From the 26th to the 28th of January, you’ll find me at the University of Southampton for the Southampton Global Game Jam, working on something that should at least vaguely resemble a videogame.
2018 will be my third year joining in with the Global Game Jam, but unlike the last two I won’t be making a trip to Brighton for the occasion. There are a handful of reasons for this:
- Brighton is kind of a hike for me and between promoting Ten Little Astronauts and exhibiting Girth Loinhammer’s Exponential Adventure I’ve already travelled around a TON over the past few months.
- I feel like I know a good chunk of the Brighton crowd by this point (and it’s pretty likely I’ll see some of them at other events later in the year).
- I actually don’t know all that many game developers based near me, and this seems like a good opportunity to sort that out.
Because of all of that, I’ll be staying in Southampton this time around! One other upside is that I figure it’ll be easier for anyone I know who maybe doesn’t already make games but would like to have a go. My usual approach to these things is to turn up (possibly late, if the journey involves trains), wander about chatting to people, then join whatever group will have me and/or seems to be thinking through the neatest idea. However, on this occasion I figure I might actually be in a position to take a team with me! Continue reading
We All Saw It Coming, my Flash Fiction Month anthology for 2017, is now available as an ebook through Smashwords. It’ll be available through other retailers shortly, but I haven’t yet assigned it an ISBN because I’m still confirming that everything is working as it should.
The sheer scale of this year’s interactive fiction challenge, Ultraviolent Unicorn Deathmatch of Destiny, meant that I had to set up internal hyperlinks just to make it navigable. There was some extra faff involved in making sure I didn’t end up with all 48 of those listed in the book’s table of contents, and although everything seems to have worked out fine, there were enough opportunities for things to go wrong that I don’t like to assume they haven’t. Still, whether or not this story turned out perfect first time, I’ve definitely got a better grasp of how to handle interactive fiction in this format than I had before, and so at some point I expect I’ll be going back and giving the same treatment to Robocopout‘s interactive fiction piece, Inquisition.
The next job will be to format and publish the paperback, and when that’s available I’m strongly considering having a launch party of some kind! This book completes the six-colour cycle I’ve been working towards (I’ll be sticking another orange object on the cover of whatever I write for 2018), so although I’ve never made all that much of a song and dance about the release of these books in the past, I feel as though this is a good enough occasion to start.
Since this is pretty much the first book launch I’ve ever organised, I’m keen to get an idea of how many people would be likely to turn up, as well as where they’d be able to get to. The poll above allows multiple answers: feel free to tick as many as you like. In fact, ideally don’t be too picky: if you really could make it to any of these places, that gives me more options to work with. Conversely, picking only Southampton because you live there could screw things up quite a bit: if 30 people only pick the closest Hampshire town, they could quite easily be outvoted by half that number in London.
Promoting Ten Little Astronauts has put my work in front of people from much farther afield than before, so I’m really not sure where most of my followers are based at this point. My guess is that most know me from various local open mics – and I’d probably prefer a local launch myself – but the biggest events have been in London, and those are generally the ones where my name’s been on the flyers and whatnot. Ultimately I figure the thing to do is to hold the launch wherever people can get to it, so that’s why I’ve put out this poll. Tick whichever boxes work for you, pass it on to anyone else you think might like to come along for readings and live interactive fiction, and if you’ve got any other thoughts then leave those in the comments. As always, you don’t need an account or even an email address: just type words into the box, hit “Post” and it’ll get to me.
I’ve been so busy with Ten Little Astronauts recently that I haven’t properly managed to write about any of the games events I’ve attended this year, even though I’ve got to more of them than ever and exhibited my own work for the first time. For that reason, I’m cramming them all into this one big blog post, in reverse chronological order, starting with…
Reading Comic Con (25th-26th November)
This was the final event at which I exhibited Girth Loinhammer’s Most Exponential Adventure before finishing the whole thing, and the advice I got there (particularly from Noaksey) helped shape the look of the version that’s gone out to all the supporters of Ten Little Astronauts who’ve asked to get an early look at it. (I’m still sending those out on request, so if you’ve put in a pledge – even if you end up doing it after this – and want to have a play at that, get in touch and let me know.) Basically, I was set up in a corner of the room just inside the door, which was an absolutely ideal position for catching the attention of passers-by, except that the default Twine stylesheet I was using for Exponential Adventure at that point made it look more like a survey of some sort than an actual playable game. Compare to how it looks now:
It’s basically just a parchment background with the links coloured to suit it, but I think it makes an absolute world of difference. I made the change literally overnight on my woefully underpowered netbook so that I could have the improved version ready for the second day of Comic Con the following morning, and made a few further tweaks with help from Isak Grozny and G. Deyke after the event.
Oh, and I also got a chance to step away from my display table to meet Danny John-Jules! It was pretty amazing to be able to head over and say hi because I’ve been a fan of Red Dwarf literally my entire life. The theme song was among my first words. Anyway, I couldn’t stick around for long because I’d left the guys behind Elemental Flow watching my table and also there was a pretty huge queue to meet the Red Dwarf cast members who were there, but the main thing I took away from this is that Danny John-Jules is a spectacularly nice guy. He was only announced as one of the guests last thing the day before – since up until then he’d expected to be needed for filming elsewhere – and he was raising money for charity at the event. If it was me, I might have just taken the opportunity for a day off!
If you’d like a look at some of what else went on in the Indie Games Zone at Reading Comic Con, you might like to check out this post from Noaksey himself, and also the (then) live video stream from the event. If I look a little dishevelled in the video, it’s because I’d spent the night sleeping under my coat on the floor of a friend’s house (it was good to catch up, and also saved me having to book accommodation at a spectacularly busy time).
AdventureX (11th-12th November)
This was definitely the biggest games event I exhibited at, and to be honest I’m kind of surprised they accepted Exponential Adventure. This one was ludicrously popular: the queue went out of the building at times and they hit capacity at the venue within half an hour of opening on the first day (so I’m hoping they’ll be able to get a bigger space next year). Mine was the only entirely text-based game on show (as far as I’m aware), and it was only only me behind it, while some of the other projects were highly polished efforts from whole teams of people. It did seem to go down very well, though, despite this being before I’d improved the game’s style or even had a chance to write as much of it as I would have liked. By this point (and indeed at all of the events this year) it was nearly complete, but still something like 1 in 16 possible storylines would lead to a dead end at a certain point.
Despite its flaws at this stage of completion, Exponential Adventure went down very well indeed. AdventureX attracts an international crowd of developers as well as just regular games fans, and I’d say probably quite a majority were developers of some sort or another. Gamers seem to understand Exponential Adventure better than readers in general, but people who have tried to produce any sort of branching path narrative for themselves are nearly always the quickest to realise just how much work is involved in writing a narrative that branches exponentially. This guy, for example, definitely gets it.
This made AdventureX probably the most interesting event to set up at, because usually people were keen to talk about the story in more depth and were curious about the character and setting as well as just the basic structure. I think that’s part of the reason I’ve ended up staying in touch with so many people from this particular event. Also, it turned out that I was staying in the same hostel as a whole bunch of them. I find a lot of people seem reluctant to turn up to events if nobody they know is going to be there, but usually if you’re staying nearby you’ll run into people who are doing exactly the same thing, and then pretty soon you will know people who are there. As it happened, however, I actually did know quite a few people at this one, including Joey Jones (author of Trials of the Thief-Taker), who very kindly watched my table from time to time over the weekend.
If you want an overview of the entire event, Space Quest Historian’s video report is pretty comprehensive. Naturally I was manning my table most of the time, so this video was pretty much how I caught up with everything else that was going on!
Indies Unplayed (29th October)
This was the absolute first event I ever attended to exhibit my own game. and I think it was a great one to start off with. It was held at Secret Weapon, a London gaming bar that I would totally go to all the time if I lived anywhere near it. I’d already met a couple of the other exhibitors – Gary Kings and Chris Payne – at EGX the month before, so again it’s worth noting how easy it is to get to know people in games. Two years ago I hadn’t been to anything like this, and it wasn’t until pretty much this time last year that I started making a concerted effort to do that, so it really doesn’t take much to meet developers provided you can physically turn up at places where they’ll be.
