Now, I'm happy to be postponing Shop Talk this week to welcome Richard Dansky to the website. Rich's new book is Vaporware, which will be released this week. I'm looking forward to digging into this one. I love the idea of sentient video games, and if anyone understands the gaming industry it's this author. He's spent fourteen years in the video-game industry, and is the Central Clancy Writer for Ubisoft/Redstorm. Named by Gamasutra as one of the top 20 game writers in 2009, he has written for games ranging from OUTLAND to the upcoming SPLINTER CELL: BLACKLIST. Richard is also the author of six novels, including the critically praised FIREFLY RAIN. You can learn more about Richard by visiting his website or by following him on Twitter.
And, I can't help myself. I have to comment on the cover. I'm really not a fan of this cover. I like the illustrative style. I like the color. I like the chick reaching through the screen for her hapless victim, and I understand that a lot of the women in video games are of the boobalicious variety and it's playing on that. Still...Cover up those things, lady! LOL. Okay, I got it out of my system.
On with the show, and I think you'll enjoy Rich's post about moving from video-game writing to novels!
ABOUT VAPORWARE: Video game projects get shut down all the time, but when the one Ryan Colter and his team have poured their hearts into gets cut, something different happens: the game refuses to go away. Now Blue Lightning is alive, and it wants something from Ryan - something only he can give it. And everybody knows how addictive video games can be…
And now, let's hear from Richard...
The Multiclassed Writer’s Journey
Moving into writing fiction from writing games was about precisely one thing: whose stories I would be writing.
When you’re writing games, whether it be tabletop RPGs or AAA-level video games, the stories you’re crafting aren’t yours. They’re the players’. Those narratives are specifically designed – when designed well - not to live on their own, but rather to be picked up and inhabited by the people who will, each in turn, be playing your game. This is a great thing, mind you - creating narrative elements that get turned into stories by their interaction with the player means that you’re giving every player something potentially unique and theirs. There’s a reason that when players tell stories about their gaming experiences, they always start them, not with “Master Chief” or “My Lasombra,” but with “I.” What they’re telling are in every sense their stories, created by their specific choices and actions and play styles. That holds true even if I wrote the narrative bits they then arranged; it’s their involvement that makes it their stories, and not mine.
But the tradeoff in writing stories for other people to assume ownership of is precisely that - you’re writing to possibility, to what the player might do. Even the most constrained RPG scenario or rail shooter has immense amounts of player choice; the thing that makes a game a game is the same thing that makes it impossible to be certain where a player’s going to be and what they’re going to be looking at when you want to have a big dramatic scene. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that - it’s what the player chooses to do at that moment, and since it’s their game, more power to ‘em.
But if you want to tell your own, precise story, then the odds are you need to look somewhere besides games to tell it. You’ll need someplace where the content is formalized, someplace without players who’ll want to do their own thing with “your” characters. Comic books, perhaps, or screenplays, or in my case, fiction.
Before I got into games, I’d actually quit writing fiction. I’d written in high school and my freshman year of college, and then, like an awful lot of other young writers, I ran into something that sent me careening off the rails. I stopped writing stories (though I kept running RPGs and LARPs). Any writing I did was deep in the thickets of literary criticism.
And then, along came the opportunity to write games. A friend from college was working at a tabletop RPG company and remembered that I’d wanted to write. She also remembered that I’d have 25-person combat scenarios in my weekly RPG cluttering up the living room, so she asked me to tackle a couple of chapters of a setting book she was designing for Wraith – a game about ghosts that needed some prefab haunted houses.
So I bit. I started writing RPGs. And with it, I eventually realized, I was writing the underpinnings of other people’s stories. Characters, yes. Settings, of course. The rules that served as boundaries for the action? Absolutely. All the pieces that went into storytelling, except the actual story.
The first fiction I wrote professionally was tabletop RPG tie-in fiction (which is what we used to call transmedia before we had quite so many media to tie in), an entirely sensible arrangement that let me cautiously test my craft in unfamiliar waters. After all, these were worlds I knew, with rules I knew – I’d helped build several of them - and the walls of my sandbox had been built for me. Within those preset boundaries – no turning vampires into space aliens allowed - I was free to play, and to make the characters do any damn thing I wanted to. It was a small step, but a key one. I’d been putting the narrative elements together for years, and now I had to actually sequence them in a way that made sense.
Which, I confess, was a lot harder than it looked. But I had the advantage of building on those worlds I knew, letting me focus on getting better at the stuff that was new to me. That produced stories that appeared in sourcebooks, then in tie-in anthologies, and then finally in novels.
Needless to say, that’s when I switched gears and got into video games, and I had to learn a whole new style of writing all over again. When you’re writing for video games, there are a lot of things you have to do that you don’t do anywhere else. For one thing, you have to write systemic dialogue, the so-called “barks” that play automatically when triggered by game action. In practical terms, these translate to the innumerable variants on “Arrgh! He shot me!” that a game will cycle through as you mow down endless waves of enemies. These lines can add up, and they can add up quickly.
What you don’t have to write, however, is Everything. You don’t have to write setting, because there are scads of incredibly talented artists whose job it is to create the world and everything in it. You don’t have to describe how something moves, because the player will actually see it move, thanks to the work of animators and modelers and riggers. You don’t have to write out action sequences because in most games, that’s what the player does. You get the idea.
And I immersed myself in that style of writing, doing my best to master it. Which meant scaling back on fiction and everything else, until once again the bug to write my own stories – not stories from someone else’s world, not stories that was made by the a team that I was a part of – bit. Which meant pulling out those skills that game writing hadn’t needed, scraping off the rust, and putting them to work once again.
But this time, I think, I was better prepared to use them well. The path I’d taken had allowed me to focus on various aspects of the craft, each in turn. RPGs taught me worldbuilding and setting. Tie-in fiction helped me learn structure. Video games forced me to focus on dialog and boiling down exposition. And putting all of those together meant, when I sat down to write Firefly Rain, my first original novel, that I was somewhere near ready.
In the end, I don’t think of myself as a fiction writer or a game writer exclusively. I think of myself as a storyteller, one who’s been lucky enough to have worked in different fields and gotten to tell different stories as a result. And if the experience in one media can inform what I do in another – if my time in video games can help me tell the story of Vaporware – then I wouldn’t change a thing along the way.
Like to win a copy of Vaporware, or a mystery book from my Towering TBR pile? Tell me if you're a gamer (or were at one time)? I played some of the very early RPGs back in the D-and-D days, but nothing of recent vintage, although I find them really interesting. If you're a gamer, do you have a favorite?