WORD/PLAY: "Can you imagine all of that?" An interview with Robert Sherman, author of Black Crown (Pt. 1)
In an recently launched series, Videogame Tourism looks at the mutual influence between movies and games. But of course, film is not the only medium that sees itself confronted, influenced and, vice versa, used as a source of inspiration by the new medium. 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. Ample reason then to launch WORD/PLAY, a series that sheds light on interesting works that go beyond what our first interview partner Robert Sherman describes as the "trendy fusing of two media, one that is much younger and more vital and one that is much older and more respected."
According to publishing giant Random House, the future of literature is plagued by abscesses, furuncles and various other diseases of the skin and mind. It is also financed by a sleazy millionaire with sadistic tendencies. At least that’s one way of looking at the unlikely genesis of Black Crown, a peculiar hybrid between literature and videogame.
The story goes a little something like this: Fresh out of university, writer Robert Sherman went door-to-door with the final project he did for his course: Not a mere document, but a suitcase filled with strange objects and writings that provided an insight into a dark storyworld which Sherman wished to develop further. Luck was on his side: Random House, always on the lookout for options to expand the increasingly difficult core business of selling paperbound books, found itself flush with cash from the unexpected success of Fifty Shades of Grey. In fact, the publisher had already cast an eye on another peculiar success story, Failbetter Game’s Free2Play-storygame Fallen London, and its underlying platform. And so, the doors opened wide for Sherman, whose project was to be named Black Crown and built in Failbetter’s microtransaction-driven StoryNexus-engine.
However, Black Crown would be unusual even in a more traditional format: Its narrative about an enigmatic institution, so oppressive that it gives both Aperture Science and Kafka’s bureaucratic machinery a run for its money, makes not exactly for leisure reading. The feeling of uneasiness is only amplified by Sherman’s fascination for the macabre, the sick and the deformed, and his willingness to make the reader/player’s character a victim of all of this, a miserable, isolated being that has to endure constant hardship and pain… and ultimately grows stronger doing so. The world of Black Crown is highly original and bitterly dark, but not without moments of stunning beauty.
In part 1 of our interview with Robert Sherman, we talk, among lots of other things, about how hard it is to fall between chairs, about repetition as the writer's natural enemy, and cosplay as his ultimate reward.
If you’d have to give a job description of yourself, say, for a tax form – what would you call yourself? Are you a writer? An author?
That terminology really depends on who I am talking to and what their concepts are surrounding games and narrative. I suppose, at the very basis of it, I am a writer. But through the process of doing Black Crown, I have also become a game designer. There is also a term, “narrative architect”, which a lot of people are using. And which is also really, really pretentious. [laughs] But it probably is the most apt description of what somebody like me does. It’s not just the writing of the text, it’s the construction and the flow of the game, and how mechanics are wedded to content. (Which, to be honest, is what a novelist does as well. They do control the pacing of their book. It’s just that it’s in a linear format.) So, I think “writer” is fine, but in the age we are living in, people want better terminology, terminology that applies to games, or that applies to something that is not a traditional art form, and so “writer” seems a little bit anachronistic.
To be honest, though, I get quite bored of that discussion. I don’t think the terminology is massively important. People call me a lot different things. I have called myself a game designer, I have called myself an author, and I have called myself a writer, because I really don’t know what Black Crown is in and of itself. Somebody pointed out to me that in a recent interview with Rockpapershotgun, I said that Black Crown wasn’t a game, and I sort of stood by my decision and said: “Well, I’m not sure that it’s a game.” But then I stepped back from it and thought: “Why am I apologizing for it? If people think it’s a game, it’s a game.” You know, I have always played games and loved games and I wanted to make games. But I was quite self-depreciating in thinking: “I can’t be a game designer. This isn’t a game; it’s not quite complicated enough.” I guess I should stop doing that. I mean, it’s ok. You can be a game designer. It’s not something you have to put on a pedestal.
But I really think that this whole tussle over terminology is not very useful. It’s something I hope to see change in the future – that terminology, and medium, and all of those concerns won’t really matter anymore. That all that matters is how well a story is told with the tools that you have used.
Isn't it odd how, no matter what you do, those pains are always present? You try to remember what it was like to feel well.
