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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Memories stolen by a dragon's breath

"Enter a world of magic, folklore and danger. Here, superstition covers people’s lives like autumn mists cover the moors, and terrifying monsters with bizarre powers lurk in the shadows. The king is a weakling, barons scheme against each other, and lordless knights, back from the Crusades without the honour or riches they were promised, roam the countryside in search of adventure, or prey. Ruined castles and burial mounds are the lairs of the supernatural, or newer, more sinister masters. Labyrinthine underworlds lie forgotten below ancient temples and city cellars. The dark places of the world hold riches for those who would search for them, and the keys to great power - or death"
My world, but not my words. That's James Wallis's evocative description of Legend, the setting for the Dragon Warriors RPG.Through his Magnum Opus imprint, James reintroduced the dank, gnarled, cobwebby, and generally eldritch landscapes of Legend to tabletops across the world.

Those Magnum Opus books were beautiful volumes and they have pride of place on the shelf beside my desk. Nowadays you can only get the game in PDF form, sadly - but hie yourself over to Lulu and you can print up a hard copy at a very reasonable price.

But I digress. Legend is characterized by its dark and downbeat tone. Adventurers here are more Gangs of New York than The Iliad. There is magic, but it's rare and capricious and nobody quite trusts it - not even the sorcerers. If you've ever seen Robin of Sherwood, you'll know what I'm talking about. So now try this:
"Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land. The people who lived nearby... might well have feared these creatures, whose panting breaths could be heard long before their deformed figures emerged from the mist."
Legend? No, this is the undefined but vaguely Dark Ages environment created by Kazuo Ishiguro for his novel The Buried Giant. I bruised and battered it somewhat in my review on the Mirabilis blog, though no worse a drubbing than it got from Tim Martin in The Telegraph. Nonetheless, if you like your fantasy with a tang of melancholy then you should take a look. And the encounter with the pixies who seem like skinned rabbits and sound "like children playing in the distance" as they attack - now that's as sinister a scene as any I've encountered while role-playing in Legend.

Friday, 27 March 2015

A matter of millimetres


I don’t like the term game designer, and I’ll tell you why. But first some definitions.

Here’s one from a book on game theory: “A game is a system governed by rules, in which two or more players are able to adjust a limited set of interacting variables so as to reach an end state in which they can be ranked against a pre-established set of victory conditions.”

What can we say, apart from yikes? Well, driving through London in rush hour qualifies as a game. Solitaire doesn’t – it’s just a problem to be solved. Pinball too. Golf is a competition, but barely counts as a game unless you play it the way Goldfinger did. And the National Lottery isn’t a game unless you believe in God, in which case it is a game but it’s not a fair one.

Gameplay follows from that definition as “the set of strategies that players use to optimize their route through the game system.” Whole books have been written defining gameplay. My shelves are groaning under quite a few of them. (They’re rarely under 500 pages.) Still, I haven’t heard better than Sid Meier’s description of gameplay being “a series of interesting decisions.”

Anyway, what I said before was the theorist’s definition. Here’s mine: “A game is anything that is marketed as ‘a game’.” Game theory is a precisely defined area of analysis in mathematics and economics, but it’s not even close to being the whole thing. Just as plot is only part (and an optional one at that) of what makes a work of fiction, gameplay is just one of the elements that can be used to make a game enjoyable.

And that’s why I don’t like the term game designer. Game designer sounds like some kind of technician. And I have nothing against technicians, let me rush to tell you, but it is not an adequate way to describe something that fundamentally is an art, not a science.

It would be fatuous after all to describe a screenwriter as a “plot designer”. Technical skills are needed in the development of a game concept, and of course many more technical skills are then involved in turning the concept into a product. But the concept itself comes out of artistic inspiration and vision, not design.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Just let go


My father used to tell me how, as a youngster at the cinema, it was obvious to him that they were getting it all wrong. (A genetic trait, then.) “They should film it all from the hero’s point of view,” he used to say to his friends. “That’s when movies will really come alive.”

