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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Richard Dansky's LiveJournal:

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    Saturday, September 20th, 2014
    4:45 pm
    On the Loot That Is Character
    So here’s the great thing about the Telltale story-driven games.

    It’s not that they’re “GREAT STORIES”, though they are in fact excellent examples of the storyteller’s art, showing keen understanding of their respective properties (Walking Dead and Fables, respectively, for those of you yahoos who haven’t played them yet, and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for). There have been, much to the surprise of many, quite a few excellent stories in games over the years. No, that’s not what makes these two, Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us, stand out.

    It’s because Telltale figured out a mechanic - a mechanic! Yes! A game mechanic as a storytelling tool in a game! - to make you care about the characters in the game world.

    And how do they do that? By stripping away all of the “game” elements of the game until those character are all that’s left. You don’t level in The Wolf Among Us. You don’t collect loot. You don’t get XP or better armor or a +3 sword of fable-smiting. In fact, they have taken absolutely everything that you normally use to keep track of your progress and advancement in a game and stripped it out.
    The only thing that’s left? Character. More specifically, your relationships with the other characters in the world. There is, quite literally, nothing else to hold on to.

    And that is, by and large, the mechanical function of those characters in the design as well. They’re not quest givers. They’re not there to give you combos or unlock skill trees or shoot bad guys or do anything mechanical for you. They are there to be a part of the world, the only part of the world that matters from moment to moment.

    It’s a remarkable achievement, and an elegant one. To make characters mean more, give the player less. Bravo.
    Sunday, September 14th, 2014
    11:07 am
    The Pro Con Goer
    So I went to PAX.

    Not because I wanted to GO TO PAX. I mean, I’ve seen show floors before. Lots of them, many of them more conducive to keeping my hearing intact that the Vegas-like carnival that flourishes inside the Washington State Convention Center.

    And not because I wanted to “do business”, whatever that means, for someone in my position. (Seriously, I have no idea. Suggestions are welcome.) I did have one panel, moderated and organized by the estimable Chris Tihor, that I was a part of. But that was literally my only formal commitment while I was out there. I didn’t talk to any media or take any meetings. I did show off some of the cards for Squatches and Scotches, the card game I’ve been working on, but that was really more in the interest of getting ego gratification for the incredibly funny things I’ve written as card text, and less about actually flogging the game per se.

    And I certainly didn’t go to PAX for the frequent flier miles. As a matter of fact, I kind of botched my travel roll - a first for me in ages - and booked myself into a hotel in Bellvue when I thought I was booking a place near SeaTac and light rail. On the bright side, this allowed me to make new friends out of numerous Lyft and cab drivers in the greater Seattle area, but Lordy, new friends get expensive if you have to keep on making them a half hour ride at a time.

    No, I went to PAX - and really, this is why I go to most conferences, conventions, kaffeklatches, gatherings of the tribe and so forth - to see people. To talk to people. To immerse myself in a pool of very smart people whom I think very highly of, so we can talk of things various and sundry. About writing, about games, about scotch, about ACC football (if it comes to that, which it occasionally does), about what we’re working on and what we’re not working on and what we want to be working on.

    Why? Why fly cross-country and subject myself to an Au Bon Pain in DFW at 5 in the morning, just for the odd bits of conversation?
    Because that stuff is what’s really important. It recharges my batteries. It stimulates new ideas. It gives me new ways to tackle existing problems. It feeds new data into the system, which is exactly what I need to be re-energized and get back into the word mines with a jaunty tilt to my cap.

    And hopefully, talking to me helps do the same thing for the folks I talk with. Or at least provides them with a good laugh or two.

    I joke, but I’m also quite serious. Getting out of headspace inhabited solely by me or the few people I interact with on a daily basis is a good thing. Filling that headspace, even if it’s just for a couple of days, with other folks is both a genuine pleasure and good for the Muse, who gets cranky if left to endlessly peruse the old magazines in the waiting room of my mind.
    So young’uns, take heed - there’s much to be said for getting out there and talking with smart people to make you better at what you do. It’s a worthwhile investment of time, of money, and of energy, and it would be if all you got out of it was the chance to spend time with people whose company you genuinely enjoy. Throw in the added benefit that it makes you better at what you do, and, well, it looks more appealing all the time.

    So, to all the smart and generous folks I had the good fortune to hang out with at PAX, I say “thank you”. Not just for the pleasure of your company, which is considerable, but for the energy and inspiration you provide. And to those of you who don’t think you need to mingle with your professional peers now and again, well, it might be worth reconsidering.
    Tuesday, August 19th, 2014
    12:20 am
    On the Priority of Falling Rocks From Space
    Got home the other night well after 11, after the local gamedev drink-up at an Irish-ish pub in downtown Raleigh. When I reached the front door, I remembered that this week was the Perseid meteor shower. Tuesday was supposed to be peak activity, which turned out to be not such a good thing, schedule-wise; Tuesday night here could best be described as “ark building weather”. Thick cloud cover, torrential rain and the omnipresent chance of being flash-fried by a couple of zillion volts makes for a poor meteor shower viewing experience.

    Tonight, though, was clear. And it was late and it was quiet and it was reasonably dark, except for the street corner light and the neighbors’ outdoor light and our porch light, which had been left on so I wouldn’t have to try to figure out in pitch blackness which of the 84 keys I carry was the the right one for the front door.

    Best viewing conditions would be, of course, out in the country. Up by Falls Lake, maybe. Away from the city. Not on my front lawn, with porch light and neighbor light and street light.

    I went to go inside, thinking “there’s going to be another one.” Or maybe I was thinking “I’ll catch them next year.”

    And without realizing it, I said to myself, “How many more of these things are you going to get a chance to see?” Not because there’s anything wrong, or I’m in imminent danger, or I’m feeling the weight of my creeping middle age particularly heavily tonight. It was just a thought about how taking that sort of thing for granted - assuming that the thing you skipped out on today will always be waiting when you want it tomorrow - doesn’t always pay off.

    I tried taking my nephew and his friend out watching for meteors earlier in the summer. We set up too early and saw bupkis. Opportunity, gone.

    But it was late, and I was tired, and tomorrow’s a school day, metaphorically speaking. I went up onto the front porch, Opened the door.

    Thought about it for a second, then reached in and turned off the porch light. Turned around, marched myself back onto the lawn, and held up a hand and an iPad respectively, to block out the neighbor’s light and the streetlight.


    Easy enough to just dust that off with a “Cool story, bro” or whatever, and move on. It’s another “stop and smell the roses” thing, right? Of course it is.

    I looked up. I waited. And a minute later, I saw a meteor.

    Just one. This wasn’t a precursor to Day of the Triffids, after all, with the sky on fire with a million bits of cosmic leftover raining down in fire and light. It was the waning evening of a trip through old cometary incontinence, left behind for us to swing through and ooh and ah about. One bit of dust that hit the atmosphere and took a short trip and flamed out.

    I looked around. Nobody else was out there. On my block, at least, that moment and that vision were all mine.

    Which was enough. I waited another minute, then inside and shut the door.

    Except it isn’t.

    Because, aging nerd that I am, I’ve always wanted to see meteor showers. They are, in a sense, important. they have a priority.

    The problem being, that priority was always lower than the priority of something else I was doing at the time. It’s always a different something else, but each instance is higher priority at that given moment.

    Which is how, if you look at it in the long view, “lower priority” becomes “no priority”. And “no priority” means “it never gets done, ever.”

    I have a comic book spec script I’m working on now. It’s a project I’m excited about. But because it’s a spec project, it slots in behind Story X for Anthology Y or Game Project Z or Book Review Omicron, any of which may have a greater urgency at a given moment, but none of which are such high priority that they’ve got the heft to consign another project to the dustbin permanently.

    But that’s the practical effect. (Note: this sort of thing applies at work, too. Check your task lists for the stuff that’s been lurking at the bottom for weeks or months or years. It’s never the most important thing, which is why it never gets done - until suddenly it’s the thing that needed to be done ages ago and ohcrap) And the end result of that practical effect is things left undone and regretted because of the always-excusable strict hierarchy of priorities. There’s no individual element of that decision-making that can be critiqued, because any given item, when weighed against the spec project, carries more heft. It’s only when things are seen in toto that the cost becomes apparent.

    Which is why it is occasionally worth it to reprioritize based on on the long view, and not the short. To temporarily assign artificially high value to a particular project to keep it from forever defaulting to no value. And to, just maybe, trade a minute at the keyboard for a minute looking at shooting stars.
    Wednesday, August 13th, 2014
    12:15 am
    A Small Note On Depression
    There are many better voices than mine to discuss what depression really is, how being rich or famous or good-looking is not an automatic counter to its ravages, and how it is a disease and not something that can be easily overcome simply through “sucking it up” (whatever that means).

    That being said, I’d like to politely suggest that everyone who does think that wealth or fame counters depression, or that it is something that can be easily overcome with enough Arizona Diamondbacks-style grittiness check out some of these resources, leave their preconceptions at the door, and maybe put themselves in a better position to help the people in their own lives who are suffering from depression.

    Because if your attitude is that those suffering from depression are weak, or have no willpower, or are lazy, then you are just making it that much harder for the ones you care about who are dealing with this to come forward, to get help, and to try to find a way to get better. You are, in other words, making things worse for people you know and love.

    Don’t be part of the problem. Because there are people in your life wrestling with this, even if you don’t know it. And being stubborn or uninformed or disdainful towards the problem makes pushes in exactly the wrong direction.

    Sunday, August 10th, 2014
    10:22 am
    On the White Wolf Writer Factory
    Robert Rath over at The Escapist does a lovely job of looking at how The Wolf bred writers, calling out Chuck Wendig, Mur Lafferty and myself, among others. There are oodles more - Dawn Metcalf, Tracy Rysavy-Fernandez, Lucien Soulban and many other scribbly types did work for WW back in the day - but I think it's a really well-written piece.

