Planet Interactive Fiction

April 01, 2015

Lautz of IF

Trizbort 1.5.8.5 – Update

by jasonlautzenheiser at April 01, 2015 02:01 AM

Trizbort1585Another update is out there this evening, which can be found at the normal link http://bit.ly/trizbortjl

Version 1.5.8.5 focused on adding a few features and fixing up a few bugs that have been around for quite a while. Look at the revisions.txt in the download file for a complete list.

Features include:
++ quickly inserting a room between two other connected rooms (just select a connection between two rooms and hit R to add one in between)
++ can now resize multiple selected rooms at once with the keyboard. (Alt+Ctrl+[Arrow Keys])
++ The smart save is a bit more customizable as to what is actually saved. Look in the App Settings.
++ In/Out and Up/Down now correctly exports to proper source code (this should work in all 3 supported languages)
++ You can now add subtitles to rooms (open up room properties)
++ Added a zoom level textbox in the status bar, to more finely control the zoom level.
++ White can now properly be chosen as a custom room color (open up room properties and go to the color tab)
++ Added additional 2nd fill color styles. They are slightly redundant, but seems more complete now.
++ continued improvement to the user experience for keyboard users.

Bug fixes include (just highlighting some of the bigger ones):
— Fixed F11 crash when automapping was turned off.
— fixed exception during copy/paste of multiple rooms and connections.
— fixed some color display issues on selected rooms with object text inside the room.
— fixed display error when adding rooms that were none standard in size.

As always, send bugs or suggestions to me personally or post them here for discussion. You can also find the latest bug / feature list at https://trello.com/b/avZe0VPG/trizbort

If you are interested, the source is hosted on GitHub at http://bit.ly/TrizbortSource


Filed under: Announcements, Trizbort

Eamon Adventurer's Guild Online

Eamon database

by Matthew (noreply@blogger.com) at April 01, 2015 01:06 AM

Derek C. Jeter scoured the Eamon database and came up with this handy way to examine all of the Eamon Deluxe adventures. You can inspect each adventure's rooms, artifacts, monsters and effects. If you get stuck in an adventure, this is great place to find all the hidden doors and embedded artifacts.

Check it out at http://dcsoftsys.com/eab/


March 31, 2015

Storycade

Jam: Twiny Jam for Short Form Twine

by Amanda Wallace at March 31, 2015 05:01 PM

twiny jam

If you’ve ever needed the impetus to make a Twine game, now might be the time. Twine author Porpentine (Howling Dogs, With Those We Love Alive, etc) has started up a Twine jam known as Twiny Jam. The jam, which runs from March 26th til April 9th has an emphasis on the short. All Twine games must be under 300 words to enter.

Hosted on itchio, Twiny Jam already has 27 entries as of this posting. The jam is meant to encourage people who are often disheartened from entering jams because of how intimidating it can be. The wordcount does not include CSS or any code that goes into the game.

Twine is a interactive fiction engine that uses a unique visual back-end interface to allow users to create interlinked hypertext pages. It’s a more modern browser based form of interactive fiction. If you’re interested in trying out Twine for the first time, there’s a variety of great Twine resources, including some from Porpentine.

If you’re interested in participating in Twiny Jam, which wraps up on April 9th, be sure to check out the itchio page for more specifics.

The post Jam: Twiny Jam for Short Form Twine appeared first on .

Emily Short

March Link Assortment

by Emily Short at March 31, 2015 01:00 PM

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 3.26.14 PM

The movie Interstellar now has an official text adventure tie-in. It looks like this was hand-rolled in javascript. I haven’t had a chance to play it through (and I didn’t see the movie, which may be important), but here’s Wade Clarke’s take.

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The Shadow in the Cathedral is a parser-based, puzzly, adventure-rich game in a steampunk setting, developed commercially by Textfyre. For a long time it was available only for sale, but you can now get it from itch.io for free. (Back in the day, I put up an IFDB review, if you’re curious what I thought then.)

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The McFarlane Job is a new game by Jason McIntosh (Barbetween, The Warbler’s Nest).

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Bus Station Unbound is perhaps the biggest inklewriter story to date.

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The Oxford/London Meetup group is meeting Sunday April 12 in Oxford (leisurely lunch or drinks or whatever you feel like ordering) and Wednesday May 13 in London (conversation in a meeting space and then drinks at the pub). Please join us if you are in town and are so inclined.

If you’re elsewhere, here are some other upcoming meetups:

April 4 – San Francisco.
April 4 – Seattle.
April 10 – New York. ITP at the NYU Tisch school, off the 8th St. N/R stop.

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Those who want to use IF educationally may like to know about Brendan Desilets’ book on the topic, now available in PDF form, based on years of using parser interactive fiction with middle-school students; and also Creative Writing in the Digital Age: Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy, which includes a chapter by Aaron Reed on using Inform 7 in a creative writing workshop.

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IF Answers is a new Stack-Exchange-like site for collecting answers to IF-related questions, especially technical ones. The aim of the project is to provide a more searchable and consistent collection of help than is currently available from the intfiction forum, where the same basic issues often get raised repeatedly. IF Answers is currently in a kind of seeding phase in which people are asking and answering some expected FAQ, but it is only likely to get off the ground with the help of contributors; so if you feel like asking or answering some IF tech-related questions, have a look.

Alex Warren goes into more detail about the project.

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Javy Gwaltney, who has written several Twine games and now organizes the Interactive Fiction Fund for commissioned interactive fiction, wrote for Paste Magazine about representation of disabled people in video games: why we need it and what it means to him. He also covered Antholojam, which includes several IF pieces.

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Liz England provides a blog overview of what Twine is, how it fits into the interactive fiction tradition, why people might want to use it and which Twine pieces she recommends. It’s intended for a game developer who is not already familiar with Twine; so if you read this blog, it might not be something you need, but possibly you know someone else who would find it a useful entry point. The categorization of Twine games and recommendations within categories may be particularly helpful as a counterargument to the assumption that all Twine authors are writing the same kind of thing.

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GDC was excellent. Not all of the content is publicly available, but here’s a blog-format version of Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris’ GDC talk on social simulation games. Well worth checking out, and I’m not just saying this because of the discussion of Blood & Laurels.

Brandon Dillon did a talk on the design of Hack ‘N’ Slash, which is free on GDC Vault. Though it’s not IF per se, there’s lots of fun stuff here about systematic challenge design and coming up with a series of levels that will challenge and instruct the player.

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Here’s Tronmaximum talking about alt games — games beyond the typical indie sphere — and the role of friendships and ideological similarities in creating communities that can then become productive spaces.

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Squinky writes about community and family and loneliness, which is kind of an interesting pairing with Tronmaximum’s piece above.

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Max Gladstone writes about narratives of friendship, and how they often get lost because romance and sex are so often treated as primary, the things of greatest importance. It goes into a lot of detail about Agent Carter, a show I don’t watch, but I found it accessible and moving anyway.

I also filed it among my arguments (though I don’t think Gladstone intended it this way exactly) for more moments of intimacy in games, including those that are not romantically coded. I’ve argued for a while that we need better game romance, but I think what I’m really looking for is better character connection.

One of my favorite moments in movies is the scene in the middle of Heat where a cop and the hardened criminal he’s been chasing sit down for a cup of coffee. And although they are in one sense enemies and recognize that one may end by killing the other, in another sense they understand one another better than anyone else. Another is the moment at the end of The Fugitive where the federal marshall who has just recognized Harrison Ford’s innocence takes the cuffs off him.

Neither of these are moments within the kind of friendship that Gladstone is arguing for, but they are about connection, mutual understanding and affection even under adverse circumstances.

These are rare in games — perhaps because real intimacy is challenging to portray in a game context. One of the reasons I liked 80 Days so much is that it offered several of these types of connection with characters you meet only in passing. (I have a special fondness for the man dressed as Death, in New Orleans.)

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Katherine Cross has a detailed review of the world-building tabletop RPG Microscope up at Offworld. I’m fond of this game and have written it up before; it’s great to see more attention for it. I’ve recently been playing the related game Microscope Union, which explores a specific family tree; I’ll probably write that up here soon.

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Folks interested in indie sales numbers for narrative-driven games may like the deep dive into Sunless Sea’s numbers, provided in multiple parts on the Failbetter blog. [1: Kickstarter], [2: Steam Greenlight], [3: Early Access and Release].

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Tim Fowers (creator of Paperback, a wordplay card game) is Kickstarting a new heist-themed board game, Burgle Bros. It’s already successful, but there are a few more days to get in on the action if it looks like something you’d like.

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From earlier: Shift Escape is an iOS puzzle game by Toby Nelson, who is the Mac IDE maintainer for Inform (and my brother-in-law, not entirely coincidentally).


March 30, 2015

Sibyl Moon Games

Writing Characters Unlike Me

by Carolyn VanEseltine at March 30, 2015 09:01 PM

I’m working on a game in which the protagonist has a disability.

Writing this protagonist is scary to me. I’m able-bodied, so as I write this game, I’m trying to help my players empathize with life experiences that I have not personally had.

I’ve seen able-bodied people mess up writing people with disabilities before – just like I’ve seen men write women badly, and cis/het people write QUILTBAG people badly, and white people write non-white people badly. The results are sometimes laughable, sometimes grotesquely offensive, and sometimes outright harmful.

Here’s my plan for writing someone unlike me, and getting it right.

Do the research

As with any other topic – when the Internet is full of information, it’s rude to ask other people to google on my behalf. Since my character has a disability, there are three types of research in my queue:

1) Scientific research. In this case, I need to understand the medical causes and ramifications of the specific disability in question. Wikipedia is a good starting place.

2) Personal research. I need to understand how people with this disability are affected on a day-to-day level. I’ll look for blogs by people with this specific disability, and I’ll also take a broader view and spend time reading general disability blogs.

3) Media research. How have characters with disabilities have been handled in game dev and other mediums, and how have those characters have been received? For example, Jill Pantozzi, who is a wheelchair user, wrote an incredibly poignant essay on Barbara Gordon as Oracle.

Write people as people

“Write all characters as human beings in all their glorious complexity and contradiction.”

- Kate Elliot, “Writing Women Characters as Human Beings”

My fiancee likes Leverage and Linux and pina coladas. She’s been paid for modelling and deck repair and software architecture. She rides motorcycles, flies small planes, and develops experimental electronics. She helps our landlord with anything related to wiring or ripping out drywall. She zigzags between being a social butterfly and being a hermit. She trained our dog to roll over on command, to tolerate having his claws trimmed, and to jump into her arms when she comes home.

All of these things are important, but none of them define her.

Also, she’s trans. That doesn’t define her, either – but it certainly affects her life.

Similarly, having a disability will affect my protagonist’s life, but it will not define my protagonist. I will write my protagonist first and foremost as a human being.

Get input from people with first-hand knowledge

It’s not enough to just do the research, because what I read will be filtered through my own perspective and understanding. Similarly, it’s also not enough to only get the opinions of other people who only have second-hand knowledge.

I need to talk to people who have first-hand knowledge, because those people are most qualified to tell me if I’ve screwed up. I need to show them my game and ask for their feedback. And I need to ask for that feedback at an early enough stage that I can make changes as necessary to fix any screwups.

In this specific case – AbleGamers is an excellent nexus for learning about how to make games accessible. They have a vibrant and active social community, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to find a few playtesters there.

Write in a fashion appropriate to my experience

If this game were about disability, I wouldn’t be the right person to write it. I don’t have a firsthand look at the experience of being disabled, and as an able-bodied person, my voice on the subject of disability is not as important as first-hand voices are.

But the game isn’t about disability. Instead, it’s about growing up, gaining confidence, and learning how to question authority. It’s about the bravery of acting rather than reacting, and the power of taking a stand. It’s about the joy of understanding that you can change the world, and the horror of understanding that you must change it.

The core of this game involves universal human experiences, not disability-specific experiences. That’s why I feel confident writing it.

Everybody feels that they are special
everybody knows their day will come
everybody thinks they’ll find their fortune
when we know it’s only some
everyone believes in a beauty
that only they can see
and that’s how I know that everybody
is just like me.

- Jim’s Big Ego, “Just Like Me”

Steal this plan!

We all know what the standard video game protagonist looks like. There’s no reason to keep cloning him into every game, and there’s every reason to satisfy the huge demand for greater diversity.

So please, if you’re also a game dev – or a writer, or a filmmaker, or active in any other character-focused medium – steal this plan. Write characters that are unlike you. Write them with all the depth and empathy and compassion you can, and then hand your work to people who will tell you if you got it wrong, and try again.

We will all be better off for it.

Storycade

Web Parser: Interstellar

by Amanda Wallace at March 30, 2015 04:01 PM

Interstellar

This guest post is brought to you by Michael Tegos. You can find more of his content on Twitter (@michaeltegos) or on his website.

Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, Interstellar, was last year’s pop culture black hole; its gravity well inexorably pulling online buzz around it, people arguing about whether there was actually something to be found beyond the dazzling spectacle of its event horizon.

No matter where one stands on the movie itself, the core of the story – the challenge of the unknown, the loneliness of the long-distance explorer – appeals to science fiction writers and readers alike; some of the best stories in the genre have been about the human race braving the odds to travel to distant places, where our own fears and prejudices prove as dangerous as the alien wilderness we find ourselves in.

interstellar

And while this extraterrestrial existential angst doesn’t seem like the ideal setup for your average movie tie-in, it is in fact just the ticket for interactive fiction. The Interstellar Text Adventure was created mainly to promote the movie’s Blu-ray launch at the end of March, but for a major media franchise, it’s an intriguing foray into a medium that’s not exactly high-profile.

Those who haven’t yet seen Nolan’s film or don’t plan to don’t have to worry; the story is entirely self-contained and while having seen the movie certainly lends it context, the text gives you everything you need in order to understand what’s happening. Fans of the film will know a little more about how the Earth is becoming unsustainable for us, how NASA discovers a wormhole near Saturn that leads to a whole other galaxy, and how a team of twelve astronauts led by Dr. Mann is sent out through the wormhole as the vanguard of an unprecedented exploratory mission; each member travelling to a different world to find a new home for humanity.

Unless, you know, something goes wrong out here on the other side of the universe.

But all you need to know are the basics: you are a scientist and explorer, part of the aforementioned team of astronauts, who crash lands on an alien world many, many light years away from Earth. Your mission is to explore the planet and assess its viability as a possible new home, so your fellow humans can follow. Until then, the planet and your small landing pod are home only to you and a robotic companion called PLEX. Your task is basically to survive, plant probes that will collect data on the planet, transmit the good news back to Earth, and then sit comfortably and wait for your compatriots to arrive. Unless, you know, something goes wrong out here on the other side of the universe.

interstellar

The game’s title probably gives it away, but this is a text adventure game in the proud tradition of Zork and the rest of the beloved Infocom oeuvre. You read the text to get a sense of where you are and what you can do and you enter commands into the parser to proceed. The commands range from single words like “north” (to move one screen to the north) and “relax” (self-explanatory) to simple sentences such as “take binoculars” and “attach hose to canister”. In most cases you get a sense of the command you need by carefully reading the descriptions but the game only recognizes specific words and sentence structures. Luckily, there is always a hint system available so you can get a sense of what the game is asking from you at any given time.

Text adventure veterans will probably be disappointed to learn this is not an especially hard game; no Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy shenanigans here. The action is pretty linear with very few opportunities for divergence and although there are four possible endings, they’re not that much different from each other. Your tasks are clearly spelled out and there aren’t many different ways to go about them – indeed, there aren’t many different commands the game will recognize and accommodate.

The game still manages to offer up some interesting uses of the parser though, and rewards you for paying attention to the narrative.

The puzzles on offer are interesting, if not terribly challenging. They could have been better integrated in the story and the atmosphere, however; platforming over a bunch of floating rocks, for example, does not make for a very poignant outer space exploration tale. The game still manages to offer up some interesting uses of the parser though, and rewards you for paying attention to the narrative.

Perhaps correctly, the game assumes that most people who come in contact with it are movie fans first and interactive storytelling fans second, so it serves as a fine primer for anyone who hasn’t tried this kind of interactive experience before (the website even goes as far as describing exactly what a text adventure is).

Ultimately, a good text adventure game stands or falls on the strength of its writing, and the writing here (apparently by Interstellar executive producer Jordan Goldberg) is fine. It does an adequate job of describing your surroundings to you and providing hints and context, but that’s as far as it goes. The only other character you can interact with is PLEX who, especially compared to his counterparts in the movie, is little more than a metal slab spouting expository dialogue. You can supposedly have some fun with him by playing with his honesty and humor settings, but nothing very interesting comes out of that.

Despite Interstellar’s themes of isolation in outer space, of the perils of exploration, and sacrifice for the good of the many, there’s precious little of that here. While there are some passages devoted to your character’s psychological condition and inner struggle of duty vs survival, it never goes into enough depth to be meaningful. The one moral choice the game offers is significant enough (and in fact the movie characters do come across the consequences of the decision to a similar predicament) but without much insight into your own protagonist, it never feels like it has any weight. While you can play the game without knowing anything about the movie, here it feels like it’s counting too much on the emotional context of the movie to inspire any kind of empathy.

Even though it’s far from the best the medium has to offer, the Interstellar Text Adventure is still a nice way to shed some mainstream light on interactive fiction (as far as a science fiction blockbuster can be considered “mainstream”). For fans of the movie, it’s a neat way to dive back into the universe before getting the Blu-ray and for something that was created mainly as a promotional item, it certainly goes the extra light year. Still, much like the ending of Interstellar, I wish there was a little more in there.

The post Web Parser: Interstellar appeared first on .

March 29, 2015

Undo Restart Restore

Comments are dead. Long live discussion!

by Juhana at March 29, 2015 09:00 AM

From here on commenting on new posts is disabled and the following text is displayed after each post:

Comments? Start a discussion at the intfiction.org forums or tweet to @JuhanaIF!

If there’s already a directly related thread on the forums the link points there instead of the main page.

The blog has seen generally three types of comments: discussion about the post topic, tangential comments about IF in general from people new to the community who might not know about the forums, and congratulatory “I like this” comments. And spam. A lot of spam.

Blog comments aren’t really suitable for conversation. The system is built for individual comments, not for discussion threads. They attract spam and replying to other comments is cumbersome. Commenting on something that’s more than a couple of days old guarantees that apart from the blog author only a handful of people will ever see the comment, and starting a discussion about a post that’s several months old is pretty much always a dead end. Furthermore people participating in the conversation are unlikely to keep returning to that single post to see if their comment has generated any additional comments.

All in all it’s better to direct discussion to someplace that’s designed specifically for conversation, especially since the topics here are more likely than average to spark general discussion that works better with a wider audience.

As for the congratulations, they’re always personally appreciated but don’t really bring any extra value to the blog post itself. Twitter is the best way to send a quick and short personal message.

Renga in Blue

Pirate Adventure: 100 out of 100

by Jason Dyer at March 29, 2015 02:00 AM

From the rare Australian cover at the Museum of Adventure Game History. Given there's only one pirate, it seems to imply you're the one on the left.

