Planet Interactive Fiction

November 30, 2015

Emily Short

November Link Assortment

by Emily Short at November 30, 2015 11:00 AM

Upcoming events:

Boston, Dec 2: Purple Blurb at which Christian Bok will read from The Xenotext.

Copenhagen, Dec 2-4: ICIDS conference meets, with keynotes by Chris Crawford and Paul Mulholland. This is an academic conference in digital storytelling that in the past has looked at procedural narrative, character modeling, authoring tools, augmented reality experiences, interactive nonfiction, pedagogical applications of IF, and assorted related topics.

Boston, Dec 10: PR-IF meets.

SF Bay, Dec 12: Bay Area IF meetup.

London, Dec 12-13: AdventureX, a convention for adventure games including text adventures.


IF Comp is over, and that means lots of discussion, post-mortems, and additional reviews. There was an extensive post-mortem discussion at Euphoria, a new, still-in-development threaded chat space that includes a room for interactive fiction.

Here’s some of the authorial writing that has come out since the comp closed:

Astrid Dalmady on Arcane Intern (Unpaid)

Brendan Patrick Hennessy’s postmortem on Birdland

Piato’s postmortem for Duel

AvB’s postmortem for Gotomomi

Tia Orisney on Kane County (plus some questions about where to go on a post-comp release)

Katherine Morayati’s postmortem for Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory

Glass Rat’s postmortem for Seeking Ataraxia.

Joey Jones’ five-part series on Sub Rosa [Planning, Puzzles, Cut Content, Setting, Wrap]

An interview with Chandler Groover about Taghairm and his postmortems for both Taghairm and Midnight. Swordfight.


The Windhammer Prize for gamebooks has also concluded, with first prize going to Felicity Banks for After the Flag Fell. I didn’t have a chance to play either of the Merit Award winners, but here’s Sam Ashwell’s review of Merit winner Sabrage.


Liza Daly writes about her NaNoGenMo project this year, a computer-generated cops and robbers script that uses some IF-style world-modeling.


The Games by Angelina blog is running posts summing up interesting recent work in game AI, including narrative AI — for instance, this piece about a knowledge representation system developed by a team at UCSC.


New York magazine collects a list of particularly entertaining Twitter bots, as recommended by other botmakers. Includes some interesting thoughts about what makes procedural juxtapositions fruitful or funny, even if it doesn’t mention Harry Giles’ @LilSpellbook, my personal favorite.


Somewhat in the spirit of Sam Ashwell’s Tlön game reviews, Alexis Kennedy writes about “three unreviewable games”.

And meanwhile, here’s an IF game jam themed around that same idea, run by Jason Dyer.


Ryan Veeder has started a comp for games that will appeal to Ryan Veeder. It will be judged by Ryan Veeder and the prizes awarded by Ryan Veeder. An important rule is that you are not supposed to communicate with Ryan Veeder about his comp.

Even if you do not like this idea and do not want to enter it, it is worthwhile to view the video in order to see the costuming.


IF Comp author Marco Vallarino has written several other pieces, including an Inform piece in Italian designed to introduce students to the features of possible schools — this newspaper article covers the project and includes screenshots.


Here’s Bruno Dias (Cape, Mere Anarchy, et al) on Emily is Away, as part of the ZEAL project.


Adam Cadre has issued a complete rewrite of his novel Ready Okay!.


If you’re interested in writing German-language IF, the IF Grand Prix for 2016 has been announced and intents are being accepted through March 1 2016.

November 29, 2015

Emily Short

IF Comp 2015 Guest Post: Janice M. Eisen on Brain Guzzlers from Beyond!

by Emily Short at November 29, 2015 11:00 AM


As part of the ongoing project to get new reviewers talking about IF Comp games, Janice M. Eisen has written about Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! Janice is a long-time player of parser IF who beta-tested for Infocom.

“Brain Guzzlers from Beyond!” is a delightful parser-style puzzle game set in the world of 1950s monster movies. It’s polished, funny, and well designed, so I wasn’t surprised that it won this year’s IFComp.

The attention to detail in the game is truly impressive. From the opening, in which you set up your character by taking a magazine quiz, its voice and personality show through. The parser itself responds to you on occasion with a rather scolding tone. (The funniest response came when my PC got angry enough to get the option to say “the F-word,” which turned out to be “Fiddlesticks!” This is the era of “Leave It to Beaver,” after all.) The comics-style drawings of major NPCs that appear the first time you speak to them are a great use of illustration to set the mood.

Props your character finds, from a yearbook with entries about most of the characters to the book of terrible poetry you may end up with, are thoughtfully written, funny, and even occasionally helpful. (In the yearbook, your character’s quote is “Go west. Take all.” No, that’s not helpful, and too much self-referential humor can certainly be off-putting, but the game has just the right amount.)

Dialogue with NPCs has always been a weakness in parser IF, but the system used here is good enough to support a great deal of interaction, which is necessary for solving the game. Several of the NPCs are used only to send you on fetch quests, but in some cases the dialogue and the puzzle are cleverly integrated, particularly in one very funny puzzle for which you must create the right kind of poem. The dialogue system displays the same careful attention as the rest of the game, with options changing as the conversation continues so that you don’t find your character repeating the same sentence over and over.

The game doesn’t understand HELP or HINT, but it is otherwise as friendly as possible to the IF newbie. The puzzles are not very difficult, but solving them and discovering more about this world are great fun. I literally laughed out loud several times.

While never preachy, this is also very much a feminist game, from the personality quiz throughout both the plot and the racially inclusive cast of characters. The era-appropriate sexist attitudes of the characters (including the parser) are played for laughs, and by featuring several distinctive NPCs with different personalities and strengths, the game shows that there’s more than one way to be a kick-ass heroine, even if you’re also the Pine Nut Queen.

A few glitches with commands that don’t give the appropriate response will I’m sure be polished out in later versions. (For example, LOOK UP [NPC NAME] IN YEARBOOK gives the response, “You discover nothing of interest in the yearbook”; you have to READ YEARBOOK to get into the proper dialogue menu.)









I particularly liked the puzzles that played off the personalities of the various NPCs. For example, there is one character who won’t give you the crucial info you need until she is convinced that you like science fiction, which means you must find the comic books and read them. More puzzles like this, and fewer simple fetch quests, would be welcome.

I got stuck twice at points that could have been clued better: I didn’t make the connection between a perforated silver membrane and the movie screen, and I couldn’t find Jenny when she was in the kitchen — something as simple as having your character see her cross the living room and enter the kitchen would solve that.

Steph Cherrywell deserves a great deal of credit for the careful construction of the plot and puzzles, the sheer amount of detail she has included, and the humor that almost always hits the mark. “Brain Guzzlers” is a solid, funny work, which with a little more polish would be a great choice for introducing newbies to IF.

Tagged: brain guzzlers from beyond, guest post, janice m. eisen, steph cherrywell

November 28, 2015

The People's Republic of IF

December meetup

by zarf at November 28, 2015 11:00 PM

The Boston IF meetup for December will be Thursday, December 10, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

Emily Short

A Conversation with Ruber Eaglenest about ZFiles

by Emily Short at November 28, 2015 03:00 PM


Z Files: Infection is a project currently being Kickstarted, an interactive comic book set in a zombie universe. I talked with Ruber Eaglenest, aka El Clerigo Urbatain, about the project, and how it works as an interactive comic, as interactive fiction, and in terms of how it portrays its protagonist.

Interactive comic

RUBER: There have been other games that have tried to this fusion, but they are most experiments, or resort to the “infinite canvas”.

EMILY: I think that is an interesting direction. I’ve seen a handful of pieces that do similar things, but I think there is probably a lot of additional room to explore it. IIRC, some of the Tin Man Games pieces do include some comic illustration elements; also a few other things I’ve covered.

RUBER: To be honest, sometimes I’m not at all satisfied about how I try to communicate how interesting is our project compared to other attempts to make interactive comic. I do not want to look as I disregard other attempts, especially when I can climb on his shoulders and improve from there.

We are going to stay inside the pages of a comic, and so, the challenge is to apply the tree structure of CYOA to the finite space of a comic book.

EMILY: What actual constraints do you have in mind here? For instance, are you trying to make all the pages be the same size, or have the same amount of visual space assigned to each node?

RUBER: You see, people and the press likes to praise the infinite canvas because we simply love to see common things applied to new technologies. But when one uses the infinite canvas in a digital or interactive comic, you lose some of the features and inherent properties of the comic format. For example, the ability to close a page narrative, or leave it open with a cliffhanger so that an important revelation occurs at the turn of the page. To play with the structure, with graphic symmetry, among other wonders you can do within the pages of a comic book. For example, in the following conference praising Watchmen, Kieron Gillen explained very well the capacity of traditional structures of comics raised to its maximum capacity of artistic expression.

So in a way, the infinite canvas is but a simple way to make interactive comic, to easy our lives as designers. Each comic strip just adds to the buffer and if you need more space, you just create a new line as the story progresses. But we do not want to lose the expressive power of traditional comic pages for this project, so we have stayed inside.

Then, the constraints we face are the same as when a comic author raises the structure of a page, but with the complication that if we have a branch point, then we must plan the page, or the rest of the structure page for each of the future branches.

For example, the structure of the game begins with a decision point for three branches. The hero must go from the house to the mall where his brother is trapped. There are three possible ways, by motorbike, on foot or by subway. The three paths converge at one point when it reaches the goal, and then inside the mall exploration opens up with a map, with free roaming.

Therefore we can think of the structures of the pages as a hierarchical structure inherited. We have a main structure of comic strip canvas for the trip from the house to the mall. Then for each of the possible routes, we must raise another structure, and then within each route, for each branch, etc. Always within the limits of each page.

So returning to your questions. Yes and yes. We are limited to the size of the page. And for a certain branch we have a predefined structure of canvases for the illustrations, each one must fit perfectly within all boundaries.

As for nodes … things get complicated. Sometimes a comic strip belong to a single node, but others act more as the location on a map, as Sorcery! for example. So, in our case a comic strip or cell could represent an entire scene that contains a series of nodes. Thus the digital comic can act as an UNDO: you check the past pages of the digital comic, and select one cell clicking on it and this functions as an option for rewinding time.

EMILY: That’s very cool.

Are you doing any effects where stats or minor gamestates might alter an illustration in small ways? Or is it all a matter of showing one image vs. the other, with no internal changes?

RUBER: Yes and no. Each illustration is attached to a concrete scene or node. We could implement a comic strip cell with layers, and for example, to show different things or add up a layer, depending of certain variables… however, the structure of the original gamebook doesn’t required this, that I can remember. But, for example we have rewards where we change the hero with the persona of a backer, so, definitively this is something we can do, just for convenience of the kickstarter, or for convenience of the adaptation. But right now I don’t have an example to give you.

EMILY: And are you building a general engine for this kind of project?

RUBER: Yes and no. Internally we use a script similar to the first scripts of Inkle or similar to ChoiceScript. Then the script will be fed to an Unity engine that is responsible for assembling the digital comic, throwing battles, build the interface, etc. The script will be open source, but for the unity engine we have not yet decided.

But yes, I think the whole framework could work for projects of similar conception and scope.

Interactive Fiction

RUBER: I will try to apply the things we have learned with world model based IF, that is, the same conclusion as Inkle Studios: short text, and early interaction..

The examples of interaction that I saw looked like they were mostly adding gamebook elements to the combat. How much new story content are you adding?

The game is an adaptation of a paper gamebook with advanced rules (combat, role-playing elements, dice, and at one point in the story, free roaming). So yes, it is a digital gamebook and structurally is similar to the original. We are not going to add new branches or new text for the sake of it. Although we plan to create a certain stretch goal where a complete new route across rooftops. On the contrary, we will chop the pages of the book and expand all nodes in a logical way to build a simulation and proper world building, like we do in interactive fiction with parser and locations. The philosophy is similar to what Inkle made in Sorcery! 1, but not as they made for more ambitious philosophy like in Sorcery! 2, or 3, where they put complete free roaming. And not even whole new world for Sorcery! 3. We are not going to do that because it’s not necessary for this game. We’re staying within the branches of the original story, although maybe we could expand them when we miss some logical action that it is not in the original book.

In short, rather than add new text or new branches, we will chop it for the purposes of a better world building, and we will reduce it because we have the comic illustrations to support it, we don’t need to use all original text.

I know you love gamebook structures, so I’ve attached the structure of the original Infection gamebook. [Ed. note: it’s huge, click through for details.]


Numbers in the map doesn’t correlate with the original ones in the book, because the script that generated it wasn’t setted right. But that’s not bother to enjoy the structure.

As you can see, the game branches in three main ways to reach the center mall. Then rejoin to enter the mall. And inside the player must to choose from locations of a map to explore the place. That’s why, there’s that hell of miriad of independent trees.

Problems with exposition and person and gender

RUBER: You know, this is a “you are the hero” game, but all comics are written in third person… the hero is defined, so, we have a problem here, a big but really interesting problem. Let alone about why we don’t have a gender option for the game. The book is written for a male heterosexual and white hero, so… What we are going to do to reach the gender standards of XXI century?


EMILY: I don’t think it’s inherently a problem to have a defined hero for this kind of work. Choice of Games heroes and heroines are very open-ended because that’s part of their brand and concept; but inkle’s Passepartout is a person with a known gender, for instance.

RUBER: Yeah, you are right. But I mean, it’s a problem of form. The game talks to you in second person because You are the hero, but inside the comic strip the action is in third person. We must be careful in how we refer to the hero to avoid creating a dissonance regarding the person of the narrative at all times. It is a little more complicated than in pure text form just because the comic medium.

EMILY: So… how are you planning to approach that? :)

RUBER: Yeah, That is the big interesting problem I mean before: the gender problem. It is big design problem for us. Let me explain myself, and let me be quite frank: we will not do it. Because it is very expensive!

To make that the game allows you to select a hero or heroine, in our case, is very expensive because it means you have to duplicate all the graphics resources of the game where the hero appears. That means it is twice the development time for designing and implementing the hero. And we have not budgeted that extra money. But that does not mean that we are satisfied with it. Like you said, if you have Passepartout, it’s a no matter that you can’t choose a female version, because it is already fully characterized. But in our case we believe it would be very interesting. In fact, our illustrator, Maite, the very first concept art she made was a female version of the hero, with her boyfriend crouched in a pin up position, embracing his knees. About 45% of our patrons are women. And most women players prefer to play with a female avatar. So … we can’t do it, and that pisses us so much.

If the game was text only, that would be relatively easy to do, like Choice of Games does (it would be easy for this game, not for any of the complex works of them.) But, when you have graphics that are vital part of the experience, things get complicated.

But we can dream, and we can dream that our crowdfunding campaign goes so well that we could reach a potential stretch goal to make it happen. To cover the expenses of design a heroine: a young but resolute girl, riding her motorbike katana in hand; and adapt every situation to give a proper feminine vision of the world.

EMILY: You could also have started with a female protagonist and added the male one as a stretch goal. Is the reason not to do that because of the gamebook you’re working from, or because male felt like a better initial fit for your audience, or…?

RUBER: Probably because I’m not yet proper sensibilized with egalitarian tendencies? I’m joking… of course it was because of the gamebook I’m working from. It is a gamebook designed by men with a male hero in it, with men jokes and hero points awarded by heroes acts. But as I said, just from the beginning we were eager to do a female version, but simply, could not afford it to include in the budget.

Cast an eye to that first concept art our artist made (we have two artists working, a creative director, Francis Porcel, awarded comic of european comics working for Dargaud, and Maite Hernández who read my mind when she came with that picture).


The ambiance for the universe isn’t even right, the game takes place in 1999, and not in the 80s, but this was from a first batch of concepts before we decided the decade.

However, let me be clear: about this female character, we are just speculating. First the crowdfunding goal must be met, and then a stretch goal. As I said, one man can dream. And come what may we should treat this with the most tactfulness. If this happens we would do a proper female hero, not simply a replacement of an avatar for another.

