Writing Feed

The Rock, Paper, Scissors Phenomenon

Rochambeau

I'm always encountering people who think game development is like what we believe rocket science to be--extremely technical and difficult, not a pursuit open to anyone who isn't an Einstein. As someone who is decidedly less than Einsteinian, I'm here to tell you that it's not. 

I've developed a talk meant to demystify game design and get the average person of any age excited about it. I've used versions of this presentation in college-level introductions to game design and with general audiences, including families with young children. It's meant for my special brand of highly interactive facilitated discussion; after all, games are an interactive medium, so why should our talks be any different? And I always start by getting the audience to play a simple hand game: Rock, Paper, Scissors.

You can see this in action here:

The above talk was for the St. Louis County Library's "Science in St. Louis" series, and I don't think I've ever had as much fun with any audience as I did this one. Singles, couples, and families with kids showed up, enthusiastic about the topic and ready to participate, and not a single person wanted to know if I'd worked on Fortnite! A really cute thing happened at the end, too, when two young boys asked me for my autograph. I'm just thrilled that they've got an image of a silver-haired woman in their minds now associated with the phrase "game design." St. Louis County Library

What's your biggest takeaway from this?


Announcement: Industry Vet Elisa Mader Joins Brunette Games

Mader  E. 2 cropped
Elisa will design, write, and edit from her home base in Seattle.

I realize it's been the season of announcements here at Brunette Games, but I've got another one for ya, and it's a really good one.

Let it be known that Elisa Mader has joined the team as a writer/designer. I first met this talented woman when I worked with her significant other at Cat Daddy Games nearly a decade ago. Back then, Elisa was beloved by her coworkers in the banking industry, but she was looking for ways to defect to games. Since I'd taken a turn as an editor with a financial services firm in the past, I got where she was coming from. And I also understood how exacting financial services can be. I knew she'd be a crackerjack editor, so when I was in a position to hire freelancers at Big Fish, I brought her into the fold. 

I've been her unofficial mentor ever since, and it's been awesome getting to see Elisa rack up experience points across her five years in games. She recently finished a stint at AAA studio Bungie, working on Destiny 2. Which is way more impressive to my brothers and most other hardcore gamers than anything in my strictly-casual background, so there you go.

Among other projects, Elisa will be pitching in on Survivors: The Quest, ensuring that we don't go stale on a title I've been designing and writing for two years and seven locations, including an alien crash-landing, jungle insurgents, a case of parallel dimension twins, and a volcanic vortex. I can't wait to see where she goes from there!

Mader  E.
By the way, if you think her blue streak looks great, wait till you see her current 'Blue Level: High' 'do.

You can read Elisa's bio on our LLC page, but here are some questions I asked her to answer for you, by way of introduction.

How would you describe your writing voice--in games and elsewhere?

It's always slightly ironic, and I sometimes manage to keep the alliteration and wordplay in check (but not always).

I love banter between characters. I start by imagining my characters as real people, even creating character sheets with little details about their back stories (nanny turned cyberpunk hero!) and oddball obsessions (robots! an irrational hatred for chocolate!) that may never see the light of day. Then, with these personalities clear in my mind, I let them play off one another in situations ranging from the banal (where shall we put this lamp?) to the outlandish (why is my poetry bot trying to take over the world?). The quirkier, the better!

I also like parentheses.

What's your favorite game story, and why?

Must I choose just one? I played the heck out of Diablo II back in the day, and it remains a model of an epic linear story that built and built and built in excitement. Its fantasy setting felt large, wondrous, and worthy of exploration. My interactions with Deckard Cain convinced me I was unraveling a great mystery, yet smaller quests for ordinary people reminded me what I was fighting for. The saving-the-world scenario can be overdone, but this was the first time I saved the world!

To turn that question on its head, though, I have a special love for games that let me imagine my own story as I go: the Civilization games, Stardew Valley, Subnautica.

But if we're talking about a game story I wish I'd written, there's Until Dawn. So. Many. Choices.

What drew you to game writing?

It was a slippery slope from editing! And it was more or less a precipice after my first experience writing for a game, crafting some branching dialogues and Shadowland BBS posts for Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun: Hong Kong.

