Features

Spell to Win in Roguelike Writer's Block

The combat screen in Writer's Block.
The combat screen in Writer's Block. / Courtesy of Tic Toc Games

Alejandro Grossman was supposed to be working. After joining the indie games studio Tic Toc Games around four years ago as an intern, he'd worked through several different departments and ultimately landed in design. He'd even directed a prototype at the studio. It wasn't as though he had nothing to do. Still, everyone deserves a few minutes to blow off steam at work. Plus, sometimes our best ideas strike us when we least expect them.

That's exactly what happened to Grossman, in the middle of a surreptitiously-watched video by YouTuber videogamedunkey.

In the video, dunkey was playing Bookworm Adventures Deluxe, a spelling game PopCap Studios had released in 2006. Enemies would wander onscreen, and the player would have a Boggle-like set of randomly generated letters they could use to spell out words. The longer their word, the more damage it would deal to the enemies. After each word, their letters would be replaced, and they would repeat the process. If they failed to deal enough damage in few enough words, the enemies would kill them.

It was linear, it was simple, and to Grossman, it was genius. All it needed was a little push, preferably in the roguelite direction. So, working with a friend, he built a prototype and pitched it to Tic Toc's creative director, Steve Jimenez. Jimenez gave the green light, and Writer's Block was off to the races.

Although Bookworm Adventures Deluxe provided a solid foundation for the game, Grossman and company wanted to add depth to the experience without sacrificing the accessibility of spelling as a central mechanic. In Bookworm Adventures, the goal is always to spell the longest possible word, no matter which letters are used. Writer's Block twists that formula by tying enemy attacks to certain letters in your pool.

For example, an enemy might damage the player if they failed to use a particular letter in the pool. They might do the inverse, dealing damage to the player if they use a particular letter. Or they might do something altogether different if a letter is used. The final boss of the demo DBLTAP played wouldn't take any damage from attacks unless a certain letter in the pool was used, and that letter shifted every round.

These small nudges cause drastic shifts in the strategic calculus. Suddenly, the player is not just looking for the longest word — they're looking for the longest word that protects them from taking damage, or that avoids removing letters from the list. And although these mechanics increase the number of considerations for the player, Grossman says they actually tend to make the game more approachable.

"It almost makes finding words easier, because you have a focus and a goal," he said in an interview at PAX East 2022. Plus, success is no longer reserved for the spelling masters among us.

"In our office, we actually have the words written, 'The biggest word is not always the best word on the board,'" he said.

Writer's Block also builds on Bookworm Adventures by incorporating elements of some of the best roguelites of the past few years. Slay the Spire's influence is especially salient.

Writer's Block's overworld map takes clear inspiration from Slay the Spire.
Writer's Block's overworld map takes clear inspiration from Slay the Spire. / Courtesy of Tic Toc Games

Each run in Writer's Block begins with the player selecting a character from one of three currently planned for the game, each with their own distinct mechanic. (Only the most straightforward character, a fountain pen named Font, was available in the demo played by DBLTAP.) They then proceed from node to node, choosing from limited options whether they'll take on a spot of combat, rest and heal, or investigate a more unusual event. Success in those mystery events is often tied to the same spelling mechanic as the combat, keeping the player's mind working.

As they proceed through the chapter — there are three in each total, each capped off by a challenging boss fight — the player will accumulate items called Literary Devices that provide special bonuses for the duration of the run. One Device, for example, causes words under a certain length to deal double damage, adding another wrinkle to the word-finding process. There are hordes of these Devices, and the player will unlock more and more as they progress through the game.

Although Writer's Block was born out of a mechanic, it also features a subtly told story of creativity. On a meta level, the game follows Sophie, a children's book author struggling with the titular affliction. The enemies in-game are manifestations of the many things preventing her from writing, and from chapter to chapter they track her routine. Enemies from Chapter 1, for example, are monsters resembling coffee grounds, toothpaste, or shower bubbles.

Every run the player embarks on is another attempt by Sophie to write a story. Failed runs appear as scrapped drafts hanging on a wall in-game, and Sophie's voiceover sheds more light on her character as the game goes along.

"The story in Writer's Block is very important, but never aggressively in your face," said creative director Jimenez. "Interested players will be able to piece together the causes of Sophie's writer's block and learn more about her life by encountering new enemies while getting further into runs. We hope this organically leads to a series of revelations for players as they help Sophie along her journey."

The most gifted wordsmiths will also have fun with a Hades-style Pressure system that adds additional challenges to a run.

"As a writer," Grossman said, "you have a lot of external pressures. So you [the player] get to choose what pressures you're going to have when you're writing."

A non-combat event challenges the player to spell the longest word they can find in pursuit of rewards.
A non-combat event challenges the player to spell the longest word they can find in pursuit of rewards. / Courtesy of Tic Toc Games

That Sophie writes for children isn't lost on Tic Toc, and it ties into one of the first hurdles the team had to clear: choosing the right word list. Grossman says finding theirs "was a whole ordeal."

"It's not just writing a dictionary. Writing a dictionary is a task; people pay for that alone. So we can't set out to write a dictionary. Unless we're crazy. We're a little crazy, but we're not that crazy," he said.

The team began with the Scrabble dictionary, but because it's licensed, they would have had to pay licensing fees for as long as Writer's Block remained available to buy. They then swapped to a Creative Commons dictionary that allowed them to tweak its sensitivity around adult language. That engendered another round of discussions at Tic Toc.

"Some people will want [curse words] and will laugh whenever they see them," Grossman said. "But we also don't want the screenshot of the game [shared online] being, like, a big slur."

For now, the team is leaning toward a toggle for foul language, and planning to allow individual players to edit their own word lists (likely with achievements disabled). This leads to what Grossman sees as one of Writer's Block's main strengths: streaming.

"We think it's a very streamable game, because it's very easy to contribute as a viewer. The game is built in such a way that just hopping in at any point, or seeing the game at any point, it's very easy to know exactly what's going on. You don't have a deck that you're hiding. You don't have a discard that you have to sift through. You just see the words," he said.

And that's not all. With customizable word lists, streamers will be able to put in their own emotes and inside jokes, leading to fun, organic moments for audiences. Tic Toc itself has plans for a Twitch event around the game's launch, but details are still under wraps.

Resting can recover HP at the cost of upgrades.
Resting can recover HP at the cost of upgrades. / Courtesy of Tic Toc Games

Since speaking to DBLTAP, Grossman has left Tic Toc for an opportunity elsewhere. But the team, including many of his mentors, remains hard at work under Jimenez. And Writer's Block looks to be in great shape.

"Myself and other long tenured designers who have already been involved are continuing to lead the charge on the game," Jimenez said, and they're "pushing Tic Toc Games' vision for [Writer's Block] forward."

Writer's Block is scheduled for release this August on PC and Mac, and a playable demo is available on Itch.io and Steam