Planet Interactive Fiction

February 20, 2017

Renga in Blue

Imaginary games jam update

by Jason Dyer at February 20, 2017 06:00 PM


What, what?

This thing from last year. Authors wrote a set of reviews for “five games that do not (and possibly, cannot) exist in our universe,” then received randomly chosen reviews from others, and produced “a sequel, a prequel, a fan fiction, a critical response game, a sidequel, a remake, a demake, a parody, or an artifact of some genre category never before seen by humans.”

It turned out well! All the games can be found here.

Weren’t these supposed to go onto a more permanent archive?

Indeed. All the games are currently sitting at the incoming directory at and I am sure they will be sorted soon.

As soon as they are settled I was going to add entries for all the games at The Interactive Fiction Database. If you are an author and want to add the entry yourself, please let me know!

What happened to the bit after with the response pieces?

I did receive some very good ones (thank you!) but it turned out the coverage was pretty spotty. Some works had no responses at all, some had in-universe reviews, some had “serious reviews”, and when I laid it all out it felt very weird and imbalanced. I toyed with filling in the gaps myself but it just didn’t work. So I’m going to be putting the responses up still if people are still interested, but they’re not going in the book.

Oh yes, you also promised a book.

Indeed I did. The intent was to put the reviews followed by game excerpts followed by the responses. After a lot of editing it turned out to not work very well.

What I settled on was a compilation of all the original reviews of imaginary games people sent.

You can find this compilation, right now, here. It currently runs at 59 pages although I still have some fixing up to do. It’s extremely good!

Note I also still need to do some formatting standardization, and to that end, I have two questions:

a.) Should I put each imaginary game description on a new page?

b.) Should I put the author credits right before the ones they wrote, or should I just put them as an appendix at the end? I’m inclined for the latter just because it reads smoother, but I can understand why people might want their credit front and center, hence I wanted to solicit comments.

For publishing I was going to go with Lulu unless someone has a better suggestion; I was going to price it to be just the printing costs.

Anything else we should be worried about?

Well, the annual XYZZY Awards are coming up, and it is often the case things from earlier in the year have slipped the mind when nomination time comes around. So consider this a friendly reminder there was some innovative work here! It’s important to get the entries up at The Interactive Fiction Database soon because that’s what determines they’re eligible.

February 18, 2017

These Heterogenous Tasks

Cannonfire Concerto

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at February 18, 2017 10:01 PM

Cannonfire Concerto (Caleb Wilson) is a Choicescript fantasy piece about intrigue, music and war. It’s very good; if you’re mostly interested in the more writerly end of the Choicescript oeuvre, in courtly intrigue or in evocative worldbuilding fantasy, I thoroughly recommend it. … Continue reading


Help me write more IF!

February 18, 2017 02:42 PM

In 2017, with the release of Voyageur, I want to get back to splitting my time between different projects. And, in particular, I want to do more noncommercial work: more short free IF, more reviews and criticism of noncommercial IF, more games writing that doesn’t find a home in commercial outlets, and more altgame experiments like Storytelling Skeletons.

I also want to be able to dedicate time to improving and maintaining the various open-source projects I’ve released over the last two years. All of these are things that I’m happy to release for free, but which do take up time and energy like anything else. So I’m experimentally launching a patreon; with only a few supporters, I’d be able to put more time and resources towards making those kinds of experiments, and that would mean being able to make more of them.

Pledges or helping spread the word are deeply appreciated.

The Digital Antiquarian

Loom (or, how Brian Moriarty Proved That Less is Sometimes More)

by Jimmy Maher at February 18, 2017 03:00 AM

In April of 1988, Brian Moriarty of Infocom flew from the East Coast to the West to attend the first ever Computer Game Developers Conference. Hard-pressed from below by the slowing sales of their text adventures and from above by parent company Activision’s ever more demanding management, Infocom didn’t have the money to pay for Moriarty’s trip. Thus he went on his own dime, a situation which left him, as he would later put it, very “grumpy” about the prospect of his ongoing employment by the very company at which he had worked so desperately to win a spot just a few years before.

In time, the Computer Game Developers Conference would evolve into simply the Game Developers Conference, one of the biggest events on the calendar of a $30 billion industry. In 1988, however, it consisted of 26 people stuffed into the San Jose living room of Chris Crawford, the conference’s founder and organizer. Moriarty recalls showing up a little late, scanning the room, and seeing just one chair free, oddly on the first row. He rushed over to take it, and soon struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to him, whom he had never met before that day. As fate would have it, his neighbor’s name was Noah Falstein, and he worked for Lucasfilm Games.

Attendees to the first ever Computer Game Developers Conference. Brian Moriarty is in the reddish tee-shirt at center rear, looking cool in his rock-star shades.

Falstein knew and admired Moriarty’s work for Infocom, and knew likewise, as did everyone in the industry, that things hadn’t been going so well back in Cambridge for some time now. His own Lucasfilm Games was in the opposite position. After having struggled since their founding back in 1982 to carve out an identity for themselves under the shadow of George Lucas’s Star Wars empire, by 1988 they finally had the feeling of a company on the rise. With Maniac Mansion, their big hit of the previous year, Falstein and his colleagues seemed to have found in point-and-click graphical adventures a niche that was both artistically satisfying and commercially rewarding. They were already hard at work on the follow-up to Maniac Mansion, and Lucasfilm Games’s management had given the go-ahead to look for an experienced adventure-game designer to help them make more games. As one of Infocom’s most respected designers, Brian Moriarty made an immediately appealing candidate, not least in that Lucasfilm Games liked to see themselves as the Infocom of graphical adventures, emphasizing craftsmanship and design as a way to set themselves apart from the more slapdash games being pumped out in much greater numbers by their arch-rivals Sierra.

Brian Moriarty on the job at Lucasfilm.

For his part, Moriarty was ripe to be convinced; it wasn’t hard to see the writing on the wall back at Infocom. When Falstein showed him some photographs of Lucasfilm Games’s offices at Skywalker Ranch in beautiful Marin County, California, and shared stories of rubbing elbows with movie stars and casually playing with real props from the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, the contrast with life inside Infocom’s increasingly empty, increasingly gloomy offices could hardly have been more striking. Then again, maybe it could have been: at his first interview with Lucasfilm Games’s head Steve Arnold, Moriarty was told that the division had just two mandates. One was “don’t lose money”; the other was “don’t embarrass George Lucas.” Anything else — like actually making money — was presumably gravy. Again, this was music to the ears of Moriarty, who like everyone at Infocom was now under constant pressure from Activision’s management to write games that would sell in huge numbers.

Brian Moriarty arrived at Skywalker Ranch for his first day of work on August 1, 1988. As Lucasfilm Games’s new star designer, he was given virtually complete freedom to make whatever game he wanted to make.

Noah Falstein in Skywalker Ranch’s conservatory. This is where the Games people typically ate their lunches, which were prepared for them by a gourmet chef. There were definitely worse places to work…

For all their enthusiasm for adventure games, the other designers at Lucasfilm were struggling a bit at the time to figure out how to build on the template of Maniac Mansion. Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, David Fox’s follow-up to Ron Gilbert’s masterstroke, had been published just the day before Moriarty arrived at Skywalker Ranch. It tried a little too obviously to capture the same campy charm, whilst, in typical games-industry fashion, trying to make it all better by making it bigger, expanding the scene of the action from a single night spent in a single mansion to locations scattered all around the globe and sometimes off it. The sense remained that Lucasfilm wanted to do things differently from Sierra, who are unnamed but ever-present — along with a sly dig at old-school rivals like Infocom still making text adventures — within a nascent manifesto of three paragraphs published in Zak McKracken‘s manual, entitled simply “Our Game Design Philosophy.”

We believe that you buy games to be entertained, not to be whacked over the head every time you make a mistake. So we don’t bring the game to a screeching halt when you poke your nose into a place you haven’t visited before. In fact, we make it downright difficult to get a character “killed.”

We think you’d prefer to solve the game’s mysteries by exploring and discovering. Not by dying a thousand deaths. We also think you like to spend your time involved in the story. Not typing in synonyms until you stumble upon the computer’s word for a certain object.

Unlike conventional computer adventures, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders doesn’t force you to save your progress every few minutes. Instead, you’re free to concentrate on the puzzles, characters, and outrageous good humor.

Worthy though these sentiments were, Lucasfilm seemed uncertain as yet how to turn them into practical rules for design. Ironically, Zak McKracken, the game with which they began publicly articulating their focus on progressive design, is the most Sierra-like Lucasfilm game ever made, with the sheer nonlinear sprawl of the thing spawning inevitable confusion and yielding far more potential dead ends than its designer would likely wish to admit. While successful enough in its day, it never garnered the love that’s still accorded to Maniac Mansion today.

Lucasfilm Games’s one adventure of 1989 was a similarly middling effort. A joint design by Gilbert, Falstein, and Fox, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure — an Action Game was also made — marked the first time since Labyrinth that the games division had been entrusted with one of George Lucas’s cinematic properties. They don’t seem to have been all that excited at the prospect. The game dutifully walks you through the plot you’ve already watched unfold on the silver screen, without ever taking flight as a creative work in its own right. The Lucasfilm “Game Design Philosophy” appears once again in the manual in almost the exact same form as last time, but once again the actual game hews to this ideal imperfectly at best, with, perhaps unsurprisingly given the two-fisted action movie on which it’s based, lots of opportunities to get Indy killed and have to revert to one of those save files you supposedly don’t need to create.

So, the company was rather running to stand still as Brian Moriarty settled in. They were determined to evolve their adventure games in design terms to match the strides Sierra was making in technology, but were uncertain how to actually go about the task. Moriarty wanted to make his own first work for Lucasfilm a different, more somehow refined experience than even the likes of Maniac Mansion. But how to do so? In short, what should he do with his once-in-a-lifetime chance to make any game he wanted to make?

Flipping idly through a computer magazine one day, he was struck by an advertisement that prominently featured the word “loom.” He liked the sound of it; it reminded him of other portentous English words like “gloom”, “doom,” and “tomb.” And he liked the way it could serve as either a verb or a noun, each with a completely different meaning. In a fever of inspiration, he sat down and wrote out the basis of the adventure game he would soon design, about a Loom which binds together the fabric of reality, a Guild of Weavers which uses the Loom’s power to make magic out of sound, and Bobbin Threadbare, the “Loom Child” who must save the Loom — and thus the universe — from destruction before it’s too late. It would be a story and a game with the stark simplicity of fable.

Simplicity, however, wasn’t exactly trending in the computer-games industry of 1988. Since the premature end of the would-be Home Computer Revolution of the early 1980s, the audience for computer games had grown only very slowly. Publishers had continued to serve the same base of hardcore players, who lusted after ever more complex games to take advantage of the newest hardware. Simulations had collected ever more buttons and included ever more variables to keep track of, while strategy games had gotten ever larger and more time-consuming. Nor had adventure games been immune to the trend, as was attested by Moriarty’s own career to date. Each of his three games for Infocom had been bigger and more difficult than the previous, culminating in his adventure/CRPG hybrid Beyond Zork, the most baroque game Infocom had made to date, with more options for its onscreen display alone than some professional business applications. Certainly plenty of existing players loved all this complexity. But did all games really need to go this way? And, most interestingly, what about all those potential players who took one look at the likes of Beyond Zork and turned back to the television? Moriarty remembered a much-discussed data point that had emerged from the surveys Infocom used to send to their customers: the games people said were their favorites overlapped almost universally with those they said they had been able to finish. In keeping with this trend, Moriarty’s first game for Infocom, which had been designed as an introduction to interactive fiction for newcomers, had been by far his most successful. What, he now thought, if he used the newer hardware at his disposal in the way that Apple has historically done, in pursuit of simplicity rather than complexity?

The standard Lucasfilm interface of the late 1980s, shown here in Maniac Mansion.

Lucasfilm Games’s current point-and-click interface, while undoubtedly the most painless in the industry at the time, was nevertheless far too complicated for Moriarty’s taste, still to a large extent stuck in the mindset of being a graphical implementation of the traditional text-adventure interface rather than treating the graphical adventure as a new genre in its own right. Thus the player was expected to first select a verb from a list at the bottom of the screen and then an object to which to apply it. The interface had done the job well enough to date, but Moriarty felt that it would interfere with the seamless connection he wished to build between the player sitting there before the screen and the character of Bobbin Threadbare standing up there on the screen. He wanted something more immediate, more intuitive — preferably an interface that didn’t require words at all. He envisioned music as an important part of his game: the central puzzle-solving mechanic would involve the playing of “drafts,” little sequences of notes created with Bobbin’s distaff. But he wanted music to be more than a puzzle-solving mechanic. He wanted the player to be able to play the entire game like a musical instrument, wordlessly and beautifully. He was thus thrilled when he peeked under the hood of Lucasfilm’s SCUMM adventure-game engine and found that it was possible to strip the verb menu away entirely.

Some users of Apple’s revolutionary HyperCard system for the Macintosh were already experimenting with wordless interfaces. Within weeks of HyperCard’s debut, a little interactive storybook called Inigo Gets Out, “programmed” by a non-programmer named Amanda Goodenough, had begun making the rounds, causing a considerable stir among industry insiders. The story of a house cat’s brief escape to the outdoors, it filled the entire screen with its illustrations, responding intuitively to single clicks on the pictures. Just shortly before Moriarty started work at Lucasfilm Games, Rand and Robyn Miller had taken this experiment a step further with The Manhole, a richer take on the concept of an interactive children’s storybook. Still, neither of these HyperCard experiences quite qualified as a game, and Moriarty and Lucasfilm were in fact in the business of making adventure games. Loom could be simple, but it had to be more than a software toy. Moriarty’s challenge must be to find enough interactive possibility in a verb-less interface to meet that threshold.

In response to that challenge, Moriarty created an interface that stands out today as almost bizarrely ahead of its time; not until years later would its approach be adopted by graphic adventures in general as the default best way of doing things. Its central insight, which it shared with the aforementioned HyperCard storybooks, was the realization that the game didn’t always need the player to explicitly tell it what she wanted to do when she clicked a certain spot on the onscreen picture. Instead the game could divine the player’s intention for itself, based only on where she happened to be clicking. What was sacrificed in the disallowing of certain types of more complex puzzles was gained in the creation of a far more seamless, intuitive link between the player, the avatar she controlled, and the world shown on the screen.

The brief video snippet above shows Loom‘s user interface in its entirety. You make Bobbin walk around by clicking on the screen. Hovering the mouse over an object or character with which Bobbin can interact brings up an image of that object or character in the bottom right corner of the screen; double-clicking the same “hot spot” then causes Bobbin to engage, either by manipulating an object in some way or by talking to another character. Finally, Bobbin can cast “spells” in the form of drafts by clicking on the musical staff at the bottom of the screen. In the snippet above, the player learns the “open” draft by double-clicking on the egg, an action which in this case results in Bobbin simply listening to it. The player and Bobbin then immediately cast the same draft to reveal within the egg his old mentor, who has been transformed into a black swan.

