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Pas De Deux postludium

Mild spoilers below.

A clandestine reunion

When a text adventure ends, where do the NPCs go? It's easy to imagine them stuck forever in their hardcoded locations, occasionally blinking and rumbling through their possessions on a fixed schedule. But what if they decide to move on? What if they relocate to a different town, start taking violin lessons, and join a community orchestra?

Most of the musicians in Pas De Deux are original characters, but eleven of them are cameo appearences from recent and/or canonical works of IF. Some are pretty blatant, some are subtle, some are a bit of a stretch, and some require mind-reading capabilities. How many can you spot?

The cameos are either members of the orchestra, or people mentioned indirectly in descriptions. Most only draw attention to themselves if you mis-cue a section. The number eleven does not include general references and in-jokes, such as the breakfast review and the featureless mahogany rod.

Choose your own parser

Several recent works of IF have been described as single-verb games. But in most of them—if not all—that's a single verb in addition to examine and go (in a direction). This creates a mode of interaction reminiscent of platform game mechanics, where you move around a map with a joystick, observe what's on-screen, and interact with objects through a single “fire” button.

Pas De Deux tries to take the single-verb concept one step further, by combining observation with action, and eliminating the need for navigation. In the real world, you generally cannot observe without being observed, and I thought it would be interesting to try to capture that in a parser game. But I also realized that it could potentially be a very frustrating mechanic, so the game had to be some kind of small, experimental set-piece, tightly focused on the concept of observing and being observed.

Inspiration struck, and I realized that a conductor simulator would check all these boxes: The events could take place in a single room, the game could be written around the single verb examine, the musicians would be reacting to your cues, but you'd also have something interesting to look at. There would be a different kind of movement (on rails), as you progressed through the music. As any timed puzzle, this automatic progression would be stressful, but that would heighten the realism, and you'd be able to conquer the stress by coming on stage well-prepared.

Meanwhile, I had been thinking about ways to improve the Dialog authoring tool, and I wanted to add support for hyperlinks and perhaps flirt a little with choice-based narration. This turned out to blend very well with the limited parser mechanic, because, newsflash, clicking on objects is essentially a one-verb interface. But Dialog is still a parser-game engine at heart, with a detailed world model under the hood, and there are some aspects of the traditional parser format that I really like, such as the fact that the author and the player are co-writing a linear transcript. By retaining the prompt, and treating links as shortcuts for typing in object names, I was able to create a hybrid interface that—in my opinion at least—fits this particular game very well.

This approach also makes it very easy to add easter eggs, which is another highlight of the parser format. Clicking is sufficient to get you through the game, but have you tried interacting with the environment in your own words? If not, you're missing out.

Look critically at puzzle

Originally, I was planning to support adverbs. This is a popular quote from Richard Strauss' Ten Golden Rules (for the album of a young conductor):

4. Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a brief glance to give an important cue.

My idea was to put this quote in the game, perhaps written on a crumpled piece of paper in the player character's pocket. The player would have to find it, and realize that adverbs could be used to add nuance to their actions, and that this would be necessary to reach the best ending.

But I eventually came to the conclusion that this was an overly ambitious idea, and scrapped it. I just couldn't figure out how one would improve the conducting by adding adverbs. It would certainly be possible to ruin the performance by looking at people in an inappropriate way, as the quote suggests. But for a plain look at, without an adverb, players would (rigthfully) assume that the player character, an experienced conductor, would act in a reasonably sensible way. So in addition to the extra implementation work, it would have been a very unfair puzzle.

The reader gives you a confounded look

Pas De Deux tries to be a lot of things: Simulation game, loving portrait, light-hearted comedy, tragedy, farce, interface experiment, technical showpiece, IF in-joke extravaganza, timed puzzle, and music appreciation class. It can be approached as casual entertainment, or as a taxing puzzle, as a choice game or a parser game, with or without feelies. I naïvely expected this to make the game appealing to many different people, allowing each reader to home in on the aspect of the work that they would appreciate the most. Instead, it caused a lot of confusion and made the game overwhelming.

