Fair Postmortem (Part 1 - Spoilers!)
After last year's Comp, and writing two ambitious games that nobody saw the back half of, I swore that I'd design my next game so that everyone would get to the ending. I'd build it slick like a water slide so people couldn't get stuck if they tried. My brain came up with "explore a tiny space, then answer a multiple choice question about it." There would be no wrong answer, and no puzzles along the way to hinder the player. The game would make no judgement and the player would be free to interpret the situation however they wanted. I also decided the setting would be much more mundane, not horror, more "indie-film bittersweet" and maybe character-based since I'd based all three previous games on situations and mechanics with little regard for anything else. At first in my initial frustration I had intended to troll the Comp hard in the manner of "This is what you want? Here you go!" I also toyed with satirizing the comp with some sort of pie-judging contest where all the flavors of fifty subsequent pies would be randomized and eventually all start to blend together where the player would get bored and just pick one randomly. Fortunately my frustration softened, and I realized I might actually be able to write this and make it somehow about the frustrating process of creating something and having it judged by people whose whims are fickle.
They're fifth-graders, how hard can the science be?
Eventually I hit on setting the game at a science fair for grade school students. I had in mind the kind of quirky, too-smart children one sees at spelling bees and their parents who are involved to varying degrees. Every exhibit would be weird somehow. Nothing would be "perfect" and I wanted the player to perhaps struggle with whether to award the best science or the best personality on display. And even better: what if the player were not even really qualified in science at all? What if they were a an artist who knew all too well the struggle of producing something for public consumption and tasked with judging something they know no more about than any random person? My initial thought was to make them a local celebrity, like an anchor person or a weather person who would be expected to know science things but only to an extent. Since I know a tiny bit more about writing and self-publishing than I do about meteorology, the PC became a self-published science fiction author who is pulled in to sub for the normal judge at the last minute.
There was no specific reason to specify gender, so I chose the pseudonym A.B. Astherton as sufficiently writerly and neutral, specifying it was not the player's real name. I need motivation, so perhaps A.B. is not a particularly good author, and is scraping by doing some sort of Kindle Direct Publishing thing. Perhaps as a local celebrity they can autograph copies of their book—but this is an important thing because rent is coming up. And there's a time schedule because the gym needs to be used for something. A guide character...the principal would be the strict timekeeper because what happens in school gyms after hours? Community theater play rehearsal of course! I wasn't writing the type of game I normally do, so I loaded it with a bunch of potential background elements I have lots of anecdotes and at least a bit of peripheral experience with: theater and writing. And precocious children. I found the concept of a local community theater doing an original rock musical of A HANDMAID'S TALE to be hysterically wrong-headed and funny—so much so that I designed the program to include as a feelie that had the name "Bob McMaitlend" as the writer-composer-director and suddenly he set the tone for the whole thing: He's a liberal principal with ideas. and the guide through the story, like the player, caught in the swamp of Middle America that everyone wants to get out of by producing a book or a musical or an invention to get them noticed.
I wrote a "spec sheet" that was just a list of characters I quickly made up names for and who they were, and what the science projects were about. Who had parents, what the goal was, the structure. This was all done at the end of the 2015 Comp.
And then I got to do something I never ever had the luxury of: I saved my spec sheet on the computer and then spent the entire beginning front half of 2016 not writing the game. I let the characters live in my head, and their personalities develop. I thought about them a lot. For me, this incubation period is an important part of writing an actual story. It might sound like a "duh" thing, but usually I am writing a game on the fly making it up as I go, so having the entire exact scope and structure of the game complete with enough initial ideas to gel and think about for eight months improved my understanding of them and benefited the world-building of FAIR. I knew from previous years I could write a short game really fast so I didn't even begin until one month before the intent deadline hit, making the entire coding process two months.
Making the Game Not-Frustrating
Steph Cherrywell was the first parser author to show off the deceptively brilliant Hybrid Choices extension to its full effect in BRAIN GUZZLERS FROM BEYOND. She used it primarily for conversation, but also to streamline a couple of difficult interactions. One current discussion in IF is "limited parser" games, where an author discards some or most of the built-in interactions because they are unnecessary, or to make a point. Arthur DiBianca's exploratory INSIDE THE FACILITY does this, only allowing movement and EXAMINE, and the player automatically picks up and uses necessary objects when in the correct location. Katherine Morayati's TAKE goes further, limiting interactions to EXAMINE and TAKE. Some fans have grumbled at this, but my own take is that authors should provide controls that are necessary to the player. If jumping isn't necessary in a console game, why should developers need to include it?
