A Copywriter’s Blog
Slap Rap Chop Ben Levy 30, April

Watch it all the way through. I am not exaggerating when I say this is one of the best videos I’ve seen in months.

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Fuck Faxing Ben Levy 29, April

It’s not uncommon for someone to request that I fax them a document. Every time this happens, I have the same question: Why?

Faxing is an idiotic, backwards technology that should be deader than the beeper.

Consider the process: Upon offering the Xeroxian Idol your documents (Face down. Or is it face up? All idols are different) you then type in a numeric sequence. If the machine is being stored in your office, you will have to press 1 first. Or not. It’s never immediately clear, and often changes for no reason. The device then eats your documents and begins to emit the mating call of the dial-up modem, a beast long thought extinct in the modern world. G-d help you if the number is wrong. You won’t know that for at least 2 minutes, and the first sign will be a disembodied voice playing over the dial-tone. It’s like a club mix by DJ FAIL.

If you mistype the number, you won’t know until it’s too late. You’ve just faxed a copy of your SS# to Timbuktu, congratulations. Even if your fax was successful- the idol and it’s dial-up pantheon have approved your offering and sent it to the rightful recipient- the damn thing only does black and white. The Faustian fax machine, which ranges in size from a small printer to a small donkey, can only manage one color. I have a phone that fits in my pocket and displays at least 256.

And don’t get me started on resolution. The very concept of resolution is anathema to fax machines. Faxed information and Rorschach tests are equally discernible.

I ask you- nay, defy you- to explain to me why we still use these things. It’s 2009. I guarantee we have the scientific capability to craft some kind of holographic document teleporter that arrives 2 minutes before it’s sent and has so many colors you brain explodes.

But until one of you geniuses builds that, I’ll keep waking up in a cold sweat to the haunting strains of “doo Dee BREEP…your call could not be completed as dialed…

A Matter of Context Ben Levy 27, April

With the sort of comments I’ve been making lately, I would totally understand if someone thought I was-

-a drill sergeant: “Let’s move ladies! I’ve got a dead grandmother goes faster than you!”

-a pimp: “I swear to g- d if you bitches don’t hurry up I’ll smack the crap right out of you”

-a child molester: “C’mon girls. Just do it. Please? For me? Just this one time and I won’t ask you again. Sound good?”

But all I was really trying to do is walk two dogs at once.

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This is the second in a two part series about writing in video games. The first part is here.

In Part 1, I spent a lot of time discussing the differences between a story told by word of mouth, shown on a screen, and recorded in a book. (This post will be much easier to comprehend then that drunken walkabout through my mind.) Here are 3 tactics to stop writing in 8-bit:

Change The Story In The Middle
I played Dungeons and Dragons for about 9 years, and often “ran” the adventures. D&D is the pinnacle of interactive storytelling- not just the actions of the characters, but the entire world is realized and manipulated by the players. And one of the best things about it is that it’s completely open: if people become bored, or something unexpected occurs, the Dungeon Master is able to adapt the game on the fly.

This is something that sounds great in theory, but was never satisfactorily implemented in a video game until Valve released Left4Dead.

If you don’t know, L4D is four players struggling to survive a zombie apocalypse. But the geniuses at Steam included a “5th player” in the game- an AI called “The Director”. It’s The Director’s job to consider the pacing of the game, so it never becomes too hard or too easy. It is, in effect, a Dungeon Master. If the players are low on health, the game waits before releasing more enemies, giving the players a better chance of survival. If they’re doing well, The Director throws more and tougher baddies at them. It lets you limp on until you see the end in sight. Then it throws every baddie in the game at you while you scream for your mother and sprint the last 100 feet in a bid for safety. It solves some of the problems outlined in the Street Fighter example of Part 1. The solution isn’t in the written dialogue, it’s in the narrative hidden within the game mechanics. Valve named it “procedural narrative”.

