Planet Interactive Fiction

May 28, 2015

Jolt Country

Cyberganked is on Steam Greenlight

by Ice Cream Jonsey at May 28, 2015 05:00 AM

I’m putting the character role-playing game I’m making onto Steam Greenlight, in the hopes that it gets on Steam proper. This is not the first time I’ve tried to put something on Steam. Long before the Greenlight program, I submitted Cryptozookeeper into their old system and got a rejection letter. I’ll give the old process this: they were quick. Before I had even finished filling out the form on the old system they e-mailed me a picture of someone in Bellevue making the “cut him off” gesture.

You can experience the Greenlight page for Cyberganked by clicking here. There’s a trailer on the page that I haven’t posted to Jolt Country, along with some screenshots.

Cyberganked is an RPG made with the Hugo programming language, which is what I’ve used for the last few games. I’m calling it a text adventure / RPG hybrid to keep all my options open. I guess the difference is that you won’t have to think of new verbs like you would in a normal text adventure. You’ll have all the commands you need in Cyberganked from the beginning.

Robb’s works are not for everyone, but they’re for the intelligent, good people. So the problem kind of works itself out. I interviewed him for a documentary on interactive fiction a number of years back, and his works before and since have been hilarious buffets of viciousness, intelligence and humor. I can’t recommend his way of doing things enough, and his consistency in working on these projects is admirable. Support this guy! — Jason Scott

I wanted to thank everyone that has commented and retweeted links and encouraged me through the process. I anticipated lots of Greenlight comments saying how much the game sucked and by extension how much I suck. Instead, I’ve already been getting great feedback. I’ll be putting updates here and there as I don’t think there’s a whole lot of overlap between this blog and the Greenlight page.

Cyberganked is a ways away from being finished, but I wanted to get it approved for Steam early. If you have a chance to vote that’d be awesome. (Greenlight Downvoter is in the game as a level six enemy, so if you ever wanted to be represented in a video game that’s your big chance. I’d still appreciate the yes vote, though.)



Unlike communism, your votes truly matter. I’m psyched as I can be to make this the best game I’ve ever worked on. I don’t care if the thing makes money — it’d be nice to break even. Steam allows me to have my games seen by more people, and that’s its value to me. It will get into the hands of people who would otherwise never experience them.

pfff — Sigurd

Pfff indeed, friends.

May 27, 2015

Segue

When the Land Goes Under the Water: Mini-Postmortem

May 27, 2015 08:37 PM

Shufflecomp, which has just closed its second edition, is an IF competition in which entrants swap playlists and make games based on songs. Not content with taking part in the previous two IF comps, I entered Shufflecomp this year.

When the Land Goes Under the Water, pseudonymously released under the name Nikephoros de Kloet, was my entry.

Themes

I wanted to get started quickly, so my process here was simply to listen through the playlist I received and pick up on the first few things that came up. A lot of the songs suggested things that were either more specific than what I wanted to do (ie, I didn’t feel like writing something referencing specific characters or events in a song). Some of the songs were too expansive, so I didn’t feel like I could scope the game to do them justice; for instance, I had My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist (The Decemberists) which is its own long elaborate family story with multiple characters. I also received a track from Ziltoid the Omniscient (Devin Townsend), which was itself a ten minute long section of an hours-long space opera.

I ended up settling on What’cha Gonna Do (Béla Fleck, Abigail Washburn). It’s a pretty simple folk tune which conjures up (for me, anyway) images of an Appalachian community being dispersed because their valley is about to become the reservoir of a new dam. That is to say, exactly what is implied to happen after the ending of Deliverance. Thinking about Deliverance got me to the idea of an apocalyptic story turned on its head: What if you sifted through the ashes of a society that had just been wiped out, but the overwhelming mood was “these were horrible people and it’s a good thing they’re gone.” Atlantis was an easy place to go for this effect.

Development

I’m generally fascinated by objects as storytelling instruments. And I knew I had to be very conservative with scoping this project. Shufflecomp is fairly brief, and I didn’t have a lot of time to put into it in the first place. So if I wanted to do a parser piece (Which I did, since I was going to be leaning on object descriptions for all my storytelling), I had to limit myself severely. The game makes this explicit from the start: It’s a purely exploratory piece with a severely limited palette of verbs. It’s about taking a walk through a prose space, looking at the scenery, piecing together a picture of Atlantean society from those objects, then leaving.

Atlantis as an imperial state run by a body-horror shame cult is a setting I might want to come back to at some point. The goal was to play around with the tension of loss – something is very much being lost forever, but closer examination reveals that maybe it should be buried anyway. Asking the player to play only once stemmed from that; I wanted to sell the moment when the player realises part of the game has been cut off. I also liked the thought of players having different experiences, and having to talk to other players to figure out how those differ.

As it turns out: People really despise being told to not replay the game. Almost universally, the reaction to that was a kernel of unhappiness amidst mostly positive reviews. In retrospect, including that note was a mistake for a number of reasons.

A major one was that the two game branches just weren’t different enough. Another is simply that this kind of discussion is infrequent these days, at least in public online spaces where I might see it. So even if players were to compare experiences, the discussion would mostly consist of collating coherent chunks of information.

Ultimately, I think this shows that you can’t achieve an effect in a way that antagonises your audience long before the effect becomes apparent, though I will claim ignorance and say I did not expect it to be read as antagonistically as it was.

I’m still interested in the idea of games that supply players with variant perspectives and ask those players to exchange them, but I think this may be successful as part of the technology itself – either in the form of a game with persistent state that forces players to stick to their choices, or as a multiplayer IF experience. Emily Short’s Aspel plays around in that area with fascinating results.

Still: With overall praise for its prose, a moderately positive IFDB score, and no technical issues on release, I have to consider When the Land Goes Over the Water a success, and comp voters seemed to agree, as the game was commended. But consider this Official Dispensation to ignore my stupid author’s notes and replay the game as many times as you please.

As a bonus, here’s a Spotify playlist of the songs I submitted to Shufflecomp this year. One of them, Jusqu’a la Mort, inspired a game (Submerge). Funny that both me and the author of that game wrote games about things sinking into the ocean.

The Gameshelf: IF

Hadean Lands greenlit! It turns out

by Andrew Plotkin at May 27, 2015 07:29 PM

A few days ago my idle twitter-browsing was upended:

Huh. I just checked the Greenlight page for @zarfeblong's Hadean Lands... I somehow missed the news that Valve had started the GL process (@andetkaihetera)

Really? I, um, missed the news too. But a quick glance at the HL Greenlight page showed:

This game has been Greenlit by the Community!

The community has shown their interest in this game. Valve has reached out to this developer to start moving things toward release on Steam.

I was off at Balticon, so I couldn't dig into the matter right then. (Which is why everybody else announced the news before me.) But now I'm back and more or less caught up on life. So here's what I know.

If Valve reached out to me, I missed it. The Greenlight page says "Updated: May 12 @ 7:24pm", and the voting stats stop on May 11. So I guess the game was officially greenlit two weeks ago and nobody noticed until this weekend? O the embarrassment.

The site now offers me a link to "become a Steamworks partner". So I have begun that process. I have filled out a great many forms' worth of tax and banking info, the usual excitement. (And the usual confusion about whether I should use Zarfhome LLC's EIN or my personal SSN, a question which I will never, ever get right on the first try.)

Bureaucracy aside, what does this mean for Hadean Lands? I wish I could just push a button and launch the thing onto Steam. But no -- not that simple.

The Mac/PC/Linux download packages that I built last year are playable. But they're not nice. Gargoyle doesn't even have a font preference menu. (You can bejigger a text config file, of all the archaic monstrosities.)

Worse problem: Gargoyle doesn't handle high-res displays. It renders text at the old-school resolution, which means it looks fuzzy and awful. "Retina" displays are standard on high-end Macs and are moving steadily down the product line, and now we're seeing them on Windows machines too. So this is serious.

I would like to switch to other interpreters, at least on Mac and Windows. However, the options are currently Mac Zoom (crashy) and WinGlulx (backscroll is hidden behind an obscure keystroke). Um. I'm very much afraid that I'll have to spend a couple of months fixing up other people's interpreters before I can build Steam-acceptable games.

Now, in some ways this is great. I like contributing fixes to open-source projects! Particularly for IF interpreters! But it's a lot of work, and no cash up front. What's up front is learning curve -- I haven't built either Windows or MacOS apps, not since the 1990s.

I'd probably want some game-specific interpreter features, too. There's the dynamic map -- or, if I can't swing that, I should at least display the static map in a separate window when asked. Same for the IF postcard.

On top of that, I need to browse through Steam's SDK and figure out how it works. I have to think about achievements (probably not) and trading cards (I don't even know). I have to look into whether Steam's libraries can legally be wedged in with IF interpreters, which tend to be GPL.

Plus: this would be a terrific opportunity for that HL bug fix release, right? An impressive bug list has piled up since October. I've barely touched it. Surely it's worth putting my best foot forward for the Steam release.

Whew. All of this will happen, but it will happen in parallel with other work. For example, look at this exciting teaser page that I put up last week...

What is this? I'm not saying! Except to note that it is neither parser-based nor traditionally choice-based (hyperlink or menu style). Fun, eh?

And now, the traditional "green it forward" section:

Cyberganked, Robb Sherwin's retro text RPG, has just gone up on Greenlight. Character classes! Live photos! CGA palettes! Live photos in CGA palettes! Surely a winner.

Porpentine, Twine author and winner of multiple IF awards, is Greenlighting Eczema Angel Orifice, a collection of over 20 of her works. You can't talk about the past few years of choice-based IF without talking about Porpentine.

And some IF works which have been on Greenlight for a while, and are still working their way towards the goal line:

Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter (Mike Gentry and David Cornelson)

The Shadow in the Cathedral (Ian Finley and Jon Ingold)

These Heterogenous Tasks

Out There Ω

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at May 27, 2015 07:01 PM

outthere1Out There Ω is a resource-management space-exploration game. A more straightforward way to describe it – the influence is fairly obvious – is as FTL without combat.

A lone astronaut, displaced by mysterious forces, has to make the long trek home. You gather resources and technology, upgrade your ship or trade it in for a better one, encounter weird aliens and piece together their language, gather hints about how the universe has changed while you’ve been away.

It’s got a bit more of a narrative slant than FTL; the writer and designer is JB / FibreTigre, best-known in the IF world for Ekphrasis and Works of Fiction. The protagonist has a distinctive voice, an odd mix of perky and dour. (It completely doesn’t jive with the brief voice-acting in the intro; the VO sounds like a generic stubblygruff bromerican protagonist, while the writing’s modes are existential angst and flippant humour.) It’s more mobile-friendly – less fiddly simultaeneous detail to manage. Like FTL, however, most of the immediate plot is random encounters in space, with multiple-choice responses that you mostly answer based on guesswork.

Out There Ω has roguelike death, and makes survival tough; a lot of the things that make it difficult can rarely be controlled, and others are subject to severe trade-offs. Your ship has limited cargo slots, which can be taken up by either upgrades or resources; building an upgrade always means that you have less room for resources. To build an upgrade you need the right technology (mostly granted by random events), and the right set of resources (mostly found by mining planets, which requires you to gamble fuel on the chance that the resources you need are present). Almost everything you do costs resources; you’re constantly struggling against attrition, and even major success doesn’t buy you much breathing room.

Another feature is that it’s possible for random events to just totally screw you. For instance: because jumps are analogue rather than binary, every one takes a slightly different amount of fuel. More powerful engines can make bigger jumps. But it’s also fairly common for events to teleport you to new star-systems – and sometimes they’re systems which your ship just isn’t powerful enough to get out of. In FTL, there’s always a jump you can make; and even with no time and no fuel, you can theoretically fight your way out, getting fuel off the Rebel fleet. Death in FTL is usually hot, a shitstorm of whiffed missile strikes and shipboard fires that leaves you with the sense that it could have been avoided with a little more luck or presence of mind. Death in Out There is usually cold: you’ve exhausted your resources and your options, there’s nothing more to do.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t ways that you can increase your chances; getting a sense of the odds can make your life considerably easier. But there are lots of ways in which a few bad breaks with the RNG can scupper you.

This punishing arbitrariness fuels a central theme of the game: that space is mercilessly indifferent to human life, and space travel is mostly horrible. The protagonist’s sanity is imperiled by loneliness, boredom, physical privation and depression (“Emptiness. Death. Life and intelligence are merely accidental”); he suffers from the effects of cosmic radiation; he complains about how aliens consistently fail to be sexy girls (indeed, ‘no humanoid aliens’ is a guiding principle).

sexyaliens

Another effect of the difficulty level; when I finally found myself with a viable strategy and the luck to find the gear required for it, things suddenly got quite secure, and I swanned around the galaxy until I found a Plot Marker planet that I could actually reach. And then – info about what that particular plot thread was about, and the end.

Let’s divide the narrative into four phases for a minute:

  • Initial: you have very little clue about anything.
  • Early: you’ve survived for a bit, and picked up some vague clues. Certain events light up the plot-marker (ending) planets.
  • Late: you have a pretty robust strategy and are insured against bad luck. You understand the alien language enough to pick up some foreshadowing.
  • End: you reach a marked planet, get an explanation, and the game closes.

My sense was that the ending was kind of anticlimactic. Now, to be fair, this is a problem with many computer games. It’s also a recurring difficulty with SF contact stories that invest heavily in building up the mystique of the aliens: it’s a hard task to make the actual contact as cool as the mystery. But I think the trouble here was that the late game wasn’t narratively distinct enough from the early game; when I broke through the difficulty wall, things were much the same on the other side. There are major narrative beats available in the early game that introduce new, intriguing plot elements; it feels as though they could use some development in the late game before they get wrapped up.

So I felt that this underperformed a bit as plot goes, but it’s strong as an experiential piece. This is reinforced by atmospheric music and pretty art – particularly the planetscapes.

outlava

 

(Full disclosure: JB gave me a key for Out There, but I ended up buying the game at full price regardless. He picked up dinner, though.)


Choice of Games

Editorial Assistant position

by Jason Stevan Hill at May 27, 2015 06:01 PM

Employer: Choice of Games LLC Location: Telecommute (US resident) Choice of Games LLC was founded in 2009 to produce high-quality, multiple-choice text adventures. Choice of Games has a strong commitment to diversity of authors and representation within its publications. Its games are feminist and inclusive, and have been featured positively in press for the vision-impaired community and the lgbt community. Choice of Games is a small, fast-growing company, with over thirty titles published on storefronts such as the iTunes App Store, Steam, Amazon, and Google Play. This is an excellent opportunity for someone interested in becoming a professional editor or

Continue Reading...

May 26, 2015

Emily Short

Apartment: a Separated Place on Kickstarter (Robyn Tong Gray et al)

by Emily Short at May 26, 2015 04:00 PM

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 3.40.17 PMA-part-ment is a narrative game currently on Kickstarter, and about this > < far from reaching its funding goals. It's a slice of life narrative game that, through vignettes, tells the story of a number of relationships all happening in the same apartment building.

I should preface this by saying that I'm not 100% a disinterested bystander on this project — Robyn asked for my advice early in its development — but it has come a long long way since those early demonstrations.

Some of the interaction involves moving through spaces and discovering objects with emotional resonance, not a wholly new idea but done here quite effectively: holding down the mouse button gives a sort of X-ray view of the apartment you're moving through, allowing you to pin-point the other things you should be looking for. Elsewhere, animated comic strip panels tell part of the story.

Other passages are more unusual: one vignette set tells the story of a writer who is struggling with her marriage. The main view you have during these passages is just the screen of the word processor, though occasionally the husband interrupts, asking questions, running errands, making small demands that are always an intrusion. In this passage the player is typing along to prompted text, so the interruptions always pop up in such a way as to cut off your typing flow, for a beautifully mimetic effect that made me just as annoyed with the husband as my protagonist was intended to be.

See also Kill Screen.


The Gameshelf: IF

Javascript wonkery

by Andrew Plotkin at May 26, 2015 03:40 AM

Here I will take a break from the ever-burbling stream of IF and Myst news, and talk about Javascript optimization.

You could say it's relevant because it came up in a Quixe bug report. ("I tried loading Emily Short's Counterfeit Monkey.... Load time dropped from 29.4 seconds to 10.4 seconds...") IF interpreter improvements are a high priority for me -- particularly if they could be big speed improvements for a fairly small code change. Double-particularly if they imply I've had crappy Javascript code out there for years.

Whoops.

I usually build my Javascript libraries according to the private namespace pattern. I can't remember where I learned this. I assume it originated in this blog post (Douglas Crockford), but I use the cleaner layout described here (Ben Cherry) or here (Todd Motto).

With this trick, all your internal functions and variables wind up hidden from the outside world. You decide which ones to export, and the rest remain private.

Here's a toy example:

Lib = function() {
    var counter = 0;
    var prefix = "The current value is ";

    function add(val) {
        counter += val;
        return counter;
    };

    function get() {
        return prefix + add(0);
    };

    return {
        add: add,
        get: get
    };
}();

Here counter and prefix are private variables. The add() function increases counter and returns it. The get() function returns it as part of a string. (I've set get() up to call add(0) just to demonstrate that private functions can call each other.) Finally, we return an object which exports the add and get symbols. This becomes the global Lib object, so a user can call Lib.add() and Lib.get(). But there is no Lib.counter; that's private.

Crockford says "This pattern of public, private, and privileged members is possible because JavaScript has closures... This is an extremely powerful property of the language." Okay, that's top-grade hand-waving. What he means is "Javascript is a terrible language, but it has stolen enough features from other languages that you can pull this crap off if you're incredibly careful and don't mind confusing onlookers."

Anyhow. The trick works pretty well until you start constructing Javascript functions on the fly. Let's extend our example:

Lib = function() {
    var counter = 0;
    var prefix = "The current value is ";

    var compiledfuncs = {};

    function add(val) {
        var func = compiledfuncs[val];
        if (func === undefined) {
            var text = "counter += " + val + ";";
            text += "return counter;";
            func = eval("(function func() { " + text + " })");
            compiledfuncs[val] = func;
        }
        return func();
    };

    function get() {
        return prefix + add(0);
    };

    return {
        add: add,
        get: get
    };
}();

What the heck is going on in add()? Imagine that this is an IF virtual machine interpreter, like Quixe. We're doing just-in-time (JIT) compilation. We take a Glulx function -- that is, a string of Glulx opcodes -- and convert it into a Javascript function. The browser's Javascript engine will then convert that function into native machine code and the result will run really fast.

