Down, the Serpent and the Sun postmortem

I’ll start out by saying that I probably entered ParserComp for the wrong reason. I wrote a Twine game last year, HUNTING UNICORN, that kinda slipped through the cracks. This was before I knew much about the IF community. Once I learned more, I realized how important it was to release games in competitions, which is what I should’ve done with my first game.

I found out about ParserComp roughly two weeks before the deadline. One of those weeks I was busy, which left me with the other week to design the game. And to learn Inform, since I’d never written a parser game. But I decided to do it purely for the sake of entering the competition. That’s what I mean about entering for the wrong reason.

This time-crunch heavily influenced what I produced. I figured I would only be able to make something short and rudimentary, so my goal was to write a pulpy adventure like you’d find in an old comic book. I’d also recently played La Lagune de Montaigne, which made me decide to focus more on setting than story… or character… or anything else!

The Mesoamerican flavor came about because I’ve been doing research over the past two years for a novel about Moctezuma II. I had feathered serpents on my mind. So I grabbed one. The monster isn’t specifically Mexican, since various cultures have various feathered serpents, but I didn’t want to just use a giant snake because, well, I like feathered serpents more. They’re more awesome.

As for the serpent’s stomach problems, those came about because I myself was having stomach problems! Again, it was on my mind. So I grabbed it. Besides which, I’m always returning to consumption as a theme.

Then I jumbled everything together. As I was coding the game I felt like I was plugging holes in a sinking ship, always discovering some new obstacle with Inform. Halfway through I realized, hey, games are supposed to have puzzles, aren’t they, people will demand puzzles, so I smacked on a few puzzles. The whole structure felt precarious, as though the game would topple if you poked it with a stick, and it still sorta feels that way to me.

I didn’t change much after the beta-testing phase, but I did add one new ending that happens if the player eats the flame. I originally hadn’t even considered that players might try interacting with the flame, which shows how blinkered I was during the development process!

Now, what I learned from reviews:

  1. Other people do not play parser games like I do. I like to examine everything, so I wrote descriptions for almost everything in my game, with the idea that people would examine things to uncover clues. However, many people didn’t seem to do that, so they missed clues for the puzzles if the clues weren’t placed in the general room descriptions. In the future, I cannot expect other players to share my devotion to examining the scenery, unless I give explicit instructions that this should be done (which I’ll most likely do, because I love the mechanic of examining things within things within things).

  2. Other people do not think of pulp the same way I do. This game was never meant to be too serious, and yet almost every review talked about horror or body-horror or even Lovecraftian horror. I hate Lovecraft! Grossing out the player wasn’t my intent either. I wanted to use over-the-top and bizarre imagery to create an interesting space to explore. But it seems many people were just grossed out, or imagined that was the game’s purpose. This indicates a big miscalculation on my part. It tells me I don’t know my audience well enough.

  3. I shouldn’t rush a game out for a competition. Especially not if I’m doing impromptu design-work for it. Other people spent lots of time and effort on their games, and it’s not polite coming to the party if you’re not bringing something more thoughtful yourself.

  4. Don’t add puzzles just to add puzzles. This probably means, for me, don’t add puzzles. I’m not nearly as interested in the puzzle-solving aspect of interactive fiction as I am with its potential for creating atmosphere, or for warping a narrative’s meaning with dynamic text. Those are what I ought to focus more on.

  5. I still don’t know if it was a good idea to add the extra ending after the beta-testing phase. Some people found it naturally; others thought it was obscure and unfair. But I don’t consider this game to have a single “right” ending anyway, so if people miss a few endings, that doesn’t bother me. It might bother them if they’re completionists, but I don’t want to cater to a completionist mindset.

  6. I disagree with the assertion that “chunderous” is a 25-cent word! And if it is, then the price ought to be reduced so that anyone can afford it! (Not to mention it’s slang. I didn’t think slang went for 25 cents.) “Chunder” is such a great term for “vomit,” and “chunderous,” well, you’ve got thunderous chunks with that one! Alternatives like “puke” and “barf” are just so weak, and even “vomit” lacks the force behind “chunder.” It gets right down into your throat! Yeah, it really needs more love.

