Six Months Inspirations

While working on Six Months, I haven’t done a lot of explicit “worldbuilding” work. There are no documents or maps or world bibles describing the places in my story. I do a ton of that for my day job, and I don’t really welcome it into my personal projects. Besides, I’ve spent so long working on this particular story that I’ve learned its world through dumb rote, like a student in a history class.

I do seek out visual inspirations for various locations in the story, though. I did this for Swan Hill, too. I mostly use the Getty museum’s open image database, because it has a lot of chalk and charcoal drawings of early modern European villages, landscapes, and cities. Here are some pictures which I’ve been using as inspiration while working on Six Months.

Rindberg – View of the Rhine River Vallley


Six Months mostly takes place in a large city called Rindberg– the same city where the Chancellor’s university is located in the story Swan Hill. If the capitol of the kingdom is similar to New York, Rindberg is more like Boston– not as big, not as cosmopolitan, but a successful trade port nonetheless, and vitally important to the region.

This drawing of the Rhine river valley was made by a Dutch artist sometime around 1651-1652. The low, flat basin in the image is how I imagine Rindberg looking from the surrounding hills– though Rindberg would be bigger than the town in the drawing. The time period and architecture also fit the story. Simon Villano, the protagonist, would see a similar view as he approaches Rindberg in the few hours immediately before the story begins.

The road to Swan Hill– View of the Residence of Archduke Johann in Gastein Hot Springs


Simon Villano lives in a fertile valley around a week’s journey to the northwest of Rindberg. The same river connects Rindberg and Swan Hill, his home– but to save time on the trip, road travelers will cut through the mountains around which the river winds. They might travel through other towns and aristocratic holdings along the way.

On his journey to Rindberg to make peace with his estranged brother, I imagine that Simon might take a mountain pass that looks a little like this one. This valley contains the mountain stronghold of a baron or baroness whom Simon knows very well. He will stay here one night before continuing on his way in the morning.

Simon’s social network, so to speak, is very small– and made entirely of people he’s known in one way or another since childhood. He does not often leave his home. Although traveling to this mountain pass for business discussions with its lord or lady is normal for Simon, going beyond– to Rindberg– is not. The buildings and trees and winding road in the foreground of this image would represent almost the very edge of Simon’s known world.

Swan Hill– View of Benevento


This is the image that I used to represent Swan Hill in this Twine story. I always imagined Swan Hill as more of a manor than a castle– remodeled in recent years, as the kingdom strengthened and wars subsided. But I enjoy the shape of the river and the buildings next to it, and the thick bunches of trees mixed throughout. I also enjoy the fact that it is a view from a road. When Simon and Robert pull up to the manor in the beginning of the Swan Hill, they see a view quite similar to this one.

This duchy is Simon’s whole world. He rarely leaves for any reason. He has immense power in this little region, but he is provincial as hell– the biggest fish in a tiny little fishbowl. From Robert’s more-cosmopolitan perspective, Simon may as well be trapped here.

Mirian – Landscape with Hilltop Village


There are two major rivers in the story– the River Scoven, along which Swan Hill and Rindberg sit, and the Taschender River, home to an ethnic group which has been oppressed by Simon’s dominant one throughout the history of the kingdom. When Simon was a teenager, his father brought him on a campaign in the Taschender river valley. This troubling experience with an unjust, messy war dramatically changed Simon’s personality and attitude toward life.

The city from which the local lord rules the Taschender river region is called Mirian. I imagine that a forbidding castle prickling with cannons sits in the corner of this city, overlooking a blighted, rocky valley and a rebellious populace. Simon’s father fought up and down this valley twenty years ago– but Simon got out as fast as he could by marrying young and taking over the family business. This view probably brings him many unpleasant memories.

Salienburg– Toledo??


The capitol of the kingdom is a city called Salienburg. I’ve recycled this name throughout several abortive fiction projects over the last ten years (!!) and it is probably the oldest element in the story. The only firm qualities it has retained throughout all its various ghostly incarnations are:

  1. It is dominated by a large castle or fortress,
  2. It is extremely urban (compared to other places in the kingdom, anyway),
  3. It is fairly large,
  4. It is near the ocean,
  5. Most of the architecture is stone (compared to RIndberg and Mirian, which are mostly wood-built).

I have toyed with the idea of using Rome as a kind of inspiration, but I’m super sick of stuff based on Rome, and no city in this story is anywhere near as big as Rome was. But the city of Toledo looks a little more like what I’d imagined, so here’s a picture of it, I guess.

