Erstwhile Postmortem

Hi everyone!! Maddie, co-writer and coder of Erstwhile here. This is my and Marijke’s first time in this competition and I really didn’t expect us to do this well, so you can definitely say I’m over the moon about what we created and that most everyone liked it!

I’ve never written a postmortem before, so I put a lot of my thoughts into the Erstwhile thread itself. But I’ll regurgitate them here along with new ones, haha. I don’t actually know how I’m supposed to put this all into a single post because I have So. Many. Thoughts. About this game. But I’ll try (and probably fail?) not to make it too longwinded.

I was actually gunning for top 20th at best, top 40% at worst, because I was like “well it’d be nice to get like a cash prize of $20” and when you work on a game on and off for 2 years you accrue serious doubts about its quality. My radio silence during the competition was also because I was terrified of people hating it and ripping it apart, and I wanted to deal with any potential hate only when I absolutely had to (ie yesterday). So getting 5th place out of 77 games has just been mindblowingly surreal. But almost all of the reviews I’ve seen have been mostly positive, and that makes me really happy! It was great seeing everyone trying to figure out the mysteries and such.

The game basically came about from a weird dream I had around Thanksgiving 2016 about a guy who was trying to solve his own murder through weird symbolic ~metaphor clues about things-- example, a pair of girl’s shoes (mary janes) symbolizing marijuana. I talked about making a game of it with Marijke, and we both agreed that a game exactly based on that premise would be terrible, so we polished it into Erstwhile.

As several people have noticed, we definitely, definitely took a lot of inspiration from Color the Truth. That was one of the most memorable games from the competitions of the recent past for me, so I told Marijke we had to include elements of that if we were going to do a mystery game! I also took inspiration from Toby’s Nose, which is the reason why the noncombinable clues are there; I guess I wanted to have my cake and eat it too, haha. Other media I drew from were Gravity Falls (Mindscaperers specifically) and Psychonauts, and a smattering of other things. Annie’s mind actually just being a kitchen filled with sand was both symbolic and a reference to Shade by Andrew Plotkin, which is what the random flower on the counter was for, haha (I think I’m clever).

Creating the game itself was an exercise in frustration for me, because I had coded smatterings of things before in python but had no idea how Twine worked. I actually coded the whole thing 3 times-- in Harlowe 1, Harlowe 2, and Sugarcube 2, over the course of the 2 years that I worked on it. But I’m glad I kept with it, and the people in the Twine Discord server were of immense help.

Most of the critiques that we received were related to the noncombinable clues – the rap sheet, the burning letter, the congratulatory card, etc. Most of yall either wanted some way to unlock the deeper mystery/ies, or some signal that you can’t. As many people have guessed, it’s purposeful that you can’t unlock the deeper reasons for the murder and people’s interactions with Mort, because Mort just doesn’t want to think about them. I think this is an important thematic aspect of the game.

However, people’s frustration with that aspect of the game has really been prominent and I definitely want to address it. My ideal method would be to signal that no, you definitely can’t unlock any secret memories or other revelations for Mort. It’s tricky because he’s an unreliable protagonist. I tried putting flags to that effect in the items’ text (“You don’t think this is relevant to the mystery” or whatever the text was exactly) but even in beta testing people didn’t quite pick up on the significance of those sentences. Any suggestions on how to fix this issue would be greatly appreciated!

I have to say, I’ve been absolutely delighted that people loved the first line of the game, because that was the first line I personally ever wrote for it, and it’s gone untouched since the start of writing the prose of the game. I knew it was a winner :wink: And to all the people saying they liked the slow revelation that Mort was an asshole the whole time, thank you so much, that was exactly the feel we were going for.

==The mystery==
If you want to know the full mystery (and I mean the full mystery) as we wrote it, here it is. A lot of this was only implied extremely vaguely in game; we do not expect everyone to have picked up all of this and I’m not even sure if that would be possible.

