Hello, I am Roy van der Schilden, lead-writer for Herald. This week, and the next, I would like to give you some insights into the development of the story for Herald in a four-part blog series titled: “The Journey.” I will explain how we got the inspiration for an Interactive Period Drama with an alternate-history setting. Rest assured that none of these blogs will contain any major spoilers, but they will provide an in-depth look at our development process.
When we started this project we knew one thing for certain; we were going to make a story-driven video game with moral choices that would challenge the player to think about their position in society. At the same time we wanted to use our knowledge of dramaturgy to make a game that resonated with a broad audience and felt distinctly different in tone than most other story-driven games on the market today. No zombies, no werewolves, no fairies or wizards, but a setting that could actually take place according to the laws of nature in our world. This didn’t mean it couldn’t contain fantastical elements, as long as those elements had a grounded reason within our physical reality. (like, for example, a psychosis or a very advanced technology)
Of course, when you start a new project, you never know where the journey will eventually take you, hence the title of this blog series.
In the very beginning, there were actually three ideas for a setting of a new game. Two of which I am not going to elaborate on, but the third one stemmed from the fascination of Bart, our creative director, with the changing times of the 19th century. As he explained, the people of the 19th century western world, just as most people today, witnessed great technological advancements in everyday life. While most viewed this as an exciting era of change, there were almost as many people who feared the industrialization of society would lead to its ultimate downfall. During the 19th century, warfare gradually changed with the introduction of ‘total war’; the complete mobilization of society for national warfare, culminating in the horrors of the first World War in the early 20th century. So the people of the 19th century were perhaps correct to be skeptical of the mechanization of their world. As the technology advanced, human feats became greater, for better and for worse.
To inspire ourselves, all of our core-team members created something unique for this setting to narrow down the subject of “change during the 19th century” to something more concrete. As the writer for this project I created a short piece of dialogue that was inspired by Multatuli’s Max Havelaar, a famous Dutch work published in the 1860’s about the terrible mismanagement of the colonial Dutch East Indies. Max Havelaar’s story was crucial in our inspiration for the game, as the theme of colonialism later became an important part of Herald’s story.
So eventually we had “change during the 19th century” as a theme and “19th century colonialism” as a subject. What followed was a game concept where you boarded a ship and visited several colonies. A story started to develop around a great tea clipper taking an inspector of the realm from colony to colony, to observe the current affairs of the failing colonial governments. As much as I liked the idea, it eventually proved to be a bit cold. The inspector was a somewhat bland character and a true personal dilemma was hard to find, and even harder to tie into your actions in the game.
Going back to the drawing board, we struggled to find what the core experience of our game would be. It needed to be personal, yet universal. It needed a strong message, but with room for interpretation and reflection. We had so many contradicting values that, for a time, I didn’t really know where to go with the story.
Soon after that, Bart and I rediscovered Downton Abbey, a series that we had first watched while on a skiing trip with Bart’s parents. At the time, I didn’t expect this series to inspire us to create the game we are making today, but it did. More about that next time.