An unofficial transcript of the podcast episode by Alexis Kennedy and Lottie Bevan.
LB: Hello and welcome to Skeleton Songs!
LB: You have printed notes, um, which means this episode is gonna be very serious and you’re gonna read off a fact sheet and there’ll be a test at the end.
AK: Fuck yeah.
AK: I just, I, I want to marshal [my three?] witnesses for the prosecution.
LB: I was [wondering if you?] have already put off all the Americans listening to this, with swearing in the first twenty seconds.
AK: Do you know, I’ve got a feedback, um, form for my GDC talk a couple of years ago that said it’s a really great talk, there’s just too much profanity, so I won’t be coming to the speaker’s talks again.
LB: To be fair, you did have an entire slide dedicated to the f-word. So it wasn’t…
AK: Skeleton Songs!
LB: (laughs) So yeah, this episode—well, I mean— people who’ve listened to this, um, series before might have listened to an episode, um, a couple podcasts ago, um, about women, and menstruation, and that episode primarily consisted of me getting cross about anti-feminist things. So this episode is AK’s turn, and he’s gonna get cross about…
AK: Ah, I’m not gonna get cross about it, I’m just gonna get cross about the name of it: worldbuilding.
LB: Mm. So, um, it’s quite an interesting discussion, this, because I am a English lit student, um, and to me…
AK: I mean, you’re not, you’re an English lit graduate.
LB: (chuckles) That’s true, yeah.
AK: You impostor.
LB: I’m not young anymore. Um, but to me, the idea of worldbuilding does not sound anger-inducing, or even the name does not sound annoying. But you have a bit of a bee in your bonnet about it.
AK: A whole f—
LB: As an award-winning—
LB: Narrative designer…
AK: So that’s the thing, is, is, is I— ah, people come up to me, or have come up to me, you know, if, if not literally, figuratively, at cocktail parties, and said, so, you’re, er, known for your worldbuilding, and I spill a drink down my front and cry. Er, and while I’m mopping it I explain that I don’t object to inventing a setting, or setting a story somewhere imaginative, all that stuff is great, what I object to is, is all the baggage that comes with the term. And I think I said in a column long ago that what worldbuilding sounds like is sort of vogons in reverse. It’s not about making a myth, it’s about, um, trying to sort of move big blocks together and worry about the plumbing. And I think it’s particularly prevalent in game design because of course when you’re making a game you’ve making a really big complicated device. Especially if it’s something sort of indie-sized, or, or, um, guerrilla game sized. You need a world, you need to make sure the world’s the right shape and it’s got the right geometry and it’s got the right entities in it spawning in the right way and [all the physics interact?]…
LB: It’s very rules-based.
AK: It’s very rules-based. So you, you need to think about how to develop the world and build the world and you think about the writers who come and, you know, essentially put a layer of plaster over the top of it. And then you sell, er, novels based on, on the setting, and people [pen?] them out, but it’s, it’s— well, let me put it this way. There’s a, um, er, a gent who wrote about what he called secondary creation, which will give the game away to a bunch of folks right away, it’s Tolkien, talked about secondary creation or sub-creation as, um, what he was doing, and what other people were doing, when they wrote fantasy. And Tolkien of course wrote fantasy and designed a setting and built a goddamned world in a way nobody ever had before. Ah, but he said, and I love this quote, ‘part of the attraction of The Lord of the Rings is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background. An attraction like that of viewing a far-off and unvisited island, and seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in the sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed.’ And he’s bang on, he knew what he was talking about, and he was writing a letter about his concerns about doing The Silmarillion.
LB: Well, I was gonna bring The Silmarillion in to [our topic?].
AK: There you go. [inaudible]
LB: For people who haven’t, ah, heard of this, firstly, why are you under a rock? But mostly, um, The Lord of the Rings is the kind of narrative story side of it that is basically user-facing and user-friendly, and The Silmarillion, as far as I understand, is the sort of complicated backstories and rules and lineologies [sic] and genealogies that explain a lot of the relationships and a lot more of the, kind of, world that isn’t necessarily relevant to the actual plot…
LB: But is interesting if you’re interested in the world more generally. So the, the summary I’ve heard of it is, for super Tolkien nerds, fan— like, fantastic, er, source material…
LB: But to your average layman reader, really boring.
