Outside the Box

Outside the Box
Story Time with Agent 47

Michael Cook | 20 Jan 2009 11:57
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Tom Francis is a man who knows all about getting his love of games across to the reader. As one of Britain's best-known PC gaming journalists, it's unsurprising that when he chose to write a gaming diary for the website of U.K. magazine PC Gamer, readers flocked to read his account of sweeping space strategy. "I'd just reviewed [Galactic Civilizations 2], so I knew how long even an average match could take to play," he says. "I was just curious as to what the logical extreme of that would be like."

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The logical extreme, it turns out, was to set all of Galactic Civilization's settings to their maximum and play on the largest game map possible. Tom's curiosity was finally satisfied 20 days later, after many dramatic entries and a good deal of unhealthily-long gaming sessions, and he emerged from his centuries of interstellar warfare with hundreds of readers following intently. But what made the story work? "GalCiv always generates great stories, because of the cheeky A.I. and the huge scale you're playing on," he says. But undoubtedly, it's also the quality of the writer that makes the difference. Like any form of storytelling, spinning a great yarn is a skill that takes time to learn, and even the most noteworthy stories need a strong voice to tell them.

What's most noteworthy about Tom's foray into spectator gaming, however, is that a few months after his adventure concluded, he began to plan the next one - and this time, he'd be in print. Tom's sequel to his Galactic Civilizations escapades was similar to the original, only this time with peace on the agenda rather than total domination. Yet Galactic Civilizations isn't a very widely-played game, so is there a universal appeal to reading about someone else having fun?

"I was consciously writing for the uninitiated rather than GalCiv players," Tom says. "Some game diaries are very in-depth, and others go the opposite way to the point that it almost reads like fan-fiction. I think both types are kind of a turn-off for people who don't play the game." With PC Gamer planning to release more game diaries in the same vein in coming issues, Tom must have done something right. Writer and blogger Chris Livingstone agrees.

"While [Galactic Civilizations II] is not a game I ever plan on playing, I found his journal a lot of fun to read," he says. Chris has been writing with gaming as his inspiration for years, but he's best known for his webcomic Concerned, set in the universe of Half-Life 2 and shot by Chris himself using in-game resources. Charting the course of Gordon Frohman, an "earnest and hardworking" citizen in the oppressive regime of Half-Life 2's City 17, it paralleled the plot of the hit first-person shooter with quick humor and a great feel for the game's world.

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