Planet Interactive Fiction

April 24, 2014

Post Position

ELO Awards: Call for Nominations

by Nick Montfort at April 24, 2014 11:29 PM

The Electronic Literature Organization is delighted to announce two awards to be given this summer; nominations are open now.

The ELO is proud to announce the ”The N. Katherine Hayles Award for Criticism of Electronic Literature” and “The Robert Coover Award for a Work of Electronic Literature.” Below is information including guidelines for submissions for each.

http://eliterature.org/2014/04/announcing-elo-prizes-for-best-literary-and-critical-works/

“The N. Katherine Hayles Award for Criticism of Electronic Literature”

“The N. Katherine Hayles Award for Criticism of Electronic Literature” is an award given for the best work of criticism, of any length, on the topic of electronic literature. Bestowed by the Electronic Literature Organization and funded through a generous donation from N. Katherine Hayles and others, this $1000 annual prize aims to recognize excellence in the field. The prize comes with a plaque showing the name of the winner and an acknowledgement of the achievement, and a one-year membership in the Electronic Literature Organization at the Associate Level.

We invite critical works of any length. Submissions must follow these guidelines:

  1. This is an open submission. Self nominations and nominations are both welcome. Membership in the Electronic Literature Organization is not required.

  2. There is no cost involved in nominations. This is a free and open award aimed at rewarding excellence.

  3. ELO Board Members serving their term of office on the Board are ineligible for nomination for the award. Members of the Jury are also not allowed to be nominated for the award.

  4. Three finalists for the award will be selected by a jury of specialists in electronic literature; N. Katherine Hayles will choose the winner from among the finalists.

  5. Because of the nature of online publishing, it is not possible to conduct a blind review of the submissions; the jury will be responsible for fair assessment of the work.

  6. Those nominated may only have one work considered for the prize. In the event that several works are identified for a nominee, the nominee will choose the work that he or she wishes to be juried.

  7. All works must have already been published or made available to the public within 18 months, no earlier than December 2012.

  8. All print articles must be submitted in .pdf format. Books can be sent either in .pdf format or in print format. Online articles should be submitted as a link to an online site.

  9. Nominations by self or others must include a 250-word explanation of the work’s impact in the field. The winner selected for the prize must also include a professional bio and a headshot or avatar.

  10. All digital materials should be emailed to elo.hayles.award@gmail.com by May 15, 2014; three copies of the book should be mailed to Dr. Dene Grigar, Creative Media & Digital Culture, Washington State University Vancouver, 14204 NE Salmon Creek Ave., Vancouver, WA 98686 by May 15, 2014. Those making the nomination or the nominees themselves are responsible for mailing materials for jurying. Print materials will be returned via a self-addressed mailer.

  11. Nominees and the winner retain all rights to their works. If copyright allows, ELO will be given permission to share the work or portions of it on the award webpage. Journals and presses that have published the winning work will be acknowledged on the award webpage.

  12. The winner is not expected to attend the ELO conference banquet. The award will be mailed to the winner.

Timeline

Call for Nominations: April 15-May 10

Jury Deliberations: May 15-June 10

Award Announcement: ELO Conference Banquet

For more information, contact Dr. Dene Grigar, President, Electronic Literature Organization: “dgrigar” at mac.com.

“The Robert Coover Award for a Work of Electronic Literature”

“The Robert Coover Award for a Work of Electronic Literature” is an award given for the best work of electronic literature of any length or genre. Bestowed by the Electronic Literature Organization and funded through a generous donation from supporters and members of the ELO, this $1000 annual prize aims to recognize creative excellence. The prize comes with a plaque showing the name of the winner and an acknowledgement of the achievement, and a one-year membership in the Electronic Literature Organization at the Associate Level.

We invite critical works of any length and genre. Submissions must follow these guidelines:

  1. This is an open submission. Self nominations and nominations are both welcome. Membership in the Electronic Literature Organization is not required.

  2. There is no cost involved in nominations. This is a free and open award aimed at rewarding excellence.

  3. ELO Board Members serving their term of office on the Board are ineligible for nomination for the award. Members of the Jury are also not allowed to be nominated for the award.

  4. Three finalists for the award will be selected by a jury of specialists in electronic literature; Robert Coover or a representative of his will choose the winner from among the finalists.

  5. Because of the nature of online publishing, it is not possible to conduct a blind review of the submissions; the jury will be responsible for fair assessment of the work.

  6. Those nominated may only have one work considered for the prize. In the event that several works are identified for a nominee, the nominee will choose the work that he or she wishes to be juried.

  7. All works must have already been published or made available to the public within 18 months, no earlier than December 2012.

  8. Works should be submitted either as a link to an online site or in the case of non-web work, available via Dropbox or sent as a CD/DVD or flash drive.

  9. Nominations by self or others must include a 250-word explanation of the work’s impact in the field. The winner selected for the prize must also include a professional bio and a headshot or avatar.

  10. Links to the digital materials or to Dropbox should be emailed to elo.coover.award@gmail.com by May 15, 2014; three copies of the CD/DVDs and flash drives should be mailed to Dr. Dene Grigar, Creative Media & Digital Culture, Washington State University Vancouver, 14204 NE Salmon Creek Ave., Vancouver, WA 98686 by May 15, 2014. Those making the nomination or the nominees themselves are responsible for mailing materials for jurying. Physical materials will be returned via a self-addressed mailer.

  11. Nominees and the winner retain all rights to their works. If copyright allows, ELO will be given permission to share the work or portions of it on the award webpage. Journals and presses that have published the winning work will be acknowledged on the award webpage.

  12. The winner is not expected to attend the ELO conference banquet. The award will be mailed to the winner.

Timeline

Call for Nominations: April 19-May 10

Jury Deliberations: May 15-June 10

Award Announcement: ELO Conference Banquet

For more information, contact Dr. Dene Grigar, President, Electronic Literature Organization: “dgrigar” at mac.com.

Bitcoin for your Warhol!

by Nick Montfort at April 24, 2014 04:59 PM

Thanks to Golan Levin’s “atypical, anti-disciplinary and inter-institutional” FRSCI lab, the CMU Computer Club, and ROM hacking bit-boy Cory Archangel, several instances of previously unknown visual artwork, done by Andy Warhol on the Amiga 1000 in 1985, have been recovered.

CA$H for your WARHOL sign

Warhol’s use of this classic multimedia system is but one of the many surprising, rich aspects of Amiga history that are carefully detailed by Jimmy Maher in The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga. An early topic is the launch of the first Amiga computer at the Lincoln Center, with Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry in attendance and with Warhol producing a portrait of her on the machine during the festivities. Maher also writes about how Warhol’s attitude toward the computer was actually a bit retrograde in some ways: Rather than thinking of the screen as a first-class medium for visual art, he wanted better printers that could produce work in a more conventional medium. The discussion of Warhol’s involvement is but one chapter (actually, less than one chapter) in a book that covers the Amiga’s hardware development, technical advances, relationship to image editing and video processing work, and lively demos — from the early, famous “Boing Ball” demo to the productions of the demoscene. The Future Was Here is the latest book in the Platform Studies series, which I edit with Ian Bogost.

The Future Was Here cover

With these images surfacing now, after almost 30 years, the age-old question “soup or art?” is awakened in us once again. Do we need to print these out to enjoy them? To sell them for cash? Did Warhol invent what is now thought of as the “MS Paint” style, back on the Amiga 1000 in 1985?

Amiga soup can

Note, finally, that there is a detailed report on the recovery project provided in PDF form.

The XYZZY Awards

Jimmy Maher on Best Puzzles

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at April 24, 2014 02:01 PM

Jimmy Maher writes The Digital Antiquarian, a blog chronicling the history of computer gaming with a special emphasis on text adventures and other narrative-oriented works. His work of interactive fiction The King of Shreds and Patches was co-winner of the 2009 XYZZY for Best Setting and is now available in versions for Kindle and Android as well as desktop. His book on the history of the Commodore Amiga, The Future Was Here, was published by the MIT Press in 2012.

In the beginning there were puzzles. When Adventure paralyzed university and corporate computer departments alike during 1977, its players were not marvelling at its literary wonders. No, they were wrestling with its puzzles: how to kill a dragon with their bare hands, how get across that chasm, how to map that maze. Nor were Will Crowther and Don Woods, Adventure‘s creators, what we might call “literary” sorts of people. Any literary qualities possessed by Adventure – and there are some, particularly in the earlier sections written by Crowther which evoke some of the wonder of caving – were accidental, tangential to the real purpose.

But soon people were starting to talk about interactive fiction as a whole new form of literary expression, and a new, schizophrenic interpretation of the medium with it. By the mid-1990s, Graham Nelson could memorably label interactive fiction “a crossword at war with a narrative.” It’s a description that seems almost to identify a fundamental flaw in the form. Can a medium so divided against itself really stand?

Actually, there need be no “war” between puzzle and narrative at all. Puzzles seem to me an all but intrinsic part of parser-based interactive fiction, with its almost absurdly granular take on decision-making and its obsession with the details of its physical world: i.e., “get lamp” and “go north” rather than “leave my wife” or “conquer a neighboring country.” Interactive fiction is better at the details of problem-solving than it is at sweeping narrative arcs, better at aping genre-bound procedurals than literary fiction. When authors try to apply the parser to the latter, all of the criticisms of the form voiced by Chris Crawford and others suddenly make a lot more sense. Works like Photopia and Rameses have always struck me as more interesting as experiments than as full-fledged artistic creations in their own right. I find myself looking for something to really do, to really engage with, when I play them. The idea that, say, Ramses demonstrates “the fundamental powerlessness of the title character through it very lack of interactivity” may be true enough, but it’s also a bit of a cop-out; any time an alleged message dovetails so neatly with what is easy and hard for a creator to do, be suspicious. As for Photopia, the old objection that it’s just a short story with occasional prompts mucking up the flow is a difficult one to adequately answer.

This might seem to leave us in a bad place, with a form that is fundamentally good only for making puzzle boxes. But it’s really not so bad, because puzzle boxes need not be so meaningless. As Nick Montfort has written in Twisty Little Passages and elsewhere, puzzles have been a part of great literature for eons. With the arrival of the Modernists and Postmodernists in the last century they have only become more prominent. Following the example of Joyce and Pynchon, interactive-fiction authors should embrace the puzzle, using it to feed the narrative and the message. A fine example of how this can work is this year’s winner of the Best Puzzles category, Coloratura by Lynnea Glasser.

Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)

Coloratura is an inversion of science-fiction-horror stories like John W. Campbell’s classic “Who Goes There?” (better known today under its filmed title The Thing). An undersea research team has picked up an apparently extra-dimensional entity they don’t understand, placing themselves at extreme risk. This time, however, we play from the point of view of the entity – sort of a science-fiction version of a postcolonial novel. The most important aspect of the work, more important than the simple escape plot, is that of figuring out just what sort of a being we’re controlling, how we see and relate to the world, and how we can interact with it. Think about that for a moment: what else are we doing when we read a good novel but learning much the same things about the characters in it? Far from warring with the “literary” side of Coloratura, the puzzles of Coloratura are themselves its most important literary component. It’s through exploring them that we create meaning from the work.

As with many puzzle-oriented works of interactive fiction, there are really two layers to the puzzles of Coloratura. The first and arguably most important is what we might call the meta-puzzle: just who am I, what am I trying to do, and what capabilities – i.e., what puzzle-solving “verbs” – do I have to hand to help me do it? Only then, when the rules are understood, can come the more mundane but still satisfying process of applying them to bring the game to a satisfactory ending. It’s important to note here that the meaning-making part of Coloratura, its most literary qualities if you will, are much more bound-up with the former stage than the latter. This is also the point where a puzzle-based work of interactive fiction most notably diverges from a pure puzzle like a crossword or a word search. Those lack the first stage; their rules and verbs are clear to the play going in. They lack the verisimilitude of real life, with their stories, if they exist at all, being grafted-on exercises in, well, not much of anything at all really.

Coloratura passes a test that Photopia largely fails: the question of whether there’s really any reason at all for this work to be interactive. All of the interest, all of the mystery, all of the empathy we eventually come to feel for its trapped protagonist arise from interactions – from puzzle-solving. That’s what turns what could easily have been a too-clever-for-own-good inversion into a moving, even beautiful experience. I’m thrilled that Coloratura won “Best Game” as well as “Best Puzzles.” What better statement could there be on the viability of this medium that works differently than static literature, that can’t do so many things that literature can, but that can move and delight us all the same?

The other two nominations in the “Best Puzzles” category don’t deploy their interactivity to quite such sublime effect. Both are – knowingly, consciously – “just” games. Luckily, both are fine, worthy games in their own right. And neither is quite your typical puzzle box.

Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder, Ryan Veeder

Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder, by previous Comp winner Ryan Veeder, rather nonchalantly drops us into a world where humans take orders from rats. You’re one of these humans, a sailor – okay, let’s be honest, a pirate — and your ship is sinking. As the water pours in, filling the ship deck by deck, you have to try to rescue as much plunder as you can before making your escape in a lifeboat. The more you’ve collected at the end, the better your final score.

Importantly, it’s impossible to gather every single treasure in the time available to you; nor is it possible to know before the end of the game just how much any given piece is worth. So, Plunder is a game that requires repeated restarts to maximize your score. In the end, assuming you keep at it, you’ll have every move plotted out carefully, the goal being perfect efficiency. But that’s an unachievable goal. Veeder himself claims that he doesn’t know what the theoretical maximum possible score is; he maintains a leaderboard on his website, the top entries on which are apparently higher than he himself has ever managed.

Now, there’s much about all this that’s guaranteed to bring out hatred in many players; I’m frankly surprised the game placed as well as it did in last year’s Comp. Plunder thoroughly and comprehensively violates Article 3 of The Player’s Bill of Rights (“To be able to win without experience of past lives”) as well as Article 4 (“To be able to win without knowledge of future events”), and Article 5 (“Not to have the game closed off without warning”). Strong arguments can also be made that it violates Article 6 (“Not to need to do unlikely things”) and Article 14 (“Not to be given too many red herrings”), as well as Article 12 (“Not to depend much on luck”) in the case of one particular puzzle involved an impaled handkerchief.

But you know, in playing and replaying so many old games as I have these past few years I’ve grown more accepting of other modes of play. Certainly the classic Infocom mysteries, which represent some of the most groundbreaking work Infocom ever did, are all about violating Articles 3 through 5. There should still be room for the turn-by-turn path through the game itself to be a single overarching puzzle, to be analyzed and optimized and finally cracked. And as such things go Plunder is quite a forgiving specimen, with much of the modern era’s gentler approach to the play/game relationship also in evidence. Even if you collect no treasure at all, after all, you can still escape with your life. After you figure out how to do that gameplay is all about getting better rather than a pass/fail, live/die zero-sum game. And while you’re about it Plunder is consistently smart and funny and occasionally surprising. I like it a lot.

Threediopolis (Andrew Schultz)

Andrew Schultz’s Threediopolis is an even purer puzzlebox. It’s essentially a single extended word puzzle with some of the properties of an acrostics game rolled up into an IF-style interface. As a literary proposition, Threediopolis is by far the roughest of the three. Much of the text is cursory; the fourth wall gets broken repeatedly, sometimes knowingly and sometimes (I suspect) not so knowingly, the diegetic and non-diegetic all jumbled together into a single uniform stream. The game is – sorry, but I don’t really know how else to put this – aesthetically kind of ugly.

Yet the word puzzle itself is clever and interesting and must have taken a huge amount of time to craft. Some have said that it might have worked better removed the pretense of being a work of interactive fiction entirely, with a different, easier sort of interface. They have a point, but I think it’s also important to note that a slicker, graphical Threediopolis would have been a much more daunting creative proposition. One of the wonderful things about interactive fiction is the fact that one guy like Schultz can realistically make a game with them on his terms, working alone and in a reasonable amount of time. I get oddly excited when I meet some crazy new thingie like Threediopolis that’s superficially a text adventure but not quite a text adventure, and I’m happy to see it recognized by a community that perhaps sometimes takes its literary bona fides just a bit too seriously.

And Threediopolis does gain something important by being implemented as an interactive fiction. As with Coloratura, the meta-puzzle, the figuring out of the rules and the available verbs and what is really going on here, is arguably the most exciting part of the game. It’d be a shame to lose that.

Modern interactive fiction has come encompass a huge range of styles and approaches. Sometimes several elements blend and harmonize to create something kind of extraordinary, as with Coloratura. But sometimes – much more often – we get games like Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder and Threediopolis that do one thing really, really well. And, you know, that’s okay too. If they can remind us not to take ourselves quite so seriously all the time, so much the better. Sometimes a fun game is all you really want or need.

April 23, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

Spring Thing: Through Time

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at April 23, 2014 09:01 PM

Through Time, by either MC Book or Killer Robot, is a chooseyourstory game. There will be spoilers. This year’s Spring Thing appears to be You Wake Up In A Boring Bedroom Comp. Medias res, folks, please look into it.

Through Time is heavily drawn from visual novels, specifically dating sims. Jacob is a 28-year-old with a dead-end job and no prospects who mysteriously leaps back in time ten years to, basically, get a do-over on high school.

I am not, on the whole, a fan of VNs. This post, by an author of one of the few Western-made VNs that I’ve played and been somewhat impressed by, matches a lot of my reasons and articulates them from a place of deeper knowledge than I possess. But broadly, when I see something VN-inspired I immediately start looking for three things:

  • Are the characters distinct, interesting creations? In line with the anime tradition, VN characters tend to be drawn from an established set of cookie-cutter templates, differing from them only in trivial surface details. Of course, every medium has its own character tropes, and weak characterisation can happen anywhere, but VNs seem to actively pursue the goal of every character being a trope clone in a different colour of wig.
  • Is the writing disciplined? There’s a strong tendency in VNs for the writing to waffle on at great length, repeating itself heavily and treating banalities as deep insights that the narrator must navel-gaze over for screens and screens of text, or else reporting every word of long conversations about nothing in particular. Again, this happens in every medium to some extent: but the ability to self-edit is one of the first and most important skills that a writer must learn, and in VNs (at least, in the Western-made VNs I’ve encountered) this is very commonly ignored.
  • Does it have a sophisticated structure? That is, is it using the choice-based, branching-narrative form in a way that makes player interaction significant and interesting? Does the form of the game fit the structure of the story, or are they horribly mismatched? Is the player offered interesting choices?

If a piece fails on these fronts, there’s very little it can do to compensate. So how does Through Time do? On the prose front, I’m afraid it’s not great.

“Well, nice to meet you then.”

You say, extending your hand. She slowly extends her own hand and shakes yours.

“Yeah, I’m sure we’ll get along like the bestest of friends.”

Olivia says sarcastically. She then turns her attention back to the window, effectively ignoring you.

First of all, I repeat: reported speech is a single sentence, not two sentences! Otherwise, the ‘you say’ part doesn’t refer to anything. The first part of the above, for instance, should look like this:

“Well, nice to meet you then,” you say, extending your hand. She slowly extends her own hand and shakes yours.

Secondly, ease up on the adjectives for speech. That ‘sarcastically’ only needs to be included if it’s unclear that that’s the tone – which, in this case, it isn’t. Overemphasising the obvious makes writing look anxious, as though you’re not sure whether the audience understood you the first time or not. And it’s just plain inelegant – the genre of Tom Swifties exists precisely because adjectives describing speech tend to look ridiculous.

Finally, less of the ‘then’. The normal assumption when you’re describing action is that events happen in sequence: the first thing you describe happens, then the second thing, and so on. So the ‘then’ in ‘She then turns her attention…’ is redundant, a word that doesn’t add anything. And when in doubt, always get rid of the words that don’t add anything.

Character. The thing is, Jacob doesn’t really behave like a 28-year-old trapped in the world of an 18-year-old: he behaves like a hopeless 18-year-old. The fantasy of a high-school do-over is, let’s be honest, largely premised on the fact that most of us are less catastrophically clueless and emotionally immature than we were in high school, and if we did it again we’d make better hair choices and stupidly hurt fewer of our friends and, hey, maybe if you didn’t suck so badly then things might go better with GIRLS. Through Time initially seems as though it’s really only interested in the GIRLS part, but this is actually a bait-and-switch.

Initially, Jacob behaves exactly like a high-school boy protagonist in a dating-sim VN: clumsy, unassertive, boring, incapable of conducting a conversation because he’s unassertive and boring. Some of this has in-game justification: Jacob’s memories are somehow scrambled by the time-travel thing, and only at the conclusions of the game do we start to get some backstory about his past and connections to the other major characters, at which point the game becomes about sorting out his relationship failures.

But this is too little, too late. The player shouldn’t have to find a winning ending before they get any significant character development. If a character isn’t interesting to us well before the ending, why would anybody care about getting to the ending in the first place?

Conversations are – per genre – mostly about big pauses, nobody actually saying what they mean, people maddeningly failing to work up the courage to actually say what they mean, and ellipses. This mostly serves to make me want to never, ever want to have a relationship with a VN character because christ paragliding backwards this is crazymaking.

So, what’s the structure like? There’s a lot of text, broken up by no-choice jumps, between each actual choice – which is standard for VNs – and the stakes of each choice are usually not apparent until after you’ve taken it, and possibly not then. This is a genre where very small, boring choices  - things along the lines of  ‘do your homework or stare out of the window’ – will have unexpected consequences for your relationship status. Some are a bit more obvious, and most are at least clear after you’ve done them – ah, OK, if I get the wrong classroom then I run into Olivia, presumably that bumps our relationship up a bit.

