Daily Update #20: Flavors of Fear

Greetings, jurors. Once again, I welcome you to this, the Daily Update.

12 days until the release. Hoo boy. That's the same number of jurors there are in the game. If I were smart, I would have something clever for that. Maybe dedicate each day approaching release to one of the characters or something. Alas, I've done no such preparations. A shame.

So, today, I want to talk about how the routes are set up in The Zodiac Trial. Specifically, I want to talk about the writing philosophy behind how I set them up. See, in a lot of ways, The Zodiac Trial is structured like a first half of one big story, then around 12 short stories, and finally the second half of that big story. That's super overly simplistic in a lot of ways and just kind of wrong in other ways, but my point is that each route is so much its own thing that writing each one is its own obstacle.

Faced with the challenge of filling the game with so many different routes, a certain issue naturally arose. How to keep things from feeling too samey? After all, its the same characters, same locations, same rules - how do the routes not end up feeling repetitive considering all of that? The answer was to make sure to distinguish them all from each other, and I used three main tools to do that: theme, tone, and tcast.

First let's talk about theme. To put it simply, if every route ended with a dirty bare-knuckled brawl to determine who lived and who died, the shtick would get old fast. The same would be true if every route had a mysterious killer offing people one by one, or if every route was settled through the participants focusing on the game mechanics and trying to race to the end. The key was balance. Internally, I ended up categorizing all the routes as either 'mystery,' 'action,' or 'variety.' Those were loose definitions - not every 'mystery' route was dealing with an unknown killer, and pretty much all routes had some elements from all three categories. But generally, the routes could be categorized into these three categories. And obviously, just these three categories weren't going to cut it.

That brings us to tone. Stories should elicit emotions. Ideally. But what emotions should they elicit? Well, given the context, it's probably not going to be anything overly positive. But there's a big difference between the cautious optimism of the group banding together and the abject psychological horror of everybody dying in incredibly gruesome ways. There's a difference between a mustache-twirling traitor you'd just love to punch in the face and a sobbing traitor with an emotional backstory just around the corner. Again, to help vaguely organize things in my head, I categorized the routes into three categories, based around the clearest indicator of the tone - how many casualties an optimal play through of a route was result in. Some had as few as 2 or 3 deaths. Some had a middling number, anywhere from 4 to 7 deaths. And some were a slaughterhouse, ranging anywhere from 8 to 11 deaths. Needless to say, the difference between 2 deaths and 11 deaths should help separate things somewhat.

Finally we have tcast. Tcast is the word cast with a t in front so that my list can be alliterative. Actually, shit, I could've put troupe. Ah well. That's worse and I'm not going to go back and edit at this point. Anyways, this is a bit of a weird one, because it's not like characters magically disappear on some routes. But certain characters definitely get a lot more screen time in some routes than others. Often you can end up 'partnering' to some extent with one or two characters for long periods of time, and the true 'antagonist' of the route will always change. Adjusting how much any given character is in the spotlight is a good way to help vary things up. Personally, an interesting barometer I noticed when writing was whether or not Ox was alive for most of a given route. Besides perhaps Mouse, Ox is the most levelheaded and reasonable of the group, often acting like the group's leader. And naturally, that results in him dying early quite a bit. It's not a black and white distinction by any means. However, when Ox is around, things tend to have a sense of order and purpose with everybody, things are more structured. And when Ox isn't around, Mouse is suddenly the sanest person in any given room, which is not a great sign for the gang's stability.

Ultimately, I think 'The Zodiac Trial' succeeds in making the routes different enough to be distinct, while still keeping a common identity. And with this much variety, who knows? The differences mean people will probably enjoy the different routes different amounts. Maybe you'll hate one of the routes. But hopefully, you'll find some that you'll really love. You can experience all the routes you want in 12 days, when the game comes out.

Until next time,