Planet Interactive Fiction

August 31, 2016

Emily Short

End of August Link Assortment

by Emily Short at August 31, 2016 05:00 AM

Upcoming Events

September 4, the Oxford/London IF meetup has an open problems session in Oxford. Join us if you’d like to discuss something that’s stumping you in a WIP (or give advice to people who are in that situation).

September 10, Australian IF folks are having a meetup in Melbourne. (Link is to a Facebook page that organizes the group, which might be of use even if you aren’t able to attend this specific event.)

If you are instead in the Bay Area on Sept 10, the SF Bay IF Meetup has an event that day as well.

September 10 is also the voting deadline for IntroComp, if you were considering participating. That’s a good chance to give authors feedback on their work in progress. (And if you’re up for it, reviews are great too — IntroComp hasn’t had a huge number of reviews this year so far, and it would be cool to see more.)

September 28, Boston area, PR-IF is holding its next meetup.

Finally, September 28 is also the deadline to submit games to be shown at WordPlay London, a November event centered on interactive text and held at the British Library. You may submit your own works or nominate works by other people.

IF Comp launches at the beginning of October. We’re just about at the deadline for submitting an intent to enter, but if you’d like to donate prizes, that option is still open to you.


Speaking of IF Comp, that is going to be the theme of our London October IF Meetup. Last year we played a bunch of comp games together and it was a blast, and we only wished we had a little more time available. This year, I’ve got a more central (Shoreditch rather than Maritime Greenwich), wheelchair-accessible venue in London on October 16. It’s a weekend slot rather than our usual weekday evening, so that we can afford to run for most of the afternoon rather than just a couple of hours. If you’d like to join but can’t make it right at the start, there will still be stuff going on if you arrive later.

If you’re a comp game author this year, you’re going to be in London at that time, and you’d like to see a group play your work live, let me know in advance and we’ll make sure we include your game in the mix.

Please also let me know if you’d like to volunteer as a reader (reading aloud on-screen text so that we’re all on the same page as we play) or to bring snacks (mm, snacks).

Also, please feel free to invite people! The meetup is free and public, and we always welcome new members, but especially here: this is meant to be a fun and festive intro to some of the best of what’s going on in IF right now.

New Releases

Worldsmith is a new commercial parser game with an ambitious simulation and a JS-enhanced interface. I discuss my first experiences with it here.

Brendan Patrick Hennessy has a short and wholly adorable post-Birdland piece called Open Up.

Sub-Q Magazine brings us Before the Storm Hits by JY Yang, a piece about what you choose to do before the end of the world. Which of the items on your to-do list is top priority? And can you make any difference if you do things in a different order?

I wrote a small piece for Texture called Endure. It’s an interactive translation, where you’re resolving Homeric Greek into English phrases, but you have several different translation modes you can try — and you can juxtapose serious with jokey readings, for instance, if you want to go for particular stylistic effects.

Your results will also depend on the order in which you translate. If, for instance, you start out your translation by focusing on text about the Cyclops, you will get a different slant on the rest of the passage than if you start by focusing on Odysseus’ cleverness.

In a way it’s sort of a companion to First Draft of the Revolution — not because of its subject matter, which is completely unrelated, but because both are trying to use interactivity to convey something about the mental process of translation and the flexibility of meaning to be found in a single text.

Endure is pretty niche, which is why I haven’t done more to talk it up. It might not appeal to you at all. Some people have said they liked it even though they don’t read Greek, but others have said they felt they were missing something. (The one player I know of who did already understand the Greek really liked it, but this may not be statistically significant.)

If you do like that, I also recommend B Minus Seven’s Relentless Drag.

I also wrote more about Texture for my IF Only column at RockPaperShotgun.

IF-Adjacent Fields

While doing some background on my escape room articles, I ran across references to Block Stop’s By the End of Us, a live theatre experience where one player performs the role of a video game player and the audience collaborates as their antagonist. thelogicescapesme reviews the game experience from the audience perspective, and there’s also a comment from the person who played the single-player role.

I also learned that there is apparently a trade show for room escape designers.

Craft, Training, and Tools

Jason Grinblat talks about procedurally generated titles and descriptions of games for Caves of Qud. Also, mentions Annals of the Parrigues, yay.

Jedediah Berry shares an exercise for writing collaborative shuffle narratives like his own Family Arcana, usable in workshops.

This is not new, but on my Twitter feed last week someone linked this article on the concept of the act structure in screenwriting, and how it’s not really very useful as a way of thinking about structural concerns, and about alternative approaches to think about plotting. Because it’s by the movie reviewer who posts as HULK and writes in ALL CAPS, the article is also in all caps. I dislike reading long passages in all caps, so I mean it extra when I say that the content is very worthwhile. Maybe copy and paste into a text editor and auto-convert it into sentence casing if it gets to be too much for you.

Community Development

Rami Ismail writes about the stages of game development communities in different territories. He’s basing this on experience with particular communities, but I think some similar criteria could apply when looking at the niche genres or forums looking for more wide-spread recognition.

August 29, 2016

Sibyl Moon Games

Boston GameLoop 2016: Game engines for nonprogrammers

by Carolyn VanEseltine at August 29, 2016 09:01 PM

Boston GameLoop is an annual game development unconference. I’ve been going for years, and I’m always impressed by the sheer wealth of knowledge available.

Game engines for nonprogrammers

I have fewer notes from this discussion than any of the others, since I ran this one and couldn’t take notes simultaneously. To compensate, I’ve done a more extensive writeup below, but it’s from memory rather than notes, and I’m doubtlessly forgetting stuff.

Here’s a terrible photo of the whiteboard.

IMG_20160827_151116 (1)

A game engine is a collection of libraries and programs that are used to create a game. Game engines keep you from having to build your own everything from scratch.

Visual scripting engines are generally most accessible to nonprogrammers. Visual scripting engines represent game logic with visual graphics rather than lines of code.

Some game engines don’t require programming per se, but do require non-visual scripting. “sound = beep.wav; play(sound)” is an example of regular scripting. It does require you to learn the specific language of the engine, but (in this example) you don’t have to write your own audio system for it – you’re drawing upon existing programming libraries without delving into them.

You don’t have to be a programmer to build games, but you do have to work within the limitations of your game engine if you don’t know how to program. If you do know how to program, then you can move beyond the normal limitations of your game engine. Choose your game engine carefully.

Twine: Browser-based hyperlink system designed for interactive fiction. It is possible to teach the basics of Twine in 30 seconds, yet it supports variables and sophisticated CSS, and it’s extendible with Javascript. Very good starting place. Also good for prototyping. Free.

Construct 2: Graphical equivalent of Twine in that it’s also visual scripting and fairly easy to pick up. Drag-and-drop code blocks. Includes a physics engine. Size-limited in free version.

MIT Scratch: Graphical engine aimed at kids (8-16) but very good at introducing basic programming concepts. Large community. Remix system allows users to see the code for any game and then create their own versions. Not exportable/commercial.

Stencyl: Related to Scratch, uses the same programming language.

GameMaker: Graphical engine that allows you to build logic either with visual scripting or in its own scripting language. The GameMaker scripting language allows you to do more than the visual scripting system does, which is typical for hybrids.

Flixel: Open source, Flash driven game engine. Uses ActionScript 3.

Unity/Playmaker and Unreal/Blueprints: Unity and Unreal are extremely popular commercial game engines that normally require you to learn coding (C# or modified Javascript for Unity, C++ for Unreal). Playmaker and Blueprints are plugins that allow you to use the engines without knowing how to code, but it doesn’t take away the fact that these are still extremely complex engines. Not recommended as a first game engine for nonprogrammers, even with the plugins.

Amazon Lumberyard is a CryEngine fork and unfriendly to nonprogrammers. Ditto Cocos2D.

Specialized game engines are great for specific projects. Some examples:

  • ChoiceScript – long-form interactive novels
  • Inform 7 – parser interactive fiction
  • RPGMaker – RPGs
  • Ren’Py – visual novels

Starcraft, Warcraft 3, Skyrim: These are all extremely moddable games. Modding games is a good way to learn about game logic in a context that’s already familiar. Skyrim in particular allows you full access to the game’s internals with the same tools used by the actual dev team (may be true for Warcraft 3 and Starcraft too; I just haven’t seen those personally.

Pico-8: Fantasy console system for making and sharing teeny tiny games. Lua scripting.

Want to learn programming? Search for an online REPL (stands for Read, Evaluate, Print Loop) for your chosen language – this allows you to put in code and see the execution results immediately.

Recommended first language: Javascript. It runs on the browser, so you can turn what you’re learning into actual results very rapidly. Also, knowing Javascript converts well into learning C#.

Don’t overlook unusual options for learning programming basics. More than one person in the room got started on a TI-83 calculator.

Boston GameLoop 2016: How To Make Funny Games

by Carolyn VanEseltine at August 29, 2016 09:01 PM

Boston GameLoop is an annual game development unconference. I’ve been going for years, and I’m always impressed by the sheer wealth of knowledge available. I’ve written up my notes below, but I haven’t fleshed them out this year and they’re more than a bit incoherent (apologies for that!) I hope they’ll still be useful.

GameLoop participants: I have not attached anyone’s names to these writeups, and I’ve mostly scrubbed personal anecdotes out to maintain the privacy of attendees. Please contact me (carolyn at if:

  • I included something you said that should not be included, or
  • I quoted you without attributing (when you would prefer attribution), or
  • You think I got something from the discussion wrong


How to Make Funny Games

(To a large extent, this is a list of citations. On the plus side, if you play the citations, they are funny.)

Some ways to bring humor into video games:

  • Breaking character, especially in deadpan/serious moments
  • Referential humor
  • Subversion of tropes
  • Sarcastic narrator
  • Dialogue-driven humor (LucasArts everything)
  • Physics humor (Octodad, QWOP, etc)

Overcooked <– restaurant management

Stay committed to the joke (Saint’s Row 3 zombie voice)

Pit of 1,000 Snakes; Jazzpunk

NASA moon exploration game <– search for the video; players took a really serious game and made it really funny

Multiplayer games produce social humor

Humor can be interpreted as a reaction to transgression; games are a rules set that players can transgress against

WoW – the disease that spread (Corrupted Blood incident)

Pac-Man 2 <– look up smug Pac-Man (dramatic irony)

The Sims <– simulation and variables and chaos

Catlateral Damage <– physics

Most comedy-centric games come from indies. AAA is frightened of humor, and humor is risky.

Level design: subverting expectations

The Narrator Is A Dick

Saint’s Row 3: absurdity

Flip side, humor can come when something super light pitches to dark (uncomfortable laughter)

Parody: Press X to Not Die

Situational awareness: What does your audience expect?

  • Time to crate (article)

Dangers of humor: will your audience want to buy your game if they’ve already seen it played on Twitch?

  • Modern world of game as TV show

Portal 2 <– humor and gameplay, people want to watch and play

Goat Simulator <– played for humor value only, not really played as a game

Procedural generation: leverage for surprise, streamers won’t see all content

Branching humor and content: streamers won’t see all content

The Stanley Parable <– demo didn’t match the game; also, changing voiceover while keeping set in places allowed for more bang for buck

Unlock additional content <– achievement system to expand horror

Call of Duty – DLC announcer packs add humor

Rick and Morty VR humor game (upcoming), Justin Roiland – Squanchtendo

Tim Schaefer everything


Boston GameLoop 2016: Relationship building and game mechanics

by Carolyn VanEseltine at August 29, 2016 09:01 PM

Boston GameLoop is an annual game development unconference. I’ve been going for years, and I’m always impressed by the sheer wealth of knowledge available. I’ve written up my notes below, but I haven’t fleshed them out and they’re more than a bit incoherent (apologies for that!) I hope they’ll still be useful.

GameLoop participants: I have not attached anyone’s names to these writeups, and I’ve mostly scrubbed personal anecdotes out to maintain the privacy of attendees. Please contact me (carolyn at if:

  • I included something you said that should not be included, or
  • I quoted you without attributing (when you would prefer attribution), or
  • You think I got something from the discussion wrong


Relationship building as game mechanics

We need “emotional physics engines” – have given far more thought to how to simulate physics than emotions

NPCs are playersexual, have no true consent  – NPCs like players, end of story

Standard game relationships: rise to plateau, stop there, no concept of trouble and recovery

Persona <– must spend time together; relationships and romances both depicted

Relationship as a means to an end <– problematic

Fallout & Dragon Age <– followers approve/disapprove of actions

Relationships are more realistic when they’re more subtle – hide points, etc

Pet relationships <– sometimes easier to invest emotions when the relationship is constant and reliable (Fable 2 dog, Fallout 3 dog) but player behavior should still impact pet behavior

When games represent friendships, they’re often better at it than romances

In many cases (esp Fable series), marriage == house decoration

Relationships are often not part of the game – they’re separated out

Until Dawn – domino chain of conversations and relationship

So much talking about Mass Effect! – Garrus as bro

Good relationship writing matters more than good relationship mechanics

One More Dog Game; Never Alone

A Boy and His Blob <– hug button

Relationship as plot device vs. actual relationship

Halo/Cortana connection: no choice, prewritten, but people cared

The Darkness, watching TV with your spouse to form a connection – doesn’t work

Enemy relationships are relationships too, when tracked and built

Shadows of Mordor: Enemies changed by your actions and their actions

  • Like The Darkness, but tutorial done with your family and son – makes a difference

Players form connections by doing things actively, not passively.

Journey as a relationship experience <– depends on who you get matched with

People care deeply about Bastion <– the game, not the robot

People want to interact like people – thinking in terms of numbers interferes with relationship building

Ib <– RPGMaker; play multiple characters

Shadow of the Colossus <– people care about the relationship with the horse, because it’s there with you always and helping you (like Fable 2 and dog, or Nethack and d)

Catherine <– make time for each bar patron; more impactful/effective than the actual Catherine/Katherine choice

How do games represent broken relationships?

Harvest Moon and Mass Effect 3: NPCs can get together and have relationships in-game if you don’t interfere

Earthbound <– relationship with dad linked to save points, relationship exists even though in-game contact very sparse

Dyscourse – survivors on an island, how do you prioritize talking to people?

Boston GameLoop 2016: Horror Games/Scary Games

by Carolyn VanEseltine at August 29, 2016 08:01 PM

Boston GameLoop is an annual game development unconference. I’ve been going for years, and I’m always impressed by the sheer wealth of knowledge available. I’ve written up my notes below, but I haven’t fleshed them out this year and they’re more than a bit incoherent (apologies for that!) I hope they’ll still be useful.

GameLoop participants: I have not attached anyone’s names to these writeups (except for talk leaders), and I’ve mostly scrubbed personal anecdotes out to maintain the privacy of attendees. Please contact me (carolyn at if:

  • I included something you said that should not be included, or
  • I quoted you without attributing (when you would prefer attribution), or
  • You think I got something from the discussion wrong


Horror Games/Scary Games

Discussion leader: Arden Ripley

Mental illness horror perpetuates harmful stereotypes; this is not cool, don’t do that

Many different kinds of horror:

  • TV Tropes “fridge horror”, when things become scary after the fact
  • Environmental horror
  • Jump scares
  • Slowly dawning wrongness
  • Existential horror

SOMA – same studio as Amnesia, no combat, very different

STALKER series – Russia/Ukraine, example of scarcity narrative

Pathologic – similar vein, plague/existential horror

Horror games rarely have morality systems – very shades-of-gray. Ambiguity and agency together inspire emotion and investment.

Playing a horror game isn’t like watching a horror movie – “Don’t go through the door!” You choose to go through.

Liz England – IF horror game (Her Pound of Flesh)

One horror source: uncaring world, impersonality of horror

Immersiveness as the key – mechanics subdued, tutorials either blended or concealed

Horror games often force you to make an authentic choice/action (even when they’re not actually branching games)

The Walking Dead (Telltale) <– to make this game extra creepy, let every dialogue sequence time out

What kind of person are you?

Active choices encourage connection. Passive do not. (Note: This was a recurring theme in the relationships talk as well.)

Zero Escape <– visual novels, metaaware

If a game is too scary, it will overwhelm players and they will quit. Think about what success means: are you okay with players quitting?

What kind of challenges are people up for? Always a fail state –

  • horror games can make them feel scared/nauseous
  • puzzle games (like The Witness) can make them feel stupid
  • games like Dark Souls can make them feel bad at video games

Silent Hill 4 – repeatedly sends you back to your apartment as a safe place/save spot… and then the apartment starts morphing in subtle/awful ways

Save points help you control a player’s mindset when they return to the game

Forcing breaks in the game has pros and cons (see: the debate over Christine Love’s Hate Plus, which forces play over three real-time days, and also enough time to bake a cake)

IM/text message games on mobile <– immersive

Pacing is a key element in horror.

Mystery is a key draw in horror – why?

Mechanics: in a conserved resources game, there are two fail states:

  • bottom the player out completely, and they feel too helpless to succeed/continue
  • allow players to undo their own scarcity, and they gain too much control and the scariness ends

Non-horror games can have horror aspects – see nighttime in Starbound and Minecraft

Don’t Starve <– okay you finally have to try this (Note: you don’t, O Reader, but that’s literally what my note says)

The Long Dark

Horror stories: What are we afraid of?

Death is scary – but actually dying is jarring as heck, breaks immersion, shuts down the horror experience

Death does not have to be the source of scariness or the end of a game

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem <– lose control rather than dying

Avoid systems/story dissonance

Haunting Ground: cut scenes and situation-tailored death, AI learns where you hide

Common horror themes: being chased, hiding, powerlessness

The Forest <– Steam, impressions from first death

Demon Souls: Why go back when you’re safe? Works for some people not for others.

Make death part of the content – plot, character, situation

The Path: encourages you to break the in-game rules and seek out death, experiments with death as a win condition

Blocking death entirely can make players unhappy, removes agency (one of the Prince of Persia games did this, not the storytelling one)

Boston GameLoop 2016: Why do games fail?

by Carolyn VanEseltine at August 29, 2016 08:01 PM

Boston GameLoop is an annual game development unconference. I’ve been going for years, and I’m always impressed by the sheer wealth of knowledge available. I’ve written up my notes below, but I haven’t fleshed them out this year and they’re more than a bit incoherent (apologies for that!) I hope they’ll still be useful.

GameLoop participants: I have not attached anyone’s names to these writeups, and I’ve mostly scrubbed personal anecdotes out to maintain the privacy of attendees. Please contact me (carolyn at if:

  • I included something you said that should not be included, or
  • I quoted you without attributing (when you would prefer attribution), or
  • You think I got something from the discussion wrong


Why do games fail?

(This discussion focused on released games, not games in process. It often veered into “why do companies fail?” territory.)

Concepts of success vary… who’s defining failure?

  • developers
  • critics/reviewers
  • audience
  • shareholders (didn’t make enough money)

Failure to communicate with your audience

Failure to understand your audience

  • Problem: target audience/actual audience mismatch

Developer/marketing communication failure

  • Solution: keep customer service/marketing in the loop!

Developer/developer communication failure

  • Problem: failing to trust people to do their jobs
  • Solution: respect everyone’s roles – in particular, devs should not have to (or try to) do marketing if a marketing dept exists

Before updating a released game’s content/mechanics, think about: what are people doing in the game? and how will your update change what they are doing in the game?

Keep an eye on metrics… use them as evidence when arguing for a change

Marketing and community management team need to work together

When writing patch notes, keep them positive – help people understand how the changes will make the game better

Your friends are not necessarily your best colleagues – maybe don’t start a game company with them

Respect the community of players – especially when sunsetting an online game: build a positive experience that will encourage them to transfer loyalty to one of your other/future games

Avoid burnout – you’ll lose the ability to make decisions, and that will hurt your game

Keep games fun by playtesting, playtesting, and playtesting

Use rapid prototyping to playtest early, while you can still pivot as needed

Look for ways to measure results – don’t trust anecdotes and intuition

Understand development in terms of cost and revenue – use these metrics specifically when arguing for/against changes

Who is your audience? Why? They need to be the people playtesting your game. <– affordable user experience research platform for mobile betas (not game-specific)

Someone usually knows that the game is in trouble before it fails. Getting that info to the right people is the hard part.

Be honest. Look for feedback. Listen. Address problems early.

When talking to other developers/management, be honest about your concerns – but cover your butt

  • Think about exit plans if you believe the ship is sinking

Books to read: Getting To Yes and Having Difficult Conversations

  • Understand each other’s needs and goals.

Why don’t people speak up? Fear of retribution.

Useful thought experiment: before the game ships, while there’s still time to make changes, pretend the game has failed. Run a postmort where people talk about why the game has failed. Helps dig out concerns in a safe environment.

Being part of a good team includes being willing to reach out and ask for help.

Open lines of communication:

  • Ask why decisions are being made
  • Go out of your way to hear everyone’s voices (esp. marginalized voices)
  • When new, seek out mentorship opportunities
  • Studio policy of 1:1 meetings with supervisors and direct reports


These Heterogenous Tasks

CYOA structure: The Black Doll’s Imbroglio

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at August 29, 2016 07:01 AM

Edward Gorey, the author and illustrator probably best-known for macabre alphabet book The Gashlycrumb Tinies, had a prodigious output and an immediately recognisable style, often imitated but almost never equaled. He published a number of books which are interactive in one way or another, usually in odd or incomplete-feeling ways; The Awdrey-Gore Legacy, for instance, starts out feeling like a murder-mystery story but steadily devolves into disassociated possibilities for weapons, locations, different versions of characters, dramatic twists and inexplicable clues, more like a set of prompts for a storygame or a Goreyish version of Clue than a particular narrative.

