WORD/PLAY: "Can you imagine all of that?" An interview with Robert Sherman, author of Black Crown (Pt. 2)
In the series WORD/PLAY we look at the fusing of literature and games. The link to the the written word is almost as old as the videogame itself, and recent developments both on the side of literature and the videogame have shown that the relationship between the two media is as vital and strong as ever.
This is the second and final part of our interview with Robert Sherman, mastermind behind Black Crown, a strange but successful hybrid between literature and Free2Play game. In part 1, we talked about why taxonomies are overrated, the importance of being close to readers, and the issue of repetition as a structure. In part 2, we go all out with big thoughts about big topics, like space, freedom, legacy, and tearing ties to shreds.
Do you know of earlier attempts to bring literature and videogames together? Have you read, for example, novelizations of computer games?
Oh, certainly. One of this year’s biggest games, Metro: Last Light, is based on a novel, and the novelist was intimately involved in the building of that game. It’s really interesting, because literature as a non-digital medium is telling stories in a linear format. I don’t think it’s becoming irrelevant, but a lot people believe it is. At the same time, though, it has this huge cultural cache, this huge weight to it. When you talk about literature, people assume a certain way of either thinking or talking about it.
Games are the most powerful cultural force on the planet at the moment – at least purely in monetary terms.
With games, it’s different. They are the most powerful cultural force on the planet at the moment – at least purely in monetary terms. Just look at GTA V, the amount of exposure and saturation that it has on the collective consciousness! Despite that, there is still a huge cultural stigma attached to games, which is slowly being eroded. But I think that there is a tension where literature and games are trying to come together in a transmedia way, and very often, the two things are being kept separate. The idea is that literature becomes involved in games to become trendier, and games become involved in literature to become more respectable. I don’t think that’s a useful way to spend time as either an author or a game designer. What should be better is bringing all those people together and telling a story in the best way it can be told.
I think writers getting involved in games is an excellent idea, but I don’t like the idea that lots of writers, or the publishing industry, or the general public has – the idea that there are no good storytellers working in games. There are hundreds and thousands of them. A traditional writer can’t just come along and say: “Well, let’s look at the way stories have been told for thousands of years! You do not know anything about it! Let me show you, because I am a literature professor!” That is simply not going to work. Things need to be much more tightly integrated, it’s not just about this trendy fusing of two media, one that is much younger and more vital and one that is much older and more respected.
And novelizations are maybe not the best example for that fusion, either.
The few novelizations I have read were not drawing on the fact that there is a game, they were drawing on the fact that there is either a rich fiction or that there is a story there that can be told in a linear way. I haven’t read any novelizations that really have anything to do with the game as a game, but more with the game as a story. To me, they are barely linked at all, but that’s just my impression.
That’s true, with the only exception that comes to my mind being the first Doom-novelization. The author knows that it’s actually impossible to make a story of what is happening in Doom, so he just breaks the Fourth Wall and starts talking about how it at feels like a game. It’s actually pretty funny in parts. Not a great book, but entertaining.
I have to pick that up, it sounds actually quite interesting. I vaguely remember watching the Doom film when I was very drunk. I think I remember that there was the trace of an undertone of it being self-aware, and, as you said, Fourth Wall-breaking. That’s interesting, because they fully embrace the fact that the story that is being told is a thin excuse to shoot demons. They are ok with that.
One other thing that you said in an interview is that you wrote a novel for Random House’s Dan Franklin to give him an idea of what Black Crown’s story would be like. It’s difficult for me to imagine what such a novel would look like. Surely, it can’t be a linear story, a classical novel, can it?
Maybe I misused the word “novel”. I think it was more in relation to the fact that I said I never wanted to write it as a novel. The original project was contained within a suitcase with lots of different items, and it was more of a transcript of that experience. It was all the text that was included in that suitcase, all the text of the journal, all of the little letters and scraps of paper that were in there. Essentially, it was a description of the process of going through the suitcase. It was like: “You are presented with a suitcase. It is made from red leather. It has got all these things on the outside, all of these fake travel stickers I had created sticking all over it.” Then it says: “You open the suitcase and you are looking through the journal”, and then it will have ten journal entries and an item from the box, and so on. It was for Dan to get hold on how I pace things, how I construct narrative and what my writing looks like on the page, because even though he works with digital media, he is still an editor. He still is somebody who is concerned with text and its quality. He just wanted to get a handle of it, but it took me a long time to fabricate it. Well, it really turned out to be worth it in the end.
I was also asking because of something another author said recently. The Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck, whose style and themes actually remind me of yours, described the process of writing her novel Amatka as starting with a series of dreams: She dreamt of different places and understood that they were interconnected. So instead of starting with a story arc, she started with mapping those. That’s actually not out of the ordinary in fantastical literature, because you have to create a whole world anyway. Still, there has been a lot of talk about a paradigm shift even outside of literature, where time as the dominant dimension is more and more replaced by a focus on space, and places. Would you say that your writing is a reflection of that as well? It obviously did not start with a typical approach to telling a story, but also with world building, in a sense.
