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14 May 2012

Waiter, There's a Rat in My Pot

Cooking up a New Menu

After the success and fun of working on my second Morrowind mod, What's on the Menu?, I decided I wanted to create a menu for each dining establishment in the game, which was around 29 pubs, taverns, and inns. My plan was to develop a unique menu for each one, creating dishes that used local ingredients and reflected the personality of each place. The entire series would be called Traveller's Guide to Dining.

The Rat in the Pot menu version 1
My favorite place was The Rat in the Pot in Ald'ruhn. It had the atmosphere of a pub and was the local headquarters of the Thieves Guild. I did some research online, looking at the menus of pub-type restaurants to get a feel for the kinds of food that might be offered.  The first menu I created contained five items — two appetizers and three flatpies (a.k.a. pizzas). I used a curvy typeface called Radaern that I liked because the lower-case d was reminiscent of a little rat body with a tail sticking up. The corner art was a free image that I found on the web.

I didn't have any expectation that I'd be able to draw a decent rat in a pot, so I went into the Construction Set and tried to make a composite image from the in-game pot and rat objects. The low-resolution meshes and textures and the dark dull gray/brown color looked awful, so I poked about on the web and found a decent looking gray rat and black pot that I combined into the image on the menu.

After thinking about this version of the menu for a while and getting some feedback from my husband and a new gaming friend, I decided this style wasn't really conveying the image I wanted, so I started over. Wanting to play up the rat concept some more, I changed most of the dishes to being rat-based. (This enhanced the double meaning of the pub's name.) Then I switched to the Ashcan BB typeface, which looked like it could have been hand-written with charcoal or chalk. I got rid of the corner art and used two small rat silhouettes that looked like they were inked, instead of the previous picture which looked like a photo. To complete the image, I used a free paper texture from I also created a blackboard version of the menu, but couldn't figure out how to hang a copy of it on the wall in the pub, so it doesn't appear in the game.

The Rat in the Pot menu version 2The Rat in the Pot menu - chalkboard version

Some gamers in the forums had asked me about being able to buy the meals shown on menus, so I decided to create a waitress who would serve the food at The Rat in the Pot. Instantiating a stock character model in the Construction Set was easy enough, but creating a new game character also meant creating dialogue for that character. Once I was satisfied with the menu, I spent quite some time writing dialogue for the waitress; not only to have her explain all the dishes and offer them for sale, but also to have her engage in Rat Awardconversation about various other topics. I discovered that writing dialogue was just as much fun as creating the menu. In fact, I was having so much fun working on this mod that I was having difficulty sleeping. I'd often get all my best ideas between 10 pm and 2 am. I don't know why, but my creative brain seems to go into overdrive at that time of night. I came up with a story about the owner of the pub having pet rats and being a member of the Rat Fanciers of Vvardenfell. I even created a gold rat award statue that sits on a shelf near the bar, plus three pet rats with which the player's character could interact.

While writing the waitress' dialogue, it occurred to me that it would be nice if there were some audio to go along with it. Characters in Morrowind don't speak their dialogue, but they do have occasional things that they say depending on what the player is doing. I found the proper voice files for the waitress, listened to all of them and wrote down every possible thing she could say, and then inserted phrases and sound bites into various parts of her dialogue to make her seem more alive. For example, I used Audacity to cut out a slice of a laugh from an existing sound file and then inserted it where she told a joke.

The final things that had to be dealt with were the meal objects. Since I had no interest in creating, nor ability to create, 3D models at the time, I decided to use an existing blue pot object as a container for the meals. My reasoning was, since the player's character would probably be carrying the food around, it made sense that it should be in a container. I also created some bottled condiments to go along with the food.

In the middle of May, 2010, after a month of work, I released TGD01 The Rat in the Pot. The release included a How To Guide that covered several of the things that I'd learned while making the mod. I had enjoyed the process so much that I immediately started working on my next mod, the Ald'ruhn Council Club.

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