The Imperium of Man just got Darker!

Dark Imperium is both the name of the new Warhammer 40,000 boxed set available from Games Workshop and the name of the accompanying novel from Black Library written by Guy Haley, by all accounts a prolific and entertaining wordsmith. He kindly agreed to do a short interview with us which follows below.

Dark Imperium

But onto the book!

Dark Imperium catches us up with the recent events in the Warhammer 40000 universe as Games Workshop move the story on, and push the fragile Imperium of Man that bit closer to the abyss. Whether or not you approve of the changes, Guy Haley certainly brings the entertainment. It is a good and rapid read. Starting with the climatic fight between Gulliman and Fulgrim after the Horus Heresy has ended (you know, the one that put Gulliman in stasis for, oh about 10000 years!) we then skip forward to the here and now, and Gulliman’s efforts to stabilise the situation and restore the Imperium. In using Gulliman’s viewpoint, we get to see a fresh take on the Imperium, and how far it has fallen from the high ideals of the great crusade. The loss of knowledge, the increase in superstition, and some home-truths about how the Emperor may have manipulated the primarchs and indeed humanity by not necessarily furnishing them with the whole truth. I found this fascinating, and having not read many Black Library books recently, a really good way of getting back into the universe and looking at it through new eyes. Unsurprisingly, both the new Primaris Marines and the Death Guard from the new box set feature quite heavily, and things are nicely set up for an encounter between Gulliman and Mortarion as the trilogy progresses.

Overall then, Dark Imperium is a good novel, a fresh take on Warhammer 40000 and an entertaining read that I would recommend.

As I mentioned above, Guy kindly agreed to do a short interview for us…

Hi Guy, thanks for agreeing to do this short interview. How are you today?

No problem. I am surprisingly relaxed after a frantic couple of months. The deadline fear will return soon enough, but for now I’m spending a few days catching up on my BL reading before my next project. It’s nice to have time to read!

Dark Imperium is your latest novel for the Black Library. How did it feel to be responsible for helping move the background forward in line with the latest edition of the Warhammer 40k tabletop rules?

Well, I was really, really pleased they chose me. That they’d ask me to write such an important book sort of indicated to me how much BL value my work, so that did a lot to dispel my usual authorly insecurities. I mean, I’m surrounded by stellar authors like Graham McNeill, Aaron Dembski-Bowden and Dan Abnett to name but three of my very talented colleagues. To be given a book of this magnitude of importance suggests that maybe I might be good as them one day.

Did you feel under any particular pressure when writing the book?

Absolutely. This is the single most important event in 40k since the Horus Heresy! The background is all new, some of it was still being defined as I began writing, I had to fill in a lot of gaps to flesh out the game world into a novel. Now, we do that anyway, but in this case I was tinkering with the very engines of the universe, rather than, say, coming up with cult practises for a minor chapter. To make sure I got it write I had a lot of back and forth with the Games Workshop Studio, which was great, because it is really, really important to me that what is in the game books is in the novels, and what is in the novels is in the game books. There was a collaborative feel to the process that has only grown since I finished writing it. Unusually for me, the scope and scale of the story changed while I was writing, necessitating the addition of some fairly major chunks. I usually write what I write then get the thumbs up. This time we agreed I needed to put more action into my second draft. So it was a challenging book to write, but worth it.

And of course, this kind of book attracts far more attention than some of the things I write. Pretty much everyone who has ever played 40k is going to be interested in knowing what happens in the novel, even if they don’t read it. That brings a whole new level of scrutiny. That makes me sweat a bit.

The story opens with the climactic encounter between Gulliman and Fulgrim – was it hard to write that part – so long a part of 40k lore – and them move forwards 10000 years to the “present” 40k story and pick up with Gulliman suddenly in a different era and yet still continuing the same war?

Not really. The battle at Thessala is such an iconic moment in the lore that I was dead set on writing it. In a sense, I kind of shoe horned it in, I suppose, because I wanted to write it. My excuse is that I wanted this book to link all eras of 40k together – the Heresy, the pre-Noctis Aeterna and the new now, with little hints to 40k’s deep time histories. That it is the same war is kind of the point. The Imperium thought it won the Horus Heresy, when in many, many ways it did not. The effect of that realisation on Guilliman is a major theme to the story, and I’ll be continuing that in books two and three. Did I mention it’s a trilogy? It’s a trilogy.

I know you are a gamer – have you picked up a copy of the new boxed set yet? The Death Guard models are disgustingly beautiful!