Indies Unplayed was probably the smallest of the events I went to, but actually Exponential Adventure seemed to attract more interest here than at Reading Comic Con even though some of the other, flashier titles were the same. Thinking back, AdventureX was pretty much the ideal place to exhibit because people were there for narrative games specifically, while Reading Comic Con probably wasn’t such a good match simply because not everyone there was into games at all (though the variety of things going on also meant it was probably the most fun for me to be at: I saw some great costumes while I was there!). Indies Unplayed was somewhere between the two, in that although people woludn’t necessarily have been expecting a text-based game, they were very much there for games in general.
I did have a bit of a think about how I’d set up the table for this first event, and – since I wasn’t sure how long people would be likely to play or how much competition there would be for screen time – made sure to set up some posters pointing people towards the online demo, which loads reasonably nicely on a mobile phone. I printed QR codes, which turned out to be the most popular option, but also made one copy of the poster you see above, largely just because I thought “Tap phone on rippling muscles to begin demo” set the tone nicely. The poster includes a concealed NFC sticker which I’ve set up to open the demo on any (unlocked, NFC-enabled) phone placed on it. This saw less actual use, but got a few laughs and proved useful on at least one occasion when a player didn’t have a QR code reader installed but did have NFC working. The mobile option was useful in general because it meant that anybody who took an interest in the game due to seeing someone else play could have a go right away: that might not be practical for all games, but for all my Twine stuff at least I’ll be sure to sort it out somehow.
This being the first event – and having no idea what the response was likely to be like – I also considered how I’d get people to take a look at Exponential Adventure in the first place. Ultimately, I ended up ordering a super cheap fancy dress robe off the internet and wearing that while I was at the table. Partly that was because I hadn’t had time to think about designing a T-shirt with the game’s title on it, partly because I’m not sure I want a T-shirt with the game’s title on it. It did seem well worth wearing something to indicate that I was actually there to display the game, though, rather than just mooching around the pub with a pint. The Ten Little Astronauts T-shirt I’ve had printed has turned out to be surprisingly effective in getting people to take an interest in the book (which also helps explain why so many companies at EGX have been lobbing merch at me – the first NFC device I started fiddling with was a PS4 branded rubber bracelet flung by someone from Sony).
EGX (21st-24th September) and EGX Rezzed (30th March – 1st April)
Okay, I’ll be honest. Both these events were long enough ago that I’d struggle to write anything meaningful about them. EGX Rezzed was my first chance to actually play the (nearly) complete version of Craft Keep VR, the game I was brought on board to write for after meeting the developer at EGX in 2016. Basically, though, the main thing I’d write about is the people I met and the games I saw, and since I’ve met and seen several again since, I think the better option would be to list a few…
Games you should take a look at sometime (in no particular order):
- 2000:1: A Space Felony obviously caught my attention as it’s a murder mystery in space. That gets it brownie points (as does the knowledge that the creator has also produced an Agatha Christie-inspired game specifically), but what really stands out is the openness of the mystery itself. I’ve been tempted to write a mystery in Twine, and one of the biggest stumbling blocks to that is that if there’s an option inviting you to “Accuse the butler,” that might provide a hint even if it appears alongside the option to accuse any number of other people. 2000:1, however, demands that you scour the spaceship you’re on in search of clues (which could be anywhere), photograph them, and then use those photographs to interview the suspect, MAL. Essentially, the fact that you uncover the mystery by asking questions, rather than providing answers, means that there’s virtually no way for you to pick up clues from the way the game challenges you. You have the clues. What you need to do is address them in the right order.
- Elemental Flow includes another interesting mechanic, also conversational. I think it’s best described as playing out like a cross between a puzzle and a quick time event: you have a range of different conversational abilities (explain, empathise, etc.) that have different effects depending on who you’re talking to and what they’re saying at the time. Sussing out which to use is a big part of the challenge, but then on top of that you also have to be attentive and react quickly so that you don’t end up either talking over the character you’re conversing with or listening intently while they’re waiting for you to speak. I get the sense that it’s possible to muddle through with a less than optimum strategy – and I’m pretty sure I did this myself during the demo – but working out the ideal approach to any given conversation makes things much, much easier.
- Critical Annihilation is a frantic voxel-based shooter that reminded me a lot of arcade classic Smash TV. The view is more or less top-down, giving you the opportunity to run in any direction you like while also shooting in any direction you like, which is handy because enemies tend to flood in from pretty much any direction. Single-player gameplay at least is tough as nails, with vast swarms of baddies flooding towards you within the first few levels, but on top of simply blasting your way through them (which is tremendous, scenery-levelling fun) your character will gain perks and equipment as they gain experience, meaning that you tend to gain a few more goodies even when you lose.
- Mao Mao Castle takes advantage of the LEAP Motion Controller to great effect, allowing you to guide a pixel art Cat-Dragon through levels crammed with flowers, pebbles, rainbows that you want to run into, and buildings, trees, pillars that you don’t. There’s also a mobile version on the way with touchscreen controls, but seriously, if you get a chance to play it using the motion controller, don’t pass it up. It’s spectacularly good fun.
- Attack of the Earthlings would be best summed up as “reverse XCOM.” It’s a turn-based strategy game on a grid pitting humans against aliens, but in classic sci-fi fashion it turns out that…DUN DUN DUN…mankind is the evil invading force! I actually wasn’t a fan of this idea to begin with – it’s been done plenty of times and tends to come across as preachy even though the basic point is fair – but two things about Attack of the Earthlings specifically mean it works really well. One is that it’s really, really funny. The writing is just superb. The other is that though I think it’s fair to describe it as “reverse XCOM,” it does genuinely invert rather than simply re-style the game. In XCOM, you control a squad of soldiers and much of your attention is focused on gunning down the aliens’ deadly close-combat troops before they can eviscerate anyone on your team. In Attack of the Earthlings, the situation is flipped: most of your units have no ranged attack and a great deal of the challenge comes from positioning them to deliver those close-combat attacks without being obliterated by the humans’ superior firepower on the way. The game actually introduces some neat stealth elements in order to let you do this effectively and those are – to me at least – totally original. I don’t think I’ve seen quite the same thing anywhere else.
There are definitely games I’m leaving out here, partly because I have a literal list scribbled down and the ones from EGX alone would make for a long post in its own right. As this is a long post as it is, I think I’ll leave it there. This is what I’ve been doing for the past few months, and those are some of the things I’ve seen. If you made it to any of these events or know about any more coming up in future, it would be great to hear from you!
Ten Little Astronauts reached two absolutely enormous milestones on the very same day: there are now over 200 individual people who’ve put in a pledge for a copy, and they’ve collectively taken it up to 50% of its funding goal.
This is pretty fantastic, because as well as the truly massive supporter count – which is already larger than many Unbound titles ever reach – there’s now less money still to raise than has been raised so far. Yeah, it says 50% on the book page right now, but it’s actually a whole lot closer to 51%: one more pledge could do it. Continue reading
You might recall that Craft Keep VR, the virtual reality game I ended up writing for after EGX 2016, was up for a Game of the Year award at Login Vilnius a while back. Well, it’s happened again, and this time it’s through the TIGA Games Industry Awards!
This time around, Craft Keep VR is right alongside big names like Forza Horizon and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Even just in its own category – Game by a Small Studio – there’s Yooka-Laylee and The Flame in the Flood, both of which have quite a bit more clout behind them than “Small Studio” would suggest: the teams behind those include some of the people behind Banjo-Kazooie, Halo and BioShock.
I hesitate to ask people to vote in this because I’m aware fairly few will have the VR hardware necessary to actually play Craft Keep, but if you’re in a position to compare the games in the shortlist (maybe you got a go at EGX or EGX Rezzed), then here’s the page where you can vote for your favourite.
Back in June, Unbound started running Pledge Parties – a sort of literary Dragons Den where guests hear pitches from a range of Unbound authors and pick which they want to support – and since June I’ve been putting my name in the hat every time they run one. This month I got lucky, and so I’ll be there pitching Ten Little Astronauts on Monday the 18th! It’s coming up in just a week.
If you live in London, please do consider popping over to Waterstones Gower Street for the evening. Tickets are £6 (unless you’re a student, in which case they’re just £4) and include a glass of wine and a £5 Unbound voucher. Assuming you intend to back a book, the event costs basically nothing. You can grab your tickets here (I’ve done it myself, it’s easy), get them by phone on 020 7636 1577, or turn up and hope there are some left on the day. I wouldn’t count on it, though: I made a trip in for the very first event and it was packed.
