To help kill time waiting for tomorrow’s results, I thought I’d go ahead and post some thoughts on my game! This post is going to comprehensively spoil Sting, and since at least piece of it works better unspoiled, if you’re at all interested in the game I’d definitely recommend playing through it first (it’s only an hour! There aren’t any puzzles! Some people liked it a lot albeit others had entirely-fair critiques!) before reading on.
In case you’re now ruing your decision to click on this topic, here’s some small introductory fuzzy-text to space things out:
Man, it was only when sitting down to write this that I realized that “post-mortem” can be a ghoulish name for these sorts of reflections.
Oh, and one more:
This is really long! I kind of had a lot on my mind with this game, and I am just the kind of overexplaining schmuck that Death of the Author theory was invented to shut up. If you’re only marginally interested in me navel-gazing about what I’m trying to do with Sting, I’d skip ahead to the design and implementation and section-by-section pieces.
Why Sting – or, a Millenni-old works out his feelings on achieving the smallest imaginable iota of worldly success
There are perhaps few games less in need of an explanation of where and when the idea for it came from than this one, inasmuch as the sixth vignette relates the circumstances quite directly: but for that most recent sting, I would have entered something quite different in the Comp. Still, there’s some context beyond that moment when inspiration in the form of a small, frightened insect struck.
Going into this year, I knew I wanted to enter the Comp – it’s true it gets addictive after you get your feet wet – and I knew I wanted to do so with a game very different from my entry last year, the Ancient-Greek Wodhovian comedy The Eleusinian Miseries. The response to TEM, which was my first game, was very gratifying, and it came in an undeserved sixth out of an extremely strong field of 103. I can’t lie, that felt great! But at the same time, TEM was a light comic-opera puzzlefest – obviously a genre that tends to punch above its weight class in the Comp – and a couple reviews pointed out some of continuity with previous games that have done well in the Comp (Alias the Magpie also has a Wodhouse inspiration, there’s a funny pig like in Wizard Sniffer and Lost Pig, etc.) I was born right on the Gen X/Millennial divide – a sub-generation that Big Media wants you to think is called “Old Millennial” when “Millenni-old” is sitting right there – and I’ve absorbed enough of the former’s knee-jerk aversion to things that are popular that I felt conflicted about having maybe taken an easy route to success. I was also self-conscious about potentially getting typecast as a Funny Parser Puzzlefest Guy (sadly I can’t blame overweening self-regard – like anyone cares enough to typecast me! – on my generational position).
That was one set of (largely dumb) reasons to want to try something that didn’t fit easily into an existing IF subgenre. More defensibly, in every Comp some of my favorite games are the ones that march to the beat of their own drum – I’m thinking of stuff like last year’s Accelerate, or the deep cut Constraints from 2002, which finish middle-of-the-pack or worse but which try to do something new and interesting. So after having entered a traditional design last time, I went into this year wanting to do something a little different, not trying to be intentionally divisive but OK with writing something that wouldn’t be the median Comp-voter’s cup of tea. I also wanted to do something that would improve my Inform chops further, with some more systemic design pieces that went beyond the relatively-straightforward object-manipulation puzzles of TEM. In last year’s author’s forum, there was a post where folks said what their next project was likely to be, and the ideas I posted were “election night simulator”, “rock and roll exorcism”, and “supernatural investigation mediated by Eliot’s The Waste Land”, so I figured I’d take one of those and flesh it out.
My big ambitions were significantly clipped just two weeks into January, though, when my wife and I found out she was pregnant, with the due date for our first kid falling at the beginning of September. I still wanted to enter the Comp, but figuring out a game fell by the wayside for the first couple months of the year in the whirlwind of figuring out how our lives were about to change. By April, things in our personal life were starting to settle down, but I had done no thinking about IF in months and the pressure to decide on a game idea was starting to build, with the new detail that I was probably not going to have much time in August or September for IF.
The other piece of context was, of course, my twin sister’s death. She passed away in March of last year, right before the pandemic hit in earnest, so we of course didn’t do the in-person memorial we’d been planning on. After months of delay, finally we decided to do a virtual service near the one-year anniversary – side-note, mourning during COVID is really challenging! – so having recently written a eulogy meant that all my memories and thoughts about Liz were even closer to the surface than usual when that sting happened in April. And IF and Liz had been pretty closely linked in my mind for the last couple of years, oddly enough: after being pretty into IF in the aughts, I’d drifted away for most of the last decade, but came back to it by binging the 2019 Comp games as a distraction after her cancer returned that October. TEM was in large measure written to create a place of pure consequence-free silliness, a forthright escape to a world where nothing bad ever happens.
There’s one final thing to circle back to, which is that “election night simulator” idea I mentioned above. I work in a politics-adjacent field so I’ve always been the person friends call and text to ask what the various returns coming in mean, so I thought there could be a fun game about juggling spreadsheets and maps before going to a campaign after-party or something like that. As I thought about the idea, though, I realized what was interesting about the idea was largely grounded in my personal experiences – I’ve had some interesting election nights, some of which involved the aforementioned stats-crunching, but others had last-minute get-out-the-vote door-knocking, or, uh, playing a drinking game that led to the paramedics getting called, so as I tried and failed to get the concept to cohere, one of the structures I considered was doing an anthology of short, autobiographical vignettes.
All the above means that when that unfortunate bee stung me on one of my regular evening walks (yes, we’re finally back here!), the pieces pretty quickly clicked into place – I thought I could pull together a reasonably interesting game that was my election-night simulator idea, but for bees and my sister, and since I wouldn’t have to make much up, I could probably write it fast enough to get it into the Comp.
Themes, design goals, and other hubristic concerns
So that’s the prosaic background on where the idea for Sting came from, but it’s only half the story because inflicting a memoir centering on a real-life death into IF Comp didn’t feel like something I should do without a good reason – despite being raised Catholic I’m not especially big on confession, and I very much wanted to avoid writing something that was just going to be a feel-sorry-for-me, life-sucks-and-then-you-die bummer (I tried to keep the game as light as I could – it ends on a somber, reflective note but there are a lot of jokes along the way). But I thought I could focus Sting on a couple of key ideas that were sufficiently compelling to justify the self-absorption of writing a memoir.
The first idea – which is alluded to directly in the sixth vignette – is about the shifting, eroding nature of memory, and how much is at stake when memories are all you’ve got left. Almost all my memories of the first half of my life, and just about every significant one in the second half, involve Liz, because of course they do. Until last year, those memories were about what they were about, but now they all run up against the fact that Liz died way too soon, and that goes from the big stuff all the way down to completely dumb things like the times I’ve been stung by a bee. A game seemed like it could communicate how that felt, by presenting scenarios the player could get invested in, then presenting the fact of Liz’s death to recontextualize them. I also wanted to build some fuzziness into the vignettes – while I’ve tried to hew as closely as possible to what I remember at least in terms of the setups, there are also different outcomes possible, with the player’s idiosyncratic choices and actions representing the fuzziness in my recollections, where I feel like I’m often trying to interpolate what must have happened based on the few details that I do recall (this is also why the dialogue options at the end don’t force you to tell Paria what “actually” happened in the previous sections – things might have happened that way, or they might not have).
The second major theme was to present what’s a sort of found metaphor: the scenes are all variations on the same basic story, which is that I was living my life and then suddenly experienced a painful event that usually came out of nowhere – so not too far off from how the untimely death of a loved one can feel. The fact that the final sting happened soon after the memorial and while my wife was pregnant also added a natural sunrise, sunset button on the thing. In a novel, you’d probably roll your eyes at something like this, but real life is way weirder, and way more coincidental, than fiction (like, the person Laura is based on lost a sibling as well, and her brother died eleven years to the day before Liz). To come by this literary conceit honestly, though, required hewing as closely as I possibly could to reality, with a minimum of writerly insertions or changes.
Lastly, a design goal that emerged along the way was to try to render in parser form a piece that’s probably a more natural fit for a choice-based game – despite stuff like Photopia, which was definitely an inspiration for Sting, in the parser arena, there’s way more of a tradition of no-puzzle slice-of-life games incorporating personal struggle or tragedy in the choice-based space (albeit rarely for middle-aged straight white guys who grew up well-off, with good reason!) Partly this was making a virtue of necessity, since the point was to write a game quickly and I wasn’t going to be teaching myself Twine on top of everything else on my plate! But I was interested in seeing if I could figure out ways to make a parser experience engaging while eschewing the traditional touchstones of the format – no puzzles, not much in the way of environmental storytelling or object-manipulation, minimal exploration.
Notably missing from this list of goals is wanting to create a fully-realized portrait of Liz, or fostering emotional investment in her so that players would be feeling the same grief I did at her passing. A couple of reviewers and testers picked up on this and found it a weakness in the game, since they felt like Liz was thinly characterized and the tragedy was at best second-order, a bad thing that happened to the more robustly-sketched protagonist (and also real-world me). I think this is a completely fair critique, but it was very much an intentional omission. Partially this is because of humility about what I could realistically accomplish given the constraints of the structure I’d chosen – she was an amazing person and trying to pin her down with the few meager glimpses these anecdotes afford would be impossible. Partially again it was wanting to steer clear of having the thing come off as too sentimental or misery-tourism-ish. And beyond that, honestly I’m not sure I would have had the mental or emotional wherewithal to actually write the thing if I’d really tried to paint a full portrait of Liz or communicate what we meant to each other – I’m finding even in these notes I’m talking way more about myself and the mechanics of the game than I am about her, which is probably yet another protective measure.
