Welcome back to our monthly blog posts, where we’ll be looking more in-depth into Season: a letter to the future – and peek behind the curtain to see what inspires our team. We’ll use this space to tell you more about our world, our characters and the talented team of individuals working on the game.
In this month’s instalment, we will chat with Narrative Designer Megan Hutchison about the world of Season, its roots, and what we can expect from it when we explore it soon.
Questions with Megan!
1. Let’s start off with one that lots of folks get wrong, what exactly does a Narrative Designer do?
On Season, the narrative designers do story integration into gameplay mechanics. That is a bit of a wide net that I’ve cast there, but it is easiest to think of narrative designers as the bridge between game designers and writers. We take the words and story that the writer is trying to communicate and figure out how to build it into the world of Season. We do this by creating quests or things in the game to discover along the way.
We are very lucky to have such a small team on Season, and we support each other with the sprints’ tasks. For example, sometimes the writer might want some help figuring out lore that builds off of the landscape, or we might help with integrating accessibility text (subtitles). One of my tasks is ensuring the grammar in the game is Canadian (all the extra u’s and l’s). The narrative designers (there are two of us!) end up doing a lot of different things to support the development of Season.
2. How does a video game tell a story differently to a book? Or a movie? What is it most like?
It can be a bit of both! Games are intermedial products that blend different areas of creation together to build an experience. Narrative games are a byproduct of the media that came before them.
I find that books and movies hold control over the reader. You don’t have much agency as a reader – you can either read or not. There are no choices in where you go or what you choose to learn about; that’s where games differ. In Season, you choose where you go, so you can change the order of what you learn or explore sections to uncover more information. For this reason, a player is often referred to as a “cyborg”; they use the controller as a piece of technology that encodes their intentions for the game character to do. So through the controller, you become a cyborg and have agency.
Dr. Alexander Galloway has a wonderful collection of essays in his book: Gaming Essays on Algorithmic Culture, where he compares video games to movies. Regarding framing the camera, we can see inspiration from filmmaking (and Oli talked about this too in his interview below!). The team looked at their favourite movies to decide how the camera would act within the game.
Any of the narrative scenes are designed the same way as you would a movie. You have a script that turns into a storyboard, and then you animate the characters, add lighting, voice acting, and polish!
Video games are unique, but we are still just trying to tell a story and have the viewers be entertained.
3. In these blog posts we’ve talked a lot about what inspired Season, what specifically inspired you while working on the game?
I take inspiration from my studies and past experiences. I studied filmmaking in undergrad and worked in a theatre for a while on sound design. Then I did a masters in literature. Now I’m working on Season and doing a PhD in game studies.
The class I keep returning to is one I took for my masters, taught by Dr. Sandra Singer on trauma studies. Which I know sounds dark, but I love dark things. We learned about the collective memory of events, which is best described as a question, like “where were you during 9/11?”. This question for people alive during that time triggers a memory of when they learned of the fall of the towers. For me, I was in school and too young to understand what had happened, but my parents could tell me exactly what they were doing on that day. It’s the idea that events tie us all together, we all have different perspectives of an event, and piecing those together will give us a better view of the moment in time they lived within.
As Estelle meets people, I remind myself that we are writing a story that isn’t egocentric. Estelle is there to show you the world and learn; everyone has a story to tell.
4. Are there any early concepts while developing the game that didn’t make it in but still stick with you?
I had written a lot of lore that isn’t in the game. For example, I really like thinking about death and burials, so I came up with a history of how people were buried in a place that Estelle visits. But none of that made it into the game. Some may think “aww man that’s a bummer,” but I would disagree with that. The practice of writing that lore made me understand the world better, and pieces of it inspired other storylines. Even though an idea isn’t in the game in its original form, it still makes an impact on the story and the team.
For me, that’s the meaning of collaboration.
5. Without spoiling too much, what will players find familiar about the world of Season?
I find the farmlands really comforting and familiar to my life. If you watch our gameplay trailer, you can see the cows, which always reminds me of my grandfather’s farm. I grew up surrounded by these lovely large dogs (the cows act like giant dogs), and caring for them was a lovely pleasure.
