Alana Joli Abbott is the author of the novels Into the Reach, Departure, and Regaining Home, the interactive multiple choice novel apps Choice of Kung Fu and Showdown at Willow Creek, and was the writer for the webcomic Cowboys and Aliens II. Her game writing has been featured in Steampunk Musha, the award winning Serenity Adventures, and Dungeon and Dragon magazines. Alana has visited ancient ruins around the world; sung madrigals semi-professionally; and is a black belt in Shaolin Kempo Karate. She lives near New Haven, CT.
I have been to creepy towns in the American north east. Once, while lost in central Massachusetts, I stopped at a convenience store for directions. The woman within who gave me the directions I needed was eerily nice; the stock on the shelves of the convenience store held products with labels that looked older than I was. On a trip in upstate New York, I stopped at a post office; the misty morning combined with the general disrepair of the sidewalks and exterior of the building had my companions looking out the windows to be ready when the zombies arrived. Thankfully, neither of those creepy towns had anything on “Creepy Town,” the first episode in Season 2 of Bookburners.
Short recap: Bookburners is the first serial from Serial Box Publishing, a company dedicated to producing prose fiction that feels like the best modern serial storytelling—meaning, the stories feel like really excellent television shows. Each serial has a writing team that works together to create the season, and each episode is written by a member of that team and released on Wednesday mornings for your reading pleasure. I’ve read mine via phone, tablet, and listened to the audio versions (included in the per-episode or season-pass cost) while I’m out on a run. And “Creepy Town” makes truly excellent inspiration for running.
Between keeping up with my usual webcomics, Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and several writing projects (one of them my own current work for Choice of Games), I haven’t had as much time to play games (or review them) as I’d like. But back in my December 20 post, I promised an upcoming review of Choice of the Deathless by Max Gladstone. Max is a writer friend of mine and I’m not shy about proclaiming my love for his Craft Sequence — of which Choice of the Deathless is a corollary. Since Max is currently a John W. Campbell nominee, and his Three Parts Dead just made Reddit’s list of under-read fantasy, I thought now would be a great time to spend some time on Choice of the Deathless — and mention his novels as well.
The world of the Craft Sequence is one in which human wizards — usually necromancers, most of whom wear pin striped suits and run corporations called Concerns — rose up against the gods in a huge war and won, leaving most of the gods dead. Lest you think this means the conceit of the world is all about the virtues of Progress over Faith, I assure you I don’t read the stories at all that way. Progress has its own failings, Faith has its strengths, and the stories told in Max’s books and game strike me as being about characters who try to find a way to reconcile the two to make the world a better place. Also: necromancers who are, effectively, lawyers, and fantasy novels that are also legal thrillers. Sometimes about ecoterrorism, corporate espionage, or just trying to find a good cup of coffee. What’s not to love?
Choice of the Deathless gives the player a chance to take part in that world of exciting corporate magic, beginning at the low rung of a Concern’s ladder with hopes of climbing all the way up to Partner. But while student loans, crappy apartments, and a lack of sleep all add flavor to the game, things really start to get interesting when the PC starts dealing with literal demons. In one case, the PC needs to keep demons from finding a contractual loophole that would allow them to gain an unlimited foothold in the human world. In another, an oppressed demon wants out of an abusive contract, without getting sent back to the demon lands. In a third, the PC must decide whether to advise a minor goddess to seek out her own lawyer or take her to court for everything she has. And the larger story arc gives PCs the chance to eventually become a skeletal, undead, master of magic — if they play their cards right.
This past month, I’ve not been playing much in the way of interactive fiction and my webcomics have fallen behind schedule–in part because I’ve been reading some great prose books. One of the most recent is the novel Pen Pal by Francesca Forrest, a self-published novel that began its life on livejournal and grew up into a full-fledged, completely remarkable fantasy. For those who have been looking for something different than fantasyland fare, this is definitely a novel you should check out.
As the story opens, young Em, a girl from the floating community of Mermaid’s Hands just off the Gulf Coast of the United States, is reaching for the larger world. She loves her community and trusts in the Seafather, the god worshipped by her small village of intertwined boats on the mudflats, but she wants to see more of the world. With the help of a friend, she tosses a message in a bottle into the sea, willing the Seafather to take it somewhere interesting, to someone who will write her back.
Whether through fate or the intervention of two very different gods, the letter ends up in the hands of Kaya, a political prisoner in the country of W–, near Indonesia, whose prison is a faux-temple suspended over Ruby Lake, a lava lake in the center of a volcano. Kaya is from the mountains, making her a minority in her own small country, and her people’s traditional religion, worship of the Lady of Ruby Lake, has been forbidden. Through writing to Em, she begins to examine how she became a political prisoner–she who had once embraced the lowland culture, attended college in America, and sought to advance in life. But her plan to hold a festival for the Lady, just as a cultural celebration, nothing to offend the government, crashes around her ears and sends her hanging perilously above the lava, in solitary confinement, but for letters from her mother and Em and a strangely intelligent crow companion.
