It’s been another long dearth of posts, but I assure you, it’s for a good reason. When we last left our intrepid writer, he was modifying Civil Blood‘s sequel to match up with real-world molecular biology. What’s been going on since then?
Writing. Lots of it. By day, I’m working away on Wayfinder for Airship Syndicate. I recently graduated from contract writer to full-time senior writer, and the game is closing in on its Early Access date. Therefore, for the first time in a few years, you might be able to play a game and see my dialogue and text, out in the wild.
By evening, I’m writing the second installment of the Skia Project, the technical name for the world of Civil Blood. I’m not a fast writer, but I’ve gotten up to about 38,000 words, with a target goal of 100,000 to 130,000. That’s about the same size as Civil Blood, which clocked in around 129,000 and fit into just under 400 pages. Naturally, just because I reach the end of the novel doesn’t mean I click on Amazon’s buttons and hit “upload” right away. I put Civil Blood through about ten drafts before I felt it had the punch it needed: pacing, stakes, beautiful turns of phrase. The sequel might not take quite as many drafts, but I don’t want to skimp on quality. The “too long, didn’t read” here is that I’m making good progress, and I’m committed to it.
But oh, are there other projects percolating in my brain. I’ve had not one, but two dreams — literal dreams — about Shadowrun projects that made me wake up and say, “Huh. Could I write that?” It turns out independent authors have been invited to contribute to the game’s universe with a profit-sharing deal, and the temptation is strong. I will probably focus on my own universe for the foreseeable future… but never say never.
And then there’s my daily shot glass of nostalgia. This year has hit me hard with good memories of tabletop roleplaying games. Let me break down just how much TTRPGs have meant to me this year:
1) I play an MMO in which I run into TTRPG gamers all the time. On the Everlasting server in City of Heroes: Homecoming I met up with the players who play Vampire: The Masquerade and Legend of the Five Rings characters. This got me telling stories of the best V:TM tabletop campaign I was ever in, and I thought, “You know, that’d make for an okay series of blog posts, both to amuse the players and help Storytellers with some basic principles.” So I’m posting that ASAP.
2) The Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves movie came out, and it was everything I wanted the 2000s D&D movie to be. I wish it had been more profitable, but I’ll take what I can get.
3) I ended up following some topics on Quora, Reddit and Twitter, and the trifecta means I end up reading conversations about the TTRPG scene, which I haven’t been in for a long time. Doesn’t matter that most of the talk is about D&D and not my preferred games, I still grok the language, and have nothing against the big dog.
4) My son is getting to be an age where his friends are starting to play. We had a boffer-stick LARP birthday party for him, and it was highly successful — no crying, no excluded kids, the teams were even, a generally great experience. Our family tried Werewolf: The Apocalypse during the pandemic quarantine as a way to pass the time without interacting with other kids, but that’s a distant memory now. He’s going to try D&D later this summer.
5) Some of the Bioware fans have found me on Twitter and they ping me with Codex questions and the like, so I’m not escaping that world any time soon, either.
6) Wayfinder is a fantasy RPG that reminds me of some of the high school AD&D games I used to play in. One of the main writers is Keith Baker of Eberron fame, so fantasy RPGs are in the DNA of everything we do.
So, with all that said, I’m going to walk down memory lane with the Shot Glass of Nostalgia page. Because while I have new stories to tell, there is value in the old ones. And to all those who have never heard them… perhaps they will smile as well.
We will start with a vampire buffalo. Or, at least, a would-be vampire buffalo, and why my wife was Prince of a city and never got deposed.
It’s time for a sequel update! While many, many things have been coming at me (COVID, house problems, new car!), I have indeed been making time for Civil Blood‘s sequel. Of course, I’ve also been de-stressing with my favorite game, City of Heroes. But in a strange coincidence, both converged, in an unexpected and delightful way.
A little background: one of my characters is Amir al-Madani, also known as the Milk Sheik. He made an appearance in Unidentified Funny Objects 8 (shameless plug!), but before that he was just a character I fooled around with on the live servers. In his biography window, I mention that he’s a microbiologist from the United Arab Emirates, who got his regenerative powers through radiation and can heal any injury as long as he gets to drink milk, sort of like Popeye and his spinach but less macho.
One night I was hanging out before a raid, and a player called “Pulsar Kitty” pinged me and essentially said, “Hey, I read your bio. Are you a molecular biologist in real life?”
I replied “No, I just write a lot and have some friends who are doctors,” and so forth. But what she said next surprised me: “Drat. I’m actually a microbiologist, and I work on viruses all the time, and I was hoping to find someone to talk to.”
“Oh.” I said, my interest piqued. It was time to converse with the catgirl! “Well, I wrote a novel involving a vampire virus, and I’m always willing to blab about it.” I figured since she was playing a superhero MMORPG she’d be cool with fantasy and science fiction.
It turned out, not only had she read about vampire viruses, she’d read a Shadowrun novel featuring HMHVV, the Human-Metahuman Vampiric Virus, which of course I knew about because of my time writing Shadowrun. (Long story there.) So we even had a common point of reference. I e-mailed her a copy of Civil Blood, and we got started discussing the sequel. Particularly the worldbuilding surrounding qi-positive European Bat Lyssavirus-4, the cause of Virally Induced Hematophagic Predation Syndrome. Because it’s similar to, but emphatically not HMHVV.
Some writers would just say “it’s magic, it works how I want it to.” That’s their prerogative. But it’s not how I like to do things. So I started kicking the tires on my world and asking the questions I needed to ask. Questions like:
How long would it be before a vampire who had to feed once every 10-14 days or so and had a practically guaranteed infection each time managed to contaminate a serious chunk of the population?
