Hill Ridge Lost & Found -- postmortem

I have a few notes I’d like to share.

Part 1: Origins

The photograph from the cover art is my dad’s. It was taken somewhere in the mountains of my home state of North Carolina, circa 2009, using infrared-sensitive film, which makes blue skies look dark and green grass look white. I added the sepia toning and blurred and darkened the corners. A large version can be seen here: ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?coverart& … iph6&ldesc .

Despite the origin of the photo, the game’s setting is actually Texas, circa 1980. Mostly, it’s a faithful representation of the area where my mom grew up, places that I know well. The only exceptions are the vorairs, jillers, catknenk bushes, steep hills, and the proximity to mountains. My new flora and fauna are not what I’d call otherworldly, but they do make the setting into something of an alternate-reality Southeast Texas. Lonon’s property is a combination of my grandparents’ old house and the pasture they used to rent, several miles away, for breeding and selling cattle. The game’s intro scene is also derived from two places: the withered downtown of my grandparents’ sub-1,000 population village, and a lonely watering hole where my grandfather used to stop on his way home from the pasture.

The origin of this game goes back to three events that happened during last year’s IFComp voting period. First was someone mentioning, somewhere on these forums, the story called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. (I haven’t read it, but I did eventually see the Twilight Zone episode that was made out of it.) The point is I was amused by the stack of three nouns in the title, and I was thinking of this when I went to visit a real place called Hill Ridge Farms, the 2nd event. (You can look this place up.) We went there to take our 3-year-old on a hayride and pick out some pumpkins. At one point on the hayride, I realized we were crossing what you might call Hill Ridge Farms Creek Bridge. Now obsessed with hilariously stacking nouns together in justified ways, I just needed some excuse to write a throwaway game with this idea as one of its themes. I was immediately supplied with one, because Wes Lesley, author of The King and the Crown, had (already, I think) challenged his fellows in the authors’ forum to finish another game (the 3rd event) before the judging ended. That’s when I started working on a Hill Ridge game, but I decided to abandon the project in favor of writing more reviews for the authors.

The original idea was to use a linear series of “rooms” with names in a progression: Hill Ridge, Hill Ridge Farm, Hill Ridge Farm Church, Hill Ridge Farm Church Creek, Hill Ridge Farm Church Creek Bridge, Hill Ridge Farm Church Creek Bridge Road. Well, something like that, but better and funnier. The protag was an old, ornery cowboy who had burned down the church long ago and returned to the area to find something he left there. Then, on the way back, the descriptions of everything would be different, and that was it.

Not much of that survived when the idea was eventually repurposed into Hill Ridge Lost & Found for IFComp 2016. I very much wanted to preserve the noun-stacking joke, but I just couldn’t make the map work with it after the story had been fleshed out; instead, it was just crammed into the description for the Hill Ridge Rock location. I wonder if anyone found that description amusing or even odd. What did survive was burning down the “church”, and this became the center of gravity for the whole work.

And with that, I’ll tie off Part 1. I’ll be back as soon as I figure out how to organize the rest!

I want to know where you got the inspiration for vorairs. And is there a meaning behind the name?

I keep thinking they look like this:

Tundro from the Herculoids! I love it! That’s a happy memory, forgotten until now.

This is a really fortuitous question to interject because I didn’t have any other good place to discuss this stuff.

Tundro isn’t that far off. I imagine a vorair as bigger than a bull (but smaller than a triceratops), four-legged, low to the ground, arch-backed like an armadillo, and with very short, stubby horns. I can’t decide if there’s much fur, but it’s probably a mammal.

The vo-ball in my game got its name from the vorair, but conceptually the vo-ball came first. And the vo-ball came from trying to think of some odd but remotely plausible new way to do farming; actually it was my first and only idea along those lines. Covered with blades and holes, the vo-ball could till the earth and scatter seeds at the same time; I just needed an animal to push it. Other types of vo-balls may exist for other purposes, I imagined, but Lonon just needed the one.

The word “vorair” came from my random word generator, a little piece of software I wrote at least a decade ago. As I discussed in the postmortem for last year’s Koustrea’s Contentment, I routinely use this program to conjure new words and names–mostly names–for my various projects. For a project such as Hill Ridge, I generate a couple thousand words, making a short list of the best ones, and then assign them their proper roles. If I don’t end up with anything good for a particular role, I go back and generate more. This is all much quicker and easier than it probably sounds, even though I must make an assessment of each one. “Vorair” was carefully selected for a number of reasons. One was that I can readily imagine someone saying it with a southern accent. More importantly, “vo-” was an excellent prefix to stand on its own and get the point across for the objects “vo-ball” and “vo-nip”. Not very many two- or three-letter syllables are that unique.

