Our Recipe for Game Chef 2017

This post was written by Vee! About time I convinced her to blog her heart out – Hayley

This year marks our first ever entry into the Game Chef annual competition. I use the word ‘competition’ here very loosely, as Game Chef is known first and foremost as a celebration of analogue game creation and only secondarily as a competition.

If you’ve never heard of Game Chef before, go check it out now: http://www.game-chef.com/

As an aside, we very nearly didn’t enter, and our decision to enter can be attributed entirely to this kind fellow posting on a Kickstarter update for our game, Alas for the Awful Sea:

Thanks Davide, without your prompt, The Great Long Dark wouldn’t exist.

If you haven’t read our entry yet, you can find it on our free games page: http://storybrewersroleplaying.com/freegames/

Anyway, it has been a week or so since we’ve submitted our entry, and since then I have spent some time reflecting on the experience. Spoiler alert: I found it a strangely emotional experience and incredibly rewarding. I also wanted to write a brief blog post about how we approached writing to a theme and our design process. So, without further ado, see our Recipe for the Great Long Dark below!

STEP 1 – Defining your Dish

Before anything else, you need to know what it is you’re looking to make. Is it a main dish for a banquet of 12? Or is it a sexy appetiser for an intimate Valentines’ Day dinner? Understanding the context, purpose and vision of your game project helps define what exactly it is you’re trying to achieve.

As such, the first thing we did when we decided to go ahead with designing the game was to discuss the theme: Borders. What does this theme mean to each of us individually? At this stage, a mind map or brainstorm about wide concepts is incredibly useful. Don’t get too specific. Engage with it on a conceptual level before tying it down into more concrete forms.

For us, our discussion on borders naturally led us to the concept of displacement and to migration. We talked at length about recent news stories of refugees, referenced academic research into first and second generation migrants, and thought about our personal experiences.

This is also the stage to define the context and purpose of your game. What is it you’re trying to do? Why are you writing this game? Is it to win the competition? Is it for fun? Is it an opportunity to try a specific mechanic you’ve though of recently? Your reasons for writing could be a blend of these things, but we usually try to have an understanding of why we are spending time and energy writing and designing games before we get to work on them.

For this project, we were carried by the sheer joy and passion of designing a game about a theme we cared deeply about. However, we were also very aware of time constraints. We knew that because we were both working full-time jobs and working on Alas for the Awful Sea, at most, we could only spare two or three days max to work on this game. Understanding our goals and limits, we set out to make the best short-form RPG that we could in the time afforded to us.

STEP 2 – Inspecting your INGREDIENTS

So you’re making a pie? Well, what pie is it going to be? No point deciding to make a meat pie when all you have on hand are apples. The next step is to look carefully through the ingredients available to see exactly what kind of dish you will make.

We had direction – a shorter RPG about displacement or migration – but we needed to incorporate the ingredients: yarn, echo, smoke, and cut. In our case, we actually brainstormed each of these ingredients and pulled in connections we saw between them, e.g. a piece of string can be cut, yarn and echo were both very Grecian and made us think of the Labyrinth.

In my opinion, this is the stage to be developing various ideas before committing to one course. Free association of the ingredients leads down 100 different rabbit holes, and we discarded more than ten ideas before we landed with a strong three.

STEP 3 – Purposeful PREPARATION

Any chef will tell you that preparation is key. Do you have a plan for your ingredients? You’ll need one in order to prepare those ingredients properly for their intended use. Don’t grate your eggplant if you’re going to roast them. Have a plan, and work towards that plan.

From the three ideas we had, we developed each a bit more in turn before making a decision about which of the three we would commit to. I think in a time-limited context like this competition, giving this step enough time (and not rushing it) is vital.

We spent a good 10 hours or so on this step. Of the three ideas we had, we ended up choosing what was working-titled, The Journey, and then spent a little longer really nailing down our specific concept for the game.

We were going to write a game that would bring to the forefront narrative storytelling (yarn) about the tale of first generation migrants crossing a border and leaving behind their lands (cutting ties) and also about the second generation crossing back (echoing the journey of their parents) to ‘save’ what was left (smoke over the horizon above the Old Country). We also wanted to tie the traumas associated with displacement with the concept of black smoke, but wasn’t yet sure how.

As you can see, the game didn’t really change too much from this initial concept. We had a really clear roadmap for what we wanted to do, even though we weren’t 100% sure yet how we would achieve this.

This step is often overlooked because people want to start writing the game down in full too quickly. And maybe that works for you, all good. However, I’d like to suggest that spending that little bit longer refining your vision and plan for the game helps you later down the track. For example, knowing that the first generation and second generation journeys are supposed to ‘echo’ one another, helped us later to decide on how to structure the ‘Acts’ of the game to best bring out this aspect.

I believe it was also around this time I started working on the look and atmosphere of the game visually. This is an optional step, because Game Chef doesn’t take presentation into account, but it’s also my favourite part so…

Pretty happy with how it turned out visually, but I’ve definitely still got a long way to go.

STEP 4 – It’s finally TIME TO COOK

Ok, so finally, here it is. This is where you actually get to put the dang thing together. Where the random blobs of shape finally turn into a beautiful drawing.

Funny thing is, though it is certainly hard in its own way, writing the game down and formalising the rule-set is much easier once you’ve set a good direction and filled in a solid concept. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll be doing a lot of tweaking in this step, but making these changes is a lot easier when there is a bigger concept tying everything together neatly.

In our case, we talked out the main rule-set of the game together whilst taking notes. This was when we worked out details like how exactly Taint was going to be used in the game and how characters were going to be created. We debated about how specific or not specific the Labyrinth card prompts were going to be, how the ending should be crafted to achieve a particular emotional release. At each point, we’d be thinking not, ‘how does taint work?’ but rather, ‘how should taint work in order to better emulate the trauma and smog of the Labyrinth?”

At this stage, we like to get a rough first draft written up, from which we can run several playtests. We probably spent all of the second day completing this stage of the design process. Play-testing definitely helps to iron out any kinks in the game. However, we really didn’t have as long as we normally would like to get this done due to the time limit, but that’s ok as the Game Chef competition itself provides feedback and opportunities to get your game played and tested! This constructive natures is one of the really nice things about the event.

STEP 5 – PLATING-UP

Finally, the last stage is to present your game as best you can. Get your whipped cream and glazed cherries out and get creative! All the hard work is done, and you can craft carefully all the finishing touches that will make your game design pop even more.

In terms of the game writing, this was when we began spending time ‘prettifying’ the words of the game. Making things more thematic and editing long-winded sections into more a readable structure. Getting down exactly what was going to be on each card, focussing down on what the read aloud text would say.

Of course, optionally, this is when you’d layout your text and do the graphic design and art. In our case, this step took up all of the last day. We did a final edit for grammar and spelling errors and then it was ready to submit.

So… is this a Recipe for Success?

No, this is just how we approach this game and many of our smaller projects. Not that any of this is entirely new or ground-breaking, but I hope that seeing the practicalities of the basics demonstrated here is helpful, or at least interesting.

Basically, thanks for reading and getting this far!

How do you organise your approach to game design? Any similarities or do you use a completely different approach? Let me know below! Also if you intend to play our game or have played our game, please comment to let us know! It’s what we live for. Constructive criticism is always treasured here at Storybrewers:

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