Since this is a toy example, our only opcode is "increase counter by N". When we see a call to add(1), for example, we convert that into this Javascript function:

function func() {
    counter += 1;
    return counter;
}

We eval that source (compile it) and stash the function (in case another add(1) comes along). Then we execute it.

So that's great, and it works. But if you profile this in Chrome, for example, you'll see a couple of little yellow warning flags:

  • Not optimized: Function calls eval
  • Not optimized: Reference to a variable which requires dynamic lookup

You see, Javascript is a terrible language, and its scoping model is a haystack of ideas jammed together without any planning, and it can never be fixed because backwards compatibility. Certain operations in closures are legal, but slow.

(To be fair, every language's scoping model sucks. You know how the only hard problems are naming and cache invalidation? This is naming. But Javascript is worse than most.)

We could get rid of the eval() if we used a Function() constructor:

func = new Function(text);

But then the code would fail, because the function would exist outside the library closure. It wouldn't have access to the private variable counter.

I fussed around with a couple of different solutions. I tried inner and outer closures, I tried using this a couple different ways. None of them worked. (Crockford progresses from hand-waving to passive-aggressive sniping: "...an error in the ECMAScript Language Specification which causes this to be set incorrectly for inner functions." You tell 'em.)

I eventually settled on this:

Lib = function() {
    var self = {};
    self.counter = 0;

    var prefix = "The current value is ";

    var compiledfuncs = {};

    function add(val) {
        var func = compiledfuncs[val];
        if (func === undefined) {
            var text = "var self = this;";
            text += "self.counter += " + val + ";";
            text += "return self.counter;";
            func = new Function(text);
            func = func.bind(self);
            compiledfuncs[val] = func;
        }
        return func();
    };

    function get() {
        return prefix + add(0);
    };

    return {
        add: add,
        get: get
    };
}();

Our compiled function can't get access to the private namespace. We need a second namespace which can be handed in for that purpose. We'll call that self. We create self up top, and put the counter in it. We'll have to write self.counter to access it now.

To hand self in to our generated function, we call bind. This is a confusing Javascript feature which lets us glue any object in as the function's this. Then we compile it this way:

function func() {
    var self = this;
    self.counter += 1;
    return self.counter;
}

This is more verbose, but it works. And if we check it in Chrome's profiler, the yellow warning flags are gone.

Note that if we wanted the generated function to call private methods, we'd have to copy them into the self object too:

function get() {
    return prefix + add(0);
};
self.get = get;

Not too messy.

Now the real question is, does this actually make Quixe run faster? I don't know! I've started converting the code to this new model, but it's going to take more work. (The virtual machine has lots of state to shove into the self object.) The person who filed the original report got good results, but I'm not sure I've snagged the right tricks yet.

The toy example in this post seems to run a little slower with these changes. That's not encouraging, but of course it's not a realistic work model. Hopefully I'll have real results in a few days.

Renga in Blue

Porpentine on Greenlight (and Hadean Lands update)

by Jason Dyer at May 26, 2015 03:00 AM

HACKCUPCAKE

A new collection by Porpentine is on Greenlight and awaiting your vote.

Eczema Angel Orifice is a compilation of award-winning interactive fiction by me, Porpentine Charity Heartscape! They’ve been exhibited in museums, profiled in the NYTimes, taught in college classes nationwide, and now I’m trying to get them on Steam, truly the ultimate goal of any artform!

Just to prove trying to put interactive fiction on Steam is not a futile effort, Hadean Lands (posted back in January) has been Greenlit!

Still needing votes are:

Tin Star
https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=425999310

Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter
http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=371862595

The Shadow in the Cathedral
http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=371866777


May 25, 2015

Emily Short

Writing for Seltani, in general

by Emily Short at May 25, 2015 05:00 PM

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 7.16.49 PM

I’ve written a couple of blog posts (1, 2) about particular design decisions for Aspel, a multiplayer game I wrote for Andrew Plotkin’s Seltani platform. Those posts were mostly about how I structured puzzles and information around having multiple characters, touching occasionally on how Seltani’s possibilities and restrictions changed design decisions.

I have a few other thoughts about the platform more generally, about what it’s like to write for.

The overall gist: Seltani offers several obvious and several non-obvious features that made me feel like I was enjoying some of the advantages of Twine (hyperlinked text, the ability to dig deeper into system descriptions, relatively low time/effort cost for embellishing with new details) but had more systemic control. On the other hand, there are definitely some things that it can’t do, and some formatting choices that I understand but am still not crazy about.

I’m not crazy about the multi-pane layout. In Seltani, text describing the location appears at the top of the screen. Conversation and in-the-moment actions appear at the bottom. Descriptions of things you’re looking at appear in a little pop-up window in the middle of the screen. Links to other worlds appear in a sidebar.

For me, that’s at least one panel too many. The sidebar doesn’t bother me too much — I can mostly ignore it when I’m playing, as it’s a navigational aid that’s chiefly relevant when I’m picking a new realm to visit — but the top, middle, and bottom panels split my attention for game content.

It was only after I did some work as an author that I understood why it was all happening that way: you need the middle panel to exist because links aren’t allowed in the bottom panel, and sometimes you want to look at an object and have that object’s description containing links that lead you on to further object descriptions. However, if you added that stuff in the top panel, it would quickly overflow, and the whole idea is to have a persistent location description always available. Meanwhile, the bottom panel has no links because it’s the panel with persistent scrollback, so if you put links there you would also need some way of telling the system when the functionality of those links should expire.

When I’m playing, though, I find it disconcerting the way text can appear unpredictably in either of several places in response to a click. It also makes it difficult to imagine what a transcript for Seltani would even look like. On which note…

I miss scrollback. Lots of Twine games don’t have scrollback to speak of, but many text games do, especially ones with a heavy puzzle emphasis. In Seltani, there’s a small amount of scrollback to allow you to review what’s been said in the chat window recently, but a) it doesn’t go very far and b) it doesn’t include all the text that you’ve seen recently, so vital information can easily be lost.

This is tricky to play with and it’s also kind of tricky from a beta-testing perspective: you really can’t ask a tester to send you a transcript, because there’s no such thing, even if you had a tester dedicated enough to copy and paste diligently.

I miss being able to move objects trivially. Objects in a Seltani world are typically defined via a series of fields in the location in which they appear. Which is fine, until you decide that the prop you put in the Long Hall would really be better placed out in the courtyard. That’s the kind of tweak I make constantly when I’m building an Inform game, where it’s a matter of copying and pasting something to another place in the code (usually only in order to keep the code organized, since functionally it will usually compile anyhow) and changing a couple of words specifying the item’s location.

In Seltani, you can copy and paste an item description to a new field on a new location, yes. And that’s a little bit more work, but not grotesquely so… unless you’ve also already coded a lot of behavior for that item. Then it starts to get ugly.

Zarf has mentioned that there may eventually be some export functionality that would allow duplicating or moving fields from one location to another, but for right now, that’s how it is.

I don’t really miss deluxe CSS formatting so far, but maybe I should. Seltani doesn’t provide many ways to make your project look different, not even at the level of font changes. You can have italics and monospace, and that’s more or less it. There is an option to use a D’ni font, but if you’re not doing Myst fanfiction, that may not be a high-priority goal. You can’t make things funny colors.

And far as I know, you can’t insert images. I did kind of wish there were a way for me to stick in some line drawings in Aspel — I know an artist who would probably be able to do something quite cool with the floating platform at the beginning — but to the best of my knowledge the system just doesn’t go there.

There’s a text randomization feature (woo) but its default behavior is the opposite of what I would default to (eh). Seltani offers a system for expanding templates with randomized content, so you can have text like “The explorer is wearing a [[color]] [[accessory]]” and have it expand out to blue/black/red hat/scarf/hairbow. Tokens can nest, so you can get considerably more complex results than this too; and there’s some nice help with punctuation. However, by default it does this based on a consistent instance seed, so what you see in a given instance is always the same unless the author has gone out of her way to re-randomize.

Since I tend to use this kind of effect less often for persistent scenery than for passing environmental effects, I’d prefer the opposite: a fresh random roll each time the text is printed unless the author goes out of her way to make it fixed. In Aspel, for instance, I wanted to have some timed random behavior in a chamber that contained NPCs, so naturally I didn’t want it to repeat the same sentence again and again; I wanted a different sentence each time.

Still, you can make it do what I want; it’s just a little more effort.

Code inclusions. There’s straight-forward access to code blocks, which allow coding in more-or-less standard Python. I occasionally ran into some points where some bit of Python syntax I’m used to wasn’t covered by Seltani, but mostly it was transparent. Using this functionality, I was able to code for myself the behavior of one of the standard Twine word-cycling macros in about five minutes. After which I could always see how it worked and could tweak that working for myself if I needed to. Win. (This is in a WIP, not in Aspel, but if people are interested when it’s done I can share the code for that.)

I know, you can do macros in Twine, but in my experience this is such a black box that one is usually pasting something found on the internet into a special code node and then hoping one never has to touch it again.

If you’re code-averse, you don’t have to use this option: you don’t need to write any code to make basic things happen in Seltani.

Realm properties. There’s a clear place to put global realm behavior that you can access from any of the subordinate locations. That gives me a sensible place to organize reusable verbs; it’s also where I do any inventory implementation sorts of things. This still requires that each location explicitly use those hooks — if I’ve written realm-wide inventory listing, I still have to explicitly put “[[inventory]]” into the end of each room description — but it helps, all the same. It would be even niftier if there were hooks so that I could have realm-defined text appended to the beginning or end of a room description, but let’s not get greedy.

Debugging. Choice-based game systems don’t always offer much access to the underlying world model (if there is one) during play. As an author, you can always lard up your game with print statements that report variable information, but this is a clumsy and inelegant solution compared with more systemic tools. In Seltani, because you are allowed a text entry window (where you would normally chat with other players), you also get some debugging options to check property values and run arbitrary commands.


May 24, 2015

Emily Short

Tightening the World-Plot Interface: or, Why I Am Obsessed With Conversation Models

by Emily Short at May 24, 2015 05:00 PM

framed

Framed is an interactive comic game in which you move around the panels of the story, reordering events in order to change what happens in the story. It looks really attractive, too.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

When I first heard of this game, I was hugely excited about it. There aren’t that many entries in the interactive comic space, and this seemed to offer a slightly different set of mechanics to go alongside Dan Benmergui’s (unfinished but, to judge by the demos, awesome) Storyteller or Troy Chin’s Forgetting or the somewhat over-difficult Strip ‘Em All.

When I actually played Framed, though, I had essentially the same reaction described at The Digital Reader:

While Framed is based on a clever dynamic, the actual game is repetitive to the point that I am bored… Rather than have the user solve puzzles with different goals and different solutions, the vast majority of the levels I played all had the same goal: avoid the cops. Other than setting things up so the protagonist can either bypass cops or sneak up behind cops and hit them over the head, there’s not much to this game.

I’m maybe a little less harsh than this — I did feel that Framed was worth playing, and I know that some people did enjoy the puzzles — but nonetheless, I was hoping for something that did new work in telling an interactive story, rather than just setting up a bunch of puzzle levels. In that area it fell short. All of the puzzles are about a similar problem — one set of characters escaping another — and the stakes don’t alter much either. This makes for boring story.

The problem occurs at the world model-to-plot interface. That’s a challenging area for parser IF, too — and indeed for any game in which the player cannot influence the plot directly, but has to change the world model in order to move forward. Choice-based games vary in this regard, but probably more of them are of the directly-influence-plot variety than of the indirect-influence variety.

The Gostak requires the player to figure out the meaning of its strange vocabulary in order to play

The Gostak requires the player to figure out the meaning of its strange vocabulary in order to play

I’ve written before about the value of a systematic mechanic, and the desirability of having a set of interesting verbs that do interesting, consistent things to your world model. (Previously seen on this blog: 1, 2, 3.) And though I have failed to start the Systematic Mechanic revolution of my dreams, nonetheless there is a fair amount of IF that does provide a learnable system to its players: The Gostak‘s language, the magic system of Suveh Nux, the offset between vision and presence in Byzantine Perspective, assorted others.

However. Often the systematic mechanic in these games provides a consistent way for the verbs to modify the world model while the relationship between the world model and the story continues to rely on standard triggers. So, for instance, Savoir-Faire has a complicated magic system that allows the player to destroy, move, and open objects in a variety of ways, but story-level changes are gated by the player gaining access to new documents/memories by opening doors or containers. Indigo? Time-manipulation mechanic allowing the player to gain access to new things and memories by opening doors and containers. Metamorphoses? Object-altering mechanic by which the player gains access to new spaces and memories by opening doors and containers. The trad-IF world model is terrific at doors and containers, but few interesting stories are actually about the doors and containers themselves. This is just the easiest proxy we have for the idea of gradual discovery, just as evading the police is the easiest proxy Framed could come up with for the turning point of an action thriller.

Don’t worry: I’m not giving up my long-held view about systematic mechanics here. I still think they’re grand, and all else being equal, I will usually prefer a systematic doors-and-containers game to an unsystematic one. The system level is fun, learnable, often conducive to ingenious puzzles; it can be used to convey setting information that is part of the narrative layer in its own way.

But I also think that the prevalence of the doors-and-containers model holds back the range of possible expression in the traditional text adventure space. Some (admittedly not all) of my own recent disinclination to write in the parser space comes from not feeling like making more door-and-container games.

Meanwhile, some people in the IF community space are frustrated that more and more games are being written and advertised in their community that are primarily about narrative choices rather than about model worlds, while others see this as a revitalizing change. It’s a microcosm of what is going on with the relationship between games and interactive fiction in the broader gaming scene. There are a lot of cultural and political issues tied up in these arguments, but I also think there’s more possibility than some of us realize for games that will satisfy both sides. And the issue is how we make rich meaning out of rich mechanics.

*

A frequent design solution involves making the world model-to-plot relationship a sequence of many special cases. In scene X, you’re fighting the villain, so coming up with something to distract her is the thing that will move the plot forward. In scene Y, you’re trying to get away from the goods, so inventing a method of transport is the order of the day. The story is dominant, and it creates contexts in which some aspect of the world state is endowed with a particular, if temporary, plot meaning. For one specific scene, a routine action with your Portal gun becomes plot-altering rather than simply physical. At the extreme end are games that consist only of special cases: QTE-driven pieces like Heavy Rain, many passages in recent Telltale games, the majority of what is written in Twine. The meaning of a given action is highly situation-dependent, or else only situation-appropriate actions are available at all.

The method can give you a lot of dramatic power, though at the cost of the particular kind of agency Stacey Mason calls affect:

Diegetic agency allows us to make changes to the narrative. Affect, on the other hand, allows us to move through the space, swing a sword, or jump over an obstacle. The two are interrelated, but not synonymous. In Big Blue Box’s 2004 game Fable, the player controls a character in an action-RPG style fantasy. She may press buttons to swing a sword, cast spells, and so on. Performing each of these actions individually, I would argue, constitutes affect. The player may perform “good” or “evil” tasks, saving a man versus killing him for example, and her character and game experience will change according to that decision. I would argue that this type of choice is diegetic agency. Sometimes the two might coincide: a player might swing a sword to kill a man, thus exercising both affect and diegetic agency at the same time. — Stacey Mason, “On Games and Links: Extending the Vocabulary of Agency and Immersion in Interactive Narratives”

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the tightly-constrained, low-affect storytelling often works better in intense scenes interspersed through the plot, rather than all the time. At its most extreme form, even with a world model, this kind of thing becomes indistinguishable from choice-based IF: if the only things you can meaningfully do in a given scene are DROP GUN or SHOOT GUN, then, functionally, even a parser game shares a lot with the

(a) Drop gun
(b) Shoot gun

presentation. (Not identical. But similar.)

invisiblepartiesOccasionally the special-casing is precisely the point. One of the things I love about Invisible Parties is how fiercely it embraces these special cases. It is all about particularness and variety and difference; its puzzles are also all about learning to apply really esoteric verbs (“USE TEXTUAL CRITICISM”, for pity’s sake) in various situations, and pushing those situations over some tipping point into apocalypse. All the scenes we travel through are on the verge of breakdown, but they’re all there in different ways, for different reasons. It works for Invisible Parties because, thematically, Parties is about the incompatibility of cultural outlooks and philosophical systems. It’s about the fact that our physical environment is only a tiny fraction of our mental environment, and the latter is very powerful. So as we travel from one culture to another, we shouldn’t expect the same rules to carry over.

*

Clearly, though, there’s something enormously seductive about the idea of a game in which both affect (ability to fiddle with the world in systematic, predictable, plannable ways) and diegetic agency (ability to make narratively meaningful choices that affect the plot) are available consistently throughout much of the experience, rather than just occasionally in specialized one-off scenes.

To be clear, I don’t at all think that this is the only way for an interactive story to be good, but I think it is a way that is highly coveted by a lot of people.

When I hear people talk about their dream of a holodeck experience, often what seems to lurk behind that dream is actually this desire. When Warren Spector keynoted the Inventing the Future of Games conference a couple of years ago, he talked about wishing for a game in which the NPCs would notice and react to small social gestures as well as grand moves, where spontaneously spilling a glass of water on someone would be read as part of the story. Others have fantasized to me about games where “everything matters,” environments in which they could explore freely and have their every gesture multiplied into unimaginably juicy, story-rich responsiveness from the world around them. A sandbox game, plus more story content than the collected Tolstoy. I suspect that many of the people saying this would find that a LARP or even a tabletop storygame actually provided a level of possibility that inhibited play (the “OMG uh what should I do?? I’m not thinking of something cool enough to do in this moment!!” factor), but the affect-plus-diegetic-agency aspect does seem to be a major part of what they want.

Make It Good requires the player to manipulate NPC knowledge by showing and hiding evidence.

Make It Good requires the player to manipulate NPC knowledge by showing and hiding evidence.

I can think of very few games, indie or commercial, hobbyist or AAA, IF or not, that come anywhere close to this. Make It Good, perhaps — and it’s a very difficult, very inaccessible kind of work, but one of the masterpieces of modern interactive fiction. Slouching Towards Bedlam is full of scenes in which diegetic agency is possible but the player is unlikely to realize it on the first playthrough; it’s only on replay that one recognizes how the story can be bent at those moments. It works because it’s modeling a specific kind of action to have decisive, supernatural influence on the story, but the player doesn’t know this initially. Façade observes the player’s behavior and triggers a lot of different outcomes depending on that behavior, but it does so in such a black-box, inscrutable way that it’s rare to feel remotely in control of the situation. Prom Week offers a lot of detail on a large social network and allows the player to play with it inventively, but there’s so much data available about how every character feels towards every other that it can be hard to master the playing field.

