Ariadne in Aeaea · Post · Postmortem · Videogames

Ariadne in Aeaea postmortem

Ariadne in Aeaea is a parser-based game created with Inform 7, which placed 12th in IFComp 2016. It follows the exploits of the mythological Ariadne, as a rather mundane priestess in training in the fictional but non-mythological setting of a small Aegean island.

You can play it online clicking here, or read on for a long discussion of its inspiration, development and analysis.


In the beginning: Ariadne as archetype
For many years I have been rewriting a certain contemporary female detective.

As I made and remade her, she slowly morphed from a more idealised and younger woman to an older, wiser and world-wearier one, as she became more and more similar to myself in experiences and outlook. They say the first writings are always autobiographical, and once that essential, inner personal message has been communicated, perhaps the author feels freer to move on to broader topics. Personally, and in certain ways, I feel the process has been the opposite for me.

At some point, possibly influenced by Jung’s interpretations of mythology as an expression of the subconscious, I decided that Ariadne was just the name for the lady. If the anima is the female guide to the unknown, the priestess, the witch, the guardian of the inner mysteries, then who would be better than Ariadne, solver of labyrinths?

Since I love to do unnecessary background research (the most guilt-free form of procrastination), I decided I needed to know more about the mythological Ariadne. Naturally, she led me to Crete and the Minoan civilisation, of which I knew next to nothing. And of course I started getting interested in the historical angle, which shed a new light on the character of Ariadne – and as Jung would have it, every light inevitably casts a Shadow.

Slowly, I realised there was an intriguing story just there – not in Ariadne as a mere reference to a vague mythological archetype, but in her as forgotten historical character.

A sequel to the prequel
I’ve always wanted to write historical fiction.

One way or another, I’ve always found myself writing something else. But invoked or not, the god always comes around. Or, as the Spanish saying goes, if you’re born to be a hammer, nails will rain down from the skies.

Ariadne and Theseus, Minoans and Achaeans, myth and History. In myth, Theseus, culture-hero of Athens, arrives in Crete to defeat the Minotaur with the help of Cretan Ariadne, whom he marries and subsequently abandons. In History, the Minoan civilisation dwindles just as the Achaean pre-Greeks enter the historical record in the Cretan palaces, perhaps around 1500 BC, before being wiped out by the enigmatic Sea Peoples three or four centuries later, at the closing of the Bronze Age. Enter the Greek Dark Ages and a long silence until Homer’s yarns.

In every account of Minoan religion, culture or language there is a leitmotiv of cultural layering: Greek civilisation is built so entirely upon Minoan foundations that we just can’t know for sure how much it owes to the forerunner culture it mimicked, then invaded, then digested. Apparently, much of what we know or think we know about pre-Greek Crete has been gleaned by studying Greek cultural elements and trying to guess the Minoan egg before the Achaean chicken.

The initial sequel: Mistress of the Labyrinth
As flawed as my non-archaeologist’s vision surely is, from the writerly point of view the narrative was clear: a vibrant, largely unknown civilisation on the verge of collapse, a succession of obscured historical passages disguised into myth, involving an invasion (Theseus’ expedition), political assassination (Asterion), dynastic shenanigans (queen Pasiphaë giving birth to a bastard, princesses Ariadne and Phaedra in some degree of collusion with the invaders) and the known outcome of cultural destruction.

From the beginning I knew I wanted the Minoan point of view: the Achaeans as encroaching uncultured invaders, Minos as a legal but narrow-minded king, Phaedra cast as a Quisling figure, Circe as the only competent politician with enough vision to identify the threat but ultimately incapable of turning the coming tide. In that scheme of things, Ariadne was to be the counterpoint to Theseus, the defeated and thus forgotten culture-heroine of Minoan Crete.

It was clear from the start that Ariadne had to be a priestess. Minoan religion and specially its matriarchal nature is maybe some of the most controversial aspects of Cretan archaeology, and I won’t go into much detail here. To use a more familiar comparison to western Europe, my Minoan priestesses behave and are treated as Renaissance Catholic bishops: materially wealthy, socially powerful, connected by extensive networks of lineage and influence, highly educated and wielding both considerable personal power and a ritual, legalistic claim to a higher power. That comparison brought me to the issue of centralised religion, which I pretty much made up and, crucially, became the hinge between Mistress of the Labyrinth and Ariadne in Aeaea. More on religious centralisation later.

