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AdventureX 2022: how modular design saved Old Skies

Ols Skies, video game, box art, woman, Fia Quinn, city, device, time-travel
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Dave Gilbert’s last talk at AdventureX took place three years ago.

Entitled Post-launch blues: how a game jam saved my soul, it was an inspiring discussion about not being afraid to change your mind. He shared his experience of working on Old Skies and explained how entering the annual AdventureJam had been just what he’d needed to kickstart his motivation.

I had the chance to play the prologue back in June and really enjoyed it. The new style, reminiscent of 1990s cartoons and different to the 2D pixels we’ve come to expect from the developer, was slightly jarring at first. But it slowly grew on me and, underneath all the polish and sparkle, it was easy to tell it was still a Wadget Eye Games’ project at its heart.

At the end of his presentation in November 2019, Gilbert had said: “A year from now, at the next AdventureX, I will tell you how it all went.” It was therefore good to see him at the event last weekend. He was there with a new talk entitled Raze it or restart it: how modular design saved Old Skies and I looked forward to hearing what he’d been up to.

In January 2020, Gilbert decided he wanted to write a time-travel story. He had an idea which kept calling out to him. The narrative would be about something destroying the world, with the only survivor being a female time-traveller who had to visit different areas of the past to prevent the disaster from occurring. He put together a prototype despite not knowing where the project was going and soon hit upon the core theme for the game: the dangers of looking back and longing for the past.

While they told him it was good, they said it didn’t feel like something he’d write and this made him realise he couldn’t pursue it in its current format any longer.

A few months later however, COVID-19 reared its ugly head and this theme of longing for times gone by started to feel hollow. Gilbert found it difficult to get the ideas out of his head and into a design document, never mind a game, and began to struggle with dislike for his current project. But with the pressure of taking care of and providing for his family on his mind, he decided to keep going anyway; perhaps he was in the process of creating something brilliant and so he needed to power on through.

Unfortunately though, this course of action didn’t turn out very well. He never felt connected to the project in the same way as he had with his other works and the pandemic had sucked away all the love he’d had for it. He’d barely made it past creating the prologue in the first eight months of development. This was a standalone story which set the scene and established the world for the rest of the game, and at the end of it, there was a cataclysmic event which would set the rest of the story in motion.

Gilbert was stuck and didn’t know where to go next. The fact that Strangeland, an atmospheric point-and-click by Wormwood Studios, was pitched to him for publishing was therefore a saving grace. It was practically complete but needed some final touches and that Wadget Eye magic, such as voice-acting and marketing. He welcomed the opportunity to not have to think about Old Skies for four or five months, hoping to return to his project after that period with a newfound enthusiasm for it.

That wasn’t the case and he found he still hated it. He felt like he’d wasted a year and was screwed because this was his family’s livelihood. He needed to figure out whether it was worth carrying on and so asked several trusted friends to play what he’d created of the game so far. While they told him it was good, they said it didn’t feel like something he’d write and this made him realise he couldn’t pursue it in its current format any longer. Should he start over with something new or start again with Old Skies?

Gilbert began looking at his previous creations to figure out what was different this time. Was it just the effects of the pandemic or was there something else about this project he didn’t like? This was when he noticed a recurring theme with the rest of his games, a kind of ‘modular structure’ where there’s an overarching story throughout a body of work. If smaller stories encountered within the world do their job properly, the reinforce it so you know everything about the last confrontation when you finally reach it.

Looking at his old notebooks had provided insight into what he referred to as ‘Past Dave’. That person didn’t know what he was doing and made it up as he went along, yet somehow it seemed to work. He then realised he had a specific way of writing which involved focussing on the individual stories in isolation before turning the connections between theme into the theme of the game. This would allow him to create an overarching narrative which tied the whole thing together and made the world come to life.

Further realisations followed. Gilbert learnt that he didn’t approach his projects with this method in mind and seemed to fall into it naturally. He said in his presentation: “My first reaction was, ‘This is kind of backward, isn’t it? It feels weird. It’s a weird way of writing, a weird way of writing, a weird way of storytelling. Usually you start with the theme, right?’ But it worked… I can’t deny it worked. Breaking up each project into smaller, standalone bits totally worked. At least it worked for me.”

He went on to explain: “Most of the games I’ve written, especially the higher-regarded ones – and not coincidentally, the ones I had the most fun writing – were all designed in this episodic, modular way. It took the colossal task of ‘write the whole game’ and broke it up into smaller, more manageable tasks…That’s what got me through all these other projects, every project I worked on. I had that regular satisfaction… and I didn’t know it. I didn’t know at the time I was working that way. But now I did know that.”

Now he’d analysed Past Dave, he saw the story he’d written about time-travellers who wanted to change something was the narrative he wanted to tell.

The reason for Gilbert’s writing block when it came to Old Skies was that he wasn’t doing any of this. He was trying to make the game by holding the entire story in his head at once before even giving himself a chance to create it. It was one massive module and he wasn’t getting that usual dopamine hit from the feedback loop described above, so it had turned into a project he hadn’t liked working on. It was the antithesis of the way he’d worked in the past and yet he was only just now realising it.

He returned to his original question: should he burn it down or rework what he had? He’d known he’d wanted to create a time-travel story but hadn’t considered why this appealed to him, so he took a step back and reviewed the prologue he’d made so far. Now that he’d analysed Past Dave, he saw the story he’d written about time-travellers who wanted to experience the past to change something was the narrative he wanted to tell. He could now map so many stories around this concept and make it modular.

Old Skies is now around 75% complete and the good news is that Gilbert still hasn’t gone back to hating it since his epiphany. The individual stories are relatively short and have been kept personal, and loosening the constraints of time-travel has allowed him to tell the kind of stories he wants to going forward. Comparing his current situation the years since his last talk at AdventureX in 2019, it’s a far cry from back when it felt like everything he was writing was pulling out teeth.

It would be great to be able to say that Gilbert will be back at the next event in November 2023 with an update but that won’t be the case. He revealed: “For every AdventureX almost within its existence, I’ve been given this amazing gift, given a slot during the conference where I could speak about anything I wanted… I’m so grateful for it… But we’ve agreed that event has gotten big enough that we don’t need to that any more, so this will be my last talking gig at AdventureX for at least a couple of years… It’s been a gift, it’s been really wonderful.”

I was glad I was there to see him for what sounds like it will be his last presentation for a while. If you’d like to watch for yourself in full, a video is currently available on the AdventureX Twitch channel.

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