Guest Post by Chris Holly - Narrative in Games: A Love Story

As I wrote earlier, Other Suns has the advantage of not being designed solely by me. This will certainly make it better.

Chris got involved with the project as soon as I realized that I didn’t want to have to write all those paragraphs myself. Since that time, on top of being our sole paragraph-writer, he’s also become instrumental to the design and testing of all aspects of the game. We’ve generally worked on different areas of the design, so I thought it’d be a good idea to get a window into Other Suns from Chris’ point of view. Luckily he was up for it.

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Ever since I picked up my first gamebook around the tender age of 9 or 10 – if memory serves, it was either Fighting Fantasy’s “Starship Traveller” or one of the lesser known series “You Are An Interplanetary Spy” – I’ve been enthralled with the combination of reading a well-told story and interacting with the story via gameplay. And I can tell you with 100% certainty that one of the things on my bucket list since I was a kid was to write my own gamebook.

I made a few halfhearted stabs at that early age, spurred on by such cultural touchstones as a ridiculous treasure hunt featured on the back of Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes (no, really). I got as far as writing some choose-your-own-adventure type chapters, but nothing featuring actual gameplay, outside of something incredibly fair like asking the reader to answer a trivia question about arachnid biochemistry before being otherwise entombed in a pyramid.

I then discovered the wonders of interactive fiction, and devoured every title in the Infocom catalogue (praise be to the Implementors). Although less narratively dense than a gamebook, the thrill of A) typing instead of writing and B) solving puzzles that required lateral thinking kicked me into high gear. And I can tell you with 100% certainty that one of the things on my bucket list since I was a kid was to write my own interactive fiction.

I made a few halfhearted stabs at that age, learning a scripting language well enough to construct a few rooms in a science-fiction noir setting, with what I thought at the time was a catchy opening, and which I now see as irredeemably stupid: “A private eye. A corpse in the skimmer. 36 hours to make sure one doesn’t become the other.”

(Side Note: Yes, this was shamelessly ripped off from the slogan for Deadline, Infocom’s first mystery adventure. Also, though I thought I was inferring that the private eye (you) might die, it never occurred to me that the corpse might BECOME THE PRIVATE EYE. Which probably would have made for the better story, in all honesty. Anyway.)

(Additional Side Note: I also thought I was SUPER FUTURE-Y with the use of “skimmer,” which, although I was CLEARLY referencing the flying cars from Blade Runner, to the uninitiated may have implied that there was a dead body in some sort of cheese-making facility. Again, probably a better story than the one I had planned. And so it goes.)

Then I got into board games, mainly solo-playing ones. And the crown jewel for me was Ambush!. I could (and probably will) write novels about how much I love this game. Brilliantly designed by John Butterfield, who I should probably be writing poems to, it combined the squad-level tactical strategy of WWII hex-and-counter play with a progressive campaign where your soldiers increased their skills (or, more often, died). Best of all, it had a book full of paragraphs! The German AI jerks were controlled by cards, and combining those cards with a die roll and the overall situation on the board directed you to a paragraph book that told you what the German jerk in question did that turn – moving, shooting, changing stance, etc. The paragraphs also provided a narrative of sorts, describing random events, controlling the flow of the scenario as things happened, moving the story along. The real genius of the game though, was in never sacrificing player agency in the interest of telling its story.

It was (and is) a wonderful blending of dice, narrative, and player engagement. And I can tell you with 100% certainty that one of the things on my bucket list since I first rolled up a squad was to write my own paragraph game.

I made a few halfhearted stabs, mostly revolving (again) around a sci-fi noir concept and one about a serial killing minotaur inspired by a David Bowie album (I am not making that up), but I found out two things: 1) I had no idea how to design the actual gameplay elements, and 2) writing paragraphs is hard. Like, really hard. Like, super duper hard.

“Sure,” you think, “It’s a couple sentences, throw in a die check or something, and be on your way.” Which actually works for the first, oh, 20 paragraphs or so. Then somewhere around paragraph 40 you start to wonder if you’re just rewriting the same one over and over again. Then somewhere about graf 60 you think that you’ve got a cool idea and realize it makes no sense. By paragraph 80 you wish you’d never come up with that one mechanic that seemed so awesome, and at paragraph 100 you’re ready to burn it all and take up something less complicated, like quantum mechanics.

All this is to say that I’ve long been in love with the idea of narrative gameplay in a lot of different forms. So when Corvid Games asked me to be a part of (be still my heart) a sci-fi paragraph game with honest to god gameplay and dice and everything, I jumped at the chance. It is most certainly a work in progress, but it’s been an incredible learning experience so far. Next time, I’ll share some of the things I’ve learned to date about while working on Other Suns, the unique challenges the game itself presents with regards to writing and world building, and some of the joys and difficulties of doing it the way we’re doing it.