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Game designers launch Bundle of Holding

Video game writer/designers Allen Varney, Matt Forbeck, and Rafael Chandler talk about their transition to fiction writing, and their participation in the Bundle of Holding e-book project.

What's the Bundle of Holding?

The Bundle of Holding is a pay-what-you-want collection of ten DRM-free ebook novels by professional game designers-turned-novelists. You decide how much you'll pay, how much of your payment supports the authors, and how much is donated to our two fine charities: Child's Play (founded by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade) and Reading is Fundamental. More info can be found at


Tell us about yourself and your experiences in the video game industry.

Allen Varney: I started in 1984 as an assistant editor at Steve Jackson Games in Austin, Texas working under Editor-in-Chief Warren Spector. Later I wrote documentation for Origin Systems and designed maps for Interplay's Lord of the Rings games. I've worked with Warren on several projects over the years, and I co-wrote the original 300-page design document for Disney's Epic Mickey with Warren and programmer Alex Duran. I've also written six dozen articles about the gaming business for sites like The Escapist.

Rafael Chandler: I'm a video game writer by trade; been doing that for about 10 years. I've written about a dozen games (SOCOM 4, Final Eden, MAG, Rainbow Six: Lockdown) for companies like Ubisoft, Sony, Kabam, and Gameloft. In my spare time, I design tabletop RPGs (The Books of Pandemonium, Teratic Tome, ViewScream).

Matt Forbeck: I'm a game designer and writer with twenty-some novels and countless other tabletop games, video games, toys, and comics under my belt. I've worked with companies from Ubisoft to Marvel and from Wizards of the Coast to Random House. Last year, I ran four Kickstarter drives to fund the writing of a dozen short novels. My latest work includes those books, the Magic: The Gathering comic from IDW, and The Con Job, a novel based on the TV show Leverage.

Why will gamers enjoy the Bundle of Holding?

AV: These are imaginative novels of fantasy and science fiction, with the atmosphere and world building you see in a good game. And there's a huge range of approaches, something for every taste. Steve Sullivan's Tournament of Dreams is an all-out fantasy slugfest with knights and wizards and cat-women; Sarah Newton's Mindjammer is mind-bending transhumanist space science fiction; and Aaron Rosenberg's Birth of the Dread Remora is freewheeling space opera a la Babylon 5 and Stargate. Plus superheroes, horror, and fables, all for whatever you want to pay -- even just a buck.

MF: Plus, they're great stories. With all of us having worked with games for so long, we know how to hook people in and keep them entertained.

RC: Good point, Matt. Writing a novel sometimes feels a bit like being a Dungeon Master: you lure them in, you present them with something that will hopefully engage and delight (or disturb) them.

What have you learned about the craft of writing prose while working as a video game developer?

AV: In video games the craft of writing prose consists of transcending it. Good video game writing is concise and punchy, but the best writing is invisible. A game story conveyed through pure gameplay is ideal; a story told in occasional terse dialogue barks is okay; a story that requires lengthy speech or text has failed.

Immersion in gameplay is different from immersion in a story. They're different brain-states. After you finish an intense game level, and the next cutscene plays, maybe you lean back to relax or maybe you lean forward to watch. Either way, you feel different, watching the story, from the way you felt playing it. Gameplay and prose will always be, at best, uneasy allies.

MF: For me, I learned that what you show the reader or player is only the tip of the iceberg of the whole world. They don't need to know how you've worked out the world's economy, the enmity between certain species, or the nature of magic or high-tech gadgets in your world. They just need to see that you've done it and that you're consistent about it. Anything else is just showing off all that extra work you did, and if that gets in the way of the story or the game, you're wasting people's time.

RC: I learned to pace and structure the narrative over a long arc. The level/mission structure in games is not unlike the chapter progression of a novel, and like a chapter, each good game level features an arc and a resolution.


What are some things you'd like to see in the next generation of games? Any new approaches to character development, or narrative?

AV: I hope mainstream multiplayer games will adopt some of the narrative mechanics of today's indie tabletop RPGs. Just as the earliest computer games adopted Strength, Intelligence, and Dexterity scores from tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, today's online games could shape the relationships between players by adapting new systems from paper-and-dice RPGs like FATE Core and Dungeon World.

MF: I'd like people to realize that plot and story aren't the same thing. You play through the plot of a game, but the story's about your experiences with that plot. The Walking Dead and Spec Ops: The Line were great examples of this. They gave you certain choices that didn't affect the plot much at all but could radically alter your story.

RC: I'd love to see some exploration of genre boundaries: fantasy games set in the Inca Empire, more superhero games that aren't based on existing IP, and sci-fi aliens that are utterly foreign in terms of structure (non-bipedal) and philosophy (non-Western). 

What's your novel about?

AV: My novel, Stay Alert, is based on the classic satirical SF tabletop RPG PARANOIA. It's comedy with a high body count set in Alpha Complex, the underground city of the future ruled by an insane Computer. I designed the 2004 edition of PARANOIA, and now I have an official license to write and package novels based on the game setting under my own imprint, Ultraviolet Books. If you like Philip K. Dick and Douglas Adams, along with a motley assortment of robots, mutants, secret society conspiracies, and Emergency Bathroom Break Requisitions, you'll like Stay Alert.

RC: My debut novel, Hexcommunicated, is an urban fantasy thriller set in a world of cybernetic werewolves, undead spies, and Lovecraftian terrorists. It's about a two-fisted vampire named Nick Tepes. He's a federal agent who likes beer, fried chicken, and redheads. The novel's hectic, violent, and there are some truly gonzo zombies in there.

MF: Hard Times in Dragon City is the first in a trilogy of fantasy noir novels about Max Gibson, a retired adventurer who lives in a walled city ruled over by a dragon emperor who protects his people from the legions of zombies that gnaw at the city's defenses. When the family of one of Max's old adventuring pals winds up dead, it's up to him to figure out who killed them and why, even if the answers force him to confront the rotten truths buried beneath the city's roots.

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