We were very excited about NASA’s recent discovery of organic matter on Mars, stronger evidence than we have ever had of the presence of life in the red planet’s history, and perhaps even now. And sure, that life is nothing more complex than a light dusting of bacteria, but it’s hope for a future off-world, and even more incredible, it cements the notion of alien life. That’s life within our own solar system, so it’s no Faster-Than-Light travelling alien sapience that look like somebody’s been gradually improving the same sloppy prosthetics job over the last couple of decades, but it’s a start.
Science fiction writers have considered the possibility of how our interaction with alien life might go. Though the real tragedy is that the War of the Worlds destruction-by-disease is the most likely outcome, we can dream. Here’s a rough breakdown of the more optimistic possibilities. (more…)
Recently I got into a brief conversation on the nature of practice. In fact it’s a topic that keeps popping up lately, someone else I know was crowd sourcing ideas on how to get in to writing when you lack confidence in your ability to do so, and I found myself considering some advice that works for me, but might not be all that great for anyone else. Here’s what I didn’t say:
“Write. Keep writing. Don’t stop until you hate yourself for doing it. Then stop, because tomorrow you’re going to do it again.”
I have forgotten the last day I spent without writing anything, I carry a notebook in my manbag, I have a notepad installed on every mobile device I own, at work I carry notepads that get consumed faster when writing notes than on actual work related purposes, and even when I’m ill, or depressed, I’ll excise my frustration through words, or simply force myself to put pen to paper, hand to keyboard, black to white in some form so that I can say “today I created something”.
It works for me, I’ve looked back over some of my old work and, while I appreciate a lot of the ideas behind some of my old pieces – even on GeekOut – I still mark several differences in my writing style since I began. Even now I’m writing this at… let’s see, 00:51, ten-to-one in the morning, having woken up at an obscene hour to start the day, desperately constructing a quiz for tomorrow’s (today’s) GeekOut Shrewsbury Meet, printing the bomb defusal manual for Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes, and getting the daily duties done like eating a real meal and not just coffee and another cookie.
I do it because it makes me productive. It forces me to strive, and to accomplish, to complete projects that I set out to achieve, like the books I’m working on, the company I’m trying to set up, something more than watching all of Deep Space 9 so that I can draw judgemental comparisons to Babylon 5. And dammit I have kept to my schedule of work, producing regular content for GeekOut, beavering away at side-projects, and getting things done.
I wrote the comment above, and deleted it, in that dramatic “hold down the backspace button even though you don’t have to” fashion. Why would I encourage someone wanting to enjoy an old hobby to dive so fanatically into it in the way I have? If they had the mad devotion to writing I have then surely they wouldn’t need the advice, and if they take that advice they’ll soon lose interest in writing.
I don’t draw for example. I can draw, and I’ve no doubt I could get good at it if I devoted myself to the task, but why would I do that when a quiet doodle every now and again helps me relax after a month of hard written work? I enjoy it enough, and tend to destroy my sketches once they’re done to my satisfaction, but I take no pride in the work or set much store by the end product. It is fun.
Ultimately, if you enjoy something enough that you are willing to exhaust yourself to do it, then you are going to get good. That goes for writing, drawing, programming, the physical activities, or even public speaking. Bur don’t motivate yourself out of a good thing. Keep your hobbies as just that, and only let your passions consume you.
… Yeah, that’s what I should have wrote at the time!
It’s been a while since we last spoke about our highly ambitious eBook, capturing our Top 10’s in a format which is both similar to a digest, but yet comprehensive enough for anyone who hasn’t had the experience of our Top 10’s before. Naturally, we’ve been thinking long and hard about it, but there’s a lot of time and planning involved with a project like this. So, if you’ve ever been faced with making an eBook before yourself, let’s look at what we’ve been doing behind the scenes in order to get on with it!
As an avid reader, some of my favourite stories involve underdogs; someone we want to root for, because we feel for their plight. We don’t necessarily want them to become a hero, but if they do then we want them to be the best hero they can be. We don’t want them to immediately win – And no hero, no matter how great, should immediately win unless it’s a parody. Following on from Creating The Monster from a few weeks back, this is how you can have the Hero Fight The Monster.
