I’m not sure if this belongs here or in Discussion, Hints and Reviews. Feel free to move it if needed!
This is a (pretty lengthy) postmortem of the design and writing of Raik, look at writing choices, themes, interaction design, reviews and other stuff. I wrote it for me, but I’m posting it in the hope that it’s interesting for the community in general! I’m really, really interested in talking about any of this stuff, especially how it relates to more general design and writing questions. I’m pretty thick-skinned, so don’t worry about saying negative things: all the feedback’s useful and I won’t chib you.
I’ve been really, really happy with how Raik’s been received by reviewers. I’ve had a whole range of useful and valuable feedback on the design, and some folk providing really in depth critical analysis of themes and content. Thank you, reviewers. I was particularly bowled over by this because I was expecting to have to get over a good number of “what is this Scots stuff why is this author doing this to me ugh quit” responses, and in the end I only got two “hard to understand, boo” reviews. Which is to say, the IF community responded to the work in Scots openly and generously and thoughtfully, and that made me really happy. In my writing in general I’m trying to find audiences beyond Scotland for Scots language work, which can be challenging, but I feel really encouraged by the reception here. This is great, because the Scots literary scene isn’t doing wonderfully well at the moment, and is aging a lot, so the idea that I can be part of finding a life for it in games is pretty exciting. So thanks for that too.
It’s hard not to be a little disappointed with my placing, even as I know that crowd-judged scores are beaten in irrelevance only by panel-judged scores, and that competitions are more about building audiences than anything else. I was hoping for a spot in the top ten, but when the scores started being announced I knew I’d missed it, because there were twine games close enough to my style which I judged (and reviewers judged) to be way better than mine ranking in the bottom half of the top ten. Anyway, that’s the emotional bit. The interested-in-observing-trends bit of me notes that the IFComp judging audience has different taste weightings to the IFComp reviewing audience: the former is much more interested in puzzles and play, the latter much more likely to put puzzle-lite and twine-based stuff in their top picks. That’s not based on my ranking – I tended to be in people’s “recommended but not highly recommended” lists, and I’m good with that – but on the relative placing of Krypteia and With Those We Love Alive especially. This is genuinely not to say that one set of taste’s better than the other, far from it: I think the winners and the top ten all deserve it! Congratulations! But it is to say there’s a taste gap going on, and to think that it’s worth talking why that might be in a way that can deepen experimentation and play rather than division.
Dual Language / Dual Narrative
On the whole, I think this is (judging by the reviews) what I was able to pull off best. What I tried to design was an initial surprise, followed by tentative exploration, followed by understanding, and that people who really liked the game would explore both language paths fully. This is mostly what happened, and most folk had thoughtful responses to it. I think I was helped in this by dual narrative being an established (though I hope not yet hackneyed) narrative device – Jason Dyer’s reference to What Linus Bruckman Sees is spot on, though I totally forgot about that game throughout my entire development of Raik – which means that folk just had the hurdle of language to deal with, rather than being completely disoriented by dual narrative (or at least not for long). I think I’ve also been helped in this by IF’s particular receptiveness to you’re-dumped-in-a-weird-situation-now-figure-out-what’s-going-on mechanics, including and especially language play (e.g. Bad Machine, Lost Pig, and language puzzle games), which makes it a good venue for this sort of work.
For me, there’s a whole lot of thematic stuff going on in the use of dual language. A lot of it is to do with the history of Scots as a minor language, with the political relationship between Scots and English, with desire for a lost language and lost country, with the anxieties of dual language speaking and diaspora, and so on. If all that’s gobbledegook to you, Sam Kabo Ashwell’s review was almost gallingly precise in its dissection of these themes. Part of the issue with writing in Scots (and especially the issue with building its audience) is that as soon as you write in Scots you’re immediately referencing all of these themes: it never gets to assume the neutrality of an imperial language like English. Lots and lots of Scots writing is about these themes, and it gets pretty intricate – when I release this game to the Scots language community, the reception is going to be totally different, because they’ll have all that to pick over.
