Hey. It’s 2014

So life on the blog has been slow – but here’s an update on the good times that happened over the last year. The last year was slow! I worked on a couple of projects that haven’t shipped yet or that went on hold. My freelance writing slowed down because, well, a lot of reasons, plus I was tired and lazy. Anyway! Let’s go to the highlights:

- I started a monthly column with Polygon. You can browse them here. The one about stressful games was my favorite.

- I continued my Unwinnable column about playing games with my kid. To be honest this slowed down a bit, as I ran out of things to say and lost momentum wiht all of my writing.

I wrote for a few game projects. This was a mixed bag, lots of fits and starts. For the first half of the year, I was working on a big project that went on hold and may not come back. I’m also working on a game of my own for Choice of Games. It’ll be a near-future romantic comedy, and it’s … half done? Yeah, let’s say half. Turns out that I don’t work as well when I’m totally by myself and have no hard deadlines. The days when I was cranking out hundreds of location clues for Carmen Sandiego for Facebook feel like a long, long time ago.

In games that shipped, I wrote the script for the Mark of the Ninja Special Edition DLC, and if you liked Ninja and haven’t checked this out yet, I think you’ll be pleased; not only do you get one more big level, but all of the members of the team contributed commentary, and it’s fascinating, frank stuff.

I wrote a guest script for Reactive Studio’s radio drama game Codename Cygnus. This was a fun project: Sarah Elmaleh and Logan Cunningham do voices, and Shannon Daly’s sound effects are amazing. Kudos to Jonathon Myers for starting up the project and the company behind it and cranking out so much content this year.

In the new year, I have … few plans. Gotta finish that ChoiceScript game. I’m keeping an eye out for new projects, and forcing myself to write more fiction. But let’s not mince words, last year was a slump. There were a few wins and some work I’m very proud of, but the momentum that I’ve kept up the last few years has definitely broken. Part of that was that I pinned my hopes on writing for the industry instead of about it. It’s definitely easier to write for newspapers every other week than to pour hours into one big project and then watch it go poof. In other news, I’ve also switched day jobs, and after years of taking jobs that left me plenty of time for writing, I’m now in a more demanding management position at a more exciting digital agency. I love the job, but I’ve lost that much more free time.

Anyway! It’s a new year, so we’ll see what happens.

Hey, It’s 2013

So I haven’t been blogging much here. And part of the reason is that I haven’t been writing as much. Having wrapped up Mark of the Ninja, I’ve been out looking for more game writing and narrative design work. I have a few leads, but most of them are speculative, or aren’t signed, or they’re not public, or there’s some other reason not to talk about them? Some days, I just play videogames all night. But that’s okay! Life rewards the patient, and I hope later this year to have some cool stuff to reveal, as well as some more essays to post, more links to share, and so on.

In the meantime, here are a few things I’ve been up to:

I moderated a panel on games and learning for Zócalo Public Square in Los Angeles, with a dream team of experts that included James Gee, Kaveri Subrahmanyam, and Richard Lemarchand. The panelists brought a range of perspectives across practice and theory, and we went from 0 to 60 pretty quickly; no lengthy handwringing about Math Blaster here! That link will take you straight to a video of the panel.

I was interviewed by Kill Screener and journo around town Yannick LeJacq for Bit Creature, and by my old pal and PixelVixen 707-coconspirator, J. C. Hutchins for his StoryForward podcast. They’re both stellar guys, strong journos and fab writers, but they’re also very different guys, so check them both out!

I contributed an essay to the book Unbored, by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen. Unbored is a massive, fun idea book of activities for kids of pretty much any age. I’m really proud to be in here and if you know any young people, I highly recommend checking it out.

Over at Unwinnable, I’m still writing my column about playing games with my kid. I’m overdue to start this up again in the new year. I’m still struggling to think of a hip way to explain why we’ve been playing Skylanders.

I set a goal of writing a short story a week. If any of them are any good, you’ll hear about it here.

And that’s about it! Hope you’re having a good new year too.

