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Thursday, 20 January 2022

Has gaming got a secret storytelling sauce?

You know those get-to-know meetings where everybody is invited to say a little bit about who they are. Like when the heroes exchange boasts in the Trojan War, only without the spear-throwing as a chaser. When I mention that I’m a game designer as well as a writer, a publisher or a network exec will nod and say, ‘Yes, that’s what we like about your writing. The gaming feel.’

I expect Michelangelo heard the same sort of thing. ‘What we love about your painting, Mike, is the sculptural look.’ And a compliment is a compliment. You don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, even when it’s a camel. But it irks because it’s too facile to be true or even useful. When you’re a writer, everything that interests you feeds into your work. Whatever quality those network execs think they’re seeing, it’s as likely that I got it from reading Elric of Melniboné as from playing The Witcher.

Why it matters: publishers and old TV networks alike are looking at their shrinking audience and, perceiving that young people especially are eagerly consuming games, they feel sure that an injection from those glands could surely perk up their own medium.

Is that true? When I was getting started as a writer, back in the mid-'80s, all the publishers wanted Fighting Fantasy style gamebooks. Those went a long way beyond mixing a game sensibility (whatever that is) into the narrative. They were stories with gameplay. And on one level it was a massive success, but only in the same way that the US surge in Iraq was a massive success. Reluctant readers, especially boys, took to the books in their millions. But fast forward 35 years and I don’t think you’ll find many of them became regular readers. If it didn’t have a tunnel with an orc at the end they could kill, they just weren’t interested.

Should we worry? After all, most people are not regular readers. It can be a misperception to see all those kids’ faces wide-eyed and screen-lit and to think, gosh, if we could just bottle that gaming juice we’d soon have them just as addicted to books.
Back in the late sixties, what got me and another 400,000 kids out of bed without needing to be called twice was the latest issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. You think my parents and teachers approved? ‘Why can’t you read proper books?’ they asked. The answer, of course, is that it’s not either/or. Maybe most of those other Spidey fans didn’t become regular readers in later life. Others did. Some became writers and game designers and now rarely put in a day’s work that doesn’t owe something to Stan Lee’s storytelling. We didn’t look at the page and see a 3 by 3 panel grid, or four-colour pictures with word balloons. We saw how original characters, sparkling humour, a gazillion personal problems, and a spectacular fight scene or two added up to a don’t-miss monthly saga.

When a medium like games or comic books whips up such a rapture of enthusiasm, naturally we look for lessons we should be learning. Yet tread carefully on these deceptive sands. It’s not necessarily about grafting gameplay into novels. Nor is anything gained by mere apery, such as renaming chapters ‘levels’. You could sell truckloads of books, after all, if you made them in the shape of a football somebody could kick around a park. Game elements, when only sutured onto other media like an experiment by Dr Moreau, have their limits.

The really valuable takeaways here require us to dig deeper. When Quentin Tarantino brought a little grindhouse vibe to CSI with his episode ‘Grave Danger’, the show’s producers acknowledged that he’d jolted them back to the realization, half forgotten after five seasons, that their stories needed to grab and excite the audience, not just fill an hour’s gap in their lives. A decade and half ago, Russell T Davies regenerated Doctor Who with a transfusion of soap opera sensibility which relegated the SF plot shenanigans almost to MacGuffins in order to foreground the characters’ personal journey. Opinions remain divided, but there’s no denying that it gave a direction to a show that seemed to have nowhere left to go.


Putting the ‘pop’ back into art is a trick that goes back a long way before one pixel dashed across a screen to devour another. Patricia Highsmith understood the same affect of compulsion: writing emotionally on the edge of your seat so as to put the reader on theirs. Dickens grabs you by the lapels; even his narrative prose has the vim and urgency of the spoken word. Coleridge too: ‘There was a ship...’ I defy you to stop there and start texting. Or how about three witches, a blasted heath, and a bloody man – you’re not going to be popping off to the loo for the next couple of hours, are you? And the Bard couldn’t have picked up those tricks from the games industry. Gadzooks, they’d only just invented cricket.

How do we make people want to read? Bring them up in a household full of books, or (next best) with free access to books. But also recognize that the human race reinvents itself. That’s its trademark turn. So we could ask, why aren’t the youth of today painting mammoths on the walls of caves? Why aren’t they going to the opera? Where are the Oscars for epic poetry?

Humans love stories, and we always will, but media evolve, speciate and go extinct. And so it goes.


Friday, 14 January 2022

The world expands

The most exciting news of 2022 is arriving early: it's the planned roll-out of content for Prime Games' Fabled Lands CRPG. As Prime Games CEO Victor Atanasov puts it: "Who doesn’t want to have their own castle? With knights, a smithy, temples, and their own magus?" And soon you can.

I'm sometimes asked what it would take to complete the Fabled Lands gamebook series. The simple answer is that we need more players. From there comes the revenue to pay for all the writing, artwork, editing, typesetting, and so on.  In the case of the Vulcanverse there was a multi-million-dollar company funding the books, but Fabled Lands has always relied on its fans and if the FL CRPG is as big a success as it's shaping up to be it could make that river flow, just as the success of MCU movies over the last decade has helped sustain the comic books.

Not that we're quite expecting the FL CRPG to rival the scale of Marvel's big screen success. But you never know.

Wednesday, 12 January 2022

It's all Greek


I was asked to prepare a bunch of posts for a Facebook group to promote the Vulcanverse gamebooks, but as nobody in their right mind goes onto Facebook (aka the Dunning-Kruger National Park) anymore, here are those posts with links.

You will encounter friends and foes, develop relationships throughout your adventure, and the choices you make will have a lasting effect on you and the people you meet. There is an ongoing story arc, which runs through all five books and builds towards an epic climax, but of course you'll be free to wander off the main thread to explore side quests or investigate whatever takes your fancy.” (You can start with any of the Vulcanverse books and play them in any order.)

The world of the Vulcanverse: mountains and deserts

The world of the Vulcanverse: forests and the underworld

Vulcanverse includes both companions who accompany the player-character, providing help and clues and unlocking special options, and a current location mechanism to allow subquests that the player can access from different places all around the world. 

It’s possible to join the Amazons, and you can become their champion, and even take the throne the way Conan would (if he identified as female). But you can also get banished from the tribe, and if you reach a position of authority there are decisions you’ll make that will have a lasting effect on the world and the people in it.” 

The Vulcanverse is not your father's Greek mythology. It’s a Matrix-style virtual universe created by the god Vulcan using his hyper-accelerated development of today’s information technology. Go behind the curtain and you won’t find oxen turning wheels and steam-powered colossi from the old legends – you will find something startling and amazing and all-new. Something that coruscates with Kirby Krackle, that whips the rug out from under you, that takes your breath away and blows your mind for good measure. This is not some lame old 1950s stop-motion movie with a bleeping owl. It’s the American Gods or Anansi Boys of Greek myth, the reboot that brings it up to date at warp speed.”

A brief history of open-world gamebooks

Other open-world gamebook series #1: Alba.

Other open-world gamebook series #2: Legendary Kingdoms.

Other open-world gamebook series #3: Steam Highwayman

So you want to take your Fabled Lands character into the Vulcanverse? OK, here’s how.” 

Vulcanverse adventure sheets and more. 

Jamie talks about Vulcanverse and other gamebooks on the Instadeath Survivors podcast. 

All you could possibly want to know on the Vulcanverse YouTube channel. (Scroll down for Jamie’s personal fireside chats.)

However I will say one thing for Facebook: at least there you can make comments and ask questions; it's too bad we can't have that on the FL blog anymore. A notable example:


Want to know what happens when you get the codeword? That would be telling. Better to find out for yourself.

Friday, 7 January 2022

Over the crump-holes and far away

Something a bit different this time. A movie producer friend asked me to help out with a story pitch. I’m sure he has other writers he can turn to, but I’m an old pal so I’m cheap. Well, free. The story he’s developing has to do with fantasy and war – maybe simply so he can say it’s “Game of Thrones meets 1917” – and because those are subjects that might also be of interest to readers of this blog, here’s what I told him.



The best place I can think of to start answering the question is with the five elements that Aristotle said every story consisted of. This is nothing to do with the thirty-six dramatic situations or the seven fundamental plots or any of that how-to-write malarkey. These five elements are the fundamental building blocks of any story: Plot, Character, Setting, Theme and Style.

A story outline should cover all of those for your story.

You say you’re developing a story where some soldiers in World War One look out of the trenches and see that on the other side of the mud and fog and barbed wire is a shining otherworld.

That's a setting (at least half of one, the real world part) and the beginning of a plot. Plot is the bit that really conveys the high concept. High concept movies are strong on plot, soft concept are strong on character. A compelling plot premise is what makes people buy a book (Sleepyhead: a serial strangler isn't actually trying to murder his victims, he's deliberately paralysing them for life) or go to a movie (Flightplan: a woman wakes up on a plane to find her child missing, but everyone else denies she ever had a child with her).


Theme is what gives the story depth and a through-line the audience connects to. If plot is the reason you pick up the book, theme is the reason you take it to your heart and recommend it to friends. Theme also guides you in developing the plot beyond its basic premise. McKee recommends exploring the Theme, the Negation of the Theme, and what he calls "the Negation of the Negation".

So if the theme is Love, you'd contrast that with Hate (the opposite of love), Indifference (the negation of love), and Hate masquerading as Love (the negation of the negation). Those are all valid explorations of the core theme, each digging deeper and giving a more visceral twist as you find the antithesis that most strongly contrasts with your theme.

In your story, perhaps the theme is fantasy itself. Fantasy can ennoble mankind and make our solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short lives worth living. I’m talking about fantasy in the broadest sense here – poetry, music, literature, art in general. Not goblins! In exploring that as your theme, you could contrast it with the negative side of fantasy: escapism. Escapism just says things are crap so let's pretend they're not real. The "Negation of the Negation" is when we take our bad experiences and impulses into the realm of imagination and end up sullying it with them. In your story that could be by the characters bringing disease and war into the pure otherworld they’ve found.


