Part one (or two, depending on which order you read them!) of our Amiga double header this week is my quick Q&A with author Stephen Marley. The famous (infamous?) DreamWeb is now officially abandonware, so you can play it for free here. This means I finally got to finish a game I started back in 1994/1995! Those of you who played the original game will remember a booklet that came with it, Diary of a (Mad?) Man, Stephen wrote this brilliant short story so I tracked him down to find out a lot more about the mysterious project and Creative Reality’s rare PlayStation outing Martian Gothic: Unification. Being the gentleman he is, he duly obliged.
***After reading this, you can listen to Dylan waxing lyrical About Universe, DreamWeb and Beneath a Steel Sky in this podcast. Who says we don’t treat you? :)***
Diary of a (Mad?) Man is the brilliant prologue, as it were, to one of my favourite Amiga games DreamWeb. How did you first get involved with the project?
Way back in the Jurassic Era, my literary agent was contacted by another literary agent who represented Neil Dodwell and David Dew, the founders of Creative Reality. My agent was asked if one of her clients was sufficiently “off the wall” to create interesting scenarios for video games. Well, my agent immediately thought of me and gave me a call so I jumped off the ceiling and got involved. The rest is history/obscurity.
What kind of remit were you given and how much creative freedom were you allowed?
The game was already completed before I came on the scene so there was very little creative freedom. I did play it, a few times, to get an angle on a background story. The developers did agree that there was one crucial area where there was a lot of latitude: the protagonist’s state of mind. Here’s this guy, Ryan, who has a dream in which a man in a red robe tells him to kill seven “evil” people, and his instant response is “Okay!” Well, alright, one of the “evil” people is a rock star, so that’s understandable, but my first reaction to Ryan’s prompt acceptance of serial killing was “this guy is fracking nuts!” (You know you’re a nerd when you think fracking is something that happens on Battlestar Galactica.)
So, after getting Neil and David’s agreement to a shift of perspective, I conceived the prequel diary as the story of a man who is (very probably) insane. The diary’s title, by the way, is a quizzical play on the title of a short story by the nineteenth century Russian dramatist, Nikolai Gogol, whose protagonist also descends into insanity.
I’m pleased to say that Neil and David were very happy with the diary I produced. It’s definitely the darkest narrative I’ve ever come up with. Not suitable for safe spaces anywhere!
It turns out, pretty quickly, that Ryan isn’t going mad. Do you think the game would have benefited from being more ambiguous, to leave the player guessing?
It’s true that he appears sane in the game, but I had a real difficulty with that. Regarding the red robed figure in an early scene, I wrote down “Santa Claus gave me a gun for Christmas”. That pretty much set the tone for Diary of a (Mad?)man!
I did leave a small element of ambiguity in the diary, in the sense that there might be a slight chance that he’s a sane man driven mad by supernatural forces too mysterious and overwhelming for him to comprehend. The other alternative: he’s just plain looney tunes! So yes, it would have been more effective if the game was more ambiguous. That gets my vote.
If an indie studio wanted to do a current gen version of the game, would you be up for writing the story and dialogue?
Maybe, if they offered me a million dollars and a cup of tea and a biscuit. But I have so many original stories in my head that I would much prefer to do one or more of those.
You’re a prolific writer. What got you into writing and what’s the best work you’ve done (in your opinion)? And how can we get a copy?
Not that prolific. I’ve only published nine novels and a few dozen short stories. But what got me into writing? Other books! As a small child I was obsessed with tales of the Knights of the Round Table and, of course, Tolkien. I used to daydream of playing a heroic knight constantly saving a girl I fancied in school from numerous terrifying monsters (and the local school bully). That’s where it all began!
And then I grew up, became stupid, and tried to become a rock star. That didn’t work, so eventually I sat down and set about writing an epic trilogy set in ancient China. It took two years, but I managed to finish it. I left it alone for a couple of months, then read it with fresh eyes. And realised that most of it was bloody awful. Time wasted? Au contraire! I had learned how to write, and how not to write. Also, one of the minor characters in the trilogy became the main character in a later novel: Mortal Mask, which received a lot of praise from reviewers (although I can now see several flaws in the narrative).
