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 could now share with you the report detailing the development cycle for the visual novel. Over the past few weeks, I published subsections of the paper penned for Streams of Nurture. Each part focused 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 final post in a series of design articles explains the lessons learned from Streams of Nurture. If you're interested in reading about the pre-production, narrative, audiovisual and general design phases for my visual novel, feel free to peruse the first, second, third and fourth 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.
Lastly, if you're interested in trying out the near-final build of the game, you may download the .zip package, extract its content and launch the .exe application via the following link. The VN_MQP (codename for Streams of Nurture) file is at: https://www.dropbox.com/s/1tksnv06hq2vvrk/Streams%20of%20Nurture-0.1.0-win.zip?dl=0
Given that virtually all of the collaborative work had to be done independently among the team to remain flexible and meet the major project deadlines on time, the use of Slack and BitBucket/SourceTree became all the more crucial for us to assess the progress we were making. The successful integration of communication and workflow channels onto our portable devices allowed us to swiftly upload our updates to the cloud repository, and share our thoughts and suggestions on each other’s work. From expounding and reading our opinions on the writing and audiovisuals in our spare time to uploading and downloading changes to the code during each work session, the team always remained up-to-date on what was unfolding on our respective ends. This, in turn, led to better coordination of our workflow.
Perhaps the greatest assets the entire team had in the production phase of Streams of Nurture were the skeletal structure built prior to plugging in the dialog and art assets, as well as our sole dedication to the project during the semesters in which each team member worked without any other academic endeavors to take care of. With 2016 being reserved solely for the fundamental development of the narrative design and art style respectively, our team was able to work at a steadfast and much brisker pace that made us achieve our primary and minimum viable product goals far ahead of the deadlines we were assigned. Additionally, the modular nature of the story and efficient use of Style Transfer meant that our workflow was greatly expedited, leaving more room for potential revisions and inclusions to the code. Such a routine wouldn’t have been achievable if we worked on the title uniformly and concurrently with coursework across two semesters in a spread-out fashion.
Another benefit that helped streamline and bolster the development process with Streams of Nurture was the fact that a lot of time had been dedicated to cataloging and brainstorming topical references and ideas both before development on the project began in earnest and while the game was being built and tweaked. By beginning the research process on both the subject matter and dramatic narrative around it several weeks before the start of the 2016-17 academic year, the team was able to focus their attention on coming up with and appropriately scoping an experience goal we could see ourselves work with within the time we had to build the visual novel from scratch. From distilling and prioritizing facts about the salmon industry to finding an art direction that would complement the narrative and game world, all of our preparatory efforts led to a title that didn’t suffer from unnecessary feature creep or misguided design.
With the documentation and scoping having been performed prior to the start of Fall 2016, the team was similarly able to lay out a plan of attack with regards to gradually incorporating and sprucing the storytelling and artistic components that made up Streams of Nurture. With the writing, the initially leaden social banter and verbose explanation of salmon farming from the functional narrative stage morphed into more concise and natural-sounding dialog that balanced out emotional nuances and special characteristics with the aquacultural facts. As for the art, the employment and refinement of seafood-themed and tribal motifs on the environmental and character artworks begot a visual style that distinguished Streams of Nurture from the anime aesthetics predominant in the visual novel genre. The result was a distinctive game that felt both cogent and comprehensive in its depiction of coastal and aquacultural life.
Although the advisors and students ensured that they would congregate every week of the academic terms to discuss the progress being made with the visual novel in 2016, unexpected developments and schedule changes (inclement weather, illnesses, critical endeavors) throughout 2017 meant that the frequency of the otherwise productive meetings took a bit of a hit. The sporadic nature of these circumstances didn’t negatively impact the overall project, but it did lead to a lot of input pertaining to major additions to Streams of Nurture and best done in a face-to-face setting being put off at a later date. As a result, there was a slight disconnect among the team members that put us in situations where we feared that we would be missing important deadlines.
