Planet Interactive Fiction

July 01, 2016

Wade's Important Astrolab

News about ME (Clash of the Type-Ins)

by Wade (noreply@blogger.com) at July 01, 2016 10:05 AM

Experience a leisurely, digressive thrill at least once every two minutes for probably considerably too many minutes as I chat, jest and otherwise interact in various novel ways with Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna, the sometimes wacky, sometimes soulful hosts of podcast Clash Of The Type-Ins.

In episode 34 we play my award-winning™ IF Six from 2011, about little kids playing hide'n'seek tip in the park.

If you never heard the audio from Six before, I cut it all into the podcast, though Ryan didn't cut out me also verbally describing what was being heard in each case (which I had to do for the hosts, who couldn't hear it) resulting in a delivery of information that some would describe as 2 X POWERED UP! but which cynical members of Generation X like myself might describe as Redundant.

There's a decent number of digs at Millennials in this podcast, so be ready for that if you are one.

Clash of the Type-Ins can be got here.

Thanks Ryan and Jenni for having me.

An important reinforcement of news not about ME

by Wade (noreply@blogger.com) at July 01, 2016 09:54 AM

People who know and have done a lot of IF, and who either love organisation and oversight, or are highly driven by cause, and/or who exhibit a mixture of all of the above qualifications, have formed the non-profit Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation

Its homepage is http://www.iftechfoundation.org/

Its facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/iftechfoundation/

The way I read it, the foundation's plan is to help look after the tools, services and culture of IF in a way that should take the pressure off a random collection of individuals to have to do so. In this light, I'm reminded of how all the individuals have done pretty stellar jobs holding the structures aloft to date.

I guess most people involved in making IF, including myself, have pointed their attention at the bits that interest them and tried to help keep those bits going, or contribute to them or maintain them. And sometimes there have been bits You are interested in personally, but which you don't have the skills to help with. At a low level, the do-what-you-can and hope-for-what-you-want experience has probably been a bit frustrating for everyone involved. I don't expect a pile of instant solutions from the new foundation, but I'm glad and grateful that the IF folk who feel they can or want to or must address such issues are thinking about the long term.

I like helping people with things I can help them with, but I hate organising stuff. Just thinking about itARRRRRRRRGHHH!

June 30, 2016

Sibyl Moon Games

Announcing the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation (IFTF)

by Carolyn VanEseltine at June 30, 2016 09:01 PM

Dear everyone,

I admit it: I haven’t been absent just because my day job has been busy. I’ve also been working on an exciting new project with Jason McIntosh, Andrew Plotkin, Chris Klimas, and Flourish Klink, and I’m delighted that today is the day we can unveil it to you all.

The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation is a nonprofit organization that will support interactive fiction players, authors, and communities. We’re carrying out that mission through technology: we want to maintain, preserve, and improve the tools and services that people use to create and distribute IF. We’ll also develop new projects to foster the continued growth of IF. (More mission details here!)

Our first project, already underway, is assuming stewardship of IFComp. There’s an official IFComp blog post discussing this, but in essence – IFComp now owns its own code and copyrights, which is important for legal reasons.

Other projects on the horizon:

Twine stewardship. We’re going to explore ways to provide legal and financial support to the Twine project and its community infrastructure.

IF accessibility. We want to create a programs that will identify ways to bring popular IF platforms up to modern accessibility standards. We will assist projects in implementing these improvements, and we will create permanent accessibility guidelines for future work.

(More project and program details here!)

You can sign up for IFTF news via Twitter, Facebook, or our announcements-only mailing list. We also accept grants and donations from the public, if you would like to donate.

On a personal note….

I believe fervently that self-expression is a human right, and art is a core aspect of self-expression, and game development is a form of art. In IFTF, I see not only a way to improve the tech underlying various IF communities, but an opportunity to celebrate the sheer variety and wonder of modern IF. It’s no accident that one of our first programs focuses on accessibility – we recognize the diversity of IF players and authors, and we want IF to be open to everybody.

I’m very proud to be part of this effort, and I believe we can make a real difference. Down the road, there will be many ways to get involved, both by joining committees and through volunteering for various programs. If you love IF too, I hope you’ll spread the word and let people know we exist.

IFTF_logo_blackonwhite

The People's Republic of IF

July meetup

by zarf at June 30, 2016 08:00 PM

The Boston IF meetup for July will be Wednesday, July 13, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

Topic: the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation! Go ahead, try to shut me up about it. :)

IFComp News

IFComp is now part of IFTF

June 30, 2016 07:01 PM

Starting today – well, starting several days ago, really, with some minor website updates still pending – IFComp now operates under the stewardship of The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation, a new, charitable nonprofit organization that seeks to help maintain and preserve the software and services that make modern IF possible.

What does this mean to you, the IFComp participant? Not a whole lot, really – none of the competition’s rules or policies are changing as a result of this, and IFComp is led by the same team of volunteers. But, as I wrote on the intfiction.org forum post announcing IFTF to the community:

Through IFTF, IFComp can now effectively own its own code and copyrights. Community-provided funding (and, where applicable, tax-deductible volunteer work) can significantly broaden IFComp’s own technological and organizational potential. And formally transferring the ownership from an individual to a nonprofit company also grants IFComp a new measure of safety and stability. I see all these as infrastructural improvements that IFComp, important as it is to the IF community and the world beyond as well, has long deserved.

So there you have it. And, of course, if you love IFComp, you now have a new way to support it through donations to IFTF, for which we would be humbly grateful.

Please feel free as always to direct any questions about IFTF or IFComp’s relationship with it to us at ifcomp@ifcomp.org.

Emily Short

End of June Link Assortment

by Emily Short at June 30, 2016 07:00 PM

June 30, Introcomp intent deadline. You have just a few hours to register your intent to enter this year’s Introcomp, a chance to get your game introduction in front of a bunch of players and collect their feedback.

July 3, Oxford, the Oxford/London Meetup is doing a WIP exchange to share and critique one another’s work. The RSVP list is currently full, but if you join the waitlist you’ll be notified if a spot becomes available. (These sessions need to be pretty small to be effective, hence the low ceiling.)

July 9, the SF Bay Area IF group meets.

I’ll be in Hong Kong, Kyoto, Tokyo, Honolulu, and Seattle over the course of late July/August. If you’re in one of those places and think it would be useful to meet and talk, drop me a line. My time is not unlimited, but as always I’m happy to try to set things up where useful.

Sept 17 (well into the future, but worth knowing in advance) there’s an all-day Roguelike Celebration event that might be of crossover interest to IF folks, especially if you like procedural generation or procedural narrative. Nick Montfort will be speaking.

Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation Launch

Today is the launch of the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation (main website here). This is a non-profit, fundraising body in a position to do things like

  • provide long-term stewardship of important IP assets and infrastructure
  • raise (tax deductible!) funds for critically important developments such as Twine

I know this may sound rather dull and legal, but it is in fact very important. A lot of fundamental assets of the interactive fiction community, from the IF Archive to the various coding tools, have survived on quiet individual support — but no one person is able to provide support indefinitely. IFTF will be in a position to receive rights assignments and look after some of these projects. And some things, like Twine itself, perform their mission effectively only by being freeware, but would benefit from financial support from those in a position to offer it.

Then there are plans like this:

IFTF intends to create a program during the coming year that will help identify ways to bring popular IF platforms up to modern accessibility standards. We will assist projects in implementing these improvements, and create permanent accessibility guidelines for future IF work.

Again, accessibility is important, but often individual authors don’t have the skills or resources to make sure they’re meeting accessibility standards. This is a good work, and I’m excited to see where it goes.

Game releases and announcements

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 1.50.35 PM.png

Classic parser IF games by Magnetic Scrolls have been difficult to access or play for some time, but now Magnetic Scripts offers them for free play in the browser. And if you’re curious to see more history of Magnetic Scrolls, Digital Antiquarian is as usual an excellent source on their creation and publishing.

Adam Cadre has launched a tutorial IF game for iOS, designed to teach new users about the parser (and possibly prepare them for the other iOS parser games he’s also got in the App Store).

Mike Preston (Map, Fifteen Minutes as “Ade McT”) has announced his forthcoming game Worldsmith, a parser-based game with a great deal of creation possibility, expected in fall of 2016. To quote the press release:

“As you explore the world of the Septem Tower, you will create solar systems and Life, unearth ancient mysteries, and discover the secrets behind the Septem Tower and its billion year mission.”

Patanoir and Hadean Lands are also both now available on Steam, if you’ve been waiting for the day when more parser IF would turn up there.

Yarn is an iOS app that repackages Twine games for mobile consumption. It already features several familiar Twine works on its platform. An Android version is forthcoming, together with more authoring tools.

Bring Out Your Dead, the jam for unfinished and abandoned works, closed with 89 entries. Comments are gradually still appearing on these, and Planet-IF has some commentary and reviews from various people. I hope to run a few more posts on this myself.

It’s not, to the best of my knowledge, new this month, but I also played and liked Niamh Schönherr’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, a Twine piece about the process of discovering trans identity. It isn’t doing anything especially startling in terms of interactivity style, but I enjoyed it.

Paid IF (and similar) Writing

Voicemap is a platform for building audio tours with GPS location tie-ins, where the listener unlocks new content by traveling around the designated area. They are open to including fictional work as well as factual tours, and are actively seeking new creators. They do not provide the voiceover work, so you’d need to record your own.

Payment structure is based on a 50% royalty on post-app-store earnings, with no advances offered; download volumes vary from multiple thousands to just a handful. So compared with some IF-like writing opportunities out there, this would be unlikely to earn much in the first instance, if you even reached the $100 mark at which they start paying out.

However, they do offer an editor on-hand to help you get your project into shape, and if you’re particularly interested in location-tie-in writing, this might be the most broadly accessible tool currently out there.

As noted here earlier this month, Sub-Q and Whodunnit Manor are also both seeking new writers.

Reviews and Other Venues

I have a new Rock Paper Shotgun column, exclusively about IF, where I’ll be doing news, reviews, and articles on various types and styles of game. RPS is a site dedicated to PC games, so exclusively mobile work won’t be suitable for coverage, but that leaves quite a lot of material available to investigate. If you think something you’re working on would be appropriate for coverage, feel free to get in touch. (I make no guarantees about the results: as always, I will choose what I consider most newsworthy and notable.)

Podcasts

Clash of the Type-Ins offers two new episodes in the second half of this month, with Carolyn VanEseltine and Wade Clarke.

Meanwhile, inkle’s podcast has been very busy, with observations on interactive film, VR, and lessons from interactive fiction.

Craft and Tools

Genre writing is like pro wrestling – the rare moments of truth dig in really deep, because as an audience you’re so completely primed to expect it to be entirely fake. So whenever we look at what concerns or thrills or saddens us, and we stuff that into science fiction or fantasy, that’s like aiming for the chink in people’s armour of irony. That’s like a gloriously ridiculous WWE cage match climaxing when a meaty, spray-tanned man dives into a bed of actual thumbtacks.

Spooky Action at a Distance has a long, detailed interview with Bruno Dias about writing in general, writing hypertext specifically, his upcoming Voyageur project, and procedural text generation. And if you like that, you might also like Bruno’s devlog.

And in particular, he has some detailed technical advice about how to scrape web sources for procedural generation corpora. Recommended if you have also caught the procgen bug.

If ink is more your thing, Luis Diaz offers this development diary about working with ink and Unity.


Choice of Games

Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation Announced, Takes Over IFComp

by Dan Fabulich at June 30, 2016 05:01 PM

Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation

http://www.iftechfoundation.org/press/interactive-fiction-technology-foundation-announced/

Cambridge, Massachusetts, 30 June 2016—The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation (IFTF) was formally announced today as the first-ever nonprofit formed to support the success and growth of all forms of interactive fiction — text adventures, choice-based games, visual novels, and more. The Foundation’s mission is to ensure the ongoing maintenance, improvement, preservation, and development of tools and services necessary to the creation and distribution of interactive fiction. IFTF also announced today that it will assume stewardship of the prestigious Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp).

Interactive fiction is a game category where the player’s interactions primarily involve text. Examples run the gamut from classic titles such as as Infocom’s Zork (the bestselling computer game of 1980), to more contemporary work including Zoe Quinn’s controversial Depression Quest (2013), or inkle studios’ 80 Days (TIME magazine’s 2014 Game of the Year).

In order to further support and broaden the reach of interactive fiction, a team of category veterans came together this year to found IFTF. The board of directors includes President Jason McIntosh (principal organizer of IFComp), Andrew Plotkin (the most award-winning interactive fiction author of all time and author of Hadean Lands), Carolyn VanEseltine (founder of Sibyl Moon Games and former Harmonix developer), Chris Klimas (creator of Twine), and Flourish Klink (Chief Research Officer of Chaotic Good Studios).

The Annual Interactive Fiction Competition is the largest and longest-running competition of its kind, founded in 1995 by Kevin Wilson and having taken place annually ever since. In 2015, more than 20,000 people took part in making, playing, or rating the 53 games entered into the twenty-first IFComp. Under IFTF’s stewardship, IFComp will receive long-lacking legal and financial support to ensure its continued presence as a cornerstone of the modern IF community.

“IFComp is just the first of many efforts that we want to help with this foundation,” says Chris Klimas. “People have given so much of themselves to projects like it, not for any external reward but because of their love of interactive fiction, and we want to make sure that work endures.” Carolyn VanEseltine adds, “The formation of IFTF begins a new chapter in interactive fiction history. With input and help from players, authors, and communities, we’ll maintain old tools and create new ones so this unique art form thrives for years to come.”

IFComp is just the beginning: IFTF seeks to support all parts of the interactive fiction community. It is currently considering ways to best support the Twine platform’s growth and development. A project to increase the accessibility of works of interactive fiction is also in planning stages. To learn more, visit IFTF’s website: http://www.iftechfoundation.org/.

I’m on the Advisory Board of IFTF and I’m super excited about it!

The Digital Antiquarian

Peter Molyneux’s Kingdom in a Box

by Jimmy Maher at June 30, 2016 05:01 PM

Peter Molyneux, circa 1990

Peter Molyneux, circa 1990.

I have this idea of a living world, which I have never achieved. It’s based upon this picture in my head, and I can see what it’s like to play that game. Every time I do it, then it maybe gets closer to that ideal. But it’s an ambitious thing.

— Peter Molyneux

One day as a young boy, Peter Molyneux stumbled upon an ant hill. He promptly did what young boys do in such situations: he poked it with a stick, watching the inhabitants scramble around as destruction rained down from above. But then, Molyneux did something that set him apart from most young boys. Feeling curious and maybe a little guilty, he gave the ants some sugar for energy and watched quietly as they methodically undid the damage to their home. Just like that, he woke up to the the idea of little living worlds with lots of little living inhabitants — and to the idea of he himself, the outsider, being able to affect the lives of those inhabitants. The blueprint had been laid for one of the most prominent and influential careers in the history of game design. “I have always found this an interesting mechanic, the idea that you influence the game as opposed to controlling the game,” he would say years later. “Also, the idea that the game can continue without you.” When Molyneux finally grew bored and walked away from the ant hill on that summer day in his childhood, it presumably did just that, the acts of God that had nearly destroyed it quickly forgotten. Earth — and ants — abide.

Peter Molyneux was born in the Surrey town of Guildford (also hometown of, read into it what you will, Ford Prefect) in 1959, the son of an oil-company executive and a toy-shop proprietor. To hear him tell it, he was qualified for a career in computer programming largely by virtue of being so hopeless at everything else. Being dyslexic, he found reading and writing extremely difficult, a handicap that played havoc with his marks at Bearwood College, the boarding school in the English county of Berkshire to which his family sent him for most of his teenage years. Meanwhile his less than imposing physique boded ill for a career in the military or manual labor. Thankfully, near the end of his time at Bearwood the mathematics department acquired a Commodore PET,  while the student union almost simultaneously installed a Space Invaders machine. Seeing a correspondence between these two pieces of technology that eluded his fellow students, Molyneux set about trying to program his own Space Invaders on the PET, using crude character glyphs to represent the graphics that the PET, being a text-only machine, couldn’t actually draw. No matter. A programmer had been born.

These events, followed shortly by Molyneux’s departure from Bearwood to face the daunting prospect of the adult world, were happening at the tail end of the 1970s. Like so many of the people I’ve profiled on this blog, Molyneux was thus fortunate enough to be born not only into a place and circumstances that would permit a career in games, but at seemingly the perfect instant to get in on the ground floor as well. But, surprisingly for a fellow who would come to wear his huge passion for the medium on his sleeve — often almost as much to the detriment as to the benefit of his games and his professional life — Molyneux took a meandering path filling fully another decade to rise to prominence in the field. Or, to put it less kindly: he failed, repeatedly and comprehensively, at every venture he tried for most of the 1980s before he finally found the one that clicked.

