First Morning of May: An Alltarach Post-Mortem


This is a long one. I wrote it as much for personal catharsis as for an audience, so if it starts to get dangerously self-indulgent, you have my permission to leave. I hope it’s of at least mild interest to someone else. And innocent eyes beware: it’s chock-full of unmarked spoilers.

alltarach (adjective): Beyond, on the far side; (by extension) supernatural.

From alltar (noun) (far country, otherworld, hinterland) + -ach (adjectival suffix).


Alltarach was developed part-time over a period of five years. Google Drive tells me my folder for the project was created on the 11th November 2019, and we released with the premier spring-themed annual interactive fiction festival Spring Thing on the 1st April 2024. That might sound like a ridiculous amount of time to expend on a single project, but I worked mostly in short bursts, an hour a night on weekdays. I also, in my infinite sagacity, severely underestimated the amount of time it would take to realise a project of this magnitude.

The game was very much our pandemic project, and my first major IF project (whoops). The first draft of the game was completed on the 11th October 2020 (thank you Git), but I didn’t dare send it to playtesters until significantly later, around May 2023. In those three years I completely rewrote the ending, added new scenes, and made several major editing passes. In retrospect, I probably should’ve gotten more eyes on it sooner, and if I’d known of the existence of the IF forums back then I certainly would have. Instead, we had mostly friends and family test it, which got us some great feedback but not from the actual audience that would be playing and evaluating the game.

Another thing that I wish I’d considered more carefully is our choice of tools, and more specifically story format. I started with Harlowe because it was the default story format and I assumed that meant it was the most well-supported, but as soon as I tried to do anything even semi-complex I found myself butting heads with it. Luckily I know some half-remembered JavaScript from my foray into web development a decade ago, and we were able to cobble together the annotations system and the various menus after much trial and error. The character menu in particular came quite late, and is definitely still the most buggy system in the game.


Allen and its lords
Both are overthrown,
Brigid’s house is full,
Far her fame has flown.

Navan town is shattered,
Ruins everywhere;
Glendalough remains,
Half a world is there.

Heathendom has gone down
Though it was everywhere;
God the Father’s kingdom
Fills heaven and earth and air.[1]

It might surprise people to know that we had the premise (“orphaned fisherman’s daughter leaves the island that’s all she’s ever known to look for her missing brother”) down before the setting. There’s an envelope floating around in this mess of a flat somewhere that has my earliest sketches for the project: an island, a ferry, and the mainland, representing the first three acts, and a little ditty about young men going wandering and encountering creatures who steal them away. I knew I wanted a vaguely medieval setting, but the story felt untethered until my burgeoning interest in Irish mythology gave me an idea. What if Ireland, but a kind of liminal, half-historical half-mythical version?

A Vexed Historiography

MASSIVE DISCLAIMER: I’m neither a(n) historian nor an archaeologist. Although I have an amateur interest in history, I don’t have any training past secondary school level. If you’re interested in this period of Irish history, I’ve included a bibliography below. The game’s bibliography isn’t exhaustive; it only references works we’ve directly quoted.

Part of what intrigued me about this time period was its vagueness. Save some very famous (and obviously pretty biased) primary sources (Saint Patrick’s Confessio), it’s in some ways a continuation of the archaeological black hole that is Iron Age Ireland, a broad stretch of time whose vernacular culture — “where and how people lived, the types of houses they built and their industrial activities” — we know very little about[2][3]. Save some monastic cloisters, this is a protoliterate culture that venerated oral storytelling traditions, so it’s not all that surprising that very little about it is known to us.

This lent me a certain amount of freedom, then, which was helped by the fact that I wasn’t interested in a strictly historical imagining of the period anyway. What we’ve created is, in the tradition of medieval Irish staples like the Book of Invasions, a pseudohistory: something with the trappings of history but which is really a story about an imagined version of a people and their myths during a period of great change. In ideating and writing, we were heavily inspired by the (in all likelihood extremely distorted) later medieval versions of those myths.

