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Chosen by the gods, you must battle savage monsters, corrupt priests, and mad philosophers to save reality from the dark god of destruction!
Years ago, in the Behemoth War, the forces of evil tried to destroy the world with Raun, the dark axe of destruction. Your parents united with King Hyras to win the Behemoth War and save the kingdom, becoming legendary heroes. You have been raised far from the intrigues and corruption of the great cities–and from the plots of the gods. But after twenty years of peace, the pirate king Lord Vankred has found Raun. Under the threat of war, the gods grant you their powers. You must find the mad King Hyras and defeat Vankred before he can assassinate the King and shatter the Three Nations.
Pon Para and the Great Southern Labyrinth is an interactive Bronze Age fantasy novel by Kyle Marquis, the first game in the Pon Para trilogy. I sat down with Kyle to talk about heroes and his games. Pon Para releases this Thursday, May 9th.
We’re in entirely new territory in this game. You’ve referred to it as a Bronze Age saga, but what exactly does that mean? When is the Bronze Age, and what do we know about it?
When creating Pon Para, I wanted something different from the typical fantasy world, with its Rome-to-Renaissance mashup of settings and technologies. I wanted a world that felt more raw and new, a place ruled by emotions and vendettas–it needed to feel dangerous and wild, not cozy and familiar. Though Pon Para‘s World That Remains is not our world, I was inspired by a real historical event: over a thousand years before the fall of Rome, a thriving pan-Eurasian civilization suffered a catastrophic failure, an event called the Bronze Age Collapse. No consensus exists about what caused it. Pon Para is a fantastic version of that calamity, and places your character–a Bronze Age hero–in the middle of a disaster whose full extent no one else understands.
This is for sure a story about heroes, and while the PC in Empyrean is a hero in my mind, what is different about writing a heroic story?Easier? Funner?
One advantage of a Bronze Age setting is that you can work with the ambiguity of the word “hero.” Your Pon Para can be an epic fantasy hero, trying to do the right thing in the face of calamity and war, or a hero in the Homeric sense–powerful, capable of victory in war and intrigue, but ruled by all-consuming passions and rages. Or you can try for a more modern hero: someone conflicted, overwhelmed by the challenges ahead, and trying to think their way through the chaos. Pon Para is, at least in part, about deciding what sort of hero you want to be, and I wanted a game with personality traits that would let you shape your own subjective reactions to what’s happening in the world.
What about the hero tropes did you want to subvert?
I could write an entire essay about the subversion of fantasy tropes. In a way, subversion is harder than you think! Games of Thrones changed how people view epic fantasy, but Martin’s jeremiads against chivalry and knighthood already existed in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958). The Lord of the Rings is, itself, a subversion of the heroic quest for power–it’s a story about surrendering power, and an unambiguous rejection of a conventionally heroic narrative of victory-in-arms. All of our favorite fantasies seem to end in the rejection of their own initial assumptions. Before he threw his lightsaber away in The Last Jedi, Luke tossed it aside in Return of the Jedi, refusing the simple role of tyrant-slayer that had been assigned to him.
So, what is subversion in a genre defined by rejecting the imposed narrative? In Pon Para, it’s about the player’s own subjective experience of guiding (or embodying) their hero. Every ChoiceScript game is about what kinds of choices are possible; in Pon Para I wanted to emphasize not just the external choices–Do I travel by boat or on foot? Do I fight or flee?–but your own reactions and feelings.
Pon Para and the Great Southern Labyrinth is also the first in a trilogy. You’ve written three games for us, Empyrean, Silverworld, and Tower Behind the Moon, none of which have a sequel. So what went into planning this longer narrative?
Well, first, I couldn’t blow up the world in any of the endings, unlike in my other games. But I also needed to construct multiple, complete endings. I didn’t want the first game to just “stop,” so much of the challenge in constructing Great Southern Labyrinth was in writing different, equally satisfying conclusions to the first game. ChoiceScript games aren’t static narratives, and finding the sweet spot between letting the player’s choices affect the world and not rendering sequels impossible because there were too many possible states proved an interesting and exciting challenge.
You’re known for your imaginative and shocking world elements: feathered apes, mechanical jungles, need I mention the Volcano Fortress of the Snake People from Silverworld? What’s new and cool in Pon Para?
Oh, the usual: a hell of iron wheels powered by the tortured labor of the accursed dead, remote-controlled assassins with golden arm-blades, moss golems, firebirds birthed from the blood of a murdered sky god, autocannibalizing troll armies, and a mile-long battleship fighting a city.
And of course, what can we expect in installment two of this trilogy?
Pon Para and the Unconquerable Scorpion sends our heroes west to the great city of Shalmek, capital of the Desert Empire. Expect insect cults, shapeshifter wars, more schemes from the Condors of Patabesh (the guild of robbers), the death and resurrection of true philosophy, another chance to cross swords with the dark general Galimar, and one really big, really unconquerable scorpion.