Spearheaded by Xerofit51 as the continuation of her cult-hit free Visual Novel Freak-Quency, Ceylon Entertainment embodied respectable traits for a game company. Everyone got paid on time, the bills covered, financially green, and the product was delivered on planned schedule. Yet I couldn’t help but giggle whenever I heard it referred to that way, as if we’re proper employees of some proper companies with proper offices. Like many many many startups would attest behind the glossy websites, Amplitude: A Visual Novel was mostly made from messy bedrooms, cafes with free wi-fi, over thousands of LINE chats.
Thomas L. Friedman wrote about the notion of a hyperconnected, creator-driven cyberspace in his early 2000s book, “The World is Flat”. The progress in technology brought about globalization, and they now mean anyone could create anything, anywhere. As someone dabbling in pop culture and taking up the mantle of an amateur artist every once in a while, I’ve seen this materialized. Today, even a bunch of college students cramming up side projects in their spare time could produce commercial works under the banner of what sounded like a legit studio. And that’s precisely what happened.
Indie works were not unusual around us, but taking the gig up to commercial level took more courage and hella lot more effort to organize the entire thing. This was a challenge Xero rose up well to. She was determined to make it to Steam Greenlight, and gathered us all. She had made two VNs already, one for our club’s entrance challenge and the second for a personal challenge. Having known her prior work, I sort of freewheeled into the project as a combination of a cash-strapped college student and a friend thinking her buddy had something intriguing going on. Now, more than two years after, the game had been released and she was onto the next. I’m here to share a series of introspective notes I think many in the indie game industry might relate to, which might also provide an exciting insight to anyone else.
There are three posts on this topic. This, the first, concerns how I work on this game: the rough timelines, the way we communicated, what I felt during the development. The second will focus on the character route I wrote. The third will provide some wrap-up and teaser for the upcoming project, Lingering, graciously given by Xero!
Amplitude: a Visual Novel was a sequel to Freak-Quency, formerly reviewed here. Taking place on Earth in a not-so-distant future, the world had changed to the point that most people had some sort of superpower. Those who lacked them made up the lowest rung of the caste. At the beginning of the game, two teenagers committed suicides and two young adults were killed at the same time, kickstarting the whole story. You play as one of the young adults that has been given the chance to discover the truth behind your death by inhabiting the body of one of the teenagers. This creates four major variations within the game: Male-in-Male, Male-in-Female, Female-in-Female, and Female-in-Male. Each specific soul-in-body combination has their own special scenes and dialogues, and only by playing through at least two variations you will uncover what really happens.
I was credited as the script editor in the game, but my actual job description was a bit more random. I was a bit of an outsider to the rest of the team, and paid as a freelancer, so my workflow might be a little different. I’d never even met the whole team save for one Sunday afternoon when I came over for curry. Xero met with her team for lunches every now and then. I mainly got my instructions via LINE chat.
Xero drafted the whole plot and created the demo in a couple of months. I took a look at the demo but it was out before my edits could make it. We were like, oh well, it was just the first demo….how many would actually see it anyway? That demo ended up securing the funding for us. When Xero broke the news, my jaw dropped. “My god, this is real.” She picked some people from the club and offered odd jobs to anyone volunteering. Fans from her previous game came to help. The project was gaining momentum.
Since Xero took up the coding and the main story herself, for a while only the artists and voice actors worked. When the main story was about 75-80% complete, Xero commissioned the character routes. Typically one route per person. We were given free rein on how to develop and interpret the characters and relationships. Each route would consist of five stages and at least one CG. I stupidly missed the CG submission instruction, and as the result, Theo’s route has no CG. I will talk more on how I write Theo’s route in detail in another post. The caveat here was at this point Xero gave us the demo and partial script to start from, but we only vaguely knew where the story was going on (as it was still open to changes). In fact, we didn’t even know where the other writers would take their approaches. Some people worked more closely with Xero and the main team than the others, creating a weird imbalance of knowledge. That means we could get as creative as we could be, with everyone injecting their own marks into their routes, complete with a gazillion of pop culture references, but integration would pose quite a homework. We had small discussions and set up a Google Drive folder to see everyone’s tentative scripts. Xero took the finished scripts and integrate them to the larger stories, making adjustments where needed.
Xero was pretty lax with schedules as long as we hit it okay in the long run. This was the phase littered with personal problems. Release date got pushed back because people fell sick, slaughtered by courseworks, resigned, unsatisfied with their works, so on and so forth. Managing freelancers coming in partly for fun didn’t translate to people taking their commitments seriously.
Around the same time, voice lines came from all over the world and Xero asked some people (mainly the same persons who worked on the character routes) to help selecting and cutting the files. Afterwards, it was my turn to insert each line to the proper place in the story. Some lines would end up unused because the scripts went into many revisions and iterations. It was a pity, because we had some very nicely done unused lines! Maybe one day they could be packaged into some sort of a DLC bonus along with concept arts/sketches/extra materials not included in the finished game (maybe? I would like this kind of DLC for games I like, for one.).
Once contributions from all the commissioned writers came in, the scripts totaled to 200.000+ lines across all the major branches and the sheer size itself presented several challenges. I was to work on both general editorial role and copyediting, meaning I had to consolidate information across all routes to preserve consistency, while also making sure ‘Business District’ was spelled correctly. If you remembered how we worked, well….it went as smooth as you could imagine.
Amplitude writers all had different styles, voices, and English proficiency levels. Xero wanted to preserve some of the individuality in styles and voices to keep each route felt different and fresh, which was a sound idea but a logistical nightmare. Due to the way the character routes were commissioned, we also had different character interpretations in each route. A character might have certain quirks that only appear in one route. A character might shed a piece of backstory in route A, and another piece of backstory in route B, but they contradicted each other. My homework was to get everything ironed out. As a bonus, we also had the references. All those references! You could find anything from Niga Higa to at least two musicals and a couple of 90’s JRPGs, and I’m sure there were many I might’ve missed. It was fun recognizing them, but they did stump me every now and then. So….if you play the game and thought, “Wait, isn’t this…” It probably is.