Moriarty seemed determined to see how many of the accoutrements of traditional adventure games he could strip away and still have something that was identifiable as an adventure game. In addition to eliminating menus of verbs, he also excised the concept of an inventory; throughout the game, Bobbin carries around with him nothing more than the distaff he uses for weaving drafts. With no ability to use this object on that other object, the only puzzle-solving mechanic that’s left is the magic system. In the broad strokes, magic in Loom is very much in the spirit of Infocom’s Enchanter series, in which you collect spells for your spell book, then cast them to solve puzzles that, more often than not, reward you with yet more spells. In Loom the process is essentially the same, except that you’re collecting musical drafts to weave on your distaff rather than spells for your spell book. And yet this musical approach to spell weaving is as lovely as a game mechanic can be. Lucasfilm thoughtfully included a “Book of Patterns” with the game, listing the drafts and providing musical staffs on which you can denote their sequences of notes as you discover them while playing.

The audiovisual aspect of Loom was crucial to capturing the atmosphere of winsome melancholia Moriarty was striving for. Graphics and sound were brand new territory for him; his previous games had consisted of nothing but text. Fortunately, the team of artists that worked with him grasped right away what was needed. Each of the guilds of craftspeople which Bobbin visits over the course of the game is marked by its own color scheme: the striking emerald of the Guild of Glassmakers, the softer pastoral greens of the Guild of Shepherds, the Stygian reds of the Guild of Blacksmiths, and of course the lovely, saturated blues and purples of Bobbin’s own Guild of Weavers. This approach came in very handy for technical as well as thematic reasons, given that Loom was designed for EGA graphics of just 16 onscreen colors.

The overall look of Loom was hugely influenced by the 1959 Disney animated classic Sleeping Beauty, with many of the panoramic shots in the game dovetailing perfectly with scenes from the film. Like Sleeping Beauty, Loom was inspired and accompanied by the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whom Moriarty describes as his “constant companion throughout my life”; while Sleeping Beauty draws from Tchaikovsky’s ballet of the same name, Loom draws from another of his ballets, Swan Lake. Loom sounds particularly gorgeous when played through a Roland MT-32 synthesizer board — an experience that, given the $600 price tag of the Roland, far too few players got to enjoy back in the day. But regardless of how one hears it, it’s hard to imagine Loom without its classical soundtrack. Harking back to Hollywood epics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the MT-32 version of Loom opens with a mood-establishing orchestral overture over a blank screen.

To provide the final touch of atmosphere, Moriarty walked to the other side of Skywalker Ranch, to the large brick building housing Skywalker Sound, and asked the sound engineers in that most advanced audio-production facility in the world if they could help him out. Working from a script written by Moriarty and with a cast of voice actors on loan from the BBC, the folks at Skywalker Sound produced a thirty-minute “audio drama” setting the scene for the opening of the game; it was included in the box on a cassette. Other game developers had occasionally experimented with the same thing as a way of avoiding having to cover all that ground in the game proper, but Loom‘s scene-setter stood out for its length and for the professional sheen of its production. Working for Lucasfilm did have more than a few advantages.

If there’s something to complain about when it comes to Loom the work of interactive art, it must be that its portentous aesthetics lead one to expect a thematic profundity which the story never quite attains. Over the course of the game, Bobbin duly journeys through Moriarty’s fairy-tale world and defeats the villain who threatens to rip asunder the fabric of reality. The ending, however, is more ambiguous than happy, with only half of the old world saved from the Chaos that has poured in through the rip in the fabric. I don’t object in principle to the idea of a less than happy ending (something for which Moriarty was becoming known). Still, and while the final image is, like everything else in the game, lovely in its own right, this particular ambiguous ending feels weirdly abrupt. The game has such a flavor of fable or allegory that one somehow wants a little more from it at the end, something to carry away back to real life. But then again, beauty, which Loom possesses in spades, has a value of its own, and it’s uncertain whether the sequels Moriarty originally planned to make — Loom had been envisioned as a trilogy — would have enriched the story of the first game or merely, as so many sequels do, trampled it under their weight.

From the practical standpoint of a prospective purchaser of Loom upon its initial release, on the other hand, there’s room for complaint beyond quibbling about the ending. We’ve had occasion before to observe how the only viable model of commercial game distribution in the 1980s and early 1990s, as $40 boxed products shipped to physical store shelves, had a huge effect on the content of those games. Consumers, reasonably enough, expected a certain amount of play time for their $40. Adventure makers thus learned that they needed to pad out their games with enough puzzles — too often bad but time-consuming ones — to get their play times up into the region of at least twenty hours or so. Moriarty, however, bucked this trend in Loom. Determined to stay true to the spirit of minimalism to the bitter end, he put into the game only what needed to be there. The end result stands out from its peers for its aesthetic maturity, but it’s also a game that will take even the most methodical player no more than four or five hours to play. Today, when digital distribution has made it possible for developers to make games only as long as their designs ask to be and adjust the price accordingly, Loom‘s willingness to do what it came to do and exit the stage without further adieu is another quality that gives it a strikingly modern feel. But in the context of the times of the game’s creation, it was a bit of a problem.

When Loom was released in March of 1990, many hardcore adventure gamers were left nonplussed not only by the game’s short length but also by its simple puzzles and minimalist aesthetic approach in general, so at odds with the aesthetic maximalism that has always defined the games industry as a whole. Computer Gaming World‘s Johnny Wilson, one of the more sophisticated game commentators of the time, did get what Loom was doing, praising its atmosphere of “hope and idealism tainted by realism.” Others, though, didn’t seem quite so sure what to make of an adventure game that so clearly wanted its players to complete it, to the point of including a “practice” mode that would essentially solve all the puzzles for them if they so wished. Likewise, many players just didn’t seem equipped to appreciate Loom‘s lighter, subtler aesthetic touch. Computer Gaming World‘s regular adventure-gaming columnist Scorpia, a traditionalist to the core, said the story “should have been given an epic treatment, not watered down” — a terrible idea if you ask me (if there’s one thing the world of gaming, then or now, doesn’t need, it’s more “epic” stories). “As an adventure game,” she concluded, “it is just too lightweight.” Ken St. Andre, creator of Tunnels & Trolls and co-creator of Wasteland, expressed his unhappiness with the ambiguous ending in Questbusters, the ultimate magazine for the adventuring hardcore:

The story, which begins darkly, ends darkly as well. That’s fine in literature or the movies, and lends a certain artistic integrity to such efforts. In a game, however, it’s neither fair nor right. If I had really been playing Bobbin, not just watching him, I would have done some things differently, which would have netted a different conclusion.

Echoing as they do a similar debate unleashed by the tragic ending of Infocom’s Infidel back in 1983, the persistence of such sentiments must have been depressing for Brian Moriarty and others trying to advance the art of interactive storytelling. St. Andre’s complaint that Loom wouldn’t allow him to “do things differently” — elsewhere in his review he claims that Loom “is not a game” at all — is one that’s been repeated for decades by folks who believe that anything labeled as an interactive story must allow the player complete freedom to approach the plot in her own way and to change its outcome. I belong to the other camp: the camp that believes that letting the player inhabit the role of a character in a relatively fixed overarching narrative can foster engagement and immersion, even in some cases new understanding, by making her feel she is truly walking in someone else’s shoes — something that’s difficult to accomplish in a non-interactive medium.

Responses like those of Scorpia and Ken St. Andre hadn’t gone unanticipated within Lucasfilm Games prior to Loom‘s release. On the contrary, there had been some concern about how Loom would be received. Moriarty had countered by noting that there were far, far more people out there who weren’t hardcore gamers like those two, who weren’t possessed of a set of fixed expectations about what an adventure game should be, and that many of these people might actually be better equipped to appreciate Loom‘s delicate aesthetics than the hardcore crowd. But the problem, the nut nobody would ever quite crack, would always be that of reaching this potential alternate customer base. Non-gamers didn’t read the gaming magazines where they might learn about something like Loom, and even Lucasfilm Games wasn’t in a position to launch a major assault on the alternative forms of media they did peruse.

In the end, Loom wasn’t a flop, and thus didn’t violate Steve Arnold’s dictum of “don’t lose money” — and certainly it didn’t fall afoul of the dictum of “don’t embarrass George.” But it wasn’t a big hit either, and the sequels Moriarty had anticipated for better or for worse never got made. Ron Gilbert’s The Secret of Monkey Island, Lucasfilm’s other adventure game of 1990, was in its own way as brilliant as Moriarty’s game, but was much more traditional in its design and aesthetics, and wound up rather stealing Loom‘s thunder. It would be Monkey Island rather than Loom that would become the template for Lucasfilm’s adventure games going forward. Lucasfilm would largely stick to comedy from here on out, and would never attempt anything quite so outré as Loom again. It would only be in later years that Moriarty’s game would come to be widely recognized as one of Lucasfilm Games’s finest achievements. Such are the frustrations of the creative life.

Having made Loom, Brian Moriarty now had four adventure games on his CV, three of which I consider to be unassailable classics — and, it should be noted, the fourth does have its fans as well. He seemed poised to remain a leading light in his creative field for a long, long time to come. It therefore feels like a minor tragedy that this, his first game for Lucasfilm, would mark the end of his career in adventure games rather than a new beginning; he would never again be credited as the designer of a completed adventure game. We’ll have occasion to dig a little more into the reasons why that should have been the case in a future article, but for now I’ll just note how much an industry full of so many blunt instruments could have used his continuing delicate touch. We can only console ourselves with the knowledge that, should Loom indeed prove to be the last we ever hear from him as an adventure-game designer, it was one hell of a swansong.

(Sources: the book Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; ACE of April 1990; Questbusters of June 1990 and July 1990; Computer Gaming World of April 1990 and July/August 1990. But the bulk of this article was drawn from Brian Moriarty’s own Loom postmortem for, appropriately enough, the 2015 Game Developers Conference, which was a far more elaborate affair than the 1988 edition.

Loom is available for purchase is from Sadly, however, this is the VGA/CD-ROM re-release — I actually prefer the starker appearance of the original EGA graphics — and lacks the scene-setting audio drama. It’s also afflicted with terrible voice acting which completely spoils the atmosphere, and the text is bowdlerized to boot. Motivated readers should be able to find both the original version and the audio drama elsewhere on the Internet without too many problems. I do recommend that you seek them out, perhaps after purchasing a legitimate copy to fulfill your ethical obligation, but I can’t take the risk of hosting them here.)


February 17, 2017

Interactive Fables

Game of Worlds released on

February 17, 2017 09:14 PM

With the recent success of Worldsmith, we've decided to release a companion game set in the same universe. Worldsmith: Game of Worlds TOURNAMENT!  - a text based strategic card game - is now online and ready to play. And it's free! In the Septem Tower, the Game of Worlds has been played for billenia. No one knows its origin - some say the Game is as old as the Tower. Only through the Game of Worlds can take you escape the crushing obligations of a Vociferant worker. And finally, a wildcard

Emily Short

Cannonfire Concerto (Caleb Wilson/CoG)

by Emily Short at February 17, 2017 11:00 AM


Cannonfire Concerto (Steam, IFDB) is a Choice of Games piece from Caleb Wilson (Lime Ergot, Starry Seeksorrow, Six Gray Rats Crawl Up The Pillow). Caleb is a long-time writer of IF with a distinctive style: strong, personality-rich prose; a good eye for setting detail; a taste for writing about decadent societies now at the verge of ruin; some unusual mechanical and quirky experiments, like Lime Ergot‘s telescopic use of EXAMINE to reveal more and more content. (If you haven’t played Lime Ergot, you really should: it will take you five minutes and it’s become one of the canonical parser-IF pieces of the last few years.) Besides all this, Caleb’s work often has a very definite narrative voice.

I mention all this because those strengths are not the same ones I tend to associate with the Choice of Games brand, where I tend to expect a dynamic protagonist very much defined by the player; stats that work in a very consistent CoG way; lots of replayability; and a tendency in most works towards a brightly-colored, major key kind of storytelling.

So it might seem that these two influences might work strangely together, but in fact they compliment each other extremely well. Cannonfire Concerto is one of the funnier and more deftly written CoG pieces I’ve seen. The protagonist customization still does exist — you can pick your gender and what sorts of characters you’re interested in romancing, give yourself a personal history, etc — but all of the options for your past are within a particular range, and the gentle snark of the narrative voice is part of what enlivens the narration.

Caleb has taken the mandatory CoG opening, consisting of a high stakes medias res choice to hook the player followed by a bunch of character creation choices, and managed it as smoothly as I think I’ve ever seen: you begin in the middle of running away from pursuers, and choose what to do next; each choice, Memento-style, actually shows you a little more of what led up to this point.

Meanwhile, the context of a CoG game gives enough structure and scope for a bigger story than most of Caleb’s earlier IF.

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-10-19-03-amThen, the premise. Cannonfire Concerto takes place in an alternate Europe (Meropa) threatened by a conquering general called Bonaventure. You are a Genius performer (and genius is or appears to be a form of magic, though this is a matter of debate) who also becomes entangled in politics and spying. As in Hollywood Visionary, you get a fair amount of choice around what kind of a creator you want to be; and because your music is a major way you connect with other people and groups, that affects which audiences you are best able to reach. I went for a rapid-fire, mathematical sort of Genius, which impressed intellectuals but meant I was terrible at playing pagan tunes by the campfire. It’s important to know your limits.

In practice, this means wearing wigs and dressing up in fancy clothes, giving performances and facing off with your musical rivals, and practicing new pieces for your instrument (I chose a zither of unique design): good costume-drama, adventure narrative stuff.

So far I’ve only had a chance to play once, as someone more concerned about my musical career than about trying to change the face of Meropa (though I probably did a bit anyway). Of the two people I romanced in the course of the game, I only managed to stay with one of them permanently, though the game did give me a bittersweet last encounter with the other, late in my life. And it feels like there’s quite a lot of variation in the outcome — I’ll have to give it another try later.

At any rate, I definitely recommend it. Games released right at the end of a year sometimes get missed for XYZZYs, but I think this might be a plausible contender for a Best Writing nomination.

Disclosures: I have a contract for work of my own with Choice of Games, but discovered and played this piece independently. I played a copy of the game that I bought with my own money.

February 16, 2017

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 46 new game entries, 30 new solutions, 34 new maps

by Gunness at February 16, 2017 01:08 PM

Garry has been hard at work uploading info on Alan games, which means that our Alan selection has been substantially upgraded.

And as a heads-up for C64 enthusiasts: the ever-industrious Fredrik Ramsberg has ported a number (30-something) of Inform games to D64-format, so you can play some of the more modern titles on your favourite machine. I've tested a few of them, and it just works really well. More on his website.

Contributors: Sudders, Garry, Gunness, rockersuke, Alex, impomatic, iamaran

Lautz of IF

Minor Trizbort Update to

by jasonlautzenheiser at February 16, 2017 03:01 AM

A quick little update to fix a few small bugs that were found in the last release.

First bug was one introduced in the last version in regards to the Automapper.  It seems a new feature I added to handle the EXITS command in a transcript, broke the automapper.  I removed that feature temporarily until a proper fix could be found.

A second bug was fixed that has most likely been around for awhile where if you imported a map that was created with an older version, one that was created prior to my beginning development on Trizbort, there was a potential that the Inform7 Export code would not be generated properly.


Filed under: Trizbort

Emily Short

Mid-February Link Assortment

by Emily Short at February 16, 2017 12:00 AM


February 16th, Boston’s People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction group meets up. Which is to say, tomorrow.

