interactive fiction · Post · Postmortem · Videogames

PILGRIMAGE postmortem

Pilgrimage is my first finished interactive fiction, a parser-based videogame programmed with Inform 7. You can play it for free here at the Interactive Fiction Database.

Cover art by Ara Carrasco (@aracarrascoart)

It was born as an evolution of a puzzle designed for another game. In that game, you explored a picturesque Tuscan town filled with arcane secrets. Think Umberto Eco. After cheating your way into a church, you found a complex mosaic depicting a Renaissance mapa mundi.

In the late Middle Ages, the shape and size of the world were an intellectual battlefield. The dying Medieval thinking saw the world as an ideal, in a way, a representation of something, the symbol of a symbol. The growing Empiricism of the Renaissance saw it as something more earthly and mostly unknown – and that knowledge had to come via exploration and observation, true to scientific method, rather than via revelation and the constant appeal to authoritative opinions.

Also, I love maps.

So in that minigame the player was supposed to immerse herself in the mosaic and make a sort of symbolic pilgrimage, journeying through an imagined Christendom within the map – a map within a single room of the game map, hence a game within a game. It soon became too complex in its own right to be just a puzzle, but the idea remained. For Pilgrimage, I basically took it and blew it up into a shortish game of its own.


Designing Pilgrimage, juggling meanings

The first thing I designed was the map, and the way the player was to navigate it. It will have exactly 12 rooms, in a 8-point-star shape. One reason was that it was a pun on the final destination – Castrostelle, or “fortress of stars”. Another one: it neatly divided the scenario in 4 sections, which I wanted to use for reasons I’ll explain below, and also force the player to return to certain scenarios after having had certain experiences. I wanted to infuse the game with a sense of ritual, something reminiscent of a procession following a certain pace from stage to stage, tracing a geometric figure (abstract, like maps) over a non-geometrical landscape (“real”, like a game environment). A via crucis of sorts.

Maybe I should clarify that Pilgrimage was never meant to have any religious meaning at all. It does have baseline Catholic undertones because I wanted to keep a sense of historical credibility, and it features alchemical themes because I wanted to use them in a Jungian context, as metaphors for the self and the nekya, the “night-sea voyage of the soul” towards wholeness.

That constitutes the first layer of meaning/possible interpretation.

Pilgrimage is a game about a Renaissance noblewoman who leaves home on a… pilgrimage, of a strictly personal nature, to which she is completely devoted. Her priorities and faith do fluctuate a lot during the game.

The most obvious way in which this is shown is via the titles of the four chapters (nigredo, albedo, citrinitas and rubedo), which follow the four steps of the alchemical process. Jung interpreted them as being stages in the process of “individuation”. So we are symbolically traveling through Europe, and symbolically following our heroine’s (anima?) psychological evolution, step by step. The nigredo phase is characterized by night, darkness and decay, exemplified by the rotting whale in the Scandinavian coasts. Albedo is the white chapter, white as the snow-covered steppes, and citrinitas is the yellow “dawn of the soul” in a warm-coloured, Orientalist-tinged East, and the encounter with the Wise Old Man, under the guise of a ragged lunatic. Rubedo is the final, red phase, complete with a not very subtle resurrection metaphor. The goal (Castrostelle) is code for the wholeness of the soul.

The second layer of meaning has more to do with the largely unexplained past of the protagonist. In this other dimension, the fours stages correspond with her grieving process – denial, anger, bartering and depression. The endgame (Castrostelle) is, of course, acceptance. Our heroine goes obliviously through the first chapter, becoming bitter and nastier in the second, doing her own reckoning of all these years in the third, and becoming totally demoralized in the fourth.

Accordingly, she is casually manipulative in the first episode and reckless in the second one. The third one opens with the Scheherazade scene, in which I force the player to remember her adventures, and the protagonist to reflect morally on them. It is in itself a process of bartering – with the Sultan for her own life, and with herself for the validation and will to keep on living. After reaching Rome for the second time, she despairs of ever finding any meaning to her life and travels. Her loss is, after all, irreplaceable. It takes a symbolic death to achieve a symbolic rebirth and ascension.

In both interpretations, Castrostelle is sketchily represented as a fortified Tuscan town, but it stands for a “motherland of the soul”, a geographic cipher for a state of mind. In a similar way, perhaps, to how Medieval theologists saw Jerusalem as a superposition of the actual kingdom in Palestine and a analog for the final triumph of their god.

They need not be exclusive. In any case – and this seems to be a constant in my writing -, she is 

arriving at Place
looking for Something.


And there are many other interesting ones, of course, that I never thought about, at least consciously. For instance, one learned reader/player has suggested that the protagonist is actually a representation of the devil, or some sort of evil spirit, leaving chaos and destruction in her wake. I find other explanations very intriguing, and would love to hear more – perhaps they can illuminate some of the hidden reasons of both author and reader.

