World building month: Video Games as Writing Tools

August 21, 2008 at 6:40 pm (assorted miscellany, fiction, Inspiration, motivations, writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I spend a lot of time playing video games, and have since I was fairly young; we used to play a lot of Super Breakout on the Atari 2600, and I loved the Hitchhiker’s Infocom game. Nowadays I spend most of my time with World of Warcraft, with occasional breaks for Oblivion and whichever DS puzzle game strikes my fancy. (Professor Layton and the Curious Village is, by the way, far too much fun. Go buy it.)

For me at least, WoW isn’t much of a creative inspiration. The lore is spread too thin, and most of the time I get no real sense that it’s actually relevant to what I’m doing. There are certainly a lot of places to go and find out what the story is, but it isn’t really necessary to progress in the game itself. Natania at the Aldersgate Cycle wrote up a post about how WoW almost ate her novel, and I noted in the comments that I have more or less the opposite reaction. WoW has just an enormous world with huge potential for storytelling, but it really disappoints in that particular area. I play to spend time with friends, and to raid, so for me it’s more of a social time sink and a way to do some teamwork as well as get those competitive urges out. If anything, spending time trying to find lore in WoW makes me want to log out and write something, because the game itself seems very much like a cardboard stage set. Nothing you do ever actually effects a change in the world (except for a few one-time events Blizzard throws in).

So. If WoW doesn’t tempt me away from writing, what does? Well, Oblivion, sometimes. If they put the social aspects of WoW into Oblivion, I would never stand up from my computer chair probably ever again, for the rest of my life. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened, and probably won’t. I hope. Oblivion is essentially entirely open-ended; the player can go wherever, whenever, and the world is interesting enough that spending a few hours exploring is actually fun. You can interact with any object, explore any ruin, go for a swim, steal a horse, pick herbs, whatever strikes your fancy. And the NPCs actually move, and go to the taverns, and they talk to each other! And what they say changes based on things the player has done! OK, so most of the time it’s not very original dialogue, but at least you don’t get the impression that these people are glued to the floor and can’t speak the same language as the guy ten feet away. And the graphics are, at least for me, just stunning. It’s a well-fleshed-out world, and I find it very easy to lose track of time. It’s easy to become that character on the screen.

Dangerous? Maybe. But there are some really cool redeeming features for a writer, at least a writer who enjoys the same sorts of fantasy worlds I like. First, the character creation screen is incredibly detailed; you can adjust parts of the facial anatomy you never knew had a name. It’s reasonably easy (with addons, on which more anon) to shape a character who fits an image in your head — say, that of your hero or heroine, or your villain, or what have you. I am not the world’s most visual person, so it can be hard for me to nail down an appearance without trying to draw it, and the character creation alone has helped me a lot. A whole lot, because I can’t draw well at all.

So let’s say you have this heroine, who matches with your vision for her appearance, and that’s great. If you want her to be, say, a hunter who never goes into a town and lives on wild plants and maybe stealing from some farmer’s field, you can do that in the existing world pretty easily. But if you start to accept and finish quests, you’re definitely putting your character into a world created by Bethesda, and it can be easy to just roll with that and forget why you started playing this time. So. This is where the construction set comes in. You can do almost anything with it, even raze every building that’s in the game and replace all the NPCs with cows, if that’s what you want. I have no idea how long that would take; probably a very long time. However, it’s pretty easy, once you learn how to use the tools, to find a corner of the world without much going on and to build whatever you’d like. Ruins, a town, a cave, a lake, some picnic table in the middle of nowhere, a wooded glade, etc. You can draw your own textures and items and import them into the builder, but I’m not that proficient with Photoshop and anyway, the story I’m working on now has a similar visual aesthetic. I just use the existing bits and pieces and slap ’em together like Legos until it looks right. You can add NPCs, give them scripts to use and paths to walk and schedules to follow. You can add monsters who will attack your character. To my mind, this is an absolutely unmatched world editor for fantasy writing. Because once you’ve created your landscape, you can take your playable character and go see what it feels like to be her. You walk the roads, you arrange the furniture in your house, you do whatever you want. It’s cool.

