Monday, July 29, 2013

Turncoat Dev Diary: Origin of the Universe

Once we decided to make a game, the next thing we had to do was figure out what game we were going to make. That's a surprisingly hard thing to do, not because it's difficult to come up with ideas, but because it's hard to pick just one. We toyed with a few different genres, but both Rob and I kept coming back to science fiction, so we decided to run with that.

The first concrete idea we had for a game was inspired by one part of the book Starship Troopers - an important part that was completely absent from the horrible Verhoeven movie: the drop.

If you haven't read the book, the troopers in the book (unlike in the movie) wear massive powered armor and are dropped onto planets from orbiting spaceships. The first chapter of the book, and one of its most memorable scenes, describes the anticipation and terror experienced by the main character before a drop. On the very first page of the book, the protagonist, Johnny Rico, tells us:
I always get the shakes before a drop. I've had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can't really be afraid. The ship's psychiatrist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me that it isn't fear, it isn't anything important -- it's just like the trembling of an eager race horse in the starting gate. I couldn't say about that; I've never been a race horse. But the fact is: I'm scared silly, every time.
The actual drop and the combat that follows are described in quite a bit of detail by Heinlein, but I always found this prelude much more moving. A few pages later, we see Rico in combat and learn that he's a badass. But the very first thing we learn about him is that he's scared. Being Mobile Infantry makes him cool, but being afraid, makes him human and relatable.

From a game perspective, the drop itself seemed to have the potential to make an interesting physics-based game and this human element of fear and anticipation is exactly the kind of thing we want to drive the cinematic portions of our games.

It was a good starting point, but there were some obvious problems. Even if we could obtain the license (unlikely), we didn't really want to work in someone else's universe. We also didn't want to create something overly derivative. Like programming, all stories build upon what came before: Nobody writes in a vacuum. But there's a huge difference between being inspired by something and flat-out copying it. The success of Zynga and GameLoft show that creating blatantly derivative games can be a path to financial success, but that's not a path we're interested in.

So, what we did next was look at what it was about the this idea and the book that appealed to us, not so much in terms of game mechanics, though we may very well revisit the idea of an orbital drop in a game at some point, but in terms of the story and character.

We liked that the protagonist was relatable. He might be a badass, but he's a badass who gets scared, who has self-doubt, who makes mistakes, and who gets nervous around girls he thinks are pretty. He reminds us of real people we've known, or maybe even of ourselves a little bit.

We liked that the characters in Starship Troopers are in serious peril. Rico becomes a non-com fairly quickly because mortality is so high. An awful lot of the people Rico meets along the way die. These folks live in a dangerous universe and they have dangerous jobs. That creates an awful lot of stress, which brings out the best in some people and the worst in others. Both extremes are ripe for creating dramatic tension.

But the danger has to feel real. We don't want to succumb to the Red Shirt cheat. We don't want the viewer to feel like the main characters are safe and we don't want to be afraid, ourselves, to murder our darlings.

We also don't want to be mindless entertainment. We want to, at times, challenge the assumptions of our viewers. There's a nuance to Starship Troopers that's often lost on modern readers. Toward the end of the book, Rico tells another soldier that his native language is Tagalog. That means that the protagonist, Johnny Rico was Filipino. Why does this matter?  Well, the book was written in 1959, and Heinlein was challenging preconceived notions by getting the reader to relate to and like Johnny before revealing his ethnicity. But, there was more to it than that. Heinlein had been a Navy man and he was also challenging something very specific. At the time Starship Troopers was written and, indeed, up until 1971, Filipinos were restricted to a single Navy rating: Stewardsman. In other words, the only job enlisted Filipinos were allowed to have in the US Navy was serving food and cleaning up after meals. This, despite the fact that the U.S. Military had been officially desegregated since 1948. Heinlein wasn't in your face about this point he was making - in fact, many people completely missed it — but, as an author, he was never afraid to challenge preconceived notions.

Frankly, that's what good science fiction does: it challenges you and makes you think a little while it entertains you. A science fiction game should be no different in that regard.

Another thing we really wanted was for the person playing the game to go through a process of discovery about the universe and the characters. We wanted to hint at, but not tell the viewer outright early on, important things that drive the story. We wanted a certain complexity to the universe and we wanted real motivations for the actions of the characters, even if those motivations aren't immediately obvious. We really didn't want the viewer to know at the start very much about the characters, the history, or even the reason they're at war. We almost wanted a murder mystery vibe to it, only without actually having it be a murder mystery.

Once we had identified these goals, our "hook" almost wrote itself. We decided to call the series of games "Turncoat". We didn't know many of the details yet, but we knew that the game would follow the exploits of some kind of military squad. This would be a very loyal, very highly trained group with a lot of esprit de corps. It's a little cliché, but these would be the best of the best: a small elite that does what others can't or won't.

The original idea was that we would create a number of short games. Early on, each game would introduce one new major character. Before each episode, the viewer would be told or reminded of a single important fact: on a specific date, about a year after the events of the first game episode, one of the characters will betray the squad. Each game would have cinematics or cutscenes that would slowly, over the course of many episodes, fill in information leading up to that foretold act of treason.

This is the point where the project started to take on a life of its own. During the day, I would do my regular MartianCraft work. But, in the evenings and on the weekends, I'd often sit at my computer working on our Story Bible. Periodically, I'd ship what I had over to Rob, and we'd hash out things back and forth, trying to suss out what didn't work and what we should keep. After the universe was sufficiently fleshed out, we started working on individual game ideas and scripts. After more than a year, we ended up knowing an awful lot about the Turncoat Universe.

Picture of Scrivener window of Story Bible document

I still really like this original idea and hope we can do it someday, but for it to work, we realized that the episodes would have to come out relatively frequently to keep players interested. That would mean dedicating a large team to the project, larger than we can currently fund without outside investment. For that kind of undertaking, we don't just need developers and designers. We need concept artists, modelers, animators, voice actors, music composers, musicians, and people coordinating all of the various efforts.

It's a big universe, though, and there are plenty of other stories we can tell from the universe. We just needed to find one that was self-contained, wouldn't spoil the later turncoat story, and that was small enough in scope that we could fund it ourselves.

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