Apr 20


Author Interview: Peter Parrish, Mask of the Plague Doctor

Posted by: Mary Duffy | Comments (0)

Stop a deadly plague in a medieval fantasy tale of swords and surgery! The town of Thornback Hollow is under quarantine. Its people are unable to sleep, tormented by a disease known as the Waking Death, and the infection is spreading. The Crown has commanded you and two other plague doctors to end the plague, even if that means destroying the town.

Mask of the Plague Doctor is a 410,000-word interactive novel by Peter Parrish. I sat down with Peter to discuss fantasy plagues in the current midst of the global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

Mask of the Plague Doctor releases this Thursday, April 23rd.

It feels very strange that this game is being published during the coronavirus pandemic, but we’ve of course been working on it since the summer of 2018. And interestingly, sales of the table top game, Pandemic, have soared since this began. I wonder if being able to role play in similar scenarios can help people to cope with the stress of the real thing.

It’s been quite surreal to watch most of the world enter into varying states of quarantine across the past couple of months, and to be subject to a moderate one myself here in Washington State. When I started writing this game, the 2018 World Cup had just finished. That kind of international, communal event has just ceased to exist for the near-to-mid future – with good reason, of course.

I think you’re right that the renewed interest in plague and pandemic related materials comes from people trying to deal with, and understand, their present circumstances. There’s a level of control, especially with games, that you simply don’t have over the real life. They let you act out and explore anxieties in a more abstract way. Games won’t feed you or pay the rent, but they can at least provide a good distraction while you’re stuck indoors.

I hope Mask of the Plague Doctor can entertain people in the same manner. But I’m sure for some this is the last topic they want to think about, and I completely understand that feeling too.

That said, this is a total fantasy setting with a medieval-fantasy tone. And the disease is far deadlier. Tell me a little about the world of Thornback Hollow.

Thornback Hollow is just one town within a wider realm, but for the player and protagonist it is pretty much their whole world for the game’s duration. It’s loosely 13th-14th Century European in character, so the main industries are timber, a tannery, and (outside the walls) agriculture. The inhabitants find themselves afflicted by a strange and terrifying sickness that prevents the infected from sleeping. If you’ve ever gone without sleep for 24 hours, suffered from insomnia, or more severe sleep disorders, you’ll have an idea how rapidly that takes a toll on body and mind.

The town also has the (mis)fortune to lay on the main trade route to the ocean, so the Crown authorities are especially keen to find a cure – and willing, if necessary, to take far more drastic measures to clear the way and get the economy going again. That’s where you and your plague doctor companions come in.

In MotPD‘s world, the history of medicine and surgery has progressed rather differently from our own. It’s at a 13th Century level in many ways, but there was no Four Humors theory developed here, nor any astrological tables to consult. But Thornback Hollow’s realm does have its own deities, and those who practice medicine by communing with them (as well as many who prefer more grounded methods).

The feudal period provides a lot of clear-cut themes of class and power too, which are topics close to my heart. As a plague doctor you carry a certain amount of authority, but you ultimately answer to a ruling class whose interests may not align with your own.

Can you say a bit about what informed your initial conception for the game. Why a plague doctor tale?

It seems a bit funny to be saying this now that the game is over 400,000 words long, but I wanted to keep things tight and on a manageable scale! Before this, I’ve only ever written short fiction, so a story where the player would literally be stuck behind town walls seemed like a good way to keep the tale somewhat confined. I took a fair bit of inspiration from Albert Camus’ The Plague, which has a similar premise (albeit in the 1940s).

For MotPD, I wanted a fantasy-medieval theme because medicine in that 13th Century era is such a fascinating collision of techniques. There are some that still have contemporary relevance, there’s some well-meaning guesswork, and then there’s a whole lot of absolutely wild nonsense. You have doctors disinfecting wounds with alcohol and applying honey as a sort of early antibiotic, but others trying to treat gout by saying “well, wait until the next solstice, then decapitate an owl…” It provides a lot of reference material for real medical methods, and a lot of flexibility for inventing weird things of my own.

Plus, I think almost everybody agrees that plague doctor masks are eerie and cool. There’s that duality of purpose where they’re worn by those who could save your life, but their appearance in town symbolizes tragedy, decay, and death. That appeals to my inner goth, I suppose. Catherine Joo’s cover art really helps convey that feeling, I love how she depicted my characters.

Funnily enough, although most people associate plague doctors and their masks with the medieval Black Death, the popular beaked aesthetic comes from far, far later in the 17th Century. I’m afraid MotPD is perpetuating this myth. Sorry, historians.

What I have found so compelling about the current pandemic is that there are obvious parallels to what happens in the game, which I guess speaks to the nature of public health management in general, whether it’s real or fictional.

I think in a situation like this, where despite what we do know about SARS-CoV-2 there is no current vaccine or cure, we fall back on these older, tested techniques. We know this is a virus, not some vague “miasma,” but the idea of reducing spread by reducing proximity is the same. Without any reliable form of treatment, the best prevention is to not catch it in the first place.

I’m really intrigued to see how people respond to the game now that most will have experienced some degree of quarantine. Will it influence the sorts of choices they make? Are there measures they would like to implement that I’ve not accounted for? For a while I worried that I’d written my ruling authorities as a bit too self-interested and cruel, but reality has since convinced me otherwise.

You come from a background in games journalism, but I believe this is your first foray into writing interactive fiction? Tell me a little about your other work.

This is my first work of interactive fiction, yes. Also my first work of published fiction longer than about 5,000 words.

For about ten years I primarily wrote for a site called IncGamers (now PC Invasion), doing reviews, interviews, and the like. Archiving procedures might have messed with things, but I think most of my work is still hosted some fashion. Anyway, I’ve always loved reactive RPGs that respond and acknowledge your choices with significant narrative branches – games like Fallout: New Vegas or (especially!) Alpha Protocol. Long before that I’d play extremely frustrating text adventures on the ZX Spectrum, where you had to pretty much know the exact verb the designer was thinking of when they wrote the puzzle in order to solve it. I’d read a lot of Fighting Fantasy books as a child, too. I’ve still got the Sorcery! set on my shelves somewhere.

So I guess all of that background, plus my dabbling in short stories, made interactive fiction a natural fit.

I’ll be on the receiving end of reviews for once, instead of writing them. That should be…interesting.

What are you working on next?

Given how this has played out, I should probably write something utopian and hope that comes true as well.

Honestly, I’ve really enjoyed writing interactive fiction. If Mask of the Plague Doctor is well received, perhaps you’ll see another Choice of Games title under my name.

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