[GUEST POST] Walter Jon Williams on Writing and Alternate Reality Gaming


Walter Jon Williams has been nominated repeatedly for every major SF award, including Hugo and Nebula Award nominations for his novel City on Fire. His most recent book is The Fourth Wall, out from Orbit this month. Williams lives near Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife.

Are We Gaming Yet?

I’ve been a full-time, professional writer of fiction for over thirty years now, so it may surprise my regular readers to know that my writing career might well have gone in an entirely different direction. When I was breaking into the fiction market, I was also breaking into the computer game market, both as a writer and as a designer.

I’d always kept one foot in games. As a teenager I was a game zealot. I was probably the first person in my home state to run a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, out of the original three-volume boxed rule set.

A decade or so later, I was selling both games and novels to the same person, Jim Baen. Baen was, at that time, editor of a brand-new imprint, Tor Books; and he was also branching out with his own software company- named after himself, of course.

Baen was a visionary: he saw the potential for computer games, and he also saw the potential for profit. Unfortunately, though he knew a lot about publishing, he didn’t know anything about software or about running a game company; and he also made the mistake of distributing his games through the sales force at Simon & Schuster, the publisher, who knew nothing about selling games and weren’t very interested in learning. Instead of getting his games into every bookstore in North America, which was probably what he intended, he was unable to get on the shelves anywhere. Baen Software faded away, caught between the breadth of its own vision and its naïveté about the way the business worked. I’ve written elsewhere about my unfortunate involvement with the company.

But imagine what would have happened if Baen Software had been a success — it did, after all, produce some pretty good games before it disappeared. By now I could be a gaming god, with a much larger audience than I currently possess, and probably a much nicer car.

I’ve been involved with games in the years since, but only intermittently. I was involved in writing a Microsoft project that never actually got published (though I got paid). I wrote the dialog for the Electronics Arts game Spore.

But, as a writer, I find it’s best not to confuse game writing and fiction. They’re distinct, and require different skills.

First, game writing is almost always collaborative. Writers of electronic games work under developers and producers, and their imagination is limited to what the graphics engineers can actually put on the screen. Sometimes the writers are brought in at the last possible moment, after the story has already been created. A writer used to the autonomy available in fiction writing may chafe at such constraints.

Moving the other direction, gamers or game writers trying to write fiction run into a different set of problems. At worst, action scenes can read as if they were transcribed directly from a gaming session — you can “hear the dice rolling,” as the saying goes. Another problem is that the writer may confuse incident with plot.

Games are full of incidents — that’s what makes them entertaining. In an RPG, you’re always being attacked by bandits, hired to engage in a clandestine mission, or marching off to war. But those incidents don’t equal plot — in fiction, a scene becomes plot only when it moves the story toward its conclusion or tells you something new about one of the characters.

In an incident, stuff happens. In a plot, stuff happens for a reason. Gaming fiction doesn’t always understand the difference.

That was one reason why it was such a pleasure to work on Last Call Poker, a game that not only called on all my fictional and game-writing skills, but led directly to a trilogy of novels, the latest of which had just been released.

Last Call Poker was Alternate Reality Game, or ARG. I’ve explained this concept in some detail elsewhere, but briefly, an ARG works like this: a story is cut into chunks and hidden. Most of it is hidden on the Internet, but some of it can be hidden out in the real world. And then the players follow clues to try to follow the story.

Because this is the Internet, the story is multi-platform. It can be text, audio or video files, animation, comics, and improvised live-action theater with real actors. Some of the story can be in code, or hidden in steanography, or otherwise hard to decipher. If you play an ARG, you may start receiving phone calls from fictional characters, or receive assignments that will take you out into the real world to deliver information to a mysterious stranger you meet behind the bus stop. The game doesn’t just stay on the far side of a computer screen: it can reach out and touch you. The lines between game and reality are blurred in a very deliberate way.

No single person will have the skills to solve the puzzles necessary to uncover the story, so the games encourage the formation of ad hoc communities of problem-solvers. Meeting online, or sometimes at special live events held throughout the world. ARGs are a form of highly specialized social media.

I was so taken with the dazzling potential of this flashy, twenty-first century multimedia art form that I knew that I had to fix it with ink onto dead trees and trap it between cardboard covers. Because I’m a novelist, and that’s what I do.

The most intriguing thing about ARGs is the way they blur the distinction between game and reality, so that’s what my next novel, This Is Not a Game, is about. It’s a near-future science fiction thriller, in which my heroine, the game designer Dagmar Shaw, is using the game to manipulate reality, and vice versa.

One of my realizations about ARGs comes from what the players are actually trained to do: uncover secrets, find significant facts amid a lot of clutter, make and break codes, work with steganography, discern falsehood from reality, decipher foreign languages, and go out into the real world to investigate artifacts or information they might find.

In other words, practical intelligence skills.

In Deep State, the second book in the Dagmar Shaw sequence, Dagmar attempts to do deliberately what she did by accident in the first book: use the techniques of ARGs to manipulate reality — in fact, to set off a revolution in the Middle East through the use of social media. This was much more a science fiction idea when I actually started writing the book, back in 2009, and became a little less startling when the book was released the same week the Egyptians occupied Tahrir Square.

You might have thought that my successful prediction would have got me some traction outside of my usual audience, but apparently nobody cared.

The Fourth Wall, the third Dagmar book, has just been released. In this book, I’m trying to look at the future of entertainment. In traditional media — books, television, motion pictures — the audience is essentially passive. In online games, the audience is a part of the action. What happens if the two come together, when viewers can influence content and chart the course of their own entertainment experience?

That’s where one feature of entertainment is moving. It’s going to become more like gaming. And gaming has become a lot more like conventional entertainment over the last few decades — when you do well in a video game, you don’t get points racked up on a counter, you’re rewarded with a movie. Usually a pretty lame, unconvincing movie, but still it’s a movie.

But The Fourth Wall isn’t just about entertainment delivery systems — that would be sort of boring. I’m a gamer, and I’m playing all sorts of entertaining games with this book, and in fact through the whole series. The Fourth Wall is a thriller, it’s a mystery, it’s the personal journey of a narcissistic Hollywood monster who knows he’s a narcissistic monster, and is therefore quite funny.

And it’s science fiction — at least until it comes true, and then maybe it’ll be something else.

One thought on “[GUEST POST] Walter Jon Williams on Writing and Alternate Reality Gaming”

  1. And This is Not a Game, last I checked, is still on sale on Kindle for Amazon.

    Thanks, Mr. Williams!

    I remember you writing on your blog how freaky it was to see the real Egyptian revolution around the time Deep State came out.

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