News from the Baltimore Science Fiction Society:
The following novels are the Finalists for the 2017 Compton Crook Award:
Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee, Solaris (June 14, 2016)
Arabella of Mars (the Adventures of Arabella Ashby) – David H. Levine, Tor Books (July 12, 2016)
Sword and Verse – Kathy MacMillan, HarperTeen (January 19, 2016)
Sleeping Giants (The Themis Files) Sylvain Neuvel, Del Rey (April 26, 2016)
Too Like the Lightning ( Terra Incognia, Book 1) Ada Palmer, Tor Books (May 10, 2016)
Sleep State Interrupt – T.C. Weber, See Sharp Press (September 1, 2016)
The winner will receive check for $1000.00 and a commemorative plaque which will be presented on Friday, May 26, 2017, during Balticon 51 Opening Ceremonies. Balticon is the Maryland Regional Science Fiction Convention.
The Compton Crook Award is presented by the members of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society for the best first novel in the genre published during the previous year. The Award is named in memory of Towson State College Professor of Natural Sciences Compton Crook, who wrote under the name Stephen Tall, and who died in 1981. The award has been presented since 1983 and is also known as the Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award.
For more information about the Compton Crook Award, please visit http://www.bsfs.org/CCA/bsfsccnu2014.htm
Information on the Baltimore Science Fiction Society and Balticon is available at http://www.bsfs.org
Information specifically about Balticon 51 is available at http://www.balticon.org
by Monica Valentinelli
For my series about game writing, I’ve touched upon the similarities and differences between working on video games, tabletop RPGs, and novels. This interview with twice-nominated BAFTA writer Lucien Soulban, who works for Ubisoft Montreal, dives into all three. Lucien started writing in the stone age of games, lending his talents to tabletop RPGs and properties like Vampire: The Masquerade and Dungeons & Dragons. Additionally, he’s also written novels for Warhammer 40K and Dragonlance, as well as short stories for various horror anthologies that include Blood Lite 1, 2, & 3.
In the last decade, Lucien’s portfolio has expanded to include video games such as: Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Rainbow Six: Vegas, Far Cry 3, Far Cry 3 – Blood Dragon, Far Cry 4, and Watch Dogs 2 as writer and lead writer. He is currently working on an as-yet-to-be named project at Ubisoft Montreal.
After reading my interview with Lucien Soulban, if you’d like to learn more about him you can find out more by visiting his brand new Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/lsoulban
1.) What was your first writing assignment? Can you tell us about that experience?
I never expected to be a writer, to be honest. I wrote for myself and English was my best subject in school, but I had my eyes set on art and drawing. (While I wasn’t great, I was getting better slowly.) When I started writing articles for my friend’s APA (Amateur Press Association), he thought I had chops and asked me to edit roleplaying books for a company called Ianus Publications back in 1993. From there, I was given a shot at writing for the Night’s Edge RPG, a system that mixed the supernatural with Cyberpunk.
It was terrifying and exciting, because I wasn’t just writing a story: I was adding puzzle pieces to a much larger picture. It dovetailed nicely into my art, where everything I drew had a story and universe behind it. Unfortunately, the art fell to the wayside after that, which I’m not terribly proud of, and I focused more on writing. I had more finesse with words than I did with the pencil.
2.) You’ve also done some development work in RPGs. What was the first game you developed? Was that more challenging than writing for the game?
I started helping develop games for Guardians Of Order (the ‘Of’ is capitalized in their name, oddly enough), an RPG company that initially specialized in anime. At the time, their new lines included Hong Kong Action Theatre and Heaven & Earth. I inherited the development of those titles, as I did for White Wolf’s Kindred of the East, both times following the roads on a map laid out by someone else. It wasn’t until White Wolf hired me to create a new game based on Wraith: The Oblivion that I fully developed a limited-series RPG called Orpheus.
I learned a lot from that process, including the fact that I had much to learn as an editor. I wasn’t very good as one, because I made the rookie mistake of tailoring the edits to my own preferences rather than allowing the writer their artistic choices. It was a revealing process, though, because it helped cement my own checklist of do’s and don’ts, and I think helped sharpen my skills as a writer and creator. I came to realize that originality didn’t come from the novelty of the idea itself, but from the development and refining of those ideas.
3.) Do you feel that game developers need to be good writers, too? Why or why not?
