Why I like making bots

If you’ve ever spent time in a room full of writers, you’ve probably witnessed at least one riff competition–that phenomenon where someone tells a joke, and then immediately everyone in the room blurts out minor variations on it. If you’re operating under weak leadership, it’s a surefire way to derail a meeting. Mutual riffing can be a wonderful way to express a creative friendship. And, incredibly, it’s also a great way to fight with your creative partners without actually admitting you don’t get along.

I’ve participated in more than my fair share of these dumbass competitions. In college, I was on the staff of a humor magazine, and we would spend two or three hours at a time just sitting around in the “Publication Suite” not even actually working on the magazine–just trying over and over again to one-up one another by reworking each others’ jokes. The funny thing about competitive but unstructured joke-telling between egotistical teens is that no one can ever really win. If you don’t want to give your friend the satisfaction of victory, you can simply avoid laughing. We would also do this riffing at max volume, so the staff of the leftist political magazine that met in the room next door would sometimes actually come over and ask us about what they’d heard through the walls. They sometimes even asked us why we never laughed at each other’s jokes. I never admitted that it was because we were trying to defeat one another, but that’s what was going on.

After several years of stone-faced riffing, I took a hard look at myself and decided not to participate in this kind of bullshit anymore. If someone tells a good joke, I laugh. If it’s time to group-riff on some ridiculous bullshit, I participate, but it’s not like I’m trying to kick anyone’s ass anymore. And when I stopped treating it like a battle of wills, this kind of exercise actually became a lot more interesting.

I started thinking less about myself and more about the joke. Group riffing was less about comparing the jokes we were telling, and more about exploring the edges of the joke’s possibility space. What funny idea are we actually talking about? What is its best expression? Can we all feel proud of the end result together? I was basically learning how to function in a writers’ room, which may (hopefully??) someday contribute to a bigger part of my career than it currently does. It’s a pretty neat experience!

If you can play well with others in a creative environment, you will almost always be better-equipped to tell good jokes. Anyone who’s tried a little stand up comedy knows that tiny variations in the way you tell a joke can completely change the way an audience receives it–so you need help identifying good variations, and you need a safe place to test them out. A joke isn’t a sentence. It’s a huge web of sentences, a whole decision-tree of tweaks and modifications that you might spend months blundering your way through before you finally arrive at the version that feels best.

All of this is more fun in a group environment than a solo one. It’s much, much faster in a group, too. You iterate faster. You get new suggestions for the joke before you’ve even finished your sentence.

You know what’s the fastest way to iterate on a joke, though? If you can write a computer program that tells you ten versions of it every half-second.

This is what twitter bots are, for me. When you write a twitter bot, you’re forced to define the entire possibility space of the joke–a powerful exercise for anyone who’s really trying to understand the joke they think they’re telling. You have to design the systems that assemble or express the joke, which can be a pretty exciting experience, particularly if you’re not used to thinking about how or why you build your sentences the way you do. And, of course, you have to write the whole body of text the bot is drawing from, so you can’t half-ass this exploration the way you can when you’re just lounging around a conference table with six other tired fools.

When you write a twitter bot, you also have the tools and the audience necessary to check and see how well you’re doing. You don’t have to wait until publication to see if it really worked. You don’t have to delay feedback until the meeting starts. When you’re using a Glitch template or publishing on Cheap Bots Done Quick, you can just generate whole cascades of these jokes, whenever you want, in disgustingly massive quantities, until the output satisfies you and your audience and your trusted joke-friends.

And unlike a joke you write and ship once, the bot itself is constantly exploring and defining the joke’s entire possibility space. When you’re riffing in a room with other writers, nobody can see how cool and smart you were for thinking of that weird gross version of the joke that never shipped. With a twitter bot, though, you can write a single massive living joke that roams back and forth from one end of the idea to another, spitting out every possible variation of that emotional moment.

It’s like a joke amoeba. It’s like watching one of those r/woahdude videos where a square blooms into a cube and then a hypercube– a joke is never really best expressed by only one sentence. Set the joke free: tell every version of it that ever existed. That’s the real joke. That’s the joke the way I saw it, anyway, when I was trying to write it.

I recently moved all my bots to the Mastodon bot-friendly instance botsin.space. I’m still adding more, and may do a roundup post later. If you want a safe place to experiment with text or image-generating bots, botsin.space is a great place to check out.

Never made a bot before? Here’s some useful resources you can use:

  • This tutorial will teach you how to use Tracery, the system I use for generating text for my bots.
  • This explainer will give you a rundown on what Mastodon is and how it works.
  • This article will explain why Twitter isn’t such a great place to put bots anymore, and offer some background for why I’ve moved mine to Mastodon.
  • Cheap Bots Done Quick will host your Tracery bots on Twitter. Cheap Bots Toot Sweet will do the same on Mastodon.
  • You can also use this Glitch.com template to make your own Mastodon bot. It’s a little more complex that CBDQ/CBTS, but Glitch.com is a cool platform to try out in general, so I’d give it a shot if I were you!

This is a book about French peasants doing religious crimes

I was allowed to do another demo night talk at Glitch City Demo Night this year! I talked about my favorite history book, Montaillou, and tried to convince the crowd to read it.

