Who are you and what do you do?
Hi, I’m Matt Gibbs. I’m a freelance writer and editor. I’ve worked on games such as Sega’s Binary Domain and Ubisoft’s Driver San Francisco, and I’m also the editor of Improper Books, a comic imprint focusing on creator-owned stories.
You’ve edited all of the DH:LoF books to some extent. How did you first get involved in the project?
Sini, at the Sidelines agency, represents both Iain and I, and we simply got chatting one day. Unsurprisingly, like so many people working in video games, it turned out we’d spent a lot of our childhoods playing and dreaming up roleplaying games, and Iain mentioned he had been working on his own setting.
What is it about the whole DH:LoF ‘thing’ that clicks for you?
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein continues to be relevant, exploring as it does the nature of creation, scientific ethics and the human condition. Roleplaying at its best is not only entertaining escapism, but also a way to explore viewpoints and empathise with others, and what better stage to do that than a country shaped by a science unbound? A country jealous of its secrets, where life can be preserved, almost indefinitely, and the body can be improved beyond its normal limits or altered on a fashionable whim. All of which is made possible at the expense of others, at the expense of freedom.
There’s a lot of scope to play out and tell interesting stories there.
What was it like both editing and contributing to the anthology?
It was interesting, to see it from both sides. I’m glad I got the first draft of my own story completed before reading everybody else’s though, as the pressure would have definitely increased otherwise. What I really enjoyed, although all of the stories have an element of the horrific or macabre, is the varied range of premises and approaches chosen by everyone.
Give us the elevator pitch for your story? No spoilers!
Difficult without spoiling it to a certain extent, so be warned…
Adjusting to life in a workhouse orphanage, ostracised by her bullying peers, Ana discovers that there are far worse things if you standout.
You were very familiar with DH:LoF before the anthology. Was the story already in your head, or did it come after the invite to contribute?
It came quite quickly after being asked. There are certain types of story I’m drawn to writing again and again, and although Scar Gang is a macabre tale, at its heart it is really a love story. For some reason that, and the defiant individual doing right, or at least what they think is right, resonates with me. I also wanted to set the story in the early years of Frankenstein’s Promethea, during the aftermath of a country reborn in fire, before the darker side of the new science had become so apparent. Around those themes, the bones and rough shape of Scar Gang quickly formed.
You write a lot of different games projects – RPGs, wargames, videogames, etc. Is writing for one type of game broadly similar to writing for any other?
There is certainly a great deal of crossover between them, more so than between other creative mediums perhaps. One key similarity is that they should always place the player or players before any other consideration. Gameplay, creating a fulfilling and fun experience, and empowering people to be part of that should always be the priority. That unfortunately is where it becomes a bit more nebulous, as that can mean different things to different people. In that context, stories and storytelling as a group can potentially span the gaps, and bring people together. Whatever, writing for different mediums, whether different forms of game, or comics, film, or prose, helps to give you a better understanding of how universal stories are to us, and the how structure, plot and character are inseparable in the best ones.
Is gaming a big thing in your life, or just a convenient outlet for your creativity?
Both really. I’ve always played games, of all sorts, starting with Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy books as a kid. From there, I started buying Citadel miniatures, which led to Warhammer and roleplaying, games such AD&D, Call of Cthulhu, WHFRP, etc. These days, simply because we’re all busy, my friends and I play less than we’d like, but we still try to get together when we can.
You are currently insanely busy. What are you working on?
I can’t talk about any of my current video games writing… But that is taking the majority of my time at the moment. Around that I fit in editing for Improper Books, and work on my own projects. Currently my spare time is spent putting the finishing touches to a set of Greek myth and Arabian adventure inspired wargame rules for Crooked Dice, called 7th Voyage, which will be out in April (2013).
As someone who freelances in games, comics and other such joys, what are the pressures and what are the rewards?
Variety and freedom are definitely the main joys, but I think, like any freelancer, it’s a balance between having that and the safety of regular paying work. You can also go crazy, working alone, and I tend to babble at my partner when she comes home from work, less so now that we have cats… I just babble at them all day, or on twitter.
By Matt Gibbs
Mud splattered and soaked, Ana tried to keep pace with Elisabeta, her former maid. The woman’s thin legs carried her over the worst of the puddles, even as the rain turned the dirt lane into a mire. Scurrying along behind, Ana had to take two paces for every one of hers and, try as she might, her skirt and petticoats trailed in the wet. Huddled in her coat, it wasn’t her clothes that concerned her though, but their destination.
