Codename Cygnus is interactive radio drama: there are voice-acted scenes with music and sound effects. The premise is that you’re a secret agent, and you can download several missions; each mission is itself divided into smallish episodes, so when you start something, you’re not committed to a long session. It’s highly genre-determined, trope-y stuff, where you’re meeting bad guys with foreign accents across a gaming table, or slipping truth serum into someone’s drink.
Periodically the narrator asks you which of two options you’d like to pursue in order to continue your mission, with specific keywords for you to speak (“Athletic? Or Clever?”). You can either speak the next word or tap the option on-screen, but the system is designed so that you can play entirely hands-free, without holding or looking at your device. As with Choice of Games titles, your actions may determine character stats rather than causing immediate narrative branching; and in fact in Codename Cygnus a lot of your choices (“Athletic / Clever?” “Hostile / Charismatic?”) are explicitly asking which of your stats you want to use and enhance. Because you’re not viewing the text, the screen consists purely of a stats readout, plus controls to scrub or replay audio sections you’re currently listening to. It’s simple but attractive.
I tried playing the game both ways — by speaking commands and by tapping them — and I found I liked giving spoken commands more than I expected to. It felt more involving than just tapping buttons, but not as cumbersome as trying to type on a mobile device. As with the IF Comp game Caroline that required you to type out one of several options, I felt a greater responsibility for the choices I was making because of the selection mechanism, even if I was still working from a small menu.
While I’ve played several episodes, I haven’t exhausted all the content in the app, so I can’t speak for everything. However, during the portions I saw, the interactivity seemed to be primarily performative. You could choose one of two ways of doing a particular action (and I never encountered a three-way choice here), but either way, your decision would always work out and the plot would always roll forward along the same track. Occasionally there were some callbacks to your previous decisions, but that was mostly it, as far as I could tell.
For some players the lack of diegetic agency would be a negative, but I found I didn’t mind: with the radio-play quality of the rest of the story, contributing within a predefined role felt about right; likewise, because it is all audio and has to be experienced in realtime, I think it would be cumbersome to do the kind of replay and node exploration one tends to do with gamebooks and some classic CYOA. This structure feels about right.
Multi Path Audio: Books is a free app with stories implemented as in-app purchases — though currently only one story, “The Purple Island Glow-Grubs”, is available and it can be “purchased” for free. So there’s a monetization strategy in place here, but playing all the app’s available content will not currently cost you anything.
Multi Path Audio is the least polished of these apps, in several dimensions. I appreciate that the audio is meant to be the point of this experience, but the interaction screen is ugly and confusing. The narrator is an enthusiastic reader, but moves a bit too fast sometimes. Meanwhile, the story begins with a rather long-winded set of explanations (read aloud) about how to change your game settings; once you’re past that, the prose is of the Enthusiastic Amateur variety cluttered with adjectives and adverbs. The plot wanders from incident to incident in a disorganized fashion that doesn’t come together (at least in my playthrough) into any particular arc, and the story features a comedy wizard named Devin who uses his spells to do dance moves and teen pranks. A key combat moment is punctuated by fart sounds.
As with other examples, each piece of narration ends with an explicit choice (“Do you ‘attack’, or do you ‘stay here’?”) and you must speak the correct keyword (“Attack”) in order to proceed. Once or twice it had trouble parsing my input, but it mostly worked.
So: this feels to me like a labor of enthusiasm, and they clearly put a bunch of effort into getting all the story passages recorded; and it looks like the basic functionality is there to do workable audio CYOA apps, if they got a) a UI designer and b) better writers. Right now, though, it’s way too clunky for the App Store context, and the story on offer is hard to recommend as a piece of interactive narrative.
Mayday: Deep Space is an audio adventure that has you responding to a distress call from a damaged spaceship, guiding the caller through corridors still occupied by some kind of attacker. As in the IF classic Fail-Safe, any miscommunications between player and game can be blamed on a poor comms link; it’s easy to explain why the player has only a limited range of perceptions and options, too, because any information has to be relayed through this third party and the map data sent over by some sort of diagnostic system.
Unlike Codename Cygnus or Multi Path Audio, Mayday is not designed to be played by someone sitting back with their hands off the device, however. There’s important information on-screen, and you have to hold down a button any time you want to use the communicator. You’re allowed to see a map of the ship, the position of the person who called you, and the positions of alien attackers; you command him with instructions like GO LEFT and RUN and STOP. Timing was a challenge for me at first, until I realized that voice commands are executed when as you stop holding down the communication button — so if you have a sticky thing you need to time, you can give the command, then release the button at just the right moment.
There were some good aspects to this: at one point I managed to get my guy trapped in a hallway between two approaching monsters and I had no recourse other than to sit there and watch them triangulate on him while he yelped in terror into my earpiece. And there are rooms that aren’t strictly necessary destinations, but where you can learn a bit more story by making the other guy explore (though watch out for traps, obviously).
On the other hand, the strictly-navigation gameplay means that this is quite a different experience from the others. It’s really not CYOA per se — there aren’t discrete decision points most of the time, and sometimes you’re just saying “Stop. Walk. Stop.” over and over. I also died (or, er, killed off my rescuee) and had to pop back to save points sometimes — a totally standard thing for a shooter level, but it made for some not really thrilling replay. I also didn’t see any way to play it without the audio-input aspect, which meant that I had fewer situations where I could play it than the other games.
Still, the production values on this are very slick, and it’s its own kind of thing.
See also: Home Sweetie-Bot Home (Jacques Frechet), a freeware parser IF game that accepts voice input.
When I was analysing the structures of CYOA works a few years back, I began to recognise some strong recurring design patterns. I came up with some home-brewed terminology, but didn’t ever lay it out in a nice clear way. This is a non-exhaustive look at some of the more common approaches, somewhat-updated (a lot has changed since then).
I should stress that these aren’t discrete categories: while a lot of works will fall very straightforwardly into a single pattern, many will involve elements of multiple patterns. (And yes, I’m aware that you can often simulate one using the mechanics of another. That’s mostly beside the point.) Also, the example diagrams I’m using are smaller and simpler than would be likely in actual works.
Time Cave. A heavily-branching sequence. All choices are of roughly equal significance; there is little or no re-merging, and therefore no need for state-tracking. There are many, many endings.
Effects: The time cave is the oldest and most obvious CYOA structure. It is often good for narratives about freedom and open possibility, adventures that could go anywhere, flights of fancy. Time caves tend to have relatively short playthroughs, but strongly encourage replay: they are broad rather than long. Even with multiple playthroughs, most players will probably miss a good deal of the content.
The time cave’s structure is both organised by chronological progression and detached from it. It’s ungrounded by regularity: possibility is so open that it often becomes fantastic or surreal, with different branches occupying wholly different realities. The player has velocity but little grasp, vast freedom but little ability to comprehend it.
Gauntlet. Long rather than broad, gauntlets have a relatively linear central thread, pruned by branches which end in death, backtracking, or quick rejoining. The Gauntlet generally tells one anointed story, which can be adorned with optional content or prematurely ended with failure; if there are multiple endings, they’re likely to derive from a Final Choice. Gauntlets rarely rely on state to any great extent (if they do, they are likely to evolve into a branch-and-bottleneck structure.)
Effects: The player is likely to realise that they are on a constrained path, but the presentation of side-branches matters a great deal – do they mean death? incorrect answers? travel back in time? blocked paths, or mere scenic details? Most often, the gauntlet creates an atmosphere of a hazardous, difficult or constrained world. Sometimes this can be punishing or depressing; sometimes it can be darkly comic; sometimes it’s a sign that you’re in a work heavily dependent on reflective or rhetorical choice. Perhaps the easiest structure to author, gauntlets can be conceived of in similar terms to linear stories, and ensure that most players will see most of the important content.
There are two major varieties of gauntlet: deadly and friendly. Deadly gauntlets mostly prune the tree with failure; friendly ones mostly do so with short-range rejoining, and look a bit more like simple branch-and-bottleneck structures. Friendly gauntlets have been vastly more common in recent years, making up a high proportion of Twine works.
Branch and Bottleneck. The game branches, but the branches regularly rejoin, usually around events that are common to all versions of the story. To avoid obliterating the effect of past choices, branch-and-bottleneck structures almost always rely on heavy use of state-tracking (if a game doesn’t do this, chances are you are dealing with a gauntlet).
Somewhat rarely, the bottlenecks may be invisible – the plot branches and never reaches an explicit rejoining node, but the choices at the end of each branch are the same or similar, creating an exquisite-corpse effect.
Effects: Branch-and-bottleneck games tend to be heavily governed by the passage of time, while still allowing the player fairly strong grasp. The branch-and-bottleneck structure is most often used to reflect the growth of the player-character: it allows the player to construct a somewhat-distinctive story and/or personality, while still allowing for a manageable plot. There’s a tendency – not a necessary one, by any means – for playthroughs to be very similar in the early game, then diverge as the effects of earlier choices accumulate. In order for the approach to work, it has to be used in a fairly large piece; you need time to accumulate change before producing results that reflect it.
Examples: This is pretty much how Long Live the Queen works, and is the guiding principle of Choice of Games (Dan Fabulich uses the term delayed branching). It’s also a common plot structure in non-IF games that allow significant plot choices.
Quest. The quest structure forms distinct branches, though they tend to rejoin to reach a relatively small number of winning endings (often only one). The elements of these branches have a modular structure: small, tightly-grouped clusters of nodes allowing many ways to approach a single situation, with lots of interconnection within each cluster and relatively little outside it. Re-merging is fairly common; backtracking rather less so. Quests generally involve some level of state-tracking, and do poorly when they don’t. The minimal size for a quest is relatively large, and this category includes some of the largest CYOAs.
Effects: This mode is well-suited for journeys of exploration, focused on setting; the quest’s structure tends to be organised by geography rather than time. Indeed, most works of this kind involve a journey with a specific purpose in mind. Quests work well for grounded, consistent worlds, but within that context the player-character’s situation is constantly changing. The narrative tends to be fragmentary or episodic, like old-school D&D encounters: little chunks of story which might not have any great significance for the big picture.
Open Map. Even though quests are structured by geography, time still plays an important part: there’s a built-in direction of travel. But take a CYOA structure, make travel between the major nodes reversible, and you have a static geography, a world in which the player can toodle about indefinitely. Often this is a literal geography and relies on extensive state-tracking both explicit and secret for narrative progress. But it’s not an uncommon mode for things with assumptions grounded in the hypertext-novel idiom – static but non-linear works like Le Reprobateur.
Effects: This is often used as an imitation of the default style of parser IF, although some may be parallel derivation from the former’s D&D roots. As with classic map-based parser games, the narrative tends to become slower-paced and less directed; the player has more leisure to explore and grasp the world, but spends less of their time advancing the story.
Examples: Duelmaster; Chemistry and Physics.
Sorting Hat. The early game branches heavily and rejoins heavily (branch-and-bottleneck is a likely model here), ultimately determining which major branch the player gets assigned to. These major branches are typically quite linear – sometimes they look like gauntlets, but they might be choiceless straight-shots. Sorting Hats almost always rely substantially on state-tracking in the early game, and often bottleneck at the decision point.
Effects: The Sorting Hat is a compromise between the breadth of more open formats and the depth of linear ones. Sometimes the nature of the various branches is signaled to the player; this is kind of important, in fact, because the player is pretty likely to notice the linearity of the second half and might assume that all of their choices will ultimately get funneled into that particular thread. The player gets a lot of influence over how the story goes; however, the author may end up effectively having to write several different games.
Floating Modules. A mode only really possible in computer-based works. There is no tree – or, while there may be scattered twigs and branches, there’s no trunk. No central plot, no through-line: modular encounters become available to the player based largely on state, or perhaps randomly.
Effects: This is a challenging style to write for, both because it’s difficult to intuitively grasp – writers tend to rebound quickly to a more unified structure – and because few assumptions can ever be made about prior events. Without a large amount of content, the method tends to collapse into a linear system. Because play mechanics are largely about altering stats in order to negotiate a world, there’s a strong incentive to expose those stats to the player; repeated events chosen only to affect a stat (grinding) may be a feature.
Examples: Pure examples of modular design are relatively rare. StoryNexus and its conceptual relatives (e.g. Bee) inhabit this space, though they generally impose some more linear-progression structure on it. (Alexis Kennedy uses the term quality-based narrative to describe the general approach: ‘pieces of story like mosaic tiles, not pipes or complex machinery.’)
Loop and Grow. The game has a central thread of some kind, which loops around, over and over, to the same point: but thanks to state-tracking, each time around new options may be unlocked and others closed off. This is a very general pattern, and can co-exist with many others. Trapped in Time, for instance, is basically a cycle-and-growing Gauntlet; Bee tames its floating-module nature with a year-long loop structure.
Effects: Loop and Grow emphasizes the regularity of the world while retaining narrative momentum. A justification is needed for why whole sections of narrative can repeat: the player-character is often following routine activities in a familiar space, engaged in time-travel, or performing tasks at a certain level of abstraction. This regularity often comes at the price of openness: many stories with a strong Loop and Grow structure involve a struggle against confinement or stagnation.
I thought this was the boring part of the release process. Hadean Lands has been out for a couple of months, I've done a couple of iOS updates, time to settle down and work through the Kickstarter rewards. Plan for more distribution platforms, like Steam and the Humble Store. Boring stuff.
Wrong! It's crazy excitement time.
First thing this week, two fantastic reviews appeared:
"The best video game I played last year is a science-fiction thriller about alchemy, and it has no graphics or sound effects." -- David Auerbach, Slate
"Hadean Lands is an endlessly clever experience." -- Sean Clancy, Pocket Tactics
Suddenly the sales rate is going nuts, Twitter activity is buzzing, and my head is spinning.
When a wave of publicity hits, that's when you want a Steam Greenlight page, right? (Greenlight is the voting system that Steam uses to gauge public interest in new indie games.) So I have spent the past day constructing one. Here it is:
This isn't a purchase; it just indicates to Steam that this is the kind of game you want them to offer. When enough "yes" votes accumulate, I get a slot on the Steam storefront. (No, I don't know how many votes is enough.)
(Speaking of Greenlight, I note that two other parser IF games went up this month: Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter (Mike Gentry and David Cornelson) and The Shadow in the Cathedral (Ian Finley and Jon Ingold). There's also Her Story, which is not a text game, but is by IF author Sam Barlow. And that must only scratch the surface; I haven't even tried to survey the Greenlight world.)
The process for getting a Humble Store slot is already under way. They say there's a queue for games to show up there, and I'm in it.
The current sales widgets (Humble Widget and Itch.IO) now offer separate downloads for Mac, Windows, and "generic" (everything else). The generic download is the same package that's been available all along; it contains the game file and instructions for finding an interpreter. The Mac package contains the interpreter, ready to install. The Windows package has a standard Windows installer which sets everything up for you.
David Welbourn has written a detailed walkthrough of HL. Massive spoilers, obviously! When it comes to HL hints, I like to send people to the IF forum rather than a walkthrough. I think it's more engaging to talk to other fans about the game, rather than finding a file of answers on the Internet. But David's work is terrific and deserves recognition. (Also, maybe, a tip? He's got a Patreon for creating IF walkthroughs.)
The Kickstarter reward CDs are in production. They should reach me by Feb 6th, says the duplicator.
I have the reward books now; they just have to be packaged up and hauled to the post office.
The reward posters have arrived, but the printer screwed up somehow. Half of the posters are smeared. The other half are fine, but I want to ship them all in one batch, so there will be a delay. I have contacted customer service and hopefully it will all get straightened out; I don't know when. Sorry about this.
For added fun, I have jury duty next week. That will fill up an unknown number of work days.
I want to address one other issue: the font preferences in the Mac and Windows interpreters. "But there are no font preferences in the Mac and Windows interpreters!" Yes, Watson, that is the curious thing.
In fact you can adjust the fonts in Gargoyle. You have to edit a file called
garglk.ini, which is bundled with the interpreter (on Windows) or in your home directory (on Mac). On Linux I believe it's named
.garglkrc. Go in there with a text editor and bump up the
propsize line, and also
leading while you're at it.
(If you used the Windows installer, you'll have to make the file editable first. Select Properties on the
garglk.ini file, select Security, edit the permissions).
Yes, this is a rigmarole. Why did I stick you with it? The short answer is, well, the Kickstarter was for a game and an iOS interpreter. I didn't have time to write desktop interpreters too. Gargoyle is the best interpreter available right now, but it started as a Linux project, it's got this Unix-style config file, and that's just the way it goes.
(For the Steam release, I'd like to modify this. But no bets right now.)
If you aren’t familiar with how Greenlight works, people vote for games to appear on the Steam service. (There are no downvotes, only upvotes.) Games with enough votes will eventually be able to appear on the service for sale.
Three games by IF luminaries have just appeared. If you care about the success of interactive fiction, please vote!
“There is a loud explosion, and a twenty-foot hole appears in the far wall, burying the dwarves in the rubble. You march through the hole and find yourself in the main office, where a cheering band of friendly elves carry the conquering adventurer off into the sunset.” – Adventure by Will Crowther and Don Woods
Thanks for all the enthusiasm for the Welcome to Adventure Quick-Start Guide! The comments, tweets, and emails I received gave me momentum to see it through. I really appreciate the support and encouragement.
In just nine articles, this guide provided a solid foundation to make a quick parser game.
It touched on the following parts of the Inform 7 handbook:
§2.12 Use options
§3.2. Rooms and the map
§3.3. One-way connections
§3.4. Regions and the index map
§3.6. Either/or properties
§3.7. Properties depend on kind
§3.10. Properties holding text
§3.11. Two descriptions of things
§3.13. Locks and keys
§3.15. Light and darkness
§3.17. Men, women and animals
§4.2 Using new kinds
§4.3 Degrees of certainty
§4.6 Properties again
§5.6. Text with variations
§6.14 Adjacent rooms and routes through the map
§7.2. Instead rules
§7.3. Before rules
§7.5. After rules
§8.1 Change of values that vary
§8.4 Change of either/or properties
§8.5 Change of properties with values
§8.9 Moving the player
§8.10. Removing things from play
§8.13. Checking on whereabouts
§8.15 Calling names
§9.2 Awarding points
§9.4 When play ends
§9.5. Every turn
§9.11 Future events
§11.1 What are phrases?
