When it comes to telling stories that touch on historical events, games plump for one of two schools of thought: realism or fiction. You can try and tell a completely accurate version of events as they transpired, predjudices and inconsistencies intact, or you can take what is known, create a narrative from it, and put the story you want to tell at the forefront.
Sometimes storytellers will attempt to walk the line between these two schools of thought, and where that line is drawn can define everything about the experience.
A couple of weeks ago, on a cold weekday morning in Guildford, I met up over coffee with Jessica Saunders, director of Salix Games, and developer behind the upcoming Du Lac & Fey: Dance of Death, a game walking this very line between realism and abstraction in fascinating ways.
Du Lac & Fey: Dance of Death is a narrative-focused adventure mystery set in Victorian England during the murders of Jack the Ripper. Mostly focusing on presenting the time period as accurately as possible, from language used to debunking myths about the crimes, it has one big twist to help audiences engage with the narrative from a contemporary perspective. Players control Sir Lancelot Du Lac, and Morgana Fey, two historical figures dislodged from time, who have wider perspectives by nature of having seen more of the world’s history play out than those around them. After hundreds of years alive, the pair act as a kind of audience surrogate, a lens through which to be critical of events, while still presenting the reality of the world at the time.
“Basically we want to bring narrative adventure games into more modern era,” says Saunders. “Moving away from the old pixel art point and click, taking the narrative genre, giving characters slightly more autonomy, and for me most importantly, telling stories we haven't really heard in games before.”
Over the past three years, Saunders and Salix Games have been working on Dance of Death from their studio in Guildford, formed from the ashes of Lionhead like so many local small scale developers. For Saunders, the impetus to create the game mainly came from a fascination with the macabre, and a frustration with historical inaccuracy in the public image of the Ripper’s murders.
“I've always been a sucker for a good murder mystery. You'll often find me watching various police dramas. I am a bit macabre; I do like unsolved cases and things, and one thing that had fascinated me was the Jack the Ripper case. I read a book where the author was challenged to make Jack the Ripper the protagonist of the book. The book is fantastic, and it doesn't do that. Because you can't! I kind of sat thinking about it - can you do it? And my curiosity led me to read more into the case, because, you know - you think you know about this - but you don't really know the details.”
“I started reading about it, and realised that everything we think we know, everything that's in the media, all these cultural preconceptions we have about the Jack the Ripper case - they're all incorrect!”
When it comes to Jack the Ripper and his killings, I had some personal misconceptions regarding the crimes. I’d thought his victims had a consistent theme, young women involved in sex work. However, according to Saunders, this picture of the victim glosses so much of the intrigue that makes the case interesting, as well as erasing the stories of those whose lives were lost.
“For me one of the biggest misconceptions is the victims. We know everything about four or five of them. We know how old they were, where they were living, what they were doing - and I can only say with complete and utter certainty, that only one of them, Mary Kelly, was a prostitute. Not the others. But they've gone down in history as these young prostitutes being murdered. They weren't! These were older women in their 40s and 50s - they were like 5ft 2, they were dying of tuberculosis, they were homeless down and outs - they weren't prostitutes. But they've gone down in history as that.”
“That's so frustrating to me that the fact it's just dismissed. They've just taken the easy option. No, this was Victorian London - there was so much poverty, it was absolutely obscene. You didn't rent rooms by the month like you do now; you rent them by the day. So if you didn't have your rent for your room that night in the doss house, you'd have to go sleep on the street. It was simply a case of that. There were so many other reasons for women to end up on the streets, and in the path of this killer”.
One aspect of my discussion with Saunders is the importance she places on language choice around the period, when compared to modern usage. An obvious example in the game’s context is that the contemporary term for someone selling sex consensually would be sex worker, rather than prostitute. For Saunders, who spoke to sex workers about this very topic, the priority is using period-appropriate terminology to discuss historical characters, preserving authenticity and tone, while the out-of-time protagonists have room to critique those word choices.
