Thursday, September 18, 2014

Final Thoughts (Coloratura)

Main post on Coloratura.

Coloratura won the IF Competition 2013. I am absolutely over the moon! It was a stressful year or so of development with many lost mornings, evenings, and weekends. There were two or three structural refactors, and occasional tear-fueled breakdowns. But I thought I'd share some things that I learned and give some more insight into the development cycle of Coloratura.

 Coloratura spoilers, ho!

1. Be flexible to change (and cut).
I went in with one plan and came out with a rather different game. During planning and early development, I realized what the game actually needed and changed directions as quickly and thoroughly as I could. Coloratura was originally a game about a malicious Eldritch abomination that sucked the sanity from humans to restore its own sanity. As NPCs lost their mind, the Aqueosity would gain power, and the descriptions of the area would slowly become more sensible. This was abandoned early because it made the player a clear villain, and I wanted a story where everyone felt like they were doing the right thing: where nobody was a clear-cut villain. So I removed the sanity-draining mechanic and made any insanity loss unintentional. This change made a much better story. It was clearly what Sanity - then retitled Coloratura - needed to be.

There are still vestiges of the sanity-draining mechanic withing the descriptions of each person's aura. Their auras dim over time after every scary event they see, starting from "bright" and going to "dark" as a sort of health meter. (This descriptor was purposefully left in, but unexplained/unhinted because the mechanic it was based on was technically cut.) I did end up re-inserting the mechanic of the ship room descriptions changing, because beta testers really wanted it. I tied this change to the first time the Aqueosity possess a human, which I felt really signaled the change in the Aqueosity's strategy from manipulation to direct control.

Additionally, I had originally intended to handle emotions in an open-ended sandbox manner, with the player being able to move about between NPCs and conversations and "spin plates" to drive everyone crazy. Conversations and NPCs would happen while the monster was away, and some things would trigger differently if NPCs were otherwise occupied with different parts of the ship. I designed Act 1 (the bottom floor of the ship) with a very basic iteration of this, and quickly realized that it was too unwieldy, nearly untestable, and would at least double the development time from one year to two years. It was cut, and I went with a more traditional and manageable design where that feeling of plate-spinning was implied more off-camera, and emotions were only manipulateable during key conversations. There are still vestiges of this in Act 1 where there are actually different paths based on which NPCs in the berthing room are interacted with (if at all) and when. I still think it would be a fun and good mechanic, but perhaps too time-intensive and challenging for the Interactive Fiction Competition (or for one person).

The Epilogue was my crumple zone, designed to be cut if I ended up needing more time. Of course, I was really interested to have some sort of extra gameplay to reward players, so I'm glad I had time to make it. The creation of the epilogue was actually designed to serve the 2-hour judging time limit. I wanted to give judges an ending that could be feasibly reached by that limit, but also give extra content if they finished early. That said, there did end up being some scope problems with the epilogue.

I had initially planned several human-protagonist vingettes where you could fix the mistakes and let the humans win. It was designed so that each scene could be cut and I could make as many or as few as I wanted. The idea of replaying the game as the humans turned out to be not the best one, but I held onto it for a long time because I had this intense vision of the submarine attack from the human perspective. The vignettes ended up being totally cut (partly for development time, partly for narrative cohesion), and I went instead with a post-horror movie stinger instead. I'm still not entirely happy with how polished it feels, and I'd like to go back and add some more details and textures if and when I have the chance.

I also cut a sub-plot where the Aqueosity's folding song had crashed a plane at the very beginning, but hadn't realized this. This crashed plane served as an excuse for the Captain as to why she wasn't willing to deal with the emergency at hand (and make an S.O.S.). She really didn't want to acknowledge problems on the ship, and the excuse of needing to save a nearby plane crash victim allowed her to postpone dealing with the Aqueosity's trail of destruction. The pilot's plot was cut late because it was too confusing and auxiliary, especially for players dealing with a 2 hour time limit.

2. Network. I couldn't have made as amazing a game as I did without my beta testers. Some gave early input, some tested the game as it was nearing completion. They helped make sure that: the puzzles were well-clued, the meat puzzle was more interactive, there were more opportunities to color people, the unnecessary pilot got cut, the world descriptions changed from alien to human, and of course, that the majority of bugs and non-descriptions were updated and removed. I got beta testers from co-workers, friends, family, the IF forums,, and even Linkedin. Everyone brought something unique and interesting and together they helped shape the game. I owed them a lot of credit - and I sent several thank-you notes to that effect: because they deserved it.

A lot of other amazing people also made games this year, and working with them, next to them and discussing games with them was a great way to grow as an author, learn tricks and tips, fix issues, account for more things, and get to know some amazing and talented people. These people will go on to do amazing things, and I'll be lucky to know them.

3. Accept criticism, but don't let it dominate. There were people who didn't like my game, or didn't like aspects of it. I listened to what testers wanted, and I did my best to accommodate it. In the end, video games are for the player, and I did my best to cater to players. There were some judges, and even testers who just did not like my game, or did not like aspects. One tester told me they didn't like the coloring mechanic, and suggested it be stripped from the game. One judge gave me a very negative and snarky review, quitting after 15 minutes. Within the official voting split, someone gave me a 2 out of 10. But that doesn't matter, because I still won. Those people weren't necessarily wrong, it just wasn't the game for them, and I can't break myself to please everyone.

4. Accept that not all good ideas will pay out. I put a lot of work into programming extra responses for Mercy: examining objects, asking her about things, telling her about things, giving her randomized lists of idle animations to cycle through. But only a small fraction of that implementation had ever paid out. I had by this point already built up the inability to communicate with humans, and nobody thought to talk to Mercy like an actual person. Really, that system was at odds with the tone of the game. I'm glad that I implemented it, but it could have been simpler, and some of that attention could have been better spent elsewhere.

5. Continue doing the right thing. I put a lot of accessibility and progressive thought into my game. The cast was (nearly) all female, each one an individual, making it more inclusive. Nonsense words could be replaced with real words to help make translation easier for translator programs. I released a map with text-only descriptions both in the alt text and accessible within the game. I accepted both "color" and "colour". A lot of these steps were not acknowledged, or just mentioned in passing. And that's fantastic. I don't want cookies for just doing the right thing. The lack of accolades just mean that I've done a good job at making the game baseline playable for everyone, so everyone can just focus on the game and enjoy it. And that means I've succeeded, and I will continue to do those things in the future.

I will say that I would have liked to have expanded the translation-friendly-mode to include rewriting whole sentences to be more grammatically parseable, but that was something that I didn't necessarily have time for.

Final, Final Thoughts
I did a lot of things right with regards to pacing, novel use of medium, story and mechanics. A lot of people enjoyed that effort and I have no doubt that Coloratura will continue to be enjoyed by more people in the future. I hope it serves as a good example of the kind of unique puzzles and gameplay that Interactive Fiction is capable of: I absolutely believe that graphics would have ruined this game. I'm planning on doing a CYOA story next. I've got some interesting and strange thoughts for how that medium could be played with as well.


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  2. This IF game was simply fantastic. I was only 45 seconds in when i realized that i had just 'severed' (at the time, I thought I had killed them outright) a room full of people, and It dawned shortly thereafter that -I- was the monster in a John Carpenter movie. After realizing that AND still rooting for the Aquiosity, I knew this was among thebest IF I've ever played. Thanks.