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Two New Ketty Jay Books, Directly Towards Your Face

News! News!

So Gollancz & I have agreed a deal for two more Ketty Jay books, to follow The Black Lung Captain. The first, with a working title of The Iron Jackal, will probably land on the shelves a year after the release of its predecessor, making it July 2011. The fourth is a bit far in the future to predict with much accuracy, but it’ll be targeted for roughly July 2012, assuming that year’s predicted Armageddon doesn’t put a crimp in book sales. News on US release dates for the new books when I get it; we still have to sort out all the little contract details in the UK first.

So, more adventures for Frey & co! Yay!

I’m pleased to say Malice has been shortlisted and longlisted for various awards around England, including the Manchester Book Award, which will be awarded on March 11th. Posi-vibes, please!

Eastercon: I shall definitely be there on Saturday and more than likely Sunday, but due to panel congestion I probably won’t be doing any this time around, unless there are cancellations. Not to worry: Gollancz will be running a little Retribution Falls promotion, which I’ll announce when we’ve got the deets sorted out, and I’ll no doubt be lurking about shiftlessly somewhere.

Mass Effect 2 was one of the best games I ever played except my XBox exploded just as I embarked on the finale. Since this is the second XBox that’s borked on me in the space of three years (especially considering I don’t play it much) I have got a little tired of Microsoft’s shoddy engineering and I won’t be buying another. Guess I’ll never know what happened, although I probably saved the universe so that’s okay. Am on Heavy Rain now. On the PS3. I trust those Sony guys.

Couple more deals in the works, still churning away behind the scene. News to come.

SFX Weekender

Ok, the deets for the SFX Weekender:

Friday I’ll be doing a half-hour reading and Q&A thing on the Slaughtered Lamb stage at 16.30. How much of that is reading and how much Q&A largely depends on how many people turn up. Come with questions! Many questions! Preferably multi-part ones of penetrating depth, but y’know, ‘what’s your favourite colour’ will do.

Saturday I’ll be on the Main Void Stage with China Mieville, Steve Feasey and William Horwood doing a panel on Writing For Young Adults. That’s at 11am.

Other than that, I’ll no doubt be drifting around somewhere…

Uncle Chris’s Writing Tips #3: What The Hell Is A Jazzlewozzy?

‘See there,’ said Rablaaaan the Octrazine. ‘A jazzlewozzy! It will make fine vittels, iffen we can catch it and stick it in a stew with some grated a’rair’thian’ttt’x!’

‘A jazzlewozzy?’ asked Bert.

‘See its long pointy ears, its elongated hind feet and round fluffy tail! See how it prances and snuffles!’

‘Are you talking about that rabbit?’

Rablaaaan looked bewildered. ‘A… rabbit?’ Then he laughed, so long and hard that several sentences after this paragraph ended he was found by a passing troll and got his head bitten off. ‘What kind of stoopid name is that for a jazzlewozzy?’

Naming stuff in fantasy and SF is a minefield. I’m gonna use fantasy for my examples here, but the same things apply in SF. It’s the worldbuilder’s dilemma: what the hell do I call a rabbit?

So there you are, happily creating your fantasy world, and it occurs to you that your heroes might need something to put in their stew. Now, you think to yourself, you’re going for a proper fantasy world, none of this Tolkien-knockoff pseudo-medieval elves-dwarves-and-goblins stuff. It follows that if your whole world is full of strange and wonderful races and beings, then populating it with domestic Earth animals like cats and dogs, or having people ride about on horses, is a bit lame, really. Why not just come up with something new to replace all those little animals?

Writer, you just bought yourself a whole world of trouble.

One of the little-discussed aspects of the fantasy writer’s art is the balancing act between telling the reader what they need to know to enjoy your world, and drowning them in information. Much has been said about info-dumping (for those that don’t know, this is when one of the characters picks up a pot and the author pauses to explain the history, culture and favourite flavour of ice cream enjoyed by the native people who crafted it) but the reason it’s so pervasive is that it’s so incredibly hard to deal with.

The thing is, everyone knows how elves, dwarves and goblins work. You don’t even need to explain them; they come with their own set of assumed rules. Ditto witches, wizards, vampires, werewolves and zombies, which explains why they massively dominate the bookshelves. They’re easy, both for the writer and the reader. The more original your fantasy world, the more time it is necessary to take to explain to your reader how the world works and who lives in it. Even with all the skill in the world, that’s gonna mire your story in swathes of explanation and backstory.

