What Heart Heard of, Ghost Guessed Postmortem

I feel numb. I’m in shock. I am so grateful. It took my husband and I basically until my name was announced to figure out Twitch, and then how to comment. Which will not surprise anyone who has met me. If I had figured it out sooner, I would have been shouting and cheering for the folks whose games I beta tested who placed top 20: @nilsf, @The_Pixie, @MoyTW. I was dancing for you guys when you were announced—and for everyone else, who wrote games that made me laugh and cry and marvel at how amazing this community is.

Here is my postmortem. So many spoilers here.

PART I- IT TAKES A VILLAGE

In my credits, I said that the game would have been impossible without the help and contributions of my testers, and probably everybody says that, but it is literally true here. I took suggestions word-for-word from reviewers; they helped me with thorny coding issues (and in some cases, just gave me code); and they shaped the characters and plot to a great degree. So in many respects this was a group effort, and I’m so grateful for it, because there would have been no game without them:

Wade Clarke, Clara Crandall, Nils Fagerburg, Pete Gardner, Matthew George, Josh Grams, Peter Gross, Jade, Andy Joel, Zed Lopez, Daciana Moore, Travis Moy, Hudson Pitalo, Eva Radke, Edo Rajh, Rovarsson, Mike Russo, and Andrew Schultz.

I’ll mention a few testers here, and to everyone else: thank you from the bottom of my heart… each of you deserves a paragraph of your own, and I’m so glad I know each of you.

Two of my testers are teenagers: Clara and Hudson. And they were truly awesome. Guys, thanks for indulging an old so enthusiastically. It’s been one of the greatest pleasures of my life to know you since the day you were born. May you keep IF alive.

Eva, my best friend for over 30 years… I don’t know if I can express how much she did here. We play IF together, even when we’re apart. For those of you who hated the colored doors puzzle: take it up with Eva. She’s a Zorky girl who like Zorky puzzles, and she came up with this one. Plus she played it a million times without complaint, and if the narrative makes sense at all, it’s Eva’s doing. I loves ya, bestie.

And I have the best husband in the world, who makes everything possible. Tom, I love you more than I can say.

All my testers were encouraging about my entering the Comp. @DeusIrae was the first person to prod me about it—thank you, Mike. And @severedhand was an absolute pest about it. I don’t think I’d have done it without his cheerleading. Thank you, Wade. You were right. Told you you’d get the credit!

PART 2: THE SLOOOOW BIRTH OF A STORY

The first glimmer of an idea for WHHoGG came to me years ago, and it was the central mechanic. I played Lynnea Glasser’s Coloratura and Arthur DiBianca’s The Wand at roughly the same time, and loved them both, and it was a really fortuitous combination of games, because The Idea was planted. The alien PC in Coloratura can influence emotions, and The Wand has a limited command set, and these things married in my mind: what if there was a game that used a limited command set like DiBianca’s, using emotions? Anyone who has played those games can probably see how that idea crystallized while under Glasser’s and DiBianca’s influence, and so I’m really indebted to them both. Also, both of these were killer games that everyone should play.

Then some years passed while I thought about how this was a really good idea, but I didn’t know how to code. This Spring, I had just made a huge life change in moving my home and studio to the Texas hill country from Austin, and my new studio wasn’t finished being built, and the pandemic had killed all my art fairs. So I decided to look at Inform and see if I could try and code a game. I did not think I’d be able to do it. But it was a lame duck time for me, so I started playing with Inform and buzzing on the forum with my newbie questions.

But I didn’t have a story to go with the mechanic.

Wine in hand, I thought about what kind of character would use emotions as verbs, and the obvious answer was a poltergeist. Right away I knew I wouldn’t be going for a scary poltergeist, but a tragic one. And right away I knew that I’d use Gerard Manley Hopkins’s great poem Spring and Fall , since it’s always struck me as a perfect ghost story poem, and since I’m a hardcore poetry geek. It was obvious then that Margaret had to be the main character’s name, since Margaret is the girl in the poem. It became clear that if I was going to use this poem, necessarily the game would be a major bummer. And it would also need to be gothic to fit the poem.

OK then. I had a mechanic and a genre: gothic horror. What about my PC, who only had a name at this point? Since the greatest gothic horror IF game is, of course, Michael Gentry’s Anchorhead , I started thinking about William, the monster of Anchorhead . William was a pathetic, deformed, dangerous person, a real trope of gothic stories. And I thought: what if I turned the concept of William upside down, and made the William-character the hero, and the other, “normal,” characters the monsters? Margaret’s disfiguring disorder was born there, as well as the need to make her everything William wasn’t: smart, loveable, gentle, artistic.

I spent quite a lot of time thinking about the emotions Margaret would learn, and what commands they’d be proxies for, and how to keep that from being too gimmicky. Interestingly, each of my testers found a different emotion to be the weakest one, so I figured that was probably a good sign that I had done an OK job with them.

