HOW DO YOU APPROACH WRITING THE SUPERNATURAL IN GAMES?
Featuring Hazel Monforton (Dishonored: Death of the Outsider), Danny Wadeson (Duelyst, Röki, Abandon Ship), Rebecca Haigh (Du Lac and Fey: Dance of Death, Atone, Sundown), and Cash DeCuir (Fallen London, Sunless Sea: Zubmariner, Sunless Skies)
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Hazel Monforton (Dishonored: Death of the Outsider)
Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is the entry in the series that deals most explicitly with the supernatural underpinnings of the Empire of the Isles. Since the first game in 2012, the Void was a mythical otherworld which showed us glimpses of power and machinations beyond our control. But in the close of the series, we are sent to confront the Void itself. What’s left for us to write, when the mystery of the unknown is stripped away? But the first question we have to ask is: what is fear without a pounding heart, tense muscles, and short breath? Any exploration of the unknown must begin with an exploration of our own emotions. Without those comprehensible feelings and embodied senses, the unknown can’t be reached at all.
As such, Billie's descent into the Void is a descent into her own emotional life. When she says “There’s a darkness at the center of all things”, it’s as much about herself as about the Void. And when Billie asks Daud what the Void is like, just before reaching it herself, he answers with something both personal and emotional: “It feels as if you called for help, and no one answered.” It is only natural that when we find him there, lost and confused, he is asking for the comfort of his mother.
In the Void, the writhing horror from another plane that Billie reckons with is her own past as a murderer, her relationship to Daud, and her relationship to the kind of violence that produces people like her. What she confronts isn't something unknowable or strange, but rather something painfully common. Something she, herself, once was: a lonely, helpless person, “at the mercy of bad people”. The Outsider might have been changed by the Void, existing for millennia in a supernatural state, but his fear, pain, and curiosity are what make him affecting. And when he’s released, he is overwhelmed by the physical sensations of his own emotions, where the taste of blood or a dead man’s voice are more frightening than the endless dark.
We use the supernatural to make metaphors from meaning, and, in turn, literalize the language we use to talk about the world we live in. Exploration becomes introspection. The Void isn’t something beyond us, but inside us. And when we wander into that darkness, we don't face things beyond our comprehension; we face the things we carry with us.
Danny Wadeson (Duelyst, Röki, Abandon Ship)
In general, I try and follow a rather classical approach to writing. That is, to be truthful and concise. And the truths I’m usually drawn to are ones about human experience. Don’t we all dream, fantasise or panic about The Other, about escaping the physical confines of our bodies and the rational confines of our minds?
The chance to write about, or around the supernatural then, is a gift. Going beyond what is natural is a chance to contrast human truths with utterly non-human ones, and the starker the contrast the more clearly we see them.
So far, I’ve written for three games that deal in supernatural elements. Duelyst, a tactical, science-fantasy CGC, is rife with arcane rituals, strange specters and otherworldly magic – usually wielded by the monstrous Abyssian faction or the mystical, transhuman Vetruvians. The object with my writing here was to contextualise the unit abilities, while giving identity to the faction itself. So the Abyssian’s sense of supernatural is that it’s something from the void, something menacing, a force of entropy and decay. For the Vetruvians, it’s something more noble, although perhaps equally unknowable and volatile. The way in which each faction sees and manipulates the supernatural informs their abilities and says a huge amount about their philosophies and civilisations.
In Röki, a dark fairytale adventure game, the supernatural is expressed through folkloric characters and superstitions made flesh. It’s all loosely based on Scandinavian myth, so there exist a certain amount of (inspiring!) boundaries. My approach has been to draw out the element of each myth, or character, and make them really grounded. Most of the game takes place in a magical forest, so protagonist Tove quickly becomes accustomed to the supernatural – it’s that or become a gibbering wreck – and must learn to play by their own rules. It’s fantastic fun to write low-key supernatural too, there’s something peculiar and satisfying about mischievous and begrudgingly helpful spirits and ghosts that you don’t tend to be able to draw out from epic gods and world-ending supernatural forces.
In Abandon Ship, the supernatural is somewhat Lovecraftian. There are lots of tentacles. It’s a mode well represented in games, so obviously I wanted to avoid it being too trope-y. In the game, the supernatural (and the cult that worships and engenders it) is very real, but again it’s a very personal thing: The Captain (whom you play as) has a strong link to the game’s dominant supernatural force, and engages in a constant mental tug of war with it. So yes, it’s a threat, an unknowable old and infernally powerful threat, but it’s one you also have a kind of dialogue with. It hopefully takes the old ‘when you gaze into the abyss…’ idea one step further.
The supernatural that I grew up with was Greek and Egyptian mythology, Asian horror and dark fantasy literature. So I’ve always loved the idea that, while powerful, whatever lies beyond the veil can be reckoned with by peeking behind it, parsing the internal logic of it – as long as your own psyche is up to the task. I suppose I approach the supernatural from a direction other than the ‘sheer horror of something like Magic: The Gathering’s eldritch-inspired Eldrazi. Although that unknowable power is alluring – one of the examples I’m drawn most to is the Chandrian from The Kingkiller Chronicles: humanoid but never fully glimpsed, sung about by children but never whispered or written about by adults who value their lives. They are clearly terrifying, but one feels their greatest mystery is anonymity and mystery. The protagonist (and unnecessarily tongue-twistingly named) Kvothe hunts for knowledge about them, he seeks them, and that collision course is an inestimably tense thread running through the series. It’s that kind of feeling I think I’m interested in exploring.
One day I’m sure I’ll want to write about murderous, terrifying ghosts and Stranger Things style gross-out horror, a supernatural that is the complete antithesis to human nature, but for now my approach to writing the supernatural is to ask: how can we reconcile ourselves to it? And what parts of ourselves gave birth to it in the first place?
Rebecca Haigh (Du Lac and Fey: Dance of Death, Atone, Sundown)
I have put a lot of (shower) thought into this, and the metaphor I always come back to is a Mylar balloon. The supernatural aspects of your lore / world / idea are the balloon itself. The little weight at the bottom is what anchors it to our understanding. Without a human connection to the strange and wonderful, it’ll float out of reach and your reader / player may struggle to connect with the narrative you’re peddling. After all, we should be able to see something of ourselves in amongst the ectoplasm!
Du Lac & Fey: Dance of Death is a good exercise in the supernatural, as it draws into question our own myths and the way they have been represented throughout our histories. Does legend count as supernatural when it is rooted in living history? Or does it only become supernatural when it is removed from its original context? These are questions I don’t actually know the answers to, but they are fun to think about.
Fey provides us with a unique pair of eyes through which to peer, and I feel as though she is a good representation of what the supernatural can be – a lens through which to view the human world. It is an opportunity to look at ourselves and the rules we’ve created in a mirror – be it one tainted with magic and the impossible. A legendary sorceress trapped in the body of an animal allowed us to explore feelings of mistrust, frustration, and crushing alienation. We contrast her with brave Lancelot, the Victorian ideal of chivalrous masculinity, and we begin to understand her trajectory through the game; how painful it is to be invisible and unheard when you have so much to say, and a plight she shares with the forgotten masses of the 19th century.
Atone is another foray into the history books, this time Norse Mythology. The task was to take non-human entities and create for them relatable personas, closing the gap between the ‘them’ and the ‘us’ by rooting their arcs in human emotion and experience.
At the opposite end of this spectrum sits Sundown; a short-form narrative experience where you must help a young WW2 soldier (Private William Harris) come to terms with his own death. Where Du Lac & Fey and Atone allowed us to explore how to make the supernatural human, Sundown was a lesson in making the human supernatural. In order to follow William on his journey, pesky Father Time had to be removed from the picture. The supernatural allowed us to deliver this story of loss, much in the same way Ghibli seeds a human message within their weird and wild worlds.
I’ll conclude with stating the obvious – there are no rules to follow when approaching the supernatural. Don’t let that balloon full of ideas fly away, but, by the same token, don’t let that human anchor limit your concept. Have fun with it! I couldn’t possibly leave without mentioning the show, but Supernatural took the supernatural and poked holes in it. Hell – Twilight did things to vampires we’ll hopefully still be talking about many years down the line!
Cash DeCuir (Fallen London, Sunless Sea: Zubmariner, Sunless Skies)
The supernatural is never unnatural. It is real, if not realer, than the natural: hence supernatural.
Though the supernatural is typically outside of human experience, it is not outside of reality. Nothing, by definition, is outside of reality. Every universe, fictional or not, has its own reality; and every reality has its own rules. And everything which happens in a reality does so within the context of those rules, even if those rules are unknown or incomprehensible to humankind.
Before I was a lead writer at Failbetter Games, I was a Fallen London player. For me, the best part of the fun was uncovering the truths of that deep, dark, marvelous universe – a sentiment shared by many players. Of course, the joy of this discovery wasn’t accidental. It was, and is still, facilitated by the careful curation and cultivation of the world’s lore.
Everything in the Fallen London universe – whether in the titular browser game, or Sunless Sea: Zubmariner, or the upcoming Sunless Skies – has an answer. The rules are set; how everything tied together is known, though there always remains enough room to discover new connections.
The glimpses players receive of greater truths are carefully considered. Hints and clues are sprinkled with care, to create an evolving sense of discovery and understanding. Whether this is in the origin of the Clay Men, or the nature of the Sun or Death, it’s closely tracked what information is available at what stage of play. As players advance, we seed answers, which bloom into new questions. Because everything has an answer, the writers can keep the mysteries alive and consistent. Better still, they can write with certainty, which is integral to writing the supernatural.
No matter how bizarre, everything in the Fallen London universe is presented as plain fact. Even if the player doesn’t understand what they’re seeing, they know they’re really seeing it. And if they see it – if it’s true – they believe they may be able to learn more about it. This creates its own kind of speculative play, which bubbles away as the player goes about fulfilling their other goals.
In my estimation, the plainness of the Fallen London universe is one of the setting’s greatest strengths. The hopeless, grasping philosophies of the last millennia all suggested truths of the universe – truths which now, in the Neath, are at hand. London’s transplantation underground is a breakthrough of knowledge. It is as if there were shapes on the horizon, shrouded in a mist that was suddenly lifted; and though the giants on the horizon are still too far to understand, we now believe we one day might. An initial revelation promises future revelations. The revelation of Fallen London’s devils, for example, promises future revelations on the nature of Hell.
This also enables one of Fallen London’s greatest charms. There is always a relationship between the human world and the supernatural world – in the Fallen London universe, that relationship is a comedy of manners. Because fantastic is commonplace here, it becomes banal. London’s descent into the Neath was, at first, a thing of fantastic horror. Over the last thirty years, however, everyone has rather become accustomed to the bats. The abduction of your Aunt by the devils of Hell is an afternoon distraction.
When writing the supernatural, you must understand the supernatural. When you know what you’re writing, you may write with greater intentionality; when you write with greater intentionality, you write better. Your audience will know when you don’t know what you’re talking about. The public’s pallet is sensitive to the half-baked. Make no mistake, you don’t need all the answers – your game needn’t include a treatise on the nature of ghosts and other dimensions – but you need to know enough about what the answers are to know what the answers are not.
I’d like to leave you with a quotation from the philosopher Thomas Burnet, English theologian and cosmologist. It comes from his Archaeologiae philosophicae, wherein he questioned the literal interpretation of the Fall of Man.
A good question. Not a wise one.
I easily believe that in the universe the invisible Natures are more numerous than the visible ones. But who will clarify for us the family of all these natures, the ranks and relationships and criteria and functions of each of them? What do they do? In what places do they dwell? The human mind has always searched for the knowledge of these matters but has never acquired it. Meanwhile, I do not deny that it is from time to time useful mentally to picture in the mind, as on a tablet, the image of a larger and better world, so that our minds, preoccupied with trivial matters of everyday life, does not shrink excessively and subside entirely into petty ideas. We must however be careful about the truth and keep a sense of proportion, so that we may discrimate between the certain and uncertain, day from night.
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