Over the course of summer, I worked as a narrative designer on 2D metroidvania Val & Tine for the Super Metroidvania Game Jam Month 20 on Itch.io, which ran from 15 April to 15 August 2023. This was effectively my debut as a narrative designer with a full team of talented developers – which makes this little project all the more exciting to me!
Here’s an overview of Val & Tine, including details of the development journey and my specific contribution to the game.
Oh, future Val… please take good care of him.
About Val & Tine
Swing your fruit fork, glide with your tea leaf and bounce off creepy-cute platforms in this Hollow-Knight-meets-Fantasia side-scroller, a personal tribute to some of the development team’s favourite games and works of art ever. 🖤
Val & Tine is a hand-drawn platform adventure set in a kingdom of sentient food, where a number of diseases are turning food people into frenzied monsters. In the game you play as Tine, a loyal nurse assistant, as he fights his way across a plagued field hospital to retrieve something dear to his mentor – Val.
As Tine seeks a cure to his own illness, will he resist to the sinister appeal of this dark world?
The original setting for Val & Tine‘s food world was designed by LudicrousBiscuit (Bianca Russell), an incredibly talented 2D artist working on a much wider, more ambitious and broader metroidvania called Whoopie!. In the context of the game jam, Biscuit was looking to create a small window into her much larger game, while gaining some experience as a developer and potentially finding a team that would help her create the game of her dreams later.
Alongside the role of lead artist, Biscuit acted as a game designer supporting the whole team. Working closely with her was incredibly fun and enriching at all stages. We sat together (virtually) for a first brainstorming session, during which we ironed out the design goals together, to understand how the gameplay would support the narrative. In the end, we decided to focus on a limited area of Whoopie!, ‘Styptic Pass’, where field nurse Val operates with her assistant. We chose the theme of Revival – one of the potential themes from the game jam, with Out of Time as a secondary theme.
For the protagonist, we chose Tine, Val’s assistant. Together, Val & Tine are working to cure the many diseases that plague the land – including a blight called ‘Moulding’, which causes all food to develop fungal and mould-looking infections, and turns them into frenzied zombies.
With Biscuit acting as the game designer, we worked closely to flesh out the basic story principles, themes, key messages and mood of the game, working within the limits of the jam to create a compelling story that was primarily gameplay-focused.
Narrative Overview: The Story of Val & Tine
From the start, Biscuit and I wanted to tell a story of betrayal (a theme dear to both of us), yet portrayed under a positive light. We wanted to show the dark side of doubt when things get harsh, the crude reality of illness, and the vulnerability of a set of characters who are clinging desperately to the last remnants of a dying kingdom.
The game plays heavily with the duality between the two co-protagonists in its title: whereas Val is a light, optimistic character who can find hope in the darkest of times, Tine is doubtful and deeply affected by his past trauma. For each patient lost to the illness, Tine harbours yet more doubts that hope is ever to be found anywhere, and he starts embracing a much dangerous lie: that there is only suffering in the world, and there’s no point in prolonging life for the sake of bringing people more pain.
This story is told through various in-game elements, such as cutscenes, environmental narrative and lore fragments – the latter of which players can collect throughout the game.
Tine’s Dark Inversion Arc
I’ve always been endlessly fascinated by negative character arcs, and I found in Val & Tine the perfect opportunity to experiment with their ability to tell meaningful stories. Tine is a vulnerable, fragile character, and for his story, I chose to adopt the Disillusionment Arc – in which the protagonist gradually loses faith in their ideals or worldview, to embrace a darker or more cynical perspective.
Here’s an overview of Tine’s character arc, based on his goal, truth and lie:
|Tine wants to help Val eradicate the disease by curing as many patients as possible.||With kindness and good will, people are worth trying to save – no matter how difficult it may be.||There is only suffering in the world. What is the point of prolonging life for others if it’s only going to bring more pain?|
|With research and hard work, it is possible to find ways to help others that can still benefit everyone. Shortcuts are not an option.||The established way of doing things is bringing no results. What if there’s an alternative, easier way?|
This narrative arc also helped us convey the feelings and general mood of horror and dark fantasy, which are so prominent in Biscuit’s original world.