This makes sense because it’s designed for heavy replay: the first few runs will almost certainly end in failure, but they serve to map out the territory. (As is somewhat common in this genre, you’re locked out of the best end until you’ve completed some other endings.) The territory is pretty standard: certain choices improve your relationship score with one of the four main characters, and if you pay enough attention to a particular character by the time the Fair happens then you get the option to go down a story track dedicated to them. If you don’t particularly commit to anyone then the game ends prematurely. Once you’re on a particular character’s track, most of the non-optimal choices end the game.

While it’s structurally a choose-your-girlfriend dating sim, there’s actually only really One True Girlfriend for the protagonist: of the other three characters, two are Just Friends and one’s your little sister (your platonic little sister, it is contextually necessary to stress). And this One True Girlfriend comes with a One True Ending, parts of which only make sense if you’ve seen the other endings.

This kind of game is really designed for exhaustive play, for people willing to play through again and again until they understand how everything fits together and have seen all the outcomes. Accretive parser-IF can be a bit like that – Varicella is the stock example here – but the thing is, this model relies on your audience being really engaged with your content. If you love all the characters and want to see more about them, or if the writing’s so fuck-off great that you want to hunt down every last nugget of it, you can afford to do this. You can’t get your audience to stick around purely with the promise of The Mysterious Answers That Will Only Be Revealed If You Complete Everything. (Very sensibly, the author has included a full diagram of the game’s tree, so you don’t need to brute-force the entire thing.)

So. In terms of story design, this is clearly the strongest of the chooseyourstory entries, but it really, really needs to tighten up its prose and characterisation. Prosewise, I’m going to be a broken record: add more distinctive detail, and cut, cut, cut. Don’t have something happen, and then have the protagonist think to himself ‘gosh, that thing happened, and here is what it was’ for three paragraphs. Get rid of the shoe leather; I don’t need to know about Jacob getting out of bed every morning. Get rid of the padding. If you’re going to have your character navelgaze, have us actually learn something about them in the process: if they’re just dithering over things that we know about already, you’re wasting time.

As far as characterisation goes, the story only works if we’re shown aspects of Jacob that make him seem worth redeeming – otherwise you’ve got a Manic Pixie Dream Girl problem. In general, I think that One True Eternal Love premises are unconvincing, but if you’ve going that route then you really need to give your readers some firm grounds to find your leads appealing. I was readily convinced that Jacob was a slacker with a mean streak that allowed friends to come to harm through inaction; I was less convinced that he was such a wonderful boyfriend that he was worth moving the space-time continuum for.


Storycade

Interactive Fiction: Why Not?

by Amanda Wallace at April 23, 2014 04:10 PM

Why Not

At a pivotal moment in Why Not? I was attempting to fly into the sky. The narrator tried his hardest to stop me, told me repeatedly that it would not allow me to fly, and then when it finally relented, the scene became touching. Vaguely sad. It appeared that the narrator simply didn’t want to see my fly off into the distance until I became an insignificant speck past the clouds.

The game closed out, the moment final.

Why Not? is riddled with these bizarre moments, making out with skeletons and fighting piles of metal, becoming magic and attending an amazing party. Together they exist in a world of anarchic color — an explosion of tie-dye brilliance, where the previous decisions are left burned into the background of the next choice.

The writing, alongside this bright artistic style, is its own fascination. The closest analogy I can find is if the 4th wall breaking narrator in the Stanley Parable had a baby with the psychotic punk fury of Tank Girl. But then that baby grew up and did it’s own thing. It’s a difficult style to explain, but it was humorous and brief, and while filled with character death and vulgarity I kept wanting to play again and again.

At one point, the game tells you, “I’m going through a lot of stuff right now. This game kinda isn’t my biggest problem.” It feels like that. The narrator isn’t unreliable, he’s just got something else on his mind. Scene descriptions are brief and unexcited, and you bounce between a wide variety of locations from epic party to forest. They feel like the person on the other end of the line hasn’t put 100% of his attention on you. Subsequent play throughs, especially when hitting the same piece of dialogue, amplify this affect. He’s a disinterested narrator, and the way you interact with him — through passivity or through action, determine the way the game plays. Any waffling with prompt the narrator into pushing you towards a decision. Action will sometimes be met with death, but either way they create an environment of push and pull that you wouldn’t expect from such a simple game.

Why Not? is available for free (though the author deserves your donation) through itch.io.

The post Interactive Fiction: Why Not? appeared first on -StoryCade.

Twine: Newspaper Quest

by Jed Pressgrove at April 23, 2014 04:10 PM

In his first Twine, developer Ian Burnette focuses on what the Internet has threatened but has yet to kill: print journalism. If nothing else, Newspaper Quest is very fun to click through. Underneath the simplicity and humor, however, is biting commentary on online content consumption and creation.

Newspaper Quest simulates a leisurely day of home activities, including reading a newspaper. At first, I failed to see the point of reading newspaper stories and cutting them out and eating them. But once you allow time to pass and return to the sections you have eaten, you’ll find that you are changing the stories and, in effect, impacting the world. The stories involve everything from politics to technology to movies. Consuming one particular article has a morbidly hilarious result that speaks to the danger of inventing reality.

The great irony of Newspaper Quest is that the player can change the content of a media form that we think of as relatively permanent. In real life, people cut out newspaper articles to remember events that happened on specific dates; in Newspaper Quest, you cut out articles to change history. Consider that Twine audiences are probably more likely to consume online content than read a newspaper, and you can begin to see what makes Newspaper Quest a brilliant deconstruction of online media.

Specifically, Newspaper Quest addresses the postmodern ability of instantly shaping perceptions of reality. In the game, your “edits” require a short passage of time during the “day” – perhaps not as instantaneous as some Twitter mobs, but certainly faster than how journalism operated in the print era. Traditionally, for example, a factual correction would appear in the next edition of a newspaper, which would take as long as a day to produce, if not a week or more (depending on the publication). Newspaper Quest recognizes that this deliberate pace no longer makes sense in the virtual world of self-publishing, editable pages, and hashtags.

The complete reversal of facts in Newspaper Quest provides a witty parallel to how information and, thus, perception are manipulated in online media. Speculation retweeted by people you respect can appear as fact. A recently edited Wikipedia entry can become fact. A message can be presented in such a way that anyone can become the target of hundreds of angry individuals within an hour. The reversal of facts in Newspaper Quest only seems silly as a fantasy of print media. As a parallel to online media, the joke really hits home.

Newspaper Quest’s comedy of daily media manipulation bears the truthful sting of humor. The game’s denouement isn’t an exaggeration: some people have trouble sleeping due to how quickly the reality about them, as individuals, can be shaped online. A postmodern doomsday scenario is all of us waking up to so many different claims about reality that daily pleasures, such as gardening and eating, offer little respite. In one sense, Ian Burnette has crafted a fun Twine about the stories we want to see. In another, Newspaper Quest reflects the often funny, often disastrous consequences of a constant flow of online content.

Jed Pressgrove is a games criticism writer for his site, Game Bias, where you can check out more of his stuff.

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Spring Thing Releases Competition Games

by Amanda Wallace at April 23, 2014 04:10 PM

Spring Thing

The Spring Thing is the “other” IF competition, set in the Spring (Fall if you live in the Southern Hemisphere). Interactive Fiction writers of all sorts can submit their games to the Spring Thing, and judging is currently ongoing (until May 11). The ten games that compose this IF competition are varied across style and engine, and feature an equally diverse array of writers. The works intended to be promoted by the Spring Thing are considered medium to long in length.

I’ve included a list of the entrants, as well as their games, and included a brief synopsis of their games. These are not reviews of the games, as I have currently played none of them. All games are playable at the Spring Thing website

the adventures of a Hexagon: Tyler Zahnke

Tyler Zahnke is an IF writer, probably best known for his IF Comp entry last year Reels. The Adventures of a Hexagon is an HTML game with limited nodes, where you play as a sentient polygon. The game is evidently very short, with some nodes ending in sudden and extreme death and easily completed in five minutes. The game is classified as CYOA.

Bear Creek, Part 1: Wes Modes

Bear Creek, Part 1 is the first of a three part series. Part 1 is set in the summer of 1975, and is a game created in Inform 7. Your PC is a child, who wanders the world with a child-like exuberance with only a hint towards the possible dangers and issues of the adult world. The synopsis by the writer is as follows:

Looking back, it was that summer, or maybe just that one day that changed everything. KC and the Sunshine Band was on the radio and you were eight years old. A curious daydreamer, on the verge of learning what lay beyond the boundaries of your own little world, and nothing was certain about whether you’d survive the journey.

The game ends at an abrupt point, as it is Part 1 of 3.

the Bibliophile: Marshal Tenner Winter

Marshal Tenner Winter is a prolific IF writer and his past works include a variety of Lovecraftian pieces including Castonegro Blues and the Dark CarnivalThe Bibliophile is a Lovecraftian tale set in Baltimore, crafted in Inform 7.

A game of Life and Death: Kiel Farren

This game is posted from the ChooseYourStory site, which has you create a free account to save your progress. A Game of Life and Death is set in a small town where the PC lives with their parents unaware that they are about to be thrown into a strange world full of possibilities. The author states that the game would be PG13 if it had a movie-style rating, with warnings for a variety of horror game specifics including: blood, gore, violence, character death, cannibalism, mutilation and gore. With a touch of comedy.

the price of freedom: innocence Lost , Briar rose

This game is also posted to the ChooseYourStory site, and will require a free account to save your progress. The game has you play as a Greek slave to the Roman empire, and has elements of a historical RPG. The Price of Freedom appears to be a series, so there is a chance the game will feel slightly unfinished.

the story of mr. p : hannes Schüller

A translation (from German) of Hannes’s game Die Geschichte des Herrn P.The Story of Mr. P is a Inform 6 game. Hannes is probably best known for his games The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man (which placed 17th in the 2009 IF Comp), Ninja’s Fate (which placed 21st in the 2010 IF Comp), and Bloodless on the Orient Express which won 1st place in the 2011 Ectocomp. 

Surface : Geoff Moore

Surface is the Spring Thing’s lone Twine entry. Geoff More won last years Spring Thing with Wich’s Girl. This game features domestic problems against the back drop of an alien invasion, but people online keep discussing Moore’s unique usage of hand drawn maps.

Through Time: MC Book

This is another entry from the ChooseYourStory site, where you will need to create a free account to save your progress. The game is a romance game where you play as Jacob, transported 10 years into the past. The game claims to feature a visual novel like experience, and the author suggests playing it through to the multiple endings for the full experience.

weekend at Ruby’s: Liam butler and Jackson Palmer

An open world puzzle game (and the only Quest entry). The authors description sounds like an interesting mix of romance and a crazy partyscape:

Weekend at Ruby’s is an open world puzzle game set at a friend of a friend’s house party. You’ve somehow lost your wallet and with it the phone number of the girl of your dreams. In order to get it back and prevent a lifetime of soul crushing loneliness filled with relationships based on meaningless sex, you’ll need to uncover the secrets of a dead eccentric while trying to enjoy the party and create what will become your treasured memories of youth. Contains sex, drugs, rock, and possibly small amounts of roll.

The WYldkynd Project: Robert Deford

The Wyldkynd Project is a science fiction game done in the Alan 3 development system. The developer, Robert DeFord, has worked on a few other games in the past including an entrant in the 2012 IF Comp the Sealed Room. 

 

If you’re interested in playing any of these games, be sure to check out the official Spring Thing contest page. They’re currently being rated, and you can participate in judging. To judge, you have to play at least half of the games (and the Spring Thing organizers ask that you try and complete all of the games you intend to rate), and then you can rate them on the Spring Thing site.

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Twine: Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone

by Amanda Wallace at April 23, 2014 04:10 PM

This game will be available for 24 hours and then I am deleting it forever.

What you do with it, whether you distribute, share or cover it, is up to you.

Suicide is a social problem.

Suicide is a social failure.

This game will live through social means only.

This game will not be around forever because the people you fail will not be around forever.

They are never coming back.

The above is from Porpentine. When the game was originally released, for the 24 hours Porpentine hosted it, I was not able to download it and save it. Thankfully, other users did (thank you Tumblr user PlsburyDoughblr).

I don’t feel comfortable reviewing this. I haven’t quite reached the head space where I have attached words to this current feeling. There may be a review someday. For now, I’ve hosted everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone on this site, just in case other forms of the game go down. In the creation and original distribution of this game, Porpentine insisted that the game would only persist in social means — people like PlsburyDoughblr, and others like them. This is my contribution to the cause.

As for whether or not you should engage with Porpentine’s latest creation? That’s entirely up to you. The game seems to run as long as you’re willing to interact with it, and contains references to rape, abuse and suicide. I have the game hosted at this link, and if you’d like access to the HTML file, please contact me. I’ll be glad to share it.

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Twine: Even Cowgirls Bleed

by Amanda Wallace at April 23, 2014 04:10 PM

“Plus one more,” you say, as if you’re the coolest mother-fornicator around. Because let’s face it, sweetheart, you absolutely are. You’re going to be absolutely welcome here.

I found it hard not to like the “city bitch” main character in Christine Love’s Even Cowgirls Bleed. She’s earnest, desirous of physical affection, and a bit trigger happy. She doesn’t seem like a bad person, just naive and a little bit violent. This quick, ultimately funny tale, is the Western game you didn’t know you were looking for. 

Mechanically, Love’s game is a bit different than a lot of the Twine games I’ve seen. To move forward in the story, you mouse your cursor over the text. A gunshot sounds — your character has now shot off her gun. Your cursor (actually a cross-hair) is the tool through which you continue through the story, but it is also a weapon you wield with little regard to those around you.  The text flows like a forming story as you type, a departure from the Sugarcane theme a lot of Twine developers seem to stick with.

Love is probably best known for the games Digital: A Love Story and Analogue: A Hate Story. Having not had a chance to play either of those games, I can’t speak to whether this game is a departure. Tone wise, the game seems to bounce (with a great deal of skill) between funny and a bit dark. There’s an encounter with your character and another lesbian woman back at her room, where you find yourself unable to holster you gun and shoot your way through the entire thing. It’s sad, in a way, because you sort of hope for the best. But there’s definitely a bit of humor to shooting through a vase of flowers in an attempt to get in another woman’s pants.

The game is a must play, and with play time coming in at around five minutes, you can definitely slip it in with your morning coffee.

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The XYZZY Awards

Wade Clarke on Best Supplemental Materials

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at April 23, 2014 04:01 PM

Wade Clarke is the author of Leadlight (IFComp Golden Banana Winner 2010), Six (2nd in IFComp 2011, XYZZY winner for Best Implementation) and Ghosterington Night (Winner of Ectocomp 2012). He has produced cover art for Fan Interference, Ted Paladin and the Case of the Abandoned House and Threediopolis and music for Andromeda Apocalypse and Kerkerkruip. He has betatested a good number of games and written 100+ reviews on The Interactive Fiction Database. Wade’s homepage is at wadeclarke.com.

The finalists for Best Supplemental Materials were The Sixth Sleep18 Cadence, Coloratura, Depression Quest, Dominique Pamplemousse and Hill of Souls.

So what are supplemental materials in the world of Interactive Fiction?

If you voted in this category, this is a question I hope you asked yourself, and which you had no choice but to try to answer for yourself if you did ask it of yourself, because this category of XYZZY continues to suffer from a lack of explanation of what is allowable in it or what should be allowable. Or more broadly, What’s It About? I say these things not intending to disparage this year’s nominations or their authors in any way. These games are all here because sufficient numbers of folks voted for them in this category and I have praise for all of them. But perusing the range of the nominations, my sense is that the nominators have interpreted the category in some quite different ways to each other.

Following is a brief conversation stimulator about how I personally interpret the category so long as it retains the name ‘Best Supplemental Materials’. If the name changed or rules were added or the category was dropped, I’d change what I think. I expound here in case it can be a launching pad for talk about what people want to do with this category next year, if anything.

The Free Dictionary offers a much better primary definition of ‘supplemental’ than the Oxford American dictionary which came with my Mac, so here it is:

1. Something added to complete a thing, make up for a deficiency, or extend or strengthen the whole.

My core thought on the topic is that if a game would be rendered fundamentally incomplete or non-functional by the removal of particular elements or materials distributed with it, those elements or materials can’t be considered to be supplemental.

Here is how I view this year’s nominees in relation to this idea.

The way IF games continue to handle cover images (their display by interpreters is optional, games tend not to be coded to show them themselves and the images can be hard to view otherwise) means that those images continue to fall into the supplemental bucket. This makes the cover for Hill of Souls supplemental.

The trailer for Depression Quest is a promotional item and not part of the game. It’s clearly supplemental.

The graphic environment for 18 Cadence is indistinguishable from what 18 Cadence is. I don’t think it’s supplemental. That said, 18 Cadence has a bunch of associated promotional materials, like a video trailer and a website which does more than just play the game, and I’d say those are supplemental.

The Labyrinth’s Lament, the comic which goes with The Sixth Sleep, is certainly not part of the game and is therefore supplemental. That said, the way the author has presented the game and the comic, the game could actually be the supplemental material to the comic, though it probably isn’t.

The nomination for Dominique Pamplemousse just says ‘multimedia’. This game is probably a trickier analysis, but not at the elementary level. The audiovisual nature of Dominique Pamplemousse is its core nature; there’s nothing supplemental about it. Can you imagine the game’s raw text trying to do all that claymation singing? It would have sucked! The trickiness grows out of the vague wording of the nomination when we extend our thoughts on the game. For instance, should we consider things like the demo of the game and its website to be supplemental materials? As with 18 Cadence, I say yes.

The final nomination is for Coloratura‘s ship map. Maps are the prototypical supplemental materials: Helpful but non-essential documents generally supplied outside of the game and which also add flavour to it.

As it turns out, I am not the writer of the rules on this category. No-one has written them, so I will be talking about these games in the capacity or capacities in which they were nominated.

Cover art, Hill of Souls (Angela Shah)

Hill of Souls was an entrant in Ectocomp 2013, where it came 22nd out of 24 games. Traditionally that’s not the kind of fact that would make you rush out to try a game. But would you rush out to try a game with a pretty cover when most games have no covers or so-so covers? You might. It’s not that you’re judging the game by its cover. It’s that the cover is getting you to open that game ahead of others in the environment of ceaseless and ferocious competition for attention which defines the contemporary entertainment world.

Hill’s cover image is of a rather fetching woman kneeling before a skull in the great outdoors whilst dangling a heart-shaped charm. She’s doing this during what appears to be some kind of necromantic ceremony and the whole scene is presented in attractive and mysterious silhouette. The effect is initially striking in a transparent-seeming way but also invites the eye in to search for details, some of which have been made clearer by the silhouetting and some of which have been obscured. For instance, the trowel by the woman’s knee, which I didn’t notice right away, and the little light-admitting gaps in the skull which add definition to it. The left-right balance of the composition and the woman’s and skull’s complementary eyelines convey a communion between the two parties. Their relationship is moderated by the charm in the centre, the only dot of any other colour in the image. This could be a seduction or a hypnotism, or both.

The misty sepia treatment suggests the fog of the graveyard, or of magic, but also lends the image an air of two-dimensional theatricality. It looks like it could be a staged promotional image for a gothic play. Or perhaps the staged promotional image for an Interactive Fiction game.

In spite of the image’s effect of making me keen to play Hill of Souls, I found the game to be immediately impenetrable when I did try it. It’s shifting prose looked evocative, but I could only get one or two minor commands to work and the game offered no feedback or instruction. I never moved out of its first room, if it was a room. I achieved nothing and understood nothing. So unfortunately I can see why the game came 22nd out of 24, though I am aware that it has content that others reached and also that it was its author’s first effort. Regarding that content, all I can do is make up exciting fantasies about it based on the game’s cover image, which, like many a horror film poster, is easily fascinating enough to incite the imagination, either in league with or in spite of the work’s content.

While performing originality tests on the cover image using Google image search (it passed — nothing personal Angela, I just consider it my job to check) I came across a site on which the artist’s rectangular version of the image had already won an award, and which also shows various elements that went into its creation. This was quite interesting, and may act as a reminder to onlookers that while hordes of people claim to be able to use Photoshop and its ilk these days, there’s a big difference between knowing how to use the software and having the ability to produce or composite a quality image with it.

Video trailer, Depression Quest (Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler)

Video trailers for text-based Interactive Fiction games have been thin on the ground to date. As with the experience of reading books, the experience of playing IF is just not especially amenable to this kind of treatment. Macro-lensed closeups of fingers loudly tapping keys, and/or of the corresponding letters appearing on some kind of nearby visual display unit, are a hallmark of the genre, and they tend not to make for great evocation of game content. That doesn’t mean that using such shots briefly to kick off your Kickstarter campaign video will prevent strangers from injecting you with cash — nay, far from it! But I think anyone would acknowledge that a genre of trailer cannot be held aloft entirely by one particular shot.

Easily the best sincere IF trailer to date was made by the Cabrera brothers for their game CYPHER (trailer here). The brothers were able to play to the strong visual qualities of their gameworld and the sci-fi genre they were working in, and to quote the aesthetics of visually redoubtable films like Blade Runner. It was an excellent fit. They also did majestic work with ye olde closeups of typing fingers. Unfortunately when the game arrived, it fell short of a lot of players — expectations for reasons which went beyond the high expectations set by the trailer.