    Check it out
    Sunday, August 3rd, 2014
    9:23 am
    Things I Think I Think About Guardians of the Galaxy

    1. It was a wonderfully enjoyable movie. I laughed in all the right places, I sniffled in all the right places, and generally had a great time. No complaints.

    2. For something that is explicitly sold as a wacky good time in space, the film sure is violent and, on occasion, foul-mouthed. The commercials - and the 17 minutes of preview footage screened for fans a month ago - really de-emphasized how brutal many of the fight scenes are. There are stabbings. There is attempted murder. There are impalings. There are stabbings and explosions and various other unpleasant ways to go out inflicted on various characters, some of whom even have speaking parts. Not that I’m going all Hayes Code or anything here, but if you’re bringing your kids expecting nothing but cute talking trees and raccoons, you might want to adjust those expectations.

    3. Spiritually, this splits the difference between the ongoing Marvel films, which do an excellent job of mainstreaming obscure nerd properties with machinelike efficiency, and the mid-80s action comedies like Big Trouble in Little China or Buckaroo Banzai. It’s winkingly self-aware of the genre conventions it’s sending up, recognizing that they’re shared vocabulary that lets the film do something different. At the same time, the film is composed with mechanical, relentless precision. Every character gets their one moment of pathos, the climactic showdown plays out beat-for-beat like innumerable other action films, and there’s plenty of sly toy commercials built into the film. But that’s OK, because the craftsmanship of the film is so damn good.

    4. Vin Diesel really is Groot. This may be the defining performance of his career.

    5. I want some of the space technology that preserves audiocassettes, AA batteries, and earphone foam for multiple decades. Seriously. I’m not nitpicking. I’ve got a couple of aging cassettes that are shedding iron oxide faster than Donald Trump ditches creditors and if space technology is what it takes to save those suckers, I want it now.

    6. Director/cowriter James Gunn does an impressive job of shoehorning a ridiculous amount of exposition about the Marvel Universe into the movie without turning it into Adam Warlock Studies 101. Those who are paying attention can squee to themselves over the nice little detail touches that get worked in; those who don’t care or who don’t realize that all this infodump is the setup for about six other movies can simply relax because the only bit’s that actually pertinent is “blue guy in a hoodie wants to blow up the planet.” Everything else? Details.

    7. Complaining about the post-credits scene is self-entitled nonsense. What we get is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the film and a nice nod to a bit of Marvel’s history. No, it’s not splodey or ominous or plot-relevant; it’s fun. Talking yourself into thinking that it was going to be Ultron jello-wrestling Thanos while Nathan Fillion and the cast of Firefly cheer them on might have been fun forum fodder, but Marvel and James Gunn are under no obligation to match the fantasies you spun out of whole cloth. And besides, complaining about how the free stuff you just got is the wrong free stuff always kind of makes you look like a jerkface.

    8. Whoever decided that Benicio Del Toro’s version of The Collector would look like someone trying to cosplay the abominable snowman from the old Rankin Bass Christmas specials may want to have others check their work on future character redesigns.

    9. Part of me will always wonder how different a movie this would have been in StarLord’s mom had liked Yes, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull instead of early 70s cheese rock.

    10. Did I mention I really enjoyed the movie? ‘Cause I did.

    Saturday, August 2nd, 2014
    2:00 pm
    Interview - Marianne Krawczyk
    I've posted an interview I did with the estimable and ridiculously talent Marianne Krawczyk (God of War, The Long Dark) up at my blog on Gamasutra, in which we discuss Aeschylus, the possibility of Kratos getting into a bar fight, and Sweet Valley High in space. Check it out here.
    Sunday, July 27th, 2014
    5:30 pm
    I Don't Like The New Suicide Squad, And That's OK
    I read the first collection of the New 52’s version of Suicide Squad today. to be honest, I didn’t like it. It seemed needlessly brutal, wallowing in unnecessary character death and having the members of the Squad kill relentlessly in such quantity that after a few pages, the deaths stopped registering. Adding a hard edge to the notion of super villains working off their sentences on top-secret missions makes sense; the endless scenes of cannibal Hulk-wannabe King Shark chowing down on whoever’s in reach is cartoonish.

    I confess, I was a big fan of John Ostrander’s run on the series. It tackled some of the same moral dilemmas the new series seems to want to take on, and it blew away the occasional team member as needed to make an impact, but it was never less than aware of the level of its violence. The new series, on the other hand, goes for a wannabe cool nihilism, camouflaging the ever-increasing body count Deadshot’s racking up under the blanket of “badass efficiency”. These are supposed to be character moments for Deadshot, you see, not just kills.

    After a while, the camo starts looking mighty thin.

    That being said, the last thing DC should do is listen to my grumping and backpedal to the way things were. Why? Because the last time I bought a Suicide Squad issue, it was two decades ago, give or take. I’m not the target audience anymore, and I’m not the guy the new book is intended to appeal to. I may not like the new direction, but it’s not like they’re going to lose a customer by pissing me off. And at five bucks a new issue, odds were pretty good that even if I liked the new stuff, I wasn’t going to be setting up a pull list at my Friendly Local Comic Shop.

