Shakespeare’s Landlord is a murder-mystery, but more than that, it’s about Lily Bard’s journey of dealing with past trauma and sexual assault. It’s the first of at least two games, which indie studio One More Story Games is adapting from a series of novels written by Charlaine Harris. She’s the author of The Southern Vampire Mysteries, which many know as the source material for HBO’s hit show True Blood.
Shakespeare’s Landlord doesn’t feature any vampires or supernatural elements, but it does investigate dark topics. Lily is a rape survivor and has moved to the quiet town of Shakespeare. When she finds a dead body, she’s reluctantly drawn into an ensuing murder investigation that puts her in danger once again.
CEO Jean Leggett’s husband founded the studio to focus on story-driven games. In addition to developing its own works, One More Story has created software called Story Stylus that enables folks to make their own narrative projects. It views that tool as a way to get more diverse voices into games — something that Leggett is passionate about as a person who’s hard of hearing and whose parents are deaf.
“We want more diverse storytellers in games,” said Leggett in a phone call. “That’s why we built the engine. We have some very interesting projects in the pipeline. We’re working with some indigenous poets to create an indigenous poetry interactive game experience. That’s not something a major studio is going to take on. We’re working with authors as far away as Guyana and Japan. I would love to see their cultural experiences come into the game.”
One More Story plans on adapting all five books of Harris’s Lily Bard series, all of which deal with complex and heavy topics like race relations and child abuse. The first, Shakespeare’s Landlord, is slated for a PC release and will be translated into French, Italian, German, and Spanish. It was originally planned for an earlier launch, but it’s since been pushed to May.
Here is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Have any challenges come up with the recent deadline push?
Jean Leggett: It’s frustrating, but at the same time—you know what, I think our pushing this out, in the bigger picture of things, it gives us more time. What I have noticed is on the marketing side of it, I’ve been reaching out to a lot of guy game reviewers, and they seem almost completely disinterested in covering this. Whereas when I talk to women, when I talk to them about the fact that this is a narrative with a woman lead who’s dealing with PTSD and sexual trauma, they’re like, wow, I want to hear more about this.
The extra time we have between now and launch gives me even more time to be able to talk it up with all of these different reviewers and entertainment reporters. I see that as a bonus.
GamesBeat: That’s interesting. I was under the impression that we had moved to a place in the industry where people are more open to narrative-driven games.
Leggett: Oh, no. I read a lot of industry news. Everybody seems to be obsessed with AR and VR. In fact, we’re putting in a grant application because we can — and have planned for the last two years to — implement geolocation and AR functionality into Story Stylus. But there’s no way we can do that self-funded. We can’t make games and develop the tech at the same time with self-funding. It’s just not feasible. Especially not with one programmer.
But coming back to your comment about narrative games, I think on the whole, yes, but I also think people have a preconceived idea of what a narrative game looks like. I don’t know. I don’t know where we’re going to fit in there, because I feel like we’re much more narrative heavy than most narrative games.
GamesBeat: With all the text and novel excerpts, how do you use gameplay mechanics to tweak the urgency or tension in dramatic scenes?
Leggett: I don’t know if you saw the announcement, but we’re super excited, because the woman who read the five novels as an Audible, the performer, she’s going to be the voice of Lily. It’s really cool for somebody who’s read the novels. If you listen to the novel, you get to hear her narrating your way through the world.
Folks will be able to play the first 20 minutes [of a demo]. That’ll be fully narrated and voiced by all of the cast that are those characters you’ll be meeting in the first 20 minutes. I think that’s when people are going to start to see, hey, this is a very different experience in terms of gameplay.
Coming back to your question about gameplay mechanics, I think that players will find that for the most part, the focus of the game is interviewing other people in the town of Shakespeare, who may or may not be suspects. They might also be town gossips, and that’s a way you can elicit more information. There will be elements of crafting in there, very minor crafting. You’re finding objects. In the demo, Lily is a housekeeper, so she goes to one of her clients’ houses and—[Laughs] she’s cleaning up the teenage boy’s bedroom and finds the checkbook his mother had asked her to locate, and also a used condom. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to craft with that.
But there will be—because of the PTSD and the sexual assault element, there will be some mature things that are said in the game. Lily will be encountering several PTSD triggers. When she’s attacked by someone else in the game, physically assaulted, there are people who are trying to provoke an emotional response in her.
I don’t know if you recall from the gameplay video, but when she first comes across the body in the park, you can hear her heartbeat accelerate, a bit of the heavy breathing. When you have a chance to play, you’ll also notice that, as you read through that narrative text, she’s trying to talk herself down. That sense of heightened urgency is in there.
GamesBeat: Other games have received criticism for how they handle issues such as domestic violence. How do you approach this thoughtfully? How do you help players connect with the character’s trauma in a way that isn’t sensationalized?
Leggett: For example, if—I believe the book has 11 or 12 chapters. There’s an entire chapter in the novel devoted to what happened in Memphis. That was where she was abducted, mutilated, raped by several men and women. She ends up having to kill her attacker. It’s a really gritty chapter. When we first talked to Charlaine we said, listen, we’re not cleansing the game of Lily’s rape. But at the same time, we want to talk about sexual trauma and approach that idea of PTSD in a very sensitive way.