Can a virus provide amazing benefits like super strength and healing to the human body without being tailored to do so? If so, how could it naturally occur?
How could a virus this infective not shape human history in an obvious way, if it existed before qi (magic) was proven to exist?
Is it possible for an accident to release this virus on the world, or does it need some kind of retconned conspiracy and nefarious motives just to be plausible?
Well, Dr. Kitty went to town on the manuscript. And I was pleased to find out that my story held up okay. I thought I’d share some of the answers here, because, well, they’re neat.
Question 1: How Fast is the Vampocalypse?
As some of my beta readers pointed out, in a straight-up 100% rate of infection every 10 days, the numbers create a lot of doubling. First one vampire bites another, then two have to feed in the next 10 days, then four, then eight. You end up in the billions after about 32 weeks. It’s even worse if there are some vipes addicted to blood who become superspreaders.
Fortunately, the situation in Civil Blood allows for a slower pandemic. There are several factors at play.
Imprecise Numbers: Infinity got about eleven days off of one notable bite in Civil Blood, and she might have lasted two full weeks if she pushed it. There’s also a line in the chapter where she reads BRHI’s experimental notes that say “subject went torpid after thirty-two days without blood” indicating that a vipe could survive more than twice as long in extremes, though they would probably be miserable doing so. While that would not be the norm, every day counts in a massive population boom like this.
Bullets: After a month or so (only 4-8 infections) , someone at the Benjamin Rush Health Initiative did the math and started putting together the Forced Protection team to stop the spread. Somewhere around 16-32 vipes, they started nipping them in the bud, first with capture and restraints, then with targeted killings. Though this started in the D.C. area, it expanded eventually to other cities. BRHI has made a lot of bodies by the end of the first novel. Ranath is said to have “dropped the hammer more times than John Henry.”
When the media break the story four years after Patient Zero, police start being able to recognize vipes for what they are and imprison or kill them. Citizens form vigilante gangs for self-protection, which may cut down on feeding or lower the vipes’ numbers through straight-up murder. A very small percentage of vipes might be lost to cases of individual victims defending themselves. An equally small number might be lost to attrition if they take their cues from popular culture, think they’re immortal, and try to survive a jump off a bridge or some similarly stupid stunt. Again, every vipe taken off the board counts.
Psychology: Many vipes feed first on those closest to them when they lose control, and this can be incredibly traumatizing if the victim is a family member or friend. Some vipes will refuse to drink blood again, instinct be damned. This means they might go comatose and starve to death, or commit suicide. I don’t know exact numbers, but the number of people who’d take themselves out would be much higher than the general population, more on par with active shooters or incarcerated felons.
Jessica’sOld Multi-Bite Trick: Jessica introduces Infinity and Morgan to a technique for vipes feeding off of one another. Sure, it has diminishing returns, but it helps greatly. When Infinity came home after feeding, she could lose blood enough to feed about six other vipes without permanent damage. Since they drank from her wound and not a fresh victim, this slows the number of new infections. Morgan and Jessica, who maintained contact with networks of vipes, no doubt publicized this method in the hopes of minimizing harm.
Question 2: Viruses With Benefits
So, can a virus, with a little magical boost, naturally cause bone ossification and muscle growth so a vipe is strong like a human-sized chimpanzee? “Well, heck,” says Dr. Kitty, “Why don’t we take a look at HERV-K?”
Fun fact: there are viruses in your DNA. Yes, yours. Right now. At various points in human evolution, viruses infected us and used something called reverse transcriptase to insert their RNA into the DNA of our genome. But if they don’t kill the host, and they don’t impair them enough to prevent reproduction, and also if the body can’t stop the infection, sometimes the virus gets integrated into us, like a rude guest who gets adopted. This has happened so often throughout human history that about 8% of our genome is virus code. Like HERV-K.
HERV stands for Human Endogenous Retrovirus — the “K” is a label for which one, since there are a lot of them. “Endogenous” means it’s a part of us now. It entered our genome when we were primates about 30 million years ago, before we were even Homo sapiens. In some cells, if HERV-K turns active, it’s very dangerous and can cause problems like testicular cancer. But during reproduction, if it’s working right, it allows a woman to safely grow a placenta. This is naturally occurring… well, natural as of 30 million years ago. It was selected for. No nefarious genius with a laboratory needed.
So… do you think viruses can have complex benefits? Because one made you possible.
Question 3: How Come We Haven’t Seen EBL-4/VIHPS Before?
This was a thorny one, because the world of Civil Blood is not like the tabletop RPG Shadowrun. There is no great cycle of magic that infuses the world, disappears, and comes back. Qi, in Civil Blood, is a supernatural science that had a breakthrough and though it has always been there, humans can now measure it and manipulate it clearly. But… there’s a way for the virus to be old and yet new at the same time.
In prehistory, EBL developed a super-infective strain. But just because something is super-infective doesn’t mean it’s going to spread all around the world. It could have appeared in isolated communities, or spread like wildfire and then burned out, because it comes with a limitation — a vipe needs to drink blood fresh from the wound of another living, squirming human. If they don’t, they get aggressive after a couple of weeks and then their body starts to suffer. By 14 to 32 days, they start getting lethargic and comatose. (Ask me about unstable antitoxins and stable toxins in selfish genetic sequences. G’wan, I dare you.)
So if they don’t have a food supply, the epidemic is going to fizzle out. And in a time period before cities, highways, and even the domestication of horses, a lot of vipes are going to keel over before they find enough prey to keep the cycle going. It’s much more of a supercharged pandemic in the modern day. In prehistory? It might not even show up in the fossil record.
