Sunday, November 15, 2015
The Problems Compound postmortem part 1
First I'd like to offer an apology for the description of the Language Machine. I think a tester tried to talk to it, and I wanted to make it clear that you couldn't, and its being inanimate felt wrong, because it was doing something...so I added that. It's something another round of testing would've fixed. But I did not give my testers the time. I hope people who were annoyed find this explanation acceptable and call it sloppiness instead of malice. I also believe the fix made it into the final edited version. I saw it as a poor computer stuck in a bog, but my text opened up another interpretation for a reviewer in the author forum and a reviewer outside. Here is what I have now.
The Language Machine is scenery in Standard Bog. "The language machine hums along [if wax is in lalaland]cheerfully[else]balefully[end if], its console spewing out [if wax is in lalaland]poetry, which isn't good, but it's not overblown[else]dolorous, leaden, formulated prose about, well, being stuck in a bog[end if] in its bottom half. In the top half is an LCD [if wax is in lalaland]smile[else]frown[end if]."
(Note: another thing my testers would've done was to see the runtime error I inserted on the final day. It's when you talk to the jerks and use item 9. One of the final issues I wanted to tick off on was having everyone talk about the bad guy. I figured, what could go wrong? So I went through and exhausted every conversational tree--but I was just too tired to walk through the jerks. Oops. So that was totally on me. I'd like to say, and this is more than just boiler-plate stuff, they did very well on a compressed schedule. But that is for later.)
This is a recurring pattern. I often put off the tough bits because I don't want to dump it on my testers, but the result is, it gets dumped on the judges in the end. And the result of my delay? Testers tend to find them anyway, early enough to do something, but not early enough to do something and nail it down.
And another reason I delayed is that I wanted to avoid making any character like someone I knew, if at all possible. It hadn't started like that, when I conceived the game a while ago. So I was disappointed and genuinely upset to see parallels and how plausible they were. But I'd like to address my intent for a few things Emily Short's review noticed.
First was the story fish. I pictured it as being twice as annoying as a Billy Big Mouth Bass. Second, the two crtics, Art and Phil. I don't know if I played up their interaction enough, but in my mind, the book critic and music critic didn't like each other. One claimed to be was very objective and factual, and the other said he wasn't just constrained by boring facts. Both talk down to Alec. Whomever you bump off first, the other guy has a snarky comment. And I tried to make the book and music titles over the top and backwards enough that people could laugh at them. Turk Young and Uncle Dutch also follow this two-bad-cop formula. Surely you have to agree with what at least one of them is saying? I mean, you haven't been able to disprove it? And I've had a hard time dealing with that. Seeing very loud people oppose themselves and feeling sure I can/should have my own views, but I can't find them.
But I suppose I dug my own grave with some very dry and technical wordplay games. Still, I feel like I can sympathize with Philip Larkin saying "...but I think I'm terribly funny!"
I enjoyed creating these straw men and breaking them down, and my intent was to be able to get people to say, hey, I know a person like that! Maybe I can laugh at someone the next time they do that.
But unfortunately with moderate self-awareness, people wonder if they are like (insert mean character here). And having the main character's initials being AS didn't help. Unfortunately, I didn't know how to un-telegraph the message, or give Alec a new name, and having a comment in the "ABOUT" section maybe didn't leave enough of an impression. I really was trying for an In a Manor of Speaking type of game, but the thing is--I'm not Hulk Handsome. He has wonderful and silly inspiring stuff, and you should play Manor if you haven't.
As for any other things that popped up to annoy people, I hope they can see it as me running out of word reversals to try. I genuinely wanted to sit down and say "Is this funny? Is this trying to get back at anyone specific I know?" and I tried to vet that before putting it into a puzzle. Because veiled attacks aren't cool. I've been on the other side of them in another community--one long ago, where someone who *could* be confused for the bad guy was--well, influential.
