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Will you defend your kingdom with forbidden magic, or backstab the crown? Win tournaments, kiss a prince or princess, or just seize power for yourself! Battlemage: Magic by Mail is a 168,000-word interactive novel by Nic Barkdull; I sat down with Nic to talk about his first Choice of Games title and the tropes of this genre. Battlemage: Magic by Mail releases this Thursday, Aug 12th. You can play the first three chapters for free today.
This isn’t your first time writing interactive fiction. What drew you to this form of storytelling?
My first published game was for the Interactive Fiction Competition in 2019. I did it at the suggestion of a fellow writer at another game I was working on, but I was immediately drawn in by the paradoxical simplicity yet potential complexity of the form. I quickly realized that interactive fiction is the same as any other game style, but the assets are all prose instead of drawings, 3D models, or particles. In fact, that first game, Black Sheep, was written largely on my smartphone (I had computer troubles while traveling) and it still managed to win some prize money. I had created what was essentially a point-and-click cyberpunk mystery with only the use of text and some imaginative coding. The fact that interactive fiction gives me access to such powerful mechanics made me love doing it. In fact, I’m working on another IFComp entry this year that I would describe as a cyberpunk text Metroidvania. I’ve moved on from Twine to Unity, but all the fancy UI additions are essentially for flavor. It’s still the text that drives the game.
Battlemage is a kind of classic squire story with some interesting twists and worldbuilding. Tell me about your inspirations for this game.
Honestly, at the risk of offending genre fans, it came from my doubt of the genre’s conventions. When I was young, I was an enthusiastic fan of high fantasy, but I’ve shifted more to science fiction as an adult because I never quite understood why everyone needs to carry a sword and speak like they’re from 1800’s Britain for it to be considered fantasy. It comes from Tolkien and Le Morte d’Arthur of course, but I also have a background in living outside the West and studying culture outside the dominant European knowledge sphere. So, I wanted to subvert the genre in a way that didn’t misrepresent any cultures. That meant creating a fun pastiche that plays on European fantasy but also includes modern vernacular and place names and people that are more familiar to the life I’ve lived around the world. I think this playful tone allowed me to simultaneously separate from specific historical tensions in the real world while also exploring themes like loyalty, heroism, and betrayal in an exciting way.
Did you have a favorite NPC you enjoyed writing for most?
It really shifted around during the process. I thought I would like Princess Yuwen the most, but she ended up not getting as much attention in the end. I love the shrewd politics of the Contessa, I like the way Kelton interprets loyalty and tries to be serious on the outside but how he’s soft on the inside, and I like the fact that Yuxin is arguably an evil prince yet he’s still a potential romantic interest. But I have to say the unexpected winner of the favorite character award goes to the completely unplanned Sir Clyde. He was thrown in as disposable comedic relief for one chapter but he just kept coming back for cameos right until the end.
What would you tell a writer who was also beginning a journey to write a branching narrative?
I would say check out the Choice of Games model first, and see how similar design is used for games like Disco Elysium. The CoG theory uses stats to remember choices and feel the effect of them later. The key to branching narrative is that it should give the illusion of freedom while still guiding the branches back to the main path. If your branches split off completely, you’re simply writing different stories in parallel. That is a lot of work, and if you get too far away from the other branches it’s harder for them to affect each other. And I think that lesson is literally directly from the Choice of Games style guide, so I can’t take credit for it. But after that, definitely experiment with different mechanics that play on that fundamental theory.
What are you working on outside of writing IF?
I just finished a narrative consultancy where we reworked the story for the Switch and mobile port of a small indie puzzle game called In My Shadow, so it should look quite different from the Steam release. I have also started localization for a VR arena fighting game called Quantaar, which is going into alpha at the end of August. I continue to work on personal projects, like a survival crafting mystery about crash landing on a desert island called Beyond the Beach, but it’s somewhat on hold to take a little break and stay fresh with my IFComp 2021 entry Silicon and Cells. I am also still an active academic, and I’m working on a conference paper about mimetic transgender experiences in video games which I’ll present in Vietnam in December. Overall, I’m just writing and loving writing.