Now that the dust has begun to settle on the contest, and the scores are nearly out, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on Detective Osiris. As a first time IFComp entrant, this process certainly inspired lots of thoughts for me, and I wanted to share them. That said, if you’re the kind of person who thinks authors should never talk about their work, this thread is probably not for you. I’m going to gaze fully into navel. I’m going to talk about how the sausage is made. I’m going to “ruin” it. But if you have played already, or you’re just curious, then read on!
Firstly, a bit about me. I’m a self-published author, of a couple of novels and some short fiction, but it isn’t my day job (nor is it profitable or money-making in any way - I do it for the love of writing). I began releasing micro interactive fiction experiences this year, most of which were created in Twine. In fact, Detective Osiris was the second thing I ever made in Ink, and my first Ink project was an extremely different kind of thing.
Going from my existing work, which were all ten minutes or less of gameplay, and all relatively linear, to Detective Osiris, which offers a variety of conversations, potentially multiple times, in a variety of potential orders, was definitely a bit different.
All that is to basically say: I bit off more than I’ve personally chewed before, even though I now recognise that the structure of Detective Osiris isn’t actually that complicated compared to many other entries.
So, why do this at all?
The real impetus behind starting the project was that I wanted to learn Ink better. When I was coming up with initial ideas, I actually had no idea that IFComp even existed. But, like most of my ideas, Detective Osiris came to me in a daydream, and I was up and running. I really sold myself on the idea of adapting and twisting an ancient story, and trying to blend epic tales of gods with something more grounded, like a noir-ish detective story. In my mind, these things leant themselves well to each other - the original stories feature gory murders, and the genre expectations of a detective story almost demand a late twist in the tale, which aligned with my goal of adapting and then changing an existing story.
I took a lot of inspiration from other places - as I often do, both subconsciously, and consciously. I once saw a TV pilot - the show never, to my knowledge, became a full series - about a town where the dead came to life as sentient zombies, and tried to re-integrate with their old lives. In that pilot episode, a zombie walks into a police station and asks to report a murder: Their own. Ever since, I’ve always wanted to do a “Whodunnit to me?”.
In the interactive space, I was also completely enamoured with Hades (2020) and the idea of being a lesser or newer God, talking to the rest of the pantheon and gradually getting more insight into the way that they operate - their perspective on life itself, their interpersonal relationships, and their flaws. I don’t think the games are similar at all in playing terms, and I would never dare directly compare this work to the incredible accomplishment of Greg Kasavin writing that game, but I mention it because I did feel inspired in part by it.
Lastly, a game I feel compelled to mention but mostly to say how much it didn’t actually inspire me directly: There are some obvious similarities in basic premise with Paradise Killer (2020), and I have played a bit of that, but it didn’t personally gel with me. I suppose, in some ways, it reverse-inspired me, because it made me err away from some of my zanier impulses, and I tried to keep the characters a bit more relatable, within reason.
Before I enter anything into Twine or Ink, I typically try to create the rough structure in Workflowy - using nesting to indicate the options behind each choice, and using the language of Choose Your Own Adventure books to reset the nesting level or manage multiple routes to the same content (e.g [Go to Waset], or [Go to Nut dialogue about Shai])
I actually don’t know if this habit is particularly useful - certainly it eventually leads to a large amount of copying and pasting - but I find that being able to collapse or interrogate nested threads helps me understand the general shape of the story, before I start entering it into something like Ink, which reads visually as more like a flat Word document.
By the time I discovered IFComp, I knew that I had an outline of something that I was confident could be created in Ink, and that I liked the shape of. It was already much bigger than the things I’ve created before - more flexible, covering more locations, and with more opportunity for players to dig around in conversations for things that they might enjoy discussing, even if they’re ultimately not part of the ‘true path’ to the ending. I decided I wanted to enter the contest, and I was going to do it with this game.
And then I made it.
I’m going to talk about some things that the reviewers raised. But before I do, I want to be completely clear that each reviewer experience is completely valid. It isn’t my intention to argue, or even particularly disagree with them. I share these thoughts only because I believe they may be of interest, in the context of these reflections on the creative process behind the game.
I’m also not going to quote any reviewer in particular, but instead reference some general themes that I feel I saw in the reviews. For starters… Why is this game so easy? And why, at the end of it all, does it not feel like I had much bearing on the outcome?
The short answer is: Because I wanted it to be so.
The Long Answer
For a longer answer, I want to talk about interactivity in fiction - and specifically, our expectations around how much interactivity a piece of interactive fiction should have.
I like to imagine a spectrum of interactive storytelling. At one end of the spectrum, is a book. It is completely un-interactive. At the other end of the spectrum, is a game of DnD (or similar), being run by a very talented improvisational DM, who will react and adjust to literally anything you ask to do or know more about. The most interactive story you could possibly have, short of the player just making it all up by themselves.
