The Antholojam website is up. Learn more about “Does Canned Rice Dream of a Napkin Heap?” and all the other upcoming Antholojam games at http://antholojam.com/!
The Antholojam website is up. Learn more about “Does Canned Rice Dream of a Napkin Heap?” and all the other upcoming Antholojam games at http://antholojam.com/!
I’M THE GAMER I AM YOU ARE NOT I AM I AM I’VE WON DON’T YOU SEE I’M BETTER I’M THE BEST I’M THE WINNER
the uncle who works for nintendo plays on several forms of nostalgia, from the 90′s setting to urban myths to childhood fears of the unknown. It’s a horror Twine game, a genre I’m disinclined to normally play with my fear of horror but I was convinced by several friends to give it a try.
The game takes place at the late 90′s (the addition of a Sega Dreamcast in your friends collection of games points to this later date). You are a ten year old kid going over to your best friends house, the kind of friend who’s always a bit more wealthy than you, who has all of the games systems you want to play, and who has an uncle who works for nintendo. This is the kind of authority often ascribed to that one kid in your schoolyard who insisted that he knew all the secrets, all of the Easter eggs that would point to his having a familial connection to the large company.
The game is quietly strange, at least on my first playthrough (and this is the kind of game that promises more secrets if you play through multiple times.) Some people point to a creepy pasta feel, but it doesn’t build dread the same way (at least not on the first playthrough). Instead it lulls you into a false sense of security — you’re just playing games with your friend, eating popcorn and old pizza, the kind of classic sleepover that you remember. Inherently safe. As time progresses, the situation gets stranger until it becomes untenable, until that sense of safety snaps like an old rubber band. This is the strongest part of the uncle who works for nintendo.
For fans and users of Twine, however, there is an added layer of weird and additional play on expectations. You can go back and look at passages you’ve already read (usually a sign of a weak story) but in this case it’s utilized as a method of showing you slight differences. Subtle changes are expressed in seemingly identical text, exploration intensifies pushing you closer towards the end. It’s a great way of playing with expectations. Additionally, the uncle who works for nintendo utilizes a great deal of error messages. I played this game with a few friends and one thought we had broken the game when we encountered the error messages.
The game is relatively short, around 5 to 10 minutes depending on your reading speed. While it falls into the horror genre, it’s not as deeply creepy as I was led to believe and while I found the ending mildly unsettling, it was not nightmare inducing (if you are specifically prone to those when engaging in horror media). The game encourages exploration and completionist behaviors with five endings, and a variety of ways to explore and engage with the environment.
Coming Out Simulator 2014 is a semi-autobiographical story about how the author came out to his parents. Interaction takes the form of menu-based conversation — conversation with the narrator in the framing story, and then a series of conversations with his past boyfriend and parents. The whole thing is illustrated in a streamlined, elegant way, and lightly animated, in a way that keeps you aware of the living breathing presence of your interlocutors even though most of what happens happens in text.
There are two things about this piece that particularly struck me. One is a piece of story content: when you’re discussing your sexuality with your mother, there’s a point at which she actually vomits from disgust. This sounds pretty extreme, and some of the subsequent references back to the moment are on the flippant side, but the moment itself did not strike me as totally unrealistic. Indeed, this captured something I have experienced myself in a different context: the sensation that it’s impossible to argue with someone because of the strength of their visceral reactions, together with guilt at making them feel that way (even when I felt that I was in the right). It also reminded me of Jonathan Haidt’s writing on conservative and liberal “moral foundations”, which argues that a strong sense of disgust tends to be associated with conservative values. Where one party feels disgust at something the other party does or thinks or wants, this is a very hard communication gap to bridge, because it is located somewhere other than the head.
While this moment represents the power of the mother’s prejudices and took away any remaining hope that she’d come around to “my” point of view, it also paradoxically made me feel a greater sympathy for her, demonstrating the way her worldview is so deeply part of her that it has this physical manifestation.
The other thing I really liked was the way the game insists on being understood as a half-truthful conversation with the author. Case’s in-game narrator explicitly tells you that the story deviates from reality, that any interactive work would have to include some choices other than the ones he originally made but that there are other falsehoods as well. In Case’s story, the truth (anyway) rests in the choices themselves: there are things in the game that he and his family did not say, selections you can make that he did not make himself, but the important thing is facing this limited menu of options all of which have a cost.
I’m often a little impatient with pieces that break the fourth wall; it’s so often a gimmick, and one that focuses on conveying cleverness rather than any particular truth about the world.
Here, though, I felt the opposite. I have often felt that part of the purpose of creating art is to build something just removed enough from oneself that it can safely be shared with others with whom one doesn’t already have a relationship of trust. And I mean not just “safely for me”, as in “I will fictionalize this a bit so that I feel less vulnerable.” I also mean “safely for the reader”. Really naked autobiographical descriptions of suffering can seem to demand a response, even an intervention, from the reader. Fiction lets us say, “this is more or less what this experience is like, but I’m fine now, really. I don’t need anything from you. I just wanted to tell you this.”
On which note, it’s also worth a look at the author’s own writing about the game.
This is the fourth in a series of quick-start Inform 7 tutorials using examples from Colossal Cave Adventure. More information about this tutorial series can be found here: A Quick-Start Guide to Inform 7.
It’s not Adventure without XYZZY, so this lesson will cover how to build the XYZZY command in Inform 7.
Making the XYZZY command will involve four things:
1) Making a new action,
2) Teleporting the player,
3) Using if/then statements to teleport the player to the correct room, and
4) Teleporting the player only if the player knows about XYZZY.
To start out, we need two rooms – In Debris Room, and Inside Building. See lesson 1 to review making rooms.
In Inform 7, the parser is responsible for converting player commands into actions.
In essence, everything the player does is an action. The debug command ACTIONS will show you what actions have been created by various text entries, like this:
As you can see, there is no action listed after asfadf because the parser could not turn it into an action.
To see a list of actions available by default in Inform, go to Index, then Actions. (This tab displays a list of actions available in the current game rather than displaying static text. As a result, the tab will only be available after successfully compiling some code with “run”.)
Here is the minimum source code for creating a new action:
Xyzzying is an action applying to nothing.
Understand “xyzzy” as xyzzying.
Report xyzzying: say “You have xyzzied.”
Breaking this apart…
Xyzzying is an action applying to nothing. <– This line creates the action. It could be called any number of things in the source code – xyzzy, saying-xyzzy, magic-wording, etc. – as long as it is consistent. Without this line, xyzzying has no meaning.
Understand “xyzzy” as xyzzying. <– This line tells the parser how to recognize if the player wants to xyzzy. Typing “xyzzy” into the parser will now activate the code for xyzzying.
Report xyzzying: say “You have xyzzied.” <– Action processing is broken into check, carry out, and report. The report section is responsible for printing text after an action has been carried out successfully.
We can use ACTIONS again to verify that the new command is working, like so.
Right now, the XYZZY command doesn’t do anything but print some text on the screen. That’s not so great for XYZZY, but most polished parser games do include informational commands such as HELP, ABOUT, CREDITS, and WALKTHROUGH for the player’s benefit. These commands can be created easily with the source code above.
However, every time a player enters a regular command, the turn counter advances, causing “every turn” rules to fire. In the context of Adventure, this covers things like your lamp’s batteries running down or the chance of a threatening little dwarf appearing. (I’ll cover “every turn” later, but if you’d prefer to read ahead, they’re discussed in section §9.5 of the Inform 7 manual.)
To turn this off, use the special syntax action out of world, like this terrible implementation of HELP:
Helping the player is an action out of world.
Understand “help” as helping the player.
Report helping the player: say “Actually, there’s no help for you. You’re on your own.”
To teleport the player, we want to use the carry out section of the xyzzying action. Here’s the updated source:
There is a room called Inside Building.
There is a room called In Debris Room.
Xyzzying is an action applying to nothing.
Understand “xyzzy” as xyzzying.
Carry out xyzzying: now the player is in In Debris Room.
Report xyzzying: say “You have xyzzied.”
Adventure doesn’t say “You have xyzzied”, of course, but it’s a good opportunity to see the order of action processing.
In order to send the player to the correct room, we need to check the player’s current location. This was covered briefly last time when we were looking at the changing description of the rough stone steps.
Here’s the updated source code, taking the player’s location into account.
Carry out xyzzying:
if the location is Inside Building:
now the player is in In Debris Room;
else if the location is In Debris Room:
now the player is in Inside Building;
say “Nothing happens.”
Note that the separations above need to be tabs, not spaces. Failing to use tabs will stop your code from compiling.
If you dislike tabs enough, there is an alternate syntax, as shown here:
Carry out xyzzying:
if the location is Inside Building begin;
now the player is in In Debris Room;
else if the location is In Debris Room;
now the player is in Inside Building;
say “Nothing happens.”;
The begin/end syntax ignores whitespace entirely. You could write the whole thing on one line and it would still compile.
At the beginning of Adventure, typing XYZZY just produces “Nothing happens.”, even if you’re in Inside Building. There are a few ways to handle this, but the easiest is to look at the visited/unvisited property of In Debris Room.
The check part of an action happens before carry out. It’s used to see whether there is something that will stop the action from happening. Here’s an appropriate check for our XYZZY action:
if In Debris Room is unvisited:
say “Nothing happens.”;
stop the action.