Perhaps inspired by his mother’s toy shop, his original dream was to be not so much a game designer as a computer entrepreneur. After earning a degree in computer science from Southampton University, he found himself a job working days as a systems analyst for a big company. By night, he formed a very small company called Vulcan in his hometown of Guildford to implement a novel scheme for selling blank disks. He wrote several simple programs: a music creator, some mathematics drills, a business simulator, a spelling quiz. (The last, having been created by a dyslexic and terrible speller in general, was a bit of a disaster.) For every ten disks you bought for £10, you would get one of the programs for free along with your blank disks. After placing his tiny advertisement in a single magazine, Molyneux was so confident of the results that he told his local post office to prepare for a deluge of mail, and bought a bigger mailbox for his house to hold it all. He got five orders in the first ten days, less than fifty in the scheme’s total lifespan — along with about fifty more inquiries from people who had no interest in the blank disks but just wanted to buy his software.

Taking their interest to heart, Molyneux embarked on Scheme #2. He improved the music creator and the business simulator and tried to sell them as products in their own right. Even years later he would remain proud of the latter in particular — his first original game, which he named Entrepreneur: “I really put loads of features into it. You ran a business and you could produce anything you liked. You had to do things like keep the manufacturing line going, set the price for your product, decide what advertising you wanted, and these random events would happen.” With contests all the rage in British games at the time, he offered £100 to the first person to make £1 million in Entrepreneur. The prize went unclaimed; the game sold exactly two copies despite being released near the zenith of the early-1980s British mania for home computers. “Everybody around me was making an absolute fortune,” Molyneux remembers. “You had to be a complete imbecile in those days not to make a fortune. Yet here I was with Entrepreneur and Composer, making nothing.” He wasn’t, it appeared, very good at playing his own game of entrepreneurship; his own £1 million remained far out of reach. Nevertheless, he moved on to the next scheme.

Scheme #3 was to crack the business and personal-productivity markets via a new venture called Taurus, initiated by Molyneux and his friend Les Edgar, who were later joined by one Kevin Donkin. Molyneux having studied accounting at one time in preparation for a possible career in the field (“the figures would look so messy that no one would ever employ me”), it was decided that Taurus would initially specialize in financial software with exciting names like Taurus Accounts, Taurus Invoicing, and Taurus Stock Control. Those products, like all the others Molyneux had created, went nowhere. But now came a bizarre story of mistaken identity that… well, it wouldn’t make Molyneux a prominent game designer just yet, but it would move him further down the road to that destination.

Commodore was about to launch the Amiga in Britain, and, this being early on when they still saw it as potential competition for the IBMs of the world, was looking to convince makers of productivity software to write for the machine.  They called up insignificant little Taurus of all people to request a meeting to discuss porting the “new software” the latter had in the works to the Amiga. Molyneux and Edgar assumed Commodore must have somehow gotten wind of a database program they were working on. In a state of no small excitement, they showed up at Commodore UK’s headquarters on the big day and met a representative. Molyneux:

He kept talking about “the product,” and I thought they were talking about the database. At the end of the meeting, they say, “We’re really looking forward to getting your network running on the Amiga.” And it suddenly dawned on me that this guy didn’t know who we were. Now, we were called Taurus, as in the star sign. He thought we were Torus, a company that produced networking systems. I suddenly had this crisis of conscience. I thought, “If this guy finds out, there go my free computers down the drain.” So I just shook his hand and ran out of that office.

An appropriately businesslike advertisement for Taurus's database manager gives no hint of what lies in the company's futures.

An appropriately businesslike advertisement for Taurus’s database manager gives no hint of what actually lies in the company’s future…

By the time Commodore figured out they had made a terrible mistake, Taurus had already been signed as official Amiga developers and given five free Amigas. They parlayed those things into a two-year career as makers of somewhat higher-profile but still less than financially successful productivity software for the Amiga. After the database, which they named Acquisition and declared “the most complete database system conceived on any microcomputer” — Peter Molyneux’s habit of over-promising, which gamers would come to know all too well, was already in evidence — they started on a computer-aided-design package called X-CAD Designer. Selling in the United States for the optimistic prices of $300 and $500 respectively, both programs got lukewarm reviews; they were judged powerful but kind of incomprehensible to actually use. But even had the reviews been better, high-priced productivity software was always going to be a hard sell on the Amiga. There were just three places to really make money in Amiga software: in personal-creativity software like paint programs, in video-production tools, and, most of all, in games. In spite of all of Commodore’s earnest efforts to the contrary, the Amiga had by now become known first and foremost as the world’s greatest gaming computer.

The inspiration for the name of Bullfrog Software.

The inspiration for Bullfrog Software.

Molyneux and his colleagues therefore began to wind down their efforts in productivity software in favor of a new identity. They renamed their company Bullfrog after a ceramic figurine they had lying around in the “squalor” of what Molyneux describes as their “absolutely shite” office in a Guildford pensioner’s attic. Under the new name, they planned to specialize in games — Scheme #4 for Peter Molyneux. “We had a simple choice of hitting our head against a brick wall with business software,” he remembers, “or doing what I really wanted to do with my life anyway, which was write games.” Having made the choice to make Bullfrog a game developer, their first actual product was not a game but a simple drum sequencer for the Amiga called A-Drum. Hobgoblins and little minds and all the rest. When A-Drum duly flopped, they finally got around to games.

A friend of Molyneux’s had written a budget-priced action-adventure for the Commodore 64 called Druid II: Enlightenment, and was looking for someone to do an Amiga conversion. Bullfrog jumped at the chance, even though Molyneux, who would always persist in describing himself as a “rubbish” programmer, had very little idea how to program an action game. When asked by Enlightenment‘s publisher Firebird whether he could do the game in one frame — i.e., whether he could update everything onscreen within a single pass of the electron gun painting the screen to maintain the impression of smooth, fluid movement — an overeager Molyneux replied, “Are you kidding me? I can do it in ten frames!” It wasn’t quite the answer Firebird was looking for. But in spite of it all, Bullfrog somehow got the job, producing what Molyneux describes as a “technically rather poor” port of what had been a rather middling game in the first place. (Molyneux’s technique for getting everything drawn in one frame was to simply keep shrinking the size of the display until even his inefficient routines could do the job.) And then, as usual for everything Molyneux touched, it flopped. But Bullfrog did get two important things out of the project: they learned much about game programming, and they recruited as artist for the project one Glenn Corpes, who was not only a talented pixel pusher but also a talented programmer and fount of ideas almost the equal of Molyneux.

Despite the promising addition of Corpes, the first original game conjured up by the slowly expanding Bullfrog fared little better than Enlightenment. Corpes and Kevin Donkin turned out a very of-its-time top-down shoot-em-up called Fusion, which Electronic Arts agreed to release. Dismissed as “a mixture of old ideas presented in a very unexciting manner” by reviewers, Fusion was even less impressive technically than had been the Enlightenment port, being plagued by clashing colors and jittery scrolling — not at all the sort of thing to impress the notoriously audiovisually-obsessed Amiga market. Thus Fusion flopped as well, keeping Molyneux’s long record of futility intact. But then, unexpectedly from this group who’d shown so little sign of ever rising above mediocrity, came genius.

To describe Populous as a stroke of genius would be a misnomer. It was rather a game that grew slowly into its genius over a considerable period of time, a game that Molyneux himself considers more an exercise in evolution than conscious design. “It wasn’t an idea that suddenly went ‘Bang!'” he says. “It was an idea that grew and grew.” And its genesis had as much to do with Glenn Corpes as it did with Peter Molyneux.

Every Populous world is built out of combinations of just 16 blocks.

Every Populous world is built out of combinations of just 56 blocks.

It all began when Corpes started showing off a routine he had written which let him build isometric landscapes out of three-dimensional blocks, like a virtual Lego set. You could move the viewpoint about the landscape, raising and lowering the land by left-clicking to add new blocks, right-clicking to remove them. Molyneux was immediately sure there was a game in there somewhere. His childhood memory of the ant farm leaping to mind, he said, “Let’s have a thousand people running around on it.”

Populous thus began with those little people in lieu of ants, wandering independently over Corpes’s isometric landscapes in real time. When they found a patch they liked, they would settle down, building little huts. Since, this being a computer game, the player would obviously need something to do as well, Molyneux started adding ways for you, as a sort of God on high, to influence the people’s behavior in indirect ways. He added something he called a “Papal Magnet,” a huge ankh you could place in the world to draw your people toward a given spot. But there would come a problem if the way to the Ankh happened to be blocked by, say, a lake. Molyneux claims he added Populous‘s most basic mechanic, the thing you spend by far the most time doing when playing the game, as a response to his “incompetence” as a coder and resulting inability to write a proper path-finding algorithm: when your people get stuck somewhere, you can, subject to your mana reserves — even gods have limits — raise or lower the land to help them out. With that innovation, Populous from the player’s perspective became largely an exercise in terraforming, creating smooth, even landscapes on which your people can build their huts, villages, and eventually castles. As your people become fruitful and multiply, their prayers fuel your mana reserves.

Next, Molyneux added warfare to the picture. Now you would be erecting mountains and lakes to protect your people from their enemies, who start out walking about independently on the other side of the world. The ultimate goal of the game, of course, is to use your people to wipe out your enemy’s people before they do the same to you; this is a very Old Testament sort of religious experience. To aid in that goal, Molyneux gradually added lots of other godly powers to your arsenal, more impressive than the mere raising and lowering of land if also far more expensive in terms of precious mana: flash floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. You know, all your standard acts of God, as found in the Bible and insurance claims.

Lego Populous. Bullfrog had so much fun with this implementation of the idea that they seriously discussed trying to turn it into a commercial board game.

Lego Populous. Bullfrog had so much fun with this implementation of the idea that they seriously discussed trying to turn it into a commercial board game.

Parts of Populous were prototyped on the tabletop. Bullfrog used Lego bricks to represent the landscapes, a handy way of implementing the raising-and-lowering mechanic in a physical space. They went so far as to discuss a license with Lego, only to be told that Lego didn’t support “violent games.” Molyneux admits that the board game, while playable, was very different from the computerized Populous, playing out as a slow-moving, chess-like exercise in strategy. The computer Populous, by contrast, can get as frantic as any action game, especially in the final phase when all the early- and mid-game maneuvering and feinting comes down to the inevitable final genocidal struggle between Good and Evil.

Bullfrog. From left: Glenn Corpes (artist), Shaun Cooper (tester), Peter Molyneux (designer and programmer), Kevin Donkin (designer and programmer), Les Edgar (office manager), Andy Jones (artist and tester).

Bullfrog. From left: Glenn Corpes (artist and programmer), Shaun Cooper (artist and tester), Peter Molyneux (designer and programmer), Kevin Donkin (designer and programmer), Les Edgar (office manager), Andy Jones (artist and tester).

Ultimately far more important to the finished product than Bullfrog’s Lego Populous were the countless matches Molyneux played on the computer against Glenn Corpes. Apart from all of its other innovations in helping to invent the god-game and real-time-strategy genres, Populous was also a pioneering effort in online gaming. Multi-player games — the only way to play Populous for many months — took place between two people seated at two separate Amigas, connected together via modem or, if together in the same room as Molyneux and Corpes were, via a cable. Vanishingly few other designers were working in this space at the time, for understandable reasons: even leaving aside the fact that the majority of computer owners didn’t own modems, running a multi-player game in real-time over a connection as slow as 1200 baud was hardly a programming challenge for the faint-hearted. The fact that it works at all in Populous rather puts the lie to Molyneux’s self-deprecating description of himself as a “rubbish” coder.

You draw your people toward different parts of the map by placing the Papal Magnet. The first one to touch it becomes the leader. There are very few words in the game, which made it much easier to localize and popularize across Europe. Everything is done using the initially incomprehensible suite of icons you near the bottom of the screen.

You draw your people toward different parts of the map by placing the Papal Magnet. The first one to touch it becomes the leader. There are very few words in the game, which only made it that much easier for Electronic Arts to localize and popularize across Europe. Everything is instead done using the initially incomprehensible suite of icons you near the bottom of the screen. Populous does become intuitive in time, but it’s not without a learning curve.

Development of Populous fell into a comfortable pattern. Molyneux and Corpes would play together for several hours every evening, then nip off to the pub to talk about their experiences. Next day, they’d tweak the game, then they’d go at it again. It’s here that we come to the beating heart of Molyneux’s description of Populous as a game evolved rather than designed. Almost everything in the finished game beyond the basic concept was added in response to Molyneux and Corpes’s daily wars. For instance, Molyneux initially added knights, super-powered individuals who can rampage through enemy territory and cause a great deal of havoc in a very short period of time, to prevent their games from devolving into endless stalemates. “A game could get to the point where both players had massive populations,” he says, “and there was just no way to win.” With knights, the stronger player “could go and massacre the other side and end the game at a stroke.”

A constant theme of all the tweaking was to make a more viscerally exciting game that played more quickly. For commercial as well as artistic reasons — Amiga owners weren’t particularly noted for their patience with slow-paced, cerebral games — this was considered a priority. Over the course of development, the length of the typical game Molyneux played with Corpes shrank from several hours to well under one.

Give them time, and your people will turn their primitive villages into castles -- and no, the drawing isn't quite done to scale.

Give them time, and your people will turn their primitive huts into castles.

Even tweaked to play quickly and violently, Populous was quite a departure from the tried-and-true Amiga fare of shoot-em-ups, platformers, and action-adventures. The unenviable task of trying to sell the thing to a publisher was given to Les Edgar. After visiting about a dozen publishers, he convinced Electronic Arts take a chance on it. Bullfrog promised EA a finished Populous in time for Christmas 1988. By the time that deadline arrived, however, it was still an online multiplayer-only game, a prospect EA knew to be commercially untenable. Molyneux and his colleagues thus spent the next few months creating Populous‘s single-player “Conquest Mode.”

In addition to the green and pleasant land of the early levels, there are also worlds of snow and ice, desert worlds, and even worlds of fire and lava to conquer.

In addition to the green and pleasant land of the early levels, there are also worlds of snow and ice, desert worlds, and even worlds of fire and lava to conquer.

Perilously close to being an afterthought to the multi-player experience though it was, Conquest Mode would be the side of the game that the vast majority of its eventual players would come to know best if not exclusively. Rather than design a bunch of scenarios by hand, Bullfrog wrote an algorithm to procedurally generate 500 different “worlds” for play against a computer opponent whose artificial intelligence also had to be created from scratch during this period. This method of content creation, used most famously by Ian Bell and David Braben in Elite, was something of a specialty and signpost of British game designers, who, plagued by hardware limitations far more stringent than their counterparts in the United States, often used it as a way to minimize the space their games consumed in memory and on disk. Most recently, Geoff Crammond’s hit game The Sentinel, published by Firebird, had used a similar scheme. Glenn Corpes believes it may have been an EA executive named Joss Ellis who first suggested it to Bullfrog.

Populous‘s implementation is fairly typical of the form. Each of the 500 worlds except the first is protected by a password that is, like everything else, itself procedurally generated. When you win at a given level, you’re given the password to a higher, harder level; whether and how many levels you get to skip is determined by how resounding a victory you’ve just managed. It’s a clever scheme, packing a hell of a lot of potential gameplay onto a single floppy disk and even making an effort to avoid boring the good player — and all without forcing Bullfrog to deal with the complications of actually storing any state whatsoever onto disk.

It inevitably all comes down to a frantic final free-for-all between your people and those of your enemy.

It inevitably all comes down to a frantic final free-for-all between your people and those of your enemy.

Given their previous failures, Bullfrog understandably wasn’t the most confident group when a well-known British games journalist named Bob Wade, who had already played a pre-release version of the game, came by for a visit. For hours, Molyneux remained too insecure to actually ask Wade the all-important question of what he thought of the game. At last, after Wade had joined the gang for “God knows how many” pints at their local, Molyneux worked up the courage to pop the question. Wade replied that it was the best game he’d ever played, and he couldn’t wait to get back to it — prompting Molyneux to think he must have made some sort of mistake, and that under no circumstances should he be allowed to play another minute of it in case his opinion should change. It was Wade and the magazine he was writing for at the time, ACE (Advanced Computer Entertainment), who coined the term “god game” in the glowing review that followed, the first trickle of a deluge of praise from the gaming press in Britain and, soon enough, much of the world.

Bullfrog’s first royalty check for Populous was for a modest £13,000. Their next was for £250,000, prompting a naive Les Edgar to call Electronic Arts about it, sure it was a mistake. It was no mistake; Populous alone reportedly accounted for one-third of EA’s revenue during its first year on the market. That Bullfrog wasn’t getting even bigger checks was a sign only of the extremely unfavorable deal they’d signed with EA from their position of weakness. Populous finally and definitively ended the now 29-year-old Peter Molyneux’s long run of obscurity and failure at everything he attempted. In his words, he went overnight from “urinating in the sink” and “owing more money than I could ever imagine paying back” to “an incredible life” in games. Port after port came out for the next couple of years, each of them becoming a bestseller on its platform. Populous was selected to become one of the launch titles for the Super Nintendo console in Japan, spawning a full-blown fad there that came to encompass comic books, tee-shirts, collectibles, and even a symphony concert. When they visited Japan for the first time on a promotional tour, Molyneux and Les Edgar were treated like… well, appropriately enough, like gods. Populous sold 3 million copies in all according to some reports, an almost inconceivable figure for a game during this period.

