Category Archives: Writing

Blogs about reading, writing, and the creative process.

Writing like a programmer

So on Sunday I got a weird idea to make a small computer game. There are tons of free options to make a variety of computer games, and I figure since I work for a video game company, I should learn something about the process. However, I’m not a programmer nor an artist, so my options quickly got whittled down. I was about to toss out the idea as just a lark when I stumbled across Inform 7.

Now, I’m no stranger to text adventures (or as they’re known as now, “interactive fiction”), both when they originally popular and the resurgence of innovation in the medium in the 90s and early 21st century. I fell out of touch with it around the time I started seriously freelancing, so I missed the release of software that lets you program IF games in English.

PROGRAM IN ENGLISH.

I have been obsessed with this ever since. As I dig into it, it’s not nearly as magical as it first seemed — getting the software to do things like combat requires some heavy coding (or “rules creation” in Inform terms) — but there’s also an active community of people who create extensions Firefox-style that you can plug into a game. The only downside so far is that they’re usually pretty hefty (for a word game — 256k is actually a meaningful amount of space), but for what I’m doing, that’s fine for now.

After going from pointless and random noodling to wanting to making something cohesive, I decided that a wacky pulp story would work well with an unambitious text adventure, so I dusted off my old friend Agent Patriot and started working on an actual adventure. In three days, he hasn’t left his office, but I’m building a lot of the infrastructure.

I can’t entirely explain why this appeals to me so much. I’ve written a bit for EVE Online, as well as another MMO project, and I’ve learned that writing for a video game is very different from both fiction and RPG writing. Playing with Inform 7, I’m getting a lot of that same vibe that I did working on those projects. The big difference for me is that I can compile the program and see my results right away, so I can modify and stretch the story as needed based on the limitations of my software or my knowledge.

But this does lead to situations like last night, when I stayed up until past midnight trying to keep a character from continuing to clean Agent Patriot’s office after he died. I finally figured it out, only to realize that it didn’t matter — the game probably shouldn’t continue if that character died anyhow. But that work isn’t thrown out, because I learned a LOT about how to construct similar situations in future, and I’ve increased my options for later story development.

(I admit that I just cheated and got a combat plug-in. It works almost exactly how I wanted it to, so it was a LOT of work I just didn’t need to do.)

I’ve always liked writing fiction to tell a certain story, and I’ve always liked writing and running RPGs to let others tell a story as well. But somewhere in the middle there’s a range of collaboration between writer and audience that I want to explore more. This is one avenue — I have another one kicking around as well (the elusive “Whitechapel” idea I’ve mentioned) that I want to wait until we’ve moved before I pursue further. And has shown me a third avenue that I like as well. Maybe we should collaborate on a project at some point.

This does mean that my original idea of trying to get back and committing to daily wordcounts is kind of shot, but I think this is all valuable work to improve my skills as a writer overall. As technology continues to evolve, I think there’s going to be new ways to close the gap between writer and audience, and I can’t see how that kind of interaction will do anything but help me to become a better writer overall.

Googling my Writing Process

A few years ago, when I was working on personal projects as well as freelance writing, I found that I needed to write out a zero draft in a journal before I could compose my thoughts into Word. Then I got the job to work on Mind’s Eye Theatre: The Awakening, and from there I got hired by CCP, so I haven’t had time to use a journal to compose drafts (though I do use it for taking notes and initial brainstorming a lot).

As I started working on a short story, I did some initial writing in a journal, but it ended up not working out — it’s just too slow after years of doing everything with a computer now. But using Microsoft Word is firmly equated with “work” in my mind now, so I was looking for something that was had a few more features than Notepad, but got out of the way more than Word.

I tried using OpenOffice, partially because it’s very Word-like, partially because I’m familiar with it, partially because it’s free, and partially because there’s a plug-in that allows you to quickly upload and download to Google Docs for backup. But as I started getting ideas for “Get Over,” I wasn’t at my home laptop, so I composed my initial ideas in Google Docs with the intention of importing them later into OpenOffice. And next thing I knew, I had written most of the first essay in it. I quickly plowed through the next two over the course of the week. I also found it was easy to dump footnotes into the essays as people brought up other pieces of information.

Then I started dumping information for the nextWAVE game into a Google Doc. And now I’ve continued working on the short story in Google Docs directly, as well as starting to do some initial planning for another project in a Google Doc. And I discovered that it works with Google Gears, so I don’t have to be online to access my latest work (at least on my home laptop).