Near to the “book” end of the spectrum, as you begin to step into it, you get stories with basic levels of interactivity - perhaps “CYOA books”, or “being told a story by a friend, who gives you chance to ask elaborating questions, but ultimately, they’re still the one telling you the story”. And as you move further along the spectrum, towards more interactivity, you get into the deeper realms of IF, choice games, parser games, etc.
When I created Detective Osiris, I knew I was creating something with strong authorial intent - more interactive than a CYOA book, but still, ultimately, a story you are being told, rather than a story you are creating yourself or particularly influencing. I always envisaged it with one beginning, and one ending, and the only control I wanted players to have, was to explore the middle at their leisure, to whatever depth they wish, in the hopes that they’d find it enjoyable to do so.
Similarly, when it comes to puzzles, I knew that I wanted them to be thematically interesting (to me, at least) but otherwise not be an impediment to progress. In a detective novel, for example, the character is not prevented from reaching Chapter 14 because you, the reader, cannot solve the killer’s riddle. You are presented with it, and can solve it yourself to enjoy the feeling, but the story will continue whether you do or do not.
I guess what I’m really trying to say, is that I wanted to create a version of IF that is accessible, easy, and takes you to one ending. IF that a complete newcomer could hopefully safely enjoy with no prior knowledge or experience. That was always my intent, and I believe that this kind of IF is worth creating, even if it isn’t always what reviewers of this competition are looking for. I think a few reviewers came into it expecting something else - probably due to my wording of the entry blurb - and it may have impacted the enjoyment some were able to take from the game.
Now, all that said, I absolutely also recognise that my intent did not necessarily translate into a successful attempt. I wanted to create the illusion of player agency, and the illusion of puzzle gameplay, while really offering neither. I think it’s safe to say that for most readers, I didn’t manage to pull this magic trick off. Particularly to savvy IF readers in this forum, the seams were too visible.
Another common thread in a few reviews was about tone, and specifically consistency of tone. I think a lot of reviewers were spot on here - by attempting to inject some elements of noir, or elements of a modern-feeling detective romp, I clashed hard with some of the more lyrical and flowery language of a deific myth adaptation.
I really enjoyed sketching out these visions of ancient cities, and the glass canopy above them. Then I’d remember I was wanting to do some detective stuff, and I’d try to inject some noir-appropriate angst or broodiness for Osiris, and it all became a bit inadvertently jarring.
All that said, there are things about the writing that I personally still really like. I think my favourite parts are the conversations with Nut, Geb, and Ra - the mother, father, and the sort of indifferent uncle who occupy that space in the sky, their perspective on humans, and the relationship they have with them.
Let’s talk about the twist!
It was always going to be challenging to write a satisfying twist ending to a story that already has a well known conclusion. In keeping with my desires to make this “IF for everyone”, I was also keen to make sure that it still worked and felt like a twist for people who didn’t know the original story.
For that reason, I felt compelled to lay it on pretty thick with Set. If you knew the myth, you’d already be setup to expect him to be the killer, but if you didn’t know that, I wanted the player to be left with little doubt, so that the ‘twist’ is still a big reveal. And again, intent is one thing, actually pulling it off is another. I probably went too far.
However, I personally felt I was more successful in laying subtle seeds about Isis. Maybe even too subtle? Every clue that leads to royalty and access to Osiris at the time of his death can of course apply to her, just as much as it applies to Set. She’s the only other person that Sphinx reports has been at Waset, which players accept because she had to be there to “find the body”. There’s symbolism in feathers (her illicit relationship with Ra), in the riddle of the River (fertility), in the pyramid number puzzle structure, the hieroglyphics in the chamber, and that the chamber had been recently visited, which all refer to the plan that she enacts. I think there are hints of her ambition. If not Set, it pretty much had to be her.
Making a mystery
With Set as the obvious accusation to begin the twist ending, and Isis as the real culprit, other characters begin to enter the story for one of two reasons:
- To be a potential alternative suspect that players could consider, before the game makes Set the obvious choice
- To reveal things that guide the player towards the accusation of Set
In practice, some of the characters are both. The primary way that the second point manifests is in unlocking new areas to travel to. Anyone who visits Isis first could miss this aspect to a degree, because she can reveal all the locations, but someone taking a slower approach of stopping along the way to speak to others might find that Nut unlocks Sepermeru by mentioning it as the location of Set, or that Geb unlocks Waset by mentioning he saw that during one of his binge watches.
Sphinx is a strange character because it’s one of the areas where the game really deviates hard from Egyptian myth. I think it’s fair to say this Sphinx character is very “loosely inspired by” the stories of the Sphinx. But I was really keen to have a Sphinx character, because what fun is doing Ancient Egypt if you can’t do a riddle, and also because I think the Sphinx character is one of the parts of the game that feels the most detective-esque.
