2014 — 2014 Feminism, Politics

“Night Witches” is my thesis for my my master program at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunication Program. “Night Witches” is an interactive and transmedia story iOS story built in Unity with an interactive web component. 

NightWitches is a true story about a WWII Soviet Female fighter pilot named Nadya Popova and her crash landing in the North Caucasus in 1942. By combining game play, interactive video, and audio, I wanted to create a story that firmly places the user in the role of a NightWitch and explores where interactive story telling can go- beyond making slide shows. I explored, and observed how users can follow the non linear story and the cross device mechanic as well as create an educational and factual but interesting and fun interactive story.

I wanted to know what makes a story compelling, and what does a story feel like to play, and to explore?

I did not just want to make a game, I wanted to make a story come to life. 

I made a very specific choice to not include instructions in my story-world at all so I had to purposely had to use visual elements, sound design, and flow techniques to move my users throughout my world.

I grew up listening to my grandmother and grand father’s stories about WWII. My grandmother was a Navy Nurse and a WAVES (women accepted for volunteer emergency services) so I grew up being very aware of women’s roles in WWII and how much of the war depended upon women working. I thought about what experience would really do their story justice and I realized it had to been an interactive story rooted in game play. To fully experience and tell the story of the NightWitches, you have to be a NightWitch.

My thesis went through multiple iterations and prototypes. 

I started paper prototyping first and sketching. 

My thesis is really about two things: the story of the Night Witches and the user experience and design process of this story. My background is in story telling and visual narrative. I noticed, when studying design thinking and user experience at ITP, that the structure of a plot was really just a user flow chart. I wondered what would it be like to take this universally accepted story structure and deconstruct and disrupt it? How would users understand my story if I turned the narrative structure inside out? I created a flow chart; I have a set beginning and a set end, but a non linear narrative. I then wrote dialogue that could be placed in any order but still make sense. Every event in my story can be arranged in any order but still understood.

Story arc of "Night Witches." 
Story arc of “Night Witches.”

Every dot represents a plot point in the “NightWitches” that the user can find. Every plot point is written to be find in any particular order and is written in colloquial English. These plot points have been translated and spoken in Russian. When the user find the plot points, attached to items within the world, the user hears the voice of Nadya spoken in Russian, with English subtitles. 

Once I had the plot points realized, I began to create iterations of my story via user testing with paper prototypes.

Iteration, play test, prototype, repeat. 
Iteration, play test, prototype, repeat.

I redesigned the game four different times. Each time I learned something new but it required deleting almost every line of code I had written and starting over. The game went from being a top down to a side scroller to game that procedural generated sections (safe, Russian, German) to what it is now, a 2-D world created in a 3-D environment that mimics parallax.

After figuring out the feel of the world, I started world building. I paper prototyped how I thought the narrative could play out, and then began to build out my world in Unity, placing my story elements along the way.

The game now became an interactive story that took place in Unity as an iOS game with a push to mobile. Nadya’s story, which is the one I have prototyped, takes place on the phone. Three other stories (and easter eggs) are hidden on a website that is also in a prototype site and semi built (but user testable).


I user tested with over people. I had five groups of user testing. I did field research/observation, scenario based prototyping, heuristics, hallway testing, and a/b testing. Through this, I discovered that my push to web from mobile wasn’t incredibly seamless but my push to web from Unity was so incredibly seamless the users did not even notice. I learned that I had to give some sort of directions and context, but because I wanted to avoid my story being viewed purely as a video game, I created a mini story to tell Nadya’s story in. A grand daughter asks her grand mother for a story, and that story becomes the context of Nadya’s story. The grandmother gives a quick set up to what is going on in Russia and provides the context for the game and the way to move in the game but all through a story and narrative elements. Instead of saying “user, move left and right, and be quick or you’ll die.” The grandmother says “Nadya knew she had to act fast and find safety. If the elements didn’t get her first, the Nazis’ surely would.” That’s a clue to the user that the user has to play the game quickly and they are looking for certain things and clues that will lead to safety.

Play testers
Play testers

After adding the story within the story element, all of my users began to hit my benchmarks and answer my follow up questions which where: 

Who are you?

Where are you?

What happened?

How old are you?

I made a lot of specific design and narrative decisions for my story- the style of the world and the use of sound, in particular. By having a voice actress, nearly the same age as Nadya was when this took place, helped signify her age (which was 22) and the use of black, white, and gray hand cut paper assets added a particular “old” and “vintage” but creepy and horror like atmosphere. 

My thesis presentation.