Planet Interactive Fiction

July 31, 2015

Emily Short

July Link Assortment

by Emily Short at July 31, 2015 04:00 AM

If you want to talk to and hang out with other interactive fiction enthusiasts, here are a bunch of forthcoming live IF meetups:

SF Bay: August 1, 1 PM. (Details here.)

Seattle: August 15, 1 PM. (Details here.)

London: August 25, 7 PM. (Details and RSVP here.)
We’re a diverse group including people interested in choice-based and parser IF, hypertext and Twine, StoryNexus, writing in video games, transmedia and interactive performance. You do not have to be experienced in any particular area to fit in; if you’re curious, please do join us and tell us about what you’re into. We meet in a lovely room above Failbetter Games HQ with a view of the Thames, talk and have snacks, and then after a couple of hours adjourn to the nearby pub. Everything is in easy walking distance of the North Greenwich tube stop.

Baltimore: August 29, 3 PM. (Details here.)

Boston: I’m not sure August’s meeting has been scheduled yet, but there will probably be one; check out this space if you’re curious.

New York: I couldn’t find a listing for this month, and it looks as though the group may be on summer hiatus.

If you know of others I should be listing, please feel free to comment below.

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scrollthiefScroll Thief is out!

I haven’t had a chance to play the full version yet, but I really enjoyed the demo submitted to IntroComp (review here). It’s a classic old-school parser puzzle game set in the Zork/Enchanter universe, with humor and fun systemic results; while I’m not always keen on pieces that are just doing nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, the Scroll Thief demo was pretty inventive with its spellwork concepts and was actually taking the premise in some new directions. Cast spells! Cast spells on spells!

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Sub-Q, the new IF magazine/website, has announced its lineup of four new IF pieces upcoming in August. One of these is a reprint of Silver and Gold, a formally daring piece I reviewed here; the others are new work, including new material by Porpentine with Brenda Neotenomie and Yoon Ha Lee with Peter Berman (the team that produced the surreal and gorgeous To Spring Open). I am not familiar with any IF by Vajra Chandrasekera, but his publication history makes me eager to see the results.

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The Prix Net Art has a call for nominations open through August 17: it calls for works that are primarily experienced through a web browser and are more than incidentally acting on or acted on by the network; they explicitly call out twitter bots as an example of this kind of work, and I would guess that some types of interactive fiction might also be considered eligible. There is a $10,000 grand prize, as well as an additional $5000 for the runner up. Artists may nominate themselves, or may be nominated by third parties; the artist is not required to create a new work as part of the submission but will be judged on the basis of their existing portfolio. Additional details are provided here.

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I’ll be speaking on a panel with Naomi Alderman and Cara Ellison about stories in games at the London Literature Festival on October 7. If you’d like to join us, tickets are available here.

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I am also going to be at WordPlay this year (Toronto, Nov 7). WordPlay always shows a selection of text-rich games to the general public. If you want to submit something for consideration to be shown at WordPlay, there’s more information here, including discussion from IF community people who are planning to be there. I know in past years some people have worked together to pool transport and lodging, so that’s a place to look for those resources if you need them, too.

I’m also attending PRACTICE the next weekend in New York, with a stop in Boston in between. My schedule is filling in, but I’m planning to work in a way to get together with the Boston and New York IF groups; if there’s something else you want to meet about, please do get in touch and I’ll see if I can work in some time. (I’ve started listing upcoming appearances on my Contact page, in case that helps.)

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Screen Shot 2015-07-19 at 11.38.33 AM

Stephen Colbert’s new show has an associated Twine game. With illustrations and Narnia references.

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Much darker: here is an interactive graphical piece on the experience of Vietnamese refugees. It seems to be pitched at an Australian audience, providing some background for present-day Vietnamese communities in that country, but it’s interesting even if that’s not where you’re coming from. Probably best viewed with a reasonably fast internet connection, because it’s loading a lot of graphics and motion elements.

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Offworld covered Never Go To Work, recent IF from the Interactive Fiction Fund (some of whose earlier works I reviewed here). The IFF has recently reached a funding level to step up its commissioning, and it’s always looking for new work as well as guest editors. If you’re more interested in being a patron than a creator, contributing to the fund gets you free access to each new supported work.

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Victor Gijsbers is playing through Tom McHenry’s games: so far there’s discussion of Horse Master and Let’s Go Eat, but presumably the thread will also get to Tonight Dies the Moon.

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Aaron Reed wrote about gender presentation in Hollywood Visionary — a game in which you can select your gender, your title, and your clothing/self-image separately. This includes the challenge of communicating to the player what he was doing and that all this freedom was intentional rather than buggy.

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Text Adventure Time is a project for youth in the north of England to build a text adventure based in local geography, together with things they’re calling Artefakes, but which look like what we’d call feelies.

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mothgen2

Leigh Alexander, over on Offworld, writes up a procedural moth generator.

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Here’s an article about the game Never Alone as an expression of Native experience.

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Microscope Explorer, now on Kickstarter, is an expansion on the tabletop storygame Microscope, which includes several variants including Microscope Union. $10 gets you a copy of the PDF rulebook, though of course there are more extensive combinations if you want to pledge more. Sam Ashwell writes the project up in detail as well.

And while we’re on the topic of currently-being-Kickstarted narrative storygames with write-ups by Sam: here’s his take on Downfall; he describes it as having one of the most effective culture-building mechanics he has yet encountered.

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Hannah Nicklin wrote some game poems for the Wellcome Collection’s free play event.

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Diorama Club is a super-simple, no-variables, branching-only CYOA website. I don’t think it’s necessarily easier to use than inklewriter (while being rather more restricted in what it can do), but completionists about IF systems might be interested.

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The Office for Creative Research does imaginative visualizations of data sets. This is not a particularly IF-related thing, but it is really cool.


July 30, 2015

Sibyl Moon Games

Pinball and Game Balance

by Carolyn VanEseltine at July 30, 2015 11:01 PM

On Tuesday, my friend Ashleigh and I went on a one-day vacation field trip to The Pinball Wizard Arcade in Pelham, NH. After buying a paper cup of tokens at the front desk, we meandered around playing whatever caught our eye, which included (among others) Arkanoid, Gauntlet Legends, Sailor Moon (it’s a beat-em-up), Q-Bert Qubes (a surprisingly cunning puzzle/action game), and the four-person Pac-Man Battle Royale. And, of course, a ridiculous amount of pinball.

A whole lot of pinball machines.

Look! Pinball!

I’ve always enjoyed pinball, but I’ve never been a connoisseur. When I play pinball, it’s usually “hey look, a pinball game!” followed by dumping in quarters. I knew that tables were different from one another, but I never appreciated just how different until I played a dozen machines back to back. Even seemingly minor changes in the table configuration can produce a vastly different experience.

In non-digital games, there’s an entire category called dexterity games. This includes traditional classics like marbles, jacks, and pick up sticks, as well as more commercial-era games like Operation, Jenga, and Sorry! Sliders. A dexterity mechanic even appears on two Magic: the Gathering cards, though these cards are almost never played and now appear on the reserved list (aka the We Will Never Print These Again list.)

The modern pinball game straddles the line between dexterity and digital. The player’s interaction is physical, the scoring and feedback are digital, and the physics engine is the most accurate one possible.

And from a game design perspective, pinball is completely fascinating.

Let’s talk about pinball!

Historically, pinball design was affected by the particular economics of pinball, since pinball machines cost thousands of dollars. Many immediate consumers purchased pinball games as a commercial investment, so pinball had to be fun for the end player (or no one would play, resulting in no income) without giving them a disproportionate amount of time for their quarter (or no one would have to put in more quarters, resulting in no income).

Today, pinball is a much smaller industry, and the economic context has changed accordingly. Stern holds a near-monopoly in the industry, and the most significant challenger on the scene (Jersey Jack Pinball, a really interesting contender) has only shipped two games so far. According to Stern, 50% of their games are going overseas, and 70% of the games that stay in the United States are purchased by collectors and hobbyists.

But the core expectations haven’t changed. Pinball games should rely on gravity and fight gravity through flipper action (and, occasionally, whacking the machine). They should have multiple balls (lives) per play. They should track your score as you play. They should present players with a variety of increasingly complicated challenges. And they should make fantastic noises and flash exciting lights, because seriously, what else do we play pinball for?

(Okay, that last isn’t universally true, but it’s true of every pinball machine I’ve ever played. I’m not very old-school in my pinball.)

The rules of a pinball game are enforced by a combination of physics (gravity, flipper and plunger action) and electronics (scoring, bumpers, drop targets, and so on.) None of these happen by accident. Designers, mechanical engineers, and software engineers work together to determine the rules and implement them in physical and electronic form. (There’s a Wired article that takes a behind-the-scenes look.)

The game mechanics of pinball

In a pinball game, the player’s choices expand as the player’s skill set increases. A novice pinball player just wants to keep the ball in play as long as possible. More advanced players begin aiming for specific targets when they receive cues from the game, and expert players understand the various series of tasks within a given pinball game, and then maneuver among them to maximize points.

Ideally, a pinball game will engage and challenge all these players – the novice mashing the flippers, the intermediate player aiming for specific targets, and the masterful player deliberately selecting among the various tasks available. (For detailed pinball strategy, check out this list of key skills on the Internet Pinball Database.)

Like a game of Tetris, a pinball game keeps going until the player fails. Unlike a game of Tetris, pinball doesn’t speed up as you go. And like a game of Tetris, there are random elements working against you as well as your skill working for you.

The skill factor is severely underestimated by novices, which is why New York City (along with much of the rest of America) outlawed pinball for thirty years as a form of gambling. (In fairness to New York, flippers weren’t invented until 1947, and pinball had been outlawed in most cities around 1942.) But the skill component is in fact enormous. Mark Steinman (of PAPA, the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association) asserted to Kill Screen, “Every time you drain in this game, it’s your fault.”

The best roguelike games (particularly those conforming to the Berlin Interpretation) bear a distinct resemblance to pinball. Novice players are just trying to stay alive from turn to turn. More advanced players have a better understanding of the options available. In addition to moment-by-moment tactical reactions, they have techniques that will help them stay alive, such as knowing that identify, light, and destroy armor are three kinds of scrolls in Nethack, or knowing how to activate multiball in a pinball game. Expert players have a broad strategic understanding of the game, so they understand the best circumstances to use each of the techniques that they’ve learned.

And pinball games, like roguelikes, generally feature permadeath: at the end of the game, you’re starting from scratch all over again.

Game balance within pinball

Game balance is the concept and practice of tuning a game’s rules. What this actually means varies from genre to genre, but the basic idea is to ensure that a player’s choices are always meaningful. (For more on game balance, here’s Ian Schreiber’s excellent writeup.)

Balancing a roguelike is a matter of numbers – combat numbers, experience levels, spawn rates, item rarities. It involves significant spatial considerations, such as the shapes of dungeon rooms and the frequency of special areas and levels.

Balancing pinball also involves numbers and spatial considerations, but in a very different way because of the medium’s sheer physicality. Which locations are easy to reach? Which locations are hard to reach? What angles will the ball encounter, and how will those angles interact with the layout of the game? A bad decision can shut off entire sections of the table and render any related choices meaningless. At the end of the day, a badly balanced roguelike will be evident in the numbers, but a badly balanced pinball table will be evident in the physics.

Bad game balance also shows up in the fun – that most critical and yet most elusive property of good games. If a game feels pointless, or frustratingly hard, or players don’t understand the reasoning behind a choice (or don’t recognize that a choice is available!) then something’s wrong with the game design, and the game balance is likely off.

In a pinball game, game balance is the difference between a table that feels good and one that doesn’t. There may be useful things that can be done with spreadsheets, and angle calculations, and all the evidence and data from every prior pinball table – the same things we have for roguelikes, fighting games, first-person shooters, and every other genre of game. But at the end of the day, the interface between the player and the table is too complicated for an algorithm.

The physical and digital realms

As physical tables lose ground, digital pinball is becoming increasingly popular. Digital tables can play with the pinball genre in a way far beyond physical tables, including things such as altered gravity, localized balls, or monsters wandering around the field. The powerful physics engine of Unity 3D makes it natural for creating pinball games, and several premade examples are available in the Unity assets store. Plus, digital pinball can be played for hours on end without scrounging for quarters.

But there’s something magical about physical pinball – the vibration of the plunger, the thwack of flippers against the ball, the deeply solid way that everything moves and connects.

I design games in a digital space, but games have existed in physical space for thousands of years more than in the digital space. Pinball, playing cards, Pictionary, dice, paintball, chess, football, Senet – these are the precursors to my work. It’s valuable to spend time in that space and recognize what makes it special, to see how it relates to and differs from the digital worlds I build.

This field trip was completely worth it.


Thank you to everyone supporting Sibyl Moon through Patreon!
If this post was interesting or enjoyable, please consider becoming a patron.

July 29, 2015

Post Position

Remarker #1 Is Out

by Nick Montfort at July 29, 2015 09:58 PM

Remarker #1

This month I published a zine in the form of a bookmark. It’s available by asking me for a copy, asking a contributor for a copy, or going to my local radical bookstore, Bluestockings, at 172 Allen Street, New York, NY. If you wish to find Remarker there you must, alas, look under the register among the freebies (and advertisements), not among the “grown up” zines. The upside is that Remarker is free.

Web Interactive Fiction

Glulx-TypeScript Completed

by David Cornelson at July 29, 2015 02:01 AM

So Thilo completed the basic implementation of glulx-typescript along with a basic angular2 sample project. It puts FyreVM into a webworker running in the “background”.

With a small story it’s fine, but trying to run Shadow it’s definitely sluggish, although not entirely unplayable. A small note…I recompiled Shadow to reorder the Fyre_Calls as we want them going forward. This means the ulx file out in the wild will not work with glulx-typescript. I can probably replace all the uploaded versions, but not at this time.

Of his own accord, Thilo is going to attempt to make a glulx JIT compiler and merge it with the VM code. Obviously if he succeeds (there’s some question about how hard this is to implement), glulx-typescript will supposedly be very fast. He’s said if he can’t make it work, he’ll implement the veneer routines to speed things up.

I’m still trying to figure out what sort of design partner I need to make a baseline project for all of this. I was also thinking it might be interesting to port Vorple since that’s fairly well baked.

My summer is mostly scheduled so I won’t get back to the design/template side until the fall.

July 27, 2015

Sibyl Moon Games

How To Become a Game Dev

by Carolyn VanEseltine at July 27, 2015 08:01 PM

This isn’t a practical guide. I’m mostly not going to discuss tools, or schools, or techniques, and I won’t discuss how to get greenlit by Steam or featured in Polygon or afford your booth at PAX. Or get a job at Bethesda. (Though I wouldn’t mind a job at Bethesda. Call me.)

This post is about identity: what divides a game dev from someone who isn’t a game dev. And about how to cross that line, and how to tell whether you’ve already crossed it.

What makes someone a game dev

A game dev is someone who makes games.

Unpacking this sentence:

  • Someone Who – A game dev is a person, not a corporation or a studio.
  • Makes – This is present tense. It is an ongoing process that is occurring now. (If my English dialect had a habitual aspect marker, I’d use it here.)
  • Games – You need to be actively involved in the creation of the game itself. And your process must be one that will produce a game, as opposed to a half-completed software project.

And that’s it. Full stop. You don’t have to be commercial, you don’t have to be successful, you don’t even need to release your games.

You just have to be someone who makes games.

If you’re not a game dev… how do you get there?

Potential

This is the tools/schools/techniques part that I’m mostly not discussing here. Whether it’s through blogs, books, YouTube videos, formal education, or reinventing the wheel on a daily basis, you need to have sufficient knowledge and skills to go from “idea for a game” to “game”.

I recommend Sortingh.at for people stuck at this stage. It’s a website that asks some questions about your interests and then helps steer you to engines and tools that are right for you. It’s geared for people with no budget and no experience, so it’s extremely welcoming.

Tools, schools, and techniques can’t make you a game dev. But they can make you someone who’s capable of being a game dev. It’s the difference between game dev in potentia, and not even knowing where to start.

Energy

The best part of making a game are the times when energy is high.rainbows no text

You have the idea. You have the skills. You’re excited. Game on!

This happens most reliably at the beginning of a project, when the idea is brilliant, all things are possible, and the options are limitless. But it can also happen when you have a sudden breakthrough, or you’ve just completed a major feature, or you’ve gotten a fresh dose of positive feedback from outside eyes.

This is when you’re playing with game dev – not playing in the sense of “not being serious”, but in the sense of “pure enjoyment”.

Use those times to your best advantage. If there’s nothing you want to do in the world more than work on your game? Seize the chance. Harness that internal energy and make it work for you. Embrace the experience, because this is the secret truth of why game devs want to make games.

We want to make games because it’s the best fun ever.

Momentum

By definition, all the times can’t be the best times. (Superlatives are obnoxious that way.)

Adrenaline can’t last forever. Neither can inspiration. And when the joyous rush fades, the game will have half-complete features, problematic UI, rotten combat balance, and oh so very many bugs. (Specifics vary by game. The essential experience does not.)

This is when game dev becomes work.

And that is why you need momentum.

While your energy is still high, make a deliberate habit of working on your game. Set up routine times your life (put it on the calendar!) when you Work On Your Game. You can overflow those time blocks (and when your energy’s high, there’s no reason not to!), but don’t skip out on them. Even when it’s not fun.

If it stops being fun to open the file, open the file anyway. If you hate everything you write, write the words anyway. If you never want to see the game again, test the game anyway.

And if you can’t bring yourself to do any of those things, that’s okay (see: Motivation For The Solo Indie, “be kind to yourself” section) but once you can, come back.

There is no way to make a game except by making a game. If you don’t have energy, and you can’t keep momentum – that’s how projects get abandoned. In order to finish a game, you have to push on through.

Identity

This hinges on a single question.

Once you finish making this game, will you make another?

“Oh heck no!”

In this case, you’re someone who made a game (or will have made a game). And when this game is over, you will have been a game dev.

“Yes, of course!”

Then you’re someone who makes games. It’s not just a one-time thing, but part of your identity. Congratulations! You’re a game dev.


Thank you to everyone supporting Sibyl Moon through Patreon!
If this post was useful or enjoyable, please consider becoming a patron.

Update to Table-Driven NPC Actions

by Carolyn VanEseltine at July 27, 2015 07:01 PM

After last Thursday’s article, Andrew Plotkin pointed out that I could have been using rules instead of activities. From his intfiction.org post:


“It will be simpler and take less overhead if you have a “rule” column and a bunch of one-off rules:

Code:
Table of Caleb Actions
completed	has-cards	Teo-playing	high-stakes	rule		message
true		true		true		true		foo rule	"Nah."

This is the foo rule:
	say "Foo."

And use “follow the rule entry” instead of “carry out the activity entry activity.”

Activities have before/carry-out/after rulebooks, but it looks like you’re not making use of that, so rules are just as good. Saves you typing all the “XXX is an activity” lines too.”


He is of course right, and I’m updating all my code accordingly. If you’re using the technique I described, I suggest doing the same.

Note that everything in the rule column must end with the word “rule”, as it will not compile otherwise.

Emily Short

A Wish for Something Better (Anna Anthropy)

by Emily Short at July 27, 2015 03:00 PM

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 1.28.40 PMThe rules begin thus: “A Wish for Something Better is a single-player roleplaying ritual.” This is a work with light rules, designed to be played alone. It is meant to create a place of imagination in a focused way that serves the player’s emotional needs, a way of imagining specifically rather than vaguely what escape or comfort would look and feel like. You name something that you’re not currently happy with, and then imagine what could be added to your imaginary sanctuary that would reverse that feeling.

Is it a roleplaying game? It’s certainly a world-building exercise, and to the extent that you’re projecting yourself into this other place, maybe that’s roleplaying. And some roleplaying games certainly edge across the border between game and ritual. Avery McDaldno’s Brave Sparrow and Teen Witch come to mind.

There are elements of “A Wish for Something Better” that suggest a spellbook, though these are primarily about setting a mood, lighting candles and making a thoughtful space. Contrast @LilSpellbook, a bot by Harry Giles that offers rituals like “A spell to iron clothes: crumble your yearning’s name and fenugreek while dancing, and touch it to your forehead.” or “A spell to bring laughter: pulverise a weighty bond, and rub into your chest.” Half the time these seem freighted with metaphor in a plausible way; the rest of the time, not so much.

Because this thing is so personal, it’s hard to describe too much what it is like to play. So I’ll simply say this: I found that part of its effectiveness lay in helping to distinguish the things I could reasonably hope to do something about, and those I cannot; for some of my concerns there is no fix I could possibly execute, and therefore the only way to furnish my imagined space was to place reminders of my own limits.


July 25, 2015

Lab of Jizaboz

A Day In DPRK demo released

by Jizaboz (noreply@blogger.com) at July 25, 2015 11:49 PM

After stabbing at this project off and on for three years, I'm finally releasing a demo to the public now that the foundation is in place. While this demo is not the final version, it demonstrates the system and sets the story into motion. I welcome people to try it out and if you have time send some feedback on the game either by email or commenting here. I'll try to update this demo if bad bugs are found and will note the version in the file name.

Again, please note that this is only about a third of the final game. I'm just eager to release a chunk of it to go ahead and start getting some feedback.

Here is what I would like to know from the test:

  1. What about the system of the game (parser, graphics, sound, etc) did you like or dislike? 
  2. What could you not do and wanted to be able to do? (What was missing?)
  3. Did you find any bugs or anything otherwise broken?
  4. And most importantly, are you interested in a final version of this?
Click here to download the demo and the program needed to play it from my website.

