A text-based adventure game, like HRO, requires a lot of writing — this is probably not a surprise. What was a surprise was finding a new tool to generate, edit and integrate the lots and lots of written bits into the Unity engine to make an actual playable game. That tool is INK, a free text-creation tool developed and distributed by our friends at Inkle Studios — you probably know them for "Heaven’s Vault" or their recently released “Overboard” which is getting a lot of well-deserved critical attention at the moment — it’s a gem and a must-have if you love murder mysteries.
After fifteen years of writing, finding a new process is not an easy thing. But Ink’s advantages made it well-worth scaling the small learning-curve. Yes, at first glance it looks like a programming language, and there is some architecture to get used to. But once you have the basics down, Ink streamlines the writing process, especially editing, to the point where I’m not sure we could have created HRO without it. Branching text — like conversations — can be easily read and edited because Ink allows you “play” the scenes in a separate window while viewing and editing the code in real time — an intuitive, natural reading process that is also a tremendous time saver.
Ink also facilitates integration of the JSONs you create into your Unity framework by allowing the author to set flags that trigger actions in the Unity game. So the animation of a character you’re having a conversation with will change facial expressions in coordination with the dialogue, or buttons on the player’s console can be made to light up at the appropriate time, that sort of thing. Plus there’s a robust and clear system of flagging errors within Ink, so it’s easy to troubleshoot and tougher to construct files which don’t work at run-time — though I have managed that several times thanks to my own coding terribleness.
Yes, we’re officially fanbois. If you’re a creator of interactive fiction, we highly recommend checking out Ink.
We’re lucky. Lucky lucky lucky to live in a place where vaccination rates are good and Covid rates are declining and people are cautiously talking about returning to something like normal life after a year+ of wrenching crisis. Through this time a lot of us put our heads down and plowed through the work we were lucky (lucky, lucky) to have and tried not to think too much about how much had changed, how many people were suffering, and how things might look when this is finally over. But we knew that at some point we’d all have to come to terms with how the pandemic had changed us.
I had my toughest bout of new-reality-facing to-date when I sat down to edit some of the conversations in HRO’s Episode 03, “Fruit of the Bitter Tree.” A draft of this episode had been written in late 2019. I hadn’t touched it since. One of the storylines involves that classic trope of the sci-fi genre — an alien plague threatens the crew of the Endeavor. But after this year I found it almost impossible to read — mostly because of my blithe pre-pandemic treatment of the material. I hadn’t imagined that talk of quarantines, and sealing off parts of the ship to prevent the spread of disease, and vaccine-hesitancy, and charlatanesque folk-remedies would provoke dread, fear and even anger in me. Presumably there are at least some players who would feel similar things playing this episode.
And now I don’t know what to do with that material — or those feelings. Maybe this will fade as we get (hopefully) further into a recovery. Or maybe I should go back and rewrite that storyline the way I would write it today and to hell with the easy conventions of the genre. HRO has a lot of comedy in it, so maybe this topic no longer has a place in a cheeky game. Maybe history has overtaken this story idea entirely and we should replace it wholesale. I’ve seen the old "tragedy + time = comedy" equation work miracles, but I may have lost my faith in that idea in this particular instance. So what do we do with these suddenly unexpectedly painful ideas? Maybe we can’t know yet.
We’re definitely going to finish HRO. It’s a matter of figuring out what to do with this surprisingly problematic content. And that’s not a tragedy of any real scale. Many people lost a lot more (see “lucky, lucky” above). I still can’t help feeling profoundly sad about it. And clearly my sadness is about more than just this storyline because maybe after a year of anxiety and hardship we’re not going to be picking anything up exactly “where we left off.” Not even our retro-futuristic sci-fi parodies.
Almost two years ago Eric and I started working on the project which would eventually become known as “HRO: Adventures of a Humanoid Resources Officer.” The fit was perfect. It combined so many of our favorite things — adventure games and 1960’s sci-fi, puzzles, snarky dialogue and making fun of office politics. In many ways it’s been a dream assignment. Since then, we’ve (knock on wood) weathered the bulk of a pandemic, designed, rolled-out, and retired an audio-only game (OverHerd), and worked like dogs to get the first “season” of HRO on its feet. 6 full-length episodes, 20 recurring and guest characters. 118 unique branching conversations, 180 different ways the HRO of the Coalition Space Ship Endeavor might save the day. We’ve been very busy boys.
And now — as the resumption of this blog is meant to signal — it’s time to bring our players, colleagues and friends back into the process as we work to shape the experience and improve the storytelling. As part of that effort, we’ve been setting up the game’s store page on Steam — which has proven to be a surprisingly inspiring set of tasks. In the process of clearly laying out the game’s theme and its mechanics — so long after the initial concept work on the game was originally done — we found a golden chance to evaluate how far we may have hewed or strayed — for good or ill — from the original vision.