To expand your understanding of actions, if/then logic, and teleporting the player, see the following parts of the Inform 7 manual:
§8.9 – Moving the player
§11.6 – If
§11.7 – Begin and end
§11.8 – Otherwise (synonymous with “else”)
§12.7 – New actions
§12.9 – Check, carry out, report
§12.15 – Out of world actions
(I know I’ve kicked this poor game around a lot already, but my wife Dorte has some strong opinions of her own about it that she wanted to share. Patreon subscribers: this one is of course a freebie. I should have another feature article for you all soon…)
There is a certain beauty to playing old computer games, especially if your gaming partner is a big enthusiast like my Jimmy. Alter Ego is one of the games we played most recently. And I have to admit that I was quite intrigued when Jimmy told me all about it. I thought the concept was ingenious: a psychology game where you make choices in your life and then you see the outcome. Of course, I knew about the limitations a game like this has. After all, Jimmy had already let me talk to Eliza, and that meeting didn’t turn out too well! But Alter Ego has a changeable story, a more advanced interaction level, and a real-life feeling… I thought!
Jimmy and I agreed to try to recreate our current life and then see where it leads in old age. And now I must tell the whole world that my husband did not stick to the plan for very long, but jumped on the first girl that was presented to him by the game. My life certainly didn’t turn out as I expected either. And it all started when I still was a fetus in my mother’s womb.
The whole game is about making decisions in life and living with the consequences. Hence, my first problem was that I had to make decisions as a fetus. Consciousness in a human starts several years after birth, and a lot of people haven’t even learned to understand the consequences of their decisions by the time of their death. So, I had some difficulties relating to the question of do I want to be born now or later. But at the same time, I could enforce my plan of recreating my real life and be born early. Jimmy, on the other hand — and I am not sure how much psychology you should read into this — just didn’t want to come out, trying to push his luck with both his and his mother’s health.
The next problem I had in the Infancy and Childhood phases can be divided into two parts, though they are connected to each other. The first part is my own inability to remember that far back in time, which I can’t blame the author for. My personal memories start at around age 3 to 4. I started in kindergarten, which I hated. I was in the hospital, which I hated. I got hit by a car, which wasn’t too bad because I didn’t have to go to kindergarten that day. I also remember that I was one of the “smart kids.” For every stupid thing I did I had a logical reason, and every time it didn’t work out there was a logical explanation (do these words sound familiar to anyone?). So, I am very selective in my memories, but I always believe myself in the right. Furthermore, I am not always certain about my exact age when a given event occurred. Another difficulty that I experienced was the inability to remember how to think like a child. An example of how this can even happen to an adult: when I still was a medical student and I wanted to share some of my new-found knowledge with friends and family, I noticed that I used some medical terms they didn’t understand. But these terms had been a part of my daily language for so long that I couldn’t even remember when I started using them. Logic tells me it happened after I started in medical school, but memory suggests I already knew them before. This shows that psychological development is slow and unconscious. And once the changes are tightly incorporated into our personality it is hard to imagine that we were ever any other way. These issues led to uncertainty on my part on how to decide in Alter Ego during the Infancy and early Childhood phases. Of course, I could just have accepted the fact that I am not 100 percent sure of what decision I would have made as a one-year-old child — it is just a game — but I was on a mission.
The other part of my Infancy and Childhood problem was the inability of the author to convince me I was an infant or a child. Alter Ego is in my eyes a serious game, meaning you don’t just play it thoughtlessly. You try to live it, whether by trying to recreate your actual life experiences like me or by playing someone else like Jimmy. (I did read one comment to Jimmy’s article that suggests that there are more out there who tried to recreate their own lives.) To make it possible for the player to identify himself with the character it is important that the language, description, and decision possibilities are age appropriate and somewhat realistic. But they aren’t in most cases. I wish more vignettes were like the dog incident which is described in detail in Jimmy’s article. This scene is described very simply, and you are walked through it step by step, one emotion at a time and one thought and reaction at a time. Unfortunately, more vignettes are like the one where you have to go to the toilet but are not fully potty trained and your mom is not around. In this scene the author loses all touch with the reality of Infancy, as suddenly I am overwhelmed with thousands of feelings and I start to plan into the future. But a two-year-old-child — the normal age of potty training — does not have the ability to plan ahead. He faces the problems only as they appear, step by step. Throughout the Infancy phase, the author continues to put motives, higher feelings, and the ability to see consequences and other people’s needs into my character. I am not a psychologist; during medical school I only learned limited techniques to gain the trust of my patients or motivate them to stop smoking, lose weight, or change other bad habits. However, I discovered in the process an interest in psychology. I found that in addition to reflecting on my own experiences and feelings it is possible to learn so much by listening to the experiences and feelings of others. This saves me from making their stupid mistakes. The skill of putting yourself in another person’s position is crucial for a psychologist. Yet the author of Alter Ego is young, naive, arrogant, and completely blind to the opinions and motives of people other than himself. And — how could I forget? — he is also very judgmental (a big taboo for psychologists) . He was like an evil version of my parents hovering over my head watching my every step and judging my every decision.
The focus jumps when you enter Adolescence and Young Adulthood. Love. Sex. Flying hormones. There is a clear difference between girls and boys in the eyes of the author of Alter Ego. He doesn’t seem to have an overly high opinion of either, but at least boys are allowed more freedom to actually do something. Girls at first just giggle and talk about their first kiss and obsess over their looks while at the same time being vengeful and jealous. It’s such a cliché. The author comes off as just as superficial as the girls he describes. I am missing the huge identity crisis that people start to face in their teenage years: who am I? The game never touches on this because the author decides who you are. During high school I was far from interested in intimacy, love, or sex. Education was all I cared about. But Alter Ego forced it all upon me. I came home with a hickey after a party; I talked with my friends about boys and how many boys I had already kissed (yet at the time of this vignette I had rejected every single opportunity to kiss a boy!). Alter Ego turned me into a superficial, giggling, silly girl with no personality of my own. In my profession as a doctor, I’ve met a lot of this kind of girl — but I’ve met far more girls who are more thoughtful about their behavior and personality. In Alter Ego it was impossible for me to make any choices that weren’t black or white, and none of the possibilities really fit to me. I grew mad and disappointed.
The immense amount of sexism in the game was quite shocking to me, even though more subtle forms of sexism are still a daily reality for women in 2014. Jimmy was the big hero for kissing all the girls on his way, while I got the title “easy to get” for choosing once the option to kiss a boy. I suppose I should thank the chauvinistic author that I as a woman was allowed to go to college, but I was not able to enter the best university because I was not good enough — even though my Intellectual score was the same as Jimmy’s, who did get in. And of course Jimmy advanced higher at work. I had to use the study option much more frequently just to maintain my Intellectual points. My shopping possibilities did not include a computer; instead I could spend my money on cooking wear, make up, and jewelry.
Another problem both Jimmy and I constantly faced was bad health. Whatever we did, and we did most things differently, we were both in really, really bad health until the end of the game. Jimmy lost his life to a heart attack some years before me. To be honest, I am not even sure what I died of — but that day was a day of celebration. By the end of the game I was so frustrated and disgusted with the attitude of the author that I would have jumped on the opportunity to commit suicide. It would have proven the author wrong again: that suicide is not an act of anger, but desperation.
Some considerations to improve the game, because, as I said in the beginning, the concept is good:
The tone of the language should be neutral. It should also always be appropriate for the age of the player’s character. It is important to me as a player that I am not judged on my decisions, that I receive a certain level of understanding.
The author should be more open minded and have more empathy toward other lifestyles and points of view. For example, using the word “feminist” as an insult does not serve any purpose.
More choices, especially more that are not just black and white. After all, there are fifty shades of grey…
Fewer clichés and less sexism. It is no excuse that the game was created in the 1980s; the author was a psychologist.
The points system seemed random. It didn’t make sense in relation to your decisions. I mentioned Health points earlier, but the Social score was just as bad. Jimmy was friends with lots of people and often followed the crowd, while I didn’t — and still we both had a very good Social score. How does that work?
If I should grade this game, I would give it an F. My biggest problem, even more than the sexism, was the author’s choice of language. The lecturing tone could maybe be excused in the phases of Infancy and Childhood, but in the phase of Old Age it seems ridiculous and inappropriate, especially since the author at the time was younger than I am now. It made me feel that the author talked down to me and tried constantly to force his supposed wisdom upon me — but I would never take any advice on how to live my life or raise my children from Peter J. Favaro.
There is much to discuss and celebrate, such as the conclusion of the IF Comp – congrats to Sean M. Shore for his 1st place game Hunger Daemon, and to all the other winners. Besides that there’s the recent release of Hadean Lands by PR-IF stalwart Andew Plotkin. And, today there’s a front-page New York Times article about IF, and Twine games specifically. I’m sure I forgot some things we have to celebrate, so come by to see what those things are.
Fiction Crowd is a new website that describes itself as an “alternative, interactive literary zine”. It’s probably a misnomer to describe it as a zine for interactive fiction, though: the interactivity is mostly with the zine rather than with the fiction itself.