Actually, the original project had a lot more maps in it. It’s something that I miss, though there is a map hidden somewhere in Black Crown. (If anyone finds it, let me know.) But that’s actually a really good question I do not have an intelligent answer for.
I think that idea of being spatially aware is interesting because time is so in flux in the game itself. There are quite a few points where the character will say: “I have no idea if five years have gone past.” That’s due to the character being in constant pain, delirious. There is a piece of content where they are crawling across the grass and that story is called “10’000 Years”, because the characters have literally no idea of how long they have been doing that. They have come to either a realization or an assumption that they cannot die or that they are going to be kept alive for various purposes.
But the idea of spatial awareness has always been something that is quite difficult for interactive fiction, especially interactive fiction that does not make use of graphics at all. That was one of the reasons why we changed the front page of the game to show the hillside. It was not there at launch, even though we had that artwork for a poster. Ultimately, we thought: “Let’s use it, because it’s excellent and it completely encapsulates where the players are, and the nature of this landscape.”
In terms of space and place, there is the story of the fictional town of Loss in the diary entries. Unfortunately, it is something that I won’t be able to explore as much as I’d like to, given the time and budget restraints we have to work in. (Though I would really like to come back and tell more stories about that town.)
Aside from that, you can say that the Institute is contained in a landscape of rolling hills, where geologically there is no change. It’s just rolling hill after rolling hill after rolling hill, and the ocean. That gave me an almost infinite pallet on which to paint things. That’s why in the geography of the Institute, there are very specific landmarks. There is the Boundary Stone. There is the river. There is the Marvel Ouse. There is the tree. This also meant that I could centre stories around those places easily. If I needed to tell a story or have a plot point, it also needed to focus around one of these sights. And I think that reinforces the idea that all of this is one big ritual, or that it has a mythological component, that it’s in this dreamlike landscape. But there are also incredibly physical totemic items and places around which things occur. That’s a sense that I really wanted to reinforce with the Institute. You do have a sense of space. But the way that the player or the character thinks about things or describe things, the whole journey and the disjointed nature of it, does, I hope, reinforce the idea that the characters are delirious or that their experience of space is only coming through the visor in their suit, which is their window to the world. One thing that I actually really like and that was entirely accidental was that the banner on the top of the webpage, which displays what area that you are in, is the exact same shape as the visor through which the player would see things. That was a really happy accident, but it serves to reinforce the sense of claustrophobia and being disconnected from this vast open space. I don’t know if you have played the Escape-storylets?
I actually have.
Most games are about abilities and the increasing of those - Black Crown has that in form of the diseases your character catches.
I think that’s the part people generally enjoy the least, because they feel like they should be able to escape. But the whole point of those stories is that you never actually leave your desk. The Institute actually assumes that you will try an escape, so what they do is they lead you through a hypothetical exercise and say: “IMAGINE if you tried to cross the river. And if you can manage to do that in your mind, well… what would you eat? How would you drink? See, you would just die.” And at the very end, they say that it was a good thing that you did not leave your desk for real.
That ties into the idea of imagining and the reason why the word “imagine” is highlighted. So much of what the player does is imagining, because they are so disconnected from the world. You know, they have very limited physical ability, which I suppose is another thing that is different from most traditional games. Most games are about abilities and the increasing of those. And Black Crown has that in form of the diseases your character catches. If you can do anything physical with them at all, it causes you great physical pain. And if their benefits aren’t physical, they are entirely mental, which ties into exactly what the Institute is about – the reading and cataloguing of work. The ideal clerk from the Institute’s point of view would never leave his or her desk. So what your character is doing is obviously slightly different, and it means that you are able to explore this place a little more.
Granted, there are other reasons for me using the idea of hypotheticals and imagination. But one of the big things is that you have to imagine so much because you are physically incapable of more. You cannot run, you cannot jump, you cannot do any of the things you do in a videogame. You can barely see anything; you even have to imagine your own body because it is enclosed in the rubber suit. The Escape-storylets have that element of being hypothetical, but they also reinforce the fact that there is this huge landscape just outside the glass of your visor, but you cannot really ever experience it, unless you get out of that suit. Which you simply cannot do at the moment.
You compared the structure of Black Crown to a river. I was more reminded of something that happened to my uncle once: He was so dead drunk at a village fair that they nailed his tie to the wood of the bar without him noticing. So for the better part of an hour, he tried to get up, found himself incapable of doing so, and put his head back down to let it rest on the bar. Until, finally, he managed to gather enough force to rip his tie completely up and break free. I felt a bit like that while playing Black Crown. It is so difficult to get up from your desk that the first time you actually succeed in doing so, it is a very liberating feeling. I think that this works really, really well.
