Interview

Rob Sherman

Something Wicked This Way A) Comes B) Lurks

Rob Sherman and Dan Franklin, the writer and publisher of The Black Crown Project, on rethinking interactive fiction.

By Anthony John Agnello • July 30, 2013

The Black Crown Project is disgusting. It made me gag, squirm, and walk away from my computer screen at various points, which is impressive for a game that is based almost entirely on text and multiple choice questions. The surreal horror game written by Rob Sherman (pictured above) is unusual in a number of ways, though. Not quite a novel but also not quite a text adventure, The Black Crown Project is a fascinating experiment in storytelling that captures the richness of goth writers like Clive Barker while also letting the reader carve their own path through the game.

Black Crown also experiments with books and video games as businesses. Characters in the game’s fictional Widsith Institute only advance in station—and through the story—as diseases ravage their body over time. Unlike real diseases, you can pay the publisher, Random House, to speed the process along in your playthrough. Even the marketing of the work is playful. For instance, the Amazon.com listing for Lincoln’s Bedsheet, a short story released as a tie-in to Black Crown, drops only vague hints of the larger project. The Gameological Society spoke with both Sherman and Dan Franklin, who’s managing the project for Random House, about how such an unusual piece of work came about.

The Gameological Society: How was Black Crown conceived? Rob, when did you come up with it, and how did it turn into the project it is now with Random House?

Rob Sherman: It was quite a long process, even once Random House picked up the project. It started even longer ago than that, when I was still at University.

Originally, I took some photographs from the German photographer August Sander, who did a lot of portrait photography in the 1930s and had these beautiful portraits of various people from various walks of life. And underneath, really because I was just trying to be clever, I put captions on them. The captions ended up being links geographically. They all describe elements of the same place—an empty mountain town with very weird artifacts left behind or weird architecture but no people. I quite enjoyed writing it. I wanted to come back to this idea of an empty town and why it was empty.

The Black Crown Project

What came out of that was this suitcase that I ended up putting together, which involved a lot of writing. There was a central diary, which was sort of the key to the rest of the content, but there were other pieces in there. There was a gas mask. There was a musical instrument. There were maps. There’s an audio CD. Lots and lots of different things. And the process of that was going to a junk shop near where I lived and just buying stuff that was cheap and looked interesting.

I got some friends involved, and we did photographs for it, and music, and recording, and what emerged quite organically was the story of this character called Miasma Eremite who went to this town called Loss and messed things up, essentially through faults in his own character, and caused a disease to be unleashed upon the town.

Back then, the Windsith Institute was just a boring framework designed to justify the existence of the suitcase. I don’t know if you’ve ever played Portal or things like that that have a shadowy organization. Looking back on it now, I can see I really ripped from that game and other games and other media quite badly both in aesthetic and tone.

Dan Franklin: I got a call from Sam North, Rob’s tutor at Exeter University, and he said, “Yeah, I want you to meet one of my students. He’s invented this really interesting final year piece of work. It’s a suitcase, and I think you might like it.” And I thought, “Well, seeing as I’m doing digital here at Random House, it obviously makes lots of sense that I’d look at a suitcase project.” It was so counterintuitive, it felt right.

Gameological: Many of the things that are popular in fiction right now are completely absent from Black Crown. No zombies. No vampires. No steampunk. It seemed so unusual that it must have been hard to get that pitch off the ground.

Franklin: There are a few forces at work which helped. I totally agree with you. I think that people who’ve responded strongest to the project see that it does run against the grain of what’s very popular and getting really tired right now. Black Crown’s claustrophobia and its complete lack of compromise really attract people to it rather than put them off.

Imagine a corporation where the higher up the ladder you go, the more physically repulsive you become.

There’s a really cunning reverse in the game, in terms of the fact that through diseases you acquire insight. The one-line pitch was, “Imagine a corporation where the higher up the ladder you go, the more physically repulsive you become.” I don’t know if I’d refined that when I sat around the boardroom. I think I might’ve done just to get a laugh. This is an experimental business model for fiction which we should be looking at. It’s not getting easier to publish debut fiction nowadays.

Rob’s a great writer, and that’s the core of it, but there was also a willingness to experiment. It made more sense to move away from all sorts of conventions when dealing with this type of world. If we were going to do this, we were going to go all the way.

