Bogeyman postmortem

ifcomp2018-game

#1

Hey! I’ve written a long, spoilery postmortem about my ~process.~ This game was a short but extremely dense time in the making (working through every evening, lunch break and a family holiday, thinking about basically nothing else for a month). I have a lot to say. I hope somebody will find part of it either interesting or useful.

Before we get into it: I made a short spotify playlist for this game, because I make playlists for everything. I also have a tag for it on tumblr.

Conception
Long story short: in August, a friend and I were developing an AU fic series about a sort of transdimensional childcatcher. I wanted to take it in a darker direction than she was comfortable with, so with her blessing, I re-imagined it from the ground up and hit on the basic outline of the scenario that appears in Bogeyman. Once I decided to turn it into a game for ifcomp, I had one month to figure out how.

The initial concept for turning that scenario into a game involved a set number of rounds/levels/stages, each lasting a week for the protagonist. In each stage, the player would get to make one major decision, with a “wrong” choice condemning them to death at the end of that stage. If they survived to the end, they’d “win” and get to go home. As the story emerged, I realised I didn’t want to cut players off before the ending, especially considering the kind of choices they would be asked to make. The elimination structure dissolved, leaving behind the choices, and state-tracking to “reward” or “punish” the protagonist in more subtle ways.

The Choice
The nature of those weekly life-or-death decisions remains at the core of the game. It’s the only choice you really get to make: good vs “good”; conscience vs authority; defiance vs submission; integrity vs survival. Almost every major choice is designed around that conflict.

The tagline – “You can go home when you learn to be good” – is meant entirely seriously. “Good” here means “obedient.” Without conscience, dignity, or loyalty to anybody else. Trust the Bogeyman enough to surrender all your defences, and he’ll let you go free – except you won’t really be free, of course, because of what you had to do to get there in the first place.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the point of the game is not that doom is inevitable, but that our only alternative to doom is submission, debasement and complicity. We get a choice! It’s a terrible choice, but there it is. I wanted to give players a non-judgemental space to explore that choice. There’s no right or wrong answer, you can’t really “win” or “lose” – or to put it another way, I guess, the game lets you choose how to feel about the ending you get.

The Bogeyman
Listen: I adore the Bogeyman. Nothing endears a reviewer to me faster than an admission of not-entirely-negative feelings towards this evil bastard. I’m not even sure what to say about the process here, because I didn’t have to think about it very much – I felt like I got a handle on him pretty quickly, and writing him was a joy.

Not to get heavy or anything, but I think he appeals to the frightened child in me because he’s an idealised version of an abuser. He’s cruel and unfair but at least he’s internally consistent. It’s a comforting myth among the abused and oppressed that if we could only be “good” enough, the punishment would stop. We’re desperate for authority figures who keep their promises, systems where pain happens for a reason and obedience really does guarantee safety. Living with an abuser isn’t really like that. “The Choice” is my attempt to find some kind of order in a harsh, confusing world. ANYWAY.

At the very beginning, I wasn’t sure how human he was. I pictured something like a nazgul or a dementor, just a cowl without much underneath. But his relationship with the protagonist is very important, especially his attempts at being likeable, and it soon became clear that was impossible to write without making him more expressive than a cowl allows. So he settled into something human-adjacent. He’s a supernatural embodiment of fear, but he also has toenails and needs to take a nap after dinner. He likes having people to clean and cook for him, partly because he gets off on power, but also because he’s just lazy. And of course he loves to eat.

I’m still not sure exactly what he looks like, beyond the specific details mentioned in the game. He’s tall, but is he thin? Is he just pale-skinned, or literally white? Does he have hair? I don’t know. I didn’t know what his voice sounded like until we played it at the London IF meetup – Peter Sims read it aloud with nothing to go on from me except “um, creepy!” and I still get chills thinking about what he did with it.

