Fantastic History #48: Interactive Historical Fantasy by Kate Heartfield

What draws me to historical fantasy is its ability to poke at our conceptions of the past, to explore the ways in which it is strange, and the ways in which it is familiar. Interactive fiction offers another approach to a similar project: it asks us what we would do, if we were in circumstances very unlike our own.

Both the interactive form, and the historical fantasy genre, question the extent to which human decisions can change the course of events. Is there anything Machiavelli could have done to avoid getting on the bad side of the Medici family in Florence in 1512? Could the people of Renaissance city-states have shaken off corrupt oligarchs if their artists were also magicians, or does power simply entrench hierarchy? If Leonardo da Vinci had found a way to keep his flying machines in the air, how would that have shifted the geopolitics of his age?

These are things we can’t know, and choices we can’t make – except in fiction.

My second game for Choice of Games, The Magician’s Workshop, was released on Dec. 19. It’s set in Florence, Italy, in the late summer of 1512, just when the Medici family came back into power after years of exile. But this is Florence where magic is real, and where the workshops that churn out sculptors and artisans also churn out alchemists, animators and soothsayers.

Like all Choice of Games projects, it’s a text-based adventure you can play on your phone, tablet or computer. I’ve written the story to unfold in several different ways, depending on the choices the player makes. You play an artist-magician in one of the city’s most prestigious workshops, with clients to keep happy, rivals to keep at bay, and a shadowy figure who wants something from you.

The lure of both interactive fiction and historical fantasy is that they open up possibilities. The challenge for the writer is, well, that they open up possibilities. When you’re writing interactive historical fantasy, the trick is to keep the story from veering too far from the history you’re trying to explore, without dampening the writer’s (or the player’s) imagination. The rules of magic and the scope of player choice are like the walls that contain bumper cars: you want to keep the cars in a certain area, without ruining the fun.

Magic and choices must have limits. The player can’t do whatever they want, or the bumper cars would simply leave the fairgrounds and fly into the air like the carousel horses in Mary Poppins.

But it’s surprising, sometimes, how far the story can roam before I have to put up a wall.

For example, in my game, magical technology can lay bare everyone’s secrets in the public square. No one would be safe from such technology. One question my game invites is whether this would change the politics of Florence, and in what ways. That question is one the player must answer, but ultimately, history is surprisingly robust. In our real world, Renaissance Florence was a place where neighbors could turn on each other, putting little pieces of paper into snitch boxes on street corners. It was a city of shifting factions, where no one could be certain a confidant was not a spy.

What matters is not how easily secrets can be found, but what we do with them, and whether we value privacy as a society. What matters are our choices.

As for those choices, well, there too, granting freedom to play doesn’t necessarily mean losing control of the story. Choices are always constrained by their consequences. In my game, you can rat out your own mother to the authorities, but that means you lose her support and affection. You can use magic to make boat fast enough to lose its pursuers in a chase on the Arno, but if you fail, you’ll get just as wet as you would in a world without magic.

And so our journey into fantasy brings us, as always, home. Back to human frailties and human strengths, and the worlds we make for ourselves every day of our lives.

But in the meantime, we can imagine what it might have been like to do what no one did, and pilot a flying machine over the rooftops of Florence in the year 1512.


Kate Heartfield is the author of two interactive novels for Choice of Games: The Road to Canterbury, which was published in 2018 and shortlisted for the first Nebula award in the game writing category; and The Magician’s Workshop, published at the end of 2019. She is also the author of the historical fantasy novel Armed in Her Fashion, which won the Aurora Award for Best Novel and was shortlisted for the Locus First Novel, Crawford and Sunburst awards. Her two Alice Payne time travel novellas were shortlisted for the Nebula and Aurora awards. A former newspaper journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.