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Friday 28 February 2014

With a wild surmise

Here is another excerpt from Game Architecture and Design. This one isn't really a might-have-been game, it was just intended as an example of a one-page pitch. Years later, I extended it into a full outline for a book-plus-game project I was trying to get off the ground at Dorling Kindersley. But that's a whole other story...

A old man in a tunic is being guided by a boy. The old man’s eyes are closed. We’re in extreme close-up: we see the boy’s fingers holding the man’s gnarled hand, a close-up on scuffed sandals, the old man’s cane tapping the packed earth floor as he goes. The background is in darkness but we get the sense of a huge interior space, perhaps a hall.

They reach the centre of the hall. The old man steadies himself, leans on his stick. The boy scurries off. The man stands there, head bowed, gathering his energy. His back straightens. He lifts his head.

We’re close on his face. Think of Richard Harris. The old man takes a breath and starts to speak. He has a voice of surprising power:


He opens his eyes. They are milky white, clouded over. Blind. But he sees with his mind’s eye.

“Goddess, fill my lungs with breath. Give me the words to tell of Achilles’ fury. Murderous and doomed, it was a fury that cost the Achaeans so many men, and sent brave souls into the underworld leaving bloody limbs for dogs and birds to pick apart. Thus was the will of Zeus…”

As the old man speaks, our view switches behind him in a wider shot and as the camera rises up we see a hundreds of men seated at long wooden tables, lamplight picking out details in the gloom of this huge hall. They listen in utter silence as we cut to –

A beach in dazzling sunlight. In close-up as crystal-clear water gently laps the shore and then the prow of a longboat drives into the sand. Shouts and a clamor of jangling war-gear. A sandaled foot jumps down from the boat, leaving a strong imprint as the warrior strides ashore and we pan up to see –

Achilles, greatest of the Greek heroes, standing tall against the brilliant blue sky. There is a proud smile on his face as he surveys the hinterland. He has no need of armor; the gods have made him invulnerable to harm. He has just arrived and already he is eager for battle.

* * * 

The game is Troy. It’s a wargame - but not like any wargame that has gone before. Players will take the role of various legendary heroes like Achilles, Odysseus and Ajax. Each hero is accompanied by a war-band of non-player characters whose morale and fighting ability will reflect how well the player is doing.

This is an epic story. It’s also elegiac. The world is never again going to see heroes of this caliber. They are favored by the gods, are almost gods themselves. Men like the blind poet, Homer, will sing of their exploits for thousands of years. But the war is destined to end in the deaths of most of the heroes and the destruction and pillaging of the beautiful city of Troy. It is a tragic time. The end of an era.

We intend that the game will reflect this. Just as the original Iliad poem interweaves themes of rage and melancholy, glory and waste, this is the first videogame that will convey both the excitement and the tragedy of war.

How to achieve this? We said before that the actions of the player heroes affect the rank-&-file non-player soldiers. (Think of Dynasty Warriors, for example, but with more varied AI among the soldiers.) A war-band that has lost its hero will start to degenerate into a rabble. They will lose their tight formations and rigid discipline. They will start to skulk away from the hard fighting. When an enemy is struck down, instead of moving onto the next foe, they’ll wait around to loot the body. After the death of honor, these men will become the carrion dogs that Homer spoke of in the intro.

Hence, as the game progresses and heroes fall on both sides, the war moves from being a glorious adventure to a dirty, desperate, vicious struggle for survival. The gods, who are initially willing to provide aid, advice and magical weapons, withdraw from involvement as more heroes die. Even the graphics depict the dying of the light. To begin with, bright colors evoke a time of glory. As the heroes are whittled down, the images become more gritty, the colors flatter and desaturated. It is as if a Technicolor epic like Spartacus were gradually turning into Saving Private Ryan.

Monday 24 February 2014

Proof positive

Quick recap: Fabled Lands LLP owns the publishing rights to The Way of the Tiger, a classic series of jumpy-kicky gamebooks from the 1980s. Last year, we granted Megara Entertainment permission to print a limited edition of full-colour WOTT hardbacks to be funded via Kickstarter. That paid for editing and new artwork, which Megara in return allows Fabled Lands Publishing to use for a new paperback edition.

