INTERVIEW: New Gaia, and the world-building of Samuel Isaacson’s dark sci-fi series

New Gaia is the new sci-fi gamebook from Samuel Isaacson – the author of The Altimer (released earlier this year) – which takes place in the same mid-22nd Century setting following the discovery of intelligent extra-terrestrial life. This second interactive adventure in the Entram trilogy picks up from where the storyline of The Altimer concludes: having defeated the alien presence you are now recovering in a hospital in New Gaia, the only city on Mars. Strongly suspecting that your nurse has become a host to the symbiotic aliens, you must react quickly.

Abandoned to the future and a foreign planet, one of the only survivors of an alien-sabotaged ship awakes in hospital to discover their future is under threat.

That survivor is you.

Immerse yourself in a Martian future in which the simplicity of your life on earth is a distant memory and where no one is to be trusted.

This standalone sequel retains the dark feel of The Altimer, is similarly illustrated throughout, and there’s a definite feeling in New Gaia that you can’t trust anyone (including potentially yourself), and that the consequences of failure will result in humanity’s complete destruction.

New Gaia features many exciting, mysterious and horrific elements, including: escape hospital, attempting to avoid the perilous implications of becoming a host yourself; evade pursuit by mysterious assassins; reunite with other survivors from The Altimer; explore the city to find out who’s been trying to kill you, and then seek to eliminate their threat; adventure through a hidden underground complex to bring justice to a local spy who is assisting the aggressive aliens.

The difficulty level is ramped up in New Gaia in comparison to The Altimer. Now 400 sections long, this second adventure features at least two points where you’ll reach a dead end unless you’ve made the right discovery during your playthrough. All of the instructions to find this gameplay requirement are clearly noted within the text, and there are no abstract logic puzzles in this book, so you’ll be rewarded for good note taking more than anything else.

GBN was keen to speak with Samuel about his gamebooks, hoping to discover more about this mysterious sci-fi world and the future of the series, and to learn a little about how he constructs, and improves, his interactive adventures.

New Gaia picks up from where The Altimer concludes, and yet it’s a standalone story. How does this work in regards to a timeline of events and the requirement to provide players with an understanding of how your world functions?

The closing scene of The Altimer is the opening scene of New Gaia. The final line of The Altimer leaves open the possibility of more action, and that presents itself immediately, so a reader having just completed The Altimer could read section 1 of New Gaia with a sense of continuity.

New and returning readers can read the background section of New Gaia for an overview of the story and to catch up on the key facts and characters, and throughout the book there are references to encounters in the previous book to not unfairly disadvantage someone who hasn’t read The Altimer.

The Altimer was described as a mysterious horror – does this sequel maintain the same horror theme, and just how dark is your storyline and written style?

I think the ‘horror’ tag fits well with The Altimer, because for the most part you’re exploring a spaceship filled with monsters in the dark. The deeper mystery, however, is in the question of whom you can trust, and that theme very much continues through to New Gaia. In fact, there’s a point partway through New Gaia in which you have the chance to accuse your choice of characters, and my playtester got to the point of accusing the person asking for the accusation and ultimately not trusting himself – exactly the type of feeling I was going for.

People do keep using the word ‘dark’ to describe The Altimer, and it was one of the first words used by the playtester. I’m not sure what constitutes darkness and probably wouldn’t use that word to describe it myself, although there are probably valid reasons for doing so. There’s certainly a high level of threat throughout, including potentially from those closest to you, so I think the style is generally one where you feel hesitant about making the wrong choice in case it has dire consequences. There are also strong hints in the book around the state of society and politics, including high levels of inequality and major power shifts, suggesting a level of dystopia. That said, there’s a strong undercurrent of hope – and I can guarantee a happy ending for those that are rigorous in their note taking!

Has the difficulty or player experience changed in New Gaia in comparison to The Altimer?

New Gaia is certainly harder. A good note-taker using multiple fingers as bookmarks could probably complete The Altimer first time, perhaps second. That’s simply not the case with New Gaia. There are a couple of spots where a missed codeword or hidden clue will lead you to dead ends, so I’d say expect to die a lot more.

The overall player experience I think is relatively similar; the system mechanics are identical, the experience of conversation with other characters is very similar, and codewords are used in the same way.

I’d highlight three key things New Gaia adds to the experience. Firstly, it’s 400 sections long rather than 300, so its length and complexity benefit from that expansion. Secondly, you run the risk at the beginning of unfortunately becoming a host to a symbiotic alien, which then affects some of your actions and unlocks an extra part of the adventure in order to solve that problem. Thirdly, at one point in the book you may have to navigate a maze under time constraints, so I’ve added a new TIME score to track how long it’s taking you, and that adds a nice level of additional pressure to the reader.

Tell us a little about the city of New Gaia. What are some of its unique and interesting features, and how has technology developed?

The most obvious visual features of the city are that its buildings are all very tall, and the whole city is connected by a network of bridges and interconnected tubes that transport people around the city in public shuttles. Its streets are always busy with pedestrians, and the only on-street transportation is that of the emergency services or vehicles privately owned by the ultra-wealthy.

Apart from that, humanity is essentially the same as it’s always been, so the city has developed around its central features of interplanetary tourism and Martian research. The city centre is an intense, vibrant area filled with shops, restaurants and hotels alongside an elite university.

Are you a science fiction fan, and therefore keen to write in this genre, or was your concept simply to create an eerie alien adventure?