So how much did I actually manage to achieve, you say?

What went right

* I DID submit it
As explained, one of my main goals when submitting something to the IFComp was Submitting Something. That means I have something to show people, and a source of feedback and interaction. I had already spent way too much time developing things alone, and losing perspective of what was working and what was not. Pilgrimage being done, rather than perfect, was a good call. It has been an important milestone for me personally.

* The writing
By far the most consistent feedback I’ve received is that the writing does its job. My fondest IF-related experience of all times is watching 20+ people play Pilgrimage and enjoy the story despite the many technical flaws and oversights. To see people connect with the writing so much was a big boost, and also an incredible source of feedback.

* The geographical aspect
Many players liked the fact that each movement implied long journeys between loosely described regions instead of “rooms” or similarly discrete units of space. They also enjoyed that the spatial relationship between rooms/regions corresponded to real geography (Roughly. Cambodia is not quite north-east of Palestine, but GPS was quite shitty back in the day). This was not quite premeditated, so I have to confess it came as a [pleasant] surprise.

* The cover
Ara Carrasco’s (@aracarrascoart) cover art for Pilgrimage is simple, eye-catching and doubles as a map for the whole game. To me it also epitomises the ancient but minimalistic feel I wanted to achieve with the game. Many people gave Pilgrimage a try on the strength of that picture alone.

* The testing (what little I could afford)
I did have three amazing testers who found many bugs and pointed to less-than-optimal interactions and implementations. Unfortunately, I was running out of time and could only give them a preliminary version of the game. They never had a chance of spotting the many bugs that I introduced with the last build, and so they remained. “Do not charge them with the responsibility”, etc. Yet the game is much better thanks to the ones they actually had the chance to spot, and did actually spot brilliantly.

What went wrong

* Very little time for testing
As previously said (and pointed out in many constructive reviews), Pilgrimage needed a final review for which we never had the time. Most notorious of all bugs is the one that allows you to finish the game from the first room. Some would call it a feature, but it’s entirely my fault.

* Rushed design/implementation
This is where my lack of experience in game design showed more glaringly. After teaching the player to use low-level interactions on a grand voyage measure in years and thousands of kilometres (READ BOOK, TAKE RUBY, or the infamous KISS SAILOR), some puzzles suddenly require high-level interactions (i.e. BURN CHURCH, which implies the use of three different items for which no other, lower-level interaction is implemented).

The lunatic puzzle has proven to be specially controversial. In this puzzle, basically you have to toggle between the three personalities of the lunatic in order to achieve your goal. The problem starts with communication: the player has no way of knowing what to do until she receives the Blessing of Babylon. Once done, BLESS LUNATIC toggles him between personalities. The pilgrim persona reacts to the scallop shell (the traditional symbol of the Compostelan pilgrims), but he’s too hungry to care – and he’s not going to eat raw meat, so the player needs to toggle to the animal persona, feed him and bring him back to his pilgrim personality before completing the puzzle.

Something went awry with the walkthrough, with many players saying they couldn’t finish the game because the commands didn’t work in the proper order. This is a double problem: not only was the walkthrough apparently wrong, but it also implies that they didn’t understand the puzzle logic. Had this puzzle been well communicated, any player who understood the underlying mechanic would have been reasonably able to solve it even with disordered hints. This was quite a shame, since this was the puzzle I was the most satisfied with, in terms of blending game logic and narrative.

* Management of player’s expectations
The management of player’s expectations was a bit haphazard as well. The black chapter enforces a strictly onwards progression, gating everything and not letting the player move on until each room is completed, and then preventing backtracking. The white and yellow chapters allow free movement, but only following a certain sequence, in keeping this the ceremonial feel of the game. The final red chapter goes back to railroaded movement. When designing this, I thought it was better to restrict movement at the beginning (when the player could potentially be at a loss as where to go) and at the end (since the player is already rushing towards the endgame and the story has no use for diversions). What really seemed to happen is that players got used to being railroaded and felt a bit lost when they were not, being unsure as to whether they had missed some object/interaction in previous rooms.

As a related problem, some objects (as the scallop shell and the yoni) were obscured as part of the descriptions for scenery that was mentioned only en passant (the beach in Jerusalem and the temple in Angkor). Probably because players had not been taught to be so inquisitive over apparently small details in previous chapters, they didn’t feel the game was expecting them to EXAMINE BEACH and EXAMINE TEMPLE.

What’s next

I am planning a new release to address as many of these issues as possible and try to do a better Pilgrimage. It will have to wait, though, until I finish the current work on two projects. One is releasing on Steam in early January and the other one is aiming for March, so chances are I will be too busy until then.

Thanks for reading, and now go give it a try here!

** Blessings of Babylon **