Why I Write at the Mall

My dog Faith was the ideal writing partner. A spitz of a certain age, she would sit on the couch beside me, requesting deferential scruff and tummy pets every so often—and the rest of the time, quietly surveying her territory from a nearby recliner. Whenever I got stuck on an idea, we'd take a long walk together, which is another way of saying that we took a lot of long walks together. It was symbiosis at its best.

Unfortunately, Faith passed away soon after I began work on "Exile.” Thenceforth, my writing partner became a goblin moppet Shih-Tzu named Higgins, who proved an amiable enough companion—lending moral support during my half-assed morning workout, my impromptu "Fatal Vows" marathons, and my meandering drives down the highways of Union county.

But Higgins also had an aversion to productivity, specifically mine: the moment that I flipped a laptop open, he considered it his duty to make me close it again. A warning would be delivered in the form of a whimper; if unheeded, this would be followed by a bark; and if the first bark went ignored, heaven help your ears. Theories abound why my dog chose this particular hill to play dead on. Had he identified the laptop as the chief competitor for his attention? Possibly, and we all know dogs can be territorial. But another possibility is that he sensed my distaste for writing, and was just being protective—like the dog in the first card of the Major Arcana, trying to get the attention of the Fool before he wanders off a cliff.

Whatever his motivation, I soon realized that I would have to get out of range of Higgins if I had any hope of writing my game. So every weekend, whenever a stretch of time presented itself, I would leave him with my husband (whose own professional goals have yet to fall prey to canine disruption), and head to the place where I wound up doing most of my writing on this game: the mall.

* * *

In the region of Jersey where I was living, there were almost too many malls to choose from. We had Short Hills, with its high-end stores and bulwark-like parking lot; Menlo Park, with its Nordstrom straight out of "Myst"; sprawling Woodbridge, which had so many entrances that I used to mistake it for two different malls; and even Willowbrook, which my sister and I affectionately called "the boyfriend mall," because shh!, we each used to date guys who lived near it.

It’s important to note that none of these malls could be described as "dead." Sure, IRL shopping has taken a hit in recent years, but the venues I frequented were packed with people, unironically doing what “nobody does anymore.” It seems retail’s fall from grace as the only show in town has had at least one unexpected benefit for the mall: people are less likely to go there out of obligation these days, and more likely to go because they actually want to.

Which brings me to the first reason why the mall proved such an ideal writing spot: being a person who is highly susceptible to the moods of the people around me, writing at a crowded mall tricked me into thinking I was having fun. Surrounded by folks who were shopping, eating liquid nitro ice cream puffs, and otherwise promenading, it became easy to forget that I was the only guy in visual range who was spending his afternoon arranging words on a screen. And whenever I got tired of pushing prose uphill, a walk through the mall was close at hand to clear my mind.

It was also refreshing to write in an environment that was explicitly not designed for reflective work. I had tried writing at Starbucks for a couple weeks—but that chain presents itself as a serious place to conduct serious business, actively catering to folks who have professional work to do, and even though I’m technically a professional (I guess?) I eventually felt like I couldn’t live up to its midcentury modern lines.

Contrast this with the mall, where nobody has anything to prove—and where nobody is expecting you to prove anything to them. At the mall, you are supposed to shop, eat, and maybe catch a 3D movie. If you happen to write a novel or design a game while you’re in the midst of these tasks, more power to you, but nobody’s twiddling their thumbs in expectation. Creative endeavor is strictly extra credit.

* * *

The mall also provides cognitive hobbyists with a helpful way to game their brains toward writing, namely the Dave & Busters Method.

For the uninitiated: Dave & Busters is a video arcade that has grown into an American mall staple thanks to its “drunk parent positive” policies, but its underlying business model should be familiar to anyone who has been to Chuck E. Cheese: you play games for tickets, trade those tickets for prizes, and leave with a jumbo pencil that feels like a trophy (even though you know full well you could have just bought it at the discount store).

At the mall, this same winning mix of existentialism and materialism can be applied to your writing, much the same way Dave & Busters applies it to Skee Ball. First, you set a writing goal, ideally one that you won’t achieve in a single afternoon. Second, you find some purchase at the mall that’s worth working toward, ideally something dumb enough that you feel a bit guilty for wanting it in the first place. Third, you use the object’s presence in the mall to bait yourself into getting some real work done. The prize in question doesn’t need to be expensive, it just needs to be something you actually want, and probably something you would never have let yourself have otherwise. If you are willing to hold off on getting it for long enough to hit your goal, this method works wonders. What’s more, whatever you wind up buying winds up feeling like it’s the fricking Pulitzer.

