Showing posts with label video games. Show all posts
Showing posts with label video games. Show all posts

Current Status

For a long time, not a lot had changed, hence the lack of updates. But here's what's going on in my life right now that you may (or may not) be interested in:

1) Torment is out. You probably already know this, but if you don't let me say it again: TORMENT IS OUT FOR PS4, XBOX, PC, MAC, AND LINUX. It's also getting some pretty great reviews, with a metascore of 83 on Metacritic. I don't think I could be happier with all of our work.

2) I have a new game design gig. I am not (currently) working for inXile and instead am doing narrative design for Nexon. I do very much hope I get to work with the fine folks at inXile again in the future, but I'm also pretty excited about what we're doing at Nexon. Such is the life of a freelancer.

3) I'm currently drafting "Secret Middle Grade Fantasy Project." I want to tell you more, but I can't. Suffice to say I'm excited about this project.

4) I'm also writing another Middle Grade novel. This one tentatively called Sea of Souls. It's very different from anything I've written, which makes me both scared and excited. I think it could be pretty great, but we'll see!

5) I'm considering starting a Twitch stream. Because obviously I have all this free time. If you don't know what Twitch is, don't worry about it yet (I'll explain more if/when I do). Right now, I'm just trying things out and deciding what I want to do with it (and why). Any thoughts you have on the topic are welcome.

6) I'm finishing up Rurouni Kenshin. Thinking about what to watch next. Probably Iron Fist (since I'm fully invested in the Netflix Marvel universe), but there are so. Many. Shows.

7) I'm (finally) playing Banner Saga 2. And discovering I really suck at it, but also discovering how not to suck at it, which is fun.


As for other things you might be interested in -- like Izanami's Choice, some kind of sequel to Izanami's Choice, Post-Apoc Ninjas, etc -- I have no new news on these things (hence the long periods of silence). But that doesn't mean they have disappered. As always, I'll let you know when I have something to share!

So that's what's going on with me. What have you been doing lately?




The States of Things

Torment:


New part-time project:


Izanami's Choice:


Currently playing:

SpeedRunners
Ultimate Chicken Horse
Shadowrun: Dragonfall - Director's Cut

Current mood:

Currently answering questions in the comments:





Super Late PAX Post

PAX Prime was over a month ago, but I know several of you guys want to know what it was like. I have more time than I did in September, but I'm still short on it, so I'll do what I can.

As I've said before, I had never been on a panel, or even seen a panel, or even been to a convention before. I knew about PAX, of course -- even when I was separated from all things games, I still read my beloved Penny Arcade and witnessed the birth of their Gamer's Mecca -- but I had no idea what to expect.

But a Gamer's Mecca is pretty much what it is. Hundreds of thousands of geeks pile into Seattle for the weekend. Cosplayers are everywhere. Nearly every Uber to and from the convention is a Mad Max vehicle. Some weird tentacley thing is bursting out of the convention hall annex. Even miles away from the convention center, you might be going to dinner at a nice sit-down place and see Harley Quinn or Fire Emblem's Mia walk out.

It's pretty amazing.

And because everyone's there for a shared love of games (and many of them are introverts too), everyone's super nice. I played games and even had conversations (gasp!) with total strangers while waiting in line for other things. I spent the weekend with my brother and his friends -- also game developers -- and we talked RPGs, industry chat, card game design, and a thousand other topics that I never get to talk about at home.
Other highlights and comments:
  • The difference between AAA exhibitions and indie games is staggering. Watching Bethesda's animatronic Fallout robot or the Dark Souls fountain made me realize just how much more money these guys have than we on Torment do.
  • I discovered I'm much more attracted to the styles and innovations of indie games than the flash of AAA (not that I dislike the flash, mind you, I just found myself hanging in the Indie Exhibition Hall a lot more). Here was one of my favorites: Ultimate Chicken Horse.
  • I got to hang out with (and in many cases meet for the first time) a bunch of awesome game devs, including but not limited to Chris Avellone, Brian Mitsoda, Adam Brennecke, Monte Cook, Shanna Germain, and all the folks on my panel.

  • I had lunch with Pat Rothfuss. Our e-mails crossed paths, so we had only good intentions, but no actual plans to meet. But when my brother and I were in line for PA's live D&D show, I saw a notable bearded man walk past and -- in a truly non-introverted moment -- ran up to him, introduced myself, and made plans for lunch. I know. I'm super proud of myself, too.
The panel itself was both terrifying and really, really fun. Honestly, I would have loved to just sit and talk RPGs with Annie, Mitch, Swen, and Josh without all those people watching. Sounds like an awesome afternoon to me. We talked for an hour about RPGs and the difference between old-school and modern RPGs (and why we tend to like the former), as well as answering some very good questions from the audience.

In case you missed it, the audio for that panel is here.

I would love to go to PAX again, though honestly I don't know what I would have done if I didn't have my brother to hang out with. He and his friends were a huge part of what made PAX awesome for me (heck, half the stuff I said on the panel was stuff that I had said to them in our own conversations).

But who knows? Maybe one day I will.


Fix All The Things!

I know some of you want to hear what my time at PAX was like. I intend to write that post, but you'll have to wait a little longer. I have a crapload of work to do, including but not limited to:
  • Write Torment conversations
  • Design Torment conversations for others to write
  • Review Torment conversations others have written
  • Fix a number of problems created by the most recent round of Torment cuts
  • Finish a novella by October
  • Write a newsletter by October
  • Give the Thai government a bunch of documents they asked for while I was in the US (timing, man, seriously)
  • Fix everything that broke around the house while I was gone
  • Parent several children...
  • ...while my wife takes her own trip to the US
So my already ridiculously over-tasked life got turned to 11 for a few weeks. I will tell you about PAX, but not yet (fair warning: I fail at pictures).

However, you can hear me at my panel, wherein I and several awesome designers talk about what makes a classic RPG. There is no video recording, but the audio is here:

What I've been doing since 1999

On Friday, the Torment team released the first Alpha Systems Test, a look at the opening scene of the game and its most essential systems (conversation, mostly).

Shortly after I tweeted that out, some folks wondered what I've been doing, game design-wise, since 1999 (other folks wondered what happened in 1999 which, you know, that's fair).

Here's a very brief look at what happened since:
  • 1999 -- Planescape: Torment was released to high critical acclaim (and low sales).
  • 2000 -- I got married and left my awesome-but-crunch-timey game dev job for what I commonly refer to as my Office Space job.
  • While I was at work (sometimes literally), I designed D&D campaigns and board games, drew crappy comic strips, wrote stories, and programmed games based on those stories.
  • 2003 -- I decided I wanted to actually finish something I started, so I put my other projects aside (fourth question down) and focused on writing a novel.
  • 2005 -- My wife and I moved to Thailand. I kept writing, but I could no longer pay attention to the game industry (among other things) as much as I used to.
  • 2006 -- We took in our first child, and over the next several years would increase our family to include ten children, both foster and natural. Meanwhile, I kept designing RPGs and board games (that never got played outside my house).
  • 2008 -- I sent my first novel to agents (and also started this blog).
  • 2010 -- I wrote a story that somebody actually paid me for.
  • 2011 -- I got an agent and began the search for a publisher (that search is still ongoing, though we've updated the novel it is going on for).
  • 2012 -- I started working for inXile and "researched" what the game industry had been up to since I left (read: I played games again and wrote them off for tax purposes).
  • 2013-2015 -- I wrote hundreds of thousands of words for game dialogue and systems design. I also wrote a novella, a Pathfinder story, and a number of other things I hope you'll get to read some day.

So there you go. That's what I've been doing instead of (or in addition to) designing games for the last 15 years. Hopefully that also explains why my tastes in games tend to skew oldschool.


Classic RPGs Panel at PAX

Hey, all! If you're going to PAX Prime next month, I'll be on a panel there.

The panel is "CLASSIC RPGs FOREVER!" (yes, in all caps, apparently), and it'll be on Sunday, August 30th at 11 AM in the Sasquatch Theater.

We'll be talking about resurrecting subgenres of classic RPGs that were once thought dead. I'll be joining veteran game developers Annie Mitsoda, Josh Sawyer, Mitch Gitelman, and Swen Vincke, with Penny Arcade's Jeff Kalles moderating.

I'm super excited and super terrified. This will be the first time I've ever been on a panel (or even seen a panel, or gone to PAX, or gone to any convention of any kind). It'll be awesome to talk games with a bunch of developers I admire, but yeah, combine a thousand unknowns with enormous crowds with nigh-clinical introversion and you get something that's even scarier than what I already do all day.

But hey, I'll manage. I always do.

So if you're going to be at PAX, let me know! It's possible I might be able to do something about that information without crawling under my bed in terror.*

* That's a joke. My bed is a mattress on the floor. I can't crawl under there without straining something.**

** Unless I crawl under the bed at my hotel. Hm, there's an idea....

Q: What kind of writing samples do you want for game work?

Gunther Winters is looking for a writing position in the gaming industry. He says:
...all those ads [that interest me] require the submission of "samples" of one's own work, and I suspect that those that don't clearly require it just take it for understood. ...what is adequate for "submitting"? How many "pieces"? How long? Of what  kind? Most ads mention no details whatsoever...

Any other advice for an aspirant "writer" who is trying to approach the gaming industry?

I can't tell you specifically what other people are looking for, but I'll tell you what we look for. Since Torment is looking for a number of words on the order of 2-3 George R. R. Martin novels, I hope my advice will be applicable (if not over-applicable) to other positions as well.

Mostly we want to get the sense that you can do the work we need you for. Length of the samples is not very important, so long as it's a couple of pages' worth. Quantity of samples can be useful to get a sense of a writer's breadth, but again is not critical.

The type of sample matters more. For us, we like to see game and fiction writing (and because Torment is a bit more literary* than most games, we slightly prefer fiction writing to get a sense of a writer's skill). If an applicant sent us links to his Twitter feed or blog posts, it wouldn't tell us much about whether they could write character dialogue.

