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.
“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)!
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.