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Spirit Island Development Blog - Introduction

In which I dive right in and write the beginnings of the story for my game.

For my MFA thesis project I am


When I started this eight month project a couple of months ago, that's about all I knew. I also knew that I like puzzle adventure games, often - but not always - of the point-and-click variety; and that the lead character had to be female, complex, and compelling...

Where to begin?

It seems to me like there are two places available to start from: story or design, or, if you want to sound fancy about it: narratology or ludology. As I’ve learned over the past few months of this process, if doesn’t need to be one or the other. I ended up starting with story, letting that inform the game mechanics, and then that informed the story in return. Bopping back and forth between the two is the way to make a great game.

Imagine not doing that, for a minute:

(FPS level designer after the level has been completely implemented):

“Hey writer, can you slap some story on here?”

Or, inversely: (video game designer who wishes they were making a movie): “Can you stick a minigame in here to make the player feel like they are actually doing something?”

This is the stuff of crappy, unrelated stories and mechanics.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.



It made sense to start with designing the story as I am creating a very story-driven game. I started brainstorming with one of my favorite self-designed techniques that I like to call fake time-boxing. I started by flipping through Pinterest until I found an image that I couldn't look away from.

This one transported me immediately:

Spirit Island

I maximized the photo on my screen, set the timer on my phone to 10 minutes, and I scribbled out every idea that popped into my head on a big piece of paper with colored markers. 10 minutes passed, I looked at what I had done, then I set the timer and did it again, and again. Fake timeboxing works for me by pretending that I have a fast-approaching deadline when none exists. The clock ticking down in front of me fools my brain into bypassing crippling self-editing (read: self-doubt) to work quickly. It lets me throw a whole lot of stuff onto the page to sift and weigh later.

The story that I came up with:

A young woman (Emma) decides to meet the father that she has never known, despite her mother’s objections. She takes off on a solo journey up to a frozen fishing village in the wilds of the Canadian north. Upon arrival, she discovers that her father has been missing for two months. Now her mission has become a rescue one, as she has to travel into an alternate dimension to locate her father and work with him to solve the terms of his imprisonment.

This story works for me on a number of levels. As a writer it excites and engages me. As a designer, it immediately sparks ideas for gameplay. As a producer, it sets me up with a manageable world to build because it has a small number of characters and a remote location which can get away with less detail than a larger playspace (like a city, for example). A more limited playspace means less player choices, means less design means smaller scope means more likely that a single person (me!) can actually get it done.


Now that I had the basic premise down, I started writing short scenarios to explore the characters further.

Emma and her mother in the attic: I imagined the encounter where Emma first discovers the evidence that will lead her to her father's home in Canada. She finds a set of photos in an old box in her mother's attic, one of which is an aged picture of Spirit Island itself. I quickly created the artifact I imagined in Photoshop. (Remember that photograph from Pinterest?)

I imagined the attic scene as a collection of objects that the player could interact with that would elicit a response from both Emma and her mother that would elucidate both their personalities and their relationships with each other. I wrote the scene up in Twine (click here to read).

Game Intro Quest Design Document: I began by imagining Emma reaching the small Canadian town for the first time. I drew out the elements, buildings, and characters that existed in the town and on Spirit Island with which she could interact. I designed the "gates" that she must get through to progress in the level. I threw together a really quick and dirty Adobe Illustrator file to get all of the ideas down on (virtual) paper (the fonts are standard - don't judge!).

Spirit Island initial QDD

Short story: The moment wherein Emma first meets her father is another moment that was immediately clear in my mind. I explored the beats of that interaction in short story format.

Character descriptions: I recently had the privilege of chatting with a very successful narrative designer about her strategy for character design, so I thought I'd try it out. For each character, she picks 3 to 4 character traits from a list she has tacked above her desk. Then, she briefly describes a situation wherein that trait manifests. Here's one I created for Emma:

EMMA (main character/protagonist) – 19 y.o.

Brave, introverted, artistic, emotional

Song: “Here,” by Alessia Cara


Brave: Emma has driven all the way up to this tiny town in Canada to meet a father who has never tried to reach out to her.

Bratty: She’s still a teenager. She refuses to go to church with her mother and her mother’s new husband.

Introverted: See “here” by Alessia Cara

Artistic: Loves drawing (turns out like her dad)

Emotional: is struck with overwhelming emotion from time to time. She always does her best to hide it, however.

Carries with her:

  • Her sketchbook. (Maybe she sketches the people she meets and takes notes?)


  • Only child. Never met her father who left her mother before she was born.

  • More of a theater kid than a sports kid, which was uncharted territory for her mother.

  • Emma learned recently that her mother doesn’t always know best.

  • Mom thought she should go to college. She wasn’t ready.

  • Mom doesn’t know a thing about dating. She encourages Emma to become super clingy of new guys quickly. She also is always trying to get Emma to date Emma’s best friend.

  • Doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. Dropped out of community college during her second semester.

  • Emma is not an adventurous kid per se. She is a dreamer like her mother, but she has kept her dreams to herself in an effort to be responsible in the place of her mother.

  • Childhood: she didn’t have a lot of rules growing up. She developed an unhealthy understanding of male/female relationships watching her mother date domineering, objectifying men. She raised herself a lot of the time, as her mother was irresponsible and sloppy with her drinking.

It's a good start.

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