Chris’ Interview with Adventure Games Podcast and also Game Dev Necromancy!

I recently had the great pleasure of being interviewed by Seoirse Dunbar for Adventure Games Podcast. We had a long and fun chat where we discussed my history as a game maker, my work with Talespinners, and my work with the WordPlay Festival where I am proud to continue to serve as Festival Director. You can listen to the episode here.

Besides promoting the WordPlay Festival (coming up this November 9th and 10th), one of my goals in the interview was to talk about my own experiences making games in a way that would be accessible to people new to the game development world and may even inspire them to try making their own games.

That goal led me to talk about one of the first games I’d ever worked on as a game designer: Curse of the Mummy’s Brain!! As mentioned in the interview, I’d made Mummy’s Brain in 2011 during OrcaJam, an annual game jam that is run by IGDA Victoria. It was my first game jam and it opened my eyes to the amazing things that could be done by a small team of creative, motivated individuals over a short period of time.

After talking about it on the podcast, it seemed like a shame to me that listeners wouldn’t be able to experience the game for themselves, so I did some digging around, found the source code, made a bunch of updates to make it run on modern hardware, and posted it on my page for all to see. It’s a bit clunky, and there are definitely a few things that aren’t working as they’re meant to, but once again it’s back from the dead! I hope you’ll enjoy playing Curse of the Mummy’s Brain!! as much as I enjoyed making it.


The State of the Ironic Iconic Nation

Those who know me know that while I am a writer, I’m not much of a blogger. But I do like to take a moment on occasion to recount what’s happening in my life for the curious. I’ll begin with some highlights from the past year or so:

  • I recently celebrated my first anniversary of becoming a partner at Talespinners, a company that I’ve previous worked with as a writer for some time. We recently went through a restructure to a co-operative and founder Ian Thomas brought myself and two other partners on to help take things to the next level. Here’s the original announcement, if you’re curious.
  • Through Talespinners, I’ve worked on a bunch of projects for clients including designing and writing a special event for Bud Farm: Idle Tycoon for East Side Games, writing the launch trailer for Albion Online with Antimatter Games, writing and editing work on Cryptant by Orcari Games and story consultation for a VR project for DIVR Labs. Not to mention a bunch of work on unannounced projects for Playful Solutions, Jassim Albuarki, and the Royal Mint.
  • Returned to help organize the WordPlay Festival in November with the Hand Eye Society. And I’m happy to say I’m back again as Festival Director for 2019.
  • Was interviewed for an article for PC Gamer magazine: “The evolving art of dialogue in games“.
  • There was not one, but two EGLX cons last year: one in the Spring and one in the Fall. I spoke on the “Developing on a Dime” panel at the one in March and participated as a mentor in the Mentor Lounge at the one in October.
  • Participated in my first TOJam and helped to create the game “Grimistar” which was later selected as part of the TOJam Arcade at the Toronto Media Arts Centre (TMAC)
  • Returned to Breakout Con, a terrific local tabletop game and RPG con that’s been growing and getting better every year. I had a great time meeting new friends and old and playing loads of games. I’m looking forward to attending the next one though it’s months away.

Besides those highlights, there’s been a bunch of other things happening that I’m not at liberty to talk about yet, including work on a new game featuring a famous literary detective! There will also be a couple upcoming podcast appearances that I’m pretty excited about. Stay tuned as you know that I’ll be sharing more details as soon as I am able.


The good kind of TOJam

I recently had the pleasure of participating in the Toronto Game Jame or “TOJam” for the first time. As described on their website, TOJam “is a FREE, annual, open-to-the-public event where the craziest game makers in the world gather for a 3 day game making binge”. And what a binge it was!

The game my team worked on for the jam is called “Grimistar”. It’s a funny and unconventional 2D space shooter game inspired by the venerable arcade game Sinistar and aims to turn standard shooter conventions on their head. I worked as both a programmer and a writer on this project and had a great time collaborating with teammates Rocco Commisso, Brian Wong, and George Kallika.

Grimistar is available to play for free here on the page (while you’re there, have a look at my new Ironic Iconic Studios page). Give it a try and let me know what you think. I hope you have as much fun playing it as we did making it!


My PC Gamer Interview – Extended Edition!