Amidst all its other achievements, Populous was also something of a pioneer in the realm of e-sports. The One magazine and Electronic Arts hosted a tournament to find the best player in Britain.

The One magazine and Electronic Arts hosted a tournament to find the best Populous player in Britain.

While a relatively small percentage of Populous players played online, those who did became pioneers of sorts in their own right. Some bulletin-board systems set up matchmaking services to pair up players looking for a game, any time, day or night; the resulting connections sometimes spanned national borders or even oceans. The matchmakers were aided greatly by Bullfrog’s forward-thinking decision to make all versions of Populous compatible with one another in terms of online play. In making it so quick and easy to find an online opponent, these services prefigured the modern world of Internet-enabled online gaming. Molyneux pronounced them “pretty amazing,” and at the time they really were. In 1992, he spoke excitedly of a recent trip to Japan, where’d he seen a town “with 10,000 homes all linked together. You can play games with anybody in the place. It’s enormous, really enormous, and it’s growing.” If only he’d known what online gaming would grow into in the next decade or two…

A youngster named Andrew Reader wound up winning the tournament, only to get trounced in an exhibitio match by the master, Peter Molyneux himself. There was talk of televising a follow-up tournament on Sky TV, but it doesn't appear to have happened.

A youngster named Andrew Reader wound up winning the tournament, only to get trounced in an exhibition match by the master, Peter Molyneux himself. There was talk of televising a follow-up tournament on Sky TV, but it doesn’t appear to have happened.

The original Amiga version of Populous had been released all but simultaneously with the Amiga version of SimCity. Press and public alike immediately linked the two games together; AmigaWorld magazine, for instance, went so far as to review them jointly in a single article. Both Will Wright of SimCity fame and Peter Molyneux were repeatedly asked in interviews whether they’d played the other’s game. Wright was polite but, one senses, a little disinterested in Populous, saying he “liked the idea of playing God and having a population follow you,” but “sort of wish they’d gone for a slightly more educational angle.” Molyneux was much more enthusiastic about his American counterpart’s work, repeatedly floating a scheme to somehow link the two games together in more literal fashion for online play.  He claimed at one point that Maxis (developers of SimCity) and his own Bullfrog had agreed on a liaison “to go backwards and forwards” between their two companies to work on linking their games. The liaison, he claimed, had “the Populous landscape moving to and from SimCity,” and a finished product would be out sometime in 1992. Like quite a number of the more unbelievable schemes Molyneux has floated over the years, it never happened.

The idea of a linkage between SimCity and Populous, whether taking place online or in the minds of press and public, can seem on the face of it an exceedingly strange one today. How would the online linkage actually work anyway? Would the little Medieval warriors from Populous suddenly start attacking SimCity‘s peaceful modern utopias? Or would Wright’s Sims plop themselves down in the middle of Molyneux’s apocalyptic battles and start building stadiums and power plants? These were very different games: Wright’s a noncompetitive, peaceful exercise in urban planning with strong overtones of edutainment; Molyneux’s a zero-sum game of genocidal warfare that aspired to nothing beyond entertainment. Knowing as we do today the future paths of these two designers — i.e., ever further in the directions laid down by these their first significant works — only heightens the seeming dichotomy.

That said, there actually were and are good reasons to think of SimCity and Populace as two sides of the same coin. For us today, the list includes first of all the reasons of simple historical concordance. Each marks the coming-out party of one of the most important game designers of all time, occurring within bare weeks of one another.

But of course the long-term importance of these two designers to their field wasn’t yet evident in 1989; obviously players were responding to something else in associating their games with one another. Once you stripped away their very different surface trappings and personalities, the very similar set of innovations at the heart of each was laid bare. AmigaWorld said it very well in that joint review: “The real joy of these programs is the interlocking relationships. Sure, you’re a creator, but even more a facilitator, influencer, and stage-setter for little computer people who act on your wishes in their own time and fashion.” It’s no coincidence that, just as Peter Molyneux was partly inspired by an ant hill to create Populous, one of Will Wright’s projects of the near future would be the virtual ant farm SimAnt. In creating the first two god games, the two were indeed implementing a very similar core idea, albeit each in his own very different way.

Joel Billings of the king of American strategy games SSI had founded his company back in 1979 with the explicit goal of making computerized versions of the board games he loved. SimCity and Populous can be seen as the point when computer strategy games transcended that traditional approach. The real-time nature of these games makes them impossible to conceive of as anything other than computer-based works, while their emergent complexity makes them objects of endless fascination for their designers as much or more so for than their players.

In winning so many awards and entrancing so many players for so long, SimCity and Populous undoubtedly benefited hugely from their sheer novelty. Their flaws stand out more clearly today. With its low-resolution graphics and without the aid of modern niceties like tool tips and graphical overlays, SimCity struggles to find ways to communicate vital information about what your city is really doing and why, making the game into something of an unsatisfying black box unless and until you devote a lot of time and effort to understanding what affects what. Populous has many of the same interface frustrations, along with other problems that feel still more fundamental and intractable, especially if you, like the vast majority of players back in its day, experience it through its single-player Conquest Mode. Clever as they are, the procedurally generated levels combined with the fairly rudimentary artificial intelligence of your computer opponent introduce a lot of infelicities. Eventually you begin to realize that one level is pretty much the same as any other; you just need to execute the same set of strategies and tactics more efficiently to have success at the higher levels.

Both Will Wright and Peter Molyneux are firm adherents to the experimental, boundary-pushing school of game design — an approach that yields innovative games but not necessarily holistically good games every time out. And indeed, throughout his long career each of them has produced at least as many misses as hits, even if we dismiss the complaints of curmudgeons like me and lump SimCity and Populous into the category of the hits. Both designers have often fallen into the trap, if trap it be, of making games that are more interesting for creators and commentators than they are fun for actual players. And certainly both have, like all of us, their own blind spots: in relying so heavily on scientific literature to inform his games, Wright has often produced end results with something of the feel of a textbook, while Molyneux has often lacked the discipline and gravitas to fully deliver on his most grandiose schemes.

But you know what? It really doesn’t matter. We need our innovative experimentalists to blaze new trails, just as we need our more sober, holistically-minded designers to exploit the terrain they discover. SimCity and Populous would be followed by decades of games that built on the possibilities they revealed — many of which I’d frankly prefer to play today than these two original ground-breakers. But, again, that reality doesn’t mean we should celebrate SimCity and Populous one iota less, for both resoundingly pass the test of historical significance. The world of gaming would be a much poorer place without Will Wright and Peter Molyneux and their first living worlds inside a box.

(Sources: The Official Strategy Guide for Populous and Populous II by Laurence Scotford; Master Populous: Blueprints for World Power by Clayton Walnum; Amazing Computing of October 1989; Next Generation of November 1998; PC Review of July 1992; The One of April 1989, September 1989, and May 1991; Retro Gamer 44; AmigaWorld of December 1987, June 1989, and November 1989; The Games Machine of November 1988; ACE of April 1989; the bonus content to the film From Bedrooms to Billions. Archived online sources include features on Peter Molyneux and Bullfrog for Wired Online, GameSpot, and Edge Online. Finally, Molyneux’s postmortem on Populous at the 2011 Game Developers Conference.

Populous is available for purchase from GOG.com.)


Comments

The Gameshelf: IF

The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation: a new nonprofit

by Andrew Plotkin at June 30, 2016 03:39 PM

Here's something new!

Today we are announcing the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation (IFTF), a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the software and services that underlie modern IF.

The web site (iftechfoundation.org) has all the information. But the quick overview goes like this:

For the past 25-ish years, IF has been primarily a free hobby supported by free-time volunteers. This is great; it's organized around a community (or communities) rather than being pinned to one company's fate. But it's also a weakness. People's free time varies. Services and tools go unmaintained.

The goal of IFTF is to support these efforts; to provide an umbrella organization that can manage projects when the original creator doesn't want to; and to be a visible donation point for benefactors who want to support IF.

(To be clear, IFTF does not plan to directly support creators or become a paying market for IF. The "technology" in the title means tools, services, and web sites.)

Our first project involves assuming stewardship of IFComp, lending the event (and its website) the legal and financial backing of a formal organization. Jmac will still be in charge of IFComp, but he will now do it wearing an IFTF hat. And IFComp will now (through the parent organization) own its own web-site code and copyrights and so on.

Our plans for the near future include support for Twine and doing a study on accessibility of existing IF tools. Beyond that, well, we'll have to see how much money comes in.

Who are we? A bunch of IF fans, authors, and people generally known in the community:

  • Chris Klimas (Twine, Blue Chairs)
  • Flourish Klink (Muggle Studies)
  • Jason McIntosh (IFComp, The Warbler's Nest)
  • Andrew Plotkin (Glulx, Hadean Lands)
  • Carolyn VanEseltine (ParserComp, Ollie Ollie Oxen Free)

We also have a large advisory committee drawn from across the various IF worlds.

I could burble on about this project, because we've been swinging at it for several months and the ideas are flowing rapidly. But today's the day we announce it, so I'll stand back and let the news percolate.

June 29, 2016

Segue

Scraping DBPedia for Fun and Corpora

June 29, 2016 11:30 PM

One of the main challenges in procedural text generation is obtaining big enough corpora to produce surprising results. Hand-writing corpora is a good approach, but sometimes too time-consuming or unlikely to produce surprising enough results.

Another common approach is the use of machine learning to make use of unstructured data as a corpus. Markov chains and neural networks have their uses, but they’re not for every application either.

The third approach (Which Emily Short aligns with the principle of Beeswax) is scraping open access data. Wikipedia editors have done a lot of work structuring information about the world, and that data exists in a surprisingly machine-friendly format, assuming one knows how to coax it out.

Writing ad-hoc web scraping scripts is a valid and useful technique, but there’s a more convenient (well, for a certain value of “convenient”) alternative: SPARQL queries.

DBPedia is a “semantic web” collation of wikipedia, joining together Wikipedia’s information into a databade of machine-friendly relationships. It uses RDF as a format, which can be queried through SPARQL.

SPARQL is a query language for RDF databases. For those of you with database experience, this is similar to the much more broadly used SQL language used to manage relational databases. For those of you without database experience (like yours truly), you can rest assured that RDF and SPARQL are totally unlike relational databases or key-value storages, so you’re on the same footing as the MongoDB nerds.

RDF, or resource description framework, is a format for describing metadata. I realise your eyes are glazing over by now but bear with me. An RDF database, like DBPedia, is a big unordered pile of triples.

A triple is essentially a statement in the subject-predicate-object form we’re used to from English. However, all three components can be resources, ie web URLs that represent something – in the case of DBPedia, Wikipedia pages or “ontologies” that are used as predicates. The same resource can be the object in one triple and the subject in another, forming a web of interconnected statements which can be searched.

A SPARQL query is a series of conditions, such as “find me the names of British sailing ships launched after 1820, with their launch dates”. SPARQL is a language for expressing that.

SPARQL is also clumsy, not very intuitive even for technologists from outside the database realm, and obscurely documented. So this is my attempt at wresting it out of the hands of dedicated data nerds. I’ll be going step by step until we have a list of British sailing ships launched in the 19th century, in the form of a JSON file that looks like this:

{
"name": "HMS Plantagenet",
"launched": 1801
}

Making queries

You can use dedicated software to talk to SPARQL endpoints (ie, the servers that receive and respond to queries for a database) but DBPedia has a number of web interfaces to endpoints that are very convenient, such as this one.

First, a note about prefixes: In reality, every part of a triple is either a resource (Ie, a URL) or a literal value (String, number, or date). But typing out fully qualified URLs by hand gets tiresome fast. As such, SPARQL queries often start with a list of prefixes, shorthand for naming resources in specific domains. The DBPedia web query interface comes with a preloaded list of prefixes, and we’ll mostly be using that.

So when I write dbo:Ship, what that really means is <http://dbpedia.org/ontology/Ship>; when using a literal URL in SPARQL, we enclose it in angle brackets. Note that these names are case-sensitive, even though the keywords in the SPARQL language themselves aren’t. So let’s start with a simple query:

select distinct ?ship
where { ?ship rdf:type dbo:Ship }

This will get us a long list of every ship in Wikipedia, which unfortunately also includes things such as ship classes – so you’ll find specific U-Boats listed alongside models of U-Boats. Wikipedia’s data is often messy and noisy, and going one step at a time helps in not missing anything as you filter data.

Let’s go over this line by line, since SPARQL is probably unfamiliar even to programmers.

select distinct ?ship

This first select statement tells the database what we are looking for, that is, the columns in the table we’ll get as a result. For now, we’re looking only at ships; eventually we’ll want to connect ship names to ship launch dates. This isn’t as simple as finding a list of triples; it’s essentially finding a list of paths through the database that satisfy the particular query, since the name (a literal value) and the date (another literal value) are not in fact directly connected to each other, but rather are both objects of two different predicates with the same subject, the resource for a given ship.

?ship is a variable; variables in SPARQL are prefixed with ?, because the W3C designed this thing therefore using a character that was already in common use as a variable sigil was out of the question.

where { ?ship rdf:type dbo:Ship }

The where statement contains a list of conditions that have to be fulfilled for a valid path to be found. This one simply states that we’re looking for ?ship where every possible value of ?ship relates to dbo:Ship via the rdf:type predicate.

rdf:type is a commonly-used predicate used to mean “is a”; dbo:Ship is an ontology, one of many objects created in DBPedia for the purpose of acting as categories. I’ll talk about how to figure out what resources to reference at the end of this tutorial.

We can add another column to our table:

select distinct ?ship ?propulsion
where {
?ship rdf:type dbo:Ship .
?ship dbp:shipPropulsion ?propulsion
}

Note the . used as a separator between statements. This won’t refine the search, but it’ll give us a table of ships with their propulsion methods. This is useful for finding out how that’s specified in the data. Looking over the entries, we find that both “Sail” and “Sails” are often used to denote a sailing vessel. We don’t need our corpora to be totally perfectly comprehensive (Wikipedia scraping won’t get you that anyway), so let’s just consider that our qualification.

select distinct ?ship
where {
?ship rdf:type dbo:Ship .
?ship dbp:shipPropulsion "Sails"@en
}

"Sails"@en is a string literal. Strings in RDF come with a specified language, so just Sails wouldn’t match; we need the language tag (@en) in there. This is only half the equation, though; “Sails” isn’t “Sail”; curse Wikipedia editors for their inconsistency.

Here’s how we look up both together:

select distinct ?ship
where {
?ship rdf:type dbo:Ship .
{ ?ship dbp:shipPropulsion "Sails"@en } union
{ ?ship dbp:shipPropulsion "Sail"@en }
}

union is a SPARQL operator. It means a set union, of course, and it’s infix, because why would the syntax make sense. This gets us all the sailing ships, at last.

By looking at the data, we can find the right names to use in order to further select only British ships:

select distinct ?ship
where {
?ship rdf:type dbo:Ship .
{ ?ship dbp:shipPropulsion "Sails"@en } union
{ ?ship dbp:shipPropulsion "Sail"@en } .
?ship dbo:country dbr:United_Kingdom_of_Great_Britain_and_Ireland
}

Finally, we want to know when those ships were launched, and filter out the ones that were launched before or after the 19th century:

select distinct ?ship ?launched
where {
?ship rdf:type dbo:Ship .
{ ?ship dbp:shipPropulsion "Sails"@en } union
{ ?ship dbp:shipPropulsion "Sail"@en } .
?ship dbo:country dbr:United_Kingdom_of_Great_Britain_and_Ireland .
?ship dbo:shipLaunch ?launched .
filter (
?launched > xsd:dateTime(&apos1820-1-1&apos) &&
?launched < xsd:dateTime(&apos1900-1-1&apos)
)
}

Note how we can have two variables in a predicate: ?ship dbo:shipLaunch ?launched. This lets us traverse the network of triples, going arbitrarily far and deep across the relationships; it’s possible to ask elaborate questions such as “Football players under 25 who play for countries that took part in WWII”, because we can draw indirect relationships like that.

The contents of the filter statement should make sense to people with some programming familiarity; the one notable thing is that to write out a date literal, we use a function to create it from a string. Simply writing “1820-1-1” wouldn’t work.

Now we have a table of ships (that is, web resources representing ships) and their launch dates. But we want a table of ships’ names and their launch dates, information that we can actually use. For neatness’ sake, we’ll also sort the results by date:

select distinct ?ship ?name ?launched
where {
?ship rdf:type dbo:Ship .
{ ?ship dbp:shipPropulsion "Sails"@en } union
{ ?ship dbp:shipPropulsion "Sail"@en } .
?ship dbo:country dbr:United_Kingdom_of_Great_Britain_and_Ireland .
?ship dbo:shipLaunch ?launched .
filter (
?launched > xsd:dateTime(&apos1820-1-1&apos) &&
?launched < xsd:dateTime(&apos1900-1-1&apos)
) .
?ship dbp:shipName ?name
}
order by asc(?launched)

asc means ascending, of course. At this point, we can change the “results format” setting on the web interface to JSON and download a nice machine-readable JSON file.