March 4th is San Francisco’s IF Meetup.

March 9, Nottingham’s Hello Words group is having a meetup.

Also March 9 is the deadline to register intents if you’re planning to enter the Spring Thing IF competition this year.

I am not doing an Oxford/London Meetup this month because GDC is taking most of my attention and preparation time.

Utopia Jam is currently open through the end of February.

New Releases:

Cannonfire Concerto by Caleb Wilson: Interview and Steam link. I haven’t had a chance to fully play this yet, but I love Caleb’s work, and the premise appears to entail being a genius 18th century musician-spy, which is a pretty good start.

The House Abandon; unfortunately PC-only so I haven’t tried it, but there is interesting coverage of it various places including GameInformer.

Minor Fall, Major Lift is a short story about a romantic connection between two people. The arc of the story itself is relatively simple; the major NPC, affected in a way that I tend to associate with being young and nervous about being wounded. This turns out to be entirely fair enough as a read of their character. Meanwhile, there’s a lot to notice about the worldbuilding. The story takes place in a Slavic-influenced society with newly invented religions and perhaps supernatural genetics, hinting at a deeper universe yet to be unfolded. (The author mentions this is part of a potentially longer work or series.)

Meanwhile, from a narrative structure perspective, the story has a conceit of letting you examine characters multiple times in a row, getting deeper information about them each time. This could be grinding or irritating in some cases, but here I found it worked for me, and made it feel as though each examination of the other person was upping the stakes further… which considering that this is a tale about self-revelation and visibility makes plenty of sense.

Finally, the protagonist in this story has a disability, a point that is introduced unmistakably but without special fanfare about halfway into the story. For all that the characters (both PC and NPC) focus on self-presentation, on how they will look and what they will show and what they will hide, the protagonist’s cane is not one of those points of self-consciousness. It just is, a fact of the protagonist’s identity but one they treat as much less critical and visible than other things.


Reminder that sub-Q is looking for submissions! Guidelines are on their website.

My Rock Paper Shotgun column IF Only continues, most recently with a look at Plundered HeartsMasqueradeMagical Makeover, Secret Agent Cinder and other games about dressing up and going to parties.

There’s a piece on Gamasutra about Bob Bates’ Thaumistry here. Both Thaumistry and Southern Monsters have made their Kickstarter goals (yay!) but there’s still time to support either, and stretch goals associated with each, of course. If you’re curious for a longer take on these, I’ve written more about them at Rock Paper Shotgun as well, including a preview look at Thaumistry.

Speaking of crowdfunding, Sunless Skies, the Sunless Sea sequel, is currently over £250K against a £100K goal, which is pretty exciting as well.

Textualiza is a new Spanish-language channel for discussing, promoting, and playing interactive fiction; discussion is conducted in Spanish, but isn’t limited to Spanish-language IF. There’s a Facebook page and a Twitter, as well as a chat room on

February 14, 2017


The IFTF Adoptable Technology Archive

February 14, 2017 07:53 PM

One of the core pieces of the IFTF mission is to maintain, improve, and preserve the tools used to create interactive fiction. Most IF engines and tools were created by individual IF enthusiasts, which demonstrates how much enthusiasm exists for IF (hooray!) But it also means that these systems lose support when their individual creators move on to new projects (rats!). When IF authors and players have been depending on now-unsupported tools, it can leave those people in a rough situation.

We’ve received a number of community requests that related to this problem, and we wanted to find a way to help. But while we wish we could take over and maintain software projects, we just don’t have the resources right now. What we can do instead is act as social matchmakers and try to connect projects with volunteers.

Toward this end, we’re establishing a new project called the IFTF Adoptable Technology Archive.

The IFTF Adoptable Technology Archive will be a public archive of adoptable technology on GitHub. If someone owns a project that needs a new owner, they can put it on a free and open-source software license (we favor the MIT license) and pass it over to us, and we’ll put it up on the archive. The benefit of using our archive (instead of putting it up on GitHub as an individual) is that it will be visible under the IFTF “adopt me!” umbrella. This will create a place where developers can go and see all submitted IF projects in need of adoption, while abandoned projects benefit from the related publicity. We’ll also announce all new additions to the archive via our social media channels.

The archive doesn’t exist yet, but we’re setting it up soon! If you’re interested in submitting your IF tools project to the IFTF Adoptable Technology Archive, send us the details at

Sibyl Moon Games

Notes from BFIG Talks 2017: 4 Ways Losers Have Fun While Playing Games

by Carolyn VanEseltine at February 14, 2017 05:01 AM

BFIG Talks is a game dev conference run by the Boston Festival of Indie Games. It features both digital and nondigital game devs, and there’s a lot to learn in the crossover. The rest of my BFIG Talks notes are over here.

BFIG Talks speakers: Please contact me (carolyn at if:

  • I included something you said that should not be included, or
  • I quoted you without attributing (when you would prefer attribution), or
  • I made a factual error (I take notes by hand, and I make no pretense of infallibility!)

4 Ways Losers Have Fun While Playing Games

Speaker: Tim Armstrong

Winning/losing is less important than what happened during the game.

Games like party games and RPGs have no win condition. This is also true for Minecraft and similar games.

1. Learning things is fun.

This is the primary reason people have fun while playing strategy games. What produces fun here is the experience of improving and getting better.

In these cases, the depth of the game is equivalent to how replayable the game is. Tic Tac Toe is a shallow strategy game and the learning promptly stops. Go and Chess are deep strategy games and there is always more to learn.

How does the experience evolve over time? Deep strategy games stay fun and shallow strategy games don’t.

Some games (Star Realms, Splendor) have an optimal strategy. They become less fun once that strategy is mastered.

Competitive play requires depth of play. Super Smash Bros. Melee was a deep strategy game and therefore popular and competitive. The version created for the Wii was much shallower and much less popular.

2. Social interactions are fun.

This is what has been driving the resurgence of tabletop board games, though less so with regards to video games.

Social games create the framework for people to hang out together.

Example: Circle of Death is a drinking game that gives rules to the experience of drinking alcohol together. This creates a social framework for drinking.

Any situation with 2 to 4 players in person immediately creates social fun. Even bad games can create social fun.

Some games rely on social interactions in a different way:

  • Mafia/Werewolf require you to leverage existing social info sourced outside the game.
  • Cooperative/teamwork games require you to rely on and trust other people.
    • These often bring people together. “I don’t know this person, but our team rocked!”
  • Limited communication games (Codewords, Hanabi) drive social interaction through finding new ways to communicate.

These techniques are often commonly used in HR teambuilders.

3. Building things is fun.

Some games rely on strategic choices, but others rely on creative choices.

Video games are particularly good at this, such as Minecraft and Terreria.

The RPG character creation process relies on this kind of fun. “Your character sucks, but it’s yours.

This is also one of the ways Magic: the Gathering excels. People feel intense ownership over their decks.

4. Spectacle is fun.

This is a large part of the fun in Jenga, especially giant Jenga: it’s very exciting to see the tower fall.

Some games that rely on fun-through-spectacle:

  • Party games
  • Drawing games, where you can watch other people draw badly
  • Cards Against Humanity

Spectacle is memorable. When it’s happening, it always dominates the moment.

A game that excels at spectacle is a game that is fun to watch even when you aren’t yourself playing.

The four items above aren’t a checklist, but when a game isn’t fun to lose, take a look at them. Which of these is your game trying to achieve? What does it actually achieve? What can you do to enhance one or more of these types of fun?

Notes from BFIG Talks 2017: 3 Ways To Make Your Game “Fun”

by Carolyn VanEseltine at February 14, 2017 04:01 AM

BFIG Talks is a game dev conference run by the Boston Festival of Indie Games. It features both digital and nondigital game devs, and there’s a lot to learn in the crossover. The rest of my BFIG Talks notes are over here.

BFIG Talks speakers: Please contact me (carolyn at if:

  • I included something you said that should not be included, or
  • I quoted you without attributing (when you would prefer attribution), or
  • I made a factual error (I take notes by hand, and I make no pretense of infallibility!)

3 Ways To Make Your Game “Fun”

Speaker: Raymond Naseath

(This speaker promised that his talk would be easy to take notes for. He was right.)

It’s okay to make games that are just supposed to be fun!

How to make fun games:

  1. Each turn, every player should feel like they are making important and meaningful choices.
    1. The choice should have an impact on the game. This creates engagement and investment.
    2. Making choices will make the player choose priorities. This creates value.
    3. The choice should create interaction, which is to say that it should affect what other people do, and be affected by what other people have done.
  2. Every player should feel like they have a chance to win right up until the end of the game. The experience should be one of hope rather than despair.
    1. The game needs a clear focus and goal. It’s impossible to have hope otherwise because it’s impossible to strategize.
    2. One way to handle this is to have some “hidden winner” component, like hidden victory points, so that it isn’t obvious who will win until the end.
    3. Another is microwinning, which is to say moments when the player feels excitement and accomplishment at doing well.
      1. Example of all of the above: Smallworld, which finishes after X number of turns, makes it hard to keep track of who is winning, and has many “microwin” experiences.
      2. The ideal feeling is “I won less” rather than “I’m a loser.”
  3. There needs to be an element of luck/chance/fate in the game, where luck/chance/fate are defined as “things outside the player’s hands”. This may include influences from other players, so another way to look at this is “when is the player in control?”
    1. No one wants to play a game that they know they’re going to lose.
    2. Replay value comes from change. A game with no change is a puzzle rather than a game – you solve it once and stop.
    3. Ask yourself: what elements does the player control? Do the uncontrolled elements outweigh the controlled?
    4. Uncontrolled elements must affect all players equally.
      1. Examples of doing this well include Puerto Rico and Power Grid.
    5. Ask yourself: how can players interact with the elements they don’t control? Can they mitigate them, adjust them, or otherwise reduce the risk?
  4.  (bonus) The most important thing you can do to improve your game: playtest!
    1. “It’s not fun” – what does this actually mean?
    2. Have players measure the gameplay experience against the characteristics of fun listed above.

February 13, 2017

Web Interactive Fiction

A fyrevm-web Standard Template Emerges

by David Cornelson at February 13, 2017 03:01 AM


After a holiday hiatus, the standard template is coming along. It’s not pretty, but the basic functionality is getting closer to my vision.

One of the tasks we completed was reorganizing the github repo so it was strictly fyrevm-web, the I7 extensions, and the eventual I7 build templates. The eventual development of ifpress will be within its own repository.

In this iteration we’re storing arrays of the main content and the commands. In the next iteration we’ll have the full complement of content displayed in the template including hints, help, and multi-session (branching) capabilities.

Then we’ll introduce multi-story housing, external saves, and mobile templates.

And then finally we’ll add a paging template to show that the same data can be used in multiple contexts.

We could still use a professional web designer to help us make this look pretty. If anyone is interested, drop me a note.

Add a Comment

February 12, 2017

Interactive Fables

Some Worldsmith World Building Strategies

February 12, 2017 09:13 PM

Building Worlds and Life in Worldsmith is certainly not easy! So, we've put together a few hints and tips to help players to succeed in helping their civilizations to the Galactic Accord. If you are stuck, you might want to look at this 'top tips' strategy guide. Without further ado, here's 15 hints and tips for the knowledgeable Apprentice. 1. Explore all your Worlds. You never know who you might meet! 2. In Story Mode, you only need to raise a single Civilization to the the Galactic Accord!

The Gameshelf: IF

Text in spaaaace: FTL, Out There, Voyageur

by Andrew Plotkin at February 12, 2017 07:51 PM

Bruno Dias's space-text-RPG Voyageur was released this week. I spent a bunch of time playing it, which reminded me that I'd just spent a bunch of time playing Out There, and a bunch more time last month playing FTL. Three games about flying through space -- a randomized construction of space, with many hazards between you and your (distant) goals.

Let me start by describing each game. If you're familiar with all of them, skip on ahead to the comparing and contrasting. :)

Voyageur is prominently tagged as "procedural". That is, every planet you land on is described by a little paragraph:

The spaceport district you land on is busy, and surrounded on all sides by endless cityscape. You hurry along the roads past a group of threatening-looking locals. Crimson political graffiti is sprayed across the walls, although you don't understand the context of the slogans. Trash piles up on the roads, sometimes collected by sullen-looking recycler drones.

The sentences and details within them are randomized, based on a set of general stats about the planet. (Urbanized/agricultural/industrial, terraformed/desert/iceball, and so on.) The markets are loaded up with randomized goods ("high-grade computers", "cheap whisky", "curious gold ore", etc). And each planet might have one or more special features: religious centers, alien satellites, universities.

What you do: travel, trade, try to accumulate enough money to keep going. Long-term goals involve accumulating enough special items to make life-changing science-fictional discoveries.

The solar systems in Out There are also randomly generated, but without the detail of Voyageur. Each one has basic stats (rocky, gas giant, or habitable; high-resource or low-resource), but the only distinguishing marks are special events which might pop up:

The gravitational waves in this area have played havoc on my equipment. I fiddled around and some of it is working again, but the rest is completely out of order. What a mess--

These text paragraphs are not procedurally generated; they're selected from a large database, effectively a library of micro-sci-fi stories. On the other hand, the effects can be randomized. In the above example, a couple of your ship's systems are randomly selected to take damage.

What you do: travel, mine, try to gather enough resources to keep going. Long-range goals involve reaching various distant points on the map, where life-changing science-fictional discoveries are hidden.

Finally, we have FTL, which is much less textual; you spend most of your time fighting hostile starships. Small textual encounters are frequent:

A Rebel captain appears on the screen. "I thought we had been doomed to backwater assignments. This is my chance to get back in Command's good graces! Charge the weapons!"

Some of these offer choices (trade with a smuggler or attack him?); others, as in this example, are simply announcements (time for a fight!). In either case, you spend much less time reading text than you spend on the action (combat, upgrading your ship, etc).

What you do: travel, upgrade your weapons, try to gather enough money to survive the fights. The long-term goal, which is presented up front, is to reach the final sector and defeat the Big Boss Rebel Flagship.

Each game offers short textual riffs, but the texture of the texts is quite different.

Out There has a mix of practical snippets (like the one about gravitational damage) with diary entries, philosophical musings, and high-concept sci-fi encounters. The voice is distinctive, personal, and wry; it's delightfully reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem's old Star Diaries.

(To be sure, as @mossdogmusic reminds me on Twitter, it's also reminiscent of a sci-fi era when Our Hero was likely to be A Dude, with women absent from the story or purely decorative.)

The content of Out There's texts can be boiled down to "you gained fuel", "you lost oxygen", "you took damage", or "cut scene!" Nonetheless, I always read them, because the writing is so sharp and the mood so well-sustained.

FTL's texts are mostly practical, with a sprinkling of scenic description. Because the game is so focused on combat mechanics, I quickly found myself skipping the description. All that matter is whether I'm in a fight, whether I found a new weapon, whether intruders have teleported on board. And most of that information comes from the game's visual displays, not from the text. (If the ship is on fire, I can see fire alarms going off!)

There's one hilarious exception. One story encounter starts (as many do) by describing the local planet and its moons; but then it goes on to ask (on the next page) how many moons the planet has! If you got into the habit of skipping the descriptive paragraphs, you will have no idea, even though it just told you. The first time this happened, I laughed out loud, and kept at least a quarter of an eye on the descriptive text thereafter.

