Mean Streets - general design postmortem

Mean Streets was my first attempt at a parser-based text adventure. As a result it was a learning process and in many ways it’s made me wonder if TADS2 is really the right language for me to be working in. I like it, and I have learned more about it since making Mean Streets (mainly due to an abortive attempt to make something for the Spring Thing).

Things I noted about the game post-release:

  1. Mean Streets is a game I’d admit has a problem with tone. This came because initially it was going to be super off-the-wall, and then this got scaled back to being largely references to and exaggerated pastiches of 70’s cop-on-the edge and exploitation flicks. I rewrote most character and room descriptions several times and everything ended up more bland and less described as a result of repeated rewriting and me not being sure what tone to strike.

  2. The combat system is a disaster. I used a library I found on the ifarchive for it, and it doesn’t really work all that well. I feel a bit bad that the fight with Ramon and his thugs is probably a bit too hard for most people.

  3. NPCs are underimplemented. Once again I added and removed characters in their totality from the game repeatedly and as a result the ones left in the game rarely have more than 4-8 options you can ask them about.

  4. Carry limits. Gahhhh. I tried to fix this, but there’s little active advice you can get for TADS2 any more. In the end I went with the player being able to buy a backpack from the department store to help somewhat. Sorry!

  5. The plot is fairly rigid, despite the openness of the game world. You’re largely following a breadcrumb trail from A to B to C. I wish I’d allowed for a more obvious initial pointer as unless you ask everyone about everything you might not know how to get started, as talking to Marla about herself isn’t really that obvious.

  6. There were originally two endings. The first ending is the one in the game where Dirk drops the evidence off at the newspaper and heads off for a drink initially this ending would only be achievable if you had all the evidence on you at the time you defeated Mr Big and if you didn’t then Dirk gets arrested outside the town hall for his killing spree and having no evidence on him goes down for many murders. I was concerned this might be construed as a bit of an insult to a player who’d gotten that far so I ditched the multiple ending idea.

  7. There are underimplemented locations. I added some locations very late and should have stuck at it and implemented more of the scenery.

  8. There was a lot of cut content. The bar was originally going to be a strip club, there was a motel to the northwest of gangland, the fighting tournament actually had opponents. There was also a gang hideout you could access from gangland. The stripclub and motel were cut for reasons of taste, and would have had optional side quests. The tournament fighters were programmed but were cut because I felt there was already too much fighting in the game (there would have been a special weapon as a prize). The gangland was programmed as a replacement for the motel and a sidequest was partially made for this but it was cut because once again it involved combat and I thought there was already probably too much combat. The bag of cocaine you see in Ramon’s hideout was part of that story arc.

  9. Xyzzy is in the game but is hidden and activates a cheat - open the cardboard box in the upper floor of the abandoned store in the poor district and read the notepad. Now typing xyzzy will replenish health.

  10. I never intended the PC to be likeable. I tried to show not tell and got it largely wrong. Clues from the apartment suggest he’s an alcoholic loner and widower who hasn’t been on vacation in years and largely lives at work. I wanted the comparison between him, largely a dinosaur from an age best forgotten, and Ellie - the good cop who would have arrested the corrupt police chief if Dirk hadn’t blundered in and killed him first to be clear but it isn’t.

Overall it’s the victim of both over and underambition and too many rewrites. And probably wasn’t an advisable idea anyway. A direct consequence of me thinking “I have a funny idea, now I will turn it into a game” without consideration of whether it’s a strong enough idea to hold an entire game together with.

A learning experience.

2: I didn’t find Ramon and the thugs too difficult; I did find the serial killer well-nigh impossible, though perhaps this is because I encountered him early on and didn’t have a good enough weapon, assuming that weapons make a difference.

4: Oh, man, TADS carry limits. I used to know the answer to this, back when TADS 2 was my jam. I’m pretty sure it’s more elegant than just making the carry limit exceed the total number of game objects, but I honestly have no idea any more.

I think that part of the problem here - and a thing to bear in mind when you’re making caricatures - is Poe’s Law. There are people who’d sympathise with Dirk. I got the vague impression that he might have been meant as an awful dinosaur early on, but there wasn’t much to confirm it in later events or the description thereof - in fact, all the plot developments suggested that Dirk’s approach was the right one, because it worked! I don’t think that we saw enough of Ellie for her to form a contrast.

Anyway. I always say this, but: your first game will always be a mess; if you’re unlucky you won’t realise this until after you publish it.

Another note - the weapons do have different strengths and there are a few duffers in there that don’t do much (the golf club’s pretty poor for example).

The broken bottle found in the dumpster is the best weapon for the opening bits, then the revolver, and you can complete the game fairly easily with the shotgun. The semi-hidden minigun is pretty much overpowered and the best weapon for the serial killer (he has the highest health outside of Mr. Big)

I have learned from this that having turn-based combat in a text adventure is probably not the greatest of ideas. I can see other ways of implementing it without repeated rounds of stilted hacking away.

Well, it can work. It’s just that you need to be able to ignore certain actions that make sense that a player can do immediately. In Inform, they’re called “out of world” actions. I don’t know if TADS has this natively. I do like the idea of having numbers-based options e.g.

  1. attack
  2. wield something new
  3. status
  4. eat something to heal

With regard to the weapons, have you ever heard of the Paradox of Choice? It basically says that, past a certain point, if you give people too many choices they feel helpless and give up. This also applies to combat. The player doesn’t have to worry they’re missing any subtleties.

I also don’t remember if the descriptions of the weapons tracked their strengths, but a good rule of thumb is that if it’s too much for you to keep track of, it may be too much for your player to keep track of. There was a lot of meaningless detail I felt I was pretty sure had to be in a game early on that I learned I didn’t have to have–and it made way for good (or less meaningless) detail. A good way to play devil’s advocate is to imagine someone you didn’t like wrote your game, then play through it. What would make you give up in exasperation? Then delete or fix it.

I’ve actually learned a useful thing from making this game (which I don’t think is terrible but is also not fantastic either), and that’s that TADS2 isn’t my optimal development tool.

I am looking at alternatives. I usually make action videogames, and one of my wonder was whether anyone’s ever made one in GameMaker Studio before (although given the time it will take to code the engine it might not be worth it).

Just looking through my original notes and came across the original denouement (cut because it was frankly ridiculous):

After taking down the corrupt DA, Dirk discovers the Senator is the real mastermind behind organised crime in Grittyville. He has to sneak through a city locked down by the national guard as a State of Emergency, before confronting the Senator on a rooftop. He kills the Senator but then dies in a hail of bullets, and is remembered as nothing but a ‘maniac cop.’

Also, there’s tons of hidden stuff in this game. I’d forgotten about half of it.

FYI, David Welbourn just posted a detailed walkthrough: