The Scariest Part

Some of you may recall my good friend Nick Kaufmann’s Five For Writing, wherein we discussed his fungus-centric new novel The Hungry Earth. Well, Nick runs a series of essays on his website called The Scariest Part, wherein he gets horror authors to talk about the scariest part of their new books, and he was kind enough to ask me to contribute. So you can read all about the scariest part of writing Ghost of a Marriage here.

Five For Writing – Gary Astleford

Gary Astleford has an entry on Wookieepedia, which automatically makes him cooler than I am. He’s also an experienced video game scribe, with experience on titles like Warhammer: Age of Reckoning and Wildstar, as well as the wildly successful Rainbow Six: Siege. Currently a Senior Narrative Designer at my home base of Red Storm Entertainment, he is currently working his mighty wordcraft on The Division: Heartland. Without further ado, I give you Five For Writing with the thoughtful and talented Gary Astleford.

1-What about game writing appeals to you?

As a long-time tabletop game master, I’ve always loved world building and telling interactive stories.

2-What do you think are the main differences between TTRPG and video game writing?

Tabletop RPGs have a dynamic edge that computer and video games lack. There’s always a chance for TTRPG players to do the unexpected, so a certain amount of flexibility is required to ensure that things run smoothly. Though printed adventures are often written with a central storyline in mind, it’s not uncommon to provide game masters with alternatives and suggestions for when things go off the rails.

Conversely, the stories told in video games are limited by available tools and game systems. They tend to be linear, scripted, and on rails to a large degree. While improvements have been made developing procedural content, as well as branching dialogue and storylines, we’ve still got some distance to go before we can emulate the dynamism of an imaginative human storyteller.

3-What were the challenges in writing for Rainbow Six: Siege, a game that doesn’t necessarily have a traditional narrative structure?

In Siege, the narrative elements are by necessity presented outside of the core game. Siege’s stories incorporate the game’s extensive and evolving cast of characters amidst a narrative backdrop delivered in an episodic fashion. Certain in-game features, such as special events, use a more traditional approach to delivering in-game narrative. However, more dramatic stories and interactions between characters are conveyed via other types of media—CGI and anime videos, comics, online articles, etc.
These various narrative assets are quite focused and specific. One challenge in creating them is to stay on-message, as there is rarely room to write in the proverbial margins. Another concern involves the scope and cost of the assets (which can be tremendous) and ensuring they are as polished as they can be right out of the gate. In this process, Narrative is only one of a number of key stakeholders involved in the creative process. Consensus and agreement across disciplines during production is vital.

4-What says good game writing to you?

I value internal consistency in game writing, as well as due consideration of the player’s agency and their role in and effect on the story. Players should absolutely feel as if their actions in the game make a difference. Providing tangible results for those actions is an important part of my own creative philosophy. While I don’t feel it’s necessary for all player actions or accomplishments to be broadcast or rewarded, there’s definitely a sweet spot I aspire to.
Beyond that, content should be internally consistent—any surprises or plot twists must make sense within the framework provided by the game’s narrative.

5-What are the next steps that need to be taken in improving game writing?

As creators I believe it’s our responsibility to usher in new perspectives rather than cling to those we’re
familiar with and accustomed to. While strides have been made in increasing diversity in games, we still
have a long way to go. Representation, both within our industry as well as within the content we create,
matters a great deal. There are voices we haven’t heard yet and they have their own stories to tell. The
inclusion of these voices can only improve the narrative tapestry of the games we make.

 

Many thanks to Gary for taking the time to sit down and answer the questions! Next week, tune in for five questions with science fiction novelist and all-around excellent guy Jay Posey!

Good News Everybody

A couple of notes.

First of all, today marks the release of the ebook version of Ghost of a Marriage, available at fine purveyors of electronic books everywhere for the low, low price of $2.99.

Second, I am pleased to announce that my short story “The Taste of It Fresh” has been accepted for publication in the anthology Counting Bodies Like Sheep. This story is my first experiment with body horror, as opposed to my usual weirdness, and I’m very proud of it.

Oh, and just a reminder, I’ll be running virtual round tables on the subject of game narrative at the upcoming Game Developers Conference.

There’s more good news in the pipeline, but I’ll hold off on that until I have more details to share with you. Just a hint, though – if you’re interested in learning about writing for games, keep the weekend of April 1 open…

Five For Writing – Justin Achilli

Justin Achilli and I go way back. Like, to the mid 90s at White Wolf way back. It was a pleasure to work with him then, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him in his time at Red Storm. He’s one of the sharpest game designers I know, as well as an excellent writer and editor, and a thoughtful, eloquent advocate for games. Here he is now, the man who more than anyone embodies Vampire: The Masquerade – Justin Achilli.

