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Can you win fame, fortune, and romance as a playwright, before a deadly curse brings the curtain down for good?
Become the official playwright at the Odeon, the most prestigious theater in Medaris. Here, high society gathers to gossip, frolic, and flirt. Dazzling special effects, enhanced by real magical enchantments, keep the audience in their seats. The plays you write have the power to manipulate public opinion, changing the course of history.
The Play’s the Thing is a 245,000-word interactive romantic fantasy novel by Jo Graham and Amy Griswold, best-selling authors of Stronghold: A Hero’s Fate and The Eagle’s Heir. I sat down with Amy and Jo to talk about their latest game, a wild new fantasy. The Play’s the Thing releases this Thursday, August 26th. You can play the first three chapters today.
The Play’s the Thing is such an interesting addition to your oeuvre! I’m really amazed at the diversity of setting between this game, Stronghold: A Hero’s Fate, and The Eagle’s Heir. Tell me how you dreamt this game up.
This spark for this game actually came from a tabletop RPG campaign that spawned a side plot involving a playwright trying to run a theater company while momentous heroic fantasy events loomed around him. We knew we wanted a game looking at fantasy politics through the lens of an artist trying to make art in strange times, and that part of the game was going to be working to inspire your audience to take various actions through the themes of your plays. The city of Medaris isn’t a real place, but it’s meant to have a sort of Renaissance Italian feel to it, and we got the chance to play with a bunch of theatrical tropes (and make a bunch of theater jokes).
The PC of this game is a playwright—not an easy profession to depict in the first/second person fashion of a text based RPG. Tell me some of the challenges around “writing writing.”
The trick was to dramatize writing by turning it into interesting challenges that depend on the PC’s stats and choices. The process of writing the various plays in the game tends to break down to three questions: What do you want your play to say, how are you going to make your play good, and how are you going to get your play staged the way you want it? Some plays will inspire people to hope, or to follow their hearts, or to act with honor. Others ironically poke fun at those things. As the game progresses, the influence you have on your audience and on the city’s rulers will change the choices you have available for dealing with the magical threat to the city.
Once you have a message, you need to choose strategies for making your play popular, or critically acclaimed, or (if you’re very lucky) both. The idea for failures here is very much “sometimes bad things happen to good writers.” It’s assumed that you can write great prose, but you may still wind up writing something that the public doesn’t understand, or that fails to pull off something emotionally complex, or that relies on special effects that don’t work or a diva who won’t perform, or that winds up with every original element removed by an overly-cautious director. Or you might write a great play that the city’s ruler hates, and find yourself in no end of trouble.
There’s also an interesting amount of lore and magic in this world. What does that inject into the game for the player?
The curse that threatens the city provides an external threat for the player, and acts as a ticking time bomb: if nothing’s done to stop the curse, the city is doomed to an apocalyptic fall. The shadows stalking the streets are the most visible manifestation of the curse, but it’s also an increasing threat causing accidents and bad luck. Magic is also used in more prosaic ways, to produce special effects onstage or to move objects and create minor illusions.
The curse has its roots in events in the past, and figuring out what happened to create this dangerous situation is just the beginning; the trickier part is figuring out what you’re going to do about it.
Was there an NPC you enjoyed writing most?
I’m fond of Nichol, the theater’s sardonic director, and they (the game’s major NPCs are gender-flippable to maximize PC romance options) were a lot of fun to write. Nichol has a knack for cutting through some of the nonsense of actors and playwrights, but also a deep and ultimately sincere dedication to the theater combined with a well-hidden idealistic streak. I also enjoyed writing the Raven, the city’s tyrannical ruler who is determined to deny that the curse exists even as it becomes clearer and clearer that they’re courting their own doom in the process.
What are you working on next?
Amy is working on a gay historical mystery novel set in Renaissance Rome, cowritten with Melissa Scott, and is also writing on a solo space opera novel. Jo has Sounding Dark, the first book in The Calpurnian Wars series, coming out in December. She’s also writing a historical fantasy series about the Borgias.