Map postmortem

Okay. So the following text is all a bit long, meandering, slightly bombastic, naïve, imprecise and navel-gazey. But I do have a few thoughts about various topics around IF, so if you like this sort of thing please read on. Alternatively, skip to the end, where I thank everyone for participating.

As ever: Spoiler warning – more indirect than explicit. Recommend you either play Map before reading, or approach the following with no intention of playing Map at all.

Map actually started life as a Twine game, but didn’t get very far. I was not happy with it. I’m not sure why. There’s something about the form, the lack of agency, the directed nature of explicit links and the reader’s relationship with the protagonist and the narrative that bothered me. It’s difficult to put into words. As I was playing my initial implementation, I felt … dissatisfied … somehow. Twine can be, as many of the entries this year showed, an excellent medium for expression, but it wasn’t what I wanted to achieve.

So I changed focus and began building a complex time travel puzzle in Inform. It was, although I say so myself, a pretty cool integrated puzzle system: involving the cumulative impact of choice, environment manipulation and action in a complex system to, effectively, configure the game world into a state that is winnable – all based around dynamical systems theory and ambient space. I wasn’t happy with that, either. (However, the puzzle is a doozy, and I now have it in my back pocket for Fifteen Minutes II – which may or may not get made). I had this woman’s story pushing hard to get told, and to encumber it with explicit literal, as opposed to implicit narrative, ‘puzzles’ felt both unnecessary and counterproductive to making an affecting narrative.

There’s something to be said, when designing, for establishing a goal for the work right up front as opposed to my usual approach which is to think of a vague outline and then begin coding.

I didn’t know Elaine’s full backstory when I began development. As the author, like the player, Elaine’s story and motivations were gradually revealed. For those who have played Map, there is a scene which was difficult for me to write, and from personal feedback I have had, has been difficult for some to interact with. But once I realized that this scene was inevitable – that this was the defining event of Elaine’s life – suddenly the work became more, I guess, serious – something to be treated with respect. A puzzle based ‘game’ approach felt – and this was my own personal gut reaction – disrespectful? Perhaps I am too close to Elaine.

Trying not to sound too pompous (and this is always difficult to do when you are discussing your own work!), I really wanted Map, as a text, to work in a couple of ways. First of all, and most importantly – I wanted it to be an affecting narrative – something that would engage the reader with the protagonist and provoke an emotional and thoughtful response. I also wanted it to portray a more complex, literate approach to developing a narrative: The reader is presented with a situation/state of mind, and then the text gradually reveals the backstory, leading to a moment of clarity for the reader, where the cumulative effect of all their interactions with the story are thrown into a much sharper light. Not as a ‘twist’ or some other such artificial construct, but as something that the text has earned.

I also wanted the reader to want to engage with the text more than once. And this is one of the reasons I decided that Map should be parser based rather than choice/link format. Because, of course, all the characters in Map have a history. Yvonne is part of Derek’s past as much as she is Elaine’s. On the first read through as a player, I don’t know this. On the second I do, and so, because this is a parser, because a command prompt is undirected and gives the illusion of being limitless, I can speak to the characters about that which isn’t yet revealed. Ask Derek about Yvonne. For characters with a shared history, all objects and events are in scope immediately, not just those which the author decides to put on the screen as hyperlinks.

This is a powerful and beautiful thing that the parser allows us to do. And one that can’t be replicated in any other medium.

Map is, at least in part, intended to be very much an exploration of the relationship that the reader has with the protagonist and the story. Interactive Fiction is different from fiction. This relationship is different. It fascinates me. There’s a complex web of relationship there between all the various stakeholders. The author, the protagonist, the reader, the text. And IF adds several layers of complexity on top of that. The interaction is self-directed by the player. And now the narrative isn’t being driven by the motives of the protagonist, but by those of the player – but shouldn’t these be the same? In Map, Elaine, the protagonist (and this, on replay, is generally true for any IF protagonist), is made afresh each day, the player is not and is burdened by the weight of memory and the learned understanding of consequence. It is endlessly complex and interesting and is all spirals and intersecting planes. There should be more critical theory about this! I’ve run out of words and concepts to talk about it.