Finally we have Voyageur. The procedural structure means that Voyageur's planetary descriptions are endlessly varied. The same is true for many of the ad-hoc events, like "attend a local religious ceremony". There are also long-term plot sequences; the events in these sequences are not randomized, but you only encounter each once per play-through, so they don't become repetitive.

Despite the variety, I found the procedural texts to be flat; I stopped reading them almost immediately. It's not that the detail was boring. Rather, it was irrelevant to my goals. Nothing you find in a planetary description aids you in your travels. Maybe you're on a planet of rich tourists, where you can sell imported booze for a profit; but you'll see that fact in the market screen. If the planet has a fungus jungle, you'll want to explore it, but that fact will be highlighted with an "explore" action button. The travel screen lets you glean the underlying stats of planets before you travel to them, and that's important -- but it also means that you arrive already knowing that stuff.

So there's our comparison. FTL's texts are peripheral; you play it for the starship combat. Voyageur has a well-implemented algorithmic text engine, which is technically fascinating but not meaningful in play. Out There has the best writing, and so it's the game where I wind up actually reading the textual output.

Yes, I love procedural generation. In fact I just reposted a software toy which is nothing but generated room descriptions! No goals, no mechanics. And maybe that's as flat as Voyageur's planets. I can't make that comparison from the inside.

(I might suggest that the lack of mechanics in My Secret Hideout means you are not distracted. You're not rushing off to the market or fungus-jungle as you are in Voyageur. But then, maybe you just stop playing My Secret Hideout entirely.)

So, Out There is the text game in which I bother reading the text. That makes it my favorite game, right?

Nope nope. Let me talk about pacing.

The pacing of FTL is great. It's got lots of moving parts, so of course you can argue about the tuning of this bit or that bit. But you've got the right combination of challenge and stuff to strive for.

When you start your FTL game, you've got an underpowered ship with wimpy weapons, but you're fighting a stream of even wimpier ships. If you are careful, you'll beat them. Of course I'm not talking about your first game; you've got a learning curve. But once you know the mechanics, you win fights and collect money and resources.

The question is how much damage you avoid taking. The less damage you take, the more money you can save for weapons upgrades. Money means you can improve your ship. The opportunities to improve your ship are randomized; you might not find a store that sells that sweet cloaking device, but you'll find a store that sells something. Or if not, you can at least blow the money on better shields. (Like I said, a lot of moving parts.)

Naturally, the enemies get tougher as you move through the game. If you're below the difficulty curve, something eventually kills you. If you stay above the curve, you run into the Rebel Flagship at the end, which is a sharp uptick in the curve and probably kills you -- that's why it's the boss. It takes many runs through the game to finally win, but that's fine, because it's a fun challenge from start to finish. Even fighting the early "easy" ships, you can't slack; you have to win with minimum damage to save on repair bills.

So FTL is fun to play and replay. This is not news; it's a classic.

The pacing of Out There is very different. You start in an underpowered ship with wimpy engines. (No weapons, it's not a fighting game.) But the universe is already tough. If you can't gather enough fuel, you run out of fuel and die. If you can't find oxygen often enough, you run out of oxygen and die. Your ship is constantly breaking down, so you need metal and other elements to repair it, or else -- you know.

As you go, you discover plans for better technologies: improved FTL drives, sensors, and so on. But this is not fun, because you can't use them! You haven't found the exotic elements needed to build that tech. Hunting exotics takes fuel and oxygen you can't spare. Or if you do, the elements take up cargo space that you could be using to carry reserve fuel and oxygen. Or if by a stroke of mad luck you have both the plans and the necessary elements, then building the device also takes up cargo space -- same result.

As far as I can tell, the only way to play Out There is to keep restarting and dying until you find an alien ship with more cargo space. (There are a fair number of abandoned ships in the galaxy, but hunting them requires improved sensor tech, which you can't afford to build -- see above. So you just have to stumble across one.)

Once you have a larger ship, you can hold onto enough resources that tech upgrades become a strategy rather than an empty promise. At that point you're "really" playing the game. But you're still spending most of your time making inventory-juggling decisions. And not even strategic decisions like "keep this hafnium for a better FTL drive, or gold for a better telescope?" No, it's usually boring decisions like "Did I remember to feed my hydrogen to the drive before I scooped new hydrogen?"

(Because if you forget to feed the drive, then you have no free cargo space to store the new hydrogen, and you've wasted a scoop action. Wasting a scoop action can mean the difference between survival and death. That's the kind of game this is.)

I have enjoyed the lucky play-throughs of Out There, but the unlucky majority involve skating down the bare edge of survival, juggling inventory, until you die.

So, now, Voyageur.

My first Voyageur run felt very bare-edge-of-survival. I was short on money, but I bought some goods and hauled them to the next star for a small profit. Then I did it again. Then pirates caught me and stole my cargo; I was nearly wiped out. But I got lucky! A university paid me for my travel notes, so I was able to buy more cargo. Then -- pirates caught me again. I was broke, I ran out of fuel, and that was it for that game.

(This was the first release of Voyageur. The 1.1.1 patch added a gambling option if you run out of fuel and money, so you have a chance to move on. But it's still possible to "die".)

So, after one game, I decided Voyageur was another Out There. Nice text, a lot of potential, but fundamentally frustrating.

But was that really true? Second game: I hauled enough goods to have a decent money reserve. I discovered that there are a lot of random opportunities to make a bit of cash as you fly. The university thing was just one of them. There are more in some parts of the galaxy than in others, but if you keep flying you can expect to keep finding them.

It turns out that my first session was very bad luck. Most games, you'll quickly collect enough money to ensure survival. (Pirates may steal one shipment, but most runs are successful; cargo-hauling is strongly net-positive.)

In fact, I rapidly ran into the opposite problem: I had so much money that there was nothing left to spend it on! Cargo-hauling became pointless. I was just jumping from planet to planet, taking in the sights. It didn't take long to try all the common ad-hoc event opportunities. And then there was nothing left to do.

Now, this too was something of a mistake. There are long-term goals in Voyageur. Some even require enough money that you have to start caring about income again. The problem is, you can't really work at these long-term goals. They all derive from events that pop up on random planets; and you have to find a lot of them. You can skew the odds by targeting particular kinds of planets, but it still feels like progress is being dribbled out by a random number generator.

Thus, the typical Voyageur run-through is a whole lot of planet-hopping, mostly at random, with no danger or challenge. Ignoring all the nice generated text along the way. Eventually you have enough stuff to trigger an ending. There is a nice variety of endings available, but reaching them all is tedious.

Okay, that is a lot of design whingeing. How do I put these ideas together? What is my perfect text-RPG-in-spaaaace?

...I retract that last question. (Because if I had an answer, I'd be writing it.) Instead, I want to think about the games that Out There and Voyageur could be.

(We take for granted that FTL is already the best FTL.)

Out There just needs less inventory juggling. Honestly, if it just let you park your hydrogen outside the ship for a minute while you fed the engines and juggled the cargo, that would make the game 50% less annoying.

It'd be even better if the cargo system were smarter. Maybe have separate storage for bulk elements (hydrogen, oxygen, iron), exotic elements (hafnium, platinum, gold) and ship systems (technologies). Yes, the current system is brutally simple and I admire that. But having all these resources compete for space is a problem.

You'd still need to do some tuning to ensure that tech upgrades were always visible on the horizon. Something in hand, something better to work for. Make that the bread and butter of the game, with resource-mining as the low-level time-management task and the scripted encounters as the icing on the cake. That would work out great. (Except that I have just been sent to metaphor hell.)

Voyageur is tougher. It's built on the Fallen London engine, and with much of the same design sensibility. But it doesn't have FL's long ladder of "farm X, trade X for Y, trade Y for Z, ...." Market goods are just money; special items are either money (at the right dealer) or a component of one of the endings. You never get medium-term goals.

I feel like Voyageur has the beginning and ending of the game I want, but no middle. Obviously that's a design judgement; you could just as well say that I'm calling for grind for the sake of grind. But... I think I want grind for the sake of showing off the game's charms. I want intermediate trades that depend on the details of the planet. I want to trawl the markets for unique items relevant to my mission.

One possible way to extend the game: add crew actions. Currently, you can collect crew members who aid you, but they're mostly reactive. You get travel bonuses or better combat outcomes. Sometimes a crew member gets cranky, and then you can get negative outcomes. But you never have an option to "go out for a drink with the engineer", or whatever.

It would be neat if there were a slew of such options -- on the crew page, which is out of the way and doesn't invite lawnmowering. Say these options are always available, but usually uninteresting. (Again, not worth lawnmowering on every planet.) But your engineer is particularly fond of dance clubs on high-tech desert worlds. So if you're on such a world, and you notice phat beats coming from a nearby alley, you can go to the crew page and select that option. You'd either be advancing personal goals (shipboard romance) or intermediate stages in long-term plot threads (scouring a particular junkyard for unique items).

The point, obviously, is to add some "middle" and give the player a reason to keep an eye on the planet texts. (Remember the moons in FTL?)

To be clear, this is just my take on the game. I know the author has his own development plans. This blog post says that "more midgame content and more things to do with your money" are in train. We're all on the same page; I'm just spinning ideas about how to do it.

My conclusion, after all those words, is that I appreciate good text but I demand good game mechanics. Maybe that's a surprise. I think of good text as hard, but then I think of good mechanics as hard too. (Just a programmer at heart, me.)

The broad genre of "fly spaceship, find things" is a long-time favorite of mine. I played Sundog on the Apple 2 as a kid. However, most of these games wind up relying on combat models which don't catch my interest. (FTL got lucky with me, or I got lucky with it.) I keep an eye out for the story-oriented ones, which is how I came across Out There. Are there others?

Actually, speaking of Sundog -- there was a textual sci-fi story game a couple years back called Sun Dogs. I remember it as being under-populated, but take a look if Voyageur interested you.

February 10, 2017

Emily Short

A House of Many Doors

by Emily Short at February 10, 2017 09:00 PM

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A House of Many Doors is a newly launched Mac and Linux game on Steam that bears a very strong resemblance in many respects to Sunless Sea, and was developed with funding help from Failbetter. (It wasn’t actually part of the same Fundbetter program as Voyageur, as it happens, but rather predated that.) You pilot your kinetopede, a train with too many legs, through a huge dark space. Your stats — remember these? — are Hull, Sanity, Fuel. Your crew members, and locations you visit, all have stories attached. If you’ve played Sunless Sea you already halfway know how to play A House of Many Doors.

But. There are differences of both tone and structure. Maybe you’re scuttling around in the dark with a sinister soundtrack, but you’re doing it on a grid: each screen a room, each room joined to other rooms in a predictable fashion, and locations you need to reach marked out in white on the map.

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Those endpoints marked on the map are special towns, like Clayton’s Mill; places where, as with Sunless ports, there are more in-depth stories. But the grid, the map, and the sense of having directives marked in means that the opening of House of Many Doors feels more directed and controlled. You do pretty much know where you are going, even if you are scuttling wildly through a landscape of menacing stone heads and pseudo-pre-Columbian ziggurats.

In addition, there’s one specific and fairly joined up introductory quest. You’ve had a memory stolen from you. You go to get it back. You think you’ve retrieved it, but what you retrieve is actually someone else‘s memory. Now you’ve got two problems: missing information, and some other clutter inside your head. Said other clutter is not necessarily a particularly good thing. Altogether, this feels more like it’s telling story than like it’s telling dozens of different ones, at least in the early stages; and to my tastes, that’s no bad thing, as I tend to like my story games to deliver the narrative goods promptly.

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The handling of sanity is also more garish and obvious. Go a bit mad — as I did by accident just by moving away from the game window for a few minutes without pausing (don’t do that) — and you’ll start to hear menacing laughter in the sound track. Shadows will shift and the buildings you meet may refuse to remain in their regular shape. Things will be slightly wrong. The flavor there is a bit Don’t Starve, though mercifully without Don’t Starve‘s incredibly nerve-wracking music box effect. Go really far and your sanity states will start to cycle through names like “fine” and “smiling.” You don’t want that to happen.

Indeed in general the tone of A House of Many Doors, at least as far as I saw, is not so much Lovecraftian in the Fallen London vein. There aren’t tentacular things just beneath the waves; rather, everything you see is askew from any kind of normal. You have crewmembers named things like “Brings-Ill-Fortune.” For that matter, just take another look at your kinetopede. Is that a thing from a sane world?

On my playthroughs I didn’t get super deep into the game. But the Steam discussion boards are full of people speculating about the lore of the place, which is usually a good sign; and saying things like

I don’t know how you use spoiler tags in steam discussion, but how have people settled the spoiler spoiler in Entomarch? I went with the “good” option but didn’t really feel very good about it in the end.

No idea what this refers to, but players feeling agonized about a choice and needing to reach out to others for reassurance and feedback is An Indicator.

Combat is a complex affair. Your crew-members all have their own sanity and stats, and their own positions in different parts of your train, from which they can man your (initially terrible) guns. In my first confrontation with pirates, I did my best to defend myself, but something called a Combat Golem materialized aboard my train and wandered around destroying my crew, while I desperately tried to figure out how to get a replacement for my artillerist into the same room with my cannon. The combat ended — badly, I should say — and then I ran into a buggy condition from which I could not seem to progress. I think I was dead. I should have been dead. But I was “smiling” so hard that maybe I failed to notice my own death. You should probably plan to spend some time with combat before expecting to understand entirely how it all works.


The prose tends to be wordier than that in Sunless, and there are a lot more extended dialogue scenes with individual characters. I haven’t had nearly time to finish the whole story arc — nor even, tragically, to get to a point where I start writing my own procedural poetry, which for me is one of the draws of the exercise.

Sad to say, I did run into some bugs, particularly when coming out of combat and back into the main game; this is why I didn’t get a bit further through the story in the time I had. I know the author is chewing through post-launch issues as fast as possible, though. (Here’s a post-launch report.)


AXMA Story Maker 5

by Hanon Ondricek ( at February 10, 2017 06:57 PM

I've long been a fan of AXMA Story Maker, a Russian-developed hypertext choice narrative engine that is very similar to Twine. I used an early version to write Devil's Food, a speed-Ectocomp entry in three hours. AXMA is now up to version 5, and despite its relative obscurity with English-speaking IF authors, there's a whole lot here to like. AXMA offers an easy alternative for those who want to write a choice-narrative, but, like me, may find Twine's nearly unlimited modifiable adaptability a little bewildering.

First off, AXMA is technically a free app with a "professional version" that lists for €29.90 via PayPal (but as of this writing is marked down to €19.90, approximately $22 USD) which is not a bad deal. The free version is unlimited to use, disabling only direct HTML export (all games can be uploaded to and are hosted by AXMA's public library for online play or download). Upgrading for the one-time fee doesn't change the software, but unlocks the ability to export HTML directly, as well as allowing the author to modify the resulting HTML file, and removes a "created with AXMA Story Maker" link on the title screen.

I've described AXMA to some people as "imagine if Steve Jobs had designed Twine"; AXMA is a closed-system so it's not as modifiable as Twine, but what's included is very powerful and provides enough functionality most authors will want. Saving, restoring, modifying text size and toggling game audio is accessed by an icon and/or a right-click.

AXMA's standard right click dialog

Every game displays beautifully on desktop and mobile (!) screens with no modifications necessary. That means that the game interface elements are structurally uniform in any game, but can be modified with several themes, and tweaked with regard to background, border thickness, colors, and about five fonts (basically variations of serif, sans-serif, and Courier, limited but all readable). The overall interface layout can be chosen when a new game is created, which essentially changes the ratio of screen elements; "Interactive Fiction" makes the text window big and the constant graphic window and menu box share space as a sidebar. "Visual Novel" fills the screen with a graphic and makes text type out letter by letter and fully appear with a click like a JRPG, "Classic quest or RPG" prioritizes the screen picture (for a map or a location picture) with a smaller text box at the bottom and a long menu box on the side for stats. CYOA book briefly displays a big picture which then recedes to show just a single window of text. "Interactive Audiobook" is something I've never seen but presents interesting possibilities. The system is so flexible that I would use it to create documentation manuals and other instructional material that isn't IF. AXMA's own documentation is created with it.

Visual interface, there is also an option to view plain source code if you prefer.

If you've used old-school Twine, you probably will grok AXMA's markup almost immediately. You've got [[links]] and [[text to display|to go to this link]] and [[click this link|to go to this passage and change this {$variable = 2}]]. Links can be [[inline with the text]], and bare links on their own line are converted to nifty buttons automatically. The main interface shows passages that can be dragged and dropped with arrows connecting them, and there are shortcut keys for most useful functions. There is a permanent "StoryMenu" passage which can be filled with links that will always display in a sidebar menu—a function (along with permanent location-graphic window) that is a tricky feat in most interactive fiction systems that is built in here.

Byooottiful player interface...

One of the coolest features is that passages which just add flavor text, such as an inline link that solely provides information, can be formatted to actually appear over the current window instead of changing the text and requiring a "back" button to return to the story.


AXMA is crazy happy to handle your multimedia. Images can be placed inline with the text, or sent to the "main picture" box, wherever it is formatted by the originally chosen layout. Graphics can even be defined as sprites, so ostensibly you could make a picture of a treasure whoosh out at a player, or move a marker around on a static map, or slide your characters into and out of a visual novel scene. AXMA differentiates between "music", which is played constantly in the background and loops until changed or stopped via a macro, and "sound effects" which are played once on a different channel from the music. Videos from YouTube and Vimeo can also be streamed within a passage. All media can be streamed from the internet, or provided locally in a folder with the game.

On iPhone
Works on mobile
Overall this is a polished package for hypertext and choice-based fiction. The only slight bumpy spots I've encountered: the documentation lists everything AXMA can do, but is not comprehensive, leaving some nuances to be discovered through experimentation. There is a Google group for English-language discussion that isn't very active, but I've had very good luck with getting the devs to respond, usually within a day. Otherwise, I've used web-page translation of the Russian forums, but otherwise, there aren't many other places to read up on what people are doing with this software. AXMA's online library, at least on the English side, is a bit of a mess with many unfinished experiments (and a few works of dicey NSFW subject matter), but stories from the free version of the software can be hosted there (there is a limit on how much multimedia can be included) and linked to directly as below.

Catch the Spy, one of the more impressive examples in the library.

AXMA Story Maker can be downloaded for PC, Mac, and Linux, and there is an in-browser editor online as well.

UPDATE: I purchased the software (actually a lifetime "Professional" account) via PayPal, and received my registration key via email promptly within 24 hours as promised on the site. The actual registration key is for earlier versions of ASM which work fully offline. The current version asks you to sign into your user account using the email and password you register on their website and will handshake that account online to unlock all features when using the standalone editor. AXMA Story Maker is a popular engine in the Russian IF community and is actively supported and distributed.
My IF can be found on IFDB, or via flashy links there from my website.

The Digital Antiquarian

The Eastgate School of “Serious” Hypertext

by Jimmy Maher at February 10, 2017 03:00 PM

A quarter of a century after Ted Nelson first coined the term, hypertext finally stepped into the spotlight in 1987. As we’ve seen in an earlier article, the primary driver of its long-delayed public recognition was Apple’s HyperCard, which in the wake of its premier at the MacWorld show in August went on to become the product of the year in the eyes of most industry pundits. But concurrent with the HyperCard hype were a number of other, smaller developments — enough to convince one that hypertext’s newfound fame might be down to more than just the whim of a major corporation, that it might be in some more organic sense an idea whose time had simply come.

The American Association of Computing Machinery, the oldest and arguably the most respected learned society devoted to computing in the world, had decided to hold a conference on hypertext well before HyperCard was more than a Silicon Valley rumor. When the conference actually took place in November of 1987, however, it could only benefit from the HyperCard excitement, which gave it a sense of relevance that stuffy academic conferences all too often don’t manage to capture. While many things were discussed over the course of those few days, the conference would go down in history for the debut of Storyspace, the first tool explicitly designed for authoring hypertext narratives on a personal computer, and for that of afternoon, a story, the first work ever to label itself a “hypertext novel.” These twin debuts also mark the beginning of what would become known as the Eastgate school of self-described “serious” hypertext, one of the less accessible — in both the figurative and, today, the literal sense — movements in the history of digital narratives.

The co-creator of Storyspace and the author of afternoon was Michael Joyce, a professor of language and literature at Jackson Community College in Jackson, Michigan. Shortly after completing his first print novel in 1981, Joyce had bought his first computer, an Apple II, and immediately been captivated by what he saw as a whole new world of writing possibility. Responding to what he described as his frustration with the limitations of linear storytelling, he cultivated an eclectic web of friendships to pursue his interest in exploring new narrative structures enabled by computers. Most prominent among this group were Howard Becker, a sociologist at Northwestern University and fellow Apple enthusiast (he provided Joyce with a steady flow of pirated games, including many Infocom titles); Natalie Dehn, a researcher at Yale’s Artificial Intelligence Lab; and Jay David Bolter, a classicist at the University of North Carolina who was investigating generative storytelling on computers as a sideline. After upgrading to the new Apple Macintosh soon after its release, Joyce and Bolter, the latter of whom was a self-taught programmer, began working in earnest on Storyspace. From the beginning, Bolter took advantage of the Macintosh GUI to make the system accessible to non-programmers like Joyce. A snapshot of the work in progress from 1985:

The program currently represents structure as a map or network of rectangular cells and straight lines. Cells are units of text that may range in size from one character to 30,000. The author creates cells, labels them, positions them on the screen using the mouse, and attaches text. Stacking cells inside other cells indicates hierarchical relationships, while drawing and labeling lines from one to another indicates associative links. The author may then use the created structure to control or review the presentation of the text.

The pace of Storyspace development accelerated that same year when Joyce and Bolter won a grant from the Markle Foundation, allowing them to employ other programmers on the project.

The current Storyspace version 3 is not at all different conceptually from the system that Joyce and Bolter came up with in the 1980s. Nodes of text are represented as onscreen cells, to be connected together by the author using the mouse. The system is very accessible for non-programmers, but, because there is no real facility for tracking state, much less for modeling a world “behind” the surface text, it can also be very limiting. How much the character of the works created with Storyspace was down to ideology in the abstract and how much was down to ideology molding itself to the limitations of the technology is a little questionable.

In years to come, Michael Joyce and his fellow proponents of serious hypertext would seem willfully determined to disassociate themselves from existing commercial software — and especially from computer games. It’s interesting therefore to note that Joyce and Bolter’s original descriptions of Storyspace to potential funders didn’t describe it strictly as the tool for the academic avant garde that it would eventually become. The Markle Foundation funded Storyspace’s development based on a pitch that emphasized its applicability to business and to more mainstream, Choose Your Own Adventure-style branching narratives.

Still, someone had to be the first to make something in Storyspace. A new development system of any stripe can always benefit from a killer app to demonstrate its capabilities, and Storyspace was no exception, as Joyce’s friend Howard Becker pointed out to him: “One thing that will really help nerds like me see how to use this will be a couple of good examples, spelled out in real detail, and included on the disk. Like a story by you…” afternoon, a story, the most famous, most read, and most analyzed work of the Eastgate school, was thus created with the rather practical goal of simply showing off what Storyspace could do to potential investors and customers. Joyce began to write it in March of 1987, and had completed it in time to bring it to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in November for the ACM hypertext conference, hosted by Jay David Bolter’s employer the University of North Carolina. Joyce and Bolter gave out copies of afternoon to conference attendees after their presentation on Storyspace.1 History hasn’t recorded in any detail the computer scientists’ reaction to Joyce’s daunting work of postmodern literature, but we’re on firmer ground on the subject of the authoring system he had used to create it: Storyspace became the hit of the conference.

Following that rapturous reception, Joyce and Bolter, joined now by a University of North Carolina computer scientist named John B. Smith, formed a company they named Riverrun and started pitching Storyspace to software publishers. They talked for some time with Brøderbund, who went so far as to lend them hardware and expertise to further the project after the Markle Foundation’s funding ran out. But in February of 1989 Brøderbund bowed out in response to, as historian Matthew Kirschenbaum puts it, “lingering confusion over exactly what the tool did and who its potential audience was.” Brøderbund was seemingly skeptical whether this group of academics was truly capable of creating a product that would appeal to the mainstream of Middle America, the commercial sweet spot Brøderbund was almost uniquely adept among their peers at reaching with products like The Print Shop and the Carmen Sandiego series.

Having been rejected by Brøderbund and the rest of the consumer-software industry, who were going through troubled times and growing ever more risk-averse thanks to the Nintendo onslaught, Joyce, Bolter, and Smith turned to Mark Bernstein, founder of a tiny company called Eastgate Systems dedicated to researching future applications of hypertext. In 1990, Eastgate published Storyspace at last, and also published afternoon, a story as their debut work of hypertext fiction. Both garnered modest interest in the mainstream press as curiosities and possible harbingers of the future. Indeed, Eastgate had big plans for the future. Occupying some hazy middle ground between software publisher and book publisher, they would for much of the 1990s publish multiple works of hypertext fiction and nonfiction each year alongside the Storyspace software that was used to create them. For a time they even published their own magazine, The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext, full of theory on the one hand and news about their latest products on the other, like a highbrow version of Infocom’s old New Zork Times. In 1992, Robert Coover, like Michael Joyce a print novelist turned hypertext evangelist, published an opinion piece in The New York Times that served as a manifesto of sorts for what the Eastgate school of writers believed would become a major — indeed, potentially revolutionary — literary movement. We’ll return to that a little later. But first, more on afternoon, a story itself and the works it spawned.

Authors of the Eastgate school, who were almost universally academics working in the humanities, saw themselves as pushing the literary novel to the next stage of its formal evolution. For this reason, many or most of their works have as much or more to do with explicating certain ways of thinking about literature and literary criticism as they do with plot, character, or any of the other attributes of traditional novels. Their works are steeped in the post-structuralist school of literary criticism, which is itself an outgrowth of the postmodern philosophy of thinkers like Jacques Derrida. While I do understand that an extended discussion of such topics probably won’t set your hearts aflutter with anticipation, I do think a little background is necessary to an understanding of what the Eastgate school was all about. So, please bear with me while I set the stage as painlessly as I can manage.

The road to the Eastgate school really does begin with Jacques Derrida, who from the 1960s until his death in 2004 remained the preeminent voice of postmodernism as it applied to literary criticism and many other endeavors. It was Derrida who invented the concept of deconstruction — a concept that, like many of the concepts associated with postmodern philosophy, seems virtually impossible to fully define. In writings that must stand as some of the most impenetrable ever committed to paper, Derrida himself did such a baffling, self-contradictory job of it that he’s often been accused of not knowing quite what it was himself, and of attempting to obscure that lack through sheer weight of verbiage. The problem was only complicated in later days by the mainstream media’s latching onto the term and using it constantly as little more than a synonym for “analyze.”

Still, if we stay safely at the shallow end of the pool, deconstruction can be a very straightforward, noncontroversial idea: the idea that one can learn much about a text by teasing out the unexamined assumptions of its author. Herman Wouk, to take an example, doubtless considered himself quite an enlightened man when he published The Caine Mutiny in 1951, but his condescending descriptions of the titular minesweeper’s black kitchen staff says much about the racist attitudes of his time. At this level, then, deconstruction implies little more than a skeptical reading between the author’s lines, and a willingness to seek context outside of the work itself.

At the deeper end of the pool, however, we come to the claims that nothing can ultimately mean anything at all. Derrida rejected the notion, underpinning in different ways both religion and science, that there is an absolute Truth out there somewhere which we can approach if not reach via earnest inquiry. In Derrida’s view, any absolute Truth must belong to the realm of metaphysics — a realm in which he refused to believe. Instead of Truth, he saw a multiplicity of individual, subjective “truths,” hierarchies of constructed meaning — thus meanings ripe for deconstruction — tied to hierarchies of social power. Deconstructionism has always walked in hand in hand with Marxism and other radical political ideologies. Just as Marxism envisions an end to the privileges of authority, deconstructionist thought seeks an end to the privilege accorded to the author as the final authority on her work’s meaning.

At the risk of being accused of getting too cute or playing games of gotcha!, I can’t resist pointing out the logical contradiction inherent in the supposed objective Truth that there is no objective Truth. More seriously, though, the idea that all meaning is constructed and subjective is one that will doubtless continue to strike each incoming group of humanities undergraduates as a profound revelation, and to strike those of us who have been around it for a few years — those of us who haven’t become Derrida scholars, that is — as the most tedious of hobby horses to continue flogging. It seems to me that the problem with radical deconstructionism and, indeed, postmodernism in general is that it’s very hard to know what to really do with them. What’s the point of saying anything if you don’t believe it’s possible to say anything that bears any relationship to any Truth outside itself? Much rationalization has been done in an attempt to avoid the nihilism to which postmodernism would seem inevitably to lead, but the arguments have never struck me as terribly convincing.

Of course, any attempt to fully capture Truth in writing, whether on the grand scale of history or the empathetic scale of an individual character, must inevitably fail at some level, must run afoul of subjectivity and the limits of the author’s cognition and experience. This is a Truth that any competent writer or historian — and I do like to believe I manage to be both on a good day — must always keep in mind. Still, the point of the endeavor is the striving, the point is to come as close as you can to the ideal of a captured Truth. If you don’t believe there is anything out there to be striven for, why bother? The debate is not strictly an academic one. Taken to an extreme, a refusal to believe in the existence of verifiable facts is not just absurd but actively dangerous, as the current president of my country is so masterfully demonstrating as I write these words.

But now let’s turn our attention back to afternoon, a story, a work steeped in postmodern thought, to see what effect those patterns had on this work of literary hypertext.

I try to recall winter. < As if it were yesterday? > she says, but I do not signify one way or another.

By five the sun sets and the afternoon melt freezes again across the blacktop into crystal octopi and palms of ice  — rivers and continents beset by fear, and we walk out to the car, the snow moaning beneath our boots and the oaks exploding in series along the fenceline on the horizon, the shrapnel settling like relics, the echoing thundering off the far ice.

<Poetry > she says, without emotion one way or another.

Do you want to hear about it?