* Read: more wordy.

In general, it's a good idea to send exactly what is asked for. If they don't ask for samples, or you think you might have too many, then include a link to more samples in case they're interested. If they think you look promising, they can always ask for more.

Lastly, although the requirements of every game writing position is different, being technical enough to structure branching dialogue is usually a good skill to have. Fortunately, there are many game design and modding tools that can help you learn this sort of thing.

As to other advice, I've written on that before. Short version: learn to do something related, and do it very well.

Gunther adds:
Last, if the choice is between getting Torment released and replying to me, by all means please just work on the game and release it already. I'm dying here [insert pun about my "torment" here].
Heh. Fortunately for you, my brain needed a break and your question provided it. But I appreciate your anticipation!


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Got a question? Ask me anything.


Favorite Games of 2014

It's still January. I'm not late.

Well, except for the part where these are games I played in 2014, as opposed to games that may have come out in 2014. Whatever.

BANNER SAGA
I've talked about this one. It looks pretty. It sounds lovely. It asks me to make hard choices and then question them, and for some reason I love it all the more because of this. I'm thinking of playing through it again on Hard.

I will probably fail. I don't actually care.

THE LONGEST JOURNEY
Adventure games are kind of my thing. I was birthed on Colossal Cave and Adventureland, raised on Space Quest IV and Fate of Atlantis, and sent into the world alongside Curse of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. Adventure games aren't my jam. They are the eternal soundtrack of my existence.

So yeah, I kinda liked the Longest Journey. It's not as funny as Sierra or LucasArts fare, but it's good enough, and it has a story deeper and more moving than all of the above. When I finished, I immediately launched into Dreamfall and Dreamfall Chapters, which are equally beautiful and moving, though the first in the series remains my favorite in terms of gameplay (so far -- there's more in Dreamfall to come, and I can't wait to play it).

BROKEN AGE, ACT 1
If adventure games are my soundtrack, then Tim Schafer is my composer. All my favorite adventure games? Yeah, they're his. I missed the Kickstarter, but honestly I'm happy to give Tim full price for what is essentially my childhood in precious-gem form.

Broken Age doesn't quite trump Curse of Monkey Island as my favorite adventure game of all time, but it stands alongside my favorites. It also currently holds the award for blowing my mind and the minds of my children with its story secrets. I love it when a story does that.

PHOENOTOPIA
It is very strange to me that a free flash game has earned a place among my favorite games of the year. But it has.

Phoenotopia is essentially a platformer RPG, like innumerable classics I played on NES and SNES. It has clever puzzles, superb exploration, and challenging boss battles. It even has a couple of mechanics I don't think I ever saw back in the day, but that I really enjoyed. It surprised me. The fact that it's free makes it that much better.


A quick Google search will find you these games. If your tastes at all align with mine, you should try them.

What have you played lately? What's your favorite?


Gaming, Women, and Missing the Point

There is a murderer on the loose. Some of the victims are men, but the overwhelming majority are women. Yet for some reason, instead of doing something about it, this conversation is happening all over the internet right now:
A: "Help! There's a murderer on the loose!"
B: "No there isn't. You're just making up that murderer nonsense to get attention."
A: "What? But... dead bodies. Murder. Facts."
B: "Fabricated. I mean, look how obviously these pictures have been photoshopped."
A: "These pictures are from the NY Times. One of the bodies is right over there. Someone is murdering women."
B: "Now you're blowing everything out of proportion. They're not murdering women. They're murdering men, too. But you don't see me complaining about it."
A: "Complaining? I... Look, I'm not saying men haven't been murdered. I'm saying the killer is primarily stalking and killing women. Even most of the men he's murdered were because he accused them of being women. Why are you arguing about this?"
B: "Oh, so now you're blaming me? I didn't murder anybody! You need to get your facts straight. There are a lot worse things than being murdered, you know."
C: "Hey, I heard you're trying to raise this issue about women getting murdered again. I thought you were a rational person, but I guess I was wrong."
D: "Woah! Stop blaming us for the murders! I interact with women all the time without murdering them!"
E: "Oh my God! You're not talking about this 'murderer' again, are you? Shut the f*** up!"
Of course I'm not actually talking about a murderer. It would be so much simpler if I were. I'm referring to online harassment, stalking, threats, and severe sexism -- particularly toward women, particularly in and around gaming culture. A recent public example being Anita Sarkeesian, who was stalked and driven from her home by abuse for bringing up the objectification of women in several mainstream games. I wish it were the only example -- if it were, maybe then we could talk about whether it actually happened -- but it's not even close.

The most horrible part about this conversation is that there are now two problems. There's the "murderer" who is actively killing people (Oh no! Facts! Don't look directly at them!), and there is this small but ridiculously vocal group of people shouting down everyone who tries to do something about it.

(There may be some overlap between the two -- I would not be surprised at all if there was -- but for now, let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say they are separate groups.)

