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I got this gig because Jon Ingold at Inkle saw my GDC talk about game capture, and because they were working with Emily Morganti who also worked on Thimbleweed Park and Unavowed! I was SUPER excited to work on this; Inkle's reputation precedes them, and I always love working on unique narrative games.
Heaven's Vault is a new game from Inkle Studios who previously made the highly acclaimed game 80 Days. You play as Aliya Elasra, a space archaeologist on the search for a missing roboticist. In the game she deciphers ancient inscriptions to uncover the history of the places she goes to in her investigation.
I started with a look at the announce trailer from February 2018. The first half of that trailer feels like a short gameplay demo, and the second half is a more traditional montage with title cards intercut with the footage.
The information that trailer shows is:
a woman with a robot walks up to a building, she deciphers an inscription
From Inkle, the creator of the award winning 80 Days
An open world adventure
An entire language to decipher
Every choice remembered
(Plus there are some random dialogue snippets)
This gave me some ideas for what to do for the new trailer, but first I got on a call with Jon, Emily and Joseph Humfrey of Inkle. I asked what they wanted to communicate with this trailer; a few of their thoughts included: space travel , the open world nature of the game, how every choice matters, and how the game adapts to your choices. This is pretty much in line with the original trailer. They also said the trailer was going to premiere at the New York Game Awards.
I decided the best course of action was to communicate fewer ideas than the original trailer, and focus on the idea of uncovering history through deciphering inscriptions. Of all the aspects of the game, that is what interested me the most; everything else sounded like video game buzzwords. Deciphering a language to uncover history isn't something I've ever done in any other game. Also, we were limited to about 60 seconds for the trailer because of the awards show.
If I come into a project part way through its PR campaign, I'll try to build upon what came before, but since the first trailer wasn't well received (most comments harped on the character animation which was still very much a work-in-progress at the time), I wanted to treat this like the the first trailer never happened.
My main goal was for the trailer audience to remember:
"You're an archaeologist who deciphers a language in order to piece together a history."
Anything they retained outside of that would be an added bonus. I think it's important to consider how someone will talk about a game after seeing the trailer; I think the simpler you make an idea to share, the more it will get shared. I'd consider it a success if people told others: "Did you see the game where you're an archaeologist translating an alien language?"
I played and captured as much of the game as I could, and for the places I couldn't get to, I skipped around via debug options. I then made a list of anything and every idea I might feature in the trailer so I could then pare it down to the essentials.
Some ideas from this stage:
Piecing together history
History is a science
History is imprecise
Multiple histories can exist
This work is important to Aliya
Uncover a forgotten past
Discover, Translate, Explore
Every choice matters
The story adapts
Decipher inscriptions, puzzles, non-linear path
Every moon brings Aliya closer
Then, from my playthrough I transcribed the bits of dialogue which felt most relevant to the ideas I brainstormed. In addition, Inkle sent me the raw Ink files from the game which I both skimmed, and searched for those keywords to find related dialogue. From this I collected a bank of about four pages of dialogue.
I derived these story blocks from what ideas the dialogue illustrated. By working backwards from the dialogue, I know right away what parts of the story I can tell using the words from the game (or with slight modification)
HISTORY IS A SCIENCE
ALIYA IS A HISTORIAN
ALIYA SOLVES HISTORY BY DECIPHERING INSCRIPTIONS
SOLVING PUZZLES OPENS UP NEW AREAS
STORIES AFFECT HOW WE THINK
STORIES ARE SQUISHY
HISTORY CHANGES EASILY FROM NEW EVIDENCE
HISTORY IS IMPORTANT
HISTORY DEFINES WHO WE ARE
CHOICES AFFECT THE GAME
From these I blocked out the trailer's story in an order I thought would make the most sense. The trailer's story told in simplest wording is:
"History is a science, it's the reconstruction of the past. Aliya is an archaeologist who pieces together stuff based on deciphered inscriptions. She then makes new discoveries on other moons she sails to; each discovery fills in more of the story. History is important to people, but Aliya is unsure how successful she'll be putting the story together."
From this outline, I came up with this script:
History is a science.
It’s the exploration of the past.
FROM THE CREATORS OF 80 DAYS
I’m an archaeologist
I chase stories
Every ancient inscription I decipher…
…fills in a piece of the puzzle.
Every planet I sail to…
…reveals a new path to explore.
And every new piece of evidence…
…can change the story entirely.
TITLE CARD!?? (I knew this was a good spot for a title card, but didn't know what to use it for)
History belongs to everyone.
It’s how we know who we are.
But will the history I uncover…
…be the real truth?