Of course! I have the boxed set and the new indexes. I played my first game last week. Good fun, though my Orks died in droves, then I lost.

I actually have a Death Guard army too. You can read about how I’m going about updating it on the Warhammer Community Website in a month or so. I love the new Primaris Marines too, I’m dithering over whether I should paint them as Novamarines or Blood Angels. Before that though, I’m working on a promethium refinery built from the new Sector Mechanicus kits. That’ll be up in a couple of weeks. Actually, I need to get on with it, so I’m cutting this answer short.

You also have released a number of books outside of the Games Workshop universes, particularly your Dreaming Cities series. How do you find the process of creating a novel differs when writing within or without such predefined constraints?

One of the reasons I can write so many books a year (last year, I worked out I wrote 650,000 words of fiction, give or take) is that I vary what I write, and how I write it. In my “own” fiction, I can make up whatever I want, and sometimes that is liberating and useful. On the other hand, writing in a shared universe with lots of restrictions makes you more creative. Sometimes that means it is easier, sometimes harder. For me, the important thing is to make sure I do a variety of projects.

A  number of the Bolthole membership harbour dreams to make it as authors. What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given that has helped you become a successful author?

 

There is no one piece of advice, I’m afraid. I always wanted to be a novelist, but I was a journalist for twelve years before I got a publishing contract. I interviewed lots of publishers, authors and agents in that time, and grilled them for tips. They all said different things. Being a journalist helped me the most. It trained me to write, and produce material of a reasonable standard to tight deadlines. However, I have also met a lot of would-be authors who aren’t and won’t be journalists. These are my top tips for you: Seek out advice from people who are involved in the industry. Don’t pester. If they help you, be nice. Do not be offended if what they say is negative (it will be to begin with), or let it go to your head if it is positive (which, once you get past a certain point, it will be). Join a writing group – I found that really useful, as there was feedback and an incentive to produce material. But above all, write. Nobody ever became a writer by not writing.

Finally, I recently became a father and I know you have a son. How do you find time to write?!

A lot of people ask me this, but in actual fact it’s no mystery: writing is my job. I work for about six hours a day usually, sometimes in the evening but mostly during working hours. My boy is nearly nine, he’s been at school for years, and is at an after school club three afternoons a week. I got my first two publishing contracts just as the last magazine I was on, Death Ray, went bust. My wife went back to work full time, I stayed at home. Even then I was working. It’s a job. We all manage to find time to earn our crust. It is significantly harder though when it is a hobby or an ambition. I remember that. You have to carve out time then, and that can be tricky.

Thanks Guy!

You can catch up on Guy’s Ork army and his terrain project over on the Warhammer Community website.

Next week we will have a review of the iconic Warhammer 40000 novel Space Marine by Ian Watson which is 24 years young but still entertaining!

Expect more reviews in the following weeks. We are also putting together a project reviewing the many Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, and I intend to update this blog with my attempts to put together a Space Marine army based around the new Primaris Marines. See the forum and the twitter feed for more, and expect some updates when I’ve got them!

If you are interested in contributing to this blog please contact Squiggle over at the Bolthole forum or on twitter.

Far Worlds: A Universe-Spanning Anthology.

Far Worlds

Across the unfathomably vast depths of space, the cylindrical nomad, known by some as ‘The Drift Engine’, travels the slow route between stars. Alone, it crosses the black gulf, where men freeze and stories die. But sometimes, it finds context amidst the void; intrigue, laughter, hate, madness and love, tales as diverse as life itself, in all its complex forms. The Far Worlds Anthology takes you on a journey to explore just some of these tales…

Good day my fellow Blogholers! It’s that time of a year again; the stars are right, and the latest Bolthole anthology, Far Worlds, is almost ready to escape its bonds and run amok across the universe (or the internet, whatever)!

This is the third of the anthologies produced and published by the Bolthole, and it has been my and He2etic’s[1] third time as co-editors, with ever-vigilant and grammatically merciless Hanna Gribble joining us as the final editor in our triad. This is also the third time the talented mister Mesones has lent his artistic skills to the beautiful cover art, pictured above.[2] But Manuel has gone above and beyond for this anthology, and has created illustrations for each of the main stories featured in the book.

Work started on our latest offering almost as soon as the last anthology, the engrossing Marching Time, was on the shelves. We have some returning authors, but also a slew of new faces, ready to impress you with their tales.