Mark of the Ninja: Sources and References

So I was the writer on Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja, and purely for the sake of getting it on paper before old age makes me forget the whole thing, I’m going to write up some of the books and people who influenced the script.  There are no real spoilers here, although most of this will make more sense after you play the game.  (And you should!  Everyone seems to love it.)

When I joined the project, most of the plot and all of the major characters were in place.   Many of the story revisions came from some epic meetings that we had going over the outline and then the script, with me joining the Vancouver team via Skype.  This meant that a team that included art, design, the producer, and the writer (me) was involved in developing and polishing up the plot, and that process helped the storytelling – especially when it came to setting the mood, changing the tone from world to world, and telling the story through gameplay, which especially paid off in the final scenes.

And there are words, too, natch.  My role was to take the story outline and write the cutscenes, the audio logs, the interstitial dialogue, and the barks.  (I got help on the barks, because Nels felt sorry for me.)

Let’s start with the bibliography.  For the actual true history of ninja, I turned to Stephen Turnbull’s book, which stuck to the facts (and a few legends – but only the ones that have been circulating for centuries).  In World 1, the audio logs that describe the Hisomu Clan’s first great mission all use real historical details or plausible tactics, mostly informed by Turnbull.  The haiku about “nightingales” refers to the famous nightingale floors used in castles of this period:

The daimyo who gets out of bed “to find relief” is a really oblique reference to Uesugi Kenshin, who – as legend has it – was murdered by a ninja who hid in his latrine and murdered him when he sat down to use it.

Nels Anderson also turned me on to the “A Short History of Japan” podcast, and starting with Episode 15, I got a lot of background on the Sengoku Jidai period and the ninja’s role in it.  It’s a great listen and I highly recommend it, for the broad context and for thejuicy, violent stories.

There are three audio logs in every level of the game, aside from the last one – and almost all of them are written as haiku.  Klei wanted to do a series of audio logs that would tell the history of the clan, and help set up the legend of the tattoo and the choice that Ninja has to make.  While I like the idea of using audio logs to deliver background information, I’ve seen plenty of games do it badly, by letting someone you don’t care about talk at you for a minute about old news while you’re busy playing the game.  Great writing can save these – the BioShock franchise is an obvious example – but those longer logs also fit the pace of that game.

The haiku form was intended to solve that problem, because haiku are short, and they’re enigmatic.  None of the haiku immediately make sense; you get the impression of what they’re about and hopefully, you’re intrigued to piece them together and learn more.  The fact that there’s some question or some mystery to them gives you a reason to go back and figure them out.  In World 1, we have nine haiku that piece together to retell the story of a ninja mission.  World 2 explores two of the masters’ perspectives on the power of the tattoo ink, and in World 3, we get Azai’s side of the story – which is not a haiku: it’s actually a haibun, a form where a piece of prose ends with a haiku.  I learned about that form in the book How to Haiku : A Writer’s Guide to Haiku and Related Forms by Bruce Ross, and it seemed like the best way to handle Azai’s confession, which had to be clearer to inform the events in World 4.

Ora also mentions a “death poem” – this is an amazing form that I read about somewhere along the way.  You can read a few examples here.

The three audio logs in World 4 are not haiku.  I won’t reveal what they are to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say I really regret this, because I feel like I farted out at the end.  The text that I used seemed to fit better and communicate more clearly what we wanted to explain about Ninja’s situation and his relationship to the Clan, but I wish I had found a way to stick with the haiku form.

By the way: I wrote all but one of the haiku – the other one came from a contest that we ran at PAX East.  Joel McCoy wrote the third poem in 1-1, which starts “Glint of shuriken … .”  It’s incredibly bad ass and actually came out as the toughest-sounding log in the bunch.

Kudos too by the way to the actors who read the haiku, who were amazing.  Michael Dobson reads most of them, and he absolutely kills them: dig the gravity and drama he brings to the sets in World 1 and 2.  And Vincent Wong’s performance as Azai in World 3 is austere and sublime.  Be warned, those scrolls are a little harder to find.

