Interviewed: Writing The Supernatural

My bud Greg asked me to contribute some thoughts on writing the supernatural for his newsletter, which features interviews around a theme with a bunch of different writers/narrative designers each month. Always a good read. Here’s my bit:


In general, I try and follow a rather classical approach to writing. That is, to be truthful and concise. And the truths I’m usually drawn to are ones about human experience. Don’t we all dream, fantasise or panic about The Other, about escaping the physical confines of our bodies and the rational confines of our minds?

The chance to write about, or around the supernatural then, is a gift. Going beyond what is natural is a chance to contrast human truths with utterly non-human ones, and the starker the contrast the more clearly we see them.

So far, I’ve written for three games that deal in supernatural elements. Duelyst, a tactical, science-fantasy CGC, is rife with arcane rituals, strange specters and otherworldly magic – usually wielded by the monstrous Abyssian faction or the mystical, transhuman Vetruvians. The object with my writing here was to contextualise the unit abilities, while giving identity to the faction itself. So the Abyssian’s sense of supernatural is that it’s something from the void, something menacing, a force of entropy and decay. For the Vetruvians, it’s something more noble, although perhaps equally unknowable and volatile. The way in which each faction sees and manipulates the supernatural informs their abilities and says a huge amount about their philosophies and civilisations.

In Röki, a dark fairytale adventure game, the supernatural is expressed through folkloric characters and superstitions made flesh. It’s all loosely based on Scandinavian myth, so there exist a certain amount of (inspiring!) boundaries. My approach has been to draw out the element of each myth, or character, and make them really grounded. Most of the game takes place in a magical forest, so protagonist Tove quickly becomes accustomed to the supernatural – it’s that or become a gibbering wreck – and must learn to play by their own rules. It’s fantastic fun to write low-key supernatural too, there’s something peculiar and satisfying about mischievous and begrudgingly helpful spirits and ghosts that you don’t tend to be able to draw out from epic gods and world-ending supernatural forces.

In Abandon Ship, the supernatural is somewhat Lovecraftian. There are lots of tentacles. It’s a mode well represented in games, so obviously I wanted to avoid it being too trope-y. In the game, the supernatural (and the cult that worships and engenders it) is very real, but again it’s a very personal thing: The Captain (whom you play as) has a strong link to the game’s dominant supernatural force, and engages in a constant mental tug of war with it. So yes, it’s a threat, an unknowable old and infernally powerful threat, but it’s one you also have a kind of dialogue with. It hopefully takes the old ‘when you gaze into the abyss…’ idea one step further.

The supernatural that I grew up with was Greek and Egyptian mythology, Asian horror and dark fantasy literature. So I’ve always loved the idea that, while powerful, whatever lies beyond the veil can be reckoned with by peeking behind it, parsing the internal logic of it – as long as your own psyche is up to the task. I suppose I approach the supernatural from a direction other than the ‘sheer horror of something like Magic: The Gathering’s eldritch-inspired Eldrazi. Although that unknowable power is alluring – one of the examples I’m drawn most to is the Chandrian from The Kingkiller Chronicles: humanoid but never fully glimpsed, sung about by children but never whispered or written about by adults who value their lives. They are clearly terrifying, but one feels their greatest mystery is anonymity and mystery. The protagonist (and unnecessarily tongue-twistingly named) Kvothe hunts for knowledge about them, he seeks them, and that collision course is an inestimably tense thread running through the series. It’s that kind of feeling I think I’m interested in exploring.

One day I’m sure I’ll want to write about murderous, terrifying ghosts and Stranger Things style gross-out horror, a supernatural that is the complete antithesis to human nature, but for now my approach to writing the supernatural is to ask: how can we reconcile ourselves to it? And what parts of ourselves gave birth to it in the first place?

Creating Pidgin/Tone of Voice

Creating Pidgin

Introduction & Rationale

“If they open up with Pidgin English instead, I instantly perk up. Speaking Pidgin transforms them from visiting foreigner into one of the hundreds of well-integrated expatriates in Lagos… There’s a certain intimacy that this form of broken English emits; a down-to-earth, survivalist approach to everyday living and hustling in Africa’s most populous nation.” — Source.