The Raging Tide: or, The Black Doll’s Imbroglio was published in 1987, and it bears the obvious mark of influence by Choose Your Own Adventure. It contains thirty nodes – small by any standard – each with a single page with one illustration. The accompanying text is always a single, one-clause sentence describing the action; this is always followed by two choices, except for in the two endings.

The story features four characters: Figbash, Hooglyboo, Naeelah and Skrump. All are faceless, and look like awkwardly-handmade children’s toys. (In fact, the collector’s edition of the original was accompanied by a stuffed Figbash doll, hand-sewn by the author.) They act against a changing and indefinite landscape, usually including sculptures of the final two joints of giant fingers; there is always the same patterned carpet in the foreground, and there’s a general feeling of a puppet-theatre stage. (Gorey was also a theatre set designer.) For most of the book, the four characters fight one another using mundane household items as weapons: these all have the kind of early-C20th, kinda-British flavour you’d expect of Gorey (suet, golden syrup, library paste, tintacks).


7. Figbash threw an antimacassar over Skrump.

The choices are not made from the point of view of any of the characters, but are questions asked of the reader, who is not a character in the story. They concern the player’s preferences, not any kind of story-influencing command, and are often reflective:

2. Figbash scattered cracker crumbs on Hooglyboo.

If this makes you uncomfortable, turn to 3.
If it doesn’t, turn to 8.

A number of options seem like complete non-sequiturs: “If you loathe prunes more than you do turnips, turn to 22.” Some are meta-choices: “If you want to keep on with the story, turn to 25. For a meaningful aside, turn to 15.” Most, though, are about the player expressing moral approval or disapproval of what’s happening, even though all the events are much alike. There’s a sense that your agency is being… not even denied, exactly; but the possibility of it mattering is made to seem ridiculous.

Gorey’s oeuvre is heavily concerned with lives and deaths that are pitifully pointless. He often constructs his stories to end on an anticlimax, or to rotate around a question that goes unanswered. Sometimes his narratives devolve into outright surrealism, characters uttering phrases with no relation to their inexplicable activities, evoking the feel of historical illustrations which you can’t interpret for lack of context. Many of his works take childish things and make them macabre, or at least infuse them with a very adult sense of anhedonia, disappointment, diminished lives. Gorey’s worlds are full of obsessions, lusts and opulence, but nobody ever seems to derive any fun from them.

In this context, it might feel as though Imbroglio’s attitude to CYOA is that it’s arbitrary, disassociated from intention or causality and therefore from meaning, until all that’s left is a world of pointless, inconclusive violence of all against all. CYOA is taken, like the animate dolls, as a childish thing. The action, too, reads most straightforwardly as the zany slapstick of children’s cartoons or a Punch and Judy show; but Gorey’s style is consistently wooden, heavy and weary-feeling, with none of the energy and emoting that makes slapstick what it is. (Figbash is the closest thing to an exception, and Gorey seems to have enjoyed his boneless motion enough to re-use the character in later works.) It is very consciously an out-of-place thing.


blackdollWhat appears to a casual glance to be a totally unstructured mess in fact has a fair amount of structure. The shortest possible playthrough is 4 nodes, but this is quite unusual; 7-9 is about the norm. The nodes can be filtered more or less into layers, with larger numbers generally lower down the diagram; although a number of choices backtrack or move laterally, and it’s possible to get stuck in a loop, the majority move the action forwards. There are a good number of large jumps, but most movement is pretty local; backtracking rarely jumps back very far. So, while it’s kind of a rat’s nest, it’s nowhere near the total arbitrariness that the text suggests.

The closest thing there is to a player choice meaningfully affecting the action comes towards the end, at 24 and 25. (There are a lot of parallel structures in the book.) These two nodes offer respite from the constant fighting: the characters forgive one another while eating either prunes or turnips. In the subsequent nodes they immediately start fighting again; shortly after, you reach one of two endings, either “And so they all lived miserably for ever after” or “And then everyone went joyously to an early grave.”

That loop also offers a fairly clear choice; you can choose to keep ignoring the plot and keep going around in irrelevance. (This section also has Goreyan tones of disappointment and making-do, and it still features the same characters, but at least they’re not locked in eternal battle.)

So there is a dramatic arc to Imbroglio: conflict, a brief truce which falls apart, and then an ending. But Gorey has no investment in this narrative and expects that you won’t either, offering ample opportunities to go off on a tangent or to end the story abruptly.

It’s possible that Gorey set out to make a more chaotic rat’s nest, but started writing with the low-numbered nodes, generally proceeding to higher ones, and thus ended up imposing structure despite himself. It’s fairly difficult to make a truly tangled choice structure off-hand; if you just draw one ‘randomly’ on paper, or write it as you go along, it’ll probably come out relatively orderly. But I’m not sure that interpretation bears out: if nothing else, the repeated pattern of paired nodes, each a version of the other, suggests that he was structuring it more in terms of reflection, of both sides of possibility being much the same.

The People's Republic of IF

September meetup

by zarf at August 29, 2016 12:00 AM

The Boston IF meetup for September will be Wednesday, September 28, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

Between now and then: Boston FIG, Sept 10th. As far as we know, PR-IF will have a table there! So say hi.

August 28, 2016

Emily Short

Minkette on Escape Room design; Secret Studio

by Emily Short at August 28, 2016 05:00 PM

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 4.56.38 PM.png

This post is a two-parter. Recently I went to Secret Studio, my third experience with room escapes; and Minkette, one of the creators of Oubliette, came to the Oxford/London IF Meetup to talk about the design and creation process.

I’d asked Minkette to come talk about the kind of storytelling she does: often location-based, often using physical props to communicate backstory or the flavor of the world you’re in.

She started us off with an overview of related projects, including Sleep No More, Wiretapper (reviewed here), and 2.8 Hours Later, a zombie chase game that runs through London. She also spoke about her own Train of Thought, an experience designed for the Underground, in which participants were able to listen to pre-recorded tracks that were meant to be the thoughts of one of the other passengers in their coach. (Here’s an audience member’s description of that experience.)

Next, Minkette took us through the process of constructing the Oubliette escape room, with lots of pictures of the various props in construction. It was fascinating to see what went into these: Oubliette featured a vacuum tube setup that (seemed to) let you pneumatically send messages to other characters, but that was actually just operated by someone pulling a magnet on a string.

But the parts of her talk that were newest to me were the ones where she talked about the psychological purpose of their design choices.

The Oubliette site was designed to bring the player step by step into an alternate world, starting with a fake storefront and proceeding through a “portal” (a conceit also used by several other escape rooms I’ve played or read about) into the world of New Pelagia; continuing with a video briefing, performed in a small, austere blue-grey room where the audience had to look up at quite an angle in order to view their instructions. I love this: it’s the kind of thing that’s very hard to use in a computer game (unless you manage to get your players to draw on their own skin), but very powerful. I bet it will be more possible in VR, though, where the placement of an object or a viewing angle could force the player into particular positions.

Oubliette‘s video briefing welcomed the audience members as new employees in a creepy, panoptic regime inspired by 1984 and “Brazil.” At the end of that sequence, the players are told to surreptitiously check around under their seats to look for some useful items — as it turns out, a flashlight and a book of ration tickets that can be used for bribery.

At this point in my own experience of the game, I was keenly conscious that I might screw up by mis-acting: I’m not an especially stealthy person and if I’m looking for something underneath my seat, the rest of the room is probably going to know about it. The fear that I’m about to do something wrong and ruin the experience for everyone is a sensation I usually try to squash as much as possible when I’m playing RPGs and similar games, because otherwise I block myself so hard I can’t contribute at all. But in this particular case, the sense of unease was really suitable to the occasion.

Next, the party enters a room with a secretary at a desk, who has the power to let the players into the main puzzle room beyond. There’s a correct solution to this — offer the secretary the ration tickets you just found, as a bribe — but as Minkette explained, the scenario is intended to accomplish some other things as well.

First, one person has to take enough initiative and overcome the social awkwardness enough to actually make that bargain, which establishes that player as a kind of natural group leader. (Time Run also does something that identifies roles within the player group in advance of play.) Second, this establishes the bribery mechanic that also applies to hints later on — and in fact it’s possible to solve one other problem with a bribe to the game-runners. (Our team solved that particular problem the hard way, with me bent over a reconfigured typewriter madly typing in the dark.)

I’m not capturing nearly everything she discussed, here — she talked about the difficulty of doing branching narrative in this context; about the source material they used for their video, and the inspirations for everything down to the color of the paint on the walls; about trying to set things up so that multiple players got heroic moments where they Pressed A Huge Button or otherwise dramatically triggered something. Perhaps at some point she’ll share her slides. But I do want to mention one other charming story she told in a response to audience questions:

Apparently at one point they ran Oubliette in a special way for a guest who was also a supporter and had helped them a lot in getting the room up and running. This person didn’t want to participate in solving the puzzles himself, but did want to bring his family — so they staged a version of the game where, during the initial briefing, one of the game actors came in and “arrested” the person in question, taking him off stage. From there, he got to sit and watch from the game-running room as his family worked through the experience; and when it looked like they weren’t quite going to make it out in time, they gave him the final couple of codes and sent him in to “rescue” his family. This is the kind of by-hand remix that’s almost impossible to design into a digital experience.


thelogicescapesme recommended Secret Studio to me as one of the more narrative, interactive-theatre-like escape rooms out there. (If you’d like to read their review of the same room, it’s here.)

The flavor of the game was rather different from either Oubliette (difficult and rich in atmosphere in a way that persisted from your first contact with the game) or Time Run (where the emphasis was more on the spectacle and the daring set pieces used for the puzzles).

In Secret Studio, the puzzles were easier and less rigorous than in the other pieces we’d played: there were a few bits where we got stumped, but in those cases it was typically because something was really hidden in an obscure location, not because there was a train of logic we hadn’t figured out.

The puzzles were also more loosely connected to the story’s central premise or to any plausible configuration of the environment; we encountered lots of soup cans. And there was less emphasis on the mechanical: a lot of the solutions involve the players performing certain actions or arranging things in a particular way, with the game master triggering the next reveal when they’ve got it right, rather than setting up a physical prop that is going to pop open at the right time.

The puzzle sequence is designed more with the intention that everyone will focus on the same puzzles at the same time, rather than that you will each go to your own corner and make individual progress. When we started, we (as semi-seasoned players) split up to try to give the room a bit of a shakedown, but the game master almost immediately started sending us messages through the hint screen, trying to get us to work together on one particular puzzle. My initial reaction was “hang on, let us finish doing our inventory on the room and puzzles before you try to send us hints!”

Still, there was some useful information in that interaction, namely that a) we were better off collaborating on one thing at a time and b) that first puzzle was actually a lot less intricate than we’d been assuming, so we didn’t actually need to scour the room for additional information because we already had everything vital in fron tof us.

Once we’d settled into that groove for playing, we made pretty steady progress and were more in tune with the game. Secret Studio deploys a number of surprise tricks — things I might have expected more in a haunted house than in an escape room — including one that did genuinely make me shriek in startlement. And when I look back on the experience, I think of it as a series of high-point moments — this reveal, that jump-scare, the other nifty prop use — with the intervening material existing mostly to make those moments possible. The players’ emotional arc is much more the key here than an actual coherent story.

Still, all of that made for a pretty strong contrast with Oubliette — not because Oubliette didn’t have an emotional arc, but because the route it took to get there was more demanding of both the creators and the players. Oubliette doesn’t really let you into any of the puzzles until you’ve committed to the scenario enough to have an argument with a highly obstructive actor. In Secret Studio, we got an email instructing us to ring a certain doorbell and say a weird passphrase… unless we felt like that was weird, in which case we could just identify ourselves and be let in.

Tagged: minkette, oubliette, room escape, secret studio

August 26, 2016

Emily Short

Getting Hired to Write IF

by Emily Short at August 26, 2016 10:00 AM

Over the past eighteen months or so, a couple of interesting things have happened.

One: there are way more opportunities than there used to be to write interactive text and receive payment in return. I hear about a lot of these because they tend to be documented on the intfiction forum or the euphoria &if channel, because people email me about them directly, or because author requests are pitched at the Oxford/London IF Meetup group. I also have a certain number of email exchanges where I’m offered a contract I don’t have the bandwidth to take, so the asker follows up with a request for a recommendation. I’ve started keeping a list of freelancers I know in this space.

(If you freelance and you want me to know that, feel free to send me a portfolio link. I do not guarantee any particular result, and I do exercise my own judgment about whom to recommend in any given circumstance. I do not ever make the full list available to prospective clients or employers. If I pass your name along, it will be because I think you’re a viable fit for what I know of the project.)

Two: there are lots of people interested in writing IF for money who are unsure about some aspect of how to get into it. Sometimes they message me in one form or another and ask for advice. I’ve written some advice about setting rates before, and also a bit about how my own situation works, though it’s not typical (see below).

Lately I’m getting questions about how to establish your skills in this space and make yourself appealing to employers, so I will write what I know about that as well.

Note that this is mostly about work-for-hire situations rather than working for specific IF studios and publishers such as Choice of Games, Failbetter/Fundbetter, Sub-Q, Tin Man Games, etc. Where you already have a target in mind, you’re best off looking closely at their own websites for their submission requirements or job postings, and familiarizing yourself with the work they’ve already published to see if you’re a good fit.

Ready? Let’s go.

Reasonable expectations. For the majority of people I know who write interactive stories for money, the money in question is somewhere between beer money and “helps out with the groceries but I have another job” money.

Moreover, many of the projects they do are not completely conventional IF: they might be about building text content for an indie game, commissioned projects for exhibitions, advertising content, or educational pieces.

I want to lead with those two points so that I don’t misguide anyone about the prospects and possibilities in this space.

I do have a full-time career in interactive storytelling, but that career includes work on non-IF game projects, coding, tool design, running workshops and publishing. The best-paid parts of that are not writing. The career itself is the result of many years of artistic practice, skill acquisition, and networking, plus a bunch of lucky breaks. For a long time before that I had part-time work and small gigs, and for years before that I was writing my own work for free.

Starting with freeware isn’t the only road in, but I don’t know any fast road from “I just downloaded an IF tool for the first time” to “I have a full-time job writing interactive stories.” I feel it’s important to put this caveat here. If you need a full-time income immediately, you’re much safer pursuing a more traditionally-structured job.

Skills and qualities. Here’s a list of abilities and assets, sorted in order from “completely mandatory, I would never recommend hiring you if you don’t demonstrate this” to much more optional things. The first three aren’t even IF-specific skills, though you should demonstrate them in an IF context:

Ability to finish things. I can’t recommend working with someone who doesn’t show evidence of finishing projects. In the best case, this would be multiple finished projects of multiple kinds, including one thing that’s fairly substantial: a parser game of an hour or more, a Twine piece that runs 50K+ words, etc.

If you’re not there yet: some publishers will take on previously unpublished authors, and that’s a good place to start. So is having completed work in an IF comp or jam.

Ability to turn work in on time. If for some reason you can’t hit your deadlines, then at least communicate about the things you’re going to turn in late. Also, be aware of which client deadlines are urgent and which are movable. Client load-balancing is partly about having some of each, and often charging your urgent clients more to compensate for the extra effort. Occasionally weird things happen, but the more you can establish yourself as reliable, the better. It will affect how much repeat business you get, and whether clients come to you when they’re in a jam.

It’s harder to give evidence of this one on a CV. Successfully submitting something for a comp with a deadline is only semi-relevant. “Has this person been hired multiple times by the same client?” is sometimes a proxy, though: if it doesn’t guarantee you were always on deadline, it at least suggests that you weren’t such a flake that they never came back.

Ability to function in a team. If you react badly to notes, changes, and feedback, freelance work for clients is probably not for you. Likewise, if you have tantrums, if you behave like you’re too good for the room or the job, or if you’re ready to act a bit unethical for temporary advantage, those are reasons that people might not want to work with you.

Honor your non-disclosure agreements, and don’t make a habit of talking down your previous clients — or your competition. This space is small, and if you’re successful, you’ll likely wind up knowing other freelancers. It’s good if those are friendly rather than antagonistic relationships. They may pass along work opportunities they can’t take, and you may wind up collaborating with them on multi-person projects. If someone has really done something beyond the pale and you need to mention it, go ahead, but casually dissing other writers is not a good way to promote yourself.

It’s hard to definitely show teamwork and interpersonal skills on a CV, but having been on some collaborative projects that got all the way to the finish line can be a good sign. Besides, it’s training in the actual skill.

Ability to incorporate notes and changes gracefully. Freelancing is about serving someone else’s artistic or marketing vision, quite a lot of the time: ideally you find a situation where their vision and your vision are compatible, but you need to be able to really listen to what they’re asking for, and not be so committed to your own aesthetic that you can’t deliver what they want.

None of this is to say that you should do something that you actually find unethical just because the client asks for it. If you can, though, avoid getting into this situation by talking at the commissioning phase about your values, if you think you and your prospective client might disagree. It’s way, way easier to say “I don’t do projects with objectifying pictures of women in them” at the pitch stage than to have that fight mid-project.

Ability to write solid prose. For our purposes, that means dialogue, narrative, and instructional prose about how to play a game. Some clients provide editors, but they’ll love it if you don’t put them to extreme efforts to get your writing into shape. Ideally, you’ll have a distinctive voice of your own, a particular perspective or style that makes something feel like it’s yours. Demonstrate this through the quality of your work.

Proofread your blog, website, or portfolio. Admittedly, I catch myself in typos here from time to time. Obviously, we are all human, and a few such problems aren’t fatal. At the same time, I’ve seen someone’s writing application scuppered because when the person hiring went to look at their blog, said blog was riddled with its/it’s errors, typos, and imprecise usage.

Ability to construct a plot. A fair amount of current hobbyist IF takes the form of vignettes and interactive poetry. There’s some very good work in that mode. I’d say most of my commercial IF commissions, though, require more narrative structure. That doesn’t always mean that the work has to be long, just that it needs multiple events and a sense of forward momentum. And, again, demonstrating this is a matter of having something in your portfolio that does have that type of structure.

Books on conventional fiction or screenplay plotting can be useful here. Just beware becoming one of those people who has read one how-to-write book and now insists that every story has to be the Hero’s Journey.

Ability to knit together story and mechanics. Can you communicate part of the story you’re telling through gameplay, through stats, through choices that the player is making? Can you look at a mechanical system someone else has already devised and propose a story that could fit around that system? What about taking a story or setting concept and proposing some good mechanics to bring it to life?

This I consider the core skill that sets a game or IF writer apart from conventional fiction writers. It only appears so far down the list because some jobs in this space come with ready-made mechanics.

Ability to communicate design concepts and story hooks. A lot of what I do is concept pitching. A client comes to me with a need. We have an initial meeting. Then I come back to them with a document of a page or two describing how I would address what they want. Sometimes I’m going to be working with other coders who are going to be implementing what I describe; sometimes I’m going to be doing all the implementation myself. Either way, communicating the concept in a way the client can understand and vet is step one to having a contract at all.

How do you practice and demonstrate this? Create blurbs for your finished works (on your website, on IFDB, etc) and make them sound appealing to play. Reviewing other people’s work or writing devlogs or similar posts can also demonstrate skill discussing design issues.

Ability to learn new tools. Sometimes commission work requires you to create something using the client’s own proprietary system. Having diverse platforms in your portfolio can be a useful pointer to the fact that you can master different toolsets. If all your work is raw Twine, that speaks to your writing. If your work is Twine enhanced with CSS and Javascript, that suggests you’ve got some broader abilities. If you have a stack of portfolio pieces in different platforms, that implies you can come to grips with something new as needed.

Experience with particular audiences or styles of writing. Being good at writing for specialized audiences (children, teens, groups with a particular background) or about specialized topics (mental health, world history, etc) is sometimes key to a particular job. A certain amount of commissioned game writing work is educational or nonprofit work, and that often has a different audience from mainstream games. This is a case where it might not be relevant to try to position yourself in advance — you never know what’s going to come along — but highlighting your outreach to specific audiences might make you stand out when the right job does come along.

Ability to produce a standalone game of some kind without help. Some commissions involve writing content that the client is then going to wire into their own system. Sometimes, though, they really want you to do end-to-end work and then present them with something they can just run. It’s nice to have a solution or two that you can offer.

That does not mean you have to be able to do all the forms of stand-alone game they might think of. Different clients want very different things. Barring special circumstances, I don’t encourage IF authors to feel they must, say, learn Unity in advance of some hypothetical future commission. (Though now that ink + Unity is a viable way to build a game, that has become a lot more plausible than it would have been a few months ago.)

Facility with a parser IF language. It’s rare that I’m asked about this — probably less than one time in a dozen. When it happens, the context is typically that the person doing the commission wants to tap into a real or perceived audience nostalgia. Often people asking also want some completely alternate interface from the usual interpreters and are hoping you can stitch Glulx together with some kind of alternative front end. Short version, there’s very low volume in these requests, while the technical requirements are high and unpredictable. I wouldn’t recommend pursuing this angle as a way to get employed.

Experience working with an artist, musician, et al. Are you used to setting art briefs and communicating about your concept? This doesn’t hurt, but it’s also one of those things that is possible to learn on the fly a bit.

Your own fanbase. People love to hire authors who will bring their own audience along with them. But if you have that, you may not need this anyway.