Emily Short

Bloom (Caelyn Sandel)

by Emily Short at July 25, 2015 01:00 AM

Screen Shot 2015-07-11 at 3.38.43 AM

Bloom is a substantial Twine story by Caelyn Sandel, being issued in episodes. (Because I’m writing some blog posts in advance of travel, there are only the prologue and two chapters available at writing time, but by the time you read this, the third chapter may well be available.) It tells the story of Andy Blumenthal as he discovers that he is rightly a woman called Cordy.

It’s a longer, less visceral piece than Caelyn’s previous Cis Gaze, playing out as a more substantial series of scenes — though there are still some passages with a gut-punch effect, as when the protagonist encounters some particularly unpleasant humor that hits her vulnerabilities.

The protagonist is not just her situation, though. She also has a family with its own interesting dynamics; a roommate and coworkers who are rounded enough not to be mere markers. Both Cordy and her sister Rachel have endearing styles of eating, making sure that textures and flavors are properly distributed. Cordy’s mother is active in domestic violence prevention, laudably, but it’s not at all clear how she’s going to react to Cordy’s gender identity. Cordy herself has a hard time explaining what’s happening to her, since she barely understands it herself at first, and it doesn’t match with the trans narratives she knows; she feels like she should have recognized herself as a woman back in childhood or puberty, not at the age of almost 30.

The structure is very linear. The player can explore a bit, and can sometimes pick a flavor choice of more or less significance, but the plot doesn’t appear to branch significantly (which, frankly, might be the only sensible way to do an episodic Twine piece).

Nonetheless, the interaction lends quite a lot to the experience, especially the sensation of being on the spot when Cordy feels overwhelmed and doesn’t know what she wants to do.


July 24, 2015

The Digital Antiquarian

A New Force in Games, Part 3: SCUMM

by Jimmy Maher at July 24, 2015 06:01 PM

Maniac Mansion

As part of a general rearranging of the deck chairs at Lucasfilm in late 1985, the Games Group got moved from their nondescript offices in San Rafael to nearby Skywalker Ranch, the “filmmaker’s retreat” at the very heart of George Lucas’s empire. They were housed in an ornate structure of Victorian brick called the Stable House, with crackling fireplaces in almost every room. Later, old-timers would tell newcomers stories of the Games Group’s time at Skywalker Ranch, which would last for just a few years, like legends from before the Fall: catching a sneak preview of a new David Lynch film in the company of Lynch himself in the Ranch’s beautiful 300-seat art-deco theater; hanging out on a regular basis with Steven Spielberg, who wanted to play everything the Games Group had in development every time he stopped by, sometimes for hours at a stretch; playing softball on the Ranch’s gorgeously manicured field with rock star Huey Lewis; hiking up to the observatory after a long day at the office to do another sort of stargazing; eating gourmet lunches every day at the Ranch’s restaurant for $5 a pop. They might not have been able to make Star Wars games, but they could surround themselves with its trappings: when first moving in, they were given a chance to rummage through an enormous warehouse full of old props and concept art for office decorations. It’s questionable whether any other game studio, ever, has worked in quite such a nerd Elysium.

Continuing to blow through Skywalker Ranch as they had San Rafael, however, were winds of change that had been steadily altering Lucasfilm’s expectations of their little Games Group. As the middle years of the decade wore on, the company was becoming a very different place from what it had been during the free-and-easy early 1980s, when money seemed to flow like water. Lucasfilm’s financial outlook had changed almost overnight in 1983 when, even as Return of the Jedi was doing the expected huge numbers in theaters, George Lucas announced that he and his wife Marcia were getting a divorce. An accomplished film editor in her own right, Marcia had been a huge contributor to the Star Wars movies, especially the first, for which she’d won an Oscar — something her ex-husband has never managed — for her editing work. Now her divorce settlement would cost Lucasfilm big, to the tune of $50 to $100 million (precise estimates vary). Lucasfilm’s financial advisers were able to convince her to take her settlement as a series of payments spread over years rather than the lump sum the initial agreement demanded, but those payments nevertheless put a tremendous drain on the company’s finances.

And soon the other side of the ledger, that of incoming earnings, also began to diminish. George Lucas had long since declared that Star Wars was to be but a single trilogy of films, that there would be no more after Return of the Jedi. The lack of new films inevitably meant not just the loss of box-office receipts but also diminished sales of the toys and other merchandise that had always been the franchise’s biggest cash cow. Meanwhile the Indiana Jones series, which had turned into almost as successful a franchise as Star Wars, fell into a five-year hiatus after 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Filling that gap for Lucasfilm were a series of middling disappointments — Labyrinth, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Willow, some almost perversely low-stakes Star Wars television programs featuring R2-D2 and C-3PO and, God help us, the Ewoks — and at least one outright bomb big enough to have become a punchline for the ages in Howard the Duck. It seemed that Lucas, who could do no wrong in the eleven years between American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple Doom, had suddenly seen his Midas Touch desert him.

Never much of a manager and certainly not a numbers guy, Lucas hired a no-nonsense sort named Doug Norby to become Lucasfilm’s president in 1985. “Do what you have to do,” he told him, “and I’m just going to stay out of it.” Norby declared that there needed to be a culture change. Every division would now be expected to justify their existence by earning money for the company rather than costing it money. Those who couldn’t see a way to do so would get the axe. Ditto individual personnel within departments that had become too bloated; Norby orchestrated the first significant wave of layoffs ever to sweep over Lucasfilm. As the conflict-averse Lucas had likely intended, Norby was blamed for all of the pain and chaos, became for some time the most hated name at Lucasfilm, while Lucas himself was largely given a pass, as if he somehow didn’t know about the changes underway in his own namesake company.

As part of the restructuring, it was decided that Lucasfilm would now engage in only two specific lines of business: providing production services to the film industry (Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound) and making mass-market entertainments. The old Computer Graphics Group that had awkwardly spawned the Games Group still hadn’t really proved themselves to belong in the former category, while the Games Group, at least if you squinted just right, pretty much did belong in the latter. Thus, while the Games Group got to remain at Lucasfilm, the Graphics Group in February of 1986 was spun off to a collection of investors that included many of their own current personnel as well as, as ringmaster of the whole proceeding, Steve Jobs, recently exiled from Apple. The old Graphics Group was now known as Pixar, selling a $135,000 graphics workstation which they had developed during their years with Lucasfilm. Most of the rest of Lucasfilm’s computer-oriented research was either cancelled outright or similarly packaged up and sold off. (Most notably, Lucasfim’s EditDroid digital-editing project became an independent company called Droid Works).

Soon the old Games Group represented the only significant hacker presence left at Lucasfilm. It was during this period of colossal change that George Lucas took rare personal notice of Games for long enough to deliver his most oft-quoted piece of advice to Steve Arnold: “Stay small, be the best, don’t lose any money.” This commandment has often been taken to represent a sort of creative carte blanche for Arnold and his charges. Taken in the context in which it was uttered, however, it’s probably better seen as a warning. The Games Group was free to continue to trade on the Lucasfilm name and enjoy their gourmet lunches at the company cafeteria, but they’d have to start paying their own way from here on. Should they fail at that, their rope would not be a long one, for Lucas had little personal investment in their work.

Given this situation, when Lucasfilm’s brass decided to throw the Games Group a bone in the form of an actual piece of intellectual property with which to work Arnold certainly didn’t turn up his nose at the prospect. It wasn’t Star Wars or even Indiana Jones, but it was a much-anticipated film called Labyrinth, a fantasy adventure directed by Jim Henson and starring David Bowie that was to be released in the summer of 1986. Beginning in November of 1985, Arnold poured most of his resources into the project, Lucasfilm Games’s first adventure game. The Henson connection secured the involvement of Christopher Cerf, a Sesame Street stalwart and all-around Renaissance man of the arts who seemed to know everyone and be involved with everything in the world of entertainment. Cerf was a good friend of Douglas Adams, a frequent guest at his legendary gala dinner parties; it had in fact been Cerf who had largely brokered the deal with Infocom that had led to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy computer game. In January much of the Games Group flew to London for an intense week of consultation with Henson, Cerf, and their buddy Adams.

Labyrinth

Labyrinth had been conceived from the beginning as a graphic adventure, a genre that was just beginning to emerge from the primordial muck thanks largely to the work of Sierra and ICOM Simulations. It was Adams who suggested the game’s brilliant cold open: it begins as an ordinary text adventure, and not a very good one at that, until you arrive at a cinema and get sucked into the movie playing there by a pixelated David Bowie. It’s a ludic version of that iconic moment in The Wizard of Oz when the film suddenly shifts from black and white to color. Some of his other subversive touches, playing as he loved to do with the artificiality of the medium itself, weren’t so easily implemented. The team particularly lamented that they wouldn’t be able to use Adams’s idea for a film-editing room found in the game. He suggested that you should be able to view the scraps of film to see snippets of your own previous adventures, maybe even forgotten tributaries down which you’d wandered before restoring the game to its current state. Alas, something like that just wasn’t going to happen on the likes of a Commodore 64.

Not really a bad game but also not quite a fully baked one, Labyrinth would prove to be something of a steppingstone on the way to a grand tradition of Lucasfilm adventure games still to come. Your character can be moved about using the joystick, but other commands must be constructed rather awkwardly, by using the arrow keys to cycle through two separate lists, one of available verbs and one of nouns. Notably, when a verb is selected the list of nouns is limited to only those which logically apply, thus making it at least theoretically impossible to construct a completely nonsensical “sentence.” Driving much of the design was a philosophy that adventure games should be friendlier, less tedious, and much less deadly than was the norm from competitors like Sierra. It is, for instance, almost impossible to get yourself killed in Labyrinth, and David Fox noted in contemporaneous interviews how he had strained to “eliminate the dead-end or ‘insoluble’ situation.” In years to come Lucasfilm Games would virtually define themselves in opposition to what they saw as the Bad Old Way of doing adventure games, as particularly personified by the games of Sierra. It’s an idea that would take some experience and some technology upgrades to reach complete fruition, but it’s interesting to note that it was present right from the beginning.

Note the "slot-machine" verb-noun selector at the bottom of the screen.

Labyrinth. Note the “slot-machine” verb-noun selector at the bottom of the screen.

Released in June of 1986, the movie version of Labyrinth thoroughly underwhelmed by the standards of an expensive would-be blockbuster, spending just one week inside the top ten in the United States and garnering mixed (at best) reviews. The odor of a flop inevitably clung to the game as well when it was released two months later. Despite lots of advertising and the usual free publicity garnered from journalists eager to come out to Skywalker Ranch and bask in the aura of Star Wars, it became on the whole a commercial disappointment. This was now becoming a depressingly common theme for the Games Group. They were perilously close to violating that last and most important of Lucas’s commandments.

Their savior would come from a much smaller, quieter project than the big Labyrinth tie-in — indeed, a project from which Steve Arnold seemed to have no real expectations at all. Its father had himself been heretofore one of the less noticeable employees of the Games Group, a friendly, unassuming fellow with a wry sense of humor and a great aptitude for programming. His name was Ron Gilbert, and he was motivated by that most compelling of all workplace impulses: he was just trying not to get fired.

Born in 1964 in the rural Oregon town of La Grande, Gilbert had been programming since 1977, when his father brought home the family’s first Texas Instruments programmable calculator. Soon after starting at his hometown Eastern Oregon State College in 1982, he bought his first Commodore 64, and immediately discovered one of that machine’s most conspicuous weaknesses: its BASIC interpreter had no support whatsoever for the very graphics and sound capabilities that made the 64 so special. Working with a buddy named Tom McFarlane, he developed a BASIC extension called Graphics BASIC to change all that, adding over a hundred new commands to the language. It was impressive enough that they were able to sell it to HESWare, one of the biggest publishers in software at the time. In fact, HESWare was so impressed with Gilbert personally that they offered him a full-time job as an in-house programmer. So, he dropped out of university to move to Brisbane, California.

It didn’t work out. HESWare turned out to be a flash in the pan that had made a ton of unwise financial decisions in their eagerness to rule the software roost. Within months of Gilbert’s arrival the company collapsed, well before releasing anything he had worked on. He was forced to return sheepishly to La Grande to contemplate re-enrolling at Eastern Oregon — luckily, his dad was the president there — and getting back to the real world of adult employment; maybe he could get a job as a programmer at a bank or something. Then, one day in October of 1984, the telephone rang just as he was leaving the house. Prompted by he wasn’t quite sure what, he decided to rush back inside and answer it. It was Steve Arnold from Lucasfilm Games. He and his colleagues had seen Graphics BASIC and heard about Gilbert’s talents through the grapevine, Arnold explained. They needed someone to help port their games, which had been originally developed for Atari 8-bit machines, to the Commodore 64. Would he be willing to come down to San Rafael to talk about a possible contract? Like most prospective employees Arnold spoke to, Gilbert didn’t have to think twice when the company behind Star Wars came calling. It was just an interview, and for a contract position at that, but he nevertheless packed all of his possessions into his 280Z and took off for California. He had no intention of coming back.

He didn’t need to; he got the job. Still, as a contractor rather than a regular employee he was left perpetually uncertain about how long he’d get to live the dream. His anxiety only increased after the Commodore 64 versions of the Games Group’s modest early catalog of four action games were all pretty much complete and nobody seemed to be giving him any clear information about what he was expected to do next. Working with a couple of the other guys, he came up with a fanciful game proposal for Arnold’s bulging ideas file: I Was a Teenage Lobot, a “science-fiction role-playing strategy adventure game.” (Better check again, guys; I think you may have missed a genre or two.) But then the big Labyrinth project came along, depriving him of his would-be partners. Ominously, Gilbert was one of the few people in the Games Group not earmarked to that game.

Whether Steve Arnold was really snubbing him or whether he saw something special in him and wanted to give him his own space to figure out for himself what that was is still an open question. What is clear is that Gilbert started toying with another idea to justify his existence there at Skywalker Ranch, involving a group of kids sent, Scooby-Doo-style, to explore a creepy old mansion.

Gilbert claims that he didn’t originally conceive of Maniac Mansion as an adventure game at all, perhaps because one of its central conceits had rarely been done in an adventure game before. From the beginning, he was determined that you should be able to control several kids rather than just one, each of whom would have her own personality and abilities. Much of the gameplay would hinge on coordinating the kids’ actions to achieve things none of them could manage on her own. And that was pretty much the whole idea; just about everything else about the design seemed to be up in the air. But then, visiting home for the Christmas of 1985, he saw his eight-year-old cousin obsessively playing Sierra’s King’s Quest. Gilbert loved the graphics, but didn’t care for Roberta Williams’s death-heavy philosophy of game design any more than he did for Sierra’s primitive parser, which made a particularly poor fit with a game that was otherwise so graphics-oriented. He decided that he wanted to do an adventure game “because I hate adventure games,” because he wanted to show the world how they could be so much better.

I hated that you died all the time. You’d be walking along and you would step somewhere and out of the blue you would die. That just seemed frustrating to me. I think a lot of designers must think that’s fun. But it’s not. It’s horrible.

And too often the game devolved into what Gilbert calls “second-guess the parser”:

You would see a bush on the screen, and you’d type, “Pick up bush,” and it would say, “I don’t know what a ‘bush’ is.” Then you’d type, “Pick up plant,” and it would say, “I don’t know what a ‘plant’ is.” Then you’d type, “Pick up shrubbery,” and it would say, “I don’t know what a ‘shrubbery’ is.” Pretty soon you’d type, “Fuck you,” and it would say, “I don’t understand what ‘fuck’ is.”

So, I’m looking at this bush or plant or shrub and I cannot figure out the word that the game designer is using for it. That’s very frustrating because I can see it right on the screen. Why can’t I just click on it?

And the next logical step is: if I can just click on objects on the screen, why can’t I just click on verbs as well? Really, despite what the marketing departments and the backs of the boxes were telling us, these games only understood a very small number of verbs.

Beginning from textual lists of verbs and nouns much like the interface of Labyrinth, Maniac Mansion evolved into a much more intuitive experience: a clickable list of verbs at the bottom of the screen, which can be combined with hotspots in the pictures proper to build commands. In its day it was simply the best, most elegant interface for graphical adventuring yet devised. One might call it a combination of the best traits of the two most prominent systems for graphic adventuring already extant at the time: Sierra’s AGI games that debuted with King’s Quest and the ICOM Simulations line of adventures that began with Déjà Vu. Like the former, you can see your avatar (or avatars in this case) and move them about onscreen, but like the latter you don’t have to wrestle with a parser, being able instead to simply click on verbs and objects in your inventory or in the environment proper to construct commands. It’s afflicted with neither the perpetual disconnect between textual parser and graphical worldview that can make the AGI games so frustrating nor the cluttered, cramped feel of ICOM’s overly baroque interface. Maniac Mansion would prove to be by far the most graphical graphical adventure of its time, willing to do most of its storytelling through visuals and the occasional well-chosen sound effect rather than the big text dumps that mark the Sierra and ICOM games. Tellingly, it devotes exactly one line of the screen to text messages.

On the job in Maniac Mansion. Note the selectable list of verbs (including the immortal "New Kid") and the character's inventory below.

On the job in Maniac Mansion. Note the selectable list of verbs (including the immortal “New Kid”) and the character’s inventory below.

Gilbert found a great supporter of his budding adventure game in Gary Winnick, the Games Group’s indefatigable visual artist. In between contributing much of the art found in both Labyrinth and Habitat, Winnick found time to brainstorm Maniac Mansion and to create heaps of sample art. Yet progress was painfully slow. Gilbert was trying to build Maniac Mansion in the same way that Labyrinth was being built, by coding it from scratch in pure assembly language. Problem was, he was trying to do it alone. As 1986’s midpoint approached, Steve Arnold was getting noticeably annoyed at his apparent lack of productivity and Gilbert was surer than ever that he would be sent back to La Grande any day now.

It was at this juncture that Chip Morningstar made the suggestion that would change the direction of Lucasfilm Games forever. Why didn’t he devise a high-level scripting language that could be compiled on the Games Group’s big Unix workstations, then run on the Commodore 64 itself via an interpreter? Morningstar even took the time to help him design the language, a sort of cut-down version of some of the tools he and Randall Farmer were using to build the virtual world of Habitat, and to write the first compiler. SCUMM — the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion — was born.

It wasn’t precisely a new idea, but it was vastly complicated by the need a graphic adventure like Maniac Mansion had to do many things concurrently, in real time. Many different “scripts” would need to run at the same time, forcing Gilbert to code what amounted to a multitasking kernel for the whole system on the little Commodore 64. Even with Morningstar’s help, it took Gilbert a full six months to get the SCUMM system up and running. Meanwhile Gary Winnick’s art continued to pile up, looking for a home, and Gilbert continued to tremble every time Steve Arnold looked his way. At last at the end of 1986 SCUMM was complete enough that he could return to the game proper. Arnold, evidently beginning to feel that his work had real potential, allowed David Fox to join him as a SCUMM scripter. Winnick as well was now working virtually full-time on the project, contributing not only all of the art but also major swathes of design and story.

Gilbert credits SCUMM and the relative ease with which it let the programmer script interactions for making the world of the finished Maniac Mansion much more interactive and alive than it could otherwise have been. Not least amongst the little gags and Easter eggs SCUMM facilitated was a certain soon-to-be-infamous hamster-in-a-microwave bit. Gilbert insists that it was actually Fox and Winnick who came up with and implemented this particular piece of tasteless humor, so angry missives should be directed their way rather than to him.


Winnick drew the kids you control and the other characters that inhabit the mansion like bobblehead dolls, heads out of all proportion to their bodies, to make sure their personalities came across despite the low screen resolution of the Commodore 64. He had already used the same technique in both Labyrinth and Habitat and would continue to do so for some time to come; it would become the most instantly recognizable graphical trait of early Lucasfilm adventure games. Gilbert’s original plan had called for the kids to literally be kids — children. Realizing, however, that no one wanted to see children endangered and potentially dispatched in gruesome ways, Gilbert and Winnick decided to make the kids teenagers, which made a better demographic fit anyway with the teenage players who were the biggest audience for computer games. They form a group of seven broad high-school archetypes, sketched with just a hint of a satirical edge, from amongst which you choose three to see you through the game. Bernard is an electronics buff, physics champion, and all-around nerd; Wendy is a prim and proper “aspiring novelist” who seems to have been born at age 40; Michael is Yearbook Guy at the school, an ace photographer; Jeff is a surfer dude who seems to have wandered into Maniac Mansion whilst looking for California Games; and, betraying perhaps a slight flagging of the creative muscles, both Sid and Razor are would-be rock stars (Sid’s a new waver, Razor a punk, for whatever that’s worth). And finally there’s Dave, a Good Kid of the sort who runs for Class President. He’s the leader of the group and the one kid you have to play with. It’s his girlfriend Sandy — a cheerleader, naturally — who’s been kidnapped by Dr. Fred, the creepy owner of the mansion, to feed to aliens. Some real people found themselves immortalized inside these archetypical shells: Razor’s look was based on Winnick’s girlfriend, Wendy on an accountant (what else?) at the office, Dave on Ron Gilbert himself. All of the kids have unique talents, some expected, some less so; clueless Jeff’s inexplicable hidden talent for fixing telephones is actually one of the funniest gags in the game. The idea was that any combination of kids should be capable of solving the game.

The kids. From left: Dave, Sid, Michael, Wendy, Bernard, Razor, and Jeff.

The kids. From left: Dave, Sid, Michael, Wendy, Bernard, Razor, and Jeff.

