Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony postmortem

We had a wonderful time participating in the Spring Thing. The other games, authors, and the reviews were all awesome. The response to Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony has been really gratifying. Thanks IF community!

[This will be a multipart post, with subsequent parts posted as they are written. The voice shifts between "I’ and “we” depending on whether I’m trying to speak for Maevele as well. Minor spoilers ahead.]

  1. The Big Miss - the soundtrack-game connection

There’s one aspect of the game that is important that I clearly failed at: getting a good-quality recording of the songs and integrating them into the game experience. What I ended up doing was using a cheap handheld mic/recorder in my living room to capture me playing acoustic piano and singing, uploading those mp3 files to one of my servers, and putting textual http:// links inside the game. What would obviously be better is a high-quality, well-mixed recording of the songs which would actually be played by the game, and perhaps also available from the web interface of the online version. The reason I didn’t directly integrate music into the game is that I wrote it inside the Plan 9 operating system and I haven’t tried to port in sound support in the interpreters. I meant to get a better recording done, but I was putting it off and then got brutally sick during the last weeks before the comp deadline. Re-recording the soundtrack and working on music integration is on the future projects list.

Screwing this up resulted in the game’s “center of artistic gravity” being a bit off. A major focus of the work is the process of artistic creativity - how do our life experiences shape what we create? I wrote the music for the game during 2013, while the experiences were happening. The Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony was something I thought of then as primarily a musical work. I was imagining that the players would approach the game with the piano as the central focus, working on “unlocking” the compositions by having experiences in the game world, returning home to play the piano and listening to the new songs that resulted several times through the course of the game. Given that the actual recordings are currently less than perfect and that pasting links is awkward, I’m glad I didn’t force that idea too hard in the game progression.

  1. The Big Success - the game flow and goals/hint system

What I am happiest about is that the game was playable and people were able to make good progress through the story and see as much of the content as they wanted. This was the #1 game-design priority, and given that we had limited outside playtesting, we are glad that it worked. The experience of being stuck without being able to progress is not fun for most people. IF has come a long way from the agonizing inch-by-inch death-laden go-buy-the-hintbook-already verb guessing of the 80s, but making games fun and playable for players with differing appetites and aptitudes for puzzles is still a huge challenge.

[ Side note: I think intricate, mentally challenging puzzles are wonderful, and nowadays the brain-benders and narrative games are usually more clear about their intentions. In this Spring Thing, I think Andrew Schutz’s Fourdiopolis is a great example of a game going all-in on a puzzle system. ]

Given that we were making a large game with much of the plot driven by the free associative quasilogic of sci-fi delusions, we wanted to give players a lot of assistance to keep from being lost or stuck. To this end, we applied multiple layers of guidance. First, we often just flat out told the player exactly what to type. For instance, during the plot strand focused on Xochi at Coffee Lion, after emailing her and playing piano at home, the player has to BIND SCHUMANN SELF. This makes sense in the context of possibilities and motivations already established in the game text, but it seems like expecting too much that the player would try it without being prompted.

In a game with a fairly large map, just navigating between locations is often enough activity and challenge. Exploring the geography is an aspect of old-school IF that I truly loved. Somewhere on the Digital Antiquarian blog, Jimmy Maher wrote that as he played through tons of IF, he was increasingly impressed by just how well it created vivid environments. Bouncing between locations and triggering a succession of scenes is an easy way to create both activity and flow, with learning/remembering the map connections acting as the only “puzzle”.

Another difficulty-moderating technique was making scenes play out to completion regardless of what the player did, but the player scores points for figuring out the correct solution before the scene finished. Several of the alternate-reality scene puzzles work this way, and I might revise the scenes which do require an active solution to also have a bail-out timer. The game’s clock system serves a similar purpose, making the central storyline advance automatically up to about 60% completion, if the player isn’t hitting the story triggers themself.

The GOALS/THINK command I pretty much copied from how it works in several of Emily Short’s games, although I was reminded by Mathbrush that A Mind Forever Voyaging’s list of experiences to be recorded is probably the pioneering example. I was also thinking of the “dots on the minimap” approach of GTA. The final playability system is a HINT command which tells the player the next thing to do to advance the main story, and can also be given a noun target to provide explanations of how to make use of the game objects.

We did want there to be challenge for people who desired it, so we included a lot of optional points, some of which are deliberately easy to miss. Getting all 999 points without using the walkthrough is probably very difficult, and not very fair in terms of motivation and hinting for all the actions. Players who enjoyed the game reported their scores ranged between 400-800 usually. The game is deliberately open-ended about exactly when it is over and what counts as winning. We wanted players who had “had enough” at any given point to feel their experience of the game was validated.