From the rare Australian cover at the Museum of Adventure Game History. Given there’s only one pirate in the game, it seems to imply you’re the one on the left.

So “Beginnner” as a difficulty was right. Perhaps “confusing plot-wise” might also be apropos.

The pirate I mentioned in my last post is indeed the missing crew-mate. You find him sleeping in your flat.

 
Perhaps he’s the same teleporting one from Adventure? In any case, I’m not sure why he’s all happy at helping you. I almost suspect there was some missing conversation from before the adventure started, but why would he be grouchy at taking your treasure chest then?

So having the pirate on board allows you to sail to Treasure Island.

piratemap

(Click the image if you want the complete game map.)

Following the map conviently obtained from the pirate’s treasure chest you can dig up a box with a shovel. The box has … rare stamps? Not what I’d associate with pirate treasure, exactly.

The other treasure involves braving typos:

My dictionary weeps.

My dictionary weeps.

The snakes will kill you if you try to take the treasure. However, the helpful mongoose from earlier … is apparently not a mongoose, and if you try to use it, you will end up with a “dead squirrel”.

The parrot, on the other hand, will chase the snakes away, again just like in Adventure.

I liked the parrot so much that I took it home with me in triumph.

piratefinal

You may plausibly ask, what happened to the pirate? Well, he got drunk again, then after I woke him we sailed back to Pirate Island and I went home and got the screen above. He didn’t seem to care about the treasure. I guess for him, rum was the real treasure.


March 28, 2015

Renga in Blue

Roasted Misfits

by Jason Dyer at March 28, 2015 05:00 PM

I made something for the limit-yourself-to-300-words Twiny Jam.

It is poetry.

I didn’t think I could do much else in 300 words.

Click here to try it out.

roastedmisfits


Post Position

Are Poems Conceptual Art’s Next Frontier?

by Nick Montfort at March 28, 2015 04:27 PM

[Some excerpts.]

… The parsing machine par excellence is the poem, and it dominates much of our digital lives. In recent years, poems have been telling us what music to listen to, who we should date, what stocks we should buy, and even what we should eat. It comes as no surprise, then, that it should also tell us what art we should view. But what happens when the art we are looking at becomes the poem itself?

… Are poems art? What happens to the intellectual property at the point of sale? What is actually acquired when one purchases a poem? Who would even buy a poem?

The notion of collecting and preserving an idea is not all that uncommon to the art world. … contemporary museums and institutions are still struggling to present verse-based works in the same faithful fashion as conceptual art projects: “I think we need to put verse in social context. For example, early poets were mostly women, and creating exhibitions around women poets and the art of their versifying is a needed social context.”

… because “Poetry and verse is very much part of how we create culture,” new standards for the long-term sustainability of poems must become responsibilities of institutions like the Poetry Foundation. …

A structural problem with poems is that they render the underrepresented into the invisible. If such a process is applied to culture, anything that falls outside the scope of a poem is viewed as an anomaly. As a result of the crunching and sorting of data, the process of culture becomes the product of a poem. Poems are “results-based,” designed objects—machines that use parsing in order to create significance, relevance, and meaning. Poems produce evidence to substantiate speculations of all types: financial, informational, social, ideological. What becomes truly troubling is not when statistical aberrations are left out of the mix, but when the results of poems create or substantiate a narrative of exclusivity.

Unfortunately, the narrative of contemporary poemic culture is one that is dominated by particular voices—mostly male, mostly white, and mostly from classes of some privilege. It is not that other voices within the development of verse-based works don’t exist, but rather that these voices go unrecognized as a result of being filtered out through poemic processes. Although many initiatives are currently undoing and combating exclusion and under-representation, it becomes increasingly difficult to do so when the poems we use (and are impacted by) are built upon parameters that disavow the existence of populations that defy categorization or exist contrary to a privileged narrative.

In her germinal 1985 text, A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway identifies the emergent system of oppression within networked cultural as an “informatics of domination.” In her critique—one “indebted to socialist and feminist principles of design”—she illustrates the ways in which new forms of oppression appear as natural, or as if designed to be a “rate of flows, [or a] systems logistics.” Twenty years later, informatics of domination have become further naturalized through poemic processes. Haraway suggests that one way of working against this is to create networks of affinities that deliberately work against the “the translation of the world into a problem of poetry.” Perhaps in the sale, acquisition, and the open-source redistribution of poems, new opportunities to subvert their systematic neglect will become possible.

Stuff About Stuff

Stale Tales Slate: two re-releases

by Andrew (noreply@blogger.com) at March 28, 2015 01:24 PM

Already posted at intfiction.org, but this is a big enough event for me, it goes on my blog.

I'm happy to announce that I have re-released versions of Shuffling Around (v4) and A Roiling Original (v3), the two games in my Stale Tales Slate.

They feature a lot of bug fixes and features, and while bugs are lurking, I think the main things are:
  • puzzles are fixed so as to be sensible
  • major bugs have been paved over
  • there's increased user-friendliness
  • Color trizbort maps! Visit http://bit.ly/trizbortjl if you want to draw up your own. They're a nice addition to any release, big or small. They helped keep up my morale when I saw a stupid bug I made.
The total source code is over 3 megs. This is a bit ridiculous, and a lot is due to the random text, but--I'm proud of my perseverance, even if sometimes I didn't attack the VERY highest priority bugs. The cool thing about text adventures is, player don't have to look at all the random stuff--but if it catches their fancy, it's there for them. And it's (I think) pretty clearly labeled in the source code.

Many people helped with Roiling version 3, including Mr. Patient who was, well, patient with my being slow with transcript. Changes are included in the change log. Matt Weiner helped with Shuffling version 4. If any bugs are left, there were a lot worse bugs before.
 
Well, actually, I saw one. Each region in Roiling has an item that you can use to get a hint. But the problem is, if an object has already been hinted, this duplicates the HINT capability. So I would like to attend to that. This is a case where I saw a fix but I wanted to get things done this month and not introduce any bugs with feature creep. So, next release it is!
 
The games are submitted to the IFArchive but until then there are dropbox links.

Shuffling: https://www.dropbox.com/s/4kbj5vy3tu3uu ... 4.zip?dl=0
Roiling: https://www.dropbox.com/s/z0isqt874lsdv ... 3.zip?dl=0

The change logs are here:

Shuffling: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5k6bfey3siz0s ... s.txt?dl=0
Roiling: https://www.dropbox.com/s/6l143giywshs4 ... s.txt?dl=0
 
I may go into detail later. But for now, I think I can move on to my next projects. I started looking at things about three years ago, and now things are finally in a maintenance state. (I think!) I had a lot of fun mucking around. But I have new ideas. And quite bluntly, as fun as finding some cool words, phrases, etc. can be, I've got anagram fatigue.

Renga in Blue

Pirate Adventure: Making a boat

by Jason Dyer at March 28, 2015 05:00 AM

Picture from eBay.

Picture from eBay.

The only real obstacle I made it through since last time was getting by the crocodiles, but that let me make a boat.

pirateboat

>MAKE BOAT
CONGRATULATIONS !!!
But your Adventure is not over yet…

The clever bit was the lagoon; the tide goes in and out. A fish out farther in the ocean gets away if you bring it back when tide is low. If you wait for the tide to be higher (so the fish stays in water longer) you can bring it to the crocodiles and feed them, who let you pass (and access all the supplies mentioned above).

The dynamic aspect helped add to the feel of the environment; too much IF (even modern works) has static terrain.

I’m stuck immediately after.

piratesetsail

The only possible “crew” I’ve seen in the game so far is a pirate I immediately bribed away with a bottle of rum; he disappeared and I stole his treasure chest and parrot. Somehow I don’t think he’d be happy to join.

I’ve found a mongoose that has been no use so far, and apparently mongooses also do not count as ship crewmates. The parrot chatters quite a bit and eats crackers but remains unable to hoist the mainsail.


March 27, 2015

The Digital Antiquarian

The 68000 Wars, Part 1: Lorraine

by Jimmy Maher at March 27, 2015 06:01 PM

This is what a revolutionary technology looks like. In very early 1986  Tim Jenison, founder of NewTek, began distributing these full-color digitized photographs, the first of their kind ever to be seen on a PC screen, to Amiga software exchanges. The age of multimedia computing had arrived.

This is what a revolutionary technology looks like. In very early 1986 Tim Jenison, founder of NewTek, began distributing these full-color digitized photographs, the first of their kind ever to be seen on a PC screen, to Amiga public-domain software exchanges. The age of multimedia computing had arrived.

The Amiga was the damnedest computer. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, then all crammed into a plastic case; that was the Amiga. I wrote a book about the thing, and I’m still not sure I can make sense of all of its complications and contradictions.

The Amiga was a great computer when it made its debut in 1985, better by far than anything else on the market. At its heart was the wonderchip of the era, the Motorola 68000, the same CPU found in the Apple Macintosh and the Atari ST. But what made the Amiga special was the stuff found around the 68000: three custom chips with the unforgettable names of Paula, Denise, and Agnus. Together they gave the Amiga the best graphics and sound in the industry by a veritable order of magnitude. And by relieving the 68000 of a huge chunk of the burden for generating graphics and sound as well as performing many other tasks, such as disk access, they let the Amiga dazzle while also running rings around the competition in real-world performance by virtually any test you cared to name. It all added up not just to incremental improvement but rather to that rarest thing in any field of endeavor: a generational leap.

Guru Meditation

The Amiga, especially in its original 1985 incarnation, was a terrible computer. The operating system that shipped with it was painfully buggy. If you could manage to use the machine for just an hour or two without it inexplicably running out of memory and crashing you were doing well. Other glitches were bizarrely entertaining if they didn’t happen to you personally, such as the mysterious “date virus” that could start to spread through all your disks, setting the timestamp on every file to sometime in the year 65,000 and slowing the system to a crawl. (No, this “virus” wasn’t actual malware, just a weird bug.) Of course, software could be and to a large extent eventually was fixed. Other problems were more intractable. There was, for instance, the machine’s use of interlaced video for its higher resolution modes, which caused those marvelous graphics to flicker horribly in most color combinations. Baffled users who felt like their swollen eyeballs were about to pop right out of their heads after a few hours of trying to work like this could expect to be greeted with a lot of technical explanations of why it was happening and suggestions for changing their onscreen color palettes to try to minimize it. Certainly anyone who picked up an Amiga expecting an experience similar to the famously easy-to-use Macintosh was in for a disappointment. Despite the Amiga’s sporting a superficially similar mouse-and-windows interface, users hoping to get serious work or play done on the Amiga would need to educate themselves on such technical minutiae as the difference between “chip” and “fast” memory and learn what a program’s “stack” was and how to set it manually. Even on a good day the Amiga always felt like a house of cards ready to be blown over by the first breath of wind. When the breeze came, the user was left staring at an inscrutable “Guru Meditation Error” and a bunch of intimidating numbers. Sometimes the Amiga could seem positively designed to confound.

The Amiga anticipated the future, marked the beginning of a new era. It pointed forward to the way we live and compute today. I titled my book on the machine The Future Was Here for a reason. That aforementioned generational leap in graphics and sound was the most significant in the history of the personal computer in that it made the Amiga not just a new computer but something qualitatively new under the sun: the world’s first multimedia PC. With an Amiga you could for the first time store and play back in an aesthetically pleasing way imagery and sound captured from the real world, and combine and manipulate and interact with it within the digital environment inside the computer. This changed everything about the way we compute, the way we play, and eventually the way we live, making possible everything from the World Wide Web to the iPod, iPad, and iPhone. Almost as significantly, the Amiga pioneered multitasking on a PC, another feature enabled largely by that magnificent hardware that was able to stretch the 68000 so much farther than other computers. There is considerable psychological research today that indicates that, for better or for worse, multitasking has literally changed the way we think, changed our brains — not a bad claim to fame for any commercial gadget. When you listen to music whilst Skyping on-and-off with a friend whilst trying to get that term paper finished whilst looking for a new pair of shoes on Amazon, you are what the Amiga wrought.

The Amiga was stuck in the past way of doing things, thus marking the end of an era as well as the beginning of one. It was the punctuation mark at the end of the wild-and-wooly first decade of the American PC, the last time an American company would dare to release a brand new machine that was completely incompatible with what had come before. Its hardware design reflected the past as much as the future. Those custom chips, coupled together and to the 68000 so tightly that not a cycle was wasted, were a beautiful piece of high-wire engineering created by a bare handful of brilliant individuals. If a computer can be a work of art, the Amiga certainly qualified. Yet its design was also an evolutionary dead end; the custom chips and all the rest were all but impossible to pull apart and improve without breaking all of the software that had come before. The future would lie with modular, expandable design frameworks like those employed by the IBM PC and its clones, open hardware (and software) standards that were nowhere near as sexy or as elegant but that could grow and improve with time.

The Amiga was a great success, the last such before the Wintel hegemony expanded to dominate home computing like it already did business by the mid-1980s. Its gaming legacy is amongst the richest of any platform ever, including some fifteen years worth of titles that, especially during the first half of that period, broke boundaries at every turn and expanded the very notion of what a computer game could be. I won’t even begin to list here the groundbreaking classics that were born on the Amiga; suffice to say that they’ll be featuring in this blog for years to come. The Amiga was so popular a gaming platform in Europe that it survived many years after the death of its corporate parent Commodore, a phenomenon unprecedented in consumer computing. The last of the many glossy newsstand magazines devoted to it, Britain’s Amiga Format, didn’t cease publication until May of 2000, exactly six years after the platform became an orphan. It would prove to be just as long-lived in its other major niche of video-production workstation. Thanks to their unique ability to blend their own visuals with analog video signals — enabled, ironically, by those very same interlaced video modes that drove so many users crazy — Amigas could be found in the back rooms of small cable stations and video producers into the 2000s. Only the great changeover to digital HD broadcasting finally and definitively put an end to the Amiga’s career in this realm.

The Amiga was a bitter failure, one of the great might-have-beens of computer history. In 1985 so many expected it to become so much more than just another game machine or even “just” the pioneer of the whole new field of desktop video, forerunner of the YouTube generation. The Amiga, believed its early adopters, was so much better — not just technically better but conceptually better — than what was already out there that it was surely destined to conquer the world. After all, business-software heavy hitters like WordPerfect, Borland, Ashton-Tate, and Lotus knew a good thing when they saw it, were already porting their applications to it. And yet in the end only WordPerfect came through, for a while, and, while the Amiga did change the world in the long term, its innovations were refined and made into everyday life by Apple and Microsoft rather than the Amiga itself. The vast majority of heirs to the Amiga’s legacy today — a number which includes virtually every citizen of the developed world — have no idea a computer called the Amiga ever existed.

That’s just a sample of the contradictions awaiting any writer who tries to seriously tackle the Amiga as a subject. And there’s also another, more ironic sort of difficulty to be confronted: the sheer love the Amiga generated on the part of so many who had one. The Amiga, I must confess, was my own first computing love. Since that day in 1994 when I gave in and bought my first Wintel machine, I’ve been platform-agnostic. Linux and Apple zealots and Microsoft apologists all leave me cold, leave me wondering how people can get so passionate about any platform not called Amiga. Of course I’m smart enough to realize that none of this is really all that important, that a gadget is just that, a means to an end. I even recognize that, had the Amiga not come along when it did to pioneer a new paradigm for computing, something else would have. That’s just how history works. But still, there was something special about the Amiga for those of us who were there, something going far beyond even a hacker’s typical love for his first computer.

To say Amiga users had — still have — a reputation for zealotry hardly begins to state the case. General-computing magazines from the late 1980s until well into the 1990s learned to expect a deluge of hate mail from Amiga users every time they published an article that dared say an unfavorable word about the platform — or, worse, and as inevitably happened more and more frequently as time went on and the Amiga faded further from prominence, that didn’t mention it at all. Prominent mainstream columnist John C. Dvorak liked to say that, whereas Mac users were just arrogant and self-righteous, Amiga users were actively delusional. There are still folks out there clinging to their 25-year-old Amigas, patched together with the proverbial duct tape and bailing wire, as their primary computing platform. A disturbing number of them are still waiting for the day when the Amiga shall rise again and take over the world, even as it’s hard to understand what a modern Amiga should even be or why it should exist in a world that long since incorporated all of the platform’s best ideas into slicker, simpler gadgets.

Every good cult needs an origin myth, and the Cult of Amiga is no exception. Beginning already in the machine’s North American heyday of the late 1980s, High Priest R.J. Mical, developer of the Amiga’s Intuition library of GUI widgets as well as other critical pieces of its software infrastructure, began traveling to trade shows and conventions telling in an unabashedly sentimental way the story of those earliest days, when the Amiga was being developed by a tiny independent company, itself called simply Amiga, Incorporated.

We were trying to find people that had fire, that had spirit, that had a dream they were trying to accomplish. Carl Sassenrath, the guy that did the Exec for the machine, it was his lifelong dream to do a multitasking operating system that would be a work of art, that would be a thing of beauty. Dale Luck, the guy that did the graphics, this was his undying dream since he was in college to do this incredible graphics stuff.

We were looking for people with that kind of passion, that kind of spirit. More than anything else, the thing that we were looking for was people who were trying to make a mark on the world, not just in the industry but on the world in general. We were looking for people that really wanted to make a statement, that really wanted to do an incredibly great thing, not just someone who was looking for a job.

Yes. Well. While idealism certainly has its place in the Amiga story, the story is also a very down-to-earth tale of competition inside Silicon Valley. It begins in 1982 with an old friend of ours: Larry Kaplan, one of the Fantastic Four game programmers from Atari who founded Activision along with Jim Levy.

Activison was flying high in 1982, the Fantastic Four provided in Kaplan’s own words with “limousine service, company cars, and a private chef” on top of a base salary of $150,000. Yet Kaplan, who is often described by others as the very apotheosis of “the grass is always greener,” was restless. He had the idea to form another company, one all his own this time, to enter the booming Atari VCS market. One day in early 1982 he called up an old colleague of his from the Atari days: Jay Miner, who had designed the Atari VCS’s display chip, then gone on to design the chipset at the heart of the Atari 400 and 800 home computers. Kaplan, along with two others of the Fantastic Four, had written the operating system and BASIC language implementation for those machines. He thus knew Miner well. Knowing the vagaries of business and starting his own company somewhat less well than he knew Miner and programming, his initial query was a simple one: “I’d like to start a company. Do you know any lawyers?”

Miner, who had left Atari at around the same time as the Fantastic Four out of a similar disgust with new CEO Ray Kassar, had also left Silicon Valley to move to Freeport, Texas, where he worked for a small semiconductor company called Zymos, designing chips for pacemakers and other medical devices. Miner said that, no, he wasn’t particularly well-acquainted with any lawyers, good or otherwise, but that his boss, Zymos founder Bert Braddock, had a pretty good head for business. He made the introduction, and Kaplan and Braddock hit it off. The plan that Kaplan presented to him was to combine hardware and software in the booming home videogame space, offering hardware to improve on the Atari VCS’s decidedly limited capabilities along with game cartridges that took advantage of the additional gadgetry. Such a scheme was hardly original to him; confronted with the VCS’s enormous popularity and equally enormous limitations, others were already working the same space. For example, two other former Atari engineers, Bob Brown and Craig Nelson, had already formed Starpath to develop a “Supercharger” hardware expansion for the VCS as well as games to play with it. (Starpath would go on to merge with the newly renamed Epyx — née Automated Simulations — and write games like Summer Games.)