Writing dialogue for a game runs a number of risks, but one of the biggest is a lack of differentiation in tone of voice. Flat, identikit sounding NPCs, dialogue (and by extension the in-game nomenclature of items, places etc) is not only a missed opportunity but a sign of laziness, and can be utterly immersion breaking.

It’s hard enough establishing a catchy, unique tone of voice and personality for your main characters. Add any number of secondary NPCs, and you either get the JRPG syndrome (each uttering mundane one liners about their immediate surroundings ad infinum) or bloated exposition.

There’s also a challenge in writing dialogue for characters who live in the future, plus a highly multicultural/cosmopolitan city. The best writing is invisible, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of too many characters reading (‘sounding’) the same, or them feeling inauthentic and disconnected from the setting. Tolkien felt necessary to invent an entire language for his fantasy epic, and it’s no coincidence that many of his lexical inventions have filtered into mainstream genre use.

Similarly, the first chapters of cyberpunk or hard sci-fi books often throw in a lot of proper nouns, strange abbreviations and techno-pidgin to disorient the reader, to immerse them in a strange new world and hint at the mysteries yet to be uncovered. It would certainly be no fun if Neuromancer appended a lengthy explanation to its sudden terms such as ‘deck’ or ‘ICE’.

Nomenclature, new words, evolution of language: by default, most game-characters speak in modern, western English or American-English, but would characters speak like that in an African metropolis of the near future? They don’t speak like that now.

Slang vs. Pidgin

Without audio, slang/inflection/accents etc can read strangely. It wouldn’t be immersive for a player, no matter how literate, to parse the following:

“Ay whagwan fam, allow bare slang man that shit longtingaling. Now let’s chirps gyaldem innit, be well peng.”

(Hey, what’s going on mate? Don’t use too much slang, that stuff is a hassle. Now, let’s go flirt with some local girls yeah? It’ll be great.)

Obviously the former example essentially excludes anyone not familiar with a specific local slang from understanding more than a word or two of what’s going on. However, the latter translation sounds stilted and bland, and coming out of the mouth (as text or otherwise) or a street-smart, young denizen of South London would be equally immersion breaking.

Solutions & Normalising

So what we do we do?

We create a set vocabulary of pidgin that we can thread throughout ‘normal’ text, in barks, etc, to help with immersion, expand our options for unique tones of voice, without (unintentionally) obfuscating meaning.

Pidgin (aka lingua franca) is different from slang or argot in that it evolves from a mix of dialects and slang into something supposed to be ‘universal’, and to allow the most people to be as understood as possible.

We can quickly orient players/readers to pidgin through careful use of framing, and context. Whether you guess the exact meaning of the following unusual words, you can probably sense their meaning, and after seeing it a few times, you will certainly understand what it connotes.

“Let’s grab some chop-chop, I’m starving.”
“You want to do what?! Man, you dey craze.”
“You stubborn bastard, you no dey hear word and it’ll get you killed.”

Some existing pidgin is even more obvious. For example, ‘gist’ (meaning gossip/news) very closely correlates with its widely understood meaning, and even may not be immediately understood as part of the pidgin lexicon. Of course the reverse is true, some examples are harder to parse initially, but as a result stand out, and become a more of a signature/catchy word or phrase.

Balance will be key, as will building up to each instance, so that when the player encounters words on either side of the spectrum, they’ve already understood some constituent parts of the phrase or have the necessary context.

To normalise ‘wetin’ for example, it would not be helpful to confront a player with ‘wetin dey?’ (what’s happening/up?) in isolation. So, after a few instances of breaking it up, e.g:

“Dey you listen?” (Are you listening?)
“You dey craze.” (You are crazy)

And:

“Ah hi Dee, wetin you up to?”
“Wetin dey point?” (what’s your point?/What are you saying?)

Suddenly ‘wetin dey?’ will feel more comfortable and require less effort for the player to parse. And from then on, they have the satisfaction of having figured this out, of feeling immersed in a dense culture, yet like it’s unique and different to the one they’re used to.

Authenticity & Storytelling Possibilities

Moreover, it is of course more authentic to represent the linguistic quirks of a specific setting, whether it’s in or outside your comfort zone as a writer. As with the above examples, I advocate for a player-centric balance of accessibility and authenticity. Chances are your player-base will be very diverse even before localisation, and hence making game text understandable, without becoming bland, is paramount.

