Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Feature: Interview with Richard Dansky

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Richard Dansky is currently the Manager of Design for Red Storm Entertainment and has been a prolific writer and designer for various games which include Vampire: The Masquerade and Heroes of Might and Magic V. He has also published novels and short fiction before, most notably for White Wolf's Exalted line. His latest novel, Firefly Rain, came out last month under the Wizards of the Coast Discoveries imprint and tells a tale of gothic ghost story.

Hi! To start off, can you tell us something about yourself?

Something about myself...well, I'm a professional video game designer and writer by day, working for Red Storm Entertainment and Ubisoft. I live in North Carolina with my wife Melinda Thielbar, who is also a writer, and our two feline overlords. I was born in New York, grew up in Philadelphia, and have lived here in the Raleigh-Durham area for over eight years. I'm a devout fan of baseball, a hopelessly addicted reader, and in my weaker moments, I listen to a lot of early-period Marillion.

Let's talk about your new book,
Firefly Rain. What is it about? Is it fair to say that it's a horror story?

I like to call it a ghost story more than a horror story, and I think there is something of a difference between the two. I'm not terribly interested in stories about ancient and otherworldly evil trying to take over the world, which is probably a character flaw on my part. For all that I really love Lovecraft and Ligotti and many, many horror writers, I'm less interested in monsters and nameless cosmic horror than I am in people and the consequences of the choices they make. That's why I find ghost stories so fascinating, because ghosts really are manifestations of consequences, and that fits much better with what I'm hoping to do as a writer. It's one thing to try to frighten the reader, but I'm almost more interested in disturbing them by making the choices the characters make - and that get them in trouble - be the sorts of thing that a reader can easily and logically see himself doing. It's much more personal that way.

And to completely avoid answering the question, I hope it's the sort of book that you don't want to read just before bedtime but stay up all night reading anyway.

What got you started with the novel? I heard from your blog entry at
Storytellers Unplugged that it began as a short story and then grew from there.

First of all, thank you for referencing that Storytellers essay, and not, say, the one about selling porn to nuns. People tend to get the wrong idea about that one…

Most of my writing actually starts with a sort of single held image, and Firefly Rain was no exception. My wife and I went out to her family farm in Missouri and went for a walk in the fields one night - no lights, no artificial illumination, just the moonlight and the darkness and the sense of space - and I thought about that, and the way the boundaries between the fields and the dark areas at the edges were so stark. And that merged with a short story I'd been noodling with about fireflies, and the whole thing just sort of exploded from there.

It helped - if that's the right word - that right about then, my parents were preparing to move from Philadelphia down to Atlanta, and were getting ready to sell the house that I'd grown up in. There was a lot of nostalgia that came out as twenty-plus years' worth of residence got put into boxes or thrown out or stored away, and saying goodbye to a place for the last time always makes you regret the time that might have been better spent there.

How did you go about getting it published?

I've been very lucky in that I've been working with Robert Fleck and Janet Berliner at Professional Media Services pretty much since the book was finished. I'd worked with Janet on the book Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah for Wraith, back when I was at White Wolf, and she was extremely gracious and supportive throughout that whole difficult project. We stayed friends, and when she and Bob re-opened Professional Media Services, they asked if I had anything novel-shaped they could take a look at. That was right around the time I was wrapping up Firefly Rain, and things just went from there.

You've written other novels before: how different was the writing experience for you with Firefly Rain? What do you think sets this book apart from the rest?

The biggest difference was that the other novels I'd done were all tie-ins, and Firefly Rain was the first one I'd done that was completely original. I really enjoyed doing the Vampire and Exalted books that I wrote, and part of that experience is the fact that the world and the rules and the history are already in place. You don't have to explain how things work or where they came from or anything else, because everyone's already bought into and is interested in the world.

With an original novel like Firefly Rain, I had the chance to build everything from the ground up, which gave me a lot more freedom. On one hand, it's refreshing not to have to make sure that what I was writing didn't have to match the continuity from Milwaukee By Night, but on the other hand, that also meant that it was all on me, and if anything didn't work, it was 100% my fault.

As for the content, I think the biggest difference is that I could make Firefly Rain much more about Jacob Logan's internal life than I could do with the other books. When you sign on to do an Exalted novel, you're also signing on to write about badass magical kung fu and eldritch weapons and Dragonball Z-level throwdowns. That's a ton of fun, but when it came time to do Firefly Rain I was ready to get inside the character's head a little more.

Who do you think are your writing influences? Favorite authors or books?

Well, I did my honors thesis on Lovecraft, so we can probably start there, but I'm a pretty omnivorous reader. There are a lot of writers I think I've learned from, and whom you can most likely find evidence of my writing. Right off the top of my head, I'd point to Charles E. Grant, T.E.D. Klein, and Manly Wade Wellman as the three writers whose style has influenced me most. With all three of them, I'd read one of their books and just find myself stopping to say, "Damn! How did they do that?" Then I'd go back, and re-read and re-read until I could make a vague attempt at figuring it out.

As for books, my favorite is still The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury. That story, more than anything else I've ever read, is responsible for turning me into a horror writer.

You have a lot of game credits (both tabletop and video games) attached to your name. How different is it from writing fiction? What areas does it help you with your writing and what areas (if any) does it hinder you?