This year’s collection of short stories is linked together not by theme, as was the case in The Black Wind’s Whispers and Marching Time, but by setting. All the exotic far worlds depicted in the stories this year all takes place within the same universe, but otherwise could not be more different. We wanted to see our authors really go to town on creating whatever alien civilisation and story they wanted. No genres were off the table, from romance stories and comedies, to the more traditional speculative fiction and fantasy genres. Our only stipulations were that Earth could not be referenced, and that there were to be no shortcuts around the lightspeed barrier; if they wanted to leave their systems, it would be the long way round. Space is big, and we wanted it to feel big. Interstellar travel should feel like an almost insurmountable odyssey, not a long haul coach ride.

With such a vast canvas open to them, our authors have really delivered some great stories. Here are the main stories appearing in the anthology:

Anomaly, by Jonathan Ward
Rainer, by Heidi Ruby Miller
The Lost and Found, by Kerri Fitzgerald
Helzenthrax, by A. R. Aston
City Blue, by Edward Smith
Golden Planet, by Evan Purcell
A Pelnodan Bounty, by James Fadeley
Bequeathal, by K. Ceres Wright
Salvation Comes, by Simon Farrow
Endaris, by Michael J. Hollows
Alone, by Alex Helm
The War Room, by Michael Seese
Shard of Heaven, by Damir Salkovic
And finally, The Drift Engine.

In addition, a wealth of bonus flash fiction will be included to satiate your literary hunger. Overall, this will be the biggest, most jam-packed anthology yet, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it.

Thanks for reading!

[1] Real name James Fadeley to his friends, and the various bounty hunters on his trail…
[2] Lots of threes involved in this anthology it seems huh? Conspiracy theorists, feel free to go nuts!

Far Worlds will be released 25th March 2014, available at Amazon.com, in kindle and paperback format. For more information on the anthology and its authors, please visit our Facebook page, for author interviews, free goodies and art!

Interview with William King

Today we interview one of the Black Library fandom’s favourite authors, the legendary William King. He’s responsible for creating the iconic Gotrek, Felix and Thanquol characters in Warhammer Fantasy, and for writing the Ragnar series in Warhammer 40,000 and more recently the Tyrion and Teclis and Macharius series. He’s also written a number of stories in his own settings. William King

Your latest novel Bane of Malekith, the third in the Tyrion and Teclis trilogy, is out now. What was the writing process for the book? Can you describe how you go about working on a novel?

The second question is tricky to answer since the process varies from book to book. The Tyrion and Teclis trilogy was probably a unique case among all the books I have written. They were done one after the other in the space of about nine months and then revised in about another 5 months.

The trilogy was in many ways the easiest thing to write I have ever attempted. I set myself the goal of writing a minimum of 1000 words EVERY day come rain or shine and I pretty much stuck with that until the books were done. I even spent an hour writing in a Costa coffee house in Qatar in the middle of the night to keep up my unbroken run.

I spent many years brooding on the story which probably helped make things flow. I wrote the original outline for it way back in the early 90s in the first High Elf army book so I was pretty clear what I wanted to write. The characters themselves have been pretty strongly defined and mostly I just wanted to show how they became who they are today. I wanted them to be believable as heroes and still sympathetic.

Bane of MalekithAs for my usual writing process, it’s pretty simple. I almost always work from an outline – which is handy since Black Library requires me to send them one before they will issue a contract. This outline provides a guide for the actual writing. I don’t try to stick to it religiously. Some things that look great in the outline don’t actually work when you come to write them and conversely there are always things that take on a life of their own as they escape from your brain onto the page.

As I go through the first draft, I tend to stop and go back occasionally and rewrite things the light of what has happened since I wrote them. I put in foreshadowing, bits of stuff that I now know will be important to let the reader know about and so on.

Once I have written the first draft, I go over the book a number of times, trying to make sure everything is consistent. Sometimes there are large changes needed at this stage as flaws become evident. Eventually the thing is done, sent to the editors. More changes are often required at this stage. There is a backwards and forwards process until the book is done.

Are there any parts of the book that were a particular struggle to write, and any you are now especially pleased with?

As I said above this trilogy was probably the easiest thing I have ever written, with the possible exception of Daemonslayer, which was written after a similarly long gestation period. It was an enormously pleasurable experience. There are lots of things in the books I like – in particular the depictions of Aenarion, Caledor, Malekith and Morathi. In Bane of Malekith I like the way Malekith comes across. I also like the final set of duels between Tyrion and Urian and Malekith and Teclis. I am pleased with the opening chess game between Caledor and Death as well, which is, as I am sure many people will have spotted, a reference to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.Gotrek and Felix

Do you have any particular literary influences or sources you draw inspiration from in your writing?

