Monday, November 18, 2019

For the Moon Never Beams - Post Comp Debriefing

As always with these post-comp debriefings, there are spoilers to follow.

You have been warned!

For the Moon Never Beams is my second parser-based entry in the IFComp. I'm very proud of it and am thrilled with its placing in the comp!

Here are the stats:

Rank: 22nd out of 82
Score: 6.33
Most Common Score: 7
Votes Cast: 52
Standard Deviation: 1.65

GENESIS

One of the ideas I had come up with for a new game was a kind of mystery/horror game where the PC (a high school student) had to discover who or what was killing off people in a small town. The player would eventually discover that not only was it a werewolf, but that it was one of his (GASP!) female classmates. 

I really liked the idea of a female werewolf, which is something we don't see much in fiction. I thought that had a lot of interesting potential, but as cool as I found the concept, I didn't think it would make a good denouement for a mystery story. The idea of a female werewolf was wasted if the player didn't find out the identity of the werewolf until the end. So, I tweaked the story around in my head for a while until I decided to just nix the mystery aspect altogether and move the werewolf reveal to the beginning of the story. That fixed my problem, made for an exciting beginning and completely changed the motivation of the PC. Now instead of trying to solve a mystery, the PC is trying to stay alive and save his girlfriend at the same time, a plot that has many more interesting possibilities than my original idea.

No offense.


THE NAME

I wanted a title that would foreshadow the werewolf nature of the female character, the romance aspect of the plot and the overall horror vibe of the story. That wasn't asking too much, was it? I decided to mine Edgar Allan Poe's works for inspiration and focused specifically on Annabel Lee because it's one of my favorite EAP poems and because it deals with the pain of a lost love, something the PC would want to avoid. The title comes from the final stanza, which opens the game and sets the mood:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
   Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
   In her sepulchre there by the sea—
   In her tomb by the sounding sea.



KELLY


One of the issues with the werewolf character was how little time the player would have to interact with her while she was a human. She changes very early on in the story and doesn't change back until the end (assuming the player reaches the optimum ending). So, I wanted to pack as much as I could in the little time available. I spent a lot of time on the conversation that Kelly has with the PC, trying to make her into a sweet, intelligent and believable character that the player would be motivated to save. I hope I succeeded. I like her anyway!

There are only a few named characters in the game, all of them teenagers. Since the game takes place in 1993, their names all come from lists of popular baby names in the mid-to-late 70's. Kelly's was the most important to get right and the name seemed to fit the vision I had for her in my head. 

I waffled a bit on her appearance. I considered several races and hair colors, but I ultimately went with a redhead because I liked the phrase "red-coated werewolf" and thought it made for a unique and memorable image.


THE PC


There's really very little info on the PC in the game, which was by design. If you pursue all of the conversational possibilities with Kelly, you get the feeling that the PC might tend a bit toward the geeky side (as does Kelly) but beyond that, the player is free to fill in the blanks.

Our resident Breakfast Reviewer said that he imagined the PC and Kelly being played by Emilio Estevez and Molly Ringwald. I have to admit that I never thought of that, but I kind of like it!


Watch out, Emilio!

DIFFICULTY

Trying to effectively gauge the difficulty of your own game is quite a chore. I grew up on Infocom games and they have heavily influenced my own tastes and preferences in IF. I like difficult games and compared to Infocom's works, I don't think FTMNB is all that difficult.

At least my game didn't have an incomprehensible bank with even more incomprehensible walls of light.

However, some of my players were not comparing my game to Infocom's works and did find it to be rather difficult. Ok, actually phrases like "punishing," "frustrating" and "too old-school unfair" were used (and some of those were from people who liked the game!) The game currently holds a forgiveness rating of "cruel" at the IFDB.

It was never my intent to create a game that was horribly difficult. It was my intent to create the kind of game that I like to play and I like overcoming moderate and difficult puzzles. I did try to insert hints, clues and warnings to the player throughout the game and I even fretted that I was giving some things away. I also spent a great deal of time implementing a pretty thorough hint system, so I thought the difficulty pretty reasonable.

But hey, I also like Zork II, so maybe I'm a glutton for punishment.

MISCELLANEOUS

A few more random thoughts before I wrap this up.

1. I was shocked that nobody complained about the fact that my game has a maze! I did have a complaint from one player that mentioned he was frustrated that he got stuck in the maze due to bad luck, but not one reviewer complained about the existence of the maze itself. I tried to create a different kind of maze where mapping wasn't important at all, but rather perseverance and attention to detail would win the day.

2. It is sometimes difficult to know when to listen to your beta testers and when to thank them, but keep something the way it is. My beta testers were awesome! They absolutely made the game much, much better. One of the most important changes they suggested (which I resisted for quite a while) was implementing the visible exits in the status line. I hated that idea at first, but I have to admit, they were 100% correct. It made the game better without sacrificing any of the puzzles. In  fact, having the exits visible actually enhances the maze and made it better. Who knew?

But there was one thing I refused to change that at least two testers mentioned. They didn't like my use of the word "therein" in one of my sentences, feeling that it seemed out of place. The thing is, I liked the way the sentence read. The first time a tester brought it up, I decided to keep it the way it was. The second time, I decided to try to rework it. But, in the end, I could never find a sentence I liked as much as my original, so "therein" stayed. If you played it and it bothered you, know that my testers did their best to convince me otherwise, but my stubbornness won the day on that one!

 3. The book of spells was something that I had to add after realizing I had unintentionally made the game extremely difficult (I can feel some of the game's critics rolling their eyes here). At one point, the PC gets bitten by a vampire bat and begins turning into a vampire. This makes it impossible for the PC to cross the stream and get back to the car as in some tales vampires can't cross running water. I thought that was a really cool bit of atmosphere and it added another sense of urgency to the game as the PC falls further and further under the vampire's curse.

Unfortunately, this also made it impossible for the player to get back to the car, which was really unfair if the player left something behind. I agonized over that for a while before I came up with the solution of the book of spells with one spell (ISOGUL) which the PC can read once the transformation into a vampire begins. This spell teleports the caster across bodies of water. BOOM. Problem solved and the player gets to cast some magic, which was kind of cool. Also, I was able to add hints and clues in the book that became accessible as the PC became more vampiric and less human.

THAT'S A WRAP!


Sorry for this, but I wanted one more picture.

I'm very proud of For the Moon Never Beams. It is exactly the kind of game I wanted to create and that makes me very happy. I had a great time writing it and if you played it, I hope you enjoyed it too. Thanks for reading my thoughts on it and I hope you'll give my next game a chance as well!



Wednesday, September 18, 2019

For the Moon Never Beams


Springtime, 1993. Prom night. A lonely road on the way to the big dance. This should be a magical evening, but your date suddenly seems distant and withdrawn. Is it something you said? Or perhaps something more sinister is going on...

Welcome back!

I'm very excited to announce that For the Moon Never Beams is my entry in this year's Interactive Fiction Competition. The competition starts on October 1st and I really hope you'll give my game a try. See you then!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

DIDDLEBUCKER! POSTMORTEM: PT 2

Serious, huge spoilers below to Diddleblucker! and Hollywood Hijinks
You have been warned.

THE NAME


I wanted a fun, one-word nonsense kind of name for my game that would sort of sum up the zaniness of the theme. Originally, it was to be called Snollygoster! (an actual word) and the name of the popcorn magnate was Salvatore "Snolly" Esposito. During beta testing, one of my testers asked if my game was related to the "Snollygoster" game that was on Kickstarter. I freaked out and went to search for it. (FYI: It's here if you're interested.)

Their game had been put on Kickstarter within a month or so of me starting to write my game! I was seriously annoyed, but it wasn't their fault. They went public with their name first. I debated keeping the name, but ultimately decided to create an entirely new word and "Diddlebucker" was born. Salvatore/Snolly was renamed Desiderio/Diddy. I flatly refused to give him the nickname "Diddle," however. I could have called the game "Diddybucker," but it didn't have the same ring to it, so I went with "Diddy" and "Diddlebucker."