Then in 1947, a couple of movies came along that made almost exclusive use of the first-person view: The Lady in the Lake and Dark Passage. After my father saw them, he realized he’d been wrong. They didn’t work. Seeing everything through the hero’s eyes actually reduces your empathy for the character.

Movies aren’t games, so I’m not going to turn this into a discussion of camera techniques. First-person and third-person views both work in games, because they serve different purposes. The way you feel about the characters is different. Crucially, first person can work in games where it doesn't in movies because you aren’t just staring out helplessly through someone else’s eyes. You are the guy with the BFG. You’re in control.

But do you always need to be in control? Consider a game that calls for you to empathize with the character, but not to have hands-on direct control. You would be advising the hero and having a dialogue with him. You wouldn’t be the hero.

There’s nothing new about that. It’s an idea that runs through a lot of games that let you experience the story alongside the character rather than watching him or her from on high. In my gamebook app Frankenstein, you don't have any control of Victor at all. You can give him advice when he asks for it. Whether he takes your advice depends on how much he trusts you. And yet some people are unhappy with the idea. They get concerned that the player will feel detached from the hero if they don’t have complete control of him/her all the time

In fact, it’s the opposite. Direct control is an artificial and alienating experience. It will always distance you from the character. Granted, as a designer that might not be your main priority. Maybe you want to give the player an adrenaline thrill first, and an emotional bond with the hero second. But if you’re trying to create something that people will keep coming back to, you need to put emotion at the core of it. The best way to do that is to make the experience a bit less controlling.

Because when people aren’t in complete control, they can stop thinking and start feeling.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

That old serpent


We were just talking last month about how the fantasy adventure gamebook has evolved into (among other things) CRPGs, so no need to go into all that again. This is Inkle's latest gamebook app in the Sorcery series, and it's interesting that 80 Days seems to have steered them more towards the go-anywhere open world gameplay of Fabled Lands.

Good thing too, though I'll admit to a heartsink when I saw a piece of simulated text-on-paper flip up onto the screen - only because the rest of it looks so good, particularly Mike Schley's maps, that those old connections to gamebooks' past seem as out of place as wisdom teeth or a burst appendix. (I know, I know - text is inexpensive; I'm not faulting Inkle for using it, just saying that the rest of their banquet looks so appetizing that the paper napkins are bound to come as a slight disappointment.)

What particularly impresses me is that all this is built on the foundations of Inklewriter, a markup language, rather than the object-oriented database structure you'd use in a CRPG. But that's the bit of the iceberg you don't see. The important thing is that Sorcery 3 is here, it looks great, and if Games Workshop style goblin-bashing is what floats your boat, you're going to be spending the next few months in Analand. (Don't look at me; it's what Steve Jackson called it.)

Monday, 9 March 2015

Title fight

When Sylvester Stallone brought back his two most iconic characters a few years back, the movies in question were technically Rocky VI and Rambo IV, but they were released as Rocky Balboa and Rambo. The difference? Probably an extra 50% at box office.

Book publishers have long known that you don’t put numbers on the covers of a book series. This occasionally irritated me when, in younger days, I had to look inside to find which Elric or Ellery Queen book to read next. The publishers didn’t care because they already had me hooked; it was the non-fans they needed to attract. If somebody saw “James Bond book 5” on the cover and hadn’t read the first four, they wouldn’t bother to pick it up. If you number a series too conspicuously, the law of diminishing returns soon kicks in.

Some series can buck the trend. Toy Story and Star Wars movies don’t mind adding the weight of a Roman numeral to the poster. That’s because those series have already broken through to the real mainstream. If you’re going to see the next movie, it’s a dead cert you already saw the earlier ones.