    Besides, the Ostrander issues aren’t going anywhere. I can still read them if I want and I feel like digging through my long boxes (now repurposed as a cat perch). The sort of Suicide Squad story I want is still available to me, even if it isn’t a new Suicide Squad.

    But to expect a comics company to be governed by the nostalgia of those of us who haven’t actually been their customers in a very long time is to sit in a metaphorical rocking chair on the porch, shaking a metaphorical cane at those darn kids and their rock-and-roll musics. This goes whether we’re talking about Suicide Squad (did I mention that I hate that they’ve reimagined Amanda Waller to be skinny and young. Come on, can’t we have one character in comics who looks like they’ve eaten a slice of pie in their life?) or Thor fans who haven’t picked up an issue since the Walt Simonson days yelling on Twitter about the character’s gender swapping, or really anyone who doesn’t understand why comics can’t be exactly the way they were in the halcyon days of their youth.

    To which all I can say is “Let it go”. The Ostrander Suicide Squad isn’t comic back, and even if he were put back on the book it wouldn’t be the same one I’d fallen in love with two decades ago. Those comics are our high school crushes; in memory they stay the same forever, but in real life they’re live in Des Moines, have two kids, and may have recently learned what words like “diverticulitis” and “heart palpitations” mean. To expect them to stay as perpetually dewy-eyed and young as our mental image of them is cruel and unrealistic, and leads to awkward conversations at high school reunions.

    So shut up and let the new creators do new things. If you like those new things, hop on board. If you don’t, try to sound less like Abe Simpson when you criticize. But always remember, nobody’s writing for twenty-years-ago-you any more, nor should they have to. To think otherwise is to be as cranky and entitled as, well, as the guys who were clogging up USENet back in 1989 kvetching about how they should put Captain Marvel back in his old Kree uniform and what Batman really needed to be good was more of the good old BIFF-POW-BOOM.

    I don’t want to be that guy. At least, not the noisy version of that guy. And neither should you.

    Sunday, June 15th, 2014
    9:57 pm
    Screw Narrative Wrappers
    And here is why I hate the term “narrative wrapper”.

    What is a wrapper? It’s something that’s put around an object, not intrinsically part of the object. It’s something that’s taken apart to get to the good stuff. It’s something that’s discarded as unimportant. It’s something that, 9 times out of 10, has disgusting congealed faux-cheese on it.

    And so when we talk about the “narrative wrapper” of a game, we’re implicitly stating that the narrative is not of the game itself. It’s something we’re supposed to wrap around the gameplay to make it transportable and attractive, and keep the targeting reticule from dripping burger grease on our fingers, but it’s ultimately unattached and disposable.

    Which, to be blunt, irritates me to no end.

    Because yes, you can have a narrative wrapper on a game, one that you discard as soon as it’s time to start blasting or moving geometric shapes around or whatever. But I’d like to think we’ve moved past that. That we understand that narrative and gameplay are part of a unified whole that, when combined with a player’s choices, creates the play experience. That a game doesn’t have to have a lot of narrative to have an appropriate amount of narrative for what it presents, in order to provide context to the player actions and create a satisfying arc to their progression.

    But Rich, I hear you say, not every game has a narrative element. Not every game needs a narrative element. Take, for example, tower defense games. Or Minecraft. Completely narrative free!

    To which I say, cunningly (because this is my blog and I win all the arguments here), that’s absolutely not the case. Because when most people think of game narrative, they think of the explicit narrative - the story of getting from point A to point B, and probably slaughtering a zillion hapless orcs/enemy soldiers/terrorists/space aliens/zombies/geometric shapes infused with dubstep along the way.

    But that’s just the explicit narrative. There’s also implicit narrative built into every game though the choice of setting, items, character design - the assets of the game tell a story, if only by their very existence. Or, to put it another way, think about the archetypal tool you get in Minecraft. It’s a pickaxe. It’s not a tricorder. It’s not a Black and Decker multi-tool. It’s a pickaxe, and through it’s very pickaxe-ness - low tech, implied manual labor, etc. - it tells part of the story of the world it exists in. Ditto for those towers in tower defense games that everyone claims come narrative free - they’re shaped like something, they’re shooting something, and those choices frame a story before word one of any dialog or plot gets written. If you’re shooting aliens in a tower defense game, you’ve established genre (science fiction) and technology (aliens with enough tech to invade, you with enough tech to fight back); your backdrop implies the course of the conflict so far, and so on. As soon as you decide what a game asset is, you’re implying the narrative that allows it to exist and function.

    Which is another way of saying that narrative is baked in, blood and marrow, to games. It’s not a wrapper, though God knows enough people have tried to separate story and gameplay like one of them has to walk home across the quad in last night’s jeans. Yes, you can divorce narrative elements from gameplay (Or as we used to call it, “put it in the cut scene”) but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the narrative elements of a game are, and how they interact, inextricably, with gameplay. If you think of narrative as something external to the game - a wrapper, perhaps - then you’re missing the point, and your game will be the worse for it.

