I Blather More About Games

So, as you all know by now, working on this StoryNexus game. (I’ll shut up about it soon, I swear!)

And I’m having a thought, and would like to bend your ears about it for a minute, so those of you who know something about these things can tell me whether it’s a brilliant idea or a very stupid one.

My goal with this whole thing is to release a nifty but finite game. A game with an end point. I do not want to be like Fallen London where I am on the hook for the rest of my life writing content and there is no ultimate end. (Nor am I particularly interested in handing it over to someone else to write content–I am not a collaborator by nature, and the very, very few people I’m willing to write in tandem with are all very very busy on their own. This is my personal vision. I’d be delighted to see fan art or fan fic, but I’m not wanting to hand off canon, if that makes sense.)

Much like my time with webcomics, I want to do something that ends.

But, also much like webcomics, I am prone to epics, and this is already looking like it will take some time, and I’d kinda hate to be hammering on it for six months with nobody other than playtesters getting a chance to look at it.

Finally, I’m seeing that I want to do two different things—one is “Explore this really neat world I made! Isn’t it cool? Look at the stuff!” and the other is “AAAAGHPLOTATTACK!” and have things get darker and weirder (insomuch as one can get dark and weird when one is a stuffed animal.)

So what seems to me like the best solution is to divide things up into three Acts. You start in Act I, you go around and explore the world, you look at the neat stuff, you have a couple of quest chains, and you decide What You Want To Do With Your Life.

I release that, with a skill cap/content wall at the end of Act I, when you’ve learned the Way of the Whatever You’re Going To Do With Your Life.

Then, while people are poking it and getting bored with it, a few months later (realistically speaking) I release Act II, in which Bad Things Start To Go Down.

And then, of course, some time later, we have the fairly short Act III, in which you face down the end boss and I figure out how to write an endboss using the StoryNexus engine. (Still pondering that.)

It’s worth noting that the game is set up with three distinct Ways, so there would be some difference on replay, and I THINK the system allows the game to set a marker so that if you played through as a Hunter, say, at the end you could unlock something on the next playthrough–probably a different playable race, like Rubber Chicken or something. (I have no idea if there’ll be enough replay value following a different Way to interest anyone at all, mind you.)

The advantage I can see to this is that it lets me achieve both goals with “This is the world! Neat!” and then “Oh no, the world is blowing up and you have to save it!” Establishing normalcy, as it were, then wrecking it. Plus–and this is a big one!—one of the inherent problems in this sort of game is that you’re pulling the same low-level cards over and over and you get very bored with them. Doing this would probably be the most elegant way to punt all those low level cards from play–once you’re high enough level that you’re moving to Act II, it’ll set markers that remove the super low-level and milk-run cards, which will only be in Act I, and start allowing cool and dire random happenings that are pretty high level.

Plus it lets me release the first Act so that I can see if people are actually enjoying the damn thing before I embark too far on the rest!

Possible downsides—it will probably take a lot less time to play through Act I than it takes me to write Act II and I get angry e-mails/people are bored/I am hit by a bus and it’s never finished.

And it’ll be harder to playtest and I’ll have to introduce a dummy skillset that isn’t subject to the level cap, then go back and manually change everything once the balance is right.

But I’m mostly seeing upsides. Does anybody have any thoughts or things I’m likely overlooking? (My apologies, O internet brain-trust, for rambling on about this so much, but I’m excited and wanna do it right!)

Dream Mythologies

Had one of those dreams that run long and cause you to oversleep, which mostly involved me trying to find Ten-Mile, Oregon with Google maps. That’s not terribly important for our purposes. Along the way, I stopped at a historical marker, which had a very strange mythology on it. (I am paraphrasing, as I can’t recall exact words)

When time began, Ahais Mae, the great god, looked down upon creation and the lesser gods and men within it. He sent word to them by the birds and the mice that evil walked the earth and must be fought, the good men against the evil men and the good gods against the evil gods, that the earth be returned to goodness and made perfect in the eyes of Ahais Mae.

But the birds and the mice told the gods and the men that this was a lie, that evil is always with us, and a great battle in heaven would kill many and bring much more evil about and the only one who benefited was Ahais Mae, who would glut himself on the deaths of gods and men.

And the men listened to the birds and the mice, and so everyone was peaceful, and the great god Ahais Mae was cast into the darkness under the earth.

Possibly my subconscious is trying to invent the anti-Scientology or something.


