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It’s time for a action summary!
Our hero, the unnamed adventurer, arrived at the Devils’ Delve in Kentucky. After surveying their surroundings and taking a light, tent, and knife, the adventurer hopped back in their truck and drove home.
… and in an alternate timeline …
The adventurer found a thirsty tree, and from a river outside brought in some water. After some confusion, the tree yielded an apple.
In a thoughtful mood, our adventurer decided for no apparent reason to return to the mouth of the cave and then stab themselves to death.
… and in another timeline …
Moving on further south, the adventurer found a room with cryptic characters that spelled out “THE SPIRITS OF THE FRUIT.” There was a bomb there, which the adventurer then set off, causing part of the cave to collapse, sealing themselves from civilization forever.
… and in yet another timeline …
After a brief amount of exploring, the adventurer paused for a moment to taste a bite of the apple in front of the cryptic wall. It was delicious, but no secret doors or other obvious effects revealed themselves.
Now, what do you do next?
Protocol: Just reply to this message what you want to do next. Follow along in the replies for responses!
As part of our support for the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels, we will be posting an irregular series of blog posts discussing important design and writing criteria for games. We hope that these can both provide guidance for people participating in the Contest and also help people understand how we think about questions of game design and some best practices. These don’t modify the evaluation criteria for the Contest, and (except as noted) participants are not required to conform to our recommendations–but it’s probably a good idea to listen when judges tell you what they’re looking for.
If these topics interest you, be sure to sign up for our contest mailing list below! We’ll post more of our thoughts on game design leading up to the contest deadline on January 31, 2018.
Last time we gave some concrete ways in which our Guidelines connect with our Judging Rubric, covering Inclusivity, Length and Coding Efficiency, and Setting and Plot. For a refresher, here’s the previous blog post. This time we’ll cover our more game design and coding related categories: Creative Stats, Balanced Choices, and Conflicting Goals with Satisfying Endings.
Creative Stats (10% of score):
Stats reflect the main purpose of the game, and as such stats that reflect standard RPG scores like Health, Wealth, and Reputation generally do not lead to compelling decisions and rich end-states. Games that only include stats like that are likely to receive a low score in Creative Stats, and are also likely to have low scores in Conflicting Goals and Balanced Choices because they lack the necessary depth in tracking how the player character has reacted and presented themselves. Creative stats should be unique to the game or universe, should fit in the genre and style of the story, and should also compel a player to think about what the stats mean to them personally. For example:
This is not to say that more “standard” stats must be omitted. If they assist in telling a better story they should certainly be used, but a game with only such stats lacks a certain depth that more individualized stats can give.
Stats should also be consistently applied throughout the game. This means that, at the very least, it should generally make sense why a stat is changing. From reading the text preceding a choice, the player should have a general idea of how the options and stats are tied together (although this is also a factor of the design of the choices). You should also be clear and consistent about what makes a particular stat rise or fall: for example, if the option “I put on a baseball cap” raises Charisma in Ch 3, the same option in Ch 6 shouldn’t raise Stealth instead. Finally, you should make sure that you don’t suddenly change how stats are tested: for example, if the game’s mechanics generally favor having multiple stats at medium levels, suddenly have the final few choices require one stat at a very high level can make the game feel very difficult and unfair.
Games with interesting stats that help to bolster the rest of the game, and that are both interesting, and consistent in their use, are likely to score higher in this category. A game which contains only very simplistic, uncompelling stats that do not give the player any sense of engagement, which fail to use stats in a consistent way, or which fail to track stats a significant amount of the time, will likely score low in Creative Stats. A game which simply does not track a player’s decisions with stats will most likely receive an 0 in Creative Stats.
Balanced Choices (15% of score):
Most, or even all, choices should have three or more options, none of which should be “do nothing” options. If the player can choose to not do anything, it should only be in direct pursuit of a goal. For example, “I keep silent in order to pressure the culprit into confessing on their own” is a perfectly valid option, while “I’ll wait and see, because that will let me get more information” is a little more suspect (why not just give the player the information without them asking?), and “I don’t join the adventure” should not ever be an option.
No option or path should be better or worse than any other—that means both in terms of how interesting the decision you’re offering the the player is, and in terms of the stat effects each option has—the options in your choices must be balanced.
When reading the choice, a player should have at least a rough estimate of what the outcomes of the different options are going to be. If the choice is testing stats, they should have an idea of what option tests which stats, while if it’s going to raise, lower, or set stats or variables, the player should be able to gleam which stats are being changed. For example, “I put on a baseball cap” doesn’t tell the player much, while “I put on a baseball cap because it looks good on me”, or “I put on a baseball cap because I can pull it down to hide my face” indicate what kind of stat they may be raising. (More on Intentionality can be found in this blog post by Becky Slitt)
Games which compel a player to think deeply about the choices before them, or that encourage a player to play again to see all the other options they could have chosen, can score higher in Balanced Choices. Games with options which are uncompelling, or which continually encourage only one path (either one specific path, or choosing one path early and never deviating), are likely to score lower in this category. A game which contains many choices with only two options, with unbalanced options, or with options that routinely do not contain enough information, may receive an 0 in Balanced Choices.
Conflicting Goals with Satisfying Endings (15% of score):
Every game should have multiple goals that the player can try to achieve. Ideally, these goals should conflict with each other: the player cannot pursue all the goals at the same time, and must choose among them. The outcome of the game should never simply be “did you win or did you lose?” There should always be multiple ways to win.
More structurally, no ending should come earlier than about 75% of the way through the game. There should also be something dramatic and satisfying about every ending, even if the ending is unhappy. It’s fine for a game to have tragic endings, such as the player’s character valiantly giving their life to achieve at least some of their goals, but endings where a player simply fails everything should not appear.
While it is fine to have some endings be less satisfying, especially for failing a test near the end of the game (e.g. the player tries to push their loved one out of the way of an attack, but doesn’t have the speed to do it, and so while they save their loved one, they die in the process, while if they succeeded, both of them would have lived), there shouldn’t be any endings which are obviously more satisfying, and there certainly shouldn’t be an ending which is the most satisfying. For example, if the player has a choice between succeeding at running a small business doing something they enjoy or a big business they hate, that’s a good conflicting goal. If they can change the big business to be something they like, or can just purchase the small business at the end, that becomes an obviously more satisfying goal and all sense of conflict is lost.
The player should always understand why they reached the ending that they did. Having an ending come from nowhere, or an ending which feels like it’s not accounting for something leaves a lasting bad impression. Endings that ignore stats (e.g. no matter your ‘swordfighting’ skill you lose the duel at the end to build tension), insert a standard piece of epilogue which doesn’t work (e.g. you always settle down to a quiet life after the adventure, even if you were a bloodthirsty barbarian during it), or come out of nowhere (e.g. you make a wrong turn, fall off a cliff, and die) are not satisfying. No matter the case, if a player feels like it assigns qualities or actions to them that don’t fit, it detracts from any feeling of satisfaction. (Read through this blog post by Adam Strong-Morse for more about writing conflicting and independent goals.)
Games with multiple interesting goals, and that require players to decide what they want, will score higher in this category. Games with few goals, or that don’t have balanced or interesting goals, are likely to score lower. If a game has only one goal or a goal that is obviously far more important than any others, or only unsatisfying endings or endings that come suddenly, early, or leave the player wondering what they did wrong, it may receive an 0 in this category.
Next week we’ll finish explaining our Rubric by talking about Original, Interesting Characters, what exactly does Prose Styling mean, and give a bit of personal insight with the Judge’s Choice.
In the lore of gaming there’s a subset of spectacular failures that have become more famous than the vast majority of successful games. From E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to Daikatana to Godus, this little rogue’s gallery inhabits its own curious corner of gaming history. The stories behind these games, carrying with them the strong scent of excess and scandal, can’t help but draw us in.
But there are also other, less scandalous cases of notable failure to which some of us continually return for reasons other than schadenfreude. One such case is that of Covert Action, Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley’s 1990 game of espionage. Covert Action, while not a great or even a terribly good game, wasn’t an awful game either. And, while it wasn’t a big hit, nor was it a major commercial disaster. By all rights it should have passed into history unremarked, like thousands of similarly middling titles before and after it. The fact that it has remained a staple of discussion among game designers for some twenty years now in the context of how not to make a game is due largely to Sid Meier himself, a very un-middling designer who has never quite been able to get Covert Action, one his few disappointing games, out of his craw. Indeed, he dwells on it to such an extent that the game and its real or perceived problems still tends to rear its head every time he delivers a lecture on the art of game design. The question of just what’s the matter with Covert Action — the question of why it’s not more fun — continues to be asked and answered over and over, in the form of Meier’s own design lectures, extrapolations on Meier’s thesis by others, and even the occasional contrarian apology telling us that, no, actually, nothing‘s wrong with Covert Action.
What with piling onto the topic having become such a tradition in design circles, I couldn’t bear to let Covert Action‘s historical moment go by without adding the weight of this article to the pile. But first, the basics for those of you who wouldn’t know Covert Action if it walked up and invited you to dinner.
As I began to detail in my previous article, Covert Action‘s development at MicroProse, the company at which Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley worked during the period in question, was long by the standards of its time, troubled by the standards of any time, and more than a little confusing to track in our own time. Begun in early 1988 as a Commodore 64 game by Lawrence Schick, another MicroProse designer, it was conceived from the beginning as essentially an espionage version of Sid Meier’s earlier hit Pirates! — as a set of mini-games the player engaged in to affect the course of an overarching strategic game. But Schick found that he just couldn’t get the game to work, and moved on to something else. And that would have been that — except that Sid Meier had become intrigued by the idea, and picked it up for his own next project, moving it in the process from the Commodore 64 to MS-DOS, where it would have a lot more breathing room.
In time, though, the enthusiasm of Meier and his assistant designer Bruce Shelley also began to evaporate; they started spending more and more time dwelling on an alternative design. By August of 1989, they were steaming ahead with Railroad Tycoon, and all work on Covert Action for the nonce had ceased.
After Railroad Tycoon was completed and released in April of 1990, Meier and Shelley returned to Covert Action only under some duress from MicroProse’s head Bill Stealey. With the idea that would become Civilization already taking shape in Meier’s head, his enthusiasm for Covert Action was lower than ever, but needs must. As Shelley tells the story, Meier’s priorities were clear in light of the idea he had waiting in the wings. “We’re just getting this game done,” Meier said of Covert Action when Shelley tried to suggest ways of improving the still somehow unsatisfying design. “I’ve got to get this game finished.” It’s hard to avoid the impression that in the end Meier simply gave up on Covert Action. Yet, given the frequency with which he references it to this day, it’s seems equally clear that that capitulation has never set well with him.
Covert Action casts you as the master spy Max Remington — or, in a nice nod to gender equality that was still unusual in a game of this era, as Maxine Remington. Max is the guy the CIA calls when they need someone to crack the really tough cases. The game presents you with a series of said tough cases, each involving a plot by some combination of criminal and/or terrorist groups to do something very bad somewhere in the world. Your objective is to figure out what group or groups are involved, figure out precisely what they’re up to, and foil their plot before they bring it to fruition. As usual for a Sid Meier game, you can play on any of four difficulty levels to ensure that everyone, from the rank beginner to the most experienced super-sleuth, can be challenged without being overwhelmed. If you do your job well, you will arrest the person at the top of the plot’s org chart, one of the game’s 26 evil masterminds. Once no more masterminds are left to arrest, Max can walk off into the sunset and enjoy a pleasant retirement, confident that he has made the world a safer place. (If only counter-terrorism was that easy in real life, right?)
The strategic decisions you make in directing the course of your investigation will lead to naught if you don’t succeed at the various mini-games. These include rewiring a junction box to tap a suspect’s phone (Covert Action presents us with a weirdly low-tech version of espionage, even for its own day); cracking letter-substitution codes to decipher a suspect’s message traffic; tailing or chasing a suspect’s car; and, in the most elaborate of the mini-games, breaking into a group’s hideaway to either collect intelligence or make an arrest.
Covert Action seems to have all the makings of a good game — perhaps even another classic like its inspiration, Pirates!. But, as Sid Meier and most of the people who have played it agree, it doesn’t ever quite come together to become an holistically satisfying experience.
It’s not immediately obvious just why that should be the case; thus all of the discussion the game has prompted over the years. Meier does have his theory, to which he’s returned enough that he’s come to codify it into a universal design dictum he calls the “the Covert Action rule.” For my part… well, I have a very different theory. So, first I’ll tell you about Meier’s theory, and then I’ll tell you about my own.
Meier’s theory hinges on the nature of the mini-games. He doesn’t believe that any of them are outright bad by any means, but does feel that they don’t blend well with the overarching strategic game, resulting in a lumpy stew of an experience that the player has trouble digesting. He’s particularly critical of the breaking-and-entering mini-game — a “mini-game” complicated enough that one could easily imagine it being released as a standalone game for the previous generation of computers (or, for that matter, for Covert Action‘s contemporaneous generation of consoles). Before you begin the breaking-and-entering game, you must choose what Max will carry with him: depending on your goals for this mission, you can give him some combination of a pistol, a sub-machine gun, a camera, several types of grenades, bugs, a Kevlar vest, a gas mask, a safe-cracking kit, and a motion detector. The underground hideaways and safe houses you then proceed to explore are often quite large, and full of guards, traps, and alarms to avoid or foil as you snoop for evidence or try to spirit away a suspect. You can charge in with guns blazing if you like, but, especially at the higher difficulty levels, that’s not generally a recipe for success. This is rather a game of stealth, of lurking in the shadows as you identify the guards’ patrol patterns, the better to avoid or quietly neutralize them. A perfectly executed mission in many circumstances will see you get in and out of the building without having to fire a single shot.
The aspect of this mini-game which Meier pinpoints as its problem is, somewhat ironically, the very ambition and complexity which makes it so impressive when considered alone. A spot of breaking and entering can easily absorb a very tense and intense half an hour of your time. By the time you make it out of the building, Meier theorizes, you’ve lost track of why you went in in the first place — lost track, in other words, of what was going on in the strategic game. Meier codified his theory in what has for almost twenty years been known in design circles as “the Covert Action rule.” In a nutshell, the rule states that “one good game is better than two great ones” in the context of a single game design. Meier believes that the mini-games of Covert Action, and the breaking-and-entering game in particular, can become so engaging and such a drain on the player’s time and energies that they clash with the strategic game; we end up with two “great games” that never make a cohesive whole. This dissonance never allows the player to settle into that elusive sense of total immersion which some call “flow.” Meier believes that Pirates! works where Covert Action doesn’t because the former’s mini-games are much shorter and much less complicated — getting the player back to the big picture, as it were, quickly enough that she doesn’t lose the plot of what the current situation is and what she’s trying to accomplish.
