Three-Card Trick postmortem

This post will reveal some tricks behind Three-Card Trick, and contains spoilers!

Three-Card Trick was originally written for the First Quadrennial Ryan Veeder Exposition for Good Interactive Fiction. This wasn’t a public competition. Ryan Veeder played the games privately, judged them privately, and then it was up to the authors to release them later (or not release them). Spring Thing was the next event around the corner, which is why Three-Card Trick wound up there for its public debut.

Writing this game was a peculiar process for me. Over the past year, I’ve begun to gravitate toward creating limited, puzzleless parser games centered around a few core mechanics. In fact, I feel like anyone who has played my games would be able to identify them from their limited mechanics alone. Which meant that I had to abandon this preference when writing Three-Card Trick, because one of the requirements for Ryan Veeder’s Exposition was anonymity. And not just slap-on-a-pseudonym anonymity. If Ryan thought he might be able to guess a game’s author (not even guess correctly, but merely toy with a guess) then that game would be disqualified.

I suspect that I failed to conceal my authorship anyway, and that Ryan didn’t disqualify me because he’s a merciful judge. But that is beside the point. When I was designing the game, I was operating under this constraint.

As a result, Three-Card Trick is much less elegant than it could’ve been, mechanically speaking. I tried to catch as many synonyms as I could, and implement as many verbs, but there are holes. What holes? I don’t know, because I filled all the ones I could find, but I know there must be more because the game is not as refined as my others.

This game’s compass is probably the most obvious gameplay element born directly from the anonymity constraint. I hate using the compass. None of my other games rely on compass directions. Which meant that I had to include compass directions in Three-Card Trick or risk exposing my identity. But I tried to do it in a sneaky way, by making the compass into a tiny puzzle where walking north/south/east/west gets you into trouble. Instead, the game has an in/out navigation model that trumps every cardinal direction. Some people figured this out easily. Others struggled with it. Whether it was a success or not, it’s not something I would have normally included.

Retrieving your key from your top hat is another puzzle that came about for similar reasons. As I mentioned before, this game is loaded with synonyms because it doesn’t use limited verbs and I wanted it to still flow as smoothly as possible. But it doesn’t always flow smoothly, and when you need to get your key from your hat, it shouldn’t flow smoothly. At this point, it’s meant to break down as the player struggles to execute the proper command, fighting with the hat to perform an extremely basic action.

The humor here, if you’re the type to find it funny, comes from actually interacting with the parser. You’re performing a magic trick with no audience, and it’s not even really a trick. It’s just something pragmatic you have to do to unlock your own chest. But you twist yourself into knots trying to get it right. The cherry on top is the word “Presto!” when you finally succeed, as though it was really so simple in the end, wasn’t it?

Of course this has to be balanced. The player can’t struggle too long. And I did try to hit that balance. But again, it isn’t even something I would have put into a game normally.

So much for the mechanics, which are all over the map. What about the story?

The purpose behind Ryan Veeder’s Exposition was for authors to try writing a game that would appeal to Ryan Veeder. I figured there were two ways to go about this. The first was to parody Veeder’s own games. The second was to ignore Veeder’s games and try to write something based on his preferences. Well, I thought to myself, if I were in a similar position as a judge, would playing parodies of my own writing actually appeal to me? Probably not. Therefore I went with the second option.

Buster Hudson’s Foo Foo, a very good game that deservedly won first place, was a Veeder parody. Whoops!

Not that I think that matters when it comes to Three-Card Trick, which got fifth place. By the time I was about halfway through writing it, I found myself wondering why I had ever thought it would appeal to Ryan Veeder.

As “research” for the game, I played every Veeder entry listed on IFDB, but more importantly, I looked at the games he had rated highly that were written by other people. Some of his highest-rated games are standard classics. Others are short, buggy joke games. One in particular stood out to me: Coin toss by Simon Deimel.

I don’t know why Ryan Veeder likes Coin toss. If I had to guess, I’d say it might be the laidback atmosphere. Lounging around in a basement party room. No real objectives. A lazy day where you have nothing better to do than toss a coin. Oh yeah, and there’s a murder in the newspapers. It’s a nonthreatening setup with a semi-sinister undercurrent, and the main thing you do in this game is just toss a coin until you get bored.

Well, I must admit, I have no real love for Coin toss, but it gave me the idea for Three-Card Trick. I thought that if Ryan Veeder enjoyed a game centered around something as simple as a coin toss, and probably enjoyed it because it was simple, then I would center my game around another simple trick. More than that, I would put this trick onto a pedestal, make the world in the story revolve entirely around it, because that would be funny.

My original idea was that you would be able to perform simple card tricks yourself, and also visit different card magicians who could perform the same tricks for you. These tricks would be repeatable, like the coin toss in Coin toss, so that you could cycle through them over and over if you wanted. That was never going to be the main plot. It would have been a mini-game. But it was going to be much more prominently featured, until I began to develop the story and pushed this aspect to the side. However, the idea still made it into the final game: Ivan will perform his three-card trick as many times as you like. The cards are randomized. You can sit there and have him deal new ones forever.

