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Friday 26 June 2015

Success has many fathers

Games and interactive story apps are media in which it's easy for the wrong people to get the credit while genuinely valuable input may be overlooked, so I'm going to spell out the creative provenance of The Frankenstein Wars for all to see.

The original concept of a world in which Victor Frankenstein's discovery was used to create an army of resurrected men dates back to around 1999. Martin McKenna and I cooked up the idea as the basis for a PC strategy game while freelancing on Plague (later released under the name Warrior Kings) at Eidos.

Martin and I tried various routes to getting the concept, which we called Frankenstein's Legions, started up as a game, movie or comic book. Martin is not very keen on drawing comics - which is a pity, as he's really rather good at it, but instead we roped in Russ Nicholson to work up some rough pages. (I'd say pencils, but Russ never uses pencils.)

Lots of people liked the story premise. Iain McCaig suggested that Victor Frankenstein's discoveries should extend far beyond the secret of life and death. I'm not sure if there are any greater secrets than that, but Iain is a creative powerhouse and so I'm always willing to listen to what he has to say. Martin's friend Jamie Mathieson, writer of Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, thought it was a mistake not to have one of Victor's descendants at the heart of the story:
"I am reliably informed by Martin that Frankenstein left no heirs as far the original novel is concerned. I also understand that Dave is not keen to invite any Young Frankenstein ridicule. However, if we make our central character/s descendants of Frankenstein's assistant I think we lose quite a bit of dramatic potential. They have no Frankenstein blood in their veins, they're not cursed down the ages, they're not fated to repeat their ancestor's mistakes etc; they're just unlucky enough to have a grandfather who did odd jobs for a nutter and nicked his stuff after his death. I realise that if we invent a son for Frankenstein, we're directly contradicting the official novel continuity, but given that we completely change the outcome of the Napoleonic War, I've got no problem with such a comparatively small tweak, that will reap potentially much bigger dramatic rewards. It also a much simpler sell – potential audiences/buyers would get it instantly. “He's Frankenstein's grandson.” is much easier to get across than “He's the grandson of Frankenstein's assistant.” “Why?” “Well, Frankenstein had no children in the novel, but this guy's granddad was there, he helped him ...wait, no, come back with that big fat cheque.” 
Henry Clerval had never been Victor's assistant, in fact. In the novel he's just his best friend, knowing nothing about the experiments Victor has been doing, but in the 1973 movie Frankenstein: The True Story he is the real originator of the life-creating process. The reason Henry's son was one of the main characters in my Frankenstein's Legions story is because he might credibly stumble across notebooks that Victor have left in Henry's care.

I didn't much like Jamie Mathieson's suggested approach myself, for much the same reason that I didn't want to see Davros come back in every Dalek story after Genesis. It turns it all into a pantomime. If I'm creating a story about nuclear destruction, I don't need to have Oppenheimer's great-grandson poised over the button, or Einstein's great-great-granddaughter swinging into action to thwart him. I wanted Frankenstein's Legions to feel like reality with fantastic elements. But it should be noted that at this stage (2005 or so) I still had never read Mary Shelley's novel, so I was still largely churning through half-remembered Universal and Hammer horror flicks. I still supposed Victor was a baron, for one thing.

While out in LA following the collapse of Elixir Studios, I mentioned the concept to movie producer Michael Levy and, with the help of a games documentary maker called Olly Quinn we made an audio demo to pitch to studios.

When I handed the commission to write the Frankenstein's Legions novel to John Whitbourn (we're into 2006 now) I said I'd stay out of his way and I did. Nothing kills a creative project faster than having too many hands on the tiller. John drew his inspiration more from the Hammer movies than Mary Shelley's story, in that the resurrected soldiers were nearly mindless monsters rather than the perfectly human but inhumanly mistreated wretches that I'd envisaged. He also had Frankenstein's nephew front and centre - though with the ironic twist that young Julius Frankenstein had inherited absolutely none of his uncle's scientific genius. Other people just assumed there was something in the Frankenstein blood and so they were all chasing after a piece of him - figuratively, that is.

Shortly after that I encountered the Muse while out walking in the fog on Hook Heath - her usual kind of reverse mugging, in which she stuffs my head with unwanted ideas - and returned with the plot for Frankenstein's Legions reimagined as a YA trilogy. The problem was, it had gone all airships and steam-weapons, the focus now really on girl genius Ada Byron rather than the whole Frankenstein thing. Young Adult literature has more than enough steampunk trilogies already, but try reasoning with the Muse.

On to 2010, and Michael Levy had hooked up with a comic book company called Ape Entertainment. We had a whole lot of Skype calls about a Frankenstein's Legions comic, I did a draft script of the first issue, and even started to rethink the story in a US Civil War setting, but it came to nothing.

