Postmortem | Speak Easy
Raising the bar
As I begin to write this, the project that I spent almost a year of my life dedicated to writing went live. It is now out there in the world and I have been in a weird haze. Speak Easy is all I worked on. I would wake up, leave my flat and get into uni to start working. My role as principal writer and co-editor gave me some of the best moments I have been fortunate to live through.
I don’t really have anything to do anymore, so I decided to give this the send off it deserved and perform a postmortem, or at the very least write about my time working on it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t start by pointing out that my work on the project meant nothing without the team of incredibly hardworking, talented and patient people building the house my story would fit into. Ideally, I’d get each person who worked on the project to chip into this write-up but that’s not feasible. Two of them are currently in Turkey, another is away with his partner, a fourth has a full time job.
Conveniently, my first choice for this write up, and co-editor, was on hand to help me.
Hello! I’m Spooks. (I mean, technically my given name is Sophia, but who uses, like, actual names? C’mon, we’re all fellow gamers.) I’m a UI & concept artist, and occasional editor with a penchant for overusing commas.
As you’ve just read, I’ll be having Spooks on hand to correct me throughout this piece and I might as well thank them once again for making my work useable. Now, onto the writing bit. As much as it would be nice to write this in a simple, chronological manner, it’s not that easy. Most of the important lessons came across the entire project. This means we’ll be covering the key areas instead of key times.
Fair warning, I could talk about this past year for a very long time so I’m going to highlight a single point from the key areas of the project. Spooks will do the same, talking about either her time as lead UI artist, being the ‘fixer’ or editing my mess.
It wasn’t a mess. It was pretty damn good, honestly.
The decisions and discussions around the length of the narrative is something that taught me a lot. Early on, we’d decided on some of the key points of the narrative. It was set in Chicago in the 1920’s. We knew we wanted to have a conflict between the police and the mob with the protagonist caught in the middle. The big issue was deciding how long the narrative should be. We had initially plumped for a story told over seven days. Each day would have its own internal story or theme and end on a throughline. I took inspiration from serial TV shows like House M.D which follow a similar pattern.
This was… optimistic. Attempting to write multiple days worth of content by myself, even with the help of my team in the editing process was vastly overestimating my own skill and the time it would take.
This taught me that you can either do a lot, or do good. We chose to do good work over doing a lot of it. It turned out that I ended up doing a lot of work, I vastly underestimated the time it would take. We ended up cutting the story down to three sequential days. I managed to keep the general structure of a throughline and individual highlights. Day one told the story of an unsteady love. Day two explored the class divide while day three delved into the protagonists’ personal life. Looking back at this early point in the project there isn’t much I’d change. I didn’t know the amount of work it would take and when I figured it out, I changed the scope of the story accordingly.
This is something that I really want to highlight for anyone moving into writing for games. When you have a deadline, you need to be willing to ‘kill your darlings’ and rescope the project if things change. If it’s your first project, you will make mistakes. It’s normal, but the better writers will adapt and rework whatever they have.
As Alfie said, it’s easy to overscope. Once the team settled on a 1920s bartending game, we were quick to limit the game’s environment to a single room. We had six artists, but things always go wrong. It was better to have one clean, polished environment than several underdeveloped ones. This was to our benefit. As it was, the last two weeks of development were filled with frantic bug-fixing, editing, texture updating, and so much more. It also, however, meant we grew complacent. A seven day narrative? A money system? A day and night system? Why not? We had 8 months, a limited scope - surely we’d be just fine.
We weren’t fine.
It is human nature to want to write more, create more, do more.
In game development, you cannot afford to. It’s one of the most important lessons I’ve taken away from Speak Easy. It is better to create a tight, highly-polished experience (and if there’s time, add more later), than it is to spread oneself thin trying to add every last idea in. Yes, there are systems and models and mechanics I wanted in the game that didn’t make it in, but any game developer could say the same about any of their projects. The game is good, and it’s because of the concise vision that drove the project.
Like Alfie said: You can either do a lot of work, or you can do good work.
In contrast to the mistakes of planning, my work on the character profiles is something I am incredibly proud of. I knew very quickly that my art team was more talented than I could ever imagine, so trying to dictate to them what characters look like was stupid. I shouldn’t be trying to limit what they can do, so I worked alongside them. They had been researching the style and look of the 1920s, so I’d be remiss to not use that knowledge to my advantage.
