When I was in middle school, I’d make up interactive stories that I’d narrate for my friends. Bus rides were epic clashes between wizards and monsters. The school grounds transformed into arenas for superheroes and their nemeses to duke it out. Villains were often teachers, or kids we didn’t get along with. Sometimes, we’d add elements of physical games like tag during climactic moments.
I also read and wrote a lot. I loved creating stories, the more fantastical the better. My dad once remarked that reading so many fantasy books, and writing so many fantasy stories would be bad for my development and that I’d be unable to discern fact from fiction. But even as an undergrad, I continued to write stories.
Fast forward to just after grad school and I’d worked on a few board games, written a few pieces of interactive theatre, and contributed a fair number of reviews and essays to various video game publications. It was only then that I thought, “hmm…writing for games is an actual thing I could try…”
I taught myself some Twine, a software used to write choose-your-own-adventure-style digital games, and ended up writing a little game about an angsty, saucy vampire, as part of an application for a freelance gig. Once that tiny story got accepted by a magazine, I decided it was time to actually explore game writing. (If you’re curious about saucy vampires you can play the game here).
During the Course, & Afterward
I applied for and was thrilled to receive a scholarship from Games For Change, for Playcrafting’s Game Writing Primer, taught by Sande Chen. It was a wonderful experience. The class attracted people from all walks of life, each with different perspectives on games, and how they wanted to use narrative: participants included a Unity developer who wanted to improve his storytelling skills, an entrepreneur who wanted to make games about her products, and a PhD student whose dissertation would take the form of a Twine game. The energy generated in the class was awesome, and Sande was a great guide, leading us through discussions both practical and theoretical, from the role of narrative in interactive media to best practices when writing an introduction. Particularly insightful were her observations about the videogame industry, and how writers could navigate its somewhat opaque waters. “Writers are often added late to a project,” she told us (though given the loopy scrawl in my notebook, I doubt that’s a verbatim quote), emphasizing how many game studios relegate narrative and writing to the back of the proverbial larder, to be sprinkled on to a bland project in the hopes of spicing up otherwise insipid gameplay.
Nevertheless, Sande’s advice and commentary, coupled with my classmates’ thoughtful critique armed me with confidence enough to continue pursuing game writing.
My project for the class was a still-untitled Twine game where you play as “Etmni, First-Pierced”, the patron deity of a stone-age tribe.
I was inspired by a board game I made with a few friends for the Global Game Jam a few years ago, called Seven Days of Sacrifice, and was aiming at something that looked at the archetypical hero’s journey from a different perspective: in this case, that of the protector figure looking down on the hero. Plus, I’m a fan of the prehistoric aesthetic, which is shockingly underutilized in fantasy fiction. The deluge of medieval chivalry can get very tiresome.
As the game progresses, you have to take care of your tribe, as well as provide guidance to a hero figure on a quest to rescue the tribe’s buffalo herds from the “Bone Children”. You’ll also interact with other divine figures, such as “Spider”, who weaves dreams in their webbed realm, and the “Sewing Queen”, whose coterie of bee-servants fetch her the souls of the dead for her to sew into new bodies. Slowly, you’ll come to terms with your responsibilities and have to decide whether to give up your power for the good of the tribe, or keep your power to the detriment of your people.
Or at least, that’s what I hope. I haven’t yet finished the game, but that’s actually due to a stroke of good fortune. Soon after the class, I applied for and got a gig to do a bunch of writing for an upcoming, online, text-based game called Susurrus: Season of Tides. It’s a Fallen London-esque style of narrative game, but set in an urban fantasy world of vampires, werewolves, street sorcerers and gritty, metropolitan politics. I’ve been actively using a lot of the stuff I learned from Sande. Unlike the project I worked on in class, Susurrus involves a team of writers, and I have to make sure I fulfill different narrative criteria and technical parameters set by the lead writer, stuff Sande taught us to expect. It should be out in August, and I hope Sande gets a chance to play it and see what her pedagogical skills have wrought!
So yeah, I’ve come a long way since my playground escapades in middle school, and I intend to keep on writing for games! Or writing games. Or game-writing. Or all of the above. And thanks a bunch to Playcrafting, Games for Change, and Sande for a wonderful learning opportunity!
1. How did you get into games?
I’ve always been into digital games, but really got into tabletop stuff as an undergrad. I then took a game design course with Mary Flanagan the spring of my freshman year, and the rest is history.
2. You’re part of the first manned mission to Mars! You’ll be gone for 5 years and can only bring 3 games to play alone or with your 3 fellow astronauts. What are they?
- Dungeons & Dragons, because the possibilities are endless.
- The Sims 3, for alone time, and to remind me of home.
- Heroes if the Storm, for some friendly competition and short bursts of fun.
3. What would be your dream game to build?
I would LURVE to create a week long LARP that uses an entire city as the game space, with dozens of NPC actors, fancy set design and AR elements to enhance immersion.
4. What do you love best about the game community in NYC?
It’s diversity. You can find people of all shapes, sizes and colours, making all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff.
5. Choose 5 words to describe your experience making games so far.
Time-consuming, challenging, wacky, frabjous, thought-provoking