Once some pidgin is established, we can play with it to frame characters and their motivations. For example, perhaps a character is friendly and wants to include Dee in a conversation:

“Dey you up to anything gen-gen recently Dee? Exciting I mean, sorry — I forget you’re not from around here.”

Contrast this to an NPC who might want to make Dee feel excluded, an interloper.

“Dey you craze for steppin’ here, wetin dey you fool, vamoose!”

This way we can create characters and dialogue that is not intended to be easily understood, to put Dee/the player on the back foot, and at the same time make a commentary on the NPC themselves. It also allows for the attitudes of some NPCs to be more ambiguous or mysterious without resorting to vague allusions or oblique sarcasm.

Diversity/Cultural Signposting

By the same token, establishing the pidgin means we can efficiently signpost the origin of certain characters without relying on exposition.

Suddenly a character that uses no pidgin at all could be inferred to be either aloof, a foreigner, or disassociating themselves from the milieu for some reason.

Another may use more western or internet pidgin and abbreviations such as ‘bae’ or ‘lit’ to signal they are more heavily invested in life online than in person.

Suddenly, we have another subtle tool in our arsenal beyond word choice and punctuation. The very act of omitting or selecting which pidgin the NPC favours says something about them, and it may be something Dee can use to their advantage.

Closing Remarks

Like everything, we should test the dialogue carefully, including the readability and ‘understand-ability’ of the pidgin words. Ultimately however we need to make a call, one about authenticity, attention to detail and immersion.

A Selected Inspiration Glossary:

Nigerian

  • Abi/Ba: Isn’t it?//no? OR na so: is that so/oh really etc
  • Bam: Something good
  • Chop: to eat/food
  • Gen-gen: Exciting/on edge
  • Wetin dey? What’s happening // (aggressive) what’s your problem?
  • You dey craze — you crazy
  • Catching fun — out for the night/ looking for a good time
  • How far na: how’re things?
  • You no dey hear word: You’re not listening// you’re stupid
  • Gist: gossip/news
  • Sabi: Understand/get
  • Oya!: expostulation of impatience// hurry up// are you ready yet?/come on!
  • Vamoose: get lost/going
  • Wahala: trouble/stress
  • Butta my bread: My prayers/hopes have been answered
  • No dullin’: Don’t prolong things/get to the point

Kenyan

  • Sasa — how’s it going?
  • Haiya! — Exclamation of surprise

Western/Internet:

  • Bae
  • No Chill
  • Lit
  • Dig
  • Om/Nom/Nom: Food/to eat/tasty as in good
  • Dame
  • Shorty

South London

  • Longting: Long time/taking ages/hard, annoying
  • Innit: Isn’t it/you understand? (rhetorical)
  • Fam/Bruv/Bredrin: friend/family/crew
  • Ya get me?: Know what I mean (usually rhetorical)
  • Peng: Great/sexy
  • Whagwarn: What’s going on?/how’re you doing?

French/colonial

  • Boloss: Fool/buffoon
  • Toubib: doctor

French / Afrikaans

  • to jave, to ambiance: to party
  • Dolo: beer of millet
  • A stick: a cigaret
  • A go: a girlfriend

Jamaican/West Indies

  • More fire: cheers/another drink/to your health
  • I and I: we
  • Dead pres: white person

Supplement this article with my thoughts on internet speak and faux-irony inA Night In The Woods.

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Faux-Irony Is A Dead Scene

Or: How Tao Lin’s influence is beginning to be felt from indie to AAA games.

I’ve got a serious syntactical bone to pick with a particular brand of twee internet-speak that I’ve noticed has begun to infect narrative games recently. And I blame Tao Lin and Twitter.

The most recent victim of this is Mass Effect Andromeda, but it was most likely Life Is Strange which started the trend of ‘flippantitis’ as I’ve pointed out beforein games. Another notable recent example is Night In The Woods, which is essentially LiS but even more painfully earnest in its gratingly ‘ironic’ writing. For more examples cf. Horizon Zero Dawn, most of Destiny, Gone Home, Firewatch etc, Oxenfree, etc, etc.

