Pilgrimage postmortem

[size=150]Pilgrimage, a post-mortem[/size]

Who and some why

My name is Víctor and I’m a writer. I’ve written a novel, a couple of indie videogames, loads of ad copy and some attempts of IF.

Pilgrimage is my first finished IF.

I had been tinkering with Inform 7 for a bit more than a year. At some point last summer I was trying to write an exploration-based IF called The Bludisko Bequest when I realised that

a) I wasn’t going to finish it in time for the IFComp 2015
b) I had previously missed the deadline for IFComp 2014
c) Enough was enough

So I pretty much put Bludisko in the fridge and started working tentatively on a “simpler, more compact idea”, and quite a random one, something I thought I could finish in time. I didn’t have much hope, to be honest.

Then my lovely girlfriend dragged me to the London & Oxford IF Meetup. I met Emily Short. I babbled something about Pilgrimage. Over a pint, Emily and Sam Barlow told me to finish the game.

Oh, man. Now I had to finish it.

What and some more why

Pilgrimage is an evolution of a puzzle designed for a game I didn’t finish. In that game, you explored a picturesque Tuscan town filled with arcane secrets. Think Umberto Eco. After cheating your way into a church, you found a complex mosaic depicting a Renaissance mapa mundi.

In the late Middle Ages, the shape and size of the world were an intellectual battlefield. The dying Medieval thinking saw the world as an ideal, in a way, a representation of something, the symbol of a symbol. The growing Empiricism of the Renaissance saw it as something more earthly and mostly unknown – and that knowledge had to come via exploration and observation, true to scientific method, rather than via revelation and the constant appeal to authoritative opinions.

Also, I love maps.

So in that minigame the player was supposed to immerse herself in the mosaic and make a sort of symbolic pilgrimage, journeying through an imagined Christendom within the map – a map within a single room of the game map, hence a game within a game. It soon became too complex in its own right to be just a puzzle, but the idea remained. For Pilgrimage, I basically took it and blew it up into a shortish game of its own.

More what and loads of why

The first thing I designed was the map, and the way the player was to navigate it. It will have exactly 12 rooms, in a 8-point-star shape. One reason was that it was a pun on the final destination – Castrostelle, or “fortress of stars”. Another one: it neatly divided the scenario in 4 sections, which I wanted to use for reasons I’ll explain below, and also force the player to return to certain scenarios after having had certain experiences. I wanted to infuse the game with a sense of ritual, something reminiscent of a procession following a certain pace from stage to stage, tracing a geometric figure (abstract, like maps) over a non-geometrical landscape (“real”, like a game environment). A via crucis of sorts.

Maybe I should clarify that Pilgrimage was never meant to have any religious meaning at all. It does have baseline Catholic undertones because I wanted to keep a sense of historical credibility, and it features alchemical themes because I wanted to use them in a Jungian context, as metaphors for the self and the nekya, the “night-sea voyage of the soul” towards wholeness.

That constitutes the first layer of meaning/possible interpretation.

Pilgrimage is a game about a Renaissance noblewoman who leaves home on a… pilgrimage, of a strictly personal nature, to which she is completely devoted. Her priorities and faith do fluctuate a lot during the game.

The most obvious way in which this is shown is via the titles of the four chapters (nigredo, albedo, citrinitas and rubedo), which follow the four steps of the alchemical process. Jung interpreted them as being stages in the process of “individuation”. So we are symbolically traveling through Europe, and symbolically following our heroine’s (anima?) psychological evolution, step by step. The nigredo phase is characterized by night, darkness and decay, exemplified by the rotting whale in the Scandinavian coasts. Albedo is the white chapter, white as the snow-covered steppes, and citrinitas is the yellow “dawn of the soul” in a warm-coloured, Orientalist-tinged East, and the encounter with the Wise Old Man, under the guise of a ragged lunatic. Rubedo is the final, red phase, complete with a not very subtle resurrection metaphor. The goal (Castrostelle) is code for the wholeness of the soul.

The second layer of meaning has more to do with the largely unexplained past of the protagonist. In this other dimension, the fours stages correspond with her grieving process – denial, anger, bartering and depression. The endgame (Castrostelle) is, of course, acceptance. Our heroine goes obliviously through the first chapter, becoming bitter and nastier in the second, doing her own reckoning of all these years in the third, and becoming totally demoralized in the fourth.

Accordingly, she is casually manipulative in the first episode and reckless in the second one. The third one opens with the Scheherazade scene, in which I force the player to remember her adventures, and the protagonist to reflect morally on them. It is in itself a process of bartering – with the Sultan for her own life, and with herself for the validation and will to keep on living. After reaching Rome for the second time, she despairs of ever finding any meaning to her life and travels. Her loss is, after all, irreplaceable. It takes a symbolic death to achieve a symbolic rebirth and ascension.

In both interpretations, Castrostelle is sketchily represented as a fortified Tuscan town, but it stands for a “motherland of the soul”, a geographic cipher for a state of mind. In a similar way, perhaps, to how Medieval theologists saw Jerusalem as a superposition of the actual kingdom in Palestine and a analog for the final triumph of their god.

They need not be exclusive. In any case - and this seems to be a constant in my writing -, she is

And there are many other interesting ones, of course, that I never thought about, at least consciously. For instance, one learned reader/player has suggested that the protagonist is actually a representation of the devil, or some sort of evil spirit, leaving chaos and destruction in her wake. I find other explanations very intriguing, and would love to hear more – perhaps they can illuminate some of the hidden reasons of both author and reader.

So how much did I actually manage to achieve, you say?

What went right

* I DID submit it
As explained, one of my main goals when submitting something to the IFComp was Submitting Something. That means I have something to show people, and a source of feedback and interaction. I had already spent way too much time developing things alone, and losing perspective of what was working and what was not. Pilgrimage being done, rather than perfect, was a good call. It has been an important milestone for me personally.

* The writing
By far the most consistent feedback I’ve received is that the writing does its job. My fondest IF-related experience of all times is watching 20+ people play Pilgrimage and enjoy the story despite the many technical flaws and oversights. To see people connect with the writing so much was a big boost, and also an incredible source of feedback.

* The geographical aspect
Many players liked the fact that each movement implied long journeys between loosely described regions instead of “rooms” or similarly discrete units of space. They also enjoyed that the spatial relationship between rooms/regions corresponded to real geography (Roughly. Cambodia is not quite north-east of Palestine, but GPS was quite shitty back in the day). This was not quite premeditated, so I have to confess it came as a [pleasant] surprise.

* The cover
Ara Carrasco’s (@aracarrascoart) cover art for Pilgrimage is simple, eye-catching and doubles as a map for the whole game. To me it also epitomises the ancient but minimalistic feel I wanted to achieve with the game. Many people gave Pilgrimage a try on the strength of that picture alone.

* The testing (what little I could afford)
I did have three amazing testers who found many bugs and pointed to less-than-optimal interactions and implementations. Unfortunately, I was running out of time and could only give them a preliminary version of the game. They never had a chance of spotting the many bugs that I introduced with the last build, and so they remained. “Do not charge them with the responsibility”, etc. Yet the game is much better thanks to the ones they actually had the chance to spot, and did actually spot brilliantly.

What went wrong

  • Very little time for testing[/b]
    As previously said (and pointed out in many constructive reviews), Pilgrimage needed a final review for which we never had the time. Most notorious of all bugs is the one that allows you to finish the game from the first room. Some would call it a feature, but it’s entirely my fault.

* Rushed design/implementation
This is where my lack of experience in game design showed more glaringly. After teaching the player to use low-level interactions on a grand voyage measure in years and thousands of kilometres (READ BOOK, TAKE RUBY, or the infamous KISS SAILOR), some puzzles suddenly require high-level interactions (i.e. BURN CHURCH, which implies the use of three different items for which no other, lower-level interaction is implemented).

The lunatic puzzle has proven to be specially controversial. In this puzzle, basically you have to toggle between the three personalities of the lunatic in order to achieve your goal. The problem starts with communication: the player has no way of knowing what to do until she receives the Blessing of Babylon. Once done, BLESS LUNATIC toggles him between personalities. The pilgrim persona reacts to the scallop shell (the traditional symbol of the Compostelan pilgrims), but he’s too hungry to care - and he’s not going to eat raw meat, so the player needs to toggle to the animal persona, feed him and bring him back to his pilgrim personality before completing the puzzle.

Something went awry with the walkthrough, with many players saying they couldn’t finish the game because the commands didn’t work in the proper order. This is a double problem: not only was the walkthrough apparently wrong, but it also implies that they didn’t understand the puzzle logic. Had this puzzle been well communicated, any player who understood the underlying mechanic would have been reasonably able to solve it even with disordered hints. This was quite a shame, since this was the puzzle I was the most satisfied with, in terms of blending game logic and narrative.

* Management of player’s expectations

The management of player’s expectations was a bit haphazard as well. The black chapter enforces a strictly onwards progression, gating everything and not letting the player move on until each room is completed, and then preventing backtracking. The white and yellow chapters allow free movement, but only following a certain sequence, in keeping this the ceremonial feel of the game. The final red chapter goes back to railroaded movement. When designing this, I thought it was better to restrict movement at the beginning (when the player could potentially be at a loss as where to go) and at the end (since the player is already rushing towards the endgame and the story has no use for diversions). What really seemed to happen is that players got used to being railroaded and felt a bit lost when they were not, being unsure as to whether they had missed some object/interaction in previous rooms.

As a related problem, some objects (as the scallop shell and the yoni) were obscured as part of the descriptions for scenery that was mentioned only en passant (the beach in Jerusalem and the temple in Angkor). Probably because players had not been taught to be so inquisitive over apparently small details in previous chapters, they didn’t feel the game was expecting them to EXAMINE BEACH and EXAMINE TEMPLE.

What’s next

I am planning a new release to address as many of these issues as possible and try to do a better Pilgrimage. It will have to wait, though, until I finish the current work on two projects. One is releasing on Steam in early January and the other one is aiming for March, so chances are I will be too busy until then.

After the Director’s Cut edition of Pilgrimage, I will probably try something smaller, Twine maybe, before I commit to another overambitious IF.

And then I have detailed plans for another Inform game (maybe IFComp 2016?), set in the late Bronze Age. If it turns out anything like what I have in mind, you can expect another historical setting with a female lead, “thinly implemented” and geared towards story rather than complex puzzles. This time I want both protagonist and History to have more relevance, and implement an operative system for dialog, probably choice-based, to allow for more nuanced relationships and psychological portraits. Hopefully, this time I’ll be able to iron out more kinks before release.

Thanks for reading, let me know if you have any thoughts on this.

** Blessings of Babylon **

It’s great to see this!

My pleasure, thanks for reading (and playing!) [emote]:)[/emote]

Yes, thanks for all the background info. I still found the game impossible (ultimately) but as you know, I’m on the record as a fan anyway!


Your feedback was most useful, Wade [emote]:)[/emote] It made me realise what was wrong with the lunatic puzzle, and your comments on the writing/setting were most encouraging. I hope to make an enhanced version that you eventually find slightly less impossible [emote];)[/emote]

Overall, I rather liked the game, and I’m quite fascinated to see how much thought went into the symbolism of it. This seems like the sort of thing I would do if I ever finish any of my WIP, structure the piece with all sorts of layered patterns, that is.

Spoiler-tagged for discussion of specific puzzles:

[spoiler]I’m curious what went wrong with the lunatic puzzle, myself, as I didn’t end up having that much trouble with it. I fiddled with it for a bit, didn’t get very far, and then turned to the walkthrough, which gave me enough information to understand the point of the puzzle, and I was able to execute a solution and finish the game. As you say, it wasn’t explained well in-game, so I didn’t really understand it initially, but I don’t think I encountered any bugs either. Or if I did, I probably wasn’t following the walkthrough step-by-step anyway, so I just kept fiddling until I got the right outcome.

On the other hand, I really struggled with burning the church because I thought I was supposed to do it the first time through there and had the stuff that I later realized was a component of gunpowder and just could not get it to burn no matter what I did.[/spoiler]

I did turn to the walkthrough fairly early on. This is somewhat of a flaw with the macro scale of the journey, unfortunately. Like you said, it’s hard to balance the usage of micro actions with the macro scale, and I never felt like I understood what the piece was trying to do with the puzzles. I knew we were on a journey, but not really why or what I was supposed to accomplish. For the first few rooms, the immediate goal was clear (even if the execution of it wasn’t necessarily), but later on, when the map opened up a bit more, I felt fairly lost since I usually didn’t have a sense of what the effect of actions would be or even what actions were even available. I said in my blog review that I thought this would have made a great short story, as the plot was well-determined, but as IF, it was lacking agency.

The macro journey also became much less realistic when we could go back and forth between China and Russia (for instance) without penalty or delay. There also wasn’t much to look at in each room, so while the outlines of the various cultures were there, the substance felt lacking.

So if you decide to rework the game, aside from tightening the puzzle design and adding better cuing, my primary suggestion is to add some kind of calendar or count of years or months to the status line (and/or a YEAR or TIME command) and calibrate the journey such that the PC can die of old age before completing it if she travels back and forth too many times. This would add an effective and realistic penalty to traveling around in the middle sections (but of course don’t limit the time too much, or you just add extra frustration, and only advance time when moving around, not when taking other actions). I don’t know how old the PC is supposed to be when she sets off, but it’s clear that the whole journey takes a number of years, maybe a few decades, so this would help immersion, I think. Plus it would add to the sense of traveling even along the one-way paths if you see how many months it took to take that step. You don’t have to be exactly realistic with the travel times if you round up, either. In that day and age, and especially given all the adventures the PC encounters as it is, it’s not an issue if a journey takes longer than you might expect - it’s practically a given. (If you want to get fancy, add varying description text dependent on season for the open-travel areas. But that’s probably a lot to ask, unless season-dependent details are already there, in which case it’d be pretty important.)

Also maybe consider adding a few more pieces of description or scenery to each room that display the local culture/region and/or reflect the theme of the game’s section. I would have liked to see the rooms be more distinct.

Anyway, looking forward to a post-comp release!