My best published novel, in my opinion, is “The Heresy”. I now publish solely through Amazon (for reasons, see below) so that is where it can be found, as an eBook or paperback. It’s a Vatican thriller that involves an ancient mystery (a genuine ancient mystery, not some Dan Brown bollocks) that takes place across a number of countries but is mostly set in a fogbound Rome. The twists and turns are many and manifold!
You went on to write the fantastic Martian Gothic: Unification, how did that opportunity come about?
Creative Reality, by this time up in Harrogate, was working with another team on an adventure game called Unification. (I never liked that title.) As Neil and David liked my work for Dreamweb, and also liked the prospect of having an author on board, they asked me to join them. Various in-house dramas ensued and, when the dust settled, the adventure approach was dropped and the game was re-envisioned as a Resident Evil style experience (this was back in the late ‘90s). I came up with a different scenario, set on Mars, and a different title: Martian Gothic. I came up with that title simply because it was a Gothic story set on Mars. The Unification subtitle got attached for no good reason.
The game and story are very good at making you feel isolated. What were your inspirations in creating the story and how much of a help were the other guys at Creative Reality?
Resident Evil was an obvious influence, although not as major as some reviewers concluded. I enjoyed playing Resident Evil, not because I found it horrifying, but because it was so often unintentionally funny. My view was that it would take a heart of stone to play Resident Evil without laughing.
But I digress. I soon got the idea of a haunted house – a haunted house on Mars. That became the Martian research base. Now let’s face it, if you’re stuck in a haunted house on Mars you can’t just run out the front door. You are well and truly stuck. In Resident Evil, you are forced to stay inside the evil mansion populated with numerous zombies, mutants, giant snakes, giant spiders etc because you’re afraid of three or four dogs outside the front door.
I focused on the haunted house theme (semi-relevant haunted house movie recommendations: The Innocents  and The Haunting ) all the way through the development process. In fact, David Dew suggested at one point that the “Nondead” in the Martian base could be ghosts. On reflection, that would have been a better route to go. Both visuals and audio were composed with a sense of eeriness very much in mind. The speeches on the base “microcorders” also contributed to the ambient spookiness. It’s worth mentioning here that Ray Bradbury, that timeless creator of “The Martian Chronicles” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes” was a literary influence on the way I envisioned my fictional Mars.
But along with the spookiness there were frequent injections of humour, and sometimes outright comedy. (I know some will strongly disagree, but I found the unrelenting grimness of the Dead Space series ultimately monotonous and depressing.) We even spoofed horror survival horror games in general, and our own game in particular, in a sub-game called Martian Mayhem that can be found on the Martian base computers. It was planned to be a playable game with sublimely atrocious visuals and gloriously infantile dialogue, but time constraints, sadly, meant that all that remains in the published game are a few snatches of dialogue.
We were also the first, I believe, to explain the existence of random puzzles with Useful Items all over the place: a nutcase called Ben Gunn (Treasure Island reference), influenced by Martian Mayhem, went to the trouble of placing horror survival puzzles all over the base to piss off the three main characters.
Both Neil Dodwell and David (used to be a Dave but now self identifies as a David) Dew were of considerable help to me, from start to finish. Indeed, although I’m credited as the designer, where gameplay was involved David had almost as much input as myself, and Neil made many significant contributions. Needless to say, where coding (Neil) and animation (David) skills are concerned, I was, and am, almost completely clueless. It was a genuine team effort.
Do you think there’s scope for the game to be remade and again, if it were, would you be up for getting involved?
Yes, this could, and definitely should, be remade, in my opinion. After all, it’s an open secret that Dead Space took some elements from it (the Marker, cough cough). In fact, I had a prequel story all ready to go for Martian Gothic 2 but the game was rushed out, incomplete, at the last gasp of the original PlayStation and had an understandably mixed reaction. If anyone wants to develop a new Martian Gothic, count me in!
What are the main challenges in writing for a game as to a novel?
Obviously there are constraints of various kinds. With a novel you can go anywhere, do anything, portray anything. As with radio, books have the best scenery (with the caveat that it depends on your imagination). With a game, however, you are limited, firstly, by location. It takes seconds to write “he walked into Vita Base Arboretum”. It takes days and days to build the bloody thing. So the writing has to be economical vis-à-vis locations.
