Missive Wrap-Up!

(Disclaimer same as Harry’s for his Raik Postmortem!)

IFComp 2014 was an amazing exercise for me. I’ve always fancied myself a writer, but haven’t published anything: until Missive. It was the first piece of creative writing that I’ve shared at all since workshops in college courses, and the first I’ve shared widely, ever. Jumping into a text-focused pool, and the deep end of a very competitive one, was overwhelming, invigorating, thrilling, and nauseating. All at once!

Thanks to the authors’ forums as well! While I didn’t talk much, it was a solace, where creators let down their proverbial hair. While Missive’s placement is an enormous honor, I am almost dizzy knowing that my fellow creators took the game so seriously.

Before I submitted my intent to submit to the comp, I investigated the forums, the guidelines, and previous winners’ entries. I will admit: I was very intimidated, and driving full-bore into an Established Community ended up coming down to a coin toss. There was a discussion early in the comp that made it evident that the comp and IF community are also doing some soul-searching, a la, what should interactive fiction mean? Homage to old classics or challenging experimentation in form? Should the emphasis be on the interaction or the fiction experience?

Missive was entirely written before I even knew what IFComp was, and in some ways, disregards comp tropes and some understood standards that I now see with more clarity. What’s best about the whole experience is that my testers totally nailed a lot of frequently-seen complaints! I am so glad that I took the Comp’s most strongly-emphasized advice: find a ton of testers and test a lot. They called most of the shortcomings of the game.


Reading the public reviews made me feel like a mega-alcoholic. Drinking in Missive is an option every day, and no big deal to the MC, who is coming out of his/her post-relationship stupor. And yet, because of frequent IF themes of emotional anguish or instability, drinking became a fixation point for a lot of reviewers that I didn’t anticipate.


I went out of my way to find a large variety of testers, across a lot of demographics, and the weakness of the signposting in the game was the source of a lot of discussion internally. The group I’d pegged as “die hard gamers” thought the signposting was fine, and insisted that I keep the game as is–with puzzles in letters, and you, the player, should derive that on the second playthrough. The “non-gaming” group included folks who never found the puzzles, and I could see that reviewers of Missive were also that varied. I was perpetually sad when people were unable to find the puzzles, but I did see it comin’.

As a lifelong fan of Professor Layton and the Residents Evil, I really wanted to find a middle ground for puzzles where the signposting wasn’t: This is a Puzzle. Solve This Thing to > Proceed. From the reviews, it’s pretty obvious that this effort was Okay, but not 100% successful. Reactions to the puzzles are definitely feeding into my second game.

Henry Astor and the Male Voice

I know, I know. When you release a creative work into the world, you no longer control the messaging of it. I don’t want to be petulant, but there is just one tiiiny thing that none of the game’s amazingly insightful reviews covered: the intentional voicelessness of Henry Astor and how that fit into the game.

As a player, you hear all of Missive’s parallel story through the voice of Lilly, and if you choose to read the follow-up letter, Charlotte. The framing of the mystery, however, is entirely presented by Henry: he’s the one who saved all these letters, and in framing his own death as a murder, is trying to manipulate the reader into blaming, implicitly, one of the women in his life. While we “hear” Lilly’s voice, we see Henry’s version of the affair, and only by solving Lilly’s codes correctly can you see Henry’s editorial intentions.

That’s the only defense I have for Missive, I promise!


A great deal of effort went into the gender agnosticism of Missive’s MC. If I learned anything from the reviews, it’s that “schlub” is a term that people associate more eagerly with men than with women (despite my extensive experience being one, ha ha, awkward laugh.) Dropping in the potential of queerness, without really confronting man/women vs. woman/woman interactions, was a bit of a failure of the game, especially with the absolutely beautiful Venus Meets Venus as a measuring stick.

I think the puzzles, and the focus on them, kind of obscured the potential story of X and Em. Not that I would relinquish the puzzles, given a second shot. But maybe the emphasis I put on making the game “relatable” for both men and women was an experiment with no legs.

Writing: it matters

To all the people, reviewers and creators, who commented on the writing of Missive: Thank you. I said earlier that there’s a bit of a push/pull between the interactivity and the fiction parts of IF, and I wrote Missive without 100% understanding that balancing act. I really wanted the decisions to feel organic, and while the gameplay didn’t vary wildly, small decisions affect parts of what ended up being a small narrative.

There are two invisible variables in Missive: empathy, which makes you view Emily and Lilly’s feelings with more generosity, and paranoia, which adds a personal mode of drama to the narrative. Drinking, for instance, made you both more eager to drunkdial Emily, but also more paranoid–a double-edged narrative sword. Neither was strictly “bad” (and there was a “bad endings” discussion recently on the forums that I was very interested in), depending on what you were playing for. For instance, there’s an ending to Missive where your empathy is so high that Emily distracts you from Henry altogether, and you don’t get the option to guess who murdered him because, hey, does it even matter?

Reviewers who picked up on the little nuances, even when they didn’t necessarily see the sausage-making-machine itself totally made my day. Comparing Missive to some popular Japanese dating sims, for instance, was a fun exercise in the idea of IF: what makes an interaction seem organic, especially one that you experience via text alone? I saw this as a challenge, and was extremely grateful that many reviewers commented on the MC’s interactions with Emily.

I was delighted, by the way, by the 11th hour discussion between Huftis and MEMiller on the forums on the raison d’etre of Missive’s puzzles. The game spawned from a simple thought: what if you found a box with word puzzles in them? Haha, an old-timey person who wrote a ton of coded love letters would probably be craaaazy. So yeah, as much as I loved the frame narrative of Missive, anyone who took the time to play it saw a cart far outpacing a horse. [emote]:)[/emote]


I had more to say, but in the most on-brand post mortem of all time, I got tipsy on celebratory prosecco while writing this. Thank you–to everyone, from commenters to my fellow comp entrants who made the experience rich and eye-opening, to the good folks who took the time to play Missive at all–for doing what you do. Thank you to jmac for running a streamlined web experience and keeping the energy up throughout a grueling month and a half!

PS: Bonus thank you for jbdyer for listing Missive as a puzzle boat. Your humble game writer may or may not have spent half a day saying, “Woo woo, all aboard the puzzle boat, and I am its puzzle captain!”

Thanks for writing this!

This prompted me to think about why I assumed the MC was male. The “schlub” vocabulary might have been part of it, but I think the main reason was (what I saw as) the character viewing performative femininity as Other. At least, that’s how I read the nail-painting scenes. Obviously, not every woman is in fact all that comfortable with performing femininity, and I sure don’t paint my nails on a weekly basis; but there was something about the description of this that made me feel as though the protagonist was having a straight male reaction rather than a queer female reaction.


And re drinking:

I tend to think of explicitly enumerated choices in IF (often) as representing what’s in the protagonist’s mind, the options they’re consciously considering. In Zest, the fact that the protagonist considers zesting on a more or less hourly basis reflects the strength of his habit; and in Missive, I felt as though maybe the protagonist wasn’t necessarily all the way over the edge to having a problem, but was thinking about drinking so much that it was obviously a major coping mechanism if not an actual addiction.

I think I would have had a different reaction to a parser game that allowed the protagonist to >DRINK but did not actively suggest this all the time.

Yeah, this. It’s also worth noting that the ‘drink’ option is often set up against other choices in a way that implies a kind of opportunity-cost choice: either you drink, or you read some letters, or you call Emily. (Even if opportunity-cost is not actually how it works, it feels really strongly implied, because the choices in the rest of the game are usually exclusive.) You can have a pretty good idea about how reading more letters would advance the plot: drinking is not so obvious, so mechanically it looks like ‘waste your limited opportunities on something that doesn’t obviously accomplish anything.’

Could you please add a link to Missive in the IFDB?

Right now there’s no way to play the game: it’s not playable from the competition site anymore, but also not available on IFDB.