And so, with this passage that could only have issued from an overwrought teenager or a tenured academic, we begin our “story” — a word, one has to assume, that Joyce means ironically, for replying that yes, we do want to hear about it, yields anything but a straightforward story. This is not an exercise in “What do you want to do next?” It’s rather a web of allusions and musings, with no foregrounded action at all. As near as I’ve been able to divine through much feverish clicking, our story, such as it is, is that of Peter, a man who has just witnessed a car crash that may have killed his ex-wife and his son. If we are persistent enough, we may eventually arrive at a node that seems to say that Peter himself may be responsible for their deaths in some way. But that’s the closest we can ever get to any sort of resolution; this alleged “story” of more than 500 nodes is not only nonlinear but endless, every node always looping back onto other nodes.

“A thin young man with a lavender penis and huge, swollen balls,” huh? Don’t threaten me with a good time!

In terms of interface, afternoon must strike us today as a strange beast, and it’s a little hard to determine how much of that strangeness is down to conscious intent and how much is down to the era when it was first created, well before our modern expectations for a hypertext interface had been set in stone. Those sections of the text which lead to other sections — in Joyce’s preferred parlance, those “words that yield” — are not highlighted in any way. Indeed, in later editions of afternoon every word in the text will lead you somewhere else, albeit all too often to one of the same set of uninteresting cul de sacs. There is at least a back button for when you get caught in one of these, along with a forward button that will yield a default next node if you don’t wish to choose one — but, typically for this work that seems so self-consciously designed to stymie and frustrate its reader, traversing the entire text using the default option only winds you up in one of those uninteresting cul de sacs. And then there are also “yes” and “no” buttons, which you can use to respond to occasional explicit questions or just click for the hell of it at any time to go somewhere else. Given that afternoon consists of more than 500 nodes, and that the relationships between them all are intuitive at best, random at worst — certainly anything but logical — trying to get a sense of it all is a fairly monumental endeavor.

But people have certainly tried, and therein lies a noteworthy tension between what afternoon believes itself to be and what it actually is. Michael Joyce and many others of the Eastgate school were always determined to disassociate their work from games, even “literary” games like those of Infocom.2 Yet to say that afternoon isn’t a game in the same sense that Infocom’s interactive fictions are games goes against the way that almost everyone responds to it. (Whether adventure “games” and similar interactive works really are games in the same sense that competitive zero-sum exercises are games is a separate discussion which we’ll have to leave unaddressed today.) Confronted with this word salad, we want to figure it out, to make sense of it, to find out what the hell Peter is on about. Thus there is a puzzle to be unraveled here, an implicit ludic challenge to be confronted. Even much of the academic writing on afternoon obsesses over this process of figuring it out. In this sense, then, afternoon is not so far from an Infocom game — or for that matter a mystery novel — as Joyce might prefer to believe. Whether it constitutes a good game or puzzle is of course another question entirely.

And on that subject, I have to be honest: afternoon, a story bores the living daylights out of me. If it was interested in empathetically exploring the feelings of Peter, it might have been a moving work. If it was interested in letting the reader get to the definitive bottom of what really happened to Peter’s ex-wife and son, it might have been an intriguing one. If it could have shown even a flash from time to time of self-awareness or humor instead of remaining so relentlessly, pretentiously po-faced, it might at least have been a little more likeable. But, sadly in my view, Michael Joyce isn’t interested in doing any of these things. What Joyce is interested in is, in the words of critic Janet Murray, “intentionally ‘problematizing’ our expectations of storytelling, challenging us to construct our own text from the fragments he has provided.” Yet the text he has provided is so leaden and dull that the only type of interest such an exercise can muster is theoretical interest in the mind of a post-structuralist literary critic. I find this sort of self-reflexive art — art about nothing more than the process of its own creation, or the process of its own reception — to be a betrayal of art’s potential to move and change us. “Problematizing our expectations of storytelling” is a thin foundation on which to build a work of deathless literature.

So, we return now to that zeitgeist-capturing New York Times piece of 1992, written by Robert Coover, who would go on to become something of an elder statesman for the Eastgate school. It was entitled “The End of Books.” Like so many zeitgeist-capturing pieces, it comes across as almost hilariously dated today, but nevertheless remains the logical next stop for anyone trying to understand what the Eastgate school was all about. First, the article’s opening. Afterward, in the spirit of turnabout being fair play, we shall indulge in a little of what some might refer to as deconstruction of our own.

In the real world nowadays, that is to say, in the world of video transmissions, cellular phones, fax machines, computer networks, and in particular out in the humming digitalized precincts of avant-garde computer hackers, cyberpunks and hyperspace freaks, you will often hear it said that the print medium is a doomed and outdated technology, a mere curiosity of bygone days destined soon to be consigned forever to those dusty unattended museums we now call libraries. Indeed, the very proliferation of books and other print-based media, so prevalent in this forest-harvesting, paper-wasting age, is held to be a sign of its feverish moribundity, the last futile gasp of a once vital form before it finally passes away forever, dead as God.

Which would mean of course that the novel, too, as we know it, has to come to its end. Not that those announcing its demise are grieving. For all its passing charm, the traditional novel, which took center stage at the same time that industrial mercantile democracies arose — and which Hegel called “the epic of the middle-class world” — is perceived by its would-be executioners as the virulent carrier of the patriarchal, colonial, canonical, proprietary, hierarchical and authoritarian values of a past that is no longer with us.

Much of the novel’s alleged power is embedded in the line, that compulsory author-directed movement from the beginning of a sentence to its period, from the top of the page to the bottom, from the first page to the last. Of course, through print’s long history, there have been countless strategies to counter the line’s power, from marginalia and footnotes to the creative innovations of novelists like Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Raymond Queneau, Julio Cortazar, Italo Calvino and Milorad Pavic, not to exclude the form’s father, Cervantes himself. But true freedom from the tyranny of the line is perceived as only really possible now at last with the advent of hypertext, written and read on the computer, where the line in fact does not exist unless one invents and implants it in the text.

“Hypertext” is not a system but a generic term, coined a quarter of a century ago by a computer populist named Ted Nelson to describe the writing done in the nonlinear or nonsequential space made possible by the computer. Moreover, unlike print text, hypertext provides multiple paths between text segments, now often called “lexias” in a borrowing from the pre-hypertextual but prescient Roland Barthes. With its webs of linked lexias, its networks of alternate routes (as opposed to print’s fixed unidirectional page-turning) hypertext presents a radically divergent technology, interactive and polyvocal, favoring a plurality of discourses over definitive utterance and freeing the reader from domination by the author. Hypertext reader and writer are said to become co-learners or co-writers, as it were, fellow travelers in the mapping and remapping of textual (and visual, kinetic and aural) components, not all of which are provided by what used to be called the author.

Coover comes across like a caricature of the pretentious academic with his name-dropping irrelevant asides to demonstrate his erudition (“what Hegel called ‘the epic of the middle-class world'”) and his painful attempts to capture the spirit of William Gibson (“the humming digitalized precincts of avant-garde computer hackers”). The language of deconstruction and post-structuralism is everywhere. The conventional reader is forever being “dominated” and “tyrannized” by the “patriarchal,” “colonial,” “canonical,” “proprietary,” “hierarchical,” “authoritarian” author. But, even setting the loaded language aside, is she really so much under the author’s thumb? It seems to me that the reader always has the ultimate veto power over the author in the form of the ability to put the book down and not read it anymore. If she choose to continue, to follow the line to the end, she is doing so willingly, and can hardly be considered a subjugated victim.

Further, is the “tyranny of the line” truly a tyranny? Far from being compelled to follow the author “from the first page to the last,” the reader is always free to skip around in a text, to read the parts that interest her in the order she prefers. Why else do tables of contents and indexes exist? Those of us who made it through a graduate program in the humanities were all forced by the sheer amount of reading that is assigned to learn how to delicately but mercilessly fillet a book in order to extract exactly what we need from it in the minimum length of time. Far from being subjected to the author’s tyranny, we learned to rip the beating heart out of the author’s little darling and dissect it on our desktops. It’s a skill that still serves me well in the work I do today, as the bloody remains of this article’s list of sources lying strewn around me right now will attest.

And then is the best way to achieve a “plurality of discourses” really to try to stuff them all into a single nonlinear book? Wouldn’t it perhaps make more sense to just, you know, read several books?

But most problematic of all is the article’s core premise/prophecy: that hypertext will lead to the “end of books.” The end of print, Coover tells us, will “of course mean that the novel, too, as we know it, has to come to its end.” In reality, there’s no “of course” about this proposition at all. Coover demonstrates a colossal failure of imagination in conflating the literary form of the novel with print, the physical medium on which novels were almost exclusively delivered in 1992. As the thriving modern ebook market demonstrates, the medium is not necessarily the message in this case. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, though, and look past even this confusion. As long as we’re talking about tyranny, we should note that Coover’s essay never asks what real-world readers actually want. Do they really wish to become “co-learners” and “co-writers”? I think most would reply that writing is what they’re paying the author to do, and that the author had damn well better learn her subject on her own time, before she starts trying to sell them a book about it.

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t room for interactive texts, and now more so than ever. As many readers of this blog are doubtless aware, choice-based stories like those published by Choice Of Games have achieved a certain degree of commercial success as the heirs to the Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks of yore, while more poetic hypertext explorations created with tools like Twine reach their own audience of readers. Granted, the audiences for both styles of work remain by all indications fairly small, but they nevertheless dwarf the numbers that have ever read the literary hypertexts of the Eastgate school. So, while we are far, far from any end of books — and thank God for that! — there obviously is a readership for hypertext fiction, one that may even grow considerably in the future. The fact that the works which people are reading are so divorced from the works of the Eastgate school has everything to do with the failure of said school to write hypertext novels that people want to read. Summing up the heyday of the Eastgate school, scholar Adam Hammond says that “the most enduring legacy of this period is theoretical rather than creative.” It’s not really meant as a criticism of the works themselves, yet it’s hard for me to think of a better one.

Writing about the status of serious hypertext as of 2016, Hammond notes that it “is one of the few digital literary forms that can be plausibly regarded as dead”: “The works that seemed so revolutionary and world-altering were not only seldom read in their own time, but are today literally unreadable, languishing in antiquated software and hardware formats inaccessible to the contemporary reader.” Eastgate soldiers on somehow, still selling Storyspace — in fact, a new version was recently released — alongside a collection of hypertext novels that virtually all date from those halcyon days of the 1990s. Yet it’s hard to figure out to whom they could be selling this stuff as of 2017. They’ve done, as Hammond says, an horrendous job of keeping up to date with the changing times. I recently bought three hypertext novels from Eastgate: afternoon, a story, King of Space, and Victory Garden. The first of this group is the most famous work ever published by Eastgate, while the last is among the two or three next most famous. And yet none of them will Just Work on a modern computer. afternoon, a story comes the closest: it comes on a USB stick that will work on Mac OS X — but only on versions released prior to 2011. Victory Garden, meanwhile, won’t run on a 64-bit operating system of any stripe, while King of Space requires, incredibly, a version of Mac OS prior to OS X. (“1 M of memory and hard disk required,” announces the packaging.) I’m a fairly technical guy, and thus can get all this stuff running, but how many other prospective readers can make the same claim? When I placed my order, I was greeted with emails explaining the situation and asking if I really wanted to pay all this money for these relics, which Eastgate still sells for $25 or more apiece. There then followed more elementary questions about delivery methods and the like. Everyone was very nice, but I couldn’t help myself from conjuring a scene that ought to be a Saturday Night Live skit if it isn’t one already, taking place in a disused office space somewhere inhabited by a couple of dozing employees: “Hey, wake up! We actually have a customer!”

As should be obvious by now, I have little truck with most of what I’ve seen of the Eastgate school. I’m always skeptical of writers who make a point of telling me they are writing “serious” works, for it always leads me to think about the greatest writer I’ve ever read, William Shakespeare, who never laid claim to being more than a working playwright feeding the public’s appetite for new entertainments. Writers in my opinion should simply write, and leave the judgments to the critics and, most of all, to history. Given this bias of mine as well as all of the other problematic (to me) rhetoric surrounding the Eastgate school, and given that it so conspicuously failed to set the world on fire as promised in Coover’s article, you might well be asking why I’ve bothered to write all these words about its origins. It’s a fair question, and one to which I will, if you’ll bear with me just a little longer, give three answers.

The first answer is that there is some real historical interest here in the context of more contemporary choice-based narratives. Storyspace was the first of its kind, the urtext of systems like Twine and the Choice Of Games engine. While it has generally been used to create works of a very different character than those more recent systems, there is no reason why it couldn’t create, say, a contemporary take on Choose Your Own Adventure full of concrete choices — “I want to go here and do that!” — instead of more abstracted explorations of a writerly space.

The second answer is that the movement simply deserves an evaluation — or an obituary if you must — from someone outside its orbit. I may very well not be the person who is best-qualified to provide that evaluation, but for right now anyway I’m all it’s got.

But it’s the third answer that may be the real answer. This blog has always been, among other things, a chronicle of my personal journey through the history of interactive entertainment. And the fact is that, while I’ve seen the big flagship works and not been overly impressed, much of what languishes in the Eastgate catalog is completely unknown to me, and much of it sounds rather intriguing despite that whisper from my worse if wiser self that tells me I’m probably in for more disappointment. I wonder for instance about the aforementioned King of Space, a hypertext novel I’ve purchased but haven’t yet tried; in addition to what certainly reads like an extant and even intriguing plot, it contains, Eastgate tells us sotto voce, “elements of gaming.” (Shhh!) So, I do plan to dig into this and other Eastgate hypertext novels, to find out whether there are hidden away in their catalog works with some real meat on their bones and life flowing through their veins. I’ll continue to explore, and if I find that to be the case I’ll report back here. If not, this may well be my one and only article on the subject — mission accomplished, duty to history satisfied. We shall see.

In the meanwhile, how about we talk about an adventure game next time? Sound good to you? Well, at this point it sounds pretty good to me too.

(Sources: Literature in the Digital Age: An Introduction by Adam Hammond; Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum; “Postmodernism and Science Fiction” by Andrew M. Butler, from The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction; Narrative as Virtual Reality and Avatars of Story by Marie-Laure Ryan; Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature by Espen J. Aarseth; Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace by Janet H. Murray; The New York Times of June 21, 1992.)

  1. afternoon, a story would go through multiple revisions over a period of years, but these would largely be to polish the existing text and, most of all, to add many more links between the extant textual nodes. In terms of word count, in other words, the version of afternoon that Joyce passed out at the conference was substantially the same as the one that is available today. 

  2. The most amusing of the rare collisions between literary hypertext and the hobbyist interactive-fiction community must be the history of the Usenet newsgroup Being apparently unaware that for many thousands of people the term “interactive fiction” meant text adventures — especially the text adventures of Infocom — literary-hypertext practitioners tried to appropriate the term for themselves around the time of Eastgate’s release of afternoon, setting up to discuss their own very different interests. It was promptly invaded by vastly greater numbers of text-adventure fans wanting to talk about the old Infocom games, whereupon the literary-hypertext people departed in a huff, leaving the newsgroup, alongside its companion group, to become the central discussion forum of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance of the 1990s. 


Voyageur is out now!