What I mean: the first story up in the table of contents is “The Bad Hotel”, which consists of a sort of “about this hotel” page and then three write-ups of different rooms in said hotel, all posing as hotel website copy. There’s a very zoomed-in Google map of the hotel’s location, which you can zoom out enough eventually to discover that it’s meant to be on a dead-end road on the India-Pakistan border. You can also participate in a customer-satisfaction poll rating your stay experience from “Fatal” to “Euphoric”, and leave your own guest book comment. Some of the guest book bits left by other users are cool:
I didn’t think I would have to pay extra for the faceless man that is always in the periphery of my vision.
…but some of them don’t hit the mark so well, which I suppose is to be expected when you invite a bunch of people to come along and riff on your premise.
“The Infinity Corporation” is a story that consists of three nominally unrelated documents from different viewpoints; it’s basically a straight epistolary short story. “Collective Dream Journal” is a page on which several different authors have contributed dream narratives. “Doomsdates” is a collection of flash fiction about really unpleasant dates. “The Parallels” does have a point-and-click interface for exploring part of the story; but this felt a bit clumsy to me, a rather rough picture linking objects to descriptions on another page. Many of the stories are illustrated or supported by mocked-up images of Twitter exchanges and text screens from phones — again, something of an epistolary instinct.
Then: the “literary” bit. The writing in these stories often feels self-conscious and effortful to me:
An increasingly lucid gaze over moonlit wavelets provides a spacious interlude of counterpoised anxiety and calm. (“Collective Dream Journal”)
Or they tell jokes that are mis-paced and land wrong:
It seems that while he was President, Lincoln would frequently engage in inappropriate, some might even say randy chit-chats via telegraph with women of ill repute. Several of the women were so scandalous they were over the age of 13 and not yet married or widowed. (“Urban Legends”)
Or stretch too hard for their whimsy:
This week, a Roman Centurion and a Zeta Reticulan from the 23rd century are among the guests discussing Russell Brand and the apathetic masses that lap up his cheeky Dickensian fop banter. (“Tune In Next Week”)
These are by various authors, and some have a tighter style than others, but overall the type of prose featured here suggests an editorial taste that I don’t quite share.
This overview feels like it’s come out largely negative, but there are some things about this website that do attract me. The cues for future writing feel a bit like a rolling version of the IF community’s themed minicomps (ShuffleComp, ECTOCOMP, the Apollo 18 Comp, the cover art comp, etc). The design itself is rather slick. Some of the work is that style of speculative fiction that uses a few brief references to suggest an alternate universe very different from our own. It’s Patreon funded, which I think is not always a great model for every type of endeavor (specifically, I worry that it encourages some creators to do shorter, less ambitious works than they really want to because Patreon rewards creators with a steady stream of frequent output), but Patreon makes a certain amount of sense for a regularly-released zine.
I’m a big fan of postmortems in projects. While they are interesting to read as an outsider to a project, they are most beneficial to the stake holders of any project. In Interactive Fiction, this is no different. They are usually very interesting to read, but of more importance to the author.
Following the results of IFComp 2014, we’re seeing quite a few postmortems appear. You can read quite a few interesting ones on the forums (http://www.intfiction.org/forum/viewforum.php?f=32). What I find great about reading these is you get an insight into what the author was thinking / feeling as they wrote their work, it’s just great reading about the inner reasonings behind their decisions and their reflections on what they learned.
I’ve released two games, not counting my IntroComp entry this past year which I’m still working on to get to a truly releasable state. I’ve written postmortems for both and while not as comprehensive as some I’ve seen come out after the comp, they serve the purpose I set out for.
My format for postmortems is simple. I simply find 3 things that went well, things that I want to do more of and then find 3 things that didn’t go so well, things I want to learn and grow from. With that simple template, I create a document for myself (and others) that is not only an exposition on the work that went into the piece, but also something that I refer back to from time to time.
I hope that more people take the time to write postmortems, not only for their comp entries, but for anything they release.
This year’s competition got a lot of great press in some highly visible places! Here’s a few we know about:
Leigh Alexander wrote "The Joy of Text" for The Guardian, describing some of her favorite works from this year’s entries.
Laura Hudson’s profile of prominent Twine-using creators for the New York Times Magazine mentions both the IFComp and its Golden Banana of Discord prize, in context of an interview with Porpentine (who, as of this year, has her name on two GBoD-earning works).
Alice O’Connor summarizes the IFComp for the popular videogame news site Rock, Paper, Shotgun. RPS also posted several reviews from various writers while the competition was underway, though sadly not under any agreed-upon tag; some are here, and here’s some more (with the latter including some write-ups of previous years’ entries as well).
Steven Melendez wrote about the state of interactive fiction’s games, tools, and community for Fast Company Labs, including an interview with yours truly.
Super exciting news time!
I’m working on a game for Zoe Quinn‘s #antholojam. The name is “Does Canned Rice Dream of a Napkin Heap?”
Here’s an in-progress screenshot to whet your interest!
#antholojam will be a pay-what-you-want bundle of short games, all themed around The Golden Age of Sci-Fi. Over a hundred teams submitted pitches to Zoe, and she selected a group of fifteen pitches that promised to be interesting, unusual, and fun! We’re building our games in the window between November 15 and December 15. The games will be released shortly after completion.
It’s a digital storytelling game set in a spaceport bar on the dwarf planet Quaoar.
Caelyn Sandel – art, design lead, and writing (check out her other games here!)
Carolyn VanEseltine – code and additional design
Jamie Sandel – music and sound (super talented – check out some of his work here!)
Danielle Church – back-end support and UI consultation
I have it on good authority from Caelyn that the yellow can contains canned rice ‘n meat. Napkins are yet to come.
When the official site comes up, I’ll link to it immediately!
For now, Twitter is the best way to get updates about all of the #antholojam games. For info about the entire group, check the #antholojam hashtag. For info about Canned Rice specifically, check #CannedRice!
Appointment with FEAR is an adaptation of a Steve Jackson gamebook, available in various mobile formats and also on Steam for desktop machines. It’s been polished up into a graphical-novel style interface — a juicy one that slides panels into place and makes stats expand bouncily when you click on them – but it retains a slightly disorienting early-80s mentality: there are jokes about “Michael Jixon”‘s new release “Chiller”, and “Vulture Club”‘s lead singer “Georgie Boy”. This kind of thinly-veiled reference is symptomatic of its sense of humor.
Content-wise, it’s straight parody superhero fiction. You have an alter ego who has a newspaper job (which you rarely have time to attend), and when you’re “in disguise”, your avatar wears a pair of Clark Kent-style glasses. There are various villains with various unlikely costumes. For yourself, you get to pick from a roster of jokey auto-generated names. I played first as “Sparse Manifestation”, a mind-reading black female superhero with amazing breasts but no other body fat, and then as “Apathetic Chicken Leg”, a flying white female superhero with amazing breasts but no other body fat. Once I had a fleeting chance to name myself “Absolute Chaos”, but I misclicked the show-more-options button before I could select it; that was pretty much the least bizarre title I was ever offered.
Goofiness aside, I’m struck by the colorful energy of the interface here; it really feels as though it has projected you into a superhero universe with BAF and BOW animations. The mechanics are on the simple side, but have been carefully blended into the story. There are combat sequences, in which you can pick from a range of easy-but-weak or risky-but-powerful attacks, and these get some context-appropriate narration. There is a detection component to the game, in which you gather clues from various events and use them to solve additional problems you run into: when there’s something you might be able to resolve with clues, you go to your clue notebook and pick the clue you think applies, in good Phoenix Wright style. There are some simple stats: luck, stamina (hit points by another name), and Hero Points, which track successes along the way.
I never played the original gamebooks, so possibly I’m about to take issue with something that is fundamental to the whole historic experience. But despite the surface polish and the similarity to a number of games that I do enjoy quite a lot, I found myself pretty frustrated by this as both a game and a piece of narrative design.
Over and over again, the protagonist is confronted with “do you turn left or turn right?” dilemmas — choices for which there is no indication why it matters or how it will turn out. Very frequently you’re simultaneously called upon to visit two different emergencies at once, but there’s no way of knowing in advance which you’re equipped to help with (it’s very possible to try to intervene but get beaten up instead) or which might give you clues that you’ll need for the overall narrative arc (because sometimes an important clue is basically lying coincidentally on the ground near some unrelated crime). In one playthrough I saw the president assassinated but had no way to help him; in the next, I got critical information I would have required to intervene, but somehow missed ever getting the chance to be present at the assassination attempt. In each case, the overall story experience I had was quite disjointed, with a lot of hints of many different storylines, but no clean narrative arc.
After several plays (including a bunch of rewinding), I came away feeling like I could win this thing, but only if I exhaustively mapped the narrative labyrinth first, working out all the places where clues could appear and all the places where they could be applied. And I don’t have the stamina for that: too much time, too much repetition, too much exposure to this brightly plastic world. I’d feel differently if this played like a proper puzzle, if I thought that some careful thought would clue me in to the best way to move through the narrative. Despite the considerable surface gloss, it’s a design that gives the player very little help to experience a story.
