The World According to Michael Coorlim
Michael Coorlim is an inventive and prolific writer and game developer whose creative worlds stretch from steampunk to cyberpunk. His work takes us into the future to consider possible dystopias, and takes us back to a world of cross-pollinated 1980s movies in a playful romp of interactive fiction. We talk about making it as an indie creator, about the creative process, about his latest Kickstarter gaming project, and much more . . .
Michael Carychao: Welcome, Michael Coorlim. Can you tell us about your name?
Michael Coorlim: Okay. Michael may be a name that you are familiar with: "Who is God?" Coorlim is from my grandfather, from the Greek, columbinus. When his family came over they shortened it to Coorlim.
What are you drinking, by the way?
Michael Carychao: Egyptian Licorice Mint Tea, which is soothing for my throat.
When you describe yourself on your website, you describe yourself as, "an author who makes games aspiring to be a game developer who writes books."
Michael Coorlim: Basically I've been doing both things for most of my life. Earlier with the writing, but since I was 12, I've also been making games. When I was young, I would pick up microcomputers at garage sales. I think my first was either a TSR- 80 or an Atari 400, I'm not sure which, but it came with BASIC. I would get those books from the library, you know, 101 Basic Programs.
Michael Carychao: I had that same book.
Michael Coorlim: For the listeners who may not be aware, they're basically line after line of code that you would type in. You'd come up with little games. I would challenge myself by seeing what kind of modifications I could make, what twists I could do to try to customize them a little bit, because I loved games. I had my first hand-me-down Atari 2600 from my uncle when I was a really young kid. Video games were always fascinating to me.
It was much the same with writing. When I was real young, I would make stick man comics in notebooks, and then give them to my family members as gifts.
But really when it comes down to it, I see myself as a storyteller and both books and games are just different formats through which story can be told—in a very different format, but it's all storytelling when you come down to it.
Michael Carychao: So when you got that first Atari do you remember the cartridges that came with it? What did you get? What games were you playing?
Michael Coorlim: One of my favorites was Combat, a simple two player tank game.
Michael Carychao: Yeah, with all the different variations.
Michael Coorlim: All the different variations. That was one of the interesting things about the 2600 was that the cartridges would often have multiple modes of the same game. There were switches on the console that you could use to switch between them.
I was a big fan of Berserk.
Michael Carychao: What was its tagline? There was something they kept on saying like, "intruder alert?"
Michael Coorlim: "Intruder alert, intruder alert." Well, that was more the arcade.
Michael Carychao: The stand-up arcade game.
Michael Coorlim: The Atari version didn't have the innards to make a noise. But yeah, "The intruder has escaped. The human has escaped." And if you ran away without killing them, they would start calling you a chicken instead. So they would say, "The chicken has escaped." It was one of the first games with a digitized voice chip.
I was also a big fan of Pitfall. Very, very good Activision game from David Crane.
Michael Carychao: Which way would you go, right or left?
Michael Coorlim: You're kind of supposed to go right, but I would go left. It was very interesting to me because you could go either way. That was very interesting to me as a kid. There's the lower levels with—
Michael Carychao: With the scorpion.
Michael Coorlim: With the scorpions and everything.
Michael Carychao: Scary.
Michael Coorlim: There were brick walls and I figured out a way where I could glitch through the brick wall and keep running.
Michael Carychao: No way. How did you do that?
Michael Coorlim: You just keep bumping into it and jumping into it a whole bunch. Eventually you'd go through the other side. Adventure was a lot of fun. That was the one where you're a little square cube running around and trying to avoid dragons that looked suspiciously like ducks.
Michael Carychao: But that's all you'd need in those days, right?
Michael Coorlim: Well it was.
Michael Carychao: We didn't know it was going to come to this massive 3D landscape.
Michael Coorlim: The graphics were so simple—even compared to the arcade games of the time—but if you look at the cartridges, they would have this fantastic artwork. You couldn't rely on the graphics to spark the imagination. But it was a very interesting time, the 80s, for console games, arcade games, computer games. That's what I grew up in and around. My mom would take me to arcades and she'd sit me in front of the machine. And I'd play the demo mode. I didn't know that I wasn't playing because I'm a little kid. There are lights and there are sounds and the characters are moving around and I figure, I gotta be doing it.
Michael Carychao: I miss arcades. Those were wonderlands.
Michael Coorlim: Yeah. There are some barcades around still...
Michael Carychao: Nah. They're just like this onslaught of sound and lights. They just want your quick quarters—or your card. They don't seem to want to take you on that... adventure.
Michael Coorlim: In Chicago, in the Bolingbrook, there is the Galloping Ghost one of the largest arcades in the world. And they have so many games going all the way back to Pong up to the modern games that have just been released. It's like this out-of-time kind of place.
Michael Carychao: Man, that sounds awesome.
Michael Coorlim: You go there, you give them $20. You can play as many games as you want for as long as you want.
Michael Carychao: No Way.
Michael Coorlim: Yeah. That's it. Can't go because of current conditions—
Michael Carychao: Alas.
Michael Coorlim: —but I went there for my friend's birthday last year and it was just amazing. It brought me back to being a kid again.
Michael Carychao: Yeah. And that's what games do, is they bring us back to a simpler time through their rules of simplification and suddenly we can be kids again.
Michael Coorlim: Right. When it comes to making games or writing books, even, that's what I try to do. I try to convey that sense of awe and wonder—whatever kind of emotional journey you're, trying to send people on. It's not always awe and wonder: it can be darker things, it can be lighter things. It can be more trivial, but just the idea of being able to take a stranger that you will never meet on some kind of emotional journey, or become a catalyst for them to have a journey of your own, it may be more appropriate to say—but that to me is a form of magic.
There was something I read in Stephen King's book On Writing, where he compared it to telepathy. You're leaving a telepathic imprint in a physical medium that someone would come up later and pick up and would receive that message. So it is ultimately a form of communication and like all forms of communication it doesn't necessarily go the way you want it to go.
Michael Carychao: True.
Michael Coorlim: The story itself—the virtual, whatever you are creating—exists in the mind of the audience and at best—and I used this word before and I'll use it again—the writer or the artist, or whoever, can act as a catalyst to spark this, to allow the reader or player or viewer to go on this journey. I view it almost as a holy thing. Maybe It's the closest to divinity we can get. Maybe it's the closest kind of connection we can get.
Michael Carychao: So, you've got this living room rug that's just full of Atari cartridges. What’s on your bookshelf?
Michael Coorlim: I would take books from the classroom library cart. I would bring them home with me to read, because I was always reading. I was reading in classes where I perhaps shouldn't have been reading and perhaps should have been paying attention to other things, but I would be there, with a book hidden under my desk, ignoring what what was going on in the classroom, because, I was— to my detriment—I was bright enough to keep up with what was going without paying attention.
So I never really developed good study habits as a kid. It gave me the time to become very, very well-read and I would read whatever was available to me. The classics, Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island. I would read Alfred Hitchcock mystery collections, Sherlock Holmes. My grandparents had a big, huge trunk filled with Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. The old hardcover ones that don't really have picture covers just very, very plain brown books with embossed titles. I would just tear through those. I would go to the library almost every day after school and just work my way through the science fiction and fantasy shelves. Ray Bradbury was one of my favorite authors growing up. The way he wrote that collection he wrote about Mars.
Michael Carychao: The Martian Chronicles.
Michael Coorlim: The Martian Chronicles. I wanted to say Martian Dreams, but that was something completely different: one of the Ultima spin-off games.
Michael Carychao: Ultima. Ultima IV.
Michael Coorlim: Oh, Ultima IV, that was—
Michael Carychao: Turning point.
Michael Coorlim: I was a big fan of those, too. The Martian Chronicles was huge for me. How evocative he managed to be. Something Wicked This Way Comes out of The Illustrated Man. His short stories really are one of the things that convinced me that, "Hey, maybe I could be a writer myself." They were great, but they were also accessible. You know, I started writing short stories. When I was older, when I had progressed beyond drawing stickman comics for my family members, I would be writing as much as I was reading, because I wanted—I had been brought so much pleasure, so much emotional journey through this books that I wanted to be able to do that for other people, too.
I always intended, throughout high school even, to submit stories for publication, but I never went and did it. I would go so far as to write away for the writing guidelines from different markets. I would read the Writer's Digest and say, "Okay, this is what you do, this is how you become a writer. Okay. Well, let me do this." And I would get to the point of writing away for those documents, and then I'd never take the next step.
Michael Carychao: What happened there? Why do you think you didn't put the letter in the mail?