Question 4: So How Did Ulan Release the Plague?
So it’s possible the progenitor to EBL got into humans, and over time, adapted to them. One strain could have mutated into a less infective version but stayed in the human germline, giving resistance to the nastier version until the vipes all died out. With no selective pressure to change, the virus would stay in humans until some could have transferred over to European bats, some of whom could eat trash covered in human saliva. The bats are where Dr. Ulan found European Bat Lyssavirus-4, and she could have, in the process of collecting data on the virus and taking out portions with targeted bombardments of yin qi, recreated the original sequence.
Recreating the original sequence is bad.
Bang. Super-infective qi-positive EBL-4 is back, and the clock starts with her as Patient Zero.
So When’s the Novel Coming Out?
That’s a question I don’t think I’ll answer. There’s going to be a lot more to the sequel than this, but it’s been a long time since I gave a substantive Civil Blood update. Here’s hoping I whetted your appetites.
2023 started off, for me, with some seriously annoying moments. Key among them was my son catching COVID around January 3rd. We tried to isolate him in his room, and started wearing masks even when going from one room to another in the house. But my wife (Jennifer) and my daughter (Beverly) caught it anyway, which really sucked. Beverly’s case was pretty mild — she’s had it before, in the summer of 2022 — but it hit my wife like a truck, and we had to get her on Paxlovid to kill off the brain fog, the body aches, and fever. Some nine days later, the kids started testing negative and so did Jenny… until the rebound hit, which is a known danger with Paxlovid. After 5 more days of feeling like utter garbage and an additional 5 of isolation, she’s still not at 100%. Her job now is to concentrate on getting better.
Well, on day 1 I had a negative test. And day 2 I had another. And then I kind of had a runny nose from breathing the humid inside of a mask on day 3, but still tested negative. Days 4-6 my nose dried up a little, and I developed a headache from the mask straps, but tested negative all three days, and you know what, I lasted through 16 days of straight negative tests despite having 3 other positive people in a pretty small house.
Never caught the dang thing. I don’t know how exactly. I’ve tried to be good about it, but I would be totally unsurprised if I had some level of immunity. Here’s what I did:
I wore masks in the house a LOT.
I tried to limit exposure as much as possible to parts of the house where other people breathe, while still doing the dishes, laundry, and other essentials. Eat food, mask back on, do dishes, retreat upstairs.
I only exercised outside, not anywhere where there might be droplets in the air. Because it’s been raining up a storm here, that’s cut short my regimen quite a lot.
I’m vaxxed and boosted, and have a pretty strong immune system. When I was in 8th grade, chicken pox inconvenienced me for 4 days where it took out other kids for 2 weeks.
I washed my hands whenever I touched anything someone else may have messed with, and dried my hands on disposable paper towels or towels that I knew no one else in the house used.
As much as my immediate family resents my immune system, it was pretty useful for me to be able to run to the pharmacy or supermarket like a hornbill fetching food for the nest.
Now, on another note, 2023 has had a few upsides. First among them: I am employed again. I’m working for Airship Syndicate on their upcoming MMO-esque game Wayfinder.
Wayfinder is a post-apocalyptic fantasy with arcane technology. Most of the world has been lost in a wave of infective chaos called the Gloomfall, and the spiritual echoes of great heroes reappear to battle it. There’s a FAQ here.
The game is doing closed tests now, but they need a lot of words to be written before launch, so I’m signed up and ready to rock. I’m now in my third week of work, and I’m getting really jazzed about the stories we can tell in the game.
As for personal writing time — I got in a little over winter break, and am now about 10,000 words into Civil Blood‘s sequel. Unfortunately, once the Covid hit, the time doing chores kind of killed my morale, and once I was gainfully employed, my spare time started going towards playing the game I’m working on. Now that the house is plague-free once again, I’m looking forward to getting back in the groove. It’s where the music is.
I once flipped through a dictionary (Merriam-Webster Collegiate, I think) and found that in the back, they had a super-cool list of foreign words and phrases that are or were popular. You know, like the Latin “finis coronat opus,” which translates to “the end crowns the work.” If you ever want to whip out the snotty literary criticism, throw that baby in and sound like a scholar, when all you’re really saying is “a story needs to stick the landing, or it doesn’t add up to much.”
I think my favorite, though, is “Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus,” which is “Mountains will go into labor, and a silly little mouse will be born.” That one’s about overpromising and underdelivering. You know, like the game that’s been delayed ten years that better be the Second Coming of Almighty Zeus when it comes out, or else all that expense and hard work will be met with a resounding “meh.” (It’s kind of telling that there’s a few games out there this could apply to.)
Me, I try not to overpromise. But it has been a long time since I posted, so I hope you weren’t betting on me giving birth to a mountain. There’s been good news and bad news in my life, my career, and my personal writing. So let’s take a tour.
I Got (More) Political This Year
As I posted in 2020’s “In Which I Give Worried Introverts Something to Do,” I decided to use a not-insignificant amount of my spare time to volunteer for a get-out-the-vote campaign. This year, I started earlier than I did in 2020 because historically Democrats don’t turn out in midterms, and if past was prologue, they were going to get pasted.
I wrote 20 letters a week to get voters to turn out in Texas, Georgia, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania. By the time of the big send-off in late October, I finished 580 letters, about 100 more than I managed in 2020 if you include the Georgia runoff. It would have been nice to do an even 600, but in that last week I was crunching at work and totally out of brain fuel. Then, the next week, when it became clear Georgia was going to another runoff for its Senate seat, I burned all my free time and got an additional 100 letters out.