I am also asking this because I really got the impression that Black Crown is more talked about in game related publications. With it being backed by Random House, you would imagine that they would try to push it more unto the literary sphere. Is my impression correct?
Yes, I think you are right. The game industry covered it a lot more than the book industry. The book industry is in a very weird place right now, where everyone is competing with Amazon. The book industry hasn’t had the problems that the music industry had with piracy. But there is a loss in profits from the publishers anyway, because of Amazon and because people are reading a lot of stuff for free on the web. And so I thought that Random House saw Black Crown as an interesting curiosity. I have spoken to a lot of people in the book industry who really, really like it and see it as a step forward. But they tend to be a lot more non-traditional. They usually work in the digital sector and try to do simpler stuff, like producing apps. The book industry is interested in Black Crown, but I think it’s too far removed from what most of them traditionally think of as their remit.
Whereas really, they are media companies. And so, if they got the right people, then maybe they should be looking at more game-like experiences, or expanding into film. This ties back into the idea that I hope in the future, medium becomes less important, and what you do is that you just have a team of people who are brought to a story, and they help make it in whichever format is best suited to it. It won’t matter if that contains an element of film, for example.
I guess the word that is used here is “transmedia”, which is a big topic at the moment. The problem is just: For the publishing industry (but maybe also for the game industry and the film industry), what “transmedia” really means is: “We want to make as much money as possible out of this brand”. Rather than saying: “We have a really interesting story or story world, and there are 25 different ways that it can be told – so why not use all of those ways?” I think that at the moment, it’s more of a marketing exercise. Obviously, there are a lot of people who consider themselves “transmedia artists”, who are doing just that – producing work in lots of formats. But I feel that at the top level, the company level, the term is being used more in the sense of: “Well, let’s expand out!” It’s a merchandising affair rather than a creative one. Maybe I’m just being cynical, but I think that this needs to change.
Well, there are good reasons for being cynical about it. But let’s focus on more positive aspects, for example the creative process. Black Crown is obviously very different from traditional writing. One aspect of this is that it seems to be a rather collaborative project. The text is obviously mostly done by you, but how about the other elements?
It was my initial idea, which I then developed. Random House, the publisher, is bankrolling the project. They also did another thing. I don’t know if you have seen any of the diary entries that you can flick through? I provided the text for them and the design, and Random House then went from those notes and built the entries. All of the art in those is mine, which I wasn’t planning to do initially. The art that’s in there was only supposed to be little sketches for the main artists. But because of budget reasons, we could not really afford to pay artists to that, so I just carried on doing it myself, and I ended up really enjoying it. There is another company called PopLeaf Games, who are the ones who make the three-dimensional rotating objects from my designs. And then there is Failbetter Games. They provided the software for the main game, and their artist Paul Arendt does the art for all of the main game, all of the little pictures, all of the icons, all of the banners. He helped design the user interface as well.
But most of the direction does, indeed, comes from me. Nobody else is really directing the creative input. It’s all personal expression within these bounds. I am happy to let Paul just get on with it from the descriptions I give him. They are still part of me. I mean, I really enjoy doing the art, but I do not consider myself an artist. Plus, there is still that giddiness when I see somebody who is very, very good at arts producing something from my words. There is quite a childish glee in seeing what I have produced put into pictures. So it is really collaborative. I work with three different companies and different people in those companies. It’s quite a balancing act. And it’s certainly far more collaborative than a novel would be.
What does a typical work day for you look like, then? Are there typical work days?
There are usually six or seven things that need to be done. I always start the day by bug fixing and interacting with fans. I try to do that as much as possible. I am at that stage where I am still incredibly grateful that anyone wants to read my writing at all. I am young, I haven’t done a lot professionally before, and so that’s still really exciting. And long may this feeling continue, because it’s a really useful thing to have. You view readers and the people playing the game as intelligent, real people. You don’t just use them as a mass of people to sell to. And Black Crown’s fans have been really great. They talk in character on the forums, help each other out with bugs. There is one guy who is trying to set up a cosplay for a convention. I don’t know if there is some sort of register or scale whereby if you get cosplay of your work then you’ve made it in some sort of special club. I sincerely hope that’s the case. [laughs]
So, I usually talk to them on the forums and then I try to solve any bugs that I can, and then it’s a combination of designing three-dimensional objects or writing out diary entries or writing storylets for the StoryNexus-engine. Or doing interviews, or answering a lot of emails. I tend to work from home a lot, but there are also several libraries near my place, including a medical library, which I sometimes go to. It’s really eclectic, and has been for quite a while.