Robert E Howard, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock and Tolkien all spring to mind. Less obviously Lawrence Block, George Orwell and, this is going to sound bizarre, Charles Dickens. He had a brilliant way with creating memorable characters.

Readers sometimes comment that you have a great ability to portray details of character or setting with just a few well-chosen words. Is this an element of your writing that you’ve consciously developed, or has it always come naturally?

See my comment about Dickens above. He has a knack for giving characters memorable mannerisms (Orwell comments on this in his essay on Dickens). It’s one of the things I try to do—like Gotrek running his thumb along the blade of his axe as he ponders violence. When creating a character I try and come up with three really memorable things—a look, a mannerism, an attitude and I build on it.

With settings, it’s the same. I try and find small details that will be convincing to the reader. I look for the sort of things that make me nod and think, yes, that’s how it would be.

How do you approach character development? Do you prefer to see how the characters evolve as the story progresses, or do you tend to plan out character arcs before starting to write?

I tend just to let the characters run from where they start. My basic philosophy of character creation is find characters you like and understand and then torture them. By this I mean cause them difficulties, take away their stuff, pick on their loved ones etc.

Again though, when I pause to think about things, I would need to add that this varies from book to book. Sometimes I have a definite aim in mind. With Tyrion and Teclis I wanted to show how they got to be heroes. With Gotrek and Felix and Grey Seer Thanquol, I just ran with what was happening in the stories and left the characters to their own devices. You can see what happened.

Writers seem to have different patterns when they’re involved in their writing. Is the writing process for you a lonely one or do you become more social?

I’ve never been the world’s most sociable man. I enjoy being on my own. I think it helps. On the other hand, it’s easy for me to say since I have a very supportive family.

You’ve been writing now for over twenty years. How have you found that the world of publishing has changed in that time?

It’s a different world now, completely and utterly. The single biggest change has come in the past five years with the rise of indie publishing and Amazon’s Kindle store. I have sold something like 40000 indie books in the past couple of years. The royalty rate on those books is something like 10 times as much as those on a conventionally published book so that’s a significant shift.

I think the whole industry is in turmoil. We’ve seen giant bookstore chains close shop and more and more people shift to e-readers. The process has only just started. That said, I do think Black Library is incredibly well-placed to weather the changes. It has its own loyal audience and control of at least part of its distribution chain

Fist of DemetriusCan you remember when you started writing, and do you have any advice for aspiring writers now?

I can remember it like it was yesterday but the world has changed so much that nothing I learned in terms of the business side of things would be useful today. On the other hand, some advice never goes out of fashion. Write what you love. Write the best stories you can. Read a lot. Write a lot. Don’t expect to be an overnight success. Learn to manage money. I know those all sound like clichés, but there’s a reason for that. They are all true and will most likely remain so for as long as people write books in the hope of selling them.

You did a lot of work on developing the Warhammer setting as a designer. Do you find that has made it easier or harder to write fiction set in the world, and has that changed over time?

It was easier when I started but it has gotten harder as the Warhammer world had been changed and expanded and so many more books have been written.

You’ve written in a variety of settings. Do you prefer working in an original setting of your own or with somebody else’s IP?

It depends! (You’ll notice a trend in my answers here as once again I sit on the fence.) In some ways writing in somebody else’s IP is easier because the world has already been created and you have very clear guidelines as to what is expected.

In some ways, writing your own stuff is easier because you don’t need to worry about what other writers may be doing. When I am writing my Kormak sword and sorcery novels or my Terrarch gunpowder fantasies, I am free to do pretty much as I please, up to and including blowing up the world if I want. I am pretty certain I could not get away with doing that (in Warhammer fantasy at least, in 40K there are a lot of worlds).

In Warhammer as more books are written by more writers, the number of things you can write about tends to narrow because somebody else may be doing something you would like to do.

Also, if I may introduce a note of crass commercialism into matters, if you are working in somebody else’s IP there is usually some certainty that there is a market for it and that you will be paid. If you are working on your own stuff, unless you are already a well-established writer, that is not a given.City of Strife

Who would you say is your favourite character among those you’ve written?

It’s really hard to make that choice, I like them all.  Gotrek and Felix come first but as a team!  If I absolutely had to pick just the one character, probably Grey Seer Thanquol. He was pure fun to write.

In your heart of hearts, do you prefer Dwarfs, or Elves?

Elves. Most of the time. Although I would probably rather go out drinking with dwarves.

After the conclusion of the Macharius trilogy, do you have plans for any more novels we should look out for?

There are some things being discussed but I am not allowed to talk about them at the present moment. Sorry about that!

