Sherlock Indomitable postmortem

(Brian Rushton) #1

The results of Spring Thing are in, and Illuminismo Iniziato has taken both ribbons. As a participant, I’m dismayed, but as a fan of IF history, I enjoy seeing someone come back after 15 years to make something great!

Here’s my postmortem for Sherlock Holmes:


After I finished Color the Truth, I discovered that gets much more traffic than IFDB (see vs. I posted Color the Truth on there, and one of the players said that they were interested in a sequel that uses the same linking technique.

At the same time, I noticed that the top game on was Sherlock Holmes related, and several reviews of Color the Truth had said it had poor writing. I had an idea: why not convert Sherlock Holmes stories to thought-linking games, using Doyle’s writing?

I had never released a larger-than-IFComp game before, so I wanted to do it right. I hoped at first to reach towards XYZZY Best Game. I resolved to enter it into Introcomp and Spring Thing, and, later, to write a series of bloglike posts advertising it.

Introcomp work

Once I started converting The Speckled Band, I realized I was in over my head. I like to make complicated games, but these short stories required a great number of actions to happen in certain temporal sequences, and so the game began to be made up of scenes much more than it was made up of rooms. As a static fiction author, it is easy for Doyle to introduced knowledge through a new NPC who only shows up for a second and leaves, while I had to code each such character, their reactions to various things, their description, and the scenes involving them leaving and going.

Simultaneously, many of the things most important for IF were left undescribed. I modified this by extensively searching the entire Holmes Canon, reading through all of the stories, searching for texts similar to the ones I was describing. It was thrilling, as Doyle’s descriptions of London are, in my opinion, some of the best writing in literature (although Doyle’s non-Sherlock fiction is fairly unappealing to me).

By the time of Introcomp, I had finished one story, and threw in a ‘mansion of the brain’ sequence because it seemed fun, but didn’t know how to flesh it out.


I won Introcomp, and resolved to finish my game. Very few ever do finish, despite a generous prize. I soon found out why.

Most IF authors, in absence of large communities of players and commercial audiences, tend to seek personalized interaction with their games in the form of reviews. Many authors are happy just to have someone take a look at their game and say, “Okay, I played this. Here are my thoughts.” I’m one of these authors.

Introcomp gives that interaction to people, with Billy Mays and Emily Short reviewing games, among others. After introcomp, you’re left with a game that:
-has already given you what you wanted (interaction)
-didn’t attract much interest on IFDB (introcomp games never do)
-most likely has the hardest parts left to implement, with no indication that people will be interested if you do
-you most likely haven’t been working on during the competition itself, losing momentum

But I resolved to fight through it. I would make a game with 8 cases, with each case having extra clues leading to an uber-case.

To my dismay, I found that to be wildly unlikely. I soon ran into memory and performance issues with the sheer number of clues I had floating around in just two cases. Translating story to game was exhausting, tedious, and resulted (when done in my new style) in boring stretches of linear gameplay.

I worked hard to improve it. I ended up deviating somewhat from the storyline to add some non-linearity.

But at all times, it was soul-crushing work to progress. I had already gotten feedback on Sherlock Indomitable, the text was very hard to adapt, and I wasn’t pleased with the results.

Spring Thing

I did some beta testing before Spring Thing. Many people found the original opening to be boring, so I added the new opening, an original story with text Frankenstein-ed from Sherlock’s later books. This ended up doing very well, and was many people’s favorite part. The other best part of the game was the response to kissing Watson, which I hoped someone would find (and which someone did).

Looking back, I should have just written my own Sherlock Holmes story. However, perhaps some school would be interested one day in using this game as a way for students to interact more closely with the literary text.

Spring Thing itself was fun. When I saw Arthur’s, Robin’s, and Michael’s games, I knew that I wasn’t going to win. But I’m proud of what I put out. Despite my concerns for my game, I take pride in my thoroughness, and tested it for hours. The source text is roughly 50K words, with some of the most intricate code I’ve ever written. I spent weeks on the cover art, and read Sherlock’s stories over and over and over again. I think it’s a good game, despite its faults, and it will provide enjoyment to fans of Color the Truth wanting more as well as fans of Sherlock Holmes.

Wrapping-up and going forward

In the end, I accomplished my goal of being one of the few Introcomp winners to ever complete their game. I put out a large, polished game that I am proud of.

