Interview with Nik Blahunka and Cathy Roiter
I don't have much to comment on here, just that I found an interesting interview with the respective writer and designer of these games circa (and I believe post) 2011. There were some images on the same page, but they're not visible as of now. (Or even on the WaybackMachine).
This was posted on the Dare to Play blog on March 9th, 2011 here:
We interviewed our game designer Cathy, and writer Nik!
Her Interactive: How do you come up with the game ideas?
Cathy: "We look at the recent games for the types of mysteries, characters, and locations used in them and then start to brainstorm ideas that would be a nice contrast or haven’t been done before. We also try to alternate spooky/adventure/mystery among titles, so if the last one was spooky, we don’t tend to pick a spooky one again. Then we’ll pick our crime and start building from there."
Nik: "We have a lot of material to draw from, and so many great ideas floating around the office that it’s less “Oh no, quick we need an idea!” and more “Which one should we do next?” At any given time we know what the next few games are going to be, and I can tell you honestly that I am really excited about the next couple of games, and I think you will be too. But for now, they’re totally top secret, my lips are sealed. I wouldn’t tell anyone, not even if he or she were to send a large box of chocolate addressed to “writer” to our offices. Not even then."
Her Interactive: As writer, what all do you write? (Characters, script, written assets, anything we wouldn’t expect?)
Nik: "As the writer, I write all of the dialogue and many of the written assets (the notes and letters you find while playing the game). The overall story of the game is a collaborative process. I bring my knowledge of how stories work, Cathy brings her game design experience and together we hash out the overall game. Throughout the entire process, we look to the office for input. If anyone has a good idea, it goes in!"
Her Interactive: How do you prepare in creating a new game? What are the early steps from inspiration?
Cathy: "Once we have our basic plot and rough character guidelines, my first step is always research. I’ll start online to get general ideas, then head to the library for more in-depth reference material. During this time, I’ll come across lots of great ideas and inspiration, both written and visual, that help build the world and the mystery. Those elements are then used as building blocks for the mystery to keep things real. For example, in ASH the gas chromatograph was a direct result of researching arson investigation techniques. I’d never heard of such a technique before then. And, fun fact, kept mispronouncing it for ages since I didn’t realize chromatograph and chromatography aren’t said the same way (turns out they’re like photograph and photography)."
Her Interactive: What are the steps in the design process? For the story?
Cathy: "We start with the high-level concept (eg. Nancy’s framed for arson) and rough characters. We’ll then start adding major plot points and choose our villain. The design and story are then further fleshed out with the minor steps needed to reach those milestone moments. Once the main outline is complete, puzzles start getting implemented and shortly thereafter script begins. To complete design, all the elements are combined in a logic document that maps out the entire gameplay."
Nik: "We usually start with a location, a theme, and one or two Nancy Drew books. Then we talk. And talk. And talk. And argue. And talk. And take hack breaks. And talk some more. Before we begin to flesh out the game, I like to spend a few weeks researching. Sometimes the research involves watching movies that have a similar feel to what we’re aiming for, sometimes I raid the giant stack of books on Cathy’s desk. Research can be the most fun part of the job, and it’s when I learn the most. For SAW, I spent a lot of time watching, Japanese horror movies since we wanted to have that same type of atmospheric scary feel in the game. But, since the game wasn’t just about the scare, the research didn’t stop there. I went to see a tea ceremony, read a ton about traditional arts in Japan, and got the chance to meet with a cultural consultant.
Once I’ve got all of the raw material for the story, it’s time to write. I know from peeking at the message boards from time to time, that many of our players love to write too, so I won’t go too far into something that most of you are very familiar with. In a nutshell, the process is best summarized as failing forward. The first draft is terrible and wrong. The second draft is hopefully less terrible, and less wrong. I keep this up until I end up with a draft that feels good. Writing is a lot like dying Easter eggs, if you quit after the first dunk, no one is going to respect your ugly egg. You’ve got to keep dunking and dunking until you’ve got a nice, richly colored egg that would be exciting to find hidden away on a bookshelf. This metaphor is not topical… okay, writing is like carving a pumpkin… it… umm, you put a candle… never mind, let’s just use that egg thing. I redraft often, and love getting feedback from around the office."
