Relativity

I love maps.

If a novel includes maps, you’d better believe I will be flipping back to them frequently to compare locations. The same thing happens in games; the relationships between locations and the projected travel time from one point to another allow for a better sense of scale.  I think it comes from growing up in an older part of the US, where older towns are roughly a day’s easy walk apart — in fact, towns being located further apart than that are a feature that you’ll only see in places which were settled around the time that trains and motorised vehicles were becoming common. It’s interesting how advancing technology has changed the landscape, not only in how humans develop it, but in how we view the world.

It is really difficult to create a map.

Roman map of the world c.43AD. Rome, clearly is the centre of the civilised world, and must therefore be central on the map.

In 43 AD, Rome clearly is the centre of the civilised world, and must therefore be central on the map.

Consider what early maps looked like. They were… well, imprecise, by our standards. With satellite imaging and computerised measurements, we literally have mapmaking down to a science. Early mapmakers had to make do with eyeballing it using compasses and early surveying gear. There’s a vast and rather colourful variety in early maps, including a few which postulated the world as an inverted doughnut, and a few Roman maps where the philosophers making them were absolutely certain that nothing could possibly exist north of a certain latitude and drew Britain with Scotland squeezed in as a thin strip running across the very upper edge of the map area.

So if you think that’s silly, consider how difficult it is to create a game or story map from nothing but your own imagination. There may not be any accuracy required, but sometimes the creative leeway can get the better of itself.

There are two ways to create fictional maps. The first is to completely build the world before writing the story; the second is to write the story and build the map as you go along. There are pros and cons to each approach, which depend entirely on your creative style and how your brain works; mine happens to be a bit circuitous in processing information, so I find building the map as I write to be easier.

When creating a location, it isn’t enough to say it’s a certain distance from other locations in a given direction; if that were the limit of things, you’d end up with a place without character, nothing that sets it apart from any other area. In games and films, this can be done visually with a simple palette and texture change, but for a properly memorable experience, a little more effort needs to be put in. Every location needs character — character being everything from the local environment, the weather, its remoteness, the size of the local population, local customs and social structure, and the type of construction that might be locally common. Regardless of whether you’re creating for a game, a script or a novel, these factors need to be taken into account. For example, if it’s meant to be snowing at that point in the story, your location could be in an extreme northerly or southerly latitude, up a mountain, set during an ice age, or simply be in a region that experiences periodic winters; or if your setting is in a fairly barren area, buildings are more likely to be of stone or mud-brick than wood. I find it helps to set the computer down for a bit and try to visualise the location; this helps a written description to not sound like someone reading a weather forecast.

Apologies to Tolkien, but there's a lot of suspension of belief happening here. source

Apologies to Tolkien, but there’s a lot of suspension of belief happening here.
source

If you’re particularly detail-oriented, knowing basic earth science both helps and complicates things. If the overall climate currents flow from west to east — as they do on Earth — putting a range of high hills or mountains will cause the west side to be more prone to rainfall than the east side — warm air on the ground meets cooler high-altitude air and generates more precipitation on the windward side. This, of course, is highly generalised, as air currents shift continuously, but it’s well known that Glasgow gets notably more rain than Edinburgh, despite the two cities being less than 50 miles apart and at the same latitude, due to the series of hills in between them. Sometimes there’s a bit of fudging involved — the local climate is thus due to [insert MacGuffin here] — but it’s important to bear in mind that if the climate in a static location is altered, it will subsequently affect the surrounding area outside the MacGuffin’s influence. I can’t help but look at Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth and wonder how the mountains raised by Morgoth affect the climate around the rest of the continent.

Sometimes, it’s no fun to be detail-oriented. One aspect that always trips me up in some games and novels is travel times. My average unencumbered walking speed is between three and four miles an hour, and I’m in reasonably good shape; in a scenario where laden and armoured characters are on foot on a paved road, a day’s journey of 30 miles is about the plausible limit — that’s taking into account an average 12 hours of daylight, regular pauses for rest and food, fair weather, unhindered passage, and the characters being in good physical condition and accustomed to their load. Obviously you can’t precisely emulate this in a game — it would be the dullest game in existence and the player retention would be abysmal. So the maps are smaller and relative distances reduced. Some games blur the time passage issue by speeding up day and night cycles when you have open-world systems; others simply calculate out time passage between one point and another when the world map is restricted to designated locations.

Starting with the map has a variety of positive points to recommend it: there’s no need to worry about the described land features not matching the map or not flowing well together, it’s easy to provide distance estimates whilst writing, there’s no need to rewrite earlier secondary scenes once you realise that they don’t fit right with a primary scene’s location.

Sometimes, the creator clearly wanted a fascinating and unique land structure — starting with a few pre-set factors, the map was drawn up and then the story was fitted into it. Unfortunately the descriptions of travel time and environment don’t always match the map; for my part, this often results in headaches as I try to visualise the layout before giving up.

Why am I writing about this? Because I was looking over my initial draft for this one novel, and if the story matched the map as it appears in my head, it’ll never work. Fortunately I’m in the middle of reworking the novel, but the map still needs to change.

Dammit.

Tolkien Economics

Hobbiton (Alan Lee)

Hobbiton (Alan Lee)

Most people who stumble across this blog likely have at least a passing familiarity with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, whether they’ve only seen the recent Peter Jackson films, read the books, played one of the many Lord of the Rings games, or been dedicated enough to pick up analyses of Tolkien’s work and become moderators on official forums the way my mom has (she’s such a nerd ❤ ).

Now, it goes without saying that every fictional society is going to be idealised in some way which will have an incredible amount of influence from the writer’s personal feelings and experiences. The logic which governs a fictional society will always be more straightforward than that which governs a real one. Some aspects will be simplified or glossed over (particularly if they have no direct relevance to the story itself) and others will be detailed down to a ridiculous level of minutiae.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s consider how the different Middle Earth societies function as depicted in the base reference material. I realise the title of this blog post says “economics”, but society and the function of internal economies are tied very closely together, and you can’t look at one without examining the other. This is more to start a discussion on the subject; I welcome further input and alternate theories!

Hobbits are an idealisation of English country folk. While some are obviously more well-off than others, they are not the ones who control the governance of the Shire; each village elects a mayor. Others may not be wealthy, but there are no Hobbits who exist in true poverty — if someone is truly in need, their friends and family members will help provide for them until they’re back on their feet. There’s a strong sense of community and fellowship. Based on existing evidence, I’m going to hazard a guess that there are Hobbits whose specialty is to build Hobbit-holes or -houses, and that these are commissioned by a Hobbit who has obtained permission from the mayor to use a plot of land in or near the village and who then purchases the needed materials and pays the builders for their work in coin, goods, services, or some combination thereof. The society does not seem to be centred around an exchange of coinage for purposes of commerce, although it clearly plays a part; a barter or “favour” system seems far more commonly used (“favour” being an act of kindness performed by one party toward another without expectation of reward, with an answering act of kindness offered at a later date as a way of expressing gratitude rather than out of a sense of obligation). Their society is largely self-sufficient and doesn’t require an exceptional amount of trade to function; however, they would likely be highly amenable to trade, had the rest of the world not quite forgotten they exist!

