'Something like an Alice in Wonderland that's hard to get at/into/through.'
Click this sentence to go to the review.
And so at last, twelve years after a group of MIT hackers had started working on a game to best Crowther and Woods’s original Adventure, it all came down to Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, Infocom’s 35th and final work of interactive fiction. Somewhat ironically, this era-ending game wasn’t written by one of Infocom’s own long-serving Imps, but rather by the relatively fresh and inexperienced Bob Bates and his company Challenge, Incorporated, for whom Arthur represented only their second game. On the other hand, though, Bates and Challenge did already have some experience with era-ending games. Their previous effort, Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels, had been the last text-only Infocom game to be published. As Bates’s buddy Steve Meretzky delights in saying, it’s lucky that Challenge would never get the chance to make a third game. What with them having already “single-handedly killed” the all-text Infocom game with Sherlock and then Infocom as a whole with Arthur, a third Challenge game “probably would have killed the entire computer-game industry.” We kid, Bob, we kid.
The story of Arthur‘s birth is the story of one of the few things to go according to plan through the chaos of Infocom’s final couple of years. When he’d first pitched the idea of Challenge becoming Infocom’s first outside developer back in 1986, Bates had sealed the deal with his plan for his first three games: a Sherlock Holmes game, a King Arthur game, and a Robin Hood game, in that order. Each was a universally recognizable character from fiction or myth who also had the advantage of being out of copyright. The games would amount to licensed works — always music to corporate parent Mediagenic’s1 ears — which didn’t require that anyone actually, you know, negotiate or pay for a license. It seemed truly the best of both worlds. And indeed, after Bates finished the Sherlock Holmes game, to very good creative if somewhat more mixed commercial results, his original plan still seemed strong enough that he was allowed to proceed to phase two and do his King Arthur game.
He chose to make his game the superhero origin story, if you will, of the once and future king: his boyhood trials leading up to his pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone in which it’s been embedded, thereby proving himself the rightful king of England. That last act would, naturally, constitute the climax of the game. In confining himself to the very beginning of the story of King Arthur, Bates left open the possibility for sequels should the game be successful — another move calculated to warm hearts inside Mediagenic’s offices, whose emerging business model in the wake of the Bruce Davis takeover revolved largely around sequels and licenses.
From the perspective of Challenge, Arthur was created the same way as had been Sherlock, from their offices in suburban Maryland as an all-text game, using a cloned version of Infocom’s DEC-hosted development environment that ran on their own local DEC minicomputer. But after Challenge had delivered their game to Infocom this time around, it went through a lengthy post-production period in the latter’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, offices, during which it was moved to Infocom’s new Macintosh-hosted development environment, then married to graphics created by a team of artists. Due at least to some extent to the nature of its development process, Arthur can be seen as a less ambitious game than any of the three works of graphical interactive fiction that preceded it. Its pictures were used only as ultimately superfluous eye candy, static illustrations of each location without even the innovative scrolling page design of Shogun. A few niceties like an onscreen map and an in-game hint menu aside, this was graphical interactive fiction as companies like Level 9 and Magnetic Scrolls had been doing it for years, the graphics plainly secondary to the very traditional text adventure at the game’s core.
Far from faulting Arthur for its lack of ambition, many fans then as well as now saw the game’s traditionalism as something of a relief after the overambitious and/or commercially compromised games that had preceded it. Infocom knew very well how to make this sort of game, the very sort on which they’d built their reputation. Doubtless for that reason, Arthur acquits itself quite well in comparison to its immediate predecessors. It’s certainly far more playable than any of Infocom’s other muddled final efforts, lacking any of their various ruinous failings or, for that matter, any truly ruinous failings of its own.
That said, the critical verdict becomes less positive as soon as we widen the field of competition to include Infocom’s catalog as a whole. In comparison to many of the games Infocom had been making just a couple of years prior to Arthur, the latter has an awful lot of niggling failings, enough so that in the final judgment it qualifies at best only as one of their more middling efforts.
A certain cognitive dissonance is woven through every aspect of Arthur. In his detailed and thoughtful designer’s notes for the game, which are sadly hidden inside the hint menu where many conscientious players likely never realized they existed, Bates notes that “there is an inherent conflict built into writing a game about King Arthur. It is the conflict between history and legend — the way things were versus the way we wish they were.” Bates took the unusual course of “cleaving to the true Arthur,” the king of post-Roman Britain who may have reigned between 454 and 470, when the island was already sliding into the long Dark Ages. He modeled the town in which the game is set on the ancient Roman British settlement of Portchester, just northwest of Portsmouth, which by the time of the historical Arthur would likely have been a jumble of new dwellings made out of timber and thatch built in the shadow of the decaying stonework left behind by the Romans. A shabby environment fitting just this description, then, becomes the scene of the game. Bates invested considerable research into making the lovely Book of Hours included with the game as reflective of the real monastical divine office of the period as possible. And he even wrote some snippets of poetry in the Old English style, based on alliteration rather than rhyme. I must say that this approach strikes me as somewhat problematic on its face. It seems to me that very few people pick up an Arthurian adventure game dreaming of reenacting the life and times of a grubby Dark Ages warlord; they want crenelated castles and pomp and pageantry, jousts and chivalry and courtly love.
But far more problematically, having made his decision, Bates then failed to stick to it. For instance, he decided that jousting, first anachronistically imposed upon the real Arthur many centuries after his death, had to be in his own more historically conscientious version of the story “to make the game more enjoyable.” The central mechanic to much of the gameplay, that of being able to turn yourself into various animals, is lifted from a twentieth-century work, T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, as is the game’s characterization of Arthur as a put-upon boy. Other anachronisms have more to do with Monty Python than written literature, like the village idiot who sings about his “schizophrenia” and the kraken who says he “floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.” I should say that I don’t object to such a pastiche on principle. Writers who play in the world of King Arthur have always, as Bates himself puts it, “projected then-current styles, fashions, and culture backwards across the centuries and fastened them to Arthur.” Far from being objectionable, this is the sign of a myth that truly lives, that has relevance down through the ages; it’s exactly what great writers from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Thomas Malory, T.H. White to Mary Stewart have always done. The myth of King Arthur will always be far more compelling than the historical reality, whatever it may be. What I object to is the way that Bates gums up the works by blending his psuedo-historical approach with the grander traditions of myth and fiction. The contrast between the Arthur of history and the Arthur of imagination makes the game feel like a community-theater production that spent all its money on a few good props — for instance, for the jousts — and can’t afford a proper stage. Far from feeling faithful to history, the shabby timber-and thatch environs of his would-be Portchester just feel low-rent.
A similar cognitive dissonance afflicts the game and puzzle design. In some ways, Arthur is very progressive, as feels appropriate for the very last Infocom text adventure, presumably the culmination of everything they’d learned. For the first time here, the hint menu is context-sensitive, opening up new categories of questions only after you encounter those puzzles for the first time. (It’s also integrated into the structure of the story in a very clever way, taking the form of Merlin’s future-scrying crystal ball.) The auto-map is useful if not quite as useful as Infocom’s marketing might have liked it to be, and for the first time here the new parser, rewritten from the ground up for this final run of graphical games, does sometimes evince a practical qualitative difference from the old. In these respects and others, Arthur represents the state of the art in text adventures as of 1989.
In other ways, however, Arthur is profoundly old-school, not to say regressive. There is, for instance, an unadulteratedly traditional maze in here, the first such seen in an Infocom game since Zork I‘s “maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” There is a trick to figure out at the beginning of the one in Arthur — the old drop ‘n’ plot isn’t possible, necessitating the finding of another method for distinguishing one room from another — but after that moment of inspiration you can look forward to the tedious perspiration of plotting out ten rooms and the hundred separate connections that bind them. How odd to think that the only Infocom games to include traditional mazes were their very first and their very last. And while we’re on the subject of Zork I, I should mention that there’s a thief character of sorts in Arthur who’s every bit as annoying as his shifty progenitor. When you first wander innocently into his domain, he steals all your stuff with no warning. (Thankfully, undo is among the game’s modern conveniences.) But perhaps the best illustration of Arthur‘s weird mixing of new- and old-school is the magic bag you find in Merlin’s cave. It can hold an infinite amount of stuff, thus relieving you of the object-juggling so endemic to so many early text adventures from Infocom and others. Unfortunately, though, the bag is stuck behind the domain of the aforementioned thief, who steals it as soon as you try to walk out with it. Thus this huge convenience is kept out of your hands for what may for many players — Arthur is quite nonlinear — amount to the bulk of the game. Progression and regression, all in one would-be handy bag of holding.
In marrying its puzzles to its plot, Arthur is once again best described as confused. Instead of a single score, Arthur has four separate tallies, measuring how “wise and chivalrous,” “strong and courageous” you’ve so far become. In common with a number of late Infocom games, there’s a slight CRPG element at play here: your scores actually affect your ability to perform certain actions. The goal, naturally, is to “gain the experience you need to claim the sword,” in the course of which you “must demonstrate them [your knightly virtues] for all to see.” So, when it comes down to the final climactic duel with King Lot, the villain of the game, what do you do? You distract him and sucker-punch him, that’s what. How’s that for chivalry?
Before wrapping up my litany of complaints, I do have to also mention a low-level bugginess that’s not awful by the standards of the industry at large but is quite surprising to find in an Infocom game. The bugs seem to largely fall into the category of glitches rather than showstoppers: if you immediately wear some armor you’ve just discovered instead of picking it up first and then wearing it, you don’t get the points you’re supposed to; another character who normally won’t follow you into a certain location will suddenly do so if you lead him in animal form, which allows you to bypass a puzzle; etc. Relatively minor as such glitches may appear on their face, Arthur‘s CRPG-like qualities make them potentially deadly nevertheless. Because your success at certain necessary actions is dependent on your score, the points you fail to earn thanks to the bugs could make victory impossible.
Scorpia, Computer Gaming World‘s influential adventure-game columnist, called Arthur nothing less than “Infocom’s most poorly produced game ever,” labeling the disk-swapping required by the Apple II version “simply outrageous”: “When you have to change disks because part of a paragraph is on one, and the rest on another, you know something is wrong with the design. This is also sometimes necessary within a single sentence.” These problems made the much-vaunted auto-map feature essentially unusable on the Apple II, requiring as that version did a disk swap almost every time you wanted to take a peek at the map. Granted, the Apple II was by this point the weak sister among the machines Infocom continued to support, the only remaining 8-bit in the stable — but still, it’s hard to imagine the Infocom of two or three years before allowing an experience as unpolished as this into the wild on any platform.
During Arthur‘s lengthy post-production period, Bates already turned his mind to his next project. It was here that that surprisingly durable original plan of his finally fell victim to the chaos and uncertainty surrounding Infocom in these final months. Still searching desperately for that magic bullet that would yield a hit, Infocom and Mediagenic decided they didn’t feel all that confident after all that the Robin Hood game would provide it. Bates delivered a number of alternative proposals, including a sequel to Leather Goddesses of Phobos and a game based on The Wizard of Oz — yet another licensed game that wouldn’t actually require a license thanks to an expired copyright. Most intriguingly, or at least amusingly, he proposed a mash-up of the two ideas, a Wizard of Oz with “more suggestive language, racier insinuations, and a sub-stratum of sex running throughout. We could substitute a whip for the striped socks and dress Dorothy in leather.” History doesn’t record what Mediagenic’s callow executives said to that transgressive idea.
In the end, Bates had his next project chosen for him. In a development they trumpeted in inter-office memoranda as a major coup, Mediagenic had secured the rights to The Abyss, the upcoming summer blockbuster from James Cameron of Terminator, Rambo, and Aliens fame. This time Bates drew the short straw for this latest Mediagenic-imposed project that no one at Infocom particularly wanted to do. He was provided with a top-secret signed and numbered copy of the shooting script, and dispatched to Gaffney, South Carolina, where filming for the underwater action-epic was taking place inside the reactor-containment vessel of a nuclear power plant which had been abandoned midway through its construction. After meeting briefly there with Cameron himself, he returned to Maryland to purchase an expensive set of Macintosh IIs through which to clone Infocom’s latest development system. (With Infocom’s DEC system being decommissioned and sent to the scrapyard at the end of 1988, he now didn’t have any other choice but to adapt Challenge’s own technology to the changing times.) The beginning of the Abyss game he started on his new machines, a bare stub of a thing with no graphics and little gameplay, would later escape into the wild; it’s been passed around among fans for many years.
But events which I’ll document in my next article would ensure that the interactive Abyss would never become more than a stub and that the money spent on all that new equipment would be wasted. Bob Bates’s Infocom legacy would be limited to just two games, the first a very satisfying play, the second a little less so. Lest we be tempted to judge him too harshly for Arthur‘s various infelicities, we should note again that the three most prolific Imps of all — Steve Meretzky, Dave Lebling, and Marc Blank — had all delivered designs that failed far more comprehensively in the months immediately preceding the release of Bates’s effort, Infocom as a whole’s last gasp, in June of 1989. By the time of its release, Arthur was already a lame duck; the Infocom we’ve come to know through the past four and a half years worth of articles on this blog was in the final stages of official dissolution. With its anticlimactic release having been more a product of institutional inertia than any real enthusiasm for the game on Mediagenic’s part, Arthur‘s sales barely registered.
So, it remains for us only to tell how the final curtain (shroud?) came to be drawn over the short, happy, inspiring, infuriating life of Infocom. And, perhaps more importantly, we should also take one final glance back, to ask ourselves what we know, what we’ve recently learned, and what will always remain in the realm of speculation when it comes to this most beloved, influential, and unique of 1980s game-makers. We’ll endeavor to do all that next time, when we’ll visit Infocom for the last time.
(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Some of it is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Plus the September 1989 issue of Computer Gaming World, and the very last issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, from Spring 1989. And my huge thanks go out to Bob Bates, who granted me an extended interview about his work with Infocom.)
Here’s a first effort (as of 2am on July 22) at a bibliography of computer-generated books. These are books that were printed, whether via print-on-demand or in a print run. I have not included books where the text has been obviously sorted computer (e.g. Auerbach, Reimer) or where a text has been produced repeatedly, obviously by computer (e.g. Chernofsky). Also omitted are computer-generated utilitarian tables, e.g. of logarithms or for artillery firing. I have included some strange outliers such as books written with computational assistance (programs were used to generate text and the text was human-assembled/edited/written) and one book that is apparently human written but is supposed to read like a computer-generated book.