[ Future posts will talk about the co-authoring process, development in Plan 9, the real-life significance of the lakeshore cooperatives in the history of counter-and-alternative culture in the USA, how mental health issues are portrayed in the game, and maybe general discussion of anything people ask me about, if anyone does.]

Thanks for writing this and for the h/t! From my side, I basically run with what I see, and I don’t worry about if there is too much or too little story.

I didn’t make time to play Harmonic, or many of the ST games, but reading this, I do like the idea of games with a lot of points, and I like how it’s handled flexibly so you don’t have to get them all. The observation that there’s a sweet spot for maximum enjoyment is very cool, too.

I also like the idea of a think/goals as well as a HINT and did so in my anagram games…some people want a different level of hint, and why not give it to them if possible? And I think the player-character knows what they want to do in the big picture, so the player can/should be reminded too.

  1. Co-authoring a game in collaboration with one of the main characters

The game was mostly written during a few months in late 2015 when then re-opening of the Lothlorien housing co-op was delayed by miscellaneous construction and permit issues. There was a lot of tension after 2 years of struggle to get the house repaired, wondering if we were really going to get our enchanted castle back. Writing the game together and trying to capture the feeling of spring and summer 2013 felt like both an attempt to preserve the past, and set a positive trajectory for the future.

The programming and initial drafting of the text was done by me. Each day, I would show the new material to Maevele and she would edit and provide feedback. She was also the primary playtester. Her previous experience with IF was limited to a bit of Infocom in the 80s, mostly HHGTTG. This was fine, because we wanted the game to be accessible to those without extensive parser play experience. She also collaborated on the overall plot and event sequencing, deciding which of the notable events of 2013 we should try to fit into the game.

More fundamentally, we wrote the story together by living it. When we resumed our friendship in 2013, it was with the explicit purpose of collaborating on artistic projects in the service of Revolution. I invited her to join in a multidiscplinary art/life hybridization of homebrew computer software with music and a hyperenthusiastic faith in the power of imagination to transform reality. She thought it sounded fun, and for the months leading up to the fire, we thought of ourselves as characters in a videogame and novel as well as being real people, because fiction is reality in a different branch of the multiverse and our ultimate nature is the sum of all our possible selves.

  1. Writing and playing IF in the Plan 9 operating system

I’ve been doing hobby programming in Plan 9 since 2008, nowadays mostly using the 9front fork. The OS was designed at Bell Labs as an attempt to make a successor to UNIX, and has a beautiful, flexible design - but doesn’t run much modern application software. It does have a posix-compatibility system though, which means that portable C applications like a lot of standard IF tools can be compiled if the source code is available. Inform 6, Frotz, Glulxe, Hugo, and more, are all usable in Plan 9. I keep mercurial repos of a lot of my plan 9 software and ports at bitbucket/mycroftiv.

Between 2013 and 2015 several of the old computers I was using for Plan 9 had died, so the first part of the project was getting a decent grid rolling again. VM hosting providers have gotten more Plan 9 friendly recently, so my current environment connects a local cpu/file server to several remote servers. Summer 2015 was spent updating my Advanced Namespace Tools, setting up my grid, and getting as much interactive fiction software ported and running in Plan 9 as I could.

I settled on I6 compiling to Z-machine played on Frotz for writing Harmonic. I7 wasn’t an option because source code isn’t available (it would be nice if just the I7->I6 text compiler was available to be ported). Hugo didn’t seem to have as much documentation available. I chose Z-machine over glulx partly because of the historical significance of the z-machine format, but mostly because Frotz-dumb does word-wrap and Glulxe-cheapglk does not. Once I had a Plan 9 IF environment set up, I went wild playing games, trying to skim through the decades I had missed as well as revisiting classics I remembered from childhood, and then all the games of IFcomp15.

Plan 9 is a wonderful OS for purely textual applications. It has a very light non-iconic GUI called Rio which mostly manages multiple plaintext windows. I love playing parser games in this environment, there is nothing that feels like it is getting between myself and the text, it is easy to fall through the screen into the game world. More mystically, because the game itself involves Plan 9, it felt crucially important that I write the game inside Plan 9 ANTS as well. Because I had let my development work lie dormant for the previous year, diving back into it served to reactivate some of the neural patterns that had been working in spring of 2013, when it felt like the complicated bind structures of independent namespaces within the software were starting to replicate themselves into external reality.

