Interview by Allie Werner
UNSTUCK: So, what do you do when you're not making games?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: I'm a professional software engineer. I work on web applications, mostly. I spend the rest of my time playing games (both digital and cardboard) and writing games, though I can be convinced to go out to the pub on occasion.
UNSTUCK: What are you playing right now, cardboard and otherwise?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Lately, I'm playing a lot of Wildstar. Also burning through the new Telltale series as they arrive. In the cardboard realm, we either play a whole lot of Cosmic Encounter or a whole lot of Magic: The Gathering.
UNSTUCK: What made you decide to make a text-based game?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Honestly? Limited resources. I've started work on many games, and all of them end up sad little half-finished things. Folders on my hard drive that make me feel bad, but that I can't bring myself to delete. Generally, that's because I don't really like drawing. I'm not good at it, and it's really hard. Then I played Candy Box, and knew I would actually finish one of those.
UNSTUCK: So working with text allowed you focus on gameplay and storytelling without having to worry about graphics.
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Exactly.
UNSTUCK: It's interesting you mention Candy Box. I found Candy Box after playing A Dark Room while I was looking for similar games. But while A Dark Room really grabbed me from beginning to end, I'm not sure if I'll ever finish Candy Box.
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Well, A Dark Room wouldn't exist had aniwey not built Candy Box. Candy Box is longer, and it doesn't really have a cohesive narrative. It uses different styles of mechanics to hook you, and different mechanics work for different people. The main focus of the project was to take the framework defined by Candy Box and apply narrative to it.
UNSTUCK: So how did you go about developing the narrative for A Dark Room? What's distinctive about writing a game as opposed to writing static story? How do you plot things out?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: I haven't written a static story since high school, really, but I wrote A Dark Room pretty much the same way I always wrote back then. It's mostly improvisation within a loosely defined world. I might have a major plot point or two pinned down at the beginning, but I really do just make it up as I go along. Writing for games isn't really all that different, but you have to deliver the plot in a very different way.
UNSTUCK: How so?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: You need to take player agency into account. A game doesn't satisfy unless the player feels like they have some control over the outcome of the game. In a narrative game, the outcome is generally narrative (rather than score, victory, etc...), and so the player needs to feel like the narrative involved them. The best games do this through trickery.
UNSTUCK: That's something I think about quite a lot in regards to games. How games attempt, successfully or unsuccessfully, to create the illusion that the player is constructing the narrative when in fact everything is pre-written.
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: It's more or less the medium's defining quality. Telltale does it brilliantly. Other games actually opt to do it for real, with varying results. The Witcher 2 famously pulled it off with gusto.
UNSTUCK: In your own game development, what do you do to try to make the reader feel personally involved in the story?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: In A Dark Room, I did a little trickery, but mostly I just didn't tell the story. I wasn't sure if it would work, but it looks like it did. Among certain crowds, at least. I told the story mostly through suggestion, and let the player build the narrative for themselves. When you feel like you've come up with the lot, you feel agency even though the writer had you by the hand the whole time through the mechanics and environment. I always find stories more engaging when there is plenty left unsaid.
UNSTUCK: I don't want to spoil the game's plot too much, but I will say that it gives the player the opportunity to move through three different kinds of gameplay as the world expands. How did you develop this expanding structure?
MICHAEL: I came up with game modes at the same time I as thinking about the plot. I knew I wanted the game to grow in scope with each shift, with the previous mode serving as the foundation for the next. Two modes were actually dropped from the game that reinforced this even more. I liked the idea of "zooming out" the mechanics because it dovetailed nicely with the way I wanted to gradually reveal the game world.
UNSTUCK: How did A Dark Room originate?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Well, A Dark Room originated about 10 minutes into Candy Box. I thought that the incremental nature of the game was brilliant, and I felt like it had great potential for delivering narrative. I didn't really sleep very well that night. By the next day, I knew what I was building. Making games is something I've been interested in for as long as I can remember. I love programming for the same reason I love games, and games are the most fun I can have with programming.
UNSTUCK: What reason is that?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Puzzles. A good game is a puzzle, just like a good problem to solve in code.
UNSTUCK: What resources would you recommend to someone interested in learning how to build games?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Game design is the most important aspect, I think. A poorly programmed game can still be excellent if its design is good, while a badly designed game can't be saved by even the most elegant of code. Play lots of games. Play good games and bad games and think about what it is that makes them that way. When you understand why the good games are good, it's much easier to build one. Also, watch everything produced by the fine folks at Extra Credits.
Oh, and if you're more inclined toward writing than coding you might want to check out Twine. With it, you can build some cool interactive narrative experiences with no coding required.
UNSTUCK: What are you reading right now?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: That's an embarrassing question, because the answer is nothing. I love to read when I have the time, but it's probably number three or four on my priority list. When I do read, though, it's usually non-fiction, good sci-fi, or weird Grant Morrison comics.
UNSTUCK: Do you have any other projects in the works?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: If I didn't, I'd have time to read. It's pretty different, though, and I fear that those who loved A Dark Room might hate it. But it's what I find interesting right now, so it's what's happening.
UNSTUCK: Any final thoughts?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: If nothing else, I hope that A Dark Room has gotten a few more people interested in making their own games. You can actually build something cool pretty quickly. The world needs more people building cool things, I think. I kind of rely on it for my entertainment.