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Take command of the Corps of Discovery in this RPG based on the historic Lewis and Clark Expedition for PC, Mac, and Linux.
Take command of the Corps of Discovery in this RPG based on the historic Lewis and Clark Expedition for PC, Mac, and Linux.
1,433 backers pledged $44,489 to help bring this project to life.

Meri-Making Part 1

Hey backers!

Welcome to our first installment of "Meri-Making"! About once a month, we'll be giving you a substantive update as to our progress on the development of Meriwether. We will cover all aspects of the game design process: writing dialogue; creating art assets; composing music and sound effects; and refining game mechanics, just to name a few.

Since the end of the Kickstarter campaign the team has been running full steam on production, and we are extremely pleased with our progress to date. Here are some of the highlights.

Video!

First, enjoy this video, taken at Carlos's place in Queens, NY. The video covers the planning meeting we recently had to outline our Roadmap to completion (see below), and also shows you just what a Kickstarter fanboy Carlos is. And yes, that is a life-sized lime-green papier-mâché bull head covered in Christmas lights hanging on the wall. That's how we roll on team Meriwether.

More on the Roadmap

The video gives you a good overview of our Roadmap, but here's a little more detail. We used a method similar to a “scrum board” to understand the project as a whole. First, here's a picture:

Imagine the table as a grid. Running vertically is the "Easy-Hard" axis, while the "Less Vital - More Vital" axis runs horizontally. Now, we break down the tasks we need to accomplish into individual units. These we write down on a 3x5 card, along with a time estimate (in days) of how long we think each bite-sized chunk will take. Then, based on the importance of that task and the difficulty in accomplishing it, we place it on the grid. Things that are Very Important take priority and are then assigned a due date based partially on how difficult that task will be to complete. Sometimes it makes sense to knock out a bunch of important but relatively easy tasks, but sometimes a difficult problem must be solved so that the project can proceed.

Visualizing the project as a whole in this way gives us a clear development path to follow, and it also yields the added benefit of giving us an estimate of how long it will take us to get to beta. You'll be happy to hear that this detailed study of our workflow matches our initial estimate, and that, as long as everything goes as planned, we are on-track to hit beta in August.

Writing the Teton Sioux Levels

Carlos has spent the month writing dialogue for the various characters that appear in the two Lewis levels that feature the Teton Sioux. Here is his development diary.

I've had a blast writing the main dialogues for the Teton Sioux, but it's also been a challenging assignment, to say the least. The Corps of Discovery's interactions with the Teton Sioux were fraught with miscommunications and hindered by each party's expectations of what the outcome of their negotiations should be. And of course it is at this moment in the Expedition where the Corps comes closest to total annihilation. You'll get at least as close when you play this level, so be careful!

First, a little background. The Corps encounters the Teton Sioux in what is now South Dakota. It was this nation that Jefferson was most eager to establish peaceful relations, as the Sioux were thought to be the most numerous and powerful of the known Native American tribes. Based on information gleaned from French, British and American traders and trappers who had had contact with the tribe, however, the Teton Sioux were rumored to exact tolls and tributes from those they encountered, and they weren't afraid to use intimidation as a bargaining tool.

Relations between the Corps and the Sioux get off to a bad start. John Colter tells the captains that the Corps' last horse has been stolen by a party of Sioux warriors. Their parley goes from bad to worse when the Corps discovers that Pierre Cruzatte, the interpreter they hired in part because they thought he knew how to speak Lakota, had perhaps exaggerated his linguistic skills.

Those difficulties might have been surmountable by themselves. But negotiations quickly soured when the Sioux accused the Corps of being stingy with gifts and Captains Lewis and Clark accused the Sioux of being greedy. A standoff ensued with the Corps of Discovery pointing their rifles and readying the keelboat's mighty swivel gun, while hundreds of Sioux warriors strung their bows and readied to let a storm of arrows fly. If anyone on either side had fired, carnage would have ensued. It is almost impossible to imagine that enough of the Corps would have survived to return to the United States. Both Lewis and Clark would have been killed, almost certainly. The mission to cross North America would have ended in failure then and there.

So how did the Expedition escape with their hides intact? Sorry, no spoilers! You'll get your chance to hold council with the Sioux soon enough.

