Author Opportunity Gaming, Part 2: RPGs

Last time I introduced you to the idea of writing for videogames and started talking about the options using Visual Novels. This time, aside from learnign that I sometimes miss a week because life, I will take a dip into the big one: RPGs. Not the rocket launcher brand, role-playing videogames. Lets go!

Evoland showcasing the graphical evolution of RPGs through the decades  Image: ShiroGames

Evoland showcasing the graphical evolution of RPGs through the decades Image: ShiroGames

So, RPGs

If you boil it down, the RPG is remarkably simple in concept. Think back to the visual novel with its characters talking to each other the whole game through, interactions happening almost exclusively in dialogue options.
The RPG retains those dialogue options, often down to the way dialogue is presented and adds a few layers to that. At its most basic, it adds a map for the characters to walk around in. Here the player can find stuff and other characters to interact with, adding a layer of space to the social interaction. Most RPGs will also add combat of some form to keep players occupied between story scenes, or to directly enhance the story if it is about combat.
There are many ways an RPG can appear. 2D RPGs show a flat map on which characters move around, adorned with buildings, trees, and other features one may or may not be able to interact with. 3D RPGs are essentially worlds to move around in seeing either through the player character’s eyes or following them like an invisible camera. They can be story-driven or gameplay-driven (i.e. combat-driven), though I will concentrate on the story-driven ones.
Writing an RPG can be a daunting task. All characters need dialogue throughout the game, even if it is just somebody saying they don’ want to talk. The map needs to be built, adding environmental design on top of character and background design. Luckily, many parts of the map like trees and different types of ground tend to be readily available to fill the landscape. Still, there needs to be a world to move around in.
In return, players will reward game authors by acknowledging it as a game, at least. Even if they call it a terrible game, they still call it a game. This can’t be said of visual novels. So that’s a plus.
Expectations are for an epic tale filling upward of 70 hours, often hundreds of hours. But short tales can be done and garner positive opinions from players and critics if they are good. Actual Sunlight took me less than 90 minutes and it is considered one of the most profound RPGs currently available. Similarly, the heavily praised To the Moon takes about 4 hours to finish.
So really, the RPG form is so diverse, anything is possible as long as players know exactly what they get into.
Genre-wise, the form skewers toward fantasy, with the occasional science fiction tale in the mix. Everything else does exist but is exceedingly rare to the point I have never seen a romance RPG.
For those wanting to try and make a 2D RPG without programming experience, there is basically one option only: RPG Maker. This is a commercial software available in different editions for a range of prices from about US$20 to just under US$100. The only competitor worth mentioning is the RPG Creator.
I can’t really talk about software for making 3D games because I have almost no experience with those, even though I do own a license for Game Guru and have played around with it a little. Game Guru is nice enough to get some idea how 3D games work, but I can’t recommend it for any actual products one would want to sell.

Get to Know the Genre

The RPG genre is one of the most durable and diverse ones out there. Listing the important or good ones alone would take up entire books, so instead this list will focus on games that showcase RPG storytelling potential. I will also focus on games that can be made be newbie developers willing to learn the basics.
This means the usual favorites are out for various reasons. For example, Chrono Trigger is an extremely well-told game, but to large in scope. Pokémon is rather simple, if large, but not that noteworthy in its storytelling. Skyrim is something that takes the equivalent of a Hollywood studio to even approach. And so on.
Mind you, 3D RPGs are perfectly doable with software usually used for things like first-person shooters, I just have not managed to find any remarkable ones that stay small enough to be handled by a newbie. For whatever reason. And I refuse to scare people away with the daunting titles available. I am, however, planning to close just that gap at some point and would like to encourage you to try so, too. I believe a small-scale 3D RPG is sorely missing. They have proven very effective for 2D titles, as we’ll see with stuff like To the Moon.
is the title of the header image, but while it does do a nice showcase of the genre’s evolution in terms of graphic, it is unremarkable in its storytelling aspects.

The Princess’ Heart

princess_heartLet’s start with something typical.
A fantasy tale about a princess fighting her inner demons. And quite a few outer ones. Fantasy is the most common genre for RPGs from tradition. True to the form’s Japanese origins, the story heavily features emotion and a personal journey behind its superficial plot and can get very close to the visual novel. There are hundreds like this one out there, it features for being a good example of your typical 2D RPG, aside from the framing device which is somewhat unique to it.
Available on PC (Steam) for about US$ 5.

