Dec 14

2020

Author Interview: Phoebe Barton, The Luminous Underground

Posted by: Mary Duffy | Comments (0)

Blast spirits out of a haunted subway system! Can your team defeat rival exterminators, shoddy gear, and City Hall? The Luminous Underground is a 660,000-word interactive secondary-world science fantasy novel by Phoebe Barton. I sat down with Phoebe to talk about the world of this immense game, and learn more about her process. The Luminous Underground releases this Thursday, December 17th. 


The Luminous Underground is your first foray into game writing, but certainly not your first sci-fi or science fantasy rodeo. Tell me about your work.

Certainly not is right! I started out very committed to the whole “hard science fiction, must not break physics, breaking physics is bad” thing, and I had some short stories published in magazines like Analog and some anthologies. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to let myself write other things, and I find that the whole “science fantasy” idiom of The Luminous Underground can be very relaxing. It showed me that some of the hardest knots to untie are the ones you tie yourselves. I tend to write a lot about isolation, and considering how much emphasis is placed on the subway tunnels in The Luminous Underground, it’s a theme that comes through whether or not I’m thinking about it.

What did you find most surprising about the process of writing an interactive novel?

The pace of the writing itself took me a while to get used to, and even then I never really got used to it as much as I established an uneasy truce with it. Having regular choices so that the player can keep interacting with the story is important, but since my style of writing is start-to-finish rather than skipping around to whatever interests me most at that time, it felt like riding a bike down a street with a million stop signs. I was always focused on giving the player a satisfying resolution to their choices, but it meant that, in combination with my style, it was a very gas-brake, gas-brake process.

This game is HUGE! 660,000 words. Safe to assume the longest thing you’ve ever written? What about the story itself made it so long?

Definitely the longest! I never expected it to turn out so long, and back when I was looking at the contract, part of me was all “I don’t know if I can write ten thousand words in eight weeks, but I’ll do my best,” and over two years it unfolded to cover much more than I’d expected. The length came about because I didn’t want to gloss over anything–I wanted it to be chewy. This might come from my previous experience with interactive games: before I started writing The Luminous Underground I played Hollywood Visionary, and what surprised me the most about that game was that you only get to make one movie during a playthrough. I think that I wanted there to be a lot of “there” in The Luminous Underground, and I wasn’t satisfied with the idea of a page being, say, three one-sentence-long paragraphs, or the player only being able to skim the surface of the world. Plus, the story radiated out in ways that I never expected. There’s so much in the final version that I’d never even imagined when I wrote the outline.

Do you have a favorite NPC you enjoyed writing most?

Alice, absolutely! Not just in The Luminous Underground, but she’s my favorite character out of all the ones I’ve ever written. She exploded from the outline to the finished product: originally she was just a person you hire who has some interesting abilities, but when I wanted to foreshadow an event later on in the game and establish what things are possible in the game’s world, the idea of her being an unwitting time traveller opened so many opportunities. She’s really the deuteragonist of the game, and since the player character’s arc in any given playthrough is defined by the player, I took a lot of the arc-building I wanted to do and gave it to her. Besides, I really wanted to do good things for her, seeing as how I started her off on very unenviable ground. I’d love to write Alice in more things, but considering how much she changes through the game–in ways that I’d love to talk about here, but don’t want to spoil–it’d be a careful balancing act.

What are you working on next?

I’m in the early stages of putting a novel together! It’s not the first time I’ve tried, but after 660,000 words of game, it’s a lot less daunting. Otherwise, I’m working on more short stories and am starting to learn Twine. I’m not going to let this be a one-and-done when it comes to games by me.

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