Ghostfinder: Postmortem

The Ghostfinder Postmortem

Before we get started, I can’t promise that “Ghostfinder: Postmortem” won’t be an episode title in the future.

Ghostfinder, the series, is my first ever attempt at creating a work of IF. It may very well be my last - right now, the rough outline I have in my head for the series runs a good 6 to 7 series of 5 to 6 episodes each, for anywhere from 30 to 42 episodes in total. Suffice to say, this will be a Herculean undertaking, and we’ll see if I have it in me to make any more IF after this is done.

I only really entered IFComp for one reason: Get as many experienced eyeballs on “Shift” for some honest feedback, good or bad. It’s tough not to overstate just how little I knew about not only IF, but game design or coding in general when I got started. My background is in scriptwriting - screenplays and stage plays - so even writing in prose was a slightly new territory for me. Ghostfinder was very much a “fly by the seat of your pants and pray for the best” affair, and I felt that it would be important to see what actually qualified IF people made of it before I made any more of these. And if a few of them even liked it, well, that was a plus.

My biggest fear was that I was retreading old territory. In my head, I knew that the direction I wanted to push the series in was relatively fresh and non-derivative, but would any of that come through in the span of a single episode? More importantly, would the actual gameplay satisfy anyone? Having played all of perhaps 5 different works of IF to completion in my life up to this point, it occurred to me that the central gameplay “mechanic” of Ghostfinder might be the sort of thing the IFComp judges see year in and year out: Trite and groan-worthy. I was going in blind, and even the decision to create Ghostfinder at all, much less enter it into a major competition for assessment, was very much a leap of faith.

It’s one that I’m overjoyed to have taken, though. The feedback I got was invaluable, I got to meet and talk to some incredibly astute and experienced people, and unless people are lying to spare my feelings, some of you even really liked it. I feel more excited about the series and more pumped to create Ghostfinder than ever before. My sincerest wish at this point is that the series will continue to grow and evolve, without ever hitting a plateau or getting stuck in a comfortable-but-stagnant niche.


The Ghostfinder series is my first-ever attempt at creating a work of IF, but the episode entered into IFComp 2020, “Ghostfinder: Shift”, isn’t. “Shift” is actually my third attempt at making a Ghostfinder game; fourth if you count the tiny little “demo” I made on Twine one quiet day out of sheer boredom. The first ever real episode was called “Ghostfinder: We Will Never Leave This Town”, and it involved Six visiting a small town where an entire family was butchered by an axe murderer, which s/he came to strongly suspect was tied to a local cult. I didn’t really love that one - it was an extremely linear and on-rails “go over there and talk to people” sort of game, and it didn’t even have the freeform search function that ended up being so central to “Shift”, simply because I had no idea how to implement something like that on Harlowe yet. So I decided to scrap that one, and work on another one.

The second “proper” episode - and the first episode that I consider narratively “canon” to the series - was called “Ghostfinder: Dead Echo”, which was about a woman who was murdered under strange circumstances, and where you had to do some deep digging to figure out why the forensics report on her time of death was so jarringly at odds with every other piece of evidence. “Dead Echo” was already a pretty big improvement over the first one: I felt that the detective gameplay was a bit better polished, the narrative was stronger, and on the whole, I didn’t think it was a bad game. But it was a. way too long and b. still very much a “go over there and talk to people” game, without anything else to really distinguish it. I DID end up implementing the free form search engine function, but by the time I figured out how to do that, I’d already made like 95% of the thing and I did not feel like going back to retool the entire episode, so it shows up once, at the very end: You get to type in the name of the person that you think did the murder, instead of picking it from a list of suspects. I’d worked on “Dead Echo” with an eye on submitting it into IFComp 2019, but by the time I got done with it, my every instinct told me that 2019 was not the right year, and that this wasn’t the right episode. So I “scrapped” that one too, and promptly went to work on episode two: “Shift”.

