If you’re into comics even the least little bit, chances are good the name Scott McCloud has crossed your radar. He’s better known for his comics about comics rather than the franchises he’s worked on, and for good reason – Understanding Comics is something I’d consider required reading for anyone working in a creative field.
Of particular interest to me is the concept of the “gutter” – the liminal space in comics (and arguably, in writing and games as well, and films and TV to a lesser extent) where the reader supplies the details of events between panels/sentences/scenes.
This focus on reader participation in Understanding Comics began to highlight the ways in which I exploit similar stylistic choices in my chosen mediums of short and novel-length fiction, and games. For example, from “Haven of the Waveless Sea”, where Fandral Staghelm relives the death of his son:
“Again.”The meaty rip, the buzzing song, the sound of hope dying.
(Or: Is that a <<print $game.PC.inventory[$item])>> in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?)
A few weeks ago (right around GDC) I took some time in my professional life to mortar up a shameful gap in my clerical history – total ignorance of using excel. I found learning it was a lot like playing euchre: you can observe someone doing it for years and be totally baffled, but as soon as someone teaches you the basics, it ends up being incredibly simple.
A few months prior to that, a lot of game critics and devs on my twitter feed had been talking a lot about Twine, a game creation tool. I sort of paid attention in the same way I do to any game item I see repeatedly, but figured most programming tools were outside my limited scope.
Cue one of the biggest and coolest stories out of GDC, in which award-winner Richard Hofmeier vandalized his own expo-floor booth to promote and allow attendees to play Porpentine’s Howling Dogs. Charmed by the story, I gave the interactive novel cum text adventure game a try. An hour of reading and clicking left me with an experience I found haunting and poetic. Then I noticed the fine print: Built in Twine. “WHAT IS TWINE?” I screamed at my screen, “TO MAKE SUCH THINGS?”
I hit the google machine, and found anna anthropy’s intro to building games with Twine. Twine, to my delight, dovetailed neatly with my new knowledge of Excel. It also, to my exceeding delight, lit up nodes of my brain that are tickled by choose your own adventure novels and text RPGs. It’s a simple tool than can create elaborate results with infinite possibility.
I don’t want to reinvent the wheel – guides to twine are plentiful and both anna’s information and the info included in the official Twine FAQ are more than adequate for a beginner, and a great deal of the appeal of Twine lies in both its simplicity and the desire to figure out why something didn’t work the way you wanted to.
I started with a text adventure played straight where you play as… my cat Gary!
The visual mapping made it easy to lay out the general flow of the idea (which mimicked the general flow of my house!), and create places for Gary to level up – the scratching post in the basement to sharpen his mighty hunter’s claws, the toy mousie for agility, the litter box to level up his … uh dignity. The roadblock? I couldn’t figure out how to get the game to save the randomly generated stats using these items gave him, which meant he couldn’t progress to fighting monsters (my fat beast of a cat, Minnow) or the next level (portal to fairyland) (because naturally GARY IS AN IMMORTAL BEING OF SUPREME POWER)
I was, I think, trying to run before learning to walk, and furthermore, not being true to my own personal strength (storytelling) or the medium’s personal strength (the human experience)(also hilarious hacker adventures). Some day, Gary’s story will be told and everyone will know he’s ａｎ ｉｍｍｏｒｔａｌ ｂｅｉｎｇ ｏＦ ＳＵＰＲＥＭＥ ＰＯＷＥR. But today is not that day.
Instead, I started a twine game about the walled city of Mzandrei, where women are the strength, the leaders and knowledge holders. Men circle the city gates at night, baying to be let in. You can play as the Queen and try to juggle resources for a city caged and besieged; a soldier, hunting a killer before they kill again, or a librarian, struggling with a secret that may be killing you.
Of course, that’s where the game has stalled so far because I am nothing if not consistent with procrastination. But fun things are always funner together and twine can literally be for anyone – check out the #pphsjam column on twitter, and see how people can take a small idea (dating) and turn it into all kinds of stories whimsical and sad and terribly joyful. You can leave your project simple and sparse, or with the use of custom spreadsheets, have all kinds of blinking, jiggling, flashing text mayhem at your disposal. You can use colours. You can use art. You can use music.
In a way, Twine is exhilarating because you can do anything. In a more visceral way, Twine is absolutely terrifying because you can do anything. When people talk about the interactivity of gaming, Twine is a good hard look at what a slog through someone else’s shoes can be like, without anything between you and your gut but the words. Sometimes that experience is a pastoral life herding sheep. Sometimes that experience is somewhat more harrowing.
It’s communal. Take a look at the aforementioned game jam. How about the active Google group? It’s not just communal, it’s open-handedly community oriented. porpentine shares the twine map for Howling Dogs, so you can see how it’s done. People share custom spreadsheets and scripting phrases for the less computer literate among us (Bless you!).
Anything and everything can be an inspiration. Anyone can develop the kind of game that causes a man to graffiti the booth of his own award-winning video game. It could be you. If you let it.
Let’s learn Twine, together.
One of the best things about writing genre fiction is the ability to achieve impossible things. You can write about women who live forever, dogs that can swim through the earth like it was water, angels descending from heaven to give a protagonist a much needed slap upside the head or a fairy burrow beneath the subway lines of Toronto. One of the worst things about genre fiction is the sloppy, implausible writing that happens sometimes. It’s not just limited to writing – think of the fine arts, too. You can’t rig a gryphon or a dragon if you don’t understand the bones of an eagle or a lizard.
You can’t break the rules if you don’t know them. That includes the rules of a completely fabricated magic system or universe setting. Even in writing fairly standard vampire stuff, there’s a lot to be aware of: does sunlight kill them? (Yes.) Do they have to be invited in? (Not explicitly but they can be repulsed by a command to get out.) Can they eat human food? (Yes.) Do they have to kill to eat? (No.) And so on. There’s a reason why stereotypes are popular; breaking the rules is exhausting. Okay, so my vampires can eat human food – it’s a good way for them to camouflage themselves as humans because in this universe, vampires are not known to humans, a la True Blood universe. But where does the food go? Their organs don’t work, they don’t take nutrients from it, and they don’t pee or poop. This isn’t Casper where the food shoots right through them and comes out a perfectly formed pile of mushy cake. I could just choose not to address it at all, vamps eat food end of story. But why pass up a perfectly good opportunity to be hilarious? Why not have eating human food make them bloaty or gassy or bloaty and gassy? If it’s a camouflage instinct, the vampire now has to balance eating to look human with gaining a 7 month food baby if he’s not careful. Eventually it would just get broken down by the virulent blood of being a vampire. It doesn’t matter if something’s impossible, as long as its plausible. Anchor your wild ideas into the reality of the world you’re creating, and you’re good to go. Just be careful not to tip your hand too much – after all, when you’re looking at a piece of art or playing a video game, you’re not actually looking at the bones of the figure, are you? (Let’s pretend for the sake of argument, we’re not looking at Frida Kahlo’s art, or playing a Forsaken rogue in World of Warcraft.)
The bones don’t even have to be the tropes that bind genre up, either. They can be the bones of good writing. Let’s face it, when an idea seizes you in its wolf jaws, you’re not thinking about good grammar or sentence structure. That’s fine! It can come later, in the revising process. But if at some point the bones aren’t there, no amount of editing and beta reading are going to put the muscles on it. Good grammar, good sentence composition, strong ideas and voices will carry your story, no matter how impossible and make it shine. When you’ve got them down pat, the rule-breaking can begin.
I love writing fantasy, horror and supernatural stuff because it’s so mind-bendingly fun. Yeah, you’ve gotta learn the rules, but every writer has to at some point. And then you get to launch them into a black hole, twist them all up and yank them out again.
