Ostrich IFcomp postmortem

I recently wrote about a game I’ve made that I entered into IFcomp, the premier interactive fiction competition. The results are in, and out of a strong field I made it to joint 14th place out of 77. I’m dead chuffed with that result, and with the atmosphere of the competition generally. There’s been a brilliant forum for authors to discuss their mid-competition thoughts, worries, plans and that sort of thing. As a part of that, authors have been sharing postmortems of their games, looking at the genesis, the implementation, and the results. I’ve written one which I think is worth sharing here as well.

There will be some spoilers ahead, though the game has a lot of variable content depending on which options you pick, so if you haven’t played Ostrich yet you can do so in about 45 mins for free here: https://borntopootle.itch.io/

Background

I took a one week course in IF that focused on Twine over the summer, organised by the British Library. I’d previously had a quick poke of Twine and GameMaker, but not really worked out how to get anything done. Following the course (and another month of work) I published my first game. The day after publishing I had a proper read about IFcomp, noticed the deadline and the rule about being previously unpublished and realised I’d have to make a whole new game if I wanted to enter. I had about six weeks before the deadline.

The idea

Ostrich is not very subtle (which I’ll come back to). It’s very clearly a response to the rise of populist governments and sentiment in political discourse. I don’t think that’s gone over the head of anyone who’s played it!

I’d been toying with the idea of making a game about the regulation/censorship balance in some way. I worked for a company that pre-clears ads for TV (in effect working with the ad agencies to make tweaks to scripts or review evidence for product claims like ‘biggest’ ‘nothing works faster’ etc etc) in the UK for about 7 years, leaving just before they suddenly became newsworthy: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/nov/19/banned-iceland-christmas-ad-clearcast-facvebook-palm-oil

Anyway, the descent from ad regulation to fiction censorship seemed like a good Orwellian trajectory to plot through, and gave me an instant structure to work with.

My initial plan was to have a slightly more subtle game, one where depending on which options you chose you might not see anything untoward happening at all. That was part of the Ostrich name idea – that you could be so buried in your bubble that you might not notice the rise of fascism.

The ‘don’t put your politics in the game’ arguments in mainstream gaming are so annoying I sort of thought that I might be able to turn them on their head. The onus in Ostrich could be on the player to put their politics into the game…

However as I started work I swiftly realised two things. Firstly, if you could miss all of the juicy stuff then some players might find the game very dull. Secondly, I don’t have the skill to pull the subtlety off. Or definitely not in the time I had at any rate. So I embraced the lack of subtlety.

I knew that I wanted the protagonist to be gender neutral, the location to be ambiguous (and definitely not the standard quasi-communist Russia-alike) and the time to be unknown (mainly because I didn’t want to have to deal with emails, mobiles and social media as options for the player).

So then I picked a rather arbitrary 10 step process for evolving from ad regulation, through tighter rules, into censoring the news, and on into fiction. I tied this to what I thought the government might be doing in the background at each stage of the process – protest ban, curbs on immigration, cutting some services to reinforce gender norms, rounding up dissidents etc – and then thought about what events those moves might trigger among the general populace. That gave me the ideas for the train journeys and evening activities.

The execution

The structure was fairly quick to get down: 10 work days, a new twist of rules on each day; a commute to and from work, some with a choice some without; a selection of evening activities to see a bit more of the world and make more choices (or make a choice to not engage with the wider world).

Cycling links were the only way I could think to easily implement the day-to-day work of regulation/censorship. I’m also a big fan of using cycling links for some very simple character-building, so added a few of those early on to give the player a choice of where the character’s apathy sits and their work history.

To give a bit more value to the choices I added a suspicion-meter in the background. This was affected by the choices made on the commute, in the evenings, and also by the quality of your work. When the suspicion meter reaches a certain level you receive a warning letter, and there are a couple of other small reactions tied to it too – aiming to give a bit of feedback to the player about how their choices are affecting things. If the suspicion meter hits another, higher, level you are carted away for questioning. And there were two options that would lead to an early ending regardless – if you took an active part in the protest then on the penultimate night you are rounded up with other dissidents; if you told your boss about the resistance code and still put it in the paper you are, unsurprisingly, caught. If you manage to get through unscathed, then the whole office is taken in for questioning – it’s up to the player whether they think that’s because of their actions.

I didn’t manage to find a satisfactory way of giving the player feedback on their censorship work. And given there was quite a lot of it I think that’s a bit of an oversight. There are one or two points where the boss can give a different response, but I don’t think it’s enough.

And the ending… I knew it was all going to end with the player being hauled in for questioning and I tried to come up with a few options for how naming names might go. Some options only appear if you’ve found out certain things, but I also quite wanted to find a way of implicating other people, like the combover man. But I didn’t find a satisfying way of doing that. And the interrogator spouting back some of the choices you’ve made isn’t massively exciting. I tried skipping a lot of that and going straight to the final outcome passage, but that didn’t have quite enough weight to it. As the deadline was looming I reverted to the list-of-choices ending.

The reception

It’s my first time being involved with IFcomp in any capacity so I really didn’t know what to expect. I was happy with the game – mechanically it did what I wanted it to, and seemed to have the desired emotional effect on my testers.

And the response has been really positive. I worried that a depressing political game might rub some people up the wrong way, but perhaps they were put off enough by the blurb that they didn’t actually play and review the game! And of course Twine has a fine history of games looking at sobering subjects. The phrase ‘on the nose’ has come up in a few bits of feedback. It’s usually a negative phrase but the reviewers have, in the main, acknowledged that in this case it kind of works. Initial hopes for subtlety aside, Ostrich is a blunt game and elicits a response in part because of that bluntness.

Papers Please cropped up in a few reviews, which is both pleasing and not surprising. I did worry at times that it was going to be too similar to Papers Please (which I’ve not actually finished – must get back to it!) but ended up going in a different direction.

Looking at my reviews and reviews for other games, I thought I’d probably finish somewhere in the middle, which I would’ve been happy with on my first attempt and with a depressing game. And by all accounts it’s been a good year for IFcomp with no troll games and loads of great stuff. So to finish in joint fourteenth is ruddy marvellous and I’m hugely grateful to everyone who has played, rated, or proffered feedback. Being a part of the comp has been brilliant, particularly with the lovely authors’ forum. And the organisers of course, without whom etc etc.

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I’ve Published a Thing. Or Two.

When I started this blog, part of the purpose was to keep a record of what I was doing writing-wise, both for myself and for anyone else at a similar (beginner) stage with their writing. So there have been posts about redrafting, sending manuscripts to literary agents and, swiftly afterwards, rejection. What there haven’t been many of is posts about successes, or getting something published. So I’m slightly baffled as to why I’ve published two things in quick succession recently and not mentioned them here.

Whoops.

Longtime readers will know that I’ve been working on three or four different novels over the last few years. A couple of years ago I posted about trying to write a game (I play more games than I read novels at the mo, so it seemed sensible). Unsurprisingly that involved learning a lot of new skills as I was trying to do it all myself, including art, animation and sound. After playing around with it for a while, I realised any finished piece wasn’t actually going to show off anything good writing-wise. Because I was struggling so much with all the other bits, the actual writing itself was almost an afterthought (which is something that could be extrapolated out to a sizeable percentage of actual games, now that I think about it). I was aware of software like Twine that can be used to make primarily text-based games (or Interactive Fiction depending on who you ask), but after a few cursory experiments I got distracted by novels again.

This summer however, at a bit of a crossroads with my various projects, I went on a week-long Twine summer school at the British Library and it’s kickstarted a few new ideas. I went to the course knowing what story I wanted to work on – it’s a horror story about people living in a squat and an ancient evil under the streets of London. I’ve been wondering what to do with it for a couple of years and couldn’t quite decide if it was a novel, a script or what. So taking it into a different medium seemed like a good way to actually get somewhere with it. Halfway through the course I realised that it was too big a project to actually utilise some of the techniques we were learning in the given time, so I swapped to something a bit lighter. And a few weeks after the course finished I published my first game.

Understudied places you as the understudy in a rock musical version of Macbeth. It’s three hours until press night and the star is ill. You must step up to the role having not rehearsed, and try to muddle you way through with generally pretty disastrous results… It takes about 15 minutes to play and is available here.

Now, that was pretty pleasing. I’ve been working on novels for a fair few years now, and not had a single thing published. While I’m not snooty about self-publishing, it’s not something I’ve wanted to pursue myself just yet. But with the Twine projects it feels a lot more free to finish (and test) it, then hit publish. And then it’s out there and, hopefully, able to be enjoyed.

But the title says I’ve published two things. Because with unerring timing I published Understudied a day before I looked up IFcomp, an annual interactive fiction competition. And one of the rules of IFcomp is that the entry can’t have been published previously. I love a deadline though, so with only six weeks to go before entries had to be in I decided to make my second game. Ostrich is altogether a less upbeat affair than Understudied. You start out as an advertising compliance officer for the government. But after a populist party rises to power the advertising rules start to tighten up, and then it’s not just adverts that you have to amend… And in the background you can choose how to spend your evening, get a sense of what’s happening in the country and, most importantly, decide how you will get through it all. Do you have a line in the sand, or is your head buried in it (ooh, that’s a better tagline than I’ve had for it so far)? That, along with more than 70 other entries, is available here. Judging is open to anyone who plays at least five games, and there’s some great stuff in there.

So there we go. It feels very strange to have two bits of creative writing finally published and able to pointed at. So strange that I have neglected pointing at them!

You may also remember me posting about a short film that I wrote and starred in. Well my partners in crime/doofusing have finished up the edit and it is 100% complete. I can’t share it yet as I’m planning on entering it into a few film festivals (like IFcomp, most festivals frown upon a film being available to the general public pre-festival). I imagine it will be the talk of Cannes soon enough. It’s silly and fun, and hopefully another thing that I can point to as an example of my writing.

