Synesthesia Factory postmortem

BEFORE FIRST THINGS: The game currently lives at

FIRST THINGS FIRST: If you played the version in the zip, I urge you to play the version above. There’s a rather esoteric bug affecting how and in which order Inform handles turns elapsed, every turn actions and out-of-world commands that I’ve fixed in at least five different places; if you ran into it you’ll know. (I could go into more detail, but this affects a lot behind the scenes, including such useful commands as “end the scene” and “end the story,” and since there’s a finite amount of text, if the story doesn’t end it’s bound to run out eventually.) The online version, to the best of my knowledge, does not produce this bug – no one ran into it after the update was pushed, at least.

THAT SAID: I am working on a full post-comp release, to arrive by mid-December; some parts of the story are revised, a great deal more commands and keyword hooks are either streamlined and expanded, and some of what was cut has been restored (more on that later).

So there are a number of things I’d like to talk about, starting with:

CONTROVERSY! I don’t know where the standard deviation for this falls in line with the rest of the works – I mean, I could probably check – but there is a bit of an interesting divide here. Every review I’ve read, and I believe I’ve read them all, was generally positive to exceedingly positive, except for two. Most of the votes were generally negative to exceedingly negative. I didn’t set out to be controversial, but I appear to have landed there anyway. Given that none of the voters have come out with explanations for their votes, I can only guess as to why:

  • The aforementioned bug in the zipped version, which, sorry. That one’s on me. Lesson learned: check fifteen times whenever messing with the standard rules, even if you’re sure you’ve fixed every bug.

  • A few certain timed events with short windows and unrecognized verbs. This is also on me; each successive update has added a few to a pile more synonyms for these.

  • The experimental nature of the work. The blossoming of a thousand choice-based and otherwise alternative formats for IF has been a great thing, but it’s resulted in the near-total collapse of puzzleless and/or experimental parser-based IF, particularly compared to a decade or two ago. I may be wrong, but I feel there’s an expectation that parser works are going to be fun and games and puzzles for all; certainly those are the ones that perform better in comps. And I know that a lot of people who come from the choice community just straight-up don’t play any parser works. I’m not really sure what to say about this one, except that I think it’s unfortunate but that it may well be a straw man.

  • A general sense that people weren’t sure if their input was affecting the story. Half of this, I think, is due to issues I’m addressing or at least alleviating in the post-comp release; I will say that I got carried away with the keyword system and may have neglected the battery of parser commands, so you end up with a situation where ENDLESS SWAG and CRETIN are valid but ENTER FRIDGE not so much. There’s a fair amount in the story I’m pretty sure no one found. Like the KonMari bit, or the wine, or the Pantone color report.

The other half, I think, is an issue of clashing expectations. To make a long story short: part of the reason I do not consider this kind of IF work a “game” is because it sets up expectations that are vestigial to a lot of work. Winning is not the point; the point is to assemble a story, decide what to focus on, influence how events play out. This is why there are no parser errors in Synesthesia Factory (though I’m pretty sure I missed a few); any text they’d display would not fit the story. You can indeed affect events and a great deal of the text varies based on flags or counters, but this is invisible behind the scenes. (I think it was the Birdland thread that mentioned this is a general issue with choice-based work – people tend to assume less is going on behind the scenes than there is.) Otherwise your role, at least as I intended it is more like an editor or director than a game player. How well this worked is – well, I suppose it’s controversial.

(For what it’s worth, another reason why there are no parser errors is to see if this came off player-friendlier. This is hardly a random sample, but all of the people I know who’ve played little to no parser IF said they had no trouble picking the parser, especially after reading the Brass Lantern guide.)

THE FAQ: The FAQ is indeed random. (Sorry, whoever it was who tried to get the story disqualified on grounds of “the FAQ said this isn’t fiction and this is a FICTION COMPETITION!”) This is on purpose. I’ve always been a fairly private person – for years, my semi-official bio was the following quote you may recognize from a certain children’s book series: “Whatever thoughts of mine you’re reading are totally made up. They aren’t real.” Yet writing requires a certain level of self-disclosure and self-promotion, and if you skimp on it, the audience will provide it for you. All the questions in the FAQ are loaded: “Is this really a game?” “Is this autobiographical?” They are indeed “frequently asked questions” leveled at IF work often, particularly non-parser work and (not just IF) work by women. I’m actually a bit surprised it took as long as it did for the cat to get out of the bag.