It’s an explanation that makes a certain sense on its face, yet I must say that it’s not one that really rings true to my own experiences with either games in general or Covert Action in particular. Certainly one can find any number of games which any number of players have hugely enjoyed that seemingly violate the Covert Action rule comprehensively. We could, for instance, look to the many modern CRPGs which include “sub-quests” that can absorb many hours of the player’s time, to no detriment to the player’s experience as a whole, at least if said players’ own reports are to be believed. If that’s roaming too far afield from the type of game which Covert Action is, consider the case of the strategy classic X-Com, one of the most frequently cited of the seeming Covert Action rule violators that paradoxically succeed as fun designs. It merges an overarching strategic game with a game of tactical combat that’s far more time-consuming and complicated than even the breaking-and-entering part of Covert Action. And yet it must place high in any ranking of the most beloved strategy games of all time. As we continue to look at specific counterexamples like X-Com or, for that matter, Pirates!, we can only continue to believe in the Covert Action rule by applying lots of increasingly tortured justifications for why this or that seemingly blatant violator nevertheless works as a game. So, X-Com, Meier tells us, works because the strategic game is relatively less complicated than the tactical game, leaving enough of the focus on the tactical game that the two don’t start to pull against one another. And Pirates!, of course, is just the opposite.
I can only say that when the caveats and exceptions to any given rule start to pile up, one is compelled to look back to the substance of the rule itself. As nice as it might be for the designers of Covert Action to believe the game’s biggest problem is that its individual parts were just each too darn ambitious, too darn good, I don’t think that’s the real reason the game doesn’t work.
So, we come back to the original question: just what is the matter with Covert Action? I don’t believe that Covert Action‘s core malady can be found in the mini-games, nor for that matter in the strategic game per se. I rather believe the problem is with the mission design and with the game’s fiction — which, as in so many games, are largely one and the same in this one. The cases you must crack in Covert Action are procedurally generated by the computer, using a set of templates into which are plugged different combinations of organizations, masterminds, and plots to create what is theoretically a virtually infinite number of potential cases to solve. My thesis is that it’s at this level — the level of the game’s fiction — where Covert Action breaks down; I believe that things have already gone awry as soon as the game generates the case it will ask you to solve, well before you make your first move. The, for lack of a better word, artificiality of the cases is never hard to detect. Even before you start to learn which of the limited number of templates are which, the stories just feel all wrong.
Literary critics have a special word, “mimesis,” which they tend to deploy when a piece of fiction conspicuously passes or fails the smell test of immersive believability. Dating back to classical philosophy, “mimesis” technically means the art of “showing” a story — as opposed to “diegesis,” the art of telling. It’s been adopted by theorists of textual interactive fiction as well as a stand-in for all those qualities of a game’s fiction that help to immerse the player in the story, that help to draw her in. “Crimes against Mimesis” — the name of an influential Usenet post written in 1996 by Roger Giner-Sorolla — are all those things, from problems with the interface to obvious flaws in the story’s logic to things that just don’t ring true somehow, that cast the player jarringly out of the game’s fiction — that reveal, in other words, the mechanical gears grinding underneath the game’s fictional veneer. Covert Action is full of these crimes against mimesis, full of these gears poking above the story’s surface. Groups that should hate each other ally with one another: the Colombian Cartel, the Mafia, the Palestine Freedom Organization (some names have been changed to protect the innocent or not-so-innocent), and the Stassi might all concoct a plot together. Why not? In the game’s eyes, they’re just interchangeable parts with differing labels on the front; they might as well have been called “Group A,” “Group B,” etc. When they send messages to one another, the diction almost always rings horribly, jarringly wrong in the ears of those of us who know what the groups represent. Here’s an example in the form of the Mafia talking like Jihadists.
If Covert Action had believable, mimetic, tantalizing — or at least interesting — plots to foil, I submit that it could have been a tremendously compelling game, without changing anything else about it. Instead, though, it’s got this painfully artificial box of whirling gears. Writing in the context of the problems of procedural generation in general, Kate Compton has called this the “10,000 Bowls of Oatmeal Problem.”
I can easily generate 10,000 bowls of plain oatmeal, with each oat being in a different position and different orientation, and mathematically speaking they will all be completely unique. But the user will likely just see a lot of oatmeal. Perceptual uniqueness is the real metric, and it’s darn tough. It is the difference between an actor being a face in a crowd scene and a character that is memorable.
Assuming that we can agree to agree, at least for now, that we’ve hit upon Covert Action‘s core problem, it’s not hard to divine how to fix it. I’m imagining a version of the game that replaces the infinite number of procedurally-generated cases with 25 or 30 hand-crafted plots, each with its own personality and its own unique flavor of intrigue. Such an approach would fix another complaint that’s occasionally levied against Covert Action: that it never becomes necessary to master or even really engage with all of its disparate parts because it’s very easy to rely just on those mini-games you happen to be best at to ferret out all of the relevant information. In particular, you can discover just about everything you need in the files you uncover during the breaking-and-entering game, without ever having to do much of anything in the realm of wire-tapping suspects, tailing them, or cracking their codes. This too feels like a byproduct of the generic templates used to construct the cases, which tend to err on the safe side to ensure that the cases are actually soluble, preferring — justifiably, in light of the circumstances — too many clues to too few. But this complaint could easily be fixed using hand-crafted cases. Different cases could be consciously designed to emphasize different aspects of the game: one case could be full of action, another more cerebral and puzzle-like, etc. This would do yet more to give each case its own personality and to keep the game feeling fresh throughout its length.
The most obvious argument against hand-crafted cases, other than the one, valid only from the developers’ standpoint, of the extra resources it would take to create them, is that it would exchange a game that is theoretically infinitely replayable for one with a finite span. Yet, given that Covert Action isn’t a hugely compelling game in its historical form, one has to suspect that my proposed finite version of it would likely yield more actual hours of enjoyment for the average player than the infinite version. Is a great game that lasts 30 hours and then is over better than a mediocre one that can potentially be played forever? The answer must depend on individual circumstances as well as individual predilections, but I know where I stand, at least as long as this world continues to be full of more cheap and accessible games than I can possibly play.
But then there is one more practical objection to my proposed variation of Covert Action, or rather one ironclad reason why it could never have seen the light of day: this simply isn’t how Sid Meier designs his games. Meier, you see, stands firmly on the other side of a longstanding divide that has given rise to no small dissension over the years in the fields of game design and academic game studies alike.
In academia, the argument has raged for twenty years between the so-called ludologists, who see games primarily as dynamic systems, and the narratologists, who see them primarily as narratives. Yet at its core the debate is actually far older even than that. In the December 1987 issue of his Journal of Computer Game Design, Chris Crawford fired what we might regard as the first salvo in this never-ending war via an article entitled “Process Intensity.” The titular phrase meant, he explained, “the degree to which a program emphasizes processes instead of data.” While all games must have some amount of data — i.e., fixed content, including fixed story content — a more process-intensive game — one that tips the balance further in favor of dynamic code as opposed to static data — is almost always a better game in Crawford’s view. That all games aren’t extremely process intensive, he baldly states, is largely down to the laziness of their developers.
The most powerful resistance to process intensity, though, is unstated. It is a mental laziness that afflicts all of us. Process intensity is so very hard to implement. Data intensity is easy to put into a program. Just get that artwork into a file and read it onto the screen; store that sound effect on the disk and pump it out to the speaker. There’s instant gratification in these data-intensive approaches. It looks and sounds great immediately. Process intensity requires all those hours mucking around with equations. Because it’s so indirect, you’re never certain how it will behave. The results always look so primitive next to the data-intensive stuff. So we follow the path of least resistance right down to data intensity.
Crawford, in other words, is a ludologist all the way. There’s always been a strongly prescriptive quality to the ludologists’ side of the ludology-versus-narratology debate, an ideology of how games ought to be made. Because processing is, to use Crawford’s words again, “the very essence of what a computer does,” the capability that in turn enables the interactivity that makes computer games unique as a medium, games that heavily emphasize processing are purer than those that rely more heavily on fixed data.
It’s a view that strikes me as short-sighted in a number of ways. It betrays, first of all, a certain programmer and systems designer’s bias against the artists and writers who craft all that fixed data; I would submit that the latter skills are every bit as worthy of admiration and every bit as valuable on most development teams as the former. Although even Crawford acknowledges that “data endows a game with useful color and texture,” he fails to account for the appeal of games where that very color and texture — we might instead say the fictional context — is the most important part of the experience. He and many of his ludologist colleagues are like most ideologues in failing to admit the possibility that different people may simply want different things, in games as in any other realm. Given the role that fixed stories have come to play in even many of the most casual modern games, too much ludologist rhetoric verges on telling players that they’re wrong for liking the games they happen to like. This is not to apologize for railroaded experiences that give the player no real role to play whatsoever and thereby fail to involve her in their fictions. It’s rather to say that drawing the line between process and data can be more complicated than saying “process good, data bad” and proceeding to act accordingly. Different games are at their best with different combinations of pre-crafted and generative content. Covert Action fails as a game because it draws that line in the wrong place. It’s thanks to the same fallacy, I would argue, that Chris Crawford has been failing for the last quarter century to create the truly open-ended interactive-story system he calls Storytron.
Sid Meier is an endlessly gracious gentleman, and thus isn’t so strident in his advocacy as many other ludologists. But despite his graciousness, there’s no doubt on which side of the divide he stands. Meier’s games never, ever include rigid pre-crafted scenarios or fixed storylines of any stripe. In most cases, this has been fine because his designs have been well-suited to the more open-ended, generative styles of play he favors. Covert Action, however, is the glaring exception, revealing one of the few blind spots of this generally brilliant game designer. Ironically, Meier had largely been drawn to Covert Action by what he calls the “intriguing” problem of its dynamic case generator. The idea of being able to use the computer to do the hard work of generating stories, and thereby to be able to churn out infinite numbers of the things at no expense, has always enticed him. He continues to muse today about a Sherlock Holmes game built using computer-generated cases, working backward from the solution of a crime to create a trail of clues for player to follow.
Meier is hardly alone in the annals of computer science and game design in finding the problem of automated story-making intriguing. Like his Sherlock Holmes idea, many experiments with procedurally-generated narratives have worked with mystery stories, that most overtly game-like of all literary genres; Covert Action‘s cases as well can be considered variations on the mystery theme. As early as 1971, Sheldon Klein, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, created something he called an “automatic novel writer” for auto-generating “2100-word murder-mystery stories.” In 1983, Electronic Arts released Jon Freeman and Paul Reiche III’s Murder on the Zinderneuf as one of their first titles; it allowed the player to solve an infinite number of randomly generated mysteries occurring aboard its titular Zeppelin airship. That game’s flaws feel oddly similar to those of Covert Action. As in Covert Action, in Murder on the Zinderneuf the randomized cases never have the resonance of a good hand-crafted mystery story. That, combined with their occasional incongruities and the patterns that start to surface as soon as you’ve played a few times, means that you can never forget their procedural origins. These tales of intrigue never manage to truly intrigue.
Suffice to say that generating believable fictions, whether in the sharply delimited realm of a murder mystery taking place aboard a Zeppelin or the slightly less delimited realm of a contemporary spy thriller, is a tough nut to crack. Even one of the most earnest and concentrated of the academic attempts at tackling the problem, a system called Tale-Spin created by James Meehan at Yale University, continued to generate more unmimetic than mimetic stories after many years of work — and this system was meant only to generate standalone static stories, not interactive mysteries to be solved. And as for Chris Crawford’s Storytron… well, as of this writing it is, as its website says, in a “medically induced coma” for the latest of many massive re-toolings.
In choosing to pick up Covert Action primarily because of the intriguing problem of its case generator and then failing to consider whether said case generator really served the game, Sid Meier may have run afoul of another of his rules for game design, one that I find much more universally applicable than what Meier calls the Covert Action rule. A designer should always ask, Meier tells us, who is really having the fun in a game — the designer/programmer/computer or the player? The procedurally generated cases may have been an intriguing problem for Sid Meier the designer, but they don’t serve the player anywhere near as well as hand-crafted cases might have done.
The model that comes to mind when I think of my ideal version of Covert Action is Killed Until Dead, an unjustly obscure gem from Accolade which, like Murder on the Zinderneuf, I wrote about in an earlier article. Killed Until Dead is very similar to Murder on the Zinderneuf in that it presents the player with a series of mysteries to solve, all of which employ the same cast of characters, the same props, and the same setting. Unlike Murder on the Zinderneuf, however, the mysteries in Killed Until Dead have all been lovingly hand-crafted. They not only hang together better as a result, but they’re full of wit and warmth and the right sort of intrigue — they intrigue the player. If you ask me, a version of Covert Action built along similar lines, full of exciting plotlines with-a-ripped-from-the-headlines feel, could have been fantastic — assuming, of course, that MicroProse could have found writers and scenario designers with the chops to bring the spycraft to life.
It’s of course possible that my reaction to Covert Action is hopelessly subjective, inextricably tied to what I personally value in games. As my longtime readers are doubtless aware by now, I’m an experential player to the core, more interested in lived experiences than twiddling the knobs of a complicated system just exactly perfectly. In addition to guaranteeing that I’ll never win any e-sports competitions — well, that and my aging reflexes that were never all that great to begin with — this fact colors the way I see a game like Covert Action. The jarring qualities of Covert Action‘s fiction may not bother some of you one bit. And thus the debate about what really is wrong with Covert Action, that strange note of discordance sandwiched between the monumental Sid Meier masterpieces Railroad Tycoon and Civilization, can never be definitely settled. Ditto the more abstract and even more longstanding negotiation between ludology and narratology. Ah, well… if nothing else, it ensures that readers and writers of blogs like this one will always have something to talk about. So, let the debate rage on.
(Sources: the books Expressive Processing by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and On Interactive Storytelling by Chris Crawford; Game Developer of February 2013. Links to online sources are scattered through the article.
If you’d like to enter the Covert Action debate for yourself, you can buy it from GOG.com.)
Here’s a tidbit on the theme of helping to update old IF tools. TLDR: the Gargoyle interpreter project is looking for volunteers to build the app on Windows and Linux, so that they can do a new release. (MacOS is covered.)
The full story:
(Yes, it’s more common to play IF in a web browser. But interpreter apps were around long before browser players — that thread runs back to Infocom’s invention of the Z-machine. Many dedicated IF fans prefer using interpreters, either because they like the native app interface or because they want to collect IF game files offline.)
Gargoyle is very flexible. It runs on Mac, Windows, and Linux; it supports a variety of IF formats (Z-machine, Glulx, TADS, Alan, Hugo, and more). It was designed to display text in a typographically clean and fluent way, for a modern IF playing experience.
On the negative side, it hasn’t been updated much since 2012. That’s generally been okay! A well-tested app can remain in use for many years. But Gargoyle has run into a few snags. Some of the interpreter engines are out of date. Emily Short’s Counterfeit Monkey overran the app’s UNDO space in an unexpected way. Most seriously, MacOS 10.12 “Sierra” changed the keystroke input behavior in some subtle way which broke the app entirely.
In all these cases, the fixes were simple; contributed patches showed up on Github almost immediately. Problem was, the project was essentially shelved. The original maintainer had moved on. Nobody stood up and said “Okay, we are accepting these patches and doing a new release.”
In IFTF’s discussion of the adoptable IF tech archive, Gargoyle came up repeatedly. Is Gargoyle an abandoned project? No, there’s a mailing list and a Github repository which have some activity. Okay, can I do anything to nudge it?
At this point it sounds like I’m building up to an “I saved Gargoyle!” press release. No, no. Chris Spiegel is the one who stepped up and started organizing a new release. My role was to say, look, I’m involved with this organization which aims to support IF tools. Can we draw attention to this? Can we pass the word along?
And that’s why I’m reposting this.
