Lady Blackbird Review and Actual Play


Lady Blackbird is a free role-playing game by John Harper and it’s fantastic for a short game.

I’ve written about my experiences with the game here on Who Dares Rolls.

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The Beginner’s Guide Review

This is a difficult game to write about, but a few hours after playing it, I’m left with several thoughts and feelings still floating around about what I’ve experienced. There’s a lot to process and possibly more than I think I’ll be able to get to here. I’ll be interested in replaying it and seeing where things stand from there, but for now this is what I’ve taken away from the game.

There will be spoilers as I go, but I’ll warn you when they come.


I heard good things about The Beginner’s Guide but not any details about what it was. At first I assumed it was a video game about being a rogue leftover part of a game in the middle of being made (The Magic Circle, I think) so as it turned out I knew even less than I thought about the game. It’s by Davey Wreden who made The Stanley Parable, a fantastic game which my brother introduced me to the demo of by insisting it was entirely different to the game itself. It was and the game is something fantastic to experience. This is a little along those lines as far as using the mechanics of a video game to tell a story.

The game stars one speaking character; Davey Wreden. He narrates the games which make up The Beginner’s Guide, acting as a kind of documentary of the works of a person called Coda. Coda’s a character whose personality and backstory is only provided by the commentary of Davey and the designs you walk through. I guess in a way you are the third character as the audience member walking through Coda’s world, curated by Davey.

To start off with, you’re wandering a Counter Strike map designed by Coda and right away there are things wrong with it, only visible once you start moving within the world. I knew a few people who tinkered with CS back in the day and it places this designer firmly in the era of people modding games that I know of. The errors look like they could be due to a first-timer learning what they’re doing but Davey tells us of recurring themes in the work of Coda. There are floating boxes, strange cubes and dead ends. It’s alienating and within or without the fiction it’s entirely on purpose to set the tone. We are not a person in the world, we’re a witness to a game being designed.

Once you have had a bit of a search and heard what Davey has to say, we skip ahead in time to the next project of Coda’s. It’s a space game with a non-working gun and an actual maze. Again, it’s something an amateur or an artist may have made and Davey has his own insights. The look of the levels are oddly charming in the same way that I find using the old graphics as to see how the original looked back in the day. There’s a moment where you die and Davey talks about Coda’s intent simply be that you die, only he experienced a bug which he replicates. You’re elevated into the air and can see the maze, the ship, all without a ceiling and the edges of the game world. There are sharp corners on the background and space itself is just a box you’re in. This is important, this change of perspective.

The narrative of The Beginner’s Guide is presented through the game’s mechanics, but on several levels. One of the next games is one where you play a character who can only move backwards through a level. This section is something which I could imagine standing on its own easily enough and has messages unique to the game as well as to the greater narrative. It reminded me a little of Passage which was a game asking whether you want freedom with loneliness or companionship with restriction. There was no right answer in that game. This one the restriction’s a little more linear and you switch between the ability to see what’s ahead or the ability to move without seeing to navigate. Again, this is important. All of it is. There are puzzles, but not many, this is more of a journey than anything else, but a ‘walking game’ which uses the minimal mechanics of the game to its’ advantage. In games like Dear Esther, you would be in awe of a heavily detailed world but at a loss of what exactly to do between chunks of narration. Here, the worlds are small and bite-sized, the worlds can be as small as a single room or massive and awe-inspiring.

Davey talks of the grander designs being experimented with and the meaning behind it all, as well as his experiences with Coda in real life. His interpretation of things like the series of small prison games, the domesticity of one game. There are recurring styles presented and some aspects evolve which reflects Coda’s growth as a person. His voice is only really experienced by little floating circles in one level and the dialogue options in a handful of games. Otherwise we’ve got the mechanics and Davey’s accounts as all you have to go on.

It’s fascinating to see and for ninety minutes as a documentary, fake or otherwise, it makes for a great use of the medium. The games themselves are fairly small and definite works in progress, but there’s something which has inspired the narrator and hearing his analysis of it helps drive us through. And this is where we get to the spoilers.



