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Crafting the life-altering, divergent narrative of Across the Grooves

"...instead of a “blank state” character which is the preferred option for a lot of games, I like to create fully-formed characters, and let the players guide them through life-altering experiences," says Geoffroy Vincens, writer of Across the Grooves.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Across the Grooves follows Alice as she reshapes her present life by making changes in the past. Not only do these calls affect her life, but also her personality. Even the music reshapes itself around what she decides to do.

Nova-box's Geoffroy Vincens, writer for the Excellence in Narrative-nominated title, spoke with Gamasutra about how he designed Alice's life and character for the game, what interested him in exploring how the future can be changed by decisions in the past, and creating a musical score that shifts based on the identity players create for Alice.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Across the Grooves?

I’m Geoffroy Vincens, writer and founder at Nova-box. On Across the Grooves, my main contribution was the narrative aspect of the game, from the dialogues and texts to the branching storylines.  

Our studio, Nova-box, was founded in 2007. In the early years, we worked on several Nintendo DS titles as subcontractors for bigger game studios. Since 2015, we've been developing and publishing what we like to call “interactive graphic novels”, starting with Along the Edge in 2016, Seers Isle in 2018 (which was also an IGF finalist in 2019) and Across the Grooves last year. 

How did you come up with the concept for Across the Grooves

Well, I’ve been a musician, a vinyl collector, and an overall music nerd since my early teens. I wanted to write a story based in the universe of musty record stores, which is a world I know and love, and which would also allow me to share a bit of my passion for psychedelic music, classic and alternative rock, jazz… 

My two big influences this time were El Club Dumas, a novel, by the Portuguese writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, which follows the investigation of an antique books trader for a medieval black-magic grimoire, and High Fidelity, a novel, by Nick Hornby, about a record store owner. The idea of following the traces of a fabled vinyl record with magical properties across Europe seemed quite fascinating to me, and I hoped it would also enchant our player base. 

What development tools were used to build your game?

This game was a transitional project for us in terms of tools. Our projects are based upon our own narrative engine which we’ve been developing in-house for almost a decade. It helps us integrate sounds, illustrations, and texts together, as well as keep track of the player choices and story branches. This engine was originally based on web technologies (node.js and electron.js), which seemed to be a sensible choice back in 2012 when the only ports we were considering were iOS and Android devices. 

During the production of Across the Grooves, we switched to Unity in order to be able to publish on Nintendo Switch and also to expand the realm of creative possibilities for our future projects. The port was made by our friend and colleague Daniel Borges from the studio Manufacture 43. He did a splendid job that made the switch quite seamless and painless for the rest of the team and, in turn, allowed us to also release our earlier games on Nintendo Switch as well.

What interested you in exploring how modifications in the past could drastically change one's present?

The concept of identity is definitely the theme I enjoy exploring the most, I always seem to circle back to writing about it. It is also a theme that lends itself quite easily for branching narratives, with a “what if?” question at the center of the story. 

To achieve that, instead of a “blank state” character which is the preferred option for a lot of games, I like to create fully-formed characters, and let the players guide them through life-altering experiences. In Across the Grooves, Alice starts in a place of superficial contentment, but as she follows the threads of her investigation, she realizes her life isn’t quite as fulfilling as she'd convinced herself that it was, and she embarks on a path of growth and change with more and more abandon as she gets closer to the bottom of the mystery.

With Across the Grooves, I wanted to explore how much past choices can change a person, and the idea to present them as instantaneous changes seemed quite a fun idea to play with. I guess we all wonder from time to time what our life would be like if we did this instead of that. Our branching story allows the players to explore that question, for Alice’s life if not their own.

What challenges did you face in designing such a story? In creating so many divergent moments in the game?

Well, it’s not the first time I've tried my hand at a heavily branching story, so I guess I have some experience in this field. For Across the Grooves, I started with a very light outline and worked through the story chronologically, which is my preferred way to tackle this. I wanted to see where the narrative threads would lead me, in an organic way, and working this way helps me create a fluid and coherent story, whatever choices are made throughout. 

The counterpart to this method is that I don’t know how long it will take me to write the whole thing and my progress gets slower and slower with the increasing number of moving parts and variants to take into account as the story unfolds. That's not an ideal situation for a small studio with a tight budget and the small number of release frames that exist for a niche indie game in our industry. In the end, I’m very proud of what we achieved artistically, but I’m sure the game would have benefited from a few more months of refining and polishing. 

What thoughts went into creating the decisions the player could make? In making interesting decisions that would have big effects?

It's always a balancing act. We like to present decisions to the players frequently to keep them interested and engaged, but each and every one of them can’t propel the narrative in a drastically different direction each time. On the other hand, the player must feel that their decisions, even the small ones, had an impact on the story.

To address that, on top of the intra-diegetic clues and feedback, we’ve been experimenting on a visual feedback system: there’s a set of icons on the top of the screen, and some of the symbols light up after a choice has been made, which reassures the player their input has been taken into account and gives them a hint about where the story is headed. The symbols are voluntarily quite opaque, in order to let the players make assumptions and conjectures about their meaning. Usually, by the end of their first playthrough, they have a good grasp of what each of these symbols mean, and it helps them explore the other variants of the story if they decide to play again. They can also focus on the story itself and ignore these icons altogether without any kind of penalty.

Across the Grooves has a striking visual style. Why did you choose this style? How do you feel it strengthened the game's themes?

Alice's adventure begins with a simple and tidy life in the city of Bordeaux. We opted for a visual style based on photographs to anchor Alice's life in a tangible reality, especially at the beginning of her adventure. We were very quickly satisfied by the look that it brought to this universe. It was an exciting job. After a storyboarding phase, we went on-location with the creative team to create a collection of places and moments to use in the game. We also asked our friends and team members to pose as the characters in the game to further enhance that sense of reality.

Working with photographs also saved us a lot of time during the production phases and kept us on track with the staging challenge we set for ourselves. The system of displaying text in phylacteries meant that the background image had to be changed often to keep the text and image connected. We also wanted a more dynamic dialogue system than in our previous games, which meant more images.

As the story progresses, and especially as Alice listens to the record, we bring in unexpected color harmonies and spatial deconstructions. We set up a specific color chart for each "version" of Alice in order to reinforce the effects of the change in the temporal frame.

The game explores travel as well. What interested you in capturing traveling across Europe in the game? Do you feel that players get something more from travel's depiction in games now that we're all hunkered down in our own countries and cities during the pandemic?

We started working on Across the Grooves in late 2018, way before the world was hit by the current crisis, and traveling across Europe has always been part of the story. The fact that the game was released at a time when people were craving some escapism is simply a coincidence. In any case, I don’t think it had any impact on our sales or the popularity of the game either way. 

As for the different destinations that Alice visits over the course of the story, they were inspired in part by the music we talk about, and in part by our own relationship with these cities we know and love. We always try to write about subjects that are close to our heart, and in this case, we also wanted to have a very true-to-life description of the locales, so it had to be places we had either visited in the past or were able to visit again during the production in order to gather documentation. 

In fact, I would have loved to travel to Prague again (I haven’t been there since the late 90’s), but the pandemic prevented us from making the trip. And also, I wanted to have a very urban setting for Across the Grooves, in contrast with the previous title in the series, Along the Edge, which was taking place in rural France. 

The game's music changes in ways that reflect the player's choices. How did you create music that could shift like this? What thoughts went into its design?

Music is such an important part of the story of Across the Grooves, so we knew it would take a central role. We wanted the game to feel a bit like a musical, and being a choice-oriented narrative, of course we had to let the player take the reins during the musical scenes. So, you get both a different song according to the choices you’ve made up until then, and you also have the opportunity to choose the next lyrics. 

To achieve that, we’ve been working with two very talented composers and sound designers for our last couple of games: Camille Marcos and Julien Ponsoda, from the French collective Illustrason. They have a very good technical grasp at programming audio engines. It might not be obvious, but the music was already very interactive in our previous release, Seers Isle. Their work in Across the Grooves was an expansion of that. 

Julien and Camille are more used to creating orchestral music as they both come from a cinema score background. For this project, I created playlists to show them the different possibilities of evolution of Alice and what kinds of music she would lean toward. We also were eager to work with Christelle Canot again - she was the singer who had already lent us her voice on the title track of Seers Isle, and she had the perfect range and sensibility for Alice. 

This game, an IGF 2021 honoree, is featured as part of the Independent Games Festival ceremony.  You can watch the ceremony starting at 4:30PM PT (7:30 ET) Wednesday, July 21 at GDC 2021.

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