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Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Mean streets of Manhattan

At the end of last week I heard that Paul Gresty's gamebook The Thief of Memories was being converted into an app, and today we have a guest post by Mr Gresty himself. If this was ink it'd still be wet...

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It's interesting to see how things come around full circle. Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories was originally planned as a smartphone/tablet application, a reboot of the first Arcana Agency app that Megara Entertainment released some five years ago, now. Scrutinising Act I and Act II of the story, I can still spot a few holdovers from my initial draft of that app. Most visibly, for instance, each game paragraph is around sixty words long, so that it can neatly fit onto a smartphone screen.

Then, as I was midway through writing that app, Zach Weiner came up with the gamebook Trial of the Clone, and ran a Kickstarter that raised $130,000. Suddenly it seemed a really, really good idea for Megara to run a gamebook Kickstarter of its own.

So, Arcana Agency became a print gamebook, in glorious full colour. The setting is New York, 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. The story follows a trio of private detectives - Humphrey Brown, Joe Strelli and Tom Shanigan; respectively studious, streetwise and superstitious - as they investigate the mystery of a man who apparently cannot die, and a wicked cultist long thought dead. The atmosphere is on the dark side, as gamebooks go. The detectives are never quite sure if their murderous antagonist truly possesses supernatural powers, or is merely a gifted charlatan. (And which is it, in the end? No spoilers here, I'm afraid.)

The book was, in some ways, a tricky one to write. Not least because of the level of research involved in order to be historically accurate (what type of car would somebody on Humphrey Brown's pay scale be likely to drive in 1932? Hmm...). And yet I'm really happy with how it turned out. I've read a few reviews that mention a Cthulhu-esque tone to the story. In truth, I've only ever read a handful of Lovecraft's stories in my life and, while I've glanced through the Call of Cthulhu RPG, I've never played it.

No, I feel detective literature was a far greater influence than the horror genre. Certainly, I tried to imbue the setting with a touch of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe stories. Of course, The Big Sleep, the first full Marlowe novel, was published in 1939, so that added to the time spent checking historical accuracy. Sherlock Holmes is my own personal detective of predilection, and there's an air of Holmes about Humphrey Brown. Well, an awkward, unsure version of Holmes, maybe.

The gamebook roots of the book - once we'd decided it would be a gamebook - are likely quite visible. The codeword system and mechanics owe more than a nod to Fabled Lands. Some of the numerical manipulation ('deduct 40 from the current paragraph number if you think you've found the clue...') is reminiscent of a couple of Steve Jackson's books. And the app adaptation will remain faithful to much of this, dice-rolling and all.

But I think there are a lot of fresh elements in there too. The narrative is in the third person, and the past tense. Perspective switches between various characters throughout. There's more interplay, more of a relationship, between the three detectives than you might often see in gamebooks. Occasional interludes take the narrative focus away from the three principal protagonists entirely. A big point: I think the book's villain is credible, and human. Nobody wants a nice villain. But it's important to sympathise with the villain's motives. Gamebooks have a nasty tendency of featuring evil sorcerers who want to destroy the world because... well, you know, because being evil is really cool. Here - yes, the villain is a nasty, murdering scumbag. But, should you manage to reach the end of the story, you kind of get why.

So, here we are two years later. The app that became a book has become an app once more, and I'm lucky enough to get to talk about it on the Fabled Lands blog. Have I mentioned that I originally started working with Megara because they wanted to translate and publish a scenario that I wrote for the Fabled Lands Role-Playing Game? As I said, it's interesting to see how things come around full circle.

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