5 things that made Journey to the End of the Night awesome

Runners preparing for Journey on the steps of the Powerhouse Museum
Runners preparing for Journey on the steps of the Powerhouse Museum

Last night I joined Grant and Bill Cohen in running a city-wide chase game called Journey to the End of the Night. It’s a US system, and it’s the first time it’s been run in Sydney, so we started off fairly low-key; in the end we had about 20 crew and about 60 players, which suited us pretty well. I ran & walked (mostly walked, admittedly) somewhere in the region of 7 miles around the city, coordinating runners by text message as we hunted down the players, and in the end we had 11 survivors who got round every checkpoint without being caught. It was enormous fun.

This is why it worked well.

The system

Journey is a very efficient system. It’s a simple, clear, uncomplicated ruleset that you can explain in a few words: run around all the checkpoints in any order, then get to the endzone, without being caught. If you’re caught, you have to chase the players. Catch three, and you can respawn back as a runner. Clean and crisp.

The core of the game is uncomplicated fun. It’s enormous fun to run around the city after dark with your friends hiding from people, especially when you know you have support nearby if you need it. It’s fun for fit people who enjoy running, and it’s also fun for people who like hiding and sneaking or thinking laterally about the logistics of things – it’s not always the best runners who win, it’s those who can avoid being caught. It’s a solid system that lends itself to all sorts of locations, and – because of the exponential nature of the catching system – it scales very well between small and large groups. Most of the success or failure of the game is down to the route you pick.

The route

We spent a lot of time ahead of the game scoping out potential checkpoint sites and creating a good route. There’s lots of variety in the areas we eventually picked – even if you don’t see a chaser for the whole time, you run through a mix of heavily-populated areas where anyone might be a chaser, and quiet back streets where there might be one around any corner. We picked checkpoints that weren’t easy to chain with public transport, though a couple of guys took an unorthodox ferry-and-tram route to save themselves some time. (I’m still impressed they did that.)

The checkpoints themselves were sometimes a little tricky. Two in particular gave us problems with spawn camping – player chasers lurking on the obvious entry and exit routes and ambushing runners, which wasn’t massively fair. It’s almost impossible to make rules to mitigate that sort of behaviour, so you have to rely on level design; when you don’t have the ability to manipulate levels yourself, because you can’t actually remodel traffic intersections just for your own games, sometimes you’re stuck with less-than-ideal areas. A good checkpoint is one that’s small but completely open on all sides, rather than large but with only one or two useful ingress routes. The best checkpoints are in the middle of huge open spaces with lots of potential cover, so players end up ducking in and out of hedges, trees and play equipment just in case there are chasers around.


Andy, aka the Terminator
Andy, aka the Terminator

Speaking of which: our star chaser, Andy, was a one-man army who managed to create exactly the right feeling of paranoia and fear right from the start. He’s a long distance runner. He went running before the game started, for fun. By the end of the night he’d acquired the nickname ‘Terminator’. One man hid under a car to escape him. Another vaulted into a construction site. Some people recruited passers-by as camouflage to help avoid his gaze. He was so fast and had so much stamina that hiding or outwitting him were your only options as players: simply outrunning him would never work. He was astonishing.

And from a crew perspective, he was invaluable too: he was checking in at regular intervals, letting us know which way players were scattering so we could set up less-manoeuvrable chasers to give them a good run. He was happy to go where he was needed most, and responsive to instructions. And, despite being the scariest thing in the game, he only caught two runners: the rest just had very near misses. Andy was incredible.


It’s been too long since I ran the sort of game that finishes up with froth. At the end of the night, we set up a couple of tables on Observatory Hill, a tricky-to-reach but beautiful park with gorgeous views across the harbour. By the time I got there most of the survivors had arrived and crew were still trickling in from across the city. I walked in to be surrounded by stories: the making of mythologies, happening around me. Many of them about Andy.

Froth is a LARP slang term for discussing events during a game, but out of character, afterwards. It lets you process what’s happened during an event, collaboratively building a single story out of the most exciting moments, turning what can be quite a disjointed experience into a coherent narrative.

GIving people space to froth after a game is one of the most important things you can possibly do. And lots of sporting events do it too: Tough Mudder, for instance, has a superb back-slapping and beer session once the race is over, which is all about frothing over what’s happened to you during your run. You make friends, you meet up with folks you lost on the way, you get to hear the stories of other people’s miraculous successes or so-close failures.