This year feels like a few things have really come together and projects have gone from being things that I work on indefinitely with nothing tangible to show, to being out there and available and, of course, utterly nerve-wracking. But that’s part of the fun I guess.

What next? Well there’s still that horror game I want to write, and I’m thinking of using the structure of Understudied as a shortcut to making some more games. And now I’ve self-published games, I might take another look at one of my novels and see if that’s something I’d want to self-publish too.

If you have some spare time and haven’t tried Understudied or Ostrich yet, I’d love to know what you think.

Just Fucking Doing It – An Update

Covering clothes in blood for a short film

Back in January I posted about my own writing for the first time in a while. One of the things I mentioned was a short film I had written, and I hoped to have some sort of update by the end of the Easter holidays. Well schools went back today (I can tell because my commute took twenty minutes longer than last week) and I suppose I’d better come clean about how little I’ve achieved…

Psych!

For once in my life I have actually knuckled down and got on with something properly – largely thanks to the director/co-star helping keep things ticking along. What that means is that on Saturday the two of us plus camera and sound chaps popped round to a friend’s house and spent the sunniest day of the year cooped up in a kitchen making a film. Oh, there was a little time in the sunshine covering clothes in fake blood.

Through a combination of ambition and laziness we were aiming to make the whole film (about 9 mins) one single take. Ambition because it was my first script, Kellie’s first time in the director’s chair, and I for one haven’t done any acting in seven years. Laziness because neither of us know that much about editing, so it should make that a lot easier.

I’ve been on set for short films before, but purely as an actor. It was a very different experience this time – as writer and, I guess, co-producer as well as actor (not to mention joint costume, prop, hair supervisor) it felt much more stressful. Fortunately Kel and I had rehearsed a fair bit over the previous few weeks as acting became about the last thing on my mind while sorting out all the logistics and keeping one eye the time.

Anyway, with some great assistance on the technical side we’ve managed to get something in the can. However it turns out I’m pretty pleased to have actually done something.

And that begs the question why was I doing it? If I’m honest I’d quite forgotten while I’ve been rehearsing. Partially it was an excuse to work with Kellie – she’s always been top of the long list of actors I worked with that I really wanted to do something with again. And with her leaving the country for good later this year (boo) there was a deadline (yay). Also, I’d had a ‘what if’ setup going round in my head for a while that I wanted to do something with, but it didn’t feel like a novel. I have finally remembered the other reason…

I want something I can point to for evidence of my writing. I’ve got novels at various stages, but none published, a couple of sketches that were used by Newsrevue a while back, but nothing tangible that I can direct people towards.

Some time ago I mentioned that I was trying to write a game both for my own edification and as a means of approaching the games industry with something tangible. I got a little bogged down in the technical side of things and realised that the writing in the game was suffering because of my lack of technical expertise. Since then I’ve also read that having theatre or film scripting experience can prove useful. So bam, one film I’ll be able to link to when it’s finalised. Hopefully.

I’ve also just booked on to a week long interactive fiction class at the British Library over the summer. By the time summer is over I should have a film and a couple of Twine projects to shout about.

And the novels? I had said that I intended to get a redraft of one and the synopsis of another completed by the end of April, with a view to sending both off for a professional critique. I’m just about on target at the moment, over three quarters of the way through the redraft and with a little more brain space now the filming is done.

So. Just fucking doing it is just fucking doing it for me at the moment. Maybe I should have been just fucking doing it all along.

Finding an Ancient Manuscript

This week I’ve come to understand how all those Victorian explorers must have felt plundering Egyptian tombs and ancient temples. And not because I’ve started taking laudanum.

I posted recently about just fucking doing it, and in that spirit I dove back into planning a novel that I was working up a year or two ago. But at the same time I remembered that I had a whole manuscript sitting in a box that, upon completion, I’d never read. And so I read it.

And so I read it.

When I first started trying to write a novel I entered NaNoWriMo 2009 and ended up with my first ever beginning-middle-end longform story. It was called Hello Summertime and stretched to about 50,000 words (on the short side for something that might actually get published). And it was, of course, a right old mess. At that point I was a dedicated pantser, someone who thought planning a novel would kill the fun of writing. These days I’m quite the opposite because frankly, the plot was godawful.

Anyway, I wrote a few other short bits and bobs, and the first drafts of a couple of other novels. Along the way I did more research about how to plan a novel, plot structure and all that good stuff. So when I was letting a draft of a different novel sit, I started planning and then comprehensively rewrote the whole of Hello Summertime from scratch. The (sort of) second draft was 95,000 words. And then I put it to one side. That was in 2013 or thereabouts.

I’ve just finished rereading the manuscript and that’s where the explorer analogy comes in. Some of it I remember, some not at all. It’s like delving through the mind of me from 5 years ago and looking at what was occupying my thoughts, what themes were on my mind…. and what words I was overusing (anything involving walking/moving/stepping/heading and looking/staring/gazing fyi).