Her Interactive: What is your favorite step in the writing process or another task?
Nik: "Recording. The script isn’t done until it is recorded. The recording session is like a live, final polish on the script. We get to hear if the jokes work, and see if the story beats carry any emotional weight. When they don’t, we prod and poke at the material until it’s just right. We’re lucky to work with a pool of extraordinarily talented actors who are able to really make the lines come alive in ways that I sometimes don’t even expect. Recording Nancy is always a blast, as well. Lani, who plays Nancy, is hilarious and always full of great suggestions and Nancy-isms."
Her Interactive: What do you do when you hit a snag/error in the design?
Cathy: "First I have to identify the type of problem (missing object, infinite logic loop, story plot hole, motivation, etc.), then decide if it’s a small or large fix. The small ones are easy, but the larger ones have occasionally resulted in massive redesigns. In the end, it’s all about identifying the issue and finding the best solution for everyone involved, including our players’ experience."
Her Interactive: Have there been any characters that you found difficult to bring to life? Is there a character you would like to bring back?
Nik: "Yes. Every game has one character that I end up rewriting again and again. Miwako, Lukas, and Alexei frustrated me to no end when I was writing the drafts, but now they’re my favorites.
I don’t know about bringing characters back, I’m more interested with discovering new villains and pranksters and scientists and deranged librarians and mad scientists and robots and agoraphobic house painters… That being said, my favorite reoccurring character is Bess. (Spoiler alert – she’s coming back. Often 😀 )"
Her Interactive: What has been your most favorite puzzle to design? Which was the hardest to design?
Cathy: "My favorite was Bento. I love creating logic puzzles and Bento needed multiple levels using a really fun design. Plus, I got to look at a lot of amazing real-world animal bento while looking for reference images.
The hardest would be Raid. Not only did it have a computer opponent that needed the AI rules designed for how it played, but it was also supposed to be inspired by German board games/card games, which I’d never played before. Top that off with a deck of cards, and their balanced against each other power rankings, that also affected three other puzzles, and it meant one minor change to any element caused major trickle-down problems. But it was a great learning experience and I was quite pleased with the end result."
Her Interactive: Do you have a favorite written in-game asset you have done? Second Chance note?
Nik: "One of my favorite non-dialogue writing assignments was actually Yumi’s blog. At first, the idea of keeping up a blog for a fictional Japanese girl seemed like it was going to be a nightmare, it certainly was not something I’d ever imagined myself doing. But after a few entries, I started to have a lot of fun. I spent the month the blog was running keeping a camera ready in case I saw anything in the Seattle area that might pass for something you might see in Kyoto, I made bento in my kitchen (it was gross, but it looked… it looked gross, let’s face it.) By the time the blog ended, I was sad to wrap it up. My absolute favorite part of the blog was interacting with the fans. I was really surprised and excited that so many readers were willing to play along. Each day I found comments that showcased what a clever, fun-loving, and interesting group of fans we have."
Her Interactive: Have you read any Nancy Drew books? If so, do you have a favorite title or theme?
Cathy: "Yes. I’ll read the book that each game is based on and I read the Mystery Files when I was younger, along with the occasional old yellow back when I could find one. I liked the older books for their prevalent use of the supernatural and gothic, but they often felt rather dated, which is another reason I read the Mystery Files more frequently instead."
Thanks Nik and Cathy for taking the time to answer these questions and for giving us insight into the making of the games!
If anyone is curious, the old posts from Yumi's blog are still up on blogspot/blogger. Also, here's a related promotional post on the Amateur Sleuth blog that I found while looking for other behind-the-scenes things.
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