Look, I can understand if you don't see the problem. Twenty years ago, I didn't see the problem either, and it was another decade after that before I saw just how prevalent the problem really was. By its very nature, the problem is invisible to us.

But you have to understand that when you argue with the victims, it makes you a part of the problem whether you see it or not.

This is not a blame game, though (making it such is also a part of the problem). It isn't about you at all. We're probably all sexist at some level, but it's not about labels either. It's about this: what will you do when confronted with people who are hurting? Will you argue that, hey, it's not all men? Will you throw up your hands because that's life and there's nothing you can do? Will you cuss out the person who dared to accuse you of the systemic discrimination that influences every single person on the planet?

Or will you own up to the problem, see it for what it is, and try to minimize it in yourself? Will you try to help and try to do better?

That's what this is for me. The point of this post is not to argue whether or not this crap happens (please don't, it makes you look dumb), but for the people who are where I was, who aren't aware of the problem and its extent, who don't realize that they are part of the problem but that there is something they can do about it.

Because it is a problem. This murderer makes gaming a toxic environment for many, and several times worse for women than for men.

And the second problem: a group who, while perhaps not murderers themselves, make it very difficult for anyone (though again, especially women) to try to talk about this problem. Discussion and awareness are key to any kind of progress, and while the harassers are extremely good at raising awareness (nice work, guys), they are less good about rational discussion.

What can we do? Talk about it. Read about it (you've got 9 good links right up there, most of which link to more good links). Post about it. Call it out when you see it, and don't play with people who do this sort of thing.

God, that last bit is the kind of thing I say to my 7-year-olds. But you know what? When we do or allow this sort of thing, that's exactly what we're acting like. It's way past time we grew up.

How to Become a Video Game Writer

From the AMA pile, Anonymous asks:
If someone wants to become a writer for video games, what would your advice be?

My super short advice is to do these in any order: (1) get a video game job and (2) learn to write well.

More in-depth (and hopefully useful) advice follows.

If you have a video game job, you need to learn to write well and squeeze yourself into positions where you have opportunity to write. You can learn to write anywhere: books, blogs, school, reading, but most importantly by actually writing and getting critiques from other writers.

I suspect, however, that the other order (learn to write, get game job) is the one most of you will be interested in. Here are some options:
  1. Get known for your writing and make your interest in gaming publicly known.
  2. Watch for game developer job openings. For example: inXile, Obsidian, Bioware.
  3. Make friends with other game developers. Note that I said "friends," not "acquaintances who can help me get what I really want." Remember: self-serving has a smell.
  4. Learn skills related to the game industry but that you also enjoy and/or excel at. For example: 3D art, 2D art, programming, web development, game design, etc.
  5. Find similar-minded friends and make quality games (or mods of existing games) on your own time.
  6. Become a game tester.
None of these are mutually exclusive. In fact, the more you do, the greater your chances of getting what you really want.

I know game writers who have followed all of these paths. The goal is to get noticed any way you can, so when someone asks a friend of yours, "Do you know any good game writers who might be available for this?" your friend can go, "[Your name here] might be interested, and his [type of work you do] is always good and on time. Want me to ask him?"

Incidentally, my path is here. It's a stranger path than most, but I did #2 and #3 for my first job, and a combination of #1, #3, and #4 for my current one. So my advice applies to at least one person? I guess?

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Got a question? Ask me anything.

AMA: If You Could Make Any Game...

The aftermath of my trip to California has kept me ridiculously busy, but I've finally snuck a little time to answer another question. And it's a good one.

Samuel asks:
You are currently the project lead for Torment: Tides of Numenera for InXile Entertainment. With that in mind, if you could be the "boss"/project lead for any type of Compute role-playing game, and decide everything about it's setting and design, what would you make?
 
(Clarification: I am not Torment's Project Lead. That distinction belongs to Kevin Saunders. I'm not even sure it's a job I'd want. I am Torment's Design Lead, in charge of gameplay systems and Numenera adaptation. And sometimes Colin and Kevin even let me write stuff.)

With that clarified, I'd make the game that I started 11 years ago: a space trader game set in my own Air Pirates world. If you know what both of those are, you can skip to the end. Otherwise...

A space trader game is an open-world (or at least pseudo-open world) space simulator in which the player is the pilot of a relatively small, outdated starship and must work his way up to some awesome, customized super star destroyer of his own design, by trading goods, accepting missions, and taking risks.

Often the game world has a number of factions the player can take missions for, gaining the goodwill or ire of each, and unlocking special missions, ships, weapons, etc. Many such games also have a story you can follow (or ignore). My favorite space trader games, in reverse chronological order, have been: Wing Commander: Privateer, Escape Velocity, and the BBS text version of Trade Wars.

Air Pirates is the world in which my single published story "Pawn's Gambit" is set, as well as the novel that got me my agent.

Air Pirates is not set in space, and it has almost nothing to do with space. It's really all about the airships and the pirates (hence the name). So that's the first thing I would change from the space trader formula: it would be set in a world and not in space.