November 27, 2015

Choice of Games

All of our games are 25% off or more in Steam’s Autumn Sale

by Dan Fabulich at November 27, 2015 11:01 PM

All of our Steam apps are 25% off or more until December 1! We need your support to continue delivering our games on Steam. Our goal is to release our entire catalog of interactive novels on Steam. Based on the extraordinary performance of Choice of Robots and Champion of the Gods, both which made it onto Steam’s front page this year, Valve has allowed us to ship a handful of additional games. We’ll need to continue to deliver outstanding results to prove that interactive fiction can be successful on Steam. We’re asking all of our fans to follow us on

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New Hosted Game! “Factions: Raids of the Divided” by Waseeq Mohammad

by Dan Fabulich at November 27, 2015 11:01 PM

There’s a new game in our Hosted Games program ready for you to play! There have been news of recent raids across the land. Can you save Alfarid or will the factions succumb to discord? Factions: Raids of the Divided is the interactive epic fantasy adventure where your investigation skills matter. Waseeq developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and we’ll publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue

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New Hosted Game! “A Study in Steampunk: Choice by Gaslight” by Heather Albano

by Dan Fabulich at November 27, 2015 11:01 PM

There’s a new game in our Hosted Games program ready for you to play! Steam-powered mechs meet forbidden sorcery! Inspired by Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde, and Jack the Ripper, A Study in Steampunk: Choice by Gaslight is an epic 277,000-word interactive mystery novel by Heather Albano, co-author of “Choice of Broadsides,” “Choice of Zombies,” and “Choice of Romance: Affairs of the Court.” Your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based–without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination. It’s 25% off until December 1. The game is afoot! In a world of gaslit

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The Digital Antiquarian

The 68000 Wars, Part 4: Rock Lobster

by Jimmy Maher at November 27, 2015 03:00 PM

In the years following Jack Tramiel’s departure, Commodore suffered from a severe leadership deficit. The succession of men who came and went from the company’s executive suites with dizzying regularity often meant well, were often likable enough in their way. Yet they were also weak-willed men who offered only timid, conventional ideas whilst living in perpetual terror of the real boss of the show, Commodore’s dilettantish chairman of the board and interfering largest stockholder Irving Gould.

The exception that proves the rule of atrocious management is Thomas Rattigan, the man who during his brief tenure saved Commodore and in the process the Commodore Amiga from an early death. Rattigan wasn’t, mind you, a visionary; he never got the time to demonstrate such qualities even if he did happen to possess them. His wasn’t any great technical mind, nor was he an intrinsic fan of computers as an end unto themselves; in common with a rather distressing number of industry executives of the time, Rattigan, like Apple’s John Sculley a veteran of Pepsi Cola, seemed to take a perverse pride in his computer illiteracy, saying he “never got beyond the slide rule” and not even bothering to place a computer on his desk. He may not have even been a terribly nice guy; the thousands of employees he laid off, among them virtually the entire team that had once been Amiga, Incorporated, certainly aren’t likely to invite him to dinner anytime soon. No, Rattigan was simply competent, and carried along with that competence a certain courage of his own convictions. That was more than enough to make him stand out from his immediate predecessor and his many successors like the Beatles at a battle of the bands.

Thomas Rattigan

Thomas Rattigan

Rattigan was appointed President and Chief Operating Officer of Commodore International on December 2, 1985, and Chief Executive Officer on April 1, 1986, succeeding the feckless former steel executive Marshall Smith, whose own hapless tenure would serve as a blueprint for most of the Commodore leaders not named Rattigan who would follow. After replacing Tramiel in February of 1984, Smith had fiddled while Commodore burned, going from the billion-dollar face of home computing in North America to the business pages’ favorite source of schadenfreude, hemorrhaging money and living under the shadow of a gleeful deathwatch. The stock had dropped from almost $65 per share at the peak of Tramiel’s reign to less than $5 per share at the nadir of Smith’s. It was Rattigan, in one of his last acts before assuming the mantle of CEO as well as president, who negotiated the last-ditch $135 million loan package that gave Commodore — in other words, Rattigan himself — a lease on life of about one year to turn things around.

Some of the changes that Rattigan enacted to effect that turnaround were as inevitable as they were distressing: the waves of layoffs and cutbacks that had already begun under Smith’s reign continued for some time. Unlike Smith, however, Rattigan understood that he couldn’t cost-reduce Commodore back to profitablity.

The methods that Rattigan used to implement triage on the profit side of the ledger sheet were unsexy but surprisingly effective. One was entry into the burgeoning market for commodity-priced PC clones, hardware that could be thrown together quickly using off-the-shelf components and sold at a reasonable profit. Commodore’s line of PC clones would never do much of anything in North America — the nameplate was too associated with cheap, chirpy home computers for any corporate purchasing manager to glance at it twice — but it did do quite well in Europe; in some European countries, especially West Germany, the Commodore brand remained as respectable as any other.

Rattigan’s other revenue-boosting move was even more simple and even more effective. Commodore’s engineers had been working on a new version of the 64. Dubbed internally the 64CR, for “Cost Reduced,” it was built around a redesigned circuit board that better integrated many of the chips and circuitry using the latest production processes, resulting in a substantial reduction in the cost of production. The chassis and case were also simplified — for example, to use only two instead of many different types of screws. While they were at it, Commodore dramatically changed the look of the machine and most of its common peripherals to match that of the newer Commodore 128, thus creating a uniform appearance across their 8-bit line. As Rattigan said, “I think you’ve got to give people the opportunity not to have a black monitor, a green CPU, and a red disk drive.”

Commodore 64C

Commodore 64C

All of which was very practical and commonsensical. Looking at the new machine, however, Rattigan saw an opportunity to do something Commodore had never done before: to raise its price, and thereby to recoup some desperately needed profit margin. This really was a revolutionary thought for Commodore. Ever since releasing their VIC-20 model that had created the home-computer segment in North America, Commodore had competed almost entirely on the basis of offering more machine for less money than the other folks — an approach that did much to create the low-rent image that would dog the brand for the rest of the company’s life. Commodore had always kept their profit margins razor thin in comparison to the rest of the industry, trusting that they would, as the old saying/joke goes, “make it up in volume.” Now, though, Rattigan realized that the 64 had much more than price alone going for it. Almost everyone buying a 64 in 1986 was motivated largely by the platform’s peerless selection of games. Most, he theorized, would be willing to pay a little more than what Commodore was currently charging to gain access to that library. Thus when Commodore announced the facelifted 64 — now rechristened simply the 64C for obvious reasons — they also announced a 20 percent bump in its wholesale price. To ease some of the pain, they would bundle with it something called GEOS, an independently developed graphically-oriented operating environment that claimed to turn the humble 64 into a mini-Macintosh. (It didn’t really, of course, but it was a noble, impressive effort for a machine with a 1 MHz 8-bit processor and 64 K of memory.) Anyone who’s been around manufacturing at all will understood just what a huge difference a price increase of that magnitude, combined with a substantial reduction in manufacturing cost, would mean to Commodore’s bottom line if customers did indeed prove willing to continue buying the new model in roughly the same numbers as the old. Thankfully, Rattigan’s instincts proved correct. The 64C picked up right where the older model had left off, a brisk — and vastly more profitable — seller.

Sometimes, then, the simplest fixes really are the most effective. Taken together with the cost-cutting, these two measures returned Commodore to modest profitability well before Rattigan’s one-year deadline expired. Entering 1987, the company looked to be in relatively good shape for the short term. Yet questions still swirled around its long-term future. If Commodore didn’t want to accept the depressing fate of becoming strictly a maker of PC clones for the European market, they needed a successful platform of their own that could become the successor to the 64, which was proving longer lived than anyone had ever predicted but couldn’t go on forever. That successor had to be the Amiga. And therein lay problems.

The Amiga was in a sadly moribund state by the beginning of 1987. The gala Lincoln Center debut was now eighteen months in the past, but it felt like an eternity. The excitement with which the press had first greeted the new machine had long since been replaced by narratives of failure and marketing ineptitude. Commodore had stopped production of the Amiga in mid-1986 after making just 140,000 machines, yet was still able to fill the trickle of new orders from warehouse stock. Sure, some pretty good games had been made for the Amiga, at least one of which was genuinely groundbreaking, but with numbers like those how long would that continue? Already Electronic Arts had quietly sidled away from their early declarations that together they and the Amiga would “revolutionize the home-computer industry,” turning their focus back to other, more plebeian platforms where they could actually sell enough games to make it worth their while. Ditto big players in business and productivity software like Borland, Ashton-Tate, and WordPerfect. The industry at large, it seemed, was just about ready to put a fork in Commodore’s erstwhile dream machine.

The Amiga’s most obvious failing was one of marketplace positioning. Really, just who was this machine for? There were two obvious markets: homes, where it would make the best games machine the world had yet seen; and the offices of creative professionals who could make use of its unprecedented multimedia capabilities. Yet the original Amiga model had managed to miss both targets in some fairly fundamental ways. Svelte and sexy as it was, it lacked the internal expansion slots and big power supply necessary to easily outfit it with the hard drives, memory expansions, accelerator cards, and genlocks demanded by the professionals. Meanwhile its price of almost $2000 for a reasonably complete, usable system was far too high for the home market that had so embraced the Commodore 64. Throw in horrid Commodore marketing that ignored both applications in favor of positioning the Amiga as some sort of challenger to the PC-clone business standard, and it was remarkable that the Amiga had sold as well as it had.

If there was a bright spot, it was that the Amiga’s obvious failing had an equally obvious solution: not one but two new models, each perfectly suited for — and, hopefully, marketed toward — one of its two logical customer bases. Rattigan, industry neophyte though he was, saw this reasoning as clearly as anyone, and pushed his engineers to deliver both new machines as quickly as possible. They were officially announced via a low-key, closed-door presentation to select members of the press at the January 1987 Winter Consumer Electronics Show. The two new models would entirely replace the original, now retroactively dubbed the Amiga 1000. The Amiga 2000 would be the big, professional-level machine, with a full 1MB of memory standard — four times that of the 1000 — and all the slots and expansion possibilities a programmer, artist, or video-production specialist — or, for that matter, a game developer — could possibly want.

Amiga 2000

Amiga 2000

But it was the Amiga 500 that would become the most successful Amiga model ever released, as well as the heart of its legacy as a gaming platform. Designed primarily by George Robbins and Bob Welland at Commodore’s West Chester, Pennsylvania, headquarters — the slowly evaporating original Los Gatos Amiga team had little to do with either of the new models — the 500 was code-named “Rock Lobster” during development after the B-52’s song (reason enough to love it right there if you ask me). Key to the work was a re-engineering of Agnus, the most complex of the Amiga’s custom chips, to make it smaller, simpler, and cheaper to manufacture; the end result was known as “Fat Agnus.” That accomplished, Robbins and Welland managed to stuff the contents of the 1000’s case into in an all-in-one design that looked like a bulbous, overgrown Commodore 128.

Amiga 500

Amiga 500

The Amiga 500 wasn’t, especially in contrast to the 1000, going to win any beauty contests, but it got the job done. There was a disk drive built into the side of the case, a “trap door” underneath to easily increase memory from the standard 512 K to 1 MB, and an expansion port in lieu of the Amiga 2000’s slots that let the user add peripherals the old-fashioned Commodore way, by daisy-chaining them across the desktop. Best of all, a usable system could be had for around $1000, still a stratum or two above the likes of a 64 or 128 but nowhere near so out of the reach of the enthusiastic gamer or home hacker as had been the first Amiga. Compromised in some ways though it may have been from an engineering standpoint, enough to prompt a chorus of criticism from the old Los Gatos Amigans, the Amiga 500 was a brilliant little machine from a strategic standpoint, the smartest single move the post-Tramiel Commodore would ever make outside of electing to buy Amiga, Incorporated, in the first place.

But unfortunately, this was still Irving Gould’s Commodore, a company that seldom failed to follow every good decision with several bad ones. Amiga circles and the trade press at large were buzzing with anticipation for the not-yet-released new models, which were justifiably expected to change everything, when word hit the business press on April 23 that Thomas Rattigan had been unceremoniously fired. Like the firing of Jack Tramiel three years before when things were going so very well, it made and makes little sense. Gould would later say that Rattigan had been fired for “disobeying the chairman of the board” — i.e., him — and for “gross disregard of his duties,” but refused to get any more specific. Insiders muttered that Rattigan’s chief sin was that of being too good at his job, that the good press his decisions had been receiving had left Gould jealous. Just a couple of weeks before Rattigan’s firing, Commodore’s official magazine had published a lengthy interview with him, complete with his photo on the cover. To this Gould was reported to have taken grave exception. Yet Rattigan hardly comes across as a prima donna or a self-aggrandizer therein. On the contrary, he sounds serious, thoughtful, grounded, and very candid, explicitly rejecting the role of “media celebrity” enjoyed by Apple’s John Sculley, his former colleague at Pepsi: “When you have lost something in the range of $270 million in five quarters, I don’t think it’s time to be a media celebrity. I think it’s time to get back to your knitting and figure out how you’re going to get the company making money.” Nor does he overstate the extent of Commodore’s turnaround, much less take full credit for it, characterizing it as “tremendous improvement, but not an acceptable performance.” It seems hard to believe that Gould could be petty enough to object to such an interview as this one. But at least one more piece of circumstantial evidence exists that he did: Commodore Magazine‘s longtime editor Diane LeBold was forced out of the company on Rattigan’s heels, along with other real or perceived Rattigan loyalists. It made for one hell of a way to run a company.

True to form of being less of a pushover than Gould’s other executive lapdogs, Rattigan soon filed suit against Commodore for $9 million, for terminating his five-year employment contract four years early for no good reason. Commodore promptly counter-sued for $24 million, the whole ugly episode overshadowing the actual arrival of the Amiga 500 and 2000 in stores. After some five years of court battles, Rattigan would finally be awarded his $9 million — yes, every bit of it — just at a time when everything was starting to go sideways for Commodore and they could least afford to pay him.

With Rattigan now out of the picture — Gould had had him escorted off the campus by security guards, no less — Gould announced that he would be taking personal charge of day-to-day operations, a move that filled no one at the company other than his hand-picked circle of sycophants with any joy. But then, for Gould day-to-day oversight meant something different that it did for most people. He continued to live the lifestyle of the jet-setting super-rich, traveling the world — reportedly largely to dodge taxes — and conducting business, to whatever extent he did, by phone. Thus Commodore was not only under a cloud of rumor and gossip at this critical moment when these two critical new machines were being introduced, but they were also leaderless, their executive wings gutted and reeling from Gould’s purge and their ostensible new master who knew where. There was, needless to say, not much in the way of concerted promotion or messaging as the months marched on toward Christmas 1987, the big test of the Amiga 500.

While it didn’t abjectly fail that test, it didn’t really skate through with honors either. On the one hand, Amigas were selling again, and in better numbers than ever before. The narrative of the Amiga as a flop that was soon to be an orphan began to fade, and companies like Electronic Arts began to return to the platform, if not always as a target for first-run games at least as a consistent target for ports. WordPerfect even ported their industry-standard word processor to the Amiga. But on the other hand, the Amiga certainly wasn’t going to become a household name like the 64 anytime soon at this rate. In addition to the nearly complete lack of Commodore advertising, distribution remained a huge problem. Many people who might have found the Amiga very interesting literally never knew it existed, never saw an advertisement and never saw it in a store. Jack Tramiel’s decision to dump the 64 into mass-market channels like Sears and Toys “R” Us had been a breaking of his own word and a flagrant betrayal of his loyal dealers from which Commodore’s reputation had never entirely recovered. Yet it had also been key to the machine’s success; the 64 was available absolutely everywhere during its heyday, an inescapable presence to tempt plenty of people who would never think to walk into a dedicated computer store. Now, though, having laboriously and with very mixed results struggled to rebuild the dealer network that Tramiel had demolished, Commodore refused to do the same with the Amiga 500, even after some of those dealers had started to whisper through back channels that, really, it might be okay to offer some 500s through the mass market in the name of increasing brand awareness and corralling some new users who would quite likely end up coming to them for further hardware, software, and support anyway. But it didn’t happen, not in 1987, 1988, or the bulk of 1989.

The Amiga thus came to occupy an odd position on the American computing scene of the late 1980s, not quite a failure but never quite a full-fledged success either. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride; the talented actor never quite able to find her breakout role; pick your metaphor. Commodore blundered along, going through more of Irving Gould’s sock-puppet executives in the process. Max Toy, unfortunately named in light of the image that Commodore was still trying to shake, took over in October of 1987, to be replaced by Harold Copperman in July of 1989. Meanwhile the two Amiga models settled fairly comfortably into their roles.