Actual Sunlight

actual_sunlightActual Sunlight is here as an example of a simple game going for a smaller, more emotional and intimate scope. It’s about depression and compresses its protagonist’s adult life into a few pivotal moments to cover as much of its history as possible.
The writing here is not perfect. At various points, I got the impression the writers are trying to hard to make the protagonist’s depression justified. Still, it’s an attempt worth mentioning for tackling such an issue.
Available for about US$ 5 to 6 for PC (via Steam and Itch.io) and Playstation Vita.

Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

scmrpgNow here’s a controversial one. Super Columbine Massacre RPG! (the exclamation mark is part of the title) is, for the most part, a satire on the media’s coverage of the 1999 school massacre at Columbine High in Littleton, CO.
The incident has by now passed into history far enough to talk about it, but back in 206 it was an extremely controversial title. This game drips with sarcasm, and in the context of an actual school shooting, no less.
Crudely done on an aesthetic and gameplay level, it nevertheless is a milestone title in the evolution of games into an artform.
Available for free for Windows on its dedicated website.

To the Moon

to_the_moonOne of the most praised 2D RPGs of the last few years, To the Moon tries for an emotional story, and it succeeds.
In the near future, it has become possible to alter memories. The player takes the role of two doctors using that technology on a dying man to give him some happiness. His memories are to be altered so he believes he achieved his life-long dream of traveling to the moon. As the doctors travel backward through his memories, they learn the reasons for this dream.
To the Moon is an impressive game with commentary on topics such as loss, psychological illness, and the nature of lies. This is actual literature coming in the form of a game.
Available for PC and Mac for about US$ 8.

Interested?

Try it! There is a very active and supportive community surrounding RPGMaker. Creating an RPG is certainly a project in the same scale as creating a novel, but it is doable in just about the same vein. Nevertheless, doing this comes with a completely new skillset, so don’t expect your first project to be a masterpiece.

Next time, we’ll tackle the remaining forms of games in a quick overview. Realistically, an author with little to no experience in making games will be able to use visual novels and RPGs well to tell a story with some training and relatively cheap software taking away the need to learn too much actual programming. The others are harder to pull off, either requiring actual programming knowledge or just being less fit for storytelling.


Predator of Flame

Good news everyone, I will have two blog posts this week! Because I will not skip on my promise to continue the series on game writing on Wednesday, yet Chuck Wendig has a challenge out to which I actually want to post a response. So you get both. Lucky you. (edit: I failed you, I’m sorry)
Short note: I consider this sort of a companion piece to last year’s Master of Man, hence the similar title.smoke

