AardVarK Versus the Hype - Post Mortem

In honor of my remembering to upload the updated version of “AardVarK Versus the Hype” to the IFArchive and re-link to it from IFDB.org (AardVarK Versus the Hype - Details) , and the fact that I’ve got some downtime when I should be sleeping, I’ve decided to write up a few things about AardVarK, its history/creation/genesis, and maybe a bit of autobiographical detail as well. I really only write in one tone, so if you played AardVarK and found the tone too flip and unserious - well, consider that your warning here as well.

AardVarK: The Beginning:
I started writing AardVarK almost directly after IFComp 2013. The Google Doc is called “Bodysnatchers Teen Comedy IF”, so I didn’t stray too far from the initial impulse there. The initial draft of a “playthrough” is dated April 2nd, 2014, so I suppose I’m misremembering a little bit about when I started - this is what happens when a process stretches eight years. When was the second Andromeda competition? It might have been directly after that, and not the 2013 IFComp.

Speaking of the draft playthrough, I first outlined the scenes I wanted in the game, then threw in some puzzles, then threw in complications to those puzzles, then wrote a sample script of commands the player would have to type in. And then I backfilled that “command line” script with screen output.

This is not necessarily a wise way to design a game. The main issue with it was that I wrote conversations that amused me - but then a few years later, while building those scenes, had to fill out conversation trees for all the “other” choices I didn’t write the first time. Dialogue writing took an INORDINATE amount of time for AardVarK, and it is 95% flavor with no bearing on the “game”.

Though, as some reviewers said, the best part of AardVarK is the flavor, and the actual game structure there is really just there to get from one bit of flavor-text to the next.

Some Bad Choices I Made:

  1. Having four playable characters was a LOT to bite off. The characters end up playing very similarly, without truly distinctive “voices” for each character. One could excuse this by saying that they are very similar people, with very similar upbringings, but this is really just a weakness in my writing - some writers write characters that end up with very similar styles (think Steven King with his teens, moms, rock and rollers, inter-dimensional cowboys that all tend to sound like a white man about the age of Steven King (this is actually pretty unfair, as there are many counter-examples in King that have relatively unique voices, and Roland is actually one of them, but I digress)) and I should have known that writing four teens would end up as basically one character quickly switching wigs and fake mustaches and doing bad accents to be “four” characters.

  2. The initial ambition of switching characters was to enable Day Of the Tentacle style puzzles where actions in different “timelines” would change things for different characters. This was quickly abandoned. In its place, I tried to clue actions for the various timelines in the crossover point in the other timelines, but I regret the abandoned ambition.

  3. I wrote the “playthrough draft” of the game sequentially (I’ve never been one to hop around chronologically, not how my writing brain works), and ended up probably “rushing” the initial version of the finale - I thought that the “out of the box/lateral thinking” of SWITCHing to Jenni would be not immediately obvious, and the rush of solving that move would naturally lead to feeling like “alright, time to wrap up the game, roll credits, etc”. The expanded ending, which doesn’t really require any more puzzle solving, but actually puts the act of getting the band back together into the player’s hands probably works better.

3a) After eight years of off-on writing on AardVarK, I “finished” a playable version in June of this year. I should have had left myself more time for beta testing, multiple rounds, etc. But I was just. Done. Too much time on one project. I told myself I just needed to push it out there, and the beta-testing was for catching niceties, etc. If I would have left more time for this step, that extended ending would have been in the initial release. I would have sanded some of the implementation edges down. There’s some egregious stuff in the very. first. room. Almost on the level of “As good-looking as ever.” I imagine that’s where my judge who gave it a 1 (and the couple who went 2 or 3) fell off.

  1. The automated hints are too aggressive. Ideally, these would be more adaptive - if someone is floundering, they would fire off, but cruising around, examining various nouns, I think I unintentionally dis-incentivized that behavior.

Some Things That I Like About What I Did:

  1. Honestly, the game still makes me laugh. I have a terrible memory, and therefore I can read things I wrote and be surprised and pleased with them.

  2. I spent a bit of time writing a dumb hack skip into the game. If you drop the tape and car keys as Jenni in the garage, you skip the whole middle section of the game and go right to the finale, with a couple of sentences of explanation as to why. It’s a dumb hack of coding, and to be properly polished some room descriptions/item descriptions in the finale would have to change, and it makes some elements of the plot not make sense, but it’s more for fun than for anything else.