Video production became the 2000’s particular strong suit. Amigas were soon regular workhorses on television series like Amazing Stories, Max Headroom, Lingo; on films like Prince of Darkness, Not Quite Human, Into the Homeland; on lots of commercials. If most of this stuff wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of cinematic art, it was certainly more Hollywood work than any other consumer-grade PC was getting. More important, and more inspiring, were the 2000s that found homes in small local newsrooms, on cable-access shows, and in small one- or two-person video-production studios. Just as the Macintosh had helped to democratize the means of production on paper via desktop publishing, the Amiga was now doing the same for the medium of video, complete with a new buzzword for the age: “desktop video.”

The strong suit of the Amiga 500, of course, was games. At first blush, the Amiga might seem a hard sell to game publishers. Even in 1988, after the 500 and 2000 had had some time to turn things around for the platform, a hit Amiga game might sell only 20,000 copies, a major blockbuster by the platform’s terms 50,000. The installed base still wasn’t big enough to support much bigger numbers than these. An only modestly successful MS-DOS game, by contrast, might sell 50,000 copies, while some titles had reportedly hit 500,000 copies on the Commodore 64 alone. Yet, despite the raw numbers, many publishers discovered that the Amiga carried with it a sort of halo effect. Everyone seriously into computer games knew which platform had the best graphics and sound, which platform had the best games, even if some were reluctant to admit it openly. Publishers found that an Amiga game down-ported to other platforms carried with it a certain cachet inherited from its original version. Cinemaware, the premiere Amiga game developer and later publisher in North America, used the Amiga’s halo effect to particularly good commercial effect. All of their big releases were born, bred, and released first on the Amiga. They found that it made good commercial sense to do so, even if they ultimately sold far more copies to MS-DOS and Commodore 64 owners. While it’s true that Cinemaware could never have survived if the Amiga had been the only platform for which they made games, neither could they have made a name for themselves in the first place if the Amiga versions of their games hadn’t existed. Some of the same triangulations held sway, albeit to a lesser extent, among other publishers.

All told, the last three years of the 1980s were, relatively speaking, the best the Amiga would ever enjoy in North America. By the end of that period, with the 64 at last fading into obsolescence, the Amiga could boast of being the number two platform, behind only MS-DOS, for computer games in North America — a distant second, granted, but second nevertheless — while Commodore stood as the number three maker of PCs in North America in terms of units sold, behind only IBM and Apple. And Commodore was actually making money for most of this period, which was by no means always such a sure thing in other periods. But perhaps more important than numbers and marketshare was the sense of optimism. Every month seemed to bring some breakthrough program or technology, while every Christmas brought the hope that this would be the one where the Amiga finally broke into the public consciousness in a big way. To continue to be an Amiga loyalist in later years would require one to embrace Murphy’s Law as a life’s creed if one didn’t want to be positively smothered under all of the constant disappointments and broken promises that could make the platform seem cursed by some malicious higher power. But in these early, innocent times everything still seemed so possible, if only there would come the right advertising campaign, the right change in management at Commodore, the right hardware improvements.

But, ah, Commodore’s management… there lay the rub, even during these good years. Amiga owners watched with concern and then alarm as Apple and the makers of MS-DOS machines alike steadily improved their offerings whilst Commodore did nothing. In 1987, Apple debuted the Macintosh II, their first color model, with a palette of millions of colors to the Amiga’s 4096 and a hot new 16 MHz 68020 CPU inside. Yes, it cost several times the price of even the professional-grade Amiga 2000, and yes, 68020 or no, the Amiga could still smoke it for many animation tasks thanks to its custom chips. But then, even Apple’s prices always came down over time, and everyone knew that their hardware would only continue to improve. That same year, IBM introduced their new PS/2 line, and with it the new VGA graphics standard with about 262,000 colors on offer. More caveats applied, as Amiga fans were all too quick to point out, but the fact remained that the competition was improving by leaps and bounds while Commodore remained wedded to the same core chipset that they had purchased back in 1984. The Amiga 1000 had been a generation ahead of anything else on the market at the time of its release, but, unfortunately, generations aren’t so long in the world of computers. Gould and his cronies seemed unconcerned about or, still more damningly, blissfully unaware of the competition that was beginning to match and surpass the Amiga in various ways. In 1989, IBM spent 10.9 percent of their gross revenue on R&D, Apple 6.7 percent. And Commodore? 1.7 percent. The one area where Commodore did rank among the biggest spenders in the industry was in executive compensation, particularly the salary of one Irving Gould.

For the 1989 Christmas season, Commodore launched what would prove to be their first and last major mainstream advertising campaign for the Amiga 500. The $20 million campaign featured television spots produced by no less leading lights than Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and George Lucas’s Lucasfilm. The slogan was “Amiga: The Computer for the Creative Mind.” The most lavish of the spots featured cameos by a baffling grab bag of minor celebrities, including Tommy Lasorda, Tip O’Neill, the Pointer Sisters, Burt Bacharach, Little Richard, and astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Gordon Cooper, and Scott Carpenter. Commodore’s advertising agency announced confidently that 92 percent of Americans would see an Amiga commercial an average of twenty times during November and December. Commodore would even begin selling 500s through mass-market merchandisers at last, albeit in a limited way, going through Sears and Service Merchandise alone. The campaign was hyped in the Amiga press as a last all-out effort to make that ever-elusive big breakthrough in North America. Sure, it was something they really needed to have done back in 1987, when the 500 first debuted, but at least they were doing it now. That was something, right? Right? In the end, it proved a heartbreaker of the sort with which Amiga fans would grow all too familiar over the years to come: it had no appreciable effect whatsoever. And with that Commodore slipped out of the mainstream American consciousness along with the decade with which their computers would always be identified.

The next year the first of a new generation of unprecedentedly ambitious games arrived — games like Wing Commander, Ultima VI, Railroad Tycoon — that looked, sounded, and played better on MS-DOS machines than they did on Amigas, thanks to the ever-improving graphics cards, sound cards, and new 32-bit 80386 processors in those heretofore bland beige boxes. Cinemaware that same year released Wings, the last of their big Amiga showcases, and then quietly died. The Amiga’s halo effect was no more. Just like that, an era ended.

And yet… well, here’s where things get a little confusing. As the Amiga was drying up as a gaming platform in North America, it was in many ways just getting started in Europe, with most of the classics still to come. Let’s rewind and try to understand how this parallel history came to be.

Commodore had always been extremely strong in Europe, going all the way back to their days as a maker of calculators. Their first full-fledged computer, the PET, had been little more than a blip on the radar in North America in comparison to its competitors the Radio Shack TRS-80 and the Apple II, yet it had fostered a successful and respected line of business computers across the pond. Commodore’s most consistently strong markets then would also prove the strongest of their twilight years: Britain and, especially, West Germany. Both operations were granted much more autonomy than the North American operation, and were staffed by smart people who were much better at selling Commodore’s American computers than Commodore’s Americans were. Germans in particular developed a special affinity for the Commodore brand, one that was virtually free of the home-computer/business-computer dichotomy that Commodore twisted themselves into knots trying to navigate in the United States. In Germany a good home computer was simply a good home computer, and if the same company happened to offer a good business computer, well, that was fine too.


When Commodore’s European leadership looked to the new Amiga 500, they saw a machine sufficient to make the traditional videogame demographic of teenage boys, who were currently snatching up Commodore 64s and Sinclair Spectrums, positively salivate. They unapologetically marketed it on that basis. Knowing what their buyers really wanted the machine for, they quite early on took to bundling together special packages, usually just in time for Christmas, that combined a 500 with a few of the latest hot games. A particular home run was 1989’s so-called “Batman Pack,” which included the game based on the hit Batman movie, a fresh new arcade conversion called The New Zealand Story, the graphically stunning casual flight simulator F/A-18 Interceptor, and, since this was an Amiga after all, the platform’s signature application, Deluxe Paint II. Deluxe Paint aside, there was no talk of video production or productivity of any other stripe, no mention of the Amiga’s groundbreaking multitasking operating system, no navel-gazing discussions of the platform’s place in the multimedia zeitgeist. Teenage boys didn’t want any of that. What they wanted was great games with great graphics, and that’s exactly what Commodore’s European operations gave them. You were just buying a fun computer, a game machine, so you didn’t need to go through a dealer. From the beginning, the Amiga 500 was widely available at all of the glossy electronics stores on European High Streets. The West German operation went even further: they started selling Amigas through grocery stores. Buy an Amiga 500, hook it up to a television, pop in a disk, turn it on, and start playing.

The British and especially the Germans took to the Amiga 500 in numbers that Commodore’s North American executives could only dream of. By early 1988, Commodore could announce that they had sold 500,000 Amigas worldwide, a strong turnaround for a marquee that had been all but left for dead a year before. A rather astonishing 200,000 of those machines, 40 percent of the total, had been sold in West Germany alone; Britain accounted for another 70,000. Even now, with the Christmas season behind them, Commodore West Germany was selling a steady 4000 Amiga 500s every week. A few months later came the simultaneously impressive and depressing news that the total market for Amiga hardware and software in West Germany (population 60 million) was now worth more than that for the United States (population 240 million). And where Germany led, the rest of Europe followed. Eighteen months later, with worldwide Amiga sales closing in on 1.5 million, it was the number one gaming computer in Europe, a position it would continue to enjoy for several years to come. Just about to begin its fade from prominence as a game machine in the United States, in Europe the Amiga’s best years and best games were still in front of it, as bedroom coders learned to coax performance out of the hardware of which its designers could hardly have conceived. The old Boing demo, once so stunning that crowds of trade-show attendees had peeked suspiciously under tables looking for the workstation-class machine that was really generating that animation, already looked singularly unimpressive. The story of the Amiga 500 in Europe was, in other words, the story of the Commodore 64 happening all over again. Commodore was now making the vast majority of their money in Europe, the North American operation a perpetual weak sister.

When journalists for the Amiga trade press in North America visited Europe, they were astounded. Here was the mainstream saturation that they had only been able to fantasize about back home. A report from a correspondent visiting a typical department store in Cologne must have read to American readers like a dispatch from Wonderland.

I came across a computerized book listing that was running on an Amiga 500. As I approached the computer department, I was greeted by a stack of Amiga 500s. I could not believe the assortment of Amiga titles on the book rack (hardcover ones, too!). I found two aisles full of Amiga software, consisting mostly of games. The Amiga selection was more than that of any other computer.

In a sense, it was just a reversion to the status quo. After all, prior to the introduction of the VIC-20 in 1981, Commodore’s income had been similarly unevenly distributed between the continents. Seen in this light, it’s the high times of the 1980s that are the anomaly, when American buyers flocked to the VIC-20 and the 64 and for a time made what had always been fundamentally a European brand — although, paradoxically, a European brand engineered and steered from the United States — into an intercontinental phenomenon. Not that that was of much comfort to the succession of executives who came and went from Irving Gould’s hotseat, fired one after another for their failure to make North American sales look as good as European sales.

But I did promise you 68000 Wars in the title of this article, didn’t it? So where, you might well be wondering, was the Amiga’s arch-rival the Atari ST in all this? Well, in North America it was a fairly negligible factor, although Atari would continue to sell their machine there almost as long as Commodore would the Amiga. The hype around the ST had dissipated quickly with the revelation in late 1986 that Atari really wasn’t selling anywhere near as many of them as Jack Tramiel liked to let on, and the Amiga 500, so obviously audiovisually superior and now much closer in price, soon proved a deadly foe indeed. The ST retained its small legion of loyal users: desktop publishers unwilling to splurge on a Macintosh, who took full advantage of its rock-solid monochrome high-resolution screen and Atari’s inexpensive laser printer, thereby truly making the ST live up to its old “Jackintosh” nickname; musicians, both amateur and professional, who loved its built-in MIDI port; programmers and hardware hackers who favored its simple, straightforward design over the Amiga’s more baroque approach; people who needed lots and lots of memory for one reason for another, on which terms Atari always offered the best deal in town (they released 2 MB and 4 MB ST models as early as 1987, when figures like that were all but inconceivable); inveterate Commodore haters and/or Atari lovers who bought it for the badge on its front. Still, there was little doubt which platform had won the 68000 Wars in North America. In the wake of the Amiga 500’s release, Atari began increasingly to turn to other ways of making money: buying the Federated chain of consumer-electronics stores; capitalizing on nostalgia for the glory days of the Atari VCS by continuing to sell both the old hardware and the cartridges to run on it; wresting away from Epyx a handheld gaming machine, the first of its kind, that was ironically designed by members of the old Amiga, Incorporated, team. When all else failed, there was always Jack Tramiel’s old hobby of lawsuits, of which he launched quite a few, most notably against the former owners of Federated for overstating their company’s value and against the new kid on the block in console gaming, Nintendo, for their alleged anti-competitive practices.

In Europe, the ST also came out second best to the Amiga, but the race was a much closer one for a while. Along with their love for all things Commodore, Germans found that they could also make room in their hearts for the Atari ST. It found a home in many German markets it never came close to cracking in the United States, being regarded as a perfectly respectable business computer there for quite some time. It also continued to do fairly well with gamers, thanks to Atari’s pricing strategies that always seemed to keep its low-end model just that little bit cheaper than the Amiga 500, enough to be a difference-maker for some buyers. When the Amiga became the biggest gaming computer in Europe, it was the Atari ST that slipped into the second spot. It would take the much more expensive MS-DOS machines some years yet to overtake these two 68000-based rivals. The economic chaos brought on by the reunification of West and East Germany, which caused many consumers there to tighten their wallets, only helped their cause, as did the millions of new price-conscious buyers who were suddenly scrambling for a piece of that Western computing action following the fall of the Iron Curtain.

The story of the Amiga, and to some extent also that of the ST, is often framed as a narrative of frustration, of brilliance that never got its due. There are some good reasons for that, but it can also be a myopic, America-centric view, ignoring as it does a veritable generation of youngsters on the other side of the Atlantic who grew up knowing these two platforms very well indeed. When I was writing my book about the Amiga, I couldn’t help but note the markedly different responses I got from friends in Europe and the United States when I told them about the project. Most Americans have no idea what an Amiga is (“Omega?”); most Europeans of a certain age remember it all too well, flashing me smiles redolent of nostalgia for afternoons spent before the television with their mates, when the summer seemed endless and the possibilities limitless. Instead of lamenting might-have-beens too much more, I expect to spend quite some articles over the next few years talking about the Amiga’s innovations and successes — and, yes, I’ll also have more to say about the Amiga’s perpetually overlooked little frenemy the Atari ST as well. Whether you grew up with one of these machines or you too aren’t quite sure yet what to make of this whole “Omega” thing, I hope you’ll stick around. Some amazing stuff is in store.

(Sources: Invaluable as always for these articles was Brian Bagnall’s book On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore. I can’t wait for the better, longer version. The long-running “Roomers” column in Amazing Computing is my go-to source for a month-by-month chronology of developments on the Amiga scene, and the source of most of the nit-picky factoids in this article. The issues of Amazing used include: March 1987, June 1987, July 1987, August 1987, October 1987, November 1987, December 1987, February 1988, April 1988, May 1988, June 1988, July 1988, August 1988, September 1988, November 1988, December 1988, January 1989, February 1989, March 1989, April 1989, May 1989, June 1989, July 1989, August 1989, September 1989, October 1989, November 1989, December 1989, January 1990, April 1990, May 1990, June 1990, February 1991, March 1991, April 1991, May 1991, December 1991. Commodore Magazine‘s fateful interview with Thomas Rattigan appeared in the May 1987 issue. Other sources include Retro Gamer 39 and of course my own book The Future Was Here. Hey, it’s not every day a writer gets to cite himself…)


November 26, 2015

Emily Short


by Emily Short at November 26, 2015 11:00 PM


Wunderverse is not a game but an iPad adventure editor that lets you build your own stories. It comes with a few starter adventure chapters already written, though as far as I saw it didn’t look like any of them were finished stories. Of these, I completed the sample set in the paranormal world: a vaguely Sixth-Sense-y story that could have been more strongly written and that still had a couple of typos. But I have the feeling that the actual content is not what the app’s creators most care about; they’re looking at this primarily as a tool.

IMG_0208The good: the app looks pretty slick, and it features the ability to theme your stories and include sound effects and other elements.

Though it has a tap-only interface, the underlying world model feels more like parser IF than the models in most competing systems. You can create nodes and objects, and certain verbs remain available to the player at all times. The system also provides for player character stats and abilities, and for conversation. Nodes function sort of like rooms and sort of like narrative nodes, so you could take this either in a very map-based direction or in the direction of a more CYOA-style narrative. (Personally I feel a little bit itchy about conflating space and narrative state into the same thing, but I accept that it’s sometimes useful to do so.)

