Ian Thomas

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Mind the Gap

I wanted to set down some thoughts on writing for interactivity and the concept of leaving gaps in your writing. My contention is that there are all sorts of spaces in writing which, if you leave with content un-specified, your audience fills in. In this way the experience becomes partly authored by your audience – the story becomes theirs to a certain extent, and they are much more tightly bound into it. This sense of them being an active presence within the story serves to heighten their emotional experience of it and heightens the illusion that the world is real. This applies in computer games, live action games, and in all sorts of other media.

The usual caveats – I’m not an academic and am unfamiliar with any theoretical work in this field. These are just observations I’ve drawn from practical experience, from trying out ideas and seeing how people react to them.

Character Building

I was first introduced to the power of gaps via live-action role playing – live games in which players take on character roles and act those characters in a setting someone has created for them.

Our live-roleplaying organisation Crooked House had run a series of events over the years where we very carefully and heavily briefed our supporting cast, defining their characters, relationships, aims and goals, so that they would seem to be real people within the setting and so that the player characters could have fun interacting with them. You know the drill – the town drunk, the officious police officer, the corrupt mayor, and so on and so forth. These briefs were very successful and made for good games. As we ran more and more games, those supporting cast briefs became more and more complex.

We’d left the players – rather than the supporting cast – to their own devices. We had been running games in a continuous campaign, where players created their own characters within the setting’s guidelines and then acted as those characters across a number of different events. Character depth and complexity evolved as those characters became more and more experienced within the game world and had histories and relationships of their own. So far, so good.

However, we decided to change tack and run a few one-off events with unique settings and characters that would only exist for the duration of the game. Naturally we would create briefs for the supporting cast, as we always did, but then we came to think about how we should brief the players.

It was clear that we should brief the players, as otherwise they would arrive at the event with no previous relationships and no world-knowledge. If we’d left them to their own devices they’d have spent most of the game finding out who each other were. We wanted to have them up and running from the first moment they set foot in the world; to know who they were, where they were, why they were there, their history, aims and goals and relationships with everyone else, so that they could have a chance of experiencing a character arc in the space of a single event.

Brief Encounter

At about that time I attended someone else’s event. It wasn’t a one-off – it was the fifth in the series – but it was the first of those events I’d been to. It was an event that included a lot of politics and history, and I was taking on a role that already existed in the game world.

My character brief arrived. 16 pages of rules, 11 pages on my character, 5 pages on my family, 3 pages on my geographical region, 5 pages on the organisation I belonged to, 2 pages on a voting system and 1 page of character stats. In total, 43 A4 pages. I had 43 pages to plough through, learn, and to use as a guideline while playing my character for a weekend long game that I had paid to attend.

Let me stress that there was nothing wrong with the game. It was enjoyable, many people got a kick out of it, but it was very, very writer led, and the 43 pages of brief hammered home to me that it was a style I wasn’t comfortable with. We could see that our supporting cast briefs were already heading in that direction, and so we sat down and thought about why we didn’t like this approach and how we could do something different.

To articulate the issues we saw with the 43-page brief:

  • It was horribly daunting as a player to be presented with all of this impenetrable-looking material – blocks of text on A4 pages.
  • It was impossible to learn all the detail, but it would have also been difficult to refer to it in game as it was out-of-game text.
  • I was a paying player, yet I felt that the writers were entirely defining the character and that it wasn’t mine. What if I ‘got it wrong,’ and failed to live up to the character that the writers had in mind? Would I be letting them down? Would I be letting the other players down? Inducing that kind of anxiety can be paralysing during play.

That final point was the thing we wanted to address most – how could we make it so that both the players and the writers brought material to the characters? And that the player’s didn’t feel they might ‘get it wrong’?

The answer turned out to be: leave gaps.

Pack Up Your Troubles

We evolved this technique over a couple of events. The pinnacle of it from our point of view was the 1950s ghost story God Rest Ye Merry, and it worked like this:

Once it was clear who was taking part, we contacted the players and asked them for a rough suggestion for their character – where they would like them to fall in a balance between physical/mental and social aspects.

We came up with an initial concept and send it back to the player just to check that they were happy with it. For example, “A garden designer who, unknown to the rest of the family, had a child from an illicit love affair and was forced to give them up for adoption” or “An Italian ski instructor who makes his living by seducing older women” and so on. We’d have a little bit of back and forth with the player to refine the concept, or they’d just leave us to it; but even when agreed on these concepts would never be more than a couple of lines at the absolute outside.

Six months before the event, each player received an in-character invitation from the master of the house asking them to Christmas 1954. It addressed them by character name, gave the name and address of the person issuing the invitation, gave the place that they were to go to, prompted them to buy a Christmas gift for someone and had a chatty line of prose from the master of the house saying how pleased he would be to see them – this line was customised for each character. For example, to a cousin ‘It’ll be lovely to see you back at the house – Uncle Godfrey’ or to his lawyer ‘Thank you for attending, I wish to discuss the drawing up of a new will – G. Northmoor’.