The trouble is, if you’re not interested in language politics, all that might either pass you by or not be interesting. But I was also working with other layers that aren’t to do with language politics at all – essentially, I was trying to make fantasy mundane and mundanity a little bit fantastical, and talk about the relationship between anxiety and escape. I want to explore the space in which fantasy is an escape from anxiety, but in which fantasy is also something whose falseness and totalising narratives need to be escaped from. So I was throwing all that into the game too, and hoping some of it stuck for players. Happily, from the reviews it looks like some of it did, and that there were enough layers in there for people to find the duality interesting and not just gimmicky.
The more negative reviews tended to be those that played through in one language first. This isn’t surprising when I think about it, because I didn’t design the game to be played like that: I didn’t fully consider what their play experience would be. A number of reviews encouraged me to up the number of forced jumps between languages, and I think doing at least one very near the beginning would solve a lot of problems.
But it looks like what all that didn’t achieve was particularly interesting story. The kinder version of the regular criticism was that the game felt “abrupt” or that the player “wanted more”. The harsher (and maybe truer) version was that once you strip away all the layers of intellectual play, the stories themselves weren’t interesting. Quite a number of reviews essentially said, “Well, all this is very thematically interesting and clever, but so what?” And this is not actually what I wanted. In the Scots/panic half, I wanted to tell a meaningful, relatable story of someone’s day; in the English/cavecrawl half, I wanted to tell an amusing parody with rich atmospherics. I think I fell into two traps: the first, enacting mundanity and repetition as a shortcut to artistic richness; the second, assuming that pastiche is interesting in itself. They’re massive traps because both pastiche and mundanity are huge, huge trends in indie gaming in general (and the former in mainstream gaming too). We’ve seen A Lot of fantasy pastiche, to the point where I can’t even tell what is pastiche any more (I mean, what the hell is Kingdoms of Amalur?) And the more mundanity is explored as a story mechanic, the less interesting it becomes. I didn’t even write particularly good pastiche, especially because most of the jokes were utterly obscure to anyone not versed in Scots culture (the poisonous fungus is coloured like and tastes like Irn Bru; the gods are all references to the SNP; &c &c &c. Funny to Scots, completely irrelevant to everyone else), so that it was mostly Light Fantasy Pastiche rather than Pointed Parody of Bad Celtic Fantasy. And the more I think about it, the less I want the Scots/panic half to be mundane: rather, I want it to be fraught, scary, and rich in character detail, to make it more relatable.
This has made me reflect on something: I’m not actually very experienced at telling good stories. I’m a writer, but I’m primarily a poet (no, seriously, it’s my actual job.) Poetry is a completely different thing to storytelling, and relies on completely different skills – it’s about music and form and intricate abstract relationships between words and ideas; it’s not about compelling narrative drive. So because of that lack of experience, I went to what I thought were clever storytelling methods, but were actually kneejerk props. I really want to work on this. I do want to tell good stories in Raik.
You could just call this “gameplay”, but I want to resist any implication that Raik is meant to be fun. It can be interesting and enjoyable and absorbing and so on, but I’m not aiming for fun interactions. However, I’m also not aiming for boring interactions. I didn’t want a turn-the-pages-twine. I like reading/playing those, I admire people who do them, but it isn’t what I wanted to do here: I wanted interactions that did more than pacing. (I think Porpentine does really subtle and often-missed things with this: what interactions do in her game tends to be very rich.)What I was trying to do – and what I think I fell short in – was design interactions which modelled for me different aspects of anxiety and panic. In particular, I was interested in the arbitrary relationship of choice to effect (the more anxious you get, the less possible it is to predict what’s going to make you more anxious), in inescapable mazes, in a sense of constant danger, and in the struggle to assert control. Wanting to explore these is what led me to the cave crawl allegory in the first place, because I realised how the classic puzzles and interactions of cave crawl were so close to the interactions of panic. I wanted to get to a point where it wasn’t clear if cave crawl was a metaphor for panic or if panic was a metaphor for cave crawl.
