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Seeking a Publisher: Jane Austen Solitaire

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By Lisa Brunette

Last fall, I ditched all social media except for essential Brunette Games activity. With some of the hours recovered from not checking my feeds - you'd be surprised by how much time those 'short' check-ins actually suck up - I personally committed to reading all of the novels written by the early 19th century British author Jane Austen. I followed up each novel with a viewing of the best film and TV adaptations of the work as well. By the time I'd made it through the first four - Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma - out of the blue, Brunette Games received a query about working on a mobile game themed on Jane Austen's work.

How's that for serendipity?

Suffice to say, when Pavel Agoshkov of Israel-based Supergaming reached out to us about adapting Austen's work to the solitaire game format, we were excited to say yes. Pavel and his team smartly wanted to base the launch game on Pride and Prejudice, easily Austen's most recognized and cherished work.

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It's been a pleasure to work with Supergaming from the concept stage, providing full design feedback, narrative design services, writing, and voiceovers. Because of my recent Austen fandom, I took the lead, with Anthony Valterra and Dexter Woltman as support, and both Cammie Middleton and Andy Mack providing voiceovers.

It was my first adaptation in game format, which was quite the challenge. I used the film adaptations as guides in some ways, but they were pretty limited since they have full cinematic worlds to draw upon. I really had to think about the essence of Pride and Prejudice and mesh that with what I know casual game audiences want and need. I believe the result is a lovely take on Austen's world that stays true to her work but is fun and accessible for the casual gamer.

Austen fans will surely appreciate how well the solitaire card game format suits the storyline, as conversations over card games comprise many a scene in the novels. 

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Besides feeling captured right away by what a great idea this project was, one of the reasons we wanted to work on it is the unique art style. Just look at the below interpretation of Pride and Prejudice's main character, Elizabeth Bennet. When Supergaming first shared it with us, it took our breath away. It's not often we see this painterly, realistic art treatment in casual mobile games.

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One of the game's cool features is an interactive collection room framed as a Jane Austen Museum. Players can add to the museum with articles plucked from the pages of Austen's life and work as they progress through the game, and they also function as game powerups.

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We look forward to seeing this game picked up by a publisher. It was designed with the idea that it could be expanded beyond Pride and Prejudice to include adaptations of Austen's other novels as well. It's our hope to continue working on it!

As for my own reading, I've added Northanger Abbey to the 'done' list, and next up is Persuasion. Of course, there's also her posthumously published work, Lady Susan, an unfinished novel called Sanditon that the BBC has adapted to TV, and her juvenilia and other unpublished writings. Come to think of it, Brunette Games could be working on Jane Austen adaptations for quite some time!

For information about Jane Austen Solitaire and Supergaming, please contact Pavel Agoshkov.

 


The Brunette Games Writers' Room

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One of the distinguishing features of working with Brunette Games is that you're not trusting your precious game story to some isolated, solitary freelancer but rather a team of highly trained professionals who work together to deliver narrative design and writing that consistently out-performs other games on the market.

Two of us on the team came to game design from backgrounds in traditional publishing. The convention in book publishing and journalism is for all writing to go through a series of checks and balances before it's ever put out to the public for consumption. The process looks like this:

  1. The writer, sometimes working in a team with other writers and editors, outlines the concept for the work.
  2. A developmental editor provides feedback to the writer on the overall theme, setting, story arc, characters, and the structure of the work.
  3. The writer goes through the draft stage, writing and then revising, with the feedback of the developmental editor.
  4. Once the writing content is pretty well locked down, it still gets two more passes. The first is from a copyeditor, who tinkers with sentence structure and might punch up lines for more humor or drama or both.
  5. Finally, the work gets a final proofreading pass to clear away any typos or errors in grammar and style.

Game writing has not traditionally received anywhere near this much scrutiny, and that's part of why the writing in games has often had a bad rap. The other reason is that game text has often been written by game designers, artists, programmers, and others who usually have zero training as writers.