The second thing I would tweak is I'd focus it on story and reactivity. I wouldn't remove the open-world aspect of it entirely, but for me that would be a side game. The story and the characters would be what was important, along with giving the player multiple really interesting ways to get through the game the way they want to.

Will I ever get to make that game? Probably not. But you asked, Samuel, and it's fun to dream.



Got a question? Ask me anything.

AMA on the Road

I am currently in Incheon Airport in Korea, awaiting the end of my 8-hour layover so I can finish another journey to Newport Beach and another week of design meetings, pizza, more design meetings, Greek food, brainstorming meetings (you know, where we brainstorm design), Mexican food, and the beach. Except for the part where I leave my family for 10 days (and, you know, kill 8 hours in an airport), I'm pretty excited about it.

But I do have some questions to answer! So let's get to these.

All these questions are from Surface Rlf:
If the player it to be forewarned about possible failure, or chances for that failure - shouldn't that be dependent on level of his skill for that specific task?
So, a low level, beginner thief would not be able to know how dangerous some trap or lock is with any greater precision (this lock looks challenging, duh), while a master thief would be able to evaluate the dangers with more exact precision, presumably knowing the exact type and maker and specific of the lock or trap.
Or at least be able to deduce the potential risks with more precision?
- instead of some global knowledge available to everyone - of that class?
These are cool ideas, and if we had more resources to devote to implementing and debugging this kind of gameplay, I'd put it in Torment.  (I know it doesn't seem all that complicated, but even a small thing like this can increase balancing and debugging time exponentially.) At the moment, pending prototyping and iteration of our exploration gameplay, we're allowing the player to choose how much of the task difficulties they see (actual numbers vs. abstracted numbers (default) vs. none), primarily focusing our resources toward conversations, Crises, and reactivity instead.

Save scumming in usual gameplay may be fine, but what about saving during TB combat?
It's likely this will be possible in Torment (our Crises are planned to be longish, in-depth affairs), so I stand by my statement in this interview. Namely, we are taking care in our design so as not to encourage nor require savescumming, even in TB combat. But for some folks, that's how they want to play, so we're not going to expend tons of resources to prohibit it.

- have you played Age of Decadence?
Sadly, no.

As for [random number generation (a topic dealt with in the same interview)]... isnt that what gives RPG mechanics a very valuable sense of authenticity and believability? Lets look at... Sergei Bubka, at his prime. World recorder and master champion of his sport with no one equal or even close in skill at the time. Did he succeed in every single jump? Furthermore... shouldn't RNG lessen the more skilled a character is and be greater the lower level of skill is? (but never be completely removed?) Seems reasonable and believable to me.
I agree (though as I said in the interview, deterministic can be fun too). Sounds like you'll enjoy Torment's design :-)

Oh, i guess the fact that the player has the option of switching between all those Foci will be excused through narrative - of player being a castoff.
Something like that, yeah :-)



Have a question? Ask me anything.

AMA: 7 Quick Answers

The lovely Authoress asks:
Why aren't you writing a novel right now?   :)

Brian Fargo (my boss's boss) has been quoted as saying that we have generated 800 pages of design documents, and I'm personally responsible for about 150,000 words of those documents. (That's an excuse, I know. I am writing a novel, but much more slowly than before.)


Sandra asks:
What will you look for in an intern? What are some basic skills the intern must have? What kind of attitude should s/he have if they want to apply at a company? (Given that, ofcourse, the company you work for, accepts interns)

I, personally, do not look for interns. There are more than enough people in my house who require me to teach them everything I know for next to no pay, such that I don't need any more. I don't know if inXile takes interns, but I'm sure you can find out.


The even lovelier Cindy Heine asks:
What's the next gift you're going to give your wife? 

Either something from the States, something from an airport, or a hug. Maybe all three.


Ali Martinez asks:
Are you guys going to make the [Torment] combat system like Planescape/Baldur with the pausable real-time mode?. Because right now there are WAY too many "turn based combat games" like Banner Saga , Blackguards , ShadowRun, Wasteland, Divinity Original Sin ETC. And I really think that many people want that old school RPG complex combat system, so it would be great if you guys go with the real time paused system :) 

Torment's combat will be turn-based, which we've talked about (and there were "many people" on both sides of that decision).

(Also, real-time w/ pause = old school? Am I that old?).


Hiver asks:
How come the Changing God doesnt get that his discarded shells are continuing to live? He seems as a rather smart guy and he makes them himself. - Does every shell survive or just some? How come?

I can't answer too much without spoiling, but he does get it (at some point).


David asks:
Can I play T:ToN without having to learn the massive lore beforehand? Can I as a layman play the game and learn about the world and rules through playing the game rather than having to study beforehand?
I ask because whenever I see an interview or an update, I've got the strong sense I'm missing a vast amount of knowledge.

I backed both Project Eternity and Torment Tides of Numenera, but my attention had been focused mostly on following Project Eternity. I now have this idea that starting T:ToN I might be well out of my depth. I hope not, because so far, I like everything I've read. And as a fairly critical person, that's rare.