Eurogamer commenter Cobalt_jackal sums it up quite nicely actually under the Andromeda review.

Fan fiction level, cringe af, tween, inane, Z-list hack writing

Badly delivered, stilted dialogue.

I can’t help but strongly agree with him.

Workplace sexual harassment disguised as ‘cute’.

And we’ve all seen this by now haven’t we?

And Night In The Woods doesn’t fare much better. It’s a charming game in so many ways that it just frustrates me the more. Protagonist Mae and her small-town friends deal with some interesting topics but in such a blasé, twee and painfully ‘uber-cool’ tone of voice that I found it difficult to sit through more than ten minutes of it at a time. Sure, it accurately reflects the way a certain segment of pre or post American teens might speak, but boy does it lay it on thick.

And don’t just take my word for it — the lead writer, Scott Benson cited ‘Twitter’ as his main source of dialogue/tone of voice inspiration:

Benson, a seasoned animator and illustrator from Pittsburgh…admitted to Joystiq at E3 that drafting lines for a video game is new to him: “I’ve never written fiction or characters really before,” as his previous animated shorts tended to be of the silent type. Benson had an interesting source of inspiration for his witty one-liners, then: Twitter. As he explained, the social media channel “has the same kind of cadence and kind of vague feelings” as Mae and friends display in Night in the Woods.

It’s all very reminiscent of Tao Lin’s Shoplifting From American Appareloften cited as an apex in novella form of the ‘apathy is cool’ school. Of course this movement can also be traced back further, Vice Magazine which started in 1994, some ten years before Tao Lin’s book, being the obvious forefather.

Back to Life Is Strange, a fantastic game all-told, with some genuinely emotional character beats and great pacing. The fact it went overboard with the hipster-isms is kinda old news now. The cutesy/twee vibes, the angsty/ironic notebook (ripped off shamelessly by NitW) and the painfully awkward delivery (intentionally or otherwise) frequently made me roll my eyes, but they’re accurate hallmarks of rebellious teenage years we may or may not like to forget. It’s a coming of age story that succeeds despite its vernacular, not because of it.

Night in the Woods: some will identify with the tone of voice strongly. For me, it ruins the entire game.

What gets me though, is that these three games consistently feel so self indulgent. It might be hilarious for a sub-set of Western millennials but you can’t substitute genuine pathos and humour for some ‘lolz’. NitW lays claim to a similar tone to LiS but I think veers wildly from ‘well observed’ to ‘contrived and tone-deaf’. And Andromeda absolutely has no business employing this kind of thing. Not because I think sci-fi is too arch to be humorous, but, well, a very contemporaneous (i.e. specific to this time) kind of humour doesn’t really mesh with a depiction of an inter-species far future.

I just want to make a plea to game-writers: don’t mistake memes and internet culture for genuine human communication. When we — or our characters — fall back on tired mass-meme tropes and verbal crutches, we celebrate how language evolves, but at the expense of what it can make you feel.

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Locus of Controller
Or: Meaningful Player Agency Makes You Happy

Control. It’s not something most of us have over our lives, and a lack of control is undoubtedly one of, if not the biggest contributing factors to feeling stressed. Feeling out of control can be a nightmarish sensation.

In fact, a feeling of control is one of the main reason I play and love games so much. They’re an opportunity and an invitation to impose my will on a world — proving my skills in a constructed, rigid space and play-state. This is frequently more appealing than the real world, which actually in many ways is like a crap videogame….bosses don’t have glowing weak spots and permadeath by default for example.

I’m sure if you’re reading this you know what I mean. If you’re a gamer of roughly my generation (I’m 27) then you’ve grown up with sophisticated controllers — and control. We say jump, Mario says ‘how high?’ I think we can all probably agree that control is serious business, in everyday life and in gaming. Unless you’re using motion controls in which case it’s a hilarious farce.

And so I want to discuss what control really means, why it’s sometimes taken away from us, why it’s important to game design — and finally, how an understanding of where feelings of control come from can drastically improve your life and gamerscore.

The Locus of Control

I first came into contact with the concept whilst I was working at the Apple Store a few years ago, back when Infinity Blade was still impressive. Say what you will about Apple, they offer surprisingly robust psychological training to a bunch of frustrated creatives who mostly just end up peeling stickers off peoples iPhones and showing people how to soft reset.

