The story of ‘Ventilator’ is a strange and unusual one. It all began as a very, very short CYOA which I tried to publish
on textadventures.com, only to have it rejected because it was too short.
And, for a while, that was it. I messed around with the Quest engine, got frustrated, and abandoned the writing of text-based
games for a long time.
And then… I discovered Inform 7, played around with it, thought ‘wow, this is great’, and tried to write my first parser game. That game (which will never see the light of day, thank goodness) was a Harry Potter-themed spoof, featuring J.K. Rowling herself as a wandering NPC trying to enforce copyright law by beaning the PC over the head with a book. It grew too complicated for its own good, and along the line I realized it was just plain stupid. So that went down the toilet.
And so, I really wanted to write a proper work of interactive fiction, one which might be worthy of seeing the light of day. That was when I looked back at ‘Ventilator I: The Phantom Menace’ (yes, that was the original title, God help me) and realized that it could be ported over to Inform 7 not only with ease, but with the possibility of added jokes.
Thus the task began. I knew this was going to be a one-room game, at least to start with, and so I looked at the classics to guide me. ‘Shade’, by Andrew Plotkin, was one of my main influences, for reasons which will become clear shortly.
So, in the original CYOA, I had the ventilator attacking the PC, I had the abducted-by-aliens ending, I had some of the dying endings. But something was missing, a crucial ingredient I had neglected. There needed to be a reason for the madness, something which would make this game more than just a silly slapstick comedy sketch.
In short, it needed an emotional core.
And thus the character of Stephanie, the PC’s girlfriend, was born. I decided to scatter clues in the descriptions, implementing more and more objects in the room, in order to hint at her existence without ever formally explaining things. And thus was I lead to the twist which is at the heart of the game:that nothing in the game is real, that the events of the story are figments of the PC’s subsconscious mind trying to help him achieve an epiphany. After writing this game, I played a bit of Losing Your Grip
(Stephen Granade) on ClubFloyd, and my first thought was ‘this is just like what I was trying to do with Ventilator!’.
In order to allow the player to immerse himself in the PC, the one thing I had to avoid was the all-too-familiar trope of the parser making fun of the player. The point was that the player was supposed to empathize with the PC, and thus the jokes end up being an expression of the PC’s gloomy but ironic vision of the world.
I wanted the game to be really well-implemented and a joy to play. I was all too familiar with shoddily-made games to want to add another one to the interactive fiction multiverse.
So I had it betatested, and betatested, and betatested again. Each time, I carefully fixed bug after bug, implemented synonyms, even added a ‘kick’ verb, trying very hard to make the parser super friendly. I really wanted people to enjoy ‘Ventilator’, and I wanted it to be as dynamic an experience as possible. Hence the timed sequences, which prevent people from spending forever searching for some hidden goal.
At long last, ‘Ventilator’ was completed.
So, with trepidation, I submitted it to IFComp. When the voting began, I monitored the transcripts and updated my game every time a previously-unseen bug reared its ugly head.
The reviews were good, and I thought (mistakenly) that my game would rank well. Sadly, it didn’t, but at least I got a game out into the world, plenty of people played it, some loved it, some didn’t, and in the end the only thing that matters is the newfound confidence I’ve gained from writing my very first proper game. (I’ve now got a game in Ectocomp and a work-in-progress which will be for Spring Thing, so having ‘lost’ the IFComp has in no way damped my enthusiasm!)