At the beginning of the game, not only are you trying to figure out who killed Pardon Albee — that’s the center story of the game — but you’re also trying to solve the mystery of what happened to Lily. What happened to make her this way? We’re not giving that to players right out of the gate.
It’s a slow discovery of, okay, she’s having these panic attacks. I think it’s in the first paragraph where she says she’s been having nightmares again. We’re slowly teasing out that piece of the fact that she’s here, that she’s trying to remake her life, that she has a hard time making friends with a lot of people in Shakespeare. She keeps to herself. She has trust issues.
You start to see that development of the character as she gets further along. Because of what’s happened, because of this murder, she’s forced to interact with people and deepen her relationships with people, whereas for the four years she’s been here—I wouldn’t call her a recluse, but she hasn’t gone out of her way to develop relationships.
I want people to see that overall story, when they step back from the entire game, to see the progression of Lily Bard’s character. You see that over the five novels. But to see that she comes to terms and understands that she can’t run away from her experience, but what she can do is find the right people to connect with, the right people who will share and have empathy with her, and for her to find the resources she needs to heal.
GamesBeat: In novels, because we get this first-person perspective inside a character’s head, it’s very clear when their thinking changes. Is it difficult to externalize this in the game? How did you approach this?
Leggett: I think that’s very much still a work in progress. That’s the end goal, is for people to have that experience of being in Lily’s head. It’s just something that we’re mindful of with each of the chapters that we’re redesigning in that interactive space. How would Lily approach this?
Now, we’re working with a couple of consultants who are experienced trauma counselors. One of them is actually one of our investors and has been working with trauma victims for more than a decade. Being able to implement her feedback — I’ve also done some work with women’s shelters, talking to people who are providing those services. We want to make sure we’re being very responsible about how we’re using the PTSD element and the dialogue and conversation around sexual trauma.
The last thing I want to do is to be accused of using this as some kind of warped and twisted mechanic to exploit, for example, the #MeToo movement. We signed up to do this three years ago. That was when we met with Charlaine and asked to do this project. We’ve been working on this for a very long time. The more I sit down and think about it, it takes all of the best things about the Nancy Drew games, and it takes a little bit – not a lot, but a bit – of the darkness and the intensity of the [Girl with the Dragon Tattoo] series. For people who read that, I think they really liked Lisbeth’s strength and resilience, although she had a very dark side and Lily never goes to that kind of place. But we’re kind of in a place right in the middle.
GamesBeat: I feel like this is always an issue, especially for women protagonists. A lot of people want this idealized vision of a strong woman who’s been through trauma and overcome it. They don’t want to see the uglier side of recovery, of dealing with that trauma. How do you portray that in a way that you think audiences will be receptive to, to show that Lily is a strong character, but she’s flawed and she’s working through this pain, and maybe there are certain things she’s stubborn about? How do you allow her to be a flawed character?
Leggett: I think you’re going to see that in pretty much every encounter that she has with people. We’ve gone back and restructured the branching dialogue, so that instead of having a verbal response to characters, you can now respond through emotional responses, like sarcasm or aloofness. It’s interesting, because I feel like if we had a slightly larger team, or even a little bit more time, I’d love to even expand—you never want to stop, right? You just want to keep building on this.
For example, over the five-novel series, Lily has a number of intimate relationships with various men in Shakespeare. I never get the sense that Charlaine, when she writes the character, that there’s ever an element of slut-shaming when it comes to Lily. Now, Lily does make personal judgments about some of the other characters, and that’s an opportunity for us to have a conversation.
For example, if you go to lilybard.com, there are rotating graphics on the top banner, and one of them is the bedroom of a character named Deidre. She’s basically the “town slut,” not my words, and she’s also a client of Lily’s. Lily cleans her apartment and finds all these sex toys, finds her video camera that she’s been using to make sex tapes. I wonder—I could take the interpretation, is she slut-shaming Deidre for being that way, or is she more concerned about the likelihood of violence that could happen to Deidre as the result of some of her riskier proclivities? How does Lily interact with each of these characters?
Every time Lily is listening to or having conversations with people and there’s a conversation around those kinds of topics, be it rape or assault—there’s a reason why she spends so much time at the karate class. She’s preparing herself, mentally and physically, for the possibility that she might be assaulted again. She’s a complex character. I’ve really grown to love her.
GamesBeat: You mentioned the #MeToo movement, and obviously the climate has changed in the last year, the conversation has changed. Has that affected the development of the game at all, or the way you’re approaching people about the game? Have you had any conversations with people because of the subject matter of the game and how that meets public discourse now?
Leggett: It hasn’t changed our approach with the game, because we always knew we wanted to go deeper with the character. I really feel like, as a game developer, our responsibility is to create meaningful content. Is everything on our website meaningful? No. But I want to be able to stake a claim on that. We want to create meaningful content.
