End Where We Begin
How we turned our branching folktale game into a set of hardcover illustrated storybooks.
In 2016, we released a game called Burly Men at Sea. It’s a game about curiosity and adventure, and, deeper than that, it’s a game about story.
Drawing from Scandinavian folklore, it tells the branching tale of the ungainly adventures of the Brothers Beard. Throughout the game, it’s the player’s role as storyteller that directs their journey. For the curious or the very thorough, there are twelve stories to be told: some with minor variations, and some with entirely distinct paths.
Very early in development, we decided to bring this heavily storybook-inspired game back to its roots in print.
I’m a graphic designer by training, artist and writer by experience. But, though I’d always wanted to try my hand at writing and illustrating a book, this would be my first — and twelfth, by the time I was finished.
One of the first challenges was adapting each story into full, descriptive prose. For readability, the game’s script consists of concise, tweet-sized lines, manually advanced by the player. While this reads nicely in-game, short sentences begin to feel choppy when when laid out in paragraphs.
Additionally, much of Burly Men at Sea’s writing relied on animated sequences or player action, which would now require description. But because I’d written an early prototype of the game in Twine, some of the descriptive writing had, fortunately, already been done. After updating this to incorporate the game’s final script, I was able to focus more of my time on editing for rhythm and page flow.
Next, I began to tackle layout. Like the game, the books would aim not for children but for those of us at any age who still hold to a love of fairytale. At an average of roughly 1000 words each, I wanted them to fall somewhere between a picture book and a novel, with fifty pages and a mix of spot and full-page illustrations.
Breaking up the story into spreads, I began storyboarding each book exactly the way I’d storyboarded the game.
What remained was the biggest part of the equation: illustration. It was arguably a simple task, as I’d already created storybook-inspired art for the game and could easily have adapted it to fit. But I wanted these books to stand alone, to be more than a recreation of the game in print. I wanted them to feel as if a character in the game had created them.
This meant re-interpreting my own already stylized art, which, it turns out, is a very weird challenge.
Finally, gradually, all twelve books began to feel complete. David and I proofed and re-proofed until we could confidently send them off to be printed and bound.
At this point, we’d been working with a Nebraska-based printer for months to confirm all the production details: dimensions, cover cloths, deboss, paper stock. We’d seen all the pieces, in some form or another, but finally having the completed books in our hands was an exciting moment.
Since then, we’ve shipped books to players all over the world. They made appearances at a London festival and in a writeup by Apple. We’re super proud of how they turned out. But best of all is the quiet role they play: an elaborate mystery waiting at the end for each curious new player.
But best of all is the quiet role they play: an elaborate mystery waiting at the end for each curious new player.
They turn to the filled shelf. “Ye’ve done it,” whispers the old man, simply.