Your close contact with the audience is really remarkable. Do you think that it’s influenced by the fact that Black Crown is online?
So you mean that the distance between the game and the forum is very short because it’s all within a browser? And would I do the same if I was writing a novel? Well… yes, I would. It’s easy for me to say, but I find the contact very enjoyable. I think I have been quite lucky in that the people who have been posting on the forums have been very sympathetic and have understood what I was trying to do. Or at least, they were open to it. And Black Crown is not a simple work.
There are a lot of people I have heard talk about it being a sign for what the future of the book industry might look like, and that’s all very flattering. But I quickly realized that a lot of those people probably had played for about twenty minutes, and Black Crown is a very opaque piece of work. That’s intentional, of course, this idea of not laying everything on the plate and not providing instructions to the player. It’s a risk, because you walk the line of the text becoming incomprehensible. But on the whole, people have understood the things they need to understand, they got which bits they need to read a bit more closely, or how to find the various different clues scattered about the web. They have been very receptive to that. I was surprised because I thought that people would say: “This is really difficult, I don’t understand what’s going on, nothing is resolving… I’m done with this!” That would be the traditional view of the typical internet attention span. And in fact, it is something we found quite challenging in development, because we thought that reading big chunks of text on the internet is just not something that people do. Whereas, on the whole, people seem to have really got it.
I like interacting with those people, they’re enthusiastic. And, you know… it’s nice to talk to nice people who get what you are trying to do and have similar interests and passions. It’s a pleasant part of my day. Even when they send bug reports or their game is completely broken, they’ll say: “It’s completely broken and I can’t play it anymore. But I really like it, thanks!” I have seen reports of other bug messages which were not half as polite. [laughs]
Maybe if I got a stream of haters then I would feel slightly differently, but luckily, I haven’t had to deal with that. I do enjoy doing it, but it’s also important to do. It’s something you have to keep in mind as a creator nowadays. There are not seven layers of middlemen between you and the people who you are selling to anymore. Even if you are working for a big publisher, you are much more directly connected to your fan base. And a publisher will expect you to be connected, unless it suits their marketing sense to have you remain mysterious.
It feels a little heavy, but you think that, with time, you could become used to the weight. You are good at making your peace.
Maybe it’s also because the people who are put off by Black Crown do not interact with you?
I guess they don’t feel the need to tell me that they don’t like it. Well, there has been some negative press from people who find it quite bizarre. They don’t like it, and that’s fine, as long as there are people who do. I know that as a reader I would like to read something like this. I would want to pick something like this apart, I would want to say: “That’s a reference over there on that PDF, therefore in the game this means that this person isn’t the character that was mentioned”, and so on. This sort of detective work does not require the embedding of mechanics. It just uses the inherent unreliability of the narrator and the way that you can spread things out all over the web. Like this, you can replicate the actions of somebody who is researching a subject, a process where you are also going back and forth between sources, cross-referencing. Doing Black Crown on the web means that this is easy to do that. And though it’s a very opaque story, if you pay attention to everything and you seek out the other pieces of work that are spread about, it will make sense. I truly believe that.
Have you played Gone Home by any chance?
No, I haven’t played it yet. It’s in my wish list.
What I found problematic about the game was that everything was laid out like a puzzle, and it was obvious that the developers where of the mind-set that every object that you find in the game has to be something that can be interpreted as part of that puzzle, fitting right in. The developers even went to the forums congratulating people on having deciphered the story “in the correct way”. And I wondered if that’s due to them coming from a gaming background, where everything has to be a problem with one correct solution – it’s very different from how people think and talk about literature.