The bad (at least for me): this thing really assumes that you’re going to type all your story content on your iPad. I guess I could try to hook up an external keyboard, but for me that feels like a punitive way to design. Also, the creator involves a lot of nested menus and whatnot. In my experience, this can be a good way to learn but creates a lot of friction if you’re trying to build substantial amounts of content.

It also offers long dropdown lists of conditions you might want to check when deciding whether an event should fire. It’s long enough that you can’t see all the conditions at once.


When I look at this, I don’t know what it means to attach multiple conditions to an event. For that matter, I’m not even sure how to tell the system which skill is hypothetically supposed to be producing this effect.

And it’s not easy to find out the answers to these questions because the try-then-test cycle is a bit slow: you have to try something in the editor, then back out a bunch of steps and click through starting your story, then play through to whatever point you were at when the affected behavior occurs.

To change it a second time, you then have to click back in (select your story, select to edit it, select the node you want to edit, select the item within the node that you want to change, select the submenu…). Lots of friction here.

Contrast Twine’s ability to start at a selected node while keeping the editing window live in the background; or Inform’s recompile-and-replay feature; or StoryNexus’ ability to play a single storylet on command to test it.

The undecided: the stories I tried so far were just introductory chapters, which means that I don’t know how this would feel to play out with a longer piece.

There’s a fair amount of prefab world-model concept as well, as you can see from the interface. In general, sometimes a developed world model is good; sometimes it means that the system will only ever do exactly what the designers had in mind and it’s wretchedly difficult to work outside the box.



In this particular case, I’d probably have to invest more hours investigating, but what I saw so far suggests a system that could still use some streamlining and generalization. For instance:

  • The protagonist has both “skills” and “abilities”. It’s unclear what the difference is.
  • The protagonist also automatically has a list of languages. This does not seem to have anything to do with language of display; it seems to tie (again) to speaking ability, but it’s less obvious why we’d be checking this and not want to model it in terms of skills/abilities.
  • There are some provided item classes: Food, Drink, Gold, Small Bag of Gold, and Gold Chest. This rather suggests a system designed for a particular type of D&D-style fantasy quest. The creator doesn’t seem to have different item classes tied to the genre of story you’re creating: these options appeared for me even though I was trying to create a Fedora Noir Adventure Story.

Finally, distribution: the app allows you to share stories with your friends. This is cute, but writing an adventure is a lot of work. The handful of my friends who might have an iPad and further might be persuaded to buy Wunderverse? Probably not a big enough audience for me (at least) to want to invest the time building something out.

And, of course, there are always the usual questions about the longevity of a proprietary, one-platform project. (Yes, I am conscious of the ironies here, thank you.)

I didn’t invest enough time in Wunderverse to sincerely try to write a complete piece of IF, so it’s entirely possible that I would have run up against issues beyond what I just described. That said, despite the criticisms I just outlined, I am intrigued by the fact that it’s exploring another, different space in the choice-v-parser interface arena. There’s obviously quite a bit of work already in this app; I’d just ideally like to see something that offered a desktop composition app, wider distribution possibilities, and way, way less friction in the composer.

(Disclosure: I tried a copy of Wunderverse that I bought with my own money.)

Tagged: iOS, wunderverse

what will you do now?

Beware the Faerie Food You Eat

November 26, 2015 11:01 AM

By Astrid Dalmady (Twine; IFDB; play online)You’ve heard that faerie, if you treat them right,...

November 25, 2015

Emily Short

IF Comp 2015 Guest Post: Susan Patrick on Capsule II

by Emily Short at November 25, 2015 08:00 PM


This post is part of an ongoing project to bring more voices to the IF Comp conversation. I have been reaching out to players and authors who aren’t part of the intfiction community, and also to some veteran intfiction denizens who might not have time to cover the whole comp but who are likely to have especially useful feedback in particular areas.

Reviewing PaperBlurt’s Capsule II is Susan Patrick, a scriptwriter for Ubisoft who hopes to create her own Twine game soon.

Capsule II: The 11th Sandman, is an interactive science-fiction/horror story by Paperblurt. It’s a browser-based Twine game that requires Internet connectivity and plays best in Chrome. It comes with a trigger warning for abuse and suicide, and I’d rank my playthrough as a PG-13 experience for some disturbing content.

Capsule II is the middle work in Paperblurt’s Capsule trilogy, and while I did not play the first one I don’t think I was missing any information critical to understanding the story. A quick recap at the beginning paints the post-apocalyptic scene: Earth has become unlivable for various reasons, and so the UNSS Makida was sent out into deep space with millions of people on board. To keep these colonists alive until they reach their destination planet, they’re kept in cryosleep… but a few watchers, called Sandmen, are awakened for a few years each to supervise the system. You play as 11, a Sandman (or possibly a Sandwoman, as your gender is never specified) who soon realizes that both the mechanical and human parts of this system are bound to fail.

The work makes clever use of its low-res graphics to portray the Console, a spaceship interface that resembles something an Apple IIe would run. 11 relies on the Console, first to wake up, then to learn about the ship and its sleeping passengers. The Console’s messages are idiosyncratic (“The oxygen levels are super amped, dude!”) but this is only the first hint of weirdness going on.

Capsule II puts you into the role of a tremendously unreliable narrator. After years of isolation, 11 goes from antagonistic and cynical to clearly insane. The most prominent evidence comes later in the game: while 11’s/your thoughts are clear, spoken words are portrayed as a jumbled letters (“Im jstu gald tot haev a freind aigan.”). The story’s format offers very few choices, and while I found this frustrating, I also felt it served to portray 11’s limitations.

The beginning of the game is a slow burn. The concept of routine is hammered in by the text, the Console’s interface, and the repetitive prompts. As 11 descends into excruciating boredom, the Sandman looks up passenger profiles, watches porn for the plot, dresses up to celebrate holidays… anything to feel less alone. But after clicking through the first two years or so of the Sandman’s solo reign, an emergency pops up. (Quite literally, a large red exclamation point fills the screen.) One of the passenger cryotubes is damaged, and it’s up to 11 to investigate.

The game examines classic science-fiction themes: How will people adapt to interstellar travel? How will we ration the limited resources available onboard? Capsule II certainly isn’t hard science fiction, however, for better or for worse. Some of the scientific details are clearly unrealistic. But ultimately, they are secondary to the human story being told. What 11 discovers in that tube makes the Sandman reconsider their solitude and forces them, for the first time on the voyage, to make some real decisions. This is where the second-person narrative really hits home: 11 is a narcissistic antihero and acts in consequence. You have choices, but none of them are particularly good.

Capsule II is relatively quick to play, about half an hour with a few decisions. Mechanically, there may be some bugs. Don’t hit the back button, whatever you do. I ended up repeating several years in a Console loop… though given the nature of the game, that might have been an authentic reflection of 11’s madness. I managed to uncover a small scene of Console hacking that I was never able to repeat. Bug or feature? You decide.

If you like Alien, Dead Space, or Soma, you will probably find Capsule II: The 11th Sandman to be a worthwhile diversion. It examines the concept of extreme isolation, and considers the lengths the human mind will go to in search of fulfillment. I’ll be interested to see how Paperblurt follows this up with Capsule III.

Tagged: capsule II, guest post, paperblurt, susan patrick

what will you do now?

All Alone

November 25, 2015 11:01 AM

By Ian Finley (2000) (Parser; IFDB) (This game is 15 years old!)You’re alone in Harvey’s...

IFComp News

2015: A great year for the IFComp

November 25, 2015 07:01 AM

The 21st Annual Interactive Fiction Competition ended last week, with Steph Cherrywell’s Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! leading a pack of truly excellent and diverse work from dozens of authors. Judges submitted 206 ballots (each rating five or more games), neatly meeting my hopes to see the comp exceed 199 judges for the first time ever within a single year.

More than one critic named 2015 the greatest year for the IFComp since its inception in 1995. I wish to avoid setting any official high-water marks for myself or future IFComp organizers, but I will absolutely acknowledge the tremendous quality of this year’s entrants. The hundreds of judges agreed, with submitted ratings almost half a point higher than last year’s, on average.

I overheard a lot of people making statements to the tune of “Gee, I thought this game I liked [or wrote] would rank higher.” I dare say that makes the understandable mistake of reading an entry’s final rank as an objective score, when in fact it’s an entirely relative position, the spot where it happened to end up when forced into a single-file line comprising many titles worth playing. While always true with the IFComp, I predict that this year in particular has given the world not just a few medal-winners but a long list of fantastic new work, one that folks will continue to play and discuss for years to come.

Some trivia about this year’s entries:

  • This is the third year running that a horror-themed game built with Inform took first place (and the second year for a comedy/horror blend, specifically, to do so). Not to suggest that the B-movie pastiche of Brain Guzzlers shares much topically with the Lovecraftian slacker-saga of Hunger Daemon or the unsettlingly alien perspective of Coloratura, of course.

  • For the second year in a row, the top Twine-based game – Brendan Patrick Hennesy’s Birdland, fourth place in 2015 – has placed one slot higher than than the previous year’s, making for the highest rank that any Twine-built entry has so far earned in the competition.

  • The fifth-place winner, Bruno Dias’s Cape, represents the IFComp debut of a game built with Raconteur. This is that author’s own open-source abstraction upon Undum, aiming to make that IF authoring system friendlier to create with.

  • I wish to extend special recognition to Marco Vallarino’s Darkiss - Chapter 1 and Hugo Labrande’s Life on Mars? – winners of 12th and 13th place, this year – as the first two IFComp entries to take advantage of last year’s rule change allowing for new translations of previously released games. These two entries originated from the Italian and French IF communities, respectively, and arrived at the 2015 IFComp translated by their own original authors.

    I very much hope that this becomes another year-after-year trend.

  • Twenty-first place may not seem like an impressive number by itself, but I know for a fact that a big chunk of internet just loved Arthur DiBianca’s Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box, discovering the game by way of several blogs and excitedly trading hints in their attached comment sections. I believe that, for the most part, these players neither knew nor cared about the game’s context within a competition.

    These folks had so much fun that I had to spend an hour or two mid-comp furiously reconfiguring my server, as their constant play (with every move generating more automatically logged transcript entries) began to paralyze the IFComp’s web and database servers – which is how I became cognizant of the above facts.

    I have to assume that, if one ultimately middle-of-the-pack game accidentally revealed how much attention and affection it received from the wider internet, then the same could likely be said for much of the whole 53-game field. And I have no problem at all with this notion.

A few parting links:

November 24, 2015

Stuff About Stuff

The Problems Compound postmortem, part 3: what was it about?

by Andrew ( at November 24, 2015 08:55 PM

I really didn't give myself time to flesh out that I wanted it to be more of a puzzle game, so I'll share my ideas here. First of all, I'm grateful for Paul Lee's review which saw things I hadn't considered, and I also appreciate the kind comments of several authors in the authors' forum. I also think Doug Orleans found a theme in that I dislike internet arguments and people trying too hard to start and win them, or running up the score after they've won them. It's hard to get the last word in at them(ha ha,) but I've managed to achieve distance. And humor is the most effective way to do that. But it has to be smart humor.

The Problems Compound was intended to be a story about dealing with, well, pride and nastiness and jerks in general. Particularly overbearing, overwhelming jerks and even personality cults and the people who ascribe to "lead" them. It was also about my own introversion and lack of confidence..

This was difficult because many things people do to gain a cult of personality are similar to what people do to be nice, and being unable to differentiate the two causes a lot of cynicism. I've been there.

I tried to put myself back to high school, and I tried to avoid mapping each antagonist to any particular person I knew or have recently known--which probably accounts for a lot of vagueness. I wanted to make sure that I wasn't pinning anyone specific to the wall. And at the same time, I wanted to be able to laugh at them. I think it's important to be able to laugh at the prideful--though there's a danger you can become too proud of your ability to do so.

Unfortunately, this didn't quite work, by and large. Someone in the author forum said they were able to map each character to a member of RAIF, which was interesting, but I didn't really get involved until well after it had died. Still, I was generally disturbed that that is how things were. I certainly wanted people to say "I knew a jerk like that and I can laugh at him."

The reversal-names worked on two themes: one, how do we twist things around? And two, some of the names were complete lies, so how do we deal with that? I also thought they were just funny, but they were a bit scarce. Scarce enough that I dropped the project in March. The thing was, I wasn't looking hard enough, and even with, I didn't really get going until I forced things and tried things wrong and buckled myself in and said, this word HAS to go somewhere. I was concern trolling myself a bit, fighting against the Baiter Master myself. Saying, why bother, etc. Instead of just sitting down and trying to make things right. Which is what Alec does in the game. And I think that's important--to do so despite all the nastiness and bravado and people seeming to know more than you do.

I didn't really implement the idea of the Baiter Master as a mysterious figure until late, where even people who dislike him have to admit he's got power, or charisma, or whatever, but I've found that a lot of people can garner this sort of support, where people lose focus and say their excitingness is more important and bolder than someone saying, they're going too far. Maybe it is, to use a modern example, Donald Trump. Maybe it is someone pointing out what a jerk Donald Trump is before lashing out at someone else. They have social currency. They know how to use it. And I know that I always felt frustrated, for all my logical abilities, that this sort of thing was wrong, and I needed to fight back, and I couldn't.

Worse, there's the fear and paralysis of being stuck in the middle of a "friendly" argument and feeling others are looking down at you. Being bad cop/good copped. Examples include the Stool Toad and Punch Sucker both condescending to you, Uncle Dutch and Turk Young giving life advice, and Art Fine and Harmonic Phil giving advice on art.

The puzzles dropped out from necessity and saying "oh, this works," or "oh, I need this" and I just felt they had the right bit of nonsense. I was pleased when I finally figured out who or what could guard the Compound itself--three brothers--and I'm happy with how the Baiter Master put them in (what he thought was) their place and how I released them from that.

I'll give a drive by of all the characters and my intents.
--Guy Sweet: a "nice guy" with an edge willing to "help" people kiss up to. He's superficially nice to Alec, giving Alec logic games he (Guy) is bored of, even giving backhanded compliments. He is "learning" to be "exciting" and is testing it out on people like Alec. Perhaps Alec does need to be more exciting, or he can be. But he doesn't need to be hit in the face.
--the Word Weasel: not really a character, but the sort of person that says "can you just do a little for me?" then asks a lot. I've certainly been out-bargained by people I am smarter than, and it dented my pride, especially when someone came along and say "How'd HE out-bargain you?" That was tough to let go of. But there are different sorts of intelligence. Also the whole process of signing a permission slip of sorts -- well, I wanted to capture that even animals were ahead in the pecking order.
--the mouth mush: a late addition, but I giggled about it, and overall I like the image
--the Howdy Boy
--Fritz the On: I wanted him to capture what I feel is a nasty hypocrisy. I am pro-decriminalization, but the Baiter Master takes that stance and, if you talk to Fritz, still shames Fritz for several things. Which ruins a major point of decriminalization in the first place. "Hey, be grateful to me, I'm not shaming you as bad as the next guy!"
--the Stool Toad: well, I confess, this was the one I felt was most obnoxious. I mean, he's basically a lazy cop, or that annoying adult who complains about kids these days. And of course he is horribly corrupt because he isn't bothering much about the bar! Basically, he only arrests someone if he can show off about it.
--the Punch Sucker: not developed well enough, but he condescends to you and Lily and looks down on the Stool Toad. Yes, there are good bartenders that do listen and care. He's not one of them. Plus, the whole feeling he is above the law thing.
--Liver Lily: this was tough. I'm not good at writing women characters. But I can assure you I've had both men and women tell me I need to be more exciting. I know the difference between that and "hey, I bet you might find this interesting." But she is basically a big talker who doesn't do much. And that's probably a minor sin compared to the other people, but it is one. (Also, what else do people do at bars other than pick each other up? I wanted to also show Alec as inept at this sort of thing)
--the Howdy Boy: this is a tricky one. You need friends who will help you know which rules to break. But he is a bit forcing. I remember people helping me see I could do small rebellious things then saying, well, don't just think small, and they insinuated I should start using drugs etc. and it left a lasting impression on me. We should have fun breaking the rules. But I remember it felt like people trying to score points getting someone else to try things. If you've read Robert Cormier's Tunes for Bears to Dance To, you may recognize this--someone tries to get the main character to do something bad, just to have power over them. Again, I could/should have made this more explicit.

