The Good Ghost post-postmortem

Since @AmandaB suggested it, here are a lot of words about making The Good Ghost for ECTOCOMP! I spoilered out the spoilery parts just in case.

Origins

In early 2020, I encountered the phrase “ghost haunters” (I think it was a typo) and found it very funny. I kept bringing it up with Kirk, who likes supernatural hijinks, and we got to talking about what a text game called Ghost Haunters would be like. We’d recently been to a very cool immersive theater production called The Shadow Space, where the audience members were cast as ghosts who could haunt the actors, so that was a big influence. We’d never collaborated on a project before, but we were having fun tossing ideas around.

In our original concept, the goal was to remember who you were, searching for hints of your identity in the house where your descendants now lived after figuring out how to get them out of the room. Once you found your portrait and birth certificate or whatever, you could be free or something? Also, it was a parser game, because I’m most familiar with Inform and it sounded like fun to have lots of ghostly actions to experiment with. (This was still the honeymoon phase where I wasn’t thinking about implementation.)

Complications

We had half an outline in a Google Doc and were hoping to finish the game for Spring Thing 2020, and then March 2020 happened. We thought we’d still submit it for the Late Harvest since we had that option, but a lot happened that year that made us think about why we were even doing this. Just for our own amusement, to keep us occupied? What good does that do for the people who will eventually play it, or anyone else in the world?

So the game became sweeter. We wanted to give people the opportunity to feel helpful when so many of us felt helpless. The residents of the house became a struggling family you could help in various ways, whenever they needed it the most. We decided to have the ghost appear in different years at Christmastime (new title: A Christmas Spirit), and we added the cat. I think it was Kirk who suddenly realized why the cat was so antagonistic: because the ghost is a dog. This was a huge revelation that gave us a lot of momentum, and eventually the title The Good Ghost.

We intended to enter the game into Spring Thing 2021, but Kirk was gaining momentum as a screenwriter and I kept getting roped into other projects, plus we were still flailing with the structure. But we (mostly Kirk) had written four acts worth of text and I had coded half the game before I got totally distracted by entering IFComp 2021 and then playing a whole bunch of other entries. When I got to What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed—an excellent game with a ghostly protagonist as well as certain other similarities to what we were planning, but done better—it was the motivation I needed to take another good look at what we were creating and why.

Conclusions

It’s funny how sometimes a project can feel 95% finished when it still needs a huge overhaul. I’d coded the mechanics for levitating objects, and apparating through all possible walls, and moving the cat around. But none of it felt as fun as the original Ghost Haunters idea. In the parser version, there were too many opportunities to use your ghostly abilities without any payoff, and it felt like we had to lead people by the hand down the correct story path.

Finally, three months ago, Kirk suggested making it a Twine game instead, and we decided to throw out the Inform version and start over, just in time for ECTOCOMP. Everything got so much easier! We started a new doc and Kirk filled in most of the text while I coded everything into Twine, one step behind. Working together was great, because we both did the part that the other person thinks is hard. Kirk writes uncannily fast, without overthinking everything like I do. I’m an editor by trade, so I changed stuff around before putting it into Twine. And working on the story together helped us balance out the writing to (hopefully) keep it from getting too sappy or too sparse.

Kirk wrote most of the finale, so I got to have the experience of reading it for the first time and getting all teary even though I already knew how it was going to end. Both of us have had beloved pets that we miss a lot, and it was nice to imagine a hopeful afterlife for them. We tried to weave in references to the fact that the protagonist is a dog throughout the story, and it seems like it worked pretty well—our playtesters all figured it out at different points, from the very beginning to the very end. It’s hard to imagine how the game could’ve worked without the ghost dog protagonist as its heart, and it still surprises me that we realized it so late in the process.

Fast-forward to today when I wrote this post, and now we’re all caught up. I’m so happy The Good Ghost is finally done and out in the world, and that the reaction has been so positive. Thanks again to everyone who played, rated, and/or reviewed our game!

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Thanks so much for writing this! I’m really impressed by all the challenges you two overcame in getting this game out. It’s so well-polished that I never would have guessed the main twist came into it so late in the process.

Also, since there’s not that many others writing multi-author IF I really liked getting a glimpse into how you guys pulled it off. There’s no one right way to do it, so it’s fascinating to see what works for different people! (Coincidentally @The_Xenographer is also an editor by trade, so I guess it’s a great skillset to have if you’re an IF author!)

Can’t wait to see what you guys will put out next.

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Thanks, I appreciate the kind words! And yes, being an editor definitely lends itself to this kind of project, though it doesn’t help when you’re staring at a blank page at the start of a project…

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