AK: And it didn’t ever enjoy anything like the success of, of Rings. I can’t remember if it was published in the end, before or after Tolkien’s death— certainly it was filled out with, with unpublished material. But… ah, he… Tolkien did not sit down to build a world because he was making a project. He sat down to— famously, started out by inventing languages. But even before that, when he was a kid, he was drawing maps and he was, um, ah, sketching stories, ah, which later developed into The Lord of the Rings, out of the pure joy of creation. And, ah, somehow the idea has evolved from this, from this, this, ah, English lit nerd a century ago.
LB: Anglo-Saxon lit nerd, to you!
AK: Anglo-Saxon lit nerd. Well, more about in a moment, actually.
AK: Ah, he, he, he did this, this thing that he loved doing, and, like, a hundred years later, you can buy books of worldbuilding that will say, menacingly, ‘start by writing a timeline’. And that’s like, no, no, or, or…
LB: You see, I understand that! I don’t know— so what you said so far, to me, sounds like it is not, um, a sort of existential problem with worldbuilding. You have a problem with the implementation. You find a lot of people’s approach to worldbuilding rules-based and unnecessary and lots of detail that isn’t actually relevant to making a good story. So, so why is a timeline a bad place to start?
AK: Well, let me, well, OK, so first of all, um, I’ve, er, names, as a writer, um, I’m biased, but they’re important. What’s the most delicious food I make?
LB: Ah, ooh, that’s a tough one, but your pulled pork.
AK: Right. So, instead of making pulled pork, I said that I was, um, er, flesh spicing…
LB: You have— damaged it, right?
LB: I’m not gonna lie.
AK: There— there we go. So worldbuilding is, is like this, when you talk about, about creating a myth. Um, and a time— a timeline…
LB: What a waste of pigs!
AK: A timeline isn’t interesting. A timeline, um, and this, this is a quote I stole from Bruce Garrick about something quite different, um, is homework, er, if you— if you’re given a story, you immediately go [coup gauche?]. If you’re given a timeline, you think, oh, there are gonna be questions on this.
AK: And when we get to Act 2, there might be a sort of multiple choice thing or if I don’t know, er, that King Bu ca—came from Queen Fa, then I’m going to lose some experience points.
LB: But isn’t, isn’t the timeline the sort of backbone of, of the narrative’s… work? It’s not meant to be presented to the reader as the final thing, it’s meant—
LB: It’s meant to underpin…
AK: So, so, so you—
LB: …the coherency of the story.
AK: But if you’re Frank Gehry, and you’re, you’re building the, um, ah, the Guggenheim in Bilbao…
AK: I bet he didn’t start out by planning the toilets. I bet before they started building it, they needed to work out the fucking timeline, and sure, if you are building a, a big multi-person IP, er, then, ah, you’re going to need to sit down and work out what happened when and why…
AK: But that’s not what makes the world interesting. All worlds, once they get sufficiently complicated, all fictional worlds have timelines, all real ones, well, well, they do, because, you know, time and space… but if you start out with a timeline, then you start out by making it like everything else, and the whole point about Tolkien, the reason Tolkien is so successful and so memorable and had such an impact, is he was doing something that people hadn’t done before. So trying to re-synthesise what Tolkien did is missing the point…
AK: It’s, it’s like people who want endless Batman content, when what people really want is not necessa—
AK: So I’m not being rude about Batman, for once, ah— what people really want is content that made them feel like Batman did when they first came across this…
AK: …dark [initiate?] of the night.
LB: That’s interesting, ‘cause I know that as a c— so you are a, a writer, a creative director and a CEO, right, all of which I think you have, ah, done well, primarily because, well, you’re naturally talented, but because you always go top-down. So your thing about being a CEO has been to teach everyone to [long for the Sea?], and have a clear, um, strategy for a company, your idea as a creative director has been to have the, a very clear set of themes that everything leads toward, so I know you made Sunless Sea…
LB: Every bit of the story that was written by multiple different people, you kept saying there has to be some sort of reference to the main core themes of the game…
LB: Which then resulted in this very coherent-feeling thing, which didn’t start off with a timeline…
AK: I told everyone that there needed to be some reference to home, or its absence, in every story written.
LB: Exactly, and what’s, what’s really nice about that, and, and when you talk about the Tolkien thing of, you know, you, er, it’s about um, giving people that vista of this distant land in the mountains and, and what might be, rather than saying ‘Here’s all the detail’, that’s, that’s your approach with your writing as well, so you’re saying that rather than building it up from minutiae, the thing is to start at the top of the mountain, see what the feeling is that you want to evoke, is that fair at all? You’re giving me a face and I can’t tell.