I was recently interviewed by Xalavier Nelson Jr. for an article in the May 2018 issue of PC Gamer magazine, as you may have heard already if you’ve been following me on Twitter and Facebook. (Hey look! I’m on the cover!) The article in question is titled “The evolving art of dialogue in games” and is pretty much what it says on the tin, coming from a number of indie game devs including yours truly. Definitely worth checking out if you are interested in the nuts and bolts of story-making for games.

Due to limited space on the physical page, they couldn’t include all of my ponderings on the subject, but Xalavier has graciously allowed me to publish them here for the curious. Enjoy!

How would you describe the function of a dialogue system for a player unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of making a game?  Do you see the role of a good dialogue system as being substantial in a game’s overall quality?

Dialogue systems, as you might guess, are systems developed to deliver dialogue to the player. Optimally, they would allow players to navigate conversations in a way that best communicates the story and characters in harmony with gameplay. Although they are primarily concerned with narrative, they can also serve as a device to help the player achieve gameplay goals as well. For example, convincing a guard to unlock a gate to the next level through persuasive dialogue.

A good dialogue system isn’t necessary to make a quality game, of course. There are plenty of games don’t use dialogue at all and are still considered great games. But for games that are narrative-focused and feature a lot of spoken interaction between characters, a good dialogue system is vital.

Why is it somewhat complex to simply put text into a game? How much does your workload increase when you’re attempting to display text in a pleasing or emotive arrangement?

The one thing that I’ve come to realize as a game designer is that dialogue text in a game tends to occupy a space somewhere in-between dialogue text in a novel and spoken words in a film or audio recording. And depending on your game, it may be closer to one side or the other. Your methods for displaying text will have to reflect where on the spectrum your particular game lands. If your game has the capability for showing varied and nuanced animations of your character’s expressions, you won’t have to worry as much about representing the non-verbal or subtle part of their responses in text. Though you should still consider it, especially if you want your game to appeal to the part of your audience that has difficulty interpreting visual cues such as the visually-impaired or those on the autism spectrum, for instance.

How do fonts tie into a ‘good’ dialogue system?

When it comes to fonts, I often find that you know you’ve got it right when the player doesn’t notice them. You have to pick something that feels natural amidst the rest of the design. If the player notices the font at all, it means that either you’ve picked something that annoys them or that they are font-aficionados. Unfortunately, it’s usually the first one.

What considerations do you balance for when you’re putting dialogue in your own games? How do you look at dialogue in terms of the overall work’s pacing?

A big consideration is screen size. You don’t want to jam a whole bunch of words on a small screen. Even if you dole out the dialogue in bite-sized chunks, it’ll still take forever for the player to read them all. Of course, the type of game would also make a difference. If you’re creating a work of interactive fiction, then lots of text can be what your audience is expecting. It often really comes down to managing the expectations of your audience. Personally, I tend to make games where (I hope) the audience is expecting a fair amount of dialogue text. Even then you need to be frugal with your words and treat them like a precious commodity.

I try to vary the style of the dialogue in my games based on the current situation in the game. For more relaxed conversations between characters that are familiar and friendly I tend to let the dialogue be looser and more jokey. For intense scenes between characters in conflict the lines tend to be shorter and more punctuated. When the player follows the main story arc I adopt a driving pace that increases as they get further to their goal. Side conversations may have a more relaxed pace to let the player feel like they can explore the environment. Of course, this all can go out the window in an “open world” environment where it’s hard to control the order that the player will do things, but you do the best you can to keep a feeling of flow from one event to another.

How much did you have to bend dialogue conventions to convey the unique choice and investigation mechanics of Mandatory Upgrade? Did you find any deviations from the norm in terms of interface difficult to teach to players?

With Mandatory Upgrade, I stuck fairly close to standard branching dialogue conventions, but I included a few things tailored to the style of investigative mystery games. I was fortunate to work with a game engine that was designed in part for mystery games. Story Stylus is an engine made by One More Story Games with mechanics in place to, among other things, allow for the unlocking of conversation topics as you speak to the various characters in the game and present those topics on a selectable list in the conversation window. Having a separate selectable topic list was a little unusual, although not without precedent in some point-and-click adventure games and RPGs (Wizardry 8 comes to mind). Fortunately, players were generally able to figure it out quickly so it didn’t become too much of an issue.

This is a huge topic with a loooot of potential ground to cover, but briefly: when you’re not only implementing dialogue, but CHOICE in a game, how does this work behind the scenes? What concerns are you balancing? How does allowing for choice in a game affect its scope or wider overall design? Is the technical cost to build and display effective decision-making interfaces significant?

