Oddly, although The Last Express was conceived as a point-and-click adventure, mobile (with headphones!) has now become my favorite way to play it. Its immersive story, which encourages hours of meandering and eavesdropping, is best experienced in a comfortable position — like curling up on the couch with a good book. I especially like it the way it feels on a plane. And, of course, a train.
(Originally published as a guest article for The Huffington Post.)
As a writer and game designer, I’ve spent a good chunk of the past 30 years trying to do various types of creative work while sitting, standing, or slouching at a computer keyboard (and, more recently, a touchscreen). The power of those devices has grown exponentially, enabling me with a tap or a keystroke to accomplish marvels that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. (“Upload PDF to Dropbox”; “Open Scrivener file.”)
And yet I’ve been increasingly bemused to realize that by real-world measures of productivity — words written, problems solved, good ideas crystallized — my output has not only not multiplied along with the power of my tools, it hasn’t increased one bit.
Not only that: I’ve had for some time the gnawing feeling that my best ideas — the ones that really make a difference — tend to come while I’m walking in the park, or showering after a workout, or talking a problem through with a friend, or writing in a notebook; i.e., almost anywhere but in front of a screen.
For a long time I tried to talk myself out of this. I figured that if my computer time wasn’t maximally productive, it was because I didn’t have the right software, or wasn’t using it right. I tried configuring panels and preferences differently. I created keyboard shortcuts. I downloaded apps to track time I spent using other apps, apps to make it easier to switch between multiple apps. Nothing changed the basic observed fact: There was an inverse relationship between my screen time and my productivity on a given day.
I started mentioning this to people. Cautiously at first. For someone who makes his living by putting stuff on screens, to question the fundamental symbiotic bond of user and machine could seem perverse, even a sort of heresy. But the more I brought it up, the more I discovered I wasn’t alone.
It turns out that some of the most productive and successful people I know still write longhand. Screenwriters write on index cards and big rolls of paper, the way I did in elementary school. One dictates his first drafts out loud and has an assistant transcribe them. Game designers and directors scribble on whiteboards and in notebooks. And some of these people were born after 1980.
For myself, I’ve found that I spend the vast majority of my working computer time staring at the screen in a state of mind that falls somewhere within the gray spectrum from “passive/reactive” to “sporadically/somewhat productive,” and in which a few minutes can stretch unnoticed into a quarter-hour, or a couple of hours, without breaking the seamless self-delusion that because I am at my desk, at my computer, I am therefore working.
It’s so easy to move words and sentences around in Word or Scrivener or Final Draft that it feels like writing, even if what I’m actually doing would rate only a 2 on the scale in which 10 is “getting an idea and writing it down.” Writing down an idea, an actual idea, is something I can do as easily with a fifty-cent ball-point pen as with a thousand-dollar MacBook Air. Only with the ball-point, it’s harder to fool myself. If the page stays blank, I can see it’s blank.
Which is why, after years of making progressively heavier use of more apps and more devices to do things I used to do without any devices at all, I’ve thrown that train into reverse. I now keep my project notes and journals in actual notebooks. I’ve even switched to paper for my “to-do lists,” and cross off action items literally, not figuratively. It’s simpler and I get more done this way.
As much as I love my tricked-out MacBook Air, I try not to begin workdays automatically by lifting its lid, as if to say “I have arrived at work; now tell me what to do”; just as I try not to reach for my iPhone to fill the silence of a solitary moment. Ideally, I want my screen sessions to begin with a conscious choice, a clear intention of why I’m turning to that device at that moment and what I mean to accomplish.
It’s easier said than done. The more I try, the more I realize that what I’m actually doing is fighting an addiction. The Apple II that first enchanted me thirty years ago as a tool to make fun games has evolved, one update and one upgrade at a time, into a multi-tentacled entity so powerful that it takes an ongoing effort of will for me not to be enslaved by it.
Update: Here’s my schedule for San Diego Comic-Con:
- Friday 10:00 – “Graphic Novels: Words & Pictures” Panel in Room 23ABC
- Friday 11:30 – Signing books in Autographing Area (AA09)
- Friday 2:30 – Signing books at First Second Booth (1323)
And if you can’t make it to SDCC, you can still “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit, Saturday (July 20) at 10 am Pacific time (1 pm Eastern).
Hope to see you there!
Artists LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland and I had so much fun collaborating on our graphic novel Templar, we hated to stop! So we’ve gone and made another book together: The Making of Templar. And we’re giving it away for free.
