Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Problems Compound postmortem, part 3: what was it about?

I really didn't give myself time to flesh out that I wanted it to be more of a puzzle game, so I'll share my ideas here. First of all, I'm grateful for Paul Lee's review which saw things I hadn't considered, and I also appreciate the kind comments of several authors in the authors' forum. I also think Doug Orleans found a theme in that I dislike internet arguments and people trying too hard to start and win them, or running up the score after they've won them. It's hard to get the last word in at them(ha ha,) but I've managed to achieve distance. And humor is the most effective way to do that. But it has to be smart humor.

The Problems Compound was intended to be a story about dealing with, well, pride and nastiness and jerks in general. Particularly overbearing, overwhelming jerks and even personality cults and the people who ascribe to "lead" them. It was also about my own introversion and lack of confidence..

This was difficult because many things people do to gain a cult of personality are similar to what people do to be nice, and being unable to differentiate the two causes a lot of cynicism. I've been there.

I tried to put myself back to high school, and I tried to avoid mapping each antagonist to any particular person I knew or have recently known--which probably accounts for a lot of vagueness. I wanted to make sure that I wasn't pinning anyone specific to the wall. And at the same time, I wanted to be able to laugh at them. I think it's important to be able to laugh at the prideful--though there's a danger you can become too proud of your ability to do so.

Unfortunately, this didn't quite work, by and large. Someone in the author forum said they were able to map each character to a member of RAIF, which was interesting, but I didn't really get involved until well after it had died. Still, I was generally disturbed that that is how things were. I certainly wanted people to say "I knew a jerk like that and I can laugh at him."

The reversal-names worked on two themes: one, how do we twist things around? And two, some of the names were complete lies, so how do we deal with that? I also thought they were just funny, but they were a bit scarce. Scarce enough that I dropped the project in March. The thing was, I wasn't looking hard enough, and even with idioms.thefreedictionary.com, I didn't really get going until I forced things and tried things wrong and buckled myself in and said, this word HAS to go somewhere. I was concern trolling myself a bit, fighting against the Baiter Master myself. Saying, why bother, etc. Instead of just sitting down and trying to make things right. Which is what Alec does in the game. And I think that's important--to do so despite all the nastiness and bravado and people seeming to know more than you do.

I didn't really implement the idea of the Baiter Master as a mysterious figure until late, where even people who dislike him have to admit he's got power, or charisma, or whatever, but I've found that a lot of people can garner this sort of support, where people lose focus and say their excitingness is more important and bolder than someone saying, they're going too far. Maybe it is, to use a modern example, Donald Trump. Maybe it is someone pointing out what a jerk Donald Trump is before lashing out at someone else. They have social currency. They know how to use it. And I know that I always felt frustrated, for all my logical abilities, that this sort of thing was wrong, and I needed to fight back, and I couldn't.

Worse, there's the fear and paralysis of being stuck in the middle of a "friendly" argument and feeling others are looking down at you. Being bad cop/good copped. Examples include the Stool Toad and Punch Sucker both condescending to you, Uncle Dutch and Turk Young giving life advice, and Art Fine and Harmonic Phil giving advice on art.

The puzzles dropped out from necessity and saying "oh, this works," or "oh, I need this" and I just felt they had the right bit of nonsense. I was pleased when I finally figured out who or what could guard the Compound itself--three brothers--and I'm happy with how the Baiter Master put them in (what he thought was) their place and how I released them from that.