But anyway, that’s why the game relates the fact of my grief without attempting to make the player actually feel it – and also why I tried to cue the player to expect the death, via the blurb’s “one twin” bit, the My-Girl-ish cover image my wife created, and the sorta-foreshadowing at the end of the toddler section, which is an invented scene (in fairness, I don’t think most people remember much of anything from when they’re three). I wanted to cushion the blow, and keep the focus on the themes I was interested in exploring, rather than make it seem like the game was all about trying to make the player cry or anything like that.
A blessedly short section on the name
The initial work-in-progress title was Six Stings, but I wasn’t completely grabbed by it – plus giving away the number of vignettes felt like it could mess with the expected pacing. “Stung” was in the mix for a while, but then I realized there was a Biblical allusion sitting right there – from 1 Corinthians in the KJV, you know, “O death, where is thy sting?” It’s right here, is the implication.
Bricking and mortaring
I wrote the game in two major chunks – I roughed it out from late April through mid May, at which point I put it on pause since we were moving apartments, and then I picked it up again from early July through mid-August, when baby prep got sufficiently intense that I had only minimal time for IF. That’s not that much time, but Sting still wound up at 55k words, so the theory that this would be a quick entry to write proved out – I had the different vignettes and a basic idea of the gameplay for each figured out within a couple days, so design time for everything except the sailing section was minimal and I pretty much jumped right into implementation.
I’d written TEM straight through, where I built and polished each act as I went. I’d seen Emily Short recommend a different approach of creating a minimum viable build of the whole game, and then going back to fill in the details, so I decided I’d give that a try this time out: that first work-period involved just doing a very skeletal version of all six vignettes. I can see why this way of doing things would work for some people, but honestly I found it boring and unmotivating for this project, since unlike a more puzzley game, I wasn’t implementing game logic so much as placeholder dialogue and contextless timers – I had way more fun in the second work-period since I got to actually do real writing, and I probably would have made faster progress throughout if I’d stuck with the polish-as-you-go approach I took with TEM.
Since this was going to be a more dialogue-heavy game, I thought Inform’s default ASK PERSON ABOUT THING model wasn’t likely to work well. I cast about for extensions that could do dialogue options, and wound up with Michael Martin’s combo of Reactable Quips and Quip-Based Conversation. They’re good at what they do and helped me quickly lay out the conversations, but I had a hard time wrapping my brain around two specific issues having to do with how it handles follow-up dialogue options that branch off from the main tree. These are modeled as “reactions” to a given piece of NPC dialogue, but that meant I had to implement complex workarounds for the situation where a main-branch dialogue option could recur as a “reaction” option, since in that I case I had to then go back to remove the option from the main tree. Second, reaction quips also interact with Inform’s timing rules in a way that I found hard to understand, and since I had so many timers running alongside conversation, I once again resorted to some hacks and failsafes, one of which, uh, failed to failsafe in the initial Comp release; the very first person to play Sting got stuck in an infinite bee attack in the fifth vignette, which I was able to quickly fix but it was still pretty demoralizing!
The thank-you that I wrote to my beta testers in the CREDITS text hopefully comes off more fulsomely than does the average acknowledgement, because they did an amazing job. The game really worked for some of them, and much less well for others, which was actually super helpful for figuring out what I could make more effective, and what just wasn’t likely to land for particular kinds of players no matter what I did. In addition to being incredibly supportive and building my confidence of entering this weird, too-personal thing in the Cop, they offered up lots of great suggestions, including streamlining the sailing section and some clever ideas for alternate play options to implement in the first vignette. They’re responsible too for the HELP command being added, which I initially hadn’t included but which I’ve seen lots of people playing online use (I probably would have lost many more players in the sailing section if that hadn’t been implemented). The personal nature of the game also gave me a nice opportunity to connect more personally with several of the testers, and there were some wild coincidences we discovered – one of my testers actually wrestled at a different New England prep school just a couple years before I did! Anyway, I’m going to drop their names in again here as an additional thank-you, because they really deserve it:
Andrew Schultz, Christopher Merriner, Daniel River, J. J. Guest, Peter M.J. Gross, Travis Moy, and Truthcraze.
