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Long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and finalist for the Crawford Award. Title short story listed for the 2000 O. Henry award.

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Notes on “Deadline Enchanter”

I wanted to get some notes on the design of Deadline Enchanter, since it seemed a couple of reviewers were interested in the genesis and thought behind the game. (I don’t even know if it can be called a game. But more about that later.) So as always, these opinions are solely my own, and are subject to alteration, etc. etc. And it’s pretty long. (Later note: Really long!)

Probably none of this is going to make sense if you haven’t played DE. So go for it! Needless to say, spoilers, but I doubt they’ll make sense anyway if you haven’t played the game. Hell, it still might not make sense even if you have played the game.

The first drafts of Deadline Enchanter probably came about in 2002, not terribly long after Isolato Incident was released into the wild. It was a very, very different proposition at that early stage though. For one, I was writing the game in ALAN-and I have to say that as much as I loved ALAN as an introduction and primer to writing IF, the time it would take me to figure out how to do certain things in ALAN could have been better spent working on the game itself. And any experience of writing IF is going to be dampened when the authoring system doesn’t have an UNDO feature (to be fair, ALAN 3 does). It was called Green Nights, by Anonymous, or something like that. There was The City (called St. Saul), and there were the Folk, and the princess in the Tower, and the Faux, and the Sanka/Taster’s Choice magic.

And yet the feel of that early draft was totally different than what I ended up with, and this unsatisfaction with the world and what I wanted to DO with the world helped contribute to why it took me freaking forever to finish the game. For one, my first big goal was to create a rather larger, explorable city-where the story with the Folk would intertwine with the Faux, and there would be interactions with the environment that could loosely be described as “puzzles”. This first draft actually did have some stuff that I rather liked, content-wise, that never made it to DE. For one, a few touchpoints with Gawain and the Green Knight, with (nearly?) all of those traces excised by the time of the final draft. And a lot more jazz; there was a Charlie Parker feast day in the city…

And also, the germination of the steganography of the game did emerge in this early stage, although I never actually got the chance to CODE it. See, near the end of the game, it would finally dawn upon the player (meaning you, not the meta-situated game-playing that resided within the story) that the whole point of the game would be to work out the escape route for the Princess. This revelation would have been the final twist of the game-but before that point, one woudl have played the game thinking that it was, actually, a (reasonably) grounded work of interactive fiction, with (relatively) clear demarcations of, and between, player and character. Very early on, the character would be given a charge/mission by a female knight of the Faux, with certain goals to accomplish, and a series of mimetic spaces in which to wander and find clues as to how to solve those goals, meeting denziens of the City, finding one’s way into the Tower, etc. At some point (though I didn’t get nearly this far into the programming), more of the steganography would have come into the game, but it wouldn’t have overwhelmed it.

That, at least, was the plan. But I was still too fuzzy about what, in fact, I wanted the game to do. In interactive fiction, even when one gives the player the illusion of free choice, I think that oftentimes, relentless reductionism is the way to go-at least in terms of what you want to accomplish in the game. Green Nights was too much of a tweener. I had the feeling that it was kind of the worst of both worlds-too hesitant in being, to put it crudely, a total mindfuck; too sketchy in terms of providing a full mimetic experience. For one, I’m just not good at writing puzzles. Any puzzles, including poorly implemented puzzles. And I did, actually, want to pursue the idea of a game-within-a-game-world (some of the in-game help files were written at this early stages, though I did rewrite them and temper them according to later revisions). I just wasn’t feeling like I was hitting a mark with it.

Well, years passed. Inform 7 came out and the project piqued my interest again. At this stage it WAS retitled to Deadline Enchanter. (I do think some of the earlier drafts came across as a bit too in-jokey, and I really tried to exorcise a lot of the direct references to the pre- and post-Infocom community. But, I was too in love with the title to screw with it-in writing a lot of my short stories, I’ll just start with a title before having any clue as to what the story is about. Plus, scrunching the two words together were hopefully evoking the kind of ‘eldritch noir’ that I was going for.) Anyway, the port to Inform was astoundingly easy, but then once again I kept hitting roadblocks regarding “that vision thing.” There was no voice to the game, only rooms.

It was this last summer where DE started to take its final shape. I’d dusted it off again, and-I’m not sure what, exactly, precipitated this-decided to distill the game as to what interested me most about it. It sounds stupid, now, writing this (and italicizing it…sorry) but it’s often really difficult to put into practice, with any piece of art. What do you want to do with it? What are your parameters, spoken or unspoken? I’d realized that what interested me most about DE was, in fact, the Princess’s predicament, and how the player-character would discover the path to set her free. But what if I started with that path? What if the discovery didn’t involve the what (i.e., the very fact that the game is an act of steganography becoming the big revelation) but the why (i.e., what’s going on in this world? Who is this person that desperately needs your help?).