At Brunette Games, we apply the standards of traditional publishing to our game projects. Whether one of us writes a scene or we draft the scene as co-writers, the text also receives several rounds of feedback and review. What goes to the client is a highly polished product. No one's text gets to the client without review.

Borrowing heavily from TV and film, we work as a "writers' room." We discuss and try out characterizations, scenarios, and dialogue, tapping the team brain. We conduct what's known in Hollywood as a "table read," each of us taking a character and reading out the script aloud to listen, critique, make adjustments, and finely hone the text.

We're also experienced specialists in both writing as a professional skill and specifically game writing and design as that unique practice combining the right-brain creativity of fictional world creation and the left-brain activity of integrating that world with the primary mission of gameplay.

When Lisa Brunette entered the game industry more than a decade ago, she brought an editorial acumen honed as a journalist, published fiction writer, and professor of writing to all the games she's touched. But she also approached every game as a player first, crafting her stories in service to the game. She believes this is why she's had so many successful games to her credit, and that same spirit is why the Brunette Games team continues to rack up successes.


Five Years Ago This Week, the Dreamslippers Series Was Born

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As founder of Brunette Games, I came to form this narrative design and game writing studio with more than a decade of experience in the game industry. But before the game industry claimed me, I'd racked up 15 years as a published journalist, short story writer, corporate history chronicler, and yes, even poet. That background is reflected in the Dreamslippers Series, a three-book saga (plus novella) about a family of psychic dreamers who solve crime using their ability to 'slip' into other people's dreams.

Solving crime that way is a lot tougher than you can imagine, as it's not like the culprit will dream of his guilt, pointing the erstwhile dreamslipper toward all of the clues. The matriarch of the family, Amazing Grace, supplements her sleeping skills with waking-life pursuits such as meditation and yoga. Young Cat McCormick, the hero of the inaugural book in the series, has an entirely different take. She bends and breaks the rules a bit, and she capitalizes on an emotional connection to solve a mystery involving a Midwestern, fundamentalist preacher and his (not-gay-at-all) right-hand man.

I released Cat in the Flock under my own imprint, Sky Harbor Press, in July 2014. It zipped up the Amazon sales charts, occupying the No. 1 spot in the Private Investigators category within the first year. It was praised by Kirkus Reviews, Midwest Book Review, Readers Lane, Book Fidelity, and countless other review sites, blogs, and institutions. I was contacted by a Hollywood producer about rights, and later, by more than one game studio interested in making an interactive version. Cat in the Flock won me my first IndieBRAG medallion, awarded to only the top 20 percent of independently published books. I would also be awarded the IndieBRAG for the other two books in the series.

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I wrote, published, and marketed Cat in the Flock all while working full-time as manager of the narrative design team at Big Fish Games. It was a lot to do around not-your-average day job. But I made it work, with the help of a very supportive husband and stepson, not to mention a crackerjack team of narrative designers and strategy guide writers at Big Fish, who helped me bring my traditionally 12-hour days down to a more reasonable balance.

Bolstered by the success of the first book, and full of more Dreamslippers stories to tell, I followed up with Framed and Burning. This second book in the series is set in Miami amidst the high-stakes art world, and its prescience can be seen in the Jeffrey Epstein case today. Cat and Grace follow the clues to a murder frame-up, which takes them into the Darknet and the powerful players behind a child pornography ring. 

Framed and Burning was a finalist for the prestigious Nancy Pearl Book Award, and it was also nominated for a RONE Award, in addition to winning the IndieBRAG.

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The third book in the series, Bound to the Truth, is in a lot of ways my best. It continues the series' sex-crime theme, but back in Seattle, with an informed, fair portrayal of the Emerald City's sex-positive community. Cat and her grandmother visit a sex toy shop and a sex dungeon in their quest to track down the killer of a prominent Seattle architect. It was my answer to the huge disappointment that is Fifty Shades of Gray.

The cover is my favorite of the series, too. All three covers were created by Toronto designer Monika Younger, who's also the genius behind our very own Brunette Games logo.

