Baby’s First Game: A Journey

A few years ago, I decided to make a sci-fi game. I had no experience in game design or development, or even story writing, but hot dog, I was gonna do it.

The motivation was simple:

  • I love video games
  • I love sci-fi
  • It was my childhood dream to work in the game industry but then I learned it suuuuucks (in general and for women in particular) so I stuck to the way better, 100% OK tech industry instead but anyway, this was my chance to do what I’d always wanted to do, on my own terms

Here’s the story of that journey: how I did it, and why. I hope this will inspire some of you to try writing your own games, too~

dang I love computers ! !

1. How I Did It

Originally I wanted to make a “real” game: something 3D where you can walk around, interact with a visual world, etc. Pretty much what you’d think of as a video game. This would involve having to learn about Unity, 3D modeling, animation, scripting, camera work…

It didn’t take long for me to realize this was too ambitious. I did spend some time getting into Unity and Blender, but then I got overwhelmed and stopped for a long time.

I focused back on the story, though “story” is a generous term. In the beginning it wasn’t much other than something sci-fi and dystopian. I had fun creating ~moodboards~, sick playlists, and all kinds of possible stories. I really liked the idea of a sinister plot: something about a government conspiracy and cults. At the time, I was heavily influenced by Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan and grimy movies like Blade Runner.

#mood

Periodically I’d come back to Unity, simplifying my game idea more and more. Rather than a typical 3D game, I could make a text-heavy 2D game, like an old-school isometric RPG. I could focus more on the story and less on mastering the deep mysteries of Blender.

Unfortunately it turns out even this was too much. To this day I have no idea how to handle lots of dialogue and text in Unity, because I gave up (again). Instead I whittled my idea down even more and was left with the purest form of a game: the text adventure game.

all u need is a full alphanumeric symbol set and some magic

To hell with graphics! My game would be a glorified short story! I dropped Unity and started writing my own JavaScript-fueled nightmare: check out the commit messages to see how well that went. I managed to add lots of cool features but writing a story this way was not scalable. It soon became impossible to keep track of the plot, and forget about doing any major rewrites: moving just one piece of this Jenga helltower would make the whole thing collapse.

In case it’s not clear by now, making your first game is a guaranteed bad time.

Luckily though, there was another solution available: Twine. It’s software specifically for making text adventure games, and while it’s not perfect, it also ~is~. It’s much more visual than anything I was trying before, and it’s super easy to edit and change your story as you go along. It falters a bit around customization, but no one’s perfect.

Now that I could stop worrying about the implementation, I needed to write the damn story. Writing a text adventure story is a little challenging: at certain points, there can be multiple different ways to experience a scene. I wanted something that felt cohesive but also like your decisions mattered. I tried writing an actual short story in Google Docs, bullet points in a notebook, making things up on Twine… in the end what worked best for me was figuring out the overarching narrative from start to finish, then filling in the gaps as I went. Knowing where my story would end helped tremendously, and I’d highly advise nailing that down before you pull a Lost.

one game, multiple experiences

I did eventually come up with a story, but sometimes it still felt hard to write. Even though I knew what would happen, I needed it to matter, and to be interesting. I needed a reason to tell this story.

2. Why I Did It

You know how originally I wanted the story to be really sinister and grimy? Well, 2016 happened. Whatever dystopian sci-fi hellscape I could come up with, it couldn’t compete with reality.

And I didn’t want it to. I didn’t want to add to everyone’s despair. I wanted something more hopeful, but not blindly utopian. One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia: we don’t need these ideological extremes.

Instead I wanted something soft. Something that would value art, womanhood, friendship, makeup, and snacks, all within the context of Science Fiction.

the future is female. don’t @ me

I made a lot of intentional decisions about my game, with the following goals:

  1. promote femininity and cuteness as valid modes of being
  2. move as far away from Anglo-American, masculine, libertarian sci-fi tropes as possible
  3. make people smile

There’s no way to guarantee your work will make someone smile, but turns out it’s really easy to achieve #2. Diversity in games is a no-brainer when you bring a diversity of experiences to it.

The easiest way to do this was to keep characters as generic as possible in some ways. The protagonist and a few key characters are women, but beyond that you can imagine them however you like. No one needs to be white, straight, cis, whatever. I did consider making some identities more explicit, but felt like it bordered onto tokenism. And besides, why should I get in the way of someone’s imagination? Had this been a regular game with graphics, I would have had to make more explicit decisions, but this is all story-based. I want you to be able to fill in the blanks for yourself, however you need to. If you think the protagonist is Black or Asian or Middle Eastern, then she is.

I also wanted to move away from the usual violent and exploitative aspects of sci-fi. There are no guns here. You don’t need to fight anyone. There are no miserable sex workers in the streets. Instead, there’s peaceful music, tea time, good friends, and flowers. A lot of science fiction assumes the average citizen is living some kind of combative urban nightmare, but most people just like to hang out with friends and eat good food. Why isn’t that part of our vision for the future? What’s wrong with it? You can be a hero and still find time to sketch a pretty flower you find.

flowers are important too. art by Kilian Eng

In the end, I made a simple text adventure game with a sweet story, and it feels like the most political work I’ve ever done. It’s not going to change the world, but if it makes someone happy and hopeful for even just a few minutes, then I think I’ve achieved something great.

Alright now go play Fantom ❤ It’s 100% free and all on the browser. No need to download anything. Thank you so much.


Credit where credit is due: I ended up being very inspired by a LOT of things, and I’m grateful for all of them.

Other great games: The Longest Journey, The Stanley Parable, Lieve Oma, Mass Effect, Her Story, Firewatch. I think all these games can change your life. If you can, pay full price for the indie games: game development is hard work!

The Speculating Futures reading list, curated by Francis Tseng, helped shape some of my ideas about futurism. I’ve particularly liked The Future Mundane and A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be. If you’re interested in sci-fi and futurism, but think Ray Kurzweil is a hack, then I think you’ll like these readings too.

The artwork of Kilian Eng, Devon Ko, and Cosimo Galluzzi is absolutely dreamy. I played this song by College on loop. Lots of famous movies inspired me, but a some lesser known ones were It Was On Earth That I Knew Joy and Cashback.

Thank you to all my friends and to the Pixel Lab community for being a constant source of love and inspiration ❤

And yes, I already have another game in the works. A “real” one this time.

xoxo