Adaptive writing and the Apotheosister

Illustration from Bossgame, by Max Schwartz. A rainbow-nova colored piece of Sophie jumping and hugging Anna.

Max Schwartz

It's been hitting me recently how totally freeform my approach to writing Bossgame was. A lot of people have told me the characters feel realistic and endearing, and that the story packs so so much into a relatively short game... I'm really happy I was able to make it all work! I have no idea how I did any of that.

Bossgame is the first full, proper, start-to-end *story* I've ever written. It's got three acts! It probably fits into the hero's journey! But really, it's the result of me constantly hopping back and forth between scriptwriting and mechanical pacing. I knew early on each boss needed an intro (to establish the boss as a character, to build up the stakes, and to give Sophie & Anna time to flirt) and an outro (a release from the tension, a little victory lap, and to give Sophie & Anna more time to flirt). Extra story scenes pop in here and there, usually to build up a character or establish key plot elements, as a break from a tough series of bosses, and for the flirting.

But honestly, I shuffled *so* much of this around as the game evolved. I would decide a character didn't really add much to the plot and cut them, and use their boss fight for another character (RIP Anna's brother 🙏). I would come up with a boss design I really wanted to use, so I'd carve out some space and weave them into the narrative, and write their personality to match. I was constantly tweaking one side of the game to serve the other.

Like, obviously this is just how it has to work, right? At least, if you aren't treating your writing as an afterthought. You have to be willing to adapt gameplay to story and story to gameplay, and then find a way for the pacing of *both* to match the mood and momentum of the whole experience. Especially when juggling the nine hundred other things going on during the creation of a game...

Illustration for Bossgame by Sophia Foster-Dimino. Sophie is holding Anna from behind while Anna cooks a pot full of soup on the kitchen stove. Both are smiling with eyes closed. Inside their apartment, it's night, and various things lay about - cooking ingredients, knives, plants, and such adorn the scene.

Sophia Foster-Dimino

Anyway, I got better at this as the development went on! One place where this worked really well was coordinating with guest artists. Each artist has their own style and specialty, and for each, I tried to create scenes that would match. The clearest example might be Sophia Foster-Dimino's illustration: a kitchen where our two heroes cook dinner together. Sophia absolutely rules at drawing relaxed, homey scenes, and once I saw the final illustration I wrote a new scene for it specifically. It deserved it! And it ended up being an incredibly important scene when it came to pacing... In the same way, I adapted the final scene to better match Max Schwartz's gorgeous art, and tbh I wrote Delta's brightly colorful art prompt *specifically* for them. Basically, I did my best to tweak the game to fit the artist whenever I could!

Illustration for Bossgame by Delta (Iasmin Omar Ata). Anna and Dawn laugh and smile outside during a purple nighttime scene just outside a city. Fireworks sticking into the ground explode into bright, colorful explosions of pink and yellow and blue.

Delta (Iasmin Omar Ata)

When it came to coordinating game flow and story, I'm really happy with how things worked with with the Apotheosister fight.

Next section has major BOSSGAME spoilers - click to show!


She's honestly my favorite! I love her design so much, and her animations came out so cool... I'm proud 😤 Aside from Final Donovan, she's the one boss I didn't want to spoil while promoting the game.

Apotheosister came from a visual design first - I loved the idea of this hot grinning devil punk in a jacket and bra. I had all these cool, slightly underhanded-looking attacks planned out for her too...

Screenshot from Bossgame's in-game wiki. Apotheosister is featured - she is a sharply grinning woman with clawed hands. She wears a jacket, bra, and jeans, with bangs that cover her eyes. Her title says Apotheosister: My Minds Eye Is Blind. Next to her she has an introduction description: Dreamlike adjutant to the Devil Queen. She appears in different forms to everyone, yet everyone knows her by sight. Fights with a vigor that inspires opponents to greater heights. Her upbeat attitude makes her a lot of fun on dates..

I knew I wanted a boss where Sophie fought solo against a really intimidating enemy, and that it would occur after the split with Anna. I was *also* trying to find a way to weave Mirra into the story more. Their character was tricky to write, because they don't appear until over halfway into the game, and I wanted a way to give them more time with Sophie since that relationship is important to both of them. They became the person Sophie runs to when she's in trouble, despite their recent fight - Mirra's (overly?) kind and forgiving personality worked well for this. Writing the intro conversation - two people commiserating over their upbringing - was complex due to the intensity of it, but since they're old friends, it wasn't too bad. And as this all came together, I realized just how well Mirra worked for what I was planning.

How does Apotheosister fit? How do you write a boss that fits themes of guilt, and self-hatred, and a desire to be better..? How do you go from despair to fighting? Turns out, it's a mirror.

Sometimes, when I've been in a depressive funk for hours, I get the growing desire to rally, and I start looking for ways to force myself up. I really do imagine defeating some part of me that wants to just stay still. Humans aren't logical, depression isn't logical, and if you want to get up, sometimes the best way to do that is the sheer stupid self-hype of slapping your own face and listening to punk rock.

And so, I tried to write those feelings into the fight. Rather than being just another devil, or a manifestation of her inner evil, Apotheosister became the avatar for everything Sophie wants to be as a person - confident, proud, kind. Unlike every other boss in the game, she does not talk in a cutscene, instead only having a few short barks during the fight. She encourages Sophie by fighting her, and so serves double-duty almost as a mentor trying to get her student to prove she's ready.

I was so happy how well this worked out, and I'm glad that other people seemed to enjoy it too! Apotheosister's visual design, Sophie's loneliness, a solo boss, Mirra's kindness, and the mirror... All of these elements got tweaked bit by bit to slowly compose the final scene.

In writing Bossgame, I had all of these little pieces that I mixed together, wrote, tested, tweaked, and mixed again. It always took a few iterations, but I think I really benefitted from being adaptive, from not holding TOO preciously onto any one element, instead reshaping things as necessary so the whole could come together. Of course, it was pretty time-consuming: you end up throwing tons of stuff away, things you plan for don't work out... but staying loose and being willing to experiment really paid off, I think!

That's that! I worry this post is a little scatterbrained... it was fun to write, though. Also, I'm curious if this kind of writing approach will still work for my next game..?

If you're interested in Bossgame, you can check it out here:

Thanks for reading!

Lily 💜