Mistress of the Labyrinth was initially conceived as an Inform game. Once I started tinkering with Unity, I decided MOTL would actually work much better as a CYOA with some added worship/invocation mechanics, so I switched to developing in Ink. MOTL was designed as a very narrative-heavy game, with mostly social interaction, in the form of intrigue and political manoeuvring peppered with religion, some intimate asides and no direct violence whatsoever, which I thought were a fitting set of tools for a scheming priestess.
Back then my aim was to finish a first chapter for the IFComp.

Life happened, and by the time the IFComp deadline was looming closer, I realised I was nowhere near finishing the first scene of MOTL, let alone a first chapter that was meaty enough to be played as a standalone game and not feel like just a teaser.

So I made a prequel.

From Mistress of the Labyrinth to Ariadne in Aeaea
Making a prequel for a game which is perhaps 5% developed sounds like an… unsound idea, specially if the “original” (aka unmade) game is CYOA and the prequel is parser-based. Still, I wanted to submit something, I knew I could get something decent done quickly in Inform, I had plenty of time thanks to my new freelance life, and I already had a very clear picture of the background and lore of my world.

MOTL was set to begin with Ariadne’s arrival in Crete, sent in as Circe’s personal agent to investigate the comings and goings of the Achaeans. (A resolute princess on a diplomatic mission, her ship intercepted by evil forces, now that rings a bell, or rather a full-blown orchestra.). Because I didn’t want to start with a prologue but there was much to explain about Ariadne’s mission as well as her past, I planned on planting some flashbacks later on, once the action was well under way. That led me on the tangent of defining what sort of power was behind Ariadne and who she reported to: being a priestess, it seemed natural that she had to be a significant actor in her crumbling society rather than a purely isolated individual.

This is where centralised religion clicks in, something tangential to Mistress of the Labyrinth but central to Ariadne in Aeaea. Again according to myth, Circe (another enigmatic woman maligned by the Greeks) was supposed to be a powerful sorceress inhabiting a faraway island. Crucially, she was also a sister to Pasiphaë, and therefore Ariadne’s aunt. If Ariadne was a priestess and Circe had a witch’s reputation, the older woman might as well be a matriarch. If Minoan priestess are comparable to bishops, then Circe was a Pope and Aeaea were the Papal States, where she oversaw the formation and indoctrination of new priestesses, sent abroad to expand the power and influence of the sect.

So what was to be a flashback in MOTL became AiA: Ariadne’s teen years as a priestess in training in Circe’s sanctuary of Aeaea.

So now perhaps we can actually talk about the bloody game.

The making of Ariadne in Aeaea
I started designing Ariadne in Aeaea on the plane back to Manchester, on the 18th of September. I had exactly ten days, a solid historical setting and a reliable supply of caffeine and aspirins.

The initial idea was to depict Ariadne’s proper initiation, a ceremony/quest loosely based on the Eleusinian Mysteries: nighttime, revelry, many servings of the psychoactive drink known as kykeon, a descent into sacred caves where sacrifices are made and vows pronounced, then a hallucinatory underground trip filled with visions and weird stuff.

I scrapped that because it required way too much research. I settled for a more mundane coming of age story, which has been described somewhere as “millennial Ariadne versus baby boomer Circe”. It took some effort to push the urge to start coding away for the first few days, until the design of puzzles and scenarios was more or less complete. I am happy that I didn’t start coding scenarios and figure out puzzles later, as I tended to do in the past.

I have been immensely lucky with my testers. In many ways, AiA has been more thoroughly tested than Pilgrimage, even given the very short development time. The four of them were very thorough and specific in their feedback and I can’t thank them enough – and also apologise, since I jumped on them unannounced with a game they’d never heard of and that needed sudden, immediate testing. It has been pointed out in most reviews that the game had typos and punctuation mistakes. Yes, and they are all mine, both original and last-minute changes.