Let The Player Do It
Another thing about the characters in L4D- they hardly had any story at all. Just instance dialogue that sometimes hinted at their relationships to each other, or their former lives.

This is a piece of brilliance that can also be traced back to D&D- the characters’ stories are written by the players. A bit of old advertising wisdom is that you can never show something as perfect as what people will think up in their own minds. Just plant the seed, and let them imagine what things look like. The same goes for story.

Look at Portal (Valve again)- a game in which the protagonist never speaks at all. The player was able to imprint whatever personality they wanted onto that hero. She was an angry bitch, she was a sarcastic survivor, she was a terrified experimental subject. She was a blank slate onto which the player could project whatever backstory and emotions they desired.

The trick with this style of writing is to make sure you create a world varied enough that it forces a player to adapt and evolve their character. That way, not only do they create a personality, but events cause them to evolve it over time.

For example, when I played the original Mega Man, I decided he was an embattled cyborg with self-doubt who was fighting against incredible odds. Once I beat a few bosses, he was a confident special agent who had the means to really take Wiley down. A cool, almost James Bond-ish cyborg who walked in and blew up the right baddie with exactly the right weapon.

You can’t tell me that’s right or wrong. It’s a story I evolved as the game progressed, thanks to the mechanics inherent in Mega Man’s gameplay.

Tell The Story Again, Differently
The previous techniques are actually advice on how to write less in games, and why I think that’s a good idea. The third suggestion is pretty much the opposite, and because he’s a super genius on par with Wile E Coyote, I’ll just quote Tom’s explanation:

The one game that springs to mind as an exemplary case of telling a story in a way no other medium could is my old favourite Masq. [...] it offers two uniquely video game experiences.

The first time through, it’s a story that responds to you. It’s only multiple choice, but the choices are extremely multiple, and you genuinely do drive the story to an extent I’ve seen nowhere else. (Though I’m sure plenty of text adventures and simple graphic adventures like this compare favourably).

The second occurs after you’ve played it a few times, and you’re really just experimenting. You get to know the characters in a way linear fiction can’t allow: you get to ask, “What would they have done if…” Dozens and dozens of times. It wouldn’t be remarkable, except that there are fascinating quirks to some of Masq’s characters that only become clear when you know them from multiple playthroughs.

For those that haven’t played it, Masq is exactly like those choose-your-own-adventure books. If those books had compelling plots, good writing, and took into consideration the time you spent choosing between options. So in that sense it’s entirely unlike them.

Replayability, or the exploration of “what if” scenarios in a single story, is something games are uniquely suited to. And I think it’s a damn good platform to base some game storytelling on.

From a narrative standpoint, your story will-in all likelihood- not be told well, or even completely, on a single play-through. But if you give them a reason to, players will keep exploring your story/world at their own pace. In the process, they’ll understand more and more of the total tale your game has to tell.

Looking at these approaches as a whole, I think what I’m really suggesting is that we talk less when writing for video games. Rather than try to lead players through a story by the hand, we need to find ways to creatively give up that control, to make final narrative is all the stronger. It’s about creating tools that let players create the story they want to experience, the same way you create tools that let them create the style of play they’re most comfortable with.

I’ve become interested in game design and writing lately, but I’m completely inexperienced. These are my thoughts on the topic, and while I believe they’re valid, they are far less informed than I’d like them to be. If you disagree, if you have suggestions on material I should read or games I should play, do tell me in the comments.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go pwn some zombies.

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Life, etc. Ben Levy 24, April

Man, there is so much stuff I want/need to post, and I have absolutely no time/energy to do it. (It’s why I’ve resorted to replacing words with the utilitarian “/”.)

One thing I will say is that there have been several inadequacies and outright broken elements within the template I use here at brokenjpg.

These have recently reached the level of “irritating”. I suspect they shall shortly achieve “intolerable”.

And once that happens, this site is gettin’ redesigned so hard it hurts.

