Book of Cruelty
A horrifying historical document reimagined as interactive fiction.
King Eric XIV ruled Sweden from 1560 to 1568. It was a reign characterised by madness, barbarism, and brutality. The King was deeply paranoid, obsessed with the idea that his subjects were plotting to overthrow him. He executed or locked up dissidents, and devised methods of physical and psychological torture unseen anywhere else in Renaissance Europe. An irrepressible and obsessive note-taker, the King kept a journal of his brutish reign. Years later, these notes became known as the Bok Av Grymhet, or Book of Cruelty.
…Of course, most of this is fiction. King Eric XIV of Sweden is real, but - as far as I’m aware - his Book of Cruelty is not. I wanted to create a short interactive piece that tries to affect the player’s expectations before playing (using the preface above), resulting in enhancing the predilection towards certain emotions whilst playing (fear).
Case study - narrative structure
The initial concept for Book of Cruelty was born out of a fascination with the idea of ‘lost manuscripts’, and how they could function in a similar way to ‘found footage’ cinema. I was also interested by how our interpretation of what we read can be affected by our emotions, and vice versa.
Goal of narrative:
- Influence player’s expectations before their first playthrough, to evoke a sense of dread and paranoia.
- Interconnecting text that fragments as the player progresses, reflecting the nerves/sanity of the reader.
- Create a work that encourages textual exploration; something to be analysed rather than immediately understood.
The piece opens with a short prologue in the style of a museum exhibition card. This sets up the conceit of the piece; that the reader has discovered a ‘found manuscript’ famous for inducing madness in those who read it. Reality is insisted upon in this segment; this is a real piece of history with real consequences.
The reader is issued a warning: do they want to continue?
The subsequent narrative is structured like a spider’s web:
The reader starts in the centre, able to rotate between three passages describing life in late-Medieval Sweden. This is a point of safety - the passages hold their form and sense. However there are limited options for the reader to advance the narrative. Their curiosity will lead them down a dark path…
Words of thematic significance link passages. These words are interactable, and take the reader from passage to passage. Some words lead readers around the their current ‘ring’ of web. Other words will move the reader to an outer ring.
Once a reader has moved out one ring in the web, they cannot go back. Instead, they can rotate once more between the passages on their new ring, or delve further from the centre.
The further the reader moves from the centre, the more fragmented the text becomes. Unsettling artefacts also start appearing, such as colour changes, noises, images, etc.
Eventually the web breaks off into tendrils of ‘broken sanity’. These are linear passages which the reader must follow, leading to one of the multiple endings.
At the end the reader is left with a single message: “The book rewards repeat readings”. Encouraging a second playthrough allows readers to see areas they may have missed, as well as giving a second opportunity to make sense of what they have seen. Because of the structure of the piece, the reader may encounter passages in different orders, and this can elucidate or cloud the true meaning of the story. The idea that the story could shift between different readings also fits the theme.
However, each repetition does undermine the initial goal of influencing player expectations, as the sense of dread diminishes after each playthrough.