Re: drink, I was sort of expecting something amusing and sad if you drank too much, especially given that the writing was good enough to support that, but I’m the sort of person that likes run-your-character-into-the-ground endings. Missive didn’t fully have this, but I think having that overt temptation established something about the character.

I was also curious if drinking would somehow put the puzzles on ‘hard mode.’ It’s nice to read about other nuances.

Oh, and congrats on the top 10 finish!

Thanks for this wrap up. This level of detail helps me understand how other authors think about their games. It’s like watching the director’s commentary on dvd extras.

Whoa, sorry about that; IFDB has been updated with the other hosted URL!

Was anybody able to figure out the first puzzle? I got all of the others, but even in hints mode I have no idea why the correct answer is correct.

Is that the one where it’s &8 because she said and eight times in the letter?

I think:

As always, the answers correlate to something in the letter.

One of the answers describes something in the letter exactly, and the others do not.

Answer: There are eight counts of the word “and”.

Beaten to it!

What I wasn’t able to achieve was the high empathy score which leads to abandoning the letters entirely. I’d love a hint on how to get it.

Yeah, I must confess that even after a second playthrough I don’t have a very good grasp of what’s going on in the parallel story. Henry is framing his ex-wife and ex-mistress for his suicide (because Reasons) by carefully curating which letters are included in the typewriter? In that case, why does he leave in unopened letters (including some that paint him in an extremely negative light)? And how did he get hold of the letter sent to his ex-wife (and her unsent responses)? Why was Lily including cyphers in her very earliest letters to Henry? Who is the mysterious thug who wants to buy the letters/searches your apartment (yet doesn’t take the typewriter, for whatever reason)?

But mostly it’s OK, because while the letter puzzles were fun, the real strength of the story is in the relationship with Emily. Speaking of which, I would have liked the option to tell Emily to fuck off, and move on, instead of obsessing over her and trying to rekindle the relationship. But having been in that place I understand it’s easier said than done…

Is this a good place to ask about the puzzles? I’ve figured them all out but Day 3 and Day 7, I think. Day 7 I really have no idea about. I can also offer explanations of some of the others if anyone wants?

I would certainly be curious to hear, especially about the ones for which the bolding hints don’t seem to give much guidance.

Hints, increasingly spoilery, but without full answers yet.

Day 3:

The clue is the very first line.

“the beginning of all my words”

Try putting each sentence on a new line.

Day 7:

It’s a book cipher

The book is something you have immediate access to

Sentence / Word / Line

I needed the first hint on Day 7 myself.

Could someone explain the mystery solution to me? I don’t understand why the “correct” coded letters (as opposed to any of the other choices) somehow reveal the correct mystery. I only solved it because

suddenly there was a new third option, and this was my 6th playthrough, so I guessed I needed to pick it. Horray, I won! I have no idea the explanation why that’s the solution though except for some “well it sort of feels that way” evidence reading it back over.

Here’s my thinking:

[] Some of the sets-of-three-letters are mutually contradictory, which means some of them are likely forgeries
] If they’re forgeries, it seems likely Henry made them
[] The forgeries tend to paint either of the two women in a very bad light, whereas the correct solutions don’t
] So Henry has probably rigged the box of letters to frame one or both of them and cover up his bad behaviour, unaware that Lucy’s letters have codes which lead to her original letters and the truth

But that’s a bit convoluted, and it also just does feel that way, as you say. Despite the puzzley codes, I think this has more in common with books like Possession and The Quincunx, in which there are puzzles and mysteries but they’re not 100% resolvable and a lot is to do with feeling and gut, than with a game in which you always know whether and why everything is right.

Harry, thank you! About Day Three:

I was trying to look at the first letters of words. This approach got me nowhere. The solution is rather elegant–I may have stumbled into the correct answer because even without solving the puzzle the words give a feeling of the correct object.

Day Seven: Yeah, I wouldn’t have guessed what S W and L stand for without the push you just gave me.