This is partially a response to a talk I did last year, about how Nero tried to kill his mom with a collapsible party boat. The point I was trying to make with that talk is that stories about murder and privilege and wealth and suffering in history are attractive and interesting, but that most ordinary people in the past lived totally normal lives involving zero assassination whatsoever. After I gave that talk, someone (Evan Hill? Nathan Grayson? I forget!) challenged me to actually create the interesting lesson about totally ordinary people’s personal experiences that I called for in my talk– so this is it.

Check out the video below. Please turn on subtitles, because the first 30 seconds of audio are messed up! The full text of the talk (including slides, once again made by Brendon Chung) is below.

When you’re done, check out the full playlist of talks! This year there were talks about media criticism, why and how to sign contracts with your creative partners, extinct megafauna, and more.



This is Jacques Fournier. He was a Catholic Bishop from France who lived during the early 1300s and later became Pope. He was really good at doing inquisitions. Fournier would go into these remote places in France and interrogate heretics super hard. ⚡

Montaillou (1)

This is a book called “Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error.” It is a 1975 semi-anthropological, semi-sociological dive into the home life of French peasants living in a town called Montaillou high in the Pyrenees mountains. It is based on Jacques Fournier’s meticulous inquisition notes, and it is the best book about history that I have ever read.


In the late 1200s and early 1300s, only 250 people lived in Montaillou. There were not so many different last names. There was one priest, a bunch of shepherds, a handful of major households. The reason Fournier spent so much time worrying about this tiny group of people was that many of them were secretly Cathars.

Montaillou (2)

Catharism was a mystic Christian heresy. They believed in a good god, who created the spiritual world, and an evil god, who created our bodies and the physical world we all live in. They believed in reincarnation, and that human beings were actually genderless angel spirits trapped in physical bodies. They would go climb up into the mountains and do secret religious shit. The ultimate level of Catharism was being a sexless vegetarian known as a “Parfait,” which translates as “Perfect.” Their belief system was so strange and weird that historians have spent centuries trying to figure out exactly where in the world it came from. They still don’t all agree.

Montaillou (3)

In Montaillou, the most powerful family was the Clergues. They were largely Cathars. The weirdest Clergue was Pierre Clergue, a Cathar who was also a Catholic Priest who was ALSO a massive fuckboy who was having sex with 12 different confirmed mistresses in the area. Not very parfait. He and his powerful brother bullied everyone, and converted a shit ton of their neighbors to Catharism.

Eventually, Pierre informed on the town and the entire adult population was arrested by Fournier’s inquisition.


The interrogations produced pages and pages and pages of their paraphrased words describing their families, friendships, rivalries, religious beliefs, and sexual experiences. IT IS BUCK WILD. And it is detailed and evocative and as drenched in setting and sensation as some of the best fiction writing I have enjoyed.


In this book, there’s a short description of two women sitting in the sun, arguing about what it feels like to get burned at the stake… while their daughters pick lice from their hair. There’s a scene where a man has a fight with his wife, so he goes for a walk, and while he’s out there he sees his neighbors have their lights on, so he sneaks over to spy on them and climbs up onto their roof to lift the roof mats up and peer into their house. What a detail, right? There are scenes where women kiss their babies, where people buy and sell things, and where men argue about the nature of God. Reading this book, you can imagine the sensations and emotions these peasants felt while going about their daily lives.

And there are hundreds and hundreds of perfect little physical details in here. The book shows how people greeted each other, the words they used when they fought, how they took their clothes off to sleep, how they cajoled one another into having sex, how they negotiated lodging and cut contracts with servants, how they made enemies into friends by cooking them a pie, how and when they gossiped. It also covers the details of their heresy, the conflict and trickery of their constant attempts to convert or expose one another. One classic method a Cathar could use to test whether someone truly believed in Catharism was to challenge them to kill a chicken. If you refused to kill the chicken, you were a good Cathar.

Montaillou (4)

Catharism offered a slow drip of danger and drama into these people’s lives. There is a scene where a Cathar woman tries to convince a Cathar man to kill his sick Catholic brother before he could recover and rat them out to the church, and the man replies,”if you have my brother killed, I will eat you alive with my teeth, if I can be revenged no other way.” It feels almost voyeuristic to glimpse into these 800-year-old arguments.


Pop culture persuades us all to think of medieval peasants as being impossibly impoverished straight-laced religious extremists who had no fun and universally took the bible maximum seriously. But some people in Montaillou were gay, and some were actually atheists. This book was written forty years ago, and I would not consider it perfect, but it is a compassionate and far-reaching examination of people who lived so long ago that their raw human familiarity is surprising and deeply emotionally affecting. These stories are 800 years old. The feeling I get when I see humanity winking at me down through the ages is almost religious. This is a story that I am grateful to have read, but we could have lost it. We have lost the stories of so many ordinary people all throughout history that having something like Montaillou to hold on to feels incredibly precious.

This is not a super easy book to read, but it’s not particularly hard, either. It’s just about people. If reading about history bored you in high school, I recommend hunting down Montaillou and skipping through it until you find something about heretical sex or delousing. Or just a story about a subletter from 800 years ago dealing with his landlord. Or just a story where someone’s humanity leaps out at you unexpectedly and catches your breath. Your lives are not remotely similar to the parfaits of Montaillou, but you do share something with them. It’s sometimes hard to articulate exactly what, but if you read this book, I think you will probably feel it. Thank you.

