Planet Interactive Fiction

September 20, 2017

IFComp News

New for 2017: Anonymous feedback

September 20, 2017 07:41 PM

Starting this year, IFComp judges will be able to leave anonymous feedback for authors. This was the single most requested new-feature suggestion resulting from the survey that we held after IFComp 2016. Our new system was co-designed by members of IFComp’s advisory committee – including Jacqueline Ashwell, whose IntroComp served as a model for providing a well-implemented player-to-author feedback system.

Every entry’s row on the ballot will now include a “Leave feedback” hyperlink. Clicking this link will take you to a new webpage, specific to each entry, where you can leave as much feedback as you’d like (well, up to eight kilobytes of it) in a simple text area. You can revisit any game’s feedback page and update the text there as often as you’d like, right up until the ballot box closes after November 15.

After we post the competition’s final results, we will provide authors a new page for viewing all the feedback their entries collected. We will not reveal the names of the people who wrote each such piece of feedback. (That said, nothing stops judges from signing their own names within the feedback they leave, if they wish to do so.)

As a guard against abuse of this new system, the IFComp code of conduct will apply to all feedback, and competition organizers will know which judges wrote what feedback. The competition reserves the right to block inappropriate feedback, or disqualify those who use the system in ways counter to the code of conduct. With these guards in place, we feel confident that the system’s anonymity will help encourage IFComp participants to write honest and constructive criticism about the works they play.

Renga in Blue

Quondam: Three Objects

by Jason Dyer at September 20, 2017 06:40 AM

I have only made small bits of progress, finding new uses for items.

Jim at the Sandwich Tribunal found instructions and recreated all the British Rail sandwiches. The sandwich depicted is marmite. A test eater (one of his children) described the taste as “fermented bouillon cube”.

Object #1: The British Rail Sandwich

I know, I thought I was done with this one too. Just as a reminder, the sandwich gave me strength, but also nausea and death, until I did:

You tear the transparent wrapper off the sandwich.

It turns out that the sandwich hasn’t yielded all its secrets, yet:

You find a note, reading: I am a captive food taster for B.R. Help me by saying the password near the restaurant and I will help you.

There’s a place where a “password” might work:

You are in a room with an obvious exit east and a sign dangling from the roof reading ‘K.TC..N’ and pointing north.

I haven’t had any luck with any words I’ve tested so far, though.

Object #2: The Mirror

Holding the mirror too long is dangerous:

You see yourself in the mirror and, not looking, fall down a hole.
You’ve passed away.

I had come up with a convoluted way of transporting the mirror via rucksack. The issue had a simpler fix:


Now the item description (when seen in a room) is

A small face down mirror lies here.

and the mirror is perfectly harmless.

Object #3: The Harp

There is a harp made from rare woods here!

A perfectly natural attempt at PLAY HARP led to

You make an awful jangle.

Which in many games is just a signal that “your character can’t play this musical instruments, cut it out”. But no:


You strum – what else – ‘The minstrel boy’.

If I play the harp now for the dragon, the dragon is “pleased”, but still eats me if I try to walk by. I’ll have to experiment some more.

September 19, 2017

Renga in Blue

Quondam: Beware of Puns

by Jason Dyer at September 19, 2017 06:41 AM

I’ve made more progress and still managed to resist the lure of the walkthrough. My main breakthrough was simply finding I could go northwest from the desert and enter a new section.

Included in that area is a place where I can retrieve the items I deposited in “Customs” (the place that had me stuck last time). I also reached what I’ll call an “accidental solve” — if you try to leave the room where you can rescue your treasures, a hermit looks at your inventory disapprovingly and slams the door, trapping you inside. Let me backtrack a little:

You are in a small town square full of churches and monuments. The Spanish Inquisition are here, debating your future.

The crows bars your way.

The throng draws back and leaves a way free.

I had the luck of being stuck at this part (again, just not finding the northwest passage from the desert) and in an attempt to try everything, did this again after the first PRAY in the same location:

A cardinal lays a cross before you.

Eeeeeeeevil. In any case, if you’re carrying the cross (and I was, by luck) the hermit doesn’t shut you away.

I was also able to store treasures permanently.

This is a sunny but cool area. There is a pool of water here, with mud banks by it, and a holiday cottage to the nowrthwest. A path leads west, and all southward directions lead to desert.

You find a plate set in the mud, reading ‘Mud bank – alluvial section. Deposits only’ The mud seeps back.

The diamond is now in your account.

Unlike the Customs area I mentioned (where you can retrieve your deposits nearby), this officially “scores” the treasure. This moment is worth a little discussion.

I’ve always thought of puns as a deeply British thing, possibly because of the British crossword. They have the rule that every clue hints at its word (or phrase) twice, except one of the hints is likely some manner of wordplay.

Puzzle jumbled in game (6)

In any case, this section makes clear we’re not in a world-environment in the typical sense; rather, we are in a world of symbols where items can mean things on multiple levels, where signifiers are detached from the things they signify, and the computer-narrator which is supposedly the “eyes and ears” of the player is out to deceive and trick. (The sandwich from last time is a good instance of this — the whole segment is one that could not reasonably happen in real life, but was instead a challenge to extract a hidden layer of meaning.)

The game at least set the player up to think in terms of “deposit”, but the “allevial deposit” of a mud bank is still an outrageous pun on the level of a particularly fiendish crossword in The Guardian.

I feel like I’m not conveying everything by just talking about it, so here’s an opportunity for you, the readers, to solve a puzzle from the game. This didn’t require resolving a “pun” exactly but I did have to re-contextualize my visualization of an object in the game. Everything you need is in the text. How do you get by the invisible barriers?

You’re within a circle of stones. There are triliths to the northwest, southwest, and southeast; a pair of monoliths flanks the northeast path.

An invisible force stops you.

An invisible force stops you.

You are on top of a pillar. Nearby is another.

You are holding:
A harp!
A rock
Half a ticket
A metal rod
Some mushrooms
A stone slab
A sapling
A rope

From The Fall of Babylon (1555) by Jean Duvet.

Emily Short

Moral Discernment as a Game Mechanic

by Emily Short at September 19, 2017 02:40 AM

Recently I’ve been trying to figure out what to do about a bad situation. I don’t see a solution that doesn’t violate some value I consider important. There are many possible things to do or refrain from doing, and I am concerned about the consequences of almost all of them. The stakes are pretty high. Outcomes affect quite a few people. It is hard to calculate the risks. People I love disagree with me about what the priorities are, and about who has a right or responsibility to do anything.

This is the kind of thing that makes moral choices hard in real life, in my experience. It’s not “kill puppy or save puppy.” Nor a Fate-style escalation, “poke puppy / kick puppy / make puppy ill / kill puppy” — though I realize that was partly philosophical thought experiment.

It’s not “there’s a very very painful, possibly heart-breaking, thing that you morally have to do.” I’ve been there, too, but while that situation might be miserable, it’s at least clear. There’s no A vs B. There is only option A, and what you have to do to get through A, and what you can salvage when A is over. Not a choice mechanic but a challenge mechanic.

It’s not “I have so many feelings about this that I don’t trust my own motives.” I do have feelings. I’ve also had quite a bit of processing time.

It’s not “I habitually do not behave as well as I want to behave, and I need to do the slow work to improve those habits: keep my temper, drop an addiction, work out more often, stop saying yes to projects I don’t have time for.”

This is something else. It’s a decision, but it’s a slow, complicated, multipart decision in which the possibilities all seem at least somewhat sickening, and not all the possible solutions are visible at the outset.

And I keep thinking: have I ever played a moral choice that felt like this? What would that even look like?

Recently, also, there has been a lot of talk about the infamous Google gender memo. Heaven knows the internet doesn’t need another take on that, and frequent readers of my blog can probably guess what I think about its contents.

But because all of this has been circulating, I read Yonatan Zunger’s response post and this line chimed with me:

Engineering is not the art of building devices; it’s the art of fixing problems.

And I thought: yes, because of how my brain is furnished, I’ve been trying to approach this moral problem as an engineer. I’ve been thinking about what needs to be fixed, and what the highest-priority fixes are, and what the consequences are if those fixes don’t happen, and how one might tactically approach each of them, and what open questions are left to be resolved. But I also know that even my best work on this is probably going to end with something unhappy.

I’ve been thinking about the principle of double effect, and about Catholic doctrines about how to approach the undesirable side effects of a moral action. I am not a Catholic, but alongside other things I don’t believe or don’t agree with, the Catholic tradition contains centuries of research into moral philosophy.

floatpoint.jpegThere’s one game I’ve written that tries to explode a single moral choice into a large space — though it’s generally considered one of my weaker serious pieces. Floatpoint is about the question of whether to rescue an advanced group of genetically altered and self-altering people by bringing them back to Earth, and if so, under what conditions. The colonists have been away from Earth for centuries, and are now so different from Earth-based humanity in both mores and physical form that their presence is likely to be disruptive and possibly dangerous. However, if left on their home planet, they will probably not survive. And they have some things of value to offer to humans as well.

One of my major goals with this was to allow the player to articulate a complex choice where they had to think about the components of the decision. So you’re constrained to a symbolic language when making a treaty at the end of the game, where physical objects can communicate concepts about whether you will or will not accept the colonists back on Earth but also what limits you’ll put on them when they get there. In addition, the design of the game tries to make sure that in order to get the physical objects needed to communicate any particular decision, you’ll have to encounter some more information about the nuances of that choice.

It’s… well, it’s trying to do morality and communication through the medium of a parser IF world model and medium-sized dry goods. It’s not terribly realistic, and arguably it doesn’t give nearly enough build-up to make the player feel the implications of those choices. I also didn’t really think about it in terms of making a mechanic out of the discernment process itself.

