Alias 'The Magpie' Postmortem


(J. J. Guest) #1

Alias ‘The Magpie’ Postmortem

A very lengthy postmortem for Alias ‘The Magpie’!

First of all, I would like to say a great big thank you to everyone who played, reviewed and rated my game. I am stunned at the reception it has received, and humbled, and of course, delighted! Entering IF Comp, and especially being part of the private authors’ forum has been a wonderful experience, and I’m not sure why I haven’t done it before now. Thanks also, for reading this rather long-winded postmortem.

According the the timestamp on the Inform project folder, I began writing Alias ‘The Magpie’ on 3rd December 2007, almost 11 years ago. For the first few years, it was one of those projects that I would pick up, tinker with for a few weeks, and put down again. For a long while, it seemed as though it would never get off the starting blocks, but gradually, like the proverbial snowball, it grew and gathered momentum.

Then, last August, I quite suddenly lost my mum to undiagnosed secondary breast cancer. This put life into perspective for me, and I realised that what I really loved doing was writing and creating IF in particular. It had been a source of deep regret for me that I had not released a brand new game for 8 years, and I decided to do something about it. I threw myself into the game, and over the next year poured hundreds of hours into getting it finished. After listening to the sound of the Spring Thing deadline whoosh past, I set my sights on IF Comp.

The inspiration for the ‘Magpie’ was Sir Charles Litton, aka the ‘Phantom’, from the Pink Panther films. The original idea was that this would be a game about a gentleman thief, but one who had somehow lost or mislaid his thieving equipment, and would be forced to improvise. In the game’s early stages, the ‘Magpie’ was more a physical artiste than a confidence trickster, and the puzzles were to have been very Wallace and Gromit; walking up walls with sink plungers, and that sort of thing. This version bubbled around in my head for a while before the concept settled down to more or less its present form, and I actually began work on the code.

An early influence on the game was the Infocom game Moonmist, but for all the wrong reasons. Though a fine game, Moonmist was one of the first I’d played which felt as though it was on rails. The authors seemed not to have considered that the player might choose to take any action besides the ones that advanced the story in the way they expected. My instinct when playing this sort of game is always to test the boundaries. Hence, when I was invited to dress for dinner, I came downstairs completely naked. When offered a chair at the dining table, I sat on the floor. If I was hoping to provoke a reaction from the NPCs, I was disappointed. The story rumbled on exactly as it would have had I done what was expected of me. When I began work on Alias ‘The Magpie’, I decided that the player should be allowed free reign to do whatever they wanted, and the non-player characters should react accordingly. This is, of course, entirely unrealistic, but what emerged from this attempt was the player character. The ‘Magpie’ would be a man who could behave outrageously and explain it away with an airy wave and a glib line. He would have the ability to talk his way out of any situation, and enough charm to get away with murder, figuratively speaking.

Magpie is set at an unspecified time in the twentieth century. I deliberately avoided making references that would ground it in a particular decade, but one or two might have slipped through. Most reviewers have noticed the influence of Wodehouse, and of the Pink Panther films, but if I had to put a date on it, I would say early 1960s. Specifically, I wanted it to have a flavour of zany early '60s film comedies, but perhaps one that was set in an earlier decade, such as the '30s. This was the brief that I gave to my cover artist, Mads Weidner, and I think he nailed it.

So why did Alias ‘The Magpie’ take me 11 years to write? One reason was that my intention was to create something that played like a traditional, free-roaming parser game, but which also had a complex plot. In order to maintain the sense of player agency, I was keen that the majority of puzzles should be completeable in any order. This made matters rather complicated for me. I would finish writing scene X and then think, what if the player has done Y before X happens? So I would have to write an alternative version of scene X that took account of this. The disguises added another layer of complication. What if the player was disguised as Z when he carried out Y? And I’d have to go back to scene X and account for that too. Almost every rule had to have multiple exceptions built in. When it came time for beta-testing, my testers would do things in an order that had never even occurred to me, and I’d have to go back and account for all those possibilities too.