--Officer Petty: I think people who point out small faults with a lot of bluster can seem very exciting. But they are not. Or people who say "I just don't like you." The kicker is--you just don't like them for that, and if you're not careful, you actually believe the false equivalence "we just don't like each other." So I figured giving him a ticket to an Advanced Seminar in this sort of thing was funny. I don't think the lessons will stick, and I think he'll be a bad person either way.
--the Business Monkey: mostly for comic relief. I was worried "monkey suit" might be perjorative but a few googles about context and definition relieved me.
--Sly Moore: again, for comic relief. I missed an easy chance in the comp version to say that helping both of them gets all of Idiot Village behind you. That will be post-comp.

--the Assassination Character wasn't developed fully. But basically, he taunts you whether or not you solve his puzzle. If you do, you're going for an easy cheat and not trying to learn anything new. If you don't, you're slipping, or you think you're too good for what you're good at. This sort of annoying trapping comes up in a variety of contexts and is incredibly hurtful. I didn't link that with the puzzle--which I was pleased with, because I always wanted to figure my own parity puzzle, and I remember saying, gee, what if going southwest took square-root-of-2 turns? In my puzzle, I've accounted for that fudge factor.
--the Insanity Terminal: I have always loved James Propp's Self-Referential Aptitude Test and wanted to make one for myself. The theme here is--Alec can cheat for a "good" ending. Post-comp, I'd like to factor in how much he cheats into things.
--Faith and Grace Goode: my views on religion are basically, I can't agree with the facts. It can't possibly be right! But I see how it brings people together to do good, and talk about doing well, on a community level. And that is what Faith and Grace try to do. They are a classic cult--suckering people to believing a "falsehood" like religion with decency. And the BM is too slick for that, ho-ho! Now, it's not all that black and white. Humanist discussions do that too. And large-scale churches do preach hate. But I've certainly seen a lot of hate and scorn from people pointing out where the Bible went wrong and saying, you religious types are just plain stupid. The thing is, the BM doesn't provide any of the decency the Goodes do, or I intended them to have. Others snarking on my own religion as a teen just hurt, and it was worse to hear "you don't still believe that, do you?" even after I expressed doubts.
--the Labor Child: George MacDonald had a quote in At the Back of the North Wind that went "When a child like that dies, instead of having a silly book written about him, he should be stuffed like one of those awful big-headed fishes you see in museums." The Labor Child doesn't deserve death. But he has learned to kiss up and be kissed up to early, and he knows how to push people around (including the jerks) and play fake innocent, etc. And he captures fears I had, when I remember people younger than me starting to mansplain life lessons. I debated a violent end at the hands of the reformed jerks, but it was a bit much.

--the Proof Fool and the Logical Psycho: again, the Logical Psycho is an expert arguer. Everything he says has truth. It's just--the truth is weighted in his favor. He doesn't let you interrupt, but all the same, he's a bit upset if you don't interrupt to say OK. The Proof Fool is the sort of person who's a bit too gullible, who takes what others say on faith but lets them zap him with "PROVE IT." Probably the same thing that happens to Alec, but in this case, Alec helps someone else find a way around it, and Alec maybe feels he can.

--Turk Young and Uncle Dutch: useless, self-congratulatory "life advice" that really just aggrandizes the speaker. The big thing is, they're "helping" you and they outnumber you and talk louder. They talk a lot about their success without actually giving a helping hand. I tried to make them look extra foolish at the end when they applaud each other.
--Volatile Sal: How does the old saying go? Meet a jerk in the morning, you met a jerk in the morning. Meet them all day, you are a jerk. Sal has met jerks all day--well, people who he thinks smell bad.
--Buddy Best: I thought of Chekhov's Death of a Government Clerk, here. Basically, you don't even get to finish sentences around him, and while many people in the Compound want someone to hear them babble on, Buddy goes a step further. He's too busy. So he gives you a token gift and kicks you out. Not a very best buddy.
--Pusher Penn: well, I was very pleased with this name. I wanted him to be a foil to the BM to show, well, even people who disagree with the BM and profit by him won't speak out against him. Even those you think are rebelling--well, they have it good. I've seen this a lot. It's hard to say "X is wrong," or whatever. He is also another character to heap contempt on poor Fritz, who deserves our support.
--Art Fine and Harmonic Phil: while Emily Short voiced concern that it was a shot at critics--well, it was. But here's the thing. They just don't shut up about how great the latest and greatest is, even when it's truly heinous. So I compartmentalized them as narcissists with no shortage of random superlatives. (Yes, Trump is more potentially dangerous to society than an Art or Phil could ever be. But Alec is trying to deal with his own issues.) Again, you have the position of being caught in the crossfire between two people who are arguing, but not really, and they need you as an audience, but they're not going to respect you. Art is sure his form of art (pure emotion) is right, and Phil is sure his more logical view is right. They are both heinously wrong. And I have to admit that they were based on past critiques: at one gaming site, one person who was popular but not well-liked wrote an incredibly flowery review of Missile Command. It got praise, and one person who said "Geez, it's just Missile Command" got shot down. The reviewer then switched to dry wit (aka slow and boring if someone else did it) and got praised for his stylistic diversity. This took a while to be funny, but it is, now.
--the Language Machine: it's upset it's in a bog. It writes dreary stuff until you help it. Yes, it is me, in a way. I'm reminded of the four stages of competence. But instead of (un)conscious (un)knowing, replace knowing with happiness and (un)conscious with (not) sharing. This has been my own. Even being able to write a limerick about something or someone distasteful has helped me drop it and move on--and the funnier stuff, well, I'm glad to have written it, and I can move on, too. However, there is a darker side and I see why it upset some reviewers. In a college writing class, I remember being told "well, why don't you like X's work?" He had some stories about not fitting in but the thing was he would get together with friends after class and snipe about other people's work (including mine) and I think that seeped in, as part of the "don't bash anyone I recently knew." I'd like to kill this incident from the game text and redo it more compassionately later. Or maybe hammer it into something positive.
--the Brothers: each has been insulted by the BM into feeling they have nothing better to do than prevent other unworthies from enterting Freak Control. Alec helping them is a way to show he's not just moaning to himself about what he can't do. I know I've been made to feel I'm not good for much other than standing around, and I've created waves when person A called person B (not present) useless. And this doesn't make me a hero, but all the same, it's worth fighting for.
--the Jerks: they're just intended to be everyday teens who have secrets that can be exploited. They are on the fence. The Child and BM both have something on them, but pushed right, they can change their mind. They deny their own individuality until Alec finds them out. However, I think I can make this episode more convincing. I tried to provide alternate puzzles through, where Alec doesn't have to use logic (and shows he is more than that,) but this came too late.
--the Baiter Master: a slimy little you know what. An amalgamation of the worst I've seen in people. Creating him, I was worried when I pulled a specific quote from a specific person, because no specific person deserves to BE him, and I left him a bit generic at the end. I tried to characterize him through others' opinions of him. I think I have a way to make his corruption fuller, but funnier, post-comp. I wanted to leave the player feeling 1) his power was largely illusory and 2) I've seen people like him take over social groups or, even worse, political movements and I want to fight that. There are some ties between him and Spike Price both having contempt for less exciting people, and I meant to make BM seem like he talks a good game and knows what he can get away with. Alec's discussion at the end is a partial catharsis, though post-comp I've realize how to let the BM troll Alec and simultaneously help Alec flip around his "advice" to something positive.

Of course through all this there is Alec, who has the option for a quick out with the cutter cookie. (And, post-comp, another food.) He's more malleable. I wanted to make him a bit of a cipher, but post-comp I would like to relate his past failures he realizes and maybe ways to improve. That would make him a fuller character, but I do want to avoid tooth-grinding autobiography.

Well. That's all for characterization. I hope this clears things up. I read a quote from Gustave Flaubert (I wanted to copy Madame Bovary's unsentimentality) saying you could not use literature to exorcise your demons. I do think writing PC helped me exorcise a few, but it gave me some new issues.

I think they are positive enough to discuss in a sequel. Which I've felt more confident planning.

The Problems Compound postmortem, part 2: testing

by Andrew ( at November 24, 2015 07:38 PM

I'd like to talk about testing, first, both in general and specific to The Problems Compound.

But first, my previous entry is a hopefully humorous pop quiz, if you followed from planet-if.

From my perspective, it's hard to ask testers. If I've asked them before, there's always the "oh man, I'm asking them for another tricky thing to test" angle, but if I've never asked, I wonder what I'm getting them into. It's--well, it's hard to ask, and this actually hits on themes I didn't develop enough in my game. About finding it hard to ask, or figuring you had or were something pretty smart but no way to develop it.

So I'm grateful for the efforts my testers put in. Especially given the things I wanted to address in the game. So, mentioning everyone in no particular order, I'd like to bring up my work with Juhana Leinonen on BitBucket as something that went really well & which I'll discuss later in a post on organization, as well as September-ish interactions with Brian Rushton and Hugo Labrande, who helped despite preparing games of their own. And Wade Clarke, Marco Innocenti and Matt Weiner came back for more punishment even though they know what testing a game of mine can mean: unimplemented stuff, odd bugs, and things that should connect but don't.

I tried to thank testers individually for the big things they inspired and, in a few cases, should have inspired if I had started earlier. In the first week of the competition, I was mostly happy with my plans for post-comp release. I knew it was missing something, but I thought back to how I could've made it a bit more fun for my testers. And thinking this instead of "HOW WILL PEOPLE RECEIVE THIS" is a big step up. Specifics are at the end. But I want to discuss testing in general and what it can mean and how it can be more than just a chore. After having so many testers help me, there are a lot of themes.

First, I found that testing a game helps me get back in the creative flow. I've been spitting stuff out pretty regularly, and it, well, requires effort on my part, and on the part of people who take the time to look at my works. If I'm testing, I feel a bit less hesitant asking for something in turn. That's not to say reciprocity's forced or should be. When people are helping, it should be because they want to. But I do want to have something resembling balance. And I think this may be a tip for a new author who feels like they don't fit in: offer to help on a game. See what happens. See what questions you have. You may learn something, and the best things are what you didn't expect to. Maybe you will even know something they don't, which can help them.

I'm pleased with having tested 7 IFComp games, which matches up with the 7 testers I had. I had other people to consult with, and they helped me get on the right track. I hope I can continue to test even when I run out of ideas on my own, or my ideas aren't ready. And I am also pleased with the balance of new and old testers I had. This isn't just a guess at things, that they should work this way. This paper looks at Broadway musicals and the connectedness of the authors vs how well they did. The best ones had connectedness in the middle. Roughly speaking, it seems you need people used to your own quirks, who will be able to intuit what you mean, and people not used to them, so they can say "hey, most people won't do this." Of course, both types of people can still say "you need to change this" or "I'd like to see this, too," but a balance of familiarity and newness helps. I sort of wish I'd dug a bit deeper to get someone who didn't know Inform, but those who did gave a lot of "someone might not understand this..." and they immediately understood some bugs were just 1-line fixes. Which helped them move on. Which was very good.

And that leads to another balance. First, you want to point out what's concretely wrong. Second, you want to point out what could be better. Of course, when you bring the red pen, you also want to say, "yes, this worked for me" in lots of places. So there's a lot of trust here that a tester won't say GEEZ WHAT IS THIS, which is incredibly demoralizing, and my testers had the chance to do this. At some points, I can imagine they wanted to go all caps, but they were being diplomatic without making me feel there was an "I'm being diplomatic" context.

So I'd like to point you to Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge, which, regardless of its political implications, has been critical for me. Or at least my interpretation of it is. We can and should look for small suggestions that make big changes. How do we find small suggestions that help make big changes? It's not trivial, and it's more than just sniping at typos, which is also important, especially since a tester who finds those gives me something to warm up with--something I know I can fix--before hitting probably more subjective things. But it's also not guaranteed you'll find something big that emerges. So I like to encourage my testers to say "Hey! Wait! I know what was bugging me!" Not that I want stuff to be bugging them. Just...I've had the penny drop about others' games, and I'd like to leave the door open.

This also ties in to the theme of my game, in that ... well ... most of the antagonists, if they tested my game and sent a transcript, I would have to put it in a corner and go work out to burn off my frustrations. No matter how right they may have been--and there are a lot of LOOK AT ME I'M RIGHT types. And I bet they would have found things! There's a balance between being right and being helpful in testing, and even when it's achieved, you wonder if a tester you're good friends with is just being diplomatic. It's tough to balance encouragement and saying, whoah, this needs to be fixed. There's also a certain sacrifice that goes into testing--you may have a good organizing idea in general, and you wish you had it for your game, but--the other guy first.

But overall I appreciate the positivity, and I hope I do so without sounding like a self help book. Sometimes we need to provide general support, and I got that, but I also got pointers to what to fix. People saying, as I see it, this is the weakest link. And perhaps the most rewarding thing was, whether these people needed to hold their tongue and be diplomatic or not, this helped me. And it ties into the game: the nastier people in the Compound are "trying" to "help" Alec, but their help is rubbish. Looking ahead to the post about the game: I encountered a lot of this as a teen and was unable to deal with it, and it poisoned the sort of general encouragement that I did get. Getting the general encouragement as well as reasonable goals to fix undid that. But I took time emotionally to go back through that. Time I just barely had. So this is a bit meta.

Perhaps another way to look at it is from a sports fan's perspective. The testers act as defense. But they can also act an offensive line to open running lanes or give you time to throw a long bomb so you aren't blindsided by bugs. They may be the midfielder providing that cross for a free header, or the point guard who penetrates and dishes to you for a wide-open shot. Or they may be the catcher telling you what pitch to throw, or even the hockey player who passes the puck not to you, but to where you need to be (I sort of stole this from a famous Wayne Gretzky quite.) I've found visualizing that helps me give advice and also take advice without it feeling too technical, or like a self help book.

I'm sure we've heard "IT'S NOT WHERE YOU ARE BUT WHERE YOU'RE GOING" which is sort of annoying, but being able to frame that in terms of something I want to do, or something a friend wants to do, has helped a lot.

Fortunately, I got a lot of that from my testers, to help with where I was going despite a mess of bugs. The scoring method was implemented late. I figured it wouldn't be hard to do, but I left in an infinite-point bug which was a one-line fix. Other things included asking about the bad guy, which felt like the sort of tap-in you can do on the last day. I even tested talking to everyone! Well, except the jerks.

But other things went well. Testers suggested things to say, or how to describe Fritz, and even gave me ideas for different ways to get ticketies. I "upgraded" Sly Moore and his puzzle based on hearing from my testers, and I know I have brain fades where I describe too little rather than too much. So having people check off on that as well as other things helps. My testers had to suffer through oddness with Meal Square being open, then not, then--well, it was tricky. Even the cookie ending was busted for a bit! And sometimes I just realized something needed to change based on seeing transcripts where people got stuck a few times--or even when no tester said "I particularly like this bit." And they all did find nice things to say, and that added up to me being able to find weak spots that didn't have anything nice enough--yet.

And the underground area...well, I think there's still stuff to shake out there, the hows and whys. Objectively, it was a bad idea to put it in there. I didn't write a full case-checker until October 2nd after David Welbourn pointed out something had alternate interpretations. I didn't describe fully WHY the underground area should be there. But testers were good sports about it and they helped me. It always stinks to have to say "Your banging your head against the wall helped. Thanks for doing so. It should have been much easier." So I am grateful for their time and thought.

what will you do now?


November 24, 2015 11:01 AM

By Anthony Casteel (Parser-based; IFDB)(Cover art: red and white lighthouse against a purplish...

November 23, 2015

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 33 new game entries, 6 new solutions, 5 new maps, 3 new fixed games

by Gunness at November 23, 2015 08:23 PM

We've opened two new sections of the forum - one is purely for fun and contains devious quizzes and other means of showing off your adventure prowess. Join in right here.

The other is serious business indeed - if your emulator is acting up or you don't know how to get Glulx games up and running, this is the place to ask our best and brightest for some tech support.

Oh, and for the first time in aeons, the submissions queue is completely empty. Yikes. I'll be awfully happy for now and just ever so slightly concerned if this doesn't change within a few weeks.

Contributors: Akkroid, Dorothy, Garry, Alex, Darkiss, Alastair, Gunness, iamaran

The Gameshelf: IF

4000 pages of Infocom documents

by Andrew Plotkin at November 23, 2015 06:43 PM

I said 4000 pages of Infocom documents. You heard me, right?

These are paper records saved by Steve Meretzky while Infocom was operating. He saved them after the company fell down; he preserved them for decades; he let Jason Scott scan them while making Get Lamp. The originals are now at Stanford University. The scans (slightly edited to remove personal information) are now on the Internet Archive.

