The Big Ones and the Little Ones

“Al-Adim and Agdistis are gossipping, quietly, about al-Adim’s patroness. ‘Not a hundred legs,’ says al-Adim, ‘but more than you’d think…'”

If a videogame is a wall, what do you think – is writing more like the bricks, or more like the mortar? My answer would be usually the mortar… though it depends which game. They’re ‘video games’ not ‘letter games’, after all. The writing serves mostly to locate and direct the gameplay or to explain and contextualise the visuals. One of the reasons that writing in games is not always good is that writers in games sometimes forget this and stuff words into a scene like an panicked upholsterer frantically stuffing goose-feathers into a cushion. Or an overenthusiastic bricklayer adding so much mortar that it squelches out of the sides and leaves the bricks awry. Arrive late, leave early and all that.

Of course some games use the writing as a central feature. In these, the writing is more like the bricks. And of course this is so in Weather Factory games – and in most of my work as far back as Fallen London (née Echo Bazaar). But this isn’t a licence to write long! Even in a writing-centric game, you never want the writing to outstay its welcome. As soon as the player stops reading, it becomes pointless. The bigger the bricks in a wall, the crookeder the courses.

The very first design of Fallen London, from way back in 2009

This brings us to salons. I mentioned last time that the Salon feature in HOUSE OF LIGHT needed a lot of lines. The game benefit of Salons is that they generate Lessons – and you have some limited control over what Lessons they generate. (This is why you can only have one Salon a season, cos otherwise it would be tempting to turn Hush House into Party House so you can rush the Tree of Wisdoms.) But the actual reason that Salons are in the game at all is to extend the fantasy of having a huge occult mansion as your playground – here, by enlarging on the experience of running salons for this kaleidoscope of occult demi-monde types. I could have had the game print out “The conversation dwelt on Herbs & Infusions…” (in fact this remains the backup for when you’ve exhausted everything else) but that would have missed the whole point of the experience. Instead I spent a solid two weeks poring over and comparing tome text and the setting notes and the room descriptions, hammering out things like this:

“Stanislav and Arthur argue happily about which herbal tisane tastes the most disgusting, and hence is most useful to speed lingering guests on their way. [Lesson: Herbs & Infusions]”
“Al-Adim describes his memories of Thirza Blake, and her work, in his time as Secretary Nunciant of the House. He is clearly caught between affection and annoyance. Stanislav shakes his head: ‘I wish I had known her. I think we’d have got on.’ [Lesson: Herbs & Infusions]”
“Douglas has been looking into the six-centuries-past death of Abbess Nonna. He’s questioned sources he doesn’t share with Stanislav, and concludes that she was possessed by a Name of the Blackbone and ‘put down’ by her sistren – ‘nasty business, but best thing for it.’ He and Stanislav discuss the herb-mixtures that might have laid her open to that possession. [Lesson: Herbs & Infusions]”

Have you noticed how much longer the third is than the first? That doesn’t make it better. I mean it’s fine, and it’s a fun bit of backstory, but it’s also a bit of a lumpy brick. This is likely because I wrote it at the end of the day when I was tired (Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”) If you can get as much effect for 29 words as for 64, you’ll want to go for 29. The player will thank you. And I’m conscious that when the Salon actually runs, the player will see several of these in a row, like bricks in a wall.  And it’s no more effort to write that 64 words than the 29 words, if anything the reverse – I mean 64 words imply a little more wear on the old distal phalanges, but the effortful bit is reviewing all the details, keeping the lore straight, and then coming up with ten to fifteen decent ideas an hour, for seven hours a day, for five days a week. (Lottie still chortles at me angrily pouring myself a glass of whisky towards the end of a rough writing day and grumbling ‘how many interesting things can you even say about pumpkin pie?’)

No pumpkin pie anywhere in this salon.

Any writer talking about their job eventually ends up complains about how tough writing is, boo hoo, get a real job then, so let’s bring down a merciful curtain and say: about four hundred Salon lines are written, and I’ll need another couple of hundred at least but how many there are depends on the old triage, deadline, cutting-room biz. And now that the essential work is done, I’m enjoying seating Coquille next to Morgen and having Yvette argue Jung with al-Adim. Some of these characters have been knocking around my head for the a good few years now, but they don’t often get to talk to each other, and you see more and different angles on them when that happens. Even Hokobald has a bit more light and shade now. Not to mention poor Zachary.

Lottie here, just rounding out the end of this post. I’ll leave you with two things: first, a round of Guess That Aspect. Can you work out what they represent in HOUSE OF LIGHT? Obviously my favourite is the SUDDEN FISH, becuase I am yin to AK’s yang, and where he drinks whisky while morosely contemplating the nature of pie, I am trying to sneak anarchic Pokémon into his very srs game.

More significantly, we’re finally ready to tell you when all this food, fraternity and occult demimondering will come out. HOUSE OF LIGHT will release on Steam and GOG on…


Thursday 26th September 2024


Wishlist it and mark your calendars! We’ll be running a closed beta for it ahead of time – more on that in the next few weeks, for those interested in helping test it out – and we’ll announce price points and more info as we get closer to launch. It’ll be free to anyone with Perpetual Edition (thanks again, early adopters!), and we can’t wait for you to get stuck in, like Hokobald into aglaophotis soufflé.

While you’re waiting, we’ll also be releasing full translations of BOOK OF HOURS into Simplified Chinese and Russian on Thursday 29th August (Japanese TBC), and we’ll even have some smol Cultist Simulator news this year for you all too. Dream furiously, friend. The Lighthouse awaits…


1 comment on The Big Ones and the Little Ones
  1. I cannot wait for the seventh month that is the ninth month, and look forward to the unmerciful changes that it brings.

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