“We’ve actually thought long and hard about this,” says Saunders. “The conclusion was that 'sex workers' makes sense for referring to modern people in that profession, but not for historical perspectives. We actually consulted with sex workers about this subject and terminology, and this was the conclusion we came to. Our worry is that we do not want to show sex work now as anything negative, but to highlight that at this particular time period Mary Kelly [one of the victims] would not have the protection many modern women now have.”
It’s clear Saunders has a real passion for the misconceptions around the Jack the Ripper case. The way her face lights up when she remembers an interesting detail, or how some half-baked lie came to be thought of as truth, shows how much of a labour of love this project is, and the respect for the real world history the studio is weaving its work through.
“One of the other big things that really struck me was, you know, you've seen Jack the Ripper,” says Saunders. “You have this image of a man with a hat and cloak, and a knife. That didn't come about until a year or so after the murders, through the papers. So where did that image come from? It was really interesting having a dig through all these notes, and going back through all the inquisitions from the police, what evidence they found. What I found most interesting about the case was everything that wasn't Jack the Ripper. He's the least interesting thing! The actual identity of the killer is the least interesting thing about the case. What had gone on around it - the women themselves - is far more interesting.”
“One of the most interesting for me was Mary Kelly, who we know nothing about. Everything we know is hearsay. We don't even know the colour of the hair. We know she went by 'Fair Emma', 'Ginger' and 'Black Mary'. Did she wear wigs, did she not? She was working on the streets, very working class, but there are reports of her reading and writing, which would have been unheard-of for a woman in her situation. She obviously had a bit of a history, you know. She was always very well put-together; she was popular. She was a good 20 years younger than the other victims, and she was killed in her home. It doesn't make sense.”
“We don't even know if that was her real name, and she's just this really enigmatic character. I've seen her portrayed in media again and again, and it's always as this titillating prostitute with a heart of gold, and all of that - I get frustrated when I see that, because it just seems so easy.”
Not to mention inaccurate. It prompts the question of how Saunders and her team hope to avoid the same traps. The problem with Mary Kelly, as rightly noted, is that because the facts are so thin there’s a lot of blank space left for our imagination to fill in.
“Honestly, a lot of research was involved. We took the bits of knowledge we had, and hearsay about the character - well, I say 'character', the woman we know. For me one of the most interesting things was she's always portrayed as Irish because she said she was born in Ireland. That's fine. It makes sense. You also read elsewhere that she spoke fluent Welsh. Why would you speak fluent Welsh if you didn't grow up in Wales? It's not a language you casually go and learn. To me, it makes more sense for her to have been [Irish] and then apparently she was married to a Welsh miner. Okay, and this idea of a character starts to form.”
“For us, it was just a case of taking the facts that we could and being as honest as possible with her characterisation. She needed to be – each of our player characters are people with their own agencies. They’re fully 3D characters: they have to have flaws, they have to have personality quirks, and they needed to feel real. That was possibly the most important thing for us. We needed to take the information we had: we knew the timeline, and it felt like it was possible to create the story that fit, and that we think has been done with more respect than what’s previously been done in various bits of media.”
Saunders also wants to use the Ripper case as a lens through which to present a Victorian London that, while historically accurate, will conflict with the image many have of the era. This is not the kind of Victorian London that you see in a BBC drama, full of steadfast royalty and a cheery working class.
“The Victorians were incredibly macabre,” says Saunders. “They were filthy, unbelievably filthy, it’s hysterical how we have this image of being prim and proper, and it was like – let’s show London in its open and honest way, and we did find that now just felt like the right time to tell this story. It was essentially the invention of London, with the tabloid press, you know, fake news. It all stems from that time, and that links to now. They were so desperate to pin the murders on the immigrant population, which they do now – and there’s all of these things that echo now. For me, it just felt like a story I have to tell, and I have to tell in a way that isn’t censored. That’s one of the reasons why we are self-publishing. We spoke to various publishers and they saw some of the content, and they were like, ‘we’d like to remove this.’”
I ask for an example.
