Monday, June 23, 2014

Visions of the Surface

I appreciate many things about Failbetter Games, and one of them is how quickly they turn around their Kickstarter projects. The Silver Tree appeared only two months after its successful Kickstarter campaign, and I've recently started playing the Early Access version of Sunless Sea less than a year after backing it. In comparison, Torment: Tides of Numenera recently slipped back to the fourth quarter of 2015. (Not that I terribly mind - I'd much rather a game be done right than quickly - but I admire Failbetter's ability to do both.)

Sunless Sea is a new direction for Failbetter. Up until now, they have been exclusively known for crafting very well-written interactive fiction. They've developed a system, the StoryNexus platform, that allows them to make this more game-y than most other IF, which tends to follow the model of either "Choose Your Own Adventure" or "Zork". Their games feature beautiful bespoke art, which primarily serves as illustration to the text.

In contrast, Sunless Sea is a game-game. It combines a bunch of different systems: there's real-time exploration, a form of turn-based combat, short narrative chunks (some of which have branching storylines), and an economy that includes opportunities for trading. It was advertised as a roguelike with strong story elements, taking inspiration from games like FTL and Sid Meier's Pirates!, and so far it is living up to that description. I didn't back the project at a high enough tier to get into the beta, but all backers have gotten access to the Early Access, and I had a lot of fun playing with it over the weekend.

As a side note, there has been some controversy lately around Early Access games, where people buy games before they are complete and get to play them early while the developers finish them. There is some risk that games won't be finished at all, and you're definitely giving up the opportunity to read reviews and Metacritic scores before purchasing. I think Failbetter is taking a good approach to this... they've been focusing on the core mechanics of the game, front-loading the development of graphics, combat, illumination, etc., so what we're getting in EA feels like a more-or-less complete game. Over the next three months, they'll be focusing on building out the remaining content for the game: in concrete terms, creating the rest of the (enormous!) map, adding and completing more storylines, building more trading centers, etc. Of course, they're listening to feedback during this time as well, and will be adjusting things like combat difficulty and survivability.

I'm a bit reluctant to discuss any strategies or the like, since I'm sure things will change quite a bit by the time the game is finished. That said, here are a few things I've noted so far:

There are multiple resources to manage. The most obvious ones are Supplies and Fuel. Your crew eats Supplies at a steady rate. You consume more Fuel as your ship moves faster and when you turn on your ship's lights; you can hang out in a single spot for a while with your engine and lights off and stop burning any Fuel, but will still be losing a few Supplies. A less obvious resource is kind of an anti-resource, Terror. Your zailors are scared of the dark, and their Terror will increase when you venture into unlighted areas and as you stray further from shore. This reminds me a little of the Nightmares mechanic from Fallen London: it doesn't have much of an impact at low levels, but can cascade when it gets higher (you may begin having nightmares which further increase Terror). When it reaches 100, your game is basically over: your crewmates will go insane, jumping overboard and leaving you stranded and dead. There was a somewhat similar system in place for Pirates! based on morale, which kept any single voyage from continuing for too long.

That isn't the only way to lose, of course: you can also starve to death, have your crew mutiny, or be destroyed in combat. This is a roguelike, so you're expected to die somewhat frequently. Over time, I have come to get a better feeling for just how prepared I need to be when embarking on a voyage, how to minimize my zailor's Terror, and most importantly, that I should run away from combat with all but the easiest enemies. When you do die, the game lets you carry a legacy forward into your next game: one of your officers, a single stat, or your current map. So far I've been opting for my most-expensive Officer, which comes with a bit of a stat boost and opportunities to further upgrade my character.

The most fun way I've discovered so far to play involves speaking with the Admiralty Office in London, which will send you on a mission to a specific random port to retrieve Strategic Information. I'll try to make a loop out of the trip, stopping in at all nearby ports along the way and collecting Port Reports from each, as well as whatever storylets they have to offer. Back in London, you can turn in the Strategic Information for 150 Echoes (the in-game currency), and each Port Report can fetch anywhere from 5-100 Echoes more, with most worth around 20-30. This is usually enough money to hire a new Officer, repair any damage I may have accrued, replenish any lost crew, and hopefully still have a bit left. After several hours of play on my most successful game yet, I've acquired a full slate of high-quality officers and upgraded my engines.

For trips to the north, I'll usually also offer passage to some Tomb-Colonists and engage in a little arbitrage (Prisoner's Honey to Venderbight, then Spider-Silk back to London). I presume that more trading ports will be added as the game continues further development, which will add more opportunities for side-profits along the way, although I'm fairly sure that pure trading will never be the best way to advance in the game.

So far, I'm really enjoying the game! The bones feel solid, and I'm eager to see how the story develops. Fallen London has been a very fun and surprising game, and so far it feels like Sunless Sea has captured much of the atmosphere and ambiance of that game while creating something entirely new to play. At this point, I think I'll probably keep playing my character as long as possible until her inevitable death, then maybe wait until September to play the final version. That should give me a few weeks to master the Unterzee until the Inquisition unexpectedly arrives.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Fall In: New and Improved Vegas

So! Do you remember, months and months ago, when I was playing Fallout: New Vegas, and I really liked it? As soon as I finished the game, I wrote up a post, then immediately created a new character and dove right back in. I was kind of stunned to think of how much stuff I HADN’T done in my first game: even given how long I’d spent in there, there were huge swaths of the map that I had never set foot inside. I didn’t necessarily intend my second game to be a completionist playthrough, more of a chance to explore the “missing” aspects of my first game.

I played a lot… and then got sidetracked with the new Antumbra game, and put FNV (and everything else) aside for months. I recently came back and wrapped up the major DLC that I had interrupted. I figured that it would probably be a good idea to wrap up my thoughts on this now while they’re still only months-old and not years-old; I don’t THINK I have anything else major on the horizon between now and Inquisition, but there is a LOT of game left, and I’m no longer confident that I’ll wrap it all up in a timely fashion.

All right! As is often the case when re-playing RPGs, I start from the moment of character creation to try and create something different. My first character was a female Asian energy-weapons expert; this time around I had a grizzled Hispanic male firearms user. There’s still some decent overlap between the two, skills-wise: given how FNV is structured, it’s really important to have strong Science and Lockpicking from early on, and with my own playstyle I greatly value Speech as well.

Still, the difference between Energy Weapons and Guns was by itself enough to make the flow of gameplay feel quite different. With Energy Weapons, you feel a bit helpless at first due to the extreme shortage of weapons and ammo. However, once you are able to start accumulating ammo, you reach a point where it becomes self-sustaining, and so for most of the game I never had to worry about restocking my supply. In contrast, Guns has an INSANE variety in weapons, and much less commonality in ammunition. Energy Weapons pretty much just have Energy Cells and Microfusion Cells. Guns have .308, 5MM, 9MM, 22LR, .44, .357, and lots more. It isn’t evenly distributed, either. Sniper rifles (which are themselves quite rare) require .308 ammunition, which is only rarely available.

This has had several repercussions for how I play my game. With Energy Weapons, I would always have a single “best” weapon that I would hold on to. Granted, there’s the standard tradeoff between DAM and DPS, but I would usually be satisfied picking one all-around useful weapon. With Guns, though, there’s too great a risk of running out of ammunition, so I ended up carting around a bit of an arsenal; given that you’re holding multiple guns, it makes sense to specialize with them a bit more and switch between them based on the scenario you’re in. As of this writing, that includes a Sniper Rifle (using .308 ammmunition, modified with a suppressor and carbon stock, which is fantastic at taking down enemies at extreme distances in outdoor environments); a silenced SMG (22LR ammunition, useful when fighting at close quarters in indoor environments, handy in stealth); a Hunting Rifle (best at medium range; this used to be my go-to weapon, now it’s a handy fallback when I’m running out of ammo); and my latest acquisition, the K9000 (chews through .357 ammo like candy, good against powerful targets  or when facing groups).

I’m also striving to roleplay this character a bit differently. Again, one of the awesome things about FNV is the large number of big choices it gives your character. My first play-through was fairly aligned to law-and-order; my new character is still “good”, but I see him as more of a wild card, willing to mix it up and break the rules if he thinks a better outcome is possible.

One other thing I do when replaying an RPG is look for mods to install. FNV, like all games based on a Bethesda engine, has a staggering amount of mods available. It can be tricky to research the best ones to use: you can often find articles with titles like “The Ten Best Mods for Fallout: New Vegas,” but such articles are typically written very shortly after mods start appearing, and don’t include the newer ones that end up being superior to those rushed out early on. You can get slightly better results by going to a big aggregator like Nexus Mods and using their sorting options to find the most popular or most endorsed mods. I also find it very useful to check for recent activity on message boards, where you can get a better impression of exactly what the top mods offer: some are very ambitious and impressive but buggy, others might serve very narrow roles that some players need and others won’t care about. Of course, just reading up on mods will almost always give away details about the game, which is part of why I wait until after I beat a game to begin hunting.

I picked out a couple for this playthrough. Some were closer to patches than mods; one lets FNV use up to 4GB of RAM instead of the (I think) 2GB it is hard-coded to use. That should translate to shorter load times when moving repeatedly between the same scenes (as is often the case on the Strip). It didn’t make an enormous difference that I could see, but I think it probably sped it up a little.

I also tried to use an atmosphere mod that’s supposed to add a lot more environmental effects: different sorts of storms, clouds, meteorological events, etc. It sounded cool, but ended up crashing my game, so it had to go.