Then a couple of months before the event, each player received a briefing pack. This consisted of between 20 and 50 individual documents and props, including things such as:

  • The character’s national identity card, helpfully detailing their profession, address, and age.
  • Magazine articles from gossip columns detailing the public’s view of the character and their family history.
  • Copies of letters, postcards, notes and telegrams they’d received from other characters (that other character would receive the other half of the chain) and from third parties. These detailed historical events, asked for money, discussed family scandals and so on.
  • Personalised ornaments to hang on the family Christmas tree.
  • Cruise tickets, police reports, proceedings of court cases, blackmail photographs, photographs of ex lovers, invitations to art exhibitions, receipts for expensive furniture, programmes from seedy underground gambling dens, autographed movie star memorabilia, birth certificates for illegitimate children, aeroplane engine handbooks… you get the idea.

This pack fulfilled a number of uses for us. It gave the players a rough outline of their character, gave them crucial relationships, evidence of their character’s past, aims and goals and so forth. Without fully defining the character in any way. Providing effectively a skeleton of a character for the player to flesh out.

Some points:

  • It’s still a lot of material, but we’d hope instead of it being daunting, it’s like opening a gift – the player will have fun exploring the contents of the package and piecing it all together.
  • All of the items in the package are in-character. That means the player can – and should – take them along to the game. Not only does that make them easy to refer to in-game if you forget a particular point, but it means that the items have in-game significance and can give good play. Evidence can be lost, stolen, used for blackmail purposes; correspondence can be read by servants or room-mates; papers can be given as proof of identity… all of that material makes the game much, much richer.
  • Crucially, we tried hard never to be proscriptive about how the player’s character should feel about any of the events within the packs. Sure, they could see how the public thought of them – in public magazines. But we never dictated their internal motives or desires. Why did they give up their illegitimate child? Why did they abandon their lover at the altar? All we gave was the fact that they had done so, and it was up to them to justify it.
  • We didn’t define what had happened between the moments documented in the character’s history. Perhaps they took a trip abroad. Perhaps they had dinner with a lover. Perhaps they broke a leg skiing and were laid up for six months. Perhaps they went to war. That was entirely up to the player.
Into The Breach

We left gaps. And what we found when the event was over was that the players had more of a visceral reaction to their character’s experience than we’d seen in any of the events we’d run before. I came to the conclusion that it was because they felt that the characters were theirs, not merely scripted roles handed to them.

I started noticing gaps in other areas of storytelling.

Gaps Everywhere!

In The Gutter

Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics was the first obvious connection I made. He has an excellent section on the gutter, that space around and between comic panels. Comic panels are essentially frozen moments in time; the transition between those moments is entirely in the gutter i.e. inside the reader’s head. A gap that they fill.

In The Desert

Alexis Kennedy, who founded Failbetter Games and created Fallen London, has a concept he calls ‘fires in the desert‘. Much of the content in Fallen London is delivered in storylets, little chains of events. An event says ‘this thing happens to your character now’. Later, perhaps, you’ll encounter another event in that chain, saying that another thing happens to your character. But it is entirely up to you, the player, how your character got from the first event to the second event. Fires in the desert – the bright points of light are well defined by the game. The journey between points of light is obscure and left to the imagination.

In The Mind

I had also done a lot of work with Frictional Games, notably on their title SOMA. As a result I did some analysis of horror, and realised what I’d really known years before but hadn’t articulated – the most effective monsters are the ones that aren’t fully seen, but are suggested by faint hints – visuals, sounds and so on. Think of Alien versus Aliens – the first a horror where you barely see the creature. The second an action film where you see much more of it. Thomas Grip at Frictional knows an awful lot about horror theory, and repeatedly says that the true power of horror is what you can make happen inside the player’s head, not lay out in front of them.

The human mind is tuned to take bare suggestions and flesh them out – it sees faces everywhere, it imagines what might be making noises, it builds a mental picture from the scantiest evidence as your imagination goes wild. The best horror plays with this and relies on this. The mind can always, always imagine something more horrific than the best special effects can conjure up. So the best horror simply suggests, and lets your brain do the heavy lifting.

In The Words

Of course, this isn’t just about computer games and other interactive media. Comics, as above, is an obvious example medium – but I think the same is true of prose. The best prose fiction is often the sparsest. Words that only very roughly outline a character’s appearance or a scene leave much more to the reader’s own imagination and, to my mind, bring the reader more deeply into the story, making it their own.

To expand – after some Facebook discussion – on what I mean here: an awful lot of amateur fiction tries terribly hard to describe everything, putting in as many adjectives as possible. “He was 6’2″, had piercing green eyes, a scar on his temple, walked with a limp” and so on. Firstly, in my experience you simply don’t notice that level of detail unless you’re paying very close attention to a person (which they’re going to be weirded out by). It’s more like you get an impression to the person, the sort of social space they take up in the room. And secondly, consider lines like Agatha Christie’s “she was the sort of woman who wore limp dresses” or Raymond Chandler’s “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” How much more evocative are those? And how much more do they leave to the imagination?

