I thought I’d talk a bit about some of the craft choices I made in writing LAKE Adventure. It’ll probably sound a bit academic (hi, I’m a college professor), but I’m very interested in the forms of IF, in particular parser IF, in particular how parser IF can tell stories, and particularly in particular how we can continue to make parser IF stories memorable and meaningful in the future. And I think those are more questions of form than subject. That’s not to say all these choices were successful, of course, but I wanted to enumerate them to lay them bare.
Platform and presentation. I wrote a separate post about AGT. In the end, I think the online DOSBox presentation added to rather than detracted from the game. Perhaps in an ideal world, the graphical presentation of a text game shouldn’t matter. But we live our lives on the Web now, and we expect any page we visit to be uniquely well-designed. Quixe and Parchment certainly produce attractive results, but those pages can wind up feeling same-y as one plays through multiple games. Contrast games with the default layout to Assembly from this Comp. The changes are small, but the small splash of Ikea colors in the status line and the Ikea-appropriate font make the game seem more lively and thoughtfully constructed. I think my central thesis is this: it’s time for parser authors to put the same basic CSS care into their web releases that we might expect from successful Twine authors. (Of course, at the same time, we should release downloadable files for players’ use in interpreters, thus abandoning our stylings.) Vorple offers even greater possibilities, and it surprises me (according to IFDB) that very few Vorple games have ever been released.
Again, fundamentally these are text games and that formatting and presentation arguably shouldn’t matter. But I’m convinced it does. We judge books by covers—and often have conversations about games’ cover images here. For books, consider the “A Note about the Type” paragraph one sometimes finds at the end, or simply how paper choice can impact our view—I can see and feel a self-published Amazon book, for better or worse.
POV. The fundamental premise of LAKE Adventure is rather plain: two people are playing a game via Zoom. The question was how to make that interesting. My answer was to give both characters multiple points of reference. In the game, we are at the same time learning about Eddie, age 13; Ed(die), age 18; and Ed, age 40. Perhaps more importantly, you (the person in 2023 playing the game) are actually playing as You (in 2020). And who are You? Why, You’re a person sitting at a computer playing interactive fiction. That isn’t exactly you (in 2023), but it’s awfully close. Games choose on a continuum about how much detail to give to their PCs, ranging from rather generic (you’re a spelunker, and that’s it) to very specific (you are Bonnie Noodleman in Brain Guzzlers from Beyond!). I wanted this game to make the actual player playing the game and the fictional player to be as similar as possible.
Time. As a result of playing as a person playing interactive fiction, the actual time elapsed in the game is almost a perfect correspondence to the actual time elapsed in real life. In most parser games, we assume it takes a little time to perform even simple tasks (at least longer than it took to type the command): a few seconds go by when we walk west from the kitchen to the dining room; a few more go pass when we open a toolbox, revealing a wrench. Here, the gameplay is playing the fictional game, typing commands, reading responses, and listening to Ed’s comments, and it all happens in near real time. Perhaps it reinforces the reality of the otherwise metafictional premise.
Punctuation. Inventing punctuation is weird, way weirder than figuring out a character’s verbal fillers (Ed’s are “heh” and “I guess”). I had to find a way to convey the close-but-not-quite, high-pass-filter effect of a person talking through a laptop’s speakers. I didn’t want quotation marks, since those are occasionally used in the game. Eventually I settled on ### because I thought that stood out sufficiently in DOS. No beta tester or reviewer remarked upon it. So I guess that’s now the official punctuation for such speech? I’ll write the Chicago Manual of Style people and let them know.
Title. I worried that the all-caps title of LAKE would annoy people. It’s intended to be mimetic of the all-caps file listing in DOS, and I think people either got it and approved or otherwise just ignored it. Again I got no negative comments. A net win overall, I think.
Feelies. People mentioned and liked the hand-drawn maps which also had some other clues about Eddie’s life. Another thesis (though one I feel less strongly about than styling Web versions of games): parser games should have a virtual feelie if possible, something beyond a basic walkthrough. They’re compelling and add enjoyment to the game, even if it’s extratextual.
Description. As a result of the story’s frame—Ed is narrating his memories of the game—there’s very little physical description of the contemporary world. All we know of You is that you’re playing interactive fiction on a computer. We don’t know much about Ed beyond that he’s forty, he’s got a Mac, he’s got a daughter, and he needs reader glasses. It’s March 2020 at the dawn of COVID. The two of you are on Zoom. And that’s pretty much it. Ideally, as you play the game, you begin to imagine a little bit more about what Ed might look like or what kind of room he’s in and the other things within it.
Monologue. Instead, most of what we learn that matters in the story are Ed’s recollections and realizations. This is yielded entirely in a monologue. There are often implications that You have said something to which Ed responds, but Your dialogue is never revealed, and the game never offers you (the 2023 player) the option to TALK TO ED. Instead, that command gives you a cheeky in-game response about how You (playing as Eddie) shouldn’t talk to yourself. These two choices eliminate a lot of traditional narrative tools, for better or worse—there are no physical gestures or reactions, no brief mentions of the rooms in which You and Ed play. Even the Zoom conceit is dropped until the end. The real story is just Ed talking. A lot. But a good monologue should reveal a lot about the character’s personality, and I think who Ed is as a person comes through reasonably clearly.
The ending. It certainly seems bleak. And going in, I knew it ran contrary to the conventional wisdom that light-hearted / witty / comedic parser games do well in the Comp. But in my read of the ending, Ed is stunned, which is different than being broken. (The two, of course, are not mutually exclusive.) Ed knows he’s just experienced something important, but he’s unable to articulate what that is. It’s the same way we immediately know something we’ve gone through is cataclysmic—say the day we learn a friend has died in a car crash. But we won’t truly know for months or years how that event has impacted our life and the lives of everyone else who had to go on living. Ed tries to have an exploratory conversation with his daughter at the very end of the story, but he doesn’t do a great job with it, and she doesn’t know why he’s acting oddly. The story can’t reveal more, because of the choices it’s made with time, as noted up above.
Being stunned is the strongest feeling I associate with those initial COVID days. Before things became too politicized, it was simply … uncanny for me to go to the grocery store wearing a mask, for example, and only find one loaf of bread on the shelf (which I promptly bought). And I remember a general esprit de corps in those early days, because my family, friends, and coworkers were all trying to figure out what on earth the world looked like in quarantine and how it was supposed to operate. (Your own COVID experiences might differ wildly, of course.)
I do think it’s possible in some cases that the initial inability to apprehend what we’ve gone through can resolve itself into a positive outcome, even if the triggering event was traumatic. But I leave it to readers to imagine Ed’s fate the next day, month, year. I’ve got my own imagined outcomes, of course, but I didn’t want to force them into the story.
Thanks. I was very grateful for the reviews and reviewers of the game. In particular, I really like and appreciate Drew Cook’s exploration of the game and its form. In terms of approach, I also really like Mike Russo’s coining of the term New Sincerity—it’s something that’s given me clarity about my own games and also why I’m drawn to some recent games more strongly than others. And thanks, of course, to my wonderful beta testers and everyone who played the game. You look like Eddie Hughes looks, which is very handsome.