Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Alias 'The Magpie': Postmortem

Alias ‘The Magpie’, my sixth IF game, took 1st Place overall, and 1st Place, Miss Congeniality, in the 24th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2018).

In the grand tradition of IFComp, I have written a 'postmortem'; a short essay in which I reflect on the process of making the game, as well as what I would do better next time! What follows is an abridged and updated version of the post I made on the intfiction forum on November 21st 2018, with spoilers removed:

Beginnings
According the the timestamp on the Inform project folder, I began writing Alias ‘The Magpie’ on 3rd December 2007, almost 11 years ago. For the first few years, it was one of those projects that I would pick up, tinker with for a few weeks, and put down again. For a long while, it seemed as though it would never get off the starting blocks, but gradually, like a cartoon snowball, it grew and gathered momentum.

In August 2017 I suddenly lost my mum, and this put life into perspective for me. I realised that what I really loved doing was writing and creating IF in particular. I threw myself into the game, and over the next year poured hundreds of hours into getting it finished. After listening to the sound of the Spring Thing deadline whoosh past, I set my sights on IF Comp.

Inspiration
The inspiration for the ‘Magpie’ was Sir Charles Litton, aka the ‘Phantom’, from the Pink Panther films. The original idea was that this would be a game about a gentleman thief, but one who had somehow lost or mislaid his thieving equipment, and would be forced to improvise. In the game’s early stages, the ‘Magpie’ was more a physical artiste than a confidence trickster, and the puzzles were to have been very Wallace and Gromit; walking up walls with sink plungers, and that sort of thing. This version bubbled around in my head for a while before the concept settled down to more or less its present form, and I actually began work on the code.

An early influence on the game was the Infocom game Moonmist, but for all the wrong reasons. Though a fine game, Moonmist was one of the first I’d played which felt as though it was on rails. The authors seemed not to have considered that the player might choose to take any action besides the ones that advanced the story in the way they expected. My instinct when playing this sort of game is always to test the boundaries. Hence, when I was invited to dress for dinner, I came downstairs completely naked. When offered a chair at the dining table, I sat on the floor. If I was hoping to provoke a reaction from the NPCs, I was disappointed. The story rumbled on exactly as it would have had I done what was expected of me. When I began work on Alias ‘The Magpie’, I decided that the player should be allowed free reign to do whatever they wanted, and the non-player characters should react accordingly. This is, of course, entirely unrealistic, but what emerged from this attempt was the player character. Sir Rodney Playfair, alias the ‘Magpie’, would be a man who could behave outrageously and explain it away with an airy wave and a glib line. He would have the ability to talk his way out of any situation, and enough charm to get away with murder, figuratively speaking. The 'Magpie' ended up winning the 2018 XYZZY award for best player character.

Setting
Alias ‘The Magpie’ is set at an unspecified time in the twentieth century. I deliberately avoided making references that would ground it in a particular decade, but one or two might have slipped through. Most reviewers have noticed the influence the Pink Panther films, and if I had to put a date on it, I would have to say the early 1960s. Specifically, I wanted it to have a flavour of zany early '60s film comedies, but perhaps one that was set in an earlier decade, such as the '30s. This was the brief that I gave to my cover artist, Mads Weidner, and I think he nailed it.

Structure
So why did Alias ‘The Magpie’ take so long to write? My intention was to create something that played like a traditional, free-roaming parser game, but which also had a complex, 'Wodehousian' plot with disguises, assumed identities, and slapstick comedy. I approached this by basing the game around a number of set-piece scenes, gated by puzzles. In order to maintain a sense of player agency, I was keen that the majority of these puzzles could be completed in any order. The challenge was ensuring that the story made sense no matter what order they played them in. The disguises added another layer of complication, meaning that almost every rule had to have multiple exceptions built in. When it came time for beta-testing, my testers would do things in an order that had never even occurred to me, and I’d have to go back and account for all of those possibilities too.

Originally, the game was to have had multiple endings, including several in which the ‘Magpie’ got caught and sent to jail, but when I came to write them, they just felt wrong. I soon realised that the ‘Magpie’ could never fail. No matter how ‘sticky’ the situation got, there would always be a way for the player to get out of trouble, and thus the game could never be made unwinnable. 

Puzzles
In designing the puzzles, I took a lot of inspiration from P. G. Wodehouse. The problems in Wodehouse’s novels are fundamentally about the relationships between people - typically sundered hearts or unwanted engagements - and yet the solutions almost invariably involve doing something physical; pushing someone into a pond, stealing a cow creamer, sneaking into someone’s bedroom and puncturing their hot water bottle. These sorts of actions are a perfect fit for parser-based IF. In Magpie I sort of turned this on its head. The ‘Magpie’ is no do-gooder, he’s out to steal things, and yet as an indirect result of his actions, almost everybody in the story gets exactly what they deserve.