To draw attention to this, we’ve included a lot of deliberate anachronisms. I’m not sure if many players picked up on these, and I can’t blame them for not doing so; if you’re already not familiar with the period you might assume in good faith that your Dear Author is doing their best to at least reflect its material culture. One of the most blatant ones is that the god Donn Fírinne smokes something that is quite similar to a cigarette, described as a “smoke-stick”. Donn F is intended to be a character who, as a psychopomp, an emissary of the dead, exists outside of normal time — a very early concept had him inexplicably in a leather jacket. He also wears a lunula, an elaborate gold neckpiece that dates from Bronze Age Ireland, many millennia before the events of Alltarach.

Another, maybe less obvious one, is the existence of the púcaí themselves, a term of unclear etymology but likely a borrowing from the Norse who arrived in Ireland centuries later[4]. Now, there were almost certainly fairy spirits like the púcaí in Ireland before the arrival of the Vikings, but they didn’t go by that name.

And, of course, the deliberate anachronism we relied on the most was language itself. The game uses modern Hiberno-English and Irish throughout. There are a couple of poems and sayings in Old (or Middle) Irish, but even these aren’t precisely mapped to the time period. For example, the invocation to the gods that several characters make, “Bíaidh doberad ar ndee is ar dtoicthe dúinn”, “We will have what our gods and our fate decree” (translation mine) is taken from a proclamation by a pagan Danish king in the Middle Irish chronicle the Fragmentary Annals[5].

Syncretism and Religion

Christian practice in Ireland was (and still is) syncretic. Figures like Brigid who shift between saint and goddess, holy wells[6], mummering, even animal sacrifice[7], are all enduring, albeit mostly localised, practices with roots in pagan customs. We wanted to put players in a time when this syncretism was already beginning to emerge, while resisting the temptation to “take sides”. There are a small cohort of fundamentalists on either side (the mummer, Donn Fírinne, and Muireann representing paganism, and Father Silvanus and Dar Lugdach representing Christianity), but most characters are either indifferent or, like Bríd, fall somewhere in between.

Brigid, saint and goddess both.

It’s also worth stressing that Ireland was not part of the Roman Empire, although there was certainly a significant degree of cultural cross-pollination[8]. Characters view Christianity through a Roman lens, as a Roman import or (ironically, given the history) an imposition from the imperial metropole.

Originally we had planned for Bríd and Donn to be more obviously influenced by their namesakes, in both their appearances, design elements, and stances on the world. There are hints of this in Donn’s argument with Father Silvanus: now it’s a more general angsty resentment of the power of this new church, before it was someone actively rebelling against the religion that he felt had taken his parents (especially his mother) from him.

Some players wanted to be able to take a firmer stance on religion. I resisted this for two reasons:

  1. This is a coming-of-age story and Bríd is a person who’s still formulating her opinions and beliefs. She was raised in a society that values pagan orthopraxy above dogma, but by late converts to Christianity. She has trouble wrapping her head around Christianity for basically epistemic reasons: the animistic tendencies of her paganism, finding the gods in animals, plants, or people, contrast so radically with a belief system that relies on salvation and personal faith. She can certainly express a preference, but for her to end up becoming a nun or a druidess depending on your choices felt to me premature: I wasn’t interested in more than hinting at the characters’ futures. More on this (and the possible shortcomings of this approach) in the Design section.

  2. If the game does “take sides”, it falls on the side of the syncretic, represented by the figure of Brigid. This isn’t so much because of a strong ideological preference on my part, but because it represents the island’s future: the culture that will dominate until the Viking invasions of the eighth century (and arguably until the Anglo-Norman invasion of the twelfth century).