Rivendell (Alan Lee)

Rivendell (Alan Lee)

Elves appear to be far more socialist, and I use the term in the literal rather than political sense. While there is a social hierarchy, Elven society appears to function as a collective, where everyone provides according to their skills and receives according to their needs. There doesn’t appear to be any monetary exchange involved between Elves at all; possibly this is Tolkien’s vision of what an ideal society might look like. Whether in Rivendell, Lórien or Mirkwood, Elves live amongst each other rather than in separated properties, which is likely a simple proposition when one’s age spans centuries and one’s existential nature is palpably spiritual and deeply in harmony with the world. The Elves are clearly not farmers — there’s no depiction of land cultivation of any sort, with plants permitted to grow where they will among Elven settlements — yet it is suggested that they feast well, so we can make a guess that some commodities make their way in from outside. There isn’t much the Elves could offer in exchange in terms of coin, but fine elven crafts would likely make their way out of the halls as barter, and safe passage through the woods offered for those willing to make the trip.

The gates of Erebor (John Howe)

The gates of Erebor (John Howe)

Dwarven society has a very clearly-defined social hierarchy, with an emphasis on material wealth which leads to numerous parabolical downfalls throughout Dwarven history. One may surmise that there’s not a little racial insanity suggested by Tolkien regarding the Dwarves’ cultural desire to acquire and hoard wealth. There is also a hint of hive-mindedness; not that the dwarves act as an interconnected whole, but that they are in fact very content with their lives and work willingly to maintain the status quo. While this may not lead to a great deal of upward social movement save for particularly successful individuals, there seems to be a sort of reward system based not so much on wealth as it is on emotional or spiritual fulfilment. Trade with outlying nations is absolutely essential, due to a heavy lack of resources underground, and Dwarven traders are a common sight throughout Middle Earth. Poverty exists, but it’s less responsible for susceptibility to darker agencies than are feelings of being cheated out of something that should belong to a particular collective; rather than sedition being seeded by individuals, whole castes and clades act as one. The level of social connection is most clearly demonstrated in the behaviour of Thorin’s Company at Bag End — whilst the Dwarves’ co-opting of Bilbo’s house would be exceptionally rude in Hobbit, Human, and Elven societies, this should be considered quite ordinary behaviour for Dwarves: food is considered free for all who are hungry, whilst the items within the house are the property of the homeowner and are used as needed and then cleaned spotlessly before the company departs. Their behaviour may be rough, but Tolkien takes time to emphasise that nothing is broken despite the rough joking around.

I’d like to put in a side note that I consider the Company’s behaviour in Rivendell in Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit film to be creative license rather than canon, unless Dwarves really would consider breaking up a host’s furniture to build a fire just because they lack respect for the owner. It makes a humourous scene, but it doesn’t seem to fit their character. I certainly can’t see Thorin approving.

Laketown (Alan Lee)

Laketown (Alan Lee)

I’ve left Human society for last because it’s rather more complicated. While Hobbits are largely a localised people and thus have a common social structure (there are some Hobbits, particularly some of the more adventurous Stoors, who travelled much further afar, and have developed a somewhat different way of life when they settled, but even that isn’t much different to the Shire-folk society), and Dwarves and Elves are old races with well-ingrained social patterns regardless of where they have settled (primarily in separated enclaves which are carefully guarded), Human society in Middle Earth varies widely. I’ll drop a theory that this has a lot to do with the lifespan of the individual — when a people as a whole live shorter lives, greater variation can be seen as groups split off and form their own societies. Tolkien seems to imply that longer lifespans lead not to stagnation, but to a quicker attainment of optimal social structures, as individuals have license to engage in trial and error, examine the long-term results, and retain the memory of past errors (unless under the influence of pathological hoarding).

If you look at the population of a place like Bree or Laketown, they’re very commerce-oriented. Both are trading waypoints, or started as such, and that has an effect on the way society functions. The mayor is elected — I’m guessing by the leading merchants of the town — but there’s a marked diversity of social classes. As with the Dwarves, poverty makes some susceptible to being bought by darker hands; but avarice has this effect as well. Among Hobbits, avarice leads to acts of selfishness, but not to acts of outright betrayal of the community as a whole. In Bree you get unpleasant characters like Bill Ferny and his brigand friends causing an exceptional amount of mischief on either side of the Baranduin. I’m not certain what the fate of Laketown was six decades on from the events of The Hobbit, but it’s not difficult to conceive of certain elements of the society falling under the influence of Sauron or Saruman’s agents as well. Certainly, Sauron would have extended an olive branch to Smaug had the wyrm survived, and from there it’s an easy step to imagine that gold, regardless of its source, would have caught the attention of the more unsavoury elements of Laketown society.

Rohan has a more sharply scaled class divide, however the lords of the land appear to be highly accessible by even the lowest common-folk, who are able to petition for judgement in disputes and assistance in times of need. Whilst some villages as a whole are better- or worse-off, this largely depends on their location and level of self-sufficiency; the Rohan people benefit from the region’s fertile grasslands, and maintain gardens within the palisades and outlying farms which owe fealty to the nearest lord. Rohan is not a society built on open exchange, and the nation is far more closed on its borders to outsiders — strangers are expected to declare themselves and their intent to the nearest lord or passing patrol. Tolkien drew heavily on Scandinavian society for his influence, and the result is surprisingly socialist despite having a ruling class. Theft from one citizen is seen as theft from all, and mercy is emphasised in the form of either penance or exile from the community rather than imprisonment or execution. There is a continuous level of strife with the Dunlendings — a more transient, tribal people who inhabited the plains of Rohan long before the horse lords settled; while the majority of Rohan’s citizenry seems to have very little to complain about with regards to their social status, the Dunlendings would very much like their land back, and the more militant among them are happy to accept Saruman’s offer when it arrives.

Gondor (John Howe)

Gondor (John Howe)

Gondor is rather unique, in that it exists in a constant state of alert, rather a Cold War-level of preparedness with the fume of Mordor visible on the other side of the mountains. One can imagine that in pre-Fourth Age Gondor, there wasn’t so much an active conscription push as there was widespread voluntary service — and the lords would certainly have offered provision for the families of the soldiers in exchange, since contented soldiers are also loyal soldiers. It’s likely that women were far more active in mercantile and artisanal trades in Gondor than they may have been in other Human lands, simply because someone has to do the work and the men are either in the field or training for it. Children appear to have entered training from a very young age — Eomer’s childhood armour, given to Pippin, is likely not an outlier, regardless of his status. Based on what is known, I’m going to drop a supposition that the Gondor economy was strongly guild-based, and due to women being highly active in the economy of the city, there may even have been the equivalent of a public school system for the children of the lower classes, while upper-class families may have employed private tutors. In most other Human lands, children were most likely educated at home and trained to take on the family trades.