The JSON includes a lot of metadata we don’t need, but it’s easy to clean that up with a simple script. You can use whatever tool you like for this; I wrote a dirty ES6 script that runs on babel-node:

import jetpack from 'fs-jetpack'
jetpack.write('ships-cleaned.json',
jetpack.read('ships.json', 'json')
.results
.bindings
.map(entry => ({
name: entry.name.value,
launched: entry.launched.value.split('-')[0]
})
)
)

You can see the final result in this gist.

Finding Resources

Here’s the problem with SPARQL: Even if you know the syntax and semantics of it, you don’t necessarily know what resources to use in queries, which is to say the right names to express the relationships you want to search for.

So far, the best way I’ve found of figuring this out is by using the DBPedia faceted browser. With it, you can search for the DBPedia resources that are counterparts to wikipedia pages, and see how their relationships are structured and what predicates are used. For instance, when I started writing this example, I first looked at the page for the HMS Trafalgar, which is where I found out how the different relationships are structured in the data: dbo:country used to express country of origin, for instance, and that ships have rdf:type to dbo:Ship. Some experimentation is required to get useful queries, and I’m still myself figuring out how to best use this tool.

Now go out there and make some twitter bots.

Emily Short

IF Only on Hadean Lands

by Emily Short at June 29, 2016 09:00 PM

I talk about Hadean Lands (recently released on Steam!) on Rock Paper Shotgun.


Mysterious Package Company and Narrative of Objects

by Emily Short at June 29, 2016 03:00 PM

articles-diary

Last year, I interviewed the spokesman of the Mysterious Package Company about their Kickstarted project The Century Beast. The company was doing a form of object-based storytelling that struck me as really fascinating, though — as they also encouraged secrecy around their projects — it was hard to get exact details about what one could expect.

Since then, their Kickstarter has been successful and they’ve been sending out Century Beast packages. I bought a Bronze version of that experience for myself, less deluxe but also less exceptionally expensive than some of the other tiers of the experience. I’ve also heard from a few other people who bought MPC products after reading my interview. I’ve come away thinking the idea is still pretty interesting but that the execution is a mix of excellent, the less-than-excellent, and the problematic.

I’d like to talk about all of that, though I’m conscious of the need not to spoil too much, so I’ll avoid specifics as I do when writing about escape rooms.

I’ll start with the problematic first. A few weeks ago I heard from IF author and reviewer Lynnea Glasser that she’d ordered the Mysterious Package Company’s King in Yellow package and that she’d been distressed to find that it contained some casual racism, and that she hadn’t gotten any response at all when contacting the company about her experience.

By email she filled me in a little more about that: at a couple of points, the story uses non-western ethnicity as a marker of other-worldly evil. That’s a common trope in the Lovecraft stories from which the experience may be drawing, but Lovecraft’s wild racism is, I think it’s fair to say, not a feature many of us want to see emulated and perpetuated in contemporary Lovecraftian stories. (I forget to what degree Chambers deploys racist tropes; I recall more classism, off the top of my head.)

(Obligatory reminder: I am not saying everything problematic must be Purged With Fire. I am also not saying it’s impossible to like things that participate in these problems. At the same time I think it’s worth pointing them out.)

So there’s that. Another thing I’ve been hearing, and seeing firsthand, is that MPC’s published delivery timelines tend to be optimistic. Things often arrive weeks or months later than the initial schedule suggests they will. If you want to time something for a loved one’s birthday or Christmas present, and it’s important for that to be timely, this may not be the route for you. I’m personally probably more tolerant about this than some people would be. I’m old enough to remember a time when, if you ordered something from a company far away, you could expect it to turn up in four to six weeks, not the next morning via Amazon Prime. And I realize that the latter form of rapid delivery is the result of an extremely automated and corporate system that is not necessarily so easy to emulate if you’re a tiny company, and especially if you’re a tiny company making unusual hard-to-source objects. But if you’re placing orders, you might still want to know.

All that said, the packages I got had a number of impressive aspects. There were quite a number of different documents, on different papers, stylized and weathered as circumstances required. There were period magazine pages with advertisements lightly parodying the advertisements of the time. There was a small physical prop that felt solid and beautiful. There were some interactive elements too — sealed packets that had to be opened, an audio recording on a USB stick — and these gave the transgressive thrill that always comes from art you have to damage to experience.

Having at one point done some IF feelie development of my own (and much less skillfully), I recognize that a huge amount of work must have gone into designing and sourcing each of these pieces. The production values on these could out-compete most of the Infocom feelies, though I would say that Infocom feelies with a few exceptions tended not to take themselves at all seriously, which gave a very different tone to the experience. A possible exception were the feelies for Deadline, which I remember regarding with a reverential awe when I was a child because I was convinced this was exactly what police evidence would really be like.

I did find myself wishing for more from the Mysterious Package Company’s writing, though. The story told through all these objects was a story of characters in peril — I don’t think that constitutes much of a spoiler — and despite the meticulous work that had gone into creating their paper and penmanship, I was less persuaded by what they wrote. The characters and their situations felt like tropes only lightly inhabited by personality or uniqueness. In journal articles and letters and audio tracks, they described things happening that would indeed be very upsetting, but there wasn’t much by way of subtext or characteristic detail; I didn’t feel like I knew these people enough to be invested in their dangers. They were A Vacationer, A Loving Father, and so on.

I’m afraid I’m not alone here; Room Escape Artist’s review of the writing in King in Yellow is not encouraging either. (Did MPC perhaps underestimate how much writing skill would actually be needed for this project? They wouldn’t be the first in the games/puzzle space to do so.)

Then there’s the structure of the thing. This may just be the fact that I got the Bronze package and not the Silver or Gold which would have contained more mailings and more things, but I also felt that the set was a oddly distributed in terms of pacing. There were two mailings, one containing very little information and barely enough to provoke my curiosity about the story, and the other a crate containing all the other documents and objects all at once. Possibly the Gold experience — which I believe is the thing now sold on MPC’s website if you were to order The Century Beast from scratch — would be more intriguingly paced. Effectively, since these packages are not relying on the recipient solving puzzles to get the main sense of the story, they’re using real-time (mailing) delays instead, but the story needs more than two revelation points to work best.

Finally, and again I’m not sure whether this is a quirk of my own experience, there was something about the items I was sent that suggested to me that I might find an online tie-in. But investigating this led me nowhere. Did I read in too much, or not enough? I don’t know, but the overall feeling was a bit of a let-down. (There was an email address I could have tried emailing, too, but somehow that seemed like an extremely unnerving thing to do, so I refrained.)

I hope this doesn’t sound like a completely unalleviated string of complaints. My feelings are probably best described as Very Mixed. I don’t expect to order any more mysterious packages soon: they’re very expensive, especially if ordered to the UK, and relative to the story provided. On the other hand, I have lots of love for the object-manufacturing skill and for the basic concept of this.

I hope they will iron out their delivery process a bit, and bring on more writing support — ideally someone who will bring a critical eye to the implicit prejudices in whatever source material they may currently be adapting.


Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 32 new game entries, 37 new solutions, 34 new maps, 1 new hints

by Gunness at June 29, 2016 10:03 AM

Image
Nearly two years after we crossed the 6,000 games threshold, we've reached yet another milestone. The 7,000th game in the database was added today (psssst - it's a Jack the Ripper game)! I would never, ever have thought that the world of adventure games was so widespread. Very impressive. And there seems to be no end to the row of games (IFDb lists 8,078 games so there's one goal to set your sights on).
There's plenty more in the pipeline, but some of us have to go on holiday once in a while, so with apologies for leaving your material hanging, I'll bid you a fine summer (or winter, all depending). Thanks for keeping us alive and kicking!

Contributors: Zuperfaust, Garry, Gunness, Sylvester, Alex, Sudders, rwap, jgerrie

June 28, 2016

Interactive Fables

Interactive Fables announces Worldsmith

June 28, 2016 10:22 PM

CLEVELAND -- June 22nd, 2016 : Interactive Fables announced today that "Worldsmith", the first game in their fables series will be released in September 2016. "The Septem Tower has held steady in the Manifold, the space between time and the Real, for billenia. Populating the Tower are the Anemoi, a race of beings so far advanced that they hold the power of life and death over all Lifeforms in the Universe. The Worldsmiths are the greatest of the Anemoi, their sacred task to create Worlds

These Heterogenous Tasks

Bring Out Your Dead: Eulogies I

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at June 28, 2016 10:01 PM

Some brief commiserations on other people’s unfinished work, released in the Bring Out Your Dead jam.

BYiGIDThe Flashpaper War (Andrew Plotkin). Zarf is a skilled writer, and it is pleasant to see what his prose does outside the tight parameters of parser-IF (and, in particular, the kind of parser-IF that Zarf is interested in writing). The premise is one that justifies Zarf talking about narrative design around genre, which I am very happy to read about.

There’s this problem with dimensional-wanderer fiction, which is that if your heroes could go literally anywhere then the plot is in danger of becoming ungrounded  – it’s hard to anticipate the stakes involved.

More broadly, the characters discuss narrative strategies at a very high level, but the player‘s text-transforming actions are, thus far, very small-scale, oriented around local physical challenges. And maybe the idea was to build up, to introduce broader choices that tamper more and more with the high-level questions of plot – this is a much more difficult thing to do, but it would have been lovely to see it done.

Peace (Cat Manning). There is very direct influence here from Invisible Cities, and perhaps a little of 80 Days. This is pure Calvino, for instance:

I walked the perimeter seven times and then seven again before departing in Tumulosumbut perhaps that was another traveler, one whom I have heard of in my journeys.

There is a scent of procgen, and the game delivers small variations on each playthrough. The images are evoked well, but without the real-world grounding of 80 Days, the brief glimpses of cities tend to blur into one another, and the briefness makes it hard for the mood to develop its own personality. The difficulty of doing Calvino is that Calvino is so good that it’s hard to know where to go from there.

Datura (Emily Short). I’ve played a number of Emily Short prototypes over the last thirteen years, and you can never be sure what you’re going to get. It might centre on some audaciously brilliant mechanic, or it might just be something straightforward and dear to her heart, like lesbian pirate witches. Datura relies on the hoariest of parser tropes – the objects imbued with flashbacks of Significant Memories. It’s an instance of the most consistently recurring Short trope, the magical woman imprisoned. It has the feel of a backstory on the threshold, a thing too beloved to let go, too developed to fit into a tidy narrative, never quite cohering. I know that feel.

C A U L S (Caleb Wilson). I first played this without the commentary Twine and didn’t get all that far; the commentary was a solid idea. It has a strong scent of Metamorphoses about it. Delicious setting writing is one of the reasons I have liked Caleb’s work so much ever since Hey, Jingo, and this didn’t always feel as though he was in his own wheelhouse, exactly. This is definitely the half-formed ghost of a cool mechanic; but, as the accompanying text suggests, it’s an odd, disorienting choice to have a memory-palace that’s stripped of memory.

Caleb is good at plants and words. To utterly typecast, if I am going to play a Caleb game my first question is ‘does it have plants in it.’ I like the transformations between the two worlds, and I like best the carnations being turned into this outlandishly-described orchid.

Form & Void (Lea Albaugh). I was involved in the death of this, so I feel I should say a few words. This prompted me to dig up the alpha-testing email conversation in a fit of paranoia about whether I had done anything unforgiveable, but mostly I was reminded about how Lea is one of those authors with whom it’s a pleasure to work. Which was nice.

I love the idea of a creation-myth game, with the player developing powers as the world grows. (I’ve tried similar-but-very-different things myself, catastrophically-erring on the side of abundance rather than sparseness, which would have gone in BOYD if the source code wasn’t locked up on a dead laptop somewhere.) The central arc of the game – create a something, then fail to manage it adequately – is solid, and it has a cool ‘aha!’ moment in it of the kind which you only really get in parser.

Things That Happen Behind Closed Airlocks (Kitty Mirror). The passing of loved projects is always painful, but the loss of a pornographic satire is especially difficult. We’ll remember Airlocks for its wry-weary shrug at the fourth wall, its jaded eye cast over painfully undistinguished fuckboys, the gentle understatement of its murderfucks. (And let us not forget, also, the silent siblings it lies amongst, welcoming it to its rest.) But most of all, we’ll remember its diligent compilation of quotations from atrociously ill-wrought smut.


PyramidIF

History has been [REDACTED]

by Hanon Ondricek (noreply@blogger.com) at June 28, 2016 01:38 AM


Redactor: War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.
I'm surprised no one before this has thought to make a game out of George Orwell's 1984. The novel includes a very game-able scenario in that the main character's profession is to change printed publications--and therefore history--by editing news stories to reflect positively on the government and slander its enemies.  This dystopian concept is actually frighteningly more plausible now thanks to the internet.  Witness Wikipedia, where well-intentioned editors often constantly battle to prevent vandals from changing details about real-world events and personalities, putting their own thumbprint on general perception.

Redactor casts the player as an employee of the Ministry of Truth in the Records Department ("Minitrue RecDep" in 1984's prescient stylization preference of eliminating extraneous words and syllables) and presents a slim time limit and rules of how a news article needs to change:

You will have 25 seconds to rectify a newspaper article so that it reports the truth:
- We have always been at war with Eurasia, and Eastasia has ever been our ally.

The player is audited a couple of times to review their performance. And...then it ends all too soon. The game is well presented and polished, and has the same sort of atmosphere as Papers, Please (which also cribs from Orwell, and chillingly satirizes Cold War bleakness.)

I wish this game could have been longer and taken its premise further.  Gameplay essentially consists of scanning an article and clicking on everything that is a hidden hyperlink before the very quick time limit expires. This feels like a prototype for a bigger game that could have done more with Twine cycling links and some red-herring links that are correct to begin with and shouldn't be changed.  As it stands, there are no wrong choices as long as you find every link, so it's more of a speed scanning click fest. I suspect the time limit is purposefully set razor-thin to present an actual challenge; in many cases the time limit was barely enough for me to even skim the entirety of the well-written in-world articles, which is a shame.  I'd have loved for the timer to run longer and to have had a chance to actually read and comprehend the articles for context and spent time figuring out how to comply with an ever-changing, increasingly difficult spaghetti-bowl of conflicting rules. Then again, that's also how it works in Papers, Please.

This is definitely worth a look.  The credits list a designer and five writers, and was created as a social engagement promotion for a stage production of 1984. Sadly, there are no photos or information of this production on the current website linked in the credits.  [Was it REDACTED???] Theater websites rarely advertise past shows so this is understandable, but would have been a neat easter egg for completing the game.

Despite some missed opportunities in gameplay, what's offered is very well implemented and polished, uses Twine in unique fashion, and provides a brief glimpse into the reflected eye of Big Brother in the monitor watching over your shoulder.
---
I over-design flashy webpages for my rather under-developed IF games at hanonondricek.wix.com/pyramidif

June 27, 2016

Emily Short

Bring Out Your Dead: Interface

by Emily Short at June 27, 2016 07:00 PM

Bring Out Your Dead is a jam I ran for defunct WIPs, over the week around summer solstice. It is now complete, and you can see the 89 entries. Not all of these are interactive fiction: being on itch meant that the jam attracted a number of not-even-slightly IF projects, from a hexagonal Tetris variant to a bullet-hell shoot-em-up to Conflux, a 3D puzzle game about getting the right perspective on your environment.

Providing any kind of coverage of all 89 works is more than I can do, but I did want to look at a few concept trend over the next few days, starting with experiments in storytelling interface.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 5.33.57 PM

Interactive Comics Prototype (Carl Muckenhoupt) is an interactive comic where changes in one panel instantly propagate forward to later panels. That means it’s possible to explore a Time Cave-structured story extensively without moving on from a single page.

What would this look like for a longer structure? I could imagine each strip being itself a node in a larger tree; I could also imagine a game where you’re actually working your way backwards, trying to open up earlier panels so that you could exercise greater and greater agency, in the style of 18 Rooms to Home. I would definitely play more of something like this.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 5.27.02 PM.png

The Flashpaper War is a piece by Andrew Plotkin, in which you proceed by removing, altering, or swapping words in the text in order to change what happens in the story. The premise involves characters who travel from one fictional universe to another, tweaking pieces of the story that aren’t currently working properly.

Some of the word-manipulation features reminded me of Texture and its capacities; or of Mark Backler’s The Last Word, a still-in-development 2D platformer where words have physical effect. The Flashpaper War is a bit less poetic than these, though — there’s lots of uninteractive text and just a bit of interactive text. Mixed feelings about that, and about the sense that the characters in Flashpaper are getting to do more entertaining things than the player is. But there’s evident life in the interface concept.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 6.37.59 PM.png

Symple Home Renovations (rocketnia) has a navigable world model — rooms, doors you can open, etc. — plus a facing page where object descriptions appear. Over the course of the game, you can select one of those tabs to read everything that’s happened to or been done by a particular character, so for instance the You tab contains all your past actions and your personal description. It’s also somewhat unusual among BOYD pieces in that there’s a full (if rather odd) story here: I was able to get all the way to an ending.