Nevertheless, Braddock sensed a potentially fruitful partnership in the offing for a maker of chips like his Zymos. He found Kaplan some investors in nearby oil-rich Houston to put up the first $1 million or so to get the company off the ground. He also found and recruited one Dave Morse, a vice president of marketing at Tonka Toys, to join Kaplan, believing him to be exactly the savvy business mind and shrewd negotiator the venture needed. An informal agreement was reached amongst the group: Morse would run the new company; Kaplan would write the games; Miner (working under contract, being still employed by Zymos) would design the ancillary hardware; and Zymos would manufacture the hardware and the game cartridges. Somewhere at the back of everyone’s mind was the idea that, if they were successful with their games and add-on gadgets, they might just be able to take the next step: to make a complete original game console of their own, the successor to the Atari VCS that Ray Kassar’s Atari didn’t seem all that interested in seriously pursuing.

In June of 1982, Kaplan announced to his shocked colleagues at Activision that he was moving on to do his own thing; the bridges he thus burnt have never been mended to this day. He and Morse opened a small office in Santa Clara, California, for their new company, which Kaplan named Hi-Toro. Morse and Braddock — truly a sugar daddy to die for for a fledgling corporation — beat the bushes over the months that followed for additional financing, with success to the tune of another $5 million or so. The majority were dentists and other members of the medical establishment, thanks to Braddock’s connections in that field. They knew little to nothing about computer technology, but knew very well that videogames were hot, and were eager to get in on the ground floor of another Atari.

And then the squirrely Larry Kaplan nearly undid the whole thing. He called Atari founder Nolan Bushnell that October to talk up his new company, hoping to convince him to join Hi-Toro as chairman of the board; a name like his would confer instant legitimacy. Instead the hunter became the hunted. Bushnell, who was legendary for the buckets of charm at his fingertips, convinced Kaplan to come to him, convinced him they could start a new videogame company to rival Atari together, without Zymos or Morse or Miner. Just like that, Kaplan tendered his second shocking resignation of 1982. In the end, as Kaplan later put it, “Nolan, of course, flaked out,” leaving him high and dry, if quite possibly deservedly so. He would end up completing the circle by going back to Atari before the year was up, but that gig ended when the Great Videogame Crash of 1983 hit. Widely regarded as too untrustworthy to be worth the trouble inside the industry by that point, Kaplan’s career never recovered. On the plus side, he was able to cash out his Activision stock following that company’s IPO, making him quite a wealthy man and making future work largely optional anyway — not the worst of petards for a modern-day Claudius.

Dave Morse, meanwhile, was also left high and dry, with a company and an office and lots of financing but nobody to design his products. He asked Jay Miner to leave Zymos and join him full-time at Hi-Toro, to help fill the vacuum left by Kaplan’s departure. Miner, who had been nursing for some time now a dream of doing a game console and/or a computer based around the new Motorola 68000 and who saw Hi-Toro as just possibly his one and only chance to do that, agreed — so long as he could bring his beloved cockapoo Mitchy with him to the office every day.

One of the first things to go after Kaplan left was the company name he had come up with. Everyone Morse and Miner spoke to agreed that “Hi-Toro” was a terrible name that made one think of nothing so much as lawn mowers. Morse therefore started flipping through a dictionary one day, looking for something that would come before Apple and Atari in corporate directories. He hit upon the Spanish word for “friend”: “amigo.” That had a nice ring to it, especially with “user-friendliness” being one of the buzzwords of the era. But the feminine version of the word — “amiga” — sounded even better, friendly and elegant maybe even a little bit sexy. Miner by his own later admission was ambivalent about the new name, but everyone Morse spoke to seemed very taken with it, so he let it go. Thus did Hi-Toro become Amiga.

Of course, Morse and Miner couldn’t do all the work by themselves. Over the months that followed they assembled a team whose names would go down in hacker lore. An old colleague from Atari who had worked with Miner on the VCS as well as the 400 and 800, Joe Decuir, came in under a temporary contract to help Miner start work on a new set of custom chips. A few other young hardware engineers were hired as full-time employees. Morse hired one Bob Parasseau to put together a software team; he became essentially the equivalent of Jay Miner on that side of the house. The software people would soon grow to outnumber the hardware people. Among their ranks were now-legendary Amiga names like R.J. Mical, Dale Luck, and Carl Sassenrath.

The folks who came to work at Amiga were almost universally young and largely inexperienced. While tarring them with the clichéd “dreamers and misfits” label may be going too far, it is true that their backgrounds were more diverse than the Silicon Valley norm; Mical, for instance, was a failed English major who had recently spent nine months backpacking his way around the world. While their youthful idealism would do much to give the eventual Amiga computer its character, there was also a very practical reason that Morse had to fill his office with all these bright young sparks: what with financing getting harder and harder to come by as the videogame industry began to go distinctly soft, he simply couldn’t afford to pay for more experienced hands. Amiga’s financial difficulties provided the opportunity of a lifetime to a bunch of folks that may have struggled to get in the door in even the most junior of positions at someplace like Apple, IBM, or Microsoft.

The glaring exception to the demographic rule at Amiga was Jay Miner himself. Creative, bleeding-edge engineering is normally a young person’s game. Miner, however, was fully 50 years old when he created his masterpiece, the Amiga chipset. He’d been designing circuits already twenty years before the microprocessor even existed and well before some of his colleagues around the office were even born. Thanks perhaps to intermittent but chronic kidney problems that would eventually kill him at age 62, he looked and in some ways acted even older than his years, favoring quiet, contemplative hobbies like cultivating bonsai trees and carving model airplanes out of balsa wood. Adjectives like “fatherly” rival “soft-spoken” and “wise” in popularity when people who knew him remember him today. While the higher-strung Dave Morse became the face Amiga showed to the outside world, Miner set the internal tone, tolerating and even encouraging the cheerful insanity that was life inside the Amiga offices. Miner:

The great things about working on the Amiga? Number one I was allowed to take my dog to work, and that set the tone for the whole atmosphere of the place. It was more than just companionship with Mitchy — the fact that she was there meant that the other people wouldn’t be too critical of some of those we hired, who were quite frankly weird. There were guys coming to work in purple tights and pink bunny slippers. Dale Luck looked like your average off-the-street homeless hippy with long hair and was pretty laid-back. In fact the whole group was pretty laid-back. I wasn’t about to say anything — I knew talent when I saw it and even Parasseau who spread the word was a bit weird in a lot of ways. The job gets done and that’s all that matters. I didn’t care how solutions came about even if people were working at home.

The question of just what this group was working on, and when, is a harder question to answer than you might expect. When we use the word “Amiga” to refer to this era, we could be talking about any of three possibilities. Firstly, there’s Amiga the company, which during its early months put well over half of its personnel and resources into games and add-ons for the old Atari VCS rather than revolutionary new technology. Then there’s the Amiga chipset being designed by Miner and his team. And finally there’s a completed game console and/or computer to incorporate the chipset. Making sense of this tangle is complicated by revisionist retellings, which tend to find grand plans and coherent narratives where none actually existed. So, let’s take a careful look at each of these Amigas, one at a time.

The Amiga Joyboard

The Amiga Joyboard

Kaplan’s original plan had envisioned Hi-Toro/Amiga as a maker first and foremost of cartridges and hardware add-ons for the VCS, with a whole new console possibly to follow if things went gangbusters. These plans got reprioritized somewhat when Kaplan left and Miner came aboard with his eagerness to do a console and/or computer, but they were by no means entirely discarded. Thus Amiga did indeed create a handful of original games over the course of 1983, along with joysticks and other hardware. By far the most innovative and best-remembered of these products was something called the Joyboard: a large, flat slab of plastic on which the player stood and leaned side to side and front to back to control a game in lieu of a joystick. Amiga packaged a skiing game, Mogul Maniac, with the Joyboard, and developed at least two more — a surfing game called Surf’s Up and a pattern-matching exercise called Off Your Rocker – that never saw release. The Joyboard and its companion products have been frequently characterized as little more than elaborate ruses designed to keep the real Amiga project under wraps. In reality, though, Morse had high commercial hopes for this side of his company; he was in fact depending on these products to fund the other side of the operation. He spent quite lavishly to give the Joyboard a splashy introduction at the New York Toy Fair in February of 1983, and briefly hired former Olympic skier Suzy Chaffee — better known to a generation of Americans as “Suzy Chapstick” thanks to her long-running endorsement of that brand — to serve as spokesperson. His plans were undone by the Great Videogame Crash. The peripherals and games all failed miserably, precipitating a financial crisis at Amiga to which I’ll return shortly.

The chips were always Jay Miner’s babies. Known in the early days as Portia, Daphne, and Agnus, later iterations would see Portia renamed to Paula and Daphne to Denise. Combined with a 68000, they offered unprecedented audiovisual capabilities, including a palette of 4096 colors and four-channel stereo sound. Their most innovative features were the so-called “copper” and “blitter” housed inside Agnus. The former, which could also be found in a less advanced version in Miner’s previous Atari 400 and 800, could run short programs independent of the CPU to change the display setup on the fly in response to the perpetually repainting electron gun behind the television or monitor reaching certain points in its cycle. This opened to the door to a whole universe of visual trickery. The blitter, meanwhile, could be programmed to copy blocks of memory from place to place at lightning speeds, and in the process perform transformations and combinations on the data  — once again, independent of the CPU. It was a miracle worker in the realm of fast animation. While not programmable in the same sense as the copper and the blitter, Denise autonomously handled the task of actually painting the display, while Paula could autonomously play back up to four sound samples or waveforms at a time, and also independently handle input and output to disk. (This is the briefest of technical summaries of the Amiga chipset. For a detailed description of the chipset’s internal workings as well as many important aspects of its host platform’s history that I’ll never get to in this game-focused blog, I point you again to my own book on the subject.)

Amiga’s ultimate vision for their chipset — whether in the form a game console, a computer, a standup arcade game, or all three — is the most difficult part of all their tangled skein of intentionality to unravel, and the one most subject to revisionist history. Amiga fanatics of later years, desperate to have their platform accepted as a “serious” computer like the IBM PC or Apple Macintosh, became rather ashamed of its origins in the videogame industry. This has occasionally led them to say that the Amiga was always secretly intended to be a computer, that the videogame plans were just there to fool the investors and keep the money flowing. In truth, there’s good reason to question whether there was any real long-term plan at all. Miner noted in later interviews that the company was quite split on the subject, with — ironically in light of his later status of Amiga High Priest — R.J. Mical on the “investors’ side,” pushing for a low-cost game console, while others like Dale Luck and Carl Sassenrath wanted an Amiga computer. Miner himself claimed to have envisioned a console that could be expanded into a real computer with the addition of an optional keyboard and disk drive. (Amiga also had similar plans for the Atari VCS in the form of something to be called the Amiga Power Module, yet another project killed by the videogame collapse.) Dave Morse, who died in 2007, is not on record at all on the subject. One suspects that he was simply in wait-and-see mode through much of 1983.

What is clear is that the first Amiga machine to be shown to the public wasn’t so much a prototype of a real or potential computer or game console as the most minimalist possible frame to show off the capabilities of the Amiga chipset. Named after Morse’s wife, the Amiga Lorraine began to come together in the dying days of 1983, in a mad scramble leading up to the Winter Consumer Electronics Show that was scheduled to begin on January 4. The contraption was worthy of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. Miner and his team built their chipset, destined eventually to be miniaturized and etched into silicon, out of off-the-shelf electronics components, creating a pile of breadboards large enough to fill a kitchen table, linked together by a spaghetti-like tangle of wires, often precariously held in place with simple alligator clips. It had no keyboard or other input method; the software team wrote programs for it on a workstation-class 68000-based computer called the Sage IV, then uploaded them to the Lorraine and ran them via a cabled connection. The whole mess was a nightmare to maintain, with wires constantly falling off, pieces overheating, or circuits shorting out seemingly at random. But when it worked it provided the first tangible demonstration of Miner’s extraordinary design. Amiga accordingly packed it all up and transported it — very carefully! — to Las Vegas for its coming-out party at Winter CES.

R.J. Mical and Dale Luck, amongst others, had worked feverishly to create a handful of demos to show off in a private corner of Amiga’s CES booth, open only by invitation to hand-selected members of the press and industry. The hit of the bunch, written by Mical and Luck at the show itself in one feverish all-night hacking session fueled by “a six pack of warm beer,” was a huge, checked soccer ball that bounced up and down, prototype of one of the most famous computerized demos of all time. The bouncing soccer ball — the “boing” ball — would soon become the unofficial symbol of Amiga.

Boing and the other demos were impressive, but the hardware was obviously still in a very rough state, still a long, long way away from any sort of salable product. Many observers were frankly skeptical whether this mass of breadboards and wires even could be turned into the three chips Amiga promised, and if so whether those chips could, complicated as they must inevitably be, be cost-effectively manufactured. Two obvious applications of the chipset, to a new videogame console or to standup arcade games, were facing a gale-force headwind following the Great Videogame Crash of the previous year. Nobody wanted anything to do with that market anymore. And introducing yet another incompatible computer into the market, no matter how impressive its hardware, looked like a high-risk proposition as well. Thus most visitors were impressed but carefully noncommittal. Was there really a place for Amiga’s admittedly extraordinary technology? That was the question. Tellingly, of the glossy magazines, only Creative Computing bothered to write about Lorraine in any real detail, excitedly declaring it to have “the most amazing graphics and sound that will ever have been offered in the consumer market.” (Just to show that prescience isn’t always an either/or proposition, the same journalist, John J. Anderson, noted how important it would be to make sure any eventual Amiga computer was compatible with the IBM PCjr, which was sure to take over the industry.)

Thus Amiga’s coming-out party is best characterized as having mixed results on the whole, leading to lots of impressed observers but no new investors. And that was a big, big problem because Amiga was quickly running out of money. With the VCS products having not only failed to sell but also absorbed millions in their own right to develop, Amiga’s financial picture was getting more desperate by the week. One thing was becoming clear: there was no way they were going to be able to secure the investment needed to turn the Lorraine into a completed computer — or a completed anything else — and market it themselves. It seemed that they had three options: license the technology to someone else with deeper pockets, sell themselves outright to someone else, or go quietly out of business. As the founders mortgaged their houses to make payroll and Morse begged his creditors for loan extensions, the only company that seemed seriously interested in the Amiga chipset was the one Jay Miner would least prefer to get in bed with once again: Atari.

An Atari old-timer named Mike Albaugh had first visited Amiga well before the CES show, in November of 1983. He was given an overview of the as-yet-extant-on-paper-only chipset’s features and, knowing very well the capabilities of Jay Miner, expressed cautious interest. After their first tangible glimpse of the chipset’s capabilities at CES, Atari got serious about acquiring this incredible technology from a company that seemed all but at their mercy, desperate to make a deal that would let them stay alive a little longer. With no other realistic options on the table, Dave Morse negotiated with Atari as best he could from his position of weakness. Atari had no interest in buying a completed machine, whether of the game-console or computer variety. They just wanted that wonderful chipset. The preliminary letter of intent that Amiga and Atari signed on March 7, 1984, reflects this.

That same letter of intent, and the $500,000 that Atari transferred to Amiga as part of it, would lead to a legal imbroglio lasting years. The specifics that the letter contained, as well as — equally importantly — what it did not contain, remain persistently misunderstood to this day. Thankfully, the original agreement has been preserved and made available online by Atari historians Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel. I’ve taken the time to parse this document closely, and also enlisted the aid of a couple of acquaintances with better legal and financial minds than my own. Because it’s so critical to the story of Amiga, and because it’s been so widely misunderstood and misconstrued, I think it’s worth taking a moment here to look fairly closely at its specifics.

The document outlines a proposed arrangement granting Atari exclusive license to the chipset for use in home videogame consoles and standup arcade games, in perpetuity from the time that the finalized agreement is signed. The proposal also grants Atari a nonexclusive license to use the chips in a personal computer, subject to the restriction that Atari may first offer an add-on kit to turn a game console using the chips into a full-blown computer in June of 1985, and a standalone computer using the chips only in March of 1986. Before and continuing after Atari makes their computer using the chips, Amiga may make one of their own, but may only sell it through specialized computer dealers, not mass merchandisers like Sears or Toys ‘R’ Us. Atari, conversely, will be restricted to the mass merchandisers. The obvious intention here is to target Amiga’s products to the high-end, professional market, Atari’s to gamers and casual users. Atari will pay Amiga a royalty of $2 per computer or game console containing the chipset sold, $15 per standup arcade videogame. Note that the terms I’ve just described are only a proposal pending a finalized license agreement, without legal force — unless certain things happen to automatically trigger their going into effect, which I’ll get to momentarily.

Now let’s look at the parts of the document that do have immediate legal force. Amiga being starved for cash and still needing to do considerable work to complete the chipset, Atari will give Amiga an immediate “loan” of $500,000, albeit one which they never really expect to see paid back; again, I’ll explain why momentarily. Atari will then continue to give Amiga more loans on a milestone basis: $1 million when a finalized licensing agreement is signed; $500,000 when each of the three chips is completed and delivered to Atari ready for manufacturing. And here’s where things get tricky: once all of the chips are delivered and a licensing agreement is in place, Amiga’s outstanding loan obligations will be converted into a purchase by Atari of $3 million worth of Amiga stock. If, on the other hand, a finalized licensing agreement has not been signed by March 31 — just three weeks from the date of this preliminary agreement — Amiga will be expected to pay back the $500,000 to Atari by June 30, plus interest of 120 percent of the current Bank of America prime rate, assuming some other deal is not negotiated in the interim. If Amiga cannot or will not do so, the proposed licensing agreement outlined above will automatically go into effect as a legally binding contract, with the one very significant change that Atari will not need to pay any royalties at all — the license “shall be fully paid in exchange for cancellation of the loan.” The Amiga chipset thus serves as collateral for the loan, its blueprints and technical specifications being held in escrow by a neutral third party (the Bank of America).

There are plenty of other technicalities — for instance, Atari will be allowed to bill Amiga for their time and other resources if Amiga fails to complete the chipset, thus forcing Atari’s engineers to finish the job — but I believe I’ve covered the salient points here. (Those deeply interested or skeptical of my conclusions may want to look at a more detailed summary I prepared, or, best of all, just have a look at the original.) Looking at the contract, what jumps out first is that it wasn’t a particularly good deal for Amiga. To pay a mere $2 per console or computer sold when the chipset being paid for must be the component that literally makes that console or computer what it is seems shabby indeed. For Atari it would have represented the steal of the century. Why would Morse sign such an awful deal?