It was an idea that would cause Gilbert and Winnick no small amount of angst. Neither had ever designed an adventure game before, much less a knotty tapestry like this with its combinatorial explosion of protagonists, and their design document consisted of little more than a map of the mansion and a list of objects and the puzzles to which they applied. They desperately wanted to create an adventure game that would be more friendly and forgiving than the typical Sierra effort, but, inevitably, their lack of experience and planning and time, not to mention play-testing — the Games Group’s testing department consisted of exactly one guy sitting in front of a Commodore 64 with a pad of paper — led to a game fairly riddled with potential dead ends and unwinnable situations despite its designers’ best intentions. Gilbert, a great and much-needed advocate for fairness in adventure design, still castigates himself for that to this day.

Both Gilbert and Winnick were fans of knowingly schlocky B-grade horror movies like the then-recent Re-AnimatorManiac Mansion was conceived very much as an homage to the genre. The actual plot, of the mad scientist who owns the mansion attempting to tap the power of a mysterious meteorite that fell on his property, was inspired by one of the vignettes in Creepshow, an anthology of short horror films. Other references, like the man-eating plant lifted whole cloth from Little Shop of Horrors, are even more obvious. Still, it was going to have to be a much more family-friendly affair if it was to bear the Lucasfilm name. When Arnold demanded that all traces of swearing be removed from the game, Gilbert and Winnick did so only under duress, and to the tune of plenty of grumbling about “artistic vision” and the like. If you can tell me exactly why Dave has to call Bernard a “shithead” at the outset of the night, said Arnold, you can keep it. No one could. Gilbert says that the lesson thus imparted about the pointlessness of gratuitous profanity has stuck with him to this day.

Maniac Mansion

Better a tuna head than a shithead…

For the mansion itself, they a found a fecund source of inspiration very close to home indeed: the big neo-Victorian “Main House” at Skywalker Ranch. The spiral staircase inside the library in Maniac Mansion is lifted straight from the “filmmaker’s research library” in the Main House. In the game, the staircase has an “out of order” sign on it and cannot be climbed under any circumstances. This was a subtle inside joke: George Lucas’s personal office was on the balcony at the top of those stairs in the real house, and nobody was allowed to go up there without an invitation.

Skywalker Ranch

Maniac Mansion

Given that it was a game inspired largely by movies that was being developed at a movie studio, Gilbert wanted to give Maniac Mansion a cinematic flavor. He imagined little episodes that would “cut away” from the player’s current actions to advance the plot and show what the captive Sally, her captor Dr. Fred, and the other creepy inhabitants of the mansion were up to. He asked Arnold if there was a filmmaking term for this technique that he could employ. Arnold said that “cut scene” sounded more than good enough to him. Thus did a new term enter the gaming lexicon. Maniac Mansion was hardly the first game to employ them — there was Jordan Mechner’s 1984 classic Karateka and Sierra adventure games like Space Quest and even the old Ms. Pac-Man game in the arcades — but it had been left to Lucasfilm to finally give them a name. The concept was baked right into the SCUMM language, with a special kind of script called simply “cut-scene” that when triggered would automatically save the player’s state, play the cut scene as a little animated movie all its own, and then restore the player to control.


One ironic consequence of the cut scenes is to make the game harder in just the ways that Gilbert would have preferred to avoid. Most of them are triggered by simple timers. While some are just there for atmosphere or to convey information, others directly affect the state of the world, such as when a postman arrives with a package. There are often things you must do to react or to prepare for these dynamic events; failing to do so can lock you out of victory. Had anyone been paying attention, Infocom’s Ballyhoo had already pioneered a better way to advance the plot inside an adventure game, by tying events to the player’s progress rather than hard-coded timers. Like many such lessons, it would be learned only slowly by game designers, and largely by a process of reinventing the wheel at that. As it is, Maniac Mansion has some of the feel of the earlier Infocom mysteries, of needing to learn how to steer events just right over the course of multiple restores.

Shortly before the release of Labyrinth, Lucasfilm Games had severed their relationship with Epyx and moved on to Activision. It was thus under that company’s banner that Maniac Mansion made its public debut at the June 1987 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, host to so much of the last great wave of Commodore 64 software. Before Maniac Mansion could actually be released, however, Arnold made the huge decision to self-publish it under Lucasfilm’s own banner. Lucasfilm Games changed from being a mere developer to being an “affiliated publisher” of Activision, a status that gave them more independence and put their own name on their boxes but still gave them access to the larger company’s distribution network and other logistical support. Even with Activision’s support, publishing entailed engaging with entire facets of the software industry from which they’d always been happily insulated before. They learned a harsh lesson about the sensitivities of some Americans when Toys ‘R’ Us, one of the biggest Commodore 64 game retailers in the country, abruptly pulled the game off their shelves in response to a customer complaint. It seemed some old biddy had seen the tongue-in-cheek copy on the back of the box, which declared Maniac Mansion to be (amongst other things) a story of “love, lust, and power,” and had objected in no uncertain terms. Lucasfilm was forced to hurriedly redesign the box in order not to lose Toy ‘R’ Us forever.

Lucasfilm Games's Maniac Mansion advertisements took aim at "most story game designers" who "seem to think people love to get clobbered." Here's looking at you, Sierra.

Lucasfilm Games’s advertisements took aim at “most story game designers” who “seem to think people love to get clobbered.” I wonder which designers they’re talking about…

But it all worked out in the end. Coming out as it did with the Lucasfilm Games logo — and only the Lucasfilm Games logo — all over its box, Maniac Mansion proved a pivotal release for this little concern that, despite brilliant personnel and a name to die for, had struggled for years now to come up with a definitive commercial identity. One of the huge advantages of the SCUMM system was that it made porting games to new platforms relatively easy, just a matter of writing a new interpreter. Thus by 1988 Maniac Mansion could be bought in versions for the Amiga, Atari ST, Apple II, and MS-DOS in addition to the Commodore 64 original. In time it would even make its way to the Nintendo Entertainment System. (See Doug Crockford’s “The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion to learn of the hilarious lengths the Games Group had to go through to get it accepted by Nintendo’s censorious management regime, who made the Toys “R” Us lady look like a libertine.) While it never topped many sales charts, Maniac Mansion turned into a perennial back-catalog star, selling far more units when all was said and done than any game the Games Group had released before. Its continuing popularity was such that in 1990 it spawned a successful children’s television series, a claim to fame that very few games can boast. Such success enabled Lucasfilm Games at last to firmly plant their feet and adhere to Lucas’s dictum to “not lose any money” while they built upon the reputation it engendered for them. They were now known first and foremost as a maker of graphic adventure games, the yin to Sierra’s yang. They had traveled a long and winding road to get here, but it seemed they had finally found a calling.

Maniac Mansion’s intrinsic value as a game is often dismissed today in favor of its historical role as the urtext for the many much-loved SCUMM games that followed it. That, however, is a shame, for its charms as the best graphic adventure ever made for the Commodore 64 are real, varied, and considerable. Yes, it’s a bit of shaggy beast in contrast to those later Lucasfilm classics, but it’s also in many ways the most complex and interesting game game of any of them; no other SCUMM game boasts anything like its seven different playable characters, with all of the alternate storylines and solutions they bring with them.

Yet the most winning thing about Maniac Mansion is its personality, which is in turn a tribute to the personalities who created it. Gilbert and Winnick, one senses, want you to have a good time, want you to solve the game and then come back for more, trying on new combinations of characters for size. Thanks largely to the essential good faith and sense of fair play with which its authors approached it, Maniac Mansion is a game that’s hard to dislike, despite its occasional sins in the form of a puzzle or two that could have been clued slightly better and one really egregious example of hunt-the-hotspot (hint: check the library very carefully). Its puzzles are varied, usually logical in their wacky way, and always entertaining, and are given a wonderful added dimension by the need to coordinate two or sometimes even all three kids in far-flung corners of the mansion to solve some of the more intricate problems. (Interestingly, Level 9 in Britain was doing much the same thing during the same time period in the realm of text adventures.) One other thing that helps immeasurably is that the mansion is a relatively constrained environment, limiting the scope of possibility enough to keep things manageable. And of course it also helps that the game manages to evoke the sylvan atmosphere of a long teenage summer night so beautifully using the blunt instrument of 8-bit graphics and sound. Likeability, good faith, and good intentions will get you a long way, in games as in life, and talent doesn’t hurt one bit either. Thankfully, Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick, and their colleagues were possessed of all of the above in spades.

(Sources: the book Droidmaker by Michael Rubin; The Transactor of July 1986; The LucasArts Adventurer of Spring 1991; Commodore Magazine of June 1987 and November 1988; Computer and Video Games of December 1986; Retro Gamer 94 and 116. Ron Gilbert has a wealth of material on his own history on his website and his “Making of Maniac Mansion” presentation was also invaluable.

Feel free to download the Commodore 64 version of Maniac Mansion from here.)


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>TILT AT WINDMILLS

Hollywood Visionary and Gender

by Aaron A. Reed (noreply@blogger.com) at July 24, 2015 04:45 PM

One of my goals with Hollywood Visionary, released by Choice of Games earlier this year, was to create a game with more interesting representations of gender identity. There's a couple things I want to write about connected with this, but for this post I want to focus on letting the player express ideas about gender and sexuality in a more nuanced way than is usually possible, and the challenges in training players (and authors) to understand how these expressions are incorporated into the game.



Spectrums of Expression


I was lucky enough to be part of a panel at GaymerX last year with some ridiculously talented people. A recurring topic was the many assumptions behind romance in games. While same-sex romance options are a lot more common than they were even a few years ago, it's still incredibly rare to see (or be able to play) non-gendered or asexual characters. We also talked about less visible assumptions, such as a sexual relationship always being the assumed desired outcome with a compatible character over other forms of deep connection, or that a single monogamous partner is everybody's end goal.

Choice of Games sells escapist stories with lots of romance-able characters, but I thought it was entirely possible to address some of the above concerns within that format. Hollywood Visionary tracks romantic interest and personal connection separately (which other games have certainly done before) but also has happy endings where you form a strong platonic connection with an NPC you've grown close to, ignore romance entirely to focus on a family bond, ignore everyone to focus on your career above all else, or end up with multiple romantic partners. This hopefully makes the game more interesting and gives the player more agency, with the nice side effect of making it more inclusive (and a better escapist fantasy for a broader range of people).

Expressing your own character's gender in a more interesting way was also a big priority. Many of my older games let players choose their gender and sexual orientation, but I'm more aware now that these things are neither the only two components of sexual identity, nor are they always (or ever) reducible to either/or choices.

What I eventually decided to do for Visionary was turn gender from a single choice with a set of consequences (pronouns, titles, available love interests, allowed clothing items, and so on) to a series of individual choices with no enforced correlation between them. The story can then respond to these individual facets of expression (having a character compliment the shoes you're wearing, for instance) rather than making assumptions from a lower-fi signal (such as assuming you're wearing heels because you chose "female.")

This technique also has the huge advantage of turning an often rote part of character creation into a palette for expression, which is part of my overall project of letting players be creative within my storygames. I should note that I certainly didn't originate this idea: among other inspirations, D. Vincent Baker's tabletop roleplaying game Apocalypse World turns gender into a much more introspective and nuanced part of character creation.

Training the Player (and Myself)


One of the most interesting challenges turned out to be not necessarily the implementation of these ideas in the game, but clearly communicating their existence. We're so used to playing games with simplistic representations of gender and sexuality that we're not trained to expect or look for alternatives, and as designers we're not trained in how to advertise them, either.

The first gender-connected choice in Visionary went through several iterations as the game developed and was tested. In early drafts, the choice began as a more or less traditional gender decision with an additional third option (playing a gender-neutral character). As the ideas I mentioned above developed, however, I wanted to introduce the idea of gender being performative, so I somewhat inelegantly tried to merge these two ideas together:

Croghan puffs his cigar reflectively, then steeples his fingers, staring at you through narrowed eyes filled with something unpleasantly like distaste. You suspect he's never liked you, probably because...

    *choice
        #He views your aggressively male persona as a challenge
        #He thinks soft-spoken men are weak
        #Your aggressive femininity distracts him
        #He can't imagine a modest woman like you could amount to anything
        #Your refusal to play the part of either leading man or leading lady in your public life makes him uncomfortable

There are a number of problems with this approach quite obvious to me in hindsight: it denies gender-neutral characters the extra choice about performance, it muddles a choice about attitude in with a choice about pronouns, and while it's careful to say "femininity" and "male persona," it also says "women" and "men". Players were rightly confused about what exactly this choice was asking.

But even after rewording this more carefully and taking out the weak/aggressive red herring, many testers kept assuming this choice controlled all aspects of a character's gender, and would report it as a bug if later on you were able to, say, wear lipstick even after "choosing to be male." I finally decided to just explicitly label the choices with what effect they had on the game: selecting your pronoun.

*choice
    #He views my masculine persona as a challenge. [i][Use "he" pronouns for my character][/i]
    #He views my feminine persona as a challenge. [i][Use "she" pronouns for my character][/i]
    #He views my refusal to play the part of either leading man or leading lady in my public life as a challenge. [i][Use "they" pronouns for my character][/i]

Less artful, but more to the point: a worthwhile compromise when it's important the player understands what this choice signifies to the game.

It also proved useful to have the game demonstrate its awareness that the player was making a nontraditional choice about gender presentation, even if the system otherwise didn't care. Having one or two feminine-signifying items show up in a list of mostly masculine ones would almost always produce a bug report.

In Visionary you can choose how your movie studio employees address you: this is introduced in your interaction with a clumsy stagehand who knocks you over. An early version looked similar to this:

He pulls you to your feet with a calloused, sweaty hand. "Oh, geez. I'm so sorry, ..."

    *choice
        #"...Mr. ${pcLastName}."
        #"...Mrs. ${pcLastName}."
        #"...Doctor ${pcLastName}."
        #"...Miss ${pcLastName}."
        #"...chief."

By the final version, this had evolved into something more like this (which also allowed space to include a wider range of more interesting titles):

He pulls you to your feet with a calloused, sweaty hand. "Oh, geez…I'm so sorry, chief," he says.

[i][Choose how you want your employees to address you.][/i]

*choice
    #Traditionally masculine forms of address.
    *choice
        #"How about 'Mr. ${pcLast},'" ${assistant} says.
        #"The boss prefers 'Sir ${pcLast},'" ${assistant} says.
        ...
    #Traditionally feminine forms of address.
    *choice
        #"That's 'Miss ${pcLast},' if you don't mind," ${assistant} says.
        #"'Mrs. ${pcLast},' please," ${assistant says.
        ...
    #Less gendered forms of address.
    *choice
        #"That's 'Doctor ${pcLast},' if you please," ${assistant} says.
        #"That's just ${pcLast} to you," ${asNickname} says.
        ...

While this kind of explicitness may have been less necessary if the setting implied fewer baked-in assumptions about gender roles, I think it's also true that we're so unused to games offering these options that providing reassurance is good. It's a form of offering permission: yes, the game is okay with this, and you're not going to trigger a crash later on from a corrupted memory state brought on by wearing a red dress and a mustache at the same time.

Avoiding Gendered Language


Not all of the challenges were specific to interactive fiction, of course: I also tried to avoid gendered language and other kinds of lazy writing. A simple search for "gender neutral alternative to [any gendered word]" often demonstrates how much the very concept of this still rankles a lot of (mostly male) people, and how necessary it still is to avoid the kind of writing that lays down these unconscious biases. Another good case for becoming more aware of the assumptions built in to our words is Douglas Hofstadter's brilliant satire "A Person Paper on Purity in Language," written from a parallel universe where language pivots around race instead of gender.

I like to think I've gotten reasonably good at avoiding gendered language, but making it a more intentional part of my writing process revealed how often I still do it and how internalized some of my assumptions are. A while ago I devised a writerly "syntax highlighter" for my text editor that highlights weak words and phrases, passive voice, cruft like obnoxious adverbs and filler words, as well as my own personal crutch words and cliches that I know I overuse. (If anyone uses SublimeText, I've uploaded the language definition file here.) I added a big list of gendered words to this tool and was surprised by how often they'd show up in my writing. The game even had a stat, "craftsmanship," that I'd never noticed was gendered: I replaced it with "craft," which is must less of a mouthful anyway. My editor also pointed out dozens of places in the writing where these words had snuck in.

This isn't to say gendered language should never be used. In the final game I deliberately use it in a number of places, usually because it reveals something about a character or setting. For instance, the scaremongering Congressman Creed is definitely not a "congressional representative"; he stands for systems of oppression, which even more especially in the 1950s were almost exclusively run by men. Similarly, your studio boss uses terms like "businessman" as part of a willful rejection of any alternatives to the norm. On the other hand, I'd originally written most of the studio crew with male-centered words like "workman" and "the boys"; but my editor rightly pointed these out as not particularly revealing, since the story didn't hinge on '50s film sets being male-dominated places. Were those used words at the time? Sure. But for readers today, changing them to (for instance) "carpenter" and "the crew" makes no difference, except removing another tiny blip of gender bias.

I also tried to avoid ableist language, especially around mental health issues. After a friend pointed it out to me, I became very aware of how often words like "crazy," "insane," and "psycho" are used in daily conversation to mean "different" or "bad." There are plenty of solid social reasons for avoiding this language (I'm thinking, for instance, of my autistic nephew who'll soon be in middle school) but another good reason is that these words are lazy writing. They're almost always crutches to avoid saying something more specific or interesting. I assembled a big list of these words and added it to my syntax checker: sure enough, nearly every time I'd used one the rewritten line was stronger and revealed more about the speaker or the subject. Again, there were places I kept these words in: but intentionally and for a good reason, not unconsciously.

I should say that I didn't do a perfect job at any of this, which is probably impossible, but I did strive to do better. The process never really ends: I didn't realize until I started assembling examples for this post, for instance, that most of Visionary's choices about masculine versus feminine options do what this sentence does: put masculine first. I won't un-notice that.

I'd like to write a bit more about some of the techniques I developed for adaptive pronouns (especially with personal "they," which means changing how verbs are conjugated) and why it's even a good idea to put gender inclusivity in a game set in the 1950s, but I'll save that for another post. In the meantime, Hollywood Visionary is available on the Steam, iTunes, Android and Kindle stores.

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 22 new game entries, 8 new solutions, 19 new maps, 1 new hints, 2 new clue sheets

by Gunness at July 24, 2015 12:45 PM

There's no use going on summer holiday, 'cause you're well aware of the fact that users will just *swamp* you with updates while your back is turned. Thanks, everybody!

Image
A particular mention goes to Garry, who's been hard at work updating the games from ANALOG magazine. These include Infocom luminary Brian Moriarty's submarine thriller Crash Dive!.

Behind the scenes we're working on some new additions to the forum to spice things up a bit.

Finally, thanks to Wade Clarke a.k.a. blurgle for submitting info on all his games. That's the kind of unique content that really makes our site special.

Contributors: Nicholas, blurgle, Garry, Alastair, Gunness, therealdavetaylor, auraes, Alex, Mr Creosote, Richard Bos, devwebcl, Dorothy

Sibyl Moon Games

Table-Driven NPC Actions in Inform 7

by Carolyn VanEseltine at July 24, 2015 04:01 AM

This post will discuss the code structure of 18 Rooms to Home: Room 15. It will not discuss anything except the code structure, so there aren’t any spoilers – but if you’d prefer to avoid all discussion whatsoever, this is a good post to skip.

Also, this post will be most useful to intermediate Inform 7 users.

On to the architecture!

So far, Room 15 has taken as much time as the prior three rooms and the original project design combined. This is directly related to the trouble I had with the code. But I’ve solved the architecture problem, and I wanted to share my solution.

Room 15 involves multiple NPCs taking proactive actions.

Traditionally, I’ve built this kind of thing with a pile of if statements. But with multiple NPCs in motion, and each NPC’s actions depending on game states that other NPCs can affect, that’s wildly unwieldy. (I say this with great confidence, because I tried to build it that way first.)

Instead of building NPC actions with a pile of if statements, I’m running them off tables.

Anything that can be done in I7, probably has been done. (And in this case, I suspect it’s been done by Victor Gijsbers in Kerkerkruip, though I don’t know for sure.) But this is a new I7 approach for me, and I think it’s a good one.

Here’s the first chunk of code. It’s a little hard to follow with generic names, so I’ll use Caleb and Teo (from Two Serpents Rise.)

A person can be occupied or unoccupied.

An every turn rule while the location is (whatever the location is):
    if Caleb is not occupied:
        execute the Table of Caleb Actions;
    if Teo is not occupied:
        execute the Table of Teo Actions;
    …
    (until all the NPCs have execution rules)
    …
    now Caleb is not occupied;
    now Teo is not occupied;
    …
    (until all the NPCs have been listed)

Action executed is a truth state that varies. Action executed is false.

To execute the Table of Caleb Actions:
    now action executed is false;
    let row number be 0;
    repeat through the Table of Caleb Actions:
        let the row numbe be row number + 1;
        if action executed is false and the completed entry is false:
            if the row number is Caleb-valid:
                say “[message entry][line break]”
                if there is an activity entry:
                    carry out the activity entry activity;
            now the completed entry is true;
            now action executed is true;
            say “[conditional paragraph break]”.

(This code could be more compact – for instance, there are a few things that could be stored in variables on NPCs. But I think it’s easier to read if it’s unpacked this way.)

[Edited 7/27/15 – Also, this can be done with rules instead of activities, which is an improvement. I’m leaving this post as-is, but see the modification for rules here.]

Each table is structured like this:

Table of Caleb Actions
completed    var1        var2        var3        ...    activity    message
false        [value]        [value]        [value]        ...    [activity]    [string]
false        [value]        [value]        [value]        ...    [activity]    [string]
false        [value]        [value]        [value]        ...    [activity]    [string]
...
(until all the possible actions for Caleb have been listed)

Each of the vars above describes a specific condition that will be tested in the validity check. In Room 15, most of these columns are global truth states, and the other columns check whether an object is present in the location.

