(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!”