In 2017, my resume was accepted by Choice of Games and I started writing a cute Christmas story about Mrs. Claus. By 2019, I finished the game (In the Service of Mrs. Claus), writing about insanity-causing gods and castles of horror built from the tortured dreams of kidnapped children.
Working for Choice of Games was a wild experience. While I was writing I had trouble finding people with similar experiences I could compare with. Even before I was accepted, I wondered what it would be like to be one of those cool CoG authors I saw. So here’s a long, rambling post about my experience
I was mostly an interactive fiction reviewer. Obsessed with IF, I had played and reviewed over 1000 games (mostly parser). I learned from the games I reviewed, and I had entered and won prizes in several writing competitions and had my work featured in online magazines, but it was all parser games.
I had always admired and even envied CoG writers as ‘real writers’ who were amazing and professional. I never considered myself worthy of even sending in my resume.
But then my cat got a $4000 trip to the emergency room and my disabled wife was trying to get a wheelchair van, so I applied to CoG with my resume, as well as another, less established and more volatile company.
I ended up being accepted by both; I also had two previous parser game commitments to finish. I was in way over my head. I picked the option (that CoG had at the time) for less advances and more royalties so that I’d be more invested in the game.
The work process
CoG was a dream to work with. Compared to the other company I was involved with, they were thoughtful, experienced, timely, and patient. They helped me work through numerous revisions of an outline, which was an immense task, as well as giving me several rounds of advice on the first chapter.
Writing was really, really hard for me. Incredibly hard. In parser games, I could have a sense of place: you create a room, you describe the room, you describe things in it.
But CoG is about story and relationships. The further I went, the more I doubted myself. I tore through pages and pages of online writing advice. But I realized that I hated my writing.
So every single day for 2 years I sat down from the time my son went to sleep until I went to sleep and spent the whole time ‘writing’. It was really 75% overcoming self-loathing and 25% writing. Sometimes I would write 3000 words (very rarely!) and more often 0. Near the end, I committed to 500 words a day, and that was the fastest I ever got.
Real life intervenes
At first I split my time between both companies, but then the more volatile company went under and folded all their projects. It meant less income at a critical moment, but I could finally dedicate more time to CoG.
But life went bad. Both my grandfathers died. A student at my university tried to get me fired because I had joked that 'They’ll probably fire me so I can teach whatever I want" when in fact I was scrambling furiously to get a position at the same school next year. I was struggling with my religion and my wife and I got divorced.
All of this, I poured into my game. Many of the choices in the game reflect real life choices I was going through. Writing got even harder; it was like squeezing bits of my soul into the computer. I wrote, I revised, I hated it, I’d get feedback from my wonderful editor, I revised.
But as it went on and I read stuff from long again. I realized that my writing actually wasn’t horrible. It’s not the strongest in the CoG oeuvre (I’m looking at people like Lynnea Glasser and Kevin Gold), but the story was good, and I was proud of it.
It took a long time, though. Two years, and it was only 160K words. That used to be strong for a CoG, but now it’s pretty far below average. But I couldn’t add any more. It was too late, and the story was already done. Winter was coming, literally, and a Christmas game can only be released one time in the year.
Advance installments were so helpful during this time. They helped pay for the cat, the van, the divorce, and moving.
The lead-up to release was great. Working with artists and copy editors was so fun. I spent literally 6-10 hours a day working on the numerous revisions. They made the game SO MUCH better. For instance, they identified an annoying writing quirk that I had, so I found all 200+ examples in the text where I perpetrated that quirk and rewrote them.
I haven’t seen many sales figures from CoG authors, especially underperforming ones, so I wanted to share mine. My game has sold 1998 copies (Edit: I had miscounted before!), with the vast majority occurring around Christmas and < 200 games a month now. For me, this is an incredible success. I can honestly say that I am now a published author with thousands of copies sold. And I feel so happy about it.
For Choice of Games, they didn’t earn back the advance they gave me, not even close. They’ve been very kind about it; never has anyone in the company said anything negative to me, but as someone who values themselves by their service to others, I feel a personal debt to CoG and a sadness at “letting them down” by my own standards.
The game is great; all reviews have been very positive. I suppose that the subject is off-putting, especially to a base that isn’t very interested in Christmas to begin with. And the first chapter is rather dull, but to be fair I had 2x as much writing experience by the time I was done as I did when I started. I hope you all check it out come this Christmas!
Writing a 160K game was so incredibly difficult and exhausting that I don’t think I could ever do it again, let alone write the longer ones that are now the norm. As a kind friend pointed out, my background is in game writing, and not fiction writing. I’m better at mechanics than narrative.
For a few weeks, I thought I’d never write anything in any form again (from burnout), but I’ve already written 3 parser games this year (winning a competition in the process), started another, and ran an anniversary contest for famous IF author Emily Short.
I love the games you all are writing, and I think you’re incredible. Thank you for reading this; I hope it might be helpful to some hopeful author or someone currently writing a game. Thanks!