What's currently up there is all the design documents for many of Infocom's games. (I originally wrote "nearly all" but in fact it's seven of them.)

Further doc dumps (memos, email, schedules, business plans) will appear in the future -- they require more editing and permissions, since there's more personal information there.

Go nuts.

what will you do now?

Beautiful Dreamer

November 23, 2015 11:01 AM

By S. Woodson. (Twine; IFDB; play here)(Cover art: black and white ink? drawing of a pagoda-like...

Renga in Blue

Sub Rosa: Finishing

by Jason Dyer at November 23, 2015 11:00 AM

By Joey Jones and Melvin Rangasamy. Now finished, using several hints.

(Continued from previous post)

From where I left off I had some pure puzzle solving to do. I had a pretty strong determination to avoid hints but after 7 hours (including an hour and a half of pure flailing) I broke down and checked, and unfortunately the very first thing I caught a hint on was intensely frustrating.



The rug I mentioned in my previous post does hide a secret, but the message received from HANG is a pure red herring. Rather the correct thing to do is “look under rug”, which leads to a “magic hole” situation where you can go underground. I’m afraid it led to me nearly quitting entirely in frustration — I had spent an hour with the rug with no effect.

Here is the crux: the motion of peeling the rug up to look underneath is to my visualization exactly the same as the start of picking it up. The only difference is at the end the rug gets lifted off the floor. There is no reason there shouldn’t have been some kind of feedback going on.

I also had bad times with the “syllable puzzle” (lots of details here) where I got hung up because the game reported a song with a different syllable stressed each line but inexplicably did not report where those stresses where. I am still puzzled at this; while there are the parts of the game where the character has information the player does not, this was not an occasion where it made sense for this to happen.

I finally had probably unique problems with the water closet, which I imagined (and the dictionary defined for me) as a flush toilet. However, it is using the alternate definition (I found out after checking the walkthrough) of “a room with a toilet”, and that crucial distinction made me miss an item. It did not help no verb except the correct one gave any information.

However, having invested enough hours playing, I wanted to persist to the end. There certainly are clever parts later. What I liked most of all was the endgame: after you have found all 7 secrets, you have to clean up all the mess you’ve made so the Confessor isn’t aware you’ve been there. It was a brief, almost open world sort of experience, where I went down a checklist only to realize at the end some small thing I forgot (oh!) but the game is good enough to tell you the parts you missed so you can go back again. Some of these parts are as simple as closing doors, but others require more puzzle solving: for instance, during the secret-finding portion of the game you have to de-age a skull to see what it started as, but to cover your tracks you have to re-age it again.

The overall effect was of complete tension and verisimilitude. This made the final ending quite satisfying.

Z-Machine Matter

Underground Radio - An Open Source Rock Opera

by Zack Urlocker at November 23, 2015 01:39 AM

Zack and rob studio 4x3 with titles

My buddy Rob and I are almost finished with our epic '70s homage rock opera Underground Radio. It's been nearly two years in the making. It includes 20 original songs, 4 vocalists, a slew of vintage amp simulations, guitar effects, hammond b3 organ, handclaps, cowbells, backwards guitars and more. Also we even got a 30 piece symphony orchestra!

Underground Radio is inspired by music of The Pretty Things, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Clash, The Jam, The Stranglers, Television, Pink Floyd and others. It's set in a dystopian future under an evil surveillance government, 50 years of winter, rock music is illegal. But these two guys try to jam the government's systems with rock and roll, yada yada yada.

All of the songs will be published under a Creative Commons license so they can be used royalty free by anyone in their own creative projects, like films, games, you name it.

We've posted the project on Kickstarter to raise funds for the final mixing and mastering. Any contribution, even $5-6 is greatly appreciated. (If you want to splurge, we'll write a song for you or take you out for lunch!)  If you can help spread the word on social media, that's much appreciated.

Once this is done, I'll get back to my other creative project: The Z-Machine Matter.



November 22, 2015


5.0.34 out now

by Campbell Wild ( at November 22, 2015 12:56 PM

The latest version of ADRIFT is now available for download.  This contains the following changes:

Export Module (ID 19011)

When exporting a module, you can now opt to export only a particular folder, or just the items you currently have selected.  This means you can easily create modules for particular parts of your game.  There are two ways to do this - either right-click on a folder and select Export folder like so:

Or if you select Export Module from the main menu and if you have items selected, you will be prompted whether you wish to export just the selected items.

Runner Window Size Settings for Individual Adventures (ID 18913)

Last Window Size and position are now stored within a Blorb/EXE, so you can distribute your game with your preferred layout.

Advanced task option - Prevent merging of task outputs (ID 18824)

The default for ADRIFT, is to aggregate the output of tasks.  So for example, if you type "get all" and there are two objects in the room, it will state "You pick up the red ball and the green ball" instead of "You pick up the red ball.  You pick up the green ball."

You can now change this behaviour on a task by task basis by deselecting the Aggregate output, where possible checkbox on the Advanced tab of tasks.

Loops (ID 18479)

Loops can now be created around task calls, allowing for much greater flexibility.

A no repeat RAND() function (ID 18384)

I have added a new URand (Unique Random) function, which takes the same parameters as the Rand function (i.e. a single value, or a Min and Max values), but which will return Unique values within the range until all values are exhausted.

e.g. URand(1, 5) might return 3 the first time you call it, then 2 the next time, then 5, then 1 then 4.  On the next call it will return any random number from the range and uniquely work through them again.

As well as the above enhancements, the following bugs have also been fixed:

  • Restriction string in PlayerMovement task returns "nothing" (ID 19039)
  • Copy/paste in the runner causes images vanish (ID 19038)
  • Locking down/password protect Blorb files (ID 19037)
  • Custom Player Name not saved/restored (ID 19036)
  • Interrupting looping audio can crash the runner (ID 19035)
  • "Locking" graphics in games (ID 19029)
  • Map Bug (ID 19027)
  • Cancel button when exporting window executable (ID 19026)
  • EVENT will not continue if game is saved/restored (ID 19024)
  • Extra quotes added in restrictions when using Copy & Paste (ID 19022)
  • Undo do not undo ProperName changes for the player character (ID 19020)
  • Standard library-PutObjectOnOther restrictionerror (ID 19019)
  • Extra window panes cannot display graphics (ID 19016)
  • Standard library "Wear all" failure message (ID 18465)

what will you do now?


November 22, 2015 11:01 AM

By Glass Rat Media (Twine; IFDB; download from here)(Cover art: looming wood cabin; ASHES in bright...

November 21, 2015

Renga in Blue

imaginary games from imaginary universes

by Jason Dyer at November 21, 2015 11:00 PM


Phase 1: Write a set of reviews for five games that do not (and possibly, cannot) exist in our universe. Send the list to my email (here) by December 13th, midnight EST.

Phase 2: You will receive a randomized list of five imaginary games created by other participants in the jam. You are to pick one (or more) and make

a sequel
a prequel
a fan fiction
a critical response game
a sidequel
a remake
a demake
a parody
an artifact of some genre category never before seen by humans
or if you are feeling bold and it is even practical, duplicate the game as described.

Send a link to your creation to my email (again, here) by February 7th, midnight EST.

Phase 3: Games / works / strange shining artifacts will be shared to the authors (not yet to the public) at which point the next phase will begin. In lieu of scores and ranking, you will be given a list of 3 other works to either review or make some other sort of response to. This response can be textual, audiovisual, a card game which reveals your criticisms through play, directions for interpretive dance, whatever you like. You are welcome to respond to more than 3.

On February 24th, all works will be uploaded to if-archive for public enjoyment.

Phase 4: All responses (to the largest extent possible), along with excerpts from the original works chosen by the authors, will be compiled in a physical book. (To be published off, unless there is some better choice decided before then.)


The main inspiration for this jam comes from the Tlön posts of Sam Kabo Ashwell. Those posts are good to read for inspiration (you can also read my own set), but do not assume you need to make your imaginings in the same universe. You are encouraged to create your own spaces.

Strong honorable mention goes to that one time immediately after the 1998 IFComp when Dave Coleman-Reese reviewed the 1999 IFComp entries.

You are welcome to think *way* outside the box. This is not a typical interactive fiction competition. Do you want to give directions for a multiplayer game only playable in person? A set of physical items printed via 3D printer which lead to an alternate reality game? A game where words on papers are taped to rocks and arranged carefully? Knock yourself out.

Of course, traditional parser or choice works are also welcome, but be sure to think about how things could be different if we removed all preconceptions from our universe and came from another.


Q: How long should the reviews of imaginary games be?

A: I was intending for them to be fairly short — 1 or 2 paragraphs long — but there’s no specific requirement. Given how the reviews are going to be used, leaving some details to the imagination will be helpful.

Q: Can I send game ideas for phase 1 that aren’t interactive fiction?

A: Yes, since the participants aren’t expected to duplicate them, although you should lean in the direction of interactive fiction.

Q: I missed the deadline for phase 1! Can I still enter?

A: Yes. You will still be able to get a list of imaginary games.

Q: Can I send more than 5 imaginary reviews?

A: Yes. I will choose 5 at random to send with the first batch, and any extras will be sent to latecomers (see answer above).

Q: In Phase 3 I received a game to respond to I wasn’t able to play!

A: Ask and I will send a different one.

Q: Can I be in the book from Phase 4 if I didn’t participate otherwise?

A: Maybe? I will let the participants vote on this later.

Q: I have a question you didn’t answer!

A: Ask it in the comments below, or email me if you like.


Thanks to Doug Orleans for error-checking the draft version of these rules.

November 20, 2015

Far Far Futures

Sub Rosa Retrospective – Mistakes & Missed Opportunities

by Joey Jones at November 20, 2015 10:01 PM

This is the fifth and final post on the making of Sub Rosa, which placed 6th in the 2015 Interactive …

Continue reading

The Digital Antiquarian

Cliff Johnson’s Fool’s Errand

by Jimmy Maher at November 20, 2015 02:00 PM

The Fool's Errand

One sunny day, a light-hearted fool strolled along a hilly path, whistling a merry tune. A long wooden pole was slung over his shoulder and attached to it was a cloth bundle which carried his life’s possessions.

“What a marvelous afternoon!” he exclaimed to no one in particular, pausing to appreciate the lovely countryside.

Soon the trees parted and the path led to a small clearing, ending abruptly at the edge of a treacherous cliff. But the fool was undaunted and kept at his swift pace, steadily approaching the sheer drop.

“Your folly is most curious,” a voice boomed. “Have you no fear of death?”

Just as one leg dangled over the side of the cliff, the fool hesitated.

“Who dares to interrupt my errand?” he demanded impatiently.

“I dare,” the bright yellow sun replied.

“Well, then,” the fool considered, “I seek the fourteen treasures of the world and I am told that a man who strays from his path is lost.”

“That may well be true,” spoke the sun, “but I fear that you are already lost. Take this map as my gift. It will aid you in your quest.”

And in a flash of light, an aged parchment appeared at his feet.

“At last! A path to follow!” cried the fool, happily taking the map.

“Perhaps,” the sun murmured, “yet things are never as simple as they may seem.”

But the fool had already run back down the hill and did not hear the sun’s parting words.

Long before “game developer” was recognized by universities as a legitimate career to which one could aspire, people from a dizzying array of backgrounds stumbled into the field. Plenty were the programmers and technologists that you might expect, but plenty of others came from places much farther afield. Infocom, just to take one example, included among their ranks a construction engineer, a journalist, a science-fiction author, a medical doctor, and two lost literature majors, while Sierra’s two most prominent designers were a former housewife and a former jazz musician. Other companies could boast architects, psychologists, rocket scientists, poets, and plain old high-school students. Taken in this light, the story of Cliff Johnson, a filmmaker who decided to start making computer games instead, may not seem quite so atypical. The first game he made, however, is anything but typical. The Fool’s Errand is one of the precious gems of its era, despite — because of? — having been made by a fellow with little intrinsic interest in computers and even less in playing games on them. For an industry that has so often struggled to get beyond a handful of fictional and mechanical genres inspired by a tiny sliver of the rich cultural tapestry of the human race, it’s yet one more reminder of just what a good thing a little diversity can be.

Born in 1953 in Connecticut as the only child of a pair of schoolteachers, Cliff Johnson manifested creativity and curiosity almost from the moment he arrived. As a boy, he spent hours tramping around the woods and dales that surrounded his family home. He loved maps, loved to imagine himself an explorer on the hunt for hidden pirate treasure (“X marks the spot!”). When not roaming the woods, he loved making things with his own hands, whether that meant playing with an erector set or spending long afternoons in the basement doing home-grown chemistry experiments. Gunpowder was easy, the formula printed in lots of places. Chlorine gas proved more tricky, both to make and to get rid of; thankfully the basement had some windows just below its ceiling that helped Cliff get rid of the evidence before Mom and Dad made it home.

Any possibility of Cliff becoming a cartographer or a scientist was, however, derailed on the day that he saw the classic horror flick House on Haunted Hill, starring no less an icon than Vincent Price. Like millions of other kids across the country, he became a B-movie fanatic, a devotee of all things monstrous, horrific, and/or alien. But unlike most fans, Cliff’s personality demanded that he do more than passively consume his obsession. Getting his hands on a Super 8 camera, he started making his own little movies. His technique evolved with impressive speed; soon he was doing stop-motion with live actors to craft his special-effects sequences, a tricky proposition even for professionals. As he got older and his teenage tastes, relatively speaking, matured, he discovered the allure of camp, moving from pulpy horror to slapstick comedy. His magnum opus, shown in his high-school auditorium on three glorious evenings, was called The Return of the Freshman. (It was, naturally, a sequel, and one with a name that beat George Lucas to the punch by thirteen years at that.)

Cliff Johnson

The summer before, while The Return of the Freshman was still in its planning stages, Cliff and his parents had visited Disneyland. He was no stranger to amusement parks, but knew them as the seedy, vaguely disreputable places they generally were at that time, echoes of the still older traveling circuses. Disneyland, however, was something different. In addition to being clean and wholesome and family-friendly, care had been taken with their rides and other attractions to turn them into real experiences. Cliff was particularly entranced by the lovingly sculpted animatronic characters who actually moved. “I could do that!” was his boyish response; after all, he’d gotten quite good at sculpting monsters and props for his movies. Back home, the local amusement park, a run-down place called Lake Compounce, had a ride called Laff-in-the-Dark that had fallen on hard times. Once full of chills and thrills, its bits and pieces had broken down and been removed one by one, so that now it was largely just a ride through a pitch-black tunnel. Cliff asked the Norton family that ran the park for permission to walk through the ride while it was closed, measuring its every dimension, sketching its every curve and straightaway. He and his girlfriend Janice then made models and sketches illustrating how they thought the ride could be restored to its former glory. Showing an audacity that would serve him well throughout his life, Cliff formally proposed their services to the Nortons. For $1000, they would bring a little taste of Disneyland to Lake Compounce. The Norton family agreed, and thus, between shoots for The Return of the Freshman, Cliff along with cast and crew and Janice built monsters and lights and installed them in the ride. The Norton patriarch, also the mayor of the city of Bristol at that time, was so thrilled with Cliff’s work that he agreed to appear in his movie. He played himself, looking out of his window at City Hall at a flying saucer whizzing by. (“What a sport!” remarks Cliff today.)

Cliff did such a good job on that hometown ride that word got out on the amusement-park circuit about this talented teenager who, being a teenager, worked pretty cheap. He spent the next few years traveling the country as far from home as Colorado and California, making monsters for low-rent amusement parks and saving money for his dream of attending film school right in the heart of Hollywood, at the University of Southern California.

He finally began USC Film School in 1974. University worked on him just as it ideally ought to, opening new intellectual vistas. Having entered an aficionado of monster movies and Disney, perhaps primed for a career in Hollywood special effects — and at a good time too, what with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg just around the corner — he discovered there a new world of film, film made as art for art’s sake. More specifically, he discovered avant-garde animation. Working under Professor Gene Coe, a semi-legendary figure at USC, he made a number of experimental films that did very well on the festival circuit, earning several prizes. He still remembers his years at USC as some of the best and most artistically productive of his life.

