Postmortems for dead cats and dead duelists

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.



Taghairm

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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.

Some people look at a painting and say “well, I hate purple,” so to them the whole painting is invalid. This goes for any type of art. And you’re right, there is a huge gulf between people like that (which might be most people) and artists (or at least critics). Of course, torturing cats may not be quite the same thing as a certain color, but I think people who review and judge art have some responsibility to either muscle through it or simply abstain from voting when they are offended. I love cats myself, but it was clear enough to me that Taghairm was not an anti-cat piece, so protesting it by means of a “1” vote would be not only missing the point but also useless.

Actually, if you like cats, the game may indeed be more effective. I could certainly feel it. As I mentioned in my review in the authors’ forum, I survived the experience, I felt, because the cat sounds were not quite as screamingly tortured as they could have been. My question for you is: why not? Would that not serve the experience better? Or did you dial it down deliberately to make the game more playable?

Actually, it was the IFComp file size limit that partially determined how many audio effects I could use. I made .mp3 and .ogg versions for every sound file to make sure they would play in different browsers, and I kept having to trim back the audio to meet the limit.

In addition to that, having as many audio files as Taghairm does kept making Twine malfunction. It wouldn’t load them in the correct passages. It would loop them when they were supposed to stop. I wanted to have cricket noises at the beginning, and no matter what I did, Twine would just not have it, even though it played those same cricket noises at the end without a problem.

What this finally meant was that I had to make do with only three cat vocalizations (so actually six with .mp3 and .ogg). I would have certainly included more, but I couldn’t figure out how. And this wasn’t a small issue. I spent months working on the audio, editing it, plugging it into the game, only to have to chop it out again and reduce the sounds.

I should also say here that I am no sound editor. I had to teach myself as I went, and it’s not easy. I’m still very much an amateur at it.

Interesting. It sounds like Twine has issues that may be corrected someday.

Also maybe the IFComp file size limit should be raised.

Still, I’m curious… did you dial down any cat sounds or select tamer ones?

Initially I had sounds ranging from more subdued whimpers to ear-piercing shrieks. Well, okay, not ear-piercing exactly because I dislike jump-scare tactics, but definitely in that territory. I wanted enough to have them rotate around so you were getting different audio through the whole game.

That didn’t work, for reasons I explained, so I focused on three middle-range cat sounds instead. They still vary, but not as much, because my goal was to make them horrible but also bearable for repeat listens. I do wish I was a better audio editor and that Twine had been more cooperative for this element of the game.

Respectfully, in what way was “Taghairm” a game? I played it through twice, once refusing to skewer the cats, and once burning a few dozen of them, until I got to what appeared to be the ending. I couldn’t find any sort of strategy or puzzles, and barely any story.

It seemed to me like a (pardon the term) shaggy dog yarn. If you repetitively keep clicking the links until you’ve slain several dozen cats (which starts off disturbing and then becomes tedious), the devil shows up and agrees to grant a wish. And that’s it. No further story, no further choices. You don’t even get to find out what the wish was. So why did I have to sit around clicking links and burning cats for 15 minutes?

It struck me as more of an art piece than a game, but not one that was interesting enough to justify the very repetitive interaction, nor did it have enough material to justify the massive amount of memory it took up. (I did only hear three or four sounds, and wondered what the rest of the files were for. The sounds I heard were nicely atmospheric … the first dozen times.)

I think you’ve confused profundity with ambiguity, honestly. I’ve got no quibble with games that feature amoral PCs, but if a game expects me, the player, to engage in immoral behavior, there better be some sort of motive or reward for that activity. In “Taghairm” there was none, so it reads as a troll – offensiveness for its own sake. It reminded me a bit of that exhibit with the goldfish in the blender, only “Taghairm” is like 30 identical rooms with 30 identical goldfish in blenders. If you were trying to convey a message, I’m afraid I didn’t get it.

I think that the words ‘not a game’ around here are fighting words, and generally lead to heated arguments.

Edit: Technically, the words “not a game” don’t appear in this post. Also, I wondered if Taghairm was a troll game, too, but I’ve played some real troll games since then, and I have to applaud Taghairm for being classy about consent. It let’s you know ahead of time what is going to happen, and you can opt out.

It seems to me that Merlin Fisher’s post makes Chandler’s point: “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.”

