Destroy the evil at the heart of a haunted manor! As an orphan, you discovered your ability to commune with the spirit world and ghosts. When your uncle Kent mysteriously disappears, you’ll embark on a journey find out what really happened. With your trusty companion Devanand at your side, you make your way to Darnecroy Manor, where Kent was last seen. It is…The House. Heart of the House is 360,000-word interactive Gothic novel by Nissa Campbell. I sat down with her to talk about Victorian gothic goodness and skittering creatures. Heart of the House releases this Thursday, October 26th.
Heart of the House is a perfect Halloween release. Tell me about the world this game is set in.
The larger world of Heart of the House is Victorian England during the 1870s. Not terribly unlike the real one. It’s poised on the edge of a great deal of social and technological change, and still clinging to the ghosts of days past.
Here, most superstitions are entirely practical. Ghouls and specters really do linger all around us and curses are painfully real. As an occult investigator, you travel by coach to Wyeford, a small English town that few people ever visit and no one seems to remember. It could be a welcoming place, but it’s also a strange one, and the manor that watches over it is even stranger.
The manor certainly haunted (what old manor isn’t?), but ghosts are far from the only dangers within its walls. Once there, you find yourself caught up in ancient mysteries and the tangled dynamics of a makeshift family, both of which could be quite hazardous for your health.
Did you have a favorite character to write? I confess Loren is near to my heart.
I’m so glad to hear that!
I adore my characters, every one of them. But Heart of the House is the story of people who are trapped in myriad ways, and while Dev’s constant concern, Oriana’s sharp tongue and Reaves’ Byronic aloofness were fun coping mechanisms to write, I could never stay away from Loren’s irrepressible good cheer for long. Surrounded by so many secrets and so much danger, it’s relaxing to spend time with a person who seems so kind, open and genuine. Even while writing them.
And I loved, loved, loved having the opportunity to write a satisfying romantic arc for them. I’ve read and played more than my share of romance, and people like Loren don’t get happily ever afters nearly often enough.
What did you find most challenging about writing this game?
I expected to struggle with writing in ChoiceScript, but as it turns out, I’m not a very linear writer. Working with branching logic was a natural fit, and ChoiceScript itself is super intuitive.
No, the most challenging part was stopping. In every scene, it seemed like there was always more I could do, more branches I could explore, more choice I could offer. In a novel, you have to commit to a single branch. Here, I could play out all kinds of ideas. Knowing when to say “that’s enough,” with so much freedom is certainly a learning experience. I just hope I struck the right balance between offering everyone satisfying choices and actually finishing the game so they can play it.
On a more personal note, there were certain things I felt strongly about portraying in Heart of the House – like mental health issues and certain elements of gender and sexuality – that are particularly challenging in a Victorian setting. Not because the Victorians were unfamiliar with them, but because the vocabulary was often absent, and social norms were so strict. A panic disorder could be considered an embarrassing but acceptable nervous affliction (if you were fortunate enough to have money and family support) – and at the same time, not meeting society’s ridiculously stringent requirements for gender presentation might well be considered a sign of madness.
Thankfully, since the game takes place in an isolated community with its own unusual norms, I could give my characters much more room to breathe and be themselves than might be realistic in a story that takes place in, say, London during the same era.
Are you a fan of interactive fiction in general? What are some of your favorites?
Absolutely! When I was a kid, my dad kept our PC well-stocked with Infocom’s hits, so I grew up on Zork, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and – my favorite – A Mind Forever Voyaging. I didn’t really pick up on AMFV’s political stance when I was seven, but that game holds up surprisingly well.
Porpentine’s work really pulled me into modern interactive fiction, particularly With Those We Love Alive. More recently, Localhost is a deeply unsettling experience that I adore. Max Gladstone’s Deathless games are wonderful (as are the Craft Sequence novels they accompany), and have outrageously good worldbuilding. Does Kentucky Route Zero count? I feel like it counts, and every act that comes out could be my GOTY. And there are some amazing IF games coming up: Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, Southern Monsters, What Isn’t Saved (will be lost)…
It’s an exciting time to be an IF fan, especially if you like your fiction on the dark side.
What are you working on next?
My game backlog! Honestly, I’m taking some time off large creative projects for the sake of self-care and to clear my head, but it’s already filling up with new ideas. An anthology of games about falling in love with classic monsters. Maybe an extremely human story about being an AI. The necromantic romance novel that I’ve had sitting on the back burner for a while. Planning a Blades in the Dark campaign – it’s been a year since I played in a tabletop RPG, and I’m withering away without one.
But all that waits until I can say farewell to Heart of the House and its inhabitants, so maybe not quite yet.
Short answer, Bernard Pivot-Style
Teal. Teal and pink, teal and red, but always, always, teal.
Eldritch. Accursed. Cyclopean. Stygian. I have to admit, the words currently obsessing me all have a distinctly Lovecraftian flavour. Ooh, tenebrous.
Profession (other than your own) you would like to attempt?
Therapist. Working with Take This has shown me how much good mental health professionals can do, and people are endlessly fascinating. It’s fortunate for everyone involved that I can’t just wander into that job on a whim. Given how much I torture my characters, I probably shouldn’t be trusted with real human psyches.
Profession you would never want to attempt?
Pest control. As you might notice in Heart of the House, I have a bit of a thing about all the squirmy, skittering things that are probably lurking under our floorboards right this very moment…[Interviewer’s Note: I love them, but do not google “house centipede” if skittering critters terrify you.]
Are ghosts real?
As literal manifestations of the spirits of the deceased? Not in my experience. But a figurative haunting is still terribly troublesome, and we all have ghosts of our own.