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.
by Richard J. Chwedyk
Writers are not always the most sociable of creatures. We sit by ourselves and stare into screens, or blank sheets of paper. We’re locked away in little rooms, or sitting in cafés – but alone, tapping or scribbling away. Not always, but often enough. Solitude comes with the territory of getting our work done.
And yet, writers are often asked to teach. Many writers take to the change of pace with enthusiasm. Many others view this kind of employment with existential dread. Perhaps for good reason. Before you can teach, you need ask yourself what you know.
I’ve been asked by writers and former students who are on the verge of teaching their first classes: what should they do? What’s the most important thing they can do to make the experience most beneficial to teachers and students.
There are too many things to tell these writers in one quick reply. A lot of it won’t make sense and more of it won’t ease any of the anxieties they may suffer. So I try to boil it down to the most important stuff, in the way it was boiled down to me – one or two things. Everything else fits under them.
The first one I stumbled upon in the first weeks teaching my first science fiction writing class. I had some doubts about how the class was going. I ran into the department chairman, Randy Albers, and he asked me how the class was going. When I hesitated in my reply, he sensed my anxiety and asked if I wanted to talk about it. Demonstrating an unusual degree of good judgment for me, I said yes. We went to his office.
To allay any mystery, let me tell you what was worrying me was, of all things, the unbridled enthusiasm of my students. I was kind of overwhelmed and afraid I couldn’t control it – as if control were important. I didn’t know.
Randy listened politely. He asked me, after a moment, one question: “Is it good for the students?” The question cut to the chase in the most obvious way, I was embarrassed I didn’t think of it myself.
“Yes,” I said. “They’re enthused and excited by the class. How can it not be good?”
Randy nodded sagely (because he is a sage, after all). “If if it’s good for the students is what matters. That’s who we’re here for.”
In that instant, a multitude of doubts evaporated (not all, of course, but that comes with the territory).
The second one came to me way, way back, in the last century. I was about to go forth and teach my first Comp. 101 class – my very first teaching gig – and I didn’t have a clue as to what the hell I was going to do.
My unofficial mentor – a wonderful woman , an experienced teacher and an editor for a business publisher (not to mention a no-nonsense Army-brat-martinet) – could easily tell I was scared shitless, so she described to me how she threw up before class and how everyone else she knew who had taught threw up before their first class. “If you’re not vomiting, you’re already ahead.”
The appointed hour came and she had to go to her own class. Her class was up one flight of stairs and mine was down another. She wished me luck and I said something like “Luck be damned! What the hell do I do?”
She was halfway up the stairs already and she called back, “What do you love?”
I thought a moment and said, “Fiction. I love fiction. Science fiction.”
She nodded and shouted back, “Teach that. Teach what you love.”
It was the best advice I ever received, or ever will, about teaching – though it’s taken me over twenty years to figure out how to do it (somewhat).
I don’t know shit, but I LOVE this (whatever I’m pointing to right now).
And so I go into every class with a rough idea of what I might do (or what my syllabus prescribes), but ready to accept that something different may happen. And that’s okay.
So, for those going forth to teach, it boils down to:
1.) You’re there for the students, and
2.) Teach what you love.
The rest is in the hands of Fate.
Richard Chwedyk is a Nebula Award-winning science fiction writer, poet and teacher. His work has appeared in Nebula Awards Showcase 2004, Year’s Best SF 7, Year’s Best SF 8, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, Space and Time, 80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin and other publications. A collection of his “saur” stories is making the rounds. He lives in Chicago with his wife, poet Pamela Miller, and occasionally blogs at Critinomicon.
by Cat Rambo
Recently I worked Emerald City Comic Convention at the Bard’s Tower, a multi-author booth. I don’t think I was prepared as I could’ve been, and one of the things I did while I was there was to jot down a series of notes that might be useful to people working a book booth for the first time.
Before the convention
Make sure you have a business card. This should have your contact information, your social media presence (you’ll see why in the at the convention tips) and at least one way to find your books. You will also use it for networking; make sure there is enough blank space on it for you to jot a note down on it before handing it to someone. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on cards but I would also suggest not cheaping out. The lowest rate cards are often flimsy and can look unprofessional.
Bookmarks may seem like a waste of money but people often ask for them if they want to find your work later on. If you can afford them, they’re worth the investment, and don’t have to consume a lot of money.
Have an answer for the people who will tell you that they read electronically or listen only to audiobooks. Is your work available that way and where can they get it? (If not, why not?)
If you have a newsletter, have a sign-up sheet as well as some electronic freebie to promise people who sign up.
Depending on your budget you may want to have some small item to give away, like a sticker or temporary tattoo. Make sure it’s got your website URL on it!
Make sure you have enough inventory, and pack a bag with your own essentials: phone charger, pens, food and water, a basic first aid kit, and anything else that you might need over the course of the day.
Make sure you have comfortable shoes.
While at the convention
This is not the time to be shy and unassuming. Smile at people as they pass, say hi, ask what they like to read. You’re there to sell books, and these are people who like books usually.
Pull people in for a conversation. If you see a costume or T-shirt you like, ask if you can take a picture. Check to find out if it’s okay to post it on social media, and if they say yes, give them your card so they can find it later on. (I told you that social media information would come in handy.)
Pitch other people’s books but be sincere and knowledgeable about it. Listen to the other authors pitch and learn how to describe their books. People who buy one book may decide to pick up more, and if you’re making good recommendations, they’ll listen to you.
Focus your energy outside the booth, not inside. Chat with the other authors but keep an eye on the passing crowd. If you’re checking your phone no one’s going to want to talk to you even if they’ve got a question about your book.
On panels? Remember to let people know where they can find you and your books if they want to look for them.
If you’re active on social media, by all means, use it during the convention! Take pictures of the booth, fellow authors, the merchandise, and above all the fans! Let people know when you arrive at the booth, particularly if you’re spending limited time there.
After the convention
Take some time to think about things. What went wrong and what went right? Did any of your fellow authors have a brilliant strategy that you want to copy in the future?
Follow up on your networking. Go through the pile business cards you become elated you’ve accumulated and follow up on emails and things you promised.
- Remember to say thank you to the organizer! Putting together a booth is hard work.
Cat Rambo is the president of SFWA. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. Her most recent book is the fantasy collection, Neither Here Nor There. For more about her, as well as links to her fiction, visit http://www.kittywumpus.net.
If you’re interested in learning more about writing, check out The Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers for a list of courses and online course schedules.