Playing with History – how the past helped build Lamplight City

We built this city.

Many fantastical worlds are based upon real historical events. Perhaps the biggest current example of this is Game of Thrones, itself based on the Wars of the Roses. Sure, there are differences – the Wars of the Roses had neither dragons nor white walkers, and it also lasted 32 years, where GoT has only manages eight seasons – but far more joins the conflicts together than separates them. Both have power struggles between noble families that span several generations, both are crammed with unexpected deaths and cruel betrayals and both have some impressively bloody battles. The battle of Townton in 1461 is considered by many to be the most violent battle ever fought in Britain – where 100,000 soldiers fought and 28,000 died, comparable to the Battle of the Bastards which proved gruesome and thrilling viewing in equal measure.

The writer of Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin, once said that “all fiction has to have within it a certain amount of truth to be powerful.” It can be argued that historical events can provide this truth and imbue fiction with the intangible quality of feeling ‘real’.

It was considering this that drew me to Lamplight City, a detective adventure game from Grundislav Games, set in an alternate Victorian era America. How had a historical period informed in the creation of a fantasy setting? What challenges had to be overcome and what benefits did using themes and setting from the Victorians provide? I spoke with Francisco Gonzalez, the man behind Grundislav Games and Lamplight City, to find out.

TSA: Which real political and social issues of the Victorian period did you include as themes in Lamplight City?

Francisco: Since Lamplight City takes place in an alternate USA in 1844, I thought it would be a big mistake to gloss over the uglier side of society and omit things like slavery, racism, sexism, etc. The main issue I faced was how best to represent those themes without having them be too much of a distraction, since this is a detective game first and foremost. In any case, you can definitely see those themes as part of the game world, and I also tried to incorporate the steampunk elements to support them. For example, there is an anti-steam tech group based on the Luddites, who go around sabotaging steam machines because they are against the idea of humans being replaced by them.

TSA: Did you utilise the fictional works of any Victorian authors in creating Lamplight City?

Francisco: Absolutely. In fact before coming up with the title, I referred to it as “Poe-Dickens.” I knew I wanted the game to have a more serious and dark feel, though not be overtly supernatural, so I drew from Poe’s macabre themes. I also felt that the works of Dickens offered a good picture of society in the mid-19th century, and how social classes interacted or were viewed.

I appreciated how both writers had a dark sense of humour, much like my own, and so being able to keep an undercurrent of humour throughout the game didn’t feel out of place. The most overt example of drawing from these authors is in Case 4, where the main plot is heavily inspired by The Mystery of Edwin Drood, while a subplot concerned with the practice of cooping (a way of committing voter fraud) echoes one theory related to Poe’s actual death.

TSA: Police work was in its infancy during the 19th century, did real life detective work and procedures from the period inform how your protagonist investigates crimes and the techniques he uses?

Francisco: Partly, yes. I knew I wanted to make a detective game set in the 19th century, and I knew that it would present an interesting design challenge as far as being limited technologically by what techniques and tools were available. Despite adding some steampunk elements, I knew I didn’t want to tread into the fantastic or magical and have any kind of unrealistic methods of investigation. Since the primary focus of the game was the idea of being able to miss clues or close down leads based on how you treated people and acquired information, I designed the investigations to rely more on interrogating suspects and finding clues at crime scenes that didn’t require too much analysis. There is one case where you do have to conduct a chemical analysis to identify a substance, but it’s fairly basic.

TSA: The quintessential criminal of the Victorians was, of course, Jack the Ripper. Were there any elements of this case that were used to base the fictional world of Lamplight City in?

Francisco: No, because while it is a fascinating case, I also feel it’s been done way too often, which is why I wanted to avoid having any sort of mass murder plot at the forefront of Lamplight City. Also, as the protagonist is a private detective, it wouldn’t have made much sense for him to be able to access the information he’d need to on something as high profile as a series of murders as they were happening, since the police would surely have been handling the investigations themselves. Instead, I decided to focus on other types of crimes besides murder, just to make things a bit more interesting. That being said, the final case does involve investigating several murders, however the motives and victims are very much the opposite of the Ripper. To say any more would be a spoiler!

TSA: And finally, what were the benefits of using a real historical period to inform the creation of a fantasy world? My working theory is that it provides a ‘truth’ to the themes and setting in a piece of media or art that an audience can inherently relate and connect to. What are your thoughts?

Francisco: I agree that basing a fictional world on truths from our own does help people connect with it on a subconscious level. It’s easy enough to work with a shorthand like “people in this world are also afraid of technology, it just happens to be slightly more advanced than what we had in the 19th century.” The fun thing about working with alternate history is that you don’t necessarily have to make drastic changes, but just enough that the world becomes different enough to be interesting.

Many thanks to Francisco Gonzalez for his time and insight. You can follow him at @GrundislavGames for updates, screen shots and release dates.

You can purchase Lamplight City on Steam, GOG.com, Humble Bundle and more besides. For full information head to grundislavgames.com.

Written by
Adrian reviews video games. He writes Playing With History. He also likes to refer to himself in the third person. Working on life.

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