Matt Langley Blogs about the creation of Black Flag

Writing for Founders4Schools about the relationship between the creative process and coding Matt discusses how the project came about from his perspective.

[ Jump to: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 ]

World Collides Part Three - The Aftermath of Black Flag

12th May 2015

Or now it’s out there… what next?

Unsurprisingly, I’m a great believer in the idea that creativity is king.

Nothing can be built that hasn’t first been imagined.

Think about it for a second, we’re not talking discoveries, we’re talking about actually sitting down and thinking I’m going to make that… When I was growing up one of my favourite science fiction authors Arthur C. Clarke used to have a television show, Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World. I can still remember some of the episodes vividly thirty five years later, including one on spontaneous human combustion, including the image of a slipper on the floor and burn marks in a chair where an old woman had been having her supper when suddenly she burst in to flames… the thought of that proceeded to terrify me for years. That’s the problem with an imagination, you inevitably think: that could happen to me! And all of a sudden you are obsessed with the idea you might suddenly burst into a ball of flame like the Human Torch.

Why am I telling you this?

To haunt your dreams, obviously.

Nah, seriously, Arthur C. Clarke is famous for something other than terrifying kids and writing about space. Clarke called himself the creator of satellites long before the launch of the first one. You see, he imagined them. He wrote about communications satellites before there were even phones that weren’t plugged into walls. Nowadays we call the orbits those geostationary satellites follow Clarke Belts in his honour. How cool is that, seriously? He imagined it, others took the thing from his mind and made it real.

In my teens one of my favourite shows was Quantum Leap. The basic concept was Sam Beckett, a genius scientist, stepped into a Quantum Leap Accelerator (which was basically a time machine) and disappeared. Now we’re not talking Higgs-Boson here, and to be honest it’s not the big concept that’s fascinating, it’s his sidekick Al, a hologram no one can see but Sam, and the handheld device he uses to check out everything Sam needs to know to solve the current dilemma. That handheld device is hooked up to a computer in the future—remember there was no real ‘internet’ back then, yes I am that old—and is essentially Googling stuff. It also happens to look like a prototype for a modular cell phone where you can switch out the older tech for new rather than just discard stuff. It’s pretty revolutionary in terms of thinking, given at that point a mobile phone was basically the size and weight of a brick, and text messages hadn’t even been conceptualised.

On the most basic level, what can be imagined can be created.

Clarke wrote Three Laws:

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It’s that last one that’s really important. Back when I was young something like the internet was magical thinking, as was Ziggy, Al’s handheld computer. Not everything comes to pass, of course. We might not have the gleaming air cars two lanes wide running on speed controlled automated tracks that the 1940s SF writers dreamed of, but we have got GPS. We've got robot lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners that follow the same principles.

How does this relate to Black Flag?

Well, Marshall Trent is basically in control of a surveillance society, he sees all, knows all, and is happy to use it against you, telling you exactly what he wants you to believe to get the results he wants. It’s not a million miles from the world we all live in. If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know there’s a General Election happening right now (or just happened, depending on when you’re reading this) and you’ll have seen photographs of the leader of one party trying to eat a bacon sandwich with the headline that loosely translates to: if he can’t be trusted to eat a sandwich how can he be trusted to run the country? Whereas in another paper you’re being told that we’re facing uncontrolled immigration, or that a certain alliance might be the worst crisis since in our lifetimes. Marshall Trent, when he’s delivering messages through those big screens, has an agenda. People aren’t thinking for themselves, they’re thinking the way he wants them to think. The message Cal gets is one that works now as well as in the future I’ve imagined, open your eyes, pay attention, look at who is telling you things—or what to think—ask questions, and more than anything dare to imagine… and on a practical level, look at the puzzles in the book created by the brilliant Chris Roffey, and look at how what I have imagined they can be applied creatively. Is there something in Black Flag you’d love to be real? It doesn’t have to be magical, just a technology so far advanced we can’t quite grasp it yet. But maybe you can? Maybe you can look at the puzzle and find the leap of brilliance that makes the neuralnet a possibility? That interface point that hooks the electrical impulses of the brain up to something bigger than itself? I mean, if a pacemaker can control the rhythms of a heart and keep a man alive, who’s to say what other magic scientists and coders can come up with given time and the inspiration of great imaginers to shine a light for them?

Once imagined, then surely the code itself becomes the foundation of what follows. One can't advance without the other... in other words there is something wonderfully symbiotic about the relationship between idea and application.

The first step is simply to imagine it. The second is to look for ways to interpret what’s imagined in measureable ways. To take the familiar building blocks you’ve spent ages mastering and make something entirely new with them.

Are you up for the challenge?

World Collides Part Two - Creation of Black Flag!

5th November 2014

In this second blog post, author Matt Langley, discusses the creation of Black Flag and the relationship between creative ideas and coding.

Black Flag – A Coding Club Mission, my first Young Adult Science Fiction novel published by Cambridge University Press is a lot of things. It covers big themes, modern concerns like the Surveillance Society and Broken Britain, but at its core it’s a book with a lot of heart, about a young man in an impossible situation. Does he open his eyes and see the peaceful world for what it really is, putting his life and the lives of everyone he loves at risk, or does he remain wilfully ignorant and stay safe? But this is not a traditional novel; Black Flag takes reading experience a step further by allowing readers to interact with the story via the free companion website

As a story, I’m very proud of how it turned out, but it's so much more than a novel thanks to an unlikely partnership with the man behind the Coding Club series, Chris Roffey, who came to me with a bright idea: how would I like to write an interactive novel? We’re not just talking hyperlinks to websites, but a proper novel in which the reader could play an active part? This took me right back to the Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Fighting Fantasy game books where you were the hero, and you were presented with three choices at the end of every passage of story, and got to choose which page you turned to and what happened next. But Chris wanted more than that. So did I. We wanted something where the readers could learn as they played along, so it needed to be cool. In point of fact, with pretty much every puzzle and problem we were sat thinking ‘is this cool?’ as a basic mantra.

Cal’s drawn into an underworld where his heroes are mockingly called Anarchists, and because of the nature of the Surveillance Society, computers are both his greatest ally and fiercest foe. How cool would it be then if we could develop a tandem website that let kids sign up to be part of the Anarchists? A site where they could put into practice the same coding skills and hacks that Cal and his friends used during the novel? A proper interactive experience, in other words. The answer, of course, was very cool. Don’t laugh at the back, in my world it is cool. I promise.

And here’s the thing, the coding changed the shape of the novel, too. It wasn’t all one way. The first time Chris and I sat down and talked about the book he gleefully told me about a way he could manipulate an image to lift out a single colour from the pallet, and hide a message in it. The example he used was the Mona Lisa, because there’s no blue in it. I think that’s what he said. I was more interested in the possibility it presented as a puzzle in a Surveillance Society.

Imagine a crowded plaza, thousands of people, and one of them is Cal. You want to identify him in the crowd of faces, but we don’t have the computing power to source facial recognition software? You simulate it with a puzzle involving lifting that one colour out of the pallet, picking him out in the crowd because he’s been marked by the Enforcers. We didn’t actually use the problem in the final website, but it served as our proof of concept when we were discussing things with Cambridge University Press. It was a gatekeeper puzzle, not difficult coding, based on problems already solved in the early Coding Club books Chris has released, the solution offering a grid reference that served as a password to access the site. The puzzle, in effect, influenced the entire opening of the novel.

Of course there were other problems to consider, and they forced us to be inventive in our storytelling. Throughout the book, there are scattered Anarchist symbols - markers for puzzles so the reader can either go away there and then and try and solve them, coming back to the story when they’ve done it. Or they can read on and solve the puzzles later.

See, what we both really wanted to do was create something that would have kids talking in the playground. Did you crack that cipher yet? Did you code the fractal forest? (oh that was another one where Chris showed me how he could build a tree, a bit like a Mandelbrot set, and my imagination went into overload, very definitely defining the book and NeuralNet within it there and then). If we could get them excited about the story, then maybe we could get them excited in the stuff around it, the technology driving us towards the future? Conversely, if we could get them excited about the code, maybe we could open their imaginations and show them an entirely different way of looking at the world, giving our storytellers of tomorrow all the tools they need to write their own great adventures.

It all starts in here (taps forehead sagely). Every great story. Every great idea. Every great game. Every revolutionary app. Someone has to have the idea, and preferably isn’t bound by the knowledge of what they can’t do, but rather excited by the idea of what they might be able to do.