For those keeping score at home, I think there were only six randomly-generated words in Hill Ridge: Langle, Vumfarr, vorair, Cloody, jiller, and catknenk. (Koustrea’s Contentment had 19 of them.)

I did depart from tradition here by selecting some real names too. “Lonon” is unusual, but it’s real. I saw it on a street sign somewhere very remote. Research indicates it’s pronounced like “London” without the “d”, but I imagine the folks around Hill Ridge have country-fied it into “low-non”. It was impossible to pass up, once I saw it, as a thinly-veiled suggestion of “the lone one”.

I also used “Bertrand” but without any reason other than it seemed fitting. “Elsie” appears in the game too, and it’s my grandmother’s name–another nod to the Texas side of my family. Lynnea Glasser misread this, in her online playthru, as “Elise”.

As for the Ambler’s last name, “Talgaw”–I just made that up.

The origin story here is really interesting. It’s neat to see when a project evolves along a tangent to become its own thing.

If you’re taking requests, I want to know about the room with the bright light…

Of course! Requests are welcome.

I like the passage about the Third Room. Strictly speaking, trying to enter it is an optional action, but since no adventurer can resist a closed door, it can be safely considered part of the story. The bright light is simply daylight from windows, contrasting sharply with the dark, windowless Living Room. The main point is that the Ambler considers it off-limits. We see him observing a boundary that he wouldn’t have as a child. He’s grown up now. His purpose on Hill Ridge is to solve a problem, not to trespass or invade privacy. Not to go beyond what he considers necessary. It’s important that the Ambler’s past mischief was much more a function of being young than a result of his character.

Upon opening the door, both the Ambler and the player also learn something about Lonon: he’s maybe not as odd as we might think, or at least he didn’t used to be. Apart from that, there’s room for speculation on the player’s part as to what it means exactly, but here’s what I imagined. That room is where Lonon keeps his happier past, preserved and separate from the struggle of his life on Hill Ridge. It contains things that he brought with him when he moved to Hill Ridge, from the time when he had a wife and child. This, along with the photograph, can (by contrast) lead to further speculation about Lonon’s condition during his Hill Ridge days, but I’ll pick up that thread later.

Finally, the Third Room just adds a little depth and realism. It makes the house itself a little more normal, for example, and to heighten the mystery I liked having a window available from the backyard (which you can get from X HOUSE). So I thought everything to do with the Third Room fit in nicely.

Thanks for this! I really enjoyed Hill Ridge Lost & Found, and of the games in the comp it came the closest to my ideal balance of good fiction and good game. Looking forward to your next work, and in the meantime I really ought to get back to trying to finish Koustrea’s Contentment…

How much of an unreliable/unsympathetic narrator did you intend the PC to be? This was something I only noticed a little bit while playing, but Emily Short’s review made it more clear to me that the Ambler was not really a good guy.

Thanks so much!

I’m still going to address these issues. Sorry that I’ve been a little delayed. Stay tuned!

Part 2: The Story and Interpretations

Keeping in mind that this is a TADS puzzle game, and not, y’know, a critical work of the canon of American literature, there are a few deeply buried ideas that might be worthy of a brief discussion. In my next installment, I’ll address the question of why they’re buried, but for now it’s on with the story.

The first thing we learn about the Ambler is that he’s annoyed by the saying, “I may have been led astray, but it was me who done the walkin’.” Soon, it’s clear enough that this philosophy is quite opposed to the Ambler’s peripatetic nature, which we learn about from his very name, the X SELF description, and his memories of adventures away from home. We can surmise that he fears that the idea behind the saying is a perverse influence on the community, and that it’s spreading. The Ambler reacts much more strongly to this, of course, than most people would. He immediately suspects Lonon, a known recluse, and sets off to find out whether Lonon is connected to the situation and what may be done about it. There’s no plan, at first, other than to find and talk to Lonon. What he finds instead is Lonon’s “strange shack”, which is especially disturbing to a person like him and confirms his worst fears. Of course, even though the sermon written inside the shack mentions the Saying, there’s no hard evidence that Lonon even came up with the Saying, nor that the shack’s existence is responsible for anything. We don’t know whether the Ambler realizes this, but he does see the shack as a threat. Perhaps he believes that it’s normal for folks to wander as much as he does. After finding Lonon dead, he knows he’ll have to handle the situation himself. But the situation has been thrown into a moral limbo, because the Ambler’s reaction isn’t completely justified.