The hero of Mark of the Ninja is simply named “Ninja.”   From the prologue games – part one and part two, in case you missed them – you can tell that he’s been with the clan for a while, and I imagined him as some kind of an orphan, possibly from a poor and isolated village.  This train of thought led me to read the book Toshié: A Story of Village Life in Twentieth-Century Japan by Simon Partner, which is a terrific social history of the dramatic changes in 20th century Japan, told through the life of one very memorable woman.

Now, some tunes.  Several names of musicians made it into the script.  Count Karajan is named for the legendary conductor, Herbert von Karajan.

I first heard of Karajan from a friend in college, and recently his recording of Mahler’s 9th was my way in to that composer’s amazing, amazing body of work.  In fact, I kept trying to work a quote from Das Lied von der Erde into the script, but it never fit. (If that sounds pretentious, picture a game that makes you feel like this guy.)

The legendary founder of the Hisomu Clan, Tetsuji, gets his name loosely from the the guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama.  You can hear him here with Toshimaru Nakamura, on a track from Nakamura’s album Egrets - and by the way, one of the guards who’s mentioned in passing in 1-1 is named Toshi.

One of Tetsuji’s successors, Otomo the Hungry – who is mentioned in the World 2 audio logs – is named after Otomo Yoshihide.

I’m probably most familiar with these improvisers from David Sylvian’s Manafon.  You should buy that – it’s brilliant.  I also recommend Nakamura’s Egrets, which is gorgeous and haunting, and a great entry-point to his work.

The Toronto-based “Noh-wave” band Yamantaka // Sonic Titan contributed the song that you can hear in the E3 trailer and, to stunning effect, in the finale of the game.  Jamie Cheng had mentioned he wanted to get a song for the game, preferably from a band that could sing in Japanese. When I read this feature and then heard their album, I thought they would be perfect.  They’re a fantastic band, they’re up for Canada’s Polaris award, and I hear they put on a hell of a show; check ‘em out.

They also released the song we commissioned, “Mark & Blade”, as a single, and you can grab that here.

I think that covers everything, but if I missed anything I’ll update this post.

Mark of the Ninja – It’s Almost Here

Mark of the Ninja ships next Friday on XBLA.  I’m pretty excited about this.

I was the writer on the game, and I’ve been playing builds since last September.  I had the opportunity to help show it at GDC (in a casual, sitting-on-the-floor-in-Moscone-West capacity) and at PAX East.  So I’m very familiar with the game, and I’ve seen some early reactions to it – but of course, I don’t know what the public will think, or the reviews.  So I’m nervous!  But not too nervous, because – and factor in my bias – I think it’s a terrific game.

When we announced the game last winter, we posted a text adventure to lead into the first trailer.  Now we’ve posted the second half of that adventure, which complete’s the Ninja’s mission, introduces Master Azai, and provides a prologue to the game.  Click here to play part one and part two.  These games were a hoot to work on. They also contain some of the grossest stuff I’ve ever written.

Part two also introduces our latest trailer, which showcases more of the animation and scenes from levels that we haven’t revealed before.  You can watch it by beating the game – but if you just want to skip ahead, you can also watch it below.

After we ship, I’ll probably post once or twice about the writing process, the sources I used, and some of the references in the names and audio logs.  For now, I’m just going to hole up, keep checking my alerts and Tweetdeck for previews and early reactions, and bite my nails until the thing ships.

Why I Stopped Reading Marvel Comics

This weekend my kid and I caught The Avengers.  We both really liked it, and in fact, I think I loved it.  It was funny, emo, and action-packed.  It gave the characters more love than the costumes.  It never tried to be something it wasn’t – e.g., a grim, politically-relevant megastatement about the state of the world post-Bush/Cheney – and it settled for being probably the best superhero movie I’ve seen.

