I’ve really enjoyed reading the post mortem archives, so it’s fun to take a crack at writing my own!
(There are some spoilers for Sweetpea in this, but the labeled sections should help you avoid them if you don’t want to read stuff about character and plot development.)
=== 1. The Intent ===
It should be stated right off the bat that Sweetpea was a fun little fling of an experiment. I’m a writer and an artist, and have quite a bit of experience under my belt playing in homebrew settings that’re heavy on the characterization and light on the crunchy numbers, as well as having dabbled in alternate reality games (which emphasize incorporating live-time interactivity and audience response into a world and work) but I’m definitely not a coder- and a newcomer to Interactive Fiction as a whole.
Most of my works tend to be part of an ongoing universe (our D&D NPCs are rocking, and while it’s not comparable to the wonder of being a player in the dark or peeling back secrets, it is satisfying to play as them in our sessions, with several of them having been a PC I wrote for a bit- so they’ve all got a fair amount of lore). Something I wanted to try was establishing a set of characters within the bounds of one work- like how I’ve occasionally poked at writing short stories (and promptly cheated slightly in terms of re-using old OCs. Oops!)
Setting A Goal
Now- knowing that I’m not a coder, new to the genre (and never have been a very tech savvy or puzzle hungry person), and kind of clueless about how to not commit the cardinal sin of default white font on black with blueish links: I didn’t really expect much of anything going into it. I decided I’d be quite pleased with myself if I managed to finish something, with no word count I was aiming for or anything- just if it felt finished, arbitrarily. Something you could play ‘start to end’ and I could wave around to show my friends.
I almost didn’t enter SpringThing at all, but decided- what the hell, I’ve got a month to throw something together, and worst comes to worst I can always gracefully bow out and try again next year when I might have some more gumption. Or toss it into the back garden if I’ve got a substantial amount done and never want to look at it again! With an easy out of emailing back to be removed from the mailing list and no hard feelings- it felt a lot less intimidating in the event the worst did come to pass.
My loved ones, (wonderful bunch that they are, goodness knows how often they sweetly encourage me to chase after the latest semi-hare brained antic my brain’s come up with: so many campaigns half adapted from esoteric children’s media mashed up with movie summaries I saw on Youtube, and snippets from whatever lectures I was waist deep in at the time…) are to thank for pushing me to join and at least take a crack at it. So, thanks to them again!
=== 2. The Execution ===
Choosing A Platform
It felt a little too ambitious to try to finish something from scratch and learn the ropes of a brand new program when it’s taken a few years (granted, not with intense focus, but on and off tinkering, more during the pandemic) to come to terms with how to bonk Harlowe around to make it do what I want it to do. And my wants aren’t complex! The wikia, old forums, and Chapel’s documentation and helpful comments in the wild have been invaluable to that process. So, while I’m still curiously looking at Inform, having heard about it through one of the innumerable blogs or posts I ran across while ransacking Short and Ashwell’s blogs and these forums for reading material late at night, I decided to perhaps set that off for a summer jaunt and stick with what I at least knew a bit of. (The idea of a parser is still really cool, though I am absolutely terrible at poking at them. I guess I’m just not good at intuiting the right verbs to use!)
I think the grand total sum of my coding experience (in the formalized sense, anyway) can be summarized as plonking away detailed commenting in some version of Visual Basic in a highschool elective way back when, and the watered down Matlab introduction they toss the science majors into, that spent an entire lesson on learning how to set up a Wordpress site- not customizing it, setting it up as in the whole making an account ordeal. So… Not exactly a whole lot. I didn’t even comment on my spaghetti code, and spent quite a bit of time staring at CSS and HTML tutorials alongside old Twinery help posts in abject confusion, but hey, pretty gradients! Sweetpea has been a reminder of the importance of commenting your code, though, it probably would have cut down on the confused poking and changing to get colours to work and such.
Twine is something that I’ve played around a bit with in the past, mostly fiddling around with trying to poke at making text do things- learning about what macros do with text, figuring out the very basics of linking, scrutinizing variables, putting together a faux and very labored password Ouija-board style entry and numerical lock pad for a phone- about 22 or 23 little ‘doodles’ I never did much with in terms of experimenting and noodling around. So, not as scary as a whole new language! It seemed a good suit for what I had in mind- something vaguely about a house, and something with a touch of the gothic- (a genre I often write in and have happily studied in a formal setting before). So, Twine it was!
