Today, I’m interviewing RoAnna Sylver about their upcoming interactive fiction romance novel, Dawnfall, coming December 2nd, 2019! It’s am amazing genre-blendy story featuring space pirates, love of all kinds, found family, tons of queer characters, disability representation, and so, so much more! Let me give you the blurb and then we’ll hop straight into the interview!
Find true love and family with a pirate crew at the ends of the universe, where aliens, ghosts, and portals open the space between worlds…and your heart. You are a Navigator, one who creates and guards portals from one dimension to another, wary of the liminal sea between them.
Your universe is made of two worlds: one contains the magic-infused world of Zephyria, and the other, the dystopian space station Eclipse. The worlds are balanced, until one day, an explosive disaster, a deadly energy storm, and an infamous pirate—the Ghost Queen—upend your life and plunge you into a race to save both worlds.
Dawnfall is a 235,000-word interactive romance novel by RoAnna Sylver, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power or your imagination.
So what happens when you find there’s not just two dimensions to save, but three? Is saving two worlds worth sacrificing one? Will you find love with the crew of the Dawnfall, or will you bring these pirates to justice? Are connections between universes, people, and lives meant to be forged and protected, or severed for the greater good?
LEO: Dawnfall is a new interactive fiction story for Choice of Game (CoG)’s new Heart’s Choice imprint, and incredibly friendly to all queer players. That’s something that, in my experience, is very rare in interactive fiction (IF) and dating sims. I know this is an important aspect of your novels, but how important was it to create a framework in which every player can find a safe environment for a game especially?
RS: It’s so, so important. Queer rep, particularly aro and ace rep, is so horribly, tragically rare even now, although indie writers and game devs have made incredible strides. I wouldn’t quite call CoG indie, even if interactive fiction isn’t one of the biggest genres (but should be)—and since it has a relatively big platform/audience, being inclusive is even more important to me.
This is reflected in the story itself, and in the coding/guts of the game that most players won’t ever see, but will feel the effects of. The hardest part there I think is respecting established identities, while at the same time, respecting the IF tenant of Choice Above All. Identities are often spectrums, and I want to honor those identities while still allowing the player ultimate choice in their game experience.
For example, if you say your character is male and gay, I don’t want anyone not-a-dude to hit on you and grate on the player’s experience, but you should still have the option of queerplatonic relationships with everyone, and at a couple points the ability to say ‘I’m not usually attracted to [X gender], but I’m really intrigued by [X character]’. Likewise, if you’re aro/ace you still should have the option of trying romance or sex (because aspec identities are such a huge spectrum, and asexual/aromantic people can indeed have sex or romance if they want), even if a queerplatonic relationship is the default there.
This is definitely also the coding aspect I’ve obsessed over the most, and tested it extremely thoroughly… and I’m still worried about it messing up and making someone feel invalidated or railroaded! I trust CoG and their super-thorough editing/testing process, but it’s just so important to me that my brain latches onto it and screams. We’ll see when it’s out!
LEO: No, I hear you on the importance and the drive to make sure it works. Not only is that deeply personal to you, as a queer creator, but how to write queer romances in games is such a big discussion. I remember all the arguments over whether the romanceable characters in DA:I should’ve all been bi instead of having their own orientations within the narrative frame of the game. I think your approach in Dawnfall is such a powerful choice because it’s set up to respect both player choice and queer representation as much as possible and I hope that other developers see it as an example of how to handle queer representation in their work.
Speaking of developing, though. You’ve had to learn CoG’s own coding language to write Dawnfall as you’re a writer and artist before a programmer. What did you make of that particular shift in focus?
RS: I’ll be honest here, learning to code was by far the hardest thing for me to learn—and ChoiceScript is a relatively extremely easy language! I had just absolutely never done anything code-like in my life, even simple Twine (which I have now!) so my brain did not do this intuitively at all, and there were many days where I’d spend the whole time, hours, just trying to figure out how to do this one thing that seems simple, and probably has a simple answer, but the getting there can be a nightmare. This came up the most in the coding for polyamory (balancing several romance routes at once!) and the orientations, like I said in the last question, and yes… some days were much harder than others, and I still worry about whether I got it all right or not. But it’s been worth it. Every bit of complexity I hope will make it a more welcoming and enjoyable experience for everyone.