Michael Coorlim: I think part of it was the fear of rejection. Everyone has always told me that I'm this great writer: my parents, my teachers, other kids, but if I sent something away and it was rejected, then that would be proof that I wasn't. I didn't want that dream to die.
I think that held me back a little bit. And part of it was that I was much more interested in writing news stories than I was in revising my old stories. I knew if I was going to go through the effort of sending them away, it had to be putting my best self forward.
It took me a long time to get to the point that I understood the role of revision when it comes to writing. And that revision is writing.
Michael Carychao: What did it take to be able to turn your attention back on a story and give it that revision?
Michael Coorlim: This is a bit of a longer story. I spent most of my twenties living out of a suitcase. Just traveling around the country, kind of aimless, not really sure of what I wanted to do in life.
There's a way that, when you're living so close to the bone, it kind of grinds you down. It wears away all of your most interesting features. So I didn't have the energy to write anymore. I basically went a whole decade with barely any kind of creative output whatsoever. It's not that nothing happened to me. I don't consider it to be a lost decade because I had a lot of life experiences that gave me the ability to draw from, for my work, a lot of emotional experiences. There's the writing chestnut, "Write what you know." I consider that to be about emotional understanding.
I had to fill my emotional bank with experiences that I could later write about. So I go through this decade of not writing, of just living; inhaling so I could exhale later. It wasn't a great time in my life. I’ll fully admit that. I think it was necessary. I think it was valuable. But I wasn’t having the time of my life.
Michael Carychao: Can you give us a string of city names, something to ground us here on this journey of your twenties?
Michael Coorlim: When I moved out of my parents' home—and we'd been living in a suburb of Chicago, we were up in Gurney, nobody knows where that is, up North, near the Wisconsin border—I moved to Pueblo, Colorado with some friends who were moving out there. I wasn't getting along with my stepfather and they were moving and they said, "Hey, why don't we move out together?"
And I'm like, "Okay, let's do it."
I move out there. I move out with my girlfriend and these friends of ours who we're a couple and we move out to Pueblo. All of us, this is our first time living on our own. So it doesn't go very well. You know, there are a lot of mistakes that you make along the way to becoming an adult. And we made them. It doesn’t go very well, but we stayed there for a while.
I can date this fairly accurately.I was working third shift in a call center. And I remember being woken up one morning—on my day off—and being told, "We can't deliver your new mattress because of that thing that happened in New York."
"What thing that happened in New York?"
"Oh, you didn't know?"
And this was 9/11.That moment I can date perfectly. Everyone knows where they were when this happened. I found out a couple hours later because the mattress guy woke me up to tell me what was happening.
From there, I moved back to Illinois for a little bit, and then I move out again. And then I move out to Southern California. I was living in Anaheim for a while, working in a warehouse, for a company that sold merchandise for bands that didn't want to bother with having to sell their own merchandise. I don't think it exists anymore, but it was merch.com. I was brought on to do customer support email stuff, but mostly I ended up folding t-shirts in a warehouse because there wasn't a lot of email to deal with. After that I lived in Florida for a couple of years, moved to Seminole, Florida, which is on the coast, right near Clearwater and St. Petersburg. I didn't really enjoy Florida very much. It's not a great state. And I spent most of it indoors because I don't deal with heat very well; so here I am in Florida! I think I went to the beach twice the whole time I lived there.
And then I lived in Oregon, up in Eugene, Oregon. They made fun of me for the way I said "Ore-gone," when I moved there—which was great. I did love it though. It was very nice, very green, very emerald. Rained all the time.
At one point I was in St. Louis. But eventually, I moved back to the Chicago Area.
Michael Carychao: So, what keeps you moving back to Chicago? Is it Gino's Pizza? What is it?
Michael Coorlim: It's just this homing instinct I have. I've always loved the city. When I was a teenager, I loved coming into the city on weekends to see shows at The Metro or The Vic or wherever. It always just seemed to be this magical place: the Big City.
There’s a certain sort of living, especially in the Midwest where there’s where you live and then there’s The Big City. I think a lot of people grow up that way where there's The Big City nearby. And for me that was Chicago.
So I'm couch surfing while looking for work, looking for a place to live, staying in my friend's couches, basically I'm homeless at this point. Still living out of a suitcase, but this time the suitcase isn't someplace that I'm renting. It's just whoever's good will I'm burning through that week, you know? I'm not a bad guest, but you don't want to be a guest for too long.
One day, rather than send out another fleet of job applications that will disappear into the void, why don't I start writing again? I've heard recently about the rise of self-publishing about Amazon KDP. You can write through Barnes and Noble, Smashwords. All of these things that had kind of flitted past my consciousness. And I haven't written in a while, but I decide it's not any worse a use of my time.
So, I decide to start writing and I write a short story. The first thing I do with the story, this is a story about the end of the world—a party at the end of the world, in fact. Before I decided to take the self publishing route, I sent it off to Lightspeed Magazine.
The first story I've ever submitted and I get a personalized rejection note. And that's big to me because I've studied enough of this to know that when they stop sending you form rejections, you're almost there.
And this is my first submission.
Michael Carychao: So, what did the editor say?
Michael Coorlim: He said it was, "Brutal in a Lord of the Flies kind of way. An almost."
Michael Carychao: "Sharpen a stick at both ends."
Michael Coorlim: Yeah, it was... I was pleased. I had a big spreadsheet full of the markets I wanted to send stories to. I'm deciding to go to the next one when I remember about that whole self-publishing thing. And I'm like, "Well, why don't I try that instead?"
And so I do. I put it up on Amazon. I think it makes $10 by the end of the month. This little short story I'd written—but this is real money. I begin to see the possibilities here.
I start writing more. I don't know exactly what I'm doing here. I decide to just start creating a number of different pen names to create stories in a number of different genres. To throw it all against the wall and see what sticks.
I’ve unpublished all of that, republished some of it under my own name. I don’t bother with pen names anymore because it turned out that maintaining a lot of individual profiles, social media platforms, even, it was like so much work, and generally not worth it.
Michael Carychao: Yeah, even just for one personality, there’s a lot of work to be done.
Michael Coorlim: Oh, yeah. It's a lot of work.
But after the shorts took off, I started writing longer and longer works. One of the things that did well, were the steampunk mystery novellas that I was writing.
Michael Carychao: The Galvanic Century.
Michael Coorlim: The Galvanic Century, yeah. And so I decided to run with it. The stories got longer and they became novels and I wrote six or seven of those. I wrote some cyberpunk novels. It's been pretty good, but, you get to a point where it's time to move on to something else. Part of that is because the book market hasn't been where I want it to be, and I haven't been where I wanted to be within it. I made a decision, about a year ago, to focus more on game development: my own stuff as an independent developer, but also doing narrative design or game writing work for other people. I’ve been building a portfolio and putting a few games out there.
Michael Carychao: You've gone from steampunk, to cyberpunk, to eighties punk. You've got this great game Rascal and the Boxer. Will you tell us how that came to be?
Michael Coorlim: This started maybe a year, year-and-a-half ago. I was thinking of running a tabletop role-playing game set in the eighties where the players could be taking on the roles of eighties archetypal heroes, like you're Michael Knight from Knight Rider or your Angus MacGyver or whatever kind of character. Sort of like a 1980s version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, if you’re familiar with that.
And I did a bit of research—because one of the things I love doing for any project is copious amounts of research—where I was going through eighties media and making notes and coming up with a timeline. If all of these properties had existed in the same universe, how would they have interacted and bounced off of one another?
Michael Carychao: Ooh, yeah. It's like a superheroes universe of eighties media.
Michael Coorlim: Yeah, exactly. The Eighties Collective Universe. I can't use the properties. It can't actually be that Rascal in the game is based off of Burt Reynolds’ character in Smokey and the Bandit II. The boxer is based off of Clint Eastwood in the movies that had to do with the orangutan, Which Way You Can and Any Which Way But Loose. So I used the elemental nature of those characters rather than the trademark characters themselves; not stepping on anyone's intellectual property here.
I came up with the essence of some of those 1980 action comedy films. What made them unique in the way that they were. And I said, "I can make a game out of this."
The first version I made in Twine, which was sort of like a prototype. Twine is a choice-based interactive fiction engine. It's designed towards people who are more writers than programmers. I can do both, but I find it to be a good tool to do prototypes with. So, it worked. And I wrote the story out. It was about novel length. It was fun to do. So I decided to remake it with sound and graphics and everything in the Godot language, using Inkle's Ink markup. It all worked out pretty well.
I was able to commission some pretty good, pixel arts—although I did some of the art myself, I didn't have the time to do all the art myself, because it's very time-consuming—and commissioned some excellent music from AJ Mills. He’s a game music composer that I’ve worked with. He did really good work.
