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Friday 27 September 2013

The Grand Fromage of Megara

Another guest post from David Walters today in the run-up to the Way of the Tiger Kickstarter campaign that begins on Tuesday. This time David attempts the impossible: describing the founder, leader and human dynamo of Megara Entertainment, the charming and inimitable Mikaël Louys.

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Commissioning artists in the pursuit of a common goal is a tricky job, and one that falls to the managing director of Megara Entertainment Mikaël Louys. He has a great many artists and tasks to draw together in one creative whole for the Way of the Tiger gamebook re-release and the forthcoming roleplaying game.

Mikaël is the man in charge of ensuring art and writing come together in an attractive display of ninja awesomeness. He has an established ethos that all the work should be in colour (part of the Megara philosophy), and strives to give the artists enough freedom to make their mark on the art whilst ensuring they have information to include details such as the insignia representing the gods of Orb.

Mikaël is a keen fan of the Way of the Tiger books, so he takes a personal interest in making sure that key scenes from the book are captured on the page and has a considerable knowledge of the source material upon which the artists can draw. Sometimes he commissions the artists to do a colour representation of artwork from the original books, and other times it is a dramatic reinterpretation based on the source material.

Either way his methodology is the same – give the artist guidance, check the draft, give further guidance and repeat this process until the work is finalised. Mikaël will also send drafts of the artwork around the writers to ensure that any discrepancies are caught early in the process.

His artist list includes Dominique Doms (mostly characters from the books), Lise Rafalli (places on the Island of Plenty), Tonio Di Lorenzo (monsters), Mylène Villeneuve (mostly scenes and characters), Aude Pfister (maps and characters), Eric Chaussin (pre-generated characters for the RPG), Faiz Nabheebucus (characters), Motise Musashi (Island of Plenty characters), and Mary Nikol (characters). Mikaël’s artists have a range of experience levels, and he always takes time to develop and improve less experienced artists, and counts them all very much as friends.

The artwork is not just for the books, as Mikaël is very much in charge of the business side of Megara too: T-shirts, jewellery and even a giant cloth map have been the canvas for some of the creative work sold via the Megara website. One of the crowning glories of the early artwork was a new map of Orb, a beautiful hand-painted piece of work by Aude Pfister.

As well as co-ordinating the artists, Mikaël co-ordinates the writers as well, ensuring that they have the assignments needed and that there is creative oversight of the work. On the few occasions where the artwork clashes with the writing or vice versa, Mikaël will get the work redone to ensure it is as true to the source material as possible.

Mikaël has many other parts of his role, including formatting the page layouts for maximum impact, deciding what is in (and out) of the roleplaying game both in terms of chapters and artwork, and also formulating the rules for the RPG from his extensive gaming experience.

Mikaël is known amongst the team for his encyclopaedic knowledge of tabletop RPGs, RPG computer games, boardgames, and casinos. He also runs a music fan club archiving almost all the live recordings from all the career of Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler. He is also a japanime expert, J-RPG expert and former editor at RPG Magazine, RPG Online and Gameplay RPG. He has developed a great love and appreciation for the Japanese culture, but of course it's not mandatory to have that to appreciate the Way of the Tiger gamebooks.

- David Walters 

ADDENDUM: As of midday September 27, after just 24 hours live, the Way of the Tiger Kickstarter campaign has reached 94% of its initial target. (Even Mikaël probably wasn't expecting that!) There are a host of stretch goals, though, and plenty of time left to pledge. The campaign will run till the end of October.

Thursday 26 September 2013

Tiger vs octopus

Just a few days now before the Way of the Tiger campaign launches on Kickstarter. I've seen a first draft of the prequel book, Ninja, by David Walters and it's everything you'd want it to be. David has also come up with the storyline for the seventh book, Redeemer, which will be written if the stretch goal is met.

More news next week and over the month ahead. First, though, you ought to meet Mikaël Louys, the driving force behind Megara Entertainment, who will be producing the hardback editions of Way of the Tiger. Pop back tomorrow to see what all the fuss is about.

The new covers (of which this is my favourite) are by Mylène Villeneuve. Awesome enough for ya?

