Writer Wednesday: Phoebe Barton

Please note: under normal circumstances this would have been posted and promoted on Wednesday Jan 20, 2021. Due to the US Inauguration and the flood of news surrounding it, I decided to push Phoebe’s interview by a day so it wouldn’t get lost. – Carrie Cuinn

Phoebe Barton. Photo courtesy of the author.

Phoebe Barton is a queer trans science fiction writer. Her short fiction has appeared in venues such as AnalogOn Spec, and Kaleidotrope, and she has experience with more than a dozen transit systems across North America and Europe. She serves as an Associate Editor at Escape Pod, is a 2019 graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and lives with a robot in the sky above Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter at @aphoebebarton or www.phoebebartonsf.com.

Today we’re bringing her in to talk about her latest release, a huge text-based interactive fiction game out now from Choice of Games.

The Luminous Undergroud. Image from Choice of Games. Art by EJ Dela Cruz.

Strange things are going down underground! Build your team, descend beneath the city streets, and face down daemons with magic and science in The Luminous Underground, a 660,000-word interactive, choice-based secondary-world science fantasy novel by Phoebe Barton. Can you and your crew clear out a haunted subway that’s slowly falling apart? Here’s your chance to find out! Grab your gear, build your team, and brave the tunnels – and if you’re good enough, maybe you can prove to everyone that you’re the best daemon hunter in town.

Without context, what’s one of your favorite sentences in the book?

It’s not a sentence so much as a line of dialogue, but it’s one I keep coming back to. I feel like it encapsulates the energy I put into the game, of doing your best but being thwarted by and and taking the heat for forces beyond your control.

“Bells.” McCowan brushes demolition dust and stray bits of wreckage off his coveralls. “I’ll bet we get blamed for this.”

What Earth-like traditions or objects were important to you to include in your story?

While The Luminous Underground is set in a secondary world, a lot of its aspects are imported from Earth for commentary and familiarity – which also makes it easier for me, because the work’s already been done! The Barrington subway is strongly influenced by the Toronto subway system, seeing as how that’s the one I’m most familiar with, but the most personal inclusion from reality is Bradford Street Public School in Chapter 1: it’s not based so much on my old elementary school so much as I used the memories of my old elementary school as a set.

Otherwise, when it came to things like funeral customs or wedding rituals, I made an active effort to not replicate the exact things I was used to, but wearing differently-coloured clothes. One of my inspirations in this is the film Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise, which depicts a contemporary secondary world that doesn’t look entirely familiar, but doesn’t look entirely unfamiliar, either.

Granted, The Luminous Underground is entirely text-based, but I’d like to think I have enough description in there to make it not simply a mirror of contemporary Toronto in another world, aesthetically speaking.

Alice, a character from the game. Art by Sidney Hargrave (@sidhargrave)

What was the hardest thing about taking your book from an idea to the finished product?

Shepherding The Luminous Underground from an outline to a completed game was difficult work, but the most difficult thing was figuring out how I would unfold the concept into something satisfying. A lot of things changed along the way, including the identity and nature of the antagonist – fortunately, a lot of them did change early enough in the process that I didn’t need to throw out any work. Still, it showed me how much I still have to learn about outlining.

 What makes this book different from anything else you’ve done?

This whole game was a learning process. In a regular prose story there’s only one path from beginning to end, and the only choice the reader has is whether they continue to engage with it. It’s a completely different philosophy with interactive fiction: choice is the most important thing, and it’s what continues and shapes the story. With The Luminous Underground, sometimes I spent an entire day writing the success and failure modes of a single choice – that’s six, eight, or maybe even ten potential resolutions to a single action, and which the reader will only see one of in a given playthrough.

Beyond that, there’s the scale of the thing. The longest thing I’d written prior to this was a failed 120,000-word novel. When I signed the contract, I remember feeling daunted at the idea of writing 100,000 words worth of game – if I’d known it would end up 660,000 words long, I might have been too intimidated to start. So it’s a good thing I didn’t!

Did you have any special research/skills/information that specifically influenced how you wrote this story?

I’ve been studying transit systems for years, and the Toronto subway system in particular: all that experience with how trains get around underground was critical in writing The Luminous Underground. The only thing I haven’t done is walk in an actual subway tunnel, but seeing as how tunnel fur is not something I invented but is a known scourge of the Toronto subway, I’m satisfied to let my observations from inside a subway train prevail.

As a text-based game, The Luminous Underground doesn’t contain much art, but what’s there is clearly inspired by Barton’s subway research.

Beyond that, up until the pandemic started – literally until the day it was declared a pandemic – I used the subway every day. It was, and will be again, the lifeline that connects me to the city, which means I’ve seen a lot of delays and malfunctions and other general problems that stem from not-so-benign neglect and doing too much with too little. The fantastical elements of the Barrington subway are invented, but pretty much everything else comes from personal experience.

What will readers learn about you as a person from reading this book?

This is a question I’ve been wondering myself, actually! Writing The Luminous Underground took me the better part of two years, and there’s going to be a lot of myself in there that I’m way too close to recognize. Some of it is more textual than others, like “I think worker cooperatives are good and megacorporations are bad, actually,” but I’d be interested to know the things that are in there that I didn’t even recognize putting in. That’s the part of the question that I’m the least qualified to answer.


You can find Barton’s game at the Choice of Games website here: https://www.choiceofgames.com/luminous-underground/ You can play the opening chapter for free and then buy it directly from them for only $6.99. It’s also available to buy through Steam, Amazon, Google Play, and the Apple app store.

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