The Digital Antiquarian

Sierra Gets Creative

by Jimmy Maher at August 26, 2016 08:00 AM

Coming out of Sierra On-Line’s 1984 near-death experience, Ken Williams made a prognostication from which he would never waver: that the real future of home as well as business computing lay with the open, widely cloned hardware architecture of IBM’s computers, running Microsoft’s operating systems. He therefore established and nurtured a close relationship with Radio Shack, whose Tandy 1000 was by far the most consumer-friendly of the mid-1980s clones, and settled down to wait for the winds of the industry as a whole to start to blow his way. But that wait turned into a much longer one than he had ever anticipated. As each new Christmas approached, Ken predicted that this one must be the one where the winds would change, only to witness another holiday season dominated by the cheap and colorful Commodore 64, leaving the MS-DOS machines as relative afterthoughts.

MS-DOS was, mind you, a slowly growing afterthought, one on which Sierra was able to feed surprisingly well. Their unique relationship with Radio Shack in particular made them the envy of other publishers, allowing them as it did to sell their games almost without competition in thousands of stores nationwide. That strategic advantage among others helped Sierra to grow from $4.7 million in gross sales in the fiscal year ending on March 31, 1986, to almost $7 million the following fiscal year.

This sales history from a Sierra prospectus illustrates just how dramatically the company's customer changed almost overnight when Ken Williams made the decision to abandon what he dismissed as the "toy computers" to concentrate on the Apple II and especially MS-DOS markets.

This sales history from a Sierra prospectus illustrates just how dramatically the company’s customer base changed when Ken Williams made the decision to abandon what he dismissed as the “toy computers” to concentrate on the Apple II and especially the MS-DOS markets.

Still, such incrementalism was hardly a natural fit for Ken Williams’s personality; he was always an entrepreneur after the big gains. It was excruciating waiting for the 8-bit generation of machines to just die already. When IBM debuted their PS/2 line in 1987, Ken, seeing the new machines’ lovely MCGA and VGA graphics and user-friendly mouse support, felt a bit like Noah must have when the first drops of rain finally began to fall. Yes, the machines were ridiculously expensive as propositions for the home, but prior experience said that, given time, their technology would trickle down into more affordable price brackets. If nothing else, the PS/2 line was at long last a start.

Indeed, Ken was so encouraged by the PS/2 line that he decided to pull the trigger on a fraught decision faced by every growing young company: that of whether and when to go public. He decided that October of 1987 would be the right moment, just as Sierra’s lineup of new software for Christmas began to hit the streets. After a frenzy of preparation, all was ready — but then the very week the IPO was to take place opened with Black Monday, the largest single-day stock-market collapse since the mother of all stock-market collapses back in 1929. Sierra quietly abandoned their plans, to little notice from prospective investors who suddenly had much bigger fish to fry.

Sierra had gotten very lucky, and in more ways than one. Had Black Monday been, say, a Black Friday instead, their newly issued shares must inevitably have gotten caught in its undertow, with potentially disastrous results. But even absent those concerns, going public in 1987 was probably jumping the gun just a little, banking on an MS-DOS market that wasn’t quite there yet. This reality was abundantly demonstrated by that Christmas of 1987, the latest to defy Ken’s predictions by voting for the Commodore 64 over MS-DOS — although by this time Commodore’s evergreen was in turn being overshadowed by a new quantity from Japan called the Nintendo Entertainment System.

In fact, the Christmas of 1987 would prove the last of the 64’s strong American holiday seasons. The stars were aligning to make 1988 through 1990 the breakthrough years for both Sierra and the MS-DOS platform to which Ken was so obstinately determined to keep hitching his wagon. In the meantime, the fiscal year ending on March 31, 1988 was nothing to sneeze at in its own right: thanks largely to the new hit Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards and the perennially strong sales of all three extant King’s Quest games, gross sales topped $12 million, enough to satisfy even a greedy entrepreneur like Ken.

That year Sierra broke ground on a new office complex close to their old one in picturesque Oakhurst, California, “at the southern gate of Yosemite National Park,” as their press put it. The new building was made cheaply in comparison to the old one: 40,000 square feet of pre-fab metal that has been variously described as resembling either a warehouse or an aircraft hanger, both inside and out. It would prove a far less pleasant place to work than the lovely redwood building Sierra now abandoned, but that, it seemed, was the price of progress. (Ken claimed to have learned from a survey that his employees actually preferred a cheap building in the name of saving money in order to grow the company in more important ways, but there was considerable skepticism about the veracity of that claim among those selfsame employees.)

To accompany an IPO do-over they had tentatively planned for late in the year, Sierra would have some impressive new gaming technology as well as their impressive — or at least much bigger — new building to put on display. Back in 1986, Ken had made his first trip to Japan, where he’d been entranced by a domestic line of computers from NEC called the PC-9801 series. Although these machines were built around Intel processors and were capable of running MS-DOS, they weren’t hardware-compatible with the IBM standard, a situation that left them much more room for hardware innovation than that allowed to the American clonesters. In particular, the need to display the Japanese Kanji script had pushed their display technology far beyond that of their American counterparts. The top-of-the-line PC-9801VX, with 4096 colors, 1 MB of memory, and a 10 MHz 80286 processor, could rival the Commodore Amiga as a gaming computer. And, best of all, the Japanese accepted the NEC machines in this application; there was a thriving market in games for them. Ken saw in these Japanese machines a window on the future of the American MS-DOS machines, tangible proof of what he’d been saying already for so long about the potential of the IBM/Intel/Microsoft standard to become the dominant architecture in homes as well as businesses. Ken returned from Japan determined that Sierra must push their software forward to meet this coming hardware. Out of this epiphany was born the project to make the Sierra Creative Interpreter (SCI), the successor to the Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI) that had been used to build all of Sierra’s current lineup of adventure games.

On the surface, the specifications of the first version of SCI hardly overwhelm. The standard display resolution of the engine was doubled, from a rather horrid 160 X 200 to a more reasonable (for the era) 320 X 200, with better support being added for mice and more complex animation possibilities being baked in. Notably, the first version of SCI did not support the impressive but expensive new MCGA and VGA graphics standards; even the technically aggressive Ken Williams had to agree that it was just too soon to be worth the investment.

Under the hood, however, the changes were far more extensive than they might appear on the surface. Jeff Stephenson, Sierra’s longtime technology guru, had created AGI on IBM’s dime and IBM’s timetable, in order to implement the original King’s Quest on the ill-fated PCjr. It was a closed and thus a limited system, albeit one that had proved far more flexible and served Sierra far better and longer than anyone had anticipated at the time of its creation. Still, Stephenson envisioned SCI as something very different from its predecessor: a more open-ended, modular system that could grow alongside the hardware it targeted, supporting ever denser and more colorful displays, ever better sound, eventually entirely new technologies like CD-ROM. As indicated by its name, which dropped any specific mention of adventure games, SCI was intended to be a universal engine potentially applicable to many gaming genres. To facilitate such ambitions, Stephenson  completely rewrote the language used for programming the engine, going from a simplistically cryptic scripting language to a full-fledged modern programming language reminiscent of C++, incorporating all the latest thinking about object-oriented coding.

Forward-thinking though it was, SCI proved a hard sell to Sierra’s little cadre of game-makers, most of whom lacked the grounding in computer science enjoyed by Jeff Stephenson; they would have been perfectly happy to stick with their simple AGI scripts, thank you very much. But time would show Stephenson to have been correct in designing SCI for the future. The SCI engine, steadily evolving all the while, would last for the remainder of Sierra’s life as an independent company, the technological bedrock for dozens of games to come.

Sierra planned to release their first three SCI-based adventure games in time for Christmas 1988 and that planned-for second-chance IPO: King’s Quest IV, Leisure Suit Larry II, and Police Quest II, with Space Quest III to follow early in 1989. (This lineup says much about Ken Williams’s sequel-obsessed marketing strategy. As an annual report from the period puts it, “Sierra attempts to exploit and extend the effective market life of a successful product by creating sequels to that product and introducing them at planned intervals, thereby stimulating interest in both the sequels and the original product.”) Of this group, King’s Quest IV was always planned as the real showcase for Sierra’s evolving technology, the game for which they would really pull out all the stops — understandably so given that, despite some recent challenges from one (Leisure Suit) Larry Laffer, Roberta Williams’s series of family-friendly fairy-tale adventures remained the most popular games in the Sierra catalog. Indeed, King’s Quest IV marked the beginning of a new, more proactive stance on Sierra’s part when it came to turning the still largely bland beige world of the MS-DOS machines into the new standard for computer gaming. Simply put, with MS-DOS’s consumer uptake threatening to stall again in the wake of the high prices and poor reception of the PS/2 line, Sierra decided to get out and push.

King’s Quest IV‘s most notable shove to the industry’s backside began almost accidentally, with one of Ken’s crazy ideas. He’d decided he’d like to have a real, Hollywood-style soundtrack in this latest King’s Quest, something to emphasize Sierra’s increasingly cinematic approach to adventure gaming in general. Further, he’d love it if said soundtrack could be written by a real Hollywood composer. Never reluctant to liaison with Tinseltown — Sierra had eagerly jumped into relationships with the likes of Jim Henson and Disney during their first heyday years before — he pulled out his old Rolodex and started dialing agents. Most never bothered to return his calls, but at last one of them arranged a meeting with William Goldstein. A former Motown producer, a Grammy-nominated composer for a number of films, and an Emmy-nominated former musical director for the television series Fame, Goldstein also nurtured an interest in electronic music, having worked on several albums of same. He found the idea of writing music for a computer game immediately intriguing. He and Ken agreed that what they wanted for King’s Quest IV was not merely a few themes to loop in the background but a full-fledged musical score, arguably the first such ever to be written for a computer game. As Goldstein explained it to Ken, “the purpose of a score is to evoke emotion, not to be hummed. Sometimes the score consists only of some chord being held and slowly becoming louder in order to create a feeling of tenseness. In creating a score, the instrument(s) it is composed for can be as important as the score itself.”

And therein lay the rub. When Ken demonstrated for him the primitive bleeps and bloops an IBM clone’s speaker was capable of playing, Goldstein pronounced writing a score for that blunt instrument to be equivalent to trying to shoot flies with a shotgun. But then he had an idea. Thanks to his work in other forms of electronic music, Goldstein enjoyed a relationship with the Roland Corporation, a longstanding Japanese maker of synthesizers. Just recently, Roland had released a gadget called the MT-32, a nine-channel synthesizer that plugged into an ordinary IBM-compatible computer. Maybe, Goldstein mused, he could write his score for the MT-32.

At first blush, it seemed a very problematic proposal. The MT-32, which typically went for $550 or more, was hardly an everyday piece of kit; it was aimed at the professional or at least the very serious amateur musician, not at gamers. Yet Ken decided that, faced with a classic chicken-and-egg situation, he needed to do something to move the needle on the deplorable state of IBM-compatible sound hardware. A showpiece game, like King’s Quest IV might become, could show the market what it had been missing and generate demand that might lead to more affordable audio solutions. And so Ken set Goldstein to work on the MT-32.

At the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1988, Sierra gave a series of invitation-only audiences a sneak preview of King’s Quest IV in the form of a nearly ten-minute opening “movie” — people would soon be saying “cut scene” — enhanced by Goldstein’s score. Sierra legend has it that it moved at least one woman to tears. “I feel bad even saying it,” remarks Sierra’s marketing director (and Ken Williams’s little brother) John Williams, “but it was then that we knew we had a winner.”

Such an extreme reaction may be difficult to fathom today; even in King Quest IV‘s own time, it’s hard to imagine Amiga owners used to, say, Cinemaware games being quite so awed as this one lady apparently was. But nevertheless, King’s Quest IV and its first real soundtrack score stands as a landmark moment in the evolution of computer games. The game did indeed do much to break the chicken-and-egg conundrum afflicting MS-DOS audio. Only shortly after Roland had released the MT-32, a Canadian company called Ad Lib had released a “Personal Computer Music System” of their own at a price of just $245. It left much to be desired in comparison to the MT-32, but it was certainly worlds better than a simple beeper; Sierra duly added Ad Lib support to King’s Quest IV and all the other SCI games before they shipped. And for Space Quest III, they enlisted the services of another sort of star composer: Bob Siebenberg, drummer of the rock band Supertramp. Thanks in large degree to Sierra’s own determined intervention, in this area at least their chosen platform was becoming steadily more desirable as a game machine.

But King’s Quest IV also advanced the state of the art of adventure gaming in other, less tech-centric ways. As evidenced by its prominent subtitle The Perils of Rosella, its protagonist is female. Hard as it may seem to believe today, when more adventure games than not seem to star women, this fact made King’s Quest IV almost unique in its day; Infocom’s commercially unsuccessful but artistically brilliant interactive romance novel Plundered Hearts is just about the only point of comparison that leaps to mind. Roberta confessed to no small trepidation over the choice at the time of King’s Quest IV‘s release: “I know it will be just fine with the women and girls who play the game, but how it will go over with some of the men, I don’t know.” She also admitted to some ambivalence about her choice in purely practical terms, stemming from differing expectations that are embedded so deeply in our culture that they’re often hard to spot at all until we’re confronted with them.

I have a lot of deaths in my games. My characters always die from falling or being thrown into a cauldron or something. And I always like to have them die in a funny way. It didn’t seem right; I don’t why. I guess it’s because she’s a girl, and you don’t think a girl should be treated that way. But I got used to that too, until there was one death I had to deal with last week that I was real uncomfortable with. Was it throwing her in the cauldron? I’m not sure, but it was some death that seemed particularly unfeminine, not right.

And girls die differently. I discovered lots of these things, like the way she falls, which has to be different from the way a guy falls. It’s been an experience. And I think that men will find it fun and different because it’s from a different point of view.

One could wish that Roberta’s ambivalence about killing her new female heroine at every possible juncture had led her to consider the wisdom of indulging in all that indiscriminate player-killing at all, but such was not to be. In the end, the most surprising thing about King Quest IV‘s female protagonist would be how little remarked upon it was by players. Sounding almost disappointed, Roberta a few months after the game’s release noted that “I personally have not heard much about it.” “I thought it would get a lot of attention,” she went on. “It has gotten some, but nothing really dramatic”; “very few” of the letters she received about the game had anything at all to say about the female heroine.

But then, that non-reaction could of course be taken as a sign of progress in itself. One of the worthiest aspects of Sierra’s determination to turn computer gaming into a truly mainstream form of entertainment was their conviction that doing so must entail reaching far beyond the typical teenage-boy videogame demographic. Doubtless thanks to the relative paucity of hardcore action games and military simulations in their catalog as well as to their having a woman as their star designer, Sierra was always well ahead of most of the rest of their industry when it came to the diversity of their customer base. At a time when female players of other publishers’ games seldom got out of the single digits in percentage terms, Sierra could boast that fully one in four of their players was a woman or a girl; of other 1980s computer-game publishers, only Infocom could boast remotely comparable numbers. In the case of Roberta’s King’s Quest games, the number of female players rose as high as 40 percent, while women and girls wrote more than half of Roberta’s voluminous fan mail.

Sierra’s strides seem all the more remarkable in comparison to the benighted attitudes held by many other publishers. Mediagenic’s Bruce Davis, for instance, busy as usual formulating the modern caricature of the soulless videogame executive, declared vehemently that women and girls were “not a viable market” for games because of “profound” psychological differences that would always lead them to “shun” games. (One wonders what he makes of the modern gaming scene, vast swathes of which are positively dominated by female players.) The role model that Roberta Williams in particular became for many girls interested in games and/or computers should never be overlooked or minimized. Even as of this writing, eighteen years after Roberta published her last adventure game, John Williams tells me how people of a certain age “go crazy” upon learning he’s her brother-in-law, how he still gets at least two requests per week to put people in touch with her for an autograph, how there was an odd surge for a while there of newborn girls named Rosella and Roberta.

All of this only makes it tougher to reckon with the fact that Roberta’s actual games were so consistently poor in terms of fundamental design. King’s Quest IV is a particular lowlight in her checkered career, boasting some unfair howlers as bad as anything found in her legendarily insoluble Time Zone. At one point, you have to work your way through a horrendous sequence of random-seeming actions to wind up visiting an island, something you can only do one time. On this island is a certain magic bridle you’re going to need later in the game. But, incomprehensibly, the game not only doesn’t ever hint that the bridle may be present on the island, it literally refuses to show it to you even once you arrive there. The only way to find it is to walk around the island step by step, typing “look” again and again while facing in different directions, until you discover those pixels that should by all rights have depicted the bridle but for some reason don’t. Throw in climbing sequences that send you plummeting to your death if you move one pixel too far in the wrong direction, a brutal time limit, and plenty of other potential dead ends almost as heartless as the one just described, and King’s Quest IV becomes as unfair, unfun, frustrating, and downright torturous as any adventure game I’ve ever seen. It’s so bad that, rather than being dismissable as merely a disappointing game, it seems like a fundamentally broken game, thereby raising a question of ethics. Did a player who had just paid $40 for the game not deserve a product that was in fact a soluble adventure game? Even the trade press of King’s Quest IV‘s day, when not glorying over the higher-resolution graphics and especially that incredible soundtrack, had to acknowledge that the actual game underneath it all had some problems. Scorpia, the respected voice of adventure gaming for Computer Gaming World, filled her article on the game with adjectives like “exasperating,” “irritating,” “tedious,” and “boring”, before concluding that “it’s a matter of personal taste” — about as close to an outright pan as most magazine reviewers dared get in those days.

Roberta Williams, an example of that rare species of adventure-game designers who don’t actually play adventure games, likely had little idea just how torturous an experience her games actually were. Taken as a whole, Roberta’s consistent failings as a designer seemingly must stem from that inability to place herself in her player’s shoes, and from her own seeming disinterest in improving upon her previous works in any terms but those of their surface bells and whistles. That said, however, King’s Quest IV‘s unusually extreme failings, even in terms of a Roberta Williams design, quite obviously stemmed from the frenzied circumstances of its creation as well.

I should note before detailing those circumstances that Sierra was finally by the time of King’s Quest IV beginning to change some of the processes that had spawned so many bad adventure games during the company’s earlier years. By 1988, they finally had the beginnings of a real quality-assurance process, dedicating three employees full-time to thrashing away at their games and other software. But, welcome as it was to see testing happening in any form, Sierra’s conception of same focused on the trees rather than the forest. The testers spent their time chasing outright bugs, glitches, and typos, but feedback on more holistic aspects of design wasn’t really part of their brief. In other words, they might spend a great deal of time ensuring that a given sudden death worked correctly without it ever even occurring to them to think about whether that sudden death really needed to be there at all.

In the case of King’s Quest IV, however, even that circumscribed testing process broke down due the pressure of external events. By the spring of 1988, Roberta had given her design for the game to the team of two artists and two programmers — all recent hires, more fruit of Sierra’s steady expansion — for implementation. Then, with IPO Attempt 2.0 now planned for October of that year and lots of other projects on the boil as well, nobody in management paid King’s Quest IV a whole lot more attention for quite some time, simply assuming that no news from its development team was good news and that it was coming along as expected. Al Lowe, who by the end of that summer had already finished designing and coding his Leisure Suit Larry sequel that was scheduled to ship shortly after King’s Quest IV, picks up the story from here:

King’s Quest IV was going to be the flagship product for the company when we went public. So, Ken and the money guys are busy going around the country, doing their dog-and-pony shows to Wall Street investors, saying, “This is a great company, you’re going to want to buy in, buy lots of stock. We’ve got this great product coming out that’s going to be the hit of the Christmas season.”

Finally, about the end of August, somebody said, “Has anybody looked at that game that’s supposed to be done in a month, that we’re supposed to ship in October? How’s it doing?” They went and looked at it, and the two programmers were lost. They had no clue. They had written a lot of code, but a lot of it was buggy, a lot of it didn’t take proper precautions. One of the big rules of programming is to never allow input at a time you don’t want it, but they had none of that. Everything was wide open. You could break it with a sneeze.

So, they called me and asked if I could come up that weekend — it was Labor Day weekend, Saturday — to look at the game. I did, and said, “Oh, my God, we’re in trouble.” I had a lot of stock options, and was hoping for a successful IPO myself. When I saw this, I said, “We’re in terrible shape. This isn’t going to make it.”

So, we devised a strategy over the weekend to bring every programmer in the company together on Labor Day Monday for a meeting. We said, “All hands are going to work on this title for the next month, and we’re going to finish this game in one month’s time because we’ve got to have it done by the end of September.” Do you remember the phrase from The Godfather, “We’ll go to the mattresses?” That’s what we did; we went to the mattresses. We all moved into the Sierra building. Everybody worked. They brought us food; they did our laundry; they got us hotel rooms. We basically just lived and ate and worked there, and when we needed to sleep we’d go to this hotel nearby. Then we’d get back up and do it again.

I took the lead on the project. I broke the game up into areas, and we assigned a programmer to each. As they finished their code, we had the whole company testing it. We’d distribute bug reports and talk about progress each morning. And by God, by the end of the month we had a game. It wasn’t perfect — it was a little buggy — but at least we had a game we could send out. And when we went public, it was a successful IPO.

Entertaining as this war story is, especially when told by a natural raconteur like Al Lowe, it could hardly result in anything but a bad adventure game. In a desperate flurry like this one, the first thing to fall by the wayside must be any real thoughtfulness about a game’s design or the player’s experience therein.

But despite its many design failings, King’s Quest IV did indeed deliver in spades as the discussion piece and IPO kick-starter it was intended to be. Sierra’s own promotional copy wasn’t shy about slathering on the purple prose in making the game’s case as a technical and aesthetic breakthrough. (In a first and only for Sierra, an AGI version of the game was also made for older systems, but it garnered little press interest and few sales in comparison to the “real” SCI version.)