You will absolutely be able to play Torment without knowing anything beforehand. If you come in having read every post and novella, you'll notice cool things here and there, but we are explicitly assuming the player has no background knowledge coming in.


Hugo Chavez asks:
You're pretty cool. What's your shtick?

Clean living, Jesus, and a barrel of children who won't let my head get big for even a second.



Got a question? Ask me anything.

Why I Love the Banner Saga

Guys, I think I love this game. I mean, it's over now, which makes me sad, but... Well, maybe I should tell you what it is.

The Banner Saga is a tactical RPG, kickstarted by Stoic Studio almost 2 years ago backed by over 20,000 people. It feels like what would happen if George R. R. Martin hired Don Bluth to make a short version of Final Fantasy Tactics set in a Norse world. You think I'm joking, but play it and tell me I'm wrong.

It's set in a fantasy world inhabited primarily by humans, varl (giants with massive horns), and nasty armored things called dredge. For some reason, the sun stopped moving near the horizon and the world is freezing. On top of that, the dredge are rushing out of the north, crushing everything and everyone in their path. Men and varl have to put aside their differences to save both their peoples, but that proves rather difficult.

And then things get worse.

You play a few different characters across the game, reluctant leaders of men and varl stuck in impossible situations. This is the first thing I love about the game. You don't know how to lead. You don't even want to lead. But the game asks you to make impossible decisions of the stand-and-fight vs. run-and-abandon-our-ancestors-home variety and then it makes you question whether you did the right thing.

The second thing I love is the game makes you feel like your decisions matter. They don't always, but so many of them do that you don't even notice the others. If you stand and fight, you might lose and be run off anyway, or you might actually win and be forced to make a different decision. Do you let the women of your clan train to fight, even though the men are dead set against putting their wives and daughters in danger? Do you encourage a town you pass by to flee with you, as you did, or stay and defend their homes, as you wish you did?

The game itself is a series of macro decisions on how to help your clan escape and survive, interspersed with tactical battles pitting your heroes against a few enemies. These were the third thing I loved. There's almost no dice-rolling; the outcome of your attacks is almost entirely deterministic (some people like to give me crap for designing elements of chance, but guess what? I can love both). And the abilities of the different heroes at your disposal can be combined in unique, sometimes unexpected ways, so that a clever commander can sometimes win even a hopeless battle.

The music, the art, the prolonged scenes watching my caravan trudge across the waste (it sounds weird, but those scenes are part of what really drew me into the game), the deaths, the questioning myself as a leader, the triumph when I finally did something right... It's just a good game. If you like tactical games or RPGs, check this one out. The Banner Saga is strong evidence that games are art.


Writing Game Dialogue

A lot of you know I'm a multiclassed programmer/writer. Before I drafted four novels and got an agent, I had a Computer Science degree, scripted for Planescape: Torment, and completed a few dozen Project Euler problems (until they got too hard). Unfortunately, since I've been more focused on writing, my levels in programming have gone largely unused.

Until now. It turns out game dialogue is the perfect job for my class combination. It's nowhere near as complicated as writing a program to solve Sudoku, but it's got all the puzzle-solving aspects of programming that I love.

And it's not as hard as it sounds. Here, I'll show you.

Typical dialogue in a novel goes something like this (excerpt from Post-Apoc Ninjas):

     "Tell me who you really are," the Marshal said.
     Here we go. The Marshal had already guessed much. Kai would have to be careful. "As I said, I grew up among mercenaries in Rivaday, though the mercenaries themselves were from all over."
     "Ah, so the story changes. How much did my grandson pay you, then?"
     "Pay me?"
     "In reward. Surely a mercenary would not rescue the Lord of Gintzu and take nothing in return."
     Kai hesitated. Marshal Aryenu was much sharper than his appearance made it seem. It felt very much like talking to Domino. Better to turn the questions on him. "How much of what Lord Domino told me was true?"
     "Your reward, mercenary?"
     Both sharper and more stubborn than his grandson. "Two thousand."

     "A lie. The boy doesn't pay anyone he doesn't have to."

Game dialogue is not so different from this, at least for a game like Torment. Prose-wise, there are only a few changes:
  • Dialogue tags ("the Marshal said") are rarely necessary, since the character speaking is usually indicated on the game screen.
  • The Player Character's thoughts (in this example, our PC is Kai) are not tied to the PC's lines, if they're included at all; sometimes all information is conveyed through dialogue or item description instead.
  • PC lines are typically very brief. (In some games, you don't even get a line, just a motive or emotion that the game designers interpret for you).
  • Any description is written in present tense and second person (though I suppose it doesn't have to be).
So a more Tormenty version would look like this (speaker tags added for clarity):

Marshal: "Tell me who you really are."
PC: "As I said, I grew up among mercenaries in Rivaday."
Marshal: "Ah, so the story changes. How much did my grandson pay you, then?"
PC: "Pay me?"
Marshal: "In reward. Surely a mercenary would not rescue the Lord of Gintzu and take nothing in return." He examines you carefully. Suddenly, he seems much sharper than his appearance first suggested.
PC: "How much of what Lord Domino told me was true?"
Marshal: "Your reward, mercenary?"
PC: "Two thousand."
 
Marshal: "A lie. The boy doesn't pay anyone he doesn't have to."

Those differences are primarily cosmetic. The real difference, and the most fun, is that game dialogues allow the player to choose what they say.

Marshal: "Tell me who you really are."

1)
[Lie] "As I said, I grew up among mercenaries in Rivaday." 
2) "I'm a ninja."
3) "How much of what Lord Domino told me was true?"
4) Attack the Marshal.

Each one of those choices goes to a different branch of dialogue (or exits dialogue and starts combat, in the case of the last one). It's pretty much exactly like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel combined with a combat mini-game.

But a game should be better than that, no? We can respond, not just to what the player chooses to say, but to their other choices as well -- things they've done in the past, how they've customized their character, who they choose to travel with, etc. We call this reactivity.

Marshal: "Tell me who you really are."

1)
[Lie] "As I said, I grew up among mercenaries in Rivaday." 
2) "I'm a ninja."
3) "How much of what Lord Domino told me was true?"
4) Attack him.
5) (If the PC betrayed his clan) "I'm a ninja, and a fugitive from my clan."
6) (If the PC killed the guards outside the keep) "I'm the guy who killed your guards."  
7) (If the player took the Read Minds ability) Try to read his mind.

And then each of those responses might have reactivity as well. The lie in (1) might succeed if you have a high deception skill, for example. What you learn from (7) might change depending on your level in the ability.

What you end up with is a branching, interlinking dialogue tree, hopefully one that is every bit as interesting for the player to navigate as combat or exploration.


It might seem overwhelming, but really such a thing evolves gradually as you write each line and think about what the player might want to say in reply. In fact, it's difficult NOT to write a huge, unwieldy conversation tree. For me, that's half the fun: trying to figure out how to guide the player to all the information I want them to get, without forcing them.

Here, if you want to play with a free, online example, try this online game where you play a dragon. But, um, don't blame me for any productivity loss.

Dead Boys, Invisible Girls, and Teens That Can't Read Minds

I apologize for the blog silence. I'm deep in the drafting tunnels of a certain science fantasy novella and/or role-playing game. I'll resurface once I get this novella worked out. Until then, please see the last part of the official blog schedule.

But I'm sending this missive via miner's canary* because there are three very important books I need to tell you about. All of them are cool, written by exceedingly cool people, and I think I'm in the acknowledgements of two of them (which ones? You'll just have to read them to find out!).

* Please send the canary back, by the way. The air in these tunnels is starting to smell funny.


Jack of Hearts by Ricardo Bare
Jack lost someone, causing a deep pain he could no longer endure. Most boys would take their own life. Jack gave his heart to the Lady of Twilight and has become her heartless assassin. Now he feels nothing, even as he does the Lady's bidding in hunting a thieving wizard.

But when he meets a beautiful girl trapped in a mirror, something stirs inside of him. A shadow of what he used to be. He wonders if he made the right decision after all, but getting his heart back from the witch will prove more difficult than any mission he's been on.

Jack of Hearts, is Ricardo's debut novel that came out just a couple weeks ago. He is one of my most awesome critique partners, and also happens to be the lead designer of the critically acclaimed stealth action/adventure game Dishonored, released last year. Check this book out, folks.


Transparent by Natalie Whipple
Touted as X-Men meets Godfather. Fiona McClean was born invisible, which makes her the perfect daughter for Vegas's biggest crime lord. But when her father pushes her too far, she goes on the run and tries to live a normal life in a small town far from her father's reach. Far, but not far enough. When her father tracks her down, she has to decide how far she'll go to protect the people she loves.

Transparent is Natalie's debut (that doesn't actually come out until next week, but you can pre-order it now). She's a good friend of mine, and it's been both heartbreaking and exhilarating to watch her journey to publication these last few years. She is (as I've said) hugely imaginative, and it shows in her ideas. She is also part of our writing team for Torment, which makes her and Torment extra awesome. 

Open Minds by Susan Kaye Quinn
Kiera is a zero, a non-reader in a world where everybody can read minds. Until the day she accidentally control's her best friend's mind and discovers she's an entirely different kind of freak: a mindjacker. It turns out she's not the only one, and she's soon drawn into an underworld that she never suspected existed.

As it happens, this was Susan's debut as well. Yes, okay, this book came out two years ago, AND I've already talked about it. But I'm bringing it to your attention now because Open Minds is, now and forever, free to download.

So what are you waiting for?

Three Kickstarters I Would Throw All My Money At

1. A successor to Crusader: No Remorse. This game destroyed an entire quarter of my second year in college. Oh, man, but it was a good quarter.

You play an elite super-soldier, trained by a dystopian government that you spend the entire game betraying and fighting against. Technically, it's an action game, but it's a smart action game. You have to decide which weapons you will bring with you on each mission (of those you can afford). You can either sneak through missions or blast your way through them. And because what you bring with you is limited, you have to figure out how to conserve your ammo or find some more during the mission.

