Andromeda Apocalypse — Backstage with Marco Innocenti

Marco Innocenti, winner of the IFComp 2012 with Andromeda Apocalypse, has taken time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions. Without further ado, here’s our little exchange.

Felix Pleșoianu: For starters, please tell our readers a few things about yourself, if you like.

Marco Innocenti: I’m not sure what would sound interesting to SPAG’s readers. Let’s go random.

I’m forty, I live in Florence, Italy. I’m a graphic designer. Or, rather, that’s what I do for a living. What I really am I can’t quite say. I would like to be a writer, a real writer, one of those people who, you know, write. Like in: write for 400 hundred pages about something, send it to an editor and get published. That hasn’t happened up to now (I’m stuck before the “get published” part), so I think I’ve resorted to IF.

Ok, that is not the truth. I have been an IF aficionado since the mid-Eighties. I played The Hobbit, and a rather obscure adventure called Gruds in Space. I think I actually learned English to be able to play Gruds in Space. Then it was Scott Adams’ Questprobes and everything eventually rolled down the slope. I’ve been wanting to make a text adventure since when I was fourteen. I did some, back in the ages, in CBM Basic. They were impossible to solve guess-the-verbs, linear stories with almost no inventory and ASCII graphics (well, the Commodore equivalent, that is). More than twenty years later, I discovered Inform 6 and started playing with it, to no avail. When Inform 7 came out, everything changed.

I guess there is a lot of serious thanksgiving to be done, here. Graham Nelson and all his friends made part of my dreams come true.

Portrait of Marco Innocenti

Your debut game last year placed 17th, and here you are winning the IFComp on your second attempt. Is there a secret to your rapid ascension?

Yes: the Holy Spirit.

No, jokes apart, there’s no secret. In the sense that everything that is reasonably predictable happened and things worked out pretty well. This is the common sense guide to “making a better job”. Although, maybe, not that much better.

First, Awakening (my first game) was coded step-by-step as I came up with new rooms and new puzzles. The full story was not in my mind until the very last second, when I wrote the final bit. Although this can be a more funny way of writing a story, it is indeed a rather big mistake in case one wanted to achieve anything above mediocrity. Apocalypse was much more planned and had, fortunately, a more strong world-building since the start. I had this idea in mind and wrote the story around it. OK, something came up on-the-go, but the backbone was there and it was solid enough to sustain a full body.

Pretending I can tell a story — we will take this for granted, just to skip to the interesting parts — all I had to do was to plan it, test it, add color.

Second step: Apocalypse sustained around 900% more testing that Awakening. Two months vs. one week, a lot of seasoned players and coders instead of two or three random people. I don’t want, of course, to sound like my first testers were dumbarses: fact is testers for Apocalypse were a) more related to the game or to my world-building having played and loved my first game; b) more accurate in understanding what was wrong (the first testers were just blind men in a dark alley, in that respect); c) they had a lot more time to figure things out.

Third aspect: I had read a lot of reviews (even for other games), talked to many people and lived a lot more the IF scene. This helped me figure out what the audience would like to see in a game and, more so, what it would hate. When I entered Awakening in my first IFComp, I simply was not aware of these things. I knew nothing about IF apart from the few games I’d played recently and from the classics from the Eighties. Games no one would find entertaining, these days, let’s say it. Who would break his head against Spellbreaker, in 2012? I understood, generally, that the international perception of IF was greatly different from what we have in Italy (we still call them “text adventures” for a reason: we are still after that kind of game, over here). This didn’t shape my work, I can tell you, but rounded the rough edges a lot. As an example: at the very beginning of Apocalypse is a sequence that can be triggered by examining the context. Doing that, though, could be counter-intuitive. So I added a time limit so that the scene was triggered nonetheless after the timer ran out. Looking at transcripts, I understand that was a bright move, as 99% of the players never figured out what to do inside the Hyerotrope, after the scene at the beach front.

Finally, I gave myself more time to work on the project. Jumping in and out of things instead of being forced to code three hours a day, proved very strong as a design approach.

That said, I believe that listening to other people complaints was the best I could do to improve myself. Of course, without listening to the nice words, also, I would never have done an Andromeda 2.

And now for the million dollar question. The credits for your game suggest that you needed some help with your English. What are the challenges of writing in a foreign language? How much work was needed to reach an acceptable standard of quality?

This should be point five in the aforementioned list of things to do to make a better game.

