Black Crown began with a suitcase, a junk shop and some photographs of strangers. I spoke to writer and creator Rob Sherman about how the story behind his story, and we shared our thoughts on the world he created. Thick with disease, horror and mystery, it’s also a place of occasional and unusual beauty. As well as talking about influences drawn from the aches and illnesses of life, Rob introduced me to an artist, a photographer and an author who have inspired the work in some way. Read on for many words from one of the most interesting and literary writers in games.
RPS: The creation of Black Crown is much more obviously a writer’s task than a game designer’s task. But do you have a history with games?
Sherman: I’ve played games for almost as long as I’ve read books. I probably started reading books when I was about four and started playing games when I was about six. Videogames have been almost as big a part of my life as literature, but what I’ve always been good at is writing. I’ve been interested in coding and design, and I do various game-like things – I’m designing a boardgame at the moment and I run a Dungeons and Dragons game.
I’ve tried my hand at creating various games but writing is where my main strength has always been and it was almost a coincidence that Black Crown turned out the way it has, with a game-like format. It just so happened that Random House wanted to do a project with Failbetter games and their Storynexus platform, and the way that platform works is a logic-based if/or thing, which has a lot in common with a lot of games, especially text adventures and Choose Your Own adventure books.
But, yeah, I’ve always played games voraciously and have written about them a lot as well. When I was in the no man’s land between university and Black Crown, I applied for a lot of games writing jobs and didn’t have much success, but I’m very lucky that this came along instead.
RPS: Where you aware of Failbetter and Storynexus before Random House put you in touch with them?
Sherman: No, I wasn’t. Pretty much the first email regarding it was from Dan, my editor, and he said take a look at Fallen London, or Echo Bazaar as it was then. And that is an enormous, sprawling, Victorian…well, I don’t know quite how to describe it. There’s so much of it.
RPS: One of the interesting things that it shares with Black Crown is that it’s quite hard to put a tag on it. I tried to describe Black Crown when I first came across it, and I felt uncomfortable slotting it into a genre. I think body horror is important to mention, which I think of as much more of a cinematic, or at least visual, route.
Sherman: A lot of people have talked about body horror. If you read other stuff I’ve written, it’s certainly a concurrent theme. For me, it’s not really about the horror. The reason these things are horrific is because they are about change and manipulation of the normal human form. That’s something that has always interested me. The fact that you don’t have to do very much to a human body to make it terrifying.
RPS: There’s a wonderful line, which I’ll now misquote horribly, that says something along the lines of ‘finding hair where it’s not supposed to be, unattached to a form’. And that’s immediately weird and unnerving. That seems to capture a great deal of what’s happening to bodies in Black Crown.
Sherman: I’m pleased that you found that line. I might be wrong but I think it’s a mouse-over text.
RPS: It is, yes.
Sherman: There’s probably half a novel’s worth of writing in those pieces (laughs). People should look at that mouse-over text because it’s very important.
That modification of human form is integral. It’s very easy to use that method to make something unsettling and that’s the basis for most monsters, whether it’s a change to the human form or an animal form. I can’t really get away from my interest in it – I don’t know why I’m so fascinated by that rather than anything else that a writer might be fascinated by.
But you were saying that body horror is often used visually rather than in text, and that’s true. There’s a more visceral and immediate reaction to the image, and I think that’s why its use in art, videogames and movies has been received so well. There’s an amazing Polish artist, Beksinksi, http://www.beksinski.pl/, and he probably produced five hundred or six hundred paintings in his life and I would recommend everyone go look at his work.
He was a big touchstone. But converting these ideas into text, I think we’re very lucky to have such a big, expansive mongrel language to work in. As you’ve probably gathered from playing Black Crown, I’m quite into words and stuff (laughs). We have such wonderful vocabulary to describe all manner of things, and even though some of it is technical and not in peoples’ everyday vocabulary, there’s an almost onomatopoeic quality to a lot of it.
RPS: One of the things that strikes me, and it sounds very wishy-washy, is that there’s a texture to the writing. It feels alternately greasy and abrasive. But I should say, it’s not all horror and grime. One of the most memorable moments I’ve encountered is a love affair with a mop, which I felt could have gone a different way if I’d chosen to be repulsed by what was happening.
Sherman: Somebody sent a report of a typo and I asked exactly where it was in the story. And the guy said, “I’ll never write this sentence again, but it’s the sequence with the dancing mop.” Because of the way that Black Crown has been written…and I don’t know how much you know about how it all started.
