23 Feb

What Good Books Can Teach Game Designers

Hardwired cover

Hardwired coverI recently re-read one of my favorite books, Walter Jon William’s Hardwired Amazon . It’s a cyberpunk story centered around a war on the black market, fought by the last free smugglers against the space based corporations that have taken over Earth (by dumping asteroids on the planet until it surrendered). It has two main characters: Cowboy, the greatest smuggler of all, running his hover-panzer across state lines, and Sarah, a dirtgirl killer for hire.

In one pivotal moment, as the war rages at its worst and Cowboy is off blowing things up, the story switches entirely to Sarah and her temptation to betray the resistance in order to fulfill her longtime dream of safety for her brother.

Ok, that doesn’t sound all that exciting but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. Read the book, you won’t regret it.

However, it got me thinking about what makes a book memorable and what makes a game memorable and my conclusion is this: stories. Stories make both games and books memorable. Read More

14 Oct

8 Things that Trzewiczek, Portal and Legacy did Right

Legacy box coverI’m dying to try Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy Amazon .

It’s not that it’s all that revolutionary. Sure, there’s some fun art, most games have that. Sure, there’s a fresh theme, but lots of games have that. The mechanics have some nice twists but they’re not all that inventive – it’s not like Legacy will spawn a new genre. All things considered it looks like your average Eurogame; not the worst but not the best either.

And yet I’m dying to try it.

That hasn’t got anything to do with the game as such, since I don’t know enough about it, and everything to do with the brilliant way that Portal Games (read Ignacy Trzewiczek Amazon) has marketed Legacy.

On July 3 Trzewiczek posted on his blog: About Michiel, the guy who had a strong gut feeling… I didn’t read that one, as I don’t subscribe to Board games that tell stories. But then it surfed up on the hotness list. By the time I noticed it it was July 10 and there were two more posts. I read the third one first, then went back to the beginning of the story.

After that I was sold.

Once it ended, on August 30, and I had some time to cool off, I started to analyze why it was such a compelling read. Sure, people, myself included, love a designer diary. But this was something more. This was a designer diary taken to the Nth level. This was drama.

The more I looked at it I realized that it was, indeed, drama. It wasn’t merely boardgames that tell stories. It was a meta-story woven with such skill that it made me speechless thinking about how it was done. Here’s what I’ve found:

There’s a clear sense of conflict

Michiel Justin Elliott Hendriks with LegacyYou’ve got two sides, Trzewiczek and the designer Michiel Justin Elliott Hendriks, telling their version of things and they’re not in agreement. All along the way they’re in conflict with each other. At first it’s Michiel who’s doubting whether Portal will even want his prototype. Then it’s Trzewiczek who thinks that Michiel has pulled a fast one on him and sold the game to another publisher. Then it’s Michiel doubting whether he should trust Trzewichek’s heavyhanded contract (he’s, after all, signing over all rights to the game – or as Trzewiczek says it ” I want you to know, that once the contract is signed, I own your game. I will not negotiate…”).

In every installment there’s a clear sense of conflict. Yes, they’re moving towards a common goal of getting the game published but they each have doubts, doubts that could sink the entire project. And they don’t trust each other, not at first. Only as the story progresses do they learn to work together to make the best game possible.

The premise follows that of buddy movies (think the first “Lethal Weapon”). It’s tried and true and clich√© but it works. And it’s played out brilliantly.

There’s a Cinderella theme

Michiel is a smart, hard working guy. He’s done his homework, playtested to perfection and won prizes for his game (ok, one prize). And yet it isn’t getting published.

Legacy game cardsHe runs up against interested publishers but is shot down: “Do you know any artists willing to create these 100 pictures, or could you do this yourself?”, “This game is a worker placement game, and we already have a worker placement game in our collection with which it would compete.”

Then he goes to the ball (Spiel) where he meets prince charming and the Fairy Godmother rolled into one (Trzewiczek) who waves his wand (ok, that didn’t come out right) and Legacy is published in a puff of smoke.

It’s classic Cinderella, the rags to riches underdog story. Once again, it’s a theme used since forever and it still works.