I resolved that there would be no swearing in this game, partly because I’d like it to read a bit like a fairy tale or children’s book. Turns out it’s harder to insult someone without swearing at them! Who knew! But he manages to be very mean to the kids throughout, and we’re all very proud. Also, he presumably never interacts with human adults? So I’d like to think the only things he knows about the real world are like, pokemon and fortnite. Then again, I don’t know what the books in his room are. I was going to have him reading one during the day at some point, but thought I’d hold back that extra bit of humanity for players who took enough of an interest to go into his bedroom.

The human-ness peels back a bit towards the end, first with the noise he makes when Tabitha bites him, then with the milk reveal. Fun fact: when I wrote the line “you wonder where he gets it from” about the milk, I didn’t actually know the answer. It seems obvious now, and it’s one of my favourite things in the game.

Design: Interactivity
We’re going behind the curtain now. This is a long section, mainly for anyone who’s really into the nuts and bolts of this kind of thing. I probably have even more to say on the subject and would especially be interested to hear other people’s thoughts about how they handle this in their own games.

[spoiler]Obviously most IF players want to feel like their input affects the story, or they won’t have fun. In a game like this, I only have the resources and narrative space for a very small amount of genuine interactivity, so it has to be carefully pitched for maximum effect. The story is very linear, more linear than it first appears to some (not all) players. It’s designed to be as good as possible the first time round – to tell the best-paced and most satisfying story it can, while providing an illusion of being more responsive than it really is, and to do that once. If it stands up to being replayed at all, that’s a bonus. This is partly because I knew what story I wanted to tell, but also because I simply didn’t have the time to write in more genuine variation.

Someone in my anonymous feedback nailed it: “even though the choices seemed few, I felt like they were having an impact on the story and the main character’s relationship with the Bogeyman. I only played through once so I haven’t seen if that’s the case, but I think just feeling it now is what’s important.” There are many small variations in the text designed to inspire exactly that feeling. Somebody noticing that on their second playthrough might feel cheated – but they also might not mind, and they also might not replay at all, so I prioritised making a more convincing and enjoyable experience for the first-time reader. So I thought I’d write a bit about how I tried to maximise the initial illusion of flexibility, and how I could have done it better.

The biggest time-saver is that by the end, two of the characters are variables – $survivor (Humphrey or Grace) and $newkid (Christopher or Jennifer). Player choice doesn’t affect their behaviour at all, just their names and pronouns. We make heavy use of this technique at my current day job making mobile adventure games. There are a few other brief moments like this, e.g. whoever you help in chapter one, Tabitha or Peter, is the one to wake you up the next morning. At that point I was naively expecting to be able to do a lot more of that kind of thing.

I think one of the weaker choices is drinking the milk at the end of chapter two: “take a sip” vs “knock it back.” It’s a nod to the second twine I ever published, back in 2013, when I was far less concerned with (the illusion of) interactivity. Now I would consider having the options be “take a sip” vs “refuse,” or something to that effect, with players who refuse being physically forced to drink it. Not just because it’s another opportunity to torture the protagonist – mainly because it gives a far more convincing impression of choice, even though the outcome would be the same in both cases. Drink the milk instead of refusing? Well of course you get woozy and have to be carried to bed, you should have refused! Or: refuse and get forced to chug the whole glass? Of course you get woozy and have to be carried to bed, you shouldn’t have refused! It’s simple but incredibly useful, even though it completely falls apart on the first replay: instead of writing two different events, just write two different explanations for the same event. If the protagonist is well-behaved, the Bogeyman singles them out for being well-behaved. If they’re naughty, the Bogeyman singles them out for being naughty.

The wood-gathering and water-fetching scenes in chapter two are almost the same, and I think that’s too obvious from the way they’re presented. Now I would consider presenting them as unequal in some way when the player makes their choice – perhaps one is supposed to be more desirable, important, or otherwise prominent than the other. This would go some way to keep the player from correctly guessing that they’re basically the same scene in different rooms, without requiring me to actually write two very different scenes. There are points where you can get truly different scenes, but they quickly bottleneck again.