The most significant mod I added this time around was Willow, which adds a new NPC companion. This turned out to be a FANTASTIC mod, and one of the most professional-looking creations I’ve seen. Willow is very well designed, has a variety of outfits, terrific voice acting, and several personal quest lines that contribute to an overall relationship arc. Most impressively of all, she’s very well integrated into the existing game - in fact, I could almost argue that she’s integrated better than the official NPCs are! In core FNV, you can never have more than two humanoid followers at a time, and never really get to see them interact with one another (one of the critical ways in which this otherwise-amazing game falls short of the BioWare standard). Willow doesn’t count against that limit, though, and she will actually strike up conversations with people as she meets them. Even more amazing, though, is that the original NPCs speak back - they’ve somehow been able to find appropriate reactions from the original audio files, making a surprisingly seamless dialogue between official and fan-made creations. It’s pretty remarkable!

I had a lot of fun with the Willow plot, and let that drive a lot of my initial wanderings. My main goal was to focus on new stuff and ignore the old, and there was a ton of new stuff available to explore. Besides Willow, I also met up with Rose of Sharon Cassidy, bumping up the number of awesome female sidekicks in this game to a rockin’ three. Cass is very different from Veronica, and I don’t know if I could pick a favorite between the two… they’re unique in voice, outlook, background, attitude, combat style, and more. Each has a really engaging personal mission that leads to some very difficult decisions with lasting story-related and mechanical repercussions. In addition, I also did more with Arcade Gannon this time around: I’d recruited him previously, but never unlocked his personal quest, and I was looking forward to seeing his story. With that gang in place, I started wandering through West Side and all the other places I’d neglected during my first game.

And, frankly, that alone was already a pretty stunning part of the experience: realizing just how little of the game I'd even seen. I'd never once set foot in Westside or New Vegas Square, and huge sections of the Wasteland map were completely unexplored. I had a ton of fun checking those places out, and still haven't gotten to everything yet.

I got a better feeling for FNV's quest structure this time around, and I found myself appreciating it more and more. I'm used to a more "hub"-style structure for quests, which is most common in games like Skyrim. Those games tend to have you travel to a major friendly area, like a city; you'll wander around the city and talk to a bunch of people, perhaps picking up a dozen quests, which each require you to travel to another spot out in the countryside. You'll travel there, do what needs doing (rescue someone, find an artifact, slay a beastie), then travel back to the hub for your reward. This tends to lead to massive quest bloat, and often a fair amount of boredom: you feel like you're either picking over the same ground over and over again, or else skidding along the surface and never completing anything. Worse, I feel like I'm actually discouraged from exploring in games like Skyrim: if I stumble across a place too "early", I might break a quest or spoil something that's intended to happen later, or just need to revisit that place again after I get the proper quest.

In contrast, in Fallout New Vegas, it's almost always fun and worthwhile to explore stuff even when no particular quest is leading you there. Sometimes a location is just kind of cool for its own sake. Other times, it will spin up its own mini-quest when you enter, which will give you something to do but not prompt you to go traipsing all over creation. It harkens back in a really nice way to my all-time favorite games in the Ultima series, which created this fantastic sense that you were living in a really deep and complete world: the world doesn't revolve around you, but whenever you go digging in a particular spot, you'll find something there.


Willow’s story was pretty sweet (both in the sense of “awww” and “cool”). She’s definitely a much sunnier character than any of your other companions, without the sort of hard edges one acquires from a brutal life lived in the Wasteland. I kind of liked it, though… it’s nice to see a ray of sunshine after a period of gloom. She still comes across as capable, though… she teams up with you because you can help each other, not because she’s in need of rescuing.

Several of Willow’s quests seem a bit fetch-quest-y, but they’re written and delivered engagingly enough that I really didn’t mind. One quest asks you to collect 100 pencils. Pencils are typically just another type of trash that you come across, but once that was on my radar, it became really interesting to think about. I started to get more excited when my missions would take me into bombed-out office buildings rather than bombed-out factories, just because I knew I was likely to acquire more pencils. There’s no one single mother lode that can provide all the pencils you need, so it ends up being something that you continually pay attention to over the source of several missions. Along the way, Willow gives you feedback and encouragement, and then there’s a nice perk at the end once you finish the quest.

That’s probably the most extreme example; other quests have more to do with Willow’s past and such. Still, it is kind of fun to, say, have a “Let’s go shopping!” quest dropped in amongst all the angst and gloom. Over time, you’ll raise approval with Willow as a result of your various interactions (completing side-quests, making certain dialogue choices, etc.). Once you reach a certain point, you'll open up the opportunity to continue either a friendship or a romance arc with her. I went for the latter. Vanilla FNV doesn't really do romances. This seems to be partly due to the philosophical values of Chris Avellone and other Obsidian writers, but I think the limitations of the Elder Scrolls engine also plays into it. Granted, people do make fun of the romance scenes in Mass Effect and Dragon Age, but I think they're still on top of the industry when it comes to believable contact between two friendly humanoid bodies. In contrast, bodies in Elder Scrolls and modern Fallout are extremely stiff; and with the default first-person camera, there's usually no opportunity for physical interaction with the protagonist.

Given those big limitations, I was again impressed by how well the Willow mod was able to perform, thanks to an artful use of perspective, strategic fadeouts, and great sound design. (Warning: there is some nudity very late in the romance arc.) And, as with BioWare romances, the arc doesn't feel like a conquest or an easter egg: it's a decision you make that ends up altering the nature of your relationship. I'm a fan! Even after completing what seems to be the main content for Willow, I've happily continued to keep her in my party.

At least, up until I started the DLC. The expanded content is set up to not allow you to bring additional companions from the Wasteland; but, once again, Willow doesn't count, and she will happily tag along. I did a little of the first with her before figuring out that it was making the combat way too easy and reluctantly removed her. I suppose that's a good sign for attachment, if you miss someone after leaving them behind.

So! Thus far I've finished one DLC, "Old World Blues". One of my minor complaints with the DLC is that it's difficult to correlate the title of the DLC with the mission title in your Quest log with the name used within the game for its content. This certainly wasn't a problem for people who were buying each DLC as it came out, but for someone like me who boots up a new game and instantly is spammed with four ambiguously named new quests, it was a bit hard to navigate. And, since each has its own suggested minimum level requirement, I ended up relying on the wiki more than I would like just to kick this one off. In any case: for the record, "Old World Blues" starts with the quest named "Midnight Science Fiction Feature!" and takes place in The Big Empty, aka Big MT.

I was surprised (agreeably so!) by just how big and well-polished this content was. It apparently cost $10 upon release; given my expectations with DLC from similar games, I would think that this would cover a new series of missions and maybe a new companion and/or set of skills. It gives all that stuff, but a ton more beside. There's a really impressive set of opening and closing scenes, a bit like the slides you get after beating the main game, along with some fantastic narration that describes exactly what happened in Big MT and how it relates to events in the broader world. The narration and voice acting in general is really top-notch, including incredibly talent: I did a double take when I heard James Urbaniak, of The Venture Brothers and The Thrilling Adventure Hour. Initially I thought it was someone doing a really good Rusty Venture impression, but, nope, it was the man himself!

While the voice acting is amazing, my biggest complaint with the mod is probably how densely presented it is. I mean, I hate to suggest that they cut out any content; but from the time you start the DLC until you start doing any actual gameplay, you're probably in for sixty minutes of non-stop dialogue. (Technically skippable, but "unfortunately" it's too good to skip.) The actual content is great, again: it's really funny, conveys a lot of information, and introduces the relationships between a whopping FIVE new characters. Sadly, though, this is yet another case where the shortcomings of the engine limit what they can do. A BioWare scene would almost certainly feature some action to go along with the exposition; here, we have five virtually identical character models, doing the same repetitive animations over and over again, not really doing justice to the incredible words coming out of their mouths.

Once you get into the actual gameplay, the pace picks up quite nicely. The idea behind this content is that you've been abducted by a secret research facility that was started before the Great War and ran off the rails sometime later. The original scientists running the facility have all lost their bodies and transplanted their brains into portable containers, Futurama-style. During the course of your abduction, they removed many crucial parts of your body, including your brain, spine, and heart. So, you are doing a series of quests in order to get them back, and along the way learn more about what happened to Big MT.

A ton of stuff was added to the game as a part of this. Some of them, like an expanded set of perks, were added to the main game and so have been available for both of my playthroughs. But, there are also unique perks that you earn during the course of the game. Your "Spineless" perk, for example, indicates that your original spine has been replaced with an artificial one, which actually increases your Strength and Damage Threshold. After you recover your spine at the end of the game, you can either choose to restore it (getting a new perk) or remain being Spineless. In addition to perks, you'll also gain new weapons; due to the advanced scientific nature of the setting, the majority of these are energy weapons, but I was able to get a sort of portable Gatling Gun called the K9000. Lots of weapons have their own unique mods, most notably the Sonic Emitter which has a ridiculous number of swappable settings.

Big MT is huge, too! It really feels like a major section of the wasteland, and I found myself approaching it in much the same way. I would have a destination in mind, and start heading in that direction. I would then discover new locations along the way, prompting me to stick my head in and explore. This in turn would often lead to additional new quests, each with their own rewards. It was awesome! And then it was a bit overwhelming, particularly when I returned after my months-long break, realized that I had forgotten the motivation behind most of the quests, and that there were several big areas of Big MT that I hadn't even visited. So, I resolved to wrap up the existing quests and bring it to a conclusion. You can freely travel back after you've finished the mission, so I still might head back there some day and see what I've missed.