I’m going to admit, I’ve not used reference material for this blog post, and I’ve tried very hard to stick primarily to the material of the original books, which is one reason I haven’t mentioned the endemic corruption depicted in the Laketown of the Hobbit films — Tolkien largely glossed over the society there entirely, which isn’t particularly surprising for a story intended for children. Likewise, the gems Thranduil covets in the films are not mentioned in the source material, and I haven’t made reference to them, although I can appreciate why they were added to the film adaptation. There may be details I’ve missed — I haven’t yet finished reading The Silmarillion (please don’t hurt me), and most of my suppositions pay only the barest lip-service to the racial origins and how their closeness to those origins might have further effect on their society and economy. I may even be over-thinking things, but I tend to view the writing process like an iceberg, where the majority of the work done isn’t directly depicted in the final product.

Getting Shirty

Photo courtesy of @LandryQWalker's Twitter feed

Photo courtesy of @LandryQWalker’s Twitter feed

Okay, so I WAS going to do something on character visual design, but this bullshit blew that clean out of the water. Character design can wait til I’ve patched the hull; let’s discuss what’s really so wrong about a company selling this shirt at WonderCon and why their response to public criticism shows that they are not mature enough to be running a company.

Let’s look beyond the sexism here. It’s not implied; it’s very overt. You’d have to be a space alien to miss it. It’s already been discussed and decried by people who are much more articulate and well-known than I am, and there’s nothing new I can add to that discussion.

And I’m only going to make a passing mention of the heinous disparagement of the Holy Beverage, because if there is ONE THING that has fuelled the gaming, film/television, comics and tech industries, it is coffee. There’s a percentage of the population who either don’t like coffee or can’t drink it for one reason or another — in my experience, they make up roughly 10% of the population. But even then there are very few people who would express an active hatred of coffee; congratulations, you’ve alienated 98% of convention attendees.

At any rate, the company says they make the same shirt, but using the word “fanboys” instead; come on, it’s not sexist, it’s funny! Har har har.

When I was six years old, I broke down in tears in the schoolyard because I realised quite sharply that I didn’t have any friends.

(Princess aurora belongs to Disney; Jedi art by Saehral)

(Princess Aurora belongs to Disney; Jedi art by Saehral)

Allow me to clarify: I had plenty of friends. I had classmates I could work with on projects and swing on the monkey-bars with, and for some unfathomable-to-me reason there were even a few of my classmates who went out of their way to be in my company. We had sleepover parties and worked on homework together, and goofed around in our families’ pools on hot summer days.

But there was nobody who really understood me; nobody I could talk to about the crazy abstractness that exists inside my head. From before I could read, I was a nerd, raised on a diet of classic fantasy and sci-fi by a mom who wrote code for the US Navy and a dad who taught high school physics. Concepts of history, astrophysics, earth sciences, fantasy worlds where the rules are changed, and magic which has direct connections to the existing world rather than for its own sake, utterly fascinated me — they still do. And I recognised that my rejection of societal norms for little girls and preference for advanced books made me difficult for others to understand. I also didn’t care that this was the case — in a very vocal and typically hard-nosed way — and my parents actively encouraged me to do what I wanted rather than what everyone else expected.

The feeling of being the odd one out only got worse as we hit middle and then high school. I tried, I really did; there were more people, as the middle school caught the populations of three elementary schools and the high school took on students from a neighbouring town, and there was a hope that there might be someone among them all who would share my interests. But every time I would try to start conversations about the so-bad-it’s-good B-sci-fi movie I’d caught on TV that weekend, or the awesome steampunk cowboy series that didn’t last more than a season (it’s called Legend, it co-starred John de Lancie, it was awesome), people would stare at me like I was speaking, well, Greek.

Or as if I was a particularly annoying pest that wouldn’t take the hint and find some other lunch table to sit at.

(source)

We speak Geek, not Greek.
(source)

So I stopped trying, and it wasn’t til junior year in high school when a classmate transferred back from the tech school that I found a bunch of genuine nerds who spoke my language. They’d all gone to the tech school, a route I had considered in order to go into electrical engineering; alas, the tech school didn’t have a choir program, and so I stayed in the local public school instead.

I wouldn’t call the ostracism I experienced bullying. It hurt, sure, and a few people did bully me horribly once in a while — and I still remember the names and what they did or said. But by the end of high school I didn’t really talk to or hang out with anyone except the tech school guys — even my first boyfriend was from that school. I wasn’t the only nerd in my own school, but it was the sort of environment where the nerds seemed to avoid associating with each other lest it jeopardise their acceptance with the other social cliques.

That’s a brief summary of eleven years of my life, and I can guarantee you that a lot of sci-fi, fantasy, comics and gaming fans have experienced something similar. The loneliness, the fear that you’d never be able to share your love for things that don’t exist in this world with anyone else. That there is literally nobody who understands you except The Doctor, or Elric, or Dragonrider Lessa.

Now. NOW.

Does this help explain why, in an environment filled with people who survived that sort of childhood — or who are just then experiencing that childhood — who bear the scars of the hard lesson that a majority of the world thinks you’re cracked for wanting to explore fantasy realms, it is so abhorrently juvenile to attempt to market a t-shirt at a convention which actively expresses scorn for the attendees of that convention?

My problem with the shirt isn’t the sexism or lack of respect for coffee. It’s the casual way in which it promotes bullying. The high-school-jock attitude of the shirt’s designers regarding people’s objections shows they really don’t understand, or just don’t care. Hell, maybe it’s just a marketing ploy; companies do objectionable things all the time in order to get people talking about them, anything for publicity. But it’s okay, right, because the fans are the ones wearing it! It’s like Jewish people telling Jew jokes, it’s cool, maaan.

There’s a huge gap between self-deprecating humour and telling others that they are less than worthy.

The fandoms already have “gatekeeper” types who behave as if they are the only “real” fans and everyone else is a poseur who is somehow attempting to… honestly, I don’t know what they think everyone else is trying to do, but they act like their dearest treasure is under threat and nobody else has a right to enjoy the same things they do. That type of attitude destroys the heart and soul of the entire nerd subculture. It’s a form of bullying, and its needs to be spoken out against by those who are mature enough to recognise it.

Playing with Chaos

Not shown: legions of the undead. (source)

Not shown: legions of the undead.
(source)

Computers operate on a principle of order. Events occur either as pre-determined by the designers or according to a series of AI if/then commands created by the programmer.

Humans do not operate on a principle of order.

In Saturday’s Dead House game, our team was sent in to take out an immensely powerful lich whose activities had been the driving force behind the majority of the campaign since before I joined Wyrmhole Gaming‘s alpha testers. The past couple months had been spent interfering with his efforts to gain more power and picking off some of his more bothersome supporters, but time had run out. This was The Boss Fight. We had the entire might of vampire-run House Valu backing us up, running interference with an international army at their disposal to keep the millions of relatively minor nasties off our backs whilst our team of quixotic badasses went after the puppet master, himself. There were a series of challenges to get through, of course — magical shields, an army of undead puppets, several death knights, the lich’s right-hand man and his protegés sitting in a magic-null trap — but we finally located and destroyed the lich’s phylactery before zeroing in on the boss himself.

Now up until this point, this is a fairly routine main campaign climactic battle, and you could find similar formulae in pretty much any game on the market. So of course, this is the point at which Routine decided it had done a hard day’s work and settled down with a cup of chamomile to watch the rest of the show.

