Cragne Manor

by Jenni Polodna and Ryan Veeder, interviewed by Sam Neils.

Q: First of all, tell us a little about yourselves.

RYAN: I’m from Waterloo, Iowa. I hold a Master of Arts in Linguistics from the University of Iowa. I make interactive fiction (IF), design trivia events, and do other game design-type stuff.

JENNI: I’m originally from Racine, Wisconsin and have approximately seventeen thousand college credits for which I have received one associates degree in, what I believe they call,  “liberal arts.” I design the beginnings of games in various engines (including “physical board game”) and every once in a while actually complete one. For a while I maintained a popular IF review blog called Pissy Little Sausages. My favorite kringle flavor is almond.

Q: What is your history with interactive fiction, and what inspired you to begin developing it?

R: I played IF on and off for years, and every time I wanted to get back into it, I had to redownload all the relevant software. In 2011, I mistakenly downloaded Inform 7 thinking it was an IF interpreter. It turned out to be an IDE so I started making games. I know how fake this sounds.

J: It sounds pretty fake, but it’s also the kind of story no one would think to make up, so I believe Ryan. Also I believe Ryan in general, because trust is an important component of a collaborative partnership. I got into IF when I was a child in the 80s with access to an IBM compatible PC, and one day my mom’s favorite accounting student, Sue Schmeckel, gave me two longboxes of 5.25″ floppy disks full of shareware, some of which was homebrew parser IF.

Then I forgot all about it until 2008, when Cragne’s own Riff Conner, with whom I cohabitated at the time, said, “By the way, people have been continuing to make parser games for the past twenty years. There is a yearly competition for them. We should play all of the comp games and blog about our opinions.” And I said, “Cool” (I’m heavily paraphrasing here). It was fun and people were very encouraging about my blog, so I started reviewing the comp every year.

R: Jenni and I got to be friends after IFComp 2011, and in 2014 we started a podcast where we play text adventures with their authors. It’s called “Clash of the Type-Ins,” but we haven’t recorded an episode in a while.

J: We should probably record an episode, yeah. Ryan is being humble about mentioning that we became friends after IFComp 2011. I said a lot of nice things about his game Taco Fiction, which won first place that year, because it is excellent.

Q: In regards to Cragne Manor itself, what inspired you to make it, and how much do you believe you’ve borrowed from Anchorhead?

R: JUNE 19, 2018 – I was talking to Jenni about a really dumb idea for an IF tournament that would require very specific and objective rating criteria. We were trying to come up with a goal that you could say one game succeeded at more than its opposing game. We were talking about writing homages to classic games, what games had anniversaries coming up, and Anchorhead when Jenni said:

J: “What if you had everybody make one room of an Anchorhead.”

R: And I said, “Wha;akahga,” and just freaked out about what a good idea that was for a while. Then we started drafting the rules for how that would work.

Because I designed the game’s map and decided roughly what kind of location each room should be, I was able to ensure that no matter what people wrote, the game would end up being a fairly recognizable funhouse mirror version of Anchorhead. Most authors were excited about doing specific homages, and I tend to think basically every salient element of the original game is present in Cragne Manor in some form.

J: I don’t think there’s a rowboat? But yes, basically.

Q: What was your reasoning behind making this a community effort?

J: As Ryan explained in the previous question, we were already thinking in terms of what we could do for a competition or a jam or a tribute album, so actually the collaborative aspect was the very first restriction that shaped the idea. I hadn’t thought about that before; it all happened really organically.

R: The prospect of combining however many people’s work into a single completely nonsensical game was what made me go, “Wha;akahga,” and get to work outlining the project right away. Only a few days after that conversation, we had a strong idea of how the whole thing would work and were ready to put out a call for contributors.

Q: What were some of the challenges behind having so many people work on Cragne Manor? What did it add to the project?

J: There were two main families of challenge. First, there was the communication effort involved in making sure everyone knew what was expected of them and that everyone was sending us updates. We had a weekly check-in policy (Ryan’s idea) where authors were nudged to send in the newest version of their code or an email stating that there was no newest version of their code.

These weekly reports allowed us to talk to the authors about reducing their scope or adapting unworkable puzzle ideas into workable puzzle ideas, and I think (hope) that it made the authors feel like we were invested in their progress. Almost everyone who signed up ultimately sent us a functional or near-functional room, and I would credit the weekly check-in policy for a large part of that.

The second variety of challenge was highly technical and specific to the Inform 7 programming language: We had to make sure everyone’s code was quarantined to their own room. For example, an author who meant to say, “Instead of going east from the Thicket, say ‘The brambles are too thick'” could easily omit the “from the Thicket” part — because most people are used to their one-room games not impacting other rooms with mysterious code they can’t see, in which case no one will be able to go east from any room in the game. There were so many interactions like this and several of them we did not anticipate until the compiler started yelling.

As for what having so many distinct voices added to the project, I’d say it didn’t add to the project; it was the core of the project. We tried to let everybody do exactly what they wanted to do without creative restrictions. They got very into expressing themselves at the peak of whatever style they were aiming for, and the contributions they sent in were so good and varied and distinctive that the dynamic between them became the crux of what Cragne Manor is. I genuinely don’t know how to conceive of a version of this game written by a single author; I literally don’t know what that even looks like. Probably not as good.

R: Wouldn’t a version of this game written by a single author just be Anchorhead? I thought it was pretty good.

J: Oh yeah! Let’s just do that next time. By which I mean, “Passively let Anchorhead already exist.”

Q: What was the process behind making so many creative visions fit together cohesively?

