Monthly Archives: July 2012

Turn out the lights.

Hey there. Been quiet for a week, and likely to be for another week, because we’re about to move cross-country to Seattle.

(Incidental note: anybody out there living in Seattle want to hire a guy who’s pretty okay at writing to do… anything? Just let me know.)

So the lights here are dimmed for a little while, which…

… huh. Light.That’s interesting. Light is important; we use it to see, and sight is pretty keen. Sight takes up a lot of the brain’s processing power. Light is one of those metaphors which cross cultural boundaries… light is good and knowledge, dark is evil (or at least suspect) or ignorance. But how often is light used as a gaming tool, beyond the obvious “make sure there’s enough to see everything”?

Offhand, I can think of exactly one: Jackson Tegu’s delightfully nutty Game Chef contribution: Handle With Care. Takes place in the dark, in a city of cardboard boxes, where the players are giant monsters or a municipal light truck and just read it already.

Done? Back? Okay, well, I haven’t played the game… I don’t have the space or the boxes… but I’m keying onto the interplay of light and dark and the power structure it creates. The holder of the light is empowered, literally, because his output can destroy monsters. That’s great! There’s an emotional impact tied to a literal force! That’s one of my favorite things, the overlap of the physical universe and the game narrative. It’s not tactile, technically, but it’s got the same benefits of tactile game interactions… narrative being re-enforced at a gut level.

What else could this be used for? My heart is suggesting a crime and punishment angle… more specifically, a vigilante justice angle. Perhaps one with mechanics that center around the manipulation and trade of cards, which are invisible in the dark and only revealed when the lights come on, freezing the narrative. RIGHT, we have narrative that occurs in the dark and mechanics which occur when the lights are on, that could be interesting…

… oh wait, I’m supposed to be talking about how I’m not going to be posting for a week or two. Right. Turning out the lights for a little bit… I’ll try to have something fun to say when I get back.


Some thoughts on Writing

There are three parts of being a Writer. You want to be a Writer, with a capital W, in any genre, in any medium, you need to take on three different jobs. Really, this is true of any Creative Professional, but I think of myself as a writer, so that’s the terminology I’m sticking with. Three jobs.

(This is reductive. I know it’s reductive, but bear with me, I’m reductive sometimes. Reductive can be cool.)

First, you have to be the writer. This is the obvious one, and it’s the easy one too; I’m not saying that writing isn’t ever difficult, but even when it’s hard, it’s easy. You know what you’re doing… you’re taking images in your head and turning them into words and putting those words on a page. You might be the most writerly-blocked person on the planet, you might be devoid of ideas and unable to find the words and your hands have been eaten by bears, but you still know what you need to do… you need to put words on paper. Easy. Easy like lifting an engine block. Easy as being in love.

Of course, lots of folks never quite make it there. They don’t write… or they make plans to write, they brainstorm, they jot down notes, but they don’t quite get to that basic output of words which is essential to the process, because that’s always a project for another day. I know that feeling, and that “jam tomorrow” temptation, because as easy as writing might be, I’ve always found “settling down to write” to be a fucking onerous step in the process. But it must be done: if you’re a Writer, you write… it’s practically a tautology.

Secondly, you have to be an editor. Even if you have an editor, you have to be an editor. Now maybe this comes easy, you lucky bastard. And maybe it’s incredibly difficult, which is more likely. Or maybe, most likely and most sadly, you feel like it comes easily to you, but it, ah, doesn’t. This is rough… you have words on the page and you have to destroy them, mangle them, burn them and roast them and punch them out to make them BETTER. Hell, sometimes you have to maim and kill your words–your beautiful words that you worked so hard to create!–in order to make the product borderline readable. Now maybe you have access to a professional editor… I’ll make her an Editor with a capital E. That’s great. She can make a good story great, she has a suite of skills you cannot touch and she will damn well be your best friend but you know what? You still have to be an editor, because if you send her something you wrote but didn’t spend time punching into shape, she will either laugh in your face or quietly stop returning your calls.