There’s not a lot of commentary to accompany this I failed to find the author’s commentary initially, so was a bit bewildered. I found the proliferation of tabs more confusing than helpful, as a rule, though perhaps that went along with the general sense that the story was getting slightly beyond my control. The demo does suggest, though, a world model that is separately tracking the texts associated with different in-game entities, and that’s potentially interesting. (Perhaps in some of the same territory as Curveship?)

[ETA, having seen the commentary: if the idea is to provide a consistent scrollback/review for each object, I wonder whether it would make sense to offer that as a non-persistent feature, rather than a set of tabs that seem to be demanding attention all the time. I was really unsure where to direct my attention initially.]

how_to_kill.png

How to Kill a Project (Wertle) is itself a Twine game, but one designed to document a variety of unfinished endeavors, including an entirely-haptic game, a game using a laser and eye-tracker, and various other pieces. There are links out to videos and other documentation, too — it’s an intriguing look at a range of alt-controller possibilities, and also at the author’s experiences around creative projects.

I include it under interface because it’s both experimenting a little with how Twine itself can be used in a documentary capacity, and because a lot of the games documented involve unusual ways of interacting.


>TILT AT WINDMILLS

Set Availability to Maximum!

by Aaron A. Reed (noreply@blogger.com) at June 27, 2016 05:51 PM

Interactive story expert Aaron A. Reed
Hi, I'm Aaron A. Reed. I tell interactive stories. I'd like to tell them with you.

If you don't know my name, you might recognize some of my games (Blue Lacuna, The Ice-Bound Concordance, Prom Week, Hollywood Visionary, blueful, 18 Cadence, Almost Goodbye), my book (Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7), be impressed by some of the commendations I've received from Indiecade (three times!), the Independent Games Festival (three times!), Kirkus Reviews, Intel, E3, Slamdance, South by Southwest, the New Media Writing Prize, and the UCLA Game Arts Festival. In addition to my own games, I've also collaborated on research projects with Microsoft Studios, and spoken about story in games at places like GDC, GaymerX, and PAX East.

I have a unique perspective on interactive stories as both a technical and creative expert: for many of my games, I've done all of the coding and all of the writing. (Sometimes, a lot of the art, too.) I even have little pieces of paper to back up this cross-disciplinary background: namely, a BA in Film Studies, an MFA in Digital Arts and New Media, and, as of this summer, a Ph.D. in Computer Science.

The Ph.D. has been a chance to do five years of experimental work pushing forward the boundaries of what interactive stories can do. Now that it's over, I'm looking for opportunities to keep using my deep knowledge of both systems building and content creation for interactive narrative. I'm considering freelance contract/consulting work, hopefully with the time to keep making my own games on the side, but am also open to full-time employment at the right place. In my ideal world, I'd like to stay in the greater Bay Area or work remotely, but am keeping all options on the table for now.

Games by Aaron A. Reed including Blue Lacuna, 18 Cadence, Whom the Telling Changed, and Prom Week

If you know of any projects, places, or people that might be interested in working with me, please send them my way! You can find out more about me at aaronareed.net or contact me through my Gmail account: aareed.

Retroactive Fiction

Skill, Stamina and Luck

by Ant at June 27, 2016 12:01 AM

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In February 2016, the BBC broadcast a radio documentary about interactive fiction called Skill, Stamina and Luck. It focused largely on gamebooks like Fighting Fantasy, Choose Your Own Adventure, and some interesting historical examples — but it also took in parser fiction (text adventure games) and Twine.

To accompany the programme, the BBC created an interesting “interactive audio history of interactive fiction” in the form of a Twine web app, which included a simulation of a play-by-telephone adaptation of a Fighting Fantasy book and many audio clips of interviews, some new and some from the archive, with people like Steve Jackson, Ian Livingstone, Andrea Phillips and Emily Short.

(The Twine also included the audio from this episode of Micro Live, in which the BBC visited the offices of Infocom.)

The Twine app had been taken down from the BBC website, but it’s now been made available again by Steve Alderton, Content Producer for the BBC Taster pilots.

Try it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/taster/projects/skill-stamina-and-luck


June 26, 2016

Aniamosity

Oscillation

by aniamosity at June 26, 2016 05:01 PM

The universe is filled with things that oscillate.

The earth rotates – we have the shift from day to night and back again.

The moon orbits the earth, causing the rise and fall of tides.

The earth orbits the sun. We experience the recurrence of the seasons.

Light and sound have frequencies.

Electromagnetic waves have frequencies.

The device you’re using now to read this (assuming it’s being viewed electronically) has a tiny crystal inside that generates a train of impulses: on / off / on /off. Those impulses drive the rest of the system.

String theory postulates that the universe itself is composed of tiny strings, vibrating, oscillating.

We breathe in and out.

Our hearts beat.

The fundamental operations of our cells may have a feedback oscillation component to them that drives the chemical reactions.

Even the human brain has a frequency, a frequency that changes depending on what we’re doing, slowing when we’re asleep or meditative, faster when we’re deep in thought or otherwise using our gray matter in an active way.

The last one is of particular interest to me. When you look at neural nets in computing, they’re often, at least initially, set up as a sort of function: data comes in, data goes out. You train the network to respond to the inputs, and then you feed it input and see what is gives you for output. For example, a neural net could be trained for the identification of letters in an optical character recognition (OCR) application, where the “read” letter is output based on images presented as input.

But the human brain is more than that.

Part of what makes the human brain incredible is its massive size, in terms of connections. Depending on where you read, the estimates are 100 trillion up to 1000 trillion connections. What is equally critical for me is the fact the it’s not just a one-way network. The human brain is interconnected. It not only receives stimulation from the outside world; it also stimulates itself, continuously. It feeds back. It influences itself. It oscillates.

You see images play before your eyes. You hear that damn song in your head that won’t go away. (“But it’s my head!”) You relive scenes both pleasurable and horrific. You dwell on things that affect your emotional state, even though, for that moment, the stimulus is your own mind.

What does that have to do with IF? Perhaps nothing. But it is an interesting topic for me, and there is a higher level sort of recurrence that might be applicable, which is the recurrence of thoughts and feelings in our mental spaces. You can see an example of this in an earlier blog about associations.

ResponsIF‘s “fuzzy” design with weighted topics, decaying topics, and responses keyed off of those topics seemed to lend itself to experimentation with oscillation.

The first attempt, which was not topic based, was a miserable failure. I tried to simulate feedback based solely on values approaching each other. Even with layers of variables in between, the values kept achieving a steady state, where nothing changed. Not a very interesting state of affairs.

I achieved better success by having both varying state and target values which flip-flopped based on the direction it was going. Not ideal, and not really feedback as such, but it did oscillate. There are a couple of samples in the ResponsIF repository that illustrate these, one being a traffic light and one being an oscillation sample.

I ended up discovering a different approach to recurrence which may hold promise. I think of it as “ripples in the pond”.

The basic setup is to have a long-term topic associated with a lesser-weighted response. The lesser weighting places the response at a lower priority, which means it won’t trigger as long as higher priority responses can. This behavior for this response is to add in a decaying topic. That topic then triggers a response which may itself add in a decaying topic. The fact the topics decay and that their responses add in new fresh topics causes a ripple effect. Topic A triggers topic B which triggers topic C, on and on, to the level desired. Each triggering topic decays, causing its effect to lessen over time. Once the temporary topics decay sufficiently, the original, lower-priority response triggers, and the process begins all over again.

From a normal mental process point of view, this is equivalent to having long-term topics triggering transient short-term topics, with the long-term responses recurring until satisfying conditions are met. A bit like nagging reminders…

This might have simple uses, but it can also have more advanced uses if you have multiples of these all going off at once. Which responses actually get triggered depends on the state of the system: what the various response needs and weights are. This means that the internal state of an NPC can vary over time, both in terms of what has been experienced by the NPC and what its long-term goals are, as well as any short-term influences. And the NPC can influence itself.

June 24, 2016

Sibyl Moon Games

Design notes for Always Dog and Not-Your-Person

by Carolyn VanEseltine at June 24, 2016 05:01 AM

Like Five Gods Exiled, Always Dog and Not-Your-Person is a backburnered WIP that I’m bringing out for the Bring Out Your Dead semi-jam.

Always Dog and Not-Your-Person was an attempt to capture the inner spirit of being a dog. It is a game with 7 commands that all mean “vomit” (not to mention a variety of other biological necessities), so I am confident that I accomplished that goal.

Skip to the chase: Always Dog and Not-Your-Person

cover

History

I started working on this game in January 2016 as a submission to the Ryan Veeder Exposition for Good Interactive Fiction. But time got short, and when I realized I couldn’t get it done, I felt so embarrassed about the state of its completion that I didn’t want to submit it (even though an email update assured us that unfinished games were okay.)

Intentions

The premise: you are a dog, and for the first time ever, you have a dogsitter. Your goal is to have a fun, enjoyable time during the three days your person is gone (just like it is every day, even when your person is there – because after all, you’re a dog.)

Always Dog is a resource management game rather than a puzzle game, so “fun” and “enjoyable” are technical terms. “Fun” is a measurement of things you do that make you happy, such as squeaking a squeak toy or chasing a rabbit, while “enjoyment” is a measurement of things others do that make you happy, such as giving you pats or giving you a dog treat.

It is possible for things that are not enjoyable to happen, such as getting yelled at or having to go to the vet. These things are (distressingly enough) occasionally linked to fun things. For example, if you eat a dead bird (fun!) while the dogsitter is watching, you will likely get yelled at (unenjoyable) and you might throw up (value-neutral) which could result in a trip to the vet (unenjoyable).

The lesson here: only eat dead birds when the dogsitter isn’t watching.

Other stats in the game include health, hydration, bladder, satiation, and bowels. They all work about like you would expect, but if you’re super curious, I’ve posted the source code.

Execution

This game contains 12 rooms and 50+ dog-specific verbs, all implemented to one degree or another. Of particular note, the map is rebuilt to represent dog awareness (no compass rose here!) and EXAMINE is, of course, a synonym for SMELL.

You can bark to summon Not-Your-Person from room to room, and Not-Your-Person will occasionally comment on your behavior. In the original plan, you would receive a translated, timestamped list of Not-Your-Person’s commentary at the end of the game. The debug command COMMENTARY will give you a sneak peek at those results while the game is running.

Major things unimplemented: Time progression. NPC reactions (based on the stats Concern, Affection, and Trust). Events and plot. The big things.

But you can SQUEAK a fuzzy toy, should you find one. Because that is the true meaning of Being A Dog.

Here it is, Ryan! Happy belated birthday.

June 23, 2016

Choice of Games

All of our games are 25% off or more in Steam’s 2016 Summer Sale

by Dan Fabulich at June 23, 2016 07:01 PM

Steam

All of our Steam apps are 25% off or more until July 4!

We’ve also introduced a bunch of new bundles on Steam. Buy our games in a bundle and you can get them for an additional 25% off or more, on top of the discounts available in Steam’s Summer Sale!

All of these bundles are “Complete the Set” bundles, which means if you’ve purchased some of the games in the bundle, you can still complete the bundle at a discounted price.

The “Every Game” bundle is especially interesting because as we add new games on Steam, we’ll add them to the bundle, allowing you to complete and re-complete the bundle each time a new game comes out, rewarding our most loyal customers with our best possible savings.

Hosted Games has a few bundles, too, including an “Every Game” bundle:

(Note that we can’t create bundles including games from both Hosted Games and Choice of Games, so if you want all of Paul Wang’s games, you’ll need to buy both the “Paul Wang” bundle and the “Infinity Series” bundle.)

Affairs of the Court: Choice of Romance on Steam

by Dan Fabulich at June 23, 2016 07:01 PM

Affairs of the Court: Choice of Romance

We’re happy to announce that one of our bestselling games, Affairs of the Court: Choice of Romance, is now available on Steam for Windows, Mac, and Linux. (It’s still available on iOS and Android, too.) It’s 17% off on Steam until July 4th!

Plunge into court politics and change the course of history, or pursue a love affair that rocks the kingdom to its foundations!

Affairs of the Court is an epic interactive fantasy novel by Heather Albano and Adam Strong-Morse. It’s a tale of romance, deception and court intrigue, where your choices control the story. The game is entirely text-based–223,000 words, without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Will you play as male or female? Gay, straight, or bi? Match wits with the schemers of the court, or play your suitors off each other? Will you find true love? Gain a crown? Lose your head?

Buy it today!

The Digital Antiquarian

Acorn and Amstrad

by Jimmy Maher at June 23, 2016 06:00 PM

…he explains to her that Sinclair, the British inventor, had a way of getting things right, but also exactly wrong. Foreseeing the market for affordable personal computers, Sinclair decided that what people would want to do with them was to learn programming. The ZX81, marketed in the United States as the Timex 1000, cost less than the equivalent of a hundred dollars, but required the user to key in programs, tapping away on that little motel keyboard-sticker. This had resulted both in the short market-life of the product and, in Voytek’s opinion, twenty years on, in the relative preponderance of skilled programmers in the United Kingdom. They had had their heads turned by these little boxes, he believes, and by the need to program them. “Like hackers in Bulgaria,” he adds, obscurely.

“But if Timex sold it in the United States,” she asks him, “why didn’t we get the programmers?”

“You have programmers, but America is different. America wanted Nintendo. Nintendo gives you no programmers…”

— William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

A couple of years ago I ventured out of the man cave to give a talk about the Amiga at a small game-development conference in Oslo. I blazed through as much of the platform’s history as I could in 45 minutes or so, emphasizing for my audience of mostly young students from a nearby university the Amiga’s status as the preeminent gaming platform in Europe for a fair number of years. They didn’t take much convincing; even this crowd, young as they were, had their share of childhood memories involving Amiga 500s and 1200s. Mostly they seemed surprised that the Amiga hadn’t ever been all that terribly popular in the United States. During the question-and-answer session, someone asked a question that stopped me short: if American kids hadn’t been playing games on their Amigas, just what the hell had they been playing on?

The answer itself wasn’t hard to arrive at: the sorts of kids who migrated from 8-bit Sinclairs, Acorns, Amstrads, and Commodores to 16-bit Amigas and Atari STs in Britain made a much more lateral move in the United States, migrating to the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System.

More complex and interesting are the ramifications of these trends. Because the Atari VCS console was never a major presence in Britain and the rest of Europe during its heyday, and because Nintendo arrived only very belatedly, for many years videogames played in the home there meant games played on home computers. One could say much about how having a device useful for creation as well as consumption as the favored platform of most people affected the market across Europe. The magazines were filled with stories of bedroom gamers who had become bedroom coders and finally Software Stars. Such stories make a marked contrast to an American console-gaming magazine like Nintendo Power, all about consumption without the accompanying ethos of creation.

But most importantly for our purposes today, the relative neglect of Britain in particular by the big computing powers in the United States and Japan — for many years, Commodore was the only company of either nation to make a serious effort to sell their machines into British homes — gave space for a flourishing domestic trade in homegrown machines. When Britain became the nation with the most computers per capita on the planet at mid-decade, most of the computers in question bore the logo of either Acorn or Sinclair, the two great rivals at the heart of the young British microcomputer industry.

Acorn, co-founded by Clive Sinclair’s former right-hand man Chris Curry and an Austrian academic named Hermann Hauser, was an archetypal example of an engineering-driven company. Their machines were a little more baroque, a little better built, and consequently a little more expensive than they needed to be, while their public persona was reserved and just a little condescending, much like that of the BBC that had given its official imprimatur to Acorn’s most popular machine, the BBC Micro. Despite “Uncle Clive’s” public reputation as the British Inspector Gadget, Sinclair was just the opposite; cheap and cheerful, they had the common touch. Acorns sold to the educators, to the serious hobbyists, and to the posh, while Sinclairs dominated with the masses.

Yet Acorn and Sinclair were similar in one important respect: they were both in their own ways very poorly managed companies. When the British home-computer market hit an iceberg in 1985, both were caught in untenable positions, drowning in excess inventory. Acorn — quintessentially British, based in the storied heart of Britain’s “Silicon Fen” of Cambridge — was faced with a choice between dissolution and selling themselves to the Italian typewriter manufacturer Olivetti; after some hand-wringing, they chose the latter course. Sinclair also sold out: to the new kid on the block of British computing, Amstrad, owned by a gruff Cockney with a penchant for controversy named Alan Sugar who was well on his way to becoming the British Donald Trump.

Ever practical in their approach to technology, Amstrad made much of the CPC's bundled monitor in their advertising, noting that with the CPC Junior could play on the computer while the rest of the family watched television.

Ever mindful of the practical concerns of their largely working-class customers, Amstrad made much of the CPC’s bundled monitor in their advertising, noting that Junior could play on the CPC without tying up the family television.

