Experimenting with Nonfiction Storytelling in “Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters”

Pulling a Sanderson

Last fall I published Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters on Shacknews. It’s a 500-page deep dive into the making of id Software’s Quake franchise, the studio’s culture, and other influential FPS titles released during the 1990s. You can read the first two chapters of Rocket Jump on Shacknews; the full book is available to subscribers of the site’s Mercury premium service. Or, you can pre-order Rocket Jump in hardcover or digital formats on Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher/platform.

I put an inordinate amount of effort into the flow and structure of Rocket Jump, toward the goal of redefining how readers can interact with nonfiction books of this type. I thought other writers, as well as anyone interested in reading the book, might find my approach and reasoning behind it interesting, so I’ve documented the process.

The first step was reading lots and lots of Brandon Sanderson novels.

Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite writers, and not just because he writes some of the most detailed and gripping sci-fi and fantasy this side of the Wheel of Time. I enjoy Sanderson’s works because he takes risks. He experiments.

In Stormlight Archives, the series he has said he hopes will be known as his magnum opus, Sanderson set out to redefine the structure and definition of an epic fantasy novel. Each entry in Stormlight Archives is a three-in-one novel, collection of short stories, and an art book. Sketches and portraits are scattered throughout each chapter, and oftentimes are drawn by characters in the story. Every book is divided into five acts, and between acts Sanderson writes “Interlude” chapters following secondary and tertiary characters whose stories run parallel to the main chapters.

The header for an Interlude chapter in Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, book three of the Stormlight Archive.

Last spring, I wrote Doom: Stairway to Badass in my capacity as features editor at Shacknews.com. The first three chapters of StB recount the making of “Doom 2016,” as of this writing the latest entry in id Software’s legendary series of first-person shooters. From there, I wrote seven additional chapters from a combination of Q-and-A interviews and narrative-style accounts.

For my next Shacknews project, Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters, I intended to dig into the making of id’s Quake franchise and other FPS games from the ’90s to examine what made that era so magical for fans of action games. That was my primary goal. My secondary objective was to cover as many games as possible, in as many unique styles as possible in order to pull a Sanderson and shake up the typical flow and structure of nonfiction.

A look at the chapter titles for “Doom: Stairway to Badass.” I think I did a good job offering lots of content, but the structure needed some ironing out.

Form and Structure in Rocket Jump

Quake and its sequels formed the centerpiece of Rocket Jump, the main chapters of the book. Those chapters, 10 in total are the main story. The feature attraction, if you will. These chapters tell the story of how Quake 1–3, Quake Live, and Quake Champions were made while also exploring the history and culture of the developers at id Software. I kept the style consistent from chapter to chapter: narrative-style prose with quotes from my interviews woven in where appropriate. To understand the full story, you have to read those chapters sequentially.

The other chapters are less linear. I dubbed them “Pause Screens” as a way of communicating that they’re not directly related to the main story, and in fact can be read before, during, or after the primary content. Unlike the Quake chapters, Pause Screens aren’t numbered, further communicating to readers that they can be read anytime and in any order.

“Rocket Jump” divides chapters between the main story and Pause Screens, interludes that can be read anytime and in any order. I labeled Pause Screens as such to help readers more easily navigate the table of contents.

Pause Screens are the latest incarnation of my approach to including information that I found interesting, but that wasn’t directly related to the main body of content. In Stay Awhile and Listen: Book 1, I included such information as Side Quests and Bonus Rounds, all additional chapters that can be glossed over but that most readers would enjoy.

Additionally, I wanted to change up the format of Pause Screens — both as a way to distinguish it from the Quake-focused chapters, and as an experiment in form. I covered the following first-person shooters in Pause Screens, and structured each chapter in a way I thought benefitted its content:

· id Software’s pre-Quake years: Oral history. I chose oral history for this chapter because it was the best way of including the voice of each developer I interviewed. Since id’s early years were masterfully chronicled by David Kushner in Masters of Doom, I opted to zero in on particular aspects of the studio’s pre-Quake games (Hover Tank 3D, Commander Keen, etc.) in order to highlight aspects of their development even the most devoted id fan may not have known about, such as why Wolfenstein 3D’s full-health-and-ammo cheat code requires players to press M-L-I simultaneously, and why the code includes a single key from each row of the keyboard.