Hey wait – this means written prose is interactive fiction. 🙂 (I’ve long thought this, even if it goes against conventional wisdom. I think raw prose is much more interactive than movies and the more realistic video games).

The same goes for experienced storytellers in the oral tradition – they can sketch out a scene in a few well-chosen words, and the audience fills in the blanks and are ‘there’.

In The Cracks

19th Dec – I’ve added this after a prompt from Jacob Garbe. Something I completely forgot to mention!

The human brain is particularly good at imposing patterns and structure on unrelated material. It makes stories out of fragments, smoothes out inconsistencies, and invents spurious justifications based on observable evidence. See also myths, legends, crackpot conspiracy theories, and ‘third time lucky’. And, in fact, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives to make them feel bearable. Again, it’s all in the gaps.

This is particularly useful, as Jacob points out, for procedurally generated story content. Where fragments might not actually connect, the audience can and often will invent those connections. Again, it’s a manifestation of Alexis’s fires in the desert.

As a good reference, Derren Brown‘s book Tricks of the Mind has some excellent sections on the way humans impose stories on random events.

Jacob also used terms such as ‘Apophenia’ and ‘Pareidolia’. Remember what I was saying about me not being academic?

In The Valley

But what about computer games? Well, here’s the thing… modern mainstream computer games leave a lot less to the imagination than old text-based or crude pixel-based games. There’s no ‘gap’ with the fully realised and rendered human character. Character customisation leaves a little bit of space for the player, but the more abstract the representation, the more space for the character to exist in your head. Go back to games you loved 20 years ago and I can guarantee that the characters you remember are far richer and more detailed than what’s actually on the screen.

We’re back to sparse vs detailed prose again, only in another medium. Referencing Scott McCloud again, he has a great section on how much easier it is for the human brain to read the emotions of a simplified form (cf. emoticons) than of a realistic representation (cf. the Mona Lisa).

Food For Thought

The human brain is a fascinating thing. When it goes into overdrive, it can take the merest suggestion of something and flesh it out into something fully formed. To go back to God Rest Ye Merry briefly, we had one player who’d encountered one of our ghosts – as fire raged through the house it burst into her darkened room, turned to look at her, and grinned evilly. At least, that was her description… but the ghost in question was a puppet, and we knew it had an inflexible neck and no way to look at her, let alone grin. The work of the moment had been done inside her own head after we’d built up a suitable atmosphere and presented her something only glimpsed in partial darkness. It’s all in the mind. That partial darkness was the gap, giving her space to add to the experience herself.

Breathing Space

In conclusion, my experience is that by deliberately designing to leave such gaps in your storytelling – in whatever medium – you leave space for the player to bring their own imagination to your world and to make it their own. By doing so, they are much more tightly bound into the world of the story, and events will affect them much more deeply – they will feel like they were ‘there,’ and the experience will mean much more to them on many levels.

So. Be fuzzy. Be woolly. Leave spaces. Keep the gap in mind.

Coin and Candle

I’ve made a book – well, a mess of 150k words that isn’t quite a book – into a download. It’s a sort of fantastical musical grimy flesh-and-metal magicpunk futuristic neo-classical god-knows-what, about a girl with synaesthesia and a golden bird. I wrote it in 2007 and never restructured it, but after some convincing from a couple of people I’ve decided to let it out into the wild.

You can download it as a PDF, as ePub, or as Kindle Mobi.

I don’t think I can do much better here than to quote from my introduction…

Author’s Caveat

This book isn’t finished.

Oh, I reached the end. I wrote this in 2007 as my first Nanowrimo project, just throwing down words on a page to prove to myself that I could.

I’d taken on a ridiculously complicated task. Multiple strands of plot, huge amounts of world building, characters all over the place, with no clear pre-plotted structure. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I got to 150k words, reached a sensible stopping point, and reworked the prose several times. But I couldn’t face restructuring it. It didn’t require minor surgery, it needed a rebuild from the ground up. In fact, the fundamental premise might be flawed.

And so it sat for 9 years. However, although it was a failure, it changed my world. If not for this book, I wouldn’t have realised that I could write. I wouldn’t be running a writing company today. If not for those three months of intense writing, my life would be very different.

One day, maybe I’ll come back. Throw away the book, but take the characters, the premise, and some of the world building and start again.

But for now, the characters have been mouldering a drawer for long enough. And I like them. Whenever I read this monster of thing that was written by a different person – me nine years ago – I find a lot to dislike and wince with embarrassment at. But I also find gems and surprises and things I love. Rikke’s synaesthesia, the Tall Man, Gift, the Prater, Temira, the golden bird, that impossible… thing… deep in the Core. Ratjacks, terflings, scowls and duels on Highside.

It doesn’t feel fair on the characters to leave them locked up any more. So here it is, warts and all. I hope you enjoy it. Consider this fair warning!