Redstone Postmortem

by Fred on Nov 22, 2017

Redstone finished 33rd in this year's IFComp. All things considered, I'm happy with the outcome. There were a lot of amazing entries this year, and there are plenty of ways that Redstone (and Gamefic itself) could be improved.

The Framework

Even though Gamefic has been in development for quite a while, it's still very much a work in progress. I developed Redstone using version 2, which has not been officially released yet. (It has a branch on GitHub, but the gem is still at version 1.7.0.) On a positive note, it's much more mature than it was when I entered Second Story in 2015.

There were a lot fewer bugs in Redstone than Second Story. Most notably in Second Story, there was a parser bug that resulted in a frustrating guess-the-verb problem during an otherwise simple puzzle. Although the parser has improved drastically since then, it was largely a non-issue this year because of Redstone's point-and-click interface. Speaking of which...

The Interface

In Redstone's description for IFComp, I called it a "parser/choice hybrid." A reviewer at said it wasn't accurate. From a player's perspective, he's right. Most people would probably expect a hybrid to be some combination of both command input and choice selection. Instead, all of the commands are entered by clicking words to combine them.

"Hybrid" is a little more accurate from a development perspective. The game uses a full-blown parser under the hood. There's a component above the parser that analyzes the game state to generate a list of relevant commands. The user interface takes the list and turns it into a set of buttons. If that custom control were replaced with a text field, the same engine would parse the user's input instead.

I like the general idea behind the interface, and I especially like the fact that it works well in a responsive design. Nevertheless, it could benefit from a few improvements. Some of the problems I'd like to address:

  • Button overload. It's very easy for the controls to get overcrowded with buttons given too many verbs and objects. This wasn't a big problem in Redstone most of the time, but only because its world is relatively small.
  • Hidden commands. One of my tricks to limit the number of buttons was to provide additional commands related to an object after the player interacted with it in some other way. For example, you might need to EXAMINE a container before you get the option to OPEN it. This might have caused some unnecessary confusion.
  • Clunky movement. Moving around the casino can be slow and tiresome. Multiple playtesters suggested an option to GO immediately to locations you've already visited. I agreed, but didn't have time to implement it before the deadline.
  • Transcripts. I'd also like to add an option to scroll backwards through the message history. In the current implementation, the player can only see the text related to the most recent action.

The Illustrations

Long story short: I did the best I could.

I had originally hoped to find a collaborator for the illustrations, but wound up doing them myself. I can only hope that most people considered them amateurish instead of infantile. I also think the layout of pictures in relation to text could be improved.

The Writing

I think I went too sparse with it. Many descriptions could have used more detail. I don't think there were many technical or grammar errors, but I belatedly found a scene with a verb tense disagreement.

The Story

(Minor spoilers lie ahead.)

The mystery itself is too simple. There are over a dozen characters, but only two are ever treated as viable suspects. I could have added some interesting complexity by casting suspicion on some of the others. The waiter, Glen Reed, the poker dealer, and Kat are all possible candidates. At the very least, there could have been options to ask Reed and the dealer for their alibis.

Depending on the player's route through the game, the mystery can become even simpler. If you talk to Kat before you start checking alibis, you can eliminate one of the suspects without even interviewing him.

There's an unfortunate wart in the cheater hunt. After you agree to the hunt, the security guard stops talking to you until you find the cheater. I originally did it that way because of a technical limitation in subplots. The limitation is gone, but I never fixed the wart.

I'm mostly happy with my implementation of the THINK command, with one exception: it was one of the few places where I exposed too much detail instead of too little.

I could have created more tension by giving more time to the locals' concerns about federal intrusion. Maybe have an agent arrive at some point to heighten the sense of a looming deadline.

In the end, it's been a great experience. If nothing else, it's inspired me with a few new ideas. Once again, many thanks to my playtesters. They were instrumental in finding a few nasty bugs and helping me add a bit of polish. Not everything I learned made it into Redstone before the competition, but I hope to use those lessons in upcoming projects.

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