Here’s some thoughts about Cragne Manor in the context of earlier experiments. Cragne Manor is a game written by 84 people as a tribute to Mike Gentry’s Anchorhead. Each person wrote a different room without seeing any of the other rooms (except for the two organisers, Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna). (I wrote the penultimate room and designed some aspects of the game’s meta-puzzle. I’ve also played the game to completion.)
In group projects, structure is key. Ryan Veeder gave Cragne Manor constructed a matrix of rooms and puzzle sequences in which all the content could slot into, as each part hadto meet a small set of specific requirements (room exits, input or output items, only one room). Within these constraints, writers could expand as much as they fancied. Jenni Poldna and Ryan did a great job at wrangling people to conform to this structure so everything would work together.
With some (notable!) exceptions, the game is remarkable consistent in tone: with each player being give the names of the rooms, and most having a feel for what Anchorhead is like, the locations believably fit together.
In Cragne Manor there are a number of separate puzzle tracks (object trading, information trading, book collection, room unlocking etc.) which leads up to a final combination of all the end items and information. Participants could choose whether they wanted a room with a puzzle or somewhere purely atmospheric. This helped tie everything together, but did add to an extraordinary profusion of junk objects and arbitrary constrictions. While it’s a rich experience to play, and the meta-structure is solid, there arises a lot of questionable design. For instance, there are at least four separate and non-interchangeable cutting objects. For this to have been avoided the game would have required more interventionist organising (unfeasible given the already heroic effort involved in wrangling so many contributors), or a property-based puzzle structure (which may have been too prescriptive for the authors and a lot more work to design).
Despite the wild inconsistency of plot, back-story and character, Cragne Manor was a more coherent game than the most equivalent project, that of IF Whispers. In IF Whispers, authors receive the last written room and the game emerges out this Chinese-whispers-like process. In all but the last IF Whispers game, the participants had no access to earlier rooms beyond the one immediately preceding their own. This means that there is no over-arching continuity in the end result. The enjoyment then is mostly for the participants.
The exception was 2012’s IF Whispers 5. There were only 5 participants: Chris Conley, who organised the project and wrote the start & finish; Marius Müller, who along with Chris and myself also contributed to Cragne Manor; Tom Blawgus; myself, Joey Jones; and Porpentine. Chris wrote the end and the beginning and knew what was happening, so he could guide things towards making sense. Each of the rest of us wrote two rooms each, written in a circular, with each player only having access to the previous room. Each person could also add extra constraints or rules to the project as they went (like, “The cat will not die.”, “Yourself has a need called silence.”) The result was one in which there could be bizarre sequences, but everything tied together in the end. Like Cragne Manor, sticking within the horror genre allowed the bizarre or incongruous to gel better together.
Other structures have worked well for these kinds of loose mass collaborations. Alabaster is a conversation game in which ten different people contributed conversation threads without seeing each other’s work. The start was written by Emily Short who also edited it for consistency afterwards. As such it hangs together well.
Where authors continue to be interested in taking part in these kind of projects, there remains much space left for further experimentation.