Michael Martin on his review page said: “I treat the designer as taking on the roles of screenwriter and director, and myself becoming audience and the performer”. But I disagree. A screenplay is fixed and final. In IF, the player directs themselves through a narrative framework – and by doing so, develops their own individual screenplay (See Laid off from the Synesthesia Factory which needs to be talked about more), and this is an additional creative act over and above traditional fiction – reader response++. Maybe a better statement would be “the designer and the player share the role of screenwriter and director” – but even that doesn’t begin to describe how complex that relationship is.

And this really is, structurally, what Map is all about. As a player, you are mapping out your own screen play. You are deciding what actors will appear on stage in the next scene. By your choices, you, personally, are creating dramatic tension. Through your interactions with other characters, you are developing a structured dialogue. You are defining what the ending should be.


Changing tack. Thematically, Map, when all said and done, is about memory, choice and agency. It’s about Interactive Fiction. There are some other themes there I tried to shoehorn in, but I completely refuse to discuss them. The player shouldn’t listen to me.

There were two elements in Map that I was extremely concerned about. In fact, I very nearly didn’t release Map at all, and I very nearly withdrew it from the competition

First of all, there was that scene. If you have read Map, you will know the one I mean. At some point, someone will read Map who may have had an experience similar to that described. And, above all else, I didn’t want to trivialize, or abstract that to the point where it became just a plot-point to hang a game on. Because it describes something that might be the most awful thing in the world. And, as an author, can you make use of such a thing for what most will consider a game? Is that in any way OK?

Secondly, given the audience, I did feel some level of discomfort at being a male author externalizing this woman’s internal struggles. The male-gaze is problematic. I understand this, and I hope that the audience will take the text for what it is and not assign any form of political intent to it – either direct or indirect.

One last thing.

It is entirely possible, in Map, to type ‘tomorrow’ eight times in a row - Elaine maintains the status quo - and some might consider the ending thus achieved to be the most satisfactory. This is a difficult thing to accept.

But the ending is presented as it has been constructed. The ending in Map is Elaine’s fantasy – a day dream – and may or may not be realizable. Because Elaine has been wrong about so many things. She is wrong about her husband’s feelings for her, she is wrong about his reaction to Aunt May, about his reaction to Sam’s pregnancy, about Brady’s intentions. Is the house actually growing? Is the rubber plant Elaine’s internal construction? Elaine is living in a carefully self-constructed world that, at least in part, avoids her having to take responsibility for her past and her future.

Elaine, after all, even with all the extenuating circumstances, did a terrible thing. And you have to ask yourself, as the player, are you going to be complicit in exonerating her? Does Elaine deserve that day-dream?

On to more mundane matters.

Regarding implementation. NPC’s are hard to implement. I have done a reasonable job in Map, I think. But not great – this is my biggest area of disappointment - and a couple of reviewers pointed it out. I would have liked to expand the range of conversation, and to have had more of a branching, dynamic, conversation structure. But it is so terribly time-consuming. In Map, Derek alone has been developed as seven separate characters, each with their own conversation responses. IMO, if someone were looking for a good development project for Inform that would really enhance the quality of author’s output, a visual dev toolkit that allowed rapid development of dynamic, branching, free-conversation and generated the I7 code out of the back of it would be an awesome thing, indeed.

Conversationally, I stuck with the ASK/TELL paradigm. I realized that this could be considered as old fashioned, or, at least, unfashionable – there seems to be more focus now on directed conversations in the parser medium. But, for Map, it was an obvious choice. Conversation when characters share a history needs to be, like the narrative, open. To direct conversation with explicit options felt like overstepping the mark as the author – putting a noose around everything, maybe.

Map was tough to debug. I had some great proof-readers, but the complex, cumulative, generative nature of the text makes it difficult to assess every possible case. Particularly towards the back end of the story, some bugs have crept in. Paragraph spacing. There is a scene that doesn’t end as it should and creeps over to the next day. The end text for a particular combination of choices delivers two possible futures for Sam. I have noticed a couple of spelling mistakes - ‘you’ instead of ‘your’ – the sort of thing a spell checker doesn’t pick up.

The point of this is something I need to consider as an author going forward. Map was originally designed to be considerably less linear than it ended up. Any text that is derived from choices/actions made by the player grows exponentially more complex as the number of possible choices increase – especially if the impact is cumulative. In addition, the potential for the player to interact with that derived text grows even more exponentially. Exponentially squared. And as for the code that underlies it - you could keep going forever. Ambitious design decisions around narrative agency, without pre-planning this explosion of effort, are doomed to failure. Map very nearly fell into this trap. The original plans were that each day would have several new rooms, and the player could choose to explore them and each would have ramifications. This was very soon whittled down to a single, more linear, daily set of locations – the problem-space was just far too vast. I urge everyone to consider this when designing.