At the same time, flipping through my pull list for my local comic book store (Jetpack Comics in Rochester, NH – best damn comic store in New England), I noticed that I’ve dropped all of my Marvel titles.  From age 13 until just a few years ago, I forgot about comic books; but when I started getting back into them, Marvel had a lot to offer – Fraction writing Iron Man, Bendis’ Dark Avengers and Ultimate Spiderman, Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, and even the new New Mutants series, mostly for old time’s sake.  A few different arcs sucked me in, but when they ended, I stopped buying the books.

If I had to boil my decision down to one reason – and for the sake of time, I will – I’d say that I left Marvel because their books are just too big.  All their attention has one (through economic necessity, I’m sure) to high profile sure things, while the weird little characters that always caught my attention can’t seem to get any traction – like the brief Cloak & Dagger revival, or the new Moon Knight series, whose final issue was the last Marvel book left in my sub.

Meanwhile, Marvel gluts the market with crossovers between their biggest titles.  They have ten different Avengers books, fifteen X-Men – I think I’ve got five different versions of the Captain America origin story that came out just in the last year.  I just can’t read the same stories again and again.  You say that Iron Man is an alcoholic again?  Dude, I read that story when they did it in the 80s.  Stark was living on the street like a bum!  It was intense!

But there’s no room for oddballs, and it’s the oddballs that give a little nuance to the universe.  Small characters can have beginnings, middles, and ends.  They can show up, experience a dramatic arc, and vanish – gone!  Their story’s told and they can leave.

I’m going to point my finger at a specific issue of The New Avengers, written by Brian Bendis, and a specific scene featuring one of my favorite unsung characters in the line.

The New Avengers is a spin-off title of the main Avengers, featuring a team of sort of well-known and less-known heroes.  I’m not sure what the point of it is, aside from making money, but it does have a more oddball take on Marvel’s mightiest heroes.  It also has awkward humor, like this joke that Spiderman makes about the Iron Fist’s name:

Did I mention that superhero books aren’t for kids anymore?

That’s from issue #21, but the issue that really bothered me was the next one.  Let me start by introducing the character Victoria Hand.

Hey, that’s a pretty good introduction!  To elaborate: She became well-known in the Dark Avengers series, where archvillain Norman Osborne has formed a team of other villains, and rebranded them as heroes.  Victoria was Osborn’s right-hand woman, helping him execute his schemes and keep his cuckoo team together.  She did this not because she was evil, but because she thought Osborne was really onto something – that he actually had a plan that would accomplish more good and bring more peace to the world than the well-meaning but less-effective supes that came before him.  In other words, she made a choice to do the wrong thing for the right reasons.  And this makes her an interesting character!

I really like Victoria Hand.  (And yeah, it helps that she has a passing resemblance to an old friend of mine.)  So I was glad that Marvel kept her around.  In the books, Osborne’s super-evil plan falls through and almost everybody goes to jail – but Captain America asks Hand to work with him, as a kind of double- or-triple-agent or something?  The thing is, a lot of other superheroes don’t get the memo.  And so when the New Avengers decide that Victoria Hand might still be evil, they decide to pay her a visit and interrogate her.

Except they don’t just interrogate her.  They torture her.

Remember, Victoria Hand has no superpowers. She’s a highly-trained, super-skilled bureaucrat, essentially.  But when a handful of the world’s greatest superheroes come to pay her a visit, they decide to beat her, threaten to kill her, and even make her imagine that she’s been tossed out a window to fall to her death.

Is that what heroes do?  Is that what anyone does?

Truth be told, I don’t think there’s anything more to this than The New Avengers being a crummy comic that’s in really bad taste.  But it’s a good metaphor for what I think of Marvel nowadays: all of the interesting characters are getting beaten up by the famous ones.  That ain’t an ecosystem that I need to spend $4 an issue to read.

Lessons from Disney World

Last weekend, my family and I took our first family vacation in … ever? … and spent a weekend together in Disney World, down in Orlando, Florida.  It was a huge, exhausting, and wonderful experience – and while I tried to enjoy it as a dad and a tourist, if you’re in the pop culture biz, you can’t help but take some mental notes along the way.  Disney is very, very good at what they do, and there’s a lot to learn from the way they handle their parks.

