In a classic magic trick, there are several parts. First, there is the ‘pledge’ - something entirely expected, then there’s the ‘turn’ - the surprise at the end that makes it all worthwhile. But there’s one more part, the ‘prestige’. The final twist…
After seeing the initial prediction of 21st place, I was still secretly hoping I might sneak into the top 20 on the day. But 7th place - incredible! It just shows how broken the scoring system is.
Huge thanks to everyone who played and voted - and especially all those amazing, insightful reviews (I actually think it’s the reviewers who deserve to share the prize money). I can truly say… I’m over the moon.
So, in honour of tradition, here’s a very verbose, mildly tedious and self-aggrandising post-mortem. Be warned, there be spoilers ahoy.
This is my first time entering into IFcomp - and also my first attempt at a game in Twine. However, my first published game was a game called ‘The Kuolema’ in this years Spring Thing. That was a strange beast, created entirely in Google Forms. I think, on reflection, that although it proves you can use Google Forms to create interactive fiction, the limitations and awkwardness of the interface make anything but the shortest of stories a bit of a chore.
Even so, The Kuolema was received fairly well, and of course, the majority of the negative comments were about the format. So, I figured it was time to learn something a bit more ‘professional’ - and Twine seemed like the natural step up for choice-based games. I’ve never been much of a coder, and it was that part that really put me off Twine. Plus, as a designer, the very bare, basic look of it, slightly clunky way it deals with rich media - along with the non-user friendly interface held me back.
At the start of August, I came across a really good set of Twine tutorials (by 'GhazWorks’). For anyone who’s just starting out with Twine and wants a great beginner’s guide, I highly recommend checking them out. LUNIUM is entirely based on the stuff I learned there (even using the tutorial file as a base): https://youtu.be/37IT-8GQNpM?si=sBNjAnXdc5uJCvgW
I quite like the idea of competition deadlines as it gives me something to aim for, and I wondered if setting myself a target of making something for IFComp might be the kick I needed to learn Twine. However, I quickly realised there was no way to make a new game from scratch in time.
Back in time
‘LUNIUM’ actually started life quite a while back. In fact, I think it’s safe to say, the original idea, most of the puzzles, visuals and the main ending formed my very first attempt at IF (although I didn’t really know IF was a thing at the time). I had the idea during maybe the second big lock-down, I guess when ‘escape the room’ ideas took on a lot more meaning? And it was this game that I played online with friends, colleagues and even forced on co-workers as a Zoom-based ‘team building’ session.
As an aside, I can definitely recommend ‘live’ playtesting as a really useful technique. It meant that I could supply hints as needed and learn where people struggled and where there was just enough for people to figure things out on their own or as a team. After each play-through, I’d then tweak accordingly.
In my day job, I’m a graphic designer, so clearly, the visuals were important. I’d love to say I had a clear, organised plan for the images, puzzles and the story, but honestly it all just sort of emerged as I was creating it.
I wrote the initial section, what is now the intro / tutorial (the bit where you find your first key and free yourself) as a simple proof of concept. There was no real plan beyond that. I even created the items you find in your pocket (the coins, the phial, the note) - all with no idea of how they’d fit into the later story. Sometimes that’s how creativity works, you paint yourself into an interesting corner and then see what happens. I guess it was from that short, barebones test that the rest of the idea emerged.
I love the idea of meticulously planning out the entire story, locations, clues and puzzles in a spreadsheet or something, but it turns out my mind just doesn’t work that way. It ends up feeling more like slowly carving a large block of stone, and ‘discovering’ the shape that hides within. Often I would come across a stock image of some Victoriana that inspired me (some coins, an old calendar, some random old photos) and I would then try to fit the puzzles around them. Other times I’d do things the other way around - imagine the space and then painstakingly try to create an image that seemed to fit the mood. Consistency was important, but so was legibility – often the amount I could write on a page was entirely defined by the legible text size. At least that kept me concise.
Naturally, this initial version had a core idea but was a bit of a mess. I have no real experience with puzzles or escape rooms (or even creative writing), so it was all trial and error. The first ‘alpha’ version was far too obscure, with clues that crossed over with each other and just led to frustration rather than any sense of satisfaction. That’s where testing - and especially testing with a ‘live’ audience - was so useful. This game was very much aimed at a wider (non-IF, non-escape room) audience too - people with a lower tolerance for frustration! Slowly though, through playing with others, it began to take shape and I smoothed off most of the rough edges.
