[Herr M.] For this year's 20th Interactive Fiction Competition, Mr Creosote decided not just to limit himself to reviewing, but deliver material for discussion in the form of his own game. Black Lily is the title of a dark chrome nightmare whose protagonist is plagued by some suppressed details from the past. I sat down with the author to talk about the game a bit and look behind the scenes.
[Mr Creosote] I'm looking forward to the questions and hope that it'll be at least slightly interesting.
[Herr M.] Then let's jump right in: What is the core of the plot for you as the author?
[Mr Creosote] The core… explicitly, it's the murders, but implicitly, I would call this game a character driven story.
[Herr M.] Interesting, so there is a certain ambiguity. The roles of the victim and the perpetrator sometimes being turned around seems to fit in this way. Is this also the reason for those numerous reflections appearing in the game?
[Mr Creosote] The plot is introspective with regards to this character, and because it is about self-recognition (or self-reflection), this manifests in recurring motifs like the regularly appearing mirrors and other reflecting surfaces.
It's important to understand that this just represents the attempt to dig into the mind of this person. There is something which this person blocks out. So it is an emerging, non-intended self-reflection triggered by important memories.
[Herr M.] This is probably where we should mention that these are all about the murders of various women. While the secret lying dormant / blocked out is linked to this, it is not all that obvious. It is even possible to reach an ending of the game by following the story of an album, but without learning much about its real origins.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, this wasn't just my intention, but it is an essential design feature: the player controls (to a degree) the memories. So he can determine the extent of the self-reflection, i.e. whether this blocked out part emerges or not. Of course, this 'decision' is not a binary, but a gradual one, just how human minds work.
[Herr M.] So the player should or may force the protagonist to face his own past. Does this make him a sort of conscience and does it turn the final decision into an opportunity to judge about everything that has happened?
[Mr Creosote] My intention is that the player has all the freedom to decide how far and in what way the protagonist faces things. This also refers to the endings, but that's only secondary. Primarily, it's important how he tackled everything in the episodes before, because although there is a certain determinism to it, there are many things to learn about the protagonist by exploring left and right of the prescribed path (or so I hope).
[Herr M.] I would even go as far as claiming that there is hardly any chance to understand the protagonist and his motives without straying from the path a bit. The player could make it easy for himself and say he doesn't even want to understand such a horrible person, but that would be like saying he does not want to know the solution of a murder case in a crime novel. Isn't the real challenge of the game finding out why the protagonist picks this album out of all that evening? And why he then reacts the way he does?
[Mr Creosote] This is the way I imagined it. Though we have already touched upon it in the context of other games: players' natural curiosity is quite limited these days.
[Herr M.] Talking about curiosity: there was something which was on my mind ever since I found them in the hall of the apartment – what's the meaning of the black gloves? I identified the names of the lovers as those of actresses all of whom played in a genre in which such black gloves appear, but it seems there is a deeper meaning to them?
[Mr Creosote] No, it doesn't mean a lot more. It's just a reference to the film genre which this game is based on. There, it is an established ritual, a compulsive act leading up to murder.
[Herr M.] So every time the gloves appear, murder is imminent? I have to say that I started to hate these gloves, because that was exactly my impression in the first playthrough.
[Mr Creosote] It is one of those motifs of which there are many in the game which, seen by themselves, shouldn't be overinterpreted. Though that is also typical for the genre: superficially strong, almost overcrowded recurring symbolism which, if you try to dig deeper, isn't really all that deep.
[Herr M.] Meaning it's just a smoke screen? Then what about the clues which increase the score, do they also lack any deeper meaning? Are the murderer's motives purely random?
[Mr Creosote] The explicit scoring actions are relevant, of course, because they are the central self-reflection triggers of the protagonist. Scoring these points, you get closer to the truth which the protagonist blocks out. In this way, all this is relevant in the sense of the vulgar psychoanalysis on which the plot is based.
[Herr M.] Why this truth of all things? It is a really interesting twist, but what is the meaning behind it?
[Mr Creosote] One of the big role models of the complete genre is Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Inspired by that, most of such stories are dripping with pseudo Freudian motifs. In this vein, there is one motive for all these murders (at least in my mind) – they can all be traced back to the same thing. Though I'm not sure this comes across well enough.
[Herr M.] Well, the motives I see for the murders would be suppressed sexuality and a kind of Oedipus complex. Maybe there is also something more banal, like simple envy. Though I believe I'm off there?
[Mr Creosote] Sexuality is certainly the most important point. The protagonist wants to fulfil his role, but…?
[Herr M.] …he can't, because he is, in a way, impotent?
[Mr Creosote] As much as he would like to, he can't fill the role he was forced into and his frustration vents in brutality.
