Since last May I’ve been working intensively on a new interactive fiction written in ChoiceScript language, titled Turncoat Chronicle. My previous attempt at writing a ChoiceScript game did not go well, but with a year’s worth of writing experience I decided to revisit the draft of the old game and re-spin it into a new story, told from a different point of view. Restructuring the narrative gave it a new lease of life, and my strict adherence to limiting the scope of the story means I have great hopes of completing it in a reasonable time frame.
Like the game it spun out of, and like several of my other writing projects in progress, Turncoat Chronicle occupies a complicated fantasy world, alien to our own, but without magic and religiously agnostic. Its setting, the kingdom of Koth, is known within its own world as a militant and battle-ready nation. Despite this, combat does not form the bulk of the story’s plot, nor the game mechanics. It lives in an uncomfortable subgenre, where talking typically solves more problems than stabbing: political fantasy.
Political fantasy is not the most popular subgenre. Sometimes it seems like no one can agree on what to call it. That’s made hunting down the books I want that much more of a challenge. When I talk about political fantasy, I’m normally referring to secondary world stories, set in worlds with variable levels of technology, with or without magic, agnostic or not. What most sets them apart is that the bulk of the plot is filled with intrigues, scheming and back room dealing. Protagonists and antagonists both tend to get by more on their wits and personality than skill with any particular weapon.
Most everyone will list George R.R. Martin first in this genre, but I’ve never read the Song of Ice and Fire books, and have only a limited familiarity with the TV series. Despite being the banner example of the genre, I never took to it.
I do love the Attolia books by Megan Whalen Turner, including the first book, The Thief, which is commonly considered a non-indicative entry in the series. Most people I know recommend skipping it and starting with the second book, The Queen of Attolia. I’m still playing catch-up on this series, but the fourth book is high on my list of next to read.
A huge influence on me was Robin Hobb’s first Elderlings trilogy, starting with Assassin’s Apprentice. I think more than anything I’ve read, it’s made me comfortable with the idea that characters in fantasy novels can have complex and ambiguous characterization, and mixed or bittersweet endings. I enjoyed the second and third trilogies too, but the assassin trilogy changed the way I think about writing.
More recently, Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant (reviewed here) really captured my mind because it pays a great deal of attention to things that other series tend to neglect. The protagonist is an accountant, for one thing, and economics is her main arena of war. It also changed the way I think about worldbuilding and writing empires. And, well, judge for yourselves from the title, but now I know that no matter how many asshole things I make my protagonist do, they’ll never be as bad as Baru.
It’s not fantasy, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch books. Like Baru Cormorant, it focuses on imperial and expansionist politics. In particular, it deals with syncretism and cultural assimilation in a way I find fascinating. It’s also affected how I approach writing languages, as a bilingual writer who is not a conlanger. I can’t recommend them enough.
Authors I haven’t read yet but which are on my radar include Melissa Scott and Ellen Kushner. There are others I could mention, but the books listed above are the major influences.
When it comes to games… Well, I have to start with Dragon Age: Origins, even though I eventually became disenchanted with much of the worldbuilding. It’s greatly affected how I think about structuring fantasy worlds, but I became dissatisfied especially with how it dealt with language, religion and magic. It’ll forever be an influence on me, though, so I have to include it.
Choice of Games’ Affairs of the Court and Hanako Studios’ Long Live the Queen (discussed here) are the games that most directly influenced me in writing this game. Although on a technical gameplay level they’re both radically different from the approach I took with TC, their philosophical approach to problem-solving lands them smack in the middle of the ephemeral genre territory I’m aiming for. I also like the way both of them handle the relationship between magic and nobility, but that’s moot with respect to Turncoat Chronicle. And I believe that I mentioned once or twice that LLTQ is my all-time favorite game. I’ve long ago lost count of how many times I played it.
Choice of Rebels (affectionately known as XOR, also reviewed here) also affected me a lot, since that was the game I was playing when I decided to dig up some old worldbuilding from an abandoned WIP and raise it, zombie-like, from the cemetery of my mind. The reason it’s not listed first is because XOR mainly affected the direction I didn’t take. Especially when it comes to length. “You’re not writing an epic” and “you’re not writing a trilogy” have been the personal mantras that convinced me I could viably finish this project. No shade, I just don’t have the attention span for a seven year commitment up-front.
Azalyne Studios’ Seven Kingdoms: The Princess Problem (affectionately known as 7KPP, also reviewed here) also counts as an influence, because it’s one of the few games I know that actually has a path that allows you to form a political marriage, and not just a love match. My cynical utilitarian heart is transported by the possibility, although the romance routes have a great deal more content in the game itself. Since this is also the fandom in which I’m most active, materials external to the game itself have influenced my approach to writing even more than the canon material. In terms of worldbuilding, Koth is not dissimilar from 7KPP’s Revaire in a few critical ways, since it’s my favorite of the seven kingdoms. Note that 7KPP is a game in progress. Currently you can play more than half of the game, and since I backed it on Kickstarter I’ve had access to some more top-secret material. But no, the game isn’t finished.
Given its scope and status, it’s safe to say that 7KPP, like XOR, was a factor in my general mantra of “finished is better than perfect”.
I do inhale media in lots more formats, but for whatever reason books and games have been my biggest influences for TC. I should mention offhand though that when I described the game’s plot to my brother, he recommended the Starz miniseries adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess, based on the life of Elizabeth of York. Other than my general flouting of history in general, the mood and aesthetic of the show was helpful to me in getting in the right frame of mind to write my slightly villainous protagonist. And Essie Davis is priceless.
And Jupiter Ascending, for two major reasons: firstly, because it’s pretty and it as a mood and aesthetic that appeals to me, and second and more importantly, it lives to remind me that, in the end, this is my story and I can do what I want with it.