Essentially, Sphinx is an un-cooperative witness. He’s seen things, but he doesn’t want to share them for free. Osiris is the cop who’s in no mood for games, but has to play along if he wants to crack the case.
Khonsu was a relatively late addition, and also, the hardest to make work correctly in Ink. I’m not sure how many people even realised Khonsu’s behaviour (and it’s possible to not even meet him!) but he’s the only NPC who moves during the exploratory gameplay. Essentially, he randomly occurs in any “god” area, appearing as a shadow until you first speak to him, and then just appearing as himself after that. His behaviour during the game cues up the way that he brings everyone to the trial in the Duat - he’s been teleporting around the whole time, essentially unbound by the spacetime continuum.
And, just as Sphinx represents a witness who talks in riddles, Khonsu too represents a common character in detective stories - he’s the silent type, the suspect who just won’t talk, and who’s whereabouts during the crime cannot be ascertained.
Perhaps the most challenging character to actually write was Shai. Shai is a means-to-an-end, in the sense of being part of the motive for Isis, and they also function as a helpful tool to make “accusing Set” the obvious next move. But Shai is more than that.
As many of the conversations explore the relationship between these gods and the humans that worship them, Shai was also an opportunity to bridge the gap between their worlds - in this story, Shai lives among humans, and has deep knowledge about their future. That inspires opinions in other NPCs, and gives Shai a unique perspective relative to all the other deific characters.
But, there’s no way around it: Writing someone basically omniscient into a whodunnit is tricky, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it! From a detective story point of view, I knew that visiting Shai had to be explosive, revealing incredible evidence to drive the story forwards. But I also knew that I didn’t want the ending to just be Shai explaining everything, so I had to make them relatively uncooperative in conversation.
I could probably go through all the characters one by one and talk about them, but this is already getting long, so instead I’ll close this segment by saying that Anubis and Ammit were the easiest to add and therefore, my clear favourites. I pet them both extensively in every playtest.
When I decided that I would be entering IFComp, I also decided that I wanted it to look good, sound good, and be relatively free of defects.
To accomplish this mission, I turned to others. First, to Kama Mielczarek (Weird Is The Best), the illustrator behind all of the character portraits, which I personally think add loads of personality to the game, and help keep players aware of who’s who. I’m really, really thankful for them. I particularly enjoy the way we were able to incorporate references to the classic depiction of some of these gods - e.g through the animal masks at the party, or in the cover art, where Osiris is depicted in his trademark crook and flail pose, but with a magnifying glass instead of a crook.
Secondly, I worked with Mycelium Music to create original music for the game, and I was blown away by the thought and care with which the game’s locations were brought to life with music. I’d never worked with a composer before like this, and I’m really delighted with the authenticity of the Ancient Egyptian instrumentation, and the use of motifs, and just… All of it. I’m not a music expert by any means, but I was so happy with how this worked out and I think it’s great.
If I have any regret about the public reviews at all, it’s that I wish more people had felt as strongly as I do about the artwork and the music, and seen fit to mention it. I always expected the reviewing audience to focus on the text, but I hope others were also able to appreciate some of the trappings, too.
From a playtesting perspective, I was thankful to my testers Ben and Taya for helping me iron out some of the issues in the game. Their feedback led to the resolution of bugs, a greater awareness of sensitivity in some of the game’s content, and even design improvements. For example, the game has always allowed you to repeatedly ask certain questions (if the answer is important and I don’t want the player to forget) - and it was only a suggestion from the playtesters that led me to the elegant improvement of adding “(Ask again)” to options you’re choosing to repeat, so you know that you’re revisiting previous content. It sucked to go through and add all the logic for it, but I think it makes a big difference to the playing experience.
I can’t fault any of my collaborators on this project. Each of them made Detective Osiris drastically better, in my view.
Why does anyone write anything? I guess each entrant this year has their own answer to that question. For me, there’s something about having my writing consumed by other people that I find deeply satisfying. What a pleasure it is, to be able to conjure up thoughts and feelings in someone else’s head, with just a few dozen letters and a smattering of punctuation. To communicate. To truly speak.
To be able to do that in this arena has been really enjoyable, and rewarding, regardless of whatever the finishing position may be. Getting feedback from strangers is still a relative rarity for me, so to receive 16 reviews on this was thrilling. I spent way too much time refreshing the forum during the voting period, keen to see if anyone else would have their say.
I really appreciate the thoughts, positive or negative, that all the reviewers have shared. If you played it, I hope you got something, anything, out of your experience.
This game isn’t perfect. It isn’t even close. But in my experience, few things ever are, and they’re still worth doing. It remains something I’m immensely proud of making.
In Detective Osiris, Nut and Geb started small when they made the world, and their creations grew and grew, beyond what they thought - inspiring obsession and even more creation. That’s what I’ll be doing next, too - obsessively creating more IF. See you next year, hopefully!