BY JEREMIAH LOONEY
What happens when you go to get firewood for your kids?
You get kidnapped and taken to another world of course…. At least, that’s what happens in Last Dream. Last Dream is a video game with a somewhat different approach to storytelling. Instead of using cutscenes that focus on the main characters, which I’m used to, Last Dream focuses on events in the distant past that led up to current events. Nearly a year after my first visit to Last Dream, I was able to join the testing for the expansion, Last Dream: World Unknown. Curious about how they put their stories together, I contacted White Giant RPG Studios for an interview. Their Chief Editor, Josh Mellon, was kind enough to agree to an interview.
Jeremiah Looney (JL): I enjoyed the story in Last Dream immensely. What was the inspiration for the story?
Josh Mellon (JM): When I was nine years old, a doctor prescribed a NES to address my… I’m really not sure. My mother haggled for one at a garage sale and I rented Final Fantasy once per month. The sun would rise and fall twice before the game was wrested away from me. Although as an adult I could complete the entire game in 15 hours, I never managed to beat Lich, the first boss, within two sleepless days as a child. The pathways in my brain are deeply grooved with NES Final Fantasy exploration and concepts, and Last Dream is an ode to this brilliant game.
JL: What were some of the challenges that you had to work around to get your story told?
JM: As developers of a retro-style game, we benefited from modern techniques that blend well with Player expectations concerning how a NES-era story should be experienced. We used over an hour of interspersed flashback cutscenes to communicate the mythology behind Last Dream, which is a more modern enhancement to the linear storylines typical of NES and SNES RPGs. We also leveraged a massive music library to convey the various emotions behind each scene, even though the era our game reflects had no such storage advantages. Hence, conveying our complex mythology, characters, and story did not strike our team as a challenge because our Players are nostalgic primarily for the vast open world, uncertain pathways, puzzles, flexibility, and unique characters; the story overlay is actually secondary to these elements. If we had a central challenge in getting our story told, it was to strike the correct balance between subtle and frank statements given that our Players may navigate across hundreds of unique paths through Last Dream. This challenge was addressed through the many generous game testers who provided feedback on how they experienced the story.
JL: Did you learn anything from Last Dream’s story that affected your approach to Last Dream: World Unknown?
JM: Good question. We learned that our Players wanted even more story development. We had already begun work on Last Dream: World Unknown in response to our Kickstarter campaign, so we applied the story-related lessons to Last Dream II, which will feature backstories that the Player will experience as individual journeys, not text, for each character. We have also fashioned broader cultures and conflicts in relation to each character, and our team is focusing beyond the central story arcs to how the many characters will evolve from their experiences.
JL: What makes writing for videogames different from other media?
JM: Video games offer many opportunities to show, not tell, the Player the tenor of an event. Movies share music and set design with video games, yet the self-directed journey the Player moves through is unique to video games and offers developers opportunities to add emotional texture to story elements. Books and articles are not usually synchronized to emotion-heavy music, and video games can drape a scene with tone-appropriate mapping designs. The Player also experiences subtle tugs from the coding behind the game that makes certain story experiences more difficult to achieve, thereby communicating degrees of importance. In addition to all of these advantages, as well as cutscenes and even meta-text, developers have the freedom to introduce as many characters as needed to convey the story arc.
JL: How do you go about putting narrative arcs together (do you decide the plot first, does the plot emerge as you put different parts into the game, etc.)?
JM: The primary plot is developed first with refinements as the mapping, music, and characters are crafted around the many villages and cultures we set into the game. Refinements consist of subplots that emerge as we develop additional quests for the Player to complete that hopefully deepen the primary storyline.
JL: How much did the story affect other aspects of the game, such as map layout or mechanics?
