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Bulwark in the City of Flesh

Developer Diary #008

June 5, 2019

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Hi there. I survived the long dark of my second year of grad school, and Bulwark is really, truly getting there. This is my current workflow:

  1. Play the game from the beginning.
  2. Make quick fixes along the way. Write down larger tweaks on a piece of paper.
  3. Reach the end of the game and stop playing.
  4. Fix everything written down on the paper.
  5. Return to step 1.

The game is fully implemented, voiced, subtitled, sound-designed, and puzzle-designed. You could play it right now.

Looking back on my previous entry, things were pretty dire back in March. I had much more work to do on the audio scenes, I hadn’t even started subtitling, and tons of things were broken or unfinished. Now, my tasks are on the level of replacing placeholder models, swapping out textures, and refining a few sound effects.

I’ve switched from having work that’s most naturally thought of as a single massive block (e.g., write and timestamp over 1,000 subtitles) and having work that feels more like a series of short tasks (e.g., adjust the volume of a sound effect, tweak the timing of a transition). Both situations have their pros and cons, but at the moment I’m happy to be back in the latter. Rather than spending months just getting content into the game, now I can barrel through a few dozen tasks at a time, with each one having a small but noticeable effect on the whole. The incremental improvements drive me forward, as does the nearness of the exit, the scent of fresh air. And if someday I wake up and decide I can’t take working on this anymore, I can just ship it, and it’ll be fine.

In fact, that’s definitely how it’ll get shipped, since I don’t have a deadline. At some point, I’ll call it done, and that’ll be that.

There was a cool moment last summer when we were recording lines. At one point, Julie’s character says, “You can do it.” Julie was thinking aloud about how she should deliver the line, given the somewhat peculiar worldview and speech pattern of the character. Reilly suggested that she try putting the emphasis on “can" (i.e., “you CAN do it”), since, to that character, the only thing that matters is that the act is physically possible. It doesn’t matter if it’s difficult or painful, or if it pushes you to your absolute limit. It’s possible. Therefore, you can do it.

That line—“you CAN do it”—was stuck in my head from autumn to spring, echoing back whenever I thought about the mountain of work before me. It’s the lamest thing ever to have your own writing stuck in your head, but in this case I had nothing to do with what makes the line interesting. It's only Julie’s delivery of it that’s so good.

Anyway, my hope is that the next time I write in this diary, it’ll be the last or second-to-last entry. It’s always possible that there will be some big twist, in which case, well, so it goes. But barring that, this journey will finally come to an end.

I can’t recommend the experience of getting trapped in a too-large project, but I will say that it has its value. It exercises an entirely different skill set than working on something that’s well-scoped and well-managed. Can you take a mess of threads and knot them into a story with a beginning, middle, and end? Can you make a system out of a swath of half-formed features and smush them into a game box? Can you keep yourself moving forward, even when everything fully, desperately sucks and doesn’t seem worth it anymore? I don’t know if Bulwark will be a good game, but I can at least check those three boxes. That has to count for something.

That being said, again, don’t fall into this on purpose. Once Bulwark is done, it’ll probably take me a long while to wrap my head around what a catastrophe it was for my life. I mean, here I am two years deep in the grad program I worked so hard to get into, and I haven’t been able to enjoy any of it, because so much of my free time and energy is siphoned off by this curse. I have a five-year diary that I write in every day, and more than half of it is me working on Bulwark. It’s awful to the point of being perversely funny.

If we know each other (Twitter mutuals, hello) and you’re stuck in a long project, know that I’m 100% aware of it, sympathetic, and pulling for you. The most important thing is that you get to the end. Whatever it takes, whatever shape it ends up in, just finish it. The consequences of giving up are worse than anything else. That shit is habit-forming.

That’s all I’ve got. I could share screenshots or maybe even some footage of my approach to subtitles, but honestly, I don’t think that’d communicate anything meaningful or interesting. For better or worse, the game morphed into a story delivery device somewhere in its second year, and showing you anything from it would be like taking a photo of an audiobook. Maybe someday I’ll make a game that’s intriguing even as it’s in process, but this isn’t that.

Oh wait, I do have one thing! Possible cover art:

A vast, dark library with a makeshift living space in one aisle.

I’m torn about whether to use it, because I don’t want to give anyone the impression that it’s a screenshot. I’d intend it to be similar to box art for older games: something representative of the story that you never actually see. Maybe that’s obvious? I’m not sure. Let me know if you have an opinion on this.

Thanks for reading.