AK: It, it, it, ah, it is, except I think it’s, um…
LB: Just ‘cause I know that theme is very important to you.
AK: It is, but, but, but I think… so every, every writer works differently, okay. But, but lots of writers work, [erm, along different lines?]
LB: Listeners, he is giving me a face.
AK: Heh… the… I, I don’t think many writers start by sitting down and saying ‘Right,I, I want to evoke these themes, so here’s a five-point plan for how to do it.’
AK: What you start out with is an itch in your soul, an itch in your soul!, a great good itch that, ah, makes you want to write a certain kind of story or do a certain kind of thing. In Tolkien’s case, you know, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’, or, or, um, what he said was that all human stories are ultimately about death, ah—
LB: Did he!?
AK: Yes, he did! And he said that if—
LB: Oh my god.
AK: —elves have human stories the same way that we have fairy stories, um, our fairy stories are all about the escape from death, and their…
LB: It’s all about finding it.
AK: Human stories would be all about being the escape from deathlessness.
AK: But he—
LB: He’s a goth, isn’t he?
AK: He’s— he described a, a particular work in a couple of ways. He said it was about, um, a man at war with a hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in time, and he also described it as being like a work that was as if somebody had found an inheritance of stones in a field they owned, and they built a tower out of those stones. So that the tower had an, a, a, a, roots back in the past…
LB: I know what this is!
AK: I suspected you might…
LB: It’s a famous essay…
AK: It is, about that D&D book you like.
LB: Urgh!! This is the, the episode where you get cross, not me! Ladies and gentlemen, he is clearly referring to Beowulf, um, one of the greatest bits of literature ever written, that AK hasn’t read, so he, um, he beats it up, every time he can, to make everyone think that he has read it, when he hasn’t.
AK: When I was nine I read the abridged version…
LB: Oh, the abridged version!
AK: That was adapted by Roger Lancelyn Green, yeah.
LB: (baby noises) And the dragon came, Diddy, and the big man had a fight!
AK: (laughing). Yeah, well, and that’s the, I know the plot now, it’s all just, you know, it’s…
LB: It’s not about the plot, isn’t it?
AK: It is, he has three fights, he—
LB: I think our next game should be ten words, just say—
AK: He fights…
LB: “Woman has library; you find a fish”. There you go, see how well that goes.
AK: It’s— it’s— it’s boss battles.
AK: Anyway, Tolkien thought it was more than boss battles.
LB: And I guess he wasn’t totally stupid…
LB: …was he?
AK: Well, he, he, so, he in the famous essay, that, ah, you, I— I thought you’d probably know about it, ah, somehow…
AK: Um, the— he objected to a lot of the things that have been said about Beowulf, um, over the last however many hundred years. And one of the things he objected to was that a lot of literary critics, stop me if this sounds familiar, pooh-poohed it for having monsters in it, and they thought thought, you know, it’s a serious work on serious themes [so I know?] the book [with?] dragons and things in is rubbish, and he, he, he disagreed with that, you’ll be amazed to hear. But he said that one of the problems of Beowulf is that it’s picked apart and looked at as the sum of its…
AK: Rather than as the…
LB: The sum of its sources?
AK: The sum of sour— well, this is the, the, the inheritance of stones thing, so, um, the, the unknown poet builds this tower in the field— he builds his Beowulf out of, ah, Germanic, er, myths and folk-tales and, um, Christian beliefs and poetic, poetic traditions. Um, so it’s his work but it also relies on everything else, and then all the scholars come and they swarm over the tower…
AK: And they tear it to pieces looking for hidden inscriptions on the stones. And he, he says, “Myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.” So if you’re ‘worldbuilding’, rather than myth-making…
AK: Then what you’re building is, is, ah, here— here’s an analogy. A human being is composed of, um, a lot of different trace elements, you know: a lot of us is water, ah, ah, some of us is potassium, ah, and so on— if you dump water, carbon, potassium, and what-all in a bucket…
LB: You make a golem!
AK: …and give it a good old stir, then a human does not step out of it.
LB: No, that’s true. That is true. I mean, I’m quite conflicted about that, really, ‘cause he, ‘cause of course he’s right, but on the other hand, you know, the, ah, my degree is in literary criticism.
