This is the fourth of five posts on how Sub Rosa came to be made. This time I’ll be talking about the setting (after a brief digression on the layout of the map). Expect spoilers. The first part of this series can be found here.
Envisioning the Mansion
The wing of the Destine clan mansion where the game takes place has no north or south rooms. This is because I envisioned the thing as if it were a side-scrolling graphical game, the house seen as a cut-away like a doll’s house, with the menagerie of the left and the garden on the right. My way in to interactive fiction was from graphical adventures and I still imagine locations with a side on view, rather than in a top-down grid or in the first-person.
After we’d started on the project, but long before we’d made significant progress, I was worried that the setting was fundamentally incomprehensible. I had some loose ideas about how things fitted together, but everything was too woolly. I knew the Confessor was a member of the Theocracy and that he was the protagonist’s enemy (I picked the title ‘Confessor’ to fit in with the secret theme). I knew that the magic metal affected time and possibilities. I knew there was multiple planes which I was calling ‘plains’ because they were also (mostly) grassy plains. I was worried that it was too obviously based on some weak puns based on synonyms for ‘secret’. There was the clan Destine, a cloak and dagger, something beneath the rose (sub rosa), a red letter, a tacit urn.
The answer to all these worries was to start expanding on one thing and let that inform other things. It started with the red door leading from the kitchen into the hall. I thought ‘why is this red?’ So it became made from leather, the leather of a great beast… so I invented a story about that (seen in The Last Days of the Red Letter). This suggested a few more factions, which gave the background for the somnuliser. In giving a background to the other initial items, more characters and places were invented. None of these elements were supposed to be immediately pressing for the protagonist or the player, the point was that I didn’t want the elements of the world to feel wholly arbitrary. I wanted it to feel interconnected and lived in. On our final push with the game, I added in the section in front of the leather cliff (the garden was originally the initial starting place) which I’d already established was a possible location in the world, and it made for a much more striking start to the game.
By the time I’d finished, most of the elements of the setting were so familiar to me that I’d forgotten how strange it all was to other people. Being able to attune possibilities, walls of leather, gardens in fast-forward… all that was as straightforward to me as mages casting spells or dragons breathing fire in other fantastical settings. I had a moment of surprise when I was reading out one of the descriptions at a public playthrough of the game. The text must have been written near the beginning of the project and not read since. On trying to remove the llama-suit, the response is:
Merely wearing the suit would be pointless, anyone would see straight through to the person beneath. No, in order to make use of it, you had to weave it into your own skin. In time, the suit will peel off as your skin is shed, but not today.
I’d forgotten I’d written that, so the image was pleasingly startling.
You could call Sub Rosa New Weird. It’s a fantastical setting but it’s not quasi-medieval in any way (in fact, the setting implicitly takes place in the future of the modern day). Everything is strange, but it’s very concretely strange. The game isn’t a horror, but it doesn’t shy from the grotesque: one puzzle involves getting beetles to eat the flesh away from a severed head. The setting probably bears some influence from Steph Swainston’s novels where there’s a hallucinogenic interplanar world similar in some ways to Sub Rosa’s.
[Finally, tomorrow I’ll be talking about mistakes, missed opportunities, and wrapping up in light of the game’s placing in the IFComp.]