I think game developers, both in tabletop and in videogames, don’t necessarily need to be good writers, but they do have to be good storytellers. At the very least, an emphasis on storytelling creates a common language. Developers need to understand how a story comes together, and how to work in partnership with the writer, to craft something cohesive and meaningful. Leave the language to the writer; that’s their fingerprint on the project. Let the writer interject their take on the material, because they’ll see new ways of representing the subject matter in a way that best works with their voice.
Conversely, writers need to trust the developers in keeping them from wandering off the path, and in trimming the fat when necessary. That’s not to say there isn’t this level of cooperation already with certain companies, or that game developers haven’t come from writing backgrounds. In fact, it helps when a developer is a writer because they understand what goes into crafting something. But is it a must? I think storytelling and critical thinking is a must for developers first and foremost.
4.) What are some of the pros/cons between working on a corebook vs. a gaming supplement?
I’ll stick with the pros because I’m a fan of both, and while corebooks seem like where the glory lies, I think my strongest work has been in the gaming supplements I wrote for Mutants & Masterminds. A corebook is something of a discovery, charting paths through a new land and trying to predict where people want to settle. You have to figure out why people will want to spend years playing your game and what you can offer them to bring and keep them together, all while creating versatility and a variety of experiences. You’re creating mythology and structure and, with a corebook, the sky’s the limit so long as you still make it accessible to your audience. I love corebooks, because it’s the flagship title of a game and the intoxicating make-it or break-it thrill of writing.
With a gaming supplement, all that heavy lifting is already done and you’re adding the finer details of the world. You go from a bird’s eye view of the terrain right down into the dirt. You can take the parts of a game that interest you and flesh them out. You’re a part of the collective who loves the world enough to add your touch while respecting the source material. Sourcebooks that add to a world have less riding on their shoulders, but still have the impulse to get it right. In both cases, though, it’s all about providing the players and game masters with enough hooks to keep them inspired.
5.) In addition to working on games, you’ve also written short stories and novels. How has working on games helped (or hindered) your fiction?
That’s an interesting question. Writing for games tends to require certain technical skills, not the least of which is a gift for straightforward exposition. That’s the one that can bite you on the ass the most. When swapping to fiction, your brain is in a different gear. It tries to make facts entertaining and to inform the reader. You can’t be coy in game writing, not unless you want niche appeal. Fictionalizing the text can obscure vital information or make weeding through the pages highly frustrating. When switching over to fiction, you can’t present the text in that way. You want to engage the reader, and not provide data like they’re speaking points. So sometimes I find myself rewriting fiction because I’m worried it reads like gaming text. The advantage, though, is that you tend to think of stories as part of a larger mythology, and each story ends up becoming a chapter in a much wider cosmology. You tend to think about how the world is structured; sometimes that can be good and sometimes it can bog you down in unnecessary detail.
6.) Are you still writing for tabletop RPGs? If so, can you talk about your latest project?
I do on occasion, mostly for Onyx Path Publishing or Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds RPG. I am working on something on my own, a horror RPG, and so far it’s taking me in interesting directions. It started off as a horror novel but, after I wrote it, I realized it wasn’t living up to the potential of the idea itself. So I started working on the bible for it, and 14K words later I have the beginning of a universe with plenty of promise and plenty more to do. I might even have a nibble of interest from an unexpected corner, so that’s always good. Regardless, it’s a passion project.
7.) Your latest release for Ubisoft was Watch Dogs 2. Can you walk us through your role on the project?
I was the Senior Writer on the project with a team of seven writers in total. I was involved with helping flesh out the world stories, around which the spine of the missions were built, and with delegating the work of writing to everyone. Normally, the lead writer handles the lion’s share of the main storyline, but I wanted to make sure all the writers felt invested in the process. So everyone got a shot at writing two or more world stories, and everyone had to pitch in on the grunt work of writing lines we call barks (AI reactions to in-game stims) and the in-world conversations. I coordinated with various departments like Level Design, or asked others to coordinate with AI and programming. When all was said and done, the team wrote and we recorded over 1,200,000 words in the span of about a year and a half. This included attending motion-capture sessions for a couple of months, and traveling to San Francisco and Toronto over several weeks to record dialogs.
8.) What are some of the essential skills video game script writers need to have?
Let’s assume that knowing how to write and that having an ear for dialogs and characterization are a given. Beyond that, the writers need to be able to collaborate with a team, and have to learn how to be seen as the troubleshooter. Those are the critical skills. Writers need to understand that they aren’t the only shareholders of the vision and that the rest of the team doesn’t fall in service to “their vision.” It might be that way at a couple of companies in the industry, but for the most part, writers work at the behest of the core creative team (Creative, Art, Game, & Level Design Directors). They have to respect (or come to terms with) the artistic vision of the Art Director, with the environments of Level Design, with the flow and pillars of Game Design. It’s a shared universe, and by collaborating with the team and providing them with solutions that help you and them, you’ll come to be seen as a troubleshooter who has the answers. It’s not about shouting to be heard. It’s about giving your voice value when you do speak.
9.) What is your opinion regarding the new SFWA qualifications for game writers?
I’m grateful that the SFWA expanded its criteria to include games, though I think their criteria of $.06 a word is a touch steep since the RPG industry doesn’t pay to the scale of either the publishing or electronic industries. But, it’s not insurmountable, either, and it’s a huge step in the right direction. The new realities of being a writer should rightly allow for the creation of mythologies and for world building as their own form of a global narrative. Whether a writer contributes to fiction or an actual script, the reality is that game writers produce a ton of content that never sees print, but still helps guide their team in the creation of a living and breathing world. I’ve seen online articles focus exclusively on the humor found in written item entries for a game’s menu, for example. It goes to prove that when it comes to game writing, any and all words you write can have a market and an audience.
10.) If you had one piece of advice for writers hoping to break into video games, what would you tell them?
Let’s spare you the “play play play” version of “read read read.” Join the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) and attend their functions if you’re lucky enough to have them in your city. It’s a good way to meet the game developers in your area and to talk to producers and recruiters and find out who is looking for talent. Attend the growing number of conventions with strong narrative tracks, like the Games Developers Conference (GDC) and the East Coast Games Conference (ECGC). Start following the writers you respect and get involved in the various conversations happening on various websites. Don’t just look to the ones talking about the development of games themselves, but also to the ones discussing games from a social point of view. And finally, look at the companies crafting your favorite games and either check on their jobs available page for openings or send a quick query to them. I will say this, though. Ubisoft frequently has openings pop up on its website, but this is almost always for in-house talent, meaning if you want to work for Ubi, you’ll have to commit to the prospect of moving for the job.
Monica Valentinelli writes stories, games, essays, and comics for media/tie-in properties and her original works from her studio in the Midwest. She’s a former musician of 20+ years and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Creative Writing program who now writes full-time. Best known for her work in games, Monica is currently the developer for Hunter: the Vigil Second Edition, and was the lead developer/writer for the Firefly RPG line based on the Firefly TV show by Joss Whedon. Her new book The Gorramn Shiniest Dictionary and Language Guide in the ’Verse recently debuted from Titan Books. Her co-edited anthology Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling debuted from Apex Book Company in December 2016.
This month’s guest is Andrew Wallace, author of the Diamond Roads series of novels, which follow the challenges facing Charity Freestone and her family in 24th Century Diamond City.
Following stage productions of his plays ‘Byron’ and ‘The Scissors Angel’ Andrew’s Radio 4 play, ‘Burn Your Phone’ was nominated for a Writer’s Guild Award and turned into a film on BBC2 starring and directed by Alan Cumming. He followed commissions for the feature-length script of acclaimed short ‘The Cutter’ and an adaptation of the novel ‘As Good As It Gets’ with the BBC7 show ‘Wonderworld’ and wrote regularly for Radio 4’s flagship comedy ‘Look Away Now’. He has produced three Edinburgh shows including ‘The Free Three’ and ‘Seething Is Believing’ and created the ‘Vengeance’ and ‘Bloody Mary’ shows for the London Dungeon.
Andrew will be interviewed by fantasy novelist F.D. Lee, author of the Pathways Tree series.
BSFA Monthly London Meetings (all welcome- free : one does NOT have to be a BSFA member to attend)
When: usually the 4th Wed of each month (excl Dec). Fans meet from 1800 in the main downstairs bar-prompt upstairs start at 1900 -though some regulars go upstairs earlier.
Where: Artillery Arms (upstairs –private– bar) 102 Bunhill Row (corner of Dufferin St) EC1Y 8ND
Nearest Tube/NatRail: Old St-exit 3 (->Barbican). Brewery: Fullers. Hot food available. SF Book raffle* (tickets 5 for £1)
Some attendees join the Speaker/Meeting Organisers later for an informal (usually Thai) meal. (though no obligation to partake).
