Secrets and Skeletons (and Floating Skulls)

I’m currently at a difficult, recurring phase in my career where I have a lot going on, and I’m working late on it most nights, but I can’t share any of it. Both publishing and the games industry thrive on secrecy. Almost everything I’m working on will have to stay bottled up—for now.

One thing I CAN share, though, is that I’ve been able to help Daily Magic Productions bring their virtual reality action-adventure game, The Witching Tower VR, to the English-speaking world. The Witching Tower VR is a dark fantasy game that casts the player as a prisoner of the eponymous tower cast into a cage on its roof. After earning a variety of necromantic powers, you must descend level-by-level through the tower and confront its queen. The Witching Tower VR is out on Steam and the Oculus stores now, and will be coming out on Playstation VR soon.

The Witching Tower VR.  I think I love the goggles the most.

The Witching Tower VR. I think I love the goggles the most.

My favorite games are story-focused and feature heavy elements of player choice. I’ve been reflecting on player choice and character.

It’s unfortunately easy, in games that allow multiple branching pathways, to leave players with the impression that they’re the only active force in the world, and other characters only exist to react to the player’s choices. They may say they have agendas on their own, but they don’t act on them.

For most games, this is almost certainly the safest choice to make. Going too far down a simulationist path, wherein non-player characters press forward on their own and make decisions outside of the player’s view, can be inscrutable and frustrating. Games like Jordan Mechner’s The Last Express can do this, but they’re often forced to limit their scale and require exceptional craftwork. Games that don’t want to have time-keeping as a major mechanic should probably avoid it.

But game storytelling, like most storytelling, is illusion. It doesn’t matter if characters actually move independently and make their own decisions if the players believe that they do. There are a variety of tricks, large and subtle, that can create that illusion.

The journal also spoiled who you could recruit by listing them like this.

The journal also spoiled who you could recruit by listing them like this.

One of the first RPGs I seriously delved into, Planescape: Torment had a journal section that featured lists of all the creatures and characters you had encountered so far (in the esoteric Planescape campaign setting, that was extremely helpful!). They also listed recruitable characters. In this, the journal made a small choice that shaped how I conceptualized those characters. It classified them as player characters rather than NPCs. Since it was my first big RPG, it had an outsized effect on how I conceptualized recruitable characters.

Even character-focused games like Baldur’s Gate or Dragon Age call their recruitable characters NPCs. PCs come with different expectations. Sitting down with PCs feels like playing a tabletop game, in which the other players can be expected to go off on tangents, and to be unpredictable. Playing Torment felt like sitting down in a tabletop group (also in no small part due to sharp writing).

When Torment’s PCs interjected into conversations or screwed up encounters for me, or starting fighting with each other, I took it in stride. When the NPCs in other games do the same thing, I just get annoyed. I don’t perceive of them as having agency. It’s easy to think of their quests and loyalty missions as lists to be checked off. Their interactions and mechanics are more transparent, and therefore more predictable.

It’s important to note that the “PCs” of Torment and NPCs of these other games are not mechanically distinct. None of them had actual agency. But their impact, in my memory, was distinct. The illusion had been crafted to make sure it was. And that—on the writing side of games, at least—is where the art is.

Lessons from a Year in Print

My debut novel has been out in the wild for a little over a year, now, and its sequel joined it on shelves five months ago. Stubborn and thick-headed though I am (a prerequisite for writing), I’ve contrived to learn a few lessons about myself and about writing:

The Angry Robot booth at ECCC 2018. Eric Scott Fischl, Alex Acks/Wells, Michael Underwood, Adam Rakunas, Joseph Brassey, Jasmine Gower.

The Angry Robot booth at ECCC 2018. Eric Scott Fischl, Alex Acks/Wells, Michael Underwood, Adam Rakunas, Joseph Brassey, Jasmine Gower.

  1. I can manage deadlines. Which is not to say that they’re not intimidating. Going into this, one of the big questions I had for myself was what the writing experience would be like on a deadline. With Quietus, I had all the time I needed for research, for drafting, and pre-editorial revisions. The only part of that project that was done with a time limit were the editorial revisions and copyedits. If it wasn’t for everything else that was anxiety-inducing about publishing a first novel, it would have been almost relaxing.