I started the creation process by planning out what each character was for. With limited time on screen each line of text has to have a purpose, the same goes for each character. I mentioned earlier that each day was to have a isolated story running over the longer narrative, so I built the characters to tell a very deliberate part of that story. I’ll only talk about one in detail, Evelyn Ellison. She was designed to represent the growing black community in Chicago, hinting at the still unsettled racial tensions within the city while discussing general life for the poorer people of the 20s. The further I got into creating the character the more I realised just how important she was. Media like ‘The Great Gatsby’ had turned the public perception of the 1920s into a glitzy time of freedom. In reality, it was like every other decade. People suffered under unfair policies, the rich took every advantage and crime was rampant. Evelyn was my way of showing what life was really like, especially in the post war haze of the 1920s, where men went to defend the USA and many came back to a country that couldn’t get over the colour of their skin.
You don’t have time to waste on screen, use every character for a reason. The day of the generic NPC are over, characters are constantly becoming deeper and more like real people. Give every character something to make them interesting, be it physical or not.
I’m a firm believer that stories are best told through characters. It is one of the things that makes Speak Easy so strong. A society is the people within it, not old rocks that have been in the ground for thousands of years. When you learn about someone, you learn why they are who they are, and in turn, about the culture that shaped them. Brief comments show how deep the scars war leaves are, while care for a son reveals the complexity of someone you may have already made your mind up about.
The 1920s are easy to summarise. The vast majority of those still alive cannot possibly truly understand the decade; we were not alive to experience them. Through the wealth of research that we did, however, (thank you, Penryn Campus Library), we learned something important (if not more obvious to others than to us). People have always been people, for better or for worse. Humanity’s worst aspects always have and always will exist, but humanity’s best parts survive even in the most dire situations. Small acts of kindness, like asking a stranger if they need help, explain a person’s nature and provide insight into the culture and world they grew up in.
The last thing I’m going to talk about is the most important lesson I could give. The biggest thing I learned from working on this project is that you don’t know nearly as much as you think. Throughout the entire drafting, redrafting and editing process I was researching. Constantly adding new information into my work to make it as good as it could be. I can’t understate how important is it to constantly be reading and trying to find new information is. Many of the writers in my year stopped reading after their planning, this meant that they missed some really cool things that could be added to their game. One example of something I found months after I started was the wealth of terms the people in 1920s had for being drunk. It’s both hilarious and fascinating. This meant that both me and Spooks sat on various websites reading all these slang terms. When we added them into the game it turned it from a conversation set in a hipster bar trying to look like the 1920s, to a chat within a speakeasy in the actual decade. The small details have the biggest impact. Don’t stop researching!
You always want to immerse readers into your story as much as possible. UI art in often goes understated. It’s a menu, a cursor, a pause button: How thematic does it have to be? However, players notice bad UI. In a game as atmospheric as Speak Easy, you can’t have bad or modern menu design ripping players away from the experience. I was new to UI art. It was a difficult challenge to concept menus and figure out wireframes and fonts and cursors and ohmygodsomanynewthings, let alone create a UI that was thematic without being stereotypical. It took two months of staring at Pinterest to come across a newspaper advert that lead me to create busy newspaper-themed visuals for Speak Easy’s UI.
It was a risk: UI, first and foremost, should be usable. My job was to blend that with thematic art that enhanced the game experience. I succeeded, but only after asking working UI artists for critique and doing multiple playtests. I learned the value of asking players for feedback. UI needs to be intuitive. When you know what something is meant to do, how can you accurately assess how easy-to-use it is? I also learned the value of spending effort at the start of asset creation. If a mistake exists at a fundamental level, it won’t disappear without being addressed. A heavier use of wireframes, for example (grayscale images that lay out a UI’s design without thinking about specifics like fonts and colour choices), would have helped alleviate the visual clutter in the pause menu. Moving forward, I’ll be making heavier use of wireframes to better guide players’ eyes.
So, this was a brief postmortem on Speak Easy, a physics based 1920s bartending game with a narrative focus. I’d like to thank Spooks for spending time working on this, and also thank the team as without them, this project doesn’t exist.
We hope you enjoy.
Spooks is a UI & concept artist who’s just about to enter year three of a Game Art degree at Falmouth University. Follow @srodyakin on Twitter for fewer commas and more art.