Play Lull HERE! The centuries-spanning magical realist visual novel that the critics are calling “interesting!”
“Interesting” —Kuality Games
“Very interesting” —Rose
“Very interesting” —Crushenator
My name’s Luke, and I was the head writer on Lull. I’m with Watercress Studios, which is a team of 30-odd coders, writers, artists, and composers working on… something else. Don’t worry about that.
A bunch of people thought it’d be fun to take a break from the Other Thing to do Ludum Dare. “Don’t worry,” I told my SO, “I’m not getting involved, I’m just going to hang around on TeamSpeak for a bit to see what they’re up to. I’ll come watch Legend of Korra in half an hour.” We did not end up watching Legend of Korra that weekend.
I’m going to talk about our process, so spoilers ahoy! Shadow64 said that “There were a lot of twists and turns in there that I didn’t expect,” and if you can’t trust Shadow64, who can you trust? Go ahead and play Lull before reading on. I’ll wait.
We faced two challenges right out of the gate. Challenge #1 was the theme. We knew we wanted to make a visual novel, but most of those involve people moving around to different places (and therefore different screens). The easy option was to set the entire story in one location, but instead of zooming in we decided to zoom out.
What if, we decided, instead of the screen showing where our characters are as individuals, it showed where they are as a society? You check in with Deadwood Falls, Oregon every ten years as buildings grow, change, are burnt down in riots against your neo-feudal dystopia, and are rebuilt.
Challenge #2 was art. Watercress’s normal art team wasn’t available, instead opting to spend the weekend sharpening pencils or analyzing Degas or whatever it is artists do when normals aren’t looking. So all the weight of the art fell to the fearless OptionalSauce, who’s usually one of our writers. While Optional more than delivered with his playful, expressive pixel art, he’s only one man, which put a tight limit on the quantity of art available to us.
This ended up shaping the story in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Since each character required different spites as they aged, we needed to keep the number of characters low. So we needed a small handful of characters to make the important decisions in Deadwood Falls. And hey, we should have their descendants take over after them, so we can reuse most of their sprites! Enter the aforementioned neo-feudal dystopia.
WHAT WENT WRONG:
- Limited amount of art. Characters don’t have different spites for different emotions, so you get Cornelius Thatcher grinning like a goon while trying to convince two of his oldest friends not to slaughter each other’s families. Too soon, Cornelius. Too soon.
- Limited plot divergence. I don’t have to tell you how little sleep I got, because you understand. Let’s just say this postmortem would have come out sooner if I’d been awake at any point during the last week. I had to find ways to honor player choice while keeping a lid on just how much extra writing that would require.
Other than specific flags (who’s alive, who you’re friends with), the culture of your town is largely determined by two hidden variables: Unity, representing how divisive and dysfunctional your town’s politics are, and Openness, representing your town’s willingness to flow with the tides of social change. These affect whether certain actions will succeed or fail, and can result in some interesting changes— a town with low Openness might see Temperance Goodwin getting written out of the history books, for example. But you won’t get completely different scenes where everyone’s living in harmony or anything.
- Everything wraps up a little more quickly than intended, also because of the limited amount of time we had for writing. We ended up cutting scenes off the ends of both acts, which I think actually made Act I more aerodynamic but clipped Act II’s arc a bit early.
WHAT WENT RIGHT:
- The music. I can’t even tell you that much about the process, because I don’t understand it either. Every now and then the composers would pop by and ask something about themes and tonality and then disappear, like some sort of benevolent opposite-day monkey’s paw trying to interpret our poorly-worded wishes in the way that would most benefit us.
- The pixel art turned out well, and the backgrounds deliver several effective gut-punches independent of the writing– during the rioting and the endings in particular.
- Instead of using our large writing team to deliver a greater quantity of writing, we used them to deliver intensely polished writing. Every scene saw multiple drafts, and I went back through everyone else’s scenes when they were done to ensure tonal and thematic consistency. I mean, you’re hearing from the head writer now, so feel free to take my opinion with a grain of salt, but I was really happy with how the writing turned out.
So, if you’d like to try a game that lets you resolve blood feuds, learn sign language, crush insurgencies, debate land reform, and woo 19th century Quaker schoolmarms, and for some reason you haven’t played Lull yet, go here and give it a try! And if you’d like to follow Watercress Studios in our other endeavors, go here. Thanks for reading!