When the Land Goes Under the Water: Mini-Postmortem

It’s up on my site. Overall writing for Shufflecomp this year was a great experience, thank you Neil for running it (And thank you Hugo and Doug for helping me test it!).

I have to say, I liked this a lot, but I also struggled with it due to the “play only once” rule. I’m glad that you’ve given your Official Dispensation and are now encouraging replays!

I think it would’ve worked better for me if smaller pockets were lost underwater throughout the game, pieces here and there, so that you lose details but still get the overall sweep, rather than having the game neatly slice itself in half based on which route you take at the start. Maybe it doesn’t always do that, but that seemed to happen to me. Rather than making me feel as though I was slowly losing artifacts, history – as happens in Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder – I felt the game had just slammed a gate down. And since I normally love exploration-based games, it was quite frustrating!

The culture, the religion, the pantheon, all seemed really well done from what I saw. And now that I can play it again, I’m going to go back and let those elements sink in more!

Belatedly: speaking purely for myself, I wouldn’t say I was hostile to the play-only-once rule, but I felt nervous specifically because that took away one of the tools I typically use as a reviewer. If you can’t replay something, it becomes a lot harder to verify your impressions of how a game worked, and you’re more likely to get things wrong. I mean, I do anyway, sometimes, but this felt more awkward.

I did talk a little bit, on ifMUD channels, with another player who had different experiences from mine, but I would have liked to have more of that.

I didn’t think you, specifically, came off as hostile to it. But others definitely expressed some variation of “ugh why are you making me do this,” which made me rethink the whole thing. I mean, I don’t measure success or quality in my own work based on pleasing people, but I think I can evidentially say that WtLGUtW would have been a better game if it didn’t have that one statement in it, so I kind of view that as the least successful part of the whole thing.

As I said, if the game was clearer about what it was trying to accomplish with it, or if the different branches were more numerous or more drastically different, or if the play-discuss-disagree cycle I was envisioning was built into the game itself, it may have worked out. I realise now that I was aiming for a really interesting but also really fraught territory with that, in a way that was very, very low effort and wasn’t going to hit that particular mark at all, so that was a mistake, which ended up occluding things about the game that were finely worked out.

It was also kind of an attention vortex: It occupied a mandatory sentence or paragraph of every review of the game, even though it was pretty much an offhand “yeah let’s throw it in” decision on my part. And I don’t blame people who reviewed it at all for this; people will latch on to what they latch on to. But if something was going to be such an important part of how people perceive the game, it had to be more central to the game’s design. And it wasn’t, not enough. It turns out, I think, that a game players are supposed to have conflicting experiences with and share them is one of those ideas where the game pretty much has to be about that for it to work.

Yeah, I think it’s such an unusual thing to ask that it’s hard to treat it as a minor aspect of a game (and the handful of other examples I can think of that do ask something like this of the player do so because the whole game is about trying to accomplish some specialized only-play-once-based outcome).

This might’ve been hard to do as straight parser Inform, but I’ve been thinking it would be interesting if the last step of the game involved leaving one’s own particular trace/interpretation for other players to look at. Like, hm, you leave behind some text telling your own story about Atlantis (which could be more or less accurate or distorted), or you preserve some artifact and leave a museum-style description of how you interpreted that object – something that made it clear that communicating about your experiences and building up a memory of the culture was itself part of the play.