Amanda Gardner: On Writing Perception, The Video Game

Perception is a first person narrative horror adventure that puts players in the shoes of a blind woman who must use her extraordinary hearing and razor-sharp wits to solve mysteries and escape a deadly presence, all without sight. Crafted by a team of veteran PC and console developers (BioShock, BioShock Infinite, Dead Space), Perception offers a bold and fresh take on first person narrative games.

After months of research seeking the house from her nightmares, Cassie discovers an abandoned mansion in Gloucester MA, the Estate at Echo Bluff. Once there, Cassie finds that Echo Bluff is worse than she dreamed. A ghastly Presence has tormented its inhabitants over generations, and it now hunts Cassie. She must solve the estate’s mysteries or become one of its victims.

The Kickstarter can be found right here.

WRITING A GAME IS DIFFERENT THAN WRITING A BOOK

I’ve been writing for years, and I’ve been gaming since I was a kid, so of course I can write a game, no problem.

When I sat down with my husband, video game design veteran Bill Gardner, and began to craft the story of Perception, the ideas flowed easily – the plot, the characters, the backstory of the estate at Echo Bluff. We knew the core gameplay loop, we knew the major beats of the story we wanted to tell, so all I had to do was write it and our team would help make it come to life.

Now just put the pen to paper and…

— Wait.

I can’t describe the protagonist’s memories or history. I won’t be able to go into details about how the house smells or the sounds of the creaky floors. I could only write dialogue, actions, and a bit of description of what her surroundings were.

I felt naked. How was I supposed to show what she was feeling? I couldn’t have my protagonist walk around spouting her inner monologue for the whole game. I felt that what I was writing was vague and skimpy. It dawned on me that a script is not a novel.

So then I started to think about some of the storytelling from my favorite games, such as the Mass Effect and Persona series. They didn’t all rely on what was being said, there was the world. I had to shift my thinking, and once I did, it was freeing. The best video game stories make use of the universe in which it exists. Take games that utilize mise-en-scene, for example, like Bioshock, Fall Out and Half-Life 2. I could tell a story of what had happened to the people at Echo Bluff just by utilizing the space around me. A fallen vase here, a pool of blood there and a well-placed diary entry and suddenly you have meaning. Using the environment instead of the inner-workings of your character’s mind is not only a viable means of storytelling, but a really compelling one.

DON’T LET ONE FEATURE DEFINE YOUR CHARACTER

Our game stars a blind protagonist. Cassie’s got a bold way of navigating the world, too. She uses echolocation, much like bats do to get around. There are a number of blind people who do this, such as Daniel Kish, whose TED talk our team found particularly inspiring. So yes, our heroine has a major feature that is heavily significant in her character development.

But that’s not all of who Cassie is, and it does not define her. I, as the writer, had to think of who this brave and headstrong girl was. A woman who would drop everything, fly across the country to visit the house that had been haunting her dreams, and then navigate it without sight? Bill and I really had to dig and search to discover what would make someone do that. In doing so, I’ve created my favorite heroine to date. Cassie is bullheaded but vulnerable, outgoing but distrustful. She’s as real and as flawed as any of my other characters in my books, and she happens to be blind. I wanted to make a character that was not defined by her disability, but certainly affected by it, the way anyone would be.

GOOD HORROR IS LIKE AN ONION

Games, movies or books that rely on only one type of “scare” to affect the audience usually come off as pretty flat. To truly get under the player’s skin, I learned that the horror in this game has to be nuanced, but more importantly, layered. I tried to approach the fear in the game as having many tiers, ranging from feeling startled, to experiencing dread, all the way to true, bone-chilling terror.

I started with the setting. The house itself is a character on its own, and I had to think about how to make the place frightening. Our team drew inspiration from The Shining and how the fear of isolation and madness can affect a person. I also really liked the unsettling feeling that reading House of Leaves gave me—this house changes. Throw out what you think you know, and start again. Plus, having lived in New England among historic homes my whole life, I understand the power that a house with a serious history can have. It was important to our team that Echo Bluff itself had a rich and tortured history.

I also felt there should be underlying personal issues that complimented the themes. Cassie had to battle her own inner demons that paralleled what was going on around her. I tried to weave the torturous stories of the house’s other inhabitants in a way that made Cassie sympathetic to them, but also made everything more frightening to her. These stories may have supernatural elements, but each level has a truly human and relatable fear about life.

Lastly, I had to go for a bit of the old school horror. Enter the Presence. We wanted a shadowy enigma, something unsettling that would stay with you long after you’ve played the game. For the Kickstarter campaign, we have actually kept our images of to a minimum. We wanted the Presence to be our version of Bigfoot—often spotted, rarely seen clearly. We want our elusive baddie to tease you just enough. But, in creating the character for the full-length game, the team had to dig deeper. I think something innately frightening is the power of myth and creatures that endure stories throughout centuries. Urban legends about the Presence in the game have been around for hundreds of years, dating back to sailors’ reports of the foul and unnatural events they witnessed on the shores of Echo Bluff. This little spin, for me, was a nod to a little bit of the Lovecraftian motif of evil that endures. But I had to think further about what it would do, and also say. Without giving away the plot, I wanted the Presence’s dialogue to be schizophrenic and manic. I wanted more than just Cassie to be afraid of this thing, I wanted you to be afraid of it.

Then, of course, there was some more overt horror, such as startling, ghastly images, gut-wrenching tragedies, and the like. Mainly, what I learned was that the best horror has a number of nuances that add up to a total cumulative experience.

GAMES REQUIRE MORE COLLABORATION

When you’re writing a novel, it’s yours. Sure, you may have great critique partners and a stellar agent like I’m lucky enough to have in Jessica Sinsheimer, but at the end of the day it’s your baby. You own it, regardless of how much input you’ve listened to or how many eyes have edited it.

