Lewis Manalo is the author of the recently released The Spy and the Labyrinth – an impressive piece of interactive fiction that explores a modern South American mystery set within the challenging environment of ongoing conflict, complex corruption and deception, and ancient, otherworldly myths.
GBN was keen to know more about Lewis and his creation, so we asked him about his background in games and fiction, his writing process, and the influences for his chosen setting and subject matter.
Tell us about your writing and gaming history, specifically, how your knowledge and skills shaped you as a creator, and how these various roles influenced aspects of The Spy and the Labyrinth.
I went to NYU film school, served in Afghanistan as a combat engineer in the 82nd Airborne, and wrote my first novel in between missions. I’ve worked a lot in film, including work as a producer on a documentary shot in the Amazon jungle, and I was a writer on Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands, one of the bestselling video games of 2017.
There really are no straight lines that can point to what parts of my biography influenced the creation of The Spy and the Labyrinth. I went to NYU’s film school during the last glory days of American independent filmmaking. There were a lot of people around who were doing some really innovative storytelling, filmmakers who were trying to push the definition of what a film was, or what a story was, as far as they could. You could go out to a theater and see something strange and new that had been made by somebody local, directors like Hal Hartley, Nancy Savoca, Beth B or Jim Jarmusch (I got to intern for Jim Jarmusch’s production company). These were really strange and beautiful films where the filmmakers really had something new to say. As a member of an audience, as a reader, or as a gamer, I still enjoy work that is innovative and unconventional like that. And as a creator, I always try to bring something that an audience hasn’t seen before, or I try to say something they haven’t yet heard.
I’d spent a couple years working on the aforementioned Amazon documentary when a friend of mine at Ubisoft called me up and asked if I’d want to write for Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands. The game’s an open world shooter where you play as a special ops soldier fighting a drug cartel in Bolivia. My friend knew I’d been in the Army, and he knew I’d been spending time with the Ticuna tribes in Colombia and talking with coca farmers. So, he brought me on to Ghost Recon to bring that real-world experience to the writing.
What’s your personal interest in interactive fiction?
I play video games and read interactive fiction, but Ghost Recon was really the first time I worked on any kind of interactive story. Working on that game, the other writers and I sometimes told whole subplots with just the collectibles. A document, a voice recording, a photograph – all these different pieces come together, in whatever order the player finds them, and they tell a story. I figured I could do the same on my own; write a story in the form of a bunch of ‘collectibles’, focusing on the narrative rather than on the shooting and the blowing stuff up.
A few walking simulators have done this kind of thing, and they’ve done it well; but for the most part they’ve kept to one person’s point of view. In Gone Home, there are a lot of collectibles, but the sister’s journal entries give the narration. You never really learn what other characters, even the player character, think about the whole thing. I mean, you could be playing a homophobe the whole time. She could be disgusted with her sister’s choice of lifestyle. You never find out.
What I’m trying to make interactive fiction do, that a conventional novel or most games can’t do, is let the reader change the point of view based on his or her decisions. I like the Argentine author Manuel Puig, and in a lot of his novels, like Betrayed By Rita Hayworth and Boquitas pintadas, he tells the story through the letters and journal entries of different characters. With these different voices, you get different points of view on the same thing or the same person. For one character, a relationship might be a casual fling, but to the other character, it’s the romance of a lifetime. So, in The Spy and the Labyrinth, there’s a core group of characters, and different collectibles will tell different parts of the story from their various points of view.
To get the player to interact with the collectibles, I took some inspiration from the movie game Her Story and used a database format. The player uncovers the story like an investigator would, following the clues and searching through the documents.
I grew up in the U.S. in the Eighties when interactive fiction was big in the form of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. I also played an unhealthy amount of Zork on the IBM PC, and I remember trying one of the Steve Jackson Fighting Fantasy books. These were really my introduction to interactive fiction. The form hasn’t really changed all that much since. The more recent IF I go for are things like Choice of Games titles and 80 Days by Inkle. I’ve played some of the digital versions of the Fighting Fantasy books, too.
A lot of IF from Choice of Games and Hosted Games goes a little too deep into character customization for my taste. It’s nice to give someone the option to be a trans-lesbian-elf-vampire-werewolf-hybrid, but usually that customization has no impact on the gameplay. I consciously looked for a way to cut through the customization that didn’t limit the way a player identified him or herself.
Working on Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands must have been a significant eye-opener. Did you gain new tools and approaches to use in your writing?
Working on an open world game gave me the chance to work on a story where all pieces were available to the audience at the same time. It’s sort of like the film Rashomon where we see the same event through different points of view. But when you watch a film, you still can only see one point of view at a time. The woman tells her version of the story. Then, the prisoner tells his. With an open world game, the points of view can be discovered in different orders. The different versions of the stories can be interwoven. It makes adding a twist to a story a little trickier. You also have to repeat the facts of the story over and over again, just in case the player hasn’t seen them yet.
With Ghost Recon’s collectibles, we used this type of structure to tell many of the subplots. These collectibles formed a lot of the model for how I structured The Spy and the Labyrinth.
How did The Spy and the Labyrinth’s story and atmosphere come together?
The Spy and the Labyrinth is based around a lot of things I’d seen in the Amazon and a lot of the research I’ve done on South America. More than anything, it’s the feeling; the anxiety that the place and the people can give you.