The new marketing language for the game now describes it as: "HRO: Adventures of a Humanoid Resources Officer is a puzzle-driven visual novel set in a retro-futuristic sci-fi universe. You play the underappreciated Humanoid Resources Officer aboard the Endeavor — a military spaceship with more than its fair share of crew rivalries, office politics, and erratic decision-makers. When the Endeavor stumbles into universe-shaking trouble, can you harness the power of the bureaucracy to rein in your crew’s worst impulses and survive to the next episode?”
We’re also really jazzed to announce that HRO will be included in the upcoming Steam NextFest, June 16-22. There will be some live-streaming of gameplay, and you’ll be able to playtest and give feedback on the first episode in the season, “Saints and Sinners.” It’s the one where the iron-willed Captain Spangler appears to have gone rogue — but there’s more to it than that, of course.
This is all part of the larger drive toward release of HRO — which has been officially scheduled for December 02, 2021. We admit, the date was chosen at least partially because it is a palindrome — that’s how we roll here at Worthing & Moncrieff. Thanks for sharing the ride with us. And if you’re wondering about the use of the plural of “pancreas” in the title you’ll have to play Episode 03 “Their Pound of Flesh” to find out why it’s here…
There’s a venerable tradition in the writing world. It’s called the Sh*tty First Draft. I first encountered this idea in a playwrighting workshop at Grub Street a bunch of years ago. It goes something like this: start your story at the beginning and write it through all the way to the end. If you get stuck, just jam anything in for now. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to get you from A to B, story-wise. You can always go back and change the crappy bits later. Basically, it’s permission. Permission to not be perfect. Permission to start somewhere. It’s liberating. I love it.
Our newest game, HRO, is about at the prototype stage — we’ll have a single “episode” or chapter for play testers and demo’ing shortly. But, with an eye to eventual release of the full game, we’ve started outlining all the episodes in the proposed “season” and I’m in full sh*tty first draft mode. Is that plot twist believable? God no. Will players be able to follow that story arc? Probably not. Is that a reasonable way to resolve that conflict? I don’t think so. But it gives us somewhere to start. And it allows us to plan all the sandbox puzzles for the entire game so we can build in the needed diversity and functionality from the start, which will hopefully save us development time down the line.
It also allows us, for the first time, to see the complete sweep of the game — at least in first draft form. How does the arc of the “season” unfold? How does a particular episode affect the one that follows it? What are all the player-instigated changes we’ll need to track as the game progresses? It also allows us to take a good long look at balancing the experience. We can see how many times we’re asking players to solve puzzles with each of the available sandbox mechanics. We can see how many times each of the regular cast members appear in the game, and whether we’re using our secondary characters well. We now know who our “guest stars” for each episode will be so they can be sketched and created. It’s a time of big-picture planning and big, season-spanning thinking. And things are starting to come into focus.
It’s an exciting time for us here at Worthing & Moncrieff. Stay tuned as the story develops!
Last week saw a bit of a milestone for our new project HRO: Adventures of a Humanoid Resources Officer — we completed a working draft of all the branching narrative content for the first “episode” of the game. This first level will serve as our playtesting prototype, so getting this on its feet has been priority for us. Part of drafting the first episode included outlining all six planned episodes in the first season so we could know how they fit together and what we’ll need to include to accomplish all our narrative goals.
This process provoked some interesting questions about player choice and what, exactly, makes a choice interesting for a player. One seemingly obvious answer is that interesting choices are choices which have big results. World-shaking, make-or-break, put-it-all-on-the-line, life-or-death types of decisions. I don’t love this answer. If everything is a 10 on the drama scale, nothing seems particularly important. And life isn’t made up of one earth-shattering choice after another. It’s also tough to build genuine human stories out of nothing but technicolor fireworks moments.
Traditionally, player choice and the impacts of those choices have either been cosmetic -- ultimately landing the player in a pre-determined spot regardless of choices made -- or consequential in the short-term (usually as side-quests) but leaving the base experience "on rails." We're looking at linking all the episodes in a "season" of HRO modularly so player actions unlock different stories, puzzles and potential interactions across the entire experience. So completing Episode 1 by sending a critical crew member on vacation will give the player a different set of given circumstances at the beginning of Episode 2 than if the player had chosen to forge the navigational records to hide the Captain's crime, for example.
One of my favorite things about our last project, Austen Translation, was a conversation I had with a player at the last Boston Festival of Independent Games (BFIG). Austen’s a strategy game dressed up like a dating sim, and this player was making terrible choices and losing — like really obviously losing. After he finished I asked him about it — to make sure our game mechanic wasn’t too obscure or he hadn’t misunderstood the tutorial. He assured me that he knew he was losing, but he was making choices which seemed right for his character. I loved that. His sense of character was so strong that he preferred to play and lose the game in character rather than min-max the strategic options. Those kinds of emotional connections between a player and a game experience are gold, and we’re looking at ways to foster a similar sense of control and consequence for an HRO player.
