The Xylophoniad (and Draculaland) post-mortem

Around the end of last year I had a craving to write an IF game again, which I hadn’t really done in about ten years. My last game had come mid-table in the 2006 comp and after that I got fairly serious about writing theatre.

I’m the sort of person who gets obsessed with things, and I wrote “Portcullis” in two or three weeks. I had expected it to take much longer and perhaps end up in the 2016 Spring Thing, but it was finished in time for the New Year’s Minicomp, so in it went. After all, I had plenty of time to write another game for Spring Thing.

But it turns out that “suddenly finding inspiration to write something quickly” and “writing something quickly on purpose” are very different. I started The Xylophoniad, because I thought Greek myth was both underrepresented in IF and suitably bonkers for my style (seriously - I know The Xylophoniad is surreal, but it’s really not that much wackier than much of the Greek canon.) I got most of the bits set in and around Troy written fairly quickly, which I still think are the best parts of the game, and then… the muse was gone.

I was playing some M Scott Adams games on my tablet when I thought of the engine that became the Draculaland engine. The Adams format seemed to suit mobile devices very well - ultra-terse room descriptions, simple commands, and separate screen areas for “what you can see” and “what’s going on” - if it weren’t for all that pesky typing. So I wrote the bare bones of that interface, whipped up Cloak of Darkness and another very small sample game, and got some positive remarks about it from the euphoria IF channel and elsewhere.

I was aware of the Ryan Veeder Exposition and really wanted to enter it, but I didn’t think I would be able to get a game finished in time. The deadline for intents to enter came and went.

My intention at that time was to finish work on The Xylophoniad for the Spring Thing, and to make a small but complete sample game in the new engine for the back garden. The new game had the working title “Zeppelin Adventure” (which may get finished one day), then somehow got switched to schlock horror as “Scary Castle”. When I realised I was enjoying writing this game more than The Xylophoniad - mainly because I’m a much less worse programmer than I was when I wrote the “versificator” engine 13 years ago, so the internal code structure is much less painful to work with - I decided to seriously attempt making it a good game, rather than a demonstrative one. I decided to make it an adaptation of Dracula. The plot had little in common except for the baddie being a vampire, but then, that’s true of several good adaptations of Dracula.

A couple of weeks later, I had finished “Draculaland”, and The Xylophoniad was still where I had left it. After coding something properly, working with the mess of my old homebrew parser was just too much of a headache. I even tried starting The Xylophoniad all over again with the Draculaland engine, but I had coded quite a lot of the game already and wouldn’t be able to finish in time.

I asked nicely if I could submit Draculaland late to the Ryan Veeder Comp, and Ryan and the stewards graciously allowed it (on forfeit of not being allowed a cash prize, and being punted to the end of the prize queue - fair enough.) So, unlike some of the games in the Ryan Veeder Comp, there was almost no deliberate gearing towards Ryan Veeder, except that I know he likes comic writing. The only really deliberately-done-for-Ryan-Veeder bit of “Draculaland” is the homemade theme music, with chords played on a melodica because it’s the thing I’ve got that sounds most like an accordion.

The Spring Thing deadline was approaching faster than I thought it had any right to, and The Xylophoniad still wasn’t finished. Most of the puzzles in Minos and Hades ended up being a lot simpler than I had envisioned them. Assembling the bicycle was a thing you were going to figure out yourself, and require more components, including handlebars and pedals. It turned out to be, essentially, Daedalus saying “BRING TREASURES HERE!” The handcart was going to start somewhere else and be pushable. There was going to be something about a snowball in Hades, where you had to carry the snow in Daedalus’s refrigerator, which was too heavy to lift so you had to put the fridge in the handcart. Prometheus and his vulture were going to be in Hades, giving you a choice of which two souls to rescue, and Cerberus was going to be on guard for three angry dog puzzles in one. Daedalus and the Minotaur would have been an actual puzzle rather than a throwaway gag. There was even going to be a whole other labour where you had to steal a thunderbolt from Zeus. The result of this is that The Xylophoniad is a bit front-heavy: Troy and the Medusa have the best puzzles and NPCs, then Minos and Hades are a bit of a breeze. I thought of shuffling the areas around so the simple puzzles came first - easy enough to do with the temple teleportation system - but I just didn’t think they worked in any other order. I was proud of the Trojan Horse puzzle and wanted that to come first; I wanted the silliness to escalate with the Bicyclops; and Hades just seems to fit last thematically.

I recruited “beta” testers with about a week to go. They were all wonderful and found some horrible clunkers of bugs, some of which made the game impossible to complete. One of them gently asked whether I really thought the game was polished enough for Spring Thing. I worked intensely in that last week, not just fixing bugs but adding a lot of scenery descriptions and other “flavour” stuff, and if it hadn’t been for the testers I don’t think the game would have stood a chance.

When more than one reviewer called it “polished”, I was floored. When it won Alumni’s Choice I was through the floor and outright cellared. Thanks so much to everyone involved in the Thing, organisers, players, and the other authors.