King’s Quest IV sets a landmark in computer gaming with a new development system that transcends existing standards of computer graphics, sound, and animation. Powerfully dramatic, King’s Quest IV evokes emotion like no other computer game with unique combinations of lifelike animated personalities, beautiful landscapes, and soul-stirring music. Sierra has recreated the universe of King’s Quest to build a world that one moment will pull at your heartstrings, the next moment place terror in your heart.

Leveraging their best promotional asset, Sierra sent Roberta Williams, looking pretty, wholesome, and personable as ever, on a sort of “book tour” to software stores and media outlets across the country, signing autographs for long lines of fans everywhere she went. No one had attempted anything quite like this since the heyday of Trip Hawkins’s electronic artists/rock stars, and never as successfully as this. The proof was in the pudding: King’s Quest IV sold 100,000 copies in its first two weeks and received heaps of press coverage at a time when coverage of computer games in general was all but nonexistent in the Nintendo-obsessed mainstream media. Sales of the game may ultimately have reached as high as 500,000 copies. The IPO went off without a hitch this time on October 6, 1988: 1.4 million shares of common stock were issued at an opening price of $9 per share. Within a year, the stock would be flirting with a price of $20 per share.

In all their promotional efforts for King’s Quest IV and the rest of that first batch of SCI games, Sierra placed special emphasis on sound, the area where Ken Williams had chosen to try most aggressively to push the hardware forward. The relationship between Sierra and Roland grew so close that Thomas Beckmen, president of the latter company’s American division, joined Sierra’s board. But anyone from any of Roland’s rivals who feared that this relationship would lock them out needn’t have worried. Recognizing that even most purchasers of what they loved to describe as their “premium” products weren’t likely to splash out more than $500 on a high-end Roland synthesizer, Sierra pushed the cheaper Ad Lib alternative equally hard. In 1989, when a Singapore company called Creative Music Systems entered the fray with a cheaper knock-off of the Ad Lib design which they called the Game Blaster, Sierra took it to their bosom as well. (In the end, it was Creative who would be the big winners in the sound-card wars. Their Sound Blaster line, the successor to the Game Blaster, would become the ubiquitous standard for PC gaming through much of the 1990s.) Ken Williams went so far as to compare the latest Sierra games with the first “talkies” to invade the world of silent cinema. Given the sound that users of computers like the Amiga had been enjoying well before Sierra jumped on the bandwagon, this was perhaps a stretch, but it certainly made for good copy.

Ad Lib advertisementRoland advertisement

As part of their aggressive push to get sound cards into the machines of their customers, Sierra started selling the products of all three rival makers directly through their own catalog.

As part of their aggressive push to get sound cards into the machines of their customers, Sierra started selling the products of all three of the biggest rival makers of same directly through their own product catalogs.

Thanks to his own company’s efforts as much as those of anyone, Ken Williams was able to declare at the beginning of 1990 that during the previous year MS-DOS had become “the standard for entertainment software”; the cloudburst this latter-day Noah had been anticipating for so long had come at last. In a down year for the computer-game industry as a whole, which was suffering greatly under the Nintendo onslaught, MS-DOS and the Amiga had been the only platforms not to suffer a decline, with the former’s market share growing from 44 percent to 55 percent. Ken’s prediction that MS-DOS would go from being the majority platform to the absolutely dominant one as 1990 wore on would prove correct.

My guess is that as software publishers plan out their new year’s product schedules, versions of newer titles for machines which are in decline will either be shelved or delayed. Don’t be surprised if companies who traditionally have been strong Apple or Commodore publishers suddenly ship first on MS-DOS. Don’t be surprised if many new titles come out ONLY for MS-DOS next Christmas.

Ken’s emerging vision for Sierra saw his company as “part of the entertainment industry, not the computer industry.” An inevitable corollary to that vision, at least to Ken’s way of seeing things, was a focus on the “media” part of interactive media. In that spirit, he had hired in July of 1989 one Bill Davis, a director of more than 150 animated television commercials, for the newly created position of Sierra’s Creative Director. Davis introduced story-boarding and other new processes redolent of Hollywood, adding another largely welcome layer of systemization to Sierra’s traditionally laissez-faire approach to game development. But, tellingly, he had no experience working with games as games, and nothing much to say about the designs that lay underneath the surface of Sierra’s creations; these remained as hit-and-miss as ever.

The period between 1988 and 1998 or so — the heyday of MS-DOS gaming, before Windows 95/98 and its DirectX gaming layer changed the environment yet again — was one of enormous ferment in computer graphics and sound, when games could commercially thrive on surface sizzle alone. Ken Williams proved more adept at riding this wave than just about anyone else, hewing stolidly as ever to the ten-foot rule he’d formulated during his company’s earliest days: “If someone says WOW when they see the screen from ten feet away, you have them sold.” Sierra, like much of the rest of the industry, took all the wrong lessons from the many bad but pretty games that were so successful during this period, concluding that design could largely be left to take care of it itself as long as a game looked exciting.

That Sierra games like King’s Quest IV did manage to be so successful despite their obvious underlying problems of design had much to do with the heady, unjaded times in which they were made — times in which a new piece of “bragware” for showing off one’s new hardware to best effect was worth a substantial price of admission quite apart from its value as a playable game. It also had something to do with Sierra’s masterful fan relations. The company projected an image as friendly and welcoming as their actual games were often unfriendly and obtuse. For instance, in another idea Ken nicked from Hollywood, by 1990 Sierra was offering free daily “studio tours” of their offices, complete with a slick pre-recorded “video welcome” from Roberta Williams herself, to any fan who happened to show up; for many a young fan, a visit to Sierra became the highlight of a family vacation to Yosemite. And of course the success of the King’s Quest games in particular had more than a little to do with the image of Roberta Williams, and the fact that the games were marketed almost as edutainment wares, drawing in a young, patient, and forgiving fan base who may not have fully comprehended that a King’s Quest was, at least theoretically, a game that could be won.

Still, these factors wouldn’t be enough to counter-balance fundamental issues of design forever. Well before the end of the 1990s, both Sierra and the adventure-gaming genre with which they would always be most identified would pay a steep price for too often making design an afterthought. Players, tired of being abused, bored with the lack of innovation in adventure-game design, and no longer quite so easy to wow with audiovisual flash alone, would begin to drift away; this trickle would soon become a flood which left the adventure genre commercially high and dry.

But all of that was still far in the future as of 1990. For now, Sierra was at the forefront of what they believed to an emerging new form of mass entertainment, not quite a game, not quite a movie. Gross sales had risen to $21.1 million for the fiscal year ending March 31, 1989, then $29.1 million the following fiscal year. In 1990, they expanded their reach through the acquisition of Dynamix, a six-year-old Oregon-based development house with a rather odd mix of military simulations — after all, Sierra did want men as well as women to continue buying their products — and audio-visually rich if interactively problematic “interactive movies” in their portfolio. Sierra’s years in the MS-DOS wilderness were over; now that same MS-DOS represented the mainstream, soon virtually the only stream of American computer gaming. Some very, very good years lay ahead in commercial terms. And, it must be said, by no means would all of Sierra’s games be failures in terms of design; some talented and motivated designers would soon be using the company’s SCI technology to make interactive magic. So, having given poor King’s Quest IV such a hard time today, next time I’ll be kinder to a couple of other Sierra games that I really don’t like.

Nope… I love them.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of December 1988; Byte of September 1987; Sierra’s newsletters dated Spring 1988, Winter 1988, Spring 1989, Autumn 1989, Spring 1990, Summer 1990; Sierra’s 10th Anniversary promotional brochure; press releases and annual reports found in the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Much of this article is also drawn from personal email correspondence with John Williams and Corey Cole. And, last but far from least, Ken Gagne also shared with me the full audio of an interview he conducted with Al Lowe for Juiced.GS magazine. My huge thanks to John, Corey, and Ken!)


August 25, 2016

Choice of Games

A Midsummer Night’s Choice — Fairy outlaws invade a Shakespearean comedy!

by Dan Fabulich at August 25, 2016 05:01 PM

A Midsummer Night's Choice

We’re proud to announce that A Midsummer Night’s Choice, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 25% off until September 1st!

In this Shakespearean comedy adventure, can forbidden love conquer adorable fairy outlaws?

A Midsummer Night’s Choice is a 190,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Kreg Segall, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based–without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind”

When your father, the Duke, tries to force you to marry, you’ll leave civilization behind as you flee in disguise, cross-dressed, into the enchanted forest. Mistaken identities, inexplicable bears, and tiny but fearsome fairies await! (Seriously, they wear little walnut shells for helmets, and ride armored baby bunnies into battle.)

Will you fall into the mysterious Faerie Queene’s clutches? Will you (or your identical doppelganger) find true love? Or will your father’s spies find you first?

Hold on to your heart! The course of true love never did run smooth.

  • Play as male or female, gay, straight, or bi.
  • Inspire the world with your noble deeds, or play everything for laughs.
  • Star in a play within a play. (Er, within a game…that you are playing.)
  • Become a jester, a diplomat, a knight, a poet, a shepherd–or leave the world behind and join the fairy court.
  • Why is there a bear?!

If you pre-ordered

iOS/Android: A Midsummer Night’s Choice is available as a free app. Anyone can play the first part of the game for free on iOS and Android (or on our website). Once you reach the end of the free trial, the app will ask you to either purchase the game or “restore” your purchase.

If you’ve purchased the game on our website, you can restore your purchase on iOS/Android at no additional charge, unlocking the rest of the game.

Windows/Mac/Linux: Visit our web page for A Midsummer Night’s Choice and click the link at the bottom of the page to “download it directly from us.” (The game is also now available to purchase on Steam, if that’s what you’d prefer.)

We hope you enjoy playing A Midsummer Night’s Choice. We encourage you to tell your friends about it, and recommend the game on StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. Don’t forget: our initial download rate determines our ranking on the App Store. The more times you download in the first week, the better our games will rank.

August 24, 2016

Renga in Blue

Adventure 366: More Than Anticipated

by Jason Dyer at August 24, 2016 06:00 PM

Yes, this one is back! It turns out I missed something.

Just as a reminder, the only new place added to the Blackett / Supnik 1977 version of Adventure was a gazebo, which contained a palantir (orb). I mentioned various messages received if you PEER IN the orb:

0205 a grate at the entrance to a large cave……
0206 a small stream feeding into a large cave…..
0207 a grate above you and a crawl west…..
0208 a hall,but the vision is clouded by thick mists…..
0209 yourself…the lights come up and an usher asks you to leave….

… and I assumed that was it. There was a magic word (“PKIHMN”, which sounds like a cross between Pikmin and Pokemon to me) that teleported me to outside the grate but I assumed that was merely to allow escape.

However, S. Healey (who made the Gobberwarts port) pointed out an interesting extra detail; that PKIHMN is linked to the orb, and it can be used as long as the orb is around:

…the palantir teleports you to different places depending on what you’re carrying (you get teleported to the same place as described when you PEER ORB).

The items/places are:

Keys: Outside grate
Axe: Hall of Mists
Lamp: Below Grate
(default): West Chamber of Hall of Mountain King

If you’re carrying more than one of the items, you teleport to the location related to the item top-most in the above list.

There seems to be a teleport location that was never implemented:
xx[ii++] =”0206 a small stream feeding into a large cave…..

This has the extra effect of killing a player who attempts to use the orb without getting the items from the building first, because the “default” teleport is a dark area where the player is bound to fall down a pit.

what will you do now?

Introcomp 2016: Bestiefone

by verityvirtue at August 24, 2016 04:01 PM

By Rob and Mark (Meanwhile Netprov Studio) (Ink/Unity)

Game title screenEnter a caption

Game’s title screen: winking emoji and game title over a closeup of someone’s hand opening a phone cover

The premise: your phone system’s started talking to you, and the chipper, more youthful Bestiefone is at loggerheads with prim, utilitarian SYSTEM. I am fond of this premise. The tone between the two is nicely contrasted.

Bestiefone is technically polished: it’s written in ink and Unity, and functions as a standalone app. There was some attempt at a skeuomorphic interface, though one is tempted to contrast this with A Normal Lost Phone, which really commits to the impression of a smartphone.  Bestiefone’s focus is not to simulate a phone. Bestiefone’s – and the in-game narrator’s – focus is on communication.

Game text - Don't buy, it User! They pretwnd that SYSTEM is the same as me. But it IS NOT! SYSTEM is just algomathed and datadriven. However whereas, I -- I am artificiamatically intelligenced!Game screenshot

This game has not reached its most user-friendly state yet, though: there’s no way to fast-forward the text appearing (as with Ren’Py), and I don’t seem to be able to switch over to other windows once I start up the app. I’m not sure if this is a bug or if it’s intentional.

The narrator’s writing style may put some off. It harks back to a time where z’s replaced s’s with abandon. It sometimes feels over the top. The narrator is impulsive, mercurial, but lonely and ultimately well-meaning. For me, though, what made it hard to continue playing was the lack of direction and interaction. It seems ironic that you can’t interact with the one part of the App which wants to talk to you, where instead I was expecting some space for me to explore or interact in a more open-ended way.

Still, Bestiefone strikes me as being terribly good-natured and quite earnest. Given some direction and more for the player to do, I think this could be good.

Tagged: bestiefone, games played 2016, ink, introcomp, introcomp 2016, Meanwhile Netprov Studio, skeuomorphic

Emily Short

IntroComp 2016

by Emily Short at August 24, 2016 03:00 PM

IntroComp is a long-running IF tradition in which authors contribute just the openings of games. Judges then vote based purely on whether they would like to play the complete version of the game. Voting is currently in progress, and doesn’t close until September 10, so if you’d like to play some IF and give feedback to prospective authors, this is a good time to do it.

A few thoughts on some of the specific games follow the jump. (I have not been able to play all of them yet, and in a few cases I did not have a great deal of use to say, so this is not a full roster of the competition contents. But You Too can play and judge!)

Spellbound, Adam Perry, parser. This is a straight-up wordplay game, in which you can arrange and rearrange your inventory of letters in order to produce new objects that may be of use in your current situation. I’m both keen on and picky about wordplay genre games: I like them to have clearly established, robust mechanics, and also ideally not to be too incomprehensibly surreal.

Spellbound does a pretty good job on both fronts. The spelling task has clearly communicated rules: at least originally, the player can’t form any words of more than three letters, which constrains your possible creation palette enough that the author has been able to do a pretty thorough implementation job for all the words that are possible. And while the resulting story is pretty narratively lightweight, it doesn’t require the reader to imagine wildly incomprehensible objects or situations, nor does it go as purely abstract as Andrew Schultz’s Threediopolis.

I did giggle a little at

As you descend the gigantic staircase, your jaw drops. And it keeps dropping.

but I feel the author intended that.

Overall, I find this very promising: the author has done enough to show he’s up for implementing his mechanic, but I feel like there are lots more possible puzzle variations he could do, so the intro has by no means exhausted the game’s total possibilities. This promises to be a story-light but robust and enjoyable entry in the wordplay puzzle genre.

Grubbyville, Andrew Schultz, parser. The idea here is that you’re competing for valedictorian, and you need to wander around your high school and interact with the other students in some way that will set you up for victory. It’s definitely on the puzzly rather than the naturalistic end of the spectrum, and I got stuck before the end of the intro because I couldn’t find the birthday gift I was supposed to present to one character. The SCORE command reveals that the game is tracking how often you’ve treated other characters various ways — have you been sly? nice? nasty?

I like the idea of where such a mechanic might go, but within the scope of the intro we don’t actually see very much of that concept at work.

Deviled Kegs, Mo, Twine. The premise: you are investigating a murder that takes place on a space station during an interplanetary brewing competition.

The game is dressed up with background images for each page of interactive text. In a few cases I found this challenging to read because of the lack of contrast between the writing and the underlying image.

The story is also quite short in its current form. It sets up a couple of potentially interesting problems for your investigation: some of the aliens on the space station are empaths and will pick up on emotional distress if you are feeling any while interviewing them. But the game ends with an additional cliffhanger complication before we get to see what that is likely to mean for gameplay.

What is here appears fairly linear, but perhaps the story will branch out more later. Or maybe it won’t! It’s really hard to tell where this is going, either as a story or as a game, because all the mechanical development has yet to come, and it feels like some of the stakes are also still to be revealed.

Tagged: introcomp

August 23, 2016

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Kreg Segall on A Midsummer Night’s Choice

by Mary Duffy at August 23, 2016 04:01 PM

Choice of Games’ latest release will be A Midsummer Night’s Choice, a Shakespearean romp (but much easier to read) through an enchanted forest, complete with fairies that do battle on harnessed rabbit-steeds. I sat down with the author, Kreg Segall, who is an Associate Professor of English in the Department of Humanities at Regis College to learn more about how Midsummer came about, and some of the challenges and pleasures of Shakespeare-style storytelling.

How did you stumble onto writing interactive fiction?

It feels less like a stumble than a natural progression. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing interactive stories for people to play with. I wrote stapled-together choose-your-own-adventure books for my friends in elementary school, played and ran all of the popular role-playing games around in the ’80s, and got involved in the live role-playing scene in Boston in college and grad school.

So when I discovered Choice of Games, it felt like an extension of what I had already been doing. I played the Heroes Rise series, and thought, “Oh, this is fun! I know how to do that.”

Your day job is being an English professor, so it’s no surprise that Midsummer is an homage to the Bard. Tell me about how you came up with the idea for the game and why this was a trope that worked for you.

The best part about being an English professor is that I get to talk to my students about my favorite stories all day. In a way, A Midsummer Night’s Choice is like a “best of” version of those stories—all of my favorite moments and characters lovingly parodied and morphed into something new.

I can hardly take credit for the idea for the game: it’s as old as comedy. The parent with their own idea about the child’s love life, and the child taking matters into his or her own hands by duping or otherwise ignoring the parent—that’s just a structure that sets us up for laughter. (Although strangely this structure seems less and less funny to me now that I have my own children.)

Once I realized that this game was going to incorporate all of my favorite moments from the comedies, it was easy to draw up a list of necessary elements—I had to have a fool, an unwelcome suitor, a domineering father, a courtier, a play-within-a-play, fairies, a bear, and so on. I think Shakespeare would have approved of my using his plays to create my own work—he did it all the time!

What specific plays informed this? I see snippets of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but also As You Like It, and even The Taming of the Shrew.

The three plays that my game owes the most to are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and The Winter’s Tale, although I tried really hard to get at least one joke or reference to every comedy in there, and most of the other plays too! But there’s also a significant amount of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the anonymous Mucedorus, The Knight of the Burning Pestle and really dozens of other plays. Shakespeare’s sonnets, too, make an appearance in my game as well.

Decision time: your favorite comedy, tragedy, history, and “weird” Shakespeare plays.

My favorite “other” play (and my favorite Shakespeare play overall) is The Winter’s Tale. Something in me responds to the long pastoral Act IV, with the singing rogue Autolycus, the silly-but-touching shepherds, and the young lovers trying to figure out their next step.

My favorite comedy is probably Measure for Measure, favorite history is Henry IV, pt. 1, and favorite tragedy is Antony and Cleopatra.

You didn’t ask me what my least favorite Shakespeare play is. So I’ll add that as a bonus. It’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. I keep giving it a try, but it’s not for me. But my favorite opera is Verdi’s Falstaff, which is based on The Merry Wives of Windsor. So at least that.

What elements of writing in ChoiceScript did you find favored or did not favor telling your story in the form of interactive fiction? This game seems like it’d have a huge burden on you for doing continuity—it’s both complex and has a good amount of variety in the endings.

I was wondering whether the coding would be difficult, but it was really quite straight-forward. It never got in my way. I have nothing but good things to say about ChoiceScript.

You’re right to say that the continuity was tricky: I would frequently draw out the possible endings on paper in a crazy-looking flowchart with ovals and arrows everywhere that took up several sheets of paper. I did make more work for myself than I needed to by adding a romantic option on a whim in the fourth chapter that I hadn’t anticipated—I had no clue that that whim would take weeks of work to properly integrate!

I grew very close to some of the characters as I wrote, and the process of writing the couple of dozen endings was bizarre. I had to imagine a character in love with the main character, and then, in an alternate reality, furious at them, and a dozen variations in between.

Midsummer feels so close to a Shakespeare play, in that it takes all the best elements of his comedies and mixes them up for a new audience. What would you tell a potential reader who hated Shakespeare plays in high school English class?

It may not surprise you to learn that I talk to people who hated Shakespeare in high school all the time. I would tell that potential reader that the hardest thing about Shakespeare is his language and his allusions to mythology. The story is the easy part. Anyone can understand a story about love, rebellion, and escape. While A Midsummer Night’s Choice does use a few Shakespearean words, it’s so much easier than reading Renaissance literature, and maybe my story will be interesting enough to inspire them to go seek out Shakespeare himself and give him another try.

The funny thing is that I was that person who didn’t care for Shakespeare in high school. I was so bored by Julius Caesar, and I didn’t get why Romeo and Juliet was a big deal.

It wasn’t until I saw a production of The Two Gentleman of Verona that I started feeling something. I had never heard of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and it’s only an O.K. play, but the actors made it funny, and I had no expectations, and the magic of theater took over.

Finally, I can’t resist a little short answer Bernard Pivot/James Lipton action with some interactive fiction flavor thrown in:

What is your favorite word?

Syzygy” is a cool one. Three vowels, all “y.”

What is your least favorite?

Shindig” sounds really painful for something that’s supposed to be fun. “Sidekick” has the same problem.

What turns you off?

Where do I start? Off the top of my head: dust jackets; tiny shutters on houses that have no utilitarian function; “ex libris” book plates; the texture of popsicle sticks; highlighters; squishy bread;

What is your favorite IF novel other than your own?

