Thoughts and High Scores on Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder

Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder (working title; also, release title) was not originally intended as an Interactive Fiction Competition entry. In late 2012 and early 2013, as Emily Boegheim and I were trying to pick up steam on Robin & Orchid (working title; also, release title), I thought to myself: I just need to make a tiny game, to stretch my dang legs. After I finish a little game, I can finish this big game.

Verdeterre was not that game, but for a while I thought it was. From the beginning my goal was to make a slight game, unambitious in scope or plot or theme or mechanics, and to a certain extent I think I succeeded.

And yet here I have written many words, a lot of words, about the design of this game. You will have to scroll past them to see the high score table.

The Game Concept

The idea of a world where humans live alongside sentient, belligerent rats, as introduced in my game You’ve Got a Stew Going!, is not especially interesting or even original, but I get a kick out of it. Early on I decided my tiny game would explore another time period in this world, back when rats were marginally less marginalized than they are in the present day, and when a human and a rat could team up to accomplish some probably nefarious goals. The player could control a human, and the rat character could boss the human PC around even though the rat is just a tiny animal and it would be hilarious! I never questioned this premise; more on that later.

I also wanted to limit the action to a fairly short period of time. I don’t remember whether this was a product of my desire to make a tiny game or of my general affection for narrative constraints. After rejecting a few different scenarios, “escape from a sinking ship” almost seemed too obvious, even hackneyed—but it was also completely perfect, and if I was going to finish this game in a month, I couldn’t afford to sit around coming up with something else.

A little later, I realized that by deciding to set the game on a sinking ship, I had completely blown away my chances of making a game that was unambitious in mechanics, and also of finishing the game in a month.

On the Mechanics of a Sinking Ship

Actually first I have to go off on a digression about maps in video games.

On Maps in Video Games

One of the many amazing things about text parser-based video games is how they can force you to think about space. Many graphical games give you a map of the setting, like in a Zelda dungeon, where the game will actually draw the map for you even before you pick up the actual Dungeon Map item. Sometimes the field of play itself is the map, as in your Civilizations, your Sims City, etc.

You rarely get a map in parser IF, which means you get to draw a map yourself. You get to draw a map! Some players complain about IF with complicated maps, and on one hand this is a reasonable perspective, but on the other hand those people don’t know what they’re missing and are possibly crazy. Creating a mental or pen-and-paper map and using that knowledge to dominate a convoluted setting is an incredibly satisfying experience, as anyone who has gotten anywhere in Anchorhead or the Meldrew estate is aware.

Developing this intimacy with a space as a player has an effect on your response to the game as well. Different corners of the map feel welcoming or daunting, and the directions themselves can start to carry an emotional weight: In The Lurking Horror, it’s always scary to move down, as you enter basements, sub-basements, and sewers. But even considering only the horizontal plane, moving west through the Infinite Corridor or the basement is safe but unrewarding, while moving east is difficult, and leads the player into more danger.

Up and down are important directions on a sinking ship; their emotional resonance is built into the situation. And I obviously had to use shipboard directions. (I get the feeling that many parser IF authors have a low-intensity desire to use shipboard directions eventually, and feel vaguely ashamed of it.) But as I mapped out the game, I realized that a truly three-dimensional ship with cabins that were port and starboard of each other would entail too many rooms.

Port and starboard aren’t easy directions to keep straight in the first place. By eliminating them from the map, I saved players from the indignity of getting them mixed up, I reduced the overall number of rooms per deck (allowing the movement between decks to take center stage), and I encouraged players to visualize the ship in cross section, which is a very useful mental image in the given situation and also calls to mind pleasant associations with certain Wes Anderson movies.

On the Mechanics of a Sinking Ship

I have gathered from watching movies that escaping a sinking ship is a stressful situation, one in which you can’t afford to make a wrong move. IF is turn-based, and it’s impossible (without resorting to weird javascript time limits I guess?) to force the player to make a split-second decision. IF is not hectic.

