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Notes on Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis

Warning: this will be spoilery. If you haven't seen the original game, go over to stiffymakane.com.

ADDRESSING THE CRITICS

I'd like to begin by responding to the two fantastic reviews Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis got, and some of the less fantastic.

First, I want to announce to the world at large that the Grahams in the Unreal City were in no way intended to be an attack on Graham Nelson. Yes, the identical bankers (stolen from Martin Rowson's The Wasteland) are indeed all named Graham Nelson. Why? Why, to set up the Nelson's Column dick joke, of course.

Second: Emily nailed the Gate Of Ivory reference. Am I saying that Classical IF is a lie? Vergil had Aeneas come out of the Gate of Ivory. Myths aren't factually true, but that doesn't mean they're not good, nor that they're not necessary.

Third: Sam Kabo Ashwell got stuck on attempting re-use of the whale. How? Clearly that's a bug, but it is one that I don't see how to reproduce. Likewise with getting stuck three-quarters of the way through. How? Was it insufficient cueing of the moonmilk? Several of my testers struggled with that, and although I tried to make it more obvious, I don't know whether I succeeded.

Fourth: Again with the Ashwell: it's not that Julia. It's Julia from the Cranky Roman Family of Hans Orberg's Lingua Latina. Take a look at the link for a gentle introduction. Also, every other character in the game knows their slave Syra. Ask about her.

Fifth: I chose the Pompeii mosaic as the cover art before Graham revamped the Inform icon. My first cover image was, as Emily may have guessed, an ithyphallic Hermes; I toned it down for public release.

Sixth: to respond to Poster's blog post of May 15, I'd really like to know where the "homosexual monolith" is. As far as I'm aware, none of the other Spring Thing entries concern pole-smoking, donut-punching, or fudge-packing in any way. Did I miss something? Maybe The Cavity of Time is upsetting him. Anyway, I will console myself with the fantasy that my $123 is coming directly from Poster's $150.

Seventh: Speaking of, I'm totally thrilled that Sam Ashwell wrote The Cavity of Time. Also thrilled that he created those delightful Stiffy images. Thank you!

Eighth: I am a little peeved that my game got as many 1s as 10s, but I have no beef with Jimmy Maher's review. To clarify that a little: in my judging, a "1" is the worst possible game--a buggy, unplayable, subliterate piece of shit with no redeeming features. Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis was a solidly implemented, grammatically-written, correctly-spelled piece of shit with no redeeming features, and as such, I think it deserved at least a 2. If memory serves, I gave "Cattus Atrox" a 3/10 for basically the reasons Jimmy gave MMA a 3: competently crafted, but absolutely unappealing to me.

Ninth: I will, however, confess embarassment that, as pointed out on IFMud, attempting to molest the library slaves gives you a "keep your mind on the game." That's a bug, all right.

Tenth: I really, really want Victor Gijsbers and Pissy Little Sausages to review the game. I'd like to know what they thought in some detail. I would also like Graham to play it, but, well, I already got one of the two people I thought would get most of the jokes but wouldn't play it to give it a whirl, and she liked it astonishingly well. So I'll try not to be greedy. But anyone who was thinking of writing a review--good or bad, short or long--I'd like to know what worked for you and what didn't, with as much specificity as you can spare.

GAME DESIGN

My primary goal in writing Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis, of course, was self-gratification. In that aim I clearly succeeded. I did, however, have some other goals in mind.

I tried hard to make the game fair. That is: there is supposed to be no way to make the game unwinnable that doesn't kill you off in fairly short order. If I failed at this, I want to know, so that I can fix it.

I wanted to make it newbie-friendly. At least, that was my initial goal. That is: there are no diagonal directions required, all conversation is ASK X ABOUT Y, and if there are any guess-the-verb puzzles (besides the really, really obviously cued ones), I want to know about it. The mazes aren't. The darkness puzzles are really not very difficult. Inventory management is intended to be a non-issue except in one particular section.

Now, that said, in the time between the game's inception and its completion, the state of the art advanced a lot. I don't have the user-friendly features of Aotearoa, for instance. I thought about adding some of these things late in the game's cycle, but I had already made up my mind to do a consciously old-school game. So: no status-line directions, no in-game map, no interesting-object syntax highlighting.

