Today I am interviewing author Simon Higgins about his extraordinary new creation, DarkSpear, which features an intriguing way of writing combining several art and media forms.
Simon is an Australian screenwriter and author of books for young adults. Originally a police officer, then private investigator, he turned writer in 1998. He has 13 novels published so far, often combining crime, speculative fiction and historical adventure. His 2008 novel, Moonshadow: Eye of the Beast, was an Australian bestseller and was also published in the United States, Germany, Indonesia and England. He currently lives in China where he works in several creative fields.
Simon, this exciting new release of yours, DarkSpear, is what you have called a ‘visual novel’ . Can you explain what that means?
Sure, Sophie. Visual Novels (VNs) are something quite fresh and exciting for many in the Western world! I keep summing them up for people in these terms: they’re books you play, games you read, a hybrid of textual novel and interactive computer game.
They evolved originally in Japan, spread throughout East Asia, and are now gaining many appreciators in both Europe and English-speaking countries like the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But not enough yet, I say. 🙂 They have so much to offer!
VNs are, at the core, literary, but like computer games, they offer new ways to enjoy fiction by thatching in extra mediums to intensify the reader/player’s immersive experience. So although text heavy, they also employ elements like a short opening film, sumptuous backgrounds, detailed images of the characters, sophisticated music, and even sound effects, to intensify story impact.
They are also an interactive storytelling medium, kind of the cyber-era descendant of those delightful old ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style books and games from the 80s. This is what you could call their gaming side. A player must decide what the protagonist will do at certain points, choosing from two or three options that suddenly confront them.
Different choices lead to different storylines, which in VN jargon are called routes or paths. Should you pick one that eventually ends in some decidedly nasty fate, it’s okay…because you also choose ‘save points’ along the way, which you can return to anytime using the menu. Thus, having noted where you made that critical wrong turn, you’re able to just dive back into the story world again, land close to that point, and take a different path!
Depending on exactly how the VN has been written, you may, or may not, on behalf of the protagonist, get to cheat what we could call ‘the hero’s ultimate fate’, but with each route you try, the journey will certainly change. It’s a pity real life doesn’t offer such options sometimes, heh? 🙂
How did you come up with the concept, and why? How long was it in the making?
I wish I could say I’d invented the concept, but alas, it was more a case of stumbling on it while living and working in creative circles in China, and immediately thinking, ‘Wow! So many imaginative people I know in the West have probably never heard of this medium, but would absolutely love it!’
Quickly thereafter it also occurred to me that this could be a powerful rescue tool for all those parents and teachers who bemoan having a clever, curious teenager in their lives who just-won’t-read while computer games stalk the face of the earth and compete with books for their brain space.
Here, I thought, is a bridge between the two worlds, one immersive and engaging enough for anyone to want to cross it, at least once. Now I should warn that not all VNs I’ve seen are what you might call wholesome, just as can be said for books. But many are, some are utterly delightful, and a few are even pure art.
I also (as I sometimes formally testified in court, way back in the police force) ‘formed a certain suspicion on good grounds’. A suspicion that once writers in the West, be they self-published, emerging or established authors, read a VN with good storylines and dialogue and gripping ideas, a cry would go up that I’d be able to hear all the way from China. A cry of ‘I want one too!’
Once I’d developed that feeling, and of course, found the right creative partners, the process, from the birth of the dream to my VN’S first ‘draft’ in playable form, took about four or five months. That included writing the tale’s routes, and programming.
DarkSpear is a multi-arts, multi-media project. Who did you collaborate with, and how did the process go? What challenges did you face?
I teamed up with Lava Entertainment, an ambitious, intensely creative young company based here in Guilin, China, who had set up shop, as fate would have it, just walking distance from my own office at Crane Animation.
That’s where I write for Gemini Fables, an animated TV show, coach the in-house writing team, fine-tune crucial subtitles, and get to participate -to various degrees- in a wide variety of awesome projects. I get to travel regularly with my work, and sometimes have the joy of meeting Chinese directors, screen writers, TV celebs and actors – so many lovely and stimulating people.
I’m Crane Animation’s chief creative consultant and my official designation, based on my track record in the West, is Foreign Expert. Kind of chuffed about that, seeing as the first one ever was Marco Polo. 🙂 Always nice to feel you’re following in a legendary author’s footsteps, though happily, unlike Marco, nobody ever points crossbows at me when I move between provinces for business travel. 🙂
My regular work can include tasks related to animation, filmmaking, educational and safety initiative creation, commercial branding character design, and all sorts of projects that harness story and imagination to help build international friendship ties between China and other parts of the world, including Australia and France.