Profound thanks to Mr King for taking the time to answer our questions! For more of his thoughts, see his blog at williamking.me

A Fond Farewell

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween!

It’s the night of ghouls, goblins and ghosts. And like them, I’m gone in the morning.

I’ve had a tremendous amount of fun finding and interviewing artists and writers. But as much as I’ve enjoyed it, it’s time for me to get back to focusing on my writing career. I’m stepping down as the main content provider for the Bolthole blog.

So what does that mean for the blog? Well, the community has pitched ideas and concepts. Many of which sound great and promising. And I’m sure the RiaR will continue. I hope they have an easier time overcoming some of the challenges and issues I faced, and hope they can find an enduring passion for it.

Time will tell.

But before I go, I wanted to give a huge thanks to every author, publisher and artist who contributed to the blog. Their time and insight have made this a treasure trove of lessons and wisdom. A titanic thanks to Manuel Mesones for the background. And both he and the rest of my friends for their enduring support in trying times.

It’s only fitting that it should end on the only holiday when we take off our costumes and wear our real faces, as Zac Gorman perfectly explained. Even if others don’t realize they do it.

So own the night while you can. Happy Halloween!

-James Fadeley

Bolthole Halloween Special

Halloween Wallpaper.

Happy Halloween from the Bolthole!

 

It’s almost that time of year again. To celebrate, we’ve reached out to members of the Bolthole and asked for their take on great scary fiction, be it games, movies or stories. We’ve emphasized shorter material, but here’s some reading music.

He2etic, here from space to scare the living hell out of you.

He2etic, here from space to scare the living hell out of you.

He2etic: If you’re looking for a great horror movie to check out, it’s got to be Stephen King’s The Mist. The story involves a number of survivors trapped in a grocery store, their town covered by a thick fog that hides predator monsters. But only half the hero’s problems come from outside, as fear gives a zealot antagonist undeserving power.

The film deserves high marks in every aspect. The special effects and variety of monsters are intriguing to admire. The actors and actresses fill their roles with rewarding efforts.

The plot explores its themes well and moves at the right pace, giving the characters time to reflect and react. Perhaps best of all, even King admired the changed ending. As King said, “The ending is such a jolt—wham! It’s frightening. But people who go to see a horror movie don’t necessarily want to be sent out with a Pollyanna ending.”

The Mist isn’t just a good horror movie, it’s a good movie in its own right. However, if you’re looking for something more traditional with monsters, check out Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

LordLucan, tentacled terror tormenting tale tellers totally!

LordLucan, tentacled terror tormenting tale tellers totally!

LordLucan: For classic haunted house kinds of horror stories, I found The Others, starring Nicole Kidman, and The Woman in Black to be quite well accomplished movies, that are great atmospheric films that build the tension and sense of bleak desolation and isolation of their characters well, and they don’t make the cardinal sin of overusing their ghouls.

Wolf Creek is another good Australian horror movie, which is very reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the slow build up is the most effective part.

I feel the best horror stories are actually unnerving and work best when a reader or viewer does not realise until later than something is terribly wrong. Too many lazy horror movies recently rely upon either excessive gore, or on the jump scare chord. Such films aren’t scary, they are startling, which is very different.

On youtube, there is a series called Marble Hornets, which I recommend folks check out if they haven’t all ready. Sometimes it falls back on the jump scare, but I find this series is scariest in the videos you have to re-watch. Then you start noticing somethig going on in the background. Something the characters in the videos don’t seem to realise is there… (gotta love the Slender Man, the greatest of the creepy internet memes)

The most horrifying film I’ve seen though, I would say, is Threads. However, don’t go into that film expecting to be entertained. Harrowing, relentlessly bleak and it gave me restless nights when I first saw it, I can tell you.

While I don’t recommend it for its actual quality of the story itself, folks should read Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, as it is one of the earliest examples of a Gothic Horror story, the ancestor to later horror staples like Dracula, Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde*, and Frankenstein.

*(Incidentally, it bums me out that Doctor Jekyll and mister Hyde’s has been permanently and culturally spoiled for every single person in the world. When I read this book, it didn’t really work for me, but in the day, when nobody actually knew who Hyde was, it would have made for a brilliant mystery story, with the mother of all twists.)

Vivia, because the Robot Devil says HELL...o.

Vivia, because the Robot Devil says HELL…o.

Vivia: Great finds on iTunes: The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas app! It has the well-known opening sequence and actors of all kinds. It looks awesome and what is not to like about radio dramas? Not cheap though.

