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The Telling Of Tales: Unwritten Interview

Oral Tradition

You may know that Joe Houston worked on Dishonored, or you may remember his considered and compelling words on violence in games, but not enough people seem to know about Unwritten: That Which Happened, the game in development at Joe's new independent studio, Roxlou Games. Unwritten is one of the most intriguing in the crop of turn-based titles moving through the crowd-funding space, with a focus that lies as much on narrative as combat and tactics. It'll need a strong final week to reach its $75,000 goal. I spoke to Joe to find out more about the game, going indie and storytelling.

RPS: Unwritten has plenty of intriguing elements but when I first read through the Kickstarter page, it was the 'story fragments' that made me settle on that really grabbed my attention. Did the game begin with the idea of a sort of concrete, abstract narrative construction?

Houston:You could argue that the story fragment concept isn't the most important mechanic to the game (Unwritten is first and foremost a deep strategy game), but you're right that it was pivotal in creating the game concept itself. It was the first mechanic to be designed, and it comes directly from my experience working on Dishonored. It also inspired the themes of cultural and visual story telling that infuse every aspect of the game, and it was the centre point that the whole game radiated out from.

I first thought of the story fragment system during the surreal post-release period of Dishonored, when the game was still finding its critical consensus and the players were first reacting to it. I was reflecting on the challenges that the design team faced in creating a game with meaningful player choice, something that is arguably absent from most AAA games. One issue was that it wasn't enough to simply make the player's choices change the world, you also had to communicate to the player how the world might have been different if they had gone another way.

For example, say the distillery district was overrun by rats because the player had poisoned a still or something: modern players are so conditioned to assume that games are linear and scripted that they just wouldn't realise that the rats were only there because of their decision. Many times you'd need an NPC to practically say "I sure hate all these rats, if only someone somewhere hadn't taken an action that somehow increased the plague in the vicinity, and had they not done so surely there would be fewer rats." That sounds silly, but even that probably wouldn't be enough in some cases. Many players are rightfully jaded by the illusion of choice in games today, so developers face an extra challenge when offering something different.

It was in this mindset that I brainstormed for Unwritten. The first "A ha!" moment was when I said "what if the meaningful choices in the game actually turned into items that the player carried with them?" The player would then use them to boost their stats or barter with others, and basically interact directly with the game. At that point there is no need to tell the player "the world is different because of your choice." The player knows, because they directly feel the impact of every choice they make.

We call these story items "story fragments", and eventually the mechanic found its home in our diplomacy system. And the notion that you are the decisions you make (and the stories you tell) is the heart and soul of Unwritten.

RPS: The focus on nomadic tribes who value their stories more than their swords could be seen as a comment or reaction to the gaming industry's usual focus. Is that intentional?

Houston: Yes and no.

No, in the sense that Unwritten has just grown organically out of games I admire that are already setting the precedents of meaningful player choice and the exploration of deeper themes. Unwritten looks to games like Dishonored, Journey, The Binding of Isaac, FTL, and others (I could go on and on) that each explore a certain aspect of what we want to talk about. I feel that it's a natural extension of really amazing ground work set by pioneers in the AAA and indie game space.

However, I think you could say that we are intentionally doing something different than a lot of mainstream games. It's just that we can't take all the credit without mentioning the fantastic independent developers out there paving the way. For me going indie comes at the cost of a load of personal risk and stress, but I'm doing it because the indie game space is already so exciting and rich with potential.

If nothing else comes from Unwritten, I at least hope it reminds people to demand more games that challenge them personally and to support other worthy independent developers.

RPS: I've read comments in which people say something along the lines of, 'the game claims infinite variety but it's all set on a tundra! I hate tundra!' How will you convince people to love tundra and how much do the land and characters change during the journey?

Houston: One thing that we're planning is that the land changes the closer you get to "God Mountain". We don't want to give everything away, but it's important that this be a big contrast (to help the player feel like they've come a long way). In addition to that we've discussed themed maps like tunnel passages through mountains that will bring a different feel.

One way I describe it to those that message me is that it's kind of like the world of the 80s fantasy classic "The Never Ending Story". There will be a unifying style and common themes, but you're going to experience a lot of variety and strangeness along the way.

RPS: Last week you showed the proposed environmental art for the first time, which readers may recognise as the work of Amanda Williams of Waking Mars and Spider. How did you come to work with Amanda and how important is that aspect of the game?

Houston: Amanda lives and works in Austin, TX and so do we. Austin has a thriving indie game scene with a lot of "meet up" events thanks to the organisational work of people like Brandon Boyer and Adam Saltsman. We met Amanda through one of these indie events and were already fans of Tiger Style's games. We've been keeping in touch for a while, waiting for a chance to find something to work on together.

