Monday, November 22, 2021

Another Medium for Story Tellers: Video Games


As writers, we can all think back to certain stories or events that inspired us, trailheads of creative journeys we may not have even known we were on. I had one such experience at age 11, when I was drawn into the tale of a knight who sought redemption for his dark past and fought to save the world from destruction. With his companions, he traveled on flying ships and fought countless monsters, journeying to the underworld and eventually to the moon. My fingers held tight to the controller as the story unfolded in pixelated glory, synthesized music swelling with each revelation, betrayal, and heroic sacrifice.

Final Fantasy IV wasn't my first video game, but it was the first time I'd found myself caught up in the narrative of a game world. Of course, computer games had been telling stories for a couple decades before that, and they've only gotten better in the thirty years since.

Video games are a fascinating combination of technology and creativity, and they inspired me to learn computer programming in grade school. I went on to study engineering in college and worked almost 20 years as a software systems engineer. Though I dabbled with a few hobby projects, I never felt compelled enough to seriously return to my old dream of making games until I rediscovered my love for writing. After all, it wasn't just the gameplay or fancy graphics that had drawn me into those worlds!

Recently, my friend Anna 'Lavinnia' Kończak asked me to co-write a game called Poseidon's Orb. The story was already outlined and partially written when I joined the team, which included artists, musicians, programmers, and voice actors. The player takes the role of Charlotte, a singer who's been turned into a merperson and forced to steal a powerful artifact from the undersea kingdom of Aquatris.

Poseidon's Orb is a visual novel, a genre of game that incorporates a story told primarily through text with graphical depictions of the characters and setting. Background music and voice acting further enhance the experience, but the heart of the game is its narrative. Often, visual novels give the player the opportunity to make choices that affect the story. Some of these change the course of the plot, much like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, while others only affect the player character's attributes or relationships.

I was originally tasked to write a few scenes that develop the relationship between Charlotte and one of the story's love interests, King Benjamin. As the project went on, I ended up writing much more, including the entire third act and several of the story's endings. As my first sizeable game writing endeavor (the script is about 31,000 words), I learned a lot while working with a friendly, supportive, and talented team.

The writing style was a mix of first person prose and screenplay. We didn't follow standard screenplay format, but all dialogue was marked with tags indicating the character and an approximate emotion. This helped the voice actors deliver their lines with the correct feeling and the artists to create facial expressions for the characters. The programmer also referenced the markup to ensure that the game showed the correct character art for each line of dialogue. The setting for each scene was also explicitly stated (though without the standard slugline) so that the background artist could create the environments.


An excerpt from the Poseidon's Orb script. Note the background callout as well as character dialogue tags. This doesn't follow conventional screenplay format, but is easier to convert to the visual novel programming language we used.


Writing a visual novel first and foremost requires the same basics as writing a traditional novel: good storytelling, efficient prose, and impactful dialogue. However, the interactive medium presents its own unique challenges. Because the reader (or player) will be able to make choices, it can be tempting to explore every possible direction the story can take. However, this becomes unwieldy in a hurry. It can also lead to an inflated sense of the story's length, since the more branches the narrative takes, the greater the percent of story that is unread on any given playthrough.

Writers of interactive fiction have techniques for keeping a story manageable while giving the player a feeling of freedom. One way to do this is with scenes that consolidate a number of different branches. For example, early in Poseidon's Orb the player can choose which of the three potential love interests to spend time with at a banquet. Regardless of which conversation the player experiences, the story continues in the same way.


Story flow diagram for the banquet scene early in Poseidon's Orb. The player can talk to one of three love interests and choose how to react during the conversation. All three paths follow a similar structure for simplicity, and all end back on the main story thread.


Another way to create consequences from player choices is with statistics based on their actions. While this may not necessarily create a new path in the story, it might change the way an event takes place or how a particular character reacts to the player. In Poseidon's Orb, we tracked friendship and romance points for each of the three love interests, increasing the player's standing with each character based on certain dialogue selections. The primary intent was to change how conversations with each character flow, but there are a few story implications as well (if you're mean to everyone, don't expect a happy ending!).


Ligaya (left) greets you differently in this scene based on whether you've been nice to her. Note that both the text and the characters' facial expressions have changed. If you've been unkind to Ligaya (bottom screenshot), you are given the choice to make amends... or not!


Visual novels aren't the only place for writing in games, of course. Most games today include some form of storytelling, whether through textual or voice narration, character conversations, item descriptions, lore documents, or movie-like cutscenes. Creative game designers and writers are always finding new ways to use the medium and evoke memorable emotional responses.

