Digital Wonk

Hi, my name’s Alexis Hall, and I’m a giant nerd. The truth is, I’ve been into video games since I was about eleven years old, and-in a way-he games I’ve played have had as much effect on me as the books I’ve read. And when I’m not writing, I still spend a lot of my free time pretending to be an electronic wizard. These days, though, I do it with my partner, so I’ve definitely grown as a person.

As well as big flashy games full of explosions and zombies, I’ve also always been interested in digital storytelling and interactive fiction. I’m not going to lie: the vast majority of games tend to be about burly dudes shooting other burly dudes, but with the rise of Indie publishing and increasingly accessible development tools, I’ve started to see games or game-like entities that draw-upon and feed-into most fictional genres. There’s Lovecraftian horror out of there, there’s classic mysteries, there’s physical comedy and, of course, there’s romance.

And, obviously, games are as different from books as books are from movies, but–like books and like movies–they have their own unique ways of presenting stories which do not replicate, and cannot be replicated in, other media. Interactivity creates a sense of personal, narrative engagement which is specific to digital media, and which shapes both the stories being told and our reactions to them.

So, I thought I’d put together a list of games or game-like entities that touch on romance or romantic motifs, and which might be interesting to the Wonko audience. I’ve tried for the most part to choose games that are free, and freely available, and relatively easy to get into, so – um, check ‘em out if you fancy it.

Oh, and not all of these games are SFW, but I’ve indicated that where relevant.

In no particular order:

The Kiss by Dan Weber (SFW)

If this is anything, it’s multi-linear poetry-a moment that unfurls endlessly into the past, the present and the future. It’s… beautiful. That is all.

Also, it looks like this, which is also beautiful.

Available: on-line here
Playtime: About 10 minutes, but could be longer

First Draft of the Revolution by Emily Short & Liza Daley (SFW)

This isn’t romantic per se, but you can certainly read romance into it and out of it if you want. And also have an affaire. Ooh la la.

It’s set in an alt-history, pre-revolutionary France with magic. You “play” Juliette, who has been exiled from Paris by her husband, for reasons as yet unclear. She writes to him daily, planning the letters in advance and then inscribing them onto enchanted paper, which he then receives instantly in Paris.

The game mechanics are simple. You select what Juliette chooses to tell her husband about her sojourn in the country. The outcome doesn’t change-but you shape the context and, consequently, meaning as well. I think one of the many fascinating things about First Draft is that most games situate their interactivity in choice and outcome. Here, the interactivity is the act of creation itself. It’s an absolutely exquisite exploration of interpretative space – not only between perception, reality, and the written word, but between people.

Wonderfully written, delicately characterised, and endlessly intriguing, you’ll want to play this if you’re a sucker for epistolary novels, you enjoy Georgette Heyer and/or Dangerous Liaisons, and because it’s just gosh-darned brilliant.

Available: on-line here.
Playtime: About 30 minutes

Benthic Love (SFW) by Mike Joffe & Sonya Hallett

benthic love

click to usefully tumess image.

The only queer-friendly anglerfish dating sim currently available!

I genuinely adore this. The art, the music, and the words come together beautifully, and… I learned a lot of about anglerfish mating. But it has a strange and haunting resonance, despite – or perhaps because – of the mingling of the unfamiliar (anglerfish) and the familiar (love, fear, identity).

Available: on-line here.
(You can also download and install – it’s teeny tiny, so I’d recommend doing this for the most stable anglerfish love experience)
Playtime: About 5 minutes (supports multiple playthroughs)

Positive Space by Merritt Kopas (NSFW)

This is a powerfully honest, beautifully written and deeply tender piece that describes itself as a “love note/sex edutainment piece” about muffing (includes images from, and links to, Mira Bellwether’s Fucking Trans Women #0.

Available: on-line here
Playtime: About 5 minutes

Jurassic Heart (SFW)

So, since I understand dinoerotica is a thing now, I naturally thought of this charming love/friendship story about going to buy a ukulele with your dinosaur friend.