So what would a mechanic look like if it were trying to capture prioritization of principles, the study of stakes, the consideration of risks?


Sift. You start with dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of action choices. Before you pick, you select rules for yourself and watch the list of possibilities narrow, as though you were filtering AirBnb. “Only actions that won’t cause trouble for my friends.” “Only actions that will definitely remove my enemies.”

This feels distant and cerebral, though. You could make some point about how certain goals are mutually incompatible, but exploring the database to find that out feels like not much of a story.

Elaborate. You start with a single choice lurking at the bottom of the screen, a single idea about what to do next. It has a display suggesting probabilities and outcomes for that choice, but the display starts out pretty vague.

But you don’t have to click it immediately. You also have ways to interrogate or vary that choice. Use the MITIGATE RISK tool on your choice and it’ll spawn a second choice, safer but maybe less powerful. Use the RESEARCH tool and it’ll give you more precise information on your success odds, or suggest horrible new outcomes.

It’s easier (for me) to imagine how fiction could be attached to these actions, and how the result could feel something like a story, than with the first mechanic. What I don’t like so much about this one is that it is so purely focused on practicalities rather than principles; it seems to suggest that a perfect solution is available and that the process of arriving there is technocratic.


September 18, 2017

Far Far Futures

Concepts in Cybertext 2: Momentum

by Joey Jones at September 18, 2017 09:41 PM

Every time a player moves onto a new screen in a cybertext and they are faced with a choice, the …

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Concepts in Cybertext 1: Cybertext

by Joey Jones at September 18, 2017 09:41 PM

I’ll be writing a short series of mini-articles about some concepts we can use when thinking about cybertexts. I’ll start …

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September 17, 2017

Zarf Updates

Meanwhile: now in development for Mac and Windows

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at September 17, 2017 06:22 PM

I wrote that long post about SkiaSharp in Unity, but I never answered the question: what kind of Unity project am I working on, which requires vector outlines and polygons?
Here's your hint:
Almost six years ago, I released Meanwhile: an Interactive Comic for iPhone and iPad. I've since ported it to Apple TV, but folks without Apple hardware have been forced to live without it. (Or to buy the hardback graphic novel, which I admit is a fine alternative.)
But relief is in sight! I have started building a Unity port of Meanwhile, and am working towards a Steam release for Mac and Windows.
For those who aren't familiar with Jason Shiga's nonlinear tale of mad science:
On the way home from the ice cream store, little Jimmy discovers a mad scientist’s wonderland: an experimental mind-reading helmet, a time machine, and a doomsday device that can annihilate the human race. Which one would you like to test out first?
Meanwhile is not an ordinary comic. You make the choices that determine how the story unfolds. Meanwhile splits off into thousands of different adventures. Most will end in doom and disaster. Only one path will lead you to happiness and success.
Why now? Why, I have a secret spreadsheet that correlates thousands of factors about the indie game market, and it predicts that the perfect time...
...No, I'm being silly. In fact it's just one of those collisions of happenstance. A couple of months ago, I picked up a contract gig which required me to learn Unity in a hurry. I read the manual, tried some sample code, and realized that a Meanwhile port was viable -- if I could find some kind of vector library that worked with Unity. You know that part of the story already.
Once I convinced myself that the technical problems were solvable, I contacted Jason and we agreed to move forward with the port.
Now: it's still in an early stage. The contract job I mention takes up most of my time, so Meanwhile has to be a side project. I've made a fair amount of progress, but there's still quite a lot of work to do.
You might think Meanwhile is a simple app, given that the artwork and the map already exist. It looks simple. But the original touchscreen interface took a lot of iterating and adjusting; the exact right scrolling logic wasn't easy to pin down. And then I had to break it down and redesign it for the Apple TV controller.
For the Mac/Win version, I want to support both mouse and game controller -- and let you switch between them freely, as most games do. Unity's input model almost does what I need... so there's a bunch of work right there.
Plus, of course, there's menus and buttons and all that bumf which have to be made right.
So this leaves a lot of questions which I don't yet have answers for.
  • When will Meanwhile be out on Steam? I don't know! I think I can finish the port in a couple of months... but that drops us into the middle of the Thanksgiving sale rush. Which is followed by the Christmas sale rush. Common wisdom says that you shouldn't try to release an indie game in November or December. So maybe mid-January?
  • How much will Meanwhile cost? Ooh, good question. The iOS version is $5. But PC versions on Steam always cost more, right? But this is a fairly old game, and it might strike Steam users as less interactive than they expect... But it isn't aimed at typical Steam users anyway... Oh, well, I'll pick a number.
  • Will it support Linux? As I noted in the Skia post, the SkiaSharp developers don't ship a native Linux library. "...But you can build your own!" Yeah, I'll try it. I don't really have any experience building Linux binaries for other people, so it's anybody's guess whether I'll produce anything usable.
  • What's this contract gig you mentioned? Not for this post to say! Watch this blog.
  • What about your other game projects? I'm afraid that The Flashpaper War is firmly on the back burner. I built several prototypes but they didn't work up the momentum to turn into a live project.
I spent some of this year playing with a prototype for an unrelated puzzle game. (Currently code-named "that thing with the hexagons", no, I don't have a better title.) I am optimistic about the hexagons, but Meanwhile has pushed it down the stack. Mostly, to be sure, because I want to build the hexagons in Unity too! Meanwhile is my Unity quick learning project.
  • What about Jason Shiga's next project? Jason's been talking about a new interactive comic he calls "The Box". (He put up a video preview this summer!) I don't know any more about it than you do, but I'm very excited. And yes, once The Box is finished, I will definitely be talking to him about an electronic version... although I can already see that would be an enormous challenge! Jason is designing for the physicality of bookbound paper. But I look forward to thinking about it.

September 15, 2017

The Digital Antiquarian

Games on the Mersey, Part 2: Last Days in the Bunker

by Jimmy Maher at September 15, 2017 03:41 PM

The first sign that something might be seriously wrong at Imagine Software greeted game buyers in March of 1984, when the company unexpectedly started slashing prices. They announced that their games would go from the current £5.50 to just £3.95, cheaper than all but the cheapest budget titles currently on store shelves. In doing so, they ignited more than a little consternation in their industry.

Like most industries, that of computer games operated within a framework of tacit agreements about how business should be conducted, and some of the most sacred of these had to do with pricing. Games were arrayed in tiers, with standard full-price titles of the sort sold by Imagine expected to be priced at over £5. From the industry’s standpoint, the danger of going lower was bound up in the stark business reality that prices are always easier to cut than they are to raise again. If one publisher chose to cut their prices below the £5 threshold, they could then force the rest of them to do likewise in order to compete, igniting a dangerous price war that would almost certainly end with the new average prices for games considerably lower than they had been before. And the end result of that situation, most believed, would be lower profits for everyone. Imagine, with their penchant for combining mediocre games with extravagant claims of success, had never been terribly well-liked among their peers. This latest move, it seems safe to say, did nothing to improve their popularity.

But the move made them most unpopular of all with the shopkeepers who sold their games, the very people Bruce Everiss had worked so assiduously and successfully to cultivate the previous year. The Imagine games already on their shelves had been purchased at a wholesale price which assumed they would sell at retail for £5.50, yet the shops would now be expected to price them at just £3.95 — a money-losing proposition. Imagine had done nothing to address this situation; certainly there had been no talk of compensating the shopkeepers. They were, it seemed, expected to eat their losses with a smile and say thank you.

Of course, the deeper question about the price cuts wasn’t the what or even the how of the thing but the why of it. When asked why Imagine was making this move now, Bruce Everiss trotted out a couple of different answers. One was that the games Imagine would be releasing later in the year would be so spectacular that they would render everything that had come before them obsolete; thus the price cuts were a way of clearing out the old to make way for the new. But Everiss also alluded to software piracy, the industry’s ever-present bugaboo, expressing a hope that a lower price would make customers more likely to buy Imagine’s games than to copy them from their mates. This response struck many as the more honest answer, and pointed clearly to a company whose sales weren’t quite as healthy as they claimed them to be.

Indeed, Imagine was focusing more and more on the real or theoretical effects of piracy, throwing around heaps of eye-opening but unsubstantiated figures on the subject, such as the claim that only one out of eight people who played the average Imagine game had actually bought it. To this day, Everiss blames a sudden onslaught of piracy for a collapse in sales, but, given that Imagine’s peers experienced nothing like the same collapse, it stands to reason that there was at the very least a lot more to the story than that age-old software-industry bogeyman. The fact was that whatever cachet the Imagine name still held among ordinary gamers was fast draining away in the face of so many underwhelming releases. When a magazine ran a poll to determine the top-ten worst games for the Sinclair Spectrum, three of Imagine’s made the list. This was one chart Imagine would have preferred not to top.

The questions surrounding Imagine only multiplied when, just two weeks after cutting their prices, they suddenly raised them back to the original £5.50. Pressed again for a reason, Everiss claimed they had listened to the discontent of their peers. “We knew that dropping the price would increase sales, but what we hadn’t bargained for was the industry reaction, which was universally unfavorable, from both the distributors and other software houses,” he said. “The feeling was that if we did do it, it would upset the marketplace to such a degree that it would put many smaller software houses out of business.” Such concern about the fates of other software houses had never been a notable aspect of the Imagine character before, and rang more than a little false now. Far from protecting their competition, Imagine looked more and more like a company searching for a way to save themselves. When the rest of the industry looked at Imagine now, they saw a company with shrinking sales who had tried to remedy the situation by slashing their prices, found it only made their bottom line worse, and hastily reversed course. Once so eminently self-assured, Imagine now seemed to lack the courage of their own convictions as they flailed about in search of the magic bullet that would fix their problems overnight. Some began to make jokes about what they called Imagine’s “nervous pitching,” invoking the name of one of their games: Schizoids.