Yes, I had my text read and corrected by Sam Kabo Ashwell, and some tweaking came from the other testers as well. What I can say about writing in a foreign language is that, provided you know said language and have a reasonable vocabulary… it’s not hard at all.

You can’t think in your native language, of course, as this would mean rebuilding The Gostak. This came out pretty easy, as I’m used to thinking in English when talking English, let alone when I write it. As opposed to what some Italian friends thought (and wrote in reviews!), I never ever made the word-by-word translation, vocabulary at hand they suggest. When I want to say “shut the fuck up,” I think “shut the fuck up,” not “chetati, demente”. So, writing in English comes out quite easily. What is incredibly hard, on the other hand, is making it sound perfect. There’s a lot under the hood of a language that people are not aware of. Phrasings, common sayings, actual synonyms. While speaking to an audience can be smooth, the same cannot be said of writing for the same audience. Writing a story, too, is harder still. You have to add color to the sentence, create similes, pump up the tone. Doing it the wrong way (a wrong way that can look almost-good to foreigners but absolutely wrong to natives) is guaranteed. I found out the hard way, and I will always laugh, from now on, at American spy movies in which the main character can “speak and write such a perfect Russian that nobody in Moscow would figure out he’s from Detroit”. Yes, of course: believe it. </sarcasm>

As for the second part of the question: it’s not a matter of how much work, but just if that work can or cannot be done. I wouldn’t write a game in German or French. I wouldn’t have written it in English if my grasp of the thing wasn’t very good. That said, writing in another language is obviously slower than in mine (I’m always looking for the “second term”, while in Italian synonyms come out of the hat like white rabbits, and usually elegantly and pregnant with originality) but not that much slower. What you need, though, is a decent editor that could help you avoid horrible outcomes.

Sam and the others did an excellent job. It took less than I thought (about three days) and what they were most good at was sticking to my style, not trying to change “strange” phrasings that were subtly a trademark of mine.

That said, your mileage may vary, as some people found the lyrics in Apocalypse a bit purple while other thought they made the game a success.

Both of your games so far take place in the same science fiction setting of your own creation. You’ve even organized a fan fiction minicomp that sparked some discussion, even though the participation was low. Does your interactive fiction tie into a larger body of work? Would you call the Andromeda Legacy competition a success?

Andromeda Apocalyse coverThe Andromeda setting is, so far, all in the games by me, Joey Jones and Paul Lee. There is nothing else but, of course, if Spielberg calls me and says he wanna do a movie about the Hyerotropes, there would be movies, too. Almost all that is in my mind is in the games. If you want to know what the Hyerotropes are, or why they are doing what they do, or what color are Sen Kulpa’s panties, well I don’t have the faintest idea. I guess.

What I do know is that I know who will be playing as PCs in the eventual next game in the series, what morals and principles will regulate it and what will be the main theme. I already have a couple of epic scenes in mind and, if I ever regain the strength to make another Andromeda game, I’m quite sure they will rock my supporters.

As for the second part of the question, I can say without any shadow of a doubt that the ALComp was a complete success. I had three entrants (one had to resign due to health problems), both the games spawned were good and they added to the Andromeda mythology a lot. Now all of them have more weight in terms of world-building and I’m very proud of it. Given the premise, having found at least one person willing to be involved in such a strange competition is awesome. I hope it can be done again, in the future. I’d love to see Emily Short write a small game in my canon, as an example. Or read an Inklewriter, Twine or Quest story set in Monarch.

Last but not least, what are your plans for the future? Is there anything else you would like to add?

I have something running.

First, sooner or later I have to post-comp-release Apocalypse. As per tradition, it will involve additional content, although not as much as Awakening — The Final Cut had, and file management to auto-save the achievements.

Then, I should be working on a horror IF with Lutein Hawthorne (author of last year’s IFComp entry The Guardian), that I had to drop due to Apocalypse being in the way.

I have an old-style fantasy game with 8-bit graphics in incubation.

Finally, I’m starting to write a large, long, ambitious Noir game with sounds and music. It will take ages but I guess it’s the thing most viable of seeing a release somewhere between here and the eternity. I want to go serious on this one: for the authorial voice, I’m reading Raymond Chandler to try and have the sound of the language fixed in my brain. It will surely need a lot of additional work by Sam Ashwell, this time. Wonder if he’ll be willing to help, again.

Thank you, Marco, and good luck in your future endeavors.

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