My job was to flesh out an already robust and fascinating world in a futuristic, cyberpunk Hong Kong, and I set about asking myself, "What ground isn't being covered by the main campaign and missions? Let me tell those stories."

So I wrote long, meandering dialogues inspired by real life sources: Filipinos I'd seen in Hong Kong (I'm half Filipina, holla), Craig's List, poetry slams.

Then the developers at Harebrained told me, "Yeah, you've got to make all of that much shorter."

But that's where the collaborative magic happened: when we cut up my ideas, they became more playable. Punchier. Richer with Shadowrun lore and Easter eggs that others added. Game writing isn't a solitary endeavor, but I feel like my best work is both very much mine and the product of interactions that I can only call galvanizing.

What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the industry?

Do the thing. Apply for the gig. Write for yourself when you don't get the gig. Talk to people and convince them that you can do a gig when they hadn't planned for one. Seriously.

There's no reason I should have found a niche in gaming. I'm an introverted woman of color with a background as an academic (French medievalist! Holla?) and a paper-shuffling real estate analyst. But the video game industry embraces all kinds of backgrounds. You can become a huge success without formal education, if you can prove you can do the job. I worked hard and I played well with others, though I failed plenty lots. But I believed that my weirdo background and my chops could make games better, so I kept doing the thing.

And now I get to share my stories with the world.

Elisa_blue
Elisa's motto is, "Go blue, or go home."

Join me in welcoming Elisa to the team with some supportive words below, especially if it's not about her hair. 

 


Giving Thanks for Great Stories: A Brunette Games Roundup

Gratitude

Here at BG, stories make our world go round. But I think that's true for everyone, every day. Imagine what it would be like to live on a planet with no stories, no fiction; the concept of make-believe is utterly non-existent. That would be a sterile world, in my opinion. We need stories like we need air. They tell us who we are every minute, they help us make sense of the world, they connect us with our own emotions, and they foster empathy for our fellow humans.

With that in the background and in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday, we offer this roundup of the stories we're most grateful for right now. No doubt in anticipation of our official office closure this week, all of us gravitated toward binge-watch shows. 

Dexter’s Fascination with Fear

When it comes to popular TV shows and their spinoffs, it’s always hit or miss, with the vast majority being miss. However, one has astounded me ever since its debut: Fear the Walking Dead, a spinoff of the popular zombie drama, The Walking Dead.

The pilot premiered in August 2015. Unlike its parent show, which derives directly from comic book source material, Fear the Walking Dead strives for originality, often portraying elements of a zombie apocalypse never seen before. This is quite a feat, especially considering just how played the zombie genre is at this point.

Mclark8_edited2
Kim Dickens as Madison Clark, in Fear the Walking Dead.

While Fear the Walking Dead’s first season was a bit rocky, it did get one very crucial thing right, which was its lead character. In a survival genre dominated by men slashing and bashing their way through hordes of the undead and the living, Fear the Walking Dead offered a lead unlike any other in Madison Clark, a middle-aged mother whose story is one of the most realistic, grounded I’ve ever seen. She’s not a veteran survivor. She’s not a trained killer. She’s just a former guidance counselor trying to protect her children. Played by Kim Dickens, Madison never fails to steal the scene. 

With its phenomenal writing, Fear the Walking Dead grew to become a truly exceptional show that often falls under the radar. Madison remains compelling as she leads viewers across the crumbling landscape of California, through pirate-infested waters, over the desolate lands of Mexico, and onto the barren, apocalyptic landscape of Texas. If you're looking for a strong, well-developed female lead, look no further.

Tamsen's Penchant for Pirates

The most compelling narrative that I’ve binged so far this year is Black Sails (available to watch on Hulu). The series is a Treasure Island prequel that has a very addicting storyline and lots of character development.

Though not for the faint of heart, the story follows the more political aspects and power struggles involved in the pirate lifestyle. There are definitely plenty of scenes riddled with sex and violence, but it doesn’t feel as gratuitous as many other shows. The pace never drags, and the pilot episode sets up the course of the entire series quite nicely.

81c2053w2IL._RI_

There are countless overarching plotlines, but the entirety of the show deals with holding on to their lifestyle in a rapidly-changing world.