Deciding on the Story
It seemed prudent, given I was already stumbling around in new territories, that I should stick with at least something I was fairly familiar with- so the gothic was a natural choice. It paired well with the houses that seemed common enough in these sorts of adventures- seeing as the haunted house is so often almost a character in its own right in the gothic.
My protagonists tend to fall into two broad camps: young women with supernatural related issues, and middle aged men who are going through yet another mid-life crisis who have children (usually daughters, I’ve got a grand total of ONE with a son.) It’s little surprise that the same proved true for Sweetpea and her father. I often pull names from the bible or Victorian death registries for my characters- though this time around, since I was still learning about who they were while writing the story, I held off on giving them actual names. In the end, I think having Sweetpea be known only through a pet name and the distance inherent in that works nicely- her not mentioning her father’s name either reaffirming that unsettling familial gulf. These people do not seem like the type to have a nice sit down family dinner together after work.
Michael is a bit of a cheat- I’ve often written about the archangel in that body horror sort of way before, albeit dressed more playfully: but having him as the only character with a proper name (and also being the only angel, and character I felt had the most agency throughout the story in terms of bringing about change, albeit through a spiritual shakedown of sorts) was something I was quite happy with motif wise. The other father is also unnamed- the nature of his being not really clarified: I like writing and reading about the Fae and often borrow aspects from their wards across the supernatural entities that inhabit my works, as well as cribbing from demonic possession symptoms from the Catholic church, but he’s also basically a doppelgänger. Personally, I find the idea of something wearing my face or a loved one’s deeply unsettling. Duality is a common theme in the gothic, so he also slotted in nicely.
While Sweetpea’s mother does sort of fall into the fridged wife trope- it’s a personal decision on my part to not really write about the maternal-daughter relationship. It’s just not something I’m comfortable exploring in my work. The gothic, happily, often is populated with deranged ex wives pushed and forgotten into attics or moldering away in family graveyards anyways, so it all works out in the end.
The fathers I write tend to fall into two camps- an idealistic, warm father figure (who is rarely biologically related), or a father whose best really isn’t good enough and he’s a bit stilted and awkward about trying to interact emotionally with his kid (whether the father or not actually puts forth the effort is another character distinction.) Michael, to no surprise at all to me, falls into the first camp, and Sweetpea’s dad falls into someone who sort of tries. Contrasting between the two figures is often something I return to in my work- or the evolution of a character into striving to be closer to an ideal of fatherhood. They rarely actually make the mark- even the best intentioned dads often keep things from their kids he shouldn’t, or some other small failing, but the trying is what’s important.
Plot? What Plot?
I am honestly terrible with plot. It’s not really the main focus of literature for me- I cling much harder onto characters and their dynamics with each other. I ended up reading through some short scary stories and settled on the straightforward plot of someone trying to break in to give the piece a set of urgency. I figured it made the most sense for the father to be outside of the house- a key aspect of Sweetpea’s character is isolation, and she would have had fewer excuses to be out and about. Stodgy employment as a lecturer was a good enough wrapping for his excuse.
I’m not much of an outliner- and so once I had an initial fuzzy premise, I hit the ground running writing wise.
What I Left On The Chopping Block
Originally, there was going to be a major divergence in Sweetpea’s story- rather than rummaging around the upper floors, and taking a nap- you would have been able to head downstairs and either let the other father in- who would proceed to act bizarrely and offputtingly, to help clue in the reader that they’d just made a terrible mistake while trying to act normal enough to not tip him off, or refuse to let him enter but get caught- and have him promptly bring down the door and lead Sweetpea to a nasty end.
These were largely cut in the interest of time and attempting to finish the story before going on to add an entirely different route- but since much of Sweetpea is revealed in ‘optional’ little asides, missing out entirely on that added richness felt a bit strange to me. I also am not usually fond of killing off my characters- permanently, at least, I’ve many who’ve come back from the dead not quite themselves, despite being a horror enthusiast. I get attached to the little guys! It also felt a bit morbid, since Sweetpea has a contentious relationship with her father- one I’d characterize as wanting more closeness than he’s capable of providing in the wake of his wife’s death, a bit quick to temper- and giving her a happier (if slightly coerced by a strong armed guardian angel) ending felt better.
