(Here follows some fairly lengthy and rambling reflections on my Spring Thing 2022 entry, Custard & Mustard’s Big Adventure . If you want to cut to the chase, then the summary is that I had a good time writing it, my testers were wonderful, and I’m happy that some people liked it. If you want more, then read on…)
The inspiration for Custard & Mustard’s Big Adventure was found, unsurprisingly, very close to home: we really do own a dog called Colonel Mustard, an energetic and mischievous bichon frise / pug cross (for those of you who enjoy ‘aaah’ing at doggy photos, there’s a picture of him at the end of the in-game credits) and making up stories about all the incredible and ridiculous adventures that he gets involved in while our back are turned is something that me and my son, Flint, do on our regular dog walks together. Walking the dog (half dragging, half being dragged) daily around the same old route becomes monotonous pretty quickly and it’s good for higher-brained humans to have something to pass the time while their simpler-minded animal companions are plodding alongside them, stopping to sniff at every blade of grass and cock their legs at every lamp post they pass. At the time the first seeds of the Custard & Mustard idea took root, Flint was eight and Mustard was about four months old and very much like an energetic, excitable and very furry toddler, wanting to explore everything, play with everything, chase after everything and, especially, to eat everything. It was only natural to speculate about what he would get up to if he managed to slip off the lead and disappear for an adventure around town and, after a couple of weeks of exchanging tales about it, we had the bare bones of the story: Mustard would meet and make friends with another dog and together they’d get involved in an escalating series of scrapes around town, ending up with them foiling some sort of grand crime. We came up with a lot of the names together (‘Ernel Custard’ and the ‘Pegasus’ restaurant were both Flint’s ideas) and devised many of the escapades that would appear in the final game.
The idea of making a game together was something we’d talked about before. During the first Covid lockdown in the UK, in March to May 2020, I’d written my first text game. It was something I’d been curious about for a few years but had never managed to find the time to do; now, unexpectedly stuck at home and unable to go anywhere, it seemed the perfect opportunity. With the schools closed, Flint was also stuck at home and, with me stuck alongside him and beavering away trying to learn how to code in my spare time, he became interested in what I was doing. He was only seven then and, once I’d explained the idea to him and shown him one or two examples, his little mind was, for a time, well and truly blown by the concept of the text game: a living story, written on a computer, that you could actually control by typing things in and that would talk back to you with phrases like “I don’t understand”, “I don’t know how to [verb]” and “I don’t know that phrase – try using different words”– amazing! Flint became fairly obsessed with parser games for a few months and, when he wasn’t quivering in front of the screen, suffering the bouts of frustration and anger familiar to every novice text-game player (is there any rage more acute that that experienced by a child attempting to get a text game to understand what seems to them to be a perfectly simple instruction?), he quite enjoyed beating one or two of them, with a little help from me. Mostly, though, being the analogue sort of kid that he is, his preference was actually to spend time trying to recreate the games on paper: great long scrolls of paper, made of A4 sheets stapled together, on which he’d write and illustrate ‘location descriptions’, followed by inventory and exit lists, and then choices (it was one of those innovative parser / choice hybrid systems that everyone is always getting excited about) - a sort of gamebook. It seemed you were supposed to find a location on the paper scroll, select an inventory item and an exit, then spool down the scroll to the next location and make a choice… it was never quite clear to anyone else, but it made perfect sense to him and he must have gone through a fair few reams of paper making these text-game inspired scrolls and scattering them around the house – I still come across them regularly, tucked away in various cupboards and drawers. Flint’s text mania lasted for a good six months before he began to get bored of the arcane and unforgiving mysteries of the parser and, a year and a bit later, with Covid restrictions rapidly disappearing, the schools open again and life getting back to normal, he’d moved on to greater things (Minecraft, as it happened, which entranced him for a good few months before he got bored of that too and reverted back to his pens and paper again). By that point, it seemed he regarded text games (if he regarded them at all) as a youthful aberration that he’d left behind him but he was still prepared to humour me being interested in – hoping, perhaps, that I’d grow out of them one day.
Anyway, the point of all this rambling is to say that after a good many more dog walks and a lot more yarn spinning, and after taking the exciting decision that we’d turn our tale into one of those weird, old-fashioned text games (at this point named Custard and Mustard Go to Town ) and try our luck with it in a competition, it was clear that, when it came to the actual making of the game, I’d be pretty much on my own. By tacit agreement, it was determined that I’d do all the writing and the coding (you know - the actual, hard work part of the creation process) and Flint would chip in occasionally, with ideas and suggestions. As it turned out, that mainly involved him looking over my shoulder at the laptop screen now and then, and saying “Daddy, are you still writing that thing?” before giving me that look that all parents are familiar with, when their children want them to know that they are judging them, and then wandering off to get on with his own, more important stuff.