I’d love to know about more of these. I’m not as interested in the thousands of computer-generated spam books available for purchase (unless a few of them are truly awesome), but would particularly like to know if some of the great NaNoGenMo books I’ve read are available in print.
Updated 11:43am July 22: Since the original post I have added Whalen, Tranter, Balestrini, and five books by Bök. 5:35pm: I’ve added Thompson and Woetmann. 8:37am July 23: Added Bogost.
Balestrini, Nanni. Tristano. Translated by Mike Harakis. London and New York: Verso, 2014.
Bogost, Ian. A Slow Year: Game Poems. Highlands Ranch, CO: Open Texture, .
Bök, Christian. LXUM,LKWC (Oh Time Thy Pyramids). San Francisco: Blurb, 2015.
Bök, Christian. MCV. San Francisco: Blurb, 2015.
Bök, Christian. Axaxaxas Mlo. San Francisco: Blurb, 2015.
Bök, Christian. The Plaster Cramp. San Francisco: Blurb, 2015.
Bök, Christian. The Combed Thunderclap. San Francisco: Blurb, 2015.
Carpenter, J. R. GENERATION[S] Vienna: Traumawien, 2010.
Cayley, John and Daniel C. Howe, How it Is in Common Tongues. Providence: NLLF, 2012.
Cayley, John. Image Generation. London: Veer Books, 2015.
Chamberlin, Darick. Cigarette Boy: A Mock Machine Mock-Epic. [Seattle]: Rogue Drogue: 1991.
Chan, Paul. Phaedrus Pron. Brooklyn: Badlands Unlimited, 2010.
Daly, Liza. Seraphs: A Procedurally Generated Mysterious Codex. [San Francisco]: Blurb, 2014.
Fuchs, Martin and Peter Bichsel. Written Images. 2011.
Hartman, Charles and Hugh Kenner. Sentences. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1995.
Heldén, Johannes and Håkan Jonson. Evolution. Stockholm, OEI Editör, 2014.
Kennedy, Bill and Darren Wershler-Henry. Apostrophe. Toronto, ECW Press, 2006.
Kennedy, Bill and Darren Wershler. Update. Montréal, Snare, [2010.]
Larson, Darby. Irritant. New York and Atlanta: Blue Square Press, 2013.
Montfort, Nick. World Clock. Cambridge: Bad Quarto, 2013.
Montfort, Nick. Zegar światowy. Translated by Piotr Marecki. Krakow: ha!art, 2014.
Montfort, Nick. #! Denver: Counterpath, 2014.
Montfort, Nick. Megawatt. Cambridge: Bad Quarto, 2014.
Montfort, Nick, Serge Bouchardon, Carlos León, Natalia Fedorova, Andrew Campana, Aleksandra Malecka, and Piotr Marecki. 2×6. Los Angeles: Les Figues, 2016.
Racter, The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed. Illustrations by Joan Hall. Introduction by William Chamberlain. New York: Warner Books, 1984.
Rosén, Carl-Johan. I Speak Myself Into an Object. Stockholm: Rensvist Fo?rlag, 2013.
Thompson, Jeff. Grid Remix: The Fellowship of the Ring. San Francisco: Blurb, 2013.
Tranter, John. Different Hands. North Fremantle, Australia: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1998.
Walker, Nathan. Action Score Generator. Manchester: if p then q, 2015.
Whalen, Zach. An Anthrogram. Fredericksburg, Virginia: 2015.
Woetmann, Peter-Clement. 105 Variationer. Cophenhagen: Arena, 2015.
SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, has announced that game writers will soon be eligible to join. (The rule change goes into effect on August 1.) This applies to writers who work on videogames, RPGs, and tabletop games.
SFWA is a professional society for SF writers (and fantasy, yes, and no you don't have to be American. The acronym is way out of date). Their membership page gives an overview of what they do: support and professional/legal advice for authors, particularly authors just starting out. Also a newsletter and so on. Also SFWA runs the Nebula Awards (the SF awards that aren't the Hugos).
The notion of admitting game writers has been floating around SFWA for a while now. Last September they added Choice of Games to their qualifying markets list, and they've also reported that a broader rule change proposal has been in the works. Apparently it was voted in, so here we are.
Rambo notes that the rules are subject to further discussion and change (particularly on that last point). They're feeling their way forward on this.
To compare, the SFWA criteria for prose authors are "one novel of at least 40000 words, or three short stories of 10000 words." Or screenplays or stuff of equivalent lengths. Or a self-published work that makes $3000. So these rules are a direct translation, with the caveats about game mechanics and work-for-hire.
(I get the impression that when they say "not game mechanics", they're thinking of an RPG sourcebook which contains both narrative scene-setting and instructions for playing the game. For a videogame, it would make sense to separate user-displayed text from source code.)
Turns out there's some history to this, which Brian Moriarty mentions on Twitter:
It happened before, briefly, in the late 80s. Only three people (Meretzky, Lebling and me) joined before it was disallowed. (-- @ProfBMoriarty)
I don't know the story behind that. Brian points a finger at Greg Costikyan but I couldn't find discussion from that era. Anyway, it was long ago and no doubt the fannish furor has been forgotten.
(Meaningful pause for someone to recount fannish furor in horrifying detail...)
We'll see. In the meantime, I did a quick word-count and verified that, yes, I qualify for membership! Hadean Lands has about 73000 words of displayable text (out of about 240000 words of Inform source code). For a more accurate number I'd want to discount credits, tutorial, and parser messages, but it will still be comfortably over 40000. And I have passed the $3000 minimum for a self-published work.
So... I'm still thinking about this. The $100/year SFWA dues aren't high, but they're not completely trivial either. But, on the other hand, there are benefits. Plus I'm doing this non-profit thing; I want to keep a toe dipped into all the relevant professional circles, and SFWA now counts as one. And... there's a following-in-the-footsteps aspect which is awfully attractive.
(I should note that many, many game writers are already SFWA members! It's perfectly common for people to have game-writing credits and write novels or short stories. I just happen to be someone who is well-known as a game designer without also having professional writing credentials.)
(This post will be generally spoilery for the setting and background of Soma. I will avoid specific plot details, however.)
I've had Soma on my stack for several months. Last month I pulled it off the (virtual) shelf to take a look.
Contemporary-world prologue: good setup. Transition to the creepy future undersea base: excellent. Creepy undersea base: admirably creepy. I pushed through the first bit of the base, moving very cautiously -- though, from a design standpoint, this was clearly the "shadows in the corner of your eye" phase. The monster was not yet on screen.
So then I get to the room where the Frictional monster comes on screen. "Oh," I said, "look, it's the Frictional monster."
I've played through Amnesia: Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs(🐷). They have the same monster. It shambles towards you and kicks your ass. And I remember specifically, in Pig Machine, that the monster is fundamentally harmless. If you just stand there and wait, it shambles up and whomps you and then disappears. I mean, you die -- or almost die, or the game gives you another shot, or something -- but the monster is gone and you can get on with the plot.
I can see how the designers got there. Getting stuck isn't particularly good for the game flow, and the threat of sort-of-death is a still a decent incentive to sneak around and play the game "right". For most people. I guess. Not me. "Face your fear!" I shouted, and let the monster walk up and pop like a soap bubble.
In that light, the Frictional monster is hapless and pitiable. Poor poor fleshy monstrosity.
So there I am in Soma's underwater base, and the Frictional monster is coming at me again. It's dripping black biomechanical goo this time, but still instantly recognizable. I tried hiding -- pro forma, just to see if I could -- but no, it spots me and shambles in. Whomp!
I wake up -- but wounded: limping, blurred vision. Interesting. And the monster is still there. Hm.
Clearly the designers have backed off from the Piggy soap-bubble stance. Okay, that's fair. Facing the monster down really isn't the intended play experience. So I manage to sneak around the monster and make it to the next room. Explore a while. Find a healing... thing. Makes sense. Getting hurt has consequences but you can recover.
Oh, look, the monster has followed me. I hide. It finds me and whomps me. I wake up wounded. Oh, wait, it found me again. Whomp. Game over. Game over? Yes.
Unfortunately, I am caught in the fork. Playing the fearless Piggy way might have deflated the tension, but I could do it -- I finished Machine for Pigs and had a good creepy time. But bold isn't an option in Soma. Playing the "right" way, hiding from the monster, is tense but it isn't working.
Conclusion: maybe I'm bored with the Frictional monster. After three games, maybe they should have come up with something new?
(Yes, I know Pig Machine was made by a different studio. Doesn't help.)
But, before I delete Soma forever, I think: maybe I'm not the first? Indeed! With a very little bit of Googling:
This addon renders nearly all enemies in the main story non-hostile during regular gameplay. Surprisingly, it completely changes the atmosphere of the game, often for the better, since the servants of the WAU quietly patrolling the abandoned halls of Pathos-2 have a chilling poignance to them. [...] Playing it is an incredibly surreal experience, and while I personally prefer the vanilla gameplay, I think for those with weaker countenances, this is certainly a worthwhile way to play. Perfect for wusses who can't take the scares but still want to experience the amazing story and atmosphere of SOMA!
I quote a large chunk of the creator's blurb because I agree and disagree. It is surreal and poignant. The monsters -- not just one, I got far enough to distinguish variations -- are once again pitiable, wretched things. But they're threatening wretches. There is a great difference, I find, between a soap-bubble monster and one that shambles around in your face until you manage to escape it.
To be concrete: it is really hard to sit down at a computer console when there's a howling monster behind you. Even when you know it won't whomp you.
There are also a couple of chase scenes where if you're too slow, you die. The mod doesn't affect those. (I imagine they're not implemented as monsters, but with some other engine mechanic.) But I didn't have too much trouble getting through them.
Back up; re-read that blurb. Note the whole social-signalling issue, where the mod author has to be very clear that people who use this mod are weaker and can't take the scares. (It is, in fact, the stealth mechanics that I couldn't take.) I don't read that phrasing as real contempt -- for a start, the author made the mod. They must have some empathy for me, the prospective user. But they couldn't address me directly, either! I imagine them standing in a crowd of gamer-bro stereotypes, holding up this sparkling mod... but not too high... not too far outside the circle... lest someone mistake them for some kind of... wuss.
Well, I'm happy to speak for them, and to you. Soma is a haunting game. The environments are oppressive and beautiful. The pacing ratchets nicely between exploring in the light and creeping through the dark (but always edging deeper and dimmer). Even if the monsters cannot hurt you, there is tension in where monsters might be, and where they are. And so the game works with this mod. I recommend it.
(To enable Wuss Mode for Soma on Steam, search for it in the Steam Workshop and subscribe; then launch Soma and select "Play Mod". I'm not sure if it's available in the Playstation version.)
I should talk about the narrative, but I don't have a lot to say. I'd already played The Swapper and The Talos Principle (my review) so a story based around identity-and-philosophy-of-AI? Not really new territory.
I will say that Soma manages to tie the player's actions into its philosophical concerns. (Talos didn't do that -- it had a lot of nice writing which never intersected the gameplay. As for Swapper, I'm afraid its story never made much impression on me at all.) Soma's story is a bit scattershot, but it lands a couple of solid hits which have thematic weight behind them. It's horror, but existential horror in the end.
(I will cordially disagree with the designers' decision about the final scene. Shoulda left that right out.)
(Or, okay, left it in but distanced? Third-person? I'm trying not to be spoilery here, but you see what I mean.)
(🐷 Such a shame that David Cameron resigned before I wrote this.)
A couple of years back I and Jim Munroe released an alpha version of Texture, a touchscreen optimized interactive fiction authoring system in which you drag and drop words on top of story text. We've worked on the release version ever since and earlier this week it was published at texturewriter.com.
There are too many new features to list them all, but here are the highlights:
In addition to new editor features, stories can be published online at texturewriter.com without needing to download the project and host it on your own web site.
Logging in to the web site will automatically save your projects to the server, so they'll be safe even if you clear the browser's cache and you can access them on any device by logging in. You can still use the system as a guest, in which case the projects will be saved locally to the browser (and nothing is sent to the server), but then you'll have to back up the projects manually.
Other new features are possible though, and the next major feature under development is story-specific layout options (color and font choice.)
IF Comp 2016 is open for entry.
I’ve also been hearing good things about Open Sorcery, a sizable Twine game from Abigail Corfman that came out in May. One version is free, but there’s a larger, more expanded version for iOS or Android that you can buy.
Meanwhile, the Texture IF tool has a significant update and now has a library of available works and a number of improvements. The library includes new work from Jim Munroe, Robert Yang, and Jake Elliott. And if your tastes run more to inkle’s tool ink, the new inky project provides an editor for working with that system.
Images Across a Shattered Sea is new from Steward C. Baker on Sub-Q Magazine, though reprinted from Writers and Illustrators of the Future 32. Unless I’m misunderstanding (conceivable!), the original version was non-branching text, and that it has been reworked for Twine: in the current version, it’s structurally an unfriendly gauntlet until the final act, when there are branches leading to two more fully-fleshed outcomes.
It’s an interesting piece for several reasons, but one is that it reads very much as something that comes from the genre expectations of SFF publishing, rather than from the genre expectations of traditional or Twine IF. The first several pages are about setting up the rules of this universe, in order to then explore what they can do.
Impish Words, Spirited Games is a Facebook page devoted to IF news, if you like following this kind of thing on FB.
BlogHer interviews Melissa Ford about her book introducing Twine for younger writers. Meanwhile, Anna Anthropy has written a kids’ book introducing Twine and other game-making tools; Kill Screen has an interview with her about the project.
This ctrl500 post on cyclical patterns in dungeon design has some techniques that work for traditional IF maps and multiple-solution puzzles as well.
Here’s a review of a tabletop version of an escape room. This sounds slightly strange — the sense of immediate presence is essential to what escape rooms are about, generally — but it sounds potentially entertaining.
The parser is and has always been both the text adventure’s ace in the hole and its Achilles heel. Devotees will tell you, correctly in my opinion, that it offers possibilities for interaction — even, one might say, possibilities for interactive wonder — allowed by no other interface. Detractors will tell you, also correctly, that it’s too persnickety, too difficult to use, that in its opacity and inscrutability it violates every rule of modern interface design. Devotees will reply, yet again in my opinion correctly, that if you take away the parser you take away the magic. What can compare with typing some crazy command and seeing it work? What, the detractors reply, can frustrate more than figuring out what to do, not being able to get the parser to acknowledge your efforts, turning to a walkthrough, and finding out you were simply using the wrong verb or the wrong phrasing? And so we go, round and round and round. This waltz of point and counterpoint says as much about the text adventure’s decidedly limited mass appeal as it does about why some of us love the form so darn much.
