June 1998, Sydney: Postmortem

This is my first time doing a postmortem of any kind, so don’t mind me flailing my arms and trying to get a reasonable mimicry of the postmortems I’ve enjoyed reading in this forum.

If you haven’t played the game, I think it’s pretty good. Probably my best work so far. Lasts a few minutes since it’s less than 500 words.

Unfortunately, this postmortem will definitely be longer than 500 words.

1) The Original Idea and Why I Didn't Do It

I’ve always thought about writing a short story about Chinese Indonesians taking temporary refuge during the May 1998 riots (more on that later), but I didn’t really know how to approach it.

For one, I don’t think most people would know modern Indonesian history. I know I don’t and I have an Indonesian passport! The memories I have are pretty vague and there’s not much research and information on it. It would also be remiss of me to go ask my relatives to relive their traumas for me in the name of some short Twine game.

But I did want to write some kind of retrospective on it. The Neo-Twiny Jam gave me permission to write a snippet of the grand story I want to tell. I focused on what I wanted to tell: my own perspective on the incident to memorialize it.

So, I originally wanted to write the story in the POV of the little brother character. He’s pretty much based off my own experiences (I did enjoy jumping on these platforms and last time I visited Sydney as a young adult, I did just that and my family commented on it). What better way to tell a story about personal memories than starting off with your own avatar?

In my head, I imagined a quasi-adventure game in the vein of titles like Solarium and Open Sorcery. The young boy would go back and forth in the Sydney apartment, examining objects that meant a lot to him. One particular object would be a landline phone connected to the internet: I used to enjoy bothering my family members by picking up the phone and hearing the dial-up tone. Basically, a kid simulator. I wanted the players to be disarmed; they’re just having fun with this “innocent” adventuring until suddenly, they learned why he’s there through conversations he listened into by accident. This way, the player realized how fragile and precious this innocence is.

I still think this is a solid idea even as I reflect on it, but for whatever reason: I got bored when I started. I think the POV of this brother character is boring. I was boring. Kid me didn’t know shit. And I can see myself getting lost in too many words without getting to the emotional arc I wanted the players to have. If I wasn’t interested in my protagonist, readers are likely to share my opinion.

I scrapped the idea and thought about something else.

2) The New Protagonist and Minimalist Details

Once I removed my past self to the sidelines, I decided to go with an adult character: a woman who’s already in Sydney. Partially inspired by my sisters, this protagonist is a typical Chinese university student who’s trying to make ends meet. She would be more knowledgeable about current affairs and aware of her family’s situation, but she can’t express herself well.

I wanted a character where the reader can’t blame her for her inaction and inability to say anything. Her life events are too complicated to explain to people. I wanted to hone in on her powerlessness, so I came up with scenes that showed it.

The most effective scene has to be the girlfriend one. In what can only be expressed as the God of Memory favoring me, I remember I was signed up to the Anti-Romance Game Jam, but I never got the willpower to make the game I wanted to make there. I decided that she’d have a white girlfriend who didn’t understand her at all.

The part where the girlfriend said, “They’d rather be repressed than free”, was particularly fun to pare down for the word count. There was supposed to be a longer conversation, but I took many elements out and went straight for the point. I trusted the readers to understand the gravitas of the situation and it seems to have paid off well. That scene has made people livid, with one comment from Cohost that reads “I WANTED TO THROW EVERYTHING I OWN AT THE MONITOR FUCKKKKKK”. I was initially hesitant if the scene was incendiary enough, but now I think its curtness and directness are the reason why someone would want to enact damage to their property. If I added more lines, I doubt it will be as effective.

That was the scene that saw a lot of editing, but in general, I took out most internal narration and conversations in the game. The original draft was around 900 words, which meant I had to rework many ideas and scenes into something more condensed and sharper. There were details that I ultimately left out: for example, the Playstation the protagonist bought was modified to play pirated games. I thought it would be a neat detail to add verisimilitude, but it was otherwise superfluous. Many specific details that add to the immersion of the story are excised and it was difficult to prioritize what should be kept and what shouldn’t.

The only trinkets of detail that remain in the finished draft are the TV news stuff because I wanted the reader to understand local events are, of course, more important to report on than global news. The rise of Pauline Hanson’s nationalist party is a bigger (and more justified) worry than some mass violence in Jakarta. I see people like the girlfriend as someone who’s too stuck-up but indeed “correct” in the sense what’s happening here is more important than what’s happening there. She did end up spouting some racism about Chinese people, but her telling the protagonist that they’re in Sydney, not Jakarta is a really hard thing to deflect on. Morally wrong, sure, but pragmatically? Even I can’t justify white Australians to care about what’s happening outside their country – not in this international order of nationstates anyway. There were thoughts like this in the scene with the girlfriend by the way; I just removed it because, again, I trust the audience to get it or at least something close to it.