I enjoyed Choice of the Deathless. I thought it was a really fun setting, and as a fan of the Buffy/Angel world, getting to play as part of an undead law firm intrigued me.

What strategies do you use to keep writing when you feel blocked?

This has never happened to me—not in my scholarly work, and not in my creative work. I just sit down and write, which I like to do in 3-5 hour stretches when I can. I find it meditative, getting to play with words on the page.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Sometimes I think I’d like to be a baker in some quiet town. Wake up really early and make all sorts of amazing crusty breads. I’d like to have the sort of bakery that people describe as “artisanal” and “bespoke” and “locally-sourced” and “sustainable.” I wouldn’t use those words, but other people would. I think I mostly have that thought when I have a lot of papers to grade.

What profession would you not like to do?

A mere glance outside my window suggests that I really, really don’t want to be a gardener. Maybe the state of my backyard was inspiration for the untamed forest in my game.

Favorite authorship candidate/conspiracy theory?

There’s way too much amazing, fascinating critical work being done for me to keep up with fake issues.

These Heterogenous Tasks

Guys, Listen, I Have So Many Opinions About Monsterhearts Skins

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at August 23, 2016 05:01 AM

I’m preparing to run a Monsterhearts campaign again, and one of the players asked ‘did you ever write anything about the individual skins’, so, uh, this happened. Apologies in advance for prolonged opining.

(I’m keeping this to the basic, come-with-the-book skins. There are other good ones, but I personally think that the basic skins can’t be beaten for flexibility and solid design.)

The Chosen. Since I’ve just gone on about how the basic skins are reliably great, let’s walk that back a tiny bit: the Chosen is a handle-with-care kind of skin. Some players just ask for it to be immediately taken off the table, because the Chosen has a very strong tendency to make the story All About Them. They tend towards driver-style play, which really isn’t what Monsterhearts is about; a lot of the challenge of playing Chosen is figuring out ways to let other characters drive the plot for a while, and about shifting your own focus from Plot Objectives to Personal Issues.

The Chosen is very closely modeled on Buffy: responsibility-driven, self-sacrificing to the point of masochism, a social linchpin afflicted by the loneliness of leadership. Listening to Walk Through the Fire on repeat is excellent preparation for playing Chosen. The Chosen is so Type A it hurts.

Some players, particularly those with a traditional role-playing background, have an implicit assumption that the PCs will default to a party system – that they form a natural group of friends who mostly work together against external threats. You can totally play MH as the Scoobies; and if that’s the dynamic that you want anyway, having a Chosen character is slightly less of a game-changer. It’s still important to keep an eye on them, though: the Chosen isn’t primarily useful so much for ‘good at hunting monsters’, they’re useful for dragging people together when they’d rather be off sulking in corners.

I’ve played more muted Chosen characters in the past: kids who don’t have a Cosmic Destiny, just an extremely driven personality, a sense that every responsibility is uniquely theirs to shoulder. (This requires somewhat careful Move selection.)

themortalThe Mortal. The Mortal is very much Bella Swan: a mopey kid whose low self-esteem masks massive self-importance. The Mortal’s Big Issue is romantic fixation and dependence; they pick a lover who becomes their overwhelming central motivation. (The lover need not have been apprised of this.) The Mortal is self-destructive, clingy, demanding, manipulative, intensely passive-aggressive. Where the Ghost is about excessive blame, the Mortal is about excessive forgiveness: to them, True Love excuses any behaviour, on either side of the relationship. Or non-relationship. The Mortal is an enabler par excellence.

The Mortal is the one skin that cannot acquire a gang as they advance: they’re too oriented around their lover, and too wrapped up in themselves, to take on that kind of social obligation. (The Mortal will throw you under the bus for the sake of their boyfriend of three days, and then not understand why you’re upset.) But it’s still worth thinking of the Mortal as a negative-energy version of the Queen, sucking other characters into their orbit. The Mortal is powered by emotional vulnerability, giving Strings away like candy and marking tons of experience for doing it. The Mortal needs intense emotional intimacy very strongly, and foists their vulnerability upon people who aren’t ready, willing or able to cope with it.

The Mortal can change their lover whenever they feel like it, or make their lover a couple, or whatever. The Mortal doesn’t have to be with their lover, or talk to them ever. You can figure out a consistent system for doing this, or you can just go with whoever rolled to Turn On last, or just do whatever seems like the worst possible idea at the time.

[Edit. This ability to shift focus is a clue: the Mortal is often more devoted to their idea of their lover than to the lover themselves. If you want to really make the Mortal garbage, you can have them completely ignore their lover’s actual needs and desires in favour of their magical constructed image. And/or you can make them Sulky Friendzone Guy.]

As the pinnacle of all this, the Mortal triggers the Darkest Self of any PC they fuck. (This has weird how-does-Angel’s-soul-work implications if you take it over-literally, but I prefer to think of it as: the Mortal is really, really into people in crisis. And anyone who fucks the Mortal probably knew, deep down, that it was a really awful idea.

In short, dating a Mortal is a profoundly awful idea, but you will probably end up doing it anyway because the adoration and loyalty they offer, however twisted, is in short supply in the emotionally-ravenous world of Monsterhearts.

The Vampire. The Vampire is the garbage dom to the Mortal’s garbage sub. Where the Mortal acts through passive-aggressive emotional demands, the Vampire acts through direct control and emotional denial.

I’ve seen the Vampire played relatively infrequently, and I’m sort of edgy about playing one myself. Partly it’s because they’re so predatory: it’s not that difficult for them to slide into irredeemable monstrosity. (Together with the Ghoul, the Vampire is the role which creeps and edgelords tend to play.) But another factor is that the Vampire is a social powerhouse, and it’s challenging to play that – at least the Queen has a posse to exert influence through, but the Vampire has to command attention and respect through sheer force of personality. How do you play that? And if you can play that, how do you make it interesting?

An obvious risk with the Vampire is that, because you’re playing someone who affects stoicism as a way of exercising power, that you end up playing someone who is actually emotionally self-sufficient and invulnerable, which is extremely boring. The Vampire has power, but you need to have some idea of what they want to do with it, and how their needs make them vulnerable. Relatedly: if you play a Vampire, it’s most straightforward to play a newly-formed one who is still figuring this whole mess out. If you play an ancient character, in any skin (the Fae and the Ghost are the other usual suspects) you need to make sure that their hurt and confusion are still raw, that if they think they’ve got it all figured out then they’re utterly kidding themselves.

The Werewolf. This is probably the easiest skin to play, because the Werewolf’s issues are very straightforward: uncontrolled emotions, particularly anger. The Werewolf is fundamentally kind of a lug – they might be physical bullies, as per Primal Dominance and Bare Your Fangs, or loyal defenders, but that low Cold score makes them socially vulnerable.

You can make werewolves who focus on the loyal-protector side of things, big klutzy well-meaning puppies who are legitimately horrified that they just tore someone’s arm off. Or you can play them as cultural outsiders, struggling to deal with a social context where routine violence isn’t normal. Or you can have a world where routine violence is socially normal, and the Werewolf is just the one who ends up taking it too far.

The obvious problem with the Werewolf is that, because it’s the most violent skin, it has a  tendency to death-spiral. (Other death-spiral-prone skins: the Vampire, the Ghoul, the Infernal). The Werewolf’s big problem is what the hell you do with the story if the second scene features them tearing off the gym coach’s head in front of  the whole school.

The good thing about the Werewolf is that they don’t prevaricate. If the Werewolf has a beef with someone, they’re going to have a fight. If the Werewolf is into someone, they’re going to ask them out. If you’ve got a game where a Witch, a Ghost and an Infernal are all moping in their corners, the Werewolf can be relied upon to make shit happen.

thewitchThe Witch.  I love the Witch. The Witch is the nerdiest skin: withdrawn, intellectual, nosy. Witches watch, and wait, and judge. The Witch is a hidden manipulator, a troll, willing to pull egregious shit if they don’t think it can be traced back to them. The Witch might see themselves as powerful or weak, oppressed victim or powerful mastermind, above all this shit or desperate to get in. The Witch’s emotional makeup can be whatever you want it to be.

The main thing about the Witch is that they don’t obviously have all that much wrong with them. They’re kind of a shy nerd, but compared to the Ghost’s trauma, the Ghoul’s hunger, the Infernal’s debt, the Werewolf’s violence, you get the picture that the Witch is basically going to be OK. This makes them a decent beginner skin – you don’t immediately have to confront a huge, bleeding character flaw. The Witch has to make their own trouble; luckily, they have the tools to do it, in the form of hexes. Like the basic Moves of Monsterhearts, hexes seem to be ways of exercising power, but really they’re ways for you to create trouble for yourself. “Try to fix a problem with magic; it goes badly, and you need to deal with the consequences” is the basic Witch pattern. Ideally, there’ll be a few loose threads that escape your cleaning-up.

So, you can make up your own reasons why the Witch is messed-up – after all, anyone could choose to use magic to fix their problems – but by default, the Witch’s main problem is that they tend to interfere with shit that isn’t their business, and go too far. And, let’s be honest, sensible restraint and respect for boundaries are not qualities that any of the Skins are overendowed with. So the Witch has it relatively easy.

I tend to divide the skins into open and closed-off. The big risk with the closed-off skins – the Witch, the Infernal, the Ghost, the Ghoul – is if they end up disengaging from the other PCs, hiding in their bedrooms, not going to parties because nobody invited them, wallflowering, shrinking away from interpersonal entanglement. It’s partly the MC’s job to draw them out of that – make the PCs’ lives not boring – but, to be corny, it’s everybody’s job to make sure that everybody gets to participate.

The Fae. Like the Mortal and Chosen, the Fae is a glass cannon, intensely charming but vulnerable.

A pattern I see a lot with the Fae – sometimes also the Werewolf, the Ghost, the Selkie – is the What Is This Thing You Call Kissing syndrome. The player plays up how alien their character is, how they’re unfamiliar with the basic customs of modern life or the emotional arrangement of humans. And this is a totally fine thing! Much of my own secondary school experience was coloured by being the third-culture Cady Heron who was off in Africa when everybody else was devloping basic adolescent-culture norms; that’s a thing worth exploring.

The trick here, especially with the Fae, is when players start looking at everything as a quaint human thing and taking it lightly.

That’s cool in moderation. It’s interesting if the Fae fundamentally doesn’t Get certain norms which people around them want to consider as basic, universal assumptions. (Nudity is the obvious one that’s kind of built into the skin). But you’ve got to make this a problem for the Fae. Often players try to spin it as a mode of emotional invulnerability, a way of seeing all this teenage bullshit as not applying to you. And the Fae has to really care about things; even if they don’t care about fitting in with the cool kids, they need to fit in somewhere. The promises are one obvious way of doing this: to the Fae, promises offer a desperately needed social certainty, and it’s devastating when that’s taken away.

Like the Werewolf, the Fae needs some Dark Woods to play with. For the Werewolf, the Dark Woods are primarily useful as a neutral, unseen place to flee to after wolfing out. For the Fae they’re defining. Monsterhearts is a melodrama, and melodramas thrive on really strongly-characterised settings. The Dark Woods don’t have to be pristine wilderness – you can go all urban-exploration with them if you want – but having a strong sense of the Fae’s environment and their connection to it will go a long way, much like taking your time over descriptions of the Witch’s rituals.

Also, THE FAIRY KING. I love getting the Fairy King involved, because while they’re generally a powerful, ominous figure, there tends to be a lot of ambiguity about them – are they going to be a Big Bad, an ally that needs careful handling, monstrously indifferent, a capricious trickster, unreachably alien?

The Ghost. The Ghost is about trauma and blame. The Ghost is that person who was abused, and now sees every conflict, disagreement or social discomfort as abusive. The Ghost is about letting your past relationships ruin your present ones. The Ghost can find a way to blame anyone for their death. The Ghost is a force of indiscriminate, messy revenge.

The Ghost is about being voiceless, unseen, ignored, disregarded. The Ghost is also really good at alienating themselves from the only people who might help them. It can be a tough skin to inhabit, susceptible to bleed.

The Ghost concerns hidden crimes. The Victorians loved ghost stories in part, I think, because they grasped the vast potential for abuse that lurked beneath their controlled, hierarchical, private society. Ghosts, predominantly women and children, were guilt reified, atrocity brought to light. Ghost stories, via Wilkie Collins, are ancestors of the detective genre – and thus, too, the superhero genre. Like detectives and superheroes, the central purpose of the ghost is to satisfy the sense of cosmic justice, to right wrongs which would normally go hidden, ignored, forgotten, shrugged off. Like Witches, Ghosts are Cold/Dark,  good at sneaking around, figuring things out, and being judgmental about it.

On that note – when creating a Ghost you have a really tough backstory question to answer, about the circumstances of your death. This is a decision which can have a pretty major impact on how dark the the themes of the game will go, and you have to make it at the start of the campaign, when you might not have quite got the sense of how hard your fellow players want to push. I’ve seen players back down from the decision, put it in the MC’s hands, make it a mystery that they have to investigate – but that leaves a really big element of the character in the hands of the MC, who then has the same tricky decision to make with the added difficulty that they’re imposing it on someone else. Regardless, if you want to go really dark at this point, it’s a good idea to check in with the other players.

The Queen. The Queen is a role that, at first glance, looks like it’s made for an NPC. In the standard high-school story, the Queen is the antagonist. Playing antagonist is pretty fun, and can make for excellent drama; but ultimately, Monsterhearts PCs should be treated as PCs, and you should be thinking about how you’re going to build complexity onto the Queen – beyond ‘secret heart of gold’ or ‘desperate for validation’ basics.

Like the Vampire, the Queen is a Hot/Cold social power-player, but this doesn’t require you to make them a ruthless bitch. It does require you to make them a politician, though; someone who, given a challenge, immediately thinks about how to fix it by managing people.

The Queen starts with a gang, and Moves which strongly encourage you to use them. You should take every advantage of this. Your gang are pawns: they’re minions and trading-pieces, but they often get in the way of things. It’s really important that a gang is more than a convenient tool or appendage; the Queen should always feel pressured by them. Gangs have expectations and demands, and have simple triggers that push them to action whether you like it or not. Technically the MC has authority over gangs, but I tend to split it up: the player controls the gang members when they act as the player wants them to, and the MC controls them when they don’t.

theghoulThe Infernal.  The Infernal is the Witch with the stakes raised. Witches can use magic, and it might go badly; Infernals have to use magic and they know it’s going to be terrible. Witches keep their cool. Infernals are desperate.

The Infernal can be emotionally rough to play because, no matter what, they’ve got a sense of doom hanging over them. The Infernal’s situation is really, really fucked. The skin offers no way out, except by changing allegiance to something even worse. The Ghost and the Ghoul are fucked too, but at least they’re getting a second chance; the  Infernal got one chance, and they’re ruining it. And on some level it’s the Infernal’s own fault: it’s one thing to confess to being something, it’s quite another to confess ‘I’m doing this extremely bad thing, and I’m not going to stop.’

Like the Chosen – and, optionally, the Fae – the Infernal comes with a built-in special relationship to a Big Bad. This puts a great deal of your character’s fate in the hands of the MC. The most interesting demonic patrons are those who have an agenda beyond getting the Infernal to do risky and unethical things.

Often people’s instincts are to make the infernal contract initially be about something really big – saving a family member’s life is the classic one. That’s cool, not least because it creates an important family relationship and immediately puts a lot of stress on it. But you can also present the contract as being a lot more venal, about small things that escalate. The Infernal is the only base skin who has negative scores in both Hot and Cold: they’re really not someone who has a lot of social aptitude. The Infernal is someone who can’t imagine getting what they want through normal means, so – what seemed impossibly out of reach for you, as a teenager?

The Ghoul. The Ghoul’s usually read as being about addictive or compulsive behaviour, but – to make things a tiny bit broader – what they’re really about is raw need. The Ghoul needs something incredibly badly, in a way that they can’t be open about. The Ghoul can’t be Liv Moore, with convenient access to a regular supply of mortuary brains; they’re forced into regular, risky, transgressive behaviour.

The most common mistake with the Ghoul is the tendency to play them as though they’re already their Darkest Self, completely consumed by the single motivation of hunger. The Ghoul often cultivates the image of an unnerving sociopath, but it’s boring if they are one. The Ghoul is dead, and players often take this as a way of severing their ties with family and friends, becoming a brooding loner with no breathing emotional connections. As the Ghoul you need to attend extra-closely to Strings, because any connection that isn’t the Hunger could be really, really important.

Still, the Ghoul is a creep. Any Monsterhearts character is probably going to end up being kind of creepy at some point, but they have to slide down towards that point; the Ghoul starts creepy. The Ghoul’s death is messy, body-horror stuff, unlike the ethereal Ghost or flawless Vampire; the moves encourage you to use this to freak people out. Some players, with some skins, struggle to make their characters truly monstrous, but with the Ghoul the struggle is to keep them human. If their Hunger is fear or chaos, the Ghoul is going to spend a good amount of energy fucking people up for – as far as anyone else can see – the lulz. A power-hungry Ghoul is stepping into the same kind of territory as the Vampire, Queen and Werewolf; the big difference is that they don’t have a decent Hot score to back it up, and will probably have to engage in a lot more direct nastiness to get what they want.

And I really don’t know about the flesh thing, because I’ve never seen anyone attempt it. It’s essentially boring if you can get by long-term on steak, however huge the pile is. I can see that as a slow ratchet – stealing steaks, then killing a cow, then munching on a corpse that the MC generously scatters in your path, then… honestly, that’s more sympathetic than chaos ghouls or fear ghouls.


One of the cool things about skins is how the small character-creation choices you make can be really powerful signals about the direction you want to take the character. This is about choosing Moves, yes, but the initial stat you boost also makes a big difference. Take a Witch and boost Hot signals that you’re planning on being less of a recluse than the norm, moderating the skin. A Queen who boosts Cold – doubling down on the skin’s strengths – probably wants to play up the skin’s cutting, confrontational, stone bitch side.

The other really useful tool for calibrating your approach to a skin is the ability to take moves from other skins. Even if you haven’t done so yet, thinking about this in advance can help. Jake is a Queen, yes, but with a side of Werewolf; his gang’s social dynamic is pretty rough-and-tumble, and the aggression that serves him well within it is going to cause him big problems in the wider world. Van is a Witch, but her backstory has enough trauma in it that she functions almost like a Ghost for much of the time – and that’s a good way of thinking about it even if she never takes a Ghost move.

August 22, 2016

what will you do now?

Introcomp 2016: Astronomical Territories Of The Great British Empire

by verityvirtue at August 22, 2016 02:01 PM

By G_G (Quest). This is an entry in Introcomp 2016, a competition focusing on game introductions. I participated last year.

Written in Quest, this is set in London, and begins on the banks of the Thames. There are nods at a colonial empire, and something about stars. Or, more precisely, a “clouded planet”.

I’ll just say it up front: the ending is far, far too abrupt. There is no inkling of plot, barely a whisper of setting. And that’s a problem in Introcomp, because to get the reader invested in the story, you’ve got to make them care about the situation or the characters, and there’s too little in this introduction to do either.

As I slowly realised during my own experience in Introcomp 2015, setting alone will not work. Setting is passive; it is characters – people – which bring it to life.

I accept that I may well have missed some way to unlock further story; I will say that my play through ended when I decided whether I wanted to go to Trafalgar Square or the Houses of Parliament. However, some things I’d have liked to see in this game in general are:

Elaboration about the setting, particularly addressing the hook in the title about astronomical territories. This is a great hook. While we’ve seen plenty of games – heck, we’ve seen plenty of fiction – set in London in its various guises, a British empire which controls planets in outer space? Steampunk? Oh, yes, please!

Some explanation of the narrator. In some games, figuring out who the narrator is is part of the game. But here, there was precious little sense of direction or purpose without anything like that.

I’m a sucker for settings like these, don’t get me wrong, and I usually enjoy walking around fictional London as much as I do the real London. But there’s very little to work off here for me to really say I want more.

Tagged: games played 2016, G_G, introcomp, introcomp 2016, Quest

Emily Short

Worldsmith (Ade McT/interactive fables)

by Emily Short at August 22, 2016 04:00 AM

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 6.21.43 PM.png

Worldsmith belongs to a category that is still pretty rare, even in this age of growing opportunities for commercial IF: it’s for-sale parser IF. A demo is available for free, but the full version is $5.99. Not only that, but the author has collaborated with furkle (of SPY INTRIGUE fame) to skin an Inform 7 game with images, video, hyperlinks and custom menus. The surrounding images help communicate status information, with images of the NPCs you’re conversing with, and/or the planet you’re currently constructing.

Then there’s the gameplay. Worldsmith is heavy on both simulation and procedural text; I’ve seen a lot of authors start work that made ambitious use of those, but very few actually finish something of that scope and complexity.

The essential premise is that you are a world-builder in competition with several other world-builders (a very high-powered version of the Great British Bake-Off, perhaps). In order to do this, you must combine fundamental elements such as Air and Fire to make planets; set the planets in chosen orbits in your pet solar system; seed those planets with life; and then nurture the life to a degree of sentience that will survive in the wider universe and be able to leave its home planet before said planet becomes uninhabitable.

So far as I’ve seen, this is very much a systems game rather than a puzzle game. There is loads of information to learn about how various elements combine and what sorts of creatures they are likely to produce. Though you get a tutorial (a rather exasperated encounter with your teacher, who evidently feels that you really should have mastered the elements of world-construction by now), there’s a dizzying amount to retain, and you’ll likely find yourself reviewing your instruction manual quite a lot.

