The Nameless Horror

Linear Narrative Games - Rise of the Third Power

Storytelling in an interactive medium like games is a tricky and to me fascinating thing, requiring you as a writer to do more with somewhat less (as most games - Death Stranding, looking at you here - can’t get away with asking the player to sit through thirty-minute cinematic cutscenes or 1,000-word text blocks to establish characters or setting) and to cede a much larger degree of narrative control to the player than in passive media. Outside the most rigid, on-rails game structure, the speed at which a player completes sections, or the order in which they encounter them (if at all), or the choices they make can and should have an effect on its pace, direction, tone, and outcome.

This isn’t always to the narrative’s benefit, and there’s a degree to which the audience has to accept the limitations of the form: I have fond memories of reaching the final stage of Fallout 3’s linear main story which I knew ended the game - you sacrifice yourself Spock-style to fix a live reactor and restore water to the wasteland - and deciding to go check for anything I’d missed on the map first. So I left my dad and a variety of other characters waiting for me outside the reactor and headed off into the wilds for several days, discovered the very silly “Republic of Dave” and rigged its elections, helped a rogue Mr Handy butler robot out and generally goofed around until eventually returning to find everyone still waiting for me, po-faced, to take the Noble Sacrifice way out. (A sacrifice that was itself ridiculous: by this point I had so much radiation protection gear and drugs that I could have spent hours inside the reactor with nothing more than a suntan.)

The most common, and simplest in terms of how much player buggering around you have to account for, is the gated linear narrative (not an official term): by completing a mission, or reaching a geographic point, or otherwise completing an objective, you unlock the next part of the main story, whether told through character conversation, cutscene, conveniently abandoned audio log, or just your next mission text. In this kind of structure, your game’s mechanics - combat, resource collecting, exploration, puzzle solving, etc. - and the speed the player uses them sets your game’s overall pace, and the unfolding story acts as both a reward for engaging with those mechanics in the first place and as a way of contextualising the player’s actions. As game mechanics are typically quite repetitive (there’s a reason it’s referred to as a “core gameplay loop”), a good story or engaging characters can create a lot more attachment and engagement in a player than the simple dopamine hit of Numbers Getting Bigger by itself.

Rise of the Third Power

Which brings me round to Stegosoft’s Rise of the Third Power, a weirdly overlooked indie JRPG which was one of my games of last year largely on the strength of its storytelling.

For context, I’ve never been a big JRPG player (for the uninitiated, the term derives from the classic Japanese RPGs of yesteryear - the Final Fantasy series being a classic example - hence the “J”, but the term refers mostly to the mechanics nowadays: you control a party of characters, (usually) turn-based combat in which you choose individual abilities they’ll each use as you flit between them, an overworld map where encounters (usually) take you to a confined battle space to play out, after which you get XP and loot to share around). The furthest I’d gotten into one prior to last year was Yakuza: Like A Dragon, which is a homage to the genre as much as an example, and absolutely bananas. I’ve generally been put off by stories and characters who sound incredibly stock/tropey (or else completely nonsensical), settings that seem too wishy-washy to care about, and sometimes… let’s say the kind of uncomfortable character presentation choices that can give gaming a bad name. However, I’d picked up Stegosoft’s first game, Ara Fell, for peanuts in a GOG sale on the back of reviews calling it a hidden gem. And it is: thoroughly wholesome without being twee, a fairly stock hero’s journey story done well with fun characters, funny when it wants to be and dramatic when it should be, and with a really solid bittersweet payoff to its narrative and characters.

So, when someone mentioned Rise to me late last year, I jumped on it. It’s a bigger game with a more complex setup: a fantasy world loosely based on post-WWI tensions and the aftermath of a destructive but inconclusive war, and with a strong Game of Thrones skullduggery angle in that two of those former combatants, Arkadiya and Cirinthia, are about to cement an alliance and long term peace by marrying their respective heirs, except the baddie Arkadiyan emperor is planning to then stage a false flag attack by Cirinthia’s former wartime ally Tariq and use it as pretext to conquer them before taking over Cirinthia itself. Your initial party consists of ex-pirate Rowan and gung-ho rogue Corrina, breaking into Cirinthia’s royal castle the night before the wedding in order to get in place to kidnap the bride on the orders of a resistance movement who want to show Princess Arielle the truth of the nation she’s marrying into and so stop Arkadiya’s schemes and avoid another brutal war.

From there, hijinks ensue. I won’t go into the specifics of the story, or the other characters you encounter (though they’re all good fun). Suffice to say, things go awry and twist and turn, and you slowly come to learn more about the characters and why they are as they are - and discover through some of the cutscenes that they’re not being entirely honest with one another, or not what they appear.

Avast, cur! Literally a vast cur.

This is something that even in the brighter and breezier Ara Fell, writer Evelyn Rose Hall did really well. Characters have motivations, personal interests, and will act accordingly even if it’s to their detriment - and learn as a result, or fall. This helps provide friction and tension within your main cast, and the bad guys, quite separate from what the plot’s doing and the ongoing efforts to thwart the ambitions of a quasi-fascist/Stalinist empire.

