May 22

2018

Author Interview: Natalia Theodoridou, “Rent-a-Vice”

Posted by: Mary Duffy | Comments (0)

What doesn’t kill you…kills someone else, and leads you down an ethical rabbit hole. In the near future, paying users can rent the “virtual experiences” of other people. These “feeders” sublet their own bodies, at the risk of their own lives, so that customers can safely enjoy extreme, potentially self-destructive vices, like binge eating, cliff diving, or worse. Rent-a-Vice is a 150,000-word interactive cyberpunk-noir mystery novel by Natalia Theodoridou. I sat down with Natalia to talk about her game, and the challenges of writing dark. Rent-a-Vice releases this Thursday, May 24th.

What inspired you to write Rent-a-Vice?
This is always the hardest question for me to answer. I can rarely trace the process of creating something from inspiration to end result with straight lines; it’s usually made up of fragments, glimpses, half-remembered things. If I could, I would answer every such question with a collage. The one for Rent-a-Vice would include news articles about virtual reality and empathy games, the cost of mediating and sharing individual experience, Being John Malkovich, a Ray Bradbury story in which a girl could see through other people’s eyes…probably a lot more. But, in its core themes, this is very much a personal piece about addiction and self-harm: how we survive, how we piece ourselves back together, how we connect with each other, how we hold on, how we go on.

How did you start in the world of interactive fiction?
Tory Hoke invited me to contribute to the inaugural issue of sub-Q, a magazine for interactive fiction, back in 2015. I love experimentation and trying out different literary formats, so I was immediately hooked by the new possibilities afforded by the genre. The piece that resulted was “Sleepless.” It takes place in this world where people gradually stop sleeping, and interactive fiction allowed me to explore things that would have been impossible in any other medium: hallucinations, the double vision of sleeplessness, things flickering in the corner of your eye. In the end, “the story itself” was inextricable from the medium; that’s what I like most about interactive fiction. It is impossible to tell this story in any other way, and that’s how it should be.

Rent-a-Vice is arguably the “darkest” game we’ve ever released. What were some of the challenges in writing it?
My writing tends to be rather dark, so some of the challenges I faced with Rent-a-Vice I face with everything I write: how to produce something that talks about dark themes without causing harm (hence the heavy content warnings with which this game comes), and without being utterly depressing. Or, if it is, there needs to be some other use for this darkness: building empathy or understanding; letting some stranger out there know that they’re not the only person on earth to have thought this terrible thought or to have felt that horrible feeling; taking a walk in someone else’s head for a minute–something. I do like fiction that is uplifting and hopeful, but I don’t think that everything always has to be that way; both as a creator and as a reader, I find that rather oppressive. Sometimes, sharing someone else’s darkness can be all you need to make it through the day. You know that Oscar Wilde quote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”? Sometimes you don’t even need the stars; you just need to know there’s someone else down there with you, or that there’s someone else out there who has been where you’ve been.

Because Rent-a-Vice is a game as well as an interactive novel, there was the additional challenge of making this material compelling enough to sustain multiple playthroughs, and to explore a dark situation without imposing thoughts and feelings on players. I think that, ultimately, the difficulty this caused was also my reward: I got to hold these themes that mean so much to me up to the light and explore them from multiple angles, inhabiting different attitudes and points of view. This was a real gift.

How do you find working with ChoiceScript?
I absolutely love it. It’s incredibly writer-friendly and intuitive, but also robust enough to guide a writer towards setting up the game in a way that works. Writing with ChoiceScript really drives home the idea that a single playthrough is always a complete story, but it’s never the whole story. I think this helped me become a better writer by forcing me to interrogate the choices my characters make even in non-interactive stories–to take into account the ghosts of all the choices not made, the paths not taken. It may have also infected my life in the same way a little bit.

What are you writing next?
I am off to the Clarion West Writers Workshop soon, so I will be working on short fiction this summer, but after that I plan to go back to longer work. I would also like to try my hand at another game–something more plot-focused and fun this time. Hopefully.

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