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IF COMP 2004 - Trading Punches

Game #38: Trading Punches, by Sidney Merk
Self-Reviewed On: 10/25/04
Unofficial Score: N/A

     No, I'm not really going to score my own game (well, sort of -- I'm not going to give it a score, but I will take a stab at ranking it), but I do have some things to say about it. I've gone through different stages since the first of October, and with about three weeks still to go before the results are announced, I'll probably go through several more.

     At first, I was very optimistic. I put enormous effort into the story, filling page after page in a notebook with trivial facts about the characters, the world, and the setting. I'm a big fan of the novels and stories of Jack Vance, but I wanted something a little darker for Trading Punches. I had in mind to write a tragedy, where a personal rivalry spirals out of control. I finished the game, despite cutting an entire chapter from the story (I simply had no time left to write it, so events in Chapter 3 took on a more confrontational tone than originally intended -- plus, it would have been overly long). Still, I managed to get it tested, polished up, and submitted for the competition. I was optimistic, because I felt I had accomplished something exciting, a great story that will grab players' attention. I tried to write a story with elements that weave through the years, coming together for the observant reader yet not detracting anything from the casual player.

     Next, I was a little worried. Once I submitted the game, I had the opportunity to step back and check it out. I knew there were a few things I would want to improve later -- being able to "ask" various characters about various things, for instance -- things that shouldn't matter, but would help improve a player's overall understanding of the characters and the world in which they live. But with the initial pressure of a ticking clock lifted, I started to pick it apart more. Right off, I found a few typos and misspelling... maybe more than a few -- a dozen, perhaps. I found that I had forgotten to fill in description text for the benches, gate, and fence in the playable cut-scenes (x bench or whatever, you get blank text). Okay, not a major deal -- not all judges will find that. Next, I found that the correct music wasn't playing after a reload, sometimes. Then, I began finding other unimplemented scenery. Then, I figured it might be nice to give better text if trying to walk away from the cut-scenes (the chapter "top" sections). When I realized that I forgot to change my self-made placeholder of "you're you" in response to "look at self" (I intended to provide appropriate information for the appropriate chapters), I just kind of sank. So much for my polished, wow 'em game.

     I went from being worried to being a little more optimistic, when one judge emailed me to say the writing was excellent (even with an occasional typo) and it's the best story he's played so far in the competition. He even went so far as to predict that Trading Punches would be the defining game for the Hugo system -- although I've received no other similar comments to date, that really meant a lot to me. But, as I played more and more of the contest games, my renewed optimism turned sour -- for two reasons. First, I played quite a few nearly flawless games -- and if judges factor technical accuracy highly into their scores (which makes perfect sense), I'm doomed. I made notes of 67 things (counting most typos individually) that are either bugs, quirks, things to improve, or wish-list items for the next version of Trading Punches -- and that's just so far. I couldn't find that many things wrong with even the worst game in the competition -- the second reason I'm discouraged.

     I can't fault my beta testers, although I wish I had opted to choose some additional testers with more experience in Interactive Fiction. I gave the game to them a mere four days before it was due. Chapter 3, in fact, was rushed to completion just one day before the deadline, leaving almost no time to test. Some of my testers didn't even have time to finish playing the game until recently. I think the final nail in my coffin was yesterday. I play D&D with a guy who has some experience with Interactive Fiction, and he had previously only made it to the start of Chapter 3. He finished the game, and he told me that "the first 95% was brilliant" -- but the ending sucked. That's not something that inspires optimism, unfortunately. I kept with my tragic ending, left the final moment purposely unresolved, and hoped that judges would appreciate the decision. I didn't want to move the ending past that point for players, even if I do know what happens when the waiting is over.

     Don't read the next THREE paragraphs if you have not finished the game! SPOILERS!!!