(For the record, the piece is not autobiographical, though most of the companies and websites quoted are real. The Thync is a real thing, and it does indeed look like a pair of briefs strapped to your forehead.)

ABOUT THE PIECE ITSELF: If you’re on the authors’ forum this part is going to repeat myself, but how Synesthesia Factory came about:

  • The original version of Synesthesia Factory and its basic story was called Monochrome, and was planned for the first ShuffleComp, until A) the work and B) my procrastination far outgrew the scope of that comp. (The song I got was Yann Tiersen’s Monochrome., hence the name). Next it was planned for the 2014 comp, and it would have been entered then had I not managed to delete the entire source. I had a backup, but I was well into crunch time at that point and the backup didn’t nearly catch up. (Now I back up my source code to Notepad once per compile. I recommend this for all authors.) There was another problem with this original version: writing it was boring the shit out of me, and the midsection was a bloated, muddling mess of locked doors and uninteresting implementation that bogged down the story. When half of it got deleted I was secretly relieved, as by that point I had started to hate it more than usual.

  • Around this same time I read Jenny Offill’s novel Dept. of Speculation, which is fantastic. It’s told in a highly idiosyncratic style – short sections, some as short as a couple sentences. Every time I read books I have this compulsion to track down every review extant on the Internet. I landed on this one by Roxane Gay in the NYT, and what struck me was how Offill (unintentionally, obviously) made each bit of the story sound almost like an IF response – the one she quotes is “I bought a warmer coat with many ingenious pockets. You put your hands in all of them.” So I went and tracked down every novel written in this style I could think of, and they all started to sound like this – for instance, Mary Robison, author of Why Did I Ever, said she broke through severe writer’s block by writing the entire thing on note cards and then shuffling them. I ended up ripping off being inspired by these books to a large extent – the point-of-view shift halfway through, for instance, is straight out of Dept. of Speculation, albeit to different effect.

And around that same time I’d been reading a lot of NaNoGenMo (National Novel Generation Month) entries and been fascinated at how well a lot of them held up as prose, at least for tiny bursts. I’d also returned to a couple of old IF works with similar mechanics, both fairly short: The Space Under the Window and Renga in Four Parts in particular.

The resulting work is an amalgam of all of the above. I ended up cutting a lot of code from the original, both due to time constraints and because I didn’t think the scenes/branches were particularly interesting. (The original outline allowed you to go gather branding information for the ad company you got a contract with. I found this as boring to implement and read as the protagonist thinks it is; I may put it back as a non-standard ending.) I borrowed a bit from other works as well, particularly Blue Lacuna (a good deal of the code, which is public), and Galatea (there’s an ending that’s essentially, in the least spoilery terms possible, the “Nothing happens. Did you really think it would?” response)

Other thoughts I’m not sure where to place:

PROTAGONISM: So this is interesting. I originally wrote Roslyn as a character who is, euphemistically speaking, “emotionally unavailable.” That is to say, rather cerebral, a bit anhedonic, unable to really grasp or be present for any feelings except by artificial means – alcohol, for instance (there are hints throughout the prose she used to have a drinking problem), or the Synpiece itself. Some of this drifted slightly from its original characterization – large swaths of the prose were cannibalized either from the original Monochrome or from a work I never ended up entering – but that’s the idea. I wouldn’t necessarily say she’s the most likable of characters, but I also wouldn’t say she’s completely terrible. Most reviewers seemed to have more polarized takes: either she was completely sympathetic, or literally the worst. Most people seemed to view Brian a little less charitably than I would – a basically decent guy, albeit with a couple issues of his own, who’s probably better off not in this relationship. (A couple reviewers have said he isn’t fleshed out, which is fair; the post-comp revision addresses this as well.)

