A few years back, the BBC aired a show on the process of writing*. Hosted by a pre-Black Mirror Charlie Brooker, for 50 minutes the best scribes of British television waxed lyrical on the art of being a successful writer. As someone who had always considered themselves a writer at heart if not in practice, one line stood out from the rest: “You are not a writer until you’ve written something.”
I had never written anything.
To be sure I had written regularly but none of my projects had ever reached completion. I had reams of character studies, world bibles and plot histories, and even some fully formed first drafts, but all were abandoned or put on indefinite hold. This problem continues for me now, even as I have left my regular working life in order to write (semi) full time.
In an effort to curtail this, and inspired by a similar project embarked upon by my partner, I have decided to keep an online diary of my latest endeavour. I have no idea how regularly I will update this, nor whether the content of this diary will have any discernible value to anyone besides myself but, well, it can’t hurt.
Until recently, I never though my 25 years of playing and reading about video games would ever be anything but a hobby. Since creating and completing a tabletop RPG campaign however (detailed here) I realised this familiarity with the tropes and devices of gaming could, in fact, be creatively fruitful.
I have decided to make a game.
A simple game, to be sure. An Interaction Fiction game, to be precise. IF is the digital equivalent of those Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 80s where the reader, or player here, is given agency in a primarily text based setting. Back in the day the majority were verb parsers where the player could input a verb, and possibly a noun upon which to enact that verb: “Jump” “Take bottle.” “Climb through window.” “Bash goblin.”
IF is a little less obtuse and a little more creative. It stretches across genres and even modes of interactivity, from the traditional yet experimental Aisle to the streamlined and slickly terrifying My Father’s Long Long Legs.
Having zero artistic talent and knowing less about coding than I do about the French language, I decided this could be a good entry point to writing for games. A quick google led me to Twine, the most popular IF creation suite, and I hopped aboard to play god.
Part the First: Trial and Error
Twine, as it turns out, is incredibly simple. The main screen is a pinboard, with each passage of text represented as a sticky note. When you want to provide your player with a choice following a ream of text, you simply border a phrase [[thusly]] and another sticky note appears linked to the first.
Using this simple functionality you can create an almost endlessly branching story. So far so good. I initially wanted to make a simple game to test the system, so began writing about the first thing that came to mind: creating a game.
I imagine a high percentage of players would immediately plump for the “close” option just to see what would happen, so I wrote this entry first:
It’s safe to say I immediately began relying on past experiences (discarded GameMaker project take a bow). And hey, now I can say I actually finished something!
Besides my consulting of the wiki, I wrote the Forge On passage with barely a thought. The text was simply there to fill space, hence the puerile “poo” entry and its chilling insight into my resting state of maturity. I liked the last entry though, and this was where my trial run became something with legs.
I’ve always been fascinated by meta-narratives in gaming, games that know they are games and that use their linearity as a narrative construct, or games that are aware of the absurdity of their genre and seek to chide the player for their complicity. Without fully meaning to, I’d defaulted to this device by not only writing a game about writing a game, but then by idly adding an option for the player of the game to make a game about making a game. This is about as hipster as you can get and I was extremely proud of the absolute nonsense I’d accidentally created.
I had/have absolutely no idea how to proceed with the final option so linked it back to the first passage for the time being creating an endless loop. Putting your player in an inescapable situation is pretty much entry no. 1 on the “What Not To Do” of game design, so I’ll come back to this at a later date.
For The Voyage to the Edge of Nowhere (a title I’m not 100% sure I haven’t stolen from somewhere) I immediately saw an Indiana Jones story. This was also where I decided to make You a character in the game.
Now the player was playing a character rather than them self, the eponymous You. Second-person narratives are rare in written fiction, Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Here being a rare modern example, but are pretty much the default in gaming. Take RPGs, role playing games, for example. You always play a character in the world of the game over whom you have direct control, but who is obviously not the player themselves. An avatar. A You. In written terms, the second-person tries to create a sense of attachment, as if the reader is viewing an alternate version of themselves reflected on the pages. I like this idea of forced empathy, so (unconsciously) decided to make it the focus of the narrative here.
Unfortunately I still have no idea how to deal with fonts in Twine, so I simply italicised the story being written by You to differentiate it from the story proper, the self reflections of You.
The story of You, and the various versions of You each branching narrative would represent became my focus. Each of the three initial choices would lead to vastly different versions of this second-person character, all dealing with different themes. The Voyage version of You, I decided, would be a stereotypical nerd trapped alone in his basement dreaming of adventures of yore. My goal here, and the theme of this arc, will be based around the devolution of gamer culture into misogynistic, racist tropes as personified by the GamerGate movement, and how this ties into the masculine power fantasy of olden days’ Ripping Yarns like Gunga Din, Soloman’s Mines and even the Indiana Jones films.
The poo arc, as I am now referring to it, proved tougher to make sense of. I’d written the most childish thing I could think of, both to fill space and to somehow highlight the absurdity of what I was doing. As I began to see this test run as something more meaningful, I began to wonder whether I should delete this option and start again. I still might. I didn’t want to backtrack immediately however, so attempted to make something of it.
Returning to the meta-narrative idea, I continued as I’d started. The You here is a bored writer mucking around with an Interaction Fiction programme. The first two options maintain the ridiculously childish tone of the initial entry, while the third is a rather more mysterious option that, hopefully mirroring the player’s opinion, wonders what the hell is going on.
It was here I began to feel I was in over my head. From this one passage, itself one of three initial options, I had now split the possible narrative a further three ways. As I continued writing, each of these three options presented in the poo arc became completely separate stories in themselves. One would follow a You debating the worth of his/her own written creations and whether anything he/she creates is in any sense original given their upbringing in a constant barrage of pop-culture influences.
One forgoes the italicised fake fiction altogether and presents a You breaking apart under the pressure of a tumultuous break-up.
The third…well I haven’t even gotten to the third yet.
If this trend continues I will have at a minimum six full narrative arcs to write (and that’s if I leave the writing a game about writing a game option as a simple loop). This is… a lot of text for a first go. Thus we reach one of the major, if not principle, reasons most of my projects go unfinished; the old ambition overpowering reach. Here I was, trying to complete a modest choose-your-own adventure and I’ve ended up attempting to tackle themes and narrative structures far more complex than I initially planned. This happens often with my projects, and usually ends up with the them being abandoned as the little voice inside repeats over and over that I’m in over my head, as it did at the start of the last paragraph.
To counter this, I wrote it into the game.
I’m going to finish this first diary entry with a lesson learnt, then. Don’t overreach. And if you do, keep overreaching until something useful emerges from the ruins. Whether I will actually take note of this is another question entirely.