Michael Carychao: I’ve got to say that the soundtrack got me in—snap!—like that.
Michael Coorlim: Yeah, he does really, really good work. I've actually used other clips of his in some other projects of mine. A podcast that I'm doing, he did the intro and outro music for. He's quick and professional. Really, that's what you want when you're collaborating. When you’re collaborating, the most important thing is: reliability. Nothing is more important than being the reliable person that people can go to and know it’s going to get done.
The story itself, Rascal and the Boxer, is relatively short, and I've thought that it would be possible to create a serial game that’s done in chapters, released one after the other, one per year through the decade. But that would also take a lot of time and a lot of money.
I'm going to try to run a Kickstarter in February, 2021 [note: The Kickstarter has launched, runs through March 15, 2021]. If there's sufficient interest, I'll continue on the project. If not, it's self-contained, as it is. And I’m happy with what it is.
Michael Carychao: Will this be your first Kickstarter adventure?
Michael Coorlim: I've done a couple of Kickstarters, actually: a couple of successful; one, not successful. The successful Kickstarters have been to fund cover art for my books. That’s not an insignificant cost. A good cover can run you hundreds of dollars depending on who you're commissioning from. So These are low target Kickstarters. I’ve done a couple for different books. They’ve done pretty well. I've always managed to hit my goal. And part of that is because one of the reward tiers I can do is like, "Hey, get this reward tier, and I'll give you a copy of all the books in The Galvanic Century series." People will give me sixty bucks for six books. When it comes to Kickstarter rewards, one of the keys, is that it can't add too much to the cost of making the project. So these rewards already exist. It doesn't cost me anything to ship them. It's just, "Here's your email with a zip file." So that’s worked.
The one time it didn't work, years back, I helped found a production company, Burning Bridget Media—
Michael Carychao: Which did an audio rendition of Cold Reboot.
Michael Coorlim: Yes. I produced and directed, through them, The Synesthesia Theater Podcast. The first season was actually one of the steampunk books. It was Iron Horses Can't Be Broken, the steampunk western. And the second season was Cold Reboot, the first book in the Shadow Decade series. And that was a lot of fun, doing both of those with our full cast recording.
Chicago has a very nice indie acting scene. There are a lot of people in my circle that are actors and voice actors. I can get professional talent fairly easily. Even if they’re willing to work for credits on their resume, you still want to feed everybody, if they’re coming out to work for you. The term for it is: Meals and Reels. They get the audio for their acting reels and you feed them. It can get expensive for a longer production. These turned out to be fifteen, sixteen part long, episodes long. So we would have people out there for several weekends.
Michael Carychao: You launched a Kickstarter to fund that?
Michael Coorlim: No, no. The Kickstarter was for a web series. Before we did the audio drama, we were going to do a surreal horror web series called Sleep Study. It was going to be a professionally produced show about a sleep study program that had gone horribly awry. Breaking through-the-walls-of-sleep kind of stuff.
You know when you start feeling sleep deprived, how the world doesn't feel real anymore? But then we figured out the cost to actually produce the full series would have been around twenty-three, twenty-four thousand dollars.
For a project like this, we want to pay everyone. We want to pay the cinematographer. We want to pay the extras. We want to pay the actors. Everybody has to get paid. Even the pilot, which everyone did for free as a favor, was a pretty big ask, but everyone was happy to do it because they liked the project.
Unfortunately, we didn’t hit goal with that one. There were a lot of reasons for that. Our major Kickstarter event was a party we were going to be throwing at a local restaurant-bar. And on that day was both the Superbowl and one of the biggest snow storms we saw that year. So nobody showed up. We didn't even show up; it was canceled. There was nothing we could do about it. This was the thing we were planning to push us over that edge. It just didn’t manifest, unfortunately. It was one of those things that was horribly demoralizing at the time, but… it happened.
Michael Carychao: Well, I have seen few people as tenacious as you in just rising up and tackling a brand new project. It's almost dizzying, when you try to plumb the depths of Michael Coorlim:, to see where even to start: there are novels, there’s interactive fiction, games, short stories, audio dramas, podcasts. I’m probably leaving things out. One thing that stands out with your whole body of work are the names. You have some very interesting names with your projects. Maybe you can help us with a couple of these?
Michael Coorlim: Sure.
Michael Carychao: Taoscordian Games. Is that "Taoscordian" or "Ta-oscordian?"
Michael Coorlim: It's "Taoscordian" [As in Tao Te Ching]. It's a fusion of Taoism and Discordianism.
Michael Carychao: And the gamework, you’ve got HexBox. Can you tell us about sandbox hex crawling?
Michael Coorlim: Are you familiar with tabletop role-playing games?
Michael Carychao: I play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons.
Michael Coorlim: That's it right there. Hex crawling is an old school way to play where it's more exploratory than plot driven. The idea is that you have this geographic area in which the game takes place, and there are things placed within this region, story hooks or interesting characters or events that the players can interact with.
The term used is a sandbox because you can find toys in the sandbox, but how you play with them is up to you. So, it's interesting situations that your players can run into. One the earliest ways that Dungeons and Dragons was played was, you would have this map laid ranged into hexes, so you can keep your distances straight.
Each hex would include something interesting in it that the players may or may not encounter. So if they move to this grid point or the node or the hex or whatever you want to call it, there's a chance that they'll encounter whatever the interesting thing is. So hex box was a tool that I wrote to make managing expeditions within the context of the game easier. It gives the person running the game a checklist to go down as the players travel. You start to travel, as you enter a new hex the game master or dungeon master can make rolls to see if anything happens. They can have a consistent way to determine how much food the party consumes. If players decide to forage, there are rules about how much food you gather of a given type, how long that food lasts before it goes bad, basically all the logistical elements a person running the game either may not come up with themselves, or may want it to make it easier to run the game.
Michael Carychao: This is like living out of a suitcase for dungeon crawlers.
Michael Coorlim: In a way, yeah. Basically. As someone with a lot of creative projects, I know how important record keeping can be; how easy it is to have things grow beyond your ability to keep a handle on them.
Michael Carychao: Okay, that’s Taoscordian Games. And, PoMo Consumption Press?
Michael Coorlim: One of the first blogs I had, this may even have been back in the LiveJournal days, was Postmodern Consumption, shortened to: PoMo Consumption.
Michael Carychao: Okay, we’re starting to get a flavor for your namecraft.
Michael Coorlim: Everything’s a portmanteau. When I started to write novels, I wanted to have the imprint page, the copyright page looking professional. Because when you're writing a book, you want the person that opens that book to say, "Hey, this looks like a book." And so I needed to come up with a publisher name for use on Amazon, because if I used the same name for author and publisher, it came off as a little amateurish. I’m not sure it really matters.
Michael Carychao: It shouldn’t matter, and yet—
Michael Coorlim: And yet—
Michael Carychao: —when you think back to 19th century writers, a lot of them begin their tale with this long apology, couching it in terms of, "I found this manuscript, and within that manuscript there were some note cards. They were out of order. I put them in order.
Michael Coorlim: This is my epistolary story.
Michael Carychao: So the context helps.
Michael Coorlim: The context does help. Back when I was starting in 2011, most people, when they thought of self-publishing, they thought of vanity presses because that’s—before Amazon and Apple started to allow people to self-publish the way we can do it now, that's what there was. They were vanity projects. They were amateurish. Anybody could go out and pay to have their book turned into a book. One of the things that we, as self-published authors, did, to be taken seriously—and there’s still a bit of a stigma with self-published books—was to present it as professionally as possible.
So that meant having a publisher name, having an imprint name. Even if it's just you selling your books, the reader is not going to know that unless they do an amount of research that, if they're doing it, they're already interested.
When I started, I had a separate webpage and Facebook page and everything for the publishing imprint itself. As I've gone through my career, I've learned what I can drop and what I can't.
Michael Carychao: Little by little, you're finding that you're pruning some of these structures that you’ve made. Are you landing just on "you" as the creator, on your name as the brand?
Michael Coorlim: Basically. Yeah. The way I see it is that it is more about the personality of the author, you know, that persona. My branding is about me, the author. It’s not about the books I’m writing or have written, I’ll mention them, but it’s still centered on the author's persona. Which, if anything, is slightly less weird than my real self.
Michael Carychao: It’s a pixelation.
Michael Coorlim: Exactly. There’s a little less resolution there.
Michael Carychao: Synesthesia Theater.