I wrote a scenario for the Ellipses tabletop system!

Xalavier Nelson Jr. has been rolling out new content for his accessible tabletop roleplaying system, Ellipses. I wrote one of the scenarios in his most recent update! It’s a session starter set in a 24-hour chain restaurant called “Benny’s” which serves breakfast food all night long. Slam me, Benny’s. Eggs over… Orlando. Or something.

Anyway, if you are interested in a tabletop roleplaying system accessible enough for the people in your life who don’t often play tabletop RPGs, Ellipses is a good choice. You can get the system rules for free here, and pay to download the scenario pack.

Ellipses session starters are super varied! Some take place in fantasy worlds, some in slightly-off versions of our society. Mine just takes place in the regular-ass real world. I can think of times in my life when I’d have really enjoyed knowing about a roleplaying system as flexible, accessible, and transparent as this one. Check it out!

I’m gonna be editing The Forgotten City

This E3, a new project I’m working on was announced! The Forgotten City is an Unreal Engine remake/reimagining of a very popular Skyrim mod of the same name. Check out the trailer:

I’ve played the mod– it’s a whole-ass six-plus-hour Skyrim story mod with full voice acting and one of the most wild goddamn plots I’ve ever seen in a fan-made mod. (Also, it won an Australian Writer’s Guild award, which is pretty neat.) Even if you’ve played too much Skyrim in your life already (as I probably have), the weird shit in this story still feels very fresh and inventive. I recommend playing it!

I’m stoked as hell to be editing Nick Pearce’s script for the Unreal version. Even if you’ve played the mod before, I think the new version will surprise you!

Buy things on itch.io

Folks, Steam is on fire and seems totally uninterested in putting the flames out. Besides that, it’s very nearly a monopoly in the PC gaming market. I am not a fan of this. It’s not good for players and it’s extremely bad for devs.

Give your money to people who are selling their games in different stores!! itch.io is essentially Bandcamp for games, and I put almost all my stuff there now. The itch summer sale also just started. Here are some things I’ve enjoyed which are currently on itch or part of that sale:

Mu Cartographer – PC/Mac

Mu Cartographer is a weird little gem of a narrative game. It requires you to learn the intricacies of a totally alien UI. I reviewed it for Zam!

Anodyne – PC/Mac

Anodyne is a gorgeous and deeply affecting little Zelda-esque game. It’s dreamlike and strange and is absolutely worth your time.

Voyageur – PC/Mac/Linux

My friend Bruno made this! I played it on iOS and on Mac and the new PC/Mac version is pretty sweet. It’s a procgen narrative game about flying around a bunch of different planets and investigating alien ruins.

Slayer Shock – PC/Mac/Linux

It’s kind of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Game”? You hunt vampires. Stuff happens. I enjoy David Pittman’s work a lot, and this is a good one!

Dissembler – PC/Mac/Linux/Android

A minimalist puzzle game that I had on my computer for a while early this year. It was a good way to cleanse my brain between tasks!

Cosmic Express – PC/Mac/Linux

I had this on my phone for months. It rules. All of Alan Hazelden’s games rule, IMHO, but the art in this one deserves special attention. It is charming as fuck. Also, the puzzles are very hard in a very good way. I liked it a lot!

Ananias Roguelike – PC/Mac/Linux

I had this on my tablet a while ago, and it honestly stayed on there much longer than I initially expected it would. Got me through a lot of meetings where I sat in the back of the room and just killed monster dudes in a dungeon. Big thumbs up from me, the Roguelike Enjoyer.

Sokobond – PC/Mac/Linux

This is, uh, another one that I played a lot of at work. Brilliant puzzles, very satisfying. Check it out if you haven’t already!

Sunset – PC/Mac/Linux

A moody narrative game where you play a housekeeper who voyeuristically explores the wealthy home of her employer during a 70s-era coup in Latin America. I enjoyed it!

Eldritch – PC/Mac/Linux

Another kickass David Pittman game. This is literally the only game I have ever speedrun. I love FPS roguelikes and this is honestly one of the better ones I’ve played.

Even the Ocean – PC/Mac

This game has a lot of extremely good platforming and also an interesting story!! Check it out!

The Path – PC/Mac

This is one of the earliest indie games I ever purchased, back when I was in college and “buying an art game for money on the internet” had just recently become a thing real people could do. I think I learned about it on RPS? Anyway, critical Tale of Tales back catalog. Play it!! Particularly if you do games crit but were a literal child back when Tale of Tales was still publishing manifestos!! This is a fascinating part of your medium’s recent history!!!!

A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build – PC/Mac/Linux

It is hard to build a good snowman! It is also extremely fun and cute! I built all the snowmen and I enjoyed the experience a lot.

Actual Sunlight – PC/Mac

A short, emotional story game you can finish in a single sitting. Absolutely worth that time. I’m always grateful when people make carefully-considered story games about regular human experiences in our normal-ass world!

Neon Struct -PC/Mac/Linux

I played this game and tried to ghost every level. I failed. I was very angry with myself. This is a good game!

Long Live the Queen – PC/Mac/Linux

There’s this queen. You tell her what to do. People keep assassinating her!!! Don’t let them assassinate her!!!!!