There are also ready-made addons that can make character faces look more realistic, or slow the passing of game time, add buildings, change NPC dialogue, and more. A lot of these are worth looking into if you’re playing just to play, and some of them are even useful for world building, especially the ones that add hairstyles, eye colors, and other things so you can make your character better match your idea.

For me, Oblivion is a great way to have some fun with my story, and to try out ideas for my worlds and see if they feel viable. You might think so, too. If you try it just be careful not to get addicted — and video game addiction? That’s a whole other topic for another time. I know folks also use games like the Sims to build things, but I find the style too cartoonish for my tastes, and you’re far more limited in what you can do and which styles you can use. It might work for you, though. Have a go!

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World Building Month: More on mythology

August 15, 2008 at 8:38 pm (fiction, Inspiration, Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

It may become apparent as I continue to post about world building that religion is a fascinating subject for me. I am especially fascinated by mythologies of various cultures, and just reading ancient stories is sometimes enough to generate hundreds of novels’ worth of ideas, I think. Norse mythology has a special draw, I think, and I’m obviously not the only one who feels that way; Tolkien based the elves we see in the Lord of the Rings books on Norse Light-elves (Ljósálfar). He had dark elves (Svartálfar), too. And nearly anyone who’s played an RPG or read Tolkien’s books or even seen the movies based on them knows about dwarves, who are generally pretty well the opposite of elves. Dwarves, of course, live underground, and build things with stone, and make lots of things involving metal and forges. Troggs, night elves, Ragnarok, world trees, Norse mythology’s got it all. Even Gandalf — an elf with a wand.

All of this borrowing from Norse mythology makes me feel a little better about my realization today. Of course I realize “there’s nothing new under heaven” and truly original ideas are, well, rare, but I kind of thought my world was shaping up as a nice combination of ideas. Then I looked up some information about timekeeping (in Asgil, it’s always light, so solar days make no sense), and being easily distracted got to reading about Norse gods. I realized how many of the ideas I have for this story ultimately derive from these stories. But I’m not alone, and it’s not bad company to keep.

It’s my opinion that the seemingly universal appeal of these old stories tells us something about the human condition. And while there have been many flat-out copies of both the myths and, of course, Tolkien’s work, there are also plenty of authors who have taken themes and ideas and put them together in new and interesting ways. It feels like we’re just continuing a tradition, really; changing things a little, and writing the result down for the entertainment and edification of others. In many cases the original stories are pretty light on details, which leaves them wide open to interpretation. And since I’m not writing as someone who believes the mythology to be true, I can pick and choose what I adopt from many cultures. The diversity of belief amongst humans is amazing, but so are the similarities. The parallels from one region to another make it easy to see when we’ve all imagined something similar to explain almost any given idea.

It seems that many times fantasy is dismissed as a sort of throw-away genre, but really, we’ve been telling these stories for thousands of years; I doubt they’re likely to vanish anytime soon. Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to look at the world through different eyes and try to explain things through magic and crazy gods acting up rather than through the scientific method. Then again, things like quantum mechanics sound pretty zany, too. Naturally, others have covered that ground, and I don’t think I could say it better than Arthur C. Clarke did:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

We fantasy writers have centuries of work to build on. Exploring old ideas with new knowledge is a lot of fun, no two ways about it. I’d like to express my thoughts on this more eloquently, but I’ve got some elves waiting for me to figure out what time it is on Asgildir.

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World Building Month: Plot’s in the way

August 14, 2008 at 1:29 pm (fiction, writing) (, , , , , )

Until yesterday, I was having a ton of fun and just coming up with ideas for the Asgil culture pretty much without restriction. But at some point a plot idea sprang to mind, and I find right now that I can’t escape it. I keep asking myself questions about the culture, but every answer is informed by the plot. Thing is, I don’t even like the idea; I think it’s trite and a little too deus ex machina, and I don’t care to use it as it is now. But it’s seated itself firmly in whichever part of my brain makes up stories, and I haven’t yet figured out how to kick its chair over.

I really wanted to figure out some of the details of the culture first, since it will affect my characters and their actions. With this roadblock, though, I think I might have to create a character or two first. Even if I don’t end up using them directly, maybe they’ll give me some ideas for another way around this world. I’m reluctant to just start writing with only vague notions about culture and characterization; I really do think world building is important if I’m going to create something believable. Has anyone else gotten stuck like this? How did you deal with it?

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