Author Interview: Elizabeth Smyth
2019-04-01 · by Natalia Theodoridou
tagged Blog / Interviews
Elizabeth Smyth is a writer, game developer and villain enthusiast, currently working for Fusebox Games in London. She has been making weird and/or dark IF since 2013. Read some more of it at elizabethsmyth.com or find her tweeting about slime at untiltheygo. Elizabeth is the author of our April story, “The Invader.”
This interview was conducted via e-mail in March of 2019.
sub-Q Magazine: “The Invader” is an incredibly atmospheric account of an encounter with a strange (alien?) being. It is also based on a true story. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
Elizabeth Smyth: For context: I used to go on long nocturnal walks around my hometown, this quiet little seaside village. Every night I had a spiritual experience looking at a cloud or a streetlamp or whatever because it was all too beautiful. So “The Invader” is mainly about trying to capture a real place and the overwhelming wonder I felt there.
So anyway, one night I met this blob – not actually on the path as it appears in the story, but near the start of it, where the concrete slopes directly onto the beach. It was round-ish and about three feet across. I’d just read “The Sea Raiders” by H.G. Wells, which is about deep-sea monsters showing up around seaside towns, so I was on high alert. I worked up the courage to poke it with a rock, then with my finger; it was wet and cold and had some give in it. It glistened a little, but this was away from the streetlights, so I could mostly only see the outline of it. I sat in the dark and stared at it for an hour. When I went back the next day, it was gone.
A few years later there was a scare in the tabloids about lumps of congealed palm oil washing up on beaches around the UK, so that’s my current theory. Even if it wasn’t an alien or an emissary from an underwater civilisation, it will always be the defining moment of that part of my life – inexplicable, unphotographable, something that briefly made the most familiar place strange and affirmed a dreamy teenager’s perception of the world as magical and sinister.
sub-Q Magazine: You have a background in English Literature and a career in game design. How does one end up working for a company like Fusebox Games?
Elizabeth Smyth: In my case, it was almost an accident. I’d made a bunch of twines over the years, but never gave much thought to other kinds of IF, or even games in general. I just wanted to write. Actually, the short-term plan was an MA in Victorian Literature. Then I found out about this internship at Fusebox. Once I realised making games was an option, that was the new plan. So I started as a part-time integration intern, then full-time, and now I’m on the writing team.
Some people at Fusebox have formal education in games, and some don’t. I think most of the writers have lit or creative writing degrees, but so much of what we do is specific to the medium. It takes more specialised skills than being a good prose writer.
sub-Q Magazine: Any advice for writers who want to branch out into games?
Elizabeth Smyth: A lot of people say “start with twine” and I think they’re right. With twine you can learn how to write interactive narrative without having to learn a bunch of other new skills at the same time. That said, mess around with the css if at all possible. If you’re not ready for art, animation or sound, at least get yourself a nice font and colour scheme that work for your story. Writing games means thinking about (and sometimes deciding) how your words will be presented as part of a complete package, and tweaking the twine stylesheet is a good way to get into that mindset.
Also, if you’re writing a simple choice-based story game, start by thinking of one interesting choice. Every option is superficially simple, ideally a single action or line of dialogue. Every option has a) up-front, obvious pros and cons and b) later on, emotionally/narratively significant consequences that make sense. Write the story around that. Build up to it thoroughly, pay it off thoroughly. Figure out what it really represents (idealism vs cynicism? Individualism vs collectivism?) – that’s the theme of your story. Even if one branch feels to you like the “true” version of the story, respect the player’s decision and write as if the other(s) were equally valid.
There are other approaches (“The Invader” doesn’t follow that formula at all), but my advice would be to start by learning to design a nice, impactful choice.
sub-Q Magazine: It’s recommendation time. What are some of the best works you’ve read or played over the past, say, 12 months?
Elizabeth Smyth: Mysteries of Baroque by William Brown was the first long ChoiceScript game I played, and it was really enjoyable. Very mysterious, as advertised. There were some great examples of short twines in the sub-Q jam – my favourites were “Drench” by Aidan Doyle and “Ghosted” by Josh Labelle (who also runs a twitter called Choose Your Own Tweetventure, which is arguably IF and super fun).
I’ve also gotten massively into Clash of the Type-Ins, the podcast where Jenni Polodna and Ryan Veeder play text adventures with the people who wrote them. It’s extremely enlightening to hear people with way more experience than me trying things and solving puzzles in real time.
sub-Q Magazine: What’s next for you?
Elizabeth Smyth: For complicated reasons, I’m planning to enter IFComp this year with a parser game based on a Nickelback song. And I’m excitedly experimenting with ChoiceScript, but don’t have anything to announce on that yet. Besides IF, I’ve got some creepy short fiction coming out this year in various anthologies, and I play a terrible ghost in a DnD podcast called Pax Fortuna.