Games as Story-telling Medium, Interview with Barbara Friend-Ish

Literature excels at delivering meaning and coherent tales; gaming excels at delivering experiences. I think the best storytellers will—and are already beginning to—develop ways to use these media to enrich one another, and spread their concepts across them. In my opinion the threat here lies, as it usually does these days, with publishers and developers who want to simply kick things out quickly, according to formulae that have always worked in the past.

Literature and gaming are often viewed as being on opposite sides of the same spectrum in a mutually debilitating way: readers of literature are cast into a snobbish role, dismissive of games and game-players; and gamers are seen as short-attention span wastrels, or culturally challenged corpse-humpers, unable to comprehend or appreciate literature.

In this interview, Barbara Friend-Ish, publisher and editor at Mercury Retrograde Press, merges these views and shows us how Game and Story are not so dissimilar. Here, she shares her experiences in developing a game for her Compton Crook Award-nominated novel Shadow of the Sun.

Game? What game?

I’ve worked with James Kempf and Anthony Thomas of Cliché Studio to develop two games for my story world: one for each book so far. The game we developed for The Shadow of the Sun (I say “we”, but in this case really all I did was toss out the idea, and the guys from Cliché ran with it) is Sweeps, an old-fashioned dice game. For the sequel, War-Lord of the Gods, we’ve been developing Fortunes, a card game that can be played with a Tarot deck, which includes both a play/gambling phase and a divination phase.

How does this game relate to Shadow of the Sun?

Characters in The Shadow of the Sun play both games, though my PoV, Ellion, doesn’t play either game during that volume. His Tanaan companions play the dice game quite a lot when they’re on the road, and at one point several of them also play the card game. Ellion himself will play the card game in War-Lord of the Gods, and the things that happen at that game matter to the story.

Who are the game makers and how did you meet them?

James Kempf and Anthony Thomas are the principals of Cliché Studio, an Atlanta-based game development company. I met James when I visited a writing group of which he was a member here in Atlanta. James later became my assistant, and we quickly became the sort of friends who spend a great deal of time teaching and learning from one another. He and Anthony founded Cliché after we had begun working together. They are two of the best teachers I’ve ever had.

Many gamers have long enjoyed games because of the story that develops during the game. How did you come to this conclusion and where do you see Gaming taking Story?

I have James to thank for that. Because I come from a hardcore literary background I took a long time to see the power of game: for many years I put all my energy into developing my craft as a writer and a publishing professional. I won’t say that I held gaming in contempt, which is a mistake I see a lot of literary people making; I just didn’t see what was going on in gaming for a pretty long time, didn’t understand what a powerful storytelling medium it is. But James also comes from a literary background, and so he had the toolkit and vocabulary to communicate with me about gaming in a very theoretical way. And that was what I needed, to be able to understand. He’s really been a guiding light to me in this area, taking me through the process of developing two games and beginning to brainstorm with me about the next.

As with writing, I’m learning the most about gaming by developing my own ideas into creations other people can enjoy. So much of what we need to know to perform well in any art form we can only learn by doing. And that in turn has given me the context I need to see what other people are doing when they use game to tell stories.

In recent months I’ve been learning from other experts as well, notably Andrew Greenberg, Blake Sorensen, and Sean Patrick Fannon. All of them have been incredibly generous. There are so many different ways game can enrich our experience of story. The games we’ve created so far give readers the ability to taste some of the experiences of the story world in ways that can be enjoyed on their own merits, even while the underpinnings of those games flesh out the world. The sorts of games that don’t involve role-playing, primarily social games like dice games, card games, board games etc. are reflections of the cultures from which they come.

In particular, Fortunes (the card game we developed) is a window into some mysteries of the story world that will become hugely important in later volumes. If the reader never digs into this game, his experience of the novel will be undiminished, but the reader who wants to pursue the clues the game and its underpinnings bring to the story will have a richer experience. And it’s fun to do things that characters we enjoy or identify with do as well; it can be a way of identifying with them, of tasting their experience in ways that the passive absorption of a reader or movie audience can’t access.

Roleyplaying games, of course, take those truths into completely different territory. Rather than simply tasting the experiences of people in a story world, roleplayers get to play the parts of people in that world. Depending on their particular mindsets and personal wiring, they may temporarily become them. I had the privilege of sitting in with Sean while he ran an RPG session recently, got to see what a wonderful border-crossing experience it is to participate in a game with a really talented GM: Sean came in with a story prepared for the people in that room, and he began telling it—in second person.

In written fiction second person almost always feels false; as a reader, I know I did not in fact do or experience the things the writer claims I did. But in a role-playing game, it is valid, and powerful: the game master tells the participants what they see, what is happening around them, even what the rolls of the dice they cast mean to them and the story as a whole. (Which can make the GM seem a bit like an oracle, sometimes.) But the real magic of these sessions, to my mind, is not the validity of the second-person expression, the sense that the story is actually happening to the participant—but the fact that the participants themselves help to make the story. They make choices that influence how the tale unfolds, become true parts and co-authors of the tale. And Live-Action Role Play pushes the creation and experience of the story even further into the participant audience’s control.

Gaming is becoming increasingly mainstream. All the games on Facebook and on phones make this easy to see. The fastest growth in gaming today, believe it or not, is among middle-aged women. And if most of them are playing Farmville, a substantial portion are also playing games that much more closely resemble the sorts of RPGs that used to be the exclusive purview of us geeks, playing in mafia or vampire tales. A recent Supreme Court decision about violence in games specifically rendered games protected speech under the First Amendment. Gaming is becoming an accepted storytelling medium; it will become more and more commonplace for us as a society to see games as a perfectly valid way of telling and experiencing story.