That is really an interesting point. There is a definition of a “game” by Raph Koster, which defines a game as a series of patterns which at the start you don’t understand, but by the end of the game, the game will have taught the player the systems. That is a very basic structure used by most game. And for good reasons – I think there’s a very visceral, almost animal reaction when you complete a puzzle. You gain a rush of endorphins. Whereas a piece of art which doesn’t tell you everything is considered unsatisfactory by a lot of people.
If you’re going into Black Crown with a mind-set informed by traditional games, then yes, you will be disappointed. Because you would feel like that you had tried to grok the game, you tried to replicate these systems and then repeated and repeated the patterns that you saw. But in the end, there is no reward. And even if there was a reward, in the sense of an understanding of the narrative, there is not necessarily something that “pops up”.
That may be completely reductionist, and maybe there are not a lot of gamers that might be insulted by this. But what you just said about Gone Home, that the developers presented this open puzzle but then went to the forums to say: “Yes, you solved that!” I agree with you, it’s strange. After all, the game seems to be a detective novel, or a detective story, but one told within a domestic setting.
In general, I think that’s an issue for people trying to tell deep stories in games or present human situations the way they are actually happening, with some sort of truth – the problem is, things don’t always tie up nicely. I know that this has been said a thousand times before, but it’s still true: This is why the Hero’s Journey is so important in games; it’s a natural progression towards a goal, and that goal is achievable, whereas life is a lot messier. If you look at a lot of the stories that have been told in traditional literature, stories which end badly for the characters or which don’t resolve at all and thus mirror real life… well, it’s hard to see how that would fit into a traditional gamer’s mind-set.
Not necessarily a traditional game’s format, though. I think it would fit in the format very easily, actually. But then we are talking more about mechanics rather than visuals or technology. You know, there are ways to present interactivity, even though there are difficulties you have to overcome. For example, I have recently read an article about how games need to be shorter experiences to be satisfying as art. That is really interesting, because so much in many big games consists of repetitions of patterns or of an activity. Those activities may be fun, but there are limits to that what you can do with such an approach.
This is actually something we struggled with in Black Crown, too. There are repeatable activities in the game, and there are Free2Play-mechanics, which are tied to the idea that repetitiveness is where profits come from in Free2Play-games. The idea that you present something that is either fun to do or which has a promise of reward, and so players are ready to do it over and over again. It’s really hard to tell a good story working that way. Well, there are workarounds. If you have a character that is an obsessive or is in servitude, then having the player repeat a mechanic is a really good way to reinforce that particular emotional state. But most stories don’t have actions that repeat all the time. I suppose I can envision a game where you are playing somebody who lives on their own in a big city and has a daily routine…
Like Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life?
Yeah, exactly. You play a person who has to do the same things every day, go shopping, brush your teeth. I’m seeing a few games that do that, but it’s really hard to put together a compelling story when the actions do repeat the whole time. Failbetter Games, to their credit, have done that in Fallen London. Fallen London is more grindy than Black Crown, but they have created a world where people don’t really mind doing it because the rewards are great – they will get additional pieces of content which have really strong narratives. I think of all the companies that I have seen trying to use the Free2Play-model, Failbetter Games have done it best by far, because they really could tie it into the story. But it’s still really hard to do.
And as I said, there are repeatable elements in Black Crown as well. So, what I tried to do was make them into elements that reinforce your imprisonment as a character, like being fed, or sleeping. When you do those things, they are repeatable, but I put in random reward mechanics, so that you receive a piece of plot or an item every time you do it, and it will be different up to a certain number of times. That seemed like a way to have a repeatable mechanic that is justified in the story – you’re not just repeating it to make me money, you’re doing it because the character would do it. Like the feeding mechanic that comes around once a week. There is a “ticking mechanic” tied to it, you get fatter when you choose to eat. You can choose not to eat, but then the rubber suit which you are trapped in starts to fill up with various liquids and solids, and that’s something that will come to play in the final stages of the game. In conclusion, it’s a real balancing act between trying to make this a profitable project and trying to tell the best story possible.
I have to admit that the reason why I preferred Black Crown to Fallen London is that, like you said, the story actually mirrors the mechanics better, making the latter less intrusive. Is it correct, though, that every player can get to the end of the story even without paying any money? So it’s only side stories that are hidden behind the paywall?