I admire the interconnected, separate plotlines feeding into a larger story in Black Sails. This could be a valuable example to game designers who wish to create more open-world games, as many of the small plotlines seem to parallel the plot of a side quest. While sometimes side quests feel unnecessary and unrelated, the way the creators have everything feed into each other makes it more rewarding for the viewer. As a side note, I want to make a pirate version of Red Dead Redemption, so the inspiration is real.

Elisa's Fascination with World Building

Possibly the best sci-fi TV series I've ever watched almost came to an end this year. But it didn't.

After three riveting seasons on Syfy, The Expanse (based on the novel series by James S. A. Corey) got cancelled, but after fans mobilized on social media to #SaveTheExpanse, Amazon Prime picked it up for a fourth season. Thank goodness!

So what's the excitement about? For me, it's how the series draws on science, sociology, and even linguistics to create three compelling cultures inevitably drawn into conflict. The Expanse takes place in our solar system, in a distant future where Earth and its rival Mars depend on mining in the Asteroid Belt for precious basic resources. The Earthers, Martians, and Belters coexist uneasily until a devastating alien "protomolecule" threatens them all.

Expanse

Much as you might despise Earth's scheming UN deputy undersecretary, Chrisjen Avasarala (played by the peerless Shohreh Aghdashloo), you can't help but admire her ardent defense of her beloved planet. I choked up when tough-as-nails Martian marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) sought her first glimpse of water on Earth after a lifetime on a waterless planet.

But it's the richness of the Belter culture I love most. The Belter underclasses have long supplied ice and minerals under duress to Earth and Mars but are themselves starved for resources. Living in low gravity has altered their very physiology; Belters' long, brittle bones and weaker muscles can't endure Earth's gravity. Yet, the Belters possess a fierceness and identity all their own. They speak a creole—based on languages as distinct as Chinese, Bantu, and English—that actors such as Jared Harris and Cara Gee (who play Belter leaders Anderson Dawes and Camina Drummer, respectively) convey so convincingly. Even Belter tattoos have messages behind them.

There are whole series to be written just about the Belters. Ultimately, that's the hallmark of robust world building: that the stories you write give rise to yet more stories.

Lisa's Obsession with 'Reality' Stories

I've written before about my guilty-pleasure HGTV binges... which is part of why I have not had cable since 2005, when I ditched the TV and its connections. That hasn't exactly stopped me from bingeing, but without the stream of cable I have considerably more control over my addictions. The current drugs are house-hunting and home improvement shows from the BBC on Netflix, starting with "Sarah Beeny's Selling Houses."

On this show, rival homeowners are each given a thousand pounds to bring their pads up to snuff, vying for the attention of one buyer, who will view them all. Beeny herself swoops in to plant key criticisms and advice for how to spend the thousand pounds, but of course many of them ignore her and head off the rails, usually both breaking their budgets and failing to solve the problem that drove buyers away in the first place. As someone who's on her fourth owned property, I find this entire process enormously entertaining.

CaTFKbeWcAA7aPK
Absolutely, I was #TeamFrankie.

My obsession with British lifestyle doesn't end with the home but extends to all the "homely" (in the UK this is a compliment) things you can do in a home. Even though I can't eat flour, eggs, or sugar, when a new season of "The Great British Baking Show" drops, I have to watch it. But my favorite of them all is "The Great Interior Design Challenge," where a handful of amateur interior designers compete with one room and (again) a thousand pounds to prove their competence with the color wheel. Fantasizing about moving to the English countryside and renovating a "chocolate box" cottage with a thatched roof is just an itch I can't scratch enough. 

Luckily, all of this binge-watching is useful in my work on games. Consider it "research." I've used my deep, TV-acquired knowledge of home decor in my design and writing on Matchington Mansion. There's a whole premium scene in Choices: Veil of Secrets centered around the magnificence that is the English savory picnic pie. And for the interactive novel I'm working on now, I draw inspiration both for the settings and the characters I design from the stream of real people and their homes as they come and go on these shows. I enjoy the quirky texture of the average Brit, having his or her 15 minutes of fame.

What binge-watch story gets your gratitude--not to mention your screen time--this week? Tell us in the comments.