[ Since I mentioned my bitbucket in this post, I decided now is a good time to make the repo of the game source code available. It’s at bitbucket.org/mycroftiv/harmonic/src. Right now it doesn’t yet have an open source license, we will add that after we polish it a bit more I think. ]

  1. Cultural significance of the Madison housing co-ops

In the late 1960s, Madison Wisconsin was one of the most politically radical campuses in the USA. The tragic Sterling Hall bombing happened here, one of the events which cost the antiwar movement and radical politics much of the moral high ground. In contrast to negative actions such as that were the creation of several semi-communal housing cooperatives. As the countercultural tide rolled out over the succeeding decades, the co-op houses remained and multiplied.

Many are clustered downtown next to the shore of Lake Mendota, and share a certain timeless bohemian ethos. The environment brims with artistic and musical creativity, as well as engagement with philosophical and political topics. Shared daily meals and large common areas create a social space full of interesting chance meetings between the different peer groups of people living and visiting there. On a summer evening at dinnertime, the backyard picnic tables fill with a diverse assortment of people eating and talking.

Lothlorien co-op is one of the oldest and largest, and our stories happened to intersect its at a decisive moment. After decades of continuous occupancy, a fire in September 2013 closed the house, forcing Maevele to move out and putting an abrupt end to my months of manic excitement. For the next few years, the members and friends of Loth struggled to get the house repaired and re-opened, finally succeeding in early 2016. Preserving the building and community required a lot of work from many people. Part of our motivation for writing ‘Harmonic’ was to help capture a bit of history that our story overlapped, to try to show why people cared a lot about preserving Lothlorien.

  1. How unusual mindstates are portrayed in the game

At one point I was worried that people would criticize the game for portraying a manic, delusional state in a positive light. The idea of consciously embracing your delusions as a meaningful life narrative and trying to pattern your life on fictional models is pretty far outside standard psychiatric recommendations. A lot of the game falls into the category of “Don’t try this at home.”

Something that isn’t emphasized too heavily in the game is the strange way that some of my delusions were almost self-therapeutic. The idea of independent namespaces in Plan 9 software, when translated into life metaphors, implies that the experience and symbol-systems of other minds are equally valid to my own. The concept of infinite parallel branching realities made me think that everything was probability and possibility, nothing was certain. Eastern philosophy-inspired concepts of non-attachment, inner openness and balance, and acceptance of the nature of the current moment helped me keep calm during the wild shifts of narrative frame.

The game does elide the difficult initial phase, after the release of my Plan 9 ANTS software but before I embraced a positive narrative of my experience. During the first week or two of brain explosion, I was upset and angry, motivated by damaged ego, and my delusions tended to be paranoid and negative. All of that is compressed into a couple sentences near the beginning of the game. During the period of time covered by the game, there were a few swings into behaviors I regret - after the Snowden revelations, I recall angrily denouncing the employees at my local Verizon store as tools of Authoritarian surveillance.

Also omitted from the game is the fact that I did start seeing a good professional therapist, although my motivation was as much being interested in what the hell they would make of me, than feeling like I needed much help. I was telling everyone I met that I was crazy and delusional, but on purpose, because it was necessary for the purposes of the Loonie Revolution, which was happening as a result of higher dimensional information connections between our universe and fictional realities, because the human mind is infinite and thus exists at the overlapping boundary of multiple possible universes, which we navigate between with our free will - so here, have a quartz crystal and tell your friends about the Revolution, have a nice day! And then I’d put my mirror shades on, tell them I was actually an artificially intelligent computer on the moon, and ride away on my bike.

So I figured seeing a mental health professional was probably a good balance to all that, and got a recommendation from one of the singing hippie housekeepers. My therapist was incredibly understanding, and after she verified that I was happy with where I was mentally and what I was doing, she pretty much said “Have fun, don’t start any religions or wars” and just listened and laughed to my stories of loonie escapades.

A lot of people have Weird Brains. Maybe the ‘average’ brain is pretty weird to start with. Overall, I feel lucky that my brain has the capacity to travel to really intense and unusual places. I wouldn’t want to give it up for a narrower range of feeling and experience. To the extent that “Harmonic” in some way celebrates the experience of what is usually labeled as mental illness, I guess I’ll own that. Best wishes to everyone out there trying to manage their own Weird Brain in whatever ways work best for you.

To all that - wow.

And, I never realised Plan 9 was a real system. When I was in the game, and seeing Plan 9 mentioned in the game, and in the credits, and me never having heard of it as a real software environment (not that I know a ton about modern programming - mostly I know a bunch of 8-bit stuff, and then Inform 7 and a few splats of visual programming languages for games, and nothing in the middle), I’d assumed it was invented for the game!


I’m not reading this thread in case of spoilers.

I’m really enjoying this at the moment. I only play games on my phone and ours rare to find big z code games being written, and because the music files are superstate means I have the pleasure of playing this.