As the game goes on, it becomes evident that there’s a lot about depression going on in the game. Coda is someone who didn’t bother to release his games, but he did build several of them even if they’re just half-thought-out ideas. In one there’s a simple puzzle which you are given the ability to remove the walls from. Once you do, there’s a massive labyrinth sprawling off into the distance, all of it half-finished, but from your perspective on the platform from where you completed a simple puzzle, it’s beautiful. The ideas aren’t all formed and he’s evidently troubled by him inability to put it all out in a game. He is questioned and tormented by elements of it.
The ‘creator with depression’ is a cliche, but it is one for a reason. As I stood on the platform, looking at the maze with no way of actually getting there, I was struck by the sense of my own work. So many of these games were half-finished and just abandoned until Davey found them. How many of my own works have been left in the filing cabinet I never open. I have notepads stacked up to prop up a broken set of shelves which have yet more notepads resting on it. I don’t remember all of the projects. They’re half-finished and I’m sure several aren’t all that good. These are often like that. Davey’s found context within all of them, even when they’re simply walking forward in a small patch of darkness with a little sign at the end.

Especially once dialogue is introduced, there’s curiosity followed by introspection and frustration with the creative process. A few of the pieces of dialogue seem to refer to previous games in the series which implies that they were meant to be experienced in a group or with this curated experience, or possibly are an error, or possibly something else.
As a writer, the process is often like pulling teeth. Sometimes it can feel thankless and endless, especially if you’re not creating anything that’s actually going out there. Until recently I stalled with my novel as it felt like I would never find a cover artist and never get my act together with it. My situation looks to have changed and I’m spurred on for now, but I still sleep in the same room as the corpses of several creative projects.




Examining a creative work changes it, filters it through the eyes of the audience. We’re seeing that here, both through you the audience and from Davey himself. There are optional workarounds and ‘fixes’ to the games to make them playable, inserted by Davey. He adds platforms, hints, skips ahead. We see the cries of help from a depressive and the stunted creativity, but how much of that is Coda, Davey or you? We all bring ourselves to any creativity we experience, but what happens when the analysis overwrites the original book?
The version of Davey who is narrating this series of games is someone who derives meaning from experiencing and passing on someone else’s work. He gets a level of joy and satisfaction from picking it apart and given his close proximity to the work means that the author can see what’s being done. Davey passes out his work and tinkers with it all throughout.

In a way, that labyrinth visible early in the game via a bug is one of the key themes; perspective of a game from a new level. Davey looked at the world and that there was more hidden inside it. He saw a man who went mechanics-first into games and fixated on a making a prison level, but Davey’s interpretation was that this was more than perfecting a prison level. The Coda we see in all the little messages he’s stored in a level doesn’t really imply as much of the tortured artist Davey picks up on. The dialogue referring to other games is no longer trustworthy, nor are a lot of the levels given how many parts had to be ‘fixed’ by Davey.

We interpret art in our own ways, we take it on and love it, but then our readings can be ours instead of the author’s. That’s something forgotten here by Davey. He reads himself into Coda, but in turn we are reading ourselves into Davey. The intent of Coda could be a level of this depression Davey reads into it, but could also be just enjoying mechanics.
I run role-playing games and have always said that as an unpublished author it gives me a hit having an audience who are experiencing and enjoying fiction I’m creating, even if it’s a half-dozen people. I lend out media in all forms to people and I write reviews of games. Maybe they are all done through the same drive. We write reviews for you to see whether the game is enjoyable, whether it’s worth buying and investing time in, but we also do it for us. Davey Wreden dedicated this game to, “R.” This feels like fiction, but then who knows how much truth there is to this. I don’t think the answer matters as much as your interpretation and experience of the game. It twists and turns not in a way which is meant to have you jump and then make all the previous scenes worthless, instead each reveal builds on what you’ve seen and pushes you forwards. It’s about an artist, it’s about how we interact with games, it’s about a reviewer, it’s about their relationship. It’s about all of them and as short as the game is, it felt heartbreaking by the end. You’re brought in for Davey’s ride and the very act of analysis of art is brought into question. It’s beautiful and strange for something so simplistic-looking and so short. The use of game mechanics as narrative make it an experience unique to games and all the better for it.

