The following contains spoilers…
So, IFComp 2023 recently concluded, and A Thing of Wretchedness didn’t place very highly. I was always expecting the feedback to be mixed, but it was interesting to see in real time during the competition just how mixed it really was. Opinions on whether the game was scary, whether it was easy to figure out what to do, how people saw the wretched thing, what kind of symbolism the game contained, whether the endings were satisfying and whether the game worked as a stand-alone title were all spread. The main thing reviewers agreed on was that the random elements were unlikable. It wasn’t quite the Golden Banana contender, but still, I might as well explain some of my thought process behind the making of this story.
My original inspiration for it came a few years ago. I was working at an agricultural museum where I occasionally read old pictorials to pass the time. One of the magazines had a veterinarian’s column, and a letter I saw posted there asked (paraphrasing) whether it would be possible to put down a 40 kg animal with ordinary household poisons, or if it would suffer. Of course, the magazine’s answer was an empathetic no: doing so would be unethical and harmful, not to mention illegal due to animal protection laws.
The letter stuck with me for some reason, perhaps because the writer never specified which animal they were talking about. This slowly turned into an idea of a game where you are a person in a similar situation, stuck somewhere in the countryside in the 60’s or 70’s with a very ill, potentially dangerous mystery animal that you’re thinking about putting down, even though you’re lacking any knowledge on how to do so properly (hence the irresponsible thought of using rat poison).
This continued to evolve into a more Lovecraftian tale where a cursed artifact has transformed a man into something inhuman, and his wife, whose mind has snapped from the horror before the story has even started, now thinks that he is some weird, sick pet that needs to be put down.
I think I got one version of this idea even before Ascension of Limbs: a game where you’re a seer wandering around inside a suspiciously empty antique store, examining various objects and seeing visions of their past owners. One of these visions would show you the events of A Thing of Wretchedness. Cut to the present, where you’ll find that the antiquarian himself has also been transformed into a wretched thing, and it’s up to you to neutralize the danger inside the store through some mystical means. Although I liked this idea, this kind of an adventure game with multiple self-contained mini-adventures based on the visions witnessed by the seer… well, at some point the scope of the game simply got too large to be practical.
In the end, the antique store concept turned into the “text-based card-based game” Ascension of Limbs (inspired by Cultist Simulator) whereas this specific mini-adventure was completed as its own game… A Thing of Wretchedness.
The game world is a vision of something that happened in the past and therefore a lot of its details are fuzzy and inconsistent, especially in regards to the passing of time. It’s basically a portrayal of an ambiguous frame of time at the old farmstead, like a kind of a loop or a rewindable tape. This is probably best exemplified by the letter: although delivering it to the mailbox is possible, the part where the Monthly Digest posts a reply is outside the scope of the vision; the letter instead just re-appears in the house after a certain amount of time.
This also means that the story doesn’t contain actual branching paths: everything that can happen in the game world is feasibly canon, and all the different endings are canon as well (unfortunately, this includes the one where you get eaten by the wretched thing).
The whole purpose of the story is laid out pretty clearly in the game’s opening paragraphs. It starts with the protagonist writing a letter to be sent (key to one of the endings) where you are speculating poisoning an animal (also key to one of the endings). The goal was to suggest these two basic ideas to the player and then leave them to wander around in the environment. It’s pretty minimal as far as player guidance is concerned, but then again, A Thing of Wretchedness was always supposed to be a fairly stripped down sandbox-game where the mechanics largely are the story. In the initial version, there was only one ending: you poison the wretched thing, the process is destructive and unpleasant, the wretched thing then bursts through the wall and leaves… and that’s it. I wonder if adding the other two endings diluted something about the original idea, making the final version of the game in some sense “lesser”.
Generally speaking, I found it challenging to find a balance between the minimalistic original vision as well as the need to create a fully implemented sandbox of mechanics. The more I added to the game world, the more it contributed to the feeling that it suddenly had a lot of insignificant red herrings and loose ends. I guess these mixed priorities also showed in the end result: some players tried playing this game like a traditional adventure game, picking up all the items they could find, only to get confused because there’s no place to use almost any of them. Maybe trying to execute this kind of a minimal concept in traditional parser-based form is an uphill battle in the first place?
The core of the sandbox revolves around the wretched thing that wanders around the apartment, breaks things and can occasionally hide behind furniture.
One thing that makes text-based gaming really unique is how easy it is to withhold information from the player. Of course, this is a bit of a double-edged sword. Having to mind read the developer to get any progress done is a persistent annoyance in many parser-based games, but on the other hand, the ability to withhold information on purpose allows some unique artistic possibilities as well. The Gostak was a huge inspiration for me back when I first started playing IF, since it demonstrated a truly surreal adventure where nothing about the game world is knowable besides what is insinuated through game mechanics. A similar kind of logic drove the creation of the elusive wretched thing as well.
I wanted this character to come off as strangely oppressive and ominous, even though it isn’t obviously dangerous. One method I used to accomplish this was to add a special line informing the player of its presence every single turn when it’s in the room, even when it’s not doing anything special. “The wretched thing is here.” I think this small detail alone makes the wretched thing feel like a looming presence, something to always be wary of.
In the rare case the wretched thing does attack, this line turns into the equally understated “The wretched thing is coming.” This is one of my favorite creepy details about the game. It’s slightly unfortunate most players never get to see it because the wretched thing is generally non-aggressive (unless provoked) to suit this style of more slow-burning horror.