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Delishionable. Ben Levy 24, April

From the Jones that brought you Jones BIG ASS Truck Rental and Storage.

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Timing is everything Ben Levy 20, April

I went back to Kentucky a few weeks ago, ostensibly to pitch work but really to drink more of the world’s best beer. Here’s a timeline of the events leading up to my flight back:

3:45- Share a beer with my AD, debrief about the pitch.

4:45- Calmly mention that we have time, our flight doesn’t leave till 5:50.

4:47- AD sits bolt upright as it registers that we need to be at the gate by 5:20, giving us about 40 minutes before we’re totally screwed.

4:47-4:50- AD and I run around like panicked idiots trying to pay the tab and hail a cab.

4:51- Cab procured. Driver seems entirely too relaxed for our liking. Attempt to suggest he might want to set a land-speed record.

Cab driver says “Don’t worry, it’s only 10 minutes to the airport” as AD and I breathe sighs of relief. He continues “I just have to stop off and get gas first, it won’t take long”.

4:52- Argue with cab driver, consider getting out of cab, decide against it, watch out the window like lost puppies as he goes in to get “just $6 of gas”.

Leave gas station. Not too late. Still hope.

4:56- Cabbie does it again: “You boys’ll get there on time…of course, it is rush hour traffic.”

4:56- “Rush hour traffic isn’t ever really bad here. It’s not like it stops. Oh, but I did see an accident on this side of the road earlier…”

Confide to AD “we’re fucked.”

5:07- Finally reach airport. AD scrambles out of cab to get tickets printed.I attempt to pay with a credit card. Cabbie says “oh, is this card reader down again…?”

I have exact cab fare (no tip) in my wallet.

5:08- Cabbie says cash is fine, just doesn’t want us to miss the flight. I charge headlong into the airport torn between feeling bad for not having a tip and thinking it serves the guy right for stopping for gas.

5:11- Reach security.

5:15- Pass security. (Oh right, it’s Louisville airport.)

5:15- I ask AD why we always end our trips the same way, running like idiots through the airport with a mild buzz. Voice my concerns about it becoming a pattern.

5:18- Reach gate. Only a few people sitting down. Lights are off. Door is closed. I might have half-whispered “No” in a horrified sort of way, but nobody heard me do it, so it’s cool.

5:18:30- AD and I run up to the gate lady, who looks at us sadly and says “You just missed it”

5:18:31- Horrified gasping.

I look at the woman, but she’s totally serious.

5:18:40- Woman continues “the next one doesn’t come along till tomorrow”.

5:18:45- AD and I exchange mute expressions of abject defeat.

5:19- Woman smiles and says “Just kidding, it’s not even here yet.” Entire gate begins clapping and laughing.


5:20- More laughter, from all parties involved.

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Urgh. Ben Levy 20, April

If you are not a copy deck, you will be updated later.

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HELL. YES. Ben Levy 16, April

If you follow me on twitter you’ve already seen this.
But it’s awesome enough to see it again. Twice.

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The stench of failure Ben Levy 12, April

The Wife and I have a simple agreement: she does the cooking, I do the dishes. Since we have a dishwasher, I feel I got the better end of the deal, but don’t tell her that.

Most of the time this works out perfectly well. I come home, dinner’s ready, we eat it, I procrastinate, then do dishes around midnight. But I’ve been really busy at work lately, and even busier at home, and I’ve been putting off the cleaning. Just a quick rinse, some stacking, and leave water in the pots to soak.

So today, out of sheer necessity, I skipped my morning workout and did the dishes. Which apparently haven’t been cleaned since Sunday, based on the amount and nature of the organic compost collected in the sink trap.

I thought my alarm was offensive. G-d help us if I ever have to wake up to the odor of 5 day old ricotta cheese trapped in my drain again.

Editor’s Note: This post was actually written April 2nd, but it’s taken me this long to post it. I have, however, cleaned the kitchen extensively at least three times since then.

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