Post-mortem: Princess of Vestria

Here’s my developer’s post-mortem for The Princess of Vestria. (Some light spoilers throughout, and a few heavy ones redacted)

First I’d like to thank my playtesters on this site – Kestrel, mathbrush, The Pixie, Deuslrae - for the huge help they gave me getting my game into a reasonably-polished shape for the comp.

Now, my takeaways from the reviews. First, the positives: what seemed to go down well?

The story

I’m pleased that the story was generally enjoyed, as I don’t consider myself a fantasy writer, and because I tried to prioritise gameplay before narrative. Still, people commented positively on the setting, lore and characters, which was gratifying.

The interactivity/consequentiality of choices

This was a relief, because a big fear upon submission of PoV was that I hadn’t done enough to point out to the player when and how their choices were shaping the story (I still might add something to flag e.g. when a player’s character traits and/or epilogue have been “shaped”)

The ending/dramatic climax

I’m counting this as a qualified success, because although opinions on this were not universally positive, it seemed to go down better in the comp than with my playtesters (there was also a problem with a lot of my playtesters seeming to get the same ending). I worked hard on this, and the feeling of having “fixed” it, to some extent, is a good one. Some of the improvements were quite simple, e.g. giving the Princess three arrows instead of the one my poor playtesters got!

Now to what didn’t work well…

The music box puzzle

Lol, said the scorpion. Lmao. No, I am sorry guys. My playtesters were all baffled and annoyed by this puzzle. My main approach to fix it on the eve of the comp was to increase the time limit… oops! Suddenly reviewers are complaining about a baffling puzzle that lasts for ten minutes and they have no way to skip… (the latest update has improved this puzzle, I hope. I’ve clued it more clearly and added an option to “Just give up and try random combinations” which will succeed if the player has luck remaining. Ha, I feel like a scientist refining his mad experiment.)

I think I could probably add the monkey puzzle to this category of “puzzles that were under-cooked/not sufficiently clued”. Did anyone get the monkey?

Waffly, over-long first chapter

My last playtester before the comp gave me this feedback as well - but too late for me to edit it, sadly. I have to guess that these exposition-heavy passages, combined with the game’s lack of styling/cover art/smooth initial intro cost me some reviews and some plays. Ah well, live and learn. (I have since edited and the reviews seem to have improved on this point)

Epilogue

Not a total flop, but probably didn’t gain the traction I would’ve liked. I’ve concluded that I went the wrong way about this. I wrote a single epilogue passage that, through a tangle of coding and the players’ scores on various metrics – heroism, empathy, ruthlessness, wisdom etc. - gave the player their personalized epilogue. I think I probably should’ve just written ten or twenty different endings and sorted players into them based on their metrics. Or maybe a combination of the two approaches. But either way, I needed to make it clearer to what extent things were being personalised. Perhaps including something like a “You achieved Epilogue 6b: moderately heroic, very diplomatic and wise ruler” sentence.

Luck

A little surprised by the nonplussed reaction to a mechanic I was quite excited about. It possibly could’ve been worked into the game deeper (I only thought of it half way through), but part of me thinks this was a communication/presentation failure more than a mechanical failure. The idea (as some have recognized) is to mitigate the outcome of “bad” choices – to make the game more forgiving and less brutal – while still accounting for the player’s failure in a consequential way. I’m not sure if people recognised that it was working that way, or were expecting something different? I’m wondering if I should add an optional “What would’ve happened if I didn’t have any luck left?” link for players to click on at these moments. Either way, this, as a concept, is something I’m definitely going to persevere with and work on. I sense that even if it only ever elicits a nonplussed reaction, that’s ok if it staves off a “This game kills me unfairly/too much” reaction.

Next section is my response to some valid critiques (besides those already mentioned).

Story is a bit generic/basic

I will own this one. I actually had ideas for a much more ambitious, surprising narrative, but I was still a little uncertain at that point about the ambitiousness of the project (first Twine game), so I decided to play it safe and go with the simpler storyline that I had already mapped out and knew accommodated plenty of gameplay. (Also, the simpleness of the tale I think reflects the way it was originally conceived: from deciding to write a story with a friend by interpreting random cards from a medieval tarot deck.)

There’s no way to resolve things peaceably with the witch

Yes, I really would have liked to include this as an option – and originally planned to. Unfortunately, once I came to write it, I found that it didn’t really ring true given the character of the witch I’d drawn up to that point: could she really be talked down? What concession could the Princess make?. Maybe there’s an opportunity to add something along these lines in the future, though it will require a bit more shaping of the story. This critique probably relates to the previous critique about the story’s simpleness.

There are a LOT of ways to die or otherwise fail

I was surprised by the commonness of this reaction but I think that says more about me (and my limited exposure to IF) than everyone else. This kind of gameplay will be some people’s bag and not others, I guess. I hope to refine the game more, maybe add different difficulty modes, to make it friendlier to those who want a nicer, less perilous experience.

Things to ponder:

  • Dare I remove the save game feature? I really want to, but may have to develop other safety net systems first
  • Character shaping - should I let the Princess’s character take shape in game, via the player’s choices? I decided against this kind of system, but maybe I should reconsider. I already let the players shape the Princess’s character in the epilogue, so I’ve kinda already started down this path

Questions to players:

* How did you all defeat the witch at the end (there are 3 ways, and one of them I’ve not heard players refer to yet)? Did you make use of the hints/walkthrough?

  • What were some gameplay moments you enjoyed/didn’t enjoy?
  • Did anyone get the monkey?
  • How would you have enjoyed the experience of the game if there were no save game option?
  • Did the theme music play for anyone (at the start)??

* Did anyone kick the old man away the first time?

Finally, many thanks to everyone who has played and reviewed the game :grinning:

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I got the monkey. Though I’m struggling to remember what happened, sorry. I think he has a cruel owner and I had my companion create a distraction and stole the monkey? And then he hangs around on your shoulder for a while, and then…meets up with some other monkeys in the forest and goes off with them? What was the question again? Oh, was it undercooked or not sufficiently clued? …maybe? I remember choosing somewhat randomly and maybe in one case in spite of my companion being pretty skeptical, and being surprised I got away with it. Though maybe it used a point of luck getting away? I don’t think so, but I can’t remember.

How did I defeat the witch? I think I only had one option, the bee? I let the spy take ship home, and…there was another one that it was clear that my decisions had blocked off. And I had to resort to the walkthrough because I think I tried the bee and concluded that it didn’t work, rather than realizing that it was just the timing that was tricky?

I really like games to have a save option. Even just play straight through, which I mostly did, I still saved a couple places to come back and check out again later, or re-read rather than taking screen-shots. idk. It feels like taking options away from players rather than letting them play how they want… but a lot of IF does do that, ChoiceScript does it completely deliberately and it’s my least favorite thing about ChoiceScript personally, even though they have fairly good design reasons for it.

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I liked this game a lot!

There’s a complex discussion to have about Luck and Lives and Lots Of Ways To Die. For me, the problem wasn’t just that there were multiple ways to die, it was (as I think Autumn said in her review) that it often seemed like guesswork, as though you had to “read the designer’s mind” to pick the right option. For example, when you’re escaping, it’s hard to guess whether you should answer Lord Torsten or run into the gardens (both sound like plausible ways to escape!), and then whether you should climb into the front or back of the cart or get the ale (all of them sound like good things to do!), and if you make the wrong choice you die.

Luck and Lives - together with the Return option if you make the wrong choice - both sound like cool ways to fix this problem. My difficulty was that they both felt like they did a similar job (i.e. they both felt like mechanics to fix a bad choice) and that Lives didn’t really seem to run out. And it still felt a bit unfair that a near-random choice would reduce my Luck/Lives score - especially in a long adventure, where I really needed Luck and Lives at the end of the story!

Basically, I really liked the idea of Luck. I’d ideally like to have Luck replace Lives, because I think it’s a more elegant solution. I think you’re right that you should make it clearer when someone has used Luck. And I don’t know quite what the solution is to the issue that Luck is a limited resource, so it seems a bit unfair to reduce it through a “random” choice. (Are there any ways to increase Luck, say by resting in an inn? Or a way that, if you use Luck lots of times, it doesn’t end your story but changes something later?)

I love the music box puzzle: my only difficulty with it was the countdown and the fact you couldn’t skip it. Your solution of “Just give up and try random combinations” is really good.

That criticism that the story is “generic” seems a bit unfair. I thought it was a well-written story and a well-realised setting in the fantasy genre. It’s okay to write within a genre. I had the impression I was exploring a much larger world, which I really liked.

I’d be okay with removing the Save Game feature as long as there was some other way to go back. For example, “Save Game” was really the only way to repeat the monkey puzzle, unless you wanted to replay the whole thing. That said, I’m not sure what you’d add by removing Save Game.

I didn’t get the monkey but I defeated the witch by getting the bee inside her forcefield! It was really satisfying! Seriously, that was such a cool solution, because it made two seemingly unrelated things interact.

I hope some of that is helpful! I’m still new to all this and figuring it out, so treat my thoughts above with lots of pinches of salt.

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And then he hangs around on your shoulder for a while, and then…meets up with some other monkeys in the forest and goes off with them?

Ah yes, I forgot I gave players the choice to release the monkey. Not sure why I give the player so many opportunities to lose their companions :laughing:

Thanks for the response Josh :+1:

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Throughout the game, I felt that this was exactly what I was doing. Be bold, be suspicious, be curious, be indifferent, be kind,…

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it often seemed like guesswork, as though you had to “read the designer’s mind” to pick the right option

Yes it was Autumn who said the same (and one of my beta testers). I’d like to start an authoring thread about this issue in choice-based challenges, and when it works and when it doesn’t. I’d love to hear other’s opinions. From my point of view as a designer, I decide a “correct” action in a situation in the story, that seems logical to me. But then to make it a challenge and a choice I need to hide it among one or more wrong-but-appealing options. I think in the ideal case, a player makes their choice entirely within the story, without any consideration of the designer’s mind. And if they succeed, they feel smart and heroic; and if they fail, they appreciate the logic of why and perhaps even enjoy this as well. But at what point does the player give up and feel it’s all arbitrary, and how do you prevent this? By more clueing in the passage, say? I suspect I have more leeway in this direction - but do players ever experience challenges that have been clued so obviously that it’s impossible to enjoy them? Is it a balancing act?

Are there any ways to increase Luck

Interesting, I’ve arrived at this idea in the last few weeks myself. Giving the player the choice to pray at a temple in every town they stop at, say. Perhaps you could even lose luck, say by killing a mountain lion… I’m pondering this at the moment and might experiment. Similar and parallel to this, I’m thinking of experimenting with an in-game hint system, where the player starts with a finite number of hints (or “inspiration points”) and the player can choose when to use one, for help in a puzzle.

I’ve done a lot of thinking aloud in my reply to you Graham, I hope you don’t mind! I’m really grateful for your feedback and thoughts, and very glad you enjoyed the game :slight_smile:

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I really enjoyed the game! As you might have guessed by my review :wink: I also kind of answered some of your questions in the review (by chance), but I’ll try here to unpack my opinions a bit more:

Luck and Lives vs. Saves
As I mentioned in the review, the luck/lives system implies that you don’t need saves, but, IMO, you 100% need the saves: removing them would have weakened the game considerably. In my own playthrough, I never saw Luck go down, and only died in the final confrontation.

I have the very strong opinion that all games should have free saves everywhere, and that all IF should have multi-undo. In fact, I always play my zcode games with Frotz, which has interpreter-enabled ‘undo’ so I can always ‘alt-U’ even if the author unwisely disables the feature (like in ‘Zero Chance of Recovery’. I used Alt-U a lot in that). For a relatively straightforward choice game like this, the save/load system you have was fine (though undo would have been nice).

The reason I feel this way is because of the way I like to experience games like this: I tend to take a breadth-first approach, then choose how I want my version of the PC to behave knowing what the other options are for the story. There’s a bit in ‘The Longest Journey’ where the PC, having agreed to go on a date with a jerk, can either go or stand him up. I played through both tracks, discovered that both lead to the guy getting mad at you and essentially converging the plot again, so knowing that, I could then choose the option I wanted.

For this sort of thing, I feel like the different paths are a conversation between the author and the player. If the author makes one path correct and the others failures, that’s a strong opinion the author is sharing that the path that works is not only pragmatically correct, but also, in a way, morally correct: the protagonist ‘should’ act in a certain way.

So the puzzles in Vestria that were what I described as ‘mazes’ are sometimes pushing the player to act a certain way. And when I successfully navigated them, I felt like you and I were communicating on a tight wavelength, especially when the PC ‘should’ be acting in a genre-appropriate way (interacting with your old friend in the tavern; helping the spy; helping the stung kid). Other times the options were basically random: chasing the woman through the town felt this way: any option seemed reasonable and (importantly) all the options seemed genre-appropriate. The ‘correct’ path was essentially random, as there was nothing the player could lean on in terms of genre or in terms of hints from the text to make one option obviously better than another (even in retrospect).

Dealing with the sheriff was a different sort of thing: it was, I think, a conversation about genre. Is this the type of story where rallying the people to stand up to injustice is the way to go? Is it the type of story where sneakiness is going to pay off? Is it the type of story where the PC should keep her head down and be sad? All were possible spins on the genre as presented to that point, and by making exactly one of them work, you were telling the player ‘this is the type of story you’re in’.

Now, it’s possible that you didn’t want to have an opinion about how to deal with the sheriff; that you wanted the player to choose one and make whatever they chose the ‘right’ one for themselves and their own playthrough. I can say, having chosen the correct one last, that if this was the intent, it was not conveyed. Perhaps one of my stats changed under the hood when I ‘failed’ a certain way, but that was completely opaque at the time (at least to me). IMO, your options for how to tell the player that they can make whatever choice they want here are either to just blatantly tell the player ‘your [compassion|sneakiness|bravery] went up’ when they choose one of the options, or (more trickily, but more satisfyingly) to make all the outcomes feel like wins, in some way, through the writing.

That was very rambly, but the upshot is that I feel like allowing save/load or undo lets the player hear what you have to say about the story, and then make their choice. When the author has a clear opinion about one thing being ‘right’, then the player can choose to go along with that, and make those choices (or not!). If the author promises that any choice can be ‘right’ depending on how you want to play the game, the player can then choose from that perspective instead. The latter is where disabling save/undo becomes a bit more feasible, but even then, I prefer to ‘have the conversation’ about the choices, as it were, by reading the various dénouements to each option, and then choosing between them. Because it’s sometimes not super clear what the options ‘really’ were about until you find out the outcome.

Did you get the monkey?
Yup! I bought it with my ring. I had both the monkey and the spy with me at the end of the game. As an aside: I took the ring with me originally because I felt it was genre-appropriate. I kind of expected it to come in handy at one point, and be detrimental at another, but never saw any ‘detrimental’ scene. If there wasn’t one, that’s kind of a cheap shot at the player who chooses to leave it behind: you’re basically telling them they were wrong to make the choice, but telling them too late to go back and fix it.

What ending did you get?
My first time through I got the ‘companion’ ending; the second time I got the ‘magic’ ending. Still haven’t figured out how to get the ‘if you have neither’ ending. But I have my save game, which means I can actually still try to figure it out :wink:

The music box puzzle
I got the final version of the game (downloaded just before the comp ended), got a minor spoiler beforehand by accident from this forum, and solved it immediately when it showed up in the game. (The spoiler was that it hinged on her name being Julia.)

The first chapter
I got the final version of the game, and had zero problems with the first chapter.

The lack of a fourth option to beat the game
With all the exposition to make the villain more sympathetic, I expected this to exist, and was surprised when it was not. However, in the end, this was the bit I called out in my review for ‘did the author have something to say’: I felt that you were telling us that, sympathetic or no, some people make choices that you can’t walk away from, or at least that they choose to not walk away from. I felt it was appropriate, especially considering the final reveal that she had actually killed the dad back in the day.

Lots of ways to die
Not for me! You and I were totally in sync, and most of my choices were rewarded with success :wink:

Theme music?
Nope, never heard anything.

Thanks again for the game! I greatly enjoyed my time with it.

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(A side note: I’ve been using the ‘IFComp’ tag exclusively when browsing this forum, which means I missed this post entirely until I happened to see it in a search. Maybe add that tag so others won’t miss it, too?)

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Thanks so much for your thoughts here Lucian, and your review which I hadn’t seen :slight_smile:

Glad you enjoyed it and felt in sync with the logic of the story for the most part. I hadn’t thought in terms of the Princess doing Genre Appropriate Actions; that’s an interesting way to look at it. Analysing it, I think I tend to reward what I consider to be heroism and boldness and clear-headedness under pressure: going over to speak to Sol, sneaking and putting your knife to the sheriff’s throat, jumping down from your horse to confront the witch, generally not running away but trusting your disguise. However many of these challenges players felt the most unfair… so I probably have work to do in making the logic clearer somehow.

You are the first person to mention the magician in the village (I think)! This was originally part of a big subplot I had planned where you could get this random magician to introduce you to a master magician who would then imbue you with very strong magical powers. So you would be like a magical superhero for the rest of the quest! I thought this would be cool, but then perhaps would get a bit boring being so OP, and in the end I scrapped it mainly to save time. But yes, this was designed to be intentionally opaque - I didn’t want players to succeed at this on their first playthrough, but maybe hear about it and try on a subsequent playthrough. I should probably return to this puzzle and make it more accessible.

The signet ring: I originally planned to have a situation where the ring was a liability and could get you recognised. In the end, I got lazy and didn’t really fulfill this promise. I kind of regret it, having read several reviews mention those early choices in the palace and how excited they were for a payoff that I didn’t always give :-/

Thanks again for your account of your thoughts and your approach to this type of game, it’s been really interesting and useful for me to consider :pray:

Glad you found the review! I was in the middle of playing your game when my time ran out; I thought I might be able to give it a score anyway a few minutes past the deadline, but no dice :wink:

I think your instincts were correct about the magician subplot; that would have turned into a very different game. It seemed like a reasonable side-quest as it was, and was satisfying (though there wasn’t any particular payoff, I think? Similarly, the Ring of Evil Detection didn’t end up being super useful either.)

Ha, the Ring of Evil Detection had one single use - see my newly-added question in my “questions to players” section:

Did anyone kick away the old man?

:wink:

I did! Because if I didn’t, I died. I remember some note about the ring before that, but I had tied it in general to ‘the evil forest’, not to anything more specific.

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