The Graveyard – PC/Mac/Linux/Android

Go play the Tale of Tales back catalog!!

nullpointer – PC/Mac/linux

It’s a first person roguelike! I love these. I enjoy lycaon’s work a lot. Check this one out!

Back to Bed – PC/Mac/Linux

I played this on iOS. It’s an Escher-esque puzzle game with some sweet art. I liked it!

And Yet It Moves – PC/Mac/Linux

Again, one of those early indie games I bought all at once when I learned you could play weird shit and participate in an international videogame arts scene from the stacks of your college library without ever setting foot in a games store. Phenomenal soundtrack, great puzzles, and some fun torn-paper art. Please play this one!

It’s almost 2 AM and I can’t keep writing these anymore. But my point is: there is some extremely neat stuff on itch and you should be supporting your favorite devs on this platform. They get a better cut of the sale price, and you’ll be supporting a game store that actually cares about developers. Thanks for reading this list!


The Hands of an Angry God is available on Amazon Alexa devices

I forgot to write about this in the run-up to WTWTLW’s release, but the Global Game Jam 2018 game I made with Kent Sutherland, Rosstin Murby, Kellie Medlin, and Brook Nichols is now up on the Amazon store!

The Hands of an Angry God is a follow-up to our GGJ17 game, You Got This, Brutadon. It’s also a game for Alexa-enabled devices like the Echo and Echo Dot. In THOAAG you play as an immortal, godlike being who sleeps in a temple, waking only one day every thousand years. When you awake, one of your worshippers will ask you their most burning question. Your response will affect how the entire world behaves, and what people all over the planet believe.

You can find it here!

THOAAG is more toylike than Brutadon– it has no fail-state and it mainly just exists to tell you weird jokes. However, it does contain a truly extraordinary quantity of jokes. This was probably the hardest writing challenge we have given ourselves in three years of GGJ projects with this team– every single sentence had to be a joke and there was absolutely no room for filler material. There are five ages that each generate increasingly-large descriptions of the world state– 240 individual world-state description phrases, and at least two different ways for each supplicant to ask you about each problem they have, and separate positive and negative responses for each of those questions. Anyway, it’s very silly.

Try enabling in on the Alexa store! Let me know what you think about it!

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine postmortem

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is out! I served as the game’s editor and staff writer. It was an incredibly complicated project: twenty-four writers worked on it. The game is so large and so unlike most narrative games that it has been difficult for me to describe exactly what I did on it. So many people worked on this game that it has been hard for any of us, really, to describe where our work fits into the whole without diminishing others’ work.

As Bruno Dias has said, Johnnemann opened this project up to its writers in a way that few other games ever risk doing. The result is a mixture which expresses each of our personal hangups and interests but nevertheless maintains a unified creative voice and identity.

Now that the game is out and people can see it, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain exactly what I did on the project, how I did it, and why it was so productive for the project to relinquish control to me and the other writers!


I can break my writing work into four categories: vignettes, other events, flavor text, and character interstitial dialogue.


“Vignettes” were the map events which result in tradeable stories:

WTWTLW Vignette

Vignette writing was shared between nine different writers on this project: me, Duncan Fyfe, Nika Harper, Olivia Wood, George Lockett, Bruno Dias, Cat Manning, Kevin Snow, and Elizabeth LaPensee.

Some of my favorite vignettes that I wrote include Leatherman, a story based on a real man from my home state of Connecticut; Plane, a story about a girl whose father and his plane are mysteriously trapped inside a lake; and the Singers stories, about lounge singers who tap eldritch horrors whenever they sing.

Each vignette writer also wrote the text on their vignette description cards. Here is an example of story description text for one of Bruno Dias’s stories:

WTWTLW Story Description Level 1 edited

Level 1

WTWTLW Story Description Level 2 edited

Level 2

Each story has three levels. The first is supposed to be a fairly regular description of the story’s major events. By the third level, the story description should sound more extreme, like a tall tale.

Almost all events for WTWTLW began as the brush and ink drawings that appear on the event UI. The vignette writers were given batches of these completed images; we would call dibs on the ones that interested us, then write the story using the art as inspiration. We had an extraordinary freedom to interpret them in any way we chose. Most of the vignette art was very easy to re-interpret; images of people in fields, people’s faces, animals and birds, and so on. The most difficult art was the most-specific: my hardest one was the Boxcar story, which depicts a gnarled monster-arm plucking at a man’s hat from inside a train boxcar. It was too specific to easily twist to my own ends, but too vague to suggest a specific story.

A number of the vignettes I wrote are based on things I read about while doing research for this project. The Locust Bait event, where a woman and her children mix their own poison in a bucket after they get a delivery of poison ingredients from her town, is based on a real Dust Bowl phenomenon. However, about half of my events were not based on real myths or historical events. They drew more inspiration from the art prompt than anything else.

Vignettes had to fit two different categorization schemes: the sixteen-category tarot system, and the five-category moods system that the characters use to request stories. The moods are Thrilling, Scary, Hopeful, Tragic, and Funny. The decisions about mood and tarot category were the writers’ to make. You can imagine that with so many different people choosing story moods and tarot categories, the perspectives that went into the vignette mood and tarot systems were highly varied. Editing these story elements ended up being very difficult. I’ll have more to say about that when I talk about editing!

