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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single person in possession of a gaming PC must be in want of a game.” At least, that’s how I assume Jane Austen would see it, and so does Judy Tyrer, the lead designer behind Ever, Jane, a recently-funded MMORPG that drops the player into a virtual Regency England inspired by the works of Jane Austen. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Tyrer about her project and how, though at first glance it seems a passing fancy, the concept may be more than just a novel idea.
No stranger to the video game business, Tyrer has worked long enough to understand the hurdles of game development, working at both Ubisoft and Sony Online Entertainment. The recent success of her Kickstarter, however, (raising $109,563 of its proposed $100,000 due the generosity of 1,600 backers) has set her and her team, including lead artist Renee Nejo and PR/community manager and content expert Annabel Smyth, in motion to come at MMO market in a big—if rather unconventional—way.
“I love MMOs. It’s my favorite genre,” remarked Tyrer when I asked about her inspiration. “I played EverQuest with a group of people who would all role-play in the world. And the next day, we would write up these wonderful stories, share them with each other, then at night we would continue them in the game. It became an interactive fiction community.”
It’s precisely this type of community that Tyrer seeks to cultivate in Ever, Jane. Tyyer believes that the richness of interactive fiction has taken a back seat to the more raid-focused gameplay of current MMOs: “I wanted to create a niche market environment for the small community of people who like to role-play in the world and provide with the tools that facilitate the role-play. Interacting with other people gives you reason to create stories.”
For Tyrer, there’s no better source for social interaction than the fiction of Jane Austen. “Jane Austen is one of my comfort novelists,” she explained. “As I was reading, I kept thinking, ‘This would make a really good MMO. This would be a really good virtual world.’ I then imagined that we could PvP with gossip, we could do something with invites, and suddenly it all fell together all in one place like watching a Tetris puzzle just do its thing.”
Since Austen’s body of work provides great insight into England’s Regency period, a lot of the world-building is already done for her: “Instead of trying to create my own world and lore and everything that goes with it, which is very attractive and really like doing that, in this case I just started putting it together in an established world.” Even in this early stage, game’s art design is spot on, instantly recognizable as a digital period piece.
Of course, location can only bring part the Regency era to digital life. Ever, Jane’s builds an environment where raids and quests are replaced with grand social engagements like balls and dinner parties and PvP success is measured by the sharpness of wit rather than sharpness of blade, all of which is built around historical customs and rules. “As a game designer,” Tyrer said, “my job is to create rules, and the Regency period has done it for me. All I have to do is research what they are. This changed the creative nature of the game. The creativity is in adapting the world to a set of rules that you can program into a computer in a way that makes sense.”
For example, meeting someone in the street means that you have to choose between bowing, bowing deeply, or just giving a slight nod. Making the wrong choice could offend someone of higher station. Laws regarding marriage are also historically accurate. If you play as a woman, marriage can mean giving all your possessions and property to your character’s husband. Playing as a man or woman, then, presents the player with completely different experiences. These contemporary laws and social mores provide much of the fun and players learn how best to live in a world that keeps its denizens on a tight social leash. Tyrer offered an example of how gameplay fits into this unconventional model: “Imagine a dinner party where your goal is to deliver a bit of gossip to another player, but that player is trying to avoid talking to anyone at the party. It’s a fun game of cat and mouse where you have to still observe all of the customs of the time while trying to hunt someone who’s eluding you.”
Other MMO staples have been elegantly transformed in an Austenesque way. Tyrer explains, “We do levels differently in that characters aren’t immortal; part of your motivation is to secure a nest egg for your next generation. When your character dies, you. Families even function a bit like guilds, only it’s more driven by the player’s want to role-play rather than just teaming up and going on a raid.”
If the enthusiasm of the game’s backers is anything to go by, we can expect to see some impressive bits of interactive fiction on display. In fact, Tyrer and team are counting on it: “We’re implementing a quest system that caters to the players’ stories, so, based on a player’s choices and notes, we’ll put together a quest that fits in with their characters. I’m a techie at heart, so what’s the point of trying something new without breaking some new ground. We suffer from no shortage of ambition here,” Tyrer joked.
The game is available for a free demo download right now, and, though there’s admittedly not a lot to do in it, Tyrer and team have big plans for how they want to proceed. Tyrer remarked, “We’re even planning on having a trip to Dickensian London by way of H. G. Wells’ time machine. We’re trying for historical accuracy but we assert the right to change history when it’s not fun!”
For my part, I’m willing to give it a shot. I’ve no particular love for Austen or the Regency era (my interests lie about a hundred years later), but a game that purports to change the way we develop interactive fiction is something that has my attention. If others like me can swallow their pride and bury their prejudices against Austen’s art, we may find something to love in the coterie world of Ever, Jane.
David is working on his PhD and currently writes for awesomeoutof10.com, where this article was originally published. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter and please feel free to ask questions and offer criticism!