Testing
Final testing took around 9 months. It helped that I was aiming for Spring Thing 2018, which meant that I went hell-for-leather in the latter part of 2017 and got the game into a playable state by December of that year. My beta testers were fantastic. They pried into every nook and cranny of the game, levered it apart with crowbars, and tried everything in every possible order. Feedback came in the form of transcripts, lists of suggestions and even spreadsheets, with every error listed as part of a table. Considering that three of my testers were working on their own IF Comp entries at the time, I wonder how on earth they found the time to be so thorough.

Reflections
Alias 'The Magpie' was a difficult game to make and a massive undertaking, and I would certainly think twice about making another parser game of this size and complexity. However, I'm not done with Sir Rodney Playfair, alias the 'Magpie' - there are more stories to be told about him. Interactive fiction is evolving all the time, and I'm currently looking into TinyQBN, a toolkit for creating quality-based narratives in Twine 2, as a possible approach to writing a sequel. All I have at present is a setting a few characters, and a handful of scattered notes, but hopefully it won't be another 11 years before the 'Magpie' returns...


Reviews and ratings are welcome, visit the Interactive Fiction Database (IFDB) for more details.


Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Renegade Brainwave

"Beware! Beware! Take care! For you are about take part in an interactive story that will reveal the terrifying truth behind the mysterious Soviet space programme! Revelations of incredible horrors that will terrify you with their brutal reality!

For this is the story of a mysterious force — a force that has crossed the billion mile vastness of infinite space! Boneless, fleshless, almost invisible and yet imbued with incredible power — I speak to you of cosmic radiation!

The deadly solar radiation that has the power to raise the dead! The power to amplify brainwaves to many times their natural strength — so that even a weak little puppy could wipe out a city of concrete and steel — with the power of her mind!

In a future that grows ever closer, the fate of the Earth lies in the hands of one man. That man is Detective Frank Douglas — that man, my friend, is YOU!

God help us... in the future!"

Renegade Brainwave is an interactive fiction inspired by Hollywood B-Movies, based on my 2010 ECTOCOMP 2nd place winner. The new version features more locations, more puzzles, and an atmospheric soundtrack featuring music by Monstrous Movie Music.

"Really fun writing, a spot-on, over-the-top, sci-fi B-movie spoof." - Duncan Bowsman, ECTOCOMP judge.

"Hilarious, well-written and full of clever puzzles to boot." - Mel Stefaniuk, ECTOCOMP judge.

Play or download Renegade Brainwave!


Monday, 1 October 2018

Alias 'The Magpie'

"It always pays to keep one's ears free of wax, as one never knows when one is going to overhear some titbit of information that later proves invaluable. Such was the case at the Dionysus Club, yesterday afternoon, when you happened to overhear the noted psychiatrist, Doctor Cornelius Drake, he of the ginger moustache, talking over the phone to his secretary.

'Cancel all my appointments for tomorrow, Miss Henshaw,' said the shrink, 'I've been summoned down to Hamcestershire by the Earl of Hamcester. Never met the fellow, but he'd heard of me by reputation. Wants me to give his brother-in-law the once-over. Apparently, the poor chap thinks he's exploring the Congo. Sounds like a clear case of incorrigible delusion to me.'

This telephone communication piqued your interest, and the reason it piqued your interest was that you happened to know that the Lord Hamcester to whom it referred was a collector of sorts, and that amongst his collection was an extremely valuable Egyptian jewelled scarab. In fact he had outbid you at auction for the very piece. It is a sad fact that amateur collectors are rarely aware of the true value of the pieces they possess, and it is not uncommon to find them displayed among a plethora of inferior items. Who knows what other gems might be squirrelled away amongst the bric-a-brac at Bunkham Hall?

It was the work of a moment to call Miss Henshaw, posing as the Earl, and cancel the appointment. And it was an equally simple matter, the following morning, to don a suitable disguise and take the 10.15 to St Bartholomew-on-the-Bog, Hamcestershire, in Doctor Drake's place. All in a day's work for Sir Rodney Playfair, alias the notorious gentleman thief known as 'The Magpie'!"

Alias ‘The Magpie’, written in Inform 7, took 1st Place overall, and 1st Place, Miss Congeniality, in the 24th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2018).

"It’s all about the text, which absolutely sparkles. Beautifully, professionally done – superbly implemented. Funny, clever and delicious." - McT's Interactive Fiction Reviews

"Alias ‘The Magpie’ plays like one of the best games from the Infocom era, but with a rich setting, motivated puzzles, and memorable characters." - IF Comprehensive

"Alias 'The Magpie' drew me in quickly, with its very English tone and sense of humor. I found it cleverly-written, well-implemented, and a lot of fun to play." - Mike Spivey, IFDB

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

To Hell in a Hamper



Professor Pettibone, eminent Victorian balloonist, has a problem. He can't get it up. His balloon that is. If he can't reach an altitude of 20,000 feet, and soon, both he and his mysterious travelling companion Hubert Booby will be burned to a cinder by an erupting volcano! But what is Mr. Booby concealing under his overcoat? Do all Ecuadorian peasants have BSc's? And what, in the name of all that's holy, is THE CURSE OF THE BLUE IBIS?

