Oh Hai…Reading this Blog?

After dodging sunbeams and causing a rain of words to fall on my black umbrella…

I’m sorry to report that my blogging may be a bit sporadic over the next two weeks because I started getting some edits back on the first part of the novella I’m working on for Aletheia. While this is not a bad or a good thing, this is a function of the work. So Abstract Nova Press owns my soul, as one of the other writers so eloquently put it. I’ll have a proper write-up to promote the other two writers once we get done with this but for now—tappity-tap-tap until this is done.

In the promoting of other writer’s work arena, I had the pleasure of conducting an email interview with Tad Williams–one of the first fantasy authors I’ve ever read. He wrote The Dragonbone Chair Series, the Virtual Reality Science Fiction Series “Otherland,” and is currently working on a number of projects including the conclusion of his “Shadowmarch” fantasy novel series. Folks, this is one of the writers who is in that lucrative 3% I-write-novels-full-time-for-a-living bucket, a veteran within the industry who more than fulfills my requirement for writing big, fat, interesting books.

I’m also thinking about ways to be more specific about some of my blog posts, because I take a great deal of inspiration from the newbies out there who are putting the words on the page for the first time. It’s hard not to be heavily influenced by the lack of business-minded leadership from my college daze; while I truly enjoyed my college experiences I can’t really consider what I learned applicable in terms of writing as a business, which is an affliction many who “major” in writing share.

In other babbles, I’m resorting to cheezburger speak, guilty pleasure movies, soy mint chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches, the Justice League, and my idiot fuzzballs of kitty doom for intermittent entertainment. Going to see Iron Man this week–here’s hoping it does not suck. Hoping to see Indiana Jones when that comes out…I really hope that does not suck. Also going back to the gym whether it kills me or not; I can’t avoid working out and I’m excited the weather will be nice enough to do things outside but, like the rest of things these days, a bit spontaneous and unplanned.

Other than that, life is pretty status quo at the moment. Good news and change all around; it’s so easy to slip into the stream and be taken away by things you know will be positive.

Do you have any books or authors you’d like to recommend? Topics you’d like me to cover? Jokes you’d like to share? Feel free to post them in the comments and please, do not take it personally when I don’t respond to email during this busy time.

Protect your marbles and your doughnuts, folks. Things are no longer getting interesting–they’re already there.

The Difference between Game Design and Writing Games is…

Okay, so now that we’ve spent a whole week talking about writing game-related fiction, I’d like to round out this week o’ gaming by talking about the fundamental differences between game design and writing games. This is an often hotly-contested topic in many gaming companies, but really comes down to a very, simply idea and that is: writing is different from designing. The skills may be complementary, but often the two are not the same thing. Here’s why.

Game Design

When someone designs a game, they are planning out a mechanical system of rules that addresses the player, the environment the game takes place in, and the way that the player interacts with other players and that environment. Take UNO for example:

    Player The holder of a set of cards
    Environment The way the deck is laid out or: discard pile vs “play” pile
    Player Interaction Player plays off of the cards in the environment and interacts with other players through a turn.

Okay, so that’s pretty easy to see where the design comes in because there’s this concept of adding and factoring in mathematical chance and…but wait? Does that mean that every game is designed based on math? In my opinion, great game design is based on a combination of math and logic (as in propositional logic) to keep players focused on that game. Let’s take a look at another less obvious game called the Kingdom of Loathing.

    Player Paris the Fat, a pastamancer (Yes, that was actually my character name.)
    Environment Kingdom of Loathing
    Player Interaction Play is turn-based, where you interact with the environment and the environment mechanically responds based on different actions you take. Player may interact with other players by joining a “group” which offers a *stat benefit.*

Now, with games like these you can see where the design takes a different turn. The focus is on how the player interacts with the environment around her in order to follow the “rules.” This is where it gets confusing. In order to have rules for setting-rich environments, you have to describe those rules. Enter the writing aspect.

Writing Games

Sometimes, people who write games and people who design games are the same people, er…person. (You get what I mean.) When someone writes a game, they are either describing the environment for the player to play in, the type of character the player might play, or the rules. If the rules are established (like they are at larger companies) then it’s the writer’s job to translate those rules into a marketable, attractive setting. The game designer knows what kind of game they want because when done right, the rules are integral to the setting. The Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic classic is a good example of this because within that game, a writer had to come up with dialog that would influence his (or her) Force rating. The way that a player chose to respond affected his character’s mechanics in game either for better or for worse. Here it takes a great amount of skill to come up with dialog that reflects subtleties of meaning — either positive, neutral, or negative — and not every game designer has that skill. Unfortunately, not every writer can design games either. Within the industry, rules can often get outdated as designers often try to remain current with different styles of play.

Besides dialog in video games, tabletop games often run the gamut of writing skills requiring technical, fiction, and nonfiction styles in order to put all the pieces together. The skills that game “writers” require are often different, because if a game designer is building the foundation or the structure of the game, the writing fills in the bricks, furniture, windows, and other elements necessary to what the game is supposed to be about. Game writers will often familiarize themselves with a game’s rules and setting in order to successfully contribute to a project; game designers will often do the same thing, but from their perspective. Sometimes, a game writer will be able to flesh out the setting like I typically do; other times, creative teams that include artists and other folk will map a game’s scenes out through storyboards while the game is being developed.

Hope that helps clear up the difference between the two. Keep in mind that the roles people have within the gaming industry varies depending upon the size of the company. This is true for any business, but especially true in this energetic, creative field. Happy gaming!

