In April, I wrote Collateral: A Twine game that’s part thriller, part revenge tragedy, part holiday horror. Players take on the role of Jamie, trapped with their roommate Joel in a remote cabin. A gunman dressed as a red angel pins them down. Inside the cabin are 25 briefcases, one for each day of the Christmas advent. Starting on December 1st, the red angel reads out a code to unlock the day’s briefcase.
If you’re interested in playing it before reading about how I wrote the game, you can play Collateral here.
Collateral is a little piece where a lot happens, as its two revenge tragedies play out over the course of 25 days. Because we immediately establish the rules, stakes, we’re free to start unraveling the mystery of why it’s all happening – revealing the past and present simultaneously and, in doing so, undermining the player’s ability to trust, which forces increasingly desperate decisions.
Crucial to the success of the piece is its timing. When are questions raised? When are they answered? Each reveal complicates the player’s understanding of their situation and ratchets the tension. Pull one rug out from beneath the player, obliging them to hop to another – let them rest for a moment before pulling out that rug as well – then the other, then the next, until there’s only the bare floor. Then open that and swallow the player whole.
It’s a matter of timing. Give away too much too soon, and you’ll not only abridge your story; you'll have uninvested players as well. Give away too little too late, and they’ll quit the game out of boredom and go onto something better. Planting the seeds of doubt means giving them time to grow. There is a time to sow and a time to reap. Get it right, and you’ll captivate the player.
In Collateral’s inception and first iteration, however, I’d created a framing that made this pacing impossible. The story was mostly the same as the final version, with one crucial difference: in its original form, Collateral was a reverse revenge story. The player was not Jamie, the one caught up in the revenge; nor were they the Wainwright boy, the revenger; but they played as Joel, the one being revenged upon.
I’ve always wanted to write a reverse revenge story, where the evil has already been committed, and the player stands against retribution as it inexorably comes their way – where the player is Macbeth when the wood comes toward Dunsinane.
I think it's possible to write such a story. I think it can even be written in a space as small as Collateral, with more time and planning. But there is so much more for the writer to juggle in this situation, it was untenable.
First, the exposition is far more intensive – how and why did you do this? What have you done since then? What are you living for now? In the final version, the answer is just that you’re innocent and want to keep living your life, thank you. It’s an instant win because it doesn’t require the player to agree to anything of who they are or what they’ve done – there’s no controversial opinion to steer there, so you’re free to get into the story.
Second, it gives the player too much knowledge upfront to act on – why wouldn’t they run far away, or fight back, or go into hiding, or turn themselves in? Because they know so much, they’ll want to act upon that knowledge, as would indeed be their right to do. By keeping the player in the dark, revealing light slowly over time, you keep their available options in check.
Third, the themes of justice and grace are – in my estimation – far less abstract in Collateral’s final set-up than they are in the original. It’s easier to pass meaningful, considered judgment on another than it is yourself.
All of these problems were cleared away by changing the framing from Joel’s perspective to Jamie’s. My wanting to write the reverse revenge tragedy impeded my writing a good story. By killing that darling, I enabled the piece to be what it needed to be. I can only hope my darling takes no offense at being cut, and that I am in no fear of being cut by it in turn.