This is how the execution activity checks the validity of each row.

To decide if (position – a number) is Caleb-valid:
    choose row position in the Table of Caleb Actions;
    if there is a var1 entry:
        if (the var1 entry is [value]) and (var1 is not [value]):
            decide no;
        if (the var1 entry is not [value]) and (var1 is [value]):
            decide no;
    if there is a var2 entry:
        if (the var2 entry is [value]) and (var2 is not [value]):
            decide no;
        if (the var2 entry is not [value]) and (var2 is [value]):
            decide no;
    …
    (until there’s a check for every variable in the columns)
    …
    decide yes.

A second time, in English rather than code:

  • Every turn, the game goes through each NPC in order.
  • At each NPC, it runs down the NPC’s table in search of a valid row in the table that hasn’t been completed yet.
  • If it finds a valid row, it prints the message from that row.
  • If there’s also an activity in that row, it carries out the activity.
  • Then it marks the row completed, so it won’t do it again.

Here’s an example, filling in those vars with something more specific:

Table of Caleb Actions
 completed    has-cards    Teo-playing    high-stakes    activity    message
 false        true        false        --        --        "Caleb surveys the room as the cards shuffle themselves against his palms."

To decide if (position – a number) is Caleb-valid:
    choose row position in the Table of Caleb Actions;
    if there is a has-cards entry:
        if (the has-cards entry is true) and (Caleb does not have the playing cards):
            decide no;
        if (the has-cards entry is false) and (Caleb has the playing cards):
            decide no;
    if there is a Teo-playing entry:
        if (the Teo-playing entry is true) and (Teo is not in the location):
            decide no;
        if (the Teo-playing entry is false) and (Teo is in the location):
            decide no;
    if there is a high-stakes entry:
        if (the high-stakes entry is true) and (high-stakes is false):
            decide no;
        if (the high-stakes entry is false) and (high-stakes is true):
            decide no;

    decide yes.

This is absolutely a case where it’s better to build and alter your tables in a spreadsheet program. Storing strings will make your tables extremely wide, so the rows will wrap around and the columns will be hard to differentiate by hand.

Including a status for each variable is optional. If you leave a row entirely empty (by putting two dashes in the cell), then the NPC will execute that row as soon as it reaches it. This is useful when the NPCs aren’t all present from the start. You can have an NPC that takes several actions on its own before the other NPCs arrive.

Activities are optional, and they should not include any messages. The point of keeping the messages in the table is to ensure you can look at them all at once and resort them easily, rather than having to scroll up and down to figure out which message needs to be moved up or down in the table.

The “occupied” truth state is for shutting down an NPC from taking actions for the rest of the turn. This allows actions to be bound between multiple NPCs. For example:

Caleb deals out a hand of five cards to each player.

Teo picks up her opening hand, peeks at the cards, and lays them back down again.

This looks good – but it’s a real problem if Teo peeks at her opening cards while Caleb is still shuffling, or if Caleb bids and raises before Teo looks at her hand for the first time. Instead, I would bind these two actions together on Caleb.

Caleb deals out a hand of five cards to each player.[paragraph break]Teo picks up her opening hand, peeks at the cards, and lays them back down again.

In the activity field, I would put distract-Teo, which goes with:

Distract-Teo is an activity.
Rule for distract-Teo:
    now Teo is occupied.

This would block Teo from taking an action, so I can put this anywhere that I want Teo occupied for the rest of the turn, but it’s only useful to use on NPCs who take their actions in front of Teo. Once the turn ends, everyone’s occupied status will return to false, so if Elayne takes her action after Teo, it isn’t useful to have Elayne block Teo.

In the future, for situations with only one NPC, I’ll probably stay with stacked if statements. It just saves time on infrastructure.

But for highly volatile situations – ones where the NPCs are caroming off each other like pinballs, and each of the player’s actions whacks the flippers again – I think this is the right approach. I’ll come back to it again.


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July 22, 2015

Storycade

Visual Novel: Cherry Tree High I! My! Girls!

by Gingy Gibson at July 22, 2015 12:01 AM

cherry tree high

Cherry Tree High Comedy Club is a cute little game that follows the adventure of Miley, a high school student on a quest to rebuild her school’s once great comedy club with the help of her friend Harriet and anyone else she can rope into her scheme.  Cherry Tree High I! My! Girls! is a sequel to this, in the form of a kinetic visual novel that continues the adventures of the Miley and company as they attempt to become a functioning comedy club in the face of opposition from studio producers and other students.

When Cherry Tree High I! My! Girls! was first announced, I (and many others) were surprised that the developer, 773, were choosing to do a kinetic visual novel for a sequel, because its predecessor had essentially been a time management game with VN elements mixed in.  In the original Cherry Tree High Comedy Club, you had to recruit your fellow students to join the school’s comedy club by a certain date, or else the club would be shut down due to a lack of members.  Your day would be divided into four sections, and you were responsible for using that time to attend class, boost skills, earn money, or talk with prospective club members, working towards the eventual goal of recruiting at least 4, preferably all 6, potential targets.  It could be frustrating at times, especially with the decidedly weird controls that relied on “z” for selecting and interacting with people, “w” for the menu, and “x” to cancel, but I found it to be very fun.

cherry tree high comedy club

In Cherry Tree High I! My! Girls!, there is no time management of any sort, no skills to grind or people to recruit.  You start up the story and are taken to a chapter select screen, and simply read through the chapters of the story one at a time.  As far as I’ve been able to tell, there is no way to save in the middle of the chapters and come back later.  You simply have to either read through the whole thing at once so the game can mark it as read and unlock the next chapter, or exit out and have to read the whole chapter again when you come back.

Changes were also made to character names between releases of the first and second VN.  In the original game, pretty much every character had their name and story localized to appeal to a North American audience (perhaps 773 forgot for a moment that the typical audience of a VN wants those Japanese things in their stories).  Mairu was changed to Miley, Haru became Cindy, the local Shinto shrine was explained away as being a gift from the town’s sister city in Japan, and so on.  But in Cherry Tree High I! My! Girls!, stories and names have gone back to the original Japanese iterations, so we can be grateful for that.

The art, on the other hand, stayed exactly the same, as did the music.  There’s nothing bad about the sprites or backgrounds in either game, but I feel the need to split the sprites into two categories.  One set of sprites are the traditional ones that you see in all VNs and pop up whenever you initiate a conversation, with subtle poses to their body and a variety of facial expressions conveying their emotions.  These are cute; not super detailed, but they fit with the VN theme very well.  There is a second set of sprites that are a remnant from the first game, and actually walk or run around the screen.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with them; I’m actually a bit fond of them.  But they remind me very much of the sprites you’d have playing an online game like Maplestory more so than ones seen in a VN, and it’s a bit weird to have the running around sprite give a dead-eyed smile to the screen while the conversation sprites are alive with rage or sadness.  The music is limited to a few tracks played on a continuous loop, and honestly aren’t that good.  Since the game is typically played in windowed mode (still trying to figure out how to turn on fullscreen mode which has apparently broken recently in the sequel), this isn’t an issue because you can just mute the music and play something else in the background.

 cherry tree high

Now for the big problem with both games, but especially Cherry Tree High I! My! Girls!: its story.  With kinetic visual novels, the reader only interacts with the story by way of clicking to the next bit of dialogue, so a good kinetic VN needs to have good art, good music, and good writing to keep their audience interested in what is essentially an interactive picture book with a soundtrack.  When I played Cherry Tree High Comedy Club, the story to me was the weak part.  I never got particularly attached to any characters (although I could relate to some of their struggles) and didn’t find their jokes very funny (particularly tragic for a game about a comedy club).  Not to mention that you have to play the game through multiple times to recruit all characters in New Game+ mode and cannot skip through the dialogue, so you get very tired of the story and the character’s responses after a while.  I had always wondered if perhaps 773 sacrificed better writing and music so that they could spend most of their time working on the skills and recruitment sections of the game, which were the best part.  The sequel disproves that notion.

In Cherry Tree High Comedy Club, you were trying to bring people into the comedy club, so comedy itself came up very little as people were more drawn in by Miley’s personality than merely the prospect of doing standup.  The story was centered around the idea of making friends and using the comedy club as an excuse to hang out with people you really cared about, which I always found to be kind of sweet.  But then in Cherry Tree High I! My! Girls!, you actually have to have a functioning comedy club, and it’s clear the writer didn’t know how to put one together.  You’ll have scenes of people talking about researching this or that, followed by a fade to black.  Other times, you’ll get a brief mention of something distantly related to comedy, but then the subject is quickly changed.  The few times they actually run a comedy routine, it’s either terribly bad or just good enough to get a chuckle out of me.  A few new characters are introduced, and although there were more than a few (unintentionally) funny moments, overall I just couldn’t get hooked on the story and usually only got through one or two chapters at a time before running off to play something else.  But it’s worth pointing out that that’s a personal preference; there was nothing inherently bad about the story, and a number of other people really enjoyed it.  I just didn’t care for it.

cherry-tree-high-i-my-girls_009

The original Cherry Tree High Comedy Club is available for $8 on Steam, and the sequel Cherry Tree High I! My! Girls! is available for $4.  They’ve both gone on sale for much cheaper in the past though, so I’d wait and pick them up in a sale.  The first one I’d strongly recommend, because even if the story was lacking the gameplay definitely made up for it.  I’ve logged over 20 hours on it, just replaying it again and again.  As for the sequel, well, if you got really attached to Miley and the gang and want to read about their next adventure, go ahead and grab it.  It should only take you a couple hours to read through the whole thing.  But if you weren’t deeply enthralled by the first game’s story, the sequel is not for you.

The post Visual Novel: Cherry Tree High I! My! Girls! appeared first on .

July 21, 2015

Emily Short

Long Live the Queen (Hanako Games)

by Emily Short at July 21, 2015 11:00 PM

Long-Live-The-Queen

I’m not exactly getting to this one in a timely fashion. Long Live the Queen is a visual novel/sim that has been out for a couple of years now, and people have been telling me to play it, and I’ve just been somewhat overwhelmed by how hard it is to get through. But now I have managed to win (once) and die (a lot of times), which is supposedly the correct proportion for this game.

The premise is that you are 14-year-old Elodie, the princess of a kingdom faced with internal and external strife, and you have to live through the 40 weeks until you turn 15 and are crowned. Every week you choose two subjects to study from a bewildering array (everything from Accounting to Divination, Elegance to Archery). Every weekend, you pick a weekend activity that affects your mood, which in turn affects your aptitude for different subjects. And each weekend you also face certain specialized story choices, which follow a consistent schedule. Winning is largely about learning which challenges are going to come up when and which skills you’ll need to have in order to overcome them, and training accordingly.

LongLiveQueenStats

Quite a bit has already been written about LLtQ: about how hard it is, about how it compares with Princess Maker and Varicella. I want to talk about the cruelty stat.

This sounds like it’s going to be spoilery, but it’s really only mildly so: there are so many moving parts in this game that even a detailed analysis can leave a lot still to be uncovered.

As the images above suggest, LLtQ has a large number of exposed stats, and a smaller (I think?) number of hidden ones. Exposed are your mood scores and your skill ratings in each of the many skills you can train. Not shown, but implied and important, are the number of soldiers in your military, the amount of money in your treasury, how pleased with you your nobles and commoners are, and possibly some individual mood ratings down to individual NPCs. (I’m not sure about this: you’re often told that someone is displeased, but it’s not entirely clear how that is being tracked or when it’s being checked.) In some circumstances you can get a general sense of what those numbers might be — if you train your military skills up, you’re allowed to visit the barracks, for instance, which sometimes gives you a hint about your military strength, while training Accounting can lead to in-story clues about how much you can currently afford to spend.

Because the game is so extremely easy to lose and so unfair on the first playthroughs — there are lots of opportunities to die suddenly as a result of an event you had no real way of anticipating — the need to optimize generally triumphs over any attempts at role-playing. No, the fact that you as a player like dogs is not a good reason to train your Dogs stat to 100: Elodie’s got more important things to do. Expressions of player morality are also likely to go much the same direction. I’m not even sure it’s possible to get through the game without killing anyone, directly and indirectly: you’re under attack so much of the time, and even highly developed social skills won’t get you out of every scrape. Likewise romance: there are a whole bunch of romance-able NPCs, in theory, but in practice you’ll mostly find that your personal tastes have to take a back seat to what is expedient for the country.

In good accretive PC fashion, this creates the sense, across multiple plays, of a heroine who is doing no more or less than she has to. Sometimes that may mean spending a lot of money on a problem because there’s no easier way; sometimes it might be executing someone or sending assassins to take care of an opponent who otherwise will foment a civil war and cause thousands of deaths. In the circumstances, on (say) your fifth or tenth playthrough, that seems like a totally justified and even humane solution to the problem.

So I was playing this way, killing now and then but for what I considered to be excellent gameplay reasons, when I noticed that my weekend option to visit the dungeons had changed. On previous playthroughs, if I visited the dungeon, it might not affect my mood at all, or it might make me angry on behalf of the prisoners, or frightened by the threat of sharing a similar misfortune.

Now, though, visiting the dungeons gave me points to both my Cheerful and Angry mood stats, and I got flavor text that I went down there and entertained myself by poking the peasant prisoners with sticks. “AFFECTED BY CRUELTY,” read the explanatory text.

Nothing about the game up to this point had warned me that it was tracking cruelty. My internal, player concept of the character was that she was actually unhappy about all the killings. But now my actions had altered Elodie’s psychology.

Worse: even after I found out what this did, I wound up using it a couple of times. It’s not easy to gain Angry mood points a lot of the time. If you unlock Sports as a weekend activity that helps, but that takes some investment in skills that may not be a priority. So the cruel use of the dungeon was an effective alternate way of getting in an Angry mood in order to facilitate learning things like Weapons and Military skills, abilities that had a chance to help me save my kingdom in the endgame.

I’ve had other experiences with games overreading my actions that I didn’t really like. The Fable series consistently misunderstood my moral intentions and awarded me good or evil points for things that I didn’t think deserved them.

In LLtQ, though, I got a pleased chill from the appearance of the Cruelty stat even though it ran counter to what I thought I was doing. It felt like a timely reminder: morality is partly about habit, as well as will and principle. And I was getting in the habit of having people killed in order to solve problems. Maybe this was a response to a difficult situation with no entirely clean-hands solutions. Maybe I was trying to obtain the least harmful outcome for my kingdom as a whole. But still, habituation was changing my character. It was much more effective than immediate feedback from a simple good/bad meter.

*

In other news, Hanako has a new game out, a mystery called Black Closet in which the solution of the investigation changes on replay. I’m intrigued, though given how long it took me to get through LLtQ it may be a while before I have a chance to cover it.

Disclosure: I played a copy of this game that I bought with my own money.


Lautz of IF

Trizbort Update 1.5.8.11 – Now supports ZIL

by jasonlautzenheiser at July 21, 2015 03:01 AM

As the title says, there is a new Trizbort update.  1.5.8.11 is available over on the github release page (along with the code as usual).  This update is rather small in number of changes, though the ZIL support is a pretty cool addition.

  • Text wrapping will now occur on dashes as well as spaces
  • Redact text from map – remove all text so as not to give away spoilers Ctrl+F4
  • Updated link to online help in the help menu
  • History text in map settings will generate an “about” command when exporting code. Currently only I7 and TADS3.

As the title suggests, I’ve also added ZIL support.  If you are not sure what ZIL is, it is essentially the language that Infocom used to write their games (language definition documentation is an interesting read).  Under the code export, menu (File->Export) there are now options for saving your map to ZIL as well as copying the ZIL code to the clipboard.

menu

This will output a simple ZIL file, with code that looks like the following:

"A Trizbort Map main file"

<VERSION ZIP>
<CONSTANT RELEASEID 1>

"Main Loop"

<CONSTANT GAME-BANNER "A Trizbort Map|An interactive fiction by A Trizbort User">
<ROUTINE GO()
    <CRLF> <CRLF>
    <TELL "" CR CR>
    <V-VERSION> <CRLF>
    <SETG HERE ,CAVE>
    <MOVE ,PLAYER ,HERE>
    <V-LOOK>
    <REPEAT()
        <COND (<PARSER>
               <PERFORM, PRSA, PRSO, PRSI>
               <APPLY <GETP, HERE, P?ACTION> ,M-END>
               <OR <GAME-VERB?> <CLOCKER>>)>
        <SETG HERE <LOC ,WINNER>>>>

<INSERT-FILE "parser">

"Objects"

<ROOM CAVE
    (DESC "Cave")
    (IN ROOMS)
    (LDESC "The cave is dark, wet and clammy.  A mist appears to hover inches above the ground.")
    (FLAGS LIGHTBIT)>

<OBJECT FLASHLIGHT
    (LOC CAVE)
    (DESC "Flashlight")
    (SYNONYM FLASHLIGHT)
    (FLAGS TAKEBIT )>

So now I’ve got this cool ZIL language file generated from my map….well now what?

Well here is where the work of Jesse McGrew comes into play. He is currently working on a ZIL compiler and related tools, that will compile this ZIL file and take the resultant file and create a Z8 file from it (or Z3 or Z5)…you can see his work, or just grab the compile to play with on his Bitbucket account (https://bitbucket.org/jmcgrew/zilf/wiki/Home). He has put a lot of effort and done a great deal of work on his project so it’s great to see it progressing to the point of actually being able to create games with it.

I should mention that Jesse is still working on his project so things may and likely will change. I don’t suspect there will be issues, but I will try and make sure that as Jesse puts out new releases, that Trizbort keeps pace.

The ZIL support in Trizbort currently handles rooms and objects as well as I understand them to work in ZIL. I’m still learning the language myself, so there are bound to be issues….but I hope to work them out as well as expand on the way Trizbort handles objects in the future which will pay dividends across all the languages that Trizbort exports to.

This was also a good experiment for me on creating an new language exporter in Trizbort….up to this point, I’ve just worked with what Genstein had originally put into Trizbort, just making minor modifications and fixes….but I’ve discovered that this isn’t really all that hard to put a new language in place, so I hope to not only expand on how Trizbort handles objects (and people and supports / containers and all that entails), but also on expanding into other languages….Alan, Hugo, …. whatever else might fit the bill and lend itself to code generation from a map. This actually sounds like a lot of fun to implement.

Anyway, enjoy this little update and I hope you find it useful. Please feel free to let me know of any issues that you may find.


Filed under: Trizbort

Post Position

The Great Vowel Shift

by Nick Montfort at July 21, 2015 01:45 AM

My first PuzzleScript game is a concrete poem that, after a few levels, taunts you, the player, with a metapuzzle.

great_vowel_1

great_vowel_2

It’s “The Great Vowel Shift.”

Storycade

Interactive Cinema: Her Story

by Amanda Wallace at July 21, 2015 12:01 AM

Her Story

This guest post was written by Bruno Dias. If you want to hear more from him, check him out on Twitter or his website

Her Story (Sam Barlow) is a difficult thing to classify, because it’s premised on a clever hop across medium boundaries. We’re used to talking about interactive fiction as a near-synonym of interactive literature; and we’ve had, so far, over three decades of interactive literature in various forms. But Her Story is an interactive film, maybe the first thing of its kind, using cinema to the same ends that parser fiction uses prose.

It is designed as the experience of sitting down at a mothballed computer in a police station in Portsmouth, paging through a searchable database of police interviews concerning a murder that took place just over 21 years ago, in 1994. The constraints on the database are somewhat contrived – though realism isn’t really the point here – but calculated exactly to work as a game mechanic: You only have access to the interviewee’s answers, divided into individual clips that are often no more than a few seconds long. You can search for words found verbatim in the transcript of her interview, so that searching for a character’s name will only turn up those clips where they are mentioned by name. The database is limited to producing the five first results of your query, chronologically.

Her Story

Beyond some embellishments, this is the extent of the gameplay of Her Story. The live-action clips contain all but the entirety of the story, and the player has almost total control over what order to view them in. Live-action video has a long, and not so illustrious, history in games. But Her Story uses video not as a sort of fetish or gimmick, or as an idiosyncratic form of cutscene. It uses video as the native language of its storytelling.

Editing is the grammar of film, and Her Story puts editing in the hands of the player, very explicitly. As a player aid, it even supplies an empty roll that the player can fill with clips they find interesting or relevant, which will eventually assemble into nonlinear a narrative of not just the game’s story, but the player’s route to finding it. And this process of editing the raw footage, which is collected from glimpses opened up by coming up with new words to search for, constructs a unique lens through which each individual player reads the underlying story. A lot of interactive stories give players control over plot or story events, but Her Story allows manipulation of the primitive unit of discourse: sequencing individual shots. Unlike in a conventional interactive text, in Her Story, the player is actively constructing meaning, piecing together a context where the clips can exist as a coherent narrative. This construction of context allows individual clips to be read very differently, depending on what the player knows when they arrive at them, and which clips have been seen before.

In a way, it turns the entire debate surrounding choice in video game stories on its head. Her Story’s search box is a sort of statement of radical, quasi-authorial player freedom: You’re sitting at the editing room of your own true crime documentary. At the same time, the very nature of the story being told is that it’s static, unchanging. The events of the story have already taken place; all that control is only over how the story is framed and constructed by the player. The game’s own story touches on the idea of choice existing in how we represent and narrate what happens, and not only in changing what happens.

aisle

It’s impossible not to go back to Sam Barlow’s own Aisle, a short 1999 piece that became one of the classics of parser interactive fiction. Both Aisle and Her Story are built around a text box where the player can type almost anything within a certain context. But where Aisle treats that text box as an inflection point around which varying pasts and futures can be assembled, Her Story treats the text box as a window, a way of peering into different cuts of the narrative. In that way, it’s more like a puzzle, though much of that puzzle takes place inside the player’s head.

