I really appreciate people’s interest in this game, and I wanted to talk about the development process.
I became aware of Chandler Groover’s work in 2015, which was the first year either of us entered IFComp.
I was (and am) very prudish in my IF reading, turning away from profanity, gratuitous violence and explicit sex. So I found Chandler’s IFComp entery, Midnight. Swordfight., very shocking with its one use of strong profanity, very explicit sex scene, and capability for extreme violence. But I couldn’t deny the high quality of the game.
Through posting reviews and the author forum, I discovered that Chandler was a very pleasant person in real life, in stark contrast with his games (which seems to be a pattern with most ‘extreme’ authors: the wilder their work, the nicer in person, like @HanonO or Carolyn Van Eseltine).
I became a big fan of his work over time, and played each new game that came.
Groover’s games tended to avoid the mechanical, artificial and logic-puzzley parts of interactive fiction. He hates the compass navigation system and makes the action and puzzles in his game organic.
One day, years ago, I realized that it would be amusing to take Chandler’s games and do a ‘tribute’ to them (like Ryan Veeder’s IF Exposition games that were all tributes to him) that went completely against his design principles: taking all these serious, organic, immersive games and making them rigid, puzzley, fussy, with compass directions, etc.
Having always been a fan of the Infocom game Ballyhoo since I played it (set in an abandoned circus), I thought I could set it in an abandoned theme park with all the rides being cheap and silly knockoffs of his game.
In fall of 2018, I sent this email to Chandler Groover:
I’ve been throwing around an idea for the last year. Your games eschew traditional IF tropes; what if that was turned on its head?
I actually wanted to make this for IFComp, but I had to finish my prize for last year. This is my rough skeleton for and notes for Grooverland, where all of CMG’s games are turned into mechanical puzzles, compass navigation, and treasure hunts.
That rough sketch had a lot of things already in it:
-A giant cake resembling the castle in Eat Me, which would be slowly devoured over the game
-A zoo for all the animals he has in his games, but all the animals were fakes (like a rabbit in a costume)
-A Serpent Slide based on Down the Serpent and the Sun, turning his ancient god of destruction into a silly plastic attraction
-A stage with different sets that could be changed via levers and dials, based on Midnight. Swordfight. That game had an innovative movement system where you could move backward and forward in time as well as ‘clockwise’ and ‘counterclockwise’.
-A ‘creaky house’ where something would chase you
-A maze based on his tiny game Left/Right
-A Queen’s castle where you would have a conversation with a mechanical queen through the use of cards, lampooning the ‘topic’ system used in most games and which Groover avoided
-Five items of ‘regalia’ you could pick up through different puzzles
My original concept was much more depressing. It would have been an abandoned park, and the narrator would speak to you directly like in Eat Me, saying things like ‘Child, you shouldn’t have come here.’ The player would progressively find more regalia, becoming queenlike and changing the pronouns in the game, until they entered a hall at the end where hundreds of other queens were frozen on pedestals. You would take your place on a pedestal and stay there, silently weeping, forever.
For the next 3 years, I was busy fulfilling promises to other people: making sequels as IFComp prizes (The Origin of Madame Time and The Magpie Takes the Train) and finishing my Choice of Games novel.
Finally, this year I was able to work on it. I started expanding it. I finally had a chance to work on a game that was completely my choice, and I wanted to go ‘all out’.
I had come up with theories before about what did well in IFComp, and had tried making ‘comp busters’ before in 2016 and 2017, both of which placed well. I wanted to do even better this time, and shoot for first place.
So I started changing the game. I added a lot of extra scenes, as recent winners had been growing longer and longer. I changed it to be positive and funny, both because Chandler expressed hope for a happy ending and because funny games do better in the comp. I added a ton of animals and a dog. I added a lot of NPCs with different conversation topics.
Going all out
I decided to push everything to its limit. I had a puzzle early on where you feed the animals in the zoo, but the only thing the rawhead eats is blood, which the zookeeper must give, which makes him have to go to bandage himself while giving you his piece of regalia. Instead, I replaced it with a Pokemon-style game where each ‘trainer’ has a stable of foods that they competitively feed to animals.
I had a simple puzzle in the Creaky House about finding a key, but on Chandler’s encouragement I developed it more into a puzzle like those in Zarf’s Delightful Wallpaper, where your movement changes the house.
I added a lot more ‘background effects’, like the park going through 5 phases of decay, your family being abducted one by one, etc.
I also wanted the game to be bigger, so I added an entire ending sequence stolen directly from the Hungarian opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, where a woman opens seven doors to areas like a treasury, a garden, etc. before discovering the horrifying truth at the end. When I made the game more positive, this became the Queen’s castle.
At first there was only one queen, but I realized that I couldn’t decide if she should be nice or cruel. So I split her into two and added a big boss battle against one of them.
Finally, I spent a month writing hundreds of conversation topics using procedurally generated text, where I’d write responses with spaces in them for things like apologies or exclamations, and then code in different exclamations and apologies for each NPC.
Then I tested it with many people, changing things based on their responses. This was extremely helpful, as always. The testing phase was about 6 months.
Probably the biggest problem in the game is that I overextended: by making everything big and huge, I polished each piece less. As some reported, the hundreds of responses ended up all being fairly generic, and this is absolutely true. I’ve seen this called ‘procedural oatmeal’ before, and I definitely am reconsidering my use of this conversation system in the future.
As a bigger thing, in my great plan to finally win IFComp once and for all, I became disqualified. I was asked to volunteer for the IFComp committee and started working on projects for them, which precludes me from entering. And so my big plan ended up not panning out.
That’s when Adam announced Parser Comp. I asked him if I could enter this game, and he agreed, and I thought that was great.
This is the biggest game I have ever written. The goals I had with it were to honor the great work of Chandler Groover and to place highly in a competition, and both have happened. I was honored to win, and I really enjoyed a lot of the games in this competition. I appreciate everyone who was involved and who played. Thanks!