In the end, I consider this game to be a rather undercooked experiment, but a good growing experience. I have to thank all the reviewers for their detailed feedback, which has taught me a lot about how other players digest parser games. Hopefully my next game will work better than this snake one, but we’ll see! The Spring Thing deadline is fast approaching and I’m once again scrambling to plug holes in another sinking ship. Nevertheless, interactive fiction is an exciting new medium for me, and I’m eager to keep working at it!

I just wanted to say that the fact that you put this together in a week is an inspiration. I really liked DtSatS and I’m glad it was in the competition. It has probably the most satisfyingly visceral ending of any of the entrants (either ending.) I feel like we need to have a ‘short story collection’ format for IF, where we can collect a bunch of neat little stories that take 10-30 minutes to play through. I look forward to what you do in future comps.

Likewise – my review gripes notwithstanding, to go from knowing no Inform and never having designed a parser game before to this outcome in one week is stellar.

Thanks for the encouragement! I could’ve spent three weeks on the game since Carolyn did provide that (very thoughtful) two-week polish window, but by then I’d already realized what a mistake it was to write during a time-crunch, so I moved on to begin my Spring Thing entry to maximize writing time for that. I felt a little bad for setting the snake game aside so soon, although I did address all the issues my beta-testers found, but now as Spring Thing looms, I’m glad I did, because I’m feeling the time-crunch again. At least I’ve grown enough so that my coding doesn’t look like spaghetti anymore!

Haha, this sounds familiar. It was surprising to look at transcripts and realize just how many things don’t get examined. I suspect players might be more likely to examine things that the room description draws attention to, though.

It does seem that players won’t examine things without the room description emphasizing them, which is why one of this game’s puzzles just did not work. You can cut your way through the walls into a new organ in three places in this game, but only in the ribcage does the room description itself indicate another organ behind the walls. (The lungs indicate another organ above the ceiling.) I had hoped that being able to cut through the ribcage would make players wonder about potentially cutting through other walls too, and examining a few different features in both the small and large intestines does indicate the presence of hidden organs. But to my knowledge, not a single player found these extra organs without the walkthrough, which means the idea was much more obscure than I ever intended. I will emphasize them more in the next release.

I also spent lots of time writing text for smelling, tasting, touching, and listening. That was not good time management!

I slashed everything I could. I imagined myself grabbing that tooth, jamming it into the tongue-meat, then riding it down the whole digestive system like a zip-line, slicing as I went. I got the reproductive ending with no walkthrough, only had to consult the walkthrough to figure out that I was supposed to eat the flame for the sunny ending.

Oh wow, I stand corrected! Perhaps I’ll add more clues in different places then, rather than making the hidden organs more obvious and removing the potential for discovery. Something’s gotta be done either way.

I think that players can adopt whatever style of play you need of them, but you can’t expect them to intuit that without guidance; they need to be led into it. (This is one of the hardest things to accomplish in parser IF.)

Definitely. There’s a balance to strike between over- and under-cluing that I totally missed with this game.

Authorial reputation also sometimes plays a role. When playing a game by a new author, a stuck player might think “this is a bug” instead of “I didn’t try examining everything”. If zarf’s name was on your game, I bet there’d have been a lot more examining going on! :smiley:

But, on the other hand, I really try to emphasize things in the room description!

To cite an actual example:

[code]The Small Intestine is a room. It is down from the Sol. “More humid than any jungle and flourishing with intestinal flora. Acid trickles from the sphincter overhead into a meandering rivulet. The walls throb and grumble, occasionally opening their pores to pump bile into the digesting morass. Feeble sunlight from above casts a tropical glow across the mucosa; the ileocecal valve yawns below.”

Understand “walls” and “wall” and “pores” and “pore” and “membrane” and “membranes” and “opening” as mucosa.
The mucosa is a door. The mucosa is scenery. The mucosa is lockable and locked. The mucosa is not openable. The mucosa is east of the Small Intestine and west of the Testes. “Threaded through with veins and glands, with ducts forever dripping, the mucosa vibrates now and then from movement somewhere behind its porous membrane.”[/code]
In the next release, what I’ll do is move the text that you get after examining the mucosa and incorporate it into the Small Intestine room description. Even then, it probably needs extra emphasis to imply that the “movement somewhere behind its membrane” is being caused by an organ that the player can access.