That conclusion is pretty good, by the way. This is definitely a mission that is very heavily bookended by massive exposition on both ends. I'd gotten a pretty good hunch about the situation as I'd played through the game and paid attention to the environment, and that ended up being pretty accurate, although there were still a couple of neat surprises near the end. As is the case with almost everything else in Fallout, you can make some pretty massive choices that will drastically alter the status quo in Big MT. You are then treated to a series of slides (wonderfully narrated of course) that detail the outcomes from your quest. It felt like there were just about as many from here as from the main game, which is pretty crazy. A bunch of them are very goofy - one of the side-quests in the game involves dealing with a menagerie of talking appliances straight out of Pee-Wee's Playhouse - but the goofy ones are endearing, and several more have more drama or pathos. All in all, it felt very substantial and well-earned. To be a bit flippant about it, this is the amount of content and polish I would expect in a $20 expansion, not a $10 DLC.


So, that's it for now! I've prepared the customary album of screenshots, primarily covering my time with Willow and in Big MT. Ware spoilers.

I'd planned to continue ahead with the remaining three DLCs, buuuuut Sunless Sea just dropped today in early access (huzzah!!) so I'll be doing that for at least the immediate future. Still, the high bar set by Old World Blues makes me very optimistic for the remaining content, and I'm fairly certain I'll dive back into it sooner or later.

Thursday, June 12, 2014


Hi! I'm gradually working through my backlog of books and stuff from the last few months. First up: Infinite City, an incredibly creative atlas of San Francisco created by Rebecca Solnit with the help of a wide group of talented writers and artists.

I received the book as a gift from my sister almost half a year ago, and have enjoyed gradually reading through it in snatches between my other projects. The form is perfectly designed for this sort of ad-hoc reading: each section contains a lush and highly detailed map, along with an essay of less than a dozen pages. Their general approach is to combine two seemingly unrelated themes on the same map, which forces us to both view the broad diversity and contradictions within the Bay Area, and also encourages our mind to reach for connections that we otherwise might not have considered. And so, you get juxtapositions like "Butterflies and Drag Queens" or "Trees and Murders". One map that particularly intrigued me, even before I started my serial reading of the book, was a map of the Mission District (where I work and often hang out) that showed its cultural institutions alongside its gang territory. In my white professional lifestyle, I pretty much never need to worry or even really think about gang turf, but it's part of the reality that underlies the place where I spend much of my life. It's also something that, while very real, isn't part of any physical map of our city that we would see. So, it was an invigorating, fascinatingly fresh way to learn something new about an area that already felt like home.

And, really, that's the major goal of the book. The lengthy, almost baroque introduction launches off from Italo Calvino's book Invisible Cities (which had been on my mind not too long ago), exploring the idea that any city actually contains an infinite number of refractions of itself: each person forms their own mental map of the city, made up from their own history and experiences there; some of our maps overlap with one another, but no two residents share the same map. The book is concerned, to a very strong degree, with the concept of our limits of knowledge: none of us can fully understand the lifetime of experiences held by another person, but we can benefit enormously from the attempt to do so. By catching glimpses of others' invisible cities, we can expand our own.

It was a fascinating book: the structure was rather breezy, but each section could delve surprisingly deeply (I have been entirely disabused of my belief the the Ohlones were pre-European natives in the Bay Area), and the prose tended to be a very deep shade of purple. The artwork is fascinating and beautiful; any one of these maps would be worthy of hanging in a home or office. Its concerns are hyper-local, but I thought that this very localism helps give it transcendent power, similar to how The Wire's inextricable link to Baltimore made it surprisingly universal. All that to say, while San Franciscans will probably feel the greatest charge from reading it, I think it holds the potential to fascinate pretty much anyone, whether you're interested in history, people, nature, or cities.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


So! Antumbra 3: Corona has been occupying every available nook and cranny of my brainspace for the past two months. It's out now, so I'm starting to wind down somewhat, and I thought it might help the exorcism a little to write about it here.

I feel weird about tagging spoilers for something I created, so I won't, but if you plan to play the mod, you might want to skip this post until you're done.

Shadowrun is an odd setting to write for, but also kind of perfect. The SRR games are set in the 2050s, so it's very close in time to our own world and therefore pretty easy to translate modern-day ideas forward in time. Like most cyberpunk dystopias, it lends itself well to treatments of the kinds of topics that many folks today are interested in: extreme inequalities in wealth, different forms of bigotry, how humanity will change as it increasingly embraces and absorbs technology.

And, since it comes out of a tabletop RPG background, it also is endlessly adaptable. There isn't a single canon novel or movie that everyone is aping, but a set of settings and guidelines that are meant to be reinterpreted and adapted. I was repeatedly reminded of this while reading through the sourcebook, which will often explicitly call out that certain elements can be increased, diminished, or eliminated based on the tastes of the GM and players. This has worked extremely well when it comes to the wide universe of UGC. Depending on each creator's interests, strengths and desires, different mods can embrace humor, pathos, horror, or any other combination of moods that they like. The official campaigns hew closely to the conventions of noir, which is a fine thing that I enjoy, but there's little compulsion to ape their tone in other content.

My mods aren't exactly all sunshine and daffodils, but they certainly skew brighter than the bleak default of Shadowrun. I stay within the setting, but I also like happy (or at least bittersweet) endings, positive relationships, and a sense of progression towards goals. Finishing the first two mods and hearing players' reactions gave me more confidence to continue writing in my own voice. The Shadowrun setting is still excellent, and I pull a lot from it, without feeling like I need to sound like another chapter in Dead Man's Switch.

I think part of the reason this has worked well has been my in-game relocation from Seattle to CalFree. Seattle is extremely well-traveled at this point, with every major Shadowrun video game occurring within its borders. The California Free State has been a defined part of the broader pen-and-paper Shadowrun universe almost from the beginning, but far fewer players have spent time there, which I think gives me a bit more leeway. I can make more happy characters, because, hey, Californians tend to be happier than Seattlites! And while I continue to honor the existing lore around megacorps and elven nations and metahumans, I can call out specific local exceptions to those rules (witness Aztechnology's rare position of weakness in San Francisco).

As I noted in my first post, I wasn't really planning on creating a third entry back when I finished the second one, so I had a bit of a blank slate to work with. The logical place to go with a sequel would be Colonel Saito. He is a major character in Shadowrun lore, had been established as a significant behind-the-scenes participant in Antumbra 2: Eclipse, and would be very interested in the life of the PC after the conclusion of the game. That said, "Colonel Saito" is not a plot, so I decided to muck around and consider what other canonical events and people might be interesting to play with.

I'd already handled a lot of the San Francisco-specific threads in Eclipse, so I found myself more drawn to the East Bay and the Central Valley. The People's University of Berkeley was just getting started, and combined computers, metahumans, and an antipathy towards Colonel Saito. That was interesting. There were roving gangs of water bandits who hijacked shipments of water. That was interesting. The Great Dragon Hestaby laired on Mount Shasta, and was one of the only examples of a "good" dragon in Shadowrun lore. That was interesting. Sacramento's governor and cabinet were notoriously corrupt. That was interesting. California's Rangers were independent quasi-governmental officials who oversaw individual stretches of the old highway system. That was interesting.

I began fiddling around, trying to figure out how I could fit these elements together. I had a bit of an epiphany once I realized that I didn't need to set my game in 2054, when Dead Man's Switch and Dragonfall take place. I'd deliberately been vague about the year in my previous mods, although it was because I wanted the opportunity to shift them forwards in time if necessary. But, I now realized, I would be able to shift it back in time a single year to 2053, arguably the most important year in CalFree history: the year that Tir Tairngire attempted to invade the state.

Once I had this setting in mind, a whole ton of stuff clicked into place. I had already established Tir Tairngire as a major threat in the climax of Eclipse. In that game, the rogue metahuman-supremecist troll Shavarus allies with Tir Tairngire in a plot to cripple San Francisco. There was my link with the events of the previous game. And it actually made the chronology fit even better: I could now depict the events of the prior game as a sort of prelude, a period when Tir was testing CalFree's defenses and trying to weaken it, prior to launching a full-out war.

Working with canon can be limiting, but to me, it's the kind of limitation that spurs creativity. The Tir invasion of CalFree was a known event, and I wouldn't be able to change established facts about it. On the other hand, there were many opportunities to fill in missing details, add context, or provide supporting plots. My goal was to help lore-conscious players feel like they were exploring a known period of time and learning about what really happened (and, in fact, lending a hand to shaping the results). Players unfamiliar with the lore (which probably even includes many dedicated Shadowrun fans; again, that's an advantage of working with a relatively less-known setting like California) would hopefully be even more surprised by how things played out, since they wouldn't know the ending.

I knew that I couldn't have the player single-handedly stop the invasion, but I wanted them to feel like they were playing an important role in the story. So, I came up with the idea of the player leading a cell of guerillas who were preparing to fight against Tir. Sacramento in the 2050s is hopelessly ineffective, so there would be no major army prepared to face Tir. I decided that Kali, who has been a major non-recruitable NPC in all of my missions, would take the initiative to organize a resistance. She knew the player from Eclipse, and was impressed enough by their success at stopping Shavarus to tap them for this job. And, with her base in San Francisco, her cozy relationships with the megacorps, and her detante with Saito, she would be in a position to funnel supplies and resources to the player. All of this made it reasonably believable (within the context of Shadowrun!) to have the player near the front lines, organizing an insurgency.

Before I actually proceeded with defining the plot, I took some time to prototype and figure out what would be feasible. One of the main things I wanted to accomplish was a Baldur's Gate style banter system, where your companions would chatter amongst themselves. This hadn't really been possible with earlier versions of the editor, but after playing Dragonfall, I'd noticed that they'd added the ability to have recruited NPCs participate in conversations while in missions. Fortunately, HBS releases the source of their games, so I was able to crack it open and take a look. I inspected how they handled Dietrich, created some character sheets of my own and two test scenes, then experimented with hiring in one and having unique dialogue in another. With some more testing I determined that I would be able to detect what combination of characters were present in a party, and then start an appropriate banter between them. Elated, I added that to my feature list. Among other things, this also meant that I would finally be able to crack the 2-character ceiling that I've been under for the last two games.