The H.P Lovecraft’ Collection for 22 SEK!  As usual the Swedish rating is totally bonkers: 4+. Yeah, I’m sure of that, because  children of that age can read and want to read horror stories.

The Year Walk, a game based on Swedish folklore in the 19th century, the worst type of century. I’m so tempted to buy it, the graphics look nice and I read all about the beings in the game (Scandinavian type of faeries). But reading from the reviews it’s a horror game with supernatural elements and better played with ear phones. Snow, red cottages and things, I know all about and it frightens me. It’s a unique game play experience, art mixed with story. The indie game The Path comes to mind, another creep game I recommend.

House on Haunted Hill, with the wonderful Vincent Price. He is a must-see on film and TV. Watching his films were big entertainment during Friday evenings when we were children (not entirely healthy for small kids I admit). His films are on YT so go there to take a look.

He is also on ITunes. Classic BBC Radio Horror: The Price Of Fear among many.

The incorrigible Corrigan Phoenix!

The incorrigible Corrigan Phoenix!

Corrigan Phoenix: For a game, try Slenderman: The Eight Pages. You can generally get it for free with the right google search, and for scares its perfect.

You are a lone man, deposited over a razor-wire topped wire fence into a compound. Your goal is to find and collect the eight pages that all hold facts on the legendary slenderman. The trick is, as you collect more pages, the man himself begins to follow you – the more pages you collect, the less time you can spend standing still.

The creepy setting coupled with a fantastic score and decent lighting graphics make this my top-scariest game ever. Give it a try, let me know what you thought – even better, film your own reaction whilst playing it and share – give us all a laugh!

Mossy Toes. Because! ... just because.

Mossy Toes. Because! … just because.

Mossy Toes: “Hobo Lobo of Hamelin” is an anthropomorphized animal tale retelling of the Pied Piper tale. It appears to be a work in progress, so it isn’t complete yet, but is an almost wholly new use of the medium of webcomic-ery. Dynamic, shifting page environment, redolent with symbolism and layered imagery; heavy and cynical political allegory/disenchantment; the best use of music in an interactive medium since Bastion; I could go on, but I’ll let you explore it for yourself.

The Passenger, a short animated film about the perils of goldfish, the listening to of music, etc.

The Mysterious Explorations of Jasper Morello, the real coup de resistance. Half an hour of steampunk silhouette joy. With floating islands that have volcanoes on them (don’t ask how it works), floating balloon buoys that stay stationary without being anchored (don’t ask how it works), mad scientists, horrific creatures, virulent plagues, airships… and so on.

Check out the rest here! And be sure to check out Read in a Rush: Haunting for fresh stories!

“The Black Wind’s Whispers” Available in Print!

The Black Wind's Whispers, available now on Amazon.

The Black Wind’s Whispers, available now on Amazon. Just in time for the season…

For the first time ever, the Bolthole’s first anthology The Black Wind’s Whispers, is available in print. With new cover art by the amazing Manuel Mesones. Just in time for the Halloween season comes 9 tales of classic monsters re-twisted into new and horrifying forms. Includes the short stories of…

“Plague of the Krakenmari”, by Simon Howers.
“The Sculptor’s Torment”, by Jonathan Ward.
“Unmarked”, by A.R. Aston.
“An Old Friend”, by Keanu Ross-Cabrera.
“The Birth Howl”, by James Fadeley.
“Guardian”, by Alec McQuay.
“Since This War”, by Robbie MacNiven.
“Burden”, by Jeremy Daw.
“And Entombed in the Dawn”, by special guest C.L. Werner.

Order your copy on Amazon just in time for Halloween. And for the e-reader folks, there’s always the Kindle edition.

Interview with Stoic Studios

On March 19th, 2012, a team of three developers formerly from Bio-Ware put up a new Kickstarter campaign for a small, indie game called The Banner Saga. 20,000 backers and $700,000 later, it was 7 times over its asking amount, and one of the most successful projects ever kickstarted, putting Stoic Studios well on the map. Today, Alex Thomas, the Creative Director of Stoic Studios, found time to speak with about the process.

Alex Thomas, warchief of creativity over at Stoic Studios.

Alex Thomas, warchief of creativity over at Stoic Studios.

He2etic: When people think of making video games, being the creative director is often considered an absolute dream position. What are some of the realities and challenges you face in your position that you didn’t expect to?

Alex: Ah, well I think when you’re in the position you realize what a farce job titles are, especially in a small company. Yeah, I’m the designer, but I’m also the writer and the animator, and the marketing department, and the scripter and QA and producer. On top of that, the art director is also a designer, and the technical director is a designer and the composer is a designer, and so on and so forth.

