NaNo Post-mortem

It’s probably not a great sign that I used that term in the title, huh?

No, seriously, NaNoWriMo went pretty well. My ending word count was 36,944. Almost 37K, out of an original 50K goal. It’s not too impressive compared to people who’d finished the 50K by the 15th, but it’s very impressive compared to the 12K or so I managed last year.

Some weird stuff happened along the way. I’d originally intended for it to be a single novel, with each madness-consumed area being a short segment building toward an ultimate reveal. Instead, I reached about 20K and realized, much to my dismay, that I was still on the first area, and not particularly close to finishing.

If I was going to do the idea justice, each segment would be its own, short, novel.

At 37K, the first part is finished, or at least a bare-bones version is. It’s messy, it’s ugly, and in places it’s lazy. More than once I order myself in caps lock to fix something later, and more than once I summarize something that really needed to be experienced in the moment.

Plot threads go nowhere, and the main character doesn’t have an entire arc so much as a fourth of one. The ending is an anticlimax, and very little delivers on its potential.

But that’s a NaNo novel in a nutshell. What was good about it?

I started to get a sense for the main character and the struggle they needed to go through. I had a lot of fun adapting a handful of game mechanics into meaningful narrative devices. I made decisions late in the novel that make the overall idea 10x better. And there are even places where the prose is something I can be proud of.

It’s a big mess with a lot of potential. As the saying goes, now I have a machine gun–wait, no. Now that I’ve filled the box with sand, I can start building the castles.

Even more than the novel itself, for me, NaNo was about the process. About learning lessons I’ve struggled with my entire writing career. How did that go?

I had two or three days near the beginning where I thought, “I can do this. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be.” Then I had about a week of, “This is tough, but I’m doing it.” The two weeks after that, I was driven over broken glass by the same stubbornness that got me through Dark Souls. The last few days were the worst. I can only describe it as the after-Thanksgiving feeling of swearing off food for life. Thinking about writing got me nauseous.

1600+ words a day is not my number. Not yet, anyway. It wears on the very fabric of my being, like Bilbo says: “Butter scraped over too much bread.”

That’s not to say that NaNo wasn’t good for me. There are more days than not where I don’t feel like sitting down and writing. Some days when I’d rather do anything else than the hard work of writing. But now I can acknowledge that no one asked whether I felt like it. I have a goal, and if I won’t reach it, I’m going to at least make constant progress.

And usually, after the first half hour of throwing a tantrum staring at the screen–flailing my arms and shouting that the words just aren’t there–the miraculous happens. The words are there. In a trickle, a handful at a time. But there.

And learning that, that I was just a half-hour, arm-flailing tantrum away from progress, was a lesson well worth learning.

Now, the question of what I’m going to do with the NaNo novel, and whether you’ll ever see it.

It’s not quite bad enough to post as-is. So, yay? It’ll require almost a page one rewrite, complete tearing down and rebuilding, this time outlining what I have as a novel all its own. And considering how sick of it I am, I don’t think I’ll touch it again until summer.

After the next draft of the NaNo novel, I’m going to decide whether to pursue traditional publishing, move toward self-publishing, or just splash it up on my site for free.

Advertisements

Thoughts on Call of Duty: WWII

I played through the campaign of Call of Duty: WWII recently.

Going back to health packs was a fantastic choice. I have a lot to say about cover mechanics and regenerating health in FPS games, but in short: It engenders passive gameplay that just isn’t fun.

I found I could run and gun a lot more in WWII, with short stretches of hiding behind cover. A lot more fun than most FPS games in the last fifteen years.

The story is a bit heavy-handed, but it succeeded in getting me to like the main crew and care about what happens to them.

Now the bad: Any time that the player can choose what route to take, there’s a clear intended path that is balanced and fun. The other paths range from uneventful to unfair. One part in particular had me stuck for about 25 attempts; I tried the other way TWICE and moved past it.

The game could have spent another couple weeks with testers, to properly balance it an smooth out the flow of gameplay. In places, death felt like a dice roll rather than being about my own performance. To a degree, this may have been intentional (capturing the reality of being on the front lines during WWII), but it’s not FUN.

They offer a lot of one- or two-off diversions into different gameplay. Tanks, trucks, and anti-aircraft guns, for starters. None of these felt polished or noteworthy. It felt like variety for variety’s sake, rather than something that adds to the experience. Taking the time put into these and spending it on refining the unremarkable level design (and improving grenade indicators/hitboxes) would have been nice.

There’s at least one moment in each level that keeps me from wanting to play that level over again. Most stem from my complaints above.

However, it was fun overall, and a big step forward (or should I say, backward in the right ways) for a franchise I’ve not been able to give a crap about for years.

The Dream

Here’s a new short story I wrote. Not EXACTLY Horror.

———————————————————–

The dream always starts the same.

I’m walking up stairs carved into a mountainside. The uneven stone steps, cracked and half-eaten by grass and dirt, stretch up as far as I can see. Looking back, they stretch around a bend, the walls of the mountain blocking my view of anything but sky.

In the dream, I know what awaits me at the top. What I’m climbing toward. But when I wake up, I can never remember what it is, or why it’s so important that I get there.

