Your Austin Videogame Writer Recommends Mr. Tumnus – SNL

Your Austin Videogame Writer has been surfing the deep video rabbit holes on YouTube and he’s found this little gem for your nerdly appreciation. Enjoy!

Warning: may or may not be game writing related. But isn’t video content inherently writing-related?

Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) meets several women who have recently arrived in Narnia.

#SNL #JamesMcAvoy #MeekMill #SNL44

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Your Austin Videogame Writer Recommends The Boarding of Flight 314 – SNL

Your Austin Videogame Writer has been surfing the deep video rabbit holes on YouTube and he’s found this little gem for your nerdly appreciation. Enjoy!

Warning: may or may not be game writing related. But isn’t video content inherently writing-related?

Two gate agents (Tina Fey, Taran Killam) call increasingly ridiculous boarding groups including children with small parents, frequent fly girls, X-Men First Class and, finally, themselves after they fall in love. [Season 39, 2013]


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Gaming Your Life: What To Do When Someone Parks Like a Jerk?

you park like an assholeGame writing and game design incorporate concepts that can be applied to regular life quandries. Here’s an example: recently I came across a question at Quora that cried out for a good gaming kind of strategy. The question: “What are some clever ways to mess with people with expensive cars who consistently park in two parking spots?”

Obviously, this applies to people with cheap cars too, and people who park across the line rather than trying to hog two spots. Basically, anyone who parks like a jerk.

The answer: I flip their wipers up.

This draws attention to the car and makes it stand out from all the other cars in the lot, which is what we want. The car then looks like it’s got its hands in the air, waving.

And hopefully it makes the driver think about what they might’ve done to warrant such attention. It’s quick, it’s non-destructive, and if the driver was forced to park that way because of someone else’s crappy parking job, well, no harm done. I’m hoping that more people use this method until it becomes the common way of notifying bad parkers that they have been seen and found wanting.

Not all cars/trucks have flippable wipers, but most of them do. It’s a convenience for the owner, who can replace the wiper refill when it’s flipped.

I’ve seen a number of different approaches to this problem, and most are a little more elaborate and honestly less effective. For example, Amazon has a variety of parking notes and fake tickets which you can keep in your car and leave on problem vehicles. And Lifehacker has highlighted the You Park Like an Asshole folks, who sadly seem to be out of business now. These methods are useful in communicating your displeasure, but I think it helps when the driver knows that others have been walking by their atypical car and scoffing at their parking job.

The gaming principles at work here are mostly social. Just like Ebay ratings or bad player reports. Social pressure – or even the possibility of social disapproval – is a powerful motivator. A lot of people will misbehave if they think no one’s paying attention or can rationalize themselves into thinking that “I’m not hurting anyone.” Knowing that their car has been the object of speculation and mockery can definitely influence a bad driver’s behavior.

And if you ever want to take it to the next level and report a bad parker or bad driver over the internet, there are several possibly defunct apps and a website for doing exactly that. These tools are definitely a satisfying way to share your woes and laugh at the ridiculous antics of others. And they make a permanent record of the bad behavior that’s linked to the driver’s license plate number. However, the chance of the report making it to the driver in question is pretty dang low at this point.

Anyhow, here’s the original Quora post. If you like it, please vote it up and share it with your friends!


Videogame Indictment: Dragon Age Inquisition

A Dragon Age Review with Bugs Attached

Been playing this popular game on PS4 recently and man, am I disappointed. I really want to love it, but instead I just think about how Bioware shipped this thing about six months before it was finished, with some bad design decisions baked in. I’m also a bit irate to see how badly they’ve evolved in the storytelling process while Bethseda has leapfrogged them handily with titles like Skyrim and Fallout.

It looks and sounds lovely and there’s clearly a heapton of backstory and thought. The characters are interesting and well-acted, when you can figure out what they’re saying*. You can see that, as Ray Muzyka said in a Wired interview, they “aggressively checked out” Skyrim and tried to borrow some concepts. Some of them have good conflicts with each other while all pursuing common goals in their own ways. All of this merely adds to the disgust and tragedy of this buggy, burdened, burdensome game: I think of all those game developers who poured their hearts into this damned box and all they (and we) got for their inspired labor was a shining turd.