    And that’s why I hate the term “narrative wrapper” - because it damages narratives and it damages games, and it damages the understanding of how narrative works in games. And it gets crappy congealed cheese all over my deliverables, and we just can’t have that sort of thing
    Sunday, June 1st, 2014
    12:02 pm
    Dents: Why The Winter Soldier Was So Good
    If you want to understand what Captain America: The Winter Soldier is all about, watch the shield. Yes, it’s a very good movie, probably the best of the Marvel flicks so far. Yes, it’s a four-color take on a Seventies political thriller, which is why Robert Redford was so wonderfully cast. Yes, it had issues of moral complexity that, depending on where you sit were either painstakingly simplistic or deeply adventurous for a billion dollar tentpole flick.
    But what matters is the shield.

    Because when Captain America’s shield hits something in this movie, there’s an impact. It slices into walls and stays there. It gets used to hack open padlocks and smash through things. When Cap takes a corner too fast and bounces off the wall, shield-first, it leaves a mark.
    Read more...Collapse )
    11:57 am
    Game Thoughts: Attachment In Absence
    Just finished playing Monument Valley, in which the most sympathetic character is indubitably the Totem, a sentient piece of masonry that looks suspiciously like a block of supermarket cheese but which selflessly assists you in solving puzzles. You, being the protagonist of a video game, cheerfully accept its help before moving on to the next level, at which point the Totem busts through a wall in order to follow you. The last you see of it, it’s sinking beneath the waves in a desperate attempt to keep pace with your magical floating platform, and while it’s less likely to generate filk than the death of the Weighted Companion Cube, it’s nearly as affecting.

    (The player avatar, for her part, makes no effort to stop, turn around, warn, or assist the totem, which honestly diminished my pleasure at taking that role for the remainder of the game. Yes, I know it was a cut scene, but even a failed attempt would have been nice.)

    But that sequence got me thinking about the Totem, and the Weighted Companion Cube, and about how they and characters like them are generally beloved out of all proportion to their screen time and interaction with the player. And I think a lot of that can be put down to absence.
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    11:54 am
    On Godzillas Come And Gone
    (Written a few weeks ago, cross posted now because I'm lazy)

    Let’s be honest: much of the excitement surrounding the new Godzilla film is pinned to the hope that it will help us forget about the last Hollywood Godzilla film, the Roland Emmerich late 90s disaster that remains a towering embarrassment nearly two decades later. (Do not, however, confuse “bad movie” with “unsuccessful one”. Between foreign box office, distribution rights, broadcast rights, merchandising deals and DVD sales, that movie more than made its pile back.)

    And there are good reasons to hate that movie: It’s poorly written, it rips off Jurassic Park, it goes for cheap gags, and it gives us a Godzilla that looks like the unholy love child of an iguana and Pete Rose.

    (Seriously. Check the chin.)Read more...Collapse )
    11:52 am
    Fathers, Sons and Guns - Some Spoilery Thoughts on Cold In July

    The main thrust of the reviews on the Joe Lansdale adaptation Cold In July all seem to focus on notions of masculinity, which, in my opinion, is completely missing the point of the movie.

    I mean, I can see why they do it. There’s an easy, visible progression there, as nebbishy Richard Dane accidentally plugs an intruder in his living room, gradually gets more decisive (sometimes disastrously so), and ends up in the middle of a scene of horrific gunplay that would have caused his start-of-movie self to piddle in his boxers.

    But the easy reading is the wrong one. Because the movie’s not about nebulously macho masculinity, per se, and the acquiring thereof. It’s about fathers and sons, and everything else is peripheral.Read more...Collapse )
    Thursday, April 17th, 2014
    10:39 pm
    Game Story, Six Gilled Sharks and The Quest For the Narrative Fix-A-Flat
    Every couple of years, we get one of these. And by “these”, I mean “some distinguished gentleman from outside the game industry announces that games aren’t/can’t be art”, and everyone goes nuts as a result. A couple of years ago it was the late Roger Ebert, whose argument could largely be summed up that games weren’t art because they were terrible movies (part of which, by and large, is true - most games are terrible movies, and most games that also make for good movies are terrible games because you’re watching them instead of playing them - thought the underlying assumption that form dictates artfulness is, I think, a faulty one. But I digress).

    This time around, it’s noted screenplay seminar guru Robert McKee, who posted a video a couple of days ago wherein he declares that games aren’t and can’t be art because, among other things, art has to be received passively. He also makes a few unsupported statements and pulls out the usual Shakespeare appeal to authority (incorrectly, I might add - does not the prologue to Henry V explicitly invite the audience to on some level participate in the transformation of the stage?) and generally draws a line in the sand that the tides of history have already washed away.

    But that’s not important, really. I mean, yes, I think McKee’s arguments are pretty weak, but I’m not interested in using them as a springboard into the “can games be Art with a capital A” argument. Let’s be honest here: if you do think that games can be Art, you’ve almost certainly already drafted a 750 word response referencing some combination of Gone Home, Papers Please, Monument Valley and (if you’re really old school) the death of Floyd the Robot in Planetfall. If you don’t think games can be art, you’ve no doubt already written something of equal and equally indignant length calling out Modern Warfare deathmatch gameplay, hookers in GTA, and the alien sexytime morning talk shows warned you against in Mass Effect.

