On a few questions with the creator of “The Crown Atomic”

You’ll find a lot a After Action Reports, or AARs, in forums dedicated to Paradox Interactive games. There’s a lot of variety, but most have one thing in common: They show screenshots of the actual in-game action with a little snarky commentary. Not so much “The Crown Atomic”, which starts where other Kaiserreich AARs would end: With the Canadian reconquest of Britain. Most events shown had to be custom-coded by cookfl, the creator of the AAR. The unique approach seems to have worked, as the AAR has been viewed over 900k times after two years of semi-continuous updates – about time to ask its creator a few questions.

Hello there, cookfl! How are you?

I’m good thanks. A little hungover on a grey Saturday in New York.

Then it’s time to get deep: Who are you?

Well, I’m a guy, and currently in my mid-20s. I work in national security/law enforcement, although I’m currently on a two year furlough completing a master’s degree (which is why deadlines and exams sometimes interfere with Crown Atomic!)

Good transition. Your “The Crown Atomic” is now two years old and still ongoing. Why did you start it? And what keeps it going?

Yeah, it’s kind of amazing. Crown Atomic is the first AAR I ever attempted, so it’s fantastic to see the way it’s caught on with people. I’ve always loved grand strategy games, and I remember accidentally coming across Europa Universalis II as a kid, which really blew me away, and started my love affair with Paradox. I’d always be inventing narratives for the games I was playing in my head – little private AARs – and I finally decided to share one. As to what keeps it going, even through losing the original game and everything else, I’d say it’s the knowledge that people read it and want to know what happens next. It’s really rewarding to me to see people debating, discussing, and expanding my ideas, and I love it when someone interprets something in a way I hadn’t even thought of.

Rather than bore people with mediocre playthroughs, I thought I’d try and answer the question of what if this is real on some level

What the hell does the title mean?

Haha – it’s kind of a mystery, even to me. If we were going to be very literal, I guess we could say the story is about competing crowns in the atomic age. The scansion of it appealed to me to begin with, and I never really meant for it to have much meaning. “The Crown Atomic” – grandiose, unexpected, kind of foreboding. I like that it’s ambiguous.

Why did you never join the Kaiserreich team?

Lack of time, primarily – I have a ton of respect for the Kaiserreich team and the world they’ve created. Crown Atomic literally wouldn’t be possible without them. I’m also not the greatest coder – most of the events I created were just shells for the sake of the narrative. Having my original laptop stolen was, in some ways, liberating, because I couldn’t do the gameplay portions anymore. Creating the events etc. was always a big time sink vs. writing. I am trying to get better at coding though. I’m currently working on a completely original mini-mod, which is of a much smaller scope than CA, to give myself some practice.

Looking forward to it! Back to “The Crown Atomic”: The AAR now has its own tvtropes page, and the “London” update is a pretty fine example of Film Noir in text form. What is your writing inspired by? History? Fiction?

All kinds of things. I’ll see something, or read something, or learn some historical fact, and think ‘that would be great for Crown Atomic’. People noticed pretty early that a lot of what happens in Crown Atomic just recycles stuff that actually happened in history, but from a different angle. I think that’s one of the interesting things about alternate history as a genre: we all know history, sometimes you have to see something from a different perspective to really bring it to life.

But you’ve got a whole world to keep going. What do you do when you don’t know what to do with a particular part of the world?

If I’m stuck, I usually put a region aside for a while and come back to it later once I’ve had fresh ideas. I think people are good at filling in the gaps themselves and know I can’t cover everything all the time.

Apart from “The Crown Atomic”, your signature only lists a recently started Stellaris AAR and a win in the 2014 Paradox Short Story Contest. Is there any other writing by you I could get my hands on? A novel, something online, a cookbook?

Not really, unfortunately. Most of the writing I do is very dry, real world work stuff. One day I’d like to write a real book. I’m one of those people who starts writing novels and then gets distracted by the next idea before I get anywhere.

“The Crown Atomic” is quite unusual in its style for an AAR, concentrating a lot on stories in the smaller perspective instead of gameplay. Why did you decide on that style? And do you think it had something to do with the AARs success?

Well, I’m not really that great a gamer. I’m sure most Paradox fans could wipe the floor with me in a multiplayer match. Rather than bore people with mediocre playthroughs, I thought I’d try and answer the question of what if this is real on some level; what if these sprites and statistics were actually people, just like us. What would their world be like? I think that’s been a success because all of us who are fans of these games have had that weird, meta moment where you think what if this isn’t a game at all? Or who’s to say we’re not just a game for some higher being? Pablo Picasso said that in an infinite universe, anything that can be imagined must be real and happening somewhere. When you think about it like that, grand strategy games are kind of terrifying!

Any AARs by other writers you can recommend? What makes a good AAR, in your opinion?

I have a dirty secret: I’m actually not that great at reading other AARs. Not because there isn’t great work out there – the Paradox Forums have too many talented writers to mention – but because Crown Atomic and First Century kind of take up my entire AAR headspace. Reading Turtledove got me into alternate history; Fatherland by Robert Harris, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, and Dominion by C.J. Sampson are alt-history novels that had a big impact on CA. As for what makes a great AAR, I guess it goes back to my answer above: I love anything that asks human questions. I think video games are unfairly thought of as the shallowest entertainment medium, so I like anything that proves that wrong.

That’s a good point! The human part was also what I liked most about Fatherland. Especially that it goes one level deeper than the usual and tries to imagine how culture and ideas would change in this alternate timeline – which seems pretty close to what you have done with your Bright Young Things. Was what something you tried to do?

Definitely. I try to work that kind of stuff in, but it’s not the easiest as it’s not a huge component of the base game. I guess that’s why I developed the narrative interlude parts.

Would you write an AAR for a HoI4 game?

I haven’t played HOI4 yet, so I’d have to see!

Thank you for your time!