Had they known the full story behind the pricing schizophrenia, Imagine’s competitors would have been able to enjoy their full measure of vindication along with a heaping dose of schadenfreude. Going into the 1983 Christmas season, which Bruce Everiss had ebulliently declared was going to be huge beyond belief, they’d hatched a plan to squeeze out other publishers by buying up literally the entire production capacity of one of the industry’s biggest cassette duplicators. After all, whatever games they manufactured but didn’t sell that Christmas they’d easily be able to move in 1984; Everiss claimed that year was bound to be twice the year for games that 1983 had been.

It all backfired horribly. Imagine sold far fewer games than they had expected to that Christmas, and then their sales dwindled to the merest trickle in the new year, leaving them with hundreds of thousands of aging games that had never been all that great in the first place piled up in warehouses. When thieves broke into one of the warehouses and left with an alleged £200,000 worth of Imagine cassettes, it came almost as a relief; at least they wouldn’t have to pay the storage bills for them anymore.

The full story of the backfired tape-duplication plot — about as clear-cut a case of karma being a bitch as you’ll find in the history of the games industry — wouldn’t surface for many months. But, try as Imagine might to hide them, other cracks in the facade were continuing to appear in the here and now. Late in 1983, they had signed a high-profile deal worth a purported £11 million with Marshall Cavendish, a major publishing consortium, to provide cassettes full of games and programming tutorials to accompany Input, a slick weekly computer magazine which their new partner was planning to launch in 1984. Imagine had purportedly hired many staffers just to work on the Input project. Yet in that same confounding March of 1984 the deal unexpectedly went away. Once again, Everiss spun like crazy:

The original concept was that these would be average, run-of-the-mill games. As we started developing the games, we put them out to be play-tested, which involves comparing them against the reviewer’s favorite game. So the games were enhanced and so on, so that in the end they became so good that it wasn’t worth our while putting them out through Marshall Cavendish.

Everiss’s claim that Imagine’s games were just too good for the magazine was belied by the rumor that it was Marshall Cavendish who had nixed the deal, after Imagine persisted in missing deadlines and delivering substandard work.

Other unsavory stories swirled around Imagine and the Guild of Software Houses, an industry advocacy organization similar to the Software Publishers Association in the United States. GOSH, it seemed, had inexplicably rejected Imagine’s bid for membership. Everiss claimed it was because Imagine was “too big” for what he described as a “small, mutual-back-slapping organization really.” Still, size hadn’t prevented the likes of Thorn EMI from being accepted by the Guild. Did GOSH know something about Imagine that most people didn’t?

Commercial artist Stephen Blower, one of the many whose dealings with Imagine left him feeling bitter and betrayed, at work on one his trademark pieces of slick, airbrushed-looking art.

Still other past events were cast in a different light by these developments. Just after Christmas, Stephen Blower’s Studio Sing, the advertising agency formed to manage Imagine’s public relations, had suddenly gone bankrupt, leaving behind some £90,000 worth of Christmas advertising bills that were still unpaid to them by Imagine and that thus also now went unpaid to the magazines which had run the spots. A healthy and ethical Imagine, it seemed to the magazines who were being stiffed, might have made the payments directly to them. But they did no such thing.

Word on the street in Liverpool had it that Imagine’s managers had contrived to starve Studio Sing in an attempt to force Blower to relinquish his 10-percent stake in their company, only to find that Blower preferred to let his agency die rather than give in to the bullying. It all sounded plausible enough — but maybe the real reason Studio Sing had been starved, murmured a few, was far simpler: maybe Imagine just hadn’t had the £90,000 to pay out in the first place, and had engineered the agency’s failure as a way to dodge their debts. Whatever the reasons behind what transpired, an embittered Blower was left holding the bag:

Imagine tried to accuse me of certain things that I didn’t do. For instance, they said I was detrimental to the company’s image and that I was booking advertising that wasn’t wanted. I was accused of stealing, or misappropriating, £10,000, and my wife was accused of being incapable of keeping the books at Studio Sing.

They were obviously after my 10 [percent]. Imagine owed Studio Sing £89,000, so the way I see it is they attempted to brush that debt under the carpet. The allegations were just an attempt to condone their actions. I was probably the only one at Imagine who stuck to what he was best at doing.

With the stubborn Blower refusing to exit the scene, Imagine now had a shareholder at open war with his colleagues — although Blower, owning just 10 percent of the company, couldn’t do much to affect its direction. He would soon have cause to wish he had given up his stake when asked and gotten out of Dodge while the getting was good.

Behind their public image of cheeky Scousers who had made it big, Imagine was developing a reputation as a very nasty place, replete with fractious infighting and rampant paranoia. When Alan Maton, a Bug-Byte veteran who worked briefly for Imagine as well, left to start a software developer of his own, Dave Lawson allegedly subjected him to such a campaign of invective and harassment that he was forced to seek the protection of a restraining order. After Colin Stokes, a sales manager for Imagine, left to join Maton’s new company, he claimed that Lawson and Mark Butler had bugged his phone upon classing him as an “unreliable,” then thrown into his shocked face verbatim transcripts of his betrayal in place of a conventional exit interview; he was forced to run for the door amidst a hail of insults and legal threats. Incredibly, the one and only issue of Imagine’s fan newsletter — another initiative that was launched with great hoopla and then abandoned as too much trouble to be worth continuing — published samples from the telephone transcripts, claiming that there were 60 more pages of same where these had come from, a petty and potentially actionable public airing of dirty laundry.

Legal threats were becoming something of a way of life for Imagine. When Your Computer magazine — who, perhaps not incidentally, had been among those hounding Imagine for unpaid advertising bills — printed a listing for a game that Bruce Everiss judged to be too similar to one of Imagine’s, the latter whispered darkly that he had his solicitors “looking into the matter.”

Bruce Everiss and Dave Lawson. Do I sense a certain tension in the room?

Rumors spread that the company as a whole had been split into two camps, with Everiss and Butler leading one faction and Lawson and the recently hired Ian Hetherington, Imagine’s financial director and emerging fourth principal power, leading the other; this split accounted for much of the mixed messaging on things like a pricing strategy. When a journalist from Crash magazine spent a day at Imagine for a profile piece, Lawson and Hetherington never showed up for work at all and Butler only popped in for a few minutes, leaving their would-be interviewer to spend most of the day in the company of Everiss. When the final piece appeared, filled for understandable reasons mostly with Bruce Everiss quotes, the journalist got an irate phone call from a jealous Mark Butler, asking why his article had made it sound like Everiss ran the whole company.

Through it all, Imagine’s hype machine was still cranked up and spewing. Hype was, after all, the one thing Imagine had always done best. Almost drowning out all of the other mixed signals in the press was a new campaign for what Imagine liked to call “megagames.” These were nothing less than the amazing new things that Imagine had, according to one of Everiss’s accounts anyway, slashed prices to make room for. They now took center stage in Imagine’s advertising, a publicity blitz for as-yet nonexistent games the like of which the industry had never seen. The magazines, not wanting to be left out in the cold if the megagames did indeed blow up huge, accepted these latest advertisements even after having been stiffed the last time around.

Imagine started running advertisements like this for their upcoming “megagames” very early in 1984. Featured from left to right are programmers Ian Weatherburn, Mike Glover, John Gibson, and Eugene Evans.

It was very hard to determine from the advertisements, or even from talking to Imagine directly, exactly what a megagame would be. Everiss claimed they would be packaged far more elaborately than was the norm in Britain at the time, more in keeping with the games companies like Infocom and Origin were selling in the United States. (He was keenly aware of the state of games across the Atlantic, having been a regular visitor to American trade shows since the late 1970s.) Yet improved packaging was by no means the sum total of the megagame proposition. More intriguing was the prospect of some sort of machine-enhancing hardware add-on that would be included in the box. “We’ve gone as far as we can on these machines given their hardware capabilities, and we have come up with a way of increasing the power of the machine,” said Everiss. “It is not done through software.” Imagine’s games were hardly noted for pushing the capabilities of existing machines all that hard; games coming from competing houses regularly gave the lie to Imagine’s claim of having gone “as far as we can” with current hardware. Nevertheless, this hybrid software/hardware approach was certainly intriguing.

And yet the question remained: what would the megagames be like to actually play? Imagine was frustratingly vague, leaving one with the impression that they were either incredibly cagey or that they themselves didn’t quite know what they were making. All they ever clearly said was that the megagames would be great. Bruce Everiss:

The thing about it is that the game is so big and complex and involved — and it contains several new areas, things that have never been done before. We aren’t going to release it until it’s perfect. The only analogy we can use without giving the game away is that it’s going to make anything that’s gone before look like Noughts and Crosses.

No one’s even seen them yet! They’re so secret that most people at Imagine know nothing about them. Even the people who are working on the project only know sufficient to do their own piece of the work. We give them information on a “need to know” basis. What we’re worried about is somebody else finding out what we’re doing and emulating it.

You don’t have a score, you don’t have levels, you’ve gone completely beyond all that. You wait and see. You’ll be phoning me up when you get them, saying “Brucie was right!”

The price Imagine planned to charge for all this awesomeness just kept going up. Starting at £15, it rose to £20, then to £30, then to £40 — almost eight times the price of the typical new game. “It’s got to be something extraordinary to sell for that price,” said one skeptical distributor. “We’ll just have to wait and see.” “Imagine are claiming these programs are completely innovative,” said another. “If that’s the case, it’s marvelous and good for the industry.” The problem, of course, was that very big “if” which began his thought. Once you cut through all the hype, Imagine’s track record at making innovative games wasn’t very good. Undaunted, they said that the first megagame, to be called Bandersnatch, would be out that summer, and that the next, Psyclapse, would ship well before Christmas.