Part of the solution, as many of us have been saying for many years, is to make the world model (and thus the verbs available to the player) be about things that typically matter narratively, rather than things that typically don’t. Shooting people, when it happens in a story, is usually important, but not very many stories primarily turn on shooting. (A few, yes. But not most of them, not even in action movies.) Opening boxes and getting into rooms appear much more frequently in stories but are often so unimportant as not to be mentioned explicitly. Hence the need for conversation models, for ways of systematizing communication between characters. Communication is at the core of most stories, one way or another. (I’ve written lots about conversation modeling in the past, including modeling of moods, knowledge, conversation topics, the presence of multiple parties in a room, and so on.)

This is necessary, but it’s not sufficient, because it doesn’t delve into the question of how to design a game around a conversation model, and how to get both diegetic agency and affect out of one.

The system in Versu is the most advanced I’ve worked on: it allowed characters to develop complicated opinions about one another, tracked factual knowledge that had been tagged as being significant to the story, coped reasonably with conversation in which characters could come and go, and allowed NPCs to have in-the-moment reactions to things much like Spector’s knocking-over-a-glass. Versu provided a library of small gestural behavior and appropriate reactions to these. It had the granularity required to allow characters to get on one another’s nerves, or fall in love, or become friends, gradually — Chris Crawford talks often about the need for floating point variables to calculate the nuances of feeling that you could have towards another person, and while I think that’s not really the biggest issue, nonetheless the sense of build-up in degrees is important if the player is going to have a sense that all their actions in the game have mattered and been taken under consideration. (I say more here, about halfway down the page, about numbers used in mood modeling and thresholds for NPC behavior.)

rome_cover_portraitBut having a model is not the same as having a complete design solution that builds a story effectively around those moments. With Versu we also experimented with a number of different design approaches. The last release, Blood & Laurels, is built around scenes that might correspond to levels in a different sort of game. Each scene has several possible outcomes, and the outcomes depend on some aspect of the model being in a particular state. Some scenes end when a character has certain information. Some scenes end when a character is in a particular mood, or they’ve reached some relationship. Those outcomes are situation-dependent, but there can be many different ways for the player to reach particular mood or information outcomes. In addition, B&L wasn’t trying to do dynamic plotting: the high level of the story is a nodal diagram with predetermined nodes. You will never fall into a completely new scene with new stakes in Blood & Laurels; no character will ever formulate a new plan specifically in response to what you’ve done, because they’re not capable of goal-seeking at the level of narrative space.

The results are imperfect, even within those constraints. Much of my ICIDS keynote (ICIDS Keynote Powerpoint file with notes, PDF of slides w/o notes) was about lessons learned from the Blood & Laurels feedback and what I’d like to experiment with next. But a lot of the things I talked about there were about user interface, the choice of affordances, the need for richer text generation to better represent the richness of the AI model, and other problems that belong to the code level.

I didn’t talk so much about the design issues around specific elements of the conversation/knowledge model, and I want to come back to that a little now.

*

Thinking very broadly about conversation mechanics, I find it useful to think about persuading one or more NPCs to do something: change their goals, carry out an action you want them to carry out, prevent an action, get out of the way of an action, etc. Many scenes of conventional drama take this form one way or another, whether it’s Hamlet’s father’s ghost persuading Hamlet to try to kill Claudius or Bruce Willis saying something really badass to a bunch of terrorists and making them run away in fear.

If we want the player to navigate with intention, we need them to understand what they can reasonably hope to persuade the characters to do or not do. In Prom Week, a character can choose to befriend or break up with other characters, for instance — there’s a very clear domain of high school-style interactions in play. In other types of story, the options are much more situational — in Blood & Laurels, the protagonist is often simply trying to manipulate other characters out of having a reason to kill him.

Then we have to offer the player a persuasion toolkit. For all its age, I find the Aristotelian breakdown of rhetoric into ethos, pathos, and logos still pretty useful. Ethos: You might convince an NPC because you’ve established a strong positive relationship with them, or by appeal to some other authority they respect, whether that’s God, the government, local standards of etiquette, etc. A lot of dating sims work on these grounds; you build credibility with the NPC by doing the sorts of things they like to see people do, and the thing you’re convincing the NPC to do is date you. Pathos: You might convince an NPC via emotional manipulation, gaining their sympathy or making them too afraid of you to resist or by triggering a state of heightened emotional vulnerability in which they’re not thinking straight. Logos: You might give an NPC information that makes it evident they should change their approach.

Here’s a thing about ethos: it works on long scales. Respect, affection, and love aren’t gained instantly. Game models that focus primarily on ethical persuasion are often long-form pieces with cumulative stats (visual novels, long RPGs) that would require you to replay big chunks if you wanted to get a different outcome. It’s really hard to plan ahead around this: often the player needs to rely on the effects of a long friendship in some circumstance they couldn’t possibly have anticipated before they got there.

Detective Grimoire allows the player to put together information into new sharable deductions.

Detective Grimoire allows the player to put together information into new sharable deductions.

At the other end of the scale is logos, pieces that turn on knowledge-modeling. Information can be delivered more or less instantly, and new information can be, as it were, crafted out of existing information (see Detective Grimoire or Phoenix Wright). This works best if the types of information you’re using are systematic (there’s a reason these are mystery games with trope-defined concepts of “evidence”) rather than just a cluster of variable world-state facts. Likewise, you need the player to be able to remember all the key facts they’ve gathered, so the knowledge model probably needs not to be too enormous.

What about pathos? In my experience, it’s the least reliable basis for building a mechanic. What moves people is, after all, often highly situational and difficult to build into a plan. You can, if you like, give players a blunt emotional instrument like “compliment Bob” or “insult Bob” — and Versu did experiment with this — but spamming the same few social gestures decreases both their plausibility (how often do you stand around telling someone a list of reasons you think they’re awesome?) and their emotional impact (if you do, how long before they stop saying “thanks” and start wondering what you want from them?). In Blood & Laurels we actually put a cooldown timer on some of those verbs just in order to de-spam-ify them. (Which then made players wonder why the affordances came and went as they did. More UI clarity needed.) In a couple of other prototypes, we had NPCs who were capable of going into “overload” states — where they were too sad or too angry to react normally, and would start doing different kinds of things instead — but this is harder to manage in the context of a really script-heavy story.

*

Here’s my contention: there are a lot of games that have experimented with doing just one type of persuasion, but having all three available gives the author a lot more creative flexibility in terms of pacing and variable dramatic intensity. As complex as it may be to have a conversation model that includes all of those elements, having access to all of them is likely to produce game stories that are closer to what we recognize as well-formed narrative in other media; it may be better to have all three axes of persuasion but a relatively small verb set in each category than to have one axis of persuasion that is more densely populated.

At the same time, the ideal design of this kind would be one that systematically taught the player how to use their conversational toolkit, and made the possible NPC goal states clear, so that the player knew what to be aiming at.

And then players will have affect and diegetic agency at the same time, and kittens will be born from daffodils, and we will rule the Empire as father and son.


May 23, 2015

Emily Short

Lifeline (3 Minute Games)

by Emily Short at May 23, 2015 03:00 PM

lifeline-ios-02Lifeline is an iOS and Android* mobile game in which you are fielding a distress call from someone named Taylor (gender never actually specified — I’ve seen some reviews refer to Taylor as male, but I pictured a woman). Taylor was the youngest, most naive crew member aboard a space ship that has crashed on a distant moon. They have no previous space experience and only the most rudimentary safety training. For some reason you are the only person in communication range, so they need you to prompt them through a series of survival decisions.

(* Sorry, Android users, I could’ve sworn I read there was a version, but I can’t find it now.)

The story plays out in roughly SMS-sized messages from Taylor, which sometimes come in rapid succession and sometimes only after a substantial real-time delay. These exchanges are backed by atmospheric music, and though the actual content is quite bare-bones and without visuals, the presentation is glossy and solid.

Lifeline has also garnered reviews calling it the best game available for the Apple Watch — one of those statements that might feel like faint praise while still being quite important from a marketing perspective. As far as I can tell from here, Lifeline is another example of the success of commercial IF on mobile. (This Offworld article talks a bit about how the piece was actually prototyped in Twine.)

failsafeThe premise of communicating with someone stranded is not a new one in IF — Jon Ingold’s Fail-Safe (play online) is the canonical classic in this line, but there are assorted others, including the audio game Mayday: Deep Space that I wrote about a few months ago. Structuring the interaction this way gets rid of a lot of the standard challenges about an IF game: who is the protagonist? how do we deal with the gap between what the protagonist knows and what the player knows?

Besides, it sometimes comes more naturally to care about someone else’s plight than about the plight of a character who is notionally ourself. Early on, we have to respond to Taylor’s distress as they learn that the rest of their crew is almost certainly dead. Plenty of games start with the player’s avatar facing some recent grief or disaster, but it’s harder to write that kind of scene effectively from the inside, especially when the player is coming in cold. “You’ve just lost everyone you love!” doesn’t have as much impact when there’s been no time in the story to build up those loving relationships. But it’s easy enough, more or less from move one, to believe that Taylor has experienced this disaster, and to want to comfort them and keep them moving.

The conversation structure works pretty well in Lifeline, especially if you don’t think about it too hard from a plot perspective. It’s really never clear at all where you are supposed to be located or why you and you alone are able to respond to Taylor, and in the later parts of the game there’s quite a lot of actual plot about whether and how it’s possible for Taylor to communicate with passing ships. But this is one of these plot questions that only arises gradually, after you’ve already accepted the conceit, after you’ve already been playing probably for several hours.

The several hours part is important. Taylor’s delays while they sleep or eat or investigate a piece of wreckage create suspense and the illusion of a person who is not perennially at the player’s disposal. They also extend the experience of playing the game, increasing investment: I’m fairly sure I would not have found this nearly as interesting if I’d played it over the course of an hour or so, rather than sporadically spread across multiple days.

But those delays are also problematic. Lifeline is a game with a lot of unsignalled sudden deaths. I played through twice and both times failed to save Taylor, not because I’d done anything obviously wrong, but because this is a highly deadly situation with a lot of possible failure outcomes. You need to find certain supplies and tools. If you don’t find them, Taylor will have a rough time, and you can’t necessarily predict where they’re going to be. You have a limited amount of time to move Taylor around before it gets cold and dark and they have to find a way to live through the night. It’s highly likely to be a learn-by-dying experience for most people.

Lifeline does get around this (sort of) by giving the player the option to go to “fast mode” after they’ve reached a first ending, which does away with Taylor’s delays. I eventually did shift to fast mode when it seemed that otherwise it was going to take too long to finish the game, and I worked through the rest of Taylor’s adventure with so much backtracking that it might have taken weeks of real time otherwise. I definitely also felt a slackening of my investment in Taylor personally, though. The seams showed more.

Lifeline occupies an awkward design space because many of the things that it does to increase believability and investment (the delays, the high-stakes options that can easily end badly) also put up friction against the player feeling mastery or (and to me this is the critical thing) fully experiencing the story. A game of Lifeline that ends with Taylor’s early death is not a complete experience.

Further thoughts about the game mechanics follow the spoiler space.

S

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Lifeline also explores a mechanic I’ve frequently considered, and demonstrates the key problem with it. Early in the story, Taylor asks you to look up how dangerous it is to take a certain radiation dose. This moment of real world research is kind of cool… except that the game is a little too popular, so if you key in the obvious search terms, one of the first hits you get is a Yahoo Answers discussion in which people talk about radiation sickness in the context of the game, complete with spoilers.

This is really a pity, because I otherwise quite liked that feature, especially since (if you manage to avoid spoilers) your research may make you feel more rather than less uncertain about what to say. The dosage in question isn’t fatal, but it is an amount that would cause detectable radiation sickness. Now a factual question turns into a judgment call. Is it better for Taylor to take their chances with the extreme cold, or is it more likely that they’ll survive (albeit unpleasantly) an overnight dose of warming radiation long enough to be picked up and receive treatment?

It’s also one of the few moments in the game that endows the player with real authority. Most of the time, realistically, Taylor knows a lot more about what is going on than the player does, and in some cases it feels kind of surprising that they’re even willing to take our advice. Giving the player a plausible in-plot reason to know more than Taylor was cool.

In fact, this ploy doubly backfired for me because it established for me as a player that it was a good idea to go off and Google things when I was confused about them and wanted more feedback for Taylor. So there came a point in the late game where Taylor confronts several astronauts with nameplates. These astronauts are actually former members of Taylor’s crew, but I’d last heard those characters’ names five or six days earlier in real time, so I’d forgotten. I was just seeing a list of names and evidence that Taylor was freaked out by them, and I found myself wondering whether they were somehow of actual historical significance. So I went off and looked them up (Adair, Antoine, Colby, Trotter)… and what I found was not a historical event relevant to the story, but this page, which strongly suggested the names had been chosen as an in-joke.

In other words, both times I went to Google for what I thought were valid in-game reasons, I came back with shards of the fourth wall embedded in my face. I’m not sure I want to say this is something the game did wrong — there was no real reason for the author to anticipate my second Google search, and in the first case they’re just the victims of their own popularity, and there are worse problems to have.

*

The plot isn’t really the point. (This is something of a contrast with, say, Fail-Safe, in which figuring out what’s going on is critical and the player is able to intentionally pursue a particular outcome, rather than just working through all the possible paths until they find the least bad one.)

For a while Lifeline gives us semi-realistic stuff about finding rations and medical supplies after a space crash; then Taylor goes looking for an object on the horizon that keeps seeming to get further away as they approach, which feels sort of Lost-esque and is really only half explained by what happens later; then there’s the discovery of the awful truth, which posits alien zombie-puppeteers and concludes with a “my god the moon is full of spiders glowing green monsters” moment that took me straight back to one of my less-favorite recent Doctor Who episodes. Furthermore, the later game ramps up the tension with a lot of repeated moments where Taylor is narrating something and trails off with a dramatic OH MY GOD, requiring the player to tap back something inane like “What’s wrong?” or “What are you seeing?” in order to get the news. Once or twice, that’s effective; over and over and over again, it feels manipulative and predictable, like all the ellipses during action scenes in a Harry Potter novel.

There were some good moments of horrific discovery, like when Taylor’s rat dies, or when Taylor is scanning the moon and pans out and out and discovers that the whole surface is carpeted with wrecks of ships from various time periods, but I also felt sometimes that the story was making the action-movie bargain of setting up spectacular moments by discarding long-term plausibility. (This is almost always a worse bargain in text games than it is in a movie.) I generally have a hard time believing in the alien puppeteer trope in which some species has evolved on a distant planet, isolated from humanity, and yet somehow evolved specifically in order to be able to command and control human bodies. How would that come about?

But never mind. Like I said, that’s not really the point. The point here is about the emotional experience, the journey you go on with Taylor. Here’s what’s good about the alien-puppeteer trope in this particular game: it gives you an opponent for dominance over Taylor.

By the time you get to the endgame, you’ve been manipulating Taylor for days. Occasionally they may have rejected a suggestion, but most of the time, you’ve been allowed to cajole or bully them into difficult or outright stupid decisions. Leaving crewmembers unburied because there’s no time for such things. (Maybe in retrospect that actually would’ve been a good idea…) Going on long treks towards the horizon with inadequate gear. Ignoring or exploring the scuttling beings in the dark. You push Taylor, you supply the deficiency when Taylor’s reserve of willpower looks like giving out, you make choices when they’re too exhausted to do any more. This may get them killed or it may keep them alive. As the story goes on, though, it feels more and more difficult, because Taylor increasingly questions your instructions or asks permission to double back on a decision already made. The increasingly longwinded arguments you have with Taylor are the equivalent of button-mashing exercises in a QTE context (press A repeatedly to kick grate!): they represent effort.

And then at the end, something else makes a bid to control Taylor, and Taylor’s will and personality becomes the battleground in which you’re confronting your opponent, this malign alien entity. You’re pretty evenly matched. What’s the player, after all, but an immortal puppeteer, repeatedly clothing itself in the bodies of disposable avatars?

*

Overall, then, there were some things about Lifeline I thought were non-ideal, and at the same time the experience was cumulatively more than the sum of those plot and design decisions.


Wade's Important Astrolab

Accessibility observations part 3

by Wade (noreply@blogger.com) at May 23, 2015 10:05 AM

It's been longer than I intended between posts in this accessibility miniseries, but I had work troubles and I had holiday non-troubles.

Today: Menus.

Lots of IF projects make use of menu mechanisms. The player's choice from a menu might trigger a branch in gameplay or reconfigure some aspect of the game presentation. The whole menu system might be a self-contained ecosystem outside of the game world, a way to present browsable material like game instructions, hints or about-the-author information. An IF project may feature any or all the above mentioned modes, or more.

I had thought it would be easy to start to talk about designing menus which lean to screen reader-friendliness, but I've realised this is actually a complicated area. Different IF platforms handle text output and player input in different ways. Some projects can be played online, some offline and some both ways. Anecdotes from the recent discussion topic about accessibility over at intfiction.org suggest that screen reader compatibility with online CYOA games is variable.

By the way, notice how I included all of the words 'the recent discussion topic about accessibility over at intfiction.org' in the hyperlink, rather than just attaching it to, say, the 'intfiction.org' part. This approach is an accessibility help for web content in general, since screen reader users can hop amongst hyperlinks as landmarks. If they're scanning about to see what links are on a page, or looking for a particular link, just having a single word for the link might not make it clear where the link's going to or why it's there.

Now, I can also imagine that if you elongated all body text links of a link-heavy page in this fashion, the result might be visually painful for sighted users. This situation strikes me as an example of one in which it's good to be aware of the accessibility issues, but where individual writers and authors need to work out the best approach and balance for their own content in particular cases.

Back to the menus – so there's probably a lot of work to be done in the future by game and screen reader engine programmers in getting the two worlds to be able to talk each other more consistently. As is the case with many IF projects, work on this kind of thing to date seems to have been done mostly in isolation, where interested individuals program up solutions to existing problems. As an example, I point to the Win Glulx and Win Frotz compatibility addons for the open source screen reader NVDA (search for 'Win Glulx' and 'Win Frotz' on the target page). However, the scope of my posts is about what game authors can do today.

First it's worth remembering some of the principles of typical good menu design that will help any player:

  • Don't make menu entries too long.
  • Don't include too many entries in one menu.
  • Don't use too many submenus within a menu. A bit of popular neuroscience in editor circles says that readers of a book will find more than five levels of heading too confusing, and that readers of a webpage will find more than three levels of heading too confusing. The latter is probably applicable to IF menu depth.
  • When possible or relevant, use a consistent delivery style and author voice for the menu entry prose.

