Designs and Consequences

For those interested in the development of Lands of Dream games, or those curious about game/narrative design in general, a few thoughts about what I’m currently working on.

Having added a big and entirely unnecessary secret to the upcoming Steam version of The Sea Will Claim Everything, I thought I was almost finished updating the game. But then I remembered one of the most frequently requested features: a way of telling which conversation topics you’d already talked to a character about. It’s not an irrational idea: there’s a lot of talking in The Sea Will Claim Everything, and a lot of characters, and sometimes it can be hard to keep track of what’s new and what isn’t. And what if the character has something new to say about the same topic? How are players supposed to know?

Now, one of the weird things about programming, especially when you’re really more a writer/designer than a programmer, is that it’s easy to build systems in such a way that adding a simple feature can be ridiculously overcomplicated. And then when you make multiple games, you keep building and iterating on those systems, and it all feels like a huge mess. (This is how Bethesda games happen.) Anyway, I thought I was in that situation with the dialogue system in the Lands of Dream, but then – literally while falling asleep – I came up with a simple way of adding this feature without having to break too much. So on the next day I tested it, and the basics worked! Yay!

Of course, it can’t work perfectly, because so much in an adventure game is essentially hardcoded. So, in this case, because of how the existing code is structured, there’s a bunch of places where I just have to manually tell the game certain things. That’s OK; it’s extra work and thus an extra delay, but it’s not in insurmountable problem. It’s all late as hell anyway at this point.

But then a narrative design issue crops up. The dialogue screens suddenly feel different. Why? All that’s changed is that when you click on a topic, it becomes greyed out. It’s the tiniest thing, just a convenience for the player. But now the dialogues have become quantifiable; the variables have become visible. Where before there was mystery (did the character have something new to say? when did the dialogues change?), now there is a list to work through. The existence of explicitly “used up” topics makes the characters feel less alive.

Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe most players won’t notice. But I’m noticing. And it matters to me, because I care about these characters.

So there are three paths. Either I remove the feature, which means the game will continue to be frustrating in a way it doesn’t need to be. Or I keep the feature and don’t do anything else, which means the game is less frustrating, but the characters potentially lose some of their sense of reality.

Or I add more dialogue.

Which is, in a game that came out years ago, has been in several bundles, and is more of a cult thing than a huge financial success, entirely insane. But it’s also exactly the kind of thing that makes the Lands of Dream games what they are.

There is another good reason to do this, which is the next game. You see, most of The Council of Crows takes place in one area, with the town of Fifth Pumpkin acting as your temporary home in Hyperborea. And the more I work on that game, the more important it becomes to make the place as alive as possible. So expanding The Sea Will Claim Everything, even if it’s just little touches here and there, is useful in a variety of ways.

But to be perfectly honest, that’s not my real motivation. I mean, while career-wise everything is great, I’ve been pretty depressed lately. The weather is killing me, our roof is being repaired and the constant noise is driving me insane, the political situation is beyond words, and I’m generally pretty bummed out. It would be easy to just dump the game on Steam, release a disappointing but essentially “complete” version of The Council of Crows, and just put it all behind me. The real money’s in other projects, anyway.

But you see – what are the characters of the Fortunate Isles to me? Are they puppets I move around my grand design? Are they abstract storytelling elements? Are they parts of a brand I co-own with my wife?


They are people. They are family.

I’m making them more alive because they deserve to be more alive. We all do, of course, tragically so, but at least in this case there’s something I can do.

And so on goes the grind… but always with the hope that things will get better. Making worlds is a strange business.