BYOD postmortem

2015: Spanish version (contains spoilers)

For my first piece of parser IF, I had the basic plot of a dystopian sci-fi mystery, not unlike this year’s Sense Of Harmony. The PC would be a female computer tech looking for a missing coworker. Being my first game I would write it in Spanish (there was a larger audience for Spanish IF back then).

The game mechanic would be built on a personal device with installable apps, allowing the PC to gain new capabilities (like a ride-hailing app to move around the city). One of these apps would be a remote file manager that could be used to operate certain elements of the game world through a filesystem-like interface. This virtual layer, underlying the game map, would allow her to interact with doors and cameras, and to control vehicles. I had in mind some Neuromancer-like action sequences using this mechanic.

I fired up Inform 7 and started a proof of concept of the filesystem actuation pattern. The sample object was a printer, with customizable font size and an output stream. Coding this basic simulation in Inform was much tougher than I expected, though, and I realized that I would never get the original project done. The scope had to be reduced, drastically.

So, I decided to flesh out this proof of concept into a complete game, and came up with the internship plot to give the player both the need to print something, and the lack of conventional means to do so. Also, being in a place where you’re supposed to work on something that nobody seems to know or care about is something that has happened to me a few times, so I had some experience to draw from.

The basis of the VFS command structure was inspired by FSP, an old file transfer utility I had used in the 90s that instead of providing a separate shell like FTP, had commands you would use directly from your vanilla OS terminal. This fits very smoothly with the Inform parser.

At this point I had a nice IF toy that was not really involving for players. So I thought about extending the virtual side of the game. If players poked around the network they could explore a hidden storyline that would go totally unnoticed otherwise. Players could use the skills learned in the main quest to reveal and solve a more dramatic story.

As I wrote in another thread, I got the inspiration for this secondary quest from Mr. Robot and a real case that happened at GitHub. I was reading a lot of critique of tech culture at the time, so this hidden story was also meant to be read as a commentary on power dynamics in the workplace.

With no real experience writing fiction, I didn’t really trust my writing chops. So I tried not to wax too lyrical and stick to functional, matter-of-fact text. I wrote some versions of the starting dialog with the secretary, but I found them corny, so I kept the indirect form. It kind of sucks, but I tried to capture the coldness of some late JG Ballard works (like Super Cannes).

My working title then was “Internet of Things”, which I found too cheesy. I think BYOD is better. It’s catchy and descriptive, but unfortunately it also made the game unsearchable on social media (found out about this too late). The Spanish version of the game was launched in September 2015 and got some pretty good reviews.

2020: IFComp

During the Covid lockdown I had the urge to write some IF, but had a serious case of writer’s block. So I looked back at BYOD, which I still was very fond of.

I had the crazy idea of translating it into English and entering the IFComp, since it’s now allowed to do so (Shattered Memory was disqualified in 2001). Being more like an IF vignette than a full-featured game, I knew it would not do great, but at least find a second life in the international IF scene (since Spanish IF in 2020 has an almost exclusive fixation on 8-bit retro).

Then I contacted the awesome IFforL2, who had helped me with proofreading in the past, and we had a very polished translation of the game by the end of June. I toyed with the idea of expanding the game, but I didn’t come up with new ideas worth adding. I liked the original as it was, a short but well-rounded play. To beef it up a little bit, I thought of creating some feelies.

The feelies

First I thought of a Phrack-like e-zine providing some backstory for the game’s macguffin app. I liked the way a music ezine I used to read in the 90s, Chronicles of Chaos, justified their texts, so I searched for some back issues and copied their format.

From that point I went further down the rabbit hole and thought of packaging the game like an early 90’s pirate release, as I always found those file_id.diz and .nfo files had a special mystique about them. So I downloaded a ton of stuff from Jason Scott’s site and created some pieces of my own (I cheated with the ANSI art, though, I generated that with online tools).

Now, how could I put this all together on the default Inform web template? I could not find a satisfying way, as an Inform template supposedly comes from the game author, so it can’t reference any warez stuff. Chatting with Ruber Eaglenest, he suggested that I created a custom web template. So I had the idea of a menu that looked like a old-school DOS dir, including the original game, the in-game feelie plus the extra material provided by the pretend 1337 crew (it makes sense now since we look at the contents of a pirate release, not the template built by Inform). And since we are in browserland now, why not throw in a fake demoscene intro? I had a lame Javascript plasma routine sitting in my archives, that with some tweaking turned into a proper intro. A music track licensed by the amazing artist E-Mantra completed the package.

As some reviewers have noticed, the tech depicted in the game is not really consistent with reality. It’s as if the story is placed in an alternate timeline where the World Wide Web didn’t happen and the internet in 2020 looks like 1993. This bled into the warez diegetic level as well, maybe VFS does not really exist, but they still access the IF Archive using FTP. I wanted the whole thing to tap into a very specific vibe of early 90s internet nostalgia. The end of the DOS era, signalled by a mangled VFAT filename in the homepage.

I might have gone a bit overboard with all of this, but I’m really happy with the way it turned out.

10 Likes

The idea of a hidden storyline in a game you only come across through curiosity is really interesting for me, and really plays into the fact that you have this special access to people’s personal lives. While I wasn’t really active online during the period of Internet history you’re tapping into, the exploration element of the app worked really well.

My favourite thing actually was a completely optional ability to overwrite the boss’ end of quarter financial report with whatever arbitrary data you want. It didn’t have any effect on the game, and I also wasn’t prompted to do it, I just saw that the write permission was enabled and completely overwrote it with ‘eat the rich.’

I actually felt a bit nervous after I did it because I was worried something bad might happen to my character now that I’d left some evidence of my involvement, which added an extra layer to the game’s story for me.

I definitely think there’s a ton of potential here, as I’ve already told you. You made parser fun for me, a not-really-into-parser guy.

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The most recent revision is now online at:

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