Jun 08

2020

Author Interview: Anaea Lay, Light Years Apart

Posted by: Mary Duffy | Comments (0)

Can you and your sister outfox a galaxy-spanning AI to save your home planet? A rollicking adventure with space pirates, spies, and snarky computers.

Light Years Apart is a 230,000-word interactive sci-fi novel by Anaea Lay, author of Gilded Rails. I sat down with Anaea to talk about the challenges and surprises in writing interactive fiction.

Light Years Apart releases this Thursday, June 11th. You can play the the first three chapters today

This is your second game with COG, the first being the historical management game Gilded Rails. It’s kind of amazing to see the same author tackle two such completely different settings. Tell me a little about that.

Part of it is that Gilded Rails was really far outside my normal comfort zone for setting. In the pitch and early development process I was preoccupied with what would make a cool, interesting game, and forgot that I would be the one developing it at the other end. I learned a lot from doing that, but one of the things I learned was that I definitely prefer reading history and historical settings more than I enjoy working in them.

Light Years Apart, setting-wise, is much more in my wheelhouse. It’s based on a universe I’ve written several novels in and know really well, which meant my focus on the development could hone in on mechanics and gameplay elements rather than working out setting details.

Aside from the settings, though, I think it’s pretty clear they’re the same author. Light Years Apart is more plot-forward than Gilded Rails, but the parts of GR, I think, that are strongest are the characters and how the world they’re in interacts with and shapes them. Because of when its set and the material its focusing on, there are very explicit themes around justice, oppression, and reform. All those things are still in Light Years Apart, the scope is just narrower here and the focus is more on the personal level than the society/world level. Also, I’m still sarcastic.

What drew you to tell this story?

The story in this game is actually a single POV plotline I pulled out of a novel with an ensemble cast. I wrote the novel mostly to work out the world building and firm up setting details for a universe I’d been cooking at the back of my head for a long time. The plan was to tear around the universe, having as much fun as possible, so I could figure out what did and didn’t work before getting into the seriouz bizniz ™ plot.

I was about halfway through work on Gilded Rails when I decided I wanted to adapt that into a game. I’m not much of a planner when I’m writing normally–which is probably obvious after saying I wrote a whole novel just to figure out world building–and that process does not work well for game development. Taking something where a lot of the overall arcs were well known meant I could be much more savvy about designing mechanics and stats, planning out scenes, all sorts of things that work better if you’re pragmatic up front.

Besides, who wouldn’t want to write a game full of snark and pirates and having to balance split loyalties while zipping around the universe?

There’s a lot of fun space piratey stuff in this game. What part of building this world did you most enjoy?

That’s a hard question since I basically mashed together everything I like about space opera. I definitely have a soft spot for all the sentient computers, though. How they wind up interacting with the human characters, and the tension around what even the existence of what we’re calling “strong AI” these days means for human society is a rabbit hole I am always happy to fall down. Very fundamental disagreements about the ethics and wisdom of throwing in with artificial intelligence, versus a more Luddite approach, and how that interacts with questions of exploitation and xenophobia, are the background of a lot of the conflict. There aren’t tidy answers in the game because these aren’t questions with tidy answers. But the computer on the PC’s ship, the intelligence running the pirate ship, a few others you may or may not meet in the course of playing the game, they were all fun to write. And the way they tie into those core questions made them important in ways that went beyond cracking easy jokes about human-robot relationships.

Were there things that you surprised yourself with during the writing process?

I had two big surprises working on this. The first was in working up the original outline. I mentioned above that this an adaptation of one slice of a novel with an ensemble cast. The ending of that novel is very much the product of elements from each cast member coming together. That meant I had to throw out basically that whole ending, because so much of the setup for it had no way to come over for the adaptation. If I’d kept it, it would have been a very unsatisfying deus ex machina. I’d expected a lot of change around the ending, obviously, because there were going to be a lot of different possibilities. I hadn’t expected that no version of the original ending would be feasible, but it was obvious very quickly that was the case.

The other surprise was something I didn’t expect up front at all, and didn’t have an inkling of until feedback started coming in, though it was related to the other surprise: Calvary as a setting did not work as well in the single-POV game format as it does where it gets more context and nuance. The “back-worlds” in this universe have all been set up as large scale social experiments. This is something that’s relatively common knowledge on the “civilized” worlds, but not well known elsewhere. Calvary is a place really designed to highlight the problems you get when you deliberately construct a xenophobic society just so you can see how it plays out, and stand as an indictment of the forces that are preoccupied with arguing over human-AI relationships without stopping to question how they’ve both bought into the virtue of turning whole societies into pawns. Basically all of that nuance and theme work vanished with narrowing down to a single POV. I wound up spending a lot of time on reworking the setting to remove hints and pointers to things that weren’t getting picked up or addressed in the game because of the narrower focus.

Usually when I’m revising or editing I’m adding in or refining complexity and details, not pulling them out or undermining them. It was really startling to face plant in the middle of needing to make a whole setting and society do less.

I know the working title for this game was “Sentient Domain” which captures certain elements of the story, but I also love the title “Light Years Apart.” They both seem to reveal a lot about this game.

Sentient Domain is the name of the novel this was adapted from, but that element of the world building is much more important to the ending of the novel than it wound up being for any facet of the game. It’s still important for the worldbuilding and some of the thematic routes you can pursue, but it doesn’t capture the core of the game the way a title should. Light Years Apart works for pretty much any path you take through the game, and works with the more personal, focused stakes here.

What are you working on next?

I don’t know what day of the week it is right now. I’ll figure my next project…someday.

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