Getting my head in the game on my sabbatical

I’m writing my blog about what I did on my sabbatical. I’m trying to explain why, instead of going somewhere nice and sunny, I spent my two weeks off work at home, huddled over my laptop.

Rewind to four years ago. I’m a man in my twenties, so hearing I love video games should be as surprising as hearing I’m a fan of having eyes. Being really into games means that I take a job as a Social Media Manager at Octopus Group, working on the PlayStation account.

Fast forward a few years. I’m a copywriter now. I’ve been with Octopus Group for over three years, which qualifies me for up to a month’s unpaid sabbatical leave.

Rewind six months. I play a game called Her Story. It’s essentially CSI: YouTube Detective, a whodunit in which the player must piece the story together by keyword searching through a database of police interviews.

As a game nerd who writes words for money, I’m interested in the narrative potential of games, how the specific vocabulary of games can be used to tell a story in a way that isn’t possible in any other medium.

What inspires me about Her Story is the way it takes a fundamental mechanic of digital life – the search engine – and uses it to tell a nonlinear story. Depending on what you search for, you jump backwards and forwards through time, piecing the story together in fragments. It’s a form of storytelling that novels have toyed with (J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition is perhaps the most famous example), but which video games, as interactive, inherently digital works, are uniquely suited to exploring.

Fast forward a year. I’m on sabbatical trying to write a video game.

It’s a mobile game. The premise is simple: you’ve found a woman’s smartphone. Her most recent texts and voicemails are from people worried about where she is. As the player, you’ve got to go through her messages, pictures, emails and so on, and figure out what happened to her. By learning more about the woman’s life through what’s on her phone, you’ll be able to figure out the passwords for her other apps (social media, online dating, etc.) and delve deeper into the story.

It’s not particularly insightful to say that people have their whole lives on their phones, but from a writing perspective, it means there’s loads of material to pull together. Texts, voicemails, calendar entries, news articles, image metadata, online dating profiles, even map journeys. It’s also a challenge to make these individual elements cohere into something that tells a compelling story. Then there’s the practical difficulty of how to write the thing. My current draft (if you can call it that) exists as a series of interconnected word docs and spreadsheets on Google Drive, the digital equivalent of those cork boards in cop shows, with pins and coloured string trailing off in all directions. But it’s getting there.

Rewind ten or so years. I’m a teenager and I play a lot of video games. One day, I say to myself, it might be cool to make one.

Fast forward to now. I’m finishing off my blog about my sabbatical. I’m really grateful to Octopus Group for letting me take a few weeks off to start making a game. For a writing project as weird and unconventional as this, it’s been great to properly immerse myself in it. I’ve had the chance to work out the basic game design and puzzles, as well as get a massive chunk of the writing done.

Fast forward to a few months from now. With any luck, by then I’ll have finished writing it and built a basic prototype so that people can test the game in something resembling its final form. When that happens I’ll let you know.