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!