=== 3. Lessons Learned ===
Get To A Finishable State ASAP
Probably the most important take away I got from Sweetpea was the pleasure in making something start-to-finish, rather than existing in development hell perpetually. Having a single playable ending to then elaborate on worked out quite well- it gave me a big boost of motivation and made it easier to wave around excitedly when sharing with my ever-patient friends, bless them.
Split Up High Power Tasks
Cruising alongside that is learning to separate coding time from writing time- I found it much easier to write big chunks at a time and then implement them, and through the finer nit picking of testing out code, figure out where more narrative building might be in order. They fed into each other- but trying to write and code simultaneously was super draining, and made for much shorter progress. Both are high power, and quite mentally demanding tasks for me- breaking them into their own sessions lets me fully focus on trying to solve a finicky snarl of code or write my way out of a dry corner.
Lean Into What You Know (And Scaffold!)
I was really nervous about trying to make a game- I am not someone who is a technological whizz, and frankly, struggle to replace batteries the right way round (having long, and at the moment- iridescent berry nails with small glitters for sheen and a chunky golden hexagon glitter topper doesn’t help either; I’ve recently snapped off my right thumb’s nail much to my chagrin) and always felt that I wasn’t the right sort of ‘smart’ to code.
It’s a sort of imposter syndrome- feeling out of place and ill at ease: especially when so often it’s a ol’ boy’s club- I was one of three girls in that coding elective in highschool, and was the only one left by the end of the semester due to bullying from the other male students, even if the teacher did try his clumsy best to praise my ‘aesthetics that show a womanly touch’ in my assignments. While the experience has gotten less intense and personally focused in university due to the larger class sizes- I still get immediately sized up as ‘stupid and girly,’ (and many of my lab bench mates feel like it’s hysterical to mock me for being a whole year older, as if the greatest sin a woman could commit is being the horrific age of… twenty one!) especially intensifying after I’ve thrown in the towel on trying to fit in with the boys and dabbled in fashion- I’ve quite enjoyed diving headfirst into my love for pink. (If you can wear longer or maxi dresses, I’m so jealous- being all of 5’0 makes for some silliness with where waistbands fit, sometimes.)
I had always felt that it was reserved only for people who loved cracking puzzles and finagling through terribly challenging twists of logic and reasoning- which isn’t like me at all. I’m much more of a go with the flow organic connections from a broad (if sometimes shallow, with the occasional deep rabbit hole of passionate interest) pool of knowledge synthesized all together sort of person- it’s why I’m a writer, and a biology enthusiast- the natural sciences (whether bodily systems, psychological frameworks, or tributaries bleeding into one another) have always held a sense of allure for being able to weave it all together. Medical history is a really big passion of mine, and some of the most memorable writing pieces of my life have been deep dives into little chunks of medical history that are a bit overlooked.
Turns out it’s somewhat doable if you’re willing to sit down and read, rummage through unorthodox sources, and squint at beginner’s manuals and forum posts by people who not only solve their own issue, but share their solution rather than just saying ‘nvm got it lol.’ Granted, I wasn’t trying to make the next Blue Lacuna or anything- but it is completely possible to have a delightfully pink and purple gradient background, or make stuff pastel pink. That kind of thing just makes me happy. It was very rewarding to learn- but I wouldn’t have had that confidence to try if I hadn’t dived into one of my comfort genres, and well worn character staples. I did what I knew writing wise- what made me happy, what I took pleasure in both crafting and sharing: and that made me confident enough to take a stab at arranging it in a new and interesting format.
=== 4. The Road Up Ahead ===
Holy Roller’s Conception
Well, I’ve already got a new project underway- tentatively titled ‘Holy Roller’ though it might be stylized as ‘HOLY ROLLER.’ I wanted to play around with something new again- rather than finishing a complete narrative with fun little gradient backgrounds, I wanted my new thing to be poking around with the use of customizing the sidebar the back arrow sits in.
There’s one scene from Sweetpea I really love- a dream sequence with a man’s face in chiaroscuro in a church, and I wanted to expand on that, while mushing it up with an old 2007/2008 prompt I saw on Lott’s blog- one room. It felt like a good restraint to encourage narrow, but deep implementation: and I’ve always been inclined to a flowery sort of sensory way of writing. 5 senses, as 5 verbs- different ways of interacting with all of the accoutrement in the space contained within: and the figure waiting for you inside.