So that day they took up their specially strengthened broad-shields and their beloved broad stabbing-spears, and began to stab and cut each other, pushing and thrusting form the half-light of early morning until the evening sunset. If it were customary for birds in flight to pass through men’s bodies, they would have flown through their bodies that day and brought with them gobbets of blood and flesh through their open cuts into the air and the clouds beyond. By evening the horses were done and the charioteers dead beat and the great heroes themselves were ready to drop.[9]

One of our main inspirations was Ciaran Carson’s translation of the Irish national epic, An Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cúailnge). The Táin is the story of how the vicious, handsome, mercurial boy hero Cú Chulainn single-handedly stands against the armies of Méabh, the Queen of Connacht. As the excerpt above demonstrates, Carson’s is a masterful translation that preserves the dizzying action and intense viscerality of the original.

Alltarach, however, is not a story about heroes. It’s about ordinary people navigating a period of incredible societal upheaval. So we needed to tone down the language a lot. I did of course indulge myself when the player encounters Cú Chulainn later on. His declarative poem is heavily influenced by the style of poetry spoken at heightened moments in The Táin:

I see a forceful blond man,
on whom victories are built.
A fierce lightning springs from his head,
wounds hang on him like a belt.

Seven jewels play about
the stark pupil of each eye.
His sharp teeth are unsheathed.
He wears a shirt of crimson dye.

His features are beautiful,
his form pleasing to women —
deadly handsome and youthful,
in battle like a dragon.[10]

There are lots of actual historical songs and poems used in the game, including The Song of the Poet Amergin/Amhairghin, supposedly the oldest extant poem in Britain or Ireland[11], and Fionn MacCumhaill’s seasonally appropriate ode to May[12]. We had fun imagining the island’s mummer as the origin of the anonymous poem Adze-Head, a withering takedown of the upstart foreign bishop Saint Patrick and his growing cult[13].

More contemporaneous influences included Disco Elysium, which was less a direct influence and more just a work I’m indebted to for alerting me to the possibilities of writing in this medium, and the lucid, evocative prose of Irish writer Claire Keegan, who has a deeply felt understanding of the rhythms of her native Wicklow English.

Like Bríd, I have a difficult relationship with my older brother. I’m emotionally open, maybe to a fault, where he’s closed off, and both of us are perhaps more inclined to play the victim than is healthy. I can’t say for certain if this game helped heal some of the wounds I had allowed fester, but it was an exercise in empathy I needed. Donn is if anything closer to me than my brother, but both Bríd and him reflect parts of me: one curious but terminally anxious, the other caring but taciturn.


Another disclaimer. Like most Irish people, I’m not a native, nor even a particularly confident, speaker of Irish. I did my twelve years of pretending to care about the grammar they forced into us in school, but it wasn’t until I had left the country and started learning more about our history (and more importantly, our shared history with other colonised peoples) that I realised what I had missed out on. If I ever make anything else in the universe of this game that has an actual budget, the first thing I’ll do is hire an native Irish-speaking proofreader.

I’m not going to try to Sapir-Whorf this, but I believe language is the primary means through which we relate to and understand our histories and natural environments. A recent example: I was reading about the island off the west coast of Ireland called Inishbofin in English. This anglicised toponym, undoubtedly decided on by some faceless British bureaucrat who’d never even visited the place, completely obscures its Irish meaning: Inis Bó Finne, the Island of the White Cow. And not just any white cow, either, but the Glas Ghaibhneann, a cow prized by the gods that produces endless quantities of milk. The Irish term for the milky way, “bealach na Bó Finne”, reflects the esteem in which this particular bovine is held, and the intense importance of cattle to the semi-nomadic rural Irish[14].

All that said, it was extremely important to us that even players totally unfamiliar with the Irish language and this period of Irish history could follow along. Irish orthography is a lot if you don’t know its rules, and the last thing I wanted was players feeling alienated from the characters because they couldn’t pronounce “Bláthnaid” or “Muireann”. So the annotations system was an early addition. It, along with the character menu, proved a big hit with players.

I wrote a little Python script to add annotations, but it ended up putting them in places I didn’t want them (annotations within annotations, anyone?), so a lot of that work had to be done manually. It was also a balancing act deciding what to annotate. Should staples of Hiberno-English, that can generally be figured out through context (“grand”, “eejit”), be in there? What about Latin, which Bríd is a middling speaker of? The annotations and dramatis personae are intended to be from Bríd’s perspective and speak to what she knows and feels. If some of the former ended sounding a bit too highbrow and detached, this was a tradeoff between clarity and immersion.

Speaking of Hiberno-English, I love writing dialogue, and when it’s dialogue in my own native dialect so much the better. Well, dialects: there isn’t a singular way the English language is spoken in Ireland, and although I wasn’t too precious in trying to precisely nail the feeling of Galway English versus Armagh English, the characters do fall into broad dialect continuums: Bríd and her family speak a more general Hiberno-English, Cú and Láeg Ulster English, Oisín and Fergus are more Dublin-influenced. And even though we were going for deliberately anachronistic language, I did make some concessions to flavour it for the time period, such as avoiding americanisms like “okay”, as well as Judeo-Christian-coded language, which is way harder than it might sound (do you have any idea how often the average Irish person uses “Christ” or some minced oath equivalent?)


Design Considerations

I’m not a fan of what Hannah Nicklin dubs “games exceptionalism”, the belief that (video) games are a “uniquely immersive” medium that, by virtue of their combined audiovisuality and interactivity, “are the only ‘total’ art form”.[15] It leads to designers taking for granted that interactivity and immersion are inherent to the medium, rather than outcomes that have to be actively worked towards. But even though I subsequently came to reject games exceptionalism in my own practice, I think it had influenced Baby Game Writer Katie to the extent that I felt when beginning Alltarach that I didn’t need to be deliberate about the game’s design, or, more accurately, that I could plan out the plot and branches in broad strokes whilst lacking a coherent design philosophy for the moment-to-moment choices. I’m a professional game writer and narrative designer now — which still feels weird to say, but I am — I was not when I started working on this game. Moreover, the projects I’ve worked on professionally have been linear, cinematic, hulking behemoths.

I did, however, know what I didn’t want. Bríd is a defined character with certain fixed beliefs and others that are in the process of being formed — this is a coming-of-age story. Players shouldn’t feel pressured to min-max the character; they should make choices according to how they want to role-play within the parameters of her personality. And other characters should not feel instrumental, like they’re just keys to unlocking other areas of the game. This was one of the most important lessons I took from Disco Elysium[16].

I didn’t want players to think of choices in an instrumental manner either. Alltarach tracks variables but they’re state-based (have you done this thing?) rather than value-based (numerically, how conciliatory/belligerent/deceptive are you?) I do wish I’d given players more role-playing flexibility, however. Moment-to-moment choices are often expositional (“Have you seen my brother?”, “What’s that thing you’re wearing?”, etc.); players are largely only given the opportunity to express clear values in conversations with the fundamentalists (“Our faith is what matters” vs. “Our chieftains should be ashamed of themselves” in the first scene with Donn Fírinne, for example.) And especially because Bríd has so much dialogue outside of choices, the end result was a player-character that some players felt disconnected from. Interestingly, however, Bríd was by far the most liked character in the survey we put out, with all five (five, count 'em, five!) respondents listing her as one of their favourites.

The game only has two major branches, which disappointed some players. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that this is because we were more interested in telling a fundamentally linear story that’s elevated by interactivity in those moment-to-moment decisions. The first branch does give players the opportunity to express some of those values I was talking about earlier though, in choosing whether to accept the acting abbess’ generous offer of hospitality or go hang out with the no-good heathens at the Bealtaine festival. I don’t believe that the mark of a good choice is how evenly split the distribution of players who take one route or the other is — there are some horrendously morally dubious choices in your Mass Effects and your Baldur’s Gates that are effective precisely because they’re operating within a choice space in which the vast majority of players will reject them — but I did find it interesting that we got a pretty even spread on this one, with 60% of players choosing to remain at the abbey and the rest heading off to party.

