Who I See - Video Game
It was on the Top 5 Free Games of the Week by PCGAMER, is a Featured Game on indie game site Gamejolt, won a Judge’s Top Pick and the Colossal Leap Award (for most innovative game) in AdventureJam2018, and in just the first week of its full release gained over 16,000 views and 600 followers.
I was the sole video game developer, artist, and writer behind it. This page details my development process, how I approach various aspects of game writing and design, and the accomplishments that came from my work.
Play the game here! https://gamejolt.com/games/whoisee/340408
It started with AdventureJam2018: Make an adventure game in just two weeks. At the time, I had been training my game writing skill through DMing tabletop campaigns, in which I had to think up of memorable characters, witty dialogue, and smooth pacing for the players. I wanted to show all of this through a narrative-focused point-and-click, but I didn’t want to make just any point-and-click. I wanted to tell a story that could only be told as a video game, a story that the player would remember not just because it was well-written, but because it made full use of them as a player. And so, after some brainstorming, I thought:
What if the story is told through the NPCs observing the player’s actions?
Making Full Use of the Premise
Every video game has a premise, and that premise should be used to its fullest extent. As a writer and designer, it is important for me to make sure that the aspects of the game compliment that premise so that the potential is not wasted or made generic. A game is an experience made up of many parts which must help each other.
This game’s premise is “The story is told through the NPCs observing you.” Not just through dialogue, but through the players seeing the inner thoughts of the NPCs as they observe what you, the player, do as the protagonist. How to utilize this?
It has to be a mystery story. The player knows nothing about the protagonist, can’t even see what they’re thinking. There is no omnipotent third-person voice, only the perspectives of each NPC, each of whom is flawed, biased, or unknowing in some way. This setup gives the player pieces of info at a time, and it is up to the player to put them together and try to find out what’s going on. Perfect for a mystery!
Characters! This premise is perfect for showing just who the characters are. Not just in what they say or do to others, but in what they think, and how they think it. When the player juggles a knife, character A will think about how scary it is, B will be incredibly impressed, and C will internally roll their eyes at such stupidity, all while they could be saying something else or nothing at all. This could only be done through this premise, and so, it should be done to utilize its fullest potential.
It’s not just about what someone says; it’s about how, when, where, and why they say it.
l write by this rule, and its served me well. Nothing exists in a vacuum; “I’m doing just fine” is completely different if said in a normal home or in a dangerous situation. In contrast, different characters should speak differently. No silly accents needed, just a choice in words. A person of low esteem might use words of needlessly superfluous length-spans to deceitfully appearify as outrageously intellectual, like that. But there are often more subtle examples. A terse person will reply tersely. A bouncy person will usually respond with exclamation marks and short sentences. When that bouncy person suddenly talks slowly, it means something is up with her.
Likewise, a line of dialogue should never be empty or meaningless. Not every line can be a witty zinger, but each one should reveal more info about something - the situation, a character, the world, and so on. If it doesn’t do any of that, then why have it in? Even combat lines repeated infinitely, such as in action games, should be lines unique to that character in some way. “I’ll kill you.” in an intimidating voice means nothing to me. “I’ll kill you!” in a singsongy voice, that has some personality and says something about the character. “I’ll enjoy chewing your skin!” in a singsongy voice, that says something about the character and how they do their business!
In Who I See, I applied all of these principles, and it resulted in a game that has been praised, awarded, and recognized for its characters and dialogue.
Who I See has branching dialogue, but no multiple endings or drastically different paths. For the scale of Who I See, neither was feasible or needed. So, why put it in? Because good branching dialogue is memorable regardless of whether or not it changed the plot itself. The player chooses what will happen, and is rewarded with a unique set of information. As I said before, every line of dialogue must reveal some information, and players love choosing what secrets to reveal, what rewards to get. Different dialogue paths reveal different sets of information, and when done well, its rewarding and memorable regardless of whether or not it changes the plot itself.
In the above example, each dialogue path reveals a different part of Karla, the most mysterious character in the game. At the same time, each ends up advancing the main quest in the same way. In this way, the player is rewarded and intrigued from what they chose, while still fitting in a game with a linear main quest, as most games do. Having branching dialogue in a linear game is not bad; its an opportunity for amazing writing that can only be done through video games, and video games alone.