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After that, I went back and tackled Amazing Grace's origin story in a novella, Work of Light. It's only found in the ebook boxed set. Set in the past, when Grace first discovered her powers, it follows her to an ashram in the 60s, where she uncovers the guru's true nature.

I'm grateful to the many BETA readers who gave me feedback on drafts of the books. My BETA reader program was based on the process we use in the game industry, where player feedback can truly make or break a game. We writers and designers are far too close to the work to judge it subjectively, especially the further into the drafting (or development) process we get. My BETA readers put on their "cruel shoes" and gave it to me straight, and I revised to the best of my abilities. I think it shows in the higher-than-average quality for not just an indie but for publishing as a whole.

Also deserving of recognition is Elisa Mader, who edited and/or proofread the books. The high marks I get for being error-free are entirely to her credit. You might also know her from some of our Brunette Games projects, as she sometimes freelances for us as editor, writer, and designer of games. I've mentored Elisa for years and also hired her to our freelance stable at Big Fish.

Join me in celebrating this important milestone for a body of work that is very close to my heart. On that note, it's time for an important announcement:

In honor of the fifth anniversary of the Dreamslippers Series, the ebook boxed set of all three books plus the bonus novella is entirely FREE wherever ebooks are sold, except Amazon, where it's only 99 cents (that is the minimum price we are allowed to offer through Amazon). So please tell your friends. And thank you for your interest in Brunette Games.

Handy book links here.

You Might Also Like:

'Bound to the Truth' wins indieBRAG, Third in a Row for Author Lisa Brunette

The Woman Behind My Book Covers: Monika Younger

Why I Write What I Write: Going Against Violence Porn and Magic Mush

 


Character Design 101: Break Clichés Like Tana French

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French saved me from mystery genre burnout.

I used to read a wider range of books, and by that I mean I used to be much more forgiving as a reader. But as my reading and writing tastes have grown sharper, I've become a lot more discriminating. I'll start a book and give up on it if it's not working for me or can't compete with any number of extremely well written games or books or TV shows I have at the ready. I bet many of you are no different. After all, we're not going to read another standard mystery with all the tropes (tough-guy detective, a slaughtered female body found on page one) when we can watch Ruth Langmore successfully wrestle with her "white-trash" identity in Ozark.

One of the writers who's best captured my attention - and held it - is Tana French.

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Other images this page, source: www.tanafrench.com

When I picked up Faithful Place in 2016, I was pretty jaded, as a reader. I'd spent the previous five years reviewing, critiquing, and in some cases, rewriting hundreds - yes, hundreds - of mostly mystery-themed story games. During that time, I read a lot of mystery novels, everything from cozies to thrillers to classics. Before that, I'd interviewed four Northwest mystery authors for a Seattle Woman cover story. In 2016 I was nearing the end of writing my own mystery series - the Dreamslippers - inspired by the supernatural mystery games and books I'd enjoyed. By the time I stumbled upon Faithful Place in a used bookstore, I was in danger of becoming burnt out on the genre.

But Frank Mackey's riveting first-person voice reignited my love of mystery to a white-hot point. From the stunning opening paragraph, I was hooked:

In all your life, only a few moments matter. Mostly you never get a good look at them except in hindsight, long after they've zipped past you: the moment when you decided whether to talk to that girl, slow down on the blind bend, stop and find that condom. I was lucky, I guess you could call it. I got to see one of mine face-to-face, and recognize it for what it was. I got to feel the riptide pull of my life spinning around me, one winter night, while I waited in the dark at the top of Faithful Place.

Full disclosure: I'm Irish enough to have had a grandfather with flaming red hair and who knew all the old drinking songs. Alas, he lived thousands of miles away from my military family and then passed away when I was only five, so I never learned any of his songs. But it's possible there's a cadence in the Dublin Murder Squad that appeals to me on some visceral, perhaps even genetic, level.

However, I don't think you need to have a family tree that includes names like Sisley McKay and Skeets Larue in order for French's characters to resonate with you. They're incredibly well developed, authentic narrators who even when problematic gain your sympathy. 