On the negative side, it cause nary a splash in the community. A few people said they enjoyed it, but it is (as of today) the only unreviewed game on IFDB from this Spring Thing. With 3 reviews a month after its publication, it is by far the least popular of my ‘big games’ (the others being Ether, Color the Truth, Swigian, and Absence of Law). My plans for ‘hyping it’ by entering it in Introcomp and extensively advertising it through blog posts fell flat.

But I plan on taking the lessons I learned and starting again. I think a game’s popularity rises and falls on its own qualities, and not external circumstances. There are some choices I made with Sherlock Indomitable that I think I will never make again. I will make better games, and work harder to bring them to a wider audience.

Despite my personal frustrations, I couldn’t ask for a better community. I especially thank Xalavier Nelson, Jr., Jacqueline Ashwell and Aaron Reed for the huge amount of work they put into these competitions; my beta testers for donating free time and experience; Arthur Conan Doyle for writing great stories; the reviewers for looking over this game during Introcomp and now; and the great authors of the other Spring Thing games, especially Arthur Dibianca, whose Gopher game was the first truly great game I played after getting burnt out by IFComp. Thanks so much to everyone!

If you like my work, I have some commercial products coming out, hopefully this year. One is with Choice of Games, and centers on Mrs. Claus being a powerful magic user/assassin/ancient goddess who is covering up the centuries-old death of Santa.

I also have a sequel to The Owl Consults finished (as a prize for Thomas Mack and Co. for their placement in IFComp). It’s a lot of fun, and is a polar opposite to Sherlock Holmes (short, location based, dry goods centered). I’ve posted asking for beta testers, but haven’t gotten any hits yet. I may be contacting people individually to ask for assistance, so keep an eye out!

Thanks again to everyone, and have a great year!


Thanks for the insightful write-up. I sort of don’t like rating things, but I suppose I should use IFDB more…

The interface improvements you made to the final version were lovely.

As an aside: is there some big dry-goods-in-IF theory article somewhere? Googling only shows me other brief references.

(Brian Rushton) #3

This reference article by Emily Short discusses it implicitly by showing how difficult it is to model other things: … ion-older/

Thank you for your help and your comments!


What I was really asking about was if there was an origin, or definitive article on the term. I thought from context it might just mean inventory-based puzzles, but Emily’s article is more physical-world simulation stuff. Like… Best Gopher Ever or Guttersnipe, are those dry goods-centered? Would, hmm… something like House be the antithesis?

(Andrew Plotkin) #5

I first saw the term applied to IF by Sam Ashwell, but it sounded like he was quoting.

In the IF context, the phrase is “medium-sized dry goods”. Not specifically inventory puzzles, but the strong historical focus of parser IF on objects which can reasonably be taken, dropped, put, pushed, pulled, turned, and so on. And the concomitant tendency to implement all interaction in terms of those objects and those verbs.

(I.e., when you demonstrate your loyalty to NPC X or NPC Y by finding an object and then typing GIVE THING TO PERSON, because that’s the kind of action which the parser is good at. That’s the medium-sized dry goods bias.)

(Caleb Wilson) #6

Sam Ashwell first applied it to IF – it’s a phrase from the philosopher J. L. Austin:

( … iny_t.html)


This was a really interesting read, thanks.

I had a similar thing partially prepared about the creative process that went into Illum. It’s probably less interesting now than it would have been back in the Inform6 heydey, but I may get around to posting it.

I am a huge Sherlock fan and love all the canon stories (Arthur “Canon” Doyle?), and I really liked Sherlock Indomitable. I just didn’t want to say too much about any games while the comp was on.

A lot of SI read almost exactly like some of the later stories, especially stories like The Lion’s Mane and others narrated by Holmes himself. I frequently found myself wanting to go check The Six Napoleons to compare what characters were saying in the game with what they’d said in the story.

I am also in awe of the mental gymnastics you must have had to keep the phrasing in the flashback scenes consistent.

The conscious mind bit also really put me in mind of Sherlock’s “mind palace” in the modernized BBC series.

[That series, sadly, seems to be less about “here’s a case that Holmes and Watson investigate” these days than “here’s this shocking twist that doesn’t make a lot of sense if you think about it.”]

(Brian Rushton) #8

Thank you for your comments, Turthalion! I believe the community response to my game was at a very appropriate level; I just personally felt like I hadn’t made the best game that I could.

I would be very interested in a postmortem of II!


After I found it, I started doing this thing from time to time - when Holmes and Watson discovered an important clue, etc.