I’ve definitely noticed that the game gets better the more loosely I hold onto the reins. Basically, you take the good ideas wherever they come from and argue against the bad, especially if they were your bad ideas. Letting go of “ownership” is important.

At the end of the day, nobody cares if your wife’s brother’s uncle came up with the best idea in the game, they just know whether they like the game, and that reflects on you more than anything else.

“Branching content is one of the banes of storytelling. We have over 20 “main” characters and almost all of them can die, leave or take actions on their own that you may not agree with.”

 

As for the hardest thing about it, it’s definitely restraining yourself. Everybody making a game wants to make the best thing ever. Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard. It’s very tempting, especially on a first project, to go completely overboard trying to prove yourself.

That’s not to say you start chopping good design, it’s just that you have to know when the game stops being a tight, well-made package and sprawls into an unwieldy abomination. Sounds easy, but… it’s the hardest part. That, and making something that’s fun. The line between fun and frustrating/boring can be razor thin.

The Banner Saga, by Stoic Studios

The Banner Saga, by Stoic Studios.

He2etic: Where did the idea for a game built around viking mythology originate from?

You’ve mentioned inspiration from Game of Thrones and Glen Cook’s The Black Company. Was there any other fiction that gave you ideas?

Alex: It’s interesting, we get asked a lot “why vikings”, but it really wasn’t something we belabored.

We wanted to make a fantasy game and we didn’t want to rehash orcs, elves and dwarves. Arnie’s family history is Scandinavian and when he suggested vikings we both went “yeah, great!”. That was the extent of it.

As for the inspiration, I did imagine the game to be medieval European at an early stage, because of influences from stories like Game of Thrones and The Black Company, and that deep-seated familiarity with The Lord of the Rings that I think everybody tries to separate themselves from.

I think the viking angle lets us take those inspirations and make them feel new and interesting. I’ve also been hugely inspired by The Wire, which I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in saying is one of the best TV series ever made, and The NeverEnding Story, oddly enough (not that there’s two “worlds” influencing each other, but the tone of the fantasy parts is pretty great).

“The challenge, but also the pleasure, is in giving the player a little bit a direction and letting them really identify with the characters on their own terms, instead of forcing them to. That’s pretty unique to games.”

 

The biggest takeaway from these things is that I wanted to have a huge cast of characters that come and go in unexpected ways. Not many games can get away with the big cast, but I think it’s what makes these stories so compelling.

You need to see things from multiple perspectives, and have people to hate and cheer for who aren’t static, and have their own motivations and desires. We can afford to have a character leave the party because he doesn’t like what you did. And by “what you did”, I mean a decisions you made, not a linear cutscene.

That’s something that most games could never do, and I think that’s the rabbit we’re chasing with The Banner Saga.

A scene from Banner Saga Factions, available on Steam.

A scene from Banner Saga Factions, available on Steam.

He2etic: Game stories frequently differ from movies, television and the majority of books for their ability to diverge into multiple story paths. What kind of challenges do you face developing a tale that splits into differing possibilities?

Alex: Branching content is one of the banes of storytelling. It’s time consuming, expensive, and inevitably means that one player sees the “optimal” story while others will see the “low content” or “low effort” version.

You can’t have big divergences in the story that are both equally good. Would a version of Star Wars where Solo dies in the cantina be as good? A good story usually builds on itself, and if you’re yanking out the foundation left and right the whole thing falls apart.

In that regard I think we don’t try to write a game that is divergent on every level. The team on The Witcher 2 did crazy amounts of content to ensure that one specific decision played out completely different than another. It was a single major branch that was an enormous amount of effort, and I doubt most players appreciated it at all, or even knew about it. They probably assumed it didn’t matter. Could the game had been better if that effort was put toward a single storyline instead? These are rhetorical of course, I can’t speak for The Witcher.

“We decided to build vertically instead of horizontally… The game is much longer than we originally anticipated, but the lion’s share of funding has gone toward quality.”

 

What we’re doing is similar to The Walking Dead. There is one critical path through the game, but what happens to the people around you is what is important.

At the risk of getting philosophical, isn’t that kinda how life goes? Do you remember what you did or how you felt about what you did? How you feel by the end is what matters for us, and that could be very different from someone else, even though the “main events” didn’t diverge. We have over 20 “main” characters and almost all of them can die, leave or take actions on their own that you may not agree with. Or survive the whole thing and be your favorite character.