Oh, you think so? Guess who just rolled a critical. (source)

Oh, you think so? Guess who just rolled a critical.
(source)

Our target was awaiting our arrival in a chamber filled with bones, clearly intent on using what remained of our life forces to add to his world-ending ritual. In any computer-controlled game, you’d get a nice cutscene with some taunting and watch in horror as the lich forms that pile of bones into a massive construct, which you’ll then need to take apart piece by piece.

One of our team members, however, was feeling a little miffed at an earlier casting attempt getting stuffed by the lich, and interrupted the cutscene by out-rolling the lich and interrupting the spell.

Not everyone likes cutscenes.

Bones rain down from the half-formed construct like hailstones, sending brittle shards flying. The lich discovers the meaning of fear and attempts to run for the exit. The rest of the fight is over within a couple of turns, the mage looks downright chuffed as nuts — as he damn well has a right to be, all things considered — and the citadel crumbles in on itself, its structure being sustained purely by the lich’s force of will. The team retires to the bar to nurse their bruises and celebrate the cancellation of the necromantic apocalypse, although a shadow of unanswered questions looms over the merriment, leaving many wondering if this was only a small aspect of something worse to come. To be continued….

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City of Heroes Halloween event spontaneous boss spawn. Time to dispatch: 45 minutes.

City of Heroes Halloween event boss spawn. Time to dispatch: 45 minutes.

To those who are unfamiliar with the mechanics of tabletop gaming, this probably sounds anticlimactic. I’ve run my share of raids in LotRO and City of Heroes, and battles on this scale can take hours to complete. In fact, they’re designed to require an extensive amount of time and all of the party’s reserves, so that mission completion feels rewarding, that the players have tested themselves to the limits. The same is true in single-player games: I remember the first time I successfully dragged my party, staggering, depleted, and badly injured across the board, out of the Deep Roads back to Orzammar. It felt like they’d been run through the worst wringer in the world, and been handed a challenge they very nearly did not overcome.

Why on earth would you want a system that could potentially be almost too easy if the right events occur, when you can have that massive fist-pump moment of success? Because the computer-generated system is flawed.

I don’t mean that in a negative way, actually. But the computer is predictable.

Can't stop to watch the epicness, I'm focussed on my skillbar. (source)

Can’t stop to watch the epicness, I’m focussed on my skillbar.
(source)

Players — particularly the logic-driven, number-crunching, infovoric ones I’ve known from EVE — figure out the algorithms. It never takes long for guides to show up online. I once spent hours on a puzzle in a game the first time I went through it, and eventually had to look up a guide online because I was well and truly stuck. Recently, I did the same puzzle in ten minutes, not because I had the guide to hand (I lost the URL in the intervening years) or because I remembered the sequence, but because I applied a bit of logic and scribbled a bit on a piece of paper. In fact, the result I got was a good five steps shorter than what the guide had shown.

With a computer-run game or raid which can be run multiple times, this is a failing. After the first run or two, people learn the system and it’s no longer the challenge it’s intended to be. Oh, it may still be challenging — and this is why a number of games offer the ability to increase the difficulty rating — but it’s mechanical. It’s systematic. “Do X, don’t do Y, and watch out for Z. Repeat three times and do the hokey pokey.”

The Sleepers are cranky. (source)

The Sleepers are cranky.
(source)

Some designers are making an effort to spice things up a bit. AI is getting more complex and responsive to player actions and stats — for which we should be praising the long-suffering AI programmers who’ve worked their arses off to make certain the system functions as it should — and sometimes the NPCs are given the ability to legitimately fight back, negating attack attempts in-progress and seeing through stealth actions. But there are still limitations to what the players are able to do; for example, there was no way for a player to shut down a wormhole during a Sansha’s Nation incursion live event in EVE Online — normal wormholes you can overload and collapse, but the incursion ones were static non-interactables. Likewise, there’s no way to hack and shut down a Sleeper installation before your friends get shredded in EVE’s wormhole-space systems.

Live game masters have the potential to be more flexible and more innovative than a pre-programmed computer-run game. That isn’t to suggest they WILL be more flexible all of the time; sometimes a GM will get fed up with players’ attempts to improvise around a certain challenge and enforce the game either by saying, “You just can’t do that,” or by causing something to happen which forces the players to follow the script. Guess which approach will lead to fewer arguments, though? A computer game tells players “You can’t do that” all the time, but when a living person says it, it makes the railroading more unwelcome.

There’s a lot to be said in favour of a pre-set system, of course. Chaotic systems can lead to short fights being drawn-out as the players end up being out-rolled by minor mooks, who are subject to the GM’s very human — and thus, unpredictably inventive — problem-solving abilities. Ordered systems limit the adversaries’ options and can cause them to make decisions which benefit the game designers’ goals, rather than enabling them to make tactical calls which would severely hamper the players — frequently, a programmed NPC will make the heaviest-armoured character their primary target, while a human making the same decision would likely call it on the lighter-armoured magic-users and rogue types. And pre-programmed NPCs often do not run away even when clearly outclassed — they may duck behind a wall to recover some health, but it’s rare for a computer-controlled NPC to run out of the room to call in reinforcements. Computers don’t have much of a sense of self-preservation.

Dual-wielding party members is totally an option. Roll D20 for a strength check. (source)

Dual-wielding party members is totally an option. Roll D20 for a strength check.
(source)

We could run last night’s event a second time, with the same characters, and I can guarantee you that it would be different. Someone else might get the initiative roll first. Someone might not have failed a perceptions check and avoided being kicked off a roof. Success and failure, determined by die rolls as players decide which skill to use given the results. I was rolling badly — as usual, unfortunately — which limited my options, but if my luck had been better, maybe some of my lesser-used skills would have seen some action. When you play a computer game, you’re stuck into a pre-set scenario: walls cannot be blasted through, pre-scripted events can’t be arrested, set pieces cannot be picked up and used as weapons. For that matter, other characters cannot be picked up and used as weapons — throwing NPCs into each other as a result of using various effects might happen, but they aren’t going to have the same bludgeoning stats as two team mates with blades out being swung by the ankles by a spectre with anger management issues.

Form Follows Function

I’ve been doing a lot of armour design work lately, primarily for Repair Her Armor and conceptual art for Wyrmhole Gaming‘s futuristic horror-punk Dead House; I’m intending on cosplaying a character from that game for this year’s ConnectiCon, where they’ll be running an open playtest for their system, and I’ve reached the stage where I can consider buying materials.

armour

As a former member of re-enactment and living history companies, I have a strong interest in accurate armour design. Featurettes about design work for films such as Lord of the Rings are fascinating for me — I have a lot of respect for John Howe, whose living history association, Company of Saynt George, features in some of my reference books. I love when effort is made towards making armour — even sci-fi or fantasy armour, where historical accuracy can be thrown out the window and style is open to experimentation — look like it’s not only functional but as comfortable to wear as armour can be.

So I might be a bit biased with regards to preferring games and films where people aren’t running half-naked into a battle. A lot of terrible armour design has been committed over the years in the name of style and visual design. But what if you want to design armour that isn’t traditional? Well, the trick — as with all things — is to know and understand the rules before you go about breaking them. Welcome to Armour 101.