And then there are speech menus. Oh God, the speech menus! It’s so damned hard to create credible dialogue with speech menus. It may well be that there will always be a degree of artificiality to speech menu dialogues, and we just have to make the best of it. As my friend Gandalf (ever the name dropper) once said “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Games don’t naturally lend themselves to complex, interweaving narratives which, when negotiated successfully, typify many truly great novels. A game is, after all, a game. However, I can conceive of a way of supplying a background set of narratives that the player can engage with or ignore at will. For a writer to pull this off successfully would take some nose to the grindstone work. But then, who said life was easy?
Above all, writing for games is teamwork. You can’t waft your venerable parchments down from the topmost chamber of an ivory tower (I’ve tried). You have to work with people at every stage. Fight your corner when necessary. Make compromises where the situation demands. Do your best to convey the ideas that are in your head, and be open to any worthwhile ideas that contrast with, or even contradict, yours.
Good point! What tips would you give to any budding writer?
This may seem trite, but it isn’t; the best tip for a budding writer is, simply, to write. An early twentieth century artist, Paul Klee, described the art of drawing as “taking a line for a walk”. That can be directly applied to writing: take a line for a walk. Jot down a thought, and see where it leads you. Next, be your own harshest critic; not so much when you’re in the process of writing (that can make you too self-conscious) but when you’re at the stage of reviewing what you’ve written. Cut out all unnecessary words, phrases, paragraphs (which is often harder than it sounds). Develop an ear for dialogue: does it sound real? Do people actually talk like this?
And, of course, read! Read as many books as you can, fiction and non-fiction. Oh, another thought … YouTube is, for me, the new radio. You can take your pick from topics of interest to you and have them playing while you’re engaged in mundane tasks. The YouTube long form conversation can be stimulating for the imagination. At least, it works for me.
Finally, don’t waste your time looking for literary agents or publishers. That’s where I started out, many moons ago, and my first books were taken on by a respected literary agent and brought out by three major publishers. But the days of all-powerful publishers are dead, or dying. They are dinosaurs. A few years ago I decided to switch from mainstream publishers to Amazon, one of the best decisions of my life. My strong suggestion is to publish through Amazon Kindle. You upload your Word doc to Amazon, and within minutes, it’s available throughout the world!
And a final finally: try to write a good novel, not a “perfect” novel. You can no more write the perfect novel than you can run the perfect mile.
What are you currently working on?
As already mentioned, I believe my best published work is “The Heresy” but it may well be that my best work to date is the one I’m working on now: Mary Messiah. Now, before you go ringing the Fundamentalist Christian alarm bell, it isn’t some pious tale (or a blasphemous one, for that matter). I’ve been a lifelong admirer of the psychologist/philosopher Carl Jung, which used to get me into trouble back when I was a university lecturer, as most academics hate Jung. That being said, I noticed that Jung was coming back into fashion outside of academic circles, and it occurred to me that a historical adventure/mythic fantasy with some Jungian undertones might now strike a chord with the readership.
It was Jung that led me into studying ancient philosophy and myth, particularly the Platonic idea of the Logos as interpreted by Philo of Alexandria. Eventually I focused on the figure of the Virgin Mary as a source of mythic fantasy and, at present, I’m writing a novel which, although a mythic epic, also explores the psychological truth of myths and legends in a way that has, by sheer luck, recently become fashionable, mostly through all those viral podcasts by Jordan Peterson. One of the pleasures of researching for the book was discovering the fascinating biography of Herod the Great. One of his many boasts was that Cleopatra begged to have sex with him and he refused her. His life story deserves a TV mini-series!
This is easily the most difficult novel I’ve attempted so far, not least because I want it to read like a pacey adventure with the philosophical elements backgrounded rather than shoved in the reader’s face, but I hope to get it finished and uploaded to Amazon by March or April. After that, as always, the readers decide!
As an occasional break from Mary Messiah I’m also working intermittently on a steampunk comedy fantasy that’s partly a parody on the European Union and, to a greater extent, an affectionate spoof on the Hammer Horror movies. The working title is Dracula vs Frankenstein.
Crikey, wonder what our readers would make of that!! Stephen, fantastic to have tracked you down and featured you on the blog. We of course wish you all the best for the future!
Readers, get downloading The Heresy.