That’s an interesting point, and it ties back to the imagination. There are lots of opportunities in the game which are a direct pastiche of being a hero. I don’t know which diseases your character has, but there is one disease where you grow what is essentially a giant cuttlebone out of your back. You get it by inhaling powdered prehistoric squid, which I won’t go into details about. It’s like a genetic modification, and it’s extremely sharp, but it’s connected directly to your spine. That was really a parallel to the hero’s sword being strapped across the back. It is a pastiche of it because you can never draw it – it’s always on your back and when you want to use it, you have to rub yourself up against things, much like a pig. You can use it down at the Marvel Ouse to excavate, but you have to rub yourself up against the wall, and also, because it is connected to your spinal column, it causes you incredible pain. But the player characters still try to imagine themselves as a hero or a heroine, doing these great deeds. And because they have overcome great physical pain and mental discomfort, these actions are incredibly heroic to them.
If you were to plot your character’s journey through Black Crown, there are two perspectives you can take: You can take one from the character’s perspective, where they’re right in the thick of things and they are doing all of these seemingly very heroic deeds. I hope that comes through, because I am writing like this not only because it’s my style, but also because, as I hope, it is reminiscent of epic poetry. The description is designed to be overwrought, because these things matter so much to your character.
The other perspective that you can take is almost like a bird’s eye-view, where you are watching this rather pathetic creatures crawl around in the dirt, attack things, be spiteful, walk a hundred meters from their desk. If you look at it from that perspective, the actions that you take during the game aren’t physically impressive. There is no jumping twenty meters into the air. The equivalent in Black Crown is curling up your fist. It takes as much effort as it would for a character in a traditional videogame to do that sort of super move.
I think that those two views on your character reinforce just how difficult all of this is for your character. So I think that the description of being nailed to the bar is good, but I think that when you do break free it’s because you were so constricted, and what you are doing when you actually are liberated is not incredibly dramatic in a literal sense. But it feels dramatic because of the language and because it’s the best that your character can do in that situation.
To me, it felt like Stockholm syndrome: The character never ends up doing anything else than what the Institute is expecting from him or her, but after a while, he or she starts seeing it as a noble deed, something important – the character always wanted to do something important with his or her life anyway, and so gives importance to what little he or she is allowed to do.
Yeah. I think that this comes from when you are in pain or ill, you feel very vulnerable. Very often when you’re ill, you either want to be left on your own, which the suit in Black Crown allows. It allows you to retreat into yourself. Or you want somebody to help you. You want somebody to tell you that it’s alright. And the Institute, even though it’s a bizarre one, provides structure to your life. It feeds you, it gives you promotions which you then have to complete, in the form of this very regimented, mythological descent into a cave to retrieve an artefact. So it provides structure to your life, and, you know… what else are you going to do? There is nowhere else for you to go. You cannot get yourself out of this suit, because it is fused to your chest. You are very restricted in your options.
Part of that is because it is very difficult for an author to write all of the options that you’d want. If I present a character with a situation, there are probably forty options which, if I had unlimited time and money, I would love to put into the game. There are so many things that you could do in that physical environment. You could pick up a clot of dirt and throw it into the other character’s eye, you could attack them, you could try and run away or you could try and talk to them. But you just physically cannot do that as a writer. You can’t have all of those branching positions, because there is so much story already. It would be impossible to provide any sort of meaningful resolution to all of those options. So I have to restrict myself, and I still do too much and provide too many options, and then it comes back to bite me, because it takes me three days to write one story. Especially because there are like a thousand words in each story. It really becomes ridiculous.
In conclusion, having those very limited choices is a practical thing. But I do think it makes sense within the world, because your character is, as I said, delirious, they are not necessarily sure of how to react to these situations that are not traditional. Their options are limited because of what they are wearing and their physical condition. If the character was a spry, young thing who was in the middle of a city or something like that, you would almost be forced as a writer to provide all these options. People would ask why their character can’t do this, or talk their way out if that situation. Black Crown provides reasons for why that is not the case. And that does make my life easier, but it is not just a utilitarian thing, it was designed that way.
So you went out of your way to avoid ludonarrative dissonance, to use that old-fashioned term.
[laughs] I actually only learnt that word, like, four days ago. But it’s certainly one of the biggest problems that games writers face. I think that one of the reasons why in traditional game studios the writer is so low down on the scale of priorities is that they can write something that takes them two minutes, but then takes 20’000 dollars to build. Or they might say: “Oh, I have this great idea for the story!”, but all of the core mechanics are in place already, and it would require a whole new mechanic to be built into the game, just for one story point. And this comes back to the repetition of actions we talked about. If there is a core mechanic that will take four weeks for a team of programmers to build and test and implement, one that does cost a lot of money…
…you better use it.
