We’ve been writing and releasing these San Jenaro novels for a while. It started with Blood Flow, then #iHunt: Killing Monsters in the Gig Economy, then #iHunt: A Transylvanian Prince in Southern California, then #iHunt: Mayhem in Movieland, then ULTRA, we’re just about to release Reaching Out, and I’m working on #iHunt: The Chosen One. That’s a lot of fiction, right?
We’re also working on the #iHunt tabletop roleplaying game. Our roots are in tabletop games, so it’s a good fit that we just do it ourselves. So we’re going over all these things about the world and the stories, and there are some stark differences between what needs to be said in a story and what needs to be said in a game.
Take, for example, the #iHunt app. In the #iHunt books, it’s just a thing the characters use. It’s a plot device. So the details begin and end with what I need to say about it. However, in the game, the app actually needs to be spelled out with some degree of detail because the players at the table need to know what they’re doing, and they all need to be on the same page. So I figured this would be a good time to blog about game writing.
On (Game) Writing
In a lot of game writing, I find a lot of just saying things. Now, traditional writing advice doesn’t really apply to game writing. You can write superb text by the standards of fiction that will simply fall flat in a game. This is doubly true because fiction doesn’t generally rely on visual presentation to communicate.
So for game writing, I have a few things I try for in everything I do.
- Explicitly communicate something about the game.
- Explicitly communicate something about the setting.
- Implicitly communicate something about either the game or setting.
When I’m editing an RPG for someone else, those are the three things I tend to look for as well. It isn’t quite as obvious as it seems, as most game writing I read does one or two of those things, but rarely all three.
Let’s break it down a little with an example. This is four pages of the upcoming #iHunt book, which details how the #iHunt app works.What-Is-iHunt
So the first thing you’ll notice is the bright and bold layout. My goal was a sort of magazine feel, somewhere between Teen Vogue and 1990s era BoingBoing. The game has a cheeky attitude, and the characters are mostly millennials. This is a not-so-subtle nod to that. This helps to contextualize all the text—it’s sort of a catch-all way to add “implicitly communicate something about either the game or the setting” to every bit of material in this section.
Blog posts should really stay at a realistic, digestible size. So I’ll hit up the first page’s text today, then we’ll do some more tomorrow.
Kill monsters, get cash. Sounds fairly simple, doesn’t it? After all, your favorite blockbuster Movieland™ superhero could fight werewolves in her sleep. Can’t you picture yourself bashing in zombie skulls like your favorite prime time drama character, except for the part where he murders racial minorities (spoilers!)? Well, it turns out, hunting monsters isn’t for the light of heart. Let’s talk for a second about the average #iHunt user:
Kill Monsters, Get Cash
This first paragraph looks fairly simple. And it is. But it’s still multi-functional. #iHunt really has two “themes” as a game, dueling ideas. The first is “Killing Monsters in the Gig Economy.” That’s something that means a lot to anyone who has ever had to hustle to pay the rent. It’s very much what #iHunt is, summed up in a single sentence. However, the dueling version is “Kill monsters, get cash.” That’s the sanitized, corporate version of the same statement.
Consider the reality of tech like Uber or Fiverr for a moment. There’s a reality about what they are, a reality everyone understands. It’s a way to squeeze out a few extra dollars. It’s not great. It’s exploitative. But if you’re in a bind, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
On the other hand, these companies “sell the dream.” They spin the exact same thing to make it sound like opportunity, like a path to success. We all know the reality, but that bit of polish makes it a little uplifting and emboldening. This four-page section comes hot off the trail of a section talking about telling stories about poverty and despair in a very direct, to-the-reader method. So I switch up into this magazine format, and now I’m giving you the corporate version.
The second sentence, “Sounds fairly simple, doesn’t it,” is a stark yet sarcastic reminder that we actually get it. We see through the corporate buzz-speak. Everyone’s in on the ruse.