§11.2 The phrasebook
§11.3 Pattern matching
§11.7 Begin and end
§11.8 Otherwise (synonymous with “else”)
§12.7 New actions
§12.9 Check, carry out, report
§12.15 Out of world actions
§13.4. To carry, to wear, to have
§16.1 Laying out tables
§16.6 Repeating through tables
§16.7 Blank entries
§16.16 Defining things with tables
§17.8. Understanding names
§18.18 Printing a refusal to act in the dark
§18.19 Printing the announcement of darkness
§18.20 Printing the announcement of light
§18.21 Printing the name of a dark room
§18.22 Printing the description of a dark room
§24.3. High-level debugging commands
Nine lessons are only adequate to scrape the surface.
Chapter 1 – Preface, acknowledgements, and all that good stuff
Chapter 2 – Headings, debugging, and other things to make life easier
Chapter 3 – Backdrops, vehicles, carrying capacity, food, concealment, parts of things, directions
Chapter 4 – Default values of kinds, body parts, making identical objects
Chapter 5 – Everything cool you can do with text, including number-text conversions, accented letters, and inserting line breaks
Chapter 6 – How to define new adjectives and use existing adjectives in the source code (example: “an open door” means any door that is open, not a specific door named “open door”)
Chapter 7 – More about altering existing actions, and more details on various existing actions
Chapter 8 – Altering the command prompt or status line; more random actions
Chapter 9 – Everything to do with the built-in time system
Chapter 10 – Scenes, which are a system for orchestrating events based on conditions rather than timers
Chapter 11 – How to repeat through objects based on their description; how to create temporary variables; some other really important stuff
Chapter 12 – Persuasion mechanics for giving orders to NPCs and having them carried out; a whole lot more about how to build new actions
Chapter 13 – Relations, a way to describe connections and create new connections between objects
Chapter 14 – How to change the verb tense and person used in the narrative
Chapter 15 – Numbers, equations, logarithms, trigonometry (not kidding)
Chapter 16 – Way more about how to use tables effectively
Chapter 17 – How to create new grammar understood by the parser and override old grammar
Chapter 18 – What activities are, along with a huge list of standard activities and how they normally work
Chapter 19 – Rules and rulebooks, which are the core machinery of Inform 7
Chapter 20 – Altering text on the fly, including regular expressions
Chapter 21 – How to build and use lists
Chapter 22 – Even more about phrases and kinds
Chapter 23 – Adding graphics and sound; loading data from external files
Chapter 24 – Testing and debugging commands
Chapter 25 – How to release games, including cover art, walkthroughs, maps, and automatically generated websites
Chapter 26 – How and where to publish games
Chapter 27 – Adding extensions (external libraries); embedding Inform 6 code in Inform 7
If you’ve enjoyed your quick-start tour, dig in! The interactive fiction forums at intfiction.org are a great place both to get help with Inform 7 and to share your completed game, and I’ve compiled a list of other Inform 7 resources to help you along the way.
I began this quick-start guide on November 3, 2014 as a Work for Charity Day project. If this series has been useful to you and you have the ability, please consider donating to St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which raises money for childhood cancer research. Thank you!
This is the ninth and final entry in a series of quick-start Inform 7 tutorials using examples from Colossal Cave Adventure. More information about this tutorial series can be found here: A Quick-Start Guide to Inform 7.
This lesson will cover the darkness of the cave and Adventure’s iconic lamp.
Inform 7 has a basic light and darkness system. Rooms can be “dark” or “lighted”, and having an object with the “lit” property will enable the player to see in dark rooms. Without a “lit” object, actions requiring visibility will be blocked with the default message “It is pitch dark, and you can’t see a thing.”
Which actions are blocked in darkness? By default, only examine, look under, and search are blocked. You can check the list for your own game by going to the Index tab, then choosing Actions, and then scrolling down to the Alphabetic listing, where the words “requiring light” will appear beside any actions requiring light.
Using the “kinds” system (discussed in lesson 7), we can set up caves as a kind of room that is dark by default.
A cave is a kind of room. A cave is usually dark.
There is a cave called Low N/S Passage.
Now every cave in the game will be dark by default.
The regular darkness message in Adventure is different than the regular darkness message in Inform 7.
What we currently see is “It is pitch dark, and you can’t see a thing.” This is perfect for messages relating to examining and searching, but it isn’t the correct room description. What we need there is “It is now pitch dark. If you proceed you will likely fall into a pit.”
…and we need pits.
First things first: in the Inform handbook, §18.18 through §18.22 deal with the standard behavior of the dark/light system. These sections provide the names of five key rules:
We can overwrite any of the standard behaviors within our source code by explicitly naming the rule we want to overwrite. For example, we can edit the default description for a dark room like so:
Rule for printing the description of a dark room:
say “It is now pitch black. If you proceed you will likely fall into a pit.” instead.
The pits in Adventure are not actual objects that can be examined and interacted with. Consequently, we don’t need to create them as things. The appropriate messaging can be constructed with an “after going” rule, like so:
After going when the location is a dark room:
if a random chance of 1 in 4 succeeds:
say “You fell into a pit and broke every bone in your body!”;
end the story saying “Ow.”;
continue the action.
(Of course, the Adventure death system is more complex than “ow”, but this section has already gotten somewhat off topic.)
The Inform 7 handbook explicitly talks about the dark/light system, which makes it easy to find the rules we need to change. But it is sometimes more difficult to figure out what rules are producing a given result, especially when debugging.
Technique #1 – Debug commands
Inform 7 games run by stepping through a series of prioritized rules. The debugging command RULES ON will show you a step-by-step view of everything your game is doing. For example, here’s the rule-by-rule view for getting the lamp…
This is a bit overwhelming, but it does show that the “standard report taking rule” is responsible for printing the word “Taken”, and when.
A related technique is ACTIONS ON, which shows every action being executed.
Technique #2 – Accessing the IDE’s index
Check the Index for the specific action in question. The magnifying glass icon beside each action will take you to a detailed view of the action.
Critical actions like “look” have some notes at the top, but when you scroll past them, you’ll find details about exactly how the action works – what rules control it, what named values it includes, and what the default messages associated are.
The speech bubbles here indicate the presence of default responses that are built into the game. If we were still trying to alter the darkness messaging, we could check here for those default darkness messages by clicking the speech bubbles.
And here are the two darkness messages again!
Note the button marked “set” beside each message. This button will add code to your game that allows you to change the default message. We could have changed the darkness text this way instead of changing the activity, and this would also have been a valid solution.
Inform 7 has a built-in kind called the device, which can be switched on or switched off. This is extremely convenient for making, say, shiny brass lamps.
A shiny brass lamp is a device in Inside Building.
After switching on the lamp:
now the lamp is lit;
continue the action.
After switching off the lamp:
now the lamp is unlit;
continue the action.
The lamp is battery-powered (despite all my childhood impressions of something Aladdin-esque) and can only endure for so many turns. Every turn, it loses a little more power, and that phrase “every turn” is absolutely a hint as to how this can be implemented.
The shiny brass lamp has a number called the power. The power of the shiny brass lamp is 500.
Every turn when the shiny brass lamp is lit:
now the power of the shiny brass lamp is the power of the shiny brass lamp – 1;
if the power of the shiny brass lamp < 1;
say “Your lamp has run out of power.”;
now the lamp is unlit.
There are many more details that could be added to this implementation – the low battery warning message, the ability to add new batteries, the varying text when the lamp is on the ground lit or unlit. But we’ve already covered techniques for each of these…
…so walking through them would be redundant.
Part of this lesson addressed the concept of rules, which are the most basic machinery of Inform 7. For the most part, it is not necessary to understand rulebooks work in order to build an Inform 7 game. To peek further under the hood, see Chapter 19: Rulebooks.
§3.15. Light and darkness
§4.2 Using new kinds
§18.18 Printing a refusal to act in the dark
§18.19 Printing the announcement of darkness
§18.20 Printing the announcement of light
§18.21 Printing the name of a dark room
§18.22 Printing the description of a dark room
§24.3. High-level debugging commands
You're in a narrow underground chamber, illuminated by an open door in the east wall. The walls and ceiling are gouged with deep spiral ruts; they look as if they've been routed out with heavy machinery.
A large cylinder occupies most of the chamber. The maze of cables and pipes surrounding it trails west, into the depths of a tunnel.
The cables and pipes lining the tunnel's walls look like bloated veins and arteries in the splinter's flickering glow. Deep tunnels bend off to the east and west.
Some careless technician has left a walkie-talkie lying in the dirt.
>turn on walkie-talkie
You turn on the rocker switch.
A tinny voice, half-buried in static, says "Two."
The walkie-talkie clicks and hisses.
For a brief moment, the tunnel is bathed in a raw white glare.
The most subtly chilling vista in Trinity is found not inside one of its real-world atomic vignettes, but rather in the magical land that serves as the central hub for your explorations. This landscape is dotted with incongruous giant toadstools, each of which, you eventually realize, represents a single atomic explosion.
As your eyes sweep the landscape, you notice more of the giant toadstools. There must be hundreds of them. Some sprout in clusters, others grow in solitude among the trees. Their numbers increase dramatically as your gaze moves westward, until the forest is choked with pale domes.
The scene is a representation of time, following the path of the sun from east to west. The toadstools choking the forest to the west presumably represent the nuclear apocalypse you’ve just escaped. If we subtract those toadstools along with the two somewhere far off to the east that must represent the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, we’re left with those that represent not instances of atomic bombs used in anger, but rather tests. A few of these we know well as historical landmarks in their own right: the first hydrogen bomb; the first Soviet bomb; that original Trinity blast, off far to the southeast with the rising sun, from which the game takes its name and where its climax will play out. Like the bombs used in anger, these don’t interest us today; we’ll give them their due in future articles. What I do want to talk about today is some of the blasts we don’t usually hear so much about. As the landscape would indicate, there have been lots of them. Since the nuclear era began one summer morning in the New Mexico desert in 1945, there has been a verified total of 2119 tests of nuclear bombs. Almost half of that number is attributed to the United States alone. Yes, there have been a lot of bombs.
At the close of World War II, the big question for planners and politicians in the United States was that of who should be given control of the nation’s burgeoning nuclear arsenal. The Manhattan Project had been conducted under the ostensible auspices of the Army Air Force (the Air Force wouldn’t become it’s own independent service branch until 1947), but in reality had been something of a law unto itself. Now both Army and Navy were eager to lay claim to the bomb. The latter had dismissed the bomb’s prospects during the war years and declined to play any role in the Manhattan Project, but was nevertheless able to wrangle enough control now to be given responsibility for the first post-war tests of the gadgets, to be called Operation Crossroads. The tests’ announced objective was to determine the impact of the atomic bomb on military ships. Accordingly, the Navy assembled for atomic target practice around Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands a fleet made up of surplus American ships and captured German and Japanese that would have been the envy of most other nations. Its 93 vessels included in their ranks 2 aircraft carriers, 5 battleships, and 4 cruisers. The 167 native residents of Bikini were shipped off to another, much less survivable island, first stop in what would prove to be a long odyssey of misery. (Their sad story is best told in Operation Crossroads by Jonathan M. Weisgall.)
From the start, Operation Crossroads had more to do with politics than with engineering or scientific considerations. It was widely hyped as a “test” to see if the very idea of a fighting navy still had any relevance in this new atomic age. More importantly in the minds of its political planners, it would also be a forceful demonstration to the Soviet Union of just what this awesome new American weapon could do. Operation Crossroads was the hottest ticket in town during the summer of 1946. Politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists — everyone who could finagle an invitation — flocked to Bikini to enjoy the spectacle along with good wine and food aboard one of the Navy’s well-appointed host vessels, swelling the number of on-site personnel to as high as 40,000.
The spectators would get somewhat less than they bargained for, many of the sailors considerably more. The first bomb was dropped from a borrowed Army Air Force B-29 because the Navy had no aircraft capable of carrying the gadget. Dropped on a hazy, humid morning from high altitude, from which level the B-29 was notoriously inaccurate even under the best conditions, the bomb missed the center of the doomed fleet by some 700 yards. Only two uninteresting attack transports sank instantly in anything like the expected spectacular fashion, and only five ships sank in total, the largest of them a cruiser. As the journalists filed their reams of disappointed copy and the Navy’s leadership breathed a sigh of relief, some 5000 often shirtless sailors were dispatched to board the various vessels inside the hot zone to analyze their damage; as a safety precaution, they first scrubbed them down using water, soap, and lye to get rid of any lingering radiation. The operation then proceeded with the second bomb, an underwater blast that proved somewhat more satisfying, ripping apart the big battleship Arkansas and the aircraft carrier Saratoga amongst other vessels and tossing their pieces high into the air.
Operation Crossroads was emblematic of a Navy leadership that had yet to get their collective heads around just what a paradigm-annihilating device the atomic bomb actually was. Their insistence on dropping it on warships, as if the future was just going to bring more Battles of Midway with somewhat bigger explosions, shows that they still thought of the atomic bomb as essentially just a more powerful version of the bombs they were used to, a fundamentally tactical rather than strategic device. Their complete failure to take seriously the dangers of radioactive fallout, meanwhile, may be the reason that the sailors who took part in Operation Crossroads suffered an average life-span reduction of three months compared to others in their peer group. These were early days yet in atomic physics, but their state of denial is nevertheless difficult to understand. If the horrific photographs and films out of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — some of which apparently are shocking enough to still be classified — hadn’t been warning enough, there was always the case of Los Alamos physicist Louis Slotin. Less than six weeks before Operation Crossroads began, Slotin had accidentally started a chain reaction while experimenting with the atomic core of the same type of bomb used in the tests. He stopped the reaction through quick thinking and bravery, but not before absorbing a lethal dose of radiation. His slow, agonizing death — the second such to be experienced by a Los Alamos physicist — was meticulously filmed and documented, then made available to everyone working with atomic weapons. And yet the Navy chortled about the failure of the atomic bomb to do as much damage as expected whilst cheerfully sending in the boys to do some cleanup, ignoring both the slowly dying goats and other animals they had left aboard the various ships and the assessment of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists of the likely fate of any individual ship in the target fleet: “The crew would be killed by the deadly burst of radiation from the bomb, and only a ghost ship would remain, floating unattended in the vast waters of the ocean.”
Just as President Eisenhower would take space exploration out from under the thumb of the military a decade later with the creation of NASA, President Truman did an end-run around the military’s conventional thinking about the atomic bomb on January 1, 1947, when the new, ostensibly civilian Atomic Energy Commission took over all responsibility for the development, testing, and deployment of the nation’s atomic stockpile. The Atomic Energy Commision would continue to conduct a steady trickle of tests in the remoter reaches of the Pacific for many years to come, albeit none with quite the bizarre spectator-sport qualities of Operation Crossroads. But the twin shocks of the first Soviet test of an atomic bomb on August 29, 1949, and the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, which came equipped with a raging debate about whether, how, and when the United States should again use its nuclear arsenal in anger, led weapons developers to agitate for a more local test site where they could regularly and easily set off smaller weapons than the blockbusters that tended to get earmarked to the Pacific. There were, they argued, plenty of open spaces in the American Southwest that would suit such a purpose perfectly well. On December 18, 1950, Truman therefore approved the allocation for this purpose of a 680-square-mile area inside the vast Nellis Air Force Gunnery and Bombing Range in the Nevada desert some 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The first test there, marking the first atomic bomb to be exploded on American soil since the original Trinity device, took place astonishingly soon thereafter, on January 27, 1951. By the end of the year sleeping quarters, mess halls, and laboratories had been built, creating a functioning, happy little community dedicated to making ever better bombs. The saga of the Nevada Test Site had begun. In the end no fewer than 928 of the 1032 nuclear tests ever conducted by the United States would be conducted right here.
The strangest years of this very strange enterprise were the earliest. With money plentiful and the need to keep ahead of the Soviets perceived as urgent, bombs were exploded at quite a clip — twelve during the first year alone. At first they were mostly dropped from airplanes, later more commonly hung from balloons or mounted atop tall temporary towers. The testing regime was, as test-site geophysicist Wendell Weart would later put it, very “free-form.” If someone at one of the nation’s dueling atomic-weapons laboratories of Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos determined that he needed a “shot” to prove a point or answer a question, he generally got it in pretty short order. Whatever else the testing accomplished, it was also a hell of a lot of fun. “I guess little boys like fireworks and firecrackers,” Weart admits, “and this was the biggest set of fireworks you could ever hope to see.” Las Vegas residents grew accustomed to the surreal sight of mushroom clouds blooming over their cityscape, like scenes from one of the B-grade atomic-themed monsters movies that filled the theaters of the era. When the bombs went off at night, they sometimes made enough light to read a newspaper by.
This era of free-form atmospheric testing at the Nevada Test Site coincided with the era of atomic mania in the United States at large, when nuclear energy of all stripes was considered the key to the future and the square-jawed scientists and engineers who worked on it veritable heroes. The most enduring marker of this era today is also one of the first. In 1946, not one but two French designers introduced risque new women’s bathing suits that were smaller and more revealing than anything that had come before. Jacques Heim called his the “atome,” or atom, “the world’s smallest bathing suit.” Louis Réard named his the bikini after the recently concluded Operation Crossroads tests at Bikini Atoll. “Like the bomb,” he declared, “the bikini is small and devastating.” It was Réard’s chosen name that stuck. In addition to explosive swimwear, by the mid-1950s you could get a “Lone Ranger atomic-bomb ring” by sending in 15 cents plus a Kix cereal proof of purchase; buy a pair of atomic-bomb salt and pepper shakers; buy an “Atomic Disintegrator” cap gun. Trinity‘s accompanying comic book with its breathless “Atomic Facts: Stranger than Fiction!” and its hyperactive patriotism is a dead ringer for those times.