 

1-You’ve been involved with Vampire: The Masquerade for over two decades. How has it changed in that time, and how has your approach to it changed?

For the longest time, Vampire (and all of the World of Darkness games) were made by a company that was a physical book publisher first and foremost. It needed to print and sell books to survive, so a lot of what went into the games served that end: Print stuff with a perceived value and sell that. We were writing and developing sequential periodicals as much as we were writing and developing games. Things like “metaplot” and “canon” emerged less from an intentional continuity and brand-building, and more from survival instinct.

Now, though, the company that owns the World of Darkness (Paradox Interactive), isn’t a physical book publisher at all. So my work on Vampire and other titles is refocused on building a sandbox in which people can tell their own stories rather than printing some-thousand words of plot advancements.

2-You’ve worked in both tabletop and video games. What did you carry over from one to the other?

Overall the thing that I find most important is to respect the player’s time. Audiences have a huge amount of options in terms of entertainment, so I think it’s important to realize what your game offers, whether it’s a TTRPG or a video game or whatever, and deliver on that promise.

I had been working on MMOs a while back and it used to bother me how a lot of MMO marketing was “you can be anything you can imagine in this enormous living world!” but their gameplay was built around three or four very distinct classes or roles and combat quests. That always seemed really disingenuous to me. Better to have a very limited scope and help the player tell the best story they can within that scope than to try to tick every box and deliver adequately on only a few of them. Pendragon is an amazing TTRPG, and characters are comparatively very limited in what they are: Arthurian-era, mostly knights. And look at, say, Stardew Valley — it doesn’t have one tenth of the feature list of, say, Star Citizen, but it’s made millions of people very happy by letting them tell a very distinct kind of story, and it doesn’t pretend to do anything else.

I think that’s the most important part. Let the player tell the story and live the fantasy you’ve promised to them. Games development is project management, so your resources should be scaled and devoted to fulfilling your promise.

Not a sexy answer, I suppose, but a good one, I think.

3-What do you feel is unique about game narrative, and have we been reaching its full potential?

The big difference between games and “one-way” media is the interactivity. In a game, the narrative is helping the player tell the story, so if the story relegates the player to making insignificant choices, it’s telling them that they don’t matter, that what the story “is really about” can happen without them. That does a disservice to the player, who’s playing to see the outcomes of their actions, to make choices and learn what those choices effected.

I don’t think we’re at the point of realizing the full potential there, and I think we’re still a distance away. Look at how long writing as a craft has existed, or creating visual art, or making music. Compared to those media, video games are in their infancy, and they’re a unique blend of all of those things and then some. Some of what’s limiting us is technical or technological — we can’t yet have an AI “game master” that’s as versatile as a human one, and we can’t ship an infinitude of digital assets to visualize or realize what a human game master can describe. But some of our limitation, too, is commercial, in that it’s really expensive to make games and the people funding them want to recoup their costs, so the expenses of risk-taking are much more controlled than in, say, an individual’s effort to tell the story that they’re burning to tell.

4-How do you think game design should be used to tell stories?

I think of game design as the “toolbox” the player has. A game effectively proposes a problem or a series of problems, and the design defines the parameters by which the player can attempt to solve those problems. So there are really two stories to every game (and sometimes they overlap very closely): the story of the player playing the game, and the story events that contextualize the game itself. The player’s story, and the world story that includes the character the player is portraying.

I think this is the part where I’m supposed to bring up the “does Tetris have a story?” exercise 😉

But seriously, I like the definition of a game as a series of interesting choices. “What happens when I do this?” is the source of myriad stories. They don’t all have to be epics or infinite. Some stories happen in a moment’s time.

5-Do you prefer open-ended or linear game narratives, and why?

As a personal preference, I enjoy open-ended narratives, because they make me feel more like I’m in charge of my own destiny. Especially when I’m able to create my own character, I feel like setting my own goals and realizing them is part of that open-endedness.

Which isn’t to diminish linear game narratives, of course, and I’ve worked on many of these. In complement to the above, when I’m playing a specific, named character, I tend to appreciate linear narrative smore, because I buy into the story that this is that character’s story and I’m helping realize it, as the player.