Another reason was lack of planning. I launched into coding with little more than a premise, hoping that everything would fall into place. One of the first things I wrote was the introductory paragraph, and the scene in Lord Hamcester’s study that opens the game, but originally, Lord Hamcester asked the ‘Magpie’ to masquerade as a piano tuner. This didn’t feel right, since the ‘Magpie’ would surely prefer to play high status. I toyed with several other ideas, including opera singer and jazz musician, before eventually arriving at the notion that he should impersonate his own arch-nemesis, the detective who had been on his trail for years. It seems obvious now, but it took me until 2015 to come up with that idea, and meanwhile the secondary plotlines, involving the cucumber competition and the Major’s backstory, had been growing in its absence. Once I had the main story, the different plotlines could all be interwoven together. That was the fun part! It did all fall into place, but it took a very long time doing so.

Originally, the game was to have had multiple endings, including several in which the ‘Magpie’ got caught and sent to jail, but when I came to write them, they just felt wrong. I soon realised that the ‘Magpie’ could never fail. No matter how ‘sticky’ the situation got, there would always be a way for the player to get out of trouble, and thus the game could never be made unwinnable.

The Endgame

I have a bit of an obsession with gorillas, and in particular with Hollywood gorilla men; those (usually uncredited) actors who made a career, back in the early part of the twentieth century, of portraying gorillas on the silver screen. The game makes reference to two – Charles Gemora, and Ray “Crash” Corrigan. Not only am I am member of a Facebook fan group devoted to these individuals, I possess a made to measure gorilla suit myself, imported at great expense from Denver, Colorado. A gorilla suit was a feature of Magpie from quite early on, though it took me a while to figure out how it fitted into the story. Now, when I said that I began writing the game in 2007, I wasn’t being entirely accurate. The endgame, which takes place in the gorilla enclosure at London Zoo, is even older – it started life as the opening scene of an unfinished ADRIFT game called Gorilla Suit, which I first mentioned on the ADRIFT forum in 2002. The opening scene was as far as I got, and Gorilla Suit lay dormant on my hard drive until about three years ago, when two synapses that had never previously met shook hands and I woke up with the idea of using the opening scene of Gorilla Suit as the endgame of Alias ‘The Magpie’. It became a way to draw together all the different threads of the story.

In designing the puzzles, I took a lot of inspiration from P. G. Wodehouse. The problems in Wodehouse’s novels are fundamentally about the relationships between people - typically sundered hearts or unwanted engagements - and yet the solutions almost invariably involve doing something physical; pushing someone into a pond, stealing a cow creamer, sneaking into someone’s bedroom and puncturing their hot water bottle. These sorts of actions are a perfect fit for parser-based IF. In Magpie I sort of turned this on its head. The ‘Magpie’ is no do-gooder, he’s out to steal things, and yet as an indirect result of his actions, almost everybody in the story gets exactly what they deserve. The heartbroken Major is able to move past his grief, Lord Hamcester is cured of his obsession with collecting, and Lady Hamcester, the caged bird, at last gets to spread her wings. None of this is of interest to the ‘Magpie’, but he’s playing a game that is bigger than he knows.

An idea I had very early on, as recognised by Sam Kabo Ashwell in his review, was that the actions the player takes should have unexpected consequences, and in fact, work better than expected.

Thus, when the “Magpie” waves a red rag at a bull to gain access to the ladder, there is an unexpected bonus: the bull enters the house, drawing Lord Hamcester away from his study. The player then needs the ladder just in order to get back into the house. This is a model I’d been toying with as early as Goldilocks is a FOX! (2002), another game about housebreaking and causing wanton destruction in a stranger’s home. The idea of the player’s actions affecting the map I lifted directly from Scott Adams’ Ghost Town. In that game, the player can cause an explosion that permanently erases one location from the map. Why I take such delight in destruction is anybody’s guess.