There’s a lot in there that’s reminiscent of themes in other stuff I’m working on. I once heard an interview with Emma Thompson about her dad, the Magic Roundabout creator. In it she said that people often write where they need healing, which is something I think about a lot. Is that why Stephen King often has alcoholic father figures in his books? I’m pretty sure that’s why my themes go the way they do (which I may talk about in a different post, but I’m not drunk enough today).

Anyway, like those Victorian explorers (or Indiana Jones, just to mix it up a bit) I must now decide whether the manuscript belongs in a museum, or whether I should try and flog it to the highest bidder. And it’s tricky. The novel is in rough shape in places, but seems pretty fixable. The language is very basic and full of repetition, but polishing the language is a job for further down the line. It’s the flow of the plot and characterisation that is more pressing.

As an aside, one of the reasons I let it sit originally is that it’s on a topic that was suddenly pretty overwhelmed a few years ago. The first draft was about a zombie apocalypse, though in the rewrite I got rid of the zombies. My heart wasn’t in it, so to speak. I was (and am) more interested in the emptiness of the world after a plague or similar rather than the shambling hordes. And it’s always people who are the real baddies in zombie stuff anyway.

But do you know what else is interesting? The new novel I’m planning full of ghosts and psychedelic cults. So I’ve come up with what I think is an alright plan… I’m going to spend the next couple of months doing a mild redraft of Hello Summertime to fix some of the glaringly obvious stuff. I’ve put together a bit of a writing schedule for myself as well as a deadline, as otherwise nothing will happen. I’m also going to dedicate a few spots of writing time to working up a one page synopsis of my new project. Then I’m going to send both off for a pro critique, see what the feedback and let that help me decide where to spend my time.

So I’ve come up with what I think is an alright plan… I’m going to spend the next couple of months doing a mild redraft of Hello Summertime to fix some of the glaringly obvious stuff. I’ve put together a bit of a writing schedule for myself as well as a deadline, as otherwise nothing will happen. I’m also going to dedicate a few spots of writing time to working up a one page synopsis of my new project. Then I’m going to send both off for a pro critique, see what the feedback and let that help me decide where to spend my time.

I want to be done with the redraft by the end of April at the latest, so hopefully I’ll have a better idea of how I want to spend the rest of my writing year in May.

The only fly in the ointment is that I’ve had an idea for turning the first part of Hello Summertime into a one man stage show and am Quite Excited about it. But that can wait until May, right?

Writing About Writing (For Once)

One of the original purposes of this blog was to document any successes or pitfalls I had as I tried to get a novel published. You might have spotted that more recently it’s been a lot of film review stuff (though I like to think the Chain Reaction Film Club posts end up saying more about me than the films themselves) and some noodling about video games. That’s because I’ve fallen into the deadliest pitfall of all – not actually doing any writing. Why haven’t I been writing? I dunno. A combination of factors from the risible to the more serious. Partly I blame Southern Rail.

I changed my commute about two years ago because Southern became too unreliable. I used to write on my way to and from work – somewhere between an hour and an hour and quarter of beautiful writing time. But that’s not possible on my new commute. Also, I shared a pro-critique of the novel I thought I’d finished a while back. And while it was positive in places, it also confirmed some things I feared about the manuscript. And I think it probably knocked me back a little further than I let on. Hey ho, that’s the creative life isn’t it.

And the novel I have been working on in the interim, the one about the teenage punk band and the devil, well… the second half is really not coming together for some reason. I’ve got what I think is a kick ass first half, somewhere around 60,000 words but… Well. I’ll work it out at some point.

But it’s a new year, and I’m pissed off with my lack of creativity. So instead of bang my head against The Judas Tattoo (or We Are The Scene or whatever I end up calling it) I’m turning my attention to one of the other books I’ve had in the back of my mind for a couple of years. I read though most of my notes today, a form of archaeology of the self, and got quite excited about it – there’s a more coherent plot than I remembered for a start.

When I started planning it the main character was intended to be a trans woman. Over the last few years since I started it’s become increasingly clear that there’s a bit of trans tokenism going on (I work in TV advertising, so I’ve seen the tokeniest, believe me). And while I do think my character was more than tokenly trans, I also don’t think I want to try and appropriate that experience out of something akin to pure curiosity (and empathy). So I decided today to have a cisgender female protagonist which will be a sort of first for me. Somewhere I’ve got a second draft of a zombie novel which is about 60% male POV, 40% female, but I haven’t read it since finishing a few years back.

It’s about ghosts, psychic terrorists, a kick-ass photographer of derelict spaces, judgement, death and guilt. And there’s stuff set in the 60s psychedelic revolution as well as present day. And some really creepy mummification. But the cutesy version is that it’s Chloe Price (from Life Is Strange) vs Edith Manning (from The Invisibles) vs John Dee (from beyond the grave). That’s all very exciting to me, and I may write more about it here as it develops. We’ll see.  It means I get to read lots of esoteric nonsense, which always makes me happy.