Both options are in a way moments of transgression for Bríd — just as the abbey is obligated to provide hospitality, Bríd is obligated to receive it gracefully, but it’s a mark of defiance in what is still a predominantly pagan culture not to show at the second-most important ritual of the year. I hope that we’d done enough establishing the setting up until this point to communicate those stakes. It’s also worth mentioning that this branch used to be more aggressive, with the encounter with Cú Chulainn only occurring if the player chose to go to the festival, but in later drafts I realised I needed to drive players towards the bog, and Aunt Muireann, earlier.

The sections from Donn’s perspective were not in earlier drafts of the game. I didn’t want players to form an opinion of the character solely through hearsay, which, for reasons that I hope become clear later on the game, is largely dismissive of him. It was especially important that players had some sense of who the character is if they were going to be playing as him for much of the game’s climax. It’s clear that some players still don’t feel like they had a good handle on him, with several reviewers mentioning that his personality was confused or inchoate. His first section is extremely linear and gives players no real opportunity to explore the edges of his personality, which I’m sure doesn’t help. More on this, and that final branch, in “The Sense of an Ending” below.

Our first stab at the UI had choices that progressed the plot highlighted in (a slightly different shade of) turquoise. This ended up feeling like we were encouraging players to rush through the game, so we instead tried to make it obvious from context which choices were expositional or value-based and which were plot relevant.

Dead Weight

The game’s inventory is vestigial, a remnant of an earlier draft. Originally the plan was that every item would be somehow usable in the ending, but of course the problem with this is that players would have no way of knowing until it was already too late. So, while every item does still have a use, whether it’s unlocking a choice or serving as a possible gift for Oisín at the end of the game, the system is way more opaque than it should be.

I had planned that Bríd could interact with certain items from the inventory menu itself — praying the rosary, for example — and that some of these interactions would be contextual, dependent on where she was or who she was speaking to. I never got the time to design this properly, and it would have been a big ask of a UI that was held together by sticky tape and prayers to the JavaScript gods.

The Sense of an Ending

Although I mentioned that I was a bit laissez-faire with moment-to-moment choices, we came to realise that we wouldn’t be able to finish the game to our satisfaction without meticulously planning the game’s climax. An earlier draft, solely from Bríd’s perspective, was a total mess. Púca-Donn would shift between humanoid versions of four different animals, and the player would pick choices or use items to mollify the aspect of his personality that that animal represented — badger spirituality, wolf family, seal freedom, horse duty. No, Dear Reader, this did not have a tutorial, and the effing horse form reacted negatively to the horse doll.


We left Alltarach: Furry Edition behind and started planning something that would hopefully make a bit more sense. And plan we did! After about a month living in Figma, we had something we were both happy with and set about creating and testing it. It started with taking another look at the themes of the game and letting them inform the design. One theme in particular, one that kind of snuck into the game by accident — ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

This is an Irish saying meaning “it is in the shadow of others that people live”. This may read quite negatively when literally translated, but it’s not related to the English expression “living in someone’s shadow”; it’s shadow as shade, shelter from the sun. The relief we find in other people, the strength to keep on living. Really, it’s more akin to “nobody is an island”, and expresses the values of a fiercely collectivist culture that organised itself through meithleacha or work parties, co-operative systems of labour where neighbours would watch over each others’ farmsteads and harvest each others’ crops[17].

This theme emerged from my subconscious quite late in the writing process, probably after we’d already completed the first draft. I wanted to look at what it means to be an outsider in this society. How would someone who feels so rejected by their community that they’re compelled to leave it behind entirely be convinced to return? How would they convince themselves? I didn’t want the-player-as-Bríd to make decisions on behalf of Donn — I wanted them to understand why he couldn’t find the relief in other people that’s so normalised in this society, and have them decide if he could sustain his rejection of it or not.

Now, I am aware of the irony in trying to force empathy by switching perspectives, and I think this is part of the reason why the climax has proven divisive. One of the challenges of empathy, after all, is that we’re not omniscient — it requires an imaginative leap to see something from another’s perspective, and some players didn’t like being hurled into the woolly slippers of a character they’d barely gotten to know. In our survey, 100% of players chose to leave with Bríd rather than stay in the Otherworld, which suggests to me that they were thinking in terms of what would make her happy rather than what Donn actually wanted.

