Rite of Passage postmortem

„Rite of Passage“ is my attempt at a choice-based game. CYOA-style narratives to me have the advantage of not needing a world model as is usual in parser games. Instead of providing what is essentially a cumbersome user interface for a game world, a choice structure allows me to express myself in a much more literary way. As such, I wanted the choices to be made to be on a very different level than the object manipulation usually portrayed in a parser game. I’d been thinking of writing a coming-of-age-story for some time and I realised that CYOA would be a good fit for such a project. Of course, I would also have liked to make a parser game where you can DRAW OBSCENITY ON BLACKBOARD, but I only had time for one ifcomp entry.

I think many coming-of-age tales nicely skirt the real issues of growing up. This begins with the issue that they usually take place amongst 15-year-old-upwards. I’m pretty sure that most people will have had to grow up a lot earlier than that. When thinking about teenage behaviour, what will come to mind for many people is „bad decisions,“ because everyone made a couple of these back in the day. Probably a couple more. With hindsight, we feel like fools when we think back. After all, the pitfalls were so easy to spot, maybe not for us as children, but now that we’ve grown up, we’ve become smarter, and we wouldn’t fall into the same traps again, would we?

There has been quite a bit of research on the social dynamics in groups of adolescents from Scandinavia to New Zealand and the general consensus is this: what we assume to be typical teenage behaviour, isn’t. The harmful interactions we take for granted are largely the product of the artificial grouping-together of young people of similar age without a realistic way out. From my own experience of different education systems, I’d say this is something that’s ingrained in the concept of school itself. That’s nothing new. Rather, it can be traced to the time this form of education was first conceived. In „Rite of Passage“, I tried to point to this by quoting some older accounts of school life.

Bullying is, to a large extend, learned behaviour. It’s something adults should be able to prevent and stop. Once it’s proceeded beyond a certain point, the children themselves won’t be able to stop it any more (because bullies by then have a lot to loose and also because a paradigm shift sets in with everyone else). From then on, it will only ever escalate, until an adult steps in. I wanted to make a game that showed this aspect of growing up.

Very little is expected of young teenagers, even though this is the age when they’re finally able to start doing something productive. From my own youth I remember vividly how fast people learned when they were allowed to learn what they liked, how they sparkled when they were allowed to perform and how this was the exception, because they usually weren’t allowed. I can’t remember many details of what happened in between such occasions. I suspect that’s because memory is merciful. This put me in a difficult position for making my ifcomp game, content-wise. I didn’t want to rely on material from literature or film, so I started asking around and I quickly found out that this kind of partial amnesia is a familiar thing. Everyone remembers a few nasty things from their childhood, but they’re rarely linked into something like a coherent story. Still, after a while, I had quite a comprehensive collection of personal memories. Some of which were so horrible I was never going to to make use of them. I gather from reviews of „Rite of Passage“ that the setting is perceived as extreme. I didn’t intend it to be. I don’t think there are many people who haven’t had any experience with similar situations and I left the extremes of betrayal, blackmail and exploitation untold, because I had no adequate words to describe them. Suffice to say that I have seen grown men and women in tears when they told me about what they did decades earlier.

What we can’t bring ourselves do in a game, we will never be able to do in reality. One choice we are often faced with as adolescents, as I think others will agree, is between stopping something we vaguely perceive as bullying and getting into an embarrassing situation because we got it all wrong. This is, of course, a false choice. Misunderstandings can be cleared up, years of abuse can’t. We should consider ourselves lucky to even be able to make the choice since most of this happens away from our eyes. Yet, in the absence of good information, we are usually unwilling to act at all. Another familiar dilemma will be this one: a bloody nose once is usually preferable to a year of name-calling. But a bloody nose hurts and who knows if it’ll actually help? In „Rite of Passage“ I tried to present the players with such situations to put their instinct and wits to the test. Would they be able to discern banter from harassment? Would they risk taking the fall if they were wrong? Would they risk it if they were right?

There is another aspect to the assumption that teenagers make bad decisions and bring it onto themselves: they live with a delusional view of the world and therefore have crazy priorities. I know several people who endured years of bullying before they finally told an adult about it. In each case, the problem had by then grown so monstrous they had given up all hope, yet it was solved within days. It’s true that their assessment of the situation was delusional. But these delusions will soon create a reality of their own. An example: even if the reasons the boys all start carrying knifes are ridiculous, the blades are still pretty sharp. Children know all too well this kind of behaviour is incomprehensible and even inexcusable by adult standards so they stop talking to adults about it. They may be acting perfectly reasonably, however, given the paradigm they are operating in. To adequately portray people manoeuvring themselves into such corners, the game had to span years. It also had to fit into the two-hour ifcomp limit so, maybe unavoidably, it turned out very disjointed and episodic. I don’t think this is unrealistic, by the way. Many of these altercations turn up out of nowhere, they’re very jarring experiences.

During my research, I had the privilege to read a few childhood diaries. They had varying amounts of detail, but all of them lacked the one kind of information one would want from a diary: How the authors felt about their experiences day by day. I decided to go for realism and copied this style. The diary format has the disadvantage of being written for the author her/himself. This means it generally assumes a lot of things to be known to the reader already. In my first drafts for the game, I left it that way for the players, who’d have to piece all of it together from the fragments. Beta testing showed that this was fine for things like the physical setting but wouldn’t work for an ever expanding set of characters. So I put in quite a bit of extra work and created a dramatis personae function. It allowed me to sketch out, ever so lightly, a few stories that run alongside the protagonist’s own struggles, intersecting now and then.