The sky above me is almost as grey as the mountain, streaked with white and blotchy with dark blue. I can’t tell where the sun is. If there is a sun.

I walk on and on. Never slowing. Never tiring. Never running short on breath. I can, and will, climb this mountain forever, until I reach what I’m moving toward.

Eventually, I can see the top, Far above and ahead. Seeing my destination doesn’t make me slow my step, but it doesn’t make me climb faster. I just continue on. The fact that I will reach it is accepted, almost fatalistically.

How long have I been climbing? If there is any such thing as time, here, I can’t tell it. I might have been climbing forever, or for an hour. All that I know is that I’m almost done.

Here, the dream differs. Sometimes my entire jaw aches, and I realize I’ve been grinding my teeth. Sometimes, I feel a biting pain in my hands, and realize my fingernails have broken the skin. It’s never until these moments that I realize I’m afraid.

Whatever’s at the top, whatever I don’t remember, scares me.

Last night, I was closer to the top than ever before. My eyes could almost see over the top step. I could almost tell what awaited me.

I heard a familiar voice behind and below me. Awake, I can’t tell you who it was. Someone important to me. Someone I’d trust with my life. I can’t turn and see. I can only keep moving forward.

I can’t say who it is, but I remember what they were saying. They were screaming for me to stop. Pleading for me to stop.

Jaw aching, dripping blood, I keep climbing.

I’m almost at the top.

Who’s Telling the Story? Narrative in Games.

Who’s telling the story in a video game?

On the surface, the answer is obvious. The game’s creator is telling the story. But the reality is a lot more complicated, and I feel that the failure to answer this question early in a game’s development can become a big problem later on.

On one hand, yes. The game’s creators are the ones who choose the genre and the gameplay and the level design, the look and feel of the game. They craft an experience for the player.

On the other hand, video games are inherently interactive. It’s the player’s choices that drive the game forward. What weapon do they use? What mechanics do they focus most of their time on? Do they follow the unstated rules of the game, trying to match the intended tone and play style, or do they do their best to undermine it, by looking for glitches and overpowered strategies? Or do they play with the ragdoll of enemy bodies for fifteen minutes?

A game’s creators can never be in complete control of the entire experience. That’s what is great about video games! Every single person who plays has a different experience.  But if you gave the player complete control over every aspect of the game’s narrative, it would quickly grow tedious for the player, and would never stitch together to mean anything.

So storytelling is always on a line between those two points. But where on that line should it be?

I’ve worked out a pretty simple equation that works more or less universally: The more open you make your game, the more the player is telling the story. The more linear you make your game, the more YOU are telling the story. No matter where on the scale you fall, you have to be mindful of that balance.

The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is almost completely linear. You don’t make choices that influence the story, and your path through the game is entirely predetermined. Does this make it a bad game? I don’t think so. I think that the creators understood the costs and benefits of making their game linear, and crafted the entire experience around it.

You don’t make choices in the story. This HAS to be a story about a young, naive Prince, tricked by an evil Vizier and forced to team up with the princess of the land he’s invaded in order to undo his terrible mistake. Every story action is predetermined. Because of this, the Prince is introduced as a strong, fully-fleshed character, and grows in a dynamic, realistic faction throughout the story. A story where you make the important story decisions simply couldn’t form a character like this.

Dark Souls, on the other hand, finds a different balance. You choose who the character is. Your choice of class, of armor and equipment and which stats you level, down to whether you choose to complete all NPC quests or kill every NPC you meet, crafts who that character is. The world is yours to explore, and most of it can potentially be at your fingertips from the opening moments. However, there are certain nodes of the story that are unavoidable.

Because of its different design, it wouldn’t make any sense to give you a Lawful Good hero on a quest to save his ailing grandmother*. What if you wanted to kill every NPC? Could you still confront the villain with indignation over their designs to rule the world*? Instead, they give us a blank slate character and a story that does not rely on who that character is. They hang just enough story on the anchors of those few nodes that you must pass through, and then leave the rest of the plot to optional exploration.

*Not the actual story.

These are two extremes . There’s plenty of room between them (Minecraft goes even further than Dark Souls by not HAVING a story), and plenty of games that nail the balance they’ve chosen. I could go on all day talking about them.

Instead, I want to talk about a game series that (I feel) fails to keep this balance.

I’m going to pick on a series I love here, a series I’ve spent hundreds of hours with, and will probably spend a thousand more. The Elder Scrolls.

Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim. Who makes games this good? Three in a row that are widely considered some of the best games ever made? I’ve bought Morrowind THREE TIMES, and I’m contemplating a fourth.

However, after playing hundreds of hours, exploring the world, doing everything from reading books to going into hellish dimensions to slay demonic lords, there’s one thing I haven’t done in any of the three games. And that’s finish the main storyline.

My experience isn’t unique. Most of the people I know love the games, but have never “finished” one.

This isn’t necessarily because the stories are weak. Oblivion and Skyrim had stories that seemed fine, and Morrowind actually has an outstanding story (which is why I came closest to beating that).

Instead I feel that they tend to mistake where they fall on the scale.

