Daily Update #26: One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back

Hey there everybody, I'm running out of ways to introduce this segment and this is the Daily Update Corner, for all your Daily Update needs. Okay, okay, dead serious here - as I began to write that second segment I got an odd feeling of deja vu. So I looked back and literally the very last post I used that exact phrase. I promise I'm not this predictable of a writer in the actual game. 

Anyways, time moves forwards, and so too does the release date of The Zodiac Trial. Exciting. Frightening, too, but exciting. Before long, the game will be out in the public. But how did the game even come to be? That was the question I was wrestling with last post. We left off on the proverbial end of the first act, the call to action. So how will our brave hero fare when faced with the task of actual creation? Let's see.

First thing's first, I knew the core of my game would rest on getting a good set of sprites. And the core of my budget would rest on getting a good deal for this, since it was one of the few aspects that needed to be unique, and that I had absolutely no chance of making myself. I also needed a fair few sprites, and they needed to all be in the same style, so I had to make sure I got this right.

I didn't really know the protocol for any of this, so I just sort of looked around on forums for a while. And eventually, after enough time, I found Felicia Margareta. She had pretty high quality work to display, and very reasonable-sounding prices. I got in contact with her, and she ended up being a delight to work with. Very positive, very accommodating, very timely, very professional. I've nothing bad to say about working with her, if you're looking for an artist to commission sprites from, you could do a lot worse than Felicia.

So that avenue was settled - for the most part. The sprites were coming in. The other visuals could wait until I actually had some meat on the game's bones. I decided that I'd pretty much only work on the fundamental mechanics to get the game functional, and then all the writing. Everything else would come after that. In retrospect, I think this was a decent method. Not optimal, just like many things I would do, but good enough. I already had a lot of the structure in mind, so without much more thought, I began writing.

Writing, for me, is somehow both incredibly easy and super difficult. In the moment of actually writing, I feel like dialogue, description, et cetera just comes naturally. I credit this to often already having fully conceptualized the scene in my head before even beginning to write. My issue is that the actual process of writing feels incredibly draining, especially starting to write. But I had to do it. I mean, that's how games get made. No answer but to just work.

And work I did. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I got through the introduction, introduced the characters, and began some of the branches. I wrote a full two routes, filling them with bad and good endings alike. I was fleshing out the world, introducing mysteries, adding characterization. Creating stories, creating the game. And before I knew, I had a decent start on the game.

And it sucked.

I'm not talking about the unpolished, unedited sense of sucking. I had written enough fiction in the past to know what that felt like. I'm talking about a rotten core. There was a lot of good, don't get me wrong. I stood by the core concepts, the characters, the dialogue, the structure. But the plot, at its core, just felt... bad. The 'death game' was weird, it had a lot of convoluted rules, it didn't make too much conceptual sense, and it actually restrained a lot of what I could do in terms of coming up with routes. To counter that, the premises of a lot of the routes felt forced, out of nowhere.

To be clear, I had the inklings of this fear for a while. As I was writing the introduction, even. But I didn't want to acknowledge it, I pushed it to the side. I figured it'd be clearer and better once I started writing it. But it wasn't. I kind of saw that once I started on the first route, but I couldn't turn back now. Even though I absolutely should have. But by the end of the second route, I could see that I was working off of a fault base. I had started with two of the routes that worked the best, and even they were infected by how I had setup the core plot device. It was weakening the story, not strengthening. And I knew if I progressed as is, I would end up making a bad game.

This was, to put it bluntly, incredibly demoralizing. When I finally straight up confronted this truth, I felt like giving up. I almost did. I ended up taking a break that lasted weeks. And in the beginning of that break, self-doubt infected me once more. What I was working on wouldn't be good. I had already given it a shot, and this early in, I had failed vitally. This was a sign to throw in the towel and give it up, right?

What had doomed before now saved me. That is, the sunk cost fallacy. I had already paid for and received a number of sprites, and that couldn't just go to waste. And speaking of not going to waste, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn't need to throw the baby out with the bath water. The characters I wrote was good. The core ideas of the plot were good, the twists and turns were solid, hell, even the routes I wrote on their own I believed in. 

So I used the second half of my break to take a step back. Reconceptualize. Refocus. The corrupting element was the 'death game.' A pretty important element, true, but not one that couldn't be replaced. So I thought about what could work, what would fit thematically, what would open up plot opportunities, not close them, what would be unique and interesting. And eventually, after tweaking it over and over again, I had a system that I could work with. A system that could carry this game. A stronger base.

And so, I began again. The initial section of the introduction, I kept. The two routes, I retrofitted so that they could work with the new system - this involved extensive rewrites, but still, I was able to salvage a lot of the core. The rest went in the scrapyard. No longer would it haunt my work. 

And I began to write again. And I wrote. And I wrote. I came up with new ideas for routes with the new setup. I restructured the flowchart, I moved things around. I was writing routes, and when I wasn't I was conceptualizing new ones and thinking about the user experience. I could probably fill multiple blog posts just on how much of a headache writing a story like this is, and hell, maybe I will after this saga is done, but needless to say, it was a lot of work. 

It was also a lot of work because it was a big game. I mean, I knew I wanted to do something substantial, but I quickly realized just how much I had overextended. The fact that I hadn't anticipated things to spiral into something 3 times as big as planned is entirely my fault. I've done projects before, I knew what tended to happen. Why I didn't try for something very small for my first real project, I'll never know. I knew better, but I did anyways, and ended up grappling with a project far larger than I planned on taking on. But the reason I couldn't let it go was because I knew I had something. The more I wrote, the more I filled in the blanks, the more certain I was that I was truly onto something special.

And so I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. And eventually I would finish the rough draft. But more on that, and what came after that, next time.

Until then,