Solarium design notes

So the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition is over, and Solarium placed 6th out of 35 entries, which I’m very pleased with. I’m very gratified by the positive feedback and constructive criticism the game received. I thought I’d delve a bit into the making of Solarium–which ended up being similar to the gameplay texture itself. (A lot of half-starts and backtracking!)

There are probably going to be some spoilers, so if you haven’t yet, feel free to play it.

I’ve been knee-deep in alchemy research for several years now, and I think the first hint of a game structure came about from seeing a more-or-less Jungian “mental map” of alchemical processes. It was in the book What Painting Is by James Elkins (which is fantastic), and included a diagram from Edward Edinger. (Here’s an example of a similar diagram with Calcinatio at the center.) Now, I certainly don’t take Jung part and parcel, and I know that alchemy’s spiritual underpinnings were overplayed by Jung (ignoring the substances and real work inside a laboratory–at times he lost the chemistry of it). But naturally my eye was attracted to this and thought, “wow, this looks like a CYOA structure!” I didn’t do anything with it for a long time, though. I had fiddled with Varytale to tell an alchemical story, but nothing really came of it (first false start: superimposing an alchemical map across a map of North Dakota, and using that as the basis for a sequel to Deadline Enchanter. Maybe some day). When I came across Twine for the first time in the fall of ’12, one of the first things I did was to build this map out (with aforementioned North Dakota cities, believe it or not). But that ended up stalling too. Probably not really knowing what I was doing in Twine didn’t help. It was really only when I started gaining more confidence in using macros and stylesheets in Twine (with Corvidia and We Are the Firewall) that I really had the tools at my disposal to tackle that alchemical map again (which kept nagging at me. In a good way.)

Around the summer I started doing research into the Cold War, in particular with the United States’s covert operations, and what I found there really blew me away. I knew some of it, rather vaguely, but digging into the specifics of Project Solarium and MKUltra were indeed eye-opening. In a weird way, it makes some of the government shenanigans in, say, the X-Files appear tame: this was the real deal. The government was ruining lives indiscriminately, cavalierly, and widely. All in the name of anti-Communism. Indeed the spectre of Communism became an almost implacable force; in the dark, the highest commanders of the United States were swiping at shadows, and then being terrified when the shadows wouldn’t yield.

What I think drew me into combining the alchemy and the Cold War into a story was two things: (a) the “alchemy” of the nuclear age. The terror of nuclear annilhiation was very real in the early Cold War. And terror is part and parcel with alchemy. Strip away the 20th century Theosophy and New Age-isms and you find that alchemy is a high-risk venture, full of wild inversions of meaning (Even more so in a much more Christological world than the one we live in now). And the transfiguration of radioactive elements in order to cause mass destruction seemed part and parcel with alchemy.

This image didn't make the final cut for Solarium, but I was struck how this diagram of an H-bomb explosion mimicked alchemical symbolology.
(his image didn’t make the final cut for Solarium, but I was struck how this diagram of an H-bomb explosion mimicked alchemical symbolology.)

(b) The national security report that came from Project Solarium, NSC 162/2, explicitly mentions American spirituality as part of the anti-Communist arsenal:

…the American people must be informed of the nature of the Soviet-Communist threat…and of the need for mobilizing the spiritual and material resources necessary to meet the Soviet threat.

From there it was a quick hop and step to imagine an archon who tried to trick the United States into striking the USSR first with nuclear weapons.

Well, not really.


The first real draft of this had Annalise, and the major players within the Solarium conference itself, and the protagonist as an Anglican priest, yet the conference itself was front and center. Narratively, though, the alchemy was not really present in the game; much less the alchemical map. It moved more or less linearly from the beginnings of the conference, the introduction of the major players of the fourth committee (text which I used in truncated form in the final game), with the choices presented to the protagonist whether to go along and trust the archon). But…that felt much too static.

Pulling out the Twine map of the alchemical processes, and starting from a different vantage point, it didn’t seem like it would work to have Project Solarium front and center. So I decided to make the apocalypse in the past, that the unspeakable event had already taken place, and that our protagonist was in a search for Annalise. The alchemical machine that he found himself strapped to was going to have a much, much different mechanic: having a fixed amount of time to read (much shorter!) passages of text and to make a choice, or else be dumped into a central “clearinghouse” area of text that described the actual bombs dropping. Well, the problem with that from my perspective was that this was a really complicated story with a lot of players, and that it wouldn’t really do justice to the story to make the game quite such a pressure cooker (with that said, I’m really fascinated by Twine’s possibilities with timed events, and I really want to experiment with them in the future).

So the action became much more contemplative, drawing out the story bit by bit, and various elements came into sharper focus: the back mythology, the immortal body jumping, the possession of Eisenhower, etc. When I had written out the bulk of the story, it was only then that I added the element of the various alchemical elements creating blockages. Mostly as a pacing mechanism (a la the Metroidvania design principle), but also as a sense of extraction of cost; that these elements were literally being created out of the blood of the protagonist in order to allow her (formerly him) to move forward in the story. And I had hoped that the asking of the four major questions in crucial areas of the narrative carried enough weight, in order to make the player feel like there were serious-enough consequences about the information she or he was sifting through.