I’m still happy with this direction in theory if not in praxis. My feeling is that the perspective switching should have been more embedded into the game, rather than something that features in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it five passage long aside and then at the very end of the game. It would have given us more opportunity to play with the conceit, through dramatic irony, choices informing choices, even UI. As it stands, I’m afraid that Donn’s sections are a little bit too tacked on to be emotionally impactful.

Art Direction

Alltarach’s writing and art direction developed in parallel. The game has had illustrations right from the start, with a style that’s been refined over the years but has stayed largely consistent.

We opted for a loose storybook feel because, while we were certainly influenced by insular art (the game’s logo being the prime example), the game is, as stated, a pseudohistory, and we felt like everyone looking straight out of the Book of Kells was the wrong vibe. Storybook illustrations have long felt like a bridge between the modern and the ancient, which seemed appropriate for what we were trying to do.

We decided fairly early on that we wanted a limited palette for the character illustrations. The initial plan was that they’d be blue-green for the island act, purple-ish for the ferry act, green or red-yellow on the mainland, depending on time of day, and some sort of brownish olive green for the Otherworld (we had abandoned this conceit long before we got around to realising this last one). The idea was to reflect Bríd’s emotional state at each point in her journey: the blue of the opening act is a constant reminder of what happened to her parents, while the red-yellow of the night on the mainland is headiness, excitement, danger, sexuality.

We decided to just go with the chapter one palette in the end. Increasingly, the chapter palettes felt more potentially confusing than useful, especially with the colour coding of the brother and dream sections already needing to be fully distinct.

The evolution of Aunt Muireann’s design. She was really rather creepy there for a bit!

However, there are a couple of characters who deviate from this colour scheme. All of them are gods or have connections to the Otherworld, to convey that they seem to transcend this world (and/or this time). Brigid was originally one of them, but she’s got a bit of a weird ontological status so in the end we just opted for the rush cross pattern behind her to indicate the growth of her own mythology.

Illustrations helped inform characterisation and vice versa. Usually I’d write a rough description of a character and Josef would use that as a basis for a first sketch that I’d feedback on. Sometimes there’d be details in the sketches that I’d run with, like how my brain immediately screamed “Galway teenage metalheads” when I saw the first sketches of the cousins, then intended to be very minor characters:

We also found some weird inspirations for certain characters…

The logo took a while to get down. We wanted it to scream ancient Ireland, but not in a way that felt Oirish or glaringly unreflective of the time period (despite how anachronism-heavy the rest of the game is). It’s based on the oldest surviving Irish manuscript, the 6th century Cathach of Saint Columba, although the dot above the “c” is a later feature of Gaelic type that usually indicates the grammatical feature lenition (Lenition - Wikipedia)[18].

The Cathach of Saint Columba

The ogham lettering spells out “alltarach”, left-to-right. Historically ogham was engraved into stone or wood, written bottom-to-top, so we’re definitely taking some liberties to fit it under the rest of the logo. The púca inside the logo, a mix of horse, badger, and fish creature, is inspired by this wonderful illustration from an Irish book:

  1. Worth nothing that this poem postdates Alltarach by several hundred years, but it’s one of the works that gave us a sense of the historical trajectory. ↩︎

  2. Iron Age Ireland: Finding an Invisible People, ↩︎

  3. This hasn’t stopped people in certain dank corners of the internet making grandiose and frankly dubious and ahistorical claims about how “foreign” Christians “colonised” the pagan Irish natives, but that’s another discussion. ↩︎

  4.úca ↩︎

  5. ↩︎

  6. My understanding is that the link between holy wells and pagan customs is disputed, but it’s likely that at least some of the practices of pilgrimage associated with them are pre-Christian. See ↩︎

  7. ↩︎


  9. The Táin, p. 144. ↩︎

  10. The Táin, p. 13.** ↩︎

  11. Thirty-Two Words for Field, pp.11-12.** ↩︎

  12. ↩︎

  13. The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, p. 71. ↩︎

  14. See this article for more on the practice of booleying, summering cattle in the hills. The lost art of 'booleying' in Ireland ↩︎