If you’ve never been to Disney World: you get not one but four major amusement parks, surrounded by resorts, a water park, and a bunch of other facilities where people sleep, eat, swim, and then get on buses to get to the parks to get on the rides to have fun.  There are big roller coasters, small playgrounds, animals, costumes, and tons upon tons of gift shops.  There’s actually some of just about everything.  It’s impossible to sum up in one post.

So I thought I’d share a few “takeaways” that the professional, “I want to make entertainment; what can I learn?” part of my brain picked up while the hot, frustrated, “why can’t I teach my kid not to lean against the urinals in the airport?” dad side of me was busy having a vacation.

Every place has a story. The gaming community is really into “narrative,” and Disney World is full of it.  You don’t just take a safari through a replica of the African grasslands; you also take a detour to chase down poachers and rescue a baby elephant.  The dinosaur ride doesn’t just spin you past a bunch of dinosaurs; there’s a scientist who’s sending you into the past to retrieve a live specimen, and really, what could go wrong?  Even the swimming pool at our resort had a story: it was on Ol’ Man Island, and a plaque (I wish I had photographed this) told the story of the Ol’ Man, and how he lived here in solitude until some local kids made this their swimming hole.  Those kids brought joy to the last days of his life, and now … wait, they just made this all up, right?  Right?  Whatever, let’s go swimming.

“What could go wrong?” is a great storyline.  Over in the world of games, we’re obsessed with the hero’s journey.  There is one hero, they go on a quest, etc.  In Disney’s rides, no one person gets picked as the “hero.”  Instead, the narrative usually veers into some kind of a calamity that everyone can decide how to deal with.

Or rather, nobody really has to do anything, you just sit there and enjoy yourself until the ride stops and the narrator tells you that everything’s fine.  But you feel like you were involved the whole time – and you can imagine that you played the hero.

Simple, obvious names work. I often overthink names – character names, titles, places, headlines.  I think they need to be tricky, or “clever,” or obscure, or overthought.  Disney doesn’t do that.  All of their names are simple, and they’re great.  Magic Kingdom.  Animal Kingdom. That Ol’ Man Island place, at the Port Orleans resort.  All nice and simple, and you understand what they are instantly.

If you’re in entertainment … . You can criticize Disney for plenty of things: for what they’ve done to copyright law, for what they did to Winnie the Pooh, et cetera.  They’re a big corporation, and they’re bound to do something that pisses people off.

That said, Disney also understands that they’re in the entertainment business, and the products and services they make are purely for fun and joy – not the public welfare, not utility, not health, but simply to entertain.  And every one of the many dollars people spend here is spent by someone who wants to have fun, to be entertained, and to spend a few days inside their dreams.  And Disney is very good at delivering dreams.

When you think about the extraordinary effort they put into everything – the attractions, the costumed cast members, the parade at Magic Kingdom – it’s daunting.  Yes, the show is old-fashioned, and a little corny.  But they give it everything they’ve got.  They’re not a lowest-bidder consultancy trying to migrate an enterprise to a new e-mail solution; they’re trying to entertain, and bring our imaginations to life, and entertain us.  And it made me realize, if you’re not giving 1,000% to entertain your audience … why do you think they’ll stick around?

New Column: This Is Your Kid On Videogames

New gig, new venue – I just started a monthly column at the excellent Unwinnable, and the subject is my kid, and the way he plays videogames. I’ve been thinking about doing a “gaming dad” column ever since my son and I played our first game together (it was Machinarium), and in my Edge Online column from a couple years back, I tackled a few examples of the jealousy, violence, and learning that we experienced together in front of the screen. With this new column, I want to gain insight into the mind of a small child. Other parents are the natural audience, but it will also be relatable to everyone – to all of us, young and old, who still have an intemperate seven-year-old inside of us.

Check it out! And let me know what you think. If I get too cute, feel free to slap me – but I don’t think it’ll be too sentimental; if anything, the first few are going to be pretty ugly. If you’ve ever played Invizimals, you’ll know why.

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