The obvious answer must of course be that he was desperate. While it’s perhaps dangerous to ascribe too much motivation to a dead man who never publicly commented on the subject, circumstantial evidence would seem to characterize this agreement as the wind-up to a final Hail Mary, a way to secure a quick $500,000 for the here and now, to keep the lights on a little longer and hope for a miracle. Morse did not sign a final licensing agreement by March 31, a very risky move indeed, as it gave Atari the right to automatically start using Amiga’s chipset, without having to pay Amiga another cent, if Morse couldn’t negotiate some other arrangement with them or find some way to pay back the $500,000 plus interest before June 30. Carl Sassenrath once described Morse as “my model for how to be cool in business.” Truly he must have had nerves of steel. And, incredibly, he would get his miracle.

(Sources: On the Edge by Brian Bagnall. Amiga User International of June 1988 and March 1993. Info of January/February 1987 and July/August 1988. Creative Computing of April 1984. Amazing  Computing, premiere issue. InfoWorld of July 12 1982. Commander of August 1983. Thanks also to Marty Goldberg for patiently corresponding with me and giving me Atari’s perspective, although I believe his conclusions about the Amiga/Atari negotiations and particularly his reading of the March 7 1984 agreement to be in error. And yeah, there’s my own book too…)


Comments

Post Position

If the Internet Did Exist

by Nick Montfort at March 27, 2015 03:08 PM

If the Internet did exist, we’d have to uninvent it: “It seemed that in their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook.”

Those poor people in developing countries don’t know about the Internet, only Facebook.

Of course Babycastles, my main link to poetry & digital media in NYC, keeps a calendar of events only on Facebook, not on a plain Web page.

I’ve found it very difficult to find (open, public) poetry events in NYC because many are announced only on Facebook.

I’m at an LA poetry festival now. Didn’t know about my friends’ (public) offsite readings; they are Facebook-only.

So, really the joke’s on me for thinking that the Internet still exists and not being on Facebook.

Thanks to the 15 of you who will read this on Twitter. It would have been 3, also deluded that the Internet exists, if I’d only blogged it.

Sibyl Moon Games

A Love Song for Alpha Centauri

by Carolyn VanEseltine at March 27, 2015 03:01 PM

I spent several hours hammering out a design analysis of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri versus Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth. Then Porpentine announced Twiny Jam, and I threw the article out and made this instead.

My first draft included nods to the Alien Crossfire expansion, but I cut them out to stay within word count (as Twiny Jam caps games at 300 words). I’ve included the source code below so that you can admire my success at doing so (or, y’know, just peek at how it was made.)

I remember Academician Zakharov, okay?A Love Song for Alpha Centauri
an interactive complaint
Release date: March 26, 2015
Format: Twine
Play in browser (itch.io)
Alternate play link (philome.la)
Download the source code

No offline play available due to the nature of the piece.

Special thanks to Leon Arnett for the combined <<replace>> macro set, which is spectacularly useful and made this piece possible.

March 26, 2015

The Gameshelf: IF

Designing alchemy in a puzzle game

by Andrew Plotkin at March 26, 2015 05:50 AM

A question about Hadean Lands from the tweet gallery: "Have you written anything about how you approached designing the alchemical system?"

Excellent question! The answer is "No, but I should, shouldn't I," yes okay. (Thanks @logodaedalus.)

My twitter-sized reply was "Sound cool while supporting the puzzles," but I can say more than that.

(Note: I will start this post by talking about HL in generalities. Later on I'll get into more spoilery detail about the game structure. It won't come down to specific puzzle solutions, but I'll put in a spoiler warning anyway.)

The keynote for HL's system was the alchemy puzzle in The Dreamhold. The Dreamhold lab had just two ingredients and three actions to take, but it felt like a dense explorable territory.

Dreamhold's principle was that any action you try on a given substance will produce a new and interesting result. And then you can try new actions on that! Obviously this exponential expansion has to be tied off pretty soon. Many of the combinations converge to common outcomes. The tree is only a few steps deep, really. (I think there are twelve possible substances to find.) But it's enough to give a sense of experimentation and discovery.

For HL, I wanted that sense, but bigger. Did I succeed? Heck no! It was an impossible goal. HL has forty-odd starting ingredients and thirty-odd magic words (not to mention other ritual actions, and the environmental influences, and...). Just providing the first step of a dense exploration tree would be... well, somebody might do it, but I wasn't going to.

So I developed HL with a less ambitious principle: you get recipes. When following a recipe, you should always be able to tell a right action from a wrong one. That is, a particular magic word will produce a unique response if you use it at the right time -- different from the response you get if you use it at the wrong time. The differences may be slight, but they're perceptible.

I didn't want to entirely crush the spirit of experimentation. So the second principle was: recipes aren't everything. The opening puzzle demonstrates this, and various later puzzles require you to substitute or invert ritual elements. I set up parallel structures and oppositional structures to make that make sense.

I think everyone agrees that I didn't hit the perfect balance. The game starts you with an off-recipe puzzle, but there's too long an interval before the next one. In between are lots of recipes that you have to follow perfectly; you lose track of the initial lesson. But most players were able to get onto the right track (or jump off the wrong one, if you like).

A followup question was "Did you have alchemical dynamics in mind when making the puzzles?" The answer is... mixed.

(Spoiler warning for the overall game structure, starting here!)

The core arc of HL is the limited supply of four key elements. You need all four for the endgame, and there are intermediate goals which require two or three. So initially you can only accomplish one intermediate goal at a time; then you have to reset.

That was my initial puzzle framework. I wrote that down, and then started complicating it. What ritual needs elements X and Y? Is it the ritual itself which needs those elements, or do I invent a sub-ritual which consumes X and provides a related X2? And so on.

At this point, I was inventing puzzles and alchemical mechanics in parallel. Or rather, I was going back and forth -- every decision on one side firmed up the possibilities on the other side. I needed puzzles whose solutions would seem reasonable; I needed mechanics which would feel like parts of a plausible magical science.

You'll note that I didn't start by creating a complete magical system and then deriving puzzles from it. Nor did I invent a bunch of puzzles and then invent alchemy that could solve them. Neither approach has ever worked for me. So if you're hoping for a complete, consistent model of HL alchemy -- I'm sorry. No such thing exists.

I knew that it couldn't exist, of course. That's one reason that the alchemy is described as being eclectic and syncretic. It fits nicely with the social background, too. The real-life British Empire did steal artifacts from all over the world. I evolved the idea that a magical British Empire would lift occult knowledge from every place they conquered, and jam it all together without regard for consistency or context!

(We assume this made them better at conquering. The game doesn't touch on much history, but references to the "East Empire" imply that they've got a firm grasp on Central Europe, and no doubt the New World as well. If I were a better writer, I'd have built a story about the Navy running into aliens and trying to treat them colonially... oh, well, room for a sequel.)

(There will be no sequel. That was a joke.)

The point is, I could make up whatever alchemical rules I wanted. I tried for a balance -- consistency in some places, chaos in others. I could draw on mythical, mathematical, or religious sources without having to be accurate about any of it. Convenient!

Back to the puzzle construction. As I said, there were a few key resources whose scarcity determined the game arc. Then I invented more resources -- both ingredients and formulae -- which either resulted from or combined with the key ones.

This could itself have created an ever-expanding tree of dependencies. But I constrained it, or at least bent it back on itself, with a third principle: everything in the game should be used at least twice. Ideally, in slightly different ways.

A naive adventure game uses each item exactly once. Indeed, many graphical adventures remove things from your inventory once you've used them successfully. This cuts against your sense of immersion -- not because of the anti-realism, but because you wind up watching the game mechanics rather than the game. An object disappearing (or being checked off) is a better signal of progress than the response of the game world. Text adventures don't have this disappearance convention; nonethless, the player learns to keep track of what's been used and ignore it thereafter.

I would rather teach the player that there's always more to learn. You may think you understand an item, but you still have to keep it in mind for future use. You have to keep everything in the game in mind at all times. This is the underlying challenge.

So I went over and over the list of rituals, looking for singletons. Magic word used only once? Work it into a new ritual. Alchemical potion only solves one puzzle? Invent a new place to use it. This added a richness to the mechanics. Two uses of a reagent imply there must be more; you have the sense that there must be underlying laws to explain it all. This is, as I said, an illusion; but it's a well-supported illusion.

Of course, it added up to a gob-smacking number of puzzles. Fortunately (or perhaps not), I was blessed with a very large list of formulae, resources, and recipes to scatter around the Retort. I could "use up" these extra puzzles as obstacles to various resources. (Thus all the locked cabinets.)

Also, since these puzzles weren't involved in the key resource plotline, it was okay if they had multiple solutions. (Some of the cabinets can be opened two or three ways.)

The final principle of Hadean Lands: involve all the senses. Let me go back to a line that I quoted in 2010, explaining the HL Kickstarter:

"If a witch could teleport (a thing that seems impossible, but I could be wrong), it would involve hours of preparation, rituals, chanting, and filling all the senses with the desired result until the spell would work in a blinding explosion of emotional fulfillment." (Steven Brust, Taltos)

Magic should be a transcendent experience. I tried to describe the effects of your rituals in colors, textures, sounds, scents... even the words that you speak are given synesthetic weight. Not to mention the ineffable air of things going wrong or right (so useful for cueing mistakes).

Of course, an adventure game involves lots of repetition, and nothing wears out faster than a repeated sense of transcendence. (Except maybe humor.) I dodged this problem with HL's PERFORM mechanic. When you PERFORM a known ritual, it doesn't repeat all of the descriptive text; I kept the output bare and mechanical. You're not reading it anyway! You just want to know whether the ritual succeeded. This preserves your sense of involvement with new rituals.

(Admittedly this falls apart when you're failing at a new ritual. That's a somewhat repetitive experience -- inevitably, I think.)

So there are my principles of magic design. I don't suppose I sound like a Hermetic occultist. I hope I do sound like a writer or designer describing his craft, because that's what this is. A lot of fussy details and a clear plan, is all.

Like the man said: writing is the art of causing change in a consenting reader, in accordance with the writer's will. You gotta be pragmatic about that stuff or you'll get nowhere.

Renga in Blue

Pirate Adventure: Beginner difficulty

by Jason Dyer at March 26, 2015 05:00 AM

Out of all the Scott Adams games, Pirate Adventure is the only one with a difficulty level of “Beginner”. Does the designation hold up? Heavy puzzle spoilers ahoy.

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piratemap2

The map is still a work in progress. Roughly in order of when I did things:

1. There’s a pirate in a grass shack. Getting rid of him is simply a matter of providing a bottle of rum. Then you’re able to take his treasure chest and parrot.

2. There’s a “maze”, but it nearly seems like a formality (unless I’m missing some secret) because the useful destination can be reached from the opening room.

3. The rug at the London flat gives this response upon an attempt to take it:

>GET RUG
Sorry I can’t
Its nailed to the floor!

Fairly early on there’s a “claw hammer”, which when brought back to the flat, you can “take nails”, and then “take rug”, which reveals a set of keys.

5. The keys then unlock the pirate’s treasure chest.

>UNLOCK CHEST
Its open

>GET PLANS
>READ PLANS
They’re plans to build the Jolly Roger (a Pirate ship!) You’ll need: hammer, nails,
lumber, anchor, sails, and a keel.

So far I’ve got the hammer, nails, and keel.

6. I know where everything else is, but it requires getting through a locked door in the maze.

I am in a pit. Visible items:
Mean and hungry looking crocodiles. Locked door.

Some obvious exits are: UP

>UNLOCK DOOR
Crocs stop me

So far, I don’t think there’s the unfair timing (bees, chiggers, limited light source) of Adventureland, and there hasn’t been what I’d call outright trickery so far. We’ll see if things stay fair.


March 24, 2015

Quest

IF Answers – a Q&A site for Interactive Fiction

by Alex Warren at March 24, 2015 10:01 PM

I’ve wished we had a Stack Exchange site for Interactive Fiction for years now – that is, a site where questions and answers can be voted on and edited by the IF community (like Stack Overflow). There was a proposal on Area 51 back in 2011, and another one in 2014. Both got quietly deleted after the initial interest faded away. Yet I believe the community has enough people in it, with enough questions, that a Q&A site would be a well-used and really valuable resource.

We have a chicken and egg problem though with the way the Area 51 process works. Prospective community members have to be persuaded to express interest in a site that doesn’t exist, and work out up-front what it might look like, before anything gets created. If they’re not heavily involved in other Stack Exchange sites already, that seems like a bit too much to expect.

I think an IF Q&A site would only gain momentum after it started existing, but there aren’t enough of us who really “get” the idea yet to get one started via the Stack Exchange Area 51 process. (And even though I happen to be an employee of Stack Exchange myself, I have no influence over what sites get set up).

Over the weekend I was upgrading phpBB on textadventures.co.uk, and remembering how much I think forums suck for getting answers to questions. Plenty of people ask questions about Quest in its forum, but I don’t think it’s the best solution.

After a tiny amount of research I came across an open source platform called Question2Answer which allows you to create Stack Exchange-style sites. It’s pretty easy to set up, so after a very short time I suddenly found myself having set up a new site called IF Answers.

We’re just getting started, but I think we’re doing pretty well in fleshing out the site with questions and answers even after only a couple of days.

Questions about Quest, QuestKit, Squiffy, Inform, Adrift, TADS, Twine etc. are all on-topic. Non-technical questions about things like IF game design are on-topic too, as are questions about specific games, questions about entering the IF Comp etc.

Check it out at ifanswers.com. Please help us with populating the content – answering your own questions is allowed (even encouraged, especially as we get going).


These Heterogenous Tasks

IFDB Roundup

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at March 24, 2015 07:01 PM

Being an occasional series in which I go through my IFDB reading-list and cross off a few entries.

Benthic Love (Mike Joffe; illustrations by Sonya Hallett). A short, illustrated CYOA made in Ren’Py, with the distinction of being:

The ONLY LGBT-friendly anglerfish dating sim!

anglerfish

This is a game about sexual dimorphism and its implications for relationships. Humans exhibit a visible degree of sexual dimorphism, albeit somewhat less than the norm among our great-ape relatives; what exactly that means for us is a subject of some debate, but humans are experimental generalists. If you wanted to pick a species for which biology would appear to be sexual destiny, you couldn’t do much better than anglerfish: they occupy a very specific niche, and are notable for having really extreme sexual dimorphism by vertebrate standards. Males are much smaller than females, and have no digestive system. They mate by the male biting into the female and linking up to her circulatory system, after which the male’s body atrophies to the point where they’re not much more than a set of gonads. Thus this line:

The world was not made for a love like yours between anglerfish.

…is very true regardless of how you might personally experience love. Taken as an actual story about anglerfish, the story engages in a degree of anthropomorphisation that is pretty nonsensical; talking about things like love, trust, wistful longing, language just doesn’t make any sense when the principals have brains smaller than a particularly wet sneeze. But clearly this is not the point intended.

I’m reading Calvino’s Cosmicomics at the moment, and Benthic Love has a great deal of the same tone – of deep, familiar longing juxtaposed against the implacable, weird particulars of science. Again and again in Cosmicomics, the protagonist is placed in bizarre situations that thwart his modest hopes; Benthic Love does not have Calvino’s writing chops, but – aided by the atmospheric art – it conjures a little of the same star-crossed tragedy.

Corvidia (Alan DeNiro). A prose-poem, juxtaposing uncanny fantasy with mundane yard chores. It bottlenecks a lot, but branches enough that it takes a few play-throughs to get a firm sense of the thing. As story, deficient; as poem, I am slow at judging poems. Like, really slow. It often takes me a week or so to decide whether I like a song; for poems, it could be longer. But it evoked some things, which is grist to a poem.

Art is the bath-house where we fuck in the dark. When I was in secondary school, there was a lane that led from town, up the hill, through the fields, to my house. The foot of the lane, between fire station, pub and church, was overhung with tall pines, in which the local crows flocked, squabbled and shat. The first time I came home from overseas, they had cut down the pines; ostensibly to protect the ancient graveyard wall, possibly as an arborist’s boondoggle. The lane feels exposed now, too open to the sky. The crows are gone.

Art is the bath-house where we fuck in the dark. When I lived in Yakutat, a town of a few hundred people with no road to the outside, where the winters are long, dark, wet, grey, snowbound and miserable: in spring the sandhill cranes would fly north in vast flocks, very high up, overlapping V-formations hundreds strong, calling and calling to one another with soft distant churrs. In autumn, they’d return, southward, and I knew I was fucked for another five months.

You Were Here (Joshua Houk).

youwerehereYou Were Here is a minimally interactive retrospective, composed of all the first lines in games listed in the Interactive Fiction Database for 2014. The game comes in two versions: a Twine piece where the text is static and organised by week of release, and an Inform one where the sentences get shuffled about. There’s no Markov-chain shenanigans within the sentences themselves, but it still produces the pleasingly surreal, glimmers-of-coherence effect common to generated works. IF openings tend to be either setting-establishing descriptions or dramatic cold opens, with a minority of character-establishing sentences; so there is just enough inherent structure to the randomness for it to have a kind of staccato consistency.


Renga in Blue

Favorite recent games of Tlön

by Jason Dyer at March 24, 2015 05:00 AM

Unlike The Interdependent Ludic Institute of Tlön, I don’t feel I have authority to decide the best of anything. But I can still pick stuff I like:

8. Blank Slate (Norfunder)
I don’t know if you caught the wave of AI-games about a decade ago, which invariably presented a raw intelligence to interact with and sold it as a game. The best examples — I’m thinking Grognard 0 and Lean Sykon here — spawned entire subnets and mod-scenes. Not long after the developers seemed to hit a creative wall, just because as stories the games seemed empty.

I don’t know how perfect a departure Blank Slate is, but boy, was it memorable.

Look — first scene — rather than the usual text communication, you enter individual characters and random gibberish splays across the screen. Many players thought their game was broken and inquired about a refund. Those who persisted five minutes in started to get text of a sort, but it was clear whatever creature inhabited the neural-net spoke no known language.

A bit more deciphering leads to its first words, in English. The weirdness doesn’t end there, because whatever is inside Blank Slate — everyone picks their own name for it, mine was Buddy — is from some linked universe where things are ever so slightly off, and then — I think this has been spoiled sufficiently to mention — the relevation that in that universe, the AIs are formed by “processing” living beings, killing them in the process.

The whole process leads to a moral/philosophical debate where you find by training Buddy’s intelligence he is capable of going back and destroying those who made him in the first place.

That’s just the first act.

7. Board Hero (Skizz)
Now that RFID+ is embedded in most athletic equipment, there’s been a boom of alter-sports games, but Board Hero keeps it simple.

Remember Tony Hawk Gaiden? Think that, but real life. Using some astounding algorithmic prowess, Board Hero detects the actual tricks being used on a skateboard and chains them together for combo points. The five minute leaderboard is fierce, but I’m more partial to the half-hour run which limits chaining allowing for a more leisurely ride.

Supposedly there’s some haywire bug involving the McTwist, but I’m never been able to do one, and I’m sure there will be a patch for it soon.

6. Ultimate Mod (-unknown-)
Some people argue if this is a game at all.

A mysterious file called Ultmod began getting passed around IRC and the fuzznets. People — I don’t know, I guess people with really good backups of their files — installed it on a whim but reported nothing. Then one of those brave experimentalists was playing Dark Wraith III (that RPG from five years ago) and noticed an entirely new area attached to the main quest. There was a series of cryptic numbers and pictures.