Depression Quest‘s trailer takes a different approach to the few IF trailers which have come before it. While it is not insincere, its goal is not to sincerely stir excitement (or at least, the prospect of engagement, given the subject matter of Depression Quest) for the experience of playing the game it promotes. Holding on an unchanging shot of someone lying in bed in a lit room while some low level atmos buzzes on the soundtrack, it specifies after about half a minute of inaction only that Depression Quest is a game about living with the experience of depression, and that it will be released on a particular date. That date turns out to be Valentine’s Day of 2013, a schtick cueing what is possibly the only laugh able to be wrung out of the Depression Quest project. Since the game is not parser-based, we’ll never know whether the trailer’s creators might have resorted to closeups of typing fingers had they been given the chance, though my guess is that they probably wouldn’t have.

So the primary hook of the Depression Quest trailer is curiosity. Whether or not you know much about depression, you’re likely to want to know how lying motionless in bed could be integrated into some kind of quest, or even just into a game per se. Most trailers have a degree of exploitation about them which audiences secretly enjoy, and the exploitative gesture of this trailer is that when you get to the game, you’ll find that there is no more quest involved in it than there is in life; the title is mostly a jokey rope alluding to other ‘quest’ games. However, by the time you notice this, you will have already played through a good chunk or all of Depression Quest, at which point there can be no doubt that the trailer did its job.

For those of you who have not experienced major clinical depression, you might be wondering how accurate the trailer is. Do depressed people really lie in bed in depressing-looking, fully lit white rooms all day? I have some qualifications to speak in this area, as I use a bed for sleeping purposes, I once completed Pokemon Blue and I have dealt with major depression for a couple of decades. The only part of the trailer I don’t relate to is that this person has the lights on. That’s weird! Get up and turn the lights off, you weirdo! But I do recognise the total enervation and the weird buzzing noise.

I wasn’t invited here to discuss the game itself, but I will comment on it quickly. The experience of playing Depression Quest is indeed massively depressing, as things don’t work out for the protagonist during the slice of time the player shares with them and there are no resolutions on offer. The staticky delivery and maudlin music also push the player’s head down. Perhaps it was more triggery (I hate this word and yet here I am typing it for the first time) for me than for someone who hasn’t been chronically depressed. The game’s goal is not to pulverise you emotionally; maybe to tenderise you somewhat. Its goal is to show that the potential for a person to make healthier choices of action may seem to evaporate from that person’s being when they are in the grip of major depression. At doing this and frustrating the player as a result, Depression Quest is very good.

What I missed in terms of it conveying an understanding of the condition were descriptions of the protagonist’s irrational thought processes, the ones which were leading to the choices that he was taking. I view those thoughts as the engine behind the behaviours of the depressed, the behaviours which people around the depressed find so inexplicable. However, Depression Quest obviously isn’t a 450 page novel or something else similarly huge which has time to try everything. It’s a small to mid-sized game which focuses on a particular mechanic to try to show something about depression, and it is smart in what it does.

Graphical environment, 18 Cadence (Aaron Reed)

I admit that before I tried 18 Cadence, the idea of it didn’t interest me. That is, the idea which I’d heard was about piecing together stories out of something akin to a story text database. In theory I’d rather just write my own story. In retrospect, what I became aware of were my connotations for the word “story” within new IF. I usually expect quite specific, vectored writing when I’m expecting a story. What I don’t expect is that a program allowing me to stitch together different pieces of text will meet these expectations.

Then I tried 18 Cadence and I thought, “Ah, I see.” The game isn’t even interested in the things I was speculating on. The term story is being used in a more poetic, filling-in-the-gaps sense. The prose is specific about each point in its fictional history, but not from point-to-point. It is your cutting, dragging, rearranging, clicking and combining of the strips of words which determines where the gaps between points might fall and how they might be interpreted. The kind of story that forms as a result can be specific in a simple way if you cleave to the proffered text, but cleaving isn’t the point of 18 Cadence. It’s more likely that a less specific story will build up around the relationships you arrange between the pieces of text, a story about something broad like laughter, or hobbies, or sex or mortality, and the number of permutations available to you to craft such musings is huge. 18 Cadence is not entirely unlike an adult take on the picture cards you give to kids so that they can make up a story from them.

The delivery vehicle for these word cutups is a click’n’move or touch’n’move interface set atop a boho-looking version of everybody’s favourite computer-based metaphor, the desktop. The desk surface graphic has a look that is part easel and part worn craft table, and arranging materials on it is a fairly intuitive process. The various sources at the top of the screen, ranging from the goings-on in the rooms of the eponymous house across its 100 year calendar to its inhabitants and contents at different times, can all be dragged down and dropped into any free space, and in some cases atop of pre-existing materials to form new ones. The easy sophistication isn’t within the way these objects can be moved around, but in the programming which controls what happens to them when they are placed near each other or on top of each other. Separate sentences about the same subject can join together to form longer sentences, and these can be switched through different wordings by clicking on them. A sentence containing just three elements – a character, a room and an object – can often be clicked through dozens of variations. Doing so may remind you of the wonderful redundancy of English, as many extremely similar permutations of the wording, which youÕd nevertheless choose not to use over certain other ones in normal speech, flip by in turn. Yet for the purposes of making various kinds of minimalist free verse, these alternate wordings often turn out to be just what you were unconsciously looking for.

The graphic rendering of all the text involved opens the door to the inclusion of various other game-like flourishes and visual textures. The colour tone and surface weave of the chopped up bits of paper varies subtly depending on their source, giving easy, unemphatic feedback on the distribution of your chosen pieces of text at a single glance. The way the text fragments look and their spatial relationships to each other on screen can be as important as what they say in the context of 18 Cadence. A neat feature I only noticed quite late in the piece is the craft knife which appears in the top left corner as soon as you’ve glued any texts together. You can click on the knife then drag it around to split hybrid texts back into their component parts. This also explains all the scratches visible on the desktop.

As well as all of this quite effortless-feeling programming and visual design, 18 Cadence sports an anonymous communal story-sharing function. If you like a particular text arrangement you’ve made, you can save it to the pool using the lower right popout menu. There you will also find the button which will randomly retrieve a story that someone else has made. And as much as I enjoyed playing with the 18 Cadence tools, I found I enjoyed looking at what other people had done with them more. They showed me more possibilities for the use of this multimedia text workspace and its simulated tactile qualities than I could have come up with on my own.

The Labyrinth’s Lament, comic accompanying The Sixth Sleep (Sloane Leong)

The Sixth Sleep is a Twine game in which you play an alien on (or more accurately, in) its home turf. Being the alien, you would be unlikely to think of yourself as one within your own psychological reality, but the prose’s emphasis on the visuals of ichorous goop, hive lairs and chitinous this-and-thats make you feel conspicuously like you’re in the body of a creature from an Aliens film, even as the action of the game is believably interpreted from your perspective.

The context of this game feels uncomplicated if you just play the game. Strangely, I felt I understood the whole a little less clearly after I’d spent time reading accompanying comic The Labyrinth’s Lament and researching the game’s provenance. This was only because I now had more material but the same amount of overall understanding as when I’d begun. The average player is less likely to go investigating the game’s provenance, but if they do, I don’t think they are likely to enhance their understanding of this comic and game project as a whole. Which came first, the comic or the game? Is this question irrelevant because the two were always intended to go together? How does the comic relate to the Prophet comic from Image, which the author’s website says her own comic may appear in?

Speaking of Image, an initial reaction I had to The Labyrinth’s Lament was: ‘This reminds me of Image comics.’ This was potentially a bizarre thought for me to be having because I last read an Image comic in the 1990s, which was also when I last consistently read any comic books in general. But I’m aware of Image’s influence on comic style and publishing in general, and apparently the little I know has stuck with me. My thought came in response to the kinetic-looking arrangement of the comic panels in The Labyrinth’s Lament. A good example is the terraced descent of increasingly narrow panels from left to right which starts with the ‘Glurp’ digestion panel.

The subject matter of this comic is the interaction between the alien system and a human who rather hopelessly tries to escape from it. The subject matter of the game is the experience of a hungry alien (hierarchically lower down in the system, I think) and its encounter with a stray human. The alien protagonist of the game is much more elemental in its thoughts than the narrating alien overmind of the comic, but also more lavish and inhuman its prose. The overmind’s narration is that of an assured megalomaniac, readily understandable to us humans.

The comic artwork is strong in detail, as evinced by the plethora of little tendrils and grubs on display, and also in a holistic sense. The colouring is especially good, the grade of colour evolving with the downward movement through the pages, weird pastels and dayglos giving onto a vivid digestive crimson. The pacing and placement of the narration bubbles maintain the reader’s sharing of the omniscient viewpoint of the overmind, and this viewpoint determines how all of the comic’s visual transitions are to be understood. I did find some of the geography hard to interpret at first, a matter complicated by the strangeness of events and environments depicted — especially the business of a lure made from light turning out to be a trap for humans in the form of a hissy-tongued monster. But I didn’t find anything hard to interpret because of the artwork. The comic is finely executed and, depending upon your tolerance for glorp, either fascinating or unpleasant, but compelling either way.

The Labyrinth’s Lament opens onto a lot of weird processes and features of this alien system. Humans from somewhere are captured for some reason. Giant beetle-like aliens deliver them through the system. Sometimes the humans escape and end up running around in the system, but they can be recaptured by weird means and might end up being digested. Is this what was going to happen to them anyway? In spite of the common setting of the system, the issues and questions surrounding the humans’ relationship with the aliens aren’t addressed in either the comic or the game, and because the alien of the game is a pretty raw one compared to the lofty overmind of the comic, it’s hard to sort out the connection between the two creatures. So while both the game and the comic are aesthetically strong, they feel like entry points to a bigger mythology.

It’s to any artist’s credit when they don’t supply five answers before you’ve asked one question, and it’s also very likely that Sloane didn’t expect some XYZZY person to be combing over the relationships between all the bits of her project. That said, I’m here to evaluate how I think the supplemental material works in tandem with the game, and I’d say that the comic could support the game more coherently, and also that it might not have hurt for the author to have described the intended relationship between the materials more specifically on her own website, or at other locations where the game may appear (e.g. IFDB.).

I make these observations in a bubble of envisioned good practice and out of a sense of what might be uncomfortably called ‘traditional PR’. Having looked at the footprints of this project online, I think the reason the game/comic/author haven’t done things along these lines is simply because the author wasn’t thinking about that wider level of transmission. The link to the game has mostly been passed around by modest word-of-mouth and a handful of Twine sites. Yet here we are at Interactive Fiction’s annual award-bestowing shindig, and the comic for this game — or the game for this comic – has managed to get nominated for an award. To anyone out there doing things like this, I say to you not patronisingly, but with warmth and my sense of humour, I hope: It Could Happen To You.

Multimedia, Dominique Pamplemousse (Deirdra Kiai)

In IFdom we still broadly have a mindset that multimedia flourishes are pretty impressive when they appear in, or in relation to, a text-based game. There are obviously good historical reasons for this attitude but it looks a little cute when a fully audiovisual game like Dominique Pamplemousse comes along and XYZZY voters specify its multimedia component for attention.

On paper, Pamplemousse ticks a lot of ostensibly weird boxes. It’s in black-and-white. It’s claymation. The claymation characters talk-sing to a brass’n’polka soundtrack. They do so while variously solving or compounding a mystery. The paradoxical thing about a game either seeming to be weird or actually being weird is that third parties tend to find it easy to write wack-sounding copy about that game. (‘Like The Neverhood? Like Sam & Max? Like charmingly ropey singing? Then you’ll have some sort of feeling about Dominique Pamplemousse.’) And then, paradoxically again, the elements whose combination the copy emphasised as being so wack in order to arouse reader attention actually need to join together to form a coherent aesthetic for the game, if that game is going to be any good. Deirdra Kiai achieved such a thing in spades with Dominique Pamplemousse, blending all those ostensibly-weird-on-paper elements together into one aesthetic. They did so to the extent that players were heard to say things like, “This game is charming and coherent, and not so ostensibly weird after all.”

While considering this aesthetic and the audiovisual elements which make it up, it’s worth thinking about the term ‘multimedia’ in a less quaint fashion than usual. For instance, not just the fact that it’s a game with stuff to see and stuff to hear and stuff to read, but that it’s a game using some quite specific and relatively exotic (for this genre) media, like animation in the medium of plasticine or other clay-like substance, or singing for purposes of plot exposition. These media are used within the familiar context of a point and click adventure game, with all its attendant dialogue trees, discrete locations, NPCs and clickable props.

Pamplemousse is billed as a musical and I admire its audio component the most. It’s not that there are a million variables at work in the soundtrack, but the elements that are in play are novel ones of the kind which have to be got right if everything is to work. Since all the communication is via talking and singing, all that talking and singing has to be clear, well recorded and flatteringly mixed and levelled. One advantage Deirdra would have had, mix-wise, is that they only had to deal with one voice: their own. The music then has to go around the dialogue and singing without obscuring it at any point. House band Squinky and the Squinkettes emit, or ‘squink’, a tonally mellow sound spectrum mostly in the low-mid frequency range. This spectrum is not hugely in conflict with the human voice range to begin with, and the volume of the game’s music drops, or the arrangement of the game’s music changes, when folks are talking or singing.

With the mix set up for clarity, the more novel audio schtick at work in Pamplemousse concerns the timing and looping of the music and songs. Again, this isn’t an issue of outrageous complexity at the level it’s operating at in this game, but it is a practical issue specific to this game and one which its maker had to address. I regard the decision to have music looping more or less continuously throughout the game to be the fundamental one here. The composition and instruments used create a sort of mildly harried but wacky ambience, and the WAH-WAH brass sounds are funny. Listeners also tend to associate a lack of high frequencies in a recording with old recordings or gramophones, a vibe further driven home in Pamplemousse by the constant loop of scratchy record noise on the soundtrack and the game’s black-and-white visuals.

The thing about having looping music is that the characters can’t just start singing when the fancy takes them. They sometimes have to wait for a judicious moment, even if it is usually only a couple of seconds away at most. This requirement influences the nature of compositions in this scheme, and I’m guessing it would have required a bit of programming to keep an eye on the loops. (I need to venture into extra speculation at this point. Maybe I wouldn’t if I had the bandwidth remaining this month to watch Deirdra’s ‘making of’ video, but I don’t, and I won’t again until after I will have signed off on this essay and a fat lady will have sung.) What I found interesting, when I ran some parts of this game back and forth, is that I while I could think of heaps of ways to handle particular transitions I saw and heard, both musically and programmatically, I couldn’t say for sure which methods were used at particular moments. But I do imagine they were modest ones because Deirdra is also on the record as saying they mostly tied the game together with the hi-technological equivalent of pieces of string (see ‘What development tools did you use to build Dominique Pamplemousse?’ here).

Turning to the game’s graphic content, the handmade-looking sets also invite some speculation as to how they were put together. They appear to contain elements of the real, which might have been embellished or composited with photoshopped content, content which itself could be real or photoshopped. The game’s black-and-whiteness complements this aesthetic because it helps to glue all the elements together into a unified-looking reality for the characters. And what I like best about the claymation characters is when they walk. They are entirely still when they are still, but when they get going, their waddling has a CGI hyperreality about it which I find very amusing, a look halfway between that of smooth-sliding sprites and a stop motion flipbook. I highly doubt Deirdra used any technology to help them do the lip syncing of the models’ mouths to their dialogue, thus I expect they did it all manually, a method which I can say gives one a feeling of great chuffedness in equal proportion to its laboriousness. I’m glad I didn’t have to do any of it, only sit back and enjoy it.

Shipboard maps, Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)

Blobs never really played any important role in modern culture until their appearance in the 1958 film The Blob, in which they attacked teenagers. Then nothing happened for a long time, blob-wise. Alecto described 1989 Nintendo video game David Crane’s a Boy and his Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia as “A heartwarming and powerful tale of interracial friendship, but for most of us the blob-committed murders of 1958 were still too fresh in our minds.

And then in 2013 came Coloratura. Suddenly blobs were back, and they were cool. (I won’t say ‘cool again’ because blobs had never previously been cool.) The new school blob of Coloratura wasn’t just about the murders, though it could go there for purposes of self-preservation. It was into ESP, novel inhuman empathy and the broad frequency music of the universe.

In retrospect of the experience of the game, whose novel metaphysical content and emotional highs and harrows left me sweaty with exertion, it’s kind of amusing to look back and recall that the only object the game handed me in advance was a black-and-white map of a ship. I feel like I should have clapped my hand to my chest and said: ‘You dare to give me this poxy map? I, who shall be communing with the universe post-haste?’

Of, course this is only a testament to the strength of the game. Rewinding a few hours to when I first booted it up and had yet to acquire my blobby mindset, I was grateful and interested to see that I had been given a map. The clean and sparse style of line detail is technically satisfying and works well to show the contents of the ship. Actually it’s so technically satisfying that the average viewer might not even notice that the whole thing has been hand drawn. The thicker outlines of the hull and walls exhibit more obviously human artline-wielding wobbliness, but it’s the effect of the fine lines which dominates the impression conveyed by the whole. The CG fonts also contribute to the tech drawing aesthetic. Summarily, the map comes across as the realistic and non-showy document it’s intended to be.

What I found interesting when I got into the game was that I didn’t end up using this most utilitarian document in the most utilitarian fashion. That is, I didn’t find that what the map was best for was helping me to navigate the ship. The map helps initially by just providing a kind of reassuring bridge between standard player expectations of adventure game navigation (North, South, East, West) and the unconventional prose feedback from the blob. You take a step, the blob says something interesting, you transpose what the blob said onto the map and start to get a handle on how the game’s prose is going to work in relation to the layout of the human world. And you also realise that yes, good old NSEW navigation is going to work, and will probably be traceable on the map.

The second thing the map did for me was something I probably didn’t realise it had done until later, and that was to convey the scope of the game in a reassuring way. A glance at the map shows an environment whose bounds I contend the average adventurer would deem to be traversable in two hours. This kind of information is less important during peacetime when players are acting at their leisure, but during the bloody warfare of IF Comp it never hurts to signal to prospective players: ‘Yes, I at least considered the two hour rule,’ or ‘You have a shot at completing this game.’ One needn’t do this via a map, though this is a nice subtle way to do it, whether Lynnea had this in mind or not. I simply throw this observation in here as free advice for IFComp authors.

Finally to the business of the map acting as a map. I confess I didn’t find the map to be as useful in this respect overall as the others I’ve mentioned. There are probably enough translational gaps between the blob’s feedback and the divisions between the locations to make life just a little confusing, an effect enhanced by the fact that the map does look so reliably grid-like. This affected me most (which is still to say not that much) early in the game. Once I’d started to gad about the ship more often, the map became most useful during those times when I was given a target location and needed to work out a broad vector for getting there from my current location.

I noted during IFComp that Coloratura was coded with almost no extracurricular extension files for Inform 7. (For non-programmers, extensions can add handy features to an Inform game or just make certain tasks easier to program.) The game includes a prose rendition of its map, a good accessibility feature, but curiously it does not include a way to view the map graphic itself from within the game. Summoning a graphic in response to a command is one of the most elementary-to-program multimedia features of the Glulx format. This is probably the only late suggestion for improvement I have in relation to the whole map scheme. Because, why not?

The Digital Antiquarian

Fooblitzky

by Jimmy Maher at April 23, 2014 10:01 AM

Fooblitzky

Games were everywhere at Infocom. By that I mean all sorts of games, not just interactive fiction — although even the latter existed in more varieties than you might expect, such as an interactive live-action play where the audience shouted out instructions to the actors, to be filtered through and interpreted by a “parser” played by one Dave Lebling. Readers of The New Zork Times thrilled to the exploits of Infocom’s softball team in a league that also included such software stars as Lotus and Spinnaker. There were the hermit-crab races held at “Drink’em Downs” right there at CambridgePark Drive. (I had a Lance Armstrong-like moment of disillusionment in scouring Jason Scott’s Get Lamp tapes for these articles when habitual winner Mike Dornbrook revealed the sordid secret to his success: he had in fact been juicing his crabs all along by running hot water over his little cold-blooded entrants before races.) And of course every reader of The New Zork Times was also familiar with Infocom’s collective love for puzzles — word, logic, trivia, or uncategorizable — removed from any semblance of fiction interactive or otherwise. And then there was the collective passion for traditional board and card games of all stripes, often played with a downright disconcerting intensity. Innocent office Uno matches soon turned into “bloody” tournaments. One cold Boston winter a Diplomacy campaign got so serious and sparked such discord amongst the cabin-fever-addled participants that the normally equanimous Jon Palace finally stepped in and banned the game from the premises. Perhaps the most perennial of all the games was a networked multiplayer version of Boggle that much of the office played almost every day at close of business. Steve Meretzky got so good, and could type so fast, that he could enter a word and win a round before the other players had even begun to mentally process the letters before them.

Given this love for games as well as the creativity of so many at Infocom, it was inevitable that they would also start making up their own games that had nothing to do with prose or parsers. Indeed, little home-grown ludic experiments were everywhere, appropriating whatever materials were to hand; Andrew Kaluzniacki recalls Meretzky once making up a game on the fly that used only a stack of business cards lying on the desk before him. Most of these creations lived and died inside the Infocom offices, but an interesting congruence of circumstances allowed one of them to escape to the outside world as Fooblitzky, Infocom’s one game that definitely can’t be labelled an interactive fiction or adventure game and thus (along with, if you like, Cornerstone) the great anomaly in their catalog.