That said, writing IF is in a way easier for me than straight-up prose? I think it’s because I get to write several versions/outcomes of the same scene, so it’s like tons of small AUs in the same thing! It makes my neurodivergent brain very happy.
LEO: In Dawnfall the player doesn’t have the option of playing as a human. How intentional was that particular choice?
RS: Mostly? Because almost every other space-type game only lets you play as a human, and they’re usually about how Other and Weird aliens are, while simultaneously about how special humans are and somehow better than everyone else. This time I wanted humans to be the weird aliens, and your character being a person who’s completely normal to everyone else in the world. (Does this have some neurodivergent/queer/trans roots? Absolutely.)
LEO: If you had to pick your favourite character design, who would it be and why that design?
RS: I pretty much designed all Nephilim to be super fun to draw and allow for so much creativity—they can be any color, and have just as much gender and ability and body diversity as humans. Plus they’re covered in stars. (I love Averis’ design too, but I also cannot draw giant birds, which makes that tough!)
LEO: I’ve only played the first four chapters that are available right now and I already need to ask: how likely is it that we’ll see another game or tie-in material in this setting? It’s so intriguing.
RS: I would love to do more tie-in things, even if it’s just short stories. I have some ideas for full prequel books, which I can actually do since I own the IP rights, but any future games in this universe would definitely go through Heart’s Choice/Choice of Games. Once I get all my other projects under control (and assuming this is something people want!) We’ll have to see how everything goes, but I’d love to look into this.
LEO: I hope you get the chance to do all of that! <3 You’re such a multitalented, amazing creator with an eye for aesthetic design too. How difficult was it to create a text adventure? Would you want to create a visual novel someday (with a creative team behind you, that is, to make the workload manageable)?
RS: First off, thank you, and secondly, wow yes, absolutely. That sounds so much fun and I’d LOVE something big like that! (Something like Dream Daddy but with more magic/aliens/ghosts?) And it wasn’t terribly difficult to write a text-only game, since I’ve written several all-prose books before. But I do always approach things with an extremely visual perspective, so anything I write could easily be turned into a graphic novel/visual novel game/movie. Plus I do a lot of art for whatever I write, so that helps readers ‘see’ my intentions and hopefully imagine the world better too!
LEO: I think the scope of Dawnfall makes it easily one of the most narratively ambitious games I’ve seen. What were some of the most challenging aspects of creating the game?
RS: Creating a new fantasy or sci-fi world is always a challenge, because that world has to seem entirely real or at least plausible (verisimilitude, if not logical realism), and immersive, and make the reader/player want to find out more about it.
And I’m working with two extremely different worlds. Three, if you count the Dawnfall itself and that spoilery Third World. So that’s been something. I have a huge word document about Nephil and Harpiyae cultures and clothes and food and variant viewpoints (because I hate Planets Of Hats, where the whole planet/population is one way—No! Are we like that on Earth? Why would people be homogenous elsewhere?).
So I need both Zephyria and Eclipse to ring true. I need everyone on both worlds to ring true, and also the people you meet who are from neither. I need them to feel like people you could actually meet—like they are real people you’re interacting with, and maybe falling in love with. Dawnfall is a romance at its core, even if the SFF side is huge/hopefully dazzling… and it’s the people who make any story.
It’s not just a romance for the main character, but for the player. I want you to fall in love/form a strong bond with someone here, personally, I want them to matter to you. I want you to miss them when they’re not around. If you can’t connect with at least one person in this story, it’s nothing.
LEO: Without giving away (too many) spoilers, can you tell us what some of the most important themes in the game are to you? What signature RoAnna Sylver content can we expect to encounter?
RS: Found family, as always. I want your Circle mates and crew to feel yours, and the Dawnfall like your home that’s here for you whenever and however you need it. (It has a pretty cool way of doing that, you’ll find!)
A “hurt-comfort” feeling in the intimate scenes. Emotional processing is always super prominent in my fiction, and a found family comforting and helping each other through grief/pain/trauma is my favorite thing to write. (If it “reads like fanfiction”—good! That’s great! We know what we’re about.)