Other reports streamed in, from all variety of genres. Most memorable were the ghosts: a ghost train in SimCity 3, a ghost child in Couture, a ghost … tentacle alien thing in Super Pony Magical Stars.

Apparently Ultmod was designed to modify very specific games and add cryptic clues which fit together in a sort of meta-puzzle. Nobody has solved it yet, but rumors — perhaps started by the developers — hint at a genuine buried treasure somewhere in Iceland.

5. Triple Paradox (Interaxis)
The rash of time travel games is almost as bad as the zombie-boom we went through 10 years ago, but this one is something special because while most of game time travel is in a stable pre-designed framework (with enough mucking resulting in PARADOX GAME OVER), this one works in what I’d call butterfly effect mechanics. You attempt to stop some sort of tragedy (different each game) by leaping back and forth within a 24 hour window. HOWEVER, even the smallest change to reality changes the entire plot, all the way down, such that while the tragedy is stopped some other tragedy happens, so to stop that one you have to go back again, and of course killing your past selves is a viable option, and somehow the procedural-plot machinery under the hood is complex enough to handle it.

4. Mineral Survivor (Hologram Games)
I’m always been a fan of even the corniest of the games in the disaster-survival genre, but I’m confident this one will win over even non-genre fans.

You’re a miner-savant who has the ability to “see” from the perspective of minerals in the ground. It’s not see as in visual exactly, or even sonic; there’s this overlapping blend which really screams YOU ARE SOMETHING ELSE as you’re experiencing it. In any case, as is usual there’s a collapse disaster and there’s a lot of scenes where you have to navigate collapsed geology with precision timing but it’s a lot more forgiving than other such games because of the aforementioned mineral-sensing mechanic.

What really leaps this game to the next level are the memory-strands. Diamonds in particular have the ability to sense ramifications of causality, that is, observe scenes from the past and the future at the same time that are happening on the surface world. In the case of this tragedy — grieving families, lost opportunities — you get a kaleidoscope that would be overwhelming were it not for the developers adding a “blur” mechanic which allows you to see stories in less detail, only the salient points.

3. Ancestor (Glow)
This is the first time I’ve got to choose the method of my character’s demise in the startup screen.

After that, you play an ancestor ghost who follows multiple generations trying to nurture your family name to grand goals. The interface isn’t anything novel — it’s pretty much ripped off of Times of Leviathan — but the stories that emerge really are breathtaking.

For instance: Tolas-a-Yokikan was the first in a line that led expeditions to the fishing isle of Takkyiku, where she had her first encounter — nudged by my ghost, of course — with The Divine Tree, who tells her how to save the world. But on arriving at the third jewel, the coatylaptus finally caught up to her, but fortunately her progenitor egg had already been planted in the soil. So went the next three generations, all getting a little farther on the Holy Mountain, but each time being distracted by the Three Evils. The last generation — infertile, so I knew the stakes were high — managed to reach the Rock of All Murmurs and to scrawl the three words to restore the balance.

I know! I know! Certainly not for everyone. Still, the music, the visuals, and the sheer harmony of it all made me feel like something deeply profound had happened.

2. Greek Philosopher Simulator (Torchal)
I felt like the same developer’s Roman Senator Simulator was a disappointment because it focused solely on mechanics; pretty soon I was running the story like a spreadsheet.

Greek Philosopher Simulator ups the ante by not only including the politics and wars swarming the country, but requiring actual philosophical debate. While it seems odd to predicate a long speech on how the world is actually composed of fire (scandalizing the Pythagoreans, later leading to an all-out war) the game mechanics cleverly straddle the line between rationality and rhetoric.

My crowning moment was creating a logical argument — using the now famous predicate interface — that convinced a group of Peripatetics that nothing at all existed, including the philosophers themselves (somehow sidestepping the existence of the argument itself through a clever use of litotes). My screenshots somehow found their way to the devs who commented they didn’t realize such a thing was even possible.

1. Dragon Hall (22925)
I have never been a fan of the no-genre movement (that is, labeling games by story genre rather than gameplay genre) simply because it seems like everything I’ve tried has been a weak action-adventure made weaker by the lack of commitment.

In any case “just like the holodeck on Star Trek!” never seems to have happened.

Dragon Hall … well, didn’t change my mind, but for two hours or so, wow. First off, it’s a third-person corporate thriller (already being different there) where the interaction you’d think is primarily social, but really there’s so many options at any moment it feels like … ok, obviously I’m having trouble here. Look, in an adventure game, I feel like I’m constantly looking for locks to fit keys; in a strategy game, I’m always optimizing; in an action game, I’m priming my reflexes. Here, all I was thinking what would my character do? and somehow I could do every option I thought of, and for a while I was inhabiting a world rather than playing a game.

Then the sheen wore off and I was finding the optimum thing to say to the Twile Sisters so they would turn against the Syndicate and give me the password. But it was great while it lasted.


March 23, 2015

Sibyl Moon Games

A Tale of 20 Tarot Decks

by Carolyn VanEseltine at March 23, 2015 05:01 PM

The auction (involving 20 decks of Tarot cards)

The Vericon charity auction is a weird and wonderful thing.Vericon logo: a dragon wrapped around a shield reading "Vericon"

Vericon is the yearly science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction convention run by the Harvard-Radcliff Science Fiction Association. In practice, it’s half undergraduate celebration and half alumni reunion, sprinkled with a light covering of nonaffiliate attendees (like yours truly).

The twin purposes of the charity auction are 1) to raise money for charity and 2) to have fun. This triggers intense, bizarre bidding wars over things like an Acrobat Robot Pen (“the pen… that goes… like… THIS!”) or seven plastic coat hangers (“If the bidding goes up to $100, we’ll throw in… thirteen more coat hangers! Twenty coat hangers, folks!”) Many of the items are legitimately rare or valuable – I sadly passed on a first-edition copy of Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, and I watched with envy as someone snagged a bag full of galleys for unpublished Tor books.

The brown paper grocery bag didn’t look particularly impressive when it first came up for auction. But then the auctioneer started pulling out Tarot cards, deck after deck after deck, and reading off their names – “Tarot of the Elves. Witches’ Tarot. Vampyre Tarot. Atlantis Tarot. Two different Cat Tarot decks!”

I own two decks of Tarot cards (the Gilded Tarot, and Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s Shadowscapes Tarot.) I’m fascinated by the symbolism, but I haven’t used it extensively in my creative work. It’s a relatively untapped space, always waiting in the background. I thought, What could I do with 20 decks of Tarot cards?

I said, “Forty dollars.”

“Forty-five.”

“Fifty.”

The auctioneer called, “Fifty, do I hear fifty-five?”

In an undertone, my friend asked, “What are you going to do with twenty decks of Tarot cards?”

“I have fifty-five, do I hear sixty?”

“I’m going to write a LARP,” I said. “Sixty!”

“Sixty-five,” my opponent shot back.

“Twenty dollars on Carolyn’s bid,” one of my friends called from the back.

“Oh yeah?” a fourth party called. “Twenty-five more,” against me –

By the time it was over, there were five people in my bidding coalition (including a Mysterious Benefactor, who was getting all updates via text and bidding by proxy), and seven in my rival’s, several of whom had joined in for the chance to buy one deck at $10. My allies were far more enthusiastic than me – I topped out at $60, but one person got up to $125 before I started laughing helplessly and telling my coalition to stop, stop, I would write the LARP even if I didn’t win the bid.

The bag went for $290 – not to me. (My esteemable rival offered to sell me a deck or two at $10 apiece, but I told her not to worry, I’d just go to eBay.) And I started thinking, what kind of LARP can I write with 20 decks of Tarot cards?

A LARP (involving 20 decks of Tarot cards)

There are four major components to a LARP:

  1. Mechanics.
  2. Characters.
  3. Setting.
  4. Plot.

For a theater-style game, the first is essentially optional. But here, every player gets their own Tarot deck – why else use twenty decks? (I can think of a couple other options – for example, place them around the room as environmental challenges, or give everyone an in-character reason to carry a deck of Tarot cards – but they’re less immediately enticing.) I want to use Tarot cards as the mechanical root of the game.

"03 - L' Imperatrice" by Oswald Wirth - Le Tarot. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsBeyond mechanics, I can tie each character thematically to one of the Major Arcana. (There are 22 Major Arcana, but I can easily strip a couple out – let’s say The World and The Tower, since they’re visually more place-like than person-like.) This immediately provides me with 20 different character archetypes, which will provide built-in prompts for writing different characters.

That gives me an immediate mechanical idea. What if the game mechanics revolve around spending cards? Perhaps you can spend another player’s Major Arcana to automatically win a challenge over that player. That feels good; I’m going to run with it.

How are normal challenges resolved? Hypothetically, it would be great to do a fast Tarot read mechanic followed by cinematic resolution (where both participants know how the challenge will resolve, but act it out in very impressive fashion for the benefit of those who don’t). However, I can’t expect everyone to be familiar with the Tarot (let alone know it by heart!), and asking people to grab a GM every time they want to know who wins a challenge is a Bad Plan.

Instead, I can use the numbers of the Minor Arcana to set up a system that everyone can instantly access. Players can resolve one-to-one challenges by spending 3 cards from the Minor Arcana – reflecting the standard past/present/future spread – and comparing what they spent. To add a strategic element, the cards must be revealed one by one, and there are three ways for the challenge to potentially resolve…

  • Possibility #1: If one player’s Past and Present cards are both higher in value than the other player’s, then the Future card never gets spent. The first player has already won.
  • Possibility #2: Otherwise, the challenge resolves in favor of the player with a higher Future card.
  • Possibility #3: Unless the Future cards are the same. In that case, spend another card.

Since there are 56 Minor Arcana, that allows for > 18 challenges per player inside 4 hours. I’m not concerned about anyone running out of cards (unless they’re particularly profligate, in which case, they just lose.)

Although the system above is intended for unsupervised player-versus-player challenges, it can easily be adapted to provide environmental challenges. I could even just leave a deck of cards on an environmental obstacle along with instructions about how to challenge the object sans GM. That’s kind of fun.

What kinds of challenges are available in this game? I’m thinking some kind of theatrical combat, for one, just because that looks so fantastic when it’s cinematically resolved. Some kind of magical or psychic powers would also be great, but that depends on the setting. I should get on that point.

What is the setting for this game? For thematic reasons, I want something that feels nicely mythic, but I want to avoid actually stepping on anyone’s religion or spirituality (which is particularly tricky here, given that many people take Tarot far more seriously than I do.) There are many options – I could ground it in folklore and fairy tale (like The Dance and the Dawn), or literally incarnate the various Arcana, or take some kind of science fiction/science fantasy twist. But I think it might be a better idea to find an existing fictional grounding. (Borrowing a preexisting setting is not unusual for this kind of LARP – the last Intercon included games based on Star Wars, Batman, P.G. Wodehouse, the sea shanties of Gordon Bok, and Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, among others.)

Maison-Dieu_tarot_charles6When I was perhaps thirteen, I encountered the short story “More Light”, by James Blish (summarized here). It contains most of a complete text for The King in Yellow, but when I first read it, I was completely unfamiliar with the Lovecraft mythos. I loved the image of Carcosa, though – a mystery city that appeared overnight, on the shores of the lake but behind the moon, where all knew its name as soon as they looked upon it. Also, Blish’s Act Two is a masquerade, which is a good excuse for putting everyone in the same room….

…except that I’m not interested in borrowing Blish’s plot. Apart from the built-in spoilers problem, Blish’s story involves an incestuous love triangle and references Lovecraft’s racism. I am not prepared to tackle these (or ask players to tackle them) in a LARP. I just want to evoke my first impressions of the story – the myth, the wonder, the creeping hints of horror.

Time to fiddle with the plot. What if our players actually went to investigate the mystery city, rather than staying home and staring across the lake? To hold all the players in the same space (it’s important in LARPs) the city itself could be abandoned, but there could be a palace within the city, visibly occupied, with instructions (a plaque, or etchings in the street, or a voice from midair) that those who wish to enter must come at a certain day and time, and that those who enter will be rewarded, but no others will ever be allowed within. (In written fiction, this would be a ridiculously clunky device – but written fiction rarely locks twenty people in a single location for four hours.)

This gives me access to factions and the beginnings of a plot. Instead of bringing all the players across from the other side of the lake, I can start some characters in Carcosa. Also, if I use the warring cities theme from “More Light” (where Hastur and Aldebaran are presented as cities at war) and bring delegates from both to Carcosa, then I can have representatives of two historically hostile factions trying to deal with Carcosa and maneuver for advantage.

Visconti_Tarot_(51)Looping back to the Tarot, I can readily assign and separate factions by card. Death is a transformation card, and the appearance of Carcosa will transform Hastur and Aldebaran, so the Death character belongs in Carcosa. The Empress should be Cassilda from Hastur, and the Hierophant is Noatalba. The Lovers – perhaps I could assign two players to this card, where one is from Hastur and one is from Aldebaran? That could be a marvelous subplot – but all the players would see it coming out of game, if everyone can see everyone else’s Arcana. And if Arcana isn’t generally known, it damages the ability to automatically win a challenge. Hmm.

But this can be resolved with a mechanical tweak. What if players reveal their Arcana whenever challenged (giving the other player the chance to automatically win), but otherwise keep their Arcana secret? That could have some major benefits narratively – for example, it will be in the Devil’s interests to avoid conflict, because knowledge of that character’s Arcana would immediately encourage player distrust. This feels like a good idea, too.

I’m going to stop writing now, because I’m definitely venturing into spoiler territory, and I’d prefer not to have too many spoilers in the wild if I should develop this game in full. But one closing observation…

An observation (tangentially involving 20 decks of Tarot cards)

When I started writing this post, I was certain of two things – every player gets a Tarot deck and every character gets a Major Arcana. Here at the end, I’m well on the way to a solid game plan, and the notes above illustrate my creative process. There’s a basic pattern here:

  1. Find inspiration (I have 20 Tarot decks)
  2. Expand and elaborate (I can use Tarot spreads mechanically for challenge resolution)
  3. Assess the result for problems (People won’t necessarily know Tarot well enough to perform rapid readings)
  4. Reangle to avoid problems (I can use the minor Arcana number for challenge resolution)

…and continue steps 2 through 4 in a rinse-repeat cycle until the end, occasionally revisiting 1 for a new infusion of inspiration. It certainly isn’t how everyone works, but it does work well for me.

Thanks again to the coalition of backers who wanted me to have 20 Tarot decks. Even though we didn’t win, you made magic happen.

March 22, 2015

Emily Short

The Toaster With Two Brains (Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual)

by Emily Short at March 22, 2015 06:00 PM

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 5.03.13 PM

Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual is a website for retro-futuristic illustrated choice-based fiction, set in a shiny chrome and leather universe with lots of Deco machines and mad science. Choices often run to 1-3 options, and there’s an always-present inventory list, reminiscent of but significantly fancier than ChooseYourStory games:

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 5.06.24 PM

The majority of the choices are exploratory: you are choosing which objects to examine and which questions to ask of NPCs. Very occasionally you’re offered choices that seem like they might affect events, but the plot strands rejoin almost immediately, via standard sorts of agency-denial: you ask a character to come with you, but they refuse; you attempt to head the wrong direction, but it’s blocked. Even the inventory is a bit deceptive: games with inventory usually let you accumulate and drop things in ways that are likely to make a difference later in the story, but as far as I can tell, your inventory is very much determined for you, and it’s impossible to get to a particular story branch with any variation in your inventory list.

You also several times have the option of following the male or the female protagonist, getting a significant portion of the story from their perspective. Later, when the characters meet up again, you get filled in on what happened to the character you did not follow. The overall effect is that the story does contain significant branching, since you see different nodes if you’re playing as Gwen than if you’re playing as Nat, but that branching provides reader agency rather than player agency.

This exploratory mode is borne out by the rest of the aesthetics. The illustrations are lavish and consistently high-quality: the creator of the website is an artist first and came to interactive story authorship second. There’s an action picture for each event in the story, and each inventory item gets a close-up picture and a detailed description:

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These close-ups are the reason I mentioned this site long ago in a post on the narrative of objects.

As for the story, it’s modeled on old TV or radio serials, with cliffhangers — and “The Toaster With Two Brains” is not complete, so at the end of the first episode, you’ll find yourself leaving the protagonists in a sticky situation. Meanwhile, the narrative voice is about 90% sass, constantly lampshading tropes and never taking anything seriously:

Big, hulking engines squatted there under the tower and spun, and cycled, and levered themselves in what could easily be a competition for “Loudest Cacophony, Basement Class”.

Just as she’d half suspected, she saw someone throwing the levers and spinning the knobs, a fellow who just had to have that word “henchman” in his resumé. He paused – he actually froze – when he saw her in the mouth of the tunnel.

For me, this is where the piece falls a bit short. The choices that we’re offered are inconsequential — either because they’re on the level of EXAMINE TOASTER or because they’re immediately blocked if they’re not what the author wants us to do — and they’re also placed in the framework of a flippant narrative that doesn’t allow me to feel any real apprehension on behalf of the main characters. I couldn’t help wondering whether an even more object-focused type of game might not have been a better fit for the author’s meticulous interest in the physical setting; maybe something reminiscent of the Dennis Wheatley crime dossiers.

Still, the presentation is significantly above average for freeware CYOA in terms of polish and general prettiness.


March 20, 2015

These Heterogenous Tasks

The Interdependent Ludic Institute of Tlön’s GOTY 201Xa

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at March 20, 2015 06:01 PM

The calendar is, of course, different in Tlön, so in celebration of the impending New Year, here’s my games of the year for 201Xa.

10: LARGE MAMMAL ENCOUNTER (P. Menzies / Nefarious Designs). Technically, this is an open-source AI engine with a series of examples cobbled together into something game-shaped. Menzies, whose day job is zoology postdoc, was tired of the depiction of dangerous animals in videogames, and collaborated with Nefarious Designs to produce a meticulously data-based AI. The game is mostly about short scenes in which you are ignored (and very occasionally savaged) by a variety of well-documented megafauna, under conditions determined by an impressively over-the-top range of sliders and tickyboxes. (This is the first game I’ve played where you can choose whether the PC is menstruating.)

The cool thing about this, for something so heavily-researched, is that it doesn’t pretend authority when it doesn’t have it – where the evidence justifying a behavioural rule is hazy, it pauses the game and offers you options. And you can set how often these interruptions come up, and thus much of a stickler for data you want to be – anywhere from Common Sense Guess to Hard Data Only. Even if you’ve got quibbles with the exact implementation, this is such an accessible demonstration of science’s relationship with probability and induction that all else is forgiven. LME’s original hope was that it’d be taken up by game designers; I don’t see that happening, but I sure as hell hope it finds its way into plenty of classrooms.

