Creator Spotlight: Narrative Designer Jonathon Myers & "Sleepwalking Backward"

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I've been keen to contribute my storytelling skills to the video game industry for more than a year now, and during that time, I've met some incredibly talented folks in the business. One of them is narrative designer Jonathon Myers. Jonathon hails from a play- and screenwriting background, and presently works for Zynga Boston, as a Game Writer for its Indiana Jones Adventure World Facebook game.

I recently learned that Jonathon had participated in this year's Global Game Jam, a worldwide celebration of video game creation. There, participants are given only a weekend to make a working video game based on a specific theme. It's truly inspiring stuff, as is Jonathon's co-creation (called Sleepwalking Backward), which you'll soon learn about in this Creator Spotlight.

If you're interested in video games or storytelling, consider this conversation with Jonathon Myers a must-read. A special thanks to Jonathon for making the time to chat!

--J.C.

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J.C. HUTCHINS: Before we dig into Sleepwalking Backward, let's talk about your love of video games and game writing. What games, or game narratives, have made an impact on you over the years?

JONATHON MYERS: When I was young I loved the Zelda games and other titles that enabled me to feel like I was the hero of my own adventure story. And yet, something about those early NES games and RPGs like Final Fantasy were different in their story delivery when compared to novels or comics or movies. The interactivity and immersion better enabled me to pretend I was a participating character in a fictional world. As the story unfolded, I became an agent of action that had an effect on the world and a control over the outcomes.

Much later, I began to encounter games that focused directly on the power and possibilities of an interactive narrative experience. I played Passage by Jason Rohrer. In less than five minutes, I had a profound emotional experience from a very simple game. It enabled me to exist inside a simple sequence of events while my imagination pieced together a story during structured play.

While playing BioShock, I experienced a recognition and reversal as the protagonist of a classical story arc. I discovered that basic storytelling techniques could be applied to video game storytelling in refreshing, innovative ways.

HUTCHINS: What lessons from those experiences have you brought to your writing at Zynga and the Global Game Jam?

MYERS: Good interactive narrative is about the player’s experience of the story during gameplay. Good game stories seldom come from a writer or a designer first developing and then narrating a story to the player. It’s about the player having agency within the constraints and conventions of a gameplay system. Events are not told, or even shown. Events are available for player experience and events are accomplished by the player. Story is what happens inside the player when those events are encountered during gameplay.

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That is the challenge of being an interactive narrative designer and writing for games. Not only are you working with at team to implement stories, but the system will often determine a large portion of the experience before you write one word. You must come to understand the gameplay system and ensure that any narrative elements are not at odds with the experience of that system.

For example, my writing at Zynga Boston on Indiana Jones Adventure World is episodic, and even inside those episodes it usually displays in strings of 123 characters or less. Story nuggets and events are encountered by the player in bits and pieces for a few minutes here, a few minutes there, some today, some tomorrow, some next week. For a piecemeal experience like that, if you attempt a big story in which one moment is dependent on the previous moment for a long string of events -- well, it just won’t work. The attention span isn’t there, because if someone plays a little bit every day or every other day for a couple weeks, there’s not much potential for that player to remember what started the story or what happened that long ago.

We (the design team and I) now try to think of very simple and non-subtle information delivery opportunities that fit this system. We try to use repetitive elements in short term episodes that release weekly or bi-weekly, like serialized content. We embrace our adventure genre roots and the system of our platform. I study the old Flash Gordon Sunday comic strips and the characterization in daily comic strips because their efficiency in keeping simple and to the point is an ideal parallel.

When I’m fortunate enough to be part of something in which the narrative matters or in which people care about quality writing, then I must always recognize that I am only one part in a larger whole that is developing a player experience. I look back to the games and interactive story experiences I loved. I recall that the most exciting aspect of player story experience is portrayal of an agent of action in a fictional universe of gameplay. Many of the writing basics still apply, re: character, conflict, goals, obstacles, etc. However, you’re in trouble as a game writer the moment you forget that the end goal is an experience over which you have only indirect control.

