Friday, October 29, 2010

Visions 2020

M-Brane SF, an excellent speculative fiction site run by Chris Fletcher, has put together an anthology called "Visions 2020." The point of the anthology is not some impossible, space-opera SF future but realistic, near-term visions of where we may be a few years from now.

The editor, Rick Novy, accepted a story I wrote for the anthology called "teh afterl1fe" (spelled *exactly* like that). If you know me, and what I'm doing, and how I spent a lot of my leisure time in 2009, you'll have a pretty good guess from the title about the content and the point of the story. Hopefully, however, my twist on it in my words will bring some unexpected thoughts.

You can pre-order the book here, and given that most of the writers in the table of contents are far better than I am, it's not to be missed.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Short Games, Long Stories"

I wrote a brief article for the IGDA Newsletter (link below) about writing stories for casual games. The point of the article was to toss out some ideas about ways to approach casual game writing, rather than try to write a "how to" guide.

Basically, I recommend (against my better instincts) using traditional story structures and stereotypical characters in order to simplify the player's task of digesting the plot. The analogy that I used in the article, and that I really like, is the "gutter" in comic strips. That white space between two panels has nothing in it, but the human imagination fills in everything that could have been written there. In much the same way, all you need to do to create a story is to suggest where you are in the story arc and what the characters are thinking; there is no need to be more explicit than that. The player's imagination is more than capable of connecting the links and filling in the details.

Hope you like it.

Short Games, Long Stories

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Clarion West Write-a-thon

I'm in it again this year, with hopes of a somewhat more productive effort than last year (when pretty much the only words I wrote were in the e-mail requesting that they sign me up).
The idea behind the Write-a-thon is that alums of the workshops write, and donors offer whatever they can based on the goals that the writer achieves. Donations can be for the whole effort, or for the weekly goals, or whatever else seems appropriate. The money goes to Clarion West, a non-profit organization that runs a yearly six-week intensive speculative fiction writing program.
My plan is to complete one short story per week, just like the workshop participants do. So far, with week 1 down, I have finished re-edits on a piece I did for an anthology. The title is "Teh afterl1fe," based on which you can probably guess a lot about the story.

Friday, June 11, 2010

How to watch the World Cup of soccer

  1. Visit a non-US site in order to get information from a place that takes the sport seriously. The BBC is good; is fine. There are many of them. ESPN is not recommended.
  2. Pee first. Unlike US football, soccer does not break for a few minutes every fifteen seconds. It breaks every 45 minutes (except for fouls). Note: US broadcasters tend to ignore this reality; watching the 1990 world cup at my brother's house I missed a goal because there was a commercial break. A "Broadcaster, please" moment.
  3. Relax. Unlike US football, where you watch with intense concentration for a few seconds then can then go wax the car, soccer is watched with little concentration but in long doses. Open a beer (if you're rooting for the UK or Germany), bottle of wine (France, Italy), or Coke (if you're rooting for Atlanta, which doesn't have a team, so you're not actually watching soccer).
  4. Learn what the "offsides" penalty is. This will take care of 98% of your "WTF happened that guy was about to score!" moments.
  5. You cannot use your hands in soccer. This should help you understand the remaining 2% of your "WTF happened that guy was about to score!" moments.
  6. Dig in for the long run. There are 32 teams and a month of games; this isn't some best-of-seven wham-bam-thank-you-coach.
  7. Don't set your hopes on the US. Not that they don't have a good team, but when bookies rank them outside the Top 10 you better be ready for some disappointment. Remember: Bookies care more than any other human beings about how well the teams do.
  8. Think about calling it "football." Why? A sub-list:
  • It is actually only played with your feet.
  • The other 7 billion inhabitants of the world call it football.
  • Your neighbor who speaks Spanish calls it football.
  • I call it football, and it's my blog.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

John Joseph Adams' new e-zine launched today, and it's a beauty.
It's e-book friendly and has a great layout (thanks to the awesome web design of Jeremy Tolbert), but what's best is the fiction (thanks to editor/slush readers Christie Yant and Jordan Hamessley [@thejordache]). Clarion co-detainee Vylar Kaftan has the lead story, and it is as great an SF-built love story as you could want. Vy has been writing consistently great stuff since I met her in 2004, and this one is worthy of the lead page in a great new on-line Sf destination.
So go, read, and become instantly cooler.

Why Ebert Still Doesn't Get It

It has been some time since Roger Ebert's first claim that video games
are not art, and he has come out with a second
supporting the same statement. In this case, he writes his
essay as a response to Kellee Santiago's TED talk. Poor Santiago, who
didn't realize that she was debating rather than presenting.

