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Saturday 28 June 2014

Talk of the Devil

Each season of my comic book epic Mirabilis: Year of Wonders sees hero Jack Ember facing a different adversary, but overarching all four seasons is the Big Bad who will present Jack with his most personal and fraught challenges. The Kind Gentleman is not overtly the Devil, but Jack's mentor Talisin at one point calls him "humanity's darkest dream" and - well, draw your own conclusions from that.

Some people have described Mirabilis as steampunk, but it isn't that at all. In the world of Mirabilis, everything is coming true. Whatever has been dreamt up by mortal minds over the millennia is given substance by the green comet that heralds this annus mirabilis.

Leo Hartas, Martin McKenna and I planned it as a vast storyline incorporating horror, faerie, whimsy, mythology and dream. There is Victorian and Edwardian science fiction, with murderous brains in tripods and stuff, but I wouldn't actually call that steampunk any more than I'd say the Green Knight sells sweetcorn.

Anyway, we were talking about Old Nick recently, so I thought you might enjoy this glimpse of what happens if you annoy the Kind Gentleman when he's trying to watch a slideshow. Personally, I have a lot of sympathy.

Friday 20 June 2014

The Devil is a gentleman

Midsummer is a good time to talk about the Devil. I don't mean the Biblical fellow. (Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub... They're not even the same character, are they?) In English folk tales he has another persona, as Sybil Marshall reminds us:
"The medieval folk-concept of the Devil, as distinct from that preached by the Church, is of Rex Mundi - large, dark, and handsome, infinitely attractive, a jolly fellow full of pranks and merriment and still displaying some of the attributes of his counterparts in pagan times."
In older English legends, the Devil tends to be a ferocious adversary, often scaly or horned, whose main function is to make saints look cool. And making those early British saints look cool is quite a task.

When we meet the Devil in English folk tales, though, he usually comes clothed as a squire or, if he's feeling particularly wicked, maybe a monk or a parson. In this guise he has a little bit of faerie about him, and seems to borrow the aspect of Odin or Cernunnos rather than God's erstwhile favourite angel. He enjoys a challenge - building a bridge in a night, a riddling contest, or even a simple wrestling match. He is a trickster, sometimes so cunning that he outwits himself. If you are familiar with the TV show Once Upon A Time, this is pretty much the character of Rumpelstiltskin, only without the Hollywoodized origin story.

Saints are far too boring to appear in any decent folk tale, all preachy and chinbearded as they are, but many an English hero named Jack shows his mettle by outsmarting the Devil. Souls are sometimes wagered, and in the wager the Devil's greed will usually see him come off worse. I'm sure we're supposed to sympathize a little when, returning a farmer's wife, he gripes that...
“...I've been the Devil the whole of my life
But I never knew hell till I met your wife.”
I'm not just rambling, honest. There's a point to all this. If you cast your mind back to midwinter, at the end of the Legend scenario "Silent Night", I put in a throwaway line that had Mitch Edgeworth justifiably raising an eyebrow:
"At midnight on Christmas Day, the Devil comes to Crossgate Manor and offers to play a game of chess for a favour."
Clearly this was to be a story seed for the referee to extemporize a minor epilogue incident, perhaps with a single player, to contrast with the desperate danger and action of the preceding few hours and possibly to set up an ongoing relationship in the campaign. The Devil might enjoy having one mortal friend to play chess with just as much as Morpheus is fond of an occasional glass of wine with Hob Gadling.

Mitch did preface his comment by saying that he's not a role-player, which explains the confusion. Encountering the Devil over chess might very well develop into an interesting ongoing storyline, but setting up the idea in a scenario takes no more than one line. In real games, half a page of notes are ample for running a session of several hours, and scenarios like "Silent Night" are written up only to explain to somebody else how that adventure might be run. In our own game, the denouement came in the forest, not in Crossgate Manor, and the key to defeating Duruth and his knaves was completely unexpected and yet perfect. It arose out of nowhere, a story created from the participation of the group where the best parts have no individual origin. Which, in a nutshell, explains why I am a role-player.