Not only is editing hard, lots of folks don’t even realize they need to do it. More information about people who write but don’t edit may be found on the Internet. Not just incomprehensible forum posts, rambling and pointless blogs, and fifty percent of Twitter, but stories by actual people who actually consider themselves writers. Fanfiction, for instance, has an unfair but not unearned reputation for being terrible for precisely this reason; folk make words like they make water, but rather than spending some time crafting the mess and skimming the dross and double-checking that it makes sense, they hit spell-check (or… or don’t, in some cases) and send it on its way, into a world which does not appreciate what they’ve done. If you’re a Writer, you edit.

Finally, you have to be a publisher, and oh my goodness is this ever difficult for me. And plenty others, I suppose. Now here’s the rub: it’s technically optional. You might be fine languishing in obscurity until your works are discovered after your death. You might just be gorramn lucky and be Discovered like a Hollywood starlet and need never write again after your first big sale. Good for you in any of these cases, but for the rest of us, 99% of those who would deem themselves Writer, you have to be a publisher as well. You need to track down anthologies, you need to sell what you’ve written, you need to promote your name. You need to grab recognition and hold on to it. You need to force people to read what you’ve written, and force them to pay money for what you’ve written. You need to sell yourself.

This job is terrible. I suck at this job, and I don’t do it a lot. I’m trying to do it more. Not in the pursuit of Fame and Fortune but in the pursuit of recognition and a comfortable living, because I want to write. And note the capitals… I don’t want to Write, I don’t want to do the job which encompasses writing, editing, and publishing, I just want to write. But I’d also like to, you know, live off of that task, so I’m going to have to Write. I don’t mind editing, though it’s not my skill of choice, but I do so hate publishing. I hate making cover letters and sending off stories and tracking where they are and how long they’ve been out and if I can send them somewhere else. I hate being rejected.

Lots of people who would otherwise be Writers are with me. Some of them are dear friends. It’s terrible, because the need to be a publisher is a cloud ever-overhead, and it makes the other tasks difficult. I have to approach writing though a lens of monetizing and salability. I’ll start a project and dismiss it as too hard to sell. Or I’ll make something to show the world and choke when it comes to advertising it, even to those I know, because I fear selling myself, and I’m loathe to feel rejection or (worse, even) ambivalence. And I can’t say for the professional Writers out there, but I suspect, on the whole, that even those with agents and publicists and personal assistants of all stripes, those who put aside many of the duties of a publisher, still have to deal with this. Because, after all, they must still take that step of finishing a work and saying to themselves “Ah, this… this is good enough that I wish to show it to someone else.” And that’s a scary-ass step, and that’s part of being a publisher: declaring something good and worthy. Writers have to publish.

Sometimes I wish I could get away with just writing though.


SEES ME

Few days ago, I happened across this, and wanted to have a bit of a talk about it. It’s a card game based on the Slender Man Mythos, and since I am a dude who likes talking about games and like the Slenderman it seems like it would be perfect for me.

It’s not, though. I don’t want to be overly critical here: “SEES ME” is a Munchkin hack, and as a hack, it seems good (I confess, I have not played it). There are some new card types that seem promising, from emotional states (essentially curses/benefits that gets overridden by the next card of the same type; if you are Content, and draw Panic, you are now Panicked) to characters (class cards that don’t go away unless you die) to, well, a Slenderman who shows up and makes you die and who everyone knows is there in the deck. The presentation is nice too… a simple rulebook and clean illustrations, scrawled upon in red ink. Pretty classic. I’m not sure if there are enough cards for the game to function right, but like I said, I didn’t play it, so who knows.

