Week 4, ladder of abstraction

This is an edition of Robin Sloan’s video game development diary.

Welcome: to returning readers as well as everyone newly subscribed. If you missed it, week 1 sets up the motivation behind this project. All the previous editions are available over on my blog.

The k in the headine at the top of the page doesn’t even look wonky anymore. It’s all the other letters that are wonky.

A calm sea

White Mice Playing, Kubo Shunman, ca. 1816

No fun 3D animations in this edition; no maps, no pixels. This week, it’s all about words.

This edition will be looser than usual—therefore: quite loose indeed—because I’m going to work through some ideas as I write it. In the first edition, I told you

the sensibility here is definitively “you are working in the studio with me”

and this week you will learn that the sensibility might sometimes even be “you are in my brain with me.” Currently, my brain sounds like this:

That is the second and most current version of Jesse Solomon Clark’s “Green Goat homecoming theme,” the meaning of which you’ll understand by the time you get to the end of this edition.

Here we go!

Wot I got

An important milestone draft, which, at the end of this newsletter, you will have the opportunity to read, if you wish.

The Devil’s party

Just to quickly re-orient:

Perils of the Overworld aims to be an adventure game in which you set out on a grand, dangerous quest but then, as you aid others and are aided in return, find yourself enmeshed with them: and so, your quest ends not in the jaws of a dragon but in the grip of a community. In the vise of actually caring! Which is, of course, wonderful, and which sets up a tension, I hope, between “winning” the game and “losing” the game. Losing will be pleasant and interesting. You’ll do it over and over.

The questing and caring play out in a medium-to-high fantasy universe, brazenly pastiche, homage to the books of my youth as well as the cozy, mashed-up settings of Japanese video game RPGs.

That is, however, still a very broad scope! What IS this world, exactly, and what kind of voice describes it?

First, where worldbuilding is concerned, I am of the Devil’s party, which is to say, M. John Harrison’s. More than a decade ago, he wrote:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

I find this formulation both cautionary and invigorating. The message, as I receive it, is that the words are all there is. You cannot substitute exhaustive backstory for language that crackles and conjures. That’s the cautionary part: don’t try to compensate for your cruddy sentences with an intricate magic system.

The invigorating part is: the words are all there is! And if that’s true, then words are all you need, and, my gosh, what LEVERAGE.

I will once again invoke the great one, Ursula K. Le Guin, who, near the end of A Wizard of Earthsea, wrote:

But … nothing is told of that voyage, nor of Ged’s meeting with the shadow, before ever he sailed the Dragons’ Run unscathed, or brought back the Ring of Erreth-Akbe from the Tombs of Atuan to Havnor, or came at last to Roke once more, as Archmage of all the islands of the world.

This is a perfectly seductive sentence; it is exactly what you want to read in a book about wizards and sailboats. And: at the time she wrote it: Le Guin had no idea why a person would sail the Dragons’ Run, or what the nature of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe might be. That doesn’t mean it was a random linguistic spasm; Ursula K. Le Guin knew how to write a great line, obviously, and WHEW could she name a charismatic entity. I mean, “The Tombs of Atuan” is so good it became the title of the next book in the series.

But the point is, there was no hulking sourcebook lurking behind that sentence. There was just: the sentence. One moment there was nothing, and the next there was:

or brought back the Ring of Erreth-Akbe from the Tombs of Atuan to Havnor

Less than twenty words; there’s your sourcebook right there.

So, that is all to say, POTO’s world will be built a sentence at a time. In the draft that I will share with you at the end of this edition, you’ll find this line:

a hundred barrels of cider bound for the fifth division of the second army of the Gregarious Empire

and, while I had no idea what the Gregarious Empire was when I wrote it, it will not surprise you to learn: now I want to find out.

For me, this is very nearly the entire appeal of writing. Other people are drawn to fiction—reading it, writing it—for different reasons, and that’s fine. Me, I live for the leverage. Somehow, a few curling symbols on a page or a screen can conjure a sweeping imperial history. They don’t do it alone; they draw on the deep well of everything else you’ve ever read and heard. Even so: what a magic trick. I love it. I am committed to it.

So: worldbuilding, sorted.

The more vexing challenge has been the game’s voice.

Outfit for Travel

Outfit for Travel, Kubo Shunman, ca. 19th century

There was, and there was not

I’ve always thought of a piece of fiction’s voice as its overall “stance towards the world.” My novel Sourdough has a voice that is zoomed-in, personal, wry, up-to-the-minute contemporary. My story The Writer & the Witch has a voice that is zoomed-out, all-knowing, timeless, a bit melancholy.

The voice I’m going for in POTO is some version of the latter: the voice that intones, “Once upon a time…” and you believe it. (Or, to use another great stock opening line: “There was, and there was not.” I like that one even better.)

In the introduction to his recent-ish translation of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, Philip Pullman quotes the poet James Merrill:

I yearned for the kind of unseasoned telling found
In legends, fairy tales, a tone licked clean
Over the centuries by mild old tongues,
Grandam to cub, serene, anonymous.

“Serene, anonymous.” That’s it exactly.

The thing is: I have been having a LOT of trouble with this voice, which calls for not only a certain register but a looseness with time; it calls for sentences like

Ninety-nine years rushed under the short stone bridge, and the writer’s life and legend grew together.

You might recall that POTO relies on a programming language called Ink to control the story’s flow. Many times this week, I squared up to wrestle with my Ink document, writing one module after another, just absolutely unsatisfied with how it all sounded, how it all felt.

I was bogged down in “this, then that.”

