Choice of Games’ latest release will be Versus: The Elite Trials by Zachary Sergi, the thrilling sequel to Versus: The Lost Ones. As one the prisoners trapped on planet Versus, you must vote for who will fight in deadly gladiatorial battles. Thirteen prisoners have formed a voting block, the Elite Courte, to ensure that they choose who lives and who dies. But one of their so-called “gods” has a plan for revolution. Your power to steal superpowers and memories makes you the perfect spy–or the perfect double agent. On Versus, nothing and no one is as they seem, perhaps not even you.
I sat down with the author, Zachary Sergi, to learn more about his game and his experiences writing interactive fiction. Look for Versus: The Elite Trials later this week, releasing on Thursday, December 15th.
Tell me about the world of Versus. There are all sorts of strange aliens, creatures, and types of superpowers floating inhabiting this universe. What kinds of things influenced your world-building?
Oh man, I could write an entire novel answering this question (and I guess I kind of did!) There were two major points of inspiration for Versus—the first was the now-defunct 1990s Crossgen Comics universe, which had a series take place on a world in every genre (except for super-heroes, purposefully). These worlds existed in an interconnected galaxy and there was one series, Negation, where characters from each world were dropped on an experimental prison planet and the comics followed their escape across space, learning to work together despite their very-alien differences. The idea for a world where every character was from a different genre always stuck with me (everything I write tends to mash genres, another facet I credit with my own personal writing god of worship, Joss Whedon). To me, Versus is Survivor meets Hunger Games meets Downton Abbey, with characters plucked from dozens of genre planets. Oh, and the TV show Lost! I forgot I was obsessed with that show when I started creating Versus, so that was a huge influence, too.
When I was a kid/pre-teen, I made up the Versus universe using my action figures (Marvel Legends are my jam), but added in my other favorite ingredient: voting-elimination competitions, like Survivor. (The Hero Project was the same thing—I played a version of American Idol with my action figures that eventually spawned The Hero Project/the Heroes Rise fame-driven universe). It was so much fun discovering what happened if you put a pirate and a monster and a goddess and a super hero and a slave and a space ranger (and more) on the same planet and forced them to vote each other out. Except the consequences are much graver here, because you don’t just go home—you go into a death match to fight for your life.
That’s how the Versus concept was birthed, 15 or so years ago—and when I was looking to start a second Choice of Games title, this concept seemed to lend itself perfectly to the interactive format. Many of the characters—Lady Venuma, Breeze, Todrick, just to name a few—were based on characters I created as a kid with my action figures. I always say I do the same thing as an adult—except my toybox is a bit different, now.
If we’re talking specific influences for Versus: The Elite Trials, I spent a lot of time looking at Versailles and other French gardens/castles to inspire The Elite Castle. The #365DaysofDrag series by Phi Phi O’Hara on Instagram inspired some of MamaNa’s best lewks. I crafted a playlist (I do this for every project) that had a lot of Tinashe, Jhene Aiko, Lianne La Havas, Sza and Halsey (who literally has songs titled Young Gods and Castle) when writing The Elite Trials, to set the right regal sonic mood.
What is it about the Versus saga that really compels you to tell this story?
Well, part of that answer lies in the MemoryTravel chapters—I originally conceived of them as more “procedural” (case of the week, like Law & Order—or really, more like Lost episodes) chapters that would allow me to explore some of the characters’ home worlds without getting too bogged down in often-crushingly complicated main-story choice-based plot paths. The OtherBoard Binarian sequence was a place for me to explore the meaning of artificial intelligence and deconstruct racial relations, while The Elite Trials is my chance to go full-blown Great Gatsby and explore cultures of wealth/privilege, as well as exploring what draws us to religion—and what defines divinity.
Specifically in The Elite Trials, I got the chance to write something I’ve always wanted to—a utopian/dystopian world-building sequence that allows readers to create their very own societies. My favorite class from college was a seminar where we did nothing but read utopian literature and deconstruct the societies based on 12 sectors—then the final assignment was to write our own utopias. When I wrote my own utopia final project, the world rules I created really surprised me—so I wanted to see if I could recreate that experience for our readers.
Everything I learned in that class has helped in my science fiction writing, but I used a lot of my notes from that class specifically to help generate the kinds of choices (if you look closely, there are about 12 general societal sectors the reader chooses, and they’re all tied in one way or another to the kind of Wone deity you choose to be). The goal with this particular section was to provoke thought about questions like why do we pay taxes or how do we think human nature compels us to act—stuff we often overlook. My first goal as a writer is always to entertain first and foremost, but if I can sneak some veggies in with the meatloaf, I’ve really done my job!
This is not your first rodeo by any means. You’ve written four of our most popular games in Heroes Rise and Heroes Rise: Redemption Season as well as the first Versus game. What’s changed for you in writing IF over the course of those? What are you enjoying and what do you find challenging in the form?
Every single book teaches me something new—though I have to say, The Elite Trials is probably my least linear and most branchy installment. It feels much wider than it is long, and I took to heart a lot of reader feedback on feeling railroaded and worked a lot with Jason and Mary (lovely CoG editors) to teach me how to build even better choices. After all, the first Heroes Rise was one of the very first CoG books published, so I feel like we’ve really all grown together. While my earlier books favor 4-5 character types and reward consistency, The Elite Trials is much more complicated—you’re going to have to sacrifice something important to you along the way. There’s no clean victory/character profile for any type of reader, which ultimately makes things more interesting (and makes the choices more compelling, hopefully).
Looking back, The Prodigy was just my first opportunity to (pretty quickly out of college) tell a story that was authentically me in this original format (the learning curve was steep, though—coding that first book was a doozy, nor was there a deep CoG catalogue to study yet). In college we weren’t really encouraged to write genre stuff, so this was quite literally my first time writing about super heroes (the biggest love of my life), which seems insane looking back on it now. I’m thankful for that more literary schooling though, because I think it belongs in genre storytelling and has grounded the my writing in character and emotion… I’ve always taken the approach that if you strip away all the genre elements, is there a story still there to tell based on just the characters?
Anyway, I never thought anyone would read Heroes Rise, so when readers actually embraced it, a light bulb went off: oh, this is what I should be doing. Then The Hero Project was my chance to tell the story I was always itching to—my child-created reality TV series (it’s still wild to see fan art of someone like Lucky or Mach Girl, who I never thought would leave my childhood bedroom). If The Prodigy was me channeling my own struggle/fantasy with the American Dream as a writer, The Hero Project was about processing how to handle reader feedback and take things to the next level. Also, the books rather nicely track my own growth as an advocate—tracking the evolution of my perception of gender specifically is the best way to see this (the concept of Zehirs, while well-intentioned, was pretty regressive based on what I know now).
HeroFall was my first chance to really play with alternate endings and branchy storylines, knowing I wouldn’t have to service plot-lines directly in another book. With interactive fiction, you can’t always have it all—the more choice you offer, the more the linear story has to shrink. We don’t have armies of writers writing branched plots—it all falls on the individual author—so it’s always a balance between important moments of choice and important moments that will allow the story to continue beyond just one installment, restricted by deadlines!
The first Versus book got a bit away from me—I didn’t anticipate how much world building I’d have to do, given that there are no earth-references available and every character is literally from a different world. Given the time I had to write The Lost Ones, I did the best I could, but I wish I had another year for that one. And as for Redemption Season, that’s the book I’m perhaps most proud of, despite the polarizing reader reaction—I think it captured a point of view most often overlooked in pop culture. I’ve learned the most important lessons from that book about the world outside my little LA/NYC bubble, and if anything, the openness of format in The Elite Trials is a direct answer to some of the harsh feedback on Redemption Season.
What other SF/superhero/alien stories do you admire, and why?
Oh man—another insanely hard question to answer shortly. If we focus on Versus alone (and leave the superhero element out of it), there were some really clear primary inspirations. Obviously Star Wars and Game of Thrones and Lost come to mind first. American Gods by Neil Gaiman and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Saga by Brian K. Vaughan, and Battlestar Galactica. I could go on and on, but those are the big ones!
There is one more Versus game before you’re done telling us about these characters. Any hints for our readers about what might be coming?
Well, the jury is out on exactly how many books I’ll need to get to the end point I’ve had planned from the beginning, but yes, definitely at least one more book in the works. Though I come from the background of reading comics (and TV)—I love serialized storytelling. The Versus world has so many other eras and stories to be told, so I’d love to get to expand the universe someday—or a real dream would be to see other talented writers take their crack at the corners of the Versus worlds.
As for what’s coming next, if Versus has been about anything, it’s that nothing is truly the way it presents itself on the surface, once you look underneath. So we’re building to one big unexpected finale twist that was actually my first idea when I started building the plot. Originally I thought it could take as many as 5 to 10 books to get to that end point, but the nature of interactive novels makes that impossible to do in a truly satisfying way, so I’m condensing to get there faster. Which means, like what Marvel is doing with the Star Wars comics filling in the three year gap between Episode 4 and 5, there could be future stories to be told. Also, when thinking about the next Versus book, one big name comes to mind: Empress Vaccus.
What else are you working on, both for Choice of Games and other things you’re writing?
I’m starting to turn my eye to the next installment of Redemption Season for next year, then hopefully another (and potentially final) Versus installment. These past two years I wrote two TV pilots that got close to being made: one about a college girl who has a nervous breakdown and joins youth-based cult, and the other about a single 28-year-old who quits her life when all her friends get engaged and falls into the world of Tarot cards (but it’s unclear if she’s having a bipolar break or accessing psychic power). Looking ahead, I’ve got another idea I’m starting to work on, but haven’t decided if it’s another pilot or traditional novel quite yet…
Proust/Pivot Style Questionnaire Questions:
What is your favorite word?
Pass. (In one sense, in means success, moving forward—but it Hollywood, a pass means a rejection. I think all the best words have two meanings, and no other word has ever motivated me quite as much as this one).
Your favorite color?
Blue (especially when paired with white—I have the wardrobe to prove it).
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Which would you not like to attempt?
I’m a TERRIBLE athlete. Also, my little brother has a real estate job that requires constant interaction with strangers and selling—he’s brilliant at it, and it sounds like my worst nightmare.
Sparkling or still?