The three-card trick in Three-Card Trick, of course, is not three-card monte. It’s the staple “pick a card, any card” trick that you’ll find in many magic acts. Except you can’t pick any card. That would be a fifty-two card trick! Eons will pass before the characters in the story could ever reach that level of mastery.

This bizarre premise, which began as a joke, continued as a joke but grew increasingly twisted the more I fleshed out the characters and setting. Another requirement for Ryan Veeder’s Exposition was that entries had to be “fun.” It therefore became a challenge for me, the darker Three-Card Trick got, to keep it light-hearted. It was at this point that I began to sincerely doubt whether Ryan would enjoy the game. I fortified myself by saying, well, he gave a few disturbing games good ratings on IFDB, and that means I still have a shot.

I knew I didn’t really have a shot.

The main character in Three-Card Trick is the nastiest main character I’ve written in a game to date. Even nastier than the protagonist in Taghairm. A selfish, hypocritical misanthropist willing to do anything for fame. The trick to Three-Card Trick was to write this character in such a way that people would merrily play along without getting bogged down in all the negativity. Ideally players would smile, and laugh, and want Morgan the Magnificent to win. Because it’s fun.

As a character, Morgan the Magnificent owes a great debt to Morgen Santamore from Caleb Wilson’s HOLY ROBOT EMPIRE, and indeed Three-Card Trick itself owes a great debt to that game. Both Morgan and Morgen have allowed themselves to be swallowed by ideologies to which they are now slavishly devoted. Their societies are filled with questionable elements that they do not question and never will. They have trivial goals — one wants to kiss a papal ring, the other wants to perform a card trick — but because these goals would validate their personal beliefs, the goals achieve disproportionate significance. No moral or ethical scruples will stand in their way.

There are more parallels between the games. Both involve traveling to an underground region where society’s debris has collected. Both involve charismatic authority figures with cultish followings. I even wrote Three-Card Tricks’s tagline to echo the tagline from HOLY ROBOT EMPIRE.

Where HOLY ROBOT EMPIRE is concerned with religion, however, Three-Card Trick is concerned with fashion. With how people fit into society. With what their roles permit, and demand, them to do. With how their value is determined.

Something that many players did not realize is that Morgan the Magnificent is a woman. I expected that players might miss this. There is a reason for that. But there are many lines in the game pointing to this conclusion, and a few lines that state it outright (try examining Lady Gascogne’s assistant). Last year, Emily Short wrote something in an article about mother/daughter relationships in games, and how she would like to see more. Three-Card Trick was at least partially written to fulfill that request, although I suspect this is not what Emily was asking for!

What do Caleb Wilson and Emily Short have to do with entertaining Ryan Veeder? Absolutely nothing! You can see how far off track I wandered from the guidelines set forth by the Exposition. Despite that, as an absurdist comedy based on a card trick, the game was tailored to Veeder’s preferences as much as I could manage. (It also has a few easter eggs that make callbacks to his games.)

I don’t think I’ll make a game like this again. I was pulled in conflicting directions while I wrote it, and I feel as though the result is scrambled. Its placement in both Ryan Veeder’s Exposition and Spring Thing seem to bear out the fact that players felt the same way, and I can’t say I blame them. But although the game is awkward overall, it has individual elements that appear to have worked as intended, and I think that’s the most I can ask for under these circumstances.

HOLY ROBOT EMPIRE has a tagline? When I start the game it just says “A Text Adventure by Caleb Wilson” (or “Ralph Gide” in the original Shufflecomp version).

I’m not sure I follow what reason you had in mind that players might miss that Morgan is a woman. Did you expect players would think Morgan is a man? I at first assumed the protagonist was an AFGNCAAP.

Maybe tagline is the incorrect word. I simply mean the description that goes next to the game as a summary.

You are going to find the Robopope and then kiss its papal ring, or your name isn’t Morgen Santamore.

I expected that many players would assume Morgan was gender-neutral or a man because those tend to be people’s mental defaults when “woman” isn’t explicitly stated. In this game’s case, I expected these assumptions to be further entrenched because top-hat-and-tux-wearing magicians are usually masculine. The reason I didn’t clarify this more in the game is because that was the point.

I assumed female as well since “Morgan” strikes me as a feminine name more than a masculine one.

He’d have had to disqualify Cheesed Off, too. I like his comment in his Youtube channel.

Good job on researching what sort of games he likes. I was too busy, but I know I’d have tied myself up in knots over what sort of game to write. Referring to his, or not? I think he must have been glad for the variety: some games with lots of references, some with few or none.

I liked Three-Card-Trick. It’s tightly designed and atmospheric. It’s a pleasure to play. But for some reason, it somehow feels to me like a minor work. I know that’s a bold statement coming from someone who never manages to write anything even remotely as focussed game play wise and well-written in every other way as any one of your works. I just felt a little railroaded. You made a good effort to disguise this while still playing it openly (sorry if that sounds paradoxical) and there is certainly a lot to discover off the beaten track, but still, it all feels a little too closed-in for my tastes. It tells an interesting little story and I am allowed in for the ride, but I can’t really change which story gets told. That was entirely different, for example, in Midnight. Swordfight (which, by the way, is only ever growing on me).