My personal philosophy that has developed is to try to keep what's useful in front of the player at all times, even if it does involve rearranging the scenery to assist them. A player shouldn't need to guess-the-verb for a normal everyday process they know how to do. An author can spend time implementing a toothbrush with bristles that are a supporter and toothpaste as a container with varying amounts of paste and a twistable cap that must be removed and a brushing action that only works on teeth and give the player actual teeth and require the player to spend ten turns on their dental hygiene before they're comfortable leaving the house, but does this actually create fun for the player and serve a game that isn't specifically about a dentist?
Hybrid Choices allows the author to switch the game between normal parser and menu/choice mode at any time. Often the best use for this is conversation, but AW Freyr (the extension's creator) helped me with code so I could cause any interaction with specific objects to drop to a choice menu. In FAIR, this greatly simplified the grinding minigame of selling books. Any interaction with the box of books in the hall (EXAMINE BOOKS, TAKE BOOKS, SELL BOOKS, KICK BOOKS) triggers the menu and gives the player a clear set of interactions that might not be initially obvious. Implementing NPC buyers and a selling system and actual books and money would have taken forever.
A grindy mini-game
The bookselling minigame feels a lot more complex than it is. I got reports of people trying to optimize who they sold books to, but there is no actual difference. I gave the player a choice of several fairgoers with randomized features to give a sense of how crowded the fair is without having to build multiple actual NPCs other then a generalized "crowd" scenery object. There are ten questions a buyer might ask, and the number of them they do ask is randomized. Landing on card one means the NPC already has the book and wants it signed and proceeds no further. 2-9 are the "is this like Harry Potter?" type questions. Usually there is a positive answer, a negative answer, and an answer that could go either way. The player needs to get two positive answers and prevent the negative answers from whittling them back down. Another advantage of Hybrid Choices in this situation is that the text of the questions and answers and choices can also be randomized or cycled. Despite only nine variations of a question, I could make repeat views of the same card change so that it seemed there were a lot more responses and variations by using the same choice-pages.
Building the School
I first implemented the entire Hallway (first room) pretty thoroughly with the bookselling minigame, and then sent just that for a round of alpha-testing to make sure everything worked properly. I had done the same last year with the bread-making game and I'm glad I did because it still needed a lot of untangling in updates. My fault for not listening to the testers implicitly, "This is hard." "But it works!" Luckily the choice-nature of the book game was a lot more airtight and just needed some tweaking to remove extra spaces and pronoun agreement and, the bane of my existence, closing quotation marks. I had gotten a "This gets a little boring after 100 turns" comment, but a normal run through of the game I had intended to be around 70 turns. The transcripts I received showed my random generation lists weren't running out of different things to say, so I called it good.
Next I implemented the gymnasium which has lots of backdrop objects. It's a tricky construction because it is one big environment with multiple locations from which the player can see the same parts of it from multiple locations. I over-described it because I wanted the geometry and function of it to be clear to the player and I had a couple of environmental hints that would be occurring. Also, I predicted that many first plays of the game would result in not having seen every exhibit. The choices could vary from "Number 42" if the balloon was still attached and the player hadn't even looked at it, to "The second one from my left" if the balloon was gone, to the complete name of the exhibit optionally with the student's name if A.B. is acquainted with them.
Next I set up five locations for exhibits with the intention of writing the room descriptions later because I wasn't initially sure how to write five interesting variations of "Here's a table on the gym floor with an exhibit on it." Once I figured out to make the table a kind of supporter, and an exhibit a kind of container, I was able to get them all out and fill them with a lot of useless props. Props were a kind which resisted all TAKE efforts to curb standard adventure game kleptomania. The only truly important one was the mouse cage and that was a special item so the roaming twin sisters wouldn't steal it.
Come and play with us...A.B....
Oh yeah, the sisters. I had an idea for two little girls going around unsupervised vandalizing the exhibits and the idea of their efforts filling the rafters with balloons that had been tied everywhere. I wrote them as one NPC, which made them in my mind like the creepy girls in THE SHINING, but I put my evil little girls in yellow. Eventually I went back and added that they stole objects on occasion as an extra thing to keep them from cutting all the balloons in the first 20 turns. The little girls are the only NPC that actually moves freely on the map in the exhibit area; McMaitlend is a series of choice-menus that pop up and go away, and his NPC is never actually there until he shows up on the stage 15 minutes before the ceremony. Every NPC that seems to move is teleported, entered, and exited via code. One early idea was that the five entrants and their various parents would also move around and have some limited interactions with each other, but I pictured them all jamming up in one corner unrealistically and decided with all the rest of the chaos it made more sense to the player that they remain with their exhibit instead of having to be hunted down.
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