We’ve already seen many times that technology often dictates design. That’s even truer in the case of Fooblitzky than in most. Its origins date back to early 1984, when Mike Berlyn, fresh off of Infidel, was put in charge of one of Infocom’s several big technology initiatives for the year: a cross-platform system for writing and delivering graphical games to stand along the one already in place for text adventures and in development for business products.

It was by far the thorniest proposition of the three, one that had already been rejected in favor of pure text adventures and an iconic anti-graphics advertising campaign more than a year earlier when Infocom had walked away from a potential partnership with Penguin Software, “The Graphics People.” As I described in an earlier article, Infocom’s development methodology, built as it was around their DEC minicomputer, was just not well suited to graphics. It’s not quite accurate to say, however, that the DEC terminals necessarily could only display text. By now DEC had begun selling terminals like the VT125 with bitmap graphics capabilities, which could be programmed using a library called ReGIS. This, it seemed, might just open a window of possibility for coding graphical games on the DEC.

Still, the DEC represented only one end of the pipeline; they also needed to deliver the finished product on microcomputers. Trying to create a graphical Z-Machine would, again, be much more complicated than its text-only equivalent. To run an Infocom text adventure, a computer needed only be capable of displaying text for output and of accepting text for input. Excepting only a few ultra-low-end models, virtually any disk-drive-equipped computer available for purchase in 1984 could do the job; some might display more text onscreen, or do it more or less attractively or quickly, but all of them could do it. Yet the same computers differed enormously in their graphics capabilities. Some, like the old TRS-80, had virtually none to speak of; some, like the IBM PC and the Apple II, were fairly rudimentary in this area; some, like the Atari 800 and the Commodore 64 and even the IBM PCjr, could do surprisingly impressive things in the hands a skilled programmer. All of these machines ran at different screen resolutions, with different color palettes, with different sets of fiddly restrictions on what color any given pixel could be. Infocom would be forced to choose a lowest common denominator to target, then sacrifice yet more speed and capability to the need to run any would-be game through an interpreter. Suffice to say that such a system wasn’t likely to challenge, say, Epyx when it came to slick and beautiful action games. But then maybe that was just as well: even the DEC graphical terminals hadn’t been designed with videogames in mind but rather static “business graphics” — i.e., charts and graphs and the like — and weren’t likely to reveal heretofore unknown abilities for running something like Summer Games.

But in spite of it all some thought that Infocom might be able to do certain types of games tolerably well with such a system. Andrew Kaluzniacki, a major technical contributor to the cross-platform graphics project:

It was pretty obvious pretty quickly that we couldn’t do complicated real-time graphics like you might see in an arcade game. But you could do a board game. You could lay the board out in a way that would look sufficiently similar across platforms, that would look acceptable.

Thus was the multiplayer board/computer game hybrid Foobliztky born almost as a proof of concept — or perhaps a justification for the work that had already been put into the cross-platform graphics system.

Fooblitzky and the graphics system itself, both operating as essentially a single project under Mike Berlyn, soon monopolized the time of several people amongst the minority of the staff not working on Cornerstone. Kaluzniacki, a new hire in Dan Horn’s Micro Group, wrote a graphics editor for the Apple II which was used by a pair of artists, Brian Cody and Paula Maxwell, to draw the pictures. These were then transferred to the DEC for incorporation into the game; the technology on that side was the usual joint effort by the old guard of DEC-centric Imps. The mastermind on the interpreter side was another of Horn’s stars, Poh C. Lim, almost universally known as “Magic” Lim due to his fondness for inscrutable “magic numbers” in his code marked off with a big “Don’t touch this!” Berlyn, with considerable assistance from Marc Blank, took the role of principal game designer as well as project manager.

Fooblitzky may have been born as largely “something to do with our graphics system,” but Infocom wasn’t given to doing anything halfway. Berlyn worked long and hard on the design, putting far more passion into it than he had into either of his last two interactive-fiction works. The artists also worked to make the game as pleasing and charming as it could be given the restrictions under which they labored. And finally the whole was given that most essential prerequisite to any good game of any type: seemingly endless rounds of play-testing and tweaking. Fooblitzky tournaments became a fixture of life at Infocom for a time, often pitting the divisions of the company against one another. (Business Products surprisingly proved very competitive with Consumer Products; poor Jon Palace “set the record for playing Fooblitzky more times and losing more times than anyone else in the universe.”) When the time came to create the packaging, Infocom did their usual superlative, hyper-creative job. Fooblitzky came with a set of markers and little dry-erase boards, one for each of the up to four players, for taking notes and making plans, along with not one but two manuals — the full rules and a “Bare Essentials” quick-start guide, the presence of which makes the game sound much more complicated than it actually is — and the inevitable feelie, which as in the Cornerstone package here took the form of a button.

Fooblitzky is a game of deduction, one more entry in a long and ongoing tradition in board and casual gaming. At the beginning of a game, each player secretly chooses one of a possible eighteen items. If fewer than four are playing — two to four players are possible — the computer then randomly (and secretly) picks enough items to round out the total to four. Players then take turns moving about a game board representing the town of Fooblitzky, trying to deduce what the three initially unidentified items are and gather a full set together. The first to bring all four items back to a “check point” wins.

Items start out in stores which are scattered about the board. Also present are pawn shops in which items can be sold and bought; restaurants in which you can work to earn money if you deplete your initial store; crosswalks which can randomly lead to unintended contact with traffic and an expensive stay in the hospital; phone booths for calling distant stores and checking stock; storage lockers for stashing items (you can only carry four with you, a brutal inventory limit indeed); even a subway that can whisk you around the board quickly — for, as with most things in Fooblitzky, a price. Adding a layer of chaos over the proceedings is the Chance Man, who appears randomly from time to time to do something good, like giving you a free item, or bad, like dropping a piano on your head and sending you to the hospital. By making use of all of the above and more, while also watching everything everyone else does, players try to figure out the correct items and get them collected and delivered before their rivals; thus the need for the note-taking boards.

Once you get the hang of the game, which doesn’t take long, a lot of possibilities open up for strategy and even a little devious psychology. Bluffing becomes a viable option: cast off that correct item in a pawn shop as if it’s incorrect, then watch your opponents race off down the wrong track while you do the rest of what you need to do before you buy it back, carry it to the check point, and win. If you prefer to be less passive aggressive and more, well, active aggressive, you can just run into an opponent in the street to scatter her items everywhere and try to grab what you need.

It can all be a lot of fun, although I’m not sure I can label Fooblitzky a classic. There just seems to be something missing — what, I can’t quite put my finger on — for me to go that far. One problem is that some games are much more interesting than others — granted, a complaint that could be applied to just about any game, but the variation seems much more pronounced here than it ought to. By far the best game of Fooblitzky I’ve ever played was one involving just my wife Dorte and me. By chance three of the four needed items turned out to be the same, leading to a mad, confused scramble that lasted at least twice as long as a normal game, as we each thought we’d figured out the solution several times only to get our collection rejected. (Dorte finally won in the end, as usual.) That game was really exciting. By contrast, however, the more typical game in which all four items are distinct can start to seem almost rote after just a few sessions in quick succession; even deviousness can only add so much to the equation. If Fooblitzky was a board game, I tend to think it’d be one you’d dust off once or twice a year, not a game-night perennial.

That said, Fooblitzky‘s presentation is every bit as whimsical and cute as it wants to be. Each player’s avatar is a little dog because, well, why not? My favorite bit of all is the dish-washing graphic.

Washing dishes Fooblitzky-style

Washing dishes Fooblitzky-style

On the way to the hospital after getting hit by a car

On the way to the hospital after getting hit by a car

Cute as it is, Fooblitzky and the cross-platform project which spawned it weren’t universally loved within Infocom. Far from it. Mike Berlyn characterizes the debate over just what to do with Fooblitzky as a “bitter battle.” Mike Dornbrook’s marketing department, already dealing with the confusion over just why Infocom was releasing something like Cornerstone, was deeply concerned about further “brand dilution” if this erstwhile interactive-fiction company now suddenly released something like Fooblitzky.

The obvious riposte to such concerns would have been to make Fooblitzky so compelling, such an obvious moneyspinner, that it simply had to be released and promoted heavily. But in truth Fooblitzky was far from that. Its very description — that of a light social game — made it an horrifically hard sell in the 1980s, as evidenced by the relative commercial failure of even better games like my beloved M.U.L.E. Like much of Electronic Arts’s early catalog, it was targeted at a certain demographic of more relaxed, casual computer gaming that never quite emerged in sufficient numbers from the home-computing boom and bust. And Fooblitzky‘s graphics, while perhaps better than what anyone had any right to expect, are still slow and limited. A few luddites at Infocom may have been wedded to the notion of the company as a maker of only pure-text games, but for many more the problem was not that Fooblitzky had graphics but rather that the graphics just weren’t good enough for the Infocom stamp of quality. They would have preferred to find a way to do cross-platform graphics right, but there was no money for such a project in the wake of Cornerstone. Fooblitzky‘s graphics had been produced on a relative shoestring, and unfortunately they kind of looked it. Some naysayers pointedly suggest that if it wasn’t possible to do a computerized Fooblitzky right they should just remove the computer from the equation entirely and make a pure board game out of it (the branding confusion that would have resulted from that would have truly given Dornbrook and company nightmares!).

And so Fooblitzky languished for months even after Mike Berlyn left the company and the cross-platform-graphics project as a whole fell victim to the InfoAusterity program. Interpreters were only created for the IBM PC, Apple II, and Atari 8-bit line, notably leaving the biggest game machine in the world, the Commodore 64, unsupported. At last in September of 1985 Infocom started selling it exclusively via mail order to members of the established family — i.e., readers of The New Zork Times. Marketing finally relented and started shipping the game to stores the following spring where, what with their virtually nonexistent efforts at promotion, it sold in predictably tiny quantities: well under 10,000 copies in total.

The whole Fooblitzky saga is the story of a confused company with muddled priorities creating something that didn’t quite fit anywhere and never really had a chance. Like Cornerstone’s complicated virtual machine, the cross-platform graphics initiative ended up being technically masterful but more damaging than useful to the finished product. Infocom could have had a much slicker game for much less money had they simply written the thing on a microcomputer and then ported it to the two or three other really popular and graphically viable platforms by hand. Infocom’s old “We hate micros!” slogan, their determination to funnel everything through the big DEC, was becoming increasingly damaging to them in a rapidly changing computing world, their biggest traditional strength threatening to become a huge liability. Even by 1984 the big DECSystem-20 was starting to look a bit antiquated to those who knew where computing was going. In just a few more years, when Infocom would junk the DEC at last, it would literally be junked: the big fleet of red refrigerators, worth a cool million dollars when it came to Infocom in 1982, was effectively worthless barely five years later, a relic of a bygone era.

Because Fooblitzky is such an oddity with none of the name recognition or lingering commercial value of the more traditional Infocom games, I’m going to break my usual pattern and offer it for download here in its Atari 8-bit configuration. It’s still good for an evening or two’s scavenging fun with friends or family. Next time we’ll get back to interactive fiction proper and dig into one of the most important games Infocom ever released.

(Just the usual suspects as sources this time around: Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interviews and my collection of New Zork Times issues.)


Comments

Post Position

A Superreboot

by Nick Montfort at April 23, 2014 01:52 AM

There’s a remake (or maybe a reboot?) of superbad.com, the classic, off-kilter, uncanny art website that was employed back in 2008 in a Grand Text Auto April Fool’s joke.

It’s www.orworse.net.

I guess they made it worse by adding a “www.”

April 22, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

Spring Thing: Bibliophile

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at April 22, 2014 09:01 PM

Spring Thing reviews continue with Marshal Tenner Winter’s Bibliophile, an Inform game. Spoilers.

One of the original purposes of Spring Thing was as a place for games substantially larger than suitable for the two-hour play time of IF Comp. This is more of a hope than a strict rule, and many games don’t aim at it. Bibliophile definitely fits the bill, though: the walkthrough runs to ten chapters (although some of these are fairly brief).

My previous grumbles about Winter’s work have mostly revolved around the point that he’s very interested in rolling out a fairly long-form plot, often over a big map, and very much in a classic-parser format, Anchorhead-style. These are cool things to want, but combine all those qualities and you have a game that’s going to take a year or three to create, unless you cut a lot of corners. Bibliophile is Winter’s eighth game in three years, and while he’s clearly putting in a great deal of work (there’s an arm-long list of testers) the result is that Bibliophile is stretched rather thin.

The setting is a straightforward example. The author’s clearly wanting to set out a pretty literal rendering of actual locations in Baltimore:

This is the center of the western park of the district, dominated by a wide, shallow, stone fountain. Trees and grass surround the fountain giving a natural feel to this part of the city. You can cross the street to the north or to the south and the park continues east and west. To the east, you can see the Washington Monument in the near distance. Your apartment is to the west.

On the one hand, this text does a good job of signaling what this room is: inerstitial space, defined mostly by connections to other places. Nothing much to see here, move along. But on the other hand, the game contains a lot of such interstitial space, to the point where it seems that a strongly-evoked, literalist setting is a desired effect. And in that case, the interstitial spaces need a bit more vim. I want some sense of why central Baltimore is interesting enough for mapping it out to be important. If we’re going to spend all this time walking around Baltimore, walking around Baltimore should be interesting.

The plot marches along in a decidedly new-school manner: much of the time, you’re told very clearly what your next objective is and where to go for it. This is helpful, and makes the game move along  snappily – but you can’t ever veer very far off these train-tracks. And in the circumstances where you haven’t been told what to do, the interaction isn’t great: there’s a pointless inventory limit (and a holdall, sure, but it’s easy to miss), and a number of points at which the game, having trained you to ignore scenery objects because they’ll be absent or uninteresting, requires you to poke around in the scenery in order to advance.

Bugs: at one point I found myself locked in the bathroom of a colleague’s apartment with an unconscious thug. Hints suggested prying the door open. I dutifully went for the only vaguely-plausible object in my inventory:

> pry door with letter opener
You pry the door open.

> open door
It seems to be locked.

First, a letter-opener is only a plausible item here because prying has become such a stock IF action, worth trying with anything long, rigid and narrow-edged. Prying a locked door open, in the real world, is going to involve a much bigger, sturdier lever than a letter-opener, not to mention a strenous effort and a good amount of damage. But more to the point game-wise, I’m still locked in the toilet. (The actual solution is to beat the door down bare-handed.)

The other thing I notice in MTW’s games is that everybody kind of speaks the same. In his noir-ish detective series, the slangy and sharp-mouthed characters made sense; here, though, you have a similarly slangy and sharp-mouthed exchange between a dealer in rare books and a senior librarian. That’s a professional relationship in a not-particularly-casual field, betweeen people who don’t have clear seniority over one another and who have reasons to maintain respect; unless they’re close friends or in an emotionally charged situation, it feels odd to have them cussing this hard.

Similarly, there’s a scene in which some thugs have invaded an apartment, and the protagonist has to deal with them – which he does in a manly, two-fisted manner, possibly with the aid of a two-by-four. I have known only a handful of rare-book store proprietors, but… well, I would not have feared for my life if one of them came at me with a two-by-four, and I’m not even an entry-level thug. So, okay, we’re Indiana-Jonesing the guy up a bit to make for a more action-y story – but if so, I’d like to see the character developed beyond his basic template earlier on, so that when things get brawly it doesn’t seem quite so jarring. But the action scenes just aren’t that dramatic. Here’s a later example:

Something terrible emerges from the well. It is like a ten foot long fat maggot covered in slimy human faces. Your mind unhinges at the sight. It slithers around as if seeking something.

The horrible beast slithers toward you; its faces hungry and crying out. The horror almost overtakes you, but you snap out of it long enough to evade it.

> cast shrivel on beast
That wouldn’t be an effective target.

The horrible beast slithers toward you; its faces hungry and crying out. The horror almost overtakes you, but you snap out of it long enough to evade it.

> play drum
You beat on the drum and the creature slides back into the well.

> close well
You close the chakota well.

This is way too perfunctory, too stripped-down for a scene that should be charged with tension, desperation and terror. If this is a situation where madness is threatening to overtake the protagonist, these brief, functional descriptions seem out-of-place; it’s as though, having duly passed his SAN check and snapped out of it, the protagonist is having no more trouble with this than with making breakfast.

Madness isn’t a dispensable part of the Lovecraft mythos: it’s right at the heart of everything. The mythos is not a D&D kind of thing, merely a special flavour of big monsters, evil priests and magic, and if it’s turned into that it becomes kinda boring. Lovecraft characters aren’t driven mad by the sight of shoggoths because they’re really big and gross, or because shoggoths shoot magical insanity beams from their arses: they go mad because the sight of the shoggoth represents the total collapse of their basic understanding of the universe. The sight of the shoggoth is the death of religion, the failure of science, the obliteration of humanity’s place in the universe. This tends to strike postmoderns, who routinely believe seven Lovecraft-horrifying things before breakfast without being driven even slightly insane, as rather silly.  But if you’re going to take the nonsense out of Lovecraft, you kind of need to figure out something to replace it with.

“Azathoth is a cosmic horror; a force outside of known physics, Higgins.” Doctor Coffey explains, “It is the embodiment of chaos and destruction and now Dennison has found a way to bring this nightmare to earth; to destroy everything we know and plummet the human race into chaos.”

“Hmm.” you say, not knowing what else to say. As if to double-down on this ignorance, you then say, “Food for thought, huh?”

But I don’t think that this is really a problem specific to that particular subject-matter. Take a look at this:

You hold the drumstick and close your eyes. Soon, you glimpse images of its existence. You sense it was well-used and well-loved by the drummer who owned it. You feel the various
rhythms it helped to produce. It practically thrums in your hand. Then, you sense the most recent event. The student drummer was practicing alone in the auditorium when something grabbed him from behind. There is a flash of sickly green light and then you sense the stick fall to the ground; its partner is still with the student, but where he disappeared to is unknown. It’s like a vanishing act.

The failure here isn’t one of imagination, so much – the author clearly has a strong effect in mind. It’s just not getting conveyed very well through the writing. Some of this is because of superfluous, overprecise verbiage makes the paragraph seem stiff and awkward: some is because it uses run-on sentences and contractions less than is natural. A cursory edit would reduce the word count by about 20% while making it read a lot more naturally:

Holding the drumstick, eyes closed, you soon glimpse images of its existence. It was well-used and loved by its owner; as you feel the rhythms it helped produce, it practically thrums in your hand. And then – the drummer was practicing alone in the auditorium when something grabbed him from behind. There’s a flash of sickly green light, and the stick falls to the ground; its partner is still with the student, somewhere unknown. Like a vanishing act.

But it also fails to get down into telling specifics, the sort of detail that would make this feel like an immediate, real, experienced event rather than a police incident report. (Towards the end, I shifted to the perfect tense, which is less distant and even briefer.) What do the rhythms feel like? What was distinctive about the drummer’s love and use of the drumstick? The main good detail in here is that the green light is sickly - that’s a stock turn of phrase, sure, but it gives us a much more concrete idea of the quality of the light.

Ultimately, here we have a story with a plot sparked by the discovery of a rare manuscript, with a protagonist who’s a dealer in rare books, entitled Bibliophile. This suggests a story that will focus heavily on, y’know, books. But while the protagonist is intended to be a lover of books, the author doesn’t seem to be – or, if he is, isn’t interested in showing us that. The central book of the plot, a rare libretto that encodes Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, is more of a McGuffin than a point of interest in its own right. Other books are, more or less, the equivalent of wallpaper, or training manuals.


The Monk's Brew

Changelog 2014-04-21

by Rubes at April 22, 2014 07:00 PM

=========
CHANGELOG
=========

Two week period leading up to 2014-04-21:

- Finalized code to transition from first cutscene to Act 2
- Exported Act 2 models for Drogo, Constantin, Ignatius, and Cecilia along with root and idle animations
- Created necessary objects, datablocks, and .cs files for the four characters in Act 2
- Loaded all characters and running idle animations on all Act 2 characters
- Re-exported and loaded Act 2 Matteo with a collision box
- Re-exported and loaded locked calefactory door with a collision box
- Modeled and animated two additional demon arms for devil prayer (NR)
- Incorporated all three devil arms into prayer

  [More...] Read the rest

The XYZZY Awards

C.E.J. Pacian on Best Individual NPC

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at April 22, 2014 05:01 PM

C.E.J. Pacian is a time traveller from the 20th century and hobbyist game maker, probably best known for authoring Gun Mute (XYZZY Award winner: Best Puzzles) and Rogue of the Multiverse (XYZZY Award winner: Best Individual NPC).

The Best Individual NPC finalists for 2013 were Bell Park, Captain Verdeterre, Coloratura, Faithful Companion and Horse Master.

-bitmap-zer0- in Bell Park, Youth Detective (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)

When a tech conference decides that it would be better to have a famous kid detective, Bell Park, investigate a murder than to get the cops involved, the second suspect she considers is -bitmap-zer0-: a l33t h4x0r of some sort. Of all the weirdoes involved in this incident, -bitmap-zer0- probably makes the best connection with Bell, while also teaching us the important lesson that we’re all really weirdoes when it gets down to it.

Bell Park: Youth Detective harks back to the style of classic Choose Your Own Adventure books, breaking up longer pieces of text with fewer choices, and telling a more straightforward kids’ own story instead of the kind of counter-cultural hypertext one might have come to expect from a Twine game.