Tuesday 24 September 2013

That's my monster

Nice to see my digital retelling of Frankenstein getting some love at the Publish! conference today. I started designing Frankenstein over two years ago and it's still getting cited as an innovation in interactive storytelling. Jon Ingold of Inkle Studios (whose technology powered the app) pointed out that a single read-through of Frankenstein is upwards of 80,000 words and that the work "draws out the themes of Shelley’s work in new and unusual ways. Just as Doctor Frankenstein tries to understand his monster empathetically, so we as readers attempt to understand Victor for ourselves."

It's quite a happy accident that Frankenstein fits so well with the philiosophy behind Inkle's own projects, as they had no input into the design or writing. But it is the interesting way forward for interactive stories right now, as games like The Walking Dead are proving. As Jon Ingold explains in a thought-provoking piece on The Literary Platform this week:
"Our stories tend not be about choosing what happens. Instead, the idea is to place readers in a conversation with the narrative."
Not literally as a conversation, of course. Though in the case of Frankenstein that is exactly what I did (most of the book consists of Victor Frankenstein's conversation with you, the reader) Jon is referring to the more general concept of interacting with the narrative to create a kind of back-and-forth. Doing something that causes other characters to distrust you, for example, alters the story in a profound, reactive way that picking the left-hand door doesn't.

This "conversation with the narrative" is a design ethic we may see creeping into Steve Jackson's Sorcery series, the second of which is due for release shortly. Meanwhile, Frankenstein is still available for iOS and Android. Here's a little bit from Victor's pursuit of his creature into the frozen north:
The stuffy, noxious air of the cabin affects me badly after the dry chill outside. My head sinks onto my arms and waves of feverish weakness shake my body. I have pushed myself beyond endurance these last weeks – but I cannot falter now, not when I am so close to my quarry.

The old woman shakes me and leads the way to a box room with a cot where I can lie down. Young goats peer in through beams that separate this from the next room. A thin icy draft makes its way in under the rafters, reviving me slightly. Thanking the old woman, I pull the furs around me and wait for sleep to come.

How hateful life has become to me. To endure each day I have to force the bitter memories away, and build a wall that stops me thinking of those I have lost. It’s only in sleep that I can recall what it is to be happy. Oh, why can’t I banish this turmoil of thoughts? Let me sink into sleep. Where are the dreams I need that will give me a respite from the darkness?

I can hear my father’s voice. William is with him, and – yes – there are Elizabeth’s silver tones. Henri too. All of my friends, gather me to your arms, give me strength for what is to come.

They emerge out of a fog. The fog of reality is lifting as dreams come roiling up, and the light that hangs around them is dazzling. I am familiar with that light. It is the celestial exhalation of the spirits that guide me.

But why is Elizabeth’s face so contorted with anguish? Come closer, dear cousin. Speak to me.

‘Destroy the monster, Victor. You must sunder him in pieces. Burn him. Cut out his eyes, torture him, make him pay for the suffering he inflicted on us.’

‘Pour acid in his veins,’ says my father.

‘Let his screams echo across the plain,’ says Henri. ‘Smash in his skull. Let him feel what it is to have life brutally taken away.’

‘Give him a slow death,’ says little William. ‘Let him crawl in agony all the way to the gates of hell.’

And all of them, as they urge me thus, are smiling like cherubs before the throne of God.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Gazed often at the stars

The autumnal equinox now, and to mark the long deep darkness ahead, a poem of the wild faerie winds by W.B. Yeats:

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling 'Away, come away:

'Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam,

'Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.'

The host is rushing 'twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling 'Away, come away.'

Saturday 21 September 2013

Cover story

I don't know if this is actually where I'm going to go with the Bloodsword covers. Kellie Strøm has already pointed out that outlining and stretching what was already a thin font and then putting it on a busy background is pretty hard on the eyes. Maybe shading down to a darker background at the bottom would help.

Or maybe I'll try something entirely different. I'm just playing around at the moment, and most cover design goes through several extinction events before you settle on the phenotype you're looking for. As Tim Harford says, success always starts with failure. Well, strictly speaking, not always - but often. It's in that spirit that I've been fiddling with these images. (And yes, I've read my Aristotle. I do know that failure often starts with failure too.)

But one moment. Is it not quite likely that we will make Bloodsword a Kickstarter extravaganza with Megara Entertainment? If the Way of the Tiger campaign succeeds, Bloodsword is quite possibly next on the list, in which case we should end up with some beautiful colour artwork by Megara's art team.