If you're interested in learning more about visual novels, I highly recommend browsing free games on itch.io (you can filter by price and genre, among other things). Aaron A. Reed's series 50 Years of Text Games offers a fascinating history of interactive fiction, starting with the original version of Oregon Trail (a text-only simulation played via teletype). If you'd like to try crafting some interactive fiction yourself, Twine and Ink are great beginner platforms, as neither requires programming skill to get started. Ren'Py is the visual novel engine we used for Poseidon's Orb. For a deeper discussion of the craft, check out blogs by Susan O'Connor and Emily Short.


Bio

Joshua S. Robinson grew up a computer and video game nerd, became a software systems engineer, and didn't discover his love for writing until age 30. He has since authored and self-published a novel, written lots of unpublished short fiction, and made a handful of small video games. He lives in West Virginia with his wife.


Links

Article text

URL

Final Fantasy IV

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Final_Fantasy_IV

Anna 'Lavinnia' Kończak

https://lavinnia.itch.io/

Poseidon's Orb

https://rodfireproductions.itch.io/poseidons-orb

itch.io

https://itch.io/

50 Years of Text Games

https://if50.substack.com/

Twine

https://twinery.org/

Ink

https://www.inklestudios.com/ink/

Ren'Py

https://www.renpy.org/

Susan O'Connor

https://www.susanoconnorwriter.com/blog

Emily Short

https://emshort.blog/

Joshua S. Robinson

https://wordyrobin.com







Image by R. Javier from Pixabay

Monday, November 15, 2021

Rocky Rinse And Repeat

 


Can you say rocky rinse and repeat 5 times fast? The saying holds true whether or not you can.

Much of writing, or much anything else for that matter, follows Rocky Rinse and Repeat.

You may have a rocky start, a rocky middle, or a rocky finish. You may have smooth sailing for the first time, the second time, the tenth time, but then the rocks get rained on and become slippery and down you go.

Rocky Rinse and Repeat is always going to be a thing for as long as you write.

Little time, getting stuck, rewrites, rejections, bad reviews, and a host of other rocks will form in your path. There is no way around it unless you are a millionaire and hire ghost writers to write everything. 

So how do you deal with Rocky Rinse and Repeat?

You just keep going. The rock may be big. The rock may be small. Don't panic or dance a jig or down you may fall. 

Thankfully, these rocks aren't able to give you a death blow to the head if you fall though. You can get back up and step over the rock. Step around the rock. Climb across the rock. Rocks are everywhere in any career, but you can get over them. You just have to get back up. Sometimes it may take a jackhammer to remove the rock, but it can be removed. 

You aren't the only one going through things and you, in most cases, probably aren't the first. Find groups like this one and get over the rocks with a little help. For when you do, you may just see the light until the next rock comes along.


Ever have any rocks in your path? How do you handle rocks/setbacks? Was this uplifting? Yeah. I did climb all those rocks.

Monday, November 8, 2021

A Teen Writer's Perspective

 

16 year-old novelist, Hermione Lee

Hi, everyone. I'm Hermione Lee. It's a huge honor to be invited to do a blog post here on Insecure Writers Support Group. In this post, I'll be discussing my journey of publication and the lessons I learnt along the way. 

I've always known I'd be a writer. Fortune smiled upon me when I was thirteen (a month before I turned fourteen), bestowing upon me a story idea inspired by the fountain in the middle of the courtyard in my school. I birthed a manuscript titled In the Name of the Otherworld the next year in February. 

The thought of completing a novel at my age thrilled me, but it also made me extremely pompous at the same time. I sent my manuscript to my aunt, who was an expert in English. Expecting a positive reply complimenting my incredible work, I waited patiently. 

And then came the phone call 

The feedback I reaped was far from my expectations. My aunt spotted every error in the manuscript I deemed a bestseller-to-be, from unreasonable scenes to trashy sentences. Thanking her, I decided to respect her opinion, although I thought to myself there was no need to heed her advice. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. 

During the next six months, I started writing a collection of fantasy adventure short stories inspired by the educational magazines our English teacher made us read. I ended up growing a lot, honing my craft and skills on creative writing. After I completed them, I went back to edit In the Name of the Otherworld. My growth and improvement allowed me to realize what was wrong with it. The prose was a nightmare, and the characters sounded like babies trying to dictate classical literature. The problem? I grew up reading not only books with elegant prose but also those with ridiculous wording meant to humor the readers. As a result, I didn’t have a definite style or tone of writing. In my prose, you'd spot a pretty metaphor here, but some cheap, colloquial wording there, which made the whole manuscript beyond awkward. 