“Shift” actually started life as a recycling of a short film script that I wrote in college bearing the same title. That movie was about a guy who had the ability to “shift” into people, and this causes him to encounter a serial killer pretty much in the exact same way that Cyra does in the game. The killer torments and menaces him in a variety of ways, until our protagonist decides to find his courage, and challenge the killer to face him in combat, so that he can finally kill him and be rid of him for good. I never actually got around to making that movie, but the concept stuck around in my head for a while. The short film didn’t even really explain why this one guy could shift, but given that I’d already established Cyra as a psychic in this story, and also given that I thought shifting might make for a really neat concept in a detective game, it felt like a match made in heaven and I decided to roll with it.


In “We Will Never Leave This Town”, Six more-or-less operated alone, and the gameplay was more about talking to people than looking over documents. This was deliberate, because I thought that having Six operate alone might make the setting feel a bit more spooky and alien, but it didn’t really work out like that, and I walked away feeling that Six should have a sidekick to bounce off of.

Cyra is introduced in “Dead Echo” as an apprentice ghostfinder - an “initiate” - who’s recently completed the first portion of her training, and will now shadow an established ghostfinder to prove that she can handle the job. At least a few players seemed to have gotten the impression that ghostfinders are all psychics from “Shift”, but that’s not true. Ghostfinders are generally not psychics, and in “Dead Echo”, it’s made pretty clear that Cyra being one is weird and exotic. Six outright refuses to trust Cyra at first, because s/he believes that psychics are too dangerous and unpredictable to be ghostfinders. So “Dead Echo” ended up being about an eager-beaver Cyra trying to prove herself to Six, and the story ended with Six having just a bit more respect for Cyra than s/he did at the beginning.

I didn’t really know what kind of character Cyra would be when I first started writing her. I didn’t really know Six too well either, but since Six was deliberately designed to be a vague AFGNCAAP (Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventure Person), that wasn’t as much of an issue. It wasn’t until I started work on “Shift” that I started to get a stronger feel for who she was as a person, and by the end, she very much ended up being the thematic and emotional “center” of the whole story. At least two people commented that perhaps Cyra, not Six, should have been the series protagonist, and I get where they’re coming from. Even without “Shift”, Cyra absolutely feels like a far more natural protagonist than Six; Luke Skywalker is the protagonist of “Star Wars” after all, not Obi-Wan. But while it doesn’t come through at all in this particular installment, Six’s status as an undefined AFGNCAAP will see more play down the road, and on the whole, I don’t regret the decision to center the series around Six and not Cyra.

The actual part of having to sit down and write “Shift” was painful. Once I figured out how to implement free form searching into Harlowe, there wasn’t really anything else that I needed to do coding-wise, but designing a convincing detective narrative that was both a. solvable for a decently intelligent person and b. just difficult enough that it wouldn’t feel like a cakewalk was, at times, brutal. More conventional detective story writers don’t really have to struggle with this. I know Golden Age Detective Fiction writers made a big ballyhoo of the fact that all of their stories were “fair play”, but really, most of them were only solvable by the reader in theory, not in fact. Even the most fair play of fair play writers wrote way too many stories where interpreting evidence came down less to intelligence or common sense and more to reading the author’s mind to try and figure out what, exactly, this writer was trying to communicate with this particular bit of evidence. I had to avoid all that; at the outset, I made a pact with myself that I would consider anything less than an 80% solution rate in beta testing to be a failure, and additionally that each beta tester had to identify the exact chain of logic that lead them to their conclusion. If more than 20% were saying stuff like “Uhh, I couldn’t solve it”, “I got bored and didn’t finish”, or “I solved it, but I sort of just guessed by the end”, or worst of all, “I solved it, and it felt really easy and obvious”, it’s redesign time.

I… Sorta kinda met this standard in the first round of testing. Sorta kinda in the sense that, yes, almost everybody was able to solve it, and nobody thought that it was easy to the point of being trivial, but almost everybody that couldn’t was getting stomped, as in, “I got to the end and I literally have no idea who the killer it, and the words that I am reading might as well be Latin”. Not good. I threw in a hint feature after that, but while that improved solution rates somewhat, there were still some people who were getting stomped. The notepad function is actually a last minute feature that I put in just months ahead of the competition, after a second round of testing; it helpfully highlights a bunch of terms that you should be searching up, so that as long as you’re reading stuff, you’re constantly picking up keywords and you should never be getting outright stuck. I was a bit ambivalent about it; I thought that it might make the game a bit too easy, and at least one friend who’d beta tested the pre-notepad version laughed and called it the “noobpad” when I showed it to her. My fear was confirmed when I read a lukewarm review where the reviewer admitted that they didn’t even bother reading most of the documents, and just typed in whatever the notepad told them to to get to the end, whereupon they made a guess. Not good, no, but such was my commitment to making a game that wouldn’t frustrate or alienate anyone that wasn’t outright stupid. I decided to just eat the occasional notepad abuse as an acceptable loss in exchange for making a game that would leave almost everybody feeling like they accomplished something big.

This is gonna be a hokey metaphor, but bear with me: I wanted “Ghostfinder: Shift” to have the same relationship to being a detective that “Uncharted” has with shooting people. Yes, it’s there, yes it’s a big part of the game, and yes, it can be as challenging as you want it to be. But if you’re just “here for the story”, or you aren’t “feeling it”, the game will do everything short of outright skipping it for you to meet you halfway. In the future, I’m thinking that an adjustable difficulty setting might do wonders for this series, as soon as I figure out how to implement one without going crazy.

Final Thoughts:

“Ghostfinder: Shift” is not quite representative of what I want the series to become going forward. For starters, it’s very “magic light”. Despite the fact that the setting is clearly meant to be some kind of a fantasy world, the killings you investigate aren’t really occult or fantastic in nature, and the more supernatural stuff is sort of sprinkled over a fairly standard serial killer hunt for flavor. Some people really liked that, others thought it was a missed opportunity. Later episodes of the series will definitely be much weirder, denser, and more laden with fantasy and horror elements than this one, albeit while retaining the essential detective game core. The “plan” right now is that the episodes will broadly fall under one of two categories, both borrowed from X-Files: Standalone “case of the week” episodes, and “myth arc” episodes that tie directly into the grander overarching narrative of the series, albeit with the standalone entries having more continuity than the X-Files “monster of the week” episodes tended to. “Shift”, for example, is very much a “case of the week”, but it ends on a small cliffhanger that ties it directly into the episode that follows it: What becomes of Cyra now? What becomes of her and Six? Tune in next week to find out (not literally, episode 3 will take a bit longer than that to get release ready)!

I’d like to once again express my sincere gratitude to all of the awesome reviewers, beta testers, and fellow creators who offered me their honest thoughts and opinions. It means the world to me to have gotten honest feedback from experienced creators, players, and reviewers for what started out as an experiment. Thank you all for a wonderful comp experience, and perhaps I’ll see you all again next year with another episode (not episode 3 of series one, that’ll be out long before IFComp 2021)!

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • One reviewer found the fact that the BSK was closely based on the real-life Golden State Killer, right down to having similar initials, a bit distasteful. In my small defense, when I started conceptualizing “Shift”, the GSK was a fairly minor Bay Area bogeyman - we knew him as “EAR/ONS” back then - and there was no reason to suspect that he’d ever be caught.

  • In retrospect, I think the decision to make Cyra a psychic must have been subterraneanly influenced by “Dredd”, which I thought was a great movie. That was another story about an established member of an elite order of super cops who has to take on a psychic protege, and there are definitely echoes of the Dredd/Cassandra relationship in Six/Cyra.

  • “Her Story” got namechecked a lot as a pretty clear influence, and it was! I’ve played quite a large number of detective games over the years, and “Her Story” won’t be the only one that makes its mark on the series. One upcoming episode in particular is similarly influenced by “Return of the Obra Dinn” and I’m praying that it actually works. Let’s see what happens.

  • I was a bit shocked by just how much “Shift” seemed to disturb everyone that played it. Not that I thought it was exactly a lighthearted story, but is anything in “Shift” that much worse than an average episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” or “Law and Order: SVU”? Or the Millenium trilogy, which was wildly popular only about 15 years ago? I thought that the procedural, just-the-facts language might create a bit of an emotional buffer between the players and the violent content, but evidently not.


Thanks for writing this up! You’d mentioned that there was a previous installment in the series, but I had no idea there were three distinct games you’d written and kept in the drawer – I can’t even imagine that kind of discipline. Your thoughts on difficulty, and the notebook, are interesting because I didn’t even notice the notebook when I played. I guess there was something about the way I was interacting with the interface that meant that my eyes just glided right over it? Anyway that makes me think that a difficulty setting allowing you to just toggle it on or off might be an effective, and hopefully not too hard to implement, option.

I think I was the reviewer who was a bit squicked out by the Golden State Killer parallels, which I think is a pretty idiosyncratic reaction – I live in California and since his capture I’ve seen a ton of coverage which made the parallels impossible to ignore, but as you say no way you could have predicted that happening!

As to the broader question of how disturbing the game wound up being, I think you’re right that the details aren’t necessarily that much worse than some other media, but I think one aggravating factor is the accretion of cases – in most movies and TV shows, there’s maybe one murder at a time, with character business, investigation, etc. in between the next victim showing up. Reading half a dozen case files all detailing horrific things happening to innocent people, one after another, can feel like getting punched in the same spot half a dozen times: the first one isn’t so bad, but the last one, hitting already-bruised tissue, lands that much harder. Add in that there’s rape as well as murder, and I think it was a bit much to digest all at once.

Anyway, congrats again! Hopefully next year we can get a Ghostfinder: Postmortem postmortem. And I love the idea of an Obra Dinn riff – I liked the conceit of that game though found the specific implementation really didn’t work from me, so it’d be great to see you explore the same design ideas from a different angle (have you seen Family, by the way? It’s Obra Dinn by way of the UK New Wave scene).


“Discipline” is a really flattering way to put it, haha. I’ll take it, but if I’m being honest, it was nervousness and fastidiousness as much as it was anything else.

I hadn’t seen Family, no sir. Thank you for pointing it my way! The UK New Wave scene of the 70s~80s is one of my favorite chapters in popular music history, so you can bet I’m checking that out.


I think in part the issue is what @DeusIrae described, you read case file after case file all at once and the depravity increases with each case. Also, even though you are reading documents, not living through the events, there’s quite a bit of detail concerning what the perpetrator said, exactly what they did where, etc. It came pretty close to just prose.

I think the other thing is audience. I don’t really watch a lot of shows like SVU/CSI anymore, and my guess is that a lot of the indie IF community is more sensitive to content involving sexual assault, especially if it’s more of a plot device than an exploration of trauma. I think the severity of the content warnings at the start of your piece were very important in that regard (and going forward). That being said, I’d definitely be more interested if the series steered in a bit of a different direction. I always find our culture’s obsession with the depravity of serial killers and true crime stuff to be… a little weird, but I can’t quite put words to why.

I also missed it for like 3/4 of the game! Until I think I scrolled down by accident and realized there were more links hidden below.


No, I get that completely. As a big-time true crime and serial killer lore aficionado, there’s always been a big part of me that wondered if the whole “genre” isn’t a form of perverse fascination masquerading as something more intellectually reputable. I’ve mentioned as much in PMs, but “Shift” will be the last Ghostfinder story to feature a serial killer for a while, and quite possibly the last serial rapist story full stop. I can’t promise that Ghostfinder won’t depict graphic, violent death or dark themes in the future - this is, and always will be, a pretty grim, harrowing series - but I’m certainly not trying to actively alienate or shock people either.

I think this officially makes you the third person who outright did not notice the notepad. Very interesting. I think this is the sort of thing that would have been caught in testing, if I’d run the game through one more round of testing before the comp. In the future, I’ll definitely have to make sure that the players notice all the features they’re meant to notice.

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For me, Ghostfinder: Shift hit the sweet spot of being disturbing enough to raise the dramatic stakes high while remaining short of the point that would negatively affect my experience of the game. After finding out what the killer had done, my strongest reaction was wanting to nail the b******!

As I’ve said elsewhere, I found the game fantastic.

I think this is a good point. When I was writing up my thoughts on the game and mentioned the content warnings being appropriate, it was intended as a signal to other people in the IF community who would be particularly sensitive to the game’s content.

And since we’re talking about the notepad… I did use it, in combination with my own set of notes. I found it quite helpful for organizing all of the information on the crimes and the suspects.