Worldbuilding and the Okapi’s Butt

So as I’ve been raving about on Twitter for a few days now, I’ve been working with the StoryNexus game engine to create a browser game. It’s set in the stuffed animal world of Pludwump and Quippet and Rough Seams, which is sort of Ice Age Europe rendered in plush. (I firmly maintain that this idea is so stupid that it’s almost high concept.)

(And a big shout out to my dear Kevin and my buddy Tango for playtesting!)

And now, a few thoughts…

First of all, I’ve had to do a lot of tearing out and re-treading because I didn’t know what I was doing. I don’t feel this was wasted time, because it’s not like there’s any other way to learn, but if I were doing a second game, there’s some planning I’d do in advance. (All of which is technical and related specifically to the engine in question–if you’re also fiddling with it and want to talk about it, leave a comment, I’ll happily expand.)

Second, and more important for our purposes…goddamn, world-building.

Up until sometime early last week, I had a great deal of confidence in my world-building skills. There’s a trick to it, more or less, and that trick is that you can paint an exotic city on a curtain in about five lines and readers will fill in all the rest themselves.

The best example I can come up with here is from China Mieville’s book The Scar, where they encounter a race of sentient mosquito-people, and he includes a few throwaway lines about an empire in the distant past called the Malarial Queendom.

He doesn’t tell you how it worked. In fact, one of the characters actively wonders “How the hell did that work, anyway?” He doesn’t go into detail. I think the words Malarial Queendom are mentioned maybe three times. You don’t learn anything about them, except one line saying that once upon a time, they ruled this particular coast with an iron fist, and wow, that was bad.

And that’s it. A whole empire with a history built out of three lines. Does he know the entire history of the Queendom? Does he know the rank of every mosquito functionary?

Eh, it’s Mieville, so he might, but if it was me, I wouldn’t. I’d write the three lines, grin, go “Damn, that’s cool,” and go on. If I needed to come up with more detail—if I was on a panel at a con and somebody demanded I recount the entire history of the Malarial Queendom RIGHT NOW—I’d be confident that I could come up with something, but honestly, it’s not germane to the plot. The important thing is that the reader get a sense of vast, uncanny history and weird things happening just out of sight. You don’t want to drag the world in and put it on the dissecting table—that way lies Silmarillion-esque prologues—you just want them to catch a glimpse of it, like an okapi’s butt in the rainforest, and go “Whoa. There’s a really big animal over there, isn’t there?” while it glides away into the shadows.

It’s a form of writer’s sleight-of-hand. It’s making it look like of course you know all about this, and the reason you’re not going into it is because it’s not really relevant and you don’t want to bore people, not that the whole of the Malarial Queendom is (possibly) no more than three lines of text in a book two inches thick.

Probably there’s a skill involved—knowing what makes an alluring okapi-butt—but that all happens down at the not-really-conscious level for me, so I can’t talk much about it, except that I just assume if I find it interesting, the rest of you weirdos do too. And the truth, of course, is that for me (and I’d guess for many of us) there’s no okapi there at all, it’s basically a big striped butt on a stick that the writer is waving through the undergrowth. Possibly while making “Woooooooo!” noises because none of us actually know what an okapi sounds like.


If you wish to then write a game where people are wandering around in—to use a completely and totally random example—an Ice Age plush world, suddenly you need the whole okapi. Butt-on-a-stick won’t cut it. The reader is actively picking cards (StoryNexus is a card-based RPG sort of thing, kind of like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure crossed with Zork) and reading them and exploring the world and you have to keep them entertained and you want them to feel like there’s a whole lot of stuff there.

There’s a hunting function in this game I’m making. Your little Ice Age hunter goes out to hunt the mighty woolen mammoth and other creatures of the Patchwork Steppes. This is a grindable skill. And I don’t know about you, but I get very bored with grinding something if all I’m reading is “You go kill a thing. Woo! Stuffing steaks for everybody!” eighty million times. So I sat down to write a whole bunch of different things you could hunt with your trusty Pointy Stick, which would be different difficulties and give you different rewards, and interesting things that could happen while hunting in this area and so on and so forth. (The game designers recommend at least twelve cards or “storylets” per area so that people don’t get too bored with the repetitions on random draws.)

Oh. My. God.

Twenty cards, including various quest chains. Each card needs failures and successes, sometimes multiple ones depending on what skills you use and whether you get the rare lucky success or the rare unlucky failure. It took days. And insomuch as any person on earth was ever designed to write short little blurbs with punchlines for various little scenarios involving killing and eating stuffed animals, I am that person. (It’s like writing short descriptions under art, really…) But I had to build the entire goddamn okapi, from the hooves up, instead of just a quickly sketched illusion.