Her Story is not, however, about meticulously writing down the times and places of events to piece together a chronology of the crime. The murder mystery underpinnings start to unravel almost immediately, into an altogether different Gothic fairy tale about identity and narrative. While I was definitely on board with the game’s apparent genre (I have some extensive notes about who was where, when, doing what), I didn’t feel cheated by the shift in tone and focus. Her Story detaches elegantly from reality to discourse on story, on our own reading of stories, and in particular on stories involving actors.

I was worried about the somewhat mannered line readings that Viva Seifert had on the clips chosen for the game’s trailer, but as it turns out her performance fits the format and the story quite well. Part of Her Story is the experience of staring into blown out, grainy VHS footage and trying to discern motives, identities, or truth out of that performance, and the heightened way in which Viva plays her character helps to sell, not undermine, that sort of playfulness. It’s a performance designed to be dissected by the viewer, one that very much goes out of its way to show the cracks in the skin where the player might want to start peeling.

Consistently, the game resists the temptation to make a mechanic out of this sort of facial reading – no “press A to doubt” here, no quiz at the end asking the player to prove their understanding. Instead it relies on the allure of the images themselves, and on the pleasure of reassembling them, looking for revealing cross-sections of the footage. There is no real requirement that the player understand the story, no unlocking of content, no puzzle beyond the overarching puzzle of trying to understand the events of the game’s narrative.

Her Story is, in many ways, about the assembling of narrative from the blunt happenstance of life, which dovetails nicely both with its structure as a narrative-assembling game and its police procedural conceit. It puts the player several steps removed from the events of the narrative, in a position of enormous editorial control.

That it all manages to function as an engaging narrative consistently, in spite of the radically different paths that players can take, is an almost incomprehensible achievement. It’s not, after all, simple hypertext; players can guess arbitrary words, and trying out likely candidates for words related to the subject matter is a very valid strategy. Its success rests on the fact that the story is not about a singular twist, or about a resolution to the mystery; the very structure of the story resists a simple whodunit. Instead, it’s a small goldmine of ideas, story moments, and plot. Some nuggets are bigger than others, and the player can stop when they’ve dug up enough.

Overall, Her Story comes out as a very successful experiment. It feels very much like a sui generis thing, like a brilliant device that could launch a whole genre if it wasn’t so exhaustively complex to design a story that way. It stands out as one of my favourite games of the year so far, if not the favourite. And while I’m loathe to brand any work as “important” so soon after its release, anyone who pays attention to narrative in games can’t really afford not to play it if they can.

Her Story is available on PC, Mac, and iOS devices. It can be purchased on Steam, the iOS App Store, or directly from the developer.

The post Interactive Cinema: Her Story appeared first on .

July 20, 2015

Sibyl Moon Games

What? My perspective is evolving!

by Carolyn VanEseltine at July 20, 2015 08:01 PM

magikarp evolve

According to the Pokédex, Magikarp is about 0.9 meters long, but Gyarados is 6.5 meters long. So once it evolves, it can’t fit in a duck pond any more.

Maybe that’s why Gyarados is always bad-tempered.

One kind of evolution

I used GameMaker over the weekend, and it was fun until it wasn’t, and I’m kind of mad about that.

For context, GameMaker was my first graphical engine. I’ve mostly used it at game jams – Ludum Dare, iamagamer.ca, and the Global Game Jam. It has a drag-and-drop interface for new users and rapid prototyping, but it also has a decent scripting engine underneath.

For additional context, I haven’t booted up GameMaker since late 2013, so long-time followers of this blog* will realize I’ve learned C# and Unity since then.

I was halfway through a game of Rogue’s Tale on Sunday when I got annoyed. Rogue’s Tale is an indie roguelike notable for rapid, unavoidable death – and I say that as a veteran Nethack player with multiple ascensions under her belt. I thought, I could do better than this.

…maybe yes, maybe no; everyone’s an egotist in the moment. But the pertinent part is that it was Sunday, therefore a weekend, therefore my time was technically my own. I booted up GameMaker, started a new project, and got to work on a graphical roguelike.

I started with the drag-and-drop interface – a player, a basic monster, a dungeon wall.

drag and drop player

I moved out of the drag-and-drop interface into scripting. It was less repetitive; I could just toss the same script on each keystroke.

I moved from there into full-on scripting, because I needed prototypes. I knew I’d be making a bunch of creatures, and I wanted to be able to mix-and-match their behavior. So I did some complicated stuff with scripting that’s probably not super interesting to anyone else, but there’s a screenshot of the script list below.

scripts everywhere

I shut GameMaker down because it was midnight (hey, these things happen) but also because I was annoyed.

In the past, GameMaker was a perfect tool for me. But I don’t even think the way I used to. I wanted greater versatility in my data structures. I wanted lists instead of arrays. I wanted get and set accessors. I wanted to lump a bunch of small functions in a single class rather than building a whole script for each one.

I wanted C# back.

I could still create a roguelike in the GameMaker drag-and-drop interface. I could even pull off procedural dungeon generation, if I were determined enough. And it would work, and it would be awesome, and I would be deservedly proud of my accomplishment.

But it’s hard for me to use it now. GameMaker hasn’t changed significantly – but my perspective has evolved, and everything looks different from here.

But this isn’t actually about programming

It’s about the experience of having that perspective shift.

GameMaker is a fantastic tool. I can’t say enough nice things about it. (And it’s professional quality – Spelunky, Nidhogg, and Hotline Miami were all created in GameMaker.)

But I’ve changed. And while I think the change is positive, the experience of that change isn’t positive.

I miss the way things used to be.

Another kind of evolution

Not too long ago, I read Andy Weir’s The Martian. It’s a brilliant hard SF novel that’s excellently summed up in this xkcd:

(Source: https://xkcd.com/1536/)

I loved this book so much that I read 20% of it out loud to my girlfriend before she took over and finished it herself. She’s a space nut and she loved it even more than I did.

I’m a hard SF fan from way back. I grew up on Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Arthur C Clarke, and Robert L Forward. This is a book for people like me.

…except that it’s not.

It’s pretty clear to me that I’m not Weir’s intended audience. It’s obvious because of the random low-level sexist humor and because of the ways women are depicted. (I’m not going into the details here, because it’s spoilery and off topic, but you can see my opinion in more depth here.)

Ten years ago, this wouldn’t have bothered me. It bothers me today.

To give you a bit of backstory – I’ve never lived in a house without a computer, because both my parents were computer programmers. I grew up fascinated by video games. I experimented with LOGO and BASIC and Turbo Pascal.

Why did I get a degree in creative writing instead of computer science?

I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know: I never took a computer science class in college. A friend warned me that CompSci 101 was really hard, because the professor wanted to wash out people who weren’t serious. And I believed them, and so I took biology instead.

If I’d been a boy, would they have warned me at all? Or would there have been encouragement too – “CompSci 101 is hard, but you can make it through”?

What if the hard SF novels I loved were filled with women as well as men? As a teenager, I didn’t know about Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, or Hedy Lamarr. The female programmer I knew best from fiction was Isaac Asimov’s Susan Calvin – “a frosty girl, plain and colorless, who protected herself against a world she disliked by a mask-like expression and a hypertrophy of intellect” (I, Robot).

I look back, and I wonder what could have been different if I saw someone I wanted to be, instead.

I look back, and I see that the vast majority of hard SF was about men, by men (credit to Nancy Kress for being the exception). The novels I read about women, by women, were fantasy or science fantasy. And I wonder what if.

I don’t know, and I’ll never know. Second-guessing the past isn’t particularly useful.

But now that I’ve recognized the disparity, it’s impossible for me to miss it. And it’s not just gender (though that’s easiest to highlight from my own experience) – it’s depictions of minorities across the board, in all media. It’s the evidence that protagonist means white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, monogamous, male. I don’t know how to close my eyes to that.

The books I read haven’t changed – but my perspective has evolved, and everything looks different from here. I would have enjoyed The Martian more if I hadn’t seen the sexism in it. If the “I really recommend this book” weren’t accompanied by an “except”.

My viewpoint has evolved. On some level, I resent it.

The horrible experience of change

Abstractly, we all want to level up. But once your perspective evolves, it’s impossible to go back to how you saw things before.**

I don’t feel as comfortable with GameMaker as I used to, because my perspective as a programmer has changed.
I don’t like The Martian (and most hard SF) as much as I used to, because my perspective as a media consumer has changed.

After the kaleidescope turns, you’ll never get the sparkling glass back to the same position. And that’s not always going to be comfortable. On the contrary, sometimes it’s going to feel awful. (Breakups, for example.)

But that doesn’t mean it’s a mistake to grow. To change. To recognize that the things you used to love are not perfect, or not perfect for you.

To be aware of flaws, and adapt to them. Or move on to something new.


* By which I mean people who started reading in 2014. Sibyl Moon hasn’t been around that long.

** Admittedly, devolution was possible in Pokemon Pocket Monsters. Let’s assume we’re in the anime.


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If this post was interesting or entertaining, please consider becoming a patron.

July 19, 2015

Emily Short

The Secret Language of Desire (Megan Heyward)

by Emily Short at July 19, 2015 04:00 AM

SecretLanguageTrimmed

The Secret Language of Desire is an iPad app, enhanced with images and music and sound effects, which tells the story of a woman’s erotic awakening through a series of 27 short vignettes. It is available via iTunes, and will also be shown at the upcoming ELO conference in Bergen.

It’s fully linear: there are no branches in the story, no hypertext links to dig into. Unlike in PRY, there’s very little hidden information to tease out of the interactions, either. In one case, there’s something to uncover that explains the meaning of an intentionally vague and referential bit of text, though I was pretty sure what I was going to find there. This is the exception rather than the rule.

Instead both the text and the interface are concerned with sensual experience. You read about a walk out on the bare ground and then touch the image of a fallen leaf, see it tremble on the page, hear it crunch. You read about an evening out and touch an instrument, which plays the music the character is hearing. You read about a handsome man, then rub at the surface of the screen to reveal a photograph of a man’s torso. Though the text is fairly explicit, the images are less so: we’re exposing well-lit abs here, not communiqués from Anthony Weiner. If the result is not quite Filament Magazine, it is still in service of the (straight) female gaze. For full effect I might have expected the photos to be larger, but on the other hand it was already a bit of work to uncover them, so maybe not.

I think we are meant to experience the touch of the iPad screen as delicate, caressing, pleasurable. It didn’t work quite that way for me – maybe my screen is too old, not silky enough, so that scrubbing at its surface felt like effort? – or maybe something else is at issue. I’ve never gotten around to playing Luxuria Superbia, which might be the obvious point of comparison for haptic sensuality on the iPad screen.

That’s not to say I was wholly unmoved. I think there’s something to be said for illustrating a mostly-text work with individual objects that suggest culture, context, texture, physicality. The cutout images on plain white reminded me a little (though in a very different context) of the illustrations in N.K. Guy’s Six Stories. The leaves reminded me sharply of the smell of eucalyptus that rose from walking around parts of the UCLA campus when I was a child.

I ran into a few issues with the implementation. There’s not a clear interface distinction between on-screen objects that are interactive and those that aren’t, so sometimes I’d tap an object and see it shake or move or drift gently across the screen… and otherwise my tap would land on a picture that was actually static, so it would count as an attempt to wake up the menu bar, disrupting rather than enhancing the experience.

Then, too, the movements are implemented as animations. They play, and then snap back to their starting position. A flower drifts out of frame only to pop back to where it began. It’s a small thing, but a thing that reinforced how little agency I had, how irrelevant were my actions with these items.

Here for instance is a slightly surprising representation of online dating, screenshotted quickly before all those kiss marks faded again.

SecretLanguageTrimmedTwo

What of the story? It was more seriously literary than most of the interactive erotica I’ve covered here in the past. Occasionally this meant a reaching for poetic phrasing for a sexual act that struck me as funny rather than hot – always a danger with this kind of thing – but in general the prose quality and characterization were at the better end of what I’ve encountered in this genre.

I did feel that the ending came a bit abruptly, a happily ever after that didn’t feel entirely justified by the protagonist’s experiences or beliefs up to that point. On the other hand, it was a situation that at least gave the female protagonist significant control over her situation. And – as with a lot of erotica, but especially in this case – it felt like the journey was more important than the destination anyway.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this work.


July 17, 2015

Choice of Games

Champion of the Gods: Will you serve the gods or overthrow them?

by Dan Fabulich at July 17, 2015 05:01 PM

We’re proud to announce that Champion of the Gods, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 40% off until July 24th. In the battle to save your people, will you defy the gods? In an ancient world where myth is reality and fate is relentless, your destiny will lead you to secrets no mortal should ever know. “Champion of the Gods” is a thrilling 217,000-word interactive novel by Jonathan Valuckas, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based–without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by

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New Hosted Game! “Samurai of Hyuga” by Devon Connell

by Dan Fabulich at July 17, 2015 05:01 PM

There’s a new game in our Hosted Games program ready for you to play! It’s 25% off until July 24. Samurai of Hyuga is a brutal, heart-pounding interactive tale. Prepare to enter the land of silk and steel, where fantasy clashes against grim reality, and where the good guys don’t always win in the end. It’s a harsh world with tough choices at every turn. Good thing you’re the toughest ronin around. A bodyguard, an assassin, a savior. Become all those things and more! Will you be able to change your ways and protect those around you? Or will you

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The Digital Antiquarian

A New Force in Games, Part 2: A Habitat in Cyberspace

by Jimmy Maher at July 17, 2015 01:00 PM

Habitat

Shortly before the departure of Peter Langston from the Lucasfilm Games Group, he and Steve Arnold hired one Chip Morningstar as a tools programmer. The latter was coming off a stint spent working for Ted Nelson, a sort of philosopher of information management who had coined the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia” back in the 1960s. Morningstar, who says that “few people could actually work with Ted for more than a day or two without becoming clinically insane,” was initially thrilled to just hunker down making practical tools for game development on the Games Group’s Unix workstations.

But then, on one of his final days at the office, Langston tried to interest everyone in a joint playthrough of his own old multiplayer grand-strategy classic Empire, for the purpose of, according to Morningstar, “getting us to think about alternative modalities of game design.” They all played for many hours and then, with Langston’s encouragement, picked apart what they liked and didn’t like about the experience. Morningstar found he didn’t much like the very thing that seemingly made Empire a game: the cycle of build-up, increasing conflict, and the final triumph of one player — or, more frequently, the final nuclear annihilation of all of them. He would prefer it if “the world was much bigger and the player goals more open-ended.” He wrote up a proposal for an online portal to host a “10,000-player computer game” that showed the influence of Ted Nelson’s visions of networked consciousness as well as the cyberpunk science fictions that he’d been reading a lot of lately — works like True Names by Vernor Vinge and William Gibson’s brand new, seminal Neuromancer. The poetic language he employed in his proposal rather self-consciously echoes Gibson’s own descriptions of cyberspace.

Picture, if you will, a network, an intricate web of knots and threads spanning thousands of miles. The knots are machines, made of silicon, metal, and plastic. The threads are metal wires. It is a computer network. The machines are computers, sitting in homes, schools, and offices across the continent. The wires are telephone lines, tying the hundreds upon hundreds of individual processors into a single, unified whole. At each of these machines sit people. People of all kinds and all ages… they experience the signs and sounds of that which exists only in the wholeness of the web, and in their own minds.

Steve Arnold made a habit of filing away all of the ideas that poured out of his charges, even seemingly outlandish ones like this one. After all, you never knew what might be worth considering if the right partner and/or situation came along.

We haven’t had much occasion to talk about it yet on this blog, but PCs had always been seen by hackers as, amongst other things, tools of communication. One might even say it was in the PC industry’s very DNA. Well before Apple, for instance, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had gotten their start as businessmen by selling “blue boxes” for purposes of “phone phreaking,” hacking the telephone system to make free long-distance calls. (The widespread application of telecommunications technology to illegal activities would also be an ongoing theme of the young industry.) The first modems were available almost as soon as the first PCs, using hardware designs adapted from bigger institutional computer systems.

To say that using a computer for telecommunications was challenging in the early days hardly begins to describe the situation. “Modem” stands for “modulator/demodulator.” It converts data into sound and transmits it over a phone line, the “modulating” part of the process. What sounds like an unholy racket to human ears can be converted — “demodulated” — back into data that a computer can understand by another modem at the other end of the line. A modem monopolized the phone line, meaning that unless you lived alone or could afford to spring for a second line, negotiations on its use with other householders were likely to be tense ones. Once made, modem connections were notoriously unstable. In many areas even the “call waiting” tone resulting from an incoming call would knock you off the line while simultaneously leaving you no way to answer the second call, a useless double whammy if ever there was one. And Modems were slow. A 300-baud modem, for many years the standard, could transmit or receive at about 35 characters per second, meaning a single line of text on an 80-column screen took well over two seconds to print, a full screen of 25 lines almost a full minute.

Assuming you were willing to put up with all these annoyances, whom should you actually call using your computer? The World Wide Web was still many years in the future, the Internet itself largely restricted to users at big universities and other research institutions, discussing esoteric subjects using specialized messaging software. Your realistic options could thus largely be divided into two categories: the so-called computerized bulletin-board systems, or BBSes, and, in time, bigger commercial dial-up services.

The typical BBS operator was a guy not that different from you who had elected to set up a little online presence with a spare computer — or a primary computer when he wasn’t actually using it — and a second phone line. Since these systems usually only had one modem and one phone line, only one user could actually be online at a time. Accessing a popular system was thus generally a matter of setting up a “war dialer,” a program to dial the BBS’s number again and again until the busy signal was replaced with a modem’s answering tone — all the while, of course, tying up your own phone line with the effort. Once online, you could read and post messages and upload and download software, within reason; you didn’t want to be That Guy staying online for hours and blocking everyone else out of the system. Indeed, popular systems often strictly limited your time to make sure that didn’t happen. Many of the BBSes were engines of software piracy. Thanks to phone phreaking, the necessary numbers and techniques for which were also widely distributed on pirate BBSes, pirates could call systems all over the country and the world, while more legitimate users unwilling to spend a fortune in long-distance fees were limited to those in their own hometowns. BBSes, even — especially! — the legitimate ones, were thus by their very nature very limited affairs, bound to a certain geographic area and, with only 24 hours in a day and only one phone line, sharply restricted in how many users they could realistically support. Many old-timers today will tell you that that was a big part of their charm.

Still, there was obvious potential for larger services that could bring more people together. In the late 1970s one Bill von Meister had an epiphany that would establish the model for such services for many years to come. When corporate America shut down for the evening, he realized, millions of processing hours on time-shared institutional computers went unused, as did much of the telecommunications infrastructure that linked all of those machines together. He founded an online service called The Source to take advantage of this excess capacity by essentially selling it to ordinary computer users at home, who could access his system via modem using local phone numbers that served as entrance ramps to normally business-focused packet-switched networks like Tymnet and Uninet. After The Source was announced at a gala event in June of 1979 — special guest/paid spokesman Isaac Asimov was there to declare it to represent nothing less than “the start of the information age” — similar online services began to spring up in considerable numbers, their user counts to climb steadily. CompuServe, the second entrant in the burgeoning field and always the largest and most lavishly promoted, had 5000 subscribers in 1980; 145,000 in 1984; 300,000 in 1986; 460,000 in 1988.

What people did on these services was in some senses mostly the same as what they do on the Internet today. By mid-decade CompuServe offered discussion forums and chat rooms on a huge variety of topics; an online encyclopedia; electronic editions of newspapers and magazines; online banks, stockbrokers, and other financial services; worldwide weather forecasts; online shopping malls, airplane tickets, and hotel reservations; and of course your very own private email address. Games were also popular; amongst the expected slate of traditional board and card games one could find the occasional standout, like CompuServe’s MegaWars, an elaborate and addictive multiplayer strategy game played on a universal scale, not all that far removed from Peter Langston’s Empire. The first accredited online university, called simply The Electronic University, already had 10,000 students by 1985, offering seven degrees from an Associates in the Arts to an MBA. The mainstream media began to publish the occasional skeptical report on a new phenomenon known as “online personals,” noting with shock that some people had supposedly ended up marrying others that they had first met online. Indeed, the amount of sharing that took place online was a constant source of surprise to the unwired. An apocryphal tale made the rounds, winding up eventually even on PBS’s Computer Chronicles program, of a woman who had announced on a chat room that she had had enough, that she was about to kill herself right there and then, only to be talked down from the brink by her interlocutors. Less positively but more inevitably, politicians began to fret about online pornography and child predation, making it an explicit crime to use a computer to traffic in child pornography — it was anyway, but that’s politics for you — with the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act of 1988.

It’s easy enough to see these services, described as I just have in the abstract, as essentially equivalent to the World Wide Web of today. That, however, would be a mistake. I really need to emphasize just how limited and primitive online services of the 1980s were by modern standards. Without the bandwidth to send pictures and with few computers capable of displaying them with any fidelity at all anyway, the online services were made of nothing but text, laboriously transmitted page by page at speeds of 300 or at best 1200 baud. There were no hyperlinks, no mouse support, no color, no sound, no fonts, no page layout, no windows or columns, just walls of slowly printing monospaced monochrome text separated by menu prompts in the form of blinking cursors. And each of these services was a world unto itself: if you signed up for CompuServe, you could only use those facilities that CompuServe offered, could only chat or send mail to other CompuServe subscribers. The interoperability and interconnectedness that define the World Wide Web of today didn’t exist, making your choice of which service to splurge for a fraught one indeed.

