Now that we’re done with the post-mortem for The Bottom of the Well, it’s time to go on to greener (whiter?) pastures. That’s not to say I won’t revisit TBOTW later, especially around a potential content update, but for now development time is being focused elsewhere.
And that focus is on our new game, currently titled Automatia (pronounced with an emphasis on the second syllable – automa’tia). Automatia is derived from tyche automatia, an aspect of the Greek Goddess of Fortune, Tyche – perhaps better known as Fortuna by the Romans. Tyche automatia might best be translated as ‘random chance’ – automatia meaning something like ‘self-animated’, a Goddess that acts with no regard for the affairs of men. ‘Automatia’ also shares an etymology with words like ‘automatic’, or ‘automaton’.
There’s much that can be derived from a name (which reminds me, I never did talk about the importance of the name for The Bottom of the Well – perhaps some other time!), and the name Automatia feeds directly into the world, story and gameplay of our upcoming game. Let’s take each of those in turn:
Automatia will take place in an alternate-history steampunk world, set around the year 1873. ‘Steampunk’ is both an aesthetic/artistic movement and a literary genre: the most famous example of the latter being William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990). Much like in Gibson and Sterling’s novel, the age of the computer has come sooner than expected in Automatia, and with it unprecedented technological advances. Steam remains the main form of propulsion, although there are inroads being made by both gas and electric power. The ‘punk’ in ‘steampunk’, is analogous to the ‘punk’ in ‘cyberpunk’ (again, Gibson’s influence, from his Neuromancer (1984)). Punks are the anti-culture, the rebels and the anarchists, the kinds of people who naturally appear whenever there’s a radical change of some kind, and steampunk literature (like cyberpunk literature) is often about people who are marginalized in some way, finding themselves outside the power structures of tradition and wealth.
In Automatia, society is ruled by the old landed elite, sometimes aided, sometimes in conflict with the new barons of technology and commerce. Opposing both of these are anarchists, socialists, and nationalists, wielding gunpowder and plot in an attempt to carve out their own place in the rapidly changing political landscape of Europe and the world. All that was once solid has become fluid. Underneath it all brews the historical wind of all-out war, as the colonies groan and complain under the technological yoke and the powers of Europe engage in an arms race to the trenches. So too in far-off Argentina, which is embroiled in a civil war between the Criollo Junta and the royalist forces of the Spanish viceroy. For the moment, the conflict is at a standstill thanks to an armada of ironclad battleships from Spain and the viceroy’s extensive network of airship-born informants, spies and assassins, but the situation is precarious.
The story will largely take place on the steamship Tyche, captained by the inexhaustibly adventurous Roger Walton, Esq. He is on a journey of scientific discovery, adventure, and daring, heading towards none other than the recently discovered South Pole. Terra Incognita, the final unexplored continent. Financed by his rich family, he hires our protagonist – one Franics Imlay, formerly of the Royal Navy – to be one of his officers.
I don’t want to reveal too many details about the story at this point, except that it is partially inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – more specifically the frame narrative. Frankenstein is the recounted tale of a dying Victor Frankenstein, who at the beginning of the novel is rescued out of the cold polar waters by an idealistic Arctic explorer. Frankenstein tells the captain his story, perhaps in part because the doctor wanted to dissuade the young captain from the same kind of scientific hubris that Frankenstein felt he was guilty of:
“Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me; let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!”
The ‘intoxicating draught’ of technology is generally the central question in any kind of steam/cyberpunk narrative, and although Frankenstein is a gothic horror romance, it remains the literary ancestor to all of science fiction. In Frankenstein, the secret of creating Frankenstein’s monster is lost with its creator, exactly as Victor Frankenstein wanted. Automatia is in this sense an alternate fictional history: what would happen if someone quite different was to have rescued from the cold sea a brilliant scientist with a secret that could change the world – for better or worse?
Much like The Bottom of the Well, Automatia is a visual novel-RPG hybrid, which (unlike traditional RPGs) focuses more on decisions and text than checking stats and fiddling with an inventory. Unlike The Bottom of the Well however, the protagonist in Automatia is already a seasoned veteran of many battles, an expert sailor, and a leader of men. Once an officer in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, Francis Imlay was dishonorably discharged when his commanding officer uncovered his vast network of illegal gambling rings in the navy. Left with nothing but his sea-chest and a few measly coppers after being kicked off the ship on the nearest British holdings – which happened to be the Falkland Islands – he had to survive through his wits, occasional theft, and a large dollop of luck. And if there is one creature on this planet that Lady Luck has a stormy relationship with, it’s Francis Imlay.
Luck, rather than static stats, will have a very large impact on the way the story is told in Automatia. But luck will not be ‘random chance’ – like any good gambler, Imlay knows when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, when to walk away, and when to run. In a sense, he knows what the cards hold, and he knows there are winners and losers in every hand. The one thing he never learned was that luck is a limited resource, one that can run out – which is why he, at the beginning of the game, finds himself drowning in debt in Rio, with nowhere left to run. Until, of course, a very lucrative offer appears…
The story will be a fast-paced affair, with constant choices, dice rolls, cards, and resource-balancing needed to keep Imlay afloat and aware of the larger plot unfolding around him. Unlike The Bottom of the Well, saving/checkpoints will be fully supported, and constant death will not lurk around every corner. Instead, you may find decisions made hours ago coming back to haunt your present, lucky rolls saving your ass in the nick of time, and careful, methodical planning over the course of hours of gameplay finally bearing fruit. And, of course, you will need to weather the rising and falling tide of Lady Luck, tyche automatia, who acts independent of the will of men…
That’s all for this week. Stay tuned for future dev updates on Automatia as they come, and please share your thoughts, comments, wishes, and criticism!