This also means there’s less of an emphasis on complex variables and more straightforward branching. Yes, if we don’t ask -bitmap-zer0-’s name, we get told it in a different branch, and if we accuse her of the murder Bell apologises for that in the ending passage, but mostly we get funnelled through the same-ish set of events to the conclusion.

-bitmap-zer0- certainly has the game’s most interesting optional branch, in which Bell becomes so frustrated with -bitmap-zer0-’s strange attitude to the murder that she breaks down and admits how scared she is of failure and being judged for it. In return, the hacker gives her some advice about solving the case:

“Weird is normal. There are weird people all over. What you need to look for is someone being weird weirdly. Who’s being weird in a way that weird people aren’t normally weird?”

Aside from that rather touching moment, it’s also easy to like -bitmap-zer0- because she’s cool. Not in the Poochie sense (she does throw out words like “meatspace”, “grok” and “youngling”, but with some ironic credibility), but in the sense of having a global, digital view of the world. The attitude that so frustrates Bell in that optional branch is one of disinterest in the murder because she doesn’t know the victim. What does geographical location matter anymore? Isn’t that a quaint notion that we’ve discarded in favour of far more meaningful and less random connections? The same applies to the victim’s name:

“Birth names don’t mean anything to anyone. What’s her twitter handle?”

Which might seem like the ravings of a caricature until you Google “Paige McKinley” and see how many of them there are.

Try as I might, I wasn’t able to dramatically affect the relationship between Bell and -bitmap-zer0-, outside of that one confession, but that is emblematic of the best decision the game makes about character interaction: it is the youthful detective who is more changed by the conversations than the NPCs. -bitmap-zer0- arms Bell with some useful advice and a kind ear. This makes her a likeable character in a likeable game. And sometimes, that’s all you need.

Captain Verdeterre in Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder (Ryan Veeder)

To peek at someone else’s hymn sheet for a moment, there is a kind of balance at the heart of games, where we, the players, want to be challenged. In return, the game must be careful to give us challenges that, although they may seem so at first, are not unfair. Personifying these conflicting requirements in an ambiguous antagonist can go do a lot to curry our good will – mapping the demands of the game to the demands of a (hopefully) loveable (or love-to-hateable) NPC.

Captain Verdeterre is such a character: the captain of a sinking pirate ship who has charged us, as his last remaining crewman, with salvaging as much of his plunder as we can. We run around stuffing valuables into a sack before getting into the lifeboat and then being told by the captain whether we suck or not. Inevitably, at first we do. Then we get better, until the point where the captain admits that hiring us was a pretty good idea of his and pats himself on the back.

Yes, Captain Verdeterre is completely self-absorbed and utterly disinterested in our welfare. He demands we grab items of only sentimental value to him and does little to help us distinguish those items that carry true value. But he does all of this in an entertaining enough fashion that we, the players, can’t help but like him. Why exactly the player character remains with him is a little more mystifying, beyond this Stockholm Syndrome-esque response:

>shoot captain

You couldn’t. What would you do without him?

Our interaction with the captain is predominantly restricted to him commenting on items as we examine them and stow them in our sack – such comments illuminating his relationship with the player character and the history of the ship under his command. One particularly amusing set of commands looks like this:

>put locket in bag

“Ooh, jewelry! Good eye, Tibert!” says the captain.

You stuff the silver locket into the sack.

>open locket

Verdeterre looks on with interest as you struggle to undo the locket’s tiny clasp, and when you finally get it open he asks, “Who’s the picture of?”

The tiny painting depicts a fairly respectable-looking rat. Engraved inside the cover is the name “Etienne”. You turn the interior toward Verdeterre for inspection.

“Oh, hey, I know her. Let me see that,” he says, prying the locket from your hands. He swings it over his head and throws it as far away as possible.

“Cool, that’s taken care of. Let’s get a move on.” You decide it’s best not to ask.

Oh, and I don’t think I mentioned this: Captain Verdeterre is a talking rat. Which also means his dialogue can give us hints of this world where rats and humans share a civilisation (more than we do already, I mean), and he can solve the odd puzzle involving small tunnels.

So Captain Verdeterre is well written, but is he especially well implemented? To pick an obvious example, this is first and foremost a game about avoiding drowning in rooms that fill with water. So how does Captain Verdeterre cope with the oncoming flood? Does he perch on our shoulder or ride on our hat or jump between tall items of scenery?

You’re struggling to keep your head above water.

The captain scurries along after you.

Oh. He scurries along, just as he does in rooms that are bone dry.

Or:

Verdeterre’s eyes light up as you lift the key. “I know what that is! That’s the key to the strongbox in the hold! I knew it was somewhere.”

[...]

>open box
You yank on the lid of the strongbox, but it’s locked tight.

“Oh, shoot,” says Verdeterre. “I forget where I left the key. Knowing me, it’s probably hidden extremely well. But I can’t remember what was in there, either, so it’s not a big loss.”

That direct interaction with Verdeterre is prevented is entirely in keeping with both his character and the tone of the game. That he does not react to entirely predictable aspects of the game (rooms flooding, things being done out of order – and remember that this is a game that relies on knowledge learned during previous playthroughs) is somewhat more jarring.

Is this forgivable? I’m going to say: yeah. Captain Verdeterre is a charismatic antagonist and he’s the spice that turns a dry optimisation puzzle into a fun adventure.

Ghost in Faithful Companion (Matt Weiner)

Some of the best characters in video games are non-verbal ones. In graphical games this makes particular sense – repeating an animation is less noticeable than repeating a particular line (and its particular inflection by the voice actor, if there is one) – but it can also help things in text-only games. Although the text may be the same each time, we can still imagine a natural individuality to each action in terms of what isn’t described. Thurnley’s ghost in Faithful Companion is a non-verbal character, and probably the most interesting nominee from a technical perspective.

This game, it must be noted, is a polished version of a 3 hour speed-IF. In that context, it is nothing less than fantastic. In the cold, hard light of the XYZZY Awards, however, I shall cruelly vivisect Thurnley’s ghost for our edification.

Thurnley’s ghost is invisible, but delineated supernaturally by leaves, which is a pretty cool image, mostly left to our imagination.

There is no wind, but the leaves fly up from the bench and twirl in the air. Somehow they describe a faintly human shape.

This ghost’s trick is that it does everything we do, only two turns later. For example, one of the first things we will want to do is pick up a key. Two turns later, Thurnley’s ghost does not reach out to the spot where the key once was and close its spectral fingers around thin air. Instead it runs the command “take key” through its parser, which then tries to take the key from our inventory. Being touched by a ghost is typically unpleasant to some degree in ghost stories, and in Faithful Companion this touch causes us to faint and the game to end.

My solution to this puzzle was to quickly unlock the door in question and then drop the key. A solution which foreshadowed how utterly at odds with the game I would be over the next puzzle.

Through the door is another door with three locks. These locks are opened and closed with a single press of the same latch, so typing “open bronze latch” twice in succession will open and then close the bronze latch. This naturally causes a problem when we are unlocking the third latch and Thurnley’s ghost dutifully types “open bronze latch” into its parser at the same time.

There must, I thought, be a neat trick to use the ghost’s delayed mimicry of us to open all the latches. And I wasted a lot of time on this puzzle, getting increasingly frustrated, because this kind of puzzle, where you know the actions that must be performed, but not the order to perform them in, is my favourite kind of puzzle in parser IF.

Eventually, nursing a murderous grudge against Thurnley’s ghost, I decided to see if there was a ClubFloyd transcript I could steal the solution from. That solution is to not drop the key in the first puzzle, but instead to race through the door and lock it behind you. When the ghost types “take key” and “go in” into its parser, it will get only the parser error messages “That’s not something you can see.” and “(first opening the marble door) It seems to be locked.” And we will be safe to unlock all the latches without interference.

So, what is actually the game’s centrepiece puzzle involves completely avoiding its most interesting mechanic rather than exploiting it. Given how annoyed I was at this ghost for locking all the latches I unlocked, finding out that the solution is to mistreat it hardly made me feel like a faithful companion so much as a justly vengeful victim. Certainly, inflicting parser error messages on an NPC (or so I presume must be happening, behind the scenes) is a delightful act of retribution against its entire kind.

The final room and its puzzle are fortunately much more agreeable, in particular the way that we must co-operate with the ghost to lift a heavy object. It is very fitting that the ghost should actually get to do something positive in the player’s eyes after ruining all our best laid plans in the previous rooms and before being finally laid to rest. If it had resisted us (albeit unwittingly) the whole way, we might have been left to wonder whether this spirit really deserved our help.

We learn very little about Thurnley throughout the game, aside that he was a man, and a pretty unlucky one in both life and death, which leaves open the question of why exactly his ghost mimics what we do after a short delay – I was expecting some sort of time travel twist. But perhaps that is too much to expect from a three-hour game. To return to my original thesis, Thurnley’s ghost is a great technical achievement, if little else, and of all these characters, probably the one the most likely to be remembered in future discussions of unusual forms of NPC interaction.

Your horse in Horse Master (Tom McHenry)

Probably the most common genre of speculative fiction among Twine games, at least in my experience, is a kind of gonzo slipstream that relies on strange turns of phrase and the careful omission of details. It’s a genre that’s uniquely suited to text games, especially as an underground reaction to the expensive high definition graphics that eat up the lion’s share of the scope, development time and processing power of modern AAA games. “Your horse” in Horse Master, a prime example of the genre I’m talking about, is a perfect demonstration of the way a (mostly) text-only game can conjure visuals that a graphical game would never be able to.

From the game’s opening, where we arrive at a factory to obtain a horse genetically engineered to our specification, there are hints that the horses of the world we’re in are not the horses we’re used to. By the time the horse has hatched from its embryonic sphere and “uses its cilia to push itself around your bathtub” during its larval growth phase we know that all our preconceptions of what a horse is should be set aside.

What details we do get of the horse are delightfully weird, but also specific and consistent. And, brilliantly, we’re never given either a detailed description or vague précis of the horse’s appearance as a whole. We get enough detail to know that our horse is strange and wondrous and terrible, and we’re left with to fill in the gaps with our own imaginations. And, of course, our imaginations provide things far stranger and more startling to us than any concrete detail we could have read in the text.

Interaction with our horse is mainly via a consistent menu of actions to perform which will raise its vital statistics (glamour, uncanny, pep, realness and discretion). These actions are all, naturally, otherworldly and surprising. Even simply feeding the horse raises the aside that:

Many horses are raised to a professional caliber without ever eating solid foods in their entire lives.

We get to perform three of these actions a day, in the twenty days leading up to the Horse Master Competition. Notable events in this period include your horse learning to walk and breathe air, naming your horse, getting the option to use the optimal winning strategy the player character looked up on the internet, and getting evicted by Deputized Military Officers and sleeping in a grimy alley.

That optimal winning strategy part is kind of interesting. At first I thought it was going to be a commentary on actually enjoying games (or life, or relationships) versus obsessive min-maxing or munchkinning. But after winning the game while using the option heavily, I’m not so sure, and I think it’s actually more of a concession to the game’s potential for tedium. After seeing all the flavour text for the different actions (and maybe making sure the horse’s stats are well balanced, although no-one seems too sure how to win this game), we can then just click this option to get through to the end. Ya know, until we lose our house.

You see, the horse is great and memorable in its own right, but the really interesting character in Horse Master is the player character. And as the game progresses, the horse, and what is required to raise it, serve more to illuminate the player character than to tell us much about this (necessarily mysterious) monster. Raising a horse is shown to be an act of desperation. It’s dangerous both physically (“Safety Note: NEVER ride a horse”), medically (the player character must destroy their health with drugs “in order to react with an almost unconscious speed to [a horse's] powerful movements”) and financially. Buying the horse and associated equipment clearly eats the last of the player character’s meagre bank balance. There are a few references to other horse masters also being poor and desperate. This is the last ditch, kamikaze life plan of a person with nothing left to lose. Because, as the game tells us:

[T]op Horse Masters essentially ascend from the cash-based economy to a place of pure grace and skill.

And why would anyone want to ascend from the cash-based economy if they were actually doing well at it?

Naming this horse and raising it through great adversity naturally leads to some sense of attachment. But, for me, the game’s overall tone of despair and deprivation and impending loss stopped me from connecting too much with the creature. I’m always wary of stories about animals, because they often feature scenes in which the animal dies or almost dies in order to provoke a cheap emotional reaction from the audience, and with as dark a story as Horse Master, I knew to keep my horse at arm’s length.

As the final part of the Horse Master Competition arrived and was skilfully drawn out, I’ll admit I got pretty tense about what might happen. But when the player character calmly killed and butchered the animal they’d given so much to raise (“you can see a dozen more things you should have done with and for [your horse]“, the PC frets shortly before) my reaction was only that this was about what I expected. Really, it might have been more shocking for the game to actually have a happy ending of some sort.

And, again, this ending serves to use the horse as a means of showing us more about the player character than the horse itself. That this is a person who can so calmly and dispassionately slaughter their only friend in the world in this way. And that’s really as it should be, I suppose. The horse must remain a mysterious force of (un?)nature. The player character merely hopes to transcend, and probably won’t.

But perhaps the horse really does get a happy ending. One that is, as far as I can tell, dispensed at random. In which the player character becomes lost in the prison-industrial complex while:

[Your horse] is still out there somewhere. Growing still. No whistle guides it anymore.

They might bring down the thing you made, but they will never be able to un-see it.

Mercy in Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)

Even more so than Horse MasterColoratura is a game where interactions with the main NPC are coloured by the nature of the player character. In this case, we take the role of a strange deep sea intelligence squirming through a research ship. This creature, the Aqueosity, is part of some kind of telepathic society (which the researchers have removed it from) and perceives everything in terms of emotions – which it can both see and manipulate as colours.

This last ability is a key interaction mechanic in the game, as we must frequently identify characters who can be easily tipped into certain emotions and give them the final push they require. This is nifty, and a nice way to give us something to do during key developments in the story, but you can forgive the author for not fully implementing the combinatorial explosion of options that would be required for using this skill willy-nilly. It’s usually a case of identifying the one emotion-colour to psychically paint a character to make the story progress. Consider our introduction to Mercy:

The Mercy moves between the bodies, grasping out to them in an unbalanced orange horror. You realize that her Blindness prevents her from seeing their bliss, their perfect happiness.

>x mercy
A Blind One. Possibly a female?

Her bright orange aura churns anxiously.

The Mercy reaches out in faint grasps of curious yellow to one of the sleepers, but the instinct is too quickly overwhelmed by her orange repulsion: she is afraid of what the answer might be.

>colour mercy yellow
You reach out, caressing Mercy’s delicate aura, willing it to become yellow. Her aura absorbs this new state willingly, as though they were her own emotions.

The Mercy forcefully perks into yellow curiosity. She rapidly leaps disjunct from one sleeper to another, examining each thoroughly. [Further stuff happens.]

“Mercy” is, of course, the player character’s term for her, based on its weird perception of her nature and emotions. Mercy is apparently a scientist, and her curiosity and open-mindedness make her especially open to peaceful interaction with the player character:

You notice the Mercy pause over your Cellarium, tracing its harmonic patterns. “What are you?” she whispers, enraptured. Her mind opens, connects for an instant. But then she snaps back to the physical and hastens to catch up with the other Blind Ones.

It’s not until we broadcast our psychic “song” throughout the ship, however, that both parties are actually brought together. Mercy proves receptive to the song – receptive enough that she ODs and lies dying on the deck until we manipulate the crew into saving her.

Now, up until this point in the game, my favourite character was probably Newsong, the meat golem that we fashion from the ship’s freezer stores. But take the one character to maybe, possibly not be vested in killing me and put her in danger because of my actions, and then charge me with frantically getting help to her (okay, I’m sure there’s no actual timer at work, but it felt frantic) and I will give a damn.

Once she’s revived, Mercy turns out to have “heard the majesty of the Universe. She is awe-struck – she knows and sings and you can feel her willingness to help.” Which sounds great, from a selfish point of view, but it’s also part of the tragedy of Mercy as a character. Has she really experienced a kind of enlightenment? Or has she just been mind-controlled by a monster? Does the fact that she is now happy maybe even mean it doesn’t matter?

As a perfect example of this ambiguity, when we first meet Mercy face to face, no longer skulking in the shadows, she gives us a loving cuddle – and our aqueous, alkaline flesh burns her – kills her if we don’t ask her to drop us.

Mercy does have some influence on the Aqueosity in turn, giving it a more human perspective. Room names and purposes become more recognisable, as the most obvious effect. And the penultimate stretch of the game sees Mercy and the Aqueosity working together to return it home (and despite all the terror and death it leaves in its wake, this is really all the Aqueosity wants from the start of the game).

At times Mercy is directly possessed by the Aqueosity, at others not, although the actions each character takes become a bit conflated at this point, and I’ll admit I don’t fully understand what this possession really means (or, I guess, more what effect it actually has on the game). It does lead to a nice puzzle where the possessed Mercy creeps out one of her shipmates and we need to release her from our control so she can act convincingly human.

For much of this penultimate act, Mercy serves as a way of introducing more traditional interactions to the game – knocking on doors, pushing buttons and the like. This is the weaker part of the game, I’d say, and I solved the final action scene by using controls randomly, with no real understanding of how they would help. But the final sequence, in which Mercy returns the Aqueosity to its home by rowing it there in a lifeboat, is simple and heart-breaking and uplifting and delightfully ambiguous.

Mercy has been touched by this strange creature’s psychic society and spirituality. She feels deeply connected to it. Maybe this means she’s just a mind-controlled zombie shell of her former self. But she is happy. And as she rows us back home, the realisation that we are going to leave her and take that connection, that happiness with us, slowly dawns on her. Finally, despite her attempts to rationalise herself into happiness (better to have loved and lost an amorphous cryptid from the crushing depths of the sea than to have never loved at all, perhaps?) she is forced to admit her impending bereavement.

Sinking Cellarium
For one last moment as your blissful tomb drifts downward, you connect with the Mercy in perfect unison, and you feel her dread over what is to come: the emptiness, the disconnection, the unfeeling tedium. She wants so desperately to go down with you.

A big part of the experience of playing parser-IF is scanning the text for cues pointing at valid actions. And a big part of playing the role of a defined character is the tension between what you expect from an action and what your character actually does. This goes double when your character is as alien as the one in Coloratura.

>mercy, down

I typed. Expecting to get the Bad End. Expecting Mercy to drown herself in a futile attempt to keep her deep connection. Dying happy, at least. And to start with, that seems to be what’s happening:

The Mercy dives after you, grasping firmly to your Cellarium. Her body cells scream for oxygen, and the pressure concaves her delicate frame.

But then:

So she abandons it, entering into the Song instead. The body maintains its desperate grasp on your Cellarium, and you puppet it in a way that pushes your Cellarium exactly back to the infinite junction. The connection of this place overwhelms you, and you Sing unending. Mercy sings with you, an eternally blissful duet. White. Perfection.

In the pursuit of higher and higher stakes in their drama, a lot of storytellers miss the fact that pulling some sort of happy ending out of an impending tragedy can be even more powerful than letting the tragedy run its course. Note that this isn’t a deus ex machina - the Aqueosity has been trying to join humans in the Song since the start of the game. Also note that this is not a saccharine everyone-lives-happily-ever-after ending. We’re still ambiguous about whether Mercy is really acting as herself or whether the Aqueosity just doesn’t understand that it’s mind-controlling people.

Is Mercy a tragic character, in the end? Or has she fought heroically to achieve happiness? Has the Aqueosity warped and used her? Or did two strange souls cooperate to find a home together? Great characters are like real people: there are no definite answers to any of these questions. And that’s often what helps a character like this to linger in the memory long after the story has ended.

These Heterogenous Tasks

CYOA structure: Revenge of the Return to the Island of the Son of the Cave of Time

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at April 22, 2014 03:53 PM

The Cave of Time was among the most beloved of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, but it wasn’t enormously typical of the series. R.A. Montgomery (who I should look at separately at some point) in particular seems to have preferred more linear, constrained plots with lots of no-choice jumps. Part of this might have been the natural shape of divergence: Sugarcane Island and The Cave of Time are such strong examples of their type of CYOA that there wasn’t much room for variation in that direction. Still, the company seems to have developed and abided by a structural house style, as it did with tone, content and motifs like the Cave.

returncavecoverReturn to the Cave of Time, Choose Your Own Adventure #50, Edward Packard, 1985

A book aimed at a slightly older audience than the original Cave of Time: the prose is rather more verbose, and the illustrations depict the protagonist as a gangly early-teen. Although you’d be hard-pressed to call it educational, the historical content has a bit more actual research behind it — at least, enough that it doesn’t feel totally ad-libbed.

This last makes things feel a bit more constrained: when you’re on a Triangle Trade slave ship or getting caught up in the Mutiny on the Bounty, it’s fairly clear (at least, from an adult’s perspective) that you won’t be able to appreciably change history and that therefore your story is rather tightly determined. The moral content is more prominent, more punishing and makes more decisions on your behalf; the protagonist’s feelings about things are often articulated, often without much player input.

returntocaveoftimeWell, there’s certainly a lot of no-choice jumps here.

