Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Admiration Point post-mortem


Admiration Point (itch.io; IFComp 2022) is a "FEELINGSART" that I created at the beginning of this year.  I will be discussing my design decisions in-depth. There will be spoilers.

I mentioned in my post-game notes that Admiration Point is inspired by real events. Out of a desire to protect the innocent, I changed a lot of details. But the core anxieties of the many feelings involved in an unwanted work crush--admiration, envy, intellectual kinship, guilt, excitement, and anxiety--are still very much present in the work. I used my writing as therapy to process feelings I felt a lot of shame for. But after writing my shame out of my system, I realized that there is a reason we feel shame for some emotions, because we are not supposed to talk about them. But feeling like I can't talk about my emotions seems to only bring them to a boil! Writing this game was writing therapy for me. I am happy that my temporary insanity has passed and that I managed to sublimate those feelings into something other people have been excited to read.

What seemed successful:

  • the word "anti-romance"
  • the game was not "just" about an unwanted workplace crush; it also had an interesting setting
  • a good variety of choices that helped people feel like they were role-playing

What was not as successful

  • it was too difficult to get endings 1 or 2
  • I should have asked my testers to test this more specifically
  • some people didn't like the high level of detail in the book excerpts
I'm going to go into more detail about 1) why I chose for players to be able to decide what to do with their feelings if it didn't affection their future choices and 2) what was wrong with my stat system.

Deciding what to do with your feelings

Your decision about what to do with your crush does not influence your future choice options. So why is it a choice? Deciding to avoid/use/wreck with your feelings is something any person with unwanted feelings will have to decide at some point. Maybe not everyone will sit down and deliberately decide what to do with their feelings, but I wanted the player to make a role-playing decision. In order to play a role, you need to be able to actually choose to act according to that role. I could have eliminated choices to flirt with Sean after choosing the "avoid" route. But choosing to avoid someone, or live with your feelings for them, or to pursue them, is a decision that must be made over and over. 

The decision of what to do with your feelings does affect some of the game's evaluations of your decisions to you. Each ending has a little sentence or two commenting on how/if you fulfilled your goal. The game's reflective text is also affected. For example, after the Handmaid's Tale exhibit, you think about how Sean mentioned your work. If you chose to avoid your feelings, your inner voice will say "You hate that you like that"; otherwise it says "Finally!" with some text about how go an listen to his voiceover and admire his work.

Why didn't the stat system work?

My stat system worked in the sense of having players feel like their decisions affected... something. Just like a real weird relationship with your coworker where you start gaslighting yourself into thinking that it's all in your head, but then you can feel the sunlight of their affection, and you feel that maybe you weren't insane that whole time? The spiral effectively conveyed Maria's obsession, but the other variables didn't help players figure out what choices to make in order to see more of the story. 

Many players missed the more "final" endings, endings 1 and 2. If you got ending 4 or 5, there is still a LOT of the game you can play. There are some great scenes after ending 3, too. But in order to collaborate with Sean and avoid ending 3, you have to ask him to apply for the grant with you and he has to agree. For Sean to agree to collaborate, his affection for you must be over 4 (which you can check in the alt text of the stats images), and you have to not kiss him. One easy way to get your affection over four is to have lunch with him after he helps you with the mommy blogger motion capture, but he will only have lunch with you if his affection is over 3, or if his alert is lower than 2. You can also increase his affection by having his book in your office when he visits it, by emailing him about Loopscape, or by having dinner with him and the team after the Handmaid's Tale exhibit. (N.B. After writing this postmortem, I subtracted one from the affection thresholds for the lunch scene and the grant collaboration.)

A flow chart shows the organization of Admiration Point. Toward the beginning is ending 5. Ending 4 is about a third of the way down. Ending 3 is about three-quarters of the way down. Endings 1 and 2 are at the bottom.
Endings in Admiration Point

I wanted to make it a little difficult! I wanted to give players the feeling of threading the needle between making friends with Sean and making their attraction too obvious. While it's traditional in dating games to have it be difficult to get the "best" ending, I think I should not have emulated that. Many people play IFComp games until they get to one ending, any ending, and having an early "game over" doesn't encourage further study.


I mentioned in my Skillick's Bride postmortem that I wanted to get testers involved earlier in the process. I did do that! I got 2-3 people to play the first third of the game. Their feedback was really encouraging, but of course, couldn't include the variable fine-tuning that comes after the game is complete. I was able to get 5-6 testers to sit down with my game after it was complete. I made a Google form for them. But I should have asked them what endings they got to and what key decisions they made to try to predict what route most players took (maybe there is an in-Twine way to track player choices?). I should have asked them more specific questions about how they thought the variables worked. Maybe I should have eliminated the variable sidebar completely!? I am still not sure how I would have improved that part of the game. 


