Good day to you all, gamebookers. Today, we have the man who lampooned science fiction in the form of gamebooks before Zach Weinersmith ever did. This is Kyle B. Stiff, author of Heavy Metal Thunder and now Heavy Metal Thunder 2: Sol Invictus (as well as non gamebook stuff too).
Tell us about yourself.
I’ve always loved storytelling and game design. I’m currently writing the sixth book in my sci-fi epic Demonworld, but I’m also writing a gamebook series called Heavy Metal Thunder. It’s about a young jetpack infantryman fighting to defend our solar system against alien invaders. In the future world of Heavy Metal Thunder, humans have been ruled by psychopaths and enslaved by mega-corporations for so long that most people aren’t even sure Earth is worth defending. The alien invaders are a violent bureaucracy that specialize in taking advantage of species who don’t have the will to defend their borders, so the war for humanity’s survival isn’t going to be won by bullets and shiny gadgets alone. I’ve just recently finished the second book in the series, which is called Sol Invictus. I’m planning for nine books in the series plus a special “book zero”, all of which detail the military career of Cromulus and his brutal journey to reawaken the human spirit. A quick search of my porn star-like name, Kyle B. Stiff, will bring up all of my stuff that’s available on Amazon.
Heavy Metal Thunder is deeply indebted to Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series. The idea of following the life of a warrior monk and watching as he grows in power always intrigued me. But where Lone Wolf was an emotionally distant blond youth fighting a relatively uncomplicated battle against evil, Cromulus (the protagonist of HMT) is an emotionally unstable Persian forced into a war he doesn’t understand between forces with questionable motivations. As he rises in the ranks of the Black Lance Legion, he has to gain his own understanding of the situation.
Heavy Metal Thunder is also deeply indebted to heavy metal music and dark science fiction in general. We live in an incredibly bleak world where human lives seem to no value outside of their service to large corporations or the aims of military operations. We’re cattle, slaves, sheep to be sheared, nothing more. On the other hand, I think that writing off human potential is a huge mistake. People risk their lives all the time to help total strangers. Years ago, when I got a botched spinal tap and ended up bedridden and nauseous for a week, I saw a vision of black-armored soldiers fighting hand-to-hand in outer space, their jetpacks blazing red against a black, silent void. That was the beginning of Heavy Metal Thunder, a story about a species that doesn’t know itself, finally taking back its free will and choosing either enslavement, extinction, or the absolute terror of gambling for freedom.
I let Cubus Games do the heavy lifting on the upcoming Heavy Metal Thunder app. They’ve got great musicians and programmers, they’ve hired a badass artist with a really dark, unique style, and in general they’re smart guys who are driven to make their dream come true. I just chime in every now and again. Of course Heavy Metal Thunder was originally written using a game system without random numbers so that readers wouldn’t have to walk around with a pair of dice and risk public ridicule, but the advanced technology of modern apps has minimized that risk and made dice-rolling something that can be done on the sly in public. Way to go, programmers! I could never do what you do, and I love you for it.
What advice would you offer to someone who thinks that they want to write their own gamebook?
There’s a difference between writers and creative types with an aptitude for game design. Despite what they say, most game designers don’t think very highly of writing or storytelling. They think they’ll create an interesting game system – and they often do, because that’s their gift – and then they think the story for the game will come on its own. It usually doesn’t, which is why most gamebooks have interesting game systems with lackluster stories populated by unmemorable characters. Writers, on the other hand, know how to craft interesting situations and memorable characters in a story that leads to a heartfelt, meaningful, exciting conclusion. Writers have to take their natural aptitude and exercise it for years; good writing is never an accident that “just happens”. Let’s face it, the chance that someone with an aptitude for game design can write a story for their own gamebook is close to zero. Hundreds of mediocre gamebooks and a medium that’s barely alive stand as testament to that fact.
This isn’t a pointless rant. My advice is that if someone out there wants to make a gamebook, they should consider teaming up with a real writer. If you enjoy coming up with game systems, then play to that strength. Focus on things like combat system, inventory, scope of choices, whether you want sandbox or linear progression, then (and this is important) take any ideas you have for dwarves, elves, space ships, medieval kingdoms at war, et cetera, and dump them all in the garbage. Instead, spend time trying to connect with writers. You have the internet at your disposal – use it. When the internet is used for more than arguments on YouTube, it’s one of the most powerful tools humanity has at its disposal. Find a writer who’s hungry to try something new and isn’t afraid of working without a big payoff, convince him to quit wasting his time with poetry, then write a gamebook together. Play to your strengths and let your ally cover your weaknesses.
Now, I never followed that advice myself. But I just so happen to live in a weird no-man’s-land where I’m not nerdy enough for the game design crowd but I’m way too nerdy for the writing crowd. Maybe that’s why the game system for the first Heavy Metal Thunder book isn’t perfect, or why the writing is hampered by some of the pretensions that young writers think sounds good, but really isn’t. Hopefully I’ve been able to improve significantly for the second Heavy Metal Thunder!
What spoils a gamebook for you?
Writers that try to trick their audiences with unforeseen, cheesy deaths. Choices that don’t really matter. But most of all: Settings that feel like rehashed versions of things we’ve already seen before. Come on writers, when you have the immortal and eternal wellspring of human imagination at your disposal, why bother to rehash something that feels like a watered-down version of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars?
What future projects do you have that you can talk about?
Heavy Metal Thunder Book Three: Red Sands of Masada. I have to cater to readers of my Demonworld series for a while, but I’m also looking forward to the next installment of Cromulus’s war against the Invaders. The third gamebook will highlight the Legion’s campaign on Mars. By that time Cromulus will be leading his own unit and delving deeper into mind control conspiracies. There’ll be less space-based action and more gritty, down-in-the-dirt violence. Cromulus will start to wonder whether victory or defeat even matter when both sides are basically enslaved, so things are going to get intense – as if they weren’t already!
What is your wish for gamebooks?
It’s the same deal with video games, I want to see more sophistication. A lot of modern gamebook apps hearken back to the old “glory days” of gamebooks, and sure, I get sentimental about that stuff sometimes too, but it’s really hard to go back and read an old Fighting Fantasy or Way of the Tiger gamebook. If gamebooks are ever going to become anything more than niche entertainment, we need the gamebook equivalent of Mass Effect or Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed. Fleshed out protagonists, a story that highlights modern modes of thought (but flavored with unique sci-fi/fantasy elements), and an epic scope that’s brought to life with details that live and breathe.
A nerd shouldn’t retreat into a world of fantasy; he should see the fantastic elements of the world he lives in and appreciate their parallels in other planets, other ages, and completely alien realms that are, somehow, eerily similar to the reality he deals with each and every day.
Thanks Kyle! Here are his links so that you can get to know him more...
Kyle also has a kickstarter going for his book series Demonworld - he wants better covers. Give it a look!