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 The day after publishing I had a proper read about IFcomp, noticed the deadline and the rule about being previously unpublished and realised I’d have to make a whole new game if I wanted to enter.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.

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