February 10, 2017 02:07 PM

Voyageur, the game I’ve been working on for the past year, has now launched. Read more about it at its website, or you can get it from Google Play or the App Store.

February 09, 2017

Emily Short

Voyageur: Impressions

by Emily Short at February 09, 2017 04:00 PM

Click to view slideshow.

First, a massive disclaimer: Voyageur’s author Bruno Dias is a friend. Also, I often do work for Failbetter, which provided support for Voyageur via Fundbetter. In addition, Voyageur uses procedural text generation features that draw on things I did for Annals of the Parrigues, and I had a number of conversations with Bruno about the game while it was in development. That said, I will try to be as useful as I can, since I’ve been asked for more of an assessment than the simple announcements I’ve been posting.

What is Voyageur? This is a systematic quality-based narrative with procedurally generated textual descriptions, trading, and perma-death — though in the right circumstances you can leave a substantial legacy to a future captain.

To unpack that a bit: you start out on a planet with a little money and a few supplies and something called a Descent Drive. A Descent Drive is alien technology that moves faster than anything made by humans — but only in one direction, towards the center of the galaxy. If you want to take a trip on one, you are never coming home.

So you set out, and each time you do, you have the ability to steer a little. You can typically pick which of 2-5 available planets you want to see next. You know one or two facts about them. Sometimes those facts are enough to tell you which planet is going to be the best place to sell off your current cargo or drop a passenger; sometimes you’re pretty much taking your chances. The descriptions of the planets, as well as the crew you pick up and the trade goods you acquire, are all procedurally generated. Planets have governments, cultures, climates. Trade goods have different levels of quality and other features that make them appealing on different worlds. I particularly enjoyed some of the trade good descriptions that hinted at the surrounding culture: Sea urchin substitute. Generic locust steaks. An artwork consisting of AR decorations overlaid on electronic components.

Every planet lets you buy supplies and trade goods in the market. Some offer other possibilities: local sights to see and politics to engage with, biological samples to collect, shady back alleys in which to buy illegal products. In a few places, you can actually go on an extended expedition, though only if you have built up enough of a crew to come with you. There are also some menaces — pirates attack on many of your jumps, and though there are ways to get better at resisting them, I initially lost out on some major profits because they were constantly taking my stuff.

From a gameplay perspective, there are moments distinctly reminiscent of Failbetter’s work: options labeled as “a matter of luck: likely to succeed,” like luck checks in Fallen London; the opportunity to turn in “planetary surveys” of places you’ve visited, a little reminiscent of Port Reports in Sunless Sea.

The quantity of narrative is differently balanced, though. There are unique events in the Voyageur world, but there are no unique planets: each one is procedural, and none of the planets really has a storyline the way that ports in Sunless Sea have storylines. On the other hand, there are several possible real endings for Voyageur, and a longer-term big ending to find, which took me some persistent play and saving up to reach. As the devlog puts it

Because the worlds you visit are procedurally generated, Voyageur features nomadic storylines with chapters that will settle wherever they find appropriate ground.

Part of your personal story is about how your knowledge and experience of many worlds becomes in itself a resource. (Once I told an academy of learned Star scholars a pack of lies about worlds they would never see: they paid me handsomely, and I invested the cash in building a smuggling compartment into my ship.)

Meanwhile, Voyageur‘s UI is clear, streamlined, and attractive, and the game is backed with sound effects that suggest isolation and distance: technological beeps and boops, footsteps in a metal corridor, a windscape. It’s restful to play; it’s rare to run into seriously escalating risk and also impossible to get stuck, per se, which makes it a good casual-contemplative piece.

The solitude, austerity, and the lack of interpersonal storylines reminded me a little of Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home: but where Heliopause is about seeing sights of astonishing astronomical beauty, Voyageur is more about socio-political tourism. The planets you visit are aligned with one of five philosophies (Ladder, Hammer, Dome, Chrysalis, and Star), which affect how they view personal and social rights, governance, and the best way of living in harmony with the physical environment. Ladder planets are often crawling with AR decorations. Dome planets terraform extensively; on Chrysalis planets, people engage in extensive body mods. (You can buy yourself new, more graceful limbs on a high-tech Chrysalis world.)

Meanwhile, it’s a universe where Earth-bound culture has mixed and disseminated beyond recognition; a planet with a Japanese name may have a leader who sounds Hispanic, and be part of an Indian-sounding collective. If there were any mappings of Earth cultures to the Ladder/Hammer/Dome/Chrysalis/Star aspects, I didn’t detect them. That is also a kind of world-building, I grant — though I found that it worked a little counter-evocatively for me, in that I wasn’t able to draw on linguistically-cued aesthetics to help me imagine what a given planet might look like. Still, as a projection of what humanity might become, it makes a certain sense.

I wouldn’t have minded a few more mid-game story unlock elements. This is something that’s quite hard to judge in a QBN story: when do you have enough content for it to work? But in my play arc, at least, I found a few items to save up for and unlock in the early game; then spent a while trading in a somewhat aimless way; then hit a patch again with more to unlock and accomplish. A few major story reveals (main-narrative reveals fro my crew members) happened all at once on a single planet, too, and I wondered if those shouldn’t perhaps have been spaced out a little more for best effect.

Finally, so much of the game’s conceptual core and story moments are about politics and the implications of economy that I wished for a few more mechanics that operated outside the simple trading exchange. There are some revolution-related story beats, and some moments when you can e.g. harbor a refugee — and it’s possible that there were some further story unlocks I might have reached if I’d just driven some of those stats higher. But I would have liked to be able to interact mechanically more with the themes that were so extensively developed through the procedural generation system of the game.

But I know that if my main criticism is “I wish there were more of this,” I’m not really complaining all that much.

Voyageur is available on iOS and Android. [Edited to add, since I’ve been asked: I played on my phone and it was completely workable in that format. Tablet-sized device not required.]

(This really needs to be compared with House of Many Doors, also a Failbetter-funded-and-influenced game with procedural text components. My play time has been constrained lately, but I definitely want to come back to that as well.)

February 07, 2017

Emily Short

Voyageur Launched

by Emily Short at February 07, 2017 05:00 PM

The Descent Device: faster-than-light travel at speeds no human should go; an alien mystery. But it only goes one way, falling from star to star towards the centre of the galaxy. Voyageur is a literary RPG where you take the helm of a trader-vagabond vessel, looking for adventure, wealth, and answers in an infinite galaxy full of procedural cultures and civilizations.

I’ve occasionally mentioned here Bruno Dias’ development work on Voyageur, a text exploration and trading game through procedurally generated worlds and spaces. It launches today for iOS and Android! Here’s the launch video:

February 06, 2017


Undiscovered Bugs

by Hanon Ondricek ( at February 06, 2017 07:03 PM

Someone on the forums with the handle "lister" decided to industriously tag all the IFComp games on IFDB, so of course, I vainly searched to see where mine had placed over time. Finally on about page seven of hundreds of games, Transparent showed up. I gave it a play-through since I hadn't looked at it in a while, amazed at how packed with stuff it is. Who knows how I got it done; it was way too large for IFComp, and despite starting out moderately-scoped in my head, it blew up out of proportion and I didn't have time to test it as thoroughly as one would want.

As I explored Thorne Manor again, enjoying how well the random sound generation actually worked out, I couldn't remember what clever refusal message I had implemented if someone tries to pick up the bathtub:

With all the poorly-conceived inventory limits I had initially put in that game, my photographer was now walking around a haunted house carrying an entire claw-foot bathtub with shower and curtain. Luckily I had restricted objects that could be put in the PC's coat pocket with an adjective, so I was spared that ridiculousness, and I kept it in inventory since I didn't want to see if the butler would dutifully tidy it up and shut it in the hall closet. I solicited a lot of feedback post-comp from experienced beta testers, and nobody (including me) had ever caught this very easily fixed bug.

So what's the longest a bug has gone undocumented in a game? Comment below and tell me about the glitch you found years later in an old Comp entry or that one bit of weirdness that the Infocom team totally missed. Or anything obscure and hilarious that crops up when an IF is abused beyond what the author considered.

Interactive Friction

Review: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

by snowblood ( at February 06, 2017 03:00 PM

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney appeared 16 years ago in Japan, and reached Western shores in 2005. A highly stylised murder-mystery visual novel, with basic "find the contradiction!" gameplay elements and some point-and-click adventuring, it should never have appealed to Western tastes, and yet it somehow became incredibly popular. The bizarre localisation, which relocated the setting from Japan to the United States west coast (leading to really incongruous stories about "magatamas" and samurai TV shows), could not disguise the great wit, wonderful characterisation and deviously clever plotting that went into these games. There have been sequels, spin-offs, manga and anime adaptations, even novels. It even spawned its own genre of "Ace-Attorney-likes": games obviously heavily indebted to the series include Regeria Hope, Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher (an edutainment game about the history of philosophy), and Aviary Attorney (set in 1840s France with J.J. Grandville art). These Ace-Attorney-likes have something in common: they are all low-budget and independently developed. Step forth Spike Chunsoft, the first major professional development studio to do something obviously inspired by Ace Attorney. Danganronpa was the result. First appearing on the Playstation Portable in Japan in 2010, it got a Western release on the Playstation Vita in 2014 (with the new subtitle, Trigger Happy Havoc), and reached the PC, along with its sequel, last year.

As a high school kid who won a lottery to attend the prestigious Hope's Peak Academy, the player-character Makoto Naegi passes out on his arrival at the entrance hall, and wakes to find he has been locked into the deserted building, with all doors and windows sealed, alongside 14 other students (each of which has their own "ultimate" skill). Yes, the developers have indeed acknowledged the influence of the film Cube on this scenario. Monokuma, a sadistic animatronic teddy bear, announces that, in order to leave the school, they must successfully kill a fellow student and get away with it in the subsequent "class trial". That will lead to a "graduation" - the murderer gets to leave, while everyone else gets executed. On the other hand, if the murderer is correctly accused during the class trial, only the murderer is executed, and everyone else lives to fight another day. Again, the influence of the film Saw is clear, and has been acknowledged, while Battle Royale's motif, of kids killing each other until only one remains, is obvious. Do the kids choose to live together in peace and harmony, or to start the slaughter? Well, the latter, obviously.

Interactive gameplay occurs intermittently: the school is modelled as a full 3D environment that can be explored FPS-style. Conversations can be initiated with the other characters (who appear as 2D cardboard cutouts) during "free time" sequences, but only a limited number before the plot begins to progress again, so the choice here is which character's you want Makoto to develop a relationship with, and learn more about, the most. Clicking on hotspots picks up gold coins, which can be spent on winning presents from a slot machine, that can then be given to other characters to further improve Makoto's relationship with them. When a murder victim is discovered (usually depicted in a very gory image), you can examine the murder scene, collecting clues ("truth bullets") to be used in the later class trial. This is all fairly perfunctory stuff though, until the class trials commence. And then, things truly explode into minigame-mania! The basic class trial mode is essentially Ace Attorney's main gameplay mode (use the right "truth bullet" on the right part of the statements) with a few complications: you need to "shoot" the statement as it moves around the screen, and the statement may be blocked by "white noise", which you must first shoot to be able to hit your target, and there is a time limit. In other words, the purely cerebral puzzle-solving of Ace Attorney now has some arcade-action elements to make things more fun/more annoying (delete as appropriate). In truth, these action elements are so easy as to be trivial. Your brainpower will be almost entirely focused on deducting the truth rather than struggling with the arcade bits. Other parts of the class trial provide simple multiple-choice questions to answer, hangman-style blank words to fill in, and, strangest of all, a rhythm action game in which you must time your clicks to the beat to destroy an argument. It's all quite baffling to begin with, but familiarity breeds content.

The class trials basically act as a comprehension test. Have you understood what's been going on so far? Have you made the connections the writer's have wanted you to make? Did you pick up on the subtle hints seeded in to the story so far? Has the story put you in the correct mind-set for what is to come? Prove it with these simple puzzles! While these trials provide the pulse-pounding adrenaline rush highs of the game, they also serve to progress the plot and heighten characterisation at the same time. Think you've got a handle on things? Stop while we pull the rug out from under your feet! The brilliant music, voice acting, and swirling, spinning camera further serve to amp up the excitement. Those moments of pure ecstacy when everything clicks, and you instinctively realise who did what and when and how, occur regularly in Danganronpa's class trials. The problem, of course, is when the inverse happens, and the player ends up flailing, having failed to guess the author's mind. "No, you should be using *that* truth bullet on *that* statement!" And while that did happen on a couple of occasions, I feel it happened a lot more in the Ace Attorney games.

As well as the murder-mysteries, there is also the meta-mystery to solve. Who is controlling this evil teddy bear, and why? What's going on outside the school? The schoolkids themselves are also wrapped in mysteries. Is everyone being honest about who they are and what they are doing at the school? Monokuma also throws in extra motives to the mix from time to time, and even announces that there is a traitor in their midst. This is all beautifully wrapped up in the final class trial, where everything comes to a head, and we get shocking reveal after shocking reveal. It's incredible, and a testament to Spike Chunsoft allowing their writer's off the leash: there is no sign of design by committee here, no attempt to soften things up for a wider audience, no dark avenue or strange, culturally-sensitive byway left unexplored. Unlike Ace Attorney, the localization embraces the Japanese-ness of proceedings. Characters retain their Japanese names, talk about Japanese things, even reference other Japanese media that will certainly leave non-otaku foreigners scratching their heads. And that is great. It has all the tropes you come to expect from Japanese manga and anime: every character is ludicrously over-the-top, the situation is High Concept to the max and bears little or no relation to reality, the girls are often sexualised (yet equally, they are often the strongest, most complex and completely defined characters, and the game passes the Bechdel test with flying colours). As that is precisely the style it's going for, it cannot really be criticised for hitting its target to perfection. And certainly, if Ace Attorney worked for you, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (and its equally essential sequel, Goodbye Despair) will too.

The Gameshelf: IF

My Secret Hideout: now available on Itch.IO

by Andrew Plotkin at February 06, 2017 06:16 AM

A very long time ago (as times go), back in 2011, I released an iOS app titled My Secret Hideout. It was...

...a wacky, creative thing set in a treehouse. It’s not like any app you’ve seen before. Buy it! Play around with it!

My Secret Hideout has no goal, no score, no trophies. Explore it, or play with it, until you find a result you like. Will your treehouse be simple or complex? Can you guide it? What will you discover inside?

Which is to say, it was a procedural text generation experiment that I thought might sell a few copies. It did, in fact, sell a few copies. So I let it sit there on the App Store, generating its handful of dollars a month, and I went back to working on Hadean Lands and Meanwhile and all the other cool things I've done since 2011.

Then, last month, I got a notice from Apple that I really should update that app, please, or they'd yank it from the store. (Apple announced this policy last year.) This was not an illogical request: the last time I touched Hideout, it was to add support for iOS 5. The app never supported retina displays, much less the modern big-ass iPhones. It mostly still worked on current devices and the current iOS, but the layout had gotten screwy. The VoiceOver support was sort of broken. Also it had that "may slow down your device" warning, which I believe translates as "this is a 32-bit app, how Paleolithic, eww."

To be clear, I think that dropping apps from the App Store is a stupid policy. Apple's correct move would be to apply a "search death penalty", hiding obsolete apps from all browsing and keyword search. If someone still has the direct link and decides to buy the app for their ancient iPod, take their money! This is history! Preserve it, jerks.