LB: So I feel like there is a place, and there is something interesting that can come out of dissecting something with a particular lens.
LB: Because if someone said, you know, just, talk to me about Beowulf, I could talk about it, but I wouldn’t be able to have a particular focus but in detail, and unearth anything that you couldn’t get from reading the text itself. But I understand from his point of view as somebody who was creating a world and was actually—
LB: –writing, and, and, and evincing this, um, experience, the last thing you want is some idiot to come along and say, ‘Well, I think the way that you’ve treated, you know, the women in the context of how you were writing and, and, you know, is, is, is not really…
AK: But I mean, you know, Tolkien was himself a critic, obviously, and he wasn’t against critics, he was just against a particular, sort of, erm, non-synthesising approach, as I understand it.
AK: And I think— that, that’s the problem with, with, with worldbuilding, is, is, as a, as an approach and as a term, is you want to start out with, um, it encourages people, sorry, I should say, to start out by building up a series of bricks, and then you get something that looks like all the other things that are built out of bricks, and again, I really want to say this here, because I’m sure there are people listening who’ve, ah, worked on big AAA games… the kind of things you can do when you are an Oxford don working in the 1930s on your passion project on your own, or a couple of indie creators sitting in a London flat, putting together a game about a library, the constraints you’re under are very very different…
AK: …from the constraints you’re under when you’re working in an IP, ah, that is, is the product of literally thousands of minds working together. So you have to take a more industrial approach…
AK: And there’s, there’s…
LB: And you do have to lay down rules so that other people can follow them and make sure that…
LB: You know, you can [cohere?]
AK: And, and you know, you need to, obviously, from the beginning.
AK: And I think, even within the, the, there, there’s room for more longing for the sea, and less analysing the precise, um, salt content of the seawater. But—
LB: It’s funny you mention this, because, um, I was gonna talk about Gormenghast, which is one of my favourite books ever, as you know…
AK: I do.
LB: And, um, that is famous for creating such a believable and unusual world, so I was going to ask you about, you know, the worldbuilding in that. Um, but I— I realised, reading about it, that, ah, he was heavily influenced by, erm, Charles Dickens. He really liked a lot of what he did, and part—
AK: Dickens is great, isn’t he?
LB: I’m not a biggest— I’m not the biggest fan of Charles Dickens, as you know, she said, bravely not rising to the bait, um, but I was gonna say something he wrote, actually, er, in one of his novels, sounds a lot like Tolkien’s thing about, don’t…
LB: …build everything up from, from minutiae, and Hard Times, um, one of the, the opening scene, which ultimately sets up things that conclude the novel as well, um, is a teacher called…
LB: Called Gradgrind.
LB: Or Mr M’Choakumchild, I can’t remember which one.
LB: Seriously, Mr M’Choakumchild. Um, one of those two is teaching a lesson, and he asks, I think someone called, like, Flora, um, how to define a horse. And she says something mimsy and feminine, like, ‘Oh, I have one, and they, they, I like their noses and they’re friends with me!’.
LB: And he sort of hits her on the head and says ‘Stupid child!’, and he goes to this other guy, who’s this sort of anaemic-looking blond guy, he’s the, he’s the sort of champion of the class, and he says, ‘Bitzer! What, what, how do you define a horse?’, and this horrible child stands up and says, um, ‘Quadruped, graminivorous’, and that’s the correct answer. Now, I believe this is what us professionals called satire, and it was not actually Dickens suggesting that this is the essence of a horse captured by a child…
LB: Um, but it’s exactly that same thing, that you cannot evince the true essence of something by describing it in very emotionless parts, and that sounds a lot like what you were talking about. So I guess you writers do agree.
AK: Well, so, so, some days, sometimes. But, but here—here—
AK: Gormenghast is a very good example, actually, because how many maps have you seen in Gormenghast?
AK: How big is Gormenghast?
LB: Really big.
AK: But how, how many, how many metres?
LB: I don’t care.
AK: There we go.
LB: That’s not important.
AK: How far is it from the nearest city?
LB: Well, that’s the—
AK: What’s it’s population?
LB: —see, again, that’s the thing, I, ah, so, so, one of my favouritest books, most favourite books, like, just, erm, famous much less than it deserves, honestly, ‘cause it’s just an astonishing feat, um, but what you remember is the fact that it’s, you know, you remember the characters…
LB: …because it’s brilliant at having these sort of, almost caricature-ish Dickensian creatures, that he has…
LB: …(inaudible) around this weird place, you remember the castle, you remember certain events, like, you know, certain things that happen with owls and certain floods, and [yada and yada?]. But you don’t give a hoot about whether the craggy rocks are to the east or the west, or how far it takes you to walk to the mountain.