Said times being what they were, Las Vegas denizens, far from being disturbed by the bombs going off so close by, embraced them with all of their usual kitschy enthusiasm. The test site helpfully provided an annual calendar of scheduled tests for civilians so they could make plans to come out and enjoy the shows. For children, it was a special treat to drive up to one of the best viewpoints on Mount Charleston early in the morning on the day of a shot, like an even better version of the Fourth of July; the budding connoisseurs cataloged and ranked the shots and compared notes with their friends in the schoolyard. Many adults, being connoisseurs of another stripe, might prefer the “Miss Atomic Bomb” beauty pageants and revues that were all the rage along the Strip.
The official government stance, at the time and to a large extent even today, is that the radioactive fallout from these explosions traveled little distance if at all and was in any case minor enough to present few to no health or environmental concerns. Nevertheless, ranchers whose sheep grazed in the vicinity of the test site saw their flocks begin to sicken and die very soon after the test shots began. They mounted a lawsuit, which was denied under somewhat questionable circumstances in 1956; the sheep, claimed the court, had died of “malnutrition” or some other unidentified sickness. That judgment, almost all of the transcripts from which have since been lost, was later overturned on the rather astonishing basis of outright “fraud on the court” by the government’s defense team. That judgment was in its turn vacated on appeal in 1985, more than thirty years after the events in question. Virtually all questions about the so-called “Downwinders” who were affected — or believe they were affected — by fallout from the test site seem to end up in a similarly frustrating tangle.
What does seem fairly clear amid the bureaucratic babble, from circumstantial evidence if nothing else, is that the government even in the 1950s had more awareness of and concerns about fallout from the site than they owned up to publicly. Radioactive debris from those very first tests in early 1951 was detected, according to test-site meteorologist Philip Wymer Allen, going “up over Utah and across the Midwest and Illinois, not too far south of Chicago, and out across the Atlantic Coast and was still easily measured as the cloud passed north of Bermuda. We didn’t track it any further than that.” Already in 1952 physical chemist Willard Libby, inventor of radiocarbon dating and later a chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, was expressing concerns about radioactive cesium escaping the site and being absorbed into the bones of people, especially children. A potential result could be leukemia. Another, arguably even graver concern, was radioiodine particles, which could be carried a surprising distance downwind before settling to earth, potentially on the forage preferred by sheep, goats, and cows. Many people in rural communities, especially in those days, drank unprocessed milk straight from the cow, as it were. If enough milk containing radioiodine is ingested, it can lead to thyroid cancer. Children were, once again, both particularly big drinkers of milk and particularly prone to the effects of the radioiodine that might be within it. When environmental chemist Delbert Barth was hired in the 1960s to conduct studies of radioiodine dispersion patterns at the site, he was asked to also make historical projections for the atmospheric shots of the 1950s — a request that, at least on its surface, seems rather odd if everyone truly believed there was absolutely nothing to fear. Similarly odd seems a policy which went into effect very early: not to conduct shots if the winds were blowing toward Las Vegas.
The radioactive exposure — or lack thereof — of the Downwinders remains a major political issue inside Nevada and also Utah, which many claim also received its fair share of fallout. Most people who were associated with the site say, predictably enough, that the Downwinders are at best misguided and at worst would-be freeloaders. Studies have not established a clear causal link between incidences of cancer and proximity to the Nevada Test Site, although many, including Barth, have expressed concerns about the methodologies they’ve employed. What we’re left with, then, are lots of heartbreaking stories which may have been caused by the activities at the site or may represent the simple hand of fate. (For a particularly sad story, which I won’t go into here because I don’t want to sound exploitative, see this interview with Zenna Mae and Eugene Bridges.)
The first era of the Nevada Test Site came to an abrupt end in November of 1958, when the United States and the Soviet Union entered into a non-binding mutual moratorium on all sorts of nuclear testing. For almost three years, the bombs fell silent at the test site and at its Soviet equivalent near Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan. But then, on September 1, 1961, the Soviets suddenly started testing again, prompting the Nevada Test Site to go back into action as well. Still, the public was growing increasingly concerned over what was starting to look like the reckless practice of atmospheric testing. While Las Vegas had continued to party hearty, even before the moratorium the doughty farmers and ranchers working still closer to the site had, as Lawrence Livermore physicist Clifford Olsen rather dismissively puts it, “started to grumble a bit” about the effect they believed the fallout was having on their animals and crops and possibly their own bodies and those of their children. And now an international environmentalist movement was beginning to arise in response to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In one of his last major acts before his assassination, President Kennedy in October of 1963 signed along with Soviet General Secretary Khrushchev the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that required all future nuclear tests to take place underground.
But never fear, the good times were hardly over at the Nevada Test Site. The scientists and engineers there had been experimenting with underground explosions for some years already in anticipation of this day that the more politically aware among them had begun to see as inevitable. Thus they were more than prepared to continue full-speed-ahead with a new regime of underground testing. The number of shots actually increased considerably during the 1960s, often clipping along at a steady average of one per week or more. Las Vegas, meanwhile, was still not allowed to forget about the presence of the test site. Residents grew accustomed to tremors that cracked plaster and made high-rises sway disconcertingly, phenomena that came to be known as “seismic fallout.” As the political mood shifted over the course of the decade, the number of complaints grew steadily, especially after a couple of big shots of well over 1 megaton in 1968 that caused serious structural damage to a number of buildings in Las Vegas. One of the most persistent and vociferous of the complainers was the eccentric billionaire recluse Howard Hughes, who was living at the time on the top two floors of the Desert Inn hotel. Hughes marshaled lots of money, employees, and political connections to his cause during the late 1960s, but was never able to stop or even slow the testing.
As for the environmental impact of this new breed of underground tests, the news is mixed. While neither is exactly ideal, it’s obviously preferable from an environmental standpoint to be exploding atomic bombs underground rather than in the open air. A whole new applied sub-science of geophysics, the discipline of nuclear “containment,” evolved out of efforts to, well, contain the explosions — to keep any radioactive material at all from “venting” to the surface during an explosion or “seeping” to the surface during the hours, months, and years afterward. And yet the attitudes of the folks working on the shots can still sound shockingly cavalier today. About 30 percent of the underground tests conducted during the 1960s leaked radioactivity to the surface to one degree or another. Those working at the site considered this figure acceptable. Virtually everyone present there during the 1960s makes note of the positive, non-bureaucratic, “can-do” attitude that still persisted into this new era of underground testing. Linda Smith, an administrator at the site, characterizes the attitude thus: “There is such a strong bias to get it done that overrides everything. Is there any profound discussion of should we or shouldn’t we? Is this good for the country? Is it not? There’s no question. You are there to get it done.” Clifford Olsen says, “We were all pretty much sure we were doing the right thing.”
What to make of this lack of introspection? Whatever else we say about it, we shouldn’t condemn the people of the Nevada Test Site too harshly for it. There were heaps of brilliant minds among them, but their backgrounds were very different from those of the people who had worked on the Manhattan Project, many of whom had thought and agonized at length about the nature of the work they were doing and the unimaginable power they were unleashing on the world. The men and few women of the Nevada Test Site, by contrast, had mostly come of age during or immediately after World War II, and had been raised in the very bosom of the burgeoning military-industrial complex. Indeed, most had had their education funded by military or industrial backers for the singular purpose of designing and operating nuclear weapons. This set them apart from their predecessors, who before the Manhattan Project and to a large degree after it — many among that first generation of bomb-makers considered their work in this area essentially done once the first few bombs had been exploded — tended to focus more on “pure” science than on its practical application. A few Brits aside, the Nevada Test Site people were monolithically American; many on the Manhattan Project came from overseas, including lots of refugees from occupied Europe. The Nevada Test Site people were politically conservative, in favor of law and order and strong defense (how could they not be given the nature of their work?); the Manhattan Project people were a much more politically heterogeneous group, with a leader in Robert Oppenheimer who had worked extensively for communist causes. Someone with a background like his would never have been allowed past the front gate of the Nevada Test Site.
Whatever else it was, the Nevada Test Site was just a great place to work. Regarded as they were as the nation’s main bulwark against the Soviet Union, the atomic scientists and all of those who worked with and supported them generally got whatever they asked for. Even the chow was first-rate: at the cafeteria, a dollar would get you all the steaks — good steaks — that you could eat. When all the long hours spent planning and calculating got to be too much, you could always take in a movie or go bowling: a little self-contained all-American town called Mercury grew up with the test site there in the middle of the desert. Its population peaked at about 10,000 during the 1960s, by which time it included in addition to a movie theater and bowling alley a post office, schools, churches, a variety of restaurants, a library, a swimming hall, and hotels — including one named, inevitably, the Atomic Motel. Or you could always take a walk just outside of town amidst the splendid, haunting desolation of the Nevada desert. And for those not satisfied with these small-town pleasures, the neon of Las Vegas beckoned just an hour or so down the highway.
But just as importantly, the work itself was deeply satisfying. After the slide rules and the geological charts were put away, there still remained some of that old childlike pleasure in watching things go boom. Wendell Weart: “I would go back in a tunnel and see what happened to these massive structures that we had put in there, and to see how it manhandled them and just wadded them up into balls. That was impressive.” Nor was the Nevada Test Site entirely an exercise in nuclear nihilism. While weapons development remained always the primary focus, most working there believed deeply in the peaceful potential for nuclear energy — even for nuclear explosions. One of the most extended and extensive test series conducted at the site was known as Operation Plowshare, a reference to “beating swords into plowshares” from the Book of Isaiah. Operation Plowshare eventually encompassed 27 separate explosions, stretching from 1961 to 1973. Its major focus was on nuclear explosions as means for carrying out grand earth-moving and digging operations, for the creation of trenches and canals among other things. (Such ideas formed the basis of the proposal Edward Teller bandied about during the Panama Canal controversy of the late 1970s to just dig another canal using hydrogen bombs.) Serious plans were mooted at one point to dig a whole new harbor at Cape Thompson in Alaska, more as a demonstration of the awesome potential of hydrogen bombs for such purposes than out of any practical necessity. Thankfully for the delicate oceanic ecosystem thereabouts, cooler heads prevailed in the end.
So, the people who worked at the site weren’t bad people. They were in fact almost uniformly good friends, good colleagues, good workers who were at the absolute tops of their various fields. Almost any one of them would have made a great, helpful neighbor. Nor, as Operation Plowshare and other projects attest, were they bereft of their own certain brand of idealism. If they sound heartlessly dismissive of the Downwinders’ claims and needlessly contemptuous of environmentalists who fret over the damage their work did and may still be doing, well, it would be hard for any of us to even consider the notion that the work to which we dedicated our lives — work which we thoroughly enjoyed, which made us feel good about ourselves, around which many of our happiest memories revolve — was misguided or downright foolish or may have even killed children, for God’s sake. I tend to see the people who worked at the site as embodying the best and the worst qualities of Americans in general, charging forward with optimism and industry and that great American can-do spirit — but perhaps not always thinking enough about just where they’re charging to.
The golden age of free-and-easy atomic testing at the Nevada Test Site ended at last on December 18, 1970. That was the day of Baneberry, a routine underground shot of just 10 kilotons. However, due to what the geophysicists involved claim was a perfect storm of factors, its containment model failed comprehensively. A huge cloud of highly radioactive particles burst to the surface and was blown directly over a mining encampment that was preparing the hole for another test nearby. By now the nature of radioactivity and its dangers was much better appreciated than it had been during the time of Operation Crossroads. All of the people at the encampment were put through extended, extensive decontamination procedures. Nevertheless, two heretofore healthy young men, an electrician and a security guard, died of leukemia within four years of the event. Their widows sued the government, resulting in another seemingly endless series of trials, feints, and legal maneuvers, culminating in yet another frustrating non-resolution in 1996: the government was found negligent and the plaintiffs awarded damages, but the deaths of the two men were paradoxically ruled not to have been a result of their radiation exposure. As many in the Downwinder community darkly noted at the time, a full admission of guilt in this case would have left the government open to a whole series of new law suits. Thus, they claimed, this strange splitting of the difference.
The more immediate consequence of Baneberry was a six-month moratorium on atomic testing at the Nevada Test Site while the accident was investigated and procedures were overhauled. When testing resumed, it did so in a much more controlled way, with containment calculations in particular required to go through an extended process of peer reviews and committee approvals. The Atomic Energy Commission also began for the first time to put pressure on the scientists and engineers to minimize the number of tests conducted by pooling resources and finding ways to get all the data they could out of each individual shot. The result was a slowdown from that high during the 1960s of about one shot per week to perhaps one or two per month. Old-timers grumbled about red tape and how the can-do spirit of the 1950s and 1960s had been lost, but, perhaps tellingly, there were no more Baneberrys. Of the roughly 350 shots at the Nevada Test Site after Baneberry, only 4 showed any detectable radiation leakage at all.
The site continued to operate right through the balance of the Cold War. The last bomb to be exploded there was also the last exploded to date by the United States: an anticlimactic little 5-kiloton shot on September 23, 1992. By this time, anti-nuclear activists had made the Nevada Test Site one of their major targets, and were a constant headache for everyone who worked there. Included among the ranks of those arrested for trespassing and disruption during the test site’s twilight years are Kris Kristofferson, Martin Sheen, Robert Blake, and Carl Sagan. Needless to say, the mood of the country and the public’s attitude toward nuclear weapons had changed considerably since those rah-rah days of atomic cap guns.
Since the mid-1990s the United States, along with Russia and the other established nuclear powers, has observed a long-lasting if non-binding tacit moratorium on all types of nuclear testing (a moratorium which unfortunately hasn’t been observed by new members of the nuclear club India, Pakistan, and North Korea). Stories of the days when mushroom clouds loomed over the Las Vegas Strip and the ground shook with the force of nuclear detonations are now something for long-time Nevada residents to share with their children or grandchildren. With its reason for existence in abeyance, the Nevada Test Site is in a state of largely deserted suspended animation today, Mercury a ghost town inhabited by only a few caretakers and esoteric researchers. One hopes that if Mercury should ever start to buzz with family life and commerce again it’s because someone has found some other, safer purpose for the desert landscape that surrounds it. In the meantime, the tunnels are still kept in readiness, just in case someone decides it’s time to start setting off the bombs again.
(The definitive resource on the history of the Nevada Test Site must be, now and likely forevermore, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas’s amazing Nevada Test Site Oral History Project. I could barely scratch the surface of the hundreds of lengthy interviews there when researching this article. And thanks to Duncan Stevens for his recommendation of Operation Crossroads by Jonathan M. Weisgall. I highly recommend the documentary The Atomic Cafe as a portrait of the era of atomic kitsch.)
The Feasts of Tre-mang is a fictional cookbook. That is, it contains recipes that you can actually cook, but they claim to be a variety of holiday dishes from an obscure Atlantic island called Tre-mang that was destroyed by volcanic eruption in 1914.
As you might expect in a cookbook, there are lists of ingredients, methods, and measurements; there are pictures of finished dishes, and editorial notes about safe substitutions. There are also explanatory articles about Tre-mang history and culture, the contexts in which these foods would be presented, and the life of Theodora Peterson, an anthropologist’s daughter whose diaries are the chief source of surviving information about Tremanner cuisine. Brown intersperses these with “old” photographs, maps, portraits, the Tre-mang flag and currency, and even Tre-mang-style erotic postcards. (It seems that Tremanners were very much aroused by ears.) It is narrative-of-objects stuff, though supported by lots of straight written text as well as well.
This is a self-published book, and it shows a bit in the typography and proof-reading. (Margins! Margins are good!) The food photography itself looks like it was handled by someone who knew what they were doing, however: the dishes are lovely and appetizing.
Likewise, the quality of the invented objects does vary a bit: the flag, for instance, though nominally designed in 1720, is stitched with an obviously computer-age font; a picture of ancestral Tre-manners with baskets on their heads does feel a trifle unpersuasive. Some of them are really good, though. The peculiar sketch of the “devil duck” of Tre-mang does look (at least to my eye) like an old scientific sketch, save its bizarre and improbable neck length, and the book includes a number of drawings and paintings that were either skillfully created or skillfully repurposed for their present form.
The Tre-mang that emerges is sometimes very silly. Brown is partial to fake etymologies, and comes up with far-fetched explanations for how “shrine”, “phony”, and “bamboozle” are based on Tre-mang language and tradition. The scatological and the absurd also appear: there are no shortage of jokes about goat dung, and the Tremanners’ wedding ceremony critically involves the bride and groom urinating into a single urn.
In other places, Tre-mang comes off as utopian or subversive, particularly when it comes to gender relations: despite a relatively traditional culture in some respects, Tremanner women have a host of resources for negotiating their own power, and use secret names for themselves in order to communicate when they don’t want to be understood by men. In one case, they accept a young trans woman’s desire to join in the female puberty ritual even though her father and brothers disapprove (though we don’t hear what happens to her afterward). Elsewhere, there’s a sad anecdote about the women of the village gathering to unstitch a marriage quilt for a woman with an abusive husband.
Similarly, there’s implicit criticism of some colonizing approaches: the Tremanners battle a series of unwelcome overlords and eventually manage to eke out something resembling independence. Meanwhile, Theodora’s father writes condescendingly about Tre-mang, and as she grows increasingly fond of the island and its inhabitants, his contempt for the people drives a wedge between them.
My favorite thing about the book, though (and really the only possible excuse for calling it interactive) is the way the recipes reflect and reinforce the storytelling. Tremanners are said to believe that the souls of the departed ascend the island’s volcano: this is represented with a funnel-shaped funeral cake, which one eats in order to speed along the lost spirit. A seaweed-flavored chowder pie is meant to be eaten in the context of ceremonies retelling the life-stories of sailor ancestors (life-stories are themselves often false). To make these foods is to involve oneself experientially: a little bit like gameplay, a little bit like ritual.
The twin ideas of memorial and invention of the past recur many times in many ways in the book, and we’re invited into nostalgia for a lost culture that never existed:
It is cliché to say that the beloved live forever in our hearts—thanks to Theodoa, Tre-mang abides on our tongue. Share these recipes and stories, and keep Tre-mang alive. May we all put down our forks, pat our full bellies and say “I too, am a Tremanner.”