Finally, these services were expensive, staggeringly so by modern standards. In 1985 it cost $40 just to sign up with CompuServe, then $6 per hour at 300 baud or $12.50 per hour at 1200 baud during non-business hours. As for usage during business hours, that was so expensive that you didn’t even want to think about it — which was, after all, kind of the point. The other services charged similar rates. Small wonder that avid users devised and shared a multitude of techniques, from command shortcuts for bypassing layers of menus to ways of collecting digests of messages for reading offline, to minimize their time spent connected. And small wonder as well that, despite the services’ steadily increasing user bases, for many years relatively few computer owners had the requisite combination of financial wherewithal and patience to make use of them. At mid-decade it was estimated that less than 5 percent of active home-computer users subscribed to one of the commercial online services, while less than 40 percent of them even owned modems.

Those numbers represented opportunity. That, anyway, was how they were seen by Steve Case, marketing director for a heretofore underwhelming would-be purveyor of telecommunications services called Quantum Computer Services. Case came up with a scheme that would address some if not all of the reasons that most users still stayed away from the big online services. His QuantumLink would work only on Commodore 64s. Rather than using generic text-oriented terminal software, it would be given away as a user-friendly, colorful, point-and-click-driven application that would nevertheless interface with Quantum’s online databases via modem. And, aware that the Commodore market was the most price-conscious in computing, Case made QuantumLink dramatically cheaper than any other service: a flat fee of $10 per month, plus $3.60 per hour for certain “premium services,” whether delivered at 300 or 1200 baud. The scheme did come with its drawbacks, like the fact that major additions to the service would require the mailing of a new disk to every customer, and of course the fact that it would be limited to Commodore users, but on the whole Case believed the advantages would far outweigh the disadvantages.

QuantumLink

Critically, Case was able to convince Commodore themselves to sign on as sponsor and principal investor, making QuantumLink the “official” online service for Commodore owners. QuantumLink “telecommunications starter kits” were soon being inserted into every Commodore modem package, not to mention everywhere else Case could find to stick them. He was determined to make QuantumLink the easier, friendlier online service, suitable for the non-technical. “For the average guy,” he says, “we needed to offer the market something that was a little easier and cheaper and more useful.” Case’s “average guys” would sign up with QuantumLink to the tune of about 50,000 members one year after the service made its debut in November of 1985 — not bad numbers at all for a brand new, platform-specific online service that was starting from scratch.

QuantumLink's point-and-click main menu.

QuantumLink’s point-and-click main menu.

An online chat on QuantumLink

An online chat on QuantumLink.

QuantumLink featured a fairly typical slate of offerings, including plenty of games. The Commodore 64 was after all the premier gaming computer in the country, and the QuantumLink software had actually been built from the remnants of an earlier, failed venture called PlayNet, an attempt to create an online service revolving exclusively around games. QuantumLink’s games were largely inherited from that effort, including old standbys like backgammon, chess, checkers, hangman, and Go, as well as an online casino that dealt in perks rather than money. There were also heaps of public-domain games to download and play offline, plus demo versions of commercial games. Still, right from the outset QuantumLink and Commodore looked for an online game that was newer, bigger, and more exciting, something the likes of which had never been seen before. It was this quest that brought Clive Smith, a vice president of strategic planning at Commodore, out to Lucasfilm Games one day in the summer of 1985, well before the QuantumLink service was planned to actually go live. Smelling a chance to do something unprecedented on someone else’s dime, Steve Arnold pulled Chip Morningstar’s old proposal for a networked virtual world out of his ideas folder. Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, Smith immediately loved it. He quickly secured for Arnold and Morningstar a chance to pitch it in person to Quantum at their headquarters in Vienna, Virginia.

For his presentation, Morningstar dropped all vestiges of an “outer space/conquer the galaxy” type of game like Empire, or for that matter CompuServe’s MegaWars, in favor of a game that “looked kind of funky and suburban,” a “game” in name only that would would ultimately be all about “the social dimension — people interacting with other people.” It was an idea so unprecedented that even its originator had difficulty describing or even completely envisioning it. The closest analogues would be MUDs — “multi-user dungeons,” essentially elaborate online text adventures in the spirit of Adventure and Zork that could be occupied by dozens of players at a time. Yet, while there was certainly a strong social element at play there, most MUDs also placed a heavy emphasis on dungeon-crawling, monster-killing, and leveling-up, whilst taking place in exactly the sorts of fantasy or science-fiction worlds that Morningstar had so definitively rejected. And of course MUDs consisted solely of text, while Morningstar’s world was imagined from the start as a richly graphical environment. Groping for the right vocabulary to describe his ideas, he found himself coining new jargon of his own, some of which has persisted to this day. Most notably, he borrowed the term “avatar” from Hinduism, where it represents a deity’s earthly incarnation. Morningstar used it to describe the onscreen figure that each player — the god in the machine, the deity pulling the strings — would control. That said, her avatar wouldn’t quite be her, at least not all the time, for Morningstar’s world would amongst other things be a space for role play, a space for trying new identities on for size.1 Whatever else you could say about “avatar,” it at least sounded more dignified than “puppet.”

The project, first dubbed Universe and then MicroCosm, was a hard sell. For some months Steve Case and the others at Quantum remained intrigued but uncertain. The contract wasn’t finalized and signed at last until December of 1985, after QuantumLink itself was already up and running. By this time the name had been changed yet again, this time to simply Habitat. Hoping to make a splash, the new partners rented the Palladium, the hottest new nightclub in New York City, to officially announce the project in mid-1986, despite the fact that there was still lots of work to be done before it could possibly go live. “It was quite an anomaly to have this essentially hip nightclub where people dressed in black… and then all these computer geeks showing off their multiplayer computer games,” admits Steve Arnold. “It was a little bit of a mismatch between PR positioning and target audience.”

Habitat

Undaunted, Quantum continued to hype Habitat quite heavily in their advertising. It was perpetually “coming soon,” first in the summer of 1986, then in the fall, then at some undetermined point in 1987. An initial spate of intrigued articles in the Commodore trade press dissipated as the months went by and the project started to look more and more like vaporware. Through it all Chip Morningstar struggled to actually build his monster with the help of a partner, another recent Lucasfilm hire named F. Randall Farmer. Only gradually did it dawn on them just what they had gotten themselves into. Making Habitat come alive was going to be hard. Really hard. Farmer has called the Habitat project the most complicated single thing ever done with a Commodore 64. While he’s hardly unbiased, it’s also difficult to think of a more ambitious rival. To help you appreciate Habitat‘s scope, I’d like to give you a description of the experience it was meant to provide for the player.

Habitat

When you signed up for Habitat, your first task must be to create your new avatar, choosing your sex, your hair color, the shape of your head and your facial features. Your avatar was then given a room of his own to live in, complete with a dresser for storing things and a cat for cuddling. (Yes, dog lovers were out of luck — and no, it wasn’t possible to kill your cat.) You commanded your avatar by moving the cursor about the screen and tapping the joystick button, which yielded a radial menu of four items: “go” (walk to where the cursor points), “do” (manipulate some object or machine to which the cursor points), “get” (pick something up), and “put” (drop something, possibly inside a container). You could, for instance, select “do” over the dresser to open a drawer and reveal its contents, which you could then manipulate via “get” and “put.” Your avatar could normally only carry one thing at a time, but you could use a container, like the handy sack seen in the screenshot above, to carry many more.

The discrete areas, called regions in Habitat terminology, were linked with one another to form a grid or map, like the individual rooms of a text adventure. This, however, was one huge adventure game. There were many thousands of public regions, plus a “Turf Sweet Turf” for every player. By “going” to the door of your home turf, you could access the grand world outside your avatar’s humble abode. It was there that you’d begin to meet others.

Habitat

Due to technical constraints, only six avatars could occupy a region at the same time, but you could communicate with all of your region-mates simply by typing whatever you liked on the keyboard. The text you typed appeared as comic-style thought bubbles over your avatar’s head for all to read.

And that’s largely all you needed to know in order to interact with Habitat. Yet that’s enough to allow for a huge scope of social possibility, a fact of which Morningstar and Farmer were well aware and of which they were determined to take full advantage. Your room contained a telephone with a functioning telephone number other players could use to call you. Likewise, you could call them by looking them up in a virtual telephone book and dialing. If you preferred the dying art of letter-writing, every avatar had a mailbox before her domicile, with a functioning post system for delivering letters. There was a bank; every player got a stipend of 100 tokens every day she logged in, which she could spend as she would. There was a travel agency and resort destinations to which it could send you, stores to buy clothes and gadgets, bars and galleries and theaters. To facilitate large-scale events like plays, concerts, and poetry readings despite the six-avatars-per-region limit, Lucasfilm implemented something called “ghost mode,” which let you peer into a region without your avatar being actually embodied there — ideal for being a passive member of an audience. There was a “teleport” system for getting around the thousands of regions as quickly and easily as possible, and hotels for overnight trips to far-flung corners of the world. For those needing a definite external goal to work toward, an “Oracle” found in a park near the center of the world assigned adventure-game-like quests: “find the mystic orb of Xebop and return it to the Temple of Zak.” But even they were envisioned as social rather than solitary affairs, often requiring multiple avatars to pull off.


Perhaps the most amazing thing about Habitat is that it actually worked at all on a purely technical level, on client machines that Morningstar himself describes as little more than “toys,” with 1 MHz 8-bit processors, 64 K of memory, and an unstable connection running at as slow as 300 baud. The servers that housed this virtual world and managed all of the clients did have a few more resources at their disposal: QuantumLink, and thus Habitat, ran on a cluster of Motorola 68000-based computers built by a company called Stratus. Still, managing a virtual community proved to be far more expensive in both human and computer hours than anyone had anticipated. Lucasfilm’s contract with Quantum called for an environment capable of supporting 20,000 users, with the possibility of scaling it up easily to 50,000 if necessary. By the time the active user base reached 50 employees and insiders, Morningstar admits, Lucasfilm was already starting to feel “over our heads.”

We needed things for 20,000 people to do. They needed interesting places to visit — and since they can’t all be in the same place at the same time, they needed a lot of interesting places to visit — and things to do in those places. Each of those houses, towns, roads, shops, forests, theaters, arenas, and other places is a distinct entity that someone needs to design and create. Attempting to play the role of omniscient central planners, we were swamped.

Morningstar and Farmer nevertheless continued to plug away. In the first weeks of 1988 QuantumLink finally began a public beta test consisting of about 500 players who had been lucky enough to wind up with membership packets containing a special “early-access pass” for Habitat. It’s here that the Habitat story gets really fascinating, as Morningstar and Farmer bring the world’s first massively-multiplayer virtual community fully online. Many of the questions they were soon being forced to address, the situations they confronted, will sound familiar to anyone who’s ever played in Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, or Second Life, or for that matter just read about them. Here, then, are some dispatches from the front of an 8-bit Second Life that lived for just a few months in 1988.


Addiction!

From the bureau of things that never change: some users promptly became addicted, which was a real problem for them given that this was a paid beta test, billed at the usual QuantumLink “premium” rate of $3.60 per hour. Some were soon racking up monthly bills of $200 or more, corresponding to well over 50 hours of play. One managed to hit $1000 in one month, despite warnings sent to his email address at $300 and $600 that he might want to “check out his usage in the billing section.” Horrifying as this was on one level, Lucasfilm and QuantumLink couldn’t help but note that in theory they would only need twenty more users just like him to cover all of their operating expenses and make Habitat profitable.

The One-Percenters

Seeking to make Habitat a believable place, Lucasfilm included richer and poorer areas, discount shops and luxury boutiques with largely the same goods but very different prices. Trouble began when a few players realized that they could actually pawn items in a rich area for more money than it cost to buy them new in a poor. They spent an entire night trekking back and forth, buying low and selling high. By morning they had effectively wrecked Habitat‘s economy, inflating the money supply by a factor of five and making themselves almost inconceivably rich in contrast to everyone else. This nouveau riche began to usurp power for themselves, getting others to do their bidding for trifling (to them) amounts of money, dispensing bread and circuses to the masses in the form of games and treasure hunts. With little outlet for their immense fortunes in spite of all their best efforts to spend them, the superrich ended up establishing a lucrative trade amongst themselves in what became Habitat‘s most ostentatious symbol of conspicuous consumption: custom heads for their avatars.

Robbery! Murder!

Weapons could be purchased in Habitat and player-versus-player conflict was allowed in the so-called “wilderness areas” outside of city limits, although the consequences of “death” were relatively mild: everything the dead avatar was carrying would be dumped onto the ground where she had been standing, and she would then be teleported back to her home turf, once again intact. Of course, it took about five minutes for someone to start randomly shooting people in order to take their stuff. This led to…

Law and Order Must Be Imposed!

The inhabitants decided that a police department must be established, and held elections for sheriff. Inevitably, the guy who won by a landslide was one of the one-percenters, who could afford a campaign on a scale of which the other candidates could only dream. Did someone say something about the role of money in politics?

Christianity Under Siege!

The first virtual church was opened by a Greek Orthodox minister. Those who wanted to join his flock were forbidden from stealing or engaging in any sort of violence. Unfortunately, whenever the minister and his flock weren’t around other players would march in, strip the church bare, and pawn the lot. The minister finally had to appeal directly to Lucasfilm for a special dispensation: a lock for his church.

Family Values

While there is no record of any relationships formed inside Habitat escaping into the real world, there were at least three virtual-world weddings, all taking place in that aforementioned church. Lucasfilm helpfully joined the newlyweds’ turfs together for cohabitation. The first virtual divorce followed the first virtual marriage by just two weeks.

Dangerous Bedfellows

It was possible for players to “sleep over” in other players’ turfs rather than their own, if invited inside. Soon con artists started finagling such invitations from naive players, then logging in while the victim still slept blissfully and absconding with everything in the room.

It’s About Ethics in In-Game Journalism!

A couple of enterprising players founded a newspaper, The Weekly Rant, consisting of as many as fifty pages full of news, fiction, classified advertisements, and announcements (including news of weddings and divorces). Absolutely everyone in Habitat was soon using it as an essential resource until, after a dispute about editorial content — the publisher wanted a shorter newspaper with less fiction — the editor abruptly quit. Habitat felt the loss keenly for all of its remaining days.

Arms Negotiations

For a special area they were creating called “The Dungeon of Death,” two players convinced Lucasfilm to build them special “elephant guns” that could kill another avatar in one shot instead of the usual twelve or so, on the condition that they would use them only in the person of their alter egos “Death” and “The Shadow” who lurked within the dungeon. Embarrassingly, one day while playing Death on loan Randall Farmer himself managed to get himself killed by another player, who promptly scooped up the gun. An ordinary player, unbound by any strictures whatsoever, now had this massively destabilizing weapon in her hot little hands. After threats and negotiations, a deal was struck: 10,000 tokens to buy the gun back. Echoing a thousand Hollywood thrillers, the two parties met on the grounds of Habitat‘s largest public park to make a tense exchange through a neutral intermediary; one can’t help but imagine their respective posses lurking tensely in the bushes all around in case trouble started.


The immediate transplantation of real-world societal structures and, one might say, societal woes into Habitat might be read as depressing. On another level, though, it was a sign that Habitat worked, that it had become a real community. “In a real system that is going to be used by real people,” wrote Morningstar and Farmer later, “it is a mistake to assume that the users will all undertake the sorts of noble and sublime activities which you created the system to enable. Most of them will not. Cyberspace may indeed change humanity, but only if it begins with humanity as it really is.”

In time, Morningstar and Farmer came to categorize the inhabitants of Habitat into five categories that perhaps apply almost equally well to the real world.

The Passive: Easily 50 percent of the number of users fall into this category, but they probably use only 20 percent of the connect time (rough estimates). They tend to show up for events ad-hoc and when the mood strikes. This group must be led by the hand to participate. They tend to want to “be entertained” with no effort, like watching TV.

The Active: This group is the next largest, and made up the bulk of the paying user-hours. The Active user participates in two to five hours of activities a week. They ALWAYS have a copy of the latest paper (and gripe if it comes out late).

The Motivators: The real heroes of Habitat. The Motivators understand that Habitat is what they make of it. They set out to change it. They throw parties, start institutions, open businesses, run for office, start moral debates, become outlaws, win contests.

The Caretakers: The Caretakers are “mature” Motivators. They tend to help the new users, control personal conflicts, record bugs, suggest improvements, run their own contests, officiate at functions, and in general keep things running smoothly.

The Geek Gods: The operator’s job is most important. It really is like being a Greek God from the ancient writings. The Oracle grants wishes and introduces new items/rules into the world. With one bold stroke of the keyboard, the operator can create/eliminate bank accounts, entire city blocks, or the family business. This is a difficult task as one must consider the repercussions of any “external” events to the world. Think about this: would you be mad at “God” if one day suddenly electricity didn’t work anymore? Habitat IS a world. As such, someone should run it that has experience in that area. A Geek God must understand both consistency in fictional worlds and the people who inhabit it.

In the beginning, Morningstar and Farmer tried to micromanage the world, but it quickly became clear that this would be impossible, even with just 500 players. Designing a massively-multiplayer game is a fundamentally different discipline than designing for a single player. A player in a single-player game expects and deserves to have the world revolve around her; a player in a massively-multiplayer game is but one among many would-be heroes. The reality of this difference, a difference which Morningstar and Farmer were amongst the first people in the world to confront, became clear with their first attempt at a large-scale community treasure hunt, the so-called “D’nalsi Island Adventure.” Farmer spent weeks designing and building the quest and the 100-region island that would house its goal, the lost “Amulet of Salesh,” hidden away in a remote, seldom-visited corner of the world. After announcing the quest at a special community meeting held in the county courthouse, Farmer and Morningstar sat back to watch the players go to work, anticipating it would take them some days to return with the amulet. As it turned out, someone found the island within fifteen minutes, then recovered the amulet therein within eight hours. Most players were never even aware that the quest was happening before it was all over.

Clearly, Habitat could not depend on such externally imposed quests, quests which the most knowledgeable and the most powerful were always destined to win. What happened inside Habitat would instead have to be driven by the players themselves. By the time the beta ended, Morningstar and Farmer had shifted their thinking entirely, realizing that the success of this virtual world would depend on them being able to move enough users along each step of the continuum outlined above, from curious but Passive non-participants to Geek Gods who had the competency and the interest to start to play a major role in the underlying workings of the world itself. (One might also say that this is the main goal a real-world society has for each succeeding generation.) From the standpoint of game design, this would prove to be the number-one lesson of Habitat — a sort of transcendence of game design. Morningstar and Farmer made a conscious effort to begin to think more like facilitators than game designers. When players came to them asking for an elephant gun or a church, they asked them what they planned to use it for and, if all seemed kosher, did their best to provide.

And then, just like that, it was suddenly all over. The beta ended and Habitat went dark forever, leaving a million might-have-beens in its wake.  Steve Arnold:

We found that we had pushed the C-64 to its limits, and, if we had to do it all over again — and I’m not trying to insult C-64 owners — we really would have developed the Habitat program on a different system. Once we finished Habitat and really sat down and looked at it, we realized there was a lot more technology needed to do multiplayer gaming — a lot more than we could do effectively on the C-64.

Habitat just didn’t scale well, wasn’t going to work with 20,000 or 50,000 players. In addition to the problems on the client side, Quantum noted that Habitat, even with just 500 players, had already consumed an inordinate amount of processing power on their servers during the beta period. They claimed that trying to deliver a full-scale Habitat would require a massive investment in infrastructure that they just weren’t in a position to pay for.

That said, there were doubtless other factors at play in the mutual reluctance of both Quantum and Lucasfilm to commit yet more resources to making Habitat live for real. They were now well into 1988, and it was becoming clear that the Commodore 64, a computing evergreen for so long, was beginning to fade at last. This reality left neither partner eager to commit more resources to expensive long-range projects for the platform. Lucasfilm was shifting to MS-DOS as their front-line development platform, while Quantum was now pouring most of the revenue they were earning from QuantumLink into new online services targeting other platforms rather than continuing to make major improvements to the old service.

Lucasfilm washed their hands of Habitat in mid-1988 by selling the whole technology package to Fujitsu, who used it to create Club Caribe, a stripped-down environment of a relatively compact 500 regions, on QuantumLink in 1989. It essentially functioned as an amusing chat interface, with most of the elements that made Habitat a real, functioning community stripped away. “Don’t get the idea that Club Caribe is a half-baked attempt to implement a vision that was too far ahead of its time,” wrote one magazine reviewer eager not to lose QuantumLink’s advertising dollars but also not quite willing to completely avoid the truth. That, of course, was exactly what it was, although even as Club Caribe the technology was still more than able to impress those who weren’t aware of the full scope of Chip Morningstar’s original dream. Habitat‘s technology continued to live on to one degree or another in other Fujitsu projects spanning much of the next decade, such as the Habitat Japan that was launched in 1990 and another virtual world called WorldsAway that was launched on CompuServe during that service’s twilight years of the mid-1990s. Yet it wouldn’t be until Ultima Online in 1997 that an online virtual world of quite the same scope and complexity as the original Habitat would be attempted again, and not until Second Life in 2003 that a functioning virtual community of quite the same player-driven character would be dared again. (Second Life also has a more direct connection to Habitat: F. Randall Farmer was a consultant on the later venture.) Such spans are practically millennia in the fast-paced world of computers. Habitat was perhaps doomed to fail from the beginning, but if you’re going to fail you might as well make it a failure for the ages.