The other major thing I needed to check was visual. I really wanted to have Hestaby in my mod; ever since hearing the name "Dragonfall", I had been thinking and hoping that we would get a large, legitimate dragon prop or model to use. That turned out to be half true: there is a dragon in Dragonfall, but it's a dragon in a bad way, whose feet are trapped in leg clamps and has wires hanging off of it. There was no way that I would be able to use that model as-is, and there's no way to edit existing models. But, I wondered, could I somehow block out the parts of the model that didn't work? I spent about an afternoon iteratively testing various techniques and combinations, placing items in front of the dragon that would hide the bits I didn't want to see and continue showing the bits that I did. It turned out to be an hour well spent, and I was happy to determine that I could have my dragon after all.

With those things out of the way, I had the roughest outlines of my plot in place. It would start with the player being tapped to lead the resistance against Tir Tairngire. I could depict this as a fairly hopeless task, and with good reason: Tir is one of the most powerful nations on the planet in the 2050s, certainly far more powerful than CalFree, and the player only has the barest resources to throw against them. But, they would struggle forwards, making advances and growing their resistance. At the end, Hestaby would arrive as a predefined deus ex machina and save the state. But, along the way, I could show the player helping Hestaby, so they would get to share in her victory.

With that rough outline prepared I was ready to start fleshing it out. Now, my ideal method for video game design remains that championed by Richard Garriott ever since the 1980s: build the world first and the story second. I absolutely adore games, and particularly RPGs, developed using this method. It lends itself to a wonderful sense of exploration, reinforcing the idea that the world is much bigger and more interesting than the piece you're looking at at this moment. But, this approach doesn't really work well for Shadowrun Returns, which makes it very easy to build linear missions and extremely difficult to build free-roaming open worlds.

That said, I didn't need to dive directly into plot. Instead, I would take a page from my favorite company of the current millennium, BioWare, and start with the characters. Who would take part in the story, and why, and how?

I broke it down into three separate categories: recruitable party members, allies, and enemies. You  would spend the most time with companions, so I wanted to lock those down first. I started by looking at the NPCs from the previous game. In Eclipse, you could pick between three characters: the ork street samurai Orion, the human decker Hailey, and the dwarf shaman Dalmin. Dalmin has been around since the first game: he's a lot of fun to write for, but it was getting increasingly implausible to keep him in San Francisco, so I decided that he would return back to Seattle and be unavailable this time around. Based on the comments I've gotten on my earlier games, people seemed to really respond to Hailey, so I decided to bring her forward. She was also fun to write for: she's an idealistic, just slightly naive, native San Franciscan, so she's in a good position to offer insight on a variety of local concerns. In terms of gameplay, she's a hybrid decker and rigger, which helps fulfill a potentially very important party slot. Decking has been a bit of a challenge for me: I eschewed it entirely in Antumbra, and made it completely optional in Eclipse since I didn't want to force players to either hire Hailey or play as a decker. Now that I had a larger roster, though, it became very feasible to expect that players would bring her along, which let me feel like time spent developing matrix maps was well-spent.

In a classic fantasy party-based RPG, you generally want to offer players at least a few core archetypal companions: a healing mage, a lockpicking thief, and a sturdy warrior. Similarly, a Shadowrun team will usually have, at minimum, a support shaman, a decker, and a street samurai. Who would fill the other two roles? I decided against bringing Orion forward; he was also fun to write for (are you seeing a trend here? it's as if I really enjoyed writing the characters I created!), but didn't seem to excite my players as much, and I was reluctant to keep too much of the old gang in place. But, that support shaman slot was temping. Back in Eclipse, another major NPC was Emperor Norton, a deranged future incarnation of the historical Emperor Norton of the 1800s. Norton was primarily a plot-driving NPC, but he joined your team for one crucial fight. As part of that exercise, I had translated his character to in-game stats, and ended up really enjoying the results. Norton is a pacifist, with no weapons or offensive capabilities: instead, he is a pure support shaman, who can lift up his companions with spells like Heal, Haste, Armor, and Aim. He was an unusual character, but that seemed like a good thing, and I liked how his stats reinforced his personality. As an extra bonus, I'd previously commissioned an in-style portrait of Norton for the previous game, and was happy to see it put to more good use.

That was all good so far, except for one major problem: I only had two characters picked out, and they were both human. Yeech! In Shadowrun, I really want to offer a wide assortment of metahumans. I'd had a good track record up until now: Antumbra only had a choice between troll and dwarf, while Eclipse offered a dwarf, human, and ork. That meant that I'd never had an elf before, so I resolved to add one this time around.

I'm a big fan of the Joss Whedon school of character design, which is all about inverting archetypes. So your ass-kicking badass lead is a female, your goofy fun-loving sidekick is male, etc. I started to play around with a concept for an elf female Street Samurai named Elora. She would be a native of Redding, thus balancing out Norton and Hailey's grounding in SF. I also thought that the prospect of a Redding Elf in the context of an imminent invasion from Tir Tairngire could be really interesting to explore. Metatype relationships in Shadowrun are widely accepted as metaphors for racial relationships in the real world, and I liked the idea of examining how one's metatype would become a liability in the context of an upcoming war. Much as German-Americans sought to hide their heritage in the run-up to both World Wars, even though they would be viewed as Americans by the Germans, I thought that the elves of Redding would be viewed with suspicion on both sides of the conflict.

As I noted in my previous post, the one thing I can't do at will in Shadowrun Returns is produce my own art, so I'll generally start flipping through the portrait gallery fairly early on in the character development process. Particularly for minor roles, I'll often only have a very vague concept in mind, like "Female fighter" or "Ranger", and consider any applicable combinations of metatype and gender until I find something that resonates with me. I was doing this for the companions when I stumbled across an awesome character portrait that was added for Berlin: a female dwarf character portrait.

As soon as I saw her, I knew that I needed to include her. Something about that smile, that attitude, immediately struck me. I wasn't sure if she would be a companion or something else, but I wanted to find a place for her in the story.

So... what if she was a companion? Dalmin was out of the picture, so there was no reason not to include another dwarf. I already had my decking, healing, and fighting slots all taken, so there was actually a wild card available for the fourth slot. Awesome! What should she be? I already had decker, rigger, and samurai archetypes taken, which left me with mage and physical adept.

I like the idea of the physical adept, which is essentially a martial arts master who augments their attacks with magical abilities. But, it's been the weakest class in SRR for a while, and even if it has been rebalanced I still knew players wouldn't be too enthusiastic. Mage was more promising, although I would have to be careful not to overlap with Norton's skillset: he's technically a Mage hybrid, and some of his most useful abilities (Heal, Aim, Armor) are technically Mage spells.

Well... if Norton was a pure-defensive shaman, maybe dwarffemale_06 could be a pure-offensive mage? I kind of liked this idea: I already had a physical offensive samurai, and could supplement that with a magically offensive mage. In modern RPG terms, this would let me build the samurai as a tank, and the mage as a glass cannon: a more fragile character who is easier to kill, but who can also cause much more damage.

I started looking over the available spells. There are a few very powerful spells that pretty much every PC mage will pick up, like Fireball. I came to realize that two of the best spells in the game were fire-related. That sparked an idea: what if she wasn't just a mage? What if she was particularly a fire mage? There's a good tradition of these in fantasy CRPGs, including the notable example of Edwin from both Baldur's Gate games. Fire mages have a tendency to act chaotically, be proud and self-aggrandizing, with hints of narcissism. I loved the idea of melding those traits with a female dwarf. As an extra bonus, the red streaks in her hair seemed like a nice, subtle tie-in to her chosen magical focus.

I had thought that I had a good set of NPC companions lined up, but as I began examining them more closely, the gender breakdown started to bother me a little. As it stood, I had three female companions and only one male. Even more awkwardly, I had three youngish attractive women and one crazy old coot. Adding another NPC was out of the question: with the banters I was planning to do, each new companion would increase the necessary number of banters exponentially. Plus, it seemed like it would be fairly wasted work, since there's a limit to how many party members you can take along. I expect that the majority of players will only play through my module once, and even with four members I'm sure most players will have only minimal exposure to at least one companion.

Now, I don't think a game necessarily has to provide equal representation to everyone, and in any case I had already had a 2/1 male companion advantage back in Eclipse, and so was conceivably overdue for a female-domainated roster. Still, as I thought about it more, I decided that I would try to make things a bit more balanced. Hailey was already a lock, and I wasn't giving up my dwarf fire mage, so I went back to Elora.

I unimaginatively renamed her Elorn. I kept a lot of the character details the same - Elorn is a Redding native, a street samurai, and is confronted by prejudice from two worlds. On the weapon front, I decided to make him specialize in pistols and shotguns. Orion had been a rifle expert in Eclipse, and I wanted to do something different here. I came up with the idea that Elorn was a second-generation survivalist, whose parents had fought against the original Tir invasion back in the 2030s. On the personality side, I pictured Elorn as being a bit darker and more pensive, in contrast to the relentlessly upbeat Hailey, the cheerfully megalomaniacal dwarf mage, and the serenely insane Norton.

In all honesty, Elorn was the character I struggled with the most, and I'm still not totally happy with where he ended up. I kept on feeling him sliding into the Anomen/Fenris category of angsty men, which isn't something I've enjoyed in games I play and isn't something I'd particularly like to propagate. I like where he ended up much more than where he started, but I still feel like there's some part of his character concept that I was never quite able to crack.