Finalist, Best Game, Xyzzy Awards 2003
Finalist, Best Writing, Xyzzy Awards 2003
Finalist, Best Story, Xyzzy Awards 2003
Finalist, Best Setting, Xyzzy Awards 2003
Finalist, Best Use of Medium, Xyzzy Awards 2003
1st place, ADRIFT Spring Comp 2003
1st place, ADRIFT End of Year Comp 2003

"Overall, this game fits into a growing category of works that combine light puzzles with strong pacing and good comic writing. I'd also put [2003]'s Best Puzzles winner Gourmet (Aaron Reed, 2003) into that group, along with the first chapters of Fine Tuned (Dennis Jerz, 2001) and several of J. Robinson Wheeler's games. As it happens, I really enjoy such pieces. They don't always get the recognition that other games do, perhaps because they're not perceived as groundbreaking experimental work or as hard-core puzzle-fests. But humor and pacing are a real challenge to get right in IF, and a good IF comedy has a special charm of its own." - Emily Short, IF-Review

Play 'To Hell in a Hamper' online!

Monday, 8 May 2017

Escape from the Crazy Place


You've been locked in a padded cell for no obvious reason with only a deranged hamburger-eating clown for company. The cell doesn't even have a door. So begins an adventure that will take you to many places including custard-filled caverns, the world's worst Indian restaurant, the planet Venus, and the inside of a cereal packet. You'll meet such strange characters as the peculiar Plugalug, the mysterious Cow of Honour, Rampateuay of the Hills (a prophet who predicts things he's about to do) and the sinister Boss.

Can YOU make it alive through the forest of the Ostrich People? Fathom the mysteries of the marmalade satnav? Survive the mutiny on the 'Milky Way'? Discover why you have ham on the brain, ham on the brain, ham on the ham on the ham on the brain? Can YOU escape from the Crazy Place?

A 90,000 word choice-based game, Escape from the Crazy Place has been in production on and off since it began in manuscript form back in 1984. An interactive round-robin story, it combines the talents of around 20 different authors. Some wrote just a page or two, others wrote dozens.

The current TWINE version includes around 450 new passages by J. J. Guest, Loz Etheridge and Mark Bailey. The game will continue to grow as we add more.

"Like the twisted literary lovechild of Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo and Homsar, Escape From the Crazy Place is quite possibly one of the funniest things I've ever touched!" Ryusui - rec.arts.int.fiction.

"I've been playing your online Escape from the Crazy Place for the last half hour and I have to say it's... well, the best damn thing I've ever seen ever." Sprite - The Adrift Forum.

Play the TWINE version online

Yak Shaving for Kicks and Giggles!

You are Steve Goodwin. You're a regular guy, young, successful, dynamic. Recently promoted to the post of junior marketing executive at the Funhouse Novelty Company, you're the one who comes up with all those zany items you can buy for a Dollar in the pages of Cosmic Comics.

But something is missing in your life. A nagging question gnaws at your soul, undermines your joy at your new-found success and interferes with the very business of living. But this is not a answer you can find in the pages of any book; for what you yearn to know is the very meaning of life itself!

But then you learned about a man, a guru of great wisdom, endowed with the miraculous supreme realisation who could teach you the secrets of the universe. A six hundred year old hermit living at the top of a mountain in a kingdom most right-thinking people assume to be a myth. A man known as the Dada Lama!

And this is why we find you now, after many months of journeying, of fruitless searching, beaten and battered by the uncaring elements, in this mysterious valley hidden deep within the mountains...

...the mystical valley of Shangri-La!

Yak Shaving for Kicks and Giggles! is humorous quest for spiritual enlightenment involving a yak, a hair dryer and the abominable snowman.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Goldilocks is a FOX!

Staggering back from yet another wild student party, blonde bombshell Goldilocks decides to take a shortcut through the enchanted forest. All she really wants is a nice hot bowl of porridge and somewhere to sleep off her hangover - but something tells her that quaint little cottage isn't as innocent as it seems...

Goldilocks is a FOX! is a zany romp through the world of fairy tales. Along the way you'll meet a host of familiar characters, albeit not quite how you remember them!

"Unlike so many comedy games, Goldilocks Is A Fox doesn't just go for the quick humour and forget about the gaming side of things. Take away the comedy and the general silliness and there is a very well constructed game here. There are some quite intricate puzzles (the one with the large chair being a particular favourite of mine) and while not every puzzle is logical or straightforward, for the most part they don't require too much thought on the part of the player to solve. That said, this isn't a game that you're likely to solve in the space of a single sitting, which is probably just as well as there are a fair number of good ideas here that would be ruined if you played the game through too fast." - David Whyld, S.P.A.G.