Screen reader programs can read one line of text at a time under the user's control. This means that as an author, you can expect that a player who is using a screen reader will be able to browse up and down through your menu options if they need to be reminded of the content of any of them.

On the other hand, a player using the built-in text-to-speech features of their computer's OS and/or of an interpreter itself probably won't have the same luxury. They may have to listen to a read-through of the whole menu, then go through further full reads if they need to hear any option more than once. Players in this situation are unlikely to enjoy encountering long menus or unnecessarily long menu options.

If the principal input device is the keyboard, as is the case for the majority of parser-driven games, assigning a unique keypress to each menu option (eg 1-9, then A-Z as needed) is a good way to go. I went with a system like this for my new Inform 7 Menus extension in 2014. So did Daniel Willis when he wrote a new menu extension for Kerkerkruip. We happened to write our extensions independently of one another but roughly at the same time, both with screen reader compatibility in mind. Unfortunately, my extension broke in the major new version of Inform and I have not been able to fix it. Please visit this topic on intfiction if you think you might be able to solve my extension problem.

If the principal input device is the mouse (ie the menu options are hyperlinks) a screen reader user should be able to activate the options the same way they can activate links they have selected on a webpage... if the game itself is being delivered by a webpage. The screen reader functionality for clickable links within a game delivered by an IF interpreter is probably unknown turf for now.

OK, when I say 'probably', what I really mean is, I have no clue. I figure only real experiments could show what's working for which combinations of interpreter and screen reader.

A menu presentation which is pretty anti-accessible is one that involves a moveable cursor as the selection instrument. There are all kinds of problems for the user, including keeping track of the location of whatever ASCII element has been chosen to represent the cursor, and the tediousness of having to move that symbol around with keypresses while potentially listening to re-reads of the menu choices. In an all-text environment, the method for updating the display with the cursor's new position might also involve reprinting the whole menu in the game window; again, this is unhelpful for screen readers.

The old standby menu extension for Inform 7, Emily Short's Menus, exhibited most of these problems, which is why both Daniel Willis and I happened to have similar ideas about updating it at the same time. I'm not ragging on Emily's Menus per se – obviously it's been a terrific thing (and generally the only thing!) allowing users to add menus to their Inform games for years and years.

In the next episode: The topic of non-alphanumeric characters, at least.

May 22, 2015

Retroactive Fiction

L — A Mathemagical Adventure (1984)

by Ant at May 22, 2015 08:14 PM

A video playthrough of the classic 1980s educational mathematics game L — A Mathemagical Adventure by the UK Association of Teachers of Mathematics, for the 8-bit BBC Micro computer :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKMeuxsvk3k&list=PLy5HwFxc67UFERGEqbKU-Ky74QwEtuLsm

Loading screen of the game

Loading screen of the game “L — A Mathemagical Adventure” for the 8-bit BBC Micro computer


Wander follow-up

by Ant at May 22, 2015 08:14 PM

Previously I wrote about Wander, the 1974 mainframe text adventure game-creation system by Peter Langston, which was recently rediscovered.

1You can now play Wander online.

This em-dosbox repackaging of a DOS port of Wander was created by me, using blunt instruments. (I broke the SAVE and RESTORE commands, for example.) Please contact me if you know how to improve my rather crude hack.

Some of the Wander “worlds” that were recently recovered are 1980s versions, and include features that were added in response to ADVENT. (Peter Langston was apparently a member of the “UNIX Adventure Tastefulness Committee”, which was convened to sort out “Various design questions” during the conversion of ADVENT to UNIX.)

But the very first versions of Wander – which are still lost – date from 1974 or earlier, so you can’t help asking yourself (or at least I can’t) if Wander might have been an influence on the development of ADVENT, which was always thought to be the first work of interactive fiction on a computer.

Was Wander distributed widely enough for Will Crowther and/or Don Woods to have had the opportunity to see it before they wrote ADVENT?

If the answer is no, then that does that mean there’s something fishy going on? Surely two people couldn’t independently have come up with the idea of a textual game of exploration where you navigate using compass directions?

Um, why not? What else would you use, if not NORTH, SOUTH, EAST and WEST? Well, actually, you might use LEFT, RIGHT, FORWARD and BACK – and there is at least one game that does: The Secret of Arendarvon Castle (of which more later).

Okay, so it is possible to make a text adventure game with a different set of navigational commands, but compass directions are probably easier for the player to use and for the programmer to implement. Also, for Will Crowther, compass directions might have been the natural choice when he was writing ADVENT because he was a caver who used a compass to map out underground cave systems in real life.

But what about Peter Langston? If he started working on Wander in or before 1974, did he implement compass directions from the beginning? We may never know – unless the earliest source code is found, which seems unlikely. (But perhaps Jason Dyer’s forthcoming blogposts will dig up some interesting artefacts from the code we already have.)

So, do we know anything else at all about the origins of Wander? Well, I did ask Peter that very question (before finally realising that I ought to leave him in peace now). His reply:

As to Wander’s inspiration, as I was writing other games, I got to thinking about the non-deterministic non-linear story experiments I had heard of the French doing in the 1920s, where the reader made choices that determined how the story went. I figured that fairytales like Rapunzel or science fiction like the Retief stories would be a good basis for such stories and computers would be the perfect way to present them, but it would require a great deal of programming skills along with the storytelling skills. So Wander was an experiment to see if the programming part could be made easier by pre-coding the common kinds of actions and consequences. I had the vague idea that I could make it easy to use and then coax some real authors like Robert Sheckley into writing some wanders. I never got that far, of course.

It’s a crying shame that we never got to see the words “A wander by Robert Sheckley” flash up on a computer screen!

I’m not sure exactly who the French writers that Peter refers to are. Raymond Queneau’s Un Conte À Votre Façon (1967) has been suggested, but it arrived several decades after the period indicated by Peter. Let me know if you have any other suggestions.


Wander (1974) — a lost mainframe game is found!

by Ant at May 22, 2015 08:14 PM

1I really have no right to take credit for this, because although I must have read about Wander in the Inform Designer’s Manual some years ago, it only really registered with me after I saw a list of lost mainframe games in Jason Dyer’s recent blogpost.

Wander was probably the first computer game that is recognisable as what came to be known as a “text adventure” (or “interactive fiction”) – pre-dating even ADVENT (a.k.a. Colossal Cave) by Crowther and Woods!

But Wander was more than that because it seems to have been designed to be a tool to allow users to create “non-deterministic fantasy stories”[1] of their own. So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Wander was in fact the earliest known precursor to modern interactive-fiction development-systems like Inform 7!

Wander was thought to be lost, presumably languishing on one or more of the slowly decaying tape-reels of mainframe history. But Jason’s description of Wander on his blog was so intriguing, and the thought that there might still be a chance of finding it again was so tantalising, that I felt I just had to try to get in touch with the original author and programmer, Peter Langston – which proved to be remarkably easy to do.

A few emails later, and Peter, who is incredibly obliging, sent me a file named “Wander.tgz”, which contained source code and documentation for a 1980s release of Wander, which he had extracted from archived emails and then massaged into a form that would be usable today.

Sure enough, after a little tweaking, necessitated by the quirks of the ageing version of Mac OS X that I insist on using for some strange reason, I successfully compiled and ran the code and was thrilled to see the following text scrolling up my Terminal window:

$ ./Wander
Just Imagine …

You are traveling as  First Under-secretary to the Ambassador for the   Corps   Diplomatique  Terrestrienne,  (CDT).   Your  direct superior, Mr. Magnan, has managed to duck out of the  action  and leave   you   as  sole  assistant  to  his  superior,  Ambassador Pouncetrifle.  (The Ambassador is a classic bungler and would, if left on his own, mess things up badly.)

You have been sent to Aldebaran III where you  are  to  avert  an uprising against Terran nationals expected at the end of April.

During your trip you  were  able  to  peruse  the  ship’s  meager library  and  make  a  few  notes  on the history, life-forms and society of Aldebaran III, but much of Aldebaran culture is  still a mystery.

It is the middle of the night; the ship  on which you arrived has just departed from the small spaceport which you find to be windy and deserted.

wrdadd(ask, 0, 0, 0) returns 38 lastrw=38
which(“ask”) = 38
wrdadd(question, 38, 0, 0) returns 39 lastrw=38
which(“question”) = 38

I’ve omitted several more lines’ worth of diagnostic messages, which seemed to be running through the nouns and verbs in the “a3” demo game file that Peter sent to me along with the source code. The transcript now resumes (with the commands I typed in in bold):

You’re in the Aldebaran III spaceport. An electrified chain link fence surrounds the area with gates leading west and south.

There is a credit card here.
take credit card
Done
Your account has 50 credits left.
(You can type balance any time to find current status).
Aldebaran III Spaceport
balance
Your account holds 50 credits.
Aldebaran III Spaceport
north
ZZZAAAAPPPP!       OUCH!
Aldebaran III Spaceport
south
You are in the tiny waiting room for the spaceport.  No one is around.
There is a large vending machine here with a dark window, several buttons, and a large slot marked “insert credit card here”.

inventory
You are carrying some official identity papers
and some notes
and a credit card
kick machine
That would only help if the machine was broken, and it’s not!
Waiting Room

I’m no expert on C programming or indeed on interactive fiction, so I’m still trying to work my way through the code and the documentation that Peter sent me, but I think I can say without hesitation that this has all been a completely astounding and wonderful turn of events.

Many, many thanks to Peter and Jason for allowing me to be part of a rather historic moment.

[UPDATE 1: Peter Langston sent me a second version of “Wander.tgz”, derived from a 1980s release of Wander, which I had linked to here, but Peter has asked me to replace that second version with this third version “with save/restore actually working and with three more of the 1980 Wander worlds.” This third version still compiles on Mac OS X 10.6.8, and should compile on Linux too.]

[UPDATE 2: Another copy of Wander has now been found (along with the rest of Peter Langston’s 1980 PSL Games distribution, which Wander was part of). It was found by chineur Doug Merritt. This copy contains three more Wander “worlds”, in addition to the “a3” world that I’ve quoted from in the main post above. It’s now on Github.]

[UPDATE 3: favardin has compiled Wander for Windows and Linux.]

[UPDATE 4: I’ve hacked the source code to create a crude DOS port of Wander: it’s playable, but the SAVE and RESTORE commands are broken – please contact me if you know why. I then packaged up my DOS hack into an em-dosbox version which is playable online: click here to play Wander online. Again, please get in touch if you can improve either the DOS version or the web version, or if you know how to make a pure-emscripten port of Wander.]

[1] Quotation from the file “Wander.txt”, the man page for Wander, sent to me by Peter Langston with the source code.


Choice of Games

Name your own character in our charity auctions

by Dan Fabulich at May 22, 2015 06:01 PM

Choice of Games is proud to announce that we’re auctioning off cameos in four of our most anticipated games; proceeds will go to My Friend’s Place, an organization that assists and inspires homeless youth to build self-sufficient lives. The auctions close on Tuesday, June 2nd. Name a Powered Hero in “The Hero Project: Redemption Season,” the sequel to “Heroes Rise: The Hero Project“ “The Hero Project” is back for a second season, and you can make a cameo as a Powered Hero in the competition! Be the envy of your friends when they see you in their game! “The Hero

Continue Reading...

Sibyl Moon Games

18 Rooms to Home: Room 18

by Carolyn VanEseltine at May 22, 2015 03:01 AM

This is the recommended starting point for 18 Rooms to Home, an experimental work of interactive fiction. The full game covers a day in the life of Yesenia Reed, whose life is far from ordinary, no matter what she might prefer.

18 Rooms to Home is a serialized game. As each update is released, the story will move further back in time – so the first release includes room 18, the second will include room 17 and 18, the third will include 16, 17, and 18, and so on.

18 Rooms cover art18 Rooms to Home (Room 18)
Release date: 5/21/2015
Format: Inform 7 (Glulx)
Play in browser
Download to play offline (requires an interpreter such as Gargoyle)

18 Rooms to Home

by Carolyn VanEseltine at May 22, 2015 03:01 AM

18 Rooms to Home is an experimental work of interactive fiction. It’s a day in the life of Yesenia Reed, whose life is far from ordinary, no matter what she might prefer.

This story takes place over the course of 18 updates, which are presented in reverse chronological order. With every update, the story moves further back in time – so the first update includes room 18, the second will include room 17 and 18, the third will include 16, 17, and 18, and so on.

Releases to date

Room 18 (start here!)

May 21, 2015

These Heterogenous Tasks

A Year Without Zombies 5: Zed is for Zion

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at May 21, 2015 10:01 PM

(For 2015, I am trying to avoid playing any games or consuming any static media with zombies in them. My reasons, and other fun things like ‘what exactly counts as a zombie?’, are explained here.)

Hankerings Avoided

Around mid-April I took a trip to Zion National Park via Las Vegas. This means traveling through a lot of terrain that really, really looks like Fallout: New Vegas, and particularly the otherwise-indifferent Honest Hearts expansion, which is entirely set in Zion. A great deal of my reaction on reaching Zion Canyon was: hunh, when I played HH the colours felt artificial and oversaturated, but in fact they kind of nailed it. Over and over I realised, oh right, this is where they got that bit from.

Zion_National_Park

It looks kind of compressed and the river’s relatively bigger than it should be and the peaks are ARGH

 

I got a proper itch, I can tell ya. I’m thoroughly fascinated by games set in fictionalised versions of real geography, and what I really want to do is re-open HH and see how reality influenced the design, what was adopted, what was changed, what feels right and what couldn’t be pulled off. Alas, F:NV has a goodly number of effectively-zombie feral ghouls; even though they’re not prevalent in Honest Hearts, it can’t be played as a stand-alone.

It helped that I was still traveling after Zion, which meant that playing an AAA-scale game was a good deal less feasible. Along similar lines, I’ve been having my regular wistful urge to replay Torment, a game so centrally concerned with death and identity that it could scarcely not have zombies (usually this urge fizzles out when I remember how fucking awful the Baldur’s Gate combat system was and how annoying it is to juggle all those discs, but still).

*

Speaking of which, I’m avoiding (for now) the otherwise promising Pillars of Eternity, which includes a progressive continuum of undead. Here, lead narrative designer Eric Fenstermaker discusses the trope:

One of the strengths of the Eternity setting, in my opinion, is its ability to put a new spin on the familiar. Let’s be honest, you’ve seen undead before in a video game or two. I bet you’ve had a virtual conflict with a skeleton or perhaps even a zombie. But no matter how many times we see them, they’re fantasy RPG staples – it’d be weird not to have them, and many people would really miss them were they omitted.

So we did some thinking as to how we could have undead but have them be our own special brand of undead that makes sense in this world.

Oh, man. I feel a rant brewing. How do you even start on that set of assumptions?

How narrow a definition of fantasy; how swiftly staples turn to shackles. The idea that fantasy, genre of the impossible, shouldn’t feel weird. Somehow fantasy CRPG has become a stock recipe with a lengthy and known list of ingredients, and removing any of them – even if only in one game! – is an injury to the audience. (I love RPGs. I love fantasy. I love computer games. But I love them for their breadth, for their open possibility, for the possibility of things new and unexpected. I even quite like magic swords and elves, but I would like them infinitely more if they weren’t mandatory.)

…and evidently the role of a writer is to come up with narrative justifications for features that have already been determined. Taken on those terms, this is a decent job – vampires, ghouls, zombies and skeletons are just different stages of the deterioration of an undead’s body and mind. A vampire that doesn’t feed regularly becomes steadily more ghoulish, and so on. That’s… neat. Clever. Has potential.

Only potential, mind. There are ways that it could be compelling and fruitful, but they would all require that it become central to the story, rather than a detail of background lore. (Most obvious way to do this: the player character begins the game as a vampire.) More likely, however, it becomes a weak apology, our own special brand, a superficial Our Monsters Are Different in the same camp as the zombonym: a patina of originality on a wretched old saw.

Quit

allthegiftsThe Girl With All The Gifts (novel). Visiting my parents. I don’t get back across the pond all that much, and when I do I find small kindnesses prepared in my old room: little bottles of last year’s home-made damson gin with Temperance-themed labels, an assortment of stouts and porters for Jacq, a pile of whatever books they’ve read recently that they think I’d enjoy. (On holiday I typically pack three books and end up finishing them all by the time I reach wherever it is I’m going. When it’s the UK I can at least restock in Hay-on-Wye.) I started Girl on a bright, chilly spring morning, sprawled over the bed in a nice warm yurt. It’s evidently a version of the Super Power Girl Raised In Abusive Science Facility story; zombies are suggested by page three, and some quick flicking-ahead gave me abundant confirmation. Zombonym: hungries, mode, a version of the Cordyceps parasitoid fungus.

Does This Count, I Dunno

“So the Dwarf Fortress guys have a Patreon now. Should we throw a buck or two their way?”

“Well, DF has given me hundreds of hours of enjoyment, is one of my favourite games of all time, has produced a whole host of entertaining derivative works, and somehow I haven’t ever got around to paying a damn thing for it, so, yes, that seems more than fair.”

Some hours pass, and then I remember that, yeah, DF has no shortage of zombies. Zombie elephants, even. I don’t know where a Patreon fits in; I am not playing the game this year, nor am I technically buying it, since it remains free. Honestly, I’m paying the developers back for experiences I had years ago. But there’s no question that I am materially supporting the ongoing development of a game with zombies in it.

*

I am a member of a small Minecraft world. (Minecraft is not just a zombie game, it is in many respects the zombie game.) My good compatriots know I’m on hiatus, and that’s fine. But I also have a handful of large-ish constructions not too far from the central village, and so the other day the world owner checked in with me about whether it was OK to build something in my general vicinity.

So the question here is: how much are the social elements of the game part of the game? I’m not logging in to Minecraft, so in that sense I’m not playing the game. But I’m still engaged in its willing suspension of disbelief, the idea that I have a stake in virtual properties. The discussion’s premise was that my 1:1 replica of the Yellowstone Inn is something that I have an interest in, and that other players should respect that interest. Chatting about it on those terms – even though my response was ‘sure, go for it, do whatever you like’ – is in some sense part of the game. This is kind of a wanky point; I’m bored just talking about it. But there it is.