So, left to my own devices, I settled down in earnest to make this game that I had, somehow, committed to create. Flint and I had already worked out the main storyline between us, and most of the set pieces were already there: the magic show, the sneaking into the posh restaurant (Flint’s idea – although he originally wanted Custard and Mustard to dress up as dinner guests and be served fine dining at the table! But I decided that was just a bit too silly…),
and the skateboarding sequence (…entirely my idea, thereby undercutting my own earlier logic by putting in something even sillier than the restaurant stuff). The plot with the golden dog collar that the gang of crooks were trying to steal was in place, and I had the final scene worked out (I like to have the very last scene of a story clear in my mind, even if nothing else is, before I begin writing). The rest I could work out as I went along, eschewing written notes, which I generally avoid as they tend to deaden my creative process a bit.
For the engine, there was never any question of using anything other than Adventuron. Its colourful, retro vibe felt perfect for the silly, family-friendly romp that I had in mind and its easy handling of graphics and sound would come in handy too. Besides, having quite recently spent some months writing, more or less on a whim, the longest and most complicated game ever written in Adventuron ( The Faeries of Haelstowne ), I felt I had a pretty intimate knowledge of all its charms, abilities, foibles and weaknesses (having spent so much time with it by this point, I’d practically developed a romantic attachment to it) and I knew a trick or two to blunt some of the rougher edges of the Adventuron parser.
The original idea was to have the game ready for IFComp, but it became clear pretty quickly that that was absurdly optimistic – it was already July and, with my general schedule and slow and steady coding style, plus my natural inclination to write at length unless there is any very pressing reason not to (witness this afterword), I was never going to make that deadline. I began to plan a bit more realistically and looked for somewhere to place it the following year. ParserComp was an option (I’d entered the previous one) but July seemed just a little bit too far away. Spring Thing seemed to fit the bill nicely – not too close and not too far away. Perfect. I’d aim Custard & Mustard at that.
That decided, I began, tentatively, to code the first few locations, the first couple of NPCs (Mustard’s owner Pru, and his doggy friend Tadcaster) and the first puzzle (Mustard escaping his lead), starting off gently just to get my hand in again after a little while away from coding and to get a feel for the characters. By the time I’d done that, I was ready and raring to go on the rest of the game! And so, poised and ready to write the following scenes that I had all carefully planned out and ready, I did what any writer worth their salt would do: I found something time-consuming and distracting to do instead, as a way of avoiding the real work. I discovered BeepBox and spent a happy week or so, on and off, making some ridiculous theme music to accompany a title sequence that I’d decided I must also create at some later stage. I have to say that I really was very proud of the resulting tune – inordinately so, in fact. Perhaps prouder than of anything else I’ve ever achieved in my life (excepting getting married and having a child – but a pretty close third place, I’d say). I was delighted with it, Flint was delighted with it, my wife…was she delighted with it? It’s hard to say. But even after hearing it repeated on a loop about thirty times, she still wasn’t complaining about it that much, so I supposed she must have been delighted with it too. Really, I should just have submitted it on its own to the Spring Thing back garden and finished there – but my sense of obligation to myself compelled me, in the end, to stop mucking about and go back to writing the actual game.
After that diversion, the game proper came together relatively painlessly over the next few months. I did all of the coding first, preferring to get a game working, mechanically, before fleshing it out with writing. It was mostly pretty straightforward to get the functioning skeleton of the game up and working, with a lot of holding text throughout (things like “[Prof Ambleside says hilarious stuff]” and “[Crooks discuss robbery]” where I’d later slot in all the writing. The fiddliest bit to implement was probably the wooden lid that the dogs can carry around between them or one dog can sit on while the other dog pushes them about – there’s a lot of complicated stuff with dynamic Booleans and switching object names going on behind the scenes that feels as if it could go wrong at any moment, but I was pleased that, in the end, it did actually work as expected and my testers found no bugs in it. Other bits and pieces of code I nicked from my previous game, including the container stuff (the fishing creel and the crate in Gander Alley are proper containers that any object can be placed into and taken out of, while the others in the game are, to a greater or lesser extent, fakes. There is no extensive standard library built into Adventuron like there is in, for example, Inform - so any complex object behavior of that sort has to be implemented from scratch with a lot of clunky code). Another seemingly clever coding trick in the game is the ability to switch protagonist – the player can, at a single command, BECOME the other dog and play as that character instead (essential to complete the parts of the game that require cooperation between the two pooches) – but alas, I can’t take credit for that as it’s a function built in to Adventuron! An earlier Adventuron game (by Dee Cooke) also featured protagonist-switching, but that was written before the functionality existed in the engine and was somehow achieved through a combination of clever coding, brute force and sorcery (mainly the latter, I think); I was quite spoilt to have the ability included in the version that I was using so that it was just ready and waiting at my fingertips.