Progress on Six Months

I’m still working on my sequel to Swan HIll, a novella-length twine game called Six Months. I’ve been working on it now for about six months off and on. (Ha!) My recent move to Los Angeles has left me pretty isolated, without a lot of things to do or people to hang out with IRL– so I’ve had a lot of time to work on this project. So I’m charging ahead!

I’ve got the feel and direction of the experience nailed down, I think. Six Months is a murder mystery, but it’s not a solveable murder puzzle. There’s no inventory, no clues to pick up. You see, the joy I get from reading detective novels has never been in the solving of the mystery or the revelation of the killer, or anything like that– I like detective novels because they’re often great character studies (of the detective). I want this game to be more like that.

The main character in the tale is the asshole duke brother from Swan Hill. Before I wrote Swan Hill I was actually writing a story in which Simon played a major role and his brother Robert, the Chancellor wizard guy, was only a background figure– so I’ve had Simon in my head for much longer than I had the protagonist of Swan Hill. Simon’s a bit of a fucked-up guy. He’s very much at home in his duchy, where he’s been in charge of everything for years– but he’s heavily reliant on his family and on the privileges he gets from being the biggest fish in that little pond. When he heads to the city to solve this crime, he has to figure out how to handle himself alone for the first time in his adult life– which is hilarious, because he’s around 40 years old.

Six Months focuses on a ridiculously risky situation Simon puts himself in after an emotional reaction to a relative’s murder. Instead of letting the young, incompetent king and his grasping military policemen handle the investigation, Simon invokes an old-school rite that gives him jurisdiction– so long as he successfully finds and personally kills the perpetrator within six months.

My focus in college was medieval and early modern Europe. During this time, extensive urbanization changed the way people related to their superiors, inferiors, and governments– specifically with regards to the amount of casual violence between individuals, and between individuals and the state. Simon’s problems in Six Months were written with these changes in mind. Although these fictional “six month pledges” are still legal in his country, nobody does them anymore. Culture has changed, but the law hasn’t, and powerful people like Simon still have access to legally murderous acts of revenge. Simon’s friends and family often argue that he shouldn’t have ever made this vow, and while playing as Simon, you may find that you agree.

So Simon has to figure out how to resolve this oath without completely destroying himself and his family. Would it be better to deliberately fail the oath? To accuse the wrong person? To solve the case properly and do the duty everyone expects from him? Because his case is so public, he risks causing harm to various suspected minority groups in the kingdom if he encourages the military police to pursue them. And on top of this, his family has a certain ‘history’ with both of the major groups that may have been responsible for the murder.

Add to this the enormous unresolved emotional baggage Simon had with the murdered person, and you’ve got a mystery that’s less about finding and punishing the evildoer and more about “how do I fix all of this while feeling the least like shit?”

In order for the audience to feel like this is a worthwhile tale sitting through, they’ll have to desperately want to see the solution to Simon’s problems. They’ll have to want him to not feel like shit! To this end, I’ve reduced his assholery. He also spends a lot of time in “fish out of water mode,” so that I’ll have excuses for explaining things to the reader. I feel like this is a big contrast to most of the standard “gritty fantasy” fiction that people read today. In stories like Game of Thrones, we expect to see clever characters brilliantly tricking one another in the gilded, got-your-shit-together halls of cackling political genius. But in Six Months, for reasons both mechanical and thematic, you’re gonna be piloting a guy who does NOT have his shit together AT ALL. (I sometimes worry that too many of the characters in this story have too little of their shit together!)

Anyway, that’s where my brain is on this story so far. If you like slow-burning low-key mystery stuff, and if you have great sympathy with people who don’t have their shit together, you’ll probably like this story a lot.

For a different view on where my head is right now, here are the kind of books I was reading immediately before drafting out the first outlines for this story. They all influenced me in different ways while I was figuring out what kind of story I wanted to tell. I wish I had a list of all those early modern europe urban history books I read in college, but I don’t, sorry. 😦

  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre
  • The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell
  • Shriek by Jeff Vandermeer
  • Good Bye To All That by Robert Graves

Some stuff I’m currently working on

Almost precisely one year ago, I finished writing Swan Hill, the Twine game I am most proud of creating.