Technically No Foul

The Sorceror’s Cave (board game). First published 1978, this is an early version of the D&D-lite ‘explore a dungeon by laying down map tiles’ mechanic; an unwieldy size and punishingly random, it’s still kind of charming. One of the official variant rule-sets mitigates the elimination mechanic by letting eliminated players become zombies, acting effectively as an NPC antagonist; several of the treasure cards in the base game refer to zombies for the purpose of this variant. Still, I was assured that there were no zombies otherwise.

The base game also includes the swarming, corpse-eating Ghouls (though it’s only one card, which never came up in our game). ‘Ghoul’ can refer to a number of different configurations of monster, not all of which fall into the zombie definition; but the weight of evidence here didn’t really support anything else. Even so, the general rule for multiplayer tabletop games is that I don’t quit mid-game if zombies unexpectedly emerge, because it’s pretty antisocial to do so. (For the record, I opted for the lone-Hero approach, acquired the One Ring, then fell through two traps in succession and ended up stuck on level 4.)


Emily Short

Mystical Creatures: Hunting Unicorn (Chandler Groover); Iron Rabbit Encounter (Caeth)

by Emily Short at May 21, 2015 05:00 PM

hunting_unicorn

HUNTING UNICORN, Chandler Groover (play online). HUNTING UNICORN is the recasting of classic unicorn legends, the story of a poor and unattractive woman whose chief income comes from serving as unicorn-bait, drawing the animals out so that they can be captured by hunters. It often feels as though there is nothing she can do to improve her situation, and the story is in part about whether that is really true. The unicorn itself is a fearsome animal, not at all sparkles and rainbows, which can only be controlled via its own consent.

Groover’s authorial notes explain that one of his main aims is to make the player feel like it’s not necessary to replay, in contrast with forms that encourage lawnmowering all the possible endings. For me this partly worked and partly didn’t: when I got to the end I felt that I’d experienced an effective story with a good narrative arc. Certainly there was nothing that formally encouraged me to go looking for the other branches in order to understand the piece better.

At the same time, I felt as though I would be able to make more sense of the ending I did receive if I went and found out whether certain other possibilities were available. I mentioned this to the author, who went away and came back a few days later with a big chart.

This chart makes it clear that there are consequences for some of the early choices that aren’t necessarily signaled as being game-changers, that don’t have any obvious causal implications. Your character’s attitude towards the hunt changes what happens later. (Another player I talked to about this also mentioned being surprised by how early the game branches, and when.)

I suppose you could argue that what she said about her attitude affected how the characters perceived her and therefore how they acted later in the story; but nonetheless I felt that the universe surrounding the protagonist is more than usually malleable.

*

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 4.15.29 PM

Iron Rabbit Encounter, Caeth (play online). Iron Rabbit Encounter tells a story in which most of the essential action takes place in dreamspace. The player trips over a strange iron rabbit sculpture, takes it home, and dreams about it several times. Relatively little happens in the real world, but the events of the dream world can be transforming.

This is a format of which I’m often pretty skeptical. Writing a character’s dreams often allows the author to be vague and fake-profound, to handwave the details of the character’s life, to set up colorful situations with no real-world stakes. The dream sequences that I do like are typically ones set deep into a story about a well-established character, ideally one who has already developed a certain symbolic vocabulary.

Iron Rabbit Encounter does not exactly escape these issues, but I nonetheless found some of the dream contents striking, particularly a sequence in which you visit a sinister pet shop. At one point, I was invited either to kill a creature, or to free it — but freeing it seemed to involve a metaphysical commitment whose meaning was not laid out explicitly ahead of time. I couldn’t bring myself to kill it, but I did waver. In the land of dreams and fairy-tales, it’s a bad idea to make an agreement with a supernatural being when the terms haven’t been fully laid out.

It’s a variation I find more effective than the usual choice between being evil and being virtuously self-sacrificial. I don’t know what I’m sacrificing. I don’t know whether it will affect only me, or others as well. Stopping to think about forces me to engage more at the story level, rather than simply labeling the two options as “teacher’s pet choice” and “subversive choice”. (There’s a similar ambiguous-effects choice in Cinders, if you ask help from a certain Fairy, and I hesitated in that context as well.)

And here again we run into plot branching that isn’t accounted for purely in terms of physical-world causality. In Iron Rabbit Encounter, which dream you have depends on what you’ve told the game at the beginning about your life: are you content, bored, frightened? The dreams vary radically according to that choice. As in Hunting Unicorn, the protagonist’s psychological state is as real as or more real than anything else in the game. And as in HUNTING UNICORN, I didn’t realize where the branch points were, or even that they existed, on my first trip through the game. When I first played I assumed it was fairly linear, and it was only when replaying to review that I recognized some of the points of branching.

*

In both stories, the mystical creature of the title is a force for revelation and change in the protagonist’s rather bleak and static life. And in both, causality works according to mystical logic: things that seem like reflective choices have a determining effect on the outcome. I certainly don’t consider that a problem, but I do find that I appreciate both pieces better when I’m aware of how and why they branch.


The Digital Antiquarian

The Pawn’s Second Life (or, When Tony Met Anita)

by Jimmy Maher at May 21, 2015 02:00 PM

The Pawn

Two adventure games overshadowed all of the others in North America during 1986. The success of one of these could have been predicted long before it reached store shelves. Leather Goddesses of Phobos combined the Infocom brand, slightly battered by recent events but still widely regarded as the premiere label in adventure gaming, with Steve Meretzky, the company’s most popular and populist author, working in his wheelhouse of science-fiction comedy. And on top of that it added the ultimate temptation: sex. How could it not become a hit?

The year’s other big game, however, was not such a predictable proposition, coming unexpectedly out of left field in the form of a brand new company from the United Kingdom of all places. As I’ve already written, Magnetic Scrolls’s The Pawn wasn’t a terribly good game in a whole lot of very important ways. Yet that was hard to notice at the time in the face of its more immediately obvious strengths. Not only did it offer as much text as the typical Infocom effort combined with a parser that was at least superficially competitive with Infocom’s own, but it absolutely blew Infocom away when it came to presentation, sporting several dozen illustrations of unprecedented quality. Whatever else you could say about it, The Pawn was the best looking text adventure yet released. When one of those magnificent images scrolled down onto the screen the average player’s critical faculties scrolled off to oblivion to make space for it. The Pawn‘s success in both North America and Europe, which could largely be attributed to those pretty if irrelevant pictures — one could turn them off entirely without losing anything other than a bit of atmosphere — was made doubly strange by the fact that a year before its year of triumph it had already made one debut as a humble text-only adventure, only to die quickly of a fatal case of wrong-horse-backing in the form of the Sinclair QL. Yet here it was again. Sometimes you just can’t keep a good — or, in this case, superficially good — game down.

A number of fortuitous circumstances led to The Pawn‘s unlikely revival as a next-generation graphical showcase. The first of them was the sheer stubbornness of Magnetic Scrolls’s managing director Anita Sinclair, comparable to that of her beloved bull terrier Murdoch who made a habit of terrorizing visitors to the company’s offices. When it became clear that the QL was a flop and that the text-only adventure game she, Ken Gordon, and Hugh Steers had been working on for it for over a year couldn’t hope to sell more than a dribble, she was determined to keep going, to try again with other games on other platforms. She therefore arranged a meeting with Tony Rainbird at British Telecom, hoping to sell him on a couple of action-game prototypes she and the boys had knocked together during down times. He turned out to be nonplussed by those games, but, much to her surprise, keenly interested in her misbegotten, foredoomed text adventure.

And so Tony Rainbird’s passion for adventure games became the second of those  fortuitous circumstances. Yes, this slick, gregarious would-be mogul genuinely loved adventure games, genuinely believed they could become the basis for an interactive literature of the future. Keeping as he always did one eye cocked toward North America, he was very aware of Infocom’s progress toward turning text adventures into interactive fiction, and felt keenly his own country’s failings in this regard. British programmers, writers, and designers were, he was convinced, every bit as talented as their American peers, but they had been ill-served to this point by the more primitive, usually cassette-driven hardware they had been forced to target as well as by British gamers’ predilection for cheap, simple games in lieu of the bigger, more ambitious releases typical across the pond. He thus saw adventure games as a major focus — perhaps the major focus — of his new luxury label Rainbird, designed as it was to compete with North America on its own terms with big, ambitious titles of its own. He had already started to pursue the most respected and consistent name in British adventure gaming, believing that he could take their games from Level 9 to whatever level Infocom was on on by giving them better packaging, better (i.e., international) distribution, and better hardware. And then along came Anita Sinclair.

In retrospect at least Tony’s interest in The Pawn seems natural, for it had been consciously designed to challenge Infocom, just as Rainbird had been to challenge American software in general. He was doubly interested when he learned that Magnetic Scrolls had granted only the rights to a QL version of The Pawn to Sinclair Research. There followed an intriguing proposal. Could Magnetic Scrolls port the game to other platforms and add some graphics? If they could do those two things for him, he could sell The Pawn all over the world as part of the collection of high-end, high-concept software he was now putting together.

Graphics had long since become a requirement for any kind of success in the British adventure market, as Tony was well aware; he may have been a text-adventure idealist, but he wasn’t stupid. Yet they proved to be a hard sell to Anita. While certainly excited by the idea of giving The Pawn a new lease on life, she was ambivalent about adding pictures. Indeed, she would never entirely shed her ambivalence on the subject. Heavily influenced by Infocom on this point as in so much else, she would declare even after Magnetic Scrolls had become known largely on the basis of their graphics that “if you have graphics it takes away from your own imagination and dilutes the imagery,” and admit that she often preferred to play her company’s games with the graphics off.

That said, many of her initial objections were practical rather than ideological. The pictures that had long since become standard equipment in all but the most modest, home-grown British adventures were almost universally what was known as line-drawn or vector graphics, a technique pioneered by Ken Williams in the United States way back in the days of Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess. Under this technique graphics were stored not as pictures but as a series of instructions for drawing a picture: draw a line from this point to this point in this color, fill a rectangle having these boundaries in this other color, etc. The computer then recreated the image at run-time by stepping through this sequence of instructions. In the hands of masters of compression like the Austin brothers at Level 9, vector graphics could be packed by the hundred onto a single disk or cassette. Unfortunately, though, the nature of their creation limited them to straight lines, regular curves, and geometric solids filled in using a handful of primary colors layered on in big, garish swathes; anything like artistic subtlety went right out the window. That hadn’t always mattered all that much in the past, when the visual capabilities of the computers on offer, what with their low resolutions and limited color palettes, couldn’t manage much subtlety anyway. But clearly the traditional method made a poor fit for the new Atari ST, the machine that Tony Rainbird wanted Magnetic Scrolls to target first.

The alternative approach, used occasionally by companies in the United States like Telarium and enabled by the luxury of the disk drives that were common there, were bitmap graphics, where the color of each individual pixel that made up the picture was stored, one after another. While compression techniques could be used to shrink the size of the resulting file somewhat, pictures stored in this way nevertheless used vastly more space. Telarium’s games, for instance, which were generally much smaller than those of Level 9 that shipped on a single disk or cassette, routinely sprawled across four or even five disk sides thanks to their pictures. Still, bitmap graphics was the approach that Tony now advocated to Anita. The ST’s disks could store a lot more data than disks on the 8-bit machines or, God forbid, an 8-bit cassette. And it wasn’t really necessary to illustrate every single location in the game like Telarium did, just a reasonable subset of the more picturesque and interesting.

Tony even had someone in mind to make the pictures, a young artist and art-history scholar named Geoff Quilley who had just the sort of classy, classical sensibility that Tony and Anita alike wanted for the games of Magnetic Scrolls. Based in Oxford, Quilley had painted portraits as well as a mural for Wadham College, and had already done the graphics for a high-brow 8-bit adventure game based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Nowadays he was doing amazing things with NEOchrome, the simple little paint program that shipped with every Atari ST. When Anita still proved reluctant, Tony made her an offer that was difficult to refuse: give Quilley a week or so to illustrate one or two locations from the game, and see if she wasn’t convinced that they could add to The Pawn‘s commercial appeal without being an aesthetic embarrassment. She did, and she was. Quilley would remain with Magnetic Scrolls for years as their art director, drawing himself many of the pictures that would become the chief selling point of their games and supervising an eventual team of artists who drew the rest. Through it all he would remain inflexibly loyal to Neochrome and the Atari ST, even as Anita tried from time to time to tempt him with more advanced Amiga paint programs like Deluxe Paint. He liked to say that the results he got with his primitive tools spoke for themselves, and it was hard to argue with him after you’d had a look.

The Pawn

With their artist now on the job making the pictures, Magnetic Scrolls’s next challenge was to port The Pawn to the Atari ST and to find a way to add said pictures to an adventure game which they had never anticipated would need to contain them. For all that they had modeled so much of The Pawn after Infocom’s efforts, they had neglected to follow Infocom’s lead in one very important way. Instead of running in a virtual machine like Infocom’s Z-Machine, their adventure system compiled down to native 68000 machine language on the QL. Luckily, however, the Atari ST used the same 68000 processor as the QL, so the porting tasking wasn’t too daunting. The pictures proved to be the biggest challenge: they were done in low resolution so as to allow a palette of 16 colors, but the text really needed to be done in the ST’s 4-color medium-resolution mode so as to allow 80 columns. Magnetic Scrolls thus came up with a way to mix the two modes on the same screen, an impressive technical accomplishment in itself. The pictures could be unveiled by using the mouse to slide them down over the text like a window blind. Not only was it an ingenious way to maximize limited screen real estate, but in its day it was an absolutely stunning special effect, one that doubtless sold a fair few copies of The Pawn all by itself. The new engine also took advantage of the ST’s comparatively capacious memory to implement a number of other commonsense conveniences of the sort that Infocom really should have been adding to their own games for the bigger machines by this point, like the abilities to assign common commands to function keys and to recall the last command for editing.

But of course the Atari ST version was only the beginning. Many other platforms also awaited. The Macintosh and the Amiga, being yet more machines based on the 68000, were  fairly easy marks. The Amiga version did get one notable addition: a theme song by John Molloy, one half of the pioneering synth-pop duo Mainframe, whose own DS:3 sampler, built around an Apple II, was enjoying some popularity; three, for instance, had been employed as part of the Live Aid stage setup. The songs of Mainframe themselves were getting a fair amount of play in British clubland, making the acquisition of Molloy’s services something of a coup for Magnetic Scrolls. The Pawn‘s theme, featuring a surprisingly lifelike acoustic guitar amongst other sounds, became one of the first to demonstrate the potential of sampled, as opposed to synthesized, instruments for game music.

The Pawn

The other ports were, alas, more fraught propositions, entailing as they must artful degradation rather than enhancement. In what can only be described as a masterful technical achievement, Magnetic Scrolls came up with a way to emulate enough of the 68000 instruction set on other processors to run the game. Even more incredibly, they somehow made it run fast enough on the little 8-bit Z80 and 6502 to be acceptable. They hired another artist, Tristram Humphries, to duplicate as best he could each of Quilley’s pictures on a Commodore 64. These were then used in ports not only to the 64 but also to a number of other 8-bit platforms. In cases where it was just hopeless to produce graphics with anything like fidelity to Quilley’s originals, as on the Apple II and the Sinclair Spectrum, the graphics were left out entirely.

The leading lights of British adventure gaming assemble under the Rainbird banner. From left: Mike, Peter, Nick, and Margaret Austin (Level 9); Mike Clarke, Tony Rainbird, and Paula Byrne (Rainbird); Ken Gordon and Anita Sinclair (Magnetic Scrolls).

The leading lights of British adventure gaming assemble under the Rainbird banner. From left: Mike, Pete, Nick, and Margaret Austin of Level 9; Mike Clarke, Tony Rainbird, and Paula Byrne of Rainbird; Ken Gordon and Anita Sinclair of Magnetic Scrolls.

Rainbird and Magnetic Scrolls went public with their new partnership at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January of 1986; the choice of venues was a telling indicator of their hopes of challenging Infocom on their home turf. That April the finished Atari ST version of The Pawn was debuted in Britain in a big joint event featuring not only the principal players from Rainbird and Magnetic Scrolls but also the Austin family who ran Level 9, and whom Tony Rainbird had now also successfully courted for his new label. Tony and Anita even managed to convince Anita’s erstwhile mentor Clive Sinclair to drop in and lend some of his aura to the proceedings. The Pawn‘s big box that was unveiled that day included a glossy poster and, Tony being quite the fan of in-box novellas, A Tale of Kerovnia, a clever if superfluous stage-setting story written by Anita’s sister Georgina. The box also contained ciphered hints to be typed into the game itself for decryption. The Pawn may have been riddled with nonsensical puzzles, but at least players wouldn’t have to buy a hint book to get past them.

While the price of the game prompted shock — fully £20, £2 more than even the disk version of Elite — those gorgeous pictures sent even bigger waves through the British gaming community. Their importance to The Pawn‘s success can hardly be overstated. Whatever their value or ultimate lack thereof for the hardcore player, they gave the magazines visual pop to accompany coverage of the game. The Pawn made for a damn good cover; an Infocom game, not so much. In Computer and Video Games magazine, Keith Campbell, the most widely read adventure-game commentator in Britain, gave The Pawn its first big review. It was gushing: 10 for “Vocabulary,” 10 for “Atmosphere,” 10 for “Personal” (how’s that for an arbitrary scoring system?). He described the game as a well-nigh revolutionary product, “in most respects superior” to Infocom even if the graphics were discounted, destined to cause “the standard of software demanded by adventure players to skyrocket.” There was just something about The Pawn — and Anita Sinclair; we’ll get to that momentarily — that could turn even a hardened reviewer like Campbell to jelly. His review was such a coup that Rainbird shipped copies of that issue to North America along with the first copies of The Pawn to get a buzz going.

They needn’t have worried about it. The Pawn hit American shores like a hurricane. Reviewers there, as in Britain, just couldn’t seem to find enough superlatives with which to stamp it. It even did quite well in continental Europe, particularly the computing (and Atari ST) hotbed of West Germany. For that market Rainbird translated the novella, but left the text in the game alone; making the parser parse German was a task that no one at Magnetic Scrolls had the linguistic chops to manage. Undaunted, tens of thousands of Germans struggled valiantly with the oft-gnarly English text, laced as it was with slang and idiomatic usage. It was presumably all worth it for the pictures.