In the end, it has a lot to do with the promise that’s being made to me, especially in game worlds that are part of franchises. In a Star Trek game, I want to boldly go! But I also accept that I’m probably going to end up in conflict with the Klingons at some point. “Linear” doesn’t have to mean the player is resistant to being directed toward an outcome. If it’s part of what you buy into when you undertake the narrative, it’s reasonable to have some expectations.

 

Huge thanks to Justin for taking the time to sit down and answer these. You can find his wit and wisdom on Twitter, and in the continuing output of World of Darkness books.

Tune in next week for another interview!

 

Five For Writing – Thomas R. Clark

Author, podcaster and gamer, Thomas R. Clark is a man of many talents. In addition to published works like The God Provides, he anchors the metal-and-horror podcast Necrocasticon. So let’s throw the goat and let Thomas answer in his own words

1-Heavy metal and horror. What’s the connection?

My two favorite niche genres of entertainment. And they are niche, no matter how rabid and vocal the fan bases are for both. They are linked through iconography and themes, mostly.One can’t think of Iron Maiden without also seeing their zombified mascot, Eddie. Many metal bands use imagery typically associated with horror – Type O Negative, for example, or Ghost and their Satanic pope character Papa Emeritus – hell, even Black Sabbath’s name comes from a Boris Karloff film. Not to mention one of my favorite horror novels, The Scream from Skipp & Spector, which is a perfect blend of this.

2-What was the experience of writing your first novel like?

Do you mean the one I just wrote? Or the two I wrote between 2015 and 2018 that will never see the light of day cos they are/were nothing but a collection of scenes and awful? Well, wait, that isn’t all true. I’ve cannibalized and re-written portions from both into other pieces. For example, the opening chapter to Whirlwind was slightly modified into the short story “Chirp” you can find in my debut collection, A Book of Light and Shadow. The protagonist of the same book, a private detective named Dianne Brighton, was reimagined as the protagonist of my WIP, The Witch of November. I write slowly, and writing a full length novel is an arduous task for me. My longest piece of published fiction to date is The God Provides, but that is technically a collection of four novelettes. The Death List, my longest narrative piece in print, is just under 40K. Now, the one I just completed, Summerhome, is my first full length commercial novel, no disrespect to F. Scott Fitzgerald. I found the process with this to much easier than I thought it would be, as I was taking what I’ve learned with my prior pieces and applied it to this. I’m in the midst of a rewrite before going to my editor.

3-What have you learned from the process?

I learned your first book will be awful, and likely your second book, too.But they need to be awful. I’ve learned writing books is a lonely trade, and the legends of writers having substance abuse issues are no joke. It’s easy to tip a bottle or light up a smoke when you are alone as much as a writer is.

4-What’s the most metal thing you’ve ever written?

Thus far, it’s Bella’s Boys. The Death List is pretty metal, too, but Bella’s Boys is so much more than a cosmic horror novella. It has meta-layers, making it everything that is metal and Rock-n-roll. For example, the chapters indicating the date, time and snowfall totals – those represent the time signatures of a song on an album. The book is an album in print, with each chapter being a new track, or song in presented in narrative prose.

5-How does your podcasting relate to your writing?

I went to college for broadcasting and journalism, so the podcasting is a natural extension of that. Podcasting, ironically, has led me to my writing career, though. I’m glad I’m doing this now, and not thirty years ago. I imagine the ME of that era wouldn’t have been very popular with the community as a whole, due to my immaturity and rampant, out of control ADHD. I’ve only learned to manage over the last decade – and much of this is a result of the structures I’ve had to build in my life to produce quality creative content. I worked in sales for 25 years nad never achieved the amount of understanding for my trade as I have with writing fiction.

Sometime around 2008 or 2009, my buddies and I started a fan podcast of a regional professional wrestling promotion. Interviews I did during this time period assisted me in landing a podcasting and journalism gig at an online entertainment news site similar to Ain’t It Cool News, called This Is Infamous. During this time period, a peer with a small press printed a series of comedy-genre pieces I wrote over the years. My coverage of horror films and the horror based fiction I wrote landed me in the HWA, which I joined to find mentoring. During this time, I started the Necrocasticon Podcast, after leaving This Is Infamous. Eventually, I was given a mentoring spot with Monica S. Kuebler at Rue Morgue Magazine, which led to me covering Scares That Care for the magazine. And there, after meeting many of the creatives who inspired me, like Brian Keene and Tom Monteleone, I discovered I wanted to write fiction. So podcasting has had a drastic impact on my fiction, without it, I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing today.

Many thanks to Thomas for bringing the thunder to this week’s post. You can find him online at his website, or on Twitter. And check out the Necrocasticon if you get a chance!