Gaming Fiction Day Four: Inferred Plot and Metaplot

Game fiction can sometimes have an “inferred” plot because of its popularity like many popular movies. Most people know Darth Vader is a bad guy. Writing about the rebels running from Darth Vader may seem like plot to you but really? That’s just a standard detail nowadays. Instead, those same rebels might be running from Darth Vader because they’re hiding a piece of jamming equipment that is going to screw up his cyborg life support mechanism. Now true, we know Darth survives, but how? Will the rebels make it out alive or will they be the ones responsible for delivering the plans to the Bothans?

Providing a layer of curiosity to your plot will help alleviate some of the challenges with an “inferred” plot, but sometimes it’s not enough. Sometimes, the publisher will say “and the character X has to be included and he has to win the day.” Okay, yeah. This can stunt creativity and cheapen the story, but only on occasion and strongly depends upon a writer’s skill.

The other thing that often happens is that writers will be trudging along and then *poof* are told that they can’t write X because it doesn’t fit within the metaplot, or the parts of the story that they can’t see. A metaplot is an over-arching plot that covers several books, games, or other media like webcomics in a series like . Examples of metaplots are the Harry Dresden Files book series written by Jim Butcher, the Resident Evil series, or the In a perfect world, writers should be told what they can and can’t write about up front. But the creative world is far from organized, because there are a million zillion moving parts that affect other pieces even the publishers and creators don’t know about. Writers truly have to be extraordinarily flexible with their writing as a result, because the contract only protects so much. Additionally some authors, like myself, have to be very careful about how we put our feet down because well? Unknown writers have less clout that “known.”

In this way, you’ll have to design your story so that it can bend and stretch if it needs to. I know this can be really hard to stomach, because some writers fall in love with their work. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t love what you do, but writing game fiction is about sales. If you’re not writing to sell fiction, you might be doing what I did early on. I wrote to build my portfolio, get references, and explore something I was interesting in doing. In the end, though, if you see a World of Warcraft or Forgotten Realms or even a Vampire: the Requiem novel sitting on a bookstore’s shelf, remember that that book is there to be sold.

There is a ton of other topics to cover with respect to game fiction, and I’ve covered the bare minimum here: audience, theme and plot. Tomorrow, I’m going to cover something different but if you like the series, feel free to let me know and I can talk about this more to cover what I haven’t really touched yet: setting, characters, game mechanics, and so much more.

Game Fiction Series

Day One: Can you Define your Game Fiction Story’s Audience?

Day Two: Can you Identify the Primary and Secondary Themes of your Game?

Day Three: Do you Know how to Plot your Story Based on a Game?

Writing Game Fiction Day Three: Plot your Plot

So now you’ve decide you’re going to write this really awesome story based on the video game Final Fantasy X. You love the character of Yuna, so you’re going to sit down and write a story about…but wait? What is your story about? Okay, you’ve figured out that Final Fantasy X is based on the idea that Zanarkand was at the height of technology but somehow “fell” to “Sin” 1,000 years ago. You and your band of merry adventurers are traveling on a not-so-merry quest throughout the planet Spira to get that final Aeon to relieve the world of Sin; only to do this, you have to sacrifice. A lot.

Last time, we took a look at what the theme of the game should be. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that we know the theme of this story is fantasy quest with eastern philosophical overtones. We also know what the overall plot is, because either we’ve played the game or we’ve heard about it from someone else. So now what? How are we going to expand upon this already well-developed story?

In an open game environment like an MMORPG, RPG or even a board game like Arkham Asylum, it’s pretty easy to plot the plot provided the “rules” are followed. Things like monster weaknesses, powers, setting restrictions, and other minutia all come into play here. For that type of gaming fiction, it’s easier to think big and squish down the elements to fit within those particular parameters because really, the sky’s the limit on the plot.

In a closed game environment, where the plot has already been decided, your plot is exceptionally more challenging to figure out because a closed game environment has a time line of events. As a writer, you’ll have to determine the “when” of what point in that time line you want your story to occur. Once you figure out the timing, you’ll probably be able to recognize “where” in the game your story might take place and then “who” your character is interacting with.
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Game Fiction Day Two: How to Fit your Story to the Theme of the Game

If I gave you a list of well-known movies, I bet that you’ll quickly identify what the theme of the movie is. For example, we know Indiana Jones is pulp, we completely “get” that Army of Darkness is a comedy, and we understand that X-Men III was supposed to be an action movie where Phoenix was…well…The Phoenix. Looking a bit deeper, we can tie specific elements of those creative properties to see secondary themes based on what the movie is about. For example, we know that Indiana Jones is about Indy playing “the hero,” to triumph over the forces of darkness.

Games, on the other hand, may not necessarily be that intuitive. If you think about what a game actually is, it’s really a set of rules that you either manipulate, avoid, or navigate through. In more times than I can count, the games I’ve been involved with have been designed to target as many audiences as possible. In other words, they are designed so that the player designs the theme so it fits with his (or her) style of play. You decide what kind of a game you want to play: action? mystery? political? With that layer of personal involvement, the theme in many games is really driven by the player not by the creator.

Writing game fiction to fit the theme of a game is very challenging because you have to understand not what falls within the boundaries of the theme, but what doesn’t. To get what I’m talking about here, let’s look at one of my favorite player vs. player video games: Soul Caliber III. Having played this game a hundred times or more I know in my deepest heart of health points, that this is an action game, an “I-can-release-some-stress-in-a-5-minute-death-match-fighting-game.” Now say that I want to write a story based on Sophitia, a character who guards a Greek temple and has a small sword and shield. I have the character’s backstory from different elements in the game, but is it enough? How am I going to write a story about a character so that it fits the Soul Caliber theme?
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