[cw: mentions of transphobia and homophobia]

[spoiler]Annie had a daughter, Lexa, who was dating pre-transition Justin. Terry was their best friend, and the three of them would hang out in the park under Lexa’s favorite plane tree a lot and have picnics. Annie, who was at the time homophobic, didn’t approve of Lexa dating Justin because she thought that Justin was a girl and thus Lexa was a lesbian, and thus banned them from seeing each other. Lexa often snuck out to see Justin late at night because of this ban.

One night, right after Lexa had stolen some money from Annie’s purse, snuck out, and bought some weed from Bram (and had presumably gotten high), she was going over to see Justin and got hit by a drunk driver: Mort. She fell into a coma, which ended up lasting a decade.

Mort went to jail for a while, got out, then cleaned up his act. No more alcohol for him. He slowly gained the trust of the community back and eventually became the chairman of the RNA. In the meantime, Justin transitioned and distanced himself from Erin (who was a little too eager to support her trans brother when he did not want anyone in the town knowing he was trans). He and Terry visited the hospital where Lexa was at multiple times and then got together bonding over that. Annie got over her homophobia/transphobia over time and became very protective and fond of Justin as a person (maybe out of some sense of guilt). Bram went from being a weed dealer to a weed grower.

Then the events of the game happen. The nonvoluntary euthanasia form is Annie’s form, signing for Lexa. Terry’s real motive is she blames Mort for Lexa’s death and then desecrating her memory because he’s never given a shit about anyone. Her phone conversation with her boyfriend obliquely references this.

Also, I think we kind of messed up on a meta level with the boyfriend because we were trying to make him as much of a non-person as possible (we as writers didn’t want to focus on it) but everyone’s gotten curious about him so…whoops? Though one of our beta testers did think he was a werewolf hunter because he had a silver cane. That was not intentional.

Other fun tidbit, the potion of continued life that Erin and Bram were making is implied to have worked (I mean hey, Mort’s still around).[/spoiler]

What were your thoughts behind the title “Erstwhile”? I know it means “former,” which fits the game’s theme, but it also has a sort of older, almost Emily Dickinson-type feel to it that I wondered if it might be a reference. (I actually went so far as to search on “erstwhile” and “Emily Dickinson” but got no matches in any of her poems.)

Hey, thanks for posting the explanation! It was nice to read that and get an answer on the elements I hadn’t completely resolved while playing. I’m glad to see I wasn’t completely off-base with my guesses about the backstory.

I think there’s an interesting dynamic when you’ve got an unreliable narrator who can’t face the truth. The player is always going to want to know the full story, or at least as much of it as matters, because that’s part of what you’re reading for (especially in a mystery situation). (I still sometimes think about the many-years-back game The Blind House, which had a spooky unreliable narrator, but I never felt like I found out what that was really about, and the unsettled feeling really stuck with me.)

So it’s tricky setting up a narrator who cannot and will not know or discuss the truth, and still offering the player a sense of closure – or at the very least telling the player that they’ve reached a complete playthrough even if they haven’t seen a complete version of the story. After playing Erstwhile I kept worrying that I’d missed doing something that I should have tried.

I wonder if there might have been a way to let the player (for instance) combine the forbidden clues to get, if not an explanation, at least something from Mort that amounted to a clear character-arc ending for him about his refusal to face the truth. But that would probably depend on whether you felt “Mort refuses to face himself” was actually the point of the story you’re telling.

Anyway, I enjoyed this! Thanks for writing it, and thanks for satisfying my post-game curiosity. :slight_smile:

Sorry for the late reply! I don’t think we really had a thought behind the title other than that we wanted it to sound cool and reference the past? And I dredged up the word out of my weird vocabulary of random archaic English words, haha. It’s been two years so my memory’s kind of hazy (lol).

I don’t think I want to do this-- I’m sure I could figure out a way to, but I think that “Mort refusing to face himself” is such a strong point that like, him not facing himself or having any clear epiphany is important to the theme. He doesn’t change at all over the game-- no one does really, because it’s all a snapshot looking back to the past. And Mort doesn’t see any future developments, he just makes a single choice in the present then fades away.

So maybe I am looking for ways to signal that there isn’t closure? That there’s nothing more the game’s gonna give you?