The Gamemasters

The Gamemasters
The Contrarian: Roll the Dice

John Scott Tynes | 6 Sep 2005 12:01
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The third time I went to GenCon, the big tabletop gaming convention, I was a freshman in college with no money. I borrowed my parents' minivan and an inflatable air mattress, drove to Milwaukee, and lived in a parking garage for four days. I slept in the van, ate Slim Jims and string cheese I stole from a gas station on the drive up, and every morning I'd do my best to get clean in a public bathroom with paper towels and a bar of soap. I was a hardcore gamer, but I refused to surrender hygiene.

You do these things for the one you love.

My love in those days was tabletop RPGs. A month later I loved 'em so darn much I started my own game company, Pagan Publishing, and for the next twelve years I produced books and magazines for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. I was obsessed with games, and all I wanted was for tabletop games to be the greatest thing in the world.

I did my best. We made great books, won awards, and had critical acclaim out the wazoo. But our audience was tiny, even by tabletop standards, and as the years went by and my friends were getting married, buying houses, owning cars, and not eating frozen burritos, I began to wonder if toiling in poverty was worth it. We ran our company as if we were Al Qaeda, living communally in a flea-trap house, doing everything online, surrounded by cheap food, loaded guns, and plausible deniability. We played a lot of games, rolled a lot of dice, and believed we were changing the world - a small part of it, anyway.

One day I did some freelance writing for a computer game company. They sent me a check - enough to buy frozen burritos for a year. My brain exploded.

Unfortunately, so did the brains of the people who played that game. It was Acclaim's long-forgotten title, Magic: The Gathering: Battlemage, a game so flawed that it shipped broken - you had to download a patch to even make it work, and "downloading patches" was kind of a wild-eyed idea in 1997. My first experience was a disaster (except for the paycheck), and it was years before I tried again. But already I knew one thing: I hated writing branching-tree dialogue with a passion, or at least branching-tree dialogue for a game whose only permissible conversational outcomes were Gain Money, Gain Card, Gain Territory, and Enter Combat. ("New underwear on Christmas is more fun than this," raved Gamespot, and they were right.)

The next time I wrote for an electronic game, I was in better company. Bungie Studios hired me to write for them, pre-Xbox, and as a Marathon fan I was jazzed. I wrote a big, epic story, a real gut-churning tale of empire, conquest, and mystical destiny. It was rich with symbology and put the player in the role of a true conqueror, laying waste to entire regions with the forces at his command. I still love that story, to this day.

Bungie canceled the title. I was not batting a thousand in this bold new medium.

The problem was perspective. I wanted to take my expansive tabletop visions and realize them on screen, make them extensible and responsive, have characters who grew and even changed their minds when you least expected it. I imagined a wide-open world of dynamic elements in which themes had mechanics just as detailed as bullets, where subroutines equaled subplots and plot twists, not rocket launchers, spawned nearby.

These are not the traditional strengths of videogames. I had a lot to learn.

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