As much as the team has done to continuously work on the project and bring it to the level of quality we had envisioned from the get-go, the time actually spent playing the game and identifying issues not seen in the script or artworks themselves was ironically limited. The work sessions we partook in were solely dedicated to incorporating, uploading, and downloading additions and changes to the code we utilized and backed up. This engendered some technical quirks such as improper artwork positioning, incongruous or missing backgrounds and characters, and the occasionally improper spelling and assignment of dialog to particular personalities. Unfortunately, by the time we got to those issues, we were already well into Spring 2017, meaning that we had to prioritize asset polishing and finalization over brainstormed ideas that would further enhance the title’s narrative and presentation.
The independent and separate production of the art and narrative for Streams of Nurture proved to be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it did speed up development and allow us to add our unique touch to the content we churned out on a daily basis, making the visual novel even more compelling. On the other hand, however, this begot moments where both design components didn’t properly align with one another. These included limited character figures that didn’t reflect the broad cast of personalities featured in the game and misunderstandings about things like visual perspectives, lighting, framing and signs that needed to be portrayed onscreen at particular points in the game. The discrepancy between what was intended to be depicted and what was being displayed meant that unexpected revisions to our code had to be done to avoid having such errors affect the tone and vision of the visual novel, or other design facets such as the soundscape.
Originally, we expected Liam to produce both the art and audio for Streams of Nurture, and he happily agreed to handle both components. However, as time went on and the workload became increasingly intense, it was clear that we needed someone else who could dedicate their entire attention to the game’s sound design. Although we found such a partner in Dave Allen, we did so at the tail end of Spring 2017, meaning that he would only be able to start generating sound assets around then, a rather short timeframe given the scope and size of the visual novel. The same applied to playtesting since we first had to get the project up to an acceptable level of polish by early March 2017 before we could have outsiders analyze the narrative and artistic components of the title without being distracted by uncalled-for technical glitches. We think that adding both sound and playtesting at an earlier date would have resulted in a title that felt more complete and refined.
With our game taking heavy inspiration from tribal culture, coastal life, and the history of salmon fishing and farming, we knew from the get-go that the visual novel bore lots of potential with regards to topical authenticity. The idea of having our work both sponsored by various seafood and oceanographic organizations that seek to advance sustainable global fisheries on market economic conditions (e.g. Marine Stewardship Council, Monterey Bay Aquarium, etc.) and certified by actual natives sprang to mind and became one of our first goals besides materializing our experience goal and vision. However, due to unpredictable restrictions and occurrences throughout the academic year that necessitated more focus on the development of the title, we were unable to pursue the goal of sponsorship. The same could be applied to promotional online activity that would have spread the word about the title’s unique premise and look.
Over the course of development, the project team and advisors spent much of their time together brainstorming additional narrative and gameplay possibilities that, although not part of the minimum viable product, could be explored and experimented with further down the line to expand the story and give it a more dramatic edge. These included dialog trees to bolster their knowledge of aquaculture, the world and cast of characters, moral choices that could lead to multiple endings and affect the player’s standing with their allies and nemeses throughout the game, and subplots that would intensify the characters’ level of internal and external conflict (e.g. a flashback-based story arc that further explained why the protagonist’s father mysteriously vanished). There was also the likelihood of creating mini-games the player could partake in to get a tactile feel of salmon farming (e.g. scanning electronic tags for salmon, extracting eggs, meting out fish feed).
As fetching as these character arcs, storytelling methods and gameplay mechanics were, they heavily depended on the skeletal framework and kinetic dialog that was laid out at the start of development. So what we did instead is put them off for later while gradually fleshing them out via documentation. Due to the intense and unpredictable spring semester, however, we decided to maintain our focus on the base game and refine its core features to the best of our abilities. Ultimately, we believe that the additions we wished to make to Streams of Nurture could still be realized after the academic period once the visual novel has reached a high level of polish.
