DEVOTIONALIA Post-mortem & Post-comp Release

Hello all! Being a part of IFComp 2018 has been a fantastic experience. I can’t say enough how much I’ve enjoyed finding this community, spending time reading discussions here, and participating in the author’s forum. I’ve learned so much since the comp began, from other authors especially, and I think my writing and narrative design skills have been strengthened a lot by virtue of participating at all. I have a few (or way too many) things to say about my entry now that the comp has ended.

(The capitalization in the title is an affectation that I don’t insist anyone sticks to. It plays on the idea of authority and eminence being assigned to things considered divine, and I thought it would look neat, but I’ll be referring to it without caps here for the sake of my eyeballs.)

Devotionalia has been in development since April 2018, but the development of the world and its overarching narrative precede it by several months. A lot of huge decisions about Devotionalia were made before I ever considered making the game itself. IFComp 2018 is the first competition I’ve entered, and at first I wasn’t sure if I’d actually wind up finishing and submitting anything. But in late August, one of my cats passed away after 20 years with us, and I wound up working on Devotionalia a lot throughout September to try to avoid getting overcome with grief. I’m still pretty much overcome with grief, but I managed to create something, and that helped me to some degree. That feels a bit too personal to mention, but it’s also hard to consider the dev process without thinking of her.

I feel like Devotionalia is probably one of the first good games I’ve made. For reference, I made 14 games before IFComp. Immediately after completing Devotionalia, I noticed a jump in the quality, interactivity, and thoughtfulness of my own work. In the past, my work has been more static, lacking in choice and variables as I slowly got accustomed to fiddling with tools like Twine and learning more about the kind of programming that allows for most robust interactive fiction. Although there are plenty of dynamic fiction pieces that I love, I’ve been wanting to explore more possibilities in my games. Devotionalia was a first attempt at that, so it’s far from ideal, but I’m happy with how much I learned.

Regarding the content, it’s probably worth noting that I am not religious and I was not raised with any form of religious influence. I’ve entered a place of worship exactly twice. But I’ve studied a number of ancient religions in some detail, and this narrative comes from that — a fascination with ancient cults and their customs. “Cult” can carry a pretty unsavory connotation in a modern context, but in this context, it’s an objective, impartial word; as far as Devotionalia goes, it designates something small and intimate, something mystic.

The Introduction
Originally, until late development, the intro was just one big block of click-to-continue prose that I felt was really dragging in comparison to the rituals. There were some elements that I cut or relocated, but ultimately I decided to keep a lot of it by dividing the intro into chunks and allowing the player to either approach the chunks in an order of their choosing, or skip straight to the rituals without consequence. It wasn’t a perfect fix, but I haven’t seen any complaints about the pacing, which I’m sure I would seen plenty of had I not added a pseudo-choice element or an ability to skip to the meat of the game.

New Offerings & Variables
At the end of each ritual route, the player can choose to restart from the very first passage, or go directly to the ritual selection passage. Having to read the whole intro again unless you REALLY want to, even with the option to cut to the rituals early, would have been a drag — and it was one for me while I was testing. So once I threw that option in, I was really feeling it. Unfortunately, in order for Devotionalia to run properly, the “New Offering” option needs to reset all variables — meaning that your previous ritual choices can’t be tracked once you start a new one, or you’ll start seeing chunks of text about your prior choices where they don’t belong.

Much of Devotionalia’s ~12,000 words aren’t visible on screen and involve unseen variable management — dictating which variables get set and why, which cooperate with each other, what chunks of text will show where. Many passages account for 3-5+ variables at once, checking to see how the player is praying or sacrificing or creating a votive. At my skill level (I’m not much of a coder; I can wrangle variables and customize CSS, but beyond that, I’m still learning a lot), it’s difficult for me to implement more complex state-tracking than Devotionalia already has, but it’s a task I’m considering for a post-comp release. It’s not one I may be able to deliver on right away, but it’s certainly an idea I like.

Help & The Walkthrough
Called “Guidance” in-game, the help passage mostly serves to describe the types of hyperlinks the player will be seeing, to be crystal clear about how the prose is meant to be interacted with, but it also hints at the core takeaway: you can’t really “win.” I wasn’t sure how blunt I wanted to be about any of this, but it seems like this optional passage has been useful to people.