Many years later, Bruce Everiss would admit to much of the real thinking behind Imagine’s drive to include hardware with their games: “The megagames were an attempt to make our games copy-proof by incorporating a ‘dongle’ that plugged into the back of every customer’s computer.” Only afterward did Imagine’s programmers hatch a scheme to build 64 K of ROM memory into the dongles to supplement the 48 K of RAM in the Sinclair Spectrum, allowing them, theoretically at least, to make games that were much bigger than the norm. Unfortunately, the company, not being home to any hardware engineers, was very ill-equipped to see such a scheme through.

Then, in the midst of all this swirling chaos, the BBC arrived on the scene.

Commercial Breaks director Paul Anderson had first taken note of the emerging computer-game industry very early in 1984, judging it to be a natural subject for an episode of a television series about British entrepreneurs and emerging markets. Flipping through the computer magazines, he saw that one company had the slickest, most elaborate, and most extensive advertising campaign of any of them: Imagine Software. It didn’t take long to connect Imagine with the minor media celebrity Eugene Evans, whose story Anderson, like just about everyone else who had picked up a newspaper during the previous year, had already read. Choosing Imagine as one of his two case studies — the other would be Manchester’s Ocean Software — he made the trip to Liverpool to discuss the idea in person with Butler, Lawson, Everiss, and Hetherington. He didn’t anticipate a lot of problems getting them to agree. Anyone who knew anything about Imagine knew that they loved publicity, and the publicity possibilities for a British computer-game publisher in 1984 didn’t come much bigger than a starring role in a BBC television program. Much to Anderson’s surprise, though, the foursome proved initially reluctant to commit themselves. They had, as we’ve already seen, plenty of reasons not to want to allow any outsider unfettered access to all that was going on internally. It was Dave Lawson who finally turned the tide in Anderson’s favor. Whatever concerns his colleagues might have, he couldn’t resist the lure of having Imagine strut their stuff as Liverpool’s next Beatles on such a grand stage as this. This opportunity, he said, was just too huge to turn away.

The Imagine racing team

When he showed up with his film crew some weeks later, Anderson’s director’s eye was first struck by what a great shooting location Imagine’s spacious accommodations were. The bustling warren of offices and cubicles smacked more of a well-heeled stockbroker than a small 18-month-old technology company. The BBC crew took the requisite time to gawk at and to shoot video of the Ferraris and BMWs that filled the parking garage alongside the star of the vehicular show, Mark Butler’s hand-built Harris racing motorcycle. Butler, Anderson learned, had formed a motorcycle-racing team along with some other like-minded Imagine people. The film crew dutifully followed them out to the Isle of Man for the TT Race, where Butler promptly crashed his bike attempting a reckless maneuver and was carried off to the hospital.

In the beginning, Anderson had no reason nor any desire to be skeptical of the success his subjects claimed to be enjoying. Not being all that plugged-in to the home-computer scene, he knew nothing of the rumors about Imagine. And anyway, the whole point of the program he worked for was to tell positive stories of modern British entrepreneurship, not to scandal monger. Yet it didn’t take him long to pick up the feeling that, despite all the outward trappings of a booming company that surrounded him, something here didn’t quite add up.

His suspicions were first aroused by Eugene Evans, Imagine’s alleged wunderkind programmer. In an episode whose associations must have thrilled the Beatles-obsessed Dave Lawson — and that, indeed, may have been planted in the press by him or Everiss — Evans had been in the news recently for supposedly leaving the Imagine band to make a go of it as a solo artist, only to be lured back into the fold by the entreaties of his mates; shades of George Harrison walking out on the Beatles for a few days back in 1969. Asked whether the rumors about his brief departure were true, Evans, still playing his role superbly, had said in his best cheeky Beatle fashion, “I may have done. There again, I may just have gone on holiday.”

Anderson was naturally eager to spend time with Evans, whereupon he immediately noted the discrepancy between the teenager’s hype and his reality. His treatment around the office hardly fit the profile of Imagine’s star coder; in reality, he didn’t seem to be regarded by the other programmers as all that important at all. And, the leased Lotus in his driveway notwithstanding, he didn’t seem to live like a young man who was earning thousands of pounds every month.

Imagine’s official line had it that Psyclapse, the second of the megagames, was essentially Evans’s project. Perhaps Anderson shouldn’t have been surprised, then, that not much of anything seemed to be happening on that front. John Gibson, Imagine’s other star programmer, did seem to be working hard on Bandersnatch, but few others seemed to share his dedication. In fact, very few of the technical and support staff seemed to be working all that hard on anything at all. Management, meanwhile, was most focused, predictably enough, on all the PR trappings that would surround the megagames. Sitting in on meetings, Anderson learned of a scheme to have Imagine and their megagames commemorated forever via two marble slabs that would be laid in London’s Hyde Park; one couldn’t help but wonder what opinion the authorities who ran the park, whom Imagine had apparently not yet gotten around to contacting, might have thought of the plan to immortalize Imagine Software alongside the likes of the Duke of Wellington. Anderson heard far more discussion about what the megagame boxes should look like than he did about the actual games the boxes were to contain. Imagine had managed to contract with Roger Dean, an artist quite famous in certain circles for the surrealistic album covers he painted for Yes and other progressive-rock bands, to do the box art for the megagames. They were thrilled to have him, as they were thrilled with any public connection they could foster between their company and rock music. Still, there was considerable grumbling that Dean had demanded his £6000 fee be paid up-front. Anderson, by now thoroughly suspicious of his bright young sparks, remembers thinking that Dean was a very wise chap.

Imagine, Anderson was gradually coming to realize, was living on a diet of denial and wishful thinking. Already on April 16, 1984, before the BBC had even started filming, Cornhill Publications had submitted a petition at court to have Imagine forced into bankruptcy if they continued to leave unpaid a massive advertising bill. That June, just a few days before the BBC followed Butler out to the Isle of Man to watch him living his fantasy of the daredevil playboy, Imagine had been in court to argue against the petition, with scant evidence to hand to support their claim that this was just a bump in the road and they would soon be a viable business again — if, indeed, they had ever been a viable business in the first place. Shortly thereafter, Butler, Lawson, and Hetherington all disappeared entirely. The first of these had an excuse, being in recuperation after his motorcycle crash; rumors swirled that the latter two had actually fled the country to dodge the fallout from Imagine’s imminent demise. Only Everiss was left, still coming into the office every day out of some sense of duty.

By this point, those who remained were spending their working days watching videos, playing games, and generally goofing off, apparently determined to enjoy their brief taste of the good life as much as they could before the inevitable. Anderson would later compare these last days of life at Imagine to the desperate decadence of the final days inside Hitler’s bunker as the Soviet tanks closed in on Berlin. When he was asked why no one ever seemed to be available to talk to the BBC cameras anymore, Everiss answered thus:

Well, there was a whole pile of people just playing games there, and they’re hiding from the camera. If you go round the corner here, by the exit, you’ll find there’s a big pile of fire extinguishers because there’s been fire-extinguisher fights all week. That’s been the main event.

The only outsiders still knocking at the door all seemed to be trying to get someone to pay them the money they were owed. Anderson’s film crew captured a man from the cassette-duplication plant whose capacity Imagine had bought up the previous Christmas wandering forlornly about the premises, trying to get someone — anyone — to at least talk to him about the £60,000 his company was still owed. Trying to put a stop to the stream of dark-suited, grim-faced men who lined up to knock at their door each day, Imagine sent out a letter to all their creditors claiming they expected a windfall of £250,000 from some unspecified source within three weeks. The creditors, naturally, didn’t believe them, and the grim-faced men just kept coming, asking fruitlessly for face time with someone — with anyone.

The creditors had still more cause for alarm when it was announced that Beau Jolly, a publisher of discount game compilations, had bought the entire extant Imagine games catalog. This may have been the windfall Imagine had vaguely referred to in their letter to their creditors, although it seems doubtful that Beau Jolly paid them anywhere near £250,000 for their collection of aging, unimpressive games. The transaction prompted alarm rather than hope in the hearts of Imagine’s creditors because the games were assets that in the event of what now seemed the certainty of an Imagine bankruptcy could be sold off to reimburse said creditors. It all rather smacked of a management team trying to get what they could out of the company for themselves while they still had the chance, especially as no offers came forth to pay any of their bills in the aftermath of the sale. In what had long since become a typical scenario for anyone who got into bed with Imagine for any reason whatsoever, even the catalog’s purchaser was soon left feeling disappointed and betrayed. Colin Ashby, Beau Jolly’s managing director:

To be honest, I’m not very happy with the deal. We’re still waiting for the master tape of PC Bill, and I’m not convinced we’ve got everything we agreed to. We weren’t paying over money just for old stock. The idea was to invest in the new games as well, but I think something’s gone wrong. I’ve been trying to get Lawson, Butler, or Hetherington for weeks because we thought we were doing the new games as well in this deal. But I can’t get hold of them.

It really did seem like everyone who was ever foolish enough to make a deal with Imagine wound up in a plaintive state like this one. When someone mentioned to Ashby that the shareholders’ real motivation for selling off the catalog may have been to get money out of the company while they had the chance, it all suddenly made more sense to him: “What a revelation! I hadn’t thought of that.”

