use his knowledge of the cards along with his knack for story structure to craft a dramatis personae: the 21 heroes of the Perimeter League.
For your possible edification, here is the memo I sent to him, laying out this challenge. The top half of that document is slightly duplicative of what I shared above, but the bottom half is all about Wilson’s task, should he choose to accept it.
He did choose to accept it, so that document served as the starting point for a discussion, during which I kept repeating “tarot-like,” “tarot-like,” “tarot-like.”
Finally, Wilson said, “Maybe we should just… use the Tarot?”
You learn these lessons over and over again. In a project that flexes across a dozen degrees of digital freedom, nothing feels as good as a decisive constraint. And what better constraint than a system with centuries of proven storytelling resonance??
So! Taking the 22 cards of the Tarot’s Major Arcana as his scaffolding, Wilson has now transformed and reimagined them, given them new names: and not just one name, but two, because remember, each of these characters is a two-sided coin. There is
The Warrior becomes the Governor; the Monk becomes the Fishmonger; the Reaper becomes the Undertaker; and so on.
Also, two cards of the major arcana have been combined into one hero of the Perimeter League: for Secret Reasons.
In future development diaries, I’ll talk more about Wilson’s process and introduce some of these heroes. He’s woven a rich tapestry, all the resonances of the Tarot channeled into this fictional world of life and death and craft and care.
And he has, at the same time, produced a checklist. Each retired hero lives in a different place; each retired hero represents one “hand” in the player’s highwire blackjack game.
Twenty-one encounters. There’s my progress bar!
As I’ve been working on this video game, I have not been playing many video games.
I started the latest Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, and played for maybe a dozen hours—deeply enjoying the experience!—but then I ran out of steam.
I continue to play Fortnite a couple of times a week. The way those matches start the same but turn out wildly different is still amazing to me; the combinatorial power of a hundred players and a big, complicated map. But that’s nothing new. (I have written about my appreciation of the game before.)
I tried to play a couple of new games: story-centric offerings in the vein of 80 Days. Unfortunately, I found their presentation of text too dull, and the content of that text just… well, I don’t mean to sound uncharitable, but it just wasn’t good enough! 😩
This paucity of game-playing ought to give a game-maker pause. If your attachment to the genre is weakened or lost, what the hell are you even doing?
That makes me think three things at once:
What indeed? I think this question is actually worth grappling with; I don’t dismiss it.
Part of the reason I’m making Perils of the Overworld is that there aren’t enough games of the kind I want to play. If I was staring down a long queue of games that suited me perfectly, maybe I wouldn’t care about making my own.
This is the subtlest part, but/and I think it’s actually the truest. There’s something I’ve realized, not only with my work on this project, but generally writing and programming and publishing, all of it:
This has become, for me, the bigger and more engrossing game.
If a video game is a system of progressive mastery with interesting rewards along the way… well, that describes the work of making media, too! I mean, even just programming, considered on its own. When I was getting this game’s 3D map view running, I would wake up early, brew some coffee, open the code, and poke at it for a couple of hours, totally engaged. Maybe it’s only fun in that way when it doesn’t carry the burden of livelihood; I don’t know. But it is fun. More fun than Zelda! Sorry!
Just to set your expectations, this is going to proceed at a moderate pace. My intention is for Perils of the Overworld to be a commercial offering, not an art project; but/and, as a commercial offering, it is much more speculative than anything else I’ve ever worked on. So, I need to balance it with other, more reliable work, which is, for me—absurdly, I acknowledge—writing prose fiction.
That’s it for this update. I’m excited to have Wilson’s roster of resonant, archetypal heroes to develop and explore. It is clear that each will need an illustration (I mean, obviously, right?!) so I’m now starting to think about how best to accomplish that.
Thanks for following along.
This has been an edition of my video game development diary, sent by email every few weeks. You can subscribe: