Over the course of my senior year in college, I've been hard at work on a visual novel dubbed Streams of Nurture. As both a passion project and academic piece, Streams of Nurture represents an interesting case study for transforming one of my most ancient interests, food production, into an interactive affair that combines the dramatic qualities of an entertainment title with a real-world topic characteristic of serious games. In other words, I wanted to leverage the concept of "learning through play" to create a game that felt both purposeful and engrossing.
With my project officially submitted to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute database, I can now share with you the report detailing the development cycle for the visual novel. Throughout the coming weeks, I shall be publishing a subsection of the paper penned for Streams of Nurture. Each part will focus on a particular design and production aspect of the game, from the way the storytelling was conceived to the iterative art process that governed the title's presentation.
This week's post in a series of design articles explains the general production cycle of Streams of Nurture. If you're interested in reading about the pre-production, narrative and audiovisual phases for my visual novel, feel free to peruse the first, second and third articles I published on my title’s development process.
NOTE: I didn't single-handedly develop the game. Although I handled the narrative design, coding and writing for Streams of Nurture, my partners Liam Miller and Dave Allen were wholly responsible for the art and audio respectively. As such, the pronoun "we" will be used to acknowledge their invaluable contribution to this project.
In terms of scheduling, Streams of Nurture shares some similarities with other projects conducted within and beyond WPI’s game design major, while still embodying its fair share of quirks. On one hand, most of the visual novel’s major development milestones were set and achieved throughout three academic quarters. However, the individual parts that constitute it (story, art, sound, and playtesting) were not built concurrently. Instead, each of us worked full-time on the project without taking any classes across two different academic quarters to plug in the major pieces, with the first half of the spring semester being dedicated to the polish pass.
For the narrative, Michel spent the entirety of Fall 2016 organizing the documentation created for the game’s story and subsequently writing the basic dialog that expounded details about the aquacultural process. The lines Michel penned also contained figments of his personality in the characters that he would further flesh out in future quarters since he wished to get the practical details in first before finding ways to trim it and make the writing tighter and more coherent. In short, he adopted an iterative approach to storytelling so that the revisions to the dialog would not affect the overall structure and pacing of the narrative he wished to impart.
As for the art, the process of designing, developing and polishing was roughly planned to fit within each quarter the team was working on the project. Fall 2016 was when ideas were being formed and set in stone for the following semester to collect photographs, produce drawings, complete the style transfer processes per each image and drawing, then finally polish what was needed. Liam was not officially registered for the project until the end of 2016, but given the project being dependent on just two people (at the time), he felt the earlier the team began work, the better. The busiest quarters were those consisting of developing and implementing the art (late Fall 2016 and early Spring 2017), given the abundant number of scenes and characters. The workload proved more intensive than anticipated, and lasted well into Spring 2017.
Source control and backups
To ensure that the work updated properly across different devices and would not get lost to hard crashes and corrupt drives, the team made use of a cloud-based BitBucket repository, using SourceTree as a Windows client (see Figure 40).
Figure 40. SourceTree, the Windows client used to manage source control.
Original image by Michel Sabbagh
These tools allowed us to upload (“push”) and download (“pull”) changes to the visual novel’s script and assets, based on files stored in a BitBucket folder maintained on our PCs. As an additional precaution, the team and advisors regularly backed up the project folder on several flash drives kept in different locations to minimize the possibility of having our progress vaporized by a mangled repository.
Thankfully, the data for Streams of Nurture worked seamlessly with BitBucket and SourceTree, and we never encountered any issues that stalled development of our project.
Along with updating changes to the game’s script and audiovisual assets, the team also met at least twice a week throughout the 2016-17 academic year to report any progress with the art, writing and other design elements. Such meetings occurred between the students and advisors in the game design suite in Salisbury Labs on weekdays and solely among the developers at the Gordon Library on weekends.
During those gatherings, we brainstormed potential ideas for our game that could be incorporated further down the line, such as additional visual flourishes and subplots that would flesh out the characters even more (e.g. flashback sequences hinting at the protagonist’s hazy relationship with their dad). The team also relayed concerns about hitting particular milestones within the academic year, such as getting rid of all the placeholder art and polishing all of the character lines to make them sound more natural and dramatic.
Figure 41. Slack, the project management service used for team communications.
Original image by Michel Sabbagh
Outside of the aforementioned meetings, the team also made use of the chat service Slack (see Figure 41) to share updates and comments that would affect the final version of the game, such as last-minute changes to the art and additional information on the salmon industry. The channel we created for our purposes (VN_MQP) included several sub-sections: design, general, look-and-feel, meetings, random and audio. This allowed us to keep the chat box clean and relevant, which led to faster responses to questions about Streams of Nurture’s condition.