But then, in 1979, he was suddenly finished, with a freshly minted Master’s Degree in his hand and no clear idea of what to do next. Virtually the entire avant-garde animation industry, to the extent that such a thing existed at all, existed in Canada and Europe rather than the United States. Cliff couldn’t see himself moving there, but he also no longer had any desire to become a part of the mainstream Hollywood machine that surrounded him in Southern California. So, he became an entrepreneur, an all-purpose filmmaker-for-hire who served a client list consisting mostly of big corporations that needed films made for practical in-house purposes and didn’t want to pay too much for the service. Cliff, by now an accomplished animator as well as cameraman, could do entire films virtually by himself, adding charts and graphics and titles and cartoons and whatever else was needed to his live-action footage to meet his clients’ needs. He did a large number of training films for Southern California Edison in particular, producing, as he would later put it, “such notable works as Heating, Air Conditioning and Ventilation and other film classics.” Yes, it was pretty boring stuff, but it was a pretty decent living.

And yet the fact remained that his new life was as much of a creative comedown from his art-for-art’s-sake days at USC as it was a financial windfall. An artistically stymied Cliff thus began to look around for diversions from his dull working life. Three influences in particular came together at this time to start him in earnest down the road toward The Fool’s Errand.

First, there were his parties. As far back as his teenage years, he had loved to throw elaborate multimedia parties — multimedia in the old sense of the word, implying the blending of different sorts of media in a physical rather than a digital space. He would fill the rooms of a house with lights, sound, music, film, figures, and props, and arrange his guests’ progress through the house so as to tell a little story or illustrate a theme. Soon he began adding an interactive element, a little puzzle or mystery for his guest to solve. These mysteries were, he notes wryly today, “more jobs for Watson than Sherlock,” but, despite or because of their simplicity, his guests really took to them. He kept throwing the parties, growing ever more elaborate all the while, through his time at USC and especially while working as a filmmaker-for-hire, when he desperately needed the creative outlet they provided.

Next, there was Masquerade. Soon after leaving USC, Cliff became one of countless thousands of people all over the world to be fascinated by a little children’s picture book called Masquerade. Written by a reclusive English painter named Kit Williams, it tells the story of a hare who carries a treasure from the Moon to the Sun, with fifteen of William’s intricate paintings as illustrations. What so enthralled Cliff and all those others, however, was the end of the book, which reveals that the hare has lost his treasure, and that it’s up to you, the reader, to find from clues scattered through the book where it now lies in the real world. Masquerade became an international phenomenon that obsessed treasure hunters and puzzle solvers for more than two-and-a-half years, selling nearly 2 million books in the process. Cliff, who didn’t personally enjoy solving puzzles all that much, was perhaps less obsessed than many of those buyers, but he found the idea of Masquerade, of a book that could stand alone but could also serve as a grand puzzle, endlessly intriguing as something he might create.1

And finally, there was the tarot deck. Not remotely of a spiritual or supernatural bent, Cliff nevertheless came upon a lovely Rider-Waite tarot deck and found himself fascinated with the characters and ideas represented there.

A section of the Fool's Errand treasure map.

A section of the Fool’s Errand treasure map.

All of these influences merged together in a 1981 project that would prove to be a non-computerized prototype of the final version of The Fool’s Errand that was still six years in the future. Wanting to create another fun and unique experience for his friends as a Christmas gift, like all those themed parties, Cliff decided to write, just for them, a little book much like Masquerade, telling the story of a Fool who wanders through a fairy-tale land based loosely on the world of the tarot. Filling the back of the book, after the 21-page story, were another 14 pages containing pieces of a treasure map; shades of Cliff’s childhood roaming the Connecticut woodlands dreaming of pirate maps and buried treasure. The player should cut out and assemble the pieces using clues from the story, which was divided into 81 sections, each relating to one piece of the map. Accomplishing that got you to an endgame, a crossword requiring you to correctly place the names of 13 treasures mentioned in the story to decode a final message: “Merry Christmas!” (Those of you who’ve already played The Fool’s Errand on a computer will recognize all of this as essentially the second half of that game, the part you embark on after completing all of the initial puzzles.) Unlike Masquerade, over which so many puzzlers fretted for years, The Fool’s Errand was designed to be a pleasant challenge but not an exhausting one, solvable in a single long, lazy holiday afternoon. He was thus disappointed when, out of the dozens of people to whom he sent the book, only three actually solved it. The lesson he took away was that, while he believed his friends to be a pretty intelligent group on the whole, this sort of complex puzzle required a special kind of intelligence — or, perhaps better said, a special kind of personality — that made it a poor fit for most of them. He put his storybook back on the shelf, and returned to the themed parties that were so much better received.

But Cliff’s reputation among his friends as a devious mind was now established, and would lead to his introduction to the brave new world of computerized puzzle design. One of his friends, Allen Pinero, came to him with a proposition. Pinero had jumped onto the home-computer bandwagon early, purchasing an Apple II, and had devised a unique text-adventure engine that let the player control two characters at once through a split-screen view. With the core programming in place, though, he was having some trouble devising a plot and puzzles — in short, something for the characters to actually do. Despite knowing nothing about the state of the art in home computers, much less adventure games — he’d never played or even seen one in his life before Pinero showed him a few of Scott Adams’s to prime his pump — Cliff came up with a plot that tangled together several stories from Greek mythology; the two characters under the player’s control became none other than Jason and Hercules. He also devised a batch of puzzles that often required the characters to work together from different rooms, and to illustrate their adventures he drew pictures freehand, which Pinero than translated into vector graphics on the screen. Released in late 1982 by Scott Adams’s Adventure International, Labyrinth of Crete, like most Adventure International games by that time, made little impact in either the trade press or at retail, although it did sell well enough through their mail-order catalogs that they funded ports to the Atari 8-bits and the Commodore 64.

For Cliff it was a fun little experience in its way, but also a frustrating one. It’s safe to say that it didn’t ignite any dormant passion for computers or computer games. He chafed constantly at the limitations of the two-word parser and the primitive world model. It often seemed that nine out of ten ideas he proposed were greeted by Pinero with a “Sorry, can’t do that,” followed by some esoteric technical reasoning he didn’t really understand and didn’t really care to. Pinero’s Apple II itself remained to him an incomprehensible and irascible black (or rather beige) box, all strident squawks and ugly colors. He was, needless to say, completely baffled by Pinero’s efforts to program the thing. If anything, the experience only confirmed his dislike of computers. He certainly didn’t rush out to buy one himself. He and Pinero did discuss doing another game together, but Pinero in particular was feeling completely burnt-out by all the work that had done into the first — far more work than he had ever imagined it would be.

Cliff’s opinion of computers didn’t change until one day in late 1984 when he idly wandered into a store selling the Apple Macintosh and promptly fell in love. Ironically, he had long since shot one of his corporate films inside Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center, the very place where most of the ideas behind the Macintosh were invented. For whatever reason, that experience had left little impression on him, done nothing to alter his opinion of computers as balky, unpleasant contraptions. The Macintosh itself, however, just did it for him right away. He loved its friendly demeanor, loved the simplicity of its point-and-click operating system, loved the elegance of its crisp black-and-white display in contrast to the ugly blotches of pixelated color he remembered on the screen of Pinero’s Apple II. He became just another of the thousands of creative souls, many of them far removed from your typical computer nerd, who saw magic possibility in “the computer for the rest of us.” He simply had to have one. A few thousand dollars later, he was armed with a shiny new 512 K “Fat Mac” with all the bells and whistles, purchased with vague justifications that it would be useful for his business.

Cliff was perhaps unusually receptive to the idea of a life-changing event at about this point. His work as a filmmaker was more stultifying than ever. Even a chance to do animations for a brief-lived children’s television series called Out of Control, which was broadcast by the Nickelodeon cable channel as their first original series ever, hadn’t lifted his malaise. So, yes, he was looking for a way out even before he wandered into that store. Soon his new Macintosh would provide it.

He first programmed his Macintosh by writing macros for keeping track of his business finances in the Microsoft Multiplan spreadsheet. His programming began in earnest, however, only when a friend of his, knowing he was very enamored with his new computer, gifted him with a copy of Microsoft BASIC for the machine. It was, surprisingly for this inveterate computer hater, not quite Cliff’s first exposure to the language. The only computerized gadget he had ever owned prior to purchasing his Macintosh had been an Atari VCS game console, for which he had received, again as a gift, Atari’s “BASIC Programming” cartridge. Delivered as a hedge to fretful parents thinking of replacing Junior’s game console with a real home computer, it was a shockingly primitive creation even by the standards of its day. Programs, which had to be laboriously entered using Atari’s infuriating “keyboard controllers,” could be all of 63 characters in length, and couldn’t be saved. But despite it all, Cliff had found the experience of programming vaguely interesting, enough to devote an afternoon or two to, as he puts it, “getting a tiny square to move around the screen.” Now, with this latest gift of a BASIC, those memories came back, and he started learning to program his Macintosh with real enthusiasm. The natural question then became what to do with his burgeoning skills.

Cliff happened to be acquainted with Philip Proctor and Peter Bergman of the legendary comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre. For a time, they all discussed bringing Firesign’s most famous character, the hard-boiled detective Nick Danger, to interactive life via some sort of adventure game. Yet that puzzle-filled storybook that Cliff had made several years before, the one that had left him feeling like it was a genuinely great idea that just hadn’t found the right audience, kept popping into his head. People who played on computers at that time — yes, even “computers for the rest of us” like the Macintosh — tended to be the sort of people who noticed the little things, who were intrigued by them. What might they make of a computerized puzzle book? Married by this point, he told his wife Kathy one day that he had to drop the filmmaking business, had to drop everything and find out. With Kathy still attending university, they would just have to live on savings and credit cards while he saw it through. Thus was The Fool’s Errand reborn as a computer game.

Let’s be clear: it was a crazy thing to do. Having programmed for a bare handful of months, Cliff proposed programming a commercial-quality game. Having never seriously played a computer game in his life, he proposed designing one. Knowing no one in and nothing about the games industry, he proposed selling his creation at some point to a publisher. He didn’t even like to solve puzzles, not really. His consolation, if he had only known it, might have been that he was mirroring to an uncanny degree Kit Williams, the man who had set him down this path in the first place. Kit also had never evinced the slightest interest in actually solving puzzles, had conceived the grand puzzle that was Masquerade strictly as a gimmick to get people to really look at his artwork and — let’s be honest here — to sell books.

Cliff started, as you’d expect, with his old storybook itself. His original story of the Fool’s wanderings through a tarot-inspired fairy-tale land went into the computer version almost verbatim. The patchwork treasure map also went in, consisting of the same 81 tiles, each linked to a section of the story; it would be much easier to unscramble on the monitor screen, requiring only mouse clicks rather than scissors and glue. And the crossword full of treasures, your reward for completing the map, remained as the final puzzle. But fleshing out this spine, often called today the “meta-puzzle” of the game, would be a collection of other, smaller puzzles that were new to the computer version. Entering each treasure in the final puzzle, for instance, would require not just that you figure out what that treasure should be from the story but that you solve another set-piece puzzle as well. And most of the story itself would be hidden from you at the beginning; opening up the other sections for reading would require, you guessed it, solving puzzles.

A friend of Cliff’s used to have a subscription to Games magazine, and would loan him each issue after he was finished with it, by which time all of the puzzles were marked up with his solutions. Cliff didn’t care. He wasn’t so interested in solving the puzzles, which took time he didn’t feel he could spare anyway, as he was in looking at how they were put together, enjoying them almost as one might a work of art. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, he was already thinking like a game designer. Now that subconscious preparation was about to serve him well.

The individual puzzles he crafted for his game are multifarious, many of them old favorites of the sort that he had studied in those magazines: word searches, anagrams, cryptograms, crosswords, mazes, jigsaws. Others, however, are delightfully original, like the tarot-inspired card game that requires you to first figure out what the rules are before you can concentrate on actually winning the thing. Some, like the word-concatenation puzzles, are almost naive outgrowths of Cliff’s early experiments with BASIC. A few, the least satisfying in my opinion, are essentially action games, dependent as much on reflexes as smarts.

Through the early months, Cliff was writing each puzzle as it own self-contained BASIC program, unclear exactly how he would tie them together to create a unified experience. Most of his problems came down to Microsoft BASIC itself. Because it was interpreted rather than compiled, it was painfully slow. Even worse, its programs required that the end user also have Microsoft BASIC in order to run them. In short, it was an environment for casual hobbyists and students of programming, not for the creation of a full-fledged commercial game. About a year after he’d first bought his Macintosh, a life-saver arrived in the form of ZBASIC, a compiled version of the language whose programs could run on any Macintosh, and at several times the speed of the Microsoft version at that. There were unfortunately enough syntactical differences between the two dialects that Cliff had to spend quite some time porting his code, but he ended up with a much more powerful and flexible language that was up to the task of implementing The Fool’s Errand.

Very much the amateur, self-taught programmer, Cliff’s code was, as a few technical friends told him at the time and as he freely admits today, neither terribly efficient nor terribly well-structured. Yet it had a couple of overriding virtues: it worked, and Cliff at least understood how it worked. Throughout the development of The Fool’s Errand, he constantly shared his puzzles in progress with his wife, with his old friend and Labyrinth of Crete partner Allen Pinero, and with another old friend, David Wood. Still, Cliff remained haunted by a “morbid pessimism” that at some point the whole house of cards, built from dozens of little BASIC programs all piled atop and beside one another, would collapse into hopeless chaos.

But it didn’t happen, and by the end of 1986 he had something complete enough to start shopping to publishers. Cliff still knew next to nothing about the games industry, but once more that old audacity, that willingness to just call his supposed betters and ask for whatever it was he wanted, served him well. A few publishers showed serious interest, despite the fact that the Macintosh market was still quite a minor one when it came to games. He met with Activision, publisher of what remains to this day the only computer game to have ever really captured Cliff’s interest as a player, the casual Mahjong puzzler Shanghai. They were quite willing to sign him, but the royalty they offered seemed rather paltry and, even worse, they insisted that he sign over to them his copyright. If there was one thing Cliff’s years in and around Hollywood had taught him you should never do, it was that. So he ended up signing instead with a young Macintosh-centric publisher called Miles Computing. Tiny though they were by the standards of the industry at large, they had already made a decent name for themselves in Macintosh circles with games like Harrier Strike Mission, which as the platform’s first available flight simulator had done very well for itself, and a line of clip-art disks for desktop publishers. They offered a much better royalty than Activision, were willing to let him keep his copyright, and were based right there in Southern California.

What Miles wasn’t terribly good at doing, Cliff soon learned to his dismay, was actually selling software that didn’t spontaneously sell itself. Released at last in April of 1987 with absolutely no promotion, The Fool’s Errand sank without a trace. One or two reviews buried deep inside magazines, lukewarm and noncommittal, became the full extent of its press presence. Cliff was left in an uncomfortable limbo, unsure what to do with himself next. His savings were exhausted, his credit-card debt was now approaching $50,000, and his royalties were so minimal as to be virtually nonexistent. He wasn’t eager to return to his old business of filmmaker-for-hire, and wasn’t sure he could anyway; once you fall out of people’s Rolodexes in Hollywood it’s damnably hard to get yourself back in. But, based on the evidence so far, this computer-game thing wasn’t exactly proving to be a financial winner either. The name of his game was now seeming sadly apropos. Making The Fool’s Errand, it seemed, had itself been a fool’s errand.

Cliff Johnson, 1987

The game’s life preserver, and thus Cliff’s as well, came in the form of a superlative feature review (“5 Mice!”) written by the prominent Macintosh pundit and columnist Neil Shapiro for the January 1988 issue of MacUser. Shapiro was the first reviewer to take the time to properly dig into the game, to understand what it was and what it was doing. He liked what he saw. In fact, he really liked what he saw. “Cliff Johnson has taken computer gaming, turned it inside-out and upside-down, and redefined the state of the art,” he wrote. He continued to champion the game relentlessly over the months that followed. The floodgates opened; The Fool’s Errand became a hit. A suddenly much more enthusiastic Miles Computing belatedly funded ports to the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST, and MS-DOS. Cliff, who had nothing to do with programming those versions, was never happy with the way they looked or played. He considers them “Bizarro World” versions of his game, ugly, simplified, and buggy to boot. It was a long, not entirely successful struggle for him just to keep the worst of the porters’ razzle-dazzle videogame flourishes out of the end results. Still, in combination they sold far more copies than the Macintosh original. Total sales of The Fool’s Errand reached 100,000 copies by the end of 1989, perhaps not quite a blockbuster by the standards of the big boys but by far the biggest hit that little Miles Computing had ever enjoyed. Certainly it was more than enough to let Cliff pay off his credit cards and remain a game developer. We’ll be continuing to follow him in his new career in future articles.