Curiously, each Dublin Murder Squad novel was written from a different character's point of view. After reading just a few of the books in the series, you start to get a 360-degree look at the squad, as each character views his or her work from a unique perspective.

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The debut novel in the series - In the Woods - follows Detective Rob Ryan, a murder squad veteran who becomes undone by a case he pushes to investigate despite its connection to a cold case from his past; as a child, he survived what appeared to be a grisly attack. Though the brilliant novel averages at a bewildering four stars on Amazon - it deserves five! - it earned praise from the likes of NPR Correspondent Nancy Pearl, "A well-written, expertly plotted thriller," and The New York Times Book Review's Marilyn Stasio, who says, "Even smart people who should know better will be able to lose themselves in these dark woods." With a bit of elitism at work in the praise, Stasio nails French's literary writing quality, which should appeal to even readers who perhaps don't normally succumb to the allure of genre fiction.

These characters feel both fresh and authentic in part because they constantly thwart cliché expectation. Though French's debut centers on a detective driven to solve not just the case before him but the case in the past connected to his own deepest trauma, he remains (or at least tries to remain) detached, even matter-of-fact about it:

Contrary to what you might assume, I did not become a detective on some quixotic quest to solve my childhood mystery. I read the file once, that first day, late on my own in the squad room with my desk lamp the only pool of light (forgotten names setting echoes flicking like bats around my head as they testified in faded Biro that Jamie had kicked her mother because she didn't want to go to boarding school, that "dangerous-looking" teenage boys spent evenings hanging around at the edge of the wood, that Peter's mother once had a bruise on her cheekbone), and then never looked at it again.

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Broken Harbor's Scorcher Kennedy bursts into the reader's consciousness with a thrilling bravado that could be mistaken for typical tough-guy talk, if it weren't for the fact that the case ends up dismantling him in ways he can't possibly foresee:

Some of the lads can't handle kids, which would be fair enough except that, forgive me for asking, if you can't cope with nasty murders then what the hell are you doing on the Murder Squad? I bet Intellectual Property Rights would love to have your sensitive arse onboard. I've handled babies, drownings, rape-murders and a shotgun decapitation that left lumps of brain crusted all over the walls, and I sleep just fine, as long as the job gets down. Someone has to do it. If that's me, then at least it's getting done right.

Rob Ryan, Frank Mackey, and even Scorcher Kennedy must all three reconcile evidence in the present with memories of the past, though none of them look through rose-colored glasses at the past, nor are they scarred by it any more than they are affected by what's happening to them now. In this way French turns tried-and-true mystery fodder on its head, making the characters and their lives in the here and now the driver of the plot. You want to know what happened in the past, yes, but if you reach the end of the novel, and the past still hasn't revealed itself, it doesn't really matter. You've come to know the character fully, suffered and died and been resurrected with him, whether he finds the answers or not.

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Perhaps French's greatest character design achievement is that of Antoinette Conway in the latest book in the series, The Trespasser. Conway's character is an achievement not because she's the most compelling of the series but because she thwarts our expectations best. A woman is a rarity on the Dublin Murder Squad, and of course the target of sexual harassment and hazing. Though tough beyond belief - she can physically defend herself against a stalker, she plays hardcore video games to unwind, and she does not believe in romantic love - Conway wrestles with a narrative of distrust that threatens to tear her away from a vocation for which she has a passion like no other. 

The Associated Press says, "Tana French is irrefutably one of the best crime fiction writers out there," and I have to agree. For me she surpasses other faves - Gillian Flynn, Sophie Hannah - and the ones whose popularity I can't grok (I'm looking at you, Megan Abbott). I'm four novels into the six-book series and can't wait to dive into the other two. Interestingly, French's most recent publication is a standalone, The Witch Elm. It looks wonderfully compelling, but I do wonder if the Dublin Murder Squad will go on, or if French herself has had a bit of burnout.

If you've read French, tell me what you think of her work below. If not, does this make you want to become a DMS fan? I think game writers and book authors alike can learn a lot from her exemplary character development.