Mediaeval kevlar

Mediaeval kevlar

The most persistent design error is in armour layering. Armour is intended to protect vitals, but there are areas such as the insides of the elbows, armpits and knees where flexibility is required; obviously you can’t just wrap plated leather over those areas and call it a day. These are also locations containing vital tendons and arteries, so leaving them unprotected is a fairly effective method of suicide. Additionally, bearing a heavy suit of armour over unprotected skin or a simple shirt will leave vicious bruises, particularly on the shoulders and upper chest area (I don’t speak from personal experience, but I know someone who can). The typical mediaeval knight wore a padded gambeson or arming doublet with gussets of chain sewn over the exposed joint areas beneath their armour. The padded under-layer includes leather straps or ties which are used to secure the armour in place. This detail is frequently neglected in a lot of game armour — many games show plate armour as being too close-fitting to possibly have anything lighter than a silk shirt or layer of leather underneath, if anything at all. This happens frequently in films as well, where design accuracy may be sacrificed for style and making the primary characters more recognisable.

Chain mail. Effective protection against swords, not so good against arrows, poignards and smaller daggers.

Chain mail. Effective protection against swords, not so good against arrows, poignards and smaller daggers.

The result of leaving the under-layer out in the design phase is that the remainder of the armour may be too tight. Freedom of movement is essential — and far more possible than one might think even in a full suit of plate armour. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s possible to engage is extreme athletics whilst wearing armour — or it ought to be. Armour is not a corset, nor is it intended to be. If it’s close-fitting plate over padding, it needs to be lapped or else the person inside cannot do their job; if it’s a padded brigandine or jack, it needs to be loose enough for the wearer to be able to fold their arms.

So where is protection most needed? Everywhere. If a piece of armour doesn’t help absorb impact, hinder stabbing, or guard against cutting, it needs to guide piercing attacks away from the most vulnerable areas. This last is an important factor when designing fantasy plate, as many designers lean on a thorny, intimidating appearance which would render mobility impossible and cause enemy weapons to get caught on the surfaces. Important factors are the knees, elbows and shoulders — spikes in the wrong locations or pointing the wrong direction would cause plates to lock, or worse, stab the wearer, and bear in mind that if metal plate gains more than an average thickness, it’ll be unreasonably heavy — big chunky pauldrons look awesome and are used all too frequently in games, but are more likely to hinder than help a character. Conversely, if a body part’s sole protection is limited to a piece of fabric or nothing at all — a popular non-tactic for “barbarian”-type classes, and all too common an occurrence when ill-fitting pauldrons do not provide more than a passing acquaintance with protection  — you may as well have gone in starkers. Sometimes you can go light in one area if there’s something elsewhere to compensate; for example, a longer gambeson or chain  skirt instead of full leg armour, or a full chain shirt over a gambeson beneath a breastplate rather than pauldrons and upper-arm plates. Unless someone was very wealthy, armour was more likely to be made of essential parts purchased as they could be afforded, and there was a surprising amount of variation.

One size fits most.

One size fits most. Not glasses-compatible.

Then there’s headgear. I’ve been playing Dragon Age again, and the metal helmets bother me because they’re too small. The pic on the right is my spangenhelm; it only looks oversized because I’m not wearing an arming-cap underneath, and I haven’t finished lining it for the chain aventail (see above pic for the chain). It also looks flat-out ridiculous (especially if I’m not wearing any other armour), but one combat scar on my face is more than enough. I learned the hard way in Dead House that forgetting a helmet on a close-combat character is a good way to get one’s virtual head split like a watermelon — with something like the spangenhelm, the spans would deflect an overhead blow off to the side. Even modern military helmets are fairly bulky, because the last part of the body you want to leave exposed is the head. And yet, in Kingdom of Heaven, the first thing Balian does during any battle is make certain he isn’t wearing a helmet. I love that film, particularly the director’s cut version, but that detail always irks me. The heroic long hair flowing in the gore-flecked winds of battle is much less heroic when you’ve painted a big shiny target on your forehead.

So now that we’ve covered the basics of traditional armour — under-layer protection, manoeuvrability, outer-layer defense, and headgear — let’s apply it to, for example, sci-fi armour. You’re unlikely to be flailing about with swords (unless you have a scenario where blades are preferred due to the potential for vapourising a hole in a ship’s hull and depressurising the section you’re standing in) so you’re looking for an underlayer that mitigates the effects of energy discharge and an outer layer that deflects projectiles. If your fantasy characters are using rapiers, you’ll want to forego chain in favour of armoured brigandines, because all those holes won’t do as much good against a fine-tipped pointy object. And bear in mind the characters’ jobs: a mediaeval pikeman wouldn’t wear the same armour as a cavalry officer, and a sci-fi police officer wouldn’t wear the same armour as a career space marine (non-capitalised). Conversely, if the character’s intended to get in other characters’ faces with a sword, don’t have them lightly dressed.

And for the love of little fuzzy kittens, give them headgear.

Multiple layers make a swordfighter happy.

Multiple layers make a swordfighter happy.

Automaton

Shady dealings.

Shady dealings.

I was a huge Shadowrun player back toward the end of high school and beyond. If you’re not familiar with Shadowrun, as a concept (since it’s now a computer as well as tabletop game), then a good quick summary is that it’s Dungeons and Dragons set in a corporate-dystopian cyberpunk future. While the thought of magic returning to the world in the future was intriguing, what really caught at my imagination was the projected future corporate culture: you’re either raised from birth within a corporate system which feeds, clothes, houses, educates and eventually employs you… or you’re scraping by on the fringes of society, often turning to employers who are on the wrong side of legality who may choose to pay you in bullets rather than cash. It’s a game with few pure spots of black and white, and quite a lot of grey.

It’s easy to see where the creators were coming from, back in the late ’80s. Reaganomics was becoming a buzzword as the former actor stepped out of office and made way for the corporate-minded H.W, the leashes on corporate self-governance had been loosened and the accompanying anti-union sentiments were sneaking closer, and the economy was easing towards the early-90s slump, layering over the top of a fading punk aesthetic a haze of despair that the value of a human life no longer lay in its individuality but in its conformity to the overarching system.

That light you see is just a sodium lamp

That light you see is just a sodium lamp

Shadowrun took that sense of caged hopelessness and dialled it up to 11 for the future world of 2050 (I’m going to pause here to add that the last edition I played was third, which had moved the timeline up to 2063; I’m not aware of the developments past that point). It was the sort of grim neo-noir prediction popularised by Philip K. Dick, William Gibson and Ray Bradbury; a neo-noir prediction liberally seasoned with the sort of punk rebelliousness only available in the fantasies of those who are already feeling trapped.

Do you feel trapped? I know a lot of people who do. We’re already living in a dystopian corporate hegemony.

I first encountered the wage-slave box in 2005. I was living in Edinburgh at the time and was unable to land even the simplest bar job due to my age (long story short: the UK has a minimum wage for people below the age of 21, which is what’s usually offered for jobs available on college-student time schedules; being 21 when I started uni, I didn’t have a chance of getting anything). I attempted to apply for a summer position at a clothing retailer, and their automated phone system asked me a bunch of personality questions, then determined that I was not an ideal worker and hung up on me.

Not an ideal worker.

Ideal worker.

