Making of Counterfeit Monkey: Story

Making of Counterfeit Monkey, Part 2, is about the themes and story. Part 1 discussed puzzle and toy design. As before, this is spoilerific, so please do play before reading, if you are inclined to do so.

As mentioned in my previous making-of post, Counterfeit Monkey was constructed using the “throughline first” methodology. That meant I had a complete plot fairly early in the development process.

Theme

It took most of the initial drafting period to uncover what this story was about. Some of the very first puzzles included the idea of a heist from a highly-protected official building, so the idea that the protagonist was a criminal or revolutionary and the state was heavily policed was part of the initial premise. This helped explain why letter manipulation tools might be restricted. But to start with, I was thinking the game was just going to be a fun puzzle romp.

I did have the idea that I wanted to put the game itself to good use. For a while I thought I might release Monkey as charityware before making it available for free. Ultimately I didn’t go that route because it didn’t seem practical: I couldn’t think of a good way to collect donations that wouldn’t be a considerable pain to administer, I would have had to work out the legal implications of whether I was selling a game in violation of employment contracts, etc. Also, it wasn’t clear to me that a bit of charityware IF would raise enough money to make this a worthwhile investment of time, as opposed to my just (a) releasing the game and then (b) donating, myself, an amount of money corresponding to the value of the time I might have spent setting up a donations sales cart. (In fact after I released the game, a player unsolicitedly asked me if he could pay for his copy of Counterfeit Monkey, and I did direct him towards donation instead — which was a cool and unanticipated outcome.)

Gradually social concerns started percolated into the game itself. As the endnotes of the game mention, this is partly because of what was going on in the world around me:

I started working in earnest on this game in 2008. Since that time, the US has undergone two presidential elections; for months, the Occupy Seattle protests filled a city block just a short stroll from my apartment; and the successes and failures of the Arab Spring were constantly in the news. These experiences introduced more serious themes into what was initially a purely silly game.

But the language mechanic, and the two-people-in-one-body premise, also drew me more and more towards exploring issues of democracy and justice. In the first draft, this was mostly touched on with object descriptions and references that hinted at the difficulty of coming to compromises about morally charged positions, and the function of language in creating and reinforcing consensus.

Atlantis’ obsession with linguistic purity seemed increasingly sinister as well, because a universe like the one in Counterfeit Monkey would have even stronger reasons than the present one to prioritize majority languages while letting the less-spoken ones die out. What would happen to Basque or Cherokee or even for that matter ancient Greek in this culture? The languages of small populations, the disenfranchised, those languages now learned chiefly as an avenue to sacred texts, as well as historical languages, jargons, and dialects, would be actively stamped out; their cultural artifacts and literature would be endangered, the unique concepts lost, possibly never even recorded or studied. Obviously that happens already in the real world, but in Atlantis-world it would be worse.

"The Tower" tarot card, representing disaster in the form of the Tower of Babel

“The Tower” tarot card, representing disaster in the form of the Tower of Babel

The Babel Café entered the story at this point. I’ve always rather liked the story of the Tower of Babel, because on the whole I think linguistic diversity a good thing, and so I’ve tended to focus on its positive implications, rather than on the striking-down of an overly ambitious project. But for the Bureau of Orthography, the linguistic diversity would be disastrous, in and of itself: the downfall of the ambitious project that is Atlantis. So I thought that probably the Tower of Babel would be an especially potent myth to the Atlanteans.

So by the time I got to the end of the first draft, I had a lot of story elements alluding to these concerns — locations, character dialogue and memories, and object descriptions. But the plot itself only loosely engaged these ideas, and it felt a bit flat.

Replacing the Climax

Some types of commercial game development require committing massive resources to the early parts of a story before the ending has really been written, or just don’t allow for terribly much revision after the fact. By contrast, in Monkey I was able to approach the plot in a way that felt more like revising a novel: I removed and replaced incidents, moved some occurrences to new points in the story, altered character motivations, etc. in an attempt to tighten the narrative.

In the earliest complete drafts, the player had to rescue Brock from a holding cell in the Customs House, after first distracting the customs officials by bringing in a lot of fake people and animals, then entering Brock’s cell, then walking out again with rock-ified Brock in one pocket. There were a couple jokey bits about how being able to turn into a rock was basically Brock’s special super-power. The rock/roc and kayak/bollard sequences also came in here as ways to escape the island once you’d gotten Brock.

Playtesters found this puzzle fiddly and obscure. When I thought about redesigning the puzzle, I realized I didn’t care for the narrative arc of it, either. The escape sequence felt like a let-down, thematically empty and emotionally unsatisfying. Sure, you freed Brock, but it wasn’t a particularly bad-ass escape, and it also didn’t cast much interesting new light on the story or tell the player anything new or contribute to any story theme. The conversion of a person to an inanimate object was an interesting foil to all the fake animals and humans you’d been making up to that point, except that the event sequence totally failed to explore it in any way. And besides, I realized that a lot of this story was about the protagonist’s relationship to the island of Atlantis. Therefore, I needed an ending that reflected that fact.

