April 2022. I visit the village where my father grew up, a tiny place with almost no young inhabitants; a small city is seven kilometres away, visible from some good spots. He has a house located almost at the end of the village; follow the street and you find a path that enters a dense forest, mostly of chestnut trees, on the side of a hill, the lowest spur of a mountain range reaching 1,800 m. The path forks, but it more or less is parallel to a brook. There is a water tank near the village; a narrow vertical cavity cut into the hillside; rectangular tunnels that go deep into the ground; a patch where they planted new trees a few years back.
Why not, I thought… why not render it in Gruescript? Perhaps this was the idea I needed to make something in Gruescript, whose programming style fascinated me since it was released. And perhaps a Gruescript parserlike would be a way of tricking IFcomp players into rating the game higher than it deserves, for a change. Because my two previous games ranked poorly. Deservedly.
After almost 3 years making The Master of the Land (2018), 6th place and still mentioned from time to time as a unique game, and following it with The good people (2019), 19th place and the best written of all my games, two games followed that were written fast, badly thought and totally forgettable beyond their experimentalism: The Moon Wed Saturn (2020 and still moderately not bad) and How it was then and how it is now (2021, so bad I’m not linking). The problem with those games was that they were quickly written afer pausing or abandoning bigger, too ambitious games that didn’t turn out well in the end: a heavily illustrated story with autobiographical setting titled 1991 and a huge science fiction King of Dragon Pass-style mix of management game and IF, titled Scattered Seeds.
So I had the place, the development system, and a reference and source of inspiration: Jacqueline Lott’s (yeah our IFComp final boss @Jacqueline!) The Fire Tower, a game I wanted to emulate, and also surpass. The character came immediately, but the story took longer. It was about magic fog, Celtic ruins and ghost animals for some months, until the concept somehow formed in some dark corner of my head without me noticing or doing anything about it: take it to the future and deal with climate change. But don’t make it pessimistic; I’m not very interested in the label of hopepunk, but this game shares the motivation.
The coolest thing about writing is when ideas flow and they become inevitable, impossible to question. The next idea was that the story would be told only indirectly, since this girl is too young to understand a lot about her world and ours. So, the essential focus of the story would be dramatic irony: she’s happy and fascinated, but we guess there’s something darker in this world.
Sounds like a top ten IFcomp game, sure. Well, that was what I set out to do.
Some reviewers (Brian Rushton, Chandler Groover) felt that interacting with the objects in each location, with Gruescript’s visible list of verbs, ended up feeling monotonous or even like a chore. I can understand that.
Gruescript was designed for classic puzzling, expecting you to click on verbs because you have thought something that might solve a puzzle, before clicking. That’s not what my game expects: almost all actions are equally necessary or dispensable. But most of us prefer clicking on everything to leaving things unclicked, just because. This is why, since the last months of development, I got the feeling that this game would work better in parser. The Fire Tower invites you to experiment and do anything you can think about, because the parser doesn’t reveal the options; my game invites you to exhaust the buttons you can click, and I had to limit the actions because there were too many buttons already.
And the inventory! Who could think players would not swoon in amazement using a system that was completely redesigned 48 hours before the IFcomp deadline?
I have gone back and forth with the inventory since I started writing. Gruescript native inventory would take too much space and promote a “try everything everywhere” mindset I didn’t want. However, the final design seems to be cause close to intolerable friction to a lot of players.
Oh, and that sentence at the end. Who would have thought that players could read “I have the feeling I’m missing something” as a hint that there were undiscovered things in the game?
(Other than testers, early reviewers and late reviewers.)
It’s about the character, the dramatic irony, not the player! Why don’t you appreciate the mountain of work to make the sentence very clear (I rewrote it. Once). Same for the go home/keep walking choice: it’s just expressive and aesthetic, the game makes no difference.
I repeat: do not replay the game to find secrets. That Lara said “I’ve missed something” doesn’t mean that you have missed anything dammit.
Players have praised the writing, the implementation and the puzzles. And I’m happy with it all! The girl’s voice, the concise descriptions, the dynamic comments, the dramatic irony… I consider it my best-written work by far. There are many things that matter to me here: places from my life, kid protagonist, imagination, oblique narration, a few weird images. And the story confronts things that are happening in the real world, without being didactic. Many reviews explicitly explained what they thought that the story implied, and many of them were quite close to explaining everything I had in mind! Yes, this is set in a post-warming era when the Earth is not warming any longer (in the game, some time in the 2060s or 2070s), this is not post-apocalyptic (they have a functional society that has adapted in many ways, and 12 year-olds have smartphones), and yes, what Lara finds and doesn’t understand are hints of a climate-negationist authoritarian government from a few decades before. That’s all I’ll ever say in public.
Players generally like deeply implemented settings. After Twine, I had to work in a completely different mindset here, defining rules and behaviours, but I think the implementation ended up quite good, with a mix of static text. dynamic random events, a somewhat-dynamic internal monologue… I guess that’s how most parser languages work but I had not seen it before and it makes me think in new ways. Gruescript is amazing, and I’m ridiculously proud of having made one of the first substantial Gruescript games. Even though I had to hack it without any respect.
The puzzles seem to have turned out okay judging from reviews, which I’m incredibly happy with, since they are the first proper puzzles I ever design. I tried to follow Joey Jones’ Embedded Puzzle Manifesto (thanks @Joey!). I don’t think the puzzles reveal interesting facets of the character, and I don’t really think they are non-obvious or complex enough (but, if only the game was parser…), but at least I think they are quite well embedded and justified within the setting.
The post-comp release is already up at itch.io. I’ve fixed typos and improved on something that many players seemed to find frustrating: I added a position marker to the map. I’ve also sent to hell the damn sentence “I’m missing something”. In the future, perhaps I’ll have a final go at the inventory system to reduce the friction, and that will be the end.
My next IF? Still unsure. I have a new huge and difficult project; a Choicescript idea; and a couple of ideas for Tricks of light sequels. None good for IFcomp I’m afraid.
Whatever I do, I’ll forever be happy and thankful to you all with how this small game about a little forest I know seemed to capture your imaginations.
(And do not replay the game to find secrets dammit.)