As you can see, this is very close to the final script for the trailer; Jon, Emily and Joseph worked with me to refine it to be more specific and/or find better words to express each idea. For example, "Exploration of the past" became "Reconstruction of the past" because it better reflected what Aliya does in the game.
Some of these lines were direct pulls from the game's script, and others were modified. For example, the line:
"History belongs to everyone. It has to be protected, and shared Otherwise, when I die, when you die; it's like it never happened And then we don't know who we are.
Became: "History belongs to everyone. It's how we know who we are."
The script is simple and to the point, but I tried to make it narratively dense so each word told a lot of the story. For example, "Every moon I sail to..." could've easily been "Every moon I travel to" but the word "sail" does double duty because it both indicates travel, and shows the audience this is a unique universe where people "sail" to other moons. Here are the main ideas behind each set of lines; some are there for thematic reasons, others are there to describe story and gameplay together:
History is a science
Aliya is an archaeologist
Aliya deciphers inscriptions to piece together a story
Aliya travels to different places, and finds more stuff
Every inscription fills in more of the story
History is important to society
The history you put together might not be "correct."
The trailer script was added onto a recording session previously scheduled with voice actress Gem Carmella. In the meantime I put together a rough cut with shot ideas for each moment. I wanted to show a lot of pretty environments of course, and show Aliya doing things other than simply walking. I took advantage of every bespoke character or camera animation I thought fit the trailer's story.
The debug options were mostly to hide button UI in menu screens, but for clarity I also asked for an option to hide the name of the object in the translation screens. I wanted the audience to be able to see a bit of how the translation mechanic works, but remove anything extra. They also created a freecam based on the ideas from my GDC talk. I later recaptured many of the shots because in early builds many of the areas had no lighting or needed work on the art.
We also decided to put a couple text bubbles into the trailer so the audience would be able to see the game is not fully voice acted (though there is voice acting in it!) I made the bubbles in After Effects so I'd have more flexibility for my capture, and it wouldn't require any developer support. The last shot of the timeline I partially made in After Effects. They gave me an option to turn off all the items in the game's timeline, which let me manually composite in a few events from the game. The idea behind this shot is to show the audience what all this history reconstruction amounts to; it's a mere taste of what you'll end up putting together in the game.
The music in the trailer is comprised of two pieces from the game, one for the introduction and another for the main body of the trailer. I typically try to not fade separate music cues into each other, but it worked very well for this trailer. Joseph provided the motion graphics because they already looked so good in the previous trailer there was no sense in me trying to recreate them.
This trailer was a LOT of fun to put together. Like I said, I love interesting narratives, and unique gameplay mechanics. Hopefully I did a good job conveying both in this trailer. Based on the reaction it seems like I succeeded in communicating the ideas I set forth to. This feels especially good considering the tepid response to the first trailer where the animation seemed to dominate the conversation. I was a bit worried a second teaser-y trailer might not have enough momentum to garner interest.
Heaven's Vault comes out this Spring; I can't wait to play the finished version!
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I always love working on Firewatch, but I was nervous because this is the third full trailer I've made for it! If by the end of the second one (plus the mini-trailers) I thought to myself: "I found the best parts of the game" what was left for this one?
For the Nintendo Switch version, Jake really wanted a live-action component showing people playing the game in the woods. The direction he gave me was something along the lines of:
"It should feel like a nice chill time playing a chill game, not all AAAAA WE'RE IN DANGER AND GONNA DIE!"
With this in mind I sifted through dialogue for fun and playful moments between Henry and Delilah, and just a hint of the story of why Henry took a job as a lookout in the woods. I used the same intro dialogue as in the previous trailer, but I thought it was still important to re-introduce the characters to the new audience, and the live-action footage adds novelty to it, so I didn't worry too much about treading old ground.
I didn't want the dialogue flat out saying something like: "How'd you decide to get this job being a fire lookout?" because it sounded like a very dry way to do it. Instead, I selected dialogue to show a bit of Henry's job next to good character moments. This is how I arrived on the banter about the fire Henry put out, and also Henry playing Captain Obvious pointing out his tower’s visibility from far away.
The next bits about missing hikers is there to hint at the danger of the job without completely breaking the tone with something bleak. After this there's some heavy with Henry talking about his relationship. In order to moderate the tone, and avoid Henry spelling it out, I recut the dialogue to make it sound like he's being cagey. In the original game he says: "We didn't break up, we didn't choose to break up, she got sick." I added some pauses to the line to make it sound like Henry is having difficulty getting his words out, and removed the line about getting sick. I think it effectively got its point across in less time, and with fewer spoilers!
The ending with the clipboard is just one final tease of the greater mystery of the game to put in a little intrigue so the audience wouldn't think it's just a game about people talking (though with the game's dialogue and performances, that doesn't sound bad to me at all :P)
The gameplay portion came together pretty quickly, but the live-action went through many iterations before the shoot. I ended up knowing the PERFECT people to do it; my friend Robby has a YouTube show called Adventure Archives he produces with his cousins Andrew, Bryan, his friend Thomas, and sometimes guest friends. On the show they backpack and camp in places all over the United States, and even some countries like Japan and Germany.
I used footage from their episodes as b-roll for my rough drafts. I initially wanted to make a bigger story of the live-action portion. Like it was two stories getting intercut. One is about Henry getting away from it all, and meanwhile there's a person in real life doing the same. After seeing that version, Jake said he'd prefer the live-action characters act more like ciphers for the audience.
It's not often I have to give creative direction to other people, and putting so much trust into someone for a thing that can really only be done once. Live-action production is complicated and expensive! But from years of watching Adventure Archives and Robby's daily vlogs, I knew they could pull it off.
We wanted to avoid the need to composite gameplay onto the Nintendo Switch screen, so the plan was for me to capture the gameplay which the crew could then "play" on the Switch during the shoot. I did my best to pick simple shots so the actors wouldn't have to worry too much about pantomiming the controls. When I finished capturing the clips, I added a countdown to each of them, uploaded them to Campo Santo, and they loaded them onto a special Switch which was able to play the video files.
During the rough cut phase I kept a detailed shot list with notes about whether or not gameplay was included, and how much creative freedom Robby had for composition etc. We of course really wanted a fire lookout tower that looked as close to the one from the game as possible, so Robby looked around to find one he could film. He ended up at Thorny Mountain Tower in West Virginia just a 6 hour drive from where he was, but since he couldn't get permission to film inside of it, he found another location at Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory another 2 hour drive away. Since the camp fire at the end of the trailer wasn't tied to any particular location, they filmed in the woods near their home.
The live-action shoot was over the weekend of October the 13th. Andrew and his friend Marisa starred in it as the hikers. Robby shot every single shot at least twice with each of them so I'd have options in editing. I ended up picking shots with the most interesting background action where the game was also clearly visible on the Switch.
After I received the footage, broke it down and cut it into the trailer I did a sound design and mix pass before sending it off for review. The plan was to finalize the live-action portions, then send them to Olly Moss (Firewatch's art director) to color grade to match the look of Firewatch as closely as possible.
After some review, we realized the live-action portions in the middle of the trailer didn't feel like they were working. For one, the shots were simply the hands holding the Switch in different areas, but with the hiker standing still. I blame myself for not directing them to walk during these shots or something more active, but I think the trailer is better off having less live-action footage..
The lookout tower shot I used was over a clear blue sky, but it didn't look Firewatch-y enough, so Olly composited clouds shaped to his liking into the shot. Fortunately, the footage was shot in 4K, which gave more resolution to work with. In After Effects I added in some subtle camera shake so the shots didn't look too static.
This was one of the most complicated trailer jobs I've done so far, but I think we succeeded in making a cool and unique thing suitable to the platform. A big thanks to Jake Rodkin, Cabel Sasser, Sophie Mackey, Olly Moss, and my friends at Adventure Archives!
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Neo Cab is an "emotional survival game" set in the not-too-distant-future border city of Los Ojos. It's very much inspired by tech's effect on people, Silicon Valley, the gig economy, and a slew of other topical issues. In the game you play as Lina who is a Neo Cab driver, the last human driver in a city full of automatic robot cars run by the Capra Corporation. Lina wears a special bracelet which indicates her emotional state; your dialogue options are directly opened up or limited by your emotional state.
I originally started on this project to make an announce trailer for the game's reveal around GDC 2018; that version ended up getting scrapped, but rather than let all that work be lost, I’ll show you what we did, and how it would’ve worked to introduce the game.
Neo Cab's dialogue isn't voice acted, so I knew text would have to be incorporated into the video somehow. My first concept was a moody teaser with text dialogue fading in and out of the scenes. I sent Patrick two references: Wong Kar-Wai's BMW film "The Follow" and the opening cutscene of Final Fantasy VIII.
For this approach I selected dialogue that showcased a variety of stories and people Lina encounters in the game; dialogue that is understandable without context. I made a few versions of this, one with very "trailer-y" narrator text, and another which was Lina's internal monologue, which is what we decided was best. Putting a lot of text in a trailer can be tricky, but it was our only option to convey the story since we didn't want to misrepresent the game by including voice acting. Adding voice acting, auditioning, writing and recording also adds on a significant amount of work and cost.
