I wasn’t entirely sure what to write for a blog this week. Most of the things I could think of were too involved to complete in a week, and doing yet another status report (I’m still working on the next book. I hope to have the next installment of the Law of Swords series sent off to the editor by August (I better; he has an unexpected opening in his schedule, and if I get it to him by then I may not have to find another editor for this series, after all), which should allow for it to be published by year’s end, and for me to move on to the second Shieldclads book) when I had no real news felt a little boring.
Fortunately, I was saved from having to either skip this week or do just that when a certain crowdfunding project popped up in my newsfeed and inspired this post. It is an effort, by one of the original creators, to produce the sequel to one of my favorite computer game series… from the 1980s: Starflight (well, technically, Starflight 2 was the only one I played back then). The campaign is not fully launched, yet (they’re trying to get a handle on how much funding they need), but it’s looking like a direct sequel to the originals. I haven’t had time to play an involved computer game in quite some time, however — it’s been months, I think, since I even opened a game significantly more complex than the “Reversi Free” game on my cell phone. Despite that, I did make a small pledge to support the game, already. The earliest it will be out is 2020 (and if they actually make that deadline, I’ll be shocked; I’ve never known a crowd-funded computer game that was delivered on time), so maybe I’ll be able to fit it into my schedule by then.
I loved those games. Some of my other favorite games from that era were the Ancient Art of War (and its sequel, the Ancient Art of War at Sea), Sid Meier’s Pirates!, Red Storm Rising (also by Sid Meier, curiously enough, but based on the Tom Clancy novel), and (squeaking in at the end of that era) the Wing Commander series.*
One thing all these games had in common: Absolutely fantastic, well-designed, well-illustrated, and heavily lore-filled… manuals (sometimes not just manuals; some games came with other material that just added to the fun of getting a boxed game edition. Nowadays, it seems every game manual you get, even with a boxed game, is little more than what the quick start guide was back then). In the days before every lore-rich game has its own fan-compiled Wiki and computer games had their own novel series written for them (and sometimes even after they started getting their own books), the game manual would often be the definitive source of canon for the lore.
The Ancient Art of War included a complex discussion of strategy and tactics (and the differences between the two, and it included an abridged version of Sun Tzu’s original text). It’s sequel had textbook-level discussions of many of the greatest naval battles in the history of the age of sail. Sid Meier’s Pirates! had bits of humor, a discussion of the different types of ships and arms and bits of history from the era of the early colonization of the Caribbean. It explained why they programmed the ships in the game to react to wind the way they do, and they made it FUN. I learned more about the history of fighting sail from those game manuals than I EVER did in school (and later would read quite a bit more, and learned that while there were some inaccuracies, these manuals were closer to the scholarly accepted truth of these events than any account I could find in my high-school era or earlier texts, including some produced by the US Navy for JROTC). They weren’t novels, nor were they textbooks, nor were they scholarly texts. I’d hesitate to say they were even manuals (at least, compared to what most people think of when they hear the words “software manual”). But they were brilliant examples of writing. I’ve saved a couple of them until today… (I would have saved all of them, but I think the Pirates! manual fell apart from over-use).
I’d say the same was true of the Starflight manuals, and the Wing Commander manuals. These were fun, small texts, again filled with lore, and were excellent examples of worldbuilding. The Starflight manuals opened with briefing notes on the state of the universe, before discussing the game functions in a less “in-character” way. (Just curious — does anybody know a term for the inverse of ‘breaking the fourth wall,’ where you’re writing a non-fiction account of a fictional matter, then switch “in character” to the fiction for a moment? Because these manuals did just that, once or twice). They would describe the mechanics of the game, give touches of gameplay advice, and intersperse all of that with snippets of fictional “transmissions” and “captains logs” and the like, which were meant to give you clues on how to solve various puzzles throughout the game. Then it would have an appendix with charts, illustrations, etc. regarding the materials that could be collected in game.
The Wing Commander series manuals (and, curiously, the Red Storm Rising manual) started out in similar fashion (If I recall correctly; I was able to find a copy of the original Starflight manuals online to verify my recollections, but I couldn’t with these). Their appendices instead were more like “Janes Fighting Ships” entries, detailing the various fighters, capital ships, and equipment you could encounter throughout the game.
I won’t say these sorts of game manuals have gone away completely (I don’t buy NEARLY enough games, nowadays, to say anything of the sort; I do know the 2004 Pirates! remake had a similar style manual, but I’m coming to believe that was a rare exception), but I think a lot of what used to be in the manuals aren’t there any more. The material’s still around, but its been moved inside the game itself, like the “books” your create-a-character can read in the Elder Scrolls games. In some ways, this allows for even more of these worldbuilding bits to be included in the lore. You can’t curl up in bed with them like you can a book (or a Kindle), though (don’t be pedantic and mention laptops; yes, technically, that can work, but laptops generally aren’t that good for gaming, and are harder to “curl up” with than a book).
Again, I’ve tried to keep these books around, but I think I was a bit less successful here — the Starflight 2 manual was once dropped in a bathtub (don’t ask), and I haven’t found the game manuals from the Wing Commander series since my last move. While I had them, though, they were fun reading — sometimes, even after I stopped playing the games, I would pull them out, curl up in bed, and read these manuals just for nostalgic fun.
So what is the point of all this? Well, as much as I was waxing nostalgic, it isn’t just to lament the long-forgotten art of computer game manuals. It’s to talk about applying writing lessons from unexpected sources. In this case, those old computer game manuals proved to be an excellent model of worldbuilding, for me.
Were I to do a touch of editing (and some additional reconstruction; a portion of them were lost in one of the incidents that delayed The Merrimack Event’s release, and while I reconstructed the important bits I did that a little haphazardly), the notes I wrote up for my own use in the Rink of War universe would greatly resemble the Wing Commander\Red Storm Rising\etc.-style appendices. My outlines will sometimes include little diary entries\captains logs like you find in the Starflight manuals — things which likely won’t ever make it into the books, themselves, but which help me figure out what the characters are thinking.
You often hear people say “Inspiration comes in many forms” when it comes to story ideas, and writers often take experiences from real life to plot their books around. I’ve come up with childrens book ideas (which I’m not sure I’ll ever have time to write) just by watching the birds at our birdfeeder, myself. I don’t think most writers think to apply the same thought process to other aspects of their writing careers, however. When veteran book designers are giving advice to amateurs, they often say to “look at books you like” as examples to base their books around, but there are a lot of self-publishers who still have no idea how to go about formatting their books. So how many writers would think to apply the lessons learned from game manuals from the 1980s when it comes to writing up notes for their books?
Just a thought.
*- I’d also like to mention the Sierra Classic games, which are also favorites of mine from that era and also contain lots of good examples of good worldbuilding and complex lore. Most of the best examples of the writing of those games were IN the games, not the manuals, however. Oh, and while I’m at it, I might as well mention “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego,” which I think was the last game I bought for my old Commodore 64; I didn’t play that game for very long (I switched over to a PC not long after), but it came with a copy of a (real, unadulterated for the game) desk encyclopedia I still have and may occasionally still use now and then.