Predator of Flame

Laura awoke to heat and light and red and yellow eating up the walls around her. To thick dark smoke spreading in the place of clean air. The house was on fire!
Recalling her training from school, she let herself fall out of the bed instead of standing up, to crawl underneath the poisonous smoke toward the door of the bedroom. The handle was warm, but not hot, so she opened the door and got out. The flames were everywhere already. Burning carpets blocked the way to the stairs, so she crawled the other way.
There was a window just above a garage the other way. Low enough to get out and let herself fall down on the garage’s roof safely.
She crawled ahead, passing a room with no fire but filled with a column of smoke that seemed to come in through a hole in the floor. Around a corner and – parts of the roof had already collapsed, blocking her way in this direction, too.
What she needed now was time to think. The room from before. There was smoke, but she could keep her head down. At least there was no fire yet, this could give her precious time. So she went there, careful not to close the door behind her.
Think. Somebody must’ve seen the fire yet. The firefighters had to be on their way. Was waiting for them an option? No, too risky. Maybe if she could find another way to the first floor. Where did that smoke come from, anyway? A hole in the floor was all she needed to get down and hopefully out.
That smoke column. What was that? It just stood there in the middle of the room. But it did not seem to dissipate or fill the room, quite the opposite. It looked like smoke from around the room flowed toward the column to be absorbed.
There was something in the smoke. Not really a form, more like a recurring pattern in the vague shape of a human fading in and out of the dark layers of thick smoke. A face there, an arm here, flickering in and out of existence as if the fire wanted to mock her.
More a form of modulated wind then a voice, words reached her ears: “Hello there.”
“Who’s there? Help! I’m here!”
“So am I.”
Needles filled her chest, but she managed to cough out the pain in her lungs.
“Where? Who?”
The smoke formed a more pronounced form now. A featureless human shape emerged, fading from solidified ash into thin air at its edges.
“What the hell are you?”
Snickering from nowhere. “I am me. One of my meals called me the Predator of Flame. One of the few who could still talk for a while, like you. A wannabe poet, I think. So few of you manage to stay conversational as I prepare to nourish. But I like those that do. It is a special quality of some to become even calmer than usual when meeting things like me.”
“Nourish? D’you wanna eat me?”
“In a way.”
“And you think I’ll be okay with that?”
The smoke snickered again. “Even if you would ask a pig before eating bacon, would you accept its answer? It is not like you could fight me.”
“Then why are you talking to me? Why bother? Entertainment?”
“Yes, entertainment while I wait for you to burn. But I would not know the concept had I not learned from your lot. I saw your struggles and through instinctual emulation I found consciousness. Then language. The sense of enjoying my life. Some of your most beautiful traits. I am quite fond of arrogance, for example. What a terrific notion.”
“What about guilt?”
“What about it? I do not do anything. I do not kill you I consume the exhaust of fire’s kills. This is how I became, this is how I persist, this is my nature. I am smoke. This is the most solid I’ll ever be. I could not kill if I wanted to.”
“You’re clearing your conscience, then?”
“I chose not to have one. No, I entertain myself. After all, you cannot change your fate anymore. Already, I taste your burning flesh and hair nourish me.”
“I’m not even on fire yet.”
“Do not lie, I can taste it. You started burning, it cannot be anybody else. There is nobody here. You are alone. You burn.”
At the edge of her sight, something dark snuck through the fire. Were there two of these smoke creatures? Another one to mock her? The dark figure appeared again, barking at her. The dog wore a fire department jacket, but it had caught some fire on its tail. Acting like that was not an issue, the dog barked again, to then start trying to pull Laura out of the room. She jumped up, and her lifesaver immediately starting walking out, showing her a clear path through the debris and the flames. It was way easier than before. Laura had not thought the carpets would burn up as fast as they did, and now the path to the stairs down was clear.
In the kitchen, she managed to grab hold of the dog and extinguished the flames gnawing at its tail by squeezing it in between her arms and belly. Pain advised her not to ever put out a fire this way again, reason likewise advised her not to do this right then. But depriving the smoke creature of some food seemed worth it.
She did not see it again until well after she had finally reached the back door of the house and fled into the garden. If she saw it after that, she was not sure. There was that particularly dark huff of smoke bursting out from a window and drifting away just before the firefighters closing in from the front of the house got the flames under control. Off to taunt its next meal.

Some Background

I’ve had this idea of a creature living off the ashes in the smoke from great fires for some time, yet never employed it so far. I have the plot for a complete fantasy novel revolving around them ready, but other stuff takes top priority before I come to that.
In the meantime, I took that concept and ran with it for this short. The being is now smoke itself instead of being a normal solid creature filter feeding from smoke much like large whales filter feed from the oceans. Feeding off the victims of fire makes it the malevolent counterpiece to the more neutral or even benevolent (if manipulative) fire elemantal encountered in Master of Man.
The Master of Man is a symbiont. The Predator of Flame is a parasite or, well, a predator. I like this creature and the more ethereal quality it grew to assume for this short.


Author Opportunity Gaming, Part 1: Intro and Visual Novels

Every now and then, a writer sets out to create a book in the style of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, which, by the way, I think is a trademark. And also pretty much dead for one extremely simple reason: Videogames now exist and they do the whole interactivity thing far better. So, let’s talk videogames (or video games, whichever you prefer), and make it a topic less intimidating in the process. Now, I’m a player and an author, not a developer (yet). So I am drawing from my experience as a gamer instead, but I do think this offers a fresh perspective on the media itself.

So far, Watanabe-san failed to deliver, though. But it's a good example image - Source: Wikimedia

So far, Watanabe-san failed to deliver, though. But it’s a good example image – Source: Wikimedia


Videogames are the most profitable and largest of all media industries today. They have come a long way during the last few decades, growing from simple tests of skill and reflex into a giant pool of diverse types of games. Some are purely puzzles, some have you point and shoot at enemy after enemy, and some tell interactive stories. Yet others do all that at once, but this series will focus on the types of games marked by being centered around their stories. This has the advantage of these games representing some of the easiest to create, with special software available to make it even easier.
A short heads-up: In gaming, different types of games are called genres. However, because genres mark content differences in literature and to avoid confusion, I will use the term types here, instead. Gaming is severely lacking in terminology for content categories, although the word theme seems to get common.