With my companions all lined up, I started taking a look at the allies to include. Kali was a no-brainer; she's been a major force since the first game, and was perfectly positioned to kick off the plot and drive it forwards. I knew that I would need merchants in my hub. In Eclipse, I used three merchants: one who sold weapons and armor, another who sold magic, and a third who handled healing and technology. That dynamic seemed to make sense and work well while keeping the number of personalities manageable, so I decided to keep it in place. I like having a mix of old and new, so I first thought about which Eclipse characters to bring forward. Amelia, the weapons dealer, was an obvious choice. She's ambitious, and already had some dialogue about her plans to expand her operations, making it perfectly believable that she would travel from San Francisco to Redding. And, again, she's a personality I had a lot of fun writing.

The magic seller in Eclipse was fine, but not as interesting to me, so I decided to replace him. After flipping through the portraits, I found an ork female I liked, so I decided to run with that. I named her Hrafna, and decided that she was from the Central Valley but further south than Redding. Her backstory is fairly simple: I liked the idea of having a magic seller who wasn't an incredibly powerful and/or mysterious mage, just someone with minimal magical talent who realized that they could make more money as a merchant than as a shadowrunner.

With two female merchants already determined, I wanted a male for my final slot. I was tempted to bring back The Dave, who was an awesome character, but felt a bit reluctant to make fully 2/3 of my merchants repeats from the previous game. I had an idea: why not reach further back? While there are quite a few connections between the third and second game, the links back to the original were rather tenuous by this point, and it seemed like a cameo could be fun. The first game just had a single merchant, a hipster dwarf bartender; I decided to play on that for the excuse of why he had come all the way down to Redding, having decided that Seattle was "played out" and looking for the next big thing. His past association with Kali gave a reasonable explanation for why he ended up here in particular.

And then, there was the dragon herself. I wanted Hestaby to be a major part of the game; but, for dramatic purposes, I would wait until the climax to reveal her. Hestaby, like the other dragons, has a human form she can occupy; according to the sources I found, she takes the form of a woman with auburn hair and striking features. I went through all the available portraits in search of something I could use. There were no perfect matches; I really liked the facial structure of Absinthe from Dragonfall, but her hair color was wrong and she was an elf. I eventually decided on another portrait named Wren; she was older than I had pictured, but her hair had the right color, and she had a cool windswept look that I thought was evocative of Hestaby's love of nature. I had initially planned on calling her Hessie in her human form, before deciding that would be too obvious to Shadowrun veterans, and renamed her Tabitha instead; Tabitha is a name that I associate with witches, which hinted at her magical ability, while also obscuring her role somewhat: I hoped that players would find her a bit of an enigma, unsure of the part she would play. I decided that she and the player would cross paths throughout the game, with Tabitha helping the player overcome certain obstacles, and then have the "surprise" of the transformation saved for the end.

I knew that I wanted at least a couple more friendly NPCs, but was drawing a blank on ideas, so set that aside for the time being and moved on to villains. I had initially planned on Saito being a major antagonist, but by this point I had decided to remove him from the core plot. In the Shadowrun timeline, he wouldn't make his play for the rest of California for another eight years or so. In any case, he was stridently opposed to Tir Tairngire, and thus would be an ally if anything. For my main villain, I seized on Lofwyr, the golden Great Dragon of Germany, the CEO of Saeder-Krupp and arguably the most powerful individual on the planet. In my research, I was delighted to learn that Lofwyr sat on Tir Tairngire's Council of Princes during this period; furthermore, he would eventually surrender his seat to Hestaby, and there was some speculation about the nature of their relationship. I saw this as an opportunity to dig into their history a little bit. I pictured Lofwyr as being the main driving force behind this invasion. Due to his importance, he wouldn't actually appear; instead, he would be pulling strings from behind the scenes, manipulating and commanding others to achieve his desired outcome. The visible war of elves versus Californians would actually be a proxy for a hidden war between Lofwyr and Hestaby... and, best of all, Lofwyr wouldn't realize that Hestaby was involved until too late.

There were additional advantages to this: the two official Shadowrun Returns campaigns have both included Lofwyr's human form, a white-haired German named Hans Brackhaus, who is appropriately menacing. So, I already had a portrait to work with, and even casual fans who weren't deeply versed in Shadowrun lore might feel a shock of recognition. And, I came to realize, I could even tie in things well with the events of Dragonfall. In Dragonfall, the main plot centers around the first dragon to appear after the Awakening, a beast named Feuerschwinge. For most of that game you believe her to be the main villain; in the climax, you realize that she is actually a victim of Adrian Vauclair, a supposed war hero who had brought her down; and in the epilogue, you learn (from Lofwyr!) that she was actually one of the only "good" dragons to ever exist. Well, that was interesting! As I saw it, Hestaby would end up fulfilling the potential that Feuerschwinge promised, thus providing a bit of narrative redemption from the dark conclusion of Dragonfall. (Again: I'm not a noir writer!) And, to double down on the references, the epilogue of Dragonfall describes how the great dragon Dunkelzahn was assassinated while in his human form. Therefore, players of Dragonfall already are familiar with the concept that dragons are vulnerable while they are human, which gave me the angle I needed to make Hestaby all-powerful while still making the PC relevant: the PC would protect her while she was in her mortal shape, and thus enable her triumph. And, conversely, Hestaby would hold the power to slay Lofwyr, and refuse to exercise it, thus giving a bit more context to the unusual respect between these two diametrically opposed dragons.

So: Lofwyr would be my big villain, and he was a good one; but, since he was more of a background, unseen figure, I needed a more present threat to actually confront and hound the PC during their quest. Still looking for ways to tie the trilogy together more tightly, I went back to the Site of Power from the original Antumbra. It had always been rather mysterious, with no explanation of why it appeared and little information about what had happened to it afterwards, so I figured it could be tapped for a new villain. Well... fire elementals are scary, right? Kind of demonic-looking? I iterated on a couple of ideas, and ended up coming with Tophet, a freed fire spirit. "Tophet" is associated with Gehenna, and names a place in Jerusalem where followers of Bhaal would burn their children alive. Creepy stuff! I tend to be drawn to names like this, that sound short and punchy on their own, and have something interesting going on if anyone feels like digging in to them further. In any case, Tophet had left the plane of fire and intended to take possession of the Everett Site of Power, from which he would be able to unleash incredible devastation. Your actions in Antumbra interrupted that plan, and he was forced to flee before he could establish himself. Later, he came under the influence of Lofwyr, who learned about you through Tophet's angry tale. Lofwyr promised Tophet revenge against you, which helps explain why you're on everyone's radar. Tophet is kind of a lieutenant for Lofwyr, but also a loose cannon driven by his own whims. He would appear early on to make the threat more personal: this necessarily isn't a case of you saving California out of the goodness of your own heart, but a situation where you are forced into the conflict whether you want to or not.

Finally, while the main plot would deal with Lofwyr's mission to use Tir Tairngire to crush CalFree, I knew I would want to include some side-missions as well, and settled on the Native Californians and water gangers as good adversaries. Water gangers are go-gangs that roam the Central Valley, robbing shipments of water from the Sierra snowpack intended for agriculture or population centers further west. The sourcebook artwork for water gangers is very reminiscent of Mad Max: crazy-looking folks in crazy-looking costumes on crazy motorcycles, looking as threatening as possible. The Native Californians are much darker: a human-supremecist group affiliated with Humanis (which itself was introduced very effectively in Dragonfall), the NC uses terrorist tactics to purge metahumans from "their" lands. There's a very strong hint of the Ku Klux Klan about them, including their preference for wearing masks, their despicable tactics (often centered around firebombing), and their rhetoric. All of these would be good opponents, although I wanted a named villain that would continue to antagonize the protagonist across multiple missions. I eventually settled on Claude Bullion: the name comes from a portmanteau of Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling, two American racists recently in the news. (Or, recently as of the time I started writing. By the time I released that topical reference was extremely dated, and will surely be forever lost within a year.)

It was now time to work out the mission structure! My goal was to provide as much gameplay as I could while spending as little time creating maps as possible. I knew that I definitely wanted to include a mission to San Francisco; that would let me directly reuse some of the maps I had spent so many days making for Eclipse, and also made perfect sense in the context of the story; in the future as in now, the Bay Area is a wealthy area, and the megacorps of the city would be instrumental to any successful war against Tir. I also considered a return to Colma; with Norton part of the team, there would surely be an excuse to go back there. I decided that I wanted the game to open in an encounter with Norton in some idyllic field in the Central Valley. Your main hub would be in the city of Redding, which is conveniently close to the Tir/CalFree border, Shasta Dam, and Mount Shasta, all "historically" important points in Shadowrun. I figured I could set some additional scenes in Redding. Doing multiple Central Valley towns didn't seem very interesting, but I liked the idea of setting a scene somewhere on the freeways. You can't operate vehicles in Shadowrun Returns, but there's some really rich lore around California Rangers and the water gangers, and I figured that would be worth exploring.

For the climax, I initially had my heart set on a dramatic conclusion set on the peak of Mount Shasta. You would start fighting Tir at the base of the mountain; as their numbers swelled, you would be forced further and further upward, locked in a desperate retreat. Of course, it would ultimately be hopeless, since there would be no place left to run once you reached the top. And then - BAM! - Hestaby shows up, Tir flees, and you're crowned as heroes.

As previously noted, though, this proved implausible for two reasons. First, setting a scene on a mountain is really a non-starter in Shadowrun Returns. It's difficult to do height in an isometric graphical engine; you can do certain tricks to make things appear to be at different heights, but navigating between them tends to be clunky, and in any case I was pretty sure I couldn't get the rough and gradual changes in elevation I would need to replicate a mountain. And secondly, while I had a dragon model to work with, I was extremely constrained in how I could present it. To keep Hestaby from looking like Prisoner McTorturevictim, I would need to surround parts of her with walls, which would be pretty impossible to plausibly do on a mountaintop. And so, I reluctantly concluded, I would need to go underground. The biggest bummer of this was that both of the first two games concluded underground as well, and frankly I was really hoping to do something different this time around. Ah, well!