I’m completely in favor of finding willing volunteers to do builds. I’m not familiar enough with any of the target systems (including specific Linux distributions) to be able to do builds, so I’d welcome anybody with that knowledge to step forward and handle it.
— Chris Spiegel, mailing list message, March 18
Chris is looking for people to do Windows and Linux builds. The last release covered Windows, MacOS, Ubuntu-i386, and Ubuntu-amd64. So we want to cover at least that much, but more would be nice.
(I have volunteered to do MacOS builds; I worked out the procedure a few months back.)
If you’re interested, join the mailing list and let us know. Thanks.
To recap: I found an obscure, probably-only-ever-played-by-a-literal-handful-of-people game in the October 1979 issue of the magazine Micro. Partly due to it being printed in a magazine, it’s meant to be played with a “guide” who reads the location descriptions printed therein.
We’re going to do a little experiment where you, yes, you the readers, get to play. I’m going to consider the map off the cover to be fair game:
as well as this verb list:
As the guide, I can also say:
You are at the mouth of a large cavern. The sides of the entrance slope steeply upward, and a mysterious passage leads west into the cave.
There is a KNIFE, TENT, TRUCK, and LIGHT here.
1. Post a comment with one or more parser commands you’d like to do.
2. After a unspecified amount of time I will take all the commands and try to put them in some sort of sensible sequence. If one player wants to pick something up and the other wants to move to a different room, I will sequence the item-picking first.
3. If two commands are contradictory, but one commands has been “voted on” more than the other, I will go with the majority. If there is a tie (say one person wants to go west and the other person east), I will flip a coin.
4. I will be posting future screens / room descriptions / responses to this post until it gets somewhat full, then making a new one which summarizes the action and keeps things going. Also, I’m going to use “guide discretion” and may occasionally give responses not provided by the Apple II program, but I will specify when it’s the computer and when it’s me.
Good luck! You’re welcome to plan/discuss in addition to just giving parser commands.
Tin Man Games has an app called Choices — rather confusingly, since there is another well-known mobile IF platform called Choices that I wrote about recently. Tin Man’s Choices app contains two episodic stories: And the Sun Went Out and And Their Souls Were Eaten. [As always, I should frame the rest of this by saying that I have done some work with companies that compete in this space. Be warned, if that is a concern to you.]
Like the other Choices and Episode, Tin Man’s content is initially free to play, but handles monetization differently: after a certain point, you’re invited to subscribe to the app to receive additional chapters, rather than paying to unlock specific choices in the body of the story. You can buy a monthly, quarterly, or half-yearly subscription, but they all are subscriptions, with recurring payments — something that generally puts me off unless I’ve decided I definitely want to commit. I tend to forget to cancel subscriptions I no longer want and then six months later remember to go clean up, having accidentally spent $40 on an eFax service I only wanted to use once. On the other hand, it’s a clear pay-for-content model rather than pay-to-win or pay-to-seduce-Chris. So I approve in theory while still being a little hesitant about committing money to it in practice.
Tin Man’s Choices also borrows some Lifeline-esque features: in And the Sun Went Out you have an assistant AI called Moti who tells you what to do, forming a conversational interaction; apparently if you have an Apple Watch, Moti’s messages can appear there as well. (I don’t.) There’s a conversation partner in And Their Souls Were Eaten, too — one I found considerably more surprising and entertaining. But I won’t spoil that.
Tin Man has polished their interface a bit less than any of the competitors I just listed: one of the major challenges for me was simply the font size: tiny white writing on a black ground meant that I had to hold the phone pretty close to my face. There is a settings option to turn up the font size, but I only discovered this after quite a lot of squinting — I mention this now so that other readers have the opportunity to make that change early on. And in contrast with the other Choices and Episode, there are occasional facial animations for Moti, but otherwise, you don’t see the characters you’re interacting with, let alone get full-color background images.
And what of the content? It’s comparatively branchy and plot-heavy, focused more on how you navigate various dangers than on either role-play or relationships. And the Sun Went Out branches hard right at the beginning — do you visit this character or that one? — and you don’t have time to reach both of them before the story starts to move along.
It is also huge. Felicity Banks was one of the several writers on this project, and wrote to me:
It’s a near-future sci-fi story with literally thousands of choices for the reader to make including where to travel around the world (featuring, among other nations, the US, Peru, Canada, Kenya, Italy, China, Russia, Indonesia, Australia, Japan, and Egypt) and who to fall in love with (or not). It is just over 600,000 words, and each read-through is about 150,000 words. It’s a branch and bottleneck structure, with around 2-6 branches happening simultaneously between bottleneck choices.
For comparison, even large Choice of Games pieces like Choice of Robots are typically in the 200-300K word range, while Choices and Episode pieces are generally much shorter than this.
The premise of And the Sun Went Out is as it says on the tin: the sun has recently had “an outage” but has come back on (temporarily?). No one seems to know quite what is going on. Street preachers worn of the frozen hell to come. It snows a lot.
And Their Souls Were Eaten casts the protagonist as a soul eater, a magical/theological role that involves accepting responsibility for the souls of the dead, and carrying them to The Other Land when you die yourself. You are wandering Britain with only a piece of magically-activated silver in your possession.
Those familiar with Felicity Banks’ previous work will recognize this idea, which appears in After the Flag Fell (a traditional-format PDF gamebook) and Attack of the Clockwork Army. Banks has clearly given a lot of thought to what the different metals do, who would use them, and how they would be deployed in machinery. In several of her previous works, I felt as though the world was almost too hefty for the plot; we spent too long reading about all these metallic functions and not enough time using them.
And Their Souls Were Eaten is a longer story, though, and that means there’s more room for the exposition to breathe; more different ways for the magical system to weave into the plot. Besides, because the story is delivered a sentence or two at a time, the author is discouraged from info-dumping too much. There were still a few moments that I felt were slightly awkward, but in general I found the reading experience smoother, and the plot better integrated with the world, than in Banks’ previous work.
So in both the Tin Man Choices series, one senses that the authors enjoy and are invested in the world-building, and that we’re not being served generic tropes for the sake of it.
The two series weren’t equally strong, though, at least when judged by the first few chapters. When I tried And the Sun Went Out do the first time, I found myself pretty bewildered about what was going on, and it wasn’t until I replayed the first chapter with a different set of choices that I felt the exposition unfolded in the way the authors seem to have intended.
The writing in And the Sun… is at once urgent and weightless: say a friend is shot, their murderer is on the run, you have the option to pursue; you’re concentrated on the question of whether to try to run after the murderer down an alley, but not so much on your feelings about your friend, or the relationship you had before the shooting.
Sometimes, especially in those early segments of And the Sun Went Out, you’re being asked to make potentially high-stakes decisions but with no information: which of these two retreating backs do you want to follow, given that one is the murderer but you don’t know which? Which is admittedly a more interesting scenario than “You are in a cave; do you go left or right?” but still lacks much sense of control or agency.
In other instances, you’re asked to make choices where the protagonist would know the implications, but you don’t: do you want to meet with Dolores or the Professor first? Well, it would be helpful to know more about who those characters are — as your protagonist certainly does. But you’re forced to choose without information.
The result, at least for me: I was more intrigued by the backstory of And the Sun Went Out than by the story portions of [the other] Choices: The Freshman or [the other] Choices: The Crown & the Flame. But I wasn’t always any more engaged by the options themselves; indeed, sometimes I was rather less engaged, because at least in The Freshman I could see the implications (however anodyne) of the decision I was making. “Flirt or act cold” is always a stronger choice than “run left or run right.”
And Their Souls Were Eaten worked much better for me: the exposition unfolded more naturally, characters were more developed, and the options were better defined. Character interactions are sometimes a bit on the nose, but there are fun aspects as well. Even where I didn’t know every implication of my choices, I usually had enough information to be reasonably invested. There’s a twist late in chapter one that I found pretty satisfying and that did coax me into buying the subscription in spite of my general antipathy to subscriptions. (Now I just have to remember to cancel later. Wish me luck.)
I haven’t finished And Their Souls… — indeed, I’m not completely sure the whole arc is written yet, but it’s a long piece. Still, if you liked Banks’ previous work but wanted more of (or from) it, this might be for you. Each individual chapter (at least as far as I’ve gotten) is pretty sizable, and the feel is reminiscent of a chunky, multi-volume fantasy series.
Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!
Defeat the rampaging demon horde, save the Kingdom of Daria, and avenge the death of your parents in the thrilling conclusion to this epic three part series! You’ll need all the power you can muster to finish building your legend, tapping into any of the dozen new prestige classes, including Druid of Decay, Dragon Knight, and even fighting the demons with their own fire by becoming a Demon Master!
The Lost Heir 3: Demon War is a 250,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Mike Walter—the conclusion to the trilogy—where your choices control the story. The game is entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination. It’s 20% off until March 24th!
Face betrayal, seek romance, battle enemies in war, and navigate the intrigues of court. The fate of the kingdom of Daria is in your hands.
- Play as male or female, gay or straight.
- Pursue romantic interests, get married, have a child!
- Acquire legendary magical artifacts.
- Reach one of seven different endings! Restore peace and harmony to the Kingdom of Daria or plunge the world into chaos, the choice is yours!
Mike developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.
To celebrate the launch of The Lost Heir 3: Demon War, we’re also announcing that two of Mike’s other games in our Hosted Games program, Life of a Wizard and Life of a Mobster are out now on Steam! They’re both 25% off on Steam until March 24th!
Write an archmage’s autobiography in this 80-year 130,000-word interactive fiction. Play good or evil, man or woman, as you bring peace to the kingdom or take over the world with your sorcery. Brew potions, raise the dead, summon mythical beasts, control men’s minds, and blast away your enemies.
Life of a Wizard is an epic interactive novel by Mike Walter where you control the main character. In each chapter, your choices determine how the story proceeds.
Will you find romance, get married, or have children? Will you become the arch-mage, grand bishop, nature-loving druid, hardened battle-mage or even an undead lich? The choice is yours!
Join the mob and rule the city! Will you become a celebrity mobster, or rule from the shadows?
Life of a Mobster is a thrilling 145,000-word interactive novel where your choices control the story. The game is entirely text-based–without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.
Will you betray the five families to win the heart of a good-looking FBI agent? Will you end up as a prisoner, a senator, or FBI director? The choice is yours.
It says much about Sid Meier, a born game designer if ever there was one, that he tended to get some of his best work done when he was allegedly on vacation. A few years after his significant other had lost all track of him on what she thought was a romantic getaway to the Caribbean but he came to see as the ideal chance to research his game Pirates!, another opportunity for couple time went awry in August of 1989, when he spent the entirety of a beach holiday coding a game about railroads on the computer he’d lugged with him. The experience may not have done his relationship any favors, but he did come home with the core of his second masterpiece of a game — a game that would usher in what many old-timers still regard as the golden age of computerized grand strategy.
That Meier felt empowered to spend so much time on a game that featured no war or killing says much about the changing times inside MicroProse, the erstwhile specialist in military simulations and war games he had co-founded with the flamboyant former active-duty Air Force pilot “Wild” Bill Stealey. The first great deviation from the norm for MicroProse had been Meier’s first masterpiece, the aforementioned Pirates! of 1987, which Stealey had somewhat begrudgingly allowed him to make as a palate cleanser between the company’s military games. After that, it had been back to business as usual for a while, with Meier designing a submarine simulator based on a Tom Clancy thriller (the audience synergy of that project was almost too perfect to be believed) and then a flight simulator based on the rampant speculation among aviation buffs about the Air Force’s cutting-edge new stealth fighter (the speculation would almost all prove to be incorrect when the actual stealth fighter was unveiled, leaving MicroProse with a “simulation” of an airplane that had never existed).
Yet by the time the latter game was nearing completion in late 1988, a couple of things were getting hard to ignore. First was the warm reception that had been accorded to Pirates!, the way that entirely new demographics of players who would never have dreamed of buying any of MicroProse’s other games were buying and enjoying this one. And second was the fact that the market for MicroProse’s traditional military simulations, while it had served them well — in fact, served them to the tune of nearly 1 million copies sold of their most successful simulation of all, Sid Meier’s F-15 Strike Eagle — was starting to show signs of having reached its natural limit. If, in other words, MicroProse hoped to continue to increase their sales each year — something the aggressive and ambitious Stealey liked doing even more than he liked making and flying flight simulators — they were going to have to push outside of Stealey’s comfort zone. Accordingly, MicroProse dramatically expanded the scope of their business in the last two years of the 1980s, buying the Firebird and Rainbird software labels from British Telecom and setting up an affiliated-label program for distributing the work of smaller publishers; Stealey hoped the latter might come in time to rival the similar programs of Electronic Arts and Activision/Mediagenic. In terms of in-house development, meanwhile, MicroProse went from all military games all the time — apart from, that is, the aberration that had been Pirates! — to a half-and-half mixture of games in the old style and games that roamed further afield, in some cases right into the sweet spot that had yielded the big hit Pirates!.
Thus the first project which Sid Meier took up after finishing F-19 Stealth Fighter was a spy game called Covert Action. Made up like Pirates! of a collection of mini-games, Covert Action was very much in the spirit of that earlier game, but had been abandoned by its original designer Lawrence Schick as unworkable. Perhaps because of its similarities to his own earlier game, Meier thought he could make something out of it, especially if he moved it from the Commodore 64 to MS-DOS, which had become his new development platform with F-19 Stealth Fighter. But Covert Action proved to be one of those frustrating games that just refused to come together, even in the hands of a designer as brilliant as Meier. He therefore started spending more and more of the time he should have been spending on Covert Action tinkering with ideas and prototypes for other games. In the spring of 1989, he coded up a little simulation of a model railroad.
The first person to whom Meier showed his railroad game was Bruce Shelley, his “assistant” at MicroProse and, one senses, something of his protege, to whatever extent a man as quiet and self-effacing as Meier was can be pictured to have cultivated someone for such a role. Prior to coming to MicroProse, Shelley had spent his first six years or so out of university at Avalon Hill, the faded king of the previous decade’s halcyon years of American tabletop war-gaming. MicroProse had for some time been in the habit of hiring refugees from the troubled tabletop world, among them Arnold Hendrick and the aforementioned Lawrence Schick, but Shelley was hardly one of the more illustrious names among this bunch. Working as an administrator and producer at Avalon Hill, he’d had the opportunity to streamline plenty of the games the company had published during his tenure, but had never been credited with an entirely original design of his own. When he arrived at MicroProse in early 1988 — he says his application for employment there was motivated largely by the experience of playing Pirates! — Shelley was assigned to fairly menial tasks, like creating the maps for F-19 Stealth Fighter. Yet something about him clearly impressed Sid Meier. Shortly after F-19 Stealth Fighter was completed, Meier came to Shelley to ask if he’d like to become his assistant. Shelley certainly didn’t need to be asked twice. “Anybody in that office would have died for that position,” he remembers.
Much of Shelley’s role as his Meier’s assistant, especially in the early days, entailed being a constantly available sounding board, playing with the steady stream of game prototypes Meier gave to him — Meier always seemed to have at least half a dozen such potential projects sitting on his hard drive alongside whatever project he was officially working on — and offering feedback. It was in this capacity that Shelley first saw the model-railroad simulation, whereupon it was immediately clear to him that this particular prototype was something special, that Meier was really on to something this time. Such was Shelley’s excitement, enthusiasm, and insightfullness that it wouldn’t take long for him to move from the role of Meier’s sounding board to that of his full-fledged co-designer on the railroad game, even as it always remained clear who would get to make the final decision on any question of design and whose name would ultimately grace the box.
It appears to have been Shelley who first discovered Will Wright’s landmark city simulation SimCity. Among the many possibilities it offered was the opportunity to add a light-rail system to your city and watch the little trains driving around; this struck Shelley as almost uncannily similar to Meier’s model railroad. He soon introduced Meier to SimCity, whereupon it became a major influence on the project. The commercial success of SimCity had proved that there was a place in the market for software toys without much of a competitive element, a description which applied perfectly to Meier’s model-railroad simulation at the time. “Yes, there is an audience out there for games that have a creative aspect to them,” Meier remembers thinking. “Building a railroad is something that can really emphasize that creative aspect in a game.”
And yet Meier and Shelley weren’t really happy with the idea of just making another software toy, however neat it was to lay down track and flip signals and watch the little trains drive around. Although both men had initially been wowed by SimCity, they both came to find it a little unsatisfying in the end, a little sterile in its complete lack of an historical context to latch onto or goals to achieve beyond those the player set for herself. At times the program evinced too much fascination with its own opaque inner workings, as opposed to what the player was doing in front of the screen. As part of his design process, Meier likes to ask whether the player is having the fun or whether the computer — or, perhaps better said, the game’s designer — is having the fun. With SimCity, it too often felt like the latter.
In his role as assistant, Shelley wrote what he remembers as a five- or six-page document that outlined a game that he and Meier were calling at that time The Golden Age of Railroads; before release the name would be shortened to the pithier, punchier Railroad Tycoon. Shelley expressed in the document their firm belief that they could and should incorporate elements of a software toy or “god game” into their creation, but that they wanted to make more of a real game out of it than SimCity had been, wanted to provide an economic and competitive motivation for building an efficient railroad. Thus already by this early stage the lines separating a simulation of real trains from one of toy trains were becoming blurred.
Then in August came that fateful beach holiday which Meier devoted to Railroad Tycoon. Over the course of three weeks of supposed fun in the sun, he added to his model-railroad simulation a landscape on which one built the tracks and stations. The landscape came complete with resources that needed to be hauled from place to place, often to be converted into other resources and hauled still further: trains might haul coal from a coal mine to a steel mill, carry the steel that resulted to a factory to be converted into manufactured goods, then carry the manufactured goods on to consumers in a city. When Meier returned from holiday and showed it to him, Shelley found the new prototype, incorporating some ideas from his own recent design document and some news ones of Meier’s making, to be just about the coolest thing he’d ever seen on a computer screen. Shelley:
We went to lunch together, and he said, “We have to make a decision about whether we’re going to do this railroad game or whether we’re going to do the spy game.”
I said, “If you’re asking me, there’s no contest. We’re doing the railroad game. It’s really cool. It’s so much fun. I have zero weight in this company. I don’t have a vote in any meeting. It’s up to you, but I’m ready to go.”
Shelley was so excited by the game that at one point he offered to work on it for free after hours if that was the only way to get it done. Thankfully, it never came to that.
Dropping Covert Action, which had already eaten up a lot of time and resources, generated considerable tension with Stealey, but when it came down to it it was difficult for him to say no his co-founder and star designer, the only person at the company who got his name in big letters on the fronts of the boxes. (Stealey, who had invented the tactic of prefixing “Sid Meier’s” to Meier’s games as a way of selling the mold-busting Pirates!, was perhaps by this point wondering what it was he had wrought.) The polite fiction which would be invented for public consumption had it that Meier shifted to Railroad Tycoon while the art department created the graphics for Covert Action. In reality, though, he just wanted to escape a game that refused to come together in favor of one that seemed to have all the potential in the world.
Meier and Shelley threw themselves into Railroad Tycoon. When not planning, coding — this was strictly left to Meier, as Shelley was a non-programmer — or playing the game, they were immersing themselves in the lore and legends of railroading: reading books, visiting museums, taking rides on historic steam trains. The Baltimore area, where MicroProse’s offices were located, is a hotbed of railroad history, being the home of the legendary Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the oldest common-carrier rail network in the country. Thus there was plenty in the area for a couple of railroad buffs to see and do. Meier and Shelley lived and breathed trains for a concentrated six months, during which they, in tandem with a few artists and other support personnel, took Railroad Tycoon from that August prototype to the finished, boxed game that shipped to stores in April of 1990, complete with a beefy 180-page manual written by Shelley. Leaving aside all of Railroad Tycoon‘s other merits, it was a rather breathtaking achievement just to have created a game of such ambition and complexity in such a short length of time.
But even in ways apart from its compressed development time Railroad Tycoon is far more successful than it has any right to be. It’s marked by a persistent, never entirely resolved tension — one might even say an identity crisis — between two very different visions of what a railroad game should be. To say that one vision was primarily that of Meier and the other that of Shelley is undoubtedly a vast oversimplification, but is nevertheless perhaps a good starting point for discussion.
One vision of Railroad Tycoon is what we might call the operational game, the building game, or the SimCity-like game, consisting of laying down stations, tracks, and switches, scheduling your trains, and watching over them as they run in real time. A certain kind of player can spend hours tinkering here, trying always to set up the most efficient possible routes, overriding switches on the fly to push priority cargoes through to their destinations for lucrative but intensely time-sensitive rewards. None of this is without risk: if you don’t do things correctly, trains can hurtle into one another, tumble off of washed-out bridges, or just wind up costing you more money than they earn. It’s therein, of course, where the challenge lies. This is Meier’s vision of Railroad Tycoon, still rooted in the model-railroad simulation he first showed Shelley back in early 1989.
The other vision of Railroad Tycoon is the game of high-level economic strategy, which first began to assert itself in that design document Bruce Shelley wrote up in mid-1989. In addition to needing to set up profitable routes and keep an eye on your expenses, you also need to judge when to sell bonds to fund expansion and when to buy them back to save the interest payments, when to buy and sell your own stock and that of other railroads to maximize your cash reserves. Most of all, you need to keep a close eye on the competition, who, if you’ve turn the “cutthroat competition” setting on, will try to buy your railroad out from under you by making runs on your stock — that is, when they aren’t building track into your stations, setting up winner-take-all “rate wars.”
This vision of Railroad Tycoon owes much to a board game called 1830: Railways and Robber Barons which Shelley had shepherded through production during his time at Avalon Hill. Although that game was officially designed by Francis Tresham, Shelley had done much to help turn it into the classic many board-game connoisseurs still regard it as today. After Shelley had arrived at MicroProse with his copy of 1830 in tow, it had become a great favorite during the company’s occasional board-game nights. While 1830 traded on the iconography of the Age of Steam, it was really a game of stock-market manipulation; the railroads in the game could have been swapped out for just about any moneymaking industry.
Put very crudely, then, Railroad Tycoon can be seen as 1830 with a SimCity-like railroad simulation grafted on in place of the board game’s pure abstractions. Bill Stealey claims that Eric Dott, the president of Avalon Hill, actually called him after Railroad Tycoon‘s release to complain that “you’re doing my board game as a computer game.” Stealey managed to smooth the issue over; “well, don’t let it happen again” were Dott’s parting words. (This would become a problem when Meier and Shelley promptly did do it again, creating a computer game called Civilization that shared a name as well as other marked similarities with the Avalon Hill board game Civilization.)
Immense though its influence was, some of the elements of 1830 came to Railroad Tycoon shockingly late. Meier insists, for instance, that the three computerized robber barons you compete against were coded up in a mad frenzy over the last two weeks before the game had to ship. Again, it’s remarkable that Railroad Tycoon works at all, much less works as well as it does.
The problem of reconciling the two halves of Railroad Tycoon might have seemed intractable to many a design team. Consider the question of time. The operational game would seemingly need to run on a scale of days and hours, as trains chug around the tracks picking up and delivering constant streams of cargo. Yet the high-level economic game needs to run on a scale of months and years. A full game of Railroad Tycoon lasts a full century, over the course of which Big Changes happen on a scale about a million miles removed from the progress of individual trains down the tracks: the economy booms and crashes and booms again; coal and oil deposits are discovered and exploited and exhausted; cities grow; new industries develop; the Age of Steam gives ways to the Age of Diesel; competitors rise and fall and rise again. “You can’t have a game that lasts a hundred years and be running individual trains,” thought Meier and Shelley initially. If they tried to run the whole thing at the natural scale of the operational game, they’d wind up with a game that took a year or two of real-world time to play and left the player so lost in the weeds of day-to-day railroad operations that the bigger economic picture would get lost entirely.
Meier’s audacious solution was to do the opposite, to run the game as a whole at the macro scale of the economic game. This means that, at the beginning of the game when locomotives are weak and slow, it might take six months for a train to go from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. What ought to be one day of train traffic takes two years in the game’s reckoning of time. As a simulation, it’s ridiculous, but if we’re willing to see each train driving on the map as an abstraction representing many individual trains — or, for that matter, if we’re willing to not think about it at all too closely — it works perfectly well. Meier understood that a game doesn’t need to be a literal simulation of its subject to evoke the spirit of its subject — that experiential gaming encompasses more than simulations. Railroad Tycoon is, to use the words of game designer Michael Bate, an “aesthetic simulation” of railroad history.
Different players inevitably favor different sides of Railroad Tycoon‘s personality. When I played the game again for the first time in a very long time a year or so ago, I did so with my wife Dorte. Wanting to take things easy our first time out, we played without cutthroat competition turned on, in which mode the other railroads just do their own thing without actively trying to screw with your own efforts. Dorte loved designing track layouts and setting up chains of cargo deliveries for maximum efficiency; the process struck her, an inveterate puzzler, as the most delightful of puzzles. After we finished that game and I suggested we play again with cutthroat competition turned on, explaining how it would lead to a much more, well, cutthroat economic war, she said that the idea had no appeal whatsoever for her. Thus was I forced to continue my explorations of Railroad Tycoon on my own. The game designer Soren Johnson, by contrast, has told in his podcast Designer Notes how uninterested he was in the operational game, preferring to just spend some extra money to double-track everything and as much as possible forget it existed. It was rather the grand strategic picture that interested him. As for me, wishy-washy character that I am, I’m somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
One of the overarching themes of Sid Meier’s history as a game designer is a spirit of generosity, a willingness to let his players play their way. Railroad Tycoon provides a wonderful example in the lengths to which it goes to accommodate the Dortes, the Sorens, and the Jimmys. If you want to concentrate on the operational game, you can turn off cutthroat competition, turn on “dispatcher operations,” set the overall difficulty to its lowest level so that money is relatively plentiful, and have at it. If even that winds up entailing more economics than you’d like to concern yourself with, one of Railroad Tycoon‘s worst-kept secrets is an “embezzlement key” that can provide limitless amounts of cash, allowing you essentially to play it as the model-railroad simulation that it was at its genesis. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in Railroad Tycoon primarily as a game of grand economic strategy, you can turn on cutthroat competition, turn off dispatcher operations, crank the difficulty level up, and have a full-on business war that would warm the cockles of Jack Tramiel’s heart. If you’re a balanced (or wishy-washy) fellow like me, you can turn on cutthroat competition and dispatcher operations and enjoy the full monty. Meier and Shelley added something called priority shipments to the game — one-time, extremely lucrative deliveries from one station to another — to give players like me a reason to engage with the operational game even after their tracks and routes are largely set. Priority deliveries let you earn a nice bonus by manually flipping signals and shepherding a train along — but, again, only if you enjoy that sort of thing; a budding George Soros can earn as much or more by playing the stock market just right.
One story from Railroad Tycoon‘s development says much about Sid Meier’s generous spirit. Through very nearly the entirety of the game’s development, Meier and Shelley had planned to limit the amount of time you could play at the lower difficulty levels as a way of rewarding players who were willing to tackle the challenge of the higher levels. Such a restriction meant not only that players playing at the lower difficulty levels had less time to build their railroad network, but that they lost the chance to play with the most advanced locomotives, which only become available late in the game. Almost literally at the very last possible instant, Meier decided to nix that scheme, to allow all players to play for the full 100 years. Surely fans of the operational game should have access to the cool later trains as well. After all, these were the very people who would be most excited by them. The change came so late that the manual describes the old scheme and the in-game text also is often confused about how long you’re actually going to be allowed to play. It was a small price to pay for a decision that no one ever regretted.
That said, Railroad Tycoon does have lots of rough edges like this confusion over how long you’re allowed to play, an obvious byproduct of its compressed development cycle. Meier and Shelley and their playtesters had nowhere near enough time to make the game air-tight; there are heaps of exploits big enough to drive a Mallet locomotive through (trust me, that’s a big one!). It didn’t take players long to learn that they could wall off competing railroads behind cages of otherwise unused track and run wild in virgin territory on their own; that they could trick their competitors into building in the most unfavorable region of the map by starting to build there themselves, then tearing up their track and starting over competition-free in better territory; that the best way to make a lot of money was to haul nothing but passengers and mail, ignoring all of the intricacies of hauling resources that turned into other resources that turned into still other resources; that they could do surprisingly well barely running any trains at all, just by playing the market, buying and selling their competitors’ stock; that they could play as a real-estate instead of a railroad tycoon, buying up a bunch of land during economic panics by laying down track they never intended to use, then selling it again for a profit during boom times by tearing up the track. Yes, all of these exploits and many more are possible — and yes, the line between exploits and ruthless strategy is a little blurred in many of these cases. But it’s a testament to the core appeal of the game that, after you get over that smug a-ha! moment of figuring out that they’re possible, you don’t really want to use them all that much. The journey is more important than the destination; something about Railroad Tycoon makes you want to play it fair and square. You don’t even mind overmuch that your computerized competitors get to play a completely different and, one senses, a far easier game than the one you’re playing. They’re able to build track in useful configurations that aren’t allowed to you, and they don’t even have to run their own trains; all that business about signals and congestion and locomotives gets abstracted away for them.
Despite it all, I’m tempted to say that in terms of pure design Railroad Tycoon is actually a better game than Civilization, the game Meier and Shelley would make next and the one which will, admittedly for some very good reasons, always remain the heart of Meier’s legacy as a designer. Yet it’s Railroad Tycoon that strikes me as the more intuitive, playable game, free of the tedious micromanagement that tends to dog Civilization in its latter stages. Likewise absent in Railroad Tycoon is the long anticlimax of so many games of Civilization, when you know you’ve won but still have to spend hours mopping up the map before you can get the computer to recognize it. Railroad Tycoon benefits enormously from its strict 100-year time limit, as it does from the restriction of your railroad, born from technical limitations, to 32 trains and 32 stations. “You don’t need more than that to make the game interesting,” said Meier, correctly. And, whereas the turn-based Civilization feels rather like a board game running on the computer, the pausable real time of Railroad Tycoon makes it feel like a true born-digital creation.
