An Interview with Melia Carraway, creator of Castles in the Air

Melia Carraway Featured Interview

With Castles in the Air nearing its launch on Kickstarter on May 14th, we interview the game’s creator Melia Carraway.

What inspired you to create Castles in the Air? What kind of experiences do you hope that players will have with this game?

Melia: Back in late 2019 or early 2020, I went to see Little Women 2019 in theaters with my mom. Halfway through, an alarm went off and we were told to evacuate the theater. It was probably just some little kid who pulled the fire alarm, but since we didn’t know what had caused us to have to evacuate, we decided to head home just in case. 

When we got back, I was still in the mood for some Alcott, so I decided I would reread some of her books, starting with Eight Cousins and its sequel, Rose in Bloom. I love these books in particular because they feature one of my favorite Alcott characters, Mac Campbell. 

Mac Campbell was the inspiration for the Bookworm role and is just the most relatable kid. When he meets the heroine Rose, the first thing he does is ask her if she brought any books with her and when she tells him she brought 2 boxes, he disappears into the library for the rest of the scene! 

Later he grows up into the most attractive love interest in anything I have ever read. He’s still an extreme dork, but he’s really earnest and an absolute wife guy. One of my favorite scenes involves Mac reluctantly escorting Rose to a party. At the party, he meets a geologist and spends the whole night talking to him before wandering home in a scholarly daze without Rose. When he realizes his mistake, he runs 10 miles without a jacket on a cold New England winter night just to make sure that Rose got home okay and apologize for forgetting her! Mr. Darcy who? 

Anyway, as I was reading multiple Alcott books, I started to notice some patterns. A lot of her books start with the characters as children full of dreams and trying to overcome struggles with themselves and the world around them. Then there is a time skip and we see them as adults facing the problems and relationships of adults. 

I had played Emma, Forget Me Not, the Good Society expansion that added the passage of time to the game, and I thought, “I bet I can make an Alcott story work as a Good Society hack.” So, I spent some time picking out the elements that I thought were the most important and thinking about how to turn them into game mechanics. 

I think I had all the building blocks for CitA within about 2 weeks. Not too long after, I figured out that you could use all the same mechanics to tell stories based on L.M. Montgomery’s writing with just a change of setting. I never expected that 4 years later, I would be Kickstarting my game with the original creators of Good Society!

When playing CitA, I hope players will be able to experience the joys, struggles, and uncertainties of growing up. It’s a game for exploring who a character is and what is important to them, the things they hold onto throughout the years and the things they leave behind. 

I hope they can also have fun exploring the complicated and sometimes wacky history of late 19th century North America! I keep learning so many things I want to incorporate into games of CitA, from a very popular hermit who was the center of a community in Massachusetts to a 6 day roller skating race in 1885 New York that killed 2 people!

Playing children in games in and of itself can be a fun experience, but childhood in CitA does so much more in building the story than giving you a chance to play children. Can you talk through how you see childhood in the game?

Melia: All Penned to Good Society games start out with Collaboration where you create shared expectations for the table, followed by Backstory, where you create your characters. In most PtGS, the characters are tied together by a playset and the circumstances of that playset give an outline of a story that will help players decide what characters they are creating. 

CitA goes at things from the opposite direction by starting with characters and building a story around them. The reason it can do this is exactly because it takes that time during childhood to really explore who the characters are and build relationships between them. I like to say that CitA finishes Backstory through play because by the time your characters are adults, you have spent enough time with them that you will naturally start to weave a story around them even if you had no idea of this story at the beginning of the game. 

The level of surprise this allows is something I think is really special about the game.

Childhood was a bit different in the 1870s and 1880s to today – what differences did you see in your reading that you feel underscore the game? How did people in Alcott and Montgomery’s works see growing up and their futures differently?

Melia: The most obvious answer is that the things children knew were so different back then. They didn’t have the Internet, so in some ways when you read a book like Little Women, the characters in it can seem much more naive and innocent than a teen of the same age does today. 

At the same time, it’s important to remember that children back then often had experiences that a lot of children don’t have today. Meg and Jo were only 16 and 15, but they were already out of school and working to support their family. 

Eight Cousins gives us Phebe Moore, who eventually becomes the heroine’s best friend and like a sister to her, but she starts out as a kitchen maid. She’s 15 and grew up in an orphan asylum. She’s had hardly any education because it wasn’t seen as useful for the type of life she was expected to go onto lead.

I want to talk about an element of the game that remains just as important in childhood and adulthood – bosom enemies. Why did you choose to give bosom enemies such a central role in the game, and how do they add to the story you tell?

Melia: Bosom enemies are something that come up again and again in Alcott’s writing. Sometimes they go by different names like besetting sins, but there’s a common theme of each of us having our own personal struggle we to have to overcome. 

We also see what can happen when we don’t fight against the worst parts of ourselves. The most obvious example of this is the ice skating scene in Little Women. A lot of adaptations soften this scene, but in the book it’s pretty clear. Jo is furious at Amy, and even though Laurie tells her that the ice is dangerous in the middle of the pond and Jo knows Amy didn’t hear him say it, Jo thinks to herself, “No matter whether she heard or not, let her take care of herself.” 

It’s done in anger, but Jo still knows what she’s doing when she does it, and it’s an action that could have cost Amy her life because of course Amy does fall through the ice. Jo deeply regrets the way she acted, but that doesn’t mean she’s suddenly cured of her bad temper! It’s still something she struggles with every single time. 

Fighting against the worst parts of ourselves and the consequences of our actions, I think those are some pretty good ingredients for a compelling story, don’t you?

As Castles in the Air is a literary adaptation, there’s always some parts of the works you’re writing based on that are difficult to adapt. What part of your reading did you find hardest to incorporate and how did you finally work it out?

Melia: I have 2 answers for this question. The first biggest struggle for me was actually a classic part of PtGS Collaboration: Tone. All of the work CitA is adapting is slice-of-life. That means we see both the highs and lows of everyday life. The books range from incredibly funny to heartbreakingly sad and everything in between. 

It’s hard to capture that in tones while making sure there’s enough variety to the tones because you can’t pick a genre like Farce, Romantic Comedy, or Drama like you can for Good Society because the genre is already slice-of-life. 

Tones went through a lot of different iterations before I got something to work, but eventually I decided to focus on how harsh the world could be expected to be and how much positive things like hope and community could be relied on. 

The other answer to this question was figuring out how to get my ideas across to players who didn’t have the same experience with the genre as me! Sometimes there was something I had written that was really obvious to me and confusing to other people and it was hard for me to figure out what part was confusing players. 

For example, partway through the design process, the way the mechanics for bosom enemies work underwent a drastic change. However, the way they actually worked in my mind was very consistent from start to finish. The change wasn’t a change in concept so much as it was a change to allow people to better see the vision I had had for bosom enemies all along! 

Playtesting really helped a lot with this, as did talking things out with other people. To everyone who has helped playtest this game or given me feedback, thank you so much! CitA wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for you!

If you had to create your child and adult self in Castles in the Air how would you do so?

Melia: I was an extremely difficult child! I was dealing with some neurodivergence that I really didn’t know what to do with or how to handle. If you had to deal with me back then, I am so sorry. That said, it was pointed out to me that the Dreamer, the childhood role I created for Anne Shirley and pretty much every other L.M. Montgomery heroine, is very neurodivergent-coded! I didn’t do this on purpose, but I have decided to embrace it, so that’s the childhood role I would pick for myself, even though I think I had some Bookworm leanings as well. 

My castle in the air was to be a famous fantasy novelist! I ended up moving away from that goal in my 20s, so you’ll have to imagine my surprise when this publishing contract fell into my lap in my 30s. 

Much like Jo March, my bosom enemy was my terrible temper. I was said to have a scream that could be heard across the school. Once again, I’m sorry if any of you had to deal with me back then. As an adult, my temper still comes back up at times, but I think my bosom enemy these days is more being overly sensitive. That was always there under the surface, to be honest, the anger was just more obvious! 

I think our adulthood character role changes throughout our lives. In this particular season, I am the Seeker as I’m at something of a crossroads in my career right now. 

My desire is probably something to do with that as well. I want to figure out what direction to take my life in next. I’ll let you know if I get everything figured out!

Any memorable stories from playtesting that you want to share?

Melia: Oh, so many! Every single game had interesting storylines and characters that I loved. I feel like I could talk about the CitA games I played all day. I don’t want to play favorites with other people’s characters because I don’t want anyone to feel left out, so instead I will just focus on my own characters and some of my favorite character arcs and moments from my own play. 

One of my favorite arcs was for a character named Phebe Evans who dreamed of becoming a famous writer. During the passage of time, she got her wish, but she found it didn’t make her happy like she thought it would, so she had to reevaluate what it was she wanted out of her life. This was a really fun and dramatic story to play out. 

In another game, I played a girl named Jenny Berry who loved bugs more than anything. In the very first session, she got in a fight with another girl who thought bugs were creepy. Jenny was adamant that maggots were better than a dumb old cat or dog because if we didn’t have maggots, the entire world would be covered in corpses! I had a great time writing an essay by Jenny called the Mighty Maggot, which was basically a big, “Take that!” 

As of the time I am responding to these interview questions, I am in 2 different CitA games. In By the City, By the Sea, I am playing Aurelia Cunningham, an up-and-coming inventor who is so concerned over the ongoing battle between Thomas Edison’s direct current and Nikola Tesla’s alternating current, that she actually had a nightmare that involved Edison winning! 

My other current character is Inés Reyes, or Inez Ray, as she’s known on stage. Inez is an actress who got her big break on Broadway as Yum-yum in Gilbert and Sullivan’s the Mikado. The Mikado is really about the British government, but it does its poking fun at the British government in a fantasy Japan setting. This is a rather ironic role for Inez to have gotten her break with because Inez is a Mexican American pretending to be a white American playing the role of a Japanese woman!

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