I'll give a drive by of all the characters and my intents.
--Guy Sweet: a "nice guy" with an edge willing to "help" people kiss up to. He's superficially nice to Alec, giving Alec logic games he (Guy) is bored of, even giving backhanded compliments. He is "learning" to be "exciting" and is testing it out on people like Alec. Perhaps Alec does need to be more exciting, or he can be. But he doesn't need to be hit in the face.
--the Word Weasel: not really a character, but the sort of person that says "can you just do a little for me?" then asks a lot. I've certainly been out-bargained by people I am smarter than, and it dented my pride, especially when someone came along and say "How'd HE out-bargain you?" That was tough to let go of. But there are different sorts of intelligence. Also the whole process of signing a permission slip of sorts -- well, I wanted to capture that even animals were ahead in the pecking order.
--the mouth mush: a late addition, but I giggled about it, and overall I like the image
--the Howdy Boy
--Fritz the On: I wanted him to capture what I feel is a nasty hypocrisy. I am pro-decriminalization, but the Baiter Master takes that stance and, if you talk to Fritz, still shames Fritz for several things. Which ruins a major point of decriminalization in the first place. "Hey, be grateful to me, I'm not shaming you as bad as the next guy!"
--the Stool Toad: well, I confess, this was the one I felt was most obnoxious. I mean, he's basically a lazy cop, or that annoying adult who complains about kids these days. And of course he is horribly corrupt because he isn't bothering much about the bar! Basically, he only arrests someone if he can show off about it.
--the Punch Sucker: not developed well enough, but he condescends to you and Lily and looks down on the Stool Toad. Yes, there are good bartenders that do listen and care. He's not one of them. Plus, the whole feeling he is above the law thing.
--Liver Lily: this was tough. I'm not good at writing women characters. But I can assure you I've had both men and women tell me I need to be more exciting. I know the difference between that and "hey, I bet you might find this interesting." But she is basically a big talker who doesn't do much. And that's probably a minor sin compared to the other people, but it is one. (Also, what else do people do at bars other than pick each other up? I wanted to also show Alec as inept at this sort of thing)
--the Howdy Boy: this is a tricky one. You need friends who will help you know which rules to break. But he is a bit forcing. I remember people helping me see I could do small rebellious things then saying, well, don't just think small, and they insinuated I should start using drugs etc. and it left a lasting impression on me. We should have fun breaking the rules. But I remember it felt like people trying to score points getting someone else to try things. If you've read Robert Cormier's Tunes for Bears to Dance To, you may recognize this--someone tries to get the main character to do something bad, just to have power over them. Again, I could/should have made this more explicit.

--Officer Petty: I think people who point out small faults with a lot of bluster can seem very exciting. But they are not. Or people who say "I just don't like you." The kicker is--you just don't like them for that, and if you're not careful, you actually believe the false equivalence "we just don't like each other." So I figured giving him a ticket to an Advanced Seminar in this sort of thing was funny. I don't think the lessons will stick, and I think he'll be a bad person either way.
--the Business Monkey: mostly for comic relief. I was worried "monkey suit" might be perjorative but a few googles about context and definition relieved me.
--Sly Moore: again, for comic relief. I missed an easy chance in the comp version to say that helping both of them gets all of Idiot Village behind you. That will be post-comp.

--the Assassination Character wasn't developed fully. But basically, he taunts you whether or not you solve his puzzle. If you do, you're going for an easy cheat and not trying to learn anything new. If you don't, you're slipping, or you think you're too good for what you're good at. This sort of annoying trapping comes up in a variety of contexts and is incredibly hurtful. I didn't link that with the puzzle--which I was pleased with, because I always wanted to figure my own parity puzzle, and I remember saying, gee, what if going southwest took square-root-of-2 turns? In my puzzle, I've accounted for that fudge factor.
--the Insanity Terminal: I have always loved James Propp's Self-Referential Aptitude Test and wanted to make one for myself. The theme here is--Alec can cheat for a "good" ending. Post-comp, I'd like to factor in how much he cheats into things.
--Faith and Grace Goode: my views on religion are basically, I can't agree with the facts. It can't possibly be right! But I see how it brings people together to do good, and talk about doing well, on a community level. And that is what Faith and Grace try to do. They are a classic cult--suckering people to believing a "falsehood" like religion with decency. And the BM is too slick for that, ho-ho! Now, it's not all that black and white. Humanist discussions do that too. And large-scale churches do preach hate. But I've certainly seen a lot of hate and scorn from people pointing out where the Bible went wrong and saying, you religious types are just plain stupid. The thing is, the BM doesn't provide any of the decency the Goodes do, or I intended them to have. Others snarking on my own religion as a teen just hurt, and it was worse to hear "you don't still believe that, do you?" even after I expressed doubts.
--the Labor Child: George MacDonald had a quote in At the Back of the North Wind that went "When a child like that dies, instead of having a silly book written about him, he should be stuffed like one of those awful big-headed fishes you see in museums." The Labor Child doesn't deserve death. But he has learned to kiss up and be kissed up to early, and he knows how to push people around (including the jerks) and play fake innocent, etc. And he captures fears I had, when I remember people younger than me starting to mansplain life lessons. I debated a violent end at the hands of the reformed jerks, but it was a bit much.

--the Proof Fool and the Logical Psycho: again, the Logical Psycho is an expert arguer. Everything he says has truth. It's just--the truth is weighted in his favor. He doesn't let you interrupt, but all the same, he's a bit upset if you don't interrupt to say OK. The Proof Fool is the sort of person who's a bit too gullible, who takes what others say on faith but lets them zap him with "PROVE IT." Probably the same thing that happens to Alec, but in this case, Alec helps someone else find a way around it, and Alec maybe feels he can.

--Turk Young and Uncle Dutch: useless, self-congratulatory "life advice" that really just aggrandizes the speaker. The big thing is, they're "helping" you and they outnumber you and talk louder. They talk a lot about their success without actually giving a helping hand. I tried to make them look extra foolish at the end when they applaud each other.
--Volatile Sal: How does the old saying go? Meet a jerk in the morning, you met a jerk in the morning. Meet them all day, you are a jerk. Sal has met jerks all day--well, people who he thinks smell bad.
--Buddy Best: I thought of Chekhov's Death of a Government Clerk, here. Basically, you don't even get to finish sentences around him, and while many people in the Compound want someone to hear them babble on, Buddy goes a step further. He's too busy. So he gives you a token gift and kicks you out. Not a very best buddy.
--Pusher Penn: well, I was very pleased with this name. I wanted him to be a foil to the BM to show, well, even people who disagree with the BM and profit by him won't speak out against him. Even those you think are rebelling--well, they have it good. I've seen this a lot. It's hard to say "X is wrong," or whatever. He is also another character to heap contempt on poor Fritz, who deserves our support.
--Art Fine and Harmonic Phil: while Emily Short voiced concern that it was a shot at critics--well, it was. But here's the thing. They just don't shut up about how great the latest and greatest is, even when it's truly heinous. So I compartmentalized them as narcissists with no shortage of random superlatives. (Yes, Trump is more potentially dangerous to society than an Art or Phil could ever be. But Alec is trying to deal with his own issues.) Again, you have the position of being caught in the crossfire between two people who are arguing, but not really, and they need you as an audience, but they're not going to respect you. Art is sure his form of art (pure emotion) is right, and Phil is sure his more logical view is right. They are both heinously wrong. And I have to admit that they were based on past critiques: at one gaming site, one person who was popular but not well-liked wrote an incredibly flowery review of Missile Command. It got praise, and one person who said "Geez, it's just Missile Command" got shot down. The reviewer then switched to dry wit (aka slow and boring if someone else did it) and got praised for his stylistic diversity. This took a while to be funny, but it is, now.
--the Language Machine: it's upset it's in a bog. It writes dreary stuff until you help it. Yes, it is me, in a way. I'm reminded of the four stages of competence. But instead of (un)conscious (un)knowing, replace knowing with happiness and (un)conscious with (not) sharing. This has been my own. Even being able to write a limerick about something or someone distasteful has helped me drop it and move on--and the funnier stuff, well, I'm glad to have written it, and I can move on, too. However, there is a darker side and I see why it upset some reviewers. In a college writing class, I remember being told "well, why don't you like X's work?" He had some stories about not fitting in but the thing was he would get together with friends after class and snipe about other people's work (including mine) and I think that seeped in, as part of the "don't bash anyone I recently knew." I'd like to kill this incident from the game text and redo it more compassionately later. Or maybe hammer it into something positive.
--the Brothers: each has been insulted by the BM into feeling they have nothing better to do than prevent other unworthies from enterting Freak Control. Alec helping them is a way to show he's not just moaning to himself about what he can't do. I know I've been made to feel I'm not good for much other than standing around, and I've created waves when person A called person B (not present) useless. And this doesn't make me a hero, but all the same, it's worth fighting for.
--the Jerks: they're just intended to be everyday teens who have secrets that can be exploited. They are on the fence. The Child and BM both have something on them, but pushed right, they can change their mind. They deny their own individuality until Alec finds them out. However, I think I can make this episode more convincing. I tried to provide alternate puzzles through, where Alec doesn't have to use logic (and shows he is more than that,) but this came too late.
--the Baiter Master: a slimy little you know what. An amalgamation of the worst I've seen in people. Creating him, I was worried when I pulled a specific quote from a specific person, because no specific person deserves to BE him, and I left him a bit generic at the end. I tried to characterize him through others' opinions of him. I think I have a way to make his corruption fuller, but funnier, post-comp. I wanted to leave the player feeling 1) his power was largely illusory and 2) I've seen people like him take over social groups or, even worse, political movements and I want to fight that. There are some ties between him and Spike Price both having contempt for less exciting people, and I meant to make BM seem like he talks a good game and knows what he can get away with. Alec's discussion at the end is a partial catharsis, though post-comp I've realize how to let the BM troll Alec and simultaneously help Alec flip around his "advice" to something positive.