Due to the exigencies of life, I didn’t get as much time to polish the game as I would have liked – ideally I would have done a second full round of testing, and much more playing on my own of some of the random and timing-dependent sequences, which would have helped me catch the aforementioned bug. This is especially noticeable in the still-somewhat rough sailing section, and making breakfast in the fourth bit, which I tried to streamline but is still more awkward than it needs to be. I also wanted to do more to vary the parser responses by section – there are some toddler-appropriate ones in the first vignette, but I wanted to do more with this. Hopefully there’ll be time for a post-comp update sometime soon!
Section-by-section notes that run this post all the way into the ground
Look, at this point I know we’re all thinking the same thing: these notes are way too short and it’d be great to provide some info on each vignette. Good news! (There’s not much after this, I promise).
One overall thing to say is that I tried to make sure each of the six pieces had at least slightly different gameplay, and I tried to create some thematic links between that gameplay and what was happening in each – despite some meta touches, my intentions with Sting were way more Modernist than postmodern. I also tried to balance them so lighter segments were followed by heavier ones, and longer with shorter, which hopefully helped with the pacing. The sailing section was still the biggest by far, so I suspect I had only limited success on this front at the end of the day.
Toddlerhood: the main thing I was trying to do here was establish the relationship between me and Liz, both specifically (me kinda passive, Liz more assertive and physically capable) and generally (there are quite a few places where toddler-Mike asserts something like “Liz is X, so I must be Y” – early on we very much defined our identities via contrast, which is I think something many twins do). Secondarily, I wanted to get the theme of fallible memory on-screen as quickly as possible, via the disappearing swing-set. Gameplay-wise, all you need to do is play, and I tried to give lots of opportunities for creativity – you can play pretend, or leapfrog, or Simon Says, or a bunch of other stuff, beyond more obvious things like tag or hide and seek or playing ball – to mirror the way that early-childhood features a lot of unstructured play, albeit with a bunch of rules and constraints outside your control – you can’t go to the front yard, or get chalk to play hopscotch… I tried to make the prose here simple to reflect my immature years – I kinda did this in the rest of the sections too, but largely that just meant there was a lot of cursing in the teenage bits that then got dialed down as time went on.
Sailing: this section was by far the beefiest. While I could probably have implemented the whole thing with just a simple counter tracking whether the player succeeds or fails at the different challenges thrown their way, it’s actually simulated in a reasonably robust fashion, with a lot of randomization – as mentioned above, I wanted to build my Inform skills with something trickier than the typical medium dry-goods stuff. This means it’s possible to win the race, though I don’t think anyone’s managed yet (it does require figuring out a trick which I have seen a couple people grok in the online transcripts). It’s also possible for the slower NPC boat to pull off an upset and beat the one that’s generally faster, depending on the luck of the draw with random events – it took a fair bit of work to implement that, and it’s only happened one time out of the seventy or eighty test runs I tried, but it really gratifying when it did! I found it interesting to implement a sport in IF, which is I think an underutilized design-space – you can get robust, emergent gameplay out of sports in a way that’s distinct from more traditional puzzles. The affordances of traditional languages, and especially the turn-based nature of time in parser IF, maybe create a barrier to truly robust simulation, but still, I think there’s potential for further work here.
The dialogue with Liz in that section also has a lot of unneeded detail that I enjoyed fleshing out. I think there are probably like forty or fifty distinct pieces of dialogue, even beyond simple cosmetic variation, since there are like twelve different conversation topics, usually two or three different options within each, and then for some they’re modified based on whether you’re sailing upwind or downwind, what place you’re in, how fast you’re going, whether Liz is in a good mood or bad mood based on your overall performance, and if something especially good or bad has just happened.
Beyond the excessive amount of work I put into it, the main thing to say about this section is that it violates the golden rule for creating an intentionally-frustrating piece of gameplay, which is: don’t do it, you pretentious git! Everyone always thinks they have a good reason for violating the golden rule, but they don’t. With that said, here are mine: first, Liz and I had a somewhat contentious relationship with a lot of bickering during these years, so putting the player in a position to get yelled out was the best idea I had for how to play that in a way that didn’t feel completely forced (like, you can avoid her yelling at you if you know what you’re doing – but you probably won’t, at least the first time). Second, I really wasn’t a very good sailor, so for verisimilitude the player should be bumbling. And third, my teenaged years at least were marked by knowing what my overall goals were supposed to be, but often finding it hard to figure out the precise rules and that it was easy to put a foot wrong, so I wanted the gameplay to match that. I know some people quit playing here, but some reviewers also seemed to get the thematic resonance and enjoy the challenge, so while I think there was room for improvement I hopefully wasn’t too far off.