This all came up recently in a discussion with the chaps at Megara Entertainment, who may be running a Kickstarter for a new Fabled Lands book later this year. Perhaps I should add a word of caution here before I overstimulate the hopes of FL aficionados. The problems I've already cited with Kickstarter haven't gone away. (Short version: even if you raise $50,000, after printing and shipping all those hardbacks you might have less than $5000 to pay for writing, art, editing and typesetting.) So we're still just at the discussion stage, figuring out how it could be made to work. Megara may decide to run a Kickstarter campaign for something else this year. Paul Gresty, who has volunteered to write the thing for nothing but love and praise, may yet come to his senses and focus on paid work instead. There are no guarantees in life.

If there are answers to the Kickstarter Paradox, they can only be found by a group of people proposing and debating different strategies, refining the best ideas, and all getting behind an agreed plan. I started this particular discussion off by saying that, given the twenty-year gap, we could hardly sail in with, “Here’s book 7” like nothing had happened. Most of the people we’ll be talking to would never have heard of Fabled Lands. And even for the fans – well, think of Sherlock Holmes. Does anybody want yet more formulaic adventures of the dear old bod? Even his creator was sick of those. When a new Holmes book comes out, what we look for is something interesting like Moriarty or A Slight Trick of the Mind. Nobody but a Baker Street Irregular is going to want Sherlock Holmes V – and they’d just swipe a copy without paying and then use it to cosh a tramp.

Anyway, here’s what the Megara team had to say. Joining in are Mikael Louys and Richard S Hetley, Megara’s CEOs in Europe and the USA respectively; Paul Gresty, the author of the new book whatever it ends up being called; and me and Jamie, as the ones to blame for all this FL stuff in the first place.

So: do we follow the lead of movie series like Bourne, Batman and Star Trek - and books like Tintin, Peter Wimsey, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc - in dropping the numeral?

Richard S Hetley: “That is an interesting possibility. Sure, the Way of the Tiger worked out very well, but ‘rebooting’ a series is often a peculiar thing psychologically. After all this time, why not act as though it were a standalone book? Part of the point is that they already are "standalone" in the sense that you can start from anywhere. So, ‘We acknowledge that it's been years and the initial plan of twelve books isn't getting completed. We are returning to the Fabled Lands for this one book. Sure, it connects with all those books, and it draws from the missing 7-12 domain, but we know things are different 25 years later and this book is its own thing.’”

Jamie Thomson: “I just don't see the value of not calling it FL 7. It's a series of linked books, each playable on their own anyway. Mucking about with it at this stage will only confuse people. Is it Fabled Lands or not? Or some new spin off? There's no need to complicate a fairly simple idea. There's a bunch of fans out there who want more in the series. We just give them the next one. Then we find out whether there's enough of them to justify the work, but hopefully there will be. And if so, they'll want the next, and we could even keep doing that until they don't want to fund any more. I can't see where the gain is. It sounds like we'd be saying, 'This isn't book 7, although actually it is.’ Unless we did it as a stand alone title, but it referenced all parts of the world, and wasn't just set in the Feathered Lands. You'd just have fewer adventures, but spread around a bit. It wouldn't actually be book 7 then.”

Mikael Louys: “The fans want it to be a Fabled Lands book not a standalone. I've heard this often enough over the last few years.”

Richard: “There was a recent movie called Tron: Legacy. It was not called Tron II. They didn't even try to get people to watch the original Tron first. That's what I mean by ‘standalone’.”

Paul Gresty: “Looking over the FL reprints, they aren't really called 'Fabled Lands 1', 'Fabled Lands 2' etc. The pertinent number appears on each book's spine, but that's the only place it does appear. The cover of Book 2, for instance, says: Fabled Lands: Cities of Gold and Glory. So, for the Kickstarter, it's easy enough to drop the 7. By the very nature of the FL series, The Serpent King's Domain could easily be considered the first book you play anyway.”

