Stuff of Legend Postmortem

So, first off, thanks to everyone who played my game this year in the IFCOMP 2020. I learned as much from the beta testing and informal discussions and player reviews as I did from finally buckling down and creating my first IFCOMP entry. It is the players and reviewers, sharing their personal experiences, that keep the story alive.

Spoiler Alert:
There are spoilers in this post. You know the drill.

Core Idea:
Stuff of Legend came from an idea I had a while ago of a legendary hero who earned his larger than life reputation by completing extremely mundane quests. His most challenging “Holy Grail” moment was rescuing a kitty cat from a tree. The theme at that time was the disconnect between public facades, and the real people and facts behind those facades.

This idea then snowballed into a huge design monstrosity that, fortunately, none of you had to experience: three main quests, a dozen NPCs symbolizing everything from social media to public health to religious intolerance to prejudice and racial inequities, a final violent uprising that ends up burning the entire village to the ground, blah, blah, blah. It was huge and, eventually, very grim. If you look at the details of the village of Swineford at the very beginning of the game, every one of those locations was in the original story and every one represents some fear I harbored throughout early 2020.

Eventually, I got smart and scoped back down to just the kitty cat quest, and that’s what became the core of the final game.

Game Design Goals:
Small but deeply implemented. Funny and family-friendly. Story first, puzzles second. Three act story arc. Full protagonist character arc with player option to change just before Act 3. One unusual, reusable puzzle mechanism that ties together the story arc and the character arc. At least one action scene. At least one disturbing or scary scene.

Okay, maybe the mutant squirrels devouring coconut meat didn’t come out quite as scary as I wanted it to, but I feel like I mostly hit my goals. Also, I ended up pulling out quite a few of the more difficult animal communication puzzles as well just to keep the game focused on the story first. It’s difficult to judge the correct balance between story and puzzle, but the good news is that I now have plenty of puzzle ideas in my archive for future projects.

The Idiot Hero:
Is Ichabod Stuff an idiot? Without getting into a lengthy discourse on the trinity of the player, the parser and the PC, I think it is safe to say that as long as there is an IF player controlling his moves – which I hope and pray will be all of the time – he is clearly not an idiot.

My original intention was to give him a job, a place in the social caste, that was as far away from a knight as possible. I did this to maximize the character arc and to emphasize his impulsive nature, essentially a young Don Quixote character. In fact, his original job title was “Assistant to the Assistant to the Stable Boy”, but that didn’t exactly trip the light fantastic off the tongue, so I made him a village idiot.

I see Ichabod as more of a fool than an idiot. Like, if a court jester didn’t have any royal connections, this is where he would end up. He took the job as a village idiot because it was the only career that appealed to him.

I did intentionally make the non-animal communication puzzles primarily him following specific, simple steps that the other NPCs outline for him, in an “idiot”-like fashion, while the animal communication puzzles are more solutions that Ichabod needs to figure out on his own. I wanted to show him growing in his ability to listen closely and become more empathetic, fixing his “blind spot” problem of not sensing or understanding the negative impact he has on others. That’s actually where the “communication with animal sounds that the PC/player doesn’t understand” puzzle idea originated. I had to figure out a way to get Ichabod to really listen and communicate with others even if he didn’t fully understand what it was to be them.

I don’t know. I think it was clear in my head at some point but I probably ended up doing a lot of it by feel. Now that I write it all out it looks a bit mushy. Maybe I’m the idiot :).

I think those are the main points I wanted to make. Again, thanks to everyone who played my game and the fantastic feedback you all provided.

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Thank you for making this game.
For me, it was the most favourite and highest ranking for this years ifcomp.
Perfect balance between story and puzzles with a lot of humour touches. Had a lot of pleasure and laughs playing it, Thanks.
Waiting for your next games, good luck!

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Thanks for sharing this! Stuff of Legend felt like a really perfect version of itself, if that makes sense – the locations, characters, puzzles, and themes all felt very tight and consistent. It takes a ton of discipline to throw out ideas you’ve become invested in (I know I’m awful at killing my darlings), so I’m really impressed you were able to identify a core part of the game and narrow and focus things down in such a way that the player never really imagines it could have been any different!

SoL was also very cleanly implemented, which is all the more impressive knowing the scope shifts. Anyway, kudos for the great game!

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Is this true? You have such a great dry humor that when I first read this I though though you were joking. Your end product was such a dramatic 180 from this.

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Yes, it’s all true. I didn’t implement it all but it was all written out in a high level design. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have listened to so many NPR and PBS News podcasts during the first half of 2020. Swineford became my cathartic dumping ground of all my negative feelings about what was happening in America. Which means it is probably a good thing I decided to kick Ichabod out of the village right at the start of the game and never let him go back :).

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@DeusIrae, sorry it took me a little time to respond back to your post but I think the point that you bring up is a really important one and I wanted to make sure I gave it a lot of thought first.

Yes, what you said makes perfect sense. That feeling that you are describing, IMHO, comes from a storycraft idea of writing both for the head and the heart, and then creating, focusing and weaving every element in the story together to support whatever it is you are trying to communicate, at all of the points of the story.

Honestly, I am still a novice student of storycraft, but I do believe interactive fiction may be one of the best mediums to explore these ideas. I am particularly intrigued with the technique of using puzzle patterns and motifs as another “story support strand” to weave into the story. The problem is, I find many aspects of storycraft organic and elusive and I often end up using mushy phrases like “story support strand” to describe what I am thinking about. It can be very frustrating, but I do believe it is something everyone can improve and teach to each other, it just takes time and effort.

The best example of storycraft that I played this Comp, even though it wasn’t as interactive as many of the other games, was “Congee”. The theme, the characters, the media, and even the title and the food of interest, all worked together to provide a very “sating story” about home and family and how comfort food ties it all together, as well as how to begin to discover those important feelings and ideas in a new, unknown environment. There is almost no fat to trim in the story. And, I think, that you what you are describing in your post, maybe?

I also appreciate your observations about focusing things down, and I do think I mostly did what you described, so I am glad you noticed it. If I could have changed anything about the storycraft I would have pulled the dang coconut completely out of the game and focused in more on both the animal puzzles and the B-story of the relationship between Annabelle and Ichabod. There is a very touching scene where Ichabod finally understands how important Annabelle is to him but it didn’t come out of me until I was writing the game hints at the end. It made me a bit emotional when I was writing it, which is a sign that it should have been part of the story. Unfortunately, I was already close to the deadline so I just left it in the hints. I guess you could think of it as a bit of an Easter Egg: telling a small part of the story in the game hints. But, really, it was just me making a storycraft mistake.

My wife did try to convince me to get rid of coconut several times, after hearing me endlessly whining about the technical and storycraft problems it was constantly causing. She finally gave up because she knows how stubborn I can be. She was correct though. Just don’t tell her I said that.

It reminds me of one of my favorite light bulb jokes.

Q: How many writers does it take to unscrew a light bulb?
A: “We can’t get rid of the light bulb…it’s the best part!”

But the flip side of the coconut argument is it acted a bit like a speck of sand in an oyster. I has to rewrite a bunch of story elements and puzzle elements to accommodate the dang thing and that’s where, among other things, some of the ideas for interacting with the animals, Farmer Jackson’s weird mad scientist personna, and the mutant squirrels all came from. When I was asking the question “How do I get the coconut meat out of the shell?”…of course! Mutant squirrels that eat giant nuts! The human mind is a very strange thing.

So anyway, this is a very long way of saying yes, I am with you, getting the right balance of storycraft in these games is extremely important and very difficult (for me) to do, so I appreciate that you felt that part of the story and let me know.

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