I don't really care about Ebert's definitions of art, nor do I
particularly like the games that Santiago recommends as examples. In
fact, I chortlingly agree with Ebert when he refers to the story in
"Braid" as something that "...exhibits prose on the level of a wordy
fortune cookie."

But he's still wrong, and to me the reasoning is
still pretty simple. If I write a short story, one can argue that I
have committed art. In public, no less. When I create characters,
narrative, story arcs and moments of drama, that is art. Perhaps not
high art, perhaps not fine art, but certainly art. When game writers
like Marc Laidlaw or Richard Dansky write a non-game novel, they are
writing art. And yet, when we put these same skills and the same craft
into a video game, suddenly it is not art anymore. Dude, where's my art?

the illustrator who does graphic novels or posters or book covers and
is now doing games, isn't doing art anymore. Somehow to Ebert the
collective creation of all these artistic minds is less than the sum of
its parts; we start out with talented artists (I'm not necessarily
including myself in that) using their skills to their utmost, and manage
to end up with non-art. Sub-art. Pseudo-art.

Which of course, if
you think about it, makes absolutely no sense.

It's an uphill
struggle to talk to someone like that about games, because it is
difficult to explain the artistic nature of games to someone who has not
played one. Until a person grapples with a game like "Passages" or
"Flower" (which Ebert does not understand... because he has not played
it) it is unlikely that they will understand some of the subtler effects
of a game. Guess what? I'd have a pretty free time arguing films
weren't art if I'd never seen one. Or if I'd only seen stuff by Michael

Ebert also goes off on tangents that are nothing short of
bizarre, for instance stating that Stravinsky, Picasso, and Beckett were
not trying to communicate ideas to an audience. Why? Because Santiago
says that games do that, and it is why games are art. Therefore, in
Ebert's world, other forms of art cannot do that. Mr. Ebert, if you do
not believe that Picasso wished to communicate ideas to an audience in
order to engage them I have one word for you: "Guernica." But gosh, what
am I thinking? It would be ridiculous to even fantasize that Beckett
wrote plays because he had, you know, ideas to communicate.

Ebert decides that art is some indefinable thing that occurs to
imitations of nature as those imitations pass through the artist's soul
and become something indefinable. He ends up  admitting, after all, that
we know what is art and we can define it because it is a matter of

And there we have the crux of his argument. Video games
are not art, because Roger Ebert does not like them.

I shall,
respectfully, disagree.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why It's Harder to Write Stories for Games Than Any Other Medium

Developing a story for a game is a unique experience, as no other medium presents quite so many complexities and roadblocks in getting the story across to the audience. I believe that this is the case because, to make a great game story, you need to:

  1. Come up with a great story,

  2. Break it into digestible chunks, and

  3. Present those chunks appropriately.

Movies and novels don't have the same weight of story, because you can't go explore what happens off camera or away from the page. And in any case, both of these are uniform, single-experience media whose number of digestible chunks is 1 (though one could argue about chapter structure for the written word and scenes for film and theater. But not here). The real problem for a game story (and it is unique to game story) happens at number two on the above list, and it is compounded by non-linearity.

Part of the problem is that there is an awful lot of what you could call 'story' in a game. Not merely the pieces of the plot and what is going on, but all the elements of character histories, world history, geography, social structures, item descriptions, famous places and events, side quests or missions... it goes on and on.

Somewhere and somehow, all that data has to be distilled, portioned, cut into appetizing bite-sized chunks, and served up as an irresistible dish. Furthermore, those chunks have to be proportional to the time of play. I underline that, because doing a point-and-click adventure game does not permit a developer to force upon a player MGS-length cutscenes (come to think of it, maybe nothing should...). For a casual game, the story may have to be cooked up in chunks the length of newspaper comics or stand-up jokes -- maybe 5 to 30 seconds. Longer games, with longer play times and a longer expectation of B.I.C., can certainly cope with longer story moments.

Next, of course, we do have to face the question of linearity, branches within the story, and all the joy and pain of knitting them into a coherent experience. The pieces of story need to complete a comprehensible puzzle regardless of the order in which the player experiences them; it is bad form to either skip or repeat plot events.

Once the story is broken down and laid out, however, an important piece of work remains to be done because each of the story elements has to be prioritized. My first real game writing project was as Assistant Writer to Richard Dansky on Dark Messiah. Richard created a spreadsheet of all the story elements that coud be included in the game, then went through and prioritized them:

"1" was for the critical plot elements, without which the actions of the player and the objectives we gave them would not make sense. This would be more or less the spine or throughline of the story.

"2" was for all the elements that went a little deeper, explaining motivations and the reasons for what was happening in the main plot.

"3" was all the world history andd setting detail for the obsessives -- for the players like me who went around reading the tomes in Neverwinter Nights.

