Monday, January 27, 2020

Behind CSD2's Writing: Leo and Dennis Emails

I've noticed that fans of Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!! who read the hundreds of in-game emails (written by Nick Kraak and myself) seem especially fond of one of the series of emails involving characters named Leo and Dennis — a pair of coworkers at some unnamed in-game company who make each others' lives miserable. With the release of Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?! on the horizon, I thought it'd be fun to talk about how I wrote these fan-favorite emails.

How Leo and Dennis Landed in My Lap

When David Galindo first tasked me with writing humorous in-game emails for Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!!, I didn't get a lot of direction. Having voluntarily written a few emails for the original game that he liked, I was simply tasked with writing even more fictional emails that provided a humorous break from the chaotic gameplay. He didn't even give me a deadline or tell me how many he wanted. I was free to write as few or as many as I wanted, and only through his feedback did I start to understand exactly what ideas he was and wasn't interested in pursuing.

Except he did have one request:
"What I'd like for you to try are the emails about Leo and Dennis, two passive-aggressive people that pretty much hate each other. Those were among my favorites in [CSD1]."
Along with this request I was provided a document of the email code from CSD1 that contained every single email that appeared in that game, including six emails exchanged between characters named Leo H and Dennis M. David couldn't remember who had written the emails, so I only had these six to go on when developing my own plans for the characters in the sequel.

Writing the Leo and Dennis Email Series

To help better understand the characters and what made them David's favorites, I copied the emails into a spreadsheet and broke them down by email sender, email subject, a summary of the action indicated in the body of the email, and what was the motivation for the action. It looked exactly like this:
(click to enlarge)
Through this, the general scenario became clear to me. Leo was a well-meaning idiot who kept getting on Dennis' nerves, and Dennis responded to every dumb or irresponsible thing Leo did by pranking him. Leo would then try to get revenge for these pranks, but never through pranking (aside from one exception). For example, here's an email from Dennis:
Subject Line: That smell
Body: Has anybody else noticed that smell coming from Leo's part of the office? I can't tell where it's coming from, but it smells like rotten eggs.
-Dennis M.
P.S. Leo, please stop eating my egg salad sandwiches. I don't want to have to keep hiding them. Sometimes I forget where I put them."
I'm not sure how intentional this distinction was to the original author, because I don't know who they are and they only wrote three emails for each character (with some inconsistencies, as mentioned), but nonetheless I decided to run with it in my follow-ups.

In the end I wrote 24 emails between the two characters, drawing as much inspiration from the original six emails as I could for how to make them unique from each other. Unlike the first game, however, my series of Leo and Dennis emails responded to one another and eventually told a story of an escalating feud—a byproduct of my affection for fiction story writing—that ultimately ended in tragedy.

Here's the chart for how that played out:

(click to enlarge)
The most difficult part of writing this series was, it should come as no surprise, coming up with so many different problems for Leo to create and pranks for Dennis to respond with. Naturally, I turned to my own office experiences for inspiration. While I haven't been personally wronged in any of the ways mentioned in these emails, I knew the common office annoyances (printer low on paper, lights flickering, etc.) and could work backwards to figure out how those could be intentionally caused by someone and why. I'd also heard of people's lunches disappearing/getting stolen, so naturally I used that as inspiration as well. Little did I know while writing that this seemingly small incident would escalate the way it did in the later emails.

You see, I didn't actually plan any sort of story out when writing this series. It's just that it was only natural when writing for the wrongdoings and subsequent pranks to escalate in order to show any sort of progress. However, while Leo being framed for embezzlement or getting his vehicle's brake lines cut seems like the height of "pranking," it's ultimately the mixing up of lunches that crosses the line into tragedy.

Wait, tragedy?

It turns out that some players had not realized that Dennis' pranks killed Leo in the end. This isn't because I'm a bad writer (I swear!) but because the game was meant to be kid-friendly, so it was intentionally obscure. In case you're one of those players, here's what the ending meant:

Finally fed up with having his lunch eaten by Leo, Dennis puts kale in his own lunch one day. Technically there's nothing wrong with putting kale in your lunch, but Dennis knows that Leo is "fatally allergic" to it. This is revealed in Dennis' last email in the story line:
Subject Line: Beware of Allergies
Body: We may want to beware of each other’s food allergies, if any, in the future. It seems that Leo is fatally allergic to Kale, which was completely unbeknownst to me when I made my lunch this morning and put my name on it. Also, if you’d like to send some well-wishes to his family, please see me to sign a card I’ve picked out for them!
The next (and final) email the player receives from Leo is an automated message that explains that Leo has been harassed by Dennis for quite some time and that the message itself was programmed to only send if Leo didn't return to work for an extended period of time, implying that his allergy was in fact fatal.

The final email in the Leo and Dennis series comes from "upper management" notifying employees of two open positions formerly held by Leo and Dennis, the latter of whom is not mentioned by name because "it is company policy to no longer mention [him] by name since the recent verdict"—implying some sort of legal proceedings that found Dennis guilty of something. Probably murder by kale.

This is the kind of quality storytelling you get from reading the totally optional emails in CSD2.

What's with that email in your chart with the Chinese characters? I don't remember reading anything in Chinese in CSD2.

Oh that? Originally the entire email was going to be written in Chinese characters about how Dennis somehow made it so Leo's computer only wrote in Chinese. Not only does this not make sense (how would he be able to navigate his computer or send the email?) but it wasn't practical, since the game only supported the English alphabet and Google Translate can only get you so far. Instead, the email was rewritten so that Leo was thanking people for the help in getting his computer set back to English from Chinese.

So just for kicks, here's what the original email was going to translate to:
Subject Line: I detest someone in this office
Body: I'm only saying this publicly because it turns out that nobody in the office understands Chinese. Dennis, I hope you lose your job and live a very, very unhappy life.
Leo H
So that's it! I hope you've enjoyed this brief peek behind the curtain into how CSD2 became the crazy fun game that it is! Be sure to check out my two previous blog posts about writing for CSD2:
And be sure to check out Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?! when it releases on Early Access on January 29th!