     He pointed out some problems with the story, as well. I guess it's not so much problems with the story, just trouble understanding some of my characters' motives that lead to the ending. First, it didn't seem that the Incs were lacking in leadership. What isn't in the game, but might have been in the never-done fourth chapter, is better references to the Sheeear prophecy, Eeeloraaa's impact on Thyras's decisions, and the subversive movement within the Inc youth. It isn't so much that the Incs "needed" a leader, even though Thyras says this. It's more that Eeeloraaa was in a position to introduce Thyras "as" an eventual leader. What she does halfway through the game serves to fulfill the prophecy. In fact, because she purposely chose the religious caste (knowing it would make her an outcast to many of her people), her biggest goal was to have a child of mixed parentage, then offer both their lives to the gods. It was a narrow interpretation of the prophecy, especially since her child grows up to work covertly against Thyras. Also, because it's an important Sheeear custom to seduce your intended spouse's cousin or brother or relative of similar age... well, sometimes prophecies have a way of taking their own course. I intended to provide more information about these Sheeear customs by way of the "turning rooms" in Chapter 2-2 (various bits of info in each building at each of the four caste colors) -- this is why some can't be accessed without the plastone card -- but it would probably have only further bogged down the game with too much extraneous detail.

     My friend's other concern was that Thyras didn't have enough motive to do what he does. It's a valid point. The introduction was intended to establish a basis for eventual, if perhaps misdirected hatred. Thyras resents Gavenn, due in part to the sparring in their youth, which culminates at the Sheeear Accord. Their brief confrontation in Chapter 2-2 is ten years later -- Thyras has spent a third of his life living among the Incs. When they finally trade punches in a literal sense, Thyras has spent his adult life (almost half his years) considering his own people as outsiders. By the epilogue, about thirty years have passed since the Sheeear Accord. Originally, a fourth chapter was to fit the slot, with the epilogue ten years later. I hope the confrontation in Chapter 3 is enough to establish the basis and reason for the ending. I guess I'll know, when judges provide feedback on my story.

     Then, there are the various plot points, ranging from obvious to subtle, that flesh out the game in what I hoped would be a believable, entertaining way. The information I provided for the COMP04.Z5 "x trading" page was meant to describe each section of the game -- five pairs of opposing concepts for the introduction, chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, and the epilogue, respectively. The game is about pairs -- the joining of two things and the separation of two things. This theme is woven throughout the game, if you look for it (and sometimes, even if you don't). It isn't just in the scenery (those things are easy to spot), but in the story itself -- marriage, sibling rivalry, correlations between the past and the present, the uniting of races. What I intended with Trading Punches was a two-hour epic. I still have no idea if I got it, whether I came close, or whether I missed the mark entirely. I'm anxious for the results, but at the same time, I'm dreading it. I have a feeling my game isn't going to do as well as I had hoped.

     Okay, spoilers are done. You can continue reading here.

     So, where did I go wrong? First, I think Chapter 1-2 will confuse people (based on a couple pieces of feedback I have received so far). It wasn't even originally supposed to be a puzzle, if you can believe that. It turned into one. Because there are different colors of cups (only so players can tell them apart and refer to them in brief), and four different types of alcohol, I think it just seemed like a much bigger challenge than it actually is. Players are going to resort to the walkthrough without spending a few minutes to figure out what's going on. Also, it has been suggested that I give the player a starting directive in the introduction and in Chapter 1-2 (I thought I did -- those sections are titled "Skipping Stones" and "Serving Drinks", respectively), and start out with more information prior to the introduction. It was a design decision not to begin the game with a background intro (prior to the start of gameplay), although if I get enough complaints, I'll probably have to do it. The idea was to start the player without foreknowledge of the story, then build understanding as the story unfolds. Well, that was my intention, even if it turns out to maybe miss the mark. I really thought the chapter titles would work to prod players along the right course of action, but perhaps not.

     Second, realistically, it's about a three-hour game. Well, shorter with the walkthrough, but even a great puzzle-solver (note that the puzzles aren't even supposed to be difficult) will spend some time reading all the text. So, how does this factor into votes? I can guess -- three scenarios, none of them positive. Judges might stop at two hours, not see the whole story, and rank it low because it's too long. Or, judges might stop at two hours, rank it low on a partial understanding of the story, then continue. Or, judges might resort to the walkthrough to ensure a two-hour finish, and still rank it down on the basis of length and difficulty.

     Third, I was too concerned with anonymity to seek beta testers within the IF community -- players who would spot problems in the implementation, not just the bugs. (It's ironic that my "clever" pseudonym trick isn't a first, now that I've learned of the well-known Angela M. Horns entry of an early competition.) When I played some of the other entries, I could see a good, unique story under the game glitches, and I couldn't help but think how much better the game's chances would be if the particular entry was more polished. Then, I relate that to Trading Punches. How far will it slide down the ranks, not because the story is a dud (although it could well be, to some judges), but because I was too ambitious with my first attempt to use Hugo? I didn't allow ample time to refine the game.

