Play the game here! https://m-ansley.itch.io/the-network
Full walkthrough: https://youtu.be/zQ4AkoQ3oC4
‘The Network’ is an interactive narrative game about the collapse of a friend group and a power-struggle in spite of it. It’s about seething resentments, rumour, and people exploiting private incidents for personal gain. It’s a game about seeing where people stand on the matter or, alternatively, just talking about what matters to them. It’s a jumble of a couple friend groups I’ve been a part of — the drama that destroyed one and the social hierarchy of another — projected onto a slightly surreal prom after-party. It’s also a game which hopes to reflect on the coming and going of people in our lives. A lot of it comes from a conversation I had towards the end of prom night: standing out on a terrace and overlooking a lake as someone told me how we’d all meet up after tonight, and knowing, as sure as anything, that we’d never see each other again.
- Designed the piece as a surreal dialogue exploration game about the the death of a friend group, exploring themes of social loss, breakdown, and cynicism.
- Made extensive use of YarnSpinner for the project, allowing me to plot out elaborate conversations with multiple potential paths (with the player largely deciding the focus and tone of the conversations).
- Designed the game’s aesthetics, spotlights, and set specifically with theater in mind: the ‘players’ on the stage each getting their turn in the limelight, delivering social ‘performances’. (Intended to bring out ideas in drama, showmanship and artifice, as well as to create a certain surrealism).
- Created the game’s symbolic ending sequence, designed to be a kind of ‘afterlife’ for the player’s character and the elusive head of the group Lauren. Made use of an intentionally abrupt blink-of-the-eye transition between the activity of the party and the tranquility/reflectiveness of the terrace scene.
- Implemented YarnSpinner and made extensive edits to the UI script; namely, creating a custom text-parser which uses in-text colons and the Split() method, along with a switch statement, to identify the character talking and then to apply certain effects accordingly (different coloured fonts, display name immediately rather than type it character by character, and different speech sounds).
- Created several Yarn variables to keep track of player choices across the game (e.g. the tone previous conversation were ended on), to be used in the game’s ending.
- Implemented a minimalist raycasting and camera animation system to allow the player to select desired characters and move towards them.
Inspiration and Ideation
As much as I can, I like to make games that reflect and explore personal interests. In the case of ‘The Network’, that was an interest in group politics and social hierarchies. I’ve been accused of a lot of fence-riding previously: I have very little energy for or emotional investment in the controversies and ‘dramas’ of the groups I’m a part of. I fully appreciate the excitement and bonding a good us-and-themming provides to group members, but the alternative to indifference is just too painful for me. My mind gets infested with the rumours and accusations of other people, and I’ve found myself building an ever-increasing mental network of who knows what, who likes who, and where people’s loyalties really lie. There have been times when this became so exhausting I could hardly think about anything else. I once obsessed constantly, as a newcomer to a pre-established social group, over just what people really thought and felt about me. This, partly, is where ‘The Network’ gets its inspiration.
The second part is, more specifically, in group hierarchies. I’m interested in the spoken and unspoken chains of command that exist and form, often quite naturally, within groups. We are of course all equal until we ask ourselves who, for instance, organises our meetups? Who hosts? Who brings us together? Who drives the conversation? Who do people turn to; open themselves up to, sometimes completely? I love identifying these people, and I rarely feel even the slightest envy towards them because, in short, I have no problem with hierarchies so long as they’re deserved. I simply ask whether I can do what they do, and since ‘what they do’ requires a degree of social energy and general likability I lack, I have no interest in contending for their throne. I’ve always taken to the ‘right hand man’ in media — the ones who both accept and uphold the prevailing social order — and I’ve seen too many Macbeths replacing Duncan to believe positions of power will necessarily fulfill those that attain them. That being said, I’m not saying social hierarchies shouldn’t be interrogated. I think they should always be evaluated and investigated, but I also think any contenders should be confident they can handle the responsibilities that come with certain positions within them. This point was lost on me several years ago, and is potentially lost on the protagonist of ‘The Network’.
The characters of this game are comprised of a range of recollections of past friends, parts of myself, and, more tangibly, from a set of tarot cards I worked with early on:
These are only really a starting point, but they’re quite evocative images that got me thinking about certain archetypal figures I might have (and how they might be embodied within the game). The upheval of social hierarchy in ‘The Tower’, the magnanimous but firm ‘Queen of Wands’ (Lauren), the delicate but immaculate ‘High Priestess’ (Sophie), the social group’s ‘fool’ (Lee) and brooding outsider (Imogen), were all quite foundational in thinking through the overall tone and group dynamics in the piece. It got me thinking about where characters’ loyalties lie, who they’re partnered with, who’s excluded, and who might be either dissatisfied or ambitious.
