Today Midlife Gamer is pleased to bring you part three in our series of interviews with games writers who went on to make games. In case you missed them you can check out part one here and part two here.
Ashton Raze is a freelance games and fiction writer, writing reviews for the Telegraph and currently Gamespot. He’s also co-writing the upcoming Richard & Alice with fellow journalist Lewis Denby, as well as finding time to release a book of short stories with his debut book Bright Lights & Glass Houses.
Hi Ashton, thanks for taking the time to speak to us,What made you decide you wanted to try your hand at writing games?
Hello! Well, I have always been interested in writing fiction. When I say ‘interested in’, I actually mean I spent nearly a year trying to sell a novel for it to fall through at the last minute, and went into writing about games as a brief break from that. I have never gone back to trying to sell the novel. I have another novel, Bright Lights & Glass Houses, which isn’t really a novel so much as a short story collection. I’ve always thought that gaming would be a great medium for a short story collection, and that the narrative possibilities of video games are interesting, varied, and would present a challenge for a fiction writer. And I love playing games and talking about games, so writing a game seemed a natural next step as a fiction writer (in this particular instance).
Do you feel that your experience in working in games media has helped you when it came to writing your game(s)?
This is quite an interesting question because I’d say it’s both yes and no. It’s certainly helped in regards to knowing how to talk about the game, knowing who’d be interested in taking a look at it etc, but I think if anything, the game dev part helps with writing about games, rather than the other way round so much. I think having an understanding of game design, of the limitations, the restrictions, the whys of how games get made, is a pretty important thing for a critic. Obviously playing a lot of games is going to help in designing a game, but only to an extent, I think there’s a cap how much it helps. Developing games will continuously give you a better critical understanding of other games.
Did you approach any contacts in the industry about your game beforehand, or even discuss it with colleagues in the media?
Well, I discussed it with celebrated industry professional Lewis Denby. This was important for two reasons. One, it helped me shape my thoughts on the game, and two, I’m making the game with him, so if we hadn’t discussed it then I imagine we’d probably end up in a bit of a mess. Actually speaking for him for a moment, the reason I’m working on Richard & Alice was because Lewis ran a game idea past me to see what I thought of it, then later asked me if I’d come on board as a creative consultant. This ended up evolving into a co-created game, but if you’re looking for an example of speaking to colleagues in the media about a game, this seems like a good one!
I do talk to other colleagues about the game, but that’s more because they’re friends whose opinions on video games I trust rather than that they’re specifically games journalists, although ideally the two things go hand in hand!
What challenges did you face writing your first game?
Oh boy. Well, my first game was actually this fantastic Triple A title: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SIABJaaf6s which was written by me and programmed by Tiarny McNulty. It was totally legit, we were part of a bundle and everything. We faced challenges such as the screen turning pink, finding a stock photo that was smug enough for our purpose, hoping people didn’t take us seriously etc.
With Richard & Alice, the biggest challenge I’ve faced personally is writing the majority of a plot that wasn’t originally mine. I’ve enjoyed that a lot though so I wouldn’t call it a challenge in a negative sense, but it’s the first time I’ve worked with characters, scenarios etc that I haven’t created myself, so that was quite interesting as a writer.
For the other game I’m working on, which is called inhale/exhale (this is an exclusive reveal as far as I know. Exciting!) the biggest challenge has been trying to create a certain scene that requires meticulous pacing, but allowing the player to utterly control that pacing. Hopefully it’s worked. I’m looking forward to showing this one off (we’re looking for an artist at the moment) when I can, and talking about the amazing scriptwriting engine Tiarny’s created from scratch. I don’t know how much I can say about that yet so I won’t say anything.
How nervous were you about letting your colleagues get hands on with your game?
This question has now made me think I should’ve been more nervous than I was. Our goal with Richard & Alice was to create a point and click that addressed/bypassed a lot of the problems Lewis and I have with point and clicks, which I feel like we’ve achieved, and… I don’t know. Honestly the main reason I wasn’t that nervous was because I didn’t handle sending it out, and had no idea who it had been sent to. I did have a bit of a heart-in-mouth moment when I saw John Walker over on RPS had posted a preview up, which was countered shortly after by him saying some of the nicest things anyone’s ever said about my writing, which was a pleasant surprise!
How strange have you found it having people write reviews/previews about a game that you developed/wrote?
Very, actually, although I don’t really know how to expand on this because I can’t really justify why. What was strange though was finding that someone had done a fully narrated Let’s Play of Super Tower Defence and posted it on YouTube. It was my favourite Let’s Play ever.
Has your experience writing games had any effect on how you now approach writing about other games? And do you feel there are advantages to trying both sides of the coin?
Ah, yeah, I touched on this earlier but yes, definitely. I don’t buy into the ‘critics should have made a game’ school of thought, but I do think to be a better critic you benefit by being in a position where you’d be capable of approaching the creation process in question should you so wish. If you understand how and why things happen, obviously you’re going to be in a better position to analyse them when they do. I think if you want to improve as a games critic then making a game is definitely a viable way of doing so, although simply talking to developers, reading and learning about the development process etc is beneficial too. If you’re a journalist, find out why stuff happens rather than simply commenting on the fact it does, and it can’t help but positively influence your journalism.
Would you recommend other writers try their hand at developing games?
Yes, because it’s fun, and I think everyone should try their hand at developing games if they want to. There are loads of brilliant tools for people who can’t/don’t want to code, and there’s never been a lower barrier for entry into games development. What’s nice about this is the lower barrier has enriched gaming, rather than diluting it. There’s some fantastic stuff out there made with GameMaker, AGS, Stencyl, Inform7 etc.
Recently I’ve been playing around in Twine and I made this: http://www.ashtonraze.com/Simmons.html - it’s a short horror game, entirely text-based, and was incredibly easy to put together. I love that stuff like Twine exists. Go try it!
Are there any other games you’d like to work on in the future? – Can you talk about anything?
Well as I mentioned I’m also working on a game called inhale/exhale with Tiarny, which we’ll be releasing for free sometime in 2013, but it’s the precursor to a much longer adventure game which I’ll be able to talk more about next year. There’s also a game idea I’ve been bouncing around with someone else who’s answered these questions actually, but I won’t say who (okay it’s Christos) which is totally different to anything I’m working on at the moment.
If we’re talking ‘massively well-known games I’d like to work on’ then it’s always been a dream of mine to work on a Silent Hill game. And I’d love to revive the Phantasmagoria series because who wouldn’t? Activision, if you’d like to hire me to make a new Phantasmagoria game, I am more than willing.
And finally, tradition here at Midlife Gamer dictates I must ask, what’s your favourite biscuit and beverage? (Jaffa Cakes are not a biscuit!!)
Gold bars count as a biscuit, right? The biscuit type, not actual bars of gold, I hear they’re not so good dunked in tea. And beverage, hmm, probably tea.
To read more about Richard & Alice you can check out our hands on preview here.
Stay tuned for part four coming soon, and don’t forget to use the Twitter button below for a chance to win a copy of Squeaks Dreams as featured in Part One