Michael Coorlim: That was the audio drama podcast. That was a collaboration between myself and Kat O’Connor, the other co-founder of Burning Bridget Media. The audio drama, the idea of it is that you're seeing—the sound is transferred into pictures inside your mind. So it seemed like a fairly good title for that.
Michael Carychao: Right. That’s the synesthetic sense. Indie Gaiden?
Michael Coorlim: Indie Gaiden is a project with several of my friends in which we play and review independently produced into video games. This is something very new, we just started doing this and it's basically an excuse to hang out. It started with us doing older retro video games, but I decided at one point that Nintendo does not need the free press, perhaps, as much as independent game makers.
So Indie Gaiden, indie for the independent and then Gaiden is a Japanese word meeting "sidestory," a side quest, basically. It sounds a little bit like the 1980s Nintendo game Ninja Gaiden. So, hey, why not? It creates that identity.
Michael Carychao: That’s very similar to your project, Blown Cartridges.
Michael Coorlim: That was the original retro-gaming project, which is now just a YouTube channel. But occasionally I will make videos about old video games, if I happen to play them.
Michael Carychao: Harnessing your play time for project time.
Michael Coorlim: Well, I find it really hard to just do a thing without making a project out of it.
Michael Carychao: Yeah, and coming up with a cool name for it,
Michael Coorlim: And coming up with a cool name for it, if I can.
Michael Carychao: Maybe roping a couple people in.
Michael Coorlim: Whatever, making something out of nothing.
Michael Carychao: Buying a domain name.
Michael Coorlim: Ach. I have so many domain names.
Michael Carychao: Are there any names, once you came up with them you realized that you had to do the project?
Michael Coorlim: Names are usually one of the last things I come up with. So by the time I come get to that phase, I’m already committed. One of the examples is that we did a shorter audio drama, as a mailing list incentive for Synesthesia Theater. If you signed up for the Burning Bridget mailing lists, we would send you a thirty minute audio drama called Final Harmonic Motion—simple harmonic motion, which a vague astronomical term that I pulled out of nowhere, that sounded about right for a story that's about the first AI-assisted space flight that goes horribly awry. It’s a fun little story. I had one of my friends, who’s a professional voice actor, was kind enough to play the role of the ship's computer. And the way we did that is that we had her read just a list of words, which we then rearranged into what the computer would say, because that's how the technology worked. So that was kind of a fun little recorded project.
Michael Carychao: And what about Eschatown—is that how you say that?
Michael Coorlim: Eschatown.
Michael Carychao: Eschatown!
Michael Coorlim: Yeah, that’s a collaborative project I've been working on with Joseph Hawking, a game developer. He’s been doing all of the programming stuff and I've just been doing writing stuff in ink that we put into the game. It’s a post-apocalyptic exploration of a city. The name comes from eschatology, the study of the end of the world.
Michael Carychao: So this is a game that’s in development right now.
Michael Coorlim: Right.
Michael Carychao: What about the post-apocalyptic landscape intrigues you most?
Michael Coorlim: It's not too far away! Sometimes it seems like that, to be perfectly honest. When I started writing The Shadow Decade cyberpunk books, it was 2015 right before the big election. As things progressed, I started to say, man, I got to write the third book, but we're going to edge into apocalyptic territory here, man. I really undersold how bad things are going to get. I thought I was being dystopic, but—!
Michael Carychao: Well, this is what’s difficult about science fiction right?
Michael Coorlim: It is, it is. I wrote it in 2015. It was set 10 years ahead. You’re right that it's difficult, because you are playing the prediction game. We've all seen science fiction stories that don't turn out that way. I think Johnny Mnemonic supposedly took place this year. Mad Max, I think some of the stories are around this time. We've already passed Back To the Future. Back To the Future 2 was last year. There’s always that danger, but at the same time, I was writing a book in 2015 for people reading it in 2015. If it wasn’t like that in 2025, and it probably won't be, I’m working on something else.
Michael Carychao: When you read science fiction from decades prior, what you're usually doing is you're reading it, knowing that, and you're reading to get into the mindset of the author, to see how they saw the future from that point of view. It’s another layer of meta-cognition on top of it.
Michael Coorlim: It does. It’s almost historical fiction in that regard. In a way it is like a time capsule of futures that have never been. That’s beautiful to me, to be honest.
Michael Carychao: It's beautiful. Yeah, it's kind of like a palimpsest of overwritten imaginations.
Michael Coorlim: Yeah. Ooh, that’s a good word for it.
Michael Carychao: What’s interesting about science fiction is, the authors are really trying to see and they're projecting forward and they're using their extrapolatory sense. They’re extrapolating. It seems like time does not go in this linear way, and so if you extrapolate too much, you're going to miss an important curve. So what important curves have happened that are rattling some of your sci-fi?
Michael Coorlim: You’re absolutely right, because there is this uncanny valley that you hit where the sci-fi is too far from now to be accurate, but too close to now that it's in the far, far future. The Shadow Decade books are definitely in that uncanny valley. The changing political landscape hits the books pretty hard, because I wrote in the books—a lot of the stuff that I was writing about climate change is fairly accurate, if a little bit understated, at this point, because what I predicted was that Clinton would be elected. Most everybody predicted that. Trump thought she’d be elected. I’m not a very optimistic person in general when it comes to politics. I figured things would go along in a corporate, capitalistic way where there are nods to progressive values and welfare, but only very, very, superficially and most of it is just the same happening as we slowly grind to a halt.
Things didn't happen that way. Things accelerated quite a bit. I was writing about things like a preliminary basic income that didn't go nearly far enough. I was writing about augmented reality being far more prevalent than it's going to be.
I mean, we're going to get a lot of the things I did sort of get on the right track for, because virtual reality and augmented reality are picking up. But I do feel there was a certain amount of a slowing down of technological advancement as everyone dealt with everything that's been happening for the past six years.
So I think that in some cases it's not off, it's just delayed a bit. And in other cases, it just did go in a completely different direction. The environmental stuff I was probably right on about. We’re still losing the land masses and we are going to be losing: the Maldives, Kiribati. A lot of those places are gone. And I think we are going to be seeing tremendous waves of climate refugees. However, the country may not be as open to them as they were in the book that I wrote. Knowing this, I did write the books very strictly from the perspective of the character who was too preoccupied to really pay attention to the political situation going on around her.
So I can sort of work around that by saying, well, she didn’t notice these elements. They were not on her mind. I am planning on writing the third book in the series this year. I haven’t decided exactly how I'm going to have to deal with that. I had something nearly finished and I'm going to have to start it over.
Michael Carychao: And would go back and do some editing—light or heavy—on the previously published work, or do you consider that "in the can?"
Michael Coorlim: I consider it in the can. I mean, I've thought about it. I’m tempted to, but . . . like you said, it's that time capsule. It’s the view into what I thought the future would be at the time. And I feel like it would be cheating if I did.
If another author wants to do it, go right ahead. I'm not saying you shouldn't do it. I'm not saying you're cheating, but I'm saying that I personally would feel that I wasn't being fair to the work, if I edit it after release.
Michael Carychao: In the shadow decade, the protagonist starts out realizing that she's had—I’m not giving away too much here—a decade offline. She can't remember. If you had your shadow decade and woke up in ten years, what do you think the future would look like? Talking 2030.
Michael Coorlim: Well, I think we are past the point of being able to do anything about ecological collapse. I think that's not quite set in for most people yet. I think we're going through the stages of grief in this regard. Now I did write a book about the stages of grief on a sociological scale.
I still believe what I wrote in that book is that when faced with—
Michael Carychao: Which book was that?
Michael Coorlim: It’s called Grief: Five Stories of Apocalyptic Loss. Incidentally, one of the stories in that book was adapted from that first book that I wrote for, I think Lightspeed, the one that was rejected and then set me up. It was originally titled Apocalypse Party.
I do believe that when we get to that point, if we get to that point where we have lost the chance to do anything significant about ecological collapse, we are going to see a lot of denial. We are going to see a lot of anger. We are going to see a lot of bargaining, a lot of depression, all of the stages, the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. We are going to see those manifest on a large scale.
Michael Carychao: And will we get to acceptance?
Michael Coorlim: Ahh. One way or another. Maybe not the way we want to. I think that, eventually, yes, some people will get to that stage before the end.
Michael Carychao: Okay. So one aspect of your 2030 is that the ecological climate feels like it's past a tipping point and people are grappling with an out-of-control locomotive situation. As you look around, what else is going on in 2030?