As usual for our projects, this one grew to be a little bigger than we expected — but no regrets. The Making of Templar is an 86-page e-book, lavishly illustrated with LeUyen and Alex’s sketches and behind-the-scenes materials, in which we discuss our work process and five-year journey making Templar. Topics include:
- differences between writing for comics and film/video game writing
- character design
- writing and storyboarding action sequences
- historical research
- creative collaboration
You can download the free e-book here. And if you haven’t read Templar yet, never fear; we’ve steered clear of spoilers.
We hope you enjoy The Making of Templar — and Templar, too!
The story of how a book, movie, or video game came to be — any project that takes years and the combined effort of many people — is always intertwined with the stories of other projects that didn’t.
In 2001, when I joined a Ubisoft Montreal team hoping to revive an all-but-dead franchise I’d created in the 1980s, Prince of Persia, we had no guarantee that our efforts would see the light of day. We did our best, and the result was a game you may have heard of or played: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
Whereas a game I can guarantee you’ve never played is the next-gen Prince of Persia sequel that team went on to develop. It wasn’t abandoned because it wasn’t good enough; rather, it was so good, Ubisoft decided to make it a new franchise in its own right. Assassin’s Creed was born.
Meanwhile, I’d written the “Prince of Persia” movie for Disney. My first screenplay would be substantially rewritten by others before cameras rolled — but the experience sparked a great friendship, and my next writing project with co-exec producer John August: an hour-long dramatic TV pilot about down-on-their-luck private military contractors who accept questionable missions in a different conflict-ridden corner of the world every week. We got as far as casting our leads (Luke Mably and LL Cool J) before Fox pulled the plug. You’ll never see that pilot (though you can read it on John’s blog).
All that happened in one year, 2005. One project cancelled, two others went on without me. To anyone outside the film or video game industry, such a litany of “might-have-beens” might sound discouraging. But if you do work in the industry, you know that what I’m describing is actually a normal, productive year. Most creative people spend a significant percentage of their careers working on projects that don’t see the light of day, or morph into something completely different by the time they do.
Which is why it’s such a rare miracle when a work reaches completion in a form that not only fulfills the writer’s dreams, but exceeds them.
For this to happen requires luck, timing, a talented and creatively aligned team, and a visionary and committed publisher. It happened with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and now, ten years later, I’m delighted to say it’s happened again. This time not with a video game, but my original graphic novel Templar — out today from First Second Books.
The book is a self-contained romantic action-adventure about the fall of the medieval Knights Templar — 480 pages, full-color, hardcover, illustrated by the husband-and-wife team of LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland. If you’re a fan of Prince of Persia, graphic novels, or historical fiction, I hope you’ll check it out.
Here’s how it came to be:
From video games to comics
In 2004, I got an email from Mark Siegel, editor-in-chief of Macmillan’s new graphic-novel imprint, First Second, asking if I’d ever considered doing a Prince of Persia graphic novel.
A few minutes into talking, I realized that Mark wasn’t trying to jump on the Ubisoft/Disney bandwagon. Not only was he not aiming at a merchandising tie-in with those bigger-budget efforts, he didn’t know about them. He was remembering the original, side-scrolling Prince of Persia he’d played in the 1990s. This was just one of the things about Mark’s approach that charmed me. I said yes.
I couldn’t write it myself — I was still busy writing the Prince of Persia movie and the Fox pilot, and Assassin’s Creed was still Prince of Persia 2 — but, kibitzing from the sidelines as Mark brought together Iranian poet A.B. Sina and husband-and-wife illustrators LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland to create that Prince of Persia graphic novel, I realized three things:
First, I wanted to write a graphic novel. Comics had been my first love as a kid, along with movies (before video games existed). Cartoon art and storytelling had hugely influenced my work in video games, from Karateka to The Last Express. How could I have let three decades slip by without jumping on an opportunity to work in this art form I cared about so much?
Second, I wanted to write a graphic novel for First Second.
Third, I wanted LeUyen and Alex to illustrate it.
Oddly, throughout the year they worked on the Prince of Persia graphic novel, we’d never met. Whether out of reticence to intrude on each other’s creative domains, or because of the crazy pace of production (that book and their first baby both shared the same, non-negotiable delivery date), all our communication was by email, with Mark as intermediary. But I noticed that every single one of their polite and deferential suggestions made the book unquestionably better. They were brilliant artists, this was their first book-length comic as a team, and their mastery was visibly increasing with each new batch of pages. Whoever wrote their next book would be a lucky writer indeed. I wanted to be that writer.