RPS: I’ve heard the story from Failbetter but if you could tell it here, that would be great. I just call it the suitcase story.
Sherman: It started at university, with an experimental fiction module. I’d been exposed to a lot of very interesting things with that module, such as OULIPO (link in French – wikipedia link here). We were given an exercise in class in which we were given photographs from a guy called August Sander, who was a German photographer who almost exclusively took portraits of people in their everyday dress, or their workclothes. They are black and white, very beautiful photographs, and we were told that we had to write a story to fit with these photographs, which is a very standard university creative writing task.
In the end, I came up with a caption for each photograph, but they didn’t describe the person, but described a piece of scenery. So there’d be a picture of an old man and I’d describe a ruined ship, or a wood with no people in it. And I quite liked the effect, so eventually I turned that into a piece of work that I called Landscapes, with forty or fifty of those photos and captions that described a single place. And that place became a mountain town where it seemed like everybody had disappeared at once, and there was evidence of strange practices. It was a little bit like Innsmouth from Lovecraft – not necessarily demonic or evil practices. Just strange.
Time went on and I was nearly at the end of my Masters and I had to come up with a final piece, and I thought ‘what the hell am I going to do’. And I came across Landscapes and thought, well, why don’t I tell the story of how this place became abandoned. That’s an unsolved mystery so I should concentrate on that. I honestly can’t remember how or when I thought about doing it in the way I did, but I decided not to do it with just a sheet of paper, but with objects. Highly experimental and hodge-podge, which at university you can do! Especially in the liberal arts.
I lived very near a junk shop – it’s mean to use the word ‘junk’ actually, because there’s a lot of beautiful stuff in there. But the American lady who runs it now has a programme on Sky Atlantic called Junk Hunters. She was quite the character. I took the last of my student loan and I went down there and started buying up stuff. The shop had an incredible turnover. The stock would completely sell out every week and on Sunday she would restock it.
It took three or four weeks to get everything together, but I started off with a suitcase, and I thought, well this must belong to a traveller. So these must be the possessions of somebody who has come to this place, and I started to become interested in anthropology and the history of anthropology, and how somebody coming to a new culture would act around it it and write about it. I roped in a few friends, we recorded some music, we took some photographs. I presented the suitcase full of objects, which told the story of the Miasma Eremite, this person – well, you’re not really sure what he was – and how he interacted with the town and fell in love with a girl, who at that time was called Death of a Friend. The story tells how his actions caused the town to be destroyed.
The Widsith Institute at that time was a very loose device to allow me to present these things to my tutor. The fiction was that my tutor received the suitcase in the post with a letter from the Institute asking him to tell them what he thought about the case. In the end, it turned out that he had been blackmailed by the Widsith Institute and they had infected him with a disease, and the last chapter was a CD hidden in the lining of the casing which said “if you have opened the sealed package that has the Eremite’s
University ended, but I stayed in touch with my tutor, Sam North, who is a novelist himself, and we started to shop the case around publishers. There was even a point when we were talking to a publisher about a limited run of suitcases, which would be very expensive but would go with a novel. But very often, the two reactions I got from people were “that’s incredibly strange” and nothing else beyond mild interest, as if it were a curiosity in a jar. Or, “that’s interesting and you should do it as a novel”.
That made me quite angry because I thought, ‘why can’t there be a space for this?’ We have all this technology and all these methods of distribution and the costs of production are so much lower than they were five years ago, why can’t we do something more interesting than just turning it into a novel? I thought that going from this suitcase down to a bound book would be a step back. I wanted to do justice to it. For a long time, I thought we could turn it into a videogame and that I should teach myself to code, and you’d play the Eremite walking around the town. That may still happen, it’d be a lot of fun.
In the end though, I was at the point that I was despairing that I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it, but Sam managed to get it into the hands of Dan Franklin, who is the digital editor at Random House. He’d seen a bunch of photographs that Sam had sent over so I took in the suitcase, which was really battered at this point, having travelled to every publisher in London, and he said, “this is really interesting but I need a better handle on the story. Can you transcribe it into a long piece?”
So I ended up writing it as a novel (laughs). Just so Dan could see it. That took about two months and it went from there really. I’m pretty sure I told this entire story to make a point about a question about five minutes ago that I can’t remember now. But that was about two years ago, and it’s been in planning and execution ever since. And here we are today.
