Friday, September 14, 2012

Writing Character Dialogue

First off, I should state upfront that I'm a technical writer by trade. That doesn't give me any particular advantage when it comes to creating Wherigo cartridges. It simply means that I have an appreciation for writing for the verysmall screen, namely, the Colorado, Oregon, and PocketPC units.

If you ask me, characters are an integral part of the Wherigo experience. I've had cachers write nice things about some of my characters in their logs. It's hard to imagine they would say the same thing about items or tasks.

Here's a few principles I use when creating character dialogue. Many of these apply to zone and item descriptions as well.

1. Keep it fun. In "Closing in on D.B. Cooper!", the player encounters a large pile of cash. If they click the "Take cash" button, the following message appears:

Suddenly, your cell phone rings; it's your Mother. You drop the cash instantly. "Mom, I'm working on a big case right now, I'll call you back later."

2. Keep it short. Two to three sentences is plenty.
3. Refer back to previous events whenever possible. Any mention of actions (take item, leave item, etc.) serves to tie the whole cartridge together.
4. Consider how different characters interact. Sentences like "Forget what that detective said, I witnessed the crime." add to the narrative.
5. Throw in the occasional non-response. Something like "Sorry, the maid doesn't speak English." is a fun diversion from the expected.
6. A summary at the end of the cartridge may be useful. Have a major character explain what happened and throw in a few twists or surprises for "atmosphere."

Parting thought: Writing good, short dialogue can take a cartridge from mundane to memorable.

Building a Storyboard

At this point, having published a few cartridges, I've got a routine. Long before I ever start using the builder, I'll create a "storyboard." In my case, that's simply a term for a text file with all the names, descriptions, interactions, and responses. The builder, of course, will ask you for these things, so why not have 'em ready to go? If nothing else, creating a storyboard in Microsoft Word allows to you check spelling and grammar.

I'll start by jotting down the headings of the major categories. There's the obvious ones: characters, items, zones, timers, variables, and the like. Then there's a few not-so-obvious ones: gameplay, intro, tasks, zone coords, for example. If nothing else, having all the text in one place prevents questions like, "Let's see, what should the character say? Where did I leave my notes?!" I can build the storyboard, one step at a time, creating the bulk of a cartridge.

Here's a look at (part of) my storyboard for "Trail of the Ripper."

The late 19th century brought a great deal of innovation and change to Victorian England. There's one item, however, that the British could have done without: the world's first serial killer.
London, 1891. For almost three years now, a madman has been terrorizing the Whitechapel district. He's murdered ten women, frightened the entire city, and publicly taunted the authorities. You've got a new lead, but finding Jack the Ripper won't be easy.
This cartridge will lead you to a geocache of the same name (GC1H63Z).

A dark alley is nearby.
1. Cachers arrive at alley. The "Ripper", a victim, and a letter to the police are here. Ripper disappears after first action by cacher (whether they "view" the Ripper character or not). Sergeant Godley is here. Examining the body reveals that the killer had almost "surgical knowledge." Examining the letter reveals taunting by the "Ripper". Cachers should take the letter with them.
2. Cachers arrive at Police Headquarters. Inspector Abberline, who has just been assigned the case, is here. Godley is skeptical the "Ripper" will ever be found. The handcuffs and truncheon (nightstick) are here. Examining handcuffs reveals little, but cacher should take them. Examining truncheon reveals nothing and should be left behind (only one item can be in player's inventory at any given time).
3. Cachers arrive at pub. If cachers wait in this zone for three minutes, they will overhear a conversation about a suspect; if cachers leave too early, they won't hear it. Abberline and Godley are here. Early on, Godley is sent to analyze letter. He returns only if players use "Summon Godley" command at end of game.
4. Cachers arrive at a hotel room. Mary Kelly, a prostitute is here, frightened by the killings. Cacher can hide in corner of room, using Mary as "bait" for the killer. Cacher must wait three minutes before killer arrives. Eventually, Jack arrives and attacks Mary. Cacher steps out from hiding spot. Cacher can either swing handcuffs to bonk Jack on the head or take a photograph. In the confusion surrounding the fight, Jack escapes, but evidence (handcuffs and a silver policeman's whistle) may be left behind.
5. Cachers return to police headquarters. Abberline is here. Godley can be summoned, and presents analysis of letter. Whistle can be analyzed, revealing the Ripper touched it, leaving a fingerprint. Analysis of blood on handcuffs is inconclusive (blood is transferred to a test tube, but cacher drops tube on floor, contaminating sample). A combination of fingerprint on whistle and analysis of letter leads to a suspect, but of course... no arrest. Jack the Ripper is still on the loose. Game ends.

