The Making of Zombies and Elephants

ZOMGThere once was a short story called Elephants and Zombies. It was written in 2010 and didn’t have a very happy childhood, because the author (that would be me) was never quite happy with the first draft. She opened it up a couple of times, moved a few bits around, and then sort of forgot about it. And then a man named Richard Goodness came along…

That could be the story of how Zombies and Elephants happened, but it isn’t. It’s more like the second act of that story. Here’s the first act:

I once had a dream. In my dream I went to a small house in Cape Town (only it sort of looked a lot like Dover, which I’ve never really been to… never been to Cape Town either… ah… go figure). In the small house in Cape Town a very nice old man who used to direct plays at university was tending bar and I gave him a banjo. Might also have been a guitar, I’m not so sure anymore. The nice old man was happy and then some shit happened and at the end of the dream I was somehow up on a tree on the slope of a hill and before me a zombie elephant was eating someone’s brain.

And I thought: “Cool, I wonder how that might have happened.”

That’s how Zombies and Elephants got started.

So. Yes… fast forward to December 2013. That was when I first heard of Fear of Twine. And it sounded like a darn good opportunity to make my first game. Only I didn’t have a story. Which, if you consider that Twine games are exclusively text-based, was a little bit of a problem. But no worries… still plenty of time until the deadline.

Weeks and weeks pass, with every little spark of imagination scurrying for cover whenever I come near. I stalk the ideas, set traps, put out little bits of cheese… all to no avail.

Deadline week. Still no idea. Richard is nice enough to extend the deadline a little (not only for me; at that point I’m still not sure whether I will participate at all). Second deadline week arrives, stares at me angrily. I cower in fear.

And then while I’m talking to Jonas about his game, The Matter of the Great Red Dragon, I suddenly remember that old story. And I realize that it would really be much better as a Twine than as a short story.

Three to four hours of fruitless searching on at least five hard disks reveal that I must have at some point become so frustrated with the original story that I deleted it. Oops. But what’s there to worry about? It’s four days to the deadline for Fear of Twine. Piece of cake.

And I work. I learn all I can about Twine code, I read up on South Africa, Mozambique, Kruger National Park, Limpopo Transfrontier Park. I spend a great deal of time on the names, languages and other aspects of the near-future setting. And I write like mad, pulling two all-nighters. Somewhere in-between the kind, wonderful Richard Goodness extends the deadline by a couple of days (again not only for my own sake). I forge on.

My keyboard breaks. G, H and F only work if you ask them nicely. While I’m away at my day job (with 0 hours of sleep), Jonas spends a lot of time putting Gs, Hs and Fs back into the game. I also owe him many thanks for suggesting a few brilliant changes to the game; his background in postcolonial studies comes in handy as we discuss semi-satirical ideas like the Great Limpopo Special Economic Zone.

Friday, the 7th of February. Zombies and Elephants is finally finished. (It’s called Zombies and Elephants because Jonas has convinced me that it’s much easier to say. Elephantsnzombies…. see what I mean?)

I’ve finally made my first game. And people are apparently playing it. There are reviews, most of them quite favourable. Emily Short, a living legend of the interactive fiction scene, says that it was among her top three games in the exhibition. Other reviewers, while saying that zombies are getting really old (yeah, I know, but what was I supposed to do) say that at least the writing is rather nice – or even really frightening. (Since I primarily see myself at a writer, that’s what really makes me happy.)

So yeah, people seem to be enjoying the game. That’s so cool… I can’t even begin to say how happy it makes me. I made something, and people actually like it. After trying for so long to find some sort of recognition as a writer (as opposed to as a painter/graphics artist), that is the best thing that could possibly have happened. Moreover, it is something that I urgently needed, because I was halfway ready to just chuck the whole writing thing out the window.

So people like my game. Wonderful, but am I satisfied with my game?

Mhm… I do love the game. The experience of finally producing a game of my own was awesome. I mean, obviously I’ve been making games all this time, and I do love working on the Lands of Dream games… but making something yourself is something else entirely.  And mastering Twine (which in all honesty isn’t all that hard to do… go on, try it) gave me this cool “I’m-a-superhero-programer-girl” feeling.