Michael Coorlim: The effects of nearly a decade of austerity measures in that, a lot of the jobs that were eliminated even during COVID, have not come back because we've also been hit with this wave of automation. You know, that one-two punch. So there are people there—there is a large, rather large permanent unemployed class and they have not been adequately taken care of. And so that is the defining social movement, the social element, the dispossessed. There's going to be a tremendous amount of people sort of drifting away from themselves. And a lot of anger. A lot of anger.
If I want to be optimistic, people are doing something about it. That necessarily means unrest, but there's a part of me that believes that people will lie down. This is getting a little dark and now I'm not going to say I don't believe it, but I think that there's a significant chance that people will take what they're given.
Michael Carychao: It’ll just be the new normal.
Michael Coorlim: It’ll just be the new normal—a horrible new normal, but human history is full of horrible periods. Maybe this is the last period. Maybe this is all we get.
Michael Carychao: Okay, so it’s getting a little dark, that's fine. Let's look at the colors. So, we’ve got climate. We've got the dispossessed. Social unrest.
Michael Coorlim: TV will be great.
Michael Carychao: TV will be great. That's glue, isn’t it? The opiate of the masses.
Michael Coorlim: That’s the glue. The opiate of the masses. There’s going to be a certain democratization of media. At the same time we have Disney buying everything up, there are also more independent avenues for the creation and distribution of all kinds of creative products.
Michael Carychao: It’s really a renaissance for the indie creator.
Michael Coorlim: Oh, it is. Against this backdrop of unimaginable horror and hopelessness, we're going to be able to express how we feel about it.
Michael Carychao: So, it could be a great age for art.
Michael Coorlim: It could be. I do think that that's going to happen one way or the other, that we are going to have more avenues for that kind of creative activity. More distribution options, more independent creation pipelines. At the same time, we're going to see more concentration of media at the very high end, the AAA stuff, the multi million—billion—dollar movies owned by, Disney or Warner or whatever six companies own everything at that point. Then we're going to have infinite small creators and it may still be through the Netflix model or YouTube but better. I don't think that's a genie that can be put back in the bottle, as far as the technology goes.
Michael Carychao: So you think that now that we've gotten a taste for self expression—to pretty much anyone on the planet who cares to look for it—you think that that will never go back? That is just too tasty?
Michael Coorlim: I think that it'll be very hard to undo, without a complete and utter technological collapse, which isn't out of the question, to be perfectly honest. The biggest difficulty is going to be discovering, because it is going to be very much signal-to-noise out there. That's a problem now, to be frank.
Michael Carychao: It is. It's an unsolved problem that a lot of people want to see solved.
Michael Coorlim: I've been trying to keep up to date with music. Not get calcified into what I listened to in high school in my 20s.
Michael Carychao: Okay, how do you do that?
Michale Coorlim: I don't know how to find new music. I asked friends for recommendations, but there's got to be a better way.
Michael Carychao: There's Spotify playlists of the day—
Michael Coorlim: Spotify Discovery and everything, but it doesn't feel anywhere near efficient enough.
Michael Carychao: Well, for me, their discovery things? I don't like them. I have this problem that my kids also listen to their stuff on my same account. And so it's just like this crazy mix.
Michael Coorlim: The recommendations are—
Michael Carychao: So I think we're driving the AI wild trying to figure out what my line is. 2030—what about AI?
Michael Coorlim: I think we're gonna see smaller artificial intelligence apps more than large, impressive changes. I think we're going to see stuff like the biggest artificial intelligence advancement of 2030 is going to be whatever Google is, whatever the Google Search is; the algorithms that’ll help us find that content that we were talking about.
Michael Carychao: So it sounds like a helpful AI, perhaps subservient, a genie helping us with our wishes.
Michael Coorlim: I don't see it as being volitional AI, more as tools that incorporate artificial intelligence and machine learning to create. I do think that we may be on the cusp of singularity as far as that goes, maybe not by 2030, maybe a little later. When we get to the point where AI is building AI and iterating faster than we can even understand we're going to get there real fast. A million generations of AI in an hour; fast. The way that works is basically a digital evolution in the sense of evolution. I think that's gonna be a slow but suddenly steep ramp up towards that, and then, hey! Singularity. What are we going to do?
Michael Carychao: What are we going to do?
Michael Coorlim: What are we going to be? I do see integration with artificial intelligence, sort of like an onboard head computer situation, maybe even running on your own internal headwear. It’s using your synapses, but much like the way that we use our smartphones today, and our constant connection to the internet only more subtly integrated into us. So we'll just have like this constant companion.
Michael Carychao: What's so funny about that is it’s as if you got Atari put in your head, but you can't take it out again. And so you see people who are putting cartridges, thick cartridges into their head. And then the next generation comes along to get implanted with cassette tapes, and then DVDs, and thumb drives.
Michael Coorlim: And then it's all in the cloud. Yeah. I mean, think about how much we've seen Information Technology evolve, just during our lifetime.
Michael Carychao: It's quite a ride.
Michael Coorlim: It is. What was the internet when we were young? Nothing. There was Usenet, but we didn't know about it and BBS tors(?), but we didn't hear about them. Now we have our phones, which are more powerful than the biggest computers of our day. And they're just normal. And this rate of change is going to be increasing so fast. Talks of singularity aside, during the next decade, we're going to see a massive, massive increase in the rate of change. And I would not be surprised if we started to see some serious cases of both techno shock and culture shock, as things change faster than people can keep up with them. If you're on Twitter, you know how fast things change: the topic of the day. How do you keep up with all this information? You can't .
Michael Carychao: What are we outraged about today?
Michael Coorlim: Exactly. I mean, I follow somewhere in the neighborhood of 2000 people on Twitter. I don't know who they all are. And I can't read them all every day. It's just too much information. And maybe when we get those onboard head AI virtual assistants, they can help us sift through the noise a little bit. That's a good use for AI technology. Not the head computer stuff, just having a digital assistant. One of the things I really miss is—
Michael Carychao: You miss the paperclip, don't you?
Michael Coorlim: Oh, not Clippy? Clippy. Oh, poor Clippy.
Michael Carychao: Ahead of its time.
Michael Coorlim: What was it? Google News. It would basically keep the news outlets and keywords, everything that you want to track, from all of the different blogs and all of the different news feeds and filter that for you. They canceled that a few years ago. Feedly kind of does it, but not really. And there's been nothing to fill that gap. And we need something like that to sift through this information for us.
Michael Carychao: Isn't that true? I mean, all of the recommendation engines that everything has, it just feels like a huge unsolved problem. And it almost makes you think that you have to go back to a phone tree or something just to get the word from your friends, people that you trust.
I want to go back to that kid in the library. And you're working your way through the shelves, and you hit science fiction. Who hops off into your hands?
Michael Coorlim: I've already mentioned Ray Bradbury. Philip Jose Farmer. Orson Scott Card, who got really weird later in life.
Michael Carychao: Sure, Ender's Game.
Michael Coorlim: Ender's Game. Read a lot of Stephen King. Read a lot of Lovecraft. It was this strange mix of authors that were contemporaneous in the late 80s, early 90s, but also people who had written back to the 20s. The kind of stuff you find in a public library. I even read some of the L Ron Hubbard books, the science fiction Dianetics, and all of his different Tech War(?). I read The Lord of the Rings books at the library. A lot of fun. A lot of it went over my head. I would skip the songs, which now that's my favorite part. One of the things I've discovered is, as I go back and read these books that I read, they take on new meaning as I—as an adult—am able to gain different aspects from them. Different parts of them mean different things to me.
Michael Carychao: Tell us about some of these books that you have been drawn to reread.
Michael Coorlim: Well, recently, for no reason whatsoever, I was rereading The Stand, which is Stephen King writing about a plague that kills the world.
It’s not just that I'm older, but now that I am an author that has changed the way I engage with fiction. It's not even something that I'm consciously trying to do. But as I read, I find that the neural pathways I've burned through my writing, cause me to evaluate the components of the books in a different way.
Michael Carychao: That sounds pretty awesome.
Michael Coorlim: It's trippy.
Michael Carychao: Can you give us an example?
Michael Coorlim: When I'm writing, I tend to take a scene and divide it into its components when I'm planning a story. I'm a big planner when I write so when I have a scene, before I even write the first draft—although in a way, the outline is the first draft—every scene has a protagonist who is trying to accomplish something, someone who is standing in their way, and what is the consequence of them being thwarted in the scene. Because if they succeed, that's the end. You're done. You can build towards stuff. But in general, every scene is a sequence of things going poorly for the protagonist.