I am currently working on two different stories set in the same low-key fantasy universe. One, currently titled “Witch Stuff,” I hope to finish in time for the IF Comp, though this is unlikely. The other, provisionally named “Six Months,” will be extremely long, and is a direct sequel to Swan Hill– but featuring completely different characters. I’ve currently written about a fifth of it. My ultimate goal is to distribute all three of these stories as a pack on for 0+ dollars.

Really, though, my ultimate goal in life is to create fantasy and sci-fi writing so low-key and melancholy that only whales can hear it. I adore humor writing and a lot of my stuff is pretty manic, but when I sit down and choose what projects I really truly care about, those projects are always sad and quiet. The world in which I set Swan Hill is pretty much just Sad Wizard Town, USA. Get ready for some sad fucking wizards! Sadder than you’ve ever seen before!!

I’m also trying some new stuff with these stories. While choices in Swan HIll were based entirely on a handful of booleans, both Witch Stuff and Six Months feature stats-tracking as the main means of controlling choice in the game.

I’m also taking some risks with story structure and text-change mechanics. Witch Stuff uses a mechanic which I’ve never seen used in a Twine game before. I wish I could show it to you, but that would disqualify me from the IF Comp. Hooray! (Not hooray. Not a huge fan of their competition rules, tbh.)

On the other hand, the thing I’m currently testing with Six Months is that I’m making all the stats reflect people’s opinions about you, rather than innate things about you as a person. It’s always bothered me that RPGs assign morality stats to a person and then use these stats to restrict your options. Humans are crazy; they can change their minds at any point, contradict themselves– whatever. If you’re gonna use stats, you might as well use them to track what people think about you or what’s going on in the world around you– stuff that really does represent the cumulative effect of your behavior. Currently, there are two major stats in Six Months. One controls a child’s opinion of you; the other controls a king’s.

Hopefully, in about six months, I’ll be ready to start thinking about hiring an illustrator to draw up three cover images for these stories. Until then, it’s nose-to-the-grindstone– which will be hard, because I’m simultaneously working on an additional story-game for a completely different platform. And also I have my day job to worry about.

Whatever. It’ll be fun.

Things I’ve recently learned about hypertext

Prior to writing Swan Hill, I had never tried to make anything in Twine but standard “choose your own adventure”-type stories with text prompts and choices. They were fun to write but left me feeling a little bit cold. To be honest, the CYOA text-prompt-and-choice structure– the stilted, awkward way it seems to constantly interrogate the reader– doesn’t always fit very well with my writing style.

After almost a year of reading great Twine stories without the CYOA structure, I came across Breakfast on a Wagon With Your Partner, which uses Leon Arnott’s replace macro super-effectively. It reminded me that I’d never actually experimented with replace myself!

I’d recently attended a loud, busy party for the first time in months, and had left feeling pretty sick and overwhelmed. I quite liked the idea of using the replace macro in a party scene to give a reader that same sense of wandering overwhelmed-ness. I imagined a paragraph which slowly expands from concise sentences into long, confusing ones as detail upon detail is added.

The idea excited me. To prepare, I went back and read a bunch of other stories that feature this macro. I immediately noticed two things:

  1. Writers do not usually distinguish replace links from other links. This can lead to confusion and missed content, particularly if the page is covered in links that all behave differently.

  2. The use of color in Breakfast on a Wagon With Your Partner was really helpful! It distinguishes your speech from Sam’s without cluttering up the page.

I wondered why I hadn’t seen color used to distinguish replace links from non-replace links in more Twine stories. In the end, I decided to give my story color-coded links. It was going to use a LOT of replace, and I wanted the reader to anticipate and understand what each replace link would do. I thought I could write the story in two weeks. There were really only a few things I wanted to illustrate with it.

But I didn’t realize how complicated the replace macro could be! The first night I sat down to write the story, I wrote straight up up to the first +++ in one go. When I wrote the scene where the Chancellor lights the Duke’s pipe, however…


I realized that I could use replace in more interesting ways. I’d been thinking of using replace simply to add more detail, but now I realized that I could also use it to give scenes a sense of timing and suspense.

Then I discovered the combined replace macro, which includes replace, insert, revise, and other macros. With this expanded toolset, I realized that I could use replace and the other macros to:

  1. …Illustrate the main character’s style of thinking. He spends a lot of time in self-reflection. I could use replace to show these moments of reflection and make the reader replicate his way of thinking.

