One of my favorite things is looking around and seeing the success of the people I’ve “come up with,” for lack of a better term. Folks I wrote with in various gaming industries: folks like Mur Lafferty or, drum roll please, Rich Dansky. Rich is a guy responsible for a lot of games you probably love, and he’s also a helluva fiction writer. Here he is emerging from the ones and zeros to tell you about Vaporware:
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF: WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?
I’m the one who knocks, and then, if you don’t answer, leaves a note saying I was there and will be back another time, and if you want me to bring pick anything up for you, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.
Beyond that, I’m a 14 year veteran of the video game industry with Red Storm/Ubisoft, working mainly on the Tom Clancy’sseries and games like Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell. Before that I spent four years in-house at White Wolf as a line developer on games like Wraith and Mind’s Eye Theatre. I’ve published six novels and a short story collection, I’ve got a scotch collection that is the envy of beast and man, and I spend far more time watching Finding Bigfoot than any rational human being really should.
Also, I live in North Carolina, I’m married to the brilliant and lovely statistician Dr. Melinda Thielbar, and I once shoved my hands into a vat of liquid nitrogen. That about covers it.
GIVE US THE 140-CHARACTER STORY PITCH:
What happens when a video game refuses to be cancelled? Blue Lightning is back, and it wants something only its creator can give it.
WHERE DOES THIS STORY COME FROM?
It comes from a lot of late nights and long hours. It comes from a lot of “no shit, there we were” war stories swapped with friends at other studios on other projects. It comes from a gamedev I know telling me “Don’t tell my wife, but if it was a choice between my family and doing something cool, I’d risk my family.” It comes from thinking to yourself, “good, my wife is going out of town so I can work later”, and from getting the call two days after you get married that you need to get back on the road again. And it comes from looking around at a roomful of coworkers late at night when no one wants to be the first one to go home.
At the same time, it comes from the passion of working in games – of banding together with a dozen or a hundred or a thousand other people to make something that is expressly designed to help people have fun. It comes from watching something go from a squiggle on a whiteboard through prototyping and development to the point where you see it in-game and it’s suddenly real. And it comes from seeing that creative vision manifested and real.
There are a lot of things I love about working in video game development – the projects I’ve worked on, the collaborations I’ve gotten to be a part of, the places I’ve gotten to go – but at the same time it asks an awful lot of you, and unless you draw and guard your boundaries, it’s going to keep asking for you to give more. I’ve lived that more than once, and I’ve had friends go through it at a dozen different studios, and it takes a toll on both the gamedevs and the people in their lives.
And yet we keep coming back for more. And that, I suppose, is where the story really came from.
HOW IS THIS A STORY ONLY YOU COULD’VE WRITTEN?
Two days after I got married, I got a phone call from work saying they needed me at a third party studio out of the country. And I went. I know the perils of work-life imbalance in the game industry pretty well, and I’m painfully aware how much of that can be self-authored. Between what I’ve seen and done, and the stories I’ve been told by friends and professional peers, I think I was perfectly situated at the intersection of skill and experience when Vaporware decided it needed to be written.
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT WRITING VAPORWARE?
The hardest thing was, I think, being so attached to the material. So much of it felt fraught with significance. In a lot of ways, it felt like I was putting this out there for the gamedev community as a whole, and if I’d gotten it wrong it would have been like I was letting them down. That’s not to say that I’m claiming to speak for all gamedevs with this, but there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what we do. So this was a chance to show that, yeah, we do work hard and we do take what we do seriously as professionals. Maybe too seriously sometimes.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN WRITING VAPORWARE?
I learned to trust the material. The book went through a lot of versions, and I think for a long time I was over-cautious with it. Maybe I didn’t want to risk getting it wrong, maybe I wanted to show off too many of the nuts and bolts, but I did a lot of over-steering on the manuscript through about the first five or six drafts. Eventually I had to just trust myself that I knew the story I was trying to tell, step away from any externally imposed direction, and let myself write what I already knew I was going to. The story was always going to end this way. It just took a long time to come to grips with that, versus where I might have foolishly wished it to go instead.
As my wife says, the horror of my fiction is that people don’t change.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT VAPORWARE?
Vaporware is such a personal project – they say “write what you know”, not necessarily “write what you’ve been immersed in completely for a decade and a half ‘cause you may not have the best perspective on the thing when you’re done” – that in a lot of ways it was difficult for me to look at without attaching real-world associations to whatever I was looking at. I mean, it was definitely a labor of love, but so was Van Gogh hacking off his ear. It wasn’t until I put it in the hands of other game developers I knew for feedback and they told me that it felt it rang true that I was really able to relax around it and start enjoying it.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME?
I broke one of my cardinal rules writing Vaporware, which is to say I started editing before I’d finished the full manuscript. And of course those edits changed other things, which changed other things, which necessitated more edits, and it was /this/ close to just sort of spiraling out of control into the land of “someday I’m gonna finish”.
GIVE US YOUR FAVORITE PARAGRAPH FROM THE STORY:
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” she said briskly, stepping toward the door. She stopped and looked at me over her shoulder. “You’re going to pretend that you didn’t tell me what you told me. I’m going to pretend that you were just working late, like you always do. We both can pretend that I’ve already nagged you about spending too much time at the office, and that will be the end of it. Because, honestly, a little more suspicion and resentment is going to do this relationship a lot less harm than you asking me to believe you saw one of your friends screwing a ghost.” She blew me a kiss. “Don’t forget to pay the Time Warner bill, OK?”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU AS A STORYTELLER?
Well, J.C. Hay and I have wrapped up our sasquatch noir detective novel, and Splinter Cell: Blacklist is coming out in August. Beyond that, I’m working on a vampire novel and a raft of short stories, and trying to catch up with all the book reviews I owe PW and Sleeping Hedgehog and everyone else. Honestly, when it comes to writing projects, I’m like a cat with a laser pointer. Lots of pouncing, lots of slamming into walls and telling everyone I meant to do that.
Which, of course, I totally did.