For now, though, let’s talk about The Fool’s Errand itself just a little bit more. It’s one of those singular works that defies (transcends?) the conventional wisdom — including plenty of the wisdom that I spout routinely right here on this blog. Having chided people from Scott Adams to Ken Williams for refusing to engage with the games made by others outside their companies, I must admit that Cliff Johnson didn’t know a thing about other computer games at the time he wrote The Fool’s Errand, and never bothered to learn — and yet his game turned out brilliantly. Having harped endlessly on the importance of testing and player feedback, I must admit that The Fool’s Errand was seriously played by just three people not named Cliff Johnson prior to its release — and yet, again, his game turned out superbly, and about as bug-free as a game can be to boot. What is there to say, other than don’t try this at home, kids?

In his Mac User review, Neil Shapiro rather brilliantly described The Fool’s Errand as a “whole buffalo” game. Everything you see on the screen is important, nothing extraneous or inexplicable. When you first start the game, it’s both underwhelming and a little baffling, nothing more than a handful of puzzles — most of them fairly trivial — and a few scattered fragments of a story that doesn’t make much sense. And so you shrug your shoulders and have a go at one of the puzzles, maybe starting with something simple like the word search for names of countries. Slowly you begin to peel back layer after layer of the onion. Are certain words in the story printed in boldface? It’s not just for aesthetic effect; there’s a reason for it that will become clear in time. Have no idea what to do with this scrambled map? Work on other, simpler problems for a while and insight might just come. Finished all of the puzzles from the initial menus and think you’re about to win? You’re about halfway actually, with the tastiest parts of the onion still waiting for you. I can’t emphasize enough what a wonderfully intriguing experience solving The Fool’s Errand becomes. My wife Dorte and I played it together, as we do many of the games I write about here, and enjoyed one of the most captivating gaming experiences we’ve ever shared. (I suspect that Dorte, a puzzle addict who’s much better at most kinds of them than I am, would delete the “one of” from that sentence.)

Chatting with me about The Fool’s Errand, Cliff was at pains to emphasize how incredible it is to him that people today, almost thirty years later, continue to enjoy his first game. Like most designers at the time, he wasn’t thinking beyond the next year or so, and certainly gave no thought whatsoever to The Fool’s Errand as a work for posterity. Yet it feels every bit as contemporary and compelling today as it must have then, the very definition of a timeless work. I think we can ascribe that timelessness to a number of things. Far more than just a collection of puzzles, there’s a beauty about this design, its many strands looping over and entwining one another like a Bach fugue: the text with its simple diction of Myth; the pictures, which are so lovely and evocative that black-and-white seems an aesthetic choice here, not a limitation of the hardware; the intricately fashioned meta-puzzle itself, leading to that Eureka! moment when it all comes together. Perhaps most of all, there remains a generosity of spirit about The Fool’s Errand that bleeds through the screen. As Cliff has stated many times, his goal is never to absolutely stymie you, to prove that he’s the cleverer by presenting you with impossible dilemmas. He wants to tempt and entice and, yes, to challenge you — what fun would The Fool’s Errand be otherwise? — but ultimately he wants you to succeed, to peel back the onion and to share in the The Fool’s Errand‘s mysteries. There’s no nonsense in the game; it always plays fair. Take your time with it, and it will reward you in spades.

So, I think you should play this game if you haven’t already. If you enjoy the sorts of games I usually feature on this blog, I think this one will blow you away. The state of classic Macintosh emulation in general being a disgraceful mess for such an historically important platform, I want to do all I can to make that easy as possible for you. I’ve therefore made a zip that contains the most user-friendly of the early Macintosh emulators, Mini vMac, in versions for Windows, (modern) Macintosh, and Linux. The zip also includes the ROM file that Mini vMac needs to run (please, nobody tell Apple!), the disk images for the game along with a formatted save disk, the original instruction manual, and some brief instructions I’ve written to get you going with the whole package. Give it a shot. If I’ve done my part properly, it won’t be hard at all, and I think you’ll be glad you did. This one is touched, folks.

(Sources: This article is mostly drawn from a long interview I conducted with Cliff himself. Much other information about his life, career, and games can be found on his personal website, although, in keeping with The Fool’s Errand itself, you sometimes have to dig a bit in unexpected places for it.

If you play and enjoy The Fool’s Errand, be sure to check out The Fool and His Money, the long-awaited 2012 sequel that Cliff describes as “everything The Fool’s Errand is times ten.” Dorte and I haven’t had the pleasure yet ourselves, but, believe me, we will just as soon as I can break free of all my moldy oldies for long enough.)

  1. For better and often for worse, Masquerade‘s connection to computer gaming extends far beyond the story of Cliff Johnson. The man who first “solved” the riddle and was awarded the hare in March of 1982, one Dugald Thompson, did so, it was revealed years later, largely by cheating. A friend of his had as his current girlfriend a former girlfriend of Kit Williams. While Kit had never outright told her where the treasure — a golden hare sculpted by Kit himself — lay, he had inadvertently dropped enough clues that she could point Thompson in the right direction.

    After he was awarded the prize, Thompson formed a company called Haresoft to release an unspeakably horrible computer game called Hareraiser that supposedly contained further clues pointing to a new location of the golden hare. If it did, nobody ever worked them out. More likely, the game was yet another instance of fraud committed by Thompson, designed to make a quick buck from the players that it sent off on a wild goose chase after its nonexistent clues. It justly bombed, Haresoft went into liquidation, and Thompson was forced by his creditors to sell the golden hare at auction.

    Long before those events, Masquerade had inspired other British game developers to embed real-world treasure hunts and other puzzles in their own games, perhaps most notably the hunt for the “Golden Sundial of Pi” buried in the Sussex Downs by Mel Croucher and Christian Penfold of Automata. All told, that golden hare had one hell of a long reach. 

Sibyl Moon Games

NaNoGenMo and Text Encoding

by Carolyn VanEseltine at November 20, 2015 02:01 AM

Before anything else, a little housekeeping:

Rainbow.I’m back from the Hawaii honeymoon! Here’s a picture of far too many rainbows. We also have a picture of far too many dolphins. Hawaii was like that. (It was sort of like visiting a Lisa Frank folder.)

In the wake of my month-long wedding hiatus, I’ve been reevaluating my priorities (apparently getting married will do that to you).  I love working on Sibyl Moon (and I’m always encouraged by everyone’s boundless enthusiasm!) but I need to spend some time in lower gear.

For the time being, I’m going to keep Sibyl Moon on a “releases as they come” basis. I’m especially grateful to everyone who’s been supporting Sibyl Moon through Patreon, and I want to retain your enthusiasm and trust, so I’m also keeping monthly Patreon payments turned off for now.

Housekeeping over. Onward!

Things that are really annoying: misconverted text documents where you only see � in place of useful characters like apostrophes, quotation marks, and ellipses.

I ran headlong into this problem while working on my NaNoGenMo project. NaNoGenMo – National Novel Generation Month – is the brainchild of Darius Kazemi.

A few IF community members have tackled this in the past, including Nick Montefort (World Clock), Andrew Plotkin (Redwreath and Goldstar Have Traveled to Deathsgate), Aaron Reed (Aggressive Passive), and doubtlessly others that I’m forgetting (apologies!)

Because it sounds like fun (and possibly because there is something wrong with me), my project is “Choice of Someone Else’s Novel”, which reads a text source, breaks it down, and uses the building blocks to create a ChoiceScript interactive novel, composing prose primarily with grammar-based Markov chains. If all goes well, CSEN will also create characters (with relationship stats) and stats that can be increased and tested and viewed and so forth. And if all goes poorly instead, then CSEN will create a static novels, because that much is already working. (Hooray!)

Right now, it’s overenthusiastic about punctuation and bad with quotation marks, but I should have that smoothed out by the end of the month.

Back to misconverted text documents. When I was trying to read my source text, I discovered that I couldn’t recognize apostrophes, quotation marks, ellipses, and so forth. They were printing in the console window as unhappy �’s, and I couldn’t get them to register with substrings or regular expressoins, and when I finally tried reading the source file and immediately writing it back to a different file – more �’s appeared.

The culprit is text encoding. There’s not really any such thing as a “plain text file” because different computers will store text in different formats, such as ASCII or UTF-8 or ISO 8859-1 . There’s a good briefing on this subject at Joel on Software’s article  “The Absolute Minimum Every Software Developer Absolutely, Positively Must Know About Unicode and Character Sets (No Excuses!)” , but to sum up, Windows was saving my text file in one format, and I was reading it in another. Hence, �.

The bad news: unless you know what kind of encoding is being used, it’s very hard to figure it out. There’s supposed to be a file header, but even the header isn’t reliable (as per this Stack Exchange discussion).

However, per the same Stack Exchange discussion, Firefox is pretty good at detecting encoding. (Open the file with Firefox, then View > Character Encoding). My source file was in the Windows-1252 format, and hence needed to be read with Encoding.GetEncoding (1252). Once I set that up, it worked perfectly.

…for the time being. If anyone else wants to run my code, their source text will have to be in Windows-1252. Which is not ideal, so, if I have time, I’ll try to work some encoding detection into the system. (And if not – oh well. It’s all for fun.)

My actual code, for reference (uses System.IO):

byte [] sourceBytes;
byte [] unicodeBytes;
sourceBytes = File.ReadAllBytes (path);
unicodeBytes = Encoding.Convert (Encoding.GetEncoding(1252), Encoding.Unicode, sourceBytes);
rawtext = Encoding.Unicode.GetString (unicodeBytes);

…and I could manipulate my rawtext and expect everything to be intact from there.

November 19, 2015

Renga in Blue

IFComp 2015: Sub Rosa: 5 out of 7 points

by Jason Dyer at November 19, 2015 05:00 PM

By Joey Jones and Melvin Rangasamy. Not yet finished. No hints/walkthrough used.


So while Sub Rosa was entered in a competition where playtime is intended to be 2 hours or less, I could tell I was going to exceed that and I decided it was worth it to treat the game as a whole rather than stop in the middle or rush through a walkthrough.

If I’m finding the puzzles solid enough that I don’t want to ruin them, and that’s a good sign. However, now that I’ve passed the 4 hour mark I figured it was worth checking in. This is therefore only a semi-review and I’m going to do some experiential blogging about my play experience rather than just evaluation.

At last you tip-toe into echo-prone confines of the Destine Mansion, each room carved out of what was once a small mountain. You sacrificed three toes to learn how many secrets would bring the Confessor down. Seven. There are seven deceits you know can be found in these halls and you won’t leave until you know them.

Sub Rosa is set in a completely original world in the “Age of Lead”. After a long, long preparation, you infiltrate the residence of Confessor Destine to steal his secrets.

I’m quite serious about “completely original” — I can’t think of anything to compare it to, even by combining together multiple authors. A lot of the appeal and difficulty is getting a grip on the setting.

The prose manages the delicate trick of conveying an epic and alienlike world without being overbearing.

Every secret heard is an awakening to a fresh world both more explicable and more unpleasant than the one you woke to before. The more the secrets allow you to understand, the worse you feel about the world. Each secret is a dose of pleasure and pain in equal proportions. As your mastery grows so does your despondency. The more you learn the more you realise there is so much that you do not yet know that you do not know. The desire for new secrets grows with each awakening. Eventually you awake to a world where your experience is so far removed from that of others that it is like they are sleepwalking. Where others shuffle, you could stride were the weight upon you not so vast. Knowledge without end. This is the Confessor’s Burden.

The position of the Confessor strikes me a little like the philosopher-king of Plato, but instead of stepping out of the world of form and seeing truth, the Confessor takes truth in the form of secrets from others and attains power by doing so.

The overall strangeness unfortunately does mute the impact of some of the puzzle solves. At one point I got an animal to give me a secret, which I *think* is a creature that can repeat past conversations somehow? — and while I found the actual puzzle solving logically cued and satisfying, I had to scratch my chin a few minutes before I had a grip on what happened. This reduced the satisfying impact somewhat.

Another instance of one of the secrets involves a forbidden food item. However, I was not aware the food was forbidden until after the puzzle was solved and the game told me I had found a dire secret. With no idea of the rules or laws or strictures of the universe I just had to nod my head and move on.

Still, I find the immersiveness satisfying, and it is for this reason I am still plodding with no intent yet of checking the walkthrough.

The remainder of this post I’m going to discuss what I’m stuck on, so there will be even more spoilers than usual.


I’m unfortunately at the scenario I’ve before seen in my All the Adventures jaunt where I need to solve a puzzle but I don’t know where the puzzle is. There are two more secrets of the Confessor I have yet to find. Here are the things I have yet to use:

a rug
a water closet
some beetles in a jar (although I’ve used the jar itself, so the beetles might be nothing)
some books

This isn’t a lot to work with. The rug seems to have the verb ‘ENTER’ attached as well as ‘HANG’ but I have tried to hang the rug on literally every noun I could find in the house with no luck. I was wondering if the rug had some magical property that let me enter a secret.

The water closet is totally unresponsive. I would assume it is just scenery except for the amount of flailing around I’ve done I don’t want to assume anything.

The beetles are so unresponsive (the game seems to keep wanting me to refer to the jar itself) I’d say it’s a bug, but it also means they seem unlikely to be involved in any more secrets.

The game impressively implements a library with 101 books. I’ve already found 2 related secrets, but I haven’t plowed through every book and I return to check a couple every time I feel lost as to what to try next.

I do please ask nobody posts hints in the comments; I’ll ask if I need some but I’m fine for now.

sub-Q Magazine

Author Interview: Adam Cadre

by Devi Acharya at November 19, 2015 03:01 PM

Adam Cadre is responsible for the stuff at, which includes interactive and conventional fiction, the Lyttle Lytton Contest, online comics, podcasts, music, essays on various topics, and he believes there is a picture of Scooby-Doo dunking a basketball in there somewhere.

This interview was conducted by email in November 2015.

Adam Cadre -- sub-Q Author Interview

Adam Cadre

Devi Acharya: How did you get your start in interactive fiction?

Adam Cadre: I actually talked about this at some length in the first installment of my interactive fiction audio program, but here’s a short version: I hadn’t been a big fan of Infocom games back when they dominated computer game stores, but I’d had enough idle curiosity about them that when I randomly happened across the Masterpieces of Infocom collection—every Infocom game on one CD for twenty bucks—I figured I’d check it out.  I played a few of the Infocom games that I’d always wanted to try, and then I discovered that on the CD there was a folder containing
some games that had been written just the year before, by hobbyists, using freely available authoring tools. I had never given much thought to writing a text game before, but the notion that I could cook up an interactive story and it would look and function exactly like an Infocom game was appealing enough that I gave it a try.


Devi: What’s kept you in the medium?

Adam: Well, nothing—my participation in the IF world has been very spotty.  I didn’t officially release anything between 2003 and 2012, and haven’t released anything since 2012 except for a short tutorial. I also hadn’t played anything post-2001 until this year, when I started an audio program in which I attempt to play
Unfrozen Caveman IF Critic and catch up on what I’ve missed in the interim.


Devi: Do you have a favorite piece of your own or a favorite IF piece in general?

Adam: I think ENDLESS, NAMELESS is pretty clearly the best piece of IF I’ve done so far, but my favorite is probably still NARCOLEPSY.

Actually, while I really do enjoy writing IF and hope to write more of it in the future, I generally don’t like playing it. And I haven’t played anything post-2004 (I am midway through playing the 2004 games for my audio show). If I had to pick one piece by someone else in the pre-’04 period to single out, I guess I’d go with MOMENTS OUT OF TIME by Ross Raszewski.


Devi: Why would you recommend it?

Adam: I just wrote about it on my site a little while ago, as it happens, so go read that article.


Devi: What are some of the other projects you work on besides IF?

Adam: I just finished doing a complete rewrite of my novel READY, OKAY!, and the new edition will be coming out as an ebook in the next few days (it may already have done so by the time this sees print). I have a number of ongoing projects—the
audio program I’ve mentioned a few times; an online comic series; several series of articles on books, movies, and history; and of course there’s the Lyttle Lytton Contest.


Devi: What do you see yourself doing in the future? Any big new plans?

Adam: As soon as the second edition of READY, OKAY! is out the door, I’ll be turning my attention back to the PHOTOPIA novel. It’s a little over half done at present.


Devi: Where can people go to find out more about your work?


The post Author Interview: Adam Cadre appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Far Far Futures

Sub Rosa Retrospective – Setting

by Joey Jones at November 19, 2015 12:01 PM

This is the fourth of five posts on how Sub Rosa came to be made. This time I’ll be talking …

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