Of course through all this there is Alec, who has the option for a quick out with the cutter cookie. (And, post-comp, another food.) He's more malleable. I wanted to make him a bit of a cipher, but post-comp I would like to relate his past failures he realizes and maybe ways to improve. That would make him a fuller character, but I do want to avoid tooth-grinding autobiography.

Well. That's all for characterization. I hope this clears things up. I read a quote from Gustave Flaubert (I wanted to copy Madame Bovary's unsentimentality) saying you could not use literature to exorcise your demons. I do think writing PC helped me exorcise a few, but it gave me some new issues.

I think they are positive enough to discuss in a sequel. Which I've felt more confident planning.

The Problems Compound postmortem, part 2: testing

I'd like to talk about testing, first, both in general and specific to The Problems Compound.

But first, my previous entry is a hopefully humorous pop quiz, if you followed from planet-if.

From my perspective, it's hard to ask testers. If I've asked them before, there's always the "oh man, I'm asking them for another tricky thing to test" angle, but if I've never asked, I wonder what I'm getting them into. It's--well, it's hard to ask, and this actually hits on themes I didn't develop enough in my game. About finding it hard to ask, or figuring you had or were something pretty smart but no way to develop it.

So I'm grateful for the efforts my testers put in. Especially given the things I wanted to address in the game. So, mentioning everyone in no particular order, I'd like to bring up my work with Juhana Leinonen on BitBucket as something that went really well & which I'll discuss later in a post on organization, as well as September-ish interactions with Brian Rushton and Hugo Labrande, who helped despite preparing games of their own. And Wade Clarke, Marco Innocenti and Matt Weiner came back for more punishment even though they know what testing a game of mine can mean: unimplemented stuff, odd bugs, and things that should connect but don't.

The Problems Compound postmortem, a pop quiz on testing

I'll start with a true/false test. It's a bit rigged, but I think you'll see the point.

1. Testing is good for your IFComp entry. T/F
2. Testers can find bugs you can't. T/F
3. Testers can suggest features you didn't see that will make things easier. T/F
4. Testers will try the stuff you maybe didn't have time to, which saves you time and the necessity of backtracking when you really want to focus on one feature. T/F
5. Testers remind you of stuff you forgot to implement. T/F
6. It can be hard to ask testers for their time, but people are generally nice and willing. And even a 20% response rate is very good. T/F
7. It's worth working through the emotional crush of seeing where testers got stuck, because it motivates you to look for other things. T/F
8. Different styles (go fast/go slow, supercritical/super encouraging, knows the programming language/doesn't) of testers turn up different things. Whatever you're writing is hopefully far more interesting than a standardized test, so even a lack of skill can be a huge help. T/F
9. Starting testing earlier is better, because then bugs that were hidden and hard to find are more likely to turn up, and issues you just can't deal with right away may become clearer in a month. T/F
10. You should have minimal programming-tests you run before sending something to testers, so that their time is used the best they can. T/F

 I bet you got 10/10 and would've even if the answers weren't all true. I could go on like this for a bit. But ever question I write out, I've violated in some way.

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]."