20,000 Words Worth Of Text Messages
So it’s summer 2016 and Paradox has commissioned two World of Darkness mobile games. I get the Vampire one. It’s been explained to me as “Basically a Choose-Your-Own Adventure, you can figure out the rest”.
It also has to be a "prelude "which—for non-Vampire fans—means it’s about a new vampire discovering their powers and their curse. Other than that my remit is pretty open and they let me write whatever I want and they could fix the lore in post if I made mistakes they didn’t want to canonize into the new WoD.
Faced with the puzzle of making a mobile game, I get the great/terrible idea to make it a game of text messages. My idea was: you, the actual player, during your normal real-life day, while you’re getting texts from real people and getting your Facebook notifications on your real phone, you’re also getting alerts from people in the game. That way, toward the end, when these characters are threatened, it feels like people you really know are in trouble.
Part of the reason this is a terrible idea is my contract said 20,000 words. 20,000 words is fine if you’re writing a game book with complete sentences and lush descriptions of dwarf cities and d100 tables (comparison: Frostbitten & Mutilated is 30,000 ish) but 20,000 words of plausibly realistic text messages is a lot, especially when you’re trying to figure out how, for example, to do action scenes in text messages. But I wanted to make a mobile game that would be plausibly something I would actually play and that was what I came up with.
So anyway, I’d given myself this horrible job, so in a search for material and trying to get the rhythm of actual text messages I turned to the text messages I was sending and getting in real life.
At the time, my closest friend who didn’t live in LA—and thus the friend I saw least and texted most—was trans porn actress Bailey Jay. Bailey was funny, good at texting, and liked horror movies...
...meaning she was both very much into-, and ripe for-, being turned into a character in a horror game. So with her blessing I went about making her a vampire.
Bailey was also really into giving her Uber drivers handjobs that summer--Bailey Jay texting is only a slightly less censored version of Bailey Jay tweeting:
This wasn’t her doing an extended internet gag—sometimes porn stars really do act like porn stars. She’d flirt with them, then say “Hey, I have a dick” and they’d be surprised but then be like…That’s cool. And that was Bailey’s real life. In the game I basically just added in that if they were transphobic she’d drink their blood because, well, it’s a vampire game, someone has to die, why not transphobic people?
Sample dialogue with the Bailey character:
“What are you having for lunch?”
I named her Avery Ailes because it kinda sounded like Bailey but not so much I’d accidentally type “Bailey” during the 20,000-words-of-text-messages-in-a-haze-of-branching-options fugue writing this kind of story brings on. Other characters were made from whole cloth but most of the friendly characters were based on amalgams of my friends, including another trans woman, the actress Morgana Ignis, whom millions of Deviant Art goths may know as the voice of Sallie Mae in Helluva Boss.
So midsummer I thought what you’re supposed to think around this point and I called up White Wolf and explained to them I had written myself into a place where there were important transgender characters in the game and could we hire someone trans on the project so that it’s not just white cis me benefitting from the story—I recommended up-and-coming horror comic artist Sarah Horrocks.
I was pleased and a little surprised to see they were all for it, so Sarah came on as co-author. She was fine with the Bailey character and she went to work writing and drawing a vampire monkey into the plot.
By the end of the summer we had a story full of sex and death and lgbt representation and mechanics we hadn’t tested yet—all was as it should be in the World of Darkness.
White Wolf’s annual Grand Masquerade happened in New Orleans, around Halloween. Highlights include me not meeting Tim Bradstreet (despite trying), not LARPing (despite the Swedes trying to make me), and lots of fried chicken and plastic swords.
Around this time the head Swedes began to discuss the plans for the new tabletop edition, V5. They explicitly said what they had theretofore only implied-- they wanted me to work on the new edition. In also-excellent news they wanted Kenneth Hite—fresh off doing The Dracula Dossier for his vampire-spy game Night’s Black Agents.
Kenneth was one of the first mainstream designers to notice my work, back when Vornheim came out and we liked each other, so this was shaping up to be interesting.
Head Swede’s idea for this edition was, if I haven't mentioned: New New New. They loved the old Masquerade but wanted to completely modernize it, make it work for the new century: new team, new ideas—push everything as far as possible, the sky’s the limit on big ideas and they’re LARPers and so they’d leave the tabletop details to us. Plus Paradox is a video game company with video game money.
It begins: In winter we’re flown to Stockholm for a week of meetings about the direction of the new Vampire. The meetings take place in one of many very modern Nordic conference rooms at Paradox HQ with a wall-length white board on which, by the end of each day, was covered with a megadungeon of arrows connecting boxes like “Blood” and “Hunger” and “Cloves?”.
The American contingent is me, Kenneth Hite and New Art Director—remember I said I’d anonymize the innocent. At this point it’s being framed like we’ll be the main architects of the game and everyone else is just there to show us where the guardrails are (we can’t change “Toreador” to another name but we can give a dozen historical alternate names). Or else: they’ve already made several decisions about how to set up the sandbox and are now inviting us to play in it—either way, Ken, Art Director and I were given a lot of room.
The way it worked, by accident or design, was this:
Kenneth Hite had lots of ideas about tabletop game design and 100% up-front admitted he had no idea about visuals, Art Director was a woman who’d done a lot of impressive high-fashion shoots and music videos with fancy people and 100% admitted she had no idea about tabletop game design, and I was the guy who translated between them.
Art Director would say something like “Has there ever been a wedding in Vampire? I think that would be a great spread” (Because the art director is an art director).
And I’d go “Oh yeah, you could have like two clans ally and it’s a threat to the others…” (Because I’m forever in the middle ages).
And Ken Hite would go “And that’s when the NSA finds them!” (Ken is always looking for ways to kill vampires).
Then Ken would talk to one of the Swedes about the possibility of pulpy space vampires and I’d talk to Art Director about actually having a party where everyone dressed like a real wedding, then photographing it, then doing paintings from the photos and using that to explain the metaplot. The team White Wolf had thrown together genuinely had chemistry—we played Maze of the Blue Medusa at Head Swede’s house, we went to the museum built to memorialize the Swedish ship that sunk as soon as it was launched. We had ideas, we had fun, things were alright.
Would This Version Have Actually Been Any Good?
Obviously just because we liked what we were doing doesn’t mean it would’ve worked out. All I can say is: this was what was intended at T-minus one year of the development cycle and it seemed to be working better than expected. Head Swede had this idea for the books—the Camarilla half of Vampire: The Masquerade would look like Vogue, the Anarch half would look like a zine but both would have OSR-style info-design, Indie-inspired creativity, it would be grounded in the real world and it would have a team with a completely new take. That was what we were for.
As you know, that isn’t quite what happened. In the next chapter I’ll start to explain why.