Finally, it has been a pleasure being part of the competition this year. I want to thank everyone who has taken part either by reviewing, promoting, voting, or writing games. It really has been a privilege – especially to be part of the Author’s board. I can say truthfully, without a hint of hyperbole, that being part of that discussion group has been the single best ‘internet’ interaction experience I have had. Thanks guys.


This is fun because this is actually the first time I tried applying the model I described to IF. (It started out as a framework for games more like Metroid.) I don’t think we disagree as much as you thing; I do think I may need a better word than “performance” if I’m going to use it in an IF context though. I also don’t have a very strong theory background, so this framework I’m using may be both rickety and a clumsy reinvention of a framework that already exists.

On the instant point of stated disagreement, though, I should make clear that the details of any given playthrough are in the hands of the performer in my model, but also any given playthrough could include multiple restarts, going back to earlier saves to exhaust certain possibility paths, and so on. I was intended to group that behaviour as part of the performance. This is the part where if I fail we start shouting the same words at each other without communicating very well. [emote]:)[/emote]

The performer does shape the narrative within the space provided by the author, but the performer also is the role that’s making the decisions about what’s going on. This is a step back from “the performer is collaborating to write the story”; particularly for a structure like this, a performance may include multiple or even all possible stories. In the sense that the actual blorb remains static and was built in advance, it is the performer’s prop and their stage. By that standard, Map was one of the more confining entries; the actual set of significant things the player can do are sharply circumscribed, extremely clear, and wholly accounted for. (Compare The Baker of Shireton, which involves in large part reacting to circumstances that the designer set up but then let run free. People will have stories about that game that surprise even the designer, just because of how the dice happened to fall in that particular run.) Map did really well at keeping the parameters of the performance focused.

I think that might be a really long-winded way of operationally defining a “tight design”.

It’s particularly interesting to me that you started out as a puzzle design and then moved away from that. The core game structure of Map is, after all, “here is a device with eight switches that may be flipped independently”. In a solve-the-puzzle context, there is a strong inclination to treat it at that level; test switches in isolation to see how they work, formulate possible solution states, work towards them, etc. In that sort of playthrough the performer would be the star of the show, not Elaine; their efforts to understand and control this device are the narrative of play.

Without that, one could imagine an artifact like Map that is basically about exploring the state space. Here’s a bunch of switches. Let’s flip them and see what happens!

But it seems most people played only through to a few endings and then said, basically, “that’s enough.” The story of play was of the performer working through it, making some decisions, and then largely sticking with them to produce a coherent final narrative.

That is so very much not guaranteed with this kind of structure, and the fact that you managed to pull it off is a quiet but very significant success.

This is a very very fair point, and approaches it from an angle I hadn’t considered. The blorb is static. I think it boils down to the difference between static text on a page, and a static narrative framework. The point is well taken that, in Map, that framework is sharply circumscribed. In this case, the screenwriter is asking the player: which ending do you prefer? who do you want to appear in the next scene? Here are your options that make narrative sense within this world I have created. It becomes a collaboration - but the options must be limited.

It is also a fair point regarding the solution space, the fact that we have the eight binary switches and this can be considered a puzzle of sorts - and ‘solving’ this puzzle is the narrative of play. Or, at least, given states 00000000 to 111111111 which of the combinations of ASCII characters that come out of them appeal to me most. [emote]:)[/emote] But I would argue that this is true of any narrative. Choices might be binary, or there might be a billion possible directions of action. Map is limited in its state space because of the physical act of writing such a thing is just to big to comprehend!

I think you are right. We may be violently agreeing on this. There is a question of semantics here. In English Lit, for traditional narrative formats, all the roles in a text are defined and accepted and there are books and books and books of theory discussing their definitions and relationships. In IF, there seems to be little. And I’m sort of feeling around the edges, because it really does fascinate me.


n.b. I’ve just re-read that post before posting, and I’m not entirely sure it’s saying what I want to say or, indeed, making sense. But I’ll post it anyway. [emote]:)[/emote]