The content and the project itself are, in short, a celebration of imaginative eccentricity.
This is going to sound like a bizarre statement to anyone who has played a Scott Adams game, but Adventureland is the first game in my chronological series that has felt modern.
To anyone scratching their head, some clarification is needed. While yes, the game is simply an excuse to collect Treasures and put them in the right location and get a high score, and yes, the text is absurdly minimalist, everything is also compact.
The adventures I’ve played so far have a certain expansiveness to them (see Zork: Open spaces, painful geography) with a giant map and a lot of confusion. While I’ve appreciated this style with space lending to world-immersion, I’ve also missed the feeling of small set-pieces that come from, say, a tightly structured IFComp game.
Using the TRS-80 as opposed to a mainframe with spacious memory forced Adams to think small. The swamp at the beginning (see map) gives a good idea of what I mean by “set-pieces”:
I am in a dismal swamp. Visible items:
Cypress tree. Evil smelling mud. Swamp gas. Patches of “OILY” slime. Chiggers.
Some obvious exits are: NORTH EAST WEST
The evil smelling mud can be used to cure bites from the chiggers (which are themselves useful in a different puzzle). The mud also will wake up a sleeping dragon (found just to the north) if you bring next to him. The swamp gas has a property useful in a puzzle, and the “OILY” slime I have not actually figured out yet.
The tree can be used in two ways:
> CLIMB TREE
I am in a top of a tall cypress tree. Visible items:
Spider web with writing on it. Ring of skeleton keys.
Some obvious exits are: DOWN
> GET KEYS
> READ WEB
Chop ‘er down!
> CHOP TREE
(Room description changes to: -HOLLOW- stump and remains of felled tree.)
> ENTER STUMP
I am in a damp hollow stump in the swamp. Visible items:
Old fashioned brass lamp. Water in bottle. Sign “Leaves *TREASURES* here, then say: SCORE”.
Some obvious exits are: UP DOWN
While the text might only be appreciated now as a sort of anti-poetry, the tight implementation gives the locations in my mind a stronger imaginative force than the hundreds of rooms of Acheton.
I’m about 3 hours in — I supposedly have 70% of the treasure — and having reasonable fun. Likely the last 30% will get me stuck. Perhaps the last lingering puzzles will be hideous; it’s hard to know.
In further news, ahope1 has updated his files for the Beeb game, Xanadu Adventure, which looks like a real challenge for anyone looking for it.
A special thanks this time around to THayes for submitting links to his YouTube walkthroughs of various classic Sierra titles. They're not in the list below, but they'll pop up on the Quest etc. games pages. Happy gaming!
Just an update, the new IFzine, IFography, now has it’s own website at ifography.wordpress.com. Great first issue and looking forward to future. They are now putting together the second issue. If you have something to say, they are taking submissions….just send them an email (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This is another list for the benefit of Arisia panel attendees. In this case, it’s a list of games we discussed in the “Video Games as Art” panel.
Most of these games were mentioned as examples of games that succeeded in their artistic goals. Some were not. I’m not going to make an effort to separate them here – we discussed a lot of games.
Links provided are for online play sites or Steam when available. When not applicable, the link leads to the developer’s site or Amazon.
Aquaria (Windows, OSX, Linux, iOS, Android)
Asura’s Wrath (PS3, Xbox 360)
The Banner Saga (Windows, OSX, PS4, Android, iOS, PS Vita)
Braid (Windows, OSX, Linux, PS3, Xbox 360)
Broken Folx (free – in-browser play)
Brütal Legend (Windows, OSX, Linux, PS3, Xbox 360)
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (Nintendo DS)
Cave Story (Windows, OSX, Linux, Wii, Nintendo DS, 3DS)
Cis Gaze (free – in-browser play)
Choice of Games (varies by title – in-browser play, iOS, Android, Kindle)
Dark Souls (Windows, PS3, Xbox 360)
Dark Souls II (Windows, PS3, Xbox 360, PS4, Xbox One)
Demon’s Souls (PS3)
Dead State (Windows)
Dys4ia (free – in-browser play)
Elegy for a Dead World (Windows, OSX, Linux)
Everything You Swallow Will One Day Come Up Like A Stone (free – in-browser play)
Hotline: Miami (Windows, OSX, Linux, PS3, PS4, PS Vita)
Ikaruga (Windows, Arcade, Dreamcast, GameCube, XBLA, Android)
Inversion (Windows, PS3, Xbox 360)
Journey (PS3, PS4)
Mass Effect series (Windows, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, iOS, Android, Windows Phone)
Mega Man (NES, PlayStation, Android, PS Portable)
Mega Man 2 (NES/Famicom, PlayStation, iOS)
Ninja Gaiden (too many platforms to list, but Wikipedia shows them all)
Okami (PS2, PS3, Wii)
One Eye Open (free – Windows, OSX, and Mac with download and Glulx interpreter)
Revolution 60 (iOS)
Shadow of the Colossus (PS2, PS3)
Silent Hill series (Windows, PlayStation, PS2, PS3, PS4, Xbox, Xbox 360, Wii, PS Portable, PS Vita)
Spec Ops: The Line (Windows, OSX, PS3, Xbox 360)
Super Mario Brothers 3 (NES/Famicom, Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Wii U)
The Walking Dead (Windows, OSX, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Ouya, iOS, Android, PS Vita, Kindle Fire HDX)
This Is A Real Thing That Happened (free – in-browser play)
This War of Mine (Windows, OSX, Linux)
The Wolf Among Us (Windows, OSX, PS3, PS4, Xbox One, iOS, Android)
Wolfenstein: The New Order (Windows, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
At the end of the panel, several people asked me where they could go to find indie games. Some starting places:
itch.io – hosts indie games and nothing else
Indies on Steam – a tag search
Steam greenlight – for games that are trying to get fans and get published
Twitter – #indiedev – to join the general conversation
Also, keep an eye out for indie coverage in gaming publications such as Polygon.
First edition of IFography put together by the fine folk of the Interactive Fiction Faction with most of the hard work done by Marshal Tenner Winter and Matt Goh. Great first issue, looking forward to many more issues. Hopefully fill some of the gap left behind by the long hiatus of SPAG.
Check it out and send feedback to Marshall or Matt
Choice of Robots is a recent large-scale Choice of Games piece: you take the role of a gifted young graduate student in robotics, about to make significant breakthroughs in your field, generating a line of robots that might become surgeons, soldiers, companions, factory workers. Your choices include design decisions for the robots and business decisions about how to manufacture and sell them, but also personal decisions about how to relate to your robot creations, and what you think it all means. The scope of your activities is such that you may find yourself flying to Shanghai to take meetings, or spending months in a military jail, or preventing the invasion of Taiwan — and along the way it’s pretty likely that you’ll also make a considerable personal fortune, which you can choose to spend on luxuries, philanthropy, or a mix of things.
The plot flexibility is impressive. CoG boasts that Choice of Robots runs to 300K words, and it shows: two playthroughs can turn out to have relatively little overlap, and the sheer quantity of content is what makes that possible. There are characters who appear in the stat sheet whom I never met in either of my two complete run-throughs of the story; I assume they would have come up if I’d gone a different route. In one story I ended up rather misanthropic and alone, rebelled against by my own creation and without any romantic partners or close friends; in another, I ended up with a wife, an adopted daughter, two robot creations who seemed largely fond of me, and even a talking car, having managed to come through the Sino-American war without contributing too much bloodshed to the conflict. I can easily see some other path types I could have taken. CoG’s games always employ a branch-and-recombine-over-multiple-chapters structure, but here there’s a lot of room for variance, and (I gather) there are some alternate crisis chapters. For those who prize the ability to significantly affect the plot, this is a particularly good choice.
Conversely, the self-creation aspect is maybe a little less strong here than it is in many CoG games. A lot of the stats that you’re affecting — grace, empathy, military awareness, autonomy — are really the stats of your robots, not yourself (though there’s some implication that you and your robots are similar in some ways). As always, you’re allowed to select gender and sexuality, but I didn’t feel that the “me” character was very clearly defined in either of my two playthroughs.
One important exception: the game allows you to dictate the content of some dreams early on, and what you dream here dictates one of the central themes of your story. In my second playthrough I chose “I created a robot whose love I couldn’t return”, then forgot about the dream in a bunch of plot shenanigans, only to have this plot strand turn up again six or so chapters later, in a way that felt like a natural outcome of my other (non-dream) decisions up to this point. This is clever: it gives you both choice and foreshadowing. I don’t think it would have worked in a shorter piece, though — you really need time for the player to have largely forgotten about or moved on from that choice before its implications reappear. Otherwise it just seems a bit forced.
If I have a complaint about Choice of Robots, it has to do with that same scope I mentioned earlier. There’s a huge amount going on in this story. Sometimes years go by in the blink of an eye, and sometimes you spend many choices on a single social encounter. I particularly enjoyed the passage where I brought my robot along to an SCA event and then decided that, on the whole, I wasn’t quite confident enough to let it compete with throwing knives after all. The paranoid character of Silas, who is sometimes helpful and sometimes the opposite, also has some good vignettes. But the effect of this was sometimes that I became invested in a particular character interaction (good!) only to lose track of that character for a long time due to the other things going on in the plot (boo). I became a bit anxious that I wasn’t doing a good job of curating my own story experience, that if I were making other different choices maybe I would have seen those characters again sooner. In my second playthrough, I established that Elly was my college crush but then played many years of life barely (it seemed) in contact with her before eventually winding up married to her (to the consternation of the companion robot who had fallen in love with me). What happened in the middle there? I’m not sure. We must have stayed in touch, but I didn’t hear about her all that much.
This seems a fairly churlish thing to gripe about, however, given how much freedom the story offers and the variety of situations you can get into. With many CoG pieces, I feel like two playthroughs are just about right to give me an overview of the game; with this one, I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface, and I could easily do another couple without experiencing all that much repetition.
Incidentally: there are some Easter eggs that acknowledge the IF community: most notably, you can choose to turn your young robot’s machine learning on a corpus of classic IF, and it will run through some CoG games but also namecheck Photopia and Galatea and various others.
Adventureland nearly has the distinction of being the first text adventure available for home computers. It is slightly edged out by a port for the Heathkit H8 of Adventure which debuted in August by Gordon Letwin (who later went on to make the port Microsoft Adventure) and started being sold in Issue 4 of the magazine REMark (fourth quarter of 1978).
However, Adventureland is the first one made specifically for home computers; specifically, the TRS-80. It started being sold January 1979 through an ad in Softside magazine. Scott Adams himself says it was the first venue in a video interview. He mentions testers which presumably tried the game in 1978, but with commerical products it is standard practice to date them by when they first are commercially available.
Every other source out there says 1978 including the thoroughly well-researched Digital Antiquarian.
However, even the title page of the game itself says 1979
although it should be noted that this is a later revision of the game and it is possible an early title screen said “1978” since that is undoubtedly when the coding of the game occurred.
[ADD: Jimmy Maher makes a pretty good argument in the comments that due to the lag time of the magazine publishing that 1978 is sound, still. Note that would still make the port of Adventure the first available text adventure for PC. I am hence changing the title back to 1978.]
Scott Adams’s adventures all used a particular data format which can be run with the interpreter ScottFree. For at least Adventureland I’m going for the classic experience with a TRS-80 emulator, although there are plenty of more modern options available.
I’ve been having more fun than The Digital Antiquarian did (I’ve avoided reading his article too closely because it looks like it has spoilers, but I caught the quote “Which is not to say that Adventureland is exactly playable, at least by modern standards.”) I’ll get into gameplay details next time.
This past weekend, I participated in the DIY Digital Panel at Arisia. We cited a great many gamemaking engines, resources, and tools, assembled here for easy reference. (Also, I snuck a couple things in that I failed to mention, but should have.)
(left to right, from the audience’s perspective)
Caelyn Sandel (moderator) (@inurashii) – inurashii.xyz
Amanda Warner (@AnimatorMommy) – Giant Spacekat
Brianna Wu (@Spacekatgal) – Giant Spacekat
Adri (@genericgeekgirl) – Imagine A World
Carolyn VanEseltine (@mossdogmusic) – Sibyl Moon Games
Pixel Prospector keeps a massive, up-to-date list of resources that is an excellent starting point for future investigation.
Happy game dev!
I’ve discussed how Acheton has many, many, ways to die. This is not unusual in an adventure game.
What *is* unusual is that in order to get all the treasures you need to die once.
Spoilers for this and the endgame follow.
You are in a bare room with exits off in all directions. On the ground is a heavy stone slab bearing the words ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here – ANON’.
The lamp is now off.
You fell into a pit and broke every bone in your body.
You appear to have died. Do you want to be reincarnated?
I first essentially interpreted this as an out-of-game question, just like a RESTORE/UNDO/QUIT menu.
You are in Hades. The place is lit by the eerie glow of fire and brimstone. The souls of the dead walk with heads hung and gloomy faces, trying to perform impossible tasks. The sound of demonic laughter echoes around, sending shivers down the spine.
You are in Hades.
Anne Boleyn wanders past with her head under her arm.
[wander for a bit]
You are in Hades.
There is a loud clatter as a party of Hell’s Angels rides past in fiery chariots.
There is a beautiful crystal skull on the ground near you!
> get skull
You get an odd feeling of weightlessness. Suddenly, the rock above opens and you float upwards through the resulting hole. Just as you arrive at the top, the rock snaps shut again and you discover …
You are in a bare room with exits off in all directions. On the ground is a heavy stone slab bearing the words ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here – ANON’.
On the unfair-o-meter, I didn’t find this Ludicrous once I found there was a treasure in the afterlife, but I needed hints to figure out how to get out. The random Dante reference in one room did not translate in my brain to an escape via magic word. (Incidentally, DANTE works also as the magic word.) The main difficulty was discovering the whole section exists in the first place, since for the longest time I immediately restore my game upon dying.
I’ve been harping on unfair parts in Acheton, but there is a saving grace: you don’t need every treasure to win. You won’t get a full score, certainly, but “finished and filling in missing points” has a different feel than the brick wall of being stuck in the middle.
You are in a 12-foot high rock chamber. There is a massive walk-in safe on the east wall. The west wall bears an inscription, and there is a bright yellow star apparently painted in the middle of the ceiling. A spiral staircase leads downwards.
You’re inside the safe.
Placing all the treasures in the safe and then closing it results in…
> close safe
As you close the safe, the ground shakes slightly and a large slab of rock detaches itself from the ceiling, just missing you as it falls, and blocks the stairs.
A deep sonorous booming voice intones slowly:
FIFTY FOUR …
FIFTY FIVE …
WELL DONE!! YOU ARE NOW FULLY QUALIFIED TO ENTER THE MASTERS’ SECTION.
I tested all the way down to forty-five treasures and still was able to enter the endgame. Omitting ten treasures is enough to skip most of the heavily obscure sections.
Upon entering the last section, you must face the fury of…
You are in a high, circular room with highly polished walls which sparkle and shimmer in all colours of the rainbow. Lighted passages lead off to the north and to the south. The room itself is lit by chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
There is a large basalt disc here.
There is a very large granite disc here.
…Towers of Hanoi! (CUE ENTHUSIASM) (CRICKETS)
To be fair, you don’t have to solve the whole thing; just move enough discs around to clear a hole that you enter for the final arena.
You are in the gladiators’ arena. The crowd, consisting of former
successful adventurers, hushes as you enter. Once again, you hear the
booming sonorous voice, saying:
“LET THE FESTIVITIES BEGIN!”
Your opponent is:
A hissing vampire with large blood-stained protruding canines.
The following weapons are available:
A huge two-handed axe.
A vial of poisonous gas.
A five foot spear.
A two-handed broadsword.
A silver-tipped cane.
A small dagger.
A wooden crucifix.
A pointed wooden stake.
A large spiked mace.
A keg of gunpowder.
Which weapon would you like?
The rest of the game involves matching the right weapon to the right creature.
Which weapon would you like?
You throw the stake at the vampire. He tries to dodge but seems unable
to do so. The stake pierces his heart, and he collapses in a heap of
This could nearly be considered choice-game mode — you can’t move around or do anything other than type weapon names — but there’s one last trick.
Your opponent is:
A black knight on a black charger.
The following weapons are available:
A huge two-handed axe.
A silver-tipped cane.
A keg of gunpowder.
Which weapon would you like?
The black knight charges into the arena, his lance pointing straight at you. At the last moment you jump to one side. He attempts to swerve, and in doing so becomes unseated and breaks his neck on landing. The crowd seems uncertain whether to cheer or not.
AXE works, but this is the only way to get the last 3 points of the game.
You throw the keg of gunpowder at the dragon, which is quietly blowing smoke rings at the time. A stray spark ignites the gunpowder and blasts the dragon into little bits. The crowd rise to congratulate you, master gladiator.
You leave the arena, to the applause of the crowd, and receive your laurel wreath.
You have scored 1500 points out of a maximum of 1500. You are now a Grandmaster Supreme of Acheton, and have been elected to the Ruling Council. Please communicate with the relevant authorities to claim your seat.
Do you want another game?
Before I sign out, I should point out the commercial versions (covers above) are slightly different than the mainframe version I played. Primarily, the weapons that were just there in the arena are spread out through the whole game, and have to be brought to the endgame to get a complete resolution. While collecting the weapons makes the arena at the end seem less like an arbitrary surprise, there’s so many finicky things to worry about in Acheton I’d rather do without.
Consequently I’d recommend the mainframe version (Acheton.z8 from here) for anyone that wants to give the game a try. I’d think it’s still worth trying if you don’t go for a full score so you can skip the more obnoxious parts.
I can’t say Acheton is as good as Adventure or Zork, for 3 reasons:
1.) Acheton has multiple “cruel” bits were you can unknowingly break the game and not find out until many hundreds of moves later. Zork had a few points like that but it was obvious when it happened right away. You could lose a treasure in Adventure via the bridge, but it was essentially intentional on the player’s part and an acceptable puzzle to force the player to plan a way of getting their treasure back.
2.) Without light most of Acheton is unexplorable. Acheton’s lamp timer is very tight, and there’s just no chance for “noodling around”. Adventure had a relatively generous time limit, and Zork went one better with an unlimited light source.