My friend Nathan has been turning his hand to writing of late, because he has an idea and he’s damn well going to run with it. Now, he’s the first person to tell you that he’s not a great writer, and very sensibly and admirably turned to myself and Kim from Later Levels for advice on writing form, but after years of gaming with Nathan I can say that he has an excellent grasp of character and motivation, the impact of a character on narrative, the impact of a character’s history on their decisions, and he also has a perverse sense of humour.
Enter the character of Tom Permahorn, typically “Nathan” in that the character has an odd brutish nobility, a family tie to a clan of orcs (he really likes his orcs) and a uniqueness that sets him apart from your typical sword-and-sorcery brute. Despite the wall of text unfettered with paragraphs, the faltering pace, and some difficulty surpassing the grammar and choice of words, it took very little effort for me to see the bones of something of great quality. Nathan sent me the first few thousand words of The Misadventures of Thomas Permahorn, a fantasy farce with the eponymous Permahorn as the questionable protagonist.
The piece began in medias res, the barbarian undertaking his first ambitious quest, to topple a far larger opponent with reckless abandon because the payout at the end would be incredibly high, and would help build a reputation for him as a mighty warrior. Here I have grabbed a snippet that I loved for what it could be: (more…)
So far Marvel’s roster of villains has been good enough. Outstanding examples are few, but they rarely detract from the quality of the film and have never been so bland, poorly motivated, and misinterpreted as to match up to Jesse Eisenburg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor!* Most appear for a single film, and are gone for good by the end because most of the heroes in the cinematic universe aren’t so foolish as to keep their rogue’s gallery imprisoned, they just go for full blown obliteration.
Two villains have never completely faded. Loki has stuck around as beloved fan favourite and loose moral canon, and because Tom Hiddleston is having too much fun with the role. The other has yet to take his place in the front lines of action, but has been pulling the strings of Loki and Ronan the Accuser, and perhaps more since the earliest days of the Cinematic Universe. The Mad Titan, Thanos. (more…)
NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is an event that takes place annually in november. The event has been running since 1999 and in that time the company responsible for the event, also called National Novel Writing Month, has become a nonprofit. But what exactly is NaNoWriMo and what can you get out of the event? We’ve written about this event several times, but we’ve never written a sort of primer on how to get involved, or what you need to know. If the idea of writing a novel in a month sounds like a blast, a terrifying prospect, or something you find slightly curious – Then read on, as NaNoWriMo is a beast that should be taken on by all comers!
Since the dominance of the sandbox, railroading gameplay through linear non-divergent story and specific plot paths has become something of a faux-pas in game design, and was never looked upon favourably in tabletop roleplaying. As a player you seek agency, and often that comes from such simple things as choosing which path to take to the same inevitable end, and not following the obvious trail of breadcrumbs laid out for you. These days we laud games for open worlds, multiple endings, and the ability to approach one problem a dozen ways, to play it your way.
All but gone are the days of the 3D platformer, and the rail shooter, technology and computing power has given us the power to create actual worlds and weave beautiful stories into them rather than just telling a story and dragging you by the nose along it.
But is it so bad a thing that we’re better off entirely being rid of it, and casting away the strictly linear narratives of old?
There are times when actually taking your players by the nose and dragging them to the plot is not necessarily an unforgivable act. Here are a couple of examples of uses for, and in defence of railroading your story.
Here’s a nice easy one to get this started off. When beginning a campaign, or game, or whatever interactive experience your trying to share, you’ll usually have a few fundamentals to share, basic bits of information to share that’ll allow the player to understand the experiences to follow. A little bit of railroading aids “showing not telling” like the opening test chambers of Portal encouraging thinking with portals. Obduction drives you down a path in pursuit of one of the world-shifting seeds, and leaves you in a small bubble that tells you everything you need to know about the transition mechanics you’ll be playing with.
It’s a form of tutorial, but done right it’s so subtle that you barely notice it every replay. We’re guided through set pieces that leave us without doubt about where we’re going or what we’re doing for the rest of the game.
