Interview with Malin Ryden
Malin Ryder is the author of one of the most popular hosted games, Fallen Hero, a game focused on the feelings and deep inner life of the main character who has a tumultuous past that has left many scars, most of them psychological. In a universe that is full of heroes and villains, but terribly realistic and pessimistic.
Question 1: Your game takes the bold perspective, for a Hosted game, of giving the PC a detailed past and a series of physical and emotional scars. How have you balanced that by giving the player the freedom to create their character and identify with them?
We are all complex individuals. If you think back to yourself, you have a set background. Relationships that already exists. Strong personality traits. And yet, there is no guarantee that you will react the same to similar stimuli every time. You might have a bad day and get snappy; you might be in a good mood and do something you usually would have put off as being too hard. The person you will be in ten years will be grounded in who you are today, but there are so many paths you could walk.
I had a firm idea in mind for who the character Sidestep was and is. But, within that idea, there are possible variations. There are three things you need to keep in mind when working with a more realized character:
• Fixed points. These are traits/events/emotions that are necessary for the plot to function. Sidestep will always have a positive past with Ortega. They were a vigilante, but they have decided to become the villain. They went through the traumatizing events of the Heartbreak incident. Anathema was their friend. These are things in which I allow no deviation because they are needed for the story to progress.
• Player style. These are things that, though I might have a strong opinion of what my Sidestep would be/do, the plot won’t be derailed if people play it differently. These are the stats; if you are daring or cautious will affect play, not plot. The same goes for friendship levels; if you are arrogant and monologues or tries to stay in the shadow is just flavor. This is where the player can make their character their own.
• But why, though? By answering this question, I let the players adjust the fixed points to their individual Sidesteps. Sure, you had a positive relationship with Ortega in the past, but were you allies? Best friends? Flirting? Did you have a secret crush? Everyone went through the Heartbreak incident, but what part scarred you the most? Everyone has to turn villain, but what kind will you be? Will you be ruthless or emphatic? Will you be infamous or a nobody?
In short, if you have a fully realized character you want to put into interactive fiction, make sure to pinpoint which parts are needed for the story not to derail and which are the ones where you can allow player input. Also, remember that you can’t please everyone and that headcanons exist for a reason.
Question 2: One of the details that stands out the most in your story is that there are characters with a past relationship, both with the protagonist and with each other. How do you design and plan those relationships and add to them, the fact that the player can radically change them?
I answered some of that in question one, but let me expand on it a bit more.
When it comes to changing personal relationships, I don’t plan; I very much let the story take me where it wants to go. I know all the characters involved well, they all have their arcs within the story, and they could be the main character if I just shifted the perspective. Knowing that I let myself have fun and see what happens. That is my reward for writing this thing: to have fun with them.
There are many things in the interpersonal relationships I never planned on that happened just because I was sitting writing dialog, and it made sense. The smaller things are not an issue, but every time there is a possibility of a significant shift, I need to double-check that it will work on a longer timescale.
Some characters are easier; Ortega is stubborn and pushy and will keep coming back even if Sidestep is an ass. I can allow more antagonism there because I know I won’t have difficulty finding reasons why Ortega would go back and try again. Argent, however, not so much. There I need to be careful to avoid certain situations that could lead to story-breaking outcomes.
In short, the personal relationships are not planned, I have a starting point, and then I am letting myself have fun and explore as I write.
Question 3: I have noticed that for us, amateurs, it is difficult to focus and know-how to weave lore into a story and know how to measure the amount of lore that we present to readers. In your case, it is even more difficult due to the peculiar way you introduce the PC past. How do you balance that? What advice would you give us?
In part, this is a personal taste thing. Some people love lore, lore dumps, and intricately carved worlds. Some get bored by it. There is no single way of doing this, but speaking for myself, I have a few guidelines:
• If you need a big lore dump, get it over fast, and make it skippable on second runs. I used that in Rebirth. I couldn’t think of an easy way of integrating world history at the start, but I also wanted it there to get people in on the ground floor. Was this the best way to do it? Probably not. I was still very much grounded in the novel and would probably do it differently today.
• If your lore does not affect the situation at hand, it doesn’t need to be there.
• If you want your cool lore in the game, make up a situation where it becomes relevant.
• Setting the mood is a relevant reason for lore, but remember that it needs to be short, snappy, and engaging. Pratchet is good at that.
• Remember that lore and worldview are influenced by characters and their viewpoints. Let people have different opinions, avoid the Author Truth.
• Don’t be afraid of mysteries. The players don’t need to know everything, not even about their own characters. Speculation is fun.
• If you have mysteries, make sure that there are enough clues and hints that people will go “duh!” when they find out, not “huh?”. You want the reveal to be grounded in the text that came before, not a complete left turn put there only to surprise people.
Question 4: Now let’s move on to the stats. Do you create the plot before the playable mechanics? Or do you first create the Stats and other mechanisms of the game?
In Fallen Hero, it was very much the plot before the mechanics because all the stats and mechanics are there to help make for an immersive and interactive experience. That being said, this is very much interactive fiction and not a stat-based challenge game.
There is no right way to do this; it depends on whether you see what you are making as more of a game or a story.
Question 5: What do you advise us, beginners, to do to better plan our characters and stories? Any program to help us?
Something that you are comfortable with and feels low stakes. I use shitty notebooks for first drafts because that lets me be more creative and not have to worry about things being perfect. I’ve experimented with mind maps and various programs to plan, but it doesn’t work for me. It might for you.
Use whatever takes the least effort to get you started. You want as few barriers between you and creativity as possible.
Question 6: Do you have any advice for the jam participants?
I do indeed!
• Think small. No matter how tiny your idea is, it will balloon once you start the story, and if you start out ambitious, chances are you will never get to the exciting parts.
• Thinking small doesn’t need to be small in scope. If you want a story about saving the world from a necromantic overlord, just start the story one breath before the showdown, like just when the heroes broke out of the dungeon where he captured them or right when they sneak into his lair to stop the evil ritual. Any needed background can be presented in dialog or small flashbacks.
• Don’t forget your mood! That is what I feel is lacking in many things. What is the mood you are trying to evoke for the story? Is it race against time desperation? Or maybe sweet nostalgia? Or depressed paranoia? Power fantasy revenge? Settling on a mood can help you focus your work, both stats, and relationships.
• Make the main character the most interesting character of the story. And, related to that, if you have a side character that you find a lot more interesting, maybe that one should be the main character instead.