During development, we tracked the number of stories in each Mood and Tarot category using a massive spreadsheet. While Moods were very evenly spread…

Screenshot 2018-03-01 10.41.03

The Tarot categories were all over the place. We were all so eager to write for the Death category that at one point we had to ban vignette writers from writing about death!

Screenshot 2018-03-01 10.40.55

Other Events

There were several other categories of events besides the vignettes. Though they use the same UI, they serve a different purpose in the game’s resource economy. These event types are not voice-acted and were written later during development.

For example, many of the events on the map are “mechanical” events which gift the player free resources, like food or money. I wrote almost all of these:

WTWTLW Mechanical Event

I was limited by the restriction that these mechanical events be one screen long. Anyone who has done writing for games before will recognize the classic struggle to fit as much personality as possible into as few words as possible! There are 28 of these events, split evenly between food, rest, and money.

In the cities, there are also “moneymaking” events which give the player a chance to earn cash. I wrote most of these late in development as well:

WTWTLW Moneymaking

These are all randomly distributed across the cities in the game, so I had to avoid events that leaned too heavily on a geographic element that might not be present in some parts of the map like trees, the sea, etc.  The outcomes are random: sometimes you make no money at all, and sometimes you hit it big. There are only fourteen of these events in the game, so it is possible to get repeats, but each one has two fully separate stories– the panhandling event and the look-for-work event– so there is a good amount of variation for the player to experience.

I also wrote the game’s tutorial events. These were almost the very last things I wrote for the game, in the early fall of 2017. There’s four of them scattered down the east coast:

WTWTLW Tutorial 2

And finally, there’s the “Story grows in the telling” events. This was also one of the final categories of stories I wrote during development:


Unfortunately, there are so many stories in the map and so many story levels that if we wanted the player to read a new one every time they level a story up, we’d need almost 450 of them! In the game, there are only 17 of them, and they become repetitive. If I could go back in time, I’d see if we could get more writers working on them, or perhaps even figure out a way to represent this level-up process differently, without story text. As it is, I had to write all of them myself under a pretty demanding time limit. The ones that are in there are good, though, I think, and most people don’t have a problem clicking through ones they’ve seen before.

Flavor text

Flavor text I wrote included all the city descriptions:

WTWTLW City Description edited

And the names of almost all the items you can buy in the stores:

WTWTLW Store Items edited

This writing was fairly uncomplicated and there isn’t much to say about it. City descriptions were the hardest: although I’ve been lucky to visit many of America’s larger cities for work or with my family, there were a lot of them on this map that I knew nothing about. I spent a lot of time frantically googling “San Antonio Great Depression” or “El Paso 1930s” to figure out how I could write something that would seem recognizably “El-Paso-y” while also communicating something about what this place was like during the game’s time period.

Character supplement dialogue

Finally, the most difficult part of my writing was the supplemental dialogue for each of the 16 major characters in the story.

When the character writers joined the project, the dialogue system in the game was actually very different. Between when I first began working on the project and when I began editing the game, the dialogue system was completely redesigned.

The new system required mood-specific story request dialogue:

WTWTLW Supplementary Dialogue Request

Mood-specific story approval dialogue:

WTWTLW Supplementary DIalogue Positive Response

Story disapproval dialogue that might hint at the story’s actual mood:

WTWTLW negative story response

Dialogue covering where exactly the character was heading next on the America map:

WTWTLW Next map dialogue

And several other small types of lines that would make the characters react more-realistically to the new conversation flow, like comments about the player leaving a conversation early:

WTWTLW Leaving Campfire

I wrote all of this dialogue with the aim of invisibly tone and voice-matching the work of the original authors. WTWTLW is like a short story collection: none of the writers shared influences or goals, and they all told stories that represented unique personal experiences and motivations. There was no house style. It was as if I had been delivered sixteen completely different short stories with sentences missing cryptically from the middle of paragraphs, and I had to sneak in and add them back in such a way that nobody would notice they’d been written by anyone else.

To make sure I was matching dialogue tone and style, I tried to absorb the writer’s unique treatment of things like grammar, punctuation, and historical slang terms. I also read the “folktales” that each writer created. They were first-person monologues where the character tells you their own vignette-style story in their own voice. Although we never ended up using them in the game, they really helped me nail down character voice. Sometimes I also did some research in order to make sure I fully understood where the writer was coming from. For Fidelina, for example, I read Bless me Ultima, since she’s strongly influenced by Ultima.

I think I did a good job of matching each character’s voice and style! I personally see the disjointedness between my writing and the original author’s writing all the time, but I’m pretty satisfied with what we put out.

In the end, there is also a lot to be said for having one person write all the dialogue that connects the expressive, narrative content to the mechanical demands of the conversation system. The effect of the supplement dialogue is to make the campfire feel like a full, rounded exchange, where you and the character are sharing information in a logical way. Without the supplement dialogue, it would not be clear what the player actually needed to do in the conversation.

The supplement dialogue also couldn’t give away too much. It’s OK for a character to ask for “a scary story about ghosts and murderers” but reject funny ghost stories, because the player should learn that not all ghost stories are scary. It’s OK for the player to fail sometimes, but there should be enough information here for the player to eventually figure out how to satisfy this person. The story rejection dialogue had to give hints about what the real mood of the story the player had shared was, too.