Of course, mechanics and interface are far from the sum total of most computer games, and it’s in the contextual layer that Civilization thrives as an experiential game, as an awe-inspiring attempt to capture the sum total of human thought and history in 640 K of memory. But, having said that, I must also say that Railroad Tycoon is itself no slouch in this department. It shows almost as beautifully as Civilization how the stuff of history can thoroughly inform a game that isn’t trying to be a strict simulation of said history. From the manual to the game itself, Railroad Tycoon oozes with a love of trains. To their credit, Meier and Shelley don’t restrict themselves to the American Age of Steam, but also offer maps of Britain and continental Europe on which to play, each with its own challenges in terms of terrain and economy. The four available maps each have a different starting date, between them covering railroad history from the distant past of 1825 to the at-the-time-of-the-game’s-development near-future of 2000. As you play, new locomotives become available, providing a great picture of the evolution of railroading, from Robert Stephenson’s original 20-horsepower Planet with its top speed of 20 miles per hour to the 8000-horsepower French Train à Grande Vitesse (“high-speed train”) with a top speed of 160 miles per hour. This is very much a trainspotter’s view of railroad history, making no attempt to address the downsides of the rush to bind nations up in webs of steel tracks, nor asking just why the historical personages found in the game came to be known as the robber barons. (For an introduction to the darker side of railroad history, I recommend Frank Norris’s 1901 novel The Octopus.) But Railroad Tycoon isn’t trying to do social commentary; it just revels in a love of trains, and that’s fine. It’s immensely likeable on those terms — another byproduct of the spirit of generosity with which it’s so shot through. Just hearing the introduction’s music makes me happy.
Upon its release, Railroad Tycoon hit with the force of a freight train. Following the implosion of the 8-bit market at the tail end of the 1980s, North American computer gaming had moved upscale to focus on the bigger, more expensive MS-DOS machines and the somewhat older demographic that could afford them. These changes had created a hunger for more complicated, ambitious strategy and simulation games. SimCity had begun to scratch that itch, but its non-competitive nature and that certain sense of sterility that clung to it left it ultimately feeling a little underwhelming for many players, just it as it had for Meier and Shelley. Railroad Tycoon remedied both of those shortcomings with immense charm and panache. Soren Johnson has mentioned on his podcast how extraordinary the game felt upon its release: “There was just nothing like it at the time.” Computer Gaming World, the journal of record for the new breed of older and more affluent computer gamers, lavished Railroad Tycoon with praise, naming it their “Game of the Year” for 1990. Russell Sipe, the founder and editor-in-chief of the magazine, was himself a dedicated trainspotter, and took to the game with particular enthusiasm, writing an entire book about it which spent almost as much time lingering lovingly over railroad lore as it did telling how to win the thing.
Meier and Shelley were so excited by what they had wrought that they charged full steam ahead into a Railroad Tycoon II. But they were soon stopped in their tracks by Bill Stealey, who demanded that they do something with Covert Action, into which, he insisted, MicroProse had poured too many resources to be able to simply abandon it. By the time that Meier and Shelley had done what they could in that quarter, the idea that would become Civilization had come to the fore. Neither designer would ever return to Railroad Tycoon during their remaining time at MicroProse, although some of the ideas they’d had for the sequel, like scenarios set in South America and Africa, would eventually make their way into a modestly enhanced 1993 version of the game called Railroad Tycoon Deluxe.
Coming as it did just before Civilization, the proverbial Big Moment of Sid Meier’s illustrious career, Railroad Tycoon‘s historical legacy has been somewhat obscured by the immense shadow cast by its younger sibling; even Meier sometimes speaks of Railroad Tycoon today in terms of “paving the way for Civilization.” Yet in my view it’s every bit as fine a game, and when all is said and done its influence on later games has been very nearly as great. “At the beginning of the game you had essentially nothing, or two stations and a little piece of track,” says Meier, “and by the end of the game you could look at this massive spiderweb of trains and say, ‘I did that.'” Plenty of later games would be designed to scratch precisely the same itch. Indeed, Railroad Tycoon spawned a whole sub-genre of economic strategy games, the so-called “Tycoon” sub-genre — more often than not that word seems to be included in the games’ names — that persists to this day. Sure, the sub-genre has yielded its share of paint-by-numbers junk, but it’s also yielded its share of classics to stand alongside the original Railroad Tycoon. Certainly it’s hard to imagine such worthy games as Transport Tycoon or RollerCoaster Tycoon — not to mention the post-MicroProse Railroad Tycoon II and 3 — existing without the example provided by Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley.
But you don’t need to look to gaming history for a reason to play the original Railroad Tycoon. Arguably the finest strategy game yet made for a computer in its own time, it must remain high up in that ranking even today.
(Sources: the books Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III, The Official Guide to Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon by Russell Sipe, and Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay; ACE of May 1990; Compute!’s Gazette of May 1989; Computer Gaming World of May 1990, July/August 1990, and September 1990; Soren Johnson’s interviews with Bruce Shelley and Sid Meier. My huge thanks go to Soren for providing me with the raw audio of his Sid Meier interview months before it went up on his site, thus giving me a big leg up on my research.
Railroad Tycoon Deluxe has been available for years for free from 2K Games’s website as a promotion for Meier’s more recent train game Railroads!. It makes a fine choice for playing today. But for anyone wishing to experience the game in its original form, I’ve taken the liberty of putting together a download of the original game, complete with what should be a working DOSBox configuration and some quick instructions on how to get it running.)
IFTF co-founder Carolyn VanEseltine last week stepped down from our board of directors at the end of her one-year tenure. (While we went public late last year, IFTF legally incorporated in March.) Carolyn has played as much of a formative role with IFTF as any of the rest of us, and we’re sad to see her leave the board — but pleased and proud at her continuing work in interactive fiction and elsewhere. Happily, she accepted an invitation from the remaining board members to remain connected to IFTF affairs through our advisory committee.
A board with only four directors sits a bit shy of the ideal, and we’ve been engaging our advisors and others towards inviting IFTF’s first non-founder director. I’m looking forward to it, honestly! Like many non-profit organizations, our founding board comprised a group of friends with a shared passion, chosen at least as much due to mutual proximity as any other strategy. We now have a chance to invite people on who add complementary skills, experience, and perspectives that the board otherwise lacks, broadening our ability to fulfill IFTF’s mission.
We’ve also published a new page for IFTF’s IFComp committee. This committee, in essence, makes public the informal mailing list I created when I became IFComp’s organizer in 2014.
For the sake of timeliness, the board created the committee last summer, in time for IFComp 2016 — and it spent the rest of the year with only one member, that being yours truly. At the start of this year, I worked with IFComp’s informal advisory group to transform it into a more formal governing body, operating under a written charter with a published roster.
Practically speaking, the organization of IFComp doesn’t change: there remains one organizer, and this person will also act as the chair of IFTF’s IFComp committee, year-by-year. The other committee members play an advisory role to the organizer. As the new page notes, IFComp’s full list of volunteers and participants rolls out far longer than this list of names; one can find a more complete roster by browsing the names attached to any particular year’s competition files on the IFComp website or in the competition archives.
Finally, the board extends a welcome to IFTF’s new communications manager, David Streever. He’ll be working with IFTF secretary Flourish Klink to better organize our social-media presence, email communications, and so on.
David is a very prolific writer in both hobbyist and commercial spheres, from his 150+ IFDB reviews through his paperback travel guides for cyclists. Clearly David cannot stop writing and I feel very fortunate that he has volunteered to extend some of that energy in IFTF’s direction!
For reasons unrelated to this project I was browsing 1979 issues of the Apple II magazine Micro and happened upon this one from October:
Thomas R. Mimlitch’s Spelunker is not the very first type-in parser adventure (that honor goes to Dog Star Adventure) but I’m guessing it’s the second? (I’m excluding Quest — which appeared in a July magazine — because it doesn’t have a parser.) In any case, this game is so wildly obscure that I’ll be impressed if someone can post a personal story of having tried this before.
Fortunately, the program was featured on a compilation disk (Micro Apple 1) so I don’t have to type in the type-in. However, there’s another catch which you’ll learn about shortly.
Imagine if when computer games were invented the idea of a “stand-alone” game was unknown, and the computer was more of an aid or companion to play:
This is an adventure fantasy series in which you become directly involved in exploration of a mysterious cavern in southwest Kentucky called Devils’ Delve. If you have never played before, you should take a guide along. The guide will read the chamber descriptions as you enter each room for the first time. He can also supply some hints and clues to help you when you are stuck. Only the guide should use the room descriptions, word lists, and the map of the caverns.
Just to be clear:
a.) It’s an adventure game with an inventory and puzzles and map and so forth. However …
b.) All the room descriptions are inside the magazine, rather than the source code. Furthermore …
c.) The room descriptions are supposed to be read by the “guide”, analogous to the Dungeon Master of Dungeons & Dragons. While the room descriptions are numbered, the numbers are not given in the game itself, forcing the guide to check against a table. Not only are the room descriptions not shown in the computer, but the visible objects aren’t shown either; they have to be listed by the guide, again by cross-referencing off a table.
UPDATE: Well, there was a bug in the code from the compilation I found! The line 9320 reads
9320 IF (STA(1) MOD 100)#LOC THEN 9360
but it’s supposed to say
9320 IF (STA(I) MOD 100)#LOC THEN 9360
After changing it appropriately, objects show up in the room description, huzzah! However, the room descriptions themselves are still printed in the magazine only.
In any case, I can’t really “play” this game without help. Also, in order to set things up / check the code’s sanity / realize what was going on I had to spoil a large chunk of content. So I think the most appropriate course of action is for me to be the Guide, and for some of you — yes, I’m speaking to you, the readers — to be the players.
So, quick survey: if you’d be interesting in playing, make a comment to this post. Also let me know which option you’d prefer:
Option 1: We could play-by-post where people put their parser commands into the comments and I provide the screenshots and guide commentary.
Option 2: We could play live. It would likely be sometime during the weekend of March 25th-26th; I would stream the game on Twitch, and y’all could type parser commands in chat.
ADD: We went with option 1. The play-by-post starts here.
I cannot guarantee the game will even be winnable without the code crashing and burning. This is as crazy as retro gets.
We last saw Lance Micklus in Treasure Hunt (1978) which was only sort-of what we’d recognize as an adventure game. This one is a clear Adventure-based game including a parser with the distinction that it is the first of its kind printed in a magazine: the May 1979 issue of SoftSide.
To be clear, this was a “type-in”, meaning it was intended that to play the game you’d have to first type in the source code. I used to do this all the time. When I was young (7 or 8 or so) I spent weeks typing in an adventure game from a book (this one, maybe) but somehow the source code was too large and the entire disk crashed as I was putting in the last lines. I was disconsolate and crying. My mother, being sympathetic, bought me a copy of Zork 1. This was my first Infocom game.
When typing an adventure it tends to be obvious in the process of typing what all the puzzle solutions are. Fortunately, Dog Star Adventure later got published under the Adventures International “Other Ventures” line, and there are plenty of copies besides (8 versions, at least). I do predict at some point in the future I will have type in a type-in, but not today.
Let’s quote the plot directly from the ad copy:
The evil General Doom and his Roche Soldiers are preparing to launch an attack against the forces of freedom led by the beautiful Princess Leya. Th Princess has been captured by Doom — and it’s up to you to pull of a daring rescue and save her and the royal treasury!
It’s not even trying to disguise its Star Wars origins, although science fiction adventures are still rare for this time period. Also note, even with a plot that really doesn’t demand it, there’s still a treasure hunt tossed in (at least if it’s the royal treasury you’re not trying to steal it for yourself, right?)
I ended up playing the commercial port; if you really want the classic type-in experience (complete with having to fix a typo in the source code) check out Jimmy Maher’s playthrough. Early on, there is a very significant gameplay difference:
The original supply room just states it has “all kinds of things” and you are literally supposed to just guess what the room contains, and then try to take it. I would call this “breathtakingly unfair”, even compared with games that actively strive to be unfair.
You can’t get that far without the supply room either. There’s no dark rooms, so no time limit as far as a limited light source goes; however, every once in a while a security guard will pop up (in some versions you can call them “stormtroopers”) …
… which you can take down with the blaster from the supply room. The blaster has a limited number of shots (and can only be refilled once, with the ammo that’s also in the supply room).
The game is otherwise fairly straightforward as far as puzzles go; you grab stuff mostly in the open and cart it back to the ship. At two points you need to use “key words” found elsewhere in the game (SECURITY to get into a vault and SESAME to open the space station doors). There’s also an infamous puzzle involving a hamburger:
Much to my own surprise, I figured out what to do with it. There’s an attack robot you find later, who is … hungry? Clearly instead of activating the clones in Star Wars Episode 2 to stop the droid army, the Republic needed to cook up some fast food.
Also of note: if you wait too longer the hamburger will get cold, and the attack robot won’t take your offering; it’s game over. This happened to me the first time I played.
In any case, the game ends by the player collecting as many treasures as possible (including Princess Leya, who you pick up like any other item), and then launching the ship to escape. Due to the primary tasks of rescue and escape you don’t need all the treasures to get a “win”, which I found to be a nice design finesse. For games that are pure treasure hunts, this often doesn’t come across as an option.
I still can’t recommend this one for modern players. The puzzles are either too hard (hamburger, original supply room) or too easy (most everything else) and the experience of making it to the end felt more grinding than insightful. Still, it is surely important in being the first readily available source code to people who wanted to write their own adventures. I am curious: does anyone know of any works in particular that specifically mention they were based off the Dog Star source?
Events and Deadlines
March 17, Atascadero, CA, there is the first of several classes for students 9-16 in writing IF.
March 22 and 23 in Montreal, there are two performances of Bad News, a human-mediated interactive drama that relies on information generated by a Dwarf-Fortress-esque simulation. The simulation is rerun each time someone plays the game.
March 25, Brussels, I will be speaking at the Passa Porta festival as part of a panel with Joost Vandecasteele and Gaea Schoeters about digital literature.
Odyssey Jam, a text game jam which takes inspiration from the Homeric epic, is running from now until March 26.
March 29, 7:30 PM, Cambridge UK, Rob Chant leads a meetup of the Camcreatives group on creating interactive fiction. The group meets at Hot Numbers.
April 1, 1 PM, the San Francisco Bay Area IF Meetup gathers at MADE.
April 2 is the deadline for games to be submitted for Spring Thing.
Also April 1, at the V&A in London, there is Contemporary Board Games Study Day, coordinated by James Wallis and offering curated games to play and talks from designers. It runs from 10 AM to 4 PM and costs £20 to attend.
April 5, 7 PM, the Oxford-London IF Meetup hears from Ian Thomas on the art of LARP and lessons we might draw from that for interactive fiction. We’ve chosen a central location in London for this event.
April 6, Spring Thing games become available for everyone to play.
And it’s some way off, but indie games conference/festival Feral Vector will run in Yorkshire June 1-3. If you go, I recommend booking a place in the adjacent hostel: most other accommodations are further away, more expensive, and less fun. (Exceptions: if you sleep badly in shared rooms, or if you have small children, that might not be a good fit. But evening conversations with fellow hostel-goers are a highlight of the conference.)
Text Club, an IF reading group, has launched over on imzy. They plan to make their way through several games per month and discuss them both separately and in relation to each other. Text Club’s first readings for March are Chandler Groover’s Midnight, Swordfight, S. Woodson’s Magical Makeover, and Emily Ryan’s Secret Agent Cinder.
Announcements and Releases
Stories Untold, by Devolver Digital, has been released on Steam.
inkle has announced their forthcoming game Heaven’s Vault, which looks frankly gorgeous.
