Following Me postmortem

I came up with the general concept for Following Me sometime last March when there was a big icestorm and my sister and I went for a walk in the woods behind our house. We live way out in the countryside where there aren’t many people so at one point we heard gunshots kind of nearby and we both got a little alarmed because what the hell could they be shooting at since all the animals were in-hiding from the ice and cold?
And that’s all there was to that real-life story: we got spooked, turned around, and walked back home. But it gave me enough what-ifs to start the idea rolling in my mind.

I chalk a lot of the development problems to me just being a pretty inexperienced writer and not having any real idea of how to maintain scope. The bottom line is that it wasn’t even close to being done and I had to butcher it to finish on time. I probably should have waited for Spring Thing but… I just really didn’t want to skip the Comp. At one point when I started getting writers block I turned to the advice of some other people in my writers forums and started writing the scenes I felt inspired by even if they were in the middle of the story. Maybe this would work if I was writing a static novel and not on a deadline, but trying this method for an IF piece was a disaster. I have a substantial number of unfinished or unused scenes sitting on my hard drive and I couldn’t include them because they wouldn’t make any sense or connection without the interim missing scenes. Maybe I’ll make them into short stories of their own.
So life-lesson I learned here: write from A-Z. No jumping around. Period.

Okay, enough back-story. I’d like to address the criticisms that I heard the most:

Problem 1: Not interactive enough.
Yep, I agree. Following Me was barely interactive, though there were a number of panels that changed depending on your choices but it was subtle changes that I think most people didn’t even notice. I can’t argue about this. It wasn’t really interactive and that’s kind of the whole point of the Comp and I know better but it just didn’t happen. Shit.
All I can say to defend myself is that it was originally planned to be much less linear. One of the central themes was that both Kat and Aria were supposed to be playable and a lot of the interactivity would come from the player being able to change girls at several points in each chapter. This would create opportunities like when they got separated Kat might unlock a door that Aria would later be able to go through or Aria would turn off the generator to help herself escape the Older Man but unknowingly hurt Kat because she’s now in the dark. I had tons of stuff like this. Pretty much anytime I specifically mentioned an item it was because it was originally supposed to be usable and have a purpose. Like the bullets & firepoker were usable by Aria, Kat was supposed to be able to steal the truck at an earlier point, the keys to Aria’s manacles which could be retrieved from the basement would unlock the tool shed and screened off part of the basement, etc etc.
Unfortunately I had to take Aria out as a playable character and with her went the vast majority of the planned interaction. I cut her out because I was getting way behind schedule and even though I’d written a good number of her scenes they were out of order and were ones that went near the end and I just had Kat more done. Also one of my beta testers took such a strong objection to her solo storyline that it made me pause and re-evaluate. In my mind there really wasn’t anything all that offensive that happened or anything that’s too far out of standard territory for thrillers but because my tester was so bothered by it, it me wonder if maybe I wasn’t crossing some sort of line with her and not even realizing it.
It’s a shame though, I thought Aria’s solo-storyline of being chased through the house was more interesting than Kat playing hide-and-seek in the woods.
So, yeah, that’s what happened with the interactivity. Shit.

Problem 2) Too long sections of text between choices.
Hmm… I’m on the fence about whether this is actually a problem or not. On one hand I can see the point that it’s uncomfortable to read large amounts of text on a digital screen and most of the Comp games have much shorter sections at a time. On the other hand, when I shared by games from last year with other non-IF writing communities the response was overwhelmingly in favor of it reading more like a book than “one of those weird clicky games” (their words). And since I want to eventually put my stuff on Amazon these other people are closer to my target audience. So… yeah, I’m undecided if I’ll change this or not. I’ll definitely consider it though.

Problem 3) That terrible fake choice thing with the cigarette lighter.
Oh mercy did I ever take some wisecracks for this one. Heck, if I had to mention just one thing in this post-mortem it would have been vindicating myself for this.
So please let me explain: that was never supposed to be regarded as a choice/gameplay element/interactive whatchamacallit. I was just making a sort of insiders reference to the movie The Last House on the Left. It’s one of my favorite horror movies and if anyone had seen the 2009 remake they would remember the scene when the kidnapped girl uses the cigarette lighter on her attacker and get why Kat decides this was a bad idea. Unfortunately apparently noone got this reference and instead thought it was just sloppy game design. I took it out of the final revision so please give me a pass on this one: it’s just an insiders joke that fell flat.

