When the Land Goes Under the Water: Mini-Postmortem

Shufflecomp, which has just closed its second edition, is an IF competition in which entrants swap playlists and make games based on songs. Not content with taking part in the previous two IF comps, I entered Shufflecomp this year.

When the Land Goes Under the Water, pseudonymously released under the name Nikephoros de Kloet, was my entry.

Themes

I wanted to get started quickly, so my process here was simply to listen through the playlist I received and pick up on the first few things that came up. A lot of the songs suggested things that were either more specific than what I wanted to do (ie, I didn’t feel like writing something referencing specific characters or events in a song). Some of the songs were too expansive, so I didn’t feel like I could scope the game to do them justice; for instance, I had My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist (The Decemberists) which is its own long elaborate family story with multiple characters. I also received a track from Ziltoid the Omniscient (Devin Townsend), which was itself a ten minute long section of an hours-long space opera.

I ended up settling on What’cha Gonna Do (Béla Fleck, Abigail Washburn). It’s a pretty simple folk tune which conjures up (for me, anyway) images of an Appalachian community being dispersed because their valley is about to become the reservoir of a new dam. That is to say, exactly what is implied to happen after the ending of Deliverance. Thinking about Deliverance got me to the idea of an apocalyptic story turned on its head: What if you sifted through the ashes of a society that had just been wiped out, but the overwhelming mood was these were horrible people and it’s a good thing they’re gone.” Atlantis was an easy place to go for this effect.

Development

I’m generally fascinated by objects as storytelling instruments. And I knew I had to be very conservative with scoping this project. Shufflecomp is fairly brief, and I didn’t have a lot of time to put into it in the first place. So if I wanted to do a parser piece (Which I did, since I was going to be leaning on object descriptions for all my storytelling), I had to limit myself severely. The game makes this explicit from the start: It’s a purely exploratory piece with a severely limited palette of verbs. It’s about taking a walk through a prose space, looking at the scenery, piecing together a picture of Atlantean society from those objects, then leaving.

Atlantis as an imperial state run by a body-horror shame cult is a setting I might want to come back to at some point. The goal was to play around with the tension of loss — something is very much being lost forever, but closer examination reveals that maybe it should be buried anyway. Asking the player to play only once stemmed from that; I wanted to sell the moment when the player realises part of the game has been cut off. I also liked the thought of players having different experiences, and having to talk to other players to figure out how those differ.

As it turns out: People really despise being told to not replay the game. Almost universally, the reaction to that was a kernel of unhappiness amidst mostly positive reviews. In retrospect, including that note was a mistake for a number of reasons.

A major one was that the two game branches just weren’t different enough. Another is simply that this kind of discussion is infrequent these days, at least in public online spaces where I might see it. So even if players were to compare experiences, the discussion would mostly consist of collating coherent chunks of information.

Ultimately, I think this shows that you can’t achieve an effect in a way that antagonises your audience long before the effect becomes apparent, though I will claim ignorance and say I did not expect it to be read as antagonistically as it was.

I’m still interested in the idea of games that supply players with variant perspectives and ask those players to exchange them, but I think this may be successful as part of the technology itself — either in the form of a game with persistent state that forces players to stick to their choices, or as a multiplayer IF experience. Emily Short’s Aspel plays around in that area with fascinating results.

Still: With overall praise for its prose, a moderately positive IFDB score, and no technical issues on release, I have to consider When the Land Goes Over the Water a success, and comp voters seemed to agree, as the game was commended. But consider this Official Dispensation to ignore my stupid author’s notes and replay the game as many times as you please.

As a bonus, here’s a Spotify playlist of the songs I submitted to Shufflecomp this year. One of them, Jusqu’a la Mort, inspired a game (Submerge). Funny that both me and the author of that game wrote games about things sinking into the ocean.