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Saturday 2 October 2021

Thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls

Paul Gresty is perhaps best known around these parts as the writer of The Serpent King's Domain (Fabled Lands #7), but in the wider world he's the top-selling author of a couple of acclaimed Choice of Games gamebooks, The ORPHEUS Ruse and MetaHuman Inc.

Making it the hat trick, here's Wraiths of SENTINEL, an interactive adventure in which you play a Deadman-like spy:
"Dying made you the perfect spy. You are now a disembodied spirit working as a covert intelligence operative for SENTINEL, a secretive Federal agency. As a ghost, your unrivaled powers of surveillance can safeguard the freedom of the country -- or bring it to its knees. Will you use your phantom powers to defend the United States government, or to overthrow it?"
As instantly gripping and dramatic a concept as Paul's other gamebooks, then. I don't know why he isn't pitching these things to Amazon to be honest, but TV's loss is interactive literature's gain.

Dave: 'The ORPHEUS Ruse and MetaHuman Inc both have high concepts that immediately grab the reader. If they were movies you’d know just from the pitch if you wanted to see them. Wraiths of SENTINEL is like that too. What’s your process for coming up with those strong concepts? Do you start there, or do you begin at a more detailed character level and the world-building comes later?'

Paul: 'In the case of Wraiths of SENTINEL, the player is essentially a ghost, who's working as an intelligence agent for the US government. Certainly the ghostly, spectral side of that was something that had been bouncing around in my head for a long time, probably a few years. And, for interactive fiction, or for any kind of gamebook, that's how it works for me – the concept comes first. I pick at ideas, sometimes for years at a time, and then at some point things click into place. Or sometimes you have to force a few of those long-held ideas to click together, when you're pitching ideas to a publisher.
'I'll specify that concept and setting come first for interactive fiction – but then, the player is by definition the main character; everybody else is the supporting cast. For more conventional fiction, characters can be more prominent at the planning stage. I once listened to a Babylon 5 DVD commentary where JM Straczynski said something to the effect of, 'To write a good story, you just have to create a character that people will like, and then put him up a tree and throw rocks at him.' It's good advice.'

Dave: 'I must admit I had to look up the title each time. Was Wraiths of SENTINEL your first choice?'

Paul: 'It was not. The game went through a few different working titles during development; the game I originally pitched was The Darkling Watchers and then I later decided that I liked Wraiths of AEGIS. But that title was similar to another game that Choice of Games had already published, 180 Files: The Aegis Project. So I had to change mine. And that was entirely my own fault, of course, for being so wishy-washy about the title from the start.
'I had a fun time trying to think of names for a sinister government agency, that I could condense into a cool-sounding acronym. I see why so many Marvel writers do that, now. SENTINEL – that is, the Surveillance and Espionage Network, for Tactics and Initiatives in the Negation of Extra-normal Lifeforms – was the one that came out of the editing process.'

Dave: 'It’s 250,000 words, which is incredible value for money – it’s almost as long as A Game of Thrones, and those books take GRRM a decade each to write. How long did you spend on Wraiths of SENTINEL?'

Paul: 'Start to finish, it took me a crazy-long amount of time. Well over four years. In terms of fiction writing work, I've been working almost wholly on this since I finished The Serpent King's Domain. And that's not completely due to the length of the game – I had some fairly seismic life changes, good and bad, during the time I spent writing Wraiths, and that had an impact on the amount of time I could devote to it. At some point, our agreed deadlines became a bit of a distant memory, and I massively appreciate the patience the Choice of Games team showed me. (Note that I'm not encouraging other CoG writers to be so laissez-faire with their deadlines; I may have exhausted the team's patience for this kind of behaviour...)

'I'll add that 250,000 words is by no means the longest Choice of Games title. They've published a few titles over 500,000 words, and one or two that are over a million words. Those are some dedicated writers, right there.'

Dave: 'I’m curious about your process. Do you sketch out the entire storyline, do you write the scenes in order, or do you write the big set-pieces and then connect them with other scenes later?'

Paul: 'My information on how Choice of Games approaches its games might be a little out of date – I haven't pitched an idea to them for a few years, at this point – but they like to see a structured plan from their writers. They maintain an open call for writers on their website, even for writers with no prior experience with interactive fiction, so I feel that this is essentially their way of providing support at the planning stage, and ensuring that their writers aren't leaping out into the void unassisted.