Of the two main branches, the right-hand one (travel to the past) is much bushier and contains considerably more winning endings. The left-hand, future branch is trimmed by a lot more losing endings, has only one (rather mixed) non-losing ending, but does allow you to jump back into the Cave of Time and go to the past. This matches up rather neatly with the content: the future is dominated by a dystopian, The Machine Stops hedonic paradise, Suprema 87, full of compulsion and disappointment. The trunk of the Past branch, in which you tag along with a Neanderthal tribe, feels all Land of Opportunity (and, indeed, presents the most meaningful choices). Looking at the diagram, it’s not hard to see which one Packard’s having more fun with.

The simplistic thing to say about this is that CYOA is a natural fit for the American ideal of self-determination and independence: better a free Neanderthal than a brain in a vat. Even the artificial-paradise mouthpiece, the gracile Celeste 433, admires your courage if you reject her society. But the ethics of the book are in no way individualistic: rather, it’s centrally concerned with choosing one’s society — its way of life, the personal opportunities it offers, how much you can change it, the terms of membership, the sort of people it contains. All the good or ambiguous endings involve joining a strange society. (In one ending, you reach the planet Sintra, an attractive world full of friendly, welcoming people; the catch is that the people are all giant cockroaches. The question of whether this is acceptable is left open.) In most losing endings, you die in isolation — eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger after a survivalist sequence, crushed by a survey robot that can’t distinguish between people and rocks.

All the choices are binary except for one, and there are substantial stretches of no-choice jumps — often three or four between choices. Not too much should be read into this, since this seems to have been standard practice for the mature series: but the effect is one of learning to live with constraints. This is not a headlong flight of fancy, but a world where you’re often stuck with the choices you’ve made.


dinosaurscoverA Day with the Dinosaurs, Choose Your Own Adventure (Bantam-Skylark) #46, Edward Packard, 1988

The cave was sometimes used as a frame for single-setting history stories like The First Olympics and A Day with the DinosaursDinosaurs is a short and simple piece for younger readers, and doesn’t contain much in the way of temporal trickery or philosophical aphorism; the Cave of Time is just a way to move the player from a familiar contemporary America to a prehistoric setting.

Here, the story definitely feels fragmentary and brief, boiled down to the Cool Bits: most of the narrative runs at a breakneck pace, with dinosaur rides and dinosaur attacks and your very own baby dinosaur, etc. There’s not a great deal of agency in any of this, and the endings are often sharply abrupt.

There is a little bit of gentle but obvious moralising: after discovering some small dinosaur bones, you get a choice about whether to show them to the paleontologist or to keep them for yourself. In the former case, you get credit for discovering a new species; in the latter, the bones go unidentified and you’re laughed at for collecting chicken bones, the only ending in the book strong enough to count as losing.

daywithdinosaursIn some ways the story doesn’t challenge the reader much: scary dinosaurs are presented, but there’s no death and only one mildly bad ending. In one important way, however, it does present a difficult issue: in some versions the entire adventure turns out to be a dream, while in others it’s quite real. This is quite a big jump in narrative technique, one that a lot of adult readers are decidedly uncomfortable with. Reconciling yourself with it requires a fairly high level of sophistication, an ability to think about stories as artifice rather than as straightforward representations of consistent fictional worlds. Of course, the pill is sugar-coated: it wouldn’t be obvious from a single playthrough.

This kind of narrative-driven, inconsistent-world basis isn’t essential to CYOA: it’s not difficult to produce CYOA that suggests an immutable world model, and indeed some of the books we’ve already dealt with vigorously reinforce the sense of a consistent truth-functional world:The Secret of the Knights‘ structure declares that history is immutable, despite time-travel. But it’s also obvious that interactive forms are a lot more limited by world-consistency demands than static fiction, so it makes sense that Choose Your Own Adventure would try to introduce children to it, softly but as early as possible.

Again, there are a substantial number of no-choice jumps, an odd choice in a flight-of-fancy narrative. Here’s what I think is going on: Choose Your Own Adventure was sold, in large part, as a way of engaging the attention of children who otherwise didn’t like to read. Making a choice requires more attention than just reading text in order. But no-choice jumps have many of the same qualities: though not formally choices, they still require you to notice a break in the text, hold a page number in short-term memory, turn to that page and stitch the narratives together, probably doing a fiddly thing with your fingers to keep your place in case you get it wrong. This weak, lift-the-lid interactivity is a lot less costly in design terms. (The distinction would be lost in electronic media, where there’s no difference between a no-choice jump and clicking through to the next page.)


islandtimecoverThe Island of Time, Choose Your Own Adventure #115, R.A. Montgomery, 1991

R.A. Montgomery’s output is a bit different from Packard’s; less comfortable with outright fantasy, he tended towards SF and boys-adventure material, more heavy grounding in contemporary realistic settings, and longer sequences of no-choice jumps. As a blanket generalisation, he seems more comfortable when writing to an audience at the upper end of the books’ age range, though this could be the result of sampling error. Where Packard tended to err on the side of terseness (sometimes clumsy, but developing into a deft ability to know which details were really important), Montgomery never saw a text limit he didn’t fill.

The Island of Time is firmly situated in Montgomery’s native New England, on the real-life Providence Island of Lake Champlain. As an irresponsible tween, you take advantage of a parental absence to borrow the family Zodiac and take a trip to your holiday home on the island; a storm kicks up that you can’t handle and adventures ensue. The boating stuff is described with a level of detail that makes you wonder whether Montgomery isn’t talking about his own boat, while stringing the early game out to yawn-inducing lengths.

The plot doesn’t deal all that much with time travel; the Cave of Time features, but may never be encountered at all. Sometimes you merely encounter a resident of the Cave, and if you do end up time-travelling, it will only be to one destination. And you can end up travelling in time without ever entering the Cave; in one branch you slip through time while out on the water. Several plots involve no time-travel at all. You encounter a version of the Philosopher of the Cave, but here he’s an alien scientist who came to Earth to study the Cave’s mysteries. The phrase “the Cave of Time” never actually appears.

Insofar as it deals with time travel, The Island of Time is a very different beast from The Cave of Time’s random walk to the memorable bits of world history; instead, its few time-travel elements deal exclusively with (distinctly American) local history. In one, you observe a pre-contact Native American group perform a religious ceremony (from a very outsider-ish perspective); in another you’re drawn into the 1890s. Only one jaunt through time is possible per session, and your involvement with history is generally quite light.

It’s a book laden with… ambivalence, I think would be the word. It very rarely commits to a tone. Almost none of the endings are outright good or bad; in the following diagram I’ve somewhat exaggerated the effect, so don’t take that single green node to indicate an Optimal Ending or anything. The solitary red node looks very much as if it was intended to be a death ending, but was rewritten to soften the work. Parental anger at your irresponsible behaviour, which is foreshadowed from very early on, never actually arrives.

In the most striking scene of the game, you follow a strange voice into the woods, where it manifests as a Being Outside Time and begins to spout woo-woo at you.

“You have joined your future time,” the figure says. “Humans are outside the true realm of time. Whether they know it or not, they spend their lives waiting to get back to the real time.”
The figure smiles once again, enveloping you in its light.
Something inside you begins to question the intentions of this figure. You grow sceptical. “Sounds like you know quite a lot about what we want and what we need. On whose authority do you speak, anyway?”
The figure is taken aback by your tone. “Do not question the experience,” it says, trying to recapture your devotion once again. “Remember, you made the decision to come. You stepped outside the circle of life, we didn’t take you. We merely guided you, helping you to make the right choice over the wrong one.”
Talk of right and wrong begins to worry you. Your parents taught you never to speak in absolutes. You are beginning to distrust the whole situation.

Here the new-agey hippy floatiness that characterised so much of Choose Your Own Adventure is confronted with the Gen-Xish protagonist and… doesn’t really know where to go. Obviously the protagonist is right, here; you don’t just take the word of miraculous appearings that they’re the Good Guys. But there’s a sense of loss: the protagonist’s scepticism may have saved him from something, but it hasn’t gained him anything, and in any case he’s never going to know. The whole story has this kind of air about it. It’s about an age where fantasy rings false, where adventure is just perverse self-endangerment, where you yearn for some kind of religious experience but are unable to drink the Kool-Aid.

islandoftimeNo merges; a very high proportion of no-choice jumps, deployed with some degree of regularity. There is only one point at which a choice node leads immediately to a second choice node; more usual is a gap of three no-choice nodes. There are only eleven choices in the whole book. Many of these nodes feel as if they’re treading water in terms of narrative development; others make a series of significant-feeling decisions on your behalf. It is not a format that seems eager to involve its audience.

Compared to the rather messy plot ofReturn to the Cave of Time, this looks regular and austere. It’s as if Montgomery has determined that the average number of no-choice jumps a player will tolerate is three, and he’s sticking to that.

It has a totally egregious opening: the first choice arbitrarily leads to a bad ending. After a no-choice jump. Worse, you lose for precisely the wrongreason: the choice is to answer the phone or not. Your parents have reminded you to take calls. But if youdo answer the phone then you get so irritated by the caller that, somehow, you never think to go to the lake, and then you involuntarily ignore the next phone call, which would have been a million-dollar radio show prize. That showed you, huh? This is, honestly, one of the more puzzling CYOA design decisions I’ve seen: you do something, then get punished for not doing that thing. Perhaps the aim is to emphasize, by perversely denying agency, that the irresponsible protagonist is distinctfrom the player: that would be an unusual approach for the series, but the protagonist here is given a little more detail, and a lot more specific a situation, then the average Choose Your Own Adventure.

This problem persists through the story: you’re frequently denied agency at what look like important points, and the protagonist’s reactions are often dictated for you in a way that looksdesigned to rub this in your face, particularly when it’s reinforced by the huge number of no-choice jumps, and the regularity of those jumps. The choices don’t come at arbitrary points, but the space between choices often feels redundant and padded. This is Choose Your Own Adventure #115, published fifteen years and twenty books after Montgomery started writing CYOA: if The Island of Time is badly-designed, it’s certainly not out of inexperience.

The obvious thing to say about the structure of these three books is how different they are from theCave of Time and how similar to each other. They have in common a lightly-forking plot with a lot of no-choice jumps, near-exclusively binary choices and little or no merging. The two books for older children have very few winning endings. This probably represents the formula that Choose Your Own Adventure developed and stuck to.


Spring Thing: Bear Creek

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at April 22, 2014 03:53 PM

Second game from Spring Thing: Bear Creek, an Inform game by Wes Mode. There will be spoilers.

This comes across, initially, as a sort of nostalgia piece. You’re an eight-year-old girl in the woods in a golden childhood summer, picking berries with your grandparents; the narrator occasionally comments upon the significance some things will have in retrospect.

There’s not a whole lot to do, and a lot of my experience early in the game was the frustrating one of being tied to the coat-tails of overprotective adults and unable to do anything except pick berries, when the whole woods beckon. (Some of this may be personal expectations: when I was eight I was routinely allowed to wander far wider, in country considerably wilder.)

After a while, the world opens up somewhat. Your grandparents live in a trailer park. Its residents are familiar, but they’re all damaged somehow, and there’s a lot of suspicion going around. This is not, in general, a community where people trust their neighbours, particularly with their children. The game suggests the threat of child abuse early on, and it’s a possibility that never really goes away. Through overhearing the conversation of your grandparents, it transpires that the player-character’s mother has an abusive boyfriend, whose abuse is spilling over onto the player-character; the grandparents try to talk guardedly about it, and totally fail. Several of the trailer park’s inhabitants invite you inside their trailers, and while nothing happens if you take them up on it, it doesn’t dispel the sense of wariness either. There’s a big scary dog that gets loose. There’s a lot of foreshadowing, which all seems intended to give an impression of childhood (and particularly female childhood?) as a time of immense vulnerability.

The writing is neither ornate nor elegant; it’s aiming for a kind of childlike simplicity in keeping with its eight-year old author, and mostly this is fine. At times, though, it wobbles a bit:

Grandpa’s shirt and Honey’s portable transistor radio are on the bank under the tree playing music.

Read as written, this suggests that Grandpa’s shirt is providing accompaniment on banjo.

The writing’s decent but unexceptional at the prose level, but the stuff it’s describing is fairly strong. The characters are mostly distinct individuals, not cut-outs, and their personalities are revealed in a natural-feeling manner. The level between overdescription and obscurantism is well-chosen. The woods and trailer park, likewise, feel specific rather than generic without delving too deeply into over-elaborate detail. These are essential elements in really good IF.

Mechanically, it’s a promising first effort: I didn’t encounter any serious bugs or crucial unimplemented items. Where it could be better is at the higher, more difficult-to-define level of geography design and narrative flow. I didn’t always get a really concrete sense of the relative position of locations, or whether I was doing the sorts of things that the game expected, or how to get a handle on NPC interaction. All of these make sense from a characterisation viewpoint – the PC is a child and probably doesn’t have a very solid sense of any of that herself – but taken together they occasionally made the game feel a bit shaky and uncertain.

The songs playing on the radio are a weak point, to my mind – I know that the point is to evoke a particular era, but this is kind of a filmic technique that translates relatively poorly to text. If I can hear a song, I’ll get a general period vibe off it even if I don’t particularly recognise it; in text, however, every song that I can’t identify by name well enough to hum (most of them, in my case; I wasn’t born yet, and Brits have a different pop canon) is pretty much a lost cause. This is exacerbated because the songs are never described beyond titles (and sometimes the protagonist saying that she likes the song.)

The biggest problem, though, is that it ends on a To Be Continued note, as the protagonist is lost in the woods, suggesting that the next chapter will be about outdoors survival. I didn’t feel that this was a good breaking-point at all; it’s very much the end of Act 1, not the end of Book 1 or Episode 1 – so far everything has been all build and no resolution, which makes it difficult to draw very many conclusions. In other words, this would have been a strong Introcomp entry, but it’s a little disappointing as a Spring Thing piece.


Spring Thing: The Adventures of a Hexagon!

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at April 22, 2014 03:53 PM

Spring Thing, the other annual interactive fiction competition, is here; ten games have been entered, and I’ll be reviewing them. Spoilers are likely.

First up is The Adventures of a Hexagon!, by Tyler Zahnke.

This is a sort of a Flatland story, insofar as it is about geometric shapes that are also people. The difference here is that Flatland is an extended parable crafted to support a specific point; Hexagon is… I’m not sure what the point of Hexagon is.

It’s a hyperlink piece entirely made up of basic HTML; any single playthrough will be very short. At times it seems as though it’s trying to talk about certain kinds of patterns in geometry, except that the story makes the explanation less clear. One section talks about a gang of polygons that attacks another group of polygons, in terms of wall-captures and pool-captures – but what those terms actually mean is never explained. The initial framing is that you’ve escaped a geometry textbook into the human-scale world, but this idea seems to get abandoned, because everything after that takes place in an anthropomorphic-geometry world.

At other times, it’s just random stuff happening with geometrical figures… well, usually doing violence to other geometrical figures, for reasons unclear. There’s a lot of death. And there’s no real gameplay component: there’s no clear goal, no way to judge the likely results of your actions, except by exhausting options. That’d be less of a problem if the game offered anything else, but I can’t really see what that’s supposed to be.

If I were to go into full-on overreading mode, I’d say that the story’s moral is that it’s hugely dangerous to mix with people unlike yourself, and you should do all you can to foster a community of safely similar people. As a hexagon, you’re threatened by both polyhedra and lines; hanging out with different polygons won’t protect you; the only way to win is to stick with other hexagons. That’d be really freaking depressing if I thought that the author really intended it.


Emily Short

Spring Thing 2014: The Bibliophile

by Emily Short at April 22, 2014 01:00 PM

Spring Thing continues. Here are some thoughts about Marshal Tenner Winter’s Bibliophile.

Bibliophile is a parser IF game set in a large map over multiple days. A lot of work has plainly gone into it. There are loads of rooms and numerous NPCs, and the piece comes with a rich assortment of maps, walkthrough information, and art.

The plot is Lovecraftian horror stuff: there’s a madman who wants to summon up elder gods, there are ancient manuscripts unexpectedly come to light, there are grotesque creatures too terrible for human minds to fathom. Africa is treated unabashedly as the Dark Continent, source of evil cults and natives with blow-darts. The game has, in other words, some of the same genre ambitions as Anchorhead or The King of Shreds and Patches, but approaches them without a critical eye to the racist aspects of the Lovecraftian universe.

It also lacks the implementation depth that allows the player really to settle in, come to identify strongly with the protagonist, and know the landscape well. Though Bibliophile is set in a large space, the narrator spends many parts of the game explicitly telling the player what to do next. Room descriptions often end with a sentence like “Dr Coffey’s townhouse is to the west” to help you navigate large cityscapes that would otherwise be rather maze-like. At many other times, the game explicitly tells the player whom to visit or what object to look for (and once breaks the fourth wall enough to instruct the player to save the game now).

These sentences are necessary. Bibliophile would be more or less unplayable without them. But for large portions of the game, I felt as though I wasn’t being allowed to slip into my role as player or protagonist enough to see the world from that point of view.

Here is a quote that kind of sums up the experience of this game for me. I’ve just traveled through a large number of uninteractive rooms to find an NPC, an elderly library worker, in his office. I ask him about a MacGuffin that he sent my way, and here’s part of his response:

“Take these keys. They’re for a storage room in the basement of this building. I’m too old to go all down there and rummage. But you’re into that shit, so do me a favor and find a locked briefcase in the auxiliary storage room in the basement. Bring it up here and I’ll explain everything to you.”

It’s a piece of dialogue that more or less overtly says, “hey, you’re the player character, so you’re the one who performs the fetch quests. Go do this one and then we can get on with the next plot token.”

If the direction is too much, the implementation is often too slight. Here’s a bit of room description from the middle of a fight where I kept being punched in the head:

You can see a large thug, an apartment key, a bookstore key, a shoddy cell phone and a flashlight here.

– violating the convention that characters, especially characters in the middle of beating you senseless, deserve their own paragraph. This is a nitpick, but it goes with a lot of other similar issues. Scenery objects are often undescribed, except that occasionally (as I found out only after resorting to the walkthrough) they are not only important but must be individually searched to reveal objects you don’t yet even know you’re going to need. Your character often has a very perfunctory response to all the books, which is a bit odd given the game’s title. In certain areas, there are atmospheric messages that suggest something sinister is about to happen, but these soon begin to cycle and you realize that nothing is going to happen after all. Trying to attack someone with the wrong weapon sometimes gives a misleading message suggesting you’re not supposed to attack them at all.

Along the same lines, during the thug combat sequence, the two thugs didn’t necessarily follow me from one room to another, so the result was a rather strange fight scene in which sometimes we’d be in the same room and come to blows, and then one of us would wander into another room for several turns. This pacing undermined the tension of the scene.

Thanks to the erratic implementation and the sheer number of rooms, I came away with a fairly sketchy sense of the setting, even though the author clearly put a lot of work into building it and was generous enough to include multiple maps. Many of the rooms I really saw only in passing, during an eight-move (or more) sequence of travel to a new location. GO TO LOCATION would have been a welcome option in this case: my protagonist knows where to go, and typically the intermediate spaces are not an important part of the story, so the sections involving long travel are very much “shoe leather” in the terms described here.

For my taste, it would also have been nice to see more sequences in which the player is naturally led to discover a solution through exploration, and fewer which are either overtly directed (go east next!) or underclued to the point that I needed the walkthrough (as with several of the objects that proved to be hidden in unexpected places, sometimes without much indication that I ought to be looking for such a thing).

It bears saying, though, that these aren’t the kinds of problems that you can even have unless you’re attempting something fairly ambitious. The author wants to tell a large story with a lot of events, and is energetic enough to put a lot of effort into that project. He also does include several multiple-use objects and spells that come in handy in multiple points in the game, so that the player has a chance to learn how they work and get used to them. IF can use more ambitiously-scoped stories, and I’m glad to see them being written.


April 21, 2014

Peter's Ranting Outlet

Just want to say...

by Peter Pears (noreply@blogger.com) at April 21, 2014 09:08 PM

(not related to IF in any way shape or form, unless you somehow create a sort of connection with the recent musical richness of ShuffleComp and the emotional impact of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, a recently revived thread. But if you do make that connection, you've got a mind more peculiar than mine)

I knew the song "Puff, The Magic Dragon" existed, and I heard it spoofed on ISIHAC, though never heard the actual song. I started listening to The Irish Rovers, found out they had a cover of Puff, and I though, well, let's see what it sounds like.

I didn't cry, but I was in a sort of misty emotional haze. Crazy, huh? Simplest of melodies, repeats all the time, lyrics are nothing to write home about, and it blew me away in that quiet, quiet way that the simplest things in life tend to.

The XYZZY Awards

The Pseudo-Official XYZZY Awards Reviews, 2013 Edition

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at April 21, 2014 02:01 PM

It’d be generous to call it a tradition, but the XYZZYs have a recurring thing wherein proven reviewers are recruited, then let loose upon the previous year’s finalists. Over the coming days, we’ll be rolling out a series of category-focused reviews from some of the best critics in IF.

The XYZZYs are by nature a rather insubstantial thing – we can’t offer nominees mantelpiece clutter or a red-carpet party, let alone fat stacks of cash. The respect and appreciation of your peers is all very well, but it’d be nice if it was embodied in something a little more, well, tangible. And being IF people, what could be more tangible than text?

A secondary aim is to promote focused, detailed writing about IF. Much of the writing done about IF is in the form of reaction reviews, often produced during the intense voting period of comps. While that’s valuable, it’d be good if there was more room for in-depth, focused writing, talking about aspects of a game rather than trying to summarise the entire thing.