As they reached Botosani the rain eased, but did not stop. Ana tried to shake the mud from her shoes and stockings as they trudged through the cobbled streets. By the time they reached the large, wooden gate to a dour three-storey building, she’d managed to clean very little off.
Elisabeta knocked loudly on the gate’s wicket door. Several moments later, the sound of a lock tumbling and a heavy bolt grating could be heard. The door swung inwards and an elderly man, with greying, patchy stubble and a ring of keys clutched to his chest, scowled out at them.
‘I’m here with the girl,’ said Elisabeta.
Without a word he stepped aside, letting Elisabeta and Ana through into a large courtyard, surrounded on all sides by the building, and closed the door behind them. As they stood in the drizzling rain, Ana became keenly aware of the sensation of being watched from dark and barred windows, as the elderly man crossed the stones and entered the building to announce their arrival.
A minute later he stepped back out and began ambling back to his post. In the doorway behind him stood a pale woman with hard features, wearing an austere, black dress and starched, white apron. In her shadow was a wiry girl, dressed in plain, homespun work clothes. She said something to the girl, who remained in the doorway. Unfurling an umbrella, the woman clacked across the stones towards them.
‘Now remember what I said, don’t be rude to the Matron, alright?’ said Elisabeta under her breath, curtseying and glancing at Ana to follow her lead.
Ana didn’t move, but lowered her head as the woman – the Matron – stood before her and looked her up and down.
‘So Elisabeta, this is the girl then? She is as pretty as you said, and she doesn’t have any family you say?’
‘Yes… I mean, no… No, she doesn’t have any family, Matron. There could be distant kin, from her mother’s side, over the border, but it was just her father and he’s-’
‘He’s not dead!’ said Ana, glancing up quickly.
The Matron’s eyes narrowed, ‘Where is your father then, girl?’
Ana couldn’t meet her eyes, instead she looked back down at her mud caked shoes.
‘Well, what’s the matter? Devil taken your tongue?’
Ana fought back tears and the wrenching sensation welling up in her stomach. It had been more than two months since her father had disappeared. At first the neighbours and servants had helped her search, but as the days went by and no word of him was heard, whispers had begun to circulate.
As the weeks passed and the rumours spread, the neighbours stopped helping. Then one morning, a pale faced Lieutenant, huddled in the thick wolfskin cloak of the new Promethean Hussars, arrived at the house. Sick with worry, Ana had feared the worst, but the young man was only delivering a message and could offer no news of her father’s whereabouts.
His message however was stark. In the desertion of his duties, her father had been court-martialled and found to be a traitor. All his pay and property were forfeit. For the majority the whispers were now confirmed. In the following days, as the last of their pay dwindled, so did the servants, until only Elisabeta remained.
‘I don’t know,’ said Ana quietly.
‘Well, alive or dead, he hasn’t provided for you as I understand. You will have to work for your board here.’ Turning back to Elisabeta, the Matron said, ‘What skills does the girl have?’
‘She can sew, Matron. She’s also good at needlepoint.’
‘Good, I’ll take her.’ The Matron’s eyes flicked back to Ana, as she said, ‘Well, what do you say, girl?’
Ana paled and looked to Elisabeta for support, but she only nodded in encouragement.
‘It is this or starving on the streets. Which will it be?’ said the Matron.
‘I’d…’ said Ana.
‘Spit it out, girl!’
‘I’d like to stay. Please, if I may?’
‘Good. As you asked so nicely,’ said the Matron, breaking into a thin smile, ‘You may.’
She motioned with her free hand and from the entrance the girl, who looked to be several years older than Ana, quickly scurried across the courtyard to the Matron’s side. Bobbing her head, the girl looked to the Matron for instruction.
‘Vica, take the new girl inside, through the scullery, and see that she’s scrubbed and changed. Then take her to the dormitory.’
‘Yes, Matron,’ said the girl, bobbing her head again.
In a daze, her thoughts tumbling, Ana followed Vica across the cobbles. Hesitating at the threshold of a side door, she looked back to Elisabeta and saw the Matron was counting pennies into her hand.
’Come on, don’t dawdle! This way,’ said Vica.
Stepping inside, Ana started to follow Vica into the spartan interior. She’d only taken a few steps, when the girl’s piercing grey-green eyes stopped her dead.
‘What are you doing?’
Muddy footprints trailed across the scrubbed, grey flagstones, but Ana clearly hadn’t registered them. Bewildered, she said, ’Pardon? Excuse me?’
‘Excuse you? You’re messing up the floor and Matron will likely take it out on me! Take off your shoes. Anything that’s going to make a mess.’