I did all the editing for the project. My edits focused on a few different goals:

  • Standard polish, spelling and grammar, clarification, etc
  • Preserving author voice and intent
  • Matching existing content more closely to mechanical requirements of the conversation systems
  • Reducing passage length to improve the in-game reading experience
  • Preparing the text for VO

The biggest deadlines I had to hit for editing were all VO-related.

Preserving author voice and intent

Many games have multiple writers. Separating characters up among several writers is also actually fairly common. Bioware has done this for years. The biggest difference between industry standard practice and what we did is that we had no house style and, actually, tried to make each piece of content as stylistically different from the others as possible.

If you look at the game closely, you will notice that each character uses spelling, grammar, and punctuation differently from the other characters. Many characters skip Gs at the end of INGs. Some writers turned walking into walkin’, but others settled for walkin alone, with no apostrophe. Most of the writers were very, very consistent with these stylistic choices, and we decided that those choices were something worth preserving.

They were worth preserving because they really do communicate different things. Walkin’ can communicate a kind of jauntiness, perhaps, while walkin might seem to an audience to be more terse and plain– Cormac McCarthyesque, maybe, for some readers. These writers knew what they were doing when they made these choices, and even though the dialogue is all voice-acted, those choices were worth preserving. In fact, when the writers wrote the dialogue, there were no plans to include voice-acting in the game at all!

The only time I steamrolled the writers’ style decisions was when they brought Britishisms into the game. English-speakers are always extremely sensitive to regional spellings, and it was important to me that all the text in the game hewed consistently to American regional spellings.

Editing Characters

The first editing I did on the project was the character dialogue.

By the time I became the game’s editor, the original writers’ contracts had been concluded and I could not put them through the process of full-on second draft rewrites. Ideally, in a world where the project had infinite money and time, I would not have had to do any supplementary dialogue at all: I could have just been part of the original character-writing process as the editor.

The biggest changes I made to the character writing involved adjusting it to work better for VO. Shortening utterances or breaking them up into multiple sentences sometimes made them more palatable as VO lines, or made them easier to read on the screen.

I also added or modified the beginning of many tarot responses so that they would flow naturally from the new “I liked this” or “I didn’t like this” character responses. Here’s a Little Ben line where I made it more clear he was responding directly to the “Family” tarot card:

WTWTLW Supplementary Dialogue Segue

I’ve been editing magazines and publications of various types for over a decade. Of all the projects I’ve been involved in, this was the one where I applied the least pressure to the writers’ decisions. All that wild variation and weird personal interpretation was this game’s unique selling point! Its similarity to a short story collection is part of what makes this game alluring to the kind of people who are likely to enjoy it most. I wanted my edits to polish up the writing and slot it into the new conversation mechanics while leaving the goopy, personal meat of the work intact.

Editing Vignettes

With vignettes, the biggest challenge was getting each passage to fit into the vignette UI! I did plenty of editing for polish, clarity, and style, but honestly, the majority of the hours I spent on vignettes was focused on chipping words off of each passage until they fit in the UI the way I wanted them to.

The UI could take very long text passages because it would decrease the text size to make them fit. However, I felt very strongly that as many vignettes as possible should use the larger text sizes. Here is an example of one of the longest vignette passages I kept in the game:

WTWTLW long text

I also spent a lot of time getting the oldest vignettes to match the new moods system. Those vignettes also sometimes had a heavier emphasis on stats changes, because the health, food, and rest mechanics worked differently when they were written. There was also a fourth stat, “Weirdness,” which was removed from the game entirely during the redesign. I ended up stripping a lot of health, money, rest, and weirdness out of my own vignettes in particular.

It would have been nice to have someone else edit all my own writing for me. All things considered, I think I did a very good job editing my own vignettes, but I would have liked some good feedback on my stuff all the same!

Editing vignette descriptions

Deep in my Google Drive is a gigantic spreadsheet called Vignette Breakdown. There were several continuous months I kept it open on my computer 24/7:

Screenshot 2018-03-03 23.34.08

I edited all the vingette descriptions inside this spreadsheet. However, getting these edits into the game was a more difficult process, because Johnnemann had to insert them into the game’s database manually. We had a color-coded system for tracking which ones had been edited and were pending insertion into the game. There are probably around 800+ story descriptions, since many stories have a different set of three descriptions for each of their two endings.

Looking back, I wish I’d predicted earlier that the story descriptions would be a major editing burden and created a more systematic process for tracking, editing, and testing them. As it is, I believe that the story descriptions are probably the biggest source of confusion for some players, and I think part of that stems from the difficulty I had tracking and editing all of them inside this massive hell spreadsheet.

Tools are great

I am extremely grateful for the vignette testing and character dialogue testing tools that Johnnemann gave me!

I was able to test all the vignettes, vignette descriptions, and other events in a test program that showed me how the UI would display each passage. I spent hours in this test app! Any game which requires players to read printed text to understand the story should force its editors to edit the game as it appears on screen to the player. I have done story consulting and editing for people who don’t build any text testing tools, and it sucks! You can’t do all your editing in word docs or in text editors for scripting systems like Ink. You have to know what the player is going to actually see and what their eyeballs will feel like while they are reading it. You have to see the font, the available whitespace, and the choice UI for yourself.