I think player choice is one of the things that makes games so interesting and engaging as a medium. After the introduction in Mandatory Upgrade I tried to make the game as “open world” as possible, allowing the player to go wherever and talk to whoever they wanted. This meant that behind the scenes I had to keep track of several things: who they met, who they talked to, what clues they found, whether they found enough evidence to solve the case, that sort of thing. I also allowed for some choices in how they acted towards the characters they met. As the player, will you choose to be sympathetic to other characters or be a hard-ass to get the answers your looking for?

The main issue with giving plenty and varied choices to the player is the sheer amount of work that it takes to not only write the multiple branches of dialogue but to keep track of the player’s choices and provide meaningful consequences as a result of those choices. Not to mention the fact that if you want any new systems to interact significantly with existing systems, the complexity will also rise accordingly. I actually had to cut back on my original plans to allow the player to develop different potential relationships with different characters because the technical and creative costs would have added months of development time that I couldn’t afford. I’d love the opportunity to play around with those systems in the future.

Can you detail a time when your dialogue system broke down, or otherwise impeded other goals you had for a title? If so, how and why did this occur?

When working on Mandatory Upgrade I ran into a few small things with the dialogue system that gave me trouble implementing my design goals. One issue was that the topic conversations didn’t allow for different initial responses based on current conditions, for example having a different conversation around the “Weather” topic based on whether it was raining or snowing. The developers hadn’t thought of using topics in that way before but were happy to add that functionality to accommodate me, so it didn’t turn out to be an issue. One thing you learn in making games is that the user, be it game designer or player, is going to use your product in ways you don’t expect and can’t predict, so it pays to be flexible.

Can you detail a specific time when you used a choice or branching system to evoke a reaction in players? Did this attempt succeed?

At one point in Mandatory Upgrade, the player is faced with confronting another character that they hold in high esteem with information about something kind of seedy that they may have done. It’s an uncomfortable moment and one of the dialogue options I offer appears to let the player escape from the situation. It’s a false hope though. They don’t get off that easily and are forced to continue the awkward conversation.

My plan was to evoke a reaction in the player by subverting their expectation that the choice they picked would give them the result they wanted. I wanted them to realize that nothing was 100% guaranteed in the game and hopefully make them feel slightly uneasy about that. I haven’t received any feedback about that dialogue specifically, but I’m hopeful that it had the effect I was shooting for.

Mandatory Upgrade coming soon to PC & Mac.

I have some news I’ve been sitting on for a while now: I’ve been working on a Unity port of Mandatory Upgrade: X Marks the Spot! It’s a new version of my award-winning cyberpunk mystery game that you’ll soon be able to download and play on your very own computer. I don’t have a ton of details to give you yet, except that it will feature some updates to the design of the game and new artwork by yours truly. Indeed, you may have already noticed the sneak peek at the new art style that I’ve included at the top of this very post. I hope you like it!

Stay tuned for further announcements as I get more info to share.

Come see me at EGLX!


I’m delighted to say that I’ll be attending the Enthusiast Gaming Live Expo this weekend (March 9-11) as a guest! I’ll be speaking as a part of the Developing on a Dime panel running from 1-3 pm on Saturday, March 10th in Panel Room 1. Join me to learn tools and tactics for developing games on a minimal or non-existent budget, a subject about which I am intimately familiar. Also, watch this space as I’ll be posting a number of resources on my website afterwards to help you with your micro-budget game development needs. See you at EGLX!

A photo from November's WordPlay Festival

Looking Back and Looking Forward

2017 was an interesting year. Not interesting in the “may you live in interesting times” way entirely, although there were certainly a share of challenges during the year. One challenge that was a welcome one was the challenge of becoming familiar with my new home in Toronto and getting to know a city I haven’t had much contact with for twenty years. But instead of focusing on the challenges that 2017 had brought, I thought I’d focus on some of the highlights:

And all of that is just stuff I can talk about. There are also a few things brewing up behind the scenes that I hope to be able to talk more about soon. Unfortunately, this means that the “looking forward” part of this post is going to be a bit light in detail at the moment. Rest assured that more news will be forthcoming as 2018 progresses. You can definitely expect to see more news about Mandatory Upgrade related projects, and possibly something around a certain web-comic that remains near and dear to my heart. Oops! I may have said too much, ignore that. Regardless, 2018 is shaping up to be an exciting year for Ironic Iconic Studios and I hope you’ll be joining me for the ride.