The biggest difference in writing for video games versus tabletop RPGs versus fiction is whom you're writing for, and the degree of control you have over how the story plays out. When you're writing fiction, you're writing for one person - the reader - and the characters do exactly what you tell them to do, at least in theory. When you're writing for a video game, you're writing for The Player, who is someone very different from a reader, and whose actions in playing the game actually determine the shape of the story. So, you have to step back and let the player be the hero, instead of your game's main character. If you don't, you turn the player into a spectator while your character does all of the cool stuff that the player bought the game in order to do. As for tabletop RPGs, that's essentially a question of writing possibilities. You're trying to create as rich a world as possible, with as many hooks and plotlines and tools for players to tell their own stories as possible.

On a more granular level, video game writing is almost exclusively a combination of exposition and dialogue, and a lot of the dialogue is what we call "barks" – automatically triggered lines that exist to provide feedback to the player. So if I'm writing for a game, odds are I'm going to have to do forty-five variants on "Arrgh! He shot me!" and absolutely zero descriptive work. It makes sense, because the player needs to know he's hit (or been hit) in order to play effectively, and the level designers and artists take care of the need for description. When I'm writing fiction, particularly a ghost story like Firefly Rain, then I almost have to spend a lot of time working on mood and setting and tone, and on the characters' internal thought processes, which isn't stuff that you're necessarily in a position to do when you're writing a game. At the same time, I don't have to worry about the umpty-ump variations on a theme of "I got him"; I've got other ways of painting that picture, and the reader isn't going to take a virtual grenade to the noggin if I don't get that feedback to him immediately.

Ultimately, I'd say that game writing and fiction writing complement each other pretty well, if you can understand the underlying differences and switch gears from one to the other. If you try to write a game like you're writing a novel, then odds are it's not going to work out quite so well.

What are your favorite games?

My favorite game of all time is actually Family Business, which is this wonderful non-collectible card game that's all about bumping off your friends' mobsters while speaking in terrible faux-Brooklyn accents, and I haul that with me when I go to conferences like Project Horseshoe.

In terms of video games, I'm a huge fan of the work of Tim Schafer. I think Grim Fandango was absolutely brilliant, and I loved Psychonauts. I got my wife Rock Band for Christmas (No, really, she wanted it. You can ask her), so that's eating up a lot of my game time right now as I do my best Ringo Starr impersonation on the drum kit. I'm also a serious Dynasty Warriors addict, but don't tell anyone that. Apparently, as a game writer I'm only supposed to like games with extensive dialogue trees or some such.

At this point in time, what would you rather do more of: publish more games or publish more fiction?

I think the answer there is "yes". I love doing games and I love writing fiction. It's a win-win situation; in both cases, I get to work on something that is specifically designed for other people to enjoy. The difference, in large part, is that writing is a largely solitary experience, while making games is massively collaborative. Right now, I'd say I've got the best of both worlds - I have the chance to work on games that tons of people know and have fun with, and I have more or less enough time to write for myself. I guess if you twisted my arm, I'd go with doing more fiction, but really, it's like being asked to choose between ice cream and single malt scotch. I'm going to be pretty happy either way.

How did you go about entering the field of gaming? Of fiction?

I got into video games professionally through a friend named Dave Weinstein, who at the time was a networking engineer at Red Storm, and who liked the tabletop work I'd been doing at White Wolf. We'd become friends through an online gaming chat, and he kept on suggesting (and if you know Dave, and you probably do, because everyone knows Dave, you know how emphatically he suggests things) that I send in a resume because Red Storm had a project that needed a writer/designer. So I did, and I was extremely surprised when they called a few days later and asked if I'd fly up for an interview. Thankfully, I wasn't too surprised to say "Yes," and things just sort of rolled along from there.

As for fiction, it started as an outgrowth of my tabletop RPG writing. The White Wolf game books always had a short fiction piece up front, and I'd written a lot of those. That turned into doing a piece for a Vampire: The Dark Ages anthology, which turned into doing one of the Vampire Clan novels, and then I was off and running. The big jump, honestly, was trying non-tie-in fiction for the first time. I'd pretty much stopped writing anything that wasn't RPG material for a few years there because I didn't have time to write anything else, and trying my own fiction again felt like jumping into the deep end of a pool without being sure I remembered how to swim.

How did you go about entering the field of tabletop gaming?

I got into tabletop gaming through a friend from college, Jennifer Hartshorn, who'd gone to work for White Wolf as their original line developer for Wraith. Jen knew I was a tabletop RPG nerd – I had a four-year Villains and Vigilantes campaign at college – and liked writing, and so she gave me my first opportunity on the Wraith book Haunts. I wrote two chapters, and those were well enough received to get me more work, first on Wraith, then on Changeling. And when she moved over to Vampire, Jen recommended me for the Wraith job, and I ended up moving down to Atlanta and going from there.

Any advice for a) aspiring fiction writers, b) aspiring game designers?

The best advice I ever got on writing came from George Scithers, who said that it comes down to three things: Have something to say, say it, and say it to someone. That's cogent no matter what sort of writing, or really any sort of creative work you're doing. You need the ideas, you need to do something with the ideas besides tell everyone what brilliant ideas you have, and you need to get your work out there where people can see it.

Any upcoming work (whether games or fiction or something else entirely) that we can look forward to from you in the future?

I'm just finishing up my next novel now, actually. It's a video game ghost story, which is something I can hopefully bring a little professional insight to. Game-wise, I'm actually working on a slew of unannounced projects, all of which are terribly cool, and terribly frustrating not to be allowed to talk about. It's probably all going to hit at once, but until then, I'm going to have to be mysterious.

No comments: