Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget (Stant Litore)

51v0a2EYVGL.jpgI’ve written already about some of the world building books I’ve worked with in the past. Stant Litore‘s Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget is relatively new — published late 2017. It’s not a game writing book specifically, but is meant for anyone in the speculative fiction space. It’s also quite compact, about a hundred and fifty pages, and meant to be used, with a sequence of exercises for the reader. More than that, even though it’s a book about world-building, it’s focused on the plot and character implications of what you’re doing:

This book treats worldbuilding as a process for conflict and exerting pressures on your characters. Unforgettable characters live unforgettable stories that are made necessary and possible by unforgettable worlds they are trying to survive and thrive in.

So though this is a book for writers and not for interactivity, it’s bringing in some of the same worldbuilding motives as a tabletop game like Downfall.

In addition, Litore immediately identifies two approaches to worldbuilding: the Tolkien approach, where you start at the ground level in some particular area. And he correctly points out that this is even more difficult than most people give credit for:

It is theoretically possible for you to create an unforgettable imaginary world in the same way that JRR Tolkien did if you have an advanced education or deep training in one particular field relevant to worldbuilding, plus an inquisitive mind that is always asking questions about how your area of expertise informs and is informed by others. For example, if you are a gifted economist, you might begin building a world from the ground up if you start by designing a unique and detailed, though fictional economy…  This kind of deep dive is rare because it requires more than just a “research phase” to inform a novel or screenplay. It relies on committed, dedicated expertise and conversation with other experts in that area of knowledge.

I found that pretty interesting because of my own interest in the idea of research art — but also a strong argument for why not all worldbuilding on all projects needs to go the Tolkien route. And certainly most of mine doesn’t.

Instead, Litore recommends the approach of inserting an importantly different detail in each of three areas: the physical conditions of a world and the requirements of surviving there; the biology and the creatures who live there; and the culture that persists there. He then devotes several chapters to unpacking each of these techniques.

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Video Game Writing From Macro to Micro (Marek Walton / Maurice Suckling)

videogamewritigVideo Game Writing from Macro to Micro. This book bills itself as “four books in one,” and this is not wrong. Part I covers a history of games with a focus on story and storytelling. Part II concerns day-to-day concerns of game writing as a career — the fact that Part II starts with briefs, contracts, non-disclosure agreements gives some idea of the granularity and the focus on the nuts and bolts of doing business as a freelance games writer. Part III, “Beyond the Basics,” backs out again and looks at the theoretical basis of the discipline — why should games have stories? — as well as craft considerations like how we fill a story world with dramatic potential. And Part IV, the briefest and most varied section, pulls together statements from working game writers about what their job is, how it functions, and what the lifestyle is like.

The summary in Part I goes from the 70s, with Colossal Cave, through a year or two ago, landing on Her Story and Until Dawn. It’s a good overview, though most titles get no more than a paragraph or two, and the book is mostly interested in setting up some sense of market context, genre, and the major strengths, innovations, or weaknesses of each title. It doesn’t particularly dig into individual games to take apart how they worked as instances of narrative design. People who are already pretty familiar with the game industry and game history may find this to be largely review.

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Wonderbook (Jeff Vandermeer)

wonWonderbook is a book about writing — not specific to games, but not unaware of games, either. It takes on many of the standard topics of general-purpose fiction writing guides — plot, character, world-building, revision, the life of the writer, how not to grow to hate yourself in this artform — but with an approach focused on speculative fiction, fantasy, and play. It’s also lavishly, vividly illustrated, with maps and diagrams, portraits and photographs, excerpts of medieval manuscripts, and quite a lot else. There are writing exercises, of several kinds. There are cartoon characters who introduce advice and tips. There are inserted essays and tips from other authors. There are reflections on the history of imaginative literature.

Also, Vandermeer is a good prose stylist, and this is something that cannot be said of all writers of writing books. (You might think…? But no.)

It’s the kind of book that will delight the curious and frustrate the conscientious — since there’s a perennial feeling one might be missing something as one reads. I read it with pleasure, and just a tiny bit of panic that I might be reading it incorrectly and missing things. To be clear, I think this is my problem and not the book’s.