Amanda was a great help in giving us a fresh perspective on the environments, and she was very generous with her time. Since our collaboration she has also become a big supporter of the project, making us all the more hopeful that we reach our goal and can expand on that enthusiasm and passion.

RPS: Unwritten has an unusual narrative focus, stars a group of nomads and somewhat resembles a roguelike. You didn't give yourself an easy task when it came to summarising what you were working on! For anyone still unsure, what will people actually experience when playing - how long is a playthrough? What kind of choices exist? How do the generational aspects of the tribe work?

Houston: The game is first and foremost a turn based strategy game. You'll be moving multiple units on each turn, played at the scale of a game like Risk or Sid Meier's Civilization. On the map you'll be exploring looking for food and "treasure" and fighting with beast and man. You'll also encounter "story events" which take you through an interactive tableau (told with Balinese shadow puppets), eventually leading you to make a critical decision. These decisions turn into "story fragments", which represent a small piece of the history of your people. These items have both positive and negative aspects, and are primarily used for diplomacy with other clans you encounter. Diplomacy is represented by "story bouts", mini-games that represent two nomadic leaders telling the stories of their people, and they are critical to getting the resources you need to survive in a harsh wilderness.

One big twist is that the decisions you make are directly responsible for the story fragments you get, which in turn dictates whether you will win allies and continue on your journey. However, your destination is "God Mountain" where you will tell your story one last time. The God there will judge you, but that moral code may not match that of mere survival. Player's will have to balance their short term success against their long term glory.

The game still has some maturing to do so we don't have exact numbers, but we're shooting for a 3-4 hour playthrough on a successful run. It's a game with "perma death" and is meant to be challenging, so chances are you'll need to take a few runs before you get to the end. That's where the "generational aspects" come in. Once a game you have the option of sending a carrier pigeon back home, carrying a single story fragment. If you die without reaching God Mountain you then get the option of restarting as the next generation of your tribe. That story fragment you sent home then starts with you, only now it has grown into a legend of your people. This increases both its positive and negative qualities, meaning that it becomes more potent but also more volatile. If you choose you can continue to pass this same story down, making it "larger than life" with each generation, but you will have to balance its worth against the ponderous size of the tale.

We're hoping that this helps players who find permanent death frustrating and think that it lessens their purpose in a game. We're also experimenting with some ideas given by our Kickstarter backers wherein your clan will encounter remnants of their previous attempts during exploration, allowing them to keep the narrative going in other ways.

RPS: Will other tribes actually form rivalries or friendships based on the storytelling sessions between then? Is there a competitive element to the entire journey and if so how do rivalries play out?

Houston: This is something we're still experimenting with. The result of the "story bout" will definitely determine whether you gain an ally or not, which in an of itself is enough to cut you off from reinforcements and thereby seal your doom (if you alienate too many clans). We're also experimenting with what having an enemy on the tundra would mean (craftier hostile units, new clans become harder to persuade, villages continuously produce enemy units). So far the tundra itself is a difficult enough opponent, but we have more tinkering left to do.

RPS: Many of our readers will remember you for your work on Dishonored - both practically and theoretically, how do notions of player freedom differ between that game and Unwritten?

Houston: As mentioned earlier, player choice is much more literal in Unwritten, and every element of the story directly affects your ability to survive. Although choice in Dishonored does affect your ultimate outcome, you're likely to get more meaning out of what each choice means to you personally rather than what it means to the game world. On the flip side, because Unwritten ties choices into the outcomes of the game world so closely, it does mean that it will challenge you to make decisions that wouldn't make sense in the real world. It may ask you to embrace slavery or religious persecution for example, but in a way that makes sense to the context of the game world. In a game like Dishonored it would be much more difficult to ask the player to invest in such a suspension of their own world view.

RPS: How exciting and terrifying has working independently been? When did you make the decision?

Houston: I decided to go indie shortly after Dishonored shipped, after I realised that I wanted to engage more directly with hardcore game fans that wanted to be challenged. I wrote a bit about my experience for Gamasutra back when I first made the jump.

The experience tends to be either terrifying or exciting, but seldom both at once. The highs are unbelievably high, and the lows are devastating. On most any day it's been an experience full of personal growth, and I'm most grateful for the opportunity to talk more closely with potential fans. I take fairness and honesty with the fans very seriously, and I feel great responsibility to bring a game worthy of their faith. That said, there are some things about the process that are needlessly hard. I'm the sole breadwinner for my wife and baby, and U.S. health insurance law makes supporting ourselves much harder than it should be. Many indie "success" stories (including the Super Meat Boy postmortem) include a harrowing brush with sickness and debt, and it hits closer to home now than ever before.

