A Copywriter’s Blog

I’ve removed all attempts at housing my portfolio here. From now on, if you want to see the words people pay me for, you can check out my portfolio site.

I bring this up partially to alleviate any future confusion, and partially because I’m a little proud of the new site. Every time I successfully manage something in Wordpress, it’s like the miracle of birth: I scream, experience intense pain, and shit myself for at least 12 hours before bringing something new into the world (wide web).

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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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Shirts! Ben Levy 24, February

I have no idea what is going on this week. 3 posts in a row? I’m just as surprised as you, trust me. Anywho- shirts!

I blabbered about FPO a few days ago
, so rest assured it will not be mentioned again. (After that last mention, I mean.)

Some of these have been in the store for a while, but I wanted to wait till I had a flagship shirt for the second round of designs. Behold the flagship:

Seriously, fuck it.

Next up, we have a little something for the coders. Inspired by the retarded amounts of XML and PHP I was looking at a few weeks ago:

If you get the joke here, tag was probably the last sport you ever played voluntarily. Nerd. Feel superior wearing a joke that only a fraction of the population will understand. You’ve earned it.

And now for something a little less cerebral:

For the sophisticated man who chooses never to dress like one. In fact, if you’re anything like me, the news that you even know what a polo shirt is will come as quite a shock.

And finally, a little sumpin for the ladies:

Ladies- save your breath. Men- when the ladies yell at you, just tell them you were reading the directions.

And there it is. The second round of BrokenJPG shirts. (Insert wild applause here).

I would also like to point out that, in honor of the economy being even lower than my HOTorNOT rating, all these shirts can be yours for under $15. The tag shirt is under thirteen! It’s practically free!

If you like ‘em, buy ‘em. If you don’t, buy ‘em. And then give them as gifts to people you don’t like. Whatever works. As always guys, thanks for your support.

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For Placement Only Ben Levy 15, February

Long-time readers of my blog (or those who check the store) are probably familiar with this shirt:


It was one of the first shirts I put up for sale, and my best-seller by far. And so I wasn’t really surprised when someone told me they saw this on


I’m not saying veer ripped me off. Really. I’m not. For one thing, I’d be a little (read: very) surprised if they even knew this blog existed. For another, they’ve got more than enough genius ideas on their own site, they don’t need to rip off my shit.

The internet is a big place. There’s more than enough room for two FPO shirts. Especially since mine is the original, has the better design, and is cheaper. (Suck it veer, the economy’s on my side!)

That being said, if you’re in the market for a shirt with FPO printed on it, you should get it here. Cause, I mean, you’re already on this site, right? Why go all the way to another site when I just keep shoving the link in your face?

This is the wrong post Ben Levy 9, February

It’s not the one I was going to put here. There are a whole list of topics I want to write about, but this isn’t one of them.

I won’t tell you about them, because it seems the surest way to keep from writing about something is for me to promise I’ll write about it here. (I really will talk about teaching one day. Maybe next post? Maybe? Place your bets in the comments.)

I feel like I have the “that could be a funny post” thought at least three times a day. There’s one that I think of every time I get out of the shower (it’s towel related). This is the only time I’ve thought of it when I’m actually in front of the computer though. And I’m still not writing about it.

All day things I could write about run through my head, but as soon as an empty text field presents itself it all goes out the window. Sometimes I can’t think of how to start. Sometimes I think the topic is too serious. But mostly I just plain forget the 37 things I was just thinking about. I’m beginning to wonder if the admin panel in Wordpress has one of those flashy lights from Men in Black.

The funny thing is, I know how to solve these problems. I do it every day at work. But I refuse to keep a notepad around to jot down ideas for my blog. This is not supposed to be a professional endeavor. If it were, I think I would manage better topics than the fact that I can never remember what topics I want to write about.

In summary- I wanted to write something here, but I didn’t really feel like writing anything I could remember wanting to write about, and I forgot the rest.

I’ll write the right post.

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Someone get Satan a scarf Ben Levy 12, November

The shirts are selling. People (many of them you guys) are buying them. With money. Thank you.

The only thing more surprising than the fact the shirts are selling, is the fact that I made any shirts at all. It was something I’ve wanted to do for a while now. It was one of my “projects”. The kind that I “am really going to finish this time”. Let me share with you, briefly, a few of the “projects” I’ve started and have not finished:

  • Two comic books
  • One partially written short story
  • Three short stories that I’ve thought of but have not written
  • A plan for an entire anthology of short stories that are thematically connected
  • A fucking novel
  • A story told through twitter
  • A story told through a blog
  • Another blog

And now, by comparison, the projects I have indeed seen through to completion:

  • A blog
  • Design T-shirts

So, yeah. Would not have bet on those odds. I’m already working on the next round of shirt designs. In the meantime, somebody get Satan a space-heater. That bastard’s gotta be freezing.

Seriously guys, thanks.

This IS the big announcement Ben Levy 25, October

I went to summer camp for a couple years. One of those years Barney the Purple Dinosaur was a big hit with the kiddies (by which I mean, children far younger and less cool than the self-assured, totally wicked, 12-yr old crew of Bunk 9). And on the first day of camp, one kid shows up wearing a shirt that has what looks like Barney roadkill and the headline “All Purple Dinosaurs Must Die”.

We all thought it was awesome. When I asked him about the shirt later, he said “Yeah, I always wear it on the first day new places. I could get hit by a car tomorrow, but you’d all remember me as that guy who had the purple dinosaur shirt”. 12-yr old me thought that was kinda fucked up. And awesome. With that in mind:

Welcome to the BrokenJPG store. T-shirts people will remember you for. Even if you get run over tomorrow.

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