Cutscenes, Lore Fragments & Environmental Narrative
After concepting the story, it was time to write the scripts and dialogues, as well as the lore fragments that we would scatter around the game. Starting from Biscuit’s original concept, I put together a Lore Bible to help me assimilate the nuts and s’mores of this world, then used it to inform my process as I wrote the individual fragments. I have always believed in the power of showing, rather than telling, and I drafted all fragments so they could contain minimal exposition and info dump. Rather, I wanted to leverage my characters to convey useful details and concept about the wider world.
Though I was well aware metroidvania games are possibly my favourite sub-genre, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this part as much as I did. Thinking about the lore of the world, and then the context in which each fragment could be placed, was easily the most fun part of the project to me – alongside designing the arc of Tine as a character.
Because environmental, implicit narrative in a metroidvania is just as important as explicit story beats, I worked closely with Biscuit on a document detailing some key plot-related set pieces. The Environmental Narrative document included descriptions of statues, rooms, events and secondary story elements which would add to the lore of the game, contributing to telling a wider story and adding to the context of the game’s world.
This was also when I started collaborating closely with Giovanni Damian, our Level Designer, and David Stanley, our Lead Programmer. Together, we would bounce ideas off each other for gameplay elements, maps, levels and placement of lore, and while David worked on implementing the few cutscenes in the game, I assisted him on polishing the dialogues and general stage direction to make sure each would be as effective (and purposeful) as it could.
Part of this process required drafting cutscenes in a script format, and lore fragments in a Google Sheet. I aimed to ensure each element would not only be easy to browse, but also useful to consult when working on Val & Tine in Unity.
Marketing & Project Management
Lastly, being the only writer in the team, I was appointed to look after our Itch.io page as a copy and layout editor. That’s when my knowledge of social media from my day job as a senior content manager came in handy.
Starting with a general analysis of the platform, I carried out some in-depth desk research to study and understand the most successful games on Itch.io’s front page. I then dove deeper, browsing through the metroidvania tag, to see how other successful games in our same niche are able to achieve good results on Itch. I applied those learnings to shape the game’s page – briefing Biscuit on the designed assets I needed to make sure the listing would shine. The final result can be found on Itch.io, but here’s a preview:
We decided not to carry out any social media marketing for this game. From experience, marketing a game needs to start much early on to build community, and since our time investment in this project was planned to stop after release, we would simply not have had the resources to make a compelling, quality-oriented, social-first organic campaign to help us create buzz around Val & Tine. We will count on the general discoverability of Itch.io, as well as the exposure of the Super Metroidvania Month Jam, to measure the success of our creative efforts.
However, should the team wish to bring me on board for the wider Whoopie! project, I will most happily assist with marketing and social media as well.
Lastly, Val & Tine gave me the chance to practice my project management skills. Given my experience as a Notion-certified professional, I applied my general knowledge of status trackers and production priorities to help the team set up an Asana page that would fit all our needs. Though I didn’t fully act as a project manager per se, I was able to offer the team support in multiple occasions, including with tutorials and training, so that we could get our actions and priorities in check and get the game over the line.
The Beauty of Making Games
Along the way, and as the game slowly came together thanks to the team’s work and Yuri Gore‘s incredible original soundtrack, I eventually fully understood why I was enjoying the process so much: as a longstanding writer, avid gamer, former musician and art enjoyer, making a game felt like putting together all the different disciplines I’m interested in, and all the different hobbies I’ve pursued over the years.
My role on the team shifted daily from being a narrative consultant to a game design pal, alongside offering feedback on stage directions for cutscenes and sending detailed notes on the music. I felt comfortable enough to provide constructive feedback on every aspect of the game, whenever I was required to, pumping up the team’s morale for their successes, and acting as a core representative for the game’s narrative.
I was also lucky enough to work with an incredible team of amazingly talented professionals. Everyone, from level design to art, was an absolute joy to work with, and the final result of Val & Tine is a testament to both our love for games and our commitment to pushing a project over the line.
Considering this was just a game jam, I feel like the team pulled together a small miracle – and I can’t imagine what we would do if we were to work on something bigger, with more time, and potentially resources. Needless to say, I hope to join forces with this lovely bunch again in the future. 🤞
Download the game: Val & Tine
Val & Tine was created by a talented team of 9 people in 3 months, from May 2023 to August 2023:
|Bianca Russell||Game Designer, Lead Artist|
|David Stanley||Lead Programmer|
|Anthony L. Wolf (me! ☺️)||Narrative Designer, Copywriter|
|Giovanni Damian||Level Designer|
|Yuri Gore||Music Composer|