So, where could I plausibly go underground? Reviewing my research, I saw that Hestaby had driven Tir's forces back from Shasta Dam, which was conveniently close to Redding. Cool, so I could maybe have a climactic fight that starts at the dam and concludes elsewhere. I started poking around on Google Earth, and was delighted to see that, off the lake next to Shasta Dam, were Shasta Caverns. I checked them out - yup, they were legitimate ancient caverns. Nifty! I wouldn't need to invent something like I had for Everett, and could put my conclusion in some real-world caves. That made me feel a bit better about losing the mountain.

I listed all of the mission arcs, scenes, and maps I had in mind. The general formula I like to use calls for two scenes per mission, with a return to the hub between each mission. For San Francisco, I knew that I definitely wanted to return to Eclipse, the nightclub from the previous game; it had some nifty lighting, and was a logical place to meet with Kali in person. I was reluctant to re-use The Mission District, which was already used twice in Eclipse; but the Aztechnology Pyramid was only used once, and the Embarcadero was only used once for combat (and had another very short appearance at the start of the game). I debated about what combination of maps to use, before deciding, eh, as long as I'm re-using them I can go for three instead of just two.

For the hub, I was initially imagining something similar to the Kreuzbasar haven in Dragonfall: a big, mostly-outdoors map that you would wander around. I figured that this map could then be re-used in one of the mission arcs, similar to the attack in Dragonfall. This went through a couple of iterations. At first I thought of a non-combat-oriented mission that would involve a mayor's race in Redding. You would speak with the various candidates, decide who you wanted to support, and then canvas the town, talking to people and doing missions to line up the votes. I liked the idea, but realized that the amount of work required would be vast, and perhaps a little hard to pull off in the context of an encroaching total war. I then etched out an idea vaguely inspired by Hotel Rwanda: Native Californians, trying to incite anti-metahuman purges, would seize control of a radio tower and start broadcasting invective in an attempt to stir up the local human populace. I kept refining this, and eventually came up with something that fit the two-part structure I like to use for my missions. It would kick off on the Shasta Dam - map re-use is welcome, and I knew I would want that map for the final. You would interrupt some activity of the NCs, making them antagonistic towards you. They would then start to riot, attacking your base and Redding as a whole. The mission would continue back in your base, which includes a powerful broadcast antennae, thus producing the double threat of an attack on you and an attack on Redding's cohesion. By this point I'd surrendered the idea of making Redding itself a map, and instead focused on Redding's Old City Hall, one of the few surviving classic buildings in Redding and an architecturally interesting place to create, with nice overtones of government and that dovetailed nicely with my evolving thoughts about what the game was "about."

Plans for Colma were much simpler. In Eclipse, you had visited the graveyard itself, and then left the way you came. But, there were tons and tons of crypts and mausoleums on that map. I figured that you would have some fights or something up above, and then enter one of the crypts for the second scene. That would add a new map to the mission, and I really get a kick out of designing spooky, creepy spaces in Shadowrun Returns (c.f. The Armory basement in Eclipse). If Claude Bullion would be the main antagonist in my Redding arc, Tophet would be a natural match for a graveyard mission.

Of course, I wanted most of the action to take place closer to Redding, so I returned to the highway concept. This would be a chance to tie in the water gangers. I eventually realized that I could also connect it to the Native Californians: as two outlaw groups, it was conceivable that they would ally with each other. I had the concept of a running battle here, where you would race along the highway tackling water gangers and/or Native Californians. Eventually, you would follow the enemies back to their lair. I was a fan of the junkyard in the Super Nintendo Shadowrun game, and figured that would make a fine map: single-story maps, even extremely cluttered ones, are much faster to build than ones with multi-story buildings. Plus junkyards are cool to explore, and fit pretty much anywhere.

So: I had four general mission arcs in mind, plus a conclusion arc, for a total of five. That was too many! Back when I was pitching this concept to myself, I'd thought of it as a slight expansion from Eclipse's size of three total arcs; with some map re-use, I'd even dreamed that I might be able to finish Corona in less time than it had taken to make Eclipse. But, I kind of liked the idea of each of the missions. The ones that seemed most expendable were SF and Colma, which were the ones that would take the least work to do. I decided to postpone the decision about which one to axe while I fleshed out the rest of the story, and then revisit and see which seemed most disposable.

As I mentioned before, one major goal of mine was to implement a banter system. I had my four NPCs designed now, but how would they come to join your party? Norton would be there from the beginning: he knew you from Eclipse, and would contact you with your mission before joining you. I could just have the others show up in Redding, but that didn't seem terribly interesting to me. What if there was some sort of recruitment process? I knew that my game would be too short to have a really satisfying character development arc for each companion, but it seemed like recruiting them might be a fun way to engage with the character. Some of my favorite games like Mass Effect 2 use a similar sort of structure. And, since I was planning to use a less-linear design like that of Dragonfall, players would be able to shift their path depending on their recruitment needs. Parties in need of a decker could make a beeline to recruiting Hailey, while fragile players could opt for grabbing Elorn from the start.

With that in mind, I was able to map each recruitable companion to one of my planned arcs. Hailey belonged in San Francisco, of course; she's a native, and that technologically advanced city is the perfect place for a decker to play. Elorn, my Redding native, would be recruited in the Redding mission, and I realized that he could even be a focus of your initial confrontation with the Native Californians. My dwarf mage, who by now I had decided to name Dorbi, was a bit of a wild card: her powerful magic would be a good fit for Colma's supernatural setting, but she wasn't necessarily tied to there. I came to the conclusion that she would actually be a great fit for the highway mission, with her initially playing the role of a villain. I tend to love these reversals in RPGs, and it fit nicely with my conception of her chaotic character. That left Colma companion-less, but that was actually kind of perfect, since Colma is Norton's home.

In addition to the banter system, the other thing I was really interested in creating was a stronghold. I've been aware of strongholds since Baldur's Gate II, and seen a good example in Dragon Age Awakening and an awesome example in Neverwinter Nights 2. A stronghold is a base of operations for your PC: not just a place where you go to recharge between missions, like an inn, but a place that you are in charge of. You are responsible for governing and overseeing a stronghold, making decisions that affect its growth. It ends up being kind of an investment, with the time and attention you put into the stronghold early on later affecting the revenue it generates (BG2) or its effectiveness in an upcoming battle (DAA, NWN2).

Of course, my little solo-created mission wouldn't be able to accommodate all of the side quests and plot decisions of a stronghold like that of NWN2, but I still wanted to capture a bit of the feel. How about if I tied in the stronghold to the actual missions? I still had a couple of outstanding goals: I wanted to make your choices matter; I didn't want to penalize you for making any one particular decision; I didn't want all choices to be equal (there's not always a single right way to do something, but some ways can be better than others); and, above all, I wanted to avoid the Manichean good/evil decisions that bother me so much in many modern RPGs.

The best moral choices I've encountered in any game remains those of Dragon Age: Origins (with Mask of the Betrayer running an extremely close second). However, my favorite choice system is that of the Mass Effect series. What's kind of brilliant about ME is that it provides a manageable and digestible framework for presenting choices, while avoiding the good/evil non-choices. In ME, you are always a hero who is saving the galaxy: your choices aren't about whether you want to do good, it's about your philosophy and means for doing good. Are you completely focused on outcomes, willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to do it? Or are you primarily concerned with the processes, striving to uphold a code even when it puts the bigger picture at risk?

Similarly, in Corona, there isn't a choice available to go over to the elven side, or to betray Redding to Lofwyr. But, there could be multiple avenues available towards achieving your goal. I considered a few different possible axes, before eventually deciding that simpler would certainly be better in a shortish adventure like this one, and came up with two. Internally the game labels these as Manpower and Supplies; you might also call them People and Things, or Idealism and Pragmatism. The basic concept is that, over time, you are trying to build your stronghold in Redding into a cogent force capable of resisting Tir. That requires a balance of both persuading people to join your cause, and making sure that those people are properly equipped for the task ahead. So, for example, after restoring the flow of water supplies on Interstate Five, you need to decide what to do with the water. If you deliver all of it to needy farmers, then word of your generosity will spread, and you'll inspire more people to sign up with you. If you decide to keep the water for yourself, then you'll secure your necessary supply, ensuring that your people are healthy and freeing up cash for more munitions. Or you can compromise, taking a little and sharing the rest. None of these choices is "bad"; keeping the water might initially seem selfish, but if Tir manages to invade, all of those farmers will be killed.

From a gameplay perspective, these choices have several effects. First, they alter the makeup of your base over time. As you take actions that increase your renown and reputation, more recruits will flock to your base, making it a gradually more crowded and livelier place. And, when your missions result in more financial or physical support, you will see the results of that support in your base as well: more boxes of supplies, upgraded electronics, a medical station, improved security systems, etc. Thus, over time players should see visual feedback to the choices they've made, which may be more engaging than just seeing a number on a stat card.