For most of the text adventure’s lifespan people have been devising various ways to try to break the cycle, to capture at least some of the magic without any of the pain. Even Infocom, whose parser was legendary in its day, had a go in their final days at doing away with the gnarly, troublesome thing altogether, via a game called Journey.
The idea that became Journey can be dated to November 6, 1987, when a proposed “new project” emerged from an internal planning meeting. By that point, attitudes about Infocom’s future prospects had broken into two schools of thought. One view, still dominant inside Infocom’s own offices but viewed with increasing skepticism in the headquarters of their corporate masters Mediagenic,1 held that the fundamental model of interaction that Infocom’s games had always utilized, that of reading text and typing commands in response, was still commercially viable in the broad strokes. What was needed was to make that model a bit more visually appealing and accessible, by adding pictures and other audiovisual pizazz to break up their walls of text and by making the parser smarter and friendlier. The other view held that Infocom needed to throw out all their old approaches — among them their parser — and tackle their new role as Mediagenic’s designated “master storytellers” with an entirely blank slate. Conservatives versus radicals, denialists versus realists — call the camps what you will, the lines were drawn.
True to the dominant internal opinion, Infocom put the majority of their resources into one last kick at the can for their parser-based games, putting three new illustrated but still parser-driven text adventures into development. They hedged their bets just a little, however, by making sure the new version 6 Z-Machine they had in development to power those games could support purely mouse-based point-and-click interaction as well the traditional keyboard-driven approach. And then they started this “new project” of theirs to see what the possibilities for non-parser-based adventuring might really be.
The meeting notes read that said new project should be “true to [the] corporate philosophy”; that it should “embody the concept of ‘interactive storytelling'”; that it should “employ a simple, intuitive user interface unlike the one used in our traditional IF games”; and that, while initially “intended for use on existing home computers,” it should be “readily adaptable to other interactive media, such as CD-I, DVI, Nintendo, etc.” Finally, the plan called for “minimal (or optional) use of text.” This last would fall by the wayside in light of Infocom’s limited resources and complete lack of experience working in anything other than text; instead they would settle for lots of pictures to accompany the text. Otherwise, though, the game Marc Blank wrote in response to this plan would hew quite closely to it.
Ironically, it was Blank who had been the mastermind behind the magnificent parser, first implemented as part of the original Zork at MIT, that had been so key to Infocom’s ascendancy during the first half of the 1980s. Now he would be working on the interface that might just become its replacement if the conservative camp should prove mistaken in their faith in the old ways. But then, Blank wasn’t much of a sentimentalist. Assuming he thought of it at all, the idea of sounding the death knell of the traditional Infocom game didn’t bother him one bit. On the contrary, this new project was a perfect fit for Blank, exactly the sort of medium-advancing technical challenge he loved. He insists today that throughout his work with Infocom game design and story were always secondary in his mind to the technology that enabled them. Thus virtually every one of the games with which he was most intimately involved, whether as the officially recognized Implementor or the self-styled “wizard behind the curtain” enabling the creativity of another, pushed Infocom’s technology forward in one way or another. That would be more true than ever of Journey, which Blank created as he had Border Zone from the West Coast, working as an independent contractor rather than an Infocom employee. Blank:
Journey was an experiment to find out whether you could play an interactive story without having to type. It was all about whether you could still have people feel they had the ability to do a lot of different things, but not force them to guess words or use a keyboard. A lot of people just don’t like that; they aren’t good at it. It’s a turn-off. For me, the idea was to just experiment with another style of evolving the story — a different interface, just to see where it would go.
Even more so conceptually than technically, this new interface of his was going to be a tricky business. A bunch of hard-branching links in the form of a computerized Choose Your Own Adventure book was likely to appeal to no one. At the same time, though, to simply write a traditional text adventure in which the parser was a menu-based labyrinth of verbs and nouns would be both technically impractical — there wouldn’t be enough space on the screen for such a thing for one thing, and even the new version 6 Z-Machine didn’t support scrolling menus — and unplayable in its sheer complication. Blank would need to thread the needle, staking a middle ground between the extreme granularity of Zork and the huge irreversible plot swings that accompany almost every branch in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. To a rather remarkable degree really, he succeeded in doing just that.
Blank’s first brilliant stroke was to make Journey, if not quite a full-fledged CRPG, at least a CRPG-like experience. You the player identify most closely with a single character named Tag, who also serves as the author of the past-tense “chronicle” of the adventure that you’re helping him to create. You’re responsible for managing several of his companions in adventure as well, however, each with his own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. Most notably, the wizard Praxix can cast spells, each of which requires a certain combination of reagents which you’ll need to collect over the course of your Journey. Many problems can be solved in multiple ways, using different spells or combinations of spells, the special abilities of one character or another, and/or your own native cleverness. While the scope of possibility in Journey is undeniably limited in comparison to a traditional Infocom game, in practice it feels broader than you might expect.
To understand a little better how that might be, let’s have a closer look at the interface, as shown in the screenshot above. You’ll notice that the menu at the bottom of the screen is divided into five columns. The first contains possibilities that apply to the entire party — usually involving movement — along with access to the “Game” menu of utility commands. The second column, which isn’t actually clickable, lists each character in the party; the party can include up to five people, who can come and go according to choices and circumstances. The third, fourth, and fifth columns contain “verbs” applying only to the individual party member whose row they inhabit; these also come and go as circumstances change. Many verbs will lead to a further menu or menus of “nouns.” For example, asking Praxix the wizard to “cast” leads first to a direct-object list of available spells, and then on to an indirect-object list of possible spell targets, as shown in the screenshot below. Clicking on the name of Bergon to the far right on that screen would complete a command equivalent to typing “cast elevation on Bergon” in a traditional Infocom game. The whole system is elegant and well thought-through. Limited though it may be in contrast to a parser, it nevertheless presents a vastly larger possibility space than a Choose Your Own Adventure story, not least because it has a world model behind it that’s not all that far removed from the one found in any other Infocom game.
Journey is, as you’ve doubtless gathered by now, a high-fantasy story, a quality that, combined with the CRPG-like flavor, delighted a beleaguered marketing department still searching desperately for a counter to the huge popularity of the Ultima, Bard’s Tale, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons series. Looking for a way to distinguish it from Infocom’s more traditional “graphical interactive fiction,” marketing dubbed it a “role-play chronicle” — not exactly a phrase that trips off the tongue. Blank:
I wanted to call it ‘role-playing fiction.’ They came back with role-play chronicle, and I said, “What does that mean?” They said, “Well, it’s like a chronicle,” and I said, “Yeah, it sort of is because it’s told in the past tense.” So they just sort of invented a phrase. It’s not my favorite, but it’s passable, and I don’t think Journey will stand or fall on what category you put it in. There are a lot of games that are called this type or that, but what really matters is what people think of them.
Awkward though marketing’s name may have been, there is indeed some truth behind it. One of the more interesting aspects of the game is its commitment to the idea of being a chronicle — or, if you like, a novel — that you, through Tag, are creating as you play. If you choose to make a transcript of your adventure, you can opt to have it not include your explicit command choices if you like, just the text that appears in response. The end result can read surprisingly well — a little disjointed at times, yes, but far better than would, say, Zork in this format.
There is, granted, no denying the story’s derivative nature; this is a game that absolutely oozes Tolkien, a fact that Infocom’s marketing department, far from concealing or denying, trumpeted. Journey, runs the game’s official announcement in Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, is “a classic narrative in the exciting tradition of Tolkien” that “plunges you into an uncharted world of dwarves, elves, nymphs, and wizards.” True to its inspiration, Tag, ultimately the hero of the story, is seemingly the meekest and weakest of a group of disparate companions who form a fellowship and set out on a lonely quest to save their land from an encroaching evil that threatens their civilization’s very existence. Sound familiar? Name a proper noun in The Fellowship of the Ring, and chances are it has an analogue in Journey.
For instance, in place of Tolkien’s magic rings Journey has magic stones as the key to defeating the Dread Lord, its version of Sauron. In this extract, Gandalf… I mean, the great wizard Astrix tells the party of the true nature of their quest.
"I have been following your progress with great interest," the Wizard said, stroking his stringy gray beard. "You are a very resourceful group, that is certain!"
His voice then became dark. "The question is: Have you mettle enough to make siege on the Dread Lord himself?" And then, smiling, the darkness fell from his voice, and he answered his own question, "We shall see, I suppose; we shall see."
Leading us to his hearth, he sat us in a semi-circle around the blazing fire and spoke. "There is a story I must tell, a story of Seven Stones. Created in a time lost to living memory, these Stones contained the very strength and essence of our world. Of the Seven, Four were entrusted to the races of men who could use them best: Elves, Dwarves, Nymphs, and Wizards.
"These are the Four: the Elf Stone, green as the forests of old, and the Dwarf Stone, brown as the caverns of Forn a-klamen; the Nymph Stone, blue as the deep waters of M'nera, and the Wizard Stone, red as the dark fire of Serdi.
"The four races are now sundered, and the Four have long been kept apart, but now, with the Dread Lord rearing his misshapen head in our lands, we must bring them together again. For with them, we can hope to find the Two, and then, finally, the One with whose help we can destroy all Evil.
"For it is told that having the Four, it is possible to find the Two; so, also, do the Two give witness to their master, the One that in elder days was called the Anvil!"
Yet somehow Journey is far less cringe-worthy than it ought to be. For a designer who stubbornly, almost passive-aggressively insists today that the technology “was more important than the story” to him, Blank delivered some pretty fine writing at times for Infocom. Journey is full of sturdy, unpretentious prose evoking a world that, overwhelmingly derivative though it is, really does manage to feel epic and interesting in a way too few other gaming fictions have matched in my experience. I was always interested to explore the world’s various corners, always happy and genuinely curious when the opportunity arose for Tag to learn a little more about it from one of the other characters. Coming from me, someone who generally finds the real world much more interesting than fantastical ones, that’s high praise.
Indeed, when I first began to play Journey I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the whole experience. Not expecting to think much of this oddball effort released in Infocom’s dying days, I’d put off playing it for a long, long time; Journey was the very last of the 35 canonical Infocom games that I actually played. Yet when I finally did so I found it a unique and very pleasant experience. It felt very much like what I presumed it to be attempting to be: a more easygoing, relaxed take on the adventure game, where I could feel free to just take in the scenery and enjoy the story instead of stressing too much over puzzles or worrying overmuch about logistics. The game’s own rhetoric, obviously trying to wean players of conventional interactive fiction into this new way of doing things, encourages just such a relaxed approach. “Try to play as much as possible without overusing Save,” says the manual. “There are no ‘dead ends’ in Journey; feel free to experiment and take chances. Every action you take will cause the story to move forward.” This idea of a text adventure with no dead ends encourages comparisons with the contemporary works of Lucasfilm Games in the graphic-adventure realm, who were working toward the same goal in response to the notoriously player-hostile designs of Sierra. Marc Blank’s contemporary interview comments make the comparison feel even more apt:
We’ve learned a lot about interactive storytelling, but it’s been sort of clunky and not directed. I thought it would be interesting to design a story in which you really couldn’t get stuck. The choices you have to make are more tied into the story than into the minutia of manipulating objects. That really led to the whole style of telling the story and the interface. All that came out of the desire to try something like that.
So, yes, Journey and I had a great relationship for quite a while. And then it all went off the rails.
The first sneaking suspicion that something is rotten at the core of Journey may come when it hits you with some puzzles mid-way in that suddenly demand you type in phrases at a command line. Not only a betrayal of the “no-typing” premise that Infocom had hoped would make Journey amenable to game consoles and standalone CD-ROM players, these puzzles aren’t even particularly worthy in their own right, requiring intuitive leaps that feel borderline unfair, especially in contrast to the consummate ease with which the rest of the game is played. But, alas, they’re far from the worst of Journey‘s sins.
For there inevitably comes a point when you realize that everything Infocom has been saying about their game and everything the game has been implying about itself is a lie. Far from being the more easy-going sort of text adventure that it’s purported to be, Journey is a minefield of the very dead ends it decries, a cruel betrayal of everything it supposedly stands for. It turns out that there is exactly one correct path through the dozens of significant choices you make in playing the game to completion. Make one wrong choice and it’s all over. Worse — far worse — more often than not you are given no clue about the irrecoverable blunder you’ve just made. You might play on for hours before being brought up short.
The worst offenders to all notions of fairness and fun cluster around the magic system and its reagents. Remember those puzzles I mentioned that can be solved in multiple ways? Well, that’s true enough in the short term, but in the long term failing to solve each one in the arbitrary right way — i.e., solving it by using a spell instead of your wits, or simply by using the wrong spell — leaves you high and dry later on, without the necessary reagents you need to get further. Playing Journey becomes an exercise in stepping again and again through the story you already know, clicking your way hurriedly through the same text you’ve already read ten times or more, making slight adjustments each time through so as to get past whatever dead end stymied you last time. This process is exactly as much fun as it sounds. In contrast to this exercise in aggravation, Shogun‘s summary halting with a “this scene is no longer winnable” message when you fail to do what the novel’s version of Blackthorne did suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.
How incredible to think that Journey and Shogun stemmed from Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, designers of the original Zork and Infocom’s two most veteran Implementors of all. These two of all people ought to have known better. Both games’ failings feel part and parcel of the general malaise infecting everything Infocom did or tried to do after 1987. Absolutely nothing that anyone did seemed to come out right anymore.
As bizarre as it is to see such frankly awful game design from a company like Infocom and an Implementor like Marc Blank, the disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality of Journey is still stranger. “Unlike other games you may have played, there are virtually no dead ends,” the manual promises. “Any action you take will advance the story toward one of its many endings.” I suppose there’s a germ of truthfulness here if you count a dead end only as being stranded in a walking-dead situation; the nature of Journey‘s interface means that you will always get a clear message that the jig is up once you’ve run out of options to move forward, sometimes even accompanied by a helpful hint about where you might have messed up way back when. Still, the assertion seems disingenuous at best. When people talk about multiple endings and multiple paths through an interactive story, this isn’t quite what they mean. Ditto Blank’s contemporary claim that there are “dozens” of “alternative endings,” and “very few places where you get killed.” Really, what’s the practical difference between a losing ending that involves death and one that leaves Tag and his friends defeated in their quest? The Dread Lord wins either way.
Today, none of the people left at Infocom during this final unpleasant period of the company’s existence are particularly eager to talk about those painful end times or the final batch of underwhelming games they produced. Thus I’ve never seen anyone even begin to address the fraught question of just what the hell they were thinking in trying to sell this sow’s ear of a game as a silk purse. Part of the disconnect may have stemmed from the physical distance between Marc Blank and the people at Infocom who wrote the manual and did the marketing; this distance prevented Blank from being as intimately involved in every aspect of his game’s presentation as had long been the norm for the in-house team of Imps. And part of the problem may be that the rhetoric around the game was never modified after the original vision for Journey became the cut-down reality necessitated by time pressure and the space limitations of even the latest version 6 Z-Machine. (While Journey‘s text feels quite expansive in comparison to the typical parser-based Infocom game, Blank was still limited to around 70,000 words in total; the perception of loquacity is doubtless aided by the fact that, Journey‘s scope of player possibility being so much more limited, a much larger percentage of that text can be deployed in service of the main channel of the narrative rather than tributaries that many or most players will never see.) Regardless of the reasons, Journey stands as the most blatant and shameless instance of false advertising in Infocom’s history. It’s really, really hard to square marketing’s claim of “no dead ends” with a game that not only includes dead ends but will end up being defined by them in any player’s memory. Infocom was usually better than this — but then, that’s a statement one finds oneself making too often when looking at their final, troubled run of games.
True to the Tolkien model to the last, Infocom planned to make Journey the first of a trilogy of games, the latter entries of which would likely have been written by other authors. Blank proposed starting on an untitled sort of narrative war game as his own next project, “a variant of traditional FRP [fantasy-role-playing] games in which the predominant activity is combat on the battlefield level, as opposed to the hand-to-hand level.” It would use the menu-driven Journey interface to “make a complex game simple to use and learn” and to “provide a narrative force to the unfolding of the war.” But events that followed shortly after the concurrent release and complete commercial failure of Journey and Shogun in March of 1989 put the kibosh on any further use of Journey‘s interface in any context.
And that’s a shame because its interface had huge potential to bridge the gap between the micromanagement entailed by a parser and the sweeping, unsatisfyingly arbitrary plot-branching of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. It’s only in the past decade or so that modern authors have returned to the middle ground first explored by Blank in Journey, constructing choice-based works that include a substantial degree of world modeling behind their text and a more sophisticated approach to interaction than a tangle of irrevocable hard branches. In the years since they began to do so, the quantity of choice-based works submitted to the annual Interactive Fiction Competition has come to rival or exceed those of more traditional parser-based games, and commercial developers like Inkle Studios have enjoyed some financial success with the model. While they provide a very different experience than a parser-based game, my own early engagement with Journey demonstrates how compelling games of this stripe can be on their own terms. And they’re certainly much more viable than traditional text adventures as popular propositions, being so much more accessible to the parser-loathing majority of players.
Unsatisfactory though it is as a game, Journey marks Infocom’s final mad flash of innovation — a flash of innovation so forward-thinking that it would take other developers working in the field of interactive narrative a good fifteen years to catch up to it. Perhaps, then, it’s not such a terrible final legacy after all for Marc Blank in his role as Infocom’s innovator-in-chief — a role he continued to play, as Journey so amply proves, right to the end.
(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Some of it is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Plus the May 1989 issue of Questbusters, and the very last issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, from Spring 1989.)
Texture is a tool for choice-based interactive fiction, but one with explicit verbs rather than simple links in the text. Designed to feel natural on touch screen devices as well as in the browser, it lets you drag a verb from the bottom of the screen and position it over one or more hot spots in the text.
Here I’ve dragged a “remember” tag to hover the highlighted “your son” text, constructing my own command:
A beta version of Texture has been around for a while – I first wrote about it in late 2014, and Jim Munroe and Juhana Leinonen have been working on it on and off since then. But that early version was still lacking a number of features. The new iteration is much more complete, both in terms of what the tool can do (better handling of variables and lasting state from page to page) and as a player-facing experience. The new version launched with a small but impressive library of titles, with new works from Jim Munroe, Robert Yang (who has often starred here before), and Jake Elliott (Kentucky Route Zero).
Jim’s big contribution is Pretty Sure, a short story about parenting: I would say a science fiction story, and there are science fictional elements, but it’s really mostly a story about human interactions and responsibilities. Jim was kind enough to talk with me about the making of Pretty Sure and the design decisions that went into it.
Are there features of Texture that made it a particularly good fit for this story, or that changed how you decided to tell it?
Prose is really good at exploring mental processes, and the story is mostly about the player-character’s emotional struggles with raising his son. It progresses mostly through a series of choices.
Sometimes, your choices are significant. Early on you can choose a pirate hat or a cat-in-the-hat hat for your kid at your daycare’s hat day. It’s formative, and it leads him down the racist bully fork or the picked-on-kid fork.
It’s totally unfair that an arbitrary choice like that has a significant impact, especially one you have to then deal with. But deciding on a pirate hat says something about the player — a preference of aggression over goofiness — and so maybe dealing with those consequences is appropriate.
It’s interesting you say that, because I think of childhood pirate hats as pretty goofy too — and more or less totally separated from historical piracy. But maybe that still says something about me!
Sure it’s goofy, but put it on a kid and immediately they start looking for a cutlass to brandish! There’s a distinct (and more or less, I believe, harmless) role it accompanies. Not so with the cat-in-the-hat hat, which is more about freeform weirdness.
It sounds like part of your aim here is to convey a parenting experience where some of your choices do matter, yet you’re never quite sure which ones are going to be the important ones? Or am I misreading that?
No, dead on. It’s unpredictable. The name itself is a reference to that uncertainty. Another way to model this uncertainty would be to make it programmatically random, but I went with a more hand-crafted approach.
Usually, the choices are not significant, but they make you feel something. At one point you can give your child a choice, or make their choice because you’re late. (You can also give their hand a squeeze.) This flags no variables, but inside the mind of the player they have made a decision about whether offering the illusion of autonomy is a good thing.
Sometimes, there’s no good choice. If you decide to talk to the camp counsellor about your son’s racist nickname for him, it’s just awkward. But most players will decide to address racism. The one significant thing is whether you wave goodbye to the counsellor, or your son. That small act becomes a callback in the final scene.
Sometimes, choosing nothing is the best idea. There’s a scene where your son has a crush on a girl and you’re over at their house. If you don’t micromanage things and just have a beer, things unfold on their own.
Choosing how to cope is a choice. One of the great strengths of prose is the ability to draw out mental processes. In the therapy session the player can discover hidden resentments and reasons for his irritation.
One of the things I particularly like about Texture is the way tapping different verbs highlights different active spots in the text. In some of these scenes, it feels like I’m trying on different attitudes towards the content before settling on the one I want to take forward.
Thanks! We wanted the reading experience to be more book-like. When I see a bunch of choices on a screen from the beginning, I find it distracts from my reading experience. We intend for the reader to read the page, and then explore the interaction possibilities. And originally we experimented with the idea that the body words did not highlight, and you had to move the interaction word over it to see that there was a possible interaction. It felt a bit too much like pixel hunting to make it to the final mechanic, although I plan to experiment with hidden words in the future.
Talking about experimentation, I also tried other methods of engaging the player sparingly throughout the game.
Hidden Information: At one point, the player needs to suggest his kid fights a bully or talk his way out of it. By uncovering a key piece of information before making that decision (revealing that your son is small for his age) the player can make the more informed decision (to talk).
Limiting Moves: When two things occur to you to ask your son about just before the schoolbell rings, you can only ask one, and they lead you on different paths.
I feel like these two pull the reader/player in opposite directions: the hidden information method encourages playing methodically, checking out lots of options on a page and being cautious before taking an action that’s going to move you on. But having some screens limit you to just one choice (non-transparently) suggests that the reader needs to make sure their first move is the best.
That may sound like a criticism, but it’s not actually meant as one — I found the results interesting. But did you have in mind that you were training the player towards any particular approach?
Most games are about mastery, and things like training and ramping difficulty and balancing are all really important. But for a point-of-view game like this, feeling frustrated is part of the point.
I would like to make more Texture games in the future that are more traditional — it just felt like with the story I had to tell about parenting that it would have been dishonest.
While making the game fun or fair wasn’t paramount I did a fair amount of testing to see what people’s experience was like. I discovered that most people assumed the game was completely linear — possibly due to its book-like formatting, possibly due to experience with previous games.
People do seem to make this no-real-branching assumption about a lot of Twine games as well, even when it’s completely unjustified.
It’s true. It was important to me that the player realize their impact, as it changes how much they consider their choices. In Pretty Sure, while it always comes back to the trunk, there’s a fair amount of branching. So I did the following three things to telegraph the impact. In order of subtlety:
• Near the end, there’s a callback to a decision you made earlier and how it impacted your relationship with your son.
• At the very end there’s a device that allows you to revisit the hat fork, putting you on the path you didn’t go on.
• Near the beginning the game explicitly says, a la Telltale: “You had a sinking sensation that you’d made a significant choice that morning.” (Even though this is a bit of a convention, it feels a bit kludgy.)
The second big change was including the information as to whether your son is your biological child. It’s a bit of a red herring, so I decided to include this info rather than have people fixate on it. The real point is that it’s really hard to get a negative ending. You have to A) open your son’s mail, B) press him about the paternity and C) opted not to do therapy, as this stops you from pushing the issue. Even then, he’s disappointed that it means so much to you — he only cares about it if you do.
This post is in reference to recent events on and around the Euphoria &if channel; it’s not really of interest to people who don’t have that context. Some community issues have to be addressed, but I don’t want to expand the circle of anger by supplying a recap. Chances are, if you need to read this, you have context already. This is the second post I am making on this issue, this time regarding my own personal thoughts and feelings on the community.
In the original incident that prompted this discussion, back in 2015, Vaporware was in the wrong. And Peter Piers is in the wrong now for defending him. I am not going to apologize or equivocate around the issue of transphobia.
More to the point, I am not going to treat a deliberately hurtful comment made explicitly to test boundaries as an honest mistake. The response to a boorish transphobic joke was, as far as I am concerned, entirely appropriate.
Vaporware is someone who has admitted to being a troll. He explicitly went into a community space not with the intention of participating in good faith, or even having a frank exchange of views, or even protesting what he might see as politically correct overreach, but with the intention of stirring shit.
This might be written off as a lapse in judgement, but the reality is that it’s part of a pattern of callous, disrespectful, and nasty behavior on his part, going back a couple of years now.
I don’t relish putting all this out in the open, but I have to extend my displeasure to Piers, too. Besides multiple interactions with him that I find personally slighting, I find his presence in the intfiction.org boards to be constantly detrimental, as thread after thread is derailed by boorish arguments about his pet issues, often coupled with an obdurate refusal to empathize with the viewpoint of people who are unlike him.
That forum has seen declining activity ever since 2014, and frankly a refusal to face quiet toxicity within the community is probably one of the reasons why. Multiple people I know don’t feel comfortable engaging in that space, including myself. The reality is, we have a number of people in the trad-if community whose behavior is persistently inappropriate or hateful, but which we’re used to blocking out or ignoring. I’m not comfortable with the hurtful results of trying to make a tent so big it can include unreconstructed bigots and sympathizers of hate movements; too much of that going around in the games space already.
I have already been avoiding posting on intfiction.org for some time. Whether you agree or not, I have to believe my contributions have value, and there’s not much of a point to posting if whatever contributions I have are seemingly 50/50 to be swamped by yet another Peter Piers derailing, or by yet another idiotic flame war on whether Twine authors deserve respect and consideration, or by yet another incidence of a malicious, longterm troll resurfacing. So I have to join those who already don’t feel comfortable using that forum any more. But I thought it important that I didn’t do it silently; because the reality is that the behavior on that forum silently drives a lot of people away.
July 14th, 2016
This post is in reference to recent events on and around the Euphoria &if channel; it’s not really of interest to people who don’t have that context. Some community issues have to be addressed, but I don’t want to expand the circle of anger by supplying a recap. Chances are, if you need to read this, you have context already. This is the first post I’m making on the issue, which is a statement as &if moderator.
Going forward, within &if, I’m going to be discouraging unalloyed vitriol towards members of the broader IF community. I don’t want to delegitimize the anger that some might express towards certain figures, but I ask that if you are going to express anger, it be your own anger rather than someone else’s. A pattern has developed where person A says something to the effect of “Bob has said some hurtful and stupid things, and I find that upsetting” and then persons B, C, and D choose to take this as an opportunity to dunk on Bob.
Ultimately, regardless of my own personal feelings or whether or not Bob actually is an asshole, this has created discomfort and a less than welcoming environment. In trying to manage the various different functions that &if performs, I need to identify things (in this case, expressing anger and disgust at certain figures) that threaten to overtake the space, and curtail them.
I don’t anticipate banning anyone over this, and this is not a request for people to police their own feelings or self-censor; rather, I want to ask people to be thoughtful of the overall tone of the room before joining in on tearing someone apart, even if that person seems to deserve it. I’m not entirely innocent in this, so this is also a necessary shift in my own behavior. Most of all, I ask that users of &if respond to venting or callouts by being supportive of the aggrieved party, not venomous towards the guilty party. Ultimately, I think that situations where someone is being publicly frustrated or upset are better served building that person up than by trying to tear their aggressor down,
If you feel like you want a space where those expressions of anger are validated, and believe me I feel you, my DMs are open.
Also, to reiterate: There is not, and never will be, any change in policy regarding hateful speech; I expect users to be considerate of others’ identities and humanity, and bigotry will never be tolerated in that space.
“The Blood That Pulses in the Veins of One”, JY Yang, at Uncanny
“The Blood That Pulses in the Veins of One” feels very much a spiritual successor to Arkady’s curated alien recommendation list; it also feels very close, thematically if not in structure, to Lynnea Glasser’s Coloratura. I wanted to keep thinking about communion as consumption, and about questions of voice and perspective and alienation in short fiction, and so I chose JY Yang’s story of capture, dissection, and cannibalism.
The protagonist of the story, who readers learn later is termed the Enforcer, has been captured by a group of (presumably human) scientists, intent on investigating the alien’s powers of regeneration. It is narrated entirely from the first person perspective of the restrained Enforcer, who addresses an unknown You, with interstitial inclusions of overheard dialogue from the scientists tasked with examining, exposing, and cataloguing its inner workings. The scientists are motivated, perhaps unsurprisingly, by curiosity, a rampant thirst for knowledge which in some cases overwhelms their obligations to the lead researcher. In this they are no different from the Outlaw whom the Enforcer has been sent to collect, the “you” addressed from the very beginning of the Enforcer’s desperate narration.
The Outlaw and Enforcer both come from an alien culture in which knowledge is created by consumption: by ingesting the flesh of their fellow creatures and thus absorbing their experiences. We are introduced to the phenomenon through the protagonist’s eyes, in a parallel dismemberment of the “you” to whom the story is consistently narrated. This comes after the narrator’s own sterile, invasive experiences with the prodding, curious humans. By contrast, this sparagmic dissection is ritualistic, loving, a blazon of the flayed parts. These creatures’ bodies are hybrid, chimeric, created by absorption and adoption; they fail to contain the truth of the Outlaw’s experiences, until the flesh is peeled back, until the viscera is exposed. Yang dwells on the specificity of the cannibalism; the rush of spinal fluid that bears visceral sense memories of Mars with it. It’s a deliberately unsettling intimacy; the memories are transferred, yes, but so is emotion, nameless and unformed and complex and impossible–
And it’s this emotion, this desire, which leads the Outlaw to break the commandment of their species, to save the memories they and their lover have consumed for themselves instead of sharing with their people. And the Enforcer, of course, is tasked with bringing them to justice: but by the time the Enforcer catches up to them, their civilization has crumbled, and enemies (which are, here, merely two sides of the same coin) are left as the only survivors. With only each other to preserve their history, their heritage, their customs, they are bound together in a web of mutual consumption.
It’s this specific manner of connection that drew me to “The Blood That Pulses In the Veins of One”; the simultaneous absorption of flesh with memory and emotion. The humans view our protagonist with fascination and exoticism, literally taking them apart to see how they work; in contrast, the devouring and acceptance that comes with it, the understanding that it brings, reads as empathy, as a gift. Yang’s use of person here offers that gift to the reader; the story mirrors the understanding which the Enforcer experiences throughout their relationship with the Outlaw by beginning with an “I” and “you” who the reader knows very little about. Told non-linearly, their relationship and how their connection works unfolds, and by the time we glimpse the Outlaw’s presence, the protagonist’s confessional narration feels targeted at the Outlaw: more an experience to be offered up for this consumption than the typical personal reflection on the development of a relationship which I’ve noticed the “I-you” structure often denotes. It feels as though the Enforcer has conjured their companion by the weight of their shared connection; that mutual consumption has rendered them, if not nearly psychic, then preternaturally empathic to the suffering of the other.
“The Blood That Pulses In the Veins of One” is inherently an optimistic story; it offers kindness and a model for growth and love and learning beyond the borders of the self, even when this comes twinned with self-annihilation, with death, with cannibalism. Yang asks us to consider and reconsider radically alternative models of love, of sacrifice, of empathy. It is the humans with their scalpels and cold merciless curiosity who pose a threat; not the endlessly-mutable, nearly-indestructible, almost-viral protagonist and their lover. Or perhaps they do pose a threat to humanity, or at least, to the version of humanity in the story, and just perhaps, that version of humanity deserves to be threatened, to be consumed, to grow and become something greater.
As part of my research for an upcoming article, I would really like to beg, borrow, or buy a copy of the 1989 CD-ROM version of The Manhole for the black-and-white Macintosh. Note that this means neither the 1988 floppy-disk release nor the 1994 Masterpiece edition or any other re-release. If you happen to have a line on this rarity, I’d hugely appreciate it if you could contact me and let me know. I’d be equally happy with a digital or physical copy, and am willing to pay for the latter.
Thanks a million, and see you in a few days with my next proper article!
Update: Reader Casey Muratori knows the folks at Cyan, and put me in touch with them. They’re going to send me a copy, so problem solved. My huge thanks go to Cyan and to Casey, who has just provided yet more proof that I have the best readers in the world.
One of the generation of male writers forged in the crucible of World War II, James Clavell had a much harder war of it than such peers as Norman Mailer, James Jones, Herman Wouk, Gore Vidal, J.D. Salinger, and James Michener. As a young man of barely twenty years, he found himself facing the Japanese onslaught on the Malay Peninsula at the onset of hostilities in the Pacific Theater. Following the most humiliating British defeat of the entire war, he spent the next three and a half years in prisoner-of-war camps, watching as more than nine out of every ten of his fellow soldiers succumbed to malnutrition, disease, and random acts of violence. Somehow he survived it all and made it home.
In 1953, he emigrated from his native England to Hollywood in the hope of becoming a film director, despite knowing only as much about how movies were made as his actress wife had deigned to tell him. He never actually became a director, but he did gradually establish himself by dint of pluck and sheer stubbornness as a screenwriter. Clavell claimed he learned how to write stories with mass appeal in Hollywood, developing a style that would preclude more than the merest flirtations with the sort of literary respectability enjoyed by the list of names that opened this article. To hear him tell it, that was just fine with him: “The first time you write a novel you go into ecstasy with the purple prose — how the clouds look, what the sunset is like. All bullshit. What happens? Who does what to whom? That’s all you need.”
If one James Clavell novel was going to please serious students of the literary arts, it would have to be his first, a very personal book in comparison to the epic doorstops for which he would later become known. Holding true to the old adage that everyone’s first novel is autobiographical, King Rat was a novelized account of Clavell’s grim experience as a prisoner-of-war. Published in 1962, its success, combined with his difficulty finding sufficient screenwriting gigs, led him to gradually shift his focus from screenplays to novels. The next book he published, Tai-Pan (1966), was a much longer, more impersonal, wider-angle historical novel of the early years of Hong Kong. Four similar doorstops would follow at widely spaced intervals over the next thirty years or so, all chronicling the experiences of Westerners in the Asia of various historical epochs.
James Clavell’s fiction was in many ways no more thoughtful than the majority of the books clogging up the airport bestseller racks then and now. His were novels of adventure, excitement, and titillation, not introspection. Yet there is one aspect of his work that still stands out as surprising, even a little noble. Despite the three and a half years of torture and privation he had endured at the hands of his Japanese captors, he was genuinely fascinated by Asian and especially Japanese culture and history; one might even say he came to love it. And nowhere was that love more evident than in Clavell’s third novel, his most popular of all and the one that most of his fans agree stands as his best: 1975’s Shogun.
The star of Shogun is a typical Clavell hero, a Capable Man whose inner life doesn’t seem to run much deeper than loving queen and country and hating Papists. John Blackthorne is the English pilot — i.e., navigator — of the Erasmus, the first Dutch vessel to discover Japan, circa 1600. Unfortunately, the Spanish and Portuguese are already there when the Erasmus arrives, a situation from which will spring much of the drama of this very lengthy tale of 1100-plus pages. Blackthorne becomes Clavell’s reader surrogate, our window into the strangeness, wonder, mystery, and beauty of feudal Japan.
While Blackthorne’s adventures in Japan are (very) roughly based on those of an actual English adventurer named William Adams, Clavell plays up the violence and the sex for all its worth. Many a youthful reader went to bed at night dreaming fever dreams of inscrutable and lovely geishas and the boxes of toys they kept to hand: “The beads are carefully placed in the back passage and then, at the moment of the Clouds and the Rain, the beads are pulled out slowly, one by one.” (Did finding that sort of thing enticing mean you were — my God! — gay?) Read by adults, such passages… er, extracts are still riotously entertaining in the way that only truly committed Bad Writing can be. My wife Dorte and I used Shogun as our bedtime reading recently. While it didn’t do much to encourage conjugal sexy times, it certainly did make us laugh; Dorte still thinks “pillowing,” Shogun‘s favorite Japanese euphemism for sex, is unaccountably hilarious, and is forever going on about pillowing this and pillowing that. (She also loves the notion of a “poop deck,” but I suppose I can’t blame Clavell for that.)
Unsubtle prose and dodgy euphemisms aside, the first 25 to 30 percent of Shogun is by far the most compelling. Long enough to form a novel of reasonable length in their own right, the early chapters detail the arrival of Blackthorne and his Dutch cohorts in Japan, upon whose shores they literally wash up, starving and demoralized after their long voyage across the Pacific. I’ve occasionally heard the beginning of Shogun described as one of the finest stories of first contact between two alien cultures ever written, worthy of careful study by any science-fiction author who proposes to tell of a meeting between even more far-flung cultures than those of Europe and Japan. To that suggestion I can only heartily concur. As Blackthorne and his cohorts pass from honored guests to condemned prisoners and back again, struggling all the while to figure out what these people want from them, what they want from each other, and how to communicate at all, the story is compulsively readable, the tension at times nearly unbearable. (One suspects that some of the most horrific scenes, like the ones after Blackthorne and the crew are cast into a tiny hole and left to languish there in sweltering heat and their own bodily filth, once again draw from Clavell’s own prisoner-of-war experiences.) While I admit to being far from intimately familiar with the whole of the James Clavell oeuvre, I’d be very surprised if he ever wrote anything better than this.
After Blackthorne, stalwart Capable Man that he is, manages to negotiate a reprieve for the crew and a place for himself as a trusted advisor to a powerful daimyo named Toranaga, the book takes on a different, to my mind less satisfying character. It ceases to focus so much on Blackthorne’s personal plight as a stranger in a strange land in favor of a struggle for control of the entire country, once again based loosely on actual history, that looms between Toranaga, very broadly speaking the good guy (or at least the one with whom our hero Blackthorne allies himself), and another daimyo named Ishido. At the same time, the Portuguese Jesuits are trying to stake out a place in the middle that will preserve their influence regardless of who wins, whilst also working righteously to find some way to do away with Blackthorne and the Dutch sailors, who if allowed to return to Europe with information on exactly where Japan lies represent an existential threat to everything they’ve built there. Plot piles on counter-plot on conspiracy on counter-conspiracy, interspersed with regular action-movie set-pieces, as all of the various factions maneuver toward the inevitable civil war that will decide the fate of all Japan for decades or centuries to come.
In the meantime, Blackthorne, apparently deciding his life isn’t already dangerous enough, is carrying on an illicit romance with the beautiful Mariko, wife of one of Toranaga’s most highly placed samurai. Their relationship was much discussed in Shogun‘s first bloom of popularity as being the key to the book’s considerable attraction for female readers; very unusually for such a two-fisted tale of war, adventure, and history, Shogun supposedly enjoyed more female readers than male. True to Clavell’s roots, however, Blackthorne and Mariko’s is a depressingly conventional Hollywood romance. We’re expected to believe that these two characters are wildly, passionately in love with one another simply because Clavell tells us they are, according to the Hollywood logic that two attractive people of the opposite sex thrown into proximity with one another must automatically fall in love — and of course lots of sex must follow.
The plot continues to grow ever more byzantine as the remaining page-count continues to dwindle, and one goes from wondering how Clavell is possibly going to wrap all this up to checking Amazon to be sure there isn’t a direct sequel. And then it all just… stops, leaving more loose threads dangling than my most raggedy tee-shirt. I’ve read many books with unsatisfying endings, but I’ve never read an ending quite as half-assed as this one. It’s all finally come down to the war that’s been looming throughout the previous 1100-plus pages. We’re all ready for the bloody climax. Instead Clavell gives us a three-page summary of what might have happened next if he’d actually bothered to write it. It’s for all the world like Clavell, who admitted that he wrote his novels with no plan whatsoever, simply got tired of this one, decided 1100 pages was more than enough and just stopped in medias res. Shogun manages the feat, perhaps unique in the annals of anticlimax, of feeling massively bloated and half-finished at the same time. This is a Lord of the Rings that ends just as Frodo and Sam arrive in Mordor; a Tale of Two Cities that ends just as Carton is about to make his final sacrifice. I’ve never felt so duped by a book as this one.
But I must admit that I seem to be the exception here. Whether because of the masterfully taut beginning of the story, the torrid love affair, or the lurid portrayal of Japanese culture that pokes always through the tangled edifice of plot, few readers then or now seem to share my reservations. Shogun became an instant bestseller. In 1980, a television miniseries of the book was aired in five parts, filling more than nine hours sans commercials. It became the most-watched show ever aired on NBC and the second most popular in the history of American television, its numbers exceeded only by those of Roots, another miniseries event which had aired on ABC in 1977. When many people think of Blackthorne today, they still picture Richard Chamberlain, the dashing actor who played him on television. Together the book and the miniseries ignited a craze for Japanese culture in the West that, however distorted or exaggerated Shogun‘s portrayal of same may have been, did serve as a useful counterbalance to lingering resentments over World War II and, increasingly, fears that Japan’s exploding technological and industrial base was about to usurp the United States’s place at the head of the world’s economy.
At this point, at last, Shogun‘s huge popularity on page and screen brings us in our roundabout way to Infocom — or, more accurately, to their corporate masters Mediagenic.1 (If the preface to the real point of this article seemed crazily extended, I can only plead that, with Shogun the game having little identity of its own apart from the novel on which it’s based, it’s hard to discuss it through any other framework.)
Mediagenic’s absolute mania for licensed games following the accession of Bruce Davis to the CEO’s chair has been well-established in other articles by now. Infocom was able to find some excuse to head off most of the ideas in that vein that Mediagenic proposed, but Shogun was an exception. When Mediagenic came to Infocom with a signed deal already in place in late 1987 to base a game on this literary property — from Bruce Davis’s perspective, the idea was right in Infocom’s wheelhouse — their problem child of a subsidiary just wasn’t in any position to say no. Dave Lebling, having recently finished The Lurking Horror and being without an active project, drew the short straw.
Shogun the game was a misbegotten, unloved project from the start, a project for which absolutely no one in the Infocom, Mediagenic, or Clavell camps had the slightest creative passion. The deal had been done entirely by Clavell’s agent; the author seemed barely aware of the project’s existence, and seemed to care about it still less. It was a weird choice even in the terms of dollars and cents upon which Bruce Davis was always so fixated. Yes, Shogun had been massively popular on page and screen years earlier, and still generated strong catalog sales every year. It was hard to imagine, however, that there was a huge crowd of computer gamers dying to relive the adventures of John Blackthorne interactively. Why this of all licenses? Why now?
Dave Lebling was duly dispatched to visit Clavell for a few days at his chalet in the Swiss Alps to discuss ideas for the adaptation; he got barely more than a few words of greeting out of the man. His written requests for guidance were answered with the blunt reply that Clavell had written the book more than a decade ago and didn’t remember that much about it; the subtext was that he couldn’t be bothered with any of it, that to him Lebling’s game represented just another check arranged by his agent. Lebling was left entirely on his own to adapt another author’s work, with no idea of where the boundaries to his own creative empowerment might lie. In the past, Infocom had always taken care to avoid just this sort of collaboration-in-name-only. Now they’d had it imposed upon them.