What’s Broken in Dragon Age: Inquisition

The key bugs that annoy me in DA:I are clear A-class bugs in combat, especially in the time-stopping Tactical View, which is a necessity in tough fights, when the AI’s decisions can quickly decimate your party (and frankly, there’s really no AI that can handle a tough fight as well as a person can). What kind of bugs? Party members going completely AFK. I give them an order, and they just stand there. Forever. I have to pop out of Tactical View into real-time and jump with that character to wake them up. Why? Who knows. It might be a terrain issue; I have seen party members fall through gaps and occasionally stick on terrain until their deaths.

Oh, did I mention that the Tactical View camera traverses the terrain like a person? So when you want to attack an enemy from up on a rock ridge, you have to guide the damned thing down a walkable path to target the enemy. And then back up again anytime you want to check your guys or adjust them. And Maker help you if you’re fighting in a narrow gully with trees roofing it. The camera will hop around like a bullfrog on crack as you move it, and positioning a spell effect area precisely is hopeless when you can’t get high enough or low enough due to ceilings and obstacles. Bioware, here’s a hint: Please don’t do detailed collision detection with the damned camera. Make stuff translucent when the camera goes through it. It can be done. It has been done. Please.

Or I hit the button to switch characters and nothing happens. I can only control one character until I finish the fight or get to a menu somehow. I tell someone to stay out of danger, and they inexplicably start wandering. (Yes, I am double-tapping on the target location to see the little shield icon for HOLD POSITION.) Rubberbanding foes that teleport across the area in Tactical View (no, they weren’t being yanked by heroes’ grapples). And yeah, it’d be nice if the AI didn’t cast fire spells on the fire demons… sigh. The latter is a rarity in RPGs, I know, but one that wouldn’t be all that hard to code.

The menu system is a mess too. Inventory’s complicated if powerful. But you can’t equip items in the shop interface, which means you have to hop in and out of menus to buy an upgrade (buy new item, switch to inventory, unequip old item, equip new item, switch, sell old item). Nor can you discard item crafting patterns (“schematics”) for useless low-level items; instead you have to scroll through an ever-growing list of junky schematics, comparing their numbers, to find the good stuff. Feels like work.

And when you’re crafting items, you can’t compare the proposed item’s attributes with what you’re currently using. I actually wrote a bunch of numbers down on paper to figure out whether crafting was a good use of my resources. Uhhhh… really? Feels like work.

The final insult: you also can’t switch a character between melee and ranged weapons during a fight. I certainly understand penalizing a character with a delay as they swap weapons, or keeping someone from swapping between a dozen weapons like Duke Nukem, but utter inability to switch between a bow and a sword? Unheard of. This from the company whose heritage extends back to the original tactical party RPG, Baldur’s Gate. Just freaking shameful.

So Many Unique Lootz That You Hate Lootz; So Many Quests That You…

The game also manages to make loot uninteresting. There are so many unique items that you never know when you’ve found something cool. Instead, everything’s different and 99% of it is junk. (Granted, the latter’s true of any real RPG.) As a result, you don’t care about anything you pick up.

In Skyrim, you run across dozens of iron swords. When you get another iron sword, you immediately know it’s junk. But when you see an mithril sword of cleaving, that name gives you an obvious tip-off that it’s your lucky day. Also, it glows because it’s magic and you light up like Christmas.

But no, in DA:I, everything’s got a different name and you can’t see it physically unless you take the special effort to pop through a few menus and equip it to view it inventory. All you see is a loot item that, when opened, shows a list of the items within. Rarity is indicated by color (blue and purple being rarest), but there are useless purple items and good common items. And crafted items are generally the best of all, which means new item designs (“schematics”) can be valuable, but you’ll have to drag your butt to a crafting station to figure it out.

So it all sits in your bag until you have a chance to sort through it. Kind of like your bank statements. Congratulations, Bioware. You’ve managed to nerf one of the primary joys of RPGs.

I think they went the opposite (and wrong) direction of Fallout 4 on loot in this game, a grave error. In Fallout 4, you don’t even have to press a button to see what’s inside a container — you just look at it and the text appears showing contents. This avoids the annoyance of opening empty chests when you’ve doubled back on your path. Bethseda’s gotten rid of the opening action entirely.

There’s a minor innovation in the form of a war room where you can commit points to unlock abilities (like larger inventories) and new map areas. You can also send your war council on errands to solve problems and expand your influence, giving a nice impression of a larger international conflict (and challenges of leadership) that compliments your individual adventuring. Too bad the UI is tedious to navigate and the tasks apparently can be completed in almost any order, with few conflicting tasks and no time-dependent tasks. The UI is a lot like scrubbing a scene in a pixel-hunting adventure game; it’s littered with icons that are irrelevant, and positioning the cursor is onerous. Feels like work. A little snap-to-POI algorithm would go a long way here.

