How I painfully made a story-based game

Posted by
August 31st, 2013 8:14 am

Here’s the link to my entry : 10 seconds to save the day.




Before Ludum Dare begins
This Ludum Dare, I wanted to make an adventure game. Not one like Lucas’ Quest Backwards (LD 24) with platform sequences or This is not a minimalist game (LD 26) with puzzles. I wanted to make an adventure game where you only advance through dialogs. I like writing stories, and I thought that such a game wouldn’t be long to code and that it would give me plenty of time to polish the story, the graphics and add music.

Like many, I was convinced that the theme would be 10 seconds. This is the first time in a Ludum Dare that the theme is not a surprise for me. But I hadn’t given much thought to it. I didn’t like it, it felt exactly like “Minimalism” : more of an additional constraint than a theme, and I hoped it wouldn’t be chosen despite its very high score during the first round of votes.


The theme
But it was announced : 10 seconds.
I didn’t know what to do. I tried to find gameplay ideas with 10 seconds, but nothing very inspiring. All 10 seconds based gameplay seemed so frustrating. So I came back to my initial idea of making a story, and I let my mind wander in many directions. I wanted the 10 seconds to be an important part of the story, and not just be the equivalent of “a short moment”.

10 seconds… 10 seconds… 10 seconds event… Give 10 seconds… Stop ! The “Give 10 seconds” trail seemed interesting.
I wanted the characters to be able to give 10 seconds, but how ? Then came this idea of ghosts being able to give away the last 10 seconds of their lives to other dead people in order to prevent a tragedy, and I liked it a lot. I was just worried about not being able to write good enough characters and a good enough tragic event for the story to work.




Day 1
I slept on it (in France, the theme is announced at 3 a.m.). I was still worried when I woke up, so I started writing, finished writing… and I was so relieved I finally came up with something that seemed to work that it didn’t even occurred to me that I could take a few moments to see if the characters and the rhythm of the story could be improved. I wrote everything in one go and never touched it again.

Then I started to write the dialogs. It was kind of confusing because I wrote everything in a plain text file, and after a while it became really hard to distinguish what dialog unlocked what, what dialog was unlocked by what… I started to become very anxious.

Moreover, more than 1h30 had passed, and I had only written what corresponded to 1/25e of my story, not even coded it ! It didn’t look good at all.

So I rushed. When the code was satisfying enough, I started to code the story. Then I realised than a feature was missing : I wanted the player to be able to unlock a list of topics, and be able to ask any character about these topics. So I coded it, and it bugged a lot, and I fixed all the bugs. It took me several hours.

Then I rushed writing the dialogs and the story.

When the first day was over, I had only coded the first point of my to-do list. There were 18 points ! I realised I could never finish unless I cut a lot of the planned investigation sequences. So I did it with regret…



The game at the end of day 1


Day 2
The second day, the hours were flying and the game was only progressing slowly. So I made even more cuts. When I finally got to the end of the story, there were only 4 hours left.

While re-testing the game, it occurred to me that my “topics” features only served once… So I deleted it and added manually the topic where it was needed. Which caused many bugs and dead ends ! Arggg !!!

I only had time left to polish the graphics. I focused on the characters. Drawing them took me all the remaining time because there are a lot of NPC and playable characters and I drew 4 frames by animation.




Almost no time was left for the music unfortunately, so I used


What went right
– I never thought I could finish the story, but I did it. Even if I had to cut a lot of interactions with the player, I consider it a win. There’s still a lot of content.
– This was the first time I drew animated non-pixel-art characters for a game, I enjoyed it and I was happy with the result.
– I’m still happy with the story.




What went wrong
– The river of bugs caused by a feature that wasn’t even implemented in the game. I should have taken more time to plan what I was going to do and what I would need.
– I had planned a lot more interactions with the player that I had no time to implement.
– I could have improved the story, but I was already so uncomfortable writing it in the first place that it seemed impossible to me to change it even a little bit, it was like written in stone.


Explain everything or not ?
– I thought that I could leave some things to the interpretation of the player. It was a deliberate choice not to explain why things happen like this in the end. I could have explained it, but it didn’t seemed necessary. On the contrary, it would have seemed kind of clumsy to me.
Unfortunately, it looks like it was necessary. Some players on Kong decided that the unexplained ending made no sense, and therefore was weak.
But some understood, so I don’t know what was the right choice after all.




Testing… my own patience
– Testing was horrible. I had to test the game so many times to fix problems that I became sick of my own game and it wasn’t even released. Seeing the same dialogs for the 100th time, discovering that something is still wrong and things don’t unlock correctly, grrr !!! In the end, I didn’t even read the dialogs anymore, I just pressed the keys in the right order.
Even if I had ways to start testing at a given point of the story, I spent an awful lot of time on testing, I’d say more than 50%.

Plus, the code was very tricky to organize. I like clean, readable code, and it wasn’t. It was very hard to tell what unlocked what and where. It was like being lost in a labyrinth or trying to unlock a complex web. And with more interactions with the player like I wanted initially, it would have been even worse.

When I made a post-compo version for Kongregate, I thought that adding a short animation at the end would make it less brutal, and wouldn’t take a lot of time. But I really didn’t have the courage to work on the game anymore, so I didn’t do it.




Even if I’m satisfied with the game I made, I didn’t really enjoy making it after the “imagine-the-story” part. Long dialog based story are tricky to make (at least for me) and painful to test in such a short amount of time.
I’m not saying “never again”, I’m just saying “definitely not next time” :)


You can play my entry here. I hope you like it !



One Response to “How I painfully made a story-based game”

  1. Antidote says:

    I really enjoyed it, the experience and the story, good job sir

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