However, I'm still thinking about doing two versions of the series (as discussed here) so that purists can have all the tactical maps and thumping great rule sets of the '80s originals, while gamebook readers with more streamlined tastes can play something more like the Critical IF series, where the emphasis is decidely more on "book" than on "game". Two editions will need to be differentiated by two styles of cover design.

Comments are very welcome - and no need to spare my feelings, either. It's just a work in progress. And, as such, it's meant to change.

Monday 16 September 2013

Guest post: Richard S Hetley on The Way of the Tiger

The second guest post in the run-up to the Way of the Tiger Kickstarter campaign is from Richard S Hetley, editor of the series and CEO of Megara Entertainment's US division:

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Sometimes storytelling uses the word "you." At least that's what I learned as a small child being introduced to roleplaying games and solo gamebooks. Then, years later, my school teachers tried to educate me on "first person" and "third person" perspective, leaving out this mysterious numerical inevitability in the middle. "Second person" would be stories that use the word "you," wouldn't they? There are lots of those, right? So why do you not teach them?

Apparently the children knew about the Choose Your Own Adventure books in the school library but the grown-ups assumed we did not. Granted, the library didn't have any other gamebooks, nor roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, so it may have been an oversight by the adults. Not so in my household.

Here was a home where our parents bought us The Way of the Tiger and Lone Wolf before we'd ever heard of them. Then, exhilarated by the worlds found therein, us kids hunted down Fighting Fantasy, Grailquest, and anything else we could find. Why? Because sometimes storytelling uses the word "you," and then "you" get to tell the most exciting story of all: your own.

So there was The Way of the Tiger. Reading it over and over again was as satisfying as the first time because I was "choosing" my "adventure." As a small child, I became confused at some point and thought you could earn a + 1 to your Fate Modifier within the walls of Doomover. I would struggle to find the route that permitted this, saying "I want to get the Fate Modifier! I want it!" Think of this: it was a matter of "wanting to do something." With a book in first or third person, how much is there to "do"? One can say "I want to read The Hobbit" and then stand back as Bilbo slays a dragon. But with The Way of the Tiger, one can say "I want to deflect crossbow bolts with my bare hands" and then deflect crossbow bolts with one's bare hands.

This personal experience made the story more memorable. To this day, I the American (or "United Statesian" to be more accurate) still prefer the British spelling of "Armour" and "Axe" because that was how I spelled them in my adventures. In fact, such gets at a deeper matter: good books generally leave the reader wiser for the experience, and gamebooks are no exception, but what one learns may be a little different. The Way of the Tiger was extra special for what I learned.

Some context: by the time I started reading gamebooks, I had already killed my first kobold and carrion crawler. Dungeons and Dragons was common at playtime and I had finally figured out how to read a d4. Percentile dice still stymied. The D-and-D rules encouraged the reader to think of combat as more than "I hit, I miss, I hit again" (direct quote), but there was no point to anything past mastering the dice mechanics. So I learned dice.

The Way of the Tiger went beyond my meager ("meagre"?) understanding of gaming. It had neither four-sided dice nor percentile dice, so I was safe there; instead it had a system of interwoven attack rolls, damage rolls, blocking, and "special powers" (Inner Force). A child might ask "So I want to run up to the enemy and hit it. What do I roll?" but this was not how the game worked. "You" had to choose what to do in each fight, and if "you" thought it would be clever to try throwing an Elder God to the ground, then "you" got to enjoy the consequences.

Which isn't to say that all consequences were deadly: sometimes a special scene or route out of danger could arise from your choice. Not only did I come to look forward to the Cobra Man, the Elder God, the Ninja of the Way of the Scorpion as I played, but I came to understand the intricate details of this thing called "strategy." Entire plotlines could appear through "strategic failing," and great swaths of peril could be bypassed by "strategic planning." I not only learned that this game was fun, but I learned how one weaves the stories and games that allowed me to have fun in the first place.

I was simultaneously a reader, a storyteller, a strategist, and just some kid who wanted to punch Goblins in the face, while flipping pages and scrawling Endurance on a piece of paper. All was possible with the magical word "you." Thus it is to read The Way of the Tiger.

