Richard Dansky is a video game industry vet and a writer, and his new novel, Vaporware, just came out! Richard was kind enough to answer a few questions about Vaporware, and more! Please welcome him to the blog!
Richard, will you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Did you always want to write?
When I was very young, it was impressed upon me that all writers had to have a ridiculously wide range of job experiences, and I have endeavored to live up to that as best I could. I have, at various points, been an MIS director for an executive outplacement firm, a laboratory assistant, a standardized test technique instructor, and a guy who sold naughty books to nuns – though I want to stress that it was totally the nuns’ idea.
Honestly, as much as I love writing I sort of came to it the long way round. I had an unfortunate encounter with Annie Dillard in college, which stopped me dead in my tracks for a while and which I am absolutely certain she has no reason whatsoever to remember. Instead, I sort of edged over into running roleplaying games and LARPs, which got me the chance to write some tabletop RPG material for White Wolf, largely Wraith: The Oblivion stuff. And that got me the chance to do tie-in fiction for Vampire and Exalted, and also set me up to shift into video game work. And that eventually got me to a place where I was confident enough and practiced enough to commit long-form fiction again.
As for myself, I grew up outside Philadelphia, but I’ve been living in the South for going on 20 years now. I’ve been in video games since 1999, working mainly on the Tom Clancy’s games for Ubisoft out of our studio here in North Carolina. I’m happily married, and my wife and I share our home with indeterminate numbers of cats, books, and bottles of single malt scotch.
Vaporware just came out! Will you tell us a bit about it?
I like to call Vaporware a “video game ghost story”, only in this case, the game itself is the ghost. This is what happens when a project that a team of highly motivated and creative people pour their hearts and souls into something, and see it get abruptly terminated. In the real world, you pick up and you move on to the next project, or the next studio. In Vaporware, the project decides that it doesn’t want to let go that easily, and it starts taking steps to make sure it gets what it needs to be finished.
At the same time, it’s about what the video game industry asks of the people who work in it, and how that can take them to some very dark places whether they realize it or not. The narrator of the book is the game’s creative director. It’s his vision that’s been made manifest here, and so when frightening things start happening, you have to wonder where those came from.
What inspired you to write Vaporware?
Work in video games, and you will hear stories – stories of crunch times and death marches and doomed projects, and the people who get caught in them. And while this isn’t a roman à clef by any stretch of the imagination – it’s a tremendous relief to me that people tell me they don’t think the narrator’s me, because that guy’s got some issues – I’ve also been on some rough projects and pulled more than a few late nights. So you mix that personal experience with the stories I’ve heard from friends and professional peers, and that’s the boiling primordial soup from which Vaporware emerged. It went through a lot of iterations, and there were a lot of false starts along the way because this is material I do have strong connection to. That’s the sort of thing you want to be very careful you get right. But at the core, it comes back to those all-nighters and moments of creative obsession that drive all of us gamedev types to some very interesting places.
You’re also the author of numerous role-playing books (such as Wraith: The Oblivion) and tie-in novels as well as the lead writer for the Tom Clancy games from Ubisoft AND you released a book of short stories not long ago called Snowbird Gothic. How do you find the time?
I do a lot of traveling for work, and that means a lot of time in hotel rooms and airports and on planes. Occasionally, I put that time to good use and write. The rest of the time, I waste it on iPad games, but I can always pretend that’s professional development.
More seriously, my own writing is something that I have to consciously carve out time for. One of the motifs of Vaporware is that the game industry isn’t always terribly interested in boundaries, and unless you set and guard them you’re going to end up giving away maybe a little more than you wanted to. And it took me years to realize how important my fiction writing was to me, and to finally set up some borders of my own. Don’t get me wrong – I love writing video games, and I think I do good work in that space. But I also make sure to consciously and actively hack out the time to do my own writing, so I’m telling some of my stories as well as the ones I’m collaborating with dev teams on.
What do you love most about writing RPGs as opposed to writing for video games–and do you prefer writing novels and short stories?
The two big differences between writing tabletop RPGs and writing videogames can be summed up as collaboration and direction. Writing RPG material, it’s reasonably close to a one man band; if a Wraith book needed five thousand extra words to fill out page count, I could just sit down and hammer those words out, and that was pretty much that. With video games, you’re part of this immense team where every word you change sends ripples to dozens of other people, so it’s a completely different experience in terms of composition. As for direction, in a video game you want the player to want to do the things that the game does well – you don’t want FPS players upset because they can’t break into choreographed dance numbers – so your writing is often there to encourage them to take advantage of the game’s feature set. The story and dialog on that mythical FPS should be reinforcing the player’s decisions to play the game using what it’s been tuned to do. In RPG writing, on the other hand, you’re trying to load the GM and the players up with as many hooks and story ideas as possible, so they have the resources to go haring off in whatever direction they want. When I was editing at White Wolf, I told my writers that I expected a minimum of one story hook per paragraph, because our job there was to give players the biggest toybox possible.
