The Wellof Sickness Shimmering

Creative Ecologies Category

The Well of Sickness Shimmering

by Sammy Paloma

I write this at the end of our Trailblazer funded project, within a stone’s throw of us completing the game. As a way of an intro, this was our original pitch:

“The Well of Sickness Shimmering (WSS) is an interactive computer game and creative tool that uses digital animation, user input, and interactive fiction to create a digital holy well, offering up a unique experience each time you visit. The project aims to centre audience agency and the value of play as a creative force, inviting the audience to use WSS as a tool for stimulating creative ideas and as a provocation to use open-source games and art software in new and innovative ways themselves.”

We are now - almost - at the incredibly exciting stage of play-testing, so in a funny way we are still living with a whole host of unknowns, despite being over 12 months into the project. However, there have been a lot of things we have learned in that time.

Myself and Uma Breakdown have both, up until this project, been mostly solo indie game makers. We had been making computer games on small budgets, using open-source software, with quick turnarounds from conception to completion. This has allowed for a lot of creative freedom and development, as well as encouraging a resourceful approach to problem solving.

Trailblazer funding allowed us from the start to bring a producer with professional game development experience onto our team. This expanded the project’s creative voice, streamlining our workflow, and allowing for increased technical ambition. Being able to bring on the amazing Elle Bulger as a producer allowed myself and Uma to operate in a more expansive way, less restrained by our own knowledge of the technology we were using (mainly Aseprite, Blender and Unity).

This project was developed from research and discussion undertaken during 2021, exploring holy wells as unstable sites that shimmer between sickness & health, and our shared love of table-top role-playing games (TTRPGs). We wanted to make a game that encourages users to input their own material into the system, co-creating their story experience every time they visit the well. We were really interested in divination tools like tarot and the I-Ching as creative tools, as pieces of art that are specifically designed for you to make more art out of them; a kind of canon to encourage fan-fiction.

My current elevator pitch for The Well of Sickness Shimmering is that it is a gamified writing tool, but gamified in a way like if the Oracle of Delphi had made Duolingo after playing through Dark Souls.

In fact, Dark Souls was a big influence on how we began designing WSSs lore. Dark Souls lore is deep, but it isn’t delivered to you on a plate; it’s baked into the descriptions of the objects you pick up, the snippets of dialogue you encounter with NPCs, and the very structure of the gameplay itself. Wanting to make a game that was also a creative tool, it felt really important to us that we give the player enough of a world that it didn’t just feel empty, whilst also not being overly determined and letting the player make up their own interpretations of the world (since this is the main aim of the game).

Still from Dark Souls (2011), developed and published by FromSoftware Inc

An early test - a “proof of concept” type thing - for our project was a small game we made in March 2022 using the open-source, browser-based software, Bitsy, called Surface of Scum (SOS). Alongside support from Bristol + Bath Creative R+D via the Trailblazer fund, SOS was supported by MAYK (as part of Mayfest 2022), and it is now permanently hosted by HOAX Publication

Screenshot from Surface of Scum project page on

We were really interested in exploring the possibilities of ‘variables’ within the Bitsy software to create a game that was also a tool. The concept for the game was that you would travel through an unstable landscape that was both a journey to a holy well and a journey inside your body, and based on the choices you make to travel through the maze of the gamespace (i.e. if you turn right or left, up or down) you accrue attributes, slowly building a ‘character’.

In-game screenshots from Surface of Scum

All of the ‘dialogue’ in Surface of Scum is made up of variables of randomised lists of nouns and adverbs, which was a really interesting writing process for us, coming up with the barebones of sentences to then be filled in with a random selection of nouns or actors. We were deeply interested in pre-Renaissance ideas of medicine, and the often thin line that exists there between healing and sickness, poison and cure. This was reflected in our word lists, so the character you were generating as you play through the game is an unstable identity; take a left turn instead of a right turn and health turns to sickness and then back again.

Diagram of game layout for Surface of Scum, made using the non-linear project management tool, Miro Board.

We were really pleased with this game, but most of all we were particularly proud of the ‘back-end’, the game structure itself, and our use of variables throughout. However, it struck us that you could easily go through this game without really being aware of any of this, so in writing for The Well of Sickness Shimmering we really wanted to foreground the player’s decision making process. We kept a lot of these randomised lists, but this time we tried to turn them into choices that the player can make, rather than being hidden ‘behind’ the game in the coding. For example, one of the first big decisions the player is asked to make early on in WSS is the question of why they are playing the game - what they have come to the well in search of.

Following on from this idea of wanting WSS to be a creative tool, we spent a lot of time in the early stages of game development trying to hone what we meant by this. Giving up entirely on the idea of an in-game Design Studio or painting-app element, we focussed on WSS being predominantly a creative writing tool, with the broad structure of the game being looking/listening to something, and then receiving a series of writing prompts from the spirits of the holy well.

Production still from The Well of Sickness Shimmering

At the end of the game, the player will receive a ‘print-out’ filled with their responses to the questions they were asked throughout the game. In a certain sense, we designed The Well of Sickness Shimmering to hold the player’s hand whilst they unwittingly write fan-fic in the shape of a sonnet, or lore in the form of an advert.

Production gif from The Well of Sickness Shimmering

We wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without the help of Bristol + Bath Creative R+D, and the Trailblazer fund, and we’re so excited for the next stage of the project!