Since I’ve created thirteen video games and written two novels I’m often asked how the process compares between the two. This is a complex topic, but here goes one stab at it, focusing on the generation of the idea.
The idea part 1: The What
Both games and novels start with a basic idea, and it’s essential to focus on what’s important. In both cases, this is a creative process, imagining something blurry and only partially formed that calls out to you.
Games are about gameplay, so this is then a question of gameplay genre. Not the Horror vs Mystery type of genre, but what kind of game is it. Generally you start with one of the proven gameplay types: Platformer, shooter, driving game, sports game, etc and then try to bring something new to the table. For Crash Bandicoot, this was “character platform game in the vein of Donkey Kong Country, but in full 3D” (there were no 3D platform games when we started).
With novels, the core idea is also genre, but the meaning of this is different. In starting The Darkening Dream, I had this image come into my head – and some might consider me disturbed – of a dead tree silhouetted against an orange sky, a naked body bound to it, disemboweled, and bleeding out. The sound of a colossal horn or gong blares. The blood glistens black in the sunset light. Bats circle the sky and wolves bay in the distance. But sacrifice isn’t just about killing. It’s a contract. Someone is bargaining with the gods. Complex ideas are the intersection of multiple smaller ideas. To this I brought a desire to reinvent the classic Buffyesque story of “a group of teens fight for their lives against a bunch of supernatural baddies trying to destroy the world.” But the twist is that I wanted to ground all of the magic and supernatural in “real” researched historical occult. This defined the book as a kind of supernatural thriller from the get go.
The idea part 2: The Who and Where
Part 1 gives you a core, or germ, of the project, but to start moving with it you need setting.
Again, looking at The Darkening Dream I had this disturbing image in mind. This was a vampire moment, but not exactly your typical one. For years, I’d been noodling on my own private vampire mythos, grounded in a kind of religio-historical thinking. Coppola’s Dracula, for example, has Vlad’s dark power grounded in rage and the Christian god forsworn. But I liked the idea that the most ancient of vampires was far older than Christ, perhaps older than civilization itself. This got me thinking about Neolithic religion. Pre-civilized peoples were essentially shamanistic. The shaman (sometimes called a Witch Doctor) interfaces between the people and hidden powers, both wondrous and terrible. What if one of these men, millennia ago, struck a dark bargain: blood for life. And so was born the idea of the vampire blood gods, dark deities of old forests, of sacrifices bleeding on trees, of gnashy gnashy teeth, slick with blood. This held the key to a ancient vampire explanation grounded in belief. Gods created and fed on faith, instead of the other way around. And the blood gods are not alone. Other ancient gods might still linger, diminished, but still powerful. There seemed a natural synergy between their fate and the syncretistic quality of human religion. As the belief changes, so does the object of said belief.
This meta-idea is very complex, a kind of world setting rooted in history, but reaching back to basics, novels are fundamentally about protagonist and the drama generated by the obstruction of their desire by opposing forces (often antagonist). I tend to think of the antagonists first, but this is a little backward. I knew I wanted a teenage girl, mostly for reasons of contrast with these sinister villains. She too, should be a dabbler in some school of occult-religious power. I like the idea of magic involving hard work and study, call it bookworm power, so I conceived of this studious girl, kind of an older Hermione Granger, daughter of a scholar father with a hidden past. As a heroine, she seeks to use her growing skills to “do the right thing” but all such power if fraught with danger, and her naivety gets her in way over her head.
This magical-religious thinking lead me to a conflict between the old (superstitious?) way of thinking and the modern (technological?) world. I was drawn to a number of cusp points, but settled on the eve of World War I. That war changed the human political landscape, completing the process of casting down King and Church that had been ongoing since the Reformation. It also provided an era with significant room for sequels (WWI, WWII, cold war, etc.) and a freedom from cheap plotting shortcuts like mobile phones and the internet.
Snowball on the hill
Once you work out the basic creative concept for a big project, the rest of the ideas tend to flow outward from these first principles.
In world of The Darkening Dream I drew on historical and religious settings, people, magics, and sects to provide allies and enemies, creating their motivations out of their own peculiar frameworks. With Crash, the cartoon style of the world and the practical needs of the platform game drove decisions. Platform games (and many other game types) have Bosses and Sub-bosses. If Neo Cortex is the boss, then he needed henchmen (mutated animals and lab assistants) and middle management (the various Sub-boss animals). His island needed varied settings (read variety), but it was a jungle island, so this led us to island-compatible settings like beach, jungle, caves, etc.
In previous posts I discussed the differing importance of story to novels and video games, the origins of the magic in The Darkening Dream, and the history of Crash Bandicoot. Sometime in the future, I’ll probably continue this series by talking about production itself.