Sherman: It’s very easy to listen to stories about traditional publishing and how dull it is. To a certain extent, it’s true, but there are some publishers where I’ve been pretty astounded by the breadth of freedom I’ve been given. I’ve worked with all these really talented artists, and working with all these people and I can just tell how the world works with all the elements that are controversial or creepy or weird. And I’m so glad that I’m able to do that. Lincoln’s Bedsheet, the short story we put out—there have been a lot of very negative reviews on Amazon with people just wondering what the hell it is. It’s a very creepy story, and there’s a lot of unpleasant elements to it. And I think that can put some people off. But I’m so glad that I was able to do it in the first place.

Franklin: The funny thing about Lincoln’s Bedsheet is that it indexes so brilliantly on Amazon because of Lincoln being in the title. We’ve had a lot of people saying, “I downloaded this expecting a something about Abraham Lincoln, and instead I get this disgusting story.” That’s wonderful for me. I’d like to frame all of them. It’s fun to be playing in that free e-book space and be fucking with people’s heads.

Gameological: Rob, what drew you to interactive fiction in the first place? When you set up Black Crown, you were insistent that it not be a novel.

Sherman: I’ve never been a huge follower of interactive fiction. I played some in my youth and some more recently. But interactive fiction, in the sense of a story told in a non-linear fashion or a story in which the reader participates, is fascinating. It’s a scary thing because you need to relinquish control and allow for readers to have an experience different from the one you’re expecting. I think it’s very difficult for a writer to write something and keep in mind all the possible different experiences a reader is going to have. When you write a novel, people obviously react in different ways, but you can at least be sure that they are going to read the events of the book in particular.

The Black Crown Project

It’s a far more visceral experience to act as a character within a world. And also, the sort of thing that I write, which is quite opaque and very strange—something that is not immediately solvable or passable or understandable suits a non-linear structure much better because it allows somebody experimentation. When you read a novel, you can experiment with interpretation through speaking to other people or writing your own criticism, but to actually experiment with the form was, until recently, incredibly rare.

The mode of writing Black Crown—I’ve found it very experimental. I can sit down every day and think, “Oh this is an interesting thought experiment.” And I can just slot it into an existing framework, and as long as things attach in an internally logical way, it’s all good. I’ve played video games almost as long as I’ve read books, and they’re an incredibly powerful cultural force. It’s how a lot of people are consuming stories, and I would like to be part of it in some way. And this is an excellent entry point into that world.

Gameological: The beginning of Black Crown, from its opening questionnaire through to when you’re finally sitting at your desk the first time at the Institute, is constructed in a way that not only makes players feel like they’re putting their own personality into the story but also like they’re slowly filling a role that’s pre-determined. They get to both be the reader and a character. What’s the secret to nailing that?

Sherman: A lot of people have commented on the narrative style, how it constantly tells the player how to feel. Or instead, it doesn’t tell them how to feel it just tells that they feel something. A lot of people are coming to this game and expecting to fill a traditional character role where they decide what their character will be.

What’s lucky about the Widswith Institute’s fiction is that it’s one of constriction and incarceration and imprisonment. That theme runs throughout the whole work. And that means that you can present things in a traditional game way, whereby the player can fill things out and fill in the gaps for the characters themselves. And that doesn’t detract from the fact that they are in fact playing a role that’s already there because that is what that Widswith Institute is all about. It’s all about control and convincing people of different things.

I think it may be difficult in other projects and it’ll be interesting if I move on to other things in the same vein as the Institute, how I’ll be able to do that successfully. But with the Widswith Institute, the fiction itself suits the form. And to be honest, I think a golden rule, with my very little experience so far, if the fiction and the form are close together, then you’re on to a winner.

Gameological: The language is very decadent. Early on you run into this one little descriptive passage and describe a sound as “like frying sand.” Horror is usually a lot more spare these days.

Sherman: The language is certainly decadent and that’s a style I’ve always had. I think I’ve exacerbated it for Black Crown, but it’s always been there. The thing about Black Crown is, there was always a strong image at the center of it. Even if the language is incredibly ornamental, it’s to evoke something for the player. We don’t have the luxury of graphics or ways to engage the senses other than the text so there’s always a strong central image.

Authors have to accept now that readers are going to take things and manipulate them and make them their own.

