Posted on 2 Comments

The dreams of an Emperor

Hi all – we have something rather special for you today. I’ve put four (non-spoileriffic) samples of our dream sequences into Twine and uploaded them here on philome.la. They should give you a little bit of a taste of the interludes in Alliance of the Sacred Suns.

In the game itself, there will be over 100 of these scenes, each tying in to your progress as Emperor and the way you choose to rule. The approach we’ve taken to these is to try and make sure the scenes are either a response to something you’ve done, or convey important quests and other information. (Critical information will, of course, be available for you to look back on after you’ve had the dream sequence announcing it.) Of the four I’ve uploaded, ‘Introductory Scene’ and ‘Žemyna Appears’ are scene-setting, ‘Psychic Overload’ is a warning we give you if you’ve been over-using your psychic powers, and ‘Life of St. Ramu Nyquist’ is a reward for completing a particular quest later in the game.

I hope you enjoy them – please leave any feedback in the comments!

Oliver

Posted on Leave a comment

Building the plot structure

Hi all, Oliver here. This week I’m going to talk about how we’re putting together Imperia’s story structure – or, I should say, taking it apart and putting it back together again. I’ll refrain from giving away any plot details, so if you’re worried about spoilers, you can relax now.

Initially, the plan was to produce a story tree on which a single ‘cursor’ (in the programming sense) would progress from node to node, reacting to the gamestate, producing in-game effects and Twine-like interludes at each, until it hit an ending. And this structure I actually designed. Now this had a certain obvious inelegance – by the time you got to the bottom, there were four or five duplicates of most of the endings. But the real issue was that between any given adjacent pair of plot points you had to account for a whole pile of different potential circumstances: the gamestate might shift one of a whole pile of different ways, meaning each branch point needed to have a number of permitted outcomes. In practice, they couldn’t all have that many, producing a design which, while flexible, would in practice have come up with some weird situations.

This was all brought into focus when we introduced a couple of minor changes to the plot. Having read some really interesting and useful articles on plot structure (here and here, both well worth a read if you’re interested in interactive story design) I realised that what we needed was a ground-up restructure of the whole system. The result – which I’m in the process of setting out right now – is a system involving a number of parallel ‘blocks’ along which independent cursors progress and sometimes regress. Each block has several parallel versions, between which its cursor can move according to the gamestate – in particular, when certain characters have progressed along one or another of their potential character arcs, booleans will be flipped that shift several blocks from one version to another. The Twine-esque interludes and the in-game effects are still very much there, and are still triggered by the arrival of cursors at nodes, but rather than an enormous combinatorial explosion like we would face in an old-school Choose Your Own Adventure-style decision tree, the system allows unrelated chains of events to proceed in parallel without interfering with one another. If a character is not involved in a given part of the story, for example, Booleans relating to their character arc simply need not be considered.

This doesn’t just apply to separate, parallel storylines – not to give too much away, there aren’t many of those – but also to fixed points in the story that are only affected by one or two variables. I would give an example, but that would rather spoil the fun – I’d better stop writing before I give anything away.

Until next time,

Oliver

Posted on Leave a comment

Building a world: The writing process for Imperia

One of the key ways we’re trying to make Human Space real and interesting is through ‘snippets’: short pieces of writing, perhaps tucked away in tooltips, that talk about the places, people, and events that made the world the way it is in 3050 AD. In today’s blog, I want to talk a little bit about my writing process and what I’m trying to achieve with these snippets.

The format for the snippets arose pretty organically from what we wanted to do with them: they would be short extracts from in-universe texts, that would first and foremost establish atmosphere, but on top of that hint at historical events, characters, and institutions by allusion. By going with this kind of always-partial (in both senses of the word) narration, we can make the writing much more interesting than some horrendous info-dump: as Pavlos rightly pointed out, ‘lore’ is boring.

More than that, this format helps reinforce the sense of distrust, corruption and ambiguity that we want Imperia to evoke. We have a canonical timeline of events in the history of the Empire, but you’ll never get to see it. What you will see is a range of different sources’ takes on events, replete with their own spin and particular disingenuities, from the Technik manifesto Technology for Humanity‘s techno-utopian fanaticism, to the sanitised Imperial party line of the Continuing History of the Empire, along with numerous one-off sources such as recorded conversations. Using these ‘sources’ also provides another avenue for extremely condensed storytelling: citing the time, the place, the author, and so on, in a single line can suggest a world beyond what the text describes.

When I’m writing one of these snippets, I start with the item to which the snippet will be attached – usually a House, planet, or constellation of a particular culture – and work out what aspects of that subject matter I want to show off here. It might be two contrasting sides of a culture, or some hint at how a House made their money. Then, I consider what source or sources to invent for it. And then, obviously, I write it, trying as best I can to get into the mindset and the writing style of the sources’ authors. Often the best way to communicate something is through the juxtaposition of two or more short snippets – two conflicting accounts can suggest a third truth underneath, or snippets from sources speaking at different times can illustrate some social or political change without having to describe it outright. The incidental details, too, are very useful – they can say all sorts of things about Imperial society and cultures in passing. Some cast new light on other snippets elsewhere, when you compare them with one another. Sometimes the whole story is in the citation, and the snippet is just a little piece of atmosphere, or a red herring. The overall idea is to provide a very high density of little hints, in a format you can read in ten seconds, and let your imagination do most of the work.

Next time, it’ll be Steve on the blog again, talking about the planets and how detailed they are – until then, Ave Imperator!

Oliver