There are occasions where your story takes a turn that irrevocably changes everything. No turning back, and no matter what you have done up to this point this moment was unavoidable. Moments like the time-shift in Guild Wars, where the entire “tutorial” felt like an open world in it’s own right, only for everything to change in a single moment. Transitioning from one Mass Effect or Witcher still leaves you with a short period in which games are identical, no matter the decisions you’ve made.
Now, actions and decisions made before this pivotal moment can alter the events that follow, but all paths lead here ultimately. Most games use this kind of narrative, the storyline quests that so often get ignored in pure sandboxes, but there are times where that epic moment changes everything to the point where there’s no going back or wandering off to finish that sidequest you’ve been ignoring.
I’ll skim over this because this one’s more of a cheap trick, somewhat less acceptable. False choices are the doors you walk up to that suddenly slam shut and lock you out, or those decisions that immediately kill you or end the game. Arkham City did that with Catwoman’s story at one stage, where she had the option to simply walk away with loot in pocket, but because the game needed you to save Batman the game simply ended there. Sorry guys, given a real choice I’d have taken the money and run.
A Good Story
Halflife, Telltale Games, Psychonauts, hell most games will railroad up to a point. When your story is good and worth telling there’s nothing wrong with taking agency from the players in terms of narrative direction. In the drive to create bigger and more incredible games let’s not lose sight of a good story and the ways in which we can tell them, putting the player into the hazard suit of a mute scientist as he weaves through supersoldiers and alien parasites to reach the incredible conclusion of his epic tale (that will have been stuck on a cliffhanger for ten years this October) or filling the boots of the intrepid archaeologist as she shoots her way through adventures far more thrilling than any actual archaeologist would ever encounter.
I consider myself a world-builder first and foremost, so I’ll advocate for the ability to wander aimlessly around the whole world and delve its deepest corners and unveil every shred of lore, even if I have to sit and spend time that should be shooting down killer robots reading books on killer robot maintenance. But sometimes when a moment needs to be shared, or an idea is so stunning that it simply must be seen, there’s nothing wrong with putting the plot on tracks and asking everyone to enjoy the ride for a while.
I’ve been trying some list writing lately, a means of putting dozens of idle and fragmented ideas into some kind of order, and aiming for a nice round number gives me the drive to come up with something new. Things like:
- Ladder leading to a trap door, the mimic strikes when a creature is halfway up.
- Corpse with a gleaming sword in the back.
- Freestanding mirror that gives slightly inaccurate reflections.
- Chest in a shipwreck. Because who’s going to check while holding their breath? AHAHAHAHAHAA ~cough~
- Writing desk with locked pigeon holes, or possibly with a map spread across it.
- Vault door embedded in a stone wall.
- Table or shelf stocked with fresh food.
- Shovel stuck in a freshly turned over mound of soil.
- Music box with key, it chimes intermittently to coax creatures closer.
- Velvet upholstered throne occupying a low plinth.
You get the idea (and feel free to use those by the way). I’ve been spurred on by people like Raging Swan Press or the Hyper Halfling’s Book of Lists, as they’re immensely useful and a great inspiration for any fantasy based game. I’m also trying to write some for sci-fi based games as I can’t seem to find many free resources that aren’t bound to a particular universe – and I have a Borderlands RP under way – and here’s where I’m coming undone.
It’s actually amazingly easy to write for generic fantasy compared to how difficult it is to write for generic sci-fi because there is no generic sci-fi. Fantasy draws from various mythology and the Tolkein stereotypes wrought from old Norse mythology, elves and dwarves, dragons, giants, demons, the gothic horror classics like vampires and werewolves, mages and witches, knights and brigands. Science fiction is broadly missing these fundamentals to fall upon, with every new sci-fi writer bringing in their own interpretations and semi-original concepts.
We covered a few of the old sci-fi stereotypes a few years ago, and I can build upon this a little with the observations of other students of the genre. We tend towards a human-centric universe with common races either representing some aspect of human society, or being copies of fantasy stereotypes. Minbari, asari, vulcans, and eldar can all be accused of being space elves, narn, krogan, and klingons are space orcs, and Warhammer has abandoned pretence and given us actual Orkz. Fall-back phrases to use when creating generic sci-fi resources might include the use of robots, technology, the advanced aliens, the ancient aliens, the militaristic aliens, any form of descriptor that might set a species apart, but even then it leaves you with little to work with, a very narrow foundation on which to build.
