Mere Anarchy Postmortem

I said I wasn’t going to write a postmortem for Mere Anarchy. Well, I kind of lied. This is the actual postmortem. As you might expect, it contains spoilers for the game; so if you haven’t played it yet, I suggest you do before reading.

Mere Anarchy's character panel
The character panel, early in the story.

Mere Anarchy was started almost as a companion piece / dyptich with Terminator Chaser. Terminator Chaser is a science fiction piece about realising that society has screwed you, and getting to the point of taking action that might be violent, reprehensible, ill-advised, and so on. Mere Anarchy was conceived as a fantasy piece that starts at that point and deals with the fallout of that decision. That was the original kernel of an idea I started from.

As I wrote on a previous post, it was very clear that I wanted to write a hypertext game. Parser games have very severe QA requirements that I was never going to be able to fit into the time I had to write Mere Anarchy, which is to say just over a month. That same post also detailed the process of settling on Undum as a development system.

Before I got to writing the game proper, I spent the better part of a week trying various permutations of the Pulpit’s shop scene in Twine and Undum, and then writing tools. Development on proto-Raconteur took place during that period, as I figured out what I would need to comfortably write all the content and logic in Mere Anarchy and implemented a library that supplied that functionality in a modular way.

Words, words, words

A screenshot of Craft
An early screenshot of Mere Anarchy, back when it was called Craft.

When, at last, I was a good week into writing Mere Anarchy, I came to a realisation about hypertext games: They require writing a lot more content than a parser game. Mere Anarchy is quite short — it clocks in at perhaps 15 minutes of gameplay for a single playthrough, depending on how fast you read. The total word count for the game’s text content is nearly 12,000 words. That’s about half the size of a novella, but a single playthrough is only about 6,000 to 8,000 words long, leaving more than a third of the game’s content in unvisited branches. And Mere Anarchy doesn’t have a huge amount of branching or a lot of missable content.

Mere Anarchy doesn’t have any event loops or content repetition of any kind, meaning that I get the barest minimum in gameplay mileage for each word of content I write. If I write a complex response for an action in a parser game, that might represent several minutes of meaningful user interaction, as they try different things and explore the possibility space. If I write an event loop passage in a Twine game, that passage’s text might be seen by players dozens of times — writing text that doesn’t overstay its welcome in that situation is its own particular skill, but it’s true that a game like With Those we Love Alive lasts a lot longer in gameplay because it’s repeating itself to create a sense of time and routine.

Mere Anarchy does none of that; it’s a propulsive story, every click moving the player irrevocably onward. Every phrase that I write is going to be seen once in a given playthrough. The advantage of that is that I don’t have to worry about paring things down for the sake of not becoming overbearing. Heightened prose is a lot less appreciated when you have to wade through the same paragraph of it fifteen times in one play session.

Weaving text together

A screenshot of the ritual scene
Text variegation: blending disparate magics together.

Mere Anarchy has a reasonable amount of what I call variegation, ie moments in the story where text weaves together variations produced by different bits of state, without branching. That, of course, means writing a great deal of text that only shows up in a fraction of all playthroughs.

I do think the overall effect is very worthwhile — one thing I thought was really important to helping players connect with the magic in the game is that the overall look and feel of the major magical ritual in the story is a player-driven choice. Suggesting to the player that they are living in a magical setting of their own devising enhances their sense of choice and agency in a story where they don’t otherwise have a lot of control over outcomes.

It’s a technique that doesn’t seem to get a lot of use; the dominant mode, reinforced by Twine’s model, is that variation happens in branching. One advantage of the Undum setup I was using (and now Raconteur) is that building those complex variations is fairly simple. The big selling points of this system for me is that the logic and the text can be kept close together and easily changed together if something changes.

A screenshot of Mere Anarchy's source code
Responding to different player routes within one situation.

Time constraints

As I mentioned in my previous post, the first scene written for Mere Anarchy was the moment early on in Pulpit’s shop where the player character’s eye is wandering through the things on the shelves. That scene was a sort of early statement of intent for the game: Its tone, the kind of prose I wanted to build into it, and the exploratory link gameplay I wanted to play around with.

A screenshot of Pulpit's shop
Pulpit’s shop as it appeared in the finished game.

I’m not sure I quite lived up to the promise of that scene in the entire game — you may note that the density of those links goes down over the course of the game. Mere Anarchy was always planned as a Spring Thing piece, and as such it was scoped conservatively, with a fairly short deadline. The need to sit down and write some of my own tools, as well as my own underestimation of how long it would take to produce all the content, led to some late paring down of the game’s content. Branches were pruned; in the original design, the underground sequence had a whole alternate branch where the player would opt to walk instead. There was one other possible target besides the office building and the mansion; it was cut for being too similar to the mansion in structure while also being too horrific. I wasn’t able to allocate as much time as I would have liked to filling out the details, which mostly meant inserting exploratory links.

Mostly, this manifested in the relative clunkiness of the exposition — I didn’t have time to build a more slow and deliberate unveiling of the plot. The ending, too, was somewhat abbreviated to be more ambivalent and ambiguous than was originally planned. This is not to say that I think I shipped an unfinished game — Mere Anarchy is what it is, and I view it as a complete work.

Choosing what to do when you find yourself overshooting your deadline is never easy. In this instance I chose to cut scope and plan to finish the game on time, rather than pushing it back. Spring Thing had a lot to do with that decision — I had submitted an intent to enter, and I didn’t want to go back on that. I also had a strong desire to ship based simply on the fact that nearly six months would go before the end of the Spring Thing deadline and the opening of another major comp.

Ultimately, I think I made the right decision for the project — Mere Anarchy was planned as a short piece that would come out not too long after Terminator Chaser and contrasted against it, not as a longer piece meant to hit the 100-minute length mark typical of a comp game. Saving Mere Anarchy for the IFComp would have meant extensive retooling, risking losing what I thought was special about the game I had at that point.

Lessons Learned

A screenshot of Mere Anarchy
The sigils were a grace note added late in the process: lurking in real-world occult forums supplied some of the inspiration for Mere Anarchy.

Hypertext games are harder than you think: I had just finished a mid-level parser game project, so how hard could it be? Turns out, achieving what I wanted involved writing my own toolchain, from the Raconteur framework to a build system. Then I had to produce vastly more text than Terminator Chaser had. I’ve certainly revised down my estimations of how much hypertext gameplay I can produce in a given time period.

You can’t predict what will strike a nerve: The written feedback I got for Mere Anarchy — Four reviews that I’ve seen — has been overall positive, with praise for the game’s writing being brought up by all of them. Aaron hasn’t made the ribbon nomination numbers for Spring Thing public, so I don’t have a lot of data on the general reception of the game; from what I can tell, it was liked, but Toby’s Nose was better liked overall.

Importantly I was surprised to find how positive the reception of the choice in the game was; one of my apprehensions on release was that players would feel like the game’s story was too on rails” to meet people’s standards of interaction” in interactive fiction. I was wrong: From what I saw, players enjoyed the more textural type of choice, and there was real engagement with the story and character.

One important thing about actually shipping those games when you say you’re going to: You get the feedback, and you get to see how people react to what you put out there, and it gives you avenues of exploration you wouldn’t have gotten out of holding them back for a later release date.

Exposition is hard, dialogue is hard: And I’m still working on finding better ways of delivering plot to players in interactive stories. If you have thoughts on IF pieces that do this kind of track-laying well, I would love to hear about them.

Overall: I’m happier with how this turned out than Terminator Chaser. If you’ve played it, I hope you find me on Twitter or the intfiction.org forums to tell me your thoughts.