Sira is a first-person puzzle game with sci-fi and action-adventure elements, developed in the Unreal Development Kit by Arsenic Playground. The story is set against the backdrop of a solar apocalypse which has left only a handful of survivors, massive and silent metropolises, and the sprawling cyber-ecosystem which keeps everything running for masters long dead. Players enter the role of a cult soldier who sets out into a sun-scorched cityscape filled with malfunctioning machines in order to save his dying comrade.
Arsenic Playground's creative director Christopher Berry contacted me about joining the project a few months after I graduated. Working with the team posed a unique challenge for me as a developer because I would be working remotely. Given that this is the path of many freelance writers, it was a useful learning opportunity.
In addition to collaborating with Red Jumpsuit Apparatus on the game's theme song, Arsenic Playground ran a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter (for which I wrote the promotional text). It was a thorough success!
My tasks began with building on the core premise and seeing it through to a full game arc complete with a recording script, documentation, and any other story/writing elements as needed.
The story's foundation pre-dated my involvement: after the Sun begins to collapse into a supernova and Earth is left a wasteland, war breaks out between two opposing factions of survivors. I grounded this concept with more context, explaining in the early drafts of the story doc how the Sun could jump so far ahead of its evolutionary life cycle and what the world could look like in the near future.
After the setting was established, I moved on to the characters populating it. What kind of war can erupt moments before World's End? What kind of character would wage such a war? What kind of player-character would be the most interesting to explore the world with? These were just some of the questions I asked in developing the story.
Over the course of development, the story saw some drastic changes. What's listed under 'Documentation' below represents what made it into the final version of Sira. Further down, I discuss the older versions of the game and just how much I had planned for the narrative.
Sira, in its shipped form, marks the third major revision of its story. In it, the Hunter (player-character) fights through areas littered with malfunctioning robots and navigates around direct sunlight to save the Kinsman (NPC) with only a Tour Guide A.I. to help him.
With a fairly short play-time, I focused on establishing the story through the opening and closing cinematics. I kept the scenes brief and low-cost, i.e. using only dialogue. In some ways, the lack of visuals fits rather well. It gives the player the most essential elements through sound and lets the mind fill in the rest.
The events leading up to the world's current state are hinted at through 26 bits of flavor text, which take the shape of collectible logs hidden throughout the level. For the sheer magnitude of compression, there is a lot that the logs leave out, but the constraint forced me to be very selective about which details to include or omit. These can be read here.
Part of of the development process for Sira's theme song "Humanity," composed and performed by Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, involved a word map to capture the themes and emotions explored in the story. The following was submitted to that end.
In a candid post-mortem I had with Arsenic Playground's creative director, we discussed the problems of scope which plagued the first half of development. But the truth is: even if the rest of the game delivered on all of its goals, the story would have still been overscoped. It was a painful and costly lesson, but one I won't ever forget. Below are the documents which represented revision 2 in all its foolishly ambitious glory.
In this iteration, the player would have encountered the Runner, an elusive man that the Hunter was bid to capture with the Kinsman's help by Messiah, the leader of the endtimes cult. The text logs above would have been voiced audio logs, numbering fewer and measuring farther apart in what would have been a much larger level. In the end though, even Messiah's character - whose sermon originally framed the story - was cut.
Much of the story bible didn't make it into the game. Even adopting the iceberg approach to writing, it was still far less than I had hoped. Still, I'm quite proud of the work I did for this version. In terms of development time, revision 2 was by far the one I spent the most time on and the iteration that was most refined. In the future, I just have to remember not to get carried away by how much a project or idea resonates with me.
Below is the 47-page piece in question, availed to any who want to lose themselves in 14,000 words of documentation. It has the supposed future which leads to Sira's reality, extensive character sheets for the three main characters, and even a section at the end with possible sequel ideas.
The early process I went through to develop the doc was rather thorough, beginning in astrophysics research, leading to many rewrites of the larger narrative, and finally the docs above. When I was constructing the storyline, I made a rudimentary excel spreadsheet that interwove three plot threads. It was a great help in keeping everything in order outside my head. You can find this spreadsheet below.