Problem 4) One of the endings was buggy and it didn’t recognize that Kat had the cellphone.
This is some sort of problem with the variable that controls if she has the phone or not. I’ve tried to fix it several times and I think I got it right in the last update.

Problem 5) The ending was a cliched mess.
I agree and I’m surprised more people didn’t call me out on how bad the ending was. In my design doc there were supposed to be 18 different endings that depended on which of the girls and which of the kidnappers actually survived to the end. It was originally supposed to be a real challenge to keep Aria alive and if she’d died Kat would have had the choice of taking on a much more revenge driven path. Because I had to cut so much out since it wasn’t finished I kind of came up with a totally new ending that at least made logical sense but was very uninspired and generic.

I guess I’m disappointed that Following Me didn’t score better than it did. It definitely had it’s problems but in general I thought that it was much more polished in both writing and plot than my games from last comp (which were also highly linear and had lots of text) but Following Me actually scored lower than them and I’m not really sure why. It got a number of 1 and 2 votes that I don’t think it deserved but there must have been something that really put people off.

So disappointing results but I got lots of helpful critical feedback and just more writing experience in general. I think that if I decide to come back next year I’m going to do something shorter and on my own engine. Maybe I’ll set myself like a 20-30k word limit and work within that constraint.
On the positive side a lot of people said the quality of the writing was good and this was a huge win for me because I really tried to improve on my technique over what I wrote last year.

This is really interesting. I think the lack of interactivity definitely hurt it’s score, in that a lot of people noticed, on replaying sections, that things didn’t seem to change. On a single playthrough, though, I found that because the writing is strong, and the choices feel so compelling in the moment, it didn’t feel linear unless you replayed and looked behind the curtain, as it were. I really enjoyed the game.

I’d love it if you decided to continue development and make it the way you originally wanted. I appreciate that it would be a lot of time and effort though!

Re: people 1-voting it, yeah, Harry mentioned getting these in his Raik writeup, and I got a bunch for Krypteia. It definitely feels like some people are objecting to something fundamental, but without further feedback, it’s really hard to know what, if anything, we should have done differently.

I can definitely see your reasoning for sticking to long text sections, and it’s good to defend your artistic decisions and work for the audience you want to work for. I think the thing that would help with this most of all is paragraph breaks, or at the very lease indentation. It’s much easier to read longer texts if it’s broken up: paragraph breaks are the internet standard to do this, and paragraph indentation is the print publishing standard to do this. I think the internet uses paragraph breaks as standard because screen reading is harder on the eyes than print reading. I’d guess you’ll find this makes a huge readability difference for most people, out of proportion to the simplicity of the change!

Something less categorical and more of a personal preference that might also work is reducing line-width. Shorter lines are easier to scan on a screen, basically. If you use short paragraphs a lot (which you do, as a writer) this is particularly good, because it avoids having a whole string of two- or three-line paragraphs.

I think a good strategy would be to look at how sites that specialise in longform do it, to make reading more pleasurable. Medium is a beautiful platform, I reckon, as is Longform itself.

I didn’t give Following Me a 1, but I did adjust my score based on my feeling that the choices I was making didn’t have much influence on the story, i.e. that I lacked agency. I was also a bit put off by the “wall-o’-text” nature of the exposition. Neither of these artistic choices are bad ones, of course, just not those I feel were most appropriate for the Comp. As you say, different audiences will have different expectations and reactions to those choices.

other non-IF writing communities the response was overwhelmingly in favor of it reading more like a book than “one of those weird clicky games” (their words).

Hah! For the record I am ok with long text segments as long as I know what I’m getting into (this is the only game out of the comp I’d say catches the original Choose Your Own Adventure flavor) but the text was pretty hard to read on my computer screen. I had to switch to my tablet to get through it. Margins, paragraph breaks, and a slightly easier-on-the-eyes theme would all help. (I don’t doubt text-readability might be a source of some 1s for both Following Me and Krypteia; the games are essentially broken for those judges.)

This discussion has been most illuminating.

When I played the game, I reckoned that this was a short story with elements of faux interactivity to engage the player (much like Photopia, but in a different genre). Throughout maybe 2/3 of the story, the situation more or less deteriorates, and with every click you make it worse for the protagonists. I though that the idea was that you, the reader, should feel responsible for all the wrong turns, so that you would share a sense of regret and guilt with the victims. “If only I hadn’t …”.

Of course, for this to be effective, every option would have to make the situation worse. The story wouldn’t necessarily have to be on rails, but every choice must be regrettable. Even though I only had time for a single playthrough, I assumed that the story was on rails because it seemed like the most sensible thing to do for an author who wished to employ this device. And so, because I found it to be an interesting psychological experiment, and quite novel (for me at least), I gave it a relatively high score despite—and to a certain extent because of—the limited interaction.

It turns out I was right about the story being on rails, but wrong about the underlying reasons. Thanks for clarifying!

(Bias alert: I liked this one a bunch more than Who Among Us or Blood on the Heather. My results may not be typical.)

This is a tricky one. Linear IF often does pretty well, and I read the explicit chapter structure as basically saying “Your choices will be merging at chapter boundaries.” That said, if you did all the things you described, but kept the broad strokes of the plot the same while the details changed based on the plans you executed, that would probably still have gotten some complaints about linearity but the work would have been a lot stronger anyway.

Something you did very right here even with the time constraints is that the choices given all seemed pretty reasonable and also showed a sort of risk-reward spectrum in them. I worked out pretty quickly that my choices didn’t have immediate effects, and that actually ended up increasing my level of engagement. “Oh good, I’m not getting a sequence of ‘do you want to continue reading the story Y/N’ guesses.” That would be really important in the hypothetical full design here: after getting some reassurance from the game that I’m not solving a maze, I’d feel more free to try to “lay plans” with my choices.

This seems to be a matter of “house style”, really. ChoiceScript games seem to be more text-per-node than Twine, but I’m aware of no technical reason for that.

It definitely felt like a step up, so yeah, good work there.

Yeah, FWIW, I also thought this was better than your previous two games.

Following Me sort of falls into my personal definition of “interactive novel” where the agency is set at about medium. It has interactivity at a level of a classic CYOA book, and you do more reading than choosing, but the reader is invested in it minute by minute.

In the high agency direction, you have parser and quick Twines, which give about a paragraph before interactivity, or lots of links on one page. I tend to enjoy these more because I am more involved and I LIKE TO CLICK TEH BUTTONZ!!11

In the opposite direction, I have read some other works (minorly interactive epics?) where you read what feels like an entire short story, then you send the protagonists a postcard with general suggestions and they get back to you in a week. These can be incredibly compelling if written well, but the agency is very coarse. First Draft of the Revolution is sort of like this, but on purpose, since you are sending letters that take a while to reach the recipient as interaction. In these you get choices like “Would you like to ingratiate yourself with Baron Durmsley over the next couple of weeks and try to become his advisor, or go to jousting school, or enjoy the parties and slack off on your studies…” Choice of Games edges toward this and attempts to tell a long-term story that can last for eons or a character’s entire lifetime rather than “fight off the killer or escape through the side door” type fine-grained interaction.

I thought the text-to-interaction in FM was fine…although that’s very much a subjective taste thing whether people like it, and you shouldn’t feel like you have to chop up your interaction more finely if that’s not the story you want to tell. The proposed version sounds really interesting through, and I’d love to read that if you do it.

I put this game in the top five of games I played (about half, and I selected games I thought I would like). Sure, there was a lackof interactivity (I noticed that on a single play through), but the writing was just so good, so compelling, that I wanted to get to the end anyway. As interactive fiction it may not have been interactive enough, but as an overall experience it was one of the best in the competition.

A lot of good points have been brought up here and they’ve helped me get a better idea of what to change for next time. I think the biggest thing is that I need to cater to who my audience is and what they like/expect. If I’m writing for a more traditional literature audience I think I’m on the right path with some tweaks; if I’m writing for the IFComp or similar crowds I need to change it up and try something really different than what I’ve done before. So a big thanks to everyone who responded on this thread, you’ve definitely given me some clarity and direction [emote]:)[/emote]