The Story Behind Storytelling – Part 1

The Clockwork Story: Genesis

The modern day has seen some dramatic changes in the field of writing. Less than a hundred years ago, a reader could expect a novel with paragraphs that went on for a page and exposition that carried on for an eternity. That was a time of tell, don’t show and visual writing was unheard of.

The Story Behind Storytelling - Part 1

A novel these days tends to be quick paced, consisting of three lines conjuring images to the mind. This has largely been the result of how pervasive movies have become. Eventually, the precepts of screen-writing seeped into novels and short stories, changing the nature of writing at its core.

My education was firmly rooted in classical literature. I’m a movie fanatic and love plays. Video games were a hobby and pastime that I really loved but I never thought about writing for them more than passively (usually when a game’s story was bad and I thought that there was no way I could do worse). Still, familiarity breeds curiosity and when the opportunity came about, I couldn’t turn it down.

Fashion Boutique was my first experience both with Total Eclipse and working on a video game. I outlined the story aspects and provided scripts for the comics that made up the transitions between levels. It was a fun but challenging project, especially considering just how much of a departure it was from my normal work.

Fashion Boutique - Comic Page Excerpt

The rapport I built with the development team of Total Eclipse allowed us to take on an ambitious Hidden Object game, one that thrust the player into a new genre with unique characters and an in depth story. Our mutual love of old adventure games forged our direction and we set out to create a pitch.

The first incarnation of The Clockwork Man was to design a puzzle game like Cogs. The player would take gears and springs to put together parts for a massive mechanical structure, a clockwork robot that would eventually become animated and move around and maybe even help finish itself.

I’m not a puzzle guy. I can come up with a high level concept but the actual logistics are another thing entirely. While I was floundering in my attempt to explain this vision, I was directed to try one of the Mortimer Beckett games.

I had seen hidden object games in the store but I couldn’t figure out the appeal. From afar, it just looked like a way to pretend to clean up a messy room and since I didn’t want to pick up my own real world junk, why the heck would I do it virtually?
Wow, was I insanely wrong!

I played the heck out of Spooky Manor and when I reached the end of my demo time limit, I immediately bought it. Unfortunately, there was only a tiny bit of game left after that but it didn’t matter. My imagination was captured and when Total Eclipse proposed that the Clockwork Man be a Hidden Object game with plot, I was in.

Clockwork Characters

Miranda and Sprocket were the first things I thought of even before my botched puzzle game idea. She was to be a young engineer/tinkerer with her tiny robot companion full of personality. I wanted him to hang around to cause some trouble as well as provide a story based hint system.

Their back story and personalities required little effort. They came about naturally as we discussed what we wanted to happen. Miranda lived with her grandfather and Sprocket was a gift from her father, a man whose fate we left ambiguous. We established that her family was affluent from their successes in science and that she was fulfilling tradition by diving into the engineering vocation.

Miranda & Sprocket - Early ConceptMiranda herself was a character that I wanted to be empowered; a woman in an era that would have otherwise shunned such aggressive ambition. This was the joy of the steampunk genre—social class could be turned on its ear and someone like Miranda could not only be assertive without consequences but respected for it.

Sprocket was an intriguing character. We didn’t delve into exactly how he worked or why he was autonomous with a personality. He speaks in beeps, grinding gears and odd tones. Even his subtitles show up like an old Batman fight scene (Thwap!)

Miranda was an easy character to describe for the artists but Sprocket had many incarnations. Oddly enough, either through my write up or the genius of the artists, one of the sketches was exactly what I saw in my head. The Sprocket you see on the screen literally crawled from my imagination onto the screen and that’s a testament to Total Eclipse’s ability to interpret the concept so entirely.

A World of Steam and Wonder

The steampunk genre had not quite saturated the market the way it has now. At that point, you couldn’t buy a Victorian inspired outfit on Xbox live for your avatar and the very first dedicated conventions were still being organized. We had an opportunity and a challenge; capitalize and casualize a burgeoning setting.

At its heart, steampunk is the Victorian era reinvented. It’s the Time Machine and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or the Wild Wild West. Using their materials and ingenuity, they created devices that have the Victorian aesthetic with modern functionality; airships, computer style gadgets, robots, and anything else that the imagination can conjure up.

Zeppelin Cockpit - ConceptThere were many advantages in adopting the Victorian sci-fi approach. First off, we had free reign to create anything we wanted, shaping the world to fit our storytelling needs. This included just how wild technology had become, what clothing would look like and to what extent the British Empire had dominated the world.

Steampunk was a great horse to bet on with its rise in popularity. Standing as one of the first (if not the first) casual game to venture into this territory, The Clockwork Man looks and feels like those old classics that I grew up with while adopting some modern ideals and cinematic storytelling.