In part, I was thrilled with that Austen player’s response because that’s the way that I tend to play games. I pick my Rimworld survivors based on how much I like them, not necessarily on their chances for success. I’ve played Brittany and Provence in Europa Universalis IV not because I thought I would win with these plucky upstarts, but because I wanted to stick it to France (they think they’re such an Empire… they make me so mad!) I can’t tell you how many ships I trained up for in Eve Online because they looked cool. I’m not against winning. I love to win. But the best win of all is when I can win by doing it my own way -- making my own sometimes unorthodox choices.
For the HRO prototype we’re working on making the choices feel consequential for the player, whether they have a dramatic effect on the course of the story events or not. Some will. Some dialogue choices will unlock solutions the player won’t otherwise hear about. Some solutions to each act will remove future options from play, or open up different storylines, or even in some cases, cause characters to die or disappear from the game. Most won’t. If we can get the player to care enough about their humble protagonist, then the choice to suck up to a egomaniacal Captain Spangler or to defy her iron will create stakes high enough to keep them engaged on their journey through the HRO universe. We’re shooting for choices which create emotional connections and maybe, sometimes -- if the player is very brave -- allow them to save the universe.
This may be the time lots of folks are gearing down for lazy, hot, barbecue-filled summer afternoons, but here at Worthing & Moncrieff, we’re hard at work generating all the assets we’ll need for a playable prototype of the entire first episode of “HRO: Adventures of a Humanoid Resources Officer.” As part of that process, I sat down last week to put together the art for the locations which will appear behind the characters when the player is talking with them via video link. In keeping with our television series frame, we’ve been calling them “sets.” Below are some of the original sketches, and farther down then there’s a set of first-draft art to show how they’ll look — in the prototype at least.
Part of the challenge is volume — as in quantity. In episode one alone there are something like 16 different locations, mostly aboard the spaceship Endeavor. Of course, like any budget-conscious serial, we’ll be re-using sets (since some locations like the Captain’s office are bound to be seen again). The other big design challenge is the context. The player will only ever see these locations behind a character’s head, so all the visual interest and all the animated bits have to take pace at the extreme left and right of the image, while still being recognizably the places they are supposed to represent.
We spent a lot of time looking at the sets the early 1960’s/70’s science fiction series used. Most of these were (not surprisingly) terrible. But there were tricks we could benefit from — the random piece of “technical-looking” panel applied to an otherwise blank wall, for example. And the charm of the randomly blinking light. Some basic animations (like the aforementioned blinking lights) will be added when the sprite sheets for each location are put together.
And then there were considerations of the other kind of volume — the kind you get from using depth and perspective technique. Originally, the sets were conceived of as relatively “flat” — really just a decorative horizontal plane slapped behind the character. But by exaggerating and shifting the perspective, we found we could achieve some fun variations which suggest camera placement at odd angles and imply some larger spaces. We also spent some time with unifying all the spaces which appear in the same general locale — like all the ones on the Endeavor, or all the spaces on the enemy ships — through consistent color palettes and furniture styles.
We hope you enjoyed this behind-the-curtain glimpse into our process. Stay tuned as we get the prototype on its feet. We’ll share some screen grabs as we go. In the meantime, why aren’t you out there grilling something? It’s officially summer!
Picking a strong name for a new game project is a soaring joy for our creative selves — and a potential minefield for our business selves. There are so many seemingly competing interests in the process! And with boundless choices, the temptation is often to stay at the table long past the time to make a choice has come and gone.
I’m sure some studios approach this process differently, but this is how we look at it: we look for names which are memorable, distinct, and informative. For our new hybrid story/puzzle game — whose goal is to harness the power of the bureaucracy to save your space ship’s hapless crew from their own worst impulses — we had a lot of excellent options. In the end, we sat down with "HRO: Adventures of a Humanoid Resources Officer" and here’s why.
This choice clearly illustrates the core conflict of the game — that the small-in-stature player-protagonist (identified by an institutional-sounding acronym "the HRO") is actually the one who makes all the difference to the story (the H(e)RO). We also love that when you say the acronym aloud you can hear the word “hero” which get us both of these elements in one elegant, acoustic swoop.
When it’s paired with its subtitle, as in "HRO: Adventures of a Humanoid Resources Officer," we also get the contrasting sound of a paper-pusher job description paired with the unexpected word “Adventure.” This is then further transformed by the use of the word “Humanoid” to get us to a sci-fi head space. The strong contrasts are not only contextually and inherently exciting (memorable), they also set this name and this game off from the bulk of sci-fi-themed adventure games (distinct) and cue the player to expect humor and irreverence (informative).
