#10 – On Writing
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I used to believe Stephen King was a hack because nobody that popular could also be any good. Popularity is mediocrity and all that jazz. I know that makes me sound like a snob, but it’s only because it’s really difficult to hide your true nature.
Nonetheless I chanced upon On Writing, his book on the nuts and bolts of storytelling, and it changed my mind completely. It is hands down the best book I have ever read on how to get things done. I recommend it to anyone that has something big they need to write – fiction or non-fiction – because of how cogently King puts together a case for pragmatic production of text. It’s phenomenal, and lessons in this book have become integral to the way I talk to students about their dissertations. And how they approach game development projects.
Interleaved into the text is a compelling autobiographical thread and that’s maybe the best part of the book because it places writing in the context of a lived life. Really, what he does is show the difficulties of reconciling passion with a life that hasn’t yet opened up to permit it.
I think this book is worth reading if you’re interested in working in games for several reasons. The first is that understanding how stories are constructed is a major element in understanding how game stories should be handled. The second is that getting into the games industry requires the same kind of driving passion as is needed to get a novel published. It’s a buyer’s market out there – your skills are in an abundance of supply, but there isn’t a corresponding abundance of demand. The final, and most important reason, is that the skillset King teaches with regards to writing is also massively transferable. Stephen King, through this book, will make your life easier to live.
For what it’s worth, this book changed my view on King so much that he’s now one of my favourite authors because it encouraged me to check out his other writings. The Stand, the Dark Tower series, 11.22.63 – they all now feature high up on any list of my favourite books of all time. On Writing also taught me why being a book snob was doing me more a lot more harm than good.
#9 – Into the Woods
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Where On Writing teaches you the nuts and bolts of how to write, Into the Woods teaches you a powerful philosophy for what to write. It’s an extraordinarily smart book even if I don’t necessarily 100% agree with the thesis it puts forth. Anyone that wants to understand how stories can interleave, rise, fall and conclude though – well, if you aren’t at least conversant with this approach you’re working with an incomplete toolkit.
The Hero’s Journey is in many ways a kind of loose fallback theory for those that talk about storytelling. It’s got so many exemptions, exceptions, specialisations and refinements that to consider it a framework at all is a bit of a stretch. Every story can be argued to be an expression of the hero’s journey because generations of advocates have worked hard to ensure the archetype is flexible enough to fit all data points. Imagine if one day someone found an apple that floated up from the ground and back into a tree, and the response was to refine the definition of gravity to include the possibility that ‘sometimes things fall upwards’. That’s how I feel about the hero’s journey. If you put enough flex into a framework, everything will fit. At that point it’s as useful as it was when nothing fit.
What Into the Woods does though is contextualise the hero’s journey in a very approachable way, pulling it apart to examine it in a forensic depth that does include powerful predictive patterns. It’s a bit like ‘the general theory of the hero’s journey’ and if you ever wanted to understand why sometimes stories work and why they sometimes don’t… this is a great place to start.
If you’re interested in games, you’re interested in stories. All games are storytelling systems, even the ones that lack characters, plots or settings. If you want to be able to talk intelligently about why games succeed or not in their storytelling, this is a book that will furnish you with abundant cleverness.
#8 – The Player of Games
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This is the only novel on this list, but it’s here for a very particular reason. It’s not that the book is good, although it is. I have long described it is a ‘six out of five’ book – a book so good that it breaks any rating scale upon which you might want to measure it. It’s extraordinarily good.
It’s on this list though because it’s maybe the only novel I have ever read that seems to have been written by someone that understands what it means to love games. Lots of books include games – real and fictional – and very few of them manage to capture any sense of why games matter. Iain M. Banks describes, flawlessly, what it’s like to become so immersed in gameplay that all other diversions fall away. There are parts of this book that could have been lifted, verbatim, out of my own psychology.
One of the things it’s easy to forget when working on a game is the goal that you’re trying to hit. You get so lost in the compromises of development, so tied up in the mundane mechanical requirements of production. What the Player of Games teaches to those that are looking to get into games in a serious way is the single, overriding truth of the endeavour. You’re looking to make something that makes people feel the way that Jernau Gurgeh does when he encounters the game of Azad for the first time.
The Player of Games then isn’t an instruction book. It’s an aspirational one.
#7 – My Tiny Life
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Most of my own game development and design has been incredibly niche, designed for audiences of tens or hundreds as opposed to millions. I have a good twenty years or so of experience in developing text-based multiuser dungeons – the precursor to the MMORPG genre – designing intricate gameplay systems for tightly interconnected social contexts. There’s a lot to like in that kind of environment, particularly the feedback loop. I once developed, tested and deployed an entire achievement system for a game in two weeks because the energy of the collaboration of everyone involved was addictive. Sometimes in these environments you write code for a named audience, and sometimes that audience is a single person. Sometimes you spend days developing a little side-joke that will only ever make one person laugh. It’s the kind of intimate game development that isn’t possible to experience at scale, or for commercial reasons.
My Tiny Life, which began its existence as an essay called ‘A Rape in Cyberspace’, is a book length discussion of the power of community in games. It’s focused on a multiuser dungeon (or a MOO, if you’re concerned about the specifics) called LambadaMOO. It’s an insightful, careful ethnographic study of what it means to form real social connections through virtual worlds.
And, as a game designer, if you want to understand how players feel about games, you need to understand what they feel about other players. It’s almost impossible to look at something like World of Warcraft and unpick the social reality of guilds and their superstructures. It’s perfectly possible though to look at a smaller community and scale up those observations to draw larger inferences.
My Tiny Life won’t help you understand games, but it’ll help you understand the people that play games… and that’s by far the more valuable skill of the two.
#6 – Bobby Fischer Goes to War
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The books we’ve talked about so far are about the ‘flightier’ parts of game design – how to tell compelling stories, how they’re written, and how games can make people feel. Bobby Fischer Goes to War teaches a grander lesson – it talks about how games can save the world.
Anyone that knows anything about chess will know the name Bobby Fischer – regarded by many as one of the finest natural chess prodigies the game has ever seen. I’ve been fascinated by him for a long time – as a personality he was so odd and erratic that he’s as compelling as the finest fictional constructions of the greatest novelists. In 1972, he was also the focal point of the world’s attention as the World Chess Championship, held in Reykjavik, briefly became the most visible and important front in the cold war. Boris Spassky, representing the cultural might of the great Russian-Propaganda-Chess complex , faced off against Fischer – the youthful, idiosyncratic manifestation of American individualism and exceptionalism. The propaganda of the times had cast it as a matchup against ideologies – that the winner would validate the economic and intellectual systems that produced them. There was a lot riding on the championship.
It sounds utterly bizarre to a modern reader, but the various political and personal machinations of the match are absorbing. It doesn’t read like a chess manual – it reads like a piece of high-end spy fiction.
Even nowadays, lots of people consider games to be frivolous. In the face of that it helps every so often to be reminded that, more than once, the world has revolved on the axis of a game. It’s important, as someone getting into games, to remember that games matter.