Today, Spooky Action at a Distance brings you something slightly different! We sat down to chat with Max Gladstone, John W. Campbell Award-nominated SFF and IF author, creator of the Craft Sequence novels (Last First Snow is the latest), Choice of the Deathless, The City’s Thirst and Bookburners. Below, he shares his thoughts about writing in the Craft universe for Choice of Games, what interactive and linear narrative share in common, and crafting choices with meaningful impact.
Thanks, Max! We appreciate it.
The Craft Sequence universe spans both interactive fiction and non-interactive fiction. What’s it like writing in the same world in two different formats? Do you think of interactive fiction as being a separate genre from non-interactive fiction?
Max: “Genre” is a very interesting word in this context—interactive fiction is a different form, for sure, and the stories crystalized around that form have developed their own genre markers. Think about the “Bioware RPG”: there’s the form of action RPG, a meld of real-time combat scenarios and “out of combat” talk in which most choices are made through a conversation tree. Then there are genre markers—like the way the games hinge on the navigation of party relationships and the development of romance. Those genres are kind of… orthogonal to what we think of as genre markers in non-interactive fiction, if that makes any sense? It doesn’t really matter whether the game has spaceships in it or not—is the game fundamentally about love, or blowing things up? Or something else entirely?
Choice of Games, the company with which I’ve worked the most, has an engine, ChoiceScript, that suggests the dominant form of the ChoiceScript game: a story in which time’s arrow flows in one direction, rather than, say, puzzle-based IF (think Myst) in which time doesn’t matter. So: the form strongly encourages stories in which entropy matters, stories in which you have a limited number of choices within which to find love, rule the world, or whatever—to maximize your character’s utility function. Buildungsroman. There’s also a dominant genre of ChoiceScript game, in which players attempt to accomplish big setpiece goals, but most of the variety comes from relationships: what characters you come to know, who you bond with.
So in a way, writing Choice of the Deathless and The City’s Thirst, I was writing a Craft Sequence story in a different form—but I also tried to write a story that was recognizably a Choice of Games story in genre, that is, one spread out through time (while most of my books take place in a constrained period), foregrounding romantic connections (romantic relationships feature in my books, but lots of my characters are sort of workaholics, which puts a bit of stress on the romance), and allowing players to set their own success or failure conditions and pathways.
All that said, you face similar challenges in conveying the world of the story to the reader: you want your reader, as well as your player, to know what’s possible and what’s not.
Are there techniques for building a coherent world or a compelling story which carry over from one mode to another? What, if anything, do you think is reusable between IF and non-IF? Have you discovered narrative techniques in IF which were then significant to you in conceptualizing or writing non-IF stories?
Max: Writing IF pushed me to think a lot more about moments of choice—not a big surprise, I know! But that sort of thing tends to get obscured in conversations about story logic. We say, in outlines or plot summaries, the character does this, so she does this, but this happens, so she does this—but each one of those points has a moment in which the character could decide to do otherwise. We learn about the character fundamentally through the choices she makes—and, this is the other thing I learned from IF, dialogue is also a choice. What words, what style, does the character use? Why? Does it work? And (and this is pivotal): what other choices did they have?
That last especially came from IF into my prose fiction. I like pacey stories, and I like watching characters work under stress—but if there’s only one thing a character can do to survive (say), then we don’t actually learn much by watching them make the right decision. But if they’re put in a situation where they could run, or fight, or try to talk their way out of the problem… Then we learn something by their choice. (This is a reason to let protagonists be good at stuff, by the way—if they’re good, they have the room to make choices, rather than going all in every hand.)
On a more basic level, the last couple years have seen me slowly and grudgingly learn to outline. IF drove this change (though collaboration completed my metamorphosis), because, well, if I’m writing prose and I screw up a chapter, that’s two thousand words to rewrite. I can do that in a morning, easy. But a given IF scene takes about four times as long to write, if not longer, because you need to give the player agency, even within a conversation. If I need to rewrite eight thousand words, I won’t be happy.
In IF, an independent person – the player – is allowed to have agency in determining outcomes within the world you have created. How do you manage player agency when that world exists not only within the game but outside of it – in a sequence of narratives that you control?
Max: I cheat like a bandit.
Seriously. I try to make clear how the games hook into the Sequence, but also to compartmentalize the games, so the player’s world in the games is not particularly visible to characters in the books. Choice of the Deathless takes place in Shikaw, a city we’ve never seen in the books, in a Craft firm I’ve mentioned in the books, but which is large enough that it won’t be weird if we never encounter the player character from Deathless. The City’s Thirst takes place in Dresediel Lex decades before we visit the city in Last First Snow, so while the PC does shape the world, there’s no reason for most of our viewpoint characters to remark on their contribution.
And because it seemed fun, a character from Deathless over whose gender the player has some influence shows up in my next book, Four Roads Cross. I think I got out of the entire book without gendering them once. It’s amazing what you can do without pronouns if you’re careful.
It is possible to read the Craft Sequence novels in nearly any order, but the story which results has different valences depending on what the reader already knows. (I am slightly sad I can never read Last First Snow and then Two Serpents Rise, just to compare the experience of going from the one to the other in that order instead of publication order!) Can you talk about managing information control between each novel? Do you think there are better or worse sequences for the reader to experience? And is the process of constructing sequences of information between novels similar to controlling information sequencing in IF – either inside a single game or between games?
Max: Good question!
I try to manage information flow between novels by embedding that information in character as much as possible—especially in characters with strong feelings about the information they relate. That offers a lot of freedom, really! Caleb, going into 2SR, has profound trust issues with his father, for good reason—and profound distrust of gods for related reasons. Temoc, going into 2SR, thinks of Craftsmen in general, and the King in Red in specific, as mass-murdering hypocrites. The greatest constraint I faced writing LFS was that the characters needed to inhabit those emotional realities by the end of the book.
The same, really, is true of sequels. I don’t tend to allow plot dominos to fall between books—if the characters are trying to solve a murder in one book, they generally won’t be stuck solving the same murder next book. Rather, emotional realities provide series continuity. Since I like “up” endings, this means that sequels tend to be in, gah, maybe dialectical tension?, with their preceding books—the emotional resolution of one book becomes the dominant emotional problem in the next.
Of course, this well-meaning intention breaks down as I hear the siren call of returning characters. Writing Four Roads Cross, I revisited Alt Coulumb, and the cast of Three Parts Dead—all of whom were still smarting from the last book! I tried to write a fun self-contained caper about a Craftwork convention, but the characters wouldn’t let me—they’d all screwed one another up too much in the previous book, and they needed space to work that out. I’ll write the fun caper novel one of these days, I swear.
All of this is actually pretty similar to connecting scenes in IF, in my experience. Rather than trying to present an infinite branching story tree, I determine what meaningful outcomes might result from each scene, what stuff will affect the character in the future, and carry those forward. Did we win or lose the case? Did you throw your coworker under the bus? For bonus reactivity, add one thing that carries forward which really shouldn’t—did you eat at the fast food place, or did you go out for steak? Let that determine whether the waiter at the steak restaurant recognizes you three chapters later.
So: focus on story and impact. Every choice should matter—but think really hard about what events and choices matter most, for your players as well as your characters—and why.