Here’s an example– when the vignette writers started turning in content, Johnnemann forgot to tell them that the game filled out choices from right to left. So if you wrote:

Screenshot 2018-03-03 23.18.06

it would display like this:

Screenshot 2018-03-03 23.19.02

I remember rushing into the project Slack with a “STOP THE PRESSES!” urgency to warn everyone: “YOUR LIST-BASED JOKES ARE BACKWARDS!!” People enjoy Bruno’s “be a dick” joke a lot, but it works the way it works because we were able to learn ahead of time that choices in WTWTLW fill right-to-left, not left-to-right, as many of us assumed they would. Imagine if we’d learned that only once we got to test the game? I know it would have made a lot of extra work for me in particular, that’s for sure.

Screenshot 2018-03-03 23.52.53

Testing the character conversations in the test app was also very valuable to me. It helped me to figure out that the character dialogue would need additional modifications in order to feel like a real conversation.

There is really nothing like actually seeing what the player will see! Please make your video game editors useful text tools!

What does this all mean???

It is not possible to create a progressive game about American culture without including many different creators from many different backgrounds. If this game had not embraced the diversity of its 24 different writers, it would have been shit.

24 writers is a lot. The sheer scale of the writing effort pushed this game over the edge from “a story that has a lot of different perspectives in it” into “a story ABOUT diversity and different perspectives.” This was an incredible strength. This game’s hiring and creative philosophies embodied its own themes in a way that no other project I’ve ever been on has ever accomplished.

It would not have been possible for one person to write 219 pieces of even OK flash fiction about different American experiences, but it was possible for nine people to each write ~20-30 pieces of really good flash fiction about the specific topics and ideas that interest them personally. It would not have been possible for two or three people to write sixteen diverse and complex characters about sixteen different historical American struggles, but we did find sixteen writers who could each pull the heavy weight of a single character.

In the end, I’m still wondering: what if more, more, more? There’s so many more perspectives we could have added, could have kept adding endlessly– we don’t have any immigrants from Asia or the Caribbean among the headliner characters in this story, for example, though there are many incredible examples of those stories to be found in the early 20th century. We could have kept writing vignettes for this game for at least another couple hundred goes before we started straining for ideas, too. We could have written ten vignettes per each piece of art, really.

The fellowship of writing this kind of stuff alongside the other vignette writers was really something special. I’ve made a ton of friends through this project, and being able to team up and work together and share ideas made all of our writing much stronger. Many of us have had our careers completely changed by this experience. It’s been pretty life-changing for several of us, honestly, even though this particular assignment was not necessarily the biggest check most of us were paid in 2017. It’s pretty much the biggest reason I’m starting an exciting new job in a week, for example.

Imagine a world where instead of hiring one writer, more games hired two or three and had them split the work, sharing the same fee they would have paid a solo writer? Those games could get stronger work from the group than they would from a single person, and though each individual writer would be making less money, there’d be more experience and portfolio work flowing around, and more strong professional connections… more fresh faces getting more of a leg up, probably. I don’t know– it’s complicated, and managing one writer is hard enough for many teams. It’s worth remembering, though, that we made it work, and we loved it, and the reason the writing in this game is so good is that there were so many of us and we were given such an excellent chance to learn from one another.

I don’t think this technique should be limited to a game about a diversity of perspectives, either. As I said above– the technique we used is not special. Plenty of large studios divide character writing up among different writers. I think we’re proof that more indies should be doing that, too.

I don’t think many of us will get this much freedom again, though. WTWTLW is IF, really– interactive fiction. The writing came first in this project. It’s a very peculiar example of interactive fiction, and it enjoys some VO pizazz that most of that genre doesn’t get. But I hope that in a decade some of us will be able to look back on WTWTLW as the moment when IF started to “break through” into the mainstream. We’ll see! I know you’ll be enjoying a ton of text-heavy work from people who worked on this project coming out over the next few years.

If you have any questions about this project, feel free to email me or contact me on twitter. I’d love to spill more of my guts on the processes and challenges involved in making this game.

If you’re playing WTWTLW right now, my advice is to take it slow. It’s not a game that benefits from a death march straight through to the end, the way reviewers play it– it’s a game that benefits from measured, self-reflective play. Get as much out of it as you want. Going completionist on this thing could take 30 hours and might wear you the fuck out. If you’re from America, maybe try walking to your hometown first. See who’s hanging around there. Swap a couple tales. Take the train down to Los Angeles and visit me, maybe.

Or just keep your eyes peeled when you start out. You might find me up in the tip of Maine, running booze across the border.

WTWTLW Michet edited


Matajuegos translated a post of mine!

The videogames blog Matajuegos ran a Spanish translation of my post Let’s Talk About Choices: Traditional CYOA. That post is a detailed examination of the effect that list-format, Choose Your Own Adventure-style choices can have on a hypertext story. It mostly focuses on effects that choice lists can have on the way a player interprets your story, and covers some of the strengths and weaknesses of the choice-list format.

You can find the translation here. It’s by David Marchand, an excellent Twine author I’ve been following for years. The most brilliant thing about this translation is that he translated my screencaps and even translated my animated gif where I demonstrate a scene in Six Months that uses inline links by recreating the gag in Twine 2. Wild as hell!!

Check out Matajuegos if you speak English, too! They do English translations of their original criticism.

Recent shocking developments in the world of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine

I haven’t written recently about Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, but it jumped back into the news twice over the last week. Here are the facts:

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine has Sting in it

You know the wolf? This narration wolf guy?

