A long-delayed postmortem, of sorts
I had a lot of ideas going into this game. Most of them were never realized. At one time I was kind of ashamed about this story, but looking back, it isn't that bad. It's okay for it to exist, even if it doesn't achieve what it sets out to do.
By the way, here's a musical playlist for the game. An unofficial soundtrack of sorts: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLuohED5tFTJvV8EI1K7zcyFlwywfh3uq9
I came up with the idea of this game in the beginning of 2015. The working title was "China math girls". It was going to be about two girls at an all-girls' school in China in 1943, two war orphans surviving the struggles of the day. One was going to be a mathematically talented girl from a bourgeois background, who was shy and socially awkward; the other was a lower-class orphan, who was popular and self-confident with communist leanings. Those two girls became Zhang Xiaoyun and Yan Yan. There was originally going to be more focus on the math, with chapters named after mathematical concepts and discussions in the text, but the "math" part was de-emphasized in the writing as I didn't know how to incorporate it throughout the story.
The kernel of the idea for this story originated in a period of time when I was somewhat obsessed with reading yuri manga and just generally consuming a lot of anime/manga content. In that time I was writing an AU fanfiction for an anime series, where the AU was that it took place in World War 2 and some of the main characters were resistance fighters/spies in Japan, while others were agents of the secret police. The story was never finished, and I don't think it was very good. But some of the ideas from that fanfiction made their way into this story.
The other angle for this story came from my own family background. This story, like most of the things I write, is inseparable from my own personal background and history. I was born in one of the cities where this game takes place, and lived there for some years. I listened to my parents' stories of their parents and grandparents, sometimes talking about what they did during the Japanese occupation. Some of my great-grandparents fought with either the communists or nationalists. One of my great-grandfathers apparently fled to Taiwan after the revolution/civil war; he fought against the Japanese as a Nationalist soldier (this was one of the inspirations for Xiaoyun's story). Others were communist supporters. I wanted to understand more about the era, partly because I want to understand where my family came from, but there is a paucity of English-language media about the Sino-Japanese War(s), whether it is nonfiction or historical fiction. A lot of the translated fictional media that does exist feel like Japanese war-crime apologia (others are Chinese patriotic propaganda (i.e. the movies that my parents grew up watching in the PRC), or stories centered around white Europeans and Americans that are somewhere between casually and actively racist towards Asians (this is about Empire of the Sun)). So basically, I was inspired to write the story out of a sense of a lack of stories about this particular era.
My own great-grandmother died at the age of 99, in 2009 or thereabouts. She was buried in a mountain above the village; the very final scene of the game, where they visit Yan Yan's grave, is based on my visit with my family to great-grandmother's grave. I wish I could have known her better.
None of the characters in this game were based on any of my actual relatives in any way (for one, they weren't educated; my great-grandmothers were illiterate, like most Chinese women of that generation).
When I wrote this game I had no idea how to do game design, or interaction design for IF (I still don't). I did not know how to structure the story on the macro level, or how to design interesting choices and interactions on the micro level. This was my first twine game, and my only one so far. I'm trying to get better at this whole "narrative design" thing, slowly and extremely not surely...
The game was going to have three parts, with different gameplay elements for each section. The first part would take place in 1937, during the initial invasion. It would be a map-based adventure game, where the player, playing as Zhang Xiaoyun, would navigate around the city of Tianjin, interacting with invading soldiers and refugees and just the city as a character. She would somehow find Yan Yan, and end up in the school. Somehow all the branches would lead up to that point.
The second part of the game would take place in 1942-3, during the Japanese occupation. It would have had dating sim/time management elements. The player, playing as Xiaoyun, would have had to look for food, to not starve. She would have to balance classes and relationships and so on, with lots of stats along the way. She would be able to start a relationship with Yan Yan, participate in militant activities, and so on. Of course, most of this did not happen in the actual story that was written down (random: the mahjong playing scene was the first scene I wrote). It was compressed to a few incidents.