The story is weird tonally as well. It’s mostly bouncy, colorful, and silly, with exaggerated and implausible threats; no Dark Knight stuff here. But you’re pretty unlikely to get all your superhero interventions to work, and so at least a few times per game you’ll probably run into a situation where an innocent person dies in front of you (sometimes as a result of your inept meddling). The text really doesn’t address the implications of that much at all. You lose some Hero Points, but you don’t experience any trauma or have much of a reaction at all. Young kid eaten by shark because I made a bad choice about how to rescue him? Oh well! Time to go home and have a pizza.
It’s striking to compare this thing against the less flashy but narratively chunkier Hero trilogy from Choice of Games. Despite their shared tropes, they’re very different takes on the same thing. Choice of Games pieces don’t kill you off arbitrarily early in the story (something that happens easily and often in Appointment with FEAR); the protagonist customization is more substantial and is taken more seriously; and pretty much no matter what you do, you’re guaranteed an actual story out of the experience, rather than a sequence of partially connected incidents. They’re also low on challenge, usually, but that’s a trade I’m happy to make if the type of challenge I’m turning away is that of meticulously exploring every narrative pathway long after the story incidents have lost their surprise.
I’m doing two Central Texas readings from my book of programs and poems #! this weekend:
Friday, Nov 21 at 5pm
The Twig Book Shop
in The Pearl (306 Pearl Parkway, Suite 106)
Saturday, Nov 22 at 4pm
(110 N Loop Blvd E)
#! (pronounced “shebang”) consists of poetic texts that are presented alongside the short computer programs that generated them. The poems, in new and existing forms, are inquiries into the features that make poetry recognizable as such, into code and computation, into ellipsis, and into the alphabet. Computer-generated poems have been composed by Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville, Alison Knowles and James Tenney, Hugh Kenner and Joseph P. O’Rourke, Charles O. Hartman, and others. The works in #! engage with this tradition of more than 50 years and with constrained and conceptual writing. The book’s source code is also offered as free software. All of the text-generating code is presented so that it, too, can be read; it is all also made freely available for use in anyone’s future poetic projects.
Nick Montfort’s digital writing projects include Sea and Spar Between (with Stephanie Strickland) and The Deletionist (with Amaranth Borsuk and Jesper Juul). He developed the interactive fiction system Curveship and (with international collaborators) the large-scale story generation system Slant; was part of the group blog Grand Text Auto; wrote Ream, a 500-page poem, on a single day; organized Mystery House Taken Over, a collaborative “occupation” of a classic game; wrote Implementation, a novel on stickers, with Scott Rettberg; and wrote and programmed the interactive fictions Winchester’s Nightmare, Ad Verbum, and Book and Volume.
Montfort wrote the book of poems Riddle & Bind and co-wrote 2002: A Palindrome Story with Willliam Gillespie. The MIT Press has published four of Montfort’s collaborative and individually-authored books: The New Media Reader, Twisty Little Passages, Racing the Beam, and most recently 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, a collaboration with nine other authors that Montfort organized. He is faculty advisor for the Electronic Literature Organization, whose Electronic Literature Collection Volume 1 he co-edited, and is associate professor of digital media at MIT.
Several reviewers of 2014’s competition made the observation that this year seemed remarkably free of unfinished, untested, broken, prankish, or similarly inappropriate entries. Even the entries they’d end up giving lower scores to possessed admirable levels of experimentation or ambition, though perhaps not coming together as well as the higher-rated games.
I choose to connect this with the fact that I made a conscious effort to advise would-be authors to not submit unfinished work, emphasizing this message on the authorship guidelines, and stating it again in the email to authors just prior to the entry deadline. I have reason to believe that past years would often see a number of entries by authors who found the creative process taking more time than they’d accounted for — and, on the cusp of the deadline, they would just submit whatever they had. Inevitably, these entries would not fare well against the more complete and polished work. Furthermore, since competition rules forbid the entry of any previously released work — even if the entry improves on an older release — this represented wasted potential, preventing a future IFComp of seeing more developed versions of these games.
Most authors who submitted intents to enter this year did end up choosing to withhold an actual entry. I saw circumstantial evidence on social media suggesting that many directly took my advice to hold onto their unfinished game, and continue to work on it for a future competition, rather than rush it unready into the crucible of the IFComp.
To all those who took this route, I say: thank you. It can be a hard decision to choose to wait it out, but I think you made the right choice, both for the competition and for your own work. And I also say: the 2015 competition will start accepting intents eight months from now. I sincerely hope to see what you have for us then!
This coming Saturday, November 22, at 3 PM Eastern time, please join us for a debrief and open discussion of this year’s IFComp games and results. As the discussion’s announcement post states:
Talk about the comp games, trends, favorites, memorable moments. NB that this is not the second Saturday of the month, in order for this to take place after the comp results are in. Authors will also therefore be welcome to join, comment, and share thoughts about their work.
For most of them the veteran’s report carried that special thrill of distant alarm. A great but far-off city reduced to ruin; a disaster from halfway across the world. Cataclysmic news, but an event comfortingly remote from the day to day affairs of home.
You are Evening Star, a hero in the making, about to find out what happened to your lost twin brother Morning Star. This is the setting of the mobile game Necklace of Skulls, set in a colorful, well developed world populated by myth and legend. Through your journey you encounter a variety of characters; from cannibals to albino dogs. You must face these things with the skills that you have, the tools you collect and your own wits.
The primary strength of this game is the rich fantasy world it creates. As someone well versed in Western mythology (Greek, Roman, Norse mostly) this foray into Mayan symbols and characters was a welcome and exciting foray. The art that accompanies the text is rich, colorful and fitting with the tale. While the story takes place in the second person, it holds a certain “campfire” quality. It feels like you could sit around a campfire with an older patriarch (or matriarch) of the family and listen to them create the same type of yarn. In that sense, it has mythology and folklore nailed.
The writing is of an acceptable quality and a play through can be completed by a diligent reader in about a half hour. The game teases the promise of multiple playthroughs with the available characters (Warrior, Huntress, Wayfarer & Sorceress), but this promise is one I would not suggest fulfilling. The prologue appears to be the same for all four characters — no matter what, in this tale you are Evening Star on a quest for Morning Star. There are routes tantalizingly blocked off from you from the beginning because you lack certain skills, but you can access them on later playthroughs. However, it didn’t seem worth the effort to replay some of the scenes over again for those few clues and objects. There is little reward for going a different route.
He snorts contemptuously. “You mortals are so predictable. There are greater victories than revenge.”
In what is problematic in most interactive fiction, including gamebooks, I managed to find myself “choiced” into a corner. I was near what felt like the end on my first playthrough of Necklace of Skulls only to find myself stymied at a four forked path. I tried all options, explored each path. It did not matter. I died anyway. With no way to return to a previous decision, to right my own wrongs, I was trapped within reaching distance of the games conclusion and had to just quit. It’s not an ideal situation, and it does happen, but I felt incredibly thwarted. My second playthrough was riddled with repetition before I died inelegantly in a forest without being able to find my way out.
This is a game with a combat system, and it was not my favorite. Without direction in my first fight, i found it truly puzzling. Here’s a picture of the interface:
This is a fight between your character and the cannibals. You have three options with limited stamina and you must land your blows. I might not have been getting it, but there didn’t seem to be a recognizable pattern of attack that I could plan for. Instead I just kept dying. Fighting became so troublesome that I took the coward’s way out in every battle. The fighting system is something that Necklace of Skulls could’ve done without.
I found Necklace of Skulls entrancing, with beautiful art and a tie to folklore that I truly appreciate. But I was stymied by the difficulty level and the repetition that made me unwilling to seek out more playthroughs. If you’re willing to fight past the difficulty, it’s definitely worth the cost. Necklace of Skulls is currently available on iOS and Android for $2.99.
This is the third in a series of quick-start Inform 7 tutorials using examples from Colossal Cave Adventure. More information about this tutorial series can be found here: A Quick-Start Guide to Inform 7.
In Inform 7, a door is a thing that connects two rooms by way of a direction. The code for a basic door might look like this:
There is a room called My Office.
There is a room called The Hallway.
A wooden door is a door. The wooden door is east of My Office and west of The Hallway.
This will produce a basic door that you can walk through by way of a direction, or by entering the door. The player can open and close the door at will. The player will attempt to open a closed door automatically before walking through it, and the player will stop entirely if the door is locked.
As with other things, you can learn about the properties of a door by using the SHOWME debug command.
Doors are automatically fixed in place. Doors also have a few special properties of their own, including open/closed, openable/unopenable, and locked/unlocked.
A door doesn’t have to be called a “door”, and many are not. The stairs between At Top of Small Pit and In Hall of Mists are a door that cannot be opened or closed. The source code:
There is a room called At Top of Small Pit.
There is a room called In Hall of Mists.
Some rough stone steps are an open unopenable door. Some rough stone steps are down of At Top of Small Pit and up of In Hall of Mists.
The appearance of the stone steps changes depending on whether you are in At Top of Small Pit or in In Hall of Mists.
We can replicate this effect by giving the steps an initial appearance with two built-in states, like so:
The initial appearance of some rough stone steps is “Rough stone steps lead [if the location is At Top of Small Pit]down the pit[else]up the dome[end if].”
