So TryFail is basically done. I've made a build for betatesting and sent it out to a select group of testers (those that volunteered). Not all of them have gotten back to me, but I can already draw a conclusion based on their responses.
People tend to get the basic theme and understand the metaphor in the interaction. There's a sound that makes them misunderstand a bit of it, but not in a crucial way; however, it needs to be fixed.
So the immediate message and metaphor is clear.
However, almost all of them didn't get the second level of understanding, which should come when you reflect about the game (and these are very, very bright people).
So the questions is how direct I can make the message? and how?
I don't think I'll make it more direct; TryFail is not a commercial game and I'm trying to see if I can prompt people to analyze & reflect more about games, - less action, more reflection. If we can make people approach games analytically as they do with movies & books, we'll create the audience for conceptually challenging and metaphorically games.
Compare this piece on Josef Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" from Wikipedia to a normal (or even sophisticated) game review:
The opening sentence of the novella is famous in English:
"When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous insect."
"Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt."
Kafka's sentences often deliver an unexpected impact just before the full stop— that being the finalizing meaning and focus. This is achieved due to the construction of sentences in German that require that the participle be positioned at the end of the sentence; in the above sentence, the equivalent of 'changed' is the final word, 'verwandelt'. Such constructions are not replicable in English, so it is up to the translator to provide the reader with the same effect found in the original text.
English translators have often sought to render the word Ungeziefer as "insect", but this is not strictly accurate. In Middle German, Ungeziefer literally means "unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice" and is sometimes used colloquially to mean "bug" – a very general term, unlike the scientific sounding "insect"
(continued at wikipedia - se under "Lost In Translation")
Nobody analyzes games to this level, - not even to themselves. Nobody expects to have to analyze games this deeply and most games (even indiegames) aren't designed to be analyzed like this.
We need to make our audience understand that they are expected - required even - to make this kind of analysis on artgames; to go beyond the given in a game and work with the metaphors on all levels of the game, - rules, aesthetics, interaction, progression, everything. Or else games as an artform won't be able to go beyond the immediate perception of the game.
(In fact, the very defining difference between artgames and regular/indie games could very well be that they require this type & level of interpretation).
Jason Rohrer's Passage is a extremely nice game with a lot of metaphors in it. When it came out, a lot of people enjoyed it, promoted it and discussed it. In the end, Jason posted an analysis of the game where he described his intended interpretation of the game, - down to each feature, trade-off and graphic.
Regardless of Jason's motives for this analysis, this analysis is now the authoritative interpretation of the game. No matter how you perceive Passage, if you differ from this, you will be wrong. Anyone will be able to say "That's not how it's supposed to be, - according to the creator Jason Rohrer it's...".
Imagine if Kafka & Nietzsche had done something like that; how much intellectual inspiration we would have lost from their works; all the many interpretations that never would have happened...
I don't want this to be perceived as a critique of Jason or what he is doing in general; - he's clearly a talented, inspired and ambitious auteur and we need a lot more of those. We need games made by inspired individuals with a vision; we need inspired individuals with a vision.
Jason probably made the analysis because he was tired of answering questions about the game or because he wanted people to get the full picture and all the details. He's very adamant about people making up their own mind before they read his analysis. However, after they've read it, their own interpretation will be inaccurate (assuming that it differs from Jason's).
The point that I'm trying to get across is that I don't think it's constructive to give an authoritative interpretation to the players, - even if they want it. Not even the indie-game-audience are used to games that require this level of interpretation, so they ask for a manual.
For TryFail, they'll have to contend with a replay and a discussion.
BTW: I submitted TryFail to the Freeplay Independent Games Festival in Melbourne, Australia. Let's see what happens (probably nothing, - but you never know).