The picture, by the way, is Pan, not the Devil. Image copyright Ian Greig and used here under Creative Commons Licence.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Interview with Mark Smith, creator of Orb

Of all the Fighting Fantasy inspired gamebook series of the 1980s, the most innovative was probably the Way of the Tiger. Mark Smith had created a vivid world steeped in intrigue and adventure, and he and co-author Jamie Thomson didn't rest on their laurels. Soon tiring of the traditional find-the-quest-item-in-the-dungeon structure, they began to introduce elements from the wargames and boardgames they loved so much. In one book you had to juggle competing political factions while managing a city. In another you had to muster an army and choose the tactics that woul carry it to victory. Here, to mark the reissue of Way of the Tiger book four in paperback, author David Walters describes what it was like to play through those classic books when they first appeared, and he asks Mark Smith to look back at what inspired him to create them:

*  *  *

When I read the Way of the Tiger series back in the ‘90s, I started with book four, Overlord. I do not recall why I chose that particular one, maybe it was the Kraken on the cover, or maybe the other books were in short supply that week in the bookstore, but the book remains my favourite of the series to this day.

The opening was simply electrifying for me. For a start, I was the ruler of a city, which I had never experienced in a gamebook before. I was used to being a lone warrior on quests in gamebooks, and sometimes even winning a position of power at the end of such a book, but I had never been in a position of wielding that power from the start of a gamebook. In Overlord, the crown did not rest easy on my brow, for I had to get on with the difficult decisions of ruling a city split by competing interest groups on whom I had to rely for support, and a people divided by racial and religious schisms.

Then I got to pick my advisers from a choice of varied and interesting characters, including those who had once allied with my (tyrant) predecessor, yet who represented a large part of the city. Dangers were everywhere. It would be just as threatening to my rule to rely to much on new allies as it would be to trust potential enemies.

(Incidentally, if anyone has calculated all of the possible safe routes via the councillors you can select, please do comment below. The editor in chief of the series is very interested to confirm all the permutations!)

As well as political intrigue, I had to survive an assassination attempt, endure a siege and undertake a perilous quest that would lead me to the very den of the evil ninja of the Way of the Scorpion and beyond. Interestingly, I was not only powerful in my position as a ruler, but also as a deadly ninja. In this game book the reader was allowed to feel personally and politically powerful, yet still experience threatening situations and enemies.

It was only after this book that I went back to the beginning of the series and played through them all, enjoying the journey from a young unproven ninja setting out on an epic quest. For me, Overlord set a benchmark in innovation, in characterisation and sophistication that I had never seen before in a gamebook. I'd recommend you to give it a try, and hope you enjoy it as much as I did. But watch out – it may inspire you to become a writer as it did with me!

Questions about Overlord answered by Mark Smith, creator of the world of Orb and co-author of the Way of the Tiger series:

DW: Were you concerned about introducing rulership into an action series? Is that why the whole book was not about ruling the city and involved a quest element?

MS: We did worry that if there was no standard gamebook adventuring it would disappoint and yes that's why it's not all about governing.

DW: What were your inspirations for the characters who seek to become your advisers in Star Chamber?

MS: Some of the characters had been pre-developed while role-playing. The Demagogue was inspired by Athenian history.

DW: What possible game mechanics did you consider or reject regarding the city management element of the book?

MS: I gave little consideration to game mechanics beyond striving for simplicity.

DW: Apart from Avenger, which character in Overlord did you most enjoy writing about?

MS: I enjoyed all of the characters but especially Golspiel, Foxglove, Force Lady Gwyneth, Solstice and the Demagogue.

DW: Looking back at the book, is there anything you would do differently now about it?

MS: I would do more checking for game balance.

DW: Were you concerned about ending this book on something of a cliffhanger?

MS: The cliffhanger was deliberate. I was happy with all the books except that in Inferno you need to take Foxglove with you for it to be good.

Friday 6 June 2014

How games best create stories

I wrote this originally in response to one of Porter Anderson's Ether For Authors columns on Publishing Perspectives, but as we occasionally discuss the confluence of stories and interactivity on this blog, it seems like it might bear repeating.