That’s one of the reasons why the Institute as a landscape is so bare. If the imagery or the events or the items that you come across were as close‐packed and multitudinous as the writing is, I think it would become overwhelming to the player. As a character, you’re walking along in an incredibly barren landscape, and if you come across a singular item or a singular piece of architecture that means I can use that language to really describe it quite in depth.

As for horror writing, I couldn’t tell you. I’m glad it’s working. Someone said on Twitter the other day that when they got to the point where your character has the option to drink a potion with a ball of hair in it that looks like it’s been pulled out of the drain, they physically gagged and couldn’t go back to it again. I’m pretty obsessed with the body and biological processes.

Gameological: As a following for these stories builds, how do you expect the platform to change? Will you stick with the multiple-choice interaction with these stories or move on to something a bit more involved?

Franklin: It’ll be interesting to see. You start to run into some really serious questions with the extent to which a user or reader, however you want to term them, can start to formulate the story themselves. I think the joy of Black Crown and what everyone loves is that Rob’s voice is so strong in it. If you have a great author behind something, you don’t want to detract from that too much. If you push the tech too hard, then it just becomes a tech showcase, and you lose something. That’s where we have to be careful.

Gameological: If you got to a point where, instead of a multiple-choice answer, you had a text parser where the reader is entering their own sentences and their own responses, would you be able to maintain that authorial voice?

Sherman: I did consider having text entry on some of the Miasma objects so that people could write comments as a class and then upload them somewhere. In the end, we didn’t have time to implement that.

What’s very interesting is, if you go on the forums, nearly everybody on there writes in what is called “The House Style,” with strange punctuation. It’s quite distinctive visually. There’s a fiction reason for it existing. It’s not merely ornamentation. The people are puzzling out its conventions. That’s very exciting for me. At a point, it becomes quite hard when you have to answer bug reports as the characters. That goes a little too deep with people trying to figure out exactly what’s wrong while using this highfaluting language.

The Black Crown Project

I think pretty much all authors have to accept now that readers are going to take things and manipulate them and make them their own. Whether you give them permission to or not. And they’re going to share them with other people.

Amazon now has this fan‐fiction publishing thing that a lot of people are quite scared of. I think where problems would arise would be in the canon of the story, trying to change facts within the world. With Black Crown and so many other stories or narratives in any medium, everything is bound and meshed so close together, there is a very rigid internal logic. This is something that I think maybe doesn’t come across at the moment because it’s so opaque. Everything seems kind of random, but everything is related to everything else. There is a reason for things being the way they are. It’s not weird for the sake of it. And if readers can manipulate the facts of the game, that becomes quite hard.

I run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with my friends, and that’s really influenced the way that I’ve written this because I have a very captive, small audience who have absolute agency within the world. The world is created by me, but their actions shape what happens. If they’re in a city, and they’re clumsy and cause the city to be destroyed, that’s a permanent effect that affects the whole game world that I did not predict. But it’s far more interesting to carry on along that road than it is to say, “No. This does not fit my prescribed view of the game. Therefore we’re going to pretend it didn’t happen.” And that disconnect is probably the most wounding thing that you can do to a player: negate their agency when you’ve already given it to them. But then with Black Crown, it’s different because there are thousands of players. It’s not five. That becomes harder.

But I think we’re going to see writers adapting to not just having a connection with their fans outside of their stories but inside of their stories as well. It’s not going to work in every medium, but I think the people who crack it, they’re going to really be onto something. I think that the bonds that you create with the people who get your work, that’s the most important thing to a writer. Especially with the time we’re in now, where it can be quite hard to make money out of creative work. If you create bonds with people, then you’re onto a winner.

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  • http://sarapen.ca/ Sarapen

    So I’m not really sure where to put this, and I feel slightly bad that the first comment is off-topic since I’ve actually been getting back into Interactive Fiction lately but I’m too sleepy to read the whole article right now. 

    Anyway, I’ve just discovered an alpha gameplay video for Viscera Cleanup Detail, a “Janitor Simulator” game where you play as the poor minimum wage sap who has to clean up the space station after the marines have fought off the eldritch horrors from beyond space and time:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yq8Ghej–8A

    There’s something oddly fascinating about watching a pair of disembodied hands mop a floor of pools of blood and throw unidentified chunks of flesh in an incinerator. The ludicrousness of being in a kick-ass creepy space station that was the site of a desperate battle for survival and not giving a shit because you have to clean pus off the ceiling comes through strongly from the sample.