I don’t usually dabble with point-and-click games, but for this project I really liked the idea of having an extreme amount of control over what the player sees. I developed a simple first person animation for the Global Game Jam game I worked on a couple months ago — essentially an elaborate 3D establishing shot for what was otherwise a fairly two-dimensional play experience. For this project, however, I wanted a blend of the theatrical and the cinematic: the stage-like setup and spotlights on the actors of this drama, but with the intimacy of close-up shots on the player’s command.
One of the intentions of this set was to visually establish the idea of a dislocated friend group. As previously mentioned, I love ideas of group dynamics and politics, and I wanted where these characters are, who they’re with, and what they’re doing to betray parts of their character and their social standing within the group. Admittedly I’m not very subtle about it: I think you can tell from a glance who really doesn’t want to be there, who’s enjoying themselves no matter what, and who’s so invested in their relationship that they hardly acknowledge the rest of the room. I’m potentially heavy-handed about it, but I think inter-friendship relationships are incredibly perilous things. Frankly, I think they can tear apart at the social fabric of a friend group by excluding those who aren’t in relationships (and are still holding out for the archaic sake of ‘the group’) and by dividing the group when things go dramatically wrong. I don’t think they’re impossible, I just think they take a degree of self-awareness, consideration, and diligence on both parties in order to still make time for their friends. I myself have been in two inter-friendship relationships, one which went disastrously wrong (and created the kind of divisions this game explores) and one which we’ve handled a lot better. I think it’s very hard to get this sort of thing across to young people, and I doubt this game would appeal to them, but I nonetheless think it’s an invaluable thing to get a sense of as early as possible. Relationships, in short, can blind us if we’re not careful.
Mechanically, hovering the cursor over each of the four groups triggers a clicking sound, increases the intensity of their spotlight, and has their name(s) appear in the game-world. I wanted a satisfying bit of game-feel with this, something with a little flare, and something that feels a little extradiegetic. That being said I wouldn’t consider these entirely a break with the world’s diegesis. Sure, the characters very much believe they’re here and involved in the party, but in truth I thought of this setting more as a sort of symbolic space inspired by previous events/recollections. I hope to leave a lot of this to players, and suggest it fairly heavily in the ending sequence, but what we’re experiencing is a kind of strange mental regurgitation of the events leading up to the death of an old friend group. I’m not sure what aesthetic category this sort of thing falls under, but I think I opt for ‘surreal’ with a lower case s. Something about the dreamlike or not-quite-real appealed to me in this project.
Something I raised in one of my Narrative and Interactive Fiction classes was my inability to create 2D assets or 3D character models. While I think being able to program is an incredibly liberating thing, I’m nonetheless deeply envious of people with any degree of artistic ability. I often feel the artist-programmer will inherit the world of indie game development, but I’m sure this is just sour grapes on my part. As far as this project was concerned there were two main workarounds I had in mind: one was the idea of having characters represented by masquerade masks under a spotlight, and the other was having mannequins or mannequin-style characters. I liked the idea of something feeling a little ‘off’ or uncomfortable in either case — the sense that they sound and talk like people but don’t especially look the part. I also seem to have this recurring habit of sapping all individuality out of my sprites/characters (visually at least). I suppose ‘the erasure of individuality’ is something I’ve been interested in for a long time, and I suspect comments I’ve received about my generic and forgettable white male appearance has really helped reinforce that not only am I nothing special but that I have very little individuality. This is a long-winded way of saying I think I project a lot of my own ideas about myself onto my depictions and treatments of other people. I’m sure eventually, and with the assistance of any talented character modelers/artists, the things I work on can break away from some of my regressive and frankly pessimistic thoughts on human individuality within society.
Lastly on the subject of visuals/aesthetics, getting the lighting and color scheme just how I wanted it was painful, not least because I didn’t really know how I wanted it until I saw it. Originally it was far too dark, then it was too blue, then too washed out, and then fairly late in the project I just tried switching off a Lastly on the subject of visuals/aesthetics, getting the lighting and color scheme just how I wanted it was painful, not least because I didn’t really know how I wanted it until I saw it. Originally it was far too dark, then it was too blue, then too washed out, and then fairly late in the project I just tried switching off a bunch of the lights until I realised a moody red and purple kinda worked for the nightclub-style, late-friendship evening I was working on. The fact these were all black silhouette figures standing under spotlights meant the player was hardly going to miss out on any distinguishing details because of the lighting. The main details are fairly simple environmental ones: the food and drink provisions of the hosts, the solemn Jester canvas in Lee’s shot (Jan Matejko’s ‘Stańczyk’), Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ and Magritte’s ‘The Lovers’ in Amy and Andrew’s shot, and a set of the original tarot cards used in the game’s ideation stage on the cabinet next to Imogen.