Some reviewers have complained about a single choice determining which ending you get, which is understandable. Personally I don’t think it’s fair to say all the choices leading up to that moment “don’t matter” – those earlier choices, those were the story! The ending is just a few hundred words of a whole 20k story. It doesn’t bother me too much, people like what they like, but I still wouldn’t change it. The important choice is very clearly signposted. The entire game is about building up to it and making sure the player understands its ramifications by the time it arrives. One of the hardest parts of writing this game was coming up with a binary choice that would convincingly lead to two such different outcomes, regardless of what had gone before. So if some players felt let down, I hope they at least didn’t feel ambushed by the ending they got![/spoiler]

tl;dr: it’s designed to be good the first time at the expense of replay value. The interactivity is light, which doesn’t mean tacked-on. It’s an integral and carefully crafted part of the experience.

Design: Other

  • I picked out Spectral from google fonts because it belongs in an old-timey children’s book.
  • The illustrations are meant to evoke a similar vibe. I drew them myself, mostly after the comp deadline was extended. (I cannot emphasise enough how much this game was a race against the clock!) There’s no connecting theme to the objects that get illustrations – they’re just the things I was capable of drawing which also appear in every possible permutation of the story.
  • I also drew the cover myself after asking, “What would Eric Chow draw if this was a season of The Infinite Bad?” and then scaling that back until it was within my own artistic capabilities. As you know if you’ve played it, the hovel is not actually on top of a hill. But I would argue that spiritually it is, in the same way that the car in Dead Man’s Fiesta is spiritually from the 1980s. I also think the cover looks a little like a person looking down at the reader with glowing eyes, a funny hat, and broad sloping shoulders.
  • The cover art is repurposed in the chapter headings. They were originally all centred, until I started worrying about the lack of a progress bar, and a brilliant tester suggested using them for that. Very important to let players know how close they are to the end.
  • The choices and click-to-continues are in caps mostly to set them apart from the rest of the text, because I didn’t want to use colour and “white” vs “light grey” was not sufficiently clear. Keeping the two very distinct also meant that I could not (easily) use dialogue as a link, which forced me to break up dialogue more than I might have. I think this turned out well.
  • The Bogeyman’s monospace dialogue is a hangover from an early conception of him as medium-breakingly monstrous: distorted sound, images, the works. That wasn’t a direction I wanted to pursue, but the font remained. It speaks to his role as the mouthpiece of the game itself. It also means that his dialogue takes up loads of space, which forced me to cut it down where otherwise I might have let my heart run away with me.
  • The choices are formatted in html tables because that was the only way I knew to achieve the visual effect I wanted. I’m really happy with how it turned out! It seemed to go over well with a lot of people.
  • The music is all by John Leonard French from this collection. I thought very carefully about which tracks to use in which chapters. People seem to really like it! I like it very much too! I was already writing the final chapter by the time it was implemented, so that’s the one that was most influenced by its soundtrack. When I first started writing, I had this track of 33 different music boxes playing at once set to start every time I tested the game. I still love that, but I’m glad I replaced it with proper music.
  • I did a ton of research into chewing tobacco and pit latrines. As the protagonist says of both: gross.

Influences

  • Labyrinth (unbelievably, the soundtrack was my go-to music while writing it)
  • Coraline, Shockheaded Peter, Peter Pan, Alice, The BFG, A Series of Unfortunate Events (the latter in particular for being set in exactly the same murky year of the 19th-20th century)
  • MarsCorp, dystopian lit in general
  • Eat Me, though not quite in the obvious way! I was already writing when I played it, but it showed me that my game was not, as I’d been worrying, “too gross” or “too easily interpreted as paraphilic” for this competition. It also catapulted Chandler Groover up the ranks of my favourite authors, so his positive response to Bogeyman was one of the highlights of the competition for me.
  • This video.