    Which gets us precisely nowhere. And I confess, I’m not particularly interested in the debate as it currently stands. I’d much rather make games, and if somebody taps me on the shoulder and informs me that the work I collaborated on was “Art”, well, my mother will probably be very happy.

    What I am interested in, though, is the argument underneath this argument, particularly as it pertains to McKee’s approach. And that’s talking about “solving the problem” of narrative in games.

    By “solving the problem”, I think, most people are thinking of an out of the box solution for narrative in interactive entertainment. Story as it stands is sorta-kinda-in-theory broken (depending on which game you’re talking about and who you’re asking), and there’s a desire from all quarters to fix it, in the same way we’ve fixed animation systems and particle physics and so forth.

    Which, I think misses the point. Because games, at this point, are such a wide category of experiences that thinking a single narrative approach covers them all, from soup to nuts, is pure folly. Functionally, dialog-heavy extended gameplay monsters like Mass Effect bear the same relationship to visual storytelling games like Journey that a rhesus monkey does to a six-gilled shark: They’re related, if you go back far enough, and they share a few design basics, but their practical needs are very different.

    Which is not to privilege one type of game above any other in terms of the narrative experience it offers, but rather just to say there are so many types of games with so many different ways they approach storytelling that the notion of liberally applying Narrative Fix-a-Flat and then saying “done” is a pipe dream. Mass Effect, which incorporates dialog choice into gameplay and encourages open world exploration, needs a different approach than Journey. Journey, done almost entirely through visual storytelling, needs a different approach than Burgertime. Burgertime, where the narrative is almost completely implied by the character design and props, needs a different approach than The Last of Us. The Last of Us, with its linear narrative, needs a different approach than Papers, Please. I could go on for hours. The variety - with fundamental differences right down to the core of player interaction and experience - is that wide.

    So what am I saying here? That improving narrative elements in games is impossible and we shouldn’t try? No. But it is time to abandon the quest for the narrative equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone (or the Sorceror’s Stone, if you read Harry Potter in the US) that will magically transform all it touches. Stop using the reductio ad absurdum announcements about GAME NARRATIVE (singular) that are really just lame clickbait. Instead, revel in the variety, and find ways to improve the narrative elements in the types of games you’re working on.

    Because my game ain’t your game ain’t the game the three guys are making in a small office downtown. There is no universal panacea or descriptor for this stuff, and there never will be.

    And that’s OK. Or it will be, as soon as everyone stops Insisting otherwise.
    Wednesday, April 9th, 2014
    7:33 am
    Not Getting A Piece of the Rock
    2014-03-22 16.35.50

    This is Alcatraz.

    In all the years I’ve gone out to San Francisco, for GDC or other meetings or once, God help me, for a press tour, I’ve never been. This picture is quite literally the closest I’ve ever gotten.

    Now everyone tells me I should go, of course, largely because A)everyone goes, sooner or later and B)it’s supposed to be haunted, and everyone knows I’m a morbid little son of a gun. I mean, hey, I went to Eastern State Pentitentiary, after all, and if you want to talk “supposedly haunted prisons that occupy a seminal place in American penal history”, that joint’s kind of the mother lode.

    And yet.

    Alcatraz holds no interest for me. Not the history, not the ghost stories, not the over-dramaticized tales of attempted escapes. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Like I said, it should be right down my alley

    Maybe it’s overexposure. There are a million documentaries on the place, after all, historical and “supernatural”. There’s the mock Ken Burns stuff and there’s the stuff that’s dripping with woo. Damn near every detail of the place has been diagrammed, exposed, recreated in blocky CGI, and analyzed to death. The famous inmates, the famous stories, the notorious cells and events from opening to the day the last prisoner left, it’s been told. Left behind are only little scraps of mystery, of things undiscovered that the imagination still maintains are lurking out on that rock.

    If I go out there, maybe those scraps get swept away. Maybe it becomes all fact and memory and picture and plaque and tour guide lecture. Maybe there’s no place left on that island for the ghosts of my imagination to hide. And all things considered, that would be a sad thing indeed.

    So I won’t get any closer than this. I’ll take the picture. I’ll think about what it shows, and what it doesn’t. And for that last bit, I’ll be thankful.

    Friday, April 4th, 2014
    12:55 am
    On a Much Loved Book
    2014-04-03 09.29.37
    This is my copy of Taran Wanderer, by Lloyd Alexander. For a very long time it was perhaps my favorite book, and certainly my most often read one. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that a non-trivial portion of my younger self’s thoughts on life and creativity and all that good stuff was affected by this book. You will not necessarily succeed at your heart’s desire, the book says, though you will never know that unless you give it your best attempt. The easiest path isn’t always the best one. The best choice for others isn’t always the right one to make. Don’t find one thing you’re good at and stop there, or you’ll never find out what else you can do. Success is not achieved without hard work. Your early, unskilled efforts may well not be good enough, and that is reasonable and natural - learn from them and improve and the next ones may be better.