But the Visual Novel project with Lava was aside from all that, out of my comfort zone you could almost say, because it required me to quickly get to know a brilliant young team of artists, programmers and business people who spoke, in some cases, minimal or no English. That was naturally an ongoing challenge as my Mandarin is very basic.
However, we all persevered, and as we worked on the project, they coached me in the technical side of putting together a VN, which at the outset, involved me, the author, not only writing the story but creating at least three primary variations to its overall arc and then designing a series of sub-deviations within each major ‘route’.
Along the way, I had to chart out where key moments would turn into decision-points for the reader/player, and depending on their choices, sweep them seamlessly into other paths, and possibly, back out again to the original route, later. At first, it was mind-bending. 🙂 I remember hunching over my notebook, in genuine zombie mode, after working on it intensively one weekend, my wife devotedly shovelling noodles into my mouth with chopsticks, murmuring, ‘You can keep working, but you gotta eat.’
I also had to conceive and storyboard all the major background art, and work with the Lava team on character design, choices of music, and desirable sound effects for heightening the drama at certain points. And, towards the end of the whole process, I had to script, storyboard and direct the promotional and opening-of-game short films.
So the mission took in elements of novel then script writing, computer game design, film production and directing. I totally loved it, such an intense creative stretch! 🙂 My wife Jen, who won her creative master’s degree at RMIT in Melbourne, gave me many fabulous ideas and edited the final short films, even organising a Beijing composer to create the videos’ original music while actually watching the footage in real time.
One interesting challenge was the area of writer’s vision v. artist’s vision, something I’m sure is familiar territory to anyone who’s ever worked collaboratively on a picture book or illustrated anthology. Two different styles of creative mind, coming at the same territory from two different frames of reference, well, it can easily become a Batman V Superman-level epic clash. So yes, I did end up negotiating, at times, with the team’s artists over story v. imagery.
Fortunately, Chinese artists, in my experience, are the absolute opposite of volatile. We did have the odd lengthy chat about why, in certain instances, it really was necessary to stick to what my text described, as opposed to the artist’s view that a more free-form interpretation of that passage ‘could look so beautiful.’
But there was a great spirit of teamwork prevailing overall, and in the end, I did- happily- make some concessions, including changing certain details in the story to fit the envisioned art. I just had to. So many of their random ideas were just great! And I really love their distinctive work. Kai, the chief artist, for instance, somehow manages to bring digital and classical art style elements together in a really absorbing way.
DarkSpear is set in a dystopian future, and centred around a feisty, talented heroine, Kitty Sato, who is drawn into a dangerous secret world. How did you create the character of Kitty, and research the interesting phenomenon of psi-gamma(ESP) ability?
In some ways, Katherine ‘Kitty’ Sato was all about coming full circle for me.
1998 saw my first novel, Doctor Id, hit the shelves courtesy of Random House, and its star was young Jade Draper, a policeman’s daughter and reluctant psychic, misguidedly drawn into a hazardous opportunity to bring down a serial killer, and, fittingly for one of my characters, doing so with the aid of her Asian best friend and some-time love interest, Wing Tran.
The story’s murderer used the internet, which in 98 was wild and ‘un-policed’ compared to this century, to select and stalk his victims. I’ve been told -and I don’t know if it’s true- that I was one of the first authors to employ the whole ‘killer harnesses the net’ device in a crime novel. It did seem to surprise reviewers.
Whatever the case, that ‘X-factor’ certainly gave the book, a young adult tome, a topical edge that kick-started my career and garnered a Notable listing from the Children’s Book Council of Australia -no mean feat I think, given its gritty elements, including visceral nightmares and strangulations with superhuman strength.
Flash forward to a different century. 🙂 Late 2015, me contemplating my 13th novel. This time, though I again wanted to write about a tough young woman with precognitive abilities, I felt that this time round, she should be of mixed racial heritage (Jade and Wing combined, or perhaps a parallel to their potential child) and in no way reluctant to delve into her latent though unmanageable powers. I decided that this time, rather than be up against a killer, my heroine should be up against THE killers…in some timely but ultimate sense. And who would they turn out to be? Sorry. You’ll have to read the book, AND make some sound choices, to help Kitty find that out. 🙂
Once I’d come up with Kitty’s profile, I knew that, in a world now more savvy and cynical than the one I was first published in, this new young psychic Miss would need a credible backbone for her paranormal abilities, so I hit the books and the net (while feeling very safe from the serial killer I long ago created, thanks to the Great Firewall of China) and did lots of research…
It is just plain fascinating to discover how long and hard humans, educated, science-based, sceptical ones included, have relentlessly pursued what is in essence a romantic idea. ‘I can foretell future events; I can sense what’s in your pocket; on the back of that card in your hand; in the depths of your heart.’ Really?