But graphics were just one of The Pawn‘s not-so-secret weapons, the other being the potent comeliness of Ms. Anita Sinclair. The British press, who had the most regular access to Anita and her charms, were the most smitten. One magazine admitted frankly that it would “grab any excuse to print a picture of Anita.” It’s hard to believe that national magazines with editorial staffs and all the rest actually published some of this stuff. Take this (please!) from Amtix: “The lovely Anita Sinclair came up to Ludlow especially to show me The Pawn. Well, I was really impressed… and the game was good too!” Keith Campbell, writer of that aforementioned glowing Pawn review, called his journalistic integrity into question and also shared much more than anyone really needed to know about his private fantasies when he put “Anita Sinclair in a brass bikini” on his year-end list of things he’d like to see in 1987. An even weirder Boris Vallejo-inspired fantasy life seemed to be lived by the writer who gave her the out-of-nowhere appellation of “ice maiden.”

That gem appeared in Sinclair User. And, indeed, it was that magazine that developed the most sustained obsession with all things Anita. A contest announcement there said they’d really wanted to gift the winner with “a fantastically beautiful and intelligent companion,” but, alas, “Anita Sinclair is already spoken for,” so readers would have to settle for a light gun instead. (Presumably she’d finally been forced to use the “I have a boyfriend” line on one of them.) In a year-end roundup Sinclair User‘s readers elected her “Most Attractive Programmer,” a category that mysteriously hadn’t existed the year before. (The many write-in voters who opted for “any female programmer” gave a perhaps even more disturbing glimpse of the state of the average reader’s love life.) This is not to say that the verdict was unanimous, mind you. For some time afterward debate raged over whether Anita really was All That. One letter writer weighed in on this pressing issue with particular force. “Anita Sinclair is about as attractive as a pig’s bottom!” he declared with a noble lack of equivocation. (One wonders what his girlfriend looked like.)

This photograph of Clive Sinclair and Anita Sinclair was used for a captioning contest by Sinclair User. "Juvenile sexist comments might sniggered over in the office but won't be printed and won't win and that's that," they announced. Good to know they're fighting the good fight.

This photograph of Clive Sinclair and Anita Sinclair was used for a captioning contest by Sinclair User. “Juvenile sexist comments might be sniggered over in the office but won’t be printed and won’t win and that’s that,” they announced. Good to know they were fighting the good fight.

But my absolute favorite from this delightful little sub-genre is The Games Machine‘s review of Fish!, a later Magnetic Scrolls game. This — I kid you not — is the opening paragraph:

Anita Sinclair looks fab! I’ve always liked the lady but now that she has put on a little weight since giving up smoking she looks gorgeous. What a pity that on the day she took me to lunch (oh, do get on with it! — Ed.) she could barely walk due to some very painful blisters on her feet. She was also suffering from having a jolly good time at the Telecomsoft dinner the night before where the wine was free! Apart from discussing the PC show, other magazines, adventures in general, and her Audi Quatro, we did eventually get round to Magnetic Scrolls’s new game, Fish!.

As the extract above attests, Anita treated her little coterie of admirers with the bemused tolerance of the popular girl at school who deigns to let the lower social orders sit at her lunch table from time to time. She tactfully buffeted away questions like “Who would you most like to kiss under the mistletoe?” whilst gamely trying to focus her interviewers’ attentions back on the games in question. When some of her more sensitive interlocutors asked her feelings on all of the unwonted attention, she remained coy: “There is obviously interest in me because I’m female, but I don’t notice it very much. I think it could be an advantage.” Nor is there any sign that the other folks who worked at Magnetic Scrolls ever felt slighted by the attention lavished on Anita. To hear the magazines tell it, every Magnetic Scrolls game was practically a solo effort by Anita, even as in reality she drew none of the pictures, wrote very little of the text, and contributed to the designs only as a member of a larger team betwixt and between coding much of Magnetic Scrolls’s technical plumbing and of course running the company. The lack of outrage on the part of all parties at Magnetic Scrolls isn’t hard to explain: in a hugely competitive text-adventure market in which everyone was scrambling for a slice of a steadily shrinking pie, the attention Anita generated was precious, the best PR move Magnetic Scrolls didn’t have to actually make. Certainly their most obvious competitors in Britain, the three boffinish Austin brothers over at Level 9, didn’t have anything at their disposal to match it.

So, yes, there was a lot of smoke and mirrors behind the huge success of The Pawn, born of those pretty pictures and that pretty Anita and a media, heavily influenced by both, that was all too eager to see it as an Infocom-killer. In its way The Pawn is every bit as much a period piece as Starglider. Pointless parser permutations like the famous “USE THE TROWEL TO PLANT THE POT PLANT IN THE PLANT POT” aside, Magnetic Scrolls still had a long way to go to rise to Infocom’s level. A comparison of Leather Goddesses of Phobos with The Pawn doesn’t do the latter any favors. One design is air-tight, the other shambolic in all the worst ways. Magnetic Scrolls would get much, much better in their future games, but remains to this day slightly overrated in my opinion, benefiting just a bit too much from the awe so many of us felt back in the day when we saw those pictures for the first time. Much as their Infocom fixation might lead one to suspect otherwise, Magnetic Scrolls did innovate in their own right in some areas having nothing to do with graphics. Indeed, their later games sometimes verge on brilliance. But they always seem to disappoint almost as much as they delight, dogged by a frustrating inconsistency born, one suspects, largely from the lack of a testing regime to match Infocom’s and a willingness when under pressure to ship to let some things go — parser non sequiters, weird text glitches, underimplemented or underdescribed objects, puzzles that just don’t quite make sense — that Infocom wouldn’t.

Which is not to say that Magnetic Scrolls isn’t worthy of attention. Far from it. Their games are the most technically advanced and literate text adventures that the British games industry would ever manage. We’ll thus be looking at all of the Magnetic Scrolls games that followed The Pawn, beginning with the next two in my next article. Whatever else happens, I certainly won’t have to pan any of them quite as badly as I did The Pawn.

Before I leave you today, though, it’s worth thinking one more time about 1986, the year of the twin commercial triumphs of Leather Goddesses of Phobos and The Pawn. While no one could possibly have been aware of it at the time, it would turn out to mark the end of an era. The two big adventures of the following year would be Maniac Mansion and Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards — both driven by graphics rather than text. Text adventures as a commercial proposition still had a few years to go; rest assured that some of the most interesting specimens of the species are still waiting to get their due in future articles. Yet the number of companies working in the field was dwindling, and the genre would never again manage even one, much less two games in any given year with the commercial prominence of Leather Goddesses and The Pawn. Far from taking the text adventure to new heights, as Magnetic Scrolls and Rainbird were confidently predicting, the new 16-bit machines and the games that ran on them would for better or for worse transcend it entirely. Like the contemporary players who remained loyal to the genre, we’ll just have to enjoy the gems of this twilight era while they last.

(Sources for this and the next article: Zzap! of July 1987 and December 1988; Crash of August 1988; ZX Computing of August 1986; Computer and Video Games of December 1985, April 1986, July 1986, May 1987, October 1987, and February 1988; Your Computer of January 1988; Amtix of February 1987 and March 1987; Atari User of June 1986; Questbusters of October 1987; Popular Computing Weekly of January 23 1986; Commodore User of December 1986; Sinclair User of January 1987, February 1987, April 1987, October 1987, February 1988, and August 1989; The Games Machine of December 1987 and November 1988. There are two excellent websites dedicated to Magnetic Scrolls: The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial and The Magnetic Scrolls Chronicles. Francesco Cordella also conducted an interview with Rob Steggles, writer for The Pawn and two of Magnetic Scrolls’s eventual six other text adventures, which is available on his website.

The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial hosts an interpreter that will run the Magnetic Scrolls games on many platforms along with all of the games in a form that is ready to run under it. This is certainly the most painless way to play them today. That said, I think these games are actually best experienced as originally presented via an Atari ST or Amiga emulator. In that spirit, I’ve prepared a download of The Pawn with disk images for both platforms and all the other goodies that came in the box for those of you who are hardcore like me.)


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May 18, 2015

Sibyl Moon Games

18 Rooms to Home starts Thursday!

by Carolyn VanEseltine at May 18, 2015 11:01 PM

For months now, I’ve been head-down in two major projects, which have occupied enough of my time that I haven’t released any smaller games for a while. But I miss writing short-form games, and people keep telling me they enjoy my short-form work, so I want to remedy that.

This Thursday, I’m releasing the first update in a serialized parser IF game called 18 Rooms to Home. It’s a day in the life of Yesenia Reed, whose life is far from ordinary, no matter what she might prefer.

Come back then!

18 Rooms cover art

These Heterogenous Tasks

The Interdependent Ludic Institute of Tlön’s GOTY 201Xb

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at May 18, 2015 06:01 PM

(Previous Tlönology: 2014, 201Xa. And we encourage the valuable work of Institute anfiliates, such as Renga in Blue.)

10: HOW TO WIN A RIOT (Nôtre-Bloc). I’m in two minds about including a game so flamebaity in its self-promotion. The outcry over historical level pack Boston to Soweto was entirely predictable but worked marketing marvels: its splash page now quotes the laws under which it’s banned in eight (and counting) nations. It’s more agnostic than the titular ‘win'; whether you aim to maintain peaceful resistance or prod the Authorities into bloody, headline-grabbing overreaction is entirely up to you.

Credit where due – it was Judas Goat! that first twisted the casual-sheepdog genre by putting you in charge of the BrownianAlibi engine’s particles. But JG was more toy than game; Riot’s agency is deeper, with strong currents beneath the flailing. Particles come colour-coded: the black Organisers are under your direct control, but the rest – shading from shit-starting red Agitators to yellow Malcontents all the way to blue Onlookers – shift in colour and behaviour-patterns depending on how things play out, granting different levels of influence. The action is almost dreamlike, white Authority dots surging or breaking as rainbow patterns swirl inside the crowd: you usher and coax, but you never fully control anything. The real agency is in preparation, where you have to invest points in training, decide what kind of equipment to encourage, and learn about what the Authorities are likely to field (the level that combines sabre-wielding cavalry with teargas is the worst).

9: RZEŹ (Exfutura). The plot and character of this is not worth a damn – it’s a story of loyalty, jealousy and stupid teenage pride amid small-time gangs in Lublin, with a strong feel of slushpile screenplay about it – but the combat, oy. Rzeź is based around the idea that fights are a mix of posturing, mad rage and terror conducted by kids who are mostly faking it. Rather than designing a system to sing like wuxia choreography once mastered, it was designed for the messier parts of a Kurosawa battle sequence. All the love in the animation has been poured into stumbles, flailing arms, shocky hesitation, scrums, panicked flight, desparate ground-fights. The timeline of the story is brief enough that every non-disabling injury taken in a fight persists, so that by the finale the Nasty Crew – and their foes – tend to be sporting a great many grubby bandages. The cast is visibly finite.

It is a game about violence designed to nauseate. By about the midpoint, when the feud gets really vicious, I was hesitating because I didn’t want to see anyone else get kicked to death. At times this lent the schlocky writing a certain grace – “You’re weak!” yells second-in-command Liść after an inconclusive skirmish, “You don’t want this!” and no, no I don’t.

The studio talked a big game about every possible outcome of a fight affecting the story; in the event, it appears that they managed this by making very few characters really matter to the story. (Unless you decide that they do; hopefully you’ve all seen the Save Kamil Let’s Play, wherein Guy Heder tries to keep the scrawny redhead, an enemy whose main purpose is to die in the first skirmish, alive and walking until the end.) The conclusion is an oddly-enjambed anticlimax. The lack of a confident narrative is a gaping wound; this is a game that loses little if you don’t ever finish it.

8: THIS IS HEAVY PETAL (Heavy Petal, various). Those accusing the Institute of a certain favouritism towards Heavy Petal should recall that we excoriated their hackwork efforts Grand Ball and Hussar Princess, and found their biggest-budget work ever, Opera La Maupin, glittery but insubstantial. This Is Heavy Petal is a fanservice beer-money piece, for sure, but it’s still full of surprises. HP tapped into their extensive (and, frankly, really weird) fandom to create short, non-canon works in their worlds. So we have four pieces about Taffeta Kingdom, two from Couture and one Maupin. TIHP hasn’t seen much attention outside the inmost fan community, which is a shame, because there are some really solid works here.

Three of the TK offshoots are predictable but lovingly-rendered OTP vehicles about Taffeta characters, notable mostly for careful targeting to fandom conerns, written by community-favoured authors with their less palatable edges filed down. Footwork – focused on fan-favourite dancing-master Rodrigo – is more interesting for inverting the tutorial, letting you grant dancers techniques to manipulate events. Picaro is a Gothic-weird story about a knavish cad who unwisely buys a cravat from the Couture boutique; Silk Fractal takes the clothes-making heart of Couture and expands it into a beautiful, plotless but evocative toy. Eight Positions of the Blade is particularly dear to us because, briefly and sharply, it cuts through the spectacular artificial theatrics of Maupin to the nasty calculus of dueling culture.

7: THE SCYTHIAN QUEEN (Bytewax): Gonna say it: this is Bytewax’s long-heralded return to form. Since creating the modern GBG (before Analogie dependency-web games were an awkward niche-within-a-niche) they’ve rested on their laurels rather, putting out a game or two every year in precisely the Analogie mould while the genre they created outpaced them. Sure, Scythian Queen is a big step up from Bytewax’s recent output, but most of this is just belated adoption of techniques pioneered by their own successors. What makes it exceptional is writing and voice-acting: all the principal characters are voiced by RSC veterans, and the live stage version of Queen launched before the game itself.

Somewhere in Ancient Greece, four men, each luminaries in their field – historian, philosopher, poet, general – have gathered Symposium-style to discuss the Queen of the Scythians, sprung from legend and now advancing through Greece with fire and the sword. They tell stories to try and figure out who she is and what she represents, each elaboration more outlandish than the last. Servants move softly about in the background. The web builds in the darkness overhead, a precarious tower.

6: THE DUNGRADUSH (Vij Ghatak / Mikey Shakespeare / Cromlech Games). Only small children and the dying can see the Dungradush; it’s a combination of house-spirit, imaginary childhood friend and crochety immigrant grandmother. You never see more than glimpses of a whiskery snout and a scaly prehensile tail. It only wakes up at mealtimes, to swim in the soup-pot and meddle with its family.

Gameplay is akin to a cut-down Sims without the omniscient viewpoint. You can’t leave the home – a small terraced house with a scrap of garden, somewhere in the urban UK. You can’t create characters, and can only get them to do stuff indirectly. They’re hard to manage, so your motivation, as in most management games, is to multiply your influence. Here, that means ensuring a regular supply of small children (when they grow up they can’t see you), getting everybody home for dinner (absentees are beyond your influence), and making sure that soup is always served, because you can’t swim about to gain energy in pizza. Big family gatherings are the best, but if they don’t involve soup you get drained quickly. You also want to avoid family members moving out while they still have Last Requests attached to them. (The dying make requests of you: keep X out of trouble long enough to finish school, find a good spouse for Y or a secure job for Z. Fulfilling them is how you level up.)

Ghatak has said that Dungradush started out as a comedy based on her own family – “I was nineteen, attending university from home, and it was write this or murder my mum” – and the initial appeal is that you get to play the dreadful interfering mother-in-law from a bad sitcom. But it builds into a deeper piece, about the love of the old for the young, how hopes can stifle or nourish. “Early on I was tapping all my second- and third-generation friends for funny auntie anecdotes; the project only got serious once I started interviewing the aunties.

5: ANDRASTE II NASTY (Double Door). Given what happens to the comments section every time we venture an opinion on A2N, we’re just going to compile quotes from our favourite takes on it.

“…the sequel to the cult hit has essentially… betrayed the audience that made it possible.”
— Quiltgamer

“…in the intro when that hip-grind funk kicks in, yeah thrown outta heaven for being too nasty / she ain’t give a shit but she gets all the whaat, I’m like, holy fuck, they did it, I’m home, we’re home.”
Voxel Astra

“To understand Andraste II, you have to get that there are two main ways to totally miss the point. The first is best-illustrated by that mod that lets you control Andraste’s shapeshifting – like, we didn’t even want that to be something we had full control over. The second is to play the game to completion without ever jerking it.”
— Pauline Breaks Their Warriors, lead developer

“…systematically face-sits every sacred cow of game fandom…”
— New York Record

“…we unequivocally condemn this colonial appropriation and objectification of our sacred heritage…”
— official statement, Unified Neoceltic Convention

“…reflects the ever-evolving nature of the Divine in an overflowing, authentic expression of that most blessed of joyous urges…”
— official statement, Iceni Nation USA

“Because what the world needed was a female Stiffy Makane.”
qwertyriah, entire review

4: ADVENTURE CAPITAL (Swingeing Cuts). Adventurers flock to the small village of Ruddy Teme, flooding the market with treasure and inflating the price of ale and wenches. Oke Branter, mayor, town planner and de facto sheriff, must balance the needs and demands of locals, adventurers, wannabe-adventurers, failed adventurers and the adventurer-support industry, not to mention his own friends, self-enrichment and survival.

It’s more than a parable about the greed and short-sightedness of volatile growth, however: it concerns community and what should (or can) be done to nurture and police it. Much of this is management stuff, heavily augmented by vignettes in the best tales-from-the-village/dragonpasser tradition; the character writing is strong enough that one can care about the fates of minor NPCs. It has an excellent handle on how to keep catastrophic failure entertaining right to the bitter end.

3: MIDDEN MINER (Ghosted Past). In the future, archaeology digs will be done with nanobots, which will somehow be subject to the laws of human-sized gravity in order to work as a 2D dive-and-climb mining game. You guide your nanominer into the depths to collect potsherds, bone fragments and pollen, then assemble them into Conclusions and slowly piece together a profile of changing material cultures.

Conclusions need refinement, though, and sometimes can be outright misleading. The multiplayer version, a co-pete thing where you vie to contribute the biggest slice of the Final Synthesis, has a weirdly-balanced information economy: the main strategies appear to be Grant Hog (rush to make lots of shaky conclusions early on for grant money, intending to switch later on) and Hermetic (sit on all your best conclusions, wait for data to get cheap, then dump them all right at the end faster than anyone else can absorb); to my mind this is a completely different game from the contemplative dirt-boring, and also I am terrible at it.

2: THE PILLOW TWINE (Antonia Krebs): For twenty-seven years, beginning with the publication of Twine 2.0, Krebs wrote a short game every two weeks; all but a half-dozen were previously unreleased. With no particular objective in mind, the results are all over the map: maybe a third are diary entries or reconstructed memories, vignette re-tellings of particular moments. There are experiments with memory-palaces, mouseover glitch-poetry, artsy demakes. There is a good deal of smut. The degree of fictionalisation fluctuates hugely, which has led to much speculation and ill-considered amateur sleuthing, upon which Krebs has sensibly refused to comment.