For example, I’ve been attempting to write a fairly common list type, 100 trinkets. Now this can’t include anything that might give a character a major advantage, nothing that can be used as a weapon, but perhaps a curio that highlights some of their backstory, or carries its own story. Something that can easily be shoved into a pocket or doesn’t take up too much space in a backpack. Shouldn’t be too hard right? For fantasy it’s not a problem, there are thousands of items between the various lists on my computer or on my bookshelves:
8. A small sea conch with the words “From the beginning” painted on the lip. – Elemental Evil: Trinkets; Dragon+ Magazine, Wizards of the Coast
51. (Dr) Blood and Laughter, author’s name is an unintelligible symbol. A terrifying collection of scenes involving torture victims and gruesome deaths. It is difficult to tell whether the volume is historical or fictional. – Books; The Hyper Halfling’s book of Lists
6. The red flowers painted on this ceramic vase bloom, wilt and die over the course of a day. – 20 things to find in a bag of holding; Raging Swan Press
Well so far I have forty sci-fi trinkets. In the mean time my collected encounter tables, unique treasures, and cruel encounters all keep getting expanded upon. Despite a dearth of sci-fi properties to inspire and steal from I find myself falling back upon tiny single-purpose robots, holograms, galactic curios, and assorted technojunk. Still I persevere because little projects like this encourage creative thought and give me something geeky to moan about.
I made a big thing out of my attempt to join in with National Novel Writing Month in 2015, I’ll include links down below. By pass/fail standards then I didn’t make it, but 41,000 out of 50,000 isn’t bad going, and I’d reached a nice bridge into my third act, and I learned a lot in the process. More to the point it has triggered a series of learning experiences I wasn’t expecting, and while I may not be joining in fully this year I’ll still be working on a little side project to while the month away.
In short, this is why you too should attempt NaNoWriMo…
It’s amazing how much you learn about your own habits after trying something like this. I touched upon them before in my summary of NaNo 2015, my painful habit of using my own voice for characters, the challenges of description vs story, and exactly how much more planning I should be doing for these things. You all helped me pursue something that offered a real challenge, I rose to the challenge and I failed, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s what you take away from the experience afterward.
I’ve attempted a few other little writing challenges this last year, and had feedback from them. After three years (well, two and a half) of writing for GeekOut it appears I’ve developed something of a style that limits my audience; great audience, and I’m not going to change, but I’d be curious to attempt something different, alter my tone, break out of the comfortable niche I have settled into, the one full of lovely people who like things that I like and don’t judge me harshly when our opinions differ but will fight me to the bloody end over which Pokemon Go team is best*.
I feel compelled to pursue new projects, ones that I might actually finish. There are game designs left unfinished, a new writing endeavour to pursue that promises new experience and new opportunities, and other GeekOut related things for you to look forward to in the year to come. GeekOut got me to do NaNoWriMo in the first place, only right to feed that new drive back into the project.
This year I said I’d play more games, and I did, I committed time that I frankly didn’t have because it was something worthwhile. Next year I’ll be attending to another hobby I’ve let fall by the wayside, another that will help my next sprint at NaNo, reading, I haven’t read a good book in too long. Reading is good for you, and it makes you a better writer to read and understand the skills, habits, and failings of other authors.
Perhaps this isn’t the project for you, maybe you should get out there and run 80% of a marathon, or volunteer to help out at an event but have to duck out for the last hour or two. Or do the whole thing if that’s what you want to do. Doing something time sensitive, with a definite start and finish will help drive you toward achieving other goals, or help you aim for something new and unexpected. This month I simply do not have the time for another National Novel Writing Month, but in the spirit of the occasion I’ll be writing a little something every day, maybe no more than a couple of hundred words, perhaps not even that, but something.
Really that’s the point of pursuing a challenge like NaNoWriMo, it encourages you to do something new, and to work hard at it. It doesn’t matter if an old NaNo novel gets dumped into the endless limbo of the “To Finish” folder, because you tried something different and learned from it. The fact that a month of effort now fades into distant memory does not alter the fact that it has changed you for the better. The same can be said of anything new you try…