Stacking Stories To The Stars

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Lately, I’ve been playing Wildermyth, an RPG game about emergent storytelling. Playing a set of characters (and maybe guest stars) one adventures around, while choices, semi-random events, and so on come together. Characters become unique, complex individuals, small moments building to broad strokes – and may even become a “guest star” in later games.

I will probably write more on the game later, but I want to focus on how this game reflects good writing.

In Wildermyth, characters have a set of personality traits and abilities. As you play, these traits and other opportunities come together to give you narrative choices. These tiny moments create a grand epic – though there are “campaigns with plots,” you can also just play randomized games and let your own story emerge.

As I played the game, I realized this reminded me of good writing. Writing is about stacking stories atop stories to make a bigger story:

  • A book is a story.
  • The chapters of a book can (and should be) their own tiny tales.
  • A good scene is also a story, albeit one in context.
  • A single paragraph, done right, is a small story, leading from point A to point B.
  • I could even argue, in the right mood, a sentence is its own story. But I might not be sober.

It’s stories all the way down – and all the way up. I would say good authors realize most of this, and excellent authors understand this completely.

Think of how a truly delicious tale feels. Every part of it makes sense and is engaging, from a bit of backstory to a “just like them” piece of character quippery. Epic motions of the world make as much sense as the tiny pebble-starts-the-avalanche moments.

Less satisfying works lack this element, among others. Scenes exist without reason (and, “hey, cool backstory is a reason.”). Cause and effect have given up on a committed relationship. It’s a Frankenstory, without the spark of life.

The lesson I take from this is to remember the stack of stories that make up any one tale. Pay attention to the parts and the whole because you can’t separate them.

If you want a good example, well, I have a game to recommend . . .

Steven Savage

Further Thoughts on Social Media

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr)

I was discussing the Facebook security issues (the 2018 ones, if you’re keeping track), with my friend Serdar. Serdar is skeptical of many social media companies much the same way I’m made of carbon. But one of his comments got me thinking when he referred to “a one-armed bandit of gamified social gambling.”

At that point suddenly, a few things came together for me about social media problems and how they’re the same as another technological problem we’re currently fighting.

Social Media As Gambling

Yes we use social media to keep track of friends, schedule events, etc. But buried within far too much social media interaction is the attempt to get a payoff. We want a story to go viral. We want to reach a new audience. We want to see some new meme.

Thus we keep pulling the lever. Or reloading. Or posting. We might not calculate the cost/benefit because it’s fun, because it’s social – and because it is a lot like gambling.

Trust me, I’ve been here with everything from attempting to market my books

That’s when I realized it. Know what Social Media has become for too many of us.


Yeah. I went there. I just compared a lot of social media usage to one of the most controversial and hated things in gaming – and *I* have PAID for Overwatch Loot Boxes. Don’t get me started on my TF2 days.

But yes, too much social media has become loot boxes:

  1. Repeated usage.
  2. Hoping for a payoff.
  3. That is of limited value.
  4. Or very unlikely.
  5. And we’re compelled by chance and social pressure.

I’m still processing this realization. It’s rare I have thoughts that completely grind other thoughts to a halt, and as I write this (late the 21st) I’ve not grappled with it.

I do see one way forward though. Much as gambling isn’t reliable (if fun), we need to treat our social media and time as something more reliable – an investment. Sure some gambling is fun, but ask ourselves what risk and reward are, what the long-term benefits are, what the returns (not payoff) is.

Think about social media that way. Invest over gamble.

– Steve

“Will It Be Good” Is The Wrong Question To Ask About “No Man’s Sky”

I’m looking forward to No Man’s Sky, a video game of space exploration.  If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a game a few years in development that promises exploration of a giantic, procedurally-generated galaxy. It sounds like it’s going to hit a lot of my sweet spots with exploration, mystery, procedural generation, and visuals off of a prog rock album cover.  If you’re not up to speed on it, this reddit archive is helpful.

As the game promises a lot, comes from a small team, and has had it’s share of delays, there’s obvious skepticism out there in the world of gaming – at least to judge by the threads, discussions, and so forth that I see.. The question comes again and again – will No Man’s Sky be any good?

That’s actually the wrong question.

Clearly, the game has a lot put into it. Interviews with the developers and demonstrations show a serious dedication to the project. There are videos discussing the procedural generation that seem to show that, yes, this giant universe can be made. The idea of wedding modern graphics and procedural generation together to make huge, infinite worlds doesn’t sounds particularly outrageous.  Getting it to work sounds at least probable, and we’ve seen demos constantly that suggest it’s going to work.

From what I’ve seen of the game, I expect No Man’s Sky’s going to deliver pretty much what’s promised – a change to run around an enormous setting, find stuff, build equipment, and explore cool things.

The real question is not “will it be good” – it’s “is it going to be what people want?”  Any team this public, any team making these promises, would be foolish to screw this up.  The question people should ask is really is this a game you’re going to enjoy.

From what I can tell No Man’s Sky involves:

  1. Traveling in space.
  2. In space you may encounter places to trade and enemies to fight, if you want.
  3. If you choose to fight, you affect how factions regard you, and may be able to call for help in fights..
  4. You travel to procedurally generated solar systems.
  5. You land on planets which are procedurally generated.
  6. On the planets you find resources, catalog things, upload data, and maybe find odd and interesting stuff.
  7. There are probably some other secrets and things you can do to have impacts.
  8. Build new equipment with resources, and go back to #1.
  9. This takes place in a sort-of-shared setting that happens to be enormous.

To me this sounds great. It sounds like a game I’ll put a lot of hours into, and then play more casually, now and then finding a new planet to wonder at before moving on.  This is something I easily see me playing for 3-9 months in total because it pushes all my buttons.  This and Starbound will probably occupy my gaming space for 2016 and parts of 2017.

But it’s also cleary not a game for everyone. You don’t build homes or colonies worlds, you don’t lead fleets or create super-customized ships. There’s the simplest factional system. It’s a game about a journey, and it has both classic space game elements while lacking others.

I think there’s reason to have confidence in the developers, but when the game hits I expect we’ll see people both enthralled and disappointed with No Man’s Sky.  The game is going to not be for everyone, and that seems to be due to a deliberate choice about development. However with all the hype, I think there are people who are interested in the game due to hype, not if they’d actually enjoy it or only because they’ve projected expectations onto it.

Once it launches in June 2016, I want to watch the public and reviewer reactions.  Me, I’ll be exploring space.

  • Steve