Episode 3: When The Magic Happens

by on May.14, 2013, under cognition, developer diary

The last few days of any game project are hectic. We know it, we have to work hard, and it’ll be long hours. Yet it seems that every time we reach this stage, I feel so overwhelmed by things that I always think that we’ll never make it.

Episode 3: The Oracle

Episode 3: The Oracle is a special one for me. Even though Nick Bryan took more care of the episode than I did, I always wanted to stay close to this episode because I knew it would be my favorite of the bunch. It’s such a critical one because this is the episode to reveal it all, the one where all the story comes together before the frantic ending that will be Episode 4: The Cain Killer.

To me, The Oracle has the better plot twists and some of the most gut-wrenching stuff in the series. It’s the episode that will make you torn about the motives behind the killings, and will make you see that everything is not as black and white as it seems. If we did our job right, by the end of the episode you might feel sympathetic towards characters you never thought you would feel sympathetic for.

So this episode needed the utmost care, and that’s why I never let it drift out of my hands too much. I was there when puzzles were being designed, dropped in the general outline for the episode, designed some of the puzzles myself, and took care of Act 4 (the ending section). I put it the hands of the very capable Nick Bryan, and stepped back to take care of Moebius or some non-fun business stuff that always requires my attention.

I was there during recording sessions, I butted heads with Nick every once in awhile because one scene or another didn’t make sense to me and rewrote full scenes the same day we were recording it. It was hectic, but it was meant to be as everything needed to be perfect, and finding the balance between giving enough information so the players could put the rest together was of the utmost importance. Also, it was key that the characters were really fleshed out, and in this, Nick did an amazing job.

Towards April, once I was done with the Episode 4 script, I put everything aside to dive into Episode 3, first with my producer cap to make sure that we would be able to release the episode in May, and then with my director cap  to make sure the episode was playing perfectly as it should. I started playing through the episode, taking notes, and handing them over to everyone. Then I had to step back again to make sure we finished the next milestone for Moebius, knowing that after that, we had just one week to finish Episode 3 before having to dive into Moebius again. I told Emily, our PR consultant, that we would send a press build by May 6th.

Moebius was delayed by a couple of days, and when I could finally get down into doing my full playthrough on Wednesday May 1st, I wanted to bang my head against a wall. Act 1 played wonderfully, only a few things to fix here and there, but as soon as I got into Act 2 and 3, and towards the final Act (which I knew was a mess), my one page of notes started to accumulate, building up all the way to 15 pages of things to fix. And some of these were major fixes, or full content that wasn’t in the game, or even done by the time.

It is in those moments that I feel like crying. Why is it that stuff that was on my previous notes was not fixed yet when our to-do lists said people had done a pass to it already? My blood starts to boil up and I need to find control, knowing we had an imminent deadline in 5 days, and that we needed to get it done.

Here’s an example of my notes by the point I was getting really aggravated; you can see that happening as I start using caps as I write my notes (If you close your eyes, you can hear me pounding at those keys!)

(Katie had fun editing this to make sure I didn’t give you any spoilers!)

When Princess Leia returns from any room after the Death Star explodes in the main room, she starts in the middle of the room. She should start by the room she came from – Weldon
I could check the flower and the sequence played again and the music was messed up – Cez
Future vision for Han Solo needs: 1) Cognition sounds and white flashes, vignette, putting Chewbacca back into place, and setting back his idle – Weldon.
Towers_Apartment_MainRoom_HanSolo– Sequence is messy. Han Solo doesn’t exit. Mara Jade walks in and doesn’t go back. CLEAN UP – Don’t move Mara Jade, Fade in with Han Solo already in the kitchen, cut from mara Jade WHERE SHE IS STANDING, and at the end, fade out and remove Han. -Drew
Apartment_MainRoom_HanSolo_swap– There’s nothing happening in this sequence – Drew
Towers_Apartment_MainRoom_HanSolo_LeaveIn– Sequence is freaking messy. DON’T MAKE HAN SOLO WALK. FADE IN WITH HIM THERE. FADE OUT. HE’S GONE – Drew

Something happens to me in these periods. Even though overwhelmed by the amount of work and the uncertainty and almost assurance that it CANNOT get done, I get a sense of clarity like no other time. Something switches in my brain that allows me to connect with the team of 15 people involved in closing the episode. And it’s then when I need to be firm but understanding, sharp and conscious of the amount of work and the little amount of time. Producer and Designer both at the same time, to be able to make the calls that designers hate, flowing through a myriad of bugs from the testers, designers and artists, things they all consider to be important, and manage them to focus on what really IS important. The big picture, always the big picture, and when that big picture is done, make sure I saved time for the details, because that’s where all the quality lies.

It’s in those situations where I normally throw away all of our conventions through the window and make a production plan that gives me control of what everyone is doing. Weldon complained at me because I was having too many places to update, but I wasn’t worrying about our redmine database at the moment. It was too polluted with unimportant stuff, as it always is towards the closing of an episode and I needed an absolute list for people to focus. So I made one, and we continued to update it every day.

I have an amazing team, thank God for that. We all knew that we were going to be working through the working, we all knew it was going to be long hours. I particularly must have slept no more than 3 hours if I got lucky each one of those nights, jumping in to get full hands on myself as I fixed bugs and sequences, and by the end of Sunday I was so exhausted that I managed to pass out on my keyboard in the middle of a meeting. But we stormed through it all together, and by Monday night, we had a build to send out to the press that had been thoroughly tested, and it was working perfectly, with minor polish still to be done for the release.

To think that an episode that still seems so unattainable can be put together to polish state in five days–that’s when the magic happens. And seeing happening around you so fast is fucking amazing. And for that, I have nothingelse to say but “Thank you!” to my team.

I’m hearing very good things about the initial impressions from the press on The Oracle, and I hope this manages to be the best episode yet, because it deserves it. The web it spins is so filled with surprises and touching moments that it definitely has that air of “best thing we’ve ever made.” It’s the one episode that will make or break the game for anyone following the series, and in my heart, I can only hope that the spectacular ending will leave everyone not being able to wait until The Cain Killer lands in their hands. And that’s another monumental task I’m ready to dive fully in now.

See you at the Episode 3 Launch Party–and good luck surviving The Oracle!

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