I think there's a metaphor that some authors use where the flow of a book is: you get your protagonist up in a tree, and then you throw rocks at them. I see the structure of the book. I would imagine that if you're an architect, and you go to a building, you see where all the joists are, you see how the layout looks. So when I'm reading a book, I'm seeing that blueprint. I'm seeing how the structure is put together, and what choices the author made and why they made them. I never stopped thinking of things in terms of the flow of story. So, in a way, I've lost the ability to be pulled into the illusion completely. But I have this entirely other level, that is also entertaining to me, where I can appreciate the craftsmanship.
I've always been a huge fan of the processes used by Kurt Vonnegut. Going back to the Hardy Boys books, they're incredibly formulaic. And they have to be because there's a big group of people writing them anonymously. It's very much a franchise deal. Then that tastes like fast food to me when I'm reading it. I'm not saying I don't enjoy it necessarily. But on that level, it is just like this very, very manufactured thing. Cookie cutter. I'm able to focus more on turns of phrase, as accents to a work. An author who can really take any emotional concept and spin it into something beautiful. I consider the creation of art to be taking something complex and presenting it in a simple way. Right?
Michael Carychao: It's like you're filtering it. You're filtering some vision or understanding, and you're making it, not necessarily more palatable. More digestible, perhaps?
Michael Coorlim: Yeah. Basically saying a lot by saying a little. The best poetry falls into this category. Take a poem by Robert Frost, or E. E. Cummings, or any of the big poets and read it. You can read it five different ways and from every angle, it looks like something else. The best of books work in the same way. It’s prose, but it's a poetic prose, because you're telling five stories with the same words on one page, depending on how you read them.
Michael Carychao: Not easy.
Michael Coorlim: No, it's not easy.
Michael Carychao: But beautiful. So who is doing that? Who have you found that doing that?
Michael Coorlim: I have a bunch of friends who are authors, and some of them are doing very, very good work. S. A. Hunt, I recommend her work. Michael Gallowglas. His storytelling obviously comes from the fact that he is an oral storyteller and does Ren Faire and everything. You can tell when you read it in his work. And these are excellent authors. But they're a little bit outside the big publishing platforms. So how will you ever encounter them? We need those recommendation engines.
Michael Carychao: You asked what types of recommendations I'm looking for. I'm looking for ones that illuminate your worldview. This is the world according to Michael Coorlim—at least from a few facets. I'm hunting for things that you find especially beautiful, because that's a hint to how you see the world.
Michael Coorlim: Well, one of the elements of my worldview, is that I wish I had more time to read. It is really difficult for me to slow down and take the time to read. What I do in absence of those recommendation engines, is that I will pick up those top whatever stories of the year compilations, because there is a lot of really good work being done. I probably read more short fiction these days.
But how do you keep up with all the markets? How do you keep up with all the magazines that sell short fiction? You can’t. So I end up relying on compilations, when I can, and internet recommendations when I can't. This doesn't even get into all the really amazing, free fiction that's out there on the internet just to read. There's a lot of good serial fiction being written. That's something that's come back in recent years: the idea of serial fiction.
I keep telling myself I need to inhale more to exhale more. I need to breathe in more art to exhale more art. I need to do more reading. But, at the same time, this last year, I felt this rising anxiety if I try to slow down at all. I think a lot of people feel that.
Michael Carychao: Yeah, there's panic in the air. So in the times of your life when you were doing a lot of reading, what did that look like? What parts of the day would you carve out and set aside for reading?
Michael Coorlim: I was voracious about it. When I was reading a lot, I would get a book and I would consume it immediately. I would get home and I would just—I couldn't pace myself. I couldn't wait. I would just read the whole thing. And the fact that I have books now that I have not read would have been alien to me at that time. Like, I've been reading through Hugh Howey’s Wool series.
Michael Carychao: Wool is a lot of fun.
Michael Coorlim: I just finished the first book and I'm halfway through the second. I haven't picked it up in a month—and it's looking at me.
Michael Carychao: But it's true. It's why is it so hard to find time to read? And this is an important question. As an author, you need readers. You don't just need people who read sometimes, you want people who are voraciously reading. You want to stoke the fires of a reading culture. How do we get the culture that we have now to become more of a reading culture?
Michael Coorlim: For a very long time the book industry has rested on the backs of a relatively few but very, very voracious readers.
Michael Carychao: Oh, interesting. The 5%, who read a lot.
Michael Coorlim: The 5% of them who read, read a lot. It’s like the 80/20 Rule.
Michael Carychao: Pareto’s Principle of reading.
Michael Coorlim: 20% of the readers read 80% of the books. Yeah. It's so difficult with so many forms of entertainment competing for time and attention. You'd think that during the lockdown, people would be reading more. My sales telling me that's not the case. I was at a steampunk convention in October 2019—might have been 2018. I was talking to the other authors there. I was giving a presentation. I was one of the guest speakers. I was talking to the other writers in the dealer room. The consensus was the same: everybody's sales were way down. And this is before the pandemic. I think that part of it is just industry issues. Part of it is just the economy being the way it is. There's just so many reasons why it's so difficult to market and sell books. Even if you are with a publisher, the bulk of the marketing is now falling on the authors themselves. Unless you're one of the first, the top of the tier, the high tier writers. You're going to end up doing most of the work. That's just the way it is. So, as an author, you have to not only write your books, but you also have to be a full time social media marketer.
Michael Carychao: So how do you balance that?
Michael Coorlim: I've been self employed as a writer and game developer since 2011. I don't have a safety net. So I have to be on the ball. I don't have a day job. This is what I do. What I find helps a lot is to be very structured with my time. What I found that helps a lot is using Pomodoro time management.
Michael Carychao: 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off—or what's your breakdown?
Michael Coorlim: Basically like that. You work for 25 minutes, you take a 5 minute rest. Work for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute rest. And you do that for two hours. Then you take a 20 minute break. And then you do another two hours. Each two hour block is working on one project. For me, it's working on one project. For today, my first two hour period—well, let me let me check my—
Michael Carychao: Your record.
Michael Coorlim: —notebook right here. Yeah, I write this all out longhand. It's how I keep track of things. My first 20 minutes was doing video editing for the YouTube vlogs that I'll be working on this week.
I'll get through three or four blocks per day, depending on what I'm working on. And each one will be a different task. That's what works for me. Other people maybe will work on one project each day. Or maybe you'll work on one project each week.
I juggle multiple projects. It's just what works well for me. The two hour period is a good length of time to get me into that creative flow for maximum efficiency, and then I'll want to work on something else because I’ve got a lot of irons in a lot of fires.
I will structure that. So I know when I get up at seven in the morning, I'll putter around. I'll make breakfast. I'll make coffee, do whatever else I need to do and then, by eight o'clock, nine o'clock, I'm ready to get started.
For the next six to eight hours, whatever it is for that day, I have that planned out. I know what I'm working on, when I’m working on it. And because I'm using this structured time, I don't find that I have a lot of slack. There's not a lot of downtime in there. I don't find myself staring off into space, wondering what I should do next. I don't find myself browsing the internet—unless that's what that time is dedicated to.
I do have a certain amount of time where I go on Twitter and respond to things and socialize and network, because socializing and networking is actually a legitimate part of the job. I have the day planned out, but I also have a weekly schedule where I know how much work I have to put into different tasks to get everything done.
When I'm writing, I work around 1000 to 2000 words per hour, depending on how smoothly it's flowing. Knowing that, I can plan out how long it will take me to draft a 60,000 word book, or how long it'll take me to revise that book later. Then I'll know how long it will take me to write this novel, if nothing goes wrong, and something always goes wrong. So you build in a little bit of slack time.
Scoping game development is a little trickier because I am less experienced. I do a lot of spreadsheets, recording how long it takes me to help me figure that out. So in general, I'm able to set up deadlines and meet them. And it's absolutely necessary, because if I don't, if I just try to flow through it, I will flounder and get distracted and lose my focus. And I won't get anything done.
Michael Carychao: So, writing—and now writing for games. How are those different? Like, when you're writing for interactive fiction, you're up against a different kind of reading environment: there are graphics, there’s sound. In a lot of games people rush through cutscenes. So you may be up against people who are trying to read as fast as possible or skip as much as they can. One, how do you approach writing this? What's the difference in writing for your novels versus your games? And two, what is the difference in the reader that you're trying to reach?
Michael Coorlim: It's very different in any kind of writing. Writing for audio is different from writing for books, and writing for the screen is different for writing for books. So it's important for a writer to have this understanding of the medium in which your writing. Know what its strengths are and what its weaknesses are.
For interactive narrative, for branching fiction, you don't control the pacing. You kind of control the pacing in a book. The reader can put down your book at any time, and your job as the writer of a book is to make sure they don't. You know: put a cliffhanger at the chapter ending so they don't want to stop the chapter. They will eventually put your book down and go do something else. But you want it to hurt so they’ll come back to it.