With me so far? The first two paperbacks, Avenger(!) and Assassin(!) are now on sale, and you can buy them from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other online stores. As you can see from the pic, the new books are a bit bigger than the '80s originals and have rather more impressive covers. Mylène Villeneuve really packs energy, movement and drama into her paintings, whereas the original '80s painting for Avenger looks like a waxwork of a ninja having a poo.

Fabled Lands Publishing will be releasing the other four original books in paperback over the coming months. But that's not all. Megara have commissioned new books in the series. You can now buy the prequel book, Ninja, and the series is set to continue in Book 7, Redeemer, in which our hero or heroine bounds free from the giant spider's web. Both of those are by the talented David Walters, with stalwart support from editor and Megara US chief Richard S Hetley, and of course none of this would be possible without the Herculean dynamism of Megara's founder, Mikaël Louys.

Before you backflip over to Amazon, feast your eyes on the Easter eggs in the picture. Zen Combat by Jay Gluck (1962) and Ninjutsu by Donn F Draeger (1977) were the white-box DnD of the genre, the books that retconned "ninja" into Japanese history and ignited the craze for black-pyjamaed black ops that had become a full-on media frenzy by the start of the 1980s. And if you look really closely, you may see part of the flowchart for Down Among The Dead Men in the background there too, as stealthy as the ninja who lives in your chimney.

Friday 14 February 2014

In a dragon's eye

It was the early 1980s, and children's publishers really didn't know what hit them. For decades they'd been turning out nice cozy books based on their mental picture of a short-trousered scamp with a cap gun in one hand and a bottle of ginger pop in the other. In fact, even that view may be too generous. Hardly a single children's editor was male, or under forty, and mostly I think all those nice ladies just wrote boys off as not wanting to read books. Their ideal reader was sweet, quiet and mild as milk. So, not really like most girls at the time either.

They got a rude awakening. Boys did want to read books, and tomboys too - just not the books the publishers had been churning out. They wanted blood, guts, gore, mayhem, violence, and gutsy action. And most of all they wanted to be the hero.

The younger generation of editors understood this. Philippa Dickinson was twenty-six years old when she commissioned The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. A few years later, when she was publishing the Dragon Warriors series, Oliver Johnson and I were keen to stress that the covers should not give the sense of being "you know, for kids" and Philippa agreed about that. Dubious as she may have been about the buxom babes in the Alan Craddock paintings we showed her, she got that boys at that age (they were, let's face it, most of them boys, our readers back then) didn't see themselves as little kids any more. As this post by @burnedfx puts it: "Which cover would appeal to kids and which one is grandma going to pick up for little Bobby?"

Before Dragon Warriors, Oliver and I had been published by Grafton Books. I appreciated our editors there - Angela Sheehan and Gillian Appleby - but they definitely belonged to the old school of kids' publishing. I managed to get artwork by Russ Nicholson for one book, The Eye of the Dragon, and we were mostly lucky with Bruno Elletori's cover paintings, but I've ranted about that puppyish dragon logo before. And don't even get me started on the covers we were given by Pacer Books in the USA. "For young adults," said their logo (and that wasn't a term you heard much in the mid-'80s) but look at that painting in the middle! A boy in a frigging skirt. Wearing tennis shoes. Holding a little blue ball. By Azathoth, why? Especially when you consider that the rest of the image is fine, and if only little Bobby wasn't there in his pretty little dress then it could have worked.

Now compare my two covers to what Ian Livingstone got for his own Eye of the Dragon book. Okay, his came out twenty years after the Golden Dragon series, but even so. The salt in the wound is that I bet his cover cost a lot less too. As so often, less is more.
As we're talking about The Eye of the Dragon, you may be wondering why it wasn't reissued along with the other five Golden Dragon books last year. No? Well, I'll tell you anyway. Reviews by Mrs Giggles, the aforementioned burnedfx, and on Demian Katz's site point out some serious flaws in the book. Most egregious of all, it seems that the big finale depends on a one-in-three guess. Ulp.