During the fall semester, the entire team focused on building the visual novel from the ground-up using the research and references we documented to get a solid sense of how the game would look, sound, and feel as the player progresses through it.
Given the sheer size and scope of the project, we knew that we had to undertake an iterative approach to the development of our title. This meant that we first had to create rough versions of the art and script before we could polish everything so that they matched the vision we laid out from the beginning.
So before we got started churning out the audiovisuals and written content for the title, Professors Moriarty and Sutter sat down with us to discuss the step-by-step process we would go through in terms of creating the basic structure and design for Streams of Nurture. This skeletal framework (see Figure 42), which served as the substrate upon which we would plug in more polished versions of the artworks and dialog, was comprised of placeholder assets and scripted scenes that made the visual novel entirely playable from start to finish.
Figure 42. The game’s skeletal framework, before and after polish.
Original photos by Michel Sabbagh
For the art, we made use of Photoshop to generate grayboxes that had the names of the asset and their (sub)directories explicitly baked onto them. These files would allow us to substitute finalized artworks for the blank images that initially corresponded to the background scenes in Streams of Nurture. This approach also applied to the characters themselves, who were depicted as front-/left-/right-facing black silhouettes standing in their respective onscreen positions.
Narrative-wise, the key was to incorporate as much relevant information about the different farming methods and techniques the player would be exploring (see Figure 43), as well as the various personalities inhabiting the game world. Macro and micro details about the aquacultural appliances such as the real-life Thermolicer and words denoting the kinds of emotions characters would feel rather than outright utter in the final game were par for the course in terms of producing functional dialog that advanced the plot, but had yet to possess more characteristic essence.
Having a skeleton from the outset proved most beneficial for future iterations of the game, as the team was able to make quick and effective modifications to the code without harming the visual novel’s overall story structure and artistic integrity.
Figure 43. Expository scene explaining the use of fish feed pellets.
Original image by Liam Miller.
During the holiday break, the team decided to proceed to the next stage in the development process: the polish pass. With the placeholders having served their purpose of getting the title to work from a technical perspective, the time came for us to bring the narrative and artistic components of Streams of Nurture up to a level that would make it attractive to the average player all across the board.
Figure 44. Daphne’s character in the game’s near-final iteration.
Original images by Liam Miller
In terms of dialog, the primary goal was to trim down any unnecessary lines and scenes that bogged down the pacing of the game and made the title feel bloated in parts. Not only that, but the team also wanted to alter the dialect for each of the characters so that they sounded more unique and convincing. Originally, their vernacular was too uniform and sophisticated for them to feel believable, instead sounding pretentious and unnatural. With the help of the character profiles, though, Michel was able to distinguish each individual from one another through their speech patterns and general demeanors (see Figure 44). The process of doing so took a little over two months to accomplish, and the result was a considerably leaner and meaner narrative that communicated information more concisely and, in some ways, wittily.
With the art, polishing backgrounds and characters came down to adjusting minor yet vital details about the subject matter of the scene, tending more specifically to what was being portrayed through the dialog, and of course cleaning up any abnormalities in the illustrations for the sake of achieving a more professional look. To elaborate upon this, any feature in the backgrounds that either did or did not belong in the scene was either added or removed. One mentionable polishing factor that came into play twice while working on the art were the tweaks and changes that Alter was making, which would often change their resolution output or manipulate their algorithms to fine-tune how style was transferred. These changes produced noticeable differences in stylized backgrounds before Alter updates and changes, making it mandatory to redo each of the images we had already finished. Other than that, cleaning a few drawings of character borders was one small yet vital part of the polishing process to produce the most appealing visual novel we could.
For sound and playtesting, Spring 2017 was when both components were being extensively worked on after several months of delay. Like the narrative and art, audio benefited from the same iterative process that defined much of the title’s development cycle. By adding and fine-tuning musical layers for the game’s main theme and sourcing references for the sound effects, Dave was able to put together a compact but potent soundscape that provided the right amount of atmosphere complementing the town of Duntale and its surroundings.
And that's all she wrote (for Part IV, at least)! As I mentioned before, more parts will be posted on a weekly basis.
Let me know what you think of my article in the comments section, and feel free to ask me questions! I’ll do my best to get back to you as promptly as possible.
Personal blog: https://michelsabbagh.wordpress.com/
Email: [email protected]