So I didn’t want interactions that were fun, and I didn’t want interactions you could master and beat, but I did want interactions that were meaningful. I feel like I got sort of halfway there, but in the end didn’t focus on it enough. I reiterated “choice unpredictably equals death” too many times, and didn’t find enough interaction variety to fully explore the possibility space. I also have an essential imbalance that I don’t quite know how to solve: while it might be interesting to read/play interactions about panic, the same interactions in a cave crawl are old hat. So how can I make them interesting to do? One potential solution is playing up the going-back-and-forth-to-solve-puzzles element, which I hadn’t realised I’d designed, but which several reviewers pointed to as enjoyable. This would also make it more like the game I want people to play. But I still feel like I’m missing something.
Lastly, there’s the tricky matter of death, replay, and the undo function. This was the hardest design decision for me, to make the player replay the game once or twice (more if they’re super inattentive or unlucky). My reasoning was that the game was short enough, and had enough content to explore horizontally (as opposed to “vertically” as “forward through the game”), that players would forgive the device – and I wanted to force repeats to signal repetition, to signal that both narratives would happen over and over again. I also like the emotional impact of insta-death with no undo, and for a game like Raik I wanted this to load each choice with meaning. But, inevitably, this did frustrate some players, including players who were otherwise favourable. Something’s occurred to me now, after thinking about Hadean Lands’ action-chunking: it shouldn’t be too hard to code a recap function, and on reset to offer each player the choice to “repeat” or “retry”, with the latter starting over, and the former playing a recap of everything that happened until the most recent room. I’d be interested in hearing thoughts on this.
So I telegraphed mental health stuff as a major theme of Raik, partly just due to the necessity of a content warning (which I really wish more people would use), but also because it’s important to me as a theme. I wanted to write something about anxiety that felt as accurate and relatable as Depression Quest, while trying to do something different with interaction design to (I feel) better model my own experience of dealing with madness. I’ve been mostly really happy with how this has come across, and the comments in reviews have been pretty supportive on this score. I’m a little cautious, though, of leaning too much on all this as a theme. I don’t want to just make a Big Topic Game. I don’t want it to be interesting just because it’s a game (thinking about Darius Kazemi’s recent comments here). I want it to be a good story that needs to be told as a game. I was also given a good sharp elbow by Sam Kabo Ashwell’s comment that interiority is the dominant mode of twine games, with Depression Quest’s choice modelling as the outlier. Again, this pushes me towards exploring more rich interaction design, rather than just relying on the theme to carry the game and story.
So, I’ve got a lot I could do with this game. I’m pretty sure I want to do an expanded overhaul of Raik, because I think I can do it, and because I think (hope) there’s appetite for it. I could move on and do another story, but I want to go back to Inform for my next project, and I don’t have another Twine to tell right now, so I’d rather mine the possibilities of Twine in this one. Here’s a to do list, which I’m writing mainly for me, but might be of interest as a summary:
- Write 2-3 extra scenes in each path
- Include in those scenes interactions that interestingly model different aspects of panic
- Write more horizontal content, with especially more character background and world-building for both narratives. (The game didn’t use extra detail – Twine’s equivalent of “examine [object]” – at all, and I think it can.)
- Make the cave feel more dramatic and awesome
- Create a recap function for the repetitions
- Include more forced switches between languages, especially one early on. Potentially make the transition itself interesting. Potentially use glitches.
- Very long-term next year plan: do an audio version. Because there isn’t enough Scots language audio, because there isn’t enough audio twine, because I’m interested in accessibility, and because I think it could be awesome.
Thanks for playing if you played, thanks for reviewing if you reviewed, and thanks for reading this. I hope there was something of wider interest in it for you. As I said up top, I’m really interested in discussing any aspect of this, especially how it relates to other games and broader design questions.
I’ll likely not be around this board as regularly (or maybe I will be, who knows). If you want to keep in touch I’m @harrygiles on Twitter and a regular user, and www.harrygiles.org is updated regularly with goings on. I’m in London next week to run a gameshow about class war at the Ovalhouse theatre; if any of you are in town, come say hi!