Heretic Dreams notes

Heretic Dreams was entirely unexpected. I had other projects on the go, there were various baby-shaped demands on my time and brain, and I didn’t need anything else on my plate. But then I read The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson and couldn’t get it out of my head.

Elements of the novella kept racing through my mind: a protagonist touched by the power of a god, a romantic bond between the protagonist and their captain, a disastrous journey. So I wrote Heretic Dreams: a very different setup, setting and story, but still strongly inspired by Wilson’s work. This is the first fantasy interactive fiction I wrote, the one with the most lethal stakes, and the first that I wrote with the intention of submitting for publication.

Spoilers below, but first take a look at this gorgeous fanart by Irina Goodwin!

From the start I wanted transgression, that the protagonist had done something secret and terrible to destroy a god and take its power, as opposed to Demane in the novella who is born a demigod. The first line I thought of described how the protagonist “ate / ripped / stole” the god’s power.

I wrote the first section (waking from meditation, and the conversation with the lover) in one sitting, feeling out the characterisation. A fair amount of that was cut: the lover’s personality emerged as I went, and some of the early material ended up irrelevant.

Tundra landscapes catch my imagination and so the journey was set; I wanted the player to have the choice of where to go without being the leader of the group so I made the protagonist a diviner who chose the path.

The rest came more slowly, with a couple of bumps along the way. I knew I wanted the longest ending to involve the protagonist fighting the god, but the earlier obstacles took a while to iron out. I cut a thread about reindeer escaping for pacing, and a day in which a monster came to pick off the miners for being too action-orientated: the pathfinder is a healer and diviner, and very much not a fighter.

The lover was always going to be the most important connection the pathfinder had, but the other characters emerged too, with Tanisha, Revekah and Lynni originally scenery one-offs. Then I alighted on the idea of pruning them off the longer the pathfinder stays, and added further details about them and more snippets of interaction to make the decisions about whether to leave or stay more difficult.

The way I structured most of the choices was sometimes a challenge, squeezing a potentially complex interaction into one word and there are a couple of moments that I wasn’t quite happy with how the word relates to the outcome. But I like the terse, dreamy quality it gives and it helped me focus, as did the word limit: I work best when I put limits on myself, it helps ideas spark and avoids feature creep.

Next time I write something so lethal, I may signpost more clearly about how to survive – I like that the question of sacrifice, survival or failure is relatively bound up in the pathfinder’s messy brain. I wonder how a more calculating character might deal with a dangerous situation. We’ll see what I end up with!

I’m very proud of Heretic Dreams and am immensely grateful to Fay for early testing and feedback, and my beta testers who gave helpful feedback about pacing and amount of information. For a game that’s so cold, grim and introspective, it was tremendously fun to write.

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