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Make friends, cast spells, and uncover secrets in your magical small town! Will you preserve the forest or let the town grow?
New Witch in Town is a 750,000-word interactive YA fantasy novel by Grace Card. I sat down with Grace to discuss her work and writing process. New Witch in Town releases this Thursday, January 26th. You can play the first three chapters today for free.
The world of New Witch is such a fun place to spend time. How did you conceive of it?
My original thought when I first started planning the game was that it would be fun to explore the culture shock of a witch moving from a magical forest to a small town, with misunderstandings and mystery and cute animals throughout. When I actually started to write the game, however, I realised I wanted to take it in a slightly more ‘realistic’ direction, because for me personally, fantasy and speculative fiction in general are at their most interesting when they’re juxtaposed with ‘real life’. I like to imagine how magic would fit within the real world, thinking about how it might work alongside modern technology, or the unexpected ways it could impact on ordinary parts of our lives. And I wanted the world to feel like it had depth, so that when you bring magic into it, it feels all the more strange and fantastical, with potentially higher stakes for using it. So since I wanted to try and create a sense of realism, it felt pretty natural to take inspiration from places I already know. Silvertree is a place with lot of interesting history, which is pretty but also neglected, and which feels a bit isolated – very like the place I currently live.
Even with all of that, I still wanted the game to be fun, and funny, and full of mystery – and I realised I could, because humor and joy are just as real as uncertainty and fear. Some of my favourite parts of the game to write were conversations between characters who knew each other and their town too well, and knew how to make each other laugh about it.
As for the magical side of the game’s world, however, that was something I had to work at far more. I hadn’t written a lot of fantasy before I started this game, and so my imagination about all the things magic could do was somewhat limited. But since I’d had the idea for the main character to be living in a magical forest before the start of the game, I started to take inspiration from nature, and began to imagine magic as a natural entity similar to a forest, or even the ocean or outer space; something awe-inspiring, which humans can interact with, but with no personal concern for human lives. Within the game, magic became a bit like the forest itself – beautiful, vast, potentially dangerous, and mysterious. With all of that in mind, I began to think of ways that the main character could use their magic, but also be perplexed by it, with elements of fantasy and mystery emerging from their relationship with magic. I think I still have a lot to learn about fantasy writing, but my lack of experience led me to consciously putting in effort to think about how magic can be interesting, and without giving anything away, I ended up with some ideas I was pretty excited about.
What were some of the challenges of writing a Choicescript game for you?
At first almost everything about it was a learning curve. I had never written interactive fiction before this game, and I’d never done any sort of coding, so it took me a few weeks of writing in Choicescript to feel at home with all of the different commands. I made a fair few beginnger’s mistakes, but it wasn’t too long before it started to feel quite natural; it’s just a matter of practice. If anybody is feeling unsure about whether they could learn Choicescript, I’d really recommend at least trying it out, because it really is designed for anyone to be able pick up.
In terms of writing the game itself, the endings were definitely one of the hardest things for me to manage. Since I was new to interactive fiction, it was a very new thing to not only come up with multiple distinct endings (I struggled with how to make some of them feel unique while still fitting into the story), but then to write them all in a way that felt satisfying. One thing I definitely found challenging (and this goes for individual choices as well as the game’s endings) was creating a breadth of options without sacrificing depth. I did at times fall to the temptation of giving the player a lot of branching paths, only to realise that each one would need to be equally interesting; and given the time and energy it takes to write just one scene, I sometimes found myself struggling to finish everything I had started. I learned through writing the game that it’s better to give the player fewer, more meaningful options, rather than feeling that more options are always better. I ended up cutting quite a lot of endings I had originally planned, because I realised there was no feasible way I could write them all, and it was better to focus on building up the ones I had already started.
Speaking of choices, one interesting thing I found after writing a lot of the game was that some of the trickiest choices for me to write were ordinary speech options. I have a bit of trouble finding what to say in real life, and although I find it easier to write fictional conversations, I started to find it difficult giving the player 3+ options for what their character could say while talking to friends or neighbors (specifically, options that were different from all the other conversations I’d written) – and then coming up with 3+ replies from the person they’re talking to! I tried my best, though – and I think I managed to improve my own conversational skills a little bit.
On a more personal level, writing such a large project – which was completely my own choice, and about a world and characters I genuinely loved – became a difficult thing to manage. This game was the first major project I’ve ever actually finished, and in some ways it was a very positive experience; as I say, I loved the story, and I learned so much about how to plan and execute a piece of writing on this scale. But without going into details, I pushed myself too hard while writing this game, to the point that existing health issues were exacerbated and writing anything became harder and harder. I’m very grateful to the Choice of Games staff who were so supportive through all of that, including to the point of taking over the remainder of the game’s editing when I was struggling to get it finished. Thankfully, I’ve started to make my health more of a priority, and I’m doing much better now – but I’m still constantly reminding myself to pace myself, and that no matter how many plans I have, it’s okay to focus on one thing at a time.
What surprised you about the process?
I was actually surprised how much I enjoyed the coding aspect – once I got to grips with the basics, I started looking for more creative ways I could use the commands, and honestly found it very satisfying putting the logic into place. Things could definitely get confusing, and I’m sure my code looks like a tangled mess at times, but I managed to find my way around it okay and it honestly made me want to learn more about programming. I’ve even started watching an introductory course on computer science in my spare time, and I’m finding it fascinating!
I also wasn’t expecting just how different writing interactive fiction is to standard prose fiction. In a lot of ways I could approach it like any other story, but I also had to be aware that I wasn’t just writing one story, but five or ten or even more – and so I had to think of it more as a world to be explored than just a straightforward story.
Another surprise, honestly, was much much I ended up loving the story I was writing. It’s not that I didn’t like it at all to begin with – I just didn’t expect how deeply I would start to think about the town, and its history, and its characters, and really want to explore pretty much every inch of the world. I’m not planning on writing a direct sequel to the game, but there are a few things I still really want to write about; and I plan on doing just that! It will be in a different form, but I’m going to keep exploring the game’s world for a bit longer (see the last question for more details about that!).
Do you have some favorite magic-centered books or films that you drew inspiration from?
To be totally honest, I’m quite new to the fantasy genre all around. I read a fair bit as a child – including some very popular series that have probably influenced the game in ways I don’t even realise – but as an adult I tended more towards historical fiction (if I read at all; it’s been difficult for me for quite a few years). I love Spirited Away, for its symbolism and its beautiful focus on magic within more mundane moments as well as the impossible ones. Another thing that inspires me in a lot of things I write is folk music, which is a huge love of mine. Their stories are often magical, with magic being fantastical but also sometimes strange and frightening as well. And in a lot of songs/stories, magic is used as a means to try and understand real-life concerns, which are often very personal or political.
Also, it’s not a book or a film, but one of my biggest inspirations when I first started writing New Witch was the game Night in the Woods. It’s not strictly a game about magic, but it involves a series of inexplicable events that soon start to seem supernatural. But even as that happens, the characters’ ordinary, realistic lives never feel less important – if anything, it throws them into an even more significant light. When something scary and unexplainable happens, it just shows all the more how important the ‘smaller’ things are, from worries about jobs and the future to friendships and mental health and just hanging out eating pizza.
What else are you working on?
Right now, I’ve decided that I’m only going to focus on one main writing project at a time (rather than planning ten projects at once and somehow expecting myself to work on them all). After spending a little while trying to narrow down a few different ideas, I’ve decided to start working on what I hope will be my first novel. It’s still in the planning stages (though writing this game hugely improved my story-planning skills!), but it’s going to be about the new life taken on by a formerly-abandoned town, and all the ways history begins to repeat itself as it’s reinhabited in different ways by people and wildlife. It’s also been a plan of mine for a while to try and write a musical somewhere down the line – I’m challenging myself a bit with that one, but I’m a singer and I’ve written some music before, and I figured there’s no point talking myself out of it before I’ve even tried!
I think I’d really love to write more interactive fiction in the future, since I feel like I’ve learned a lot and there are so many interesting things you can do with an interactive story. But prose fiction is what I’ve always wanted to write, and now this game is done it feels like the perfect time to put all my focus there.
Also, although my main project for now is a novel, I’ve recently opened a Patreon (patreon.com/silvertreetoday) where I’m going to be posting a lot of bonus content related to New Witch in Town. My plan is to post short side-stories expanding on things that I couldn’t fit into the game, as well as my own art of characters and important locations, etc. As I wrote the game there were so many things I wished I could have gone on huge tangents about – as the game’s lore developed I got so excited about certain characters and parts of the town’s history that there just wasn’t space to talk about, but since I still have all of those ideas I’m hoping to be able to put it all on my Patreon in some form. If anyone is at all interested – and it’s totally fine if not! – I’m hoping to start posting regularly there from February 2023.