Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is out! I served as the game’s editor and staff writer. It was an incredibly complicated project: twenty-four writers worked on it. The game is so large and so unlike most narrative games that it has been difficult for me to describe exactly what I did on it. So many people worked on this game that it has been hard for any of us, really, to describe where our work fits into the whole without diminishing others’ work.
As Bruno Dias has said, Johnnemann opened this project up to its writers in a way that few other games ever risk doing. The result is a mixture which expresses each of our personal hangups and interests but nevertheless maintains a unified creative voice and identity.
Now that the game is out and people can see it, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain exactly what I did on the project, how I did it, and why it was so productive for the project to relinquish control to me and the other writers!
I can break my writing work into four categories: vignettes, other events, flavor text, and character interstitial dialogue.
“Vignettes” were the map events which result in tradeable stories:
Vignette writing was shared between nine different writers on this project: me, Duncan Fyfe, Nika Harper, Olivia Wood, George Lockett, Bruno Dias, Cat Manning, Kevin Snow, and Elizabeth LaPensee.
Some of my favorite vignettes that I wrote include Leatherman, a story based on a real man from my home state of Connecticut; Plane, a story about a girl whose father and his plane are mysteriously trapped inside a lake; and the Singers stories, about lounge singers who tap eldritch horrors whenever they sing.
Each vignette writer also wrote the text on their vignette description cards. Here is an example of story description text for one of Bruno Dias’s stories:
Each story has three levels. The first is supposed to be a fairly regular description of the story’s major events. By the third level, the story description should sound more extreme, like a tall tale.
Almost all events for WTWTLW began as the brush and ink drawings that appear on the event UI. The vignette writers were given batches of these completed images; we would call dibs on the ones that interested us, then write the story using the art as inspiration. We had an extraordinary freedom to interpret them in any way we chose. Most of the vignette art was very easy to re-interpret; images of people in fields, people’s faces, animals and birds, and so on. The most difficult art was the most-specific: my hardest one was the Boxcar story, which depicts a gnarled monster-arm plucking at a man’s hat from inside a train boxcar. It was too specific to easily twist to my own ends, but too vague to suggest a specific story.
A number of the vignettes I wrote are based on things I read about while doing research for this project. The Locust Bait event, where a woman and her children mix their own poison in a bucket after they get a delivery of poison ingredients from her town, is based on a real Dust Bowl phenomenon. However, about half of my events were not based on real myths or historical events. They drew more inspiration from the art prompt than anything else.
Vignettes had to fit two different categorization schemes: the sixteen-category tarot system, and the five-category moods system that the characters use to request stories. The moods are Thrilling, Scary, Hopeful, Tragic, and Funny. The decisions about mood and tarot category were the writers’ to make. You can imagine that with so many different people choosing story moods and tarot categories, the perspectives that went into the vignette mood and tarot systems were highly varied. Editing these story elements ended up being very difficult. I’ll have more to say about that when I talk about editing!
During development, we tracked the number of stories in each Mood and Tarot category using a massive spreadsheet. While Moods were very evenly spread…
The Tarot categories were all over the place. We were all so eager to write for the Death category that at one point we had to ban vignette writers from writing about death!
There were several other categories of events besides the vignettes. Though they use the same UI, they serve a different purpose in the game’s resource economy. These event types are not voice-acted and were written later during development.
For example, many of the events on the map are “mechanical” events which gift the player free resources, like food or money. I wrote almost all of these:
I was limited by the restriction that these mechanical events be one screen long. Anyone who has done writing for games before will recognize the classic struggle to fit as much personality as possible into as few words as possible! There are 28 of these events, split evenly between food, rest, and money.
In the cities, there are also “moneymaking” events which give the player a chance to earn cash. I wrote most of these late in development as well:
These are all randomly distributed across the cities in the game, so I had to avoid events that leaned too heavily on a geographic element that might not be present in some parts of the map like trees, the sea, etc. The outcomes are random: sometimes you make no money at all, and sometimes you hit it big. There are only fourteen of these events in the game, so it is possible to get repeats, but each one has two fully separate stories– the panhandling event and the look-for-work event– so there is a good amount of variation for the player to experience.
