(2020-05-05) Sloan Overworld Week4 Ladder Of Abstraction

Robin Sloan: Overworld Week 4, ladder of abstraction. Perils of the Overworld aims to be an adventure game in which you set out on a grand, dangerous quest but then, as you aid others and are aided in return, find yourself enmeshed with them: and so, your quest ends not in the jaws of a dragon but in the grip of a community. In the vise of actually caring! Which is, of course, wonderful, and which sets up a tension, I hope, between “winning” the game and “losing” the game. Losing will be pleasant and interesting. You’ll do it over and over. (cf CoachBot, infinite game)

That is, however, still a very broad scope! What IS this world, exactly, and what kind of voice describes it?

First, where worldbuilding is concerned, I am of the Devil’s party, which is to say, M. John Harrison’s. More than a decade ago, he wrote: Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

I find this formulation both cautionary and invigorating. The message, as I receive it, is that the words are all there is. You cannot substitute exhaustive backstory for language that crackles and conjures. (clang-tint)

at the time she wrote it: Le Guin had no idea why a person would sail the Dragons’ Run, or what the nature of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe might be. That doesn’t mean it was a random linguistic spasm; Ursula K. Le Guin knew how to write a great line, obviously, and WHEW could she name a charismatic entity. I mean, “The Tombs of Atuan” is so good it became the title of the next book in the series.

POTO’s world will be built a sentence at a time. In the draft that I will share with you at the end of this edition, you’ll find this line: a hundred barrels of cider bound for the fifth division of the second army of the Gregarious Empire.

and, while I had no idea what the Gregarious Empire was when I wrote it, it will not surprise you to learn: now I want to find out.

The more vexing challenge has been the game’s voice.

You might recall that POTO relies on a programming language called Ink to control the story’s flow. Many times this week, I squared up to wrestle with my Ink document, writing one module after another, just absolutely unsatisfied with how it all sounded, how it all felt.

I was bogged down in “this, then that.”

Years ago, I had a great writing teacher, Roy Peter Clark, who taught me about “the ladder of abstraction.” In his book Writing Tools—which I have given as a gift more times than any other book in existence—Roy writes

So here I am, reading Hero Legends, reading Pullman’s Grimm, rereading my own plodding Ink, trying again, producing nothing better, getting frustrated, and, honestly, despairing a bit, which is almost always a sign that you need to take a step back. That’s what I did. I closed the Ink editor and, instead, just… Wrote Something The Normal Way. And, almost immediately, it worked

A block of prose Written The Normal Way isn’t a game; it’s hardly game-like at all. But it does represent a sequence of events and a collection of feelings that I want the reader-player to experience. So, the question becomes: can I now transform this Normal Prose into Ink: stepwise, branching, explorable? I believe the answer is yes, but/and. (yes-and)

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