Queer and trans identities, as well as polyamorous relationships being presented as completely normal and neutral, while being celebrated at the same time for how beautiful they are.
Disabled characters (check the Queen’s cyborg eye and arm, and Oz’s missing antenna/ear/disabled color-changing!) having adventures and kicking ass and being valued and loved.
Strong platonic/familial bonds—I want the main character’s sister Aeon to feel like she genuinely cares about you, even if you find yourselves on opposite sides.
And… fun. It goes hand in hand with Being Inclusive—I want to welcome marginalized folks into a place that’s fun and exciting and gives them the same awesome adventure/awe/delight/drama feelings the mainstream media gives to everyone else. Everything about marginalized people doesn’t have to be serious and ponderous and about our pain (valid as hell though that is). We’re allowed to have fun, too. There’s room for joy.
LEO: You’ve given us two choices for player race, but you keep the best information on their differences until after we choose. Can you tell us a little more about the impact this choice has on the narrative?
RS: That was definitely A Choice I made, only telling you about your chosen species after you’ve picked, and people are either going to love it or hate it—but I did this because I wanted everyone to go with their first instinct based on pure What They Think Is Cool; giant bird person or space elf? So then they could learn about their character and others, and be surprised about ‘themself!’ And I think Cool Surprises are one of my favorite things about games or stories in general. We’ve all seen/read/played so MUCH there are very few actual surprises left, and I love it when something is actually new for me.
I just really like some dramatic irony too, where characters know more than the reader/player, but mostly I just really wanted some Surprise and Delight (hopefully) early on, like Aw sweet, I’m not just playing a space elf but I can change colors and see energy and have a cyberpunk-type backstory? COOL! Better than I even expected!
…And if players don’t actually like this, it’s early in Chapter 1 so it’s not too late at all to go back and pick a different choice!
LEO: I’m firmly Team Love It, if you’re curious. It’s such a neat choice and it does add in some great surprises for the player to enjoy early on. I’m eager to see how it develops in the rest of the story because it sounds like it has some really cool implications for how the narrative descriptions play out.
Last question! I know that making Dawnfall has taken up a huge amount of your time. Now that it’s finished, can you tell us a little about your hopes for the game and your future plans?
RS: Oh boy. I’m kind of not sure what to even do with myself after I finish a huge project…so it’s a good thing I have several more in the works!
RS: I’ve signed with another game studio, Tales Media, to write a new standalone interactive fiction title called Every Beat Belongs To You. It’s still in the very early stages, but think of it as Twin Peaks (small town with a creepy secret) meets Repo! The Genetic Opera (visceral horror, high theatrical drama)… just told from a disabled/chronically ill standpoint. Like most of my writings, it’s about a Ragtag Bunch Of Queers (all of whom you can date) standing up to destructive bigoted forces (like the medical industry and the New Age granola movement and how they both can hurt and kill disabled folks), and it should be super fun.
Next on the book-agenda is also Stake Sauce book 2, and Death Masquerade, its f/f historical vampire companion book, which crosses over with Stake Sauce a whole bunch, and are meant to be read together.
And then… yes, the very anticipated Chameleon Moon Book 3 (LEO: [very undignified squeal of joy]). I have that one mostly outlined, except for the big blank ???? in the middle. A relatable feeling, I suspect. So many things are going to come together in this one and it’s a little intimidating, but the most rewarding projects are. Dawnfall scared/scares the hell out of me, but the wonderful reception alone has been worth it.
Thank you so much for having me! I hope you enjoy Dawnfall when it’s out, December 2nd!
RoAnna Sylver is a writer of really cool, queer, weird books (Chameleon Moon, Stake Sauce), and interactive fiction games (Dawnfall, Date the Lizard, The Three-Body Problem). A chronically ill Portland, OR-based artist and musician, RoAnna also probably spends too much time playing videogames (it’s research!) and would really like a nap.
And that’s it for the interview! You can play the first four chapters of Dawnfall right now directly from the Heart’s Choice website with the full game releasing on December 2nd, 2019. That’s, like, a week from now! One important note: the browser will remember you choices, so if you play the full demo now you can pick up the game exactly where you left off when you return. Or you could take a different route the next time around, see what changes.