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Let's Talk

Journal is an adventure game, one that forgoes typical gaming puzzles to focus on character interaction. That is to say there will be a lot of talking in the game. I would say the most common two methods of dealing with conversation in any story based game is either to have the entire conversation pre-defined or to give the player dialogue trees. As the conversation is the main gameplay mechanic I can't just have the player travel around triggering story cutscenes or I might as well be writing a book. So that leaves me with dialogue trees, ropey old dialogue trees.

Grinding Conversation

The first thing that bothers me about the typical approach to dialogue trees is that you're not really presenting the player with must choice. In most games it's more about letting player work their way through a bunch of pointless branches until they hit the correct route through the conversation. It's discussion by trial and error and to some degree breaks the reality of the game. How often do you have a conversation with someone and when it goes badly you just break out and start the whole thing over again.

The best implementation I've seen is probably Mass Effect, here conversations are a mostly a flowing thing. You go through them once and are forced to make choices along the way that will affect the outcome of the discussion. They even allow you to pick your next choice slightly in advance to keep the dialogue flowing. They do actually have some elements of old style dialogue trees in there if you want to pump someone for deeper information but most story conversations happen once and there's no second chance without reloading.

So for these reasons in Journal conversations about a specific topic will largely be a one shot deal, you go through that dialogue with a character and unless you find something new from another person to advance the conversation any more you can't go back for a redo. This is something BioWare are leading the way on and I'm happy to follow.

Illusion of Choice

The next big problem I have with traditional dialogue trees is you get loads of choices but essentially you have no choice as to how the game will play out. There's only really one or two correct ways through the conversation you can't really change things and inject much of how you want it to play out. The basic reasoning being that if you let the players say what they want you've got to create lots of additional branches to the storyline.

A lot of games deal with this by giving you fake choices, where if you go back and revisit the various options you were given they all in fact result in the same response. Bethesda's Fallout 3 deals with this tremendously simply by doing all the ground work it takes to accommodate quests being completed in lots of different ways.

Not wanting to trick players with hollow decisions and not having Bethesda's budget I've decided to try something slightly different. In Journal you can make choices in each conversation that will affect how you interact with the other character, and so the conversation will play out differently depending on what you choose. However rather than branching the game's storyline based on each player choice, it will instead just affect how that other character sees the player. More like a reputation system I guess, that will then affect other elements of the game down the line.

Ideas Not Words

Finally not so much a problem with normal dialogue trees but I guess more a personal preference again inspired by Mass Effect. When a character talks to you most games bring you up a list of responses you can reply with, with is fairly logical however in Mass Effect you've usually just given a couple of words, hinting at the mood or an action that you character will say without being so explicit. I liked this a lot because the way the conversation plays out is still a surprise to the player and instead of trying to analyse what each choice of phrase will lead to you're instead picking a mood or a tone of how your character is behaving.

Taking this approach really allowed me to simple down the conversation interface in Journal. Rather than having lots of text on screen I instead just use a simple row of icons at the bottom of the screen. These icons can represent either topics of conversation, or a moods for replying with. So for example when you first open up a conversation with a character you'll get icons for various topics that you've learnt about so far, but when the other character expects a response from you your choices could be nasty or nice, lie or truth.

I'm Going To Have To Stop You There

I'm hoping the system I'm describing is something players will get into. In my ideal world players will quickly learn what they think of the other characters in the world of Journal and make conversation choices based on the emotions of how they feel towards them.

Having said all this I don't think my way is a "superior" or "correct" approach. I just think these are the type of conversation I enjoy most in games and think suit what I'm trying to achieve with Journal the best. Greatly looking forward to see what choices people will be making in the eventual play testing sessions.

the white chamber was first released to the public back in 2005 it's development took a long time and I thought you guys might be interested in a bit of history behind how it all came together.

Grand Beginnings

The real seed for white chamber came from my folder full of game story ideas. One was called The Dark Chamber it was about a bunch of people who wake up aboard a space station with no idea who they are or how they got there. The idea would be two-fold, firstly it turns out they prisoners who've agreed to be part of a deadly reality gameshow. However also the station has been subject to a great tragedy 10 years earlier which would also come into play. It was just a 1 page concept document I forgot all about.

The University Year

Actual development on the white chamber started in 2003 as a university project to build a simple adventure game, and I got Paul (my housemate at the time) involved to supply artwork. We wanted to make something simple, only 10 rooms and no NPCs to keep things manageable. So I went through my idea file, found The Dark Chamber and simplified it down to what I thought was a more manageable game. The university assignment itself was meant to be a programming task more than anything else so I coded my own adventure game engine, with all sorts of great features, and I was quite pleased at achievement at the time.