And of course there are meaningless quests galore. Find the pisspot you lost in the Sewers of Despair? Sure, I’ll do that in hopes of getting 5 gold and another item that looks like all the other junk in my bag. Heck, maybe it’ll be a multi-part quest. Love those.

Other Gamer Grousing

In addition, the multiplayer mode is dumbed down and unstrategic. No Tactical View, and the one time I tried it, my friend and I were killed repeatedly in the first scenario such that it felt hopeless.

*And as mentioned earlier, the dialog is oddly oblique and obtuse. All of the heroes are apparently politicians. No one says, “I hate demons and I want to see them all dead.” Instead they say something like “Demons are offensive to the Maker. When I am inclined to consider action, I find my aims aligned with the Maker.” Uhhh, right. As a purported wordsmith, I admire the artistry here, people, but this all feels like work.

I will give unadulterated praise to one feature of the game, though. There is a throne that you can sit in to decide what happens to various prisoners and defeated NPCs. The options are thought-provoking and I appreciated the effort to create a “heavy is the head that wears the crown” effect, presenting the player with moral decisions.

Having a horse on call to speed through maps is good. (Also in Skyrim.) I did genuinely enjoy the tavern songs by Raney Shockne, which were pleasant and also distinctive. I’d have to say this is one thing that Inquisition did better than Skyrim.

And the skill trees and the skills themselves are quite cool and generally make a clear difference in combat. Also in Skyrim, and probably the one thing that kept me going as far as I did. In retrospect, maybe I should’ve just played Skyrim.

Storytelling is Not an Afterthought, People

Especially in a text-heavy RPG. And text-heavy is one of the problems: Bioware continues to think that quantity is a substitute for quality. Just like older Bioware games such as Planescape: Torment, the landscape is littered with characters who want to tell you their life story, but the core experience is buried under all that excess… especially when most of them speak in that same constipated manner I mentioned earlier.

Maybe the name Inquisition itself should’ve been a warning. Any game that chooses a title so closely tied to an oppressive, murderous, and inhuman movement as the Spanish Inquisition is going to be a little tone-deaf.

I don’t want to know why the gardener is sending me on this FedEx quest to take his stupid broken trowel across the treacherous swamp; I want solve the mystery of my hero’s talent and beat the big boss. And when I don’t get tapped into that big conflict in a regular and meaningful way, I feel like the game is simply throwing chores at me while I grind my character toward advancement. I could be playing a game. In my leisure hours, why should I bother with all this work?

I’m sure an apologist would mention the rifts you have to close across every new map. Each rift is a reminder of the main quest and your special ability, and they do spawn new and tougher creatures as you progress. (Sometimes well beyond your ability, and much tougher than anything else in the map, with no indicator of difficulty.) But there’s a real lack of panache in the presentation. For example, I ran into a new beastie at one rift – a Pride Demon about forty feet tall and tough as nails. But no one in town was talking about him, and none of my party reacted to this obvious challenge. Opportunity missed.

A Modest Proposal for Books in RPGs

Actually, both Skyrim and Dragon Age fail with the many books you encounter in their worlds. These are amazing opportunities to enrich and entertain the player, but instead the developers are treating them like easter eggs, fodder for the completists. FAIL. How come these books almost never have anything related to the current quest that you’re on? How come they rarely mention anything useful or funny about characters you have encountered? Weapons or spells you’re using? Journals of people who are facing the same decisions as you are? How come we never start a quest or finish a quest by reading a book? How’s that for a way of telling the player that these things are just window dressing?

Here’s my simple proposition: make these damned things fun. I don’t want to read 14 volumes about ancient lore, in random order. I want to see the same number of books around, but 75% of them are dull-colored so only the completists will read them. Or maybe they’re even empty: when you pick them up the game says “You’ve read this one before in school” or “Yet another advice book on how think positively about the bubonic plague.” However, the brightly-colored books are always funny or relevant to your immediate situation. Make it so, people!


Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: Can You Write for a Living? And Job Listings

Writing for a Living: Fact or Fiction?