I didn’t know if it would be overkill to add a walkthrough, but in the end it seemed to be useful as well, and a nice meta way for me to less-gently drive home that you cannot “win” this game — you can’t brute-force divine acknowledgment. [rant=spoiler]Even if Devotionalia had more intensive state-tracking, there would be no ending in which the priest directly communicates with their object of worship. The serpent-deity is a character, albeit an unseen, unheard one. They do exist — Devotionalia is not about questioning the existence of a god, necessarily (outside of “Hey, did it… die, maybe?”), but rather the worship and deification of a living thing, and the complications therein. It’s debatable that the beings above are truly deities, or if designating them as such is fair to them to begin with, but that’s a whole other other can of snakes.[/rant]
Cosmetics & Cyclinglinks
First of all, whatever possessed me to go with that gray-on-black link was unholy, and I’m sorry for how visually inaccessible it is. I wanted a lower-contrast, colorless link property that wouldn’t make the UI look busy or garish, and I threw it in very late in development because not differentiating all of the links was bothering me. I never felt satisfied with the color choice, but having replayed Devotionalia at the end of the comp after some time away: hoo boy, it looks bad. It’s enough eye strain to be unacceptable, and will be fixed in the post-comp release.

I used the cycling links themselves as a way to add some interactive, interpretive element to otherwise static prose. They’re also largely a way of defining the protagonist’s experience, rather than allowing the player to change it to what might satisfy them. I can see where this might not be satisfying to every player, as it deprives the player of some agency; it’s more of a passive interaction. The changes in meaning are all very intentional, though; I wanted to avoid the vibe that they were just thesaurus-substitutions, but some of the wording could probably be stronger. The amount of some links may also be excessive, and there might be some worth cutting to make the mechanic hold more weight or feel less repetitive.

Another cosmetic issue: Devotionalia just looks Bad on mobile devices and small screens, something I should make more apparent than I do in the small, self conscious aside I put in the credits page. Unfortunately, this is also something that’s a bit beyond my skill level at the moment. Everything displays, and the game is playable, but it takes a certain amount of scrolling and looks abominable in comparison to how it’s meant to look. Making heavier CSS customization play nicely on all devices is hard. Two audio files also can’t play at once on mobile devices, so the soundscape is janky there as well, but I’m glad to hear that the BGM worked for people. Kevin MacLeod rules. I think I’ve had enough Gregorian chanting echoing in my brain for a while, though.

Interactivity & Rituals
I think Devotionalia isn’t likely to satisfy puzzle enthusiasts; the rituals barely qualify as puzzles, and there’s no real reward for completing them other than expanded details about the world. Though the rituals do test the player’s reading of the text, that’s more a test of whether I wrote the text in a way that makes the ideal rituals legible. The piece lacks a “play” element, and even with its interactive elements it can’t be wholly satisfying to anyone hoping for more of a “game.” While Devotionalia isn’t challenging in terms of mechanics, and maybe isn’t even a game, I’m glad to hear that it’s still been thought-provoking.

Still, I wanted to meet some of the needs of players who would be craving a more interactive narrative than what Devotionalia began as — which was very short and static, with minimal interactivity. As the developer, I was also craving something more, so I tried to train it out of the realm of the low-input dynamic fiction I’d been writing previously as I was building up my confidence with Twine. Having finished it, I feel confident that I could create more interactive stories with weightier interaction, and I’m looking forward to working on that in the future.

In terms of replayability, my testers confirmed that Devotionalia can take ten minutes, or ninety. I figured that their thoroughness would be the exception to the rule, so I was working on the assumption that most players would not choose to try every ritual, but still wanted to make it accessible for people to do so. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that many players actually did try all the rituals and take into account all the changes in the endings!

The sacrifice route was actually the most straight-forward to code, with more branching paths (as in, actual separate Twine passages) vs a set of linear passages internally simulating branching paths up to a point. The prayer route originally had far more variables that simulated “meaningful” interaction without actually corresponding to a consequence (the illusion of choice, folks), but it became an extremely cluttered passage, so the prayer customization was cut down significantly. The votive route mostly stayed the same from conception, but at one point I considered including illustrations to account for votive choices. That turned out to be way too many weird statues to draw, and I scrapped the idea quickly.

Story & Narrative Voice
The story itself is a bit sparse, admittedly; it’s maybe more of a vignette than anything. I’ve withheld a lot of details about the priest and the acolytes that I’d like to expand upon in other material for the sake of pacing, because I was worried about alienating players with Too Much, but in fact I might have gone with Too Little. I would have liked to include more direct interactions or dialogue, but this was another thing I decided against for the sake of not only development time constraints, but having the game move along and focus more on the rituals themselves. I think it might have been more impactful if I’d found a way to create a stronger personal impression of the protagonist or their situation that would be communicable in every route. That wouldn’t be necessarily at odds with anything, but I’d have to see where I can squeeze it in effectively without the pacing suffering.

From what I’ve seen, nearly all of the players who left feedback in one way or another understood or were satisfied by Devotionalia’s main conceit. Ultimately, the published reviews I’ve received so far have been not only great feedback, but have contained nuanced understandings of the game, touching on several themes and details I had hoped to convey. It was a huge relief to see that the ending, much-agonized over by me, went over well with several people despite being intentionally not the “best” ending one might hope for. (Even so, I understand if it’s frustrating or feels like a lacking conclusion for some.) It also makes me incredibly happy to know that the worldbuilding has been well-received!

A small, maybe not super “fun” fact: I considered making the narrator speak through the conceit of being another deceased priest guiding the protagonist, but decided against it for length and logistics reasons. I was already too far along with the writing, and tailoring it to retrofit that idea would have been messy. “Wordy ghost priest” is still a narrator concept I’m digging, though.

Reviews have noted similarities to Sunless Sea without deeming Devotionalia too similar, and that absolutely delights me. I’m a big fan of Sunless Sea, which I fell in love with when I first played it in January 2016. The world and the writing felt so much like things I’d wanted to create and atmospheres I’d wanted to produce, and I felt for the first time like there was a real audience for weirder fare outside of the Eldritch. Devotionalia is certainly inspired by Sunless Sea, but I’ve been careful not to pull too much from it. The obvious similarity is probably the nature of the world — a dark, enclosed sea, full of strange places and beings.

Seas and water tend to keep recurring in my work; blame the loads of times I’ve read about “the wine-dark sea” as a classicist studying Homer, or the inexplicable life-long fascination with bodies of water, swimming, etc. (I racked up an obscene number of hours playing LoZ: Twilight Princess because of the Zora Armor alone.) Devotionalia is set in what is basically a multi-layered bean dip of seas, where the barriers between seas are stark, and the types of beings that can survive in each register are all vastly different. Devotionalia is a complete, standalone piece, but it’s also the foundation for a series of interactive stories I’ve been planning for some time now, and I’m so happy to have finally put it “out there” and begun work on new narratives in the same world. Its world is actually a collaborative setting created with a very dear friend; for their privacy, I’m being a bit vague about this for now, but I can say that Devotionalia and the stories to follow are just a small corner that I’ve developed in this world — a world which would not exist without their creativity, love, and enthusiasm.

As far as the serpent-being goes, although they’re decidedly weird and unknowable, I purposefully wanted to steer clear of Lovecraftian conceits that would make them seem sinister, alien, or unwelcome. I just think snakes are neat!

I reached out to a few friends, a family member, and to my Twitter followers to look for testers. Sincerest thanks to all of them: seasoned veteran Brian Rushton, whose experience testing and kind encouragement were incredibly helpful, and whose work as an author as well as a member of the IF community, I admire — Chad, who is new to playing IF, but whose willingness to test something unfamiliar was inspiring and whose feedback was great — Albatross Wirehead, whose positivity was super kind and who gave great feedback on balancing routes — my wonderful and talented cousin, who is also new to playing IF, but is always willing to play my weird games — Quinn, who helped me hash out pacing and whose feedback and thoughts on game development are always a joy — Tonake, who caught some typos, which saved my life, and helped me figure out yet more pacing concerns — and Oliver, whose incredible patience, discerning eye, and unwavering support have helped me out on so many occasions.

Without all of them, Devotionalia wouldn’t be something I could be proud of.[/spoiler]
Final Thoughts
Thank you so much to everyone who played, rated, discussed, or otherwise felt some type of way about Devotionalia. I’ve received some deeply encouraging, heartwarming feedback and some extremely helpful critiques along the way, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m thrilled to have tied for 20th, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot. Anything I make in the future will be much stronger for this effort. I’ll be shooting for a post-comp release by the end of the year, but fundamentally Devotionalia may not change by a huge amount; I’ve gotten out of the in-development mindset, and I think of it as finished, despite imperfections, so I’d like to get cooking on some new things — but there are a few definite issues I want to fix and certain changes I’d like to make ASAP.

There’s probably something I’m forgetting, but I don’t want to get more long winded than I’ve already been. If there’s anything anybody would like my input on, though, please feel free to comment in this thread; I’m happy to discuss process, meanings, certain passages, etc. Thanks so much for reading!

EDIT 12/31/18: The post-competition release is available here!

Great postmortem, thanks for sharing and also you started in August who gave you people twenty fingers to write so fast

Great postmortem, seriously.

Hello again! I’ve finished the post-comp release just before the New Year (in my timezone, at least), so I figured I’d add it to this thread.

This new release:

  • fixes minor bugs
  • makes certain hyperlinks more visually accessible
  • includes an epilogue made available when the player completes one of each ritual
  • contains a preview of the next game in the series, using the same criteria

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull off the logic for the epilogue, but I’m happy to say that I managed it! If you enjoyed Devotionalia and want to see what’s new, or if you didn’t have time to play it during the comp but would like to now, please check out the post-comp version over on!

Thank you belatedly to Pseudavid above – I’m less a speed writer and more an extreme procrastinator, to tell the truth, but I’m glad you enjoyed the post-mortem; this was my first try writing one. And another HUGE thank you to everyone here! Happy New Year!