RPS: When you first encounter something in a specific medium, it’s sometimes hard to imagine it in another, which is one of the reasons people can be so sniffy about adaptations, I guess. But Black Crown does suit the form that it’s in. The first time I reached the Parlour, when you’re removed from your desk and any kind of outside space, the claustrophobia was effectively communicated on the screen and by the layout of the text. The sense that the narrative is cut-up and that I don’t know if I should have ended up there more effectively communicated dread than the turn of a page.
Sherman: I think the story that ended up being told – and this goes back to the previous question that I’d forgotten – the Widsnith Institute was originally this little tacked on excuse, or MacGuffin really, for the story about the town that I wanted to tell. That’s been flipped around and now the story of the town is more incidental to the story of the Institute. The story was not cemented in place when I began and to be honest I didn’t know what the Institute was until about a month before launch. There was no hill, there were no suits. I was lucky that it all came together in the end.
You take a central image that is bizarre, like the dancing mop, but there needs to be a reason for it to be there. When you go back you find links that can make sense of it. Sorry – that’s something of an aside!
RPS: Speaking of bizarre images, I only just registered that the front page of the Black Crown site has an image of the people at their desks, with the suits. It’s a very literal depiction.
Sherman: That’s a very recent addition.
RPS: I went back in to play today and I saw that and realised that it now feels more like a real place to me rather than just a hallucination or a delirium. I’m never sure of the physicality of things in the game but the image made it seem more possible. A great deal of the game has what I’m going to regret calling, “the tangible quality of dreams”. It feels very unreal but so much of it is very intentionally physical.
Sherman: I hate writing dreams. Part of that is because I feel it’s a cop out. It’s a way to put in anything you want with no justification except that it’s a dream. Also, I don’t dream very much. I have very peaceful normal night sleep. I rarely have nightmares or even memorable dreams.
But it’s a really good point. The unreality has physicality that anchors it. The player sees something bizarre, beautiful or ugly, and it’s like a spectacle in front of them. But then something happens to their character, a physical reaction, and that thing, that sensation, is something that has happened to the player in their life. It’s why illness is such a good touchstone. Pretty much everything that’s being described in the project – and I know there are very weird diseases in there – but they all have roots in real illnesses and real causes of harm. Everyone knows what it feels like to get poked in the eye, or to have an itch, or moles, or spots on their arse. Everybody knows how those things feel and so that’s intensely relatable. It’s a grounding mechanism, entirely unintentional at my point at the start, is now becoming how people keep a handle on this weird content.
A lot of players have said ‘I don’t really understand what’s going on’. And that’s fair enough but I do think that some of those players are rushing through, clicking through too fast, and that’s why I’m quite uncomfortable describing it as a game. A game has systems, and they’re sometimes opaque, but they’re usually learnable by a player and exploitable by a player. There is some sort of strategy involved.
Black Crown is not really about strategy. There isn’t a way to game it. If anybody tries to, they’ll be disappointed. Despite that, the format completely suits the narrative. People ask if it’s like a tree with lots of branching things and it isn’t. I’d have gone mad a long time ago if I’d had to deal with the exponential increase in content that would cause. It’s much more like a river. I suppose that every narrative is in a sense because it takes you along a course but the thing with Black Crown’s format is that you can slow down, get stuck on things, take detours, but you’ll always come back to the main flow. There’s an inevitability to the story but you can miss things.
There’s an excellent short story by a guy called Victor Pelevin, a Russian writer, and it seems to be about a man talking about his girlfriend who gets run over by a car. The last three words reveal that it’s actually his cat, not a girlfriend. If you read through it again, you realise that there are so many hints and that if you’d paid attention to all of them, you might have got it.
I feel that that’s what Black Crown is doing in an expanded way. It’s telling you who your character is, why you’re at the Institute, who all of these people are, these strange characters. There’s a reason for them to be there. They’re not just weird wallpaper and I think that puts people off at times, that it’s just weirdness for its own sake. All will be revealed though. Well, some of it (laughs).
The format of this, and I don’t think it’s a game, does work for the mystery I’m trying to evoke.
In part two, I argue that Black Crown is a game and we discuss how it benefits from the interactivity and pacing of the StoryNexus platform, as well as digging into more detail about the horror of it all. Register and play Black Crown for free here.