Amstrad had already been well-established as a maker of inexpensive stereo equipment and other consumer electronics when their first computers, the CPC (“Colour Personal Computer”) line, debuted in June of 1984. The CPC range was created and sold as a somewhat more capable Sinclair Spectrum. It consisted of well-built and smartly priced if technically unimaginative computers that were fine choices for gaming, boasting as they did reasonably good if hardly revolutionary graphics and sound. Like most Amstrad products, they strained to be as easy to use as possible, shipping as complete units — tape or disk drive and monitor included — at a time when virtually all of their rivals had to be assembled piece by piece via separate purchases.

The CPC line did very well from the outset, even as Acorn and Sinclair were soon watching their own sales implode. Pundits attributed the line’s success to what they called “the Amstrad Effect”: Alan Sugar’s instinct for delivering practical products at a good price at the precise instant when the technology behind them was ready for the mass market — i.e., was about to become desirable to his oft-stated target demographic of “the truck driver and his wife.” Sugar preferred to let others advance the technical state of the art, then swoop in to reap the rewards of their innovations when the time was right. The CPC line was a great example of him doing just that.

But the most dramatic and surprising iteration of the Amstrad Effect didn’t just feed the existing market for colorful game machines; it found an entirely new market segment, one that Amstrad’s competitors had completely missed until now. The story of the creation of the Amstrad PCW line is a classic tale of Alan Sugar, a man who knew almost nothing about computers but knew all he needed to about the people who bought them.

One day just a few months after the release of the first CPC machines, Sugar found himself in an airplane over Asia with Bob Watkins, one of his most trusted executives. A restless Sugar asked Watkins for a piece of paper, and proceeded to draw on it a contraption that included a computer, a monitor, a disk drive, and a printer, all in one unit. Looking at the market during the run-up to the CPC launch, Sugar had recognized that the only true mainstream uses for the current generation of computers in the home were as game machines and word processors. With the CPC, he had the former application covered. But what about the latter? All of the inexpensive machines currently on the market, like the Sinclair Spectrum, were oriented toward playing games rather than word processing, trading the possibility of displaying crisp 80-column text for colorful graphics in lower resolutions. Meanwhile all of the more expensive ones, like the BBC Micro, were created by and for hardcore techies rather than Sugar’s truck drivers. If they could apply their patented technology-for-the-masses approach to a word processor for the home and small business — making a cheap, well-built, all-in-one design emphasizing ease of use for the common person — Amstrad might just have another hit on their hands, this time in a market of their own utterly without competition. Internally, the project was named after Sugar’s secretary Joyce, since it would hopefully make her job and those of many like her much easier. It would eventually come to market as the “PCW,” or “Personal Computer Word Processor.”

The first Amstrad PCW machine, complete with bundled printer.

The first Amstrad PCW machine, complete with bundled printer. Note how the disk drive and the computer itself are built into the same case as the monitor, a very unusual design for the period.

Even more so than the CPC, the PCW was a thoroughly underwhelming package for technophiles. It was build around the tried-and-true Z80 8-bit CPU and ran CP/M, an operating system already considered obsolete by big business, MS-DOS having become the standard in the wake of the IBM PC. The bundled word-processing software, contracted out to a company called Locomotive Software, wasn’t likely to impress power users of WordStar or WordPerfect overmuch — but it was, in keeping with the Amstrad philosophy, unusually friendly and easy to use. Sugar knew his target customers, knew that they “didn’t give a shit whether there was an elastic band or an 8086 or a 286 driving the thing. They wouldn’t know what you were talking about.”

As usual, most of Amstrad’s hardware-engineering efforts went into packaging and cost-cutting. It was decided that the printer would have to be housed separately from the system unit for technical reasons, but otherwise the finished machine conformed remarkably well to Sugar’s original vision. Best of all, it had a price of just £399. By way of comparison, Acorn’s most recent BBC Micro Model B+ had half as much memory and no disk drive, monitor, or printer included — and was priced at £499.

Nervous as ever about intimidating potential customers, Amstrad was at pains to market the PCW first and foremost as a turnkey word-processing solution for homes and small businesses, as a general-purpose computer only secondarily if at all. “It’s more than a word processor for less than most typewriters,” ran their tagline. At the launch event in the heart of the City in August of 1985, three female secretaries paraded across the stage: a snooty one who demanded one of the competition’s expensive computer systems; a tarty one who said a typewriter was more than good enough; and a smart, reasonable one who naturally preferred the PCW. Man-of-the-people Sugar crowed extravagantly that Amstrad had “brought word-processing within the reach of every small business, one-man band, home-worker, and two-finger typist in the country.” Harping on one of his favorite themes, he noted that once again Amstrad had “produced what the customer wants and not a boffin’s ego trip.”

Sugar’s aggressive manner may have grated with many buttoned-down trade journalists, but few could deny that he might just open up a whole new market for computers with the PCW. Electrical Retailer and Trader was typical, calling the PCW “a grown-up computer that does something people want, packaged and sold in a way they can understand, at a price they’ll accept.” But even that note of optimism proved far too mild for the reality of the machine’s success. The PCW exploded out of the gate, selling 350,000 units in the first eight months. It probably could have sold a lot more than that, but Amstrad, caught off-guard by the sales numbers despite their founder’s own bullishness on the product, couldn’t make and ship them fast enough.

Level 9's Time and Magic text adventure running on a PCW.

Level 9’s Time and Magik text adventure running on a PCW.

Surprisingly for such a utilitarian package, the PCW garnered considerable loyalty and even love among the millions in Britain and all across Europe who eventually bought one. Their enthusiasm was enough to sustain a big, glossy newsstand magazine dedicated to the PCW alone — an odd development indeed for this machine that seemed on the face of it to be anything but a hacker’s darling. A thriving software ecosystem that reached well beyond word processing sprung up around the machine. Despite the PCW’s monochrome display and virtually nonexistent animation and sound capabilities, even games were far from unheard of on the platform. For obvious reasons, text adventures in particular became big favorites of PCW owners; with its comfortable full-travel keyboard, its fast disk drive, its relatively cavernous 256 K of memory, and its 80-column text display, a PCW was actually a far better fit for the genre than the likes of a Sinclair Spectrum. The PCW market for text adventures was strong enough to quite possibly allow companies like Magnetic Scrolls and Level 9 to hang on a year or two longer than they might otherwise have managed.

So, Amstrad was already soaring on the strength of the CPC and especially the PCW when they shocked the nation and cemented their position as the dominant force in mainstream British computing with the acquisition of Sinclair in April of 1986. Eminently practical man of business that he was, Sugar bought Sinclair partly to eliminate a rival, but also because he realized that, home-computer slump or no, the market for a machine as popular as the Sinclair Spectrum wasn’t likely to just disappear overnight. He could pick up right where Uncle Clive had left off, selling the existing machine just as it was to new buyers who wanted access to the staggering number of cheap games available for the platform. Sugar thought he could make a hell of a lot of money this way while needing to expend very little effort.

Once again, time proved him more correct than even he had ever imagined. Driven by that huge base of games, demand for new Spectrums persisted into the 1990s. Amstrad repackaged the technology from time to time and, perhaps most importantly, dramatically improved on Sinclair’s infamously shoddy quality control. But they never seriously re-imagined the Spectrum. It was now what Sugar liked to call “a commodity product.” He compared it to suntan lotion of all things: the department stores “put it in their window in July and August and they take it away in the winter.” The Spectrum’s version of July and August was of course November and December; every Christmas sparked a new rush of sales to the parents of a new group of youngsters just coming of age and discovering the magic of videogames.

A battered and uncertain Acorn, now a subsidiary of Olivetti, faced a formidable rival indeed in Alan Sugar’s organization. In a sense, the fundamental dichotomies hadn’t changed that much since Amstrad took Sinclair’s place as the yin to Acorn’s yang. Acorn remained as technology-driven as ever, while Amstrad was all about giving the masses what they craved in the form of cheap computers that were technically just good enough. Amstrad, however, was a much more dangerous form of people’s computer company than had been their predecessor in the role. After releasing some notoriously shoddy stereo equipment under the Amstrad banner in the 1970s and paying the price in returns and reputation, Alan Sugar had learned a lesson that continued to elude Clive Sinclair: that selling well-built, reliable products, even at a price of a few more quid on the final price tag and/or a few less in the profit margin, pays off more than corner-cutting in the long run. Unlike Uncle Clive, who had bumbled and stumbled his way to huge success and just as quickly back to failure, Sugar was a seasoned businessman and a master marketer. The diffident boffins of Acorn looked destined to have a hard time against a seasoned brawler like Sugar, raised on the mean streets of the cutthroat Tottenham Court Road electronics trade. It hardly seemed a fair fight at all.

But then, in the immediate wake of their acquisition by Olivetti nothing at all boded all that well for Acorn. New hardware releases were limited to enhanced versions of the 1981-vintage, 8-bit BBC Micro line that were little more ambitious than Amstrad’s re-packagings of the Spectrum. It was an open secret that Acorn was putting much effort into designing a new CPU in-house to serve as the heart of their eventual next-generation machine, an unprecedented step in an industry where CPU-makers and computer-makers had always been separate entities. For many, it seemed yet one more example of Acorn’s boffinish tendencies getting the best of them, causing them to laboriously reinvent the wheel rather than do what the rest of the microcomputer world was doing: grabbing a 68000 from Motorola or an 80286 from Intel and just getting on with the 16-bit machine their customers were clamoring for. While Acorn dithered with their new chip, they continued to fall further and further behind Amstrad, who in the wake of the Sinclair acquisition had now gone from a British home-computer market share of 0 to 60 percent in less than two years. Acorn was beginning to look downright irrelevant to many Britons in the market for the sorts of affordable, practical computer systems Amstrad was happily providing them with by the bucketful.

Measured in terms of public prominence, Acorn’s best days were indeed already behind them; they would never recapture those high-profile halcyon days of the early 1980s, when the BBC Micro had first been anointed as the British establishment’s officially designated choice for those looking to get in on the ground floor of the computer revolution. Yet the new CPU they were now in the midst of creating, far from being a pointless boondoggle, would ultimately have a far greater impact than anything they’d done before — and not just in Britain but over the entire world. For the CPU architecture Acorn was creating in those uncertain mid-1980s was the one that has gone on to be become the most popular ever: the ubiquitous ARM. Since retrofitted into “Advanced RISC Machine,” “ARM” originally stood for “Acorn RISC Machine.” Needless to say, no one at Acorn had any idea of the monster they were creating. How could they?

ARM, the chip that changed the world.

ARM, the chip that changed the world.

“RISC” stands for “Reduced Instruction Set Computer.” The idea didn’t originate with Acorn, but had already been kicking around American university and corporate engineering departments for some time. (As Hermann Hauser later wryly noted, “Normally British people invent something, and the exploitation is in America. But this is a counterexample.”) Still, the philosophy behind ARM was adhered to by only a strident minority before Acorn first picked it up in 1983.

The overwhelming trend in commercial microprocessor design up to that point had been for chips to offer ever larger and more complex instruction sets. By making “opcodes” — single instructions issued directly to the CPU — capable of doing more in a single step, machine-level code could be made more comprehensible for programmers and the programs themselves more compact. RISC advocates came to call this traditional approach to CPU architecture “CISC,” or “Complex Instruction Set Computing.” They believed that CISC was becoming increasingly counterproductive with each new generation of microprocessors. Seeing how the price and size of memory chips continued to drop significantly almost every year, they judged — in the long term, correctly — that memory usage would become much less important than raw speed in future computers. They therefore also judged that it would be more than acceptable in the future to trade smaller programs for faster ones. And they judged that they could accomplish exactly that trade-off by traveling directly against the prevailing winds in CPU design — by making a CPU that offered a radically reduced instruction set of extremely simple opcodes that were each ruthlessly optimized to execute very, very quickly.

A program written for a RISC processor might need to execute far more opcodes than the same program written for a CISC processor, but those opcodes would execute so quickly that the end result would still be a dramatic increase in throughput. Yes, it would use more memory, and, yes, it would be harder to read as machine code — but already fewer and fewer people were programming computers at such a low level anyway. The trend, which they judged likely only to accelerate, was toward high-level languages that abstracted away the details of processor design. In this prediction again, time would prove the RISC advocates correct. Programs may not even need to be as much larger as one might think; RISC advocates argued, with some evidence to back up their claims, that few programs really took full advantage of the more esoteric opcodes of the CISC chips, that the CISC chips were in effect being programed as if they were RISC chips much of the time anyway. In short, then, a definite but not insubstantial minority of academic and corporate researchers were beginning to believe that the time was ripe to replace CISC with RISC.

And now Acorn was about to act on their belief. In typical boffinish fashion, their ARM project was begun as essentially a personal passion project by Roger Wilson1 and Steve Furber, two key engineers behind the original BBC Micro. Hermann Hauser admits that for quite some time he gave them “no people” and “no money” to help with the work, making ARM “the only microprocessor ever to be designed by just two people.” When talks began with Olivetti in early 1985, ARM remained such a back-burner long-shot that Acorn never even bothered to tell their potential saviors about it. But as time went on the ARM chip came more and more to the fore as potentially the best thing Acorn had ever done. Having, almost perversely in the view of many, refused to produce a 16-bit replacement for the BBC Micro line for so long, Acorn now proposed to leapfrog that generation entirely; the ARM, you see, was a 32-bit chip. Early tests of the first prototype in April of 1985 showed that at 8 MHz it yielded an average throughput of about 3.5 MIPS, compared to 2.5 MIPS at 10 MHz for the 68020, the first 32-bit entry in Motorola’s popular 68000 line of CISC processors. And the ARM was much, much cheaper and simpler to produce than the 68020. It appeared that Wilson and Furber’s shoestring project had yielded a world-class microprocessor.

ARM made its public bow via a series of little-noticed blurbs that appeared in the British trade press around October of 1985, even as the stockbrokers in the City and BBC Micro owners in their homes were still trying to digest the news of Acorn’s acquisition by Olivetti. Acorn was testing a new “super-fast chip,” announced the magazine Acorn User, which had “worked the first time”: “It is designed to do a limited set of tasks very quickly, and is the result of the latest thinking in chip design.” From such small seeds are great empires sown.

The Acorn Archimedes

The Acorn Archimedes

The machine that Acorn designed as a home for the new chip was called the Acorn Archimedes — or at times, because Acorn at been able to retain the official imprimatur of the BBC, the BBC Archimedes. It was on the whole a magnificent piece of kit, in a different league entirely from the competition in terms of pure performance. It was, for instance, several times faster than a 68000-based Amiga, Macintosh, or Atari ST in many benchmarks despite running at a clock speed of just 8 MHz, roughly the same as all of the aforementioned competitors. Its graphic capabilities were almost as impressive, offering 256 colors onscreen at once from a palette of 4096 at resolutions as high as 640 X 512. So, Acorn had the hardware side of the house well in hand. The problem was the software.

Graphical user interfaces being all the rage in the wake of the Apple Macintosh’s 1984 debut, Acorn judged that the Archimedes as well had to be so equipped. Deciding to go to the source of the world’s very first GUI, they opened a new office for operating-system development a long, long way from their Cambridge home: right next door to Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center, in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. But the operating-system team’s progress was slow. Communication and coordination were difficult over such a distance, and the team seemed to be infected with the same preference for abstract research over practical product development that had always marked Xerox’s own facility in Palo Alto. The new operating system, to be called ARX, lagged far behind hardware development. “It became a black hole into which we poured effort,” remembers Wilson.

At last, with the completed Archimedes hardware waiting only on some software to make it run, Acorn decided to replace ARX with something they called Arthur, a BASIC-based operating environment very similar to the old BBC BASIC with a rudimentary GUI stuck on top. “All operating-system geniuses were firmly working on ARX,” says Wilson, “so we couldn’t actually spare any of the experts to work on Arthur.” The end result did indeed look like something put together by Acorn’s B team. Parts of Arthur were actually written in interpreted BASIC, which Acorn was able to get away with thanks to the blazing speed of the Archimedes hardware. Still, running Arthur on hardware designed for a cutting-edge Unix-like operating system with preemptive multitasking and the whole lot was rather like dropping a two-speed gearbox into a Lamborghini; it got the job done, after a fashion, but felt rather against the spirit of the thing.

When the Archimedes debuted in August of 1987, its price tag of £975 and up along with all of its infelicities on the software side gave little hope to those not blinded with loyalty to Acorn that this extraordinary machine would be able to compete with Amstrad’s good-enough models. The Archimedes was yet another Acorn machine for the boffins and the posh. Most of all, though, it would be bought by educators who were looking to replace aging BBC Micros and might still be attracted by the BBC branding and the partial compatibility of the new machine with the old, thanks to software emulators and the much-loved BBC BASIC still found as the heart of Arthur.

Even as Amstrad continued to dominate the mass market, a small but loyal ecosystem sprang up around the Archimedes, enough to support a software scene strong on educational software and technical tools for programming and engineering, all a natural fit for the typical Acorn user. And, while the Archimedes was never likely to become the first choice for pure game lovers, a fair number of popular games did get ported. After all, even boffins and educators — or, perhaps more likely, their students — liked to indulge in a bit of pure fun sometimes.