I am indulging my weird whims in Admiration Point. To have multiple people write in-depth reviews of the gamewith several of them really "getting" what I was trying to say, was intensely satisfying. I don't think I've ever received so much positive feedback from anything else I've written. It felt like some of the reviewers understood the problems in my life better than I myself do, just by playing my game. It has helped me feel like I am not alone in having complicated feelings about men because of patriarchy and in enjoying speculative fiction about metadata. If you reviewed Admiration Point, thank you very much! You are helping me to learn how to be a better videogame writer.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Skillick's Bride post-mortem

I made a short Twine game called Skillick's Bride that you can play for free on itch.io. It is a feminine Mormon horror game and is gross and disturbing, so take a look at the content warning before playing. I wanted to write a bit about my process in creating the game. 

Two years ago I found Bluebeard's Bride when I was searching for a tabletop game that focuses more on "feminine" aspects of play. I was searching for a more "feminine" tabletop game, but that simply meant having more to do with conversation and relationships than fighting. I don't think that relationships are inherently more "feminine", but hey, I needed a keyword. I felt intrigued by the game's concept and wished vaguely that someone would play it with me. This year, I was determined to make it happen and actually played the game with three of my friends. To prepare to be the "groundskeeper", I listened to some live playthroughs of the game. I haven't played very many tabletop RPGs and felt a bit lost in how to prepare myself. The handbook said to simply make stuff up on the spot, but I found that the rooms that had the best impact were ones that I had planned ahead of time. I had an idea to do a whole game focused on Mormon women's issues, but I felt like that could be too intense for my friends who have varying relationships to the church. 

Horror vs. realism

The tension of being "too intense" or "too real" is one I've noticed as I've read more horror novels. I had the hardest time liking World War Z because reading about a zombie pandemic after experiencing the  COVID-19 pandemic did not feel like a fun mind experiment. The most horrifying snippets in my head are ones that I've read on the Wikipedia pages of serial killers or in the memoirs of abuse victims. Those are things that actually hurt a little to read. I think horror should hurt a little, but be removed enough from real life to not give me obsessive thoughts. When horror is sufficiently removed and addresses an anxiety I've experienced, it gives me enough distance to feel cathartic. In writing Skillick's Bride, I wanted to experience that cathartic distance with some of my own experiences with childbearing and being a woman in the LDS Church. I've also had trouble finding horror novels that address the existential horror of childrearing.

I made the horrifying topics I wanted to address abstract to different degrees, with varying degrees of success. I think the breastfeeding room and the childbirth room may have been TOO explicit. I wonder if I could have further abstracted the horror there to help make the game more accessible. The scene where you are asked to groom a strange animal is obviously a metaphor for obligation sex. Since I felt like having a sex scene in the game would be too triggering or explicit for my audience, I felt compelled to turn it into a bizarre one. I was worried about this room being too weird, but two of my friends said that this was their favorite room. The room also has more options for actions than the other rooms. Since each room simply ends with the player's evaluation of who was responsible for the suffering experienced there, I could have had a lot more freedom in "ending" the rooms in various states, which allows for more player freedom. I didn't do this with very many rooms though, because I wanted to finish writing the game quickly.

I wanted to release the game before Halloween. This was helpful to motivate me to work on the game, but a few things were rushed at the end. In particular, the room where the group of manservants decides what room you should be in feels short and weak, as does the cellar. 

Fanfiction helps scope

It was very helpful to be writing within the context of Bluebeard's Bride because it gave my project a scope. The tabletop game explicitly addresses the suffering of women and tells you, the "groundskeeper", not to focus on why Bluebeard is the way he is or his relationship with his mother or whatever. Having Bluebeard, or in my game, Skillick, be a foil for patriarchy, helped to focus the game on the player's experience and women's issues, especially when I was tempted to make Skillick a sympathetic character. 

I should have focused further on what, exactly, I wanted Skillick to represent. After the player experiences each room, they decide whether to be "faithful" to Skillick and blame the suffering on the woman or some aspect of society, or to be "unfaithful" and blame it on Skillick or the church. I think focusing on Skillick as a representation of a perverse church--a bridegroom who was the opposite of a savior--could have helped the game feel more focused. As I wrote it, it didn't encompass all of the feelings  player might have had; maybe they wanted to be "faithful to Skillick" but not "faithful to the church". Some rooms focused more on cultural issues and some more on the character of Skillick. 

If I come back to this game to improve it, I would want to make more options available in each room and make some of the shorter rooms a little longer. I think I would change the mother's room to be a kitchen where a mother is drawing their own blood to feed to their vampire child. I would make the game more consistent about whether the servants were actually fellow ward members or not, and decide if I wanted the locations in the game to be consistent with a typical LDS chapel or not (as it is, two rooms are specific to an LDS chapel). I think I would also add a room or two.

Prototyping process

The last thing I want to talk about is my prototyping. I hadn't written a Twine game for several years, so my first priority was to make a prototype to test if I could figure out how to make different endings based on the "faithful" or "unfaithful" scores. With that technical barrier out of the way, I was able to focus on writing. I wish I had gotten feedback after writing a room or two. The Twine Discord was helpful in helping me fix my user and code errors; I'd like to see if I can find some other IF writers to trade in-progress feedback with there. I think if I hadn't been in such a rush to be done, I could have gotten more feedback from my friends and made a better game. As it is, I've proved to myself that I can make a game by myself. I have so many more ideas I want to try!

Monday, October 11, 2021