For some reason, Google Docs hits a sweet spot with me in terms of the creative process. I’m expecting that once I get to the heavy rewrite phase I’ll pull it into OpenOffice or Word, which not only helps me to see it a little differently, but also is more full-featured and fits into the “editor” space in my head better. I still expect I’ll use notebooks to jot down short scenes, brainstorming, ideas and plotting ideas, but I’m moving more and more toward working entirely within my computer creatively.

This might seem like a “duh” moment to some (I know , for example, has been using Google Docs this way for years), but it was an interesting revelation for me as someone who used to really worship paper and journals to find that I’m getting more comfortable with creating inside a computer environment as I grow older.

Of course, between this and moving many of my RSS feeds to Google Reader, this means that Google owns more of my soul.

“Questions”

Fire… Cold. So cold. I can’t feel my hands. They’re a couple of twitching lumps of meat at the end of my arms, uncaring about my needs or desires. I push them closer to the fire sputtering in a rusted oil drum, but the heat is as unconcerned about me as my hands are.

Across from me, the man with the long, diamond-shaped scar covering his cheek smiles, his teeth as black and broken as the ancient blacktop around us. “It’s cold tonight,” he says. I nod and look away to avoid gagging on breath that smells like cigarettes stubbed out in used cat litter. The lumps twitch toward the illusion of warmth again.

“Name’s Claude,” he says. “You’re new.”

I nod again, still looking out into the empty street near the alley. It’s bad enough that I lost everything – my job, my home, my family. But now I’m going to be trapped in this alleyway, snow melting into my shoes, listening to a disfigured man with breath as stale as his conversation forever. This isn’t just another November night. It’s a pit of hell that I’m trapped in, a punishment for unknown crimes against the universe.

“Sometimes the innocent are put in jail, and the guilty go free.”

Surprised by the comment, I turn back to him. “What?”

Claude’s face twists into a grin, his scar stretched into a new, more hideous shape. “That’s what I like about new guys. They ask questions.”

I shove my hands under my arms, giving up on the fire. “What are you talking about?”

“Questions. You have them. I don’t.”

“You don’t ask questions?”

“I don’t have them. Questions are energy. At some point, you reach a zero point of energy, and the questions run out.”

“Where does this energy go?” I’m drawn into the conversation. Not out of any real interest, but to keep my mind from going numb.

Claude smiles again, stroking his scar. “To the monsters.”

“Monsters,” I say flatly.

Claude laughs. “You’re going to have to do better than that. Already they’re sucking the energy out of you.”

I shake my head. “Just leave me alone. I’ve lost everything I cared about, and I don’t want to die listening to some insane homeless person.”

“You’re wrong. I’m not insane, nor am I a person.”

“Not a person? Then what the hell are you?”

“Again.”

“What?”

“More. Ask me more.”

“You want me to ask you more questions?”

“Yes.” He licks his lips.

“Like ‘where’ve you been?’ and ‘what time is it?’ and ‘where’s the cat?’”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

Claude starts to shake. His voice is suddenly feeble, whispering “yes, yes” over and over to himself. His smile grows and the scar stretches further and further before it suddenly splits. Something oozes out of the wound, but it’s not blood. It’s a thick, bright red sludge, like melting red lipstick. I watch in horror as the slime slides down Claude’s face while he twitches in some private fit. It falls to the ground with a wet squelch into the watery snow.

And then the ooze slides over the ground, coming for me.

I back away from it, but my feet slip on the slush. My head slams against the slick concrete with a wet thud, and my vision blurs into a haze. I squeeze my eyes shut as I try to shove myself backwards, but my palms just slap against the broken asphalt. I can feel the ooze slide into my shoes.

The cold sogginess fades to nothing. I can’t feel my feet at all now. I use my legs to throw my heels against the ground, desperate to shake the ooze out of my shoes, desperate to feel something. My feet bounce once on the concrete, twice, and then my legs start to go numb as well.

I can see Claude curled up in a ball near me, between my clouds of breath. He’s staring at me, his eyes wide and glittering in the faint light of the fire. The skin of his cheek hangs down, quivering as he mouths the words “yes, yes.”

I don’t feel so cold. Not so cold… anymore. I don’t feel… much of… anything.

I…

I open my mouth to… to ask Claude what he is… why he’s doing this… why I have to die.

I try… I try to speak, but there isn’t… I don’t…

I don’t have the energy to ask the questions.