The problem is this… it’s Munchkin. There’s a gameplay aesthetic here that is COMPLETELY at odds with the narrative focus. Munchkins want All the Levels. That’s why they go looking for trouble. They want to fight things. That’s why they kick down doors. They abuse the rules when it is advantageous to do so. That’s why they can buy their way to the next level. Above all else, they are RPG characters, which is why “levels” makes sense as a ludic conceit. This doesn’t apply here. Certainly, it’s possible to create a setting that is nominally about horror and survival but actually is about armor and swords and punching out elder things… that’s what Munchkin Cthulhu is, after all. But the problem is in presentation; SEES ME is supposed to taken seriously. Whether or not true horror is possible as a card game is besides the point*, the game isn’t clear whether it’s taking itself seriously. There are too many mixed elements going on; the reliance on the fleeing mechanic plays right into the mythos, but having Rabbit as a class or Beard as a form of armor play with particular settings but can’t be taken seriously. Going up a level through a Mysterious Sighting or a Box of Evidence makes logical sense, but going up a level by finding $20, a reference to a particularly silly bit of sub-meme, undermines all that.

I’m not saying that a game about Slendy or any other bit of horror has to be SUPER SERIOUS AND SCARY. I AM saying that it needs to take itself seriously. Arkham Horror can be ridiculous, but the game itself treats the material seriously, and the player is invited to give into that; weapons will always be weapons, and monsters will be monsters, and it all hangs together within the context of Lovecraftian horror to the greatest extent a randomization-heavy game allows it to. I have no doubt that a Slenderman-based card or board game is possible… potentially delightful, even. But it needs to know what it is; even a comparatively minor thing like renaming Treasures and Doors would help. “Items” is neutral, or “Ordinance” which has a fun martial flair. Doors can be “Events” which sells the idea that this is just shit that Happens and you aren’t allowing it to; that would work especially well if they were all re-written to be Challenges rather than Enemies. Lose the buying of levels, and honestly, lose levels entirely; call each level a “Clue,” operate on the assumption that when you find ten clues you can escape the horror, and allow players to spend them when need be for a huge bonus. SEES ME starts to do things like that, but doesn’t go nearly far enough with it.

Alternately? Make SlenderMunchkin. That’s fine too! Own what you’re doing, give everything a value in gold, and dial the silliness up. Add in-jokes, add puns, make the crazy scrawling less House of Leaves and more Portal.  Munchkin is good at silly, and frankly, horror is good at silly too, so it can mesh well.

But it has to mesh. This doesn’t… it’s pulled in too many directions, which is a shame because I like the idea, and I’m a happier person knowing it exists. It makes me want to, well, take the same general idea and go in a different direction entirely. And inspiration is always good.

*My guess? Maybe. I think it could be, though I can’t come up with good examples right now.


Clang!

[Edit: Clang has since reached its funding goal. My thoughts are largely unchanged, though I should congratulate Subutai Corporation on its impressive achievement in publicity and production.]

If you’re not aware, at this very moment, author Neal Stephenson is thirty-six hours away from the end of his Kickstarter funding drive, and needs about twenty thousand more moneys before it can happen.

And here I sit, sort of hoping it doesn’t happen.

That’s terrible of me! Right? I’m a terrible person. I feel terrible about myself. I want this fellow who has done me no wrong to be unable to pursue his dream. Moreover, I’m wishing this failure on a writer who wants to pursue gaming relevant to his geeky interests… that is exactly what I am! Am I some sort of… self-hating chump? Or am I facing some sort of success jealousy here?

Well… no, I’m not. I won’t pretend I don’t feel a twinge of it, because I could never kickstart my way to within spitting distance of half a million dollars ($481,692 as of writing), but that’s not it. Nor is it a particular disinterest in swordfighting, though it’s not my cup of tea.

On the other hand, I resent his funding strategy, and I feel his game design philosophy is fundamentally wrongheaded. That’s a bit of a marginal distinction there, but I’m holding onto it, so I can continue to feel good about myself.