But, those choices won't just have a cosmetic impact. They also affect the mechanics of the final battle in the game. Eventually, the Battle of Shasta Dam will start, with your small force squaring off against the limitless foes from Tir Tairngire. (Side note: Having just recently beat New Vegas, I feel simultaneously embarrassed and defensive about the parallel between the Battle of Shasta Dam and the Battle of Hoover Dam. I wanted it to be on a mountain, darnit! In my defense, the battle of Shasta Dam has been part of established Shadowrun canon since the 1990s, so I think I have some protection against accusations of intellectual theft. [Though, granted, I am very indebted to Obsidian for many of the mechanics in this game.]) The number of allies on your side will vary depending on your success in boosting your manpower throughout the game: at best, you will have a full security force backing you up; if you've done poorly in your missions and/or skewed too far towards building up your physical infrastructure, you'll receive only a few. Conversely, your supply rating will determine how well equipped those allies are. With low supplies, they'll only have the weapons in their hands. With higher supplies, they'll have drugs to boost their performance and medkits to boost their survivability. (I opted against ever giving them grenades, due to the inevitable frustrations that would be caused by bad aim and friendly fire.) This seemed to fit my goals well: your choices would matter, and the details of the final fight would vary based on your player's approach, but there was no single "best way" to do things.

Finally, your choices would impact your epilogue. It's very common in RPGs to have a single choice you make at the end of a game to control which of multiple endings you receive. Mass Effect 3 is the most egregious example of this, but it's very common in general; in Eclipse, half of your ending was determined by the very last choice you could make. For Corona, I liked the idea of the ending being based on your legacy. Again, the big picture was locked in place: Hestaby appears, the war is ended. What would matter was how you were remembered. I eventually settled on six separate epilogues in three groups of two. Each group was determined by your overall motivation for undertaking the quest to save CalFree. The first, the pro-Corporate group, aligns your interests with Kali and those of the megacorps. This is an approach that focuses on allying with the rich and the powerful in order to achieve the best results - and, incidentally, raise your own star in the process. It's also a parallel to what I see Kali's personal arc through the trilogy being. Kali, a savvy operator, has always been happy to be the second-largest fish in the pond. She makes powerful friends, enlists their support, grows her own authority, and then migrates on to a larger pond rather than remaining in the previous one. She is technically always beholden to someone else, but in practice has enormous autonomy in pursuing her interests and goals.

The second grouping is a people-focused approach. I had initially thought of this as a Sacramento-aligned option to contrast with Kali's San Francisco-aligned one, but as I further developed the concept I decided that Sacramento wasn't really an ally worth cultivating. Rather, this option represented you, the former shadowrunner, fulfilling the role that Sacramento had abandoned: you would take on responsibility for the people of the state, protecting them, providing for them, unifying them, inspiring them. This is the more traditionally "good" option, although I kept motivations out of it: this option would also appeal to those who wished to cultivate a cult of personality, or demagogues who craved the power that comes from the mob.

And finally, I figured that some players wouldn't care for either of those options, and might even resent the fact that I was railroading them into this plotline. For them I offered the lone wolf option: refusing any aid from the established power brokers in CalFree, you would annoint yourself as the head of your organization, running it for your own benefit. This would be the most challenging route to take, as you had to scrap up support by yourself; but also offered the most freedom, as you could present a vision of true independence for your little slice of the world.

Your overall "alignment" is determined fairly early in the game, in the course of your discussions with Emperor Norton, where you'll have the chance to either declare your loyalty to Kali's clique, or your desire to lift up all the common people of CalFree, or your intention to elevate your own station. At the conclusion of the game, the game examines the sum total of all the choices you've made throughout the game to determine your effectiveness in accomplishing your goals. Each alignment will have either a mediocre epilogue, if you fell short, or a good epilogue, if you exceeded it. (Having a "bad" epilogue didn't seem fair after someone played all the way through the game.) The requirements for each goal are different, so a successful strategy for one course won't work for another. For example, if you are allying with "the people," your manpower is the only statistic that matters: gathering wealth and supplies will help in the final battle, but won't play any part of determining your future. I eventually came up with six fairly distinct possible outcomes. In general, the mediocre endings end with you becoming a mid-level functionary of your allied power structure, except for the Lone Wolf path, in which case you simply drift on to the next shadowrun. The superior endings all conclude with you assuming a position with strong autonomous power, ruling events in your domain and shaping the course of the the world's future.

I think it might have been around this time that I finally nailed down the title for the game. The original name, "Antumbra" was an homage to Club Penumbra, one of the marquee nightclubs in Shadowrun. Antumbra is an astronomical term for an event when an occluding object passes in front of but does not completely obscure a light source behind it. An antumbra is present in an annular eclipse, which gave me the name for my second game. For better and worse, a large fraction of Shadowrun Returns UGC have titles playing on some combination of concepts about darkness and shadows. I was looking for a big, dramatic title for the third part which would move away from the relatively concise names of the first two, while continuing to follow the astronomical theme. I initially thought of titling it "Bring Down the Sky," which I thought sounded great, and then realized was the name of a Mass Effect DLC that I have never played but must have heard of. Whoops. How about "Tear Down the Sky"? Turns out that's the name of a song. I then considered The Burning Sky, then found out that was the name of a novel. The Bleeding Sky also proved to be the name of a book. Who would have thought it? I went ahead and stuck in The Bleeding Sky as a temporary title, figuring I would eventually change it.

Eventually, I stumbled across the name Corona in an unrelated context, and realized how perfect it would be. The corona is the nimbus of plasma around the sun, which is usually only visible during an eclipse. Bingo, there was my astronomical term! The more I thought about it, the more I liked the shift: Shadowrun games tend to be very dark and bleak, and my personal vision tends a bit more towards the hopeful and optimistic, so it seemed wholly appropriate that I would focus on a source of light that can only be seen when things are darkest. And, as I learned while looking up the word, the word "Corona" is taken from the Latin word for Crown. This seemed extremely appropriate to my game, which was becoming very concerned about questions of authority, government, and power. I'm an enormous fan of multiplicity of meanings and ambiguity, and I now think that I couldn't have found a better title.

With my core mechanic of manpower and supplies in place, I finally figured out who my additional NPC allies could be: lieutenants of yours, based in your stronghold, who would oversee each wing of your empire and provide reports on your progress. After the customary flipping through of portraits and checks for diversity in my cast list, I settled on them. Tomas, a beefy troll, was in charge of recruits in Redding: from a background as a retired shadowrunner, he was rather gruff, but also very realistic and practical. Selene, an elven rigger, was a former California Ranger who had a bigger-picture view of the stakes involved and had decided to lend her technical talents to your cause. Neither was all that critical to the plot, but provided some extra character to your base (especially in the early stages before the improvements started flowing in), and provided good opportunities for giving quests and important information.

By this point, I had reluctantly decided against cutting any of my original four mission arcs. It would mean more work for me, but also (hopefully) a better final game, and maybe a bit more opportunity for replay. I set it up so players would need to complete three of the quests in order to beat the game, with the option of doing a fourth; this would let players optionally skip a mission they particularly disliked, or avoiding recruiting a companion they didn't want. (Though at a cost to their final standing in the game. Choices have consequences!) But, that also meant that I couldn't assume that the player ever recruited anyone other than Norton, or that they had played through any particular scene. As a result, I made sure to spread plot-critical information across multiple missions. So, Tabitha appears in two missions, and Lofwyr (in the guise of Hans Brackhaus) in two; thus, even if a player skips a mission, they're guaranteed to have met each at least once by the time they reach the climax.

While I wasn't cutting any scenes, though, I did find some ways to consolidate maps. I had initially planned to meet Norton in an idyllic outdoor setting; but between the limitations of the default tileset and the lack of any corresponding re-use, it didn't make sense to roll a whole new map. So, I decided to re-use a section of Interstate Five, which actually made sense: a road is a very reasonable place for two travelers to meet one another.  As noted before, I would be re-using the Shasta Dam across two scenes, and figured I could use my hub in Redding as the basic for the Native Californian invasion - not a direct map re-use, but a copy of the existing bones, updated to mark it with the signs of war. That left me with three new maps re-used (The Five, Shasta Dam, and Redding), and three single-use new maps (The Crypt beneath Colma, The Junkyard, and Shasta Caverns). That seemed like a pretty reasonable allocation of effort.

And, on the subject of maps, I had to decide what to do with The Matrix. In Eclipse, all Matrix content had been optional; in Corona, since you were guaranteed to recruit Hailey during the course of one of your missions, I could safely add a required decking phase here. I ended up making this a core piece of the plot in the San Francisco run. Enemy deckers from Tir infiltrate Kali's Matrix node, stealing surveillance footage and doctoring it to suggest that she is in collusion with Tir Tairngire. They then anonymously release it to the ever-paranoid Saito, who swiftly turns against Kali. Working with Hailey and Kali, you deck back into the Matrix, recover the original footage and reveal Tir's role. This convinces Saito to back off, but in the meantime Tir's agents are busily storming an arcology where top megacorp execs are meeting: Tir plans to assassinate them before the executives can agree on supporting your mission. This would then lead to a race against time as you try to eliminate the assassins before it becomes too late. This would also give a great opportunity to show Lofwyr's involvement.

Anyways! I could have a Matrix map in Eclipse, which seemed cool. And I'd already built two Matrix maps for the Aztechnology building, so I could re-use that as well. (In Eclipse, I had originally designed all three levels of the Pyramid as a single map, then broken it into separate scenes to ensure that players could save their games. Now that players can save anywhere, I was able to restore the original plan and let players navigate through that space freely.) I eventually decided on another three opportunities for the matrix, all of which would be optional: two Native Californian nodes, one in the junkyard and the other accessible during the invasion, and a Tir node you could activate during the finale.

Making Matrix maps can be a lot of fun. It sometimes feels like a bit of a waste, since it's very possible that players will skip them altogether if they haven't rolled a decker PC; but based on the comments I've seen on my mods, it seems like a lot of players take advantage of these opportunities when they can. Even if players don't use them, the relatively simple set of components that make up a Matrix map still make them fairly quick to construct: you're expected to use geometric shapes, linear progression, etc.