3.) Adventure had both the pirates and dwarves, and Zork had the highly satisfying thief (who as far as game mechanics are involved, I still contend is one of the best NPCs in IF). Acheton has this guy:
A fearsome looking stone idol glares at you malevolently with its single green eye from the opposite end of the room.
> get eye
You wrench the eye of the idol from its socket. As you do so, the idol starts to glow faintly and emits a hollow groan. It then grabs at you, but fortunately you jump back just in time. The idol then blunders around the room searching for you for a few minutes, and you have a number of narrow escapes before it appears to give up. It then sits down in the lotus position, and then gradually fades away from view.
After taking the eye, the idol has a random chance of showing up and killing you the rest of the game. Not only is this far less interesting than intermittent battles with dwarves or the thief, the best strategy is to save taking the eye as the very last treasure, nullifying having the enemy at all.
I mentioned back on January 1 that I’m using the Pseudocode Programming Process for Greetings, Survivors, my current learning project. I’m about two weeks into this project now, which seems like a good time to do some assessment.
So, how’s it going?
I began this project about two weeks ago, but I haven’t written any permanent code. Instead, I have 29 pseudocode files in various states of completion, each representing a future C# file.
Some of them are really detailed – lists of variables, methods, explanations of how the methods work, on and on. Others are just summaries waiting to be filled out.
All this time, and I’ve created nothing that can run. This isn’t how my projects usually look after two weeks. It’s disconcerting.
…which is not surprising. When I’m writing in Inform 7, my progress tends to be something like 10k – 20k words per week. (Unlike most languages, I7 gives you progress in words instead of lines.)
Here, I’ve written a grand total of zero words on the project. Some part of my brain thinks this means I haven’t even started my project. It wants to know when I’m going to stop messing around, and actually do some work. (It is not a very nice part of my brain.)
I wanted to learn more about software architecture for large-size products. I’m doing that. There have been multiple times when I’ve realized oh, no, wait, that doesn’t work. Under the pseudocode process, those alterations have only scrapped half an hour or so of pseudocode instead of a full day or more of actual code. There’s a lot to be said for that.
When I’m working in actual code, it’s easy to get lost in the details – how should something be formatted? where should it appear on the page? what should the exact language of a given message be? But this high-level approach doesn’t allow me to access the details yet.
Additionally, outlining the entire project from the beginning has forced me to look at what I really do understand and really don’t understand. I can’t outline a system in pseudocode if I don’t have some concept of how the underlying principles will work.
A lot of my time has been spent building tiny research programs.
For example, one of the first things I didn’t understand was how to set up a TCP server. I’d never done any coding with networking before, so I had no idea how to explain it in pseudocode.
Some googling brought me to the TcpListener class, which contains a source code example for a very basic server. I typed the source code into my files verbatim (shades of the Hard Way approach to learning) and then chased down links for all the applicable keywords until I was confident I understood how the server was working.
After that, I studied threading, and then I modified the Microsoft code to accept multiple connections on separate threads. After that, I studied asynchronous programming, and modified my threaded code to accept multiple connections on a single thread.
Other stuff from the recent tiny-program queue: saving objects into files with serialization (so that the game world can be saved and loaded), learning how to use a hash algorithm to safely authenticate passwords (so that users can log in safely), and learning how to get Lua and C# talking (so that EVERYTHING.)
I may have zero words of permanent project code, but my goal is to learn. I am learning.
You can do a lot with Inform 7 – it’s a very powerful tool. But it’s a very powerful tool designed for the specific purpose of making parser games, and it looks like English already. (When I was at Harmonix, I showed the I7 source for One Eye Open to one of my coworkers. He reasonably assumed it was my outline rather than my actual code, and asked if he could see the actual code.)
I’m good at I7 architecture. In I7, I think in terms of rooms and puzzle hierarchies and conversational structures, and I don’t get lost in my line-by-line code. I’m better off writing straight into I7, and improving my commenting habits.
If I want to build a room in I7, there’s one practical, correct way to do it. I7 is prepared with all the necessary built-in structures to make my life easy.
But C# is a programming language, not a scripting language. If I want a concept of room in C#, then I need to decide how rooms work from scratch. What fields do rooms have? How does a room get created by the program? How does the system present a room to a player?
And now that I’m looking at C# alone (rather than C# with Unity), I’m really coming to terms with the sheer power involved. I can set up programs that will delete files, launch external programs, open ports on my computer, overtask my processors, and do pretty much… well… anything. Having a detailed outline from the beginning seems like a very good idea.
Admittedly, this was true of C as well. But somehow I’m far more aware of it this time around. Maybe I’ve levelled up?
Earth Orbit, on a satellite
The satellite you're riding is about twenty feet long, and shaped like a beer can.
A red flash draws your eyes to the ground below, where the contrail of a missile is climbing into the stratosphere.
The maneuvering thrusters on the satellite fire, turning the nose until it faces the ascending missile.
The satellite erupts in a savage glare that lights up the ground below. A beam of violet radiation flashes downward, obliterating the distant missile. Unfortunately, you have little time to admire this triumph of engineering before the satellite's blast incinerates you.
Trinity aims in 256 K of text adventure to chronicle at least fifty years of humanity’s relationship to the atomic bomb, as encapsulated into seven vignettes. Two of these, the one dealing with the long-dreaded full-on nuclear war that begins with you on vacation in London’s Kensington Gardens and the one you see above involving a functioning version of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative (a proposition that all by itself justifies Trinity‘s “Fantasy” genre tag, as we’ll soon see), are actually speculative rather than historical, taking place at some point in the near future. The satirical comic that accompanies the game also reserves space for Reagan and his dream. It’s a bold choice to put Reagan himself in there, undisguised by pseudonymous machinations like A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s “Richard Ryder” — even a brave one for a company that was hardly in a position to alienate potential players. Trinity, you see, was released at the absolute zenith of Reagan’s popularity. While the comic and the game it accompanies hardly add up to a scathing sustained indictment a la A Mind Forever Voyaging, they do cast him as yet one more Cold Warrior in a conservative blue suit leading the world further along the garden path to the unthinkable. Today I’d like to look at this “orbiting ‘umbrella’ of high technology” that Trinity postulates — correctly — isn’t really going to help us all that much at all when the missiles start to fly. Along the way we’ll get a chance to explore some of the underpinnings of the nuclear standoff and also the way it came to an anticlimactically sudden end, so thankfully at odds with Trinity‘s more dramatic predictions of the supposed inevitable.
In November of 1985, while Trinity was in development, Ronald Reagan and the new Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met for the first American/Soviet summit of Reagan’s Presidency. The fact that the summit took place at all was almost entirely down to the efforts of Gorbachev, who quite skillfully made it politically impossible for Reagan not to attend. It marked the first time Reagan had actually talked with his Soviet counterpart face to face in his almost five years as President. The two men, as contemporary press reports would have it, “took the measure of each other” and largely liked what they saw, but came to no agreements. The second summit, held in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October of the following year, came to within a hairs breath of a major deal that would have started the superpowers down the road to the complete elimination of nuclear armaments and effectively marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. The only stumbling block was the Strategic Defense Initiative. Gorbachev was adamant that Reagan give it up, or at least limit it to “laboratory testing”; Reagan just as adamantly refused. He repeatedly expressed to both Gorbachev and the press his bafflement at this alleged intransigence. SDI, he said, was to be a technology of defense, a technology for peace. His favorite metaphor was SDI as a nuclear “gas mask.” The major powers of the world had all banned poison gas by treaty after World War I, and, rather extraordinarily, even kept to that bargain through all the other horrors of World War II. Still, no one had thrown away their gas-mask stockpiles, and the knowledge that other countries still possessed them had just possibly helped to keep everyone honest. SDI, Reagan said, could serve the same purpose in the realm of nuclear weapons. He even made an extraordinary offer: the United States would be willing to give SDI to the Soviets “at cost” — whatever that meant — as soon as it was ready, as long as the Soviets would also be willing to share any fruits of their own (largely nonexistent) research. That way everyone could have nuclear gas masks! How could anyone who genuinely hoped and planned not to use nuclear weapons anyway possibly object to terms like that?
Gorbachev had a different view of the matter. He saw SDI as an inherently destabilizing force that would effectively jettison not one but two of the tacit agreements of the Cold War that had so far prevented a nuclear apocalypse. Would any responsible leader easily accept such an engine of chaos in return for a vague promise to “share” the technology? Would Reagan? It’s very difficult to know what was behind Reagan’s seeming naivete. Certainly his advisers knew that his folksy analogies hardly began to address Gorbachev’s very real and very reasonable concerns. If the shoe had been on the other foot, they would have had the same reaction. Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger had demonstrated that in December of 1983, when he had said, “I can’t imagine a more destabilizing factor for the world than if the Soviets should acquire a thoroughly reliable defense against these missiles before we did.” As for Reagan himself, who knows? Your opinion on the matter depends on how you take this famous but enigmatic man whom conservatives have always found as easy to deify as liberals to demonize. Was he a bold visionary who saved his country from itself, or a Machivellian schemer who used a genial persona to institute an uglier, more heartless version of America? Or was he just a clueless if good-natured and very, very lucky bumbler? Or was he still the experienced actor, out there hitting his marks and selling the policies of his handlers like he had once shilled for General Electric? Regardless, let’s try to do more justice to Gorbachev’s concerns about SDI than Reagan did at their summits.
It’s kind of amazing that the Cold War never led to weapons in space. It certainly didn’t have to be that way. Histories today note what a shock it was to American pride and confidence when the Soviet Union became the first nation to successfully launch a satellite on October 4, 1957. That’s true enough, but a glance at the newspapers from the time also reveals less abstract fears. Now that the Soviets had satellites, people expected them to weaponize them, to use them to start dropping atomic bombs on their heads from space. One rumor, which amazingly turned out to have a basis in fact, claimed the Soviets planned to nuke the Moon, leading to speculation on what would happen if their missile was to miss the surface, boomerang around the Moon, and come back to Earth — talk about being hoisted from one’s own petard! The United States’s response to the Soviets’ satellite was par for the course during the Cold War: panicked, often ill-considered activity in the name of not falling behind. Initial responsibility for space was given to the military. The Navy and the Air Force, who often seemed to distrust one another more than either did the Soviets, promptly started squabbling over who owned this new seascape or skyscape, which depending on how you looked at it and how you picked your metaphors could reasonably be assumed to belong to either. While the Naval Research Laboratory struggled to get the United States’s first satellite into space, the more ambitious dreamers at the Air Force Special Weapons Center made their own secret plans to nuke the Moon as a show of force and mulled the construction of a manned secret spy base there.
But then, on July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the bill that would transform the tiny National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics into the soon-to-be massive National Aeronautics and Space Administration — NASA. While NASA’s charter duly charged the new agency with making any “discoveries” available for “national defense” and with “the preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology,” those goals came only after more high-toned abstractions like “the expansion of human knowledge” and the use of space for “peaceful and scientific purposes.” NASA was something of an early propaganda coup at a time when very little seemed to be going right with astronautics in the United States. The Soviet leadership had little choice but to accept the idea, publicly at least, of space exploration as a fundamentally peaceful endeavor. In 1967 the United States and the Soviet Union became signatories along with many other nations to the Outer Space Treaty that enshrined the peaceful status quo into international law. By way of compensation, the first operational ICBMs had started to come online by the end of the 1950s, giving both superpowers a way of dealing impersonal death from the stratosphere without having to rely on wonky satellites.
This is not to say that the Cold War never made it into space in any form. Far from it. Apollo, that grandest adventure of the twentieth century, would never have happened without the impetus of geopolitics. The Apollo 11 astronauts may have left a message on the Moon saying they had “come in peace for all mankind,” may have even believed it at some level, but that was hardly the whole story. President Kennedy, the architect of it all, had no illusions about the real purpose of his Moon pronouncement. “Everything that we do ought to be really tied into getting onto the Moon ahead of the Russians,” he told NASA Administrator James Webb in 1962. “Otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money because I’m not that interested in space.” The Moon Race, like war, was diplomacy through other means. As such, the division between military and civilian was not always all that clear. For instance, the first Americans to fly into orbit, like the first Soviets, did so mounted atop repurposed ICBMs.
Indeed, neither the American nor the Soviet military had any interest in leaving space entirely to the civilians. If one of the goals of NASA’s formation had been to eliminate duplications of effort, it didn’t entirely succeed. The Air Force in particular proved very reluctant to give up on their own manned space efforts, developing during the 1960s the X-15 rocket plane that Neil Armstrong among others flew to the edge of orbit, the cancelled Dyna-Soar space plane, and even a manned space station that also never got off the drawing board. Planners in both the United States and the Soviet Union seemed to treat the 1967 Outer Space Treaty as almost a temporary accord, waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the militarization of space to begin in earnest. I’ve already described in an earlier article how, once the Moon Race was over, NASA was forced to make an unholy alliance with the Air Force to build the space shuttle, whose very flight profile was designed to allow it to avoid space-based weaponry that didn’t yet actually exist.
Yet the most immediate and far-reaching military application of space proved to be reconnaissance satellites. Well before the 1960s were out these orbiting spies had become vital parts of the intelligence apparatus of both the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as vital tools for the detection of ICBM launches by the other side — yet another component of the ever-evolving balance of terror. Still, restrained by treaty, habit, and concern over what it might make the other guys do, neither of the superpowers ever progressed to the logical step of trying to shoot down those satellites that were spying on their countries. If you had told people in 1957 that there would still be effectively no weapons in space almost thirty years later, that there would never have been anything even remotely resembling a battle in space, I think they would be quite surprised.
But now SDI had come along and, at least in the Soviets’ view, threatened to undermine that tradition. They need only take at face value early reports of SDI’s potential implementations, which were all over the American popular media by the time of Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, to have ample grounds for concern. One early plan, proposed in apparent earnest by a committee who may have seen The Battle of Britain (or Star Wars) a few too many times, would have the United States and its allies protected by squadrons of orbiting manned fighter planes, who would rocket to the rescue to shoot down encroaching ICBMs, their daring pilots presumably wearing dashing scarves and using phrases like “Tally ho!” A more grounded plan, relatively speaking, was the one for hundreds of “orbiting battle stations” equipped with particle-beam weapons or missiles of their own — hey, whatever works — to pick off the ICBMs. Of course, as soon as these gadgets came into being the Soviets would have to develop gadgets of their own to try to take them out. Thus a precious accord would be shattered forever. To the Soviets, SDI felt like a betrayal, a breaking of a sacred trust that had so far kept people and satellites in space from having to shoot at each other and in doing so had just possibly prevented the development of a new generation of horrific weaponry.
And yet this was if anything the more modest of the two outrages they saw being inflicted on the world by SDI. The biggest problem was that it could be both a symptom and a cause of the ending of the old MAD doctrine — Mutually Assured Destruction — that had been the guiding principle of both superpowers for over twenty years and that had prevented them from blowing one another up along with the rest of the world. On its surface, the MAD formulation is simplicity itself. I have enough nuclear weapons to destroy your country — or at least to do unacceptable damage to it — and a window of time to launch them at you between the time I realize that you’ve launch yours at me and the time that yours actually hit me. Further, neither of us has the ability to stop the missiles of the other — at least, not enough of them. Therefore we’d best find some way to get along and not shoot missiles at each other. One comparison, so favored by Reagan that he drove Gorbachev crazy by using it over and over again at each of their summits, is that of two movie mobsters with cocked and loaded pistols pointed at each others’ heads.
That well-intentioned comparison is also a rather facile one. The difference is a matter of degree. Many of us had MAD, that most fundamental doctrine of the Cold War, engrained in us as schoolchildren to such a degree that it might be hard for us to really think about its horribleness anymore. Nevertheless, I’d like for us to try to do so now. Let’s think in particular about its basic psychological prerequisites. In order for the threat of nuclear annihilation to be an effective deterrent, in order for it never to be carried out, it must paradoxically be a real threat, one which absolutely, unquestionably would be carried out if the order was given. If the other side was ever to suspect that we were not willing to destroy them, the deterrent would evaporate. So, we must create an entire military superstructure, a veritable subculture, of many thousands of people all willing to unquestioningly annihilate tens or hundreds of millions of people. Indeed, said annihilation is the entire purpose of their professional existence. They sit in their missile silos or in their ready rooms or cruise the world in their submarines waiting for the order to push that button or turn that key that will quite literally end existence as they know it, insulated from the incalculable suffering that action will cause inside the very same sorts of “clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices” that Reagan once described as the domain of the Soviet Union’s totalitarian leadership alone. If the rise of this sort of antiseptic killing is the tragedy of the twentieth century, the doctrine of MAD represents it taken to its well-nigh incomprehensible extreme.
MAD, requiring as it did people to be always ready and able to carry out genocide so that they would not have to carry out genocide, struck a perilous psychological balance. Things had the potential to go sideways when one of these actors in what most people hoped would be Waiting for Godot started to get a little bit too ready and able — in short, when someone started to believe that he could win. See for example General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command from its inception until 1965 and the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove‘s unhinged General Jack Ripper. LeMay believed to his dying day that the the United States had “lost” the Cuban Missile Crisis because President Kennedy had squandered his chance to finally just attack the Soviet Union and be done with it; talked of the killing of 100 million human beings as a worthwhile trade-off for the decapitation of the Soviet leadership; openly campaigned for and sought ways to covertly acquire the metaphorical keys to the nuclear arsenal, to be used solely at his own dubious discretion. “If I see that the Russians are amassing their planes for an attack, I’m going to knock the shit out of them before they take off the ground,” he once told a civil-defense committee. When told that such an action would represent insubordination to the point of treason, he replied, “I don’t care. It’s my policy. That’s what I’m going to do.” Tellingly, Dr. Strangelove itself was originally envisioned as a realistic thriller. The film descended into black comedy only when Stanley Kubrick started his research and discovered that so much of the reality was, well, blackly comic. Much in Dr. Strangelove that moviegoers of 1964 took as satire was in fact plain truth.