Then we get “After all, your favorite blockbuster Movieland™ superhero could fight werewolves in her sleep.” This does two big things. For the game, it grounds us, tells us that we’re playing characters like us, maybe a little nerdy, watching popular movies, doing regular things. For the setting, it gives us Movieland. That’s a signature brand in the #iHunt universe. It’s somewhere between Disney and Universal. This is important, because it immediately lets the reader know that the world has a bunch of balderized brands that should feel familiar on the surface but are unique to the #iHunt setting.
Then I make a joke about zombie primetime drama and killing racial minority stuff. That’s mostly just the same stuff carried over. It’s “we have the same stuff in this world, basically.”
Then there’s this bit about who hunts:
- High school or GED graduate
- Misdemeanor criminal record
- No college degree
- $40-100k debt
- Chronic medical conditions
- Working full-time elsewhere
One of the first things you need to do in a game is establish the norms. Tell the reader what “average” is, before you go breaking the mold. In some games, players are going to be portraying young adventurers going after dragons. In some games, they’re naive vampires climbing the social stratum. In #iHunt, they’re younger adults who are struggling.
However, I wanted to be very specific. All these things are potential plot hooks in an #iHunt story. Consider how they might complicate a character’s life.
Single: Of course, being single means you either have less money than someone in a couple or someone who has a roommate. Does your character have a roommate? How does that work when coming in at 2am drenched with blood?
Renter: This is a subtle one because it comprises most people in that age bracket. But specifically what it says is that your average #iHunter is potentially one paycheck away from homelessness. Maybe your character has mitigated that particular risk, but to have done so, you have to consider that and make a statement about who she is.
HS or GED: The “or GED” here is what matters. It can complicate job applications. Even if it doesn’t directly cause conflicts for your character, it can say something about his upbringing and current situation. GED recipients tend to make less money than their high school graduate equivalents. Actually, just check out this article for some facts about GED recipients you may not know.
Misdemeanor Criminal Record: This contextualizes characters a bit further. Hunters kill people for a living. But, importantly, iHunt is usually not their only conflict with the law. It’s not explicit right here, but throughout the book, there’s a general idea that police are at very least a hurdle, but often an antagonistic force for hunters.
No College Degree: There’s a lot to unpack here from a social standpoint, but hunters don’t have the same opportunities many people have. They’re largely working for minimum wage or otherwise very exploitative amounts of money. There’s more on this later in the book, but college dropouts are common in #iHunt for more than a few reasons.
$40-$100k Debt: Hunting should never be zero sum. Hunters should always be struggling. It’s very, very hard to break even in the gig economy. And just paying down debt should feel like a win. People who really have nothing but are still strapped with massive debt represent this struggle very well. From a game perspective, it keeps the characters hungry for more. It provides inherent motivation for action.
Chronic Medical Conditions: Not only does this provide financial incentive as noted in the debt section above, it socially contextualizes characters. Having chronic medical conditions makes traditional work challenging at best. This also guarantees that the character isn’t only going to struggle because of supernatural forces. In iHunt, the real world should always be scarier than the monsters.
LGBTQ+: So, there’s something to be said for struggles here. But instead let me be perfectly clear about what this represents from a game design perspective. It boldly states that the heroes of our story tend to be marginalized, under-represented people in gaming. This is a game by LGBTQ+ people, and it’s a game for LGBTQ+ people. If you’re not LGBTQ+, that isn’t to say this isn’t a game for you. But it’s unapologetically about us in a lot of ways, and if you’re not LGBTQ+, maybe consider using this as an opportunity to step into our shoes for a while.
Ultimately, those bullet points made up 23 words. But do you see how much I said about the setting, the world, the characters, and ultimately the game? There’s enough implied just in that bit that you can really intuit what #iHunt is. Is that average representative of all hunters? Fuck no. But, it helps to ground the game in what it usually is.
Now I’m not going to break down the next to paragraphs bit by bit, because really they’re just hitting home what I said in those bullet points, but a little more specifically to help bring it back. Sometimes repetition is important in game writing, but I find that you should play with specificity. Either start general and give a specific example like I did here with Tara, or start specific and then give the general overview that contains the example.
I think this makes a great first design blog. What do you think? Is there a good example of game writing that does my three things you can think of? Post it in the comments.