LIMERICK — From the time he was in middle school, fiddling around with his Commodore 64 computer, Shawn French dreamed of a career creating video games.

He left Maine a couple times in his 20s to pursue video game jobs that never materialized. He wrote thousands of pages of fantasy stories, hoping someday they’d come to life on a small screen. He also wrote jokes for radio stations, covered sports for a local newspaper and counted money for a beer distributor during a period of about two decades, which he describes as “a parade of failure.”

When French was 38, his father died. As he was cleaning out his father’s home, sorting boxes of mementos and saved stuff, he thought of his own boxes in his own basement. In one of those, he had a fantasy world full of story lines – centered around powerful gods and humans with godlike powers – that he’d been developing since he was in grade school. He imagined himself dying some day, with those stories still in a box. That, to him, would be “the worst possible form of failure.”

The fear of failure prompted French to keep trying. He made an indie horror movie, started self-publishing a comic book and kept looking for video game jobs. Today, at 47, he’s finally living his childhood dream, with a full-time job writing video games. For the past year and a half, he’s been lead writer for the medieval fantasy game Epic Tavern, from Los Angeles-based Hyperkinetic Studios. From his home in Limerick, where he lives with his wife, he’s supposed to work a 40-hour week, but by choice, he sometimes works 12 hours a day and loves every minute of it.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” said French. “I don’t want to stop working at night.”

Pages from Escape From Jesus Island comic books written by Shawn French of Limerick. French is a,video game writer, comic book writer and movie maker Tuesday, July 24, 2018.

HUNDREDS OF STORY LINES

The game is story-based and set in a medieval fantasy world. It’s sort of like Dungeons and Dragons or other role-playing board games but on a video screen with a dramatic soundtrack. The tavern of the title is where the heroes hang out, waiting for quests and challenges and perilous dilemmas. The game’s world has all sorts of people and creatures with magic powers, like summoning fire. It’s interactive, so players choose the heroes, weapons, quests and a myriad of other variables.

When French writes the game, he’s not writing one story. He’s writing hundreds of possible scenarios and outcomes for each interaction between characters. So if you, as a player, encounter the character named Grusilla Marrowsucker (a female Barbarian known for skill with swords and axes) the game will remember whether Grusilla liked you, hated you or feared you. Then the next time you meet, whatever happens will hinge on what happened when you met before. One of the heroes in your group might be Merrick Ravinger, a “Level II necromancer” or wizard who has in his arsenal the power to summon skeletons. French keeps track of this web of stories and backgrounds with spreadsheets and several kinds of diagrams connecting characters and traits. Some of the diagrams look more like something out of a college math class than a tool for video game creation.

“You’re looking for stories that create the best range of option, where failing (in a fight or challenge) is just as interesting as succeeding,” said French. “It’s sort of the opposite of most writing. Instead of narrowing the possibilities of who is involved and what is happening, you’re expanding it as much as possible.”

Since starting full-time with Hyperkinetic Studios, French has written some 300,000 words for the game, over a thousand encounters and quests, and some 170 character backstories, plus hundreds of items of descriptions. For each of the 170 or so characters – heroes and lesser players – French has written detailed backgrounds, listing the character’s class, gender, race (human or dwarf), skills, weapons and personal quests. He even writes personal responses of each character for about 20 situations, including what the character does if you offer them a drink in the tavern they don’t like.

One storyline is the personal quest of the above-mentioned Grusilla. She was one of seven sisters, but most of her sisters were killed by her mother, a Badlands warlord. She has to find her last surviving sister before her mother does.

A GAMER’S DREAM

The game is for sale online ($24.99) and to play on websites like Steam, but it’s technically still in development. So part of French’s job is watching video of people playing Epic Tavern on websites that stream such things and consider their comments as he makes changes and writes new stories.

“It’s impossible to get this sort of live feedback with any other kind of writing,” said French, as he watched people playing his game on the website Twitch. “It’s unfiltered, which is great.”