Roll those words around in your head a bit. A computerised multiple-choice Sorting Hat put me into Slytherin and then told me how worthless I was to their corporate society, because I failed to tick all the boxes to indicate that I was not, in fact, willing to be mindlessly loyal to a company I only wanted to work for because they were hiring.

Modern corporate culture has a loyalty problem. It values its profits and its shareholders, and ascribes very little value to its workers whilst demanding everything they have and beyond. Sometimes they get it right, such as offering training or higher-education degrees to potential employees, with a promise of solid employment upon completion. You do good work for them, they’ll express their appreciation by treating you like the valued member of the team you are.

Hope you have medical to help with that computer virus, hacker.

Hope you have medical to help with that computer virus, hacker.

But human loyalty is expensive. It requires medical care, enough pay to afford housing, work-quality clothing, food, family support and transportation; if the company starts tossing workers around like chattel, the workers are more apt to leave… unless they’re trapped in a system where leaving puts them at risk of financial insecurity, where complaining about low pay, terrible hours, high stress and poor management put workers at risk of being “made redundant”, replaced by another cog who’s just grateful to BE a cog. You hear this a lot from politicians: “You should be grateful just to HAVE a job!” And a lot of corporations ascribe to the idea that their reputation is so amazing that people will put up with any indignity just to be able to tell others who their employer is.

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: That isn’t loyalty. That’s an abusive relationship.

Corporations are reaching a tipping-point; Charles Stross wrote a very good article relating to this last year. A lot of them have trouble finding applicants with the precise skillset and temperament they’re looking for — rather like shopping for a workhorse instead of looking to build a relationship of trust and loyalty with a person; a self-destructive race for quantity over quality. It’s not a massive stretch to expand the old training/apprenticeship model into a system which provides a lifetime of education (and subsequent indoctrination) which is shown in the Shadowrun universe. The beginnings of such a system can already be seen in parts of the US and Europe, and it really is the best way to make employees who fit perfectly into the Human Resource box.

I filled out another job application a couple days ago. It included a 12-page personality test, and I didn’t receive a failure notification. I think I’m getting close to cracking their algorithm.

Welcome to the future, chummer.

All artwork used in the post is © myself. Please be polite if you borrow any of my work, thanks!

Self-Fulfilling Disappointment

Shae Tiann -- Gallente renegade, Gurista. Threat level: Taranis.

Shae Tiann — Gallente renegade, Gurista. Destroys ships for fun.

In 2010, I was moderately known as a blogger writing about EVE Online; those of us seen as “regulars” with decent writing skills were loosely known as the Blog Pack. One of our number, CrazyKinux, ran a monthly event known as the Blog Banter, where a subject would be chosen for all of us to venture opinions about.

I rarely participated in these unless the topic was of enough personal interest that I could contribute a couple thousand words. One in particular was a topic which made me just roll my eyes: the question of “How can we get more women to play EVE?”

EVE has an extraordinarily low percentage of female players for an MMO; an estimated 4% of EVE accounts are known to be registered to women, while most other MMOs average 25% or more. There are a number of theories as to why this might be, from the competitiveness of the game to the lack of a human-like character one can use to interact with the game world.

So anyway, I initially had no intention of getting involved in that particular Blog Banter. I’d heard it all before, how the game ought to be changed to appeal more to women; as far as I was concerned, most of those proposals were more likely to drive myself and a majority of the existing women subscribers AWAY from the game if they were ever given serious screentime.

But then I browsed a few of the responses, and the sheer volume of stupid just blew my mind. Some of the comments made during the course of the responses were so outrageously clueless that… I couldn’t stay silent. I just couldn’t. Something had to be said.

So I wrote this in response to the responses. It got a lot of the right attention, and a bit of the wrong attention, and I felt my point had been made, particularly here:

In order for a person to enjoy playing games, they have to WANT to play them in the first place.

Four years later, and I still firmly believe it is true that the people who are aware of a game’s existence and do not play it, are simply not interested in getting to know the material further.

But the bigger picture is still being left out. What about the people who might be interested, if only they knew the game was there to be played?

Responsible adults; yes, we are.

Responsible adults; yes, we are.

We live in a world where the overwhelming majority of the under-50 population are gamers. They might not consider themselves gamers, but whether your entertainment of choice is Angry Birds on your phone, a round of Trivial Pursuit with your family, Netrunner over a pint at your local, or Halo on a console, it’s still a game and you still qualify. There’s a good pdf resource here with demographic comparisons. Playing games is no longer the venue of nerdy loners, it is an indelible aspect of modern life and can be found in nearly every country in the world regardless of its development level.

And this is why it’s not just annoying but outright disgraceful to see, in 2014, people still saying “There are no women on the internet” and “Girls don’t play this game”. Because there are women online — quite openly and obviously — and we do play those games. Some of us helped make those games. And yet, we live in a world where a male developer can tell a female developer, who has played the game since its early days, “you are not the target demographic”.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The impression that women are not proportionally represented online is directly fed by marketing for online content which not just ignores but actively excludes women, which is in turn run by people who have bought into the idea that women don’t use online or game content. It’s an unfortunate, circular cycle. It is also long dead; a fossilised relic of a bygone era, a zombie mantra clinging desperately to a world that has moved on.

Part of this is the result of standard marketing technique — if your initial campaign grabs 40 out of 50 representatives of Demographic 1, and 20 out of 50 from Demographic 2, it is patently more cost-effective to go after that last 20% of Demographic 1 than it is to try for the remaining 60% of Demographic 2. The problem, however, is that an additional 20% of Demographic 2 is potentially also interested, but thanks to standard marketing technique, a full 60% of that demographic is getting ignored.

Source: http://www.geeksugar.com/Girl-Gamer-Mag-Educational-Downright-Disturbing-1001637

Source. I wouldn’t be caught dead reading something that looks like this.

In 2014, I still hear the same infantilising suggestions as I did at EIEF back in 2007 about getting women interested in games. Pastel colours! Dating sims! Let them decorate stuff!

Here’s a totally crazy, insane concept; it might be a little tough to grasp, but give it a chance. What if… no, really, just suppose that companies’ marketing approached women as if they were sensible adults willing to spend money on your product just the way it is? No changes to the product. No content added or modified to “cater” to the demographic. Just… modify the marketing approach.

I know, crazy, right? It’s so utterly off the standard approach, it might as well be popping in through a wardrobe from Narnia. I’ll give you a moment to recover your sensibilities.

Look. In our example marketing test, 40% of Demographic 2 likes your product the way it is, and another 20% might be interested in it if you just approached them the right way. The remaining 40% wouldn’t be interested in any case, and offering to change the product to appeal to that 40% is going to utterly drive the initial 60% away (and possibly a substantial chunk of Demographic 1 in the process). That’s clearly the wrong direction to go; so why do so many people — people who really ought to know better — make these proposals?

Is it a joke? A way of saying, “Do you really want women in your game? Because we’d have to add dress-up games and pink paint, and you don’t really want that, do you? We didn’t think so”? That’s almost worse than these proposals being serious.

I’d like to make a suggestion that can fix all of this:

Revise your target demographic.