Now you can populate the story with characters. Who are these guys sheltering from an artillery barrage? Let's say you've got a door-to-door notepaper salesman, a communist automobile worker, a conscientious objector medic, and a chorister who got into the army by lying about his age. The story will take each of them on a journey that has some resonance. The notepaper salesman has made a living out of selling the raw material on which a million people write their dreams and hopes, for example. Sometimes the plot and the theme suggest characters, and those characters change your first idea of the plot, and so on.

That gives me some idea where you might take the plot. Say that the fantasy world is a utopia, but your protagonists find only children living there. Later it turns out these are all the millions of children who will remain unborn because their fathers were killed in the trenches. So they are literally the hopes and dreams of those men that live on despite the existence of suffering and death.

Obviously to "squeeze the lemon" you will then have to have one of the characters meet the son he is destined never to have. He refuses to go back and die in the trenches, but that causes his son in the fantasy world to grow sick.

However, I wouldn't expect the story outline to set in stone how the plot was going to develop. That's something most writers would want to allow to develop organically. The outline should set out the plot premise ("a man is chained to the wall and the hacksaw next to him isn't sharp enough to cut through the chain") and only needs to sketch out where you would then go with the plot.


Once you've sketched out the theme and direction of the plot, you start to see where the style might borrow from. In the case of this storyline, I'd look at the war poets, and also at the Utopians like H G Wells and what they wrote after WW1 about building a better world. Why not style the otherworld on that? (A bit like Priestley’s imagined post-WW2 utopia.) Those are ideals that are still around today and would give the reader or viewer something to connect to.

The synopsis should be a few pages outlining who the characters are, where they are, what happens to them, why and what is the style/tone. Some people like to begin with a guide like this one:
  1. Once upon a time... 
  2. And every day... 
  3. Until one day... 
  4. And because of this... 
  5. And because of this... 
  6. Until finally...
  7. And ever since that day...
So:
  1. Bill, Fred and Jim were in the trenches
  2. And every day the guns pounded
  3. Until one day the gas drove them out
  4. And they ran into a magical utopia
  5. And they brought war to the utopia
  6. Until Bill saw that to save the purity of the place he'd have to go back and die in the war.
  7. And over the years, as Fred and Jim grew old, they could still see that utopia just across the fields at dusk.
These are just f’rinstances, of course. The writer you hire will take it in another direction, hopefully much more interesting that what I’ve come up with in the space of a few minutes!

I'll just add one caveat. A good story outline is a nice thing to have. It really does help you make a sale to the studio, network, or publisher. But in striving for the very best story, you can get distracted. Like, you know that steak they sell in supermarkets? It's bright red-orange in colour but that isn't what the best steak looks like. The best steak is hung for a week or three until it goes dark brown. Supermarkets dye their meat orange because that's what people think fresh meat ought to look like. And in the same way, having a good story isn't the most important thing for reaching an audience. They only get to see the story once they’ve bought their tickets. To grab their attention in the first place you need a hook. Fantasy and the Great War both seem at first glance to be a very long way from our lives today. Yet you have to make people stop and think, “That’s a story about me.”

But we’re talking about your story, not mine. And all this is free advice. So I’ll leave it there.

Wednesday, 5 January 2022

The pinnacle of open world solo gamebooks?

The Vulcanverse books have not had a lot of reviews, apart from some by NFT/crypto fans that I think were just puffing the books to support the online world, and I've been wondering about that. Do people not bother with Amazon reviews any more? Are the books so big that people who bought them haven't had time to play them yet? Do they just hate them so much that they can't be arsed? 

Then I came across this review (above) by Joonseok Oh and it made my week. I know that Joonseok is a experienced and discerning gamer as he's completed all four Vulcanverse books and acquired all the codewords and titles. So his opinion would carry weight with me either way, and I'm mightily relieved he's in favour of the series.

Open world gamebooks are an acquired taste, and can be hard to get used to if you were raised on the here's-your-quest structure of series like Fighting Fantasy. In an open world book you are being invited to explore and find your own adventures. You won't necessarily get steered into a major quest right away. Not everything is a fight or a puzzle followed by a reward. Because you have freedom to explore, there are things you'll miss first time round -- but it's a sandbox. You can come back and try later.

As Vulcanverse might be the last gamebooks I write, I'm hoping they'll eventually pick up more reviews. Not necessarily good ones, either. Though it's encouraging to get 5 stars, I'm just as interested in the negative reviews if they have thoughtful points to make. On Amazon you see books with tens of thousands of 4- and 5-star reviews, but any considered feedback is worth having. And from an author's point of view, all publicity is good publicity. 

Saturday, 1 January 2022

Blinking into the light


Happy New Year! I expect you've had more than enough of Vulcanverse to be getting on with, so here's a link to the comics I swiped that panel from. I'm just amazed that the artist (Richard E Jennings) predicted more than half a century ago what Jamie's study would look like.

Also, as I'm endlessly optimistic, here are links to my Mirabilis: Year of Wonders comic with Leo Hartas and Martin McKenna. If you're ever going to read Mirabilis, New Year is the time ('cause that's when the story starts) and at least it earned more reviews than the Vulcanverse books managed.

Friday, 24 December 2021