When it comes to questions of race and minority representation in games, we’re firmly in the “biggest possible tent” camp. The more players see themselves reflected in our game world, the more welcome and comfortable and connected they’ll feel there. As gay folks coming of age in the 80’s and 90’s, we were starved to see members of our community in the popular media, and we’re committed to never make any other group feel like they’re outsiders.
But skin color poses a special issue in a game like “The Eyre Apparent.” If we’re going to be true to the Austenian canon, there really were no folks of color to be seen. Surely literary purists and hard-nosed historians would be apalled to see a rural 18th century English village with the population of a Benneton ad. And we could have used that fact -- that kind of dry analysis of source material to avoid having to consider the issue of race at all. It would have been a defensible (though perhaps not very brave) choice.
In the end, we’ve decided to let inclusion trump accuracy. We may well find that some players’ keen sense of authenticity is bruised by this choice, but we’d rather build a welcoming and factually incorrect Austen world than a small, blandly faithful one. Of course, that doesn’t explain why one of the six available skin tones is pale purple, but that’s a post for another day…
In “Eyre Apparent” we’re working to provide just enough of a sense of place to cue the player without distracting them from the real action going on between the characters. Like a minimalist stage, we want to suggest the Archery club Picnic without having to show every quiver and every folding chair.
By choosing a strong, boldly colored iconic foreground object and running a string of pale, distant background objects, we’re leaving a clear open area for the characters to interact. In a nod to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of our youth, the background art is also being done “roll-of paper” style, with a repeat of simple objects dotted irregularly along the back wall of the imaginary space.
Note the intentional letterboxing of the 16:9 cinema aspect down to an even more extremely horizontal 16:7 format. Since we’ll have seven or eight characters “on stage” at any given time, we wanted to focus the player’s attention on the active area, not on the dead space at the top and bottom of the screen. But we can always choose to break our own letterboxing rule and reclaim that space if we need it somewhere, like on a character creation screen.
Palette building can be a tricky business. Unless there’s a strong graphic idea pushing you one way or the other -- like the choice to have a grimly limited palette for “A Matter of Murder” to compliment the Gorey-esque artstyle -- detemining an optimum size for a palette can be daunting. Too few colors and the game’s visual variety can be stunted. Too many colors and the player’s faith in the cohesion of the game world suffers.
Through trial and error with the avatar models, we ended up with a preliminary palette of twenty-four colors, including six potential skin tones. An emphasis was placed on groups of closely-related shades so we could play up the subtler wallpaper textures being used in the dresses. The greys and blacks are mostly reserved for the male characters. So far, this seems like a comfortable range, particulary as the settings have been developing with a lot of white, open space to allow the saturated colors to shine. But that’s another blog entry…
We’re big believers in the power of customizable avatars to connect players to a game experience. Whether players choose to craft an avatar that looks like them irl, or is their polar opposite, it’s the act of choosing that allows players to invest emotionally in the game world. So when we started character design, it was important to be sure the overall system (theme) had the flexibility to stand up to some vibrant personalization (variation.)
We started with a very flat “cut-paper” look (built in Adobe Illustrator) and a set of damask wallpaper textures. We thought it was an interesting idea to “commoditize” the women by giving them all the same base dress and body, and then layering on the choice of six skin colors, six dress colors, six dress patterns, twelve hairstyles, and twelve accessories. A good math person could probably figure out how many permutations that could potentially generate. Pictured above is Marc’s favorite, the avatar we’ve been calling Prunella Blinkington.
Once a couple of dozen avatars were carefully crafted and duly “ooohed” over, we did a couple of sets of randomly mixed combinations which seemed to work almost as well. Which either speaks to the robustness of the customization system or is a shameful indictment of Marc’s design education. We haven’t figured out which yet.
Once we had a rough idea of the themes and tensions that would power the gameplay, we put together a diagram of how a sample round of “Eyre” might be put together. Game phases are color coded by the kind of activity that would take place in that round. Emphasis here was placed on gauging the storytelling rythm of a round. We also tried to put some stakes in the ground re how long a round needed to be to feel satisfying but graspable (a tricky balance -- we may not have hit that balance quite yet).
Note the “cinematic recap” at the end. Marc (being the writer nerd) felt like watching a thirty second replay of all the decisions in the game, zipping along like a cartoon on steroids, would make the experience feel more like writing your own Jane Austen novel… Somehow… Now whether this is intuitively brilliant is up for debate, but it’s probably all wrong in terms of capping the player experience in a satisfying way. It’s probably the wrong gesture. He’s already abandoned this dicy stand and the next generation of storyboards dropped the recap.
You can also see how the stand-in labels are already starting to show some of the game’s evolving “personality.”
While work continues on supporting and polishing our premiere offering, “A Matter of Murder,” the studios of Worthing & Moncrieff have begun development of the next offering in the portfolio, tentatively titled “The Eyre Apparent,” a turn-based literary strategy game. Think Jane Austen meets the Dating Game with a dash of Flintstones thrown in. It’s a tongue-in-cheek riff on caustic literary rivalries, appalling preconceptions of the roles of women and men, and, of course, the unending quest to marry well.
Brainstorming began with some good old-fashioned pen-and-paper storyboarding and a bunch of really terrible ideas. We probably haven’t rooted all the clunkers yet, but we did hammer out a basic story flow and some ideas about what the gameplay mechanic might feel like. Enough to start prototyping and art development, so that’s where we’re off to next. Stay tuned.