Reviewed on PC; game was purchased by the reviewer

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The Journey to NaNoWriMo 2015

National Novel Writing Month is round the corner and I’m already excited about it. NaNoWriMo started several years ago for San Franciscan Chris Baty and some of his friends to finally get their crap together and write the novels they always said they were going to. Now it’s an event with hundreds of thousands of writers around the globe, all attempting to write a minimum of 50,000 words in one month.
Since starting NaNoWriMo, my writing work ethic has shot up, leading to me writing (checks spreadsheet) 765,664 in the last two years. This includes rewrites, edits, blog posts, reviews and such but it’s still that much wordage towards creativity. I’m sure I’d have accomplished some of that without NaNoWriMo but it helped cultivate this instinct in me. I’m pretty sure it was in Writers on Comics Scriptwriting Volume Two (ISBN 9781840238082) that Brian Michael Bendis said that you need to exercise your writing skills like a muscle. The more you do it the faster and better you get. Even if you’re not inspired for a specific project, write something. It’s this mentality to a much higher, more fun and disturbing level that NaNoWriMo exists.

50,000 words seems like a lot at first but it’s not actually that much. The Great Gatsby is just over 50,000 words. The Red Badge of Courage and The Notebook are both a little over 50k and weirdly enough both books I’ve read this year. I wouldn’t recommend them. You could do better than those guys and this is the month where you can prove it. Well, actually you can write the draft which will set you on the way to proving it. NaNoWriMo is about quantity, not quality. It’s possible to get good work out of the month’s writing, especially with preparation, a helpful community and caffeine, all of which I’m down for.

So you need an idea. You could leave it right until day one to try. There’s a weird faux-factionism in the NaNoWriMo camps between Plotters and Pantsers. Those who plot everything out and those who fly by the seat of their pants. Both can work. They can, but I’ve found the more prepared I am, the better my odds of finishing are. The same with those around me in the community. Even if it’s a rough outline. Pantsers have to be pretty damn good to carry it off, but then for a lot of writers this is literally just an exercise and something fun to do. Spew out the wondrous word-vomit and sift through it for any nuggets of gold. I’ve heard from some amazing pantsers. I’m not one of those guys though, I have to prep. Here’s where I show you my process. I tend to go off the deep end with preparing for these things so adopt as much or as little of this as you want. It’s all here just in case it can be of help to anyone else.

NaNoWriMo My New Notepad

First of all we get the idea of what we’re doing. The logline, the pitch.
“A cosy chocolate box murder mystery mixed with Lovecraftian Horror” is what I’m going for this year. It doesn’t need to be “X meets Y” but that’s often a good foundation to start off with.
If you have characters already, that’s cool. Write names down, go to random name generators, let the characters and the pitch percolate for a bit.
Maybe at some point here think about the theme, the tone, basically what this project is *about*. What are you saying? This can happen later, but I admit I tend to start thinking about it at this level. My previous project, Lightning, is all about family, the concepts of normal & weirdness then on the surface of all of that it’s about superpowered people solving their problems by abusing power and avoiding responsibility.

Do you have a start to the project? Do you have an end? Even if you do nothing else, knowing these before November 1st will give you something to launch from and somewhere to aim your word cannons at. If you get stuck (and in NaNoWriMo you WILL get stuck) then you’ll know what to go back to. If you have the beginning and end, maybe work out the big dramatic moments. Each one is like a touchstone, a waypoint for you to look for when writing. Once you’re there then you’re on to the next one and that momentum can keep you going.
Let all of these ideas evolve and mutate into beautiful monsters in your mind, but write them down whenever they turn up. I like to have a notepad for each project and the one above this section is the one which I’m using for this year. I dedicate at least one page to each character, to each chapter, anything like that. Any time I hit upon something like, “Robert’s allergic to peanuts,” I note it down. If I know the arc of chapter one it goes in, at least until I scribble it out and start again, then I ignore all of it during NaNoWriMo. Even if I do that, I’ll have something basic I started with.

NaNoWriMo My Index Card Addiction

We’ve got all the brain stuff going on. That’s cool and hopefully you’ve got a pretty notepad to put it in. Do you want to go even further with your prep? I know I do.
These are index cards. I don’t have an index card problem, honestly. It’s just that my flat is mainly made out of board games, comics, notepads and index cards. They’re only little but they’re still 25% of the flat’s contents somehow.

I use them for two things in my writing; scenes and characters.
Those continuity notes in my project notepad, those are rough. I keep a treasury-tagged stack of cards with the character details. This includes what they’re wearing and how they speak. If I forget what I’m doing with a character then it’s in here. Hopefully I can keep my facts straight when I write but even if I don’t, these notes will be there for when I edit.
The other use is for scenes. I tend to have a separate treasury-tagged pile for each chapter. For Lightning I had fixed character perspectives so I coloured in the tops of the cards to show whose scene it was. I write in a mainly linear fashion so if I get any ideas for further in the project the cards can be scribbled on and added to. If I need to move them around it’s easy enough to do that, too.

