Design Notes and Postmortem

Dendry, Bee, and story structure:

I first discovered dendry by playing Bee by Emily Short. I had played the Varytale version first, and after Varytale's demise, Bee was ported to dendry, an open source engine by the creator of varytale. Unfortunately, dendry is slightly broken in various ways, as is the dendry port of Bee. I tried to fix some of the issues in my fork of dendry, but some problems are likely still present.

I really like dendry. The syntax looks reasonable; I dislike nesting-heavy structures like choicescript or ink. It has a flat layout, and is organized into scenes which are further divided into content nodes. This organization accords with my way of thinking and writing. The compilation and deployment processes were simple. The domain-specific language was simple but functional enough to do everything I wanted it to do, and javascript could be included for more complex scripting (although I didn't use custom JS).

Bee and the storylet-based style were heavy inspirations for Pageant. This means that the story is broken up into smaller anecdotes (storylets), which can be accessed by the player in a non-predetermined order depending on various conditions and previously viewed storylets. This goes along with a broader progression across time; some storylets increment a time counter, further affecting which storylets can be viewed. There are also thematic influences from Bee. Like Bee, Pageant is about the progress a young person goes through in preparing for a competition, and also her home life in a particular subculture and interactions with others. As for the differences: Bee has an element of randomness to it in which storylets are shown, while Pageant is entirely deterministic (or at least should be). Pageant also has a rigid organization of storylets into plot threads and basically linear dependencies within each thread. More generally, Pageant has a more rigid demarcation of time, and fewer repeated scenes.

[edit] Pageant was also inspired in part by dating sim mechanics, more specifically the "raising sim" genre. This genre basically involves time management and stat-building in order to mold your avatar to date the character of your choice. This meshes pretty well with the storylet-based system, as activities chosen within the time-management framework could function as scenes with their own mini-stories, tied together by the advancing passage of time. I wanted to "subvert" the dating sim mechanics in a way, because I dislike the trope of treating human relationships as some sort of puzzle to be solved, of treating people as prizes to be won. To do so, I made relationship progression depend solely on just picking the scene, not on dialogue choices (except in one moment). I'm not sure if it worked out. It probably didn't.

Stuff I wanted to do:

Since Pageant has been in progress for so long, it's come to a point where I felt that done was better than perfect. An imperfect story that was out there, existing in people's minds, was better than a perfect story that only existed in my mind. But if I had more time, energy, and motivation, here are some of the things I would have added:

- Balancing out Miri and Aubrey's routes to be as detailed as Emily's route. The character's "routes" are highly unbalanced: Emily's segment has about twice the word count as Miri and Aubrey's routes, and similarly, her name is mentioned about twice as frequently in the text. Miri's birthday is actually on the same day as the pageant, which I don't think was even mentioned in the story. This was a huge oversight, and I want to at least talk about this in the next release of pageant. Also, there should be more interactions between the various plot threads: what if Miri wanted to watch the pageant? How did competing over science olympiad captainship affect Karen and Aubrey's relationship?

- Interactions with the other pageant contestants, and making the pageant process more detailed in general. I had a file describing a bunch of the other pageant contestants, but nothing came of it. Similarly, there could have been more detailed descriptions of how makeup/hair/dressing stuff is done.

- Fleshing out the side characters and routes more. Roxana's coming out to Karen feels way too sudden in retrospect. What about the other science olympiad members? The other parents besides Karen's? The other church group people? Expanding the church group plot thread might have been nice. Also the science olympiad competition was underdescribed.

- More depictions of what Karen does most of the time at home. Right now, her daily life is mostly shown in "bad" events, like the stress/loneliness scenes, but maybe there should be more scenes with her at home studying or playing videogames or doing the dishes or something like that. I don't know.


- The science olympiad and research routes could be boring. There was too much quizzing on actual science stuff (but hopefully some people are into that?). The research scenes all seemed kind of same-y.

- I feel like the distinctness of Miri and Aubrey's personalities often failed to shine through. They didn't have complete story arcs, and they were underdeveloped in general, especially Miri I feel like. Also, they feel too... sad too much of the time. I wish I could have shown more joy on their parts.

- General writing problems, weak prose, weird sentence structures, too stream-of-consciousness at times, underdescribed at many other times. Weird and cringey dialogue. There are a lot of problems that come with sporadically writing a story in small bits over 4 years. A lot of it depends on the particular emotions I had as I was writing; it didn't help that I was basically writing as a coping mechanism. I think this led to a lot of inconsistencies in tone and style.

- The use of Chinese text is totally inconsistent. It is really only a big part of one scene, and scattered throughout others. There's not really a conscious thematic decision as to where Chinese should be included; it was included whenever I felt like it at the time (this was written over 4 years through a wide range of emotional states). Although I suppose it really only occurs in the emotionally heavy "Family" scenes.

- Is the game actually enjoyable to play? What is the motivation for the player to continue? Since there's not much in the way of "success" or player feedback or gamification, is the enjoyment just based on the writing, as if this were purely an interactive novel? If so, I doubt that the writing alone is strong enough to carry the story. Who is the audience for this?

Story influences, and the "autobiographical" question:

Pageant is heavily inspired by my personal life. Most of the "Stories of China" scenes were based on stories my parents told me, some almost verbatim, others shifted in geography and time. The dinner conversations, the mold in the apartment, and the Bible study group scenes were all loosely based on my experiences. Similarly, Karen's personal background is based on my own: I immigrated from China to the US at age 7 and attended 4 different elementary schools on China and 3 different US states before settling down. Like her, I have dealt with serious social anxiety ever since I remember. Her anxious thought processes are familiar to me.

Fortunately, my parents are not Karen's parents; they were much better to me than Karen's.

Future plans:

I am planning on writing a sequel to Pageant which will hopefully be released by IFComp 2021. This sequel will take place 5 years afterwards, when Karen and friends are returning home from college, and will take place entirely at a family holiday party. It will most likely be written in dendry as well, and will hopefully feature more player freedom. Karen is still the protagonist, and there will be "routes", romantic or not, for Emily, Miri, and Aubrey.

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