Max Gladstone: Dance, Monkey, Dance! (or: Giving Players What They Want Without Destroying Yourself)

Max Gladstone is basically the smartest guy in any room. He may in fact not be human at all, but a benevolent alien to make us all better people. Just last week he riffed off of the new Star Wars trailer in a post tackling the myth of the Jedi –“Galactic History, or Galactic Folk Tale?” And this week here he is to talk about game design and, in particular, Deathless: The City’s Thirst.

* * *

“Play your old stuff!”

My friend Chris once called those the most vicious words in rock & roll. An artist stands pinned by spotlight, trying something new, and the audience cries back: no, thanks, do what you did last time!

Cue blood sacrifice of goats in hotel rooms, instruments smashed on stage, various substances injected into various veins, et cetera.

The worst part is, both audience and artist are right. The audience wants something they recognize; they want to connect with the selves they were in middle school when they first heard (insert That Song From Middle School here—you know, the piece that made you sit up and think, “They really get me!” Might be “One Headlight,” or “Sing,” or the Brandenburg Concerto). The audience wants to reclaim that first taste of forever. And there’s nothing wrong with that! The artist scorns the audience’s desire at her peril.

But the artist knows, too: nostalgia only goes so far. And while the audience is hungry to recover that moment the walls fell down, they also want the walls to fall down again—they want to feel the way they felt when they first heard that bass line—when those words crawled across the screen—when they warped into Myst.

The problem is, no one knows how to ask for that, because anything we know to ask for isn’t new, by definition.

So, where does that leave us?

And how does all this relate to skeleton lawyers, undead gods, and giant scorpions?

Good question.

Two years ago, I released Choice of the Deathless, an interactive necromantic legal thriller set in the world of my Craft Sequence books. Players take the role of a junior associate at a demonic law firm—that is to say, it’s a firm specializing in demonic transactions, not a law firm of demons, though there’s overlap—and try to pay off their student loans, make partner, find love, and survive to payday. I had a great time working on the game, it sold well, got nominated for a couple awards, and the publisher came back: we’d love a sequel!

You see my problem.

I couldn’t write the same game again. People who want to replay the last game can always do so—since the game’s text-based, it’s not even as if technology’s progressed in the meantime. The imagination’s as high-res as ever. A proper sequel also wouldn’t work. Players can end the first game dead or alive, working for the firm or not, in love or out, having made drastically different impacts on the game world. Crushing all those options down to a sequel hook seemed one step away from saying the player’s choices in the first game didn’t matter.

So I wanted a game that worked like the first one, but differently. Which meant asking, what was the first game doing, anyway?

This is an uncomfortable question. My first instinct is always to answer with a joke—to disarm, or failing that to run away.

“What is this game doing?” “Look! The Badyear blimp!”

“Why did you write $Most_Recent_Project?” *punches interlocutor in face* *adopts fake Russian accent* “VE ASK ZE QVESTIONS HERE, KOMRAD.”

“Really, I just want to—“ *Dons James Bond jetpack* *Rockets through skylight* “I’m sho sorry, but it sheems I have to jet.”

But since I was the one asking, I had to come up with an answer eventually.

Choice of the Deathless wrapped its setting around a question. The modern fantasy world I built, with skyscrapers and student loans and demons and necromancy, is complicated and morally ambiguous. In that kind of a situation, do you help others, or put yourself first? How much does power matter to you? Is the power you get by collaborating with monsters really power at all?

Writing these questions out, I realized they were internally focused. I kept asking the player: who are you? (Or: who’s your character?) How would you respond?

So, to explore the same setting from a different angle, I could flip the question. The first game was inwardly directed, so the second should revolve around the character’s goals and methods. Rather than “who are you,” I’d ask: “what are you doing?” How will change the world? What problems will you fix? What methods will you use? What’s worth the price you’ll pay?

And with that, I had the core of Deathless: The City’s Thirst — a world of dead gods and the wizards who killed them. The player controls a survivor of the God Wars, working for a necromantic water utility, trying to get enough water for a desert city that’s successfully rebelled against its bloodthirsty rain god. What will you do to save your city? What compromises will you make?

Whose side are you on?

From that seed, and months of crunch time, I grew a game. It’s out this week—we’ll see what people think!

There are other ways to do the same thing differently. You can keep the theme and change the trappings; you can keep theme and trappings but change structure to subvert or bolster either. Flip. Spin. Tell the story from the inside out. Change the angle. Add plot, or subtract it. Ask an old character new questions. (I love how Lois McMaster Bujold does this; every few books she throws Miles Vorkosigan an enormous curveball. Poor guy barely figures out the answer to one question before another smacks him in the face.)

But even so, at the end of the day some folk will just want to hear your old stuff.

You know what? That’s okay. You wouldn’t have played your old stuff if it wasn’t worth playing.

But this game, this story, will connect with some people in a way the last one didn’t. And when you next sit down to write, the new stuff will be old stuff—and people will want to hear that again, too.

On the one hand: great. You’ve grown your thematic range. You’re doing more work, better.

On the other hand… No pressure.