Read Between the Tropes: A Postmortem

Posted by (twitter: @crowbeak)
May 2nd, 2014 8:44 pm

At the end of last Ludum Dare, I decided that much as I like the enchant.js library, I don’t want to use it for another LD until they fix the glaring problem with sound and Firefox, which is that if you have sound, the game won’t load — it freezes about 3/4 of the way through. I decided to switch to Phaser, a popular library that looks quite promising. Shortly thereafter, however, Limb Clock and I decided to collaborate on a Twine game for this Ludum Dare and I didn’t end up learning Phaser, instead starting on a Twine project to help my students with their English.

Unfortunately, due to family obligations, the collaboration fell through. For now, anyway. But that left me in a pickle. I didn’t want to use enchant, I had no clue how to use Phaser, and although I could do a Twine game anyway by myself… I kinda didn’t wanna with Beneath the Surface as the theme.

On the first day, I came up with an idea for the theme and went to work trying to implement it in Phaser. It didn’t work. It was demoralizing and I ended up spending several hours playing Minecraft with my best friend instead, then putzing around after he went to bed (since he’s in Alaska to my Japan). I eventually decided to go Twine after all, but… but… theme?!

It came to me late, after midnight and before I went to bed, that I could do a Twine game which, ultimately, is about the use of tropes. Tropes, for those who are unaware, are narrative devices used commonly enough in storytelling that writers can reasonably expect their patterns to be familiar to readers/watchers/players. They’re really fascinating, and at risk of you clicking the link and never coming back to finish reading my postmortem (because this web site is the greatest time sink in the history of the internet), I recommend checking out TV Tropes for more information. It’s called TV Tropes because it started out being just about television tropes, but has since expanded to cover ALL the tropes.

Anyway, I realized that tropes basically float beneath the surface of stories helping the writer make their point, whether the tropes are used in the regular fashion or averted. They’re not exactly building blocks, though they are tools, and my initial goal was to write a Twine game that would explore tropes about Alaska, Japan, and space. I was raised in Alaska, live and work in Japan, and have been fascinated by space since I was young. So before I slept on the first day, I created a Twine file, put together the first few passages, and posted this screenshot on Twitter:

Read Between the Tropes, first draft

When I got up the next day, I still didn’t get to work immediately. I was still demoralized. Over the course of the day, I came up with the idea of doing not just trope- and cliche-ridden versions, but following them up by asking the player if they wanted to learn more about what those places are really like and cut out space altogether. I started on Japan first (just because) and decided to have two tracks, one for being a mech pilot and one for being what I called a magical guardian — a magical girl, essentially, but I wanted to be gender neutral. That led me to wanting to do both adolescent and adult versions of both and that was where I realized my scope was going to get out of hand if I didn’t pull on the reins right away.

In the end, I ended up cutting out Alaska, taking out any references to Japan (or any other country, for that matter), didn’t get any adolescent branches in, and still barely finished the second major branch of the story in time to submit for the jam. After only getting four hours of sleep the next night. What the player now sees as their first choice of the game is this:

Read Between the Tropes, LD Final

Both of these lead to stories about adults, each of which has two endings. Most of the passages (story chunks) that the player goes through add one or more tropes to a list behind the scenes and that list is shown to the player at the end of the game along with a recommendation that they look up the tropes they got.

I like this game and am already working on a post-compo version which will have expanded/improved versions of the existing branches and also an adolescent branch that starts in a high school. If you want to try the LD version, the entry page is heeya!

Without further ado, here are some bullet points listing some things I’m taking away from this Ludum Dare.

The Good

  • People like it! One person told me she wants to know more about the backstory of the mech branch and another said that they had TV Tropes up in another browser window and tried to guess what tropes they were getting when they played (a meta game I may suggest to people at the beginning in the post-compo version).
  • I’m pretty happy with the quality of the writing.
  • I’m now more familiar with how to use Twine, which will help with the aforementioned project for my students.
  • I nipped scope creep in the bud. \o/

The Bad

  • I should have just stuck with Twine from the start instead of diverting to Phaser. I wasted more than a full day because of trying and the demoralizing effects of failing.
  • Developing this game required me to immerse myself in the time-sucking mire of TV Tropes. I dunno how much time I spent on the web site instead of writing, but it was a significant chunk. Not good for a game jam. xD

The Hmm

  • The Mech Pilot (MP) branch has been universally more well-liked than the Magical Guardian (MG) branch. I have to agree that it is the better of the two. I feel like it’s better written in terms of allowing and reacting to player choice. It was the first one completed and was not rushed like the MG branch.
  • On a related note, there are more passages in the MG branch than in the MP branch and those passages have a higher average word count. I think there are two reasons for that. Firstly, I needed to describe an underground magical environment. Second, without the time to work out better player choice options, I may have subconsciously tried to compensate by fleshing things out more.

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