We are excited to share an interview with author Jed Herne about his latest endeavor, the game Siege of Treboulain. Check it out!
Siege of Treboulain could also have been a great fantasy novel. What made you decide to tell that story through the medium of a game?
Writing an interactive novel is fundamentally different from a regular book. You have to keep all the storytelling quality of a novel – the complex characters who grow and change, the twists and the suspense, a cool magic system, and interesting ideas to make the reader grapple with. But because it’s a game, you have to consider other things.
The biggest consideration is the nature of choice. The best games force players to make hard choices with no obvious right answer. It’s in these crisis moments that players get to see who they truly are.
That’s why creating a siege game interested me. You can’t get much harder choices than the ones you’ll face as the ruler of a city under attack.
I felt a strong sense of responsibility and attachment to the characters almost right away – it was as though instead of playing to “beat the game,” I was playing to “save the people of Treboulain.” What did you do to create and foster that sense of connection?
Thank you! Right from the start, the goal was to create an experience where it wasn’t about reaching the end and finding out whether you ‘won’ or ‘lost’. That would be boring. Instead, I wanted the focus to be on the journey – on the characters you meet along the way, the challenges you overcome, and the things you discover about yourself. I’m really pleased with the ending, of course – but this is fundamentally a story that’s all about relishing the middle.
The interactive nature of the game certainly helps with the connection to other characters. When you’re in control of the story, you feel a much deeper sense of ownership. These peoples’ lives are directly affected by your decisions (sometimes in great ways, sometimes in horrible ways). I’ve found this leads to almost instant immersion from just about everyone who’s played the game.
And then in terms of the characters themselves – there’s four main non-player characters in the game (NPCs). I tried to make each of them interesting and complicated enough such that any one of them could be someone’s favourite. I think that approach paid off. My favourite always tended to be whoever I was writing at the time! When you find yourself having that reaction to your own story, it tends to translate well for readers.
Sometimes a choosable-path game will leave out important details and nuances from a list of choices: for example, “take the crown” might mean “jealously snatch the crown” or it might mean “humbly and reverently pick up the crown.” One thing I appreciated very much about Siege of Treboulain is that I never felt like the game did something I didn’t mean. How did you avoid that pitfall?
I’m glad you felt that way, because in early drafts, that wasn’t always the case!
Mostly, I avoided this issue thanks to feedback from my excellent editor, Abby Trevor, along with lots of playtesting. We had probably about 20 people go through an early version of the game to pick up issues exactly like this.
All this feedback and testing made me feel extremely confident in the story when it released. At this stage, I’ve pretty much seen almost every possible response and reaction that a player could have.
It’s got me thinking that I’d love to create a similarly sized early-reader team for my own self-published novels. I’ve got a few people who read later-stage drafts, but it would be awesome to grow the team even more. Feedback is so ridiculously useful for improving a story. Especially with something as interactive as a game, you just can’t predict how everyone will react ahead of time.
It’s impossible to see everything in the game with a single play-through, since certain choices will necessarily close off branches of the story. Some players will play the game again and again in order to see all of its content, and others will play through it once or twice and be content with the version of the Siege of Treboulain story they experienced. Would you say the game is designed to cater to one style of play more than the other?
In early drafts, it was certainly harder to succeed if you choose to boost some stats but not others. However, this wasn’t something I wanted. I wanted a game where it didn’t matter whether you played as a magic-wielding scholar or a warrior who relied on brute force – you could be guaranteed of a good time no matter what build you used.
To achieve this, we ran a bunch of simulations and tests to make sure that this was the case. Initially, it wasn’t. If you’d created a character with high agility, agility tended to be less useful than other stats. However, this testing allowed us to balance things out. Now it’s at the point where you don’t get penalised for picking certain attributes.
One thing that’s still not clear to me is whether RNG is involved in the game logic anywhere – in other words, does an event say “any score of X or higher will win,” or is there some dice rolling happening in the background?
There’s no random number generation involved in the game – all choices are resolved by testing your stats against certain thresholds. If they pass the threshold, they pass the choice.
Can you tell me a little bit about the process by which you wrote the story? I’m particularly curious whether you worked on one chapter at a time, or if you moved around from chapter to chapter in order to work on the longer narrative threads?
First, I spent about 3-4 months developing a detailed outline, which had key plot points for each chapter. The final document (which went through 5 rounds of revision with my publisher) was about 40 pages long.
From there, I wrote the story one chapter at a time. I generally had a rough, big-picture idea of what I wanted to do with each chapter. For example, chapter one starts with a festival, and ends with an army approaching your city.
The space between? That was usually a lot less structured. For some chapters, I had a very clear idea of these interstitial plot points. Then for other chapters, I let myself discovery-write through, following whatever paths seemed the most interesting.