Me, I decided to limit my “prizes” to clothing. Having absolutely no fashion sense, every single clothing purchase would require so much research that I could string myself along for weeks with a single pair of skinny jeans.

But reader, let me tell you: when I finally got them? They felt like emo victory.

* * *

Perhaps the best thing about the mall, at the end of the day, was the way it reminded me what was outside the mall, whenever it was time to go.

When nearing the end of an afternoon’s work, I’d inevitably catch sight of something that made me think of home, and my tiny belligerent pal Higgins. Sometimes it would be an ad for pet food, sometimes it would be a poster for the latest movie about a doomed fictional dog, one time it was even the Easter Bunny. (HE HAS HIGGINS’S EYES, I TELL YOU!)

Whatever the trigger had been, once I started thinking about Higgins, I knew the jig was up. He may have been the reason I had to write at the mall in the first place, but he was always the reason I left.

I like to think that he’d appreciate the irony, but he probably wouldn’t, because let’s face it: this sentence sounds too much like writing, and Higgins hates the stuff.

Backstage at "Exile of the Gods"

Now that “Champion of the Gods” has sprung a sequel, it’s high time for another backstage tour! Here are four behind-the-curtain facts about “Exile of the Gods,” with spoiler warnings duly affixed where appropriate. Click on a cryptic header to reveal more--but don't trip over the scenery!

+ The Blade Runner's Manifesto - No Spoilers

Plenty of historical research went into "Exile," most of it related to the military campaigns of the ancient world--but when I actually sat down to write, I found myself at a loss just how to implement everything I had learned. Should this new game be authentic to the period that its world-building was drawing upon? Could it be, given the broad changes I'd already made to the world itself? And what about the modern world--how much of its increasingly fraught politics should be echoed in the world of the game, to make the subject matter more urgent and accessible?

In the end, I came up with a manifesto of sorts, which I kept honing as the story developed. The main thrust of it was this: the player should never know precisely what they're in for. So, if the player recognizes the details surrounding them as being 100% authentic to a real-world historical event, I've lost--because the player could very well have opinions about that event already, and those opinions would mess with the game's ability to get a read on them. Furthermore, if the player recognizes anything in the game as a clear metaphor for a specific real-world phenomenon, particularly a political one, I've lost again, because people these days hone their opinions to a razor's edge. Making a player believe that something they're reading is a direct metaphor for something they think about all the time is another way to make them comfortable, and that is not what I'm about here.

All of this is why, even while I used period-specific details to give the game a (deceptive) sense of place, I worked behind the scenes to make sure that those features never added up to familiarity, or recognition. The same goes for the themes of the game: I never wanted a player to say, "Oh yeah, that's totally about INSERT ISSUE HERE." I would intentionally muddle metaphors and switch details around, so that nobody ever got the sense they knew what the real-world antecedent of their choice might be. All of this was done to keep the players unsettled, and to keep their responses honest, or at least fresh.

That said, the politics of "Exile" are certainly built along the same fault lines as all our modern fractures: How much do you really trust the state? How important is it that you have a particular right, if it could cause harm in someone else’s hands? Is it justifiable to lie to the people if the truth might cause unrest? How much would you sacrifice to feel secure? The context has been fussed with, but these are all the same kinds of questions we are asking ourselves every day. I’m just trying to provide you with a new challenge: responding to them in a world where you don’t have an answer prepared.

+ Virtual Harryhausanity - Mild Spoilers

Before "Exile of the Gods" came along, "Champion of the Gods" demanded its own line of research, which consisted of reading historical and cultural accounts, comparing different tellings of regional myths, and finally, taking a deep dive into the monster-rich fantasy-adventure films of Ray Harryhausen.

For those not in the loop on him, Ray Harryhausen was a film producer and special effects developer--but limiting him to just that job description is a little bit like calling Bob Fosse a director/choreographer. There is a whole genre of fantasy that has Harryhausen’s imprint on it, he’s influenced filmmakers from George Lucas to Guillermo del Toro--and although his effects relied primarily on stop-motion animation, a technique that looks surrealistic to modern eyes, his mastery of the medium impresses on its own terms. (Last I looked, nobody’s dinging Georges Méliès for his “unconvincing” moonwalk footage, and it's the same with Harryhausen--what might have read as "effects" once now lives again as pure artistry.)

