Alone in the Park is a hybrid-text adventure with a form and tone that some people don't expect. Here I outline some of the reasons for my design and writing decisions, some of which may be unexpected in and of themselves.
1. An escape plan disastrously backfires
On occasion I’ve had moments of irrationality when I’ve said to myself “Hey I know, I’ll learn some new skills and get one of those real jobs, outside of the game industry”. I’ve seen many cases (I’m thinking of friends and ex-colleagues here) where one of these moments of irrationality (or “maturity”, depending on which way you look at it) lasted an entire career. My irrational moment, however, comprised a few months of downtime during which I decided to whip up some kind of half-arsed programming demo of a “Rich Internet Application” (it was all the rage at the time). I told myself that building it would take me two weeks, max.
Disastrously, however, I also told myself that I could make the whole exercise more enjoyable by using the demo’s planned features – scrollable lists, user interface elements, text manipulation, and so forth – in the service of some kind of game or other. Naturally, this kind of delusional thinking set me up for failure. The three weeks morphed into over two years (albeit part-time) and my doomed bid to escape the game industry evolved into what became a hybrid text/graphic adventure game.
2. The decision to go with text
Alone in the Park is stuffed to the gills with words, and it’s not entirely due to its origins as a half-arsed RIA demo.
Neither is it wordy because I'm a frustrated writer who secretly would rather be writing novels and screenplays. I've never really considered myself a “writer” - especially not a writer of stories. Even when writing as part of my job I’ve just researched and written whatever fictional content needed to be written for the game and not thought much more about it.
Part of the real reason for using text is rather mundane, I’m sorry to say. It’s the fact that I (as a solo developer) have no visual art skills and when I started development I had no collaborators (though did I manage to rope in an artist friend towards the end to do the game’s map art). If an adventure game isn’t offering eye candy it probably needs to come to life some other way, and text and audio were the only things in my creative toolkit. I never achieved my Girl Guide badges for art and animation so I resorted to describing all the events in my game using prose.
While not being much of a writer of stories, I have had a good deal of practice, however, at making snide remarks. In fact, I’ve come to realise that sarcastic and often inappropriate comments come rather easily to me (perhaps more easily than they should). Until now this particular talent of mine has, as you can perhaps imagine, been more of a hindrance than a help to my working life in game development. But in the case of Alone in the Park I found myself able to join these sorts of comments up into something resembling a narrative. Perhaps not a “good” narrative as such, but if this approach was found serviceable enough for some of my favourite literary figures (authors of 18th century picaresque novels in particular) then it'll do for me. For this game, at least. (I’m currently working on a new adventure game in a similar format and that narrative is being planned to within an inch of its life. You should see this enormous graph thing I’ve made.)
3. Adding a map to a text adventure
There is no text input in Alone in the Park. The player (on the iPad version, at least) uses their finger on the map to move around in the game. The map is “drawn“ as the player progresses through the world, revealing the park’s environmental features as they are discovered. Essentially it behaves like a fog of war, without the war.
When I’m reading a fantasy novel I like to have a map to refer to - I can get quite disoriented otherwise. I find I have this issue with text adventures too. Sure I can “go north” but where on earth is that? Maybe I’ve become too reliant on Google Maps and can’t take directions anymore. In any case, I like maps and so that’s why I put one in, with the help of artist friend Debra Kunda, who drew the map art.
Deb and I didn’t want it to look like a game map; we tried to evoke the maps I remember from the front pages of adventure stories (my favourites are by John Buchan, author of ‘The 39 Steps’) and old children’s books (Arthur Ransom’s “Swallows and Amazons” series, for example) that I read a lot of when I was a kid. You would read the book and refer back to the map. Fantasy writing is often accompanied by maps too, of course, and I would enjoy carefully mapping out D&D dungeon maps on graph paper square by square as I went along.
4. Puzzles about time and geography
There’s another reason for having a map in Alone in the Park: I wanted to have some simple puzzles involving the map itself. “It’s north of a hill but east of a river and only appears at sunset” sort of thing. Geography puzzles, I suppose you might call them.
When I was a kid I developed a taste for adventures and puzzles involving time-and-space dependent elusive phenomena. I'm probably not expressing what I mean very clearly, so I'll give a few examples.
I only ever read stories or watch films once, usually. As a consequence my memories of reading The Hobbit are pretty vague, so I’ll admit that I've probably remembered it all wrong. I remember being struck by a bit near the end: at the top of a mountain was a door into the mountain that could be opened only at sunset, with the apparent (though mysteriously indirect) involvement of some kind of bird or other. I don't think I took much interest in that business concerning the ring, but this door mechanism was quite magical and it has stuck with me ever since. (My mother did try to read me The Lord of the Rings but some of the way through I discovered that the hobbit Mary was in fact a male character called “Merry” and lost interest. I think I had felt some kind of aspirational affinity with Mary.)
I also had old watercolour books about fairy myths and legends. I liked the species of knobby brown (usually male) fairies that live inside grassy knolls - mainly because the wooden doors to their homes would be visible to humans during one day of the year. Be at the right place and the right time and all is revealed.
The Cherrys books by Will Scott are long out-of-print and cost hundreds of dollars to buy copies of now. I no longer have a Cherry’s book or indeed any books at all from childhood but I recently managed to find cheap French translated versions of a couple in the series.
