TOUCHTONE HELL: Writing for OPERATOR 42

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April 27th, 2015 8:18 pm

op42-fire-loop

Hi. I’m Peter Javidpour. I worked with Travis Chen and Alex Wimmer on Operator 42. I was responsible for writing the voiceover script, implementing puzzles, and building out the phone navigation. Travis has asked that I make a post about the writing process.

I don’t normally like getting into the nitty-gritty of things I work on, but Travis assured me the Ludum Dare community likes to read this sort of thing. He also assured me a blog post would lead to more ratings on our jam entry, and I can really use the Ludum Dare Cash Prize, so here we go.

OPERATOR 42 | PLAY AND RATE

Operator 42

There are some light spoilers here, so stop now if you care about spoilers and you haven’t played the game yet. If you don’t care spoilers, but you have no intention of playing the game, I’m not sure why you’re reading this. But go ahead, I guess.

BRAINSTORM

The theme of the jam was Unconventional Weapon. At the start, we didn’t know we were going to make a game that would require any kind of writing. All we knew was that we didn’t want to do a lot of work and we wanted to make something unique. So to kick off our brainstorming session, we swore to follow three simple constraints:

– Minimal use of unique assets.
– Infinite playtime.
– No guns.

After 2 hours of brainstorming quirky arcade ideas* that would make a game designer’s mouth just water we settled on an idea that needed:

– A ton of unique assets (mostly voiceover).
– Finite playtime.
– One giant gun.

Somehow we became fixated on the premise of needing an owner’s manual to operate a doomsday device. We replaced the manual with a phone and we had something we were excited about. We broke the only rules that we gave ourselves, but we were collectively too excited about the idea to fall back on better judgement.

*Here are some of the ideas we didn’t use. Please don’t steal them. I might come back to them one day.

– An old lady trying to navigate through traffic, causing accidents
– A ceiling fan that seduces people
– A back-handed compliment simulator

 

THE WORLD

operator 42 logo

Once we knew that our game was about a doomsday device, the rest of the setting fell into the place easily. The player is an incompetent henchman who’s just going through the motions of a job that should, for all intents and purposes, be exciting. I think this is an example of irony, but honestly I’m not sure. Let me know in the comments if it is.

Of course, we never tell you you’re a henchman. You’re an “operator.” Your boss’s name isn’t Professor Evil, it’s Jeff, and Jeff has an implied hierarchy of bosses that lead up to the evil (but never explicitly stated as such) Dr. Killigan. And your organization isn’t The Legion of Bad People, it’s just Killigan Industries. Any indication that you’re operating a weapon of mass destruction is only implied by the orbital view of Earth and the giant red “LAUNCH” button. Also, Jeff explicitly requests that you destroy Paris. A bit heavy-handed, sure, but we had to get the point across somehow.

The stakes implied by your assignment aren’t “Will I have to destroy Paris?” but “Will I be able to appease my passive-aggressive boss?” It’s another example of irony, I think. Let me know in the comments if that’s true.

 

THE PHONE MENU

I don’t know why phone menus still exist. I’ve never had a “conversation” with one that felt smarter than talking to even the dumbest person I know (Greg).

In writing lines for the phone system, the main challenge was making them complex enough to contribute to the absurdity of the world (and the difficulty of the puzzles), but making them simple enough for the average listener to parse out the details they needed to solve puzzles. I also had to throw in some jokes.

Fun fact: every option in the phone menu will take you somewhere. Some of the dead ends are just fun little gags, others are false tips in case players press the wrong button. In a perfect world, the controls of the console would have been randomized on each playthrough, justifying those extra options. Of course, in a perfect world, we would have had more than 72 hours.

Strangely enough, I actually wrote the script before we started working on the puzzles. Probably not the smartest way to design puzzles, and I’m not sure I would work that way again, but it was still fun. Plus, we had to front-load as much of the voice recording as we could early on, so we didn’t have much of a choice but to work “backwards” in that way.

Alex Wimmer, our musician/sound designer was responsible for creating all the content you hear in the game, including the awesome hold music loop, which I couldn’t get out of my head. He’s also the voice of the automated phone system (over 120 lines of VO)!

 

FRUSTRATION LOOP

We hoped the humor of the game would come from presenting the player with a solution to a problem, then keeping it out of reach with layers of frustration and mundanity. I feel that pretty much describes any exchange I’ve ever had with an automated phone operator.

This idea of complicating a solution led to my favorite moment of the game, the fire:

op42-fire-start

Ideally, a fully fleshed-out version of the game would be built on a chain of scenarios like this one. I would love to play a build of Operator 42 in which the station is sparking and burning, and you’ve had to open every single panel only to reveal more and more confounding machinery, with a dumb phone robot as your only guide through the tedium and frustration. But we only had 72 hours.

 

NAMING THINGS

Operator 42 panel

There are a lot of weird labels on the control panel. I don’t know what “retroautomative” means, or if it’s even really a word. I don’t know what a “phase matrix” is supposed to be or how it would help you launch a weapon payload from a satellite. We just wanted buttons. So I just mashed a bunch of words together to make things sound technical and confusing. Did it work?

If we could do it again, I would have littered the control console with more fake buttons and levers and thrown all kinds of scary labels on them.

 

EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH

I’m not sure if this was a comprehensive or cohesive write-up of what goes into writing a dialogue-heavy game over 72 hours, but I’m bored now and you probably are too, and both of us probably want to go do something else.

Thanks for reading and thanks for playing Operator 42 and thanks to all of you have been saying nice things about the game!

 

OPERATOR 42 | PLAY AND RATE

Operator 42


2 Responses to “TOUCHTONE HELL: Writing for OPERATOR 42”

  1. Catwheel says:

    I loved this

  2. mildmojo says:

    The jargon was really impressive. Like, it’s obvious that it’s fake, but it’s necessarily and absurdly complex. And that’s all just more content you have to come up with on a deadline. It worked really well. Love the fake company + logo, too.

    The phone tree was convincing. It was fun hearing the frankensteined voice clips (so much VO!). The game kind of hit all my buttons and had a great sense of humor to boot. The feeling reminds me of discovering Surgeon Simulator among the Global Game Jam 2014 entries.

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