Eventually, after recovering his old candlestick, his clear choice is to destroy the building. But in the meantime, the Ambler has leaned a little more about Lonon (from his house), becoming a little more sympathetic. Also, he’s recovered a few more 50-year-old memories of his times on Hill Ridge, and even though he doesn’t want to admit it at first, they’re things he regrets.

Even though the Ambler moves forward confidently with his plan, tensions have been building beneath the surface: nagging guilt about past actions, and considerable doubt about the current one. These things boil over when the building is burned, and the Ambler either imagines or hallucinates the Ghast (his guilt) and the Ghost (his conscience). Like a devil and angel sitting on his shoulders, they represent his personal struggle to decide whether he has done the right thing. (The ghost is not Lonon’s ghost, although the game misdirects that way a little bit. The reveal that the ghost has a hat is supposed to clue that it was just Bertrand himself.) We are meant to see that the Ambler’s guilt weighs very heavily upon him, even though his transgressions are minor and mostly inconsiderate mistakes of youth. At this point, there’s not much he can do to make amends other than rush off to give Lonon some semblance of a proper burial.

In the end, our hero decides he is doing his very best to do what’s right, at least insofar as he knows what is right. Guilt and Doubt are the keys. He knows he might be wrong, he’s willing to accept it when he is, and he’s willing to correct any mistakes if possible. In the absence of certainty, he feels that he must move forward—or else what good can anyone ever do?

Concerning Lonon, he’s obviously had a lot of hard luck that led to a life of reclusiveness and paranoia. I imagine that he lost his wife and child to disease, which led to his relocation to the Hill Ridge property, a location as removed as possible from humanity while still being feasible for making a living. But he was strong enough to keep going for a very long time considering an unhappy life. As Emily Short noted, the philosophy he espoused was that only your own mistakes are to blame for any of your ill fortune, and, by the same token, only your own actions can move you forward. This could be an indication of self-reliance–that the self is all that is necessary. But then there’s his taking possession of Elsie’s missing doll. The description hints that Lonon could have seen it as the return of his wife or daughter (if his child was in fact a daughter) or both. Perhaps he felt that they were still with him in some way, and that was enough to keep him going.

Ultimately, I think the Strange Shack was something of a suicide note from Lonon. It was probably recent. Some way to finally attempt to communicate with the world, or leave his mark on it. And if you’re into conspiracy theories, perhaps it was all part of a plan to get someone–possibly even Bertrand Talgaw–to come by and finish the burial.

I think this is the crux of what I found confusing about the game. First of all, to me the saying seems totally harmless and even benign, somewhat akin to “fool me twice, shame on me” or “measure twice, cut once”. That is, if someone gives you bad advice (or is simply a bad example), and you go on to follow it, you can partially blame the advice-giver, but you should also blame yourself for not doing due diligence and thinking for yourself. It’s also a rejection of “I was just following orders”-style buck-passing: take responsibility for your own actions, regardless of good intentions. So right off, I didn’t understand why, or even notice that, Ambler was annoyed by the saying. Why would he be? He likes walking, literally, but that doesn’t seem to have much to do with not being led astray (or blaming those who do lead him astray). To me it reads as simply a saying that reminded him of Lonon, and that he hadn’t seen him in a while. There’s a suggestion that Lonon is somehow responsible for the “lack of business” that Ambler and Langle had been discussing: “What has that twisted old witherhead been up to? I’ll teach him… spread his foolishness around here. Somebody has to keep things decent.” But this didn’t mean much to me at the time so I just figured it would be explained later, and it never quite was. Instead it’s eventually revealed that Ambler himself was inadvertantly (mostly) the one who led Lonon astray, in their childhood (with the sparks and the doll), and this doesn’t seem to really register with Ambler. But yeah, I pretty much missed that the ghast was the reification of his own guilt, so I didn’t interpret his overcoming the ghast as anything other than cleaning up after Lonon’s disturbed life.

Anyway, despite my confusion, I did really appreciate the richness of the story (coupled with the otherwordliness of the vorair, ghast, etc) as a source of these sorts of (mis)interpretations. It felt like it was playing in the same ballpark as a film by David Lynch or the Coen Brothers, where you can feel that there’s a lot going on in subtexts and symbolism even if you don’t really grok them all.

Thanks for the discussion. All of that is very well said. (And I’m thrilled by the mention of those directors: I’m a big fan of Lynch and I practically worship the Coen Brothers!)

Your reaction to the Saying is the normal one. The Ambler seems to be taking it pretty literally, although one possible reading of the story is that Lonon also meant it pretty literally. If you didn’t see that he was irked, that’s a failing on my part. Mostly, I thought it was fun to get behind a cranky old man whose mission might be nonsensical. But the “lack of business” is a suggestion that maybe the Ambler is actually right. We never find out for sure. I wanted the player to want to find out whether he’s right.

I had intended to write another long section here about the design of Hill Ridge Lost & Found, and then a final section about meta-level notes, but I had to get back to real life for a while, and now the shadows are getting long. So I’ll just wrap up quickly.

Mostly I wanted to say: sorry about the bugs. All known issues have been fixed since Oct. 18, but some early players (as well as those committed to playing the original entry) had a rough experience. Scheduling problems led to my adding lots of content after testing, and my own later “testing” just wasn’t very thorough. In the end I just ran out of time, even though I left myself plenty. I submitted the game less than an hour before the deadline, at which point I had been up 24 hours past my bedtime. So the final push was close to 40 straight hours of work with no sleep. That’s when things go wrong. That’s why the writing near the end, for example, is relatively weak.

Aside from the game itself, there are a few things I wanted to do better before I ran out of time: the cover art, the ABOUT text, and online play. The art was done very early, and I never got back to making a version that would look good small. For some reason I was thinking you would be able to click it to get a larger version.

As for the ABOUT text, I have to take you back to Koustrea’s Contentment for a moment. It was my first game and first IFComp entry. In that ABOUT, I said the game was intended for veteran players of IF. That meant parser IF, because I wasn’t thinking about the other kinds at the time. And really the statement only meant that I wasn’t providing an introduction to parser IF and was too lazy to dig up a link to one. I fully expected that 100% of the IFComp judges would be veteran players of parser IF, and furthermore, that they would all have the HTML TADS Player Kit. (Boy, was I wrong.) So the statement wasn’t even aimed at judges; it was for the game’s life after the Comp. For Hill Ridge Lost & Found, it wasn’t that I hadn’t learned my lesson, it was just that all I had time for at the end was copying and modifying the Koustrea ABOUT. Barely any time to think about it.

It goes without saying that I’ve learned a lot, having been through two cycles now, and some of my opinions have changed. With Koustrea, I treated the Comp like a festival, a place to publish a work. But I learned that your work is then judged as an entry, assessed as an entry, written about as an entry, not a work. With Hill Ridge, I made a shorter work, but still one that wasn’t quite tailored to the Comp. I still think that approach is fine and I don’t want to discourage it, but from here on out, any further IFComp entries of mine will really be Entries. There’s a lot to be said for synergy. In principle, I’m still against making an entry that is specifically designed to win, but there’s shouldn’t be anything wrong with treating the IFComp Entry concept as its own art form and making high-quality things.

As obvious as it is, I had to learn that the IFComp is really the Short-IF Comp. And now it seems to be morphing into the CompEntryComp, as an increasing number of entries fight for attention. And that’s fine; I wouldn’t change a thing, I just need to do it better. That is, not in terms of my scores, but in terms of making games that are more accessible and inclusive to the current audience.

Which brings me to the TADS issue. The plan was to take advantage of the TADS compile-for-web option, which would solve a lot of problems. In theory, the online TADS format is ideal: very powerful, universally playable, and I get to keep working in a language I’m familiar with. But I ran out of time to investigate it enough. Also, perhaps more importantly, I CAN’T GET THE MOTHERF**R TO WORK! Bugs, and a complete absence of useful documentation. And help is not forthcoming. So that whole thing is in limbo right now. Which is frustrating, because in theory it looks TOTALLY AWSOM! I was ready to spearhead the inevitable TADS revolution, but I guess it will have to wait.

And now, a heartfelt thank-you to the 32 people who played my game; even more thanks to those who wrote about it. I’m in tremendous debt to those who found bugs early; it totally saved the day. For one thing, I was able to grab a cool prize (the T.I.M.E. Stories game, which has already arrived from Amazon). But I’m especially glad that the feedback helped to give later players a much better experience. I was especially lucky, I think, to have Lynnea Glasser randomly have Hill Ridge show up very early in her list of playthroughs. That alerted me to more problems than I’m willing to enumerate.

I’d like to recognize one possible improvement in particular that my critics collectively came up with. My room descriptions were too long and confusing with the exit-rundown being usually incorporated into an already-long paragraph. It’s a good idea to break the exits out into a separate one. That’s first on my list for a later release.

So… what’s next for me in IF Land? Well, there’s two things I’m sure I want to do. One is to branch off like a madman and do one of those newfangled clicky-things in Twine or something. The other thing I want to do is keep making puzzle-based Text Adventures like it’s 1986 and you refuse to buy a Nintendo while there’s still an Infocom game somewhere on a store shelf.