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In 1512, Florence is known for ruthless politics, art, and magic. Now that the infamous Medici banking family is back in power, the city is full of dangerous secrets. What would the treacherous Machiavelli do in a situation like this? Just ask him in person! The Magician’s Workshop is a 190,000 word interactive novel by Kate Heartfield. I sat down with Kate to talk about her second game and the pleasures of blending history and magic.
The Magician’s Workshop releases this Thursday, December 19th.
This is your second game in ChoiceScript, your first being the Nebula-nominated The Road to Canterbury. Tell me how the second time around differed from the first.
The fantastical elements are much more front-and-center in The Magician’s Workshop, so in this game I spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted players to be able to use magic. It was nice to write a game without having to go through as much of a learning curve in ChoiceScript. I was a little bit looser in my scene-by-scene planning as I went, this time, probably because I had more confidence. That looseness got me into some tangles and gave me quite a few headaches in the drafting process, but it also gave me some space to play and go in fun directions.
These are two games with very different settings! We’ve moved forward in time a couple hundred years. What drew you to write about Renaissance Florence?
I seem to be drawn to moments of political and cultural change. In The Road to Canterbury, that was the Hundred Years War and the class upheavals that followed the Black Death. The Magician’s Workshop is set in a city that went through a series of dramatic changes in leadership while the alliances of Europe shifted around it. Within a generation it had gone through a period of religious fervor under Savonarola and a period of something very close to what we’d call democracy today. In 1512, the Medici family returned to Florence after years of exile, put the political strategist Machiavelli under house arrest and invited the city to celebrate. That moment seemed like an interesting one to explore. This was a city of artists, inventors and philosophers challenging the assumptions of their parents and grandparents and asking questions about the nature of power. What if they had also had the ability to work literal magic?
What were some of the challenges of writing a world with magic in addition to actual figures like Machiavelli?
Even though this is a Florence in a world not quite like our own, I still stuck to the basic facts of history. Every historical figure who appears in the game either was in Florence at that time, or might have been. Machiavelli’s house with its tunnel to the local bar is a real place. Trying to keep history more or less the same helped to give me some boundaries: magic can open up new possibilities, but like all forms of power, it can be slippery and it comes at a cost.
Did you have a favorite NPC you enjoyed spending time with?
So many! The historical figures were lots of fun, especially the sisters-in-law Alfonsina Orsini and Lucrezia de’ Medici, who were extremely powerful women with opposite views on how to wield that power. There’s a mysterious thief of my invention named Dangereuse Clement with whom I’d love to have a drink. But ultimately, I kept coming back to the player’s relationship with the two other top-level artisans in the workshop: invented characters named Piero del Volpe and Fiametta Mazzei. Their views of the world, of the workshop, of magic and of art are so different. The dynamic between the player and those two characters really shapes the game.
What else are you working on?
Surprise surprise, I’m deep into another transitional period in European history. I’m working on a big historical fantasy novel called The Embroidered Book, starring Marie Antoinette and her sister Maria Carolina as rival magicians. The book is due to my publisher soon, and will be published in summer 2021.