  15. Writing for Games: Theory and Practice, p. 11. ↩︎

  16. ↩︎

  17. Meitheal - The Mary Robinson Centre - a Centre for change in Ballina, Co. Mayo ↩︎

  18. As used in the Alltarach logo, the dot above the “c” is not technically an example of lenition — it just indicates a “ch” (IPA /x/) sound. ↩︎



Plot, Structure, and Characters

The biggest complaint about characters other than the protagonist/deuteragonist was simply that players wanted to see more of them. This is a pretty good problem to have, but the monomyth-esque structure[1] does impede players’ ability to develop a lasting relationship with all but a few select characters, and forget about arcs. I added the epilogue/denouement largely because of this, but by that point it’s been so long since you last interacted with, say, Oisín that I wonder if it works.

On that note (the “developing lasting relationships” note, not the “interacting with Oisín” note), the romance options, in so much as you can call them that, went uncommented on. Of course, the game is not about romance except for in so far as Bríd’s burgeoning sexuality (urgh) forms part of her coming of age, and a large part of her journey there reflects my own coming to terms with my bisexuality: it’s about how she interacts with those specific characters, sure, but also about something less tangible.

Forms response chart. Question title: Which characters were your favourite?. Number of responses: 5 responses.

Pour one out for Best Boy Fechín.

There was a good spread of favourite characters in the player survey. Bríd, as I said above, was popular; she is the character you spend the most time with, after all. I’m pleased to see Aunt Muireann on there, as I had a hell of a time nailing her characterisation over several drafts. She started as a kind of haggard, pitiful shadow of her former self who’d been totally undone by the death of her sister, and ended as a character who’s a lot less passive, who’s able to both challenge and be challenged by Bríd.

Other favourites of mine include my boy Donn Fírinne, who despite being a being a one-two combo of two very well-trodden archetypes (Forgotten God and Bisexual Disaster), feels like more than the sum of his parts, his counterpart Brigid, who’s a character that came incredibly naturally to me, probably because every Irish schoolchild has their own version of her, and Bláthnaid, who was one of the many characters who didn’t feel quite right until we had finalised the illustration and knew who we were dealing with.

Ailbhe surprised me: she’s a character who’s been a constant in this story right from the beginning, and, as befits that role, doesn’t grow much if at all. She is rock where Bríd is water. She’s also got this weird mother-figure-but-childish-crush-but-also-my-brother-is-in-love-with-her Freudian thing going with Bríd, and I wasn’t quite sure how that would land.

At least one reviewer took umbrage at the sheer density of celebrity characters from Irish myth who pop into the story, and I’m the first to admit this was fairly self-indulgent on my part. It is just such a delight to realise larger-than-life characters like Cú Chulainn, to put them in this really rather quotidian setting compared to what they’re used to and watch them slip back into old habits through sheer boredom. I justified their inclusion by it being Bealtaine and the dead, and dead-adjacent like Donn Fírinne, being unusually active, plus they make good obstacles for Bríd. But sometimes I just want to write a Gaimanesque scene with all the godlings in the room grousing at each other, damnit!


We were overawed by the game’s reception. I’ll admit that I wasn’t really aware of there being a big active IF community before we submitted (I assumed it was pretty small and fragmentary), and wasn’t expecting to receive many reviews. If anything I thought we’d get more reviews and commentary on… I am ever a sweet summer child.