As Ana pulled off her shoes and stockings, Vica stood watching her.
‘Leave the shoes by the door, but bring the rest.’
Barefoot, Ana shadowed Vica along the cold corridor, past several rooms that appeared to be used for laundry. At the far end of the corridor, light spilled from under a door at the top of three, deep steps. They stopped just before it and Vica motioned Ana into the last side room. Inside there was a small fireplace and along one wall a wooden bench with a deep basin and hand pump set into it.
‘Heat some water and wash yourself. I’ll be back with new clothes for you,’ said Vica and, not waiting for a reply, walked out.
For a second Ana stood still, staring into space, shivering slightly. Taking a deep breath, she drew herself up and began busying herself.
Careful not to get mud anywhere, Ana hung her stockings over the lip of the basin. Selecting wood from a pile in the corner, Ana fed the embers of the fire, and taking a large black kettle from its crane, filled it from the pump and hung it back over the heat.
What little light coming through from the small, high window was fading fast by the time the kettle was beginning to boil, but she was no longer so cold or wet having kept close by the fire.
‘Here, once you’ve washed, put these on,’ said Vica. She stood in the doorway holding out a pile of clothes like the ones she wore and a folded, thin blanket.
Ana took them. Feeling the coarse linen shift and drawers, and rough-spun dress, which was more like an old fashioned bodice and skirt than the light dress she was wearing, she said, ’Thank you, but my own clothes are fine. Once they’re washed and cleaned they’ll-‘
‘Once they’re washed, they’ll be sold. If they’re any good. Everyone wears the same here.’
Ana bit her lip as she turned, so Vica wouldn’t see her red, flushed cheeks in the glow of the fire, and mumbled, ‘I didn’t… Alright…’
Placing her new garments on the side, she filled the basin from the pump and, using her coat sleeve, poured hot water from the kettle into it. Removing her coat, she began to strip down to her own shift and wash herself.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Anastasia, but everyone calls me Ana… You’re Vica, right?’
Vica grunted, and said, ‘That’s Russian isn’t it?’
‘My mother was Russian.’ Seeing the look on Vica’s face, Ana quickly added, ‘But my father is Hungarian… I mean Promethean. He’s a Captain in the army.’
‘He must have done alright for himself,’ said Vica, picking up Ana’s dress and examining it by the firelight.
‘Same story for all of us here,’ said Vica, misunderstanding. ‘You’re like the rest of us now, we’ve got to work for our keep.’
‘What kind of work?’
‘Nothing you won’t get used to. Cleaning, laundry, spinning, sewing… That sort of thing. Anything to stop wicked, idle hands as our Matron would say. Are you done?’
‘Yes,’ said Ana. ‘What can I use to dry myself?’
Vica barked a short laugh, and said, ‘You’re a proper little princess aren’t you? Use the fire and your new clothes. Pass me the rest of the old ones.’
Ana scooped up her muddied clothes and handed them to Vica.
‘Can I keep my own shift?’
‘Please? I’ll keep it hidden, under the other, and the bodice.’
Vica thought for a second, looking Ana in the eye, and said, ‘Fine… But if you’re caught, you don’t mention I let you keep it, right?’
‘I won’t. I promise.’
‘You’d better. Matron keeps strict rules. You start completely new here, leave everything behind. Come on now, get dressed.’
Standing near to the fire, Ana quickly towelled herself down with her skirt and pulled on her new, homespun garments.
‘Hand me the coat too,’ said Vica and, seeing Ana’s quizzical expression, added, ‘You won’t be needing it anymore. We’re allowed in the courtyard, when its not pouring with rain, and that’s all.’
‘You mean we’re not allowed out?’
‘Girl, do you even know where you are? No, we’re not allowed out. Not until we’re of an age and the Matron can find work for us. As a maid for one of the patrons if we’re lucky.’
Ana fumbled clumsily with her coat, darting her hand into the pocket. As she handed it over, she prayed Vica had not seen what she’d palmed in her hand.
‘Now follow me and bring the blanket.’
Vica led Ana up the steps and through the kitchen, the lingering smells of an evening meal making her stomach grumble. As they walked through the room, a surly looking, rotund woman, who’s domain it appeared to be, watched them both like a hawk.
They walked through what seemed like a maze of corridors to Ana and up two flights of stairs, until they reached a door at the top of the last flight.
‘Go on in and find yourself a cot. Tomorrow you’ll start work with the rest of us,’ said Vica and, indicating the clothes she’d been carrying, added, ‘I’ve got to take these to Matron.’
As Vica slunk back down the stairs, Ana turned the handle and opened the door.