With all the wonderful cultures in South American and all that rich history, there’s a lot of conflict, too. Imagine, big forces like corrupt governments and businesses are changing the world around you, and you don’t have a say in what’s happening. Then, there’s that huge and hostile environment that is the rain forest, a place that can kill you in more ways than you can count: jaguars, malaria, piranhas. Spend enough time in that kind of place, you learn that a person, an individual, has no significance. Horror stories in the style of H.P. Lovecraft do a good job of exploring this feeling, and with the magic already in the mythology and folktales of South America, Lovecraftian horror was a natural fit.
The end result is crazier than I’d first imagined. The players will investigate what happened to these archaeologists, but they’ll encounter stuff about a child prophet, Communist rebels, the giants of Patagonia, Abraham Lincoln, the drug trade, and a whole lot more. And because the game explores different points of view, multiple playthroughs reveal facts about characters and places that you don’t discover every time. People you thought were allies might turn out to be enemies. Things you assume to be true in one playthrough will be completely false in the next.
Players used to the usual, second person gamebook format will probably need to take a minute to get used to the mechanics and the amount of text between choices. The unusual format is partly why it’s so short. But once the player gets the hang of it, they’ll enjoy the dark and crazy and magical world of the game.
Do you have a personal interest in ‘cosmic horror’ or was this just a natural fit for the setting and storyline that you had in mind?
‘Cosmic horror’ was the right fit for the story I wanted to tell, but I’ve always loved the genre. I think The Colour Out of Space may have been the first Lovecraft story I read, but for me, my love of cosmic horror really started with Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories. Howard and Lovecraft were friends, and they influenced and referenced each other a lot. The really good Conan stories were the ones where he was scared, and nothing scared the Cimmerian more than unnamable, ancient gods.
Was the point of view ‘switch’ in the game the key tool for this tale – could any other narrative structure have successfully delivered a similar experience?
No, this story is about point of view. Dr. Thayer begins the story pretty inflexible in his beliefs, and his romantic interest, Isabel, seems to have let her imagination run a little wild. They both look at the same events and see very different things. They look at each other and see very different things.
That ‘cosmic horror’ genre is also known as ‘existential horror’, and that fear of being alone in the universe, these characters all experience it because none of them can truly ever see things from the other’s point of view. They can never completely know one another. Thayer loves Isabel, but he eventually realizes that he has no idea who she is. And if you love someone who doesn’t understand you, someone whom you don’t understand, you don’t need Cthulhu to make you feel alone in an uncaring universe.
Including all the diverse characters, and then balancing their storylines and interactions to produce a complete experience, must have been a complex puzzle. How much planning was involved to create functioning choices, and did you cut any content from the published game?
There was a lot of planning. I don’t know how other IF writers outline, but I wrote out the different stories for the different characters on index cards first. Each index card was a landing page for a choice in the game. Then, as I organized the decision trees, I taped the different cards in different orders onto five large pieces of paper. I had one piece of paper for each of the five acts of the story. I added a few cards at this point, to fill in the gaps, and I threw out a few cards if the story became too redundant. I probably threw out about 10,000 words.
Ferdinand Magellan’s encounter with the Patagonian giants is a fascinating tale of discovery and historical inaccuracy. Myths such as this endure for hundreds of years – is this just a human appetite for mysterious stories of the previously uncharted world, or a deeper questioning of the planet and our place upon it?
People need magic. We need something inexplicable and wondrous and unknowable. I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe it keeps that ‘existential horror’ at bay, but we also just enjoy it. Even if you don’t believe in Bigfoot, you’ll probably watch Bigfoot footage on TV – or the Loch Ness Monster. Maybe you’ll watch the footage, expecting it to be a hoax, but part of you wants it to be real. Human beings need mysteries. Mysteries keep our imagination firing on all pistons, and the giants of the ancient world are one of those things.
It wasn’t until the 20th Century that most people stopped believing in giants. Dozens of American newspapers from the 19th Century printed stories about the discovery of giant skeletons. There is a large mound in Israel that is supposedly the burial place of Goliath. The tomb of Job in Oman is too long to be that of person of normal height. So maybe giants were real, and we just need the right person to prove it.
The Spy and the Labyrinth’s Saint of Darkness, Pale Man and Roberto Puig were all unique, elusive characters with questionable intentions. How do you craft these personalities so that they retain their mystery throughout the game?
Those characters are all based on real life mysteries or mysterious people. Alien conspiracy theorists will recognize the Pale Man as one of the mysterious Men In Black who show up around UFO phenomenon. Roberto Puig is based on a few different suspected Cold War Cuban spies. These kinds of guys working for Castro would lurk around Mexico City with very ambiguous official roles at the Cuban embassy. And the Saint of Darkness is a child-prophet. There are evangelical churches in America where children speak in tongues. There are the children who see Marian apparitions, like the shepherds who saw Our Lady of Fatima.
In the real world, these are all things that, whether you choose to believe they’re real or if they’re frauds, it takes a leap of faith. Your decision is often based on who you choose to be: the believer, or the skeptic.
So what’s next for you – more interactive fiction or other activities?
I enjoy interactive fiction, and I had fun making the game. The open beta on the Choice of Games forum was really helpful, and I owe a lot of people there a big thank you. I have a few secret projects in the works right now, but when the right story comes along, I’ll return to writing IF in a format similar to The Spy and the Labyrinth. There are things I feel that I could do better if I tried it again.
Our review of The Spy and the Labyrinth can be read here. Thanks to Lewis Manalo for providing his thoughtful, detailed responses to our questions.