Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Rogue of the Multiverse: What was I thinking?

One of the interesting parts of the IFComp experience is reading a couple of dozen reviews that speculate on your design decisions, and having to remain silent. It suddenly makes you feel all bottled up, even if you don't normally go into the design of your games publicly. So I guess that's why you now get a post about why I did what.

I'm posting this before my more general release post on the game because it will be full to the brim with spoilers and I'd therefore like it to appear further back in the Crowchives (that is what they are called). It goes without saying that if you haven't played the game, don't read this post. Although, I suppose if you're not planning on playing the game, it can't hurt - and it might even change your mind. Okay, let's get started.

The Title

I guess I have an interesting relationship with titles. A lot of people think Dead Like Ants is a weird title. I like it. Rogue of the Multiverse, on the other hand, well, it's a title alright, but I probably could have done better. My main inspiration was looking up synonyms of “thief” in a thesaurus, and picking the one that sounded the least criminal.

I was also kind of thinking about roguelikes – which, when I play them, amount to brief excursions to randomly generated worlds that quickly dismember and then kill me. I wouldn't claim that RotM is a roguelike, even partially, but it may to a slight extent mirror the experience of a typical roguelike protagonist.

Why IFComp?

If you've ever seen me express an opinion in discussions revolving around IFComp, you might have been surprised to see me actually enter the event. In a nutshell, I think there's too many rules for my liking, and, at least until recently, IF authors have been too reticent to release games outside the competition. I've always maintained that it's entirely possible to get your games noticed outside “the comp”, where they'll have a much more organic relationship with their audience – and with the growth of the IFDB and, I think this view is now much more widely accepted than it was two or three years ago.

But, having said that... well, the thing is that the audience you get probably won't actually be in the traditional IF community, or at least that's how it's always seemed to me. It's always felt like there's an internal core, a caramel centre if you will, of IF players for whom IFComp is Interactive Fiction, and anything outside the competition never gets on their radar.

So the past year it's been on my mind to enter a small game in the competition just as a way of saying “Hi” to those folks.

The Two Projects and the Seven Dwarves

This past year I've worked on quite a few disparate projects. First is what I maintain is a really cool idea, but which, after prototyping, I'm convinced requires a rethink and possibly a complete change of format. Graduating from that, I was struck with inspiration for how to tell the story of these two characters who have been haunting me for a couple of years now. At this point I have now defined a mostly complete plan for their game, and just need to find the time and energy to make the damn thing (it would probably be my biggest project yet, in terms of breadth and length). And then I'm working on ideas in Flash, and also prototyping little random ideas that crop up.

Which is all great, but by this point it's August and I have nothing for IFComp.

“Hang on a minute lads...”

I don't know where the idea for Rogue of the Multiverse came from. In my memory the development period is just a blur of frantic work on the game eating up all my spare time, hopeless longing for its completion, and eye strain. Most projects warrant a little page in my diary at the start of their development with a brief sentence explaining my initial idea: “Entirely keyword IF”, for example, or “An ant climbing a tree.” But Rogue of the Multiverse just leaps straight into scribbled to-do lists, interspersed with random lines of dialogue and actions I suspected might break the game.

Did RotM lose anything by being developed so quickly? Inescapably, yes. But did it lose anything good? No, not so much.

The Missions

I saw the missions as being the core of the game, but, unfortunately, always in pretty much the same guise they're in now – a guise which almost every reviewer saw as simplistic and not especially fun.

Given more time, I would only have made a greater variety of worlds. Post-apocalyptic ones were high on my list, along with a city being attacked by a giant monster, and an ocean environment. I also didn't get around to adding any instant-death worlds – volcanoes, gas giants, monsters' stomachs, that sort of thing. I would have eventually implemented “story worlds” with specific maps and gameplay (one of my first and favourite ideas would have been called “Chimp World”), but, crucially, only appearing in between “normal” missions.

I am pleased that at least one reviewer enjoyed these missions the way they were intended – as a simple, shallow and silly adventure through worlds where merely encountering an octopode in a corset is supposed to be satisfying without trying to interact with her, but for the most part I agree that the gameplay of moving to grid co-ordinates while being dismembered isn't good enough to support itself for long.