Emily, for the ones I have:

Day Two:

I read this a few places, but the word “and” appears eight times.

Day Four:

As the clue says, think about reflections.

There are an unusual number of palindromes in this letter.

And as the clue says, Lilly will find herself in the center.

Take the middle letter of each palindrome in order; it spells a clue.

Day Five:

This one has a lot of numbers.

And a lot of mathematical operations.

But, as the clue says, you have to ignore the odds.

So do every mathematical operation that involves an even number.

Full solution:

two eyes plus four limbs (summed), double the riches, and subtract two lovers: (2+4)*6 -2 = 10

Day Six:

This is just a cryptogram, whose solution reminds me of Tom Waits’s “Innocent When You Dream.” The capital E’s are wild cards; the letters that they substitute for spell out a clue.

But why

did Henry leave in the “true” letters in the first place?

as well as

the letters from his wife about his mother?

Matt w gets bonus points for comparing me to Tom Waits in any way. That’s a checkbox for the ol’ bucket list!

I’m sorry people were confused about the context of the puzzles–no joke, my testers went perpetually back and forth on that, and it kind of ties into a puzzle-solving idea that I wanted to explore, but couldn’t 100% fulfill, namely: how do you make someone who solves puzzles feel rewarded?

But first,

[spoiler]Nothing ever really tells you that Henry killed himself. The only thing you find out, when you solve the later puzzles, is that eventually Henry is just alone. Charlotte leaves, Lilly leaves: Henry’s obsession is the only thing remaining, and the fact that he’s still trying to be the center of attention–the center of the narrative–is something that the main character never full detaches from.

I’ll admit: it might be a little overwrought. [emote]:)[/emote]

I’d call Missive an exploration of obsession. Recently I think, pop media has really taken obsession down its darker paths, and it becomes like Elijah Wood’s Maniac, or a ton of other serial killer flicks (that I love.) This obsession, though, was always supposed to be limited, the way you get really wacky about birdhousing, or Halo 2, or making a game in Twine (hurr hurr). Maybe you forget to shower, or your girlfriend leaves you. Maybe she doesn’t, but you have to tone it down. The endings were mostly in how Emily reacts: not to you, but to your obsession with the puzzles. (There’s one, for instance, where you’re trying to tell her about the last puzzle, and she just leaves, because… she just doesn’t care.)

Henry is implicated because, if you solve all the letters about him, it’s not all about him. Even the setup --a typewriter surrounded by letters of women, to him–is like a shrine to himself.

The subtitle of the game is supposed to reflect your (the player’s, but also your, the MC’s) investment in the story itself. The story isn’t about (either of) you, at the end of the day. You just care about it, because of authorial trickery. Emily’s reactions at the end of the game are a tiny reflection of that: it’s not like a dating sim, where it’s all about how how you treat her; it’s how you treat yourself as well.[/spoiler]

I was thinking about three types of puzzles when I made Missive:

  1. Silent Hill-esque, where the puzzles aren’t the point, but they stop you when you can’t complete them.
  2. LA Noire-esque, where you rub your body against a wall and press A until you win.
  3. Professor Layton-esque, where the puzzles present stoppages, but the answers can be derived or brute-forced.

The problem I faced when I made the game around these principles was this: if the puzzles don’t tell you if you get them right or not, where is the reward? What makes people feel good about solving them, if you don’t have to pass them to proceed?

It didn’t work great, and I’m using the same model for the next game, so I definitely took a lot from the reviewers who got frustrated with the puzzles’ incomprehensibility. Some reviewers were just excited to find the mechanism–I think all of the answers made logical sense, when you solved the puzzle to completion. And some reviewers were happy to ignore the puzzles. All of the solution letters fit into the chronology of Lilly, so who even cares: you’re reading part of the story, albeit one that paints our girl in a light that makes her seem dangerously obsessed.

But for the middle ground, players who could see there were puzzles but the route to the solution was opaque, that’s where I messed up the signposting, and I’ll have to figure out how to do that better for the next game.