So now you can hunt burlap boars and terrycloth giant hamsters and corduroy aurochs. You can follow silken condors. You can harvest mushrooms off mammoth dung. You can choose not to hunt some of the animals and try to befriend them instead. You can do a whole bunch of stuff that you’d presumably be able to do if you were a little Ice Age hunting plush. And this is only one damn area.

I’m pleased. I’m hopeful that when, in a few months, I’m ready to have people play it, they will have fun and it will feel much more immersive than just saying “Yeah, they’re off hunting mammoth over there. Neat, huh? Now do this thing to move the plot along!” I hope it will feel like a world, and that people will be able to construct their own mental narratives, which is what makes a game a game instead of a book.

And I hope all this knowing that people will read the card descriptions once, possibly twice, then skip immediately to the clicking bits. *grin*

But goddamn, that was hard. I never have to build okapis. My mental studio has a whole closet full of striped butts-on-sticks. I won’t say it’s a different skill set, exactly, but it’s as if you come up with a great throwaway world-building line and then somebody says “You’re right! That was a great line! Now put your money where your mouth is and given me the entire backstory behind it, smart guy!”

…and now I have to do that whole thing again, only with Quippet and Pludwump and Pludwump’s bodyguard, the Burly Blue Ram. And a lot of other characters I’ve had to pull out of thin air so that the world has individuals in it, not just vague masses.

And it’s cool.

But lord, it’s much harder than expected.

Looking for a commissioner

Does anybody have an e-mail address for Barbara Cameron? I’ve got art for her, but either I never got her e-mail or it went missing, and I’m feeling extremely tardy on delivery!

(You can e-mail me at ursulav (at) gmail.com rather than post in public)

Engineering Pride

So for the last two days, I’ve been completely obsessed with the StoryNexus game creation tools. It’s the system they use for Fallen London, a turn-based browser game (or I guess “Interactive Fiction” is the term we’re using these days.

They’re in open beta right now. I had been hearing about it for awhile—my friend Mur was working on something—so I finally checked it out and basically fell in sobbing “Where were you when I was fifteen and trying to write my own text adventures in AmigaBasic?!”

So I started building a little game for the stuffed animal world. (No, it’s not ready to even look at yet. No, it may not ever be ready. No, I don’t know when it will be done. You ever try to write a text adventure from scratch? Good lord, that’s a lot of words…)

Anyway, as with anything, there are design choices made by the people behind the engine that I’m having to work with (and sometimes around) and I’m still way in the beginning of the learning curve, so I keep breaking things.

KEVIN: That’s where the creativity comes in…

URSULA: No it isn’t. I’m plenty creative. Creative is not a problem. It’s dealing with other people’s engineering choices.

KEVIN: (suddenly misty-eyed)

KEVIN: ….sniff….I’m so proud!


KEVIN: I never thought this day would come!

URSULA: Swear to god, if you say “My little Ursula is becoming a woman!” I will shove my foot so far up your ass—

KEVIN: No! It’s like—like when the very sheltered child, instead of following his governess into the restaurant, turns the wrong direction and winds up in a dark alley somewhere.

URSULA: …I had no idea that watching me get stabbed by a wino would be such a source of pride.

KEVIN: Well, metaphorically.


(It should be noted that Kevin works with software, engineers, and technology, and is mostly used to me going “I don’t know! YOU make it work!”)

Curse You, Brain!

So I decided I need to make a resin head for this thing, and I’m gonna start by making a sporran, because the stole involves too much material and I want a dry run first with the head design.

And then I was like “I need to sit down and sculpt a head!”

And my brain went “Nope. Don’t think so.”

“But you have to,” I said. “I can’t do this without you, brain.”

“Nope,” said brain. “Not today. Not feeling it.”

“Screw you!” I cried. “I am a REAL ARTIST! That means I power through this crap and don’t get hung up on muses and inspiration and “not feeling it!”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” said the brain, picking up a copy of Craniums Quarterly.

“But I’m a professional! I came to work! I will sit in front of this thing until I make good art!”

“Go ahead, if you don’t mind making total crap and then curling into fetal position,” said brain, thumbing through its magazine. “I’d get the potato chips now, though. You’ll need them later when the weeping passes.”

“You’re my brain!” I shouted, mad with power. “You have to do as I say!”

