The Song of the Mockingbird post mortem

Spoilers abound.

When I began planning my second text adventure, I wrote down the three biggest criticisms of my first game, Dynamite Powers vs. the Ray of Night!, like so:

• Too hard
• Too cruel
• Too linear

I’d started out to emulate the early Infocom adventures, particularly Starcross, so I’d never given much thought to the first two; games were supposed to be hard and frustrating, and no game was cruel as long as it had the RESTART command. The linearity was unintended, though. Dynamite was linear because it was built by accretion rather than designed.

Nevertheless, I took these three criticisms to heart when I set out on my second adventure. I decided that I would make sure players always had access to multiple puzzles, except at pinchpoints during the beginning and endgame. Also, I would make this game merciful (in the Zarfian sense). Finally, I would abandon abstract logic and mathematics puzzles if favor of more intuitive types of puzzle.

Here’s my big reveal: this game was not The Song of the Mockingbird. I planned a game around a central hub, where the player could switch between five different stories. Each was to be set in a different serial, and would feature a different style of puzzles. The framing story would also have puzzles, and would be set on the day when the last serial picture house closed.

Two years later, I realized what you’ve already figured out: this was just too ambitious a project. I started looking at what I had and what I could do with it.

You are carrying:
A half-finished framing story
A half-finished cowboy story
Spotty notes on a third story
Vague ideas for fourth, fifth and sixth stories

I read quite a bit about Texas in the Confederate era over the next week. In the process, I found a gift from the gods of narrative: Pendleton Murrah, who exhorted his fellow Texans to fight to the death almost as he was slipping out the back door to flee to Mexico. Rosa and her compatriots were no longer bandits preying on an isolated town. They were a rabble of Murrah supporters attacking the town in an attempt to overturn the results of the war.

A few random points:

No story is completely original. I freely stole elements from many different Western serials for Mockingbird. A woman disguised as a man is as old as stories are. Rosa as the Black Blade is closely related to Zorro’s Black Whip. The Black Whip is the heroine of her serial, though; Rosa is, at best, an antiheroine. Rosa’s self-sacrifice at the end was originally inspired by Queen Tika, the redeemed villainess of The Phantom Empire. It’s now mutated so much from the original as to be unrecognizable. The various hazards and scenes in Mockingbird are ubiquitous in Western serials.

I never consciously planned any of the puzzles in Mockingbird. My method is to surf the Web reading about things vaguely related to my game. (I tell my wife I’m “working”.) When I find something interesting, like the lighter, the barbed wire tool or Nobel’s Safety Powder, I see if there’s a place in the game for it.

I started out with the intention of making all my puzzles dead easy. The feedback I’ve gotten tells me that I failed completely. This pleased some people and annoyed others. I don’t know how to do it differently, so you’ll probably get more of the same in the future.

It wasn’t until I started implementing the stable that I realized it was too simple: take the whip off the wall, whip the branding iron and walk out. I wanted to flesh out this area a bit more, so I created a horse who would bar the way. I knew that players would try to pet, ride and talk to Dancer, so I spent hours adding interactions that in no way contributed to the game. I can’t prove that Dancer added half a point to my final score, but I know it did.

Several reviewers and a few private notes have noted the general disposability of human life in Mockingbird. I gave considerable thought to knocking out the villains with a punch to the jaw, or tying them up for the duration of the game. Ultimately, I decided against it. The serials that inspired the game - and yes, they were aimed primarily at children - were pretty high-body-count affairs. I doubt that their audience of juvenile psychopaths was much traumatized by them, and I sincerely hope none of you were either. I have made a small nod to modern sensibilities by having Boots observe a moment of silence for each one.

Finally, the lessons I’ve learned from Mockingbird:

• No more ambiguous adjectives! Things will be pocket-sized, miniscule, microscopic, dinky, infinitesimal or teeny-weeny, but never again small!
• No more randomly hidden things! You will not need to look under, look behind, or search every item in the world.  

Thanks for playing my game!

[edited to remove political stuff]

folded by Mod due to quoted content under review

I fail to see what triggered this comment?


This is one of the entries I was really hoping to see a postmortem for, and the postmortem was certainly not disappointing! Even though I enjoyed a lot, I figured there was stuff I’d be missing. It’s cool you still see stuff to learn & maybe we’ll get to see that in your next effort.

On the one hand, yes. On the other hand, I never saw it in this context/genre, so it worked for me.

I suppose I maybe should have figured it out, but when there’s all this other interesting stuff to distract the player, it gets lost/doesn’t seem obvious, and that’s a good thing. And yes, all the stories have been told before, but there are so many combinations to tell them in.

I never made the Murrah/Trump connection. I probably didn’t read the endgame notes carefully enough, and of course I could’ve Googled it. But it makes total sense now. For me “Murrah” reminds me of the Alfred Murrah building, the site of the abhorrent Oklahoma City bombing. So I just assumed it was a generic Southern name and didn’t research.

As for the disposability of human life in SotM, well, they thought you were disposable, and they probably weren’t just going to say “ha ha ha you got us, good job.”

And also one of the (only) two entries that placed above you had the main character treat loss of life far more cavalierly. There was a strong moral point to it, of course, and here, I think it has to happen. I didn’t feel it was overdone at all. And – can we believe any of the deceased would’ve met a non-violent end even if they had killed the main character?

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