By default, the Inform 7 term “location” means “location of the player”, which means the room the player is currently in. But it doesn’t have to be the player. Consider this source code:
The initial appearance of some rough stone steps is “Rough stone steps lead [if the location is At Top of Small Pit]down the pit[else]up the dome[end if][if the location of the player is the location of the food]. It looks like a lovely place to sit down and eat some tasty food[end if]. “
Here’s the result.
You can also affect the description of a door based on a property. Going back to the first example:
There is a room called My Office.
There is a room called The Hallway.
A wooden door is a door. The wooden door is east of My Office and west of The Hallway.
The initial appearance of the wooden door is “A boring wooden door leads out of the room. The door is [if the wooden door is open]open[else]closed[end if].”
This kind of description change is not door-specific. It can be enacted on any piece of text, including room and object descriptions. For example, you could change the initial appearance of the bear based on whether or not the food is in the room:
The initial appearance of the bear is “There is a ferocious cave bear eying [if the location of the tasty food is the location of the bear]the tasty food[else]you[end if] from the far end of the room!”
Altering text on the fly is an incredibly powerful tool that deserves far more attention than it will receive in this quick-start tutorial series. It is covered comprehensively in chapter 5 of the Inform 7 manual.
At the very beginning of Adventure, instead of going east, you can type “go building” to enter the building, so the building is clearly a kind of door. But once you are in the building, you cannot type “go building” to exit the building again. This is a one-way door.
Here is an updated version of the code to connect End of Road and Inside Building.
There is a room called At End of Road.
There is a room called Inside Building.
The well house is an open unopenable door. The well house is inside of At End Of Road. Through the well house is Inside Building. Understand “building” as the well house.
Outside of Inside Building is At End of Road.
Note that “Inside of At End Of Road is Inside Building.” is no longer part of the source code. Leaving it in would produce an error, because Inform 7 would see that going inside from At End Of Road reached both a door (the building) and a room (Inside Building).
At Slit in Streambed, there is a locked steel grate. The grate can only be unlocked with the keys. Here is one way to set this up:
There is a room called Outside Grate.
There is a room called Below Grate.
The steel grate is a locked lockable door. The steel grate is down of Outside Grate and up of Below Grate.
Here’s the result:
Note the debug command PURLOIN, which will move an object from wherever it is in the game into your inventory. It is very useful for things like testing a key that you have not actually placed in a room (as is the case with the set of keys in the source code above.)
Like doors, containers can be locked and lockable, and they can be unlocked with a matching key. This is useful in a wide variety of ways, although none of them are exemplified in Adventure.
To learn more about doors, keys, and text with variations, see the following parts of the Inform 7 manual:
§3.13. Locks and keys
§5.6. Text with variations
Thus ends the 20th annual Interactive Fiction Competition. As I have said elsewhere and repeatedly, I could not have asked for a better welcome as my own first time organizing the event. I look forward to many more years with the IFComp.
I have a lot of thoughts about this year’s collection of forty-two entries, but I’d like to begin by sharing some observations about the entries that finished at the top of the list this year.
The top five games were created with five different systems, running the gamut of different player experiences. This variety is unprecedented for the IFComp, and it is my single favorite fact of the this year’s outcome. For me, it speaks to the ongoing growth of and experimentation with new forms interactive fiction — even as it holds true to its roots.
Counting from the top, we have:
Creatures Such As We, by the author of last year’s first-place winner Lynnea Glasser, placed better than any non-parser game ever has. The record was previously held by Dierdra “Squinky” Kiai’s The Play, which took third place in 2011.
I also find it quite impressive that this game’s ratings were quite divided, with the highest standard deviation among all the entries, and the work still managed to land in the top five.
If we count co-credits, then women outnumber men two-to-one among the top five games’ creators.
Two game titles found among the top five are from famous quotations — one from Carl Sagan, and one from the Bhagavad Gita.
As I now find myself marveling at trivia, I’ll leave the list there. Suffice to say that — not even delving deeply into the content of these games — the diversity of form on display here makes me feel very proud to have helped bring attention and accolade to these works and their creators. This speaks to a bright future where IF keeps evolving, finding new ways to be brilliant, and new people to be brilliant through.
You don’t have permission to access /memslam/IN A GREEN, MOSSY TERRAIN,IN AN OVERPOPULATED AREA,BY THE SEA,BY AN ABANDONED LAKE,IN A DESERTED FACTORY,IN DENSE WOODS,IN JAPAN,AMONG SMALL HILLS,IN SOUTHERN FRANCE,AMONG HIGH MOUNTAINS,ON AN ISLAND,IN A COLD, WINDY CLIMATE,IN A PLACE WITH BOTH HEAVY RAIN AND BRIGHT SUN,IN A DESERTED AIRPORT,IN A HOT CLIMATE,INSIDE A MOUNTAIN,ON THE SEA,IN MICHIGAN,IN HEAVY JUNGLE UNDERGROWTH,IN AN OVERPOPULATED AREA,BY A RIVER,AMONG OTHER HOUSES,IN A DESERTED CHURCH,IN A METROPOLIS,UNDERWATER on this server.
I was saddened this week to hear of the passing of R. A. Montgomery, the author and original publisher of the Choose Your Own Adventure series.
Several years back, my brother and my sister-in-law decided to give me nostalgia for my birthday, so they sent me a copy of The aMAZEing Labyrinth and some Choose Your Own Adventure books. I unwrapped my present and discovered a window straight into memory.
I wrote dozens of stories when I was little, the kind of stories that are written on very broad-ruled paper with a stick-figure illustration every page or two. They typically featured princesses, unicorns, and dogs, all wandering through a patchwork world built from fairy tales, King Arthur legend, Greek mythology, and Xanth.
And some of them were Choose Your Own Adventure-style stories, because I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books. They taught me that narrative didn’t have to hold still, that you could flip backward and forward and make decisions that would make a difference. I would blithely order the reader to turn to page 24 and trust that I would write 23 pages in between.
The Choose Your Own Adventure series was ridiculous and marvelous and fun, and it existed because Raymond Almiran Montgomery loved games and books alike. Montgomery was the publisher who saw the potential for magic in Edward Packard’s interactive manuscript Sugarcane Island. Sugarcane Island became the first book in the Adventures of You series at Vermont Crossroads Press. After Montgomery sold his interest in Vermont Crossroads Press, he brought The Adventures of You to Bantam Books as the Choose Your Own Adventure series. He was also a writer of Choose Your Own Adventure books, taking equal writing responsibility for the series with Packard.
Thank you for all the adventures, Mr. Montgomery. I hope you found a happy ending.
R.A. Montgomery’s full obituary is available at the Choose Your Own Adventure site.
This year’s IFComp has been dedicated to his memory.
I’m sad to learn of the passing of R. A. Montgomery, the original publisher and author of the Choose Your Own Adventure game-book series for children.
I would like to dedicate this year’s competition to his memory. Interactive fiction would be a very different and much poorer place without his early body of work under the CYOA brand, and the million, million stories — and story-machines — that it inspired.
After all this bad luck — the burglary, the totalled car — here was the world paying me back.
Land Rover has commissioned a piece of electronic literature, and in what is surely news, it actually isn’t bad.
Called the Vanishing Game, it is an interactive tumblr/short-story following the tale of Alec Dunbar, a down-on-his-luck actor who is given a strange opportunity for a banal delivery that turns into a fodder for mystery and intrigue. The work is by British novelist William Boyd, best known for his work on a James Bond continuation novel “Solo” in 2013.
Before delving into this work, I was unfamiliar with Boyd, but I get a good sense of him as an author. It bears all the hallmarks of classic spy novels, with a dash of an almost-everyman thrown in the middle of something out of his control. There’s a beautiful, injured woman with a job for our attractive, British narrator. There’s a mysterious package. There’s accents and intrigues and long nights on the road. There’s a car.
Where does Land Rover factor into this? When you look at a piece of literature, specifically one that has been commissioned by a company, you need to take a long look at what they’re selling. In this case, the corporate sponsorship is actually pretty minimal. The version I played, available at this link, didn’t even have a Land Rover watermark. They mention the name of the car more than most stories would, but I’ve honestly already forgotten it. However, there is one element that was out of place and completely ruined immersion.
Interactions in this novel are done through clicking on links. They’re fairly mild interactions, and they don’t seem to have an effect on the story overall. Instead they are about seeing slightly more of the background image or another visual or sound element. The exception of this is the sponsored links — which take you to a list of really excited Land Rover owners talked about something mildly related to the premise. In the case of the above image, it was the word “forded.” They’re all linked through the #wellstoried hashtag, an element put in for the commercial effect. They are strange and break the effect of the overall very enticing story. At the moment when I passed the “forded” term, I was in the middle of rising dramatic action and was not expecting to see someone excitedly driving their Land Rover across a small creek. Those instances of corporate heavy handedness mar an otherwise exceptional intrigue story.
I felt strangely excited: this was an adventure, out of the blue. A beautiful woman had offered me this bizarre opportunity – and a lot of money for one day’s work. This was what life was all about, I told myself – to be lived to the full, come what may. Happenstance.
