I’m editing Where the Water Tastes Like Wine

I’m horrible at announcing things. I’m extremely bad at it. I never properly announced that I was writing for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine last year and I never properly announced when I became the staff writer for that project this year. So, uh, here’s that announcement:

I wrote for WTWTLW but now I am also EDITING the whole thing! Nice. I have been doing this for a while but I forgot to say it anywhere specific!

Editing WTWTLW involves writing a large amount of extra content for the game’s characters. It also involves straight-up editing the text! On top of that, I’ve also written a large number of random events for this game. My fingerprints will be all over the project.

The trouble with leaving fingerprints as an editor is that this game is a collection of diverse short stories– it is deliberately not a monolithic experience with a single tone and voice. My goal with editing WTWTLW is to preserve each writer’s unique voice, both in the showcase characters you may have seen in trailers, and in random events that take place elsewhere in the game. After the game ships I may have some things to say about what editing this project was like, and about the advantages of embracing writer diversity in a project rather than trying to make a game seem monolithic and consistent.

Prior to working as an editor at my day job, I had no idea I could enjoy just sinking deep into the dark and numbing pit that is full-time editing but– guess what??– turns out I love editing. So now I live in that pit both 100% of the work day and 100% of my nights and weekends also. I love editing. Hire me to edit your shit.

On the value of editors

I’m not just talking myself up when I say that more teams should hire totally separate human editors to edit their narrative games. It is important for more than one person to look at every published piece of writing; having someone else check your stuff and read it from an exterior perspective can dramatically improve the quality of the finished product.

I’m not talking about proofreading; I’m not talking about copyediting. I’m talking about comprehensive full-service editor editors who are themselves good writers and who have experience doing this kind of thing.

The first and most obvious value of an editor is that they can identify errors. Proofreaders can also do this! And editors who can edit for style and clarity offer opportunities for other valuable improvements. But the biggest thing that an editor can do for any project– game, book, article, screenplay, anything– is that they can also turn on their “idiot brain” and try to read work from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about the project and has no personal investment in it.

This kind of distance is very important. Creative people of all stripes often make decisions for personal or team-dynamics-related reasons that are not transparent to their audience. An editor who was not part of that decision-making process and has no investment in it can identify decisions which may not actually be working.

I no longer read books or articles about writing advice; I find that the vast majority of generalized writing advice is completely useless to me. Instead, I prefer to receive direct feedback for my writing from people who have actually read it. You can read all the writing advice in the world and still never find advice specifically suited to your needs and your project’s unique issues. Editors give targeted feedback. There is nothing in the world better for improving a written project than an editor.

Luckily, there are many humans out there who have the experience and background necessary to edit interactive narrative projects, even ones with torturous ink/ren’py/twine structures. If you are working on a project right now and want an editor, ask around; many people who can write for games are also good at editing.

You Got This, Brutadon is now available on your Alexa-enabled device

The game that I and my friends made for the Global Game Jam this year is now accessible on Alexa-enabled devices. If you have an Echo or an Echo Dot, you can find it on the Alexa Skills store. Just search for “brutadon” in your Alexa app. Like all Alexa skills, it is 100% free.

We’ve been having some trouble with people who want to install it via voice command. Because “brutadon” is not a real word that Alexa understands outside our app, the system doesn’t seem to be able to easily match that word to our app activation phrase (unless you’ve already got it installed on your device). The ways Alexa misunderstands the app name are pretty funny, though. (We had it hear “taco dog” at least once.)

If you get a chance to play it, please check it out and let me know what you liked or, better, didn’t like about it. One good place to leave a note is on our itch page.

I am very proud of this particular Amazon rating we got:



You got this, Brutadon! — Global Game Jam 2017

Last weekend, I once again drove up to Facebook’s Menlo Park campus to participate in the Global Game Jam. Facebook has a really, really cushy site– four catered meals, including beer and wine at dinner. A bunch of the people I like doing jams with live in the area (or work for Facebook), so it’s a good deal all around!