The third part of the game would have been more open-ended. It would have taken place in 1946, and it would have been a story about Xiaoyun looking for Yan Yan across all of China after she disappeared to join the Communists, just journeying to different provinces and conflicts in the civil war, and observing what's going on. A lot of this idea was sacrificed because I just wanted the game to be over with. It was a rather abrupt ending.
What the game ended up being was basically a friendly gauntlet with limited delayed-branching elements; it was a story that strongly guided the reader along certain narrow paths, that told one prescribed story with a few small branch points and ways to get to the end. It did not have anything akin to systematic mechanics in any part of the story, no sense of exploration. It's the kind of twine "game" that would be criticized, rightly, for not being interactive enough, for working better as a book. And I do think that this story could have worked as a book, unlike, say, Pageant or NYE2019. The interactions don't really add much to the story.
First off, things about this game I liked. I liked the characterization for the main two characters, and how they were realized. I liked how we watched them grow up together, and get closer to each other. Unfortunately, Xiaoyun and Yan Yan almost became prototype personalities to Karen Zhao and Emily Chen from Pageant. I have a type, you see.
I liked the sense of history in this story. The sense of change as Zhang Lanlan grew up, listening to great-grandmother's stories. I did do some background research besides memorizing conversations with my parents and listening to propaganda songs, not a lot, but it's there and it shows. There are almost certainly inaccuracies though. The sequence of historical vignettes was described by someone as film-like, as if this were a gay indie film. I did kind of imagine the story as a gay indie film, the kind that will never exist, so that's cool.
The actual interaction design leaves a lot to be desired, as mentioned earlier. The interactions don't add much to the story; the choices do not add any elements that cannot be expressed within the confines of a static novel. There were some asides, some commentary from the "present", but I don't feel like they added much. I tried to add some sense of consistency to the choices; basically, it was "do you want to do the cool thing" or "do you want to do the safe thing". Do you want to go after Yan Yan or do you want to stay ensconced in the safest place you have. But this type of choices can make the game worse than if it were a linear story; the player can easily end up on a less interesting path than if it was totally linear. You can choose to read a boring story or an interesting story, so what's the point of even having these choices?
There could have been a lot more done with the asides. This story is supposed to be great-grandmother Xiaoyun telling a story to Lanlan; maybe Lanlan is making all sorts of comments, maybe great-grandmother is saying all sorts of extraneous things. I think maybe a system like Windrift (as used for Harmonia) could have worked better for this story. As it's basically a linear story, but with annotations.
As for the craft of the writing itself, I have mixed feelings on it. I don't think I'm an especially adept writer of prose. But I think sometimes the writing in this game worked better than in Pageant; this was a more cohesive story, without the wildly divergent storylet structure, and I wrote it over a shorter period of time. A lot of the dialogue and even descriptions passed through a sort of mental recursive translation filter; I thought of the dialogue in Chinese and translated it back to English. I'm not sure if this worked or if anyone would notice. Also, the writing often feels too abstract, too willowy and breezy, and glosses over so much. There's so much death and destruction in this story, and I feel like the impact of it all fails to be captured properly. Or, it could have shown that the people were desensitized to it all.
I am not planning to do anything with this story in the future. If there's any demand, which I highly doubt there will be, I could try making an expanded version of this game that includes some of the abandoned ideas and fixes some of the issues. But that's highly unlikely.
I wrote a short story about Yan Yan: see https://archiveofourown.org/works/19148104
I have a couple of other ideas for a game taking place in the Second Sino-Japanese War. One would be a management sim about being the mayor of a tiny village and trying to keep your people alive. I have a draft for it in Choicescript, complete with a basic demographic model. But it's rather far down my list of WIPs.
For my next projects, I thought a lot more upfront about how the interaction system was going to go, and how to structure the story around the player interactions. I feel like that made Pageant work better as interactive fiction, as a somewhat more engaging game, but it might have sacrificed some of the prose qualities. I'm not sure if there's any more lessons to take from this game.
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This is a really beautiful game, I absolutely loved it. Thank you for taking the time to provide all these additional details!