QuantumLink, and the Club Caribe to be found within it, persisted as what might be most charitably described as a “legacy service” for a surprisingly long time, not finally going dark until November 1, 1994, just a few days shy of its ninth birthday and after the death of Commodore itself. By that time, however, it was little more than an afterthought for its parent company, now one of the biggest success stories of the nascent Internet boom. After some hiccups in the form of failed AppleLink and PCLink services, you see, Steve Case had finally hit paydirt with America Online, which became the new name of Quantum Computer Services itself in 1991. I’m going to guess that you might have heard of them. If not… well, stick around. We’ll get there.

(Sources: the book Droidmaker by Michael Rubin; Compute!’s Gazette of January 1985, May 1985, March 1986, January 1987, December 1987, and January 1989; Run of August 1986 and November 1989; Commodore Microcomputers of November/December 1986; Computer and Video Games of May 1987. Two episodes of the television show Computer Chronicles, “Modems and Bulletin Boards” from 1985 and “Online Services Part One” from 1987, are pertinent. The Internet Archive gives access to a now-defunct site created by Keith Elkin that was devoted to Habitat. The Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment’s site hosts a Lucasfilm-to-Fujitsu technology-transfer document dating from the summer of 1988 that’s full of fascinating information and insights. Finally, Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer have a website full of still more invaluable information and insights.)


Comments
  1. Richard Garriott applied the same term to a game even earlier than Morningstar, during the development of Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, but his usage applies specifically to the ethical quest that forms the plot of that game: the player’s goal is to become an “avatar of virtue.” The more generalized use of the term in videogames is better attributed to Morningstar, even if Garriott’s usage probably better reflects its real implications in Hinduism. 

July 16, 2015

Stuff About Stuff

Ouch! 3 months since my last post.

by Andrew (noreply@blogger.com) at July 16, 2015 11:30 PM

I've been--sharpening my tools. I hope? I meant to be posting a lot about my IFComp game, and the ideas and humor have been flowing, and I hope everything makes it in. The thing is, I'm putting out my nets, even if I'm doing a bad job of writing new code. I've got a lot of white paper.

As for actual accomplishments? The big news is that I finally moved some projects to GitHub, and the results were immediate. BitBucket has some useful organization, but GitHub's flexibility let me nail down the issues that were important to me.

So I would like to say that, if you have any idea whether creating a source control project is a good idea, even if you only use the issue tracker--it is. And with a source tracker, if you regularly upload, it's even better.



So what's my story? Well, you can see the progress on Stale Tales Slate and Threediopolis.

Part of this was me having more experience and being able to reorganize things, but another was that, between Shuffling Around and A Roiling Original, I forgot which game needed what and fixed stuff in one game but not another. The tags in GitHub are rather nice for that.

The only bad thing is, I wanted to start a new long streak, then yesterday I made a ton of fixes but forgot to push the commits. I had also planned to report a minor bug, but I talked myself out of it. "Inflating numbers." You mean numbers nobody really cares about?

Eh well, I'm starting another streak. And I really do like the nudge the layout grid gives you. It helped me achieve several big wins:

* Tools
** run Inform compilers from the command line, so any changes I make solely to the text can be quickly vetted. Say, if I go out to the grocery store, I can just push a button and compile everything.
** In that same app, I am able to create a true Beta-tester version. The biggest problem I have with the Inform IDE is that it has release vs debug and that's that. I've gotten burned on forgetting to switch "For Beta Testers" to "not for release" and now I can copy my source to another project, mark "beta testing" as "for release" and compile that. It's just a relief, knowing I won't have any risk of that mistake again. I'm prone to silly mistakes. Originally I thought I couldn't put the 2 apps together but then I saw pretty easily how I could. It's in ICL.PL and a bit hardcoded for my computer, but it's been good so far. Take/use/modify ICL as you please. It's in PERL, FYI.
* Stale Tales Slate
** I hit a certain number of poems and job seekers in Shuffling. That number being 1000. This was sort of a mental endurance exercise for me, a "being there." I looked up interesting baby names and then ran them through my anagram matcher (for first and last names) to see about cool names. For the poems, I just slogged through any old nonsense. I remember feeling quite good hitting 100 poems and 100 names. And maybe I pressed to hit 4 digits. But it's a relief and accomplishment to hit it--and I felt one more reason I could move on.
** I finally wrote out reasonable tests for all my random text so it looks right. Again, it was as simple as writing an HTML file, but crossing everything out took time. It was worth it, though. It exposed a lot of annoying but not lethal bugs, and again, it's just a feeling of being relaxed. Roiling will add 4 or 5 random text lists for this release (wish I'd kept track a bit better. I have the R3 source but that's a job) and I think it's about at the end.
** Roiling's hint commands were a bit, err, heterogeneous. I wound up having 2 different code paths for store Y and T regular hinting and for the one-use hint-items, while U/V/P used one. Again, plowing through revealed various small problems and just felt cleaner when done. Yes, I should've done it this way in the first place. But yes, it would've been very tricky. It's fixes like this that make me feel I'm not just re-releasing for vanity, or to avoid any full disaster.
* Threediopolis
** Beta testing revealed that I should use the full-menu option for advanced mode. This looked to be 100 lines of tricky code, til I saw that I could just define a table name as a varaible, so I had (table of normal/table of advanced.) So that was just fantastic. I actually thought of it in the dentist's office, because I needed something to get my mind off the fear. And as so often happens, it helped other random stuff fall out. Two pairs clues that were too similar were broken up & I'm quite happy with the replacements.

Releasing may take time. I would love to work on them during IFComp so I am not worried about reviews & I have something to do. But the problem is, whom do I ask for testing? If they're good testers, it's best for the community that they are playing the IFComp games themselves and hopefully writing helpful reviews! That is a more time intensive, immediate thing.

Overall, there are a lot of important touchups to both Slate games and while some bugs made me groan, none are ultra-critical. I think I can put them on the back burner. But before the new year would be very good.

My next big push on GitHub is to take care of Dirk. There are some obvious features to add beyond writing touch-ups. The features don't feel too hard, and the alternate deaths should mainly fall with a bit of research (read: watching a video on YouTube until I'm almost--gasp--sick of the original game!)

Long term, I would like a new version of Ugly Oafs. The puzzles are still a bit wobbly but I think the GitHub bug organization will help quite a bit. But sadly, I'm not so emotionally attached to that game. It's really quite tough for me. Still, anyone willing to test the hint interface would be doing me a big favor.

Post Position

You Have Been Offered ‘More Tongue’

by Nick Montfort at July 16, 2015 10:10 PM

I just put a new poetry generator up. This one was released in inchoate form at @party, the Boston area demoparty. I’ve finished it, now, writing an HTML page of 2kb that employs JavaScript to generate nonsense poems that I, at least, find rather amusing.

More Tongue (paused)

‘More Tongue’ is available in an expanded version (functioning the same but with uncompressed code and more meaningful variable and function names) which I suggest for just about everyone, since I encourage everyone to study and modify the code, for fun, for art, and so on. If you want to see the 2k version working, that’s there too.

I could have compacted this below 2kb, although I rather doubt I’d have gotten it to 1kb without some major shift in the way the program works. I can see a few inefficiencies in how I put the program together, and while I did turn to some compression resources I didn’t use the famed Minify. I was happy, though, with what the 2kb page does.

I’ll be reading from this in about an hour at Babycastles’s WordHack event, here in Manhattan, during the open mic. Hope to see some of you there.

July 15, 2015

Wade's Important Astrolab

Leadlight Gamma interview on IndieSider #26

by Wade (noreply@blogger.com) at July 15, 2015 03:52 PM

For episode 26 of the video/podcast series IndieSider, the show's host Ken Gagne invited me on to talk about Leadlight Gamma and IF. This episode is out today.

IndieSider's structure is that episodes start with a game overview/demo (about 8 minutes in this case) then the interview plays over gameplay footage (about 30 minutes in this case). Or you can get an all-audio version.

Ken pointed out that I've already talked about making Leadlight per se a fair bit in various media in the past, so the focus of this episode is on porting the game, releasing it commercially and other stuff.

You can watch the video (or get the audio) and peruse episode links on the IndieSider/Gamebits homepage:

http://www.gamebits.net/2015/07/15/indiesider-26-leadlight-gamma/

Or if you're Youtubey, you can watch the vid there:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUbDcvYbkPI

I hope you enjoy your trip through this door.

Thanks again to Ken again for having me.

July 13, 2015

These Heterogenous Tasks

Downfall

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at July 13, 2015 09:01 PM

Downfall is a narrative tabletop RPG for exactly three players, by Caroline Hobbs. The Kickstarter launched today, after over two years in development. Teal deer: you should back and play it because it’s really good at developing and foregrounding interesting culture-oriented settings.

downfall1

A recurring challenge of storygames – particularly when you’re talking about one-shot, GMless games run with no preparation – is that establishing setting is difficult. There are lots of different approaches – from the traditionalist ‘all your players really need to read the 50 pages of setting information that the author wrote’ to ‘make your stories in a familiar genre and mostly rely on shared conventions’ to ‘this game is entirely about setting, and has characters and plotlines only to the extent that they facilitate worldbuilding’. Downfall lies towards the worldbuilding-first end of things, but – unlike Microscope and The Quiet Year  – it doesn’t accomplish this by abolishing persistent player-characters.

To rephrase. A substantial subset of Serious RPGs are, basically, anthropology games: works like Dog Eat Dog, The Quiet Year, Dogs in the Vineyard, Microscope, Shock and How We Came To Live Here are centrally concerned with examining, simulating, creating and inhabiting fictional or fictionalised cultures. Some of them craft a culture for you and let you explore what it’s like to inhabit and interpret it. Some get you to gradually develop a culture over the course of play. Many, many games expect you to come up with a setting from scratch with relatively few tools, then jump quickly to creating a narrative in that world – a narrative can often be undermined because you don’t have a firm enough grasp of how the world works. Downfall is, hands-down, the best game I’ve seen at giving you structured, step-by-step tools to build a culture that doesn’t feel like an off-the-peg genre exercise, is fleshed-out enough to be navigable and intriguing, yet doesn’t take the entire game to set up. It produces worlds that are genuinely unexpected, without requiring any vast leaps of creative brilliance.

radoncanyon

In Radon Canyon, a late-beta game which I played at Go Play NW, we made a society shaped by conformity: a bunch of assimilationist traders who lived in a bridge-crossed canyon, with a technology level that had been stuck at around 1985 levels for generations. They welcomed immigrants, as long as those immigrants were adopted into existing clans and closely followed the conventions of language, diet and dress – particularly the elaborate neon-light-decorated clothing and its shifting fashions.  But they had failed to entirely assimilate the Mirror Folk, an indigenous remnant of an earlier culture that had built giant metal mirrors to cast light into the canyon’s depths.

Like a good number of storygames, Downfall is directed towards failure. The society you build is going to fall apart, and nothing the characters can do will prevent this. There’s strong influence from Polaris, another game about a doomed society: but where the demon-haunted world of Polaris excels at cunning antagonism and lethal bargains, Downfall is more concerned with making a culture that is rich, unique and complicated enough to destroy itself, no demons required. In most Polaris games I’ve played, the setting exists mostly for the sake of the tragic heroes who defend it: you don’t weep for Britain or Camelot, you weep for Arthur. In Downfall the hero is an expression of their society, mostly interesting insofar as they reflect and shape that society.

The society you build – the Haven – is built up from a single cultural value, the Flaw, which both defines and dooms it. (It might be something apparently positive.) Out of this you build, develop and interweave traditions and institutions, elaborating on one another’s contributions. The number of traditions, and the degree to which they’re elaborated, hits a really nice sweet-spot of design. There’s enough to feel that you’ve got a living, breathing world, with everything interrelated; but it avoids overcomplexity – too many weird traditions and you might have trouble grasping exactly how it all fits together. (It can still be tricky, particularly if you come up with a world that has counterintuitive traditions – in a recent game I played, we had a trading culture with a strong cultural bias against imported food.) Just as Microscope is sometimes used as a way of creating a campaign setting with a history that the players are really invested in, I think that Downfall‘s setting-creation technique would be pretty powerful if you wanted culture to be foregrounded more than history.

By the time you start creating characters, you tend to have pretty strong ideas about what the really interesting roles would be in this world. (In Radon Canyon, my group was hopping up and down with ideas by this point.) The Hero wants to protect the society, but embodies some of its contradictions; the Pillar is content with the status quo, while the Fallen plays antagonist, pushing the Hero into conflict with society.

The Hero is unambiguously the centre of the story; but the three major characters get passed around, each player playing them in turn. This means that you need to be very clear about why your current character is doing things, what they feel about them, and what the broad consequences of your actions are; there are formal phrases to request more information about this. The Fallen has the special power to invoke unforseen consequences of the Hero’s actions, in a move akin to the ‘but only if…’ of Polaris or the Perspective’s prediction move in Kingdom.

The other neat mechanic of Downfall is that the state of collapse the society is in is the way in which story progress is tracked. You draw a little triangle; after each scene, one player (I think the Pillar) shades in as much of it as seems reasonable, given what’s going on. This works as a sort of progress bar for the game: the more full it is, the worse things are getting, and when it’s filled up, society has collapsed and the game ends. This is a little like the Crisis track of Kingdom, except that it’s analogue rather than digital; this means that you can pace the game as you see fit, either using it to reflect fictional events (‘wow, that scene really set a lot of stuff on fire; I’m shading in a big fat slice’) or to push them (‘okay, we’ve only got half an hour to play: I’m shading in a big fat slice. Start making things go to hell, people.’)

Downfall is effectively complete, aside from a few details of polish and the actual publishing-and-distribution part, so as Kickstarters go this is low-risk. (Edit: it passed its modest goal on the first day, so this is now effectively a pre-order.)


July 11, 2015

textadventures.co.uk

Squiffy 4 – interactive fiction editor for Windows, OS X and Linux

by Alex Warren at July 11, 2015 04:00 PM

Squiffy 4 is now available. This release brings the editor to Windows, OS X and Linux, so you can now create and edit games offline.

Squiffy for OS X

Squiffy is a simple system for writing multiple-choice interactive fiction. It publishes to HTML so you can upload your game anywhere. The quickest way to see it in action is to check out the documentation, which has a load of live examples – you can see the code and the results in the same place, and play around by editing the examples in the ScratchPad.

With this release, you now have three options for using Squiffy:

The new desktop version of the Squiffy editor takes the web-based editor (created for Squiffy 3) and wraps it up using Electron. It’s exactly the same code, so all future improvements will be available in both the web and desktop versions.

What sort of future improvements? Well, we’re nearly at the end of my Squiffy Roadmap now, but this is just the beginning. Now we have a fairly simple editor across all platforms for what is still a fairly simple system, we can start to flesh out the features a bit. I’d like to add a graphical view showing how a game’s sections and passages connect to each other, and I’ve got various ideas for how the editor could assist you with building a game – making it a one-click operation to add new sections and passages, showing you which sections and passages are empty or missing, etc.

Both the Squiffy Compiler and Squiffy Editor are open source on GitHub:

All feedback, suggestions and pull requests are welcome!


The Digital Antiquarian

Commodore: The Amiga Years

by Jimmy Maher at July 11, 2015 10:00 AM

It was some years ago that I watched The World at War, the 26-episode documentary series on World War II that first ran on British television in 1973. Despite all the revelations of the years that followed its appearance — not least the role played by computing pioneers like Alan Turing in breaking Axis codes and quite possibly saving millions of lives in the process — I still consider it the definitive film history of the war. When I was flipping through the supplementary materials on my DVD set of the series, I was struck by something one of the producers said: that 1973, thirty years after the events in question, was the perfect time to make the series. Enough time had passed that wounds had healed or at least been scarred over sufficiently to give a certain perspective to the many participants in the war who were interviewed for the series, but not so much that they were mostly dead.

I mention that today because Brian Bagnall, a great supporter of this blog, has been doing largely the same thing for the history of Commodore that The World at War did for World War II, and the same absolutely perfect number of years after the actual events in question. No, this history is not of quite the same earth-shattering importance (some of the most hardcore Amiga loyalists might argue about that), but it is important in its own way to preserve these memories now, while we still can. Brian has a Kickstarter in its final days for a book which will chronicle the later history of Commodore and the entire history of the Amiga line. He’s also working on some cool bonuses as well, like a history of Jack Tramiel’s early career and the pre-PET Commodore, including the Atlantic Acceptance Scandal that I at least am dying to know much more about. He’s doing quite well, having already earned several times his minimum goal of $15,000 Canadian. But there are still stretch goals on offer, and more is always helpful on a project like this one. So, please help him out if you happen to have the necessary combination of interest and financial wherewithal. Don’t do it for the children; do it for history! You have four days left.


Comments

July 10, 2015

The Digital Antiquarian

A New Force in Games, Part 1: Fractal Dreamers

by Jimmy Maher at July 10, 2015 02:01 PM

Lucasfilm Logo

There are at least two stories to tell about the way that George Lucas’s Star Wars movies changed the world. One is the tale of the impact the films themselves had on the culture of movie-making and movie-going. For better or for worse, the first Star Wars film ushered out the brief New Hollywood era of auteur-driven American film-making that had followed the collapse of the old studio system in the 1960s, whilst ushering in, with a strong assist from Lucas’s buddy Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the era of the action-packed, escapist blockbuster that still persists to this day. And of course for the nerdier culture of 1980s gaming Star Wars became nothing less than a third great holy text to join Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings, which does much to explain why it keeps showing up around these parts.

Yet there’s also another Star Wars story that’s less appreciated. During the production of the first film and especially when the millions began to pour in after its release, Lucasfilm, Lucas’s production company, forever changed many of the technologies behind media creation and consumption. To say they did so “quietly” would be overstating the case. Some of the names associated with the technological side of Lucasfilm — Industrial Light and Magic, THX, Pixar, Skywalker Sound — are well known to just about everyone. But the actual nuts and bolts of the new developments, even of those pieces that hide behind one of those big names, can be difficult to appreciate for anyone who isn’t a professional working in one of the industries whose practices they revolutionized. I don’t propose to tell the full story of Lucasfilm the technology incubator here. (That’s actually already been done, and much better than I possibly could at that, in Michael Rubin’s Droidmaker.) I do, however, want to tell you about what it meant to the world of computer games. Like a surprising number of things at Lucasfilm, game development just seemed to happen of its own accord, as something the guy who made Star Wars just really ought to be involved in. It wasn’t initiated by Lucas or any of his cronies, but rather by Atari, who came for a visit in 1982, just as both companies were at the peak of their power, wealth, and influence.

That meeting would mark the beginning of Lucasfilm’s direct association with computer games, but their association with computers in general stretches back considerably farther, to the immediate aftermath of Star Wars‘s release and massive success. Made using traditional mechanical, analog techniques — scale models, stop-motion photography, blue-screening, etc. — Star Wars had been an exhausting film to shoot and edit, so much so that it had sent Lucas to the hospital on one occasion with a stress-induced panic attack. With plans already afoot to make many more films in the series, he was naturally eager to find ways of easing the burden of unglamorous, mind-numbing labor that still was film-making of any stripe — much less a special-effects-driven science-fiction epic — in the 1970s. He started collecting talented computer people to help with that process. This collecting was made much easier by the fact that Lucas, who had evinced a visceral loathing for the Hollywood machine since the days when their trade unions had denied him work as a camera operator whilst he was still a student, had chosen to center his film-making operation in Northern rather than Southern California, much closer to Silicon Valley than to Hollywood. He wasn’t much interested in computer-generated graphics in the beginning. For a guy like Lucas, who had never darkened the door of a computer-science department in his life, the notion barely existed. What he really wanted was a way to do optical printing — the overlaying of separate shots onto one piece of film — more easily and without the degradation that resulted from analog techniques; a replacement for the huge, hot, noisy machines that editors had to use in conjunction with razor blades, glue, and thousand-page notebooks to — literally in those days — cut movies; an easier way to mix sound; even a good accounting system to keep track of all his millions. The people he found to help with all that and much more would set the world on the path to a digital revolution in filmmaking, creating amongst other things the predecessors to modern digital-compositing software and video-editing programs.

More relevantly to our purposes today, however, his dragnet also scooped up some of the best pure computer-graphics minds in the country — people like Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, the eventual co-founders of Pixar. Soon joining them was one of the pioneers of fractal graphics, Loren Carpenter, whom they lured away from of all places Boeing after he brought down the house at the 1980 SIGGRAPH computer-graphics conference with the short film you see below.


Brilliant as they were, the little Lucasfilm Graphics Group that coalesced around Catmull, Smith, and Carpenter didn’t often have a lot to actually do in those earliest years. The second Star Wars movie, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, made no use of computer-generated imagery. Raised on traditional film-making techniques, Lucas could see the value of other new computer-based technologies that made things like editing and compositing easier, but wasn’t quite sure what to make of images that were born inside a computer. And so, like a number of research groups at Lucasfilm, Graphics tinkered away in benign neglect, refining their techniques and waiting for their big break, showing up at the occasional conference with something amazing, which prompted a steady buzz in magazines like Byte about the groundbreaking things that were apparently happening somewhere within the secret bowels of George Lucas’s Star Wars empire.