Never, it seems, in the lab, under the scrutiny of objective, careful observers using reliable, untampered-with equipment. So says history, lots of it. Of course, part of the mythos of special powers is that real psychics are indeed among us, but being the real deal, will always refuse to be tested, even though they’d pass with flying colours.
As an amateur sociologist, anthropologist and self-resigned poster child for OCE syndrome (Obsessive Compulsive Exploration) I found this area of study utterly riveting, and dived into it fanatically while developing Kitty Sato and her world.
And while reading around the subject, I relentlessly beset my poor wife with sudden, random ‘Hey! Did you know…?’ outbursts. To her great credit, even when my excited rants had reached the double numbers, she still responded with patient smiles as opposed to kung fu. 🙂
So I got to know a world so interesting to work with, it became the reason DarkSpear is subtitled The Prologue. Yes. Good news. Lava Entertainment and I are planning at least one, possibly two more VNs in this series.
There is another fascinating aspect to DarkSpear too, in which a player’s own psi-gamma levels are actually evaluated during it. Can you tell us more about that?
Me being me, I was, as the project unfolded, once again hoping to come up with some ‘X-factor’ element that would really enhance the VN’s immersive qualities… 🙂
Once I knew that one of the major themes in my story would be Kitty’s psychic powers and how they might be both detected and scientifically demonstrated, I did my research then laid quite a challenge on the brilliant young minds I was working with.
Why? Because the Lava crew had said to me early on, during an initial brainstorming session, ‘Please suggest some sort of appropriate puzzle that could be included in the VN. Sort of a game within a game, for added interest and value for our customers.’
There were some very interesting expressions around the table when, in a later meeting, I explained Zener Card experiments at Duke and Princeton universities, as well as under the auspices of the CIA, in the latter’s case, as part of their hunt for real psychics to recruit as spies -all of this, now well-documented history.
The eyebrows really went up when I asked Jie Deng, CEO of Lava, if he thought he could design a real, scientifically-credible ‘Zener test engine’ and embed it in the VN. Well, he burned the midnight oil and went at the challenge like a trooper, employing skills he’d learned studying gaming science in, of all places, Birmingham, England, where he also developed his great -and now frustrated- love of ‘real’ fish and chips.
Jie’s subsequent success was to become that longed-for ‘X-factor’ component, DarkSpear’s utterly unique feature that sets it aside from all other VNs! Yes, if you are that rare, rumoured to exist individual with latent psi-gamma capacity (parapsychology-speak for real ESP) this humble Visual Novel can scientifically prove it, and by way of screen shots, help you document it. But I wouldn’t necessarily suggest sending a triumphant email – with supporting attachments – to the CIA. 🙂
How would you summarise the main features or benefits your Visual Novel offers readers and/or game players?
Firstly, it’s a true read but with something more added: sensory immersion. Music that alters with the story, striking visuals that shift and change, sparingly (and strategically) used sound effects. But not everything is shown or done for you…so imagination, visualisation, and engagement on a thought level remains a major factor.
Secondly, while predominantly a book, it’s one you run on your phone or tablet for convenience, and also part-computer game, hence genuinely interactive. You help steer the story, and that’s exciting and unpredictable. You can ‘live it’ more than once, each journey as unique as the choices you make, but not too much is laid on you. The interactive aspect is not relentless, so you can still lose yourself in the tale.
Thirdly, it’s a kind of Trojan Horse. It has the potential to lure some, who just aren’t, in their own estimation, ‘reading types’ into an experience that may expand their habits to their lasting benefit. Put it on a young hard-core gamer’s Android, iPhone or iPad, and if they don’t delete the new ‘oddball’ game, they just may bring it inside the city walls of their personal culture, where, come nightfall, out will tumble the hidden warriors of readership. At least I pray as much, to all the gods, old and new. 🙂
Thanks so much for the interview, Sophie! As you know, I love YOUR work. 🙂 And by way of epilogue, I should probably also mention that anyone visiting the Official DarkSpear Page on my website, can download their own free 13 piece set of original artwork used in the VN. Just go to http://simonhiggins.net/darkspear-visual-novel/
Author site: www.sophiemasson.org