Notes From the Road

I haven’t been home much the past eight days. As I type this it is two in the morning and in a couple of hours I will be on the road again, spending most of the day traveling to an appointment and back. My recent going-on’s have kept me from spending time on this blog; but this morning I decided to type down some ramblings about recent game development efforts, which is where most of my time has gone.

And I mean ‘ramblings’. Seriously.

Shmup or Something?

On longer road trips, like the one I’m embarking on shortly, I take a notebook and pen so I can write down game ideas. Then later I review them and type down the more interesting ones into a document containing over a year’s worth of information on the shmup Jeff and I are making. The process reveals an entertaining contrast: the notes and ideas from over a year ago seem to describe a completely different game. That they are both shmups seems the only connection. Seeing the gradual and natural evolution of the gameplay mechanics requires a slow, deliberate reading of the many pages, but it is there.

However, the story, characters, setting, aesthetics—nothing of the original concept remains.

In the back of my mind I’ve known this for a while. But I did not seriously think much of it until last week. Jeff was working on designing and testing a level, and in between that we were bouncing ideas around about the plot while I diagrammed the various story-branching points, connections between missions, anything to help completely draw the lines from the start of the game to its conclusion. I was also writing down ideas in my notebook, and I began to draw storyboards to visually lay out directorial-ish thoughts for one scene near the finale when I had a thought: “When did this become necessary for a shmup?”

I am not saying that to sound like some bragging jack-ass—”Oh look how deep our game is and I bet most people won’t ever ‘get it’ and we’re going to redefine genres and paradigms….” That would be my attitude if I were still sixteen years old and in ‘Creative Writing’ class at high-school. But nowadays I am not even certain there is anything unprecedented in video games, and a shmup with a detailed story is not a new idea in any way, shape, or form. It’s not something to trot out proudly; it is something I agonize over because the bar for quality is set so damned high. I feel like our game is flirting with a thin line when it comes to the narrative and how it comes across. At every plot-branch there is the rewarding but draining challenge of equally presenting two contrasting viewpoints without sounding dismissive, heavy-handed, or preachy.

This led Jeff and me to start joking about how we’re not making a Bullet-Hell shmup: we’re making a ‘Moral-Hell’ shmup. We found it hilariously accurate. I don’t want you to think the story is all drama and gloom-and-doom, because it’s not. That said, I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from a particularly dramatic anime, and while Jeff hasn’t echoed that sentiment aloud he does own the sweet Blu-Ray multi-boxed set, which sat in plain view from our computers the entire past week…. (Which we did not re-watch because we were busy watching this terrific explosive madness.) Influences like that are why the bar is so high.

We talked about various light-hearted ideas to balance the flavor of it all, while maintaining a strong drama. I was hoping to get into some of that this morning, but typing this out has taken up more time than I really planned—secret code for ‘I got distracted’. I should be back to my normal pattern of updating almost daily in two or three days. At which point I might have a forty minute audio recording to share.

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