What kind of audience are you targeting with your game? Trekkies? Adrenaline junkies? Lovecraft fiends? The kind of people who will spend New Year’s Eve watching the entire Lord of the Rings Extended Edition with their friends, or the sort who prefer to go paintballing for an afternoon?

What kind of gameplay are you offering? Suspense? Shooter? Roleplaying? Can the player accomplish a goal within half an hour, or would it require the entire evening?

How complex is the content? Is it straightforward, or does it require abstract thinking to work through it?

And please, please, stop using exclusionary tactics. “We only want certain types of players” is the wrong mentality — I saw this enough at the office, and while I will agree that certain types of people will not be a good match for certain games, it’s not up to the developers to actively enforce it. Let the player decide for themself whether they’re the type of player who will enjoy your game — don’t drive them away before they’ve had a chance to at least consider it.

You never know when a new demographic will surprise you.

For Love of the Game

I had a job interview today.

No, really, you don’t understand what that means. I’ve been looking for work since late October. The games industry is currently flooded with experienced, talented developers who have been laid off or whose companies have folded for some reason, and while I’ve popped up onto a few companies’ radar, 99% of my applications have effectively been ignored.

I’m going to clarify that, no, I know my information was looked into as thoroughly as everyone else’s. The fact of the matter that that, with a one lone exception, I have received no real rejection notices. This is a trend I noticed from back in 2009, so it’s nothing new. I recognise that, not being an experienced HR veteran, I don’t know the whole reasoning behind some parts of the hiring process, but it strikes me as highly unprofessional to not have some method of letting an applicant know that they weren’t the prime candidate and to stack their hopes somewhere else. Even a form-letter, insert-name-here automated response is less disheartening than dead air.

The job interview, by the way, was at the used-book store I linked to a couple weeks ago in Multiple-Personality Gamer. I’m seeing more of a future on the independent side of the games industry than with big-name companies, anyway, considering how volatile it can be. Currently, I’m billing myself as a design consultant for Wyrmhole Gaming; I’m totally plugging them because alpha-testing their tabletop game Dead House has been a blast so far. I’ve also signed on for various projects with others, and I have some stuff of my own slowly gathering steam.

The broadening of the internet and easy availability of self-publishing options is really driving things more into the field of smaller companies right now. While there’s significant risk to the creators that all their hard work may not pay off in the end, the reason behind taking that risk is for the love of the game rather than the money. It’s people with ideas who want to share those ideas with the rest of the world, like any good creators would. Obviously not all ideas will appeal to everyone, but that doesn’t stop people who desperately want their hobby to be their career.

A lot of people in the industry get into it for that reason, really. We love games. We watch game trailers, spend hours immersed in digital fantasy realms, and the entire time we’re thinking, “I wish I could be a part of something this amazing.” It always starts out that way, and it stays with us the entire time, despite crushing deadlines, a high-stress work environment, and the constant meddling of management in the creative flow — nothing is more counterproductive than finally hitting The Zone and then getting a Lync ping about a meeting in fifteen minutes. If you’re not a creative or computational type and you don’t quite understand the problem with this, this great little comic popped up on my feed the other day which precisely illustrates what I’m talking about — while the comic is about programming, it’s no less valid for writers, artists and designers.

A good friend of mine once said that if you go your entire career in the industry and never get laid off once, you’re very lucky. I was in the industry less than six months before I got laid off for the first time, just another of the 20% laid off from CCP in October 2011. I didn’t even have half the chance then that I do now — nobody looks twice at only a half-year of professional experience. I lucked out in getting re-hired, even if the new position wasn’t in the creative end. Many are not so lucky.

Why do we stay in an industry where being laid off is not just chance, but soul-crushingly inevitable? The corporate end may be a faceless monolith or an Oedipal Jenga tower, but the actual hands creating each game are there because it means something to them; because every one of us started out as kids playing games with starry-eyed ambitions to be involved in something  we actually felt passionate about. Out of the entire group I used to play tabletop games with, I’m the only one who got that far into the industry.

I still hold out hope that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that developers can do what we love without having to glance constantly over our shoulders or worry about what will happen once a project is completed.

Bigger on the Inside

Looks cosy, doesn't it?

Looks cosy, doesn’t it?

Every once in a while, whilst playing a game, you might notice something a little odd. You may not be able to clearly define it, but in the course of your explorations, you might occasionally get the feeling that there’s something not quite right about the setting, nagging at the back of your mind like the background code-static from the Matrix.

I’ll let you in on a secret: buildings in games are distantly related to the TARDIS.

I should clarify that I don’t mean they’re actually TARDISes sitting more anachronistically than usual in the middle of a game, although that would be an interesting Easter Egg. Game buildings are Escherian conundrums in which the floorplan inside frequently does not match the exterior footprint, or for which the visual scale does not compute with the scale of other things ingame.

Much of the time, the scale of graphical assets ingame will be skewed a bit for the sake of  the visuals or for technical reasons. When compared to other things, the assets may be smaller or larger than the real object would be. When this is done well, players don’t even notice.

Moons love to get into your space.

Moons love to get into your space.

Moons in EVE Online are a good example of this: their assets — the actual objects attached to the visual representation — are often both smaller and closer than they appear to be, and it’s possible to get your ship caught on them when you’d swear you’re nowhere close to grazing what little atmosphere they might have. Part of this has to do with what your brain tells you should be the moon’s relative size. A good asset-builder, like any artist or architect, knows how to force perspective in order to create an illusion of distance and scale. In EVE, it only falls apart when you realise that there’s no way in hell your ship could possibly have squeezed through the station undock, let alone have fit within the station itself along with the rest of your corporation and all of your other ships and gear; there are a couple station models where the hangar interior is literally larger than the station exterior in space. But until you really start thinking about it, it’s easy to suspend belief a bit.

And then you get things that don’t make sense. At a distance, with no character nearby for scale, a location or object looks amazing. But then you put a character in the scene and find out that that a guard-railing in Moria is head-height on an elf or human, and wouldn’t do a lick of good keeping a dwarf from falling over the side. Likewise, stairs. Lord of the Rings Online is beautifully visualised, but its stairs make me want to cry. I kind of wish they’d been left as a painted ramp, because it’s tough to imagine dwarves hiking up and down a hill using what are essentially waist-high shelves. At range, these features and others look fine, the human brain does a fantastic job of scaling things mentally so that they make perfect sense, even when they don’t; there are limitations in games that don’t exist in real life, and we can forgive these easily.

Full-on TARDIS houses, on the other hand, are a bit of a stretch.

I’ve studied architecture, structural engineering, and I’m a reasonably good draughtsman both on paper and in CAD programs. When I look at a building, I’m mentally mapping its layout; if I’m in an older building, I’m looking for signs of structural expansion and history — I’m a nerd like that. When the interior of a house doesn’t match its exterior, or when a wall seems just a bit too thick for no apparent reason, it’s fairly noticeable. For a few months I lived in a house in Providence, Rhode Island (not far from dear old H.P. Lovecraft’s old home, in fact) which was distinctly non-Euclidean, and it was a great mental exercise to figure out how the walls were joined.

Again, sometimes TARDIS-ing is done in the interests of accommodating game limitations, either visually or technically. Allow me to provide a couple of notable examples.

It's really a small fortress.

Not shown: portal to another dimension.

Take the Prancing Pony in Bree from Lord of the Rings Online. No, no, put it back, I didn’t mean literally. The exterior looks great; the latest graphics update to Bree only improved its appeal as a place to get a room, a pint and a hearty meal. Now compare that exterior to its ingame floorplan. For reference, the red triangle in the upper left is the main entrance, which is accessed via the stairs under the archway outside. Look a bit odd? It gets better: the red triangle below the main entrance lets you out into the yard, almost directly behind the wall in which the front entrance is located. The rest of the rooms “below” that in the floorplan are up flights of stairs. This is what I mean by TARDIS houses. Some of my favourite buildings in the UK are coachhouses that have been turned into pubs or student unions, and while they certainly have a number of odd angles and short flights of stairs connecting levels through holes that have been carved through the stonework, I’ve never seen anything quite so dramatic. LotRO pulls a lot of Escher tricks for the sake of simplicity, mind. This is the map of Moria. If you look on the left at the chamber called “The Twenty-First Hall”, there is a well-chamber (this one, to be precise) on the far, far left edge of the map. If you jump or fall in the well, you’ll end up in “The Water-Works” at the bottom-left of the map (certain chance of death may apply if you do this). When actually walking around, however, the map is (relatively) straightforward and flat, and your latitude/longitude on the mini-map reflects this. The implication is that Moria is far more vertical than they were able to make it; belief is willingly suspended in favour of the Rule of Cool: YOU CAN JUMP DOWN THE FREAKING WELL.

Schrodinger's Tenements: the interiors are both there and not there until observed directly.

Schrödinger’s Tenements: the interiors are both there and not there until observed directly.

Then there’s Dragon Age 2. I’m a massive Dragon Age addict, and if I had only one game series I was allowed to play for the rest of my life, that’s what I’d choose, but building interiors in those games sometimes defy the laws of physics. DA2’s production limits had a strong influence on the ingame architecture — I can’t fault the artists for doing a good job with what they had, but the results are great TARDIS-building examples. The layouts of most interiors make no sense, particularly as the buildings in the game appear to be multiple-storey blocks — there would have to be concessions for internal stairwells and passages, at the very least. After your character earns the right to buy an estate, the estate interior is far too big and oddly-shaped to fit into its footprint in Hightown; moreover, when you’re exploring its cellar in the first act, the map of the above floors doesn’t match what you find later after moving in in the second act. A door that leads you into a side-room in an early quest will later let you into the entry hall of the same building.

TARDIS-ing is partly a symptom of disconnecting interior locations from the exteriors assets, requiring a moment’s loading blink when you change locations: when there’s no external boundary to stay within, the possibilities are limitless. The Pokémon games are notorious for this, and the only real way to avoid such a disconnect is to not allow the players to see the exterior of the building they’re entering, which is usually done using walls or plants, or implying that there was an additional passage to travel through which the player wasn’t forced to traverse manually. Sometimes the artists will make an effort to match the interiors to a suggested exterior profile, but sometimes there are design matters to take into account, or time and resources are limited and it’s simply more effective to clone interiors for multiple buildings. Cloning interiors makes a great deal of sense in a location such as that in DA2, where the entire town was purpose-built, but not so much for a village which has grown over time and where the houses were built by their original occupants, like Bree.

Is any approach particularly better, though? While my personal preference is for structural continuity, I would not actually suggest that it’s ideal for all games. There are a lot of variables to take into account with any design decision, and while it might be more realistic to have narrow staircases in your inn and a space station that looks like it could feasibly house a hundred capital-sized hangars, it’s not always the best option for the game itself. For my part, I try to not focus too much on why City of Heroes offices were all constructed by the same firm which clearly believes in useless dead ends and not building lifts to go directly from ground floor to rooftop.

Remap

I’ve mentioned before that the novel I’m currently working on is the first for which I’ve had a full plot outline developed before I even started writing.

This is where I admit that I’ve had to re-outline the story, one year after I made the first outline.

It’s not as bad as you might think. Through writing — the process of which is more comparable to a jigsaw puzzle than a journey — I’ve found points in the original concept which were weak and needed to be restructured in order to prevent the whole thing from collapsing.

I’m sorry, the metaphor has gone from puzzle to 3-D structure. And I suppose that’s a good thing, because a good story should have depth.

In the last two weeks, I’ve discovered that two characters needed their roles to be swapped entirely, which has changed parts of the ending. Each of them has come out the stronger for it — words like “agency” and “responsibility” and “independence” factor in a lot, which is common when you’re dealing with teenagers. The changes to the ending have made things a smidge more complex, but not in a negative way — everything can be explained without the use of handwavium, at least. Handwavium can be annoying if it’s too obvious.

The antagonist’s backstory needed a restructure because it was slipping into a particular cliché which has been badly overused in other media and which I have always been distinctly uncomfortable with. Improving this also happened during the past fortnight, and as a result their motivations and reasoning have cemented more clearly, and also had a serious knock-on effect on the ending. Whoops.

This has had the unfortunate consequence of changing the map. It’s like when you set up for a road trip: you think you know the route and then shortly after leaving the house you get Facebook notes and Twitter pings from people who would just LOVE to meet up with you for coffee when you’re in the area — and being “in the area” might be as vague as being within 100 miles. I’ve literally taken the existing text and gone through it in reverse, reducing each part to a series of plot points from end to beginning, and then filled in the gaps between them so I know which remaining puzzle pieces belong where. The old outline has been deleted entirely because it no longer applies.

I’m really not certain how often this happens to other writers. Despite having had a dream job where I got paid to be creative, I still feel novitiate at times. I’ve been letting the text develop on its own, rather than forcing it to conform to the original, six-year-old concept because that original concept sucked (well, maybe not that bad, but it could be framed as juvenile and under-developed, as well as being a product of my lack of experience with life at the time). What I have now is better than what I thought it would be a year ago, and I really hope that, a year from now, it’s even better.

Hell, it’d be nice to have it finished and maybe even released into the wild in another year. I’d be cool with that.

It’s tough to be a creative type — you really are your own worst critic. Others can look at your work and think, “Well, it’s not how I’d have done it, but it’s pretty good!” and in the mean-time you’ll be picking it apart because it’s not precisely what you wanted it to be. This part and that part can always be changed just so, but in the end, you have to save it off and admit that any more fussing will be counter-productive, even if it’s not perfect.

I got annoyed a few weeks ago when I started considering making a serious change to a character. Their role had already been under major editing a few times, and I was content with where it had ended up… except that I wasn’t, and kept finding bits that bothered me. Allowing the change to happen improved things, but it also led directly to the change I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago where I completely swapped two characters and their roles within the story.

If you’ve ever made too many attempts to draw something, eventually the eraser wears away the paper quality and ruins the potential for drawing anything; writing is similar, in that if you spend too much time worrying over something, it can get muddied and indistinct. But again, if something is too precious to not be permitted to change in order to make the entire story better, it’s not worth keeping in the first place. I have this approach to pretty much all of life, these days, which is why I’m a-okay with pre-furnished apartments — it makes moving on easier when you’re not loaded down with baggage.

It’s really just a matter of figuring out what’s worth carrying with you, and what’s worth leaving behind.