This year, Kent Sutherland, Rosstin Murphy, Kellie Medlin, Brook Nichols and I cracked out a game for the Amazon Alexa platform in two days. (Alexa is the platform that runs on Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot products.) Our game is called called “You Got This, Brutadon!” and it’s a voice-controlled adventure game where you play the hype man for a kaiju battle between your friend, Brutadon, and the hideous Gromulox. YGTB contains about fifty different randomized battle events written by me and Kent. There are two endings. We wanted to make a voice-controlled game that was centered around the experience of speaking or conversing– not just merely a combat game controlled with voice commands, but a game about talking. YGTB certainly lives up to our goals in that respect!

You can see a full playthrough of You Got This, Brutadon! here:

Although we haven’t passed Amazon’s certification process yet, we have uploaded a working build of our app to itch.io. If you have an AWS account and an Alexa, you might be able to load the game onto your own device. If you wait a couple weeks, though, we’ll have a polished, sound-designed version of the app up on the Alexa app store.

If you own an Echo or Echo Dot and have ever taken a look at the “skills” store (“skills” is Alexa bullshit for “apps”), you’ll probably have noticed that the vast majority of Alexa apps suck. Since the Alexa store is not currently monetized, there’s no great incentive for anyone to put a lot of time and effort into polishing up a really good Alexa app. The “games” section is practically all trivia apps, and it seems like the vast majority of all Alexa apps, period, are “facts” apps– Bird Facts, Bacon Facts, Cat Facts, etc. These facts apps appear to be the “hello world” of Alexa development.

What I’m saying is that You Got This, Brutadon! is already better than, like… a conservative 90% of all Alexa games? I mean, I’m biased, but I and some of my teammates were really shocked with the low quality of the vast majority of Alexa apps. Lots of them just seem like stupid experiments, and a lot have extremely low utility. There’s a color wheel app that does almost nothing. This was one of the top ranked utility apps during the weekend we were making this game. I’m sorry, but this is pretty damn ridiculous!

Going through the certification process, I’ve also learned that Amazon has some pretty strict rules for user interactions. They contain some bizarre design restrictions– like, you’re not supposed to include any commands in the app that the app does not explicitly prompt the player to say. This means that they’re uncomfortable with apps where the player has to guess command intents. It should be possible to get some kinds of command-guessing gameplay in there without breaking the rules. Right now, however they’re already asking us to put command prompts into Brutadon in a few annoying ways.

The big thing that gets me right now is that a bunch of IF classics are focused around experimentation, command-guessing, and avoiding prompts, like Aisle. If something like Aisle could make it onto the Alexa app store easily, then I’d say the Echo would be in a good place for game development. (That said, I haven’t actually tried to make something like Aisle, so I don’t know how much pushback we’d get trying to do that.)

Oh– and they should let us make money with these goddamn apps. Until then, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to spend a lot of time seriously making a polished, content-dense game for this device.

I (and Zam) got some stuff on Critical Distance’s videogame crit roundup

This year, one article I wrote ended up on Critical Distance’s “This Year In Videogame Blogging” roundup. These lists are pretty much always good summaries of the breadth of games crit in any given year. You should skim this list! I was particularly the section on theory and design criticism, and the bit on industry criticism.

The article I wrote which ended up on the list was “Strangling my dinner with my own two hands,” a piece I ran at Zam earlier this year. It’s an essay about power escalation in “survival-construction” games like Minecraft, Terraria, Starbound, Subnautica, and Don’t Starve.

Most of the games in this genre seem inspired in greater or lesser degree by Minecraft, and their strategies for escalating player power all seem to bend in the same direction as Minecraft’s. You start by punching trees. After many hours, you end up so powerful you can program giant calculators or make automatic farms two hundred stories high– but the game never releases you from the responsibility of harvesting and cooking your own dinner, fish by fish. No matter how they might market themselves, they are more about having power over nature than about the feeling of being threatened by nature. Nevertheless, they render that power absurd by also forcing their players to perform mundane survival busywork long after they’ve gained godlike control over their surroundings. In the piece, I also get around to talking about how survival-construction games rarely let player power impact nature in a negative way. It’s a toothless, exaggerated, illogical kind of power, and for some reason, we all love it.

I have a long-time obsession with survival-construction games (which has obviously culminated in the fact that I want to make one, hah) and I’m glad that people liked the best piece, I think, that I have managed to write about them.