It's different writing for games, because the pacing is different. If it's a bigger project and you're collaborating with other people and you don't control the gameplay. That is largely what controls the pacing of the story and how the reader chooses to engage with it. That is the biggest thing to know. And that's not a solution. Because there is no solution. It's just what you deal with. That's the thing to understand.
In particular, when you are writing on a larger collaborative project, as a writer your job is the easiest one to make changes to. The art is done. The art is sitting there, and it'll cost hundreds of dollars to make a small change. Gameplay is set and changing it would take hundreds of man hours. But you: you have these words in front of you. You just switch them around. So it's frustrating. You have to be able to stay that fluid in your conception of what the story is.
Michael Carychao: I see, you are the flexible one in the game world.
Michael Coorlim: You have to be. I mean, that's a good thing in general, in any kind of collaborative project: to be the flexible person. But with a game project, the game writer—as far as the project leader is concerned, the writing is the most fungible. So you have to be the most flexible because you'll be asked to make the most changes or to make changes last minute or to have parts cut because something else didn't get done.
I find it best to work in a sort of modular fashion. Think of your story units and keep those broken down and keep those flexible.
I was reading a biography of J. Michael Straczynski, the guy who wrote Babylon 5 and a whole bunch of other stuff. He wrote Sense8 and a whole bunch of other screenwriting stuff. But what he did was, as the showrunner for Babylon 5, they had this five year arc planned out. And this had never been done in network television before. There’d never been a five year long story. They didn't even tell the network at the time because they didn't want to scare them off. But he had to plan for changes that might occur outside of his control.
For example, actors leaving. So he wrote every character arc with an escape hatch in case he lost that actor. And this happened to his lead, actually. The guy playing the commander of the space station had some problems and had to go. So he had to bring in a replacement for him. Thankfully, he planned for that.
What we can take from that, as game writers, because we do have to be so flexible—and because even after it's published, the player is in control: just have those backup plans. Build them into your game, if you can.
When I was writing Rascal and the Boxer, my first draft of it for this interactive fiction, had multiple scenes, multiple optional scenes the player could engage with. If I had drawn it out as a flowchart, it would have looked like a big, explosively, geometrically expanding bush—which you can't do, because it's impossible to implement.
Michael Carychao: It’s like writing 10 novels or something.
Michael Coorlim: Exactly. The key though, when writing choice-based games, or fiction or anything, is that actual choice is not as important as perceived choice. This is magic. This is the predestination—not predestination: prestidigitation. This is the illusion that we're giving the audience. I don't mean that the choices don't matter, it's just: keep in mind that 99% of the players will only play your game once. So it doesn't matter if there are a thousand different choices to make. They're only going to play at once. They're not going to know what else there is to do. Some people will, so you want to give them some options, and you do want to have some actual choices to be made that will impact the outcome. But fewer and fewer people will play the game more times.
If 100% of your players will play once, maybe 50% will play twice, maybe 25% will play it three times, maybe 5% of them four times. So you give them enough variety to make it feel alive without having to actually plan for every conceivable possibility. That's just about scope and keeping your work manageable.
Michael Carychao: I think as a player I would replay more games if I felt sure that there would be something different that would happen. I wonder if there's a way to signal to the player that, Hey, enough is going on here that there'll be easter eggs or alternate paths, or turns of phrase that you're going to love or something, so that it's worth booting it up again and taking another run at it. How do you think you could tip your hand to the player?
Michael Coorlim: Easiest way, when they finish: "Ending one of three." Tell us there's two other endings they haven't gotten. "One of 38"—or whatever the right thing is, but especially for a solo project though, if you want to ever actually be finished, you kind of have to scope for: what can I get done within a reasonable timeframe?
I do have, in Rascal and the Boxer, there are a number of endings, permutations on the main ending. The story goes more or less the same way, but the way I wrote it was, I wrote it the way that I write my character arcs in static fiction: your protagonist, depending on which 80s movie archetype you're playing, you have a fatal flaw. You have a character arc. You either have a positive arc where you overcome that flaw, or you have a negative arc where you fail to.
So if you're playing a typical kind of Loser 80s Archetype or, you know, the Poor Luck Schmuck type character, the problem that you face is that you lack confidence. So if you make confident choices throughout the game, you'll have a positive character arc. You have learned your lesson and come out a stronger person at the other end. And you'll save the day.
If you make the wrong choices, you won't save the day. It will be a tragic story. Likewise, if you play a character that's more of a bully archetype, like you play The Jock or The Queen Bee or whatever—you know, the typical 80s movie antagonist—you'll have to learn compassion. You have the same set of choices, but if you choose the compassionate options, instead of the non-compassionate options, you'll have a positive character arc. You'll have learned the value of friendship, or whatever.
I wrote consciously in that way, because I thought it would be an interesting way to do it. So you play the game and you make the same set of choices. But what you choose at various important junctures—including how well you get along with the characters you meet—determines what route your ending takes.
Maybe you save this character, maybe you fail to save this character. Maybe you get in trouble with the mob, maybe you make it home safely with no danger. It all depends on the choices you make—but not necessarily in a cause-and-effect kind of way, but in a story-beats emotional-resonance kind of way. It tracks your proportion of compassionate to uncompassionate choices. So if you're further towards the non-compassionate, a compassionate choice will mean more, get you further over. A compassionate choice by an uncompassionate character will be weighted.
Michael Carychao: How are you tackling this and Eschatown?
Michael Coorlim: Eschatown is different. The way that I've done this is it's broken up into what we're internally calling Happenings. They are little story blocks, little encounters you might have. The story in Eschatown is that you are a cybernetic agent of an academic enclave looking through these ruins for a lost facility that is rumored to exist there.
The city is run by these different themed gangs. There are mutants running around. It's more like—less realistic post apocalyptic, more Mad Max. As you go through looking for this object or looking for this facility, so far, the writing has been focused on the individual encounters that you have. You might run into the ruins of a clothing boutique. You get inside, you find out what's been—is there anything inside? Is there anything worth salvaging inside? Is there someone hiding in there? Are there wild animals waiting in there?
This is a bit more traditional in that the choices you make still do matter, but they're more about resource management. And eventually, it's planned that you'll be able to negotiate with the different gangs that have carved out different areas of the city for themselves. That's intended to be part of the main plotline. Maybe you'll end up uniting them as a single society. Maybe you'll join one and wipe out the others. What is your, you know—how will you have an effect? So it's more of a flat character arc, in that you are you—but the world is disordered. So how will you bring your order to this chaos?
Michael Carychao: Interesting. Will you change the world, or will the world change you?
Michael Coorlim: Yeah, basically.
Michael Carychao: This is a little bit technical, but you've worked with Godot and Unity. And Ink and Twine. Do you have a favorite combination of game engine and story engine—if you would call it that?
Michael Coorlim: Godot is the one I've come to most recently. At the moment, that's what I enjoy using. I'll probably end up going back to Unity simply because it is more popular. And therefore if I have to collaborate, Unity skills will be more useful. Eschatown as being programmed in Unity. And because I've been using Godot for the last two years, I'm not as fresh with Unity as I am. So I’m thankful that my partner on the project knows what he's doing. And that's all working.
Michael Carychao: Yeah. He literally wrote the book.
Michael Coorlim: Yeah. For my personal projects, again, I do like the program architecture in Godot. It uses a node structure that's a little simpler than the scene structure in Unity and a little more versatile, I found. But at the same time, Godot is more recent, so there are still some features that don't exist. But, at the same time, it doesn't have all the bloat that Unity sometimes has.
Michael Carychao: Yeah, Unity can slow to a crawl, that's for sure.
Michael Coorlim: Yeah, it's much more light on the system resources. I don't have the best development setup in the world. I’ve got enough to do what I need to do, but sometimes it will chug along in Unity. I imagine even if you've got a great setup, you’ll eventually—
Michael Carychao: Hit the wall. So let's, let's just imagine here that you found your benefactor, and they wrote you a handsome check, and said, "Go ahead and spend the next decade doing whatever you want. What would you work on?"
Michael Coorlim: Like an angel investor who’s willing to—like a patron?
Michael Carychao: Like Patreon really works. It gets jamming.
Michael Coorlim: —if my Patreon really works and I have people funding me?
Michael Carychao: You've worked in so many different forms, I'm just curious what you would choose yourself.
Michael Coorlim: First of all, I would give everything away for free. As long as I can survive, I'm good. I don't need to charge for things. I would rather people be able to enjoy them.