Personally, I did connect with it. That doesn’t mean I enjoyed it, in the way one might enjoy a good meal or a funny joke. I don’t suppose that it is made to be “enjoyed”, in that sense. But I rated it highly, as a game (using that word in the very loose and extended way that it is in fact conventionally used in this context).

I didn’t write a proper review of this, but a verse review, which was (correctly, I suppose) described as flippant but which did in fact describe what I took to be one point in the game: that the player must engage in an unpleasant and rather dull task to achieve a desired “pay off”, just as the characters do. The writing is fine – the horror is almost entirely one created in the player’s imagination, where the game simply describes what is happening with exquisite precision. To my mind it is a serious comment on the morality of fiction and (though I hate to bring it up) some aspects of the fuzzy set of questions that sails under the “player agency” flag of convenience.

As to Merlin Fisher’s question “So why did I have to sit around clicking links and burning cats for 15 minutes?” one answer, as we all know, is that you didn’t have to do that, which is precisely the (or a) point; and another is that however many links you click no cats are burned, which in this context I take to be a non-trivial point. Whether any particular person gets anything out of it is bound to depend on highly subjective factors, as Chandler explicitly pointed out, and it doesn’t seem very productive to insist that anyone who did find it interesting must be making some sort of objective error.

Edited to clarify what I meant by saying I did not “enjoy” it.

I found it a very compelling piece, to the point where I wrote up my thoughts about Taghairm-as-game-phenomenon here:

ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=he48ok … view=33006

Merlin Fisher: a lot of CYOA games experiment a lot with a barely-interactive format to tell a story that is mostly linear, leaning on the multimedia effects to enhance the experience. It’s not “interactive fiction” in the sense of having a lot of player agency, but it’s certainly no longer static fiction; in a lot of those games (Cis Gaze I particularly recommend) textual effects are used to enhance the experience, and tell the story in a different way. In usual static fiction, or even parser IF, it’s not possible to inject text right in the middle of what’s already being displayed. In Twine specifically it is, and it’s often used to great effect.

This is just an example, of course. My point is that IF is more of an umbrella term that includes works which may not immediately look like games, for whatever reason, but are nevertheless qualitatively different from reading static fiction. Rameses and Photopia are the obvious examples of the same phenomenon in parser IF.

Cat Scratch would be the “game” that would most obviously leave people asking “What is this doing here?”. Because when all’s said and done, all definitions aside, we all recognise something that really doesn’t belong, as opposed to something that sort-of-kinda-may-or-may-not-belong.

Heck, Cat Scratch should deserve a special sprize for making some divisions clear as possible. It shows that IF can be many things, but at some point - like this - it draws the line.

I bear no animosity towards Cat Scratch, BTW. It seems positively adorable, and I do enjoy static stories with barely interactive elemnts (Ceremony of Innocence is one of my all-time ever favourite experiences, and it breaks my heart it will only run on Win95). I hope Cat Scratch does well outside of the Comp, pointed towards young readership. But as far as the Comp and IF goes… I never thought it had any real place in it.

And by comparison, every other game did. The difference between the non-interactivity in CS and the rest of the games is too big to ignore, and gives CYOA a valid argument for it being called IF.

These were supposed to be just two cents, but what the heck, have the full fifty. [emote]:)[/emote]

I think PaulS has covered one side of the issue and Peter Piers another side pretty well, and I really appreciate the review that catacalypto wrote. I do just want to add one thing about what I mean when I say something is a game. I personally associate games with puzzles. Something that has no puzzles probably isn’t a game to me. But I use the word “game” to describe all interactive fiction for convenience, and because the label “game” holds no great sanctity to me. I just sling it around wherever.

Taghairm relies heavily, heavily on interaction. It hinges around it, even more than dynamic fiction. You are committing actions, not just reading text, and the actions matter a lot. So I call it a game.

When I wrote Midnight. Swordfight., I actually didn’t consider that to be a proper game either. I thought it was another “hinge around interactivity” experience, although I still called it (and do call it) a game. But people interpreted it as having light puzzles. Which is fine by me.

The game has three cat vocalizations, one crackling fire sound, one roaring fire sound, one roasting sound, one hissing sound, one stabbing sound, one wailing sound, one storm sound, one wind sound, and one cricket sound. That’s 12 sounds, so 24 files between the .mp3s and .oggs.

I was one of the reviewers who wrote “not for cat lovers.” I was being snarky, not intentionally dismissive. I also mentioned that I believed the game had something significant to say about Human Cruelty, which I believe was in line with Chandler’s intent. I ranked Taghairm somewhere near the middle in my scoring, just a little above where it finished as an average score.