Despite his prominence, Bruce Everiss owned no stock in Imagine, and thus was somewhat insulated from the slow-motion car crash happening around him. With his colleagues having abandoned him to the creditors and the BBC, he was increasingly willing to dish the dirt, even as he endeavored to distance himself from what was now looking more like a full-on financial scandal than just another failed company. He made the incredible claim that Imagine had never paid any tax whatsoever on their earnings — indeed, had never even filed a tax return. That was supposed to be the department of financial director Ian Hethrington, but the latter had always been — perhaps, it now seemed, for good reason — the most inaccessible of all the principals to Anderson. And now, like Butler and Lawson, Hetherington had simply disappeared. Everiss declared all three of them “cowards.” “It makes me sick,” he said, “to think that the people who have worked so hard to make the wealth of Imagine have been left high and dry while the directors of the company have stripped it bare and got away scot-free. They did everything to line their own pockets.”

Everiss was plainly protesting a bit too much, given that he too hadn’t hesitated to drive a Ferrari on Imagine’s dime, and given that the “wealth” of Imagine had never really existed in the first place. The story of Imagine Software wasn’t that of a company that was hugely successful and then collapsed so much as it was that of a company that had been built on smoke and mirrors — verging on outright fraud if not crossing that line — from the very beginning. Still, at least Everiss was here, facing the music after a fashion — not to mention those ever-present fish-eye lenses of the BBC. Or he was for a while anyway: on June 29, he quit. With him left the last semblance of Imagine Software as a functioning company. Those who remained behind did so only because it was more fun to hang out here than it was at home.

On July 9, 1984, Imagine was forcibly dissolved by order of the court; the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was a relatively modest advertising bill for £10,000 to VNU Business Publications, publisher of a short-lived magazine called Personal Computer Games. The long list of other unpaid creditors included Kilsdale, the Gloucestershire cassette duplicator whose capacity Imagine had bought up the previous Christmas; Marshall Cavendish, who were still waiting to be paid back some £250,000 they had given Imagine at the beginning of the cancelled magazine deal; the Liverpool City Council; Henry Matthews and Son, a printer; United Arab Shipping, who owned Imagine’s posh downtown office space; Scalchards, the wine merchant who had catered Imagine’s lavish private parties; G.D. Studios, the agency that had created Imagine’s advertising after Studio Sing had died or been killed; and most of the Spectrum magazines, all clamoring for payment for said advertising. Some of these last, most notably the widely beloved Crash magazine, would later claim that the money they didn’t receive from Imagine very nearly forced them to go under as well. In all, Imagine owed more than £500,000 to the aforementioned entities. When unpaid bank loans, back taxes, and other outstanding government obligations were eventually added to the total, it would reach more than £1 million. Those of you needing help putting these figures in perspective might wish to consider that a typical Liverpool dockworker at the time might earn a salary of about £4000 per year.

Mark Butler, right, with another of Imagine’s racers on the Isle of Man. This picture was taken just before he smashed up his bike and wound up in the hospital, giving him an excuse to avoid being present for much of the final phase of Imagine Software.

Still swaddled in bandages from his motorcycle escapade of a month earlier, Mark Butler chose the day of the bankruptcy order to return to Imagine’s offices. That same day, when the remaining handful of employees and the BBC film crew had all nipped off to the pub for lunch, the bailiffs showed up. When the Imagine people tried to reenter the premises, they found the door locked to them, and Anderson hastily signaled his crew to start rolling video. The offices and everything inside them, they were all informed by the bailiffs, were being forcibly repossessed right now for the benefit of Imagine’s many creditors; Anderson had considerable trouble convincing the bailiffs to let him come inside and extricate the rest of his film crew’s equipment from the jumble. The bailiffs also took that most conspicuous of all signs of Imagine’s alleged success: all of their fancy cars. According to Anderson’s recollection, Butler seemed more stunned and dismayed by the loss of his BMW than by anything else that was transpiring. He stood in a daze in the midst of of it all, seeming for all the world like he genuinely had no idea how the situation had reached such an impasse.

Which isn’t to say that the rest of the Imagine crew reacted all that much more cogently. If the enduring image of the company’s brief heyday would always be that parking garage full of exotic cars, that of the collapse would be a few dozen confused young men milling around outside a door that had just been locked in their faces, trying to figure out what was happening and what they should do about it — all of it as captured by Paul Anderson’s remorseless cameras. He hadn’t known quite what he might be getting into in making his documentary about the British computer-game industry, but he had certainly never dreamed it would turn out like this. But then, it seems safe to say that those who still worked for Imagine felt much the same way.

Facing a court order, Lawson and Hetherington resurfaced at last for the final winding-up meetings, huddling together in a small room while creditors lined up in the hall outside to state their grievances and request financial redress. In the end, the court managed to recover about £300,000 for them by selling Imagine’s office furniture, computers, and all those exotic cars. Meanwhile the accusations continued to fly among the Imagine principals. Stephen Blower, the one-time head of Studio Sing, filed a criminal complaint against Butler and Lawson for ignoring a court order, issued back in February as a result of the fallout from his agency’s bankruptcy, to remove his name from a £100,000 bank guarantee. Asked directly about the matter, a police spokesman replied in terms that weren’t entirely reassuring if you were Butler or Lawson: “The Commercial Squad does not have warrants of arrest out for any of the directors. It is, however, looking at the case in a wider sense.” Butler and Lawson were eventually found guilty of being in contempt of court, but the judge ruled that he wouldn’t send them to prison or fine them if they would now remove Blower’s name as previously agreed and pay his legal fees. This latter they presumably finagled a way to do, as the matter then disappeared from the press.

As the fallout from Imagine’s messy end continued, Paul Anderson had retired back to London to put his documentary together. The finished product, which first aired on BBC2 on December 13, 1984, is as fascinating as it is frustrating. This being an era well before video became ubiquitous, we have precious few similar glimpses into the vintage British games industry. The documentary would thus be of interest even had it not involved such a storied crack-up as Imagine’s. Yet Anderson’s hands were tied to a large extent by the strictures of the Commercial Breaks series for which he had shot his video, with its 30-minute running time and its brief of presenting an essentially positive, upbeat take on modern British entrepreneurship. These factors dictated that he include barely ten minutes of the reported many hours of footage he had shot in and around Imagine; Ocean Software, a far less high-profile but also a far more successful operation, got the balance of the program’s running time. (The television critic for the Times of London hilariously described the two companies in Commercial Breaks as a contrast between “much skin cream, little aftershave” on the one side and “receding hairlines, spreading waists, grit of experience” on the other.) It’s likely that the rest of the Imagine footage, which would have been seen by the BBC’s management at the time as the leavings of a minor episode of a minor, ephemeral program, was destroyed long ago. So, we must content ourselves with what we have.

Few would shed any tears for Imagine Software. Competitors, creditors, and even more than a few ordinary gamers who had been burned by the mismatch between Imagine’s hype and their games’ reality rejoiced to see the company’s humiliating comeuppance on national television. As a final ironic note, Ocean Software, Imagine’s companion company in that episode of Commercial Breaks, wound up buying the name, which they judged to still have cachet in some Continental markets. In British gaming circles, however the name of Imagine was destined to remain synonymous with hubris, greed, tomfoolery, and plain old dishonesty, and for very good reason.

In the wake of Imagine’s collapse, people were left to wonder how it could possibly be that this group of clueless, vindictive naifs could have enjoyed the trappings of success for as long as they had — could, for that matter, have ever enjoyed the trappings of success at all. Imagine’s story is one of those which come along every once in a while to illustrate how much of business — and, indeed, society — is ordered not so much by rigidly stipulated, explicit rules as intuitive, implicit norms of behavior. When a company like Imagine comes along, willing to violate all of those norms, it can take the people around them considerable time to catch on. Imagine’s name proved ironically appropriate: the entire company, the entire Imagine “boom,” was a supreme act of imagination on the part of those — and by no means does this group consist entirely or even mostly of those who actually worked at Imagine — who desperately wanted the dream to be true. Imagine told people they were successful, and people believed them, and so in a sense they did indeed become successful — for a time.

Anderson’s own final take on what he had witnessed over the course of his weeks in Liverpool was far less harsh than that of many others:

It was a fascinating time in a city at the focus of the software business. It’s a shame it all fell apart. There were a lot of talented people there who were let down. It’s a bit like a movie that never got made, all the technicians and all the energy, but the producers failed. It’s going to be interesting to see what will come of them all.

After such a spectacular fiasco as this one, you might expect the people who had made Imagine to hide themselves away in shame. But of course they weren’t that sort of people. On the contrary: most of the people who built Imagine and then burned it to the ground were destined to remain around the games industry for a long time to come. Only Mark Butler, something of an innocent soul at bottom, a fellow who had always seemed almost as over-matched as had been Eugene Evans for the role that was thrust upon him, went at all quietly into that good night, starting a non-gaming software business with his father.

Out of everyone involved with Imagine, it was Eugene Evans who seemed most doomed to fade back into obscurity. He had already entered the media’s “where are they now?” file by the beginning of 1985, when Your Computer reported that he had been forced to trade his famous Lotus for a second-hand Volkswagen Beetle; on the plus side, he could at least actually drive his latest car, having finally gotten a license. But Evans wound up surprising everybody. He went into the management side of the videogame business, a role for which he was far better-suited than that of programmer, and rose through the ranks to become a vice president at Electronic Arts, his brief period of celebrity as Britain’s Teenage Hacker Extraordinaire a mere footnote — an anecdote to share at parties — to a long and successful career.

Some of the other members of Imagine’s old programming staff, including John Gibson, went on to form a development studio of their own called Denton Designs. Without, as they put it, “people of the caliber of Bruce Everiss to cock it up for us,” they established a pretty good reputation, particularly as a maker of the British specialty that was action-adventures, surviving well into the 1990s.

