Author Brian Freyermuth on the Game of Writing

by Pamme Boutselis

Brian Freyermuth HeadshotNew author Brian Freyermuth has written and designed bestselling video games since the early 90s. He recently turned his attention to writing a novel, “Demon Dance,” an urban fantasy that called on many of the skills he’s learned throughout the years in creating games. Freyermuth shared his experience with The Penmen Review.

What came first, your desire to design video games or write the stories?
I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. In my fifth grade English class I wrote a short story about a castle in the clouds, and after that I pretty much never looked back. My stories were always huge, grand epics that spanned time and space. I was never really one for thinking small.

In high school, I wrote a horror novel that scared my wife, Juliet, in our senior year. We went on our first date shortly after that. Around the same time, I began tinkering around on the Commodore 64, creating story-based games and handing them out to friends. By the time I went to University of California Irvine, I knew I wanted to make games. My degree in Comparative Literature helped me prepare for designing games as well as writing novels.

When Interplay offered me a game designer position in 1994, I jumped at the chance. Here was a way to combine my two loves: writing story and designing games.

When you’re creating a new game, does the concept come to you with a specific premise and parameters for characters?
That depends on which hat you’re wearing in the company. As a lead designer, I’ve been part of massive brainstorming sessions where the only idea we had going in was, “Make a survival horror game.” We had to come up with everything else. I’ve also been on the implementation side, where the story was handed to me with a nice red bow and it was my task to make it all work smoothly.

As you can see, they are both sides of the same coin. On one hand, you have a set of designers who think in the abstract, coming up with the overall plan, and on the other hand, you have the ones who put the nuts and bolts together to make the game come to life.

What’s the process for building out the storyline, characters and dialogue? 
I usually begin with the overall theme, and then whittle it down from there. In “Demon Dance,” for example, it all began with an idea. What if the world was filled with creatures of legend from all different eras of mythology? And what happens to these supernatural beings when people stop believing in them?

After the initial thought percolated in my brain for a while, I began coming up with the cast. First up was Nick St. James, a retired detective hiding from his past while writing novels in Seattle. His background, his extraordinary gifts, and his personality all rose out of this initial brainstorming, as did Thelma, Jake and all the other characters.

Once the characters were fleshed out, I began the outline for the overall story arc of the Sundancer Series, until finally whittling it down to the story of “Demon Dance” itself. Plot points, character arcs, important twists, all of it went into this first outline.

Remember, though, that all of this is just an initial base. The outline needs to be fluid, and you have to be flexible as well. When I wrote “Demon Dance,” all sorts of tweaks and cuts happened, including characters that faded in and out of the story, new characters showing up when you least expect it, and some threads that needed to be chopped off completely. It’s great to do the initial preparation, but you always have to be ready to adjust everything as you write.

What are some of the commonalities between writing a novel and writing for a video game?
When I began my career, I thought game writing and novel writing were two completely different skill sets. I’ve learned over the years that they overlap in many ways.

First, whether you’re writing a 300-page story or a 300-hour game, you’re still following a basic story structure. How it is presented to the player might be different, but the core remains the same.

I also learned that my experience with player choice in games directly corresponds to character choice in a novel. Every scene and every interaction stems from Nick’s decisions in “Demon Dance,” even if that meant I had to redo my outline to accommodate his character. In other words, I treated Nick like one of my players, and let him decide where the story ended up.

Who or what has most influenced your writing career?
I’m a huge Dean R. Koontz fan. I started reading his books when I was young, and I wanted to write like him. I wrote the novel that scared my wife in high school after reading “Watchers,” a book about escaped science experiments. One was a highly intelligent dog, the other a vicious monster. He was the reason why I started writing long form storytelling in first place.

Do you have specific challenges you face in your work, and what do you do to overcome them?
One the bigger challenges when writing is that characters need to drive the story. They need to be true to their motivations and who they are. I spent long nights pleading with them to follow the outline of the story, only to have them stick their tongues out at me and run away cackling like maniacs. It was usually at this point that I’d be up all night reworking the outline. At least until the next time they did it.

What’s the best advice you have been given as a writer?
I’ve worked with some amazing people over the years that have helped me hone my craft. On my last project, I had the pleasure of working with Marv Wolfman and Warren Spector on “Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two.”  Warren showed me that everything needs to have meaning when you’re writing a good story. Every little piece, every character moment, every plot twist—all of it—has to tie into the larger theme. Not only did this help tighten the story for “Epic Mickey 2,” but it also was one of the reasons why the game was nominated for the WGA Video Game Writing award of 2012.

Chekov said it best when he wrote, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

What’s the most important thing you have learned along the way?
Never stop learning. I’m constantly seeking knowledge on how to write novels better or how to make better games. Many people I have worked with over the years have helped me along this never-ending process of self improvement. If someone suggests a good book, I read it. A great example is “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder, which suggested ways to improve story organization. You can always be better at what you do.

What are you doing to publicize “Demon Dance”?
I work full time, so my wife, Juliet, plans most of the promotional activities with the book. We use social media like Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter to let readers know about events happening with “Demon Dance” and progress made with the sequel. There was a giveaway on Goodreads a few weeks ago, and right now I’m finishing up an online blog tour where bloggers are reviewing “Demon Dance,” inviting me to write guest posts, interviewing me, or spotlighting my novel on their website.

What’s next for you?
Right now I’m about two-thirds of the way through the sequel to “Demon Dance.” It takes place about three months after the last book, and a big part of the theme is how we tend to dwell on the past. As the New Year comes rolling around, Nick and Thelma will face an ancient evil that has roots deep into their own past.

I’m also Lead Content Designer at Xaviant, an independent game company. I’m working on “Lichdom: Redeemer,” a game where you get to craft a ton of different spells in order to fight your way through a dark fantasy world. I’m having a blast working on it, and I’ll definitely be able to say more about it later on down the line.