Another notion I wanted to make a point to avoid is that these kind of stories end because the bullies are finally defeated or possibly even changed for the better. I think it’s irresponsible to tell children they have much of a chance, or, even worse, some kind of obligation, to change others for the better (a concept, which, interestingly, is at the heart of much education reform). Probably, the best most people can do is to change themselves just a tiny little bit over a couple of years. Possibly, they might be able to go into inner emigration. There may even be a few people who’ve have had unfortunate experiences but at least no regrets. This is what I went for with my story and especially the different endings. Structurally, I wanted a balance between giving the player agency and what’s realistic: we go down a path chosen for us very early in life. I ended up with a story that can, in most sessions, be turned around once for better or worse, but rarely twice. The restart mechanism at the end of the game only offers options to make the second attempt at making the right choices even harder than the first. This is partly to provide a bit more replayability. With the benefit of hindsight, we are probably able to make better decisions, but that’s a benefit real children don’t have.

Thanks for the write up. I found all the stuff about adolescent social dynamics to be interesting, and I think a lot of your research and what you were going for did come through in Rite of Passage.

I played through twice and got roughly the same downbeat ending, and chalked that up to just a point about life as a kid in general, which you seem to be indicating is at least partly right. Same with the blocked choices, which I assumed was just lack of confidence inherent in the protagonist. But you’re saying there is a sort of partial turn around that can happen? I don’t need specifics necessarily, but was there more I could’ve done?

Thanks for playing the game! What you’re saying has come up in several reviews and I think it got my game voted down, which is regrettable. So here is the short answer: Every blocked choice is, in fact, accessible, given the right choices prior to it (apart from, possibly, one choice early in 8th grade, where one option may actually be impossible to unlock in any given play-through, I’m not sure).

For the long answer, I’d like to take this opportunity and write about the underlying mechanics:
Almost every choice influences several things. Firstly, it’ll increment or decrement one or more character trait variables for the protagonist, such as confidence or general friendliness. Secondly, it’ll influence the relationships between the PC and other characters, sometimes also the relationships between these NPCs. Thirdly, it’ll decide which vignette will be presented to the PC as the next diary entry, partly as a balancing mechanism to keep up the difficulty: Make a good choice and the next one will be tougher. This means the player will only see about 60% of entries in any given play session. I tried to make the progression of entries seem natural, as in “this is the kind of thing likely to happen to someone making such decisions”. I think I may not have been entirely successful in this.

There is usually no best choice as such, because all options involve some kind of trade-off: spend some confidence to increase your friendship with X, become more friendly towards others but also more easily manipulated etc. Some choices even have entirely different consequences depending on game state (for example the final decision of whether or not to change schools). On the other hand, the options themselves are sometimes stat-locked, that is crossed out if some character trait or relationship variable is above (or below) a cut-off. This is to simulate the “people manoeuvring themselves into a corner” thing I wrote about in the initial post. That said, it’ll take a few decisions going in the same direction to stat-lock away any possibility of turning the story around, especially since all these variables are capped with minimum and maximum values. The importance of the decisions increases with age: decisions in 5th grade have about half the impact of those in 8th grade.

The effect of all this is that it’s possible to take different routes to get to any of the 12 different endings of the game, some of which are, however, only attainable in a narrower range of game states than others. The quote right at the very end is solely based on the final values for the PCs character traits, ignoring the other characters’ fate.

This whole system took a lot of time and trial and error development to make it work at all and to make it balanced while still producing the kind of stories I wanted to tell. So, like I said, it’s regrettable if players missed it entirely. On the other hand, I fancy the idea that the reason the choices were crossed out seemed so sensible in these cases that the players didn’t even think they could be influenced. That would be precisely the train of thought teenagers are often caught up in.

Hmm. interesting. I do remember two scenarios that stuck out because they really confused me, where on both playthroughs I was presented with the same blocked choices and an action that seemed pretty out of character either time.

One took place at a train station, with a classmate that lost something on the tracks, and my being only able to tell them to go down to retrieve it. That just seemed like a fairly callous, fairly reckless, but also fairly outspoken type of thing to do, y’know, and I don’t exactly remember the types of choices I was tending towards in either playthrough, but it definitely didn’t match any of those, and I think that was one of the more peripheral classmates as well.

The other involved a trio/duo of, basically, the bullies in the story, or at least that’s how they came across in my playthroughs, and my seeing them and only being able to follow them into the woods instead of flying a kite (or something like that). I definitely wasn’t friendly with them at all, so I wasn’t sure why I’d want to get near them or hang out with them.

I imagine I was maybe (my best guess) trying to play an outgoing friendlier character in at least one of the playthroughs, and I might’ve been trying to just keep my head down and not get into trouble in the other one. But do you want to discuss what was going on behind the scenes with the stats that might have thrown my reading on those situations off?

Here is a strategy that should unlock some of the options in the choices you are referring to:

It’s a good idea to invest in confidence early on in the game, because later choices tend to consume confidence as they get more consequential. To gain more confidence, don’t try to hide the PCs interests but be open to new things and generally try to be straightforward with people. Avoid excessive violence but don’t play a push-over, either. Stand the moral high ground when you can.

If you want to try and go for a good ending, doing this in the beginning is still a good idea, but with some caveats:

Don’t overdo it, or else it’ll cost you the PCs friends, literally. Switch to using up the standing you’ve acquired to protect them about halfway through the game. Use the opportunities presented by the sports vignettes to gain more confidence.

Lastly, it will all be for naught if you let the protagonist fall for the wrong girl. You’ve been warned.
That should spoil the game with reasonable certainty.