What if summer could last forever? With your psychic powers and a little time magic, it can! Psy High 2: High Summer is a 270,000 interactive teen supernatural mystery novel by Rebecca Slitt, and the sequel to her 2014 smash hit, Psy High. One year after saving Kingsport High at the junior prom, you’ve graduated, and you’re working as a counselor at a sleepaway camp before heading off to college. Your power to read minds certainly comes in handy when you’re in charge of a cabin full of nine- and ten-year-olds! You’re responsible for taking care of them and teaching them everything you know. But you’re also enjoying a summer of freedom: you’re away from your parents and on your own.
I sat down with Rebecca to talk about the challenges of sequel writing and the pleasures of writing her second game in the series. Psy High 2: High Summer will be available this Thursday, August 15th.
It’s been five years since you published Psy High and oh my gosh a lot has changed since then. Maybe less has changed inside the world of Psy High. Tell me what our favorite characters have been up to.
First, the light-hearted answer! It’s a year later, and everyone has just graduated from high school. Some of our friends are looking forward to college – Haley is thrilled to be going off to Stanford to study journalism! Some are less happy: Carl/a has a dead-end retail job, and is uncertain about what’s coming next; and Alison/Andrew is getting a lot of family pressure to do something useful. And some are just enjoying the free time: Taylor/Tyler is jetting off to Paris for a very fancy vacation. Kingsport High has a new principal: who that is depends on what happened in Part 1. And also depending on what happened in Part 1, the town of Kingsport itself might be pretty much the same as it was at the beginning, or it might be very different. In case there are any new readers coming in, I won’t spoil it by saying how!
And second, the serious answer: I’ve always tried to keep the world of Psy High slightly disconnected from current events in certain ways. For instance, slang changes by the minute, so whatever words I’d have the characters use would be obsolete by the time the game came out, let alone several years from now! The prom-posal songs in Part 1 were probably the most time-sensitive plot points; they’re all songs that were on the radio in the summer of 2014. People have smartphones and Netflix, and they text a lot, but that’s really the only thing that pegs the action to a specific time or place. I never mention any public figures or political events.
But current events were always in my mind – how could they not be, with the world the way it is now? I started writing this game in spring 2017, so the world changed while I was writing it, too. I remember writing one particular scene just after the midpoint of the game, and thinking “well, this NPC has just gotten a lot angrier about people who stand idly by while injustice is being done.”
I had always intended Part 2 to be more serious and more morally complicated than Part 1: that’s part of growing up, after all, and I wanted to show that broadening awareness of the world and its complexities in the PC’s story. I just couldn’t have anticipated how much these discussions of justice, privilege, power, and altruism would matter outside the game, too.
We’ve been working on quite a number of sequels this year: Psy High 2: High Summer, Grand Academy II: Attack of the Sequel, The Superlatives: Shattered Worlds, and Exile of the Gods. Each one has had their unique challenges in creating a game that satisfyingly picks up where a player may have left off. What were your struggles with this, if any?
When I finished Psy High, I had absolutely no plans to write a sequel! So I made wildly different branches in the ending – which was one of the fun things about writing it, and one of the things that readers responded to really positively. But unfortunately, it meant that I wrote some endings that were great ideas at the time, and satisfying in themselves, but would make it impossible to continue to Part 2: if the PC was in jail, for instance, or had given up their powers. So when I started Part 2, I had to make some choices about which endings could continue on and which couldn’t. Fortunately, most of them could.
I also knew early on that in Part 2 I wanted to play with a different YA genre – the summer-camp story rather than the high-school story – so the game was going to take place in a different location. That made some parts of writing easier, because I didn’t have to track every single point of difference forward from Part 1 to Part 2. But I still needed to have some continuity. First, to show continuing players that their choices had made a difference and were still making a difference; and second, because a lot of players really love building up relationships with NPCs and would want to carry those friendships and romances forward.
Which is a very long way of saying that the biggest challenge was trying to anticipate which elements of Part 1 players would find most meaningful, and therefore would most want to see in Part 2. As it turns out, I was right about some and wrong about others. Beta feedback was really valuable here! So I hope I’ve struck a good balance between continuity and forward motion. There are some visits home, and a lot of opportunities to keep going with friends and romances from Part 1; but also a lot of new people and new ideas.
What was different this time around, with five years of editing games other peoples’ games under your belt?
It is so much easier to write a second game than a first game!
Being an editor has definitely made me a better writer. As an editor, I get to see a lot of code, and that lets me learn new techniques that I might not have thought of on my own. It also helps me work much more easily with ChoiceScript, since I’m immersed in it every day.
Conversely, being a writer has also made me a better editor: I have a better perspective on what authors are trying to do with a certain scene or a certain bit of code because I’ve been there myself, and can advise them more effectively on how to get there. And I can help authors understand what they take for granted because they can see all the code, and help them better craft their text so that they can communicate more effectively with the player.
It’s harder to see some aspects of a game when you’re in the middle of them, of course; when I was going back over my game near the end of the writing process, I realized how utterly tangled some of my code had gotten in the middle. I would absolutely have been able to spot that much earlier in a game I was editing, and been able to advise the author how to sort it out than I was able to advise myself!
As a company, we’ve learned, too: having released so many games in the last five years, we’ve learned a lot more about what players like and don’t like; what’s important to them; and what kinds of game design do and don’t work. I hope I’ve put those lessons into practice effectively.
(And on a smaller note, in the responses to Psy High, I learned how many people really loved Taylor/Tyler, and were really sad about that breakup. Never fear, Taylor/Tyler fans: you are still together in Part 2 if you want to be! But the larger lesson to learn from that is that if a player chooses for their PC to start a romance with an NPC, they really really want a lot of agency in directing that relationship.)
Do you have a favorite NPC you like writing and spending time with?
In the spirit of sequels, I’ve got one each from Part 1 and Part 2.
From Part 1, definitely Carl/a. When I started writing Part 2, getting to Carl/a’s first scene felt like putting on a favorite comfy old sweater. I instantly slipped back into the rhythm of that voice: snarky, funny, brave, rebellious, flirty, with that not-quite-secret heart of gold. I knew instinctively what jokes Carl/a would make, and what s/he would take seriously. It was hard not to let Carl/a’s scenes take over!
From Part 2, Felicity. You’ll meet her about halfway through. She was actually a late addition to the story; a replacement for another character that just wasn’t working. (Another thing about writing your second game: you can have the confidence later in the writing process to just say “no, this character isn’t working, so I’m going to scrap them and put another one in.”) Once I added Felicity, though, she just blossomed. She’s fun to write because she’s so enthusiastic and curious: she loves asking questions and finding out new things about the world around her, so her voice flows very easily. And, on the other end of the emotional spectrum, one of her speeches actually made me tear up while I was writing it.
What’s the power you would most covet for yourself?
Of the ones that appear in the games, telekinesis would be pretty useful. I could fetch things from across the room without getting up, and I’m really short so it would be super-convenient to be able to get things down from high shelves! I actually wouldn’t want telepathy, the power that the PC has. Being able to send thoughts would be cool, but reading minds? I’d feel really intrusive, looking into people’s thoughts without them knowing – and it would probably not be fun to find out what they really thought of me!
The power I’d love the most of all, though, is to be able to teleport. How excellent would it be to be able to instantaneously travel long distances? I’d never have to sit in traffic again; I could visit my friends who live far away; and I could travel to all of the distant places that I’ve been dreaming of visiting.
When can we expect Psy High 3: Higher Education?
Well, now that we’ve got time magic in the Psy High-verse…how about yesterday?