I grew up watching 1981's “Clash of the Titans,” which was Harryhausen’s final movie, and his second to tackle the Greek myths. It had a profound effect on me, and colored my understanding of the myths from then onward--something my Junior High School instructors intentionally worked against, since the film gets the myths very "wrong." (And as my High School instructors were more forthcoming about, it also cuts a lot of juicy details!)

To pay homage to Harryhausen, I wanted “Champion” to contain winking references to all of his most famous monster encounters, so I decided to make it a kind of game-within-a-game to have "Champion" tip its hat to each of the major beasts. Think back, if you've played the game. Skeletons? Check! (Kinda.) Dragon? Check! (Kinda.) Giant scorpion? Check! (Kinda.)

But I didn’t get the chance to include killer statues or a cyclops in "Champion," despite their being two Harryhausen classics!

Rest assured you will get both of them in “Exile.” (Kinda.)

+ Metroretrofuturism - Mild Spoilers

As noted previously, nothing in the game is purely copied from the real world; everything is remixed, because I needed the game environment to be unfamiliar enough to get relatively “clean” reactions from the players.

That said, I did make an effort to combine historical details with complimentary details from modern life, to make matters more relevant. (To put it in “Jurassic Park” terms: my historical research was always the dinosaur DNA, while the modern details were the frog DNA, tying the whole velociraptor together.)

This is never more evident than when we’re talking about Vhyr, the City of Clay--a place where you'll either start the game, or visit halfway through it, depending on whether you choose the pathway of an exiled character.

While Vhyr draws a lot of physical detail from urban enclaves of the fertile crescent from 400 – 600 BC, all of its modern DNA comes rather noticeably from one place: midtown NYC, where I started work at an office precisely one month before I started writing/coding "Exile."

It's here that the ostentatious myth-inflected artwork of Rockefeller Center abounds, some of which has the nerve (or prescience) to depict the titans of industry as ever-watchful deities. It's also here that the most checked-out / decked-out locals parade around 5th Avenue with their checked-out / decked-out dogs. And with both Trump Tower and St. Patrick's Cathedral just a Vertu's throw away, one can't help but get the feeling that it all adds up somehow--that as Masha warned Max Renn in "Videodrome," it has a philosophy.

Whether that philosophy is real, or just a Rorschach-style illusion of my own, its tenets have certainly informed the City of Clay.

+ 100% Post-Consumer Plotlines - Major Spoilers

If you played "Champion," you'll recall that the realm of Agossa had a community of seers: people gifted with the ability to see the destined futures of anyone they met. But like most gifts, this one was also a curse, since the seers were shunned by their families and friends for knowing too much about their futures. They lived together at the Oracle, cut off from the world--and all for knowing it too well!

In the original version of "Champion," one of these seers turned snake: a young person who had agreed to betray you to Daggoras. I loved the idea of someone who was part of this monolithic plot point going rogue on the protagonist, it was like the story itself had been compromised. But much as I delighted in their meta-ness, that character got cut! I just didn't feel like the "rules" of the world had been clearly established by the time the young seer made their entrance.

Fastforward years later, when my research for "Exile" brought me to the astrologers of Babylon. The idea of crooked soothsayers came back to me, and wound up becoming the foundation for the sequel. And although the character of the archivist isn't quite the same as the seer who got cut from "Champion," I like to think that my new villain is doing their part to mess with narrative on behalf of cut characters everywhere.

Interview with Choice of Games Editor Mary Duffy!

See this link for an interview wherein Choice of Games editor Mary Duffy trades some backstory with me on the subject of “Champion of the Gods,” and its actually-out-now sequel!

Ancient History: How "Champion of the Gods" Evolved from Pitch to Publication

Ancient History: How "Champion of the Gods" Evolved from Pitch to Publication

Now that "Champion of the Gods" has been officially released, it seems a good time to take a look back at some of the revisions that were made to the game along the road to publication...

10 Things You Should Know About "Champion of the Gods"

10 Things You Should Know About "Champion of the Gods"

My new app for Choice of Games is called "Champion of the Gods". Here are ten things you should know about it...

FlameCon at the Grand Prospect Hall!

FlameCon at the Grand Prospect Hall!

I'll be demoing my upcoming Choice of Games title on Saturday, June 13th at FlameCon!