Reflections on story/characters in “At Sea”
For a while I’ve wanted to post some reflections on the characters/story of At Sea: or more accurately, reflections on how players have reacted to different parts of the game. It seems a bit weird to be writing about a game that I’ve released over a year ago, but the fact is it is still my largest released project to date, and chances are if you’re reading this, it’s because you saw Why Am I Dead At Sea somewhere!
Some of this might be interesting to those who have played the game all the way through. Certain things that were intended but may not have been communicated to the player, remaining questions the player may have after finishing the game, and random musings.
NOTE, if you haven’t played the game yet, this will have SPOILERS so you should not read it if you care about that kind of thing. I will “white out” some of the big stuff (select the text to see it) but the entire game consists of twists/reveals, so talking about the story in any capacity will contain spoilers.
1. People really don’t like Xu, huh?
One thing that I feel like I could have done better with was making Xu a more sympathetic character. Watching people play the game, a lot of people really dislike her, I mean, a lot, and that wasn’t exactly what I was anticipating.
I mean, she’s not what I would call a great person. Even in the very first conversation you have with her, there are clear hints that she is being deceptive/manipulative. But the game’s overall opinion of her is meant to be roughly neutral – she has flaws, but is ultimately a good person. Unfortunately, I don’t think her dialogue depicts this side of her as well as it could have.
2. Alton hogs the early parts of the game, and was the hardest character to write
I’ve seen players grow weary of him and his character-arc, which is understandable. To progress through earlier parts of the game, you have to spend a lot of time with him. Personally, this is my least favorite aspect of the game from a narrative perspective.
In general, Alton has been the most difficult character to write, and his personality/story arc have gone through multiple dramatic changes over the game’s development. Originally, Alton came off as a much worse person in the script, and reacted quite differently to certain events in the story (for the worse). The initial conflict between him and Xu was meant to be, essentially, a re-enactment of the game’s larger conflicts/themes, on a very tiny stage. But conveying all of this was difficult, because Alton is the first character you meet and play as, and is sort of the tutorial character. He also seems like an okay person at the beginning – he has flaws, but they are flaws often given to an “underdog” protagonist.
So I was very worried that players would falsely interpret Alton as the underdog protagonist, and that his opinions were those of my own, or the game’s. I ended up rewriting a lot of his dialogue to reduce the chance that he would be interpreted this way. This ultimately made his dialogue less substantive – he simply has a lot less interesting things to say.
3. People wanted to know more about the protagonist (ie the ghost)
A common complaint is the lack of closure on just who exactly you are. This is half-intentional, but something that I could definitely improve on. There are obvious challenges – you are dead, you have lost all memory of your past self, and the other characters in the story didn’t know much about you even when you were alive. So, opportunities for character-development are scarce. One option would have been flash-backs as you recover pieces of your memory, but this was outside the scope of the game. It could also disrupt the focus of the game – ultimately, the protagonist is not supposed to be the center of attention – that place is reserved to the cast of the living.
I will say that the ghost does have a full back-story and character – it’s not for lack of these things that the ghost’s former personality is vague. It was more of a conscious decision not to go too far into those details. But there is something in-game that tells you a bit more about the protagonist, which isn’t laid out very clearly: when you go into the “minds” of Darryl and Gwen, and pose as someone they knew – the reason Smilla is able to speak as if she were these people is because she went through the same problems they did. So when she poses as Darryl’s wife and speaks in first person, she’s not actually talking about his wife – she’s literally talking about herself, and something she went through at a previous point in her life.
4. What could have been
I’ve already mentioned that Alton went through some rewrites, but what else was planned and got changed/removed, or what wasn’t planned but made its way into the game?
- As far as rewrites, Darryl also saw the large majority of his dialogue get replaced over the course of development. He initially was a more upbeat, personable character who cracked jokes to everyone on the ship – then in chapter 3 it would be revealed that this was a facade. But it never really felt convincing to me. It gave his arc a twist, but it didn’t actually make sense. The whole point is that he’s apathetic, so the idea that he would spend energy pretending to be anything else didn’t add up. So, wise-crack Darryl was replaced with dour Darryl.
- I had always planned on full possession, but the implications of this mechanic from a story perspective were unpredictable and at some points I felt I had written myself into a corner – or worse, into a situation where there were too many possibilities to account for. Most of the events in chapter 4 were changed in development as a result of the diverging possibilities. The entire section where Gwen is put under suspicion and has to be proven innocent was added very late as a means of re-focusing (or limiting) the player’s agency.
- On the other side, I had never planned on being able to “upgrade” your ghost form so that it looked like your former self, or the possibility of interacting with people while in your ghost form. This means that I also never initially planed the instances where you go into the minds of Gwen and Darryl and fully unlock them by assuming the role of someone from their past. In retrospect, the game seems like it would be really incomplete without these parts, and they actually didn’t take very much time or energy to create, so I’m very happy that I added them.
- You probably wouldn’t know it if you didn’t play through the game multiple times, but the epilogue for the game is different not only depending on what ending you get, but also some of the decisions you make earlier on. The same characters will have a conversation, but the direction that it goes can vary based on how they’ve interacted throughout the game. This was another last-minute addition to the game that almost didn’t make the cut.
- The “bathroom ghost” was yet another last-minute addition to the game. I wonder what % of players have actually found this part, and what they made out of the ensuing dialogue.