The 2011 Blizzard Writing Contest has come around again, just in time for the weather to cool off enough to make writing on a coffee shop patio appealing. There’s a number of things I’m hoping to see from entries, this year, but more than anything, I want to see awesome stories about awesome women. I can’t hug every cat write every story, but there are plenty of women in the Blizzard lore that deserve face time by dedicated writers.
Heavy Hitters: These are the big name players, women who’ve already had their stories touched on in official books and lore. They’re characters most people are likely to know and interested to read about.
i) Sylvanas Windrunner: we know who she is, where she came from, how she became the Banshee Queen. What’s it like being Sylvanas without the Lich King? How does she feel being cheated of vengeance at Icecrown Citadel? Her experimentations with the plague, with the valkyr, and butting heads with Garrosh are all interesting depths to plumb.
ii) Jaina Proudmoore: is getting her own book via Christie Golden! Very exciting. But in the meantime, there’s plenty to Jaina that can still be touched upon. Studying in Dalaran, the only thing she really wanted to do. The death of her father, and the role she played in it. Keeping the human survivors of Lordaeron together while fleeing to Kalimdor.
iii) Tyrande Whisperwind: again, we got a glimpse of her recently in “Seeds of Faith”, but she shares billing with Malfurion. She was the one, not the humans, who sent the ships to Gilneas’ aid. She dealt with Fandral’s insolence for years and years. When the Shen’dralar came out of their exile prior to the Cataclysm, she accepted them back, allowing them to teach arcane magics to the young night elves.
Other (but no less interesting) NPCS:
i) Sassy Hardwrench: okay, I am gnome/dwarf to the core. But when Cata came out, I couldn’t resist rolling a goblin priest to experience the new starting zones. Thrall? Trade Prince Jerkwad? Snooze. Sassy Hardwrench? NEW BFF FOR LIFE. She’s tough as nails, stands by your toon, and after losing everything by standing by your character, still manages to create a town named after herself in STV. Sassy is no. 1 for my choice of women characters worth writing about.
ii) Maiev Shadowsong, Sayanna Stormrunner and the Wardens: With the Shadow Warden presence in the Molten Front, it’s as good a time as any to tackle the Wardens, particularly in light of their charge escaping. How does Sayanna deal with that failure in light of a hero like Maiev who didn’t rest until she had recaptured or killed her own prisoner?
iii) Mylune: Come on, does this really even need explanation?
iv) Lorna Crowley: She’s a gun-toting, dog-training badass with a flower in her hair who becomes commander of the liberation movement for Gilneas. She’s so badass she escapes both becoming Forsaken and Worgen. Honorable mention and equal badassitude to Gwen Armstead, as well.
v) Stormcaller Mylra: this was a great expansion for dwarves and dwarven women – if you’re not a Bronzebeard, anyway. Mylra’s one of the Earthen Ring shaman who helps you suss out what the deal is with the Twilight Hammer in Deepholm, and helps you fight an old god minion in Twilight Highlands. She doesn’t hesitate to do what’s needed.
vi) Fanny Thundermar: Another Wildhammer dwarf woman, Fanny’s a prize catch for eligible bachelors due to her connections. But actually, she’s also a wicked fighter, and a woman who knows what she wants in a partner. Plus, think of all the hilarious puns you can work in to shock UK and Aussie readers.
vii) Blood Raven: I’m deviating a bit from WoW lore because a) Diablo is fine too! and b) given my kajillion restarts of DII, I fought her more times than I’d like to admit. Did you know she’s meant to be the corrupted form of the rogue NPC from Diablo? The demon Andariel corrupted her and a number of her sisters after a trip to Tristram (nothing good ever happens there.) Between her and Kashya, there’s lots of story fodder.
The Obvious Choice:
i) Your NPC: The greatest thing about writing in the Warcraft lore – and really, any of the Blizzard IPs – is that you have your own blank slate to work with. Your character has performed all sorts of tasks, from mundane to heroic. There’s surely a million stories to be told from them alone.
To all entrants in the Blizzard Writing Contest, good luck. Don’t ever doubt, don’t ever stop writing.