I requested the raw scripts for the game, which I received as Ink files, because the game is being made using Ink by Inkle Studios (the creators of 80 Days). I painstakingly read all the dialogue to find the bits for the trailer’s story. Here’s an early concept draft I made:
Through all of this I worked closely with multiple members of the team; here's a rundown of what everyone contributed to the trailer (they all probably did even more than I can list here):
Patrick Ewing, Creative Director - Collaborated on direction, implemented debug options, set up custom shots.
Felix Kramer, Producer - Made sure stuff got done, and was feasible within the schedule.
Vincent Perea, Art Director - Polished up art, lighting, composition etc.
Paula Rogers, Story editor - Rewrote my dialogue selects/edit to better tell the story, keep everything consistent and in-world.
Laura Sly, Technical Artist - Created custom animations and UI graphics.
Krista Sanders, Designer - Designed and animated title graphics and character dialogue graphics.
Joseph Burke, Composer - Composed music.
All this to say there were a LOT of people working on this trailer, and it was my job to give it all structure, pacing and clarity.
Close to GDC we realized there wasn't enough time get the visuals polished enough for the trailer. Instead, they released screenshots, and did private demos with press outlets.
Here’s the last version I made for this announce trailer. You can see how teaser-y this version is, and the music is totally different from the E3 trailer. The story beats and ideas are very broad because the goal was to establish: setting, theme and tone. This would’ve nicely set the scene for press interviews and give the audience something to remember the game by.
After GDC, work resumed for an E3 debut at the PC Gaming Show! The direction changed entirely. At that point, there were already articles for the basic premise of Neo Cab, so the simpler tease we originally planned wouldn't provide enough new information to be interesting within that context; we needed to get into story specifics to keep up the pace of information revealed about the game.
The new plan was to focus on the story of Lina's friend Savy, who is missing at the beginning of the game. The story of Neo Cab involves a lot of characters, but this storyline is the one central throughline in the game. When Chance Agency brought me back into the project they had a few outlines they wrote with Paula.
The new story treatments started with one passenger, Allie, who Lina picks up at the beginning. I could tell right away the story treatments were all too long, but I synthesized them into an outline that came out pretty close to the final. We changed my end scene to something a little less spoiler-y but ended up much more exciting!
This trailer would be more of a snapshot of the actual game loop. Show Lina picking up different passengers, while texting Savy in between gigs. Then it would climax with the "OHHHHH SHIIIIII" reveal of Savy being a wanted fugitive which would end the trailer with a mini montage/rise to end on a high note. Then after the climax Lina is contacted by Savy.
This was a much juicier trailer to make, and the added time meant a wider variety of shots could be designed and polished up. We also gradually simplified the middle portion of the trailer. We originally had some random passengers talk to Lina, but changed it to a montage because we were limited by the amount of time we had for the PC gaming show, and we didn't want to overload the audience with story threads and text.
The opening shot was a fairly late development, but I LOVE how big and bright it makes the city. It also establishes the robotic Capra cars, which make several appearances. The opening lines are to establish Lina as a rare human driver in a corporate run city, and the fact she's trying to find her friend. My build of the game had the ability to activate Lina and passenger emotes so I wouldn't have to wait for an expression to pop up. For example, I needed Lina to look down and to the right in order to lead the audience to her sending text messages.
The Neo Cab map with passengers was custom made by Laura specifically for the trailer since the in-game map wasn't done yet. This familiar image is there to establish the job Lina does (which is emphasized by her line overlaying the image)
The montage that follows is to give a sense of what you do in the game; you pick up passengers and receive ratings. With little time to show them, there wasn't much story that could be told without dialogue, but through the editing I told one mini story of the couple where the girl leaves the guy behind. That moment is inspired by this scene from The Simpsons where young Homer tries to unsuccessfully join a party.
After the montage is the final intense story climax which shows a lot of custom made stuff by the team, like Savy's face plastering every digital surface in the surrounding area, Capra cars driving around, Lina getting pulled over, and a shot at the end of a Capra car careening towards Lina for the final exciting boom before the title!
This trailer went through a lot of small iterations on the script and visuals, but aside from the GDC/E3 versions there wasn't ever a time when the core of it had to shift dramatically. It ended up even more exciting than I originally thought it might. Joseph's music did an amazing job setting the tone, and the visuals really came together well.