The view from the end zone
The view from the end zone

When I walked up to the hill last night, before I’d managed to get a bottle of water and say hi to the other crew, four different runners had already told me a little story of how they escaped a chaser or how they caught one of their friends or what happened when Andy showed up.

The players

People are amazing. People turned up last night to a random free event, excited to see what happens next, willing to suspend their disbelief and explore and create together. People turned up happy to play – playing to win, playing to have fun, playing to see what happened next.

That goes for the crew, too. We had a superb volunteer crew, all happy to take hours out of their Saturday nights to run around, sit about, sign papers, chat to players, and chase them around the city. We quite literally could not have run the game without those people, and they all made it better for the players by being so committed to maintaining the playful nature of the evening.

One woman got caught early on and then tried to head her friend off by taking a shortcut to where she knew he’d have to go. Then they had a tickle fight – he won, and left her giggling on the floor as he sprinted away into the darkness. With players like that, the game can’t help but be fun to run.

What’s next?

We’re going to be running Journey again in Sydney, I hope – there’s definitely appetite for it. But first, Grant and I are running a new game, Spirits Walk, in Melbourne in collaboration with Pop Up Players, on March 7, 8 and 9. You can reserve a space here.

You can now pay money for Detritus. This is why

Detritus screenshot showing text, a link and the Westfield tower in SydneyI’ve put Detritus up on itch.io, a service that lets you distribute digital games and ask for payment. It also lets you set a zero minimum payment, so you can pay what you want but also access it for free.

I thought about this one for a while. Detritus isn’t a hugely popular game, but it’s been played by a few hundred people now. I made it as a way to learn, and it turned out far better than I expected. I spent many hours writing it, coding it, making it work.

A lot of other people do the same things with their games, but they’re not in the fortunate position I am. I can afford not to care whether I get paid for my digital games right now. But most people can’t.

I want to contribute to a community where people don’t feel pressured to give away their work for free. I don’t write for free for anyone but myself, even though I’m not in need of freelance income, because I refuse to undercut freelancers who do need the work. I certainly wouldn’t do strategy, production, SEO or social work for free. I have a tiny, miniscule amount of power to take a stance that says: it is OK to charge for your work, your art, your time, your skills, your expertise.

So Detritus is on itch.io. You don’t have to pay for it, because I don’t need the money. But it should be possible to pay for it, it should be understood that this is a thing that is worth money, because small games by small creators are worth money and worth paying for. If you’d like to donate what you think it’s worth, or share it with your friends, the link is here.

Ludonarrative Discodance: how to be silly in public

Because if you want other people to look silly in public, you have to get them started somehow
Because if you want other people to look silly in public, you have to get them started somehow

Ludonarrative Discodance is a pun that got really, really out of hand. It’s also, somehow, a game we actually ran this weekend in Melbourne as part of the Playroom at This Is A Door. I’m eternally indebted to Pop Up Playground for the opportunity and the time and the wine involved in making that happen.

Grant’s already posted an excellent write-up that you should read if you want to fully understand (a) what on earth we did at the weekend and (b) why on earth he now has that moustache. (As of current writing, he still has the moustache. He has shaved the rest of his face, but not that bit. It’s possible he thinks I haven’t noticed.)

LD was a bit of a shot in the dark, a silly idea that got out of control, but it worked. The core of the game is performing a silly dance and, across a crowded room, seeing the person who’s performing your dance too – then running up to them, confirming it, and smiling broadly before running off to collect another card. It’s clubbing rendered down into shorthand: a breaking-down of boundaries, feeling more comfortable with our own bodies and the bodies of other people, a game of connections and performance and acceptance. People told me it recreated the poor impulse control of being drunk, too, which I like.

Despite the daftness of it, it is a game which lets you say – “Do you want to dance with me?” and for the answer to be yes more often than no. Which is pretty neat for a lot of people, including me, who are used to the opposite. And for it to be a safe question to ask, too.

The gist of the game is paired charades with dancing. Disco music plays and you dance, while also trying to find the other person doing the same dance as you. Round one is nice and easy: you have to act out disco moves – the hip thrust, the hand jive, the Uma-Thurman-in-pulp-fiction. Round two is harder – the lost keys, the high-noon shootout – while round three has you act out films like the Lion King while trying to find someone else crawling around, roaring, holding small lions up to the sunlight etc.