The story is itself intriguing and if you enjoy the kind of novel that Boyd is selling — a land of mystery and deception — then you’ll like The Vanishing Game. Boyd wants to give his hero a unique variety of skill-sets, but he’s no special forces James Bond. He’s informed by the movies he’s been in, by the television and film culture that serves as the basis for a lot of our popular culture. Needs to relax? No worries, he did a shoddy martial arts movie where he learned some Tai Chi. Survival skills? Actor boot camp. It’s a handy way of making an average guy a jack-of-all-trades, but it gets a little obvious after a time. Every problem has a fancy movie solution, and that’s a bit deus ex machina.
The interactivity is very limited, and for most intents and purposes the story is simply scrolling text with a pretty decent British narrator telling it as it goes past. There’s little draw to click on the links — in fact after a time I simply stopped. For starters, there isn’t any effect. You just get to see an unfiltered version of the background image or a visualization of the movie poster from the film he’s referencing. Additionally, clicking on a link might take you to a advertisement, which is impetus enough to never click a link again.
Overall, I’d definitely suggest checking out the Vanishing Game, if for no other reason than it’s tense and well written story. It may be on the low end of interactivity, but it’s certainly worth a look.
The Vanishing Game’s eight-part story is available through a customized Tumblr page, and is also available as a free eBook on Apple’s iBooks Store (iPad and Mac), and the Kindle Store (either on your Kindle or through the Kindle app for Android, iOS, PC, Mac.) It does seem that the eBook version is not as nuanced or interactive as the Tumblr version, and from my experience I would suggest that one.
Peter J. Favaro started blending computers with psychology some eight years before Activision published his groundbreaking “life simulator” Alter Ego. In his first year as a graduate student of Clinical Psychology at Long Island’s Hofstra University, he and another student developed an obsession with the early standup arcade game Space Wars (a direct descendent of that granddaddy of all arcade games, MIT’s Space War).
During one of the many psychological discussions which developed around those sessions, I wondered whether the games served some kind of therapeutic function for us. They took us away from the pressure of graduate school for a short time and gave us a chance to act out some of our competitive urges. I also wondered what kinds of motor and reflex skills the games were training in us. One of the last things we said about video games that day was that they would be fun to study in some small research projects.
Games and the mostly young people who played them would come to dominate Favaro’s years at Hofstra.
As arcades and the Atari VCS grew in popularity over the course of those years, an anti-videogame hysteria grew in response. The Philippines and Singapore banned arcades outright, claiming they “cause aggression, truancy, ‘psychological addictions’ akin to gambling, and encourage stealing money from parents and others to support children’s videogame habits.” Closer to home, the Dallas, Texas, suburb of Mesquite banned children from playing videogames in public without a parent or other adult guardian, prompting a rash of similar bans in small towns across the country that were finally struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1982. Undaunted, Ronald Reagan’s unusually prominent new Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, waded in soon after, saying videogames created “aberration in childhood behavior” and, toting one of the anti-videogame camp’s two favorite lines of argument, claiming again that they addicted children, “body and soul.” Others colorfully if senselessly described videogames as substitutes for “adolescent masturbatory activity,” without clarifying what that deliciously Freudian phrase was supposed to mean or why we should care if it was true.
Favaro labored to replace such poetic language with actual data derived from actual research. His PhD thesis, which he completed and successful defended in late 1983, was entitled The Effects of Computer Video Game Play on Mood, Physiological Arousal, and Psychomotor Performance. One of the first studies of its kind, it found that there was nothing uniquely addictive about videogames. While there were indeed a small number of “maladaptive” children who played videogames to the detriment of their scholastic, social, and familial lives, the same was true of many other childhood activities, from eating sweets and chips to playing basketball. With regard to the other popular anti-videogame argument, that they made children “aggressive,” Favaro found that, while violent videogames did slightly increase aggression immediately after being played, they actually did so less than violent television shows. Also discredited was a favorite claim of the pro-videogame camp, that the games improved hand-eye coordination. Favaro found that playing a videogame for a long period of time made children better at playing other videogames, but had little effect on their motor skills or reflexes in the real world. Favaro would remain at Hofstra doing similar work until several years after completing his PhD.
While he was conducting his research, Favaro, an ambitious, personable fellow who had become something of a hacker following his purchase of an Atari 800, fostered links with the computer-industry trade press. After contributing articles to various magazines for some months, he became a “Special Projects Editor” with SoftSide beginning with the January 1983 issue, curating features on education and the relationship of children to computers until that magazine’s demise a year later. He then spent almost two years with Family Computing in largely the same role. He wrote cover-disk programs like Relaax…, which walks you through a series of relaxation exercises, and Pix, which lets you draw pictures by assembling, collage-like, smaller images on the screen. His most notable creation of this period for our purposes is Success, a multi-player Life-like computerized board game that starts by having you choose a personality — “aggressive,” “impulsive,” “pragmatic,” or “romantic” — and a goal in life — “money,” “knowledge and intellectual curiosity,” or “health and happiness.” You then move around the board flipping “cards” that affect your progress in the various goals: a “recent swamp purchase” decreases your money by $150, while a marriage proposal sends you to an arcade-style mini-game that places you behind the wheel trying to get to the church on time. Other ideas that would be incorporated into Alter Ego can be found in his articles on game design. Presaging the innovative character-creation system of Ultima IV as well as Alter Ego, he suggests in SoftSide‘s September 1983 issue quizzing the player of an adventure game about her personality before kicking off the proceedings in earnest:
In a situation where danger was imminent, would you
A) Ask for help.
B) Take charge and take action.
C) Run for your life.
The same article suggests a scoring system based on the player’s “display of bravery, risk-tasking, judiciousness, pragmatism, or whatever else you would like to reinforce.”
In an interview he gave in 2007 which contrasts weirdly with the idealistic tone of magazine articles like that one, Favaro claimed he made Alter Ego for very pragmatic reasons: out of his “love for game design and the prospect of making some money,” using his academic background as “a way of breaking out of the pack of other designers.” It’s not clear how rigorous his claimed research for the game — interviews with “hundreds of people” about their “most memorable life experiences” — really was, or whether it was even conducted solely in the service of this project or was a more general part of his ongoing psychological research at Hofstra. What is very clear, however, is that his idea for a “life simulator” was just the sort of high-toned, innovative project that Jim Levy’s Activision 2.0 swooned over. It didn’t take much to convince them to sign the project. Favaro would write and prototype the game on his Macintosh, while Activision would contract the final programming out to two outside developers: Kottwitz & Associates to do the Apple II and MS-DOS versions, and Unimac to do the Macintosh and Commodore 64 versions. Activision loved the cachet bestowed on the project by Favaro’s status as an actual psychologist so much that they always made sure to refer to him in the packaging, the manual, and advertisements only as “Peter J. Favaro, PhD.”
Alter Ego, which comes in a male and a female version, begins with a multiple-choice personality test that sets your initial scores in twelve characteristics that will be tracked throughout the game: Calmness, Confidence, Expressiveness, Familial, Gentleness, Happiness, Intellectual, Physical, Social, Thoughtfulness, Trustworthiness, and Vocational. You then get to live an entire life: the first scene has you in the womb getting ready to make your big exit (or, if you like, entrance), while the last is the scene of your death, at whatever age and in whatever manner your choices and the cruel vagaries of chance cause that to be. The years between are divided into seven distinct phases: Infancy (birth to age 3), Childhood (ages 4 to 12), Adolescence (ages 13 to 17), Young Adulthood (ages 18 to 30), Adulthood (ages 31 to 45), Middle Adulthood (ages 46 to 64), and Old Age (age 65 to death). Each phase plays out as a series of little interactive vignettes, both universal “life experiences” in the form of the track running down the center of the screen and “life choices,” having to do with relationships, marriage and family life, your career and finances, etc., represented by icons to either side of the experience track. Playing Alter Ego is a matter of choosing to have a life experience or to make a life choice by clicking the appropriate icon, then reacting to what follows as you believe you would in real life — or as you believe the character you’ve chosen to play would. The outcome of most vignettes will affect you in some way, whether by changing some of your twelve characteristics or by bringing more concrete changes to your life, like marriage, a new career, the death of somebody close to you, or for that matter your own death. If nothing else, some time will pass and you will age that little bit. (In a ludic illustration of the way time just seems to fly by faster as you get older, time jumps in larger chunks between later episodes as compared to earlier.) Your personality characteristics, relationship and marriage status, income, etc., in turn affect the vignettes themselves — closing some off to you entirely, altering what transpires in others. While there are still plenty of times where the lack of more comprehensive state-tracking can make the episodes feel inappropriate for your you, Alter Ego does its best, and its best is sometimes better than you might expect.
Leaving aside for a moment the larger thematic innovations of Alter Ego, the interface itself is well worth considering. It is, first of all, yet another impressive implementation of a Macintosh-style interface on computers that predate the Mac itself by years. But more important is Activision and Favaro’s decision to not try to make Alter Ego work through a parser. I’ve railed before against games that want to present big, life-changing choices rather than dwelling on the granular minutiae of Zork, but that insist out of misplaced traditionalism on forcing you to make those choices through a parser. Alter Ego, however, at long last shows the courage to break with tradition. Rather than offer only a few options but force you to wrestle with a parser to divine what they are, Alter Ego just shows you your options and lets you choose one. That may seem reasonable and unremarkable enough today, but it makes Alter Ego one of the first computerized hypertext narratives, a forerunner of Storyspace and the many similar systems that followed. I don’t make any claims to absolute firsts for Alter Ego; our old friends Level 9 in Britain among others were also experimenting with choice-based narratives by the mid-1980s. Still, Alter Ego stands as the most prominent early example of the format. Given that a menu of choices is so much easier to implement than a parser and the relatively complicated world model that must lie behind it, one might well wonder what took the industry so long. My suspicion, for what it’s worth, is that developers were consciously or unconsciously concerned about differentiating themselves from the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were all the rage at the time in children’s publishing.