Without diminishing in any way the work of Ara, Matthew and Liz, I must specially thank Andrew Schultz, who appeared out of the blue and volunteered to test AiA. He provided not just many great insights, but also concrete coding advice, since he knows his Inform way better than me. AiA is a much sleeker game thanks to him.

Tone, comedy and sex
I didn’t plan AiA as a sort of comedy straight away. Many lines of dialogue and internal monologue which I wrote as placeholders (since I thought they were too silly) ended up being final text with just a few retouches because testers found them funny and I realised that maybe there was nothing wrong with being funny and light-hearted. Luckily I didn’t have much time, so I gave myself permission to leave those lines there. Had I had the time to replace them, the game would have been “more serious”. In retrospect, I don’t think AiA needs the gravitas I missed in the first days of development.

That made AiA an even more improbable prequel to the theoretically tragic MOTL, but I ended up liking that. In the bigger scheme of things, AiA clicks in as a welcome comic relief to Ariadne’s later and darker adventures. It also makes a point very close to my heart: that no matter the context, there is an inherent value in humour, wit and the enjoyment of life. If I was able to write Ariadne straight away without spending too much time on getting her voice right, it is precisely because I identify with her love of jokes, tricks, wordplay, food, wine and the pleasures of existence.

Which brings us to sex. I very nearly changed the starting scene, where the aftermath of sex is quite evident. I hesitantly left it as such, as a very obvious declaration not just of her personality but also of her culture.

Ariadne lives in a pre-Judaeo-Christian world where sex and drunkenness are not necessarily sins. Furthermore, she’s part of a sacred elite. The criticism she receives is either from the obviously adversarial and offensive Phaedra or the rather pragmatic Circe. The High Priestess’ point is not that Ariadne is a sinner/bad woman/whore as we could subconsciously expect from a senior priestess, but that she is being lazy and useless. Her long rant is meant to make it very clear for Ariadne that she is expected to be resourceful and cunning rather than virtuous – or more to the point, that “virtue” in her highly politicised context is akin to the Machiavellian “virtù”: not a state of moral perfection, but the skill and ability to Get Things Done.

As a foreshadowing of the intrigue she will be expected to engage in during the Achaean invasion, her sexual activity or preferences are way less important for her superiors than her political worth and potential. Perhaps this is my biggest gamble from the historical point of view: the way Circe and Ariadne are portrayed as self-aware, aggressive political players rather than pawns is well beyond the kind of power any woman would wield for millennia. Although risky, I felt it was a not unreasonable speculative statement for the closing years of a civilisation which was, possibly, the last matriarchal society in the west.

Language, dialog and characters
Personally, I am weary of two main tendencies when writing historical settings: the grandiloquent Tolkienesque yadda-yadda (because in ancient times people only talked in poetry and metaphor) and the Game of Thrones-wannabe fuck-this fuck-that fuck-your-mother-with-a-sword then burn her alive (because we are so grimdark and adult and omg back then everybody was violent and rapey). So the characters in AiA speak colloquially, which I guess it’s just as well, since my personal opinion is that people of all ages and eras would speak with a similar degree of casualness in their day-to-day business.

Ironically enough, the few specialised words here and there (potnia, Wanax, Wanassa, Potinija) are actually archaic Greek, which is the very last thing Ariadne or her colleagues would speak. They are there for flavour and because they are the best approximation I’ve been able to find. All the following is conjecture: Ariadne’s mother tongue is probably some sort of Eteocretan, Circe’s would possibly be some Eastern semitic language, and Satiah is a native Egyptian speaker. As far as I know none of them bear any resemblance to Greek. As highly educated women pertaining to a cosmopolitan elite, they probably speak some sort of Cretan-Egyptian lingua franca among themselves with loads of loan words and ceremonial nomenclature. Ariadne deals with the local populace more than usual for a priestess, so we can assume she knows a few words of the local dialect, which probably has no written form.

All of them can read and write Cretan hieroglyphs and Satiah (a stores supervisor, and one of the last women to hold an office job for the next three millennia) will use Linear A script daily for inventory purposes. As an Egyptian raised and educated in the Minoan cult in Avaris (in the Nile delta) and holding an administrative rank in Aeaea, she is a well-traveled expat, probably both proud of her achievements and slightly bemused by the weird attitude of her Keftiu (Cretan) peers.