(So why ‘pseudo-official’? To stress that the reviewers aren’t in any special judging position with respect to the awards. These reviews reflect the views of their authors, to which we’re merely giving a platform: they’re not the anointed positions of the Awards. They’re released these after the voting period at least in part so they don’t influence the outcome.)

(These reviews will, by their nature, be inclined to get spoilery. You have been warned.)

Yoon Ha Lee on Best Writing

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at April 21, 2014 02:01 PM

Yoon Ha Lee is the author of the IF The Moonlit Tower, which placed 4th in IF Comp 2002 and won the 2002 XYZZY Award for Best Writing. She also authored the StoryNexus game Winterstrike. Her short story collection Conservation of Shadows came out from Prime Books in 2013, and her fiction has appeared in Tor.com, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues.

The Best Writing nominees for 2013 were Coloratura, their angelical understanding and You Will Select A Decision.

Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)

I am not a musician, but I had the obligatory Korean (Korean-American?) piano lessons in childhood, as well as viola, classical guitar, and just plain messing around with harmonica and ocarina. As a result, I’m interested in fiction that uses musical motives, but also a little wary. I used to complain of Guy Gavriel Kay–an author who’s written a couple works I love, but whom I haven’t read lately–that he would write about music in maddeningly vague terms, usually something along the lines of “high sweet piercing vagueness of ineffability.” I mock with affection, but after the first few examples it grew a little tedious. There’s also a tendency for certain works of static sf/f to use musical terminology in a fashion that seems hamhanded to me.

Happily, Coloratura is deft in its use of sensory imagery to convey an alien’s perceptions of the world, both through its overridingly musical understanding of social order and its palette of emotions. I wasn’t sure whether I liked the opening at first, but what it does successfully is signpost the use of both these elements as things that will recur throughout.

The Song of the Universe envelops you, pulsing through you in the otherworldly aether. You sing, sing, sing the song of ancients, of the unending, of all to come and be. Your semi-aqueous body kneads upon itself, in time to the rhythm: Spread, then fold, spread, then fold. The Universe echoes infinitely your leitmotif: Erupt, engulf, erupt, engulf.

White:

Bliss.

This opening also establishes the POV as an alien. In fact, one of the strongest things about this opening is how much personality it has on several fronts. Even if my initial response was wariness, it’s much better to have an opening that leaves a distinct impression than for the author to be bland.

The colors are also interesting in that Glasser provides a key, but the text is in fact written such that you pretty much don’t have to refer to the key if you don’t want to. The colors are reinforced by adjectives or context, while the use of ultraviolet and infrared in the palette suggest the alien’s different senses.

There are other instances of the alien’s worldview: sometimes conveyed by coinages like “meat-tongues” and “eye-dances,” the beds as “stacked shelves,” the ordinary water as “dead and artificial water,” and generally the almost elevated tone of the descriptions in stark contrast to the humans’ dialogue. And this may be my new favorite depiction of an engine room (?) ever:

The urgent apathy of this room is overwhelmingly confusing. A dead grey creature furiously pounds away: pushing the vessel at a deafeningly loud pace, yet desiring nothing, knowing nothing. The gigantic whirling, chewing machine fills the room with its deafening beat and blistering fever.

I have to admire the tactical deployment of “urgent apathy” right at the beginning. It sets the tone for everything that follows.

In fact, I’m highlighting these specific aspects from the get-go because Coloratura almost did its job too well. I became very deeply immersed in the character. For instance, my reaction to the coloring-of-emotions mechanic was, Oh, how cool! And beyond that, I can even cite the single paragraph where the writing ensnared me the most:

Engineer bubbles into a self-focused gleeful green as the machine resumes its apathetic, mindless life. The entirety of the vessel moves again… away. You warble in despair. You just need enough time so that you can figure out how you can communicate to them. You just need a break. You just need it to stop.

I felt so bad for my character. I was determined to do whatever necessary to get it (?) back home. Attempts to invoke pathos usually make me stubborn, so kudos to Glasser for writing this so convincingly. It was getting captured on my first run-through, however, that really sealed the deal with the final line. Here you are, captured, isolated, but still singing, so

*** You are happy enough. ***

That last “enough” is a surgical strike right there. It made me heartbroken for failing my PC! I was going to try again and do it right this time! WALKTHROUGH HO!

…of course, this was apparently also so convincing that it only slowly dawned on me that Glasser had persuaded me that running around attacking humans and brainwashing them was completely okay. Especially once I got to the epilogue and its final lines of fridge horror. This impresses me, actually. I have spent IF Comp playthroughs railing at games that try to put me in the position of, e.g., killing a baby (The Warbler’s Nest by Jason McIntosh) and at heart it’s because as the player driving the story that I’m experiencing, I feel responsible. Glasser’s writing had managed to make her alien’s views so immersive that she bypassed my usual objections.

(To be clear: I don’t find it wrong to write games that ask the player to do horrible things, but I find them so uncomfortable to play that I will usually try very hard to be Lawful Good to poor, defenseless virtual constructs. I acknowledge this is a personal quirk.)

There’s another aspect to prose in IF, which is hinting at possible actions. Making puzzles too obvious isn’t necessarily the point, depending on how puzzle-intensive the game is intended to be; rather, the point is to suggest possibilities so that the player doesn’t feel stuck and can think of reasonable things to try within the gameworld. (This necessarily intersects with gameplay, given text as a medium.)

My normal playstyle is to resort to hints or walkthroughs early and often because I am the world’s worst solver of puzzles. In Coloratura, I gave it an honest try at first, died by being caught by the humans (I tried to go the wrong way out during a timed puzzle), and decided, in the interests of efficiency, to restart using the provided walkthrough. This worked out; as it so happens, Coloratura does a very good job suggesting things to try through phrasing in the text. I felt rewarded even when I wasn’t actually making progress toward my in-game goals. For instance, it becomes clear very early that SING is a fruitful thing to try. Or, for instance, this passage:

Sleepers, drifters, each one alone in disharmony, singing a selfish song of apathetic deafness, rejoicing in their discordance. You can’t truly connect while they sing so jarring, but you could help them, help the sleepers. They deserve to Sing too.

led me to try HELP SLEEPERS, to which the game had a fruitful response. Here’s another example of the gracefulness with which this game cues actions:

> x drifter
His connection to this world is fading, quickly. His ties are pulling him back to the physical. It needs to be cut quickly before he is out of your grasp.

This Drifter has pushed himself nearly fully back into the physical.

Also, Glassser does an excellent job using vocabulary in vivid, unusual ways. For instance, “staccato” as a verb here:

The muffled voices swirl yellow and green: intrigue and excitement as they staccato to each other.

Or this use of “ignite”:

> help sleepers
You untether them.
White.
Peace.
One by one, their melodies harmonize: they truly connect to one another in a strong and beautiful swelling of colors. You ignite with hope and pride….

Other descriptions are of great use in getting across the alien’s physiology and its possibilities in visceral ways, such as “tensing surface.”

Once the game gets underway, Glasser’s skill at evoking different moods by writing in different styles becomes evident. Contrast the alien’s POV with a human stream-of-consciousness:

> listen to drifter
…top bunk, snoring shipmates, bed, itchy sheets, top bunk, sweat, intruder? intruder! sheets, some voices, top bunk, other shipmates, snoring, snoring, snoring, bed, wet sweat, sheets, rough sheets, intruder pressing my chest, top bunk, bed…

Once in a great while I’d come across phraseology that didn’t quite work for me:

The disturbance returns. Then another, and another. The rhythm is interrupted. Your connection to the Universe fades.

This is a little close to “There is a disturbance in the Force” for my taste, but given the apparent worldview, that’s hard to avoid. (Also, it’s perhaps unfair to hold the pervasiveness of Star Wars against a work of sf.)

Braincenter
The dead brain of the vessel, all the ship’s information that the Blind Ones can’t see or hear themselves is chewed and spit out here. Unblinking sonar sensors, a large compass, a glowing marked table, the vessel’s controls, and, most prominently, the mechanical voice-box all give the Blind One a shadow-cave-illusion sense of control.

I am of two minds about “shadow-cave-illusion”; on the one hand it’s poetic and well-balanced, and on the other hand, for me I am reminded too strongly of Plato’s allegory of the cave, which is sufficiently specific (and specifically human in origin) as to jar me out of the alien’s headspace.

But at its best, the prose achieves a certain poetry, as in this description of the Cellarium:

A block of anhydrite cut into a perfect cube and etched with the intricate harmonics of the timeless Universe.

And the alien’s enjoyment of the “hot prison” (dryer?) is pure delight:

You enter the machine. You tumble and stretch and fold in a fascinating new kind of pattern while the mechanisms of the prison blast you with heat. You soak it up in gleeful vibrations as you feel your every molecule excite. It’s not the same experience as singing to the Universe, but it was definitely novel. You emerge infused with the heat of the prison itself.

Wonderfully playful.

All in all, I am impressed by what Glasser has achieved here.

Their angelical understanding (Porpentine)

CAVEAT: I managed not to access the text during a small portion of the game, which is the segment where you have shaking sizzling aqua text against a white background. I realized about a day after playing the game through that I could have tried a conventional copy-paste (I don’t know if that would have worked), but while I don’t have epilepsy, I do get migraines, so my immediate reaction was OH HELL NO HOW DO I MAKE THIS STOP by clicking around madly while trying not to look at the screen. Please note, I’m not faulting Porpentine, who included content notes for just this reason. But I had not expected that scene to be quite so startling.

Surrealism is a difficult genre to pull off; my favorite examples (in static or interactive forms) succeed on the strength of the writing. Terry Carr’s sf story The Dance of the Changer and the Three is not strictly surrealism, rather an attempt to depict truly alien aliens, but the world works by such vastly different rules that I find it hard not to feel as though I’m traveling through a chancy dreamscape when I read it. IF-wise my favorite surreal IF is Dan Schmidt’s For a Change, although it has more of the feel of a consistent alien world than the twisty breaks of logic that are characteristic of the better dreamscapes. Their angelical understanding is largely successful, with a few stumbles.

Their angelical understanding opens with a cryptic bit of text art, suggesting someone in a cage, or a lantern, or perhaps an angel and its wings, who knows:

({o})

The first location is written in deceptively functional–not unbeautiful, but functional for all that–language that takes advantage of sensory detail:

A courtyard of pale dirt and blue grass. Sea breeze pours over the high stone walls.

The monastery, squat, wooden, caulked, spired, sheltering a fountain, dangling with chimes and cages. In the opposite direction, the gate.

I especially like “pours” for the breeze. Of course, the language shifts in tone over the course of many disparate scenes.

Porpentine has a gift for striking imagery and word choices, from the beautiful

Moths cluster at opaque windows, nibbling on tarnished light.

or “the ocean like melted grey metal” or “[y]ears of regret burnt to homogenous ashes” to the macabre sequence with the hands, and even the piercing, visceral ugliness of “[s]mells like angel eyes,” an elevator “drooling a cable down through the wood and into the mist,” the basket that “will contain the sum of your veins” in the tense Red Tile game.

For all the bleakness of the protagonist’s inner world, Porpentine even glides occasionally into sardonic humor:

So you have a mountain full of casinos but next to none of them are used that way. Most were stripped out and converted to residences, garish floors divided into living quarters, people eating their meals on roulette tables.

Zoning standards are still enforced by the League (ever devoid of pragmatism), so it is customary for residents to keep a small token slot machine in their room, carved from stone or wood, squatting like a family idol.

I just had to grin at that parenthetical.

Not all passages worked for me. This one struck me as disappointingly generic compared to the lush, ferocious inventiveness of the rest of the text:

You can’t think of anything to say that will do honor to your friendship. It was made of so many gentle gestures. So many subtle understandings. Broken people supporting each other’s weight.

I mean, it could almost come from really bad rock song lyrics. One of the things I generally felt equivocal about was the narrative’s tendency to go into poetry fragments:

No bruises, just reached inside my heart and touched it with a finger of white-hot light and

burned me

where nobody could see

But me

Sometimes this moved me, sometimes less so. It often felt like odd formatting for the sake of odd formatting. And I’m someone who likes poetry (not all poetry, obviously, but in general, as a genre). I acknowledge that I am somewhat allergic to a certain type of angst-ridden poetry as a lingering side-effect of having been on my high school literary magazine’s editorial staff. (Short version: we were always scrambling to fill pages so we would publish ANYTHING, including a lot of bad to mediocre poetry.) Sometimes the language veered uncomfortably close to that type. In general, I felt the prose succeeded most when porpentine used short sharp imagery (“finger of white-hot light” is good, for instance) and least when it went to more generic sentiments (“where nobody could see/ But me”).

In one segment, the mechanics (?) interfered with the gracefulness of the prose: by listing the number of hands explicitly, countdown fashion, I at one point came to this:

There are 0 hands on the cottage floor.

The effect was not harmonious with the rest of the text, reading more like a quasi-inventory in a more standard game. Other odd textual effects–I’m flailing for terminology here–didn’t bother me and strike me as within the bounds of reasonable gameplay in a textual medium, but for some reason the “0 hands” threw me out of the game. I don’t know if my response was idiosyncratic.

As with last year’s Writing finalist by the same author (howling dogs), Their angelical understanding is ambitious. I didn’t always feel that the prose achieved what it set out to do in framing the narrative and the strange world, with its varying themes of revenge, anger, redemption, and other options no doubt available upon additional playthroughs. But the level of ambition is high, and when the prose succeeds, which is most of the time, it’s quite impressive.

You Will Select a Decision (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)

This game (a two-parter) advertises itself pretty accurately from the get-go:

In 1987, an anonymous team of computer scientists from the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic wrote a series of children’s books based on the popular Choose Your Own Adventure series. The books were hastily translated into English and a small number were exported to America, but the CIA, fearing a possible Soviet mind control scheme, confiscated them all before they could be sold.

Now declassified, the books have been lovingly converted to a digital hypertext format and put online for the English-speaking world to enjoy. What follows is the first book in the “You Will Select a Decision” series: Small Child in Woods.

For all I know, these really were Kyrgyz CYOA pastiches. There is such conviction that I am almost convinced. And then I hit “fearing a possible Soviet mind control scheme,” and I am even more almost convinced because God knows my government (I am a USAn) is, ah, a little weird sometimes. I genuinely can’t tell! It’s the quirkiness of this that makes it so compelling: not just the mind control, but the fact that the books haven’t just been “converted,” they’ve been “lovingly converted” (emphasis mine).

Now note, I’m completely fine not knowing. (Well, okay. Madly curious. But that’s fine!) My curiosity is piqued and from a writing standpoint that’s the key.

So the first one opens with a small child, folktale-fashion, and this delightful refusal to explain petty anthropological details:

You live your life in the traditional style of a Tash-Bashat child, which needs no introduction.

So I hit up the internet to see if Tash-Bashat is…real? Because I’ve never heard of Tash-Bashat anything before, but face it, the world is big and I am small and I have never heard of most everything. And sure enough, either it’s real or the internet is having one over on me. I’m persuaded, anyway.

The second one opens by talking about that “magical place” Wyoming and, among other things, the fact that “your horse is in the range of thirsty to dead” when you set out. This time, of course, I have a better idea of what kind of hijinks to expect.

It gets even better as the language fractures. I have no idea about Kyrgyz languages (?) and how language patterns transfer over into English, but the non-native-speaker quality is, again, weirdly convincing:

As a child you are no stranger of precocious activity. At the ends of the week you are known to be going from farmer’s field to farmer’s field without any leave or approval. Eating of the same spirit tonight, you sneak out of house and enter woods.

Even if not, I especially love the punchiness of “[e]ating of the same spirit tonight.”

Really, my favorite example of the language degenerating is here:

“my only regret… is that I couldn’t see one last circle… before I passed on into that night.”

“what about the moon?” u ask

“A gibbous moon is not circular….” it says and then dies.

where the lack of capitalization and “u ask” are just on the precipice of degenerating into netspeak. Or possibly already there. A similar example is the Saturn death ending’s use of “kooky” to describe humans, which is so at odds with the initial premise of a fairytale of a child lost in the woods (to say nothing of landing on Saturn through a wish) that it might as well be written in neon colors. (I consider this a plus, just to be clear.)

These games have a really cracky sense of humor. As if the foreword weren’t warning enough, my first ending got that across:

You try to find a path for a lot of time, but the only thing you find is a leopard.

DEATH END

(To be clear — the leopard eats you, leading to death.)

The “DEATH END”! The complete redundancy of the parenthetical clarification! Unsurprisingly, the “DEATH END” has its happier counterpart:

You wisely adhere to parental strictures. No doom befalls you and you go on to live healthily.

VICTORY END

But there’s more:

You have completed this story in the optimal number of page turns. To claim your merit badge, write “I have done this” on a 76x127mm index card and post it to:

Building 34
7th Microdistrict
Bishkek, Kyrgyz SSR
Soviet Union

(Limit of first four hundred children to request merit badge.)

I really want to know if this address existed. It’s the utter conviction of the details (“76x127mm index card,” limiting the badge to the “first four hundred children”) that does it.

Or how about the terrain assessment:

“Woods!” You cry out “Are you primarily composed of A) grass cover, B) tree cover, or C) tractless desert?”

You patiently wait for ten seconds and then dutifully circle B.

“Woods!” you cry out a second time “Do you appear to A) have an easily discernable edge or B) go on forever into the distance, closing off all reasonable possibility of escape.”

You circle B again. This could be a real prickly time for you.

It’s not just that you’re assessing your surroundings, it’s the fact that the POV is directly addressing the woods, complete with multiple choice. This game is full of zigzag randomness, up to the elf that lectures you on how gender is a social construct and the editorial note in brackets on the elf love of circles.

The second game features a very gamebook-like roll-the-die decision:

You take your gun out of your gun holder and point it square at the distant person or object.

Take out one standard dice and roll it.

If it lands on 1, 3, or 7, turn to page 88.
If it lands on 2 or 4 or 6, turn to page 35.
If it lands on 5, turn to page 12.

Of course, those who are paying attention will have noted the “1, 3, or 7.” Perhaps a “standard dice [sic]” is seven-sided in Kyrygz?

The two games in You Will Select a Decision really only do a single thing, writing-wise, which is cracky parodic humor. I mean, I could cite more examples (I’m leaving out one of my favorites, which is the rules for the “Cow Farmers and Arapahos” game, and the entire color-coded ORB sequence is noteworthy as well). But they would be more examples of essentially what you already see in this review. Happily, this game does that single thing very well. I did a lot of laughing and came away well-pleased with the author’s comic inventiveness.

Overall

It’s hard to pick a favorite! As with last year, the entries are all so different, and trying to achieve different effects with the writing, that comparing them directly is difficult. I’m personally deadlocked between Coloratura and You Will Select a Decision, in that both games succeed admirably in marrying prose to the overall experience of the game, and both demonstrate versatility in style-shifting (albeit in very different ways). That isn’t to say that I didn’t think highly of Their angelical understanding; quite the contrary. It too is highly polished, and honestly I feel like I’m nitpicking when I say that the writing wasn’t always quite as sharp as I wanted it to be. It’s more of a case of “this could have been even better” than “this had notable flaws,” if you see what I mean. It is perhaps as well that I am not voting on the XYZZYs (these are the only three games I have played and I will not have time to play the rest of
the field) because having to choose just one to vote for would be murderously hard. My kudos to all of this year’s finalists.

April 15, 2014

Too Much Free Time

Spring Thing 2014: The Adventures of a Hexagon

by Tracy Poff at April 15, 2014 05:00 PM

The Adventures of a Hexagon by Tyler Zahnke is an entry in the Spring Thing 2014. If you’re planning on playing and voting for games in this competition, you should probably stop reading now.

The Adventures of a Hexagon is a CYOA-style story, implemented as a set of HTML files, about a day in the life of a hexagon. Geometrical shapes, we learn, can escape from textbooks when no one is looking and go off to have their own adventures.

Hexagon is very short. There are only 38 pages, each containing at most a few short paragraphs of text, some of which are extremely similar. I completed every path in about five minutes.

The story is also extremely lacking. Essentially, the PC, a hexagon, can choose to go to either the Museum of Geometry of the Polygon Village, either with his friends, Pentagon, Heptagon, and Octagon, or, in the latter case, alone. Ultimately, if you choose any option other than joining with a group of other hexagons, the PC is killed. If you try visiting the village with your friends, the only path to a good ending is for the PC to abandon his friends to the tender mercies of a gang of polygons, and find a group of other hexagons to join with. If there is a theme to this story, it is that one must seek out others like oneself–that those who are different are not to be trusted, and one cannot be happy among them.

But I fear I’m giving the game too much credit, saying that. A sample of the game’s text should illustrate it better. If the PC goes to the museum and, through a series of pages which basically amount to ‘specify your path’, chooses to look at the triangle exhibit, you are presented with:

You take a closer look, and you realize that the triangle has a little needle point sticking out of it. But it’s too late! BLZZZT! It sticks the needle in you, leaving a great big hole in you. Game over! I guess you can never trust a triangle!

That’s it. The end. Pick the pentagon exhibit, and you get:

You get your six sides together and hop up on the ledge. The five pentagons say, “You have one side more than all of us! Har, har, har!” You hear a sound like that of a broken record as you are dragged to the wave-pool. Broken record sounds are always a bad sign in a dramatic scene. You are now being dragged underwater by the fierce five-siders. You have been drowned by the pentagons!