I decided to rewrite my book, which was a draining project. It took me three months, but I finally succeeded in taming the monster. After a few more rewrites, I sent it to the Leapfrog Fiction Contest, expecting an award, which included publication. Again, my hope was shattered. Another rejection. 

It was about that time I started entering Writers of the Future, a quarterly fantasy and sci-fi short story contest. On the forum, I encountered many benefactors who selflessly taught novices like me all they knew. After giving In the Name of the Otherworld a few more rounds of editing and rewrites, I sent it on its way to World Castle Publishing, crossing my fingers for a green light. 

On that fateful Sunday morning four months later, World Castle Publishing sent me an acceptance letter and signed a contract with me. It was the best day of my life. My book then went into editing, and I got to work with a great editor who was very professional and loved her career. 

In the Name of the Otherworld garnered its first award in the first week of September (the Literary Titan silver book award), and was soon released. The reception in Taiwan stunned me. I was (and still am) #1 on the New Releases in the English YA fiction bestsellers list. It did not take long for World Castle to accept both the sequel and third book of the Otherworld trilogy, which puts a smile on my face every time I think about it. It's been a long way, but now as I retrace my steps, I wouldn’t change a thing about my journey. 

What I Learned

1. Don't tell yourself what you can or can’t do. Human potential knows no limits.

Too frequently do we self-reject. When I was outlining my second book, I told myself I was being ridiculous. There were crazy scenes—a haunted house scene, a scaling-a-fantasy-mountain scene, and a chase-in-an-arboretum scene. I made the grave mistake of staring at my outline for weeks instead of working on it. 

But when I got the project started, I realized it wasn’t that difficult at all. The writing process was easy, enjoyable, even. So next time a brilliant story idea strikes you, just write it! Miracles only occur when you believe in them. A story won’t write itself. You have to complete it. And in order to do that, you have to first believe you can. 

2. Embrace criticism. It is like medicine, bitter but beneficial.

There are two kinds of criticism—hate speech and constructive criticism. The former is vile and meaningless, yet the latter can be truly beneficial. 

I grew from criticism myself. Had my aunt been too shy to point out the absurdity of my plot and the unlikeliness of my characters, I would have mailed that manuscript out to a publisher and be rewarded with a well-deserved rejection. Next time when someone criticizes your work, listen closely. Are they making valid points? Would your story be better if you heed their advice? 

3. Never give up. Perseverance can yield rewards beyond your imagination. Don’t let your stories die in you.

As a writer on his / her journey of becoming an author, there will be setbacks—loads of them. People in your life may mock your efforts and discourage you from chasing your dreams. Don’t let them win. Prove them wrong. Keep writing and submitting, and you’ll get there.

In my journey, it took two and a half years to earn the contract for my first book. I’m glad I didn’t let my stories die in me and instead chose to write them down and get them published. Should I have given up or quitted halfway, I'd never know how much potential my story held. So I advise you all to do the same. Believe anything is possible as long as you've got perseverance and grit.


Hermione Lee 

Available Now 
Known for her debut novel In the Name of the Otherworld, Hermione Lee is a teen author born and raised in Taiwan, where everyone and everything in her life stimulated her rich imagination and inspired her to write. Although she prefers writing stories in her grandma's quaint, cozy home, she writes anytime and anywhere. She loves experimenting with words and discovering new formulas to beautiful prose. To her, words are portals that whisk her to whimsical worlds of magic. When Hermione isn't writing, she indulges herself in epic tales of fantasy, horror and adventure; but mostly, dwelling in her reverie. 

"Fight for what you believe in, believe in what you fight for." Hermione's life motto says a lot about her stories. This sentence best represents her journey of becoming a writer. She waged a constant war against invisible enemies - self-doubt, self-discrimination, and of course, countless rejections. However, these struggles only strengthened her will to succeed and pursue her ambition. Along the way, Hermione learned to stick to her goals, have humility and perseverance, and stay loyal to her own beliefs. Her personality is strongly projected on the characters she created; firm, unyielding, and with a thirst to prove themselves.

When Hermione first started writing, she had eyes for only the fame and recognition accompanied by success; however, her opinions have matured greatly during the past few years. She continues to write stories nowadays, but out of sheer interest and passion rather than gaining profit.