The Movie Pitch
If this game were not a game, it would be a stop-motion animated short film starring Simon Indelicate as the man himself and Julia Indelicate as Tabitha. The Indelicates also do the music. The protagonist is ambiguously gendered and doesn’t speak at all, but has very expressive eyes.

Finally
This is the culmination of about five years of working in twine and I’m very proud of it, so to get out of my comfort zone, I’ve started messing around with Inform. I was already planning my entry for next year, but now the pressure feels so high, it’s very daunting. Hopefully I’ll get over that and come back next year with another game I can be proud of, even if I can’t expect it to place so well.

If you played and especially if you reviewed my game, whether you liked it or not, thank you! I love you! I never expected to get such a positive response. I still can’t believe it. The whole comp experience has been so great – I’ve been far too shy to post in the authors’ forum as much as I’d like, but just lurking on the discussions there has been super cool and educational!


#2

that’s amazing!! bogeyman was the first game i played this competition, largely on the strength of its blurb and cover illustration. incredible to hear how it came together so quickly. congratulations again, elizabeth!


#3

Thank you so much Ian, that really means a lot! And of course, huge congratulations to you too! It seriously warms my heart to place alongside such an impressive use of twine that’s so different to anything I’ve ever attempted with it!


#4

The Bogeyman for Best NPC at the XYZZY Awards!


#5

Oh man, that would make me so stupidly happy! On his behalf, of course…

(JJ Guest mentioned the same thing as a possibility that night we got drunk, but we were drunk, so I tried not to think about it too much. But I’m prepared to take it a little more seriously now, assuming you’re not also currently drunk.)


#6

I’m not drunk. Lemmy from Terminal Interface is another contender, but I’d give it to the Bogeyman. Those toenails! Those biscuits! He’s getting my vote.


#7

Haha, thank you, that’s very encouraging! And I definitely agree about Lemmy.


(Herr M.) #8

Thanks for sharing all those thoughts and insights.

You are welcome! :smiley:

Re: Interactivity

It is interesting that the final scene being totally independent from the rest of the game was a conscious design choice. I cannot say that I agree with you that simply feeling like your choices matter is the most important thing about them, but I admit that besides taking even more effort to implement, this ‘lack’ does not necessarily make your game bad or diminishes the experience of the first or even second playthrough. I think it just could have been even better if there was some kind of influence on the outcome even for the smaller decisions too.

Re: Best character
Since I absolutely loathed Lemmy (as great as his implementation was), I cannot imagine the Bogeyman losing to him!


#9

Ah, that’s very well-put, thank you! Actually, I think you’re right – while it’s important to me that the basic outcome (who lives, who dies) depend on the final choice, it would have been great to be able to reflect the previous choices a little more within those two ending branches. Each ending actually has one of those very minor dialogue variations I mentioned…

[spoiler]If you HOLD HER:

  • if you covered for Peter OR climbed out the bedroom window: “I knew you’d prove me right in the end.”
  • else: “I knew I could count on you.”

If you LET HER GO:

  • if you covered for Peter OR climbed out the bedroom window: “You’re all the same, aren’t you?”
  • else: “I thought you were better, but you’re all the same, aren’t you?”[/spoiler]

Perhaps little variations like that work best in the middle of a story, while endings could go further to leave the player with a much stronger sense of their choices being taken into account. Hmm. Thanks for bringing this up! You weren’t the only reviewer to raise the same issue, so it’s definitely something I’ll be keeping in mind for the future!


#10

Poor Lemmy – judged as an even more loathsome character than the Bogeyman! :slight_smile:


#11

Ha, savage! fwiw I thought everything about Lemmy was fantastic, even before reading your postmortem, which only made me admire the craft behind him even more. And at the end of the day, if you had to choose one of them to be stranded with on a desert island, he’s arguably the safer bet :stuck_out_tongue:


#12

Thanks! As for the desert island… the Bogeyman might actually be able to get us off of it, but Lemmy is almost certainly more edible. Hard choice.