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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Writing for Video Game Genres: from FPS to RPG (Wendy Despain)

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I’ve mentioned this book before; it’s been around for a while, published 2009. Writing for Video Game Genres is (as the name might suggest) divided up into chapters by genre, with contributions by writers experienced in different areas.

As the introduction explains, it’s not a book about how to write in general, or even a guide to getting started in games; it’s meant to provide a deeper dive into the specific challenges associated with various genres, which are often very unlike each other. That said, these chapters are often rather introductory: genre-specific observations, certainly, but likely to be most useful to people who are first considering engaging with that genre, or who want an overview of areas where they haven’t worked before.

The book includes a section on parser interactive fiction, written by J. Robinson Wheeler. Some of the other genres covered are what we might think of game genres (MMOs, sports games, action games, adventure games, platformers, casual games, alternate reality games, serious games…); some are book genres (science fiction/fantasy, horror); and some are focused on particular platforms (handheld, mobile). These days, I’d probably expect to see an additional chapter on writing for augmented and/or virtual reality (and perhaps less about ARGs).

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Digital Storytelling: A Creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment (Carolyn Handler Miller)

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 2.59.40 PM.pngDigital Storytelling: A Creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment. This book has gone through several editions, the most recent the third edition from 2014. Miller is interested in works that are digitally delivered, interactive, non-linear, narrative, with distinct characters, participatory and navigable. Each of her chapters ends with some idea-generating exercises to help you brainstorm about the topics she’s just raised.

Unlike many of the books I’ve been surveying recently, this one is not specifically focused on games or the game industry; instead, it’s looking from a storyteller’s perspective at how to deliver experiences for which the page of a book is not necessarily sufficient. That in itself gives it a rather different flavor: many games writing books are quick to identify the ways in which their game genres are constraining or limiting, or present “challenges”. By contrast, Digital Storytelling is about what interactivity can add to the writer’s toolkit. (I feel this very much myself, and feel the absence of these options when I’m working in a more linear medium.)

At the same time, the book is directed at readers who might be writers in linear media but have barely considered interactivity before, and therefore need to be taught canon and craft entirely from scratch. It also anticipates a different set of prejudices and concerns: the chapter on video games spends half a page on the concept of AI and considerably more space on issues like video game addictiveness and whether violence in games is a serious problem.

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