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You hold a djinn in a bottle. Make a wish! Will you slay the dragon, or overthrow the emir? Or will you free the djinn, and accept the consequences? The Dragon and the Djinn is a 710,000 word interactive Arab epic fantasy novel by Athar Fikry. I sat down with Athar to discuss the genesis of the game and its lore. The Dragon and the Djinn releases this Thursday, July 28th. You can play the first four chapters for free, today.
This is such an incredible game, vastly different from anything we have published before. Tell me about your background and the genesis of this story.
Thank you, you’re far too kind. Here’s hoping for a slew of games in The Dragon and the Djinn’s vein to follow!
The genesis of this story, now that I think about it, probably started when I was listening to a podcast summarizing the original Aladdin story. Now, I’m Egyptian, so the Aladdin story and other stories from 1001 Nights have been a sort of ambient noise in the background for a lot of my life. There was a local radio series about them ages ago, plenty of pop culture references and so on, but listening to it in English was a different experience. I’m sure other bilinguals can relate—things live in different parts of my brain in different languages, and the fantasy writer part is in English.
So when Aladdin wished for a palace and servants and riches, my fantasy writer brain sat up and said, “Hang on, where did they come from?”
Because djinn aren’t all-powerful. They can’t create from nothing. In the Muslim tradition I was raised in—and take this with a grain of salt, because I’m not Muslim anymore—it’s emphasized that even when djinn can seem to have knowledge of the future, for instance, it’s only because they eavesdropped on heaven. No phenomenal cosmic powers here. So if Aladdin’s genie can’t know the unknown or click his fingers and make something from nothing, where did it all come from?
Then I smashed that together with my fascination for people adjacent to Chosen Ones and here we are, a truly absurd number of words later.
What about the djinn legends intrigued you as a setting for interactive fiction?
The thing is, djinn aren’t quite legends here in Egypt. Not really. They’re mentioned in the Quran and therefore many people consider them very real, just the sort of real you don’t tend to talk about. For me, djinn have always lived in that sort of in-between space where you scoff at the superstition in the bright light of morning and then it’s half-dark and you’re alone in the house and rushing past a mirror in your hallway, chased by the whisper of what if?
Djinn are versatile too, which is very fun. Supposedly, they live in a world adjacent to ours, but also in the hidden spaces of our world. They have different powers and rankings, some are good and some are bad, some are tied to you and some want to lure you to a horrible end and some live their lives as far away from humans as they can get. There’s a lot of material to play with here.
You’re obviously very steeped in fantasy lore–what books, games, artwork, or films inspired you as you were writing this game?
I have a very distinct memory of this one time I was reading S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass on my phone at work, and I remember coming across the word aywa which means yes in Egyptian Arabic, and just…the sheer delight of recognition there. It’s such a small thing, that aywa, but I am often very skeptical of books set in Egypt—more often than not they’re actually set in what I like to call Pyramidland and they just don’t know it—and the bright fizzle of, “Oh that’s mine, I recognize it!” was very heady. Invoking that feeling in others has driven a lot of my writing for this game.
Otherwise, I could go on about my fantasy touchstones—Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series for its voice, the effect of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan as the first time I saw an Arab protagonist in a fantasy novel—but truthfully when I was actually writing, I was grabbing inspiration from everywhere I could and very little of it was from epic high-fantasy books.
I looked to translations of Arabic novels like Basma Abdelaziz’s The Queue to see how the translators grappled with communicating the society to a foreign audience. I looked to other SWANA fantasy writers to see how they handled bringing their cultures into made-up worlds, and Somaiya Daud’s Mirage comes to mind. I played a truly ridiculous amount of rpgs to get a feel for choices and when they worked for me and when they made me feel cheated and, needless to say, Disco Elysium was a revelation. I found a lot of inspiration from live play ttrpgs like Dimension 20 for how gleefully they take from, riff off of, and gently poke fun at fantasy tropes. I’ve also been pickling myself in horror audio dramas for the past several years, each a master class in developing atmosphere and distinct character voices. I’m especially fascinated by what Malevolent is doing right now, as an interactive podcast.
But strangely, looking back, I think the most inspiration I got was from a twitter thread. I wish I could find it again now, but I think it was a conversation (or maybe multiple conversations) started by author Jeannette Ng, which emphasized how often creators of color who choose to bring their non-Western cultures to their writing face a certain pressure for their stories to be historically accurate and capital-C Correct and how we should get to be silly with it. So often people expect our creations to be educational and representative of our cultures, and meanwhile European-based fantasies can swan about mixing eras and languages and architectural styles and having potatoes and all sorts of fun. So I decided I also wanted to have fun with my setting.
Don’t get me wrong, I still did an absurd amount of historical research—did you know the Abbasids had ice-based desserts?—but Ghariba is not meant to represent one specific city in one specific time, per se, so much as evoke the general feel of one. I combined historical details with some details of my day-to-day life here in Cairo, mixed Arabic dialects in some cases and in other cases entirely avoided naming things, so as not to tie them to a specific region. I took what I thought was cool and threw away what wasn’t, remixed myths and stories to my liking, and then there’s a bunch of stuff I just invented whole-cloth. It’s been an interesting experiment, and I hope readers have as much fun in this setting as I did.
This game is 700,000 words long, and so is quite the fantasy epic. What were the challenges for you of writing such a long game?
Okay I’m going to be glib for a second here: the main challenge of writing such a long game was…the writing.
No, hang on, hear me out.
The issue was twofold. First, I hadn’t realized quite what a behemoth this game would turn out to be. I knew it would be big, obviously, but it’s a bit like I’d psyched myself up to eat an elephant and then just as I’d finished snacking on its trunk, I realized it was actually just a third of a dragon’s tail and whoo boy, I still had a lot to go. In hindsight, of course, I should have known, considering I start chapter two with the player in four possible locations (pro tip: don’t do this) but when I was mired in the middle it felt like an insurmountable thing. Especially as I started having to deal with the consequences of my very many branches and figure out what could and could not be trimmed back and how to fit it all together. It took me a good long while to just push through.
Second is that…well, it took me a good long while to push through.
I started writing The Dragon and the Djinn in 2018. Now I don’t know about you, but four years is a very long time. I switched careers, got my ADHD diagnosis, developed carpal tunnel, lost my gender somewhere along the way, not to mention witnessed the world becoming, broadly, a trashfire. Each of those things influenced me and changed how I work, how I write, how much I can write, and what I want to write, and so my earlier chapters had to be changed to reflect that as well and whatever couldn’t be reworked, I added to later on. I’m glad I had the time to let the draft grow and develop this way (and I have a lot of appreciation for the CoG team for being flexible enough to give me that time) but the changes I needed to make certainly weren’t helping the workload any.
What do you think will surprise players about The Dragon and the Djinn?
Ooh, that’s difficult to say. I mean, surprise relies largely on expectations, right? And it’s difficult to predict what players’ expectations will be, going into this game. I suppose players may end up surprised by how much Arabic they’re osmosing, because I sure do use a lot of it, or how many stories and myths I’ve chopped up and stuffed into various nooks and crannies throughout.
Or by my horrible Disney’s Aladdin-based jokes because I couldn’t resist.
I also really, really hope my fellow aro and ace players are pleasantly surprised by some of the relationship options I’ve written.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently a contributing writer on Emerald Templars, a dark fantasy ttrpg, and I’ve been having a blast slowly wading into the ttrpg space. I have a few short ttrpgs of my own in the works as well, including at least one that will be set in the world of The Dragon and the Djinn. It’s a Honey Heist hack wherein players are flying carpets, and I think it’s going to be very fun.
Otherwise, I’ve been focusing on short stories, mostly to remind myself I am indeed capable of finishing projects without them turning into nonsense behemoths. To prove me wrong, a new game concept has decided to gently gnaw on my brain. I suppose it was only a matter of time before all the horror I’ve been consuming consumed me as well, and IF seems like the perfect medium for exploring the agency (or lack thereof) of a horror protagonist. Whether it’s with this concept or something else, though, I doubt this will be my last foray into ChoiceScript. I just hope my next will be more…contained, shall we say.