Zam, the publication I manage, also had pieces by several other authors cited in the CD roundup. Here’s a few:

The Social Justice Witcher by Rowan Kaiser – a great piece about how Geralt’s mystery-solving techniques actually parallel strategies you’re supposed to use for mitigating systemic oppression in the real world.

Why is everyone criticizing Bioshock Infinite these days? by Cameron Kunzelman – a piece about why a longstanding critical take on BI suddenly erupted into public consciousness during the game’s remaster/rerelease.

“Real world issues” in games like Deus Ex are there for marketing reasons, not for art by John Brindle – a piece about why attempts to integrate real social criticism into videogames invariably fail (because they’re usually wedged in to get attention).

Battlefield 1 and Modern Memory, again by John Brindle – a fantastic piece about the difference in the way that American and British players percieve the (good? poor?) taste of making a game about World War One. (Kudos to you if you’ve read the book this title references, hah.) Very proud of Brindle for getting into this list twice at Zam!

1979 Revolution: A snapshot of chaos and propaganda, by Robert Rath – a great overview of the history of revolutionary politics which underpins one of this year’s most interesting narrative games.

I’m super proud of everyone who wrote for us in 2016, in general, and I am particularly pleased that some of our best work made the Critical Distance list! If I could have added my own suggestions, I’d have also suggested some stuff by Bruno Dias, like this piece about Dark Souls 3, and some of our more unusual reviews, like this Aevee Bee review of Fire Emblem Fates. (However it seems as if this list deliberately avoids reviews? Anyway, read that one. I liked it.) I honestly don’t have a recent memory recall good enough to make a comprehensive list of all my favorite articles from 2016, so I’m sure I’ll think of others I liked later, but this is what’s rising to the top of my mind right now.

I do, however, have at least one very strong opinion about other publications’ articles that should be on this list: they shoulda had a Pokemon Go section, and it shoulda contained this incredible Miami Herald article about digital redlining in the game. It was one of the best and most relevant pieces written in the last year about how digital worlds intersect with our physical one. I understand that Critical Distance focuses on writing from, essentially, “game blog land,” however nebulously it’s defined, but I think that branching out to more traditional media for writing about games is absolutely worth it. I suppose it’s on me to pay attention when the submission process opens up for 2017!

Frog Fractions 2 is out!!!

Frog Fractions 2 has been published! Finally!! It’s out on Steam now! I wrote and helped design one of the minigames in it. This is the first game I have worked on that is being sold for money on Steam!

Spoilers ahead! Don’t read past this shrugging boy if you don’t want to know anything about Frog Fractions 2!!


So: FF2 is actually called Glittermitten Grove. Like the original Frog Fractions, FF2 is a mess of hilarious minigames hidden inside a game that seems to be completely ordinary. Glittermitten is actually a chill base-building game– and for the full FF2 experience, I think you should play it and try to figure out how to get to the minigame section on your own. If basebuilding games make you rage, though, and you want to get straight to the minigames, there are ways around it.

My contributions to Glittermitten Grove are the two “SPAXRIS” sections. SPAXRIS stands for Super Passive Aggresive Xenomorph Roommate Irritation Simulator. It’s a game where you are a space marine from the movie Aliens who is trying to annoy your xenomorph roommate until he moves out of your shared apartment. You would kill him, but you are in the same friend group and have too many mutual friends. Your aggression is limited to drinking his beers, messing with his law school textbooks, changing the HDMI cables around on the TV, and flushing the toilet repeatedly while he is trying to brush his teeth.



Here’s the mildly-weird story of how SPAXRIS got in the game. I’ve done a lot of game jamming in the Bay Area– that’s where I’d caught the bug– and one of the absolute best games I’d made for a jam there is Desert Hike EX. Jim Crawford, the lead developer on FF2/GMG, led the Desert Hike team, which included me and a bunch of his other friends.

A while ago, a friend of mine was running a jam that I had the opportunity to do with Jim. He wrassled up a team and we went. And, like Desert Hike, the team Jim wrangled up was really good, and the art and music were great, and I was able to go absolutely nuts with the writing. By the end of the weekend we did not have a completely finished game, but we did have something that was pretty clearly hilarious. At some point, Jim leaned over and told me, “Let’s just put this in FF2.” So that’s what happened.

