Crash Postmortem

WARNING: SPOILERS EVERYWHERE!

CRASH: ORIGINS
Crash isn’t really the game I meant to write for IFComp. When I first started learning Inform 7 around March of this year, and decided I’d like to enter IFComp 2022, I started out on a game tentatively titled Time, which quickly became an ever-widening pit in which to throw my every “wouldn’t it be neat” idea. There was a rich simulation of phones, in which NPCs could call PCs and vice versa, propagation of sound with attenuation over distance, an NPC behavior model in which events could interrupt an NPC’s actions and cause them to choose other behaviors, characters visible at a distance à la Deadline, etc. It was going to be great. All that was missing was a plot – and, ironically, time.

Some time in May I realized it wasn’t going to happen, so I decided to switch gears entirely. First, to keep my worst instincts under control I realized I needed to create a constrained environment; hence setting the game on a small spaceship. The game has 16 locations, most of which have a real purpose, instead of being just a “tiny cave with entrances west and north, and a dark, forbidding staircase leading down.” Second, the plot was to be straight-forward – the spaceship is going to crash! And third, there had to be some color. My initial plan was to add a radio companion who would help talk you down, Airplane-style. [“I picked the wrong week to give up Ebullion.”] The problem with the plan is that I discovered I can’t write comedy. So funny was out of the question. But a plain vanilla radio helper sounded too boring. That’s how Master Sergeant R. Mu Arvax was born, and pretty soon after that, Captain Jane Mulgrew.

AN ASIDE >>>
It’s at this point I have to stop and acknowledge that there are probably readers out there asking who Arvax and Mulgrew are. One of the things I noticed looking through IFComp transcripts is that a very high percentage of players never made it to the “second” part of the ship. So yes, there is a second part of the ship, and that’s where the mysterious person talking is. But let’s save that for later.
<<<

Then I handed off my precious creation to playtesters (Mike Russo, Garry Francis, Jade, and Stu Dobbie), and was pretty deflated by the response. All agreed it was well-implemented, but their reactions left me feeling the game was: (1) frustrating; (2) poorly-hinted; and (3) not much fun. So I got myself a fresh .inform file and started writing again, copying in the parts that worked and leaving out the parts that didn’t. Things that didn’t make the cut, were added, or were seriously altered:

  • How tools work: Originally you explicitly carried a toolbox that explicitly had a screwdriver and a wrench and actual screws in it. Afterwards I changed this to be a toolbox object that had “implicit” tools in it. In other words, the screwdriver didn’t exist as an object, but was mentioned in text where you’d use a screwdriver.
  • The to-do list: This was added to help the game maintain direction and momentum. “Okay I fixed the microwave, what next?”
  • The chewing gum: My favorite addition. Seems like a novelty with some strange mechanics, but ends up solving a puzzle.
  • Eliminated the “weights puzzle”: Basically you had to balance a bunch of weights so that some important engine part would stabilize. It was evident from my testers’ reaction that a fiddly numbers puzzle like this didn’t really work. They were right – it wasn’t well-integrated into the environment, so it had to go.
  • Simplified the fiddly: airlocks, vac suit, etc., which you had to activate, open, close, pressurize, etc., all were simplified to just work.
  • Made the computer available throughout the ship: originally the computer was available only at a special terminal. The second draft made it available throughout the ship. Also changed the voice to that of Majel Barrett.
  • Fewer ways to die. Remove the timer from the post-reboot sequence.

I guess the overarching theme here was to make things more user-friendly, which I had earlier conflated with being easy, which I was really wrong about.

However, there are a few ways in which the game still failed:

  • Last few bits of polish: There are still a few places where there are holes in descriptions, etc.
  • Too much guess-the-verb: Now that I have dozens of transcripts to look at, I can see so many places where a few more options would improve the game. I would never say “put key in keyhole”, but I guess some weirdos think that way.
  • Players got stuck at an early bottleneck: Back to the second part of the ship thing. There’s a blocked door keeping the player from traveling to the forward part of the ship. But the player can get there via a spacewalk and then remove the obstruction, allowing free movement thereafter. The transcripts I have show that players didn’t seem to even think of spacewalking as an option. And since most of the puzzles in the aft half of the ship require parts from the forward half of the ship, players would get stuck banging their heads against the microwave, captain’s door, etc., for far too long. I have a plan to fix this.

I’m working on a post-comp release which will address those three issues. Anyone know of any more?

I must also mention my second round testers Drew Cook and Peter Gross. Also I have to mention my wife Laura Taalman who made my life difficult until I took her very excellent advice.

Finally, what I like:

  • You can blow a bubble.
  • The PC won’t chew the gum after it’s been stuck to something not carried by the player.
  • The description of the character, with or without slippers, with or without gum stuck to them.
  • Try to stick something in the electrical socket.
  • Dare to mess with the engineering monitor.
  • Tell Mulgrew you read her diary.
  • Swallow the gum.
  • Ask the computer about chewing gum.
  • Ask the computer about Blather.
  • Planetfall.
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