1. Jack the Ripper: With almost surgical precision, the serial killer known as "Jack the Ripper" has murdered several women, all in Whitechapel. Some suspect he either attended medical school or works in the nearby meat-packing industry. Thrilled with all the attention, he once claimed "I gave birth to the twentieth century."
2. Inspector Abberline: Frederick Abberline possesses an analytical mind and a firm belief in the supernatural. After using controlled substances, a series of hazy "visions" allow him to see into the future. He is the lead investigator in the case.
3. Mary Kelly: Down on her luck and reduced to working in the "oldest profession", the young Mary Kelly seems a likely target of the Ripper. Her fate is dependent on your actions.
4. Sergeant Godley: A big, burly man, Sergeant Peter Godley thought he had seen it all. The Ripper case, however, has forced him to reconsider how police work should be done.
Having filled in the various categories doesn't mean I won't change things. I often do. Quite often, an item will seem meaningless or character dialogue seems a bit verbose. When that happens, I'll often change things right in the builder. I'd like to say I'll cut-and-paste the changes back into the storyboard, but that's not always the case.

At some point, I'll probably formalize the storyboard for others to use. For now, I rely heavily on such files during the creative process. Also, it's much easier to cut-and-paste text into the builder, as opposed to staring at the input screens wondering what a character should say or how a zone description might flow.

Parting thought: Storyboards offer numerous advantages to the cartridge author. In my case, they're invaluable.

Adding "Feelies" to the Mix

Way back (oh, let's say 25 years ago), a company called Infocom was the dominant player in the "text adventure" field. If you've ever played "Zork," you know all about their products. If you haven't, by the way, you should! Anyway, most of the Infocom games after the Zork series included something called "feelies," a term that referred to physical objects included in the game packaging. The game "Witness," for example, included a matchbook, a letter from a deceased character(!), the front page of a newspaper, a telegram, and so on. Although none on the items were required to complete the game, they did add a great deal to the overall experience.
It's entirely possible to do the same thing with Wherigo cartridges. In "Closing In on D.B. Cooper!," I've got three such feelies hidden in various zones. One zone has an Altoids tin with a message inside, another has Cooper's necktie, and the third has a white mailbox (a reference to "Zork I"). I could've done the same with my other cartridges, but since they're set in public parks, I elected not to do so. The downside to feelies, of course, is that they increase maintenance tasks and possible muggle interference.
Parting thought: "Feelies" are a fun way to enhance the Wherigo experience.

Writing Item Descriptions

On the surface, writing a short description of an item can seem like a mundane task. There's the direct approach, where you literally describe the graphic. This method is certainly acceptable, but it's likely the player already has some understanding of the object in question. If you ask me, displaying "This is a pencil." underneath a picture of a Ticonderoga #2 seems a little too.. basic. I'd suggest it's more fun to take an indirect approach, possibly in the last sentence of the description.

Here's an example. Let's say the player encounters a key at some point in a cartridge. The first two sentences are descriptive, but the third offers a little something extra. Consider matching the description below with one of the following options.

Description: "This is a tarnished key, crafted from solid brass. It's engraved with the following text: Sterling 18K."

  • Hint approach: "This item might be important later on."
  • Red herring approach: "It's possible this key unlocks the door to the throne room." (The "throne room" is never mentioned again.)
  • Sarcastic approach: "You consider adding it to your already heavy burden."
  • Mystery approach: "It's unclear if you'll ever use it, but keys do have a tendency to unlock things."
  • Logic/present-value approach: "You never know, the locksmith might trade you a crowbar for it." (A reference to a character already encountered.)
  • Comic approach: "If nothing else, it'll come in handy if you ever need to poke someone in the eye."
Put together clever sentence combinations, and players will enjoy your cartridge even more.

Parting thought: All text is important, even the seemingly mundane item descriptions.

Getting Input

Up to this point, I haven't used the input function. I'm not sure why, I guess it never seemed terribly important. That all changed with the release of Heist!, my latest cartridge.

Once again, I've spent a good deal of time designing the graphics. This time around, there's a series of images from surveillance cameras that come into play. The idea was that being "watched" would provide atmosphere and lend a sense of urgency to various zones. At one point, there's a pop quiz, asking the player, "Which camera displayed a geocacher calling a lifeline?"

Anyway, the quiz is a good example of how to use an input. First off, I created a variable called "quizanswer" to hold the player's response. Next, I created the input itself. Called "quizinput," it's a multiple-choice question. Input creation is probably the most critical step, since that's where the question and all possible answers are entered. Finally, I created a countdown timer called "quizstart" to launch the big test.

Adding the code to control the quiz was relatively easy. The timer starts once the last surveillance image has been displayed. After 30 seconds, the timer event is triggered, displaying the question on the player's screen. If the player selects the correct answer, they get a bonus clue, helpful in locating the final geocache. If they select any other answer, a "Sorry, that's not right..." message appears and no clue is awarded.

For me, the purpose of using the input was three-fold: 1) to try a function I hadn't used before, 2) to give observant players a bonus clue, and 3) to tie the concept of the surveillance "images" together. As always, players will be the final judge.

Parting thought: Creating an input is easy, and it allows for a simple "reward" to be presented to players.