Lebling chose to structure his version of Shogun as a series of Reader’s Digest “scenes from” the novel, cutting and pasting unwieldy chunks of Clavell’s prose into the game and demanding that the player respond by doing exactly what Blackthorne did in the novel in order to advance to the next canned scene. The player who has read the novel will find little interest or challenge in pantomiming her way through a re-creation of same, while the player who hasn’t will have no idea whatsoever what’s expected of her at any given juncture. It’s peculiar to see such a threadbare design from a company as serious about the craft of interactive fiction as Infocom had always been. Everyone there, not least Lebling himself, understood all too well the problems inherent in this approach to adaptation; these very same problems were the main reason Infocom had so steadfastly avoided literary licenses that didn’t come with their authors attached in earlier years. One can only presume that Lebling, unsure of how far his creative license extended and bored to death with the whole project anyway, either couldn’t come up with anything better or just couldn’t be bothered to try.
Consider the game’s handling of an early scene from the novel: the first time Blackthorne meets Yabu and Omi, respectively the daimyo and his samurai henchman who have dominion over Anjiro, the small fishing village where the Erasmus has washed up. Also present as translator is a Portuguese priest, Blackthorne’s sworn enemy, who would like nothing better than to see him condemned and executed on the spot. In the book, Blackthorne’s observations of the priest’s interactions with the two samurai convince him that there is no love lost between him and them, that Yabu and Omi hate and mistrust the priest almost as much as Blackthorne does. Blackthorne wants to communicate that he shares their sentiment, but of course all of his words are being translated into Japanese by the priest himself — obviously a highly unreliable means of communication in this situation. Desperate to show his captors that he’s different from this other foreigner, he lunges at the priest, grabs his crucifix, and breaks it in two, a deadly sin for a Catholic but a good day’s work for a Protestant like him. Yabu and especially Omi are left curious and more than a little impressed; Blackthorne’s action quite possibly staves off his imminent execution.
In the book, this all hangs together well enough, based on what we know and what we soon learn of the personalities, histories, and cultures involved. But for the game to expect the player to come up with such a seemingly random action as lunging for the crucifix and breaking it is asking an awful lot of anyone unfamiliar with the novel. It’s not impossible to imagine the uninitiated player eventually coming up with it on her own, especially as Lebling is good enough to drop some subtle hints about the crucifix “on its long chain waving mockingly before your face,” but she’ll likely do so only by dying and restoring many times.
And this is far from the worst of Lebling’s “read James Clavell’s mind” moments. In their announcement of the game in their newsletter, Infocom noted that “the key to success in the interactive Shogun is the ability to act as the British pilot-major Blackthorne would.” For the player who hasn’t read the book and thus doesn’t know Blackthorne, this is quite a confusing proposition. For the player who has, the game falls into a rote pattern. Remember (or look up) what Blackthorne did in the book, figure out how and when to phrase it to the parser, and you get some points and get to live a little longer. Do anything else, and you die or get a message saying “this scene is no longer winnable” and get to try again. In between, you do a lot of waiting and examining, and lots of reading of textual cut scenes — called “interludes” by the game — that grow steadily lengthier as the story progresses and Blackthorne’s part in it becomes more and more ancillary.
In a telling indication of how the times had changed for Infocom, by far the most impressive aspect of Shogun is its visual presentation. Promoted, like the earlier Zork Zero, as “graphical interactive fiction,” it and the simultaneously released Journey are the first Infocom games to unabashedly indulge in pictures for their own sake, abandoning Steve Mereztky’s insistence that his game’s graphics always serve a practical gameplay function. Shogun‘s pictures, drawn in the style of classical Japanese woodcuts by Donald Langosy, are lovely to look at and perfectly suit the atmosphere of the novel. The game’s one truly innovative aspect is the same pictures’ presentation onscreen. Rather than being displayed in a static window, they’re scattered around and within the scrolling text in various positions, giving the game the look of an unfurling illustrated scroll. Infocom had had their share of trouble figuring out the graphics thing, but Shogun demonstrates that, clever bunch that they were, they were learning quickly. Already Infocom’s visual palette was far more sophisticated than that of competitors like Magnetic Scrolls and Level 9 who had been doing text adventures with pictures for years. Pity they wouldn’t have much more time to experiment.
But of course, as Infocom’s vintage advertisements loved to tell us, visuals alone do not a great game make. Shogun stands today as the most unloved and unlovable of all Infocom’s games, a soulless exercise in pure commerce that didn’t make a whole lot of sense even on that basis. Released in March of 1989, its sales were, like those of all of this final run of graphical games, minuscule. In my opinion and, I would venture, that of a substantial number of others, it represents the absolute nadir of Infocom’s 35-game catalog. It is, needless to say, the merest footnote to the bestselling catalog of James Clavell, who died in 1994. And, indeed, it’s little more worthy of discussion in the context of Infocom’s history; the words I’ve devoted to it already are far more than it deserves. I have two more Infocom games to discuss in future articles, each with problems of their own, but we can take consolation in one thing: it will never, ever get as bad as this again. This, my friends, is what the bottom of the barrel looks like.
(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Some of it is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. And the very last issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, from Spring 1989.)
It's been too long since we posted any concrete news about Sorcery! 4, the final part of the narrative epic that's been keeping us busy since 2013.
Writing on the game has now finished, again. That means we've done our first pass, fleshing out all the rooms, encounters, characters, secrets, jokes, puzzles, hidden endings. And we've also done our second pass, playing through everything, smoothing it, checking for logic and story consistency, and getting the pacing as slick as we can.
We're now embarking on the long process of beta-testing - gathering feedback from early players, and hunting down all the strange nooks and crannies of the story-flow. A lot of the details can and will still change at this point - good ideas are never thrown away, even close to release - but if we had to put down our pens tomorrow, we could, and the game would work.
There are multiple endings, but more importantly, multiple states for multiple endings. But there is also an ultimate ending of sorts, better than the others.
Even with the writing completed, there's still lots for us to do. There's new audio to gather, and new art to get into the game, and a pile of new code to write as well.
For the first time, we'll be integrated 3D models into the map. These models are still being hand-painted by our cartographer/illustrator Mike Schley, and we've got to make sure they play nicely with the in-game camera. We've also got an epilogue sequence to build, that will suitably reward players who have made the journey all the way from Analand to Mampang and returned with the Crown of Kings intact.
One thing we have got finalised is Laurence Chapman's new theme - as recorded by live orchestra.
One of the things that's made this part a real writing challenge is ensuring that it provides a complete experience for people picking up the Sorcery! series for the first time, while also providing the epic conclusion that returning players deserve. Over the last three games we've seeded a lot of characters and story points, as well as giving the player a lot of choices to carry with them.
(A Sorcery! 3 game loaded into Part 4 brings with it over nine hundred individual story-flags, ranging from whether or not you destroyed a city, to how many gold pieces you have in your pocket, and whether or not you know the name of the witch in the Shamutanti woods.)
Thankfully, we've got a few tricks up our sleeve for bringing new players up to speed...
For the first time, we're planning to launch the game on the App Store, Amazon Store, Play Store, Steam, Humble and Green Man Gaming all on the same day. You can buy the game on any platform to continue your adventure - cloud saves work from one device to another. (Just remember to write them down somewhere!)
And while Mike's latest map looks glorious spread across a desktop monitor or an iPad Pro, we're working hard to ensure the mobile experience is still just as tight and playable as its ever been.
Later this year. Apologies, we don't want to commit to a date until we know we can hit it!
But we can't wait to open the gates and let you into Mampang - it's weird, terrible place, full of ancient, decaying magic, foul mutants, crosses and double-crosses, and secrets. This is our toughest, most intricate - and we hope, most rewarding - Sorcery! adventure yet.
So, Zarf, how did that launch go?
Pretty good! Hadean Lands has been on sale on Steam for sixteen days now. And three hours. (Am I counting the minutes? Not really, but it's fun to check.)
In that time it garnered several articles about the DLC certificate, notably from Kotaku and Eurogamer.net. (Those two articles interviewed me a bit on the subject.) Emily Short posted a stellar writeup of the game on Rock Paper Shotgun, and I also got a very nice review on ExtremeTech. And of course many other people said positive things.
Extra props to RayganK, who is leading a crew through HL on his Twitch channel. This is very cool! And... Twitch works very badly for me, for some reason, so I've only seen bits of it. They're two sessions in. Good hunting, folks.
But really, how is it selling?
I won't get into hard numbers, but... HL sold a fair number of copies in the first three days. Then the Steam summer sale started, which took the wind out of the sales. Or maybe it was just a three-day launch spike; it's about what I expected either way.
Then the nice reviews appeared, which led to several more days of good sales. Yay! At this point we're settling back down to the long-term tail rate, but I don't yet have an idea what that is.
And yes, to answer the obvious question, I've sold some certificates. A few. Not nearly as many as I've sold copies of the game. That's fine; I worked a lot harder on the game.
This past weekend I posted a small update. (Also available on Itch and Humble.) It doesn't affect the game content, but adds some UI features:
(Due to the nature of Inform 7, I will probably never update the game content of the Steam release of HL. Any change would inevitably wipe everybody's save-game positions, and that just isn't acceptable for a Steam game.)
And that's the current color of the ritual bound, as it were. At this point I've done everything to Hadean Lands that I ever planned to, and more; it is entirely and completely shipped.
(Except for that bit of the KS reward that I still owe a few backers... yes, I know.)
I'm finishing up a contract project this month, and then it's back to thinking about Designing A New Game. Since I'm a game designer and all.
Games about writing; writing about playing games. The second themed review exchange. Two rec lists; two reviews.
Cat’s Interactive Fiction Rec List
There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, a good number of interaction works that feature writing as a motif; I wanted to limit myself to works in which the story itself took up the process of writing, and the difficulties involved. I do want to make an honorable mention to Dark and Stormy (http://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=wqrlx3wvtmkjds9q), a parser game written by Emily Short, which I didn’t include because I didn’t want to suggest two games by the same author, but I am contractually obligated to recommend anything described as “Borgesian”.
I’ve offered three games written in three different systems; all of them, however, address themes of constraint and failure. I don’t know if this is the medium of choice-based games: much has been written on “true freedom” (slippery conceit, that) and how different platforms allow for different possibilities. But Violet, the parser game on the list–long-held by sections of the IF community to be the format that offers the most player agency–also deliberately limits you in emotionally significant ways.
Arkady’s Speculative Fiction Rec List
There’s a long tradition of games being central plot and thematic elements in SFF stories. Playing games together is one of those deep human activities which carries enormous symbolic and thematic weight, after all, so it’s only understandable that it often acts as a synecdoche for connection or communication or competition – and games are also cultural touchstones, so they’re particularly useful in SFF, to demonstrate worldbuilding ideas: what are games like in a society much different from ours? How are they useful?
I could start this rec list by pointing to the 1957 film The Seventh Seal (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050976/) (the one with chess with Death!), but we’re sticking to short fiction, at least for now – which also rules out The Player of Games (http://www.amazon.com/Player-Games-Culture-Iain-Banks/dp/0316005401), Iain M. Banks’ Culture-universe novel about the nature of cultural competition and post-scarcity boredom and Charles Stross’s novel Halting State (http://www.amazon.com/Halting-State-Ace-Science-Fiction/dp/0441016073), which uses an MMORPG as a setting for a near-future police procedural. There is a lot of use of games in SFF!
But here are three short stories, all fairly recent, which explore games and game-playing.
Arkady’s review: “First Draft of the Revolution”, Emily Short
Available here: https://lizadaly.com/first-draft/
I have a very profound affection for epistolary narratives, and for the process of constructing a self via the medium of letters. I wrote my PhD about it. It’s also showed up rather forcefully in my personal life, and gets into the fiction I write myself, too. I spend a lot of time thinking about how writing a letter creates an image of a self, maybe an ideal self, maybe a false self, maybe a true-as-possible-but-still-mediated-by-distance self. So I was ideally prepared to love First Draft of the Revolution, which is a piece of interactive fiction in which Juliette, a semi-disowned aristocratic wife in an alt-historical magic-containing pre-Revolution France, writes and receives letters to her husband Henri while conducting a semi-affair with a heretical friar and defusing an incipient magical revolution.
I … really, really wanted to love this game, and I didn’t. I think I’ve figured out why, but first I need to explain what did work.
But nevertheless, despite all these things I loved, and my interest in the thematics of the game, I found the process of playing First Draft of the Revolution immensely frustrating. Part of this may be that I am not, I am discovering, any good at playing games. In First Draft, the player must in fact make a large number of changes to the letter before they can go on to the next screen, even, at times, when I did not want to change aspects – when I was happy with the aesthetic of the letter without rewriting, when I wanted to make a choice that I thought was part of what playing an epistolary game was about: designing the persona of my character(s). Because I felt like I was supposed to be making choices about what actually got said, rather than experiencing the revision process as an aesthetic/informative one, I began to feel like I was playing the game badly; making choices I wasn’t sure I wanted to make, and that I might be presented with a ‘bad ending’ and it would somehow be my fault for not understanding the mechanic correctly.
I only realized this lack of actual consequential choices about Juliette, Henri, and their companions-in-intrigue was deliberate when I arrived at a section where Henri decrypts a magically-encrypted letter, and I was not offered choices, but instead was shown that what First Draft was meant to do was demonstrate the thought-process of the letter writer as he or she revised and recreated.
In short: I wasn’t supposed to be playing a game. I was supposed to be interacting with a mentality.
This is an interesting problem with interactive fiction in general. IF comes out of ‘gaming’ – I, at least, still approach each new IF I play with the verb to play, rather than to read or even to experience – and gaming has rules about player agency and player choice. Gaming has a kind of contract between the player and the game, which allows for the player to make choices – constrained ones, certainly, but world-affecting ones. And IF … while it is enormously concerned with player agency – does not necessarily have to be about changing the IF-internal world.
If I had played First Draft of the Revolution without thinking it was a game – without thinking I was responsible for Juliette’s choices and happiness or success – I would have enjoyed it far more. I would have been able to interact with the process of revision-as-mentality better.
I can’t figure out if the problem is inherent in me or in the way First Draft is set up, though. Is it my expectations which did me wrong? Should I be approaching IF without the ‘game’ rubric held in my mind? Or could First Draft have been more explicit, earlier on, that the content of my revision choices wasn’t nearly as important as the process of choosing?