Other choices end with the hexagon killed similarly suddenly. Only choosing to view the hexagon exhibit doesn’t end in the PC’s death:

You approach the hexagons, and they all say, “Hello, Sixling!” The other five hexagons then open the door, and you enter the building just as they do. A late 1990s dance song starts to play as the hexagons hit the dance floor. You join them in a disco-style up-beat dance.
Congratulations! You got to dance with some polygons! You finally found a path that wouldn’t get you smashed to pieces by other polygons! You won!

The other ‘good’ endings are almost exactly the same, having the PC dancing with other hexagons.

The whole game is just a set of menus leading to the PC either being killed or joining other hexagons and dancing. It’s a story, generously speaking, but the non-ending parts of the story would probably fill less than half a page.

The Adventures of a Hexagon is not worth the few minutes it takes to complete.

Play time: about 5 minutes.


April 14, 2014

Too Much Free Time

Spring Thing 2014: The Price of Freedom: Innocence Lost

by Tracy Poff at April 14, 2014 10:00 PM

The Price of Freedom: Innocence Lost by Briar Rose is an entry in the Spring Thing 2014. If you’re planning on playing and voting for games in this competition, you should probably stop reading now.

Innocence Lost is the first part of the story of a Greek boy, Andreas, who, along with his brother, Alexius, is sold by his father to a Roman slaver. This part covers Andreas’s childhood, with later parts yet to be released.

The game is a browser-based CYOA-style story, hosted by ChooseYourStory, a site I was not previously familiar with. Three of the ten games in the Spring Thing use it, though, making it the single most popular ‘engine’–so I suppose it must be popular.

Here a brief digression: it troubles me to have games in competitions hosted externally and unavailable for download. When the host disappears–and it will, eventually–those games will simply be gone, unless the author has somehow archived them, or some enterprising player has done the same. This won’t affect my scoring of the games, but I hope that authors will keep this in mind when choosing a venue.

After the story begins, the plot proceeds in a frankly predictable fashion. The protagonist and his brother are put on a slave ship to be taken to Rome. There, they meet and befriend a young girl, Lula, who has been a slave for some time already. When they arrive in Rome, all three are purchased together, and it turns out that they are to be trained, along with other youths, as gladiators. The story briefly follows their training and culminates in a battle between six of them and six competing trainee gladiators.

The player’s choices throughout can impact Andreas’s strength, speed, or ‘approval’ with another character. The most substantial change the player can make is affecting which and how many (if any) of the children die in the battle at the end of the story, including possibly Andreas himself.

The mechanism of this change is the strength, speed, and approval scores mentioned earlier. During the battle, certain decisions will succeed or fail, based on Andreas’s strength or speed, and after the battle the other characters in the story will have (brief) conversations with Andreas that are impacted by his approval score with them.

When Andreas’s strength, speed, or approval score with another character changes, it’s displayed by the game in conspicuous colored text, inline with the story. This is a little distracting, but more importantly it had a strong influence on how I experienced the game. From the very beginning, because of these notifications, I was aware that the game was keeping tracking of the approval statistics, and I soon learned about strength and speed, so when making any choice, I could not help but think about how it might impact Andreas’s stats. It put me into a mindset to engage in metagaming, and made it more difficult to immerse myself in simply roleplaying as Andreas.

When first meeting Titus (the owner of the gladiatorial school) and Rhode (the trainer), for example, Andreas may either describe his education to Titus or attempt to bite Rhode’s finger. I, as the player, had a shrewd suspicion that doing this would impress Rhode with Andreas’s fierceness, but Andreas’s motivation wasn’t to impress her–he wanted to bite her because he disliked her. I’d have thought that, even without the approval scores being made explicit, but if they had any impact, it was only to widen the gap between player and player character.

This gap was especially noticeable on subsequent playthroughs. It became clear, at the end, that ‘winning’ the game meant keeping all six children alive through the final battle, and that doing this would involve having sufficiently high stats, so my replays quickly devolved into simply trying the different options to learn what impact they had on Andreas’s statistics, then finally going through the game making all of the ‘right’ choices, so as to preserve all of Andreas’s teammates. It took me an hour to play through the story once, but less than twenty minutes to play through it five more times, start to finish.

Innocence Lost‘s biggest weakness is its linearity. Your choices have literally no meaningful impact on anything but the final scene. Andreas can’t be bought by anyone other than Titus. He can’t be killed prior to the battle. Your choices incline the story in one direction for just a few paragraphs before it returns, unerringly, to the single path the author determined. This, combined with the very visible statistics, makes the game more about optimizing statistics than influencing a story.

The writing in Innocence Lost is reasonably solid, if unexceptional, and the characters are interesting enough for the brief time we know them. Unfortunately, Innocence Lost makes poor use of the medium. Of course, a degree of linearity is to be expected from a game that is the first part of a trilogy. Perhaps the later installments in the series will give the player more choice. If not, this story may be better suited to static fiction, abandoning the conceit of choice in favor of more strongly developed relationships between the characters.

I give The Price of Freedom: Innocence Lost a rating of 6/10. Fun enough to read, but unexceptional as a work of interactive fiction.

Play time: 1:16 for six complete playthroughs.


Post Position

Console Yourself In Flight

by Nick Montfort at April 14, 2014 08:43 PM

If you, like Ian Bogost, manage to attain Titanium Medallion status on Delta, you too can influence the content of the company’s safety videos.

The Monk's Brew

Changelog 2014-04-14

by Rubes at April 14, 2014 06:00 PM

=========
CHANGELOG
=========

Two week period leading up to 2014-04-14:

- Fixed bug in first cutscene by creating separate Ignatius cutscene files same as other characters
- Began edits to sceneManager.cs to begin process of transitioning from first cutscene to Act 2
- Edited seatMap to allow for the usual single-key commands (E,X,etc) and right-mouse button commands while player is in bed or chair
- Prepared animation list for Cecilia Act 3
- Edited and spliced all sound files for Cecilia Act 3
- Set up script for first prayer (Devil)
- Modeled and animated first demon arm for devil prayer (NR)
- Incorporated demon arm into spell with existing zodiacs
- Began modeling/animating remaining demon arms for devil prayer (NR)
- Continued work on [More...] Read the rest

Emily Short

Spring Thing 2014 continued: The Price of Freedom, Surface, Through Time

by Emily Short at April 14, 2014 03:00 PM

Spring Thing 2014 continues, and you can play and vote here if you like. Brief reviews of The Price of Freedom, Surface, and Through Time follow.

Surface (Geoff Moore). Surface is a Twine piece, somewhere on the border between horror and science fiction. Like Hallowmoor, it captures many of the world model features of parser IF. There’s an inventory. Geography is consistent, with illustrated maps that highlight as you move around. There were a few points where I thought I might be stuck — parts of the story seem to involve randomized movement of creatures in the world space, and I looped through useless activities for a while before I figured out how to progress.

In content, Surface reminded me by turns of Changes and Coloratura. For me the effect wasn’t quite as powerful as the effect of Coloratura because I didn’t find the aliens as alien or the acclimation to their world view quite as startling. I also found the very opening sequence a bit off-putting, though I think this was a very subjective call and possibly I just wasn’t in the mood for something so biologically alien.

Overall, though, this is pretty solidly constructed. I would have liked to have dug a little bit deeper into the details of the protagonist’s past and relationships with other characters, but the story does grow in heft and emotional power as it goes on.


The Price of Freedom: Innocence Lost (Briar Rose). The Price of Freedom is a fairly substantial CYOA set in the Roman Empire. You play a young Greek boy who has been sold into slavery and has to train for the arena. The overall design feels somewhat reminiscent of Choice of Games pieces: the story adheres to a consistent central concept and doesn’t branch much in the early or midgame. Instead, you have stats including speed and strength, as well as affinity with many other characters, which depend on your choices. These in turn can apparently affect the outcome of later choices. Those stats are explicitly folded into the narration, though, and there’s a Go Back option that allows undoing a turn, which encourages play to maximize stats.

The story itself is fairly pulpy, with big melodramatic events; the writing serviceable and straightforward. It depicts a number of things that are horrific, but doesn’t really dwell on their nuances enough to make them unbearable. That, and the fact that the protagonists are all children, makes it feel like The Price of Freedom is written for a younger audience. While it does end with a “To be continued,” it also feels like a reasonably complete book 1 in itself, in contrast with Bear Creek.

There are a few flaws. It arguably introduces more characters than it really needs, given its length. By the end, we haven’t had an opportunity to get to know most of these people well, and perhaps have only had 1-3 occasions to change or test our affinity scores — not enough to make those stats really meaningful. The Price of Freedom also builds up the idea that the protagonist doesn’t want to have to murder anyone in the arena, but when my character finally does have to kill someone, the event passes with very little fanfare, quite casually. Moments like this made me think the author was trying for a level of emotional depth that the story doesn’t currently support.


Through Time (MC Book). Through Time advertises itself as a dating-sim-alike, and certainly it feels that way, complete with a girl with pink hair and characters who hint mysteriously at their feelings towards you while apparently being angry that you haven’t already guessed. I had the same difficulty with it that I have with some of the Ren’Py dating sims I’ve tried: it takes a long time for the story to get moving, and there’s a lot of rather inconsequential dialogue on the way, while early choices seem to have little or no effect on the path of the story, so that even if I’m initially interested in the premise, my interest peters out as I get frustrated that the story refuses to advance.

Through Time also suffers a bit from dodgy proofreading and odd formatting choices. There’s a lot of dialogue split from its attribution, like this:

“Done?”

You ask.

…which makes the long, conversation-heavy passages considerably slower to read. After twenty or so pages I gave up. It may be that I just have the wrong set of genre expectations here; I think this might be more appealing to someone thoroughly immersed in the dating-sim visual novel genre.

As a side point, it intrigues me that the three ChooseYourStory games I’ve tried in this competition are so different in their design and style. I suppose it’s still possible that ChooseYourStory has a “house” style the way Twine, ChoiceScript, and StoryNexus all seem to — it’s possible that there’s a common flavor of CYS work and this competition just happens to feature some outliers — but at a first glance it looks as though that’s not the case.


April 13, 2014

Too Much Free Time

Journey to the Center of the Earth Adventure

by Tracy Poff at April 13, 2014 08:00 PM

Journey to the Center of the Earth Adventure is a 1978 text adventure by Greg Hassett (who was, as I understand it, only 12 years old at the time) for the TRS-80. I played the Commodore PET version, ported by S. Prenzel.

When the game begins, you find yourself in a ship which has crashed. A computer screen informs us that ship’s “fribulating gonkulator is burned out.” I hate it when that happens.

What follows is a rather standard exercise in exploration and treasure-gathering. The game’s map contains about three dozen rooms, including two–thankfully very small–mazes (with a reference to the Colossal Cave Adventure: “I’m in a maze of twisty little passages.”). The game uses a two word parser, with only the first three letters of a word being significant.

Wandering randomly around in the game are bugs. If you encounter one before you have found the sword (which is very likely), you’ll be killed, and have to load a saved game. Bad luck for you if you saved in a place where you’ll inevitably be killed.

The game is completed when you have found both a replacement fribulating gonkulator and the tools with which to install, but there are over a dozen treasure to collect, some of which are necessary to progress, and others which only add to your final score. I managed 170/175 points, and I cannot imagine what I must do to get the last five points.

The world is a bit incoherent. You’re apparently deep underground, so rooms like the ice cavern or cobblestone hallway make sense, but others, like the Arabian Room or Al’s diner (!) just don’t fit. In addition, the game is very poorly written, with many spelling and usage errors (“I can here chirping nearby.”, “and fall into the lava ??? Fat chanche !”). On the positive side, the game does include some unique responses for flavor. For example, attempting to eat ruby results in “I think that a large ruby would give me indigestion, and I don’t have any Pepto-Bismol.”

Journey to the Center of the Earth Adventure doesn’t measure up to many of its contemporaries, and it certainly can’t compare to modern interactive fiction, but it’s still an interesting part of the history of interactive fiction.


Peter's Ranting Outlet

Puzzle solutions that the authors didn't intend

by Peter Pears (noreply@blogger.com) at April 13, 2014 07:15 PM

I'm currently on a MythBusters spree. I'm quite enjoying it, it's fun, entertaining, educational, and fun.

The 100th episode, the MacGyver special, ends with a cool stunt. The Build Team give Jamie and Adam four tasks that they have to pass in true MacGyver style. Simple-ish tasks, like developing a film with "chemicals" of the sort usually found in households or picking a lock with a lightbulb filament.

What struck me, and what gave me the urge to come here and verbalise what's got me really excited, is the gap between what the Build Team intended them to do... and what they actually did.

Test number one: escape a locked room. They were supposed to use a lightbulb filament to pick a lock. What the Build Team didn't expect is that the lightbulb they supplied the "heroes" with had a rather thick filament that wouldn't fit.

So consider the Build Team as the author, and you could imagine that maybe the author had intended the player used something else to pick that lock, something that would actually fit. But what Adam did was, he used his steel-toe capped shoes to hammer and anvil the filament into something flatter that would fit the lockpick.

Tests number two and three were so mundane in terms of the guys' performance being completely expected by the "villains" that I won't go into it. The author laid out puzzles; the player resolved them. End of story.

Test number four is what's really got me going. They were supposed to improvise a signalling device they could use to draw the attention of a flying aircraft, using only components they found in a makeshift "villain's camp" (MythBusters are entertainingly theatrical). The Build Team - the author - devised a crafty puzzle where they had all the means to construct a potato cannon - they had the PVC tubing, ignition, fuel, potatoes.

The player - Adam and Jamie - went on another tangent altogether. They only went and built a kite.

This has me severely excited the same way that a transcript for Infocom's "Sherlock" has me excited. You might, or might not, know that in that transcript there's a fictious scenario where the PC misses the train... but not to worry, taking a hansom cab and a few shortcuts they can take the train at the NEXT stop, and board it from there. But this never happens in the game, AFAIK, and happens in almost no IF that I know of: if the PM missed the train and there won't be another train along, they're stranded, the game ends or the PC is a walking dead.

The latter example is about the freedom of IF, and making it possible for some puzzles to be failed without the harsh penalty of losing the game. Off the top of my head I can only remember Christminster actually doing this in a few scenes. I'm not talking about choosing to do or not do something and then deal with the consequences, like Anchorhead does with the library card - I'm talking about transparently the player FAILING to solve a puzzle, or to turn up in time for a timed event... and having a second shot at repairing it later.

It was when I realised that this would never happen that I started collecting saved games. Old school games take too much glee in punishing the player. New school games hold the player's hand so much that the player wouldn't fail, not without ample warning and leeway. I'm sure everyone prefers the middleground (old school stereotype = too much frustration, and new school stereotype = no challenge at all), and this middleground would benefit tremendously from this sort of design. In Sherlock, it would have emerged (emergent gameplay, anyone? I guess maybe that's the point of this post...) from a time/transportation system that made it possible for you to catch up, maybe, to a train that's just left the station you haven't arrived to yet; in Christminster, it simply happened because the author made sure the player had that second chance.

Going back to the MythBusters, though, this would of course be the Holy Grail of simulation-based IF - an IF world where physics are so emulated (or simply where the author underwent such massive beta-testing that he kept adding alternative solutions... which is another good thing!) that, Last Express style, situations can occur that the author didn't predict, and a puzzle can be solved in a very different way to what the author expected.

I understand the upcoming Hadean Lands is crazy with physics and/or chemistry, and I have an inkling that Metamorphoses might come close to it too (I haven't played it yet; but I have played Fractured Metamorphoses). Considering that Counterfeit Monkey does more or less the same thing, except that it uses word manipulation instead of heavily simulated physics... the result is a comparable piece with multiple solutions, an incredible amount of possibilities, and the perfect playground for a Wordsmith MacGyver. As opposed to, say, Nord and Bert, or Ad Verbum, or Earl Grey, where the same manipulation exists as a gimmick or central mechanism and is limited to being the correct tool for the job at hand.

It's not quite like the infamous spells, either. In all the Enchanter trilogy, most spells had very specific use. There was an effect if you used them on something they weren't supposed to be used on, and in Sorcerer that was the source of a few easter eggs or amusing situations, but it was just icing - the puzzle would be solved exactly as the authors predicted, and that's that. Similarly, the wishes in Wishbringer are, if you'll notice, carefully constructed to be useful in only a few key very specific situations.

Chris Crawford's emphasis on emergent storytelling always seemed hollow to me, because I always felt that if you remove the auhor and the authorial process from the equation, you lose the appeal; you might as well give the player a word processor and go "Write your own story". I'm frequently confronted by clear examples of me being possibly wrong in this assessment, and the most immediate example I can think of right now is Kerkerkruip, where clear, definite storylines and strategies arise where none is intended (after all, what you have is a specific set of enemies, objects and rooms. But they come together during gameplay to create a definite narrative). Possibly Crawford dares to go the limit - his Storytron certainly failed to provoke any reaction in me precisely because there wasn't an author, there wasn't a narrative, and I felt I might as well just go off and write my own game.

(A parenthesis here would be necessary for 18 Cadence. It's not my cup of tea at all, but from what I understand, it's sort of an environment with a few pre-fabricated rooms and characters where you can create any sort of narrative you fancy. It is, in fact, a word processor with an amazing lot of inspirational material that, by itself, already tells a story of a sort, so you are by turns creating and subverting. I would not classify this as emergent gameplay, mostly because I find it hard to call it gameplay at all, but it's certainly in the neighbourhood)

My point with this Crawford/Emergent branch of the discussion: it doesn't have to be taken to extremes, or we risk losing something special. But in the correct circumstances, in the right game, this could be brilliant. The ability to use objects in way they weren't intended and that, because of their simulated physics, works perfectly.

Now, this is all not very practical stuff. In practical terms, a game will be designed to direct the players towards the items they'll need to solve the puzzle. Often, an author will be approached by a player who'll say "Hey, why can't I do this instead? It should work". And the author will hopefully incorporate that. But always within tight authorial limit. This is what happens.

But I can't help but feeling that there's something fundamentally precious in this freedom (Christminster is one of the best games of its time I've played. I seriously loved the heck out of it). A), the freedom to screw up a tight-limit puzzle and then being given the chance to make amends. B), the ability to look at the tools in hand, and start constructing a puzzle solution that may or may not be what the author intended - but that works!

Payoff would be limited. It's like alternate solutions - how does a player know there are alternate paths/solutions? He normally won't, unless they are spelled out, because every player has their own mental processes and they tend towards doing things a certain way, and once it works THAT way, a player is unlikely to come back and try another way. So as in many, many "alternate paths/solutions" games, the player would be unaware of the complexity of the situation.

But on the flip side, the player would definitely be satisfied, because his mental process came up with a working solution (even if trial and error is necessary, and even if the original solution wasn't all that good after all and needed tweaking or re-thinking). And you would have MORE of your players feeling this way, not just the ones that happen to think the same way that you, the author, think.

Ok, I'm mentally tired after writing all this down, I seriosly did NOT mean for this to grow this big. :P

kerkerkruip

Kerkerkruip 9 released

by Victor Gijsbers at April 13, 2014 09:01 AM

The Kerkerkruip team is happy to announce the release of Kerkerkruip 9, by far the most extensive update of the game ever made. Kerkerkruip is a short-form roguelike in the interactive fiction medium, featuring meaningful tactical and strategic depth, innovative game play, zero grinding, and a sword & sorcery setting that does not rehash tired clichés.

With over 700 commits to the code repository, the changes made in Kerkerkruip 9 are far too numerous to mention here. But the highlights are:

  • Original theme music for the main menu, composed and produced by Wade Clarke.
  • An entirely reworked reaction system allows you to dodge, block, parry and roll away from incoming attacks. Successful reactions increase your offensive or defensive flow, adding a new layer of tactical depth to combat.
  • An entirely reworked religion system allows you to sacrifice absorbed powers to the gods. Worshipping gods grants lasting benefits, including divine interventions on your behalf; but losing absorbed powers makes you weaker in the short term. Religion thus becomes an important aspect of the player’s overall strategy.
  • Grenades can now be thrown into adjacent rooms, opening up new tactical options. However, your enemies may sometimes manage to throw them back to you!
  • A powerful new grenade is the Morphean grenade, which puts people to sleep. If you become its victim, you’ll find yourself drawn into one of several dream sequences: weird and dangerous adventures that have an effect on the real world.
  • The hiding system has been streamlined, boosted and made far more transparent. Stealth has now become a viable option.
  • The player now starts out with one of several starting kits, necessitating different approaches to the dungeon.
  • New content includes the angel of compassion, a radiant being that loses its lustre as people die around it; Israfel, a terrible angel that can split into two smaller beings for increased combat effectiveness before reuniting to heal; and the Arena of the Gods, where you can defend your god’s honour against other divine champions.
  • A new Menu implementation which is both screen reader friendly and hyperlink enabled.

We are now also offering stand-alone installers for specific operating systems. While it’s still possible to download the game file and run it in your favourite Glulx interpreter, there are also installers for Windows and Debian/Ubuntu. We will be supporting OS X in the near future. Go to the downloads page immediately!

Kerkerkruip is presented to you by the Kerkerkruip team: Victor Gijsbers, Mike Ciul, Dannii Willis, Erik Temple and Remko van der Pluijm. We hope you enjoy the new version. If you’ve got any comments, or if you’d like to contribute to this free software project, please go the website for details and contact us!


Tagged: Kerkerkruip 9