Friday 13 September 2013

Listen up

AudioGo have just released two BBC audiobooks in the Dark Lord series. These aren't just written by Jamie, they're narrated by him too. Normally you'd have to be 9 years old and go to a posh school to get the chance of having Jamie come in and do all the voices for you (which are brilliantly funny btw - well worth the school fees) but now the books are available to hoi polloi to download for the cost of a double whopper, cheese and a Coke. Which is where Jamie is heading on the bus there. Ding ding.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

No Man’s Land is basically home

The Dark Lord books are supposed to be for kids, but I have yet to find an adult reader of fantasy who hasn't enjoyed them too, usually to the point of laughing immoderately in public whenever they open the book, thereby risking a tasering from the people who used to patrol the streets with nothing more dangerous than butterfly nets. I was recently reading the manuscript for the third book (WIP title The Dirkest Hour) in bed and I had to stop because I was laughing so loud I woke my wife up. It's a little hard to explain... "What's so funny?" "Well, there's this goblin and he's throwing custard at the wall, and then he lets off this horrendous fart and... Oh, never mind."

Jamie has just done an interview on the Hachette Children's Books site. Be sure to read the whole thing if you're interested in the creative process and the craft of writing. Here are a few highlights from the interview - and come back on Friday for more news from Jamie:

Some background before we begin... What were you doing, in the pre-Dirk world?

Well, I started off life in the '80s doing game books - the choose-your-own-adventure type - for Puffin in the Fighting Fantasy series. The first book I ever did, with my writing partner Mark Smith, was called Talisman of Death. Those did rather well, so I went off and did a load of them, then I did a two-player series and it had the only book I ever dedicated to my mother – ‘To my darling mother’ – and it was called The Arena of Death.

I must’ve done about twenty five game books, and then that whole market dried up when computer games came along. So I got back into computer games and had a computer game company called Black Cactus which went horribly wrong in the end and we lost a lot of money. After that I got back into novels, really.

Are there any games we might remember from that computer game company?

There was something called Warrior Kings, which was an RTS, in early 2000, a sort of fantasy thing. So essentially, it’s been thirty years of selling goblins to kids and just doing fantasy left, right and centre, creating endless Dark Lords and big, bad villains, shooting them down or killing them. I’ve lived in that world for so long you begin to think ‘surely Dark Lords have mothers…’ and that starts getting you into why someone would become a Dark Lord.

Do you remember where you were when you had the idea for Dark Lord?

Yes, I was with a friend of mine, Dave Morris. We’ve since started another company, Fabled Lands LLP, and we have an American investor. He’s quite a serious biotech venture capitalist, but he also used to love all of our gamebooks; for him it’s a bit of fun and he can meet up and talk to us and set us working on fun projects. It’s great for us because we’re just free to write whatever we like - it’s like having a patron, like a medieval Medici, except he’s called Big Wedge Frank. So that’s wonderful, and actually we’re doing quite well at the moment.

So it was just me and Dave, having a few beers and riffing off about how great it would be if you had a Dark Lord wandering around Earth. It began with an idea about a Diary of a Dark Lord, so it would be like Darth Vader or Sauron actually writing ‘Had to destroy a goblin today’, or you can imagine ‘Today the hobbits found my ring – Noooo!’, that kind of stuff. And then you start thinking about how could you really do the biography of a Dark Lord? You’d need to make him sympathetic or likeable, and you couldn’t really do that if you were doing it straight – then it would be like trying to make Hitler or Stalin likeable. It had to be jokey. And then the comedy angle led to the fish-out-water stuff, and then having him cursed is a natural progression, cursed into the body of a thirteen year old boy and sent to school is just perfect.

This is a very detailed world you’ve created – how long did it take to do that, and is there loads more that you know about but haven't been able to put in the book?

There is a lot that’s been left out, but nothing’s wasted. I’m writing the third Dark Lord book now and you never know when stuff will come in. But my career has mostly been about creating worlds, so that was the easy bit. You need the nations, but you leave religion out of it as it’s too sensitive these days. Already in the American version we’ve had to take out the word ‘Hell’, so instead of ‘By the nine Hells!’ Dirk has to say ‘By the nine nether worlds!’and there’s other stuff like that.

But normally, if you’re doing a computer game or role-playing game, you’d have a very detailed pantheon of different gods for different cultures, different politics and battle and combat tactics, like you’re creating an entire medieval nation from scratch, with stuff from mythology, science fiction and Japanese themes. I’ve done so much of that it would be easy to parody, but this is a more of a comedy parody and at the same time a great example of the genre and a loving homage

Reading the book is almost like being in the mind of a proper mad person, for whom other people’s reality is incomprehensible; how did you do that?

