We were lucky enough to interview Matt Simpson, one of Hosted Games’ best authors. They’ve written several interactive novels, including The Parent Simulator, and Nuclear Powered Toaster.
More recently, Matt Simpson released The Day After Ever After—an interactive novel that puts a fresh, creative spin on the Cinderella fairy tale. Want to support their work? Check them out on Twitter.
Question 1 – When did you first get into interactive fiction? Did you originally work in more traditional writing fields first?
A: I didn’t really know what interactive fiction was until a chance encounter in 2017. I had dabbled in creative efforts for a long time, but never gained any real traction. Nuclear Powered Toaster was originally created as a webcomic with an artist friend of mine, and when both he and a later artist bailed on the project a few dozen strips into it, I tried to write NPT as a conventional novel without much success over the years, never getting more than a few thousand words onto the page. Turning it into an RPG similarly went nowhere.
I eventually came up with a very fun idea for a cheeky horror strategy RPG videogame, in the style of my all-time favorite game, Final Fantasy Tactics. However, I had zero coding experience, and finding someone interested in collaborating on an idea of potentially limited market viability was daunting. I was an avid play-by-post Dungeons and Dragons player during a lot of the 2010s, and while posting on that forum about the challenges of finding a programmer, a person directed me to Choice of Games. It was, in short, a revelation.
All this time, I had been trying so many creative pathways that made me reliant on others. Artists, programmers, in the end it was all too easy to blame my lack of success on other people. But the contest going on at the time, where CoG was offering up four-figure prizes with a pathway to publishing even for non-winning entries, meant I could finally be in a situation to totally commit to writing without having to rely on anyone except myself.
The contest timeframe was half over by the time I found out about it, in June 2017. So I had all of 7 months to write a game that was at least 100,000 words before the end of January 2018. I blocked out distractions, swore off console gaming entirely, and by the time I submitted my first story, Nuclear Powered Toaster, it weighed in at about 141,000 words. Not exactly an experience I wanted to repeat, since towards the end I was waking myself up at 2 AM to get writing time in before work, but it was thrilling to finally complete my first long form fiction effort after so many years of trying.
Question 2 – The Parenting Simulator is one of our all-time favorite interactive novels from CoG/Hosted Games. What sparked the idea, and what was it like getting it published?
A: I came up with the idea of The Parenting Simulator while doing Nuclear Powered Toaster, and realizing how much fun it could be to create a game that you didn’t really win or lose, but just play. There’s always a shiny new concept to lure you away from the story you’re writing at the time, and I very nearly made TPS my first story. It was only the contest deadlines that prevented it, as I was already about 35,000 words into NPT at the time. After I submitted Toaster for publication, I moved immediately into writing The Parenting Simulator, which I wrote for just over a year. Seeing it published was in its own way more meaningful than it was for Nuclear Powered Toaster; the latter was my first published work, but Parenting was my first published work that actually did well. It’s sold about 18,000 copies to date of the full title, and has more than 50,000 downloads on Google Play alone. And more important than the financial success it had, I’m proud of how it was written. I always say it’s the best thing I’ve ever created other than my two actual children, and I only get a co-creator credit for them.
Question 3 – You’ve mentioned writing a sequel or additional DLC for the title. Do you still have that in the works?
A: Yes! I finished writing The Day After Ever After in August, and since then I’ve taken a little vacation from writing (and indulging in some games of the old Star Wars CCG online, one of my favorite hobbies), aside from handling fixes and tuneups to Day After that popped up from the release. Once I determine the best way to handle the mechanics of beta testing a sequel that really requires having played through the original title first, I intend to get back to having monthly word goals and truly light this firecracker. I cannot say for certain how long it will take to write, since I am more pantser than planner, but I am hoping it would be 12-18 months. With any luck, I might be talking to y’all again around this time in 2024.
Question 4 – You’ve written in a range of different genres, from fairy tales to simulations. Do you like working in a specific genre, or jumping from one to another?
A: I definitely prefer to bounce around. I always liked watching the career trajectory of film director Danny Boyle. He almost never seemed to work in the same genre twice. Horror, science fiction, romance, biopics, so on and so forth. He just goes where his interests take him, and steadfastly refuses to be pigeonholed, with incredible results. While my works have hardly matched his in quality, three stories in I have a parenting simulator, a science-fiction comedy and a fairytale fantasy, and hopefully I’ll add even more genres in the future. However, my predilection for writing IF titles that are heavier on stories than gameplay means that I’m going to probably be locked out of certain genres, like military fiction or a more traditional fantasy title.
Question 5 – In the future, are there any new genres that you’d like to try writing in? (Eg: Horror)
A: I have toyed with an alternate history story as my fifth Hosted Games title after Grandparenting comes out. It would tentatively be titled Dear President Hamilton, and look at a world where the Reynolds Pamphlet never came out and Alexander Hamilton was elected as either the second or third president of the United States. I think it could be fun, but would need to determine if there was enough interest in it to proceed.
I’ve also kicked around the idea of a Pokemon-styled trivia game, where you challenge random people in an effort to become the quizmaster. And a combat robotics game, to reflect my love of Battlebots. But I’m not the world’s best coder, so unless I either spontaneously improve or find a reliable partner to help me code those out, they may remain pipe dreams.
Question 6 – What is your writing process when it comes to planning out the branching narratives and paths in interactive ficiton?
A: It’s tough, as I don’t really have any preset plans beyond some small notes I take as ideas come to me for dialogue snippets or general story directions. I’m much more pantser than planner. It likely sounds ridiculous, but I always try to remember the Turtle from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series; he holds us all within his mind, and I try to do the same here. Admittedly, on chapters with a lot of spread, it can be a major brain pain, but I go around tying off the loose ends one by one until it’s all resolved. Quicktest is most certainly a major help in this regard.
Question 7 – Were there any games or TV shows that particularly inspired your writing?
A: A character in The Day After Ever After is directly influenced by G0-T0 in Knights of the Old Republic II. I won’t say much more to avoid spoilers for Day After, but I loved the idea of someone who didn’t care whether the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ guys won, so long as there was stability and an improvement over the status quo.
My writing is interspersed with a lot of pop culture references, so I think that allows me to wear my inspirations on my sleeve. The Always Sunny reference in Day After and the Commando one in Parenting Simulator are among my favorite bits of dialogue I have written, because I am a huge nerd. Which is also why both of those trigger achievements in their respective games.
It’s funny that I shoot for ‘lighthearted’ as a writing style when possible (even if a few segments in Day After definitely go quite dark), but most of my inspirations and preferred tales are very dark. Stephen King got me into writing as a teen and continues to have an outsized impact on anything creative I do. On Writing is absolutely the seminal book on writing that I have ever seen. Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, the aforementioned Danny Boyle, are all directors that blow me away time after time and show what a narrative can do. Rick and Morty undeniably shaped my love of infusing pop culture into the writing, probably for both good and ill. I still remember watching The Ricklantis Mixup while writing NPT when it was first broadcast, and immediately watching it again because it had been such a perfect and surprising bit of entertainment.
I’ll stop here, because I can (and often have) filled many paragraphs talking about the things I love, which in turn give me the fuel to create things that others will hopefully love too.
Question 8 – Are there any reasons why you chose to write interactive fiction over other writing mediums?
A: Because of the pathway to publication, initially. But also because I love coming up with choices that make people think long and hard about what they will gain or lose by it. If I was a proper studio instead of one middle-aged dude writing as a side gig, I’d call it Opportunity Cost Studios. That concept of choices where people can feel the absence of what they did not pick, and that prompts them to play again, it’s great. All of my titles have a fair amount of spread, to the point that you never see more than 25% or so of the words in one run (in Day After it’s even lower, around 18%), because I almost never use fake choices. Everything takes you to some path or snippet that you can’t see anywhere else. It’s not terribly efficient, but it’s fun for me and hopefully for readers as well.
Question 9 – With videogames receiving more recognition recently for their writing, what do you think of using them as a storytelling medium?
A: The interactivity they present is something of a unique factor compared to other entertainment formats, and in a world where customization has become the watchword of late, they are only going to get more popular. I think we’ve seen that already with things like Bandersnatch where interactive elements are even bleeding over into other media formats. The ability to make a story your story through your choices and pathways will only become more popular as time passes, and gaming is certainly at the forefront of that. Plus, money attracts talent. As gaming grew from a niche industry into one that rivals Hollywood in scope, it was only natural that some of the best writers would gravitate toward games as their preferred creative outlet.
Question 10 – Do you believe interactive fiction, and more commonly, videogames are an art form? Why or why not?
A: Anything is art if it makes you think, if it makes you feel, if it echoes in your head long after the initial experience. Videogames, and specifically IF, absolutely can provide those experiences for people the same way visual art, conventional literature and films do. The potential for artistic greatness is always there, and it’s up to the authors to make it manifest.
Question 11 – Choice of Games/Hosted Games is the biggest interactive fiction publishing label. What was it like working with them?
A: I have written three Hosted Games titles now, and I don’t really want to write anywhere else. If I did a novel, I’d have to shop it around for months or years hoping to get a publication deal, with very poor odds. Or I could self-publish, but the odds of success there would make even the most reckless gambler cringe. I have written several children’s books, and actually self-published one in 2021, The Lake of Ake. I am proud of it, and the artist did a great job, but it has sold maybe 70 copies in a year. By comparison, Nuclear Powered Toaster has sold over 1,000 and it was an unabashed bomb by Hosted Games standards, definitely in the lowest 33% of all their releases by total sales. HG gives me almost complete freedom in what I write, so long as it isn’t morally repugnant, is over 30,000 words and passes Quicktest and Randomtest. Once you clear those low bars, your work will be seen by thousands of people automatically thanks to their wide reach. I can’t think of anyone else who does this, giving almost equal freedom to self-publishing in terms of content while still providing an instant reader base akin to a good-sized publishing house.
Question 12 – We’ve seen you around on the Final Fantasy Tactics subreddit! What are your favorite videogames?
A: Well, that’s number 1 with a bullet right there. FFT’s depth of gameplay and incredibly engaging story have led to me replaying it roughly once a year since it released in 1998. I long since stopped with vanilla runs, and have moved on to the more hardcore stuff, like randomized jobs, using only a single job for the whole party, or the always-fun option of Ramza and a team comprised entirely of recruited monsters.
Aside from Tactics, I’m also very fond of Knights of the Old Republic, Metal Gear Solid, Chrono Trigger, Jedi Academy, Phantom Dust, and more recently Into the Breach and Dream Quest. I’ve played each of those titles numerous times over the years. My older daughter isn’t much of a gamer but enjoys watching them, so she currently has me going back through my first-ever RPG, EarthBound. No complaints on my end.
Question 13 – What are your future plans regarding interactive fiction and game development?
A: Pretty much more of this. I’m not closed off to other opportunities, but I also know that I’m not really interested in writing for many of the other IF studios, as some of them lean heavily into microtransactions and such in a way that feels vaguely predatory. I don’t really like the idea of locking up choices until the person pays diamonds or some other phony-baloney currency to do what they want. I would be glad to work on writing a more traditional videogame in conjunction with a team, if the chance arose. Just have to see if it ever comes about.
Question 14 – You’re currently using ChoiceScript as the authoring tool for your stories, do you have experience with any others? Or plan to branch out?
A: Nope to both. A special thanks to the maker of CSIDE, as that’s the platform I have used from the first to write my stories. Very intuitive, was helpful for a code rookie like myself. So long as CSIDE exists, I’ll be using it.
Question 15 – Aside from writing interactive fiction, would you ever want to develop other styles of videogames? Like JRPGs, action games, or?
A: Absolutely. I still have that idea for a strategy RPG that helped set me off on this path and would love to see it happen someday, and writing for any other RPG sort of title would be similarly exciting. I’m not opposed to writing for another genre, although I’d have to know what the project was and see if I could come up with anything. The main issue there is that I don’t foresee myself getting comfortable with a code language more complex than ChoiceScript, so I’d have to be working with a team, or at least someone else who could handle that side of things. So I’m not really holding my breath.
Question 16 – You’re quite active in the Hosted Games community. Are there any underrated IF gems you’d love to shine some light on?
A: Definitely! Talon City, the bird law title from Community College Hero author Eric Moser, just came out and should be on everyone’s wish list. My Day Off Work is an unsung gem that provides a sandbox second to none in IF. A Mummy is Not an Antique was recently highlighted by Dingo’s Reviews as a top unsung Hosted Games title, and rightly so; people have been sleeping on it for years. Dawn of the Sol Empire is a free option worth checking out. In general, I suggest people get bold and try something outside of their norm once in a while, as you might be surprised what you’ll find.
Question 17 – For any aspiring interactive fiction authors, do you have any tips or advice?
A: Write. Outlining is good, character profiles are good, worldbuilding is good. There’s nothing inherently wrong with spending some time determining silly things like what your character’s birthday would be or developing some nugget of lore that helps you immerse yourself into the setting you have crafted. But absolutely none of that is a replacement for putting words on the page that are part of your actual story. Don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise. Writers write. As long as you keep plugging away at your story, you’ll reach an end eventually.
Also, I realize this isn’t true for everyone, but I highly recommend sticking with a single story and completing it before moving on to the next. It’s a bit tragic when I see someone who has a WIP on the forums that’s gaining some traction, only for them to mention a ‘side project’ or second story they will work on concurrent to the first. Because the odds of any WIP being published are already low, and if it’s someone who hasn’t published before trying to juggle multiple stories at once, those odds drop to nearly zero. Because more often than not, when things get tough, they’ll move on to another WIP, and in the end have nothing to show for years of effort but a string of half-finished stories. And that’s if they don’t get frustrated at the lack of progress and quit altogether.
Question 18 – Do you have anything else you’d like to say or add?
A: I appreciate the chance to do this interview, and I wish y’all luck with your efforts! Anything to improve the visibility of interactive fiction is a major win for all of us, since it’s such an odd entertainment format. It doesn’t fit neatly into either the book or game categorization, and that’s left us short on people to do reviews or writeups about our titles. Anyone seeking to help in that regard is all right by me.
Also, a huge thanks to all of my readers out there, whose reviews, feedback, purchases and general support has been invaluable over the last five years, and hopefully will be for many more to come.
If you’re into interactive fiction, definitely keep an eye out for Matt Simpson and any of their future work. Their future plans and novel ideas sound exciting.
You play find their latest game, The Day After Ever After on the Choice Of Games website along with their other novels.