Dec 04

2023

Author Interview: Joey Jones, Lies Under Ice

Posted by: K L | Comments (8)

Lead the first settlement on Jupiter’s frozen moon, Europa! What alien life lurks beneath the ice? Who is sabotaging your mission? Who can you trust?

Lies Under Ice is a 200,000-word interactive science fiction novel by Joey Jones. We sat down with Joey to talk about his work. Lies Under Ice releases this Thursday, December 7th. You can play the first three chapters for free today. 

Congratulations on your second title for Choice of Games! Obviously, the setting for Lies Under Ice is vastly different from your first game: Trials of the Thief-Taker was set in eighteenth-century London, and this one is in twenty-first-century Europa! How did the different setting and genre affect your approach to writing this game as opposed to your first one? Were there any unexpected points of similarity between the two settings?

Thank you! For both stories, I started with a period of research, but that looked quite different for each one. Trials of the Thief-Taker, I holed up in a library for a few days poring over history books, plays and stories on the early 18th century England to provide a wealth of details and situations that I wanted to include. I read up on highway-robbery, masquerade balls, smuggling, prison breaks, and, of course, the institution of thief-taking. I clearly couldn’t take the exact approach to writing about the future, but for Lies Under Ice I also began by reading around the subject. I read an excellent book on Europa itself, Richard Greenberg’s Unmasking Europa, which gave me a grounding in what the moon was really like, and what scientists were arguing about (like the academic dispute over how thick the ice really is). I was inspired by recent social and technological trends, and I imagined how they might be taken further. I read up on artificial therapists, gene-editing, next generation 3D printing, and the theories of xenobiologists on the conditions for life outside of Earth. The settings were quite distinct, but one point of similarity is having a pressure-cooker environment. Both old London and the moon base environments are places where a lot of different people from all over are thrown together; people with conflicting goals and few avenues to escape.

What about the process of writing your second ChoiceScript game? What did you find different about that?

I learned a lot from the first work and had a list of things I wanted to do different the second time over. (If I made a third, I’m sure I’d come up with another list entirely.) Lies Under Ice is much bigger, perhaps twice the play-length, and there are a lot more world-shaking outcomes of player choice to account for. I had to use a different plot structure too. In Trials of the Thief-Taker I could organise the plot as a series of cases. It was always straightforward to add another case if I felt it needed it (and in the years since release I’ve had a lot more ideas for other cases I’d love to put in if I have the time). In Lies Under Ice, the base faces a series of challenges, crises, and discoveries, but the player is also pro- actively shaping the direction of their settlement, so I had to think of new ways of framing the scenes. Where the game takes place over a ten-year time span, I ended up having short interlude chapters between the main chapters to help smooth out the passage of time.

The big writing difference is where the variation comes in. In Trials of the Thief-Taker, the player often engages in challenges that test their skills, and often there would be gradations of success, with around five different outcomes based on skill level, to reward different ways of roleplaying through the game. Such variation only becomes obvious to players if they replay a lot. When I came to writing Lies Under Ice, ChoiceScript had actually improved in a number of ways, and one of which was the introduction of ‘multi-replace’, which made varying text within a passage much easier. So now, in Lies Under Ice, almost every scene has a high degree of internal variation based on the player’s earlier choices, giving the player a much more direct and constant reflection of their choices. Both games were quite branchy, but Lies Under Ice takes it to a whole new level.

This game includes a lot of science fiction, but it’s clearly informed by present-day science fact, especially the idea that there may be life under the ice on Jupiter’s moon Europa. What’s the one thing you most want readers to know about the real science that’s included in this game? Were there any facts that you had to leave out that you’re just dying to talk about?

Some people have asked me why I picked Europa over, say, Ganymede. Europa is the best candidate for life outside of Earth. Like our own planet, it has a rocky core and a salty tidal ocean. Europa is covered in a layer of ice at least a few miles thick (possible much thicker). It’s comparatively smooth (there are no real mountains or valleys) and unlike the dead surface of our own moon, Europa’s ice surface steadily remakes itself through tidal pressures. Still, it’s a dramatic and alien landscape, and not just endless flat ice sheets some people might imagine when they think of an icy-moon. The features of the moon all make an appearance in Lies Under Ice: the cracks that interlace it with a series of parallel ridges (the lineae), the spires that surround the craters, the chaos terrain. Probably most things I was interested in make an appearance somewhere in the work, but one thing didn’t. I recently discovered that some researchers think that instead of protecting us from asteroids, Jupiter has actually been flinging them towards Earth!

Your academic work also focuses on branching narrative. Can you tell us a little more about that? How did your research inform the process of creating this game, and vice versa?

That’s right, there’s a considerable overlap. Working on games like these informed my research, as did speaking to other writers. I’m interested in the strategies writers of interactive fiction use to manage the scope with long projects. In an interactive medium, there’s a tendency for the workload to keep expanding the longer and more complex the work gets. Choice of Games have a good house style for keeping a lot of this in check: breaking the work down into more-or-less self-contained chapters that always happen in the same order helps a lot. I’m interested in these kinds of structure-based approaches. Throughout Lies Under Ice, I tried a few different techniques to give the player a lot of options that really change the outcome of the game, while not increasing the workload exponentially. I don’t recommend doing a PhD while also making a huge game, everything takes much longer, but it has given me an opportunity to write about the process of actually making something real, and not just a proof of concept.

What’s next for you? Do you have any other games in the works?

In the short-term, rest and recuperation, and then finishing my thesis! In the longer run I’m definitely going to keep making games. I’ve got a few smaller projects in various states of completion, including a game where you’re trying to build a coalition of animals for a revolution in a zoo, and an urban fantasy puzzle game where the protagonist has the power of psychometry. But the next game in the pipeline is a much overdue rerelease of The Chinese Room, a philosophy thought experiment text adventure I made with Harry Josephine Giles nearly half a lifetime ago.

Notable Replies

  1. Great interview, @jojo! I’m so excited for everyone to get a chance to play this game.

  2. I’m so pleased it’s on its way - I’m really looking forward to playing! It really sounds like there’s nothing else quite like it, which always makes me extra pleased to jump in.

    (@K.L, heads up that the blog post formatting seems to have gone slightly wonky on this one)

  3. Avatar for jojo jojo says:

    Thanks both of you, I’m very excited to see it finally come to fruition.

  4. Your academic work sounds fascinating, too. Do you have any plans to publish any of it in a publicly accessible way? I’d love to read it.

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