We didn’t get chance to do a full playtest before we ran in Melbourne, which meant the first few plays needed some tweaking. More disco admin staff, different balances of cards – having both Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings didn’t really work, for instance, but Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean worked perfectly as foils for each other to make the game a little harder. (Both involve a lot of waving swords around, which can also be mistaken for Harry Potter.) I’d like to run other versions, other editions, perhaps tailored to different crowds or different themes. But there’s something about disco that really, really works.

The Matrix, obviously
The Matrix, obviously

Fundamentally, the game’s about being silly in public, and being rewarded for it. The more exaggerated and daft you are, the better you’ll be at the game – if you hold back, you won’t score so many points. So it’s in your best interests to throw yourself into things and shed a few inhibitions in the process. Something about disco music just works for that, somehow; lots of us have mental images of Saturday Night Fever (though not the rape and drowning bit, obviously) and memories of school discos to use as touchstones for that kind of dancing. If you don’t, well, there are instructions on the cards.

It’s equal opportunity silliness: everyone looks as daft as you, so you might as well have fun with it. And it’s a good way to get people mixing and mingling, talking and laughing – you present your silliest, most overblown, daftest self and then someone else dances up to you and there’s a moment of recognition where you both grin.Often people would add little flourishes, dancing together for a moment before coming to hand in the cards – synchronised disco pointing, putting on Cinderella’s shoe, twirling towards the disco admin team in time to classical music no one else could hear.

My personal favourite card from this play was the dad-at-a-wedding. Everyone interpreted it differently, but it was surprising how recognisable it was. I got to see people’s joy as they worked out what was going on and got into the groove; actively encouraging people to dance badly is, it turns out, a great way to get them moving and laughing.

We played perhaps a dozen other games – eight shows in three days, two hours each, with Ludonarrative Discodance just a small part of the proceedings. Rainbow Running has a similar physicality, but it’s competitive in a broad way rather than collaborative, and it’s definitely not silly. Impossible Book Club is all about discussing a book that doesn’t exist, so it’s performative and intellectual and silly in a slightly different way. But my personal favourite from the weekend was The Ride, a game about slow-motion fighting and Valkyries.

Victory. Also Valkyrie.
Victory. Also Valkyrie.

You start with a cardboard axe or sword. You challenge an opponent from the other army. Then you battle in slow motion, not landing a blow until the Valkyries decide who should die. There’s smoke and dramatic music and shouting, and dramatic deaths on the floor. Then you do it again, but this time the dead fighters are spirits who can help out their living comrades, by helping them throw weapons or carrying them across the battlefield or repelling enemy attacks. Even if you lose, you get to lose in the most epic and glorious way possible, and then you get to help your fellow players to achieve even greater heights of epicness and glory.

It is a gorgeous game, absorbing, entertaining and delightful. It is beautifully, wonderfully silly, in a way everyone can get behind, because once again everyone is being silly, playful and physical, in public together at the same time. That’s something we don’t get to do as adults nearly often enough.

Ludonarrative Disco Dance in Melbourne this weekend

A bearded man in a bright pink wig that has three different disco-related light settings
Grant has acquired a tasteful and attractive costume for the game

Serious Business is premiering a new game this weekend at the all day playroom at This Is A Door, an excellent month-long festival of interesting games and play run by the Pop Up Players in Melbourne.

The game is called Ludonarrative Disco Dance. It’s possible we started with the name and then worked backwards until we had a decent concept. If it all works as well as we hope it does, we’ll be running the game in other places, cities and quite possibly continents in the next few months.

The playroom is happening at Theatre Works in St Kilda, and tickets are $20/25 from the Theatre Works website or on the door. If you’re in the city, please come along, say hi, and let us know what you think.

ibis, fly!


I made a story game called ibis, fly! It’s about being an ibis, and not really fitting in, and simple pleasures. It has four possible endings and a (sort of) win condition, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Structurally it’s far simpler than Detritus, and it should only take you five minutes or so to play it through from beginning to end. If you have bug reports or feedback please let me know.

Play ibis, fly!