One of the interesting developments that I have noted in working on the game is that, in Meriwether, unlike pretty much any game I have ever encountered, dramatic irony plays a role in most of the dialogue. A quick reminder: "dramatic irony" is a literary term that simply means the reader (or in theater and film, the audience) knows more about what's going to happen in the story than the characters do. Basically, the horror genre depends on dramatic irony: you know the last thing the busload of cheerleaders who are spending the night in the haunted house should do is split up, but they do it every time in every movie, don't they?

Because Meriwether is based on the well-known history of the Corps of Discovery, dramatic irony is unavoidable. It plays out in the dialogue in exciting (and sometimes nerve-wracking!) ways. For instance, in recounting their interactions with the Teton Sioux, the journals of the Expedition describe how the captains used threats, bluster, bribery, and even physical force in dealing with the Sioux. I promise you, many of these will seem like bad ideas to the player. But playing this game, you will have to live the history of the members of the Corps, and that means learning to think like they did. And that means sometimes saying things that, to a 21st century ear, might sound like pure madness.

Not to worry though. Madness is fun! In fact, I mentioned horror before, and it's interesting that the second Teton Sioux level has a bit of a horror vibe to it. Everything seems fine at first, and but the clues start to pile up that the Sioux might be planning an unpleasant surprise for the Corps when they try to proceed onwards… 

New "Comic Book" Dialogue Interface

In video games, it's common to see dialogue handled much like it is in film: every time a character speaks, the camera cuts to the new speaker. That works great in film (and in some games), but after testing dialogue in Meriwether, we found the constantly-jumping camera to be distracting. If we wanted players to immerse themselves in the story, we knew we had to find a better way to present conversations.

That is the thinking that led us to our new style, which we've been called "Comic Book Dialogue." This new way of presenting dialogue displays two or three lines from characters at a time, much in the same way speech balloons work in comics. We're very happy with the results: now, it is much easier to follow the thread of the conversation. Furthermore, we still will be able to control the camera to have the occasional dramatic close-up, and we think big conversations (those featuring more than two characters) will be easier to follow as well.

Ultimately, our playtesters will tell us what they think of this new system, but we're stoked about our early experiments with it. We'll be sure to keep you updated as we further refine it.

The Pacific Coast -- In-Game!

Our Environment Artist, George Sokol, has been hard at work for the last month designing and beautifying the levels that will take place on the Pacific coast. While everything in Meriwether is a work in progress, we couldn't be happier with the work George has already done. Here are a few screenshots to tide you over for now. Just keep in mind that this are only first passes, and that they'll continue to improve up until we release the game.

Upcoming Events

We have two very cool events coming up in which we'll be talking about Meriwether. The first takes place on Thursday 20 February. Josh and Carlos are heading over to Kickstarter headquarters for an Open House where they, along with other folks who've run successful Kickstarter campaigns, will talk about their project and give Kickstarter hopefuls advice and protips about getting projects funded.

We're equally thrilled to say that Kickstarter has invited us to be part of their showcase at PAX East, the largest video game conference on the East Coast. At PAX East, we will have a playable demo of the Clatsop Fall Lewis level and will answer questions about the game and discuss the development process. Again, if you're planning on being in Boston from March 22-24, swing by and say hi! More info is at http://east.paxsite.com/

And Finally…

We are gaining momentum! We have our schedule locked down, we are continuing to refine our mechanics and artwork, and we are marching steadily closer to making Meriwether a reality. Thank you again and forever for giving us the opportunity to devote ourselves to creating this game. We will continue to work hard to justify your faith in us and make this the best game it can be. Excelsior!

Comments

    1. Creator S.D. on February 24, 2013

      @Sortasoft: Haha, didn't mean to send you off ratholing on history... though I suspect you wouldn't be making *this* RPG if you had much of an aversion to that. My specific suggestion was to eschew period style fonts, and design a "modern" font that looks sort of old (e.g., serifs and dodgy kerning ;-) ). The look of the dark rusty-brown ink on the creamy tan paper texture may be more readable than white on a translucent color. Of course... it could take days to get the font and texture just right, and you have an entire game to build on a shoe-string budget! Perhaps consider this dialogue simply the excited ravings of a fan & history buff...