On a completely separate project, I may be doing a thing. I’ve written a short script for a two hander play or film, and the person I’m working on it with has very sensibly stuck a deadline on when we’re going to do something with it by. So hopefully by the end of the Easter hols I’ll have some news about a short film (that doesn’t involve ghosts, magick or other esoterica for once). Everything’s too scary until there’s a deadline, then you just have to work and fucking do it. So here’s hoping I just work and fucking do it.

@BornToPootle

 

There But For A Lack Of Ambition Go I

Punchdrunk are brilliant. I went to see their last London show a couple of times and was blown away (in different ways) each time. I’ve even compared their style of immersive theatre to what some videogames are getting up to.

Their latest show, which I haven’t been lucky enough to get tickets for, is on at the mo. In pairs people are led on a tour across London with a story and myth unfolding around them. It’s an alternate London, a psychogeographical twist. Apparently it takes in a major London landmark, and other lesser known spots. A handful of actors move things along, but half the game is not knowing who is an actor and who isn’t. In one review the critic spent a merry few minutes chasing after a random stranger and listening in in people’s conversations hoping for clues.

For halloween two years ago Lyd did something along these lines for me. We started in Highgate cemetery and went on a sort of choose-your-own-adventure across London. Instead of actors we used our imagination – at times purely imagining ghost figures in front of us, at other times picking members of the public to follow. We both agreed it was a fun idea and, given the number of actors we know (I trained and worked as an actor for a few years, Lyd started acting training but realised it wasn’t for her, and also worked in a drama school) discussed the idea of taking it a step further. Get a few mates involved, bring a few other friends along as punters and see how it goes, maybe then get some actual paying customers to come along.

But we didn’t do anything about it. Last halloween there were quite a few events on that, for once, we spotted in time to book for them. So although the idea crossed our minds again we didn’t do anything about it. 

This year it was my turn to lead Lyd on a trip through an alternate London. I recruited a couple of friends to handwrite some notes for Lyd to find, but that’s as far as the extrapolation has gone. It was just the two of us, dashing between events and landmarks that I had tied together in an occult conspiracy. We started at a mummy unwrapping at the National Archives, looked for clues at tombs in Westminster Abbey and St. Pauls, chased a suspect actoss St James’ Park and ended up eating Elizabeth I’s mummified flesh in Kensal Green cemetery at the climax of a concert.

And I can’t help but think about the lack of ambition that means it’s still just the two of us taking part. Neither of us has much in the way of entrepreneurial drive – we’re both ideas people, and although we often follow those ideas to their immediate conclusions, that’s where we leave them. Scattered novels, workshopped play scripts, immersive tours, cabaret sets… 

A little splash of ambition and who knows. Oh well. One day. So many hurdles leapt, and so many more to go.

Still, I realised that NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow and using that as a bit of inspiration got back to a novel I’ve been wrestling with (without writing anything) for a year or so. Managed a 587 word lunch break, which is ok by me.

So.

Here we go again.

The Most Unsettling Thing I’ve Ever Read

I’ve lost a little bit of my writing mojo of late, probably for a few reasons – I’m working in two different jobs so it’s harder to get into a routine of writing; my commute has changed and is less conducive to writing; I’ve been learning Japanese which has taken up a part of my brain that I think writing used to take up… and there are probably more reasons besides. Anyway, to try and get back in the groove I bought a couple of books on esoteric subjects. Most of my stories revolve around magickal goings on in an otherwise ordinary setting, and there’s nothing like having a read of people actually doing (or thinking they’re doing) that stuff to help get inspired. But I discovered something really horrible.

Previous contenders for ickiest things I’ve read are probably sections of Timothy Taylor’s incredible The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death (well worth reading as long as you have a strong constitution) and, in fiction, Poppy Z Brite’s Exquisite Corpse (less worth reading). I used to keep a copy of the latter in my bag at school and try to get my friend Barry to read a section where a serial killer scoops out the lungs of a victim described in erotic detail.

For the new batch of books I went to Treadwell’s, an esoteric bookshop near the British Museum (so close to where John Dee’s scrying mirror, amongst other things, resides).  I came out with two slim volumes: a primer on chaos magic rituals, and a sort of autobiography of a ghost healer. It’s the latter that has caused me concern.

Autobiography isn’t quite accurate, it’s actually a series of short recountings of times the author investigated or healed ghosts. He was a man of the cloth, and his healings involve performing a Eucharist.

Some of the healings are on the vague side – in one case the author sits down in a cottage that keeps having its electrics turned off, and thinks with the homeowner about who might have lived there in the past. Maybe someone used to sit out the front (where the electrics are), and maybe they were an elderly woman and maybe people thought she was a witch. Just to be clear, this wasn’t researched, they just thought about it and extrapolated. And then performed a Eucharist for the imagined witch, and lo, all was resolved. Others are more detailed though and based on reportings of historic happenings.