Available: on-line here:
(You can also download and install – it’s teeny tiny, so I’d recommend doing this for the most stable dinosaur love experience)
Playtime: About 10 minutes (though there are two endings, so you might want to replay)

Sacrilege by Cara Ellison (NSFW, potentially triggering)


click to usefully tumess image

This isn’t remotely romantic – I’d go so far as to say anti-romantic– but it’s viscerally effective on the subject of desire – specifically female desire and its contexts and compromises. The author calls it a game about the “heart-stopping drudgery of being heterosexual in a world where heterosexuals are conditioned not to talk to each other, or listen to each other, or really have any idea what they are doing.” It’s cynical and heart-breaking at the same time, and depicts perfectly those splintering moments when you’re alone at a club and when all you’ve got is a fuckplan, endless, unarticulated longing, and no choices at all:

A guy who you are going to hurt is better
A guy who is going to hurt you would be better

(These are the only two choices
These are the only two choices
These are the only two choices)

Available: on-line here
Playtime: About 10 minutes (supports multiple playthroughs)

Fuck that Guy by Benji Bight (seriously, seriously NSFW)

As a counterpoint to Sacrilege, Fuck That Guy is… well. Yes. It’s also set in a club, and it’s altogether more hopeful (for the most part) as you wander around trying to pull. Which you usually will, unless you actively say no, in various interesting ways – ending the game with the message: “Awesome! You got laid!” It’s very simple, unabashedly sex-focused, and cheerfully accepting of a wide variety of sexual choices, expressions and behaviours. It’s cleanly and effectively written, and manages to blend the generic (club setting, particular types of menz) with enough detail to make the encounters feel authentic and individual.

Available: online here
Playtime: about 10 minutes (supports multiple playthroughs)

Choice Of Romance by Heather Albano & Adam Strong-Morse (SFW)

Choice Of games are sort of like those old Choose Your Own Adventure games I hope we all remember from our childhood, except better-written, thematically much cooler, and you don’t have to keep track of your own character stats or roll any dice. I’m kind of addicted to them, because ever since they began making games, they’ve been committed to writing stories that allow you complete control over your character’s gender, sexuality and sexual choices, as well… y’know… whether they like fighting or intriguing, or if they prefer to save puppies, or eat them with nice chianti. Choice Of games are essentially games built around the idea that a successful interactive narrative is a series of interesting choices. And when you find yourself gleefully playing a lesbian Ann Boleyn, I think it’s fair to say they’ve succeeded.

You can play most of their games for freez on line or download them to various Devices™ for a pittance.

My personal favourite is Affairs of the Court (which is actually a trilogy comprising Choice of Romance, Choice of Intrigues, and Til Death Do us Part), which is set in the court of Henry VIII – except with magic (which is the rather clever device it employs to side-step the issue of gender being kind of relevant to who marries whom when there’s succession involved). You can play the first part for free.

There’s also Choice of Broadsides, if you ever fancied being a gay and/or female Hornblower.

Available: on line here
Playtime: an hour, depending on reading speed (supports multiple, indeed even obsessive, playthroughs *cough*)

Diving Deeper by Christine Love (NSFW!)

This is completely non-interactive.  It’s basically a short, visual novel about the sort of things that The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife are about. But it’s actually weirdly adorable – joyous, even – and exists in subversive opposition to… uh… typical images of tentacle-themed erotica, which – not that I am an expert on the subject – tend to pretty violent. Whereas this is tender, consensual, and mutually enthusiastic.

Available: for download here.
Playtime: 20 minutes, depending on reading speed

Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle by Saint Bomber (NSFW)

EoWC is an RPG Maker roleplaying game. The premise behind RPG Maker was simply that any human should be able to make a game with it, and any other human should be able play that game.

In EoWC, you play the Duchesse of Elstwhere, who is shipped off to Wulfhammer Castle in order to marry the great warrior, Embric. Except he’s nowhere to be found. Instead, you pootle around, getting to know the denizens of the castle, collecting pretty dresses and occasionally losing them in a goofy kind of way. Oh, and being a lesbian.

