COG author Alana Abbott (Choice of Kung Fu, Showdown at Willow Creek) sat down with me over email to trade a couple questions about her experiences writing Choice of the Pirate which lands in stores this Friday, May 20th.
How did this game come about? I was especially impressed with your nautical knowledge and some of the sailing-related stuff.
I’ve always loved pirate mythology, and even after I grew up enough to realize that real-world piracy involved a lot of preying on innocent people, the legends remained a delight. I love the swashbuckling action of pirate movies. I really love the haunted superstitious aspects of some of the folklore. One of my favorite collections is a book about pirates and ghost ships I picked up when I was studying abroad in Venezuela. Plenty of eerie tales in that one. As for the nautical knowledge… I have an in-home sailor who has a ton of real-world boating experience, and I enlisted his fact checking more than once! I also visited Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut several times while writing the game. It’s a recreated, historical whaling village, and the ships there are a little newer than the golden age of piracy.
I love Mystic, yeah. That would be a very inspirational place for a game like this. You know, Pirate is unique for me in that it fulfills not just some, but all of the progressive options I like to see in a game. There are options to play the game as male, female, nonbinary; gay, straight, bi, and asexual. And, this is also our first game with a true poly option. That’s a lot. Authors sometimes shy from creating these options for players, but it’s certainly doable. Can you speak to your experience writing, for instance, not only an ace option but a poly option?
Romance is something I’ve struggled with doing well in all my games to this point, so I’ve constantly tried to improve each game from the last. I did start with an asexual option in Choice of Kung Fu, because a couple of my playtesters really wanted options that didn’t involve romance. I was touched to receive feedback after the game was released from a player who identified as asexual at how much the options resonated, so I set about making the asexual options more intentional from the get go–something my playtesters didn’t have to encourage.
The poly option came about because I’d already written an early romance possibility into the game when I reached the scene where most of the romance options were being introduced. From a design perspective, I didn’t want to be limiting, and I thought that poly relationships in the setting I had designed could be a really natural fit. So I played with making the coding work to allow a really wide variety of relationship possibilities, and introduced text that would respect the complexities of balancing a poly relationship–all while trying to take into account whether the actions the PC takes would damage or enhance those relationships. It was definitely tough to keep all the options fluid! But I hope that the players will find the results engaging, fun, and resonant.
Although that makes me wonder if someone who chooses to play as ace is necessarily going to have a shorter playthrough.
Not due to that choice, I hope! The ace option let me highlight the importance of non-sexual friendships, which I think can sometimes get lost in the romantic options, and friendships across genders is something I feel very strongly about! Players can always choose to spend more time developing their skills than spending time with their crew–which might end up feeling like a shorter option, because there could be less dialog. But I absolutely made an effort to open up similar conversation trees outside of the romance options, so ace players won’t be missing anything.
The world of Pirate is one in which magic can play a huge role. Tell me a little bit about “cambiar,” which in English means change or exchange. In the world of Pirate cambiar stands for a kind of magic or power over the natural world.
I wanted to create a magic system for Pirate that would involve things like wind and water, but wouldn’t feel too much like Bending from Avatar! My thoughts were really about invoking something natural and making it supernatural. How can you trip someone on deck with magic? Convince the wood on deck to rot beneath them–something it wants to do eventually anyway, you’re just changing the process. Likewise, the winds aren’t always constant, and using cambiar just convinces them to go a certain way they might go on a different day. Cambiar is harnessing the power of the natural world and just… changing it a bit here and there. Sometimes it’s a little more dramatic than others in the game, but most of it is practical nautical work: filling your own sails and cutting the wind to a foe’s.
The ghosts and curses, of course, are something entirely different!
This is actually not your first rodeo. You’re also the author of two other games for us, Showdown at Willow Creek and Choice of Kung Fu. These are some seriously disparate genres to write in. Going back to my first question, sort of, can you tell me a little about your process in finding a project/period/genre that interests you?
When I’m looking at pitching a new game to Choice of Games, I try to take a look at the ideas that have already been covered and find a hole to fill with something I like. I’m a martial artist and I love kung fu movies, and I had devoured Romance of the Three Kingdoms a few years earlier, and there weren’t any martial arts games in the catalog yet, so it seemed like a good fit. I wanted to try something entirely different for the next game, with a different structure and setting, and I’d written for Cowboys and Aliens II which was set during the same period, so I had a stack of research on the era. I picked a region a little farther north than where C&A took place, so I delved into the local tribes and politics of the era and got to play with a little bit of suffragette lore from that period as well! With Pirate, I got to stay in the Americas–albeit fictional ones–and I drew on the Caribbean Lit course I took in college, my own limited personal experience in the region, and a lot of folklore I already loved.
That may look like it’s all over the map–and that’s sort of the point. I love to travel, and I love to read in a wide variety of settings and periods (though mainly in SFF, with some romance in the mix). Because (thus far) my games are stand-alone, I have a great excuse to explore a totally different period and setting that I’m already interested in for each project.
What in particular attracted you to writing IF? How did you come to write for us in the first place?
Writing for Choice of Games is like this perfect hybrid of writing fiction (which I do) and writing for tabletop roleplaying (which I used to do a lot more than I do now)–although of all the writing I’ve done, I think it’s the most challenging! Like most gamers and fantasy readers around my age, I grew up on the Choose Your Own Adventure books and really enjoyed them, but always found it disappointing when you’d hit a tree that was only a few pages long and had to start over. I liked the idea of being able to design a story that would allow that kind of interaction, or, even better, interaction reminiscent of sitting around a game table, but would also feel like reading a novel. I’ve played many of the Choice of Games games by now, and I love how my choices matter as a reader. I’ve even loved those shorter ending death scenes on occasion–one of my favorite deaths is in To the City of the Clouds; I laughed out loud when I hit it, it was so entertaining.
I was recruited to write my first game at Anonycon, this wonderful, small game convention in Stamford, Connecticut. Adam Strong-Morse knew I was a gamer, game-writer, and a fiction writer, so he asked if I’d be interested. The rest is history!
In terms of the type of game design principles that Choice of Games puts forward in our editorial process, can you speak a bit to the constraints of how we design games? What do you like most about it, and what is sometimes a stumbling block for you?
I find the framework to be very helpful, honestly. I like the branching structure, and I like the guidelines that try to keep the story from becoming too linear–although as with any kind of interactive writing, that’s always a big challenge, even when you do your best to avoid railroading the players in any fashion. One of my biggest challenges tends to be not taking the branches too far in one direction so it’s hard to come back to what I think of as the main story line. I know my word count tends to be on the high side–but any given run through of the game sees only a portion of that, which can make the game seem shorter than the writing would indicate. I worked with the editors to hammer Pirate into shape so we could make sure that each play through has a really satisfactory amount of text, but also has a high replay value with the different text options.
Writing in the code is also a challenge in itself, because it’s applying the grammar of a foreign language (the code) to the prose, and then keeping track of where the heck I am inside of it. I learn something new from each game I write (and most of them that I read/play)–something I want to try differently the next time, or structure a different way. Each game has its own particular new and different hurdles to overcome!
Finally, I can’t resist a little short answer Bernard Pivot – James Lipton action with some IF flavor thrown in:
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite?
What turns you on creatively?
Sometimes there are ideas that just percolate for a long time before they finally bubble to the surface, so there’s no real “on” switch. But occasionally I’ve been so irritated by some fiction I’m reading that I decide to write something
What turns you off?
Lack of sleep. I find it really hard to be creative when I’m exhausted.
What is your favorite IF novel other than your own?
Can I list more than one? The game I loved in total surprise–because I didn’t think it would be my thing when I picked it up–was Slammed by Paolo Chikiamco which is amazing and really drew me in and made me care about the professional wrestling setting. I think Max Gladstone’s Choice of the Deathless is fantastic, and I’m a fan of the Craftverse, so it was huge fun to get to play in it myself. (Also, there are references to the game in future books, and I find that interplay utterly delightful.) And lastly, For Rent: Haunted House was so fun I went online and bought Gavin Inglis’s novel Crap Ghosts. Well worth it!
[Ed. Alana lists off some of my absolute favorites, which I consider somewhat hidden gems in our catalogue. You wouldn’t think you wanted to play a game about wrestling, but Slammed is fantastic, for instance.]
What strategies do you use to keep writing when you feel blocked?
The best strategy I’ve developed is one I got from Jennifer Lynn Barnes, and it’s called BIC. Butt-In-Chair. I have to sit there until I figure it out (without getting distracted by Facebook!).
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
There is so much room in what I do–I’m a writer and an editor, and I’ve just accepted the Editor in Chief position for Outland Entertainment, where I’ll be editing their comics line–that I feel like I’m always getting to do something new. I recently started writing more frequently for Den of Geek, where I get to analyze things like My Little Pony, Serial Fiction, and Star Wars. So there’s a lot of diversity in my current profession.
But if I had the training, I think I’d have liked to be an archaeologist. And I don’t have the height or the vision requirements or science background for it, but I always wanted to be an astronaut.
What profession would you not like to do?
I was really disappointed to find out that I don’t enjoy teaching. I find it to be a failing of character on my part.
Creamy or crunchy?
Creamy. I can’t handle bits in my bread, let alone my peanut butter!