LB: What you care about are all the things I’ve just said.
AK: Exactly, and that’s the difference between myth-making and, and worldbuilding, and, um, as long as the myth feels consistent, or the setting feels consistent, it’s all fine— that’s the suspension of disbelief that Tolkien talked about, um, when he started talking about sub-creation and, er, where’s the quote, ah, “Inside it, what the subcreator relates is true: it accords to the laws of that world. You therefore believe it while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken, the magic, or rather art, has failed.” So if you start out with all the numbers and all the details, then you can have a very consistent world— not an interesting world, it, it, it, and again, it, because… all the worlds which are built by a sort of worldbuilding first approach consist largely of numbers and details.
AK: It will end up like all those other worlds, but Gormenghast, what you get in Gormenghast, you get the Tower of Flints, you get owls, you get the, the Hall of Bright Carvers, you get all these things that [are unlike?]…
LB: Lovely sad Fuchsia!
AK: Lovely sad Fuchsia. But here’s another thing. So, when I first started putting together Fallen London, um, there were very specific rules I laid down for what could and couldn’t go in there. Um, and, ah, I, not—not necessarily consciously, but, but there were three sort of classes of questions, erm, that were, that it could address. Um, that conversations about it could address. One is questions people really wanted the ans— answers to, like ‘Who are the Masters of the Bazaar?’, ‘Why does no one die down here?’. Another one is questions that we had to, to answer to some extent, like, ‘Are the trees alive?’, or ‘What do people eat?’, and the answer is sort, of, um, ah, I think, I think we settled on parasynthesis, for the trees, ‘cause some of them were alive, sort of, though a bit scrubby and rubbish. Um, and people eat mushrooms, because mushrooms grow underground and you get mushroom wine and mushroom bouquets and all the rest of it, [so it provides that?]. So, there’s questions that people want the answers to, and there’s questions that you need to answer, to make the setting feel real, and there’s the questions that nobody is interested in and you don’t want people to ask.
AK: So here’s a really important thing, that, um, certainly up until I left, was not addressed in Fallen London, I’d be quite surprised at it being addressed now, the city fell, I think, nine miles, was carried down by bats nine miles, and they set it down….how’s the, how’s the sewers work? Sewers were a major preoccupation of Victorian Britain. Without the, the big, um, the, the, the grand sewerage projects that occurred in the 19th century, the city would have foundered in its own filth. So, so what, what happened— did the brick remain intact, how far down did it go, well— never addressed. Nobody cares. Nobody wants to talk about sewers.
LB: No, I wouldn’t want to play a story about the sewers, honestly.
AK: Yeah. So that’s— unless, of course, you know, you pass—
LB: If it’s something you wanna talk about, yeah.
AK: —you’re passing through the sewers with a torch, and, and there, there’s a sort of, um, er, worm loose down there that, that thinks it’s a [jelly?] or something.
LB: Worm loose?
AK: Worm loose, yes.
LB: Yeah, I’m there for that.
AK: There you go. But, but that’s the thing, there’s, there’s questions that you need to answer, there’s questions that you want to answer, and there’s questions that, if you engage with them at all, your answer probably should be some variation on ‘Look over there, it’s a worm loose’.
LB: (chuckles) Well, that’s good, ‘cause they actually got someone, um, tweeting at us earlier this week, he said, ‘I’ve created a Twitter account simply to ask you this:…’, and it was some complicated question about, um, ‘Did the Egg come from the Black-Flax, um, before or after the Intercalate occurred?’.
LB: Something like that. And… that is exactly the sort of thing you’re asking, right, because, sort of, for people who don’t know what the hell I’ve just said, these are referencing, um, ancient pseudo-gods in Cultist Simulator, that you have created an entire pantheon, and, and, um, myth around…
LB: But you haven’t ever sat down and said, ‘Here is the true word of the Hours, and here’s everything that they did’.
AK: Not everything, so, but, er, but go on, there’s, I’m gonna row back from this in a moment.
LB: No, no, I was just, I was just saying, it’s interesting, ‘cause that sort of question that we were asked is not, is, is something that I know that we don’t answer.