(Pretty much everyone agreed, though, that Russell is a dick, because he is. Fuck that guy. And yet almost everyone tried to hook up with him! I can only take this as a commentary on human nature.)

A BIT OF (DESERVED) SNIPPINESS: I’ve read all your automatically-generated transcripts and the post-comp release has a list of 100+ changes culled from them. One of them in particular had a rather charming comment about how I’m ignorant for not knowing that modern folk artists exist. As it stands, I happen to write about music for a living and I’m well aware of modern folk artists. A clue to this: the fact that Laura Marling’s “Undine” (from her excellent Once I Was an Eagle) was quoted literally one turn ago.

UNDO: This is indeed disabled, because it has to be; as far as I know Inform 7 does not allow you to edit text files, only append text to them. I’ve never been a fan of it in puzzleless IF anyway, as it encourages lawnmowering, which takes you right out of the story; but the bottom line is, it’s a technical issue. If it’s any consolation, it was just as annoying in testing for me as it was for you.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m working on one work that’s a traditional-ish parser entry (the room sighs in relief), a longer work in this style (designed as a group of short stories), a few that can go either way, and a couple secret-ish projects.

I hope this clears up questions people have. Really curious to hear thoughts in retrospect – I feel like there are two separate echo chambers that aren’t communicating with one another.

Experimental/puzzleless parser games: yes, yes, yes. Vigorous expressions of agreement, approval, and other synonyms starting with “a”. I do not think it is fair to any medium, any piece, or any creator to say that hypertext games must be this way and parser games must be that way.

I must go back and look at the FAQ; I did not do so in my playthrough, but it sounds like an interesting auxiliary. It’s curious that people were polarized about the PC – while she wasn’t Big Damn Hero or Please Be My Best Friend or Woobie to me, she certainly didn’t seem anything like “the worst”.

I should point out that, in the IFComp, votes of 6 or more are not negative (Even a 5 isn’t negative; it’s neutral/mixed). Most judges seem to plant the threshold of worthwhile/not worthwhile firmly around 5. Synaesthesia Factory’s score is slightly over the middle, which in the IFComp means a mixed reception slightly tending towards positive, I think, not a negative reception.

I mostly meant the vote distro – bell curve, skewed sharply left.

If you have a mailing list or something please put me on it so I know when the post-comp release happens. I’m already dying of curiosity.

I do not currently – still trying to figure out the best method, because I do a lot of stuff – but will keep you posted! Trying to wrangle another reading or two around the NYC area soonish.

Incidentally, I have set up a (currently very basic) page here:

When the official post-comp release is out, this is where you will be able to find it.

That’s great, but be sure to let us know around here to, yeah? [emote]:)[/emote]

So the folk music comment you singled out may have been me. I don’t have a transcript, but it rings a bell, and I remember for sure I was yelling at the parser a lot. I’ve gotten in the habit of doing that when I’m frustrated. Usually it does no good, but also no harm, and makes me feel a little better. I guess I should play IFcomp games differently.

I’m sorry. I know pretty much nothing about folk music except that it is a continuing genre. I don’t remember what made me think the narrator did not. Though, as you said, the narrator wasn’t you. The conceit of this game blurs those lines a little more than most; but my yelling at the parser was never meant to be yelling at you. I’ve written enough to be sure it must be really really hard to take it any other way, though. Sorry.

BTW, just in case anyone’s interested - it seems that the game got silently updated from release 3 to release 4.

Thanks for bumping, perhapsdessert, or no one would have noticed. [emote]:)[/emote] When I get around to playing this I’ll certainly want to play the latest version.

Hi! That’s more or less an interim release, the full post-comp release is still pending.

As for the comment – no worries, probably a side effect of it not being overly clear that Parchment transcripts are logged for authors. Just a little amusing though. (My mother found it amusing too when I called her.)

Glad to hear it! I think I’m due to get around to this game in a couple of weeks or so, would you recommend that I wait a bit longer for the full post-comp or would you say I can jump right in?

A quick update – this has been nominated for three XYZZY Awards, which was a pleasant surprise! Thanks everyone, again, for reading.