File 17-09-2015 17 19 08

Finally there’s the best thing. The community.

The first year I took part in NaNoWriMo I heard there was a Brighton community and only turned up to their final event. I barely scraped by the 50,000 words. The next year I vowed to take part in some of the ‘write-ins’ where writers would all gather in a coffee shop and write together. People could bug one another for ideas, take part in ‘word wars’ where they would all write as fast as they could for ten or so minutes. The winner would get a prize from a bag of lovely tat and sweets.
As the years went on, the Brighton and Hove community expanded. Last year we had 327 novelists. Looking at our region’s page we wrote 5,900,762 words between us. That’s pretty amazing.
I’m the municipal liaison along with my D+Pad Magazine collaborator, Fred Black. We’ll be arranging a couple of write-ins, a chat room write-in and a wind-down event each week for the month of November. There will most likely be some satellite events as we do have people from all over the south coast joining us.

NaNoWriMo Naked Tea and Coffee Mural

The Brighton & Hove community is still showing last year’s forum posts and information but soon it will be cleansed, ready for the 2015 NaNoWriMo frenzy to begin. If you’re in the Sussex area, then visit us here to take part. If you’re not then do have a look for your local community. I like to feel we’re inclusive of all people, we know writers are often skittish with other people and socially awkward, so we try to be inviting and inclusive for all involved. We arrange pick ups from Brighton Station so that people can make it safely to our events.

There’s the Panic Jar, an entity of pure random plot horror. If people are stuck for ideas then they can draw something out of the jar. If they have an idea they want others to make use of, they can add it into the jar. There’s also an Adult Panic Jar, which all should fear. There is also an achievement system because this whole event hasn’t been gamified enough yet. We have punchcards which have certain goals. If you reach them then you get a punch. In the card of course, not a literal punch.

So yeah, there’s a ton going on with our community. Hopefully others will be doing similar things. Check back here, at the Brighton & Hove Community page, at the Brighton Wrimos Facebook Group, the currently-neglected Brighton Wrimos Twitter account and the NaNoWriMo G+ page for more information leading up to the event.

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You All, Everybody

Tin 2

I love Lost, even now after all this time. It’s a terrible thing to admit, I’m sure, but there’s the truth.

This April 1st, I wrote a review of the Lost board game for Who Dares Rolls. In fact, I wrote about it three times. I don’t know how successful that was, but here are the links to those reviews.

My initial review.

Then it starts to go wrong.

Then there’s no way out.

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The Deep Forest

Deep Forest

Back in the old gaming site, Hooting into the Abyss, I reviewed The Quiet Year. It’s a map-making game where in three or four hours you make a map of a community and tell a story of a year in their lives. It’s great, you should all throw the designer, Avery McDaldno, $8 for something that awesome.

If you’re not certain of that, she and Mark Diaz Truman co-wrote a spiritual sequel called The Deep Forest. You play a community of monsters who have taken the land back from human colonists. My report on it can be found on Who Dares Rolls.

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Role-Playing Podcasts

A couple of things.

First of all, I’m a massive podcast fan and there are some amazing RPG, “Actual Play” podcasts. Inspired by a friend from work who used to be a role-player and now experiences the games by listening to podcasts, I thought I would make some recommendations.

For people who don’t know what I’m going on about, think of it as semi-improvised radio dramas. My article is found here.

Secondly, I have started to appear as a guest and now a regular part of the Who Dares Rolls podcast. We’re part of the Ministry of Board Games Tabletop Media Network, the third largest tabletop gaming podcast group. I gather we are also the third tabletop gaming podcast group. Still, it’s all up from there. You can hear my dulcet tones on the podcast here.

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The Mist in the Bridge

Bridge Mist

I’ve been concentrating a lot on Lightning and less so on my short fiction, which is a bit of a shame. I was inspired by this Terribleminds flash fiction challenge so I visited the link and one of the titles was the above, “The Mist in the Bridge.” I love multiverses and with the state of comics at the moment and my recent watch of Coherence, I thought I’d play around with that topic.

I may revisit, polish or extend this, but clocking in at just under 1,000 words is my story, The Mist in the Bridge.

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