In my writing group, I’m know for being fairly unproductive. In fact, my fellow writers tend to mock me with good reason for my sluggishness. I read their work and keep up with critiques, but there have been months-long and perhaps even years-long hiatuses in my own production stream.

Today I came across this interesting post by a writer I’ve never heard of, Dean Wesley Smith. He identifies five plausible income streams and a baseline level of productivity to reach a $40,000 per year income level.

I personally have about zero name recognition as a writer, so perhaps this is already out of my league. However, I believe we do live in an era where success means building multiple resilient income streams. Perhaps one of my smaller streams could be my writing. Perhaps a token income from my writing would help me solve the productivity problem.

And If That Fails, Here Are Some Job Listings From My Friend at SpareFoot

Also, Austin’s SpareFoot is hiring, and my pal Rachel can help you get in the door if you are looking. They’re primarily seeing programmers, but there are two project management roles in the batch. Definitely seems like a strange unique fun place to work.


A Game Study and a Game Writer Question

Videogames have endured a lot of scrutiny in recent years. Games cause antisocial behavior. Games cause psychosis. Games cause incontinence!

We have some good news on the public relations front, game writing aficionados. Word from The Atlantic is that games, especially games with a physical aspect, might be an antioxidant of sorts for aging minds.

“But the benefits may extend beyond just fun and games — studies are also showing that these exergames — video games that encourage physical activity — are also proving to help with depression, sense of place and relevancy.”

So as we head into the holiday season, folks, be kind to your loved ones. Don’t bring a fruitcake home on your vacation — take your Wii, Kinect, or Playstation Move instead.

Hi! I’m not sure if you answer questions – but I’m not sure where to go. Is it okay to go back and forth between 2nd person (you/your) and 3rd person (each player) when writing a manual? I am trying to edit a manual for a friend and I have no idea. Thank you. – AlishaWe also received a game manual writing question recently and decided it might be worthwhile to share it so you can see an example of a challenge you might face if you were writing game documentation:

Here is the core of our response:

I am fairly certain this is fine. Game manuals are very utilitarian documents. The alternatives (“you and your coplayer”, “you and Player 2”, “you and your buddy”) are usually distracting and awkward.

Thanks, Alisha… we hope to see your trading card/board game on the market soon!



Mini-Review: The John Carter Movie

Writer Patrick Sullivan contributes this mini-review of the new movie based on Edgar Rice Burrough’s books:

I saw a sneak of John Carter recently and I say go see it. Really, ignore the horrible marketing and lackluster trailers Disney have done for the film, and give it a shot. It is breezy, accessible, swashbuckling fun that never takes itself too seriously, just serious enough to deliver the story earnestly without any kind of postmodern nudge nudge, wink wink.

It is definitely a “boy’s story”* in that there’s essentially only two female characters** (one red and one thark) but the screenwriters (including Michael Chabon) did decent work at giving Deja Thoris real motivation and elevating her above being just a mere damsel in distress. The only clunky bits for me were Taylor Kitsch’s dreadful delivery of several lines.

I’m glad this film survived the post-production hell it languished in for a bit.

* Well, it was a proto-pulp adventure written in 1912, how could it not be?
** Though if you look closely at the extras, you’ll see that there are a fair number of female soldiers serving in the Heliumite and Zodangan armies.


Game Writer Questions from Sheffield

A Virtual Game Writer Interview

Game Writer Central received this request for a few words across the ocean, and I thought it might be of interest to all:

I’m a student studying Internet & Business Technologies at Sheffield Hallam University and I’m currently in my final year. My final year project revolves around video game writing as a game design medium and it’s place in the computer games Industry. More specifically, I’m looking into the troubles of games writers attempting to get into the industry, and the trending lack of a writers talent’s, and in some cases, writers being excluded completely.

Stevie, thanks for writing…! Here are your answers, below. Questions in italics.

Are the requirements and or challenges of getting into the games development industry as a writer or even a designer more difficult than before?

I’d say yes. Games are no longer marginalized as the domain of pimply-faced teens, and the games themselves are more immediate and life-like than ever before. As a result, the industry has more hopefuls knocking on its doors and more students seriously pursuing it as a career, instead of falling into it by accident.

How would you say the life of a writer and the challenges that come with the job (or benefits) 15 years ago differ from today?