It’s a very light-hearted and – honestly – raunchy little game and, even though there’s clearly a strong element of parody here, there’s also a surprising amount of depth behind it. There’s a kind of exuberance to the Duchesse herself, and lots of sexual silliness as she bounces into the bed of pretty much every principle (female) character. Nevertheless, I found myself oddly moved a lot of the time, and the various relationships (including, of all things, being playfully molested by a mermaid) genuinely romantic.

Also it might just be me but the Duchesse looks a bit like Delphine Dryden, you know, if she was an inch tall and made of pixels.

Available: for download here.
Playtime: Ages, honestly, ages.

BONUS: Plundered Hearts by Amy Briggs / Infocom (SFW)


click to usefully tumess image

This isn’t actually available any more, as it was released by Infocom in the late 80s (buuuuut I think it’s “technically” abandonware, so if you were to Google it – not that I would advocate such a thing – you could probably acquire a copy), and was a genuine and good-faith attempt to create a piece of interactive fiction (of the old “go east/examine table/take lemon/curse the goddamned parser” style of text adventure) that felt like a romance novel. A romance novel of the 80s. So, should you play this, expect to suffer a “fate worse than death” a lot.

Though not at the hands of the hero, thankfully.

Allow me to share the blurb, which is, in itself, a piece of perfection:

In the 17th century, the seas are as wild as the untamed heart of a young woman. But when you set out on the schooner Lafond Deux, bound for the West Indies, your thoughts are only of your ailing father who awaits your care. Little do you know that your innocent journey will soon turn to dangerous adventure.

You barely survive an encounter with pirates, whose plans for you include a fate worse than death [emphasis mine]. The explosives, the rocky reefs, the vicious crocodile – all these are obstacles which you must overcome with cunning and agility. True, it’s not easy; but at least you can control your fate. What you cannot control is much more dangerous: your passion for Nicholas Jamison, the handsome pirate captain.

Tall and lean, with azure eyes that penetrate deep into your soul, he makes your blood quicken despite his unsavory past. When you’re in his arms, swirling around the dance floor or secluded in the flowered depths of the gazebo, you are apt to forget your mission.

But don’t dally too long with Nick. For your father is waiting, and on his rescue lies the fate of more than one man. Prepare for adventure on the high seas, lass. You’ll need every bit of pluck you can muster.

In Plundered Hearts, Infocom brings your wildest fantasies to life. You’ll thrill to spine-tingling peril, heart-pounding romance, and challenging predicaments. To create this exotic adventure, author Amy Briggs read hundreds of romance novels, researched 17th century costumes and ships, and was wooed by a dashing pirate.

It’s… fun, honestly, although, like any old fashioned adventure game, fucking frustrating without a walkthrough. But the heroine is plucky and resourceful, and the hero is… tall, and doesn’t rape her. It’s not hugely interactive/responsive in terms of character and relationships (interactivity is all about world, exploration and puzzle-solving) – so you fall for Jamison and there’s nothing you can do about it. This often reads a little bit strangely, because it means the narrative  has to try and tempt you into feeling some degree of interest in the guy, without forcing it upon you, but all it really does is remind you that Romance Is Not Your Choice today.

Also, at one point the villain offered to run off with me and I was totally up for it because who wouldn’t be. But it wasn’t possible.


But regardless, Plundered Hearts is written with real vim, and while it doesn’t offer much romantic interactivity, it does feel a little bit like playing The Windflower which I, personally, call a win.

Posted in Certified Wonktastical, Thinky | 15 Comments

The Myth of Selling Out

I remember when I first got involved in the writing communities online, some of them romance, some of them not. And in the non-romance communities, like where people wrote literary and science fiction and whatever, it was pretty well established that writing romance or erotica was selling out. Okay, so, I had to stop hanging out there…

But I still see it sometimes, the idea that at least we’re romance authors, not erotic romance authors. At least we’re published authors, not self-published authors. At least we’re writing about vampire sex, not dinosaur sex. At least we write about what we love and not BDSM Billionaire Cowboy Cagefighters like those other sellouts.

