Forge your legacy in Iceland as it never was, a land of gods, giants, elves, trolls, and walking corpses! A game of politics and romance, battle and honor.
Choice of the Viking is a 310,000 word interactive historical fantasy novel by Declan Taggart. I sat down with Declan to talk about his background and knowledge of Vikings, and his experiences in turning that into a ChoiceScript game. Choice of the Viking releases this Thursday, December 15th. You can play the first three chapters today for free.
You’re basically a medievalist and scholar of Norse culture, correct?
Yup, it’s true. By day, I’m a researcher of Old Norse religion and literature. I finished a PhD on the myths of Thor at the University of Aberdeen in 2015 and I’ve worked at universities in Sweden, Cork, and Reykjavík since then, mostly focusing on how the religion actually functioned. I studied English Literature before that, but there was something about the imagery and characters of Old Norse myth and legend that grabbed me in a way that, say, Romantic poetry never managed. The construction of the world out of the body and blood of a giant, a serpent so enormous that it winds around the world and keeps it squeezed together, a wrestling match with Old Age herself… I love the sense of scale.
While it’s clear why you’re drawn to this subject matter, what made you want to write a piece of interactive fiction?
There are a bunch of reasons, really. The first one is that I love interactive fiction. I was a pretty stereotypical nerd-reader kid and adventure books were a big part of my diet—although they were a bit difficult to source in the Northern Irish countryside, pre-internet era. The one that stands out most for some reason is a Sonic adventure gamebook. It feels like it comes from a fever dream and couldn’t possibly have existed, but I hope I didn’t just imagine it. I used to love it. Discovering as an adult that people are making these kinds of stories as interactive fiction was a revelation. I played a lot of the modern classics—some of the CoG titles, 80 Days, Queers in Love at the End of the World, anything by Emily Short—and ended up wanting to give it a go myself because, second reason, I really enjoy writing fiction.
The other angle is related to work: I do a lot of research on Old Norse religion that has a very small audience—just people like me, working in universities or doing independent research, who will go on to do more research for that same small audience. Occasionally, other people will read my work—especially members of the Ásatrú community—but the number is still very modest. So what impact does our work have? Less than we’d like, really.
A lot of academics will do public lectures or write articles for magazines. Some will do something more creative. I know at least one colleague in a black metal band inspired by Old Norse literature (Árstíðir Lífsins, and they’re pretty good too), and another makes a webcomic (@RealMundiRiki—also definitely worth checking out). For me, the best thing I can do to reach a wider audience is write. So, for my last research project, I adapted a poem called Vǫluspá into interactive fiction (Choose your own end to the viking world, free on itch.io), and for my current project at the University of Iceland, I’m writing a book of poems and short stories for children that plays at filling in some of the gaps in Old Norse myth. I’m doing that with my partner Irene García Losquiño—also a writer and a researcher of the viking diaspora.
I guess the goal is to get cutting edge research out to a wider public, whether it’s my own research or by a colleague, and maybe also to spread interest in researching Old Norse literature more broadly. New perspectives bring new ideas, and academia runs on ideas.
Tell me something the average person doesn’t know about Vikings and I’ll share that because I have Irish ancestry, my DNA “reads” as approximately 20% Scandinavian! That’s from the Vikings settling in what is present-day Ireland right?
Something the average person doesn’t know? Hmm… I suppose that a lot of people will have heard of Valhalla (Valhǫll in Old Norse) and know it is a place of the dead for warriors related to the god Odin. Probably fewer will have heard of Fólkvangr, which is a field ruled by the god Freyja where dead warriors also end up. It’s not mentioned very often but one poem called Grímnismál says that Freyja chooses half the dead every day and Odin gets the rest.
Because Fólkvangr is mentioned so rarely, it would have been really easy to lose our knowledge of it and to think that warriors could only go where Odin wanted them. It just shows how precarious our understanding of the Viking Age is. We know of a few other places of the dead—such as Hel, which is ruled over by a queen of the same name—but it’s very rare that we have much information about any of them except Valhalla. Who knows how many other similar beliefs we’ve lost?
DNA is not an area I’ve properly researched before, but it is fascinating. Deep down, most people want to know who they are, and a part of that is and always has been where their family comes from. At the same time, genetics is a bit tricky because it can lead to very creative interpretations of identity, so I know that the researchers who do look at it tend to approach it with caution. Medieval Scandinavians were themselves a genetically diverse bunch. There was no viking ethnic group or anything like that, and they mixed with people from all sorts of backgrounds, especially in the early trading hotspots. A war band travelling abroad might absorb people from a range of backgrounds too.
It’s a pretty famous case, but the math of genetics means that everyone with European ancestry is related to Charlemagne. There’s a point around the year 1000 CE at which all Europeans are related. Go back far enough (not that far really), and every human in the world is related to every other.
Maybe I’m just more of a hippy than I realized, but I actually think that is pretty cool. We’re all cousins, and we all have links to someone who did something truly great at some point in history—and a lot of us are probably related to a viking or two as well.
What was the most surprising part of developing a ChoiceScript game?
I suppose the most surprising part was how relatively easy it was for someone like me with no real coding experience. I’d only dabbled with other interactive fiction engines before (and BASIC way back when I was a kid), but early on in the writing process I already found I was able to accomplish more or less what I wanted. I’d recommend ChoiceScript to someone who was in my shoes. I did have to use a flow chart for a while because I just couldn’t keep all the different routes in my head at the same time, but I’d stopped using that by the time I was finished writing.
Actually, tied into this was my favorite bit of developing a ChoiceScript game: coming up with choices for the main character—choices that would help them feel empowered, that would feel like the choices someone in a saga might have, hopefully that would have fun consequences. Trying to ensure the choices achieved all those things was what led to all the different routes that I had to somehow keep in my head.
Did you have a particular NPC you enjoyed writing most?
Flies (a.k.a. Who Is Like the Lord of Flies) was one hundred percent my favorite. She started out as a toilet demon, which is a creature that does appear in one Old Norse short story called The Tale of Thorstein Shiver. (Honestly.) But she morphed into something else from there. Even though Flies is a character that will only appear in about half of the game’s playthroughs, I still ended up putting a lot of time into her. It’s just fun to write someone who is, fundamentally, terrible, cartoonish, and only out for themselves.
What are you working on next?
Next, I should probably take a bit of a break. I’m a huge fan of a healthy work-life balance, and I think everyone should have one. But even as I say that, I know I’m very excited about the collection of Old Norse stories for kids that I mentioned before, so I think we’ll be working on that over December and January instead. We can’t say who’ll be publishing it as the deal isn’t finalized, but we should be signing a contract with a publisher in London in January. I’m also writing an adaptation of the saga of Bard, the god of Snæfell, which is my favorite saga. As far as interactive fiction goes, I’ve nothing in mind right now—but I’m sure I’ll produce something related to whatever my next research project brings along.