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Playing Your Way to a Plot 6 January 2012

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Advice For Writers.
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Some of us play a few rounds of solitaire or sudoku before settling down to write. A ritual? A focusing technique? Procrastination? Whatever you call it, some of us need to do it and can’t get started writing without it. I’m much more of an editor and publisher than a writer these days, but when I do write, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, copywriting for hire or a project of my own, I simply can’t get started without a round or two of something calming (usually solitaire for me, but sudoku will do, or Minesweeper or Bingo Blitz — anything seems to work as long as it’s pattern-oriented and not too complex). I don’t think this need is uncommon, and most writers who admit to it don’t seem overly embarrassed about it. After all, it’s just a matter of routine, like needing your tea or coffee in a particular mug, adjusting your chair for comfort before settling down, or putting on your preferred “writing music”. Creative people are supposed to have quirks — something to admit to in an interview once you’re wildly successful, as your secret to the brilliance you put on the page: “Well, I always have my round of solitaire before getting started, but just one, you know?”

Many writers are also gamers who take their MMORPGs and quest-based games very seriously. Although I think the character and story elements of those games have a lot to do with why writer-gamers enjoy them, there’s also enough game-culture and respect out there that dedicated gamers don’t tend to be embarrassed or in denial about their enjoyment. One can have a rich engagement with a MMORPG character and world (my World of Warcraft paladin has plenty of backstory and personal life) but it doesn’t tend to do much in the way of idea-sparking and plot generation since serious games come already fully fleshed out with complex worlds and quests and so on. Unless your goal is to write media tie-ins, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that, you honestly do NOT want to have a warrior, a hunter, and a priest setting out from a Goldshire-like village to… well, you know.

Writers are much less likely to confess to playing (and enjoying) social and app-based games that don’t fit the “ritual” model or a big-name gaming franchise — we’re supposed to be much too busy and creative to be entertained by FarmVille and its ilk. However, I suspect that many more writers do enjoy these sorts of games than will admit to it… because they are essentially world-building games, and that’s what writers do.

When you build your village, your farm, your castle, or whatever else the build-it game of the moment has to offer, aren’t you — as a writer — actually imagining a whole lot more into it than is there in the game? Don’t you start to find it boring and quit as soon as the game stops introducing new plot-worthy elements?

Instead of cringing at the admission that you (sort of) find the latest sim-whatever fun, ask yourself what it has to offer you as a writer. (And if you’re a scoffer at these types of games, give one a chance and see what it can do for you.) Literally, play your way to a plot.

I got an iPad for Christmas, and subsequently discovered Tiny Tower by NimbleBit LLC, which I think may be the best-ever idea sparker available for writers. And it’s free, even. All you need is an iPad or iPhone (though from a creative point of view it’s more inspiring on the iPad as the graphics are bigger and you can see more detail), and apparently there’s a version for Android too. Best of all, it’s not a “social” game, so you don’t have to annoy your friends with it.

Basically, you build a tower, floor by floor — here, have a look at mine. You choose whether the floor is going to be residential, food, retail, recreation, service or creative, and then it generates the details for you (with the option to edit background colours and business names, but that’s it). My first food level came up as a coffee shop, my second came up as a sushi place. My first retail floor turned out to be a toy store, and my second was shoes. The residential floors work the same way, with widely varied and random decor; the selection I’ve seen so far includes ghastly 70s with macrame flowers, trendy safari decor, budget student place with cardboard boxes, pretty New England beadboard wainscoting, and more.

Then the characters, called “bitizens”, move into your residential floors and you put them to work in your shops and offices. Everything is pixellated just enough to leave your imagination room, but drawn clearly enough to spark ideas. The bitizens are generated randomly enough to please any writer, from a full complement of skin tones and hair colours, with an assortment of facial hair and eyewear details, and accessories from Alice bands to hard hats — and I’m not sure the random generator thing altogether differentiates male from female accessories, as I definitely saw one with a mustache and something that was either a hair bow or cat ears. There are also some costumed ones — I’ve seen a mime, a Star Trek red shirt, and the Phantom of the Opera — most of which just travel up and down the elevator, but I had a female in a pig costume move into one of my apartments. A pig costume. There’s a plot starter if I ever saw one… why would anyone be wandering around in a pig costume? Oddly enough, her dream was to work in women’s fashion.

Yes, the bitizens all have dream jobs, names, varying levels of employment skills/preferences, and they even come with birthdays. So you get your tower going, and you look around for a protagonist. Reginald, working at the coffee shop and dreaming of owning his own diner? Tracy, who’s found perfect happiness at the laundromat, even though she’s not very skilled (could she have a disability to account for her low scores)? Wilma the paintball enthusiast, working at a comedy club to pay the bills? Jesse who works at the bank and wishes he were a private eye? Tiny Tower has offered me all of these possibilities and more.

And then there are the plot cards. At least, I call them plot cards. A little blue square randomly pops up at the bottom of the screen asking you to find a particular resident because… his long-lost sister is looking for him! There’s a singing telegram just arrived for her! The president has been kidnapped and he’s the only one who can help! (The plot cards pop up fairly frequently, so you can either go with what you get or wait until you get one that piques your writing interest.)

Then earn some coins, build some more floors, watch more characters move in… and off you go, with friends and foes and love interests galore.

So next time you’re stuck for inspiration, try Tiny Tower (or any build-it game) instead of solitaire, and see where it takes you.


1. Don Carnagey~Lanier - 6 January 2012
Camille Gooderham Campbell - 7 January 2012

Thank you for reblogging, Don.

2. J.C. Towler - 7 January 2012

Sounds like you might like the Sims, Camille! Good article.

Camille Gooderham Campbell - 7 January 2012

Thanks, John!

I’ve tried the Sims, and it was fun to play for a little while, but to be honest I found it gave both too much and too little choice to be much use at generating ideas — it’s the randomness of Tiny Tower’s characters and settings that makes it so great, with the relationships open to imagination, whereas I found the Sims to be more about making coins so you could choose stuff to buy, and then the relationship responses were unpredictable and hard to control (almost the complete opposite). I also get irritated by games that demand too much interaction (play all the time or your character gets depressed, etc.).

But that’s just me. Anyone who finds that Tiny Tower doesn’t give the player enough design control and/or wants more emo input from the game would probably appreciate the Sims.

3. Kathleen Cassen Mickelson - 9 January 2012

This is a great way to shake up my head…or anyone else’s. Nice!
My ritual game is Alchemy. 🙂 Then WordTwist. Then Blitz. Depends on the time of day.

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