And you thought Silent Hill was a bad neighborhood...
I have been entering IFComp since 2013. It's always bad to try and throw something together last-minute, but I have totally done that. My first entry, Final Girl was probably done in about a month and a half, Transparent was done in the month between the intent-to-enter deadline and the final deadline - don't try this at home, kids. I've learned to give myself more lead time and at least try to know what I'm doing by summer. I know I can whip out a game, but that's not optimal.
(Spoilers ahead, of course.)
None of my big ideas were developed enough in my brain nor of the correct size to be completed by the deadline since it was mid-July. Rather than break my 5-year streak of entering. I decided to go with Cannery Vale which was not in any way a complete idea in my brain, but I supplemented the initial "scary town" premise with several ideas and incomplete concepts I'd been toying with and mashed them together like Frankenstein's Monster. I went into this year's Comp convinced "nobody is going to like this" so I granted myself the indulgence to write whatever and however I wanted without worrying about trying to please anyone, convinced this game would be a Comp oddity that people would remark, "Here's is where Hanon lost his mind and went off the rails..." I decided I could always enter it under an alias and let it slide into obscurity if people came tramping around it with pitchforks. If I train-wrecked and couldn't finish it - no problem. It was never going to work anyway.
Then I got involved into a large group project called Cragne Manor for which every author would create one room. Ryan Veeder generously assured participants that it didn't have to take a lot of time - using Inform 7, we could decorate our assigned location, write some evocative descriptions and be done with little fuss. I figured I could do that for a week and then quickly transition to my IFComp entry. Of course, once I got my Manor assignment I grew giddy with possibility and my contribution ended up taking an entire month. I'm happy with it though and it was time well spent.
Cannery Vale is a contraption made of multiple pieces:
- I am a huge fan of Silent-Hill lore, and had considered making a parody about how inhabitants of a haunted town were completely used to weird stuff going down and the player would be caught up in an entire soap-opera of drama among humans and Old Gods. There would be scenes set in a diner where the figure on the stool next to you being served eggs and toast would be a monstrosity made of eyeballs held together by a trench coat and hat... Instead of paying for things in shops with money, they would take a finger. I think the proposed title for that was Quiet Glen.
- I had considered an adult game called The Second Circle which would be set in the Lust ring of Dante's Inferno and probably be noir-ish smut about a hustler-gigolo offered a huge sum to rescue someone from Hell who "didn't belong there" and avoid being tempted himself by the baroque sexual depravity on display and face truths about his own past or be trapped forever himself.
- I had been testing an Inform extension called "Hybrid Choices" and one of my tests was to see if menu-based navigation would be easier for people who hated the whole compass-rose direction conventions. Any travel brought up a menu of places you'd seen, and places adjacent to locations you'd visited and you could teleport there. The generic PC started on a beach and the next location was a boardwalk, then a town. Climbing a lighthouse would reveal more places to go kind of like the towers in Assassin's Creed. At one point in testing I did something wrong and ended up stuck on an abandoned beach with just a rotting Ferris wheel with nowhere else to go and that image stuck in my head.
- Another idea for a short speed-IF for Ectocomp was called Out of the Inn and tasked the player with checking out of a Fawlty-Towers-ish hotel which didn't get much business, and the desk-clerk, wishing to keep a customer at any cost, would keep inventing more and more ridiculous reasons that you couldn't leave the building and a whole puzzle-box Babel-fish type scenario would build up as you tried to satisfy the increasingly complicated requirements to get out.
- I participated in a Second Life horror RP called Crimson Falls, which was an amazingly constructed environment of horrors with a seedy motel, foggy apartments, a ramshackle carnival and playground, and a horrific asylum at the peak out of which waterfall of blood gave the town its name. Since I couldn't commit to participating in long-form story arcs with all the vampires and werewolves and asylum inmates, I decided to play a man who washed up on the beach every morning with no memory, no clothing, and who carried around a mysterious briefcase. My meta-role was to provide a disposable victim who could be killed in all the ways the permanent residents could think up since most of the main characters couldn't die or were already dead. I sometimes would lay in the middle of the street in a puddle of blood and chat to people nearby, haunt the apartments as a transparent alpha-channel ghost, or wear a skin that looked like my flesh had been peeled off - going about every day activities, working to convince visitors that I looked perfectly normal to myself, it must be something creepy and wrong on their end... I met my most spectacular demise under a riding lawnmower during a Duran-Duran singalong, spraying fountains of particle blood into the ham salad.
I'd had an extensive discussion with another author about how I should totally write "Silent Hill with sex!" Much of the actual sexual luridness I'd planned was eventually removed as I warmed to how the existing pieces interacted and gelled together. I thought of the idea to base the architecture of the town on the rings of Hell in Dante's Inferno which the protagonist would have to climb out of. My goal was "weird, slow-burn horror" - ghastly things would happen in the town but never be acknowledged by denizens who seemed to repeat the same activities over and over unless the player intervened.
My previous game, Alice Aforethought, was done in AXMA Story Maker, and I actually felt a little bad since I had started it in Inform and lost a lot of interesting things that could be done in parser, but a Choice Narrative is so much easier to control and troubleshoot and test. I actually did make an attempt to write the beach area in Inform just to see if I could make it work - I knew music had to be there - but ultimately I could achieve a much better atmosphere and control the music and manipulate the text much more easily in ASM. All that parallel-worlds nonsense would be an absolute bear to troubleshoot and test. If I had a year, maybe Inform would have worked, but everything was much more controllable in a choice format.
I conceived an overarching puzzle which involved rearranging letters stolen from signs which changed what locations were. The player would have an inventory letters and discover - gadzooks, this town is actually called Uncanny Valley! This would warp it into a Silent Hill "dark world" and everything would change. The final solution would be realizing the unused letters would spell out a previously unvisited location the player could then travel to for the endgame...which would be...something. He needed a reason to climb out of hell. I came up with a seedy flophouse "Love Raft" motel that could be transformed with one letter on the sign into the "Lovecraft" motel where the clerk was a snooty literary critic who wanted to keep you there forever and ever.
I originally wanted the title Uncanny Valley but that felt a bit on-the-nose, and was also the title of several other things, including a high-profile but ultimately unpublished IF (I believe) about robots and AI which should use that title. I came up with Cannery Vale which evoked Silent Hill, Twin Peaks, Wayward Pines, Night Vale and all those other bad towns you don't want to visit after dark. It also was a close anagram of "Uncanny Valley", which I used as the in-game Twilight Zone/Night Vale/Creepshow television program. It also gave the island a reason for existing since I could include a shady industrial district and too much backstory about what happens to all the body parts of people in town. Another author, Litrouke, clued me in to an actual affliction called Kluver-Bucy Syndrome which gave a reason why the inhabitants are good-natured, oblivious cannibals. I came up with an overzealous and extensive backstory which was too much for the game, but players can learn all about if they manipulate a character correctly.
I still needed to tone down the content, and one thing I thought of to give it a layer of removal was to have the whole story be a book the player was writing. None of the weird violent or sexual stuff would actually be happening - it was all fiction. Then it clicked - I could delve into my deep well of writer frustration by having another author character be writing this story and resolved not to stop until it was completed. Why couldn't he stop? Wouldn't the player try? Maybe they've told the Innkeeper to not let them leave until the book is finished. Maybe the Innkeeper is all too happy to do everything he can to help the player... I could push it to a sort of Misery type scenario where the Innkeeper is a fan of the author and won't let him out of his "contract". The Innkeeper is the Devil. It all fit together!
What about my neat little changing hotel concept - well...the Protagonist might end up in the Author's world as a funny "weird horror" Easter egg. The Innkeeper wouldn't let a beach drifter into his snooty hotel. But what if the Protagonist could meet the Author? How would that go? Would he help the player escape? Or would he be pissed at everything the Author put him through? I wrote the game knowing this had to happen, but not knowing exactly how it would go down. My original thought was that the Protagonist would kill the Innkeeper and go hunting the Author with a fire-axe like Jack Torrance in The Shining. I thought perhaps the Protagonist would morph into the Minotaur and chase the player through the maze of the hotel and some of that setup is in the game. I figured it would come down to at some point to the Author being tied to the bed (that's why there's a passage remarking on the height of the bedposts) and the Minotaur preparing to do horrible things... eat the player? Rape the player? Remove skin and wear it and become the author like Leatherface grimly typing the next draft of the novel?
Here's where I had the idea to toggle the "prose explicitness". At a high level, I could go full Audition with a torture scene. At mid-level, it could just be the Minotaur gobbling the player like in Little Red Riding Hood. At the "tame" level, they could be friends and order room service. That was all really stupid, but I had always wanted to test if I could make a game's explicitness adjustable for the player.
As cool as all that was, the whole Minotaur/Maze concept would make the endgame over-complicated, and when I got there I opted to just give the Author a prop from his own novel - the Protagonist's uber-goal was to dredge up a horrible memory the Author was trying to forget. It was a bit last minute, but I think it's a little cleaner and simpler than trying to write an interactive Stanley Kubrick hedge maze chase in the snow. But I kept the "explicitness" level mechanic since it worked well with the novel-writing concept and gave the player agency to control the story to their liking somewhat. I have played the game on low-explicitness and I'm quite happy that it still works without gratuitous violence and sex, but it allowed me to indulge in some outrageous scenarios that couldn't fly in a non-adult release. I worked hard to put in enough content warnings and ways to back out of uncomfortable scenes at nearly every step. There were also times I felt like I was embellishing some scenes with lewd or icky material just to test the content filter. This was a huge success that I hope to include in future releases.
The cycle of write-sleep-write-nap-(repeat) is an actual thing I do in real life.