Exeter: There’s not nearly as much to say about this section, either in the design or the thematics – it was meant to be a light, funny palate-cleanser after the big hulking sailing section, and present a more positive aspect of my relationship with Liz by highlighting the way she was regularly there to provide me advice and support (albeit not always without a bit of frustration at my general cluelessness). This section is where I come closest to getting Liz’s dialogue word-for-word – which is funny, since one reviewer said this is where it seemed the most artificial and leaden (that’s often the case with real conversation! Where I had to make more of it up, it probably did sound more natural). It also has what I’d judge the funniest joke in the game, where you exhaust the Dragonlance conversation topic with Laura. The gameplay isn’t especially thematic here, I don’t think – I couldn’t come up with anything that felt natural and didn’t want to force things.
Long Island: thematically, this section – the first where Liz isn’t physically present – is all about trying on independent adulthood, like swapping from fantasy novels to Ulysses and starting to read the newspaper with breakfast, plus the whole having a job thing, before heading off to college. To mirror this, it’s self-consciously implemented in the traditional My First IF Game genre of the author’s house/apartment. I’d never made one of these before, and even with a previous big, complex game under my belt, it’s still the case that implementing a kitchen sucks! For making breakfast, I tried to cater both to folks who wanted to do it the old-school way – INSERT BAGEL INTO TOASTER; TURN ON KETTLE – as well as more streamlined approaches – TOAST BAGEL; BREW TEA – but it still wound up being a bit awkward for some players. I also messed up by not describing the player’s surroundings at the beginning of this section, since many players understandably didn’t realize they started off in the bedroom and tried to immediately make breakfast.
Pasadena (part one): the gameplay here is similar to the Exeter section, where a timer counts down to an inevitable bee sting, but there’s a key difference: the timer is suspended while you’re alone in the apartment. This wasn’t an accident: I dunno if any of y’all have ever been in a bad relationship, but my experience of it at least was that you’d find these temporary refuges – like, I took a lot of long showers – but eventually, you were going to have to go back out there and be with this person who wasn’t right for you, and you were probably going to get hurt (as well as hurting them; I tried to write this in such a way that it was clear that I was often a jerk in this relationship!) There’s also a way to attempt to stave off the inevitable – you can try to wear the sweater to keep the bees off – though of course it doesn’t work.
There’s another small hidden thing in the apartment, which is that you can read an email from Liz if you examine the laptop (or use your smartphone to read your email). I cheated a little bit on the timeline here, since the visit I mention actually took place a couple months before – our real emails from this period were about the recent death of my uncle, but putting those in felt like it’d just be an unpleasant non-sequitur. From transcripts, it seems like a lot of people missed this, maybe because the action was clearly outside so they didn’t want to spend too much time poking around?
Pasadena (part two): another straightforward segment that’s meant to provide a reflective capstone on the rest of the game. I tried to adapt the tropes of the walking simulator, since that seemed fitting for a final-act female-character-is-dead twist, and ironically the way I thought of doing that was taking away the player’s ability to move so that progress is just tied to conversation. One fun fact is that I thought it’d be weird to include the name we’d ultimately land on for our son in that long list of possibilities, so I pruned out all the options that seemed like realistic contenders as of the beta period in early August. Then out of nowhere in the last week before his birth, “Henry” emerged as the dark-horse favorite, so now when he’s older and plays this he’ll be able to see how his parents were initially a bit meh on his name! Sorry, son.
I’m not completely satisfied with the final paragraph, but still can’t think of a better one.
Some long-overdue closing words
I was hoping to write a game that a few people would really, really love, while being OK with it leaving substantially more somewhat cold. I think I succeeded! I’ve had a number of really lovely reviews from folks that found the game really resonant, but also a bunch of respectful ones from folks who I think mostly got what I was trying to do but found it wasn’t for them, or found that the missing coat of spit-and-polish made things frustrating. I don’t think there’s any criticism I’ve seen that I thought was off-base, which is really gratifying as an author!
While I doubt Sting will do nearly as well as TEM did in the results (I’m guessing it’ll be around 30th, though part of me hopes it gets up to 20th since that was the cutoff for the awards ceremony last time and getting your game read out is a fun time) I’m really proud of it and felt like I learned a lot making it. I also doubt I’ll write anything like it again – I don’t have a memoir of my father mediated by poison-ivy rashes in my back pocket, more’s the pity. But it did help me spend more time with Liz’s voice in my head, so I’ll always think of it fondly for that.
If you’ve got any remaining questions about Sting after all this, 1) please seek help immediately, but 2) feel free to post them here to kill time before the EMTs arrive, and I’ll do my best to answer!