'So, when it comes to creating that structure, yes, I tend to have an idea of the main points that the story needs to hit, but then offer as much flexibility as possible when navigating between those points. I find that it helps as well, in terms of both the story and the worldbuilding, to really drill down to the details of the main character's existence. What's a typical day for a government-employed wraith? Where does he live? Can he listen to music, or browse the internet? What websites might he like? When you reach that level of familiarity with your character – when you see not only the extraordinary obstacles they have to overcome, but the mundane challenges as well – the story kind of starts to write itself.

'A case in point: with Wraiths of SENTINEL, the obvious and most primordial question was why a ghost would be interested in working for anybody at all. Not for money, certainly. This consideration led to some of my favourite sections in the story, quite early on, when the player is exploring the practicalities of being a wraith – but he or she is also learning about how it feels to be truly invisible, and utterly disconnected from the world. Ultimately, and certainly in the earlier parts of the story, the player's work with SENTINEL simply offers a chance to be perceived, and to interact with others.

'For games or interactive fiction, there are also sometimes mechanical elements to consider, which can have an impact on the overall structure of the story. In MetaHuman Inc, the character can lean towards specializing in either magic or super-science – and so, in that case, I specifically wanted to include a scene about halfway through where the player can reverse those choices so far, and develop the opposing discipline without losing progress. It provides a bit more flexibility like that; the player isn't constrained by choices he made early on.'

Dave: 'Presumably there are trade-offs between making a compelling story and providing the player with freedom of choice. Do you feel those different requirements have to involve compromise, or is there a way to deliver both? In the cases when it’s either/or, which takes precedence?'

Paul: 'For the really big moments in the story, you need that element of choice. And that’s the raison d’être of the interactive fiction format; if you don’t want to offer choice, you should go write a novel instead. Moreover, you have to deal with the consequences of that choice, which might mean adding a big chunk of content to the story. You can’t short-change the player by offering a seemingly big choice that has no real impact on the overall story.

'An example in Wraiths of SENTINEL: at one point, about two-thirds of the way in, the player has a life-or-death choice over one of the major characters in the story. Most players are, I think, essentially "good", so I wrote this with the expectation that most people would allow that character to live. Even the story’s main antagonist is expecting the player to let that character live. But, for whatever reason, the player might choose differently, and I had to allow for and respect that. If the player chooses death for this character, then they’re no longer around – but it isn’t sufficient to simply send the player along a truncated version of the story. The player’s choice here isn’t inherently "wrong", and cutting their story in this way wouldn’t be fair. Rather, in writing for this possibility, I had to consider the new paths generated by this death. What actions occur because of this death? What does it set in motion? How does this unexpected move screw up the antagonist’s plans, and what are the consequences of that?

'But, yes, the medium of interactive fiction does impose some constraints. Purely in terms of the word count required, and the work that would be involved, you can’t realistically include such far-reaching consequences for every single choice. You have to hold them back for the really significant moments in the story. And you can fudge things to some degree; the example above, for instance, is a binary choice, life or death, so in this case you only have to accommodate two main outcomes – but even then you can add in extra considerations to broaden that choice somewhat. I personally like to add motivations in to big decisions like this: "This character should die for the greater good," say, or, "This character should die because I just don’t like them." That kind of thing can have an impact on your overall character build, in addition to the outcomes for the story as a whole.

'When it comes to tradeoffs between absolute freedom of choice and an interesting story… I think I’m going to prioritize the story. All art is subjective, of course, but my own feeling is that the only bad story is one that’s dull. That said, every single choice in the game should have an impact. That might only be a small impact – it might only be an adjustment to your character’s stats, which only affects the story in the aggregate – but it needs to be there. Inconsequential choices are pretty dull too.'

Dave: 'When Choice of Games realize that you’ve created the bases for three hugely successful TV shows or movies, do they get a cut of that or are the subsidiary rights in your hands? (Asking for a Hollywood producer friend.)'

Paul: 'Heh. I’ve retained intellectual property for the content of these games; that is, I think, standard for Choice of Games writers. I’ll make sure my phone is on the hook, just in case.'

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