LB: As a studio. Because, firstly, we want to maintain mystery, and a lot of the fun of Cultist Simulator is, um, connecting the dots yourself…
LB: So if we connect it for people, it’s not fun, you get that immediate, kind of, boost of knowledge, but then you lose interest, and that’s the anathema to the whole project, but also, I mean I certainly don’t know the answer, because you haven’t written down a Bible of everything that occurred: I obviously know there is some deep lore that obviously does cohere and does have a narrative that we don’t talk about…
LB: Openly. Um, but… yeah, I think this is what you’re saying.
AK: So it, uh, it is. But the thing is, I, I don’t want to push too far in the direction of just making it all up as you go along. Because people can tell.
AK: And this is another favourite, um…
LB: Yes they can.
AK: Ah, hobbyhorse, is, is, especially in the age of the internet, you know, you might have got away with it in the 1970s, but, in, in, in an age when, when Reddit has put together the answers for the deep plot of Westworld, um, long before it’s revealed…
LB: Oh, I love the Reddit Westworld forums!
AK: But that’s the thing, you know. The— if the clues are there and they’re fair clues, people will work it out.
AK: So one of the answers to make things mysteries rather than puzzles— it’s not necessarily one answer so much as a set of answers— but I, as you know, I love David Lynch, and you don’t, because, um, somebody extracted a piece of your heart…
AK: With a fish-hook, when you were young. Ah—
LB: (chuckles) A fair summary.
AK: But like a lot of people my age I watched Twin Peaks first time around when I was, I don’t know, seventeen, nineteen, somewhere around that…
AK: And a lot of us were very disappointed when it became apparent that…
LB: He didn’t really have a…
AK: No, he had a sort of idea of the kind of effect he wanted to achieve, but in terms of what’s actually going on and what is the (inaudible)…
LB: And that’s why I’d be sli— you know, that I res— you know that I respect him, you know that he obviously has immense talent…
LB: I’m not quibbling with that, but I do— I think my issue with him is, um, is an emotional one that stems from that realisation that he didn’t really have a plan. ‘Cause I thought I was taken on for a bit of a ride.
AK: Well, he did have a plan, it’s just, I think, first of all, the plan maybe didn’t extend over two seasons of television, and second, the plan was to make the audience feel a particular way, rather than to give all the answers.
AK: And he was, you know, famously—
AK: BOB, ah, the, the scary grey-haired [possessing?] monster.
AK: Yes. Twin Peaks spoilers, everyone. Ah, the—
LB (to cat?): Hello (inaudible) [some yummins?]
AK: There will be, well, it’s time they, they learnt pain. Ah…
AK: Ah, BOB entered the Twin Peaks mythos when, um, ei—either Lynch or one of the actors saw, um, a cameraman with sort of dirty grey hair crouched, um, in, in a mirror, and he didn’t realise it was him for a moment, he was really frightened by him.
LB: It was scary, yeah.
AK: And that goes into, ah, the…
LB: That’s at the heart of the mystery.
AK: …the show, as, ah, ah, Laura Palmer’s mother’s, ah, vision, of BOB. And that’s where it came from. I mean there would have been, probably, a possessing spirit and, and what not, somebody killed Laura Palmer, but that came out of that. So you wanna leave your framework open, because all the good ideas you have, um, in, in year zero, are, are not going to be as good as all of the ideas you’ll have over the next two, three years you might be working on something.
AK: Even the next six months. But at the same time, if anything goes, then nothing makes sense.
LB: Yeah, I mean—
LB: –like that 12-minute episode of a bomb slowly going off while some people in black and white look at the camera.
AK: Which is, which is genius, and it wasn’t, it wasn’t twelve minutes…
LB: I’m sorry, genius (inaudible).
AK: …you just didn’t want to watch it, but. Anyway. But the point is—
LB: It felt like twelve minutes.
AK: I—I’m not David Lynch, and I can’t get away with what he can get away with, because, like—
LB: You have similar hair, actually!
AK: …an actual genius…
LB: When you’re old and grey, your hair will be quite similar…
AK: That’s the, that’s the secret, we’re like Samson. But, ah, but, but I was determined from that point that if anybody actually broke into my house— please don’t break into my house— ah, and, um, managed to, er, crack all my, my heavy duty military encryption on my spreadsheets, ah—
AK: They would find, basically, there is an answer to the question you mentioned…
AK: …a while ago.