I don’t regret the time spent — the Democrats snatched a stalemate from the jaws of defeat and broke a pattern 20+ years long of getting routed in midterm elections. However, I am quite happy campaign season is over for the moment. I have a little more time on the weekends, and the ability to find other topics to talk about on Twitter.
I Tried To Be an Involved Dad
Just a minor note here from a proud pops: I helped teach my daughter how to drive and I wrangled my son through a frustrating season of soccer. Both kids’ grades are pretty great, and they seem to be thriving. Couldn’t be happier with them.
Some other obstacles came our way: my daughter got COVID for about 10 days. She was vaxxed and wasn’t in much danger, but it hit her like a truck. The rest of the family masked up and sanitized religiously and all somehow avoided it, even including a 3-hour car trip (shout-out to my wife for doing the driving, windows down the whole way).
I Kept Submitting Stories
I wrote and rewrote a few more short stories, but they have yet to find a home anywhere. As with martial arts, where you are only as good as your next move, a writer can have great experience and skill and still, the story may not resonate with whoever’s at the editing desk. So that was disappointing and consumed a bit of time.
Then There’s Civil Blood‘s Sequel
When I last posted about the sequel, I was reviewing its outline, trying to turn it into the book I really wanted to read. Rather than write by the seat of my pants, I spent a month or so planning it out and adding notes for a direction in which to take a third book. This all took time, but I’ve managed to get started on the manuscript itself. As of this writing, I have one chapter down and a pretty good grip on the second, so I really want to make this happen sooner rather than later. It’s been “later” long enough.
I Crunched Like the Captain
This one is kind of bittersweet. After months of work that sucked up weekends and evenings, my job with Mattel163 came to a close. The project is in soft launch now (it’s not in the US or China yet) and the prognosis is good for it being able to ship. I’ll tell you all about it when it goes wide, but right now I need to set my sights elsewhere.
…and We Lost Some Good Ones
Lastly, some things happened on a vastly more serious note. Some of my life had to be put on hold to grieve.
Since I last posted, three people I knew died. The first, Jerome Joaquin Mabrey, was a gamer I met at San Diego Comic Con in 2012. He was on the first team to beat the Mass Effect multiplayer’s fancy new Platinum difficulty, he ran a great Facebook group called Nerd Alert, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of space opera. The second was Kevin Barrett, who was director of design at BioWare and was responsible for giving myself and my wife our most significant video game industry job. We used to love arguing with him in a BioWare dev book club. We disagreed all the freaking time, but we never had a negative experience with him. The third was Ferret Baudoin, who worked with my wife on Dragon Age, ran a killer Roman-themed D&D campaign for us, and after the BioWare diaspora, wound up at Bethesda. I had mad respect for all three of these men, and the world is smaller for not having them in it.
…and that’s all, he wrote.
So, all told, this summer and fall were pretty busy. I don’t have a lot to show you just yet, but I hope you’ll understand that sometimes, life isn’t a performance, or all about your next gig. Quite often, it’s day-to-day progress, or even just holding the line when that progress tries to disappear.
Festina lente. (In English idiom, “More haste, less speed.”)
Longtime readers may remember my novel Civil Blood, and particularly attentive readers may remember the reasons I hadn’t started working on a sequel yet. Long story short, I promised my family I’d only begin work once I had accumulated a nest egg big enough to pay for a cover and editor(s), assuming costs in the same neighborhood as my previous self-publishing venture. The catch was, this nest egg would solely be financed by my other personal writing, and my path to that was A) novel sales, and B) short story sales. Since I have little in the way of advertising budget and thus a very meagre novel-based income, I ended up relying on “B.”
Well… with a final anthology sale coming out in 2022, approach “B” has finally put the numbers over the top. So now I have a little news: I’m finally working on a sequel to Civil Blood. Here’s what I can say:
I am currently in the outlining stage. It will take me a few months before I start the rough draft. I should warn the reader that it takes me years to write a novel.
I have tentatively titled it with another blood-related Shakespearian phrase (again, with echoes of the play, but the specific title may give away some of the parallelism in the plot, so I’ll be mum on that for now).
The story will deal with an American presidential election in the time of VIHPS. Though I hesitate to use the word “pandemic,” the vampire virus is the top issue on the minds of the electorate. It is not, however, the only issue, and part of the political dealings is that Infinity and Ranath will have to choose whom to support despite the candidates not matching up with their every ideal.
The main characters of Civil Blood will be the main characters in this story as well. There will be many familiar faces, and a few names only hinted at in Civil Blood will have some stage time in this one.
I might be able to make this story comprehensible if you haven’t read Civil Blood, but I’m not betting on it. As I work on the outline, I realize that trying to sum up why a character is not only a doctor but also a hitman and also has his hands on potentially world-changing research that he didn’t actually do just stretches credulity. I may have to highlight that it’s “The Skia Project, Book 2” and just roll with that.
Ideally it will not have a cliffhanger ending, because at this moment I don’t know the chances of making a third installment. Also, I like books to have enough of a satisfying thematic resolution that they can stand on their own. So, less The Empire Strikes Back and more Terminator 2.
To all the fans of CB that have stuck with me this far… thank you. I hope to make you happy once more.
One of the “problems” with my writing career trajectory is that I’m not a specialist. If you really want to be a household name as a writer, you create a series and you get fans devoted to it. There are a lot of examples I could pick from, but let’s go with Agatha Christie.
“Why?” you ask? Because according to the Guinness Book of World Records, Agatha Christie is the best-selling fiction writer of all time. She’s sold more than two billion (with a “b”) books. Her name is synonymous with detective mysteries, having written 66 of the things. She wrote a few plays, some of them record-breakingly popular in their own right — they were mysteries, too. And her branding was helped by the fact that when she wrote a handful of non-detective novels, she did so under a pen name. She specialized, and it paid off.