I made it my goal to to make this game as hectic as a turn-based text game could be. I think I succeeded; many reviewers talked about feeling a sense of urgency, and some players apparently felt some of the same stress you’d feel in a real-time game as you try to keep Mario from falling in the lava.

The main element that accomplishes this is the series of messages about the rising water that triggers every turn (not really every turn). This is supplemented by the series of messages about items—stuff you should have picked up!—sinking away. The third element is the couple of messages about the Nautical Vocabulary Notes feature.

Although I did want my piratical setting to be reasonably “accurate” (for a game about a talking rat), it wasn’t really my intention for the game to serve as a vocabulary lesson. The Nautical Vocabulary Notes are mostly useless. But on your second or third turn, while you’re still trying to figure out what you’re doing, a weird additional narrator speaking in italics in curly brackets cuts in to tell you about this totally extraneous feature.

The intention (and I think this worked on most people without their noticing!) is merely to bother you, to give you yet another thing to worry about. It’s another dang line of text on your screen, which makes you feel like you have that much less control over your situation, and that agitation sticks with you for a while. A reminder message appears if you haven’t activated the notes by turn 30 or so, intended to knock you off kilter again, but I think it shows up too late to do the job; by then, the player usually has things under control.

(I didn’t want to make the game hectic by making it unfair, though. EXAMINE, LOOK, INVENTORY, and numerous other commands are “free actions”—they don’t cause the water to rise.)

Initially, though, players seem sufficiently overwhelmed. It’s really fairly easy to avoid death, unless you’re a real lollygagger or you decide to hang out for too long in the top or the upper decks. Most people die only once, because it’s their first time or because they’re testing something out. The threat of death is therefore present enough to motivate the player, but not so unavoidable as to become frustrating, and I consider this aspect of the experience a huge success. After all, “avoid drowning” is not the true goal of the game; it exists as complicating action for the central goal, that of amassing wealth.

On Amassing Wealth

I think I’ve seen every review of Verdeterre published during the Comp, but none of them have made what I would have thought was a very obvious comparison to a very obvious influence: the Great Cave Offensive! section of Kirby Super Star.

Kirby’s games are usually composed of fairly linear left-to-right levels a la Mario, Sonic, etc. Kirby Super Star is a collection of numerous sub-games in various game styles (Kirby runs a footrace, he enters a Colosseum-style tournament, he tries to destroy a flying battleship in a limited period of time), and in the Great Cave Offensive!, Kirby explores a Metroidvania-esque series of dungeons full of hidden treasures. If you ignore the treasures, you can finish the game in under seven minutes (you can skip the castle entirely!), but if you try to collect every treasure, it’ll take at least half an hour—and that’s if you know where they all are ahead of time.

Verdeterre is built on the same basic premise, but the addition of a time limit makes a few changes necessary. A higher percentage of Verdeterre‘s treasures are in plain sight; there are far fewer puzzles, and Verdeterre’s puzzles are simpler. It is impossible to collect all the treasure in one run through Verdeterre, so the challenge is in optimizing your path through the ship. I guess this deserves its own section.

On Optimization

First it was necessary to convince the player to try again after they’ve completed the game once. This is accomplished most conspicuously by the final treasure tally, which reduces your accomplishments to a number that obviously could be higher, and by the character of Captain Verdeterre, who is very vocal about what a low opinion he has of your abilities.

A less obvious factor is how short the game is. In your first run, you’re forced to abandon ship just as you’re figuring things out, before you’ve had a chance to see everything on the ship. Even without someone telling you that you could do better, you know you could do better. This is the way I feel whenever I interact with a pinball cabinet.

The game is not hyper-balanced to make optimization as difficult as possible; most of the elements of the overarching puzzle are based on a gut feeling about what would probably be interesting. There’s at least one intentional lesson built into the early game, though.

The crystal ball in the second room will sink right away if you don’t head over to that room before you do anything else. The crystal ball is worth just a little more than the bracelet hidden in the book in the first room, which will sink if you head for the crystal ball. “Sometimes you should abandon immediate gains in favor of later rewards” doesn’t seem like a really inspired concept in the abstract, but making it clear fairly early in the player’s experience will lead them toward taking a more rewarding approach to the overall problem.