The idea is you’d click on one of the senses, which’d bring you to a page with hyperlinks on a description, which’d let you burrow down further, or maybe just paint a broader picture? And something’ll be vaguely wrong, perhaps swinging more demonic than doppelganger: because I do so dearly love my ghosties and ghouls. Lightly gothic again, because I love hungry buildings and flawed people with inherited troubles. All those lush details…
Playing Around with Interactive Fiction Going Forwards
I love writing, first and foremost- and I love putting my characters into new scenarios. It’s part of the joy of playing homebrew D&D with the same group over many campaigns. Coding, or what little I’ve dabbled with it, is a fun challenge- a puzzle of something totally outside of my expertise, and it’s cool when you do get something to do what you envisioned, and working within a very limited constraint of parameters of what’s possible within your skillset or realistic for you to learn within the span of time you’re considering.
It’s a little humbling- I don’t often engage in things I’m an absolute beginner at- (since most of my hobbies are creative, and I dabble in all sorts of genres and methods- poetry (free-verse and constrained), diary entries, long form prose (in varied genres and literary), scripts, traditional landscapes in acrylic and oil, digital portraits and pixel art, audio editing for chiptune-y snippets or audio drama experimentation, collages, and so on… experience in one venue tends to feed into the others!) and a very satisfying activity in feeling like I really have accomplished something I put quite a lot of effort into. It’s nice to feel like I’m still learning! I’d like to be a lifelong learner.
There’s also a sheer novelty about being able to present a game that I made. Here, try it- and seeing how my friends are surprised and curious about the medium too. I like it, it’s fun- and since it’s fun for me and my loved ones, I’ll likely continue making them. IFComp still seems a little too serious-y big league-sy and scary for me: but I’d like to prepare something for next year’s SpringThing too. Maybe I’ll drop Holy Roller into it- or make a little anthology of odds and ends over the summer or something like that.
Summer, after all- is right up ahead past the grueling slog of finals!
A Postscript on SpringThing
I found out about SpringThing by reading through a bunch of blog posts and reviews on games entered in previous years. I was very hesitant on progressing past lurking around on the forums, but decided to give it a shot- in large part because of the openly inclusive nature of the competition with an emphasis on showcasing works, rather than ranking them in a competition.
Spring Thing especially welcomes diverse voices and populations traditionally underrepresented in gaming, including women, people of color, queer and LGBT+ folks, and blind, neuro-diverse, or disabled creators. People from all walks of life should feel encouraged to participate as players, authors, or reviewers.
This meant a lot, as someone who falls into multiple groups that were highlighted here- (I’m an south-east Asian, disabled bisexual woman who grapples with chronic pain. Dr. Gregory House is one of my favorite characters for facing similar issues of chronic pain and mobility difficulties.)
Often it can be a nerve wracking experience to participate in a new venture or community when you feel as if you fall wildly outside of the expected norms. I’ve had many difficult, challenging experiences in previous creative-oriented groups (whether that be explicit racism and prejudice, being harangued, told to be silent, or forcibly ousted from groups when voicing concerns over issues of discrimination, the expectation to become an educator and perform uncompensated labor simply by virtue of being ‘other’, being treated as a freakshow-oddity or novelity to treat as more of a resource or object than an equal participant and person, told I was only a diversity-quota filler or undeserving of my space and having stolen it from ‘someone more deserving’ with the implication being I only was there because I was a charity case, facing a lack of accomodation or regard for things as simple as choosing a building where an elevator or accessible lift was an option asides from stairs and told I was being lazy for it, and on, and on.)
Collectively, it can make someone wary of hopping into new waters- especially in a community with little representation of people like you. Having something explicitly welcoming- for whatever capacity you chose to participate in, was really comforting- it helped me be a little more confident in participating. I’d like to extend a warm thank you to Aaron Reed for helping make SpringThing an inviting place- I saw some discussion on the forums about the wording of the little blurb above he added, and he was very nice in my first confused e-mail to him for my intent to submit- it means a lot.
The IF community as I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with here has been great, too- I’ve loved reading what others have to say, corresponding, and having such a positive response to my own posts or reviews. I’m looking forward to what else everyone makes, and getting to play some great games!