    God, suddenly I remember that Space Quest 6 mni-game where you have to wax the floors of the Academy. I am very compulsive about this sort of thing, I waxed the living shit out of those floors. I should probably not buy this game or else I’ll spend my free time cleaning fictional rooms when I should probably be doing that in my actual apartment.

    • SamPlays

      This is genius, showing the real-life consequences that so few video games ever bother to acknowledge. How many virtual funerals have been overlooked in the history of video games? 

      • http://sarapen.ca/ Sarapen

        You know, I can’t think of any virtual funerals except in like WoW or another MMO.

    • GaryX

      This is amazing.

  • The_Helmaroc_King

    This sounds neat, although I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t consume a lot of interactive fiction; I am, however, surprisingly keen on horror in general. For some reason, the tie-in novel reminds me of those various alternate reality games that pop up now and again, if not quite so elaborate.

    Sadly, you can expect this to be overshadowed once my own piece of interactive fiction, a masterpiece in the classical style of a Choose Your Own Adventure book novel. My inspirations are H.P. Lovecraft and corporate sponsorship. An excerpt:

    Hands trembling, you pull yourself from the still chasm beneath the manor. It mocks you with the echoes of your haggard breathing. The floorboards groan, but they hold. You once felt alone in the universe; you wish you could feel that way again.

    You have seen beings innumerable and incomprehensible, beings more than capable of wiping all that you know from the face of the universe. Why have they not? Are we merely beneath contempt, or have they some grander scheme? You have never been more aware of your insignificance.

    To go mad from knowledge man was not meant to know, turn to page 17.
    To make yourself a sandwich, turn to page 29.

    • The_Misanthrope

      Well, that really depends on the sandwich.  If it’s olive-loaf or liver-wurst, I’ll take the madness, thank you very much.

      • The_Helmaroc_King

        Page 17

        You collapse in a heap of madness. They eventually find the shell of what you once were. You told the agency where you’d be, and they have a way of being suspicious after three days without your daily report.

        Anyone who gives a damn is baffled. The manor, the hole in the ground, everything they see, everything they can’t. You’d explain it, if you could, but you never could; not before, not after. They don’t have a lot of patience for your gibbering, either.

        You find it hard to feed yourself in the straitjacket. You never get to eat any sandwiches, either. It’s probably for the best; the sanitarium never was known for its condiments.

        BAD END

        • mizerock

          A BAD END after just one choice? Some novel!

          Or maybe you started this example from a random page in the middle.

        • Jackbert

          @mizerock:disqus : I have a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book where the reader can be mauled and eaten by a tiger after merely two choices.

    • PhilWal0

      Sandwich, please.

      • The_Helmaroc_King

        Page 29

        You’re famished; a sandwich would do nicely. The kitchen is relatively untouched, and you prepare the toppings carefully. You know how to make a sandwich, a comforting skill in these maddening times.

        You remove the lid from the mayonnaise and– No! What foulness is this? The stench is abominable! Have the beings you seen befouled your kitchen, or did you simply leave it out, once, overnight? Your sandwich is pathetically incomplete without.

        To curse the old gods for your fate, go to page 19.
        To patronize the sandwich artists of the nearest SUBWAY® restaurant, go to page 30.

        • Aurora Boreanaz

          I am constantly amused by the dual meanings of “patronize”.  I will go to Subway.

        • The_Helmaroc_King

          Page 30

          You were surprised to see the sign when you made your way into town, days ago. You’re not surprised to see the townsfolk behind the counter. The harsh lighting glances off of their slaty skin, and you can’t puzzle whether it’s hostility or indifference coming from their fish-like eyes. They seem industrious, if nothing else. Your sandwich is ready.

          You handle something cold and metal in your pocket.

          To pull out your trusty Colt on these fish-people, go to page 49.
          To pull out enough coins to pay for your meal, go to page 37.

        • PhilWal0

          “slaty skin”? Whoa there Hitler. And why would I put mayonnaise on a sandwich?

          I cross the Subway employee’s palm with silver.

        • Aurora Boreanaz

          Fish people, eh?  Good thing I ordered the Cold Cut Combo (all turkey-based meats) instead of the tuna.

          I’ll render unto Seafolk what is Seafolk’s…er, pay with money.

        • The_Helmaroc_King

          @PhilWal0:disqus @AuroraBoreanaz:disqus

          Page 37

          You take your fresh SUBWAY® sandwich and pay the clerk. You make your way out of the shop and to the nearest train station. The night is still, but you don’t plan to stick around until it isn’t. A one-way ticket out of town and back to the agency, where maybe you can convince some bureaucrat to have this hellhole paved over.

          You feel the heft of your sandwich in your hands. You can’t wait to eat it.

          Congratulations! Through your appreciation for sandwiches, you’ve managed to retain your sanity and escape the town alive.

          GOOD END

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      You sound like you might enjoy Anchorhead.

    • Fluka

      Best Choose Your Own Adventure I read recently was an airplane adventure from the venerable Blendo Games:
      “You wake up six miles above the earth.
      Oh my god.”

      • Aurora Boreanaz

        Hahaha!  “You’d better not get one drop of that chili on my $4000 suit!”  *places chili bean on his head* “Oh, that’s okay then.  Just not on the suit.”

        • Fluka

          It’s even got @The_Helmaroc_King:disqus ’s requested 
          “nightmare passages of unspeakable non-euclidean horror”!

          *Accidentally blows up plane.*

      • SamPlays

        Very clever. Like @AuroraBoreanaz:disqus , I also placed a chili bean atop the strangers head. His response was completely logical.

  • The_Misanthrope

    So is the site down or is this some sort of ARG bollocks?  I checked out a cached version and it seems to lead to the Failbetter Games site, the guys who do Echo Bazaar (I think its called Fallen London now).  I tried that game for awhile based on a recommend from the Extra Credits; I liked the idea of a MMORPG based around non-violent challenges and it was well implemented, but it couldn’t quite get away from the old MMORPG grind (unless you were willing to pay).  This is all a roundabout way of saying this could be pretty promising if I can ever play the damn game.

    I’m gonna download the short story, read it, and try the site again.

  • duwease

    It’s exciting to see a major publisher like Random House take a chance on this.  Interactive Fiction has almost always been the mutt of the game and novel industries.. it represents great aspects of both, but neither community fully embraces the result.

    I think it may be that, until lately, the ‘game’ aspect was leaned on too heavily, when the sweet spot was elsewhere.  I do think the text parsers of the past can be off-putting to most, and may not be the best way to approach the melding of the two types of media.  Falling into the frustrating area between the wide-open freedom of the parser and the limited abilities of the game to react to it can really kill dramatic momentum.  I’m hoping the current mechanics of simply having a player choose actions and dialogue from a short list which flavor the action in ways that they prefer is more fruitful.. with the success of The Walking Dead, I think there is reason to say that it is.

    All in all, looking forward to trying this out, if for nothing else than to support an interesting experiment.  It is free, after all!

    • Fluka

      This does look neat!  Thanks to Gameological for the interview, and for exposing me to something new!

      Agreed on the value of the movement away from traditional text-parsers, which are often frustrating at best (both for developers and for users).  Besides Walking Dead, one of the big indie stories of the past few years has been the so-called Twine Revolution.  Twine is free, and super-easy to learn and use.  Because the barrier for entry is so low (you don’t need to be a programmer or graphic artists to make something), it has consequentially allowed for some pretty wild experimentation.  Enough so that there are many gamers who are shocked, shocked!, that anyone would even consider these works games.  

      If you’re interested in this kind of thing, and how effective the medium can be, I very strongly recommend Porpentine’s Howling Dogs.  It’s a strange, touching little sci fi story about virtual reality.  It’s interactive in subtle and effective ways, and really forces you to be an active critical reader.  There is a central puzzle, and consequences to your actions, but you might miss it if you’re not paying attention.

      • duwease

        I don’t think I was paying enough attention :)  Things broke down,  there was a square of silver leaves and things forming at the edge of my vision, and then.. it was over?  I thought I was doing so well what with figuring out the words that stood out in the dream fog..

        • Fluka

          Haha, yeah, that’s the ending I got too.  It was a lesson to not play clever games when I’m still in my pajamas and prone to skimming text.  Someday I’ll go back and figure out the “true” ending! 

        • boardgameguy

          playing this just ate up my lunch break. i did not even get to a point where things clouded my vision. i eventually received the following quote and then it was the end: And they are indefatigable in their bad work: They never are faint or weary. Indeed, it seems no spirits are capable of weariness but those that inhabit flesh and blood.

          -John Wesley

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