Now usually you can get away with a few awesome new races that no-one’s ever heard of. You can come up with a dinky magic system. You can create some great monsters. But what I’ve found is that, when you get down to the nuts and bolts of a civilisation, you have to cut corners.

If your heroes all cook with crazy containers of glistening crystal, then you have to give those things a name. Let’s call them valax. Now what do they eat with? Spoons? Too conventional. Let’s give them obzol, which are cups of dried and toughened leather they dip in on a cradle of string. Oh, wait, we can’t have string…

Wait a minute.

Rablaaaan the Octrazine dipped his obzol into his valax and drew up a mouthful of jazzlewozzy stew.

Hmm. Beginning to sound a bit like A Clockwork Orange now. I don’t envy the writer who has to explain to the reader all those new terms they’ve put in there. And not explaining them is worse. You can get away with it by context a few times, but if you barrage the reader with made-up words then eventually they’ll give up trying to decipher them and put your story down.

Sooner or later, you end up having to call a pot a pot.

The other thing is, even if you do come up with lots of new kitchen utensils, domestic animals, etc, you can only ever describe them by likening them to the thing they replaced. You either call it ‘a spoon-like utensil’ or you tie yourself in ridiculous knots by saying ‘it was made of steel, with a long handle, and a depression at its furthest end used as a receptacle for food, the better to transport it to one’s mouth,’ etc etc. It’s the same with animals. No matter how original you make your horse-analogue look and act, as soon as someone climbs on its back, we know it’s a horse (go watch Avatar if you don’t believe me).

In my opinion, a book is not just a record of the writer’s imagination.  A book is a bridge between the author and the reader. The author has a certain obligation to consider his or her audience. The reader doesn’t know a thing about the world they’re entering into. It’s up to the author to make sure they know everything they need to, without ever forgetting that all this stuff in the background is only there to service the story, not to overwhelm it.

In a perfect world, I’d never have anything remotely Earth-like creep into one of my fantasy books. I’d design everything from the ground up to fit my world. But it doesn’t work that way, because that would turn my book into an encyclopaedia, not a story. I could get away with it in a movie, perhaps, but words are too slow for that; it’s one of the limitations a book has. So a compromise needs to made. I need to throw the reader a bone and say: ‘screw it, this dog-like thing, it’s a dog, okay? Let me spare you two paragraphs of explanation and just say ‘In the distance, a dog barked.’ Not a the howl of kakarinch. Not the percussive chee chee chee of a optryx. A dog.’ You’ll thank me for it later.

Let me tell you the tale of a young, enthusiastic writer who one day decided he was going to write about a fantasy world that wouldn’t have anything even remotely Tolkein-esque in it. In fact, he thought, I’ll set it all underground, a fantasy world that evolved away from the light. There’ll be no horses or dogs or cats. I mean, there’ll be humans, or human-like races, and they’ll have an easily recognisable society (one a plutocracy, one fundamentalist), so we won’t go too crazy. But definitely no horses, dogs or cats. Because they just wouldn’t be there. Right?

I was halfway through that book before I tossed it in the bin and started again. The reason that The Fade is written the way it’s written is entirely because of the reasons I stated above. Whichever way I cut it, there was loads of explanation necessary. Every little thing that Orna came up against needed a lengthy description, otherwise the reader wouldn’t know how it worked or why it was there. It drove me insane.

I only cracked it when I rewrote it so Orna starts the book in prison. That way, I got to show the reader a tiny space in the world, and gradually expand it through flashback, until by the time they got to the big panoramas they were thoroughly prepped for what they would see. The entire story changed in service to the world I’d set it in. And even then, the animals still ended up being fairly obvious analogues (flying ray-like things, big cuttlefish-like things, dog-like things, bear-like things they rode around on, etc)

People do sometimes question the relative lack of originality in the world of fantasy and SF. Why, when we have ALL OF POSSIBILITY to explore, do we end up narrowing ourselves into little mini-genres? It’s because there’s no point writing a book if no-one understands it. It’s because fantasy and science fiction only works if the reader has some real-world thing to relate it to. Sometimes, it’s better to make your world an easily recognisable one, so it doesn’t get in the way of the story. Better to tell a great hero story in a feudal, medieval setting than to have the same story buried under masses of description in a floating, upside-down clockwork world populated by ghosts.