I resent Kickstarter. This crept up on my during the big boom that happened over the spring and summer… I once thought it to be a neat and useful utility which allowed individuals who were good at creating a project to sell the project to consumers, who would then (potentially) fund the project. But, while it is that, it’s something else entirely: it’s a forum which allows individuals who are good at making videos to appeal to consumers, who then (potentially) fund a project which generally has nothing to do with making videos. It hasn’t done away with the need to market oneself, but it has shifted the paradigm away from marketing oneself to producers who are used to being market to, and over to the Masses, who do not have so finely-attuned bullshit detectors. And oh my god, there’s a lot of bullshit in these videos! Gabe Newell with a Half-Life joke, a joke about greenscreens, silly acronyms, people jumping and yelling and being wacky is crazy outfits, Stephenson himself being low-key and sarcastic… all of this is fluff and bullshit, and while I don’t want to imply that it’s malicious, it is disingenuous. It distracts the viewer, the supporter, from the actual product being presented. For everyone out there who’s opening their wallets for the Word’s Best Swordfighting Game (the actual product) there’s someone opening a wallet for Neal Stephenson What a Cool Guy (the idea being sold).

And the Actual Product is… vague. Because it’s not being aimed at actual producers, versed in cutting through bullshit, the kickstarter page manages to be utterly full of the stuff. Today’s drinking game: go to Clang’s page, start at the top, and take a shot whenever you see or hear “should,” “want to,” “plan to,” “ideally,” or any other phrase which should make an investor cock an eyebrow. I don’t want to accuse Subutai Corporation of lying… I believe they are truly as committed to producing an excellent game as they say they are. I ALSO think that 3D Realms intended Duke Nukem Forever to be the best game it could possibly be, and if it were to be Kickstarted today, it would be just as vague in its mission statement. An attitude of “we’re just super geeky and passionate about this project so we’ll work on it and make it awesome” can do wonders, and it can be a quagmire, and here we’re putting things in the hands of a company which does not have a track record of creating great things, because it doesn’t have a track record yet.

(To put it another way… we see ten seconds of Gabe Newell and we’re meant to think this is Valve, who have a history of pulling off this sort of crazy shit. It’s not. It’s literally not Valve. No two ways about it.)

Second point, and perhaps a lesser point, is that I feel he’s coming after this the wrong way. In his initial video, he tells us not to expect “a whole lot in the way of plot and character development, but that’s kind of what we do for a living, so we can always add that stuff in later.” Ouch. This burns me, as a fellow who believes that, no, narrative can’t be bolted on later. If you’re making a game that’s not narrative focused, that’s fine, but for chrissakes, make the game what it is, a game. Narrative and mechanics are not separable entities, built in different factories and slammed together as the game wends its way out the final pipe (notwithstanding the many games for which that it, seemingly, the case). Neal Stephenson, you’re an author! You should get physically ill when you suggest that the medium and the message are anything but inseparable!

Additionally, the comparison to first-person shooters is unfair. FPSs are as stylized as any other game, even if you do pull a trigger to fire. Being stylized is what makes them accessible and being accessible makes them, for the great majority, fun. There are plenty of games that throw a lot of recoil at you and make you conserve bullets, but they aren’t nearly as well-played as the ones where shotgun kickback lets you do a double jump and you reload your weapon by running over a glowing crate of bullets. While I think that swordsmanship is underrepresented in the medium, I also think that the market for “the most realistic swordfighting game” is much, much more niche than Mr. Stephenson thinks it is.

(I have literally no cause to suggest that Stephenson exists in a filter bubble which doesn’t allow him to realize how niche the market might be, but that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking it.)

… but maybe I’m wrong. He’s made $4000 dollars from people upping their pledges since I started writing this, so obviously there’s a world of folks eager to see this come to fruition. But I’m not one of them. I don’t trust the product. I don’t like how it’s being sold. I hold no ill will to Neal Stephenson, and the biggest shit I’m taking in his soup is this, a blog post that will be ready by, maybe, three people before his project is funded or not. But I confess, if it were up to me… if he had $499,999 with ten seconds to go, I’d withhold the dollar. I’ll be the petty grumpus who says “No, I disapprove” and forces Neal Stephenson to MERELY be a millionaire novelist beloved around the world. That’ll show him.