AK: Now, it might be quite an elusive answer, or it might be an answer that doesn’t commit, but it’s something. There are no, to the best of my ability, there are no answers to anything I’ve ever written that are just ‘Ooh, (inaudible) when I get there’.
LB: Yeah, I know (inaudible).
AK: It’s all, there’s, there’s, there’s something. But at the same time, um, the world of Cultist or Sunless Sea, or anything else I’ve worked on, is, is inevitably a tiny tiny segment through what that world would actually be, because whether it’s one person working on it, or ten or a hundred people working on it, it’s still enormously less sophisticated than an actual whole world. There’s gonna be a lot of stuff that you leave out, you know, the names of all the bit parts, and which species exactly— what stuff, you know, you don’t put that stuff in. So it’s always gonna be a tiny segment, it’s gonna be a spotlight that flickers over the dark landscape of the world, and you wanna make sure…
LB: Ooh, nice!
AK: …that the spotlight lights on the interesting stuff.
LB: And that’s the metaphor for Sauron’s Eye!
AK: I used to have a, er, [I’m trying to think of?] what this reminded me of. I used to have an argument, erm, with a— [er, not an?] argument, um… a, er, er, a one-time friend of mine, who, ah, derided, um, goddamn it, what’s his name, mad German director… Herzog. Uh, and, and I said, you know, one of the things about Herzog—
LB: He is mad and German…
AK: —is, is, he will just put the camera in front of something and leave it there for a bit. He won’t, you know, like, you know, dart it around, you know, [and flicker through?] angles, and he, he’s not worried people are gonna get bored just as soon as you fucking, [stop pointing?] the camera at’s interesting. Um, and, my interlocutor said, um, “Well, you know, I think, if you’re gonna do that, you’d better make sure something interesting happens in front of the camera”, and he suggested that Herzog doesn’t always do that, [instead that?] he relies too much on people’s patience.
AK: Maybe, maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t, but I think that’s the thing, is, is…
LB: Definitely not!
AK: Is— um, whenever you’re making any kind of art, there, there’s a, a physical camera in film, um, or, or a, you know, viewpoint in theatre, there is a, er, a digital camera in games. You know, there’s always a point of view in games.
AK: And there is a metaphorical camera in literature: you’re always looking at one thing rather than another thing. Because that’s the way consciousness works. So you can only focus on one thing at a time, and if you want to make it worth somebody’s while, then focussing on plumbing is probably not going to be where you want to point the spotlight.
LB: So that’s interesting, because I think we’ve mentioned before on this podcast, um, reader-response theory, which is something that really struck me…
LB: …when I was doing literature, which is basically that the reader has kind of an active role to play in, erm, literature: it’s not just s— some, some sort of brain in a jar gets given a text and the text is complete and the brain in a jar just has an experience of, of, of enjoying that complete text— it’s that the text is incomplete until it is in a process of being read by a, a, a monkey brain.
LB: And that is interesting, ‘cause it basically, there’s every, there’s a unique interpretation of that text depending on that individual brain’s, um, attention and interests and context and yada di yada, which is why, you know, two people can read the same book and one of them can hate it, and one of them can love it, or why two people can read the same book and say “I think it was really talking about this theme”, and the other person can say, “No, for me it was all about, you know, dystopia”, or whatever. And it, it, it’s that sort of nuance, because there’s so much in there. And what you’ve just said sounds like, um, worldbuilding for you, for really high-quality stuff that makes a good narrative game, or a good, um, fictional world, whatever the medium, is about involving the reader in some way. ‘Cause if you’re saying that Herzog puts a camera in front of something but doesn’t make sure that something interesting happens…
LB: You’re saying that he expects the reader to find something interesting and trust his framing. Which actually puts me in a much more active role than, I don’t know, watching a Superman film where, at some point, there’s gonna be a fight scene and I just sit there and I eat my popcorn, because, you know what I mean?
AK: Mhm. Mhm, mhm.
LB: And I’m not saying, you know, that’s a different type of experience, people can have that if they want, but it’s quite a passive… experience, whereas if Werner Herzog is saying, ‘I’m not gonna make something exciting and dramatic happen, to automatically capture attention, you have to work with me to make this experience worthwhile’, that’s— I think that’s quite interesting!