Juno, a character set to appear in the game.

Juno, a character set to appear in the game.

Those are two very different outcomes that don’t make our work load impossible. Our biggest challenge has been to make sure the player feels that these events are fair, and the results are not random and unpredictable.

He2etic: It’s pretty common for creative people to have more ideas than they could fit into the final product. Were there any innovations you regret not having the time, finances or technical expertise to include in Banner Saga?

It would be pretty insane for us to say that we didn’t have the finances or time to do what we wanted with the game. Our Kickstarter raised 700% more funding than we asked for, and as a result we’ve so far gone about 6 months over (the original, admittedly naive) launch date.

We decided to build vertically instead of horizontally, meaning that we dramatically improved the quality of all our content instead of the breadth. The game is much longer than we originally anticipated, but the lion’s share of funding has gone toward quality – better animation, better sound, better music, better story.

If I did have one regret, it would be the lack of voice acting. We knew going in that a game with several dozen important characters would cost far beyond our budget, even with major over-funding. That kind of thing can cost millions. Maybe we’ll be able to shoe it in for a special edition in the future? My hope is the writing is good enough to keep people engaged, even without voice overs.

He2etic: What’s it like developing characters for Banner Saga? Is it a unique challenge to develop characters that are not only entertaining but functional and interactive to the player?

Alex: Character development is pretty much my favorite thing to write, ever, so I’m completely in heaven having such a large cast of personalities all to myself. The incredible thing about games, in my opinion, is that the player can form attachments to things that aren’t scripted. Everything in a book or film has to be fed to the viewer in the hope that they buy into it and go along with your vision. In games, people may become attached to a guy because he has a higher damage output than the rest, or he’s always the last one standing in battle.

Turn based combat akin to that of Final Fantasy Tactics.

Turn based combat akin to that of Final Fantasy Tactics.

The challenge, but also the pleasure, is in giving the player a little bit a direction and letting them really identify with the characters on their own terms, instead of forcing them to. That’s pretty unique to games. Fire Emblem Awakening is an interesting example in which you have a huge cast of characters that can form relationships and even marry each other, which also gives them combat bonuses.

We aren’t going that far (it is the time of Ragnarok, after all), but I think it speaks to the player’s desire to create relationships, or be involved in them.

With a large cast, I also get to make a wide range of personalities and let the player decide who they like. The writer can’t always predict what’s going to click with the audience. Tali from Mass Effect, for example. I just don’t get her appeal, but what kind of author would say that her fans are wrong?

He2etic: As a gamer, are there any games you consider so good or so classic, they should be “mandatory playing”?

Alex: Heh, this is one of those questions where I either look like I’m just lazily reciting the popular choices or I look like a pretentious snob. Maybe I’ll try to do both!

Let’s get the obvious ones out of the way. Shadow of the Colossus was the first game to make me feel like games could elevate themselves above fun time-wasters. I’m not sure how well it would hold up for Kids These Days, it may have no impact at all if you didn’t play it in the right time and place.

Scene from Banner Saga Factions.

Scene from Banner Saga Factions.

I have huge nostalgia for the classic turn-based strategy games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Shining Force. The Walking Dead, more recently, really impressed me with just how tight the storytelling and pacing was, which are massively important to emotionally engage a player. I think it finally nailed interactive storytelling from a cinematic perspective.

And playing through Journey is a good litmus test to see whether you’re dead inside or not. I also liked L.A. Noire more than most, because of the startling realization that about half way through the game your character has a runaway story arc that almost revels in not giving a crap about the player’s silly power fantasies. And that’s wonderful.

Ok, how about some obscure recommendations for that elitist indie cred? I always say Mount & Blade is my favorite game of all time, and this is still true, even though it has no story at all. It’s still the best emergent gameplay and combat that I’ve experienced, even though I understand if it doesn’t click with everyone.

Recently two story-driven games called The Yawhg and Save the Date really impressed me. I tend to consider a game pretty damn good if I keep thinking about it after I’ve finished it. If you’re into storytelling you should play them. One of my favorite developers right now is Blendo Games. Everything he makes is awesome, especially Thirty Flights of Loving, and another one coming out soon called Quadrilateral Cowboy. Short stories in video game format, who knew you could that?

Thanks for the amazing interview Alex! Be sure to check out Banner Saga when it comes out later this year! In the mean time, check out Banner Saga Factions, the multiplayer component available on Steam!

For more, follow the @BLBolthole on Twitter for updates, articles and more. This blog’s art was crafted by Manuel Mesones, and you can check out his portfolio.