Without a system like this, the player risks either getting irrelevant or uninteresting information or not understanding why they're doing what they're doing.

The difficulty in story design goes beyond the balance between the scope and the priorities of all the story elements, however, because once all that is done we still have to work out how to deliver them. Cutscenes? Voice over dialogues? Quicktime events? Optional dialogues? Environmental elements? Side quests? As part of artifact / skill descriptions? Ingame books, movies, or audio tapes? Information in the manual or marketing material on the web site?

And, finally, it all has to be written well, and the cutscenes have to be too interesting to skip, and every bit of text has to be a mini-Easter egg of information and style.

So the next time you play a game and pass judgment on the story, think twice. A lot of thinking and preparation goes on behind the scenes, and the challenges faced by the writers and designers are considerable. I cannot think of another medium in which so many different factors weigh in the effective transfer of story from the minds of the creators to the minds of the audience. And if there is such a medium, I am not sure that I would want to work in it...

"Non-Casual Story in Casual Games"

Back in December I submitted a proposal with the above title for a presentation at the Casual Connect conference (Hamburg, 10-12 February 2010). I had a fairly rapid 'yes' from the organizers, which was very kind, so I put together my current wisdom into a presentation.

When I arrived at the conference I discovered why my proposal was so quickly accepted--Yulia Vakhrusheva, one of the organizers of the conference, is a fan of Heroes of Might & Magic V (as well as being energetic, cheerful, and efficient). Go Heroes!

The presentation is now available online with the accompanying audio (about a half hour) on the Casual Connect web site:
Thanks to Yulia and the other great people at Casual Connect for making the conference so much fun.

And thanks as well to a few indie developers who came up to chat with me afterward, interested in game story and gameplay:
Brian Meidell:
David Mekersa:
Alexander Dergay:

It's always great to talk shop with smart people.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

New PC

I finally had to give up on my three year-old Dell laptop. The battery no longer functions so it is essentially a portable desktop, it overheats and shuts down after a couple hours of use and some of the motherboard level functions no longer work (trackpad settings, power management, etc.).
I decided to go light, so I bought what is essentially a large netbook, the ACER 1810TZ. So far the little guy is just phenomenal--light, fast, stable, and with a usable keyboard. What I discovered that was interesting was that after doing the basic PC set-up (setting the usage parameters, removing Office and MS Works and IE, the usual stuff :) was that there are apparently 17 programs that I cannot live without. I therefore downloaded and installed the following software, which after many years of messing about with all sorts of packages have turned out to be the ones that keep me going:
  1. Firefox--I like Chrome better as a browser, but the extensions make Firefox an incredibly useful application (FTP, better security, Gmail improvements, productivity tools,...)
  2. OpenOffice--Unlike the MS Office suite it's stable, simple,
  3. Zone Alarm--Because you must have a firewall (free).
  4. AVG--ditto an antivirus; ditto that it's free.
  5. ITunes--for music and podcasts.
  6. Chrome--another browser that is lighter and faster than Firefox.
  7. Thunderbird--for offline mail; not as complete as Outlook but free and reliable.
  8. CCleaner--any Windows PC needs a tool to clean out all the crap that gets left behind in daily operation, and this one works very well. And is free.
  9. Celtx--an open-source package for formatting and writing scripts, graphic novels, storyboards, etc. (free).
  10. free image manipulation package; a 'Photoshop lite" that has more features than Picasa.
  11. Skype--ET phone home. For free. With video.
  12. VLC--Forget QuickTime and the Windows Media software, this plays all of their formats plus Flash and anything else. It's free.
  13. ReadPlease2003--Reads text out loud (sounds like GLaDOS :). Excellent to hear another voice reading what you wrote back to you. And... free.
  14. Tweetdeck--How I do my twittering. There may be better ones, but this seems to be fine for me.
  15. Sonar--For tracking story submissions to agents and editors. Just so much easier than a spreadsheet.
  16. DropBox--An amazing (and, of course, free) program that synchronizes files between different computers. In other words, up to 2 GB of storage in the Internet cloud for things that you are working on and don't want to lose.
  17. Mozy -- a net-based back-up system that runs in the background and prevents those horrible "oops" moments.
ACER in hand, I go forth boldy...

Friday, January 08, 2010

Cool "Making of" video for R.U.S.E. game

Here you can find a video from Ubisoft and SolidAnim that exposes some of the details on how we did the story development and cutscenes for RUSE. The content is interesting if you're curious about how video game cutscenes are made, but the studio went all out and added a ton of Minority Report style special effects to the video presentation itself.
I sort of wish that they had chosen other cutscene excerpts (one of the voices in a couple of the scenes was not done so well), but the presentation and content are well done.
A separate one will be coming out that focuses on the writing and story development.
Watch and enjoy!