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.]
- 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.
- 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.]