Last week, I talked about superhero webcomics, and there was some fun discussion in the comments about superheroes and fantasy and where those genres meet. Fritz Freiheit also pointed me in the direction of his slightly out of date “A Brief Overview of Superhero Fiction,” which means I’m going to have a bunch of novels to add to my TBR pile. But prose and comics aren’t the only homes of superheroes: there are a handful of interactive fiction games that let you become a super yourself. Lest you think I play a vast majority of my interactive fiction games from Choice of Games (disclosure: actually, that’s true, but I do try to diversify for this column), in this spotlight, we have two superhero games to compare and only one is from Choice of Games.
Heroes Rise: The Prodigy is the first Heroes Rise game by Zachary Sergei. (The second, Heroes Rise: The Hero Project, I have yet to play.) In it, you are a beginning hero, just on the verge of getting your license to be an official hero in Millennia City. You live with your grandmother, who has a Power with plants, because your superhero parents were arrested for the accidental killing (the court said “murder”) of a supervillain. Your family relationships are fraught, but you’re getting ready to take Millennia City by storm.
There’s a strange divide between superhero fiction and the rest of SFF. It may be because superheroes started out in comics. Almost all the tropes — the spandex, the tights, the rules of combat enforced by the Comics Code of the 1950s — come out of those comic book origins. As more and more superheroes hit the big screen, it hasn’t been surprising to see them in novels, some of them on the literary side of SFF (like Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, Carrie Vaughn’s “Golden Age” books), and many of them looking at how those tropes play out when you’re not in a visual medium.
So how do you classify superhero webcomics that play with the tropes in the way that those SFF novels have done? Are they fantasy or are they superhero comics, or are those lines really more fluid than the divisions warrant? Either way, three of my favorite webcomics are superhero comics and all of them look at the genre in a way that questions our assumptions about how superheroes work.
What happens when a superhero gets married to a nice, normal girl — and what kind of strengths does it require to be married to someone with a secret identity? What does it matter if you can kick butt and take names if you’re not contributing to solving the big world problems? What is it like to be an 8 year-old superhero? Keep reading and find out how three very different comics are looking at superheroes (and why you should be reading them).
The majority of webcomics I read are ongoing stories, most with fantasy elements, that focus on character development and plot and world building. Happletea is the only gag strip in my feed, and while it doesn’t have those other elements, it brings both humor and insight in spades. Created by Scott Maynard, the strip has been going since 2008 with some regularity (though not consistent updates), and it is, according to Maynard, “the only comic that excoriates religion, pop culture, and politics while, at the same time, lauding the world of cryptozoology.” I use Maynard’s own description here because it’s not only accurate (I can’t think of another comparable comic, except very possibly Sinfest, which I read only on occasion), but because it captures Maynard’s sense of humor.
In Maynard’s strip, recurring characters include:
Lil K, whose misadventures have included pre-looting for the Mayan apocalypse, starting a revolution in Latin America upon misunderstanding what New Year’s Resolutions were for, and coping with the chaos of New York
Sasquatch, Lil K’s foster father, who packs wormy lunches and occasionally has bizarre fashion sense
God, who takes the form of a cat living at Lil K’s house
Allev, Lil K’s blond friend who is often the voice of reason against Lil K’s antics
There’s an odd intersection of SFF and professional wrestling fandoms. It surprised me when I first encountered it, but since then, I’ve become a devoted reader of Rival Angels, a woman’s pro wrestling comic by Alan Evans, and one of my favorite Choice of Games titles is Slammed by Paolo Chikiamco. Since neither is technically fantasy (although there’s definitely an element of the fantastic to pro wrestling), I’m stretching the inclusion criteria a bit for my spotlights by covering both of them together. If you’re not into the WWE, read on to see if you can be convinced that the best wrestlemania might not be on Pay Per View…
In Slammed, you play an up-and-coming professional wrestler, trying to make your name in the world and striving to compete for one of wrestling’s biggest titles. From the beginning, Chikiamco has the characters — and the PC — acknowledge that wrestling is scripted, and that a lot of the challenges revolve around how you choose to portray yourself to the fans. Are you going to be a face — a “kayfabe” — who’s a hero, or are you a trash-talking villain on stage (but a consummate professional in the locker room)? But while your career provides the context for the story, the real plot is about your relationship with a wrestler from your past — a college friend who once held you responsible for a tragedy that impacted her wrestling career. (Note: she was female in my game; she may be male in other playthroughs.) Now at the top of her game and a rising star in her own right, will she reach out to you as an ally? Or will you be enemies? And how much of the truth will you reveal to your fans?