Narrative and gameplay were not the only areas that we brainstormed and fostered ideas in the middle of development. The students and advisors similarly looked at ways to enhance the title’s aesthetics beyond the tribal and coastal motifs that made Streams of Nurture distinct. From graphical tricks such as camera panning and zooming that emphasized certain objects in the background, to “hero shots” (i.e. animated character silhouettes and particle effects accentuating the onscreen action), interactive objects, and seasonal changes that made the visuals more dynamic, there were sundry possibilities the team pondered and took note of to elevate the presentation to greater visual heights.
Unfortunately, some unexpected quirks in the artworks (e.g. transparency issues, limited range of assets, incorrect backdrops) led to various revisions and tweaks that, although beneficial, put the proposed graphical features on the back burner. By the time most of the art was finalized and ready to be shown publicly, we were already well into Spring 2017, leaving us with little to no time to get most of our additions in without rushing and compromising the artistic integrity of the title. However, such features have been well-documented enough for us to potentially revisit them in the foreseeable future.
Although the BitBucket folder we leveraged to store the game files and our research notes was well-organized and had its (sub)directories function as intended, a modular approach to sorting written and artistic content would have further streamlined the structure and handling of the assets constituting the visual novel. Scenes could have been individually broken up to speed up the editing phases, artworks would have benefited from more chronological and categorized folders to determine what had to be incorporated into the title’s script, and documentation could have been collated according to the design component they covered (art, sound, narrative). The team didn’t have any major problems determining what needed to be stored where, but the addition of a few more folders and clearer nomenclature with regards to disciplines and time of creation would have gone a long way towards simplifying the process of updating and managing game assets even more.
With an idea as ambitious and niche as that of Streams of Nurture, it is clear that the title represents a unique edutainment experience that can be iterated upon and even presented to the public in its current state as of writing. The proposed features we brainstormed in the middle of development and had to put in the back burner for potential inclusion can indeed become a reality outside of the academic environment we worked in. Should that possibility be unachievable in the long run, the premise and narrative themselves can still be leveraged and applied to various other game engines. Nevertheless, the first full incarnation of Streams of Nurture proved to be a refined and cogent title with themes that are both relatable and malleable.
Additionally, the team contemplated the idea of having the title showcased at sundry gaming conventions such as the Boston Festival of Indie Games, Games for Change, and Different Games, as well as sponsored by oceanographic and seafood sustainability organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council, Oceana, and Monterey Bay Aquarium. While the slightly protracted production cycle of the visual novel preempted us from achieving that particular goal during the academic year, we believe that bringing the game to a higher level of polish further down the line can enable us to share our realized vision with those environmental bodies and raise awareness about sustainable aquaculture.
Perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from our time developing Streams of Nurture is that crafting a narratively compelling game around a real-world topic as multilayered as salmon aquaculture not only necessitates a crystal-clear vision, but also a lucid understanding among developers from different backgrounds of how to realize such a concept. From the preparatory documents that outlined the core features and structure of the visual novel, to the actual creation of the story and audiovisuals, the project gave the team a taste of the iterative and lengthy process associated with game development. Close collaboration, constant communication and advanced planning engendered a smooth production cycle that enabled us to fully deliver on the experience goal we came up with from the outset.
As an educational tool, the visual novel acts as a consummate example of teaching an important issue and field through the video gaming medium, a way of leveraging the interactive qualities of play to make the act of learning more appealing. As an entertainment product, our game displays the ability to marry dramatic storytelling with an unexplored premise and beget a distinct experience that makes it stand out from the anime-influenced visual novels that populate the market. As a passion project, Streams of Nurture represents the culmination of years of engagement with a peculiar topic, one that could inspire other game creators to make their unique interests become an interactive reality. As Craig Hubbard, narrative director at Ubisoft Massive, once said:
Creativity is recombinant, and the more inspiration designers take in, the more
they have to draw from and the higher the chances they'll produce something
with a distinct perspective.
And that's all she wrote! 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]