Crossroads postmortem

Crossroads was my first foray into writing, as opposed to playing, IF; I’ve mostly been lurking on the sidelines and only discovered the forum in July of this year. I’ve been writing on and off for most of my life, but I suffered a pretty horrific accident in 2012 and pretty much all of my creative endeavors ground to a halt. Playing IF was one of the things that got me out of the deep nihilistic depression I went through after that happened, but writing IF never actually occurred to me. Early August changed that.

I heard about IF Comp at the same time I realized I really, really wanted to write IF, and decided to use the comp deadline as a challenge to write and finish something and put it out in the world. What this meant in practice is that Crossroads was made over a period of about six weeks. It’s got about 25,000 words, which is likely surprising to people who took one branch through.

I knew from playing previous years’ IF Comp games that I was rushing, and that the game wasn’t the quality of work I’d have been proud to submit, but I wanted to submit something imperfect and learn from the experience and have a sort of trial by fire about what worked and what didn’t, and so in that respect Crossroads has been a success for me. I’ve voraciously read everyone’s feedback and it’s been tremendously helpful as I figure out next steps.

Inspiration and goals
When I decided I wanted to write IF, I knew I’d start with Twine and Inform, since most of the work produced in the few years I’ve played has been written in them and that’s where my familiarity was. I very quickly realized that I was not going to be able to finish an Inform game in 6 weeks, so Twine it was.

I really wanted to play around with branching and the Time Cave structure, to explore how drastically a relatively static premise could shift when looked at under different lenses. Even though the version of Crossroads that was released for IF Comp is a heavily branching true Time Cave, the original design was - believe it or not - both broader and deeper. There were supposed to be five drastically different paths that employed drastically different mechanics - there was a branch that was supposed to be heavily puzzley, for instance; as it was, I had to restructure the several different paths I did have by late September into a story where both the individual narratives from each playthrough and the larger game metanarrative remained consistent. As a result, the individual narratives ended up feeling under-implemented and sketchy.

Why a witch? Well, I’m drawn to fairy tales, and stories about magic, especially reinterpretations of well-known stories or deconstructions of a trope, and I wanted to explore this concept that comes up again and again. The witch was originally supposed to be an inscrutable cipher initially, capable of wildly varying reactions to you depending on what boon you asked her of, but when the game had to be shrunk in scope, most of that got lost. I’m still interested in exploring Crossroads’ world, where low-level magic’s something you can do at the local Starbucks (or equivalent, obviously) but real magic has a cost.

What didn’t work:
Vagueness. This is the big one. A lot of people wrote that many of the narratives felt under-written, that there wasn’t enough detail to connect with the protagonist of the branch they ended up with, and I think that’s accurate. Originally, the idea was to keep the branches poetic and almost oneiric, resisting over-writing, but I think I went too far in the opposite direction. I’d been concerned people would bounce off a story of this nature if I over-determined the paths, since many possibilities weren’t offered already, and that was a mistake.

The other issue in this category was a mechanical one: I didn’t signal clearly enough which choices were reflective and which would lead you down a drastically different branch, and so it was very easy for players to fall into one of the underwritten ones without knowing the rest of the story was different. One of the easiest things I could (and should) have done is list potential endings on the last page, which could have hinted at how much variation was hidden in the game.

The time delays seemed to divide opinion: some people really enjoyed them, but most didn’t. The most frequent comment about this was “the game hasn’t earned the player’s good will enough to do this”, and I think that’s absolutely true. Those sections probably ought to have been click to continue, or at least for second+ playthroughs.

Style: I honestly did not realize before IF Comp that there was a bias against Twine house style. Thinking about it, I do understand where it might come from, but it wasn’t something I had realized would have an impact. Lesson learned!

What I think might have worked:
This one’s complicated, because there were pretty varied reactions. The general experiment seemed to work in the sense that people thought it was interesting to see implemented; if the narratives in the structure had been more fleshed out, I suspect the structure would have been more effective.

The writing, to some degree. Though there were places where it gets a bit precious, and it could have benefited from backing off at times and giving the reader a breather, people seemed to really enjoy the prose. Not everyone did, of course - there are places I really needed to tone it down and give the reader a breather.

The story branch where you eat people.
This was, by far, everyone’s favorite part of the game. Not coincidentally, it’s also mine; it had the most time spent on it, which is still not as much as I would have liked. If I’d had more time, I would have tried to bring more of the narratives closer to this model.

Lessons learned:

Don’t try to write a Time Cave in six weeks.
This might sound flippant, but it isn’t meant to; this was my first project and I genuinely had no idea what to expect. I have a much better idea about scale now, what sort of time I’m going to need for implementing my ideas.
Trust my writing and my players.
I worried about over-directing a story with such potentially depressing material, and that being able to drastically shift your experience between playthroughs would alienate people. This was absolutely not the case.
Trust my story; implement my structure more clearly.
Obviously not in heavy-handed ways, but I think there were places my prose could have more subtly signaled what the consequences of actions might have been. And I was so abstract in places that people couldn’t connect with the story I was telling. That’s a mistake I won’t make again.
Seriously, don’t fucking write a Time Cave in six weeks.

What’s next:
Several people have asked me about a post-comp release for Crossroads, and I’m considering it. The two things that could be easily fixed would be the CSS and indicating multiple endings. Other than that, most of the story branches would need to be overhauled and added to, I think, and I don’t know if that’s something people would be interested in, or if I ought to just move on to the next project. I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on a post-comp release and what, if anything, they’d like to see in it.

As for what’s next for me generally, it turns out I love writing IF as much as I love playing it, so I’m going to keep going. I have an idea for something I’m thinking about for Spring Fling, but I don’t want to commit to it in writing yet in case it turns out to be another project with a Time-Cave-esque scope. I’m exploring Undum via Raconteur, and still chipping away at an I7 project. IF Comp has been an amazing experience for me, regardless of placement, and I feel really lucky to have been able to participate. If anyone’s managed to read to the end of all this and has feedback, I’d love to hear it - I’ve grown so much as an IF writer just by reading reviews of mine and other work, so any and all thoughts are welcome. Thanks, all.

That’s interesting, I got the impression that the writing was purposefully vague, in a way that players could make choices that fit their feelings, and interpret the resulting story in the context of their own lives, and it might be therapeutic. Guided introspection, similar to a tarot reading or something. (Personally that didn’t work for me all that much but I just figured I was not the target audience.)

Yay! You did it <3

I admit I was one of those people who got totally lost when I played it. I ended up in the path with your reflection, and was incredibly confused because I just…wasn’t expecting to end up there. I wish I’d gone back and played other paths to see everything that was in there. Looking forward to seeing you flesh this out. If Invasion is anything to go on, I think a fleshed-out Crossroads could be amazing.

Yes, that was certainly the intention behind the “absolution” branch. “Guided introspection” is a good way to phrase what I was going for, yes, but by the time I was writing the branches involving the pond and the snake/mouse choice (which was supposed to, based on your choice, change how both the witch reacted to you and the people around you did, but I didn’t have time to implement that properly), that story had become something closer to a more linear narrative, and I wasn’t entirely sure how I wanted to split that difference.

As for the target audience - yeah, I got a lot of reviews from people who the style didn’t mesh with, but I also got some lovely comments from people for whom the guided introspection really worked. (I don’t want to get too specific, since most of them were, perhaps understandably given the content, very personal.) So that split was pretty interesting to see.