At the end of each chapter, I’d send it to my editor. She’d read through, provide a bunch of feedback, and then I’d incorporate it. I’d send it back to her again, and the cycle repeated. Once we were both happy, I’d move onto the next chapter.
Occasionally, I’d sometime start the next chapter before the previous one was given the stamp of approval. But for the most part, I tried to take it one chapter at a time.
Having this fast feedback loop – of spending an average of 3-5 weeks writing a chapter, then getting feedback right away – was a lovely way to work. It sped up my game writing skills immensely.
This genre of game is very appealing to amateur game developers because of its low technical barriers to entry (no graphics, no music, pretty straightforward code). But of course that doesn’t mean making a game like this is easy: if someone were to try their hand at making their own choosable-path adventure, what words of advice (or warning) would you want to share with them?
It’s definitely a very accessible way to ship a game. Most people can’t single-handedly create the next Elden Ring. But writing something like Siege of Treboulain is something you can do.
In terms of advice:
- Listen to (or read) interviews with people who’ve written what you want to write. You can also try to interview them yourself if you have a platform. For me, it was incredibly helpful to use my Novel Analyst podcast to interview Kate Heartfield and Andrew Swann. Both these authors wrote well-received stories for Choice of Games, so they gave amazing advice. Kate even looked over my pitch and gave me feedback before I sent it through to Choice of Games! She certainly played a part in helping me get a contract with Choice of Games, who went on to publish my story.
- Focus on impossible choices. Choosing between helping a character or doing nothing is not that interesting. Being forced to choose between helping one character or helping another – now we’re cooking. In moments of crisis, a player learns who they truly are. So put them into crisis.
- Remember that you’re not a good representative of all players. Different people want different things from a story. You don’t have to appeal to everyone, but it is worthwhile asking yourself: how might this scene be someone’s favourite scene?
- Have a cohesive theme and arc to unify the story. In an interactive novel, it’s easy to end up with a jumbled, disparate narrative. One way to counter that is to have a clear idea of what the story is about. What moral question are you exploring? In the case of Siege of Treboulain, that question was: what is the right way to lead? Once you know what your story is about (at a big-picture level), it makes all the smaller-picture details easier to create.
- Keep it simple. Every extra stat, character, and choice multiplies the amount of scenes, editing, and issues you have to deal with. Case in point: once I’ve written an outline, I’m usually excellent at knowing how long my novels will be. But with Siege of Treboulain, I was expecting a 200,000-word story … and ended up with a 280,000-word beast instead. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with length, or scale. If anything, the game’s length may be a reason why it’s sold so well (more words = better immersion and value for players, in a lot of cases). Still, just remember that there’s no need to add complexity. The complexity will find it’s own way in.
Lastly, if you’re interested in the promotion/marketing side of things, I broke down my launch strategy in more detail in a recent podcast episode (Video link | Audio link). The game sold about 3,300 copies in the first week, so I think we did something reasonably smart with our promotion.
I thought it was incredibly clever to change the gender of certain characters depending on how the player describes their own romantic inclinations.
Thanks! I can’t really take credit: this is one of the things Choice of Games suggests for writers to do. From my perspective, it makes a lot of sense. I want as many readers as possible to have awesome, full experiences of the game. An easy way to do that is by making adjustable romance options.
Are you planning to make more games (or stories) in the Treboulain universe?
Technically, I already have!
If you’ve read The Thunder Heist, you’ll notice a character who also appears in Siege of Treboulain, even though the stories are set on different worlds.
Depending on which pathway you take in the game, you might also see mention of the Solscape – which is an interconnected universe of worlds and stories that I plan to develop more in the future.
In terms of direct Siege of Treboulain sequels, lots of readers have asked about those, which is incredibly flattering. I won’t rule out the possibility. But for now, I’m happy with it as a standalone. It was always intended to be a self-contained story, so I’m unsure if a sequel would work.
But, saying that, I always have ideas floating around in the back of my mind. If I came up with the right concept, it could be a possibility.
More likely, though, I think if I was to write another interactive fiction game, it would be a fresh concept altogether. Still epic fantasy, probably. But something that takes advantage of everything I learned from Siege of Treboulain to produce an even better experience.
For now, though, I’m focussed on writing my next novel, Kingdom of Dragons (which will hopefully be the start of a new series).
Does the game have any cheat codes / debugging commands you’d like to share with us? (Never hurts to ask! 🙂 )
I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you…
No, unfortunately – there’s no cheat codes built into the game. To me, not having fully-maxed-out stats, and sometimes having no option but to fail at achieving things – that’s where the game becomes interesting. When you can’t always achieve everything, the few things that you can achieve feel more meaningful.
Having said that, it is entirely possible to succeed at every single choice you face in the game. But it does take a bit of skill to get there.