The Price of Freedom: Innocence Lost, by Briar Rose, is another chooseyourstory entry in Spring Thing.
Prejudices on the table: shit, this title pushes all my this is going to suck buttons. The Price of Freedom is such a tattered Bush-era phrase that it makes me instantly weary and paranoid, and anybody who writes something with the theme innocence lost after 1789 is going to earn a gigantic eyeroll. Good? Good.
This is a Hunger Games-inspired historical fiction piece about a ten-year-old Greek boy, Andreas, who is sold into slavery and ends up in a gladiator school. It’s in something of a Choice of Games-y idiom: your choices are primarily about training skills and building relationships for later use, rather than modifying the central arc of the narrative. (Which makes sense: as a slave you don’t really have much control over your overall life direction.)
Now, I had a great big paragraph here about how the innocence of children is a Christian-context Romantic-era notion that doesn’t really make sense in the context of classical-era slavery, and that gladiator schools didn’t generally train children anyway, but honestly, that’s not what matters here. When I read historical fiction, the first big thing I want is a sense that the author is really, really engaged with the historical material. By this standard, it doesn’t necessarily matter too much if the author is getting a bunch of stuff wrong; it matters that they’re deeply invested in the subject-matter, that they love the history for its own sake and want to make it come alive, rather than using it as a convenient field for some other purpose to play out on. (It helps if that love is manifested in a voracious consumption of primary sources and scholarly texts, but that’s neither necessary nor sufficient.)
I didn’t get that feeling from Price of Freedom. I got the sense of something that was part Triangle Trade accounts, part Gladiator and part Hunger Games. The author is interested in a character-oriented, action-rich Battle School kind of story, and the setting is very much a secondary concern. (Part of this is that it tends to hurry through scenes; it’s trying to tell a novel-length story in a half-hour game, and doesn’t want to linger. It’s pitched as the first part in a trilogy.)
So does it work as a character-oriented action story? Well, it’s OK, but I didn’t find myself getting enormously invested. The characters aren’t developed very far beyond basic templates – Lula is the Tough but Sweet Girl, Gerda the Mean Girl, Alexios the Vulnerable Little Brother. Perhaps this is because of the aforementioned haste, but I just don’t think they’ve been conceived of as anything more compelling than this.
Some of these problems are mechanical. The Choice-of-Games-y model, with lots of stats tracking relationships and character abilities, has a relatively large minimum viable size. You need time to develop your specialisations, then more time to have them cash out as interesting, story-altering outcomes. The more stats that get tracked in this model, the bigger the game needs to be to make them meaningful. Price of Freedom doesn’t have many character ability stats – just two, in fact – but it does have a great many characters.
All of the stats cash out right at the end, in a fight sequence followed by a bit where everyone comes up to you and says what they think of you. I’m generally sceptical about big set-piece action sequences in text games; there are a few authors who can pull it off and make it gripping and cool, but this is very much Advanced Class stuff. Freedom Lost injects some urgency into its climactic fight by forcing you to make difficult (and potentially costly) choices, but this relies on some degree of investment in the characters.
Also, it seems to me as though the author is kind of committed to particular stories – that they don’t really want to tell a story where Caecilia isn’t smitten with you, or where you’re buddies with Septimus. If you have a single Correct Story that you want to tell, the Choice of Games-y model is probably not a good fit.
Finally, pedant time. The very first thing I noticed about this game was the punctuation. Seriously, this is not how to punctuate dialogue:
“That’s what I want to know.” Your brother replies, heading back to the door and putting his ear against it. “They’re talking about money now.” He whispers to you. “Probably something to do with father’s debts. Come and listen!”
Reported speech is part of a sentence; the sentence that reports it is not a new sentence, so breaking them up with a period and capitalisation breaks up the flow. Read your writing aloud. Stop at the periods. Pause at the commas. If it sounds wrong, change the punctuation.