The story’s pacing, as moderated by the need to fight through encounters or solve simple exploration puzzles to unlock the map, is solid too, and the mechanical benefits (better gear and abilities, more characters in your party - each with their own story - are satisfying). Fights are very fast, and while some maps can be a little too large (sewer/tunnel sections especially), it means that things develop steadily because you’re never far from the next step forward. Side-quests are also mostly sensibly short, meaning they can’t interrupt the flow of the main one too much; it’d be very hard to derail it the same way I did that old Fallout 3 game.

Hall also makes good use of cutscenes between chapters to move the wider story along, and pause points - an evening at an inn, a chance to explore town, etc. - to switch focus to a single character and allow them to wander, talk to others, and see how their individual arcs are progressing before plunging back into the main narrative. (I’ve always mentally called these “campfire scenes”, and they work well here in particular because the main cast is quite large and these give them room to breathe.) And she makes bigger, more dramatically important scenes longer, gives them time to sit, characters to interact and reflect their importance, in a way that less vital ones don’t.

A campfire scene on a ship, though campfires and wooden sailing vessels are a poor match

The underlying narrative isn’t wildly reinventing the wheel in its broad strokes - it’s your basic thwart-the-evil-empire romp in a GoT-does-interwar-Europe world - but it doesn’t need to. It’s a slice of solidly entertaining adventure with some great dialogue and a proper dramatic arc to it, where the game mechanics mesh well with both the story’s content and its tone, and help to pull the player into seeing the characters overcome the challenges in front of them. All while never - tunnel sections maybe aside - forgetting to be fun.

Really, consistently good. One of the best games I played last year, and as good an example of a thoroughly pleasant gated linear interactive narrative as you could hope to find.

Arise From The Dead, Again

Frosty strawberry leaves.

/Blows dust off a pile of old HTML.

Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?

An elderly spider scuttles out briefly into the light. Behind it, dozens of hollow shells of cast-off skins and past generations of mates sway in the circulating air.

Dear god, it’s been ages since I’ve used this. As always, I’ve been very busy, and then the back-end of this site was a pain in the arse to get working again.

It’s also been tricky figuring out what to do with it, given that I don’t want to talk about anything editor-related as I’d never want a client thinking I was talking about them (I wouldn’t, because it’d be enormously unprofessional and also make me a terrible person, but you see what I mean), I don’t write quickly enough anymore to talk about writing anything, and I don’t read for pleasure enough to reliably say much about that (because of being busy with the aforementioned editing). At the same time, Twitter’s (currently) going down the shitter, Facebook’s algorithm is madness, and where else am I going to shout into the void (I am technically on Mastodon as but that relies on me making use of it).

But I do have a couple of very geeky hobbies that have tangential relevance to writing and storytelling which I can get into without worrying about anyone taking it the wrong way. So all being well, and assuming I don’t break the site again, I’m going to try to talk about those here when I don’t have anything desperately interesting on a personal level to yell incoherently about. Which is to say, most of the time.

Now, let’s see what this button does…

A Note On Hibernation

I suppose if you’re going to miss a year out on a rarely-used blog, 2020 was a great year to pick. Sure, there have been worse ones, historically, and there’ll be worse in future, but still. Obviously I’ve not kept this place updated/in use the past couple of years. Pre-pandemic, that was down to the technical chicanery behind the scenes (auto-building it through cunning use of Dropbox) ceasing to function (the aforementioned Dropbox and AWS default server settings), making it a real pain to manage. And then everything ground to a halt, and here we are.

And that’s been the main reason for going quiet; between home-schooling during lockdown and a lot of people using their time shut indoors to write - and thus needing a freelance editor for their novel or short stories, I certainly haven’t had the time for this place even if I did have anything interesting to say.

Anyway, I’ve managed to replace the technical chicanery (all the files that make up the site are stored in Github, which can auto-build and send everything to AWS for hosting) and if you can see this post, it’s worked. In theory, and ideally, it might get more use because I can post from my phone like the Good Old Days. But don’t fret if everything goes quiet for another 18 months; it just means I’m working.

Review: Summerland

The stars have aligned. The Old Ones stir in their sleep. The great sky wolf has devoured the moon. And I have finished reading a book*.

It’s Hannu Rajaniemi’s Summerland!


In short, it’s a pre-WWII Brits-versus-Soviets double agent spy thriller as both sides try to meddle in the Spanish Civil War to push either Franco or a little-known Georgian emigre on the run… from the overmind that now runs the USSR. And half the secret service are dead, operating from the afterlife - the titular Summerland. One of whom is a mole for the Russians.

That might sound more batshit than it is; the existence of Summerland - and the ecto-technology that allows communication with and exploitation of the dead and the land beyond - is presented as such a fact of life, that it’s clear from very early on that the story is going to be about questioning the effects of its existence both on the political world and on the human level, where the long-dead still run their affairs back in the world of the living, rather than about, hey, dead people, isn’t that weird.