There is a fine line, though. Does this mean we need to always tell hero stories that feed an inner fantasy? Do we always need a narrative experience to be uplifting, enjoyable, and triumphant? I don’t think so, and that’s where we enter the lesser explored territory. I often like to explore that territory whenever I get an opportunity to work on something as a non-commercial side project.

HUTCHINS: On to Sleepwalking Backward. Tell us what it's about, and what experience you and your Global Game Jam team were trying to create with the game.

MYERS: We wanted to make a game for the Commodore 64 in one weekend and that was our start. We all liked the idea of using constraints in order to push ourselves creatively. As we began, it was clear that we wanted to provide an emotional experience in the simplest way possible.

The simplicity of the narrative came out of the simplicity of our mechanics. It would take too long to have gameplay that was more than controlling a player character to push squares and move from room to room. We envisioned that each room would include an image that the player would piece together. We were slightly bound by the Global Game Jam theme and interpreted it as a backwards yet ever-present cycle, like walking up the down escalator.

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As designer/writer, I drew initial inspiration from a haunting song I had heard several times, Somebody That I Used to Know by Goyte. It was apparent by that point that our game would have a narrative focus and we were all interested in exploring something dark and moody. We explored our own processes while constantly checking in as a team to retain a unified vision. This guaranteed that the text, display, music, art, and mechanics would work in harmony.

A framework emerged that focused on a male player character moving backwards through the memories of a past relationship. The memories became naturally related to the images in the rooms. The gameplay exertion of into putting pieces back together led to the deeper narrative exploration. Given that narrative starting point, the system of action seemed to denote a denial and a need to fix something that had broken at some point in the past.

I won’t go beyond that because I don’t want to spoil the experience or provide a specific interpretation of events. The story is only in the player experience and ultimately it’s up to them to decide exactly what has occurred and what it means to them.

HUTCHINS: Tell us about the creative challenges the Global Game Jam presents to participants, and how you and your team overcame them.

Left to right: Arshan Gailus (Music), Elliott Mitchell (Art), Ethan Fenn (Programming), Gregory Kinneman (Programming), Jonathon Myers (Design and Writing), and (not pictured) Courtney Stanton (Producer).
Left to right: Arshan Gailus (Music), Elliott Mitchell (Art), Ethan Fenn (Programming), Gregory Kinneman (Programming), Jonathon Myers (Design and Writing), and (not pictured) Courtney Stanton (Producer).

MYERS: From meeting up and pitching ideas, to forming a team and completing a game, participants have less than 48 hours to accomplish their goals. So time is the biggest challenge. You can’t really think too much about decisions, you just have to stay focused and trust your instincts.

Good team communication also became a major factor while working within the time constraint. We used Google Docs and regular check-ins to gauge our progress. We had the good fortune of working with site producer Courtney Stanton, who consistently kept us on track and reflected back to us our scope and the consequences of our decision-making. If we suddenly recognized we didn’t have time for a feature or idea, we immediately readjusted and scaled back.

It would take another full blog post to explain the obstacles we specifically faced in making a Commodore 64 game! Two of my teammates have already written and posted on that, as you can see below.

HUTCHINS: If we wanted to learn more about the game and your work, where should we go online?

MYERS: You can see our Global Game Jam page to get some immediate information, a Commodore 64 disk image and a link to the playable game. The game itself is hosted and playable here on the site of our musician, Arshan Gailus. It only takes about 2-3 minutes to play. If you’re interested in our process and the constraints of making a C64 game, check out these postmortem blog posts by our programmer Ethan Fenn and our artist Elliott Mitchell. While I’m at it, I’d like to give a shout-out to teammate Greg Kinneman. His programming, QA, and feedback on the narrative were crucial to the success of the project.

If folks want to know more about what I do, they can check out my portfolio site here.