Dave Morris: “That’s what I’m saying. The fans already know The Serpent King’s Domain is the seventh book in chronological order of publication. They also understand they can start in any book. But somebody who has never played Fabled Lands before but does have an interest in gamebooks and is willing to support a campaign on Kickstarter – I submit that could be a respectably large set of potential backers, for whom seeing it described as ‘book 7’ will only put them off.”

Paul: “I think it would be particularly tricky to reboot Fabled Lands, given how interconnected the books are – far more so than, say, Golden Dragon. The as-yet-unpublished Lone Wolf 29 apparently takes place twenty-five years after Lone Wolf 28. A quarter of a century has passed in real-life, and it has passed in the life of the book's protagonist as well. Could something similar be done with Fabled Lands? For the moment, I'm failing to see how. As I say, the books are too interconnected, and non-linear, to make that sort of thing easy.”

Dave: “I don't think anyone is advocating an FL reboot. And I like the sound of what Joe Dever is doing there, letting the 25-year hiatus be a feature not a bug, but we can’t really do it with Fabled Lands because we don’t have a central character in that way. Short of adding show tunes or pop-up maps, what can we do to make this, not a reboot, but more than just ‘here’s more monsters and treasure’?”

Jamie: "I think we just have to say it’s book 7! You know what will happen if we don’t: ‘Is this book 7 in the series?’ ‘Can I go straight from one of the earlier books to this one?’ ‘Why isn’t this the next in the series’. ‘What is this?’ ‘Can I take my old Fabled Lands character into this book?’ ‘Is this set in the same time period as the original series?’ ‘This sounds interesting, but I really just wanted the next in the series’ and so on, and so on.


It seems the debate will rage on and on. Should the book be trumpeted on Kickstarter as "Fabled Lands Book 7" or as "Fabled Lands: The Serpent King's Domain"? Or should it even be a single volume that wraps up the whole Fabled Lands series once and for all? A lot depends on whether we are willing and able to reach out to a new bunch of readers, and thus inject the series with a fresh lease of life, or whether the market for Fabled Lands books is going to stay restricted to those players who have stuck around for the last twenty years. What do you think?

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

A Dark Lord in full colour


Jamie Thomson and I created the character of teen lord of evil Dirk Lloyd over beers in my garden back in the late summer of 2007. It's easy to assume when you see a big success such as the books have grown into that it all comes about overnight. Not a bit of it. Jamie gave blood, sweat and tears to develop the concept into a very funny novel that (as you know) eventually won the Roald Dahl Prize. Five years and many drafts, that took. We would have given up if not for Fabled Lands LLP supremo Frank L Johnson, who rallied us for one final push and spent one Guy Fawkes' Night in Lewes pep-talking Jamie into writing the masterpiece of his career.

Since then the Dirk Lloyd story has been continually optioned for TV and movies (fingers crossed) and we regularly return to the idea of a DL game. And now Dirk is bursting into new life in a vibrant comic strip that will run in The Phoenix, the UK's best kids' magazine, starting on March 7. With art by the ultradimensionally talented Dan Boultwood and story ideas by Jamie and me, what's holding you back?


Sunday, 15 February 2015

Hot and cold about interactive literature


I was talking to James Wallis about Powell and Pressburger and how one of my favourite movies – my “hang out” movie, as Tarantino would have it – is A Canterbury Tale. I mentioned that the Pilgrim’s Way passed near my old school and how I’d always wanted to walk it. Possibly I was thinking of cross-country runs around Newland’s Corner with the sleet in my teeth , and the operative word was walk. Anyway, it made an impression on James. The following year he got engaged to the beautiful Cat Muir, asked me to be his best man, and suggested that I and Martin McKenna make ready with him to wenden on pilgrymage.

To my everlasting regret, I wasn’t able to tread the whole route from Winchester to Canterbury. Elixir Studios had just closed down and I was too busy looking for a job to clear two weeks for the simple pleasure of wayfaring with good friends. I should have done. You can’t bunk off halfway through a pilgrimage, not even if you’re an agnostic like me.