Apart from the priestesses nobody is literate. The Peleset prostitute comes from somewhere in present-day Syria, and just like the Alassian (Cypriot) sailors, they probably speak a garbled mix of coastal languages that allows basic communication along the busy trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean. A priestess is mentioned by Satiah en passant as having been sent to Wilusha (Troy), where she presumably will have to learn whatever language the local aristocracy speaks, not necessarily similar to the tongue of their subjects.

What worked

* Designing before writing
This felt like a risky proposition, since the clock was ticking, but it paid off. I scrapped a lot of scenarios that seemed appealing at the beginning but for which I realised I had really no use once the story and puzzles were designed. I’m really happy I didn’t waste precious hours coding rooms and things that would finally not make it to the final version – or worse, would be included “because it’s a shame to leave them out” and only add clutter and confusion to the final result.

* The testing
As mentioned, this year I had dedicated testers and they somehow found the time to give lots of useful feedback within tight time constraints. Although listed as a win, this is also a cautionary tale to allow for more testing time next year. I don’t rely on getting this lucky twice in a row.

* The tone and voice
A bit unexpectedly, many players enjoyed the rather trivial adventures of a seventeen year old, hungover aristo who is not depicted negatively and gets no comeuppance at all. Although it’s written in second person, it’s as close to being first-person as I was able to write it, and there is little doubt the voice is that of Ariadne, cajoling and justifying and aggrandising and making excuses for herself all the time. It is a style I based partially on the digested ironic humour of Fallen London, with a few drops of Raymond Chandler. My concerns that people would be rubbed the wrong way by a trickster, promiscuous and roguish teenager who manages to get her way were mostly unfounded. A few women players did mention that they liked Circe better as a character. Old grumpy but immensely capable Circe is my favourite character indeed. On the other hand, it has been noted that Ariadne sounds too modern at times. Perhaps so, but I will happily sacrifice some “archaeo-cred” for audience appeal.

* The placing
I was secretly hoping for a top 20 position, having finished #43 in IFComp 2015. It was anybody’s guess, anyhow: I had no idea what sort of reception a game like this was going to have. I was afraid the parser crowd will be displeased with the simplicity of the puzzles and the light tone, and the non-parser crowd was going to reject it for… well, being parser. Placing 12 was a very welcome surprise.
What didn’t work

* The dialog system
Pilgrimage (and many other parser games which include dialog) have been panned for the ASK GUY ABOUT TOPIC dialogue system. It looks nice in theory, but as anyone who’s played a less than perfect game can attest, it’s very prone to Guess the Topic issues. This time around I tried to avoid the issue with just TALK TO GUY and letting Ariadne do her thing. This is OK for some people and some others dislike not being able to decide what to talk about. Although some people will always hate this on general principles, many have pointed that AiA abuses the system by having the player type TALK TO CIRCE a few times in a row, and then have her do it again after performing some other necessary action.

This is my main beef with AiA and I don’t think I would have found a satisfactory solution given double the development time. Ideally, I would have gone for multiples choice dialogs nested within the general parser frame. Honestly, my knowledge of Inform is not yet up to the task. I thought of going for the ASK thing and then implementing a TOPICS FOR GUY informative feature, à la Make it Good. This would have been too costly in dev time and still not ring true to the nature of the game, which is from design pretty much a few set-pieces.

Still, it’s AiA’s main shortcoming.

* Quite a few typos
Many were spotted by the testers, a few by me, but unluckily quite a few made it to the final version. I blame only myself, since the testers were very short on time and I expected them to focus on the gameplay and writing aspects. Probably next year, in less of a hurry, I should try to write and proofread everything in a word processor before plugging it into the game.

* The hint system
It was a bit of an afterthought, and some people did find it useful, but it was showing unhelpful advice at times (puzzles already solved), and at one point near the end of the game the hints contained a very near-spoiler, which is a shame. Another feature that needs more time and nuance. I’m fixing this for the post-comp version.