Note: ‘Kuolema’ means ‘Death’ in Finnish so a ‘post-mortem’ feels very apt… now it’s finished.
I’m not sure if there’s a standard form that a post-mortem should take, so apologies if this just turns into a long, self-indulgent ramble (edit: it totally did). Feel free to skip down to the TL;DR bit at the end. It strikes me that perhaps this should be interactive - a CYOPM? (runs off to make next game using a forum…)
Really, the only thing anyone actually wants to know is: “Why Google Forms for gods sake!!!?” For the answer, please turn to forum post #237.
Also, fair warning, there will probably be big spoilers below.
1. An admission.
I was halfway through this project before I’d ever even heard that ‘Interactive Fiction’ was a thing, let alone that there was an international festival for it. Up until around the end of last year, I had no idea what Twine was or what ‘Parser’ meant.
So how did this project start? During the various lockdowns, desperate for things to do, we played an online escape room with some friends over Zoom. It was clunky, and we got bored part way through, but the combination of choices, simple clipart style visuals and shoe-horned puzzles excited me more than the escape room itself. However, it felt like a missed opportunity because there was absolutely zero story. When I saw that it had been built in Google Forms, I thought, well there’s absolutely nothing stopping me from having a go trying to make something better! And could I perhaps make an escape room that features better visuals but has a much stronger focus on the story too?
And so I did.
2. No wait, that’s not the end.
That first escape room/story was fun. I proceeded to play it with friends and family (and even forced work colleagues to play it as a ‘team building’ exercise) and it actually went down surprisingly well. Side note: I wonder if I should release it, but I also wonder if there’s enough in it to re-work in some other format one day…. hmmm.
Anyway, around summer of last year I had an idea for a follow-up.
I have very fond memories of the old ‘Fighting Fantasy’ gamebooks (‘Deathtrap Dungeon’ etc.) - where the illustrations really drew you into the story. So in my head, I suppose that’s where I was aiming. However, because some of my friends would roll their eyes when things started to veer into ‘fantasy / sci-fi’ territory (as these things tend to) I decided, this one would be a present-day spy thriller. Not really my usual reading material - but it felt like a nice challenge (and perhaps a little less ‘done to death’?)
It would still be a simple escape room, with a story, but on a larger scale. It would be non-linear and allow you to free-roam - but I needed to limit the space (and characters) to keep things manageable. So, a ship fit the bill pretty well – and so I wrote the initial introduction to ‘The Kuolema’. That introduction hasn’t really changed much at all since. All I had was an idea for the setting and my intro ‘mood piece’ that set the tone. I had no idea what the story was, I had some vague notion that there would be a defecting nuclear scientist and a radiation leak story that would enable him to escape. Until I realised I was basically lifting the plot from The Hunt for Red October.
That then sat on a little single-section Google Form all its own for another 4 months, gradually gathering digital dust, lost, forgotten and alone.
…until in December last year, when I saw a news article on a breakthrough in Nuclear Fusion: Breakthrough in nuclear fusion energy announced - BBC News. Coupled with a memory I had of ideas to use seawater as a fuel for fusion - well, now I had something to hang this on.
Whilst I tried to keep the setting believable, I wanted the ‘mood’ to be quite dark - a feeling that something was very wrong within this mundane environment. In fact, I was vaguely aiming for a mish-mash of the uneasy exploration of video games like Bioshock (found notes, big capitalistic dreams that descend into disaster) and the creepy corridors of Resident Evil (locked doors and keycards), but also coupled with the slightly arch detective tropes of finding bodies stuffed in cupboards and hidden books that open secret rooms etc.
Fun fact: one reviewer told me they thought the inclusion of the sea monster at the end was maybe a bit much. I absolutely love that comment because, while there is zero mention or occurrence of any sort of sea monster anywhere, they had picked up on that ‘between the lines / is there something else going on’ vibe.
In order to plan out the story, I then decided to literally plan the ship, so drew up the main decks and the cabins and spaces that would be available to explore. The focus there was a real environment, spaces for people who have long since fled (Marie Celeste style). Again, this really didn’t change much all the way through - much of the story was then written to fit the plans rather than the other way around!