The training was presumably meant to help you keep calm in a busy retail environment and be able to sympathise with customers who were frustrated with their shiny new malfunctions. In fact, it gave the earnest study a chance to make sense of an aspect of personality that colours an awful lot of our daily interactions.

Wikipedia summarises it all thus:

In personality psychology, locus of control refers to the extent to which individuals believe they can control events affecting them. Understanding of the concept was developed by Julian B. Rotter in 1954, and has since become an aspect of personality studies. A person’s “locus” (Latin for “place” or “location”) is conceptualized as either internal (the person believes they can control their life) or external (meaning they believe their decisions and life are controlled by environmental factors which they cannot influence, or by chance or fate).[1]

Individuals with a strong internal locus of control believe events in their life derive primarily from their own actions: for example, when receiving test results, people with an internal locus of control tend to praise or blame themselves and their abilities.People with a strong external locus of control tend to praise or blame external factors such as the teacher or the test.[2]

By the way — I’m not a control freak, I like to think of myself as more of a control geek, and whilst I can’t share all my findings here, I’ve realised that nowhere is the nuanced complexity of our relationship with and need for control better exemplified than in videogames.

Let’s just take a moment to let that quote sink in. To illustrate, let’s imagine we’re playing a quick game of Hearthsone — probably on our tablets whilst watching BattleStar Galactica on Netflix in the background, maybe with a second game of Hearthstone playing on the laptop. You get a bad draw against a stupid Murlock rush deck and you can’t play anything — you lose.

Fuck these guys, seriously.

In this example, If you have a strongly internal locus, you might blame your deck-building skills, your own judgement, and you’ll probably be a little annoyed but feel compelled to re-balance, maybe craft a few new cards and have another go etc.

If you have a strongly external locus in this instance, you’ll probably feel a lot more frustrated — uttering things like ‘stupid imba murlocks’ or feeling pissed at the luck of the draw, Hearthstone’s mechanics in general or the ‘cheap tactics’ of the other player. Essentially the game was out of your hands — there was nothing you could do other than sit back and wallow in the ignominy of being crushed by a gang of angry fish-frog things.

Let’s compare that to the ‘Souls’ series; DemonsDark and its spiritual successor Bloodborne. Again these games are widely celebrated but won’t be for everyone — if you don’t truly believe the power to overcome it lies within you, and you enjoy the slow but steady imposing of your will and skill onto the game as opposed to feeling upset and powerless the tenth time the Pursuer impales you, then you simply will not enjoy the game. And even with its punishing difficulty, I think Hearthstone is actually more unfair and less forgiving.

Happily, unlike most of psychology and personality theory, there is a concrete ideal to aspire to.

It’s called ‘bi-local’. Simply put, bi-localism is a way of fostering the self confidence and belief in agency — that is, your ability to affect change — to allow you to feel that you can impose your will on external stimuli, and the sagacity to understand that there is also a limit — that some things simply are outside of your locus of control and that you have to accept and get on with — much like a bad DOTA 2 draft.

Via http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCDV_90.htm

Is this achievable? How can this help you life your life effectively and happily?

It’s definitely achievable. It can be learned through practice, re-adjustment of attitude and happily, games can be a great help. First however you need to accurately determine your own locus. You should start by either taking one of the online tests or just asking yourself a few hard, honest questions — what is your reaction when you are not in control of a situation? Do you believe life is what you make of it or that things just happen to you?

Then it’s a question of tailoring your life to both strengthen and balance your sense of control. Seek out games that put you in harsh environments but with control over the mechanics and variables (Roguelikes are often great for this, strategy games/RTS etc) and make sure you’re sensitive to the feedback loops and tricks game devs often play on you to create an endowed progress effectand control you through your own instinctive/compulsive actions. Read around the subject — if you’re really serious I cannot recommend the Tao Te Ching enough, and if it looks a little oblique and impenetrable, The Tao of Pooh is a fantastic introduction to Taoist philosophy with real world applications. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in conjunction, Tao of Pooh, Tao Te Ching and a cluster of indie games changed my life.

Game changers.

