“Got my mind on my method, got my method on my mind.”
Having enrolled on an MA module about Art and Design research as part of my PhD studies and been forced to complete a project approval form, I’ve been thinking a lot about methodology. Initially, the concept of a methodology in creative writing seemed utterly absurd. In some ways, it still does. But having read various papers on the subject in an effort to orient my own working practices (these two were particularly useful for my purposes) I’ve realised that not only do they exist, but that I’m starting to see some kind of methodical pattern in my own work, even if I wouldn’t call it something as high fallutin’ as a methodology just yet.
I’ve written branching narratives before when I worked as a freelancer in the video and boardgame industries, so it’s familiar, but I’ve always worked from existing design briefs, with existing worlds, characters, gameplay goals and functionality. Doing all that from scratch is actually quite different, particularly as previously I’ve worked on short projects (a maximum of 3 months) and this is 3 years worth of work! This is probably part of the reason I’ve noticed my work process change.
“If I leave out the bouts of hair-tearing and crying…”
The thing I’ve noticed about creative writing methodologies (as opposed to say, science or psychology) is that they’re retrospective. I may change my mind about this, but it seems that although a CW methodology could give you ideas and things to try, there’s no way you could follow it to the letter like a lab process. Instead, you look back afterwards and try to assemble some kind of coherence in case parts of your scattergun madness are of use to someone else. Which is what I’ll attempt to do a little here.
So, when I write a branching game, I’ll generally plan the possible branches first, in quite a bit of detail. When I write a novel or short story, I’ll have a general idea of the beginning, middle and end, but will just allow it to develop in the course of writing. I accept that I’ll have to write a lot of drafts and get on with it.
As this is a hybrid project, it’s perhaps unsurprising that my process falls somewhere in between. I have planned the bare skeleton of the story in terms of the branches, and roughly how the major scenes will be divided. However, I haven’t planned any smaller branches (ones that won’t have a major impact on the story) preferring them to arise naturally through the course of writing.
This free form approach is working well up to a point, but I expect is the reason for the first major change in my approach. As I mentioned before, when working on games, the world, lore etc. has generally already been established – I have a template to work to. In my stories, I figure that out as I go along. But this novella is already fairly complex in structure. Pages are interlinked, with some passages obscured according to player choice. If you want a good example of the kind of thing I mean, take a look at Creatures Such As We as it’s the inspiration for this project and uses the same programming language.(It’s also a fantastic read!)
If I change something major in a novel, it can be a pain having to restructure or switch tenses. But if I change something in an interactive work, it creates a ripple effect. I don’t just have to make changes in the passage itself, but any passages that link to it, and I then may need to change the passages that link to them. As I found when tinkering the other day, one small change can unexpectedly break several subsequent pages. Worse still, unless you test each and every pathway each time you change something (which as this is eventually going to be a 40,000 word piece, is a lot of pathways!) game-breaking errors can slip through the cracks.
So, from a creative standpoint, I want this to develop naturally, but from a practical one, I can’t allow it to too much. My solution so far is that when I hit a block, (for example, I realised I hadn’t written many female characters interacting with each other and was struggling with the idea of creating a world that was almost but not quite our own) I write a short story. The two I’ve written so far have had nothing to do with the game world or characters, they’ve purely been explorations of whatever issue I was having problems with. I felt like if I wrote stories about the characters, it might make them too concrete, tie them down to having a ‘right’ story, so that any others the reader-player made would be ‘wrong’ and the whole point of this exercise is that there is no ‘wrong’ way though the text. Choices matter and can have unexpected consequences, but they aren’t anyone’s fault anymore than the events of a book are a reader’s fault. Therefore I needed to keep the game world in flux and the only way to do that was to write other worlds. Weirdly, it worked. Or at least, it’s been working so far.
goto can’t someone write this for me
Another major difference I’ve noticed in my writing method is that I’m being more creative within the coding system. So, I’ll include a few coding notations when writing the text outside of the game to help me keep track of what’s happening, but I won’t (and indeed can’t) decide on all the functionality until it’s in game. This is going to sound contradictory to what I said earlier, (but I mean it in purely descriptive terms, not things that might break stuff) but I also find that I don’t fully decide on world descriptions and characterisation details until I’ve seen them in-game and can work out how they ‘fit’ within the context of the different story pathways.
I feel like there are parallels with Spencer Jordan’s adaptation of Possible Worlds Theory (in one of the links I gave above) but it’s too early to see where my own methodology (if I have one!) aligns with or deviates from it.