“So, for example, we swear a lot. It’s Victorian London, that’s what they did, but we had every piece of dialogue fact-checked by Judith Flanders, a renowned Victorian historian. She was amazing, she literally went through our entire script with a fine-tooth comb going, ‘this is a modernism, this is an Americanism, remove it! They wouldn’t have said ‘fuck off’, they’d have said it in this way,’ and it was just this gorgeous lexicon of language to use.”
“One of the other things, we do openly talk about sexuality, race, identity - our main character is a bisexual male. There were scenes that showed him with both men and women. For me that was important because you don’t see that with male characters in video games. We have scenes in brothels where women are just openly talking about sex. It’s like when you get drunk with your girlfriends, and it’s just those sorts of conversations. [The publishers] thought, ‘this is a bit much.’ No - it’s just how people talk.”
Interestingly enough, another sticking point with traditional publishers was the use of real-world historical documents.
“We wanted to use the original text from newspapers and stuff, so we went to the British Newspaper Archive and we got access to all these bits and pieces of news, and we know exactly what they were saying. It was like ‘oh can you just remove this section, so we don’t ever mention this?’ I was like, no, that’s really important. We have to talk about the fact that they were desperate to pin it on a Jewish man. That has to be in there. We have to put these words in there. We can’t shy away from that.”
As mentioned, a big part of the game’s presentation is the figures of Lancelot and Morgana: people who have seen more than a lifetime of events, and as a result are better equipped than most to critique the events happening around them. While the prejudices of the time as they apply to the case are presented, these characters give modern players a surrogate through which to be critical of these issues.
“That was the beauty of having Du Lac and Fey as the characters you play as. They’re out-of-time, and you can use them as this storytelling tool. They can be more modern in their views than the characters of the game, and they can call out ‘this is wrong!’”
“Fey is a great little device, because no-one understands her, she can say whatever she wants. There are aspects where a character will say something that, if someone said it to me now, I would be incredibly offended. Fey, the way she responds, she will happily say this person is being a wanker, that their actions are not acceptable.”
“Fey is a good lens to be able to point out things which are very out of date. Some things transcend time, hatred, prejudice, and we get to call them out through Fey.”
While Du Lac & Fey is tagged on Steam as a point-and-click adventure, it’s a label that Saunders is trying hard to shift. Her game is a lot more focused on conversations and discussions than on combining a banana and an alarm clock.
“For us, we have been trying to avoid saying point-and-click adventure, because point-and-click does invoke things like Monkey Island. We do not have the rubber chicken with the pulley puzzles, we’re not puzzle-based. We are very narrative-based, and all our choices are about how your relationships with characters evolve.”
“We also didn’t want our game to be one of those where you make a series of choices and at the end you just get a different cutscene, that was something we want to avoid. We don’t ever tell the player where their choices are, but we keep track of them, and you’ll start to see changes with how characters react to you in the latter part of the game. You might have the same scene essentially, but the tone and performance of it could totally change based on how you’ve interacted with people over time.”
One interesting decision in this respect is that Dance of Death doesn’t tell players when their actions have had impacts on later events, something Saunders feels is important to crafting a world that feels real.
“It was a very deliberate decision not to tell the players when their dialogue had consequences, because in real life you don’t know during a conversation if you’ve said something to someone that’s going to change their view of you. You just have to find out over time, when consequences play out. For me, it was a way to deliberately take that knowledge away from the player, to force them to commit to their choices and see the consequences they have without the luxury of a quick reload because we told you that you upset someone in the moment. Let them just experience the story.”
“I know when certain games tell players they’ve made a big choice, and I know I’m guilty of this too, I’ll go ‘I made the wrong decision!’ and I’ll quickly back out to get the result I want. But in life, you get what you’re given in conversation.”
We’ll know soon enough if Dance of Death can live up to the impressive insights driving its creation: it launches on PC on April 5th 2019.
What’s clear today is the passion Saunders has for its unusual blend of historical fidelity, myth-busting and out-of-time perspectives. The world isn’t short on creations inspired by the Ripper. But Du Lac and Fey: Dance of Death will, at the very least, be a surprising and fresh one.
The game was featured on our most anticipated 2019 British games list, which you should check out if you want to find out about more cool upcoming releases from British developers.