Babyface Dev Diary – Origins

Cover art of the game Babyface, featuring the title and a large gasmask
Babyface coverart

So, Babyface is a thing I made. It’s a creepypasta-style Southern Gothic horror story. I’ve entered the game into the 26th annual Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp for short). You can play Babyface right now! I’ve followed IFComp for years—since at least 2007—but this is the first time I’ve made anything for the competition. Not that I haven’t wanted to, but finally everything lined up: my idea, the time to write it, the skills to do it, and finally the deliberate shift in my professional life from conventional scholarship to creative coding.

IFComp authors often share a “developer’s diary” that details their creative and coding process. I don’t really consider myself a developer. I’m more of a “I make weird things for the internet” person. But still, I thought I’d give this dev diary thing a try. If nothing else, than to debrief myself about the design process. I’ve blurred the text of any spoilers—just hover or tap on the blurred text to read it.

Babyface wasn’t supposed to be my game for IFComp. I was working on another game, a much larger game, a counterfactual history of eugenics in America. The game is basically asking what if CRISPR-like gene editing technology had been invented in the 1920s, the height of the eugenics movement. The game is heavily researched and includes meaningful choices (unlike Babyface, which is more or less on rails). But! But! But—I ended up talking about the game in conference talks and symposiums and showing it to enough people that it felt like it would be disqualified for IFComp, which has a strict rule that the competition must be the public debut of the game. So I released that game (or rather, the first “chapter” of it) back in May as You Gen #9. Play it, please!

Anyway, I was left without a game, which was fine. But then I had a horrific nightmare in May, and I couldn’t get one image out of my head. It literally haunted me. And then in July Stacey Mason on Twitter announced a fortnightly interactive fiction game jam. So I started playing around with my nightmare, trying to give it context and a narrative frame. Pretty quickly I realized the game was going to be too ambitious (LOL, it’s really quite a modest game, but it felt ambitious to me) to finish in two weeks for a game jam. So I continued working on the game all through August and September. On one hand three months to put together a polished game is not a lot of time. On the other hand, I had been working in Twine almost every day for the past year, and the story is modest (my best estimate is around 16,000 words, though it’s tough to measure word counts in a game with dynamic text). Plus there’s not a lot of state logic to keep track off. No complicated inventory systems, no clever NPCs. Just the narrator, a few interactions, and her memories.

I’ll talk more about specific design choices in a future post, but for now I wanted to say a few words about the setting. Like most Gothic fiction, the setting itself is a character in the game.

I was working with a concrete geography in Babyface. The old brick house is based on a real house in my small North Carolina college town. I could walk there right now in about 20 minutes, all on pleasant neighborhood streets. Less than five minutes by car. A recluse lived there, and the house, as in the game, is down the street from the local elementary school. The recluse died a few years ago, and it was some time before anybody even knew. Somebody eventually bought the property, tore down the old brick house, and put up a gaudy McMansion.

One detail I had wanted to include in the game but decided against, because it would have seemed too unbelievable: between the old house and the elementary school there’s a cemetery. I had considered incorporating the cemetery into the story as the narrator runs away from the house, but it just seemed too forced. One of those instances where real life out-narrativizes fiction, and in order to make the fiction more palatable, you have to dial back the realism.

The Southern backdrop is understated, though I dropped in enough clues that some readers might realize the centrality of the South in the game. More about those later…

What do you think?