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  • The Emotional Rollercoaster Of Making A Video Game

    - Florent Maurin
  • 18 months ago, we started working on the production of our first independent video game, Bury me, my Love. If you haven't heard of it, it's a text-message based interactive fiction that tells the story of Nour, a Syrian woman who decides to leave her war-torn country. She wants to reach Germany, and she has to make this dangerous journey alone as her husband Majd cannot come with her.

    You play as Majd (even though he, as a character, has his own personality), and you have to provide Nour with advice and support, all this through text messages, selfies and emojis only. This is what I call a reality-inspired game, a fiction directly derived from real events - and, in this case, from interfaces we're used to using.

    Bury me, my Love's production was sometimes easy, sometimes a complete mess. We made mistakes, overlooked things, and learned a lot. So I figured I'd share our experience, as it might be useful to others - keep in mind it was our first project as indie devs.

    There's just one thing you should know before I start. In the game, almost every decision you make may have an impact on one (or more) of the three variables that define Nour's state: her romantic relationship with Majd, her money and her morale. For this piece, I'll leave money and love out of the equation (they could be the subject of two separate articles) and focus on morale only. Let's say I start with a good 60 morale points - as Nour does in the game. Here we go.

    June 2016.

    After reading a very touching article in Le Monde (The Journey of a Syrian Migrant as told by her WhatsApp conversations), I decide to make a game about how migrants communicate with their loved ones when they're on the road. But obviously, I won't be able to tackle such a delicate topic without getting help from people who know the situation very well. So I get in touch with Le Monde's journalist, Lucie Soullier. Lucie is not at all familiar with video games, but after I explain what I have in mind in detail she agrees to introduce me (via WhatsApp) to Dana, the Syrian woman from the article.

    Dana is immediately enthusiastic: she thinks a game could be a great medium to tell the stories of people like her. Lucie and Dana accept to be part of our editorial team, and I feel that with their help we'll be able to write a believable story. 
    ~morale = morale+5

    I get in touch with people I know to ask them whether they'd like to join in. Pierre Corbinais' a great writer, he knows how to write dialogs that feel genuine and he's a former journalist, which is important for this game's topic. Paul Joannon's got XP in game development and worked at French newspaper Libération until he decided to quit, quite recently. For the interface design, I'd like to find people who worked on apps before in order to get a WhatsApp look, and I know just the right team for that: Figs. And the artist, Matthieu Godet, has worked with Paul before, which is definitely a good thing.

    To my delight, everybody likes the project and wants to be a part of it. Even better: Figs are OK to co-produce it! 
    ~morale = morale+5

    July 2016

    Figs and TPH have some money to invest in the game, but that won't be enough, so I have to find more elsewhere. There's this thing in France, the Centre National du Cinéma's Fonds d'Aide au Jeu Vidéo (Video Games Help Fund). It gives grants to innovative projects, so we apply. The required presentation is a good opportunity to have a clearer project: we define the story, the game design, the tools we'll be using, make a budget & market analysis... But I have to finish the application during a weekend that I had planned to spend with old friends. As I struggle with a weak Internet connection I hear them eating homemade burgers and drinking cold beers without me. Worth it, but still a bit sad. 
    ~morale = morale-1

    The cover to our very first presentation of the game

    August 2016

    Since June, Pierre and I have been gathering documentation and reading a lot of testimonies by migrants who undertook the journey between Syria and Europe. I had read things on the subject before, but digging into it makes me realize how bad the situation is. This is intense, and it also makes me question my position in the project. As a healthy European, living a fairly comfortable life, is it really my place to make this game?

    That's the thing with reality-inspired games: they basically require you to talk about other people's lives. But as a former journalist, I'm familiar with the process. I've learned the importance of finding the right distance with your subject. We're not superheroes with capes, we don't have the pretension to come to the rescue and save migrants from a gloomy fate. Nor are we an NGO with an activist's agenda. We just want to tell those stories in the form of a video game, for players to acknowledge them and what they say about the world we live in.

    As neither Pierre nor I are Syrian refugees, Nour and Majd's story is going to be a fiction. But to work as a reality-inspired game, it needs to be as truthful and believable as possible. There's a lot of work ahead to achieve that. 
    ~morale = morale-3

    September 2016

    We got money from the French CNC! They seem to have liked the project and decided to help us. That's a good thing because now I know we've got enough money to make Bury me, my Love happen. Of course we're on a tight budget, and we may have to cut out some of the features we'd like to have during the development process, but still. And now that we've got the CNC's support, we might be able to convince other partners to join in. I immediately think about ARTE, the European TV Channel. They've been investing in games recently, and BMML seems like a perfect fit for them, so I send them the project. 
    ~morale = morale+4

    I have a series of WhatsApp chats with Dana. The things she went through, both before living Syria and during her journey, are really chilling. Yet, she never complains. She just states the facts and how she faced them. I'm really impressed by her, and I start writing Nour as a character with her in mind. I also ask Dana about how life in Germany is. "The people here are really great", she tells me, "they treat me nicely. But I'll never be fully happy, until I know my mother is safe." Her mother still lives in Syria. 
    ~morale = morale-4

    October 2016

    Both Pierre and I start writing the game. First, we make a map of all the main routes migrants may take between Syria and Europe. We'd like to give players the possibility to explore both the northern (Turkey -> Greece -> western Europe) and southern (Egypt -> Libya -> Italy) routes, but we soon realize that would be too huge a task. So we stick with around 50 locations that appear to be the most visited ones (the northern route, mainly), and trace the actual paths that link them together. This mapping is going to be our guide for the whole writing period. There's a slight feeling of incompletion to it, though, as I'd really love to use all the material we gathered and tell as many stories as possible. 
    ~morale = morale-2

    In a typical playthrough, you'll only see 15 to 20 of those places.

    Paul, our main developer, is a huge open source fan, and he convinces me that using Unity (like everyone does) might, in the long run, do more harm than good to the ecosystem - after all, having one big player in a monopolistic position is never a good thing. So we review the open source cross-platform engines that are available and finally pick MonoGame. This will make the project slightly more complicated, we're aware of that, but we take pride in staying true to our convictions (this will prove 100% foolish, as you'll discover later J). Thanks to the awesome folks at Inkle, we opt for Ink as an open source scripting language, and even our git client is open. How cool is that? 
    ~morale = morale+2


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