This project was my first attempt at creating branching dialogue in a game, and this meant getting used to the tools, do’s and don’t’s, and overall challenges in doing so. In all honesty, I found it quite challenging a lot of the time — there were many times when I had a noticeably strong preference for a certain course of dialogue (while still needing to go back and develop the other options). It also meant I felt I needed to regress in order to develop the character in a different direction, which is unlike anything I’m used to in the stories I normally tell. Equally, there’s the challenge of keeping things manageable — trying to tie threads back together, and the sometimes crushing thought that there’s little change players will even reach/read certain sections of dialogue. That being said, I fundamentally liked the idea of limited dialogue options, and of the player potentially making small ‘commitments’ to a course of conversation. It also, hopefully, allows the player to pursue whatever interests them/seems most pertinent. If you want to, you can find out more about a lot of these characters: what matters to them, their personal stances and takes on the group as a whole, etc.
Ultimately, I hope players don’t pursue the course of relentlessly interrogating and stirring up hatred around Lauren, but I try to present the option on numerous occasions (more or less overtly). If you take the most cynical, scathing lines of conversation (aside from potentially changing the overall tone of the game), there’s a good chance you’ll end up with what is essentially the game’s ‘bad ending’. Honestly, I kinda regret reducing things to what is essentially a good or bad ending, but I am quite adamant about the principle of withholding judgement, hearing from the accused, and from not adding fuel to drama for the sake of conversation. My compromise was making it very difficult to get the bad ending (you pretty much have to choose the absolute worst possible options to lower a Yarn variable sufficiently) and much easier to get the good one. Honestly, I really didn’t enjoy writing out some of these sections. To me it’s one of the worst possible angles of any friend group or social network. But it’s there nonetheless, and it was too important for my overall intention with this piece to not provide it as an option.
Programming and Yarn
A lot of the programming in this game was admittedly familiar territory for me: triggering animations from within scripts, controlling lights and sounds, managing the game state, cinematic sequences, etc. Where it was new for me was in implementing and working with Yarn, which was honestly quite the challenge some of the time. Granted, I think having branching dialogue trees would be virtually impossible without something like Yarn (and the documentation’s growing quite rapidly), but it was still pretty fickle. The errors it threw up, the compiling issues, were generally a bit too cryptic for me to understand. A lot of time was spent conducting trial and error as I tried to get used to the syntax it wanted with variables, statements, and the like. My main work with it consisted of me triggering nodes in accordance with camera animations, creating some custom variables, editing the standard ‘wait’ function to make the box disappear (which changes the effect quite considerably), and then implementing my own text parser. The text parser can identify names, checks them against stored names in a switch statement, and then can perform functions accordingly. I created a ‘ParseText()’ function which returns the name of the character by doing the following:
This all goes in the DialogueUI script that comes with Yarn, and then all we need to do is pass in the text variable just before it gets printed character-by-character. I ultimately do this a second time so I can return a ‘revisedtext’ variable without the name. That way I can print the name as one word and the rest of the dialogue character by character. With this in place, I could change the text color automatically depending on the speaker. I incorporated some punctuation delays and slight text sound effects every two characters (with pitch variations for different speakers), which hopefully give a better impression of human delivery. I rather liked the idea of having Night in the Woods-style speech bubbles for my characters, but ultimately found this way too painful and tricky to implement (let alone get it to scale correctly in a Unity 3D game). I think I’d like to have another stab at it in a subsequent project, but I ultimately felt the standard dialogue system with a couple edits and additions suited my purposes quite well.
One by one the lights go out on the characters. Once they’ve all been spoken to the player character’s eyes wearily shut before the scene abruptly changes: the friends are gone, the music’s stopped, the door is open, and standing out beyond it is the character on everyone’s lips.
Clicking on her will lead the player outside and onto the terrace. There, the player can overlook the sea with her, enjoying one last and well-earned heart-to-heart. The format’s the same as the rest, but the tone and dynamics of the conversation are hopefully a little different: the player doesn’t look at her, and instead of having to commit to a course of dialogue the player can ask her up to three questions before ultimately ending the game. The dialogue is deliberately short and more generally reflective than it is detailed. It’s intended, ultimately, as a moment to reflect on the inevitable comings and goings of people in our lives, the rise and fall of our social circles and hierarchies, detaching ourselves from the here and now, the dramas and controversies, of the party indoors.
It’s figured as a sort of strange but tranquil afterlife — a place of fond memories and warm recollections. However detached Lee and Imogen were from the dramas of the group, Lauren has achieved this on a much greater level. She is both physically and emotionally detached from it — all of it — appreciating the social ebbs and flows like water against the shore. She offers one final reunion with their friends down by the seafront, assuring Lewis he need only enjoy the moment, remembering the sun on his skin, and time standing still.
It all sounds unbearably romantic, but I see many of my games as a coming to terms with things that make me immeasurably sad. Playground was on the subject of social impairment and alienation, The Best Days (work in progress)is ultimately about isolation, anxiety and depression in student life, and this one’s more about social ‘loss’, breakdown, and cynicism. As such, I won’t pretend The Network is an especially thrilling play experience, but I hope it encapsulates some of my thoughts, takes, and experiences on the necessary and sometimes fraught social networks we find ourselves a part of.