AK: I think it is, and I think…
LB: And it goes back to your thing about, you know, it’s not about laying down the rules of the world…
LB: …before somebody, and saying, ‘Here’s my world. Read all these logs and read all the history and read the timeline.’ You’re saying, ‘Work with me, feel something, experience this world as we go along, and, and kind of take part, rather than, you know, ‘Here’s The Silmarillion, go away and read it, when you’ve read it, come back and have a meeting”.
AK: That’s, that’s, that’s exactly it, I think, you know, any kind of, any kind of art, any type of, [kind of?], creative work, ultimately is about one person’s mind, um, overlapping with another person’s mind.
AK: It’s about, somebody presents something, and then, [um?],
LB: A bit erotic!
AK: Well, yeah, but, but it can be, it can be, ah, ‘my mind is to your mind’…
LB: (keeps laughing)
AK: It can be…
LB: Sexy Vulcan erotica!
AK: It can be some real-time thing, it can be people watching theatre, or, or engaging in a, a tabletop role-playing session.
AK: Or it can be that you read a ‘D&D book’ that somebody, um, wrote, um, ah, 1500 years ago. When was Beowulf? Was it 1500 years ago?
LB: Um, it was… 11th century? Um, well, it’s hard to tell, right, because the story itself was an oral tradition that was passed down…
LB: So the story, I think, is kind of, 800 AD?
LB: Um, ah, I think the, um, Cotton Vitellius A XV, which is the, the one written copy we have…
LB: Um, I think, is 1100-ish? I can’t remember, but kind of around that time.
AK: OK, so, a, a, a thousand-ish-year-old, um, poem, that, that touches somebody, ah, a, a thousand years on.
AK: But it’s, it’s that interaction that’s the point. And this is, heh, this is one of the reasons that so much stuff that’s been said about interactive fiction, I used to think was a bit wrong-headed. And now I realise it’s [howlingly?] stupendously wrongheaded…
AK: Because the idea that you have an advance from, um, linear texts that are presented to you, to, ah, cybertexts that provide a whole new basis of experience— obviously, in both cases, you are still interacting with the, with the creator…
AK: Whether they provide, is something algorithmic, or something in codex form, you’re, you’re, you’re still interacting with, with, what they provided, and you are placing your own spin and interpretation on it.
AK: Ah, even if somebody actually, um, plugged your brain into a bunch of, ah, er, put your brain in a jar and, and, and fed you information, you would still be having thoughts about what you were given.
AK: Your experience will still be different from other people’s…
AK: …’cause you have different memories. Anyway, so the, ah, when, when, when I’m not feeling, um, glum, I don’t think, ‘Oh, art is just an excuse for people who, um, can’t do heavy lifting…’
AK: ‘… to get money for food’. Um…
LB: (laughing) Don’t take that away from me!
AK: Then, then I think, um, ‘Art is, is, is the thoughts of human beings touching the thoughts of other human beings, in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise’. And so when you stick to worldbuilding it’s a bit of a shame.
LB: Well, I thought you were gonna get crosser and funnier about that, but actually you said something quite profound and beautiful—
AK: Yeah, I [care?], thank you, well, (inaudible) [glib?], but, ah, but I care too much about this to get cross about it, I guess is the answer. And I don’t, I don’t want to tell people, ‘you’re wrong to want to do a worldbuilding’…
AK: I just want to tell people you don’t need to start with a timeline, you just need to make sure that, you know, if you, if you invent a bunch of kings or presidents or mythologies or whatever, at some point you have to make sure they don’t all crash into each other. But ultimately, the itch that makes people want to do something that manifests as myth-making or setting design or worldbuilding or story-writing is the itch that all of us feel when we sit down, and we’re eight, and we start drawing a map. And, ah, the itch that’s, uh, that, that we connect with somebody who opens a book and sees the map on the first page and thinks ‘Ooh, I wonder what’s there, and I’ll wonder why we’ll get there, and I wonder how that works out’, so, so, so that, uh, creative act and response is lovely and I’d like to see more of it in the world, and fewer toilets.
LB: (chuckles) Sponsored by Weather Factory!
LB: Well, I’m, I’m quite moved by that, honestly, I don’t think, I don’t think I should say something funny, but I think that’s just nice and we should leave it there, really.
AK: I can dig out another Tolkien quote?
LB: I mean, not, you don’t want to have an out-of-context Tolkien quote. Doesn’t that, doesn’t that ruin…
AK: “Vivisection”, there you go.
LB: He didn’t just, you can’t just— a word isn’t a quote!
AK: [That’s not a quote?]. Have a spooky day.