Me? I’m the opposite. You never know what the hell I’m writing next, and sometimes neither do I. Since my last blog post about My Loft, I’ve been working on:
1) A visual novel (romance genre). It is now complete but not public yet. 2) Lore for a fantasy RPG video game. It’s in pre-production, totally not public. 3) A metric ton of writing tests for various companies. 4) Submitting short stories to various online magazines, some in the Civil Blood universe, some humorous superhero stories, and one cli-fi piece.
The first two are both gigs that ended recently, which meant I had to throw myself into #3 with a vengeance. #3 and #4 were the most discouraging, as my hit-to-miss ratio is typical of freelance writers — in other words, there were a lot of rejections. But, as of today, things are looking up.
I have been so fortunate as to accept a position with Mattel163, a mobile game developer and subsidiary of the famous toy company. I am working on an unannounced project as a full-time employee, and I want to make it sing.
What does that mean for you, the audience? I don’t know yet. All indications are that I will be up late at night on this job, since many of my co-workers are in Shanghai, 15 time zones away from me. On the other hand, a lot of my mental energy was taxed during my job hunt, so I may end up feeling happier and healthier, with a little security in my life once more.
That means I could end up able to do more personal writing, and submit more stories to more outlets.
One question that has come up regards Amazon’s Kindle Vella. In case you haven’t heard, Kindle Vella is essentially a platform for monetizing short stories and serial works on a Kindle, which naturally made my ears perk up. As always, a little more personal writing income means I can afford a second indie-publishing venture — a full-fledged sequel to Civil Blood. There’s two drawbacks to Kindle Vella: the first is that it’s got a limit of 6,000 words per installment, which is a little short for my taste. The more difficult hurdle for me to get over is that you have to build your brand — it takes a lot of 99-cent stories to add up to a single traditionally-published short story in a magazine, which could net $500 or so. That’s the reality. I’m working on building an e-mail list, an important step in the whole author ecosystem, but I don’t have any illusions about indie-pub sales.
So, will I die before my dream goal is achieved and leave you all in the lurch? Well, I’m happy to say I’m fully vaccinated as of today. It’s not proof against being hit by a bus, but as Bill Murray said, “I got that going for me, which is nice.”
“Um, do you have room for one adult, one locking trash can, and about forty-one Tupperwares that need to stay warm?”
The short version: as of today, Amazon Game Studios is launching My Loft, a little voice-controlled game for the Amazon Echo. I served as lead writer on the project, heading up a team of three other writers. I believe it’s rated E-10, meaning E for Everyone over 10 years old.
You are the owner of a loft you rent out. You use the money to decorate the loft to increase its comfort, coolness, and weirdness ratings, and you interact with the guests to raise their happiness scores. More happiness equals more money you can spend on tricking out your loft. The gameplay happens in real time, so you can check in once or twice a day and not have a big time commitment to it.
The fun part is that it’s a comedy game, so when you say, “Alexa, check on my guest,” sometimes what comes out of their mouth is freakin’ hilarious.
There’s about 28 guests total, ranging from drag queens to venomous snake enthusiasts to boy detectives to Zen masters to Masivo the Human Wall. (Trust me, you’ll know who he is when you meet him.) There’s also a certain guest who only shows up if you play the game after midnight, and references to holidays if you’re playing on that particular day.
It’s not a super-slick AAA production, nor did I have complete creative control. But it was a great dose of laughter in my life during the first dark days of the pandemic, and I’ll always be thankful for that. After the writers’ contracts ended, we stepped back and let the design team do their thing, so there are still many surprises for me when I play. I seriously haven’t seen this thing in about six months.
To play it, tell your Echo, “Alexa, launch My Loft.” You can’t say “play My Loft,” because then Alexa will think you’re trying to play music. It’s “launch.” Make sure you’ve updated to the most recent Echo operating system or Alexa will say “the game is not supported.” It works on Fire 126.96.36.199.. The Echo sometimes says it’s done updating after a few minutes, when in fact it takes about two hours to process everything.
Hope you enjoy it… and forgive the tutorial character not being the most fascinating dude on the planet. He means well, and if I recall, he comes in handy when you run afoul of the absinthe smugglers.
I don’t get a lot of fan mail, but I did get one particular fan recently who had some very nice compliments about the Mass Effect trilogy. The fan then asked for advice on how to break into the video game industry. I wrote back a long letter, because 1) I write better than I talk, and 2) getting a new job in the industry has been at the forefront of my mind for the last two months. In today’s blog post, I’ll go over what I’ve got.
A disclaimer — I’m not exactly a big wheel as game writers go. But I have worked in video games for 15 years now, so I’ve done some things right. Possibly the most valuable thing about what I say is that I don’t subscribe to Dogbert’s famous advice from 1995. I’ve seen some writers that do, telling the new fish to “never let them change your vision,” and other gems that will, more often than not, get you fired or labeled difficult. There’s also the old saw of “keep trying, keep applying, follow your dreams,” which is very true, but it’s sort of like telling a football player to “go out there and play hard.” It’s not really a game plan worthy of the name.
My points are mostly common sense, but sometimes it’s good to reiterate the basics. Professionals may want tips more advanced than these, but the world is full of amateurs.
So Here’s the Advice…
The key thing about getting a foot in the door in the entertainment industry in general is that you should aim to be the strongest candidate possible for the job. Ideally, not only can you charm the person interviewing you, the interviewer can point at your resume/CV and give an argument so the manager in charge of hiring will say “Yeah, hiring this person makes a lot of sense.” That means you tick off a lot of boxes. In no particular order, the boxes include:
1) Your Writing Sample(s) The rubber meets the road here. Prove that you’d be good at writing the game they’re hiring for, which is not necessarily the same thing as their last game. Demonstrate your skill in writing narrative, dialogue, ten thousand variants on barks saying “He’s over there!”, all that stuff.
I can’t teach this all here, but my wife Jennifer Hepler wrote a book called “The Game Narrative Toolbox,” and there’s lots of screenwriting manuals out there to help practice structure, text, subtext, themes, and other literary goodness. You should be able to point at your work and when the writers on staff ask, “why did you make the decisions you did?” your answer will not be, “um, I felt like it.”
Also note that when writing this sample, you should study and imitate the target game’s structure, because there are probably many good reasons why they built the levels the way they did. Your overall impression of a game as “talky” or “terse” may not be accurate. It could have an actual word count that’s a lot larger or smaller than you think. Get out a piece of paper and write down when the characters talk, for how many lines, and how often other characters speak. You should have hard answers to these questions, or else the writers on staff will say, “Eh, it’s not in our voice.”
2) Your Experience
I see this pop up in many different ways. Dave Gaider (lead writer on Dragon Age 1 & 2) used to say “I can’t recommend that you get a job in the way I got a job, because that way no longer exists.” There isn’t one path into writing video games, but many. This box should be checked with “yes, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make stuff like yours work for an audience.”
Generally, you’re going to be competing with people who have experience in video games or in closely related fields. Bioware hired people who used to be:
* Video game writers who worked elsewhere in the industry * Playwrights with an ear for dialogue and what actors want in a role * Screenwriters with produced films, TV episodes, or short indie films * Writers who professionally reviewed games for game industry publications or websites, so they had a great knowledge of the competition * (less often) Writers with comic book or novel credits. * (less often) Modders who know the games inside and out.
If you have no experience in any of these yet, you may want to decorate your web page with samples that show you can write for interactive media using free writing engines like Twine or Inkle.
Winning awards for any of this work is, of course, a nice feather in the cap. Recent work is better than old work. Shipped games or products are better than ones that never came to fruition. And similar work beats extrapolation. For example, Chris L’Etoile, a Bioware writer who wrote the Aliens homage level with rachni in Mass Effect 1, is now, to no one’s surprise, working on an Aliens game for Cold Iron Studios. There’s a pretty high percentage chance that someone there had played his previous work and knew he could do the job because he proved he’s done it before.
Sometimes, extra bits in your bio can help out, like lived experiences. For example, knowing some of the history of martial arts (specifically a Chinese martial art that I practiced at the time) helped me win over some of the Jade Empire writing staff in an interview. I go over a little of this in my GDC talk on writer research skills (not really a shameless plug, ’cause it’s available free).
3) Knowing the Company’s Games
This helps in a myriad of ways. Sometimes a writer will be perfectly good, but they just don’t “get” what the company is looking for. If Bioware says, “Okay, write a scene with Morrigan, the swamp witch,” and the writer has never played Dragon Age, they might make Morrigan’s lines sound like a screeching harridan, referencing her green skin and the wart on her nose. Those writers who have played Dragon Age will know her voice, and have her sound sultry and evil and use the word “’tis” when appropriate. Note that there are more video games in the world than there are hours in the day, so pick a subgenre and aim there. Knowing all of one particular company’s games when you’re targeting that company is, of course, a plus. Knowing some of their competition doesn’t hurt either — for example, if you think Mass Effect and Bioware RPGs are awesome, it’s also good to come into an interview being able to talk about Obsidian’s games, Bethesda’s, or CD Projekt Red’s.
4) Having No Warning Signs
There were a few people on the Bioware forums who knew the games backwards and forwards, and made 4-hour videos saying that the most critically successful Mass Effect game that won over millions of fans (ME2) actually sucked. The posters then exhaustively went over how they’d fix them, and stated Bioware should hire them to make amends for their terrible mess.
Those people are never going to get hired.
Interviewers want to see people with some ideas for improvement, yes, and confidence in their abilities, but they also want team players, not someone who thinks they’re king of the video game universe. It is not possible to write a game the size of Mass Effect alone. I mean, you could literally write it yourself over the course of six years or so, but not on a company’s dime. Levels in AAA games are written simultaneously by other writers for the sake of speed, because time is money, and a big team full of world-class game devs are waiting for the writers to be done to start their work. That’s a lot of man-hours and that means millions of dollars of money. So the writers, editors, combat designers, testing staff, everybody needs to know when to speak up and when to shut up. What would you rather have if you’re making games for a living: a game that ships and is 80% good, or 80% of a perfect game that never ships?
Sometimes the people at the top will think everything they do is genius… but they usually are able to win arguments because they have years of experience and shipped titles under their belt.
Conversely, while keeping your head down is often helpful, you do need to actually do what Marines call “covering your own damn sector.” No one wants someone who can’t make a decision on their own, otherwise why’d they hire extra manpower if it’s not speeding up the team’s progress?
5) Knowing People
This is a useful factor, but it doesn’t outweigh the others. Generally, even if your Person On The Inside makes a recommendation, at a big company, five or six people are going to have to sign off on the decision, and that decision is part of their job performance. At smaller companies, it works better. All that said, big companies have big Rolodexes, and it is sometimes nice to have your resume go to the top of the pile if the pile is 100 people thick. It helps to have the people in the hiring meeting be able to say “Oh, I know who that person is, they’re not a serial killer.”
Often, if you have no contacts to start with, meeting company representatives at conventions and such is how you get yourself visible. Don’t be a creep, bond over your shared love of video games at the booth, and don’t step on the gas too hard.
