Barbetween: Design notes

Obviously, I would recommend that you play through Barbetween before reading these notes, if you haven’t already. The game is perhaps 15 minutes long, and requires no particular gameplay knowledge or experience.

The ShuffleComp spur

I owe the existence of this game to Sam Kabo Ashwell and the first IF ShuffleComp, which he organized in early 2014. Even though I had a lot to do that spring, I found the concept irresistible. I had just finished preparing and launching the new website for the annual Interactive Fiction Competition, and the arrival of a strictly time-bound creative contest within the field seemed like an energy tonic that would do me good.

Each ShuffleComp entrant submitted a playlist of eight songs that met the loose criteria of “I’d love to see someone make a text game out of this, somehow”. The organizer shuffled all these songs together and, all at once, mailed everyone back a new, random playlist of eight other songs – and the challenge to create an original IF work, based on (at least) one of them, within three weeks. The idea was a hit – Sam ended up buried in 50 playlists, and over 30 of these intents-to-enter actually produced games.

Ultimately, my game would not launch as part of ShuffleComp. While I did finish on time, the final work would sit in overt conflict with the competition’s clearly stated rule forbidding online-play dependence. Sam and I agreed that withdrawing the game represented the best course for it, and he was kind enough to mention and link to Barbetween as an aside when announcing the release of the ShuffleComp games.

Choosing Seltani

Inspiration to author the game in Andrew Plotkin’s Seltani system hit me about a week after entrants received their playlists, and also – coincidentally – a week after PAX East, my city’s big annual videogame expo.

As soon as I received my playlist, I loaded my iPod with the songs, and I began the first of many repeated listens to them all as I walked to the subway for first day of PAX. The playlist and the weekend-long expo were therefore doomed to mix oddly in my head.

Two memorable PAX panels I attended in 2014 discussed the intersections of videogames with depression, anxiety, and other inner demons, a topic of some personal interest to me. While in the audience I made notes to play a lot more online, multiplayer games in the interest of furthering my own happiness, writing “(Seltani?)” in the margins. (Zarf’s project was fresh in my mind, perhaps, because he had shown it off during an exhibition of local game-development talent at an event attached to PAX.)

When the idea to use Seltani for my ShuffleComp entry did strike, during a regular visit to the Idea Room (a.k.a. the shower) a few days later, I knew I had no other choice. It would be a threefer: I’d learn a new IF creation tool, I’d (hopefully) surprise and delight competition judges by running a game on an unexpected but quite accessible platform – and if I gave more exposure to my friend’s crazily ambitious Myst fan-project, then so be it.

I intended from the start to stick to the script, creating a game that worked as part of Seltani, rather than being something shoehorned in for its own sake. As such, the “in-character” conceit of The Barbetween Age, as we might formally call it, casts it as an “Age” – a world created (or, rather, pulled from the potential-stew of all possible worlds) by a writer using the techniques of the D’ni civilization to create a book that allows miraculous, physical travel to the place it describes.

All the distinct areas in Seltani are supposed to be Ages created by “The New Writers”, a upstart and diverse group applying D’ni techniques to their own ends, creating new worlds as they please. In this narrative, the tiny Barbetween Age – with its sense of compact, deliberate presentation, versus the rolling exploration and discovery that characterizes most Myst-style interactions – becomes more a public art installation created by one of the New Writers. So that's the fiction I held in mind while I worked on it.

The game contains various references to the Myst games, and I leave these for the player to discover; if I did things right, then recognizing none of them would not significantly lessen the playthrough experience. I titled the game “Barbetween” and not “Between the Bars” because “The Barbetween Age” sounds a lot more like a proper Myst level.

The song

Here’s Elliott Smith performing the game’s seed-song, Between the Bars, which was submitted to ShuffleComp by Niklas Larsson. I used this video in particular as a model for the performance within the game.

I had no familiarity with Smith or his work before ShuffleComp. After rolling the eight songs I’d received around for days and considering game ideas ranging from a text adaptation of an XCOM level to a bit of The Invisibles fan-fiction, I noticed the thematic similarities between Smith’s song and another work on my received playlist, Uncle Tupelo’s Still be Around, submitted by Zack Johnson. (Not that I knew this detail while working; I wrote my entry in "Secret Santa" mode, having requested that the names of songs' submitters remain withheld from me.) Pairing this realization with the urge to use Seltani, as described above, made an initial game draft gel rapidly.

After I narrowed my focus to Smith's song alone, I gained rapid appreciation for the ambiguity in its lyrics, especially once I began to work with them as low-level text (including writing a Perl script to transform them into the Seltani code that displayed them on a line-length-dependent timer). I interpret their spoken perspective as coming from alcohol itself, and its sincere promises of medicine against regret. The edge inherent in the words becomes sharper when considered against the melacholy life and tragic early demise of their original author.

At first I had a rather less interactive concept for the game, essentially an entirely prose-based accompaniment for the song. It would describe some steampunky rigging of lightbulb-strewn machinery hanging from the rafters; as the song played, this would rotate about to cast suggestive shadow-patterns against the wall as the lyrics scrolled past. It sounded plausibly Myst-ish enough to start playing with, at least.

And as with all viable creation tools, reading Seltani’s documentation, and getting a better awareness of its core strengths and possibilities, very quickly led me to much more interesting ideas. I found myself particularly drawn to ways to have players’ actions permanently modify the experience for future visitors to the work – the sort of thing that an online platform like Seltani makes possible. Even though these would be the very ideas that would ultimately disqualify the game from ShuffleComp, I ended up quite pleased with how it all turned out.

The bar

Photograph of the Big Baobab Pub
Photograph of the Big Baobab Pub

The concept of a tiny bar installed inside an unlikely natural space comes from The Big Baobab Pub in Limpopo Province, South Africa. As the name suggests, it’s built inside of an enormous baobab tree. I’ve never visited it in person, but I’d run into photographs of it before, and these came to mind immediately when I imagined what a bar in the Myst universe would look like. You can find many more photographs of the real pub at this page.

I changed my bar’s venue to its stony underground location in part to make it mesh better with the larger Seltani location; the cave theme, and details like the mysterious red-glowing subterranean waver, mean to suggest that the bar’s found in part of the same cave system as Seltani’s main areas (written by Andrew Plotkin).

Other than all that, I suppose I simply have come to like bars in recent years. The month before I started writing this game, my partner and I celebrated our wedding in our favorite local pub. I do see them as in-between spaces of safety, but I also see how they – and the libations they ply – have a darker side, and I hope the work, like the song that inspired it, succeeds at expressing both facets.

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