Of course, none of this applies if you’re just writing a story for your own enjoyment. But if you’re writing it for someone else to read, then it’s a fact of life. Strange to think, as a writer, that imagination and words can actually be limiting. But there you have it.

* * *

Speaking of clockwork, the word on the street (by which I mean the aisles between publishers’ desks) is that steampunk is on its way back to your bookshelves in a big way. This is kinda funny, since only a year ago I was telling a bunch of people at the SFX show that calling a book ‘steampunk’ virtually guaranteed its death on the shelves, as was the accepted wisdom at the time. How things have changed.

I hope it’s true, since steampunk rocks. And the thing is, this might be the right time for it. I think it might actually be ready to storm the shelves. Why this strange and frankly unusual optimism? Well, because it’s been around for so long. Like vampires and werewolves, it’s seeped into the public consciousness. Movies like The Golden Compass, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Wild Wild West and the new Sherlock Holmes have come and gone, along with plenty of good, bad, and indifferent novels. Steampunk has never been a big hit on the bookshelves, but writers (and publishers, to their credit) have kept on trying. Steampunk is not unusual anymore. It’s familiar enough that your casual shelf-grazer might just pick one up and, instead of thinking ‘This is clearly not about Thongar the Barbarian or anything similar! Fie upon this tome!’ they’ll give it a go.

Who knows? I for one would prefer steampunk to paranormal romance, zombie fiction, or any of a dozen other tired sub-genres. Bring it on!


Random news:

The movie adaptation of Malice is progressing nicely. The screenwriter is working on the first draft of the script now and will probably deliver around the end of February, and we’ll see where we go from there.

I’ve spent the last couple of months knocking around some secret little projects, and discussing with publishers about my next book; I’ll let you know as and when something solid is in place.

I will definitely be at the SFX weekender, and more than likely showing my mug on a panel or two. It’s all being organised at the mo. Again, I’ll tell you as soon as I know.

I’ve received final copies of Havoc, resplendent in bilious green. Yay! As I posted elsewhere, is doesn’t have the big 3D cover of Malice because it would be prohibitively expensive to do that for both books in the series, but it’s still embossed so you can stroke Tall Jake and you’ll find him pleasingly tactile. Ahem.

The mass market paperback of Retribution Falls will come out in April in the UK (that’s the small, cheap paperback version). As a bonus, in addition to my lovingly crafted section on How To Play Rake, there will be included the Logbook Of The Ketty Jay, which was an informal prequel that I blogged online in the months before the book came out. Or you can just read it here for a taster. And if that’s not enough, there’ll also be the first chapter of The Black Lung Captain included.

Speaking of BLC, it’s been delivered to the publishers and I expect the edits back any second. That one will soon be in the bag, and I love it dearly…

I hope to be able to give to another update with some more definite news on proceedings and upcoming projects soon. Right at the moment it’s all about the behind-the-scenes machinations. Hang in there!

Gather ye!


For those who live in the UK, or who like to travel a long long way, two biggie SF/Fantasy conventions coming up.

First is the SFX Weekender on the 5th-6th of February. A celebration of all things SF-ey, this one takes place at an out-of-season Butlins Holiday Camp which, as chance would have it, I’ve been to back in the day, when I went to All Tomorrow’s Parties to see Lightning Bolt. And bizarrely, while googling them to provide a link, I found out that someone took a crappy recording of that very gig on their phone and stuck it on YouTube. It was better than that, honest. You can’t see me, I’m somewhere near the back being badass or something.

I digress.

The other is Eastercon, 2-5th April. The biggest fantasy/SF book con in the UK, and this time it’s in London, so I really have no excuse for not going.  I’ll be at both of them I should think, whether as a lurker or a participant. If conventions are your thing, come along.

Also, I’m not sure I like this.  If anyone tried to continue any series of mine after my death, they’d be in for a damn good haunting.