How does all this connect with my Frankenstein interactive novel app? Not at all, is the answer. In 2011 I pitched the idea of interactive classic novels to Michael Bhaskar, who was then digital director at Profile Books. I didn't particularly want to adapt Frankenstein, having had enough of it (or so I thought) over the last twelve years. But when Michael said that was the one he really wanted, I decided I'd better finally get around to reading the Mary Shelley novel. That was an eye-opener. Instead of the crackly Gothic body-horror nightmare presented in the movies, I found a fresh, modern psychological drama of a divided self - more David Fincher than Herbert West.

Nobody else had input into my Frankenstein app. I used Inkle's markup system to write it all, but the Inkle team had no role in the concept, design or writing. Nor did I get any feedback from Profile's editors, as they couldn't parse sentences like this:
The fiend can cut the knot of my happiness, but {demonize:it|he} cannot unpick this truth: that we were wed, {victor_empathy < -1:as my mother desired|and loved each other}.
Getting left alone to write is just fine by me. After doing this job for thirty years I don't really need a copy editor, and I always have my Fabled Lands cohort Jamie Thomson to bounce story ideas off to see if they work. (Jamie and I were originally going to write the Frankenstein book app together, but in the end he was busy working on the Dirk Lloyd series.) As I recall, the only suggestion from Profile and Inkle was to put a Twitter button at the end of every chapter of Frankenstein so that the reader could tweet things like, "I just helped Victor Frankenstein steal a body from the morgue." Thankfully we authors have something called the moral right of integrity, which basically means you get to tell people to keep their hands off your work. The app was released sans Twitter buttons.

(Oh, fun fact: I wrote the whole of Frankenstein standing up because of a back injury. And I fixed the problem of how Clerval's body gets from Orkney to the very beach in Ireland where Victor's storm-tossed boat washes up. Mary Shelley had thirteen years to work on the second edition and she didn't spot that, so booyah.)

After Frankenstein, I didn't feel any pressing need to go back to Frankenstein's Legions. Been there, done that, got the bolts in the neck to prove it. But then the fellows at Cubus Games asked if I'd like to get involved in launching an interactive story app on Kickstarter. I told them about Frankenstein's Legions and we quickly decided that, to avoid confusion with John Whitbourn's novel, we should call this new story The Frankenstein Wars. Jaume Carballo and I kicked ideas back and forth, but then I realized my work schedule wasn't going to give me enough time to write it. We turned to Paul Gresty, author of Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories and I sent him all my notes and the longest of several story outlines, and as I write this he is wrangling his own ideas into that framework. What you finally see - assuming the Kickstarter campaign is successful - will be the equivalent of a "script by Paul Gresty, from a story by Dave Morris and Paul Gresty".

And that, friends, is the definitive list of credit where credit's due in the long patchwork story of The Frankenstein Wars. And there's still time to pledge for it on Kickstarter - but don't delay, those criminal brains are counting on you.


  1. It's a curious thing, but with only 3 days to go and a lot of daylight between the funding amount and pledged amount, it would be a minor miracle if this campaign were successful. I wonder why that might be? Is it the concept, the promotion of the campaign or Kickstarter itself?

    If the volume of comments posted on the blog are any indicator, it may simply be the concept, although given its relevance and presumed appeal to most of the people who read and comment on this blog, coupled with the low cost for the final product, that would be surprising.

    I must confess that I only backed at the amount for the product itself, without any of the wizz-bang extras. That's because in my case I was interested in the product, but not really invested in it in any passionate sense. Whereas for a new VR and FL title (and previously for WOTT) I certainly would be.

    I wonder whether the promotion of the campaign could be worth looking at as well though. While I've obviously not seen any promotional plan from Cubus, the updates to backers have been a little, well, uninspiring if I'm honest (again, in stark contrast to WOTT and You Are The Hero).

    Overall I'm just a bit surprised I guess, and I hope it doesn't lower your enthusiasm for running other projects in this way Dave.

    1. I'm not planning on running any Kickstarter projects, Mike, so in that sense it won't have any effect. It has pointed out something I already suspected, which is that I and the fans of Fabled Lands long ago diverged in our interests. I hope that the forthcoming campaign for The Serpent King's Domain does well, but I'm never very interested in revisiting old projects, whereas The Frankenstein Wars is - or was - one from the heart. My thoughts on where gamebooks should go next if they're not just to be the Jurassic World of gaming are on record - in the form of many posts and comments on this blog and elsewhere. But gamebook fans have spoken, or rather remained resoundingly silent, so there's no point in banging that drum again. There will be no shortage of old skool gamebooks on Kickstarter in the future, anyway, so for those who enjoy such things that must be good news.

  2. Hi Dave, is it possible to get in contact to discuss funding for this kickstarter project? I tried to contact you via the sparkfurnace contact email but it failed.

    1. Hi Gavin, thanks for pointing that out. I'll check it out. Wrt to the Kickstarter, it's being run by Cubus Games, so I guess you can contact them either via their website or the KS page itself.