When I started coding WHHoGG (the first time I’d ever coded anything), I only knew that much about the story. The first object I coded was the chest, and I knew that Margaret’s body would be in it, and that you wouldn’t be able to open until the end. It was clear from that decision that the whole game would take place after all the drama had already occurred. I wrote the rest of it as I coded it, without a story outline or even an idea of where I was going. Which probably shows in a lot of places. But now I’m writing a new game in which I did start with a story outline, and the whole outline is now in the trash. So it looks like writing a story and coding it are inextricably linked for me.

As I coded and wrote the story, I was thinking about a lot of Victorian and gothic tropes: the madwoman in the attic, Dickens’s tragic young heroines, family secrets, and of course, murder for profit. The rest of the family came from all this mishmash as I coded the game. Eva’s name was originally “Eleanor,” but a few testers didn’t like how difficult that was to spell, and my best friend Eva wanted to lend her name to it and was thrilled about being the bad guy. She had a great hand in shaping Eva’s character and wrote some of Eva’s dialogue. Ian, the handsome, spineless patsy loved by both sisters, came from the need to have someone who was kind to Margaret, and he also provided the unrequited-love trope. My friend Eva also came up with his name— I asked her, “If you had been in love your whole life with a man, what would his name be?” And she said “Ian” right off the bat. Of course, as in all good gothic stories and fairy tales, Margaret needed to be an orphan at the mercy of a rigid and abusive relative, so Grandfather stepped up to fill that role.

Lots of people commented on the spare writing, so a word about that. I didn’t want a lot of objects, partly because it was wicked hard to code responses for each emotion and each object, but also because I don’t like red herrings and I didn’t want the player to spend hours loving/hating every piece of furniture and knick-knack trying to find the relevant stuff. I saved the majority of the detailed writing for the descriptions of the emotions Margaret feels, as that was the center of the game, and I hoped that the spareness elsewhere would create a lonely atmosphere, and would make the emotion sections really pop out. From my reviews, it’s clear that it didn’t really work that way for some people, and I can see why. But I still like the thought process behind that decision, even if I didn’t stick the landing.

PART 3: UNDONE BITS AND PIECES

I’m still unhappy with the relatively one-dimensional villainy of Eva, Ian, and Grandfather. I tried to give them a little humanity (thanks mostly to testers harping on this), but wow, that’s hard to do with people willing to lock a girl up because they think the way she looks is embarrassing. I do wish I’d worked harder on giving those characters more nuance, though. The reviewers who commented on the unremitting villainy making the game flatter than it could have been were quite right.

I also meant to flesh out more of the connection between this story and the fairy tale of The Steadfast Tin Soldier (Margaret’s beloved toy), because that story gave me the end of my story. In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, the tin soldier and the paper ballerina end up in the fire together… so that’s how Margaret and Ian ended up. But I just never had the time to put more meat on that bone. Happily, though, that has given me the idea for my next game.

I wish I’d had the inclination or experience to have more options for endings… I know that quite a few people wished they’d had another option other than burning Eva to death. It was very on-the-rails there, and I plead inexperience. If I hadn’t been playing whack-a-mole with game breaking bugs right up until the due date, I might have had time to consider other endings, although even now that I’ve had the time to think about it, I’m not sure what those alternative endings might be. The game I’m working on now will have branching endings, though, as that was one of the next things on my list to learn.

PART 4: I SAY MORE WORDS

Thanks to everyone for giving an unknown writer your help and your time. Thanks for playing it. Thanks to everyone who rated it. Thanks to the wonderful, helpful reviewers who gave me such honest feedback, which I take very seriously. Thanks to everyone who ever took a deep breath and patiently answered a really stupid question I asked on the forum (which was A LOT of times).

This was just a great experience. Honestly, I thought game-breaking bugs would sink me in the Comp. I thought no one would play a parser game by an unknown writer (and I’m pretty stoked about how parser did this year. Who says parser is dead?). I thought it would be awesome to place in the top half, but I didn’t really expect it. I never in a million years thought WHHoGG would place this well. It’s so surprising that I’m more than a little in shock, as I played quite a few Comp games that were better than mine by a mile, yet placed lower. I just want all y’all to know that I’m keenly aware of that fact.

I’ve been playing IF my whole life from the outside looking in, and I always dreamed of writing a game that people played and liked. And now I’m on the other side of the fence, and the grass is so green here. It’s truly a dream come true, and I can’t quite believe it yet. Thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks. And thanks again.

Get ready for the next onslaught of stupid questions and beta testing requests.

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Congratulations on fourth place. When I beta-tested I felt it had the potential to do very well; it was already well polished mechanics-wise, well-written and had a concept that made it stand out.

Do get in contact if you have another project that wants beta-testing.

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Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure to test yours, too, and I’m delighted that The House on Highfield Lane placed so high. It was a real drag not being able to rate it in the Comp.
For anyone who likes old-school puzzlefests, big maps that warp space and size and location, and snarky-yet-loveable PCs, I recommend this one highly.

Absolutely. Although I’m sure you’ll regret offering when I send you another bugfest with poorly clued puzzles.

Congrats on placing well! Your game was fun to test, even if I was totally stumped by the door puzzle. If you end up having another project, I’d be jazzed to help out again.

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Congrats to you, too! I think the door puzzle pissed a lot of people off.

I will totally hit you up for testing again. You can’t get away. And ditto to you. I’d love to test a new one!