Games and Writing

Before computers became powerful enough to do more than that by the 70′s and 80′s, games fell into two categories: Simple games of moving pixels around according to a set of rules, and text-based games reacting to typed player commands.
Lucky for us, text commands got replaced by choosing from options later on, making the creation of those games much easier when writers did not have to anticipate every possible input from any unknown player’s vocabulary.
As time went on, computers and gaming systems became more powerful, and developers became more experienced, resulting in more and more games getting additional story elements on the one side or additional graphical elements on the other.
The so-called Adventure game went through many forms as time went on. Text-adventures were mostly a digital version of Choose Your Own Adventure books and are mostly gone now. Point-and-Click Adventures are a niche one might want to tackle, but it does require some experience with these games and familiarity with their numerous conventions. 3D Adventures I will lump in with RPGs next week, leaving this week’s space for the game type with the most obvious connection to literature, the visual novel.
What this post will not get into are the more intimidating and complicated types of games that require very specific techniques and are very different from book writing. The third part will go into these a little, but overall it’s a completely separate kind of writing were text, image, and player actions all have to be accounted for. Doing this requires experience.

The Visual Novel

The visual novel is pretty much what you would imagine when you hear of a video game genre based on Choose Your Own Adventure. There are events, you are presented with options to react to them, and according to the option you picked, the story may play out differently.
The story may not change at all (Shan Gui), change but head toward the same ending anyway (Emily is Away, Girl Crush), or change completely depending on your choices (Hatoful Boyfriend). Thus, the volume of writing can greatly differ, ranging from much less (Girl Crush thanks to repetition), as much as (Shan Gui) all the way to far more than a novel (Hatoful Boyfriend needing dialogue for all possible chains of events).
Games of this type look very similar in basic design: There is a static background showing the location, one or two static character images showing the characters currently talking or acting and their current emotional state, and an area showing either descriptive text or dialogue, including your own options whenever you get some. There are exceptions ( below is about as far as you can get away from the default setup), but these are rare. Text can be spoken, but more often than not it’s not.
Content-wise anything goes. The form means visual novels are predominantly about characters interacting with each other in some form of relationship. This lends itself well to romance and indeed, romance of all heat levels is by far the most popular genre for visual novels. The type is somewhat infamous for leaning strongly toward porn and while the gaming equivalent of it, called eroge, is indeed very successful and common among visual novels, having pornographic content is not even remotely required, neither is romance.
There is software for creating visual novels with no programming knowledge whatsoever, easing you into development. From my own experimentation, I can recommend Novelty and Ren’Py. Both require little to no programming but allow programming for people who know how to code to expand the abilities of the software.

Get to Know the Genre

Like with literary genres, writing requires knowledge of what is written. Here are some suggestions where to start. The selection is diverse on purpose to show what’s possible in content and presentation.

Hatoful Boyfriend

hatofulIn Japan, the visual novel is an extremely popular genre with strong competition. This is usually resolved by audacity, meaning either pornography (which I will not include), weirdness, or both.
How weird? Well, this weird. If you have never heard of Hatoful Boyfriend and the above picture didn’t clue you in: You are a human on a highschool entirely populated by pigeons. This is highschool, so you romance the pigeons. This eventually leads to a tale of the apocalypse, genocide, and revenge. Duh.
It’s on this list for being one of the most famous examples of this type, but also to show the ease of getting art to use in such a game. These are photographs of birds made by the developers in a zoo. As far as execution goes, Hatoful Boyfriend is an absolute textbook example of the type. Weirdness optional.
Available on PC (Steam), Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Android, and iOS for a few dollars.

Shan Gui

shan-guiBoiling down the visual novel to its bare minimum, we get a simple story with no branching like the Chinese visual novel Shan Gui. Noteworthy for its simplicity while still getting good reviews.
Available on Steam for $1.99.

Emily is Away

emily-awayAre the art assets what intimidates you? Enter Emily is Away, a game told entirely within a simulated messenger software. A few boxes with some text in it. That’s all this story needs.
Noteworthy for the strength of its implications and how it manages to tell a story happening just outside of itself. This one’s a downer, though. Also about the furthest a game can stray from the basic formula in presentation.
Available for free on Steam.

Girl Crush (NSFW!)

Yes, it has a wetness meter. The NSFW is there for a reason

Yes, it has a wetness meter. The NSFW is there for a reason

The newest game on this list Girl Crush is clearly in the erotica genre. It’s about a girl named Quinn and her female BFF (the player). Quinn starts taking “kissing lessons” and with time, they get increasingly intense.
It’s interesting for letting you easily see how it works (there are two meters, one for love and one for arousal). Apart from that, there is text with some options to click and answers the game gives for those. From a writing perspective, it’s interesting to see how much it accomplishes with little actual writing and lots of repetition, something completely unacceptable in book writing.
The game is available for free on its own site, either online or as a download

Analogue: A Hate Story

analogue-hate-storyOkay, enough with the romance. Here’s a science fiction tale set on a lost generation ship from the perspective of those who have found the ship a century after its last crew member died and are now starting an investigation into what happened.
Picked as a critically acclaimed example of a different genre, even though some romance is present.
Available on Steam for about $10.