And then I came to the anecdote in question. A military base. Some Satanic goings on. The chaplain had been arrested because two young girls had reported him for spanking them. What then follows is, in a nutshell, a confession from one of the girls that she was sexually abused by her father and the Chaplain. And the author smugly recounts how he was able to quash her story as a fabrication.

It’s told so briefly that there’s next to no reasoning given for the outcome. Simply that the second girl couldn’t corroborate her story. Given that the perpetrators would be likely to try and cover their tracks, that’s not the sturdiest reasoning. The anecdote ends by saying that the Chaplain in question was moved elsewhere 6 months later because of all the ‘tittle tattle’ about the case. Moved on, covered up, and free to continue.

And that’s it. There are no horrendous details of what went on. Just the impression that the author helped abuse continue. It’s really shaken me up. Perhaps at some point it’ll provide the basis of a villain in something I write, but to be honest I’d rather not have it in my brain at all.

The book is Healing the Haunted by Dr Kenneth McAll, and based on my experience with it I would strongly recommend not buying it.

 

Life Is Strange – The Secret To Its Success

life-is-strange

There are a huge number of things Life Is Strange does brilliantly (and perhaps a few that aren’t so great, shaka brah) but the more I think about it the more one thing stands out. No major plot spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t played it and want to go in fresh, maybe check back after you’ve finished.

So, what’s this amazing thing? No, not the tenderness with which it deals with a huge variety of sensitive topics. Not the casting of the player as the geeky girl rather than the geeky guy pursuing said geeky girl. Not even making the main character a photographer, mirroring the player’s sense of watching events unfold with varying degrees of powerlessness (incidentally, we’ll be talking about all this plus subtext, gender, sexuality and more on the next episode of The Conversation Tree Podcast).

Nope, the best thing about what is, with hindsight and distance, rapidly becoming my favourite game of all time, is the very central core mechanic. It’s Max’s time manipulation power.

Games are stuffed full of characters with superpowers. Look at Geralt and his ability to set things on fire, create magical traps and a shield. How about Commander Shepherd and his/her biotics? Corvo, The Inquisitor, Booker DeWitt’s fistful of crows… Even supposedly normal characters often have superhuman abilities – Nathan Drake can definitely absorb more bullets than the average chap, and shrug wounds off with astonishing ease.

No, a mild bit of time manipulation is not the most earth-shattering addition to gaming culture. Not in general terms at any rate. But who has gained this power? A socially awkward teenager. Which is perfect.

Who gives a monkeys that Booker DeWitt can summon a watery tentacle to fling foes off a flying city – sure it’s fun, but it’s rootless. It doesn’t mean anything. Max’s time travel means everything. It’s the one thing that a socially awkward teen might conceivably most want. Rewind that conversation and be less of a dork next time. Rewind that meeting and don’t trip on the way through the door. Just like the powers in The Incredibles (still the finest of superhero films) Max’s power is directly related to an aspect of her personality.

Not only that, but gaining the power is the inciting incident for the plot. Without that power the rest of the story couldn’t happen. It seems obvious, but happens surprisingly infrequently. Booker could still murder his way through Columbia without his vigors. Geralt might have a tougher time with  just a silver sword, but could give it a good go. The Inquisitor’s glowing hand may be more integral to Dragon Age Inquisition, but it ends up just one of a range of stupendous abilities.

So the power perfectly fits the character and is central to the narrative. Great! I’m sure there are other examples of this though. Life Is Strange’s power has another benefit though…

Ever since choice became a hot topic in games I have had a struggle with myself. I know in Mass Effect what Shepherd did and who he (yup, Shepherd is forever a dude to me) was. I started a replay at some point, and tried to make different choices but… that wasn’t Shepherd. But was there any point replaying if I just want to do everyhing the same way?

I’ve played The Walking Dead season one twice. Season two once (though I reloaded the ending). SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP PARAGRAPH TO AVOID! I definitely want to replay both but… what’s cannon now? When the third one comes out, who is Clementine? Did she kill Jane? Is Kenny still out there? It’s muddled. I can’t separate out my ‘true’ playthrough from the one where I just wanted to see what the other options were.

Life is Strange gives the player the best of both worlds. Being able to rewind time means being able to make a different choice, to see how events might play out differently. And when you’ve tried all the options, seen what could be, you can make your choice. What would Max do given all the information? It’s not some weird omniscient player reloading to try a better option, it’s an integral part of the fiction. It’s the fabric of the story. There are of course unforeseen consequences. How some scenes play out will affect things much further on, so there is still an element of needing to replay to see everything. But that’s why I think it’s the best of both worlds. The player gets enough curiosity sated to not need to constantly reload and simultaneously there are enough palpable changes that you still wonder what-if. You can still see your impact on the lives of other characters.