I was also worried it could be seen as extrovert-bashing, as most of the good guys in the game are introverts, and most of the bad guys are extroverts. Dealing with my own introversion was tough for a long time, and "it's okay to be introverted" isn't enough, especially for a teen. And to go back to the Machine--I also saw the Machine as an introvert, someone who needed your help, and its writing mirrors my own. I wrote some pretty self-involved stuff when I was younger, and while I still do, I've found even something as silly and formulated as a limerick can--well--work, even if it doesn't shake the heavens. (Also, I was jealous of people who were able to rub their angsty writings in others' faces and make them seem to appreciate it. I probably wrote something angsty about that, too.)
So the game is, or was supposed to be, about dealing with negativity in yourself and others. And being able to laugh at the worse antics of people, and your own faults. (I didn't write in enough of Alec's, in retrospect.) This was something that was very hard for me, and I tried to make all the characters a bit blown up and silly. At least they were in my mind. Because it's so hard to say, well, being proud and rude is wrong. Everyone knows that! But the things most effective for helping me move along are being able to laugh at things. It's about knowing you're smart enough, but knowing you don't know how to use it, yet.
And so The Problems Compound was different from my previous games. I am always sort of writing for my old teenaged self who was hoping for the next neat funny text adventure. And I didn't feel I could write the emotional stuff at first. And it took too long to get rolling on the tough stuff. Well, I made some good in-comp updates (including a new update) and also got a post-comp update rolling.
So the game may've come off harsher than I expected. The thing is--laughing at people who are haughty and puffed up has helped me a lot to move on in a way book learning can't. And it requires creativity, and anyone with any conscience wonders if they're not being hypocritical. But you do get your hands dirty.
Of course, some books that just acknowledge this sort of nastiness is out there, helps. But there were a few that inspired me.
* Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War (Archie's control of the Vigils--and how he manages to put down adults around teens and teens around adults--provided inspiration for the bad guy)
* James Thurber, The Catbird Seat (short story, but Ms Ulgine Barrows is a hilarious villain, and her odiousness is gender-neutral to me despite Mr. Martin cringing at the "Ms" on her doorbell. Basically, if I think "Ulgine Barrows" about someone, they're on the bad list)
* Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading (M'Sieur Pierre could be Art or Phil or both, especially interacting with Rodion as they interrogate Cincinnatus) and, to a lesser extent, Bend Sinister (The bad guy has something as bad as Ekwilism)
* 50 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene (not as an actual instruction manual. But it tipped me off to power games people play and helped me feel, yes, it's not me being crazy or, oh, yes! That's what X was playing at years ago)
* Death of a Government Clerk, by Anton Chekhov (this is more a general influence. I feature a lot of BUSY MEN that you don't quite know what to say to, or who in some twisted way enjoy yelling DONT WASTE MY TIME. Ed Dunn in Threediopolis is a nicer version of this. It's still not clear to me how malicious the General in the story is, and I've had fun imagining it in various degrees.)
* The Bully Book, by Eric Kahn Gale (this is a short book and one I wound up rereading several times this year. It might be my favorite so far, for the way the protagonist deals with nastiness. The bad guy in my game is an overblown version, but this book helped me pull some major excesses back and focus on general behaviors instead of scores I had to settle with my past) (WorldCat link here -- it's worth it to me to publicize this book however I can)
* Rameses, by Stephen Bond. I forgot it, but with Rameses, a lot clicked. I said, this is well laid out, but the narrator feels too in your face, and the self-pity is foaming up a bit, so I'd do it this way. And I think it's a sign of good art when a reader can say, wait, no, I'd do it this way, instead. I put Rameses aside and a month later I realized that, yes, I was sort of responding to it in my own way.
In general, hypocrisy, mind power games, pride and cynicism for its own sake interest me greatly. How do we fight it? How do we make sure we don't use any of these, especially in the name of good? And I tried to make most and maybe all of the bad guys have one or more of these vices. I tried to allow for some redemption--Grace and Faith Good are berated for their semi-religious views and trying to be nice to people--but as you can see, even that turned out a bit cold.
Part II will be about my testers and the cool things they did. While I'm frustrated I didn't keep a good timeline, and I didn't attack issues (technical and aesthetic) as well as I could, some people volunteered their time and efforts quite generously, and the game would've been in very bad shape indeed without them.