In this thread I’ll talk about both games I entered into the IFComp this year: Taghairm and Midnight. Swordfight. I’m putting them together because I don’t want to clutter the forum with two threads by the same author.
Some reviews suggested you couldn’t enjoy this game if you like cats. Some reviews also suggested that I must dislike cats to have written it. Neither suggestion is true. What these comments reveal is a gulf between how different people approach fiction. In actuality, I love cats and I prefer to avoid most dogs, but I wrote both Taghairm and Toby’s Nose.
Some reviews suggested that I wrote this game to cause controversy for the Golden Banana. This isn’t true. The Golden Banana was nowhere in my thoughts. I knew that many people would dislike the game. It wasn’t written for them. It was written for the people who could connect with it, and certain people have.
I wrote Taghairm because I wanted to write about magic. Fantasy is popular right now (it has always been popular, of course) and in the popular imagination, magic is often viewed through an escapist lens. People want to attend magical universities. People want to wave a wand and shoot fireballs and icicles. People dream about influencing reality in order to escape into another, better reality that they can manipulate to their advantage. This other reality is just a fiction, but people still travel there to visit every day.
There is value in escapism, but that’s not what interests me about magic. I’m more concerned with moving in the opposite direction and considering how magic opens doors, not into a fictional escapist world, but into the real world. Magical thinking is everywhere. Crossing your fingers, saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes, throwing salt over your shoulder, wishing someone “good luck,” modifying that phrase to “break a leg” in a theater. These are all little superstitious rituals, and there are uncountable others that could be listed. People carry out these rituals to change the world not by taking substantial action but by merely having an intent.
At a fundamental level, the notion that thinking about the world in a certain way can reshape the world is partly what makes humans humans. Magic comes naturally to us. It would take an astute toddler to understand advanced mathematics, but a princess turning a frog into a prince with a kiss? Of course that’s very sensible. It doesn’t require intellectual rigor to grasp.
Magic spells, superstitions, certain folklore practices are doors into how people process the world emotionally. Every culture has magic. It comes before almost everything else, from projecting your consciousness onto your environment.
The taghairm ritual is probably my favorite magic spell. I appreciate it because it’s the most horrific real spell that I know about. People didn’t imagine this spell to put it down into a fantasy book. People practiced it because they hoped that it would work. Performing a taghairm is still about reshaping the world with your intentions, just like throwing salt over your shoulder, but the stakes are incredibly higher with a taghairm, and those higher stakes demand blood. Not only must there be a sacrifice, but the people performing the ritual must sacrifice themselves. They must deliver pain and receive it.
And somehow, innately, this makes sense. This is what it would take. This isn’t fashionable dark magic. It’s atrocity.
I wrote this game to present the taghairm ritual to players. It’s not an easy game. There’s not much narrative to hold your hand, not much context. In fact, it’s almost completely neutral. It does not tell you what to think. It does not pass judgements. Even people who enjoy it will not enjoy it, and people who do not enjoy it are likely to disengage with it or even despise it. Those are risks that a game like this will always have to take.
I stand by its design despite the criticism it’s weathered. In fact, I think this might be the best game I’ve written to date. I realize this puts me at odds with the competition’s judges, but then I had to be at odds with them to write Taghairm in the first place.
Midnight. Swordfight. began as a joke. Well, maybe calling it a joke undersells it, but it wasn’t a terribly serious project. Before I had written any text, what I wanted to create was a one-move game that I would enjoy, since I’ve yet to play one that I really like.
Almost as soon as I started writing, I realized I couldn’t do it. I just have too much against the one-move mechanic. Instead what I did was layer a one-move game over a normal game. The idea was that you could change things in the “normal” section to alter the outcomes in the “one-move” section. This was partially inspired by Victor Gijsbers’s Figaro (and there’s actually a dual reference to both Gijsbers and Mozart in Midnight. Swordfight. (ask Dmitri about the opera that he attended)).
Due to this design setup, the game required a limited verb system. Otherwise the possibilities for new outcomes in the “one-move” section would have been unmanageable. So there was a pragmatic reason for including the playscript.
However, I also enjoy limited verb systems. I’ve frequently seen people express the sentiment that an ideal parser should be able to “respond to anything.” I don’t agree. As a player, I prefer it when I know exactly what I can do, and when my limited actions have rich consequences.
Right now, thorough implementation seems to mean (in no small part) providing as many one-liners to as many different actions as a player might attempt. Many actions that people have come to expect to perform, such as “pray,” are typically useless, and yet players still want them included. They want to be able to jump and sing and climb the walls under any circumstance and have the parser accommodate their whims. Even if their whims have nothing to do with the story.
Midnight. Swordfight. doesn’t allow that. This doesn’t mean it isn’t thoroughly implemented (despite what some reviewers claimed). Examine, take, and kiss are the only three actions in the game that can be tried on everything, but they can indeed be tried on everything. The game has roughly 200 objects. Each one has a custom response. And let me tell you that writing 600 custom responses required a lot more effort that writing one-liners for verbs like “pray.”
In fact, removing extraneous standard verb responses from the Inform library was itself an implementation challenge. I’m still not sure whether I caught them all. I hunted and hunted. Someone more versed in the program might not have had such a hard time doing this.
You can rearrange the game to get more than 25 different endings. I say “more than 25” because I don’t actually know the real number. At one point I counted 26 and then realized I’d forgotten 2 others. There may be more than 30.
These are winning endings. If you also include the endings where the countess kills you… I can’t begin to guess all the permutations. There might be over 100.
As for an optimal ending, as the game says, there is none. Finding the best outcome means finding the outcome that suits you the best. This will vary depending on how players interpret the story.
When I started to write the game and flesh out the characters, the story is what made me realize that Midnight. Swordfight. wasn’t a joke anymore. I don’t intend to explain it. I’ll just say that what began as an unserious project became very serious for me, with the design woven intrinsically into the narrative.
On the outside, Midnight. Swordfight. resembles a confection. It’s perfectly possible that a player might nibble some sugar from the edge and consider themselves satisfied (or unsatisfied). But the deeper you bite into it, the more strange the flavors become, and in the middle there is blood and meat and umami. Nibbling the edge and sinking your teeth into the center are both valid ways to experience the game. What players put into it is what they will get back.
I can’t control how players will respond. I can’t control what they bring to the game or what they take away from it, and that’s as it should be.
Both Taghairm and Midnight. Swordfight. placed higher than I originally expected they would. I thought Taghairm would be dead last and Midnight. Swordfight. would be somewhere in the middle. Taghairm is highly unpleasant and Midnight. Swordfight. is weird and experimental. I’m glad that, in the end, both games managed to find their own audiences.