What is it?
Long Time Coming is an "infidelity sim" in which you've just cheated on your boyfriend, and must lie your way through an evening with him without getting caught. It's also an experimental visual novel that involves literally throwing knives at the screen during tense emotional situations.
Wait, what? (How it works)
Most of the game is a fairly typical visual novel, involving clicking on branching dialogue choices to try and weasel your way out of the situation. However, if your lies don't match up or the boyfriend says something particularly inflammatory, the game will switch to "Knife Mode" and you are presented with three targets: Confess, Recover, and Be Hostile. Each of these targets is mapped to a different letter on the keyboard.
Whenever a Knife Event is activated, you must grab a throwing knife and let your accuracy be a metaphor for relationship instability by piercing the target of your choice. Aim poorly, and you could end up blurting out the truth when you meant to evade the question! If the timer runs out before you hit any of the targets, you automatically Confess, and the game ends.
The game is projected on a special white board resembling a painter's canvas. Inside the board are two layers of tinfoil, separated by a foam mat. The back layer of foil is connected via alligator clips to a Makey Makey, a fun Arduino-like device which allows any conductive material (including bananas, water, and human flesh) to simulate a computer input such as mouse click or keyboard press. Most of this is invisible to the player, however, who can fully control the game at a distance using a laptop. That is, of course, until a Knife Event is triggered.
The throwing knife, once it pierces the board, acts as a "bridge" between the two layers of tinfoil, triggering the Makey Makey and fooling the computer into thinking a key has been pressed (whichever keys were mapped to the target in Ren'Py).
For photos and more information on the knife board interface, see my collaborator Nadine Lessio's detailed blog post on how she made it.
Which Lie Did I Tell? Design Notes
The game wasn't always about infidelity. Nadine and I paired up for the jam with no ideas other than A) Nadine had this concept for a knife-throwing interface that sounded pretty cool, and B) we didn't want to go the obvious route of making a game about actually throwing/stabbing enemies with knives. Eventually we decided to make the knives into a metaphor, where your accuracy in throwing them would represent your inability to control your own emotions.
From there, I sketched a number of ideas involving a "lie mechanic", which I thought could be a good scenario where people might find themselves screwing up and having to scramble to recover themselves. Some early ideas included a police interrogation and an OK Cupid date where you're trying to cover up the lies in your profile, but the "cheated on boyfriend" idea quickly took front and center. I liked the idea that the entire game could take place in the Boyfriend's apartment, and that different rooms could act as different "levels" as you progress through the story. Also, the emotional stakes seemed appropriately high without being too serious, as befitting a game where you throw pointy things at a screen.
- I wrote the lie scenarios so that the player would have different degrees of untruth to choose from. They could range from the natural ("The TTC was late") to improbable or comedic ("I got mugged on the way here!") to evasive ("Can't we just watch the movie?"). In Ren'Py, every lie triggers a flag that indicates which story you've told. If your stories start to conflict later in the game, they will trigger more Knife Events, thus increasing the potential to screw up and accidentally hit the Confess target.
Originally the lies were supposed to "stack", meaning they would increase in complexity and potential for contradiction the further you got in the game. However, this mechanic eventually took a backseat to the relationship drama, which is why there's large chunks of conversation where your characters' anxiety and frustration are revealed by things other than trying to keep her secret. It did make for stronger characterization, I think, but there is still potential for the lying to reach such absurd heights that it would become impossible for the player to avoid detection. Definitely a writing/design challenge.
- Since this is a visual novel, the game has three possible endings. Unfortunately, due to the limited time frame we had to complete the game, which ending you get is not as dependent on your choices as I would have liked. Given the time, I would have implemented an invisible scoring system that keeps track of all the times you chose a negative response or hit the Hostile target during a Knife event. If the player scored, say, over 5 Hostile reactions, this would trigger the Fight ending, instead of it being a single choice near the end of the game that doesn't take into account the rest of the player's decisions.
None of the story outcomes are particularly different from each other, which I guess is commentary on that phase of certain relationships where the only question left is how long both parties can drag it out until the inevitable breaking point. (If you manage to not get caught, you get a download code to the game's action-packed sequel, Longer Time Coming: The Sharpening).
- The Knife Event targets are triangular because it was an easy shape for the Makey Makey/tinfoil set-up to work. It makes sense that Recover would be the smallest triangle to make it more difficult to hit, but we randomized the target layout for a slightly different challenge. (I asked Nadine if it was possible to have a target formed in concentric circles like a bullseye, but naturally this would have been tricky to pull off in the time she had to build the thing.)
- Aside from the changes mentioned above, you can tell the game was written in two days as the placeholder writing can often be awkward or hilariously lazy. But as far as prototypes go, that skeleton can dance. It would be nice to go back and make a non-knife version with updated art and writing that people can play at home, but for now, the prototype is downloadable from Itch.io if you're curious.
Player Response: "I feel so guilty! He made me eggplant parmigiana!"
LTC is a difficult game to describe to people. It's even more difficult to set up in public due to all the specialized hardware, but in the rare times we've managed it, it's always interesting to see players' reactions.
- I am often asked if the game is based on personal experience. The answer is no, not directly- I've never cheated, nor been cheated on- but that being said, I think anyone who's been in a serious relationship that is teetering on the precipice can relate to some of the emotional elements. As for Marcus, he's thankfully not based on anyone I know in real life, but rather a composite of traits exaggerated from observation- subtle put-downs and backhanded compliments, the tools of a Nice Guy who uses power imbalances to his advantage. Although I'm not convinced he deserves what he got in the game, I didn't want to make it too easy to feel sorry for him...
- At the beginning of the game, your boyfriend makes you eggplant parmigiana. One player was immediately consumed with guilt because "eggplant parmigiana is my favourite dish and how could I have cheated on this man??" However, as the game progressed, her feelings about the boyfriend took a 180. "Oh, this guy's kind of an asshole." This trajectory was not uncommon; however, some people took a disliking to Marcus from the very start, citing his obnoxious goatee as a dead giveaway.
- Originally, I had assumed that players would immediately try to push the story to the limit by choosing the most absurd, improbable responses first, but that turned out not to be the case. Most players took the story fairly seriously, and played as conservatively as possible. This meant almost everyone ended up choosing the same narrative path by selecting only the most evasive answers, and trying to avoid triggering Marcus' suspicion with outright lies or hostility.
Since confession naturally ends the game, and the goal of the player is to get through as much of the story as possible without getting caught, I suppose this puts LTC in that camp of games where the condition to win is at direct odds with the morally responsible (and most boring) thing to do. The fact that Marcus is kind of a passive-aggressive jerk sort of just emerged as I wrote the script- I have no idea if it would change player behaviour if he'd been a saint. I'm guessing probably not.
- At Fan Expo, a couple of young boys started playing the game without adult supervision. They played it the way any pair of 10-year olds would play a game, which is to say, clicking through the dialogue as fast as possible and then screaming at each other to press Recover before the timer on the Knife Event screen ran down. I don't think they read any of the text or understood the premise of the story at all, which is good, because it has swear words and sex stuff.
Long Time Coming was showcased at the Toronto Long Winter arcade in March 2013, where we were placed next to the bar in a crowded room full of swirling lights and loud music. Although Nadine was put in charge of the knife-handling over safety concerns, we were still intercepted by a pair of cops who wanted to know why we were stabbing things with sharp objects in the midst of a bunch of potentially drunken party-goers. Nadine immediately launched into a detailed technical explanation of the game and how it used a Makey Makey hooked up to a Bluetooth adapter, how the knives completed the tinfoil circuit, etc., which I swear must have confused the police officers so thoroughly that they handed our knives back and let us off with a brief warning. We were already packing up at that point so there weren't really any consequences, but I'll never forget the time a video game almost got me in trouble with the law.
LTC was also displayed sans knife board at the Dames Making Games booth for Fan Expo Canada.
Finally, Nadine and I were interviewed for episode 29 of the Built to Play podcast, a Vector-Based Romance. Our segment starts at 44:18.