It is one of the commonest traps for the fiction writer; I have fallen into it many times before. “This, then that” means the action proceeds forward at a constant pace, locked into a single temporal resolution. I’ll write a dorky example:

I walked outside. The streets were empty, except for a man in some kind of jumpsuit, blue and green—maybe from the power company. He wore a mask, too, which reminded me to pull mine up over my ears. I felt stiff from lack of exercise. At the crosswalk, I waited for the light to change, wondering why I bothered. Up the street, a siren wailed.

It’s not horrible, but it goes thud… thud… thud. This, then that. This, then that. The monotony only grows if you keep it up over paragraphs and pages.

There is none of the arcing electricity that I find in my favorite fiction.

Here’s another version of the ~same scene:

A week in isolation. For most of it, I picked crumbs off my belly. Five seasons of Dragon Gear Saga Excelsior and I wasn’t even halfway done. When I ventured outside at last, there was just one other pedestrian, wearing a blue and green jumpsuit that made me think of Ylys the Wyrm-Knight. While I waited for the light to change—why?—I spelled it in my head. Y-L-Y-S. Y-L-Y-S. Thank goodness for subtitles. Up the street, a siren wailed.

Neither of those passages is high art, BUT, the thing to notice about the second version is the way its clock is more elastic and how that opens up opportunities to make little associative leaps across time, space, memory, culture—everything.

Years ago, I had a great writing teacher, Roy Peter Clark, who taught me about “the ladder of abstraction.” In his book Writing Tools—which I have given as a gift more times than any other book in existence—Roy writes:

Good writers move up and down a ladder of language. At the bottom are bloody knives and rosary beads, wedding rings and baseball cards. At the top are words that reach for a higher meaning, words like freedom and literacy. Beware of the middle, the rungs of the ladder where bureaucracy and technocracy lurk. Halfway up, teachers are referred to as full-time equivalents and school lessons are called instructional units.

You can read Roy’s entire (short) chapter about the ladder of abstraction at Google Books, and I recommend it. (I mean: if you’re interested in the craft of writing, you really need to just get this book. One of the things that makes Writing Tools so convincing is that it is, itself, literally perfectly written.)

So, a sentence plucked from the top of the ladder of abstraction might be

The Gregarious Empire was without rivals for a thousand years.

While a sentence grounded at the bottom might be

A toad croaked from its shelter in the hollow of a rusted helmet.

Both of those are great! A vast empire—cool! A lil toad—nice! As Roy tells us, there’s good stuff at both ends of the ladder. Even better, there’s a huge amount of energy in the transition between them, as you zoom from historical abstraction to telling detail and back again.

In the ladder’s bland middle, things are neither thrillingly broad nor crunchily specific. And, unfortunately, the middle is where “this, then that” lingers.

I am making a video game, but/and it will succeed or fail, as surely as a novel would, on the quality of its prose, and my Ink drafts were stuck there in the bland middle. The player walked into town; decided where to explore; searched for an inn; gathered information; decided where to explore after that… ugh. It was the turn-by-turn trudge of a mediocre Dungeons and Dragons session.

To make matters worse for myself, I had been reading Hero Legends of the World, which I have shown you before—

Hero Legends of the Ancient World

—and it was AWFUL, because it was wonderful. These stories, as retold by Hans Baumann and translated into English by Stella Humphries, are completely gonzo and perfectly concise. Their “worldbuilding” is utterly telegraphic. Look at this opening paragraph; look how fast it moves, how instantly it conjures itself:

Excerpt from Hero Legends of the World

So here I am, reading Hero Legends, reading Pullman’s Grimm, rereading my own plodding Ink, trying again, producing nothing better, getting frustrated, and, honestly, despairing a bit, which is almost always a sign that you need to take a step back.

That’s what I did. I closed the Ink editor and, instead, just… Wrote Something The Normal Way. And, almost immediately, it worked. The whole scene tumbled out, in almost exactly the right voice, casually informing the reader that a year had passed, and another, and another. It moved up and down the ladder of abstraction. It became unstuck.

Here is the draft that I produced. I can’t say I really recommend reading it—I mean that sincerely—but it felt like a breakthrough, so, in the spirit of “working in public,” I thought it might be interesting, even useful, to share.

As soon as it emerged, I sent it to my collaborator Jesse Solomon Clark, who replied, in classic Jesse fashion:

Just posted a tune in response to this draft. Sort of a Port Fabri tavern string band contentment theme.

So if you DO read this draft, you are obligated to enjoy it alongside this week’s

Sound snack

which is the initial version of Jesse’s tavern string band contentment theme :’)

(Now go back to the top of this newsletter and compare it to the second version, which he sent over Saturday night.)

The draft I’ve linked above truly is a DRAFT, unpolished and unfinished, wonky in all the ways, but the important thing is that it made me say, oh, there you are: the voice I’ve been looking for. Or, at the very least, a signpost pointing the way toward that voice.

A block of prose Written The Normal Way isn’t a game; it’s hardly game-like at all. But it does represent a sequence of events and a collection of feelings that I want the reader-player to experience. So, the question becomes: can I now transform this Normal Prose into Ink: stepwise, branching, explorable? I believe the answer is yes, but/and

Wot I’ll do

this week is: find out.

From Oakland,


P.S. Did you want to see the rest of my mythopoetic hoard? I THOUGHT YOU MIGHT

The hoard

I don’t know how anybody writes without a Dictionary of Fairies close at hand…!

This has been an edition of my video game development diary, sent by email every few weeks. You can subscribe: