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Post-mortem on Voice of God

In my previous post I wrote briefly about the game I made for mini-Ludum Dare 28 (Jan 2014) called ‘Voice of God’. Since a couple of weeks have passed since I made it, and I’ve had chance to receive some feedback on it from various sources, I feel it’s time for a post-mortem.

Summary:

The theme I chose (out of the choice of any combination of facade, scheme, deceit and conspiracy) was deceit. I had always fancied having a go at making a game in Twine, having followed the whole resurgence of interactive fiction in gaming news with interest (e.g. Richard Hofmeier replacing his own winning entry Cart Life with ‘Howling Dogs by Porpentine, Cara Ellison’s Sacrilege etc. ). I also wanted to have a go at making a small game that focused on writing rather than mechanics for a change, and so took this jam as an opportunity.

Having chosen deceit as a theme, I chose to do a game about self-deceit and draw upon parts of my own life-experience and explore a small part of them in this game.

Challenges:

Without conventional mechanics to deal with like you usually do when designing a game (such as movement, combat, inventory etc.), Twine forces you to think about designing in a completely different way.

The only method of interaction with the game is to click on hypertext links and so you have to come up with a way to make this clicking on links meaningful or interesting. It should, of course, not feel like you’re just reading prose on the internet!

You also begin to think about structure in a very different way. We often break a game up into levels or sections, starting with a tutorial with sections that come after gradually increasing in complexity and variety (not always, but often). With Twine, this won’t necessarily work. Instead I had to think about how to orient and ‘ground’ the player in a different way. Without graphics and without mechanics, how do you ensure that there is enough variety to keep a player going, yet doesn’t make them feel listless and lost in the experience?

Finally, the very stripped down experience of designing and writing an interactive fiction experience in Twine (which in and of itself is quite functionally limited, especially when compared to Quest or Inform and similar) means that you really have to focus on what your game is about.

It’s this quality that perhaps encourages authors to deal with personal content in a more focused way – evocative and strong writing is the chief way to engage your audience. The best way to achieve this is to, effectively, bare a part of your soul or some very strong feelings.

Personally, I found it very challenging, but very satisfying writing this game. But because of all the issues above, I spent the vast majority of day one thinking about how on earth I was going to write and structure an experience that really encapsulated the theme I’d chosen (self-deceit)! I had a very vague structure in place before I went to sleep, meaning that that majority of the game was written during day two.

Successes:

I think I managed to get a very good rhythm going to the game. Once I’d written the first few panels worth of writing (each page is represented as a panel in the editor), I found that there was too much in each section for my liking.

To solve this I didn’t only reduce the amount of writing, but you can also use various javascript macro extensions to add actions such as “click here to continue”, “click THIS text here to replace THAT text over there” and so on. By mixing these tags with each other and including links in text not seen at first glance, it encourages the player to click more frequently in order to progress the story, and this rhythm can be varied at will to serve the purposes of the story if required. Chunks of text can be revised to add meaning to that passage, as well as what it’s replaced with.

The overall structure was something that I really struggled with at the beginning (as mentioned above), but I naturally fell into a kind of verse/chorus/verse/chorus kind of structure, with a bridge and a coda of sorts. This wasn’t a conscious decision, but writing and playing through the first two cycles felt right. It allowed me enough scope to develop the narrative as I wanted, but the repetition of certain sections (albeit with alterations each time to further the narrative) gives the player some orientation in the experience. Based on the small amount of feedback I’ve had, people found that these sections helped build the narrative to a crescendo (of sorts) near the end. 

Upon reflection, other well-known Twine games such as Howling Dogs used a partial-repetitive structure to show progress and return the player to somewhere familiar to pause for thought during the narrative. Since I did not make a conscious decision to do the same, maybe it’s just that this really is an effective way to structure these experiences.

I used colours to limited but carefully chosen effect – in particular red as the voice of doubt, and various shades of red to show those doubts getting stronger. Not everyone got that last bit, but I’m not entirely convinced that I could or should improve upon that and I am, on the whole, pleased with how that came out.

Feedback overall was positive, although limited since mini-LD is substantially smaller than the usual Ludum Dare events (Roughly 80 entries for mini-LD vs. 1500 for Ludum Dare 28!). People generally liked the writing and obviously felt emotionally involved. One person had a more neutral response, although conceded that they hated religion and this may have affected their experience. To be honest, I would have said that they entirely missed the point, but their entitled to their opinion!

Potential Improvements:

This game really took me a long time to plan. As is always the case with any game, but especially those done during game jams and under a tight time limit, I could have done with more time for polishing and picking up the one or two typos which have since been pointed out. Next time, I’ll have more idea of how it ‘feels’ to design and make a Twine game, and can use my time better accordingly. However, I was still happy with the final quality of the game.

I think that I should have spent a bit more time thinking of another title. ‘Voice of God’ is good in the the sense that it informs the player a little about the subject matter and could attract more attention than it might have done otherwise. However, giving too much of a clue as to the contents has probably stopped people from interpreting the game in ways that I did not plan for. In a game that is reasonably imprecise with the prose (and purposefully so) I have probably rail-roaded readers into interpreting it in a certain way, something which I’ll try to avoid in the future.

It would have been nice to play a bit more with formatting and colour. During this game I made a conscious decision to not try and learn a load of CSS at the same time as learning Twine. CSS *is* simple and straight-forward, but I had never used Twine before and you have to sensibly pick your battles in the time allowed! But using colour would have helped the game to stand out more from other interactive fiction pieces and can be used as another visual mechanic to serve the narrative (like I did a little bit with the colours of text in places).

If, after all that, you’d like to go and play ‘Voice of God’ then you can do so from my portfolio page or directly from this link RIGHT HERE.

All feedback, as ever, is welcome.

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