     Fourth, what will judges think of my multimedia? The graphics can be disabled (I'm not sure why that would be necessary, though, since they serve only as chapter illustrations). The bigger concern will be reactions to the music. Music is easily disabled in Hugo, but will this count against me? I'd like to think the music isn't half bad, considering I stopped pursuing and practicing music more than a decade ago -- you need not pick up an instrument to compose a MIDI, luckily. I kind of like to play IF in silence -- at least, no vocal music. But sometimes, even random noises are enough to dent my concentration. I wanted to set a tone for each chapter, change the tone at a certain point, and carry it forward to start the next cut-scene. If judges disable the music, will the mood carry through just by the tone of the text? If the music remains on, will it be distracting?

     Fifth, I should have done some things differently in the readme.txt and in the walkthrough. Some details in the FAQ portion of the readme.txt are only supposed to be read after finishing the game. Thankfully, I didn't include even more, because I think some judges have probably read that information first, which would serve to spoil some of the surprises. In the walkthrough, I presented one quick solution to the game. I have received complaints that the walkthrough is broken or doesn't work. It's not broken, and in fact, it does work. The problem is, if you've already messed around with the cups in chapter 1-2, or if you reach the end of 2-2 without following the first part of the walkthrough for that chapter, it's likely that you'll assume the walkthrough is broken or that the game is in an unwinnable condition. Basically, it becomes too much of a reliance on the walkthrough, without following it entirely, leading to those assumptions. I wish I had had time to include hints, and a more "chatty" solution. There are clues for the things people may consider overly difficult, but my suspicion is that "Trading Punches" will be marked down because some judges will miss the clues by relying on the walkthrough. For instance, Yarrel does ask for a variety of different drinks, where the others do not. If her clue regarding the potency of the beverages is missed, it should still be possible to figure it out using the wristwatch and keeping notes of the results. Some solutions are just a matter of experimentation until the game starts nudging you forward with hints and finally the answer (finding the tray, finding the rod, deciding what to do in the buildings, reminiscing with Ruhne, chapter 1-2 behind the pavilion).

     I've tried to predict how my game will do, now that I've played every other entry. Every author probably does the same thing for his or her entry, and it's a frustrating endeavor with only wild speculation as to how the judges will vote. When I try to step back from it, and consider my entry as it might be seen by judges not nearly as enthralled by it as I am, I have to guess around 8th place, based mostly on implementation problems but a strong story. That's not to discredit the thirty other games (well, twenty-eight now) -- only that I can clearly see at least seven games as being much more solid and likable than mine. It would really be a shame to drop much lower -- I entered the competition once before (not as Sidney Merk), and managed a placing in the top one-third. Because of the particulars of my prior entry, it would be a sad irony to rank lower this time.

     How big a nerd am I? I also rolled a D20 (which still assumes my game would make it in the approximate upper half) -- and it came up a "2" for me. The silly dice seems far more optimistic than I am at this point.

     So, what's next for Sidney Merk? I'm kind of letting my success or failure in the competition lead the way. At a minimum, I want to release an update to "Trading Punches" directly after the judging ends. I have fixed most of the easy issues (typos, unimplemented scenery, etc). I've even fixed some larger but obscure glitches. I have more to do, but I should be able to wrap it up by mid-November. It would be nice if judges were sending me feedback now (I've all but begged for it in the R.G.I-F newsgroup), but very little has come my way. If by chance I land in the top three, I'll definitely write more interactive fiction -- and with great enthusiasm. I have a five-part "Trading Punches" epic in mind now, which includes two prequels, one game set through the same events as TP (but from a different perspective), and finally, a sequel that wraps it all up. I'd love to work on those games -- I even have good ideas for two other unrelated stories. If I make the top ten (but not the top three), then I'll probably work on more interactive fiction, although I might skip my continuing epic and work on the unrelated games instead. In the top half (but not the top ten), I'd probably consider writing more IF -- but this would be a pretty good indication that there isn't significant interest in my work. Below half, I might pop up again in another few years, when I've gotten a little better at it. Close to the bottom of the results? I'll very likely slip away, with parting apologies to all judges for such a horrid entry.

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