As for what I prefer writing, it’s hard to say I like fiction better than games or vice versa. I think I’m very lucky to have a chance to indulge in both forms, and they each scratch a particular creative itch. It’s amazing to work on a game like Splinter Cell: Blacklist, to collaborate with so many talented people and see my work get alchemically transformed into something people will play. And it’s also incredibly rewarding to lock myself in my office, put on some ridiculously overwrought writing music, and hammer out something that’s purely my own expression.
Though, to be fair, my wife could probably use a little less of the ridiculously overwrought writing music. It apparently frightens the cats.
Wraith was very dark role-playing territory and Splinter Cell games are militaristic, and you personally write dark fiction. Do you find it easy to transition between genres in your writing?
The diversity of the genres I write in is actually something that makes switching back and forth a lot easier. If I’m working on a project like Vaporware, very dark and very intense, and I get stuck, it’s great to be able to shift gears completely. A book review or a post for the sports blog I occasionally inflict on people, or even some fiction or game work in a different genre, can provide a real break. And while I’m working on that book review, for example, the horror project has time to percolate in my subconscious and hopefully sort itself out a bit.
What might surprise readers about Vaporware?
I think the big surprise might be that it’s not just a slam-bang monster mash. One of the things that inspired me to write the book, honestly, is that video game horror basically fell into two categories: either you fell into the game and got chomped, or something broke out of the game into the real world and chomped you. I thought there was a lot more to be said about horror and video games, so I tried to go in a different direction. Yes, there’s something terrifying and inhuman on the loose, but that’s not the really scary thing that’s going on. Monsters have to come from somewhere, after all.
When you manage to find some free time, how do you like to spend it?
I confess to an unholy fascination with baseball. I live about ten minutes from where the Durham Bulls set up shop, and I go as often as I can. Plus, my parents live nearby, and my dad is always up for a game, and then there’s my ten year old nephew who’s in his third year of Little League and loves going to the ballpark, and there’s a fantasy baseball league I’ve been in with some of my college buddies for 23 years now, and, err, yeah. I like baseball, which I suppose fights against that whole “dark and gloomy horror writer” thing, but anyone who rooted for the Phillies in the late 80s can tell you that there’s plenty of horror in baseball, too.
What’s one piece of advice that you would give to a struggling writer?
The best writing advice I ever got came from the late George Scithers, at a writing conference I attended while I was still in high school. He said that it all boiled down to three things: Have something to say, say it, and say it to someone. And as I got older, I realized how important that last part was. The best story in the world doesn’t get read if it’s sitting in your hard drive, or, worse, sitting in your head because you know you’re going to write it someday. So I’d tell that struggling writer go ahead and actually write whatever they’re working on, to bull through to the end no matter what – and then make sure they let someone read it. Ideally, lots of someones.
What’s next for you?
I have some short stories coming out in new anthologies for Werewolf and Vampire, and it’s been a lot of fun playing in that sandbox again. Splinter Cell: Blacklist is out at the end of summer, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing that unleashed. Beyond that, well, there’s the sasquatch private detective novel I wrapped up with my friend J.C. Hay, and the urban fantasy novel I’m neck-deep in beyond that, and…did I mention I’ve been on the road a lot lately? I’ve been on the road a lot lately.
Video game projects get shut down all the time, but when the one Ryan Colter and his team have poured their hearts into gets cut, something different happens: the game refuses to go away. Now Blue Lightning is alive, and it wants something from Ryan – something only he can give it.
And everybody knows how addictive video games can be…
About Richard Dansky:
Writer, game designer and cad, Richard Dansky was named one of the Top 20 videogame writers in the world in 2009 by Gamasutra. His work includes bestselling games such as TOM CLANCY’S SPLINTER CELL: CONVICTION, FAR CRY, TOM CLANCY’S RAINBOW SIX: 3, OUTLAND, and the upcoming SPLINTER CELL: BLACKLIST. His writing has appeared in magazines ranging from The Escapist to Lovecraft Studies, as well as numerous anthologies. The author of the critically acclaimed novel FIREFLY RAIN, he was a major contributor to White Wolf’s World of Darkness setting with credits on over a hundred RPG supplements. Richard lives in North Carolina with his wife, statistician and blogger Melinda Thielbar, and their amorphously large collections of books and single malt whiskys.