Final testing took around 9 months. It helped that I was aiming for Spring Thing 2018, which meant that I went hell-for-leather in the latter part of 2017 and got the game playable all the way through by December last year. My beta testers were fantastic. They pried into every nook and cranny of the game, levered it apart with crowbars, and tried everything in every possible order. Feedback came back in the form of transcripts, lists of suggestions and even spreadsheets with every error listed as part of a table. Considering that three of them were working on their own IF Comp entries at the time, I wonder how on earth they found the time to be so thorough. One of these days I will learn how to punctuate dialogue properly, I promise.

There are a few things I feel I could have done better.

I worry that I’ve perhaps treated the subject of the Major’s mental state with more levity than it deserves. Wodehouse’s loony Duke of Dunstable and the Pink Panther’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus are very much of their time, but Magpie is a product of the 21st century, and perhaps I ought to have shown more sensitivity. Nevertheless I did try to make the Major a sympathetic and likeable character, rather than simply a figure of fun.

The hardest scene to write was the one in which the Major finishes smashing the piano and faces the reality of his loss. I wanted this to be a real moment of pathos, without it becoming too mawkish or slowing down the pace of the game. The eagle-eyed player might notice that as the Major leaves the music room, he puts a green carnation in his buttonhole, implying that there was more to his relationship with Woody than simple friendship. Through the actions of the ‘Magpie’, he is spared the fate that Hamcester intends for him, and finally finds happiness. I suppose I hope that somehow this makes up for the cartoonish way in which I’ve depicted his inner torment, but it’s not for me to say.

As many of the reviewers have pointed out, some of the puzzles are under-clued.

[spoiler]In particular, getting into the cucumber frame. Bertie Wooster uses the same method to break a window in the short story Jeeves Makes an Omlette, and I think I assumed that the method was rather more well known than it is. Besides Jeeves Makes an Omlette, I could find almost no reference to the technique online, besides a reference in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey from 1909, in which CURTIS, Albert Edward (22, stoker) was found not guilty of attempted burglary in the dwelling-house of one William Irons. I still can’t think of a way of cluing this better without completely giving it away.

A few people felt they were stuck because the tablecloth trick didn’t work the first time they tried it. I’ve played a few games where it is necessary to try the same command twice, and I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I suspect it’s up there with mazes and inventory limits as a no-no. The reason I did it was that the exchange between the ‘Magpie’ and Hives is rather lengthy. I didn’t want to cut it down, so I split it in two.[/spoiler]The only major change I made mid-comp was with the bell pull, which originally didn’t summon Hives whilst he was laying the table for dinner. I did say in the notes that the game can’t be made unwinnable, but so many people felt compelled to start the game again that I decided to change it. The availability of the walkthrough might partly be to blame, since it implies that the puzzles have to be solved in a specific order. They don’t!


Easter Eggs
Magpie takes place in the same village where Hubert Booby and his aunt Gertie, of To Hell in a Hamper, lived prior to their disappearance in 1876. The St Bartholomew-on-the-Bog cucumber growing trophy, the Booby Prize, is named after Gertrude Booby, who was four-times winner. If, in To Hell in a Hamper, you ask Hubert about cucumbers, he’ll tell you. This is not a recent amendment; it is there in the very first edition written in 2003. You can also find a copy of To Hell in a Hamper - Travels by Balloon with a Buffoon in the library at Bunkham Hall. Magpie is, of course, set many years later.

There is also a common theme linking the surnames of all the upper-class characters (besides Sir Rodney Playfair), and another linking the surnames of the long-suffering working class characters, which no one has yet mentioned.

Things to try: Squirting the watercolour painting in the study with the soda syphon, deliberately breaking the ornaments, shooting the ornaments with the blowpipe (especially in the presence of another character) and leaving the banana skins all over the ground floor when wearing the gorilla suit.