Detritus: lessons learned from making my first Twine game

Node map for Detritus. Broken-looking passages use the print macro to link based on the contents of a variable.
Node map for Detritus. Broken-looking passages use the print macro to link based on the contents of a variable.

One of the side projects I’ve been hacking away at in my spare time recently is Detritus, an interactive fiction game thing about, well, packing. It’s a packing sim. In all it’s taken me about two months of intermittent work, including a couple of days where I put in six hours or so on it.

It’s made using Twine, a pleasingly versatile game creation tool that lends itself really well to branching narratives. It’s widely used by all sorts of awesome game makers, and it’s capable of a great deal more than it at first appears. There’s a Google group associated with making it better; there are some talented people devoting themselves to making macros for it, chunks of code that extend its native capacities to let people who can’t code do complicated things simply. I’m indebted to Porpentine’s resources list and a bunch of Webbed Space’s macros – without those things Detritus would have been impossible.

It’s much cleverer than it would be if I’d tried to do it all from scratch myself. I learned while building it that by far the best way to implement my ideas was to build on the work other people have done before me. It is not the first time I’ve bodged something together standing on the shoulders of giants, but it’s the first time I’ve literally copied slugs of code without knowing anything about what they do, as though they were magic spells where my only input is to know the activation words. It is humbling to create with tools other people have given freely to the world.

I learned that sometimes, not knowing what you’re getting yourself into leads to bigger, more exciting work than you’d originally intended. I decided, when I started it, that Detritus would have five short acts, each one using a different technique, because that would be a good way to teach myself some of Twine’s idiosyncracies and I’d come out of it knowing which ones worked for me and with some ideas about how to employ them. I thought it’d be a quick project. If I’d realised, when I chose the first objects the player encounters, that my choices would lead to having to write fifty separate individual passages and a reasonably complex looping system to make act 5 work, I might have chosen to do it differently. But I don’t regret that choice at all – it’s a much deeper, more intricate piece than I’d otherwise have written.

I learned that it’s sometimes better to work out what you’re doing before you do it, too. At one point about half way through act 3 I spent an upsetting amount of time stripping out and redoing the inventory system so it used array variables rather than single-item strings, because I had a list of twenty or so individual variables that might have several values and I was trying to write if statements and failing horribly because of the complexity. Not incidentally, I also learned quite a lot about Javascript array variables. And I learned that no matter how many bugs you think you’ve squashed, in a project this complex, there will always be at least one more. (Detritus has done more for my coding ability in two months than Codecademy managed in six.)

I learned about branching. Every time a narrative branches in a game like this, the path not taken by the player can, if you like, be seen as wasted work. If you want your players to see everything, you have to avoid branching too much, or branch only with descriptive elements. But the flip side is that then player choices don’t necessarily have much weight. I wanted Detritus to have weight in every decision, and it felt right to close off branches, to leave much more unread by the player than read, every time. It’s a game about loss, and that loss ought to be expressed mechanically, not just verbally; that’s why I wanted to use Twine to tell an interactive story, after all, rather than just writing something linear to express it. The game’s 27,000 words long, but the average playthrough will see less than a quarter of what’s written. There are easter eggs down some pathways, too, that mean much more because they aren’t signposted, and because they’re easy to leave behind.

Biggest and best thing about making Detritus, though, has been the wonderful feeling of making a solo creative project work, seeing it through from opening lines to existence in the wider world as an actual thing that people can genuinely play. It’s been too long since I did that, and without Twine and the community around it I probably still wouldn’t have managed. The democratisation of creative tools has meant an explosion in the numbers of people who can create and publish, in games and in fiction just as in other forms of publication. People with stories to tell or games to make can do so. Even if that story is a packing sim about loss and carrying your life in a suitcase. It is a wonderful thing.

Detritus: a Twine game

A couple of months ago, mid-move, I started a new project – a Twine game/interactive fiction thing called Detritus. I think it’s finished enough to share with the world.

It was meant to be quite a small experiment to see if I could teach myself the medium as well as using it to express something that’s almost impossible to express through non-interactive media. It got a bit more ambitious than that, I think mostly because I had no idea what I was doing or how tricky some of it was technically. At some point soon, when I’m a little bit less close to it and it’s had some air, I’ll blog about making it.

Any bug reports or feedback, please let me know. You can play it by clicking here: it should have sound running in some parts.