But, to be equally clear, I could update My Secret Hideout for iOS 10. It's just not worth the time and effort, because the app makes no money. (I got a similar "please update" notice for my Heliopause app, and I jumped right on that, because it uses the same IF framework as Hadean Lands. Which makes a bit of money. All of my IF apps have now been buffed to a pleasingly modern shine.)

So is My Secret Hideout lost forever? No!

I decided that if I couldn't make money on it, I should make it free. But if I'm to make it free, I might as well make it free on a web page. That way, everybody can take a look, even those benighted souls without iPhones.

Thus: play My Secret Hideout on Itch.IO. If you like it, please consider the "donate" button.

The caveats:

  • The leaf-dragging animations aren't quite as bouncy as on iOS, and there are no little rustly sound effects.
  • It's not very accessible to sight-impaired users. This is sad, because the original iOS app supported VoiceOver. (Until that broke.)
  • There is no longer any way to save or export trees. Sorry. You'll have to just copy text from the web page.
  • I have a report that it doesn't work on Linux. Or maybe it doesn't work on hybrid touchscreen-and-mouse laptops. I'm not sure. (You'd think the HTML touch event interface would be solid by now, but no.)

On the up side, I was finally able to delete the Facebook account that supported the "Export your tree to Facebook" feature. Man, was that ever a waste of time.

Sibyl Moon Games

Notes from BFIG Talks 2017: How Game Mechanics Can Increase Immersion Without Affecting Game States

by Carolyn VanEseltine at February 06, 2017 05:01 AM

BFIG Talks is a game dev conference run by the Boston Festival of Indie Games. It features both digital and nondigital game devs, and there’s a lot to learn in the crossover. The rest of my BFIG Talks notes are over here.

BFIG Talks speakers: Please contact me (carolyn at if:

  • I included something you said that should not be included, or
  • I quoted you without attributing (when you would prefer attribution), or
  • I made a factual error (I take notes by hand, and I make no pretense of infallibility!)

How Game Mechanics Can Increase Immersion Without Affecting Game States

Speaker: Sharang Biswas

(This talk focused on nondigital games, but there are digital examples of mechanics that don’t affect game state, such as the rules that tell players to draw on their arms in Porpentine’s With Those We Love Alive or bake a cake in Christine Love’s Hate Plus.)

Art and text are not the best way to create immersion. Arguably, they’re the worst way!

Mechanics (rules) are most immersive. Dynamics (emergent behavior within gameplay; what happens when people use mechanics) are second-most immersive. Aesthetics (art, text) are least immersive.

“In all games, there is an element of retroactive attribution” – Skin Deep, Emily Care Boss

Thinking about mechanics: what about game mechanics that don’t affect the game state, but are still official game rules?

Pretty Pretty Princess, a game about collecting jewelry, involves physical plastic jewelry. The rules say you need to wear the jewelry when you collect it. This is a very different experience from  collecting cards with pictures of jewelry.

What about actions that don’t affect game state? (This is the topic of this talk.)

Embodiment: “the assumption that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are grounded in sensory experiences and bodily states” – Embodiment in Social Psychology

Theater director V.E. Meyerhold experimented with the outside-in/biomechanical model of acting, where actors take action and are then informed by the experience of that action. (This is the opposite of Stanislavski’s system, which encourages actors to search for inner motives to justify action.)

Mad Science Foundation has a card with a picture of a big red button. In playtesting, they observed that people like pressing the button, so the game rules require you to press the button and make an appropriate noise if you want to activate the card.

The Quiet Year relies on limited communication. Rather than saying “I disagree with that action”, players give each other contempt tokens to express disagreement.

Principles of Incantation and Applied Esoterics for Persons of Breeding or Talent (by Biswas & Seidman) is a LARP about learning magical words and pronouncing them correctly. To signal when a spell is for real (as opposed to for practice), players wave a wand as they say the words.

Contagion has sequences where players need to “make contact” with one another. This could be done by holding hands, but instead it’s done by having both players go to a glowing ball and touching it.

Use mechanics that don’t affect game state to enhance the mood of your game.

Thinking about mechanics: What are you trying to model? What actions/verbs belong in your game, and how can they best be modeled?

Notes from Boston FIG Talks

by Carolyn VanEseltine at February 06, 2017 05:01 AM

Last weekend, I spoke at Boston FIG Talks, a game dev conference run by the Boston Festival of Indie Games, aka BFIG. (BFIG is both an event and the name of the organization that runs that event.) This was my first time attending Boston Fig Talks, and it was fantastic! I’ll definitely be back in the future.bfig-logo

My talk was “Worldbuilding and the Real World”, a talk about culture and worldbuilding, cowritten and copresented with voice artist/sociologist Khadeja Merenkov. This talk was her idea; I was honored to be invited along, and I learned a lot from her along the way. If you see Khadeja speaking at a game dev event near you, sign up, because it will be worth it.

As usual, I have notes!

Once the posts are up, I’ll link the individual posts back to this page.

Typing up notes may take a little longer than usual because this weekend is Intercon Q, featuring the debut of my dark sci-fi LARP Librarian and Catalog. Cross your fingers for me! (My co-GMs say I won’t need extra luck, but it never hurts.)



February 05, 2017


Ideals and Goals

February 05, 2017 08:01 PM

I wanted to take an opportunity to discuss some aspects of the Gamefic project and my objectives behind it. I've been working on it sporadically for about five years, but only recently have I been able to dedicate a significant amount of time to it. Development of the framework is ramping up and new game projects are on the horizon. Here's an impromptu list of my thoughts.


Parsing in ZILF, part 3: From noun phrase to object

by Jesse ( at February 05, 2017 05:00 PM

This is the third in a series of posts describing ZILF's parser. Read part 2 here.

In the second post, we covered noun phrases -- phrases like "all cubes except red" and "lamp, food, and bottle" that the player can type to refer to objects.

We also covered how the parser recognizes them and how it represents them in memory: the PARSE-NOUN-PHRASE routine scans the player's command and fills in a NOUN-PHRASE structure, which holds a list of adjective/noun pairs called OBJSPECs.

But how does the parser identify which objects the player is referring to?

After MATCH-SYNTAX finds a syntax line that matches the player's command, the FIND-OBJECTS routine combines the noun phrases with the find flag and search options from the syntax line, and decides what needs to be done for each object required by the syntax line.

There are a few possibilities, depending on what the player typed. It can:

  • match a noun phrase,
  • expand a pronoun,
  • supply a missing object,
  • ask the player to clarify,
  • or fail, printing an error message.

Matching a noun phrase

The most obvious choice: if the player typed "shiny lamp", we want to find an object whose ADJECTIVE and SYNONYM properties contain the words SHINY and LAMP, somewhere within the player's reach.

The routine MATCH-NOUN-PHRASE does just that. It runs through the OBJSPECs included by the noun phrase -- called YSPECs, "Y" for "yes" -- and for each one, it uses a MAP-SCOPE loop to search for objects that match the YSPEC and aren't excluded by any NSPECs ("except" clauses). The objects that match are written into a table (P-PRSOS or P-PRSIS), where they'll eventually be used to perform the action.

Scope stages

MAP-SCOPE is a powerful, flexible loop statement, which chooses a set of scope stages (from scope.zil) and runs the loop body for each object encountered in those stages.

In part 1, we saw that the syntax line contains search options telling the parser where to look for the direct and indirect objects. Those options correspond to scope stages: if we give MAP-SCOPE a set of search options, it'll only use the stages corresponding to those options.

When it comes to interpreting a player's command, though, the search options are really only guidelines. If the player types "pick up axe" when there are two axes available, they probably don't mean the axe they're holding, so we only want to match the one they aren't holding. But if there's only one axe and they're holding it, we want to settle for that one, so we can come up with a better error message than "You don't see that here."

So the parser might need to do more than one search for the same YSPEC: once with the scopes suggested by the syntax line, and again with a wider set of scopes if it didn't match any objects the first time.

(That's an oversimplification. The way it actually works is... complicated... in order to address some special cases. It seemed like a good idea at the time.)

Match quality and INVISIBLE

OBJSPECs contain an adjective and a noun, and they can match an object using either or both. In fact, since a word can be both a noun and an adjective, an OBJSPEC that only contains a noun can match an object's adjective.

If the player types "get polish" when there's a Polish sausage and a can of shoe polish available, we assume they mean the can of shoe polish, because the command makes more grammatical sense with a noun than an adjective. But if only the sausage is available, we accept a match using only the adjective.

That logic is in the REFERS? routine, which checks an OBJSPEC against an object's ADJECTIVE and SYNONYM properties and returns a match score: 0 for no match, 1 for adjective-only, 2 for noun-only, and 3 if the adjective and noun both matched. Only the highest-scoring set of objects are kept as matches: a single noun match takes precedence over all the adjective-only matches.

As a special case, objects with the INVISIBLE flag can never match. The parser skips them without even calling REFERS?.

OBJSPECs that don't match

Usually, it's an error if any of the OBJSPECs in a NOUN-PHRASE returns no matches: if the player types "get lamp and sword" when there's no sword, we assume they won't settle for just the lamp.

But there's an exception for "except". If every object matched by a YSPEC is excluded by one of the NSPECs, the parser lets it slide, so "get all swords and shields except rusty" can succeed even if every sword available is rusty. If every shield is rusty too, though, the parser will complain "There are none at all available!"

GENERIC-OBJECTS and pseudo-objects

GENERIC-OBJECTS is like GLOBAL-OBJECTS, but for objects that should only match as a last resort. Typically those are concepts like NUMBER, or conversation topics, or placeholders for objects the player can refer to when they're not present (like an NPC they might want to follow).

The parser never considers GENERIC-OBJECTS until a YSPEC fails to match in all the other scopes, at which point it enables "ludicrous scope" and starts over.

ALL by itself

Commands with no YSPECs, like "take all" and "drop all but lamp", form a special case that skips most of the steps above.

In this case, the parser calls MAP-SCOPE to find everything in the player's reach, but instead of REFERS?, it calls ALL-INCLUDES? to filter out objects that "all" shouldn't apply to. That means INVISIBLE objects and the WINNER for sure. For TAKE and DROP, it also skips any objects that need special care to pick up (ones with TRYTAKEBIT) or can't be picked up at all (ones missing TAKEBIT).

Also, in this case, GLOBAL-OBJECTS and GENERIC-OBJECTS are always skipped. We assume the player means all the nearby objects, not their hands, the sun, or conversation topics. LOCAL-GLOBALS can still match.

Returning the matches

If an error occurs in any step above, MATCH-NOUN-PHRASE returns zero after printing an error message.

If a single object was matched, it returns that object.

If multiple objects were matched, a few things can happen:
  • If the mode is "all" or if the player clearly asked for more than one object (by providing multiple OBJSPECs), it returns the placeholder MANY-OBJECTS, which tells PERFORM to repeat the action for all the objects in P-PRSOS or P-PRSIS.
  • If the mode is "any", it picks a random object from the set of matches, prints a clarifying message, and returns that object.
  • If any of the matched objects have a GENERIC function, it calls them all until one of them returns an object.
  • If none of that worked, it asks the player to clarify which matched object they mean, and puts the command on hold until they answer. (This is what most languages call disambiguation. In ZIL, it's called orphaning, and we'll cover it in more detail in a later post.)
That's all for MATCH-NOUN-PHRASE. But what if the player didn't name an object at all?

Expanding a pronoun

A noun phrase can also just be a pronoun. Before MATCH-NOUN-PHRASE is called, EXPAND-PRONOUN gets a chance to recognize the pronoun and load the appropriate list of objects.

The pronouns are defined in pronouns.zil, and the list of objects for each pronoun is saved either by the parser (which calls SET-PRONOUNS after a successful parse), or by explicitly calling THIS-IS-IT or CONTENTS-ARE-IT to make the pronouns refer to something the game mentioned.

Since the objects or the player may have moved since the list was written, EXPAND-PRONOUN also makes sure the player can still see them.

Supplying a missing object

Sometimes the syntax line that comes closest to matching the player's command still isn't a perfect match, because the command is incomplete.

For example, if the player types "enter" by itself, the only syntax line for that verb requires an object, so the parser needs to find an object to put there:
The GWIM routine ("Get What I Mean") uses the find flag and search options to look for a single object that matches. If there's exactly one object with that flag (DOORBIT) in that scope (IN-ROOM), GWIM prints a clarifying message and uses that object as the missing noun. Otherwise, it fails, and FIND-OBJECTS orphans the command after asking "What do you want to enter?"

The find flag is optional, but important. If it's omitted, GWIM can only succeed if there's only one object at all in that scope.


GWIM is also called for perfectly good commands, when they happen to end with a preposition.

Recall from part 1 that every preposition in a syntax line has to be associated with a noun phrase. According to ZIL's primitive concept of sentences, "turn lamp off" isn't a valid sentence, and neither is "take inventory" (since "inventory" isn't a noun phrase, it's fixed syntax). But of course we want to support those syntaxes. The solution is to put the extra object slot in the syntax line, and mark it with a special find flag:
Now "turn lamp off" is parsed as if it's missing the second noun phrase, and when GWIM is called for it, it sees the KLUDGEBIT and silently fills in a special object for PRSI: ROOMS, which the player could never refer to otherwise.

This doesn't stop the player from providing a second noun phrase if they want to, which can be a mixed blessing. For example, the same syntax line that uses KLUDGEBIT to match "put brick down" could also match "put brick down chute"... but if the verb code isn't written to handle both uses, the second noun will simply be ignored.

February 04, 2017

Interactive Fables

Interactive Fiction is alive and well!

February 04, 2017 05:09 PM

Since releasing Worldsmith as a 'pay what you think it's worth' game, we've seen a huge uptick in the number of downloads. This is great. We are glad people are playing - in fact, for a moment back there, Worldsmith was the top download in the adventure category. Thanks to all who felt that the game was worthwhile enough to actually pay some money for and welcome to all the new subscribers to this blog. What a lot of the new players of Worldsmith might not know is that there is a whole world of

February 03, 2017

Sibyl Moon Games

Any questions for Apex Magazine?

by Carolyn VanEseltine at February 03, 2017 07:01 PM

First off: if you’re waiting on my notes from Boston FIG Talks – fear not, they’re coming! I have notes from five amazing talks (four game design, one programming). I learned a lot and I’m excited to share it with you.

But for today, I have a different question. As you may know, I’m a slush reader for Apex Magazine, which is a Nebula-nominated, SFWA-accredited speculative fiction magazine. Apex publishes horror, science fiction, and fantasy stories, the kind that make you wince, feel, and think all at the same time.

Apex needs to raise $7500 in the spring because they shut their fall subscription drive down early. They’re starting up again in the spring, and they’re promoting the drive with mini-interviews all over the place. Interactive fiction and static fiction have some significant crossover, so I’d like to host one of those interviews here.

My question to you: What should I ask the Apex editors?

Leave suggestions in the comments, or send them via email or Twitter. I’ll pick my favorite five and send them to Jason and Lesley, and the results will be in Sibyl Moon sometime after March 27.

(If you have a blog, they’re willing to do an interview for you too. Check it out!)