Amplitude had four major variations. Given the way they were coded, it came to resemble some sort of a linguistic whack-a-mole. All four variations shared some common scenes, but most of them appeared as different scenes in the scripts. That means if I had fixed a spelling error on Eric’s dialogue in the Adam-in-Jon scenario, I had to fix it in all the other three scenarios as well. This is easily missed even if we put in many test-plays because not everyone can notice that the verb in Liz’s speech at the ball is missing an ‘s’ specifically in Eve-in-Katy scenario (and only if you pick a specific choice in a specific sequence!). That’s not even counting the branching from the other choices. Many times I felt like fixing the same typo in the same dialogue a dozen times already and still have to do more. The feeling of deja vu was immense. The exact same thing happened if you’re wondering why a line is voiced when you play Katy but not when you play Jon.
So yes, if you played Amplitude and noticed such inconsistencies, I’m the one to blame. Put it in my tip jar (just kidding, but thanks). I have to stress that I did have fun doing this, and Xero was a great boss. The amount of freedom kinda drove me nuts, though.
I got most of my job done on schedule until I hit one too many all-nighters where, somehow, I managed to lose 24.000+ edited lines comprising of about three days worth of work, and had to redo it all over again. Being a ditz I am, I managed to lose it in such a way that even the backups were overwritten. Problem is, I cannot remember every single changes I made, and where I made it. My judgment could have differed from my first handling. That batch had some massive rewrites ranging from inconsequential additions of morning greeting variations to extra lines to emphasize certain characters and events. I tried to do as much as I could on the redo, but they’re not going to be exactly the same. I think I caught up new things to change during the second attempt, but I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling in my chest that there were some gems in the first attempt I just had to let go. This, coupled with another accident in the art department, pushed the release date back another two weeks. Xero finally settled on Sonnya’s birthday, aligning it to Freak-Quency’s webcomic release on Lezhin.
The latter part of the editing phase was held concurrently with the beta-testing phase. I’d been working strictly on scripts up until then, as the CGs were in progress, so finally getting to see the game as…. well, a game, was quite a feeling. It was weird to see names and lines lining my Sublime Text screen had now come alive with pictures, sounds, and animation effects. Aside of the obvious merit of beta testing process, that is finding and squashing bugs, it aided me to find a more obscure type of textual errors: the segregation between the narrative and the pictures. Sometime things make sense grammatically but deviated greatly from the visual depiction. One hilarious example was when the text said that you summoned a lion, but the CG showed a tiger. (Reply from an addled, we-had-deadlines Xero,”….Oh, they’re different species?”)
The quiet days leading up to the launch were filled with more and more and more test plays, with messages sent back and forth to the general idea of,”Uh, yesterday we’ve been through this and it seems well but I just noticed that this happens if you do this.” She told me to skip the script covered in the demo since it was proofread by another person before, but nearing the release I realized that said part needed much work. We decided to fix it afterwards since pushing the date for a couple of grammar mistakes would be unnerving. I was so eager to talk about the game with just anyone aside of Xero herself, but being the only one working so intimately to the scripts meant no one else knew the game story that much at that point. Not even the other writers. I was a walking spoiler, and the other writers wished to figure out things on their own (we were fans of the game too, inside). Once they began playing their copies, we started to compare notes on each other’s routes.
Three agonizing days in which I kept finding lines to fix.
Then we were live. The game was there on Steam and itch.io, and people could shell out their hard-earned money for our works. Inquiries started pouring in from the early buyers. What ensued afterwards was a week of frenzy where we fielded people’s reports on bugs and typos. I too, played and replayed the game multiple times till I was numb, hosted some game nights where I could see the characters and dialogue boxes on a big screen, then listed all errors I could find because apparently after all those all-nighters, there were still bugs and typos. These parts would get fixed or notified to Xero, then we played some more. Xero patched the game. And yet still bugs and typos. Xero deployed more patches. Some were more esoteric than the others. We got stuff that couldn’t be reliably replicated. Sometime things work on my laptop and Xero’s and my friend’s, but wouldn’t run on a customer’s machine. Sometime things just got fixed without anyone touching anything. We learnt the fragility of Ren’Py the hard way when an error fix would make some other things stop working, or when a patch corrupted save files.
But getting the game up was the easy part. It wouldn’t do if it didn’t sell. Marketing copies were sent out. Press releases. Official announcements. Xero was so busy in this time period so I trawled the game scripts to compile some walkthroughs that people was asking for. I needed something to do. Rheine (who wrote Katy’s route) and I refreshed our Google searches many times over the course of the day, our fingers itching to be trigger happy. One review came in. Two. Hey, we have a let’s play up! We worked on just a small minuscule of part from the whole game, but the whole launch sent us off as nervous twits. Since I was commissioned on freelance basis, technically I didn’t even have to worry about the sales number. But the creator in me wanted to see people’s reactions. I couldn’t imagine how it would feel to be Xero herself. The game was her brainchild, the culmination of two years sweat and toil. We weren’t in the red in any way, but the question was indeed nagging: would people buy our game? Would they like it? Could we justify making another game?
Xero had all the statistics. Everyone was getting catatonic. I punched myself in the gut everytime I see a reviewer pointing out about the proofreading quality.
But hey, the game was there, and it wasn’t going anywhere.
Next I will be talking specifically about my writing share: how the Theo route was developed, what made the cut and what didn’t.