Every player will get to an end, yes. And not all of the side stories need being bought, by any means. But there are things that are locked off. Sometimes it will be entire storylines, but I tried not to do that too often. The way it works is that if somebody is enjoying a story, then they will want to get the whole story. As I said, a complete understanding of Black Crown or a complete appreciation of the story won’t come until you read pretty much everything. Or at least there is a combination of things that you are going to have to read to get a sense of it, and that’s the main narrative.
What I tried to do was not having lots of little payments. Well, there are places where you can do that and get specific items – a lot of those things would be called “vanity items”. Things that in a traditional RPG would be a new hairstyle or a pair of sparkly pants. I tried to make them more interesting as objects, though, and make them all relate to the wider story.
But in general, it does work like this: You are entering a new area and you can go right through it, but you can pay to look around the room. Or you can pay to go and look at that one thing in the corner. When I put it like that, it might seem quite dry. People will say: “Well, my character should be able to go and look over there.” But really, you need to step back from the game and see that there needs to be a payment mechanic, so charging people for the extra detail seems like the best thing to do. The only people who are going to pay for this game are the people who like it and enjoy the story and… well, either way I put it, it sounds quite evil, but those are the people I want to charge money. Because they are the people who will pay. There are lots of people who might breeze through the game and will think: “Oh, I didn’t understand it.” And to those I say, well, you can’t understand it. I’d like to think that there is a satisfying narrative if you go through without paying, but you really want to get the full experience. There is no other way to say that. I think what people want me to say is: “Oh, you can have the complete experience without paying.” Well, of course you can’t. Because otherwise, there wouldn’t be any reason for anyone to pay for it, ever. There is a lot of depth to the world, and maybe that is something that I will explore in another project – it would be nice to expand the world a little more in another format. Maybe a more traditional videogame.
I could envision something in the style of Ice-Pick Lodge’s Pathologic.
Yes, those guys might get that sort of weird opaqueness. But anyway, the payment structure has been probably the most difficult thing for me as a writer to get my head around. I am not selling a piece of art which you get in a block. I need to constantly be thinking about “Ok, if I lock this off, is there a likelihood that the people who are going to pay for it have played this other piece of content which you have to pay for?” All the while thinking: “Is this compelling enough for free players?” That’s really difficult, I don’t think that I have cracked that at all.
Free2Play might be difficult, but it has only arisen as a reaction to a market which is increasingly squeezed. I have to admit: When people complain about Free2Play, I don’t blame them. There have been an awful lot of dreadful iterations of it, and they have really damaged the view of it. Still, Free2Play is only there because it makes sense as a business model. Just look at how much money Zynga has made. What they are doing is appealing to the lower levels of the brain, the more impulsive and instinctual elements of game design, whereas what we are trying to do is appeal to the sense for a good story and good pacing, which is a more virtuous way of going at it. But it’s something that I won’t miss when this project is finished – trying to work out how much I should charge people each time. There is still an element to it which feels dirty. Like, why should I charge for this particular piece of writing when I have written probably 600’000 words which you don’t have to pay for? It’s horrible.
I can imagine that. You have to constantly judge your own writing. Well, I have to admit that I was ok with the model in Black Crown, because every time you see a teaser for an option that is unavailable, I role-played that this was the Institute teasing me and telling me that I should just IMAGINE what would happen there.
I think that’s due to the narrative style that I came by quite organically. Part of it was to provide more richness. I think what people are starting to realize is that even though you are putting in a character name at the start and going through the whole marks of RPG character creation, you are not playing a blank state. You are playing someone who is a character who already exists in this world and who already has a history. I mean, after all these questions about who you are, at various points the game tells you what your mother and father did. I am trying to walk a line for good narrative reasons that will be revealed – a line between generic and specific. So there will be generic points about how when you were a child, you played with your friends, but then there will be a specific point about the game you played, or something about the religious beliefs of the people you had lived with. Those are deliberate.
But it’s interesting that you said you didn’t mind not choosing the options because you gained a hint of what it could be by the description of what the character thinks. I hadn’t considered that before.
Check back later this week for part 2 of the interview, in which we judge the Doom-novelizations, talk about the lessons a writer can learn from game design, and why drunken uncles make for better metaphors than rivers, anway.