That’s the first thing that modern teen Beatrice really remembers about the strange dreams that start plaguing her life. But the theater student with very little knowledge of history starts getting a crash course in the history of the American Revolution when she finds herself thrust into the middle of the Revolutionary War herself. In her dreams, she is still Beatrice Whaley, but she’s the daughter of a Tory from Boston, in love with an apple farmer patriot who’s given up rank and position in the army all for the chance of rescuing her from the Redcoats.
Portal fantasy — the subgenre where modern people (usually children) travel to a fantasy world — is supposedly not en vogue right now. Dream fantasy seems to me to be a subset of that. But Lora Innes’s comic The Dreamer is one of those stories that makes me wonder why more people don’t love this format. It is in many ways a perfect gateway into history. As a kid, I remember reading The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, in which a modern teen is transported into the middle of the Holocaust, and feeling that it was the book about the Holocaust (and there were many) that best made me understand what it was like to be in the middle of those horrific events. The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman, which won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award in Best Children’s Literature in 2012, transports a girl from 1960 to 1860, and — even as an adult — gave me greater insight into both time periods. Having a Hannah or a Sophie, that modern voice I can identify with, introduce me to history makes it more real. And even though I’ve read a great deal about the American Revolution, watching Bea learn about it, both as she sleeps and — as her friends are threatened by the perils of the war — through the research she begins during her waking hours, brings that period to life in a fresh new way.
It is the time of year for presents. If you celebrate Hanukkah, I’m late on giving you any gift ideas, but for people rushing to get gifts for friends in the next few days, here are a few last minute gift ideas. Do you know someone who loves interactive fiction? Someone who digs webcomics? If you’re shopping for someone who would rather have a digital gift than a package to open, you might encounter some gifting hurdles — but it can be done!
I’ve already mentioned some games I like in this column, so anything I’ve already spotlighted is something I recommend. Here are a few games I’m planning to cover in upcoming posts:
Today’s just released Choice of Deathless by fantasy author Max Gladstone is an awesome mix of corporate espionage and demon fighting. I got to playtest this one (disclosure: Max is in my fiction critique group, Substrate) and I’ve already played it probably five times. I can’t wait to play it again. (Max is also the author of two amazing fantasy novels, Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise, which you can pick up at your local bookstore or use the expedited shipping option from your favorite online bookseller to get them in time for Christmas.
Choice of Ninja is exactly what you’d expect: lots of martial arts, magic, and stealth, and your choices help decide the fate of two warring shoguns. I’m still playing this one (so author Katherine Buffington may have some surprises!), but I’m really enjoying it so far.
I had so much fun playing a real-estate agent for a haunted house in Gavin Inglis‘s short game Eerie Estate Agent that I bought his novel Crap Ghosts. The book is downloadable without DRM via Kobo, which means if your friend is local, you can buy it and load it to your friend’s device (or send it via e-mail) rather than muck about with online gifting.
Failbetter Games (of Fallen London) is releasing a tie-in 2D adventure game, Sunless Sea, available now for pre-order. Best thing about this one is it comes with a “gift” option right from the order page.
So how do you send someone a digital game as a gift? It depends on the device, but here are a few tips:
There are several styles of interactive fiction games that can be found on the Internet, and while I’ve spent quite a bit more time with the Choice of Games catalog of adventures (my bias as one of their writers), I’ve also dabbled in a number of other games. Some of them are a bit more like CRPGs (computer/console role playing games) than storytelling, and combine words, pictures, and strategy games with the plot — they’re story heavy, but you as a player don’t really drive what happens next. Others, however, are quite a bit more open-ended, and Fallen London is one of those. In fact, Fallen London‘s greatest strength — the sheer quantity of it’s material and its open-ended paths — is also its greatest challenge.
In Fallen London, you begin as an escapee from new Newgate prison in a Victorian-feeling England that is populated by devils, rubbery men (reminiscent of Lovecraftian horrors or illithids from Dungeons and Dragons), people who have died but haven’t quite given up on moving about, and other strange things. You are, of course, a criminal, but it’s up to you to decide just how much you’ll continue to be one. You choose tasks, in text accompanied by small illustrations, that challenge and improve your basic statistics: watchful, shadowy, dangerous, and persuasive. The punishments for failure can be madness, death (though that’s not as permanent as you’d think), being the center of scandal to such a degree that you have to flee to a “tomb colony,” and suspicion to the point where the police arrest you. Thankfully, it takes quite awhile to build up enough failures to face any of these consequences, and sometimes being in prison or in a tomb colony — or even going mad or dying — can be just as interesting as the rest of the game. The “storylets” (as the folks at Failbetter Games, the company that makes Fallen London and other interactive worlds) help you both explore the world and build your skills, until you become a Person of Consequence (having raised one of your stats to over 100).