For his part, the indefatigable Bruce Everiss wasn’t about to relinquish the spotlight, even if his choices in business ventures often remained problematic. He first reemerged as an enthusiastic spokesman for the Oric Atmos, an ill-fated attempt to challenge the likes of Sinclair, Acorn, and Commodore in the British home-computer market. After that effort went bust, he formed his own software company, Everiss Software, for just long enough to release a single mediocre game — the unfortunately named Wet Zone — for the BBC Micro. He then moved on to the new budget publisher Code Masters, whom he helped to create a new image for what used to be the dregs of the games industry, the titles on the £1.99 racks. But he remains most proud of having founded the All Formats Computer Fair, a series of events that ran for many years in Britain and helped to reconnect him to his roots as a tireless promoter of computing for the people — an aspect of his makeup that had, like so much else, rather gotten lost amidst all the hype of Imagine Software.

So, Bruce Everiss’s real achievements both before and after his involvement with Imagine are considerable. Yet even before the final collapse of Imagine he began engaging in an often-tortured exercise in triangulation with regard to what still remains for many — fairly or not — his most memorable legacy. He wishes to take credit for the new standards of presentation and advertising he installed at Imagine and for the distribution inroads he engineered, all of which had a major impact on the British games industry as a whole, while separating himself from the excess, waste, foolishness, and sheer incompetence that are an equally indelible part of the Imagine story. “Comparatively little was spent on advertising,” he stated in 1984 in an attempt to minimize his own culpability in Imagine’s legendary profligacy. One suspects that the many magazines who were stiffed for tens of thousands of pounds each by Imagine might beg to differ. (Then again, since Imagine for the most part never actually paid their advertising bills, maybe his claim is perversely true…)

Threading the needle of innovation and complicity at Imagine has led to changing messages over the years. In an opinion piece that took the form of a letter to Eugene Evans which he wrote for Your Computer in 1986, Everiss tried to disavow his role in sculpting the latter’s persona for public consumption, blaming it on his colleagues at Imagine in the abstract whilst indulging in a cruel and pointless critique of Evans’s coding skills while he was at it:

Imagine seized on you as a PR opportunity. The story of a working-class teenager earning a fortune in Liverpool was a natural for the mass media. You had a fleeting fame in newspapers and on television, with strong undertones of John Lennon involved. What you didn’t seem to realise is that Imagine didn’t do it as a favour for you, they did it for themselves. In fact, what they did for you was the exact opposite of a favour.

Back in reality, you wrote a simple game on the 3 K VIC called Wacky Waiters that was just tolerable. Catcha Snatcha which followed was unplayable. Frantic was so bad the company had to withdraw it. Then you converted to the Commodore 64 with an attempt to put Arcadia on it; it was a travesty.

The last few months at Imagine were wasted playing around while pretending to work on a game called Psyclapse. All these attempts at programming were on the relatively simple 6502. You never could handle the more complex Z80. The 68000 must seem as difficult as playing Rachmaninoff backwards on a mouth organ.

Yet, when interviewed for a 2012 book-length history of the British games industry, Everiss was back to being the proud Svengali, thrilled to take all the credit for his greatest personal marketing creation. He claimed that all of the aspects of the Eugene Evans persona that the media latched onto were consciously crafted by him and him alone to make them do just that. Tellingly, the only person who ever publicly compared Evans to John Lennon was Everiss himself. All these decades later, one does have to wonder why Everiss and his colleagues won’t simply admit that they were foolish lads who got carried away and made heaps of awful choices. Few would continue holding a grudge; given similar circumstances, I and plenty of you reading this today likely wouldn’t have done any better at their age.

But, again, neither Eugene Evans nor the rest of the deceptions Everiss indulged in with his colleagues at Imagine should be taken as the sum total of the man’s long career. Something that can easily get lost in an article like this one is the extent to which Everiss did succeed in turning humble Liverpool into one of Britain’s biggest hotbeds of game-development talent. Evans’s replacement in the popular press became Matthew Smith, a Liverpudlian programmer and Microdigital regular who had the advantage over his predecessor of being every bit as brilliant as his press notices would have him be. His games Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, the former published by Bug-Byte, were a sensation in Spectrum circles at the very time Imagine was imploding, and Smith himself became almost as big a mass-media celebrity as Evans had been. Imagine may have died, but Liverpool-based game development would live on.

As would the final two major players in the Imagine saga. For even as Imagine was burning down around them, and even as Everiss was already working to lay the blame elsewhere, Dave Lawson and Ian Hetherington were also working hard — working on a scheme to birth a phoenix out of the ashes.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Videogames Conquered the World by Rebecca Levene and Magnus Anderson; Computer and Video Games of February 1984; Home Computing Weekly of March 20 1984, April 3 1984, December 4 1984, and February 13 1985; Personal Computer Games of March 1984, May 1984, June, and July 1984; Your Spectrum of June 1984; Crash of August 1984, January 1985, and February 1985; Popular Computing Weekly of July 5 1984, July 19 1984, August 9 1984, October 4 1984, December 13 1984, and December 12 1985; Sinclair User of September 1984, October 1984, January 1985, and July 1985; CU Amiga of September 1992; Your Computer of November 1984, March 1985, and January 1986; Times of London of October 16 1984 and December 13 1984. See also Bruce Everiss’s “A History of the UK Video Game Industry Through My Eyes,” parts 1 and 2. The Commercial Breaks episode on Ocean and Imagine is available on YouTube.)


Emily Short

Mid-September Link Assortment

by Emily Short at September 15, 2017 10:40 AM

IF Comp goes live in a couple of weeks.

If you’d like to submit a game for presentation at WordPlay, the Toronto word-based-game festival, you still have until September 30 to do so. Accepted pieces will be displayed to the public as part of the festival, and the creators will receive an artist fee of 80 CAD.

Community Feedback

IFTF is running a survey about how people use IFDB and how the experience could be improved. You can let them know your views at the link attached.

New and forthcoming releases

Jam City has started a new line of interactive fiction in the mold of Choices and Episode, using a model that includes pay-to-unlock premium choices, but also a subscription option. (At $2.99/week, this is a bit more expensive than Fallen London’s Exceptional Friendship, and I wonder whether people will find a weekly sub more appealing than monthly. My instinct says no, but my instinct is often wrong.)

IF author and sometimes-conference-organizer Jim Munroe has been working on a new VR project called Manimal Sanctuary. It’s pitched thus:

Manimal Sanctuary is a lurking simulator. It leverages low-end VR technology to enable every player’s ultimate fantasy: to play a creature part coral reef, part Cthulhu, who consumes human emotions. Set on the Toronto Islands after the rest of the city is consumed by gibbering monstrosities, you eavesdrop on the survivors and their dramas involving things like bad potato crops and graffiti tags. And if those everyday emotions aren’t filling enough, you can always uncover some devastating secrets…

Naomi Clark’s Consentacle is now on Kickstarter. It is a card game about consent and mutual agreement, and I would be hard-pressed to describe it more than that. If you want your own print of the game (perhaps from seeing it played at GDC, as I did), this may be your one and only opportunity.

Misha Verollet has released a trailer for American Angst, a forthcoming choice-based game:


A total tangent: possibly I’m one of the few people who remembers this, but did you know that well before YouTube or the current trend for trailer-making for games, there was a TrailerComp for parser-based IF. The main thing I remember is that Fallacy of Dawn had a trailer set in part to “Smooth Criminal.”

Renga in Blue

Quondam: Structural Solving

by Jason Dyer at September 15, 2017 08:40 AM

Progress! (Also, outright puzzle spoilers follow.)

From the Book of Kells again. Horror vacui still remains an appropriate metaphor,
as solving one puzzle just tightens the game’s net leading to another. I feel a palpable pressure while playing.

One of the puzzles I was stuck on last time involved this object:

There is a B.R. takeaway sandwich here.

Eating it invoked a solution, but also a problem:

You eat the sandwich and its crunchy outside. Your stomach rumbles but you feel a new surge of strength.
You have stomach ache.

You have bad stomach ache.

You are in agony.

You are in agony
Your life is over.

There are some textual clues in retrospect, but the way I solved this was looking at the structure of the game. The sandwich is in a short underground section with many items that seemed necessary to continue, but it also was a one way trip — after exiting and leaving, there didn’t seem to be a way back. I needed to eat the sandwich while still underground to rescue a sword (well, part of one) from a stone, so I knew it was unlikely resolving the sandwich involved some future item. I focused just on what I had, and went through a verb list I had made trying everything reasonable I could think of on the sandwich.

You tear the transparent wrapper off the sandwich.

Ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ok, that one is resolved.

I also managed to escape the spiders that attacked me after visiting the center of a “spider web” area and getting a bottle with an elixir.

A horde of spiders swarms over you and eats you.

I discovered, quite by accident (I was testing out a different theory) that heading west after picking up the elixir did not lead to immediate death. On a hunch, I tried circling the outer portion of the “web” and found the entire route was safe (see the map for some crude MS Paint action):

However, by doing this, it closed off the entire web area — I couldn’t go back without dying. This meant, structurally, that another puzzle in the same area needed to be resolved before the elixir:

You are on a ledge by a cliff. A strand leads northeast to the web and a tunnel leads southeast into the cliff.
A curtain of fire blocks the tunnel!

You stride into the flames, which don’t burn you – it must be an illusion! You hear a curse and various tinkering noises.
You are in a short cave, where nothing seems to have changed for ages. The only exit is a tunnel northwest.
A curtain of fire blocks the tunnel!
A small mirror lies here.
There is a harp made from rare woods here!


As you leave, you look at the face-up mirror while the flames lick about you. There is a cry of triumph as the flames reach furance heat.
Your life is over.

I had another item (the rucksack) that the mirror can be stuffed into for safety. However, this led to another issue: the rucksack has a hole. (It took a while for me to realize this). Essentially, every step you take unloads an item onto the ground. This is bad with the mirror because you have to then pick it up while standing on the spider web, and this happens:

You see yourself in the mirror and, not looking, fall down a hole.
Your life is over.

