There is more to this picture but, alas, spoilers.

Writing a character is a special thing. You imbue your fictional creation with parts of yourself - things you like, things you don’t like that deserve examining (whether you like it, or not!). And sometimes, you even introduce elements of a personality you wish you had. But ultimately, you develop a relationship with the character you’re writing. They become a friend.

But what I have come to realise over the course of the last two years with Beyond These Stars is that writing is also extremely hard work. Certainly not as hard as, let’s say, building a house or being a truck driver, but there’s only so many times you can wax lyrical about your character and what they’d do before you run out of enthusiasm, and begin writing on sheer stubbornness and a grim determination to get the game done - and have your characters be as good as you want them to be.

Today, I’m using this dev blog as an excuse to review my writing process for Kewa, our big beautiful Space Whale, who has occupied a good chunk of my thoughts, consistently, for over 2 years now.  I love writing about Kewa - you can read the other dev blogs about them here and here.

I can’t believe Tolkien copied us, unbelievable

It’s no secret that Kewa’s demeanour was influenced by Treebeard in Lord of the Rings. They have a lot in common - both are old, made from the environment around them, and have problems with their memories. Treebeard is a lot more cynical than Kewa, but I’ve drawn a smidgen of inspiration from Treebeard’s stubbornness and jaded nature. That was one of the first steps I took to building Kewa’s personality.

Then there was concept art from Tom. Oh, my goodness. Tom seemed to understand Kewa intimately immediately, and made some incredible art very quickly. Having good concept art to inspire and help a character’s development is extremely important, so Tom’s vision helped my own character development work exponentially.

I began writing some backstory for the Space Whales. This involved looking at The Story Game (which you can find in Before We Leave), and filling in some blanks that Sam left open in Before We Leave. I was asking, where did the Space Whales come from? Why do they eat planets? Were they always like this? I tried very hard not to retcon, and I think I mostly succeeded.  Here’s one of the paragraphs I wrote in March 2022 -

“Despite their best efforts to find a way to heal and recover, many Space Whales never recovered from their weakened state. Some perished, some went missing. Worst of all, some succumbed to their malnutrition, becoming hungry pariahs with no thought beyond eating whatever organic matter they could find - even if it was a fully inhabited planet. Centuries later, these Space Whales behave like parasites, having no memory of their history, or culture…”

In April 2022, I received a brief, of sorts, from our creative director Sam:

"According to Anna, I have a “poetic soul” :)  I’d really like Kewa to speak poetically - I feel like that would help to underscore its age and its being fundamentally different to us/the Peeps.  Not rhyming as such, but through lots of metaphor and stuff"

(There's way more to this brief than that sentence, but that would be spoiler territory! You might get to see the whole thing. One day. Maybe.)

Thus, with all of these building blocks, I began to write some very preliminary dialogue and a story flow in Twine. For those of you who don’t know, Twine is “...a free open-source tool…for making interactive fiction and hypertext fiction in the form of web pages”. It’s great for prototyping, and you can even make fully fledged games in it!

I imagined the Peeps crash landing onto Kewa's back rather than landing nice and peacefully with these first prototypes. I live for the ~drama~

I wasn’t sure about our core gameplay loop then, so writing in Twine helped me theorise what that loop was at a very high level, and I drafted some dialogue between Kewa and the Peeps. In retrospect, I wouldn’t prototype in Twine again for a game like Beyond These Stars - there are simply too many gameplay systems to consider, since the story has to serve the gameplay. Most recently I’ve been drafting in Miro (a digital collaboration board) that's much faster, and easier, to use. All that said, I don’t regret doing my initial prototypes in the wrong program, as it helped me understand Kewa and their voice. I’m even using some of the dialogue I wrote back then right now. Nice work, past Emily.

And then I didn’t write for Kewa for another year. Well, that’s not exactly true, I was writing, just in my head. Narrative design and games writing often takes place in the mind of the person doing it, since there’s so many things to consider. Some examples would be thinking about Kewa’s personality traits. Do Kewa and the Peeps agree on everything? Where do they disagree? What sort of friction does that create? How do the clash, and where does that conflict take place in the game?

But in terms of more tangible work, I moved onto other things like developing Peep culture and their collective characterisation, narrative impact on core game systems (and the other way around), and trying to juggle community management duties at the same time. Yes, that’s right, I was still community manager through all of this! 

And now it’s 2024. This has been marked as our release year for a long time… and as our date creeps closer, I’m back to doing games writing. I’ve graduated to working directly in Unity, now. I use a tool called Yarnspinner (heavily customised by the folks down in BMG HQ, thank you team <3) to implement Peep dialogue, and of course, Kewa’s too.

I’m a much more disciplined writer now - I can write even if I don’t want to. A lot of creative folks rely on a spark, that energy and passion, to create. It can be found everywhere at the beginning of a project. When you’re in the middle of the grind, though, sometimes that spark can be hard to find. So you create anyway, even if it means writing imperfectly one day, then refining it the next day into something much nicer when you have a fresh mind. There’s something really motivating about groaning at previous work you’ve done, and diving into making it better.

I hope you love the characters as much as I do - my dream is to see a ton of memes in the Discord about interactions between characters, or even people’s own interpretations of scenarios in the game.

And as always, don’t forget to wishlist Beyond These Stars! Thank you! 

With lots of wordy love,

Narrative Designer/Writer

PS - My final Twitch stream as Community Manager is happening on Friday, the 5th of April! I'll be talking to Lia and Sam about our work on Beyond These Stars, and what's coming next. Come say hello!

Click here to see what time the stream will be in your timezone!