Other roundups you might like:

The Play's the Thing: December Game Roundup

Something Mysterious: December Reading Roundup

 


Read the Dublin Murder Squad Series to Learn Character Design

3 Dublin MS Novels
French saved me from mystery genre burnout.

I used to read a wider range of books, and by that I mean I used to be much more forgiving as a reader. But as my reading and writing tastes have grown sharper, I've become a lot more discriminating. I'll start a book and give up on it if it's not working for me or can't compete with any number of extremely well written games or books or TV shows I have at the ready. I bet many of you are no different. After all, we're not going to read another standard mystery with all the tropes (tough-guy detective, a slaughtered female body found on page one) when we can watch Ruth Langmore successfully wrestle with her "white-trash" identity in Ozark.

One of the writers who's best captured my attention--and held it--is Tana French.

Faithfulplace_us
Other images this page, source: www.tanafrench.com

When I picked up Faithful Place in 2016, I was pretty jaded, as a reader. I'd spent the previous five years reviewing, critiquing, and in some cases, rewriting hundreds--yes, hundreds--of mostly mystery-themed story games. During that time, I read a lot of mystery novels, everything from cozies to thrillers to classics. Before that, I'd interviewed four Northwest mystery authors for a Seattle Woman cover story. In 2016 I was nearing the end of my own mystery series--the Dreamslippers--inspired by the supernatural mystery games and books I'd enjoyed. By the time I stumbled upon Faithful Place in a used bookstore, I was in danger of becoming burnt out on the genre.

But Frank Mackey's riveting first-person voice reignited my love of mystery to a white-hot point. From the stunning open paragraph, I was hooked:

In all your life, only a few moments matter. Mostly you never get a good look at them except in hindsight, long after they've zipped past you: the moment when you decided whether to talk to that girl, slow down on the blind bend, stop and find that condom. I was lucky, I guess you could call it. I got to see one of mine face-to-face, and recognize it for what it was. I got to feel the riptide pull of my life spinning around me, one winter night, while I waited in the dark at the top of Faithful Place.

Full disclosure: I'm Irish enough to have had a grandfather with flaming red hair and who knew all the old drinking songs. Alas, he lived thousands of miles away from my military family and then passed away when I was only five, so I never learned any of his songs. But it's possible there's a cadence in the Dublin Murder Squad that appeals to me on some visceral, perhaps even genetic, level.

But I don't think you need to have a family tree that includes names like Sisley McKay and Skeets Larue in order for French's characters to resonate with you. They're incredibly well developed, authentic narrators who even when problematic gain your sympathy. 

Curiously, each Dublin Murder Squad novel was written from a different character's point of view. After reading just a few of the books in the series, you start to get a 360-degree look at the squad, as each character views his or her work from a unique perspective.

Inthewoods_us

The debut novel in the series--In the Woods--follows Detective Rob Ryan, a murder squad veteran who becomes undone by a case he pushes to investigate despite its connection to a cold case from his past; as a child, he survived what appeared to be a grisly attack. Though the brilliant novel averages at a bewildering four stars on Amazon--it deserves five!--it earned praise from the likes of NPR Correspondent Nancy Pearl, "A well-written, expertly plotted thriller," and The New York Times Book Review's Marilyn Stasio, who says, "Even smart people who should know better will be able to lose themselves in these dark woods." With a bit of elitism at work in the praise, Stasio nails French's literary writing quality, which should appeal to even readers who perhaps don't normally succumb to the allure of genre fiction.

These characters feel both fresh and authentic in part because they constantly thwart cliché expectation. Though French's debut centers on a detective driven to solve not just the case before him but the case in the past connected to his own deepest trauma, he remains (or at least tries to remain) detached, even matter-of-fact about it:

Contrary to what you might assume, I did not become a detective on some quixotic quest to solve my childhood mystery. I read the file once, that first day, late on my own in the squad room with my desk lamp the only pool of light (forgotten names setting echoes flicking like bats around my head as they testified in faded Biro that Jamie had kicked her mother because she didn't want to go to boarding school, that "dangerous-looking" teenage boys spent evenings hanging around at the edge of the wood, that Peter's mother once had a bruise on her cheekbone), and then never looked at it again.

