Imagine a man seated in a train car, briefcase in his lap, earplugs in his ears, a slight smile on his face. The train is headed downtown, and, at least in our minds, he is heading to work, perhaps thinking about the meetings and phone calls that wait for him.
In his own mind, however, he is far, far away, in a world of danger and intrigue. There, he narrowly escapes death, seduces foreign agents and breaks into the most secure fortresses to accomplish his mission. All this from his seat on the train.
The man is playing Codename Cygnus, an interactive game on his smartphone that plays like a digital version of a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Modeled after radio serials from the 1930s and ’40s, Codename Cygnus allows players to navigate through a spy narrative by speaking commands to their phone. You must decide to confront or befriend a difficult Russian antagonist, charm or ignore a woman and decide whether or not to detonate a bomb, among other quandaries. Each decision you make causes the story to spin in a different direction.
Jonathon Myers ’00 thinks putting players in control of their own fate is a formula for success. As the cofounder and creative director for Boston-based Reactive Studios, Myers developed Codename Cygnus by scripting a narrative with branching storylines and building a professional sound booth to record voice actors. A playwright who earned his M.F.A. from Boston University, Myers has lately worked in the gaming industry, serving as a writer on projects that include Indiana Jones Adventure World on Facebook and Game of Thrones Ascent, based on the fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin. Writing for video games requires some flexibility, and Myers learned quickly that any script must always yield to the user experience and not the choices and abilities of a game’s designers. You must be clear and concise when writing dialogue and willing to use tropes, such as the femme fatale in spy stories, to establish quick understanding with a player. If you’re too subtle or too slow in establishing your narrative, then disaster can occur: The player will put down the control pad. And instead of just one narrative, Myers often creates many, as in the case of Codename Cygnus, allowing players to steer themselves through their own journey.
“It’s tough enough to write one storyline,” says Myers. “Imagine if you have to write three of them. Then imagine if you have to write six, and each of them has to be equally entertaining and take the player through an experience. It’s very difficult.”
Another challenge is adapting existing intellectual property, making sure to preserve the original appeal of the media that is inspiring the game, whether this is the bravado and daring of Indiana Jones or the complex realm dreamt up by Martin. “You can’t change that, or people won’t love it anymore,” says Myers. “You have to craft everything around it. You’re adding to the canon without changing the canon.”
With Codename Cygnus, Myers envisions a storyline that can keep going and going. His first installment, or “Mission One,” is about the length of a feature movie broken into five 15-minute scenes that players can enjoy at their leisure, whether they are driving, waiting at the doctor’s office or riding a train. So long as players like it, Myers will write additional missions, and also explore using the same choose-as-you-go format for other types of writing, including children’s books.
“Pretty much anything a book can do, we want to do interactively,” says Myers. “I think the sky’s the limit.”
– Jason Ryan