But now it’s time to get beyond mechanical innovations and the brilliantly original concept itself and look at what it’s actually like to play Alter Ego. More so than even a typical text adventure, which has puzzles and other logistical concerns to distract, a game like this lives and dies for me on the quality of its writing. In this department Alter Ego is, at best, a mixed bag. The early vignettes are the most natural and effective — perhaps because Favaro was technically a child psychologist by trade, perhaps because he was only in his late twenties at the time he wrote the game and thus had only his book learning to draw from when describing the later stages of life. I’m afraid I’m going to be pretty hard on old Peter J. Favaro, PhD, soon enough, so let me first offer a couple of childhood episodes that I really like. One might make you laugh, and the other might… well, okay, it’s a bit sentimental and contrived, what with both husband and daughter managing to get themselves killed by the same freight train, but it’s also very sweet. (In the extracts that follow, I’ll be mixing the male and female versions of the game pretty freely.)
You are sitting in a large place, and a furry man walks up to you. He's walking around you in circles.
Select a mood:
Select an action:
point at the furry man
make noises at/talk to the furry man X
The furry man walks right up to you and smells you up and down. His nose pokes into your face and neck. It's cold.
Select an action:
grab the furry man by the head
push him off you
Your mom comes over and says the furry man is just playing. She takes your hand and puts it on the furry man's back and says, "Nice 'doggie'."
Select an action:
pet the man X
stay frightened and go away from the man
See? It isn't that bad. You pound on the man's back and say, "Nice 'doo-gee'."
There is an elderly woman who lives in a house up the street. Everyone calls her "the witch." Some people say she's really paranoid, calling the cops on kids all the time and screaming out the window, even when there is nobody there. At night she keeps her light on all the time and sits looking out the window.
For the past few days the light has been off. Some of the kids think she's just dead in there or something. They jump in front of her house and sing "Ding dong, the witch is dead, the witch is dead," and laugh.
Select a mood:
Select an action:
sing with everyone else
try to see if anything is wrong X
One afternoon after school, you look from outside the gate to see if there is anything going on inside the house. There is nothing. You can:
go through the gate and knock on the door X
ask a friend to go with you
You hear a voice call out from the back of the house, "Go away and leave me alone!" You can:
say "I'd like to know if you're o.k. in there." X
quit trying and leave
You hear nothing for about 30 seconds. Finally, the door opens. The woman looks pale and dazed. She seems smaller than you imagined and very delicate. In the corner of her almost-bare living room there is a television set; beside it is a large box of old rubber balls and toys that were left, or had accidentally fallen, on her lawn.
She asks you why you have come. You mention that you noticed that the light has gone out, and you thought she might be needing some help. She explains that she has no way to replace it. She is too old to climb up to do it. You can:
ask her if she would like you to do it X
excuse yourself, now that you know it's just a problem with a light bulb
She thanks you. Her face softens. While you are fixing the light, she tells you a very sad story: A long time ago, she had a little girl very much like you, so polite and so kind. She says her daughter was beautiful, and repeats it over and over--"as beautiful as a picture."
She and her husband lived with their daughter not too far from the train yard. She used to tell her child, "Anne Marie, stay away from the tracks, or you'll get hurt." One day, her daughter and her husband went out to play catch with an old ball. The ball got away from Anne and rolled across the tracks.
While she was chasing it, her foot got wedged between two rails. Her father and she struggled to release it, but before they could, they were both struck by a freight train and killed. She's been alone ever since.
When you are finished fixing the light, the lady gives you some milk and freshly-baked cookies. It almost seems as though she doesn't want you to go. Before you leave, you:
thank her for the cookies and ask if she would like someone around to do odd jobs X
thank her and excuse yourself
Her face brightens. "You must be paid," she says. "I can't afford much, and you'll have to do a fine job, but you can have all the cookies and brownies you can eat. I promise you that." You have done a much kinder thing than you can probably imagine at your age. You've given this woman a reason to live.
Many other vignettes unfortunately manifest the clunkier qualities of the one above without the same endearing sweetness.
The subject of sex has inspired far more bad writing over the course of history than any ten other topics combined. For better or for worse there’s lots and lots of sex in Alter Ego, so much so that it obviously made Activision more than a little nervous; there are prominent warnings on the box and in the manual, and when you actually stumble into a vignette with naughty content you get a big warning message so you can quickly back out with your delicate sensibilities undisturbed. (When we played Alter Ego as kids, of course, that warning meant we’d hit pay dirt.) Some of these episodes feel like they’re lifted from a late-night skin flick.
Perri Barber is an acquaintance who has taken a few of the same classes you have. She is a petite brunette with gorgeous green eyes, a nice smile, and a slim athletic body. She approaches you on campus and asks if you would be interested in helping her paint her dormitory room. What will you do?
help her decorate X
pass on the opportunity
During the course of the afternoon, you get to know one another very well. You work together in close quarters (the room is very small), so a lot of accidental touching and bumping occurs during the day. You aren't sure, but you think that Perri is coming on to you.
Select an action:
suggest that the two of you shower off together
ignore any signals that she might be giving you X
I guess this is not your style. It IS Perri's style, though. She asks if you would like her to scrub all that paint off your gorgeous body.
Select an action:
accept the offer X
reject the offer
The two of you take a nice, warm, romantic shower together. I'll leave what comes after the shower up to your imagination. [Thank God for that!]
When not indulging in teenage-boy fantasies, Alter Ego‘s attempts at the risque manage to be weirdly, anticlimactically square, the sort of things a gaggle of Monty Python housewives would define as transgressive.
Until now, your sexual experiences with your wife have been the standard fare. You've done a little experimenting with positions but that's about it. Have you been thinking about suggesting something a little more out of the ordinary?
"as a matter of fact, yes" X
What would you like to try?
oral sex X [Shocking!]
being tied up and tickled [No, I couldn't possibly...]
experimenting with marital aids (vibrators, creams, etc.) [Gasp!]
suggesting a menage a' trois (sex with your wife and another woman at the same time) [Now we're getting somewhere... and why do I find the game's need to define this phrase so unaccountably hilarious?]
Your wife is too inhibited to do this, she tells you she would rather not. [Oh, well, it was worth a try...]
In case you were wondering: no, if you play as a woman, you don’t get to ask for sex with two men at once. The woman always gets the short end of the stick in Alter Ego, about which much more in a moment.
Alter Ego is relentlessly hetero-normative. Apart from the ménage à trois, which at least in this context is of course really a heterosexual male fantasy, there are only a couple of places where the game even acknowledges the possibility of alternative sexualities. At one point you can be asked by your French teacher, Mr. Andre, “who everyone in school claims is gay,” to stay after school to help him clean his office. If you ignore the teasing of your classmates and brave the danger, he turns out to not be a Big Scary Gay Man after all: you learn he has a wife and a beautiful daughter, whom he sets you up with to boot. (The game’s blasé assumption that because he has a wife he doesn’t have feelings for men and doesn’t desire you is… interesting.) In another vignette a friend tells you that he believes he is gay, a revelation that the game treats with the same tragic gravity as a terminal disease.
But then, considering the time and place that spawned it, it’s not really fair to expect much more from Alter Ego. It’s very much a product of its time — sometimes depressingly, oppressively so. And, as Adam Cadre once hilariously noted, that time never changes even as a lifetime’s worth of personal experience plays out. Alter Ego‘s milieu is a frozen-in-amber world where a 512 K PC is the best you can buy, where The A-Team and Miami Vice rule the television, where Jordache jeans and Members Only jackets rule in schoolyard fashion, where Madonna is all over MTV (okay, maybe some things really are eternal). Whether you find this horrifying or nostalgically comforting depends on the player I suppose; I lean toward the former personally. Social change — history in general — just doesn’t happen in Alter Ego, which can be as strange to experience as it is understandable from a design perspective: having already tried to create a complete interactive life story, it’s a bit much to expect Favaro to create a believable future history to accompany it, and likely wouldn’t have turned out very well had he tried. Still, playing Alter Ego is like living your life inside the white-bread confines of a 1980s version of The Truman Show. Literally white-bread: apart from the occasional socially-inept immigrant kid you can choose to feel sorry for, everyone in this game is the whitest shade of pale.
If Alter Ego‘s lack of inclusiveness is to some extent forgivable given its origins, I do have more problems dismissing Favaro’s cluelessly demeaning sexism. As with a lot of games I write about, I played Alter Ego with my wife Dorte. She played with the female version, I with the male, and we took turns playing through a life phase at a time and comparing notes. Our agreed approach was to each play ourselves, making the choices we thought we would make at those ages in those situations. As we played, I found myself getting more and more angry at the game and sad for Dorte, as I kept getting to do cool and/or bold things and she kept being offered only meek girlie stuff. I got to go skydiving; she got to get an eyebrow tattoo. I slashed a hated teacher’s tires; she got a new hairdo. I got to buy video equipment or a flash new computer; she got to buy jewelry or “gourmet cooking accessories.” She always got offered the subordinate role, the pretty girl cheering on the boys who were actually doing something. I got to try out for the baseball team; she got to try out for the cheerleading squad. I got to start a rock band with some buddies; she got to call in to a radio show and win backstage passes to a concert (“Could you SCREAM?”).