A strange mystique
I’d had the Knights Templar on my mind for at least a decade. I first learned of their amazing backstory doing research for The Last Express — a World War I-era adventure game about the quest for a legendary, possibly cursed, object that never changes hands without staining them with blood. As anyone who reads books, sees movies, or plays video games with any regularity knows, such objects almost always turn out to be part of a Templar conspiracy.
Once Templars are on your radar, you start seeing them everywhere. They pop up in the third acts of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Robin Hood” (the 1938 Errol Flynn version), “The Da Vinci Code,” and in the prologue of “The Maltese Falcon.” As Umberto Eco put it in Foucault’s Pendulum: “Everything has something to do with the Templars.”
I became a collector of Templariana. I hatched any number of Templar-conspiracy plotlines — including a screenplay prequel to The Last Express, which I abandoned in 2002 (probably wisely) to focus on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. If its MacGuffin bears an uncanny resemblance to The Da Vinci Code, it’s not because either Dan Brown or I were aware of each other, but most likely because we’d been independently reading the same pseudo-historical nonsense about the Templars. You can read the first 40 pages here.
A little research is a dangerous thing. A lot of research can be fatal. My enthusiasm for my various Templar conspiracy-theory plot lines was killed by realizing that they weren’t, after all, that original. The world didn’t need another third-act revelation where the hero discovers that the secret he’s been chasing/fleeing is part of a centuries-old Templar plot to uphold/destroy/hide/reveal something or other. (Or so I told myself. The subsequent popular success of “National Treasure” and The Da Vinci Code suggested that the world had, in fact, wanted at least a couple more.)
What really gripped my imagination, and stayed in my mind long after I’d put away all that historical and pseudo-historical research, was the actual history of the Templars and what had happened to them. It was weirder, deeper, more disturbing, and more moving than any of the best-selling riffs on it I’d scarfed down (and I’d scarfed a lot of them). It had the unmistakable ring of truth, of stuff you couldn’t invent. I wanted to read that story.
Which meant I had to write it.
Six years in the making
I pitched Templar first to Mark Siegel, in a café around the corner from First Second and Macmillan’s Flatiron Building headquarters.
Second, I pitched it to LeUyen and Alex, in the kitchen of their San Francisco apartment. They’d just spent two years exhausting themselves to produce a 192-page Prince of Persia book, and had just become new parents to boot, so I knew my chances of convincing them to sign on to an even more ambitious, multi-year book project were slim. But I had to try.
That was six years ago. A lot has happened since. LeUyen and Alex now have two children. Assassin’s Creed has become Ubisoft’s flagship franchise, and — in a historical irony that would not have surprised Umberto Eco — involves a conspiracy tracing its origins to those very same medieval Knights Templar.
As for the Persian prince who originally brought us together, he’s executed a remarkable series of running leaps — from the 8-bit Apple II screen where he began, to new generations of video game consoles, graphic novels, LEGO play sets, and the big screen that inspired his creation. I have no doubt that, being the plucky and resourceful character he is, he’ll find his way through the sandstorm and back into the video game world very soon.
For today, I’m immensely proud and excited to offer you Templar — one of the most rewarding creative collaborations it’s been my privilege to be part of. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Comments are open below. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
I’ve heard from a lot of people who’ve expressed the desire to replay a certain 1984 side-scrolling, bird-punching game that traumatized them in childhood, exactly the way they remember it — on their mobile devices.
So, by popular demand, I’m happy to announce that Karateka Classic is coming to the App Store and Google Play this Thursday. It’s not a remake, not a port, but a faithful pixel-perfect emulation of the original Apple II game, with Olivier Goguel’s ActiveGS emulator running my 6502 assembly language code, graphics, and my dad’s music.
In engineering the app, Olivier has added a number of nifty touches, including the ability to choose between color CRT, amber, or green screen, as well as a few touchscreen-friendly updates, and a certain peculiarity of the 5.25″ floppy disk version which I won’t spoil here.
I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts. Does Karateka Classic match your memories? How does it compare to the Karateka remake? And is it better to kick, or always punch the hawk?
Download links will be posted here late Wednesday night. Oh, and the price will be 99 cents.