[Herr M.] To put it provocatively: sexual frustration as the ultimate explanation? Isn't this almost a little cheap?
[Mr Creosote] A little? It's unbelievably cheap and I'm proud of it!
[Herr M.] Why?
[Mr Creosote] Truly psychologically substantiated character studies tend not to be all that entertaining, in my opinion. Many failed attempts even come across as very pretentious and pompous. There is a good reason that vulgar psychology is often found in entertainment material – just think of Alfred Hitchcock again, from Spellbound to Marnie. In the Italian pulp crime genre, which Black Lily takes as a role model, this was taken to the extreme, and I find this extremely funny.
[Herr M.] There is no denying that there is a certain amount of entertainment in truly schlocky material. Though isn't there the danger of crossing the border towards tastelessness? After all, this is about rather gruesome acts. Some may consider all of this a caricature, because it's so overdone, and laugh about it. Others may well consider it a thoughtless belittlement, on the other hand.
[Mr Creosote] Sure, this is a danger. Though no matter what you do, people can always misinterpret it – no matter how careful you are. The reception of a work is always subjective. How did you read it?
[Herr M.] I wavered between repulsion and amusement. On the one hand, I found the protagonist's acts truly abominable, and I hated it with all my heart not to be able to do anything against them. On the other hand, I laughed about this utter coolness. I can't take someone serious who, out of full conviction, says he can't sing, because he more or less feels too good for that – likewise the completely narcissistic machismo.
The most important aspect, though, regardless of everything else, was the limitless pity I felt for all the characters.
[Mr Creosote] The overreaching outward assertiveness, the impeccable settings, everything has to be perfect – all that is a stylistic device to let the player realise that this just has to be a mask the protagonist wears. That this just can't be true. It's pure overcompensation.
[Herr M.] Don't you think there is a risk that someone will be so repulsed by this mask that they will not even consider whether it is one? After all, there are a number of authors who pile on in similar ways and are serious about it…
[Mr Creosote] Sure, I admit that Black Lily is risky. If it were a game of an established author, nobody would have this doubt. I don't have this luxury. So I have to live with some recipients taking the surface plot for granted and criticise the game for that. Though doesn't this also show the success of the storytelling to a degree?
[Herr M.] Success in the way that the protagonist's narration was so repulsing that he managed blocking himself from the truth?
[Mr Creosote] No, not in a repulsive way, but in the sense of making the façade so convincing that it was actually taken verbatim. After all, we're talking about a very fundamental self-deception which the protagonist has probably kept up half of his life. If it were all too obviously crumbling, it would hardly be believable, would it?
What actually happened, is a fact, but which details one remembers is open. The narration is decidedly subjective: what is told is what the protagonist remembers and how he remembers it.
[Herr M.] Decidedly how? As a prerequisite for self-reflection? Does that still leave room for interpretation?
[Mr Creosote] What would be left of the plot if the narrator took a neutral, even omniscient perspective? Only through the completely subjective viewpoint, this story is worth telling at all. Because it's not all that unlikely that the protagonist has, to name just one example, actually talked to some of the women before he murdered them. Though this part wasn't imprinted in his memory this much.
On the one hand, this allows to shorten scenes which may otherwise have turned a little dull, and on the other hand to allow the player a certain amount of freedom to shape the plot.
[Herr M.] An interesting effect: basically, the protagonist works against the player. He doesn't want to think about certain things, wants to lead the player towards the easy path, while the player should encourage him to do just the opposite. This is even reflected in such details such as the narrative voice of the protagonist being first person. He distances himself from the player.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, this was also one of the design fundamentals: the narrator and the protagonist are one and they lead the player towards the shortest path through the story – which doesn't reveal a whole lot. How hard would you consider just getting through to the ending?
[Herr M.] With the exception of one single scene (the staircase), I can't think of any major obstruction in the minimum solution. Often, the plot (in the form of a murder victim) even approached me directly. Things look a little different for the more subtle goal, getting closer to which scores points.
[Mr Creosote] Even those, I didn't really try to make hard, but I rather wanted to reward patience and exploration. If you diligently examine everything, go everywhere and take everything, things should really work out.
[Herr M.] Let's put it like this: Once the player has figured out where things are going and understood how many points there are to get in which places, it's certainly doable, yet still challenging enough to remain interesting.
What I almost missed a little was that finding the additional pieces of information, uncovering the bigger secret did not open up new choices for the ending. The game doesn't even acknowledge it by giving more background.
[Mr Creosote] An interesting question. I wanted to use a narrative technique which is, in my opinion unfortunately, slowly dying out: interactive narration completely without explicit explanatory elements. The world itself should tell its story through observation of its details, and putting those many small puzzle pieces together is solely the job of the player.