Next week is a special treat for me, as I bring you an interview with my long-time coworker and friend, the man who is Vampire: The Masquerade, Justin Achilli. See you then!

Ghost of a Marriage Audiobook Is Live

Remember when I said that Ghost of a Marriage was coming out the first week of February? Well, it looks like Audible is ahead of the curve because the unabridged audiobook is available now! Narrated by Sam Rosenthal, it clocks in at seven and a half hours of spooky goodness. So if you’re the audiobook type, it just might be down your alley.

Five For Writing – Professor Christopher McGlothlin

Do you know what a ghost show is? If you don’t (or even if you do), you’re in for a treat, as today’s interview is with the head honcho of Ghost Show Press, Professor Christopher McGlothlin. The mind behind the recent book of essays Transgressive Horror: Reflections on Scare Films that Broke the Rules (which, full confession, contains my take on Curse of the Demon), he’s just getting revved up. Here, then, is his Five For Writing!

1-What’s a Ghost Show, and why did you name your press after it?
Ghost shows were “A Special Weird Attraction!” that came to your local drive-in movie theatre, promising “Monsters Abduct Girls From Their Seats,” “Man Buried Alive for a Week Dug Up at Showtime,” “The Beatles Spiritually Materialize,” and a “Triple Horror Movie Shock Show!” Anyone who wouldn’t buy a ticket to that is made of sterner stuff than I.
What paying customers actually got was carnies in rubber masks carrying off planted female accomplices, cheap stage magic tricks, and decaying 16mm prints of decades-old Poverty Row films. It was a total con, but the willing marks got what they really came for: a wild burst of pure fun and imagination that filled their world with more wonder than they knew.
That tradition is rich in my rural Virginia blood, and when it came time to launch my publishing venture, I realized ghost shows are the perfect metaphor for what I want to do. Ghost Show Press is just me and super-talented folks I vibe with writing books for everyone who still wants that same pure fun and imagination. Although we won’t put on monster masks and bury anyone alive. Probably.
2-Why did you pick the subject of transgressive films to be your meat and potatoes for Ghost Show Press?
I have always wanted to write about how cinema doesn’t have to be objectively good to be worthy of discussion — just innovative and interesting. The Everyone’s Gone to the Movies essay collection series was born from that. There are many, many published works telling you why Psycho (1960) is a classic film. Myself, I prefer to get into how The Wizard of Gore (1970) and Audition (1999) are like nothing else you’ll ever see — and why people should see them.

3-What inspired the first book in the series, Transgressive Horror?
I’d been thinking of doing a book like TH all by myself since back when I was a much younger, energetic fellow, but life and other paid work kept getting in the way. Then in the fall of 2020, my dear friend James Lowder (the legendary writer and editor) casually mentioned he had an unpublished essay on Witchfinder General (1968) in his files. That’s when the cartoon lightbulb went off, and I realized I could finally do TH by leveling up to publisher & editor, writing only as much as I cared to, and asking other creators (first-time writers and veteran scribes) to join in. And thus did TH arise from the slab, ready to run amok in the world.

4-Are there any films you wish had made the book that didn’t?
I’m a fan of pioneering director Stephanie Rothman, and always want to boost the signal on her work (like now!); the underrated The Velvet Vampire (1971) in particular. I offered TVV to every writer who asked for suggestions, and nearly wrote about it myself, to no avail.
Given the genre, we’re fairly obligated to do Transgressive Horror 2 at some point, and will hopefully get to TVV in the sequel.

5-What’s next?

On April 27, 2022, Ghost Show Press launches its Kickstarter for Vol. 2 in the Everyone’s Gone to the Movies series, Subversive Sci-Fi: Reflections on Futuristic Films That Broke the Rules. We’re very blessed to have nearly the whole team back from Vol. 1, as well as some fabulous new additions.

Not sure of the exact date, but at some point my farewell to tabletop gaming industry will be released: The History of Sentinel Comics, the true story of everyone’s favorite imaginary publisher. It’s co-written with the amazing Darren Watts, and published by the greater folks at Greater Than Games. Darren is supremely gifted, and with GTG I was never treated better as a freelance writer. It’s a funny, obsessively detailed, and affectionate ode to everyone who loves comic books, and the best possible way to bid adieu to my time in tabletop games.

Big thanks to the Professor for answering these questions, and best of luck with the sci-fi book and beyond! Tun e in next week, when I’ll be talking to Splatterpunk Award nominee Thomas Clark. See you then!