R: Like Jenni said, we wanted to dictate people’s creative contributions as little as possible, to maximize the phantasmagoriac-collage effect of the final product. But in order for there to be a playable game, we had to design the game’s map (therefore dictating how everybody’s rooms connected to other people’s rooms), and we had to design at least the skeleton of how puzzles and progression would work (therefore dictating that your room might need to have a key, or it might need to somehow provide the player with a library book). It was a lot like doing the top-level design of a normal game and then not having to do the tedious work of actually implementing that design—although there ended up being plenty of new and exciting work for us to do.

Anyway we weren’t concerned at all with it being cohesive.

J: “Phantasmagoriac” is a very good word. Also, what he said.

Q: How challenging was it to create a cohesive narrative?

R: We didn’t!!!

J: We didn’t. So, okay, here is a thing I want to talk about in the context of “what helped Cragne succeed,” which I haven’t brought up very often, because I don’t want to downplay how incredibly difficult the project was and the sheer amount of work Ryan and I had to do to pull it off. It was a lot (Everything about Cragne is a lot. If you go to the dictionary and look up “alot” it will redirect you to “a lot,” next to which you will find a screenshot of Cragne Manor).

All that being said, one reason Cragne exists as a finished product is that Ryan and I were able to avoid a ton of extra work by simply not attempting to create a cohesive narrative. For one thing, the game is partially non-linear in the style of a Metroidvania, which in itself constitutes a toughish challenge if your goal is to convey a linear narrative. Even more importantly, we wanted to leave the story beats and characters – even the characterization of the protagonist – completely at the discretion of the authors.

The overall plot then becomes a more emergent-narrative-style epic saga of Naomi Cragne that encounters story beats and set pieces in a player-determined order, and I think that actually works more often than it doesn’t work.

People have expressed that they find the ending mildly anticlimactic because it’s not the culmination of an overarching and escalating fiction plot thread. However, I don’t currently know how we’d address this without designing and enforcing a narrative structure like we did with the puzzle structure, and I’m perfectly happy with not having done that. The ending is understated, and I like it.

Q: If given the opportunity, would you do something like this again?

R: Now that Cragne Manor is done, I don’t know if there’s anything to be gained from doing it again. Our “goal” was, “Wouldn’t this be cool? We should try it!” So we tried it, and it turned out to be cool.

J: We talked about this immediately after the game shipped: if or when we would ever feel like doing this again. The date we came up with (completely arbitrarily?) was “six years from now.” That being said, I also felt like the game turned out better than it had any right to, and I was perfectly okay having made it and never trying to make one again.

R: I mean, if we come up with something else that’s similarly ridiculous and ambitious but too exciting to ignore, I think the success of this ridiculous ambitious project – which on its face was clearly a terrible idea – is evidence that we should go ahead and do it.

J: Okay, yes, absolutely – if we have another “this idea is so good, now we have cursed ourselves into actually having to do it,” then we have to do it; QED. And I’m confident in our ability to make something just as good, if not better. I guess what I want to say is, there’s no other impetus except having an amazing idea for a similar game that would compel me to want to make Cragne Manor 2: A Manor for Cragnes.

Q: How did you clear up any puzzles that didn’t make sense?

J: After we had gotten everyone’s room into the game, I did a playthrough of each puzzle, attempting to consult the source code as little as possible. If I couldn’t figure out what to do or found something confusing, I went back into the source code and added hints.

Mostly I tried to do this as unobtrusively as I could by matching the author’s prose style, but there were a few instances of heavy-handedness, e.g., “HEY I bet you could FEED THIS TO A GOAT!” I stand by each and every one of these. The player has eighty-four rooms to get through, and it’s better for everyone – including the later rooms’ authors – if they can chug through them smoothly without too much artificial difficulty that’s not part of the puzzles.

R: I was totally ready for the game to be unplayably hard and deeply unfair, so the fact that everyone finished the game is something I cannot share credit for with Jenni at all.

J: We mostly agreed about what this game ought to be, but difficulty was the one big point on which we differed. I got very invested in the game being playable, which created an immense amount of work and caused me great personal suffering. I think it was worth having done that however, because someone referred to the game as “surprisingly playable,” and you have no idea how gratifying that felt. I think the emotion I’m describing here is a form of Stockholm syndrome. If any time travelers are reading this, please send a helicopter into the fall of 2018 and get me out.

Q: How difficult was this project to manage from an artistic perspective? How much time did it take to edit and revise?

J: Other than the initial prompt to make something vaguely reminiscent of Anchorhead, we didn’t provide artistic direction at all. Our goal was to stitch together a bizarre patchwork quilt of styles and influences. The resulting game is actually more cohesive than we were expecting it to be!

R: Most of the difficulty for us was managing the technical aspects, which I guess bled into the artistic aspects a little bit. We put a lot of work into composing guidelines that would help authors write code for us to stitch together into one big game; then we did even more work dealing with technical problems we hadn’t foreseen (and authors who ignored the guidelines).

J: If you add up design work (which was Ryan’s baby), writing documentation, sending out emails, troubleshooting code, getting things to compile, translating non-Inform 7 design documents into working Inform 7 code, testing and smoothing out the puzzle difficulty (which was my baby), we probably both spent… I am going to say somewhere between two hundred and five hundred hours for each of us. Ryan, is that accurate or am I completely making up numbers?

R: I really don’t know. I am hesitant to put an upper limit on any estimate. Also, the way that list is formatted, you can interpret everything after “design work” as your baby. I want the people reading this to know that the stuff in the middle were our babies, together.

J: Okay, absolutely, my intent was to call out our two specific babies and imply that everything else was a joint baby, but I recognize how that is ambiguous. We both did a lot of work and a lot of it was the kind of work where you’re making something seamlessly function the way it ought to function, so by the time the user sees it, all of your work is invisible. If anyone reading this is thinking about running a similar collaborative project, don’t do it for the accolades; do it because it’s a cool idea that you want to see exist in the world.

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