Krebs’ facility with a dashed-off sentence improves massively over the first decade, too, so if you bounced hard off the thoughtstreamy noodling of the earlier pieces… play another hundred or so and it’ll get better. (The games refer back to one another so much that it’s ill-advised to skip forward, though. If you lack the time, our very own Pillow Twine Concordance diagrams the more obvious self-allusions.)

1: THE BOOK OF PRESTER JOHN (Gloria). Sprawling, side-trek-y CRPGlike. Somewhere in the East (the architecture is mostly Central Asian-ish; clothes and people look mostly East African; naming mostly Persian/Greek), around 400 AD. Prester John has unified a Christian kingdom, but he’s more of a charismatic than a theologian. Various tribal divisions, unconverted pagans, and turbulent neighbours threaten his nation. Sick, old and haunted by the prospect of schism, he tasks you with compiling an official Bible; you travel across the kingdom, copying books from religious communities and debating over which parts to authorise.

Sold as the biggest dependency-web game ever made, but – importantly for a form with a reputation for being opaque – it starts out small, builds gently, and has a deep and intuitive interface. It trains you on Old Testament choices before the more fiddly New Testament texts become available.

Between the towns and monasteries, you spend a lot of time riding mules through dusty scrubland, setting up camp, watching the stars by a campfire. At first this has a sort of austere tranquility about it, but as you hone your skills and acquire squabbling NPC followers this erodes. Everyone in the Kingdom has a noisy opinion: at one point you are kidnapped by bandits, but inevitably their leader throws down over Christ’s pre-existence and then it’s on. Everything is politics: on my first run I aimed at the Textualist approach, then faltered and ended up trying to build an Egalitarian/Ecumenical coalition, and eventually fell in with the centralising, pragmatic-moderate Palace faction because everyone else was mad at me.

The best part, though, is the ability to export your final canon into an actual Bible. This year’s Institute budget did not stretch to the calfskin-bound doorstop, but we are very pleased with our faux-leather pocket edition.


May 17, 2015

Segue

ShuffleComp Impressions: Ansible

May 17, 2015 02:57 AM

For the duration of ShuffleComp, I won’t be commenting on games because I don’t want to blow my own pseudonymity just yet. However, Jacques Frechet appears to be a real person, meaning he’s definitely not me; whereas all other ShuffleComp authors are either Doug Orleans or currently in a quantum state of simultaneously being and not being me. So I get to talk about Jacques’ submission, Ansible.

Ansible (Jacques Frechet) is a hypertext piece built using a custom system. Structurally, it’s a pure, stateless time cave. What sets it apart from traditional CYOA-style time caves is the presentation. Ansible uses an infinite scroll, similar to Undum, where content is added to the bottom of the page as the story “grows” with player choices. Unlike Undum, however, past choices are not cut off; every link remains active, allowing the player to go as far back as they want to change something. Effectively, Ansible is a deconstructed CYOA book, with all of its branches laid side by side as tabs that you can page through at will.

Much like in a traditional CYOA, too, Ansible has numerous branches that result in death. The ease of clicking back to explore other branches makes the experience more like a tightly refined try-die-repeat loop out of something like Super Meat Boy, though, and less like a punishingly cruel Twine. In effect, it’s turning lawnmowering into a game mechanic.

Overall, I thought the conceit was interesting enough that I’d like to see other games built using the same structure, though I didn’t think Ansible itself served that structure as well as it could.

This is about as much as I can talk about Ansible without spoiling story or plot details; so I do recommend you give the game a play (It’s quite short) before reading on, if you care about spoilers.

Ansible uses the same basic premise as Fail-Safe (Mild spoiler for a 15-year-old game): The player is communicating over an imperfect connection (the titular ansible) with a character in the game world who is taking instructions from them. In this case, they are receiving messages from a generic-fantasy adventurer equipped with a magical ring that seems to transmit thought and sound. All of the prose consists of dialogue and occasional asides from the protagonist, asking the reader to fill in the blanks of what’s going on. Often, the adventurer’s presumably grisly CYOA-style deaths are merely implied by a “connection terminated” message.

For the purposes of this review, I’ll be referring to the character receiving advice (on the “far side” of the ansible) as the “adventurer” and the character giving advice (on “this side” of the ansible) as the “angel”, to avoid confusion about what I mean when I say “player” or “player character”.

It is strongly implied, in a metatextual twist, that the angel has some kind of clarvoyance or time travel ability corresponding to the player’s ability to explore branches of the story and then go back. Acknowledging this ability to “calibrate” the ansible is the first thing that happens in the story, and the adventurer clearly understands that the angel “will have to try again” to properly get to the next branch of the story.

The rules of how their connection works were never quite clear to me, and after a while they take on a (perhaps unintended) existential horror quality. The adventurer expects guidance from the angel on almost everything, and understands that the angel knows better. So the adventurer is clearly willing to entertain every command from the angel, even when they don’t make sense, even though on the vast majority of cases those commands lead to death. Presumably our mediaeval adventurer doesn’t understand the concept of quantum branches, but I got the picture of the angel as some vast impersonal alien intelligence flipping through different versions of the universe, to find the one where Shrödinger’s adventurer is alive. More than that: Actively driving the adventurer towards death, in a way, to find out what to avoid.

At the same time, the angel is extremely limited. The information you get is incomplete at best, misleading at worst; and you can only communicate by echoing the adventurer – ie, by clicking on links, which are themselves words supplied by the adventurer. So there’s a dimension of helplessness to the angel’s position; you can’t really warn the adventurer of what’s going to happen, or indeed paint outside the lines of the options that the adventurer is enumerating for themself.

From the beginning of the story, I expected gameplay to hinge on gaining information from one “death” branch that would be applied to succeeding in another branch, but this almost never came into play. Eventually, there are few enough branches that lanwmowering becomes the answer, once the shape of the story is taken into account. The time cave structure also suggests, toward the beginning, that the game contains several wildly different stories; in practice, this isn’t true either: there is really only one well-developed plotline, with all other possibilities leading to swift death.

For me, Ansible works best as a piece of metafictional existential horror about Choose Your Own Adventure books. The distancing effect of the ansible, and the frequent death puts an undertone of menace on everything, aided by the writing. The panoply of magical items that is central to the game’s primary plot comes off as sinister, rather than wondrous.

Overall, like a lot of structural experiments, Ansible doesn’t succeed on all counts, but it’s interesting enough that I would care to see more on this mould or from the same author.

May 16, 2015

These Heterogenous Tasks

Shufflecomp Failure

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at May 16, 2015 07:01 PM

With one thing and another, and to my great regret, I didn’t get a game made for Shufflecomp. Here’s some discussion of why, largely in the interests of Know Thyself, and because I think best in writing. (There’s also the aspect that, well, someone went to the trouble of collecting some nice things on my behalf, in the hope that a game might result; so this has a certain degree of the-dog-ate-my-homework.)

Themes

Of the playlist I received, the songs that most grabbed me, both as music and as potential game material, were Train Across Ukraine by Golem, and I’m On The Bus! by Satellite High. They conveniently shared a public-transit theme, but with somewhat different takes on it. And for most of the crucial period of Shufflecomp I was on planes, trains, buses, airports and stations, so I was looking out for things to riff off in writing. The thing is, the most prominent feature of transit is mild discomfort and annoyance, and that blank frame of mind created by trying to carve out a small bubble of private space in an impersonal public one. Human condition, yeah, but hard to get very inspired about.

I’m On The Bus! is about this kind of everyday experience: the small annoyances, inconveniences, isolations and anxieties of taking the bus. Context: riding the bus is a minor recurring theme in hip-hop, usually showing up as a signifier for the indignities of poverty that the speaker has escaped. Bus-riders are outsiders – modern cities were designed for the benefit of private vehicles, and everyone else must make do. So while this song is generally upbeat, it’s an ironic cheeriness – it’s following the patterns of bumping-in-my-ride songs, except that everything’s kind of crap. I’m inordinately fond of the hip-hop that deals with the unheroic, mundane, unglamorously broke.

Train Across Ukraine, on the other hand, is a lot more jolly and convivial. Its train is a kind of rolling village square, bustling with activity and interaction. The music has a bouncy, party feel, and there’s the sense that this party is transposed onto the train itself, that a train carriage transforms itself into a sort of community. There’s a strong element of good-old-days fantasy at work – Golem are from New York, a city famous for defensive ignoring in public areas.

Now, it’s perfectly possible to produce works of transcendent beauty and enduring artistic merit with a subject-matter of petty annoyances. But I was more interested in the other side of things. There are untold hordes of games about isolated, alienated PCs; that’s something I’m trying to get away from. So I immediately knew that I wanted to create a game with a focus on community and characterisation.

Tools

My plan, since I knew I wasn’t going to be able to create anything with the depth of Invisible Parties while traveling, was to use Twine, conform the narrative to a pre-planned structure, and add elaborations as time permitted.

The first problem with this is that as an authoring tool, Twine has never really worked for me. This is not the post where I go into detail about why, but suffice to say that I’ve started a dozen or so projects in it and have always ended up abandoning them in frustration. Fair enough; no platform needs to be all things to all people. But it was a tactical error to rely on this time being different.

Structure And Content Shape One Another, And This Makes Design Hard

My aim was to make a loop-and-grow structure, a circular structure that develops elaborations with each cycle. At first glance, this seemed like a good fit for a transit-themed game: you could be traveling a circular route, developing more options as you understood the world better. But when I came to write things, it turned out that this is a rather trickier job than I had anticipated.

Circular content tends to assume a certain level of repetition. And repetition, in game terms, tends to work towards anonymous, interchangeable, generic acts. In parser IF, this is solved by making the generic acts physical and minor; picking up a rock or walking from one room to another is usually the same every time. Get away from that, and repetition becomes harder to write for. Fallen London, reliant as it is on repeated action, really foregrounds this: NPCs are given functional names that flatten their individuality, an acknowledgement that you can repeat their story arcs over and over. Is this honey-addicted Artist’s Model the same as the one you already had a fling with, or is she just the same kind of person serving the same kind of function? Does the distinction really matter to the PC? If you get continual do-overs on incidents, relationships, their significance – to the story, to the world, to character – begins to blur, and tends towards the kind of impersonal, anonymous, type-not-token distance that I was really wanting to avoid in this game.

I struggled for a while to figure out how to make this work – it is not insoluble, as witness Bee, but it is not the kind of thing amenable to an off-the-shelf solution. I ended up in that standard double bind where you don’t really feel able to start creating content until you can feel confident about the structure, but you really need to have a better idea about the structure in order to build content for it. More than I had time to wrangle with, alas.


Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 11 new game entries, 1 new solution, 2 new maps, 2 new clue sheets

by Gunness at May 16, 2015 08:48 AM

Image
For starters, we've done a brief interview with Tony Lee Morall, who wrote two historical adventure games before turning to film making and becoming a novelist. I think you'll find it interesting. Head over here to read it.

Let your mind wander! It may be time to rewrite the history books. At least the ones dealing with adventure games (ie. that's the important history books) After some digging and research, ahope1 aka. Anthony has helped uncover what might be the earliest adventure game yet! The Wander system, created by Peter Langston, was used to write Castle as early as 1974, at least two years before Colossal Cave Adventure. Excellent news indeed. The game is available for play, so feel free to dip your toes in adventure gaming at its earliest.

Contributors: ahope1, Gunness, Alex, devwebcl

May 15, 2015

>TILT AT WINDMILLS

Spring Thing '15 Post-mortem and Feedback

by Aaron A. Reed (noreply@blogger.com) at May 15, 2015 11:02 PM

The 2015 Spring Thing broke with tradition in a couple of significant ways. My general impression is that things went well this year, but I'd love any comments on how people thought it went, or what you think could be improved for future years.

Things that seemed to go well, from my perspective:

  • Participation. There were nine games submitted from a variety of systems, which is above the historical average for the Thing and quite close to last year. Yay!
  • Drama. No major drama this year among authors or between communities, at least none that I was aware of (although this is statistically much more likely to be coincidence than attributable to the new format).
  • No Entry Fee. Nothing seemed to change appreciably because of this.
  • Relaxed Rules. Again, this did not seem to cause any problems this time around, although it might need to take a year with some tension to really test the laissez-faire approach.
  • The Back Garden. A win, from my perspective: it seemed to provide a place for a handful of interesting games you wouldn't normally have seen in a comp.
Things that went okay but could have been better:

  • Some outreach, but maybe not enough. I announced the Thing on intfiction.org (home base of its traditional parser-based community), but also on Twitter, and forums for Ren'Py, ChoiceScript, ChooseYourStory, Twine, and two academic groups of interactive story people (the Electronic Literature Organization and the GamesNetwork mailing list). I also made a reminder post about a week before intents were due to most of these places. I tried to keep the Twitter account active with posts about past and current games, although I'm not sure how effective this was since it has fewer than 100 followers.

    The outreach seemed at least somewhat successful: there were Twine and Ren'Py submissions, and I'm pretty sure the latter at least was due to my post. There are lots of other interactive story communities I didn't reach, however: either because I didn't know about them, couldn't find a community forum to advertise on, or didn't have time to reach out to them. Maybe Spring Thing needs an intern to help with next year's outreach?
  • Traffic. springthing.net had 1,802 unique visitors during the month of April, which is almost identical to last year (the first year I was organizing the festiva). So it seems at least the new format didn't discourage traffic, although it didn't seem to increase it much, either.  I'm not sure how much impact this had on awareness (it still has fewer than 100 followers).
  • Ribbons. Both ribbons were given to the same game this year, which is totally fine, but I think if it happens consistently every year, the benefit of having multiple ribbons is somewhat weakened. My impression is the main IF Comp's Miss Congeniality Award tends to go to a different game than the 1st place winner, but it could be that in Spring Thing alumni vote less like authors, or the pool size of games or voters is too small to see such an effect. Alumni participation was also quite low (predictably: alumni may not even be involved in IF any more, and playing enough games to vote for a winner is a big time commitment).
  • Prizes. There were fewer this year than in prior years (only two, not counting mine). My suspicion is that cash prizes were a very hassle-free way of helping the festival, and by disallowing them I threw up an obstacle not everyone had time to overcome. I also probably could have done a better job canvassing for prize donations (maybe to some of the same places the festival itself got promoted).
Things to definitely improve:

  • Submission Snafu. I messed up the intent to enter form and thus had to scramble to track down and confirm authors. I don't know of anyone who submitted an intent and got left out; but I can't rule out that this happened, either. Hopefully this was a one-time thing to do with the site redesign.

Things I'm not sure about:

  • No numerical feedback (rankings / public voting data). Curious to hear people's thoughts on this: I've heard some mentions that it's frustrating not to know how well your game was received (to the extent a ranking is a proxy for this), and some sentiment that it has the intended effect of reducing pressure on authors. 

I'd welcome feedback anyone has on these or any other aspects of the new Thing, either in a comment here, to aaron at spring thing dot net, or to the forum post at intfiction.org.


The Digital Antiquarian

Fire and Rain

by Jimmy Maher at May 15, 2015 11:00 AM

FirebirdRainbird

While the Apple Macintosh, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga weren’t exactly flying off American store shelves in 1985 and 1986, they at least had the virtue of existing. The British computer industry, by contrast, proved peculiarly unable to produce 16-bit follow-ups to their 8-bit models that had made Britain, measured on a per-capita basis, the most computer-mad nation in the world.

Of the big three in Britain — Sinclair, Acorn, and Amstrad — only Sinclair really even tried to embrace the 16-bit era on a timely basis, announcing the QL the same month of January 1984 that the Mac made its debut. They would have been better off to wait a while: the QL was unreliable, ill-thought-out, buggy, and, far from being the “Quantum Leap” of its name, was still mired in the old 8-bit ways of thinking despite the shiny 68000 processor it shared with the Macintosh. It turned into a commercial fiasco, and Sinclair never got the chance to try again. Torpedoed partly by the QL’s failure but more so by a slowdown in Spectrum sales and Sir Clive’s decision to pull millions of pounds out of the company to fund his ridiculous miniature-television and electric-car projects, Sinclair came within a whisker of bankruptcy before selling themselves to Amstrad in 1986.

Acorn, meanwhile, gave their tendency to overengineer free rein, producing a baroque range of new models and add-ons for their 8-bit BBC Micro line while its hugely ambitious 32-bit successor, the Acorn Archimedes, languished in development hell. Undone by the same slowing market that devastated Sinclair as well as by an ill-advised grab for the low-end in the form of the Acorn Electron, Acorn was also forced to sell themselves, to the Italian company Olivetti.

That left only Amstrad still standing in an industry that had been just a year or two before the Great White Hope of a nation, symbol and proof of concept of Margaret Thatcher’s vision of a new, more entrepreneurial and innovative British economy. Unfortunately, Amstrad’s founder Alan Sugar just wasn’t interested in the kind of original research and development that would have been required to launch a brand new machine based on the 68000 or a similar advanced chip. His computers, like the stereos he had been selling for many years before entering the computer market, were all about packaging proven technology into inexpensive, practical products for the masses. There’s something to be said for that sort of innovation, but it wasn’t likely to yield a Macintosh, an Amiga, or even an Atari ST anytime soon.

This collective failure of the domestic makers meant that British punters eager to experience the wonders of 16 bits were forced to look overseas for their new toys. Yet that was a fairly fraught proposition in itself. The Macintosh was practically a machine of myth in Britain for years after its American debut, absurdly expensive and available only through a handful of specialized shops. Only wealthy gentlefolk of leisure like noted Mac fanatic Douglas Adams could contemplate actually owning one. And the Amiga, not even available in Britain until June of 1986, also suffered even thereafter from an expensive price tag and poor distribution.

That left the Atari ST as the only really practical choice. The situation was a surprising one in that Atari had not traditionally been a big player in Britain. The Atari VCS game console that had left its mark on the childhood of an entire generation in North America was virtually unknown in Britain, and, while Atari’s line of 8-bit computers had been nominally available, they had been an expensive, somewhat off-kilter choice in contrast to the Sinclair Spectrums and Commodore 64s that outsold them by an order of magnitude. But Jack Tramiel, previously the head of Commodore and now owner of the reborn post-Great Videogame Crash Atari, knew very well the potential of the European market, and pushed aggressively to establish a presence there. In fact, the very first STs to go on sale did so not in the United States but rather West Germany. By the end of 1985 STs were readily available in Britain as well and, at least in contrast to the Macintosh and Amiga, quite inexpensive. A British software industry looking for a transformative machine to lift home computing in Britain out of its doldrums placed its first hopes — admittedly largely by default — in the Atari ST.