In The Elder Scrolls, you decide who your character is. Do they give to the poor? Or do they murder the homeless? Are they noble travelling warrior, or thief and assassin? Or do they just like going out to gather ingredients for potions? YOU decide what your character’s personality is. YOU decide what motivates them.

And then the game decides what the main story is, regardless of any other decisions you make along the way. Murderous outlaw who’s emptied the cities of all non-essential NPCs? You’re going to prevent the apocalypse, same as the devout follower of Talos who spends all their time completing side-quests to help the children. And barring some small choices that don’t change the overall plot, you’re going to go about it in the same way.

They craft their world and their gameplay to give the player all of the choice, but they still believe that they are telling the story. Motivations and methods fit poorly unless you’ve chosen the “right” character type. Because of this, I never FEEL anything when playing the main story.

Some other games that do similar, but are more aware of this balance, include Fable and Jade Empire. You craft who your character is, but there’s always a motivation that will fit who you’ve made them. Jade Empire in particular is a master class in letting the player choose who their character is while still keeping them invested 100% in the story.

The more control you give the player, the more THEY are the ones telling the story. As long as you’re aware of this, and design around it, you can make the players feel like the characters, and by extension themselves, are truly part of the story.

NaNo Project Announcement

As I’ve said, my progress on my current novel and on the screenplay has been partially sidetracked by a new idea, a NaNoWriMo project I’ve been developing.

Here is where I actually let everyone know what’s going on with the new project!

It started when I downloaded a free trial of Game Maker Studio 2. I’ve spent about two months working on a side-scrolling action-RPG inspired by Dark Souls. I quickly realized that I was never going to make more than one level in the game.

This wouldn’t be a problem, except that I’d brainstormed a world, a magic system, and a basic plot for an entire game. Not to mention, one of the better third-act reveals I think I’ve ever come up with.

A good friend suggested I adapt the story into a novel. A NaNo novel, as the timing turns out.

This novel is perfect for a NaNo project. Relatively short, highly experimental. Here’s a short synopsis I wrote for the NaNoWriMo website:

———–

“As long as one suffers, I suffer. As long as one is chained, I am chained.”

The Chained God’s church sends its strongest into lands that have fallen into darkness, lands trapped in a waking nightmare that has destroyed the society that once lived there. Using their god’s power, they cleanse these lands and free its people. It is a task they’ve performed for the entirety of human memory.

But now the lands overcome the servants who venture into them. The latest member to take up the sword is the last that can be sent. If they fail, the lands will remain trapped, the people suffering, their god forever bound.

In these blood-drenched lands, the hero will face trials of strength, of will, and of faith, and will learn secrets to reshape the world.

————–

You may be wondering what I mean by “experimental”. Here’s a brief idea of new/weird things I’m doing:

* Taking inspiration from video game mechanics. Checkpoints/Respawning, Exp./Leveling, among others.

* 1st Person PoV that leaps to 3rd during certain sequences.

* Horror short stories wrapped inside a Fantasy narrative.

It might not be good. But it’s certain to be interesting. I’ll post updates/excerpts as I go! Wish me luck!

An Update and Rambling

I’ve pretty completely failed at my goals for this month! I aimed to write 10k on my novel–I’ve written about 4k–and four posts on the screenplay, which I haven’t touched.

Instead, I’ve spent most of that time worldbuilding and outlining on my NaNoWriMo idea, which I won’t be posting much about during the month itself. The rest of my time has been sucked up in a video game, which leads me to the other part of this post.

I recently got a PS4 and Bloodborne! I’m a HUGE fan of Dark Souls (not so much of Dark Souls II), and I’ve been waiting about a year to be able to play Bloodborne, the next game by the director of the original Dark Souls.

I’m now on playthrough five, I believe, if that tells you what I think of it.

Why should you care about what game I’m playing? Because I’m going to be doing more video game-related posts. Trying to apply a critical eye to different elements of games, in a similar way that I do for my posts on movies and books. Hopefully the posts will prove worthwhile to those of you who’ve signed up for my other content.

If nothing else, I should be posting more often.

 

Why No Posts?

As you may have noticed, I’m in a bit of a slump on my main writing projects. My novel and The Diner.
 
A few weeks back, a cold hit me about as hard as it ever has. I had to call off work, which I haven’t done in the three years since I started my job. And I was definitely too sick to write for about two weeks.
 
This killed momentum I’d fought so hard to maintain. It came at a particularly bad time in both projects. In my book, because I’m in the middle of a scene that I don’t really have a direction for yet. And in the screenplay, because I’d just finished the previous part and hadn’t started on the next.
 
I’m taking the next week off and not letting myself feel bad about it. I’m still creating, working on teaching myself to make a video game, if you’d believe it. In fact, I’m dumping time into that (and making progress) unlike I’ve done in any other creative project in years.
 
After that, I’m going to start back on my novel and the screenplay, aiming for at least 10K in the novel and a weekly five-page screenplay post for October.
 
And then NaNo. I have something special planned for NaNo that I’m excited about. I’m not quite ready to share, in case it doesn’t come together, but it’s a new project, complete at 50K words, and it’s very experimental.