And I just… I don’t know where this hierarchy came from. I don’t know why it’s here.

How do we know they didn’t always love writing BDSM Billionaire Cowboy Cagefighters and the money is just gravy?? And how do I know that those authors of dino-erotica aren’t genuinely turned on by their subject and happy to be writing it? Why is that supposed to be shameful?

Most of the writers I interact with now are romance authors. I assume it’s because they want to be and not (only) because of money. Because… frankly… if you’re that focused on money, there are probably better ways to make it.

When you chat about day jobs, or old jobs, with writers you find out there are a lot of techie folks (like me), lawyers, corporate-types. It takes a LOT of books to match a six figure salary. I have definitely not sold that many books and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. So, I mean, everyone’s situation is different, but I’m just always going to assume that people are writing for the love of it. That is not only an idealistic view—it’s a logical one.

That said, I do want to make money.  I want to make money so that I can pay my bills. And I want to make money so that I can continue to spend most of my time writing instead of going back to that tech job. It’s for the love of writing that I want to make money. It’s for the love of living too. Why is that supposed to be shameful?

Even if you knew that I started writing [insert trend here] after it became a trend, as opposed to before, would that be wrong? Even if you knew I wrote it with the express goal of making as much money as possible, would that be wrong?

I don’t think so.

To me, if you sold out, you’d have to betray your principles. Selling out a friend, for example, would be a betrayal. But how can I sell out my writing? To know that, I have to know what my writing principles are…

For sure, I can tell you what they aren’t. I have no desire to put down an entire genre. I’m sorry but that’s just silly. Yes, there are genres I don’t care to read. In no way can I make the logical jump from “I don’t want to read this genre” to “this genre objectively sucks.”

As to what my writing principles are

I try to write the best book I can, from a technical standpoint. Ideally my writing would be lyrical and compelling. I study story structure, etc, so that I can get better at that larger scale too. Also, just the way that I write, characters come to me first. So I try to find their voice and then remain as loyal to it as I can.

Another writing principle relates to the wonkomance stuff, like I want to write the characters that are a little off-beat, a little quirky, and maybe not that well represented in the romance canon.

And I follow these principles—because I don’t really know any other way to write. If I sat down to write something else, there’d be no passion. I’d be bored as hell. Readers would be bored as hell.

Maybe someone else can disdain a genre and still write a bestselling book in it—but that isn’t me. Because I wouldn’t have enough passion to even finish the damn thing, for one. And because there’s not a single genre I disdain, for another.

Selling out is literally not an option. There’s really no way I can break my writing principles and sell more books.

Here’s the thing. I’m still a relatively new writer. I keep writing, one book and then another. At some point, if one of my books breaks out, that would be awesome, right? Yay!

But if it did, are people really going to point to the wonky aspects of my book and say, see? Clearly people want more wonk! Well, we at Wonkomance might say that :) But mostly, no. They’re going to find the parts that are similar to popular books or trends, and say it’s for those reasons.

I have a book coming out next week, How to Say Goodbye. If it flops, is it because the heroine is repressed and the hero is homeless? Because those are pretty wonky things… But if, in some alternative universe, it broke out and did super well, people would assume it’s because it’s new adult and new adult is popular.

There was a book that made the rounds with a lizard hero, and hey, I didn’t read it but that sounds a bit unique. And then I saw people saying it wasn’t new at all, because the lizard was basically the same old alpha hole. The point is that no matter how wonky you go, there are always recognizable aspects to a story. Which parts are responsible for its success? Which ones for its failure? I’m not sure it can be deconstructed like that, at least for my books and the way I make them.

I write what I write. The characters come to me, and I try to stay true to them.

As for sales, they come or don’t come. I don’t feel like I have much control over that, but if I could choose either, I would definitely vote for making money. And there shouldn’t be any shame in that.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 12 Comments

Project Dog, or Maybe You’d Rather Envision this Hero as a Dog

(Not a literal dog, of course).

 This says, "Dog," to me.