There are two ways to prevent a game over if the wretched thing becomes a threat: one is to go outdoors, one is to enter a side room and close the door behind you. The player is not informed of this directly at any point. However, should the player visit the “help” screen, they can learn of the verb “hide”, which spells out what they should do in a dangerous situation. Not many players visited the help-screen or ever tried out this verb, though, so perhaps it was a little too hidden.
When the wretched thing hides behind furniture, the special line informing that it’s in the room with you is no longer printed. Instead, you only find a small mention of the hidden wretched thing in the room description paragraphs. I wrote some custom room description code both to create a sense of destructible scenery and also be able to switch the order of lines when needed, so that the wretched thing can literally go into hiding between paragraphs of text. I thought this was a nice psychological ploy while coding it, although in the end I can’t say for sure if it really made an impact to many players.
A lot of players were reluctant to hurt the wretched thing, which is perfectly understandable. However, those going for a full pacifist run - never poisoning the wretched thing at all - would inevitably find the game’s sandbox become that much more confusing and empty. After all, poisoning the wretched thing was the entirety of the original concept, and the majority of the development time went into making this process an appropriately gruesome spectacle.
At least a few players had this sort of an underwhelming non-violent, unfinished playthrough. Although in a sense it’s heartbreaking to see someone who initially seems to be enjoying the experience slowly but surely descend into frustration and apathy as they run out of things to do, in another sense this kind of a response is perfectly appropriate for this game. Confusion, helplessness, frustration and procrastination are all things which strongly define the main character, so if the player also succumbs to these things, does that mean the sandbox is working just as intended?
Still, perhaps it would’ve been useful to give the player a better motivation by making the wretched thing appear at least a bit more threatening. Although it’s not be obvious from the player’s point of view, mechanics-wise the protagonist is in fact in real danger, since it’s only a matter of time before the wretched thing turns permanently hostile. The aggression level of the wretched thing slowly escalates as the turn counter increases, until eventually (after about 800 turns) it will attempt to murder the player almost every opportunity it gets.
The story begins at a point where the main character can’t ignore the sense of impending danger any longer and decides to take action - any action - instead of just passively adjusting to her strange situation. (This has gone on for… how long? Weeks? Months?) But depending on the player, the story can still end with a deeply unsatisfying whimper rather than a bang if they decide to persistently continue not taking any action to escape their situation. So deep down, perhaps you might say this game is about the dangers of procrastination.
Like many of my other games, I would call A Thing of Wretchedness more concept-driven than average; the sort of a game where internal consistency is more important than any conventional “fun” factor. For better or worse, its interactivity is shaped by the concept: the mechanics largely are the story, and in this case, even the endings are basically just an afterthought.
Especially the final (third) ending was a big point of contention for reviewers. As mentioned, it was added to the game at a fairly late stage, and designing the path which leads to it was actually something of a problem to me. It was originally reached by simply finding the key from your husband’s jacket inside the wardrobe, unlocking the workshop and then fiddling with the black box a few times. Although such a plain and un-puzzly solution would’ve fit the game’s sandbox concept, I thought it would’ve been underwhelming if the player could feasibly finish the game with the “best” ending in under 20 turns by sheer accident.
I then got the idea of placing the key inside the cupboard, which the wretched thing has to destroy in order for you to reach it. It’s basically an RNG-wall and far from intuitive game design. But it’s also an untraditional, un-puzzly solution that uses the mechanics of the sandbox. I guess you could think about it in terms of roguelite-games. In this genre, almost every major aspect of game progression is determined by randomness. Yet, despite the RNG and (usually) extreme difficulty, any well-design roguelite can be finished consistently, as demonstrated by players who go for high winning streaks in games such as The Binding of Isaac or Slay the Spire. In this regard, I think a roguelite can be considered “fair” as long as there are enough things the player can do, even if indirectly, to tweak the random outcomes to their favor.
Keeping this perhaps slightly far-fetched game design principle in mind, there are quite a few ways the player can use the sandbox mechanics to direct the wretched thing’s attention to the living room and the cupboard, as detailed in the walkthrough. It’s still random, but at least it’s substantially more fair than a pure lottery. But does that still mean it’s good design? I think it would make more sense in another kind of context than (again) a traditional parser-based adventure.
One more significant issue remains, which is that the game’s final twist is not signposted anywhere else in the story: the black box and its implications come out of nowhere when you reach the workshop. I suppose it would’ve been possible to remedy this by creating some kind of a fetch quest line where you feed things into the black box, forcing the player to move between the workshop and the main building a few times. But then again, story-wise it’s implied that the box is distinctly unimpressive looking - enough so that people who open it don’t see the danger until it’s too late. So why would the protagonist go through the trouble of doing an elaborate side quest with something she has no reason to care about? Also, since when have fetch quests been considered good and interesting gameplay in the first place? In the end, I decided to go with the sandbox RNG-wall, because it’s at least a bit different from what you usually see in the genre… plus the remaining development time was growing short as well.
I expected the players to try out either the “poison” or “letter” endings on their first playthrough, but the game’s non-linear design resulted in a lot of players instead reaching the third ending on their first go. A few reviewers (like Mathbrush) even pointed out that this probably made the game work better for them. How strange… In the end, I must concede I still don’t understand how the human mind really works.
To sum things up, I think A Thing of Wretchedness had a lot of original (and even good) ideas, but the execution could’ve been better. Having more time to refine the design wouldn’t have hurt; the lack of time also showed in some unfortunate bugs, the worst of which I had to emergency patch during the first week of the competition. Still, considering I didn’t have the time & focus to make a complete game at all in 2022, I can live with this end result.
Perhaps we’ll see again another IFComp…
Thanks for reading.