The story manages to get the things done that I wanted it to do. Strong focus on character. Exploration of racism and class and exploitation, but without being preachy and turning the characters into mouthpieces. And I feel that the end is horrible and gory and pulpy in just the right way. So yeah, I’m happy with the story.

StructureBut the game is still terribly rushed. Currently I have seven different kinds of hell going on at work (the paying kind of work that keeps me from making games), but as soon as that is over I intend to give the game a much-needed update. It’s not only a lack of polish and some minor spelling mistakes that still bother me.

For example: a lot of people seem to think the game is terribly linear. Well, let me tell you something: Zombies and Elephants tracks over 40 different variables. Almost everything the player does has some sort of effect on the story, but this being my first Twine, I failed to realize that most of these things, like for example whether or not you get the chance to fix the car, wouldn’t be apparent to anyone playing the game. You never know that you just narrowly scraped by the other ending, the one where everyone decides to walk to the city. My bad. I would quite like to fix some of that, making the game less linear in the last third.

And then there’s a million other, smaller things that I wanted to put in. Character moments mostly, because I am ever so fond of some of the relationships that developed between some of the characters as I was writing them. (For example: I initially wanted to have only one doctor, with the second one dying either off-screen or fairly early in the beginning, but then I ended up liking the way they interacted way too much to lose them so quickly.)

I want to expand the (well-hidden, randomised and hard to get) cure ending quite a bit, because that was the last thing I put in, mostly frantically copy-pasting at six in the morning from existing bits of the game to have something, anything, in place there. And there’s an entire other ending that I always meant to put in but never had the time.

So… um… if you find the cure ending, which isn’t the easiest thing to do, don’t be disappointed please, it’s a work in progress.

A note on the endings: The cure ending isn’t only rushed, it’s also not what I consider to be “The End”. I was innocently researching (fictional) drugs that could be used against a zombie outbreak (preferably without landing me in jail for copyright infringement) when I stumbled across this article (and the real-world science article that it links to). Originally I was just going to name-drop a few drugs while you talk to the two doctors, but after I read this I thought “This is way too good to pass up.” And thus the cure ending, and just why it is so terribly rushed. Now the *real* ending for me….

(Avast! Here be spoilers!)

…the real ending for me is the one where you watch someone else as he is killed by the elephant. It isn’t easy to put into words why I think that this is the true ending. The obvious reason is because that was the ending of my dream. I know that this sounds air-headed and flimsy in a million different ways, but the image stayed with me; it just had that much power. The other reason, the one that is really hard to explain, is that the ending feels right. It seems like a fitting counterweight to the very wordy, sometimes philosophical main body of the game, which is all about slow, creeping horror and which always stays very close to the protagonist. I tried so hard to give a realistic account of how someone in this situation would feel and react that this ending, which leaves the player powerless and which suddenly seems to take a step back and look at the events from afar, feels like the only right way to end it. After all this waiting and talking, the extreme violence of the ending seems carthartic; it dissolves all the tension in one gory rush. And don’t tell me that it’s not realistic that an elephant would suck your brains out through its trunk… this is a game about zombies.

And here’s a final thing. This game never was about winning. I’ve had several bits of feedback in which players were telling me that the fact that the elephants get infected was very upsetting to them. And that’s not really a bad thing. It should be upsetting.

But it had to happen. The fact that the final death blow is delivered by animals that are usually thought of as gentle giants seems to me to only add to the general sense of helplessness that the ending is supposed to conjure. Think more Romero and less Shaun of the Dead… that is what I was aiming for.

(End spoilers)

I think this is more or less what I wanted to say about the game. I still don’t feel like I’ve adequately expressed what I wanted to achieve with the game and its ending(s), but then again I am always ever so uncomfortable with talking about my art. You can’t just separate the imagery from the meaning or reduce it to a “message.”

I am really glad that so many of you enjoyed the game and I promise that this won’t be my last solo game. And I’ll try to update Zombies and Elephants as soon as I can.

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