I wanted to make it less linear than my other games, and was only partially successful. The midgame is fairly open, but the intro and late games are on rails. I also overused the nothing-to-do-but-wait mechanic: the animal rides could definitely stand to be shortened, as could the player's capture that ends the midgame. I do kind of like the rowing mechanic (suggested, I think, by Andrew Plotkin). The endgame probably drags on too long, but, really, what else could I have done there?

INFLUENCES

Until I read Emily's review, I didn't realize that I had written a reaction to Curses. Of course, I had, but the funny thing is, I haven't replayed Curses in the last decade or so. The closest I came was dumping the text for something about Alexandria while I was writing that section. But...damn, it's undeniable that I was carrying around a whole lot of Curses in the back of my head.

The things I was aware of primarily thinking of were, in more-or-less-order:

  • The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot, and a few of Eliot's other works. (Eliot is, of course, an enormous influence on Curses as well) And of course The Waste Land itself is the kind of virtuoso random-influences mash-up I wanted this to be (albeit, with more dick jokes in mine).
  • The Waste Land, by Martin Rowson. If you haven't seen this, it's brilliant. It's The Waste Land mashed up with The Big Sleep, more or less: Eliot viewed through the lens of noir detective fiction, done up as a graphic novel.
  • The Satyricon, Petronius. As Emily points out, the story's structure is straight-up Roman novel WTFery. I'm fine with it landing in the genre of Menippean Satire.
  • The Aeneid. Well, obviously. Also notice that I start the thing like an epic, in medias res, and tell the first half as a flashback. Not accidental.
  • The traditions of classical IF. What do you think the Gate of Ivory is about? But of course I was dicking, as it were, around with the genre conventions with the light source and the "mazes" (although the Ostian sewers are kind of a maze, they're a very simple one, and they actually match up very well with the town overhead).
  • Dungeons and Dragons, Gygax et al. The thing is rife with D&D riffs, in both obvious and non-obvious ways, and in part that's tied back to the classical-IF thing. Text adventures were, after all, among other things, a way to play something a lot like D&D without having to assemble a group of people and a big block of time.

I also had very clear visual images for most of the characters. I don't know why Persephone is played by Dolly Parton in a white satin dress, but she most certainly is. Rachel is absolutely Jennifer Aniston in her Rachel role. Most of these characters--the ones who are public figures, anyway--are listed in the credits.

Graham is correct in his surmise on Emily's review: "I dare say much of Mr Thornton's household and acquaintance can be found in Mentula Macanus, if we but knew it." Cerberus, to take the most obvious example, is the three dogs I had throughout most of the game's writing:Vinnie, Golem, and Ursa. You can see them as Cerberus here (Ursa is on the left, Golem in the middle, Vinnie on the right, as you face them).

All this, of course, is circling around the heart of the story: intertextuality. It's not just Eliot. There's some of Gene Wolfe, and a little bit of Borges, and some Stealth Nabokov. There are nods and winks to all sorts of classical and post-classical IF. And sometimes there's just a Symbolist rendering of whatever random shit came into my head, like Stetson's Stone Snail "Speedy", or deciding to add the chick from the cover of Eldritch Wizardry only make her a priestess rather than the sacrifice (haven't found her yet? You know what XYZZY does? Have you tried disrobing in the very first scene?).

RELEASE ALONG WITH THE SOURCE CODE

I release the source to all my games. This one's no different. The code isn't pretty. In most cases that's my own fault, but then there are some things, like Pythonic indentation, that came along after the game was very largely developed. There are a lot of objects that should have inherited from kinds but didn't. It's not pretty, but it gets the job done.

Also, the map. It was important to me that the map the game produced be usable without any further editing. It is, although this required some scrambling quite late in the game when Graham rewrote the mapper in 5Z71 (at least, I think that was the release).

Quixe is just plain cool. Thanks, Zarf.

FAVORITE EASTER EGGS

There are two pieces of implementation I'm especially proud of. One is the ledger in the Hotel Metropole, and the other is the gaming table. At the gaming table, have you tried rolling 1d20 until you get a 1, as Stiffy? And have you tried taking your own figurine? The ledger I leave to you, gentle reader. Or you could, you know, read the source and see what I like.

THANKS

Again, thanks to all my testers for bearing with me for so long. And thanks to Amy for putting up with this thing for so very long.

IN MEMORIAM

Gin Rosenkranz was one of my early testers and a good friend of mine, who died of cancer while the game was being developed. Vinnie, as mentioned, appears as the left head of Cerberus. I miss them both.

Adam

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July 2016

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