I also wrote the game’s tutorial events. These were almost the very last things I wrote for the game, in the early fall of 2017. There’s four of them scattered down the east coast:
And finally, there’s the “Story grows in the telling” events. This was also one of the final categories of stories I wrote during development:
Unfortunately, there are so many stories in the map and so many story levels that if we wanted the player to read a new one every time they level a story up, we’d need almost 450 of them! In the game, there are only 17 of them, and they become repetitive. If I could go back in time, I’d see if we could get more writers working on them, or perhaps even figure out a way to represent this level-up process differently, without story text. As it is, I had to write all of them myself under a pretty demanding time limit. The ones that are in there are good, though, I think, and most people don’t have a problem clicking through ones they’ve seen before.
Flavor text I wrote included all the city descriptions:
And the names of almost all the items you can buy in the stores:
This writing was fairly uncomplicated and there isn’t much to say about it. City descriptions were the hardest: although I’ve been lucky to visit many of America’s larger cities for work or with my family, there were a lot of them on this map that I knew nothing about. I spent a lot of time frantically googling “San Antonio Great Depression” or “El Paso 1930s” to figure out how I could write something that would seem recognizably “El-Paso-y” while also communicating something about what this place was like during the game’s time period.
Character supplement dialogue
Finally, the most difficult part of my writing was the supplemental dialogue for each of the 16 major characters in the story.
When the character writers joined the project, the dialogue system in the game was actually very different. Between when I first began working on the project and when I began editing the game, the dialogue system was completely redesigned.
The new system required mood-specific story request dialogue:
Mood-specific story approval dialogue:
Story disapproval dialogue that might hint at the story’s actual mood:
Dialogue covering where exactly the character was heading next on the America map:
And several other small types of lines that would make the characters react more-realistically to the new conversation flow, like comments about the player leaving a conversation early:
I wrote all of this dialogue with the aim of invisibly tone and voice-matching the work of the original authors. WTWTLW is like a short story collection: none of the writers shared influences or goals, and they all told stories that represented unique personal experiences and motivations. There was no house style. It was as if I had been delivered sixteen completely different short stories with sentences missing cryptically from the middle of paragraphs, and I had to sneak in and add them back in such a way that nobody would notice they’d been written by anyone else.
To make sure I was matching dialogue tone and style, I tried to absorb the writer’s unique treatment of things like grammar, punctuation, and historical slang terms. I also read the “folktales” that each writer created. They were first-person monologues where the character tells you their own vignette-style story in their own voice. Although we never ended up using them in the game, they really helped me nail down character voice. Sometimes I also did some research in order to make sure I fully understood where the writer was coming from. For Fidelina, for example, I read Bless me Ultima, since she’s strongly influenced by Ultima.
I think I did a good job of matching each character’s voice and style! I personally see the disjointedness between my writing and the original author’s writing all the time, but I’m pretty satisfied with what we put out.
In the end, there is also a lot to be said for having one person write all the dialogue that connects the expressive, narrative content to the mechanical demands of the conversation system. The effect of the supplement dialogue is to make the campfire feel like a full, rounded exchange, where you and the character are sharing information in a logical way. Without the supplement dialogue, it would not be clear what the player actually needed to do in the conversation.
The supplement dialogue also couldn’t give away too much. It’s OK for a character to ask for “a scary story about ghosts and murderers” but reject funny ghost stories, because the player should learn that not all ghost stories are scary. It’s OK for the player to fail sometimes, but there should be enough information here for the player to eventually figure out how to satisfy this person. The story rejection dialogue had to give hints about what the real mood of the story the player had shared was, too.
I did all the editing for the project. My edits focused on a few different goals:
- Standard polish, spelling and grammar, clarification, etc
- Preserving author voice and intent
- Matching existing content more closely to mechanical requirements of the conversation systems
- Reducing passage length to improve the in-game reading experience
- Preparing the text for VO
The biggest deadlines I had to hit for editing were all VO-related.
Preserving author voice and intent
Many games have multiple writers. Separating characters up among several writers is also actually fairly common. Bioware has done this for years. The biggest difference between industry standard practice and what we did is that we had no house style and, actually, tried to make each piece of content as stylistically different from the others as possible.
If you look at the game closely, you will notice that each character uses spelling, grammar, and punctuation differently from the other characters. Many characters skip Gs at the end of INGs. Some writers turned walking into walkin’, but others settled for walkin alone, with no apostrophe. Most of the writers were very, very consistent with these stylistic choices, and we decided that those choices were something worth preserving.