9: NEVER THE CITY (Unterhopt): NTC was designed as ‘a wordless, no-protagonist point-and-click adventure where anything you click on advances the story, and nothing is ever the same twice.’ While it doesn’t quite add up to this hype, it’s about as close as is reasonable to expect. The entire game is played within a single screen, a gorgeously-painted surreal city panorama with details you can zoom in on, inhabited by little faceless people. When you tap on things, buildings change, seasons and festivals come and go, people go about their lives. This is all seen from afar: no words, no expressions, as if you’re watching through a telescope, so you have to do a lot of guesswork. Many of the moments are throwaway – a cat runs along a parapet, a trombonist plays in the park – and at first it all seems disconnected, but then certain characters begin to recur – the girl with the hat, the two soldiers, the parkourist, the lost child, the man with the cane – you learn their moods, and you feel on the edge of piecing the vignettes together into a story. And then, if it’s your first time playing, the bigger picture pushes into the foreground – some kind of radical change transforms the city, and the game ends. Usually this takes about 45 minutes, half an hour if you rush it.

Sometimes, if you know what you’re doing and make a concerted push towards it, you can get some sort of resolution to the story of an individual character, but I never felt satisfied by them – they leave questions open, or put the character back where they started, or feel like small solace. I was much more engaged with this than with the vaunted 64 endings of the city’s plot: some of them are visually striking, but it felt a little too much like a time-cave, taking whatever input you happened to be throwing in and turning it into an either-or decision every few moves. For the most part, the changes alter the character stories only subtly (a meeting might take place on a balcony rather than a bridge) though there are a handful of vignettes with stronger dependence (the two soldiers behave quite differently when martial law is declared.)

8: THE EXEMPLARY BOYHOOD (Glory Productions). For the past decade, the best Hensi-language games have been shungfar, ‘superior play’, propaganda biographies of the super-rich, produced as status projects and sold dirt cheap for maximum cultural penetration. Most are untranslated, and they generally come with way too much cultural baggage to make them accessible to Western tastes. A couple of years back I played a fan-translated version of The 1024 Perfections of Minister Thun, and was at once impressed by how much conspicuous craft had gone into it, and almost completely incapable of figuring out anything whatsoever.

The construction magnate Tenhu Ingi commissioned a three-part shungfar about his life, to be titled Through Magnificent Seasons. The Spring portion, chronicling his childhood and adolescence, was nearing release when Ingi was arrested and promptly executed for treason-by-corruption. Amid the liquidation of his assets, Spring was shuffled around between a dozen or more holders, variously repurposed into The Exemplary Boyhood, and, eventually, professionally localised for foreign markets for profit.

The hero has been re-identified with Ifren, an enduringly popular figure created for Hensi children’s textbooks in the 70s; but even without digging very deep, it’s easy to recognise that he was originally Ingi. On top of this, it’s a standard device in shungfar for real figures to embody figures from folklore and popular culture some of the time, as allegory or throwaway rhetorical device, so it’s not as though Ifren really messes with things all that much. The point of the game is to perfect the Youthful Virtues of loyal duty, loyal honour, hygiene, virility, industry and generosity by playing exquisitely polished minigames, while wandering around an idealised version of Shifeni District c.1960. Longer-arc goals vary from the charming (raise a pig to win the District Fair; the entire relationship with your mother) to the nationalistic (expose an spy with your Youth Brigade buddies) to the downright weird (just about everything to do with Ifren/Ingi’s numerous adolescent sweethearts). And there’s the strange foreboding that inevitably hangs over this resolutely cheerful, dutiful youth: the whole story is about growing up to be an upstanding member of society, but you know that he will, in fact, grow up to be killed by that society, for reasons which will probably never become fully clear.

7: DISURBAN (Vitoria Salerni / Teo Poliakov / Seeded House). A construct-and-expand game, except that here the pristine wilderness you’re building on is the half-flooded ruins of a major city, which your clan of neo-primitives must re-green into something habitable. While external threats exist, they’re less troublesome than internal conflict (except for kudzu, which is basically Satan). This is basically a story about giving up power and trying to do so gracefully. As you gain more resources, your direct control inevitably recedes; without careful pacing this can be catastrophic. Ultimately, the only way to retain micromanagement-level power is to keep your people poor, undeveloped, homogenous and vulnerable. It’s a pretty uneven piece: the game’s authors don’t seem able to agree about whether the tone should be painfully earnest or gently snarky (and it should be no great shock that I infinitely prefer it in the latter mode). Regardless, it is very soothing to turn a world of grody, straight-edged concrete boxes into an unruly green.

While most city-builders are great sprawling things that take a goodly time to finish and reward replay, Disurban can be played to completion in about four hours, and doesn’t offer much variation on replay. The authors have made firm statements that they see no way to expand it without ruining the whole thing, so there it stands.

6: SEPARATE POWERS (Breeder Reactor). Everybody characterises this as ‘American Gods with the serial numbers filed off’, which will do until I can come up with something less lazy. You’re an Elector, a sort of second-tier demigod representing a particular district; your ultimate goal is to foil the schemes of the One Nation Undergod, a chthonic assimilationist, but to do this you have to wander the nation, forging back-room deals, gathering unruly and demanding allies, manipulating Cosmic Forces, and occasionally throwing down.

The immediate gameplay is OK, but thing that made me really impressed was the culture part of character-creation: rather than a simple race field, you get a whole set of sliders determining how closely you identify with/are connected to different US culture groups – some involve ancestry, some are regional, and there’s a grab-bag of persistent subcultures. These affect almost everything in the game – feats, relationships, spheres of influence – but most importantly, it affects your Attunement to various deities and pantheons, which in turn unlocks questlines. (This is a big deal because Separate Powers doesn’t have a main questline, really, until the very end.) The imbalance of this last has been extensively documented, and while DLC is slowly patching up some of the holes, the awesome promise of those sliders is still a long way off being fulfilled.

5: COUTURE (Heavy Petal). You know the thing in Like Water for Chocolate where – no, scratch that, let’s go with Chocolat – or, better yet, the hat shop in Howl’s Moving Castle. The deal is, you run a magical boutique in a close-knit neighbourhood where everyone has modest but intense problems, which you attempt to solve by designing magical clothes for them. The problems get solved, but until you’ve leveled up sufficiently in the relevant skills, they usually get solved way too hard, creating ever-escalating levels of chaos until you learn how to be more precise about it. The outfit-choice mechanics can produce some… odd combinations, so it’s probably safest to think of it as representing the cultural rules of a wholly foreign culture that just happens to resemble Europe entre-deux-guerres in some respects.

It’s oddly light-hearted for a game that’s fundamentally about tampering with people’s personalities with decidedly ambiguous consent, but I was pleased about how it portrays the PC’s romance subplots as being enabled by becoming less of an immature asshole, rather than earned by great deeds or something the player is inherently entitled to.

4: 19TH CENTURY LITERARY JOURNAL TYCOON (Mira Sistani / Ghosted Past).  Hire an editor, solicit contributors, discover and cultivate authors, and juggle Posterity and Fashion while trying not to go too broke. There’s a randomised Alternate Mode for hardcore spreadsheet-strategy fans, but I got the most value out of the meticulously-researched History Mode, which is way gentler (at least, if you already have some name-recognition ability when it comes to period authors, or are willing to look everything up on Orbis) and utterly fascinating as a non-fiction overview of English literature 1798-1914. The things that interested me most: watching the cachet of authors rise and fall, and its frank attention to how money affects art. (I tried to force H.G. Wells to insert a superfluous American character into War of the Worlds to boost US sales. He told me to go screw, but I’m pretty sure I could have managed it if I’d just built up more relationship. And hopefully you all saw some of that Twitch Ruins The Classics LP, or at least read the writeups.)

It’s a bit, well, dry – that said, I played this immediately after Couture, where scandalous affairs and outré passions are commonplace, so that may be an unfair comparison. As a starting-point for further reading, though – which is, after all, what it’s designed as, since Sistani originally wrote Tycoon as a teaching aid for her introductory-level literature class – it’s magnificent.

3: FIRE NEXT TIME (Seachange). The weird thing about it is that it’s a game about dragon-riding where you don’t get a dragon until about a third of the way in, and don’t get to ride it until the final scenes. The protagonist, a fourteen-year-old kid from somewhere in the Appalachians, finds herself in possession of a dragon egg stolen from the Confederates: a well-managed dragon is about as powerful as an ironclad warship, so everybody wants their hands on it, and most of the game is about eluding capture and making it to Union lines in a region of very dappled loyalties.

The dragon battles are appropriately chaotic adrenaline fun once you get to them, the richly detailed setting provides plenty of interest for the otherwise mediocre run-and-sneak sections, and the soundtrack is the best of the year (even if much of it is about a century too modern). But the best part of is – well, it’s been thoroughly spoiled by this point, so there’s no harm in spoiling it again: you start out by crafting your character, picking out clothes and hairstyles and jawlines, doing the usual thing of crafting someone awesome. And then the game breaks the bargain and applies that appearance to your best friend, Callie/Cal from the next farm over. You’re Midge, whether you like it or not. Midge is gangly, slouches a little, has unmanageable hair, and is not doing a great job of passing off the black part of her ancestry as Cherokee. Your first feeling about her is a reflex shit, this isn’t what I asked for, which is pretty much what Midge feels about herself. Whenever Cal shows up in the story again, it prompts this involuntary twinge of… something, I don’t know if envy is the right word. I found this element a lot more convincing than the girl-and-her-pony relationship with Smoke, which totally soft-pedals everything else we know about dragons in this world.

2: THE DEVOURING (Scuttlebutt). Miklasar is yer basic swords-and-sorcery port-city, a seething, villainous melting-pot. It therefore has the best restaurants. To this gilded cesspit rides Skrang the Devourer, barbarian restaurant critic. The player plays a series of chefs – or the same chef hopping jobs? this aspect is kind of weird – competing for star ratings from Skrang’s exacting palate. Seated at table, Skrang chows down with one hand while using the other to absent-mindedly slay wave after wave of off-screen foes, seen only as their loot (and body-parts) splatter onto your prep table. Your job is buffing through speed-crafting, basically: you have to combine looted ingredients into dishes and dispatch them to be eaten before Skrang gets overwhelmed.

There’s a lot to keep track of, here: Skrang needs carbs to keep smiting, protein to convert experience into skill-tree upgrades, and a whole array of buffs to overcome the most fearsome foes. A wider range of dishes increases your star rating, but you also want to prioritise more elaborate dishes for better cash. This is absolutely the kind of game that only works on a good-sized tablet: you’ll be using both hands most of the time, feverishly hurling low-grade Orc Briskets and Devil Tripe into the swill-bucket as you try to avoid ruining yet another bechamel. (Some people have reviewed this as a clumsy-interface-comedy piece; I can see why; even if I don’t agree that this is the soul of the game, you generally leave the kitchen in one hell of a mess). Thankfully, Devouring doesn’t force you to memorise recipes, and later on you can delegate a lot of the more repetitive sub-tasks to loyal Sous-Chefs.

Mostly I liked the implied metropolis of Miklasar, where Bavarians, Thais and Mexicans don’t just rub elbows with goblins and demonspawn: they open outlandishly-decorated fusion restaurants together. Dragons come in many breeds, from the unpalatable Zebu to the fearsome Wagyu. Goblin cuisine mostly rotates around cannibalism, each elf culture has more improbable dietary restrictions than the last, and every cuisine is shaped by a heavy reliance on monster products. Also pretty cool is its handling of Skrang’s gender in chargen: rather than tick a box, torso, arms and face are selected separately, with options ranging from hyper-gendered beards and hourglasses to androgyny of various stripes. The grammar of barbarian-speak (the end-of-level summaries are delivered as Skrang’s arch reviews) lacks pronouns.

1: HOUSE OF SMOKE AND ASHES (Nutshell): NK has been making second-tier social horror games (Time and Tide, Loa) for years; this year they stepped up into the big leagues, competing directly against Irredeemer and Anita Vs. Buffy III. It still bears the marks of its indie roots: Hosaa’s action is confined to a single lavishly-appointed building, in which a dissolute and fractured vampire clan are throwing a dissolute and fractured party for selected bigwigs and hotties of the paranormal community. You are a double (or triple, etc.) agent, trying to… well, the most obvious objective is to get the clan to implode, neutralising it politically. Given that their present cares rotate around drugs, sex and assorted merriment, those are your tools.

It’s possible to play Hosaa as a straight-up H dating-sim, starting a new game to target each character (probably using a strategy guide), finding their sex scenes and giving up afterwards. Indeed, evidence suggests that this how a substantial number of players approach it, which is hilarious, because this is a game where sex always means something, often many things. There are a lot of messy emotional needs underneath that carousing. Unlike most of its relatives, Hosaa doesn’t model emotional resilience mechanically – I contend that it really doesn’t need to if you’re properly engaged with it.

I’ve never played a game where your gender and appearance choices matter so regularlyI’ve also never played one where social interactions carried so much threat. You’re surrounded by volatile, needy people who are strong enough to pick up small cars and are constrained only by their equally-volatile peers. You need allies, however uncertain, and every new-made enemy evokes a lurch of dread. It is not, despite reports to the contrary, a no-combat game: by my count, you can kick the ass of a little over a fifth of the NPCs, given the right circumstances. But it’s fairly marginal, and it’s never the romancey sword-duel-that-ends-in-a-kiss genre standard. Similarly, love does feature, but it’s rarely good news: when I eventually happened across a plot arc that was actually kind of sweet (I am not spoiling which) much of its effectiveness was about how unexpected that was.

Previous Tlönology: GOTY 2014.


Post Position

Des Imagistes Lost & Found

by Nick Montfort at March 20, 2015 05:22 PM

Des Imagistes, first Web editionI’m glad to share the first Web edition of Des Imagistes, which is now back on the Web.

I assigned a class to collaborate on an editorial project back in 2008, one intended to provide practical experience with the Web and literary editing while also resulting in a useful contribution. I handed them a copy of the first US edition of Des Imagistes, the first Imagist anthology, edited by Ezra Pound and published in 1914.

Jason Begy, Audubon Dougherty, Madeleine Clare Elish, Florence Gallez, Madeline Flourish Klink, Hillary Kolos, Michelle Moon Lee, Elliot Pinkus, Nick Seaver, and Sheila Murphy Seles, the Fall 2008 workshop class, did a great job. The project was prompted, and indeed assigned, by me, but it’s the work of that group, not my work. The class put a great deal of editorial care into the project and also attended to principles of flexible, appropriate Web design. The cento they assembled and used for an alternate table of contents made for a nice main page, inviting attention to the text rather than to some sort of illustration. I’m not saying it would have been exactly my approach, but what they did is explained clearly and works well.

I told the class that the licensing of their project was up to them. They chose a CC BY-NC-SA license, more restrictive than I would have selected, given that the material was in the public domain to begin with, but a reasoned choice. They were similarly asked to decide about the hosting of the work. They just had to present what they’d done in class, answer questions about it, and let me look at and interact with it. While I would be glad to place a copy on my site, nickm.com, it was up to them as to whether they would take me up on the offer. They placed their work online on its own domain, which they acquired and for which they set up hosting.

After announcing this edition, readers, scholars, and teachers of Imagist poetry commented and thanked the class for it work. But as I bemoaned last October, Des Imagistes was no longer online a few years later. I asked around for files, but asking former students to submit an assignent six years later turns out to be a poor part of a preservation strategy.

Now, working with Erik Stayton (who a research assistant in the Trope Tank and is in the masters in CMS 2015 class), I’ve recovered the site from the Internet Archive. The pages were downloaded manually, in adherence to the robots.txt file on archive.org, the Internet Archive’s additions to the pages were removed, and something very close to the original site was assembled and uploaded.

Some lessons, I suppose, are that it’s not particularly the case that a group of students doing a groundbreaking project will manage to keep their work online. As much as I like reciprocal and equitable ways of working together, the non-hierarchical nature of this project probably didn’t help when it came to keeping it available; no one was officially in charge, accepting credit and blame. Except, of course, that I should have been in charge of keeping this around after it was done and after that course was complete. I should have asked for the files and (while obeying the license terms) put the project on my site – and for that matter, other places online.

Would you like to have a copy of the Des Imagistes site for your personal use or to place online somewhere, non-commerically? Here’s a zipfile of the whole site; you will also want to get the larger PDF of the book, which should be placed in the des_imagistes directory.

March 19, 2015

The Digital Antiquarian

MicroProse’s Simulation-Industrial Complex (or, The Ballad of Sid and Wild Bill)

by Jimmy Maher at March 19, 2015 07:00 PM

Microprose

Change was in the air as the 1980s began, the drawn-out 1960s hangover that had been the 1970s giving way to the Reagan Revolution. The closing of Studio 54 and the release of Can’t Stop the Music, the movie that inspired John J.B. Wilson to start the Razzies, marked the end of disco decadence. John Lennon, whilst pontificating in interviews on the joys of baking bread, released an album milquetoast enough to play alongside Christopher Cross and Neil Diamond on Adult Contemporary stations — prior to getting shot, that is, thus providing a more definite punctuation mark on the end of 1960s radicalism. Another counterculture icon, Jerry Rubin, was left to give voice to the transformation in worldview that so many of his less famous contemporaries were also undergoing. This man who had attempted to enter a pig into the 1968 Presidential election in the name of activist “guerrilla theater” became a stockbroker on the same Wall Street where he had once led protests. “Money and financial interest will capture the passion of the ’80s,” he declared. The 1982 sitcom Family Ties gave the world Steven and Elyse Keaton, a pair of aging hippies who are raising an arch-conservative disciple of Ronald Reagan; it was thus the mirror image of 1970s comedies like All in the Family. Michael J. Fox’s perpetually tie-sporting Alex P. Keaton became a teenage heartthrob because, as Huey Lewis would soon be singing, it was now “Hip to be Square.” Yes, that was true even in the world of rock and roll, where bland-looking fellows like Huey Lewis and Phil Collins, who might very well have inhabited the cubical next to yours at an accounting firm, were improbably selling millions of records and seeing their mugs all over MTV.

No institution benefited more from this rolling back of the countercultural tide than the American military. Just prior to Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the military’s morale as well as its public reputation were at their lowest ebb of the century. All four services were widely perceived as a refuge for psychopaths, deadbeats, and, increasingly, druggies. A leaked internal survey conducted by the Pentagon in 1980 found that about 27 percent of all military personnel were willing to admit to using illegal drugs at least once per month; the real numbers were almost certainly higher. Another survey found that one in twelve of American soldiers stationed in West Germany, the very front line of the Cold War, had a daily hashish habit. In the minds of many, only a comprehensively baked military could explain a colossal cock-up like the failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in April of 1980, which managed to lose eight soldiers, six helicopters, and a C-130 transport plane without ever even making contact with the enemy. Small wonder that this bunch had been booted out of Vietnam with their tails between their legs by a bunch of shoeless rebels in black pajamas.

The military’s public rehabilitation began immediately upon Ronald Reagan’s election. Reagan not only continued but vastly expanded the military buildup his predecessor Jimmy Carter had begun, whilst declaring at every opportunity his pride and confidence in the nation’s fighting men and women. He was also willing to use the military in ways that hadn’t been dared since the withdrawal from Vietnam. As I recounted recently in another article, the Reagan administration began probing and feinting toward the Soviet Union, testing the boundaries of its airspace as well as its resolve in ways almost unprecedented since the Cold War had begun all those decades before. On October 25, 1983, the United States invaded the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada to depose a Soviet-friendly junta that had seized power just days earlier. In later years this attack by a nation of 235 million on a nation of less than 100,000, a nation which was hardly in a position to harm it even had it wanted to, would be roundly mocked. But at the time the quick-and-easy victory was taken as nothing less than a validation of the American military by large swathes of the American public, as a sign that the military could actually accomplish something, could win a war, definitively and (relatively) cleanly — no matter how modest the opponent.