Not for Release
There were some major cuts - mostly in the upper half of the island where originally I had wanted to include the Protagonist taking on other roles and becoming a character in local soap-opera drama. There was going to be a fire-breathing pastor (and his wife whose sole claim to fame was recording the Christian single "(Just Give Me) Jesus, Jesus, Jesus)"). He had an eye-patch and preached that the world "didn't care about the lesser sins" anymore such as Lust and Gluttony and Greed and that needed to change, but he would hypocritically start showing up and indulging his own sins at the diner and the Tunnel of L. That went along with a dropped element that somehow the Innkeeper had "commissioned" the author to reconstruct the upper levels of Hell involving "sins of the flesh" - all this paralleled in the disaster where the Hotel upper stories pancaked down which is still in the story. I thought of adding floors to the hotels that coincided with the chapters of the book and letting the player visit "the violence floor" "The heresy floor"...but that was too much. I liked the Author being the hotel's sole-occupant. It's their own hell constructed especially for them where they are being tortured obliquely by being pampered. I'm sure that kind of filtered in from the TV Show The Good Place a bit.
I also planned a crooked Mayor and his Lady Macbeth - He was wanting to renovate the beach into a casino (that's why there's a protest - originally the solution was to attend his "mobilize the workers" speech in the cannery where the player could drop him into the meat grinder in front of news cameras to end his campaign once and for all). The Protagonist would have been able to instigate a scandal if he witnessed the Mayor screwing his (gleefully nymphomaniac) maid Esperanza and agreeing to become the poolboy as "part of the team" and mess around with his sexy daughter and her friend, which would culminate in the Mayor's wife chasing the Protagonist with a shotgun, which would loop back into her having the shotgun on the night the player witnesses his dalliance with the maid resulting in her shooting him, helping her and the Maid drag his dead body out of the pool and take it to the hospital for "processing" wherein the wife would ascend to Mayorship...where the Protagonist could drop her into the grinder. I also planned to let the Protagonist audition for the Grand Guignol theater, which would have been the most awkward amateur theater ever performed with some extremely dodgy special effects "Okay, after you've become a zombie and raped the priest, smear the blood on your chest -- good. Now you pluck out his eyes and hold them out to the audience...as if you're offering them... wonderful!" There was even the Mayor's prodigal son who wanted to end the bloodshed carried out in Cannery Vale on its unsuspecting tourists by blowing up the pier to stop tourists from arriving, and the Protagonist would have been his terrorist stooge.
I was going to have all the daytime carnival rides break and kill the Protagonist Final Destination style, but it would have been too long and the player would have stopped trying after one or two. The Haunted House scene survived this cut because I love cheesy dark rides. At one point the Mayor's wayward son would have been shooting at the Protagonist to eliminate him after the pier bombing while they climbed around the rotating ferris wheel, dangling by fingertips, etc...
Another early concept I considered and didn't use was letting the player jump into other characters and change their responses and attitudes by acting them out - so Louise would initially be cold to the Protagonist, but then the Author would make her the perspective character and the player could choose her responses to manipulate her into inviting the Protagonist home. Playing as the Love Raft motel clerk could let the player lower the prices for the Protagonist. One concept for the endgame had the player playing both sides of the Protagonist chopping through the hotel room door and the Author barricading themselves against him entering. At one point the Protagonist and Author would have banded together against the Innkeeper who would grow to a giant size demon in the Great Room and reach down the hallway and crush the Protagonist like a bug in his giant hand in front of the Author.
All of this would have ended up adding three or more hours to an already-long game, and I didn't have enough time to make it all work. This is probably a good thing.
Unleashing the Beast
I actually got finished a day ahead of schedule, and then the Comp deadline got pushed back a couple days so I got to polish more. I went ahead and submitted under the pseudonym although I was a little more confident that the game was something special - at least to me - I didn't think anybody else would agree. Also, anagramming my name worked with the whole "forget who you are" concept and rearranging letters on signs. I considered the tagline "And you thought Silent Hill was a bad neighborhood..." but that was too boastful, and Cannery Vale ended up not being that scary. I'm happy with the moody-disturbing-wrongness that resulted.
I am shocked at the reaction to this game. I didn't get many reviews due to the sheer number of entries this year. I believe the running length listed at two hours, plus the extreme content warnings may have also scared many people away. The people who did communicate with me privately all had great things to say. Nobody hated the game as I expected - I received feedback that was all good, or perhaps a bit baffled but impressed. I'm curious if anyone who did play the game and hated it perhaps didn't want to explain the parts they didn't like, or didn't feel comfortable telling me - especially after three layers of "hey, this might not be for you..." content warnings on the Comp site, the opening screen, and in-game as the player is forced to choose an explicitness setting. I know that person exists because I did get a single 1 score - unless that was just that one usual hate-vote for choice entries.
I'm also really happy that people have mentioned the music and sound design - a first for any of my games with audio. Kevin MacLeod is brilliant and yes I know you'll hear Cannery Vale tunes everywhere since they're CC-BY licensed - especially the elevator theme which I also used in Going Down. The opening "Steel and Seething" is actually part of the background ambiance in the SCP horror game, "Medusa" and "Phantasm" are used a lot on horror review podcasts, and I've heard the Mermaid theme and "Spider Eyes" in other media as well.
Thanks to everyone who took a trip through the Vale! This has evolved from something I didn't have a whole lot of confidence in to my favorite competition experience ever. I'm deeply honored to be in the top ten among so many strong entries this year, and I hope everyone keeps trying and holds onto the briefcase along the way.
Get Cannery Vale
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