Their big break ironically came not from Star Wars but from that other big science-fiction franchise Star Trek. Industrial Light and Magic had been hired by the producers of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to do many of the special-effects shots for that movie. This they mostly accomplished using their traditional models, composits, and stop-motion photography. But there was one big effect, an animation illustrating a terraforming “Genesis device” on an in-film computer screen, that stumped them.  The script read simply, “And then the planet transforms… EFX sequence here.” It amounted to a creative blank slate for the Graphics Group to show the world what they could do — or perhaps to show just one man. “This is a sixty-second commercial to George Lucas,” Alvy declared, “to show him what he’s got.” They threw it all in: fractals, 3D modeling, texture mapping, fluid animation. Steven Spielberg, who tended to drop by the Graphics Group far more often than Lucas, loved it, saying it was a “great time to be alive” in a world that had such wonders; Star Trek II producer Harve Bennett was elated; Lucas himself called it a “great camera shot,” which by his laconic standards was gushing praise. Released in June of 1982, Star Trek II became in a sense Pixar’s public debut, thirteen years before Toy Story. Lucas was impressed enough to give Graphics some work to do on the third Star Wars film, 1983’s Return of the Jedi, although they weren’t given the opportunity to make any showstoppers like their Genesis sequence. Undaunted, a prescient Catmull insisted, “We’re going to be making entire films this way someday. We’ll create whole worlds. We’ll generate characters, monsters, aliens. Everything but the human actors will come out of computers.”


In the meantime, there were suddenly games. It was when the Graphics Group had just finished the Genesis sequence that Atari came to their nondescript offices in San Rafael, California, for a visit. Flush with even more cash than Lucasfilm at the time, Atari had quite a variety of research projects in progress, even if they would prove remarkably awful at turning them into finished products to supersede the aged Atari VCS games console. Thus it was natural for them to want to visit another company’s cutting-edge graphics research facility and see what they were up to. The two companies were hardly strangers; Atari had just released a licensed VCS game based on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas’s hit cinematic collaboration with Spielberg.

What Atari saw in San Rafael blew them away. The delegation bombarded the bemused Catmull, Smith, and Carpenter with a million questions about how their stuff worked and, most importantly, how it might be adapted to videogames. Only Carpenter showed any real interest at all in such an endeavor. They were used to working on big workstations and minicomputers, not primitive micros, which they viewed with a certain contempt, dubbing their programmers mere “bit twiddlers.” They had high standards for their visuals: their graphics had to be good enough not to look out of place projected on a huge movie screen surrounded by other imagery shot on pristine 35-millimeter film. Their greatest enemies were what they called the “jaggies,” visibly blocky, pixelated areas that tended to lurk at the margins of what should be smooth, flowing curves. While the jaggies could be held at bay using the state-of-the-art, processing-intensive anti-aliasing techniques that the Graphics folks had spent years developing at Lucasfilm and elsewhere, those techniques weren’t much applicable to an 8-bit games console. Catmull and Smith at least wanted no part of that action; Carpenter was intrigued but also ambivalent, certainly not willing to entirely give up his film work for a game project.

Yet Atari persisted. Even Manny Gerard, the Warner Brothers executive who had orchestrated that company’s purchase of Atari, got involved, saying that “we ought to be in business” with Lucasfilm’s Graphics Group. Finally Atari offered to flat-out give Lucasfilm $1 million to set up a Games Group, for the products of which Atari would receive “right of first refusal” as publisher. An offer like that was hard to refuse. The deal was announced at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1982. “We’ll be developing new forms of electronic entertainment,” said an excited Atari, “and the term ‘electronic entertainment’ is carefully chosen.” Don’t, in other words, just call them yet more videogames. Lucasfilm and Atari would continue to work hard to cultivate this rarefied image of Lucasfilm Games as artists of interactivity rather than mere game programmers over the months and years to come.

Had Atari not so aggressively forced their hand, one might be tempted to characterize the whole undertaking as something of a bait and switch on the part of Lucasfilm; no one currently in that Graphics Group whose work had so impressed Atari was earmarked to start working full-time on games. Still, the initial organization of an entirely new Games Group was tossed into the lap of the Graphics Group’s Ed Catmull, who found a fellow named Peter Langston at a Wall Street law firm to head it. Langston was a Unix hacker from way, way back who in 1971 had written Empire, an elaborate multiplayer strategy game played on a global scale, a forerunner to Civilization and other games of its ilk. (A later offshoot of the original game was even named Civilization.) An accomplished musician, he was very interested in the application of music theory to computers and vice versa and was, in the judgment of Catmull, just a visionary “star” in general, the perfect guy to take Games off his hands. When Langston, who was quite happy in New York, proved reluctant, Catmull continued to sweeten the deal, going so far as to offer to fly him back to New York for a couple of weeks out of every month if he liked. It was, once again, an offer that was hard to refuse. Catmull got his guy, and with a sigh of relief turned his attention back to film graphics.

Peter Langston surrounded by typically artsy trappings in his office.

Peter Langston surrounded by typically artsy trappings in his office.

Langston was an unusual choice for leader and administrator, a conceptual rather than an altogether practical thinker with a somewhat dreamy disposition. Working at the unhurried pace that would be typical of the young Games Group, he put a little team together to join him. He held the zap-em blast-em world of typical videogames in little more regard than did his colleagues in Graphics, and thus purposely avoided programmers with a lot of experience in the industry; he was after people like him, people who were “a little bit visionary.” He hired one David Fox because he admired Computer Animation Primer, a book Fox had recently written for which he had actually met and interviewed many members of the Graphics Group. It took him weeks more to settle on a very eager David Levine as a third team member. His biggest claim to fame was having designed the first add-on graphics board for the original Altair kit computer, which Langston thought was great. However, he’d also already done quite a lot of videogame programming, which maybe wasn’t so great. In the end Langston decided to give him a shot in spite of his surfeit of experience. A fourth employee, Charlie Kellner, late of the Apple Macintosh development team (another musician, he had programmed the pleasant little beep the Mac made at startup), would arrive still later. Like Graphics and many other teams benefiting from the Star Wars millions inside Lucasfilm at the time, Games walked a shadowy, largely unsupervised line somewhere on the intersection of a pure research group and a commercial proposition expected to deliver actual, tangible products. Certainly Games was nothing like the quickie projects being started by many other big companies to cash in on the videogame fad. Nor would they try to trade on the Star Wars name. In fact, they wouldn’t even be allowed to make Star Wars games.

Whilst negotiating with 20th Century Fox the deal that would lead to Star Wars, George Lucas had made perhaps the shrewdest business move of his career: he’d convinced the Fox executives to let him retain merchandising rights. He then turned around and licensed rights to make Star Wars “toys and games” to Kenner Products. At a time when videogames still largely meant Pong, everyone interpreted “games” in this context to mean board games, which would be issued by Kenner’s subsidiary Parker Brothers, whose stable already included family perennials like Monopoly, Risk, and Clue. When videogames exploded a year or two later in the wake of Space Invaders (whose popularity was itself fed by Star Wars and the craze for all things science fiction that it engendered), Parker Brothers found themselves gifted with a golden goose for the ages, as was amply proved when they released an Atari VCS cartridge based on The Empire Strikes Back that spent many months in the top ten. The Star Wars videogame-licensing rights would be a complicated tangle for years to come, involving not only Lucasfilm and Parker Brothers but also Atari, whom the partners agreed to allow to make standup arcade games and eventually console and computer games of their own under the name. (One way or another, everything involving videogames in the early 1980s always seemed to come back to Atari.) The end result was a circular tangle the likes of which only corporate America could create. Lucasfilm, the owner of Star Wars, had a games division that wasn’t allowed to make Star Wars games, while Atari had such a license thanks to kicking some money back to board-game manufacturer Parker Brothers, but had to create those games in-house, even though they’d just paid Lucasfilm $1 million to set up the aforementioned games division for the purpose of making games for them. The upshot, however, was simple: no Star Wars for Langston, Fox, and Levine, nor for that matter for any of the others that would join them over the course of the rest of the decade. Many who were at Lucasfilm Games during this period have since remarked on  what a blessing in disguise this really was, forcing the developers as it did to come up with original game concepts, original game fictions.

Even if they were barred from working directly with the Star Wars intellectual property, it was a damn good gig just to work for Lucasfilm, flush with cash, with all of the best equipment, with few or no hard deadlines, and right there on the close periphery of where the movie magic happened. If George Lucas himself seldom poked his head in the door, there was every day the possibility that he would. And there were other famous faces who were a more common sight, like Steven Spielberg, who spent quite some hours in between Industrial Light and Magic effects shots for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom camped out in the Games Group’s offices playing the Star Wars standup arcade machine Atari had been kind enough to send them. One day Spielberg recruited the team to become the screams of dying bad guys in Temple of Doom. Whatever else competing games studios might offer, they couldn’t offer experiences like these.

Of course, being constantly in the shadow of Star Wars and Indiana Jones could also be exhausting in its own way. David Fox tells the story of attending an early trade convention where a showgoer, excited by the games on offer, for once failed to make the connection, asking what else Lucasfilm had made: “I said, ‘We made the Star Wars films.’ Watching the look on his face was hilarious as he made the connection. And it was nice for once to not be in the shadow of the films!”

As for what they were actually working on in those early days… well, that wasn’t always entirely clear, at least for those looking in from the outside. They had unilaterally decided quite quickly not to develop their first games for the technologically antiquated Atari VCS games console, as Atari had anticipated, but rather to target the Atari 8-bit line of home computers and the new, more advanced Atari 5200 console that had largely the same internals as those computers — this even though neither platform was selling in anything like the quantities of the old VCS. Langston pronounced himself “amazed” when his research into the ways that games were typically made for home computers revealed most developers to be working “in a basement on a system with too little memory, too few floppy disks, no reasonable way to make a backup, and few if any debugging tools.” Determined to change all that, the trio spent months on an elaborate development system which ran on their big DEC VAX minicomputer. Conceptualized largely by Langston himself, it allowed them to write code in a LISP-like script, compile it, download it to an Atari 8-bit machine, and debug it as it ran there from their terminals. Similar systems, eventually capable of compiling down to a whole range of other microcomputers, would remain the core of the Games Group’s development methodology for years to come.

Ballblazer

Ballblazer

Their efforts to create actual games slowly coalesced around two projects, both of which had started as “throwaways,” learning exercises to work the kinks out of their development system and help the team gel. (That very description says much about Peter Langston’s academic style of management, and why Lucasfilm’s own management would in time start to find it kind of infuriating.) David Levine’s baby Ballblazer was the more artsy of the pair, a surreal 3D soccer game played between opposing spacecraft, with realistic if otherworldly physics and, most impressively, jazzy generative music provided by Langston that’s sometimes been compared to that of John Coltrane. The music was created using fractal algorithms pioneered by the Graphics Group that just seemed to be in the air in those San Rafael offices. Speaking of which: David Fox’s Rebel Rescue got a huge assist from Loren Carpenter, the only real games fan in the Graphics Group, who helped him to implement an admittedly jaggies-replete fractal landscape for his more grounded game that cast the player as a futuristic search-and-rescue pilot, trying to rescue downed pilots from a planet’s surface and bring them back to the mothership whilst fighting off hordes of invading aliens that are still swarming the atmosphere. Deciding they might as well have a sense of humor about the thing, they decided to call these aliens the Jaggies. Rebel Rescue would actually have made a darn good Star Wars game; its inspirations, including not only the name itself but also the X-Wing-like spacecraft you fly and the pilots you rescue in their distinctive orange flightsuits, are pretty hard to deny.

George Lucas, for whom games held little personal appeal, sat down with his Games Group exactly once during their first couple of years of existence. And yet his single visit had a huge impact on Rebel Rescue. The little team, idealistic as they were, took pride in the fact that both of their games were basically nonviolent. In Rebel Rescue you could avoid the enemy aliens or, if you were skilled, trick them into flying into mountains, but you couldn’t shoot at them. “Where’s the fire button?” Lucas asked. Fox explained. “Is there no shooting because of gameplay reasons or philosophical reasons?” Philosophical. “Great. Put in a fire button. I want to shoot at things.” It was also Lucas who suggested what would prove to be Rebel Rescue‘s second most memorable feature after the fractal terrain itself: some of the downed pilots are aliens in disguise, whom you have a split-second to zap before they kill you. This was deliberately left out of the game’s manual, thus nearly giving many players a heart attack when it first happened a few levels in.

Even as the team tinkered away with Ballblazer and Rebel Rescue, the Great Videogame Crash of 1983 was happening outside their ivory tower. Nevertheless, at year’s end the Games Group at last delivered working prototypes of both games to an Atari who had declared themselves bloodied but determined to fight on, who were “going to reignite the consumer’s love of videogames.” Just weeks later the Games Group was horrified to see their babies spreading like wildfire across the worldwide network of pirate BBS systems. It seemed that someone at Atari hadn’t been able to resist sharing these cool new games with a friend or two, and the thing had just exploded from there. Soon copies of the games started to show up for sale in flea markets and the less scrupulous software shops, decked out in homemade packaging invented by enterprising quick-buck artists. A still buggy Rebel Rescue in particular seemed to be in the collection of every Atari 8-bit owner on the planet, one of the most popular games on the system. Lucasfilm and Atari had a hit on their hands, but it was a hit they weren’t getting paid for. It was questionable whether Langston and his idealistic cohorts were more upset about the potential purchasers it was costing them or the fact that the games everyone was playing weren’t finished yet.

Most of the Lucasfilm Games Group, mid-1984: Charlie Kellner, David Levine, Peter Langston, David Fox, Loren Carpenter (visiting from Graphics), Gary Winnick

Most of the Lucasfilm Games Group, mid-1984: Charlie Kellner, David Levine (seated), Peter Langston, David Fox, Loren Carpenter (visiting from Graphics), Gary Winnick

Lucasfilm was understandably less than thrilled at Atari’s failure to protect their games. Atari, however, was also less than thrilled with Lucasfilm. It had now been eighteen months since their $1 million investment and, especially in light of their straitening financial circumstances, they wanted to see some finished, polished games in return. They were particularly unhappy that the Games Group had failed to deliver on a promise to give them something ready to show at the 1984 Winter CES. By now Lucasfilm management as well had decided that something had to give. In January of 1984, they hired one Steve Arnold to join Peter Langston as an awkward sort of co-manager. Arnold came from Atari, where he had been responsible for the Atarisoft line of ports of standup-arcade games to home computers, one of the few financial bright spots at the company during 1983. He’d rolled out an astonishing 49 separate conversions in five months as head of Atarisoft, so he certainly knew how to ship product. But a few Lucasfilm higher-ups wryly noted that his best qualification could be his PhD in psychology, or perhaps the time he’d spent years before as program director at a boy’s camp. Hopefully he could find a way to make the unruly Games Group toe the line without spoiling what made them unique in the first place. Also coming aboard around this time were two more team members. One was Noah Falstein, an established videogame designer and programmer late of Williams Electronics, where he’d worked on standup arcade games like SinistarThe other was the Games Group’s first full-time visual artist, a veteran commercial artist named Gary Winnick.

Rescue on Fractalus

With these new, somewhat more practical-minded additions, the Games Group did indeed start making progress more quickly; the new can’t-miss-it deadline promised to a still skeptical Atari was now Summer CES in June. Rebel Rescue was renamed Rescue on Fractalus! largely for legal reasons, to make it clear that it was not (officially) a Star Wars game despite the Lucasfilm logo on its box. The folks at Industrial Light and Magic built and photographed model spacecraft for the boxes, designed and built a cockpit model for the “Valkyrie” fighter the player flew in Rescue on Fractalus!, and even made flightsuits for the entire development team to wear in a grand photo spread. David Fox got to play the starring role, as a weary pilot trying to straggle home in his battered Valkyrie on the back of the Rescue on Fractalus! box. The whole effort cost at least $30,000. Yes, working for the company that made Star Wars did have its perks.

Final versions of both games, complete with packaging, were delivered to Atari well before the latest deadline. Lucasfilm held a lavish press conference to unveil them in May, presenting the games via slick videos created with the aid of professional voice actors and Lucasfilm’s general movie-making know-how.


A beleagured Atari determined to press on (or still in denial) came to Summer CES with a new slogan: “The Day the Future Began.” The “Atari-Lucasfilm” games got a very positive response from press and public alike, and the partners put on the final touches for a July release. Yet practical questions still surrounded them. The Atari 5200 console had proved to be a flop, had already been discontinued, while Atari’s line of 8-bit home computers was still on the market but overshadowed by the cheaper Commodore 64. Meanwhile Atari themselves were still in financial free fall. And then, overnight, everything changed once again.

On July 3, 1984, Warner Communications announced that Jack Tramiel, late of Commodore, was buying Atari’s home-videogame-console and home-computer operations, surprising no one more than the people inside Atari who suddenly had their company sold out from under them. Looking on from the outside as Tramiel axed employees by the thousands in the weeks that followed, the Games Group wondered if July 3 should be called “The Day the Future Ended.” No one seemed to quite know in the midst of all the chaos where it left the Lucasfilm/Atari partnership. Tramiel himself didn’t seem to know much about their companies’ agreement and didn’t much seem to care. Atari 5200 versions of the games were released, powered by the inertia of processes that had already gotten started before the buyout, but to little promotion and predictably few sales on the already dead and buried console. And so Steve Arnold set off to try to free the games from Atari’s exclusive clutches. He returned from his one and only meeting with Tramiel with a less than positive personal impression, saying that the latter reminded him of no one so much as Jabba the Hutt of Return of the Jedi fame. Sure enough, pictures of the two were soon hanging up around the offices of a very frustrated Games Group: “The Hutt Brothers: Jabba, Jack.” (Poor Jack just couldn’t win; the common comparison inside Atari itself was to Darth Vader.) But in this one case at least Tramiel’s bark was worse than his bite. Busy with other legal battles and the travails of rebooting Atari, he let Lucasfilm move on.

Arnold settled on Epyx as publisher out of a crowded field of suitors, signing a four-game deal that was announced with considerable fanfare at Winter CES in January of 1985. Ballblazer and Rescue on Fractalus! became widely available for purchase at last shortly thereafter. These, the Games Group’s first actual products (give or take those half-baked Atari 5200 releases), had taken two-and-a-half years to come to fruition, an eternity in an era when most videogames were still churned out in a matter of a few months.

Thankfully for the Lucasfilm brass, it looked likely that the next games wouldn’t be so long in coming. Peter Langston had bowed out at last in the fall of 1984, taking with him his rather abstract approach to game development and freeing Arnold to continue to refine the Games Group’s operations along more practical lines. And there was suddenly plenty of practical work to do. No longer beholden to Atari, they were now free to port Ballblazer and Rescue on Fractalus! from the fading Atari 8-bit line, every owner of which seemed to already have them anyway thanks to the leaked demo versions, to stronger platforms like the Commodore 64, where they ended up selling far more copies. Rescue on Fractalus! in particular became a hit, not a blockbuster and certainly not enough to justify the time and money poured into it absent Atari’s initial $1 million beneficence, but a solid piece of groundwork that established Lucasfilm Games as a maker of classy but accessible action fare. If it seemed just slightly underwhelming in light of the years it had been in production and all of the flashy promotion that surrounded it — seemingly every magazine in the industry published a big Lucasfilm Games feature article around this time; such was the cachet of the house that Star Wars had built — well, just about any game realizable on an 8-bit computer would have. It didn’t help that the year that had passed between the leak of those demo versions and the arrival of the finished games on store shelves had allowed lots of other programmers to start experimenting with fractal graphics, making Rescue on Fractalus! look far less revolutionary than it otherwise would have.

The next two games were very much designed to build on the technical as well as the commercial groundwork laid by the first two; both started with the graphics engine from Rescue on Fractalus!. Designed by Charlie Kellner, a newcomer who had been hired just before Langston left, The Eidolon had the player piloting a machine through networks of underground tunnels inside the protagonist’s own mind — fractally generated, naturally — full of dangerous “guardians of the id.” Koronis Rift hewed still closer to Rescue on Fractalus!: this time you were flying above an alien-infested, fractally-generated planet trying to collect technological relics rather than downed pilots. Both were once again well-reviewed when released in late 1985 after comparatively reasonable one-year development cycles, going on to sell modestly well, if not to match the sales of Rescue on Fractalus!. In the span of 1985 the Games Group had increased their catalog from zero to four solid action games, one of them a genuine hit, and were now largely self-sustaining.

At the same time, though, a slight sense of underachievement clung to the Games Group, who had failed to completely deliver either the revolutionary gameplay experiences for which Peter Langston had been hired or the blockbuster sales figures one might expect from the company of Star Wars. They were still something of an odd duck in the industry, their huge cachet still largely based on that name on their boxes rather than the actual contents of the disks therein. Yet, even after Peter Langston’s departure, the sense of artistic idealism he’d worked so hard to engender remained alongside Steve Arnold’s determination to actually ship games on a semi-regular basis. “I think in general we’ll be moving away from the concept of games,” said Kellner shortly after the release of The Eidolon and Koronis Rift, echoing some of the verbiage Atari and Lucasfilm had used when first announcing the new venture three-and-a-half years before. “We’re trying to produce an experience that’s like being part of a film, rather than just being part of a game.” The fact that they were still having to promise to move beyond mere “game” in the future could be read as an admission that visionary software had proved to be a bit more difficult to develop than expected. On the bright side, their next project would be by far their most audacious and, yes, visionary yet.

(Sources: the book Droidmaker by Michael Rubin; Byte of March 1984; A.N.A.L.O.G. of August 1984, April 1985, August 1985, March 1986; Antic of August 1984, December 1985; Commodore Power Play of August/September 1986, October/November 1986; Compute!’s Gazette of August 1985; Compute! of August 1982, November 1982; Creative Computing of March 1982; Enter of September 1984; Family Computing of August 1986; Game Developer of December 1994; K-Power of September/October 1984; Zzap! of February 1986, March 1986; Retro Gamer 27, 44, 116; the website LucasFans, now available only via the Wayback Machine; Peter Langston’s paper on the early Games Group’s development system, available from his website.)


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