With one thing and another, and to my great regret, I didn’t get a game made for Shufflecomp. Here’s some discussion of why, largely in the interests of Know Thyself, and because I think best in writing. (There’s also the aspect that, well, someone went to the trouble of collecting some nice things on my behalf, in the hope that a game might result; so this has a certain degree of the-dog-ate-my-homework.)
Of the playlist I received, the songs that most grabbed me, both as music and as potential game material, were Train Across Ukraine by Golem, and I’m On The Bus! by Satellite High. They conveniently shared a public-transit theme, but with somewhat different takes on it. And for most of the crucial period of Shufflecomp I was on planes, trains, buses, airports and stations, so I was looking out for things to riff off in writing. The thing is, the most prominent feature of transit is mild discomfort and annoyance, and that blank frame of mind created by trying to carve out a small bubble of private space in an impersonal public one. Human condition, yeah, but hard to get very inspired about.
I’m On The Bus! is about this kind of everyday experience: the small annoyances, inconveniences, isolations and anxieties of taking the bus. Context: riding the bus is a minor recurring theme in hip-hop, usually showing up as a signifier for the indignities of poverty that the speaker has escaped. Bus-riders are outsiders – modern cities were designed for the benefit of private vehicles, and everyone else must make do. So while this song is generally upbeat, it’s an ironic cheeriness – it’s following the patterns of bumping-in-my-ride songs, except that everything’s kind of crap. I’m inordinately fond of the hip-hop that deals with the unheroic, mundane, unglamorously broke.
Train Across Ukraine, on the other hand, is a lot more jolly and convivial. Its train is a kind of rolling village square, bustling with activity and interaction. The music has a bouncy, party feel, and there’s the sense that this party is transposed onto the train itself, that a train carriage transforms itself into a sort of community. There’s a strong element of good-old-days fantasy at work – Golem are from New York, a city famous for defensive ignoring in public areas.
Now, it’s perfectly possible to produce works of transcendent beauty and enduring artistic merit with a subject-matter of petty annoyances. But I was more interested in the other side of things. There are untold hordes of games about isolated, alienated PCs; that’s something I’m trying to get away from. So I immediately knew that I wanted to create a game with a focus on community and characterisation.
My plan, since I knew I wasn’t going to be able to create anything with the depth of Invisible Parties while traveling, was to use Twine, conform the narrative to a pre-planned structure, and add elaborations as time permitted.
The first problem with this is that as an authoring tool, Twine has never really worked for me. This is not the post where I go into detail about why, but suffice to say that I’ve started a dozen or so projects in it and have always ended up abandoning them in frustration. Fair enough; no platform needs to be all things to all people. But it was a tactical error to rely on this time being different.
Structure And Content Shape One Another, And This Makes Design Hard
My aim was to make a loop-and-grow structure, a circular structure that develops elaborations with each cycle. At first glance, this seemed like a good fit for a transit-themed game: you could be traveling a circular route, developing more options as you understood the world better. But when I came to write things, it turned out that this is a rather trickier job than I had anticipated.
Circular content tends to assume a certain level of repetition. And repetition, in game terms, tends to work towards anonymous, interchangeable, generic acts. In parser IF, this is solved by making the generic acts physical and minor; picking up a rock or walking from one room to another is usually the same every time. Get away from that, and repetition becomes harder to write for. Fallen London, reliant as it is on repeated action, really foregrounds this: NPCs are given functional names that flatten their individuality, an acknowledgement that you can repeat their story arcs over and over. Is this honey-addicted Artist’s Model the same as the one you already had a fling with, or is she just the same kind of person serving the same kind of function? Does the distinction really matter to the PC? If you get continual do-overs on incidents, relationships, their significance – to the story, to the world, to character – begins to blur, and tends towards the kind of impersonal, anonymous, type-not-token distance that I was really wanting to avoid in this game.
I struggled for a while to figure out how to make this work – it is not insoluble, as witness Bee, but it is not the kind of thing amenable to an off-the-shelf solution. I ended up in that standard double bind where you don’t really feel able to start creating content until you can feel confident about the structure, but you really need to have a better idea about the structure in order to build content for it. More than I had time to wrangle with, alas.