Since the bottle was necessary for another part, I figured I must had everything I needed for the puzzle; necessity forced me to focus. I realized, after some more experimentation, that the rucksack holds 3 items and most, and is first-in-last-out — that is, if I put the mirror in, and then kept refilling it as I was dripping items, I could cart the mirror to safety.

(Well, mostly safe — the falling into a hole business actually can happen outside the spider web, so I still can’t carry the mirror far without it being in the rucksack.)

In any case, I’m out of things to do, other than getting by a dragon (which eats me as soon as it sees me) and the weird “Customs” area I wrote about last time; specifically, leaving Customs leads me to a town square …

You are in a small town square full of churches and monuments. The Spanish Inquisition are here, debating your future.
There is a coil of rope here

The crowd bars your way.

The throng draws back and leaves a way free.

… and a desert …

You are thirsty.
You are in an expanse of featureless sand under a burning sun.

… but I haven’t found a way out of the area past this point. However, handling the burning sun requires emptying the bottle’s elixir and filling it with water. This suggests another structural solving consideration: if the elixir isn’t just a trap to be avoided (drinking it makes you shrink and disappear) then it needs to be used *before* reaching the Customs area.

September 14, 2017

These Heterogenous Tasks

Heart’s Medicine: Time to Heal

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at September 14, 2017 09:41 PM

It’s commonplace for a time-management game to feature character-driven plot, but Time to Heal sells itself really hard on narrative. The intro frames it as an original story. The game’s bumf is really focused on storytelling (and, in particular, that most irritating qualifier … Continue reading

Choice of Games

The Hero Project: Redemption Season Has a New Short Story: The YouPower Project

by Rachel E. Towers at September 14, 2017 05:41 PM

Can you not wait for the next installment in the Heroes Rise universe? Do you just need to read another story featuring your favorite characters from The Hero Project? Well now you can purchase the The YouPower Project, already available everywhere The Hero Project: Redemption Season is sold!

The YouPower Project is a short story developed by Zachary Sergi and written by Michael Alan Nelson. It's set in the months following The Hero Project: Redemption Season, but is entirely separate, with no spoilers for the main story.

The YouPower Project was originally developed in partnership with Serial Box. Serial Box brings everything that’s awesome about TV (easily digestible episodes, team written, new content every week) to what was already cool about books (well-crafted stories, talented authors, enjoyable anywhere).

New Hosted Game! Lost In The Pages by Felicity Banks, Adrao, Cecilia Rosewood, and Sashira

by Rachel E. Towers at September 14, 2017 05:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Travel through different books in a quest to find your uncle! You will travel through a number of stories, seek to understand why they are falling apart, and trying to solve the mystery of your uncle’s bookshop.

Lost in the Pages is a 125,000 word interactive novel by a collection of authors, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

There are over a half a dozen stories to choose from, from fantasy and science fiction, to horror or mystery. Can you rescue your uncle and restore order to the stories, or will you be consumed by the menace hanging over him?

• Play as male, female, or non-binary, with any orientation.
• Travel the seas as a mermaid, ride a dragon, explore futuristic worlds or become a detective. The choice is yours!
• Stick to tropes, or break them!
• Save not one world, but many!

Felicity Banks, Adrao, Cecilia Rosewood, and Sashira developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.

Grand Academy for Future Villains — Taking over the world? Come to villain school!

by Rachel E. Towers at September 14, 2017 05:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that Grand Academy for Future Villains, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 30% off until September 21st!

Congratulations! We are delighted to welcome you to the Grand Academy for Future Villains, the world’s finest evil preparatory school, where unimaginable power begins with a world-class education!

Grand Academy for Future Villains is a hilarious 200,000-word interactive novel by Katherine Nehring, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Looking for a career as an evil overlord? A mad scientist? A megavillain, a wicked witch, a final boss? You’re not going to get there without hard work, dedication, and thorough education. In the space between worlds, between genres, beyond time and space itself, the Grand Academy for Future Villains trains the bad guys that every good story needs.

You, our hero–or our villain, rather–will arrive at the Academy ready to learn, but you’ll quickly discover that there’s so much more to villain school than getting good grades. As you navigate the school year, you’ll have the opportunity to:

• Secure an internship with a prestigious heartless corporation or megalomaniacal dictator
• Seduce a hero to the dark side (Attention students: do NOT allow yourself to be seduced by the forces of good!)
• Put in the extra hours at the lab to become an actual monster.
• Pledge your family’s secret society and become worthy of–or defy–the grand destiny your family has mapped out for you.
• Pay off your student loans (in the blood of your enemies, if necessary).
• Find true love, deadly rivalry, or both at the same time with your fellow students.
• Save your alma mater, take it over, betray it, or drop out in a blaze of glory.

Our alumni have gone on to dominate worlds, conquer galaxies, break hearts, and succumb to the creeping darkness in their souls. The choices that you make at our school will determine whether you join their illustrious company.

Enroll today!

We hope you enjoy playing Grand Academy for Future Villains. We encourage you to tell your friends about it, and recommend the game on StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. Don’t forget: our initial download rate determines our ranking on the App Store. The more times you download in the first week, the better our games will rank.

September 13, 2017

Renga in Blue

Quondam: Horror Vacui

by Jason Dyer at September 13, 2017 10:40 PM

So: you’re a budding author determined to produce the most difficult text adventure ever made. How do you proceed?

If you’re Rod Underwood, by horror vacui.

Horror vacui (“fear of empty space”) refers to the artistic practice of filling every nook and cranny on a page or painting, most famously exemplified by the Book of Kells above.

In the sense of this game, it’s filling every space possible with a puzzle. Nearly every location and object has some aspect that can either a.) kill you outright or b.) cause you to make the game unwinnable.

Like this item from the very first room:

The star snaps out on a chain. The morningstar is a tricky weapon and you bash your brains out.
Your life is over.

Nearby, you find an elixir on a spider web. While you are predictably killed by the spiders …

A horde of spiders swarms over you and eats you.
You are very dead.

… you are also killed by the elixir itself.

You drink the elixir. You start to shrink… you’re changing .. Hey, where did you go?
You’ve passed away.

So far, this feels like the Philosopher’s Quest strategy, but that map was sprawling compared to this one.

The right half of the map that I have so far. The left half has an arrangement of hexagons making a spider web, but most of the rooms aren’t useful.

I’ve found 13 locations of significance, and I count 11 open puzzles. Here are all of them:

1. There is a sword in a stone (the REJECT one I quoted in my last post). I can eat a sandwich to gain strength and pull out the sword, although it breaks off at the hilt (I have no idea if the breaking is a puzzle, but the hilt counts as a treasure). However, the sandwich causes nausea and death shortly afterwards.

2. There is a “fungi room” with a “rapidly growing vegetable being”. You can JUMP to avoid immediate death (“You leap over the creature’s limbs just before they close over your legs!”) but after a few turns the being grows too large and kills you.

3. I found (via use of magic word) a customs room.

You are at the customs. The only exit is a portal pulsing red-green to the north. There is a notice here: Any goods left here are stored and will be restored when you leave. Items needed for survival are allowed. Duty is charged.
A fanged customs official waits for you to declare your goods.

Saving your game is safe here. I presumed storing treasures might work as well, but if I try to “declare” one it just disappears. I don’t know what that business about things being “restored when you leave” is. Also, if you’re carrying a rucksack with items inside and you try to leave the room all the items in the rucksack disappear.

4. There’s a desert area where you quickly die of thirst. You have a flask which presumably contains water, but it just breaks and gets you wet if you try to open it.

5. There’s the previously mentioned spiders, which trigger when you try to leave the center of a large spider web.

6. There’s a dragon that outright fries you if you try to go by.

7. There’s a knight that “challenges” you and blocks your way. You can distract by handing him your morningstar (see the first excerpt in this post). If you go back to the same room he returns to his normal behavior, and you can’t get the morningstar back.

8. There’s a cave blocked by an illusion of fire. I was able to pass through and rescue a harp, but there’s also a mirror in there that I can’t take out (if I do, I spot an image of the fire in the mirror that causes the character to pause, and the fire becomes real).

9. There’s a bird in a forest that I don’t know what to do with; if I try to pick the bird up it dies immediately.

10. The forest itself is a maze, and I am unclear if there’s a way to navigate it or if you’re just supposed to stumble at random.

11. It’s unclear how to drink the elixir while surviving it, or if you’re even supposed to (I’m guessing either you get rid of the inside and just use the bottle it came in, or you give it to someone else to drink).

I won’t count it as a #12, but I may or may not have incorrectly gotten past a lock. I was able to BREAK LOCK with ease but knowing this game you need to keep the lock for something later. Strangely, the same room had a key, but no verb that resembled UNLOCK LOCK or PUT KEY or the like was even recognized. This game is so unnerving that even after solving a puzzle I wonder if I’ve really solved the puzzle.

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Katherine Nehring, “Grand Academy for Future Villains”

by Mary Duffy at September 13, 2017 12:41 PM

Looking for a career as an evil overlord? A mad scientist? A megavillain, a wicked witch, a final boss? You’re not going to get there without hard work, dedication, and thorough education. In the space between worlds, between genres, beyond time and space itself, the Grand Academy for Future Villains trains the bad guys that every good story needs. I sat down with Katherine Nehring, author of Choice of Games’ latest release to talk about what influenced her writing. Grand Academy for Future Villains releases Thursday, September 14th. 

Tell me about what influenced your world creation for Grand Academy. What kind of a world is this set in?