“Rocket Jump” includes dozens of photos — some taken by me during my August 2017 tour of id Software, others generously donated by developers. This photo shows the “war room” where Quake 1’s team worked during the final six months of development, and was given to me by John Romero.

· History of Machinima (movies created within a game engine): Narrative. This chapter comes from an article I published on Shacknews in the summer of 2016. It would have worked as an oral history, but I opted for a narrative style because each section concentrated on one developer’s contribution. Framing it as an oral history would have meant three to four sections full of quotes from one person, two at most.

· Sandy Petersen, American McGee, Graeme Devine, Jennell Jaquays, and Chris Vrenna: Interview. A through line of my videogame-focused nonfiction is a wealth of information that lets readers get to know game developers as people, not just static roles such as programmer, artist, musician. I do this by talking with them about subjects two or three degrees removed from the main topic of our interview, and transcribing the conversation so that readers can enjoy it exactly as it occurred. My interviews with Sandy, American, Jennell, Graeme, and Chris were recorded in this way. The degree to which we talk about video games varies wildly depending on the person I was talking to. Chris Vrenna, for instance, has recorded lots of soundtracks for games, but I also wanted to dig into his time playing with bands such as Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. He mentioned his drug use, so I followed that thread and received deeply personal stories about his recovery, and sobriety. The best tool any interviewer has is to shut up and listen. Don’t stick to the script. Let the conversation flow.

· Making of Rise of the Triad (1994) and Duke Nukem 3D: Narrative. I wanted to write this chapter as a narrative in order to set the scene at Apogee/3D Realms for readers. Their approach to designing shooters was simple yet effective: Look at what id was doing and, rather than attempt to emulate it, fill in holes. Doom and Quake, for example, were built on the best engines of their eras, but didn’t have much in the way of characters. Duke Nukem was a wise-cracking beefcake straight out of an action movie. He scratched an itch that id had let go unfulfilled, and it paid dividends.

· Making of Star Wars: Dark Forces: Narrative. Justin Chin, lead artist and director on Dark Forces 1 and 2, respectively, lent insight into LucasArts’ studio culture. As with Apogee and 3D Realms, I wanted to set the right scene for a Star Wars story, so took a narrative approach.

· Making of Half-Life: Narrative. I had a specific story I wanted to tell here. Since I couldn’t get in touch with the entire development team — some of Half-Life’s developers are still at Valve, others have since left the company — I wanted to talk about how Valve built Half-Life’s engine. That is, Valve licensed Quake’s tech from id Software, gutted it approximately 70% of it, and built their own systems on top of it. All discussion of gameplay, artificial intelligence, and level design stems from the work Valve did on demolishing and then retooling the game engine that gave us Quake, which I thought would be a fun and unorthodox manner of demonstrating how Quake influenced other studios — especially the one that, with Half-Life, supplanted id Software as the premiere FPS developer.

· Making of GoldenEye 007: Narrative. Once again, I wanted to tell a particular story rather than retread old ground. My goal with Half-Life was to discuss its underpinnings, while my objective in writing about GoldenEye was to tell the story of a studio that went against the grain by hardly paying Quake or any other shooters on PC any attention at all. This chapter digs into the process of designing a first-person shooter around a controller rather than a keyboard and mouse.

· Making of Team Fortress: Oral history. At over 32 pages double space, this chapter is the longest in Rocket Jump, and with good reason. Team Fortress’s trio of creators were gracious in giving me a wealth of information about the particulars of and time period in which they made their game. They were so informative and entertaining in their telling that I wanted to step aside and let them tell their story. This approach was further cemented by the book I was reading at the time, The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History written by Chris Smith. I’d been looking for a way to structure oral histories that let the personalities involved in something’s creation do the talking, while occasionally stepping in to relay background information that wasn’t given in any of my interviews. Smith’s excellent book got me started; I ended up using the format for this chapter and my oral history of id’s early years.

A cover mockup for “Rocket Jump,” currently up for pre-order on Unbound.

Game Over

Thus far, Rocket Jump has been a tremendous success. Our Shacknews readership enjoyed it, the book blew up on social media shortly after publication, and Unbound reached out to me about bringing it to hardcover. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll pop over to Shacknews and consider pre-ordering the book on Unbound.

If you’re a writer, I encourage you to take risks and experiment with format. Don’t change things up for the sake of change, but at the same time, be willing to upend tea tables if you believe a different approach, style, of voice would best suit your content.