Ostrich IFcomp postmortem

I recently wrote about a game I’ve made that I entered into IFcomp, the premier interactive fiction competition. The results are in, and out of a strong field I made it to joint 14th place out of 77. I’m dead chuffed with that result, and with the atmosphere of the competition generally. There’s been a brilliant forum for authors to discuss their mid-competition thoughts, worries, plans and that sort of thing. As a part of that, authors have been sharing postmortems of their games, looking at the genesis, the implementation, and the results. I’ve written one which I think is worth sharing here as well.

There will be some spoilers ahead, though the game has a lot of variable content depending on which options you pick, so if you haven’t played Ostrich yet you can do so in about 45 mins for free here: https://borntopootle.itch.io/

Background

I took a one week course in IF that focused on Twine over the summer, organised by the British Library. I’d previously had a quick poke of Twine and GameMaker, but not really worked out how to get anything done. Following the course (and another month of work) I published my first game. The day after publishing I had a proper read about IFcomp, noticed the deadline and the rule about being previously unpublished and realised I’d have to make a whole new game if I wanted to enter. I had about six weeks before the deadline.

The idea

Ostrich is not very subtle (which I’ll come back to). It’s very clearly a response to the rise of populist governments and sentiment in political discourse. I don’t think that’s gone over the head of anyone who’s played it!

I’d been toying with the idea of making a game about the regulation/censorship balance in some way. I worked for a company that pre-clears ads for TV (in effect working with the ad agencies to make tweaks to scripts or review evidence for product claims like ‘biggest’ ‘nothing works faster’ etc etc) in the UK for about 7 years, leaving just before they suddenly became newsworthy: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/nov/19/banned-iceland-christmas-ad-clearcast-facvebook-palm-oil

Anyway, the descent from ad regulation to fiction censorship seemed like a good Orwellian trajectory to plot through, and gave me an instant structure to work with.

My initial plan was to have a slightly more subtle game, one where depending on which options you chose you might not see anything untoward happening at all. That was part of the Ostrich name idea – that you could be so buried in your bubble that you might not notice the rise of fascism.

The ‘don’t put your politics in the game’ arguments in mainstream gaming are so annoying I sort of thought that I might be able to turn them on their head. The onus in Ostrich could be on the player to put their politics into the game…

However as I started work I swiftly realised two things. Firstly, if you could miss all of the juicy stuff then some players might find the game very dull. Secondly, I don’t have the skill to pull the subtlety off. Or definitely not in the time I had at any rate. So I embraced the lack of subtlety.

I knew that I wanted the protagonist to be gender neutral, the location to be ambiguous (and definitely not the standard quasi-communist Russia-alike) and the time to be unknown (mainly because I didn’t want to have to deal with emails, mobiles and social media as options for the player).

So then I picked a rather arbitrary 10 step process for evolving from ad regulation, through tighter rules, into censoring the news, and on into fiction. I tied this to what I thought the government might be doing in the background at each stage of the process – protest ban, curbs on immigration, cutting some services to reinforce gender norms, rounding up dissidents etc – and then thought about what events those moves might trigger among the general populace. That gave me the ideas for the train journeys and evening activities.

The execution

The structure was fairly quick to get down: 10 work days, a new twist of rules on each day; a commute to and from work, some with a choice some without; a selection of evening activities to see a bit more of the world and make more choices (or make a choice to not engage with the wider world).

Cycling links were the only way I could think to easily implement the day-to-day work of regulation/censorship. I’m also a big fan of using cycling links for some very simple character-building, so added a few of those early on to give the player a choice of where the character’s apathy sits and their work history.

To give a bit more value to the choices I added a suspicion-meter in the background. This was affected by the choices made on the commute, in the evenings, and also by the quality of your work. When the suspicion meter reaches a certain level you receive a warning letter, and there are a couple of other small reactions tied to it too – aiming to give a bit of feedback to the player about how their choices are affecting things. If the suspicion meter hits another, higher, level you are carted away for questioning. And there were two options that would lead to an early ending regardless – if you took an active part in the protest then on the penultimate night you are rounded up with other dissidents; if you told your boss about the resistance code and still put it in the paper you are, unsurprisingly, caught. If you manage to get through unscathed, then the whole office is taken in for questioning – it’s up to the player whether they think that’s because of their actions.

I didn’t manage to find a satisfactory way of giving the player feedback on their censorship work. And given there was quite a lot of it I think that’s a bit of an oversight. There are one or two points where the boss can give a different response, but I don’t think it’s enough.

And the ending… I knew it was all going to end with the player being hauled in for questioning and I tried to come up with a few options for how naming names might go. Some options only appear if you’ve found out certain things, but I also quite wanted to find a way of implicating other people, like the combover man. But I didn’t find a satisfying way of doing that. And the interrogator spouting back some of the choices you’ve made isn’t massively exciting. I tried skipping a lot of that and going straight to the final outcome passage, but that didn’t have quite enough weight to it. As the deadline was looming I reverted to the list-of-choices ending.

The reception

It’s my first time being involved with IFcomp in any capacity so I really didn’t know what to expect. I was happy with the game – mechanically it did what I wanted it to, and seemed to have the desired emotional effect on my testers.

And the response has been really positive. I worried that a depressing political game might rub some people up the wrong way, but perhaps they were put off enough by the blurb that they didn’t actually play and review the game! And of course Twine has a fine history of games looking at sobering subjects. The phrase ‘on the nose’ has come up in a few bits of feedback. It’s usually a negative phrase but the reviewers have, in the main, acknowledged that in this case it kind of works. Initial hopes for subtlety aside, Ostrich is a blunt game and elicits a response in part because of that bluntness.

Papers Please cropped up in a few reviews, which is both pleasing and not surprising. I did worry at times that it was going to be too similar to Papers Please (which I’ve not actually finished – must get back to it!) but ended up going in a different direction.

Looking at my reviews and reviews for other games, I thought I’d probably finish somewhere in the middle, which I would’ve been happy with on my first attempt and with a depressing game. And by all accounts it’s been a good year for IFcomp with no troll games and loads of great stuff. So to finish in joint fourteenth is ruddy marvellous and I’m hugely grateful to everyone who has played, rated, or proffered feedback. Being a part of the comp has been brilliant, particularly with the lovely authors’ forum. And the organisers of course, without whom etc etc.

Advertisements

The 100th Film Spectacular – Chain Reaction Film Club

We were so young, so naïve back in those hazy 2016 days. “I know,” said one doofus. “Why don’t we decide what film to watch each week by taking it in turns to pick, limiting the choice to the something starring an actor in the previous film.”

“Sure,” said the other doofus. It was an agreement he would come to regret…

And so was born the Chain Reaction Film Club in a blaze of noncommittal agreement and arbitrary rules (actors must be seen on screen and have dialogue! So no animation! And no TV movies!).

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

At least the film inspired something…

The first film was 1996’s Chain Reaction (obviously), the most recent 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Along the way we’ve been back as far as 1945 in search of hidden gems, classics we’ve not seen and films worth reappraising. We’ve watched some brilliant stuff, some weird stuff, and a couple of downright stinkers.

The darkest moment came pretty early on. In the 8th film we watched in fact. Hands up who wants to see Danny Devito’s embittered ad man relocate to a military base to teach English Lit to new recruits? Hands up who then wants to see those young recruits rapping Hamlet? Here you go: https://youtu.be/5Ij5XXaUl48

I don’t think we’ve bested (worsted?) that. Yet.

Traffic.jpg

It’s a very yellow film

There are a clutch of films that have proved entirely forgettable. I couldn’t tell you much about Sweet Dreams, The Insider, Syriana, Sunshine Cleaning or A Single Shot. I’ve now seen Traffic twice and still can’t remember much about it apart from the general message being ‘drugs are bad, m’kay’.

The player.jpg

Do you think Altman was dropping some hints to the Academy here…

But let’s focus on the positives. Mud was an early favourite in amongst a lot of mediocre choices, and a strong showing for Matthew McConnaughey. Robert Altman’s The Player was every bit as acerbic and well-told as everyone says, with a killer opening tracking shot. The Fifth Element was exactly as good as I’d remembered. I’m still gutted I didn’t see it at the cinema when it came out. I did see Starship Troopers on the big screen when it came out though, and again for the 50th film triple-header last year. It’s ageing very well, as the satire seems even more horribly relevant now.

Duellists

Got to entertain the sheep somehow…

Probably the strongest run of three films in a row was the Edward Fox triple-header of The Duellists, The Day of the Jackal and The Dresser. They’re all absolute stone-cold classics.

The best film about stunt pilots you’re ever likely to see is The Great Waldo Pepper, made all the better by finding out that Robert Redford really did climb out on the wings without safety tethering while high above the earth. Two other absolute stormers with great central performances were Talk Radio and Muriel’s Wedding – fewer stunts perhaps, but both just as gripping.

 

Along the way we’ve had mini-seasons for Edward Fox, Paul Verhoeven, Susan Sarandon, William Goldman, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine and Gregory Peck. And it’s with the latter that I think we found my favourite film of the CRFC so far – Cape Fear. The standout of our Peck season, even compared to the excellent To Kill A Mockingbird, The Gunfighter, The Big Country and Twelve O’Clock High.

And what of the weird? Well the jarring switch between race relations study/coming of age drama/black comedy about a woman and a decapitated head of Sweet Home Alabama will take some beating. Tank Girl was weird, but not in the same league. And I’m still perplexed by the nonchalant way characters reacted to revelations of child abuse in Last of Sheila. Compared to those, a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali in Spellbound actually seemed pretty tame.

So what next? We’ve been hankering after rewatches of Tombstone and The Blues Brothers for a while. Tim’s in a big Western mood. We both fancy heading back to the 30s, 40s and 50s slightly more. And Tim still hasn’t managed to trick me into picking Shooter with Marky Mark Whalberg…

Gregory Peck – The Chain Reaction Film Club

One of the great things about IMDb is that the URL for people betrays how early they were added to the database. For example, the first person on the IMDb, with the url ending ‘name/nm0000001/’, is Fred Astaire. There’s another film club to be had around that idea, now that I think about it.

Last time I wrote about the rather strange Last of Sheila, then waxed lyrical about two Gregory Peck fims. Anyway, so taken was I with Gregory Peck, and so enticed by the fact that he’s got a relatively small filmography for someone of his fame, that a season beckoned. And now after ten Peck films in a row I am a dedicated fan. Even though I’ve written about two of them before, I’ll look at the whole season here, because Peck deserves that sort of treatment.

From Last of Sheila we linked via James Mason to The Boys From Brazil. I enjoy Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives (the original, obvs) so another Ira Levin-based ooky thriller seemed like a safe bet. Laurence Olivier is a Nazi hunter (and the 59th person added to the IMDb), and Gregory Peck is the fiendish Joseph Mengele (and number 60, conveniently enough. The first hundred or so seem to have been added in alphabetical order!).

Peck Boys from brazil

It wasn’t great (nor was James Mason’s accent come to that), but I thought Gregory Peck was outstanding. Looking up trivia afterwards, it turned out that Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, which seemed terribly hammy to me. Peck on the other hand was critically mauled. Perhaps it’s time and acting styles passing on that have affected my view, perhaps it’s just down to taste, or perhaps it’s that I wasn’t saddled with the view of Peck that critics of the time had. He was, by all accounts, almost always cast as the good guy, the moral authority. But I can count the number of Peck films I’d previously seen on the fingers that I’d hold up at the President if I saw him.

The previous films were Roman Holiday and The Omen, neither of which I remember him from particularly. In fact, in my head Cary Grant played the lead in Roman Holiday, so what do I know!

Peck Designing Woman

It definitely wasn’t all top quality stuff in the season. Designing Woman was a fun enough romp, but would have benefited from Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant in the lead, with their screen personas more able to invite laughter at their expense. Spellbound and Mirage were a pair of duff Hitchcock and Hitchcock-wannabe thrillers. The former is notable for a Dali-designed dream sequence, the latter for an excellent Walter Matthau interlude.

Peck Mockingbird

But everything else was gold. To Kill A Mockingbird and Cape Fear both came out in 1962. Even without seeing any other Peck films, those two alone should be enough to cement an iconic image. A man of unwavering moral authority, brought to breaking point. A man for whom morality is the ultimate arbiter. I think Cape Fear is one of the very best we’ve watched as part of the Chain Reaction Film Club.

Peck Cape Fear

I’ve not seen the remake (I mooted it as a way to end the season, as Peck turns up in it, but Tim was less keen) and am a little scared of it now. I found Robert Mitchum to be skin-crawlingly horrible enough. I’m not certain I want to see where De Niro takes it.

Then there was The Gunfighter, a stripped down Western that would work well as a stage play. It’s largely set in one bar as a weary-of-fame gunfighter waits for the woman he loves and tries to fend off young hotheads and horrified matrons. It’s good stuff. The Guns of Navarone is one of those Sunday afternoon standards that I somehow missed growing up, and its band of plucky misfit soldiers assaulting a Nazi base seems to have laid the blueprints for parts of the original Star Wars trilogy.

A war film with a different tone, Twelve O’Clock High had Peck taking over a bomber unit suffering from low morale. Determined not to get attached to the men for their own good, it’s another great example of his moral strength being tested. Bouncing back to another western, The Big Country is as handsome as they come.

Peck Big Country

It’s here where Peck’s archetypal quiet competence and morality seemed to find their most natural home. Thrust into the middle of a feud which is about to bubble over, Peck outwardly takes the moral high ground, using brain over brawn. At the same time he tackles physical challenges on the quiet, determined not to use those as a means of proving himself to others.

After ten films, almost a fifth of his entire filmography, I am absolutely converted to the temple(ton) of Peck. Is he the greatest actor? No, I don’t think so. There is an unbendingness to his performances that suits his most notable roles. I think that’s also why he excelled as Mengele – a man who believes as unwaveringly in his (horrendous) actions as Atticus Finch believes in the law.

After leaving Peck behind we tackled The Ballad of Cable Hogue, then via Strother Martin we watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Made four years after The Big Country, it was a similar story of Jimmy Stewart’s moral man forced into a world where the rule of law is seemingly meaningless. When we started the Peck season I thought of him as an also-ran compared to the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. Watching Liberty Valance I was struck by how much I would have liked Gregory Peck to be playing the lead instead.

It turns out that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was the 100th film in the Chain Reaction Film Club, so I’ll have a little look through what we’ve watched so far and pick out a few choice morsels. And if you haven’t looked at my post about some exciting writing news, then maybe tiptoe over here and see what’s going on.