It was definitely part of me, I’m afraid! I think I started life a bit bemused by the world, so I think I drew on that a bit…it’s a product of all that gaming, coupled with my own bemusement. Although, saying that, I was born in Iran and lived there for the first ten years of my life, and then went to boarding school in England; my dad worked for Shell and we lived on an oil field. So, in a way, that also makes you look at the world from a different perspective.

It gives you a very good understanding of the outsider principle.

I think that’s true. You're born a little bit of an outsider, in a small, unique group of people, then you come to Britain still a bit of an outsider.

No Man’s Land is basically home.

Yes, or the alternative is…I fell to your planet many years ago, from the Dark Lands – I pretend it is fiction, but it’s all true.

Do you know where you’re going next?

Not really. We sort of had this idea to do stuff, and it seemed like a good idea to write, but I never realised it would be so successful and create this writing career for me. It was more like, I’ve got some bills coming in and what can you do when you get to a certain age? I was so evolved as a specialist in game books. It's like pandas and bamboo…if there’s no bamboo, they die. As I still wanted to be a panda I had to learn to do something else.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

A wind age, a wolf age, before the world goes headlong

A comment from Efrem Orizzonte recently reminded me that we discussed Heart of Ice at some length during his interview with me a few years back. I've always thought of this as my best gamebook, with its emphasis on character interplay and on who to trust (and who to backstab) when you're stuck with a pack of the most ruthless and power-hungry people on the planet.

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Efrem: "Heart of Ice is arguably the most mature gamebook ever written. The plot is superb, character design and development is among the finest ever seen, the atmosphere is perfect and the multiple endings mean that if you survive to the end, you can always 'win' – if you can call any of the ambiguous, bittersweet finales a victory! Heart of Ice is a story full of deeper meanings, and it is so good that it may even have inspired a movie, called Post Impact. What inspired you to write such an original and mature story in gamebook format? Is there some particular message you wanted to convey to your readers?"

Dave: "I’m not so much into trying to give my readers messages, I just have certain topics that interest me and I like to get readers thinking about them. [What interests me are] questions, not answers. Heart of Ice got started as a role-playing session. I can pinpoint it exactly to Christmas 1976. I was back home after my first term at college and I needed a scenario for a large number of players. Believe it or not, I started with the idea of doing a serious version of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, kind of the way Failsafe Point is a serious version of Dr Strangelove. The idea of Du-En came from marvelling at the buildings of Christ Church, absolutely deserted late on a frosty night after the end of term, with the buildings lit up pale against this immense field of stars and the unyielding smell of cold sandstone, I love that.

"After the first game session, I was walking home with one of the players and he said how he was imagining Du-En as a movie, and what he liked was that the focus of the session had been in the tension among the characters camped out in this ruined, snow-filled city. It was big end-of-the-world action but it was centred on a small group of characters. And a mere 18 years later I took all that and put it into the book.

"I’d had an idea in my mind of [it] as [...] a [Sergio] Leone movie. It’s that combination of operatic/ mythic significance with ordinary messy human life – the fly walking in the sweat of a man’s face. Leone’s films are all about how the stories we construct make sense of what would otherwise be a short, meaningless existence."
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It's interesting that in all of that interview I never mentioned The Thing, which surely had an inspirational effect on the tone of the book. There are no actual shapechangers (unless you count the option to genetically upgrade with Chameleon Skin) but the twisty, slippery, scratchy sense of uncertainty and paranoia is there all right.

Heart of Ice is back in print again this week (and on Kindle too) so if you missed it first time round and you like the idea of a world where ultimate power is up for grabs if only you can prove more cunning than your rivals - okay, here's your chance:

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Virtual Reality gamebooks return as Critical IF

Lots more Way of the Tiger news coming up over the next couple of months, but first here's a peek into the near future. There'll be four Critical IF paperback books (with covers by the awesomely talented Jon Hodgson, interior art by Leo Hartas, Russ Nicholson and William Harvey) and at least one of the four is out in revised Kindle and paperback editions that you can get right now (see below). The rest are coming in just under a month.

Feel free to spread the word and please, please, please circulate the image above everywhere you can. The more people who hear about it, and who review it on Amazon, the more chance we have of bringing back other classic gamebook series like Blood Sword and Falcon.