With the coding pretty well wrapped up, it was time to deal, en bloc, with all of the actual writing. It was early-ish in the new year by this point, and I reckoned I had about 6 weeks before I needed to get the game out to my testers (who were all poised and ready on standby). Plenty of time. So what did I do? Why, I distracted myself again and frittered away a good week or two making a silly cartoon title sequence to accompany the triumph of my theme tune! I’d never made anything like that before and really had no idea what I was doing – so a huge amount of time was spent fiddling around with various software, making animation cells, sticking them all together, converting them to one file type and then to another, adding in the theme tune, wrestling to get the music to sync properly with the pictures, and then finally converting it to a video file that would play happily in Adventuron. When that was finally done – and I’d wasted further valuable writing-time making a couple of mock-ups of fictional local newpaper front pages to display at the beginning and end of the game (with such obscure headlines as Gravy Vote: Lib Dems Pore Over Saucy Suggestion – made me laugh but, I realise, will be lost on players lacking acquaintance with the workings of your average English town council), I could tarry no longer and finally bowed to the inevitable of having to get on and do the writing.
In actual fact, that was pretty easy. The story was all there and the tone of the piece - sort of whimsical comedy – is not something I find difficult to write (if I have any kind of forte, then sort of whimsical comedy is what it is). Once I’d got stuck in, I had a lot of fun making up daft names for the town (Little Pottlington) and its streets (Cripplepepper Lane, Pinchmaid Hill, Crupgirdle Street etc) and all the characters (Prunella Arabella Kinsella-Rockerfella, Dave “Terry” Turpin [smells like wet towels], Professor Ambleside, Handclap Harry and his gang, the bumbling police officers Constable Oddcrisp, Sergeant Wise and Chief Broom et al). I could churn out characters like these in my sleep, but I have to be careful that I don’t start repeating myself, like a lazy screenwriter: for example, I realized, when I’d almost finished writing the game, that I’d put three Harrys in it (Harry Rockerfella, Harry Spratt and Handclap Harry), so I had to change the names of two of them to something else, to prevent a Harry-based disambiguation nightmare!
The game map is based fairly closely on the town where I live (Ely, Cambridgeshire, UK) which does indeed have a market square, quaint little streets, a pretty public garden where a fête - Ely’s eel-themed “Eel Day” - is held each year, and a museum that did used to be the old town goal (and which, just like in the game, is currently hosting an exhibition of Romano-British artefacts by arrangement with the British Museum – although, oddly, I had no idea about that until after I’d finished the game. Strange coincidence). I spent many happy hours putting loquacious speeches in the mouths of my characters (Professor Ambleside’s fête-opening ramble is a particular favourite), all the while laughing heartily at my own jokes and only occasionally wondering if I was going a bit over the top, before deciding that, if I was, I didn’t really mind that much. One thing I’ve discovered with writing text games is that somehow the stakes feel lower than with other sorts of writing I might involve myself in. Perhaps it’s because the audience is so small, perhaps it’s because I’m not bothered about competition rankings or anything of that sort – I’m no sure, but there is something liberating about just writing as you please, just for the enjoyment and satisfaction, without worrying too much about what the critics might make of it. Writing Custard & Mustard felt like a breeze (once I’d finally stopped distracting myself and actually got down to it) and I had the thing pretty much done by beginning of March.
Having kept them waiting around for a week or so after I’d told them for definite it would be arriving (while I prevaricated, delayed and generally tinkered), my better self finally managed to wrest the game from my own grasping hands and deliver it to my testers – a plucky team of 5 people who, like willing sheep, seemed quite happy to be driven blindly across the minefield of my untested game, poking into every corner, looking under every stone, attempting to pick up every item of scenery and generally doing all those fun things that testers like to do (I also hadn’t got around to putting the hint system in by that point, so they really were on their own). They did an excellent job and thoroughly deserve another name check here: Jim MacBrayne, Rovarsson, Mike Russo, Heiko Spies and Amanda Walker. I was quite happy that, actually, they didn’t find too much wrong with it: a lot of typos and spelling errors (I tend to dyslexia and am also a very hit and miss typist, plus there is no spell check in Adventuron, so I produce a lot of them; I’m pretty sure my poor testers enjoyed seeing me spell ‘monocle’ as ‘monacle’ about 50 times), one or two oddities with movement routines, an unanticipated unwinnable state or two (in the final version, there shouldn’t be any of those – so if you do come across one, it’s definitely a bug) and a lot of repeating stuff at the very end where, in the breathless rush to the denouement, I’d forgotten to switch off a bunch of Booleans so things kept triggering when they shouldn’t have – but nothing completely catastrophic. In general, testers seemed to enjoy the light hearted tone, the jokes (mostly), the puzzles (while providing some good suggestions about how to smooth the way a little with one or two of the less obvious ones) and the colourful cast of characters – although one of those did seem to touch a nerve a little more than I expected.