Brokenharbor_us

Broken Harbor's Scorcher Kennedy bursts into the reader's consciousness with a thrilling bravado that could be mistaken for typical tough-guy talk, if it weren't for the fact that the case ends up dismantling him in ways he can't possibly foresee:

Some of the lads can't handle kids, which would be fair enough except that, forgive me for asking, if you can't cope with nasty murders then what the hell are you doing on the Murder Squad? I bet Intellectual Property Rights would love to have your sensitive arse onboard. I've handled babies, drownings, rape-murders and a shotgun decapitation that left lumps of brain crusted all over the walls, and I sleep just fine, as long as the job gets down. Someone has to do it. If that's me, then at least it's getting done right.

Rob Ryan, Frank Mackey, and even Scorcher Kennedy must all three reconcile evidence in the present with memories of the past, though none of them look through rose-colored glasses at the past, nor are they scarred by it any more than they are affected by what's happening to them now. In this way French turns tried-and-true mystery fodder on its head, making the characters and their lives in the here and now the driver of the plot. You want to know what happened in the past, yes, but if you reach the end of the novel, and the past still hasn't revealed itself, it doesn't really matter. You've come to know the character fully, suffered and died and been resurrected with him, whether he finds the answers or not.

Thetrespasser

Perhaps French's greatest character design achievement is that of Antoinette Conway in the latest book in the series, The Trespasser. Conway's character is an achievement not because she's the most compelling of the series but because she thwarts our expectations best. A woman is a rarity on the Dublin Murder Squad, and of course the target of sexual harassment and hazing. Though tough beyond belief--she can physically defend herself against a stalker, she plays hardcore video games to unwind, and she does not believe in romantic love--Conway wrestles with a narrative of distrust that threatens to tear her away from a vocation for which she has a passion like no other. 

The Associated Press says, "Tana French is irrefutably one of the best crime fiction writers out there," and I have to agree. For me she surpasses other faves--Gillian Flynn, Sophie Hannah--and the ones whose popularity I can't grok (I'm looking at you, Megan Abbott). I'm four novels into the six-book series and can't wait to dive into the other two. Interestingly, French's most recent publication is a standalone, The Witch Elm. It looks wonderfully compelling, but I do wonder if the Dublin Murder Squad will go on, or if French herself has had a bit of burnout.

If you've read French, tell me what you think of her work below. If not, does this make you want to become a DMS fan? I think game writers and book authors alike can learn a lot from her exemplary character development.

Author_photo
Tana French.

Over the Wing and Into Your Heart

Overthewing_stl
Leaving St. Louis in the rain.

I love a good over-the-wing shot, and this one in particular makes me proud. I snapped it just before we taxied away from the terminal here in St. Louis this summer.

Shots like this capture the drama of travel, the wistfulness of leaving one place, and in this next photo, the excitement of arriving somewhere else, where mountains suddenly appear on the horizon.

Overthewing_mountains
Heading westward, toward Washington state.

I thought "over the wing" shots were more of a thing, but a Google search reveals that "over the wing" means birds more than airplane wings. And I'm OK with that.

The reason wing shots work, at least for me, is because they provide a context for the aerial view. They orient the gaze to the perspective of the airplane passenger, nestled safely in her cabin, able to lean in and enjoy a view only brought to her by the miracle of flight, something called "lift." (We don't even know why lift works, but it does, reliably.) 

Years of studying visual narrative tells me these shots are also rich in story progression, giving us the beginning of the travel tale, the start of the journey. There's forward movement in the shot, too; even with a static image, we can feel the hum of the engines, the rush through clouds and air... All this begs the question, What happens next?

We can look at wing shots in terms of camera technique as well. The perspective in my St. Louis terminal shot above works, with both the ground striping and the wing taking your eye to the terminal, aglow in the early morning storm. The out-of-focus drops cast a watery mood. I had to work really hard with my little iPhone camera (new, still getting used to the updates) to get it not to focus on those window drops.

Overthewing_mo
Art from the sky.

In my Google search, I did find one blogger addressing "How to take a photograph out of a plane window," so apparently wing shots are kind of a thing, even if SEO isn't recognizing the phrase. Without thinking about it too much, I followed Darren Rowse's point #5, "look for points of interest." In the above shot, taken during liftoff over Missouri, the meandering rivers are the stars. 

Sometimes, you see something you don't entirely understand--and won't forget. This, over Salt Lake City.

Overthewing_saltlake
What's happening here, exactly?

If you know something about these colorful, divided lakes, tell me in the comments below.