Lamplight City Narrative Commentary, Part 8: Anachronisms

This is a series of spoiler-free (or -lite) transcripts from my portion of the Lamplight City developer commentary, which includes behind-the-scenes insights and anecdotes about the story writing and editing process. Start with Part 1.

I’m no historical expert, but I do try to keep an eye out for anachronisms that inevitably crop up in period pieces and excise them whenever I can. In A Golden Wake, for instance, I once spotted a newspaper vending machine, invented in 1947, sitting on a 1920s street corner where it had no business existing, and got it swapped out for a human vendor.

But misplaced technology is really the easiest and most obvious offender to detect. Far more subtle and difficult to root out are anachronistic mores, attitudes, and behaviors that have crept into your historical depictions. It’s much harder to put yourself in the mindset of another era and recognize all the ways that daily habits and ways of being might be different from what you take for granted. Fish don’t know what water is. It’s the same difficulty you get when you’re trying to imaginatively inhabit and represent a different class or culture from the one you were brought up in — the past is a foreign country, as they say.

I. The floor plan

One place where I thought I sniffed out some mischaracterizations was in the original configuration of the Harris household. Something about it was bugging me, and I realized it was that the entire scene was tinged by present-day, middle-class conceptions of architecture, lifestyle, and domestic arrangements, rather than accurately depicting a nineteenth-century mansion belonging to an aristocratic or nouveau riche family. I can assure you that this milieu is very much a foreign one to us, but watching lots of Downton Abbey helped.

For one thing, the layout of the house was wrong. Out of a presumably sprawling floor plan, there were only three rooms of the grand house depicted in the game — a sitting room, a nursery, and a master bedroom — but they were all contiguous and, most disconcertingly, they were all originally located on the ground floor.

For practical and gameplay purposes, we couldn’t really do anything about them being connected, so that didn’t change — although I’m sure if the Harrises truly had their way, the nursery would be in another wing on the complete opposite side of the house from where they themselves slept.

But I put it to Francisco that it would really be unthinkable to have bedrooms on the ground floor, and also to have the family lounging around in a sitting room that opened straight to the front door, as we saw when Miles walked right in. It felt more like a suburban ranch house than a grand townhouse or estate. So we moved the whole thing upstairs. A staircase was installed in place of the door for entry to the sitting room, and some dialogue was added to account for the nursery being situated on an upper floor, complicating the logistics of the kidnapping.

At the same time we added the staircase, we also added a butler to climb them and announce Miles, instead of having the detective just waltz in.

II. The nanny’s rooms

The presence and status of servants in the Harris household was another area of concern that went through some revision. Again, the problem was a more modern, bourgeois conception of employees who report to a workplace and then return home at day’s end.

Originally you visited the nanny in her own apartment to question her, but I realized that she and the Harris’s other servants should rightfully reside in the house — especially a nanny, who would need to be on hand at all times. By the time I was editing the script and pointing these things out, the whole thing had already been built and implemented, and the background of the nanny’s home was obviously a different location from the Harrises’ rooms. So instead of putting the quarters on a different floor or wing of the house, we added dialogue establishing that the servants’ quarters were in a separate building but still on the premises.

III. The vacuum

I pointed out that the steam-powered vacuum cleaner you see in the bedroom, one of our small steampunk touches, was actually a pretty outrageous item to encounter there.

While a vacuum sitting idle would be a rather unremarkable bit of set dressing in a typical suburban master bedroom, in this setting it belonged fully to the downstairs world of the servants, not the bedchamber of the lady of the house. If it wasn’t being used at that instant by a maid in the act of housekeeping, then it was sorely out of place. So the description was amended to suggest that someone would be getting in trouble for just leaving it out like that.

Next: Subtext!
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Narrative designer & editor. Founder, Paperback Studio. http://jesshaskins.com | http://paperback-studio.com