That was the first time I realised this might be too much for Google Forms. I finally started to search around for other options (that was probably the first time I stumbled across this forum). I was genuinely surprised to find that, apart from All Your Time-Tossed Selves - Details - Google Forms fiction was definitely ‘not a thing’! This meant that I was a: using completely the wrong tool for the job, but also b: here was a challenge! - was it even doable, was it worth a try despite the reasons not to?
And because I was still thinking of this as a sort of social thing - like an online IF/D&D where I play Dungeon Master and get others to play through it (without them having to touch the Forms interface themselves) - the format was less of a worry anyway.
At the same time, I had been playing around with tools such as DALL-E2. [tune out here if you’re anti-ai]. I was going to create all the notes/emails etc. by hand, but creating actual environments was beyond me. So I tried out AI - purposefully going for a semi-photographic look. The results were mixed, but occasionally it would create something usable that I could then adapt.
The main problem turned out to be consistency, I got several good images, but none of them really fit with each other. These tools also seem to excel in creating fantastical creations but struggle when it comes to more boring/realistic ‘ship cabins’ and the like. In the end, none of the images in the final story are straight from AI tools, they’ve all been played with/merged or drawn over.
Very occasionally, however, it did produce something better than the image I had in my head - so I would re-write to fit. It actually felt like part of the creative process. In fact, one particular image actually proved pivotal to the final missing piece of the story…
I knew that NPC interaction would be very limited. And your first interaction with someone would actually turn out to be the antagonist of the piece, but I wasn’t entirely sure about his motivations. Whilst this character was starting to take shape in my mind, I asked DALL-E2 to draw this: “a terrified man stares at you through a ship’s porthole”
It produced this:
I can’t take credit for that, that’s all AI. And I was fascinated by the face it had ‘created’. What was going on behind those eyes? That’s not the face of someone terrified. That is an interesting character, a damaged and complicated man. He’s definitely not the victim. Or is he? From this image, the entire story turned - from him being a ‘side’ antagonist to him being essentially the focus of the story. You are not the main character, he is.
Fun fact: there was an earlier draft where the events aboard the ship turned out not to be ‘real’ - they were a metaphor for a therapist (you) searching through his memories in order to deal with his suppressed trauma… but that all ended up being a bit over complex, and actually took away from the ‘now’ of the story itself, the fun adventure part. A little of that DNA still remains though if you go looking.
For example: The keycard codes are all named after Greek gods representing his trauma: ‘Horror’, ‘Terror’, ‘Darkness’, and ‘Panic’. The name of the company: ‘Achlys’ - the God of sorrow and regret. The Security computer password: ‘Apate’ – the Goddess of deceit, and the code-name of the reactor itself: ‘Perses’, the Greek Titan of destruction.
Of course, I used that image and my initial play-testers wouldn’t go near him, he looks about as trustworthy as Donald Trump in a changing room. So I tried to use Photoshop to create variations of this face that showed him looking a little kinder, and a little more scared (whilst still being the same person). I’m sure many still suspected him right from the start, but that’s half the fun right? This is a detective story that rewards you for being a good detective. If you’re paying attention, all the plot elements are there to see.
4. But why though?
The story began to take shape. Part 1 would give players complete freedom to explore the ship, solve puzzles, find MacGuffins and generally discover the troubled history of the doomed venture. At its heart was the escape room on a ship idea, but as I progressed the puzzles became less important and the story (and slow reveal of different accounts as you explore) became more interesting. Part 2 would be the final confrontation and escape. There were only meant to be 2 parts at this point.
By February, Part 1 was in a state to try a very early play-through with a friend of mine. She really enjoyed it, but it took her AGES to complete it. And she asked that most annoying but incredibly pertinent of questions… who is this actually for?
Yeah. Ok. Good question.