    Heady stuff for a kid just figuring out that he was good with these “words” things and starting to get good at clarinet and trying his hand at some for-reals science and getting beaten up a lot and mainly trying to figure out who the hell he was and what he was supposed to do.

    I confess, I didn’t take all of those lessons to heart, even the ones I knew were good ones. Some felt too hard. Some felt selfish to Much Younger Me. Some I didn’t necessarily have perspective on until later. But I always came back to Taran Wanderer, because my inner Assistant Pig-Keeper never let me forget where those bits of me had come from.

    This copy is going to its final resting place soon. It is old, and the cover is gone, and the spine is going. The pages are yellowing and frankly, I don’t know how much longer it’s going to last as a physical artifact. And I have other copies of the Chronicles of Prydain, sturdier ones in better shape, and I suppose if I really wanted to I could get an eBook version as well, but, honestly, that’s not the point.

    This is the one I read in third grade, after I’d chewed through Narnia during a bout of chicken pox and demanded more of the same. This is the one I went back to in fifth grade, and the year after, and the year after that. This is the one I’ve carried through my adult life, to where I sit now, and to where it sits next to me.

    And yet.

    It’s probably got one more read in it. At least one more.

    We’ll see, won’t we.
    Monday, March 31st, 2014
    1:11 am
    Not Finding Bigfoot 2: The Return
    So there are a lot of things that I could write about here tonight. Serious stuff. GDC-related stuff. Writerly stuff. Maybe even a light-hearted recitation of the wacky misadventures that befell the brilliant and charming Melinda and myself when we went to buy a mattress for our guest bedroom today.

    But instead, I’ll give you this. Because if Animal Planet isn’t going to give me grainy sasquatch-themed footage without any actual sasquatches on a Sunday night, by gum, I’m going to have to make it myself.
    1:07 am
    GDC Thoughts - The Unexpected Case Of the Round Table In The Night
    Something funny happened at the Game Writers’ Round Tables I hosted this year at GDC.

    Now, I’ve been running these round tables for a while. This was, if my fuzzy memory serves, the eighth year the folks at GDC have kindly consented to let me gather up members of the scribblers’ tribe in a room to discuss techniques, concerns, process and other vagaries of game writing. They are generally well attended, and they are generally well reviewed (kayn-ahora for this year).

    This year, we talked about a lot of different things across the three days. Portfolio building. Character-driven narrative construction. Working with voice actors. You name it. I always take notes at these things; after the show I collate them and send them out to all of the attendees. When I started collating today, a rough word count for the three sessions’ worth of stuff was close to 5000 words.

    But what was just as interesting to me was what wasn’t talked about. In the early days of the round tables, there were a few topics we always zeroed in on. How do we convince teams that writing is important? How do we get a writer a seat at the table early on, so the narrative doesn’t feel tacked on? How do we start to interface with the rest of the team?

    This year (and really, very little for the few years previously), there was none of that. The conversation we were having assumed narrative was important. It assumed that teams that wanted narrative would get writers on board and integrate them with the team. It assumed collaboration with level design and sound and creative direction.

    The goals we had aspired to had become part of the landscape, baked into the conversation as a given.

    Which, in the vernacular, is freaking awesome. Because it means that we can move past the basics to discuss other things. Because it means game narratives are starting from a better place in the production cycle. Because it means the industry’s going to let us do better work.

    So is this it? Are we done? Absolutely not. There’s still miles to go before we sleep, at least when it comes to creating interactive narratives. There’s so much still left to do. But as an industry, collectively, we’re closer than we used to be.

    And to me, that feels like winning.
    Tuesday, March 25th, 2014
    10:28 pm
    Things That Happened At GDC (Random Shuffle)

    So these things happened at GDC…

    • Michelle Clough gave the blow-the-doors-off breakout talk of the Narrative Summit, and acquired the nickname “Atomic Ovaries” in the process. Go check out her talk on the Vault. I’ll wait. And you’ll understand.

    • I may have offered a sip from my flask to the honorable Mayor of Baton Rouge, LA.

    • Alexander Bevier did a great job of stepping up for the IGDA Writers’ SIG and ran a kick-ass edition of Write Club. The fact that the final question was about writing dialog for a gritty FPS about a vengeful cabbage whose family has been shredded (working title: Cole’s Law) is entirely beside the point. Bravo, Alex.

    • There was orange wine. Three kinds of orange wine.

    • Two of my favorite designers nearly got into a fight, and I’m not sure one of them even noticed.

    • Roughly 84 Californians, very few of them native, asked me “When are you moving out here?” When I said “I’m not,” they looked very surprised.

    • Over 70 people showed up for the last iteration of my Game Writers’ Round Table on Friday, during the last slot of the conference. I am humbly pleased that folks were that into the material.

    • There was a playtest of Squatches and Scotches, my home-brew card game. We did it in a bar. Because it was GDC.

    • The estimable Mark Nelson and I argued college basketball in front of internationally celebrated game designer Ken Rolston, whose transparent amusement at our hammer-and-tongs debate was one of the most genuine expressions of joy I saw all week.