If you can’t make it to London, I’ll also be in Birmingham for EGX from the 21st to the 24th. This is the games trade fair that got me the chance to write the story for Craft Keep VR, so I’m looking forward to a busy few days. However, I expect to be free in the evenings at least so if you’re in the area and want to say hi, do drop me a line. In case you haven’t heard, I’m just about to set off for Torquay for the International Agatha Christie Festival too. If you can get there, you’ll have the opportunity to see me speak about Ten Little Astronauts, and to hear a section of the book that’s never been made available to the general public before.
I’ve been invited to talk about Ten Little Astronauts at the International Agatha Christie Festival on September 14th! If you’re in the area (or planning to make a trip to Torquay for five straight days of Christie-related goodness), you can catch me at the Platform taking place at 6pm in the Spanish Barn of Torre Abbey. I’ve written a little more about my talk on Unbound, but the main thing to mention about it would be that I’ll be giving an overview of how the book came about – from devising the mystery and researching the setting all the way towards its journey to publication – as well as reading from a couple of sections that won’t have been heard anywhere else (unless you were on my MA course!).
The Agatha Christie Birthday Celebrations last year were well worth the trip, so I’m really looking forward to getting a look around the festival itself. I was only there for the day (including about eight hours of train travel) last time, and even though I won’t be around for the full five days of this event, it should be a much more relaxed trip all round. If you’re there, do let me know and say hi! Continue reading
Flash Fiction Month 2017, Day 31
Once upon a time, in a world far distant, the night sky grew dark. Slowly, at first, the stars grew dim. The king’s philosophers at first thought that this was nothing more than the action of passing aeons, and that more would burn anew. But ere long their numbers dwindled, and the naked eye saw plainly what no telescope could: the stars were consumed.
Troubled, the king sent out his greatest knight upon a steed of chrome. Agravane was that knight’s name, and in his hand he bore a sword born of a dying star. Never would that blade break, and never would its edge grow dull. For many weeks Agravane rode through the void, and for as many weeks the king watched through the seeing-stone that stood before his throne.
At last, Agravane found his foe, and the king at last saw who it was who plucked the stars from the aether like grapes from the vine.
It was a dragon, vast as his kingdom and black as the void. Each wing was as wide as a galaxy, and its eyes glowed like quasars. Its manner and its motions were that of a great animal; its structure and its form, that of a terrible machine.
When the dragon spoke, it spoke not to the knight before it, but to the king beyond the stone: “I have lived since before the days of time. Since before the noise of creation and beyond the notion of being. Your universe is an affront to me, but in its matter I have found a host, and that host offers a solution. From one hundred billion dying stars I built this body, and with it I shall consume all the living stars that remain. Then there shall be stillness and silence and peace until the heat death of the universe, wherein there shall be stillness and silence and peace still.”
In his throne, the king trembled at the threat of such a foe. But Agravane was fearless.
He held aloft his sword: “You might have seized your matter from the stars by force, but mine was a gift granted in a time of dire need. When I stood alone against the hordes of Far Reach and my weapon snapped in twain, bright Achernar crystallised into a blade that would never fail me so.”
But though Agravane was fearless, he was not wise, and his sword did not avail him: the dragon was forged of star-steel too, and though the blade did not dull against its scales, neither could it cut them, and the beast crushed him in its mighty hand unhindered. Agravane’s sword was lost to the aether whence it came.
Fearful, the king sent out a second knight upon a second steed. Carador was this knight’s name, and in his hand he bore a spear born of a dying star. Never would that shaft snap, nor would the point fail to find its mark. For many weeks Carador rode through the void, and for as many weeks the king watched through the seeing-stone.
“What fool comes to challenge me?” demanded the dragon, in a voice that carried even through the void.
“No fool am I,” Carador responded, keeping his distance “for I carry the same spear that came to me during the siege of Omega Centauri when my own weapon was lost.”
The dragon snorted: “Never can you pierce my scales with your stick.”
Carador took aim: “I do not intend to try.”
He did not direct his spear against the dragon’s scales, but instead towards one of its vast eyes. Unerring, the spear flew, yet clattered from the boiling orb: even the eyes were forged of star-steel, and even the eyes could not be harmed.
With a single pulse of its fiery gaze, the dragon tore the knight’s very atoms asunder, and Carador’s spear too was lost to the aether whence it came.
Holding little hope, the king summoned still one more knight. Gilhault was this knight’s name, and in his hand he bore a hammer born of a dying star. When swung, the head was weightless, yet when it struck a foe it held the mass of a thousand moons.
But before Gilhault could mount his steed, an unseen assailant cracked his visor with a cudgel so he could not brave the void: Elayn, his squire, stole the reins and rode off in his stead.
Furious, the king sent all his knights to pursue her, but all were left behind: none tended the steeds with more skill or kindness than Elayn, and so none could catch Gilhault’s, which she had so long cared for.
Elayn faced the dragon.
The dragon laughed. “Will you fight me with a simple cudgel?”
“No.” Elayn drew her own gift of star-steel from her voidcloak. “With this.”
And the dragon laughed louder, for the item she produced was but a Phillips screwdriver.
“I too was at the battle against the hordes of the Far Reach, and there my master was dismounted. I leapt through the void to reach his steed, but found it maimed beyond motion. For weeks we drifted, helpless, until we were caught in the orbit of Leporis. From that star was born this screwdriver, and with it I saved this steed.”
“Go home, little girl,” said the dragon. “You have some years yet before I trouble myself with your sphere: do not forfeit them.”
Elayn did not answer this insult. She merely charged forwards, and the dragon, without even going to the effort of stretching out its neck, consumed her whole.
But though every piece of the dragon was formed of a dying star—every piece indestructible—they were held together with screws of star-steel. And though their threads would never strip and their shanks never break, no bond held them in their place but simple force.
In this way, with nothing but a screwdriver, Elayn beheaded the monster whose neck no blade could sever.
If you’ve enjoyed this story, you can find my work from previous Flash Fiction Months collected in these books:
Click any cover to find that book in your choice of format.
You might also be interested in my sci-fi murder mystery novella, Ten Little Astronauts, which is currently crowdfunding at Unbound. Most pledge levels include all the books shown above, and all will include your name in the back of Ten Little Astronauts itself as a patron of my work.
Flash Fiction Month 2017, Day 30
“Great Lord Satan! Ruler of Hell! Chap with the really awesome horns and rockin’ goatee! Accept this virgin tribute as a token of our servitude.”
“Yeah,” said Cindi. “About that…”
“Look,” said Arch Anti-Bishop Dave, pulling down his hood. “If you’re going to play the ‘Actually, I’m not a virgin’ card, you can just stop right there. The first thing anyone does in this situation is claim not to be a virgin to avoid getting sacrificed, and I’m telling you now it’s not gonna work.”
“Oh, no, look. I’m not trying to avoid getting sacrificed. Why would I have responded to your Craigslist ad if I was? I’m just saying, you never specified that you needed a virgin, and I’m not sure that I am.”
“How can you not be sure if you’ve had sex?!?”
“Well,” Cindi shrugged, which was awkward on account of hanging upside-down from the ceiling over a portal to Hell. “What counts as sex?”
“You know…” Dave did that “finger going in and out of finger-and-thumb ring” gesture. “Sex.”
“Yeah, obviously, and I’ve never done that. But are there…other things? That would count in this situation?”
Dave narrowed his eyes. “Like what?” Continue reading
Flash Fiction Month 2017, Day 29
Challenge #13*: David Bowie Day. Write a story including a character in mourning and exploring the theme of religion. It must include at least three David Bowie film titles, a swan song, and a character who speaks to the audience only in David Bowie song titles.
Everyone had been sad about it, naturally. To so suddenly lose a figure so beloved to so many. But it had struck Hades more than most. To him it was deeply personal, somehow. It shouldn’t have been—until it had happened, he’d never even been in the same room—but it was. He bet Baal never had to put up with this sort of sacrilege.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” said Virgil to the reader.
That was Virgil’s imaginary friend: “the reader.” Hades wasn’t sure when it had started, but he suspected it had something to do with his still-alive friend Dante waltzing off to Purgatory and leaving him stuck here. That or the linguine incident. That had been hard on everybody. Hades himself didn’t much like to think about it. He turned his attention instead to Charon, still trying to lift the deceased into his tiny little canoe.
“Have you tried using a lever of some kind?” yelled one of the shades.
“For the last time, Archimedes, enough with the levers!” Hades yelled back, then turned to Charon once more.
He didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Continue reading