Some reviewers have said that the game isn’t rewarding or complex enough to merit multiple playthroughs—but all of those reviewers admit to playing the game multiple times, so, okay. Obviously not everybody has the insane patience to figure out the perfect path, and I think a lot of people will look at a puzzle like this one, say “yeah, there’s a solution there,” and be content to let it go unsolved. That’s how I’d approach Verdeterre if it were someone else’s game, and in fact it’s how I really did approach it, waiting to find out what high scores players were able to rack up.

It would be really boring and kind of sad if the optimal solution were so easy to work out that everybody found it. The important thing is that people enjoy the game for however long they choose to spend with it.

Some Definite Mistakes

MISTAKE #1: Most of the puzzles in the game are reducible to the player sacrificing n turns of their valuable time to get a piece of treasure worth p dollars. That’s the central mechanic of the whole optimization problem! I should have left it alone. But I got bored.

Whether you’re able to pull the jambiya dagger out of the ship’s mainmast is based on a random roll; I think the odds are like 1 in 18. As I envisioned it, a clever player would figure out that the best strategy was to save the jambiya until after they had picked up all the best “sure thing” items and hope that they could pocket it in the last few turns they had left. Even that doesn’t seem all that appealing now that I put it into words.

But of course the real optimal strategy is to >UNDO every time you fail to get the dagger until it works. This is highly unfun. If I do a post-competition release, I’ll have to make it work differently.

[VERY IMPORTANT INFORMATION: If you’re going to apply this strategy, you need to know that taking the dagger always fails the first time. You have to take it once to get the message that establishes the problem, then you have to take it again, and then you have to undo and try again repeatedly. Please accept my profuse apologies for how stupid this stupid game is.]

MISTAKE #2: A lot of people couldn’t figure out what was going on with characters being rats. For the record, Captain Verdeterre is a rat, and the player character Tibert is a human. This is explained fairly clearly in the description of Verdeterre and alluded to in other places, but many people understandably had other things on their mind.

Given that I’m insisting that this character should be a talking rat, I should have made that fact a little more obvious and central to the gameplay. Early in the planning stages of the game, I had ideas for some rat-oriented puzzles, like asking the Captain to chew through some ropes. But programming NPCs to be selectively persuadable is a huge pain, and anyway it is not in the Captain’s character to entertain orders from a subordinate.

The Last Section Before The High Score Table

At some point it became clear that Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder would be finished around the time IFComp began. It would have been a huge mistake to release it outside of the Comp while the Comp was in progress; nobody would pay any attention!

So I made it an additional entry alongside Robin & Orchid, but I had some specific expectations about how it would be received. Verdeterre is a big crazy toy of a game; it doesn’t have much going on narrative-wise. I thought it had a lot in common with Victor Gijsbers’s Kerkerkruip, which placed 8th in the 2011 Comp. For Verdeterre to get 4th place was quite a surprise! But I will not question it.

Okay okay, here’s the high score table.

$$$ – TOP PLUNDERERS – $$$

I entreated players to submit their high scores and transcripts via email. Many did. Many did not; I know this because I saw some fairly impressive scores racked up in the anonymous transcripts that ifcomp.org provides to authors. The identities of those swashbuckling geniuses shall remain a mystery; here I record only the high scores that I can connect to names.

Here I record also only high scores in excess of the beta testers’ high score of $818. Also, I record here only the attributable high scores I was able to find. If you believe you belong on this list, go ahead and let me know.

Herr M $823
Victor Gijsbers $836
Jason McIntosh $1012
Robert LaVarnway $1135
Kenneth Pedersen $1149
Adam Myers $1459
ClubFloyd $1488
Marshall Quander $1533 [Current release]
Chandler Groover $1567
Doyle $1638
Dannii Willis $1648
Mircea Pauca $1696
Marshall Quander $1719 [First release]

Congratulations, you scurvy dogs.