“Crap,” you say, “with COVID-19, nobody’s going to conventions any more.” That’s right. Like Dave said a few paragraphs back, the way I got my first big video game job no longer exists.
6) Be Willing to Relocate
This matters a little less in the age of COVID, but a good 50% of companies still want someone they can supervise just by walking down a hall, and they think things will be back to normal soon. In my part of the world, things are emphatically not going to be normal for a while, but there are game companies scattered all over the world, so you never know. You could be in North Carolina for Red Storm, speaking French with Gameloft Montreal, visiting Seasun’s offices in Shenzhen (that’s the photo at the top of the post), or anywhere else on the globe. Game development is sometimes an adventure.
Hopefully, you can tick off at least some of these boxes when you’re applying. Tick off all of these boxes when your competition doesn’t, and a company would have to be crazy not to hire you. That’s the position you want to be in.
If you think it’s easy to get there, you’re probably not thinking clearly. There are a lot of video game writers out there, all clamoring for work, and your journey may take years. If that doesn’t scare you, then good hunting, and godspeed.
Those of you who’ve been following my progress over the past
few months may know that I’m back to doing freelance writing, which is another
way of saying “I’m unemployed… except when I’m not.”
Looking for work is, of course, a full-time job for a
writer. My days are spent Googling “narrative designer,” and typing
up customized cover letters for submission along with my resume. Every now and
then I’ll get a bite and they’ll ask me to do a writing test, which takes
anywhere from one to seven days of work. Sometimes, I’m familiar with the game
company, and have played all their games. Sometimes, I have to jump in with
both feet and learn on the fly. While I like to think I can learn a new
franchise in a very short amount of time, the reality of this renaissance of
nerd-dom we live in is that there are too many properties to keep up with
For example, like many nerds, I played tabletop Dungeons & Dragons. But if a job opportunity pops up at Wizards of the Coast, the interview questions will be more like “What are your opinions on how to improve the Eberron campaign setting, and where do you see it going in the next five years?” Then I’ll switch gears to mobile games, where the test will be about Stardew Valley or maybe an interactive romance novel like Choices, and the next day it’ll be back to a real-time strategy series, asking me to write in the voice of generals of the Napoleonic Wars.
I can do these things. The sticking point is, can I do them faster, cheaper, or with more panache than whoever else is applying? Can I Skype with the employer at 11:00 at night because they’re on Beijing time? Am I disabled or a veteran? Can I speak Korean?
So that’s my day-to-day now. In between job applications, I play games to try to keep current on them. At night, I polish short stories, because, like I said elsewhere in this blog, I’m trying to sell them to fund a sequel to Civil Blood. I’ve polished the I.T.-expert-to-the-superheroes story (“The Needs of the Client”) and submitted it. The next in line, “Give a Little, Get a Little,” is in the queue for critiques through my writing workshop. Progress is slow, but measurable.
And then… there’s the game I love the most. The one that’s back from the dead.
The thing that really was the cherry on top to the old MMO City of Heroes was the fact that you could write up a biography of your hero and other players would see it. It was totally optional, but if you wanted to say you’re a time-traveling hawk-man wielding Excalibur, teaming up with a sapient crash test dummy, you could do it. And after around four or five years into the game, they came up with the Mission Architect, where players could create their own adventures, and have other players run through them.
I actually never got super into the Mission Architect when the game was live, because it was a rabbit hole you could be inside forever. I was writing for Bioware, getting my kiddo through toilet training, and the other players were cranking out great content already. There was one arc where you battled the Phantom of the Opera in the sewers beneath the Paris opera house. Another had archvillains inspired by the major arcana of tarot cards. And of course there was the “Visit from the Fashion Police” adventure, where you fought the Fashion Victims gang, wearing the ugliest, most clashing clothes that the costume creator could possibly make.
My contribution was a humorous single-episode mission called “Economic Recovery Through Fisticuffs,” in which you find the perpetrators of the 2008 financial crisis as they escape on a cargo liner bound for Antigua, and punch them in the face. The minions had names like “Short Seller” (they were 4′ tall), “Economic Shock Doctor” (electricity powers), and bikini-clad socialites called “Somebody Else’s Wife,” because, in the words of a CIA agent I once met, “who sells out their country and jets off to an island with their OWN wife?”
Now that I’m revisiting the game (it came back in 2019), I decided to put in some time designing a story arc. I figured it’d be good for my game design skills, though honestly, it’s unlikely an employer would ever see it. While a core group of fans love the game, the chance that a particular dev has sought out the new version, downloaded it, has an appropriate-level character, and would play all the way through the 5-mission arc is ridiculously low. But it’s a fun challenge, and I’m happy to share the story.
The arc is called “Dr. Aeon and the Wrath of Achilles.” I created it because there’s a ton of players who make Greek and Roman superheroes now, and there’s a lot of good costume and powerset combos for them. And, of course, as readers of Mythkillers know, I’ve got an obsession with the Trojan War. So I thought a little time travel could be fun.
The players are summoned by Mender Lazarus, one of the guardians of the time stream, who says the balance of power in the player’s timeline is, was, or will be upset. Dr. Aeon, the chrononaut mad scientist for City of Heroes‘ premier villains, Arachnos, has broken into Paragon City University. There, he kidnapped a classics professor, and went back in time to the Bronze Age, to interfere in the course of the Trojan War. Why is he siding with the Trojans and assailing the Greeks with his high-tech weaponry? Therein lies the mystery.
What follows is a lot of fighting, because hey, it’s an MMO. You beat up everything from Trojan soldiers and Amazon princesses to a river god and super-soldiers with mechanical spider legs coming off their back like Doctor Octopus’s tentacles. I’m not actually allowed to post video from COH to YouTube, because you’re not allowed to make ad revenue on the game for legal reasons. But I will post some relatively-spoiler-free screenshots.
This is the university hallway for the first mission:
Enemies in the basement:
The second adventure has you rescue Greek heroes from Arachnos in the plain of the Troad:
And there’s more! I recreated Achilles’ rampage, with you as the star.
While I won’t reveal the end, I can show off the neatest part of the game, the character creator. There’s about six good power sets for the rank and file soldiers: single sword, single axe, single mace, archery, staff fighting with a two-handed spear, and double blades (either swords or axes). Only the single weapons can be used with a shield, or they can be left alone and paired with more supernatural powers, like flames, regeneration, or Achilles-style invulnerability. So while I can’t get a spear-and-shield combo, I can get a lot of others.
If you’ve made it this far and actually have a City of Heroes (Homecoming) account, the arc is #31899. Just enter that into the search bar at the Architect Entertainment interface, and the arc should be playable.
Now I think I’ll get back to the prose writing, since I’m all burned out on Greeks for the moment. Take care, and let’s save the world this year!
Well, it’s been forever since I’ve updated the site, which was actually for the best of reasons. Shortly after my last post, I got a temporary gig as a lead writer for an Amazon Alexa project. So for the last three months or so, I worked on a voice-operated game.
It was a blast. The game has yet to be announced, but I can probably say it is a contemporary game with a heavy comedy element. And it came at exactly the right time. May and June at Casa de Hepler was, like in many parts of the country, an exercise in stress tolerance. The kids needed their distance learning, the wife was holding down a job and holding us together, and I had to manage a team of three writers in an entirely new video game format. Had I been working on something Big and Dark and Serious, I might have slipped into depression.
But laughing at work every day was exactly what the doctor ordered. I got to meet three very cool writers and plenty of design, programming, and art staff. And I got to throw myself into a new project. It sucked up a lot of my time, but there were free moments, too.
To while away the hours in lockdown, I managed to finish reading two novels off my to-be-read pile, both full of magic and beautiful language. I highly recommend them both, and I’ll tell you all about them, because the gods know that we can all use more books while we’re sheltering in place.
The first is Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Gods of Jade and Shadow.”
The short pitch for this is “The ancient Mayan gods feud against the backdrop of Mexico in the Jazz Age,” though I wasn’t 100% sure of what that would look like when I picked up the book. The short, spoiler-free version is that it follows Casiopea Tun, a young Mexican woman with indigenous roots who toils miserably at her family’s orders. Through accident and magic, she falls in with Hun-Kame, one of the death gods of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, who had been temporarily killed by his brother Vucub-Kame. With her life bound to Hun-Kame, Casiopea tries to restore his throne to him in a series of magical adventures.
The language is vivid, the characters sparkle, and the whole thing has a feel highly reminiscent of American Gods or The Sandman, but with a refreshing insider’s grasp of Mexico and Mayan mythology. I did a little research into Mayan mythology for my old graphic novel M.I.T.H., and seeing the lords of Xibalba elegantly portrayed here was like letting a NASCAR driver take the wheel on my beat-up old hoopty car. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
The second book I managed to finish off was Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which is a novelization of the hero of the Iliad as told by his companion Patroclus. Miller is well-qualified to write this story, having both taught Greek and, according to her Acknowledgements section, worked on the novel for ten years.
The result is a well-polished story that remains about as faithful as one can be to contradictory myths. Having written an Achilles-based screenplay as well as revisiting the subject matter for the Diomedes-heavy story Mythkillers, I found the book beautiful and engaging, never taking too many liberties with Homer’s work. I really dig it in comparison to something like Dan Simmons’ Ilium and Olympos, or the movie Troy, both of which picked some favorite characters and discarded the rest. Miller’s work is more reminiscent of Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles, in that it retains the presence of gods and mythical creatures, but it paints a richer tapestry by virtue of being a few hundred pages longer and adding a narrative conceit.
This conceit is the narrator, Patroclus. Miller’s major departure from Homer is that Patroclus, Achilles’ closest companion, is a sensitive boy who doesn’t like the skills of war, and as such is an embarrassment to his father. Sent to Phthia as an exile, Patroclus falls in love with the prince who will become the greatest warrior of his generation. Miller jumps in with both feet to the relationship between the two boys as they become men. In answer to your next question, the sex scenes are tastefully handled and are more about the emotional life of the characters rather than any romance-novel erotica.
As for the rest of the myths as we know them, Miller cleaves closely. No, Achilles’ skin isn’t iron-hard — a decision that almost all modern writers make, since it’s not in the Homer and it makes his fight with Hector the act of a bully rather than a hero. But pretty much everything else is intact. Achilles isn’t the brute of Troilus and Cressida. His tutelage with Chiron, his dressing as a girl to avoid recruitment, his skill with a lyre, the fathering of Neoptolemos, and the prophecy regarding his own death are all used to illustrate his life in loving detail. Patroclus makes a fine narrator, even after the fateful moment which Iliad fans know is coming, and Miller uses the events to place the final capstone on the story.
I don’t have any personal writing that’s ready for publication yet. On the bright side, I finally reattacked my attempt at a cli-fi short story, “The Message,” and got to the end of a rough draft. I polished a bit of my superhero IT department story “Needs of the Client” and have submitted it to my writing workshop — it’ll get some feedback two weeks from now. So things are proceeding, even if it’s slower than I would like.
That’s the news from the Hepler household. Stay safe out there.