There are sticky ideas

If you cut off your testicle you get to chose the sex of your child.

Pretty simple – boy-sperm in one ball, girl-sperm in the other. Cut off one and all you get are children of the other kind. Yeah, it’s dumb. Yeah, it’s thematic. And it sticks.

The story is full of such ideas, those twists that make it easy to remember. It’s funny, it’s enlightening, it’s tragic. And it keeps Legacy in people’s minds long after they’ve forgotten other designer diaries with other, less sticky, ideas.

It’s a serial

Ok, that’s a pretty common one – dishing the goodies out in small portions. Builds an audience, builds interests, keeps the audience coming back for more, gets the comfortable with going back to reading about the game all the time.

But there’s more. Within several of the installments there are miniature stories, like the one about the cut off ball. Also, there are cliffhangers. This enhances the feeling of a strong current running through the entire piece, and makes it even more enticing to read on to the end.

It’s shown, not told

Legacy gameplayIt took me some time to spot this one. When I did I was reminded of the part of Aladdin where the narrator says “do not be fooled by its commonplace appearance, this is no ordinary lamp”.

Trzewiczek is just like that. It’s easy to look to the way he writes English in his blog and think that he’s a bit ignorant. Do not be fooled by his commonplace appearance. Look to the details instead: I suspect that his choice of language is deliberate.

Here, he writes in scenes, showing the action just like a writer would. Take a look at this passage (once again from the Crystal Ball):

But Michiel didn’t give up. He sent another email, this time to Walec: ‘At that time doctors said that if you cut off one testicle…’

Walec received this email and he started to laugh. He read it aloud.

The first sentence is telling. Trzewiczek is narrating Michiel’s feelings. The second sentence is action, with a bit of setting (the contents of the email). The third sentence is reaction, followed by another action in the fourth sentence. It’s a classic action-reaction cycle that you’ll find in any number of writer’s how-to books.

I don’t know if Trzewiczek trained as a writer or if he’s a natural but he sure knows how to use the writer’s toolbox.

It’s full of catastrophes

Catastrophes, not disasters. Lots of them caused by none other than the heroes themselves. Take a look at the solo variant story. Trzewiczek comes up with an idea, one that will be damned hard to implement, and dumps it on Walec who has 8 weeks to come up with a reverse solo variant.

I don’t know if this is the way it happened but it sure reads believable. It reads like the way we’re used to stories being. We’re already primed for the try-fail cycle. Ok, there’s only one (in literature there are usually multiple) but it’s a catastrophe, something that causes great difficulties without necessarily destroying the heroes’ objectives. That’s another classic writer tool.

It has recurring themes

Legacy gameplayThe catastrophes are a recurring theme, as is the need for trust and the tight deadlines. And the need to perform heroic feats.

Each one of these comes back throughout the serial. After a while it becomes familiar, like the way the background music in Firefly changes whenever a recurring character gets some screen time. We start to expect it, and feel a sense of security and anticipation when we recognize it.

The marketing is credible because the stories are credible

This one struck me as I considered the texts from a marketing standpoint instead of a writing/storytelling one.

Take a look at the You have 8 weeks… episode. It’s a classic “Herculean task” story and follows the pattern very well, so it’s recognizable which lends it credibility. It’s filled with precise details (like about Walec: “when he’s nervous he talks a lot”), which gives it credibility through both immediacy and the “distant mountains” technique that Tolkien was so good at.

All in all it’s a very credible story. Amongst all that is the single, not quite outspoken, thought: if you buy this game you’ll get a second, unique, game included. And since we believe in the story we tend to implicitly believe in the statement that this minigame is fantastic.

All right, I might be over-analyzing things a bit. Maybe Trzewiczek and Michiel just sat down and went “lets write some cool stuff”. Maybe the way things worked out just turned out like a great story. Maybe the Internet Fairy huffed and puffed and blew all the letters in the correct order. I don’t know. But from what I hear about Portal there’s some keen business sense behind the smiling faces. One that is fully capable of thinking through how to best present a new game to the public.

And I know I’ll be doing the same thing when it’s my chance to be published.