This just says, “Dog,” to me *

So once upon a time, I used to do a big corporate training thing for large groups of adults. And since the training involved a lot of motivation and teamwork, which rely heavily on communication, I liked to start off with an exercise called, “Project Dog.”

It’s a pretty simple assignment (and I have no idea who invented it…I stole it from another trainer, who’d stolen it from somebody else). You tell everybody to take a minute or so and write down, without consulting another, what they see in their mind’s eye when they hear the word, “dog.” They can add an illustration if they have time/talent. Then everybody gets in groups and shares their mental construct–their baseline–for “dog.” The (fairly obvious) point is that you don’t have any repeats, no matter how large the group. Everybody has his or her own unique take on the concept of “dog,” so if you extrapolate that diversity to more inherently abstract concepts like “teamwork” or “values” or anything like that, just imagine how complicated things can get. The goal is to show the participants how significant communication is, how we have to make sure everybody’s proceeding from the same definitions, and how important it is that we don’t make assumptions about one another’s baselines…and other management-related stuff like that. A Beagle is not a Chihuahua is not a German Shepherd, and it’s important to know that when you’re embarking on a project with a bunch of Poodles and Golden Retrievers. Ah, “real” jobs. Good times, good times.

 But maybe YOUR dog looks like this.

But maybe YOUR dog looks like this.

It never occurred to me that this would have any bearing on my current career of writing the hot smut, but apparently it does, because the other day I came across a book review that complained about the main characters’ unrealistic hotness. And while one of the characters was supposed to be pretty hot (the hero, anomolously hot, and described as such) the other wasn’t really described in much detail beyond general shape, hair and eye color, and height relative to the hero. And yeah, full disclosure, I knew the heroine wasn’t meant to be particularly smokin’ hot…because I wrote the book. So to see this character described as essentially too hot to allow for suspension of disbelief was startling, and got me to thinking [note: I don't normally read reviews of my books, nor do I mean to suggest this review was in any way "wrong" or undeserved. It was one person's assessment, and the way they envision the characters is perfectly valid, a point I'll discuss more in a bit].

Just what is it I see when I’m writing a character? It depends. Usually I don’t start out with a specific idea at all. Occasionally something will pop into my head, a general impression about how the main characters’ bodies fit together, a vague idea about coloring, that sort of thing. I know I’ll be asked to describe these characters at some point for cover art worksheets, so once I feel like the book is going to be an actual thing I’m going to write, I start a new file and title it, “Casting Couch”. Then  I go on the internet and look at photos, scour various lists on IMDB, browse tumblr, and “cast” my characters. I save the photos in the file as a shortcut for myself, so I have reference material when the dreaded cover art worksheet comes due. Every once in awhile I’ll cast a character so well, I’ll keep the actor in mind during edits and maybe add a few details relating to that appearance.

In general, though, I like to keep it vague. I like to give readers the broad strokes and let them fill in the details themselves. But if they make assumptions about the way characters look, and it impacts their reading of the novel in a negative way, then I may not have done enough as a writer to create the character I wanted readers to see. If the characters start out as blank slates to readers, and I want them to have certain characteristics, it’s up to me to put those characteristics in. That’s been my own assumption in the past, at least, because both as a writer and as a reader my own images of characters are usually nebulous at best. When reading, in fact, I usually don’t conjure any specific images of the hero or heroine until very late in a book, if at all.

 Your dog might look like this. And that is okay. We don't really choose what our dogs look like.

Your dog might look like this. And that is okay. We don’t really choose what our dogs look like.

The danger of thinking you know what “dog” means, of course, is that absent evidence to the contrary, you tend to think everybody else has more or less the same definition of “dog.” But, as the exercise points out, that is clearly not the case. I had always assumed “hero” meant a formless, faceless dude who might or might not ever resolve into any particular shape…that everyone started reading with a blank slate and would assume dead-average (or nothing at all) unless told otherwise. That review told me otherwise. I already knew that in the abstract, just as I know that everybody’s take on a book is unique and uniquely valid. But I felt it was something I needed to think about more, as a writer particularly. So I decided to ask around about it on Twitter, to do a more salient version of Project Dog, to find out what people’s assumptions really were when they started a book. What their baseline was. I asked:

  • So tell me your #romanceassumptions about characters’ looks. If not otherwise described do you assume…average? hot? what?

