How Designing Games Led to “The Husbands”: 'A Bunch of Drafts and a Dozen Different Endings'

Author Holly Gramazio spent 15 years as a game designer before she wrote her first novel. Here's how it came together

<p>Diana Patient; Doubleday</p> Holly Gramazio and

Diana Patient; Doubleday

Holly Gramazio and 'The Husbands'

I was always that kid in the playground who climbed onto benches and tried to convince everyone to join in on the new game that she’d just made up. Or who actually read the full Monopoly rules and wanted to follow them to the letter. Or who raced through schoolwork in order to get time in the computer lab, in order to play one of the four games that my school’s computers had available.

So it probably makes sense that I ended up a game designer.

I’ve worked on a lot of different types of games over the last 15 years: tabletop games, video games, games for museums and art galleries and festivals. And six or seven years ago I experimented, just for a few days, with an idea for a video game about jumping sideways between different versions of the world, and visiting different relationships.

The idea didn’t really go anywhere, so I set it aside.

Until, years later, I came back to it and thought: maybe it’s not the idea that’s the problem. Maybe it’s the format. This doesn’t work as a game, but what if I tried writing it as a novel?

<p>Doubleday</p> 'The Husbands' by Holly Gramazio


'The Husbands' by Holly Gramazio

The book that came out of this, The Husbands, is a comedy about a woman named Lauren who comes home from a party to find her husband waiting for her on the stairs — which is weird, because when she left the apartment that afternoon she was definitely single. But things get even stranger when the husband climbs up into the attic to change a lightbulb, and a different man comes down. Lauren’s attic, she slowly realizes, is creating an infinite supply of husbands; each time one man goes into the attic, a different man comes out.

I get asked a lot about why The Husbands ended up as a novel. Part of it was just that for a story like The Husbands, so much of the action has to happen inside the main character’s thoughts and reactions. Delving into someone’s mind is natural in a novel, but most video games don’t let players see the inner thoughts of the characters close up.

Part of it was that video games tend to be a very collaborative medium, with artists and programmers and writers and designers and producers and testers all working together. And I didn’t have a clear enough idea of what The Husbands should be that I could get other people involved: it took a bunch of drafts and a dozen different endings before it was in a fit state to show to anyone else.

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Part of it was cost and practicality. With a novel, you can just write any sentence you want! It might not be a good sentence, but you can write it. “Water surged through the building, tearing doors from their hinges”? “All the characters changed into sparkly gold leotards and stood in a line and performed an elaborate dance to Taylor Swift’s ‘Out of the Woods’”? Great! Write the sentence. Add a full stop. Job done. (To be clear, neither of these things happen in The Husbands).

But if you try that in a video game, someone has to put all the characters in those sparkly gold leotards. Someone has to make them dance. Someone has to try to license a Taylor Swift song. What if, instead of gold leotards — they might suggest, for reasons of practicality — the characters wear the clothes they’re already wearing, but in a different color? What if they dance to a different song? And actually, what if instead of dancing, they…don’t dance? Wouldn’t that be better?

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After years of working in a medium in which practicalities got in the way of some of my favorite ideas, I loved being able to put whatever I wanted into the book, to add fireworks or a huge mansion or a dozen new characters, restrained only by what worked for the story.

There were some things I didn’t love about the new-to-me form. I missed the pleasure you sometimes get in games of trying out an idea and seeing it work, the rules clicking into place and shifting immediately from not fun to fun. And I missed the joy of seeing other people’s best efforts sitting alongside my own; it was a huge relief when I finally reached the stage of writing a book where editors got involved, asking questions and prodding at the weak points.

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I really missed playtesting, too, which is a part of game-making where you give players an early version of your game and watch what they do. There’s nothing quite like it in writing; sure, you can get any number of people to read your draft and give you feedback but it just doesn’t compare to the second-to-second clarity of being able to see and feel every action your playtesters are taking.

The closest I ever got was when I read an early draft of The Husbands aloud to my actual husband, whose total inability to conceal his thoughts makes him an ideal first listener. But even that wasn’t quite the same.

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Making a game or writing a novel isn’t just a matter of pouring an idea and some characters into an appropriately shaped receptacle. The possibilities of each form change what you can say and how you can say it; they hold sway over the type of stories you can tell.

The Husbands is — in part — about the difficulty of making decisions, about feeling frozen in the face of too many options. And perhaps that’s the key to why I was happier writing it as a novel. I’m happy to put my invented characters through that experience, but asking players to sit with the paralysis of overwhelming choice for themselves? I dunno: I’m not saying nobody could make it fun, but I’m glad I didn’t have to try.

For me, it turns out, there are some ideas that benefit from the affordances of a game, and some that really need the structure and direction of a novel. Even if I’m not quite sure yet how to tell which is which ahead of time.

I loved writing The Husbands. I’ve loved seeing it go out into the world, and hearing from people who are reading it. I’ve been working on a couple of possible directions for a second novel. And I’m getting somewhere with one of them. But the other isn’t quite gelling. Maybe if I set it aside, and come back in a few years, and try it out as a game.

The Husbands is available now, wherever books are sold.

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