The team of Fictiorama shared the details behind their unique indie game Do Not Feed the Monkeys with a non-linear narrative that was nominated by IGF.
80lv: First of all, could you tell us in short about your studio? From your website, we know that there are three of you – and all three are brothers. Did you guys have a passion for video games from the very childhood? Did you develop Do Not Feed the Monkeys on your own, just three of you?
Yes, we settled Fictiorama back in 2013… and we, the founders of the studio, are indeed three brothers!
The truth is that we have been playing video games since we got our first computer, a ZX Spectrum 48K. Back then, during the mid 80’s and specially the 90’s, we enjoyed playing the three of us together, mostly narrative-driven games: at first text adventures and games with a heavy narrative, and later point and click adventure games, and every software that allowed us to tell our own stories, like Cartoons or even 3D Construction Kit. The thing was enjoying stories the three of us together, and even telling our own!
The idea of making our own video games as a team started back then when we were kids and teenagers. Some decades later we decided that we wanted to create together the narrative-driven games we’d love to play… and that’s how Fictiorama was born.
Do Not Feed the Monkeys is our second commercial game, after Dead Synchronicity: Tomorrow Comes Today (2015). The three of us work really well together, since each one is in charge of a different aspect (programming, narrative & game & sound design, production and PR…), although we still need support in specific areas, like art and game design. The core team behind Do Not Feed the Monkeys has been really small, though, just 5 people.
Do Not Feed the Monkeys: Art Style & Mechanics
80lv: It would be awesome to hear some details behind the art style you’ve chosen and the way you decided to implement the idea of monitoring. How did adding the cages and the right to alter the course of actions inside them influence the whole game mechanics?
Do Not Feed the Monkeys deals with the subject of voyeurism, that’s usually quite creepy. Plus, the world depicted in the game has some vibes of a dystopia, in regards to lots of subjects: politics, economics, culture, technology, society… Well, it seemed like a dystopia three years ago, although it’s sad to see some of the things we imagined for the game are almost real today!
So we didn’t want to add more darkness with a creepy, serious mood since we thought it could be too much and even get counter-productive. Therefore, we thought it would be great to go with a “lighter” mood on the surface… although if the players decided to go deeper they would find all this creepiness.
So that’s why the game features this acid-humor, sometimes almost surreal vibe, that a comic pixel-art style matches perfectly.
It was also for production reasons. We knew that, in order to tell all the things we wanted to tell in the game, we were going to have to create lots and lots of assets having a really small team (a rough account is that the game features about 7,500 sprites). So we thought choosing a pixel-art style would make things easier and faster since sprites are really small. Back then we weren’t as aware of the restraints of working with pixel-art sprites as we’re now!
About how the watching –> investigating –> influencing on people processes relate to the game mechanics, it’s not that these factors affected the mechanics. They are the mechanics themselves! Every time some of the core mechanics changed to get some essential gameplay goal, the narrative of the game had to change, since both elements are totally intertwined; and every time the narrative design changed because we found out that a new element was needed, some game mechanics had to be tweaked or added.
It delayed preproduction quite a lot, but it was also a fascinating process for us and we think it makes the game unique and really compelling for players.
80lv: The game seems to be so huge with its multiple realities and the choice options. How long did you work on the plot itself? Correct me if I’m mistaken, but this game has several scenarios based on the choices made by the players, doesn’t it? It kind of reminds me of the recent Bandersnatch that hit Netflix. I’ve seen the plan of all the possible actions and their results on the Internet and wondered if you made something alike, a huge chain of events crossing each other or similar. Also, is it possible not to interact with the ‘monkeys’ at all in the game or is the player kind of forced to do it?
Yes, unlike what happens in Dead Synchronicity, in Do Not Feed the Monkeys we wanted to focus on non-linear narrative. Not only because we felt like doing something completely different, but because we wanted the game to be very replayable.
To achieve replayability, one mean was to feature lots of different content so that the players can play the game over and over and still get new things: stories, characters, events… But we also wanted to give the players the chance to do lots of different things and get different outcomes.
Do Not Feed the Monkeys features lots of narrative content, structured in different “layers”: the things that happen in each of the hacked cameras (aka “cages”); the life of the avatar themselves and the people that they meet and have contact with; and the world the avatar lives in, with its political, social, financial, cultural, technological and economic issues.
The players can do lots of different things about the stories featured in the hacked cameras and the people featured in them (aka “monkeys”): they can try to support them, to harm them, to blackmail them, to sabotage their dreams or to encourage them to be happy… The players can of course even decide not to interact with them (aka “feed the monkeys”), and that’s a choice itself, so they will experience a different kind of game if they opt to take that path! What they do or don’t do might have consequences in the short, mid and long term, both in the story itself, in the life of the avatar and in the world the avatar lives in.
The same happens with the decisions the avatar makes about their life: the jobs they have, the information they provide to the criminal organization that hacks the surveillance cameras, the people that come and visit them… All of it might be relevant and have consequences!
It took about a year to have a 1.0 version of the whole narrative design of the game: stories (with its “scripts”, puzzles, possible ways to approach them, possible outcomes), the life of the avatar, depiction of the world the game takes place in, different endings… From them, the narrative of the game was tweaked and improved over and over, and in fact, the narrative-design process didn’t actually finish until the game was out and released!
Of course, this complex narrative design approach also made the QA process much more difficult, but luckily we had the support of the cool guys at the game’s publisher, Alawar Premium, and our partners from Badland Games Publishing.
Multi-Tasking & Immersion
80lv: Another interesting decision is to combine several ‘layers of reality’ such as the cages and the first-person gameplay with PC interface elements. Didn’t it seem like a crazy idea and a risk to overload the game with too many elements? There’s literally so much going on – different lives on the screens, the messages, calls, rent payments and so on – how did you set up the triggers for all the actions and nailed all the timings to have the story going?
Deciding how to manage the time and attention is a crucial part of Do Not Feed the Monkeys. It was an element in the original GDD of the game, and it was an absolute “must” during the development: the players have 24 hours a day to focus on what they think it’s more relevant, useful or fun to do… and the decisions they make about it will definitely affect their gameplay.
Our goal was, to some extent, to mimic and even exaggerate the multi-tasking lives almost all of us live today, when it’s really hard to focus on one thing because all is full of notifications and distractions! In fact, we also use it as an element to increase the feeling of immersion in the game. And it seems that it works! Some players have even told us that they are so much into the game that, after a while, they start to think the actual time is the time of the in-game clock!
About the system to coordinate all the events, think of it as a “dynamic” “play of plays”, as a multi-room theater. Each of the subsystems (like each “cage”, or the chat calls, or the visitors, etc.) follows a time script, sometimes in the shape of “X happens at day D, at HH:MM hours” or “X happens in MM minutes.”
To add flexibility and to avoid too many “event collisions” or bottlenecks, there’s a dynamic system by which some events happen within a range (let’s say from 10:00 to 12:00, depending on specific circumstances), and that gives preference to some events above others, as in a queue, depending on its relevance. For instance, no matter if there are several people waiting in line to “knock” on the avatar’s door because the avatar has been unavailable for so long: if the landlady comes to collect her money… she will be first in line because the avatar duties towards her are mandatory!
All this happens in the “backend”, so the players don’t notice. In fact, to achieve that “immersive” feeling, it was essential that the game feels organic, alive. For instance, most of the characters have their own schedule, so they are not available 24/7.
80lv: The interface and the instructions must have been a hard task as well. I don’t think that it’s even possible to work out something completely understandable on a hunch for a game like this, but you did all but impossible. How did you approach UI and the instructions for your game to make the player’s experience as enjoyable as possible?
You nailed it with the question because that’s been one of the hardest tasks during the development. In fact, we showcased Do Not Feed the Monkeys in several events, and organized 4 playtesting sessions, when the game featured a different rate of progress because it was essential to be sure that players were going to know how to play and enjoy the game!
We wanted to make the “learning process” quite intuitive, and in the end, it was the product of a really long “trial and error” process. Needless to say, the first playtesting sessions were a total disaster because the players suddenly could do dozens of different things… that no one had taught them how to do nor why they should do it! So most of the testers barely moved the cursor and clicked on things almost randomly, completely missing the main mechanics and even the goals.
With that initial feedback, we went on tweaking the first gaming experience (the first 5 minutes are crucial), and as we did more playtesting sessions and showcased the game at events, things started to go in the right direction: we realized more guidance was needed, even with good-old tutorials.
We, however, decided to keep the tutorial interruptions as minimum as possible, implementing a “safety net” system for several things. This is: except for the two or three main game mechanics that players shouldn’t miss for a single second (writing terms in the notebook, searching one or two terms together in the search engine, using the chat or the telephone), the game gives the players the chance to discover things by themselves. If they don’t, then an extra tutorial-screen pops up.
We also tweaked the playing experience itself over and over, thanks to the feedback from players at playtesting sessions and events. Features that, now that the game has been released, we consider essential, such as the warning sound when there’s activity in the “cages” or the easier “peeper mode”, are just two things we implemented because of the direct feedback of players trying the game far before release. And that’s without talking about the narrative puzzles, the resource management balancing and so forth. So, thank you all who played the game during these three years!
The team of Fictiorama Studios
Interview conducted by Daria Loginova