But I would love to be able to embark on a large scale, long term project. Something that I could release gradually as I worked on it. One flagship project.
Like I mentioned, Rascal and the Boxer, the expanded version of this would be Zeitgeist 1980. I would release four games per year for each year in the eighties. So we're talking like 40 different little chapters of this game. Something like that, where it's a serialized . . . deep dive. Just examine different aspects of each year's media, because both of the games that inspired Rascal and the Boxer came out in 1980.
Michael Carychao: Oh, I see.
Michael Coorlim: For example, the immediate next project, if this Kickstarter funds, is another two movies set in 1980. I would combine the disaster horror film Alligator and Caddyshack into "Caddy Gator."
Michael Carychao: Caddy Gator. This sounds good. And Bill Murray maybe can make a cameo.
Michael Coorlim: A Bill Murray inspired character.
Michael Carychao: Of course. Oh, that sounds awesome. And you get to play it.
Michael Coorlim: Exactly. I would love to work on that. The thing is, I am constantly having ideas. And every time I have an idea, I examine it and say, "How would this best translate into the world? Is this best as a story? Is this best as a game? Is this the best as an audio something?" I have this big—my book of ideas. And the thing is, with a book of ideas, is that having ideas itself and evaluating them is a skill. So yes, I have this big long book of every idea I've had for the past five years, six years. But the ideas I'm having now are better. So why would I go back to that list?
Michael Carychao: This a literal book?
Michael Coorlim: Well, it's an Excel sheet. Okay.
Michael Carychao: And so when you get a new idea, you pop it into Excel, maybe reorder it?
Michael Coorlim: Pop it into Excel and reorder it. I have them listed in terms of how interested I am right now, how long it would take to complete, how complex the idea is, and would it work well as a game, as a book, as something else? The thing is, even with a long term project—which I absolutely do want—I would not stop having ideas for other projects. So if I had the ability, I would constantly be working on two or three projects that were wildly different. But I would want to be releasing work at a steady pace.
Michael Carychao: What happens to a lot of people is that they're creators for a while and then they get into one more meta position where they're more of a director, or producer. Can you see yourself in that role where you were the producer like John Favreau, maybe writing some, maybe producing some, having several different irons in the fire—that kind of role? Or would you want to stay in the trenches as a creator?
Michael Coorlim: With Synesthesia Theatre, I was director and producer. Of course, I was also the writer. But, I could see producing someone else's work as a creative endeavor. I do see the act of being a director, being a producer, and arranging those creative elements that other people come up with—you know, taking the script as an element, taking the actor as an element, taking all these things as an element—is another level of creative activity. So I don't see that meta level as non-creative in any way. I'm always going to have my own ideas for stories that I'll be willing to implement. But I would absolutely be fine with taking a higher level position, producing them and then commissioning out to competent writers to take care of that side of things, as long as I'm still being part of the storytelling. And of course, I'm going to write stuff on my own, because I can't not write.
Michael Carychao: Yeah, there's no going back, right?
Michael Coorlim: There's no—you know, everything is just to fund my devious writing habit.
Michael Carychao: A lot of stories keep reaching back to the 80s. Somehow, the 80s is a very nostalgic decade. I mean, the 70s are cute, the 90s, meh. But the 80s really resonate, especially lately. What is it about the 80s that enchants us so much?
Michael Coorlim: Well, it's very interesting, because as someone who lived through the 80s, fictional 80s sometimes doesn't bear a very strong resemblance to real 80s. It was a rough year in a lot of ways for a lot of people—a rough decade. There was still this sense of possibility that I think that, as a cultural collective, we had— the shine had worn off by the Generation X era 90s. And then 9/11 happened and the country lost its mind.
Michael Carychao: There was a naivete of the 80s.
Michael Coorlim: There was a certain naivete of the 80s. It was almost like a cynical naivete in a way that the 70s did not quite possess. And by the time the 90s, there was that dark humor about that naivete. Part of this is me speaking, because of course, I was a child in the 80s, of course I was naive. Even looking back at the way things are presented—or things were presented in the 80s—I could not go back to 80s-style filmmaking as anything other than nostalgia. If you actually go back and watch the pacing—
Michael Carychao: It's actually hard to watch those movies again.
Michale Coorlim: It is.
Let me give you an example. I have been rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation. The first season was 1987—if you want to feel old, there you go. But the first two seasons—the 80s era seasons are so bad compared to the later stuff. Now, some of this is because they did replace the head writer after the second season. And they brought in—their budgets got bigger and everything. It's like there is this demarcation point where things absolutely started to become more competent.
I think that there's a lot of technical competence that the 80s was lacking, but that we still look back at it—and I think that's part of the naivete, part of the charm. Some of it is kind of hard to watch from a pacing perspective. But the key elements of the story, and what they're trying to do—there's this weird kind of charm to it in a way that they would not make those movies today. Another movie I watched recently was a Wargames with Matthew Broderick. Now, if they released Wargames, even in the 90s, let alone today, you know, it would be a completely different movie. They would not have been able to make it that way.
Michael Carychao: Yeah. And part of it is Matthew Broderick, who has this naive charm. But part of it is the era where, you know, hacking was still cute.
Michael Coorlim: Oh, my God, the way they thought of computers in the 80s. Weird Science, man, that's all I’ve got to say.
Michael Carychao: Weird Science. Yes. From a pacing perspective. You look back at 19th century fiction, you look at 1980s movies, you do the extrapolation thing, and suddenly, in 2030, what we're seeing today may seem too slow, or it may seem too . . . something.
Michael Coorlim: It absolutely will.
Michael Carychao: What will the narrative beats look like—or have to look like—to hold attention in the 2030s?
Michael Coorlim: You don't have to look much further than TikTok to really see that. What we're going to see—I mean imagine someone from 1980 falling into a glacier and getting frozen in ice—an Encino Man, perhaps, and then coming, like in the story that I wrote, Shadow Decade, imagine if you jumped ahead from 1990 to the year 2000, or from the year 2000, to 2020, or whatever, and then you were suddenly presented with a different way that the film language had changed, the different pacing of everything, the quick cuts in movies. Because this is not like a guided evolution, but it's something that we collectively do as a culture: we change the way our media is presented to us.
And that's both the stories that are being told, but also how they're told and the way they're being filmed and the types of shots that are being made and the speed at which things change, but also the speed at which the emotional beats come.
I have gone back to watch those fast paced 80s movies only to discover that they're very, very, very slow and hard to watch. And I lived through that! I am the same person that I was, but now my mind is more tuned to the stuff we're making now. So I expect faster changeups. As I mentioned before, with the culture shock and the techno shock, I think that's going to be portrayed a lot in the media, as topics switch faster than we will be able to handle, but which 10 years from now, we'll be accustomed to. Maybe we will, maybe we won't be able to keep up. We're old men! We're going to get to a point where we're not able to keep up with that anymore.
Michael Carychao: This does seem to happen to people in their later decades: they just kind of peel off and head for some sunny, grassy patches and chill out while the world goes by.
Michael Coorlim: It's because they can't keep up. I'm going to keep up for as long as I can. I'm going to create content for as long as I can. But eventually—one of the things that I know is that when I stop being able to keep up, will I be able to create art that matters? I mean, surely to people my own age—maybe.
Michael Carychao: Well, that's the real dig of immortality, isn't it? You could be immortal, but if your mindset never changed, you would be still eloquent, like Cervantes or Shakespeare, and you'd go on and on. And people would already be gone.
Michael Coorlim: You'd finish your soliloquy, and you'd look up and people are looking at their phones and doing whatever.
Michael Carychao: Well, Michael, I feel like we could just keep talking here. We’ve got a lot of shared interests, and you're a very interesting creator here. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat.
Michael Coorlim: Well, I really appreciate you having me on the show.
Michael Carychao: Before we go, is there anything that you'd like to let people know about either where to find you, things you're working on, collaborators that you'd like to give a shout out to?
Michael Coorlim: Well, I've got that Zeitgeist, 1980 Kickstarter, if you want to check that out and help me fund my dream of making more of these silly little games. I'm sure you'll enjoy playing them. You can find all of my work at mcoorlim.com. That's my website. And if you like what I do, and you want to support me on Patreon, you can find links to that from my website. You can find my audio drama work at Synesthesia Theatre, which you can find on any podcast app. If you want to listen to me talk about indie games with my friends, that's Indie Gaiden. I'm always coming up with new work, so just follow me on Twitter, and I'll talk about whatever it is I'm talking about.
Michael Carychao: Awesome. Awesome, Michael. Well, we cannot wait to see what you come up with next.
Michael Coorlim: Neither can I!