I had – and have – a lot of ideas for how Rogue of the Multiverse could be a larger game, but they all revolve around the player taking more missions, rather than making the missions themselves more interesting, which I think has to come first. I think the fix that people really had in mind was much more richly implemented mission environments, but that, well, that's kind of not what I was going for.

Bigger or Deeper?

A few reviewers tried to guess what my intent was with the missions, and the game in general. Was I parodying dungeon-grinding RPGs? Was I trying to present a cut-down, all-action game? Well, I did have an intent, and it was this: to argue that an IF game can be shallow and still be fun.

There's a pretty universal ethic in the IF community that deep implementation is good, and shallow implementation is bad. It's not just that the deeply implemented game says, “The feather has an iridescent sheen.” where the shallow game says, “You see no feather here.” It's that the ideal is the command “>PUT FORK IN TOASTER” should prompt a witty response about electrocution.

I don't think there's anything wrong with that. If a game can do that, it's great. But I also strongly believe that those IF games that, whatever literary genre they may belong to, are all ultimately of the “find object, use verb with object” genre should not hold a monopoly. There can and should also be text games that focus on action, or choice, or exploration, or resource management, or calculated risk taking, or other things that nobody has thought of yet.

Rogue of the Multiverse attempts to show that a limited game can still be one with a strong character, cool stuff to do and a memorable world. It tries to find ways to allow a player access to a broad spectrum of things without implementing any of it especially deeply. Is it successful at this? Well, the mileage varies between players, but I think it at least shows that this isn't a fruitless route to take.

Brevity and focused interaction are, I believe, a viable alternative to encouraging players to expect the game to respond to any syntactically correct command.

Dr. Sliss and "Friend"

Dr. Sliss has proven to be a bit of a Marmite character. Some people love her. Some people hate her. Nobody seems ambivalent or on the fence. I'm really happy with that.

The character who is a problem is the player character. I had hoped that players would project themselves into the role, but there aren't enough opportunities for the player to express themselves, so it doesn't work out. Getting to choose your outfit is cool, but pyjamas are not a meaningful personality trait.

The Distinct Object

Large and primitive bipeds with long tails and stubby proto-feathers.

You see no feathers here.

Well, I don't like that. But having written almost a hundred different types of object and creature to randomly appear on mission worlds, implementing their constituent components as well seems like a Sisyphean task of the “take a flying leap” variety.

So, the message “you see no distinct feathers here” was born. Probably not the best one I could have come up with, but the idea was to set expectations. “Yes,” this message tries to say, “if you see an object in the text, you should be able to interact with it. But not at too fine a level of detail.”

Did it work that way? No, probably not. But I still think it's less jarring than the original.

The Bugs

Inevitably, there are bugs in the finished version. And it really irks me. At least two mission objects include incorrect text. It's also possible to completely derail the game at one point. Otherwise, though, I think it's mostly solid.

The Future

What next for Rogue of the Multiverse? Well, given that I've been meaning to release a new version of Snowblind Aces for so long that I've forgotten why I thought it was necessary, I wouldn't hold your breath. A new version of RotM that fixes the most basic issues I've seen, and includes a Windows executable version is probably the best you'll get.

Still, the idea of coming up with better mission gameplay and expanding the game to involve alternate routes - including autonomy from or antagonism with Dr. Sliss – well, I find the notion theoretically appealing. On the other hand, if you want me to forget about a game and start focusing on other projects, a great way to do that is by making me keep silent about it for six weeks. And all I really wanted out of this was to make a small game and enter it in IFComp – on which count, mission well and truly accomplished.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

No, Really

I am writing up a post on Rogue of the Multiverse. But first I need to pour out a lot of words - and then, preferably, to delete half of them.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010


The results are out: Rogue of the Multiverse came second in IFComp.

Now that the rule of author silence during the competition no longer applies, I suppose there's quite a bit I should post about: a proper release post for the game and an image in the sidebar, for example, and a discussion of my design decisions. I'd also like to post about some of my favourite entries to the competition. And a new release of the game with some bug fixes and a Windows executable version is probably in order.

Before I get around to all that, though, I'd just like to say a heartfelt thanks to everyone who played and rated my game, whatever rating you gave it, and to all those who posted reviews online. Please treat yourselves to a banana.