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Pilot and customize a giant iron war mech in this alternate medieval history! In 1182 AD, the Papacy, the Caliphate, and the Mongols are at war, and they all have mechs–hulking war robots, powered by energy from mysterious “skystone” meteorites. Our story begins in the far future, on a space mission to intercept a comet that can open wormholes through space and time. When your ship and the crew are sucked in and thrown backward through time, you awake from cryogenic suspension in 1182–at the height of the Third Crusade.
Ironheart is a 250,000-word interactive novel by Lee Williams. I sat down with Lee to talk about his game, the Crusades, and why work-in-progress sharing works. Ironheart releases this Thursday, February 27th.
Tell me a little about how you came to be writing for Choice of Games.
Like most good things that happen to me, I fell into it unexpectedly. I’ve been writing professionally for almost twenty years and a couple of years back I worked on a project with Gavin Inglis, who’d previously written a couple of excellent COG games, (For Rent: Haunted House and Neighbourhood Necromancer), and he recommended that I pitch some concepts. I was already a fan of the franchise so I followed his advice and here we are!
What drew you to this period of history for the subject of a game of interactive fiction?
I’ve always been fascinated by the Crusades and, in a broader sense, by all places and times where different cultures have rubbed up against one another with such dramatic results, seismic activity along the fault lines of history. It isn’t the conflict that interests me so much as the exchange of ideas and the ways in which the peoples and cultures involved were changed and often enriched by the contact.
The Crusades were vastly more complex than the simple clash of East and West that is often portrayed and I hope I’ve managed to capture some of that in Ironheart. Although I try to avoid having any sort of message or agenda in my writing, I think it’s worthwhile to reflect on this in a time when our own global politics seem to be increasingly polarised.
What was the most challenging part of writing Ironheart for you?
As I was writing, I was conscious of being tugged two ways: on one hand, I love the period and want to make it feel as authentic as I can, but on the other hand, my game has giant mechs in it! I tried hard to hit a sort of swashbuckling mood that could marry the setting and the silliness together and I just hope I’ve been successful.
How did you like working on it in a semi-public way, as a posted WIP on the forum?
I usually write in a complete vacuum so this was a new experience for me and I loved it. The forum was a really helpful source of feedback and encouragement and I made huge changes to the early chapters of the game in response to requests and suggestions from players.
I think it’s especially useful for interactive fiction to be developed in this way since player agency is such a large part of the experience. If I were writing a traditional novel, a reader could say “Oh, I wanted the main character to be more like this” or “I don’t think the main character would have done that” and I could simply dismiss their concerns with a lordly wave of my hand and say “Pshaw! It’s my story and my character, I know how it should be!” In interactive fiction, however, you can’t treat the player/reader like that–they’re in control of the protagonist and if they want to do something and can’t, that’s a fault you have to address.
(I wouldn’t really say “Pshaw” anyway. I had to check how to spell it and I’m not brave enough to try pronouncing it in conversation…)
Did you have a favorite NPC you liked writing? I think Tonzo will be a fan favorite.
He’s probably mine too. They say write what you know so a fool was easy! I especially enjoyed writing his interactions with Guillaume, his elderly master; they seemed like a natural double-act.
To be honest, I enjoyed writing all the characters. The structure of a COG game was really healthy for me as a writer because there’s an expectation that you cover every path a reader might care to take and this means writing a whole range of disparate characters. It forcibly broadens your focus and that’s really invigorating!
What are you working on next?
I’ve recently been able to take on enough writing work that at the start of 2020 I made the decision to step down from my other job, as a special educational needs co-ordinator in a local school. So it’s all clear horizons at the moment, exciting and terrifying in equal measures!
One of the reasons for my change of career was that I’d moved into a more administrative role and missed working with young people, so I’m hoping to marry the teaching and writing together by working on some educational games, with a particular focus on games designed to help children with emotional and behavioural regulation. I think there’s a lot of untapped potential for good in this area.
I also have a couple of collaborations on more traditional video games underway, and I’d love to write something else for Choice of Games in the future. ChoiceScript is a beautiful, flexible language and it’s been an absolute joy working on Ironheart.
Links to all my projects can be found on my website: www.leewilliams.eu