Interested?

Great, I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with.
Next week, I’ll delve into the worlds of roleplaying games (RPGs), the most popular of the story-based game types.
In the meantime, some recommended posts about visual novels from other blogs: Why you shouldn’t make a game (or, why you should make a visual novel) on how this is a good idea for writers, and What I Learned While Working on Visual Novels, which is exactly what it says on the tin.


Flash Fiction: Pilgrim’s Refuge

This week, let’s go for a new piece of flash fiction, written for last week’s competition at Indies Unlimited. I don’t think I’d written something from one fo their prompts for a little over a year, making 2016 one of my less productive years in terms of flash fiction. Ignoring a few pieces on this blog in 2016 and my collection published that year, of course.

Photo copyright K. S. Brooks

Photo copyright K. S. Brooks


Pilgrim’s Refuge

The pilgrims were sacred. The village had tried before to get rid of them. They came here with their foreign culture, their greed, the strange currency they paid in. They paid in music. Not the crude sounds one would expect from their barbaric kind but actual orchestral music. But music still, not something you would use for payment in any civilized society. Then again, nobody had thought them civilized at first, and science was still looking for ways to discredit their civilization’s acceptance as one.
Then, some started to stay and work the fields. They learned of money, of their value, and how we shared their greed, just directed at other things. Soon they had built their own little village around the destination of their pilgrimages, a village impenetrable to any but their kin by force and law. Yet, the pilgrimage lured tourists by the thousands, pilgrims by the hundreds of thousands, and coin by the millions. This earned them their sanctity.
Their prayer was music, and they prayed outward.
Inward, they were silent. Only their god rising from his slumber had the right to initiate new music in this sacred place.
Inward, there stood but one monolith made by men before the pupils of their god had even started to spread his word.
Here rested forevermore Barnum Quentin, the man who told the crickets how to sing.

About This Story

Originally Published at Indies Unlimited
I am terrible with image prompts, they rarely do anything for me. This is one of the reasons my flash fiction production dropped badly in 2016 when writing blog Indies Unlimited switched from written prompts with a photo to just using photographs for prompts. Most of these seemed too mundane to me, inspiring nothing.
The gift of writing a story from anything is not something I possess, as enviable as that ability is in an author.
On February 18th, 2017, one of their photos struck a cord with me nonetheless. It’s shown above the story, but just in case it didn’t load: There was a large group of young grasshoppers sitting in the grass, some of them in a line along one blade of grass. That part of the picture reminded me of an orchestra, so I came up with the grasshoppers creating actual music. Looking at the other entries of that week, I was not the only one, two others ended up working with that same idea and took it in different directions. I also changed them into crickets just because I liked that word better.
At first, I wanted to tell the story of the composer who taught the insects to make real music from their chirping. I quickly shifted focus to the composer’s memory among the crickets and how it affected his hometown. That was less of a conscious decision and more the result of my hands starting to type words into my keyboard. I call it discovery writing. Mainly because I don’t like being called a pantser.
Animals displaying unusual intelligence and a culture of their own turns out to be a recurring topic in my fiction. Other examples include octopods in Introduction (collected in How to Sing Butterflies) as well as several examples in concepts for future works ranging from rats to dinosaurs.
What’s special here is how science actively tries to ignore non-human intelligence. This is something that happens a lot in actual science, especially neuroscience and related fields of research. At least I strongly hold the opinion that science does so whenever animals show signs of anything we’d like to be reserved to humans to feel unique. Intelligence, language, all these nice things that apparently popped up out of nowhere in humans according to the relevant fields of science. Which is completely absurd and unscientific. Humans just like to feel special that much. No matter what that Darwin fellow ultimately implied about this.
Readers with a keen eye might find some parallels between the crickets and a somewhat generalized idea of foreigners and immigrants. The prayers beign music is a reference to Islam included to strengthen that connection. I tried to put in more parallels and make this more about our relationship with foreigners and especially immigrants but in the end, the scenario was just too otherworldly to work with that. But it did make for an interesting cricket cukture. Yet, I wonder if anybody will pick up the hints not reading this here addendum.
Barnum Quentin is named after P.T. Barnum even though, unlike many of Barnum’s circus attractions, the cricket orchestra is not a fraud.
Everything else about this story is, naturally, crickets.