Meri-Making Part 1
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.
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.
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/
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!