The Rise of the Iron Moon in Hindsight

Cover art Via Goodreads.com

I think The Rise of the Iron Moon by Stephen Hunt was intended to be a sci-fi pulp adventure novel, but for the first half of book I had no real idea what was going on and by the time it became clear it was nothing more than cliches, dues ex machina and technobabble.  I found myself wanting to finish it as fast as possible – not because I was enjoying it, but because I wanted to read something else.

According to the rear cover of the book, the story follows Purity Drake – last of her royal bloodline – who finds herself on the run after accidentally escaping a parliamentary prison.  She becomes embroiled in a war between the Kingdom of Jackals and the mysterious ‘Army of Shadows.’ By ‘embroiled’ I , of course, mean she becomes a side character with no meaningful dialogue or character development until half way through where she becomes a Dues ex machina dispenser with no meaningful dialogue or character development.

I must admit it started interestingly enough with Purity’s escape, but I couldn’t help but feel cheated when all the excitement and set up of the first chapter was quickly washed away and ignored.  You’d think a highly prized political prisoner killing a guard and escaping would have some kind of reaction from the powers that be, but apparently Purity changing her clothes was enough to throw her enemies off her scent so none of it ever needed be mentioned again.

After series choppy and dissatisfying character introductions that can only be described as a ‘Maelstrom’ , the story begins to settle and decides to follow Molly Templar, an author of ‘Celestial fiction’ and her friends Commodore Black and Coppertracks. (Coppertracks, a robot, is ironically the most developed and interesting character in the book.) We follow Molly as she attempts to stop the destruction of her world by sailing across the celestial voids to the Army of Shadows home world in  search for the ultimate weapon that will allow them to crawl from the war victorious.

Meanwhile, back on earth, Purity Drake discovers she has some dialogue and, also, has the power to ‘rewrite the equations of matter’ with her Dues ex machina sword the ‘maths-blade’ and a convoluted technobabble explanation about how everything is a ‘mathematical construct’ and that Purity can bend reality by ‘rewriting the equations that underlay the world’ as if they lived in the matrix.  With her new Dues ex machina, Purity decides to take the fight to the enemy.

So our heroines advance towards their respective goals and play out their individual plans, and finally come face –to-face with the main antagonists who claim to be the ‘ultimate form of human evolution.’ Then there is some exposition about Evolution that reads like it was written by the Creationist propaganda department, and some plot reveals about time travel that create far more paradoxes and questions than it answers.

The writing itself was more often confusing than not, and I remember having to re-read passages numerous times to understand what was going. I’m also sure I spotted dialogue that had the wrong names attached, but there is no real way to be sure. The book was filled with technobabble and psudoscience to the point where it was downright annoying – Don’t get me wrong, I never fault a book for failing to explain things scientifically. I read Fantasy, after all – but if scientific words and concepts are going to be used they should be employed properly.

Overall, The Rise of the Iron Moon is a mess of a book. The Plot is convoluted and confusing at worst, bland and clichéd at best. The writing is no better, filled with run-on sentences and confusing metaphors. Next time someone tells me Self-published books are all bad because there is no quality control, I’m going to have them read this.

Game Writing 101

Growing up with a love for both books and video games, I was always disappointed at the quality of the stories found in my games.  Games had the gameplay, while books had the plot – the two never really mixed. Sure, there are a handful of games with top-notch plots behind them, and it could be argued that for some games the story is irrelevant (and in some cases, rightly so.) But I always wanted that little bit more from my games, and it was disappointingly rare to find a gem that delivered. Even rarer to find a game that shines in both aspects, story and gameplay.

But it wasn’t until I tried to write my own game plot that I realized just how hard it is.

Let me explain – I am one half of an indie game-development team called ‘Nightfall Studios,’ and for the past few years we have been working on our first game ‘Shadow of a Second Sun’ – I had been involved in it from the beginning, but my biggest contribution was writing the plot and several ‘faction plots’/subplots/sidequests.