This is a very difficult question to answer. I’ve always considered myself to not be a fan of science fiction! And I particularly haven’t considered myself a fan of stories based around aliens, because I often find them to be orcs and goblins transposed to some other planet. The aliens I’ve particularly enjoyed have been in Arrival and The Expanse, which seem incredibly ‘other’.

Probably the most important thing to mention is that New Gaia is really a story of interpersonal relationships. The biggest threat to humanity may very well be an alien invasion, but the biggest threat to you is undoubtedly other humans actively trying to stop you, acting selfishly or simply making mistakes.

That’s much like Jurassic Park, where humans are always the greater threat due to greed and stupidity. How do players in your books interact with and affect the relationships in your stories?

The people you meet all have their own motivations and agendas, and aside from the alien influence they’re all essentially trying to do the right thing. That’s not always that helpful though, as there are often political and religious ideologies driving them, and the odd bit of social awkwardness thrown in that may disrupt your adventure later on if not dealt with properly!

Have you looked at and then discarded many ideas or game systems/play styles when writing your gamebooks?

Oh, I have so many ideas I want to try out; The Altimer is simply the first that got to the finish line! I have half-formed ideas and almost-finished books dealing with everything from taking on the role of a therapist solving a case of kidnapping in which a number of your patients play a role, through to one aimed squarely at early readers set in a primary school (with age-appropriate content – no dark horror there!) alongside a strong desire to do something in the traditional fantasy genre.

As far as game systems are concerned I’m quite happy with where I’ve landed with this series – it feels simple and flexible. Every so often I think about doing something more complex, or experimenting with a mechanics-free book…but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

How do you structure your adventures – are they heavy with branching options and exploration possibilities, or more direct in moving the storyline forward as you wish?

It’s certainly a story with direction, so exploration will generally either be a required part of the main storyline or a bad idea. But it’s not at all the case that the fastest way to the final section is the best one; there’s one particularly satisfying route involving a character know as ‘Crazy Moira’ that you’ll only really discover the fullness of if you fully explore every option available.

What’s the response to The Altimer been like – have you had much useful feedback?

I’ve been so pleased with the positive feedback I’ve been getting for The Altimer. Without it, New Gaia would certainly not have happened, so thank you to everyone who’s been so encouraging about it.

The role of the playtester is so important – Victoria Hancox gave me feedback on The Altimer and David Gillson has playtested New Gaia, and both times I’ve been encouraged and made notable changes as a result. Without Victoria’s comments on the first draft, there’s no way people would have responded as well as they have done!

Can you give us an example of the type of feedback provided by the playtesters – what improvements were then implemented?

I made one enormous change to The Altimer. There was an entire section in the opening act in which you went through a series of simulated exercises – I loved writing it, but it lacked pace and purpose so I cut the whole thing and used those sections to put in a chase leading up to the final scene, which I think is a lot more rewarding for the reader.

The changes in New Gaia were a bit more subtle and fell for me into three categories. Firstly, I needed to signpost some of the hidden content more than I had done to avoid frustration for the reader. Secondly, I needed to include additional reward for the reader for occasionally stepping away from the main story – I ultimately did want it to feel fun, interesting or helpful to not always take the shortest route to the finish, and hadn’t always managed it in the first draft. Finally, David pointed out that I’d basically used two words to describe every enemy in the story so I went back through and played with my descriptions a bit more.

So you hadn’t ever noticed this tendency for limited enemy descriptions? Can you reveal what these two favourites were?

Oh, it’s entirely my fault! Depending on whether I wanted the opponent to be acting aggressively or defending, my notes had them down as either assassins or security guards. Pretty much every opponent in the whole thing is a human, so there isn’t the natural diversity of races you can sometimes rely on. It’s caused me to create mini stories for each opponent you come up against, which I think has got to be a good thing – when the nameless security guard turns into Andrea from Accounts who’s been having a bad day, the story becomes indescribably richer.

Are there more adventures to come using this setting?

Yes! Currently I intend to do one more as a direct continuation of the story, again picking up where New Gaia ends. I already have a high-level plan for this, and my intention is for it to be 500 sections long and played out at an epic scale with a satisfying conclusion. Following that, I expect I’ll play a bit with the overall story and release an updated, 1,200-section all-in-one story.

I’m not planning any more adventures exploring different aspects of the setting, although there will be a huge amount that doesn’t get touched. I’m intrigued by the idea of something happening on earth while The Altimer etc. is being played out, so maybe that’s a future series in the waiting…or perhaps some other authors will do that with me!

FightingFantasy.Net now features a playable taster of The Altimer on their website. Is providing this free access to your work personally important?

I like the idea that what I create can get into people’s hands. I also understand that I don’t have the track record and recognition of the big names from the 80s and 90s, so people want something to confirm that they’ll enjoy reading the book before paying for it. On top of that, I’ve enjoyed working with Jason at and hope that it helps him out.

Longer-term I like the thought of offering much more for free, but there are a couple of things that get in the way of doing that. Firstly, I recognise that some people look to gamebooks to provide income and I don’t want to risk disrupting that by creating an expectation that you can get equivalent content for nothing. Secondly, I really enjoy creating this stuff and would love the opportunity one day to give it much more time. As the sole earner for a family of six, I feel a level of responsibility to them!

So watch this space – I wouldn’t be surprised if this time next year The Altimer is available as a free download as a taster for the updated, combined trilogy.

Thanks to Samuel for taking the time to reply to GBNs questions, and for his enthusiastic responses.

New Gaia is available via Amazon as a 245-page Paperback and as an eBook for Kindle. Additionally, to celebrate the release of New Gaia, the Kindle version of The Altimer is currently on sale for 99p, for this week only.

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