Cat’s review: “Interlingua”, Yoon Ha Lee
I chose Interlingua because I’m familiar with Yoon Ha Lee’s interactive fiction; the first game I played was Compass Rose up at sub-Q magazine. I might be the only person to find his SF via this avenue. I wanted to see what someone familiar with game mechanics had to say about why and how we play what we do, if writing games made it easier to write about games. And a lot of my work is concerned with weird aliens, so I jumped at Interlingua.
I wasn’t disappointed. Perhaps in one way I was: this is a story I wish I had written. Interlingua tells the story of a sentient ship, the Hwacha, which designs a simulation to keep its crew occupied on the way to intercept an alien ship which doesn’t seem to be responding to common linguistic assumptions in a recognizable fashion. Despite attracting a varied crew of testers and spending a great deal of time playing with the implementation, the ship hasn’t planned for how matters progress.
The plot sounds relatively straightforward from this summary, and it is linear. But like a good game, the success is in the implementation. The Hwacha is a sentient ship, monitoring and controlling all of the crew’s behaviors as if its interiors were a sim game, which has the potential to read as flat and tiresome–if the ship were presented as actually omniscient. The Hwacha, however, is foiled by the Sarissa, its sister ship, who draws attention to the gaps in our narrator’s vision. It’s a nice contrast with how the ship represents itself; I always enjoy unreliable ostensibly-controlled narrators.
The other crack in the ship’s facade, one which is slightly more complicated for me, is the development process which the ship details. On an aesthetic level, the ship’s griping about implementation is familiar to every developer; I found myself cackling aloud in sympathetic recognition at several moments, and I don’t usually laugh when reading SFF. Yoon Ha Lee reaches for universal frustrations of game designers, and this makes the ship both fallible and relatable. The suggestion of how well-implemented the game is does stretch the boundaries of credulity, but the point pays off.
If you’re a game designer, or if you play games, the moment where the Hwacha reports that all of the playtesters are enthralled is the moment at which you know something has most likely gone horribly wrong. As the Sarissa reminds us, no one likes every game; a game that enthralls players as different as the Hwacha contains is likely to have at least some detractors. But the story’s solution to Every Video Game Developer’s Power Fantasy is fascinating, and my favorite part of Interlingua. It’s also what propels my reaction from admiring appreciation into outright creator envy.
The answer is not that the Hwacha has built the fantasy perfect game, but created a game which harnesses the satisfaction feedback loop to actually change the players’ semiotic processes. Since the game in question is a contact simulation with a procedurally generated alien possessing a linguistic structure that is gradually refined by successful player input, player input too becomes refined. The process is so successful that the tester ends up adopting elements of the alien’s structural patterns. The game itself creates a new conlang between the player and the generated creature, one that persists outside the boundaries of the program. We might call this a game which satisfies empathy: it suggests the possibility of an experience that feels meaningful, which generates connection.
This isn’t, however, the only place this happens: while the Hwacha in the end begins to be absorbed by their own playtest, they have – in a very real way – been implicated in the same structures of gamified feedback since the beginning of the story. Introduce something new into the sim and watch your choice have profound consequences: isn’t that what the ship has been doing to the crew the whole time? My reading of this is shaped by the assertion that the game’s code is “scraped together from code I already had on hand”: every developer’s quick shortcut, and a wince of recognition from me – but from where did the Hwacha borrow the code?
The ship is playing games within games, because mastery of a system is addictive, and one of the things which keeps us playing long after we should close the window. “One more turn at Civ, I’ve almost got a diplomatic victory”; “I’m not going to die at this point in Dark Souls 3 again”; “I let a sentient machine gain supremacy over London and then lost my mind and sailed off the edge of the world”. Once you master one facet of a game, you reach for the next. But here, in a game where victory condition is “understanding”, it seems correct that the mechanics work by bringing the player into a similar state of mimicry.
Interlingua is very much about connection as addictive, and social interaction as play, and how we bridge boundaries, coupled with nuanced thoughts on gamification and contact. In short, it’s a story which is designed to work on me in similar ways to how the Hwacha’s game works on its players. I’m going to be thinking about this one for a long time.
“Lime Ergot”, by Caleb Wilson, was first written for ECTOCOMP 2014 and is now playable at Sub-Q Magazine, here.
I said last time I wanted to play a parser next, and so indeed I have done; and that I wanted to play a parser while thinking about voice, so clearly I have chosen correctly in selecting “Lime Ergot”, a very weird and very gorgeous little game which uses the parser mechanic to model a hallucinatory world of post-colonial rot.
There is only one goal in “Lime Ergot”. It is to make a drink for General Livia Tudor-Adolphus, the last remaining colonial authority in the rotting and abandoned city of St. Stellio. The drink she wants requires limes. You have no limes. You must find limes. If this was a traditional parser game, I believe the next step would be to explore the city of St. Stellio in search of said limes, while solving various puzzles — but this is not how “Lime Ergot” works. “Lime Ergot” wants you to stay very still, except for within your own mind. It uses the parser mechanic to set up the player to expect movement — you can in fact attempt to ‘go south’ and similar commands — but the only functional forward momentum in the game comes from using a command which I initially figured as ‘look’ but might be best thought of as ‘examine’.
You can examine your surroundings. You can examine them in minute detail, and this examination offers you both intriguing information about the history of the General and her empire’s exploits on St. Stellio — “Lime Ergot” has a dry, decadent tone which reminds me of nothing so much as a heady combination of Kipling and Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation — and the possibility of slipping ever deeper into memory and dream-state. Some of those memories contain limes.
The memory-limes have just as much effect as a real lime would. You can put them into the drink-making machine, and cause it to move, and change, and ask for more limes. You can, eventually, even give the General her drink, constructed entirely of visions.
What happens afterward says something about the nature of visions, and the general, and hallucinatory after-effects of empire. It is very effective. I am still not sure if the protagonist of “Lime Ergot” is dead or alive, or if that matters in the slightest. (Spiritually dead, at least. Dead and rotting. But aren’t all imperial scions so?)
But to return to the parser mechanic — there is always a certain amount of frustration, for me, in playing parser games. I’m not innately good at them. I always spend a great deal of time inventing commands which are not in the parser’s set of possible commands, or wanting to explore an angle of the world the parser is flat-out uninterested in (what if I GIVE the weapon to the alien? what then?) “Lime Ergot” acknowledges this frustration, deliberately creates it — there is almost nothing one can do except examine and this is deeply agonizing, almost paralyzing, before you realize what the game is trying to do. It is taking the frustration of the parser and employing it for stylistic gain.
And again, this stylistic achievement depends entirely on the success of the voice of the game. Without “Lime Ergot”‘s blackly funny, sickly awful, and hugely imagistic descriptive voice, its mechanical confinement would simply be stifling, rather than stifling-for-a-purpose.
In short: this is one of the most coherent games I have played in terms of using the precise medium of interactivity to produce and highlight an emotional state in the player. It is an absolute gem of a game.
And now I want to write about fungal rot again, but hey. Inspiration comes from peculiar locales. Like limes.
“Suicide Bots”, Bentley A. Reese, at Shimmer (http://www.shimmerzine.com/suicide-bots-by-bentley-a-reese/)
I haven’t been able to get Bentley A. Reese’s “Suicide Bots” out of my head since I read it weeks ago. Its prose worked its way under my skin, which is understandable, since the story relies on linguistic recursion to drive its narrative. But it’s one of my favourite stories this year about robots, AI, and ethical botmaking.
The narrator is Jones, a robot assembled out of spare parts in a chop shop and given one directive: to rob a bank and give the spoils to the man who ordered these suicide bots made. He and his fellow robots are put together catastrophically poorly, bits of skin and mismatched parts hanging off metal frames. It reminds me of my favorite bits of classic cyberpunk, the assemblage of bodies, the early-model or scrap heap or improvised technology. But here it’s used to make Jones and his fellow bots, Jane and Tumbler, for a programmed mission to rob a bank and deliver the cash to their creator. To their commissioner, rather, the man who gave the directives for them to be made, who spent no more money or time on these synthetic sentient creatures than bottom line economics required, who made them futureless. The story’s prose is brutal and tight and economical; it has to be, since the robots’ experiences are abrupt and chaotic and messy and existentially fraught. “Suicide Bots”, like most AI stories, is a meditation on what it means to be conscious; but its focus is on what it means to be made wrong, for a purpose that you did not choose, with a ticking end and an inadequate knowledge of the world and the gut-deep understanding that no one else will be your advocate. These characters cannot pass as human, are not given the tools to navigate our world, and have to construct meaning for themselves within the world.
And it is a world that is fundamentally unfair, not only to the suicide bots but to the humans who inhabit it as well. At the checkpoint to the city (New Chicago, suggesting a partial-but-not-total structural upheaval; enough to mark a paradigm shift but not an outright revolution), Jones and Jane and Tumbler are given a list of synthetic entities which are not allowed in by a sentry guard bot. Around them, groups of ragged people mill; Jones searches for, and finds (after a small short-circuit), the word “vagrant”. This sector of human populace is deeply angry at how robots have replaced cheap labor and disengaged them from the framework of late-stage capitalism. It doesn’t seem entirely removed from some contemporary concerns about machine learning and the future of labor; the story’s themes come up nicely against issues we’re addressing right now about ethics and AI.
One of the core themes of the story which works so well for me is the callousness and pragmatism with which the robots are created. Their creator has given a directive, and isn’t much fussed about the nuances or implications, what gets lost. There are a lot of fascinating issues with ethical bot-making both in fiction and contemporary reality; I’ve talked before on this blog about Microsoft’s colossal disaster with Tay and the #botALLY community’s exasperated response. Suffice it to say: we do not always consider what we owe our robots, what we create. This story forces us to.
“Suicide Bots” collapses the distance between synthetic and human consciousness by highlighting the strangeness of the constructed characters but not denying them empathy, agency, or desires. Jones, who falls in love with Jane almost immediately, does so not because she represents a well-made robot who can pass according to traditional standards of human beauty for feminine-presenting people, but because of her assemblage, her very strangeness, and because he can. Everything is strange to Jones and Jane, whose sum total knowledge of the world comes from a USB of Wikipedia pages stuck in the back of their skulls, and what they learn by existing. He can’t discern the difference in human reactions, between laughing and crying; he does know he doesn’t want to shoot security guards, but he has no choice in the situation. Repetition is key here: it establishes what Jones knows as he asserts his world, makes it through language. As a word shifts between sentences, he changes, learns, grows. Giving and taking serve as the verbs at the backbone of his interaction with humans, because that’s how he was programmed. Jones’ maker–his father, as he later calls him–did not consider the implications of creating an entity after this fashion, who would grapple with what it means to be created thus.
And this is so very human. We make ourselves out of the wreckage; old lives, past hurts, things we’ve internalized as long as we’ve been conscious, running as subroutines just as Jones has “TAKE EVERYTHING” programmed into him. There is always an element of being made, shaped and formed, and always the question of: what can we do? In the face of the inevitable, how can we make ourselves so as to endure as well and as long as we can? There’s a particular moment in the story which touches on this obsession with creating a meaningful existence that both humans and these robots have deep within our programming.
“”What happens tomorrow?” Jane asks as I drive. I suck in my lips. I don’t think there is a tomorrow. We aren’t long-term projects, just hazardous grenades thrown into an industrial fire.
Our maker did not make us for our own sake.”
The sentence reminds me of the opening line of Donne’s first Holy Sonnet: “Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?”
Fragile mortal carbon things and suicide robots all ask the same questions, must cope with the terminal. Donne’s answer is turning to a grace larger than himself, the comfort of the divine. Jones’ is loyalty to those who one loves, protection and care for those who have loved and cared and witnessed for us in return. I am not at all sure the two concepts are entirely dissimilar.
Next in our series where we interview prominent IF and SFF authors about craft, Cat and Arkady talk to Bruno Dias. Bruno’s work “Cape” was nominated for an XYZZY award, and he won Best Technological Development for Raconteur, a platform which simplifies writing interactive fiction in Undum. His recently-announced game Voyageur, a procedurally generated space exploration game, is one of Failbetter Studios’ first funded indie projects and is slated for a Q4 2016 release. We caught up with him about the meaning of “meaningful choices”, procedural generation, and the importance of interdisciplinary creativity.
Cape is extremely effective in shaping the protagonist: giving the player just the right amount and type of choices to create a feeling of flexibility, while still allowing the author to tell a very particular story. The choice of backgrounds seems to me the most crucial element — you’re always an immigrant, as Emily Short mentioned, and you’re always poor. And you’re always from a country that’s been colonized. Can you talk about how you create meaningful choices for the player while maintaining control of the sociocultural/psychological position of the protagonist?
So “meaningful choice” is a phrase that I struggle with, because I think I don’t necessarily read that in the same way that others do. People tend to associate that with large-scale diegetic choices (https://heterogenoustasks.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/a-bestiary-of-player-agency/), which isn’t exactly what I take to be “meaningful” in choice-based hypertext. I tend to think the presence of a choice is in itself meaningful. Part of what interests me about hypertext is that text that shifts, moves, and reacts opens up another layer for encoding meaning in texts. You can exclude almost all consequence and even direct referential meaning from a choice while still implying a lot with the fact that the choice is offered, and with the boundaries of that choice. I feel like choices like the nationality selection in Cape are a great way of presenting a cross-section of a world in a very economical way. The start of Porpentine’s With Those we Love Alive does something similar, offering a number of character-creation choices that don’t really seem to impact the plot but give a very good overview of what that world is like. Cape does have one little bit of text that acknowledges the nationality choice, but it’s in an optional branch of the story and can easily be missed. So I’m kind of interested in the question of that choice, of what does it mean to give the player a choice that is enormously consequential to the character but almost entirely inconsequential to the plot; and in this specific instances, the way in which identity does and doesn’t matter, is and isn’t acknowledged. The specific list of countries you can choose from is very carefully chosen. The eleven countries listed are supposed to be broadly representative but not exhaustive; I wanted to have few enough that a player could conceivably cycle through all of them. The inclusion of Greece and Ireland in that list says a lot about where the story is being historically situated. I spent a pretty unreasonable amount of time curating that list because I wanted players to conceivably be able to cycle through all the options, and then be rewarded with a glimpse into the broader world the game is taking place in.
I’m also interested in the sort of instability of those kinds of stories, where you’re writing from the standpoint of a possibility space rather than a specific plot. I love the idea of superposition; of a line of text that is always the same but will be read very differently based on the context it’s found in. I like the idea of player choice flicking a switch in the semantics of the text rather than in the code; maybe that’s the ultimate in programmer laziness, writing software that doesn’t exist.
One of Lyreless’s strengths for me is its variation of choice types. In the early game, I spend a long time picking the most evocative phrase, an aesthetic-based choice, but then found myself in what essentially felt like a riddle — I was solving a puzzle which I didn’t have clues for at first, and which I could fail at. What is the benefit for you of combining aesthetic choices with those which can produce failure?
In hypertext, choice is actually a rhythmic marker in the text. Going too far without choice ends up being a little like going too far without a paragraph break; at some point the reader isn’t so much reading as in a trance. So having choices from start to finish is necessary; a break in interaction can be sustained for a while, but it needs to be used with purpose. Story-wise, Lyreless’s middle is a trial of the player character, bookended by much more narratively straightforward sections. The try/retry loop establishes that challenge; the reflexive/aesthetic choices give the story a rhythm of interaction outside of it.
Reflexive choice is also really useful for as an entry point into interactive fiction; sub-Q is aimed at a relatively wide audience, so the way choice is presented early on in Lyreless is meant to act as a sort of a gentle introduction, hopefully squaring away differing expectations of people coming from IF, literature, or video games.By coming first, it also sets the template of what choice in that story is going to be like; I think that if I opened with the possibility of failure, readers would be much more compelled to strategise their choices over the course of the story, which isn’t necessarily what I want.
I don’t necessarily think of choices in terms of category when I’m writing, though. Those categorisations emerge later when a work is being examined. My process is actually pretty haphazard; Lyreless was written oven the course of a few days, so the usage of different choice structures is more like picking paints out of a palette than anything. There’s not really a grand design to how they’re being placed, but rather I’m trying to match the fiction and the arc of the story with the kinds of choices that make sense there; Lyreless is also using the different structures as a sort of act break. Reaching the mouth of the overworld is automatic; we encounter the player character after he has brokered passage already, and the overworld is a very still place where actions are mostly inconsequential. The stakes of the “living” world are so thin it’s almost like it exists on a plane of pure aesthetics. The under- and overworlds are in fact mirrors of each other, and it is permeating that membrane that carries challenge and the possibility of failure. But then again there is a difference between the heroic failure that is just a low point on the wheel, from whence the protagonist can climb up again, and the tragic failure of the ending which is really like the wheel breaking apart and launching Orpheus and Eurydice out in opposite directions.
I know that you have a background in film. Do cinematic principles influence your interactive fiction? If so, do you have any recommendations for people who might draw on their expertise in other media when writing IF?
Well yeah, my only formal training in writing is as a film writer. And screenplays are really paradoxical documents; once finished, they pass through a lot of hands on their way to becoming a film. And everyone on the way – actors, director, cinematographer, editor – has to be able to steer the ship. So a good screenplay sort of contains multitudes of potential films, but at the same time it has to work as a very coherent vision that everyone can work together from. And in conventional narrative film, everything also has to work within the constraints of what you can actually show in that format. I think I’m still very much influenced by that mindset in my writing. I’m trying to write things that are thematically strong but narratively flexible; and I’m always very focused on the material and visible. My writing doesn’t have a lot of internal monologue or explicit interiority, which I think is specifically well-suited to interactive fiction, where those things feel sharper and more marked to the audience than they do in literature. When dealing with game mechanics and world models, I think it also really helps to be able to think about story in those kinds of materialistic terms. One of the things that I love about IF is that it allows more space and focus on descriptive writing than almost else. There’s a long lineage of meaningful and interesting objects in IF, particularly in the parser tradition, which for me mirrors the long lineage of meaningful and interesting film props.
Also, if film hadn’t made me less self-conscious about operating in a genre, Cape would never have gotten made. I’ve done a lot of heavily stylistic writing, and it’s great fun, and I suspect that if I had one shred of a literary background I would feel bashful about doing it, and I never ever want to feel bashful about writing crap like “tell Frazetta he needs a better class of knucklehead working for him.” Genre is a wonderful shorthand, and I also believe it’s a very disarming thing – people, when confronted with overtly Literary writing, tend to react instantly with the fear of getting it wrong that we’ve all been inculcated with by formal education, or they bring up a screen of critical sensibility to their reading. Genre writing is like pro wrestling – the rare moments of truth dig in really deep, because as an audience you’re so completely primed to expect it to be entirely fake. So whenever we look at what concerns or thrills or saddens us, and we stuff that into science fiction or fantasy, that’s like aiming for the chink in people’s armour of irony. That’s like a gloriously ridiculous WWE cage match climaxing when a meaty, spray-tanned man dives into a bed of actual thumbtacks.
I think bringing the lens of some field you’ve worked in previously to IF is totally natural, and I think it’s absolutely something you should do. Interactive narrative is a field crammed full of problems that are either still unsolved, or provided with only one or two relatively narrow solutions. There’s a cliché in software engineering: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Which is to say, if enough people look at a piece of software, eventually ways to improve it will emerge. But I think this isn’t necessarily about the volume of eyeballs; it’s more about their diversity. Solutions emerge not because eventually “enough brainpower” has been thrown at the problem, but because if you sift the problem through enough different enough brains, it’ll catch on something eventually. So I encourage people heartily to be persons in games, or persons in IF, or persons in literature, with a background from outside the field. A lot of creative fields are increasingly difficult to enter if you are not someone who was specifically moulded by formal education to think like other people in the field before you; games and IF are not necessarily like this yet, which is a good thing. God saves from film festivals where every director went to film school. God save us from art galleries where everyone has read art textbooks. God especially save us from MFA programs where everyone has read Politics and the English Language.
So you’ve announced Voyageur, a procedurally generated space-exploration game which has a core sense of forward momentum. Discoverability is very important, and so generating a flexible corpus that is nevertheless sophisticated and reads as natural language is key to Voyageur’s success. Can you talk a bit about the process of creating that?
So, for people who aren’t up on all the hip generative text lingo: A corpus (plural corpora) is a big pile of words and phrases that prose generator software consumes to produce prose. Some corpora are really just big samples of human writing; procedural generation approaches using machine learning generally make use of those kinds of corpora. For instance, there’s a Twitter bot (@Roborosewater) that tweets Magic: the Gathering cards created by a neural network. The corpus in that case is just every Magic card in existence; the neural network is essentially a piece of software that strives to understand the rules governing how a Magic card is constructed, and then it produces output that attempts to follow those rules.
For Voyageur, I’m not using that approach. The output from neural networks (and their more primitive grandads, Markov chains) is fascinating, but it’s also usually pretty nonsensical. I think at the point where we are with neural networks, you could probably train one to generate good content, but not content in a form as delicate and human as prose specifically.
Instead, I’m using what I call a mediated structured grammar. Structured grammar: the corpus isn’t a big pile of writing, it’s structured; it’s a tree of words and phrases from which the (relatively stupid, non-AI) software can choose to assemble text, following rules that are expressed by the structure of that tree. I don’t know if Kate Compton originated the structured grammar approach, but she wrote the most common implementation of it, Tracery. Tracery creates text by randomly selecting phrases from a corpus that is structured to explicitly show the rules of how text is constructed. So if you’re randomly generating a name, you have a definition that implies a name is in the form “firstname lastname”, and lists of what words are first names, and which words are last names, and it follows these rules and comes up with a name. So, at this level, it’s kind of like having the machine play Mad Libs with itself.
However, those trees can be arbitrarily deep. To use a Star Trek analogy, Tracery is to computerised Mad Libs like 3D-chess is to regular chess. You can use it to produce some pretty sophisticated output, and it’s particularly popular for making Twitter bots.
But, in Voyageur, I’m using technology that goes one step further; this is the “mediated” part, and it’s based on an approach that Emily Short developed for one of her own projects. Voyageur, when assembling prose, filters which text it can use based on its own internal model of what it is describing. So it’s not just generating text, it’s attempting to describe something. So the descriptions that show up in Voyageur are always coherent descriptions of the game world; if a planet is covered in tundra, nothing in its description will contradict that. The rules for generating text check for internal consistency, but also for textual structure; the prose generator is more likely to choose phrases that bring up aspects of the planet that it hasn’t mentioned yet, for instance. This approach, ironically, requires a lot of authored content; in a way, Voyageur’s procedural generation is really about exploring the tenor and meaning of procedural prose; giving players a vast universe of unique planets to visit, too. In games, procgen originated as a workaround for technical limitations, allowing games like Elite to have huge galaxies that never actually had to exist in the limited memory of a 90’s computer. But it quickly became an engine of surprise and replayability; roguelikes wouldn’t be what they are if the dungeon wasn’t different each time, full of uncertainty. Voyageur represents an entry into what we could call the “third generation” of procgen in games: procedural generation as an aesthetic.
Another aspect of Voyageur that is really important to making this work are the simple, powerful mechanics of characteristic-based narrative, that Failbetter itself has used in both Fallen London and Sunless Sea. Having that transparency, and being able to keep the fiction close to the mechanical bones of the game, is really invaluable to making something with a lot of weird, diverse text in it that doesn’t feel confusing.
What do you think the strengths of procedural generation in interactive fiction are, or might be down the line?
Procedural prose has a very specific texture to it that I find very satisfying, actually. It’s not necessarily about making something that feels totally indistinguishable from human writing, but rather about making something compelling in that space; there is something very funny-unsettling about a computer telling a joke or writing a sonnet. It’s a little bit like the infamous Gary Larsen “cow tools” cartoon, a thing that we associate with human intelligence being made by something that isn’t remotely clever enough to be making it, and thus calling the whole nature of the thing into question.
Going forward, I can see a lot of uses for procedural prose approaches in IF. It might lead to better ways of communicating the state of a world model to players, for instance. Emily Short’s latest piece of free IF actually includes a procedural text generator that players can fiddle with, adding and removing parts of the corpus, and it’s really entertaining seeing what you can do with that. At the margins, textual procgen starts to collide with what we might call “data art”. There’s a lot of open-access structured data on the internet now, and scraping that data to make assemblages is another approach that has only barely been explored right now. Procedurality also lets players really own their experience, because what they encounter in game will be unique to their game. And as we increasingly live in a world of gameplay as performance, that’s increasingly valuable; if a player encounters something funny, or poignant, or even broken that came out of the procedural generator, sharing that and encountering what other players have shared from their own games becomes part of the experience. And I think IF specifically is really well-suited to that. Partly because the moments you get are inherently shareable text, partly because generative prose has so much potential for unintentional or mysterious meaning.
Noted IF author Chris Huang is back in action with a short piece of IF called "Mustard, Music and Murder." Though the title seems a bit eccentric, maybe that's the point. This is a tie-in with Huang's golden age detective novel "Murder at the Veteran's Club" which is available for pre-order at Inkshares. Although I expect this game to be shorter than his previous murder mystery "An Act of Murder", I'm sure it will be a lot of fun.
"Murder at the Veteran's Club" is published via InkShares and is at the half-way point of achieving it's pre-order goal. For $10 you get the book and help an author who has contributed so much to IF. Heck if you're a first time buyer at Inkshares, you can even get $5 off. I hope many IF fans will step up and support this creative project. Don't just tweet it, buy it.
You can get regular updates at Chris's blog.
Here is the way this project has gone so far, largely:
Yes! Hmm…. Sigh… Ok.
Yes! Hmm…. Sigh… Ok.
Yes! Hmm…. Sigh… Ok.
It just goes to show that you can’t create software in a vacuum. You have to actually use it in real world situations to evolve the design.
My latest “Hmm…” moment has just arrived. I have the beginnings of a scene where I hope to exercise (and, if lucky, actually prove viable) the response/topic/action design I’ve been working all this time to create. The scene has a few characters, who will all at some point engage in conversation.
The room has an opening paragraph. Just to start off simple, the bartender has a response that asks if the player would like a drink, and the loudmouth seated at the bar will make a political comment. When I enter the room, I get the following output:
<room opening paragraph> The bartender says in your direction, “Can I get you something to drink?” “I tell you, the mayor is an idiot and a buffoon. I could do his job better than he does.”
The code is working as designed, but not as desired, in an ideal world. The problem arises from how normal prose is written, especially dialogue. Generally, when the the topic changes or when the speaker changes, a new paragraph is created. (In my mind, a speaker speaking is actually a strong prod toward “topic changes”, unless there is something binding the dialogue to the existing content.)
What I would want is more like this:
<room opening paragraph>
The bartender says in your direction, “Can I get you something to drink?”
“I tell you, the mayor is an idiot and a buffoon. I could do his job better than he does.”
( I do realize, by the way, that the second bit of dialogue needs something around it to identify the speaker. This is not the greatest content so far, but it is early days and first stabs.)
What the text output needs is context. (I have an entire blog post planned – and even started – touching on that subject.) The text outputting code needs to know both what has been output and what will be output in order to make intelligent formatting decisions connecting the two. The context is key. The text itself, at least in these cases, is largely irrelevant. But there are two key pieces of information necessary:
We already have a mechanism in ResponsIF for associating content with characters – responses belong to responders, and responses are what “say” text. So if the content is authored in a reasonable way, where responders handle their own dialogue sequences, then we should generally who we’re talking about – or who is doing the talking. The responder is a key part of the context.
We also already have a mechanism for saying what a response “is”, which can be used to group responses for output. This can be used for things like hints or other special text that lives alongside but separated from the main text. (My first thought was that that could work to separate the content. The problem is that these are actions across multiple responders, each being processed separately. As they are not processed together, the code does not know how to partition them since it never sees them all at once. In other words, it has no context.) Whether this existing mechanism is the one to use for this purpose remains to be seen. But either way, we need to attach metadata to the output.
A solution would be to have the output handler be aware of what has been output and what is being output, using the output type and character to nicely separate things. And the code to do that shouldn’t be that hard to write. What I often run into, though, is whether it makes sense to build such “business logic” into general purpose code. This will take more review, but I’m leaning in that direction. The more “smarts” that can be in ResponsIF out-of-the-box, the more people will enjoy and want to use it.
One way this can be implemented is via some sort of layer between the response processors and the output formatter. This layer would have the smarts to know what to do to the text to make it look correct. In theory, that layer could be swapped out, but what I hope to do instead is to expand it even more, allowing it to take part in the actual writing of the content in future situations.
In a game I was working on before, I had such a piece of code. I called it StoryText, a name I still like. (Of course, the vaporware cat is out of the bag here, and someone could easily steal that name.) In order to implement StoryText, we need to associate metadata with content, like the content “kind” mentioned above. And then write some code. In a reasonable way.
How exactly to slot this into place requires some thought.