Not only that, but this also enables better immersion in the game. Exhausting conversation trees in rpgs and talk-em-ups can sometimes feel very strange. Why does the other character suffer through your incessant questioning, particularly when you start looping back through questions to get to different sub-questions? In Life is Strange you can try out all the conversation options while still remaining in the fiction. Super-Max can simply rewind time and try something else.

Effectively this all comes down to obstacles. As a player, using the time power to try different options removes an obstacle to immersion and developing a fully rounded sense of character. As a character Max uses her power to overcome  her own personal obstacles. And not just the big plotty stuff. Max starts crippled by self doubt and shyness. By the end of the game she’s confident. She’s a badass. That’s how to weave game mechanics into a narrative and that’s one of many reasons Life is Strange may well be my favourite game.

@BornToPootle

@TheConvoTree

Videogame Gothic

I mentioned the game Layers of Fear in a previous post. I hadn’t played it but was looking forward to trying a horror game that didn’t become merely stressful. I have most definitely played it now (twice – it’s sensibly short) plus its dlc and enjoyed it very much. In fact the game was the subject of the last Conversation Tree Podcast episode (which I co-host) and I’d like to expand on a few of those thoughts and broaden out to include a few more games.

If you haven’t listened to the episode (and it’s worth it – Lyd loses her shit at the subtext of the game) one of the main things I spoke about was how Layers of Fear fitted very snugly in the gothic tradition. And further still, I idly wondered if games could be the best medium yet for the genre?

Let’s backtrack a little. What does gothic actually mean as a genre label? I went to a great exhibition on gothic at The British Library a couple of years ago and there was a definition from Neil Gaiman along the lines of:

‘If the book cover could feature a woman wearing a nightie, holding a candelabra, running away from a mansion at night, and the windows of the mansion are dark except for one at the top… and in that window is the silhouette of a man…then it’s definitely gothic.’

There’s more to it than that of course, but it’s a good starting point. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto set the genre in motion with an apparently found historical manuscript detailing the plight of a woman exploring a ruined castle beset by spirits. Ancient buildings, the supernatural and ancient tomes are all key features. There’s an otherness too, an atmosphere of slow, dawning doom. Or does doom set rather than dawn?

A great recent film example is Crimson Peak (which I also wrote about). This ticks all the boxes, with Mia Wasikowska’s ghost-seeing ingenue beguiled by Tom Hiddlestone’s aristocrat-with-a-secret. She’s whisked away to his crumbling ancestral home that he shares with his austere sister. Blood red clay oozes through the floorboards. There are mysterious documents and recordings, and the whole place seems ready to morph into The Fall Of The House Of Usher at the twitch of a cloak. There’s a knowing morbidity which stays, for me at any rate, just shy of descending into camp or kitsch.

In Layers of Fear you play as an artist trying to finish his masterpiece: a portrait of his wife. He’s dealing with tragedy and completing this painting is his attempt to move on, but all is not well. As you walk through the house to gather the materials you need fragments of letters and scrawled notes reveal an unhappy home and encroaching madness. The house starts to reshape itself, becoming more and more labyrinthine and ruined as the painting nears completion. Ordinary objects are possessed. A ghost stalks the halls. And the materials you are scavenging? Flesh, hair, bone, blood.

A lot of games have used trappings of the gothic in their presentation – the Castlevania series is an obvious example, stuffed as it is with vampires and gargoyle-studded castles. That’s surface detail though; the Castlevania games don’t have gothic right through the core experience.

The core of Layers of Fear is about something reaching out of the past that the player/artist must confront and either overcome or succumb to. There isn’t much more to it than that – there’s no combat, a few puzzles, little gameplay in the traditional, now almost antiquated, meaning. And boy does it have the gothic trappings.

The house crumbles around you as you investigate. PT is the obvious comparison gameplay-wise, but where that involved looping through the same two corridors with minor changes each time, Layers of Fear substitutes a constantly shifting geography to echo the mental descent of the main character into some kind of psychosis. Reach a locked door, turn around and the corridor behind you has changed into a claustrophobic room. Try the other door which has appeared and find it’s also locked. Turn again and the room has changed once more. You can’t trust the house or the artist.

Bioshock is a spectacular example that works both in more traditional gameplay and in fusing the gothic right into its core. Rapture is effectively a gothic castle, isolated, largely abandoned and haunted by thudding armoured apparitions accompanied by scuttling ethereal girls. Audio logs piece together the history of Rapture, which is itself coming apart at the seams, and you are in a way piecing together something of yourself. These aren’t optional collect-for-a-trophy audio logs, these are crucial for continuing. Finding out the secrets of Rapture is the point of the game – shooting splicers is the set dressing.

This idea of finding out the history of a seemingly abandoned space is one which games do very well. Recent horrors Soma and Alien Isolation play with this to mixed effect – Soma rather better for my money, though the first half of Alien Isolation is a pretty spectacular experience. In both there’s a supernatural horror stalking the sci fi corridors, a personal history to unravel. Alien Isolation is less satisfying because that personal history is less integral to the experience. It’s a macguffin which, rather perplexingly, is resolved half way through.

