This will be the second blogpost in which I’ll reference our still undisclosed new game we’re working on. I can reveal a little more information about it: It will be an RPG. And when you’re creating an RPG two things stand out:
1. It is content heavy, meaning you’ll need tons of assets
2. It needs a story, and that’s what I’m going to talk about in this post
Having a story before you create a game greatly helps the development. As I described earlier in another post you start to ask different questions. As a programmer I want to know HOW I fight a certain enemy, but with the outlines of a story on paper you also start asking the question WHY am I fighting him, and WHY in this cellar. This makes the cohesion of the game much better.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
I am not a writer! I’m a programmer. I did win a regional short story writing contest when I was nine, and again a local one when I was eleven, but that doesn’t count. I never took the time to write stories again after I started high school, because by than I already started programming.
But I do have a story in my head, and it is stuck there for more than two decades now. It’s frustrating that I don’t have the skill-set to deliver the story on paper. It’s like giving birth to a child, but it never plops out, it’s stuck halfway through and it hurts.
The story in my head consists of rudimentary outlines of a land/territory and some character backgrounds. It even influenced some of the games we created at Jagaco, but also the other way around. The games influenced and fleshed out some of the characters or regions in the land of my story.
November 16th, 2014 I finally started to write some words of that story on paper, only to pick it up again in 2018.
At the end of 2018 (December 9th to be precise) I started writing more serious together with two of my colleagues of the Hague University. One of which is a published writer and helped me a lot in the beginning on how to get my ideas on paper. We had writing contests which meant we needed to produce 15.000 words in one month and the loser would cook dinner for the others. I despise cooking, so it motivated me to win all three contests.
Writing as a programmer
“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”
Like I’ve mentioned before I’m a programmer, so I plan my writing as such. I did a lot of research beforehand. I researched the length of different genres of books, how many words per paragraph are most common, even the amount of words per page (which is highly dependent on the form factor of the printed book). But I like those numbers, it gives me targets and structure in my creative process.
I also meticulously took care of the layout of my pages, the font, how the footer looked, how my drop cap at the beginning of my chapter looked, etc. But I’ve read online that real writers have that same problem too when they start a new book and “waste” way too much time on those unimportant issues.
I’ve set myself a soft target of 150,000 words for the story (I deliberately don’t call it a book) and around 40 chapters. When you start writing that is a staggering amount of words! But gradually you start to outline your story, and as of the day before yesterday (august 2nd) I’ve hit the 60,000 words mark. When I’ve started I would have never guessed I would ever get to that amount. In the beginning I’ve used “explorative writing” which is a fancy way of saying that you don’t have a pre-emptive plan. I just started jotting out words, setting up scenes, describing characters, etc. But you will hit a wall eventually and you’ll need a plan (more on that later).
Show don’t tell
“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”
The golden rule in writing is “Show don’t tell”. I didn’t know that rule before my colleague explained it to me. Here is a difference:
Tell: “She was sad.”
Show: “Her lip trembled, and her eyes burned as she tried to keep her tears at bay.”
Do you see the difference? The “show” reads much nicer and gives the reader room to fill in their own emotions. And as a writer you always want to trigger emotional reactions at your reader.
But “ show don’t tell” doesn’t always work. The protagonist in my story is a 12 year old boy. And the deuteragonist is 27 years old (I deliberately don’t give more information about either of them at this moment). When you apply the rule show don’t tell when they first meet and the 27 year old starts to describe how the 12 year old boy looks (because that’s the “show”) and you read it back afterwards it’s very creepy. So I only apply that rule to scenes:
Tell: “The house was really old”
Show: “The years were not easy on the building. The roof had collapsed and the walls were crumbling. Slowly nature was reclaiming the structure.”
Again the second one sounds better does it? It paints a picture in your head.
“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into someone’s head.”
The biggest dread for me is showing my story to others. It’s your baby, your creation, and others are going to judge it. But you must get feedback from others to improve on it. I must admit it took me a long time to gather the nerve to show my story to only the people I really trust. But even than it was scary as hell.
I’ve given an early version of my story to Wilco, who devours multiple books a week. And do you know the rule when you see a baby? When the baby looks good, you can say “What a cute baby”, but when it is butt-ugly you say “It is such a sweet baby”. The difference is subtle, but it’s there.
Well, when Wilco gave me back my story he said the equivalent of “it’s very sweet”. Ouch… He was deliberately very careful with his words, but in between the lines I knew. And is was a setback for me, it demotivated me instead of getting the motivation to improve. Maybe I shouldn’t put time in something that I’m not good at, maybe I should just stick to programming…
But after a few months of not writing a word, during which I did read about writing on the internet, I found out an important thing to know about “first versions” of a story. It’s only a sketch, it’s a way of telling the story to yourself. It couldn’t be rougher that the first version. And Wilco is used to reading finished books, not drafts. It’s like comparing The Night Watch of Rembrandt with a few pencil lines on paper. And that gave me the confidence to start writing again.
When I read back the first draft myself, I recognize that it is really rough. I’ve taken the time to “set the scene” (and not even that good in some occasions), but there is very little interaction between characters. And another thing I’ve noticed: In real life I’m conflict avoiding and that showed in the first draft too. But conflicts should be there to make a story interesting! So knowing that I’m adding those two things to my second version, adding a little colour to my sketch, but it’s still a long way of a finished painting!