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Points of light, pools of shadow (part I)

Last time I wrote about the writing process for Echo Bazaar. This time, it's about the writing itself.

We've spent a lot of time working on the Echo Bazaar style. We're constrained in several ways; firstly and most obviously, this is an interactive narrative. You-the-player have a relationship with the text that involves you putting choices and interpretations into it to create a narrative that's personal to you. Much of what this post discusses applies to fictional prose more generally; I want to discuss the ways in which the EB writing style supports all kinds of interactivity, not just the choices of narrative direction. Most - if not all - reading functions with input from the reader at some levels; no text is without room for interpretations of scenery or motivation. Echo Bazaar is more interactive than most, though.

The first consequence of our extreme kind of interactivity is that we (mostly) use the second person singular present tense, which doesn't exactly feel like the most natural way to write fiction when you start doing it. But you get used to it, and one of the things it does do is focus your mind on the second vital constraint: the fact that you’re writing to facilitate the player’s experience of the world and the game. We're telling the player what’s happening, but we shouldn't be telling them how to feel about it. We're giving them information they need, but we need them to feel that they've chosen how and when to get it.

Keeping the player's sense of agency intact is a key function of the prose in Echo Bazaar, in other words. We also need the text to stand to both repeated readings and readings in variable orders. Each storylet or opportunity is, in fact, its own micronarrative, a self-contained story as well as part of a bigger story (which will be an episode of the overarching narrative). So the words we use to write them have to maintain their integrity on multiple levels.

Constraints mean rules. And rules lead to unexpected opportunities. We started with the rules that any good writing guide will give you; the interesting part is the way we use them to support and enhance specific game and story effects. Better writing style means a better narrative experience, in other words, and in a substantive way, not just because we try to lay off the purple prose* for the sake of aesthetics..

So. Rule one. Anyone will tell you to avoid passive verbs. If it can be said in the passive, you can find a way to rephrase it with an active verb. But for an interactive narrative, it can be tempting to use them for effect, to make the reader the subject at the centre of the sentence - 'you are led through the garden' - and spare the need to specify who's doing the leading. But on reading, it has the opposite effect. A passive verb takes the illusion of control away from the reader, both in the text itself and in how they react to it. When you don't even know who's leading you through the garden, you're not in control.

The second rule is just as well-known. Keep it short. Don't waste a word. Cutting what's extraneous always, always improves the text. Even if it didn't, we don't have the luxury of space on the screen. But more importantly, Echo Bazaar is made up of replayable microfictions. Each chunk of text is just a mark on the road, but the road is actually a labyrinth made up of a million little loops, and you have to circle most of them more than once before you find the next section.

We need players to be able to read each piece of text several times without feeling this breaks into the flow of their game. There should be enough in the text to ensure you'll get a little something extra from the second, third, maybe fourth reads - and further, this should be the best way to read them. By which I mean, we know that when playing a game like this, people's tendency is to skim the text. It's what's in between you and your stat bumps. But the second and third times, even an eye that's skimming will take more in, and the text will sink a little further into your mind and add details and colour to the impression of what happened. Very tiny amounts of text aren't rich enough to support this, and very large blocks of text just invite the eye to skip over them altogether. We aim for exactly short enough.

This is closely bound up with rule three: colour, incident and detail are the keys to making the text rewardingly rereadable. In purely prose terms, the right kinds of detail are like focal points in a painting. (But remember rule two. Less is more. We want to aspire to Rembrandt or Vermeer, say, not Van Gogh or Picasso.) This is the way to write prose that shines in its simplicity. And it's essential to making the game playable in a non-linear way. We need it to make narrative sense that something happens several times, so we can only be specific in some ways and have to be unspecific in others. We can't specify when in the player's own narrative a scene is taking place or how many times it's happened to them before. But we can anchor the scene in details of where or how it takes place.

This is not to say that we hedge everything. We do commit to absolute facts about the world of the Neath, its geography and historical chronology. We have to, in order to provide a solid structure for the player to travel in. So for example, the Pale Wastes are always going to be to the north of London. But there are times when the narrative that belongs to the player is better served by refusing to commit to concrete facts. So we probably wouldn't say 'No one has ever returned safely from the Pale Wastes'. Instead, we'd probably go for '..they say few, if any, have survived the Pale Wastes'. This version allows for things to change in the past or in the future. It creates ambiguity - how reliable are 'they'? - which in turn creates space for players to make their own decisions and shape their version of the world accordingly. But we can only do this because the solid foundations are there. Knowing when to use a few ambiguity-creating words is key to writing for Echo Bazaar.

Established facts and fluid continuity make the game work, but we need rule three to emulsify them into good writing, Without colour and light, and details that are specific to a scene or a character, the world would be a lot duller. It's those one or two points of light in the painting. We want them to be as evocative as possible - but we want to make sure that the player carries the burden of shaping what's in the shadows that fill 90% of the canvas.

For example, we might use an image of red threads of firelight playing on a glass of cognac in a devil's hand. This works narratively - it happens every time you visit said devil, because he's a creature of habit. And it creates a much more vivid sense of place and atmosphere than a general description of a warm stuffy room with a fire crackling in the grate where you might be offered brandy by a devil. You can feel your eyes focusing on that shifting, glowing, oily amber surface, and the rest of the room, the warmth, the furniture, the shadow, is already there, wrapped in that one detail. More importantly, it belongs to you-the-reader. You create and shape it, because you're allowed the space to do so by what's not in the text. Re-reading supports and enhances the effect. The familiarity of the scene is comforting; revisiting the devil, seeing that tiny image again, brings back the memories of his room that came from you, not from our prose. In short, pungent details combined with re-reading make a powerful contribution to interactivity.

[To be continued.]

*Not that there's anything wrong with a few violet patches. They say the Ars Poetica is the origin of the term; it's worth remembering that Horace was complaining about ornate details that don't belong in a scene at all, like a dolphin in a wood or a boar out at sea. And Horace was a flat-out genius, and actually the AP might contain all the advice a writer will ever need.