So I moved the end-game action into the Bureau basement and began working on a major new confrontation to go there. Picking up Brock would be only part of the solution. I felt the player also needed to confront some of Atlantis’ secrets, but I didn’t want to make the game itself feel like a mystery — it would still be an escape narrative, just one in which, on the way out the door, you discover answers to questions you hadn’t explicitly formulated.

To wrap the player/Atlantis relationship, my first idea was to add a character called Phyllida Atlantida. She would be a synthesis between the immortal concept-character of Atlantida and the historical Atlantean suffragette Phyllida Shaply, still alive decades after she should have died in the natural course of things. Most of the time Phyllida Atlantida was kept as an inanimate object, and woken up only when the Bureau had something important to ask her — so you’d need to find and wake her, and then she’d decide to help you escape.

That scene was still low on stakes and conflict, though. Phyllida was a friendly but mostly powerless character who regarded Atlantis’ present state with gentle sorrow. The end scene was just an opportunity to chat with Phyllida for a few turns, find out a little more about the Bureau, and then head back to the yacht before the guards had time to catch up with you. Phyllida had a few disturbing things to say, but those revelations in themselves didn’t make for a great endgame.

So I decided that you needed to go up against a hostile Atlantida instead, one who had never been human at any level. That meant there could be a more interesting puzzle here — a linguistic combat puzzle! — and a scene that would feel more obviously climactic.

At the very beginning, I originally written the epilogue so that the player was able to split Alex and Andra. At some point I decided their split should fail. Then for a while I implemented the game so that the last move was to try to gel yourself and have it not work, ending on the horrible revelation that things had gone wrong.

But that was obviously unsatisfying. It left a lot of open questions: why did this happen? is there any chance of reversing it? was there a puzzle I screwed up, that would have let this end differently? is this a cliffhanger? are there going to be sequels?

So I decided that the most satisfactory thing from the point of view of plot would be to move the fusion discovery back into the scene of combat with Atlantida. That would put a new, surprising and (I hoped) narratively resonant element into the combat scene.

I also needed to play up the explanation for how we got here. Fictively, Alex and Andra cannot be split again because of their moment of destructive non-compromise in Cold Storage. Originally, this scene was just a bit of slightly farcical heist-caper business: the protagonist gets trapped in a bathroom because there is an officer coming down the hallway, so she’s forced to fake-generate a person to send out as a decoy, so the officer goes after that person and she can sneak out again. Aside from being a slightly fiddly puzzle to explain, this didn’t really have a lot of meat to it. As I rethought the story, I realized it would be more interesting if this were the point at which the two characters were at odds, if we considerably raised the stakes for either choice, and if we moved the setting from a dull generic Bureau bathroom to the infamous Cold Storage room.

Players have repeatedly asked for a third-way solution, but the impossibility of such a solution is precisely the point. It’s important that this be a no-win situation, an illustration of one of the core problems of democratic society: on some moral points, neither side can even imagine an acceptable compromise that would honor the principles of both parties. Inevitably, those on the losing side are going to have to live with their country doing things they find deeply heinous and repugnant. By the time I was done with the game I thought of the incident in Cold Storage as the most important moment in the whole piece. I added a bunch of minor polish features to make the most of it — like changing the person of parser messages, setting up a variety of earlier scenes in which Alex overrides you at the parser line, and giving more information about punitive inanimation earlier in the game.

But I didn’t reach this scene by a process of reasoning forward, starting with a message I wanted to convey and then arriving at a way to convey that message. Most of the time it was a case of identifying some weakness in the existing story and realizing that I had a stronger choice available if I just made better use of elements I’d already written into the game as flavor.

The other thing I did was talk the whole business over, a lot, with those of my testers who were up for it. Graham spent such a lot of time listening to me talk through the Oracle Project/portcullis sequence, and suggesting options, that he probably deserves a co-writing credit on that part of the game.

Structural Work

Once the ending was tightened up, I went back through the earlier portions of the game to lay the groundwork for it. I took out the anonymous holiday traffic that had motivated the car puzzle, and instead put in protesters. I added the traffic circle sequence to lay in the concept of the civic unrest and teach the player how a gel rifle worked. Lena went from being just a somewhat absent-minded hippie-ish character to a secret revolutionary.

My other concern at this point was rectifying the pacing of the game. Though the story was about a dire situation, some of the puzzles were so wide-open that the actual gameplay let the player forget for long stretches of time that there was any peril. I didn’t want to take away the exploratory feel of play, but I did want to strengthen the player’s investment in the story.

Part of Inform's index map for Monkey. I spent a lot of time staring at this during development.

Part of Inform’s index map for Monkey. I spent a lot of time staring at this during development.

To do that, I added several set-piece scenes in which the player was briefly immobilized or focused on a special problem, or events that could remind the player that she was in danger. To place these, I studied both the puzzle chart and the actual game geography map to identify appropriate bottlenecks. (On the puzzle chart, restrictive scenes — where the player isn’t allowed to leave for a bit — appear as grey circles containing one or more boxes.)

For instance, I knew I wanted to have something happen in the vicinity of Roget Close, because those streets are otherwise fairly lonely and placid. But I didn’t want to make that event happen as soon as you arrived in Roget Close, because that can feel a bit obviously like a trigger. It seemed less obviously mechanical to have Alexandra sight Alex’s father as you’re leaving that part of town, at a point where you feel like you’ve solved a problem and things are going relatively well. So I had that event trigger when the player passes through Webster Court after having already been to the Private Beach at least once. From the puzzle system, I knew the player would have to go to the beach sooner or later; from the map, I knew she’d have to pass through Webster Court again on her way out.

In general, I liked to place these narrative warning-notes, like the near-miss with the Authenticator, Father’s appearance or Higgate’s arrest, at points where the player had recently accomplished something significant, and was heading into a new period of freeform puzzle solving that was going to need motivation. The further the player gets into the game, the more serious these incidents become and the more frequently they arise, until in the endgame they produce actual crises.

Characterizations

It wasn’t my intention to make the characters in the game represent particular political stances or strategies, but I did want each major character to have some sort of attitude to the core issues of the story. Alex’s father attempts to fix the system from the inside while practically speaking becoming its tool; his mother’s class privilege allows her to indulge in a little subversive talk while never actually placing herself at risk or effecting any change; Higgate is encouraging but cautious; Waterstone, egotistical and willing to work the system to his own personal ends; the activist is frankly clueless, backgrounding the fact that Alex’s own plan contains much more elaborate types of cluelessness. Slango and Brock sometimes do semi-heroic things, but they also sometimes rationalize simple theft and criminality on the grounds that the system isn’t fair anyway. Lena’s apparently trying to undertake a more organized revolutionary activity, but demonstrates only limited empathy towards the live people around her.

As for Andra, she has been burned by (primarily religious) ideologies before, and is now motivated primarily by loyalty to individuals. That leaves her reactions underdetermined enough that the player’s choice can enter in. At the moment in Cold Storage, does she choose loyalty to Brock or to Alex?

There aren’t meant to be any absolutely unambiguous villains in the piece: the bad version of Atlantida comes closest, and part of the point about her is that she’s not a real human individual, but a construct, and an outdated one. The man who is currently Atlantida’s handler is referred to a few times in computer entries in the Bureau, but never introduced on stage, partly because I didn’t really feel the story needed any more voices by that point, but also because I felt the people with less power were more interesting and relevant to the story I wanted to tell.

Some of the situation of mid-ranking Bureau officers is implied in the one who shows up during the traffic circle scene, who is being instructed to handle an out-of-control situation without having any appropriate tools for the job. If the player wants, he can harrass this officer in an unnecessarily sadistic way, and the internal monologue is written to suggest that Alex very much enjoys doing so. None of that excuses the brutality of the officer calling down a DP tank strike on an entire civilian crowd.

Aboard the Yacht

Settling the note to go out on was also hard. I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote the very last scenes of the game again and again, and what’s currently there was redrafted just days before release. I repeatedly nagged beta-testers for feedback. Graham argued for an essentially happy ending: this is mostly an upbeat game at its core, and the player has worked through a lot and deserves a reward. I mostly agreed with this, especially when replaying it after some period away from the game. One of my testers, and I fear I can’t remember who, said, ‘look, this whole thing is basically a superhero origin story.’ And at the end of a superhero origin story, the superhero is supposed to fire up her jet boots and fly off to the next world-saving adventure, right? So that made a lot of votes for putting a big smily face on the epilogue.

And yet. And yet. There are so many things that I felt were emotional loose ends, and it would be untruthful to just pretend they were fine. How will Alex and Andra settle which of their goals and values to honor in the future? Will anything survive of Andra’s relationship to Brock? Was replacing Atlantida likely to help the island significantly in the long run? Is Alex’s project a remotely good idea in any way? How will Alex cope with being in a body that doesn’t match up with his self-perception and former sexual identity? Those things weren’t the subject of the main game, and making the epilogue extra long to try to address them would clearly be really weird. But I did want to acknowledge them.

So…

I’m not sure that leaves me with any advice, per se, just a couple of observations:

The throughline-first approach was a huge deal in allowing me to create the quality of story I wanted to. I feel a lot better about the solidity and implementation depth of the endgame than I did with either City of Secrets or Savoir-Faire, and I also felt that I had a better chance to establish the stakes of that final confrontation.

It is surprising the degree to which the game’s mechanic drove the story — because the whole idea of linguistic consensus chimed with other ideas about society and government. The result is considerably stronger than the first plot draft I came up with.

What did get lost is the development of Andra as a person. Earlier drafts were more about that — about her claiming some independence from childhood misconceptions, rejecting the manipulation of her crewmates, etc. Some of that story was in my view worth telling, but this medium and format was completely wrong for it, and it had to go elsewhere. The Andra in the release version of CM is considerably older and less fragile than the character as originally formulated.

6 thoughts on “Making of Counterfeit Monkey: Story

  1. Since you mention having considered releasing CM as charityware, was there a particular charity you had in mind? I’d be very happy to make a donation in—well, not exactly in payment, so let’s say in tribute.

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