In this vein, there are almost no 'cut scenes' (the tiny one there is at least changes according to the knowledge the player has acquired before), no long explanatory dialogue scenes and also no self-explanatory endings. The endings are just one more puzzle piece among many, they aren't more important than others. Though I can't guarantee I didn't take this too far, of course.
[Herr M.] Interactive in the way that the player also has to become active, i.e. he has to think along and pay attention instead of being lulled by a nice narrative? Maybe even in the way that the player is also involved in writing the story as a sort of co-author?
[Mr Creosote] In the way we discussed: what memories and insights pop up, how far they go, is the player's prerogative. He's moving around in a world which is as 'experiencable' as possible, meaning that the game should offer sensible custom responses to virtually any action which at least remotely makes sense and that those responses should give the player another hint. Whether it is more obvious actions such as using the five senses (smelling, tasting, touching…) or absurdities like DRINK SEA.
[Herr M.] Doesn't that mean an insane implementation effort? Didn't you have to plan for a large number of actions which hardly anybody will ever see?
[Mr Creosote] Sure, which is why development takes such a long time. I'm actually even a little proud of the relation between the density of allowed actions versus the relatively short length.
Of course, it is a bit of a pity that not so many people see all of this. It stings to read that this or that wasn't explained and that the game is therefore bad – although it's actually only this particular player who didn't find the available information. Though this is also part of allowing each player their individual experience. As soon as you make the story free to shape, people will take this offer – some in extensive ways, but others in brevity. I have to accept that. And those who do see all those things will certainly be all the happier about it!
[Herr M.] One way or the other, it is certainly interesting to see how each player uses his freedom, what stories they produce and how they interpret them afterwards. Do you think it might even be possible to learn quite a bit about themselves from their actions and reactions?
[Mr Creosote] Each player's behaviour in the game probably tells more about themselves than some of them may think. On the other hand, we shouldn't overinterpret it. Just because somebody really sinks their teeth into this role doesn't make them a misogynist sex killer, for example.
Talking about player behaviour, could I ask a question?
[Herr M.] Of course…
[Mr Creosote] At least in my mind, there is a meta level. One central motif in the narrative is watching and being watched. The protagonist often watches things (preferable from a safe distance and separated by something like a window) to drive the plot forward. We talked about the feature to examine everything in detail, to search and sometimes even to 'zoom in' (the female victims, for example, allow for more detailed examination).
At the same time, the protagonist is quite uncomfortable when this happens to him, when he becomes the object of examination. Who is it who intrudes deeply into the protagonist's psyche? There is a highly voyeuristic relation between the player and the protagonist, isn't there?
[Herr M.] I noticed the thing about watching, but not wanting to be watched in the very first scene when I looked back at the staring girl through the lorgnette. Even before that, it was quite noticeable how briefly the protagonist describes himself, how short the sentences become. The descriptions are even briefer and more reluctant when it comes to the details of the secret (e.g. “I'm weary.” as reaction to examining a critical object).
On the other hand, the descriptions of other characters are strikingly verbose. The major example (apart from the women) for me was the barkeeper at the club. So, for me, this worked and it was appropriate for the theme of refusal and blocking.
[Mr Creosote] As a player, i.e. as a particularly invasive beholder, didn't you feel caught?
[Herr M.] Now I do. While playing, I rather saw it as a thrilling challenge to get the protagonist out of his comfort zone.
[Mr Creosote] Heh – well, let's be honest: it's very questionable how well I managed this aspect. Although we have already talked about disgust and revulsion – this would be an aspect where I would feel this much stronger than regarding any of the aforementioned ones. As a sort of reaction to the trend of hobbyist game authors moving more and more into very personal areas.
[Herr M.] You talking about the trend that it is exactly the other way around in most modern games, that you're watching a protagonist examining himself in all details and disclosing everything about himself willingly?
[Mr Creosote] It is even my concern that these aren't just protagonists who share everything about themselves, but that they are thinly veiled autobiographical stories. Basically, some authors are revealing their heartstrings, keeping no secrets to themselves, and this has often made me quite uncomfortable. Some of what you read there is very intimate.
[Herr M.] Well, there are probably some autobiographical parts in all text adventures (or texts in general). Black Lily shows signs of this mentioned antipathy against this trend… even if it's much more subtle than in many other games.
[Mr Creosote] My antipathy only begins when things turn into a total striptease. Every author immortalises himself in certain traits or world views present in his characters and games, of course. The protagonists of all my games written in the last five years have one thing in common, for example, which loosely links all these games together
[Herr M.] Then this begs the question: what is this connection?
[Mr Creosote] Oh, you have to leave me one mystery Maybe somebody will play all of them someday and find out!