Battle Norse raiders, ghosts, and changelings to save medieval England! But beware, if the elves can capture the Book you hold, the world will end. Chronicon Apocalyptica is a 250,000-word interactive medieval fantasy novel by Robert Davis, author of Broadway: 1849. I sat down with Robert to talk about medieval fantasy, and the joy and challenges of writing it. Chronicon Apocalyptica releases this Thursday, January 10th.
This is a huge departure from Broadway: 1849, your first game with us. Tell me about what led you to develop Chronicon Apocalyptica and why it’s so different.
To be honest, I have no idea where Chronicon came from! There was this one week I was reading the Venerable Bede, playing a board game where you are a gnomish librarian, and listening to a podcast about medieval mysteries, and, at some point, I thought, “all this should be in a game.”
Broadway was modeled on nineteenth century melodrama. Chronicon Apocalyptica (“The Chronicle of the Apocalypse”) is much much weirder. Taking place in the year 1000, it has labyrinthine mysteries and heaps of possibilities, because I see history as a really twisted, rambling place. I mean, in one game you have to keep your theatre afloat during a critical season, and, in the other, you have to fact-check a seemingly sentient book and keep the world from ending while writing impeccable scholarship.
I think the working title for this game was “Anglo-Saxon,” but we honed in on what the crux of the story was: the Book. Tell me a little about what delving into this world of Anglo-Saxons was like.
There was a point when I was doing research for the game when I was like, “I want to date the year 1000.” Anglo-Saxon period gets called the “dark ages” so often that one just assumes not much happened, but I found that, actually, the years between 800-1000 was a time of vibrant change. You had a warrior queen tearing up kingdoms, the church more or less inventing modern scholarship, and the crown constantly struggling with the people we call the Vikings. Getting into this world, and the world of a medieval abbey, was endlessly fascinating. You have NO idea how cool book-making and scriptoria were!
A significant portion of the game takes place in medieval libraries. There was an often-repeated line that scribes wrote, “Three fingers write, the whole body labors,” because the process of writing a book was such painstaking work. Here were these monks, nuns, and scholars stooped over a parchment in the cold and bad light writing until their muscles ached, often as part of their religious devotion. They wrote and copied works ranging from biblical commentary to astronomical computation and history to books of riddles. I wanted this game to show off the period in all its fun, pain, and eccentricity.
What were some of the design challenges this time around? Or did you find your second game easier to write in some ways?
Chronicon is more ambitious, with more plot points, more characters, and more possible paths than Broadway. That was definitely harder to design, and I blame it entirely on Choice of Games! While writing, I was inspired by two games: The Superlatives, which has the best, most perfectly-balanced team I’ve come across. I wanted to do something like that, but I had no idea how complicated having a group of four or five characters with their own backstories, objectives, and interests would be. That took a lot of planning and figuring out. The second game was Heart of the House, which I think is the best haunted house story in a long time. I am amazed at how the story always keeps the answers one step ahead of you. You think you get it, but the more you press on, the more complicated it becomes and you realize you actually have no idea what’s going on, but in a good way. That’s what I tried to do.
Finally, I think, in doing both games, the editors and beta testers essentially gave me a master class in choice design and managing story arcs to make a compelling, playable game. I would ultimately say that after writing two games, I FINALLY “get” how to write one.
This game combines myth, reality, history, religion, and the supernatural. Quite a heady mix.
My ideal story is one that combines fantasy, horror, and hardcore history. I hope Chronicon does just that. Almost everything in it is accurate to the time period, down to the titles of books and many of the peripheral characters. I do take liberties (there are some historical figures who must be rolling in their graves) but I tried to evoke a sense of what living at this time was like. With ghosts, elves, and witches.
Do you have a favorite NPC?
My first thought is Blædswith because she is a vengeance-driven Joan of Arc, but, in all honesty, it is the Tremulous Hand. I won’t say more because of spoilers, but what’s better than a disembodied hand on a mission?
And what are you working on next?
I’m working on a novel about 1849 and I’d love to do a third game, maybe a Western.