We need only look to popular culture to see the public’s changing attitude toward the military writ large. Vietnam veterans, previously denounced as baby killers and conscienceless automatons, were by mid-decade shown all over television as good, dutiful men betrayed and scorned by their nation. For a while there it seemed like every popular action series on the air featured one or more psychically wounded but unbowed Vietnam vets as protagonists, still loyal to the country that had been so disloyal to them: The A-Team; Magnum, P.I; Airwolf; Miami Vice. During the commercial breaks of these teenage-boy-friendly entertainments, the armed forces ran their slick new breed of recruiting commercials to attract a new generation of action heroes. The country had lost its way for a while, seduced by carping liberalism and undermined by the self-doubt it engendered, but now America — and with it the American military — were back, stronger, prouder, and better than ever. It was “morning again in America.”

Arguably the most important individual military popularizer of all inhabited, surprisingly, the more traditionally staid realm of books. Tom Clancy was a husband and father of two in his mid-thirties, an insurance agent living a comfortable middle-class existence in Baltimore, when he determined to combine his lifelong fascination with military tactics and weaponry with his lifelong desire to be a writer. Published in 1984 by, of all people, the Naval Institute Press — the first novel they had ever handled — his The Hunt for Red October tells the story of the eponymous Soviet missile submarine, whose captain has decided to defect along with his vessel to the West. A merry, extended chase ensues involving the navies of several nations — the Soviets trying to capture or sink the Red October, the West trying to aid its escape without provoking World War III. It’s a crackerjack thriller in its own right for the casual reader, but it was Clancy’s penchant for piling on layer after layer of technical detail and his unabashed celebration of military culture that earned him the love of those who were or had been military personnel, those who admired them, and many a teenage boy who dreamed of one day being among them. Clancy’s worldview was, shall we say, uncluttered by excessive nuance: “I think we’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys. Don’t you?” Many Americans in the 1980s, their numbers famously including President Reagan himself, did indeed agree, or at least found it comforting to enjoy a story built around that premise. I must confess that I myself am hardly immune even today to the charms of early Tom Clancy.

By 1986, the year that Clancy published his second novel Red Storm Rising, the military’s rehabilitation was complete and then some. The biggest movie of that year was Top Gun, a flashy, stylish action flick about F-14 fighter pilots that played to the new fast-cutting MTV aesthetic, its cast headlined by an impossibly good-looking young Tom Cruise and its soundtrack stuffed with hits. I turned fourteen that year. I can remember my friends, many of them toting Hunt for Red October or Red Storm Rising under their arms, dreaming of becoming fighter pilots and bedding women like Top Gun‘s Kelly McGillis. Indeed, “fighter pilot” rivaled the teenage perennial of “rock star” for the title of coolest career in the world. The American military in general was as cool as it’s ever been.

Joining the likes of Tom Clancy and Tom Cruise as ambassadors of this idealized vision of the military life were the inimitable John William “Wild Bill” Stealey and his company MicroProse. Stealey himself was, as one couldn’t spend more than ten seconds in his presence without learning, a former Air Force pilot. Born in 1947, he graduated from the Air Force Academy, then spent six years as an active-duty pilot, first teaching others to fly in T-37 trainers and then guiding gigantic C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft all over the world. After his discharge he took an MBA from the Wharton School, then set off to make his way in the world of business whilst continuing to fly A-37s, the light attack variant of the T-37, on weekends for the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. By 1982 he had become Director of Strategic Planning for General Instruments, a company in the Baltimore suburb of Hunt Valley specializing in, as their advertisements proclaimed, “point-of-sale, state-lottery, off-track, and on-track wagering systems utilizing the most advanced mini- and microcomputer hardware and software technologies.” Also working at General Instruments, but otherwise moving in very different circles from the garrulous Wild Bill, was a Canadian immigrant named Sid Meier, a quiet but intense systems engineer in his late twenties who was well known by the nerdier denizens of Hunt Valley as the founder of the so-called Sid Meier’s Users Group, a thinly disguised piracy ring peopled with enthusiasts of the Atari 800 and its sibling models. Sid liked to say that he wasn’t actually playing the games he collected for pleasure, but rather analyzing them as technology, so what he was doing was okay.

The first real conversation between Stealey and Meier has gone down in gaming legend. In May of 1982, the two found themselves thrown together in Las Vegas for a series of boring corporate meetings. They ended up at an arcade in the basement of the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, in front of a game called Red Baron. Stealey sat down and scored 75,000 points, and was quite proud of himself. Then Meier racked up 150,000, and could have kept on going if he’d wanted to. When Stealey asked him how he, the quiet nerd, had beat a hotshot pilot, Meier said the opponents in the game had been programmed to follow just a handful of patterns, which he’d memorized whilst watching Stealey play. “It’s not very good,” he said. “I could write a better game in a week.” “If you could, I could sell it,” replied Stealey.

Sid Meier and Bill Stealey pose in 1988 with the actual Red Baron machine that led to the formation of Microprose. It was discovered in storage at the MGM Grand and purchased by Microprose.

Sid Meier and Bill Stealey pose in 1988 with the actual Red Baron machine that had led to the formation of MicroProse six years earlier.

Much more than a week went by, and Stealey forget about the exchange. But then, three months later, Meier padded up to him in the halls of General Instruments and handed him a disk containing a simple World War II shoot-em-up called Hellcat Ace. Shocked that he had come through, Stealey took it home, played it, and “wrote him a four-page memo about what was wrong with the flying and combat.” Seeing the disappointment on Meier’s face when he handed him the memo, Stealey thought that would be the end of it. But a week later Meier was back again, with another disk: “I fixed all of those things you mentioned.” His bluff well and truly called, Stealey had no choice but to get started trying to sell the thing.

First, of course, they would need a name for their company. Stealey initially looked for something with an Air Force association, but couldn’t come up with anything that rang right. For a while the two mulled over the awful name of “Smuggers Software,” incorporating an acronym for “Sid Meier’s Users Group.” But eventually Meier came up with “MicroProse.” After all, he noted, his code was basically prose for microcomputers. The “prose” also served as a pun on “pros” — professionals. With no better ideas on offer, Stealey reluctantly agreed: “It’ll be hard to remember, but once they got it, nobody will forget it.”

Packaging Meier’s game in a plastic baggie with a mimeographed cover sheet, Stealey started visiting all of the computer stores around Baltimore, giving them an early version of what would soon become known inside the industry as the Wild Bill Show — a combination of the traditional hard sell with buckets of Air Force bravado and a dollop of sheer charm to make the whole thing go down easy. Meier paid a local kid 25 cents per game to copy the disks and assemble the packages. By the end of 1982 sales had already reached almost 500 per month, at $15 wholesale per piece. Not bad for a side venture that Stealey had first justified to himself as a convenient way to get a tax write-off for his Volvo.

Early the following year Stealey managed by the time-honored technique of buying an advertisement to get Antic magazine to review Hellcat Ace. The review was favorable if not glowing: “While the graphics are not stunning, the game plays well and holds your interest with multiple skill levels and a variety of scenarios.” On the heels of this, MicroProse’s first real exposure outside the Baltimore area, Stealey took to calling computer stores all over the country, posing as a customer looking for Hellcat Ace. When they said they didn’t carry it, he would berate them in no uncertain terms and announce that he’d be taking his business to a competitor who did carry the game. After doing this a few times to a single store, he’d call again as himself: “Hello, this is John Stealey. I’m from MicroProse. I’d like to sell you Hellcat Ace.” The hapless proprietor on the other end of the line would breathe a sign of relief, saying how “we’ve been getting all kinds of phone calls for that game.” And just like that, MicroProse would be in another shop.

While Stealey sold like a madman, Meier programmed like one, churning out new games at a staggering clip. With MicroProse not yet having self-identified as exclusively or even primarily a maker of simulations, Stealey just craved product from Meier — any sort of product. Meier delivered. He reworked the Hellcat Ace code to turn it into Spitfire Ace. He combined the arcade hit Donkey Kong with the Atari VCS hit Pitfall! to produce Floyd of the Jungle, whose most unique feature was the chance for up to four players to play simultaneously, thanks to the Atari 800’s four joystick ports. He made a top-down air-combat game called Wingman that also supported up to four players, playing in teams of leader and wingman. He made a game called Chopper Rescue that owed more than a little something to the recent Apple II smash Choplifter and supported up to eight players, taking turns. (It would later be reissued as Air Rescue I, its original name having been perhaps just a bit too close to Choplifter‘s for comfort.) He made a surprisingly intricate strategic war game called NATO Commander that anticipated the scenario of Red Storm Rising — a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, with the specter of nuclear weapons conveniently hand-waved away — three years before that book’s publication. And finally there was Solo Flight, a take on civilian aviation that was more simulation-oriented than its predecessors, including a VHF navigation system and an entertaining mail-delivery challenge in addition to its free-flight mode. All of these gushed out of him in barely eighteen months, during most of which he was still working at General Instruments during the day. They found their places on the product lists with which Stealey continued to bombard shops and, soon, the big distributors as MicroProse slowly won a seat with the big boys of the industry.

Stealey and Meier had an odd relationship. Far too different in background, personality, and priorities to ever be real friends, they were nevertheless the perfect business partners, each possessing in spades what the other conspicuously lacked. Meier brought to the table technical wizardry and, as would only more gradually become apparent, a genius for game design that at the very least puts him in the conversation today for the title of greatest designer in the history of the field. Stealey brought business savvy, drive, practicality, and a genius for promotion. Alone, Stealey would probably have had an impressive but boring career in big business of one stripe or another, while Meier would have spent his life working comfortable jobs whilst war-gaming and hacking code as a quiet hobby. They were two of the luckiest people in the world to have found each other; neither would have had a chance of making his mark on history without the other.

It might seem a dangerously imbalanced relationship, this pairing of an Air Force jock who hit a room like a force of nature with a quiet, bookish computer freak. At his worst, Stealey could indeed sound like a Svengali putting the screws to his lucrative pet savant. Look closer, however, and you had to realize that Stealey genuinely respected Meier, was in awe of his sheer intellectual firepower:

One Christmas, I gave him a book detailing the days of the Civil War. Five days later, he gave it back to me. I asked if he did not like the book. He said he loved it, but had already memorized all the key dates and events in it, and thought I might like to read it too. Sid is brilliant!

And Meier wasn’t quite the pushover he might first appear to be. Retiring and shy as he was by disposition, he was also every bit or more as strong-willed as Stealey, sometimes to an infuriating degree. As conservative and risk-averse in his personal life as he was bold and innovative in his programming and design, Meier refused to give up his day job at General Instruments for an astonishingly long time. After pitching in $1500 to help found MicroProse, he also refused to invest any more of his own capital in the company to set up offices and turn it into a real business. That sort of thing, he said, was Stealey’s responsibility. So Stealey took out a $15,000 personal loan instead, putting up his car as partial collateral. Most frustratingly of all, Meier clung stubbornly to his Atari 800 with that passion typical of a hacker’s first programming love, even as the cheaper Commodore 64 exploded in popularity.

It was the need to get MicroProse’s games onto the latter platform that prompted Stealey to bring on his first programmers not named Sid Meier, a couple of Meier’s buddies from his old Users Group. Grant Irani specialized in porting Meier’s games to the 64, while Andy Hollis used Meier’s codebase to make another Atari shoot-em-up, this time set in the Korean War, called MIG Alley Ace. Showing a bit more flexibility than Meier, he then ported his own game to the Commodore 64. He would go on to become almost as important to MicroProse as Meier himself.

Unlike so many of his peers, Stealey steered clear of the venture capitalists with their easy money as he built MicroProse. This led to some dicey moments as 1983 turned into 1984, and consumers started growing much more reluctant to shell out $25 or $30 for one of MicroProse’s simple games. The low point came in July of 1984, when, what with the distribution streams already glutted with products that weren’t selling anymore, MicroProse’s total orders amounted to exactly $27. About that time HESWare, never shy about taking the venture capitalists’ money and still flying high because of it, offered Stealey a cool $250,000 to buy Solo Flight outright and publish it as their own. When he asked Meier his opinion, Meier, as usual, initially declined to get involved with business decisions. But then, as Stealey walked away, Meier deigned to offer some quiet words of wisdom: “You know what? I heard you shouldn’t sell the family jewels.” Stealey turned HESWare down. HESWare imploded before the year was out; MicroProse would continue to sell Solo Flight, never a real hit but a modest, steady moneyspinner, for years to come.

Still, it was obvious that MicroProse needed to up their game if they wished to continue to exist past the looming industry shakeout. While with NATO Commander and Solo Flight he had already begun to move away from the simple action games that had gotten MicroProse off the ground, it was Sid Meier’s next game, F-15 Strike Eagle, that would set the template for the company for years to come. Stealey had been begging Meier for an F-15 game for some time, but Meier had been uncertain how to approach it. Now, with Solo Flight under his belt, he felt he was ready. F-15 Strike Eagle was a quantum leap in sophistication compared to what had come before it, moving MicroProse definitively out of the realm of shoot-em-ups and into that of real military simulations. The flight model was dramatically more realistic; indeed, the F-15 Strike Eagle aeronautics “engine” would become the basis for years of MicroProse simulations to come. The airplane’s array of weapons and defensive countermeasures were simulated with a reasonable degree of fidelity to their real-life counterparts. And the player could choose to fly any of seven missions drawn from the F-15’s service history, a couple of them ripped from recent headlines to portray events that happened in the Middle East a bare few months before the game’s release. F-15 Strike Eagle turned into a hit on a scale that dwarfed anything MicroProse had done before, a consistent bestseller for years, the game that made the company, both financially and reputationally. It became one of the most successful and long-lived computer games of the 1980s, with worldwide sales touching 1 million by 1990 — a stunning number for its era.

The games that followed steadily grew yet more sophisticated. Andy Hollis made an air-traffic-control simulation called Kennedy Approach that was crazily addictive. A new designer, William F. Denman, Jr., created an aerobatics simulation called Acrojet. Meanwhile the prolific Sid Meier wrote Silent Service, a World War II submarine simulation, and also three more strategic war games, MicroProse’s so-called “Command Series,” in partnership with one Ed Bever, holder of a doctorate in history: Crusade in Europe, Decision in the Desert, and Conflict in Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, neither the strategy games nor the civilian simulations sold on anywhere near the scale of F-15 Strike Eagle. Only Silent Service rivaled and, in its first few months of release, actually outdid F-15, rocketing past 250,000 in sales within eighteen months. Meier, who “didn’t value money too highly” in the words of Stealey, who never saw much of a reason to change his lifestyle despite his increasing income, who often left his paychecks lying on top of his refrigerator forgotten until accounting called to ask why their checks weren’t getting cashed, couldn’t have cared less about the relative sales numbers of his games or anyone else’s. Stealey, though, wasn’t so sanguine, and pushed more and more to make MicroProse exclusively a purveyor of military simulations.

It’s hard to blame him. F-15 Strike EagleSilent Service, and the MicroProse military simulations that would follow were the perfect games for their historical moment, the perfect games for Tom Clancy readers; Clancy was, not coincidentally, also blowing up big at exactly the same time. Like Clancy, MicroProse was, perverse as it may sound, all about making war fun again.

Indeed, fun was a critical component of MicroProse’s games, one overlooked by far too many of their competitors. MicroProse’s most obvious rival as a maker of simulations was SubLogic, maker of the perennial civilian Flight Simulator and a military version called simply Jet that put players in the cockpit of an F-16 or F-18. SubLogic, however, emphasized realism above all else, even when the calculations required to achieve it meant that their games chugged along at all of one or two frames per second on the hapless likes of a Commodore 64, the industry’s bread-and-butter platform. MicroProse, on the other hand, recognized that they were never really going to be able to realistically simulate an F-15 or a World War II submarine on a computer with 64 K. They settled for a much different balance of playability and fun, one that gave the player a feeling of really “being there” but that was accessible to beginners and, just as importantly, ran at a decent clip and looked reasonably attractive while doing so. Stealey himself admitted that “I can’t even land Flight Simulator, and I’ve got 3000 flying hours behind me!” Fred Schmidt, MicroProse’s first marketing director, delivers another telling quote:

We’re not trying to train fighter pilots or submarine captains. What we’re trying to do is give people who will never have a chance to go inside a submarine the opportunity to get inside one and take it for a spin around the block to see what it is like. Our simulations give them that chance. They get a close-up look at simulated real life. They feel it, they experience the adventure. And at the end of the adventure, we want them to feel they got their money’s worth.

There’s an obvious kinship here with the idea of “aesthetic simulations” as described by Michael Bate, designer of Accolade hits like Ace of Aces. MicroProse, though, pushed the realism meter much further than Bate, to just before the point where the games would lose so much accessibility as to become niche products. Stealey was never interested in being niche. The peculiar genius of MicroProse, and particularly of Sid Meier, who contributed extensively even to most MicroProse games that didn’t credit him as lead designer, was to know just where that point was. This was yet another quality they shared with Tom Clancy.

That said, make no mistake: the veneer of realism, however superficial it might sometimes be, was every bit as important to MicroProse’s appeal as it was to Clancy’s. And the veneer of authenticity provided by Wild Bill Stealey, however superficial it might be — sorry, Wild Bill — was critical to achieving this impression. Stealey had started playing in earnest the role of the hotshot fighter jock by the time of F-15 Strike Eagle, the manual for which opened with an illustration of him in his flight suit and a dedication saying the game would “introduce you to the thrill of fighter-aircraft flying based on my fourteen years experience.” Under his signature is written “Fighter Pilot,” before the more apropos title of “President, MicroProse Software.” All of which probably read more impressively to those not aware that Stealey had never actually flown an F-15 or any other supersonic fighter, having spent his career flying subsonic trainers, transport aircraft, and second-string light attack planes. All, I have no doubt, are critical roles requiring a great deal of skill and bravery — but, nevertheless, the appellation of “fighter pilot” is at best a stretch.

Wild Bill Stealey

Stealey today freely admits that he was playing a character — not to say a caricature — for much of his time at MicroProse, that going to conventions and interviews wearing his flight suit, for God’s sake, wasn’t exactly an uncalculated decision. He also admits that other industry bigwigs, among them Trip Hawkins, loved to make fun of him for it. But, he says, “how do you remember a small company? It needs something special. All we had was Sid and Wild Bill.” And Sid certainly wasn’t interested in helping to sell his games.

Stealey seemed to particularly delight in doing his swaggering Right Stuff schtick for the press in Europe, where MicroProse had set up a subsidiary to sell their games already by 1986. Wild Bill in full flight was an experience that deserves a little gallery of its own. So, here are the reports of just a few mild-mannered journalists lucky or unlucky enough to be assigned to interview Stealey.