In April of 1989, after almost two long, frustrating years of delays, Acorn released a revision of Arthur comprehensive enough to be given a whole new name. The new RISC OS incorporated many if not all of the original ambitions for ARX, at last providing the Archimedes with an attractive modern operating system worthy of its hardware. But by then, of course, it was far too late to capture the buzz a more complete Archimedes package might have garnered at its launch back in 1987.

Much to the frustration of many of their most loyal customers, Acorn still seemed not so much inept at marketing their wares to the common person as completely disinterested in doing so. It was as if they felt themselves somehow above it all. Perhaps they had taken a lesson from their one earlier attempt to climb down from their ivory tower and sell a computer for the masses. That attempt had taken the form of the Acorn Electron, a cut-down version of the BBC Micro released in 1983 as a direct competitor to the Sinclair Spectrum. Poor sales and overproduction of the Electron had been the biggest single contributor to Acorn’s mid-decade financial collapse and the loss of their independence to Olivetti. Having survived that trauma (after a fashion), Acorn seemed content to tinker away with technology for its own sake and to let the chips fall where they would when it came to actually selling the stuff that resulted.

Alan Sugar shows off the first of his new line of PC clones.

Alan Sugar shows off the first of his new line of PC clones.

If it provided any comfort to frustrated Acorn loyalists, Amstrad also began to seem more and more at sea after their triumphant first couple of years in the computer market. In September of 1986, they added a fourth line of computers to their catalog with the release of the PC — as opposed to PCW — range. The first IBM clones targeted at the British mass market, the Amstrad PC line might have played a role in its homeland similar to that of the Tandy 1000 in the United States, popularizing these heretofore business-centric machines among home users. As usual with Amstrad, the price certainly looked right for the task. The cheapest Amstrad PC model, with a generous 512 K of memory but no hard drive, cost £399; the most expensive, which included a 20 Mb hard drive, £949. Before the Amstrad PC’s release, the cheapest IBM clone on the British market had retailed for £1429.

But, while not a flop, the PC range never took off quite as meteorically as some had expected. For months the line was dogged by reports of overheating brought on by the machine’s lack of a fan (shades of the Apple III fiasco) that may or may not have had a firm basis in fact. Alan Sugar himself was convinced that the reports could be traced back to skulduggery by IBM and other clone manufacturers trying to torpedo his cheaper machines. When he finally bowed to the pressure to add a fan, he did so as gracelessly as imaginable.

I’m a realistic person and we are a marketing organization, so if it’s the difference between people buying the machine or not, I’ll stick a bloody fan in it. And if they say they want bright pink spots on it, I’ll do that too. What is the use of me banging my head against a brick wall and saying, “You don’t need the damn fan, sunshine?”

But there were other problems as well, problems that were less easily fixed. Amstrad struggled to source hard disks, which had proved a far more popular option than expected, resulting in huge production backlogs on many models. And, worst of all, they found that they had finally overreached themselves by setting the prices too low to be realistically sustainable; prices began to creep upward almost immediately.

For that matter, prices were creeping upward across Amstrad’s entire range of computers. In 1986, after years of controversy over the alleged dumping of memory chips into the international market on the part of the Japanese semiconductor industry, the United States pressured Japan into signing a trade pact that would force them to throttle back their production and increase their prices. Absent the Japanese deluge, however, there simply weren’t enough memory chips being made in the world to fill an ever more voracious demand. By 1988, the situation had escalated into a full-blown crisis for volume computer manufacturers like Amstrad, who couldn’t find enough memory chips to build all the computers their customers wanted — and certainly not at the prices their customers were used to paying for them. Amstrad’s annual sales declined for the first time in a long time in 1988 after they were forced to raise prices and cut production dramatically due to the memory shortage. Desperate to secure a steady supply of chips so he could ramp up production again, Sugar bought into Micron Technology, one of only two American firms making memory chips, in October of 1988 to the tune of £45 million. But within a year the memory-chip crisis, anticipated by virtually everyone at the time of the Micron buy-in to go on for years yet, petered out when factories in other parts of Asia began to come online with new technologies to produce memory chips more cheaply and quickly than ever. Micron’s stock plummeted, another major loss for Amstrad. The buy-in hadn’t been “the greatest deal I’ve ever done,” admitted Sugar.

Many saw in the Amstrad of these final years of the 1980s an all too typical story in business: that of a company that had been born and grown wildly as a cult of personality around its founder, until one day it got too big for any one man to oversee. The founder’s vision seemed to bleed away as the middle managers and the layers of bureaucracy moved in. Seduced by the higher profits margins enjoyed by business computers, Amstrad strayed ever further from Sugar’s old target demographic. New models in the PC range crept north of £1000, even £2000 for the top-of-the-line machines, while the more truck-driver-focused PCW and CPC lines were increasingly neglected. The CPC line would be discontinued entirely in 1990, leaving only the antique Spectrum to soldier on for a couple more years for Amstrad in the role of general-purpose home computer. It seemed that Amstrad at some fundamental level didn’t really know how to go about producing a brand new machine in the spirit of the CPC in this era when making a new home computer was much more complicated than plugging together some off-the-shelf chips and hiring a few hackers to knock out a BASIC for the thing. Amstrad would continue to make computers for many years to come, but by the time the 1990s dawned their brief-lived glory days of 60 percent market share were already fading into the rosy glow of nostalgia.

For all their very real achievements over the course of a very remarkable decade in British computing, Acorn and Amstrad each had their own unique blind spot that kept them from achieving even more. In the Archimedes, Acorn had a machine that was a match for any other microcomputer in the world in any application you cared to name, from games to business to education. Yet they released it in half-baked form at too high a price, then failed to market it properly. In their various ranges, Amstrad had the most comprehensive lineup of computers of anyone in Britain during the mid- to late-1980s. Yet they lacked the corporate culture to imagine what people would want five years from now in addition to what they wanted today. The world needs visionaries and commodifiers alike. What British computing lacked in the 1980s was a company capable of integrating the two.

That lack left wide open a huge gap in the market: space for a next-generation home computer with a lot more power and much better graphics and sound than the likes of the old Sinclair Spectrum, but that still wouldn’t cost a fortune. Packaged, priced, and marketed differently, the Archimedes might have been that machine. As it was, buyers looked to foreign companies to provide. Neglected as Europe still was by the console makers of Japan, the British punters’ choice largely came down to one of two American imports, the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST. Both — especially the former — would live very well in this gap that neither Acorn nor Amstrad deigned to fill for too long. Acorn did belatedly try with the release of the Archimedes A3000 model in mid-1989 — laid out in the all-in-one-case, disk-drive-on-the-side fashion of an Amiga 500, styled to resemble the old BBC Micro, and priced at a more reasonable if still not quite reasonable enough £745. But by that time the Archimedes’s fate as a boutique computer for the wealthy, the dedicated, and the well-connected was already decided. As the decade ended, an astute observer could already detect that the wild and woolly days of British computing as a unique culture unto itself were numbered.

The Archimedes A3000 marked the end of an era, the last Acorn machine to also bear the BBC logo.

The Archimedes A3000 marked the end of an era, the last Acorn machine to bear the BBC logo.

And that would be that, but for one detail: the fairly earth-shattering detail of ARM. The ARM CPU’s ability to get extraordinary performance out of a relatively low clock speed had a huge unintended benefit that was barely even noticed by Acorn when they were in the process of designing it. In the world of computer engineering, higher clock speeds translate quite directly into higher power usage. Thus the ARM chip could do more with less power, a quality that, along with its cheapness and simplicity, made it the ideal choice for an emerging new breed of mobile computing devices. In 1990 Apple Computer, hard at work on a revolutionary “personal digital assistant” called the Newton, came calling on Acorn. A new spinoff was formed in November of 1990, a partnership among Acorn, Apple, and the semiconductor firm VLSI Technology, who had been fabricating Acorn’s ARM chips from the start. Called simply ARM Holdings, it was intended as a way to popularize the ARM architecture, particularly in the emerging mobile space, among end-user computer manufacturers like Apple who might be leery of buying ARM chips directly from a direct competitor like Acorn.

And popularize it has. To date about ten ARM CPUs have been made for every man, woman, and child on the planet, and the numbers look likely to continue to soar almost exponentially for many years to come. ARM CPUs are found today in more than 95 percent of all mobile phones. Throw in laptops (even laptops built around Intel processors usually boost several ARM chips as well), tablets, music players, cameras, GPS units… well, you get the picture. If it’s portable and it’s vaguely computery, chances are there’s an ARM inside. ARM, the most successful CPU architecture the world has ever known, looks likely to continue to thrive for many, many years to come, a classic example of unintended consequences and unintended benefits in engineering. Not a bad legacy for an era, is it?

(Sources: the book Sugar: The Amstrad Story by David Thomas; Acorn User of July 1985, October 1985, March 1986, September 1986, November 1986, June 1987, August 1987, September 1987, October 1988, November 1988, December 1988, February 1989, June 1989, and December 1989; Byte of November 1984; 8000 Plus of October 1986; Amstrad Action of November 1985; interviews with Hermann Hauser, Sophie Wilson, and Steve Furber at the Computer History Museum.)


Comments
  1. Roger Wilson now lives as Sophie Wilson. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

Sibyl Moon Games

Design notes for Five Gods Exiled

by Carolyn VanEseltine at June 23, 2016 05:01 PM

This week is Emily Short’s Bring Out Your Dead semijam, described as “an event for sharing dead WIPs and experiments that you don’t expect to finish, but that you’d like to show to someone anyway”.

In that spirit, I present Five Gods Exiled, my successful procedural generation experiment that completely failed at becoming a game.

This game will run in a browser – I tested it on Firefox and Chrome – but your browser will report a freeze while the game is loading. (I received two “Continue the script?” checks in Firefox, and one in Chrome.) If you’d prefer to download the game instead, here’s the gblorb link and here are some interpreters that can run a glulxe file (I personally use Windows Glulxe.)

Skip to the chase: Five Gods Exiled

Some history

In November of 2010, fresh off the success of my first complete IF release (One Eye Open, with Caelyn Sandel), I wanted to make the most replayable IF game ever. And I wanted to release it just five months later.

As I described it to Greg Boettcher, the 2011 Spring Thing organizer:

“The working title of my current project is Five and Five. It’s a game about a world where part of reality has been divided away from itself, leaving neither plane of reality whole. The PC can move between the two halves of reality under certain circumstances, and the PC’s goal is to save reality by reuniting the Blight and the Exile. This game will be an experiment in replayability. Almost everything in it (map layouts, terrain, major NPCs, the PC’s history, etc.) will be randomly generated, and any given playthrough will give you only a fraction of the content available. Winning the game will rely not on puzzle-solving, but on tactics (there is a combat system) and a certain amount of luck. Instead of being a crossword at war with a narrative, it’s a board game at war with a narrative.”

In the letter above here, you can see the vagueness of my pitch. After I withdrew from Spring Thing (having bitten off far more than I could chew), I set the project aside. I was learning more about game design, which forced me to see all the project’s problems. I was very excited about my procedural generation tech, but as for the actual story – or the player experience, or what made any of this fun – I didn’t have any good answers. (More about this in “Recognizing Fun Through Elevator Pitches”.)

Lacking answers, I moved on to other projects. Five Gods Exiled went first to a temp backburner, and then to the permanent backburner, where it has remained until now.

Bring Out Your Dead header

Procedural generation

To learn about the procedurally generated landscape, see “A Procedurally Generated Wilderness”. Alternately, see volumes 2 through 4 (and subheadings) in the source.

The second-most-complex procedural generation system is the one used to build NPCs. While your birth nation is never identified in game, the characteristics used to build characters were intended to be generically appropriate to random Americans. I wanted to create procedurally generated characters that would seem visually believable. I wanted players to look at the name and physical description and think, “Yeah, I could imagine that person walking past on the street.”

I won’t go into detail about how it works – see Volume 5 (and subheadings) in the source – but in retrospect, while the system works, it’s not so great behind the scenes. In the source code, the entire system hinges on ethnicities (the ethnicity categories used at Mongabay – Non-Hispanic White, Non-Hispanic Black, Hispanic, Native American/Alaskan, Asian/Pacific Islander). While those ethnicities are never mentioned in game, they are used to adjust the names and traits available to various characters, and I made some poor choices in setting up that system. Aside from that, there’s some weight shaming in the source code, and gender is treated as a binary. I’m leaving all of this code as-is, but that doesn’t mean I stand by it now. I think it’s a good idea to illustrate mistakes.

If I were going to complete this game, I would revisit procedural character generation and look for ways to accomplish the overarching goal (believable random people) in a way that avoids drawing artificial lines or conveying hurtful things. I’d also discuss the system with other game devs (particularly people of color) and listen to their feedback. These things matter, even when the player can’t see them.

Design

My primary inspiration was the board game Arkham Horror. My play group uses every expansion there is simultaneously, which means that I’ve seen a bare fraction of the content available. I wanted players to have that kind of experience, and I understood in advance that a procedurally generated game would involve a certain amount of stylization. The plot could contort within certain boundaries, but coming up with an entirely new plot each time was out of the question. And fully fleshed NPCs were out of the question, too.

The actual plot (and associated gameplay) metamorphosed significantly during development, but here’s the last incarnation of the plot and associated gameplay.

Backstory

In a near-future world, scientists discover definitive proof of the Gods. They are absolutely terrifying, and their powers can be drawn upon by anyone who knows how to do it. Their existence is like handing a firebomb to every person in the world.

There’s a worldwide scientific and religious effort to take that firebomb away, which means shunting the Gods into another part of existence. Somewhere humans can’t reach them.

The effort is successful, but unfortunately misguided. These are the Gods. It’s not possible to push the Gods out of existence without pushing everyone else out of existence. Which is exactly what has happened.

The human race has Exiled itself into a different plane of reality. It is not stable.

You were recruited into a circle of people seeking to return humanity to the real world. The Gods may be dangerous, but they’re still less dangerous than this dream world and its disintegrating laws of physics and society.

As a group, you are damaged, confused and frightened. One of your group is murdered, threatening your mission, but through meditation, prayer, and ritual, your circle successfully opens a portal back to the real world.

Only one person can cross back. You are the one chosen.

The information is revealed to the player through flashbacks and memories. These memories are custom-tailored to the procedurally generated identity of the player and the other people in the player’s circle.

Gameplay

There are ten shrines in the Blight, each belonging to a different God.

Five of these shrines belong to the exiled Gods. These shrines can be invoked to phrase the player temporarily into the Exile. The player needs to invoke all five shrines to summon the Gods home, but monsters are created whenever the exiled Gods connect with the real world (also referred to as the Blight).

The other five Gods are still connected to the Blight. Their shrines can be invoked for special powers: restoring the player’s health, restoring the player’s attunement, removing debuffs, identifying items, and locating monsters.

Health indicates the shadow self’s health. If a monster enters combat with the shadow self, the shadow self may lose health. If the health drops to zero, the shadow self will be destroyed.

Attunement indicates whether the player is correctly attuned to the Blight, or whether the player’s consciousness is torn across the worlds. It indicates how long the player can stay in the Exile on any given visit, and if the player’s attunement is too low, the player becomes disoriented (reflected by receiving location-appropriate messaging from the Exile while in the Blight, or vice versa). If a monster enters combat with the player, the player may lose attunement. If the attunement drops to zero, the player will be destroyed and the game will end.

After the player’s first trip to the Exile, the player will be joined by the shadow self, which is an echo of the player’s former reality within the Blight. The shadow self handles all combat, which is carried out deterministically.

Under some circumstances, the player can receive mementos upon phasing back into the Blight. Mementos are projections of Exiled energy upon the Blight, and they provide temporary or permanent boosts to the player’s stats (strength, stamina, will, and knowledge) or derived stats (attack, speed, defense, health, attunement, awareness, and stealth). As more shrines are invoked, the monsters created will be more numerous and powerful, and mementos help even up the playing field.

After the player invokes all five shrines, a portal appears in the first room of the game. The portal leads Between Worlds, where the player’s mentor (the person who assembled their circle) gives the player a talisman, which cannot be dropped. As long as the player carries the talisman, they lose permanent health (in the Blight) or permanent attunement (in the Exile) every turn.

To finish the game, the player must enter the Exile and give the talisman to someone. It’s a lethal gift, but if the player chooses someone from their circle, then the worlds will be reunited (the good ending). If the player has pieced together enough memories to find the murderer, that would be an excellent person to choose (the very good ending). If the player gives the talisman to someone who isn’t from the circle, that person will die and humanity will remain Exiled for now (the bad ending). And if the player fails to give the talisman away before dying, then their consciousness will be torn across the worlds and humanity will be permanently Exiled (the very bad ending).

Significant chunks of the gameplay described above are still unimplemented or include placeholder messaging only. It’s possible to die to a monster, but none of the true endings are available.

Problems

My primary inspiration was the board game Arkham Horror, and… the game still behaves like a board game. Apart from the text-based procedural generation systems, there’s no reason why IF is the correct medium for this game. The narrative is vague and gigantic at the same time, while the gameplay focuses on movement through space (a particularly poor choice for IF) and RPG-style combat.

