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Saturday, 4 July 2015

Not on the nose!

People enjoy stories for lots of reasons. Early man used storytelling to map the landscape around him. A good chat-up line is the beginning of a story. Our whole social life is woven around the exchange of stories in various forms.

In storytelling, less is more. The most effective films don’t consist of chunks of static exposition interspersed with bursts of action. Facts are not baldly stated, they are revealed for the audience to notice and interpret. I think it was Billy Wilder (quoting Lubitsch) who said that if you let the audience work things out for themselves they will love you for it.

It’s true in games too. Elements of plot should be there to be discovered through action, not shovelled on between levels. Games are a lean-forward medium, after all, and gamers tend to be bright people. So drop a hint, plant a seed. Trust that the player will put it all together.

There’s a level in Warcraft 3 where your hero has endured a long siege and then you get a cutscene where the old king shows up and tells you jolly well done, followed by loads of natter amounting to: “The bad guys are there, go kill ‘em.”

Warcraft 3 is a great game, but its storytelling won’t win any awards. Two guys telling each other stuff is boring in any medium, especially when what they’re saying merely restates things we can already see or guess. It just makes you want to quit and read a book instead.

Black and White (yes, we're looking at old examples; but they work) did a number of clever things with storytelling which may have been inspired by silent movies. Storylines were set up with vignettes – a sick man stumbling through the woods, a figure leading children off to a cave. The story then became what you made of it.

Black and White was of course all about “sandbox” gameplay. But you could apply something similar to more formally structured games too. Suppose there’s a knot of musketeers watching darkly as those two victorious heroes congratulate each other. Then, in the next level, a group of your musketeers turn renegade and attack you.

That way you’ve got a plot twist – a reversal, no less – and you’re leaving the player to join the dots. There’s even a political resonance in the way those grunts you keep getting killed might eventually turn on you, blue blood or no.

Who says games can’t do irony?

Thursday, 2 July 2015


We made it! The Frankenstein Wars campaign on Kickstarter was a rollercoaster, a melodrama, a war of nail-biting anxiety. At one point we had a pledge for €2000. Then we lost it. Honestly, guv'nor, it was this big. But the whale came back. We went a few hundred euros over target. Then at the eleventh hour, in fact with two seconds to go, somebody pulled back their pledge level and we ended exactly on the nose: €8000.

That's not quite as extraordinary as it sounds. When a campaign has hit its target and is in the closing stages, Kickstarter's code automatically stops people dropping their pledges so far as to scupper the project. You knew that. I'm burbling. Excited, you see.

Anyway, I just want to thank everybody involved in reaching this point. We've had support above and beyond the call of duty from Jamie Thomson, Kyle B Stiff, Jonathan Green (who has his own Kickstarter upcoming btw), Tin Man Games, Stuart Lloyd and others. You know who you are, and we love you.

Also, of course, thanks are due to the chaps behind the campaign: Cubus Games, Rafa Teruel, and Paul Gresty.

But most of all, we should all thank you, the backers, for getting behind this attempt to do something new and different in the world of digital gamebooks. Stay tuned for updates as the Frankenstein Wars get under way.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

A damned nice thing

The Kickstarter campaign for The Frankenstein Wars has one day left to run. Jamie advised me, "Just sell it as zombies meet steampunk." He may very well have been right, but like James Wallis I incline to the doctrine of Madame Yevonde: "Be original or die." (James recently helped to raise $340,000 for a new edition of extended joke RPG Paranoia, which has never been to my taste, but good for him. It will help pay for James's own, much more original, projects.)

The Frankenstein Wars isn't about zombies. Nor is it really steampunk, unless steampunk now stands for "any Victorian or Regency setting with science fictional elements". What it is: a new generation of gamebook app with a richly imagined universe, a cast of fully rounded characters, and a premise that we can carry on into further chapters in both print and digital form. It's a very, very long way from an orc in a room with a riddle and a treasure chest.

The campaign has one day left to run and all you need to pledge to get the game is $4. On the Kickstarter page I describe it as "a dream project I've been waiting to do for over a decade" - and that pretty much sums it up. Now I get to see whether the gamebook projects that interest me these days can still find an audience! That awesome smoke-n-fury picture incidentally is by Rafa Teruel, and even if the campaign fails at least it's been a pleasure to see his visual genius bring the world of The Frankenstein Wars to life.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Success has many fathers

Games and interactive story apps are media in which it's easy for the wrong people to get the credit while genuinely valuable input may be overlooked, so I'm going to spell out the creative provenance of The Frankenstein Wars for all to see.