Writing a videogame is quite different. Writing a videogame with your spouse is more so. I was intimidated, at first, working with my husband Bill on this. He’s been a fantastic crit partner for my books, but now I was venturing into his territory. Bill’s levels in BioShock have been called some of the best levels in gaming, and he even co-created all of the amazing Kinetescope videos in BioShock Infinite. I was in his house now. Well, not the one we pay the mortgage on, but I digress. It was a little frightening for me to now be the writer on this project full of award-winning gaming vets, especially since I was the one driving the narrative, and the BioShock series is known for its stories.

Soon after outlining the story, we came together and started to really put it together, and it suddenly wasn’t as terrifying. I was a piece in this very intricate puzzle of designers, artists, musicians, voice actors, and more. And each of these people have different, and often game-changing ideas that they contribute. You have to be flexible and not get too precious about your ideas, because in one day, an entire level can be struck from the game, or two characters could end up becoming one. There was a lot of give and take, and by the end of our Kickstarter trailer, I knew that as a collaborative, we’d really done something special.

A GOOD STORY IS STILL A GOOD STORY

There was a moment in the process that made me realize that regardless of how steep the learning curve was, a good story was a good story at heart. It was when Bill and I Skyped into the studio session where the amazingly talented Angela Morris recorded the lines for Cassie. We had over a thousand auditions to listen to, but Angela had this realness to her voice that we couldn’t pass up. She sounded professional but like a real person. Like Cassie. And when she began to record the lines for the game, I started to tear up. There she was, my Cassie, speaking the lines I’d written.

And she delivered the lines exactly how I pictured. They sounded natural, and her cadence and rhythm matched what was in my mind for so long.

I felt validated. The words I’d written were clear and meaningful, as evidenced by a complete stranger to the project being able to completely inhabit this fictional person we’d created as a team.

And I think regardless of the medium, writers write. Stories speak to us from all corners of our lives, and at the end of the day, we just want to experience a great narrative. I hope I’ve been able to bring that to Perception.

If this game sounds intriguing for you, I’d love for you to check out our Kickstarter campaign, www.kickstarter.com/perceptiongame. Thanks, Chuck, for having me!

* * *

Amanda Gardner: A life-long gamer, Amanda has been fully-immersed in the geek lifestyle for as long as she can remember. Amanda is excited to bring to you the story of Cassie and the estate at Echo Bluff, and has enjoyed transitioning from writing urban fantasy novels to writing video games. When she’s not writing, she’s chasing around her two children (while quite pregnant) and teaching English. Amanda also serves as the game’s producer, a role she was born for, considering all she does is chase after people anyway.

Amanda Gardner: Twitter

Perception: Kickstarter | The Deep End Games

14 comments

  • Okay… I made it about a third of the way through the video before I got too creeped out to watch any more of it. Excellent work, Amanda! Now just let me go change out of this top I dropped my coffee down…

    I shall now go and check out the Kickstarter. But this time I might not watch any scary trailers first, if that’s okay. (I’m SUCH a wuss.)

  • Oh shit, awesome. Ngl, I’m still waiting for the third Freedom Force game. I know there are a million reasons it’s never going to happen, but I’m unwilling to admit defeat. #NeverLetGoOfTheDream

  • This is fantastic!!

    My youngest son is designing a game and we’ve talked a bit before about how writing a game is more like writing a screenplay than like writing a book. The first thing I ever wrote beginning to end was a screenplay but I didn’t have the benefit of your insights, so I made a lot of book writing type missteps.

    I’m excited for my kiddo to get home from school so that I can give him this post to read. He’s going to love it! And he’s going to think I’m cool for finding it.

    You’ve just given me parenting cool points, Amanda. Thank-you!!

  • Great article, Amanda. I backed the game yesterday and I look forward to playing it. I love that story is front-and-center in Perception, and I hope story-driven games become a new trend.

    I recall another article I read on writing for video games where the author suggested it’s more like writing a stage play than writing a novel, in that the entire story has to be told by the characters and the set. This seems to parallel your experiences, where you felt “naked” not being able to bash out reams of exposition.

    I’m currently in the midst of getting a novel-writing career off the ground, but as a life-long gamer, writing for games is something I’d love to get into. Any advice on this, other than “marry a game dev?” I doubt that would fly with my wife.

    • One way is to create mods for existing games, Matt – particularly MMOs There are a lot of games out there that provide add-on tools to do just that. ‘Neverwinter’ is the first one that springs to mind, with its accompanying ‘Foundry’ toolset that allows you to create your own quests, which you can then upload for the entire playing community to play. another is ‘Minecraft.’ Both games have a massive fanbase, and the really great player-made mods get to the top of the league boards and showcased as ‘Most Popular’ – and the game developers keep an eye on those league tables too, checking out potential talent… best of all, it’s a potential foot in the door that you can work into your free time, without having to do anything drastic like giving up a full-time job or spending a shedload of money.

  • Hi everyone, thanks for the fantastic comments! I’m glad you’re digging the kickstarter (here is the correct link, btw, we had some broken link issues on day one that are bleeding into today https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/perceptiongame/perception-3). I’m also glad some of you were curious about writing for games. Yes, it is very much like writing a play. Also, if you want to get involved with this kind of writing, I’d look up indie devs. They’re all over the country, as opposed to AAA devs that are usually clustered in California, Texas and Seattle. See if there’s an indie studio near you that may need some help with writing or collaboration.

    Thanks again!

  • That’s amazing, Amanda!
    I think writing a game is as hard as writing a novel. The success of the game completely depends on you, so it’s a great responsibility.

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