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 narrative development of Streams of Nurture. If you’re interested in reading about the pre-production and research phase for my visual novel, feel free to peruse the first article I published on my title’s development cycle.
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.
As a game design major with significant writing experience gained by authoring numerous development articles and a previous visual novel, Michel saw the task of weaving Streams of Nurture’s narrative as an opportunity to hone his storytelling skills. With the preparation completed before the formal beginning of the project in the 2016 fall semester, Michel felt ready to flesh out the characters, settings, and themes that would constitute the visual novel’s structural framework.
Logically, the personalities the player would be interacting with throughout the game had to be prioritized in order to properly determine the kinds of scenarios and story arcs that would drive the experience and complement the aquacultural topic with a dash of dramatic tension. As with the priority list of farming facts, Michel initially concentrated on building and enriching the physical, sociological and psychological facets of the main characters, more specifically the protagonist and the following individuals who comprise their circle of friends (see Figure 13):
Figure 13. Game characters Daphne, Joshua, and Olympia.
Original images by Liam Miller
Daphne Crosby, the chipper if somewhat aloof daughter of the town’s mayor who is an advocate of open-net farming.
Joshua Norton, a wayward but well-meaning Native American student who embraces artisanal fishing practices.
Olympia Crammer, an eloquent workaholic hoping to realize a salmon tank project.
For each of these characters, as well as secondary ones utilized for the game’s prologue and branching paths, personality templates provided by Professor Lee Sheldon were used to detail the unique traits, quirks and flaws of the entire cast. The goal was to make each major character seem distinct in both their appearance and demeanor. Devising and thoroughly documenting their characteristics in advance allowed Michel to keep their behavior and development consistent throughout the game.
In addition to creating the characters for the visual novel, Michel was responsible for coming up with the in-game setting and lore for world-building purposes. Given the time and scoping constraints of the project, a “less is more” approach was adopted that prioritized density over scale.
Figure 14. The City from Thief: a small but highly detailed game world http://www.wallpaperup.com/382381/THIEF_adventure_stealth_fantasy_warrior_(59).html
Luckily, Michel was familiar with a commercial game series that served as a consummate example of a compact virtual environment combining a rich backstory with uniquely designed locales. The City from the Thief series (Eidos/Square Enix, 1998-2014) embodied many desirable qualities for the visual novel’s setting, from the dialects and cuisine that varied across different social classes to the town’s governmental framework (see Figure 14). Thief’s elliptical approach to storytelling avoided explicit explication, with designers hinting at the backstory and letting players uncover it for themselves. Although the structure of the visual novel format meant that a lot of explaining would have to be done through dialog, the concentrated design of the City suggested that the world-building bits required to complete the project need not be as time-consuming as we initially thought.
Figure 15. Maps of the game’s fictional island, incorporating the town of Duntale.
Original images by Michel Sabbagh
Following this realization, it was decided that the game’s setting would need to be as thoroughly documented as its characters. For Streams of Nurture’s primary location, the town of Duntale, a comprehensive document that detailed the history, geography, culture and economy of the tight-knit fishing community was authored, supported by maps of the local geography (see Figures 15 and 16). Although not all of this creative information made it into the final game, the fact that it was available for reference meant that the team had a firm basis for determining how the Duntale populace would behave and interact with the player.
Figure 16. Sketch of the game’s island.
Original image by Michel Sabbagh
Additionally, other real world and fictional places were studied as inspiration for the atmosphere emblematic of coastal settlements. Fictional settings such as Morrowind’s Solstheim and Grand Theft Auto’s Los Santos provided suitable templates for the layout and shape of Streams of Nurture’s island. As for actual towns, Bar Harbor, with its rugged coastline and Norwegian-like fjord, and Gloucester, known as the oldest fishing port in Massachusetts, gave the team a concrete idea of the types of public and residential areas an actual fishing village might be expected to contain (see Figure 17). Michel mixed and matched these components to construct Duntale with the verisimilitude needed for players to accept it as a cohesive, lifelike environment.
Figure 17. Bar Harbor, ME and City Hall, Gloucester, MA.
Bar Harbor: http://www.theweststreethotel.com/gallery/
Gloucester: Original photo by Liam Miller
Themes, issues and farming methods
With the game world and its inhabitants fleshed out, Michel focused on incorporating the themes and issues that would define the scenarios the player will find themselves in, including the major plot points highlighting the story’s moments of crisis.