He is voiced by the musician Sting.

There is a big story there that I don’t remember the details to/is not mine to tell, but the basic deal is that Sting did all the wolf’s VO. I’ve known for a while now, and when the story trailer came out, I spent one day showing all my coworkers that video and feeling secretly smug that I knew they were all ignorantly listening to the voice of The Musician Sting.

I wasn’t worried about millennials knowing what Sting sounds like because Sting is old as hell. But there was definitely one man to whom I showed the trailer who could be classified as “a contemporary of Sting,” or at least “a semi-adult consumer of music during the time when Sting was most popular,” and halfway through the trailer I looked at him and realized there was better than 50% odds he had heard the speaking voice of Sting and that I was screwed.

Luckily, nobody knows what Sting’s speaking voice is like, and fewer people know what Sting sounds like when Sting is pretending to be a wolf, so nobody noticed. Nobody in the world noticed that Sting was growling on any of our trailers, ha ha ha!! You are all chumps!!

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine got nominated for the Excellence in Narrative award at the IGF

This is very very cool to me. If you’d cornered me in 2006-2007, when I started paying attention to free and “indie” games on the internet– if you’d cornered me at that time and asked me what I thought my future was in games, I probably would have said

  • I don’t have a future in games? How can I have a future in games? I am a girl who does not code
  • All I want is for my college to allow me to make an Inform game for an English project, that will be my supreme games accomplishment in life
  • My other games accomplishment will be running a blog! Games blogging is very cool!!
  • Leave me alone, I am going to go lurk on tigsource for three hours a day on the top floor of the library, I need this to survive

The moment I learned that the IGF existed, I started to pay a shit ton of attention to it; I remember describing it to my mom and dad as “the games Oscars.” The next three years were absolutely wild to watch– I saw indie games take off on Steam and had the surreal experience of explaining “games criticism” to the elderly professor who advised my creative writing thesis. (He eventually refused to allow me to make an Inform game for this project.) At no point did I ever seriously believe that I would ever make a game that would get into the IGF. I assumed that I would have to make a successful game a) solo, as b) a triple-threat ultra-developer who can code, and c) that I would have to find a way to get popular, because indie games were a tiny fucking community where it seemed like everyone knew each other and personal popularity was pretty important. So for the first six months after graduation, I lay around and home and tried to get a job as a textbook editor in NYC.

But it turns out all my cynical beliefs were false and wrong. And, uh, here we are????????

It has been an incredible honor to work on WTWTLW. I do not really deserve this. I did not have a body of available commercial work justifying my participation in the project before Johnnemann invited me, I did not know any of the folks who wrote the 16 main characters, I had been working on the same project for 4 years without releasing it, my job was super confusing and chaotic, and I was honestly feeling quite a lot of despair about my future “in games” in general.

It has been weird figuring out how to talk about my work on WTWTLW because it’s truly a group effort– there were 25 writers, many of whom are very well-known in our scene, and everyone’s work is mixed together in a way that makes it hard to just follow one person’s writing through the game. The idea of having a bunch of writers write in different voices on one game is not new– I mean, just look at Bioware games– but WTWTLW is a game that embraces heterogeneity in a way that no other project I’ve ever seen actually does. For the main characters, editing was all about highlighting and preserving everyone’s unique style choices. The characters use punctuation differently. They spell words differently. And to make the conversation system provide the player with adequate feedback, I actually had to add dialogue to every character by precisely imitating those writers’ unique voices. WTWTLW for me has been a project about marinating myself in a giant vat of Other People’s Good Writing and just absorbing its vibes, or whatever. It is certainly not the kind of thing I ever thought about working on when I was wistfully reading games blogs by Magic Ultracoder Cool Design Dudes on the top floor of my college library in 2007.

Anyway, working on this project has been an amazing experience that made me a much better writer and editor and gave me opportunities to meet and become friends with a lot of people I’m very glad to have met. And even aliens were to swoop down to earth today and delete all video games with a giant space laser, and I never got to see this game release or appear at the IGF, I would still feel like so much of a better person than I was before I worked on it– not only for making so many friends and reading so much of their amazing work, but for having finally been given the opportunity to meet such a serious challenge and do such satisfying work.

I can’t wait for you all to play the game!

My schedule is opening up: pay me money to work for you

I’ve been busy wrapping up a couple projects over the last few months. At this time, I’m wrapping up work on WTWTLW and on an edutainment game I’m editing. (Finally, I have lived out my edutained childhood dream!!) This means that my schedule is opening up and that you can hire me to write for you!

I have experience both writing and editing commercial games projects and I’ve worked with games that are at the concept stage before. For examples of my work, check out my portfolio website and my itch.io.

I can do the following stuff for you, a money-haver who needs work done:

  • Write your game
  • Write your thing that isn’t a game
  • Edit your existing written content for correctness and style
  • Help you create pitch materials for your game, particularly re: your game’s narrative
  • Create internal narrative documentation or reference materials for you to send to artists or other non-writer creatives

Let me know if you have any work that needs doing!! I can provide you with rate examples and point you towards people who can vouch for my work. I am a flexible writer who has worked in many different genres and is skilled at both traditional prose and VO script content.

You can reach me at laura at lauramichet dot com.