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On Designing Compelling and Inclusive Game Narratives

A chat with the storytellers behind Wintermoor Tactics Club, a charming visual novel/tactics RPG.

Interweaving two genres is a complicated task. It forces you to interrogate a game down to its very base, to ask questions — what makes a tactics game a tactics game? How about a visual novel? What will you lose in one by attempting to transform it into another?

In Wintermoor Tactics Club, a strong narrative thread is the key to successfully uniting these disparate parts. The richly developed characters and environments serve as both a justification for the gameplay as well as a consequence of it; you battle because high school is rife with tension, emotion, angst — but it is through battling that friendships grow stronger, that bonds are forged and wounds begin to heal. Tactics and narrative not only co-exist as genre elements in Wintermoor, they are the fuel to each other’s fire.

“The story and gameplay are absolutely meant to go hand-in-hand. In our game, writing for C&C (Curses & Catacombs) is how the main character Alicia expresses herself. When new characters start joining the Tactics Club, she uses her writing skills to help them work out their problems in a fictional space, and to help them grow as people. That’s actually a big part of the game: for each new character you get a chance to write campaigns for them as Alicia, and the choices you make will affect how those C&C-based narratives play out on the battlefield,” said Kyla Furey, a member of Wintermoor’s narrative team.

In Wintermoor Tactics, the gameplay is diegetic. The consequences of a battle do not stay on the battlefield — they influence your relationships with your classmates.

“A lot of what happens in the C&C space is a metaphor for what’s going on in the real world of the game. And that’s not even addressing the fact that the gameplay world of C&C creeps into the real world as well, in the form of snowball fights. When the main characters are forced to battle other clubs in the snowball tournament, they learn to make the most of their tactical know-how by imagining their foes as enemies from C&C. So in that way the central through-line narrative of the game also plays out via the tactical combat.”

In Wintermoor, player choice is not a second-place feature. Actively engaging with your fellow students at the academy is the only way to become the real boss of the battlefield.

“Much of the main story is about finding characters from the clubs you’ve defeated and recruiting them into your team, getting to know them better and helping them grow as people. Another big part of the game involves roving around campus to find and talk to other students. Most of the characters you’ll meet will have some kind of side quest available for you, and getting to know both your club teammates and your fellow students better is how you’ll unlock combat upgrades for your characters.”

In order to craft a believable cast of characters, inclusivity was not just a nice-to-have for Wintermoor’s designers, it was a necessity.

“I think obviously including characters with different backgrounds is important, but it’s not enough by itself: they have to feel like real people. The valuable thing about diversity isn’t just “there are a lot of people who look different.” The value is that those characters have different lived stories, and different perspectives informed by their backgrounds and their experiences. Having an inclusive cast of characters means having characters who each have something unique and meaningful to contribute to the narrative, rather than just having a large group of similar characters who all share roughly the same outlook,” explained Furey.

In addition to closely following these tenets of engaging character design, Furey and her team looked to evoke a certain ambiance and tone, a comfortable hygge in the halls of Wintermoor Academy.

“We really wanted to tell an earnest, heartfelt story that believed in what it was saying. To that end I would say we were influenced by media like Undertale and Steven Universe, which both commit very deeply to their own themes and are inherently kind stories. We wanted Wintermoor Tactics Club to be similarly kind, and cozy. We often describe it as hygge, a Danish word describing the comfort and contentment of hanging out with people you care about.”

Above all, Furey hopes that the charming heart and humor of Wintermoor will resonate with players.

“My co-writer Mike Sennott and I put a lot of our hearts into this game. We’d go back and forth over the exact wording of certain dialogue sequences, or we’d try to one-up each other’s jokes until we were both laughing hysterically. I had a great time working on the game, and I hope it speaks to people when they play it. (Or, at the very least, I hope they laugh at some of the jokes.)”

You can purchase Wintermoor Tactics Club now on Steam.

Written by Celia Lewis for Vista Magazine.

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