I’ve already gone over the thrust of the feedback we received, but to summarise:

  • Players enjoyed the unusual setting, the emphasis on religion, the illustrations and presentation, the characters, and the prose.
  • They were less enthused about the interactive elements — at best they contributed towards a strong climax, but at worst they felt divorced from the story — the inventory, which seemed to be lacking any clear purpose, and the characterisations of Bríd and Donn, which felt inconsistent at times.
  • There were some elements that could have been foreshadowed better, including Bríd’s fear of water and the whole geis thing.
The Future

As I hinted at in the Design section, a lot of people mentioned in their reviews that they’d love to read an Alltarach novel(la). I’m nothing if not magnanimous, and since playing the wonderful Misericorde, an entirely linear kinetic novel, I’ve been considering what form this would take. I still think, for all the flaws in the choice design in the original, I want players to be able to grow into Bríd, to feel like they’re vibing with her, and to be able to explore the world at their own pace, so I’d rather this be some sort of choice-based, game-shaped thing rather than a full-on novel. The visual novel medium seems to have a broader appeal than pure IF, so it’ll probably be of that form, if it doesn’t prove too burdensome in terms of art.

However, parallel to this, I’m in the early stages of planning an actual novel, a retelling of the mythic romance Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne) set in (roughly) the same universe. This is a tragic love triangle that has pretty much everything you need in a medieval romp: an inexplicably loyal himbo protagonist! Sexy gods! A sheltered princess who becomes an accessory to murder-hoboing! Creepy old men! A giant! Irish chess! A homicidal boar!

It’ll probably be years before I make anything of it (as you might have gleaned, the original story needs a lot of revising to make it even somewhat palatable to modern audiences), but watch this space.

As for the Twine version of the game, I would like to put out one last big update before I call it done, if only to fix some of the discontinuities some players have experienced with characters they never spoke to on the island showing up later on. I’ve been calling this the Bealtaine edition, even though Bealtaine 2024 has already come and gone (God how have we spent five years on this thing arfgghhfgfsds)

Some other stuff it’d be nice to include:

  • Let players visit the shrine of the hag goddess on the island. This would be a good place to introduce the emerging syncretic practices — maybe some Christians have already declared it a Marian shrine.
  • Allow players to manually save. We found an autosave solution for Harlowe back in the mists of time I’m pretty happy with, but it’s a long game and although the trunk is basically linear, there are two major branches and plenty of variables tracking decisions players should get to experience without having to replay the whole damn thing.
  • Do more to smooth over the introductory act. Pacing was mentioned as one of the game’s strengths, but I think that was on more of a macro level: my feeling is that some of those early passage transitions could be breezier. Some reviewers mentioned being thrown by all of the oblique references to your brother (lots of dangling "he"s) — this was meant to draw attention to the fact that Bríd can’t remember his name, but I wonder if adding a subtle highlight that links to the character menu (supposing this is technically feasible) would make the pronoun referent clearer. And look over the wording of certain choices to make their implications a little less subtle.
  • Related to point three, add some additional annotations. There are a couple of allusions reviewers mentioned being thrown by that should’ve been annotated; I focused on individual terms and names to the exclusion of vaguer stuff. My guideline is: if Bríd is supposed to know what it means but the audience doesn’t, it should be annotated.


Things Wot I Learnt

  • Players enjoy non-generic settings (who’d have thunk?)
  • It’s okay to be deliberate, and it’s okay to telegraph this deliberateness to the player.
  • Where the player-as-Bríd takes a strong (moral or otherwise) stance, ensure that the game comments on this, Telltale-style.
  • Consider how systems support the game as a whole. Is this here just because the game has always had it? Can it be repurposed?
  • Let theme serve design serve writing.

Whew. Any questions, ask away!

  1. I’m one of those writers who would rather be forced to speed-read Finnegans Wake than admit they’d been influenced by a certain J. Campbell, so blame Hollywood. ↩︎


Thank you for this brilliantly detailed post-mortem. I look forward to the Bealtaine edition!


Thank YOU for the kind words! I’ve been flagging a bit creatively lately so it’s good to have an incentive to keep working.

1 Like

Thanks for sharing this! I really enjoyed hearing some of what you were thinking about in making the game.

As not-a-history expert, it was interesting to hear about the deliberate anachronisms.I think some of your thoughts about Donn and his arc and POV helped me better understand some of the feelings I had had playing it. (Although, slight sad we didn’t get to communicate with his animal form via narratively-significant inventory item . . . )