The ending itself was a whole other matter, one which took a good three revisions. This included having a double of the protagonist (in James’s now-dead form) being grown in a tank in the basement, being fed by memories. In the end, Annalise did make her appearance, and the protagonist was offered the choice of alchemical symbiosis with Annalise, or to continue on in the world. It was in these end parts that a few more…uncomfortable moral questions also crept in; namely, the nature of James/Annalise in the first place, and whether they were really making things better, or worse. The protagonist, I don’t think, had been fully self-aware of how deleterious his body-hopping could be. But perhaps that unsettledness would be yet another factor in the final choice for the player? (Though, even that’s not quite cut and dried: there are two main choices, but three reasons for each of the choices, each of which would have hopefully given an orientation to the choice itself. But based on the questions answered in the main bulk of the text, it was entirely possible to have the second choice not listed, and have three reasons listed to make the first choice. If that makes sense.)

The Annalise-as-Jesus twist (if it could be called that) was an 11th hour change. As often happens with my stories, sometimes characters jump center-stage and demand to have more of their story told.

And for what it’s worth, I didn’t want this to be a ‘gotcha!’ moment, but one of complicated emotions and thoughts and yearnings about the characters’ relation to the divine. But a lot of the backstory of these creatures–aside from pseudocanonical works like The Book of Enoch–was definitely informed by reading a lot of theology of late. Particularly “death of God” theology and the works of Christian mystics. There is a fair amount of Simone Weil deep, deep in this game. Without wanting to open the floodgates on this topic, I grapple with these issues–and fears–a great deal in my own life, and I think subliminally or not, some of those themes made their way into the game.

Finally, one of the last things I did after beta testers’ suggestions was to “seal off” the narrative passages that were already visited and which would not yield anymore brand-new text down the line. Which was kind of a pain. I’m sure someone with more programming experience would have found balancing the various if/then conditions a lot easier!


A quick note about these: most of these I pulled from the Library of Congress images database, an amazing repository of public domain images. And there was a wealth of material from the 50s, when the military-industrial complex was starting to document everything it touched. Originally the plan was to have an image with each panel of text but–it was a design and time choice not to pursue that to the ends of the earth. I did want to include a few more images from 1950s ads and propaganda to balance the images of nuclear test sites and abandoned buildings. Like this amazing one:


Like, whatever that means, it can’t be good.

On Twine

I do want to say one thing about the use of Twine; one complaint that I heard a couple of times was: “I would have enjoyed this more if it had been written as X.” “X” being: a static piece of fiction or a parser game… As a general rule,I don’t think it’s productive to really respond and nitpick about bad reviews (and I’ve gotten many of them! Face-melting ones, even.), but I hope that this will be talking more of a general aspect of craft which might provide some insight into one person’s creative process.

Every writer is different, but for me, the tools themselves can’t really be separated from the tools used to tell the story. There is no Platonic ideal of Story for me that is just waiting to be expelled into a particular form. And Solarium, whatever its strengths and faults, can’t be extracted from the palette being used to create it. In this case, the interlinking boxes of Twine. Those little boxes and the links between them are inseparable from the writing; they provided the shape for the writing, how the characters were revealed to each other and the reader, and really the flow of the narrative itself. (And the difference between writing in longhand and using a word processor IS there as well; it’s just a bit less pronounced because the final aim is similar for both: creating a linear story.) And yeah, books are made into movies all the time, but those are adaptations. Often imperfect, messy ones. Any reworking of Solarium into a different medium would have to be a similar form of adaptation. Finally, the use of the javascript macros such as replacing text on the page, or cycling through text also allowed a lexicon to be built that became inseparable from the story I wanted to tell.

I don’t think these different forms of storytelling have to be in competition with each other. I firmly believe that writing interactive fiction has made me a better “static” fiction writer. (If you want to read a story of mine for free from my most recent collection that might fit the bill in this regard, here’s “The Philip Sidney Game“.) Having a heightened awareness of spatiality, readerly pacing devices, and empathy for the reader as another human being on the other side of the page/screen–those are writerly muscles that take practice to pull off well, sometimes years of it. Working in various forms of writing help cross-pollinate the imagination, and hopefully lead to jumpstarting a new story in the tool that best suits it. (And I know the talk of writerly muscles makes it sound laborious–well, it can be at times, but if it isn’t joyous as well for me, there’s something missing.) There are, of course, real life issues that can impinge–having two-year-old twins has kind of put a damper on my novel revisions for the time being. But with reasonable expectations firmly in hand, I’m really excited by the amount of tools that are available to writers now.

And I do hope more writers in the SF/F/lit communities that I’m a part of take advantage of these tools. I think interactive fiction is a fantastic meeting-ground for writers and gamers of all types to congregate and trade ideas. And I’ve been very grateful for the IF community’s response to Solarium, and the really thought-provoking feedback it received.

2 thoughts on “Solarium design notes

  1. Pingback: Design Notes for Comp Games | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  2. Pingback: Alchemy and the Archon: Who Bombed the United States? | Electronic Literature

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *