Postmortem at Quickenheath

Yikes, this post ended up long. I don’t know if it’ll actually be interesting to anyone, but I really enjoyed getting to take part in Spring Thing this year alongside so many brilliant games, and it’s been very thought-provoking for me – so I figured I’d type up some of those thoughts.

I started working on Rescue at Quickenheath back in 2021, got a first draft to a more-or-less playable state, and promptly abandoned it to languish in the unfinished projects heap for years, because I could tell it wasn’t in a state I wanted to share but I was out of impetus to fix it. This year’s Spring Thing, finally, gave me that impetus. So I submitted an intent to enter, promptly got the feeling of being in way over my head, and started frenziedly remaking Quickenheath from the ground up in an attempt to turn it into something I’d be willing to let see the light of day.

I doubt anyone is ever 100% happy with a project, but I’m glad that Quickenheath is out there now, and grateful to Spring Thing and this community for providing a great motivation and a way to get past the ‘first time sharing something’ dread. It’s still wild to me that people have actually played this silly little game, let alone responded to it so thoughtfully!

Quickenheath-related thoughts, in no particular order, and full of spoilers:

How much self-indulgence is too much?

I think one of the hallmarks of this game having started life as my first ever Twine experiment is that it ended up as a sort of mishmash of components. The primary motivation behind most of it doesn’t run any deeper than ‘I think this thing is fun, so let’s see if I can make it work’. So: flamboyant highway robbers, Gratuitous 18th-Century Capitalisation, wretched puns, rhyming clues, Twine stylings like cycling links and mirrored text… the list goes on. The upside to this writing approach is that I had a great time. The downside, I think, is that the end result runs the risk of feeling inconsistent, if the ingredients I’m tossing into the soup don’t actually meld together, or if something gets added that’s fun in itself but detrimental to the whole.

An example: I love escape room-style puzzles, so I wanted a couple in Quickenheath. But the game isn’t (primarily) a ‘puzzle’ game, and so while I tried to make them as coherent with the story as possible, there’s still a degree to which the inclusion of the puzzles might lower immersion in the story. And I worried that it would be too puzzly for people looking for a romance story, but not puzzly enough for people looking for a puzzle experience.

Or another example, that I agonised over: some of the earlier options in the game (like dealing with the newspaper crier) aren’t really ‘choices’, but unsuccessful options that you can fail at before getting to the approach that succeeds. This is basically inherited from something that I enjoy in parser games, which is the opportunity to try something, fail, and find entertainment in the game’s response to a failed idea. Except, of course, that in a choice game it feels different, because you’re not coming up with the ideas to try yourself – so is there a point to the game offering you a choice between doing A, B, and C, if only C will work? Why put in options that are doomed to fail? Is it annoying? I ended up taking some instances of this out of Quickenheath when I was editing it, but I left a couple, because I like the way they read. (Specifically, I wanted to make it clear from the offset through the narration that Kit as a protagonist is nowhere near as cool as they think they are, so setting them up to fail leaves space for characterisation in a way that I personally find amusing.)

Hopefully I managed to get away with it, and keeping the game short-and-silly with a specific goal prevented it from feeling incoherent. But if you played it and ran into anything that made you go ‘Why did they include that? What on earth were they thinking?’ – solid chance that the answer is just ‘Thought it would be fun’.

Agency, branching, endings

I knew from the start that there was going to be one (happy) ending for Aubrey and Valentine. The conceit sets up two prospects: either you save Aubrey, or you fail and they die. Any other ending apart from those two would feel like a cop-out, and wouldn’t be suitably dramatic. Ending with abject failure and death didn’t fit the lighthearted tone of the rest of the story, and on a personal level, it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. From a narrative perspective, to steal a quote from E.M. Forster, ‘a happy ending was inevitable’. So, how to get to an inevitably happy ending while still maintaining a sense of stakes for the player?

My biggest worry here was letting the player say Aubrey’s True Name. I wanted to leave that as a choice, and specifically a free text input, in an attempt to let the stakes feel legitimate. Even if you’re absolutely certain you’re correct (and the game doesn’t make it difficult to guess correctly), I hoped that being faced with the ability to say anything at all in that moment would spark a little bit of tension. This meant that I had to figure out a way to allow the player to get the True Name wrong, and still have the plot turn out, without then having to do a hard pivot into tragedy for the final five minutes. It’s, inevitably, a bit contrived, but hopefully it provides an equally satisfying way of reaching the game’s ending.

In terms of choices throughout, while you’re always going to end up at the same ending, there are a couple of different ways you can get there. One thing that I found interesting was that the first section (in London) felt more interactive to players than the second section (in Fairy). Mechanically, the choices in Fairy ‘mean’ more: in London, you’re essentially ticking every location off a list and the ‘interactivity’ comes from being able to choose the order in which you do it, whereas in Fairy there are a couple bits you won’t see, and item options that you won’t have available, based on your previous choices. But because the game presents you with one thing after another in Fairy, it feels like there’s less player control, even if the specific sequence you’re experiencing is a direct result of your choices.

I don’t especially mind the game feeling linear or on rails, since I think it needs to build a bit of momentum towards the end. But for future games, it’s helpful to have a clearer sense of what gives players the feeling of interactivity, and I do think some choices in Quickenheath could have been telegraphed more clearly to be more satisfying. (For example, the choice that determines whether you get the chaperoned stalagmite encounter or the chaperone-less hunt encounter is whether you’re polite or belligerent with the Ambassador. But by the time it plays out, it’s not clear that what’s happening is even a result of a choice you’ve made, let alone that you’re experiencing one of two options – so you don’t get the satisfaction of knowing that your choices have an impact.)

On a related note, one thing that came out in playtesting is that the vast majority of playtesters picked the same options/route through the story. The game is written so that the consequences for each choice were essentially equivalent, with no outcomes that would lead to failure – but of course players don’t know that. So if there’s a branch that seems like a horrendously obviously bad idea (eating fairy food, for instance!) people aren’t likely to risk it. The one that really threw me was that most playtesters pickpocketed the nobleman – although I suppose I could have predicted that if I’d thought about it, since ‘steal from someone with lots of money’ is going to seem like a better choice than ‘steal from someone who’s flat broke’.

me: i can’t believe you didn’t eat my nice fruits that i gave you
all my playtesters, in unison: DO I LOOK LIKE I WAS BORN YESTERDAY

I tweaked the wording of some of the choices in response to playtesting, because I struggled a bit getting used to the idea that I’d written things that very few people were going to actually see. But in hindsight I’m not sure I’d actually want to change it. I think losing the sense of stakes that comes with believing there are ‘wrong’ answers would probably be detrimental to the pacing and immersion, and the other choices are still there for fun or to be experienced in replays. I guess this might be something that interactive fiction deals with and static fiction doesn’t – accepting that players aren’t going to see everything!

What counts as a puzzle?

This was tricky for me! Aster’s incredibly thoughtful and intelligent post puts a lot more consideration into the point of including puzzles than I did at any point when writing them – and I’m also realising that I’m not experienced enough with IF to spot what will come across as a puzzle and what won’t.

If you’d asked me while I was writing it what the puzzles in Quickenheath are, I’d have said there were three, or maybe two and a half: getting the password for the warden, the maze, and potentially the Queen’s riddle (although that one doesn’t prevent you from progressing if you fail). If the game didn’t have those things in it, I’d probably have listed it as puzzle-less (and then have run into people demanding ‘What do you mean, puzzle-less!’).

For example: guessing Aubrey’s True Name. I hadn’t thought of that as a puzzle at any point while writing the game, because while it has a right and wrong answer story-wise, it doesn’t have a mechanically wrong answer in terms of impacting the game’s winnability – so in my brain, what you say there was just another choice, rather than a solution. But of course, to the player, who doesn’t know that there’s not a ‘wrong’ answer, it plays out like a puzzle! Likewise with the inventory puzzles – I viewed most of these as narrative choices rather than puzzles with a solution while I was writing, because the majority of them have more than one correct choice, and (with the exception of the Queen’s riddle) if you try something that doesn’t succeed you can just try again. This wallowing around in between ‘puzzles’ and ‘choices’ is a detriment to the game, I think, since it ends up giving the player the experience of a lot of things that feel like puzzles but aren’t actually very satisfying ones.

There’s a bigger question here, I guess, which is where the line between ‘choice’ and ‘puzzle’ falls, if it exists. Is every choice in a choice-based game a puzzle? If not, at what point does it become one, and what does it need to be a good or satisfying one? Would the inventory choices in Quickenheath have felt less like puzzles if there hadn’t also been Obviously Puzzly Puzzles in the game? I don’t have answers, but I’m interested in thinking about it more, since I think Quickenheath ended up feeling more puzzly than I anticipated!

Gender selectability

I spent a long long long time deciding whether or not to keep the gender selectability in Quickenheath! I’m aware it doesn’t work for some people, and I’ve enjoyed hearing more about why that is. Here’s an outline of the things I was considering when I put it in there.

It seems like one of the ways people view selectable gender is as something that makes the characters feel less well-defined and more like a ‘blank slate’, so if you’re looking for a strongly-defined protagonist then selectable gender can dilute that. In general, I tend to agree with this. I enjoy protagonists that add to the story in some way; Quickenheath is about specific protagonists, without a lot of character customisation – so why keep them gender selectable?

One of the things I like in choice-based games is that the range of choices themselves can add to the depth of characterisation, or provide more information about the world. The options that the player is choosing from are also options that the character is choosing from, and picking one branch doesn’t necessarily render the other branch non-canonical – it can provide a sort of ghost of potential, where the choices define an envelope of possible characterisation that fits the protagonist. Allowing a choice of gender does the same thing, for me. When I was writing Kit (and to a lesser extent Aubrey) I wanted to define the characters as people who could be any gender. Whatever you like about these characters, it transcends gender; there’s no essentialism or inherently gendered quality to them, and they can switch between options and still be themselves. The ‘canon’ Kit isn’t any one gender, or they’re all of them at once.

Another factor was the inescapably romantic nature of the story. The game kicks off by establishing three things: You – are in love – with Aubrey. If it was a third-person or first-person story, or if the romance was optional, or if you got to choose a love interest from a range of several characters, then I might not have felt the need to keep the genders selectable. But something about the combination of all three made it feel too dictatorial to me to have the genders fixed. I worried that telling people right off the bat ‘You are this gender, and you are attracted to that gender’ would be alienating, and since (to me) the characterisation and story wouldn’t have been strengthened by defining genders upfront, it didn’t feel necessary. Ultimately, I figured that in a romance context, gender is a lot more meaningful to people in real life than it is to the characters in the game, since it’s a setting in which gender doesn’t impose any constraints or cause any problems for the characters whatsoever – so leaving the choice with the player felt like the right thing to do.

Finally, since the game doesn’t give you a lot of say over what you’ve got to do plot-wise, I wanted to make it as easy as possible for players to buy into the romance premise. The game doesn’t really work if you don’t care about the romance, so by giving players a bit of agency to define their own preferences, I wanted to manufacture a feeling of complicity in the romance, and provide a quick way that the player could relate to what might otherwise be unrelatable characters in an unrelatable situation.

Let them kiss!

This is the response I’ve received the most on itch. I thought about it! There are a couple reasons why I didn’t, but the main one is that I genuinely just couldn’t write it in a way that didn’t feel awkward and break the flow.

I blame the narrative voice for this. I tried to give the game’s perspective a lively/wry/detached angle, in order to keep the pacing up, keep the tone light, be able to make fun of Kit a bit (lovingly), and avoid falling too deeply into the slough of melodrama that is Kit’s emotions. The flashback around the campfire with the pearls is the most unfiltered Kit-ish-ness we get, and I was worried that it would be too sappy for such a silly game, hence why it’s containerised in a flashback.

So I got to the ending, considered writing a kiss, decided the only way I’d be able to make it work tonally would be to full-on plagiarise from The Princess Bride, and gave it up as a bad job. Probably someone who’s better at writing second person romance than I am could manage it, but I decided that the catharsis of their emotional arc came through most strongly and sincerely in dialogue rather than description, and that a kiss would be egregious. (Or that’s what I’m telling myself, anyway.)

What's next?

In the short term, I’ve got a tiny update planned with very few actual changes – filling out some more hidden easter egg content, and adding another answer to the Queen’s riddle, because someone who played it came up with a pun that’s even worse than anything already included and it needs to be honoured.

In the long term, if I was ever going to properly update the game, I’d add music. I have a couple tunes written for it, but not enough for a whole soundtrack, and my Twine skills aren’t currently confident enough for me to try to wrangle it. So I think that’ll remain a hypothetical ‘maybe in another three years’ goal.

And I have a couple ideas for future stories in the same world, so there might be more of Aubrey and Valentine at some point. (If I ever get around to them, and if other projects don’t get in the way!)

As this abominably long post makes clear, I could think in circles about what works and what doesn’t in Quickenheath forever, but in the end there’s only one real goal I had for it: for the people playing it to have fun. So if you did play it, thank you very much, and I hope you got at least a fraction of the enjoyment that I had in writing it. :smile:


I really enjoyed your game.

On puzzles

I’m curious, can you fail at the maze and die, be permanently trapped, or otherwise get a bad ending? Because if not, it’s the same as the Queen’s riddle and the password to me, in that it doesn’t prevent you from ultimately progressing to the other events of the game. My puzzle brain couldn’t steel itself enough to try. Neither of the other two puzzles actually have a mechanical effect on winnability anymore than guessing Aubrey’s True Name. You get different passages but it resolves the same.

Unless you’re defining “prevent you from progressing” differently than I am? To contrast the password with the Queen’s riddle, getting the latter immediately has different content and you don’t have to try it again and again. The former blocks you temporarily until the warden just gives you the answer, and the only new parts of the game are the warden reacting more belagueredly at Kit’s denseness. I don’t know how the maze turns out but–I suppose I can see your meaning if the difference in “prevention” is ‘do you have to try again to get new content or not’ as opposed to ‘are you diverted temporarily or do you get a bad ending’. It’s just different than what my general understanding (and perhaps the understanding of this IF community at large) is regarding preventing progression. I would’t be adverse to expanding my definition!

As for what counts as a puzzle, these are my speaker note definitions (lightly edited) from my Narrascope talk + a Logical Game Puzzles (as distinct from those Logic Puzzles that involve mathematic deduction) talk I haven’t presented anywhere:

Unlike video game tests of skills such as fighting, stealth, or fishing, puzzles test your knowledge and understanding.
While they don’t have to be outright logic puzzles, they should have solutions and outcomes that make sense in context.
Understanding information previously given by the game should make solving the puzzle easier than brute forcing or guessing.
As well, there should be ingenuity involved on the player’s end – not just understanding information you’ve been told, but extrapolating that information into a solution the game didn’t outright tell you about.

Puzzles should inherently involve meaningful choice. For example, let’s say there’s two buttons, and one of them opens a locked door and one of them doesn’t.
There’s at least one right answer which removes or changes the obstacle – in this case, unlocking the door. There’s also at least one wrong answer, which leads to a different result than if you chose right — even if the result for getting it wrong is "nothing changes, try again”, where you’re still here, faced with a locked door.*

Narrative puzzles require you not to just understand the game’s mechanics, but to understand the fictional situation and come to a conclusion about what to do next.
If you’re not paying attention to the narrative in a narrative puzzle game, you can’t solve the puzzle.

Logical game puzzles have clues, mechanics, and a solution which follow a consistent logic.
This consistency means that someone can figure out the solution based on the clues and mechanics alone. It is not based on things such as trial and error, technical skill with a mechanic such as fighting, or luck.

By these definitions, the inventory choices and True Name question do seem 100% like puzzles in the setup and presentation, but to this sort of IF audience, don’t scan as much like puzzles in their outcome (ie 'at least one wrong answer ') because the plot doesn’t change in the end. It requires some definition reworking (the way I eventually did in my forum post) to say that getting the same happy ending no matter what happens in the interim is a different outcome. Again, I appreciate having to rethink my assumptions, but that dissonance between this community’s definitions vs your own re: puzzles is where that friction/confusion comes from.

I will also note that the chaperone result feels like a choice and not a puzzle since there were no clues that might help you avoid an outcome before it happened.

Lastly, I want to reiterate that this game was lovely and my lengthy post is less a condemning of your game and more a sign that I think way too much about puzzles.

More puzzle talk

I used to work at an escape room, so my understanding of puzzles is definitely warped by that. :laughing: In that kind of context, the main ‘reason’ for including a puzzle is that it’s fun to solve in itself, and the mechanical function of them is that they give you information in a specific order to keep the game moving – so, solving a puzzle will allow you to progress by giving you more information for future puzzles.

Translating that into IF terms, if you’re creating a game that isn’t only puzzles, I suppose that would correlate to something like: solving a puzzle allows you to progress by giving you access to more of the narrative – it’s a gating mechanism for reaching future bits of the story, essentially. So by ‘preventing you from progressing’, what I mean is that you can’t continue until you’ve solved the puzzle (or got the solution via other means such as hints): progress through the game is contingent on having solved the puzzle. Stripped down to basics, it’s the same as a door that requires a key to unlock – if you don’t have the key, you can’t get through the door to continue.

This seems like it fits with this bit of your point about puzzles having a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ answer -

There’s also at least one wrong answer, which leads to a different result than if you chose right — even if the result for getting it wrong is "nothing changes, try again”, where you’re still here, faced with a locked door.