Kids in the Cherry family would be constantly engaged in treasure hunts devised by a mysterious stranger (often their father). In the Cherry household it seemed you couldn't sit down lunch without some kind of strange message violently interrupting your meal by way of an arrow shot out of nowhere into a nearby tree trunk. It would be from the stranger, daring the children to find him. Perhaps based on a clue the message contained they would have to deduce the direction in which to point their telescope at a particular time, in order to spot the stranger standing on a hill miles away, waving at them. They were usually a minute or so too late though and they’d just glimpse the back of the stranger’s coat as he spirited away. These puzzle-teasing interactions were kind of like the way some serial killers taunt police detectives in movies, only more fiendish.
I was pleased to discover recently that the Usborne puzzle adventures are still in print. They made you figure out a puzzle (often geographical) before you turned the page – otherwise the next part of the story wouldn't make much sense to you.
These puzzle adventure books are amazing. Many of the actual puzzle designs themselves aren’t super well designed, but it’s such a great format. For me one of the best designed and funniest (and I don’t see this peculiarly British visual humour around much these days) is “Escape From Blood Castle” - one of my favourite books from childhood.
In Alone in the Park, text spools to tell the story in response to the player’s actions. As you’re traversing the map and discovering places and environmental features, text is merrily printing out on the other side of the screen, documenting your movements and interactions to form a narrative in real time.
5. Interface as creepy Telex machine
When I was a kid in New Zealand they screened old 60s episodes of Doctor Who on TV after school. A machine that featured in one scene of one episode really got under my skin. It was only recently, while I was thinking about how this Doctor Who moment influenced my approach to this game, that I trawled through episode guides and loads of videos to find this scene again. It’s a little different to how it plays out in my 10 year old’s memory but it’s essentially the same idea.
One of the Doctor's companions discovers a machine that is printing out text on a kind of Telex machine. The machine is telling (or rather, printing) the story of every action the Doctor and friends take, in real time. In other words, the events are told at the same moment they're being performed - including the fact that the companion has discovered the room and is reading the text! In reality, this last bit was not actually in the scene – I just ended up remembering it that way, but in my mind the scenario was strikingly surreal in the best sort of disturbing sci fi way. It's in the storyline "The Mind Robber".
"This world that we've tumbled into is a world of fiction" - The Doctor
There’s something stalkerish about this machine. You can’t do anything without it taking note and responding in real-time with bursts of text, like some kind of over-zealous biographer. Perhaps it serves as a metaphor for modern parenting in the age of social media? You could even compare it to pyschography or automatic writing – as if the text was being authored by a ghost or some other kind of disembodied entity.
Text adventures and some roguelikes kind of give this feeling, but a command-response, turn-based dynamic feels more collaborative and consensual somehow than the relentless, real-time shadowing of this machine. In Alone in the Park it’s an autobiographer who recounts the action - and in the past tense – but I like to hope that it has a little of that disturbing, ghostly automated writing feel of the Telex machine in Doctor Who.
6. Savage whimsy
You know what’s an easier thing to do than to criticize or complain? To be one of those smug, cliché-loving people who say: “well, it’s easy to criticize...” No, genius - peeling an orange is easy. Whereas bitching is an art form, and one that boasts a proud literary tradition dating back to classical times – i.e. Juvenal. I must admit I haven't read any Juvenal but I will mention a few angry satirists with a sense of the surreal that I looked up to in my late teens. (I never read much after that; I bought a computer.)
Have you heard of Saki (Hector Hugh Munro)? Imagine a surreal, fantasy-tinged nasty P.G. Wodehouse or Oscar Wilde, with horribly unsympathetic characters who had horrible things happen to them between breakfast and elevenses.
Tobias Smollett was an 18th century novelist whose invective is so finely wrought it’s like poetry, ballet even. I would go so far as to say that when I read his description of the horrors of Scottish plumbing it practically leapt off the page to perform pirouettes. His lesser known and autobiographical Travels Through France and Italy style him as a sort of belligerent Bill Bryson, and the French loved his wholesale bollocking of their country so much they named a street in Nice after him (as I discovered on a cycling trip once).
Jonathan Swift wrote most famous of Juvenalian satires. Are you surprised to learn that Gulliver’s Travels is a work of “bitter and ironic criticism of contemporary persons and institutions that is filled with personal invective, angry moral indignation, and pessimism”? If you are, it is no doubt because Gulliver’s Travels went on to be eviscerated and repackaged for the benefit of the young and the feckless. Which is quite an achievement in and of itself, really, given the original tenor of the book: a dark political satire that attained gleeful heights of surreal misanthropy and nihilism. Swift being the inventor of baby food (by that I mean babies as food/agricultural opportunity) it's a shame the original spirit of his book isn't better known. It makes for a rather nihilistic sort of children's story, if you ask me: after surveying all that humanity has to offer, Lemuel Gulliver concludes that all possible permutations of our species are so ugly and uncivilised that he'd rather hang about with horses. Good night, sleep well.
(Rhetorical question here, but why is it that the ugly, weird, embarrassing, jarring bits - the bits that make you feel uncomfortable, the “flaws”, but the bits that I like - always seem to be politely ignored or smoothed away?)
G. K. Chesterton
To those who know him well, G. K. Chesterton is mostly dark, angry and playfully strange in tone. As with Swift, the lighter Chesterton stories (i.e. the Father Brown stories) have been seized upon to be lobotomised and twee-washed for TV adaption.
I could list more (I could even try listing some female authors, couldn't I), and I could go on to talk about my choice to combine conversation and inventory systems, for example - but this has been a long post and if you’ve got as far as here you'd probably prefer a glass of water or something instead. Thanks for reading.