Crawfield the Cat is, I think, my favourite character in the story – vain, superior, disdainful and duplicitous as only a cat can be, he was one of those characters that largely write themselves without a lot of effort on the part of the author. Given his archetypical attributes, I was a little surprised by my testers’ reaction to his act of apparent betrayal, about half way through the game. Were they not expecting this? It seemed not, and it hit them hard. @AmandaB , in particular, was deeply traumatised by Crawfield’s treachery (I think she’s just about over it now, but my goodness, the therapy was expensive), but she wasn’t the only one. Here, for example, is @deusirae’s reaction to the very same dastardly act, taken from his tester’s transcript (the action here beginning just after Crawfield has left our heroes in the lurch):
We wait below for something to happen. We keep waiting. And waiting. After fifteen minutes or so, we begin to call up to him, but there’s no sign of him at the window, or anywhere near the entrance to the museum. After about half an hour, we realise he’s not coming back.
“Hey!” I bark up at the empty window. "Crawfield! Where did you go?”
I turn to Custard. “Unbelievable! He promised he’d help us.”
Custard shakes his head sadly. “Never trust a cat.”
I don’t think I’ll bother with that actually.
I bark at Mustard and Custard barks at me, both of us as happy as can be.
I don’t think I’ll bother with that actually.
>SCREAM DEFIANCE IN THE FACE OF AN ABSENT AND UNCARING GOD
I don’t think I’ll bother with that actually.
>SINK TO KNEES SHOUTING NOOOOOO
I don’t think I’ll bother with that actually.
> STUPID CAT
Had I known how deeply affected players would be by this particular scene, I’d have put a content warning at the beginning: Warning! Depicts acts of feline perfidy! Luckily, however, one (anonymous, untraceable and unguessable) player bestowed it with an ‘Evilest Cat’ ribbon at the end of the festival, which is now displayed prominently alongside the game as a warning to future players. (Stupid cat.)
With my beta testers finished and their transcripts in hand, I diligently went through and did a lot of fixing and tidying up as well as adding a few extra cut scenes to help orient and direct players a little more emphatically, and then sent it off to @rovarsson again (who seemed prepared to drop pretty much everything else he was doing just to oblige me, bless him) for a final run through at the 11th hour before I came to the very end of my reserves of spit and polish and finally, proudly?, reluctantly?, with some trepidation and also much relief, submitted it to the competition.
I was quite happy with the way the game was received, amongst the fairly small portion of IF players who are motivated to play quite long and quite challenging parser games like mine. Most of them seemed to ‘get it’ and even if they didn’t, they seemed to enjoy themselves, more or less. The slightly obscure, slightly haphazard nature of the puzzles left one or two floundering for a while, before they settled down sensibly to use the integrated hints. Mathbrush bravely battled his way through to the finishing line with his characteristic determination, only to fall into an infinite loop towards the end from which he thankfully managed to extricate himself – proof that, however thorough the testing, there are always bugs that scuttle away between the cracks and then come back to bite you.
Most seemed to appreciate the innocent humour. One reviewer described it as “charming and well-mannered…hailing from an earlier, simpler era”. I was very happy with that. I did want to write something purely and simply escapist that could be enjoyed by all, just for what it was, without having to worry too much about the subtext, or the deeper meaning of it all, or the painful realities of the human condition and suchlike. I get plenty of that elsewhere, but personally, that’s not what I come to IF for: I come for entertainment, and amusement and an escape from the harsh realities of life - and if I can provide a little bit of that in return, with the small slice of summer that Custard & Mustard’s Big Adventure is intended to be, then I’m happy that I’ve done what I set out to do.
And that, you may be relieved to hear, concludes my reflections. Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone - authors, players, reviewers and organizers alike - involved in Spring Thing 2022. Roll on Spring Thing 2023!