Plus, it can be shortened to the poppy in-the-know shorthand of “HRO” once the audience knows the premise of the game, which gives us editorial and marketing flexibility.
We're looking forward to sharing more of our process with you as the project develops. Next time we'll take a look at the design of the Endeavor, the vessel on which the player character serves. We’ve got an exciting ride in store. We hope you'll join us!
We were really excited to officially announce earlier this week the newest large-scale project Worthing & Moncrieff has been working on — "HRO: Adventures of a Humanoid Resources Officer." You play the underappreciated Humanoid Resources Officer aboard the SpaceArmada flagship Venture— whose crew has a long history of questionable behavior. When the ship is thrust into the middle of dramatic and universe-shaking trouble, can you harness the power of the bureaucracy to rein in their worst impulses and survive to the next episode?
When "Austen Translation" launched on Steam last May (Happy Birthday AT!) we took about four hours off and jumped right into new project development mode. So why did it took a whole year before we even got to the public announcement of this new project? It wasn’t for lack of ideas, I’ll say that. If anything we had too many options were were excited about, and a good chunk of that time went into prototyping and fleshing out concepts to a point where we could objectively evaluate them. Here’s a shot of the project dev folder with some of the exploration Eric and I did together. Most of these go back into the hopper for future development — at W&M we use everything *including* the squeal (a joke for our audio friends out there).
Plus! Plus! There were some amazing distractions along the way this year, including our amazing experience with Playcrafting and Bose creating audio-only games. Not only did our submission “OverHerd" win the Boston Bose AR Game Jam, it’s been released on the Apple store and the Android version as well as an expanded experience are slated to be released in June. And it’s free, so if you want to throw cows at distant enemies in the dark of night and you have a Bose AR-enabled device, check out “OverHerd."
But none of this answers the important question and the heart of this post. After all this conceptual exploration, why did we choose this particular project to move ahead with? And the answer (like all the best answers) is love. HRO is set to combine all our favorite things. My love of seminal 1960's science fiction and Eric’s love of classic text-based adventures. Our joint love of mashing up disparate (some would say clashing) things to see what happens — in this case branching narrative adventures and sandbox puzzle-solving. And puzzles! I forgot to mention our shared love of puzzles! So much for us to love about this project. And we’re so excited to share it with you. We hope you’ll find things to love about it, too.
At last count, we’ve been talking about our next project for the last year or so. And while development is under way and things are definitely happening on the new project front (more on that soon), the work has been going on at our usual thoughtful, deliberative pace. But all that changed this last weekend…
We had shown our games at a couple of the terrific Playcrafting events in Boston, and were thrilled when they invited Worthing & Moncrieff to participate in a unique GameJam opportunity. The Playcrafting folks have partnered with audio giant Bose to host a series of GameJam Augmented Reality weekends to develop gaming content for their new Frames platform. And the best part? They were looking for game ideas based primarily on audio mechanics. How could we say no?
So last Friday night the W&M team, along with programming powerhouse Brian Jordan whom we borrowed for the weekend (thanks Brian!), headed in to the Bose facility in Brighton to get our hands on Frames of our own. Which are beautiful, by the way. The finish and feel are really lovely and the sound quality is (as you’d expect) brilliant. We’ll have much more to say about the game we built over the weekend soon.
But I wanted to take this opportunity to note how clarifying a punishingly short deadline can be. We made big decisions at the drop of a hat. Issues were brought up succinctly, discussed by whoever felt connected enough to the issue to look up from their laptop, and a definitive choice got made. Every time. Not that they were all the best choices, or that we won’t go back to fix any of them, but a merciless schedule removed the temptation to dither. The natural tendency to hedge. A lot of decisions were suffixed by the shorthand phrase “...it’s a GameJam” which gave us permission to pick something and move forward.
I loved it. We got so much done. So on this Valentine’s Day let’s raise a glass to the Tyranny of the Ridiculous Timeline and all the freedoms it brings with it.
When we started this blog in 2016, it was expressly to open a window into the development process of Worthing & Moncrieff's second title "Austen Translation," which launched last May. It was a wild ride and some of our most productive ideas and best ah-ha moments came when we sat down to condense our progress into a dev blog post. Nothing clarifies an issue like having to explain it to a third party! Since Austen's launch, the W&M team has been hard at work on a new game (which will be our third). We hope to make an official announcement about the new game very soon. In the meantime, enjoy this teaser photo from a recent paper playthrough of one of the concepts under consideration.
We also wanted to take a moment to announce that this blog will be repurposed to follow the development of the new project, so stay tuned. We're excited to be embarking on a new journey and we hope you'll all come along for the ride.
Worthing and Moncrieff, LLC is an independent developer of video game stories founded in 2015.