Nate Crowley's fabulous 100 Best Video Games that Never Existed sets a high bar for post-truth non-fiction. I wept with laughter at a number of the entries, including write-ups for;
Behind the Bins at Burnely Co-Op Warriors ("a refreshingly gritty take on an otherwise fantastical genre"),
Quadbike Sorcerer ("it's about a wizard who rides a magical quadbike. What more do you need to know?") and
Scouse Dracula ("Dracula - but he's from Liverpool.")
...but the one that caught my eye during a recent read-through was Moulin Luge, a "gem of a sports game" that tells the story of a troupe of Parisian cabaret performers who set their sights on the Winter Olympics. The inciting incident of the whole sorry escapade is when "ageing courtesan Delphine sees a vision of a toboggan at the bottom of an absinthe bottle..." and realises she has "one hell of a pun on her hands."
I love a good pun. Here's how much. Once, I seriously considered re-writing Payback, a book that takes place over the course of a summer holiday, so I could shift the action to October and November and call it Grand Theft Autumn.
I'm glad I didn't. In the end, the pun is surely too puny (ha ha) a joke to carry the weight of an entire novel on its shoulders. When I see books with pun-tastic titles, I tend to steer well clear. For example, I have absolutely no intention of ever reading First Among Sequels, Bratfest at Tiffany's, Crime Brulee, The Toyminator or Night of the Living Dad.
*conflicted grinding of teeth*
OK! I admit, I love Bratfest at Tiffany's. Order it up!
With Payback I thought about what Robin Hood might look like as a story if I tried updating it and setting it today. A number of exciting ideas emerged: Robin Hood might be a gang of teenagers not one person. They might fight evil corporations and corrupt companies instead of a greedy royal family. They might be urban rather than rural … and so on.
Here's an eqivalent to workshop with students or young writers. What if we tried to retell the story of Cinderella? First, we’d need to get to the heart of the story. Maybe we'd start by considering the following:
Now consider this: which bits could we change to make it more interesting or relevant? Here are seven things we might experiment with:
Not all remakes, however, are a good idea.
Imagine if children were in charge of society and adults were banished. That’s an inversion that The 100 has a pretty good go at exploring. Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses is an inversion, Amazon Prime's The Boys is too. And Neflix's The Highwaymen also inverts expectation. Instead of telling the gangsters-on-the-run story of Bonnie and Clyde, it focuses on Hamer and Gault, the two aging Texas Rangers who were hired to track down and kill the bandits. I came to it through Thomas Newman's haunting score, but stayed for the terrific performances.
Inversions are a great place to start if you're running a workshop or a story-plotting session. Invert a heist story, and tell the tale of a thief who, overwhelmed by guilt, attempts to secretly return every item they've ever stolen.
Or consider this list:
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Deathtrap Dungeon. Forest of Doom and City of Thieves were joined this summer by Assassins of Allansia, which I snapped up immediately.
I loved FF Gamebooks as a kid, but interactivity comes with a unique set of narrative challenges. Jason Vandenburghe was one of a team of programmers working on a game conversion of Chris Carter’s seminal TV show The X Files. The game clocked up a million in sales but was a flawed piece of work, and Vandenburghe’s assessment of its failings is interesting.
It was composed, essentially, of a series of pre-shot film clips featuring David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and the rest of the cast: no expense spared. It worked like this; the player made choices and the game reassembled these filmed clips to tell the story. You essentially got to build your own episode of The X Files depending upon your responses to key events and your code-breaking and deductive skills.
Here’s the interesting thing. “Working on The X Files” says Vandenburghe, “proved to me that interactivity and drama directly oppose each other. That was a devastating realisation. Drama is all about being a helpless witness to events. The moment you give the viewer agency, the emotional spectrum shifts from tension to curiosity.”
And so it did with those Fighting Fantasy gamebooks all those years ago. Tension became curiosity.
I loved playing through Assassins of Allansia this week, but, since curiosity trumps tension in interactive fiction, I did so with all the thumb-in-the-previous-page muscle-memory of a habitual cheat.
Here's six thrillers I read this summer. Two I didn't care for, two I liked a lot and two I loved. A little more detail:
One I couldn't finish. I really wanted to and I really tried. I'm missing something, I know - the critical concensus has been super-positive.
One I flogged myself to the end. It was a relief to get there and finally set it aside, but everyone else I know who's read it has loved it.
Two were really solid genre pieces that I enjoyed tremendously.
One felt exceptional, rising above the others for its wonderful narrative voice.
One felt exceptional, largely for its creeped-out setting and damaged protag.
OK folks, over to you. Guess which is which.