James Chew – Senior Writer at Fairbetter Games

Report by Sarah Noon

James Chew: Talk:  A Brief Introduction to Writing Interactive Fiction

James works for Fairbetter Games, a small company which was based in London pre-pandemic.  The company specialises in games set in a “shared universe” of an alternative gothic London Victorian underworld. Their first game was Fallen London – a game based on texts and static image, where the player navigates around the landscape.  The company has since branched out with several other games based on text-based stories, where the player makes choices in order to make their way around the world in which the game is set. Fairbetter Games also creates visual novels which James describes as “… quite text heavy and quite dialogue based.”

James Chew

So, what does James do? Well, surprisingly, very little coding is involved, despite what we may assume – although there is a requirement to know some coding and programming that the company uses, enabling the writer to keep track of all the narrative elements in the game, such as quests and dialogue. Descriptions of props etc are often written by hand, and require “… evocative, punchy prose to make those items seem attractive.”

One of the main roles in games writing, is the narrative designer.  This involves the writing of large cinematic scenes (James gives the example of Call of Duty) as well as considering what order a player may find clues in mystery games, and what the effects of this order might be. One of the most important things when writing for gaming is to remember that the writer is writing for the player and to consider “What is the writer experiencing at any given moment?”

James goes on to explain some terms which are specific to games writing (verbs, gameplay, variables etc) as well as what a game actually is – genres include RPG, simulation, strategy, indie, platformer and shooter games.  There is a massive arc of commercialism within the game industry, from what are known as the AAA games (Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed etc – large commercial games) to the other end of the spectrum, which feature indie games such as the ones that James works on. However, they all have things in common, such as entertainment as their primary goal.  But the games are also aiming to get an emotional response from the player in order to keep them immersed and engaged. James explains that “…all games are designed with the player in mind from the outset.”  It’s all about offering an experience outside of normal life.

There are different types of protagonists in games: a defined protagonist, invisible protagonist, co-authored protagonist, player-defined protagonist. The type of protagonist has a direct effect on the game in terms of how they react and the roles the player is assigned.

The art of writing a good game, James explains, relies on the consideration of what the writer wants to make, who the player is and what that player can do.  A game will be tested many times in order to ensure that a one-hour gaming session, for example, provides the player with many options in order to remain engaged.

One example of a narrative-rich genre is role-play. This genre gives the player an opportunity to create a character. Some games allow more choice than others. There is an element of choice and consequence in these types of games. This should lead to the gamer replaying the game numerous times, as they discover things led by the choices they make.  Another example of narrative-rich gaming is immersive fiction – having its origins in Dungeons and Dragons, and books where the reader skips to different pages according to the reader’s preferred options. These types of games mean that James’ job gives him a lot of narrative freedom and his work involves a lot of “pure writing” as opposed to programming.

Like many other writers, James says that he feels it is important to be able to draw upon one’s own experiences, and for those interested in game writing, he believes that it is important to have experience outside of gaming in order to achieve that (James’ background is Medieval studies – and a knowledge of history has certainly helped with world-building).

James ends his talk with a couple of points to remember:

  • Your player is your audience
  • Consequences are friends

James’ talk provided a fascinating insight into the world of game writing and its connections and similarities with more traditional forms of writing and I for one, will certainly be looking at games with a deeper appreciation of the storytellers behind them.

Report by Sarah Noon

Denise Baden – Special Guest

Denise is Professor of Sustainable Practice at the University of Southampton. By her own admission she “… uses the university as a platform to be a bit of an activist on climate change.”  She is a researcher, a writer of musical theatre, screenplays and a novel as well as academic writings.

Denise Baden

She begins by talking about how people understandably shy away from the topics of climate change and other green issues, due to their depressing and bleak message.  In literature, she feels as if these subjects are often “dystopian and doom-laden.”  She also adds that characters in films and literature that represent green causes are often “…really annoying.” With this in mind, in 2018 Denise set up a series of writing competitions “Green Stories,” the aim of which is to promote green solutions.  Since then, it has snowballed.  People have offered their services to judge and get involved in other ways. There have now been 13 competitions, including plays, flash fiction and short stories. These have included a variety of topics challenging the idea of consumption and fast fashion etc. She talks about the idea of including positive role models in stories;  the teenage girl who goes to a fashion-swap rather than clothes-shopping, characters who eat in green restaurants etc.

Denise discusses how many young people have high anxiety about climate change but often feel powerless to do anything. However, she says, we all need to take responsibility.  Characters need to reflect that – as opposed to characters in things such as Sex and the City and Emily in Paris, where eco-issues are simply not part of their world.  Her novel, Habitat Man, which Denise describes as her “lockdown project” was written with the aim of offering solutions and exploring what we can all do on a day-to-day basis, rather than a large-scale adventure to a rainforest or Antarctica. She says, “If you can’t find the book you want you have to write it yourself.”

Her starting point was to write four short stories with a green theme.  Two had a catastrophic ending and two were solution focused. These stories were circulated to a couple of hundred people for feedback.  She found that the solution-focused stories were more inspiring for the readers, encouraging them to be more positive and proactive.  The dystopian-type stories tended to be met with feelings of disempowerment and hopelessness. She explains that whilst people who like a dystopian story may enjoy the more bleak and hopeless narratives, these are unlikely to appeal to the masses – and Denise’s aim was to reach as many people as possible.

Denise’s role as a lecturer of Business Ethics as well as her other academic positions means that she is well equipped to write about green issues in a variety of forms. Writing for a cause is a very specific skill, about which Denise has frequently delivered presentations.  She explains that readers do not want to be preached at or told what to do.  It requires, she says, “a certain level of skill.” And of course, it is imperative that the writer knows what they are talking about. She gives the example of a character in her book using organic cotton, but researching and discovering that organic cotton  uses twice as much water as cotton (several swimming-pools-worth of water in fact, for a pair of jeans and a t-shirt).  “Double check your facts!” she says.

Habitat Man, as a novel, was conceived when Denise was contacted by a green garden agency, Southampton Transition Network, offering their services advising people on how to make their gardens more environmentally friendly.   A gardener came to visit Denise and during their discussion, admitted that whilst he felt driven to fight climate change, he felt limited as to what he could do as he was just one man.  Initially, Denise felt there was a great tv series in this – one man visiting people’s gardens in order to tackle climate change, but she thought she would write a book first, believing that she was unlikely to get a tv deal!

What was initially going to be a book of short stories developed with the introduction of a dead body which needed burying using green methods.  Denise says, “Before I knew it, I had a proper story arc.”  She describes her book as giving her “… an opportunity to smuggle in lots of green ideas.”

At this point, Denise plays us an extract from the book…

Denise ends her fascinating talk with some final advice for effectively writing for a cause:

  • Show, not tell (make sure the story is not too preachy)
  • Use humour
  • Less is more
  • A court case is a good way of showing both sides (and is also very dramatic!)

Denise’s final comment is to remind us that the reader wants fiction and a good story above all else – something that we all need reminding of from time to time!

Report by Sarah Noon

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