Let me give another book recommendation — Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken. The book itself is very much about practical application of game-theory to addressing often stigmatised mental health and societal issues, but the following abstract succinctly illustrates how the psychology of games and gamers can have such definite impact. The back of the book:

Drawing on positive psychology, cognitive science, and sociology, Reality Is Broken uncovers how game designers have hit on core truths about what makes us happy and utilized these discoveries to astonishing effect in virtual environments.

But why, McGonigal asks, should we use the power of games for escapist entertainment alone?

In Reality Is Broken, she reveals how these new alternate reality games are already improving the quality of our daily lives, fighting social problems such as depression and obesity, and addressing vital twenty-first-century challenges-and she forecasts the thrilling possibilities that lie ahead.

At the risk of being melodramatic, I would say that our society, and often our particular gaming communities — has an endemic struggle with control — we want control over the content in our games, control over the press, control over everything. Pair that idea that most of us are pulled all over the place by capitalist/consumerist institutions most of our lives — at our day-jobs, by our paltry excuse for a government, the patriarchal mainstream media and advertising industries etc — and you can begin to see that whilst games prove a productive diversion from it all, we’re as much in need of recognising and deciphering paradigms of control in our every-day lives.

Of course, taking control is a choice — control and choice are close cousins, but not always friends.

The difference between choice and control is another complex issue — but I want to make a quick comment about how they can be interlinked.

Indeed, this is really what’s at the heart of feedback loops or systems such as levelling up that arbitrarily awards you a few extra, usually automatic assigned stat points and an extra peg for your sparkly skill tree, the choice you make then having little or no impact on either gameplay, game-state or progression (here’s looking at you Fable series and Kingdoms of Amalur — you wonky, wonderful games).

Wait..which one is the evil one?

In this way, games that deny us choice are also denying us control of that game’s defining system — or giving us the illusion of control. If I wanted to pay for the illusion of control I’d try and get somewhere in London on public transport.

Let’s briefly discuss the philosophy of controllers too — specifically our relationship with them. I’m not suggesting of course that any of you have very intimate relationships with your controllers beyond maybe having a favourite — like a child, they’re all useful and do much the same thing but there’s always one you want to show to your friends first — and maybe some of us have considered marrying one after a particularly close win in free-for-all Halo if it was an option — anyway, rather, a discussion of control and of player agency.

We can’t very well ignore our primary means of interaction and what is realistically the frontline of a game-dev’s communication with a player — and primary means of controlling us.

We respond to overly long tutorials and frequent gameplay prompts, to dialogue and to level design, as much as to cynically tweaked and tested feedback loops by depressing coloured plastic and tenderly manipulating a nub of rubber — make no mistake, the game controls us as much as we control it — and as much as we will ourselves into believing that we have a locus of control that extends into virtual reality. This is often at the root of what the sensationalist and of course myopic mainstream press use to justify how games make people more inclined to violence etc.

I make no claims to this being a comprehensive study, but hopefully if you’ve made it this far it’s piqued your interest and will encourage you to investigate, interrogate, your own locus, play better games, and become happier.

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Rezzed

I’ll be there, hanging out with Gareth, who’ll be demoing In Other Waters, and Alex & Tom from Polygon Treehouse and Röki.

I don’t usually like conventions – I mean, they’re great at what they do, but I’m fairly introverted – but it’ll be cool to see some up-close reactions to the IOW demo. I’m hoping to check out a few promising narrative-heavy titles I’ve heard about too, but mostly I’ll be keeping to the shadows and taking meetings.

That said, there’s nothing like a not-too-overwhelming con  like Rezzed to really infuse you with the collective excitement of an industry and its fans, so I’m sure I’ll come away with even more fire in my belly than usual.

And if you want to meet up to chat narrative design, holler at me. I’m friendly!

My New Blog-Home

I tried Tumblr, I tried Medium, and they’re both well and good – but it’s high time I built my own space. I’m slowly re-posted my Medium articles here, because despite the nice UI and analytics, I don’t want to be beholden to them, or to feed into the general silicon valley content churn.

I also feel more comfortable writing less ‘formal’ pieces on my own blog for some reason. As part of my general move away from social media and the hyper-news-cycle, this move will also help me focus my efforts away from Twitter, too.