The brain gave me a long, level look over the top of the magazine. The articles had headlines like Making the Most of Your Ganglia and 37 Secrets the Cortex Loves (But Will Never Tell You!)

“You sure that’s how you want to play it?” it said. “You do know I control the motor functions.”



“Stop hitting yourself…” said brain, turning the page.

“I’m trying!”

And that is why I am not getting art done today.

Experimental Sewing

So I don’t actually know how to sew.

I have never learned to use a machine, and all these stuffed animals are basically made with one stitch, by hand, and the lumps are hidden under faux fur. I design the bodies by cutting out a shape on paper that looks sort of like it should work. Pludwump was basically a football with a head, Rough Seams involved some real sewing atrocities on the inside of the body, and I had to do Quippet twice over. (That I have succeeded at all never fails to amaze me—fabric is clearly forgiving stuff!)

And now I want to try making a thing with a soft head instead of resin parts—I have this grandiose vision of a faux mink stole with the head attached, only the head is a stuffed animal, possibly with tongue hanging out, and I don’t think resin would be very comfortable–but since I have no pattern and the head is not faux fur, I have to actually make a pattern.

I have a couple of books on sewing stuffed animals. I basically took a head pattern that looked sort of right and freehanded it to more-or-less the right size. (Probably less…) and now I get to go mutilate some innocent fleece to try to make it look sort of like the thing in my head. And sketchbook.

Either it’ll work or it won’t, and if it doesn’t, I may try a very flattened sculpted head because I am totally in love with the idea, but I want to at least try it this way first.

Is there a trick to making patterns that I am just missing that makes this all super easy, or is it all “try, try, cry a lot, try again, get it sort of right, yell “CLOSE ENOUGH!” and start sewing?”


Quippet the Shaman’s Apprentice

Quippet didn’t want to be a shaman.

He didn’t like shamany things. Incense set off his asthma. He wasn’t good at chanting. Fasting made him feel hungry, not enlightened. And the Spotted Mushroom Drink made him throw up, and one time he’d been out getting it and gotten between some reindeer and the mushrooms and…well…it was ugly. He’d needed a whole lot of stitches. Reindeer are hardcore.

The problem was that he heard voices.

Crazy-Wool, the tribe’s shaman, told him that the spirits were tormenting him and his only choice was to become initiated as a shaman, go into the spirit world, and battle them into submission. “The spirits must be bent to your will!” bleated Crazy-Wool, his breath reeking of the Spotted Mushroom Drink. “They will drive you down into madness unless you have the strength to resist their wickedness!”

“Uh-huh,” said Quippet, trying not to cough.

The elder shaman told him, sometimes two or three times a day, how vital it was that he stand strong against the influence of the spirit-voices, that he refuse to listen to their wiles, and that if they ever told him to do anything, he was to come to Crazy-Wool immediately.

Quippet always agreed—and felt guilty—and went to go alphabetize the magic rocks.

Truth was, the spirit voices told him to do things all the time.

They said “It’s snowing out, you better wear a hat or you’ll catch your death.”

They said “You should have a hot cup of tea and everything’ll look better in the morning.”

They said “You try to have a nice day now, Quippet.”

They said “You’re a good sheep, Quippet, you keep your chin up and watch out for those nasty reindeer.”

And every year on his birthday, they all sang a rousing chorus of “For He’s A Jolly Good Sheep” and took turns telling him how much they valued his friendship and how proud they were of all he’d accomplished. One of the voices even composed a small poem in his honor. (It wasn’t a terribly good poem, but all the voices cheered anyway and Quippet had been very moved and a little confused.)

He didn’t want to go into the spirit world and battle them. He was horribly afraid that if he tried, he’d come back out with a cup of tea and a small note saying that everyone loved him very much and wanted him to be happy.

It was all very worrisome.

Poor Quippet is 15 inches long, 6 inches wide, and 5 inches tall. I am pleased with the design of the front end, but his tail doesn’t look as tail-like as I’d wish, so I may go back to a more rounded butt on the next one. I was pretty happy with his full-body dreads, though.

His face is cast plastic resin, his feet are Super Sculpey, the fur is…err…fur…and he’ll be on e-bay tomorrow.

Work in Progress

His name is Quippet. He’s the Shaman’s Apprentice.

I still haven’t attached his ears yet, and he may need more Stylish Accessorizing, but this is what he looks like so far…

  • Archives

  • I write & illustrate books, garden, take photos, and blather about myriad things. I have very strong feelings about potatoes.

    Latest Release

    Now Available