I haven’t managed to win. On the contrary, I’ve made a series of half-baked planets and seeded unsuccessful life on them, and needed to restart several times. (It turns out that if you teach your lifeforms too much too quickly, they’ll probably just destroy themselves, so slow up, Prometheus.) But I feel like I’m learning, so this is good restarting, rather than the bad frustrating restarting when a puzzle game has gone unwinnable.

In response to the decisions you make, your world is formed with differently described land forms, creatures, and technologies. It’s probably the closest thing to Spore-in-text-form that I’ve seen.

Still, eventually I realized that if I wanted to blog about this piece, I was going to have to go against my usual preference and write it up without having played the whole thing. So that’s a big caveat. I have some things to point out about Worldsmith but I have not seen anything near all of it, and certainly not most of its storyline.

Because there is a storyline, at least if you pick the Story option at startup. Your fellow contestants try to talk to you, and there are hints of a more global conspiracy. I haven’t finished the storyline either, because I’ve restarted so many times in an attempt to prevent my worlds from being awful. In fact, I found that because the game’s systems were so intricate, I was more exasperated than anything else when an NPC showed up to talk to me. (“Can’t you see I’m in the middle of shaping this world? Take your plot beat and get lost!”)

So after multiple iterations and failures, I switched to the available Game-only mode, where the story was omitted. I might at some point return and do the story once I’m more proficient at the game part. To judge by the review on IFDB, there is in fact quite a lot of story and perhaps a more conventional parser-game-style map that I could unlock at some point if only I managed to get these worlds to work properly.

Impressive though all this is, there are a few things that make the experience less hook-filled and less smooth than I’d like.

Getting started is rather thick going. There’s a lot of technical vocabulary introduced quickly; some of it is clearly functional and some of it ties in to lore about characters and the history of this universe. The following description is characteristic:

>x takwin
The Takwin is suspended above the Altar of Argestes by thick chains. It shines gold in the half light. Three shallow bowls, the Quaich, hold the ingredients of life. Clockwise, the three Quaich of the Takwin hold 5 urna of bile, 4 urna of blood and 6 urna of phlegm respectively. Each Quaich has a tap that allows you to draw off an ingredient into the shallow stone dish of the Altar.

This paragraph is asking us to assimilate quite a lot — the name of the Takwin, the name of the Altar, the name of the bowls, and the fact that the unit of measurement is an urn or urna — but the part of that description that you’re actually going to use (at least for the next 60+ moves of game time) could be boiled down to: “Your ingredients include 5 units of bile, 4 of blood, and 6 of phlegm.” Sure, add a bit of description to set the scene, but invented words are pretty much the opposite of description. I’ve never seen an urna, so I don’t know whether we’re talking about a teaspoon or a gallon; I don’t know whether the Quaiches are shallow and tiny like an ashtray or shallow and huge like a horse trough.

The tome you consult about in-world items is like that too: lots of technical information you need to absorb in order to get moving on world construction, interspersed with lots of references to lore you don’t yet understand. And there are many, many articles to read! Just to get started, you’ll probably need to read up on all three humors, six “eccentrics”, and five “basics”, not to mention the article that tells you what Teachings you can impart to your creatures, and the other article that gives you more background on those Teachings. So even though most articles are glossed with lore-rich footnotes, I soon found myself skimming, trying to get at the information I actually needed to go forward with my world-building, and feeling like a chef with a particularly uncooperative recipe book.

I would rather have had the world-making system introduced gradually through a series of layered challenges and a little more time to digest the information. Moreover, early moves of the game often feature loads of interactive objects, information, and hyperlinks, all competing for attention. If you’re the sort of person who feels overwhelmed when presented with too many options at once, you may also want to go cautiously with this one.

Daringly the game incorporates video with theme music as well — and uses that video as a cut scene that nonetheless tells part of the story in text. Then, too, the imagery isn’t as coherent as I would like, with some elements looking more photographic and some more stylized or cartoonish. The results of the JavaScript integration are technically impressive, but it would take a stronger design to make this look polished.

Nonetheless: this is a wildly ambitious game in multiple respects, and if you follow parser IF, it’s at the very least worth a look to see what it’s accomplished. For the right players, it may also be the delightful fulfillment of a long-held desire. Mix-your-own-recipe mechanics are unusual in finished IF, but more common in aspirations of IF. It’s just that very few people have managed to release such a game.

Disclaimer: I played a copy of this game that I received for free for review purposes.

August 21, 2016


Quick twitter bots with AWS Lambda

August 21, 2016 03:03 PM

So yesterday, on a whim, I pulled some of Voyageur’s generator content into a Twitter bot. The Galactic Food Bot tweets procedurally-generated futuristic street food mélanges periodically.

This bot exemplifies a botmaking workflow using Node.js and AWS Lambda. It allows for more flexibility than using a service like Cheap Bots Done Quick, without the need to manage or deploy a full server of some kind.

This tutorial assumes some familiarity with Javascript in general and Node specifically (and you’ll need an installation of Node.js, preferably Node 4). Besides that, you don’t really need to understand the Twitter API to do this.

Some familiarity with AWS is also helpful but not required. Amazon Web Services is of course Amazon’s cloud computing platform. It has a free usage tier that is useful for trying things out without having to spend money. AWS Lambda, which we will be using, is a service that runs code on the cloud in response to certain events triggered by other Amazon services. It dispenses with needing to set up a real server to do this, which is useful. It also has a free tier with no time limit; low levels of Lambda usage are free for new and existing AWS user accounts. And unless you use AWS to make hundreds of bots, you will stay in that free tier (at least, at the time of writing this is the case).

Since this tutorial is an example, we’ll be making a simplistic bot, Chirpy, that just posts “Chirp! Chirp!” every other hour or so. This tutorial is really about setting up a Twitter bot that runs arbitrary Node code in the cloud, and you can use anything you like as the bot’s logic for generating tweets. The food bot uses Improv, for example. The major limitation here is that this method is only really useful for bots that post on Twitter periodically of their own accord, and not for interactive bots that respond to mentions or DMs.

Step 1: Setting up

First, let’s set up a folder where we’ll write the code for our bot:

$ mkdir chirpy-bot
$ cd chirpy-bot
$ npm init

We’ll be using npm to manage packages, of course. The reason this is so easy is that we’ll be using a lot of Node libraries. You can see the finished bot code at the github repository I set up for it.

Next, we need to create a Twitter account for our bot. We’ll just need an email address for that account; you don’t need a phone number. If you have a Gmail account, you can create subaddresses that redirect incoming mail to your main inbox, and Twitter seems to accept those as new addresses.

Finally, we need to set up a Twitter app for our bot; this will give us API keys that we can use to securely access the Twitter API with our bot code. You can actually just set up one app for all your bots, though I went ahead and set up a new one for Chirpy. Go to and set up a new app. Do this from your main account, not the bot account; I’ll be showing you how to get API keys specific to the bot’s account in a second. Setting up apps with post permissions on Twitter will require having a phone number associated with your account.

Make sure your app has permission to post on Twitter (that is, that it’s not read-only). Note the API key and secret.

Twitter API Keys The API key and secret.

Step 2: Getting API keys

Twitter’s API uses OAuth to authorize users. OAuth, in the context of Twitter, is a way for users to authorize apps to use their accounts, without exposing their real login credentials (password) to the app. That way, the user can revoke that authorization unilaterally and easily without having to involve the app or change their password, because the authorization tokens are unique to each app-user pair.

When you created your app, you got a pair of app-specific API keys (a key and a secret) that your app uses to identify itself to Twitter. You will also need a pair of user-app keys, created by authorizing the app to use the account in question.

Normally, this is done via a webpage or app, but we don’t wnat to set that up for our bot. So we’ll be using PIN authorization. We’ll ask Twitter for an authorization link, log in as our bot account through that link, and get a PIN back. Then we’ll give that number back to Twitter, and Twitter will respond with authorization keys. This is intended to allow Twitter integration in situations where you can’t open a web page, like say a toaster that tweets whenever you toast, but it’s also a handy way of getting API keys for any arbitrary account on an app that you control.

Here is a simple Node script for PIN authorizing any app:

var TwitterPinAuth = require('twitter-pin-auth');
var fs = require('fs-jetpack');
var ncp = require('copy-paste');
var prompt = require('prompt');
var auth ='api_keys.json', 'json');
var twitterPinAuth = new TwitterPinAuth(
auth.consumer_key, auth.consumer_secret
.then(function(url) {
console.log('Received auth URL...');
ncp.copy(url, function () {
console.log('URL pasted to clipboard');
prompt.get(['PIN'], function (err, result) {
.then(function (data) {
console.log('Access token:', data.accessTokenKey);
console.log('Access secret:', data.accessTokenSecret);
ncp.copy('Access token ' + data.accessTokenKey + '\n' +
'Access secret ' + data.accessTokenSecret);
.catch(function(err) {
}).catch(function(err) {

If you cloned the Github repository, this will be in there as auth.js. You don’t really need to understand this script (and, honestly, you don’t want to, because it mixes callbacks and promises and therefore is sinful and bad). But it provides a simple terminal-based interface to PIN authorization.

Note that it doesn’t contain the API keys in the source code; that way I can upload this to github without exposing the login credentials for my app. We’ll be using a separate json file containing our keys:

"consumer_key": "[consumer key]",
"consumer_secret": "[consumer secret]",

Fill that in with the keys you got from Twitter, save it as api_keys.json, install the dependencies, and run it:

$ npm install --save twitter-pin-auth fs-jetpack copy-paste prompt
$ node auth.js
The PIN authorization script running The PIN Authorization script in action.
The Twitter authorization screen
A Twitter authorization PIN

You will get a link (copied to your clipboard). Go to that link while logged in as your bot account, and you will get a PIN from Twitter to confirm the authorization. Type that back into the terminal, and you will get the access tokens to use the Twitter API. Add those tokens back into that same json file; our actual bot code is going to use it:

A json file with authorization keys

Now we are ready to start writing our actual bot.

Step 3: Writing a bot

Our bot is very simple; it just generates a random number of chirps and tweets them. We are using the Twit library to handle the Twitter API, so we don’t have to think too hard about it:

var fs = require('fs-jetpack');
var Twit = require('twit');
var auth ='api_keys.json', 'json');
var t = new Twit(auth);
function chirp () {
// Returns a random chirping noise
// Originally, this bot only tweeted "Chirp!" repeated a random
// number of times. This isn't enough variation for a bot; the
// Twitter API will reject duplicate tweets. So instead we have
// a 5 unique bird noises, repeated 1 to 7 times, for 97655
// possible tweets.
var chirps = [
return chirps[Math.floor(Math.random() * chirps.length)];
function generateTweet () {
// Generate a random number from 1 to 7;
var n = Math.floor(Math.random() * 7 + 1);
// Create a string of that many chirps
return Array(n).fill('').map(chirp).join(' ');
exports.generate = generateTweet;
exports.tweet = function tweet () {
if (Math.random() > 0.5) {
console.log("Not tweeting right now");
function callback (err, data) {
if (err) {
}'statuses/update', { status: generateTweet() }, callback);

Don’t forget to install Twit: npm install --save twit.

We can test this bot by loading it as a Node module and running the “tweet” function.

Running our tweet function. And we are live!
The PIN authorization script running Hello, Twitter.

If all works well, we are ready to upload this to AWS Lambda and run it on the cloud. We would need to include the libraries that we’re using. We can upload the node_modules folder along with our bot script, of course, but if you’re on Windows like me, moving around node_modules is exceedingly slow because Windows handles the long, extremely deep file paths that npm creates very poorly.

So, instead, we’re going to bundle everything into a single js file using browserify. Make sure Gulp is installed globally on your system and create a Gulpfile:

var gulp = require('gulp');
var browserify = require("browserify");
var source = require('vinyl-source-stream');
var buffer = require('vinyl-buffer');
gulp.task('default', ['bundle']);
gulp.task("bundle", function () {
// These Browserify settings will make a bundle file that is a standalone
// module that can run on Node, rather than a bundle meant to be used in a
// script tag on a webpage.
var b = browserify({
entries: './tweet.js',
browserField : false,
builtins : false,
commondir : false,
insertGlobalVars : {
process: undefined,
global: undefined,
'Buffer.isBuffer': undefined,
Buffer: undefined
standalone: 'index',
return b.bundle()

Locally install the required software: npm install --save-dev gulp browserify vinyl-source-stream vinyl-buffer. And now gulp should run browserify and create a bundle file, index.js, inside dist/.

We are going to zip that file together with our json file containing authorization tokens, so make a copy of api_keys.json inside dist/ and zip them together. That zip file is what we will be uploading to AWS Lambda.

Step 4: AWS Lambda

If you don’t have one already, create an AWS account.

First, we need to set up permissions for our Lambda function. AWS permissions are pretty complicated, since they have to manage integration between dozens of services; there’s a lot of documentation to read up on. But for our purposes, we don’t need our bot to talk to other AWS services or do anything involved.

So, from the AWS management console, go to Identity and Access Management (IAM); open the Roles tab; and create a new role. Give it a name, make it an AWS Lambda service role, and attach policies to it. The least permissive policy we can use here is AWSLambdaBasicExecutionRole, but if you want your bot to integrate with other AWS services like S3, you’ll need to use something that allows that like AWSLambdaFullAccess.

Then, finally, time to create our bot. Switch to the AWS Lambda dashboard and create a new function. We’re going to skip using a blueprint; we don’t need it here. Then we need to select a trigger; AWS has several different events that can be used to trigger Lambda functions. As our trigger, we are going to use CloudWatch Events - Schedule. For the unix-inclined, this is literally just a cron job. That is, it’s a simple AWS event that just fires periodically. In this case, we want it to run hourly. We could also set it to run every 15 minutes if we want our bot to tweet at more unpredictable times; remember to set the odds of the bot tweeting accordingly. In the code example above, we have it tweeting roughly half the time, which should average to 12 times per day if we have the function running hourly. There are 96 15-minute increments in a day, so if wanted it to run about ten times a day, we could use Math.random() < 0.1.

AWS Lambda trigger configuration

We give our function a name, set it to run on Node.js 4.3, and upload our zip file with our bundled bot code. We set our handler to the index.tweet; that is, Node will load the file index.js as a module, then try to run the function called tweet that it exports. And we give it the execution role we wanted.

AWS Lambda configurations

Finally, after all this, we can test our Lambda function. Because the chances of tweeting are random, you might have to run the test a few times before it tweets. Make sure the trigger is enabled on the AWS lambda console, and we’re done - our bot will work autonomously from now on.

Hopefully this was helpful; I know at least that a lot of botmakers didn’t know about PIN authorization and were using other ways of getting API keys that are more time-consuming or circuitous. If you have questions or suggestions, you can always reach me on Twitter.

August 19, 2016

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Machinations: Fog of War by Chris Conley

by Dan Fabulich at August 19, 2016 09:01 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Machinations: Fog of WarGunpowder diplomacy in a city primed to explode! You’re a shapeshifting android created to infiltrate the enemy. Steal, lie, and persuade your way to success. Can you save a people on the brink of war?

Machinations: Fog of War is a 150,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Chris Conley, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based–without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

It’s 25% off until August 26th!

  • Explore a 150,000-word tale of deception, intrigue and betrayal in an age of gunpowder and rapier duels.
  • Embody a lifelike automata with the ability to study and mimic the appearance and behavior of anyone you meet.
  • Develop your personal skills, accumulate an array of disguises, and cultivate contacts and allies.
  • Navigate the hostile waters of diplomacy, scheming and plotting when everyone has their own motives.
  • Decide who to trust and who to deceive.
  • Serve your master faithfully, or break away and serve only yourself.

Chris developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.

Not Dead Hugo

Summertime Frolicking

by Roody ( at August 19, 2016 08:52 PM

One of my favorite things about frolicking is how quickly I get sick of it and want to return to my projects.  That said, August is lousy with birthdays among my friends and family (of course, I mean that in the quantitative, Catcher in the Rye sense and not the qualitative one), and I've still got some pool parties, a "pedal tavern," and possibly a trip to the Renaissance Faire in my future.

Still, I can't wait to submerge myself in something Hugo again.  Earlier this week, I made some progress in my most recent problem; I had noticed how horribly broken the baby-naming code was in my silly, nonsensical game, "Baby Uncle New Year," and I wanted to fix it up.

I was hoping my new code would be general enough that I could easily throw it into Roodylib for everybody to use, but it ended up being too specifically purposed.  When I get back to coding, writing that general purpose system will probably be my next task.

Ideally, I'd like it to do these things:
  1.  If the game is being played on an interpreter that supports Hugo's timing system (and accessibility mode is not turned on), it would throw up a floating window like in my game "The Halloween Horror" and use my "fake prompt" code to capture the input and writing it straight to an array.
  2. If the game is being played on a glk interpreter or has accessibility mode turned on, it has a prompt in the main window.  Actual Hugo prompts are tricky because unless the text is within quotation marks, Hugo can only keep track of one unrecognized word.  I'll have to find a tactful way to instruct the player accordingly.
  3. Both of these will result in a, "'<blah>'? Is that correct?" response so the player can double-check how it was received.  Even with whatever nudging I give, the main window Hugo prompts have a fair possibility of being wrong, like if the player used any of the "removal" words ("a", "an", "the", "some", "of") that Hugo automatically drops from input lines.
  4. Include an option to write all unrecognized words to the game dictionary and apply them to an object.
At least one game in progress by another person uses my "fake prompt" code so I figure this system could be useful to others as well.  Besides this, I need to reacquaint myself with my Hugo "to do" list and see if there's anything else I'd like to add before the next Roodylib release.  I also have some real world research I want to do on one of my game ideas.

Here's to ending 2016 with a little more Hugo in the world!

The Digital Antiquarian

IBM’s New Flavor

by Jimmy Maher at August 19, 2016 05:00 PM

The PS/2 lineup

IBM’s greatest triumph was inextricably linked with what by 1986 was turning into their biggest problem. Following its introduction five years before, the IBM PC had remade the face of corporate computing in its image, legitimizing personal computing in the eyes of the Fortune 500 and all those smaller companies who dreamed of someday joining their ranks. The ecosystem that surrounded the IBM PC and its successors was now worth countless billions, the greatest story of American business success of them all to play out during Ronald Reagan’s storied Morning in America.

The problem, at least as IBM and many of their worried stockholders perceived it, was that they now seemed on the verge of losing control of the very standard they had created. A combination of the decisions that had allowed the original IBM PC to become a standard in the first place — its simple, workmanlike design that utilized only off-the-shelf components; the scrupulously thorough documentation of said design; the decision to outsource the machine’s operating system to Microsoft, a third party all too willing to license the same operating system to other parties as well — had led to a thriving market in so-called “clone” machines whose combined revenues now far exceeded IBM’s personal-computer sales. IBM believed that the clonesters were lifting billions out of their pockets every year, even as they saw their own sales, which had broken record after record in the first few years following the IBM PC’s launch, beginning to show signs of stagnation.

Compaq of Houston, Texas, the most aggressive and innovative of the clonesters, had first begun to collect for themselves a reputation to rival IBM’s own with their very first product back in 1983, a portable — or, perhaps better said, “luggable” — all-in-one IBM-compatible. The Compaq Portable had forced IBM for the first time to play catch-up with a personal-computing rival, rushing to market a luggable of their own. To make matters worse, the IBM version of portable computing had proved far less practical than the Compaq, as many a reviewer wasn’t shy about pointing out.

Now, in 1986, Compaq threatened to wrangle away from IBM the mantle of technological leadership via a machine that represented a more fundamental advance than a new form factor. After hearing that IBM didn’t have any immediate plans to release a machine built around the Intel 80386, a new 32-bit processor that was sending waves of excitement rippling through the industry, Compaq decided to push ahead with a 386-based machine of their own — right now, this very year. The public launch of the Compaq Deskpro 386 on September 9, 1986 — almost exactly five years after the debut of the original IBM PC — was another watershed moment, the first time one of the clonesters had released a machine more powerful than anything in IBM’s stable. Compaq’s CEO Rod Canion, never a shrinking violet under any circumstances, outdid himself at the launch, declaring the Deskpro 386 “the third generation of the personal-computer revolution” after the Apple II and the IBM PC, thus implicitly placing his own Compaq on a par with those two storied companies.

The clone market was getting so big that there seemed a danger that the clones wouldn’t be dismissed under that selfsame moniker much longer. People in the business world were beginning to replace the phrase “IBM clone” with phrases like “the MS-DOS standard” or “the Intel standard,” giving no credit to the company that had really created that standard. As was well attested by their checkered history of antitrust investigations and allegations of unfair competitive practices, IBM had never been known as a bastion of corporate generosity. It may not be exaggerating the case to say that they felt themselves to have a moral right to the PC standard they’d created, a right that encompassed not just an acknowledgement that said standard was still the IBM standard but also the ability to continue to steer every aspect of the further development of that standard. And by all rights the right should also encompass — and this was the sticking point that really irked — their fair share of all those billions that all those other companies were making from IBM’s standard.

In addition to furnishing what they saw as ample evidence of a need for them to reassert control of their industry, this period found IBM at another, more purely technical crossroads. The imminent move from 16-bit to 32-bit computing represented by the new 80386 would have to bring with it some elaborations on IBM’s tried-and-true architecture — elaborations that would undoubtedly define the face of mainstream business computing into the 1990s. IBM saw in those elaborations a way to remedy the ongoing problem of the clonesters as well. Unknown to everyone outside the company, they were about to initiate the so-called “bus wars,” a premeditated strike aimed directly at what they saw as parasites like Compaq.

