Zero Summer won second place in the Autumn 2012 World of the Season competition. The Zero Summer team – Gordon Levine, Tucker Nelson and Becca Noe – kindly answered some of our questions about the project, and working on StoryNexus.
What were the inspirations and influences in your world?
Becca: As far as mood and theme, most of my influences have been musical — Mumford and Sons, Daniel and the Lion, the soundtrack to Bastion. I always listen to “Down to the River to Pray” when writing Hallowed Ground (one of our subplots). As far as game design, plot, pacing? Red Dead Redemption. And Bioware. And Haruki Murakami.
Tucker: I didn’t really have a lot of experience with westerns growing up, so I’ve been boning up on western films: the Fistful of Dollars trilogy, 3:10 to Yuma, True Grit. I’m fairly sure William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Ray Bradbury sneak into the game sometimes. My Zero Summer playlist is pretty eclectic, but there’s quite a bit of Murder by Death and The Decemberists in it.
Gordon: Obviously we owe Fallen London a lot. My father read me Louis L’Amour when I was growing up, so there’s your genre roots. And our setting DNA goes straight back to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. But the moment-to-moment experience of Zero Summer is all about language — the way it’s used to make people feel something. And our sense of language is pure David Foster Wallace. DFW once said that “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” We’re trying to talk about humanness — personhood — in a really sneaky way: by making what’s really a challenging conceptual project look like a video game. Like a genre CYOA! But as Zero Summer goes along, that sense of genre will, we hope, gradually slip away — like it does in the best genre novels: Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Kay’s Tigana. All good fiction is genre fiction — commercial fiction. We hope Zero Summer is good enough to justify selling little pieces of it.
Has anyone helped you with your world? How did you find the process of collaboration?
Becca: Clearly Zero Summer is a team effort!
Tucker: Becca and Gordon are pretty much ideal writing partners. We’ve been gaming together for about eight years now. We all lived in the same building in college.
Becca: I don’t think any of it would be as good if we were writing alone in a vacuum. We all work on the main plot, and each of us writes one of the subplots.
Gordon: I do most of the heavy lifting on the main plot arcs and Cutting Your Spurs. Tucker writes The Harvestmen. Becca writes Hallowed Ground. We all do initial edits on everything, then it goes through me for a final edit/house style touch-up.
Tucker: With StoryNexus being completely online, collaborating has been surprisingly easy considering we all live states apart. The main thing has been staying in touch. There’s a constant stream of emails and we have conference calls every week or two.
What are your next plans on StoryNexus?
Gordon: More Zero Summer! We’ve only scratched the surface of the game. Right now there are maybe 150 unique storylets live. We plan to have around 1500 by the time we’re done.
Tucker: We’re hoping to have it done in about a year, with regular updates as we go along.
Becca: What’s immediately next is a little interstitial chapter for the game.
Gordon: Becca’s taking the lead on it. We can’t say much yet — but keep your eyes peeled: those of you wondering what happened to the Protagonist won’t have too much longer to wait. For a few answers, anyway.
Tucker: We’re also working on some fun little side projects in other media for Zero Summer. Keep an eye out for those!
Gordon: And for our next big content bloc — about 500 more actions of content. We hope to release it around the first of the year.
Do you have any advice for people creating worlds on StoryNexus?
Becca: Take it seriously. I say this is my part time job and I work on it every day. Set a small, realistic goal you can meet. Mine is 200 words every day. And just start doing it! Do a small project to gear yourself up. Commit to putting a lot of effort into it with no expectation of a reward. The whole first chapter of Hallowed Ground had a completely different first draft. I deleted all of it because it was awful.
Tucker: Don’t underestimate the amount of time and energy that a project like this can and will take. Make a list of things you want to accomplish. Prioritize the list. Then start checking things off.
Gordon: Go big or go home. It’s okay to start small and it’s a great idea to practice, but if you want to do something that matters, that does what fiction is best at — which is making people feel something, helping them understand a little better their own sacred humanness — it’s gonna eat some hours. Fiction lives on time and headspace and emotional energy. And I don’t mean it grows on them. I mean it eats them. A meaningful project — big, small or in-between — will eat you alive. Which is what it’s supposed to do.
And remember: it’s dangerous to go alone. Take friends.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Becca: I grew up on mid-twentieth century science fiction and fantasy and I studied Heian and modern Japanese literature in college. For a long time I was actually much more focused on drawing and illustration as an artistic outlet. Something to do so that I didn’t just have to write statements of intent for school applications and technical documentation for work. And now writing is all I do when I’m not studying to become a surgical technician. Free time, such as it is, is made of tea, video games, considering my wardrobe, tea, and archery. And tea.
Tucker: I’m a transplant to the south-eastern US from the Midwest. My day job is working asb a scenic carpenter building sets for a regional theater. Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly masochistic I direct, too. Free time is video games, bad movies and good scotch. My wife is a biologist who’s rapidly turning into an expert on vector-borne diseases, which means that during the zombie apocalypse, I’m either guaranteed to live or guaranteed to die.
Gordon: I’ve spent my professional life in the non-profit sector — first as a community organizer with the AFL-CIO, then as an AmeriCorps*VISTA, now as an administrator and grant-writer with a program developing low-income home-ownership. I’m a lifelong gamer and tabletop role-player. Writing something like Zero Summer has been a dream. I’ve always wanted to find a way to use games to talk to a large audience about “literary” themes — stuff that sounds too snooty for commercial fiction when you come right out and say it. Like what it means to live a good life. Like what the real cost of violence is. Like how to make language an ethical and emotional force. And that’s exactly what we’re doing with Zero Summer. I couldn’t be happier.