There’s a theory that reading and literature is losing an audience to gaming. What’s your scuttlebutt on this and how do you think that relationship will develop?

I think that notion comes from putting two unrelated facts together and inferring a connection between them. It is true that there have been a number of disturbing statistics on the prevalence of reading in our culture put forth in recent years. It is also true that the game market is undergoing unprecedented growth. I think it’s a mistake to think people are fleeing books for games; there seems to be very high crossover between gamers and readers, particularly in SF/F. It’s very popular, in publishing circles, to talk about transmedia, even though most people seem uncertain exactly what transmedia is. It’s an exciting idea, this spreading of stories across different media—and it’s painful to watch people who don’t understand or respect certain media try to expand their reach into them. I see so many games being put forth as adjuncts to movies or TV series, for example, that completely miss the point of gaming. No person not trapped in a dentist’s waiting room who has not already exhausted every back issue of Highlights in the place would want to play these games, but the media companies in question seem to feel they’ve “checked the box”. I don’t think gaming is a threat to literature. They are different and complementary storytelling media. Literature excels at delivering meaning and coherent tales; gaming excels at delivering experiences.

I think the best storytellers will—and are already beginning to—develop ways to use these media to enrich one another, and spread their concepts across them. In my opinion the threat here lies, as it usually does these days, with publishers and developers who want to simply kick things out quickly, according to formulae that have always worked in the past.

To do this right will take every ounce of creativity developers can muster—not individually, but in truly collaborative teams. No single person can do all the work required to do justice to all the different storytelling media available to us; the ways of doing the work that have served for the past few decades are obsolete. If the games we’re seeing multiply around us this year are mostly the storytelling equivalent of popcorn, already I’m hearing the beginnings of a demand for games that tell true, deep, immersive stories. That’s art, and it won’t be developed or distributed with popcorn-level resources or timelines. And as usual, I think the really great stuff is going to come from the independent side of the industry.

Where can we get a copy of this game?

Instructions for playing Fortunes with a standard Tarot deck are already available on the Mercury Retrograde Press website, at When War-Lord of the Gods is released, the instructions will also be included in the book. We’re beginning to develop a proper Fortunes deck, which will be published by Mercury Retrograde Press; it will probably come out in conjunction with War-Lord of the Gods. And we’ve begun development on an electronic version as well.

One reason I love games is for the awesome artwork. I spend more time browsing the images in the D&D manuals than playing the game. Will be seeing artworks with the publication of this game?

We will be publishing a deck, of course. There will be several different artists involved—doing all the images required for a deck this large is a huge undertaking. We’re also looking into offering prints of some of the cards, particularly the cards of the Major Arcana or “Suit of Stars”, if there’s sufficient interest. And as the series progresses, we’ll be offering different versions of the Fortunes deck, geared to different cultures in the stories.

How did the gaming experience at Play-On Con change the story you’re currently writing?

We did our first major playtesting of Fortunes at PlayOn Con this year. PlayOn is a terrific little con in Birmingham, Alabama, with a great environment for gamers but interests that extend well beyond gaming. We had the fantastic good fortune of having game enthusiasts and game developers sit in with us and really put the game through its paces.

I learned a great deal at that session, not least because—while James and I had done the early game planning together—he’d been doing a lot of informal play-testing in my absence. And in the course of using that play-testing to work out the bugs, he wound up making minor adjustments to the rules of the game: nothing huge, just a bunch of little changes that improved gameplay. And I found out about all the little ways the game had evolved since our last session together, during play-testing—after I’d already written the chapter in which the PoV character, Ellion, finally plays the game in War-Lord. Likewise, it had been my responsibility to develop the divinatory half of the game, and I’d developed methodologies for gameplay that supported the divinatory phase—and then, during playtesting, learned the flaws in assumptions I’d made. Which in turn required me to modify the half of the game I was developing. Also, watching different styles of play made me understand more about the ways individual gaming styles influence the unfolding of a particular game, strategies different sorts of players will adopt, etc.

By the time we’d finished our playtesting sessions at PlayOn, most of the gameplay mechanics I’d written into that chapter had to be taken out and reworked. But those were all rather low-level changes: I had to take that chapter apart and put it back together, but the important things that arose from having that game in that novel remained just as I’d planned. The things the game itself reveals about the culture that developed it, both to Ellion and to the reader, stood—as did the way the divination unfolds in that chapter and how it affects the characters.

I had a fantastic time developing this game and using it in the novel: it gave me avenues into revealing truths I hadn’t expected to be able to show the reader until the third or fourth novel in the series, and it increases the power of what happens in the story—in part because the reader will get to make most of those connections for herself, without me having to spell it out. And it gave me a fantastic avenue in to a culture that’s very important in the overall scheme of the series but I won’t have much time to explore on the page. That, of course, is exactly why games and literature are such a powerful combination.

5 thoughts on “Games as Story-telling Medium, Interview with Barbara Friend-Ish

  1. Pingback: On stories and games « Publicly Available Angst

  2. I also enjoyed this interview! Artwork is a big part of what pulls me into a game. I will buy a game because I like the peices, the cover art, the printed art on cards, etc., even if the game is so-so. If the game aesthetically is pleasing, I will play it just for the visual pleasure I gain from it.

  3. Pingback: Play me a story « Publicly Available Angst

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