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Friday 19 September 2014

Splice the mainbrace!

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,
Feathers-in-our-head men,
Down among the dead men.
Pow wow.
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."

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. Alternatively you can buy the print book from the Amazon links above. 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.


  1. Arrrr, I've downloaded yon app to my treasure chest and be looking forward to buckling my swash later on. Ye olde paperback is on my pirate shelf (along with The Pyrates, Treasure Island, Pirate Latitudes, Pirate Freedom, a General History of Pirates, Ross Kemp's Big Book of Pirates and a promotional jigsaw from BP which is a treasure map).

    There are some great scenes in DATDM... I particularly like one where you can defeat the villain early in a Mutually Assured Destruction kinda way. And Russ' illustrations too... :)

    My timbers are thoroughly shivered!

    1. Have I mentioned how much we appreciate Amazon and App Store reviews, James..? ;-)

    2. Amazon review sorted for Necklace of Skulls (based on your honeymoon, wasn't it? On mine it just rained a lot :) ). AppStore review for DAtDM coming soon, although Apple tend to ignore any reviews I do, which is irritating. Had a good go at it last night, very smoothly done and lovely backdrops. I particularly liked the way that it handles the (minimal) paperwork for you, and I really liked how the difficulty level was done... having good luck save you was very story-iffic, if that's a word. It was nice teaming up with Oakley, Grimes and poor old Blutz again!

    3. Reviews really make a big difference but hardly anybody takes the time to write them, so my thanks for that, James. Yes, it was researched while on honeymoon - seemed to make sense to fly out on holiday before the wedding, so we got married in Mexico City and then climbed up all the important Mayan pyramids in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.

      I'd much rather play an app version of a gamebook where all the book-keeping is done for you. (Not that there's much of that anyway in the Critical IF books, as you say.) In the long run, of course, that's going to completely change the nature of gamebooks. I'm working on a Dragon Warriors gamebook app now, but it's hard to see how a print version would even be possible - there are too many (hidden) variables and bits of procedurally-assembled text.

    4. When I played my first Critical IF book, I brought a pad of A4 paper to bed with me. Then I realised you could do it on the back of an envelope :)

      I bought and played "Chainsaw Warrior" the board game and enjoyed it, but there was an awful lot of paperwork (moving cardboard counters around to account for your health, venom, radiation, bullets, what have you). The iPad app does all that for you and lets you focus on failing horribly in New York. And comes with "difficulty levels" too.

      When I was teaching myself Java, I wrote a "Dragon Warriors" game that I then accidentally deleted all the source for when trying to get shields working (as I never remembered to throw the dice for the shield when I was a kid). Hopefully your app will capture the "Dave Morris Magic" of Dragon Warriors (the key to a magic world blurb stuff), as the magic isn't in the rules (classic 80s style or presumably new style). Looking forward to an app that contains:

      "A land of cobwebbed forests and haunted castles. A land where dire monsters lurk in the shadows of the night, where hobgoblins shriek across the bleak and misty moors, where wizards and armoured warriors roam dank dungeons in their quest for gold and glory. The realm of your imagination."


    5. I'd say that captures the feel I'm going for pretty well :)

  2. I'm so glad this is seeing the light of day. It's been so long since you mentioned it, I thought the Inkle version had been abandoned (I guess it was). The screens look gorgeous, and the price is an absolute steal. I can't wait to slip into these salty seas.

    1. The delay wasn't Inkle's fault. Well, it wasn't ours either, really. The DATDM app was being held back to coincide with the epub3 versions FFL LLP was doing with Osprey. When that fell through, we spent a few months setting up a co-publishing deal with HarperCollins. By now (late 2013) the app had been ready to launch for over a year, but still worth holding back as the HC partnership would have been a huge advantage in terms of marketing. What scuppered all these plans, and meant that a lot of FL LLP's money and a good chunk of my and Inkle's time had been wasted, is that the epub3 versions of Critical IF were never delivered. Luckily all's well in the end, the app is finally out, and it should at least recoup Inkle's own investment, for which I'm glad.

  3. Replies
    1. For the answer to that, you'd have to go to Inkle's blog. Not for a while, I suspect; the Android version of Frankenstein took over a year. But there's always the Kindle version, out now for less than a doubloon.