I guess it was just a project, a challenge and something to keep me occupied! I hadn’t really thought about what I’d do with it. That’s the point where I revisited this forum and found out about this ‘Spring Thing’ festival. The timing seemed to work, I could definitely get something finished in time. But I could tell that my ‘game’ wasn’t an ideal fit, a Google Forms story may have been rejected instantly (and its overreliance on images could have been a problem too).
If I was going to send this out into the world and have a bunch of strangers play (and even scarier) critique it, I had to go all in - either complete the story and make it playable for everyone (despite the severe limits of the format), or bite the bullet and start over using something more ‘acceptable’.
A Twine version was started and abandoned (I even tried a Twine V1 version as it’s a little easier to add images directly - but it still all seemed a bit too complicated). The thing is, for all its many faults, Google Forms is really easy to use. For a complete non-coder like myself, the fact that you can’t code anything is actually a plus! And once you’ve fully accepted the limitations of a format, you can relax and focus on the fun stuff, the story, the choices, the images - that was the bit I enjoyed. Most of the limitations can be worked around, as long as you keep it simple. The fact that you can’t save your progress isn’t a big problem as long as it’s short enough to play through in one go… (which of course became an issue the more it grew!).
So in a severe fit of ego, I decided that there’s no way I’ll ever make the best Twine game, but I DO have a chance to make the best Google Forms game ever! There are certain advantages to being on a very short list.
5. The End
And so the ambition grew and so did the story. Google recommends no more than 70-80 sections per form before the whole thing falls over. Part 1 has 90, Part 2 has 96 and Part 3 has 130. It got to the point where I would change one word in Part 3 and the whole thing would die!
The system has absolutely no clue about what the player may have done or found. At the start, that wasn’t such a big deal, by the end I would have killed for just a single variable I could update! Splitting Part 1 into two helped a lot, and meant I could update every location based on what I now knew the player had done. And making greater use of the old (Resident Evil style) keycards to control progress became the new tool to solve the save game problem. Because the system has no idea what you’ve done, you can use that as a ‘save point’ (eg. you can complete Part 1 in about 4 minutes if you know the right password!). I also saw forcing players to take notes as a good thing too - sidenote: if modern video games are guilty of anything it’s taking away too much agency from the player by showing them where to go and what to do next. Forcing you to write stuff down really makes you the detective, and hopefully, makes you feel more involved too.
It was the final confrontation with Dr Vrieman at the end that probably had the most rewrites. I originally wanted this game of back-and-forth where you had to win the argument using everything you’d found and collected. I had a version where he would say things that contained ‘bold’ words and you had to choose an answer that used the same word - but that became too ‘gamey’.
There was also a lot more player ‘death’ in the final part, but the rewinding and redoing got annoying, and if players hadn’t remembered a specific bit of information, the answers became too much like guesswork. In the end, I’m happy with the final version, it’s simpler than intended but hopefully still hits the right beats. I also had this really complex puzzle where you had to rewire a circuit board. As a puzzle it wasn’t bad, but it really killed the pace - and there needed to be a sense of urgency towards the end, so that got dropped entirely.
So, if you tried it, thank you. If you got all the way to the end - I salute you! If you avoided it like the plague just because it was made in Google Forms, fair enough. Fun fact: as it only exists online, I’ve tracked the links, so far: 358 people clicked on Part 1, but tellingly, only 53 made it all the way to Part 3!
To date, every review and bit of feedback has not only been massively appreciated, but also acted on (every player is a beta tester!). The game is now even smoother than its initial festival-ready version. In fact, one addition that early reviewers won’t have seen is the ‘final choice’ sum up at the end (based on those who submitted their ‘form’). For anyone interested, the latest stats are shown below.
Interestingly, all my beta-testers (friends, family, very reluctant colleagues, ie. non-IF community) chose the pessimistic ending, whereas the majority of the IF crowd chose optimism. What does this say about you all? I think this (very scientifically) proves you are all hopeless optimists who believe in the intrinsic good of humanity. How nice is that?
Ultimately, was it worth a try? I think so, if only to say, for now at least, I might have made the BEST PIECE OF INTERACTIVE FICTION EVER! (in Google Forms).