JM: We avoided creating diverging storylines that demanded revised map layouts and character text. For example, depending on the Player’s success in dismantling an explosive device within a volcano, a nearby village will either thrive or be decimated. In the former case, approximately one hundred characters will express a generally optimistic view of commerce and life. In the latter case, surrounding villages are in mourning and a diaspora has occurred. We felt this story divergence was worth the effort as one of many reasons a Player would hopefully elect to replay Last Dream. Our general guideline was to seek a story that was sufficiently flexible to accommodate wide Player freedom of choice.
JL: What got you interested in writing?
JM: If you will entertain an indulgent origin story… I spoke with a heavy lisp, struggled with phonetics, and attended dispiriting reading classes for poor kids going nowhere. I improved by using “fingerspelling” to kinetically memorize words and eventually was accepted into the honors writing program at Gonzaga University. After I became an English major at WOU, an admired literature professor, Dr. Keulks, pressed me on how I planned to invent money with writing…. This nudge away was paired with a pull from another professor to substitute teach his physics course and transfer to OSU’s stronger program. It was there, in OSU’s Modern Physics and Paradigms courses that this special-needs author benefited from a breakthrough fortune: getting to spend time with the unique individuals who would form the Last Dream development team.
While I enjoyed progressing through Quantum Mechanics in 2005, a stunningly-hurried decision from my past haunted me: I was a member of the US armed forces. I was slated to serve in Iraq as a transport driver, an occupation with an alarming casualty rate. In class, I felt stomach-twisting angst moment-by-moment over my pending deployment. I also earnestly promised my wife that I would return unhurt, committing myself to acquiring defensive skills during combat training. Midway through, I was taking 2,400mg of Ibuprofen each day to counter unyielding shoulder pain, incurred while drilling the two-person rush tactic I would later unleash vs. my friends during paintball battles, with rich satisfaction.
While awaiting the transfer order to Iraq, I supported the Army’s rank and promotions unit at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, an official combat zone. Troops stationed there got hurt in odd ways: one person choked to death, another died of heat exhaustion after we ran together, one fell on his M-16 barrel, another was accidentally shot, and two troopers were blown apart in a Kuwaiti theater I had just visited. My own oddest occurrence was when two Iranians repeatedly hammered their speedboats directly over my head in the Persian Gulf near Qatar, as I ingested burning seawater and screamed in murderous bewilderment. I was also bizarrely held at gunpoint while being bull-horned out of a minefield in camp… plus, a Frankenstein’s Monster-troop coldly informed me, two inches from my face, through clenched teeth and enraged, tear-filled eyes that “I will stab you in your right ear with a screwdriver tonight.” At the time, the above seemed normal.
In the end, I never received my Iraq orders and I never had a bullet fired my direction. My burden was enduring the prolonged dread of Iraq while resentfully supporting an ill-conceived mission, Operation Iraqi Freedom. To ease this 1.3-year deployment, I returned to writing. The Other Army is an absurdist book about the breathtakingly-unheroic support troops of which I was a part. Excerpts were published in OSU’s Prism Magazine and upon returning in late-2006, I paid an accomplished screenwriter thirty happily-given dollars per hour to help me enhance the story arc and themes. His improvement insights were startlingly necessary, and I scrambled to rewrite the text. I soon handed him the full manuscript, pleading for his direction in reworking the entire content. A week later he held the script with two hands, passing it firmly back to me with a look of tired disgust: “I hate the main character. I want him to die.” —The main character was me.
I could then see how profoundly broken the book was and I abandoned the seemingly un-fixable mess. Yet, my desire to write about subjects meaningful to me remained. Slightly wiser, the Last Dream developers and I compiled an outline for Last Dream. The storyline is fiction, but the many characters in Last Dream are written from people and experiences in my life. I find that giving voice to these characters within our game offers countless opportunities for meaningful reflection and potential closure.
White Giant RPG Studios is an independent development team with a passion for creating compelling storylines, challenging puzzles, and dynamic quests. Their game development journey has offered opportunities to support emerging artists, curate brilliant new music, practice creative writing and interviewee skills, and play video games with purpose (game testing!). You can learn more about them at their website: whitegiantrpg.com