This project ended up being very similar to the E3 trailer I made for Firewatch since this was another game in early development when I started. I love working with a team of people whose individual strengths combine to make one cool thing. It's simultaneously humbling to see my shortcomings, but flattering to see how my unique skills contribute to the end product!
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Agent A is an escape room game with 60s spy movie aesthetic where you're chasing down rival spy Ruby La Rouge through her secret mansion. The game is coming to PC and consoles in 2019; chapters 4 of 5 are currently available on iOS and Android. I don't have a particular affinity for escape room games, but I played a few of the original Flash games on Newgrounds and the "Mom Hid My Game" series.
Before I played the game, my knee-jerk reaction was: "Escape room games don't have a lot of movement and animation; I don't know how interesting a trailer I can make." I changed my mind after I ended up devouring the game's first four chapters over the course of a few days. It's not often I find myself enjoying a game so much I need to stop playing to tell a client I'm interested.
In addition to its strong 60s spy movie aesthetic, it has a delightful amount of items, levers, secret codes, buttons, switches, valves, and things to interact with. It gets a lot of mileage out of its art design and music. Those aesthetics and the game itself got me very interested.
As always, I get excited to work on any game with spoken dialogue. Most of the dialogue is from Ruby La Rouge taunting you, but there's a little bit of exposition from the Chief of your spy organization. This provided the perfect framing for the trailer. Mark from Yak & Co sent me the music from the game as well as some custom compositions from their previous trailers. I stitched together a few sections to build the framework for the trailer.
In addition to the escape room mechanics, the most important things I had to depict were the scope of the grander narrative, art, and humor. In the game, Agent A exists only as text dialogue when they interact with the world, but I knew I didn't want to put any of the text in the trailer, because it wouldn't work when juxtaposed with the fully voiced characters.
To show the scope of the world, I shuffled around the order of the cutscenes. In the game, the explosion on the cruise ship happens at the beginning of the game, but I thought putting it at the end of the trailer would makes it look like the stakes were getting raised. In my early draft, I put the explosion in chronological order, and the trailer's dramatic energy struggled to build up through the end.
The humor was trickier to showcase without the benefit of Agent A's commentary, but I landed upon a funny little moment in the game where after several chapters of roundabout ways to unlock doors to retrieve keys you see one hanging from a hook in plain sight behind an unlocked cabinet. As soon as you open it, the shelf breaks and the key falls into some volatile chemicals.
In the game the shelf breaks almost immediately, but I didn't think it would work as is for the trailer. The reason is, the montage before the gag is cut very quickly and reaches a crescendo, but the shelf breaking as it does in game might be easy to miss; I needed the audience to clearly see the key. I increased the length of time between the events, and added some sound design to spice it up a bit since it's otherwise a very static frame. I even did my own recording of a key dropping into a cup of water because I thought it would make the moment clearer. I also added some sizzling and bubble sounds to indicate it's a dangerous chemical.
For the gameplay, I cut in as many recognizably puzzle-y looking devices into the opening as possible to make the game genre clear. I think devices, dials, and symbols are familiar visual language for "Puzzle game." Part of the reason I did this was because I knew the opening was very cutscene and exposition heavy; these gameplay clips were my way of placating the people who want to see gameplay as soon as possible. My hope is the people who understood what they see will stick around for more.
For most of the gameplay I didn't show the inventory, but there are some situations where camera moves prevented me from hiding it, but I think it's okay to have in a few spots to further illustrate what you do in the game. Escape room games don't have constantly moving things on screen like in other games, so I wanted to show interaction and movement as much as possible whether it was levers, keys being dragged into holes or camera moves.
My other concern was to avoid puzzle solution spoilers. There are some clues and items that could be construed as solutions, so I had to find the balance between showing an interaction without revealing the answers. So for example, at 0:48 I show a grid of buttons, but pressed random ones instead of the solution buttons. I wanted to show buttons being pressed and things unlocking to get that game loop idea into the audience's head. In a few cases I showed the result of a partial solution as a tease to the audience. For example, one out of four locks opening on a big red button. Hopefully they'll see those and think: "I have to find out what happens when you open the whole thing!!!"
For debug options, I had the ability to hide the pause button, inventory and on screen interaction animations (there was a little circle that popped up where you touched the screen). There was also a mode to unlock all the doors, fill the inventory, and also a button to automatically solve the puzzle of the current screen.
I really like how this trailer came out. The art, sound and music made it a very pleasant editing experience. I also enjoyed adding in some of my own foley which let me scratch my sound designer itch. The game is coming to consoles in 2019, as well as the final chapter; I can't wait to finish the game!
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