Mezza Crimbo

Slightly belated festive greetings to all you posters! Here’s hoping you’re reading this with a wad of refried turkey jammed in your mouth and stuffing leaking out your nostrils, wearing an expression of stupefied joy as you slide gently into a food coma that will last you till New Year’s…

I’ve been passing much of the Christmas season (when I’ve been sober enough to read, that is) with Mr Lovecraft and his squamous entities from beyond the illimitable reaches of spacetime. For those who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, I mean Gollancz’s rather beautiful (and very heavy) collected edition of Lovecraft’s tales, the Necronomicon. For those who don’t know who H.P.Lovecraft is, read the wiki, buy the book and allow his purple-prosed tales of the macabre to caress your face like so many chilly wet alien tentacles. I haven’t read his stuff for years and I’m very much enjoying it on the re-read.

Oh, yes. The title of this post? That’s ‘Merry Christmas’, tortured by our vile Midlands argot into something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. God knows how it came about but somehow it’s slipped into the lexicon round where I come from. Gotta love the English language, it’s so elastic. It lets us writers get away with murder, frankly…

Uncle Chris’s Writing Tips #2: The Protagonist Drives The Story, Dammit!

The demon leered at the boy. ‘Go through the door on the left, and you save your sweetheart, but your best friend dies. Go through the door on the right, and… well, you get it, right?’

The boy looked from one door to the other. ‘What if I just do nothing? What happens then?’

An expression of confusion crossed the demon’s face. ‘Er,’ he said. ‘No-one’s ever asked that before, actually. Well, you could just hang about, I suppose. But God knows what we’re gonna do with the other 300 pages in this book…’

This is one of those big, important rules that tricks beginner writers out time and time again. One that’s so obvious that it’s actually really easy to forget. The story is supposed to be about your hero. And heroes make choices.

Here’s the thing: what we’re interested in when we read a story is the decisions the characters make. If a boy’s father is cut down by invading marauders, we want to know if they’re going to pick up a sword and go the suicidal revenge route or escape and live to fight another day. Maybe they’ll sweep that tragedy under the rug, or maybe they’ll mercilessly hunt those marauders down ten years later. Maybe they’ll forgive themselves for being unable to defend daddy and get over their tragedy, or maybe they’ll nurse it and turn bitter. All those choices tell us who the character is. Witnessing a character’s actions is so much more important and effective that having the author tell us who they are and what they’re like (either directly or, God forbid, through the conversations of admiring sidekicks).

Nobody ever did anything by lying around like a spilled porridge slick. And if your hero is not really doing anything, then why tell a story about them? Why not tell the story about one of the peripheral characters instead?

Seems obvious, yes? But it’s actually something you have to keep your eye on, especially if you’re writing a fantasy or SF story. The writer can get so caught up in building an awesome world that they forget that the reader is primarily interested in the characters. It’s not enough to simply introduce an amazing new location or bizarre new monster every three chapters in the hope that it will sustain the reader’s interest for ever. The flashy stuff is cool and all, but what your readers really want to know is: is your hero gonna go and get revenge for his father’s death, or isn’t he?

The passive protagonist is basically the source of my annoyance in the last post. The hero who makes no choices is a boring one. There’s no personal stake in doing what your destiny dictates. And stakes are the other thing that makes a hero’s tale worth reading. Choices mean nothing if there’s no sacrifice involved.

Take the opening scene of this post. A classic Sophie’s Choice type of thing: you must choose between your lover and best friend, and whoever you don’t choose dies. Straightforward enough. But any power that lies in the scene comes from the groundwork the author has done beforehand. Hopefully, if they’re any good, they’ve made us love the sweetheart and admire the best friend as much as the hero does, and we don’t want to lose either. Just like he doesn’t. So now we’re biting our nails trying to work out how the hell he’s gonna get out of this predicament because he just can’t condemn one of them to death… can he?

Ah. That’s the choice. Is he clever enough to get out of it? Ruthless enough to choose one over the other? Noble enough to sacrifice his own life for theirs? That’s what we’re interested in. And it’s far more interesting than having the hero bust out a sword and go toe-to-toe with the demon, no matter how fiery and badass he may be.

So, a point to keep in mind. Who is your hero? If he/she isn’t making choices, why are they the hero at all? If he/she risks nothing by them, why do we care? The protagonist(s) are the engine of the story. Whether you’re writing fantasy, SF, crime or kitchen-sink drama, it’s the characters we care about, and the rest is just window-dressing.