And the story is just cool. The government you served betrayed you, but the resistance you join in the beginning doesn't like you much either. So you have to prove yourself to them by undertaking increasingly dangerous missions. And then, of course, there's secret dystopian weapons projects, double agents, betrayal, and even a full-on dark night of the soul before you have to decide to get off your butt and save the world.

2. A successor to Chrono Trigger. I'm not gonna lie, I'm a fan of JRPGs (technically, I'm a fan of all RPGs, but JRPGs comprised most of my childhood, so...). And Chrono Trigger was probably the best. It had everything I loved about Final Fantasy (I), Crystalis, and Secret of Mana plus: time travel.

And not just time travel -- where you go to different eras the same way you take your airship to different islands -- but time travel that mattered. Plant a seed in the past, collect magic fruit in the future. Tell your robot companion to spend the next four hundred years restoring a forest, then travel forward to see the results. All the while trying to stop a giant alien parasite that crashed to Earth millions of years ago, awoke in 1999, and created a post-apocalyptic world for the remainder of time.

Or not. Cuz, you know, you can change things.

3. The reanimation of Tony Jay. Or, you know, at least his voice.

Obviously I'm not thinking about this very hard, because this is all nostalgia, but what would you Kickstart?

7 More Things You Never Wanted to Know

A follow-up to this post.

8)
Cardboard people freak me out.

9)
Most days, I sit down at the piano to plunk out the Pirates of the Caribbean theme. Also, I cannot pull out my guitar without playing "The Ballad of Serenity" at least once.

10)
When I count things slowly, I always end up saying "two-WHOOO" like that owl from the Tootsie Roll commercial.

11)
In 6th grade, I spent an entire church service drawing the map of Bowser's Castle from Super Mario Bros 3.

12)
I have seen every single episode of So You Think You Can Dance.

13)
Surf Ninjas is awesome, and you cannot convince me otherwise.

14)
I am pathetic when I get sick. If my wife is to be believed (and she's very smart, so I do), I am so pathetic that it makes the times I wasn't sick seem even more pathetic than they were at the time. So basically, my patheticness transcends the space-time continuum.

Tell me something about you.

Final Torment Info

So the Torment Kickstarter is in the last week of its campaign. We've raised over $3.25M, but we hope to raise even more to make this game bigger and better, to make a game that truly lives up to the Torment tradition.

So this is the last you'll hear me plug it, but I wanted to bring to your attention a couple of things, including one bit of news that hasn't made it to the Kickstarter page.

Bit #1: Pat Rothfuss is on our writing team. I know, right? MIND. BLOWN. It might even be part of my job to review Pat's areas which, if I remember correctly, is one of the signs of the apocalypse.

Bit #2: Natalie Whipple is on our writing team. I know that's not as big as Pat (which is one of the main reasons this hasn't hit our Kickstarter page), but though this announcement might not excite the internet at large, for me this is HUGE.

I've been following Natalie's career since way back when she won one of Nathan Bransford's 1st Paragraph Contests, and since then I've been lucky enough to critique a few of her novels. I even got to read the first chapter of her upcoming "X-Men meets Godfather" debut, TRANSPARENT. Guys, it would not be a mistake to pre-order that.

Natalie is hugely imaginative, and she brings a cool, new perspective to the Torment team that I'm really excited about. Seriously, I cannot wait to work with this team and see what we come up with.

If you want to help the project, you can still do so. I, personally, would really appreciate it, considering the bigger this game gets, the bigger my job gets and the better I can support my family :-) We've added new tiers and rewards since the Kickstarter began, and you can see them all here. Some of the new rewards are additional novellas and a digital comic book (which it sounds like I might be co-writing :-).

I know not all of you are gamers but are still interested in supporting us, or maybe in reading the novella I'm going to write. Well, you can get certain rewards -- like the digital novella compilation -- without even getting the game. Information on how to get these "add-ons" is here.

I still cannot believe the series of events that has led me here. It's like the weirdest road to publishing ever, but I ain't complaining :-)

Torment Concept Art

Hey, if you're interested in that game I'm working on, we've got some concept art up.

This first shot is a work-in-progress picture of The Bloom, a literally living city, with tendrils creeping through other dimensions. The concept artist who did this is one of my (new) favorite artists ever. His name's Chang Yuan, and you can see more of his work here.


This next shot is one of the weapons in the game. Our setting is kind of a Dying Earth setting, where the highly advanced technology of the past becomes the scavenged weapons and magic of the future. Some of you might know this is exactly the kind of setting I love to work in.


So listen, I'm not gonna post every single tidbit of the game here. If you want to follow news about it, you might try liking the game's Facebook page, or else following my Twitter feed or Brian Fargo's (being the leader of inXile, whose Torment-related tweets I pass on).

I will for sure let you know when the Kickstarter goes off, so don't worry about that. Otherwise, I'll try to stick to writerly posts in general. Today, though, I just wanted to share with you the pretty.