I’d expect the result for getting a puzzle wrong to be ‘nothing changes, try again’, maybe with the addition of extra narrative flavour or bonus information to hint you towards the right answer. (Or a game-ending failure – getting the puzzle wrong plunges you into a pit of spikes.) To me, if you get the answer wrong but the game allows you to progress anyway, with the difference in result being different sections of narrative, then that’s veering away from a ‘puzzle’ and into a narrative ‘choice’? I feel like in a lot of branching narrative games, you’re presented with a choice between options, and your decision is based around the information you’ve picked up from playing the game, and this happens in games that I wouldn’t have viewed as ‘puzzle’ games.

Say you’re looking for your cat, and the game’s told you that your cat likes to eat fancy pastries, and you’re then presented with a choice of where to go next: you can either ask for information at the bakery to the west, or the spooky castle to the east. Is that a puzzle, in an IF sense of the word? There’s a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ solution, in that your cat is likely to be at the bakery rather than at the spooky castle, but going to the castle will also progress the story, and may send the narrative in a different direction. If being ‘wrong’ is just as narratively rewarding as being ‘right’, then to me that removes some of the satisfaction of a puzzle, since it doesn’t matter if you solve it correctly or not.

You can’t fail at the maze in Quickenheath – similarly to the warden’s password, you can keep trying repeatedly, with the option to select more and more hints if you need them. This inability to fail and the hint system provided is definitely a symptom of escape room disease – in that kind of context it’s annoying to be stuck and unable to progress, hence hints, and it’s especially annoying to have to restart or end up in an unwinnable condition. (I think IF probably has the ability to implement game-ending failures and unwinnable states in a way that’s enjoyable, unlike an escape room! But it’s not what I’m familiar with, so I didn’t consider it.) I definitely think the hints in Quickenheath could have been more narratively elegant – they’re there to keep the game moving if people get stuck, and I wanted them in-game rather than as an external walkthrough in order to make it immediately obvious to people that they existed if needed, but the tradeoff there is that having them delivered by the characters stretches narrative plausibility.

I really appreciate reading all your thoughts – it’s all super helpful and very interesting!


I adored this game. The playful period details, the too-cool-for-school protagonist, the newspaper melodrama.

My initial impulse was to agree with the reviewers who thought the choice of gender diluted what was otherwise very obviously a story about being gay and doing crime, but you make a good argument for engendering (ha!) complicity by allowing players to adhere to their own romantic preferences, plus rejecting essentialism. Really it’s on me for assuming heteronormativity where there was none.

You did a great job of characterising Kit while still allowing for a decent amount of player expression, and I for one quite liked the failed choices. I do agree that Fairy is the weaker section, and I think part of that comes down to it just feeling a little rushed. I get that you were trying to build a sense of momentum, but I wanted more time with both the Fairy Queen and Aubrey’s sister. That’s really a credit to your writing, though, and I got a rollicking, breezy adventure out of it, so I can’t complain too much. Can’t wait to play more of your stuff!

EDIT: Corrected “Audrey” to “Aubrey” because I can’t read, apparently :sweat_smile:


Thank you! :smile:

very obviously a story about being gay and doing crime

This is honestly my favourite piece of feedback to receive for this game. When I was tallying the pros and cons for selectable gender, I did wonder whether I’d written them as so indelibly gay that there was no point, and feedback seems to be bearing that out somewhat. I did actually consider, at one point in the throes of gender indecision, making Kit’s gender selectable but then locking Aubrey to be the same gender as Kit, so that whatever you picked they’d be gay. I decided that would be an unsatisfying middle ground for absolutely everyone, but the vibes seem to be baked in regardless. :laughing: Actually, if anyone played them as straight, I’d love to hear whether it worked, and whether the characters and romance made sense!


Incredible postmortem. Thank you for your thoughts.


Thanks for the postmortem, lots of cool insights! I played through twice, and I was definitely a bit surprised to see how different Faerie wound up being based on my choices - so I agree that there’s interesting stuff there about perceived vs actual reactivity.

I did play the characters as straight - Kit is a very male-coded name for me in an 18th Century context (actually, Aubrey should be too, now that I think about it) and then went with a female partner since the setup felt pretty Bonnie and Clyde to me. It worked fine, IMO - as I said in my review, since they’re so far outside of society it feels reasonable for their gender roles to be pretty open.


Thanks for a fascinating post-mortem! I love hearing about the process, I did not find anything too self-indulgent. :wink:

I mean, my first play through was F/F, but I did make it het for kicks on a later playthrough. Both worked for me, because the things I found charming about Kit and Aubrey weren’t particularly tied to gender (but I also liked, in this game, that they were gender-selectable in the first place).