They were worth preserving because they really do communicate different things. Walkin’ can communicate a kind of jauntiness, perhaps, while walkin might seem to an audience to be more terse and plain– Cormac McCarthyesque, maybe, for some readers. These writers knew what they were doing when they made these choices, and even though the dialogue is all voice-acted, those choices were worth preserving. In fact, when the writers wrote the dialogue, there were no plans to include voice-acting in the game at all!
The only time I steamrolled the writers’ style decisions was when they brought Britishisms into the game. English-speakers are always extremely sensitive to regional spellings, and it was important to me that all the text in the game hewed consistently to American regional spellings.
The first editing I did on the project was the character dialogue.
By the time I became the game’s editor, the original writers’ contracts had been concluded and I could not put them through the process of full-on second draft rewrites. Ideally, in a world where the project had infinite money and time, I would not have had to do any supplementary dialogue at all: I could have just been part of the original character-writing process as the editor.
The biggest changes I made to the character writing involved adjusting it to work better for VO. Shortening utterances or breaking them up into multiple sentences sometimes made them more palatable as VO lines, or made them easier to read on the screen.
I also added or modified the beginning of many tarot responses so that they would flow naturally from the new “I liked this” or “I didn’t like this” character responses. Here’s a Little Ben line where I made it more clear he was responding directly to the “Family” tarot card:
I’ve been editing magazines and publications of various types for over a decade. Of all the projects I’ve been involved in, this was the one where I applied the least pressure to the writers’ decisions. All that wild variation and weird personal interpretation was this game’s unique selling point! Its similarity to a short story collection is part of what makes this game alluring to the kind of people who are likely to enjoy it most. I wanted my edits to polish up the writing and slot it into the new conversation mechanics while leaving the goopy, personal meat of the work intact.
With vignettes, the biggest challenge was getting each passage to fit into the vignette UI! I did plenty of editing for polish, clarity, and style, but honestly, the majority of the hours I spent on vignettes was focused on chipping words off of each passage until they fit in the UI the way I wanted them to.
The UI could take very long text passages because it would decrease the text size to make them fit. However, I felt very strongly that as many vignettes as possible should use the larger text sizes. Here is an example of one of the longest vignette passages I kept in the game:
I also spent a lot of time getting the oldest vignettes to match the new moods system. Those vignettes also sometimes had a heavier emphasis on stats changes, because the health, food, and rest mechanics worked differently when they were written. There was also a fourth stat, “Weirdness,” which was removed from the game entirely during the redesign. I ended up stripping a lot of health, money, rest, and weirdness out of my own vignettes in particular.
It would have been nice to have someone else edit all my own writing for me. All things considered, I think I did a very good job editing my own vignettes, but I would have liked some good feedback on my stuff all the same!
Editing vignette descriptions
Deep in my Google Drive is a gigantic spreadsheet called Vignette Breakdown. There were several continuous months I kept it open on my computer 24/7:
I edited all the vingette descriptions inside this spreadsheet. However, getting these edits into the game was a more difficult process, because Johnnemann had to insert them into the game’s database manually. We had a color-coded system for tracking which ones had been edited and were pending insertion into the game. There are probably around 800+ story descriptions, since many stories have a different set of three descriptions for each of their two endings.
Looking back, I wish I’d predicted earlier that the story descriptions would be a major editing burden and created a more systematic process for tracking, editing, and testing them. As it is, I believe that the story descriptions are probably the biggest source of confusion for some players, and I think part of that stems from the difficulty I had tracking and editing all of them inside this massive hell spreadsheet.
Tools are great
I am extremely grateful for the vignette testing and character dialogue testing tools that Johnnemann gave me!
I was able to test all the vignettes, vignette descriptions, and other events in a test program that showed me how the UI would display each passage. I spent hours in this test app! Any game which requires players to read printed text to understand the story should force its editors to edit the game as it appears on screen to the player. I have done story consulting and editing for people who don’t build any text testing tools, and it sucks! You can’t do all your editing in word docs or in text editors for scripting systems like Ink. You have to know what the player is going to actually see and what their eyeballs will feel like while they are reading it. You have to see the font, the available whitespace, and the choice UI for yourself.
Here’s an example– when the vignette writers started turning in content, Johnnemann forgot to tell them that the game filled out choices from right to left. So if you wrote:
it would display like this:
I remember rushing into the project Slack with a “STOP THE PRESSES!” urgency to warn everyone: “YOUR LIST-BASED JOKES ARE BACKWARDS!!” People enjoy Bruno’s “be a dick” joke a lot, but it works the way it works because we were able to learn ahead of time that choices in WTWTLW fill right-to-left, not left-to-right, as many of us assumed they would. Imagine if we’d learned that only once we got to test the game? I know it would have made a lot of extra work for me in particular, that’s for sure.
Testing the character conversations in the test app was also very valuable to me. It helped me to figure out that the character dialogue would need additional modifications in order to feel like a real conversation.
There is really nothing like actually seeing what the player will see! Please make your video game editors useful text tools!
What does this all mean???
It is not possible to create a progressive game about American culture without including many different creators from many different backgrounds. If this game had not embraced the diversity of its 24 different writers, it would have been shit.
24 writers is a lot. The sheer scale of the writing effort pushed this game over the edge from “a story that has a lot of different perspectives in it” into “a story ABOUT diversity and different perspectives.” This was an incredible strength. This game’s hiring and creative philosophies embodied its own themes in a way that no other project I’ve ever been on has ever accomplished.
It would not have been possible for one person to write 219 pieces of even OK flash fiction about different American experiences, but it was possible for nine people to each write ~20-30 pieces of really good flash fiction about the specific topics and ideas that interest them personally. It would not have been possible for two or three people to write sixteen diverse and complex characters about sixteen different historical American struggles, but we did find sixteen writers who could each pull the heavy weight of a single character.
In the end, I’m still wondering: what if more, more, more? There’s so many more perspectives we could have added, could have kept adding endlessly– we don’t have any immigrants from Asia or the Caribbean among the headliner characters in this story, for example, though there are many incredible examples of those stories to be found in the early 20th century. We could have kept writing vignettes for this game for at least another couple hundred goes before we started straining for ideas, too. We could have written ten vignettes per each piece of art, really.
The fellowship of writing this kind of stuff alongside the other vignette writers was really something special. I’ve made a ton of friends through this project, and being able to team up and work together and share ideas made all of our writing much stronger. Many of us have had our careers completely changed by this experience. It’s been pretty life-changing for several of us, honestly, even though this particular assignment was not necessarily the biggest check most of us were paid in 2017. It’s pretty much the biggest reason I’m starting an exciting new job in a week, for example.
Imagine a world where instead of hiring one writer, more games hired two or three and had them split the work, sharing the same fee they would have paid a solo writer? Those games could get stronger work from the group than they would from a single person, and though each individual writer would be making less money, there’d be more experience and portfolio work flowing around, and more strong professional connections… more fresh faces getting more of a leg up, probably. I don’t know– it’s complicated, and managing one writer is hard enough for many teams. It’s worth remembering, though, that we made it work, and we loved it, and the reason the writing in this game is so good is that there were so many of us and we were given such an excellent chance to learn from one another.
I don’t think this technique should be limited to a game about a diversity of perspectives, either. As I said above– the technique we used is not special. Plenty of large studios divide character writing up among different writers. I think we’re proof that more indies should be doing that, too.
I don’t think many of us will get this much freedom again, though. WTWTLW is IF, really– interactive fiction. The writing came first in this project. It’s a very peculiar example of interactive fiction, and it enjoys some VO pizazz that most of that genre doesn’t get. But I hope that in a decade some of us will be able to look back on WTWTLW as the moment when IF started to “break through” into the mainstream. We’ll see! I know you’ll be enjoying a ton of text-heavy work from people who worked on this project coming out over the next few years.
If you have any questions about this project, feel free to email me or contact me on twitter. I’d love to spill more of my guts on the processes and challenges involved in making this game.
If you’re playing WTWTLW right now, my advice is to take it slow. It’s not a game that benefits from a death march straight through to the end, the way reviewers play it– it’s a game that benefits from measured, self-reflective play. Get as much out of it as you want. Going completionist on this thing could take 30 hours and might wear you the fuck out. If you’re from America, maybe try walking to your hometown first. See who’s hanging around there. Swap a couple tales. Take the train down to Los Angeles and visit me, maybe.
Or just keep your eyes peeled when you start out. You might find me up in the tip of Maine, running booze across the border.