A Game and a Nomination

I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog front of late, but it’s for good reason (for once). I’ve been doing some of yer actual genuine, bona fide, ye olde creative writing.

I’ve entered my new (third) game into Spring Thing, which is a more informal kind of contest than IFComp (and thanks to all who played Ostrich in that last year. If you didn’t, it’s available here if you fancy giving it a go). I would encourage everyone to have a play of a few (or all!) the games and see what’s what.

My game is The Devil and the Mayor. You play as a devil summoned Up Top to make deals with humans and help them damn themselves even more than they already are. It’s a lot lighter than Ostrich, closer in tone to my first game, Understudied. So expect a fair bit of silliness and the option for escalating mayhem.

If and when you have given it a go, feel free to let me know what you think in the comments here or over on Twitter.

The other thing that’s been going on is with my short film, The Accident. You can read a bit more about that particular chestnut here, but the tl;dr version is: it’s an 8 minute black comedy which I wrote and co-starred in alongside Kellie Higgins, who also directed it. The other weekend was the first public screening at the finale awards gala night of the Crystal Palace International Film Festival. A world premiere, if you like. But wait, there’s more…

The Accident has been selected for the Unrestricted View Film Festival taking place later this month. When the brochure was published I scrolled through a few short film evenings trying to find when The Accident would be showing… and then I found it. It’s on the 27th April, showing in an actual cinema, and it’s on a programme of award-nominated shorts. Quite what award it’s been nominated for I don’t yet know but I’m pretty happy about that.

So, normal service resuming with some CRFC posts in the not too distant future. And I might even treat you to some videogame content following a brilliant trip to EGX Rezzed last week.

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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.

I’ve Published a Thing. Or Two.

When I started this blog, part of the purpose was to keep a record of what I was doing writing-wise, both for myself and for anyone else at a similar (beginner) stage with their writing. So there have been posts about redrafting, sending manuscripts to literary agents and, swiftly afterwards, rejection. What there haven’t been many of is posts about successes, or getting something published. So I’m slightly baffled as to why I’ve published two things in quick succession recently and not mentioned them here.

Whoops.

Longtime readers will know that I’ve been working on three or four different novels over the last few years. A couple of years ago I posted about trying to write a game (I play more games than I read novels at the mo, so it seemed sensible). Unsurprisingly that involved learning a lot of new skills as I was trying to do it all myself, including art, animation and sound. After playing around with it for a while, I realised any finished piece wasn’t actually going to show off anything good writing-wise. Because I was struggling so much with all the other bits, the actual writing itself was almost an afterthought (which is something that could be extrapolated out to a sizeable percentage of actual games, now that I think about it). I was aware of software like Twine that can be used to make primarily text-based games (or Interactive Fiction depending on who you ask), but after a few cursory experiments I got distracted by novels again.

This summer however, at a bit of a crossroads with my various projects, I went on a week-long Twine summer school at the British Library and it’s kickstarted a few new ideas. I went to the course knowing what story I wanted to work on – it’s a horror story about people living in a squat and an ancient evil under the streets of London. I’ve been wondering what to do with it for a couple of years and couldn’t quite decide if it was a novel, a script or what. So taking it into a different medium seemed like a good way to actually get somewhere with it. Halfway through the course I realised that it was too big a project to actually utilise some of the techniques we were learning in the given time, so I swapped to something a bit lighter. And a few weeks after the course finished I published my first game.

Understudied places you as the understudy in a rock musical version of Macbeth. It’s three hours until press night and the star is ill. You must step up to the role having not rehearsed, and try to muddle you way through with generally pretty disastrous results… It takes about 15 minutes to play and is available here.

Now, that was pretty pleasing. I’ve been working on novels for a fair few years now, and not had a single thing published. While I’m not snooty about self-publishing, it’s not something I’ve wanted to pursue myself just yet. But with the Twine projects it feels a lot more free to finish (and test) it, then hit publish. And then it’s out there and, hopefully, able to be enjoyed.

