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Arc Symphony

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Local date/time: Mon Oct 15 19██ 15:38:42


Arc Symphony was supposed to be a small project. Penelope and I were co-editors-in-chief on our student paper, The Gargoyle. During that time we found that we were really happy making stuff together: we’d often make midday sprints finishing up issues by writing full pages of content and our improv skills with each other flowed very naturally.

Penelope had started getting into Twine and with my recent devotion full-time to making games and interactive media we thought we’d spend a day – one day – to making a quick game with each other.

Penelope really liked the idea of a questionnaire: how do you tell a story through ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers and nothing else?

I was certain that we needed some reason for the questionnaire, some reason to be doing it, and so we started egging each other on with new contexts before we hit a “Which ___ are you?” test: something like a Buzzfeed quiz for an old game.

We went for a walk and talked about this old game and started hitting onto the idea of an old JRPG starring Satoshi and Dallas … from there we started filling out the game world.

A week later we met up again, and with the knowledge of this fictional game we started imagining the community around it: after all you’re getting this quiz from somewhere, right?

We drafted in our friend Ted as we drafted handles for the player character, for the community. We wondered about the kind of player who’d get each result: what handles would they pick? What kind of naming scheme would they prefer? Some people just use their names; some people mingle with the canon of the series.

Of particular influence to me was my own time on Samus.co.uk, as well as a very formative game for me: Digital: A Love Story. I had played Digital sometime in 2013 and thought it was the coolest thing. Like, I had no idea games could even do this kind of thing, telling a story through the apparatus of the past, through the limitations in the way we used to communicate online.

I showed Penelope Digital to explain some of the cues and nuances I wanted to go for in our game. She didn’t really get the big deal: she particularly disliked how she couldn’t specify what her reply was. She could only reply. So she wanted ours to have stuff you could choose to say.

I was fine with this; I was just worried about scope. How long is this thing going to be? Branching dialogue very easily gets out of hand. So we aimed for 30 minutes and started filling out the first “phase” of emails.

After all, we knew the story – especially since it was going to be nonlinear – still needed narrative “phases”; the general arc of the story has to bend in specific directions no matter what it is you’re reading in any playthrough. So we decided that the first phase would be community maintenance; the second phase would be reacting to game news; and the third phase would be community fallout.

These phases corresponded to our experiences in our own communities, just shortened to 30 minutes.

One thing we unfortunately cut was a modern message board section. Yeah. We were going to have email forums, IRC, and a phpBB style message board. At the time we were less anachronistically focussed, but since we both spent our time on internet forum communities, it’s what we knew best. After a week or two I unfortunately had to advise that we go without it; we couldn’t handle making enough content to justify it, as the email group was making it redundant.

More inspiration came from reading Usenet communities: we loved the idea of not revealing anything about Arc Symphony other than the fan creations and discussions. So what kinds of creative content did people make? We read alt.drwho.creative; we read alt.games.final-fantasy. We laughed at the kinds of signatures people would make and the bickering that often fell into these kinds of places. Most of all we just loved their FAQs. They were so long, so esoteric. So we wrote our own.

We hit an early hitch with the chat: our own ideas of how to implement it in Twine were possible but they didn’t feel right; or they didn’t allow for a persistent chat session; or they didn’t scale well; or they involved tons and tons of passages to facilitate them.

So I reached out to some people who knew Twine magic to advise and we eventually got in touch with Furkle. After a day or so, Furkle advised that in Sugarcane this wasn’t very easy to do without doing it in plain JavaScript. They eventually came back to me with a full script that completely nailed it. I’m eternally grateful: the chat is probably the best part of the whole game…

Near the last third of development I started to worry that the game wouldn’t be fun, that the way we implemented fail and win states weren’t really apparent, that people would see it as text without end, something that didn’t cohere, something that wasn’t really hitting its goals. So we started playtesting sessions with other game developers.

These sessions were very important for us to realize that we needed to slow it down; that we needed to allow people to keep messages, not just delete them or reply to them; that replying to messages should be universally possible, not just restricted to replyable threads. If we didn’t allow these actions, the story could halt as a result of player agency; it made the player feel that they had to hit milestones they couldn’t see or intuit to proceed forward. We had to rethink the way the story progressed to allow it to progress regardless of their particular agency.

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