Favaro’s concept of feminism feels at least two decades behind the times — i.e., about five decades behind our modern times. Alter Ego treats the decision to pick up a single restaurant tab for your steady boyfriend as a blow for “Woman’s Libbers” — when was the last time you heard that term? — everywhere, one so bold that it makes your boyfriend feel “uncomfortable” and emasculated. A male chauvinist you meet at work is just a mustache-twirling villain who says things absolutely no one would dare say openly even in 1986 and who has little to do with the real issues women still confront every day in the working world.
You have been going through a difficult time with an influential businessperson who seems to really enjoy making people miserable with his sexist attitudes, his arbitrary decision-making and his arrogance.
You get called into his office to take the heat for a relatively minor error. The conversation begins, "Look, Darling. I've always believed that a woman's place is in the home. Unfortunately, those bleeding hearts upstairs have made it impossible for me to deal 'man-to-man' around here. There are some problems here that I want resolved, AND NOW!"
One of the interstitial quotes Alter Ego occasionally puts up is this bit of condescension by Sigmund Freud: “The great question… which I have not been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'” Peter J. Favaro, PhD, also doesn’t have a clue. I normally resist the urge to psychoanalyze the people who write the games I write about, but, given that Favaro spends the entirety of Alter Ego analyzing me and offering commentary and criticism on my every action, I’ll make a slight exception and wonder if this passage, which is worthy of a certain rotund cigar-chomping radio host, reflects deeper insecurities.
Mary Lou Stoker is a friend of your closest female companion and a staunch feminist. The truth is that she is not a feminist in the true sense of the word; she simply despises and resents men, misapplying the feminist philosophy to suit her needs.
One afternoon, you overhear Mary Lou telling your best friend that the love of your life "really doesn't give you that much room to breathe." She says, "I mean, he's okay, considering the rest of the garbage that's out there these days, but I wonder if she feels a little trapped in the same place day in and day out?" She goes on this way for quite a while.
My favorite, unintentionally revealing part of this is the phrase “the feminist philosophy,” as if feminists represent a political party — or conspiracy — who all march in lockstep to the same play book.
The most cringe-worthy parts of Alter Ego as a whole are those parts of the female version that deal with the sexual side of puberty and adolescence. Really, can there be any worse subject for a less-than-subtle 28-year-old male writer to tackle? Despite close competition from the likes of discovering your breasts are growing, getting your first period, and having your first orgasm, I think your first visit to a gynecologist makes for the creepiest episode in the game; this fellow is actually far creepier than the Chester the Molester who tries to pick you up outside your school. After making inquiries with one or two women of my acquaintance, I’ve confirmed that if you’re spending any time at all “naked” in a gynecologist’s office then something is very, very wrong.
Your mother calls you in for a talk about something she says is "very very important." She thinks that it might be a good time to go for a checkup with a "gynecologist," a doctor who specializes in women.
Select a mood:
Select an action:
go for an exam X
don't go for an exam
On the way over, your mother explains to you, "It's a little embarrassing at first, but he really is a gentle doctor." You dwell for a moment on the word "he," and realize that a man is going to see and "mess around with" all of your most intimate parts.
Select an action:
change your mind and tell her you don't want to see a man doctor
go anyway X
The gynecologist is a very sweet old man. Most of the time you spend naked is with a nurse who helps prepare you for the exam. The doctor is kind enough to warm up the instruments before he examines you.
When the examination begins, he shows you various different parts of your reproductive system and teaches you how to give yourself a breast examination, which he says is very important.
He asks your mother if she would be kind enough to leave the room. When she does, he asks you whether you are sexually active and if you are using birth control. He then asks if you would like more information about birth control.
Select an action:
get more information
say, "no." X [Get me out of here!]
He sees that you are feeling a bit uncomfortable and tells you that if you ever need information about birth control to give the office a call. He leaves you with a little warning. "Don't experiment before you get the facts, young lady."
Alter Ego strictly enforces the law of social averages. There are very good design reasons that it can’t allow you to become an astronaut, a rock star, an international drug smuggler, or even a homeless tramp; doing so would invalidate virtually all of the other vignettes that deal with daily life as most Americans of the 1980s knew it. But if the emphasis on the ordinary is defensible given Alter Ego‘s design constraints, the reductive judgments the game is constantly making about your actions certainly are not. Alter Ego is forever telling you why you’ve done something, and then whether that’s good or bad. If you respond to a blue period by just “letting it pass,” it tells you you’re “denying your feelings” and that “it’s okay to feel blue some of the time.” (When did I say that it wasn’t?) If you fail to gush with loving support after your dad gets fired from his job, you’re scolded for not telling him “he is a worthwhile and cherished human being.” (What if I’ve always had a difficult relationship with him and can’t help but remember that he was never really there for me in similar situations, and thus my feelings are more complex than just a “cherishing?”) If you fail to volunteer time or money to a charity that knocks on your door, you’re called in so many words a selfish jerk who can’t be bothered to think of the children! (What if I’m a bit suspicious of big international charities, and prefer to do my giving in other ways?) If you commit suicide — presumably due to all that feeling-denying that was going earlier — you’re told that suicide is always “an act of anger,” but the last laugh’s on you, because “the people you leave behind will try very hard to put this event in their pasts as quickly as possible.” (Suicide is way more complex than just another way of acting out, as someone with a PhD in Psychology really ought to know.) If you try to offer a little advice to a friend who’s having an affair, you’re mockingly told to butt out, “Sigmund.” (Oh, the irony…) When you have your inevitable midlife-crisis, you’re given this semantic drivel about “wishing” and “wanting”:
One of the key things to consider is the difference between WISHING and WANTING. You can spend the rest of your life WISHING for something magical to happen that will change your unsatisfying situation. If you WANT something badly enough, you do whatever is necessary to make it happen, even if it is difficult.
Playing Alter Ego today as a crotchety 42-year-old, my reaction to stuff like this is to ask what the hell do you know about it, Peter J. Favaro, PhD? No one has the right to pass such easy judgment on the complexities of life. If you’ve ever spent time flipping through self-help books, passages like those above may have a familiar ring, and for good reason: Favoro has since built a career around such pat aphorisms, writing a number of pop-psychology books and appearing on the low-hanging fruit of the talk-show circuit — places like The Montel Williams Show and Fox News morning shows — as a “television psychologist.”
I know I’ve been awfully hard on Favaro today, and perhaps not entirely fairly. His project was in a way doomed from the start. I’m sure that neither I, nor you, nor any one person could have done it justice, brilliant as the idea of it is. I’d therefore like to see a modern version of Alter Ego that would try a different approach. Instead of a single author, inevitably blinkered by her experiences and prejudices, I’d like to see a crowd-sourced Alter Ego. People from all over the world, and of all ages, races, genders, and sexualities, would be able to submit their own vignettes reflecting their own lived experiences. The result would be a constantly expanding tapestry of the human experience, accessible to anyone who ever felt an urge to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Rather than flatten the human experience into some idea of the psychologically normal, it would celebrate all of the different ways there are to think and feel and be.
As for the original Alter Ego, it did moderately well commercially; Favaro claims it earned him enough to buy “a house and a car.” Activision and Favaro made plans to release a follow-up called Child’s Play, “a humorous simulation about raising children,” but sweeping changes at Activision in the months after Alter Ego‘s release soon brought an end to that project, and with it Favaro’s career as a game designer.
Alter Ego enjoyed a big revival in the mid-2000s thanks to Dan Fabulich’s web-based version. He’s since also made it available as apps for Android, iOS, and even Kindle e-readers. It’s safe to say by now that many more people have played Alter Ego in its accessible modern incarnations than did so back in the day when it was a $35 boxed game. And indeed, while it does kind of annoy the hell out of me with its dodgy writing, lecturing authorial persona, and blinkered worldview, it’s still worth a look. Not only is it interesting purely for what it tries to do, but many other players genuinely enjoy it on its own terms. And hey, even if you feel like me about it you can still enjoy yourself a lot by making fun of it. Dorte and I had a blast doing that.
In that spirit, I’ll leave you with my favorite male-version/female-version juxtaposition of all.
The female version:
You are getting dressed one day and notice a small red mark on your lip. Could it be some kind of disease? You think about all the boys you've kissed in the past month and decide to kill anyone who has given you a terminal disease.
And the male version:
You are getting dressed one day and notice a small red mark on your penis. Could it be some kind of disease?
Maybe I should take back what I said about the female always getting the short end of the stick…
(Notable writings by and about Favaro can be found in the October 1982 Compute!; the April 1983 and October 1983 Creative Computng; the November 1984 Family Computing; and the November 1982, March 1983, August 1983, September 1983, and January 1984 SoftSide. His three pre-Alter Ego games that were mentioned in the text appeared in SoftSide Selections 54, 58, and 60.)