It’s speed dating for the railway-tycoon monopolist robber baron! To obliterate your competition, you must marry a suitable partner before time runs out. Gilded Rails is a 340,000-word interactive dating-management novel by Anaea Lay. I sat down with Anaea to talk about the world of robber barons and the challenges of coding 11 romance options. Gilded Rails releases this Thursday, November 1st.
Tell me about the world and time period Gilded Rails is set in. What the heck is a robber baron?
The game is set in a slightly alt-history 1874 U.S. That puts us firmly in the middle of the post-war Reconstruction period and at the very, very beginning of what became known as the Gilded Age. Which is all a very dry way of saying that this is the period when absolutely everything became wacky and unhinged in ways that feel unsettlingly familiar. Most of the arguments, disagreements, and structural problems we started grappling with then are the same ones we’re having fights about now. Which, in one way, is a little reassuring because it makes things feel much less immediately dire, but on the other hand, is exhausting to think about.
Robber barons were the Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk’s of their time, and they were just getting started. Like with major tech companies now, you’d get these charismatic figures running huge companies that had either invented or completely absorbed an entire sector of the economy, and then run rampant with it. Some took philanthropy seriously and made huge contributions to public institutions, founding museums and universities and the like. It was pretty exciting because you had people who were worth more than several countries combined and who were eager to spend it on cool stuff, so cool stuff was happening just because. At the same time, hand rubbing and cackling while sipping champagne and twirling a mustache is actually a part of the historical record. Rich people being smug jerks about being rich isn’t new. Robber baron was a slightly disparaging term coined largely to call out the latter behavior, but applied to the whole group—at the same time they were becoming mind bogglingly rich, even with rapidly rising wages most people were winding up poor and poorer.
This game has an insane number of romances. Exactly how many? Who are they all?
Eleven. There are eleven people you can pursue a relationship with.
I feel like this is the moment where I have to confess that before starting this game, I’d never played a dating sim, so I didn’t really have any idea what was reasonable or normal. Spoiler: eleven isn’t normal. For good reason. But sometimes bad ideas are fun, and this one definitely turned out to be interesting. Here are the people you can pursue. Incidentally, this is also most of the cast of the game.
Eleanor/Eric Benson: Assistant Office Manager for the McKressin Line, an opportunity for an office romance or to secure the loyalty of a highly competent professional ally.; Isabell/Isaac Rochester Head of the Rochester-Atlanta Line, one of the biggest in the industry, and known as “The Dragon” due to a penchant for scorched earth tactics. Pursuit for any purpose highly contraindicated.; Rosalie/Rufus Cartwright Your childhood best friend and your father’s favorite of all the potential candidates, known for an interest in gardening and canapés. Carol/Carl Evans Social Page reporter for the Post, always has the pulse of the gossip scene and could help make or break your social reputation.; Beverly/Brandon Freeman Founder and leader of The Agricultural Society, and shockingly shy for an activist taking on the giants of industry in order to protect small farmers, the kind of ally who might be good for your moral character but could damage your business prospects.; Primrose/Preston Lessing Business page reporter for the Post, savvy to the twists and turns of industry and backroom dealings, but willing to champion the ethical businessperson, or crush the incompetent.; Temperance/Thomas O’Malley A pro-railroad industry fanatic and the head of a railroad similar to yours, there are many interesting business opportunities available if you’re willing to collude with the competition.; Victoria Elaine Prescott-Finley / Victor Edward Prescott III Fantastically wealthy, elegantly disposed, and resident of a a replica castle located in the countryside outside the city, and social connection like this one will ensure you never have to worry about anything ever again.; Jason/Janice Stanikopolos A Marxist reformer who fled England after a labor dispute with a mill owner, and also old enough to be your grandparent, unwaveringly loyal, possibly homicidal.; Fannie/Floyd Thompson Former sheriff of a frontier town with a penchant for dime novels about frontier sheriffs, currently working as an investigator for the government, sniffing out corruption and unfair dealings.; Diane/David Worthington Heir apparent to the crown of the social scene, die-hard opera fan, insufferable snob, as likely to help you secure your social status as to render you a pariah.
What did you find most challenging about writing Gilded Rails?
Everything? By nature, I’m a pantser, and while I’m a big history buff, I don’t usually write historical settings. On purpose. Mostly because I’m a history buff, and I know how much I don’t know. My normal writing process is to sit down and spew forth words at high speed until I hit the end, then throw out half of them and do it again until I have something that hangs together all the way. This is utterly, completely, horrifically incompatible with how to produce a quality game. Which I knew going in, but meant that on top of everything else I had to do, I had to learn a whole new way to write and approach the process.
For example, if I’m spending a day on a normal project, getting four thousand words of fairly solid draft done is pretty easy. When I started this project, getting 250 words down was excruciatingly challenging. You can’t get momentum going the same way when you’re constantly stopping to have forking choices, and I’d have to stop to consider setting and mechanical elements that aren’t normally factors. I spent the better part of three years working on this, and by the end I could get about 2,000 words done in a full day of work, but that’s still pretty demoralizing in comparison to my normal production rate.
Don’t get me wrong, I got an unfathomable amount of personal growth and skill development out of the process. I just didn’t mean to be signing up for personal growth or that level of skill development, and it was pretty painful. But I have a much richer understanding of why my normal process works for me, and a really good idea of what to do with the next game to make everything work better. And not take three years.
I love the title of this game because it’s so evocative. How soon did you come up with it and what does it mean for you?
I think I have to thank this game’s origin as fanfic for a board game for the tile. “Blah Blah Rails,” is a pretty common format for train game titles, so an interactive fiction game about trains and Gilded Age social issues had a natural title right there. I particularly like the title, though, because gold is such a soft metal that gilding functional rails would be an atrociously bad idea. The exact kind of atrociously bad idea that would fit right in to the era, as a stunt of conspicuous wealth display.
This is your first time doing interactive fiction, but you’re a prolific writer. Tell me about some of your other projects.
Most recently I have a story in Diabolical Plots called “For the Last Time, it’s Not a Ray Gun.” It’s a romantic comedy I describe either as my love letter to Seattle, or my Dear John letter to Seattle, depending on my mood. For a story that’s the polar opposite of that one, you could also check out “A Long Fuse to a Slow Detonation” which was published in Waylines, with an audio version at The Overcast. It’s a viciously unhappy story about how great love is.