I know, and I wasn’t attempting to say “any review that writes something of the sort is Wrong”, but in fact the opposite. Just about every interesting review of the game did make that move, and I made plenty of my own jokes about it on the author’s forum. I didn’t take your comment or anyone else’s as dismissive at all: rather an interesting, and common, rhetorical move. It felt at a point that everyone was being snarky or flip about Taghairm, and I loved that aspect of the response as a very human way of dealing with, as you say, Human Cruelty and discomfort. I hope I didn’t come across as accusatory.

You know, the thing about Taghairm is I think it only really works if the reader/player gets invested - it’s actually very interactive in that way. It’s more of a simulation, I guess, in that you are temporarily in this role and feeling some part of what the characters are feeling, and exploring how it makes YOU feel and what that maybe says about your view of the world. I think if you don’t voluntarily surrender that distance, it’s not going to be as effective.

It’s the same sort of thing with how you voluntarily surrender your skepticism at the start of a haunted house. You know rationally that you’re not in danger, but if you let yourself kind of believe you could be, you get more out of it.

So I guess for me Taghairm really is like a simulation. It’s an experience to go through more than a narrative you control.

And for me that was effective. I know some people have said that the story doesn’t change much or discounted the narrative during the cat-roasting altogether, but for me that portion of the experience was incredibly effective. I would rush through roasting the cats so that I could get the next bit of the story - like a Skinner pigeon, trying to get to the reward. And I would frequently pause and think, “ok, actually, that’s fucked up, and beautiful in a meta way” because…I was roasting cats…for a reward.

I also remember at one point not being sure how many more cats I needed to roast, and thinking maybe I’d give up, and then thinking, “But what’s the point? I’ve come this far, I may as well see it to the end.” Which was, also, a very meta moment.

So for me, the simulation worked really well in that sense.

A question for CMG:

In the opt-out ending, I interpreted this bit of text:

To mean that something calamitous was headed in the direction of your home/village. I interpreted “soon enough” not in an existential “everyone dies” way but in a literal “no, seriously, this ritual was our last hope and now EVERYONE DIES” way. Which for me meshed perfectly with the true ending. But I wonder - is that what you had in mind? I mean, obviously a lot of things are left open to interpretation, but did you have a context like that in the back of your mind?

I feel like this is something I shouldn’t comment on. I will say that I like how you’re thinking about that spot! I wrote it to be interpreted a few potential ways, but it’s something I want to leave up to the player.

Fair enough [emote];)[/emote]

I have a lot of respect for those authors who can leave things open ended enough to invite multiple interpretations without it feeling lazy. I have a compulsion toward over-explaining and it definitely does me no favors.

I have played ‘Midnight. Swordfight’ several times now and it has offered a very different experience each time. The writing is wonderfully evocative and I greatly appreciated the bespoke nature of the game. As someone who has a very low tolerance for violence and gore I appreciated the option to bypass these entirely in the outcome. The game mechanics were also delightfully novel.

I just played ‘Midnight. Swordfight’ for a few hours now and arrived at many endings. I loved how the story developed in ways of fantasy and evocative scenes. I would really like the main scenario to be explained though, especially when arriving at the entrance where you can see the countess next to Onegin, and she’s beautiful, and the dancers/other people are all around, and it feels like there should be a way to finally talk with the countess… In a way I want it to be back into a fairy tale, or rather a romantic story, please Mr. Groover? I did arrive at the “love conquers all” endings, but it’s not like the countess forgave you… Is there a way to know what exactly happened? By talking with Dmitri? Anyway to repair that past?

Less important, what does the body in the fountain have to do with the story? I liked it a lot, but it seems only to be a mood setter.

Thanks for the comments! I’m glad you liked the game. I do think it’s possible to come to an understanding about what happened, but it involves interpreting the story in ways that I wouldn’t want to talk about as the author. It’s up to the player to think about everything presented in the text.

[spoiler]Regarding the fountain, though, I will say that I consider that scene to be much more than mood-setting.

And as for interacting with the countess at the entrance, I’m afraid she slips away from you there, too, when you try to walk into the past. A core idea in the game is how you can influence some things, but others that seem within reach are really too far away.[/spoiler]

IFComp has a file size limit? I had a ridiculous amount of sound files last year and nobody said anything about it. (???)