It’s funny that the first Steam game I’ve contributed to is something I made almost without knowing that it would even be part of a commercial game at all. I’d just got done doing a lot of writing and localization for a bunch of PC and mobile games that were mostly cancelled. (The ones that were not cancelled before release are Facebook games, and THEY have all been shut down!) Since then, I’ve gained a lot of experience and have started doing story consulting and writing on indie and AAA games, but none of those have released yet, either! I often feel like the last couple years were kind of “lost years” for me. So it’s deeply gratifying that SOMETHING commercial that I worked on in that period is finally coming out and is really good!

I am roommates with Rachel Sala, FF2’s artist and Jim’s development partner, so I’ve gotten to see a lot of the blood, sweat, tears, tiny frogs, etc. that went into FF2. I’m really glad this game has finally come out and that they can enjoy the results! A lot of great things have happened in my life thanks to knowing Jim and Rachel and hanging out with them and making cool shit with them, and I’m incredibly proud of them and the other developers!

Anyway, yeah! Enjoy the game!

Six Months Demo

I’ve been griping about Six Months since the beginning of time and I’ve never showed more than about 8 people a single scrap of the actual goddamn game.

Time to fix that!

Head here to play the prologue and first month of Six Months.

Head here to download the twine source file and a local copy of the demo.

From the demo’s About page:

Six Months is an interactive novel about family, power, revenge, and faking it until you make it. I consider it an anti-Game-of-Thrones: it’s a fantasy story where nobody is a genius schemer, nobody’s titillating cruelty looks even the least bit cool, and the grand wars and gestures of “epic” adventure have realistically fucked-up consequences.

Six Months has numerous choices and will have more than three unique endings, but I don’t consider it to be a story “about choice.” It’s more about the ways I can use its unusual, color-based “grammar” to make the reading experience itself interactive. Hypertext lets me mess with meaning, timing, and emphasis in ways that normal text does not.

I’ve been working on Six Months for over two years. Its current version contains over 85,000 words. It takes most readers about four hours to read through months 1-4. (I am currently writing Month 5.)

My goal is to eventually release Six Months as part of an interactive story collection with several other tales from the same fantasy world, some of which use different “text mechanics.” It will be a primarily tablet-focused experience, with additional releases on PC and Mac.

How long will it take me to finish? I have no fucking clue. I have a day job. It’s a significant portion of my free time, though, and has been since 2014.

Creating an inherently pathetic protagonist: Six Months and its “reactive” choice system

I’d like to talk for a moment about the core mechanic of my current long-term IF project, Six Months. I recently asked two friends to do a test-read of the first 60% of the game, and the feedback I got from them has had me thinking about my work in new ways.

I’ve shared gifs of the game before on tumblr and twitter, but Six Months essentially uses the exact same mechanics as Swan Hill: a two-tone link system where black links change the text currently on the page, while red links commit decisions and advance the story. You can play Swan Hill here. Here’s a gif of the mechanic in action:


All red links appear in-line as part of the game’s ordinary narrative. I’m not an enormous fan of choose-your-own-adventure or RPG-style option-choice in my personal projects. I have worked on traditional CYOA-style choice stories for my day job, and for my side projects I’m interested in exploring systems which seem less ludic, less interrogative, and more fluid or seamless in their presentation.

However, every IF choice system enforces certain underlying moods or philosophies upon the story. The system that you use to convey choices to the reader can be as much a tool as a cage– each completely alters  the way the reader will experience your story. Choice systems can affect moment-to-moment narrative rhythm, player-character characterization, story structure, and more.

We often tend to interpret the organizing system behind game choice as a sort of mental model for the protagonist. Let’s imagine a choice system where a bunch of choices are printed on a page, and the player must roll a die to select one. Telling an entire story in this inherently random, uncontrollable way would make the protagonist feel like an inherently random and uncontrollable person, wouldn’t it? Similarly, an “interactive fiction” art exhibit where players made choices by shooting targets with an airsoft gun would make decisions feel difficult and subject to error. The protagonist of such a story would feel like someone who tries hard but is liable to make mistakes. This is very similar to the choice system in Christine Love’s Twine story Even Cowgirls Bleed. Please, take a moment to play that game. Think about the ways that Love has taken advantage of her choice mechanics to convey certain things about the character.