    2. I bought the ye olde paperback from Amazon a while back. I can sate my thirst for yohoho with that. With all these apps coming out i'm starting to want an ipad.

      Why do developers go with apple first so often? Why not android? Are there incentives involved?

    3. The main incentive is that I think you can sell a lot more copies. My Frankenstein iOS app sold about 20,000 units. The Android version maybe two dozen. Marketing may have a had a bit to do with that, though - the Android version got zilch. This was a bit annoying as I had paid for development of a Kindle Active Content version, but held it back to coincide with release of the Android version to benefit from the mutual publicity. In the event, Amazon pulled all KAC in the meantime, and then the Android version was launched with nary a whisper. Oh well, water under the bridge. At least I get to control the dramatized version (Frankenstein Speaks) myself - watch for that next year.

      Btw, if you own the Dead Men paperback then you should be entitled to the Kindle version for free, thanks to Amazon's MatchBook system. But when all's said and done, yes, do get an iPad. You'll never regret it.

    4. I came to the comments section to ask the exact same question re: Android. Ah well. I have no interest in an iPad so I guess I'll have to do with the dead tree version of the book I recently picked up from Amazon. Almost everyone I know has Android phones and/or tablets. It's a shame games are published so much slower on that platform. As an Android developer myself I can say with a fair amount of certainty that it's really not as scary a development platform as people like to say for whatever reason, and it has a much higher userbase than i-devices. Ah well.

    5. I can't account for why game developers prefer iOS, though at least one reason might be having one screen format. Developing for multiple devices isn't just a software headache.

      Still, the original book version isn't too bad, if I say so myself. (And reviews on Amazon are a godsend btw. I may have mentioned that a few dozen times before...)

  4. Wow, this is an absolute steal at that price; I really hope this sells the volume it ought given the price (and quality of the product, needless to say). I've always loved this gamebook; in some ways I actually prefer it to Heart of Ice, just due to the sheer fun of delving into the world and exploring all the nooks and crannies.

  5. I'd like to have created the world sourcebook while I was about it, Mike. Maybe for Dragon Warriors. All the research & thinking you do in writing a book like that, it's like an iceberg of ideas with just the tip showing in the text itself. But at the time I had Necklace of Skulls to get on with - which will be the next to appear in app form, incidentally.

    As to whether those old books work as apps: they can if given a full makeover like Inkle did with Sorcery. But it's hard to make something written for the page work properly on screen. The eye skims down inevitably to the next set of options. The apps I'm working on now are designed with the medium in mind, and should be the better for it.

  6. Awesome! I'll definitely be buying this, I remember it being one of my childhood favourites, even if I don't remember much of it.

    When you mentioned El Draque, though, that brought the whole vampire-raft scene back, which must have really stuck in my head as a kid - I published a short story a while back which has similar elements. Sort of simultaneously pleasing to remember its source, and annoying that I didn't come up with the idea after all!

    1. I probably got it from somewhere. Rafts, horror - there's at least a smidgen of Tales of the Black Freighter in there, perhaps? Anyway, don't hide your light under a bushel: put up a link to the short story.

  7. I'll email you, Mitch, as I'd love to read it. And don't worry, there's no copyright in an idea - otherwise Steve Jackson US would be collecting a fee from every gamebook writer.

  8. I am a huge fan of Down Among the Dead Men. Read it countless time when I was young and now my own son is going through it.

    Who took the decision to set the story in a "Tudor 16th century" era, instead of the 17th century like we usually see in pirate story? What sources did you use in the process?

    Exemple, the cursed ship (The Larnassos) being described with high forcastle with grape-shot canon to repel boarding show your knowledge of Tudorian era ships. I did not know that back in the days, but it got me currious and I read a lot of history books about 16th century navy, because I was heavily influenced by your novel.

    Thank you foryour work. I just ordered your book The Pillar

    1. Glad you like it, Jason -- and I hope your son does too. I can't remember why I chose a Tudor setting, though it might just be because I felt 17th/18th century pirates had been overdone. And I particularly wanted to get El Draque in there.

      Let me know what you think of Pillars of the Sun.