The bus in this context referred not to a mode of public transportation but rather to the system of expansion slots that allowed the innermost core of an IBM-compatible computer — little more than the processor and memory — to communicate with just about everything else that made up a full-fledged PC: floppy and hard disk drives, monitors, modems, printers, ad infinitum, from the most generalized components found in just about every office to the most specialized for the most esoteric of tasks. The original IBM PC, built around a hybrid 8-bit and 16-bit chip called the Intel 8088, had used an 8-bit bus, meaning the electronic “channel” it used to talk to all these myriad devices was just 8 bits wide. In 1984, IBM had released the PC/AT, built around the newer fully 16-bit Intel 80286, and in that machine had expanded the original bus to support 16-bit devices while remaining backward compatible with the older 8-bit standard. The result retroactively came to be known as the Industry Standard Architecture, or ISA.

Now, with the 32-bit 80386 a reality, it was time to think about revisiting the bus again, to make it support 32-bit communications. To fail to do so would be to cripple the 386, forcing it to act like a 16-bit chip every time it wanted to communicate with a peripheral; impressive as they were in many ways, the Compaq Deskpro 386 and other early 386 clones saw their performance limited by exactly this problem. Most people expected IBM to do for the 386 what they had previously done for the 286, delivering a new bus which would support 32-bit peripherals but remain compatible with older 16-bit and even 8-bit devices. Instead they delivered something they called the Micro Channel Architecture, or MCA, a complete break with the past which supported only 32-bit peripherals.

So much controversy over something barely noticeable. The four Micro Channel slots sit at the left rear of this PS/2 Model 50.

So much controversy over something barely noticeable. The four Micro Channel slots sit at the left rear of this PS/2 Model 50. Many of the components that would have been housed in expansion cards in earlier IBM systems, such as the video card and hard-drive controller, were moved onto the motherboard with the PS/2 line.

MCA debuted as a key component in a new line of personal computers in April of 1987, the most ambitious such IBM had ever or would ever introduce. The Personal System/2 lineup — better known as the PS/2 — was envisioned as exactly the next generation in personal computing that an ebullient Rod Canion had perhaps overenthusiastically declared the Compaq Deskpro 386 to represent barely six months before. IBM was determined to once again remake the computer industry in their image — and to get it right this time, avoiding the perceived mistakes that had led to the rise of the clonesters. The PS/2 lineup did encompass lower-end machines using the old 16-bit PC/AT bus, but the real point of the effort lay with the higher-end models, IBM’s first to use the 80386 and their first to use the new MCA bus architecture to take advantage of all of the 32 bits of throughput offered by that chip. IBM offered various technical justifications for the failure of MCA to support their older bus standards, but they always rang false. As the more astute industry observers quickly realized, MCA had more to do with business and marketing than it did with technology in the abstract.

IBM was attempting a delicate trick with MCA. They wanted to be able to continue to reap the enormous benefits of the business-computing standard they had birthed, with its huge constellation of compatible software that by now even more so than IBM’s reputation made an MS-DOS machine the only kind to be seriously considered by the vast majority of corporate purchasing departments. At the same time, though, they wanted to cut off the oxygen to the clonesters who were also benefiting so conspicuously from that same universal acceptance, and to reassert their role as the ultimate authorities on the direction business computing would take in the future. They believed they could accomplish all of that, in the long term at least, by threading the needle of compatibility — keeping the 386-based PS/2 lineup software-compatible with the older machines while deliberately breaking the hardware compatibility so relied on by the clonesters. In doing so, they would take the hardware to a place the clonesters couldn’t follow, thus securing for themselves all those billions the clonesters had heretofore been stealing out of their pockets.

Unlike the original IBM bus architecture, MCA was locked up inside an ironclad cage of patents, making it legally uncloneable unless one could somehow negotiate a license to do so through IBM. The patents even extended to add-on cards and other peripherals that might be compatible with MCA, meaning that absolutely anyone who wanted to make a hardware add-on for an MCA machine would have to negotiate a license and pay for the privilege. The result should be not only a lucrative new revenue stream but also complete control of business computing’s further evolution. Yes, the clonesters would be able to survive for a few more years making machines using the older 16-bit bus architecture. In the longer term, however, as personal computing inevitably transitioned into a realm of 32 bits, they would survive purely at IBM’s whim, their fate predicated on IBM’s willingness to grant them a patent license for MCA and their own willingness to pay dearly for it.

The clonesters rightly and immediately saw MCA as nothing less than an existential threat, and were thrown into a tizzy trying to figure out how to respond to it. It was the ever-quotable Rod Canion who came up with the best line of attack, drawing an analogy between MCA and the recent soft-drink marketing disaster of New Coke. (What with Pepsi alumnus John Sculley in charge over at Apple, computers and soft drinks seemed to be running oddly in parallel during this era.) Clever, pithy, and blessedly non-technical, Canion’s comparison spread like wildfire through the business press, regurgitated ad nauseam by journalists who often had little to no idea what this MCA thing that it referenced actually was. IBM never quite managed to formulate a response that didn’t sound nefariously evasive.

With the “New Coke” meme setting the tone, just about everything about the PS/2 line turned into an unexpected uphill struggle for IBM. While plenty of early reviewers dutifully toed the line, doubtless mindful that if no one ever got fired for buying IBM no one was likely to get fired for giving them a positive review either, a surprising number of the reviews were distinctly lukewarm. The complaints started and often ended with the prices. Even the low-end 16-bit PS/2 models started at a suggested list price of $2295 without monitor, while the high-end models topped out at almost $7000. Insider reports had it that IBM was enjoying profit margins of 40 percent or more, leading to rampant speculation on what the cost of entry into business-friendly personal computing might become if they really should manage to stamp out the clonesters.

The high-end models in particular struck many as a pointless waste of money given that IBM didn’t have an operating system ready to take advantage of their capabilities. The machines were all still saddled with MS-DOS, clunky and archaic and barely worthy of the name “operating system” even in the terms of 1987. In one of the more striking examples of hardware running away from software in computing history, the higher-end models shipped with 1 MB of memory, but couldn’t actually use more than 640 K of it thanks to MS-DOS’s built-in limitations. IBM promised a new, next-generation operating system called OS/2 to unlock the real potential of these next-generation machines. But OS/2, a project they had once again chosen to turn over to Microsoft, was still an unknown number of months away, with the so-called “Presentation Manager” that would add to it a Macintosh-style GUI due yet further months after that.1 And, as a final little bit of buyer discouragement, IBM planned to charge the people who had already spent many thousands on their PS/2 hardware another $800 or so for the privilege of using the eventual OS/2 to take advantage of it.

The PS/2 launch prompted constant comparisons with the original IBM PC launch of five and a half years before, and constantly came up wanting. IBM’s publicity campaign was lavish — as it ought to have been, given those profit margins — but unfocused and uninspired. Its centerpiece was a series of commercials involving much of the cast from M*A*S*H, playing their old sitcom characters inexplicably transported from the Korean War to a modern office. With M*A*S*H still a beloved cultural touchstone only a few years removed from its record-shattering final episode, the spots had plenty of sheer star power, but lacked even a modicum of the charm or creativity that had characterized the award-winning “Charlie Chaplin” advertisements for the original IBM PC.

Likewise, it was hard not to compare the unexpected spirit of openness that had suffused the 1981 IBM PC with the domination and control IBM so plainly intended to assert with the 1987 PS/2 launch. Apple’s iconic old “Big Brother” Macintosh advertisement, a soaring triumph of rhetoric over substance back in its day, would have fit much better to the PS/2 line than it had to the state of business computing back in 1984. Many chose to blame the change in tone on the loss of Don Estridge, the leader of the small team that had built the original IBM PC. An unusually charismatic personality and independent thinker for the famously conservative and bureaucratic IBM — enough so that he had been courted by Steve Jobs to fill the CEO role John Sculley ended up taking at Apple — Estridge had been killed in a plane crash in 1985. His stewardship over IBM’s microcomputer division had been succeeded by that of William Lowe, a much more traditional rank-and-file, buttoned-down IBM man. Whether due to this reason or some other, the shift in tone and direction from 1981 to 1987 was striking.

In the months following the PS/2 line’s release, the media narrative drifted from one of uncertain excitement to reports of the new machines’ disappointing reception in many quarters. IBM sold around 200,000 MCA-equipped PS/2s in the first six months, mostly to the biggest of big business; United Airlines alone, for example, bought 40,000 of them as part of a complete revamping of their reservations system. But far too many even within the Fortune 500 proved stubbornly, unexpectedly resistant to IBM’s unsubtle prodding to jump onto the PS/2 train. Many chose to invest in the clonesters’ cheaper 80386 offerings instead; the 16-bit bus used by those machines, while far from ideal from a purely technical standpoint, did at least have the advantage of compatibility with existing peripherals. Seventeen months after MCA’s debut, 66 percent of all business computers being sold each month were still using the old bus architecture, versus just 20 percent that used MCA. (The remainder was largely accounted for by the Macintosh.) Survey after survey reported IBM to be losing market share rather than gaining it since the arrival of the PS/2. By this point OS/2 and its “Presentation Manager” GUI were finally available, but, hampered by that high price tag, the new operating system’s uptake had also been limited at best.

And then, just when it seemed the news couldn’t get much worse for IBM, much of the industry went into unthinkable open revolt against their ongoing hegemony. On September 13, 1988, a group of the clonesters, driven as usual by Compaq and with the tacit support of Intel and Microsoft, announced the creation of a new 32-bit bus standard, to be called the Extended Industry Standard Architecture, or EISA. Unlike MCA, EISA would be compatible with older 16-bit and 8-bit peripherals. And it would manage to be so without performing notably worse than MCA, thus giving the lie to IBM’s claims that their decision to abandon bus compatibility had been motivated by technical rather than business concerns. The press promptly dubbed the budding consortium, which included virtually every manufacturer of IBM-compatible computers not named IBM, the “Gang of Nine” after the allegedly traitorous Gang of Four of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Machines using the new EISA bus entered production within a year.

This shot of an EISA card illustrates the unique two-layer connection that allowed the same sockets to work for both the older ISA standard and the newer EISA. The shorter pins correspond to the older 16-bit standard; the longer extend it to 32 bits.

This shot of an EISA card illustrates the unique two-layer connection devised by the Gang of Nine to extend the old ISA standard without requiring ridiculously long, unwieldy cards and sockets. The shorter pins correspond to the older 16-bit standard; the longer extend it to 32 bits.

In the end, EISA would prove of limited technical importance in the evolution of the Intel architecture. The new standard didn’t have much more luck than had MCA in establishing itself as the market’s default. Instead, by the time a 32-bit bus became a truly commonplace need among ordinary computer users, EISA and MCA alike were replaced by a still newer and better standard than either called the Peripheral Component Interconnect, or PCI. The bus wars of the late 1980s and very early 1990s can thus all too easily be seen as just another of the industry’s tempests in a teapot, an obscure squabble over technical esoterica of interest only to hardcore hackers.

Look a little harder at EISA, however, and we see a watershed moment in the history of the personal computer that dwarfs even the arrival of the Compaq Portable or the Deskpro 386. The Gang of Nine’s announcement brought with it a torrent of press coverage that for the first time openly questioned IBM’s continuing dominance of business-oriented computing. CNN’s Moneyline, the most-watched business report on cable television, dredged up Canion’s evergreen New Coke analogy yet again, going so far as to open its reports on the Gang of Nine’s announcement with a shot of soda bottles moving down a production line. IBM was “faced with overwhelming resistance to the flavor of ‘New Compute,'” declared the breathless report that followed; September 13, 1988, “was a day that left Big Blue looking black and blue.” An only slightly more sober Wall Street Journal article had it that the Gang of Nine “was joining forces in an audacious attempt to wrest away from IBM the power of setting the standard for how personal computers are designed, and they seem to have a chance of succeeding.” The article threw all its metaphors in a blender for the big conclusion: “For IBM, the Gang’s announcement yesterday is at best a dust storm of confusion, and, at worst, a dagger to the heart of its PC strategy.” When the Wall Street Journal threatens to turn against your big business, you know you have problems.

And, indeed, September 13, 1988, wound up representing everything the pundits and journalists said it might and more. Simply put, this was the instant that IBM finally and definitively lost control of the business-computing industry, the moment when the architecture they had created back in 1981 left the nest to go its own way. After this instant, no one would ever defer to IBM again. In January of 1989, Arlan Levitan, a columnist for the big consumer-computing magazine Compute! — like most such magazines, not particularly known for the boldness of its editorial stances — signaled the shifting conventional wisdom. His editors empowered him to launch a satirical broadside at IBM, the PS/2, MCA, and even all those who had bought into the hype, a group that very much included their own magazine.

During a Monday morning press breakfast hosted by IBM, over a thousand representatives of the computing press were shocked to hear newly hired Entry Systems Division president P.W. Herman declare that the firm’s PS/2 computer systems and its associated products were part of an elaborate psychological study undertaken at the behest of the National Institute of Mental Health. “I sure am glad the American people haven’t lost their sense of humor. It’s good to know that in these times everybody still appreciates a good joke.” According to Herman, the study was intended to quantify the limits of the operational parameters associated with Abraham Lincoln’s most famous aphorism. Said Herman, “I guess you really can’t fool all of the people all of the time. I’ll tell ya, though — the Micro Channel Architecture even had me going for a while.” All PS/2 owners will receive a letter signed by Herman and thanking them for their personal contribution toward furthering the present-day understanding of aberrant behavior. Corporate executives who committed their firms to IBM’s $800 OS/2 operating system will receive free remedial therapy in DOS reeducation centers. Those who took advantage of IBM’s trade-in policy, whereby users gave up their XTs or ATs for a PS/2, will receive their weight in PCjr computers. According to internal IBM sources, all costs associated with manufacturing and promoting PS/2s will cumulatively qualify as a tax-deductible research grant.

In terms of hardware if not software — Microsoft’s long, often damaging domination was just beginning in the latter realm — the industry was now a meritocracy, bound together only by a set of mutually if often only tacitly agreed-upon standards. That could only mean hard times for IBM, who were hardly used to competing on such a level playing field. In 1993, they posted a loss of a staggering $8 billion, the largest to that point in American business history, prompting a long, painful process of reinvention as a smaller, nimbler, dare I say it even humbler company. In 2004, in another watershed moment symbolic of many things, IBM stopped making PCs altogether, selling what was left of their personal-computer division to the Chinese computer manufacturer Lenovo in order to focus on consulting services.

The PS/2 story has rightfully gone down in business history as a classic tale of overweening arrogance that received its justified comeuppance. In attempting so aggressively to seize complete control of business computing — all of it — IBM pissed away the enviable dominance they already enjoyed. In attempting to build an empire that stood utterly alone and unchallenged, they burned the one they already had.

Yet there is another side to the PS/2 story that also deserves its due. Existing in those seemingly misbegotten machines alongside MCA and the cynicism it represented was a more positive, one might even say technically idealistic determination to advance the state of the art for this architecture that had long since become the mainstream face of computing, dwarfing in terms of the sheer money it generated any other platform.

And make no mistake: the world of the IBM compatibles was in sore need of advancement on multiple fronts. While machines like the Apple Macintosh and Commodore Amiga had opened whole new paradigms of computing — the former with its friendly GUI interface and crisp almost print-quality display, the latter with its multitasking operating system and implementation of the ideal of multimedia computing long before “multimedia” became a buzzword — the world of the clones had remained as bland as ever, a land of green or amber text-only displays, unpleasant beeps and squawks, and inscrutable command lines. For all the apparently proud users and sellers who took all this ugliness as a sign of serious businesslike intent, there were others who recognized that IBM and the clonesters had long since ceded the high ground of real, fundamental innovation in computing to rival platforms. Thankfully, some inside IBM were included in the latter group, and the results could be seen in the PS/2 machines.

Given how far the IBM-compatible world had fallen behind, it’s not surprising that many or most of the alleged innovations of the PS/2 were really a case of playing catch-up. For example, IBM finally produced their first-ever mouse for the line. They also switched over from the old, fragile 5.25-inch floppy-disk format to the newer, more robust and higher-capacity 3.5-inch format already being used by machines like the Macintosh and Amiga.

But undoubtedly the most welcome and significant of all the PS/2’s new technical developments were some desperately needed display improvements. The Video Graphics Array, or VGA, was included with the higher-end PS/2 models; lower-end models shipped with something called the Multi-Color Graphics Array (MCGA), with many but not quite all of the capabilities of VGA. After allowing their machines’ graphics capabilities to languish for years, IBM through VGA and to some extent MCGA finally brought them up to a level that compared very favorably with the Amiga. VGA and MCGA defined a palette of fully 262,144 colors, a huge leap over the 64 offered by the Enhanced Graphics Adapter (EGA), IBM’s previous best display option for their mainstream machines. The Amiga, by contrast, offered just 4096 colors, although its blitter and other custom hardware still gave it some notable advantages in the realm of fast animation.

All of these new developments marked IBM’s last great gifts to the standard they had birthed — gifts destined to long outlive the PS/2 line itself. The mouse connection IBM developed, for instance, remained a standard well beyond the millennium, with so-called “PS/2” connectors remaining common jargon, used by younger tech-heads and system builders who likely had only the vaguest idea from whence the usage derived. The VGA standard proved even longer-lived. It still survives today as the lowest-common-denominator baseline for computer displays, while ports matching the specification defined by IBM all those years ago remain on the back of every monitor and television set.

Ironically given IBM’s laser focus on using the PS/2 line to secure their dominance of business computing, its technical innovations ultimately proved most important in making the architecture viable as a proposition for the home, paving the way for the Microsoft-dominated second home-computer revolution of the 1990s. With good graphics falling into place at last thanks to VGA and the raw power of the 32-bit 80386, only two barriers remained to making PC-compatible machines realistic rivals to the likes of the Amiga as compelling home computers: decent sound to replace those atrocious beeps and squawks, and a decent price.

The first problem wouldn’t be a problem at all for very much longer. The first gaming-focused sound cards began to reach the market within a year of the PS/2 line’s debut, and by 1989 Creative Music Systems and Ad Lib both offered popular cards at street prices of $200 or less.

But the prices of home-oriented systems incorporating all of the PS/2 line’s innovations — MCA excepted — would, alas, take a little longer to fall. As late as July of 1989, when the VGA standard was already more than two years old, Computer Gaming World ran an article titled “Is VGA Worth It?” that seriously questioned whether it was indeed worth the still very considerable expense — VGA boards still cost $500 or more — to so equip a machine, especially given how few games supported VGA at that point. Nor did the 80386 find an immediate place in homes. As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, the newer chip was still a piece of pricey exotica in terms of the average consumer’s budget; the vast majority of the Intel-based PCs that were in consumers’ homes were still built around the 80286 or even the venerable old 8088.

Still, in the long run prices could only fall in such a hyper-competitive market. Given Commodore’s lackadaisical attitude toward improving the Amiga and Apple’s almost complete neglect of the consumer market in their eagerness to force the Macintosh into the offices of corporate America, the emerging standard of a 32-bit Intel-based PC with VGA graphics and a sound card came to the fore effectively unopposed. With the Internet having yet to emerge as home computing’s killer app to end all killer apps, it was games that drove this shift. In 1989, an Amiga was still the ultimate gaming computer. By 1991, it was an afterthought for American game publishers, the market being absolutely dominated by what was now starting to be called the “Wintel” standard. While game consoles and mobile devices have come and gone by the handful over the years since, in the realm of desktop- and laptop-based personal computing the heirs of the original IBM PC remain the overwhelming standard to this day. How ironic that this decades-long dominance was ensured by the PS/2, simultaneously the downfall of IBM and the savior of the inadvertently standard architecture IBM created.

(Sources: the books Big Blues: The Unmaking of IBM by Paul Carroll, Open: How Compaq Ended IBM’s PC Domination and Helped Invent Modern Computing by Rod Canion, and Hard Drive: Bill Gates and Making of the Microsoft Empire by James Wallace and Jim Erickson; Byte of June 1987, July 1987, August 1987, and December 1987; Compute! of June 1988, January 1989, and March 1989; Computer Gaming World of July 1989 and September 1989; Wall Street Journal of September 14 1988; the episodes of The Computer Chronicles titled “Intel 386 — The Fast Lane,” “IBM Personal System/2,” and “Bus Wars.”)

  1. The full story of OS/2 and the Presentation Manager and their relationship to Microsoft Windows and even Apple’s MacOS is a complex yet fascinating one, but also one best reserved for a future article where I can give it its proper due. 

August 18, 2016

sub-Q Magazine

Author Interview: Rick Stemm

by Devi Acharya at August 18, 2016 01:01 PM

Heroic Games is a San Antonio game design and media company founded in 2015 by Rick Stemm. Their first project, Heroes Must Die, combines interactive theater and gameplay to create an epic transmedia tale based on the tropes of classic RPGs. The game is currently available for free on Steam, and more information about the project can be found at

This interview was conducted via email. 


Rick Stemm -- Heroic Games

Rick Stemm



Devi Acharya: To start off with, could you tell me a bit about yourself—where you’re from and how you got involved in the work that you do?

Rick Stemm: I have a degree in film, but I’ve always been interested in games and interactivity. I’ve read Choose Your Own Adventure books and run D&D games since I was a kid. I always wanted to make games, but game design careers weren’t really a thing when I was a kid, so I came to that professionally later. After college I ended up working as an instructional designer, using my background in video and passion for interactive stuff to make some really successful e-learning programs.

During that time, I met a fellow instructor who introduced me to theater, and the immediacy of theater—having the audience right there—drew me to it right away and got me to start experimenting with different kinds of interactive shows. Now all my major theater shows have some kind of interactive component. I also came to game design through that job, as it helped me get an educational game design job, which taught me the skills to make video games on my own.


Devi: Tell me a bit about the origins of Heroes Must Die? What was the initial concept? Once you had that concept, what were the steps you took to bring it to fruition?

Rick: It started as a theater idea—bringing the world of video games to life through theater. But then I started wondering if it was possible to combine the two things I loved creating most: games and theater. So I took the initial characters and plot from my show treatment, then backed up and thought about what they’d be doing before that story. Being such an RPG fan, I knew right away I wanted to parody and homage the genre, but I also wanted to tell a story that was worth experiencing. So I took some serious time to outline an epic story. It started as a flowchart on a huge cork board. We ended up having to cut the other paths for initial release, but it still charted out the main game flow.

I’d made games and produced shows before, so I have a good idea of the production process, but man, making a video game was even harder than I thought. The toughest part was finding the right team. With extremely little funding, it was hard to find talented people who also were passionate enough to see this thing through. We went through a lot of people who had to drop out for various understandable reasons before we nailed down our team. From there things went pretty smoothly, if slowly. Writing about the production process would be a whole new article, so suffice it to say it was a long learning journey, but we got the game done!

The show was also hard to pitch. There is not a ton of money in theater, and where it exists—those places don’t want to try new things. I was extremely fortunate to have a good relationship with the theater director at Northwest Vista College here in San Antonio. She thought her students would love it (they also have a game design program there), so we worked to get it a part of their season. From there the college produced, and they did an amazing job. I mean, in addition to the insanity of audience interactivity—we had paddles like buttons the audience would hold and use to vote on choices or even to respond to quick puzzles to change how the show proceeded—we had stage hands with props and puppets for magic and monsters, UI elements and effects, and even a three-story dungeon set for one part. It really came together spectacularly.


Devi: One of the great draws of Heroes Must Die is that it’s broken down into two parts—a game and an interactive theater piece. How do these two come together to form a cohesive whole?

Rick: They are a somewhat straightforward prequel and sequel told through two entirely different media. Each stands alone, so you get a complete story if you just play the game or just see the show. But the events in the show directly follow the events in the game. So if you experience both you see why the characters in the show have the relationships they do, why the world is in that state, and what happens after the game’s somewhat uncertain epilogue.

The visual ties are really neat, too. The costumes of the show were designed directly off the character art for the game. The sets are painted to look like the game environments. We even built giant video-game-style swords for them to fight with. And we used all the music from the game to score the show.


Devi: What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of creating for each medium (PC RPG and interactive theater)?

Rick: RPGs have story as their biggest strength, I think, which is why I chose that genre; it allowed me to tell a story across two media. But in general the strength of games is their interactivity—they are the only real major form of media that the audience controls, and I think that is fabulous, and I think more forms should learn (and are learning!) from that.

Theater’s great draw is the urgency of being in the same room with real people doing this, which is why I think it begs for interactivity. The audience is right fucking there—acknowledge them! I also just thought, you know, I would love to see what a real-life video game looked and felt like, so OK, let’s bring video games to life through a performance. And I think there was something kind of magical in actually being there in real life experiencing these patently unreal things. Did I mention we played a dungeon delve?


Devi: Heroes Must Die is extremely entertaining, funny, and genre-savvy. What kinds of influences did you draw from traditional action-RPGs or other sources?

Rick: Thanks! Those were our main goals in making the game! Obviously it is a nod to SNES-era JRPGs (sorry for all the acronyms) more than anything, so the art and exploration and some jokes draw from that. We did try to make the combat unique, though; we wanted to add something to the genre.

In particular we were all huge fans of Final Fantasy VI (also Chrono Trigger, FF4, Secret of Mana, to name a few), so those were inspiring. The Black Company book series actually inspired the main plot (the idea of the protagonists working for the traditional fantasy villains), though we of course played that out comedically. And, while I draw on a lot of different comedic inspiration, the constant joke pacing of Mel Brooks movies, the pop-culture savviness of the Simpsons, and the mayhem of classic Looney Tunes are always big inspirations for me.

The show is indebted to the Japanese art of kuroko: stagehands who wear all black and manipulate puppets (they originate from puppet theater), magic, UI, effects, etc. That was what really inspired the show and made the live-action-game thing work. And the interactions of the show come directly from video games, using things like branching dialogue, quick time events, and more.

And, of course, the big inspiration for all of it is that interactive fiction that for many of us was the first—Choose Your Own Adventure books.


Devi: Besides creating a fun and engaging product, did you have any other goals in creating Heroes Must Die?

Rick: Yes—I absolutely wanted to do something that has never been done before. I think combining these two media as we did was new, and goddamn, I am really proud of everyone involved for doing it. I hope it inspires other people to look at media in new ways. For traditional artists to see the power of games, for modern gamers to see the potential of theater, and for young artists to want to do something new and different.


Devi: If you were to start at the beginning of the development process for Heroes Must Die, is there anything that you would change? What kinds of challenges did you face in production?

Rick: Ha, well, first of all. games and theater were maybe the worst two things I could combine. Games are kind of famous for having development cycles that drag on for years, while theater seasons need to be scheduled a year in advance. So the timing was nigh impossible and almost killed me. I am extremely thankful to the college and to everyone for flexibility and relieved it all worked out. I dare anyone to try it, like us, without a gigantic budget and see if you don’t go insane.

We should have done better rapid-prototyping for the gam; that was my fault and would have gotten us done sooner. We had to scrap and rework combat halfway through. Good lesson learned! The show went pretty smoothly, but I wish we had had more time and money to market it, to get people tuning in to the livestream we did. It was cool and I want the world to see it! But I am still going to try to get video of it up on Steam alongside the game.


Devi: What can we next look forward to seeing from you or Heroic Games in the future?

Rick: I always have a million ideas, so it’s all about seeing which are the most likely to execute. For sure I’ll be doing a different kind of live-action video game performance for San Antonio’s Luminaria arts festival this fall, and with any luck will be bringing Heroes Must Die the show to PAX South. The programmer and composer for HMD and I really want to work together on another game project. Our leading idea is a co-op VR experience, but it’s too early to tell if this will be the one we stick with for the next project. Also, if we get enough interest in HMD we may also release a sequel or an expansion (more choices to different paths and endings), but those we’ll need funds for that, so please keep an eye out and support us if we do. But hey, for now enjoy this game—it’s free!

The post Author Interview: Rick Stemm appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

August 17, 2016

Renga in Blue

Adventure 366 (1977)

by Jason Dyer at August 17, 2016 06:00 AM

In my post about early versions of Adventure I mentioned a 1977 port which seemed to be the first past Crowther and Woods which tried to do more than just port the code. Unfortunately, it’s a little hard to know who to credit, exactly. This is from the source code:

c For x86_64, pgf77/ifort/gfortran, S. O. Lidie, 2015.04.01
Tested On Mac OS X Yosemite and CentOS 6.x.

Update for NOS/VE 1.4.x, 89/11/03. SOL, LUCC.

Convert to NOS/VE: use direct access reads instead of word addressable
NOS CRM files. S. O. Lidie, 87/05/01, LUCC. NOS/VE 1.2.2 L678

Program last updated from SCOPE 3.4 to NOS 1.3 by
Bill Hein and Shelley Hobson (ACCA).

Modified by Kent Blackett
Engineering Systems Group
Digital Equipment Corp.
Modified by Bob Supnik
Disk Engineering
Original version was for DECsystem-10
Next version was for FORTRAN IV-Plus under
the IAS operating system on the PDP-11/70
This version is for FORTRAN IV (V01C or later)
under RT-11 on *any* PDP-11.*

These credits don’t even mention the version I played was a recent port at Gobberwarts; so recent that the author bug-fixed something in it for me today (thanks!).

In any case, this text and another one like it in the game suggest to me that most of the long list of authors were merely porting between systems but Blackett and/or Supnik succumbed to the irresistible urge to add their own touch to the game.

Unlike Adventure II, there was just a small addition. Specifically, there are three new rooms near the starting building (Forest, Dell and Gazebo) and one new item: a palantir (orb).

Via Steve Lidie.

Map via Steve Lidie. The new rooms are shown.

At your feet all the water of the stream splashes into a 2-inch slit
in the rock. Downstream the streambed is bare rock.

You are in open forest, with a deep valley to one side.
An overgrown path, barely discernible, leads south.

You are in a dell, deep in the woods. Before you is a steep
incline leading up to an old deserted gazebo. As you peer through
the overhanging moss and cobwebs you see a dark form.
A path, heavily overgrown, leads south.

You are in the gazebo. The dust is deep here, indicating
long disuse. Ancient elvish runes here describe this as a
place where one may see many things. Another, more ancient
inscription reads “PKIHMN”.
There is a palantir(orb) here.

If you check the map carefully, you notice there’s no exit out; the magic word is used in the gazebo to teleport to outside the locked grate at the start of the game.

The orb is a treasure and the source of the extra 16 points, but at least in concept the author(s) tried to add an interesting design element: peering into the orb to get hints.

>peer in orb
The lights dim…it now seems to be totally dark — in the orb
many visions pass by… many things are seen…..
now you are looking at …….
a grate at the entrance of a large cave……

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much actual hints; here all the messages possible for the last line of the palantir’s vision in the source code:

0205 a grate at the entrance to a large cave……
0206 a small stream feeding into a large cave…..
0207 a grate above you and a crawl west…..
0208 a hall,but the vision is clouded by thick mists…..
0209 yourself…the lights come up and an usher asks you to leave….

It’s possible there was intended to be more, or it’s possible this was simply meant as atmosphere.

In any case, there is a long history of modifications to Adventure and it’s interesting to see what (maybe was?) the very first one.

For further watching: GET LAMP interview with Bob Supnik.

August 15, 2016

Interactive Fables

Interactive Fables releases Worldsmith

August 15, 2016 02:38 PM

CLEVELAND -- August 15th, 2016 : Interactive Fables is excited to announce that "Worldsmith", the first game in their fables series was released today to play and purchase on "The Septem Tower has held steady in the Manifold, the space between time and the Real, for billenia. Populating the Tower are the Anemoi, a race of beings so far advanced that they hold the power of life and death over all Lifeforms in the Universe. The Worldsmiths are the greatest of the Anemoi, their sacred


The Crown of Kings awaits...

August 15, 2016 11:01 AM

It's been too long since we posted any concrete news about Sorcery! 4, the final part of the narrative epic that's been keeping us busy since 2013.


It's finished... again

Writing on the game has now finished, again. That means we've done our first pass, fleshing out all the rooms, encounters, characters, secrets, jokes, puzzles, hidden endings. And we've also done our second pass, playing through everything, smoothing it, checking for logic and story consistency, and getting the pacing as slick as we can.

We're now embarking on the long process of beta-testing - gathering feedback from early players, and hunting down all the strange nooks and crannies of the story-flow. A lot of the details can and will still change at this point - good ideas are never thrown away, even close to release - but if we had to put down our pens tomorrow, we could, and the game would work.


There are multiple endings, but more importantly, multiple states for multiple endings. But there is also an ultimate ending of sorts, better than the others.

All in all, Sorcery! 4 now stands at half a million words, putting it bang in the middle between Sorcery! 3 and 80 Days.

But that's not all!

Even with the writing completed, there's still lots for us to do. There's new audio to gather, and new art to get into the game, and a pile of new code to write as well.

For the first time, we'll be integrated 3D models into the map. These models are still being hand-painted by our cartographer/illustrator Mike Schley, and we've got to make sure they play nicely with the in-game camera. We've also got an epilogue sequence to build, that will suitably reward players who have made the journey all the way from Analand to Mampang and returned with the Crown of Kings intact.

One thing we have got finalised is Laurence Chapman's new theme - as recorded by live orchestra.

Concluding part and new adventure, all in one

One of the things that's made this part a real writing challenge is ensuring that it provides a complete experience for people picking up the Sorcery! series for the first time, while also providing the epic conclusion that returning players deserve. Over the last three games we've seeded a lot of characters and story points, as well as giving the player a lot of choices to carry with them.

(A Sorcery! 3 game loaded into Part 4 brings with it over nine hundred individual story-flags, ranging from whether or not you destroyed a city, to how many gold pieces you have in your pocket, and whether or not you know the name of the witch in the Shamutanti woods.)


Thankfully, we've got a few tricks up our sleeve for bringing new players up to speed...

All platforms, all at once

For the first time, we're planning to launch the game on the App Store, Amazon Store, Play Store, Steam, Humble and Green Man Gaming all on the same day. You can buy the game on any platform to continue your adventure - cloud saves work from one device to another. (Just remember to write them down somewhere!)

And while Mike's latest map looks glorious spread across a desktop monitor or an iPad Pro, we're working hard to ensure the mobile experience is still just as tight and playable as its ever been.

So what's the date?

Later this year. Apologies, we don't want to commit to a date until we know we can hit it!

But we can't wait to open the gates and let you into Mampang - it's weird, terrible place, full of ancient, decaying magic, foul mutants, crosses and double-crosses, and secrets. This is our toughest, most intricate - and we hope, most rewarding - Sorcery! adventure yet.

August 13, 2016

The Gameshelf: IF

Very quick takes on recent games

by Andrew Plotkin at August 13, 2016 06:33 PM

Recently played games, that is. I bought many of these during the July Steam sale... by browsing the "Walking Simulator" tag and grabbing anything that looked interesting.

(Like many of my friends, I missed the brief period when "walking simulator" was pejorative. It is an awesome term and I would love to work on one.)

The themes of this list:

  • Miserable solitude (but look how pretty it is).
  • My wife/daughter/sister died and I went crazy (but look how pretty it is).
  • The game is a trip and the finale is tripping balls. Also, pretty.

Footnote: The era of the text walkthrough may be over. Everybody knows how bad video walkthroughs are, right? You're just doing it because you're lazy and for the ad revenue?

Right, games:

The Eyes of Ara: I backed this on Kickstarter (around the same time as Obduction, in a burst of enthusiasm about Myst clones). It turns out to be an enthusiastically old-school graphical adventure, where by "old school" I mean "not very sophisticated about puzzle design". It's mostly find-the-key, spot-the-clue, and slider puzzles. This means that if you're stuck, you have to revisit all the rooms in one wing and try to find the key or clue that you missed. Not my favorite, so I used walkthroughs freely.

Everyone's Gone to the Rapture: Extremely pretty and well-written, but I think it needed one more element to really capture my attention. Fantastical scenery or puzzles or a chance of saving the planet would have done it. I realize none of those fit this story, I'm just saying what kinds of game elements I like some of. (But I finished the game anyway!)

Lifeless Planet: I respect the tactic of making your sparse game design thematic, but it was still a sparse game design. A lot of climbing over low-fi boulders. I kept wanting to parse the occasional clapped-out Russian shack as Bradburyseque surrealism but the story didn't go there.

Eidolon: I ate some mushrooms and blackberries. I failed to catch any fish. I found one bit of plot. After an hour of walking across this expansive landscape with no more plot, I gave up.

Submerged: A pleasant tower-climbing vacation. More or less fulfils my desire for "the good parts of Assassin's Creed". Happy ending is pasted on, but so what? I climbed all the things.

Mind: Path to Thalamus: This is constructed in unconnected levels. The first several were fun, but eventually the lack of continuity and repeated gameplay elements wore me down. I skipped ahead through another couple of levels and then gave up. Still: nicely laid-out scenery.

Californium: I enjoyed this one. Short and charmingly enthusiastic about its homage (to Phil K. Dick, if you didn't know). The puzzle mechanic is rough -- sometimes the clues are too inconsistent or inconspicuous to spot, and then you wind up back at the walkthroughs. (Terrible, terrible video walkthroughs.) But it's worthwhile for the gonzo visual design.

Very quick takes on recent games

by Andrew Plotkin at August 13, 2016 06:33 PM

Recently played games, that is. I bought many of these during the July Steam sale... by browsing the "Walking Simulator" tag and grabbing anything that looked interesting.

(Like many of my friends, I missed the brief period when "walking simulator" was pejorative. It is an awesome term and I would love to work on one.)

The themes of this list:

  • Miserable solitude (but look how pretty it is).
  • My wife/daughter/sister died and I went crazy (but look how pretty it is).
  • The game is a trip and the finale is tripping balls. Also, pretty.

Footnote: The era of the text walkthrough may be over. Everybody knows how bad video walkthroughs are, right? You're just doing it because you're lazy and for the ad revenue?

Right, games:

The Eyes of Ara: I backed this on Kickstarter (around the same time as Obduction, in a burst of enthusiasm about Myst clones). It turns out to be an enthusiastically old-school graphical adventure, where by "old school" I mean "not very sophisticated about puzzle design". It's mostly find-the-key, spot-the-clue, and slider puzzles. This means that if you're stuck, you have to revisit all the rooms in one wing and try to find the key or clue that you missed. Not my favorite, so I used walkthroughs freely.

Everyone's Gone to the Rapture: Extremely pretty and well-written, but I think it needed one more element to really capture my attention. Fantastical scenery or puzzles or a chance of saving the planet would have done it. I realize none of those fit this story, I'm just saying what kinds of game elements I like some of. (But I finished the game anyway!)

Lifeless Planet: I respect the tactic of making your sparse game design thematic, but it was still a sparse game design. A lot of climbing over low-fi boulders. I kept wanting to parse the occasional clapped-out Russian shack as Bradburyseque surrealism but the story didn't go there.

Eidolon: I ate some mushrooms and blackberries. I failed to catch any fish. I found one bit of plot. After an hour of walking across this expansive landscape with no more plot, I gave up.

Submerged: A pleasant tower-climbing vacation. More or less fulfils my desire for "the good parts of Assassin's Creed". Happy ending is pasted on, but so what? I climbed all the things.

Mind: Path to Thalamus: This is constructed in unconnected levels. The first several were fun, but eventually the lack of continuity and repeated gameplay elements wore me down. I skipped ahead through another couple of levels and then gave up. Still: nicely laid-out scenery.

Californium: I enjoyed this one. Short and charmingly enthusiastic about its homage (to Phil K. Dick, if you didn't know). The puzzle mechanic is rough -- sometimes the clues are too inconsistent or inconspicuous to spot, and then you wind up back at the walkthroughs. (Terrible, terrible video walkthroughs.) But it's worthwhile for the gonzo visual design.

August 12, 2016

Renga in Blue

Lords of Karma: Finished!

by Jason Dyer at August 12, 2016 11:00 PM

Before I get to the winning path, I want to talk about a few other gameplay elements.

First a map, alas incomplete (click to enlarge):


There are forests arranged in mazes and tunnels underneath that are dark. Navigating the tunnels took using my torch, which I found ran out far too quickly; it was hard to explore more than a fraction of the tunnels before it went out. That element plus the secret doors (which I’ll talk about it a moment) plus the general randomness made it too hard to be fully comprehensive about mapping.

A lot of the enemies (vampire bat, goblin, and an evil magician) were lurking down in the tunnels. They apparently have no problem in the dark:


(If I had killed the magician, I might have finished a quest; there’s a “man in grey robes” wandering aboveground that warns “RETURN TO ME THE STAFF OF THE EVIL SHIMMERING MAGICIAN, BUT DO NOT USE IT YOURSELF!”)

What makes the light source issue doubly frustrating is there are secret doors hidden in a very odd way.


In other words, hang around and looking over and over and eventually a secret door may just materialize. I presume the intended mimesis is that by using LOOK you are searching the room, like an old-school D&D adventurer.

On to winning–

If you read my last posts carefully, you might have noted I ran across a king who wanted me to rescue the princess, and I shortly thereafter was killed by a knave near a “young woman in soiled but expensive clothes”.

It’s apparently possible to luck out, because I randomly came across the same knave / woman pair while playing a new game and attacked them even though I didn’t have weapons. I killed the knave with a single karate chop.

At this point the princess was willing to follow me, so I headed back to the king (who I hadn’t even visited yet that game!) and this happened:


After that bounty of karma points, I took the diamond to the church and gave it for even more karma points (quite a few!) and decided it was time to go inside the church and pray:


The problem with having a game with so many generative elements and a flexible goal it is quite possible to squeeze through via luck. I reset the game and tried to kill the knave quite a few times without weapons and had no success.

The amount karma awarded is random; I tried going through the princess-rescuing sequence again (with a weapon this time) and even after donating the diamond and several more items to the church, I was only at 176 karma points. Praying at 176 karma did nothing.

Apparently even the maximum required score is random:

The purpose of the game is to accumulate “karma points”, which are necessary for the character to go directly to Heaven. The player is never informed how many karma points are needed, and the chosen number of points is another example of the game’s randomness as it changes from game to game; some games end nearly instantly due to a very low karma point goal being randomly chosen, while others can last for hours.

Other than not defeating the evil magician I never got by one other obstacle: a giant in the forest. I’m not sure if it’s meant as an obstacle to something greater or if it’s just another notch for your karma score.

I also found a very neat item I never was able to use: a bomb with a fuse. I’m curious what would happen if I tried it on the idol of Baal, but I never had a situation where I both was holding the bomb and found the idol.

Normally my sense of completion might be enough to find out for myself what I’m missing but the fact goals don’t even give a consistent score rather takes my motivation away. If anyone else is dying of curiosity, though, I first recommend you grab an emulator as opposed to playing online, because there’s a several-minute startup time for the random generation; you can set the emulator so it accelerates the process and takes only a couple seconds. Download for the game itself is here (there are two versions, they both seem to work fine).

While my description of gameplay may seem underwhelming, Lords of Karma does feel chock full of texture. There’s randomly placed items, characters that can follow you, monsters that can chase you, and a weird religion system which feels suitably mystical. It’s certainly a promising first effort, especially for an author who programmed his own adventure-creation system from scratch in 1978 technology.