Writing this game made me realize this was an exercise about trusting the audience to get what I’m trying to say. It’s entirely possible people have different views of the protagonist and the events that transpired, but I like to believe the minimalism lets readers try to get deeper into her psyche.

3) Depicting History: Do We Need to Know the History to Care About the History?

Which brings me to the historical background: the May 1998 riots of Indonesia. The Wikipedia article does a fine job at explaining the event, though I would’ve added more emphasis on anti-Chinese discrimination, the legislation we faced, and how it’s a continuation of the genocide of 1965-6. But you know, first steps and all.

As I said in 1), I knew I wanted to put some perspective to this incident I did live through. At the same time, I also recognize most people outside Indonesia will be unfamiliar with this event. Older people may recall the news, but unless they’re Indonesian or they had friends affected by the events, it would just be another news piece. Australians certainly had more things to worry about, as previously mentioned.

And this is the approach I took to telling this story: since my audience is virtually ignorant about this event, I’ll just tell a fragment of this bigger story of the Chinese Indonesian experience without asking them to look up the history.

I’ve been following @manonamora’s delightful thread reviewing the Neo-Twiny Game Jam thread and it was interesting to see her short review on my game. There, she wrote, “This is an important context to understand the situation of the main character and her family.” While I definitely agree with it being important and I’m fond of the review myself, I don’t know if prefacing the May 1998 context is necessary.

I think the best works of historical fiction are the ones that are grounded and this includes the works where the settings are totally alien to me. A classic IF example would be Curses by Graham Nelson: you’ve got all these historical and fantastical milieus that feel real because there’s exquisite details to chew on. I don’t know that much about Paris in the period it’s depicting and I definitely didn’t read much T.S. Eliot to get the Hollow Men reference, but those descriptions feel fresh and realized. Without realizing it, I was partaking in the fantasy of generation-hopping and trying to figure out what’s up with the family curse. If I was more curious about the historical details, I can just read up a book or read some AskHistorians post. I don’t believe Curses needed you to get ancient Egypt or whatever; it just wants you to be engaged and how it does it is through specific historical details.

That’s what I hoped I did here: include enough historical details that you’ve learned to empathize with the protagonist and her unique situation. I could’ve made sure everyone got it by linking the Wikipedia page on the store page, but that would be no fun for me. It leads players to formulate their own presumptions on what the story should be about instead of letting the player converse with the game. I think it’d be too didactic for my taste since it’d be a kind of teaching tool to talk about the May 1998 riots.

I want to let the work speak for itself. The historical details are there to ground the reader in, not to teach them XYZ. People who are interested in engaging with the game further can certainly look the deets up, but I want to leave it as optional. I don’t mind if the player doesn’t “get” it, but it’s also more rewarding for me if the player resonates with the work so much they look up what happened in May 1998. A player ignorant about the events electing to know more is always fun to see.

This is why I don’t think we need to know the history to care about the history. Good historical fiction should make you delve deeper into the details and ask about its accuracy versus the entertainment value it provides. And I think it’d be presumptuous of me to believe everyone coming into the game knows this context. In keeping with minimalism, I think historical knowledge should be optional here to enjoy(?) this title. I see it occupying the same empty space as the scenery details that can be filled in by the reader.

It was an interesting review to think about, so I’m glad I got to read it. Again, thanks for writing it.

If you read the whole thing, thanks for reading what can be summed up as “less is more” and “trust the audience”. I need to learn to write less, hehe. And thanks to the organizers for making the Neo-Twiny and Anti-Romance jams!


Thanks for writing this postmortem! I hope more people follow suit. And I’d be disappointed if said postmortems were less than 500 words, really.

This was one NTJ entry I didn’t get around to, though I wondered if the date had any special significance. I admit I sort of skimmed the postmortem to come back later, especially after the good point about trusting the audience.

I mean, it seems like an easy choice, right? “Trust the Audience” versus “Don’t Trust the Audience” has a pretty obvious right answer. But I’m never sure how much to trust them before I start leaving them out to dry. Certainly when it comes to cluing, I want to make sure everything’s there and available to figure, but at what point does that become not trusting the audience or talking down to them?

When I read something I don’t have a good historical perspective on, I try to go through as much of it as I can before using the Internet as a cheat sheet. At least, I do so in theory, unless I’m tired or grumpy. In that case I and the author are better served by me waiting a bit.

Also, man, Solarium! Man, it’s been 10 years since that was written. I remember it in IFComp, and I’m not surprised it’s inspired other works.