That said, meeting our Kickstarter goal will make the game possible in way that sheer force of will can't compete with. The Wildman Kickstarter (and arguably our own mid-campaign stall) is showing that the service is in a time of transition, but I'm hopeful for the future. I have great faith in Kickstarter and in putting the future of the industry in the hands of the gamers themselves.

RPS: There's a suggestion that the tribe's god may not agree with their decisions and the story that they bring to the mountain. Are the gods generated randomly as well as the landscape and enemies, and will the player receive any indication of their god's chosen path?

Houston: We're still tinkering, but the current design does have randomly generated gods, although when you're playing as the next generation of the previous tribe it stands to reason that you still have the same god. Initially you won't know what your god values, adding some tension right from the start, but if you fully explore the world you'll find clues about your god's moral code. Exploration in a game with permanent death is a constant risk, so this becomes an additional (and optional) challenge for the player.

RPS: Several comments on our Kickstarter Katchup column have expressed wariness about the existence of exclusive story fragments for high tier backers. Where is the line between offering rewards and holding back content?

Houston: We put a lot of thought into the in-game Kickstarter rewards, and it's a difficult balance to strike. We want backers to get something interesting and special for their investment and faith in us, but we don't like arbitrary and unbalancing purchased content any more than the fans do. You're either deciding to cripple players that haven't opted in somehow, or you're making sure that your most invested fans are getting an unfair advantage that ultimately makes the game less fun for them.

Most of our content makes the game interesting and personalised for backers, but doesn't necessarily make the game easier. For example a popular reward is a "story fragment" for you to start with that is totally unique to you. Fragments present a strategic opportunity, but they aren't an out and out advantage. Plus fragments are randomly generated anyway, so it isn't premium content that a normal player has no hope of experiencing. I think this was a reward that found a good balance, and the feedback on that one has been better than the others.

I'm also willing to admit when we made a mistake, and the backer specific custom ending was a mistake. When we envisioned it it was just to add a customised "thank you for your support and your faith in us" message, styled in the language and art of the world. In this sense it wouldn't have meaning to those that didn't back us, and those that did back us would get something heartfelt and cool. However, I think it's been interpreted by some as "the best possible ending is withheld for money", and that's probably a logical conclusion. We didn't communicate our intentions well enough, and we're unable to edit reward descriptions once at least one backer has taken it (Kickstarter restriction).

We still plan to honor our original plan, and hopefully those that were offended by the custom ending get a chance to hear our explanation and are understanding.

We're also ever open to feedback

RPS: I was one of the people who compared Unwritten's concept to King of Dragon Pass when I first read about it I see that you've said before that you hadn't played KODP before building the framework for Unwritten but have dabbled since. I think that comparison is due to the scarcity of games that approach multi-generational tales and tribal leadership rather than any specific similarities, but what are the broad differences?

Houston: It's actually probably faster to list the similarities. On paper they sound very similar because, as you say, there aren't all that many story oriented games about nomadic clans. However, because they were conceived separately they're really very different. KODP is like a deep interactive novel, while Unwritten is a turn based strategy game. I occasionally describe the "story events" in Unwritten as an interactive storybook, and that's an important distinction between the two games. KODP is like a novel with great environment and lore built mostly through text, while Unwritten relies on much less text and uses visual story-telling and mood to tell its tale.

One thing that I admire from KODP that you do see in Unwritten is a full commitment to a fictional lore and culture. KODP doesn't spend much time trying to convince the player to be a part of its world. Instead it drops you right in there and makes it's own kind of sense without apology. That's a brave and difficult thing to do.

RPS: There's a full week to go, but if the Kickstarter were to miss its goal, what would become of Unwritten?

Houston: There is no easy answer to this question. We're really pleased with what Unwritten has become, thanks to the collaboration with our backers and other supporters. But we've put feelers out for traditional publishing routes and things look bleak in the current climate. Plus I'm a professional game developer by trade with a family, and the Kickstarter has already eaten most of my personal savings. Full time work for another game developer would certainly be in my future, and it's routine to be asked to sign employment agreements that prohibit all outside work.

I can promise that we will explore every possibility, but the outcome of the Kickstarter will determine a lot. If we fail to reach our goal by a large margin it might be a sign that the games community isn't ready to fund a game concept this way at this moment, and we'll have to respect that. We are determined though that Unwritten will not fail for lack of trying, and we always have a scheme or two up our sleeve.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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Adam Smith


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