Absence of Law postmortem

This was typed on a phone sorry for typos!


Last year, I had stopped doing interactive fiction for personal reasons. But as I drove down a long rural highway with my wife, I had an idea for ‘the greatest interactive fiction game of all time’: it would have you as a hacker breaking into a computer system at a secretive government research lab, spying on all the people inside and using audio recordings to bypass passwords and such.

Later I realized that I was just vividly remembering the game Hacker by Activision. But by then it had changed.


I started working on it right away. I had an image in my mind that I thought was of the LDS granite mountain vault, but turned out to be that seed storage place where they keep backups of seed lines. But what I pictured was a high snowy peak with a metal door leading into a series of cavern-like rooms.

I imagined a sleeping researcher in an office with a robot that you could hack into. I imagined two harried researchers walking around and muttering, whom I could record and and playback to each other.

I wanted it to be dramatic, so I imagined having it start off with you seeing a bloody trail in the mountains, leading through several entrance rooms to a lobby where there was obviously a dead body on the floor.

The formula

I followed a specific formula for success for Color the Truth, and I took second. So this year, I would go one step further, the final ingredient in the formula that I had refused to add before: I would write a comedy. Comedy is not my style, but comedies almost always win IFComp.

I researched humor on the internet, learning about the incongruity-resolution theory of humor, which I tried to add in. That’s why when you try to control the deadly war-robot, you end up controlling the toy on the desk instead, and so on.

I split my game up into 3 labs, copying Detectivelan’s 3 part structure, which I felt would increase the games apparent size. I made super basic versions of all the puzzles: one item to pick up in the trash maze; one foreign language command.

I sent it to Chandler Groover and some others, and reviews were mixed. They felt like I was trying to be serious/dramatic and funny at the same time, and it wasn’t working out. The truth was, the perfect game I had envisioned was a drama, but comedies were what win, so I felt torn. I ended up making everything goofy.

The Greek theme was only added after the puzzles were developed.


Another final trick I tried to pull out this year was extreme parser voice characterization. I always wanted you to be typing on a command line, but I realized that I could make the game less boring by having the narrator be a character. My narrator was based on a mix of the Minotaur in mythology, GladOS, and the music of Carole King. I wanted him to be resentful but subservient, as well as thoughtful of others.

Beginning and Ending

I wrote many, many versions of the end and the beginning. Beta testers didn’t like any of the reasons I gave for you hacking in. First, you were supposed to be someone who just stumbled into the system on accident; then, someone who was part of a benevolent hackers society; and so on. My biggest goal was for the player to feel like they themselves were the PC, then at the computer, logged into a real life location. But it didn’t fly; players have been trained so hard to picture the PC as an external character that everyone assumed (and still assume) that they were Dr. Law, or his twin. In desperation, I had the parser directly address the player, identify them as an IFComp judge, and ask for their help. But it wasn’t to be. I think I had a fundamental misunderstanding of the player-pc relationship.

The ending changed a lot too. I always wanted the discovery of Dr. Law to be the end. In one version, Dr. Law turned out to be the parser; he was a cyborg typing stuff out in the center of the complex. In another, darker version, Dr. Law was dead and stayed dead, and you just helped DaedalOS cope.

The resurrection theme was accidental. I had already made a robot (for cool destruction potential), a rejuvenator (for wackiness) and a clone machine (to have die-repeat puzzles in a single play through of a game), and I realized that they could all be used to prolong life.

The judging ceremony at the end was added after I realized the game was too short, and after testers said the ending felt abrupt. It is borrowed directly from Fair and The Art of Misdirection.


I had never written a puzzle game, and I wanted to. I ended up just taking my favorite puzzles from the past and adding them in. Lime Ergot became the opening (which at one stage had you zooming in on a tech parody of Achilles’ shield); The Wdifice became the language puzzle; Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder and Gun Mute became the clone maze and the robot battles; and so on.

I feel that it wasn’t as successful as it could be, because it was coherent. I plan on just making my own coherent puzzles next time. I was glad I could introduce people to these puzzles and games, though, and dedicated a lot of space at the end to the list of inspirations. I’ve always wanted to make a museum game that introduces people to the best games of the past, and this was my attempt.


Overall, I am very grateful to have taken 5th in a year of incredible games. If I could name one thing that every game that beat me had, it was unity; my game was a mashup of so many things; I forced a drama into comedy, I cribbed puzzles from other games. I even hacked the parser to add location based music and different colors (I had the text flashing red for warnings at one point before I realized it was obnoxious), adding the Star Spangled Banner and other songs into my game. I think next time I’ll just stick with one vision.

What I think succeeded though was focusing on player experience. My beta testers were incredible, and I tried hard to improve everything they tried and to change bad spots they noticed.

One thing I forgot to mention: I specifically made Dr. Law’s gender ambiguous; no pronouns are ever used to refer to Dr. Law.

Also, I chose the surname Law because it was both an Irish surname and a Chinese surname. The name of the game came after I made that choice.