Apr 26- Nik Abnett interviewed by Donna Scott
May 23 – TBA
Start Time: 19:00
by Aidan Doyle
Twine was created by Chris Klimas in 2009 and is “an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories.” Simply put, it’s a program that makes it easier for writers to make their own “Choose Your Own Adventure” style fiction. There are a number of tools for writing interactive fiction, but Twine is one of the simplest and most popular.
Interactive Fiction (IF) comes in many forms, including text-based parser games such as Zork where the player types in commands (Go north. Eat chocolate. Talk to green wizard). If you want to make this style of game, then Inform is probably your best option. Ken Liu’s Clockwork Soldier is an example of a traditional story which has IF-like commands embedded within it.
In contrast, stories written in Twine generally present the reader with choices in the form of hypertext links. Although there are many systems available for writing IF, Twine in particular has been celebrated for its ease of use. Twine is more focused on stories as opposed to games and produces HTML files, allowing anyone with a modern browser to read your story.
Marginalized communities have also adopted twine. In an interview with The Guardian, Twine author Anna Anthropy said: “If you can write a story, you can make a Twine game. A lot of people have been making all this weird amazing stuff. Someone made a Twine game, In Memoriam, for his dead brother. Someone made a Twine game about what it’s like to come out as bi in a lesbian community and be re-closeted. Someone made a game about what it’s like to sacrifice to the devil and receive a strange new pneumatic body with which you take over the world. Twine is this amazing queer and woman-orientated game-making community that didn’t even exist a year ago.”
To see what Twine is capable of doing I recommend having a look at Michael Lutz’ creepy psychological horror story My Father’s Long, Long Legs and the equally disturbing The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo Author Porpentine is known for her poetic mood pieces, such as Their Angelical Understanding which boasts the wonderful opening line: “I train to fight angels in a monastery by the sea.” Her story Neon Haze also features similarly memorable lines.
Perhaps the most famous Twine game is Zoe Quinn and Patrick Lindsey’s Depression Quest described as “an interactive (non) fiction about living with depression” that gives the reader choices illustrating how difficult it can be to deal with depression.
sub-Q and Strange Horizons are two magazines that pay pro rates for short IF. sub-Q is an online magazine devoted to IF and has published stories by genre writers including E. Lily Yu (The Tower and the Toucan) and JY Yang (Before the Storm Hits. Strange Horizons occasionally publishes IF such as Bogi Takács’ You Are Here. Both magazines are looking for shorter works rather than sprawling epic games. Traditionally IF games have been written in second person (“You are standing in an open field west of a white house”) whereas sub-Q prefers stories written in first or third person.
The Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp) is an annual (unpaid) competition showcasing the work of IF entries and has been running for more than twenty years. It caters to both parser games such as those written in Inform, as well as the increasingly popular choice style Twine games.
Other options for publishing your IF include making it available via indy game sites such as itch.io or bundling them as apps for mobile devices (although publishing things in the App Store requires you to have a developer account and is a more complicated process). Alternatives to Twine include Choice of Games’ Choice Script and Ink, which was used to produce 80 Days.
One of the things readers often look for in story-driven IF is for their choices to be meaningful. It’s generally not a good idea to present a reader with twenty different things to choose from, none of which have any impact on the rest of the game. If the story makes a big deal about whether I choose to ride a t-rex or a triceratops to work it can be annoying if that choice isn’t mentioned in the rest of the story. The Mass Effect games are more RPG than IF, but one of the reasons they were so popular is they allowed you to make decisions about which characters survived and these decisions changed how other characters reacted to you, even extending beyond the first game into later games in the series. Of course there are always exceptions. Adam Cadre’s Photopia is a modern IF parser game classic (a poll of intfiction.org readers voted it best IF of all time, but some people don’t like it because their choices “don’t matter.” The more choices you present in a game, the more complicated it becomes, especially when you have multiple branching endings. Until you’re more experienced with writing IF, it’s a good idea to start with something simple.
In part two, I show you how to use Twine.
Aidan Doyle (@aidan_doyle) is an Australian writer and computer programmer. He has visited more than 90 countries and his experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia, and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea. His stories have been published in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Fireside, and he has been shortlisted for Australia’s Aurealis Award.