    • When it comes to college basketball, by the way, Mark Nelson is still wrong.

    • After innumerable years of saying “someday I’m going to…” I finally took a look around the Contemporary Jewish Museum, around the corner from the Moscone Center. It took maybe an hour. (But it was worth it for the Lobel exhibit alone.)

    • One of the security personnel at Moscone West told me, “I appreciate your enthusiasm.” Seriously.

    • Had breakfast with Nicole Lazzaro and Lee Sheldon, which made me feel a lot like the Sheriff character on Eureka, brain-wise. Wow. The smartness.

    • Many people whom I admire as professional peers did terrible things to my book.

    • The legendary Brenda Romero had multiple slides in her PPT presentation featuring asparagus.

    • I bought Hal Barwood’s book. You should, too.

    • There was a moment during an interview where I actually had to pull out the “I could tell you but I’d have to kill you” line.

    • The game writing crowd found a new bar and promptly drank it out of most of its scotch. Monkey Shoulder, we hardly knew ye.

    • Some people did some really disturbing things with milkshakes.

    • I discovered the downside to staying at a hotel with hall bathrooms and showers is that it has hall bathrooms and showers. Especially if the shower is next to your room and two of your hall mates like showering together.

    • People ate the roast beef in the conference lunches. This was a mistake.

    • Steve Meretzky promised to show me 100 places with better drinks than the Tadich Grill. 98 to go. Next year, then…

    Saturday, March 15th, 2014
    10:40 pm
    Concert Thoughts: Drive-By Truckers
    When I went to see Drive-By Truckers’ guitarist Mike Cooley’s solo show in Chapel Hill last year, the audience was a problem. Which is to say they were in large part less of an audience and more of a bunch of people standing around expecting Cooley to provide background music to their conversations, to the point where the man had to tell people to pipe the hell down on multiple occasions.

    So when the Truckers more-or-less kicked off the tour for their new album, “English Oceans” in Raleigh tonight, they decided to make sure that wasn’t going to be a problem. And the way they addressed this was by playing so goddamn loud, it didn’t matter if anyone was talking or not, because you weren’t going to hear a damn thing except the music.

    Which was, apart from a few early tracks where they pretty much overpowered the sound board with badassery, just fine.


    Lots of flannel at the show. Lots of dad shirts bought at thrift shops by people wearing mesh trucker caps. Lots of beards.

    None of them, however, compared to DBTs drummer Brad Morgan’s. That, my friends, is the majestic Niagara of beards. How he avoided getting his sticks tangled in it is beyond my comprehension.


    I think the encore was nine songs. I lost count. But we got “Zip City” and “Shut Up And Get On the Plane” and “Lookout Mountain” and, well, damn. Nine songs. Thats a set for some bands I’ve seen.


    The first time I saw the DBTs, they were still trying to figure out their sound in the post-Jason Isbell era. (Note: All stories about the DBTs have at least one mandatory reference to Isbell’s leaving the band. This is mine.) It was an ugly, snowy night at the Lincoln Theater, and the crowd half past drunk before they hit the stage, and to be honest, there was an Isbell-shaped hole in the sound. Like they were still trying to figure out how the arrangements were going to work without that triple guitar attack. It was a good show, but it wasn’t the transcendent musical experience I’d been hoping for.

    Like I said, it felt like there was a hole in their sound.

    Tonight, there wasn’t a hole. They’ve figured out what they’re supposed to sound like, which is a kick-ass rock band that happens to be from Alabama. They got rid of their flirtations with steel guitar. They had Jay Gonzalez splitting time between guitar and keys, recreating a version of that three-headed monster they used to have. They had a bassist in Matt Patton who looked really, really happy to be there. And they just plugged it all in and went for it, and it worked in a way it hadn’t worked that first time.

    Damn, my ears are still ringing.


    I think this show may have set a record for most second hand pot smoke I’ve absorbed at a concert. There was enough getting lit up to fog the stage lights.


    They played a lot off the new album, “English Oceans”, which was apparently was the highest charting album of the band’s career in its first week. The went to the well for songs like “Steve McQueen” and “Ronnie and Neil”. They pretty much split lead vocals down the middle between Cooley and Patterson Hood, who looks like a younger, healthier version of Dan Harmon. They had Jay Gonzalez take a bunch of the guitar solos. And they let Morgan take the last bow. And all of them were grinning like maniacs all the way through it, clearly having a good time, even when the sweat was flying off them so thick they needed to towel off onstage.

    Was it a perfect show? Naah. Like I said, the sound was muddy at times. There were a couple of weird feedback issues. It was a first night, with all that implied.

    But it was a great show.


    Outside the Ritz (which is a converted warehouse in downtown Raleigh and decidedly not ritzy), someone had set up a food truck selling Mexican food. On the way in, business looked slow, with everyone lining up for tickets (presages were capped) and afraid of losing their place in line and thus not getting in. It was, truth be told, a pretty packed show.

    On the way out, they were doing land office business.

    Which, in hindsight, made sense.
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