When I set out to work on the plot, I really wanted to come up with a good game plot that could drive a long campaign forward and bring out the best a game can offer. The standard for game stories has been set depressingly low, and because I come from a novel-writing background and consider plotting to be the strongest aspect of my writing I decided to treat it like a novel. I would write a plot that evolves, captures and holds interest and makes the player  feel for the characters involved in the story – just like any good novel.  However, there were a few major differences between novel and game writing I quickly learned to keep in mind…

First of all, there is the question of what can be portrayed in the context of a game.  In a novel the writer can portray almost anything with the clever use of words, and they can  jump from place to place, character to character to show a reader different events happening at different times, far away from each other. The entire purpose of a novel is to tell a story, and it is perfectly suited to doing that. A game, however, is a little more restricted.

I wanted to have the story develop and evolve around the player as they play the game, as opposed to having segments of story and play with relatively little to do with each other.  I was able to achieve this in two ways – First, I made sure everything I wrote could be portrayed in the game. This means I stuck to a single characters point of view and didn’t write anything that required programming or extra game features to implement. Working within the context of the game mechanics  is very important, and being mindful of that allowed me to write a plot that can be written into the game without changing and reworking core game mechanics and systems. In fact, I was able to actively use the mechanics of the game in the plot.

Second, I use a lot of characters to inform the player of what is going on in the world around them. This is the first major deviance from my ‘write it like a novel’ philosophy, as in a novel it would be a blatant break of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule.  However, it is justified in the context of a game where it is impossible to show the same amount of detail possible in a novel.

The second concern was the question of interactivity. Unlike a novel, where the story is the sole attraction, a game is based on interactivity with the player – indeed, that is what makes it a game. While writing the plot, I had to keep this in mind – the primal purpose of a plot is to give context and purpose to what the player is doing.

Here, I used the concept of ‘modular plotting’ – the idea was to give the player a goal to work towards, and let them follow it themselves.  In addition to this, I tried to make the plot events themselves as playable as possible, so that the player was actively working towards their goal in the game, instead of simply running between cut scenes.  This created two kinds of gameplay – ‘plot’ gameplay, where the player is playing directly for the advancement of the plot – be it delving deep into a dungeon to recover something, escaping capture, to raiding an enemy fortress – and ‘world gameplay’ where the player is exploring the world, making their way from one point to another.

The story was written to have all the aspects of a good novel, so that if I wanted to I could write a book from it – but gameplay-story integration was also a high priority. The balance between these two demands was hard to get right at first, but I’m confident we have stuck it (or are very close). It’s a compelling plot with all the Themes, characters, emotion and connection as a novel, but happens within the context of a playable and evolving world where the player makes their own decisions and, most importantly, plays the game.

So, there is a little about how the plot for Shadow of a Second Sun was written.  Next time, I’ll talk more about the plot itself, and difficulties with character.

I thought I’d end this post with a short list of some of my favorite story driven games. So, in no particular order, here goes:

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones – I love all FE games, but Sacred stones if my favorite.

Legend of Zelda:  Majora’s Mask -The Zelda games are very Similar, But Majoras mask is a stand out story-wise. Ocarina of time is my favorite, overall.

Bastion  – Bastion has a good story, but the really impressive part is the way it is told and explored through the game.

Metro 2033 – Metro 2033 is perhaps one of my Favorite games. It has a Brilliant story, brilliantly told –with most of the plot unfolding naturally around the player – it is Linear, but it doesn’t feel like you are being pushed though a set plot. The Narration between chapters is just the icing on the top.

Arcanum of Steamworks Obscura  – a Great RPG. Maybe I’m a little Bias because I love anything Steampunk. It’s a Good example of a story the player has a huge effect on, where player choices have significant and permanent effect on the plot and world.

World In Conflict – Proves RTS games can have good stories.

