post-comp post-mortem on Unbeknown

So I entered a game into this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition, something that I had done in 3 previous years (2001, 2007, and 2013). It’s a Twine game called Unbeknown, and you can find it here, along with many other fine parser and choice-based games. It ended up placing 28th out of 53 entries. To be honest the Comp this year worked really well as a deadline, and while I’m happy with the way the game turned out, I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement. So these design notes will hopefully dig into what I was trying to do with the game and what can be more fully realized in a revision.


I have always been fascinated by MMORPGs (even though I only play them sporadically at best), but what’s really caught my interest over the past year has been a subgenre of games that are sometimes called “Sandbox Survival.” These include DayZ, Rust, and ARK. Each has a different flavor (ARK uses dinosaurs, for instance; DayZ is more in the realm of a “traditional” zombie apocalypse), but the basic premise is that you’re spawned in the world with nothing, you have to build or forage for everything, and the most clear and present danger–far outpacing the environment, the wild animals, even the zombies–are the other players.

Maybe not everyone wants to kill you, but anyone can kill you, and assuming that will help you stay alive.

One bit of feedback that I got was that calling what happens early in the game “slavery” wasn’t realistic, because one could log off at any time. I’m wondering though whether people know that “slaving” and “slavery” is what it’s called (accurate or not) for the player base of games like DayZ and ARK. Actually one of the quotes about ‘preferring the term compulsory friendship’ vs. slavery is pretty much a direct quote from a Steam thread about, er, compulsory friendship. (Earlier upthread: “So you want to form a team of slavers? XD”)

It’s fascinating because players approach this dynamic very differently–some like to roleplay the experience (at least for a spell), some want nothing to do with it while continuing to play, while others end up leaving the game. There is no one social contract, and in a weird way these types of survival games become a bizarro world libertarian playground, with, of course, lots and lots of guns and sharp instruments.

Personally I find the whole experience chilling, and it’s this disturbance–something that really ate at me about the way people were acting toward one another–that was the genesis of Unbeknown. This gets into larger issues of griefing, online conduct, and what is “play” vs. what is real.

This essay on RPS about DayZ is harrowing, touching on many of those subjects, and started getting me thinking about a survival sandbox game as a setting for one of my own games:

We became expert torturers. We reasoned that to kill was a mercy. Real torturers keep their prey alive, full of fear and uncertainty. We prowled the coast – where the bambis graze – and discussed with hyena laughter what we would do to our next victim. We invented villainous characters for ourselves. I donned a Kevlar ‘Press’ vest and a white helmet and became ‘Esteemed Official of the Free Press’. Alex and Richie became my military escort. They held the next fresh spawn at gunpoint while I ‘interviewed’ him.

“We’ve all lost someone,” I would say. “It has been a hard apocalypse. But that’s a lovely bag you have, very well embroidered. Let me look at the lining of that fashionable bag of yours.”

But of course, others scorn and indeed misogynistically insult people who call out the sociopathy. “Learn to play!” Or as someone else says on another Steam thread about Rust:

‘”Sociopathy” Wow, you guys cry a lot. ♥♥♥♥ing deal with it, grow some balls, and stand up for yourselves, or get walked on like the girl you are.’

I also ended up watching an anime series called Sword Art Online–the first parts of which had some really interesting things to say about gaming and complicity.

Building the World: “if i want to go around shooting naked people, then i’m going to do it”

I figured that a pretty bare bones CSS design would be the way to go–not only because of time constraints, but to highlight the stark, minimalist nature of the main character’s emotional experience. And also to keep the focus on the story itself.

(At around this point you might want to play Unbeknown, as we start to get into spoiler land.)

One of the problems with the beginning, I think, was that I didn’t give players a clear window into what the “rules” of the meta-game were. It couldn’t assume knowledge of survival sandbox as a genre, and had to teach the player that the “rules” here were very different from, say, World of Warcraft.

After your character is captured, and needs to log off, the real game begins: reflecting on what the hell just happened. The foil for this is Able, a character who definitely veered from valuable friend to antagonist as the drafting went on. But Able asks some good questions. Here, I was trying to merge the reflective choices (similar to what I did in Solarium) with the “branch and merge” (or branch and bottleneck) pattern used in many Choice of Games works. Needless to say, this is on a much smaller scale! But there’s a fair amount of states being tracked in mid-game based on the player’s responses. I think I have to find a way to give useful feedback to players further down the road when those stats matter (and also provide further granulation of narrative with if/then statements based on the stats).

However, with that said, the point where the player/character enters Able’s home…that all does lead to the same outcome. There is no way to not escape and meet Temper. What I tried to show with this narrative scene is that, yes, the main character does care about their own self, and their own preservation. The reflective pieces do indeed bottleneck here–they don’t change how you get the hell out of there, but those reflections do lead you to the precipice.

Maybe this is trying to skirt around the dichotomy of agency/no agency.

Unfurling the Story

I wasn’t sure how to end the story. So I kept going. The game world, based loosely on a 18th c. American woodland, had split into two, and the return to the first world seemed like a good stopping point. And yet, it wasn’t–not at all. Not even the confrontation with one’s doppelganger seemed like a fitting conclusion.

So, yes, one more twist of the knife with the ending–or one of the two at least. This is the point where most players seemed to think there was the single consequential choice of the game. Maybe they were correct. Again, more customization based on flagged stats could help a lot to give the player a sense of incremental consequence. But also–this final choice was a reflective choice too; it was just one that (hopefully) had a lot of narrative heft behind it. Curtain #1 or Curtain #2? And this would be based on whether the connection to the player’s humanity seemed like the “real deal” or not. In this sense I didn’t want there to be a “good” or “bad” ending, at all. But, yeah, for better or worse, I do think one ending is more interesting than the other. I don’t know how much that needs to be changed, or whether choosing one or the other is a good impetus to try the game again.

Redeem for an Upgrade

As much as it deals with people doing awful things to each other (or at least their digital ghosts), this is still one of the most hopeful things I’ve ever written. I guess as I get old I am getting more interested personally in redemption. Earned redemption, of course–hard work that, in this game at least, takes decades. The sludgy palette I tried to work with is one of griefing, bad sportsmanship, and antisocial behavior. And, yes, cyberbullying. The lines are blurred because the social contract built by the devs decided they thought it would be more “fun” to leave them blurred, but in a way this makes the emotional perils even more harrowing.

Everyone’s having fun, right? Just have fun. Stop complaining. Learn to play. You can’t play, noob.

These aren’t spaces that allow for any sort of vulnerability.

I’ve never played a sandbox survival game! Uh, spoiler alert. (Except maybe Eve. I think Eve in many ways is the spiritual ancestor of DayZ.) I mean, I get stressed out over bad player actions on relatively innocuous games. Voice chat is terrifying to contemplate.

Throughout Unbeknown, your character is haunted by what seems to be a pretty horrible ghost. The ghost’s memories are your own. We don’t always remember the things we’d like to. Pleasant experiences can feel so fleeting and ephemeral, and torturous seconds can feel like brick walls building around you. How much do memories constitute a person? Is there a way you can sever your own memories from the decisions you have to make? Because, yes, at times the horrible and beautiful things I used to do as a 21 year old do feel like the actions of another person. Sometimes they haunt me–with deep regret for being callous or with warmth from a fleeting, kind word from a friend I haven’t heard from in two decades.

I don’t think that Unbeknown is covering any new ground in this realm, but maybe what I was trying to do with the mid-game stats is to tracking the the character creating new memories and emotional experiences.

Even in that modest time frame in the game, there is an agency in thinking through what happens to you.

And being able to process these accretions just might prove to be a way forward.

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