With regards to the Duntale community and their ambivalence towards aquaculture, Michel drew inspiration from several protest organizations around the world such as the Salmon Farms Protest Groups who wanted to raise awareness about the ecological woes of salmon farming in regions like Canada and Ireland (see Figure 18). Sea lice that infest the external surfaces of marine and brackish-water fish, overfishing, and pollution were other examples of the real-life factors pertaining to the salmon industry that caused public outrage across the world. Michel also looked at historical events such as the 1992 cod crisis, which led to fish becoming increasingly scarce in the once-rich waters off the Canadian province of Newfoundland, to emulate the kind of negative economic impact that can result from mismanagement of marine resources on the part of both the government and its constituents.
Figure 18. Salmon farming protests and sea lice.
This anti-aquaculture mindset was baked into the personalities of the visual novel’s characters, who either eked out a living through fishing or wished to seek an alternative to the cheap but irresponsible open-net farming sites run by the in-game fish farming firm, “BioSalar”, which was inspired by real-life companies such as Marine Harvest, Cermaq, and Cooke Aquaculture.
The theme of “nature vs. nurture, economy vs. environment” also led to the exploration of the strife between both sides of the aquacultural debate in terms of the species featured in the story, even going as far as to have the fish symbolize the farmers and commercial/artisanal fishermen (see Figures 19-21). The Atlantic salmon, which is universally farmed (only about 1% of the species is produced from the wild), stands in stark contrast to the unadulterated Pacific varieties, such as sockeye and pink, which were being threatened by BioSalar. Coupled with the ethics of having Atlantic and Pacific species intermingle with one another and polluting the gene pool of the latter, forcing out wild salmon, the inclusion of different types of salmon provided a subtle metaphor to the troublesome coexistence between industrialism and artisanship.
Figure 19. Atlantic salmon.
Figure 20. Pink salmon.
Figure 21. Sockeye salmon.
Along with the conflict surrounding the issue of salmon farming and fishing, the themes of compromise and responsible stewardship are highlighted through the choice between three branching paths the player can take following the visual novel’s prologue. These routes correspond to the different farming methods practiced around the world to raise and harvest salmon in a potentially sustainable fashion (see Figures 22-24). Recirculating aquaculture systems (tank-based farming that allow for year-round growth of fish in temperate climates), semi-wild ocean ranching (the objective of which is to increase the ocean abundance of salmon for harvest by fishermen), and a more efficient version of open-net fish farming (a huge problem of which is the waste that flows out of the fish pens) are the three fish-rearing techniques that can be explored within the game. All of them offer a unique mix of appliances, processes, opportunities and implications, and are written in a way that attempts to highlight their advantages and disadvantages equally to avoid favoring one approach over others.
Figure 22. Open-net pens.
Figure 23. Salmon tanks.
Figure 24. Ocean ranching.
The salmon’s cultural and historical importance to the Native American characters featured in the game was also taken into consideration. Extensive research was conducted on artisanal fishing methods such as the dragnet, a possible forerunner of the reef net used by Coast Salish groups, in order to accurately portray their usage. Rituals and events like the First Salmon Festival were also incorporated into the narrative to highlight the salmon’s status as a traditional symbol of prosperity, nature’s gift to the indigenous people of the region.
With the storytelling elements in place, it was time to assemble everything into a comprehensive framework that would serve as the foundation for an initial, functionally complete iteration of the project — the alpha build. Throughout this process, an overarching narrative composed of smaller events that would comprise the scenes featured in the game was brainstormed.
A detailed document outlining all of the interactions and plot points players would encounter was produced to better visualize the framework (see Figure 25). Potential ideas such as flashback sequences and a subplot surrounding a college-funded VR program were considered and recorded. The narrative framework also allowed the incorporation of the research data gathered before the beginning of the 2016-17 academic year into the relevant scenes. These included details such as the composition of the fish feed used in farming operations, and the physical logistics of the farming methods featured in the three branches (e.g. artificial spawning channels for ocean ranching).
Figure 25. Word document containing all of the assembled in-game events.
Original image by Michel Sabbagh
Narrative modularity and kinetic design
With all of our research and story information collated, we realized that many of the aquacultural facts we wanted players to encounter overlapped across the three farming branches. This opened the door to modularizing the narrative as a strategy for streamlining the writing process. It was decided that common features of the three farming methods, such as the pre-saltwater stages, could be implemented as shared scenes (using the same dialog, code and imagery) without compromising the unique challenges posed by each farming practice. This approach significantly reduced the amount of time it took to complete the project.
Figure 26. Whiteboard sketch of Streams of Nurture’s narrative structure.
Original photo by Michel Sabbagh
Additionally, the choice to provide either a “kinetic novel” structure (highly linear, with little or no room for moral decisions) or a more conventional visual novel framework (frequent dialog trees and many explicit choices) had to be made. Ultimately, the former approach was chosen to avoid potential plot holes and confusion among players with regards to understanding the issues differentiating each of the aquacultural processes being presented.
And that’s all she wrote (for Part II, 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/