Witcher 3 played with the gothic well too – it does everything well, so it’s probably not much of a surprise. Even in a game stuffed full of supernatural beasties the quest to Fyke Isle that sees Geralt strolling into an abandoned, crumbling, isolated tower is the gothic nadir. In true genre fashion it’s a story of a doomed romance told by ghostly apparitions, and it does not end well.

Games excel at creating architecture to explore – they’re better at it than any other medium (apart from experiential theatre perhaps, but the architecture is more limited by reality there). Stuff it full of ancient tomes, scribbled notes or audio diaries that illuminate the history of the place, and you’re well on your way to the gothic. Turn the lights down low, make sure the location’s history is intrinsic to the player character in some way and you’re even closer. A sprinkling of the supernatural, a sense that things aren’t going to end well and… yum.

It’s often said that cinema was the best medium for the gothic in the 20th century. In the 21st it is surely going to be videogames.

@BornToPootle

Conflict-averse protagonists

It’s been a little while since I wrote about my own writing – sadly that’s because I haven’t been doing a huge amount of it. I’ll get back in the saddle soon I’m sure.

One of the problems is that I’m a little stuck in all of my usual go-to projects, and I don’t want to start something new as I’ve got so many juicy (albeit stalled) things under way already.

I can’t remember what I last posted about my novel A Calling-on Song so I’ll do a quick catch-up: I had it all nice and finished, sent it off to agents with no luck; I paid for a professional critique from one of the market leaders in such things; feedback was very useful and identified a few things which I’d been sort-of aware of and hoped had been buried beneath awesomeness.

The main issue highlighted was my main character, Robin. He still came across as too passive or stand-off-ish. One of the things this meant was that it’s unbelievable that the people who tag along with him and lend assistance would actually bother. This stems from the very initial draft and, rather than pluck the problem out and solve it, I wrote around it. I came up with motivations and reasons to excuse it all that fitted neatly into the narrative. Four drafts on and it’s much more daunting to tackle!

In the mornings before work I watch 20 minutes of a TV show. Over the years its been everything from an episode of The Simpsons or Friends to a smidge of The Wire to a variety of costume dramas. Right now I’m part way through a rewatch of Pushing Daisies, half-episode at a time. If you haven’t seen it I can’t recommend it highly enough – it’s not a big commitment as there were only 2 relatively short series. Just like Firefly it left me wanting much more, and just like Firefly it’s excellent.

The general premise is that the MC, a piemaker by trade, has the power to bring anything back to life with a touch. A second touch will permanently kill what was brought back. If something or someone is brought back for more than 60 seconds then something else close by will die in its place. He uses the power to help a private detective solve murders (obviously). The whole tone borrows very heavily from Amelie and it’s a lovely, romantic, funny and touching confection.

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is that the MC is very risk-averse, both physically and emotionally. He is stand-off-ish and often reactive rather than proactive. He wants, by and large, a normal life and to be left alone. And it works very well. This desire for a smooth ride causes tension among the other characters and, due to his use of his power, leads to secrets and intrigue. The characters that surround him are all very proactive, from the private detective starting new cases to the MC’s brought-back-to-life childhood sweetheart who wants to make the most of her new lease of life.

I’ve tried for a similar set up – my MC keeps the causes of some of his strange behaviour to himself, hoping his life will return to normal. Around him friends and colleagues poke and prod and investigate and suppose as they try to help or further their own agendas (or both). 

So why isn’t it working for me? 

A couple of considerations: maybe the critiquer is ‘wrong’. This is a dangerous door to open – disregarding what someone thinks of my novel is not something I intend to do, particularly if they’re a professional in the field! And it’s something I was deep down aware of to boot!

Perhaps its down to likeability? Despite his stand-off-ishness The Piemaker is very likeable thanks to a combination of both the script and performance. I may need to work on my MC, as I don’t have a top actor to rely on…

Another consideration is that the viewer doesn’t solely follow the Piemaker in Pushing Daisies. My novel is 3rd person, but we only follow the MC. Is this too much of a halfway house? Maybe committing to 1st person or pulling the ‘camera’ back to follow other characters would bring the dynamic that I’m lacking.

The Piemaker is pulled into scrapes partially because of his work with the detective. And he is only useful to the detective because of his power. My MC doesn’t really have a power or useful quality that his friends are lacking. So maybe that’s a key. They should need him for something as much as he ends up needing them…

There’s always the possibilty that it doesn’t work in Pushing Daisies. I mean, I love it of course. But it was cancelled after 2 short seasons so can’t have been wildly popular at the time. Could it be that I have a predilection for these kinds of characters, but popular appeal isn’t there?

And one final thought – maybe these kinds of characters are better suited to a visual medium. Characters who are ‘numb’ generally work better in film than on the page. Perhaps it’s the same for the risk-averse.

If you’ve got any suggestions of books featuring stand-off-ish characters trying desperately to cling to a normal life do let me know.

@BornToPootle