Most of the players who have reviewed Epic Tavern on Steam in the last couple of months say they’d recommend it. One reviewer said, “The game feels like you are on an epic adventure of a DnD nature. There is a high attention to detail by the developers, which makes me very hopeful for the future of the game.” Another wrote, “It’s Darkest Dungeon on Happy Mode. It has humor, casual, no permanent consequences so the humor isn’t dark. A lot of fun, with no real time commitment. Although I found myself with a one more click addiction.”

The game was one of five to win an Indie Game Award in May at MomoCon, a geek-culture convention held annually in Atlanta.

Hyperkinetic Studios was founded by a group of video game veterans, including Tomo Moriwaki, the company’s chief creative officer, who was a designer for such well-known video games as Call of Duty: Finest Hour and Spider-Man.

French, an avid gamer himself, began watching the development of Epic Tavern online three or four years ago and thought it was right up his alley, since it involved “world-building in a comedy-themed medieval fantasy.” It was the kind of stories and plot lines he’d been writing for years, on his own, and filing in boxes.

So he applied for an opening at the company, doing social media. But a colleague of Moriwaki’s, Eric Pavone, had met French at a comic convention and had been impressed with his self-published comic book, “Escape From Jesus Island.” The comic book is about an attempt to clone Jesus that “goes horribly wrong,” French said, and results in an Antichrist leading Jesus clones in a rebellion.

So when Moriwaki was looking for someone to write Epic Tavern and its complicated web of story possibilities, he looked to French and hired him.

“After just a few conversations with (French), it was clear to me he understood what we were trying to do, and his skills were more than good enough,” said Moriwaki.

COMPUTERS AND STORIES, AFTER SCHOOL

French grew up in the Redbank section of South Portland, a densely populated neighborhood between Interstate 295 and the Maine Mall. In the early and mid-’80s, he went to an after-school program at the community center run by a man named Bud Wellington, who designed video games for fun and went on to a long career in education. He currently runs an organization called Life Without School in New Orleans, which provides services for home-schooled children.

“Bud was like a third parent to me,” French said. “A lot of his friends were game designers, so I grew up surrounded by adults who made games from scratch. That always seemed normal to me.”

When he was about 19, French started noticing his knees buckling for no reason, not being able to support his weight. He was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a group of disorders that affect connective tissues supporting the skin, bones, blood vessels, and other organs and tissues. French, at first, was diagnosed with a more serious form of the condition and was told he would be lucky to live to 40. He later found out his condition was not life-threatening, though he lives with chronic pain and suffers frequent dislocations of joints and bones.

Shawn French, video game writer, comic book writer and movie maker at his home in Limerick Tuesday, July 24, 2018.

Thinking his lifespan might be shortened, he jumped at chances to pursue his dreams. In his 20s, he left Maine to move around the country to pursue video game jobs. In 1993, he moved to Simi Valley, California, to try to become a tester for a video game called Tecmo Hockey. The position didn’t pan out. A couple years later, he moved to College Park, Maryland, to try to land a job testing a role-playing game called Daggerfall. He did some testing for the company, but didn’t get a full-time position.

He was back in Maine by 2000, trying to hone his creative skills enough to land a video game writing job. He worked for a few years at the Windham Independent, and wrote and directed an indie horror film called “The Wrong House.” He also began self-publishing “Escape from Jesus Island,” an adult horror comic book with images from Portland artist Mortimer Glum. He’s sold 15,000 copies in four years.

He began writing for Epic Tavern in 2016 and became the lead writer in January of 2017. He quickly found help from those boxes of stories in his basement, some of which are 40 years old. He uses bits and pieces of stories and ideas he’s had over the years in writing the tales of Epic Tavern and its world.

Those same boxes that once symbolized his failures are now part of his success.

“Now that my job is to create hundreds of little story lines, that box of failed stories is a huge asset,” said French. “I’m digging in there all the time.”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: RayRouthier

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