Make sure the reader knows the stakes. We need to see how much the hero has to lose by their choices. Make sure the hero has choices to make. And make sure they’re hard. It’s their choices that move the story along, not the other way around. They should never be at the mercy of the plot: they make the plot.

Actions speak louder than words. It’s an oldie, but a goodie.

Uncle Chris’s Writing Tips #1: The Folly Of Wilful Obfuscation

‘Old man,’ said the boy, ‘you have hinted at my great and terrible destiny and the power within me that may one day save the world. Won’t you please tell me who I am, that I may defeat the Dark Lord in Chapter Six, instead of having to plough through another seven books before our climactic showdown? Because honestly, you haven’t really come up with any reason why you shouldn’t, and you clearly know all my secrets, so you may as well, yes?

The old man chuckled. ‘Patience, my boy. You will know when the time is right.’


It seems that I’ve read so many stories like this. The hero is pushed around from pillar to post, herded from plot point to plot point by a wise (read: frustratingly reticent) mentor or an array of weird and wonderful characters all of whom know more than he does but for some reason won’t tell him. This is usually cloaked by some guff about how he has to grow and learn before he’s ready to understand the true nature of his heritage/mystical power/whatever, but there’s an even more teeth-grindingly annoying tactic, which I shall call the Lost approach.

The Lost approach is as follows: whenever the One Who Knows All The Answers (in Lost‘s case, it’s Ben, leader of the Others) begins to finally crack and start dishing the dirt, he only gets as far as a few cryptic hints before there’s an earthquake/someone screams nearby/an abominable snowman attacks, at which point the heroes hurry off to deal with it. When they’re done, for some reason the moment has passed, and no-one thinks to say: ‘Hey, Ben, what were you just saying about the mysteries of the island, I mean, it was pretty important information, right? Sorry about that abominable snowman and all, but y’know, carry on, eh?’ Instead they are content with the few scraps they’ve been given until the next time the writers need to drop us another hint, at which point the whole thing begins again.

For God’s sake. Sayid was a professional torturer. They could have dispensed with pretty much all of season 3&4 (and the rest for all I know; I gave up on that show by that point) just by tying the guy to a chair and pulling his fingernails out. Instead, multiple friends and allies died just because no-one would man up enough to shoot him in the nuts and make him spill what he knew.

A little of this is okay. More than a little and I start to go crazy. It drives me insane when I find myself reading a protagonist who spends the whole book being shuttled from place to place, following the meagre clues given by his wiser co-stars, and usually complaining about it as they do so. ‘What’s it all about?’ they wonder. ‘Why me?’ Usually there’ll be some collateral damage on the way: a best friend or lover gets killed. The protagonist laments the tragedy of it all, never once thinking that if they hadn’t been spinelessly following the dictates of their mysterious elders then their lover wouldn’t have gotten killed in the first place. But it doesn’t matter, because by that point I’m so mad at the hero for being such an utter wimp that I’ve thrown the book into the fireplace and followed it up with a tactical nuclear strike. Many’s the time I wanted to kill the entire cast of Lost. Whatever torments they’re going through now, they deserve them all.

The thing is, in situations like this it’s impossible for me to avoid the feeling that I’m wasting my time. If I could have been told the whole situation up front, why do I need to plough through a whole book just to have the information drip-fed agonisingly into my brain?

The issue here is lazy plotting. Of course you shouldn’t reveal everything up front, and drip-feeding information is far better than dumping it on the reader in one great wodge. But it’s bad drama to have a wildcard in your story that appears in a cloud of dry ice whenever the story slows down, just to tell the hero what to do next (or to offer him a hint, which amounts to the same thing, except that perhaps the author thinks the reader doesn’t notice that way). The hero should discover these bits of information by themselves. They should be earned, not given.

That’s not to say you can’t have a mentor. You just can’t have a mentor that keeps his information from the hero he’s trying to help, for no convincing reason. A good mentor figure was Gandalf. Right up front he’s all: ‘Dude, that’s the One Ring you’ve got there, we need to go and lob it in Mount Doom, oh yeah, and there’s Black Riders coming to get you, etc etc.’ If he didn’t tell the hobbits something, it was usually because he didn’t know it at that point.