The second book in the series is about racial conflict and the N-word is used so many times. We’ll have to figure out how we’re going to deal with that. It’s the mid-’90s in Arkansas. But with respect to how I’m talking to people about this, absolutely. We had a PR person and it really wasn’t working out, so I’ve decided to take that on myself.
By approaching some of these women entertainment journalists and game journalists, that’s what I’m saying. Listen, we’re working on this game. It has some complex and meaningful narratives around sexual trauma and PTSD. Here’s how we’re approaching it. I feel like it’s very timely that we’re working on this game, that it’s going to be coming out in a few months—there will be people, I imagine, that will be triggered and emotionally disturbed by this game. That’s why there will be warnings on it. I don’t want to re-traumatize someone.
At the same time, the people who have approached Charlaine at book signings and come with their Lily Bard books have always said to her how much that series impacted them, because how often do we see a rape survivor who is able to process the trauma, and not be in a position where she needs a man to rescue her?
Like you said, we are showing her still as a flawed human being. She’s still processing. She still has her really dark days. Someone leaves a pair of handcuffs on her car windshield at one point. She was held captive with handcuffs and they knew that. That would be an element, an example of how—you’re going to have that audio cue of the heartbeat accelerating, of the deep breathing, and her trying to calm herself down.
And in terms of where we’re looking to form alliances, I’m reaching out to a lot of organizations and blogs that cover mystery novels, because I think this is something people who read mystery novels would enjoy, even if they’re not typically gamers. Another thing is, I’d love to be able to form an alliance with women’s shelters and groups to show, I guess, what a positive role model looks like.
GamesBeat: What’s going on with Story Stylus? Are you working with any new partners?
Leggett: Yeah, we’re always talking back and forth. We’ve been talking to Girls Make Games for the last couple of years. We were supposed to set it up so the kids in the program could use Story Stylus last summer. But because we were working on Charlaine’s, we didn’t have the staff to be able to support them as well. I’m not sure how that’s going to go for this summer. There is that. I will say, I’m particularly excited because right now, Lee Sheldon, do you know who Lee Sheldon is?
GamesBeat: I don’t think so.
Leggett: He’s written some of the seminal textbooks on interactive narrative. We had the pleasure of meeting him in November in Massachusetts while we were on a little holiday, and so—Lee’s written quite a few games. He’s been in the industry a long time. He said he’d like to use this in his class. He has some game design students that are using Story Stylus to create a game about euthanasia.
[Founder and chief technical officer Blair Leggett]’s offering them some private 1-on-1 time, so they collectively can get this done in a month as part of their class project. I just heard yesterday that they’ve been talking about and using Story Stylus at Sheridan College, which is exciting as well. We’re starting to see more and more professors looking at the engine and wanting to use that for prototyping and game design in their classes.
GamesBeat: Do you charge a licensing fee for that, or is it free for use right now?
Leggett: There’s a free three-month trial. After that it’s $30 Canadian a year, which I think is about $24 U.S. We’re looking at making some changes to the business model on the Story Stylus side of things to change the percentage of—right now you can’t sell a game unless One More Story Games approves it and puts it into the marketplace. You can create a game and share it and get tips, but until we personally approve it, you can’t sell your content.
So that’s something we’ll look at over the next couple of months. But the goal is, and always has been, to curate that content. There’s lots of people making Twine games and Adventure Maker games, but I want to set the bar really high. We’ve won three Game of the Year awards by Toronto Game Devs. Danielle’s Inferno tied for PC Game of the Year this past January. The previous year, we won two Game of the Year awards, spot No. 1 and 2. We want to make games that are meaningful and polished. We seem to be getting better with each subsequent release. We want that for the other content that’s created as well.
GamesBeat: You mentioned that the series has five books. Are you planning on adapting the other four?
Leggett: Oh yes. We already have the rights for the second novel. Presuming that everything goes just hunky dory with those two, we’ll be well on our way to three, four, and five. It’s very interesting. The third one is interesting because it’s about child abduction and abuse. We picked up the series and we’re like, wow, this is great, we’re working with Charlaine Harris, and then you start to dig a little deeper and goddamn, this is deep stuff.
I think the fourth one is Shakespeare’s Trollop, and that’s the one where she’s actively participating in a sort of sexual trauma, sexual violence support group. We don’t get into that until book four or five. What’s book five? Shakespeare’s Counselor? That’s where you see that she’s developed a lasting relationship with someone. What’s interesting is, Lily actually makes a brief, brief appearance in the Sookie Stackhouse series. She makes that appearance with the person she finished book five with. They stay together and become their own little private detective agency.
GamesBeat: That’s pretty cool.
Leggett: Yeah, yeah. Charlaine doesn’t intend on writing any more Lily Bard. She’s always said that she’s said what she wanted to say. But most important for her, Lily was a woman who didn’t need to be rescued. I think maybe that’s the story we need to be telling right now.
IndieBeat is GamesBeat reporter Stephanie Chan’s weekly column on in-progress indie projects. If you’d like to pitch a project or just say hi, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.