That is a wide-open question, all right. In many ways, game design and game writing is returning to its roots with the mobile revolution. Once again, it’s possible for a little one- or two-person team to change the world from their garage. But the game industry as a whole is getting more diverse and concomitantly more fractured, with all the different platforms and delivery media. More than ever, it seems to me it helps to be open to new fields and challenges, and well-versed in the eternal truths of storytelling. No matter what new devices hit the market, a good story is a good story.

What are your opinions on the industry today, do you think writers are neglected? have they always been? should there be a solid position in every creative team for a writer, especially with such large budgets nowadays?

It depends on your perspective. As with Hollywood, gaming is more sensitive than ever to large fan bases outside of their medium. We’ve seen games like Strongbad, Sam & Max, and Penny Arcade that really sprung from a writer’s head well before ever hitting an interactive form. But unlike Hollywood, the game industry isn’t really script-dependent and many games — heck, the majority of games — go out the door with story and dialogue flaws that would be universally panned by movie critics.

Sometimes this is because of budget, but just as often it’s because of the tremendous egos of producers and designers who never bother to have a professional check their work. It’s the same kind of flaw that induces everyone to think they could write a bestseller, but these same people would never try to pick up a paintbrush or step on a stage without training.

I don’t think every creative team should have a dedicated writer, though. There are some people who can capably handle, say, a programmer and a writer role simultaneously, and of course there are games that don’t really have much of a storyline, like Angry Birds or most puzzle and sports games.

Do you believe social platforms online could be used productively to give writers more recognition? If not, what alternatives could help? A common topic in recent years has been that games developers are
sacrificing emotional depth and narrative for more visually appealing features, what are your thoughts on these opinions? Can games fare better with the correct creative writing input regardless of visuals?

I do believe that social platforms could lead to recognition, but I don’t see it happening. What’s lacking isn’t information or tools — it’s the sheer disinterest in the way a game is made. When people start to care more about screenwriters than the actors who speak their lines or the directors who manage film projects, then perhaps we’ll have an environment where game writers will get their due.

Big-name writers could change things, I think. If Clive Barker’s Jericho hadn’t bombed, then maybe he’d have been at the vanguard of a new writer-driven game segment. Game writers get less credit than screenwriters, and often it’s difficult to figure out who wrote what on a game. If gamers demanded better accountability on that, I’m fairly sure we’d see a change because it’s not hard to reformat the credits. However, it’s a rarest of rare days when you see a designer or writer top-billed on a game as was the case with American McGee’s Alice.

I do think that blockbuster games can overlook the writing, but often gamers are quick to pick up on the weakness. Writing is comparatively cheap and any producer who slights it is really running a very competitive and expensive race while blind to the project’s flaws. There’s no doubt in my mind that better writing would make a lot of game SKUs more valued and more saleable.

In fact, I’d argue that slapdash, rote game writing and design is one of the primary reasons why games are not considered an art form today. It has the potential, but no one can seriously point to some of the generic sequelized shooters on the market today and call them art.


Brain Game Answers

As promised, our quiz answers…!

  1. Mount Everest was still the tallest, but we just didn’t know it yet. Also known as Mount Chomolungma or Sagarmatha.
  2. The child was born before the founding of the United States, which wasn’t really that long ago.
  3. Once, and then it becomes 20, not 25. Although we’re also accepting the answer “infinitely” — because you could argue that you can always subtract 5 from different instances of 25. I mean, if you have 25 beans and you subtract from it, you can still encounter 25 pennies the next day.
  4. The child lives in the southern hemisphere, where the summer comes in December.

Hope you enjoyed. Happy summerishness to you!


Scifi/Humor Rag Publishes on Clay Tablets

scifi humor rag on clayThe scifi/humor ‘zine Space Squid has just released a special edition of their latest issue on clay tablets. As trendy as clay tablets are these days, they don’t get enough cred. One of the editors created the tablets using a cuneiform stylus like an ancient Sumerian (Iraqi) scribe and then created a hard polyurethane plate to press the double-sided copies. The regular edition is also out, and at its core are images of the same two clay tablets, surrounded by pages of extra PDF goodness. Check it out at their Free Scifi page.

Everyone is going on about how “print is dead” these days, so it’s particularly amusing to see this publication pushing the idea the opposite way and “printing on the deadest media available.” The project got some great press at WIRED, on Bruce Sterling’s blog, and at various webby spots. You can see the blog on how to make your own clay tablet publication and the YouTube clay tablet guide.

Space Squid is based in Austin, but claims to contain “your puny planet’s finest scifi and hijinx.” The issue contains stories from several foreign contributors.