“See that,” he bawled, tapping the largest ring I’ve ever seen on my desk, waking up the technical experts in the Commodore User offices, “that’s a genuine American Air Force Fighter Pilot’s Ring. Do that in a barroom in the States and you get instant service… they know you’re a fighter pilot.”


As far as Stealey is concerned, the only real pilots are fighter pilots. “What about airline pilots?” I ask. “Bus drivers,” says Wild Bill. Alright then — what about the pilots who talk endlessly about the freedom, the solitude, and the spiritual experience of flying?

“You wanna talk spiritual? I’ll tell you what’s spiritual… flying upside down in an F-15, doing mach 1.5 high above the Rocky Mountains, with the sun behind and the Pacific Ocean ahead of you… that’s spiritual… the rest is just sightseeing.

“Whooosh,” says Wild Bill, thrusting his hand through the air to illustrate his point.


“I’m selling these games to men. If you haven’t got the right stuff, I don’t want to know. I’m not interested in the kind of guy who just wants a short thrill. If you want to spend £6 on an arcade game that you’re going to play for half an hour, I don’t want you buying my software.”


Despite MicroProse’s size, growth has been accomplished at an intentionally conservative rate. Bill Stealey attributes this to his fighter-pilot background. Wait a minute — fighter pilots as conservative? “Of course fighter pilots are conservative. We wait until we accumulate sufficient data and then we wax the bad guys.”


Bill Stealey tells you all this in his usual verbal assault mode. Being on the other end of this barrage is to feel disoriented and dazed. Gradually, your senses return. You realize that there are other software houses out there, a possibility Bill hardly admits.

As soon as finances allowed, MicroProse took the Wild Bill Show to the next level by purchasing for him an unusual sort of company plane: a Navy surplus T-28 Trojan trainer. The plane cost a small fortune to keep in service, but it was worth it to let Stealey take up queasy, knock-kneed gaming journalists — and, occasionally, the lucky MicroProse fan — and toss the T-28 through some high-performance aerobatics.

Wild Bill prepares to terroize another journalist, in this case Jim Gracely, Managing Editor of Commodore Magazine.

Wild Bill prepares to terrorize another journalist, in this case Jim Gracely, Managing Editor of Commodore Magazine.

Of course, one person’s charming fighter jock is another’s ugly American. Not all journalists, especially in Europe, were entirely taken with either Stealey’s persona or with what one Commodore User journalist pointedly described as the “militaristic and Cold War tinge of MicroProse’s products.” This undercurrent of grumbling would erupt into a real controversy in Europe upon the release of Gunship, MicroProse’s big game of 1986.

By far MicroProse’s most ambitious, expensive, extended, and problem-plagued project yet, Gunship was helmed by a new arrival, a veteran designer of board games named Arnold Hendrick, rather than Sid Meier, although Meier as well as Andy Hollis as usual contributed substantially both to the design and the technology behind it. Another helicopter game, it was originally conceived as a science-fictional “cops and robbers” scenario, playing on the odd but significant fascination the American media of the mid-1980s suddenly had with futuristic helicopters — think Blue Thunder and Airwolf. Development began on a prototype of Commodore’s new 68000-based computer, the Amiga, delivered to MicroProse early in 1985. But when the Amiga’s release was delayed, it was decided to switch to one of the platforms MicroProse knew best and the platform that consistently sold best, the Commodore 64. With the complex urban terrain planned for the original concept likely to be impossible to depict on the 64, and with Stealey increasingly eager to define MicroProse exclusively as a maker of realistic simulations, the premise of the game was overhauled as well, to become a more sober — relatively speaking — depiction of the real-world AH-64 Apache assault chopper. By the time it finally arrived on the market in late 1986, almost a year after it had first been announced, it had absorbed three times as much time and its development team had grown to four times the size originally anticipated. MicroProse had come a long way from the days of Floyd of the Jungle.

Just about everyone inside the games industry agreed that the delay had been worth it; this was MicroProse’s best game yet.  Gunship‘s most innovative feature, destined to have a major impact not only on future games from MicroProse but on future games in general, was the way it let you simulate not just an individual mission but an entire career. When you start the game, you create and name a pilot of your own, a greenhorn of a sergeant. You then take on missions of your choice in any of four regions, picking and choosing as you will among four wars that are apparently all going on at the same time: Southeast Asia, Central America, the Middle East, or Western Europe (i.e., the Big One, a full-on Soviet invasion). If you perform well, you earn medals and promotions. If you get shot down you may or may not survive, and depending on where you crash-land may end up a prisoner of war. Either death or capture marks the definitive end to your Gunship career; this invests every moment spent in the combat zones with extra tension. The persistent career gives Gunship an element lacking from MicroProse’s previous simulations: a larger objective, larger stakes, beyond the successful completion of any given mission. It invests the game with an overarching if entirely generative plot arc of sorts as well as the addictive character-building progression of a CRPG, adding so much to the experience that career modes would quickly become a staple of simulations to come.

But some bureaucrats in West Germany were not so taken with Gunship as most gamers. There the “Bundesprüfstelle für Jugendgefährdende Schriften,” a list of writings and other communications that should not be sold to minors or even displayed in shops which they could enter, unexpectedly added Gunship to their rolls, to be followed shortly thereafter by F-15 Strike Eagle and Silent Service for good measure, for the sin of “promoting militarism” and thus being “morally corruptive and coarsening for the young user.” West Germany at the time constituted only about 1 percent of MicroProse’s business, but was likely the most rapidly expanding market for computers and computer games in the world. The blacklisting meant that these three games, which together constituted the vast majority of MicroProse’s sales in West Germany or anywhere else, could be sold only in shops offering a separate, adults-only section with its own entrance. Nor could they be advertised in magazines, or anywhere else where the teenage boys who bought MicroProse’s games in such numbers were able to see them. The games were, in other words, given the legal status of pornography: not, strictly speaking, censored, but made very difficult for people, especially young people, to acquire or even to find out about. If anything, it would now be harder for even an adult to get his hands on a MicroProse game than a porn film. There was after all a shopping infrastructure set up to support porn aficionados. There were no equivalent shops for games; certainly no computer store was likely to make a new entrance just to sell a few games. Thus the decision effectively killed MicroProse in West Germany. Stealey embarked on a long, exhausting battle with the German courts to have the decisions overturned. By the time he was able to get the Silent Service ban lifted, in 1988, that game was getting old enough that the issue was becoming irrelevant. Gunship and F-15 Strike Eagle took even longer to get stricken from the blacklist.

The debate over free speech and its limits is of course a complicated one, and one on which Germany, thanks to its horrific legacy of Nazism and its determination to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again, tends to have a somewhat different perspective than the United States. The authorities’ concerns about “militarism” also reflected a marked difference in attitude on the part of continental Western Europe from that of the anglosphere of the United States and Britain, both beneficiaries (or victims, if you prefer) of recent conservative revolutions led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher respectively. Europeans found it more difficult to be so blasé about the prospect of war with the Soviet Union — a war which would almost certainly be fought on their soil, with all the civilian death, destruction, and suffering that implied. In West Germany, blithely choosing to send your fictional Gunship pilot to the Western Europe region to fight against what the manual gushingly described as the “first team” in the “big time” struck much closer to home.

MicroProse was also involved in another, more cut-and-dried sort of controversy at the time of Gunship. Long before MicroProse, there had already existed a company called “MicroPro,” maker of the very popular WordStar word processor. As soon as MicroProse grew big enough to be noticed, MicroPro had begun to call and send letters of protest. At last, in 1986, they sued for trademark infringement. MicroProse, who really didn’t have a legal leg to stand on, could only negotiate for time; the settlement stipulated that they had to choose a new name by 1988. But in the end the whole thing came to nothing when MicroPro abruptly changed their own name instead, to WordStar International, and let MicroProse off the hook.

In the big picture these were all minor hiccups. MicroProse would continue to make their accessible, entertaining, and usually bestselling military simulations for years to come after Gunship: Airborne Ranger, F-19 Stealth Fighter, F-15 Strike Eagle II, M1 Tank Platoon, just to begin the list. In 1988 they cemented once and for all their status as the game publisher for the Tom Clancy generation with the release of Red Storm Rising, the game of the book.

The ultimate meeting of techno-thriller minds: Sid Meier, Wild Bill Stealey, Tom Clancy, and Larry Bond (his consultant and collaborator on the Red Storm Rising scenario).

The ultimate meeting of the simulation-industrial complex: Sid Meier, Wild Bill Stealey, Tom Clancy, and Larry Bond (Clancy’s consultant and collaborator on the Red Storm Rising scenario, as well as author of the Harpoon naval board game).

By then, however, the restlessly creative Sid Meier was also finding ways to push beyond the military-simulation template to which Stealey would have happily held him in perpetuity. In doing so he would create some of the best, most important games in history. Sid Meier and MicroProse are thus destined to be featured players around here for quite some time to come.

(Lots and lots of sources this time around. Useful for the article as a whole: the book Gamers at Work by Morgan Ramsay, Computer Gaming World of November 1987, Commodore Magazine of September 1987. Tom Clancy and cultural background: the book Command and Control by Eric Schlosser, New York Times Magazine of May 1 1988, Computer Gaming World of July 1988. General Instruments and the Red Baron anecdote: ComputerWorld of May 16 1977, Computer Gaming World of June 1988. On MicroProse’s name and the dispute with MicroPro: Computer Gaming World of October 1987 and November 1991, A.N.A.L.O.G. of September 1987. Reviews, advertisements, and anecodtes about individual games: Antic of May 1983 and June 1984 and November 1984, Computer Gaming World of January/February 1986 and March 1987, Commodore Magazine of December 1988, C.U. Amiga of August 1990. On the “promoting militarism” controversy: Computer Gaming Forum of Fall 1987 and Winter 1987, Commodore User of June 1987, Computer Gaming World of May 1988, Aktueller Software Markt of May 1989. Examples of the Wild Bill Show: Commodore User of May 1985, Your Computer of May 1985 and November 1987, Commodore Disk User of November 1987, Popular Computing Weekly of May 1 1986, Games Machine of October 1988 and November 1988. This article’s “cover art” was taken from the MicroProse feature in the September 1987 Commodore Magazine. If you’d like to see a premiere Microprose simulation from this era in action, feel free to download the Commodore 64 version of Gunship from right here.)


Comments

Storycade

News: Interstellar Site is Now a Text Adventure

by Amanda Wallace at March 19, 2015 04:01 AM

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic Interstellar is now a text-adventure. In preparation for the digital and DVD release of the film, the site has been changed over from the traditional film site to hosting a text adventure title called Interstellar. The text-adventure, browser based by played like a traditional parser IF, was written by executive producer Jordan Goldberg. It serves as a prequel to last years most divisive genre film.

A basic knowledge of Interstellar is probably necessary, but the game follows the journey of one of the twelve Lazarus astronauts. The Lazarus astronauts were the initial astronauts sent through the wormhole to find a new planet for the future of humanity. You play as one of these astronauts, having landed on a planet in the distant reaches of the galaxy — alone but with the company of one of the films rather peculiar robots.

The game is free and currently available to play in browser at the Interstellar website.

The post News: Interstellar Site is Now a Text Adventure appeared first on .

March 18, 2015

The Gaming Philosopher

IF top 50 results

by Victor Gijsbers (noreply@blogger.com) at March 18, 2015 11:03 PM

Thanks to the 38 people who voted, we have a new "Interactive Fiction top 50". The results can be found here.

Emily Short

French Comp 2015

by Emily Short at March 18, 2015 05:00 PM

FrenchComp is a yearly competition for French-language games, usually with just a handful of entrants: the French IF community is not large. For someone with rusty French skills, playing through the games can be a bit of a challenge — I read French a lot better than I speak it, and coming up with commands can be a stretch, especially if the game wants a non-standard verb that isn’t covered in this French IF manual. This year, though, I had the good fortune of playing with ClubFloyd, where we could share verb guesses and reinforce one another’s understanding.

IF in languages other than English doesn’t get nearly as much coverage as I’d like within the English-speaking community, so I’d like to talk about the games here, but I should also say that I’m not really equipped to judge them in quite the same way I might review English IF. I can’t really judge French prose style; I suspect I struggled in a few places that were down to the quality of my linguistic skills rather than the quality of the design; and then there may be different conventions in French IF. (One of them definitely seems to be a love affair with “press any key to continue”. I think there were more “key to continue” pauses in these three games than in the whole of the English IF Comp last year.)

So consider this more of an experience report than a review per se.

It is also spoilerific, since I want to talk about the story endings of a couple of the games. If you are planning to play these works and just haven’t gotten to them yet, you should probably read no further.

This year there were three entries, all parser games: Comédie by Edgar Havre; L’Envol by Anonymous; and Sourire de bois by A One-Legged Tin Soldier.

Comédie is a puzzle-y farce set in a theater. You’ve been brought in at the last minute to help resolve the play’s problems and get it staged this very evening, and the production suffers from assorted issues, such as a drunken actor, a costume collection in severe disarray, and a set of NPCs who can’t really stand one another. NPC dialogue is a big part of the experience here; it uses Photopia-style menus, so you can’t really get too lost, and all the NPCs have entertainingly outrageous opinions of one another. The setting and off-the-wall character interactions were a lot of fun.

The pacing was a little off, at least for me. My experience of Comédie was dominated by one particular puzzle: the protagonist is asked to fetch a costume from a 10×10 area in which the spots are labeled in Roman numerals and then also disordered according to a second principle you have to work out. While this is not exactly a maze — you’re always in a labeled room, so you always know where you are — it shares one of the annoying aspects of a maze: busywork. Each time you have a hypothesis about which costume number you’re meant to fetch, you have to go wander around the grid until you find the right spot; take the relevant costume; and then carry it off to show to an NPC several rooms away. As we went through a bunch of wrong guesses before realizing which was the right costume, this meant that a disproportionate amount of our playtime was expended on this one thing.

It is of course possible that we screwed up some hints that would have been clearer to native speakers. And aside from this, the puzzles were fairly doable and entertaining.

But what really took us by surprise was the ending. We’d completed the three puzzles initially laid out for us and were working on another when suddenly we were kicked out of the theater, informed that we hadn’t passed the test we were undergoing. This seemed to come from left field, and we couldn’t quite figure out what was meant; it seemed like a losing ending, and an arbitrary one at that. It took the input of one of the French IF folk to set us straight. This was, in fact, the winning ending, or at any rate the only one available; the premise was that we weren’t really at a theater, but at an elaborate simulation of a theater, playacting the role of befuddled assistant director, and cast out when our improvisation proved too weak.

So I don’t know what to do with that. It has a certain sad everything-is-futile, life-is-a-pointless-stageplay grandeur if considered properly, but it really wasn’t at all what I was expecting from the game. Maybe there were clues earlier on in the story about what was happening, but if so, I wasn’t reading well enough to perceive them.

*

L’Envol starts out in a fairly ordinary bedroom, though there are hints — a distant klaxon, a photo of your missing sibling — that all is not well. The bedside copy of a book by Anne McCaffrey becomes a bit more explicable when a dragon shows up on your roof. You must then overcome some obstacles in order to fly away with the dragon and have some adventures.

Though this was the winner of the comp, for me it posed the most problems. During the first part of the game, we found ourselves at something of a loose end. It’s not clear what the goal is initially, and the story moves forwards in response to triggers that we weren’t always hitting.

And some of the more overt puzzles were both tricky for me and tonally surprising. In order to climb on the dragon’s back, you must first disable an alarmed(!) air-conditioning unit so that you can safely step on that and use it as a mounting block. For this puzzle, you have an assortment of tools, several of which seem like they might be useful but of which only one actually has an application. I struggled with accomplishing this and also felt like it was a bit odd, in the presence of something so mythical and inspiring as a dragon, to be fussing around with electric wires.

That said, there was some lovely descriptive writing (insofar as I’m able to judge) of the dragon-back flight, once we get there, and the environments are somewhat more richly implemented than in some of the other games.

*

Sourire de bois was my favorite of the three. The protagonist is a marionette who dreams of being able to smile, to form some expression other than the one that has been painted on.

The puzzles all reflect this constricted and miniaturized world, requiring you to interact with your own strings, with the stage props of your marionette show, and with other toys. Because of the non-standard situations, we struggled a fair amount to find the right words, and at one point I had to Google some French synonyms for a verb I was looking for. However, I appreciated the imagination that had gone into picturing the protagonist’s miniature world and inventing a series of puzzles that would properly illustrate it, and many of which turned on exploring different kinds of constraints.

I also felt that the story’s innate melancholy elevated the material a bit: though the premise sounds like Toy Story, the emotional range is a bit sadder and more contemplative.

Ultimately the protagonist doesn’t manage to learn to smile — another thwarted goal, and one that again came as a surprise when I did not realize that the game was about to be over. In this case, though, I felt that the outcome was a little more in tune with the rest of the story than it had been in Comédie (or at least I understood it better). In Comédie, the thwarting is almost entirely extrinsic: someone else makes decisions about you that you may not even understand. In Sourire de bois, the protagonist realizes that the ability to smile is not only unattainable but unnecessary, an internal development that felt more coherent and meaningful. It is also foreshadowed somewhat, in that partway through the story we learn that one of the NPCs, a rat, has spent its life in the futile pursuit of a plastic gem it believes to be real.

It is just possible that in English this would have seemed over-sentimental to me, too much like an IF version of The Velveteen Rabbit. In French, however, I found it effective.


March 17, 2015

Emily Short

Shift Escape

by Emily Short at March 17, 2015 10:00 PM

Shift_escape_square

Shift Escape is an abstract puzzle game for iOS by Toby Nelson. Toby’s also maintainer of the Inform 7 IDE for Mac OS, and (non-coincidentally) my brother-in-law. So my remarks should perhaps not be viewed as wholly impartial, but I’m enjoying it. The interface has a cheerfully hand-drawn look; the puzzles themselves are elegant if occasionally fiendish.

The aim is to move your character to eat all the dots on each level before leaving, with the restriction that your motion can only be stopped by walls, so if you head in one direction, you’ll keep sliding along willy-nilly. The geometry of some levels means it becomes possible to lock yourself out of ever reaching certain dots, but even if you don’t do that, there’s the challenge of optimizing your number of moves.

The slide-til-you-hit-something rules make the floor-plate-activated flippers a significant complication:

redblueshift

It doesn’t all take place on a square grid, either…

shift_escape_hex

And here I am losing, because every time I try to get that dot in the lower right corner I have to pass over the blue diamond and that moves the blue flipper out of the way and I overshoot and argh

shiftmany


March 16, 2015

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 145 new game entries, 12 new solutions, 14 new maps

by Gunness at March 16, 2015 09:56 AM

I haven't had much time for updating lately, and just see what happens when you're absent - the games keep flowing in. Particularly the German ones (thanks, Alex!). I noticed Brief im Dunkeln ("Letter in the Dark"), in which your dad has locked you up in the cellar just because your girlfriend has written you. If there ever was a game that offered a worthwhile challenge, this would be it.
Our German game count now stands at a very decent 489, so 500 seems within reach!

Contributors: Alex, Gunness, ahope1