Worlds Collide Part Three... Coming soon

Worlds Collide – part one

16th October 2014

In this first blog post, author Matt Langley discusses the relationship between creative ideas and coding.

My journey leading to Black Flag began at the age of fourteen when I got the computer bug. I had a bright idea, chatted to a couple of friends and we agreed to write our very own computer game. I was going to be the designer because outside Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner I didn’t have much of a clue what actually went into the backend of game. I wound up drawing a lot of pictures that looked like a poor man’s Tron and designing 3D mazes. I can still recall the look of abject terror on my mate’s face when he realised he was expected to turn this into a playable game using nothing but Basic and a ZX81.

My second attempt was much less ambitious. I was working on the actual coding, writing a fully playable cricket simulator with a 60 random shot selector function, six variants of bowler functionality (fast, medium, spin) with collision detection and score card. It took the entire summer of my fifteenth year.

My third attempt was something massively different, a huge sprawling text dungeon ala Zork with the solutions of N,N,E,S,E,N, get sword, attack troll and other classic lines of dialogue. Because I wanted more than just random factors determining if a hero survived or not I spent an entire year putting together tables and charts of various strengths, armour types and fittings skills and used them as references for combat in the game. And then the world changed, BASIC was no more, and I was lost. As simple as that.

The thing is I wasn’t bound by what I couldn’t do, I was inspired more often than not by what I might be able to do, one day, when the world caught up with my imagination.

My takeaway from that was I still loved the idea of creation, but when things moved along and people started talking compilers, machine code, C, C+ and C++ I was in an alien landscape—one every bit as strange and uncomfortable as the one that saw me tracing 3D mazes expecting that little 1k computer to render crisp movie-quality graphics. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t be a part of this incredible movement that was driving us from the ‘80s into the Future. I just couldn’t be a mechanic, which limited my opportunities somewhat.

But I got lucky, I wound up writing dialogue for an online adventure game, Spineworld, which had over a million players back in 2006. From there worked at DICE writing the storyline for huge bestseller Battlefield 3 (often using the same let’s-see-if-I-can-make-the-coders-stick-pencils-in-their-nostrils-and-go-wibble when laying out designs, including costing the company millions by making them accurately map Paris as a 3D explorable environment just so that I could blow up the Eifel Tower), but mainly I just tell stories.

Sometime around 2006 the world of entertainment really began to change—the money invested in computer games outstripped the money behind Hollywood blockbusters, more people were playing console and PC games than were reading books, and of course, we were right on the fringes of the ebook revolution. Everyone was talking about how incredibly cool things were going to become because we were going to have to find new ways to tell stories. Of course the buzzword was interactive. Everyone was talking about interactive books.

We’ll have a brief segue moment here, indulge me, my real world career for a decade before my obsession became my real world career, was as teacher working overseas, teaching English and Social Science to ages ranging from 11 to 18. I spent a huge proportion of my life in the classroom and in the process really came to appreciate the kind of material that offered teachable moments, talking points, things with a great voice that younger readers engage with and have the breadth of ideas and imagination they can really sink into. Part of it is a modernization of entertainment that came along around the same time—TV shows changed the way they deliver their stories, having long arcs that span entire seasons, not just episodes.

Now shows like Star Trek are dated, the viewer jaded every time a redshirt lands on the planet, knowing he’s cannon fodder. Kids are more sophisticated in their viewing habits thanks to things like Doctor Who, which forces them to pay attention to the minutia of a story because clues are laid in all the way along the series that become essential to the pay off at the end. Finales have become events. Everyone’s become their own little Sherlock Holmes as far as entertainment goes.

Conversations in the playground when I was teaching revolved around the relative merits of various Pokémon characters, the final levels of Final Fantasy V… or maybe it was VI… or VII. Not so different from when I was in the playground myself trading Panini stickers and playing Top Trumps, arguing about the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost vs the E-Type Jag and which was the cooler car. The more the times change the more they stay the same.

This means, more than anything else, we need to be more creative in how we deliver our stories. We need to catch them with big ideas and make them fall in love with the possibility of creation, whether it’s on the backend coding the next big thing or on the front end crafting the story to drive the coders crazy.


Worlds Collide Part Two... coming soon

Quick Index

© in the Site, Chris Roffey 2012
© in extracts from Black Flag, Cambridge University Press 2014
© in the characters and images derived from Black Flag. Cambridge University Press 2014