    Terminus was different. Having a set amount of time to research, draft, and do initial revisions was quite an experience. I’ve never had to schedule a novel before. Everything has always been able to take as much time as it needed. There was the added pressure of knowing, with the contract already signed, that people were depending on me, there were no mulligans, and only a set amount of time to correct any mistakes.

    I got it all through on time. What’s more, I did not, in fact, die of anxiety. I did not think I would, but thinking and experiencing are two different things. Now I’m even more prepared for the next time.

    Getting Terminus’s cover reveal while I was still drafting was exhilarating. When it was first publicized, I had just finished writing the scene on the cover a few days before. That felt like writing for a live audience.

    Admittedly, with Terminus, I did have a lighter schedule—in that I only had a full-time job. With Quietus, I had four jobs. One forty-hour-a-week, one ten-hour-a-week, and two five-to-ten-hour-a-week jobs. Somehow I managed to find the emotional energy to write about the Black Death in the meantime. I’ll take deadlines over that any time.

  2. Always keep moving. When I was drafting Quietus, it was difficult to see past the event horizon of my first book’s publication. Anything afterward was so mysterious and unknowable that it might as well not have existed. I’ve fallen into the event horizon, now: my first book hit shelves. And then my second. There is no win condition in this career, just milestones.

    Moreover, there will always be setbacks, remaindered books, unreturned e-mails. Expect them. Ordinary parts of the business can seem like disasters if you’re not prepared for them.

  3. Push hard, have fun. Writing is a lifestyle and work, not a money-making scheme. There’s no point for me in doing it if I don’t enjoy it. One of the most professionally enriching, personally rewarding things I’ve done since publishing Quietus was work at the Angry Robot booth during Emerald City Comic Con. More importantly, though, it was a blast. I connected with amazing people, lived and breathed my genre, presented at my first panel, and signed copies of my debut novel on its day of release. The “professionally enriching” part keeps me alive, but it’s everything else that makes me want to live. I could’ve found “professionally enriching” experiences in plenty of other fields, but I chose this one for a reason.

Terminus Now Available in Audio

Available on the Barnes & Noble and Amazon links in the sidebar, and more.

Available on the Barnes & Noble and Amazon links in the sidebar, and more.

On the one year anniversary of Quietus’s publication, its sequel, Terminus, is now available in Audiobook format! The audiobook was produced by Recorded Books and narrated by Gildart Jackson.

This past year has been an astounding experience, and I’ll have more thoughts on it as soon as I can scavenge the time to type them up. I’m grateful to have the chance to share more stories in more formats, and for the wonderful work of everyone bringing them to the world.

When I started on Quietus, I thought plotting an interdimensional conspiracy was the most complicated thing I would ever have to do…

Awards Eligibility

My debut novel, QUIETUS and its sequel, TERMINUS, came out in 2018. (QUIETUS released in March, and TERMINUS in November.) This makes them each eligible for the Hugo Awards’ Best Novel category, as well as the Campbell and other Best Novel or Best Debut awards.

2018 has been an incredible year for me, and I’m pleased just to have my books on shelves and to be eligible, and honored by any support my work receives.

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TERMINUS is out in North America NOW

The Black Death ended three decades ago, but not in the way that it “should” have, and the consequences are reshaping civilization. Half of Europe has been devastated, and half spared. The coming wars may take more lives than the Great Mortality ever could.

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And no one on Earth knows the reason why. The living planarship Ways and Means has come to medieval Earth and ended the Black Death, but it keeps its intentions to itself. Someone is trying to kill its agent Osia, who is suffering through her own exile. Spy-turned-anthropologist Meloku becomes a target, too. While they fight to survive, Fiametta - an Italian soldier, mercenary, and heretical preacher - raises an army and a religious revolt, aiming to split Europe in half.

TERMINUS, the sequel to QUIETUS, is available at any of the links in the sidebar, and at neighborhood libraries and booksellers! Ride with the condottieri of Italy into a maelstrom of interdimensional chaos and conspiracy.