You can read the original piece ("Where is publishing's jetpack?") here. The points I want to address are, first, by Hugh Howey in The Future of Books:
"Donning an AR headset to read a picture book will be as common twenty years from now as putting on 3D glasses to watch a film can be today. But imagine this scenario: You put on a pair of AR glasses and grab a copy of Gulliver’s Travels. The glasses recognize the cover of the book, and it knows you’ve purchased the AR version of Gulliver. When you open the book, the story comes to life all around you. Not just on the pages of the book, but on the floor in front of you. There’s Gulliver being washed up on the beach. You might pull your knees up to keep your feet from getting wet. There are the Lilliputians staking Gulliver to the sand. Maybe one of them asks you to place a finger on a knot while they tie a bow."
I like and admire Howey, but that multimedia monster isn't the future of anything. You breed from the unhappy pairing of book and movie and you're only going to get a mule.

And secondly I'm responding here to this comment by by Patrick Soderlund in This is War (for a Game Industry's Soul):
"I hate to say this, but storytelling does not come naturally to Swedes. But we’re good at designing systems, and that’s what these games really are…Battlefield is a system designed for entertainment rather than for telling you a story."
Okay, let's start with that. “Storytelling does not come naturally to the Swedes..." Utter nonsense. You will find game developers in the UK saying that storytelling does not come naturally to the British. America likewise. The fact is, storytelling often doesn’t come naturally to the kind of person who gets interested in videogame development. Software engineers may not as a rule read widely, and may not grasp how broad and flexible is our remit when we talk of storytelling. That, fortunately, is changing.

What Mr Soderlund is missing is that, when we talk of storytelling in games, that doesn’t mean a writer using the game as a stage from which to declare a pre-defined story. A game is a world: an environment populated by characters and objects with rules to govern the interactions between them. The most interesting possibilities for story in such a context are not the sequences I might write in advance for the player to watch. That’s just using the game environment as a kind of movie, albeit one you can walk around inside. The really interesting evolution of storytelling in an interactive framework is when the story emerges from what the player does. Like, if I place a limpet mine on a wall that I couldn’t otherwise scale and use that to rocket-jump over it, there I have a story to tell my friends. It’s a very simple story in that example, but it’s special because I made it happen. It wasn’t a story fragment left there for me to experience “from the stalls”. It was always supposed to be - paraphrasing Patrick Soderlund now - a system designed to enable stories to happen.

So here’s how game developers ought to be thinking about interactive stories. Once a fortnight, I run a face-to-face roleplaying game. My players are mostly writers themselves. I see myself as the moderator. I present them with the germ of incidents, non-player characters to interact with, the constraints such as legality and status. I don’t know in advance what the story will be. The story only happens when the actors – that is, my players – come on stage. Our stories are not polished the way a novel or movie ought to be, but they’re not intended to be a spectator sport. Nobody authors them. There's no talking of ourselves in third person. None of us stands back outside the narrative and tries to engineer where it's going. To allow these stories to occur, we let go of being authors and step into the world as participants.

Experienced from within, a genuinely emergent story is new and unique and thrilling. It isn’t “tell me a story” any more. More videogame developers like Soderlund should roleplay so they get to see why the rest of us are so excited by the possibilities here.

Having said all this in praise of what videogames can deliver, I have to add that prose is still the most powerful medium for telling stories. That’s been true since long before Homer first banged his stick on the ground and said, “Sing, goddess!” – and you bet you could hear a pin drop. Words are more powerful because they create a more personal conduit into the imagination of each reader or each listener. (And to think I say this as a writer of comic books and a designer of videogames.) That’s why, if a discerning fellow in the year 2034 really wants to appreciate Gulliver’s Travels, he’ll do without the sloshing surf sound FX and all that art installation gimcrackery and just go back to the words as Swift wrote them.

Sunday 1 June 2014

Saved from the pits

The cover design for the new paperback edition of Blood Sword could have gone horribly wrong. I took it upon myself, that's why. Luckily, to our rescue came Matt Hill of Gamebooks Unlimited, who generously served up a variety of designs and patiently absorbed my comments such as, "Maybe like this but a bit edgier and with extra coolness."

This version isn't quite final. Very nearly, though. And you can see how much better and more professional it's looking than if I'd done the design. The boomalicious art of Megara's Sébastien Brunet doesn't hurt either.

The first book should be out by August, with The Kingdom of Wyrd following before the autumn. Sadly the books don't come packaged with card figurines and a full-colour tactical board like John Berry has improvised here, but maybe when we get around to the hardbacks.