(This was obviously super scientific).

I received a lot of answers; it prompted some great discussions with readers and writers alike. I won’t list every single one, but here is a range of them, sorted along a loose continuum from less specific to more specific (sorta). I’m not naming names, because many of the answers came from other writers but I really don’t want to differentiate them from any other reader in this context. I didn’t see any particular writerly trend in answers.

  • My mind says average. I assume the author meant screaming hot, though./ There seems to be a perception that people want to read about gorgeous people. Personally, I like the average ones.
  • I figure somewhere between the two I guess.  Build a pic in my head. Attractiveness is very subjective.
  • I think I pictured them more when I was younger. Does that make sense?
  • I rarely have a good picture of characters in my mind. It’s mostly a jumble of parts. But I assume they’re averagely beautiful.
  • I picture them as someone I would be attracted to.
  • I picture characters as neighbor-hot, or barista-hot…like, attainable attractive? Unless otherwise instructed… // [another person responded] seconded, because the “very very perfect hot” weirds me out. I want there to be some sort of flaw.
  • Like normal level attractive. Someone I might have seen on a daily basis perhaps. Unless he’s described “OMG TEH HOTTEST EVAH”.
  • I tend to picture them as highly attractive for normal people (not movie star hot) but hot neighbor hot.
  • I prefer to imagine that all the heroes I read are smokin’. Only visualize them as meh if the author tells me to.
  • Usually at least movie-star levels of attractiveness. Who wants to picture ugly people doing it? ;) #FiftyShadesofHunchback.

I found a few answers particularly interesting because they didn’t quite fit in the rubric of “how clearly do you see the characters/how hot do you assume the characters are?”

  • the only details that stick w/me are hair color/length & height. All attractive in my head no matter how described. (emphasis added)
  • I assume they’re fairly passable on average, but dead hot to their fellow hero/heroine.

I admit that last one’s my favorite, because it’s pretty close to my own take on the matter (our dogs are similar). However, I know the respondent might look at somebody I find fairly passable and find them unacceptable, or vice versa, so it’s still completely subjective. These last responses also suggested to me that there are really two separate issues here–how much relative hotness a reader assumes as a baseline, and how much of any kind of descriptive detail a reader visualizes.

In the general discussion this question prompted, another writer said,

  • I am SO bad about not actually describing characters. They’re in my head and I forget!

I wonder whether that is bad, though. I went into this whole line of questioning thinking that yeah, probably I needed to start specifying my characters’ relative hotness more clearly. To control the readers’ view more exactly. I didn’t like knowing that a reader might have a different take than my own. I felt like maybe I was failing readers because I wasn’t conveying this evidently important information clearly enough. But the wide range of responses I got–in particular those last two–suggests to me that maybe less is more. Describing characters too closely might actually interfere with some readers’ perceptions, as much or more as not describing them “enough”.

Which brings me to the closing question…what is “enough?” Hair, eyes, height and no more? Only more if it’s salient to the plot? And since this is romance we’re discussing…what level of description is most likely to arouse you without going over the top and killing the mood? What is going on here with our writerly and readerly brains?66c5b30fd9c77c9a746575669a5c63b5-the-least-scary-scary-dog-halloween-costumes

*I lied just a little. While my mental image of “dog” is a beagle of sorts, it is not this specific beagle or even any real-life beagle. And no, it’s not Snoopy, either. My “dog” is from the Little Golden Book called “The Polite Puppy,” and specifically from the illustration in which the puppy is sitting in his food dish (not being polite at all). But I usually tell people it’s a beagle, because that’s so much simpler than going into this explanation about a book I last read some forty-plus years ago. Which just goes to show how very, very diverse the idea of “dog” can get.

Posted in Reading, Thinky, Writing Wonkomance | 22 Comments