  3. There is one joke involving looking under the bed in the bedroom scene. There were some streamers this year that played my game on their stream, and I saw them walk perfectly into the joke and laugh about it, and honestly, getting that laugh made my Comp. Writing can be a lonely, isolated hobby, but that connection really made it for me.

  4. SWITCHing as a command was a hassle and a half to implement. Especially the bit where two of the characters are arguing/talking with each other. But you can SWITCH between them, and the conversation continues to flow naturally. I really like how I did that. Good job, me.

Some background/trivia on AardVarK:

  1. The first line in the Google Doc, before I started outlining, is this: ‘The ubiquity of blood in puberty’ - maybe the phrase that saved this game. I didn’t remember where this phrase came from - I just googled it, and the only place on the entire web with those words in that order is a post on Emily Short’s blog in March of 2014. So that timing lines up, certainly. It’s in a review of a Porpentine game - so that might be the only link between something that I write and something Porpentine writes. But it’s because of this that the Bodysnatchers/Puppets/Possessed announce their presence with blood.

1a) That and the fact that the breakfast scene in Alien traumatized me as a child.

  1. Hype soda is Surge soda, VERY lightly greeked. Down to the cover art for the game, which is a pixellated Surge can with replaced lettering. The timing/era/setting of the game match exactly with a (real) presentation that my school had where we were given a can of Surge soda at the end of it. I hope my school district got a LOT of money from Coca-Cola.

  2. Jenni is named that because about seven girls in my class were named Jenni/Jenny/Jennifer. And my wife’s cat that she had in high school was named Jenny-fur. Amanda because it was the second most popular name. Paul because the guy I carpooled to school with was Paul. Lewis because when you play Left 4 Dead and use the action button on Lewis, your character says “Lewis!” over and over. Lewis!

  3. Sunset lake in the game is a mash-up of two places from my high school town. Neither of them have a fountain. Both of them were excellent make-out locations.

  4. A few reviewers/players thought some deep thoughts about high school, and adolescence in general, and dealt with some issues from growing up. Personally, fourth through eighth grades were harder for me, but high school was a turning point. New school, new kids, and I really found my pack, to use a phrase that probably started really gaining in popularity with The Hangover, and thus is an anachronism for both AardVarK and my experience in the 90s. This fall I traveled cross country to go to one of my high school friends’s 40th birthday party. We call each other, confide in each other, we ran a marathon together once.
    I know this isn’t necessarily a normal experience, that in some ways I’m lucky - but I think there’s also some universals in growing up - everyone is unsure, everyone is gawky, everyone sometimes thinks they’re the only real person in the world (hopefully we grow out of that one). If there is a theme to AardVarK, it’s that we all have periods in our life that we just stumble through without really feeling in control, and sometimes it can feel sinister, and sometimes like we’re a bunch of overgrown puppies in a trenchcoat, but if you approach things with earnestness and passion, you’ll find a way to find your way through.

  5. “That girl” throwing a party in the game has a name - it’s Jordan, which can be revealed through a conversation with the jock/bouncer. Jordan was a girl in my class in high school. A different Jordan was a boy in my class in high school. Once I had a job interview after college, and the interviewer saw my high school on my resume, and asked if I knew Jordan. “Yeah, I know Jordan!” I said, “I was in a bunch of classes with him!”
    “Jordan is a girl,” he replied.
    I didn’t get that job.

  6. Speaking of jobs, at one point I worked in a gas station as a cashier. So not only are the four playable characters basically me, so is the main NPC as well.

TL/DR:
Lesson learned: don’t spend eight years writing something (full stop). Other lesson learned: if you do spend eight years writing something, take the time to sand off ALL the rough edges ESPECIALLY if they are in the opening scene. And then there’s a bunch of semi-autobiographical, semi-interesting words that you skipped over, because this was Too Long, and you Didn’t Read.

Followups:
A) If this is the first time you’re hearing about the Extended Ending, you can access it by typing “I JUST WANT TO SEE THE BIG FINALE” in the updated version of the game.
B) If you have any questions/comments/concerns about AardVarK, let me know, and I can answer them.

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Did you know there is a real-life drink called Hype*? For me, that made the whole game even funnier.

    • As far as I know, real Hype does not behave like the in-game Hype, nor is it marketed that way.
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