By now, some detectives have already figured out the awful truth. The dark secret, too hideous to conceive that lies at the rotting heart of this story. The final twist, the ‘prestige’, waiting to be revealed…
Back to the future
So when it came time to learn Twine, it seemed like a natural fit to take this unpublished ‘thing’ and ‘remaster’ it as a Twine game. A remaster that tries to stay as close to the original vision as possible (warts and all), whilst also taking advantage of all the extra goodies that Twine can provide. Adding all the things that the original game really needed (updated images, more interactivity, a more interesting way to enter codes, a dynamic inventory, a way you could ‘examine’ clues like you’re using a magnifying glass and a much-needed hint system.)
One other thing I added was that on completing the game, some key info is added to a spreadsheet. Here’s a brief overview for anyone who’s interested:
- 147 people completed the game over the course of the comp
- 54 people solved the game without using a single hint
- Of those who used the hints, there was no clear pattern - whilst people got stuck on puzzles, no one got stuck on the same puzzles (yes, even the matchbox)
- 70% of players chose the ‘light’ ending over the ‘dark’ one
- Of the people who used hints, around half of them needed at least one hint on the final ‘choose the murderer’ question. So, whilst many guessed the twist early on, plenty didn’t - and that balance feels about right I think.
A few people commented that in LUNIUM it was odd that you have to find keys, then type in their names to ‘use’ them - especially when it’s clear that the game knows when you have them.
I really wanted everything to have a ‘tactile’ element. It’s not enough to find the key, but you have to pick it up and examine it, just like pretty much every image in the game; finding the clue isn’t enough on its own. You have to really look at it. Plus the names of the keys themselves are very much a part of the overall theme, puzzles within puzzles.
As a minor update to the game part-way through the competition, I added a little explainer at the end that goes through some of those names, so for those who may not have seen it, it’s all below:
One of the last clues the player finds is ‘Websters Lunar Almanac’. On the right-hand side is some quite small text that’s there for ‘flavour’ and isn’t required to solve the puzzles. However, it does contain a little extra info that helps to explain what’s going on:
The code for the notebook: SOMA
fig. 47: There is a defined relationship between the psyche and the ‘Soma’ – ie. the body as distinct from the soul or mind.
This is our first (rather obscure) hint about what’s really going on. This is a code that you have created; a reminder to you that there’s a battle of sorts going on between your body and your mind.
The yellow gem key: SELENE
fig. 22: In Greek mythology, ‘Selene’; Ancient Greek: Σελήνη is the goddess of the Moon. She drives her moon chariot across the heavens.
Of course, hints about the full moon are littered throughout the whole game. This is one of the more obvious ones and reflects your obsession with the full moon.
The purple gem key: ARTEMIS
fig. 61: ‘Artemis’ is the Greek goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, wild animals and the moon. Besides killing game she also protected it.
Artemis is another goddess associated with the moon. But here’s a stronger hint: ‘besides killing game, she also protected it’ - both a murderer and a detective, ‘the Hunter’ and ‘the Protector’.
fig. 39: The moon has been associated with odd or insane behaviour, fits of violence and course legends of the werewolves.
This is the only mention of the word ‘werewolf’ in the whole game, everything else is merely suggested. It’s left to the reader to decide on the final genre of the story (but there really are a lot of full-moon references, so…)
fig. 56: 'Lunacy’ and ‘Lunatic’ come from the Roman goddess of the moon, Luna, who was said to ride her silver chariot across the sky.
The name of the game - a fictional word derived from ‘Luna’ - the Latin for ‘moon’. This is also where the words ‘lunacy’ and ‘lunatic’ stem from - because of the old belief that the full moon could bring on ‘intermittent insanity’. You can also see ‘Websters’ (fictional) definition of the word by returning to the title screen once the game is complete:
“An overpowering emotional state that can bring on temporary madness, violence and amnesia. Believed to be related to phases of the moon.” - Websters Dictionary
The year and setting of this Victorian-era story, about a man at war with his darker side. This very much fits with the werewolf legend, especially when it revolves around the full moon. However, this also shares something in common with another famous story, and the ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ was written in… 1886.
Oh, and there’s one more hidden reference that was shoe-horned in there. The ‘make’ of the matches. It was probably the most divisive ‘mini-puzzle’. Just like the ‘names’ of the keys, you couldn’t just use the matches, you had to type in their name:
You’ve been patient, but here we are at the end, ready for the final twist. So awful, so unimaginable, that although some might have briefly thought it, no one dared say it aloud.
No one apart from Mr Russo:
I say sir, in this life, be very careful what you wish for.
Here’s the entire original (never released) version of LUNIUM
…made entirely in Google Forms