They say everyone has a story in them. So far, Jim has managed to conjure up three. He’s not quite made the bestseller lists yet, and searching on Amazon for his exploits won’t turn much up either, but Jim’s stories are not the sort that often make it into print. He’s been setting his tales of heroism, comedy and pet murder in the worlds of big-budget videogames – a sort of pixel fiction, if you will – and he’s not alone. It’s a trend that’s beginning to open itself up to the broader audiences of the web.
The concept of war stories is nothing new. The thriving worlds of after-action reports (AARs) have long existed, mostly hidden away in the undergrowth of online forums and web communities. For the uninitiated, it works exactly as it sounds – you play a game, and you tell its story afterwards to anyone willing to listen. It’s particularly popular among the more meticulous and strategic gaming communities, where the method of play is more unique to you.
Paradox Interactive’s line of rich historical strategy games is a shining example – it contains a multitude of options, statistics and ways of achieving victory, as well as a setting interesting enough to make itself worthy of a little roleplay. Their forums read like the blog of a TV history channel, mixing game accounts with footage and images from the real wars and eras they are describing, creating a surreal retelling of some quite famous and, in some cases, quite recent periods in global history.
But the work of our man Jim, a mild-mannered student from England, is part of a wave of writing that’s attempting to make the concept a little more mainstream. So far, his repertoire includes tales of his Roman family’s conquest of Europe in Rome: Total War, the life and times of a man mistaken for Agent 47 in Hitman: Blood Money and the beginnings of an alternate history of Ancient Egypt in the classic strategy game Pharaoh.
His work picked up steam when he was featured on the videogames blog RockPaperShotgun, culminating in a brief spell of fame among the blogging community and a spot in U.K. games magazine Edge as Website of the Month. But Jim himself was startled to reach even a hundred readers, let alone five-figure numbers. “Having a bigger audience than I expected was a nice bonus, but I don’t particularly enjoy expectation,” he explains, as he puts the finishing touches to reposting his Rome tale on a new blog. “You should be writing about things which not necessarily everyone will see. [Gamers] read them as some extra entertainment that they can identify with after they’ve played the game.”
Jim’s Hitman blog certainly managed that, as his hapless protagonist stumbles into the world of international assassination entirely by accident and approaches his missions in increasingly ludicrous ways, from trying to “secure” explosive suitcases in lifts to his unhealthy attachment to a nailgun. And it was Jim’s first-time enjoyment of the game that allowed his blog to generate this fun. “You can write a good diary on basically anything if you like the thing and can get that across,” he says.
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.”
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.
When Concerned drew to a close, Chris started up his gaming blog 1Fort, and subsequently began a game diary project set in the world of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. “I’d probably played about 300 hours of Oblivion and, while I still very much enjoyed being in the game, I was looking for a new way to play,” he says. What better way to do this, then, than to try and play as a non-player character, avoiding all possible avenues of adventure and instead spending time chasing butterflies and mixing potions?
If you’re already a part of Chris’ now burgeoning readerbase, then you’ll agree that there is no better way. Bizarrely, the tales of a man who runs from any source of possible excitement has somehow proved exciting in its own right, and the protagonist Nondrick has entered a month’s worth of posts, each detailing a day in his uneventful, life. What’s going on?
“There might be people who just enjoy the stories without ever having played [the games],” Chris suggests. “I was surprised to hear that a lot of people who read my Half-Life 2 comic, Concerned, had never played. I thought for sure it wouldn’t make any sense unless people knew the game.” But it doesn’t seem like this is the case; although a lot of people who read Chris’ blog and diaries are gamers, many of them haven’t played Oblivion or Half-Life 2. Instead, it’s the interplay between the game world and Chris’ own imagination that makes the entertainment. After playing the big hero for so long, it’s refreshing – and funny – to see someone do the exact opposite. “Every now and then I want to let him off the leash and tear through a couple dungeons, but it’s just not his style. So, I make him go pick weeds instead. Poor guy.”
So is this a brave new world for writers who game? Or will it remain a geeky subculture for gamers who write? Chris is optimistic that it could yet stake a claim as part of the “new media” approach to games journalism. “In the media, you mostly see reviews, and industry news, and who got fired from which developer, and how a game is selling. You have to watch the blogs and forums to find more personal stuff about gaming.” He’s right. As Jim, Tom and Chris gear up for a year of new releases and new opportunities for storytelling, it’s clear that the only thing the art needs is more readers and, perhaps more importantly, more writers. As communities strengthen and talents emerge, it’ll only be a matter of time before you get home, flick on some music and sit back with the latest copy of EVE Online Monthly. The only question is, if everyone has a story in them, what’s yours?
Michael Cook lived happily ever after.