…then you use it, exactly. That makes complete financial sense. So if a writer comes along and says: “No, we should only use it once to reinforce it…”, well. That doesn’t give the player a chance to learn the pattern, which is what they want in a traditional videogame. But it also means that they built it for one story point. From a pure programmer’s or even programming’s point of view, that doesn’t make any sense. I completely understand that.
However, I was playing the new Tomb Raider the other day and I was looking at how they tell the story there and how they build the character. I have got a blog post lined up about it. What I want to say is that is that there are things in that game that you could do to make the character better, things that would not cost much money or require the use of mechanics. They are not even gaming points, or game design points. They are purely narrative points for how a character can be more fleshed out through the inclusion of one line of voice acting, or having built one animation in a key point which will have reverberations throughout the game.
I think that’s were traditional writers, who are like, “Oh, I can write so much better stories for games!” fall down. They do not think about financial implications or game design implications. Where writers really need to learn their skills is there: If there is something I want to say in a game or a message that I want to get across, how can I do it in the cheapest and most effective way possible, so that it gets included?
That reminds me of what Tom Bissell said about his experiences being a writer for Gears of War: For one cut scene, he thought that it would be cool to have a chandelier in a room, something that he thought would be trivial. But they told him clearly that creating that model would mean one week of work, and so they couldn’t and wouldn’t do it.
And yeah, they are completely right. The idea is to get a game out in budget. I would say that most studios and writers do the best job that they can with the limited resources that they have. There is no shortage of good writers in the world, and there is no shortage of people with great game ideas. What needs to be done is find a middle ground between the cost of these things and the artwork. Well, that’s something that the film industry is still trying to figure out. If you want to tell a good story, you don’t need great special effects, but there may be times when you will have to do something that takes a long time and uses a lot of money to tell a specific story point. That’s why indie films try to have more inventiveness and use cheap methods to tell good stories. There are also a lot of people who would not be considered professional film makers in the industry who are now able to afford good cameras and good software. And that’s something that is happening in games as well with the Unity-engine, and things like that. Bringing the barrier to entry right down.
Still, one of the most useful things that a writer can do who wants to write for games – and I am speaking as somebody who wants do that as a career – is that you got to find a way to tell a story that is not going to piss off the team. That is part of working collaboratively, and it is something that I have really learned with Black Crown. I used to have all those grand ideas, and then somebody would say: “We just cannot do that.” And what you have got to do is not throw a tantrum. You have got to say: “Ok, how can I still get the core of that experience across.”
Well, let’s come to an end, and naturally, that’s always an opportunity to talk about the future. What does the future look like for Black Crown? Will there ever be an offline version? Or do you have to live with the fact that one day when the servers shut down, all your work will disappear?
This is something I have not really talked about with the publishers yet. But it’s a really interesting issue – legacy. I would like to work out a way so that if the servers will ever get shut down, there will be a way for people to access it, whether that is offline or even if I ended up hosting it. Because in a way, that is one of the main reasons people write: Legacy. For people in the future to be able to read what they have done and experience what they have created.
As you say, the ephemeral nature of the web and web servers mean that maybe that will be quite difficult. But that’s really a conversation I will have to have when Black Crown is finished. We will see. But it certainly is my absolute wish that Black Crown will always be available, for as long as it is able to be.
And what does your personal future look like? Black Crown will be tied up soon, if I understood that correctly?
We are putting together the last diary entries and the last objects in the game, and I still have a crap ton of storylets to write. But I hope that we will finish it within the next month or so. After that? I am not really sure. I have got various things that I want to do.
At the moment, I am designing a board game in my spare time, which I would love to see the light of day. I basically had a neat idea and wanted to learn more about traditional games design, so it was an exercise. But I think that it is good enough that when it’s finished, I would like people to buy it. Other than that… Random House and I want to work together again, and I know that they are trying to expand into lots of different niches. But I really don’t know where his is going to go. I have spoken to a couple of other people about work… I have been looking for more traditional jobs to make me some money, but I guess that the next year or so is going to be very piecemeal, with me working on lots of different things. But as long as those things are interesting and I can stay within this sphere, it’s ok.
I would really like to write in games. At one point or another, I have written in pretty much every format. I have written screenplays, I have written poetry, I have put on theatre, I have written short stories and maybe I’ll write a novel someday, I don’t know… but to be honest, what I am really, really excited about is getting a chance to work in this really new medium. Historically, games are really young and they are starting to gain steam a little bit now. (No pun intended.) I just think it’s such an exciting time to be writing and to be working and to have some literacy in that domain. Maybe I’ll try to learn more mechanical skills, more technical skills.
I guess that in the end, I really do not have a satisfying answer for you. I am open to anything, really, anything that is interesting and means working in the sphere of trying to tell better stories with technology.
Thank you so much for your time.