Half-Life 2 – Another prime example of the story evolving right in front of the players eyes.  Like Metro 2033, everything seems to naturally fall into place.  (A bit of a ‘gaming confession’ – I haven’t played Half life 1. I know – terrible, right?)

What story based games to you know? Leave any game suggestions or comments below! 

Why I Write

Today, a friend asked me where I get the will to sit down and write. Here is a (refined) Copy of the answer I gave:

I write because it’s what I love. Well, there is more to it than that, but that’s certainly the first step.

And if that is the first step, then next are inspiration and confidence.  I love my characters, I love my stories, I love my settings – and I really think that, once I have it all written down, other people will love it too. When I’m planning something, I make sure that every character, every scene, every theme – everything that goes into it – is awesome, even on its own. I make sure every sentence I put down is something I would enjoy reading.  Then, when everything has been combined into a novel, I know I’ve come out with something awesome.  And that Inspires me. It is important for me to be inspired by what I’m writing about, and by the characters. It’s important I feel for my characters – because if I don’t, how can I expect readers to?

But the actual task of sitting down and writing? The act of pushing keys until words form, and doing that over and over until I have a string of letters that make some sense? That can be hard, sometimes. I’m Lazy. It’s easier for me to browse the internet, or watch a movie. Heck, it’s easier for me to sit around and stare blankly at my plot outline imagining everything as a movie (or rather, Imagining everything as an anime). Sometimes I’ll sit and write a few sentences or a paragraph and then get distracted and float away. Sometimes I’ll stare at the blinking cursor then decide to check my e-mail, then Facebook, then whatever else I can do to avoid writing.

Out of everything I do as a writer, starting is the hardest part. So I give myself a goal and promise myself a reward, just to start. I force myself into it. Just grit your teeth and do it, I think. And then, a few minutes later, I’m fully immersed in writing and nothing can pull me away until I hit the next bump. Then, usually, it’s off to see what shiny things are on the internet (it’s amazing how much more productive I am when I unplug the Ethernet cable). Sometimes I delete the last paragraph and re-write it from memory, as close as I can, just to get my fingers moving on the keys and my brain ‘into gear.’ Sometimes I do some reading before I write, Sometimes I log onto LegendFire and give a short critique. Sometimes I just listen to music.

But what drives me? Where do I find the will to do any of it, at all? There is no real easy answer to that question.  I could say that I write because it’s what I love, because it’s ‘my thing,’ but that ignores the fact I fantasize about giving people I know a copy of my book.  That ignores the fact I fantasize about seeing myself in the bookstore.  It’s true, though. I do write because it’s what I love, and even if no one could ever read it, I’d still spend hours tapping away.  Writing, Just the simple act of writing, gives me an amazing feeling I can’t get from anything else. I can look back after hours of work and think ‘I wrote that, I created that. Without me, that would not exist.’ Maybe writing is my way of proving I exist. I write, therefore I am. Maybe. But even if every word I put down was to be erased at my death, I’d still write. Showing my work gives me an amazing feeling, too – being read, having another sentient Life-form read and enjoy something I wrote. The feeling is pure euphoria.

I guess it all comes down to this. I write because that’s me. Its who i am, it defines me. I know that sounds cliché and useless, and maybe it is.

But that’s really the only answer a writer can give.

 

I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my greatest inspirations:

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

– George Orwell, ‘Why I Write.‘ 

Joyeux anniversaire monsieur Verne!

Oh marvelous day!

For those not in the know, Today, the 8th of February, is the 184th birthday of Monsieur Jules Verne – French Author and Pioneer of Science fiction.

This fan plans to celebrate the birthday of his favorite author by reading two short stories, ‘ A Drama in the Air’ and ‘The Blockade Runners’ – both available (with many of Verne’s works) freely and legally though project Gutenberg – even in English.

So – Happy Birthday Jules Verne!

 

On a semi-related note, I hope Google translate is worth its salt.