I've come to appreciate that readers are flexible and accommodating, and try to adapt themselves to the game they're playing. For instance, some readers latch on to the fact that there's a puzzle, and try really hard to solve it, even if they perhaps would have enjoyed the game better by going on a leisurely wiki-walk through the interpersonal relations of the orchestra members. So, as a game designer, perhaps it's better to strive to do one thing, do it well, and allow the players to adapt.

So, for instance, an unintended consequence of including a PDF version of the score was that some players became determined to understand it fully in order to solve the puzzle. But there's a much simplified version of the score inside the game world, with text that more or less spells out what you need to do in each bar. If you have the in-game score open on the right page, the game will helpfully indicate the current bar for you. So for these unfortunate readers, the feelies actually made the game harder than it would have been without them.

On the other hand, this is the kind of puzzle for which it really is a good idea to take notes. And I still think it's a good thing if the game provides a template for those notes, with an overview of the structure of the music. A hardcopy of the score provides such a template, and is much more aesthetically and thematically pleasing than a plain grid with bar numbers. So I don't know. Is a smooth playing experience more important than a strong, consistent theme?

Another problem with trying to please everybody, for this game in particular, is that you can't solve the puzzle and explore the backstory on the same playthrough. If you focus on the character descriptions, you won't have time to keep up with the music, and you won't be able to nail the cues. That may not seem like a big deal on the surface, because you can always replay, but I think there's a critical failure on my part here: A reader who cares about the NPCs and wants to learn more about them, is more likely to also empathize with them, and therefore to be uncomfortable with being a terrible conductor. It's simply not enjoyable to let the musicians down, unless you think of the whole thing as an abstract game (or farce)—but in that case, you have no reason to care deeply about the characters, and their descriptions are mostly a distraction.

Towards tedium

Assuming you decide to tackle the puzzle, your experience of Pas De Deux will likely be a two-stage affair. In the first stage, you figure out what you're supposed to do, and how. This can be overwhelming at first, but it's generally an enjoyable process of exploration and discovery. In the second stage, you meticulously work your way through the score, being careful to hit all the cues while also searching the text for important changes.

But this second stage is inherently tedious. Tedium can be acceptable in a game, I think, but a transition from enjoyable exploration to tedium is less forgivable. I was aware of this design problem when I released the game, but I don't think it can be fixed without a major overhaul. Undo helps, but then you're kind of cheating, so you don't get to feel clever.

I was striving to create something like Varicella or Make it good, where you work hard to piece together a tight masterplan, and get a great feeling of accomplishment afterwards. But in Pas De Deux, the plan is already laid out for you, and it's quite linear. If you just make sure to turn the pages as early as you can, then all you have to do is follow the instructions. The sleeping tuba adds some zest, and hopefully the descriptions of the music are enjoyable to read, but on the whole I can see how the game turns into a pretty boring grind, once the initial phase of discovery is over.

Flowers and encores

And yet, for all its flaws, I'm happy with how the game turned out. It has a character of its own, a strong integrity, and it deserves to exist on its own terms.

I wasn't able to please everybody, and somebody even saw fit to put in a 1-vote. But I take that in good spirit, and consider myself in excellent company. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major, by now widely acclaimed and loved, was described in a contemporary review as “music that stinks to the ear” where the violin is “pulled, torn, drubbed”. The critic in my game (did you examine him?) is more subtle in his vitriol, but he never gives unreserved praise, even in a five-baton review.

He, however, is a caricature and a stock character. On the whole, the IF community absolutely shines at giving friendly, constructive feedback, and I have been thrilled to read every word written about Pas De Deux over the past month and a half, positive or negative.

I have received some excellent suggestions for improvements, and I plan to do a post-comp release. I also intend to publish the complete source code, as the first public example of a relatively large Dialog game.

But first, let me just get these chairs and stands off the stage, so I can go home and get some sleep.

Linus Åkesson, November 2019

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