Pirates are all the rage nowadays, thanks to Jack Sparrow, but back in the mid-90s it was a genre in the doldrums. The heyday of The Sea Hawk and The Crimson Pirate was a half century earlier, Polanski's Pirates in 1986 had failed to rekindle the buccaneering craze, and Renny Harlin with Cutthroat Island was just about to put a hole below the waterline.
I've always liked tall ships and I owned a copy of Tim Powers's On Stranger Tides - though I actually didn't get around to reading it till a couple of years ago. More to the point, Mark Smith and I needed to come up with a clutch of story ideas for the Virtual Reality gamebook series. The ink was barely dry on the deal, but the publisher's marketing department were already asking for a list of the first six or eight titles. We'd already decided not to set the books in one universe, and we'd both had enough of medieval(ish) adventures for a while. Mark went Cinquecento with Green Blood, Coils of Hate, and the never-published Masque of Death. I scattergunned off into apocalyptic SF (Heart of Ice), Mayan myth (Necklace of Skulls)... and Down Among the Dead Men.
It's not quite your traditional baroque frock-coated pirate thing I've got going on here. Dead Men is set in a more or less Elizabethan world, in which the kingdoms of Glorianne (England) and Sidonia (Spain) are getting into a shoving war on the high seas that grant them access to the New World. But your basic piratical ethic is intact, with room even for a few necessary anachronisms.
I always wanted to try my hand at fantasy in a Tudor setting, with conjurers like Prospero and Doctor Dee as character templates.In Dead Men, a slanderous reworking of Doctor Dee becomes William Wild (the real John Dee's granddad). And "El Draque" was a real Spanish nickname for Sir Francis Drake, though here it gets a bit of vampiric twist. And the inspiration for this Caribbean sky, and the scene that follows with its flying ships, comes from a late-night walk across Clapham Common, when the clouds opened up suddenly like an observatory dome to show me the blinding lamp of the full moon sliding across the sky, a galleon under dazzling canvas:
At last the storm blows over and the full moon appears – a blazing white beacon. The clouds go draining away like pools of quicksilver in the vast dark blue dish of the sky. ‘Ship ahoy!’ cries the lookout. ‘She’s the Rose!’That sky whisked me right back to Nightmaster, the comic by Denny O'Neil and Bernie Wrightson, which was probably the first place I became aware of flying ships, or at any rate realized that one day I needed to put one in a book.
The book's title comes from an old song:
We are the red men,Apparently it's not heard much these days because of fears that it's a racial slur on American Indians. Nonsense; it was originally a drinking song. Red faced, feather-headed, you see. "Dead men" are the empty bottles under a tavern table. Hence this song, from John Dyer's toast to the King: "He who would this health deny, down among the dead men let him lie."
Down among the dead men.
I liked the way Dead Men turned out. Its use of 16th century superstitions, of rapiers and flintlocks, felt fresh after years of gamebooks filled with clanking armour and broadswords. Like most of my worlds, there is no day-to-day contact with nonhumans like elves. The setting is so close to real history with sorcery spinkled on as a spice that Joe Humfrey and Jon Ingold at Inkle Studios suggested it could easily be relocated to a real-world historical setting. Queen Titania is obviously our own Virgin Queen (as played by Cate Blanchett anyway) so why not do the minor rewriting to make her so? In gamebooks twenty years ago I suspect that would have seemed strange, but it makes perfect sense today.
Ah, you noticed the reference to Inkle. That's the reason for this post, because today (which happens to be International Talk Like A Pirate Day - pure coincidence, I assure you) Inkle have launched Down Among the Dead Men as an app for iPhone and iPad. This was actually in development a couple of years back, but got caught up in Fabled Lands LLP's abortive partnership with Osprey Books. That was a big mistake that caused me to wrestle all summer long with an appallingly complicated interface (not Inkle's, I hasten to say) to create some epub3 books that never saw the light of day. It was one of those messy tangles of business and corporate politics that Jamie and I quit the mainstream games industry to escape from. And all along we would have much preferred to be working with Inkle anyway. So let me publically announce how glad I am that it all worked out in the end, Dead Men returned to its rightful harbour at Inkle, got refitted as an app rather than a mere ebook, and here it comes now with all guns blazing.
Click on old crossbones there, he'll see that you get aboard without undue keelhauling. Or go to iTunes here, and for a behind-the-scenes including the full flowchart, go to the Inkle blog here. Ah, and I see that a version of the "Down Among the Dead Men" tavern song features in Assassin's Creed: Black Flag. Drink up, me hearties.