So next time you’re putting together a story and you’re tempted to give your hero a hidden destiny or similar, think to yourself: why on earth do the people who know not tell the hero everything? If you can’t think of better reason than ‘The hero’s not ready to know yet,’ then you’re heading for trouble. Be ruthless with yourself. It’s hard work to come up with ways to dramatise the steps your hero will have to take on his way to pounding the Dark Lord, but having them provided for you by one of your characters is a cop-out, and it will make your story suck in the end.

More on this in the next pithy drizzle of wisdom, entitled The Protagonist Drives The Story, Dammit!

Signing On Thursday – Update

Quick update for those who are coming to Forbidden Planet on Thursday. The Signing (it deserves a capital letter of its own, I’ll have you know) will start at 6 and last for an hour, not an hour or two as I said in the last post. So don’t be too fashionably late, or you’ll miss us!

Am busy making lots of little tweaks to The Black Lung Captain to ensure that it’s the usual flawless gem you’ve come to expect from me *cough*. It’s incredibly time-consuming hunting down rogue sentences in a haystack of 160,000 or so, but worth it in the end. And no matter how many times I do it, I still find bits that make me scream when I open up the finished copy.

In other news, Dragon Age: Origins is brilliant so far. I have calculated exactly how many hours in a week I can feasibly play it without getting disembowelled by my editor or dumped by my girlfriend, and then I play a dozen more 😉

Narrative in Video Games (or, Let The Professionals Have A Crack, Why Don’tcha?)

Last Friday, Dragon Age: Origins was released for the PC and XBox. It’s a game I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, since it was developed by a company called Bioware, and Bioware are, frankly, the kings of storytelling as far as videogames go. Tragically, I still haven’t got to play it: my PC is too slow to run it properly, and I’ve heard the PS3 version is better than the XBox one, so I’m waiting for that. It comes out in a couple of weeks, which should neatly coincide with my delivery of the first ‘proper’ draft of The Black Lung Captain. Simple chance, or evidence of a divine intelligence that plays videogames? You decide.

The reason I’m excited is because Bioware is one of the only software companies I can think of that habitually treat videogames as a proper storytelling medium (the others are Black Isle – now defunct – and Bethesda Softworks). Videogames outsold movies for the first time ever last Christmas, and it’s an industry that’s growing fast, but a huge percentage of games released annually are still the same old stuff they’ve been churning out for years, with a fresh gloss slapped over the top. It seems that the only excuse anyone needs to come up with a new FPS (first person shooter, for those who don’t know) is some minor tweak of physics or slight graphical improvement. In this one, you can fight in zero gravity! In this one, you can absorb powers from your enemies. But wait, this one is set in the 60s! And this one has comic-style graphics.

People. They’re the same game. Most of them use the same game engine (the Havok engine, in case you care) which is why most of them, underneath the graphics, behave in a familiar way. I have the same problem with RTS (real time strategy) games. Dress ’em up all you like: in the end you’re only playing Command & Conquer Episode 27.

So why, you may ask, do I have a PC and an XBox and a PS3? After all, I’m evidently so cynical about the games market that I hardly ever use them, right? It’s because occasionally, perhaps once or twice a year, I find a game that does the kind of thing that I know videogames are capable of. A game that swallows you up, something that is more than just an orgy of repetitive destruction or a sequence of missions to be completed. Something that is more entertaining and absorbing than reading a book or watching a film. Usually – not always, but usually – it’s by one of the companies I mentioned above. Because they know how to tell a story.  Most other developers don’t bother. And by ignoring that aspect of videogaming, I truly believe they’re shooting themselves in the foot.

The most important thing, as an author, is to make your reader care about your characters. If you do that, then they’ll follow you wherever you like. If you don’t, you don’t have a chance. Similarly, screenwriters will allow us time to get to know the protagonist of a movie before the action kicks in. Otherwise, why do we care when their daughter gets kidnapped? Without that setup, it would be as emotionally engaging as reading about the kidnapping in a newspaper.

Videogames have an advantage over both mediums, because the gamer doesn’t need to be persuaded to empathise with the protagonist. Since they have control over the character, they automatically invest a portion of themselves in it. That little bundle of pixels becomes an avatar: the player’s representation in the game world.  That’s the hugely important difference between videogames and any other popular storytelling medium. In books or films, you are shown only what the author or director chooses to show you; you have no control; you’re a passenger. Games are the only medium in which you get to participate in the story (well, aside from Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, but we’ll leave them aside for now).