One thing I hadn't liked too much about the matrix scenes I'd done in Eclipse was how calm those scenes could sometimes be. From a pure strategy perspective, the best approach was often to have a decker jack in, and then the rest of the team just hang around and wait for them to wrap it up, before they all advanced. This time, I took some more effort into making decking in cyberspace make things in meatspace feel more tense. In Eclipse, you're facing an endless swarm of reinforcements from Colonel Saito's marines, so you need to conclude your business in the matrix as soon as possible before they wear you down. In the Pyramid, you're on a literal timer with a fixed number of turns to save the executives, which leads to an interesting choice in and of itself: do you keep your decker in the node so they can clear things up ahead while the rest of your party presses forwards? Or does your decker abandon the matrix, lending their strength to help the rest of the party accomplish their primary goal in the real world? I came up with similar twists to the other three matrix maps that would keep things a bit more engaging so the decker felt like a part of the team and not a sideshow. (It also helped to see Dragonfall's new approach towards matrix scenes, including some fairly complex triggers that let you send companion deckers into the matrix while in free-roam mode, let you keep free-roaming while "hostile" IC remained on the map, and saved you from needing to press "End" tons of times while your decker wrapped up their business.)

And, let's see... I think that was pretty much the extent of my design phase! ("Oh, is that all?!") More stuff would get fleshed out during the production phase, particularly with my new companions. As noted before, I wrote all of the core dialogue before I cracked open the editor, including all plot-critical conversations, all chats with merchants, banters amongst companions, etc. That exercise was very helpful for nailing peoples' voices; I would often go back and re-write earlier stuff after I had gotten a better handle on how characters presented themselves. For example, in early drafts Hailey and Dorbi sounded a lot alike, so I took another pass at Dorbi. They're both confident in their abilities, but Hailey's is a relatively humble, earned confidence (which she evolved over the course of Eclipse), while Dorbi's is a more grandiose and bombastic (but still good-humored) confidence. Dorbi's more likely to crack jokes, while Hailey is more likely to laugh at jokes. I also didn't feel compelled to make them totally opposite, and enjoyed finding ways for them to relate to each other through their banters.

But, for the most part, it was combination of refinement and filling in details, without any major overhaul of my initial vision. Stuff like Rick the California Ranger was created when I started work on that particular scene: that lets me still exercise some creativity at a later stage, while still being fairly self-contained. While I've done all of these modules on my own, I can see how it could be parallelized if you get a game to this point, where the inputs, outputs, and through-lines are well defined.

One thing that came relatively late were the dogs. My overall plan for mission flow had been to allow you to recruit two runners for each mission; in most cases, you would recruit your fourth slot in the first scene of the mission, continue with them through the second scene (becoming acquainted with their playstyle), and then making them available for recruitment in future missions. However, for the very first mission, only Norton would be available; and, if a player initially went to Colma, they would not have any other recruitable allies until the start of their third mission.

Way back in Eclipse, during Norton's graveyard battle scene, I had, as a bit of a joke, created two friendly Hellhounds named Bummer and Lazarus.  The names are directly stolen from dogs associated with the historical Emperor Norton. Back then, due to the limited models available in Dead Man's Switch, I'd used stock hellhound bodies and fire elemental portraits to represent them. (The dogs were controlled by AI during Colma; if you sided with Shavarus during that fight, one of the hellhounds would appear in the climactic Armory scene and be PC-controllable.) Fortunately, Dragonfall had a new character, a dog named Dante, who had his own doggie model and portrait. Even better, Dante transforms at one point into an awakened creature with hellhound-like abilities, along with a new portrait. Hooray! That means I would be able to make two distinct dogs.

Going entirely off of their names, I decided that Bummer would be a fairly tanky, low-key ally: someone with high HP and simple physical attacks. Meanwhile, Lazarus would be a more risk-taking ally, with hellhound powers like Fireball. Furthermore, Lazarus would be the one immortal companion in the game: like his namesake, he would rise from the dead between missions, meaning that no matter how badly you brutalized your team, you would always have at least one free hire available.

I got a kick out of the dogs, who made it into the opening scene as well. I was a bit reluctant to make them too powerful: they were intended as stopgaps to fill party slots until you started recruiting additional people. They're decent, but deliberately a bit under-powered compared to your later companions, and they don't get banters like other party members do (although they do get barks).

Oh, yeah! Barks! That's a relatively minor and simple thing that I always forget to write about. In my continuing quest to create party members with some sort of personality, I've been programming combat barks since Antumbra. This is a term from old-school RPGs like Baldur's Gate: those games didn't have full voice acting, but they would record short snippets of dialogue that would activate at appropriate points during a fight, both communicating some information and offering a glimpse of the character's personality. That might be something like "GO FOR THE EYES, BOO!", or "If.... if you think no-one is better." They're really simple to do in SRR. The general trigger looks something like, "If Turm kills someone, roll a 10-sided die. If the die comes up 10, have her say 'Hoi! Sit DOWN!' Only do this once in this scene." That's pretty easy to do, although when playing the earlier games I've noticed that only combat-focused characters like street samurai really get much of a chance to say their lines.

So, for Corona, I did a bit more digging and figured out how to spread the fun around. Norton is a pacifist, so instead of barking when he kills someone, he barks after healing or hasting them. Hailey isn't a front-line fighter, but her drones are, so she barks whenever a drone on the team gets a kill. (It might be the PC's drone, but Hailey is a team player and will cheer on any drone that does well.) So, yeah... barks are still fun to do, and I really like how they make the characters seem a bit more unique throughout gameplay, and not just during set scenes.

Similarly, I liked how the banters ended up working. They're not truly random, but I don't think that would become apparent until someone had played through the mod a few times. They work more closely to Dragon Age banters than those in Baldur's Gate. When you cross certain invisible lines, the game checks to see if you're in a good state to have a banter (not in combat, etc.). It then scans through everyone in your party, checking what banters are available and which ones you've already had. There are a total of seventeen banters available: two banters between each grouping of two companions, one banter between the PC and a companion, and one bonus banter between Norton and the PC. There are a total of eight banter points throughout the game, two for each mission, so over the course of a game a player will only see half of the available banters. These are highly dependent on the order in which you recruit characters and how often you travel with them. Banters are chosen in a strictly determined order, so if you do the same missions in the same order each time, you'll see the same banters. This also means that I know that a player can't see certain banters without certain other banters already having run. (For example, the second banter between Elorn and Dorbi can't fire until the first banter between them and each of their individual banters, so you would never see both Elorn/Dorbi banters on the same mission.)

Banters were more work than barks, and more tedious to implement (a lot of copy-and-pasting of triggers between maps), but enormous fun to write and to see in action. They're completely useless from a gameplay perspective, to the point where I worry a little that more tactically-oriented players may be actually annoyed by them, but it's that very uselessness that endears them to me: they propagate the idea that you're exploring a world bigger than yourself, that people have relationships outside of yourself, and you're just catching glimpses into the full lives that these people lead. It's fun!

Relatively late in the cycle, I started considering what to do for my preview image. This is the square icon that displays whenever your UGC is shown within Shadowrun Returns or while browsing the Steam Workshop. Many content creators will rip off old Shadowrun artwork, which I've never been very happy about (though, since they're not profiting from it, shouldn't bother me). Others will do screenshots of scenes within their games, which can look really nice. I have zero artistic skill, so my previous two modules used simple logos of an antumbra: a simple one in Antumbra, and the identical image with a lens flare added for Eclipse. Back when I was still considering The Burning Sky or The Bleeding Sky as a title, I was thinking of doing the same thing, but shifting from blue to red. Even after the shift to Corona, that still would have been appropriate.

But, I figured, why not hire a proper artist to do it? I've long been a fan of Isbjorg, who draws fantastic semi-monochromatic artwork, specializing in characters from fantasy RPGs. Recently she's started moving in a bit more of a sci-fi direction, with a personal interest in The X-Files. Well, a combination of sci-fi and fantasy is the very definition of Shadowrun! She certainly wouldn't match Harebrained Schemes' style the way that KARGAIN did for the Norton portrait, so I wouldn't ask her to draw an in-game character, but I thought she would do a fantastic job at a more creative picture drawn for the preview.

And, of course, she did! The amazing result is shown waaaaaaaay up near the top of this post. I'm always impressed at how well Isbjorg is able to come up with something that looks fantastic, creating something that matches what I'm looking for while still pleasantly surprising me in the details of its presentation. In the past I've asked her to work from in-game screenshots, Pinterest reference photos, and written descriptions. She always hits a home run. In this particular image, I'd asked her to draw a scene featuring Hailey and Dorbi, who had become my two favorite characters while writing the game. I showed her their in-game portraits, briefly described their personalities and the setting... and she totally nailed it. Hooray! I love the way that she, for example, builds on the key elements of Hailey's character - the visor, her technical focus - and creating something that feels original, not copied, almost adding a new dimension to the character. It's wonderful to see a second shot of the same fictional person. And the little bit of attitude each of them shows through their postures and expressions is absolutely perfect.

Okay! I feel like I'm leaving a ton out here, but I also feel like I've written approximately 1000 times more words than necessary to convey the message "I made a mod and it was a lot of fun and I thought about things and then I did things." I'll spare you from the remainder of my gleeful babblings.

By this point, Corona has been out for a little under three days. It got exactly zero attention in the first twenty-four hours (hey, it was competing against Game of Thrones!), but has really picked up lately. I've gotten a handful of bug reports (swiftly crushed!), news of the first non-King to beat the game, and some very encouraging words from people who have followed the series. I don't expect it to explode or anything, but it feels extraordinarily gratifying to know that people out there are playing this and enjoying it. Few things in life are worth sacrificing so much free time for. Moments like this make me think that making games might be one of them.