No big news this time. May was a bad month with our day jobs (poor Patrick was having to pull sixty-hour weeks, send him healing vibes!), but we still trucked along with development, just slower than we like. Always slower than we like.
Got a little behind on some reward tiers! Just a little, though! If you haven't gotten your stuff yet, here's a revised, simplified estimate:
United States -- Your physical rewards will arrive next week.
International -- Your physical rewards should arrive around mid-June.
Get in touch with me for sure if your stuff hasn't arrived by then. Also, the ebook for The Lonesome Wilderness is ready to release, but I want to release it early to backers alongside the audiobook, which is still in production. More on that soon.
The Narrative Design of Southern Monsters
I'm gonna ramble a little bit about narrative design with this update. I'm not a skilled essayist, so I really do mean ramble. If you want some well-written takes on how to structure interactive stories, I recommend the blogs of Emily Short and Bruno Dias.
My first two games, The Domovoi and Beneath Floes, were created in the context of what Cara Ellison called the "Twine revolution." From a design standpoint, they draw from similar work in that sphere: linear hypertext structure, subjective emotional points of view, player agency limited to shades of meaning as opposed to plot events.
After I released Beneath Floes in 2015, the historian in me decided to branch out and explore, well, all of interactive fiction. I played Infocom, I played indie work that came to prominence in the mid-nineties to the present, I made myself love the parser (that last one took a while). Of course, I played modern commercial work like ChoiceScript, Telltale, and Inkle. I read every essay from every theorist and writer I could find archival backups for.
I think when I started that process, the egoist in me probably wanted to really understand interactive fiction so I could make what I considered an original contribution to its history of design, like a kind of dissertation for a PhD. I abandoned that goal pretty quickly when I realized everyone in IF is smarter than me, but as a result I now know a wide range of design techniques to employ in Southern Monsters.
I approached the narrative design of Southern Monsters with two guiding principles: there should be goals but not fail states, and "failure" should be rewarded in the same way as "success." I define "rewarded" as original, authored content.
For example, the main character Cripplefoot wants to find the monster that lives in Boggy Creek. There are a multitude of ways to "fail" in that task (including never leaving the house at all, either from emotional inability or choice), but the game responds to that failure with story arcs that don't happen with "success." That way, the narrative still has stakes, but the game will respond to state as well as active choices.
This isn't wildly innovative, of course. Aisle is a work of interactive fiction by Sam Barlow where you make one choice and the game ends, which is about the purest structure you can get if you wanna privilege all choices equally. Sam Kabo Ashwell refers to this kind of "all choices are valid" structure as a Time Cave, based off the first CYOA book. But it's a structure that'll work well with Southern Monsters, where Cripplefoot doesn't quite understand the enormity of the systems working against him.
On a smaller scale, Southern Monsters balances procedural content with authored content in a way I feel fits the narrative. Relationships with your online friends track local and global variables as the story arcs progress (inspired heavily by node-based ChoiceScript works), while repetitive actions (cat videos, moon pies, Grendel) contain descriptions written with tightly controlled procedural generation (inspired by Voyaguer) to diversify the variety of subtle meaning inside habits and routines.
Story arcs also compound upon each other. A playthrough where you interact often with Cripplefoot's online friend Ryan will create unique narrative moments if you're also interacting with Cripplefoot's mom. Combined with the game's time system and five-day structure, of course, this also means it's impossible to experience Everything. I think "replayability" is overrated as a concept—what I care about is the player having the sense that the game is frequently responding to their decisions.
Personally, I rarely replay games, but I love the sense that things could have been different. Choice feels meaningful to me when I can tell that I've abandoned alternative possibilities to pursue just one. All that to say: Majora's Mask is the best Zelda game, fight me.
The GaymerX conventions are run by good folks. Throw them money so they can keep building cool spaces in games! Too far away for me, but I backed for stickers.
Send us all your energy, spirit ball-style, so we can endure our miserable day jobs and work as much as we can on this game that gives us life. Yeah!
If there's anything you want in particular from these monthly updates, feel free to sound off in the comments, too! I'll talk about anything that interests folks.