Setting the Stage

Our first outing was to take place in a fictional South American town called ‘New Coventry’. This afforded us the opportunity to limit architecture to something familiar and not too outlandish. Anyone who had seen King Solomon’s Mine or an Indiana Jones movie could likely relate quickly to the place.

New Coventry ConceptAlso, by setting it in South America, far from the technological hub of London, we added a little isolation. Airships may have shrunk the globe but with pirates patrolling the airways, no one was willing to leave the safety of the town. Miranda and Sprocket would be effectively trapped there throughout the mystery.

The Clockwork Man 2 enjoyed a little more globetrotting than its predecessor. Miranda spends some time delving into her past and enjoys a foray into London, Ireland, and parts unknown (no spoilers here!). The great thing about this transition from the first game to the sequel is the grand nature of travel and how it captures the adventure of something like Around the World in 80 days.

Each place in the Clockwork Man 2 holds danger and mystery with a little hint of the familiar. A key goal while outlining these games was to never ostracize the player with something completely outlandish. As a writer, I want to be as inclusive as possible especially when a sub-genre like steampunk tends to attract an exclusive crowd. To avoid this, I cater to both sets of people; those that know nothing about the setting at all and those who love steampunk so much they never leave the house without their goggles.

Two games, two different approaches

The Clockwork Man 1 was outlined and scripted out with headings that said things such as ‘insert puzzle here’ or ‘put some game play in’. Naturally, this allowed for a story heavy game to be realized but it hampered the creativity of those clever ‘game’ folks. A key focus of Total Eclipse has always been ‘organic puzzles’ or simply put, the things people do in the game must come from the environment in a logical manner.

Script Excerpt from The Clockwork Man

The first game made this a lot harder for them because events were practically ‘hard coded’ for lack of a better term. It’s not that I was some unyielding psycho who wouldn’t change anything but once the story was written, we tried to work within that guideline. I would hesitate to say that anything suffered from this approach but it absolutely lacked the sort of cooperation that I referred to at the beginning of this document.

The Clockwork Man 2 was more ambiguous and was developed as a concept in motion more than a set in stone tale. I came up with a framework that provided room to move within the context of the overall story. I knew that events had to go from A to B to C but the transition between each point was not detailed in anyway. This provided the game designers to put together puzzles, adventure segments and hidden object play without having to worry if they were treading on some plot point or another.

This approach allowed The Clockwork Man 2 to feel more complete as a game. Each aspect shared equal importance. Story and game gelled cohesively and the end result was a longer experience that still had character development and resolve. Plot was not sacrificed but rather bolstered the entire project as transitions between events became seamless.

When the puzzle pieces were put on the same board, the meat of the tale was created through a collaborative writing process. Through multiple outlines, summaries and rewrites, the details of the story took shape. The risk of working like this is that it can be cumbersome if the team disagrees consistently but such problems can be overcome with decent planning. Everyone was on the same page with The Clockwork Man 2 and the group approach made a huge difference.

Collaborative Writing using sticky notes for The Clockwork Man 2

To be more specific, I wrote out the script for The Clockwork Man 1 before anything ever happened. This included all dialogue, story and events. Puzzles were designed by the Total Eclipse team but it would be fair to say that they were hampered by the specificity of my script. This limitation was something that we pointed out in the post mortem process.

With the second game, while I certainly had a great deal to do with the concept and initial presentation of plot, the actual creation of journal entries, dialogue and several specific story elements were created by the Total Eclipse team. Their direction came from that first outline and push concerning the overall plot and they filled in the blanks with their own creative input.

Mutual creation relies on tightening the structure as the different elements of plot fall into place. By the end of our project, everything fit together without seeming out of place. The results are what you see in The Clockwork Man 2: a functioning setting, an engaging story and everything moving within the rule set of the shared imagined space.

The Way Ahead

Working on The Clockwork Man games was one of the great joys of my professional career. The characters, the artwork, the story, and the game play all were fantastic examples of creative people coming together to build something special. Naturally, I’m biased but my opinions are not founded solely on the pride of a creator.

Total Eclipse was unafraid to take risks with this project and was willing (though sometimes hesitantly) to dive in to some of the crazier details that I came up with (a great example is Miranda’s white hair).  When we pitched the game and began work in earnest, it was an exciting ride that ended in a product that anyone could be proud of.

This particular article was little more than an overview of conceptualization and the very broadest approach to storytelling and The Clockwork Man. I’ll be following this up with some details on how the outline process worked, script writing and even how detailed the character descriptions were.

Until then I look forward to the next chapter in The Clockwork Man series whether it be another Hidden Object game, a book, a graphic novel or something else entirely. I believe in the art direction, the characters and the story enough to know we can continue to creatively explore Miranda’s world.

Yes, and Sprocket’s world too.

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