Mama Possum came out a few months back in December. It was commissioned by Cassandra Khaw as a contribution to her Jaeger Aunties universe, focused on older women piloting mechs. You can unlock her incredible story in the setting through her Patreon, or wait a while for the upcoming reprint in Apex Magazine.
Mama Possum's deadline was tight and self-imposed. I promised Cass four weeks and delivered it in six, mostly because the art and music were scope creep—Cass only asked for words. Because of that, I had little research time and had to draw from what I know, which is pretty much just the South.
So what do Southern mechs look like? I envisioned mine as rural, industrial, like heart disease, like domestic abuse, like a semi-trailer truck cabin, like a fatal run-in with a lathe. And of course, that sturdy animal that open-mouth hisses at me when I take out the trash, like I've come to carry off its hard-won dumpster.
Living in Arkansas, I drive through the Great Smoky Mountains every time I visit my mom in North Carolina. It's a breathtaking trip, so the prose describing that section of Appalachia in Mama Possum already existed in my head from past appreciation.
As far as the characters go, well, I have a sister and I'm a shitty sibling who never calls. Autobiography is easy at low word counts because I can use all that raw guilt without having to make sense of it. If she's reading this: I'm sorry I killed both of us with a malfunctioning neural spike, inside of a mech shaped like a marsupial.
In What Isn't Saved, Zoe, a neuroscientist, tries to salvage the memories of her recently deceased partner, but there's only so many that can be saved.
It's a gut-wrenching task—memories explode into other memories, a book you can only quickly skim. It reminds me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when Joel dashes through his disappearing memories. Structurally, it also reminds me of Sam Barlow's Aisle in that, instead of lightly exploring the story's boundaries, each choice cuts the narrative space with garden shears.
There's a sinister, desperate note to every choice in What Isn't Saved that mirrors the anxiety we often feel in romantic relationships, about the effect we have on those we're closest to. Of course, I wanted to rebuild Sara's memory of her and Zoe's first kiss. But what about her memories of Zoe's flaws?
Being in Zoe's shoes, I felt uneasy and invasive, and questioned my own motives when I made decisions about why certain memories were important or not. The story handles these choices with the weight they deserve—there's no hope in this task, just compounding doubt and worries.
There are many aesthetically beautiful games made with Twine, and What Isn't Saved is among them. The confusing way pronouns flicker inside the memories made me kick the dirt and cuss, because I wish I'd done similar for the shared consciousness scenes in Mama Possum.
Disclaimer: I'm friends with everyone credited on this game, and married to the sound designer, so I'm as far from unbiased as one can be. What Isn't Saved (will be lost) can be purchased on itch.io for $2.99.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, a fabulist adventure set in America during the Great Depression, comes out Wednesday, February 28th. Alongside many other writers, I contributed over twenty vignettes to the game—the short stories you encounter while traveling.
With the game having over two hundred vignettes, that means I only wrote around 15%, and didn't write any of the sixteen characters you swap stories with at campfires. So this game's packed with talented writers, and I'm only talking about my own little corner of the script.
Deep South Communists
Ten writers worked on the vignettes in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. Johnnemann, the game's creator, would give us a pile of art to write for, these stunning creative prompts. Some had specific subjects (a city, popular legend, or historical event), others were less specific and the vignette writer spun the whole story themselves.
When I got the artwork above, filename Metalworker, I wanted to write about Southern communists in the 1930s. Communism, socialism, and labor movements are common in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine—as with the character Bertha, written by Emily Short—but I wanted to touch on little known history in the Deep South.
Through his autobiographies, the labor leader Hosea Hudson became a source of inspiration. The vignette's only a few hundred words, so I had to weave in details that would suggest how this metalworker lives, long before and long after you traveled by to speak with him, without feeling forced or unnatural.
For Southern communists, material life and ideological struggles went hand-in-hand. Their movement was met by fascist violence from strikebreakers, the police, and their white neighbors. These communists kept rifles next to their Bibles. During strikes, the police would come by and open fire on their houses without a word of warning.
These folks primarily organized through church, but most sources don't go into detail about the meetings, so I had to decide, for example, what scripture a Southern communist would read from the pulpit. Although I've read the Bible, it wasn't with class consciousness in mind—so, while rereading, I decided on James 5:1:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.
Last of all, I had a look at how past fiction handled this subject. In leftist fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, black communists became archetypal characters. Modern scholars have critiqued the paternalistic overtones of these portrayals, as the characters would be viewed exclusively through the lens of white protagonists. I reflected on Meghna Jayanth's talks about writing NPCs with agency, and went over the draft with a critical eye, trying to identify if any of the existing criticism I'd read could apply to what I'd written in the vignette, then made edits.
Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression — Robin Kelley, 1990
Black Worker in the Deep South: A Personal Record —Hosea Hudson, 1972
The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: The Life and Times of a Black Radical — W.W. Norton & Hosea Hudon, 1994
The Weird Ozarks
Being from the Ozarks, I stuffed as much of our folklore as I could into Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. The illustration above was sent to me with the filename "shack," so it was a blank canvas. I turned it into an interpretation of an old folktale: a ghost who craves pigs' feet, and cries out any time a hog gets slaughtered.
As it turns out, the fabulist tone of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine was perfect for our weird mountain folklore. As memaw rattles the walls during dinner, hollering for pigs feet, you can press the mother for details on what's going on. She doesn't give much—she won't even admit memaw's a haint, as this particular phenomenon's so common in these parts, it's too ordinary to earn some supernatural explanation. Be grateful for the hospitality.
Ozark Magic and Folklore — Vance Randolph, 1947
Down in the Holler — Vance Randolph, 1953
Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales — Vance Randolph, 1976
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine comes out February 28th! You can wishlist it on Steam or itch.io. If you come across the metalworker or memaw's ghost, holler at me over at @bravemule. And if you wanna hire me for writing or narrative design, well, start by taking a look at my CV!
Hey folks! Most of our updates about the development of Southern Monsters happen over at the Kickstarter. You can read those posts even if you weren't able to back the campaign at the time.
We've had a tremendous year: the Diversity in Games Alliance sponsored our trip to GDC back in February, we'll be showcasing Southern Monsters at XPO Tulsa in October (come say hello!), I'm a contributing writer for Where the Water Tastes like Wine, and I'm collaborating with Cassandra Khaw on a new Twine work that'll be released this month. More news soon.
Thanks for sticking with us.
Hey, we redesigned the website! Good news: it works on mobile now, like any website not from 2011. Bad news: everything else is a pain in the ass, especially if you're an oddball who wants to read Matul Remrit in 2017. I promise to make it less bad in the next few weeks.
Best news: the Southern Monsters Kickstarter is soon. Watch out for that.