At a rough guess, this game is two-thirds implemented and one-quarter written. It won’t see daylight as a finished project, but I don’t regret the time I spent on it. I learned Inform while working on One Eye Open and Beet the Devil, but I learned the sheer power of Inform while I worked on Five Gods Exiled.

Source code

How the sausage was made: Five Gods Exiled source code

Please note the source code only compiles under Inform 7 6G60. Also, it’s essentially uncommented. Sorry about that.

June 22, 2016

Emily Short

Immigration

by Emily Short at June 22, 2016 06:00 PM

In which I talk about something personal and political; skip if that’s not your thing.

I am an immigrant. I moved to the UK to live with my husband, after seven years of trans-Atlantic relationship. By the time that happened, our relationship had survived a lot of circumstantial challenge and a lot of time. Moving was, to put it mildly, not something I did on a whim.

Lots of people assume that if you marry a citizen of the UK, you immediately have the right to live and work here. This is false. Getting (and then repeatedly renewing) a spousal visa is a time-consuming, expensive process involving hundreds of pages of documentation, letters of support from everyone from your family to your landlord to your bank, and a hefty intervention from lawyers. If you are too young, or if you can’t provide evidence of the sponsoring partner having a stable, fairly comfortable income, you can’t do it at all. My being able to immigrate is a huge marker of privilege.

My immigration story is an animated fairytale compared with the reasons my ancestors immigrated. Like most Americans, I inherited many stories of why you might leave behind your homeland and everything you know. Such as: my Cherokee ancestors who were forcibly moved to Oklahoma. My Irish ancestors who were part of the Irish diaspora. My German ancestors who had been living in an area under Russian control until the Russians decided to do some ethnic cleansing.

That history was written in the character of my grandparents, even if I didn’t know how to read it as a child. The covert grief of my grandmother and her siblings, who chose not to speak about their memories because they didn’t want to pass those sorrows to the next generation. The capacity for work. The courage to take necessary risks. The disciplined pragmatism. The ability to triage, to recognize the important needs and not waste energy on stupid fights. My great-grandmother was famously uncomplaining, and when the homesickness and loneliness got too much for her, she would go into the pantry to cry where the family would not have to see. The worst of her experiences are known now only because her descendants chose to keep and translate her diary rather than discarding it.

Why am I mentioning this? Not as evidence. My anecdotes aren’t justification for a policy decision. There are all sorts of genuinely evidence-based reasons for why I think both the US and the UK benefit culturally and politically and economically from immigration, and I hope they/we vote accordingly over the next few months.

Still, I’m impatient with narratives about how immigrants are lazy or dishonest, and even more impatient with the implication that I’m a “good” immigrant purely because I have more money and have faced less trauma than “bad” immigrants. In my experience, immigrants are brave and hard-working; and, also in my experience, immigration itself is something you do in response to a compelling life circumstance.

My other point is this: I see a lot of aggressive posturing in response to fear. If only we all had guns, gun massacres would be a thing of the past! If we closed our borders, we’d exclude terrorism, disease, and meddling EU regulations! Hey, who’s up for a really big wall?

But the surviving-est people I know — the people who did what they needed to do to get through the Great Depression and the potato famine and the Trail of Tears and Russian purges, the people who crossed borders and broke new farmland because they had no other option — they left me the impression that that kind of bluster is purest nonsense. You don’t know what the universe is going to throw at you. You can never brace against it. There is no level of aggression that will keep you safe. There is no power or vengeance fantasy that will keep mortality at bay.

Instead, you pay attention to the evidence and make your best rational provision for the future. If you have a chance, you make friends. If you’re lucky, when something comes — whatever that is — you’re not facing it alone.


Interactive Fables

Worldsmith - An Interactive Fable

June 22, 2016 02:31 PM

CLEVELAND -- June 22nd, 2016 : Interactive Fables announced today that "Worldsmith", the first game in their interactive fables series will be released in September 2016, available from itch.io. "The Tagides Rings, holding the Septem tower steady in the Manifold, are approaching perfect aphelion. Four apprentices remain but only one Worldsmith will be given the robes of the craft. It all comes to this. The Workshops are prepared. Come, apprentice. It is time to create your masterspiece. It is

Welcome to our Blog - Interactive Fables

June 22, 2016 02:31 PM

Welcome to the first of our semi-regular updates about the progress of Worldsmith and Interactive Fables. It's kind of an exciting time. Our first game is moving towards completion and we hope to release it in September 2016. Or, maybe, October 2016. Hey, we're a small team.  Worldsmith is being written by Mike Preston, the author of Interactive fiction games Map and Fifteen Minutes. Oh, and the *cough* Hard Puzzle games - but the less said about those, the better. We are developing the game in

June 21, 2016

These Heterogenous Tasks

Bring Out Your Dead: Matchmaker

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at June 21, 2016 07:01 PM

matchery

My final Bring Out Your Dead entry is Matchmaker (other working title: The Sheep Hook Up). It was my Giant Procedural Folly.

Premise: there’s a city-state somewhere handwavily in Europe. (I never settled on a name for it. Characters are fun to name; cities are tough.) It has long been ruled by a noble class,  but they’re getting decadent, over-fond of refined culture and elaborate entertainments. Meanwhile, a middle class of artisans and merchants has established itself and is looking to climb. Combine this with the tendency of rich, leisured teenagers to act out, and the barriers of class are in peril.

The king re-institutes an old office, the King’s Witness. It’s a job for a sorceror. Sorcery, in this world, is closely linked to spycraft, and it slowly, fundamentally erodes you. Experienced sorcerors have no permanent form, having become constantly-shifting mosaics of identity. Very experienced sorcerors…

Your job is to take this year’s set of marriageable young nobles and make sure that they pair off with one another in suitable ways. No elopements, no secret pregnancies, no triads, no marrying foreign nobles and moving away, no serious homosexuality, and absolutely no love-matches with commoners.

Here’s the introduction. Needs work.

‘ – some of them very useful fellows in their own way, and if it were to remain an occasional occurrence… but it seems as if there are more of them every year. Or else the girls marry outside, and we lose them. If this continues, within a generation our noble Houses will be quite declined; I need not spell out the consequences for my own line, and for the State.’

He has moved over to the slit-window, and stares down through ivy and lead. ‘There is, politically, not much I can do; the privy rights of the Houses, quite properly… privy rights first and always, and the realm be damned. So be it.’  The last time a monarch made free and easy with the Tolybroke Charter, the result was thirty years of bitter war, culminating in the public torture and death of his great-granduncle; for a few heady days there was even talk of a republic.

‘There is a precedent, however,’ he continues, shaking off the ghosts and turning briskly towards you. ‘The old office of King’s Witness has, for some time, been allowed to lapse into an appointment to accustom bright young things to courtly forms without the embarrassment of actual duties. I have complete personal oversight of the appointment, which, happily, is not one to which the Houses will pay overmuch attention. Nor need I make any proclamations if I reinstate ancient privileges to an inconsequential office, or supplement them with a few unofficial discretionary powers necessary to modern challenges.

‘I will be blunt. Courting-season has arrived. There are, in my estimation, nine really suitable young people in society this year. Have them married off to each other, or bring in foreign noblewomen, as you please. I would like four matches by marriage-season, young and noble. Undersecretary Bundle will apprise you of the details. Good day.’

The PC would mostly operate through spycraft and subterfuge. They had a set of sinister minions to do their bidding:

Smokehouse is a person. The description of Smokehouse is “Relaxed, Smokehouse has the constantly shifting form universal to veteran spies, which draws attention to her static features: full, smirking lips, deliberate hands, a common sensibility to the hairstyles. A slim majority of the shapes are female, and most of the male ones are somewhat feminine.”
Whitegrit is a person. “Whitegrit’s shapes reflect little of gender or aesthetic tastes; he has doubtless retained more abstract, private features instead. A deeper liability; but his superficial flexibility is a great asset. Even relaxed, in your presence his shapes unconsciously guess (poorly) at something that might ingratiate.”
Sputtercusp is a person. “Although it is probably not the original, Sputtercusp’s shape does not vary as much as her seniority might suggest. Her tastes are too definite, one suspects; all her forms are female and share a dancing quality of movement. Her faces are all from the same stable; her voices always confident, melodic and perfectly grammatical. No crones or children. Most spies pass through this stage, but those who remain in it are rarely promoted far. Sputtercusp’s rank owes a great deal to her ability at other forms of sorcery.”
Catwrench is a person. “Catwrench has an entirely military background, and the only theme of his forms is a vague flavour of the corps. A man with one eye-socket crushed; another whose speech, though sonorous, is blunt and obfuscating; a woman whose unoccupied hands move automatically to at-ease.”

You would mostly be operating through spycraft: here’s a draft of the major verbs and their tutorial-explanations:

arrest: “So one of the simplest things we can do is arrest someone one a fabricated charge. Doing this to gentry is a risky business if we can’t pin anything on them; that’d bring Tolybroke into play, and if our legal situation looked dodgy the Prince would throw us all to the wolves. You first. Commoners, now, there’s not so much scrutiny; we should be able to get away with it if we don’t go overboard. Either way, it’s a good way of getting someone out of the way for a few days, and maybe make ’em reconsider a few choices.”

assassinate: “Now, the Prince hasn’t sanctioned this or nothing, but, if things start to look really bad somehow and there’s no other way… well, we could, after a manner of speaking, have a person taken care of. If it’s genuinely needed and we keep our hands nice and clean, the Prince will look the other way. These things are like carting powder, though: sometimes it all goes along without a hitch and everyone’s happy, sometimes it goes to hell for no reason and you’re picking teeth out of the gutters for months.”

sorcery: “Some of our folks have a hand for the sorcerous arts. Not proud of it, but we’re not in this for our own pride’s sake. Set ’em to it and they’ll… well, they’ll come up with something or other, no doubt about it, but damned if I could guess what. Sputtercusp is our specialist, but any spy can handle it in a pinch.”

distract: “One of the simplest ways we can tweak a situation is to hold up someone. Let’s say you don’t want someone to be at a certain party, or to make a certain appointment. So you send someone round. Maybe his servant doesn’t wake him up and he sleeps in half the day; maybe there’s a minor carriage accident; maybe an old drinking buddy reappears from nowhere and the whole evening gets diverted. If you do it too often there’s a chance that a smart fellow will start to smell a rat, but otherwise it’s a reliable tactic.”

shadow: “We can put a tail on someone if you so care. You’ll get regular reports on where they go, what they do, who they see; if they send a message, you’ll see it first; if they go to a private party or meet a lover secretly, we’ll alert you. And the shadow acts as a bodyguard, too, just in case some young idiot decides to take up duels or amateur racketeering. But it doesn’t pay to shadow someone forever; even the worst fool will twig eventually. I’d say our best tail is Whitegrit.”

stakeout: “The most basic job we ever do is staking out a place. Place an agent – any idiot can do it – and you’ll get reports on who visits, what goes on, any letters that happen to pass that way. Just like placing a shadow, except we get to put our feet up and eat pastries.”

forge: “Once we’ve got a decent sample of someone’s writing, we can replicate their fist, style idioms, the works. If you need, we can send love-letters, breakup-letters, proposals of marriage, invitations to trysts or duels… whatever you need. Just be warned that this sort of thing makes people ever so suspicious if they catch on.”

investigate: “If you worry that somebody’s hiding something, we can snoop around, open some desks, bribe some servants; maybe scratch up a dirty past, maybe catch on to a current affair. This is only a little risky if done right, but it takes time.”

You’ll note that these mostly happen in between parties and so on, rather than during them. I was going to simulate acts at parties and trysts in a fairly abstract, Sims-like style – the King’s Witness doesn’t care much about the particulars of speech, just the information. I really didn’t have this part nailed down at all; I thought you could push people into interacting with one another a bit, but not infallibly.

The actual subjects of all this intrigue, the young lovers, were the focus of most of the fiddly mechanics. Oh, boy, were they going to be complicated.

Every character had a set of personality and appearance traits. Every character also had a list of personality and appearance traits that they found attractive, partially created from stereotyped templates; the combination of these established baseline attraction. They would then develop their relationships and passions through parties, trysts, correspondence by letters, and (if they got annoyed enough with one another) duels. They would be members of noble families, possibly meaning that some of them were related to one another and share traits as a result. (The families would have auto-generated coats of arms which might reflect family traits.) They would form cliques based on commonly-held traits and try to become more like people in their cliques, and they would follow, and try to influence, seasonally-changing fashions. Traits, particularly popular traits, would determine the kinds of party that were held, but there would also be a fixed list of seasonal festivals.

And then there would be visiting nobility and unscrupulous social climbers, who would try to lure the young gentlefolk into foreign ways and delightfully low-class environs. Young gentlemen falling in love with their mistresses, young ladies running off with their dance tutors. Rumours and accusations. Gender-disguise and lovers’ quarrels. All that good stuff. You can probably see why it never got very far.

Since I was doing this long before Prom Week, I hadn’t really thought at all about how the player would be able to process and use all of this complicated, incremental information. If anything, I was probably inclined to hide most of it from the player and force them to uncover it. I totally designed this the wrong way around – I spent most of my energies on very fiddly generation of characters and figuring out whether they were initially attracted to one another, when the first things to figure out should really have been: what do they do, and how does the player affect it?

Mercifully, I7 – which was then relatively young – began to bog down on my extraordinarily inefficient code, which made very heavy use of many-to-many relations.

The main thing I salvaged from this was the code which created the utterly-ghastly family backgrounds of the ignoble suitors – avaricious strumpets and picaresque rogues, the lot of ’em. It got repurposed and slightly expanded for the orphans of Olivia’s Orphanorium. I got another chance to put a dancing-lime in a game in Invisible Parties (really they’re a German thing, but too good not to steal).

I kind of like the setting. I really want to write a big, detailed, setting-oriented urban piece at some point. I want to do a lot of this stuff, honestly. Just maybe not all in the same game.

 


Aniamosity

Response-based IF

by Jay Nabonne at June 21, 2016 04:09 PM

This will be a quick overview of what I’m calling “response-based” IF, which is what the ResponsIF engine is designed to do. It won’t get too in-depth into the nuances of the engine itself but will strive more to give the overall design considerations.

In general terms, a “response” is a unit of behavior. A response can output text (or other elements), change variables in the world state, move objects around, invoke other responses, etc. or any combination of the above. Anything that occurs in the course of interaction is done through some sort of response.

Responses are triggered by “topics”. A topic is anything you can think of. Nouns, verbs, ideas, emotions, pretty much anything you can think of can be a topic. If you can express it, then it can be a topic. A topic is “called” to generate responses.

Responses do not exist on their own. Rather, responses are provided by “responders”. A responder provides one type of context for when a response can be triggered – a response can only trigger when its responder is part of the active scene. (There are other sorts of context for responses as well, including the topic(s) to match and any necessary world state conditions.)

Let’s give a simple example of a response: the ubiquitous “Hello world” response.

.responses player
    .response START
        .does .says Hello, world!
.end

The key elements are here. The first line (“.responses player”) states that we are defining the responses for the “player” responder. The “player” responder is the only built-in responder in ResponsIF, and it is active in any response context. It is meant to correspond to the person playing (or reading or whatever) the current IF piece.

The next line (“.response START”) begins a definition for a response, responding to the topic “START”. The “START” topic is called by default when a ResponsIF piece begins.

The subsequent line defines what the response does: it outputs the string “Hello, world!”

Finally, “.end” terminates the set of responses for the player.

This is just a single response, and it doesn’t do much. But it should give an idea about how a ResponsIF game or work (termed a “riff”) is structured. An entire riff contains statements to set up the game world along with a collection of responders and their responses which will occur when various topics are called. Responders can be arranged in a hierarchical structure (parent/child) to establish the necessary contexts or even model “world” structures like rooms, hallways, caverns, etc.

How are topics called? Sometimes they’re called internally, as the “START” example shows. They can also be called by other responses. The vast majority of topics will be called due to player action, typically through UI elements such as buttons, hyper-links and textual input.

For example, the following rather pointless example shows how hyper-links can be created to call topics.

.responses player
    .response START
        .does .says Once upon a time, there was a {!princess!} who lived in a tall {!tower!}.
    .response princess
        .does .says She had long luxurious hair.
    .response tower
        .does .says The tower had smooth, stone walls that not even ivy could scale.
.end

The notation “{!princess!}” is called “link markup”. It creates a link that will call the specified topic (“princess”) when clicked.

The exact ResponsIF details are not terribly relevant here, beyond showing the basic concepts. (More details can be found at the ResponsIF github site: https://github.com/jaynabonne/responsif.)

A key part of ResponsIF is its use of HTML, CSS and JavaScript, which provides great freedom in how a work looks and feels. Due to this, ResponsIF can be used to create a large number of possible works. As a general-purpose engine, it is not restricted to any particular form of IF. Of course, being a general-purpose engine, it’s also not specialized for any particular form of IF, which means it may make more sense to use other tools more dedicated to a particular form, depending on what end result is desired. As always, choose the tool that best matches the task at hand!

In upcoming posts, I will go over my own personal goals and design choices for my IF work(s).