  2. …Replicate various feelings, like confusion, the sensation of being overwhelmed, the passage and transformation of one kind of physical pain into different kinds of physical pain, etc.

  3. …Apply timing to specific events. The pipe-lighting scenes are good examples of this.

  4. …Avoid walls of text. “Unfurling” the text makes sure that the reader is “checking in” at various points during a longer passage, and prevents that longer passage from being so overwhelming at first glance.

  5. …Make the reader focus on specific words and pieces of information by inviting a click, but not whisking them away to another page. Many Twine games use page links to direct attention to specific words, but page links can be disruptive, because they replace all the text on the page. Replace let me keep the text on the page, and even keep the clicked word on the page, if I wanted. This let me use the clickable-word attention-directing mechanism multiple times in one passage, if I wanted.

I was so excited by replace that the first completed draft of my story used it WAY too much. Here are some of the pitfalls I ran into when I began over-applying replace:

  1. Although replace is often less disruptive than a page link, it is still disruptive. Some passages– particularly those which do not contain a rhythmic series of events– suffer if the reader is forced to “check in” with clicks. I ended up removing replace from many passages where the events taking place were contemplative or slow.

  2. Replace can draw too much attention to something. Applying it overenthusiastically caused me to “unbalance” some of my paragraphs.

  3. Using replace to insert one idea inside of another is not always the best choice. Too many disparate ideas on one screen can diminish one another.

I also ran into some problems when readers began reporting that they could not understand the difference between red and black links. This was pretty confusing to me, since I’d constructed the first several passages with an eye toward teaching the player how red and black links differed. The first screen after the title screen, for example, forces the player to click a black link in order to expose a red link. Other passages in the first section of the story give the player a good opportunity to see how black links behave. I thought that by the time the player got to the pipe lighting scene, they’d understand completely.

However, it turns out that some people didn’t. I spent a good week trying to figure out how to communicate the color-coding effectively. It was a pretty weird problem, since some people were telling me, “man! I love the color-coded thing!” while other people were telling me, “HELP! I DO NOT UNDERSTAND COLORS.” There was very little difference between these two groups of people. Some people who had never played hypertext were fine with the colors, while some people who had already played a handful of diverse Twine games were intimidated by the colors.

In the end, I realized that most of the people communicating a confusion with link colors were communicating the confusion they had first felt with the link colors, and that an initial confusion with the the link mechanics did not prevent them from finishing the game or appreciating the tale. I was worried about cluttering up the story or diminishing the simplicity of the beginning by introducing an explicit tutorial. It was very important to me that the first part of the story focus 100% on the brothers and the way they interacted. I decided to add the three small clicks on the first page– “to begin the story, click here; now click this word; now start”. This, I guess,  pretty much doubled the “tutorial” on the first two screens. I’m still not sure it was completely effective, but by that point my feedback was getting so contradictory that I was eager to give up and let the story go.

I have another idea in the works for a different “link mechanic” that I also plan to use with color. Even though some of my playtesters reported difficulty understanding what was going on with the links at first, I think the colors were ultimately an accessibility boost, and they gave me more tools to tell a more complicated and nuanced story.

I’ve played a lot of Twine games where the player was supposed to feel unsettled or confused, and confusion about what a link was likely to do helped to create this feeling. However, my stories are usually about specific characters whom the player “plays” like a character in a play. They are “controllable,” but they have personalities, and I want to convey very specific things about their personalities and experiences. This requires a precision of communication that is not possible when all links look confusingly alike.

Anyway, I’m still excited to figure out cool new stuff to do with replace! I feel like I’m really starting to “get hypertext” in a way that I couldn’t when I was exposed to lifeless, dull, academic hypertext stories in college. There’s a huge difference between learning about interactive story structure by reading dull writer dudes from the 90s, and learning about it by actually examining how it affects your own work. I learned a lot while writing Swan Hill and I can’t wait to apply it to my next project.

Swan Hill

swanhillSwan Hill is an interactive story about brothers who have grown apart. It has multiple endings.

You can play it here.

Thanks to all my many playtesters, who helped me turn this project around over the last few weeks.


This story took me two months to write. It marks my first time using Leon Arnott’s Replace macro. I am now addicted to the Replace macro.

Swan Hill contains an image from the Getty Open Content Program. I highly recommend this program to people who are looking for images for use in Twine stories and other free interactive fiction projects on the web.


If you are curious, here is the twine .tws file.

Here is a screenshot of the node map.