Rajaniemi does a great job of humanising both central characters - demoted field agent Rachel White and Summer Court spy for the Soviets Peter Bloom (no spoiler on that; the story’s not a case of whether he is the traitor, but why, and whether he can be caught) - to the extent that the story doesn’t have an antagonist as such; it’s just a messy situation on all sides.

The plotting is intriguing, the pace snappy, and the style very lean. If I was to split hairs, I’d wonder (having gone through similar) whether the sequence of events in the closing section was as originally intended or changed in editing because as well as introducing concepts and capabilities much less steadily than in the earlier stages, it also greatly ramps up the physical action. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the climax, though; it’s just a little different tonally to what’s come before.

Summerland is a great book, and one I’d very much recommend.

* Obviously I finish other books across the year, but that’s work; dissecting something when the author’s paying for short story or novel editing services isn’t the same as reading a book for fun.

Oh God, It’s Been A Year

I remember the crazy early days of blogging. I know, I know - Grandpa Rickards remembering things! Ha! Yes, I know what you children are saying. Don’t know you’re born, with your Snapchats and your electronic-books and your Face Book. I used to blog every day. Twice, some days, if I was bored or drunk enough. And people used to read things on the internet back then. You had to make your own entertainment, see…

Seriously, it’s been a year since I’ve both remembered the blog exists and had a moment to type something. Must get better.

Part of the problem is I’ve been very busy with freelance editing work - I think I’m on four novels done (copyedits or critiques) so far this year, with I think a couple of dozen short stories thrown in for good measure. I tend to try to hide from words when I’m not working so typing blog posts for no one’s amusement but my own… no.

(Part of the problem is also: it gets harder to remember how each time since it’s such a peculiarly Byzantine system the site runs on. Smart Focused John set it up cleverly five years ago, but Modern Tired John only barely remembers how and there are numerous hoops through which to jump.)

Anyway. A lighter couple of weeks beckons and my god I need to look less like I’ve died. So, welcome to Stuff I’d Recommend From The Past 12 Months Or So! In no particular order:

  • Wonderbook, 2018 edition (Jeff VanderMeer): I’m an unashamed fan of VanderMeer and I enjoy a good storycrafting book, so this was a no-brainer. It’s different, looking more at the ideas side of the process than all that structural stuff that’s in every other storycrafting book (though there’s some here). Big, bright, colorful, and a thumping brick of a thing to actually try to hold and read - great. Thoroughly recommended.
  • Invisible Planets (Ken Liu, ed): A collection of 13 Chinese SF shorts. A couple didn’t quite hit the mark with me, but some are very good, and that’s the joy of collections like this; if one entry doesn’t float your boat, there’s always more.
  • Three Moments Of An Explosion (China Miéville): Speaking of collections, there’s this. Again, some stronger than others, but some are very good indeed.
  • Angels With Dirty Faces (Jonathan Wilson): There was a World Cup last year, and I ended up reading a bunch of history-of-football-related stuff, of which this, the footballing history of Argentina, was the pick of the pack. Fascinating, especially in the interweaving of the social and cultural context.
  • Most Of The Early Discworld Books (Terry Pratchett): Teenage nostalgia kick, from Pyramids onwards (I think - #4, right?), but I’d forgotten just how good - and how short - they were.
  • The Thing Itself (Adam Roberts): Weird meditation-on-divinity meandering SF(?)-a-thon. Good, though I think it was at its strongest in the opening stages, but whaaaaaat.
  • Normal (Warren Ellis): Fun novella, a locked-room mystery about a psychologically-damaged cultural trend analyst exploding into bugs.
  • The Victorian Underworld (Kellow Chesney): Research for a thing, but surprisingly interesting and engaging.
  • Junkie Love (Joe Clifford): Joe’s a nice guy (in digital form, certainly), and you need that wry humor because holy shit what a hole to climb out of when he was younger.
  • Annihilation: The film, that is. Not a slavish adaptation of the book (which is very introspective, and probably impossible to turn into a film), but a superb capturing of its spirit and themes. Beautiful, and also horrible.
  • Return Of The Obra Dinn: It’s a game, and one that topped just about every decent ‘best of 2018’ list in December for good reason. Not only is it a brilliantly-crafted, and beautifully presented, whodunnwhat covering the individual fates of the 60-odd (mostly missing, some skeletonized) crew of an early 1800s merchant vessel, it also makes you feel like an absolute Holmes-level genius when, through what feels like your own mental efforts, you correctly identify a man purely from the type of cravat he wears. My only regret about playing it through is that I’ll now have to wait until I’ve forgotten who everyone was and what happened to them all before I can play it again.

There’s probably more (and there’s loads I wanted to read over the past year - even now, Max Booth III’s The Nightly Disease is staring at me from the shelf - but haven’t because I also read a lot less when I’m working more), but the RSI is creeping up on me and it’s getting late.

tl;dr: Not dead, just busy.