If the belief by a single individual that a nuclear war can be won is dangerous, an institutionalized version of that belief might just be the most dangerous thing in the world. And here we get to the heart of the Soviets’ almost visceral aversion to SDI, for it seemed to them and many others a product of just such a belief.
During the mid-1970s, when détente was still the watchword of the day, a group of Washington old-timers and newly arrived whiz kids formed something with the Orwellian name of The Committee on the Present Danger. Its leading light was one Paul Nitze. A name few Americans then or now are likely to recognize, Nitze had been a Washington insider since the 1940s and would remain a leading voice in Cold War policy for literally the entire duration of the Cold War. He and his colleagues, many of them part of a new generation of so-called “neoconservative” ideologues, claimed that détente was a sham, that “the Soviets do not agree with the Americans that nuclear war is unthinkable and unwinnable and that the only objective of strategic doctrine must be mutual deterrence.” On the contrary, they were preparing for “war-fighting, war-surviving, and war-winning.” Their means for accomplishing the latter two objectives would be an elaborate civil-defense program that was supposedly so effective as to reduce their casualties in an all-out nuclear exchange to about 10 percent of what the United States could expect. The Committee offered little or no proof for these assertions and many others like them. Many simply assumed that the well-connected Nitze must have access to secret intelligence sources which he couldn’t name. If so, they were secret indeed. When the CIA, alarmed by claims of Soviet preparedness in the Committee’s reports that were completely new to them, instituted a two-year investigation to get to the bottom of it all, they couldn’t find any evidence of whatsoever of any unusual civil-defense programs, much less any secret plans to start and win a nuclear war. It appears that Nitze and his colleagues exaggerated wildly and, when even that wouldn’t serve their ends, just made stuff up. (This pattern of “fixing the intelligence” would remain with Committee veterans for decades, leading most notably to the Iraq invasion of 2003.)
Throughout the Carter administration the Committee lobbied anyone who would listen, using the same sort of paranoid circular logic that had led to the nuclear-arms race in the first place. The Soviets, they said, have secretly abandoned the MAD strategy and embarked on a nuclear-war-winning strategy in its place. Therefore we must do likewise. There could be no American counterpart to the magical Soviet civil-defense measures that could somehow protect 90 percent of their population from the blasts of nuclear weapons and the long years of radioactive fall-out that would follow. This was because civil defense was “unattractive” to an “open society” (“unattractiveness” being a strangely weak justification for not doing something in the face of what the Committee claimed was an immediate existential threat, but so be it). One thing the United States could and must do in response was to engage in a huge nuclear- and conventional-arms buildup. That way it could be sure to hammer the Soviets inside their impregnable tunnels — or wherever it was they would all be going — just as hard as possible. But in addition, the United States must come up with a defense of its own.
Although Carter engaged in a major military buildup in his own right, his was nowhere near big enough in the Committee’s eyes. But then came the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan took all of the Committee’s positions to heart and, indeed, took most of its most prominent members into his administration. Their new approach to geopolitical strategy was immediately apparent, and immediately destabilizing. Their endless military feints and probes and aggressive rhetoric seemed almost to have the intention of starting a war with the Soviet Union, a war they seemed to welcome whilst being bizarrely dismissive of its potentially world-ending consequences. Their comments read like extracts from Trinity‘s satirically gung-ho accompanying comic. “Nuclear war is a destructive thing, but it is still in large part a physics problem,” said one official. “If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it. It’s the dirt that does it,” said another. Asked if he thought that a nuclear war was “winnable,” Casper Weinberger replied, “We certainly are not planning to be defeated.” And then, in March of that fraught year of 1983 when the administration almost got the nuclear war it seemed to be courting, came Reagan’s SDI speech.
The most important thing to understand about SDI is that it was always a fantasy, a chimera chased by politicians and strategists who dearly wished it was possible. The only actual scientist amongst those who lobbied for it was Edward Teller, well known to the public as the father of the hydrogen bomb. One of the few participants in the Manhattan Project which had built the first atomic bomb more than 35 years before still active in public life at the time that Reagan took office, Teller was a brilliant scientist when he wanted to be, but one whose findings and predictions were often tainted by his strident anti-communism and a passion for nuclear weapons that could leave him sounding as unhinged as General LeMay. Teller seldom saw a problem that couldn’t be solved just by throwing a hydrogen bomb or two at it. His response to Carter’s decision to return the Panama Canal to Panama, for instance, was to recommend quickly digging a new one across some more cooperative Central American country using hydrogen bombs. Now, alone amongst his scientific peers, Teller told the Reagan administration that SDI was possible. He claimed that he could create X-ray beams in space by, naturally, detonating hydrogen bombs just so. These could be aimed at enemy missiles, zapping them out of the sky. The whole system could be researched, built, and put into service within five years. As evidence, he offered some inconclusive preliminary results derived from experimental underground explosions. It was all completely ridiculous; we still don’t know how to create such X-ray beams today, decades on. But it was also exactly the sort of superficially credible scientific endorsement — and from the father of the hydrogen bomb, no less! — that the Reagan administration needed.
Reagan coasted to reelection in 1984 in a campaign that felt more like a victory lap, buoyed by “Morning Again in America,” an energetic economy, and a military buildup that had SDI as one of its key components. The administration lobbied Congress to give the SDI project twice the inflation-adjusted funding as that received by the Manhattan Project at the height of World War II. With no obviously promising paths at all to follow, SDI opted for the spaghetti approach, throwing lots and lots of stuff at the wall in the hope that something would stick. Thus it devolved into a whole lot of individual fiefdoms with little accountability and less coordination with one another. Dr. Ashton Carter of Harvard, a former Defense Department analyst with full security clearance tasked with preparing a study of SDI for the Congressional Budget Office, concluded that the prospect for any sort of success was “so remote that it should not serve as the basis of public expectations of national policy.” Most of the press, seduced by Reagan’s own euphoria, paid little heed to such voices, instead publishing articles talking about the relative merits of laser and kinetic-energy weapons, battle stations in space, and whether the whole system should be controlled by humans or turned over to a supercomputer mastermind. With every notion as silly and improbable as every other and no direction in the form of a coherent plan from the SDI project itself, everyone could be an expert, everyone could build their own little SDI castle above the stratosphere. When journalists did raise objections, Reagan replied with more folksy homilies about how everyone thought Edison was crazy until he invented the light bulb, appealing to the good old American ingenuity that had got us to the Moon and could make anything possible. The administration’s messaging was framed so as to make objecting to SDI unpatriotic, downright un-American.
And yet even if you thought that American ingenuity would indeed save the day in the end, SDI had a more fundamental problem that made it philosophically as well as scientifically unsound. This most basic objection, cogently outlined at the time by the great astronomer, science popularizer, space advocate, and anti-SDI advocate Carl Sagan, was a fairly simple one. Even the most fanciful predictions for SDI must have a capacity ceiling, a limit beyond which the system simply couldn’t shoot down any more missiles. And it would always be vastly cheaper to build a few dozen more missiles than it would be to build and launch and monitor another battle station (or whatever) to deal with them. Not only would SDI not bring an end to nuclear weapons, it was likely to actually accelerate the nuclear-arms race, as the Soviet Union would now feel the need to not only be able to destroy the United States ten times over but be able to destroy the United States ten times over while also comprehensively overwhelming any SDI system in place. Reagan’s public characterization of SDI as a “nuclear umbrella” under which the American public might live safe and secure had no basis in reality. Even if SDI could somehow be made 99 percent effective, a figure that would make it more successful than any other defense in the history of warfare, the 1 percent of the Soviet Union’s immense arsenal that got through would still be enough to devastate many of the country’s cities and kill tens or hundreds of millions. There may have been an argument to make for SDI research aimed at developing, likely decades in the future, a system that could intercept and destroy a few rogue missiles. As a means of protection against a full-on strategic strike, though… forget it. It wasn’t going to happen. Ever. As President Nixon once said, “With 10,000 of these damn things, there is no defense.”
As with his seeming confusion about Gorbachev’s objections to SDI at their summits, it’s hard to say to what degree Reagan grasped this reality. Was he living a fantasy like so many others in the press and public when he talked of SDI rendering ICBMs “impotent and obsolete?” Whatever the answer to that question, it seems pretty clear that others inside the administration knew perfectly well that SDI couldn’t possibly protect the civilian population as a whole to any adequate degree. SDI was in reality a shell game, not an attempt to do an end-run around the doctrine of mutually assured destruction but an attempt to make sure that mutually assured destruction stayed mutually assured when it came to the United States’s side of the equation. Cold War planners had fretted for decades about a nightmare scenario in which the Soviet Union launched a first strike and the United States, due to sabotage, Soviet stealth technology, or some failure of command and control, failed to detect and respond to it in time by launching its own missiles before they were destroyed in their silos by those of the Soviets. SDI’s immediate strategic purpose was to close this supposed “window of vulnerability.” The system would be given, not the impossible task of protecting the vast nation as a whole, but the merely hugely improbable one of protecting those few areas where the missile silos were concentrated. Asked point-blank under oath whether SDI was meant to protect American populations or American missile silos, Pentagon chief of research and engineering Richard DeLauer gave a telling non-answer: “What we are trying to do is enhance deterrence. If you enhance deterrence and your deterrence is credible and holds, the people are protected.” This is of course just a reiteration of the MAD policy itself, not a separate justification for SDI. MAD just kept getting madder.
The essential absurdity of American plans for SDI seems to have struck Gorbachev by the beginning of 1987. Soviet intelligence had been scrambling for a few years by then, convinced that there had to be some important technological breakthrough behind all of the smoke the Reagan administration was throwing. It seems that at about this point they may have concluded that, no, the whole thing really was as ridiculous as it seemed. At any rate, Gorbachev decided it wasn’t worth perpetuating the Cold War over. He backed away from his demands, offering the United States the opportunity to continuing working on SDI if it liked, demanding only a commitment to inform the Soviet Union and officially back out of some relevant treaties (which might very possibly have to include the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that forbade nuclear explosions in space) if it decided to actually implement it. Coupled with Gorbachev’s soaring global popularity, it was enough to start getting deals done. Reagan and Gorbachev signed their first substantial agreement, to eliminate between them 2692 missiles, in December of 1987. More would follow, accompanied by shocking liberalization and reform behind the erstwhile Iron Curtain, culminating in the night of November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall, long the tangible symbol of division between East and West, came down. Just like that, almost incomprehensible in its suddenness, the Cold War was over. Trinity stands today as a cogent commentary on that strange shadow conflict, but it proved blessedly less than prescient about the way it would end. Whatever else is still to come, there will be no nuclear war between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
If the end of the Cold War was shockingly unexpected, SDI played out exactly as you might expect. The program was renamed to the more modest Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and scaled back dramatically in 1993, by which time it had cost half again as much as the Manhattan Project — a staggering $30 billion, enough to make it the most expensive research program in history — and accomplished little. The old idea still resurfaces from time to time, but the fervor it once generated is all but forgotten now. SDI, like most history, is now essentially a footnote.
A more inspiring closing subject is Mikhail Gorbachev. His Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding, he strikes me as someone who hasn’t quite gotten his due yet from history. There are many reasons that the Cold War came to an end when it did. Prominent among them was the increasingly untenable Soviet economy, battered during the decade by “the Soviet Union’s Vietnam” (Gorbachev’s phrase) in Afghanistan, a global downturn in oil prices, and the sheer creaking inertia of many years of, as the old Soviet saying went, workers pretending to work while the state pretended to pay them for it. Nevertheless, I don’t agree with Marx that history is a compendium of economic forces. Many individuals across Eastern Europe stepped forward to end their countries’ totalitarian regimes — usually peacefully, sometimes violently, occasionally at the cost of their lives. But Gorbachev’s shadow overlays all the rest. Undaunted by the most bellicose Presidential rhetoric in two decades, he used politics, psychology, and logic to convince Reagan to sit down with him and talk, then worked with him to shape a better, safer world. While Reagan talked about ending MAD through his chimerical Star Wars, Gorbachev actually did it, by abandoning his predecessors’ traditional intransigence, rolling up his sleeves, and finding a way to make it work. Later, this was the man who didn’t choose to send in the tanks when the Warsaw Pact started to slip away, making him, as Victor Sebstyen put it, one of very few leaders in the history of the world to elect not to use force to maintain an empire. Finally, and although it certainly was never his intention, he brought the Soviet Union in for a soft landing, keeping the chaos to a minimum and keeping the missiles from flying. Who would have imagined Gorbachev was capable of such vision, such — and I don’t use this word lightly — heroism? Who would have imagined he could weave his way around the hardliners at home and abroad to accomplish what he did? Prior to assuming office in 1985, he was just a smart, capable Party man who knew who buttered his bread, who, as he later admitted, “licked Brezhnev’s ass” alongside his colleagues. And then when he got to the top he looked around, accepted that the system just wasn’t working, and decided to change it. Gorbachev reminds us that the hero is often not the one who picks up a gun but the one who chooses not to.
(In addition to the sources listed in the previous article, Way Out There in the Blue by Frances FitzGerald is the best history I’ve found of SDI and its politics.)
Oh ye gods and little monsters. I was planning on doing these monthly, and hopefully the zombie-related content will slow down as I get better at avoiding it, but for now there is plenty of post material.
Mostly it’s OK. I have my regular Crusader Kings 2 fix (argh update why you nerf pagans), I’ve introduced people to Long Live the Queen, I’ve hot-seated Never Alone with Jacq, I have checked back in on Prison Architect to confirm that it is still pretty boring, I have tried out ranged weapons in NEO Scavenger and determined that they are super fucking useless. I am not afflicted by dreadful cravings for XCOM or Skyrim or Dwarf Fortress beyond the level of mild annoyance. Jacq has only slightly guilted me about not playing NecroDancer with her. It’s the post-Steam-sale season, so I am not really feeling the need to buy new things.
Saints Row IV: Another Christmas-sale purchase that I whiffed on. ‘It’s like GTA but it gives zero shits about taking itself seriously’ isn’t the world’s most enticing pitch, but enough people whose discernment I respect have told me that no, it’s really amazing and I should try it out. I should have realised that when you give zero shits and are just kickin’ it clownshoes, zombies follow logically.
Tropico 4: I love the original Tropico dearly, but its subsequent iterations have been highly disappointing. To a great extent this is a writing problem: one of the best things about Tropico 1 was its witty, quotable writing, sometimes over-the-top but always with a sense of understated ironic ridiculousness. It was cartoony, sure, but it maintained a basic respect for the subject-matter; it helped that it had voice actors who actually sounded Latino. Tropico 4, by contrast, is cheap, goofy, exploity, written by atrocious hacks* and voice-acted by hams. It’s still mechanically Tropico, so a year or three ago I stuck with it longer than it really deserved.
But I felt like a gentle, familiar strategy game, and it was already installed, and I hadn’t played it for long enough that perhaps memory had softened it. And the very next scenario in my old half-finished campaign was an exploitative-as-fuck Haitian voodoo thing which included, yes, the option to create a bunch of zombie workers. The whole thing was so profoundly half-assed that I can’t really glean any coherent meaning from it beyond ‘shit, we have to crank out a scenario in the next three hours; anybody got any ideas for a theme?’
That said, I’ve run into lots of games so far where the zombies were kind of serving a purpose, or weren’t really any different from other enemies, or what-have-you. (I equivocate by reflex.) This is the first one where my immediate reaction was ‘seriously? What the shitting fuck, game. Fuck you eternally. Uninstalled. Fuck.’ It’s about time that this enterprise got some righteous fury.
Dragon Age: Origins. ‘Pretty sure there aren’t any zombies in it,’ I was told by a friend for whom Bioware romance games are a subject of near-religious enthusiasm. Then somewhere in the intro section I ran into animated skeletons: as it turns out, both skeletons and devouring corpses count as zombies under my terms – technically they’re demons inhabiting the remains of dead people, and that would normally be fine, but the demons are driven to zombie-style insanity in the process. In fact, I had already looked this up, but managed to forget all about it. And I looked it up again before playing, but evidently did a really crappy search. Christ, this must be what it’s like for baby vegetarians. Fortunately the friend in question is super-understanding about my stupid restrictions, and independently figured out that I shouldn’t keep playing.
Three Parts Dead (novel). I’d been curious about Max Gladstone’s Craft series since I read Choice of the Deathless, and was settling in for some bedtime reading. Alas, very early on in the first book of the series, heroine Tara Abernathy resurrects three dead watchmen to protect her hometown from raiders. The zombonym is ‘revenant’ – fine choice, a little early Gothic, a little Monstrous Manual – but they’re unambiguously zombies:
A revenant didn’t require a will of its own, or at least not so robust a will as most humans thought they possessed. Slice! Or complex emotions, though those were more fundamental to the human animal and thus harder to pry free; she made her knife’s edge jagged to saw them out, then fine and scalpel-sharp to excise the troublesome bits. Leave a fragment of self-preservation, and the seething rage left over from the last moments of the subject’s life.
A thoughtful treatment. Zombies were not conspicuously a thing (I think) in Deathless, but they’re pretty consistent with how the world works, so I should have been more careful. Increasingly, though, it looks as though any work with fantasy or SF elements is inherently a risk. I am weary, and it’s only mid-January.
I’ve been watching aforementioned friend play the first season of The Walking Dead. I contend that this doesn’t count, any more than enjoying the smell of bacon violates one’s vegetarianism, although that might be a bit more of a complicated case to make about this game. Still consumption, undoubtedly, though mostly what I’m consuming is player reaction (‘I immediately regret this’, ‘look at Clem again and I will cut you’).
Since I’ve recently been playing a lot of NEO Scavenger, The Long Dark and This War of Mine, Steam is understandably of the belief that I want to do nothing but play postapocalyptic early-access games. Holy shit, there are a lot of ‘em, and they all look really fucking similar: crafting/building system, lots of guns, online multiplayer, high incidence of rugged brotagonists, and all zombies all the fucking time. Evidently ‘zombie survival, crafting/building, multiplayer’ is the weeping motorcycle gorilla of early access games. Regardless, our civilisation is at no risk of Peak Zombie. They just keep coming, dead-eyed, implacable.