Actually, the book calls me out on precisely this, in its way:

Inherent in this idea of “play” being immature and frivolous is the idea that just like business processes, all creative processes should be efficient, timely, linear, organized, and easily summarized.

Almost certainly there are some diagrams, sidebars, etc., that I did not fully digest before writing this review. I think the book considers that okay, though.
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My Lady’s Choosing (Kitty Curran, Larissa Zageris)

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 2.43.30 PM.pngMy Lady’s Choosing is a branching romance novel — or, arguably, spoof of romance novels. It begins with the heroine as a just-about-penniless lady’s companion, then immediately introduces her to two eligible bachelors and one wealthy and outrageous female friend.

From there, we are offered a buffet of standard tropes. There’s your obligatory Scottish hero with a castle and a lot of dialect-speaking servants who’ve known him since his youth. There’s a Mr Darcy-minus-the-serial-number whose estate is called (I am not making this up) Manberley. There’s a Jane Eyre plot strand with the brooding Man With A Past and a surviving child (and an optional Distraction Vicar if you want to go that way). There’s a subplot with Napoleonic spies and another subplot involving raising the lost tomb of Hathor in Egypt. There’s a side character who is a callback to a side character in Emma, and a sinister servant who owes a lot to Mrs. Danvers, and an obligatory call-out to that summer on the shores of Lake Geneva with Lord Byron. The encyclopedic approach to tropes reminded me of Tough Guide to Fantasyland, as transported to another genre.

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Postmortems (Raph Koster)

postmortemsRaph Koster’s Postmortems is a series of essays and talks about his work. That work includes online RPGs and MUDs, including some with a story focus perhaps relevant to people on this blog. (Actually, this book is just Volume One, with more volumes to come — but accordingly, it speaks about some of Koster’s earliest work, which is the material that probably dovetails the most with the interests of IF enthusiasts.)

Koster offers an introduction to MUDs that launches from Adventure, but explains the differences about playing such a game with others. There’s a good bit of design narrative and history here about those games — which may well be interesting to readers of this blog, as they’re adjacent to IF. I especially enjoyed reading the (plentiful) examples of MUD scripting, for comparison with how early IF languages worked. There are also detailed descriptions of quests and experiences that would now be difficult or impossible to recapture, such as a “Beowulf” quest from LegendMUD.

I found some of these passages a little dizzying, in a good way: they offered me a glance at an alternate universe of text-based, narrative-studded games, ones that are rarely discussed in the context of the IF canon. By which I mean: I probably should have known about a lot of this all along. (But there are so many things I should have known all along.)

At any rate, I recommend it for people who are interested in the history of games-adjacent-to-IF.

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Postmortems is also a book about what it’s like to be in a games career, to care about and love games, to think about and with games. The first essay is about Koster’s childhood game writing, as a kid in Peru, and how he grew up from there. It’s illustrated with sketches from the game concepts of his youth. He writes about games he wrote as gifts and as messages to people close to him: another practice I value.

Because the book is drawing from such diverse sources — talks, written work, pieces created as retrospectives and other pieces written at the same time as the games themselves, some articles that include sample code and others meant for very non-technical audiences — it’s quite a varied read. But that is also part of the book’s charm.

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I’ve written about Raph’s Theory of Fun for Game Design in the past.

Disclosure: I received a free PDF advance review copy of this book for the purposes of coverage.

Narrative Design for Indies (Edwin McRae)

narrativedesig.jpgNarrative Design for Indies: Getting Started. This is a brief Kindle book published in October of last year.

Edwin McRae is a writer and narrative designer who specializes in indie projects, and has written some blog tutorials and guidance for ink, as well. His book is designed to help aspiring indies figure out what they might need in the area of story, whether they need to hire a writer, and what expectations they should have going into that process.

McRae’s approach is very much conscious of resource constraints. Voiceover is expensive: what can you do without it? What methods of delivering story are affordable and easy to sneak into your story? How can you manifest important story information through gameplay and flavor text that you needed to create anyway?

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