Amplitude Postmortem (2): A Certain Magical Vortex

Amplitude Postmortem (2): A Certain Magical Vortex

Read the workflow article here.

My character route is Theo, the silent-cool-know-more guy.
Xero’s notes for him gave general direction in his possible endings and a backstory to reveal. Interesting. He looks good, even if the jacket’s hideous.

But he doesn’t have much going on in terms of personality.

He also gives me so much problem in deciding how he would interact with the rest of the cast. If you don’t know already, this guy is a walking spoiler, so proceed with caution. Theo’s path is distinct in which it doesn’t relate much to the protagonists’ world, but relates a lot with the Freak-Quency and Amplitude worldbuilding itself. Setting up the relationship is difficult since unlike the other romance options, neither the Soul nor the Vessel has anything to do with Theo before.

So, yeah. If you’re a Freak-Quency player, you know Theo’s former personality. But it’s so long ago already and he was just a boy back then. Theo might as well be a new character and there’s no way to compress his development from him-before and him-present within the scope of the game. Remember, this story is Katy’s. To push Theo’s story all at once would be overwhelming and detracting from the main story. He’s an old fan favorite and he deserves his own spotlight. (Um, DLC for character side stories, anyone?)

I’d like to give more nuances into his character, but the chances to interact with him were so few and far between and overlapped with his role in the main story, so he got relegated into some sort of a secret character type in the context of a love interest. This had another repercussions. So, yeah, anyone who’d attempted his route know how troublesome it is. You see, it began as a joke. Secret character, right? I grew up playing RPGs, and was known to be quite strict as a person, so when given this character to handle, we joked whether we could make this an optional boss kinda thing, one that would demand more effort and maybe, true to the classic RPG sidequest, a ‘Guide Dang It’ (yeah, yeah, sue me now).

The end result was a bit more than we could chew. So the good news is Theo’s path, in my original script, checked all five status traits, but Xero toned it down to two out of five to make it more manageable. The bad news is, in order not to tamper with the main story, she set time limits for some of the events. Quite a strict schedule, at that. This amped up Theo’s path from a lowkey Guide Dang It to a true Guide Dang It. While I had since passed the route more than a dozen times (sometime really a dozen in a single day) and could recite the requirements in my sleep, it was so bad when it was first available for beta testing. I failed so many times that I had to WRITE MYSELF A GUIDE. And I was the one writing the route. With free access to the game’s script. Imagine that. The other beta tester assigned for this route ended up messaging me directly for a step-by-step.

I had a lot on my plate. With so much work to get done, players would naturally expect highly from the route. Would I be able to write a route decent enough to not betray the hope? It would be a disappointment if the whole thing turned up to be a forgettable route not worth the effort. Sure, I could troll the players as much as I want, but not delivering means they may not return next time. Even if we meant for his route to be played last, having his route at all demanded us to pay attention.

Every character has five stages of events, but Theo’s got so long with all the side scenes and optional dialogues that Xero decided to cut the fourth part. It was an understandable decision, yet not one without regret, because that part was the “switch” part, bridging the budding friendship in part three to the climax leading to the ending in part five. The relationship had been very slow burning so far, and the fourth part had me in agony because I had to show that something had changed between them–from reluctant acquaintance towards lifelong friends and maybe something more. I wrote and rewrote this part a lot. Some of it ended up incorporated into the third and final part to at least lessen the gap.

On the other hand, I was surprised to see that 90% of my scripts stayed intact. Some other routes were almost completely redone, or only the general idea ended up used.

Detailed commentary for each chapter follows, which naturally warrants another SPOILER WARNING:

Part 1 – Encounter: Virtually nothing changed here aside of the bravery check. My original script gave possibility to fail the ‘jump the fence’ option, but at the final version Katy’s default bravery will always be sufficient to bypass this check. I deliberated back and forth where this encounter should occur. As the town’s crowded enough, I think Xero’s choice to tuck it into training is a good one. As an added bonus, completing Theo’s route will always give you the best Soul ending.

Part 2 – Suspicion and Truth: It’s an awkward stage in which you have to dig out the past and pave way to ‘getting to know each other stage’. I envisioned Theo to be difficult to approach, and you had to prove you know something in order to get him to notice you. Xero rewrote some parts the conversation with Miss Exposition I shamelessly named after her to fit the Freak-Quency canon proper.

Part 3 – Get To Know Each Other AKA This Is Supposed To Be A Dating Sim But We Barely Talk This Far: this section consists of the confrontation plus three extra scenes. This is also where I decide to portray Theo as a pop culture fan, as it’s something fleeting he can enjoy without being much invested into the human interactions. I wished to infuse his speech with more callbacks to “old” media, but having him interact meaningfully with Katy was difficult enough. I wish I could write more scenes involving Emily, since she is a big drive in Theo’s life.

Part 4 – The Attack AKA The Deleted Scene – As mentioned earlier, this chapter was intended to be the tipping point, with Theo realizing that he more or less cared for Katy’s wellbeing as a friend and would not wish to see another soul died on him. Katy could die in this scene if her battle stat wasn’t high enough. My note for this part is available here for your perusal.

Part 5 – The Finale – I don’t like stories where the characters seem to fall in love easily and quickly, so given the differences that must be solved between Katy and Theo, plus the May-December romance foregone conclusion, I wished I could do something different, and proposed to delay cementing the relationship until about fifteen years post-game, mentioning their constant communication. Xero gave me the choice between Theo taking over Malkav Industries, or retire entirely from the worldly affairs. I chose the latter. However, due to my mistake in not submitting CG request, Xero had one made already, in a vastly different direction. My original ending was somber. Xero felt like she wanted a humorous one. It ended up not quite here nor there.

As you can see, writing romance is not my forte. Theo’s route got bogged down a lot by my penchant to drama, major reliance to narratives (the NVL-mode) and the necessity to provide exposition ended up with the game’s worst offender of an info-dump, something I as an editor tried to cut from the rest of the script. My personal favorite is Grace’s route, which I think offers the best dialogue (kudos to riesling, who’s embarking on another visual novel scripting project).

Do I succeed? I will let the players decide, but personally I think I could do better. Many of the dialogues fail at portraying both Katy and Theo. Overall, Theo is complex and I’m afraid I don’t do his character justice as it is now. There are still so much avenues to explore, scenes to dig deeper. I wish I could have another chance to flesh him out properly. This might drive me to write fanfictions in the future…although at this case I wonder how much of a fanfiction that will be? It has to be noted though, that even if Theo was mine to play with during the development, the character and canon interpretations belong to Xero. She’s the one with Word of God.
I’m sorry if his part feels rushed, but I’ll be happy if you can enjoy his route!

Next is a wrap-up at the entire thing and some sneak peek to the upcoming project.


Amplitude Postmortem (1): The Workflow in the Flattened World

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, 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.