The working title of the game had been Snollygoster! for months and at first I wasn't happy about the name change, but ultimately it grew on me. Now I actually prefer Diddlebucker!, partially because it was my own creation and partially because it just rolls off the tongue better. And, I think it sounds a bit more like a food company.



Not this food company. I've never heard of this before.

THE PLOT

Another issue I had to deal with was explaining why the player didn't have a team. I briefly thought about creating two NPC team members that would follow the player around, but I knew that would ultimately just be annoying. "David and Lori follow you" and "You see David and Lori here" would get old really fast, no matter how many ways I varied the text. Besides, they'd look like dunderheads because they would either stand around waiting for you to give them orders, or keep running through a list of actions that wouldn't really accomplish anything. "Dave reads the riddle card with a perplexed look on his face." "Lori searches the ground for a clue." Blech. I abandoned that idea pretty quickly.

So, I came up with the idea that your teammates eloped at the last minute and left you in the lurch. It neatly solved the no-team issue and had the extra bonus of at least being moderately funny. It was only later that I realized what a huge boon this inspiration was, because it solved another problem I had been dealing with.

The problem with an IF game that's a literal scavenger hunt is that the end is ultimately unsatisfying. After all, you aren't really racing against other teams and there is no million dollars. The player knows the other teams aren't actually going to get to the finish line first unless I either implement a time limit or a move limit, both of which suffer from the fatal flaw of being the exact opposite of fun.

What the game needed was a villain to overcome. An evil to conquer. I debated over this for a long time, trying to create a villain team led by some sort of henchman that had been a bully to the PC or who held some irrational hatred of the PC. Something along the lines of Harold and the blue team from Midnight Madness.




One of the principal faces of evil from my childhood


And I came up with nothing. I couldn't make it work. I couldn't make the villain evil enough to be worth conquering while keeping the game lighthearted enough to fit my zany theme. One problem was that I hadn't specified a gender for the player character. A guy bullying a guy can be funny if done right (The Tannens and the McFlys for example). Likewise a girl bullying a girl can work (Mean Girls). But when you mix the genders, things get dark. Perhaps it shouldn't be this way, but from an artistic standpoint, having a girl bully a guy or a guy bully a girl just takes on dark, unfunny overtones. It didn't work. At least I couldn't make it work. Perhaps in the hands of a better writer, but I couldn't do it.

And then it hit me. I already had a villain waiting off-stage and this villain wasn't a bully, but a traitor. And it worked. Lori was the perfect villain. She didn't make the game too dark because her motivation was simply money, not sadism. On top of that, she added a surprise twist to the endgame section! It was wonderful! The only problem was that I was so excited about writing this ending that I had to fight the urge to just jump straight to it. I restrained myself though. Getting to write that ending was the carrot that kept me working on the rest of the game.

Now, a few reviewers have noticed a similarity between this ending and the ending to Hollywood Hijinks. All of the reviewers were good-natured about it and I can only say that this is what I meant when I said in my earlier blog post that there were "unconscious tributes" as well as conscious ones to HJ. It did occur to me much later in the writing process that my solution was indeed similar to the ending of HJ, but I didn't realize it when I originally came up with the idea. But, I decided it would work as an homage, so I kept it in.



[MORE TO COME]

DIDDLEBUCKER! POSTMORTEM: PT 1




Obviously there be spoilers below!

So, Diddlebucker! is my first parser game. I began working on it in the fall of 2017, took time off during the holiday season and came back to it in the spring of 2018, getting a lot of work done during the summer months to have it finished and ready to go in time for the comp.

Here's a breakdown of the voting stats:

Rank: 30th of 77
Score: 6.00
Most Common Score: 7
Votes Cast: 44
Standard Deviation: 2.12

GENESIS

I know that the Infocom-style puzzle fest is a bit old-school for many in the IF community, but it is what I love. It's what I grew up on and it's what I wanted to create. Diddlebucker! is my loving homage to the genre.

When I began casting about for ideas, I knew I wanted to create a treasure hunt of some kind, but I wanted to give the player a strong reason for collecting treasures. I didn't really want to recreate a zorkian adventure where the player picks up treasures because they're there. The idea of a scavenger hunt came to mind and to give the player more motivation, I threw in a million dollar prize (plus a lifetime supply of popcorn) at the end.




A lot of people have noted the influence of Dave Anderson's Hollywood Hijinks on my game and they're right to do so. While I wasn't constantly thinking of HJ during the development, there are definitely some conscious and unconscious tributes to HJ here and there.







A more direct influence on Diddlebucker! was the 1980
Nankin & Wechter film Midnight Madness. This movie was pretty much perpetually on HBO when I was a kid and I'm sure I saw the movie (or parts of it) dozens of times growing up. I re-watched it before writing my game looking for inspiration.

You can see this inspiration in the time period, team shirt colors, the general chaotic zaniness of the theme, the fact that the game takes place at night and I'm sure in many other ways.

If you've never seen Midnight Madness, give it a try. Disney's attempt at reaching the teenage crowd is a remarkably silly, but oddly endearing treasure hunt movie. If nothing else, you get to see a pre-Family Ties (and very Canadian-sounding) Michael J. Fox, which is pretty cool.



THE PLAYER-CHARACTER

One of the early hurdles to overcome was that I wanted the player-character to be an AFGNCAAP. That is, an "Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally-Ambiguous Adventure Person." That phrase is a throw-away joke from Zork: Grand Inquisitor, but I took it seriously here.

There's nothing wrong with forcing the player into a character of a specific age, gender or other characteristic when doing so is intentional because it serves the plot or the theme. But in this game, none of those traits would be important. The game didn't have a romantic subplot which might impact the sexuality, age or gender of the PC, for example. Since the ID of the player was irrelevant, I went out of my way not to limit the identifying traits of the player-character at all. I wanted anyone to feel like they were the person in the story. 

I also didn't want a clunky section at the beginning which asked for the player's age, gender and whatnot. I already needed to ask the player's name, but that fit well with the plot. Asking other such questions would be needlessly intrusive and would certainly take the player out of the game.

This is why, for example, most NPCs call the player-character "Gamer," (something that one reviewer derided). I deliberately built that nickname into the whole atmosphere of the game so that it sounded more natural coming out of the mouths of some of the NPCs. It is in in the game's blurb and the song on the startup screen. It's also one of the reasons the people playing the game are forced to wear team clothing at all times. That clothing not only identifies the PC as a "Gamer," but it also gives the NPCs a last name to use to refer to the player.

I suppose the PC is likely to be living in America (but not necessarily an American), given the name of the theme park and the PC does need to be physically capable of climbing a ladder at one point, but overall I think most people can feel like they themselves are the main character in the game. Or, as far as that goes, they can be anyone else too. Want to play the game as Harrison Ford or Princess Elsa? Go ahead! Although...I'm not sure what Elsa's last name is. "Of Arendelle," maybe?



[MORE TO COME]


Saturday, November 17, 2018

THAT'S A WRAP!

I'll be writing a post-mortem on Diddlebucker! soon, but for now, I just wanted to share some of my initial thoughts.

Being involved with this year's competition was an amazing experience and I'm thrilled to have been a part of it. I'm very thankful to all of those who made it happen.

I've played IF my whole life, having grown up with the Infocom games and many other forms of interactive fiction. As a kid, I dreamed of writing such a program, but as I grew up I never really thought it was a dream I would actually attain.

As a young man I discovered the IFComp in its early years and realized that amateurs actually could write such a program. In the meantime, I started a career, got married to a lovely woman, had two kids and stayed pretty busy!

Finally, I decided it was time to make it happen. I decided to learn Inform 7 a few years ago. I began authoring a fairly standard RPG, but right in the middle of the process, we moved to a new house and I started a new job. My game took a backseat for a while.

Last fall, things had calmed down a bit and I decided it was time to give it a go again. I made it a goal to continue learning Inform 7, complete a new game and enter it in the 2018 Comp. The result was Diddlebucker!, a game I am immensely proud of.

I couldn't have done it without the support of my wife who became a bit of an "IF widow" for a while, as well as my biggest cheerleader when I was struggling with a bit of code, some sticky plot point or a puzzle I couldn't quite work out. I was also dependent on the goodwill and eagerness to help of many others in the IF community, a community I have since discovered is full of wonderful, selfless people, who answered my questions, tested my game and gave me tons of fantastic feedback.

It's been a great year and I look forward to doing it all again!

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

THE IMPLEMENTOR'S CREED

I came across this creed this year, attributed to Stu Galley. I plan on printing off a nice copy and framing it. It is full of wisdom for any artist.


The Implementor's Creed


by Stu Galley


I create fictional worlds. I create experiences.

I am exploring a new medium for telling stories.

My readers should become immersed in the story and forget where they are. They should forget about the keyboard and the screen, forget everything but the experience. My goal is to make the computer invisible.

I want as many people as possible to share these experiences. I want a broad range of fictional worlds, and a broad range of "reading levels". I can categorize our past works and discover where the range needs filling in. I should also seek to expand the categories to reach every popular taste.

In each of my works, I share a vision with the reader. Only I know exactly what the vision is, so only I can make the final decisions about content and style. But I must seriously consider comments and suggestions from any source, in the hope that they will make the sharing better.

I know what an artist means by saying, "I hope I can finish this work before I ruin it." Each work-in-progress reaches a point of diminishing returns, where any change is as likely to make it worse as to make it better. My goal is to nurture each work to that point. And to make my best estimate of when it will reach that point.

I can't create quality work by myself. I rely on other implementors to help me both with technical wizardry and with overcoming the limitations of the medium. I rely on testers to tell me both how to communicate my vision better and where the rough edges of the work need polishing. I rely on marketers and salespeople to help me share my vision with more readers. I rely on others to handle administrative details so I can concentrate on the vision.

None of my goals is easy. But all are worth hard work. Let no one doubt my dedication to my art.

Monday, October 1, 2018

A NOTE ABOUT STU GALLEY


(There is one very mild spoiler for Diddlebucker! in this post.)







On August 2, 2018, Stu Galley, one of the Infocom Implementors passed away unexpectedly at a hospital in Cambridge Massachusetts. Mr. Galley co-authored Seastalker and Moonmist and was the author of The Witness, which won “Best Computer Adventure of the Year” from “Electronic Games” magazine.

After his time at Infocom, Mr.Galley went on to do many other things with his life. You can learn more about his career, hobbies and family from his obituary here.

I don’t think I am alone in considering the Infocom Implementors giants in the field of Interactive Fiction. Of course, there have been many revolutionaries in the field before, during and after the rise and fall of Infocom, but these men and women have always held a special place in my heart. Familiar to me mostly because of their names on the gray box editions of their games, I always wondered what it must have been like to work with a creative group of people like that, made all the more interesting for they ways the sometimes directly put themselves into their games. (You can visit some of them in Sorcerer, for example).

When I wrote Diddlebucker! this past year, I created many teams of famous and fictional people playing the scavenger hunt alongside the player. One of them was a team named “The Implementors." The game randomly decides when the group should show up and which of the Implementors interacts with the player. Naturally, Stu Galley is one of the choices. This was all written and coded before his death.

I received word of his passing a month or so before the start of this year's competition. I debated with myself on whether or not I should remove his name from the code, given that his death happened so close to the start of the contest. The game takes place in the 1980's, so that wasn't an issue, but I was concerned about whether or not it would seem in poor taste, especially to his family. That certainly wasn't my intent. Ultimately, I decided that this part of the game was always designed to pay homage to those men and women who were pioneers in the field of IF, and to take his name out did not feel appropriate. So, I left it in.

Although I have never met Stu Galley, I hope that his family and friends, if they ever learn of his inclusion in my little game, understand the respect and affection I have for him and his works and understand why I decided to keep him a part of Diddlebucker! Without men and women like Stu Galley, I wouldn’t be authoring these games today.