With that, the locations in the game have some unique features, but they are pulled from the experiences and places that our team has visited. Some of the fears and stories of the characters are also very relatable to issues we would see in reality.
6. Is there any recent media, games or otherwise, that could have (or did!) inspire Season?
I am very new to game development, so I was given homework by my coworkers to learn more about level design and narrative design. I must say, getting homework to play games is pretty rad.
Oli had me play Assassin’s Creed Valhalla to understand how quest items can be hidden in a space that makes them not obvious but also work in the scene. He explained it as a radius of a location. Items should be placed by importance, with the least important items placed further away from the middle. For example, when approaching an area, a narrative item far away should introduce the quest, but it needs to be placed where it is framed by a player entering the area. Then the key to the quest is in the middle, encouraging players towards the pivotal point.
There are other games I looked to for guidance as well: Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, to understand how a mystery can be set up. Tell Me Why for emotional storytelling. Outer Wilds for world-building (I managed to permanently die in this game while streaming to the studio…). Finally, Disco Elysium for the gold standard for dialogue.
7. The world of Season is vast and rich, with a storied history. Is there any little tidbit or teaser that you love that you can share?
The Season’s history is based on the ages of our own world. We tried to base the way of life in each of these ages on what happened in our reality.
8. For any aspiring (or current) Narrative Designers that might read this, what is one piece of advice you might offer them?
Find mentors to support you. I am extremely lucky to work at a studio that listened to my interest in narrative design and took a risk on the community manager to teach her about things like how to use the Unreal Engine, and everything else that goes with game development.
My other piece of advice is to keep reading. I have a background in academics of games, and you can learn a lot from reading about game development. There are a couple of writers that I love, so I’ll tell you all about them. Matthew Thomas Payne inspired a lot of my masters research from his books Joystick Soldiers, and Playing War. For a look at Queer Studies in games, Bonnie Ruberg is your person, their book Video Games Have Always Been Queer is a great place to start. If you are more interested in learning about ethical choices in games, then check out Miguel Sicart, and start with Play Matters. Finally, if you want to look at gaming cultures, Mia Consalvo is your researcher. Her most recent book Real Games: What’s Legitimate and What’s Not in Contemporary Videogames, looks into gamer cultures of what we consider to be a “real game” or respectable to admit to playing.
Finally, leave your ego at the door. No matter your background, you will always have something to learn from discussing ideas with your team. Find that supportive environment and steal all the wisdom that you can.
9. What in Season feels most like home to you?
When I started to work on Season, I made a big move from Brampton to Montreal. I had been living in isolation with my family, surrounded by all I knew. It felt like I was breaking this safety bubble and what I knew to head into the unknown. It was the first move I made to be a real adult and live alone. As I worked on Estelle’s story, I felt comfort in this woman going off to explore the world for herself.
10. Is there any place, or person, in your life that directly inspired your writing on the game?
I mentioned my grandfather earlier. As I write, he keeps popping into my head. He grew up in Paraguay on a farm and went by horse to school. In his youth, he was an engineer aboard a ship, travelling around South America. He did many things before settling in Canada on the Ontario / Quebec border and became a farmer. As a child, I would follow him to the barn to feed the animals and then to the workshop. Every time I was in that workshop we would silently work, I would clean up the wood shavings and he would carve me a wooden bowl. I did that with him every time I visited, and he taught me the power of silence and connection.
Sometimes it’s not what you say; instead, being together can make all the difference.
The world of Season is complex, as are the people you meet. I like to think the place we built is one my grandfather would like to explore.
Thank you for taking the time to read our update! We’d love to hear your thoughts on our Discord, where you can talk to the developers, share your own inspirations, and learn more about Season.
Don’t forget that we also have a newsletter that will share some different information you won’t get in our blog posts! In our following missive, we’ll be sharing details about our upcoming Developer Q&A!
Be safe in your journeys, and never forget.