    2. Creator Sortasoft LLC on February 22, 2013

      Great ideas and comments everyone!

      @Thomas: I would like to experiment for alternate layouts for the dialogue. However, that will most likely have to wait until the polish phase, at the end of the project, since it is working and feeling well right now.

      @Adam: When we created the level featuring the Clatsop and Chinook we consulted with a Clatsop expert, and not only did it help ensure that we are being culturally sensitive, but he gave us great ideas that made it a better game. And we plan to do that for these levels as well, but we need a draft first so that we have something to discuss. If you have a lead on a good expert please let us know!

      @S.D. : I just did a bunch of reading about iron gall ink. Very interesting! As for the font, we have spent a lot of time experimenting with different styles. We have opted for a more modern font in favor of legibility, because there is a lot of reading in this game. There will be some in-game elements that have more stylized, period-style writing that are intended to convey flavor and setting and don't need to be as legible.

    3. Creator Adam Boisvert on February 22, 2013

      Are you working with any modern Sioux people to try and avoid being horribly offensive?

    4. Creator Thomas Mauer on February 21, 2013

      Since you guys mentioned comic book style dialog, I might have something to contribute from a lettering theory perspective (since lettering is my job).

      The screenshot shows the dialog running down the middle of the screen and building a wall of text between the characters. On a subconscious level this means the characters are talking at each other, not with each other. They're building a divide between them while trying to communicate.

      While this may help with the miscommunication concept, it wouldn't work in every instance. It's especially problematic when the topic is a growing friendship, a truce being struck, the conversation being very passionate with all parties deeply involved.

      Dialog flow has to be considered of course and games have to follow different rules than the comics medium. So having the dialog on the left and right of the screen wouldn't be possible.

      Simply making sure the actors always have an unobscured line of sight will do the trick though. They can engage each other directly, and the dialog itself won't stand out as much. It'll rather be like a well done musical score in a film: there to enhance, but not the center of attention.

    5. Creator Timothy Goddard on February 20, 2013

      The Pacific Coast looks great. I'm headed out that way for the weekend (specifically to a place the party visited), and it looks like Sokol has really captured the look!

    6. Creator S.D. on February 20, 2013

      For dialogue entries, perhaps it could be stylized as dark brownish iron gall ink writing, on textures of period paper? That could fit into the design aesthetic while also increasing the visibility.

      Of course, you'll have to use your own font... actual period writing in iron gall (if I recall correctly) is frequently very difficult for modern readers, like myself, to read. It's a both a somewhat different "English" than what we use today, and also the individual glyphs are often written in a compact and angled long-hand.

      Your historian will know all about this, but perhaps you and she can devise a nice looking "period-like" font which is modern enough to be highly visible.

    7. Creator Sortasoft LLC on February 20, 2013

      @light487 - 1. Yes, it is dark solely because the weather conditions in that level are stormy. (I think it's actually a little too dark anyway, but it's something we're working on.) The only real difference is that we show a few lines at a time, instead of just one. (They progressively fade in, a little bit faster than you can read them.)

      2. The demo will not really be ready for sending out to the public, sorry. Even though it's playable, there are still lots of things that don't work quite right and without us there to walk you through it, can give an incorrect perception of the game. However, I will make sure to create a video after PAX showing the demo as well as some footage from the event itself.

    8. Creator light487 - Kickstarter Junkie on February 20, 2013

      Everything seems like it's moving along with great speed, which is great to see. A couple of questions sprang to mind while I was browsing through:

      1. With the comic book style dialog, I notice the background image behind the dialog boxes is quite dark. Is that as a result of the day/night cycle and/or weather conditions at the time, or have you reduced the brightness to make the dialog windows pop out more? If it is the latter, I would rather not have that effect applied as it ruins the immersion in the game because it effectively turns the screen into an eReader with a wallpaper background.

      2. With regards to playtesting and demos, are there any plans on releasing this to backers? I know of course there are beta tester tiers that were pledged.. but I'm thinking more about the playable dmo of the "Clatsop Fall Lewis" level that you will make available to the attendees of the PAX East exhibition. As you know, there are many backers who would not be able to attend such an event/