We shouldn’t underestimate the strength of that. I remember creeping through old houses in Resident Evil, terrified out of my wits, because my little avatar might get attacked at any moment by a zombie hiding in a cupboard. I knew nothing about the protagonist. The worst thing that would happen was that I would have to reload my last saved game when I died. But the psychological trick that put me in that house was enough to make me feel scared even when my character was barely a character at all.

Given that, wouldn’t it have been that much more powerful if I had known something about the character? If I’d cared about them, even a little?

The point is, the games player is begging to empathise. They’re primed and ready for it. In a situation like that, surely it would be easy for someone – say, a professional author, who was used to eliciting empathy in the much tougher medium of print – to grab that games player and twang his heartstrings like a lute until he was blubbering into his D-Pad?

Well, probably it would. The trouble is that games companies, like many major film companies, have traditionally regarded the story – and the writer – as the least important element of the package. The gameplay is the most important thing. Graphics, level design, game physics. The story? Well, it’s just there to tack together all those awesome levels we’ve just created. Give it to the office junior; he’ll do it.

Rhianna Pratchett, one of the few writers who gets a lot of work in the videogame field, sums it up nicely:

“Gameplay and story can sometimes have quite different goals that can often see them fighting for space. And nine times out of 10, story loses. It’s really about finding the common ground between the two and thinking about story early enough in the development cycle that it can properly fit together with the gameplay. Not just lie on top of it like a kind of narrative custard.”

Gameplay and story are not exclusive. They just have to be made to work together. The Half-Life franchise married the FPS genre with a good storyline, and allowed the player to learn about the world and the story by making it part of the action. That’s why it won a bazillion industry awards and still sells tons of copies today, whereas the technically superior Doom franchise has languished. Taking it further is Bethesda, whose Elder Scrolls titles have swept up awards over and over. Bethesda specialise in creating massive open worlds, and allowing the player freedom to do what they like in them. There’s a story there, if you want to follow it. If not, fine: there are plenty of other sub-stories you can follow. Hell, just go into the forest and punch out a bear, if you like.

That brings me to another important difference between books and films and videogames. Books and films are linear narratives. Games can be, but they can also be what’s called a sandbox or open-world setting, in which the player can behave as I described above. Many games fall in between – basically linear, but offering the illusion of freedom, or comprised of small sandbox ‘episodes.’ Either way, it requires a whole new take on storytelling. Instead of telling the player what they see, games companies are forced to create an interactive world and let the player discover. Since you can’t predict what the player will do, every angle has to be covered. I personally find this idea very exciting. Lack of linearity makes a traditional narrative hard, but you can instead have multiple narratives that the player explores at their own pace.

Now I’m not saying that every game needs to have a great story. Sometimes games are just games. But most games would have been improved by a great story. Half-Life wouldn’t be the phenomenon it is today without it: it would have been just another Doom or Wolfenstein. And I’m also not saying that any old writer can drop in off the street and understand how a videogame narrative works: Raymond E. Feist and Orson Scott Card have both been involved in videogames back in the day, with underwhelming results (though, to be honest, I don’t know how much input they were really allowed). But professional writers, in general, are well practiced at making people care about their creations, and they’re very good at telling stories. If the industry at large started using that resource, then the world of gaming might be that little bit more original, and a lot more absorbing.

And really, there’s no reason not to. Games nowadays, like movies, are multi-million dollar affairs. The hiring of a writer is the cheapest part of the package when compared to the millions spent on middleware and coding time. And, just like with films, that little bit of money and time can turn an average game into a good one, and a good one into a classic.

Luckily, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Some people in the industry, aside from those companies I’ve already mentioned, are waking up to the potential of storytelling in videogames. Electronic Arts, in particular, have begun looking into ways to get professional writers onto videogame projects at early stages of development. I hope it catches on. Not only for my own sake (can’t you tell yet that I’d love to get in on that action?) but for the industry as a whole. The first gaming generation, of which I am a part, never stopped playing them, you see.  We’re in our thirties now. We want grown-up stories, not simplistic dialogue and clumsy drama used as a bridge between one bout of carnage and another. Games are becoming incredibly sophisticated now, but the stories that power them are lagging behind. You wouldn’t get a plumber to wire up your electrics, would you? So get the professionals in!