If I may chime in, because I like this sort of discussion about player’s expectations - in the example you cited I certainly wouldn’t have thought the mucosa was in any way particularly relevant, certainly not more than the sunlight, or the acid, or the rivulet. The mucosa gets lost in the middle of a very… er… colourful environment - bile, morass, the walls and their pores. I would only think about interacting with the mucosa in any way if I were stuck and in the non-fun scour-everything-for-possible-interactibles mental mode.

In a room description this full I don’t expect an author to detailedly implement every single thing - mostly because hardly anyone does. Playing a mid-sized game with so many possible interactions in every room is probably overwhelming. Personally I prefer room descriptions that manage to be evocative and yet economical and practical in how they reference actual scenery in the room - so that the author and the player have less things to interact with and worry about, while still being treated to a good room description.

Speaking as a player, of course. I’m not saying that this is easy to do. Just that it’s what I especially like to see in room descriptions.

I think this particular environment is also challenging because most of the things the player has to interact with are not familiar objects or tools. If I have a room that contains a hammer, or a framed picture, or a laptop computer, then I know what those things are good for and I would expect that the author had at least accounted for attempts to use them in the usual ways.

But in this case, I don’t have preconceptions about how to use the internal organs of a giant serpent, so I don’t get that instant hit of “oh hey, I should do something with that.” Meanwhile, the way they’re embedded into the description made me feel they might be more like the walls of a more conventional IF room: something that must exist in order to enclose the environment, but no more.

You guys are great. It’s so helpful to hear feedback like this. I’m used to writing static fiction, but interactive fiction occupies this tricky and wonderful place where the author really has to get into the player’s head, and the player into the author’s. Of course that holds true for static fiction too, but the difference is that a parser game depends upon such a mind-merge, otherwise the game can’t be played.

The walls, pores, and mucosa are all the same thing, so examining any would trigger the same description, but I can see how such an unusual setting could throw players out of the loop. The main takeaway for me is that most players were not clued into the game’s primary examining mechanic, which is the basic feature underlying its puzzles. The game simply throws you into the situation. So perhaps it’s not that the clues are too obscure, but that the player was never clued to look for clues! I’ll have to weave some kind of mini-tutorial into the beginning somewhere.

I found the ribcage but not the other organs–but that was because I was looking for things to interact with and when I found one I interacted with it. It seemed pretty clear to me that the game had only a few objects, and that the tooth was both important (because I’d had to do a lot to get it) and for cutting stuff. So then I was like “Where can I use this?” The hint of another organ behind the ribcage wall wasn’t that important for me–it was more like “I need to cut something, this looks cuttable.”

The lack of objects also impelled me to examine things a bit more–I think before finding the tooth I’d probably tried examining nouns from the room description–the explicit mention of the walls was enough to make me think they were worth examining. But that doesn’t scream to me “AND THERE IS SOMETHING YOU SHOULD DO WITH THIS.”

I guess for me it’s less that I don’t know what to do with the things I find in a giant serpent, the way Emily said, but that I don’t know what goals I might have when retrieving the sun from one. So when I got the “eat the flame” ending there wasn’t anything about it that made me say “but maybe there’s another ending?” If you just added a note in the final questions about the alternative ending I’d bet that a lot more players would find it.

When you say final questions, do you mean the options that players have like AMUSING after the game is over? I still haven’t quite learned how to program such a thing (I’m sure it’s easy), but I’m not sure I like the idea of relying on out-of-world hints. One player suggested that I could expand the iconography on the altar to explain more about the serpent’s anatomy, which I think is what I’ll do. That was already the altar’s purpose, but it was far too vague and conceptual in the current release. I need go back and describe actual scenes carved into the altar, like serpents laying eggs or whatnot.

I like that idea! I’ll echo lower-case matt w’s comment in that I mostly didn’t miss what to examine (because I’m an examine-any-noun-mentioned freakazoid), but because there wasn’t enough direction on what the goal should be. When I saw the broken sun, my mind for some reason focused on finding a way to repair it. I also didn’t find the ovum and thought I could fertilize the sun with the gamete.

The Xerxes example shows you how to allow AMUSING. If you want to have another option, you can do this:

Table of Final Question Options (continued)
final question wording	only if victorious	topic	final response rule	final response activity
"CONTINUE to the epilogue"	true	"CONTINUE"	epilogue rule	nodoing

this is the epilogue rule:
	say "OK, back to wherever.";
	resume the story;

nodoing is an activity. [this doesn't do anything, but it might, in the future.]