If that's really true, I owe an apology to an entire generation, as a random choice like that would be hard to justify right at the start of a book, but is criminally wrong at the end. And while I'm checking that, and fixing it if need be, I might as well tinker with the magic system and make a bit more of the protagonist's unusual background. So The Eye of the Dragon will probably come out later this year in quite a different form. And now that there's a Fighting Fantasy book of that name, I think I'll change the title to something more interesting too. And ditch the Dungeons and Dragons brand of fantasy setting while I'm at it. And...

On reflection, it could be next year.

Thursday 13 February 2014

Quick recap

The last post generated a lot of discussion and some first-rate suggestions, so before tomorrow's new post let's have a quick recap.

I mentioned that Megara's European division will not be running any more Kickstarter campaigns for the foreseeable future. But Megara US, under the guidance of Richard S Hetley, is considering a number of possible projects. I can't speak for them, but I do know that one project that's been floated is a humorous gamebook to be co-written by Paul Gresty and Jamie Thomson. If you've read the Dark Lord books you'll know that one ought to be laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Jamie is also co-authoring the long-awaited Undeadwood (only it won't be called that) with Ashton Saylor, and that should be Kickstarted into existence later in the year. I've seen the plot of that and it's sure to appeal to both old-time gamebook fans and those who want a little more character depth and a more satisfying storyline.

Later in the year there will be Way of the Tiger and Golden Dragon apps from Tin Man Games. We're talking to them about our other gamebook series, but they are deservingly very busy, as are Inkle, so it may be a while before we can get the Fabled Lands apps out. But we will.

Oh, that illustration? It's part of Leo Hartas's map of one of the cities of Orb. Neat, huh?

Friday 7 February 2014

Surely you jest?

I've been thinking a bit about what Fabled Lands should be like if we can ever get the remaining books funded.

Earlier caveats apply: thus and so. Bringing Fabled Lands back to life by crowdfunding alone would be a struggle. Two hundred backers, even if willing to pay $50 for a hardcover edtion of book 7, would mean maybe $3000 to spend on writing, copy-editing, illustrations, cover art and typography. And there are EU minumum wage regulations to take into account. Problems...

One way Jamie and I considered tackling that is by licensing Fabled Lands apps and/or computer games. Those could potentially find a bigger market than the books, and since new content would have to be created for the apps anyway, it would then become feasible to do more books.

Another possible solution would simply be to create new books that appeal to a larger market. That's the direct approach: to make more books, we have to sell more books. So far our print gamebooks have really sold only to a small, devoted circle of readers who probably bought these books originally when they were kids. The new edition FL books, for example, are now selling about thirty copies a month each. It's not bad, but it won't fund a series.

But here's a thought...

The big trend in gamebooks now is towards send-ups. Fluffy rabbits fighting zombies. HG2G clones. Hamlet in cheek. Those are the clear frontrunners. So, if Fabled Lands were to return, should we inject a shot of Jamie’s trademark Dirk Lloyd comedy? Make Ankon-Konu a satire of feckless colonials ransacking ancient cultures? Tell stories of punctured pomposity from the supposedly refined civilizations of Atticala? Of bureaucratic idiocy among the demons of the Underworld?

You can probably tell that. where humour is concerned, I take to parody like a duck to lava. “Take That You Fiend” makes me want to punch the game designer, not attack the troll. And even though Jamie won the 2012 Roald Dahl Prize, and can do enough funny for both of us, it remains to be seen whether his flair for laugh-out-loud comedy will translate to the kind of spoof fantasy that is currently playing well with gamers. Still, the choice seems to be between selling a couple of hundred copies of a serious gamebook or several thousand of a send-up one. And it could be worse; we might have to try erotica. Put like that, gimme a jester’s hat and I’ll bring my bladder. So to speak.