But the title says I’ve published two things. Because with unerring timing I published Understudied a day before I looked up IFcomp, an annual interactive fiction competition. And one of the rules of IFcomp is that the entry can’t have been published previously. I love a deadline though, so with only six weeks to go before entries had to be in I decided to make my second game. Ostrich is altogether a less upbeat affair than Understudied. You start out as an advertising compliance officer for the government. But after a populist party rises to power the advertising rules start to tighten up, and then it’s not just adverts that you have to amend… And in the background you can choose how to spend your evening, get a sense of what’s happening in the country and, most importantly, decide how you will get through it all. Do you have a line in the sand, or is your head buried in it (ooh, that’s a better tagline than I’ve had for it so far)? That, along with more than 70 other entries, is available here. Judging is open to anyone who plays at least five games, and there’s some great stuff in there.

So there we go. It feels very strange to have two bits of creative writing finally published and able to pointed at. So strange that I have neglected pointing at them!

You may also remember me posting about a short film that I wrote and starred in. Well my partners in crime/doofusing have finished up the edit and it is 100% complete. I can’t share it yet as I’m planning on entering it into a few film festivals (like IFcomp, most festivals frown upon a film being available to the general public pre-festival). I imagine it will be the talk of Cannes soon enough. It’s silly and fun, and hopefully another thing that I can point to as an example of my writing.

This year feels like a few things have really come together and projects have gone from being things that I work on indefinitely with nothing tangible to show, to being out there and available and, of course, utterly nerve-wracking. But that’s part of the fun I guess.

What next? Well there’s still that horror game I want to write, and I’m thinking of using the structure of Understudied as a shortcut to making some more games. And now I’ve self-published games, I might take another look at one of my novels and see if that’s something I’d want to self-publish too.

If you have some spare time and haven’t tried Understudied or Ostrich yet, I’d love to know what you think.

Just Fucking Doing It – An Update

Covering clothes in blood for a short film

Back in January I posted about my own writing for the first time in a while. One of the things I mentioned was a short film I had written, and I hoped to have some sort of update by the end of the Easter holidays. Well schools went back today (I can tell because my commute took twenty minutes longer than last week) and I suppose I’d better come clean about how little I’ve achieved…

Psych!

For once in my life I have actually knuckled down and got on with something properly – largely thanks to the director/co-star helping keep things ticking along. What that means is that on Saturday the two of us plus camera and sound chaps popped round to a friend’s house and spent the sunniest day of the year cooped up in a kitchen making a film. Oh, there was a little time in the sunshine covering clothes in fake blood.

Through a combination of ambition and laziness we were aiming to make the whole film (about 9 mins) one single take. Ambition because it was my first script, Kellie’s first time in the director’s chair, and I for one haven’t done any acting in seven years. Laziness because neither of us know that much about editing, so it should make that a lot easier.

I’ve been on set for short films before, but purely as an actor. It was a very different experience this time – as writer and, I guess, co-producer as well as actor (not to mention joint costume, prop, hair supervisor) it felt much more stressful. Fortunately Kel and I had rehearsed a fair bit over the previous few weeks as acting became about the last thing on my mind while sorting out all the logistics and keeping one eye the time.

Anyway, with some great assistance on the technical side we’ve managed to get something in the can. However it turns out I’m pretty pleased to have actually done something.

And that begs the question why was I doing it? If I’m honest I’d quite forgotten while I’ve been rehearsing. Partially it was an excuse to work with Kellie – she’s always been top of the long list of actors I worked with that I really wanted to do something with again. And with her leaving the country for good later this year (boo) there was a deadline (yay). Also, I’d had a ‘what if’ setup going round in my head for a while that I wanted to do something with, but it didn’t feel like a novel. I have finally remembered the other reason…

I want something I can point to for evidence of my writing. I’ve got novels at various stages, but none published, a couple of sketches that were used by Newsrevue a while back, but nothing tangible that I can direct people towards.

Some time ago I mentioned that I was trying to write a game both for my own edification and as a means of approaching the games industry with something tangible. I got a little bogged down in the technical side of things and realised that the writing in the game was suffering because of my lack of technical expertise. Since then I’ve also read that having theatre or film scripting experience can prove useful. So bam, one film I’ll be able to link to when it’s finalised. Hopefully.

I’ve also just booked on to a week long interactive fiction class at the British Library over the summer. By the time summer is over I should have a film and a couple of Twine projects to shout about.

And the novels? I had said that I intended to get a redraft of one and the synopsis of another completed by the end of April, with a view to sending both off for a professional critique. I’m just about on target at the moment, over three quarters of the way through the redraft and with a little more brain space now the filming is done.

So. Just fucking doing it is just fucking doing it for me at the moment. Maybe I should have been just fucking doing it all along.