However as the deadline for the project approached two things were clear, firstly we'd underestimated exactly how big we'd made the game. It was only 10 rooms but each room had multiple versions and many animations and sprites to be done. Secondly although my engine was passable in terms of functionality it had no toolset, so everything had to be built by hand in scripts. Object placement was hard enough but writing the actual puzzle scripts was a nightmare. Still we handed in our incomplete game featuring about 4 rooms and a massive memory leak and I got a very nice mark.

The Japan Year

From there we wanted to carry on with production, and it was around then we brought Zak on-board to provide music. However Paul and Zak were due to spend a year in Japan as part of their university degree. Optimistically we thought we could co-ordinate online and keep going but things didn't really work out that way and the unfinished game lay dormant for an entire year.

By the time the guys got back from Japan the indie adventure gaming scene had matured and I came across wintermute for the first time. It's a powerful engine that can handle the high-res graphics we'd created for the white chamber, and more importantly it had a toolset I could work with. So we ditched my code and ported the game across to wintermute and production began again.

The Slow Crawl To Beta

It wasn't really clean sailing from there as we were all going through our final year at university at the same time as finishing the game. To be honest getting the white chamber finished is the reason I initially failed my dissertation and had to retake it. Still after a lot of long development days, including one full crunch week where we lived on 3-4 hours sleep per night we got the game finished. The first beta went out to 300 people at a UK anime convention, to be honest few of them bothered to play it. In retrospect it wasn't really worth staying up all night before the con burning hundreds of CD-Rs manually.

Around a month later we cleaned up all the bugs friends found in that early beta and put it up for download from our website. The game was finally finished. Well sort of, we'd given ourselves a deadline but had to cull a long list of stuff we wanted to fit in. Non the less it was released on the internet to an initially lukewarm response from the indie adventure game community but through word of mouth the game spread and spread to what seemed at the time like reasonable acclaim.

Reaching The World

At this point we were not completely satisfied with the game, and we also had people coming to us wanting to translate the game into their native language. So we started work on the "international edition" of the game, where we would add in a bunch of translations, voice acting, more endings, bug fixes and other tweaks that had been bothering us. This is hopefully the version of white chamber most of you will have played.

Over time we've released new versions adding in more languages until we stopped at Version 1.7 our so-called (and long delayed) "definitive edition" including not only German text but full German speech as well. I also put the source code of the game up on the website for anyone who wanted to learn from it or play around with it. To be honest this was the point when as far as I was concerned the whole white chamber project was done and dusted.

Post Script

However sometime around April 2009 a new and rather large group of gamers found the white chamber. It seems some rather enterprising Chinese gamers decided to translate the game themselves including not only the game's text but also text embedded into artwork. They posted their patch online and a link to our servers. First I heard about this was when my hosting company started complaining about the insane amount of CPU power our hosting was using.

Over a few month period there were over half a million downloads of the game from Chinese users, adding that to the downloads we've had over the years I would estimate well over a million gamers have downloaded the white chamber at this point. Humbling figures.

The big question I've left hanging for now is "whatever happened to Studio Trophis?", as that's a topic for another day. Hope you've played and enjoyed the white chamber, it's not perfect but it's got some nice elements to it and certainly a decent homage to my love of point and clicks when I was a kid.

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Believe it or not I'm going to use my first post in this DevBlog to introduce myself. Originality has always been overrated anyway. My name is Richard Perrin, I live in a overpriced flat in central London with two other geeks and I am somewhat a jack of all trades and a master of none.

Most importantly to me (and probably you) I am an indie game designer/programmer. In early 2005 I released a free sci-fi horror point and click adventure game called "the white chamber". You can download it over at the Studio Trophis site, will throw in some links at the end of the post.

I am also the co-host of a weekly video gaming podcast called Stage Clear. A freelance video game journalist friend of mine Rob Fahey presents the show with me. Largely the show is themed around the love of video games and the hatred of gamers (sorry).

As none of that pays the bills, especially in central London, I'm also a web developer. I built complex Drupal CMS driven websites for THE MAN. It's not really a fulfilling job, but it's lucrative and gives me the money to take time off and work on creative projects.

Studio Trophis never managed to produce a second game, and I'm sure I'll get into some of the behind the scenes shenanigans that led to years of failed attempts in this blog. I am however now back at work on a new game project called Journal, that is probably about one third way through development at this point.

I am going to try and update this blog at least once every 2 weeks with a mixture of articles about my experiences with Studio Trophis, my work on my new games and general opinions and thoughts on indie game development.

I'll do my best to keep it all fairly interesting and entertaining. If you have any questions, comments, or things you'd like me to cover just let me know and I'll do my best to discuss them in the blog.

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Welcome to the home of Locked Door Puzzle, the independent game development studio of Richard Perrin located in Bristol.

My primary focus is on creating expressive games that explore different forms of interactive storytelling.

For contact details check the about page.