Even traditional CYOA choice-list storytelling enforces certain ways of thinking and choosing, but we use it so often that these inherent characterization elements are often invisible to us.

The biggest difference between list-based storytelling and other methods of presenting choice, I think, is the addition of the list as an extra narrative “space” where ideas and solutions can be presented separately from the “real” continuum of the story. For example, putting choices in a list allows the writer to include unusual or out-of-left-field solutions that have not been presented anywhere else in the story:


A reader may learn something new in the CYOA choice list which changes their understanding of the dialogue they’ve already read. The author can use this to characterize the player character as an initiative-taking leader, capable of surprising enemies (and readers!) at the last moment.

Swan Hill, on the other hand, used a choice mechanic which made it very very hard for me to present moments where the main character surprised people or took initiative through choice. Swan Hill presents all choices through inline prompts. This means that all possible character choices must be “prompted” to the player before they have the opportunity to click one or the other. Sometimes these prompts come from thoughts the player character has. Sometimes these prompts come from things that other characters say:


So I was trapped in a situation where any time the player made a decision, they had to do so in reaction to things other people said to them, or to thoughts that I, the author, decreed from on high that they should have. And because each page has very little text on it– a style choice I clung to very seriously– the red choice prompts must often appear in the same paragraph, or very close to one another in a short conversation snippet. Essentially, every time the character makes a decision, someone has to swoop down and give them options immediately before they decide.

On a choice-organization level– a level deeper into the guts of the story, really, than plot or prose style– this characterizes the protagonist of Swan Hill as an inherently reactive person who is also often very unsure of themselves. Every time the player makes a decision, they do so in reaction to things going on around them. Whenever I wanted to make the player seem like they were taking initiative through choice, I had to make certain decisions for them. A good example of this is when the character gets into a fistfight with his brother. I choose to make that fight begin; the player ends the fight by responding to my prompt that they are about to throw a punch:


When I started planning Six Months, I knew that I wanted to use the same mechanics from Swan Hill and explore them in a deeper way. This time, however, I planned to really lean into their inherently reactive nature. You play SImon, the asshole duke brother of the Swan Hill protagonist. In Six Months, however, we learn that he isn’t really a self-assured countryside potentate– just a confused, overwhelmed, moderately-pathetic homebody who finds himself in trouble way over his head after foolishly declaring that he will personally execute a relative’s murderer. Simon must relentlessly fake it until he makes it. He’s got imposter’s syndrome all over the damn place, and other characters constantly pester him to make decisions without the proper information or context. I want the player to feel overwhelmed and reactive. What better way to do this than to use a decision system which forces the player to choose reactively?

The big challenge, of course, is to tell a story about a reactive, overwhelmed person that still feels exciting and interesting. My recent test readers found Simon’s attitude and problems compelling enough to keep reading; they have not reported that he feels like a sad sack. I’m pretty sure that I’m heading in a good direction with regards to choice systems, interactivity, mood, and character. Anyway, my testers report that I’m doing a decent-enough job.

Six Months is about 60% done and has over a thousand Twine passages in it. I was shocked to learn that it took one of my test readers over three hours to read. You can listen to me mope and groan about it on my twitter.

Surprise: I’m doing games journalism again

As of this week, I’m now the editor of Zam.com, a site in the Zam Network (which includes LolKing, Wowhead, DestinyDB, and several other sites). While most of the network is game information databases and fansites about specific games, Zam.com is going to transition to be more of a games news site, with day-to-day news coverage– and everything else I can get for it, including crit, opinion, personal stories, and features.

I’ve been out of the saddle as an editor for about five years now, which means it will be a challenge to get back into the swing of things. But I’m excited to do it. I’m also excited that I’ll have a proper support network this time around.

If you write words and have something you’re itching to say about games, we have pretty damn good freelancer rates and we’d love to get pitches. You can find information about how to contact me in the announcement post on Zam.com itself.

Monstr and Ludum Dare 33 – Notes

I did Ludum Dare for the first time this weekend!

Kent, Rosstin, and I organized a team for the Jam section of Ludum Dare (the compo is for solo submissions; the jam is the part of the event that allows team work). We found a bunch of friends who were willing to do art, and the final result is pretty amazing.

