Nov 29


Author Interview: Kyle Marquis – “Empyrean”

Posted by: Mary Duffy | Comments (1)

Choice of Games’ latest release will be Empyrean, a flying ace adventure set in a fantastic world. I sat down with the author, Kyle Marquis, who has written novels, graphic novels, RPGs and now interactive fiction. Look for Empyrean later this week, releasing on Thursday, December 1st.

Tell me about what influenced your world creation for Empyrean. What kind of a world is this set in?

I love cities–real and fictional–and most of Empyrean takes place in Actorius, a city inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Actorius is full of skyscrapers, airplanes, colossal and sometimes-unfathomable machines; also deranged inventors, downtrodden laborers, scheming plutocrats. Despite Empyrean being a text-based game, most of my influences are visual. I pulled from film (The City of Lost Children), comics (Akira), cartoons (Batman: The Animated Series), and even games (Megaman). Then I tried to imagine describing those cityscapes to people who had never seen them. The result was Actorius.

The Deep Tech–the mechanical wilderness beneath the city–derives from my longstanding fascination with artificial life. When I was a little kid, I had a Commodore 64 programming book that contained coding instructions for the Game of Life. Life uses a few simple rules to simulate an evolving population of “cells” on the computer screen. Which start conditions would result, after enough iterations, in extinction? In a pattern eternally repeating? In true complexity–an ever-changing, unpredictable configuration of cells? The Deep Tech is like that, and also like a jungle full of robot dinosaurs.

What are some of the social issues you had in mind as you were writing the game?

While Empyrean can be played as a straightforward pulp adventure, it’s hard to tell a story about flying aces in an Art Deco city and not talk about fascism. And it’s hard to talk about cities without talking about labor. Empyrean is about who owns what, and why. The city of Actorius thrives based on an accident of geography–it was built over the Deep Tech–and by its willingness to exploit both those resources and its own citizenry. You, the player, are the beneficiary of that plundered wealth. Empyrean is about how you react to that.

The characters are incredibly well-drawn in this game. In particular, Mogra and Wesh stood out to me as favorites. Which did you enjoy spending time writing?

Writing Wesh was fun because she’s a concept that’s been rattling around in my head forever. I love grabbing characters from one genre or setting and dropping them in another to see if they’re viable. Pulps were full of Tarzan-like characters, but moving one from the jungle to a machine wilderness let me re-energize a stale concept. I also enjoyed Dominicar (the character’s father, and one of the game’s “villains”) for his fundamental shallowness, despite his intelligence and ambition. Here’s a man who has discovered and mapped a mechanical wilderness, and what does he do with it? Not wonder where it came from, or how it works. He starts stealing whatever he can to reverse-engineering radios and fighter planes.

I also enjoyed writing characters like Mogra, Lectini, and the nameless pilot of the mole machine aero, who hint at a world larger and stranger than the struggle between two cities for control of the Deep Tech. I worked hard to strip Empyrean of needless complexity, but I didn’t want the game to feel like it took place in a snowglobe. The murky origins of characters like Mogra and Lectini let me hint at a sprawling and complex world without muddying the central narrative.

What were some of the challenges for you writing in ChoiceScript, and what were the joys? You’re a very prolific writer–Empyrean clocks in at over 300,000 words, which is fantastic, and makes it one of our longest Choice of Games titles.

Writing in ChoiceScript has a wonderful rhythm that helped me avoid the tyranny of the blank page. Organizing everything around choices means the writer always has a structure to fall back on: you look at your stat list, you use your stats to come up with 3-5 choices, and you try to make it clear to the player what’s going on. That last part is the trickiest: you need to imply the mechanics that underlie each choice without just coming out and saying it. If the writing is too mechanical, the game becomes an exercise in stat-calculation for the player; if the writing is too florid, the nature of the choices becomes confusing and, eventually, frustrating.

You’ve also written some RPGs, novels, and comics, yes? Tell me about those.

Before Empyrean I spent several years writing a fantasy webcomic called The Water Phoenix King, and I created a fan game for the World of Darkness tabletop RPG setting called Genius: The Transgression, about mad scientists. I’ve also written several fantasy novels that I’m currently shopping around to agents and publishers. I actually think of myself as a high fantasy writer, but everything I do that’s successful involves airships and robots. Weird.

What are you working on for your next game?

I had so much fun in the Deep Tech that I wanted to spend more time doing a “jungle adventure” game. My next game is a Lost World-style story full of dinosaurs and savage adventure! Expect time-traveling angels, Byzantine imperialists, people turned into ambulatory wasp nests, were-pterodactyls…you know, the usual stuff.

Proust-style Questionnaire questions:

What profession other than writing would you like to attempt?

I would like to be able to make and/or fix something: cars, houses, tiny decorative jars. My family always discouraged me from anything not strictly academic, but sometimes I want to work on something concrete, rather than tapping away all day.

Which would you never like to try?

You mean, never like to try again? Menial service work. I’d rather trap squirrels in 17th century Russia than go back to re-folding novelty t-shirts while tourists explain to me their political opinions and try to guess my ethnic makeup.

Favorite word?

“Conflation,” unfortunately. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.

What do you do to reward yourself after a long day of writing?

I cook food, and then I eat it! Mostly Italian food–I’ve spent several years trying to rebuild the meals my grandmother would make when I was a kid.

Ketchup or catsup?

I believe the ketchup people and the catsup people aren’t so different, and should be able to work together to stop the people who say “I could care less.”

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