Still, it was far from clear just what sort of form the hoped-for new ST software market would take. The ST may have been a bargain in contrast to the Macintosh and Amiga, but it was still a fairly expensive proposition within a country just getting back on its economic feet again after what felt like decades of recessions, shortages, and labor unrest. A reasonably full-featured ST system could easily reach £1000, many times what one could expect to shell out for the likes of a cheap and cheerful Speccy. The ST would seemingly need to attract a different sort of buyer, with more money to spend and perhaps a few more years under his belt. This expectation was one of the calculations that led to Rainbird, one of the most significant British software houses of the latter 1980s.

Rainbird was born from Firebird, a slightly older label that has plenty of significance in its own right. In 1984 British Telecom, solely responsible at the time for the telecommunications grid of all of Britain, was privatized, becoming a huge for-profit corporation as part of Margaret Thatcher’s general rolling-back of the socialist wave that had followed World War II. Even before the first shares were sold to the public on November 20, 1984 — the largest single share issue in the history of the world at the time — the newly liberated management of British Telecom began casting about for new business opportunities. It didn’t take them long to notice the exploding market for home-computer software. They thus formed the subsidiary of Telecomsoft, whose first imprint was to be called “Firefly Software.” That name was quickly changed to “Firebird” — it seems marketing manager James Leavey had just been listening to Stravinsky’s The Firebird — when they discovered a potential trademark conflict with another company. Firebird made its public bow in time for Christmas 1984 with a whole raft of mostly simple action games, selling for £2.50 (Firebird “Silver”) or £6 (Firebird “Gold”). Many turned into bestsellers.

Whether you considered British Telecom’s entrance into software a necessary result of a rapidly maturing industry or you were like Mel Croucher of Automata in considering them nothing more than “parasites” on software’s creative classes, it marked a watershed moment, a definitive farewell to the days of hobbyists meeting and selling to one another at “microfairs” and a hello to a hyper-competitive, corporatized industry destined someday to be worth many billions. If anyone was still in doubt, in December of 1984 another watershed arrived when newly minted software agent Jacquie Lyons presided over an unabashed bidding war for the right to publish Ian Bell and David Braben’s Elite on platforms other than the BBC Micro. Firebird, with the deepest pockets in the industry by far, won the prize.

Although published on the Firebird label, Elite would prove to be something of a model for the eventual Rainbird. Unlike Firebird’s previous releases, which had used the colorful but minimalist packaging typical of British games at the time, Elite‘s big, sturdy box contained not just the cassette or disk but also a thick manual, an equally thick novella to set the stage, a glossy quick-reference card, and a poster-sized ship-recognition chart (all licensed and reproduced from the Acornsoft original). All this naturally came at a price: £15 for the cassette version, fully £18 for the disk version. It marked a new way to sell games in Britain: as luxury products aimed at a classier, more sophisticated, perhaps slightly older consumer. In spite of the extra cost of all that packaging, the profit margins on its higher price points were to die for. If the Elite approach could be turned into a sustainable line rather than a one-off, British Telecom just might have something.

Tony Rainbird

Tony Rainbird

One person inside British Telecom who paid a lot of attention to Elite‘s launch and its subsequent success was Tony Rainbird, a former software entrepreneur in his own right who now worked for Firebird. He began agitating his superiors for a new software label, a sort of boutique prestige brand that would sell more sophisticated experiences at a correspondingly higher price point; it would be, if you can forgive an anachronistic metaphor, the Lexus to Firebird’s Toyota. His thinking was influenced by a number of factors in addition to Elite‘s success. He was very aware of the Atari ST that was then just arriving in Britain, aware that the people who bought that machine and in the fullness of time its inevitable eventual competitors would be willing and able to spend a bit more for software. And he was very aware of the American software market, which at that time was enjoying a golden age of gorgeous game packaging thanks to labels like Infocom, Origin, and Telarium. Games from those publishers and many others in the United States were marked by high concepts, high prices, and, yes, high margins to match. Elite, the first British game that could really compete in the United States on those terms, had been the first game that Firebird exported there; it became as huge a hit in the United States as it had in its native country. A new luxury imprint could continue to export games and other software that suited the higher expectations of Americans, whilst trading on the slight hint of the exotic provided by their British origins.

After getting permission to give the new line a go, with he himself at its head, Tony Rainbird decided that all the games should be published in distinctive boxes done in a deep royal blue, a color which to him exuded class. His first choice for a name was “Bluebird Software.” But, once again, a search turned up a conflict with another trademark, so he allowed himself to be persuaded to give the line his own name. Just as well; it fitted even better as a companion to the Firebird line.

Rainbird was launched quietly at the end of 1985 with two 8-bit creativity titles, The Art Studio and The Music System, that echoed more than faintly Electronic Arts’s Deluxe line of high-toned creative applications in the United States. But it was the following year that saw things get started in earnest, with two splashy game launches for the Atari ST. One of these, The Pawn, is an adventure game we’ve met before, along with its maker Magnetic Scrolls; we’ll continue their story in the next article I write. It’s the other, a space shoot-em-up called Starglider, that I want to spend just a bit of time with today. It’s not really a great game, but it is an interesting one to consider in its historical context, not least because of the colorful history of the person who wrote it, a young hacker with the perfect videogame-character name of Jez San (“Jez” is a nickname for “Jeremy”).

Jez San had already had a greater impact on British computing before his twentieth birthday than most programmers manage in a lifetime. It all began when his father, owner of a successful import/export firm, gave have him an American TRS-80 computer in 1978, when he was not quite thirteen years old. He first won attention for himself by coming up with a hack to let one attach the joystick from an Atari VCS — another piece of foreign exotica that came to him courtesy of his father’s business — to the TRS-80 for playing games in lieu of the awkward keyboard controls that were the norm. His skills had progressed so far by 1982 that his father agreed to become partners with him in a little software-development company to be called Argonaut Software — think “J. San and the Argonauts” — run out of his bedroom. Whilst writing software for whomever would pay him, San was also soon terrorizing the network of British Telecom. He became one of his country’s most skilled phone phreakers, a talent he used to become a fixture on computer networks all over the world. It was in fact as a network hacker rather than a programmer or game developer that he first did something to make all of Britain sit up and take notice.

On October 2, 1983, San hacked the email account of one of the presenters of a live edition of the BBC program Making the Most of the Micro, an incident that has gone down in British computing lore as the “very first live hack on TV.” Millions of Britons watched as the presenter’s computer displayed a “Hacker’s Song” from San in place of the normal login message. Like much involving San, it was both less and more than it seemed. What with War Games a huge hit in the cinema, the BBC wanted something just like what San delivered for their live show where, as the host repeatedly stated, “anything could happen.” San’s alleged victims were more like co-conspirators: “They knew I was going to hack, they were quite hoping I would,” he admits. Why else would they announce the password to all and sundry inside the studio over a live microphone just minutes before the program began? After that, it just took a phone call from a few of San’s friends who were hanging about the studio. Further circumstantial evidence of the BBC’s complicity in the whole incident is provided by the host and presenter’s weird lack of affect when the “Hacker’s Song” appeared on the screen — almost as if they expected it, or something like it, to be there. As for the “Hacker’s Song” itself, it was lifted not from some shady underground but from the very overground pages of the American magazine Newsweek, yet another gift of San’s importer/exporter father.

San was forced to cloak himself in anonymity for this great exploit, but he got the chance to advertise his skills to the world and earn himself some real money in the process soon thereafter, when he was hired by a dodgy little company called Unicom to help in the development of a new, ultra-cheap modem for the BBC Micro. He wrote the software to control the modem, much of which was supplied not on disk or tape but as a new ROM chip to be installed in the computer itself. The modem lacked approval from the British Approvals Board of Telecommunications, meaning that, in one of those circumlocutions only a hidebound bureaucracy could come up with, it was legal to buy and sell but not to actually use on the British telephone network; it was required to bear a bright red triangle on its face to indicate this. Undaunted, Unicom took the non-certification as a badge of street cred, painting little demons on either side of the BABT’s warning triangle that made it look like just part of the logo. The Unicom modem quickly became known as the “Demon Modem.” At a fraction of the price of its more legitimate competitors, it made outlaws of many thousands of Britons and earned San tens of thousands of pounds. Perhaps all those punters should have been more cautious about the people they did business with: in the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders, San makes the eye-popping claim that he imbedded backdoors into the bundled software “to take control of a computer using his modem, to make it play sounds, or type words to the screen.” This sounds frankly dubious to me given everything I know about the technology involved, but I offer it nevertheless for your consideration. At any rate, San claims he mainly used his powers to do nothing more nefarious than cheat at MUD.

San first came face to face with the executives at British Telecom not, as you might expect, because he was hauled into court for his various illegal activities, but rather when he was hired by them to help David Braben and Ian Bell port Elite from the BBC Micro to the Commodore 64. Having accomplished that task in a bare couple of months, he parlayed the success into a contract for a 3D space-combat game of his own, to target the new generation of 68000-based home computers that were on the horizon. Eager to get started, and with the Atari ST and Amiga not yet released, he rented a Macintosh for a while to start developing 3D math routines for the 68000, then shifted development to the ST as soon as it arrived in British shops. When Rainbird came into being, this 16-bit prestige project was quickly moved from Firebird to the new imprint.

Starglider

The finished Starglider that was released by Rainbird in October of 1986 was once again both less and more than it seemed. With Bell and Braben having already started squabbling and proving unable or unwilling to deliver a timely follow-up to Elite, Rainbird clearly wanted to position Starglider instead as that game’s logical successor. Just as Acornsoft had for Elite, Rainbird hired an outside author, James Follett, to write a novella setting the stage for the action. Its almost 70 pages tell the story of an alien invasion force that disguise themselves as Stargliders, a protected species of spacefaring birds, in order to penetrate the automated defenses of your planet of Novenia. You play Jaysan — didn’t I say he had the perfect name for a videogame character? — who with the assistance of his hot girlfriend Katra must save his world using the last manned fighter left in its arsenal. How’s that for a young nerd’s wish-fulfillment fantasy?

That said, connecting all of the texture provided by the novella to the actual game requires quite an effort of imagination. Starglider lacks the huge universe of Elite, and lacks with it Elite‘s strategic trading game and the slow-building sense of accomplishment that comes from improving your ship and your economic situation and climbing through the ranks. Most of all it lacks Elite‘s wondrous sense of limitless freedom. Rather than a grand space opera, Starglider is a frenetic shoot-em-up in which you down enemies for points — nothing more, nothing less. Get to and destroy a faux-Starglider, the “boss” of each level, and you advance to the next, where everything becomes a little bit harder. With no save facility beyond a high-scores table, it would fit perfectly into an arcade.

Starglider

Which is not to say that Starglider wasn’t impressive in its day within its own more limited template. The game’s most innovative feature may just be its missile-eye view: when you fire a missile you can switch your view to a camera in its nose and guide it to its target yourself. There’s also a modicum of strategy required: you need to return to a depot periodically to repair your ship and restock your weapons, and you need to replenish your energy supplies by skimming over power lines located on the surface of Novenia (shades of Elite‘s fuel scoops). But mostly Starglider seems more concerned with showing off what its 3D engine can do than pushing boundaries of gameplay. Its wireframe 3D graphics aren’t exactly a revelation in comparison to Elite‘s, but there are far more enemies now with more complex shapes, which move more smoothly — the Stargliders themselves, enormous birds that smoothly flap their wings, are particularly well-done — and which are now in color.

The problem with a game that lives and dies on its technical innovations is that once those innovations are incorporated into and improved upon by other games it has very little to offer. Writing about Elite, I noted that Braben and Bell could easily have stopped after they had a workable 3D action game, the first of its kind on a PC, and been assured of having a sizable hit on their hands. What made Elite a game for the ages was their decision to keep going, to use that 3D engine as a mere building block for something grander. The lack of a similar grander vision is what makes Starglider, as reviewer Ashley Pomeroy put it, “a period piece.” Within a year or two other games would offer 3D engines that used solid polygons instead of wireframes — including, ironically, later versions of Elite itself. Many of Starglider‘s other aspects that were impressive back in the context of 1986 are most kindly described as quaint today, like the poorly digitized voice of Katra that occasionally screams out a monosyllabic exclamation. Most embarrassing of all is the brief digitized snippet of a studio-recorded theme song that plays as the game starts; it sounds like a particularly cheesy Saturday-morning toy advertisement.

The use of digitized sound from the real world is of course a signpost to the future of multimedia gaming, and represented a real coup in 1986, as San himself describes: “On the Atari ST Starglider was the first game to use sampled sound. I sat with my ST open, measuring voltages off the sound chip, and modulating the volume controls in real time on the three channels to find what voltages came out so that I could play samples.” Technically brilliant it may well be. Timeless, however, it’s not.

In its day, though, it was more than enough to make Starglider just the big hit needed to get the fledgling Rainbird imprint off the ground. Its sales soared well into the six figures once ported, with greater or lesser degrees of success, to quite a variety of 8-bit and 16-bit machines (a list that includes the Amiga and at long last the Macintosh, the platform where its development first began). The sheer number of ports illustrates what would soon become Rainbird’s standard business model: to release games first as prestige titles on the 16-bit machines, then port them down to the less capable but more numerous 8-bitters where the really big sales numbers could be found. Rainbird quickly learned that an Atari ST or Amiga game on the Commodore 64 still retained some of the cachet that clung to anything involving a 68000. (Cinemaware in the United States would quickly learn the same thing and engage in a similar triangulation.)

Jez San used the income Starglider generated to put his one-man-band days behind him, bringing in additional programmers to establish Argonaut as one of the mainstays of British game development for almost two decades to come. Argonaut became one of the leading lights of a certain school of game programming, centered in Europe, that would continue to program the new 16-bit machines largely as they had the older 8-bits: in raw assembler, banging right on the hardware and ignoring operating systems and all the rules of “proper” programming found in the manuals. The approach seemed to demand young minds. Indeed, it seemed to delight in chewing them up and spitting them out before their time. In 1987 a 21-year-old San was already starting to feel his powers fading in contrast to the young turks he was hiring to work for him; he declared he’d likely be “over the hill” in about two more years. He was therefore eager to complete the transition he’d already begun into a purely managerial role. Even professional sports didn’t worship youth like this brutal meritocracy.

San and his colleagues and the many other developers like them positively swaggered about their prowess at down-and-dirty to-the-metal assembly-language coding, treating those who chose to work differently with contempt. “I don’t believe you can write performance software in C,” said San bluntly in that same 1987 interview. What he apparently failed to understand or didn’t consider significant was that, in being forced to focus so much on the trees of registers, opcodes, and interrupts, he was forgoing a veritable forest of conceptual complexity and design innovation. Higher-level languages had, after all, been invented for a reason. It’s very difficult, even for an agile 20-year-old mind, to conceive really interesting systems and virtual worlds when one is also forced to manually keep track of the exact position of the electron gun painting the screen. Thus the games that Argonaut and houses like them produced were audiovisually spectacular in their day but can seem underwhelming in ours. The fundamental limitations of their designs are all too painfully apparent today, long after even the best of 1980s graphics and sound have lost their ability to awe. For that reason I don’t know that we’ll be hearing a lot from this school of game development in the years to come on this blog, but rest assured that they’ll be beavering away in the background, brilliant in their own ephemeral way.

(Sources: the film From Bedrooms to Billions; the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders; Amazing Computing of November 1987; Retro Gamer 86 and 98; Amiga Computing of June 1988; Your Computer of January 1985, February 1986, June 1986, October 1987; Computer and Video Games of February 1985; Popular Computing Weekly of March 21 1985, November 7 1985, November 14 1985, and March 27 1986; Computer Gamer of August 1986; Home Computing Weekly of April 30 1985; Games Machine of October 1988. The web site The Bird Sanctuary is full of information on Firebird, Rainbird, and their games. If you’d like to experience Starglider for yourself, feel free to download a zip from here containing Atari ST and Amiga disk images along with all of the goodies that accompanied them.)


Comments

May 14, 2015

Sibyl Moon Games

Matt Chelen’s Another Interactive Fiction Engine List

by Carolyn VanEseltine at May 14, 2015 02:01 PM

Occasionally, the thought crosses my mind: what if I created a game in every existing interactive fiction engine, something tailored to capture its strengths? It would be a whole lot of work, but it would also ensure that I know the strengths of every system out there (an appealing thought!)

I suspect this thought will never cross my mind again. The intrepid Matt Chelen built a comprehensive spreadsheet at Another Interactive Fiction Engine List, which stands at 59 entries and counting.

I am not going to make 59 games. It would take too long.

However, if you have an interactive fiction project in mind and you’re searching for the perfect language to execute it, the list is certainly worth a look. Matt includes notes for all 59 engines on:

  • what the user interface is like
  • what scripting language is involved
  • whether there’s an IDE
  • what file format it produces
  • how complex the system is
  • whether you can self-publish titles
  • and when the system was last updated (important for ensuring that you’re working in a maintained system!)

A number of these were entirely new to me. Personally, I’m going to look further into Fungus, which looks incredibly promising for game jams (it’s the development engine behind Steal My Artificial Heart!).

With the IGDA Write A Game Challenge starting on June 1, that’s particularly interesting….

Raconteur

New feature: sections

May 14, 2015 12:57 AM

An interesting new feature has been added with version 0.4.1 of Raconteur. From the changelog:

0.4.1 (May 13th, 2015)

Each situation with content is now output as its own <section> element. Each situation with content clears the #current-situation id from previous situations and gives its content section that id.

Writers, instead of inserting before the .options or at the end of the content spool, now insert at the end of the #current-situation. This behaviour has ramifications if you’re doing strange things with Raconteur situations, but if you’re using most of the features as intended this change should be transparent.

The gain from this feature is significant: Situations can now be styled individually, or in groups by giving the situation a classes property.

The major potential pitfalls are: first, the “changeover” happens at the content-printing step of RaconteurSituation#enter, so if you define a “before” function in your situation and refer to the #current-situation that will still be the previous situation. Second, if you are using Undum’s low-level API to write to the end of the content spool (With system#write for instance) and mixing that with Raconteur writers, you might have odd behaviour where text is popping up where you don’t expect it. The fix is to make sure you always writeInto the #current-situation section, OR that you use system#write throughout that situation instead. It might be useful to create a new, empty #current-situation at the bottom of the content spool by entering a situation with a function that returns empty string as its content.

I’ve merged this feature into the stable branch. If you try it out and have problems or questions, let me know.