Building the Setting / Visual Storytelling
A setting is never just a setting. If a story is in a seedy motel, it must be a story that could only be done justice in a seedy motel. If a hallway is long, then there must be a good reason for it. Above, you can see my process for creating the Lobby. In the final game, Karla first appears as a tiny figure in the far doorway, and slowly, silently walks across the long hallway to the front desk, gradually becoming larger and more in-your-face due to the extreme perspective the Lobby was drawn in. This immediately introduces her as something lurking towards you, the player, giving her a strange and unsettling vibe.
When I first made it, my only thought was “I need a front desk for the receptionist, and a doorway for Karla”. I made a quick mock-up so I could test out the game in it, and realized that I wanted Karla to be introduced as a incoming, threatening figure to the player. To do this through a character saying “She looks threatening” is lazy. So, I used perspective and a long hall to tell the story through the visual of Karla slowly coming closer, and closer, and closer to the player themselves.
This hall, and the rest of the motel, all have a sickly, run-down look. This supports and compliments the story’s world-weary, morally questionable losers and the small-but-personal scale of their problems. The characters are disheveled, so the settings should reflect them accordingly. Every aspect of a story should work in harmony.
Building a Prototype
In two weeks, I created a prototype of Who I See for AdventureJam2018. It had visual placeholders and no animations, but it was a complete story that proved how I would make best use of the premise. I recognize the importance of getting workable things out there quickly in the early stages of development, as I would do in a writer position. This comes from my experience as a designer, in which I would need to quickly make several rough iterations and swiftly choose which one to build upon when starting a project. My original plan for the game was for it to take place across 3 locations and have three times as much content, but I learned that quality is king over quantity. I focused on what was absolutely necessary for the game I wanted to build, and so I was able to make a tight, well-made experience.
I was overjoyed to later see Who I See win both a Judge’s Pick and the Colossal Leap Award! Not only that, but PCGAMER picked up on it and put in their Top 5 Free Games of the Week! Woah! I was blown away. It proves that a strong prototype, as unpolished as it may be, will still excite and intrigue people when done well. I had a premise, I executed it in a small timespan, and it met with amazing reception. It’s important to make quick iterations to show off your ideas, and I know how to do it.
When developing the full release, I did extensive QA testing to locate and fix its bugs. I also looked over the story and added large amounts of new narration and dialogue to round it out. I showed it often to trusted pals and had them critique it for me. I would then fix it accordingly, because after all, you always need to work with others. I also put in everything that was missing - I replaced placeholders and made necessary animations. When it was all done, I uploaded it. Beforehand, Who I See had been chosen to be a Featured Game of indie game site Gamejolt because it had won Judge’s Top Pick and Colossal Leap in the gamejam. I worked to make sure that the full game would be ready by the chosen date, and ready it was. It was made the main feature of Gamejolt’s front page, and the effect was immediate.
It gained over 16,000 views and 600 followers in just the first week of its release! The comments were full of overwhelmingly positive reception, especially for its writing, and to this day, its at over 30,000 views and just about 800 followers. I released an expansion for it to add in a new character, a new location, and a whole lot of new content. That too was met well, and helps show that I know how to write so as to add onto something already made, as I will do in the writing industry.
Who I See is my narrative-focused video game with a unique premise, and it has been met with awards, recognition, and popularity. The writing of the characters, of their (inner and outer) dialogues, and of the mysterious plot and atmosphere have been particularly loved. I hope this shows that when I apply to the game industry, I do so with proven skill, as well as knowledge of the process. Writing for games does not depend on writing skill alone - you must be able to create an experience for a player, a participant in the story, so that they’re not just reading a book or watching a movie, they’re playing a video game and experiencing something that could only be done through a game. In my game, I did just that. I recognize that I still have much, much, much to learn, but this should show that I am ready to put my foot in the door and work with others as a professional video game writer.
Thank you so much for reading! If you’re looking for a writer or something similar, let’s get in touch! My name is Brandon Kirkley, and I’d be happy to talk with you.