DINE is an interesting experiment in text-input IF without a traditional parser or world model. As it’s picking the next best answer from a sequence of authored outputs, it’s not particularly designed to handle complex puzzles of the classic Infocom style. Anyone can add to the collection.
And François Coulon’s delightful The Reprover is available to play in a web-based form. This piece is a mix of interactive video, text, and music, available in French or English, about a world in which people hire professional reprovers to disapprove when they go off their diets or indulge other bad habits. The piece is very much its own thing; I wrote a lot more about it back in 2008 when it came out, but it’s been hard to recommend to people recently because it’s been a challenge to get running. Now you can play it again!
Podcasts and Articles
Netflix is bringing out shows with branching narrative, and journalists are reacting with loads of Ebert-fallacy responses. This is not to say that Netflix’s application of interaction is guaranteed to be good, but there are a lot of ways in which it could be good. This article from Thomas McMullen gives a somewhat deeper dive based in more knowledge of interactive stories in games.
Austin Walker’s Idle Weekend podcast for March 6 talks about Aisle and Galatea along with a number of other story-related games.
Here’s Emily Gera on the nostalgia factor in Stories Untold.
And Alastair Horne on various types of interactive and location-based fiction.
Here’s a free GDC 2017 Vault talk where Christine Love talks about the dev process for Ladykiller in a Bind (starting about 31:30), including a brief view of the tool she used to write for the unusual dialogue system.
I didn’t write this piece on being female and post-35 in the game industry, but oh boy does it resonate.
I was traveling from February 19 to March 7, so it’s really nice to be back in Boston (even under the current winter storm conditions!) I visited family in Michigan, went to Chicago, took a train from Chicago to San Francisco while mentoring a student game jam team (aka Train Jam), attended GDC, and lingered a few days with local friends (including a visit to the SF Bay Area Interactive Fiction Group) before heading home.
Train Jam is an incredibly cool event where we filled an entire Amtrak train with game developers and then made games aboard the train on our way to GDC. Many of the Train Jam devs were international visitors (I’d say the majority, though I have no official numbers) and others had flown from locations nearer to GDC (even San Francisco itself!) to participate. There were even several people who weren’t going to GDC at all and just wanted to do Train Jam, which confused me in the beginning and made perfect sense by the end.
The structure of sharing the train ride together made it usually easy to meet devs on different game teams. I went to at least one meal each day in the dining car, and the train staff promptly added me to a table with three other people each time. Favorite game discovered through dinner conversations: rustle your leaves to me softly, the ASMR Plant Dating Simulator by Dietrich Squinkifer and Jess Marcotte. I haven’t actually played the game (it would take some significant setup, including Arduino and a live plant) but I’m happy that it exists.
Most of my in-person jams have been at MIT, where there’s been a rough balance among designers, coders, artists, and sound designers. Train Jam was heavily balanced toward design and code. I volunteered to mentor a student group and wound up working with a really talented group on sort of a train-based tower defense game (Keegan Taylor, Keenan Barber, Daniel Wikstrom, Antonio Munoz, Enrique Checa, Jackie McGraw, and Jacob Koonce – hi everyone!) With five programmers on the team, the last thing they needed was another programmer, so I became a secondary artist. The foreground graphics are all Jackie McGraw’s work; the background art is all mine. It was really peaceful to draw my way across the United States, apart from castigating T-Mobile when there was no signal and I couldn’t get photo reference. (The train didn’t have wi-fi).
I’m rather pleased with my Train Jam art, and only one piece made it into the final build, so here’s a look at everything that didn’t make it in. These pieces are actually layered in four parts for parallax (foreground, decorations which are often wildly misplaced landmarks, background, sky) but I’ve just included the compiled versions here.
My least favorite of these is Chicago, because it looks nothing like Chicago apart from the miscellaneous landmarks, and the landmarks are hovering. I meant to come back and fix stuff, but jam time is jam time and it never happened. Sorry, Chicago people; I will draw your city better again some day. (PS. I am proud, however, that the giant silver jelly bean looks like a giant silver jelly bean.)
Learning to draw corn at a distance was fun.
For about eight hours, I thought I’d been fooled by a meme of people photoshopping giant badminton birdies into various states. But no, there are four giant badminton birdies, and they’re part of a sculpture called Shuttlecocks in Kansas City.
Carhenge is easier to draw than Chimney Rock. Before attempting to draw either, I would have asserted it was the other way around.
The odd glove things are intended to be the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Some things are completely unrecognizable when you take them far enough out of context.
My favorite of these is Colorado, because we were passing through Colorado when I accidentally lost all my photo reference. Since I had no phone signal whatsoever, I gave up and just drew what I could see of Colorado out the window, and I kept embellishing it (cloud cover layer, fancy snow speckle layer, etc) until we got signal again. The state house got added later, but it looks pretty darn good in the snow.
I like the colors of New Mexico.
I was tired of drawing buildings by then. These formations are actually all really far apart from each other.
It’s not very exciting to draw Carlsbad Caverns from the outside. So I didn’t.
Spiky desert plants for the win.
This was an amazing event and I would gleefully participate again. I’d never done Train Jam or GDC before, so this was all new to me, and it was the perfect way to start my GDC experience. Heartfelt thanks to Pixelles Montreal for their scholarship program, which made this all possible!
Next stop: GDC! But GDC was huge and I’ll write about it separately.
Choice of Games’ latest release will be The Eagle’s Heir by Amy Griswold and Jo Graham. The Eagle’s Heir is a steampunk alternate history game of political maneuvering, airship adventure, and romantic intrigue. Will you bring liberty to France, or plunge Europe into bloody war? I sat down with the authors to learn more about their game and their experiences writing interactive fiction. Look for The Eagle’s Heir later this week, releasing on Thursday, March 30th.
Eagle’s Heir is an alternate history or uchronia, in which Napoleon actually won at Waterloo. There’s also a bit of a steampunk flavor to it, because in this world there are airships used in combat situations. It’s a very fun, very exciting world. Tell me what drew you to invent it.
Jo: I’ve been writing in this period for a long time with my Wars of Revolution series of novels, The General’s Mistress, The Emperor’s Agent and the forthcoming The Marshal’s Lover. Madame St. Elme (grandmother in The Eagle’s Heir) is the main character of that series. As I work on it, I asked the inevitable question “What if they’d succeeded? What if Elza and her friends had won?” One thing that was clear to me in telling her story is how very close they came to winning. It only takes a tiny tweak here or there.
The point of departure in The Eagle’s Heir is that on the second day of Waterloo, d’Erlon reinforced Reille at Hougoumont Farm, forcing Wellington to withdraw from what had become a trap for him. Wellington pulled back before Grouchy arrived, allowing Ney to defeat Grouchy when he came up unsupported. Wellington then retreated to the Channel, as British Expeditionary Forces do, allowing the French to take Brussels. This caused a crisis in Parliament and Castlereagh’s government fell. A Whig Prime Minister was asked to form a government, and he signed a more favorable peace with France than the Tory government actually did in 1815. Consequently, Napoleon has remained Emperor for twenty years. He has embraced technological superiority, including giving free rein to the inventions of American Robert Fulton, which has caused a leap forward in steam power. As the game opens, France, England and Austria have been engaged in something of an arms race to the air.
One of the things I love about this world is that it’s not fantastic at all. It’s our world with tiny, plausible changes. Many of the main characters, like Alexandre, Victoria, Conroy, Madame St. Elme, and Franz, are all real people. Many of the others are based closely on real people as well. For example, the fascinating and romance-able Julien Lamarque, the news reporter, is based on young Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers. I hope players will enjoy this visit to a world that might have been.
Amy: I’m always fascinated by the Victorian era and its mix of the entertainingly strange and the frankly awful. Here we’re at the boundary between Regency and Victorian, with Princess Victoria about to ascend to the throne (or not, depending on some of the players’ choices!) –the period of early Charles Dickens and the setting of Les Miserables. There’s a tremendous amount of energy devoted to the idea of “progress,” and a great deal of flailing around trying to define what progress might look like and what price should be paid to achieve it. Playing in an alternate universe lets us explore some different ways that people might have tried to change the world.
Also, it lets us have the heirs to Napoleon’s empire battle it out in airship combat over the Tuileries, which was just too much fun to pass up.
Jo: Amy does the coding and we divide up the writing by chapters and scenes. For example, the country house party is Amy and the pirate attack is me. The theater scene is Amy and the scene with Napoleon is me. (I love writing Napoleon, and I’ve written him quite a bit before.)
Amy: In the early chapters, we divided the writing up into larger chunks (as Jo says, I wrote almost all of “Lions of England,” and she wrote almost all of “The Old Eagle on His Crag.”) In the later chapters, there are some individual choices where some branches were written by me and some were written by Jo.
Jo and I have co-written a number of times before, particularly on the Stargate Legacy series of tie-in novels for Fandemonium Books, and I enjoy it. It’s great getting to bounce ideas off each other and work out a story together, and I think we both brought our own strengths to this project; I’m more comfortable with the coding, and Jo’s experience writing and running tabletop role-playing games was very useful in our game design.
What did you find challenging about the process of writing in ChoiceScript/our game design?
Amy: There was definitely a learning curve involved in learning ChoiceScript, and I’ve gotten intimately familiar with pretty much every error message ChoiceScript can produce (plus the error messages I inserted to check for certain persistently recurring bugs, like “You shouldn’t be buried if you haven’t died!”) In terms of game design, experience with tabletop RPG campaigns where early decisions can lead to numerous possible states for later situations was very helpful. Probably the biggest challenge was making sure that there weren’t “wrong” choices – that every choice a player could make had advantages (and, usually, also disadvantages).
Are you a fan of interactive fiction in general? Any favorites you’d like to share?
Jo: I love a bunch of Choice of Games stories, and I’ve been playing a while. My absolute favorite is Choice of Alexandria! I also love Affairs of the Court (which I’ve played through twelve times!), Choice of Broadsides, Choice of the Rock Star, Hollywood Visionary, and Saga of the North Wind.
Amy: I also particularly liked Affairs of the Court, but I’ve enjoyed a number of the games from Choice of Games, and I find Twine games generally interesting. In terms of narrative games defined more broadly, I’m a longtime player and fan of Fallen London and its Victorian space bats.
What are you working on next for Choice of Games?
Jo: Our next story is called Stronghold, and it’s high fantasy.
Amy: It’s a game about defending a town, finding a family, and building a community, and we’re excited to be starting the outline stage again with this project!
There are several thriving brands of interactive fiction on mobile that tend not to get a huge amount of coverage in the traditional IF community, despite their large player base. They’re placing well on the app store, though, and GDC talks increasingly cover them — so I went and had a look at a couple of the main contenders.
I should preface further discussion by saying that I have occasionally worked with mobile IF companies that might be considered to be competitors in this space. I did not spend any money on either of these games, though this does not mean I had review copies: they’re free to play with pay-to-unlock options in some places (and I’ll come back to that later).
Choices, from Pixelberry Studios, is a library app containing a bunch of different stories aimed at teenage girls. The top promoted story is The Freshman, and details the main character’s dating options in college.
It’s immensely trope-y stuff, especially if you got your tropes from 1955: running into a boy and having your luggage pop open, revealing (gasp) a bra! Exploring your suite, meeting suite-mates, and deciding whether to wear a bikini in your first encounter with your classmates. Playing getting-to-know-you games, deciding whether to drink or not. At least in the first few chapters, it’s an entirely social and low-friction vision of what college might be like, without the intellectual challenge, the self-discovery of being away from home and family, or the stickier kinds of interpersonal conflict. (Perhaps it gets more complex later — I only played the first few chapters.)
Gender roles are stereotypical, and although I was able to choose a black protagonist, it looked as though the character art still featured her mom as a middle-class white lady at one point — which is of course possible, but it didn’t feel like an intentional storytelling choice at the time.
Vanilla college is not the only option. Choices also offers several other books. There’s Rules of Engagement, in which the protagonists are aboard a cruise ship and forced to try to find love there thanks to the terms of a wealthy grandmother’s will. While that sounds pretty silly, I’m not sure it’s really a lot more ridiculous than many a romance novel I’ve encountered.
The Crown and the Flame is a fantasy story of a dispossessed princess and the male sidekick who remains loyal to her: there are still some romance choices, but also strands of combat, espionage, and political alliance. I managed to get myself killed a couple of times, but the game allows you to rewind instantly to the last choice point and pick another direction, so my political bumbling didn’t cost me too dearly.
The gameplay is reminiscent of a visual novel. Each area has its own background illustration; in-game text mostly takes the form of short pieces of dialogue from the various characters, shown in a box with the character’s face and expression visible as well. And, as in a dating-focused VN, the games take a lot of their initial startup time on introducing the cast of characters. On the other hand, the Choices stories felt comparatively linear, and they’re broken up into short chapters — targeted to the kind of constrained attention span one often has when interacting with a mobile device. And, unsurprisingly, the gameplay in The Crown and the Flame is nowhere near as complicated as in something like Long Live the Queen: the player isn’t necessarily expected to replay, let alone replay multiple times to find a survival strategy.
Then there’s the monetization.
I mentioned these are free to play, but you have to watch an ad (usually user acquisition for some other app) before each new chapter. Then there’s the in-game currency: some choices unlock only if you have “diamonds,” which you can buy at £1.99 for a pack of 20. You can also earn diamonds one at a time by completing chapters of the story, but you’ll accrue these so slowly that it becomes frustrating; and aggravation is of course the primary driver of a free-to-play mechanic.
Choices uses its monetization to get out of having to balance the gameplay (or, perhaps, as a form of balance). Often there’s one option that’s clearly the best tactically or the most interesting for your character, and it costs money:
(Yes, that means it costs £1.99 to get it on with Chris. I assume. I haven’t played that branch, so maybe you just go back to your room and look at etchings.)
Different stories use this feature in different ways. In The Freshman, your diamond unlocks tend to be for things that make your character behave in (mildly) sexually adventurous ways: wearing a bikini! Going upstairs with Chris! In Rules of Engagement, at least for the first few chapters, they’re more about getting your character to speak her mind to the ex who cheated on her and other unpleasant characters.
In The Crown and the Flame, diamond unlocks buy you new weapons, give you ally and combat advantages, and allow you to spare another character from being killed. If you choose not to pay real-world currency to save his life, you get a couple of beats of his begging for mercy and tragic unhappiness before you move on with the story.
I half-expected to be given an “are you really sure you want to leave Prince Tevan to his death? 40 diamonds to change your mind!!” option, but the game doesn’t do that; instead, it just sets you up with this memory of guilt so that, presumably, the next time you’re asked to pony up for an NPC’s life, you’ll do so.
But, in general, spending real world money substitutes in for the reasons why we might not take the best or most outspoken strategy in real life: we’re afraid we might get killed in the process of trying to save Prince Tevan. We feel too inhibited to tell our cheating ex how we really feel. We’re not sure yet whether we trust Chris enough to take the relationship to the next level. IF can do this with in-game resources as well, of course, but being asked for actual currency adds a stinger.