The original concept of a world in which Victor Frankenstein's discovery was used to create an army of resurrected men dates back to around 1999. Martin McKenna and I cooked up the idea as the basis for a PC strategy game while freelancing on Plague (later released under the name Warrior Kings) at Eidos.

Martin and I tried various routes to getting the concept, which we called Frankenstein's Legions, started up as a game, movie or comic book. Martin is not very keen on drawing comics - which is a pity, as he's really rather good at it, but instead we roped in Russ Nicholson to work up some rough pages. (I'd say pencils, but Russ never uses pencils.)

Lots of people liked the story premise. Iain McCaig suggested that Victor Frankenstein's discoveries should extend far beyond the secret of life and death. I'm not sure if there are any greater secrets than that, but Iain is a creative powerhouse and so I'm always willing to listen to what he has to say. Martin's friend Jamie Mathieson, writer of Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, thought it was a mistake not to have one of Victor's descendants at the heart of the story:
"I am reliably informed by Martin that Frankenstein left no heirs as far the original novel is concerned. I also understand that Dave is not keen to invite any Young Frankenstein ridicule. However, if we make our central character/s descendants of Frankenstein's assistant I think we lose quite a bit of dramatic potential. They have no Frankenstein blood in their veins, they're not cursed down the ages, they're not fated to repeat their ancestor's mistakes etc; they're just unlucky enough to have a grandfather who did odd jobs for a nutter and nicked his stuff after his death. I realise that if we invent a son for Frankenstein, we're directly contradicting the official novel continuity, but given that we completely change the outcome of the Napoleonic War, I've got no problem with such a comparatively small tweak, that will reap potentially much bigger dramatic rewards. It also a much simpler sell – potential audiences/buyers would get it instantly. “He's Frankenstein's grandson.” is much easier to get across than “He's the grandson of Frankenstein's assistant.” “Why?” “Well, Frankenstein had no children in the novel, but this guy's granddad was there, he helped him ...wait, no, come back with that big fat cheque.” 
Henry Clerval had never been Victor's assistant, in fact. In the novel he's just his best friend, knowing nothing about the experiments Victor has been doing, but in the 1973 movie Frankenstein: The True Story he is the real originator of the life-creating process. The reason Henry's son was one of the main characters in my Frankenstein's Legions story is because he might credibly stumble across notebooks that Victor have left in Henry's care.

I didn't much like Jamie Mathieson's suggested approach myself, for much the same reason that I didn't want to see Davros come back in every Dalek story after Genesis. It turns it all into a pantomime. If I'm creating a story about nuclear destruction, I don't need to have Oppenheimer's great-grandson poised over the button, or Einstein's great-great-granddaughter swinging into action to thwart him. I wanted Frankenstein's Legions to feel like reality with fantastic elements. But it should be noted that at this stage (2005 or so) I still had never read Mary Shelley's novel, so I was still largely churning through half-remembered Universal and Hammer horror flicks. I still supposed Victor was a baron, for one thing.

While out in LA following the collapse of Elixir Studios, I mentioned the concept to movie producer Michael Levy and, with the help of a games documentary maker called Olly Quinn we made an audio demo to pitch to studios.

When I handed the commission to write the Frankenstein's Legions novel to John Whitbourn (we're into 2006 now) I said I'd stay out of his way and I did. Nothing kills a creative project faster than having too many hands on the tiller. John drew his inspiration more from the Hammer movies than Mary Shelley's story, in that the resurrected soldiers were nearly mindless monsters rather than the perfectly human but inhumanly mistreated wretches that I'd envisaged. He also had Frankenstein's nephew front and centre - though with the ironic twist that young Julius Frankenstein had inherited absolutely none of his uncle's scientific genius. Other people just assumed there was something in the Frankenstein blood and so they were all chasing after a piece of him - figuratively, that is.

Shortly after that I encountered the Muse while out walking in the fog on Hook Heath - her usual kind of reverse mugging, in which she stuffs my head with unwanted ideas - and returned with the plot for Frankenstein's Legions reimagined as a YA trilogy. The problem was, it had gone all airships and steam-weapons, the focus now really on girl genius Ada Byron rather than the whole Frankenstein thing. Young Adult literature has more than enough steampunk trilogies already, but try reasoning with the Muse.

On to 2010, and Michael Levy had hooked up with a comic book company called Ape Entertainment. We had a whole lot of Skype calls about a Frankenstein's Legions comic, I did a draft script of the first issue, and even started to rethink the story in a US Civil War setting, but it came to nothing.

