Recently a couple of threads have popped up on the interactive fiction forum proposing that interested parties write games set in shared worlds. The worlds to be shared were set forth in some detail. As it happens, I found one of the proposed scenarios rather evocative, the other less so. But that hardly matters; I already have a few ideas of my own that I’d like to develop.
What struck me was how easy it is to spin out phantasmagorical ideas for a shared world — and how much more difficult it is to craft an engaging story.
When she wrote an introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley described the little contest that gave rise to the novel. Lord Byron had proposed that he, Percy Shelley, Mary, and a certain Dr. Polidori, who were cooped up in a house in Switzerland owing to an incessant and altogether fortuitous siege of summer rain, each write a ghost story. “Poor Polidori,” she tells us, “had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady who was punished for peeping through a key-hole — what to see I forget: something very shocking and wrong of course … The illustrious poets, annoyed by the platitude of prose, speedily relinquished their uncongenial task.”
And then she says, “I busied myself to think of a story.” (The italics are hers.) That sentence has been a touchstone for me for a very long time.
Storytelling is surely one of the oldest of art forms — and unlike painting and music, its essentials probably haven’t changed much, if at all, in the last hundred thousand years. The most exotic and elaborately imagined world will fall flat if it isn’t animated by a compelling story.