Choice of Games’ latest release will be Demon Mark: A Russian Saga by Vlad Barash and Lorraine Fryer. Once upon a time, in the land of Rus, you lived a simple life as the firstborn child of peasant farmers. But when the evil demon Uhin places the Demon Mark upon you and kidnaps your parents’ second child, you’ll set out on an epic adventure to reunite your family. On your journey through Russian folklore, you’ll confront the treacherous witch Baba Yaga, the seven-headed dragon Zmey Gorynych, the mythic giant Svyatogor, and the villainous Koschei the Deathless with his army of corpses. Look for Demon Mark: A Russian Saga later this week, releasing on Thursday, June 1st.
Demon Mark is really a wonderful introduction to Russian folklore, and we have some amazing characters in it. Tell me a little about your background and how these fairy-tales figured in your upbringing.
Vlad: I was born in Russia and grew up with Russian fairy tales as a child; one Saturday, my mom had to go work, so she left me at home with some food and a book of Russian stories. She came back to find that I had not eaten any of the food, but I read the entire book, and clambered up the bookshelves (I was, like, five) to get more books down and read them as well! Needless to say, she was very alarmed, but I survived that adventure and my love of fairy tales has only increased since then.
When I came to the US in 1993, I kept reading and learning about Russian culture. It was very important to my mom, a teacher of Russian language and literature, that I not assimilate into America culture completely, and that I retain my roots. At this point, I started reading big novels, but I never forgot the charming, fascinating stories of my childhood. I think they have inspired a lot of my writing as an adult — for example, I have written a novel draft about kids playing an online game based on Russian fairy tales.
Lorraine: I have always loved fairy tales of all kinds. While of course I grew up watching Disney movies as they came out — the Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, etc. — I also obsessively hunted down different versions of fairy tales at my local library and would read them over and over and over. On my bookshelves right now I have stories from at least a dozen different countries, several of them told in multiple ways. Included in that is a book of Russian fairy tales that was my dad’s before me. As I grew up, I moved into reading fantasy, but I have always been fond of the simplicity and the staying power that fairy tales hold for us.
Tell me a little more about the world we’re in in Demon Mark. Not being overly familiar with Russian stories, how much have you kept true to the tales, and what did you innovate and imagine here?
Lorraine: We included a number of canonical fairy tale creatures, for instance: Baba Yaga, Koschei the Deathless, the various bogatyrs from the court, all of whom have their own stories in the Russian fairy tale canon. However, it was also important to us that we contribute something new, and not just retread old tropes of fairy tale stories. Some of the parts I am proudest of are we places where we took the traditional hero’s journey and twisted it into a new interaction with familiar characters; the time the main character spends in Kiev, the long journey through Russia after they meet Svyatogor, and the time the main character spends beneath the Earth with the Lady of the Mountain all stand out to me.
Vlad: As above! And also, I am very glad we incorporated some of the non-Kievan-Rus tales and cultures into our game. The game’s villain, Uhin, comes from “Arzha Borzhi-Khan and the Heavenly Lady Uhin,” a folk tale of the Buryat people who live in the southeast of Russia near Lake Baikal. It was important to us to not have the non-Kievan stories (which are also the stories of the non-white people living in Russia) to not just involve the game’s villain. We give the player a choice about where the main character comes from, and incorporate the cultures of the various regions of Russia, from the Chukchi in the Far East to the Saami in the West, into their background. These cultural elements come into play throughout the game, and give characters from different backgrounds unique abilities and advantages in certain situations.
As a writing team, how did you divide up the work? Do you prefer writing with a partner?
Vlad: Our division of labor really evolved over the course of the two and a half years we’ve been working on this project. Initially, Lorraine volunteered to help with editing while I wrote. She quickly got more into the process, and we eventually decided to split up the work evenly. As we got to the meat of the story, we did a lot of co-writing — we would put the text up on our TV and edit it together. Towards the end of the process, we split up the sections that needed filling in / editing and worked on them independently. And yes, I really preferred to write with a partner! It seemed like every time I ran out of energy for this project, Lorraine was there to step in and push it forward until I had recovered.
Lorraine: I did not expect to write any of the game. I really just stepped in to help the first draft of edits and copyedits, and I quickly found I enjoyed doing the coding as well. But after a month or so, I found myself itching to fill in some of the scenes that had only been sketched out, and with Vlad’s blessing, started writing. When I surfaced again, two and a half years later, we each had written about half of what turned out to be the length of Crime and Punishment. I found writing with Vlad extremely rewarding, because we have different strengths; I think that bouncing our ideas off each other made this game a lot stronger than it would have been if either of us had written it individually.
What did you find challenging about the process of writing in ChoiceScript/our game design?
Lorraine: I think what I found most challenging is that ChoiceScript lets you do so many things, and I would get caught in those possibilities at times when, in fact, a simpler answer is what was needed. Part of me wanted to explore all of the possibilities of writing a game in ChoiceScript with this one project, but that’s not very practical. More than once during edits, I had to convince myself to simplify rather than to increase the complexity of an option.
Vlad: Very specifically, it took a while for me to get used to the if / goto structures. I have been coding for several years now, and the structures are a bit different from what I’m used to. It also was challenging, though very rewarding, to try and make every option equally valid in every given choice. I am so used to Computer RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, where some conversation options lead to a negative outcome, that I had to continuously unlearn that paradigm.
Are you a fan of interactive fiction in general? Any favorites you’d like to share?
Vlad: Yes, I am a huge fan of interactive fiction! I have already mentioned Baldur’s Gate; I love many of the games written in a similar style, from Planescape: Torment all the way through Dragon Age and Mass Effect today. I also have really enjoyed contemporary indie interactive fiction: Gone Home, Firewatch. I should mention that I also run tabletop games, which might not have fancy graphics, but where one can really let one’s imagination soar! I am currently running a classic Call of Cthulhu campaign called Masks of Nyalarthotep, which I have updated to happen in the 1960s and deal with Cold War conspiracies.
Lorraine: My very first choose your own adventure experience was with a Goosebumps book involving werewolves at summer camp. I’ve played a million games since then; recent interactive fiction favorites include Depression Quest and Choice of Games’ Choice of the Deathless, which I have played maybe a dozen times.
What else are you working on now?
Lorraine and Vlad: We have been developing an idea for another Choice of Games game in a more modern setting with some science fiction elements, but also very relevant to social and cultural issues people all over the world are facing today. We’d like to continue pushing the boundaries of the form and see what kinds of new stories we can create with ChoiceScript. Stay posted!