How does all this connect with my Frankenstein interactive novel app? Not at all, is the answer. In 2011 I pitched the idea of interactive classic novels to Michael Bhaskar, who was then digital director at Profile Books. I didn't particularly want to adapt Frankenstein, having had enough of it (or so I thought) over the last twelve years. But when Michael said that was the one he really wanted, I decided I'd better finally get around to reading the Mary Shelley novel. That was an eye-opener. Instead of the crackly Gothic body-horror nightmare presented in the movies, I found a fresh, modern psychological drama of a divided self - more David Fincher than Herbert West.

Nobody else had input into my Frankenstein app. I used Inkle's markup system to write it all, but the Inkle team had no role in the concept, design or writing. Nor did I get any feedback from Profile's editors, as they couldn't parse sentences like this:
The fiend can cut the knot of my happiness, but {demonize:it|he} cannot unpick this truth: that we were wed, {victor_empathy < -1:as my mother desired|and loved each other}.
Getting left alone to write is just fine by me. After doing this job for thirty years I don't really need a copy editor, and I always have my Fabled Lands cohort Jamie Thomson to bounce story ideas off to see if they work. (Jamie and I were originally going to write the Frankenstein book app together, but in the end he was busy working on the Dirk Lloyd series.) As I recall, the only suggestion from Profile and Inkle was to put a Twitter button at the end of every chapter of Frankenstein so that the reader could tweet things like, "I just helped Victor Frankenstein steal a body from the morgue." Thankfully we authors have something called the moral right of integrity, which basically means you get to tell people to keep their hands off your work. The app was released sans Twitter buttons.

(Oh, fun fact: I wrote the whole of Frankenstein standing up because of a back injury. And I fixed the problem of how Clerval's body gets from Orkney to the very beach in Ireland where Victor's storm-tossed boat washes up. Mary Shelley had thirteen years to work on the second edition and she didn't spot that, so booyah.)

After Frankenstein, I didn't feel any pressing need to go back to Frankenstein's Legions. Been there, done that, got the bolts in the neck to prove it. But then the fellows at Cubus Games asked if I'd like to get involved in launching an interactive story app on Kickstarter. I told them about Frankenstein's Legions and we quickly decided that, to avoid confusion with John Whitbourn's novel, we should call this new story The Frankenstein Wars. Jaume Carballo and I kicked ideas back and forth, but then I realized my work schedule wasn't going to give me enough time to write it. We turned to Paul Gresty, author of Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories and I sent him all my notes and the longest of several story outlines, and as I write this he is wrangling his own ideas into that framework. What you finally see - assuming the Kickstarter campaign is successful - will be the equivalent of a "script by Paul Gresty, from a story by Dave Morris and Paul Gresty".

And that, friends, is the definitive list of credit where credit's due in the long patchwork story of The Frankenstein Wars. And there's still time to pledge for it on Kickstarter - but don't delay, those criminal brains are counting on you.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

So come up to the lab

In case you missed it, Paul Gresty has been spilling the beans (human beans) over on Lloyd of Gamebooks about the hopefully upcoming story/game The Frankenstein Wars that he and I are are developing with Cubus Games. Here's a taster:
"Imagine yourself in the place of a lazaran for a moment. One morning you wake to learn that your boss has grafted an extra head to your shoulders, and given you one extra arm. He's severed your own scrawny legs, and replaced them with the brawny limbs of a champion sprinter. All because he feels it will make you more effective in your work. How would you fight the wave of madness that such a change would surely engender? Could your husband or wife understand this transformation? How could you explain it to your parents, or your children?"
The story is about using the Frankenstein process to create an army of bioengineered soldiers - stronger, faster, more indifferent to pain than any normal man. If they fall in battle - even if they're killed - the body parts can be recycled to create the troops to fight on the next day. As Paul concludes:
"The conflict threatens to tear apart the heart of Europe. And yet the damage to humanity's soul may be far greater still."
You can read his whole article here and back the gamebook on Kickstarter here.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Good, the Bad & the Undead

Once upon a time in the west of Europe, Fabled Lands LLP planned a co-publishing venture with Osprey Books to release a series of gamebooks. We were scheduled to kick off with the Virtual Reality series, and it was decided that including one new title would give the series a boost. Jamie Thomson agreed to write The Good, the Bad and the Undead.