I’m not sure whether to be amused or faintly appalled by this strategy. It makes things a lot easier from an authoring perspective, because finding ways to make all the options equally appealing can be a lot of work in some scenarios. Not all games or brands bother with perfect balance every time, of course: while Choice of Games is committed to balanced gameplay and edits rigorously to achieve it, Failbetter has been known to play with egregiously unfair choices as a storytelling feature: see the entire Mr Eaten storyline. And Failbetter does also have premium choices in some storylines, though those are typically about opening up whole additional chunks of content.
Episode, from PocketGems, occupies a similar space to Choices. The art, at least in the featured stories, is more animated, but the quality is not as good overall. The writing varies quite a lot, and I typically found it less engaging than the writing in Choices chapters. There aren’t pre-episode ads, but you do get offers in many episodes to share an image from the game on your Twitter or Instagram account.
On the other hand, some of the stories play on established IP, such as Pretty Little Liars or Mean Girls. Episode operates on a more-is-more principle:
There have been over 2.5 billion episodes viewed on Episode so far, which adds up to over 47,000 years of combined viewing time! We’ve also opened up our storytelling platform and have the world’s largest community of interactive stories and storytellers, with over 5.5 million registered creators and 45,000 stories.
Like Choices, they monetize individual options. Do you want to “get styled” before meeting up with other girls in Pretty Little Liars? They’ll like you better if you do! 10 diamonds!
Perhaps it’s true to the subject matter of these particular stories, but I found myself noting that, in the pieces I played, Episode‘s monetized options often basically invited the player to pay money in exchange for attractiveness and popularity — a message young women already encounter quite often.
As part of our support for the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels, we will be posting an irregular series of blog posts discussing important design and writing criteria for games. We hope that these can both provide guidance for people participating in the Contest and also help people understand how we think about questions of game design and some best practices. These don’t modify the evaluation criteria for the Contest, and (except as noted) participants are not required to conform to our recommendations–but it’s probably a good idea to listen when judges tell you what they’re looking for.
If these topics interest you, be sure to sign up for our contest mailing list below! We’ll post more of our thoughts on game design leading up to the contest deadline on January 31, 2018.
Since we announced the contest and posted our game design guidelines we’ve received a number of questions that show some folks interested in entering the contest are having some difficulty understanding the connect between our judging rubric (below) and the game design documents.
In order to draw that line a little more closely, consider the following analogy: our guidelines are like a recipe. You need to stick to the recipe or the cake will fall, or won’t cook through. Now, that doesn’t mean every game is alike: some games will be almond cakes, some will be sachertortes, some red velvet, some will even be babka or Boston cream pie. But almost every cake is made with flour, sugar, butter, right?
So too, with our guidelines. In determining the winner of the contest, each game will be scored based on the judging rubric above, and while there is a lot of variation in the types of games that can be submitted, games which don’t hew to our guidelines in some very basic ways will likely receive a 0 in the category they fall short in. Such a score in any one category is enough to ensure your game will not win the contest, because the game will have failed in such a way that no amount of high scores in any other categories would allow it to win.
First, you should study the guidelines document closely before you begin writing your game, but to supplement that over the next few weeks we’ll be giving you the concrete ways in which the Guidelines connect with our Judging Rubric. For this week, we’ll begin with a couple of the most commonly asked points, Inclusivity, and Length and Coding Efficiency. We’ll also cover one of the earliest design decisions in a game, the Setting and Plot.
Inclusivity (10% of score):
To be inclusive games must, at a minimum, not be gender or orientation locked. That means that a player must be able to play as male or female, and gay or straight if either are at all mentioned. It is, however, an option to omit these things (i.e. never mention the player character’s gender and/or have no romances). If a game does offer romances, they should be equally satisfying no matter the player character’s gender and orientation. Games that offer trans, nonbinary, romantic asexual, aromantic, polyamorous, and other gender and orientation options can score higher in this category.
Additionally, non-player characters should have a mix of ethnicities, genders, orientations, and other other marginalized groups. They should also not play into stereotypes of race, gender, ethnicity, etc. For instance, leaders shouldn’t all be men and shouldn’t all be white; nurturers and victims shouldn’t all be women; criminals shouldn’t all be people of color; same-sex romances shouldn’t all end in tragedy; women shouldn’t appear only as motivation or reward.
The details of how this is expressed of depends on the game, of course. If your game is set in feudal Japan, for example, the absence of characters of African descent is not a problem. Likewise, if your game is in a setting that was historically single-gender (as in the case of Choice of Broadsides), then it’s possible to have the majority of NPCs be the same gender, so long as there’s an option for the PC to genderswap the environment. However, unless there is a specific, compelling reason not to do so, games should include substantial diversity.
Games which include plenty of robust, inclusive characters can score higher in Inclusivity, while games which do not make a substantial effort to include diversity are likely to score low in this category. Games which force the player to play as a preset gender or orientation, or which reinforce negative stereotypes, will receive a 0 in Inclusivity.
Length and Coding Efficiency (5% of score):
To understand what we mean by length, you need to first know what we measure the total length of a game by the number of words in ChoiceScript files, including code. (This is the “length” we use in most places.) We then also measure the average number of words that players read each time they play; we call this the “playthrough length.” We’ve found one of the biggest factors in how well a game is received, is just how long it is. Players simply tend to rate our bigger games more highly than our smaller ones.
At a minimum the total length of your game must be 100,000 words without repeating large swaths of text. Games that are longer without repeated text, and that efficiently use
*else commands to ensure that text is not repeated unnecessarily can score higher in this category. Games which are longer without feeling drawn out, or that otherwise feel as though they are precisely as long as they need to be to tell their story, can also score higher in Length.
Of course, this is all about how much different text a player can possibly see, so while longer games will tend to score higher, a game which repeats large amounts of text or code, or has large amounts of code that adds little to the story, will tend to score lower, and may possibly receive a 0 in this category depending on its total length. Games which are under 100,000 total words will receive a 0 in Length no matter their playthrough length.
Setting and Plot (15% of score):
The setting and plot of your game should have a certain level of originality and creativity without becoming inaccessible to a larger audience. A good way to measure this is by seeing if you can give an “Elevator Pitch” of your game. Try to condense your game down a single sentence, and see if it’s both understandable, and still feels interesting. If it’s extremely easy to explain your entire game in a single sentence, or you can do it by just pointing to a genre or another story, it’s possible your game may be lacking originality. If you simply can’t, then your concept might need to be simplified a bit.
Consider the following examples: all of these games’ elevator pitches are creative, but grounded enough to be understood with a single sentence pitch.
Creatures Such As We: You play a tour guide on the moon who is obsessed with a video game.
The Orpheus Ruse: You play a psychic spy who can inhabit other people’s minds and bodies.
Versus: You play an alien who can travel through time and space, and absorb others’ powers in a game of intrigue.
For Rent: Haunted House: You play a real estate agent who must rent a haunted property or risk losing their job.
Sometimes games may embrace the tropes of their genre, but even then they should still find distinctive stories within those frameworks. For instance:
A Midsummer Night’s Choice: You play a Shakespearean-style child of a nobleman who escapes to the forest to find true love.
Psy High: You play a high schooler with supernatural abilities who foils an evil plot.
The Hero of Kendrickstone: You play a novice adventurer—warrior, wizard, rogue, or bard—just setting out in the world.
Games with a gripping premise make readers curious (without confusing them!) and which execute that idea well, with good cohesive plot development and a clear, well developed setting, are likely to score higher in Setting and Plot. Games which are very difficult for the player to follow, or which are devoid of engagement and creativity, are likely to score low in this category. Games that lack any real setting (such as collections of short stories, or mechanics based dungeon crawlers) may receive a 0 in this category.
Next time we’ll continue explaining our Rubric by seeing how a baseball cap will help us to explain Creative Stats, Balanced Choices, and Conflicting Goals with Satisfying Endings.
Shortly after completing Maniac Mansion, his first classic graphic adventure, Ron Gilbert started sketching ideas for his next game. “I wanted to do something that felt like fantasy and might kind of tap into what was interesting about fantasy,” he remembers, “but that wasn’t fantasy.” Gilbert loved the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, which took guests through a whole pirate adventure in fifteen minutes, climaxing in a cannon duel between two ships. He only wished that he could linger there, could get out of the little boat that carried guests through the attraction and wander amid the scenery. What the need to keep shoveling amusement-park guests through a paid attraction disallowed, a computer game could allow. Thus was the idea for The Secret of Monkey Island born.
The game casts you in the role of Guybrush Threepwood, a lovable loser who wants to become a pirate. Arriving on Mêlée Island, a den of piratey scum and villainy, he has to complete a set of trials to win the status of Official Pirate. Along the way, he falls in love with the island’s beautiful governor Elaine — her name sets the game up for a gleeful The Graduate homage — and soon has to rescue her from the villain of the story, the evil ghost pirate LeChuck.
The Disnefied piracy wasn’t hard to do, especially after Gilbert discovered a charming little historical-fantasy novel by Tim Powers called On Stranger Tides. Nor was the goofy humor that was so much his stock in trade as a game designer. What did make things complicated, however, was his desire to create a more playable, forgiving adventure game than even Maniac Mansion had managed to be. Gilbert admits that he was struggling, with no more than the beginnings of a design document or, for that matter, a design philosophy, when a mandate came down from Lucasfilm Games’s parent company’s management: they wanted an adventure game to go with the upcoming film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Such a mandate was unusual for the privileged little artists’ enclave that still was Lucasfilm Games at this time, but, given the freedom they had so generously been granted for so long, they were hardly in a position to argue about it. Ron Gilbert, Noah Falstein, and David Fox joined forces to grind out the Indiana Jones game, while Monkey Island went on hold for more than six months.
It was just possibly the best thing that could have happened. The delay gave Gilbert time to continue thinking about adventure-game design in the abstract, to continue groping toward that elusive something — or, better said, somethings — that would make his future games different. Hardly a theorist by nature, he nevertheless sat down and wrote out a manifesto of sorts as a way of codifying his opinions, titling it, in inimitable Ron Gilbert fashion, “Why Adventure Games Suck.” This semi-legendary document, probably the most influential ever written on the subject of adventure-game design, was published in the December 1989 issue of The Journal of Computer Game Design (the paper-based adjunct to the Computer Game Developers Conference).
Some of what Gilbert has to say in his manifesto feels a little rambling and esoteric today, while the vast majority of what does feel relevant we’ve already had reasons to discuss on other occasions — what with the general state of adventure-game design in the 1980s, sometimes on all too many other occasions. Still, the document itself and the ideas it contains can only be regarded as hugely important to the evolution of the adventure game.
Consider what the manifesto has to say about the age-old problem of locking the player out of victory without her knowledge.
I forgot to pick it up
Never require a player to pick up an item that is used later in the game if she can’t go back and get it when it is needed. It is very frustrating to learn that a seemingly insignificant object is needed, and the only way to get it is to start over or go back to a saved game. From the player’s point of view, there was no reason for picking it up in the first place. Some designers have actually defended this practice by saying that “adventure-game players know to pick up everything.” This is a cop-out. If the jar of water needs to be used on the spaceship and it can only be found on the planet, create a use for it on the planet that guarantees it will be picked up. If the time between the two uses is long enough, you can be almost guaranteed that the player forgot she even had the object.
The other way around this problem is to give the player hints about what she might need to pick up. If the aliens on the planet suggest that the player find water before returning to the ship, and the player ignores this advice, then failure is her own fault.
In The Secret of Monkey Island and all of the Lucasfilm adventure games that would follow it, Gilbert and his colleagues implemented an extreme remedy to this problem. Rather than admitting a failure to pick up the right object at the right time to be even potentially the player’s “own fault,” they made certain it was always possible to go back and get said item. Locking yourself out of victory, in other words, became literally impossible.
Now consider what the manifesto has to say about arbitrarily killing the player and about another related old bugaboo, requiring knowledge from past lives.
Live and learn
As a rule, adventure games should be able to be played from beginning to end without “dying” or saving the game if the player is very careful and very observant. It is bad design to put puzzles and situations into a game that require a player to die in order to learn what not to do next time. This is not to say that all death situations should be designed out. Danger is inherent in drama, but danger should be survivable if the player is clever.
As an exercise, take one complete path through a story game and then tell it to someone else, as if it were a standard story. If you find places where the main character could not have known a piece of information that was used (the character who learned it died in a previous game), then there is a hole in the plot.
Again, Gilbert and the rest of Lucasfilm would push much further than even the above would imply in their own future designs. Despite the claim that “danger is inherent to drama” — a claim, one has to assume, about which Gilbert must have come to think better — they made it impossible for the player to die, no matter what she did.
Gilbert tells us at the end of his manifesto that he’d like to “get rid of save games” altogether.
If there have to be save games, I would use them only when it was time to quit playing until the next day. Save games should not be a part of game play. This leads to sloppy design. As a challenge, think about how you would design a game differently if there were no save games. If you ever have the pleasure of watching a non-game player playing an adventure game you will notice they treat save games very differently than the experienced user. Some start using it as a defense mechanism only after being slapped in the face by the game a few times, the rest just stop playing.
It’s this idea of designing adventure games as if saves didn’t exist that’s the real key to understanding what made The Secret of Monkey Island and the Lucasfilm adventures which would follow it so different, even so revolutionary. Everything else springs from this one adjustment in perspective. I last played The Secret of Monkey Island nine months or so ago, when my wife and I were on a little holiday in Venice. Each evening, after a long day spent exploring the alleys and canals, we’d retire back to our cozy little hotel and I’d poke at Monkey Island for an hour or two on my laptop before bed. Having played heaps of older adventure games for years prior to getting to Monkey Island — the life of a digital antiquarian sadly doesn’t leave much time for games that aren’t on the syllabus! — I must have experienced it much as its first players did. And I have to say, it’s downright difficult to express how freeing it was to know that I didn’t need to save every ten minutes, didn’t need to stress over the potential of somehow locking myself out of victory with every action. Instead, I could feel free to explore and experiment, knowing the game would take care of me. I don’t say that every game needs to be this way, but I do know that The Secret of Monkey Island is, along with its immediate Lucasfilm predecessor Loom, perhaps the first adventure games I’ve ever played for this blog that felt like natural holiday companions, things to relax into and just enjoy rather than assault with deadly seriousness. And yet The Secret of Monkey Island in particular manages this feat without ever feeling trivial. The game represents a remarkable historical watershed, as of an entire culture of game makers and players waking up and realizing that all the little aggravations they had thought adventure games had to include really didn’t need to be in there at all.
Taken apart from its immense importance as a model for future designs at Lucasfilm and elsewhere, The Secret of Monkey Island might initially seem a less than overwhelming package. It exists in very typical adventure-game territory for its era, at first glance dismayingly so. We’ve got yet another sad-sack loser of a protagonist, wandering through a comedy landscape built from pop-culture detritus, anachronisms, and meta-humor. The whole ought to read as lazy as most such efforts. Yet two things save the day, both of which feel intrinsic to the people who wrote the game, Ron Gilbert and his two assistant writers Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. The first is the marvelously unaffected quality of the humor. The game is consistently, off-handedly funny without ever conspicuously straining to be in the manner of its peers. Where their humor is labored, Monkey Island‘s is effortless. And then there’s the related quality of a certain sweetness about the game. Guybrush Threepwood is the ultimate innocent. He just wants to be a Disney version of a pirate and to rescue and win the hand of the beautiful Elaine; guile is a foreign concept to him. Not only is The Secret of Monkey Island that rarest of beasts, a self-styled comedy adventure that’s genuinely, consistently funny, it’s about as likeable a game as has ever been made. This is a game where when a cannibal asks you how to “get ahead” he means… no, that one’s just too much fun to spoil.