And so, the Princess would set the game on rails, and the player would know exactly where to go and what to do. Cutting out exploration in the game almost entirely was a liberating experience! I stopped trying to cram the game into what I thought it ought to have done and just let it be what it needed to be. Which, obviously, is nothing new-there are games far, far more brilliant and moving than mine that are completely (or almost so) linear. But it felt good to at last discover the shape that it would take.

From there, I could concentrate on the voice-and it was really fun to write in the narrator’s voice. That, more than anything, drove the story forward. I could concentrate on letting her have a relationship with the player in her world (and by extension, the actual player)-cajoling, entreating, vain, angry, fragile. It gave me an avenue into characterization that I actually never have had before, with more static forms of fiction.

Even though I don’t know if DE can be called a work of interactive fiction per se, working in Inform and having tbe player drive the story forward gave an uncertain, kind of unpredictable texture to the narrative that, for me, got a lot of its juice from altering narrative pacing (more on this below). Splicing in cut scenes, having a place where the player thinks he or she is interacting with the story but it’s actually JUST a cut scene, the one yes-or-no question, etc. All of these, obviously, are old, effective tricks. But in writing DE, I was having a character implement these tricks. I was letting her create the narrative-using, in a way, the forms of “conversation” of her ancestors to dictate what the player could experience (BADGER, SEDUCE, MOLLIFY, etc.).

All of the sudden I had a very tight deadline, but at least the writing was flowing through that voice. When I got about halfway through, close to the point with the doll and the doll’s massacre of the guards, I began to wonder if our fearless/fearful narrator was a bit more complicated than I had initially conceived. Part of this had to do with the ending-what would happen? Would the player-character somehow manage to open the cell and let her roam free in the game world? It seemed a bit anticlimatic. But I also began wondering just what kind of character she was. She didn’t seem the type who would just ride off into the sunset, her lover being captured. Did she even want to be free? And what did “freedom” mean to her? A twist began to develop, in which she offered the player the choice to sacrifice her to save her lover, or…nothing-to stay at home, turn off the Implementation and let them both perish.

Projective Fiction
So, there are a “few” notes on the narrative. Moving into larger issues of classification, I don’t know if the work is “interactive fiction” per se as much as “projective fiction.” I keep bouncing in and out of Olson’s “”Projective Verse” essay; the “composition by field.” That is (and this might very well be mangling Olson’s intentions), a way of creating a “breath” or beat for a narrative work. It’s not work that really tries for mimesis or simulacra (except, of course, in the sense that any static work of fiction creates a relationship with a reader through sentences and paragraphs), but rather uses the parser to shape the temporal information presented to the reader. It’s a different type of linearity than that on the printed page, yet is a way to determine that, as Olson said, “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.”

Comics/graphic novels also manipulate the reader’s perception of the narrative-through visuals, of course, but also through tweaking time: the size of the panels, the level of information presented in a panel (which can be broken down as a unit of composition, much like a line of poem; for a work of IF/projective fiction, what is that unit? The space between one given command to the next. Even if that command is “Press Space to Continue.” That is the “panel” that each writer/coder has to work with. I doubt very much, btw, that this was what Olson had in mind.)

Notes for thought and the faintest possible thumbnails, for future work.

A Last Note on Conversation
One other aspect of game design that didn’t actually occur to me until the game was long finished-that DE could be considered one giant conversation system. A back and forth telling superimposed on a landscape. Not that this was intended by any means, but it makes sense.

What’s to be Done
Quite a bit; a whole hell of a lot. I need to fix some of the sequencing in the prison cell (providing a walkthrough in the form of a book there, as well). I’ve been working on converting all the default parser responses into Folk speak (the narrator’s or the vestigal Implementation that has been superimposed upon by our narrator; actually, that is turning out to be a huge problem-to figure out how to clue to the player which of the two is “speaking”). The fight scene with the doll really needs to be fixed. Along with the normal draft issues, that will all take some time, but hopefully the most recent build of DE, when it does come out, will make it a more enjoyable experience.

Mon, December 24 2007 » Fiction, Games

2 Responses

  1. Jason Dyer December 24 2007 @ 1:41 pm

    Thank you! I enjoyed reading these. Any chance of posting notes on The Isolato Incident sometime?

  2. george oliver December 25 2007 @ 7:17 pm

    I had an idea when I played DE that it would make a great comic.

    Thanks for the notes.

2 Pings

  1. command lines: chapter 4 « Kooneiform December 26 2007 @ 11:09 am
  2. Super Doomed Planet » Blog Archive » More on Deadline Enchanter December 29 2007 @ 10:53 pm

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