Anyway, you'll be glad to know there is a point. James decided that a good angle for charity fundraising would be to do the whole 146 miles without a map. Instead, he brought along a written description of the landmarks we should be steering by: a track beside a field, turn left at the second farm, etc.

Remind you of anything? It’s like Fabled Lands, where you find yourself in deep countryside with something like this to guide you:


The irony there is that Jamie Thomson and I didn’t originally intend the player to navigate using the text. Our first thought was that you’d move a counter around the map, with the usual allowance for terrain type. Regions would be marked with different encounter tables and each city and town would have a number that pointed to the text in the book.

Why did we change our minds? Because navigating by map would have required a little more work on the part of the player, and gamebook readers in the ‘90s weren’t as accustomed to that kind of thing as role-players. Yet when Jamie and I were working at Eidos, and we talked to Ian Livingstone about turning FL into a computer game, we enthusiastically returned to the idea of using the map as the main armature around which you’d build your character’s story. Here’s the first part of our pitch document:
A scrolling map of the world. Key figures (players and powerful NPCs) appear on this map, but you can only tell the profession of characters if they're in the same country as you are (ie, those characters will be differentiated into Warriors, Mages, etc; those in other countries are just shown as a generic character sprite).
That was 1996. Almost twenty years on, gamebook apps like Sorcery and 80 Days made the long-overdue step of having the top layer be the map – just simple common sense because, as James and Martin and I found out on the North Downs Way, trying to find your way around the Home Counties from just a text description is sheer insanity. This is so much better:


But when you switch in the map layer, is that still a gamebook? Leaving aside the question of the “game” part (there is dice-rolling but little or no actual gameplay in almost all the gamebooks I’ve seen), the distinguishing feature of gamebooks is that they are like novels. So let’s go back to basics with what a novel is. You are presented with prose that functions as a kind of blueprint or program for what is going on in the story, and when you run that program in your mind, you construct an imaginary reality. The whole shebang may seem to be in the control of the author, but in fact you are lucidly dreaming your own version of the world with just occasional nudges from the text. (It’s actually the basic mechanism of human awareness too, incidentally, but let’s not get sidetracked.)

That lucid dreaming process is very different from watching a movie or playing a videogame. There the world you’re experiencing is already rendered for you. (And when I say that, you realize I’m not only talking about the graphics, right?) This is why it is easy to interact with any visual or even aural story, but in the case of prose we have to disengage the part of the brain that’s modelling the world around us in order to decide what choice to make. How can we make that easier? Well, there’s a world of difference between parsing this:


and this:
The square is empty. To the north is a river. You do not see a key here.
All this is not exactly new. Marshall McLuhan wrote about hot and cold media (he said “cool” but, y’know). A hot medium is doing the work for you. A firework display, for example, or a blockbuster action movie. A cold medium (comics, say, or novels) requires your conscious participation in the process. It’s a continuum, so the short example of text-adventure prose above is hotter than the novel-like one involving the Gargan twins.

The confounding factor here is interactivity. It’s very easy to interact with a hot medium. A ball flies at me; I swipe it away. But interactivity with a story is more of a conscious process. Do you want the princess to marry the prince or to spend her days singing MOR show tunes? Let me think… Yet as I spin the cogs to decide that, the entire world of the novel must grind to a halt, even begin to fray around the edges, as I’m not consciously sustaining it. So, the more you want the reader to interact – in fact, the more you want them to be a player – the less you must make them a reader.

Arguably the text in an app like Sorcery is crying out to be severely de-novelized, reduced from this:


to this:


or preferably replaced altogether with animated characters. It’s evolving into a game anyway, and in doing so is proving far more popular than a straight “book-like” interactive story app. So why retain features that gamebooks only had originally by reason of historical circumstance, because the only mobile devices in those days were paperbacks and because artwork was too expensive?

Or is there a valid reason for interactive stories to hang onto their gamebook roots and even to play up the novelistic elements? What do you think?