Well, the best-laid plans... Jamie never got around to writing the book, but that worked out fine in the end because the Osprey deal clutched its heart and died. The VR books got reincarnated as Critical IF, but it looked as if our prospective gunslinging gamebook was destined for six feet on Boot Hill.

But then riding to the rescue came Ashton Saylor. Taking Jamie's notes - well, more like mescal-fuelled mumblings, to be honest - Ashton put together a blistering Wild West tale of heat, greed, lust, and death, where the only thing separating the good guys from the bad guys is whether their burning thirst is for sweet water or salt blood.

All that's needed for The Good, the Bad and the Undead to rise from its shallow grave is your help. Ashton will be running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the book. That starts July 30th. So why am I mentioning it now? Because the Facebook page is already live and in the weeks ahead Ashton and Jamie will be unveiling the secrets of their world, telling us more about the characters and the game mechanics, and revealing some of the extras and stretch goals for the campaign.

I've read the first few chapters and the whole story outline and I can tell you that it's shaping up to be something revolutionary in gamebooks: a compelling mix of nail-biting gameplay and blazing action that comes alive as you read like a blockbuster movie. If you're a fan of gamebooks you will not want to miss this.

And to get yourself in the mood, why not download Per Jorner's Windhammer Prize-winning gamebook "The Bone Dogs"? It's not so much A Fistful of Dollars, more The Dirty Dozen rewritten by Hunter S Thompson, but hey, six guns!

The Outlaw by "kingzog" - used under Creative Commons licence BY-NC-ND 3.0

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Lies, damned lies, and British newspapers

Last month on my own blog I discussed an example of bone-idle British journalism at its worst - and its worst is very bad indeed. In this case, the newspaper in question had apparently got a school leaver to précis a piece from a rival paper, adding her own interpretation of the original article in between quoted extracts.

The original piece, which appeared in the Telegraph, was by Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal. The rip-off version, which appeared in the Daily Mail, managed to completely reverse the meaning of what he was saying. If the misinterpretation was wilful, then it was a disgrace; if it was the result of stupidity or carelessness then it was a shambles.

Well, Mr Bond, the first time is happenstance. But this week anybody unfortunate enough to look at the Daily Mail will have seen an even more odious example of its descent from journalism into propaganda, in the form of an attack on the BBC that is clearly designed to pave the way for the UK government to reduce or abolish the licence fee. Naturally the very thought of that has the Mail flapping its wings like an excited harpy, as (along with 90% of Britain's often foreign-owned and extremely partisan press) it hates the idea of an independent, publicly funded media entity with a remit to be unbiassed and informative in its reporting.

Here are the facts. The Mail article fails to mention that £270m of the licence fee was taken to support Welsh language channel S4C and a slate of government projects including broadband rollout and local television. By the Mail's calculations, programme costs don't included edit suites, newsrooms, and (especially dear to my heart) story development, and yet without those there would be no programmes. The Mail claims that the BBC "pumps money" into its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. In fact the two are obliged by charter to conduct business at arm's length; BBC Worldwide receives no share of the licence fee and generates money (for instance by sale of BBC programmes to other countries) that feeds back into programme-making in the UK.

The bottom line is that, completely contrary to the Mail's assertions, 90% of BBC spending is on content, distribution and related support costs. And that figure is independently verified, as the Mail must surely be aware.

This is only the latest blast in a long propaganda campaign that the Mail has been running with the apparent aim of stirring its readership into a state of high dudgeon against the BBC. For example, there was this 2008 report about how BBC "wasted" £45,000 ($70,000) on a party to promote the TV show Merlin. Yet that's a perfectly reasonable cost of doing business, and it paid off. Merlin has now sold to over 180 countries, netting over £100 million in revenue for the BBC on an outlay from the licence fee of less than £40 million. Bearing in mind that the primary purpose of the BBC is to create programmes for the British public, and that turning a profit is a secondary concern, I'd say that was a pretty good return on investment. But not in the eyes of the Mail, whose proprietor has opted for non-domicile status and is a contributor to the Conservative Party, who for years have been trying to chip away at the BBC's popularity - which, I'd venture to say, is considerably higher among the general public than that of either Lord Rothermere or the Tories.

If the UK electorate is gulled by propaganda like this into allowing politicians to scrap the licence fee, the BBC will be severely weakened and we will have lost a vital source of objective reporting and high-quality programmes that are the envy of the world. All to make nasty little rags like the Mail better able to serve their paymasters. So wherever you live in the world, next time you come across a news piece that is striving so desperately to convince you of something, remember to ask yourself: cui bono?