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Tana French.

Note: This post previously appeared on Cat in the Flock.


What's the Motive in 'Psy High'? You Decide.

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Motive is the main concern in most fiction in the mystery genre, whether that's a TV show like Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries or today's sophisticated novels in the domestic noir category. But when it comes to interactive fiction, where reader/player choice matters, motive is a little more up-for-grabs. If you were a nerdy kid like me in the 80s, you remember Choose Your Own Adventure books, with multiple endings and reader choice all the way through. This form enjoys a vibrant life these days, as evidenced by the many interactive novels we've worked on here at Brunette Games, such as released games Choices: Veil of Secrets and Sender Unknown: The Woods as well as three other titles currently in development.

We're big admirers of Choice of Games here at BG; though we've never designed a game for that platform, we enjoy playing them. So we reached out to Rebecca Slitt, author of the COG game Psy High. Here's her take on motive.

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What’s the motive in Psy High? It’s whatever you decide it is.

Psy High is an interactive novel: on the border between a book and a game. As in all of the titles from Choice of Games, you the reader direct the action at every turn: you decide what the main character does and why. Not only that, but you get to choose the main character’s name, gender, orientation, personality, and goals. 

The story in Psy High is a mixture of mystery, romance, and supernatural elements, inspired by “Veronica Mars” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” You play a teenager with psychic powers – clairvoyance and telepathy – who uses their gifts to solve mysteries. When an old friend asks you to investigate why your classmates are acting strangely, you discover a plot that could put the whole school at risk. You have to maneuver around your teachers, parents, and even your friends while using your magical abilities to uncover the truth – not to mention going to class, trying out for the drama club play, and finding a date for the prom.

The culprit has their own motive, but you figure that out – along with the culprit’s identity – fairly early. The more complicated question is: what's your motive? When you discover what's really going on in your high school, what do you do about it, and why? 

Maybe you’re motivated by altruism: you want to do what will help the most people. That’s a noble goal, but it’s not always easy to figure out how to reach it. What helps one person might hurt another.

Maybe you’re motivated by affection: you see how all of these issues are affecting your friends and want to help them. Maybe you want to help your boyfriend or girlfriend, or do whatever it takes to make them happy, or just spend as much time with them as possible. The prom is coming up, after all, and what could be more important than that?

Maybe you’re motivated by power. There’s plenty of power to be had, both magical and otherwise, and plenty of secrets to uncover. Do you care about that more than you care about your classmates? More than going to college? More than anything?

Maybe you’re motivated by a desire to fit in. In high school, what’s worse than being different? You can try to reject your magical power, act like every other kid, keep your head down, study, and try to lead a perfectly ordinary life. 

Or, maybe you think that the villain isn't such a villain after all. Maybe you realize that you share their motive: you think that their plan will make the school a better place, not worse. That’s possible, too. You can team up with them and use your magic to help them.

What this all means is that you get to choose the kind of story that you’re participating in. It can be a story about love conquering all: You can find your true love and draw on the strength of that bond to triumph over whatever challenges come your way. It can be a story about discovering deeper truths about yourself and the world: learning what you truly care about, what your values are, and how far you’ll go to defend them. It can be a story about rebellion: breaking every rule, fighting the power wherever you find it, showing the world that you’re your own person. It can even be a story about failure: No matter how strong or noble your motives are, there’s no guarantee that you’ll succeed – so if you fail, what meaning will you draw from that?

There are dozens of stories to be told inside the mystery of Psy High, each with its own motive. You get to choose which story you want to tell.

Download and review Psy High.

Follow Rebecca Slitt on Twitter.

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Rebecca Slitt is an academic-turned-game-designer who uses her knowledge of medieval history to make sure that dragon battles follow the principles of chivalry and time travelers go to the right places in medieval London. She is an editor and author for Choice of Games, and has contributed to the tabletop RPGs Timewatch and Noirlandia

Note: This post previously appeared on Cat in the Flock.