The Secret of Monkey Island isn’t flashy or self-consciously spectacular in the way that so many contemporaneous Sierra adventures strained to be, but it is sophisticated in its aesthetics in a way few other games of its era can match. Still working with 16-color EGA graphics (a 256-color VGA version, from which the screenshots in this article are drawn, was released within a few months of the original), artists Steve Purcell and Mark Ferrari used their limited color palette to good effect to evoke the various moods of the various environments, while Michael Land crafted a gentle reggae-influenced soundtrack to plink away unobtrusively in the background or swell up into the foreground as circumstances dictated. Playing The Secret of Monkey Island really does feel like wandering through a delightful pirate theme park (a quality which the rather infamous ending of the sequel, which we won’t go into further in this article, would take very much to heart).
Most of all, The Secret of Monkey Island thrives on its puzzle design. The game’s plot plays out in four chapters, within each of which you have broad discretion to solve puzzles at your own pace and in your own order. (“Give the player options” is another commandment in “Why Adventure Games Suck.”) Its most famous puzzle, “insult sword-fighting,” says much about the game’s personality as a whole: instead of fighting with swords, pirates in this game like to fight via insults. You need to collect these insults and their ripostes as you explore, then apply them just right to win the “sword fight.” (Hey, anything’s better than a sharp sword in the gut, right?) The idea was born as Ron Gilbert was watching old pirate movies of the Errol Flynn stripe, and noticed that the opponents spent as much time verbally as physically assaulting one another. What with a verbal joust being far easier to implement in an adventure game than a sword-fighting engine, it didn’t take him long to run with the idea.
But really the entirety of the puzzle design, top to bottom, is just superb, managing to be funny and clever and occasionally challenging without ever devolving into the random using of each object on each other object. Throughout, attention is paid to you the player’s time and sanity in a way very few games of the era bother to do. For instance, at one point you need to follow another character through the jungle to find a secret location. Most games of the time would happily make you do this over and over, every time you want to return to said location — not least because doing so could serve to boost the length of the game at no expense. The Secret of Monkey Island only makes you do it once, then proceeds to do it for you from then on. “No point in having to solve the same puzzle over and over,” said Gilbert. Amen to that.
The game’s system of nudging you on to the correct solution to many puzzles is subtle to the extent that many players never even notice it’s there — and this, it must be said, again feels like the way it ought to be. At the beginning of the game, you’re expected to fulfill three tasks to prove to the pirates on the island that Guybrush has what it takes to become a pirate as well. As you poke around the island, your challengers actually take note of what you’ve done, and will offer some hints based on your progress if you go back and talk to them. “We want to guide the player subtly through the game,” said Gilbert’s colleague David Fox. “If the game works right, it should know that you’re stuck somewhere and it should give you a little help in a subtle way, so that you can solve the puzzle without feeling like it was solved for you.” In the context of 1990, the year of The Secret of Monkey Island‘s release, this was astonishingly progressive design. “As opposed,” remarked Fox wryly, “to the kind of game where the designer seems to be saying, ‘Aha! I’ve got you this time!’ and you have to spend three hours of gameplay to find some hidden object that you need to solve one puzzle.”
A rare example of a game where every element complements every other element, The Secret of Monkey Island has gone down in history as one of the finest, most justly beloved graphic adventures ever made. And for any aspiring adventure designer, even today, it’s a veritable master class in how to make an adventure game that most definitively doesn’t suck.
Released in October of 1990 as Lucasfilm’s second adventure of the year, The Secret of Monkey Island shared with its immediate predecessor Loom its pretend-the-player-can’t-save approach to design. Loom, however, had been a bridge too far for many traditionalist adventure gamers. What with its aggressively minimalist interface and portentous setting and story, it felt like an adventure game filtered through the aesthetics of a European avant-garde film. But The Secret of Monkey Island was, to strain the metaphor, all Hollywood. Whatever its innovations, it was also very much a meat-and-potatoes adventure game in the old style, complete with a menu of verbs, a comic tone, lots of object-oriented puzzles to solve, and a length more in keeping with that people had come to expect from a $40 boxed adventure game. It was thus far better equipped to deliver the gospel of “Why Adventure Games Suck” than Loom had been. While Loom had been greeted with critical uncertainty, reviewers fell over themselves to praise The Secret of Monkey Island, which wasted no time in becoming Lucasfilm Games’s biggest hit to date. It marks an enormously important watershed in the history of Lucasfilm’s adventure games in general, the moment when they commercially and creatively came fully into their own. The classic era of Lucasfilm adventures begins in earnest with The Secret of Monkey Island, which would become nothing less than the ideal most of the games that would follow would strive, sometimes perhaps a little too self-consciously, to reach.
Its commercial performance aside, The Secret of Monkey Island‘s enormous importance in the history of the art of adventure-game design in general shouldn’t be neglected. For many designers working at other companies, Ron Gilbert’s no-deaths-and-no-dead-ends approach hit home with the force of revelation. Both Corey Cole, co-designer of the Quest for Glory series for Sierra, and Bob Bates, co-founder of Legend Entertainment, brought up The Secret of Monkey Island unprompted in recent interviews with me as a work that made a huge impression on them. By no means would all designers push as far as Ron Gilbert had in the name of making a more playable adventure game. Corey Cole’s design partner Lori Ann Cole, for example, pronounced herself to be against “capricious” death in adventure games, but insisted that the possibility of death needed to be present to foster “personal involvement” and “an emotional stake” and to elevate the game above “mere amusement” — all of which positions strike me as perfectly reasonable for the very different sort of adventure games she and Corey were making. Still, everyone serious about the art of adventure-game design simply had to reckon with The Secret of Monkey Island, had to decide what its lessons really were and how to apply them. The game’s impact was such that to speak of a pre-Monkey Island and post-Monkey Island era of adventure games wouldn’t be at all out of order.
As the 1990s began, times were beginning to change inside Lucasfilm Games. With the fire hose of cash that had been the Star Wars and Indiana Jones film franchises now ebbing and no new sequels in either blockbuster franchise on the horizon, Lucasfilm in general was concentrating on becoming a more commercially savvy organization. These changes inevitably affected the games division. Just about the instant that The Secret of Monkey Island was hitting store shelves, a major corporate reorganization was in progress at Lucasfilm, which saw the games division given far more resources — their personnel roll grew from about 25 to more than 100 between 1989 and 1991 — but also given much closer supervision. They would now be expected to justify each of their projects to the accountants. This transformation of Lucasfilm Games from sideline to major profit center was by no means viewed as a comprehensively bad thing by everyone working inside the games division — it did after all lead to them finally being let loose on the Star Wars intellectual property, something they’d been wishing for for years — but it would change the character of the place and the games that came from it forever.
The changes meant that the two sequels to Loom which Brian Moriarty had hoped to make would never be realized; Moriarty was instead sent off to work on a new educational-games initiative. A sequel to the big hit The Secret of Monkey Island, however, became a major priority under the new order, especially as Lucasfilm, now devoting lots of resources to flight simulators and those aforementioned Star Wars games, had no other adventures on their calendar for 1991. Released in December of 1991, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge didn’t disappoint commercially. Benefiting from the enormous good will accrued by its predecessor, it became another bestseller, and won a number of the game-of-the-year awards that a tardy industry should have been awarding to its predecessor (inertia being the force it is, most of the awards for 1990 had gone to Sierra’s pretty but horribly designed King’s Quest V, which served as its own argument for “why adventure games suck”). Today, the sequel remains almost as beloved as the original among hardcore Lucasfilm fans.
Personally, though, I’m not such a big fan of Monkey Island 2 as I am of its predecessor. Ron Gilbert had spent two and a half years designing, writing, and developing the first Monkey Island, alone or with others. He was given just a year for Monkey Island 2, a game that’s at least 50 percent larger, and I fancy I can see this disparity in the end result. The writing is neither as sharp nor as sweet. For the first time in a Ron Gilbert game, some of the humor is more gross than clever — spitting, with attention to the color and consistency of your loogies, is a major puzzle mechanic — and some of the rest is weirdly mean-spirited. Guybrush Threepwood has been transformed from the gee-whiz innocent of the first game to a bit of a raging asshole, the type of guy who steals a monocle from an innocent character who can’t see a thing without it and locks another guy who didn’t do anything to him inside a coffin. I don’t know to what I should attribute the change in tone — whether to changes going on inside Lucasfilm Games at the time, to changes going on in the personal lives of Ron Gilbert and/or the other members of his writing team, to the pressure of getting a bigger game out in much less time, or simply to happenstance. I know only that it doesn’t sit that well with me.
In terms of puzzle design, the sequel also marks a big step down from its predecessor. While the no-deaths-and-no-dead-ends approach to design is still present, Monkey Island 2 constantly violates another of the dicta found in Ron Gilbert’s manifesto.
Puzzles and their solutions need to make sense. They don’t have to be obvious, just make sense. The best reaction after solving a tough puzzle should be, “Of course, why didn’t I think of that sooner!” The worst, and most often heard after being told the solution, is, “I never would have gotten that!” If the solution can only be reached by trial and error or plain luck, it’s a bad puzzle.
Monkey Island 2 is full of these sorts of, to use Ron Gilbert’s own words, “bad puzzles.” Many solutions are so outlandish that you can stumble upon them only by using every object on every other object. At one point, for instance, you’re carrying a monkey around in your inventory (don’t ask!) when you come upon a closed water valve you need to open. Using the monkey on the valve does the trick because “monkey wrench.” Now, credit where it’s due, there’s some real wit to this. Yet it’s the sort of thing absolutely no player will ever think of on her own, especially given that the game hasn’t heretofore shown any interest in this sort of wordplay. (And that’s without even beginning to consider the problems of localization to other languages than English, which tends to render a puzzle like this into a complete non sequitur.) As you get deeper into the game, there’s more and more of this sort of thing, along with pixel hunts, an infuriating maze, and puzzles that can only be solved by trying to pick up every seemingly immovable item on the screen. Monkey Island 2 at times seems like an experiment in how annoying an adventure game can be without technically violating Lucasfilm’s no-deaths-and-no-dead-ends policy.
Arbitrary puzzles that can be solved only through trial and error would prove to be Lucasfilm’s Achilles heel going forward; too many of the games to come would feature puzzles designed more to create a laugh at how ridiculous they are than to be interesting or satisfying to solve. The end result is to create a feeling in the player of playing the interface rather than participating actively in the game world.
Perhaps aware that they had crossed a line in trying to make Monkey Island 2 more difficult than its predecessor, Lucasfilm added a “Lite” mode to the game which scales the complexity of the puzzle structure back dramatically. Unfortunately, most players agree that the Lite mode goes too far in the other direction, removing most of the interest from the game. Taken together, the very presence of the two modes speaks to a design that didn’t quite hit the sweet spot of the first game, and to a design team that at some intuitive level may have realized this.
Shortly after completing Monkey Island 2, Ron Gilbert left Lucasfilm Games, resulting in a long hiatus for Guybrush, Elaine, LeChuck, and company. Given my snail’s pace through history, there will thus likely be an almost equally lengthy hiatus before they’ll grace these pages again. For now, I can only strongly encourage you to make the time to play The Secret of Monkey Island if you haven’t already. It’s as strong a comedy adventure as you’ll ever see, and as historically important an adventure game as any released since Crowther and Woods’s seminal original Adventure. While you can take or leave its sequel as you see fit, The Secret of Monkey Island is one adventure game that everybody really ought to play. It’s just that important. And even better, it’s just that good.
(Sources: the films From Bedrooms to Billions: The Amiga Years and its associated extras; the book Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution by Michael Rubin; A.C.E. of April 1990; The Adventurer of Fall 1990, Spring 1991, and Fall 1991; Computer Gaming World of December 1990, June 1991, October 1991, November 1991, January 1992, May 1992, and November 1992; Retro Gamer 34. Also Ron Gilbert’s blog, The Grumpy Gamer.)
As we move from "shh don't say anything" into "hey we're making a game!" on Heaven's Vault, we thought it'd be nice to start talking about it a bit more.
Which is why we're starting a dev blog - a series of a short little posts about how we're developing, researching, building, writing, designing and arting up the world of the Nebula. (Spoiler-free, of course.)
Our first post, a little about our recent trip to GDC, is up right now.
So if you want to keep up with what's happening with Heaven's Vault, please give us a follow! But if you prefer your news infrequent and definitive, you can also sign up to the mailing list over on the main page, and we'll let you know when it's actually ready.
Two years ago I blogged about lost mainframe games, including this one:
LORD (1981, Olli J. Paavola)
I’ve got dual interest in this one, not only from it being a mainframe game from Finland (it was written while Olli was at the Helsinki University of Technology) but also for being allegedly the first interactive fiction book adaptation.
With 550 separate locations, this game is huge by most standards. It does not really try to be completely consistent with Tolkien but mixes elements from many other sources. It is clear, however, that it is made with a great love for and knowledge of Tolkien’s books.
I got a couple emails (by both Anthony Hope who helped unearth Wander, and the journalist Jukka O. Kauppinen) letting me know that the source has been found (by Mr. Paavola himself) and is currently at exhibit and playable at the Finnish Museum of Games.
Unfortunately, playing it means physically being in Finland; there’s no general release. Anyone in that neck of the woods?
The museum has on display one more text adventure I’d never heard of before — Aikaetsivä! (1986) by Jukka Tapanimäki:
If you're a fan of ''70s era retro computing, or graphic design in general, you should check out Dan Lapetino's "Art of Atari." First of all, it's worth noting this is a hefty book; it clocks in at just about 300 full color pages in a nice hardback binding. And this book covers everything you could wish for from this era. It includes plenty of over-the-top cheesy Atari game box art, artist profiles, ads, screenshots (which never even come close to living up to the box art), rough drafts, artist notes, industrial design and more. The book skews more towards the console side of Atari than the personal computer era and largely stops at the end of the '70s. That said, it includes profiles on the Atari 400 and 800 which were released in 1979.
I was more of an Apple ][ than Atari, but it's clear the influence Atari design esthetic influenced an entire industry. And some of the artists profiled were influential in the Apple world also. But if Lapetino or anyone else decides to create a book like this that covers Apple in the late '70s and early '80s, I'm all in.
"Art of Atari" is available on Amazon and most good bookstores. And coming up soon, I'll take a look at a similar book focused on early '80s UK home computing...
Today’s update is short—just a quick note, mentioning that two of our board members, Carolyn VanEseltine and Andrew Plotkin, attended GDC! They’ve both been tweeting their experiences, and we’ll post more about GDC takeaways soon. In the meantime, here’s a few highlights!
Andrew live-tweeted Jon Ingold’s talk, but the tweets aren’t threaded; this is the first in the very long series:
#gdc17 Coherent storytelling in an open world! (Jon Ingold)— Andrew Plotkin (@zarfeblong) March 2, 2017
And some old arguments were resurrected:
"There's this huge debate about whether games are art"- I thought we resolved this one? (Spoiler: They're art.)— Carolyn VanEseltine (@mossdogmusic) March 2, 2017
All in all, a very successful GDC for everyone.