It does not escape my attention that this formula is essentially ‘Minecraft, but not for little kids‘. So much of videogames are a tension between childhood and adolescence; if adulthood gets a look-in it’s generally just as backup for one or the other.
I picked up Expeditions: Conquistador at the recommendation of Gunther Schmidl; it deserves props for taking a combat-centric game in a decidedly anti-zombie direction, with the fundamental attitude that all sides of a conflict are populated by people with lives, diverse personalities and motivations, complicated ethics. It’s a neat subversion of the whole adventurer-party concept, the weird idea that a roving band of mercenaries might be the world’s most important force for good. Recommended.
* OK, while that’s true, it’s not entirely fair. In order to be an atrocious hack, someone has to give you money and say ‘please produce some atrocious hackwork; you have until Tuesday.’ In this case, it was a matter of… I don’t even know how the IP ended up there, but it’s a matter of a German publisher hiring a Bulgarian developer to make a game about Caribbean nations to be consumed by Americans. That is not a process likely to place high value on expert handling of either the English language or Caribbean cultures.
|DPRK running in HUGOR on Red Star Linux 3.0|
So I really dropped the ball with SPAG, and I’ve realised it’s time to own up to that.
I had sincere hopes of publishing SPAG regularly, but for many reasons it didn’t happen. Real life got busy. One particular article stumped my editorial instincts so that I avoided the whole project for a while. I received only a handful of articles which made me worry that even if issue 62 were published there would be nothing for after that. (Though my inactivity was probably the cause of that – who would submit articles to a website that’s been quiet for two years?) But ultimately I’ve realised that I’m not the right person to be in charge. I’m a strong P in the Myers-Briggs personality system – I’m much better at maintaining other people’s Inform extensions than writing a story myself, or even than writing my own extensions. I much prefer to be a second-in-charge than a leader, and being a leader over no one but myself is the worst of all.
So it’s time that I ask for someone else to take over. I’m still willing to be involved, especially in a technical/webmaster role, but SPAG needs someone else to be the editor. It needs someone with a stronger vision for the site too. I still think that hosting short reviews is something that the community is more than covering at the IFDB and all the blogs, but what else SPAG could become I’m not sure. In depth SPAG Specifics reviews? A place for curating IF? An indie publisher? Please contact me if you have ideas or would like to help. I don’t want this site to stay dead.
My greatest apologies go to the authors whose articles I’ve been sitting on. I really do hope they will get published soon.
As part of running the XYZZY Awards (announcement on that soon, I swear), for the past few years I’ve organised focused reviews of the finalists in each category, drawing on the rich pool of critics and reviewers in the IF world. Not every category always gets covered, but last year we came pretty close; I assigned myself to cover the gap, Best NPCs, got the write-ups mostly done, then overextended myself and whiffed on the deadline. It seems like cheating to put them on the main XYZZY site, given that I imposed Actual Deadlines on everybody else; but it seems they should see the light of day, so here – considerably belated, with apologies – they are. (Inevitably, I am still not happy with all of them, but it’s a Get Shit Out Of The Door kind of day.)
The format here assumes that you’ve already played the finalists (Bell Park, Youth Detective; Choice of the Deathless; Ollie Ollie Oxen Free; ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III; Witch’s Girl).
Weird NPCs are at the heart of Bell Park. The game runs on character-driven comedy, with Bell playing flustered straight man to a series of outlandish (but only slightly exaggerated) funny guys. The game makes jokes about the inappropriateness of even a pretty bright kid conducting a murder investigation, but to some degree that’s just an overdrive version of the weird displacement of being a kid bright enough that adults make up most of the people who are really interesting to you, while still being a kid and therefore finding adults inaccessibly confusing on a number of levels.
For a game that’s almost entirely about conversations, and that converges quickly towards the same ending, Bell Park isn’t much of a lawnmower. It’s fairly possible to miss more revealing things about certain characters. The softer moment with -bitmap zer0-, which adds a less-obvious layer to the character, is easily missed without realising that you’ve missed anything at all. Rather than this sympathetic and oft-referenced “being weird weirdly” node, you could have her major character note be the following, which reframes her apparently hard-pragmatic, data-driven mindset as a kind of willful nerd myopia:
“I don’t see race,” she says as she leans into the monitor, “I only see the ones and zeros.”
So the game’s basic attitude to its NPCs, even though they’re comic caricatures, is that they’re people with layers, good and bad, not all of which you will necessarily get to see.
Despite the suspect-line-up structure, there’s not an even standard of attention to the NPCs; the money guy and the surfer guy feel less developed both as characters and as the concepts they represent. If this is a story about theory versus practice, though, they represent opposite ends of the spectrum: the money guy, Argent Sunflower, is so ruthlessly practical that he’s a jerk (even though his pragmatism makes him the one who insists on breaking out of the game’s dodgy premise and doing the right thing). Chet, the surfer, is so wedded to his specialist field that, given a context where it’s totally irrelevant, he becomes completely hopeless.
Ultimately, Bell Park feels like a sort of critique of a certain kind of intellectual culture, particularly conference culture, of how it promotes wacky specialist-advocates rather than balanced thinkers, of the tendency of movements to become dominated by their outspoken, hypertrophied loony fringes, and of how this makes it difficult for them to actually talk to one another. But it’s aiming, I think, for a Bee-like balance between snarking at the silly parts of something and taking points of view seriously; it’s also a story about how growing up is in large part a process of confronting unfamiliar points of view, and learning how to sort the insightful from the ridiculous. It’s all very Aristotelean.
It’s also a story about what happens when theory is forced to confront its subject. Just because it’s your job to think about the future doesn’t mean that you’ll actually be very good at dealing with the future when it shows up. Bell gets the final laugh, with a moral that kind of frames her as the Daoist against the court philosophers: it’s useful to spend some time in blue-sky hypothesis land, but if you take it too seriously, the joke’s on you.
It’s always a little odd writing about a piece that was nominated in Category A when its core concerns are more to do with different aspects. Ollie, Bell Park, absolutely, those are NPC-centred games. Deathless is, on its surface, a piece with highly assured writing and a distinctive fantasy setting; underneath, its attention is mostly dedicated to the player-character and their story. Its non-player characters are good, true, but they’re not what I would have picked out as the work’s standout feature.
However: play in Choice of the Deathless is largely about negotiating relationships. Yes, you have some choices about how nice an apartment to rent, and so on, but for me these were less interesting, less firmly grasped, with consequences less directly-felt. The immediately interesting choices it presents are about how to treat people; the immediate challenge it proposes is the possibility that other people are out to screw you. To a great extent, more so than I’ve seen in most Choice of Games pieces, your NPC connections are your character stats in Deathless. Sure, there are other choices, but with the possible exception of Craft I didn’t find myself worrying so much about the Gunner/Socialite spectrum or Sleep, or, wow, there’s a Determination stat and a Cunning stat? Hunh. (Partly this is because, at this point, I’m familiar enough with the basic CoG tactic – pick an area or two of expertise and always rely on them – that it’s become sublimated. Once you know that pattern, it takes little thought to stick to it.)
Relationship management has always been a central part of the Choice of Games house style, generally following the venerable squabbling-NPCs model familiar from CRPGs. Under this model, the player character’s commitment to a relationship is phrased in terms of whom they support when NPCs clash with one another. While this isn’t always a zero-sum game, the idea that relationships are focused around whose side you take is a kind of natural fit for games focused on Big Character Choices. (See, inevitably, The Walking Dead.)
In another medium, the cut-throat tone would be the signal for an ending in which few characters got out without paying hard prices. In Deathless, the protagonist grows and changes; other characters are, for the most part, only revealed. But choices do have obvious orientation around characters. And like most games with a largely player-defined PC, the NPCs are a good deal more formed as characters than the PC – more memorable, even.
They have good names, too. These skew somewhat towards the Dickensian style of strong personality-evoking name without going into full-on comic mode, which is just about the right tone. It’s a pretty safe bet that Ainsley Wakefield is not going to be as chummy a character as Cass Chen. As a group, they give you the right impression – this is an environment that’s somewhat multicultural, not out of any higher motives but just because it’s highly competitive and outright bigotry is super-inconvenient for brain-drain. There are also some outlandish elements, letting you know that the world’s warped at the edges: Varkath is a down-the-line lich-king kind of name.
This kind of attention to characteris consistent even with incidental characters – if you run into a demon doorman whom you’ll never see again, he’s going to get a brief, suggestive and probably disturbing detail. This is absolutely a Creative Writing 101 kind of technique, but you see it ignored or mishandled so bloody often that it’s worth noting when it’s well-used. These flavourful extras, all crazy teeth and bleeding eyes, are part of a general effect of contrast between the lurid elements of demons and magic and the mundane elements that live side-by-side with them. Someone might be ritually sacrificing a goat to bind a demon, but under the robes they’re wearing sweatpants. The fantastic-mundane juxtaposition is a venerable approach, and to make it feel this fresh takes both observation and imagination.
Like most CoG works, some of the NPCs can be romanced; unlike most, the curtain isn’t tightly drawn across the sex. My half-assed theory on sex scenes in literature is that the main effects available to an author are Porny, Disturbing or Funny. (There’s also Boring, but that’s a possibility with anything.) Sometimes you get two at once, and there’s a big distinction between being intentionally disturbing or funny and accidentally so, but 99% of the time, those are the options: eliminate any two, and you’re stuck with the third. One of the standard ways that an author wanders into unintentionally hilarious territory is to describe the sex-scene in a manner I’m going to call Abstract Intensity, a prolix, flowery style that goes out of its way to avoid describing anything that might arouse or disturb anyone. And here Gladstone does something pretty impressive: he renders a scene in what is recognisably a species of Abstract Intensity Sex, but doesn’t leave me snickering and chasing down friends in order to read choice extracts. (In line with the rest of the writing, it doesn’t lack some restrained humour, but that doesn’t become its defining mood.)
Abstract Intensity is, on the face of it, a useful approach to employ within the Choice of Games house style: since it avoids the messy matter of bodies, it can very easily elide the matters of gender, sexuality and personality that depend on player choice. And it meshes well with Gladstone’s style in the rest of the work, which is, again, unafraid to go lurid and breathless. But having done that, you’re very, very close to making the people involved completely interchangeable. Which, in fact, is what Deathless does: the same writing is used for different partners. At that point my feeling was a bit, wow, you didn’t even change the sheets. Doesn’t matter in the slightest if you only play once, of course.
But this felt, if not like a direct consequence – no reason why the format means you have to do this – then an emblem of the way that the CRPG character-creation approach makes NPCs extensions of the player-character, satellites reflecting the light of a self-projection. The fact that this matters, that it’s a problem, is because this story is more concerned with non-player characters. Chen and Wakefield aren’t Spouse #2: The Brunette Helpmeet, as in Choice of Broadsides. They have voices, relationship dynamics. But we don’t see much of them outside their interactions with the PC, because this is not that kind of story.
Although Deathless sells itself as being about a cutthroat, dog-eat-dog kind of world, it’s really not all that interpersonally nasty. It is by no means difficult to get a heartwarming ending about the redemptive power of friendship. By the conclusion, the player-character is likely to find themselves surrounded by allies and friends, and with no seriously vicious rivals. You can get through the game without someone who you thought was your friend ever dealing you a devastating emotional wound; sure, your bosses undercut and use you, but you didn’t expect anything better. The demon with whom you establish a working relationship turns out to be a loyal ally, less alien than it initially appears.
The real nastiness isn’t to do with the people you hang out with. The scary thing about the demons is not that eldritch horrors from another dimension could tear apart the fabric of reality, it’s that the job of protecting the world from aforementioned eldritch horrors is in the hands of people who have a gigantic conflict of interest. It’s not that your soul is going to get stolen, it’s that it’ll be bundled up and passed around as generic currency by people who don’t give the tiniest shit. Every character in Deathless is an oilman, a slave-trade lobbyist; the game is about how well a bunch of oilmen get along with one another.
The moral angle of Deathless is more directly about demons-as-immigrants rather than demons-as-energy, though. A central theme is about, if not precisely understanding the Other, then recognising the possibility of it. Rehabilitation of the Pure Evil Other is, by this point, a pretty standard move, but usually a good sign. The thing here is that demons are presented, for at least a while, as radically other, brain-breakingly unlike us – not Solaris, exactly, but about as close a thing can be to Solaris while actually being talkable-to. Which I think is the point, really – that if it’s possible to talk to something clearly enough to negotiate with it, you need to extend it some consideration. The trick here is that, in the process of doing this, the demons become suspiciously like humans with crazy special effects. They have art, parent-child rebellion drama, ritual feasting. By the end of the story, the principal demon is beginning to feel like just another member of the PC’s circle of buddies. I was a little disappointed by this – the ‘aliens are really just like us if you get to know them!’ narrative is an important one, sure, but it feels like a deflation here.
The one character who does change, rather dramatically, is the antagonist, John Smith. In such a carefully-named piece we shouldn’t expect a moniker like that to be an accident; and indeed, Smith is not a character who sticks in the mind, despite cropping up at a lot of key moments. The bad guy, in this story, is not a Donald Trump, a larger-than-life jerkwad as interested in display as in actual wickedness; it’s a boringly clever guy, who doesn’t need his power witnessed as long as he gets more of it. Like the protagonist, his deal is finding loopholes.
All of the NPCs in Ollie are children, and writing about children is difficult. It’s very easy to wander into flat tropes in the general region of candy-box schmaltz. In particular, when children are depicted in situations where they’re victims or vulnerable, there’s a tendency to gravitate towards a sweet, rose-tinted, flavourless default, a projection of our own ideas about comforted, carefree childhood, innocence, and nonspecific potential, rather than observations of (and concerns about) actual children.
Ollie would have utterly failed if it had treated its children this way; it would have been unbearably bad. It succeeds because it views childhood as an inherently difficult and conflicted state. All the children have their own set of Issues, often making it harder for them to deal with the crisis – this isn’t because some sort of selection process has lumped Mark Ginsberg with all the Problem Kids, but because everyone is fighting a hard battle, and childhood is not a time when anybody is equipped to cope with their own issues. (There seems to have been some selection nonetheless: nobody here is a golden child, nobody’s a vicious little monster. And it’s not as though the vicious little monsters don’t exist, cf. Dylan Rierson.)
As characterisation tools go, object descriptions are the stock in trade of IF. Ollie takes a somewhat non-standard track, one that reduces your tendency to think of the kids as objects:
Tyrone realizes immediately that he’s the focus of your attention and stares back challengingly. He doesn’t even come up to your armpit, but he hardly seems to notice.
This is looking as a social act. That’s not entirely the norm, though; more often EXAMINE is used to talk about the present status of the children. The standard form for an IF description is to start by talking about physical qualities, them expand into more general significance – things the player knows or infers. Here, EXAMINE means ‘check the condition of’. Looking isn’t, for the most part, the way we’re learning who the characters are. The general-significance function is shifted over to THINK ABOUT:
Tyrone isn’t one of your students. You know him because he’s been giving Emily a headache and a half, not to mention the recess monitors. He’s bright enough to get pissed off and destructive in a classroom geared to the lowest common denominator, and he pounds back on the kids who try to pound him, which doesn’t help anything much. He’s pretty well-behaved in detention, though.
This is not a super-complicated or outré issue for a kid to be struggling with, but it’s one that suggests an attention to real-world kid problems. A lot of this is reflection on Ginsberg: this is a hero story, and a teacher who wasn’t conscious of the individual problems of his students would not dispose us to think of him in a heroic light. And Ginsberg is just their teacher; he knows them well enough to identify what’s going on with their problems in class, but he doesn’t know them thoroughly. The kids know as much about one another as he does, though they don’t always articulate it as smoothly. Small interactions here and there reveal more about the kids – so there’s a quiet, inobtrusive layer of the game that’s character-revelation as item-hunt. It’s deployed with a very light hand – these are not the big navel-gazey expostulation-dumps of Robin & Orchid – and this gives a lot of things a weighty simplicity. Things don’t have to be complicated to be serious and inextricable. George’s mother died. A huge strength of the game is its brief, devastating lines:
Despite your best efforts, school is a poor place for self-discovery.
Simple, immediately recognisable, yet kind of the quiet acknowledgement of hopes and dreams doomed. Ouch.
As you’d expect on a US military base, they’re a racially diverse lot: and the game does a pretty deft job of flagging this up without being all HIS EBONY SKIN or HER EXOTIC ALMOND EYES about it. A lot of it’s naming. It mostly doesn’t matter, except as an unspoken underlier. We can’t see whether Tyrone’s defensive anger is shaped by cultural expectations, but we can be pretty sure it’ll be dangerous for him.
NPC implementation is crazy difficult, and hard, hard work; most games deal with it by elision and sleight-of-hand, with the need to avoid direct character interaction often shaping a game’s core premise. Ollie doesn’t dodge; it aims unwaveringly at the problem of making functional NPCs, NPCs that are not merely collections of carefully-deployed writing snippets but reactive game entities. The game is mostly about acting through them and for them, employing their abilities and overcoming their weaknesses. Their range of action and conversation is limited somewhat, because they’re scared, shocky and young; but in the context of the usual kinds of limits drawn around NPCs – up to and including keeping everyone important to the story off-stage – this is a very minor cop-out.
It’s also a good demonstration of why so many games prefer to dodge wide around this problem. There are so many ways to interact with characters, and so many situations that characters can potentially be in, that buggy responses are routine. Scoping problems, in particular, are a huge issue. Because Ollie‘s problems mostly involve physical objects, it makes a certain kind of sense that you can potentially ask children about any object in the game – but a lack of contextual disambiguation combined with open scope leads to some crazy messes. This is a problem not just because it makes the game harder, but because it discourages precisely the kind of poking around in NPC conversation that the game really wants to reward.
Ollie is not really a game about war: even though he works on a military base, Mr. Ginsberg doesn’t seem to understand much about the war, nor is he very interested in it. It’s very tempting, therefore, to view the war in a more metaphorical sense: there are schools, there are communities, where kids grow up fighting a war every day, where the main day-to-day concern of a student is how they are going to avoid being subject to violence. Teachers have their hands bound by pitiful budgets and all-consuming testing, and their ability to actually help kids is limited. Ollie‘s answer – from the perspective of a teacher completely unable to change the structural problem – is to relate to the kids as individuals, guide them to save themselves… and, ultimately, sacrifice everything.
There are two levels to ULTRA BUSINESSS TYCOON; the ostensible game, and the frame-story about the person playing it.
The characters of the inner game are, for the most part, barely characters, conceptually at the same level as a blobby-pixeled videogame sprite. To a great degree, they’re a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress level of allegory, with capitalism standing in for sin; over-the-top, garish, totally not intended for anyone not already a card-carrying member of the faithful. You’re not going to get any critique or explanation of the military-industrial complex out of Weapon Chef that wouldn’t be better-summarised by the phrase ‘military-industrial complex’.
Probably more telling than any examination of individual characters, then, is to think of them in categories. Business World is divided pretty sharply into two areas, an overworld and a dungeon: the dungeon, the Subterranean Trash Zone, is a toxic and hazardous place into which you must venture for the usual remorseless looting. Its inhabitants are animals and monsters, somewhere between weakly-conceived pixel sprite and Giger creation. Porpentine’s self-presentation is so routinely concerned with monstrousness that it’s straightforward to read this as a tag for otherness, a signal that what we’re really talking about here is the capitalist protagonist’s perception of the underclass, the trash. (Which is not entirely metaphorical, really, since as a society we’ve basically decided that it’s OK for poor people to take the brunt of environmental damage, but I doubt that’s the central point here.) We don’t know what the fuck is up with the Trash Fish, and frankly we don’t give a shit, because Business Guy has no profit incentive to give a shit.
The only in-game NPC with whom you have to deal for any real length of time is the Cop. The Cop, a sinister, ultraviolent and nebulous entity, shows up when you’ve been hitting the Embezzlertron a bit too hard; and here it seems as though the game is mixing its metaphors somewhat, because a police-brutality narrative doesn’t jive too well if the brutality is principally directed at predatory capitalists, unless you’re a hardcore Rand afficionado and believe that billionaires are the most oppressed people on Earth, which would require a rather more tortuous interpretation of ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON than I am prepared to endeavour. But the protagonist ultimately has an bank-like invulnerability to prosecution thanks to the wonders of reloading – player-characters are by nature aristos, inherently superior to the people around them, invulnerable. Corporate. The cop is no more than a temporary annoyance; he can’t touch your money, which is what counts.
Porpentine herself appears twice as NPCs and once as the rival corporation Porpco. They are radically different presentations: one a faceless, ominous force of capitalism, a powerful Big Bad into whose corporate fortress you must venture, in a sort of Frodo-into-Mordor shorthand, to destroy the crystal that stores her power. In the other – sketched extremely briefly – she’s an awkward, abused child, powerless and wholly good, with shades of Dickensian sainted orphan. The division of the self-insert character into two unreconciled personas – a sinister public figure and a vulnerable, sympathetic private one – is a trope with deep roots, but usually – in, say, The Wall - the focus is on the causal connections between the two. That’s not the idea here; the personas are separate modes. (The player-character is also intended as Porpentine.) It’s tempting to read Porpco as a side-eye at the tendency, over the past couple of years, for the lines between Porpentine as a convenient banner or brand and Porpentine as a person to become rather blurred. If you wanted to sum up the niche of Porpentine-the-product then crystals, estrogen, tears would be a pretty cutting version of it.
I suspect that a good chunk of the nomination was down to a character who appears not in the inner or outer narrative but in a small vignette, and according to the endnotes isn’t Porpentine’s creation. The bird-woman is very much not of the world of the inner Business Tycoon game, having nothing to do with either capitalism or trash. She’s rendered in organic, soft pencil rather than the garish pixels of the game. Unlike Trash Fish or Porpco or the Skelegroans, the allusions to her inner life are transparent: self-harm, identity struggle, flight-as-freedom. Porpentine’s worlds often have an atmosphere of inevitability, claustrophobia, trappedness: closing the game on something so strongly exterior is a breath of air.
The main character of the inner game, really, is its grotesquely hypercapitalist perspective, the voice-of-the-author of a hundred different rules-of-acquisition games. If games are a conversation between player and author, it’s normally an ‘Indeed it would seem that way, Socrates’ kind of conversation. The viewpoint character of TYCOON doesn’t particularly want to be playing a game about ruthless capitalism – her points of interest are quite unlike the game author’s – but that’s what she’s getting. The creator sets up all the assumptions inside which you must play. So I suspect that Porpco is a sort of acknowledgement of this: that if you’re the one making the world, you’re not Frodo any more. You’re the faceless overlord, the defining power, encountered only through your sinister and remote authority.
And yet this power is not absolute. One of the most important things anyone’s ever said to me about interpretation was: art is the bathhouse where we fuck in the dark. As an artist you think you know the kind of effect you want to have on people, you think you have an idea of who’s likely to be on the receiving end, but really you don’t have a clue. Your hurriedly-implemented statue feet might end up forming the ground for someone’s first fumbling sense of sexuality, or you might trigger the shit out of someone who has some really horrible associations with paisley wallpaper; the part that you thought was the heart of the whole thing could be utterly unintelligible to someone. You’re lucky if you get to consciously determine part of what your significance is.
Being the protagonist of a single-player narrative game is usually kind of lonely. Most stories, from parser IF to paper CYOA to triple-A FPS, are mostly solo journeys. Even if you have followers, you’re usually aloof from them, marked out as separate by your player-characterness.
But Witch’s Girl is, from start to finish, a partnership. Oblivia and Esme are best friends from the outset and continue thus throughout. It’s not a relationship that develops, or is ever seriously imperiled to inject drama into proceedings: at times, Esme seems more like a co-PC than an NPC, as you make choices which could only come from her viewpoint. She works as counterpoint, but mostly she undercuts the seriousness of the You Alone vs. the World dynamic that IF so often defaults to. Witch’s Girl is not entirely, overwhelmingly, a story about the player confronting a world: it’s about you and a friend getting along well, and one of the things you do together happens to be dealing with the world. That has a huge impact on the overall tone of the game; to a great extent, that’s the central thing that makes it more interesting than a generic Kingdom of Loathing-y gonzo-fantasy quest. The presence of Esme makes the discovery of the world a dialogue rather than an inner monologue. There is a strong sense throughout Witch’s Girl of play, that the whole fantastical adventure is perhaps a story that Esme and Oblivia are concocting between them. Their reaction to the world is the complete opposite of the Spielbergian child reaction shot: they take everything in stride, because they are one another’s point of reference. It’s the dynamic of Adventure Time, only more British and less bro-ish.
Once again, there’s good strong kid-lit naming. Mistress Honeywell is clearly the Nice Teacher, and Madam Scrimshaw the withered disciplinarian. Obviously Ethel Frogbottle is a witch. A sequence like the following is basically held up on the power of naming and rapid character sketches:
‘Don’t be ridiculous, child,’ scolds Madam Crabsticks. ‘You are well aware that there are no more witches in Carn. It is precisely such scurrilous rumours that tarnish the reputation of the young.’
‘But it’s true, Ma’am,’ pipes up an alarmingly small girl who might be called Florence. ‘She’s got a big pot, an’ everything!’
‘She turned Daisy’s cat into a dog,’ murmurs Sophie Bramblethimble, but no-one seems to notice.
‘Sophie Bramblethimble’ is pushing it a little bit, and there’s much here that’s, ah, paying homage rather: Esme is the first name of Granny Weatherwax, for instance, a character hard to claim innocence of if you’re writing irreverent British fantasy, particularly when you’re using lines like ‘she’s got a big pot, an’ everything’. And there’s a certain Monty Python scene that forms an unavoidable underlier. But the alarmingly small girl who might be called Florence – ah, there we go.
For a carefree romp with a childhood best friend through a world of fantasy, though, there’s a current of nastier matters running through Girl, a Roald Dahl-ish appreciation of the brutal and horrible. When you meet the king of the spiders, you get to stomp on him. In fact, quite a lot of the characters you meet are jerks whom you deal with by punching, or dumbasses whom you deal with by outsmarting them. This has less to do with the amazingly unique personality of the Bat King or Treezelbub – again, they’re largely gag characters in the Kingdom of Loathing idiom – and more to do with this being a story about little girls defeating enemies by being tough and smart.
They’re good gag characters, mostly – a standard approach it takes is that even throwaway characters whose sole function is to briefly obstruct the player should always be, if not precisely developed, then at least divertingly distinct. Often their purpose is to kind of cock a snook at the what-kind-of-story-we-are-in guesswork that often characterises CYOA plots, by pulling a head-fake. Here for instance, you’ve replied in the negative to a creepy marsh spirit who asks if you think she’s beautiful:
‘I see,’ says the scary lady. ‘You possess an honest heart, child. A rare quality, but one that will win you no favours with me. Good luck in your quest.’
This sort of expectation-reversal is the key to a lot of good comedy, but it’s also a common element in the more adversarial kind of fantasy CYOA – you thought the villagers needed help, but actually they’re secret cannibals! Sucker. But in Witch’s Girl the antagonists never come across as avatars of an arbitrary and cruel games-master: the sense is always preserved that the game, like Esme, is on your side, there to help you deal with the jerks.
Someone recently asked me about games in which the player is involved in the story as a co-author rather than as a protagonist, and this is the list I came up with (plus a few others that I thought of after answering the initial request):
Witch’s Yarn — a graphical point-and-click rather than text-based, but you’re picking which props/characters you want to bring on stage next. Eons ago I did a review of it here. I think there are interesting procedural narrative things they could have done with this premise, but mostly in practice it came out as a series of puzzles instead. (Still interesting and unusual, though.)
First Draft of the Revolution — my own, so take the recommendation with a grain of salt, but it’s an interactive epistolary novel in which the player revises the letters between characters before sending them. This tries to get at some of the internal experience associated with choosing your words carefully, and the reasons the characters might want to be honest, assertive, crafty, vague, etc.
13 Minutes of Light is also an interactive epistolary story, this time in Ren’Py: you are a man in a long-distance relationship with a woman who has gone to work on Mars, and can communicate only by physical letter. I found it implausible that physical letters, with their attendant mass, would actually be cheaper to send to Mars than other forms of signaling — but that’s the premise, and it allows the interaction to spool out over long periods of time. Over the course of the game, you select which of several passages to include in your letters, and these provoke different reactions from the girlfriend — whereas First Draft is more about exploring character mentality, 13 Minutes of Light is changing stats based on what you say. I wish it were a bit longer: it feels like the points of conflict between the protagonist and his girlfriend are only really starting to develop when the game ends, and I would have enjoyed exploring at more length. But as this was created for a game jam, its brevity is arguably not that surprising.
Elegy for a Dead World — it’s explicitly about giving writing prompts and getting the player to fill them in: there’s no fixed story or characters at all. Finished stories can be shared with other players (an option 18 Cadence also offers), so there’s a sense of using this as a writing exercise for those who need practice, or a constrained creative tool. It doesn’t go as far for writing, I’d say, as Become a Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds does with art, but there is in both cases a sense of necessary limitation.
Renga in Four Parts — interactive poetry that makes use of the player’s input to guide how the poetry comes out.
Pale Blue Light — alternates parser and freeform input and reuses some of the freeform input text in an interesting way towards the end of the story. This is definitely a limited effect rather than something that runs through the whole piece, but I thought it was interesting.
Al Otro Lado — a not-very-well-loved trad parser game that asks the player to come up with the room descriptions, while the game spits out common commands. It’s a cool concept in theory, but in practice demands a lot of the player without delivering that much in return.
Ice-Bound — maybe not surprising that this is also an Aaron Reed co-production, but it’s partly about helping an AI piece together a novel, by placing different symbols and concepts into the story space. The symbols allow the player/author to help decide on the theme for the work as well as specifying which actual events to make happen. It’s possible to see the short-term effects of your decision before you lock it in, which invites playing with different plot threads before settling on any one direction.
Both Framed and Strip ‘Em All are comics in which the player moves panels around in order to achieve the desired outcome. These are narrative puzzles: for the most part, you don’t get to change what happens so much as unlock the one correct reading. Framed also has the defect (at least, I think it’s a defect) that most of the puzzles are spatial challenges about getting one character not to catch another, which is so much less fun than what I envisioned happening with this mechanic.
Storyteller — this is a long running work in progress by Daniel Benmergui in which the player can put objects into the panels, and the game will write captions to describe what must be happening. If the created narrative fits the pattern required by that level, then the puzzle is solved and the player can move on. This mechanic is more literal, for the most part, than the one in Ice-Bound: you’re not generally inserting “the concept of ambition” or anything along those lines, and even themes like “love” arise because you’ve combined two potential lovers in a frame. At the same time, it’s rather more flexible and expressive (most of the time) than the panel-moving mechanic of Framed and Strip ‘Em All. It’s not available to play yet, but Benmergui’s dev blog tracks what is going on with the piece, and he recently did a twitch broadcast demoing the gameplay.
Arisia, one of Boston's many sci-fi conventions, is coming up this weekend. I won't be there (I'm at Mystery Hunt) but several Boston IF people will be, and there are a whole slew of IF-related panels and events.
First, there will be another Lost Pig performance (with audience participation) on Friday evening, 7:00 pm, Grand Ballroom B. Hosted by Brad Smith, with live performances and foley.
Panels of IF relevance... (Note: I'm pulling these from the Arisia schedule, which is subject to change. Also, these are just the panels I see which strike me as relevant and/or which include IF people I know. There's a whole Gaming program track which you could go to.)
Games and Minority Representation (Friday 10:00 pm, Alcott): Heather Albano, Bob Chipman, Caelyn Sandel (m), Pablo Miguel Alberto Vazquez III
Gender and Gaming (Saturday 10:00 am, Griffin): Chris Denmead, Brian Liberge, Meghan McGinley (m), Maddy Myers, Caelyn Sandel, Brianna Wu
DIY Digital: Homemade Video Games (Saturday 4:00 pm, Faneuil): Adri, Heather Albano, Caelyn Sandel (m), Carolyn VanEseltine
The Internet Hate Train: Moving Past Gamergate (Saturday 5:30 pm, Faneuil): Adri, Bob Chipman, Maddy Myers (m), Caelyn Sandel, Alan Wexelblat, Brianna Wu
Games as Interactive Literature (Sunday 4:00 pm, Adams): Adri, Meghan McGinley, Joshua A.C. Newman, Rebecca Slitt, Alan Wexelblat (m)
Video Games as Art (Sunday 5:30 pm, Adams): Bob Chipman, Israel Peskowitz (m), Caelyn Sandel, Carolyn VanEseltine
Go, enjoy, stay hydrated.
Steven Wingate’s review of my book #! (pronouonced “Shebang,” Counterpath Press, 2014) appears in the current American Book Review and seems to be the first review in print.
I was very pleased to read it. Wingate discusses how the presentation of code provided a hook for understanding what programs do, much as bilingual editions allow a reader to learn more (at least a bit more) about a different language by skipping back and forth between recto and verso. An important goal of mine was to offer more access to computing and to show that code can be concise and open. I aimed to do this even as I wrore rather obscure and difficult programs, such as the ones in Perl, but certainly when writing Ruby and Python, the languages Wingate finds most pleasing.
Even better, Wingate modified “Through the Park” to create his own elliptical text generator with his own language. Modifying the code that’s there is a close reading of it indeed, just as the reader who memorizes a poem knows it better than someone who looks over it or reads it aloud once. I’m very glad that Wingate got into the programs & poems in #! so deeply and that he wrote this review. I’m sure it will help to open up new perspectives on code and poetry.
When you were little, you got a lot of bug bites. Mom told you time and again not to pick at the scabs. But when something itches on your body you scratch it.
I once had to explain to a friend (understanding, but ignorant) about what I understood about the effects of being misgendered. I’m cisgendered, but have encountered many people on the Internet assuming that I’m male so it’s a phenomenon that I’m unfortunately familiar with. He couldn’t explain why it would upset people, being confused for something they are not. After all, it’s usually a harmless mistake. I told him that it’s like Chinese water torture. It’s not that initial comment, or the next one, it’s the weight of 30 of those comments piled high on your version of your self that causes the dam to break.
It’s in this that Caelyn Sandel’s Twine shines. Cis Gaze is about the sum total of those moments, about the constant pressure that builds up over time. In one particularly effecting scene, she (because you are playing as Caelyn) investigates a wall of soda trying to find the ginger ale, and her thoughts (small and red) pepper the perusal of all of the elements in play. It’s effecting because it shows the insidiousness of those thoughts and how little control she has over them.
There is little in the way of what we’d call overt bigotry at play in Cis Gaze. An old man stares. A friend uses the wrong pronoun. A clerk misgenders her with casual ease. In some ways, it is stronger because of this. There’s no person attacking Caelyn for walking in public, no angry villagers with pitchforks. This is the casual issues that Caelyn puts up with just by not being “normal,” just for not resting comfortably within others expectations and it’s rougher than villagers with pitchforks because it feels less like Disney villains. (Here is the standard disclaimer where I point out that I do not mean to erase people who I identify as trans, who are physically attacked and blatantly accosted in the streets).
Where Cis Gaze is the weakest is when it falls into salesmanship. Clicking on the link for SuperFight will take you to a storefront page for the game:
A link further down the same page tells me about a successful Kickstarter, after name dropping two other card games (Cards Against Humanity and Apples to Apples). Before I even begin the game, I’m asked if I have looked at Caelyn’s Patreon and considered donating to the cause.
The way that Cis Gaze allows you to seep into the mind of Caelyn, to the point where it feels oddly comfortable referring to her by her first name, is substantially altered by these paper thin excuses for purchases. A link to the Patreon in the credits (which is also included) would have been more than enough. It reminds me of reading fanfiction, of interacting with stories that suddenly drop the game the author is playing or their favorite restaurant without warning or need.
It’s really a shame too, because Cis Gaze is so strong on its own. It truly sucks you in, draws your attention to those small red words that demand your complete subjugation.