The theme this go-round was “you are the monster,” a theme I was admittedly not a huge fan of. (I predicted that a lot of people would just make sprite-swap combat games where the player character was a dragon or something, and boy, was I right!)

We decided to make a game where you are a monster seeking other monsters on a monsters-only dating service similar to OK Cupid or Tinder. We cranked out a randomized game with 60 different monsters in it, 52 of which you can fall madly in love with. Like the other two projects I’ve made with Kent and Rosstin, this game was primarily focused on humor, and used randomized text snippets as a good way to divide up the work and make the project approachable during the limited time of the jam.

Anyway, the final result is here! It is called “Monstr.” We plan on making a polished web version AND an iOS-based Tinder clone out of this project. Stay tuned! The final version will make you cry with joy, I bet.

And if you participated in LD33, please vote here!

Some additional, meandering notes:

  • Ford (the guy who composed the song with whale music in it for Slaughtertrain) did the music for us again. The track for Monstr contains ACTUAL HUMAN SIGHS OF UNREQUITED LOVE and it is absolutely 100% amazing
  • I grow increasingly convinced that the only reasonable kind of text game to make for team jams is one consisting entirely of short randomized text snippets. I want to write a Gamasutra blog about how wonderful these jams can be, someday. It is very easy to incorporate many team members into a game based around randomization. So long as you have a competent core coding team, everyone else can engage to the extent that they are able without screwing up the rest of the group. It makes the jam more relaxed and makes the final project better, too.
  • Games about sex seem to do MUCH better in my twitter sphere than games about literally anything else. I’ve been joking for over a year that if I only wrote sexy stories I would get a lot more attention, and LO AND BEHOLD, it’s true! Please don’t mistake me, I’m not bitter about this– it’s just that Monstr seemed to strike a nerve in the same way (but at a much smaller scale) that Verified Facts struck a nerve several years ago. Some things align with the stars to magically become Internet Candy, and other things do not. I struggle to get even five retweets for interactive short stories about space aliens, but I got a shit ton for an OKC clone full of ridiculous sloppy jokes. It’s a good thing I enjoyed writing all those sloppy jokes, though. 🙂
  • We used @mrfb’s Twine port of Tracery, a javascript library for making randomized text. It’s super easy to use and very rewarding to work with. Give it a shot!
  • This was probably the eighth or tenth game jam I have done. Not all of them ended up on the internet so it’s hard for me to make a final list, but I’ve done a LOT of game jams recently and they are definitely making me a better developer. I was talking to a writer at another games company about five months ago and when he revealed that he’d never done a jam, I think I scared him with the force of my enthusiasm. Game jams are GREAT. They make you better at working in teams, better at scraping yourself off the floor after a failure, and more confident in your abilities. Game jams generally make me feel great about myself, even if I don’t do so well. Relatedly: I can’t believe my alma mater still doesn’t do them! They have a games lab/tiny games company there and people who worked for it told me as recently as last winter that they had no idea what jams were. What?? As far as I’m concerned, the most important thing a games program can do for its students is build their confidence and give them shit to put on a resume, and jams do both.


Hello, I am a bad person!

I spent all month taking time off from Six Months to write something for the Write A Game Challenge– a game jam that is being judged by cool people whose work I actually admire– but crapped out during the last week. Thanks to E3 I didn’t have enough energy to fix some major things that were wrong with my story. I was so nervous about releasing a flawed story that I gave up the entire project. With this new free time, I completely finished a completely different project (??) commissioned art for it, and did the Corgi Jam on itch.io just to do a jam, because I am addicted to game jams now, I guess.

So here’s my submission for the Corgi Jam. It’s a summer school course for corgis living in America’s far future. Sid Menon edited it for me.

All of the information in this game about the Supreme Court is taken directly off Wikipedia and is therefore probably mostly true.


Part of the reason I failed to complete the WAG Challenge was that I basically scheduled myself too tightly for the month. In order to finish the game properly, I had to write an entire scene for it every two days. I had to do so much writing that I was basically unable to recreate. I spent a lot of time writing that thing wishing I could just go out and see a damn movie. In the end, when E3 derailed me, I got derailed hard.

I might save the project and finish it later. I might also release it with Six Months and the others I’m planning to release together, since it’s set in the goddamn sad wizard world. It had a cool text mechanic that I really liked, too.