Trope-spotting can be both a delight and a distraction when it comes to reading, watching, playing, and otherwise partaking in popular fiction–especially popular genre fiction. There’s a sort of sly double perspective: in-universe you’re asking yourself who this character is within the framework of their created world, but as a reader you’re also asking yourself what type of character they are within your own experience of stories. Who do they remind you of? What do you expect from their narrative arc?

The Grand Academy inverts that order: to be in-universe at the Academy is to be outside the universe of any particular story.  This is a world where the laws of narrative are far more important than the laws of physics–a world where it’s taken for granted that concepts can be prohibited (and confiscated, and smuggled), where acting too much like a protagonist means heroic things start happening to you, and where doing something memorably can be just as effective as doing it competently.

You and I both attended St. John’s College for undergrad, and Jason Hill did a graduate degree there. I see a few parallels between the Grand Academy and SJC. Were you drawing on anything of personal significance in your writing?

I’d never thought of this before, but both the Academy and St. John’s are worlds of books – adhering to this overarching meta-order, living by the rules of narrative (surely one can call SJC’s pared-down arc of Western thought a narrative!) And of course, that’s always in tension with the ‘real world’, with history and particularity and the need to go out and find a job at some point.

The Grand Academy has elements of every one of the schools I attended, going right back to high school (the arbitrary nature of the class schedule is a less-than-fond memory of trying to decipher when lunch hour was). DarkBoard is an only slightly more vivid version of the class management software I used in grad school; Professor Ulik’s brisk, career-oriented Evil Architecture class was definitely influenced by community college classes I took. But St. John’s, with its intensity, eccentricity, and constant narrative engagement, was undoubtedly the biggest influence.

There’s a great cast of weird characters here: the PC’s mother, Maedryn, Dr. Cerebrist, and Professor Mortwain were some of my favorites. Did you have a character you enjoyed writing most?

I had a lot of fun with all of them–probably the most with Aurion and Kinistra. Either one of them could be the focus of an interesting story of their own, I think (or several interesting stories; one of the delightful things about writing this as a game rather than a novel is the way their stories can go very differently depending on their relationship to the player character. For Aurion, there’s something that appeals to me about an overachieving underdog at a school for villains–he has all the markers of a protagonist, but he’s determined to rise to greatness in the realm of evil. Kinistra, on the other hand, the player meets in one of the most classic of heroic ways: as someone to be rescued. And the ways in which you and she either thwart those tropes or fulfill them can have a big effect on how your story plays out.

What did you find challenging about the process of writing in ChoiceScript/our game design?

There was definitely a steep learning curve with ChoiceScript. It’s very easy to pick up, and can do a great many things once you’ve picked it up, and learning how to make those things engaging for players and manageable as a writer is quite a task! The editors were enormously helpful through this process, as were playing other Choice of Games titles, reading the forums, and going through my own game, over and over, until I could look at it both as a player and an author. By the middle of the editing process I was thinking in ChoiceScript, mapping out my daily activities as *choice and *if and *goto, setting my personal stats higher or lower. I’m not new to writing or to games, but I am to game-writing, and creating a game that worked was a challenging discipline. There was nothing I could fudge, handwave, or leave to the reader’s imagination: every loose end had to be woven in on a technical level or the game couldn’t be played at all, woven in on a narrative level or the game wouldn’t be fun to play.  This process taught me a good deal both about games and about writing!

Would you do it again?

In a heartbeat! Well, not a heartbeat. I need to nap for at least a month.

Short answer, Bernard Pivot-style Questionnaire:

Favorite color? 

Green. (A little-known rule of the universe, stemming from color-coded childhood possessions: all green things belong to me.)

Favorite word? 

Peal, apparently, as I learned in the copy-editing process. (I hadn’t realized I used that word so much!)

What profession other than your own would like you like to attempt? 

Alternate-universe me is an art conservator somewhere.

Which would you not want to attempt? 

I’m glad that electricians and tax lawyers exist; I’m very glad I don’t have to be one!

Personal choice for genre dormitory at the Grand Academy?

I think I’m going to have to go with the player character’s mother and say Science Fiction. “Taking over the galaxy” has a nice ring to it.

September 12, 2017


inklewriter update

September 12, 2017 03:41 PM

We announced on Twitter recently that inklewriter is now entering a status of "permanent beta". We wanted to clarify here what that means for users, and for the stories you've made using the system.

A little history

Inklewriter was one of our first releases - a neat idea for a simple-to-use, web-based drafting environment for choice-based stories. Our original intention was to use it to run an annual competition for stories from new writers (which we did, with our Future Voices app, but we never ran a follow-up).

Since going live, we've had hundreds of thousands of stories created by hundreds of thousands of users; we've won awards from school and library associations; and hopefully we've helped kickstart a few interactive writers careers. We've used inklewriter internally for sketching out plotlines and prototypes, and for obtaining writing samples from potential new writers (including 80 Days' Meg Jayanth). It was used by bestselling author Kelly Armstrong to write content for the Cainsville Files app we made with Penguin, and by Stoic Studios for the in-game dialogues in the Banner Saga games.

So what's happening?

Inklewriter is mostly stable, but has never been entirely stable - and with browers changing all the time, it's real work to fix the issues that arise. Inklewriter is, and always has been, entirely free, and with our games getting ever bigger and more ambitious, we simply don't have the time to investigate and resolve inklewriter issues.

Unofficially, we've moved away from developing inklewriter for a long time. Our decision to publically shelve it has been prompted by an increasing frequency of persistent bug-reports: in particular two large, known issues that we will not be fixing.

The known issues

The first issue is that shared stories can no longer be read over unsecured connections: that means that "https" links work, but "http" links don't. In practice that also means you can't read stories unless you're logged into inklewriter, so stories can no longer be easily shared.

The second issue we've seen is writers losing stories due to save errors. This seems to be due to drops in the network connection, possibly when too many connections come in from the same source (such as a school classroom). The issue is unpredictable, and we don't know of any work-arounds that ensure work is never lost. Obviously, if this happens to you, it's pretty bad.

The server is staying online, for now

Inklewriter will remain online for the next year. You'll still be able to make accounts, write stories, and read them. However, as browser requirements change, some features might disappear or break, under strange conditions, with very little notice. So you should probably think twice before creating anything permanent using inklewriter.

Does this affect ink and inky?

No. Ink is a completely different technology stack - it's something we've used on every project we've made, and we still use it every day. In fact, part of moving away from inklewriter is to encourage people to shift over to ink: it's more powerful, more useful, and it's stable and going to be supported for some time to come.

Can I rescue my story?

Yes. If you visit the share link of your story, you can use your browser's "Save Page As" (in the File menu) to save off a copy of the playable web page - with all the story data included. That page is entirely standalone, and so will be playable by anyone (avoiding the https issue mentioned above) - and it'll continue to be playable even if inklewriter does eventually go offline. You can also easily edit and alter the layout and presentation of the page, if you know your way around HTML and CSS.

Can I rescue my data?

Yes. You can capture the raw .json file that stores your story, but to use it elsewhere you'll need to write code to parse and run it. (The format is pretty straight-forward, however.)

Any other questions?

If you've got a question about this, please drop us a line via the comments below, and we'll do our best to get back to you.

Finally, apologies if this is disappointing to you! Speaking personally, we love the inklewriter flow and wish we could keep it spritely and alive.

Renga in Blue

Quondam (1980)

by Jason Dyer at September 12, 2017 03:40 PM

Let’s take a break from light TRS-80 games and bring the pain instead.

From IFDB.

Quondam is the third game written for the Phoenix mainframe at Cambridge University. If you’re a regular reader, you might recall the first was Acheton, which was somewhat intended as a more challenging version of the original Crowther and Woods Adventure.

Philosopher’s Quest followed and was even harder than Acheton. Philosopher’s Quest is one of the hardest games I’ve ever played.

Rod Underwood must have taken a look at both games, decided they just weren’t hard enough, and wrote Quondam.

The original mainframe version has been lost, but a port by Peter Killworth survives for the BBC Computer, so that’s the version I’m playing. To give you a sense of what I’m up against, here is my attempt to “save” at the start of the game:

This marks the first and possibly last time a save game feature ever killed me. (At least you get some cool shades to die with.)

Quondam is otherwise (so far) bog-standard fantasy, although it’s clear the tone is tending to the silly:

There’s treasure collection (again) but the manual is enigmatic about what to do with the treasures:

During the game you can display your score by typing SCORE and pressing RETURN. You can earn points by visiting risky areas, but most points are scored by depositing treasures in the ‘safe place’. This place is accessible at various times, but needs thought. Beware of puns!

September 10, 2017

Zarf Updates

Aporia: design ruminations

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at September 10, 2017 08:41 PM

I occasionally repeat the mantra, "All game genres hybridize over time." Today's example is Aporia: Beyond the Valley, which presents itself as a Myst-genre puzzle adventure game. Okay, it's a graphical adventure game and it's got puzzles, but I was surprised at how much it didn't remind me of Myst. (Or that genre's modern exemplars, like Obduction or Quern.) Aporia reminded me of several different games, in fact, at different points.
The game opens with an extended introduction which I would call "linear" if that term weren't entirely dessicated. It is, at any rate, an amble down a trail of minor obstacles, geared to teach you mechanics rather than work your little grey cells. Fine; every game starts that way. But Aporia's intro is long enough to let you assume that you've got the rhythm of the entire game. Paths branch just enough to give you the sense of exploration, without letting you miss the next locked door or the key that opens it.
So that's not quite Myst / Quern / Obduction. The usual adventure formula gives you a small introductory area, and then throws the gates open on a world of puzzley madness. Aporia's guided exploration (with wordless narrative and a bit of resource-foraging) is more like, say, Ico. I don't mean it has combat or serious platforming; I just mean the shape of the map. Complex geography with a clean route through to the next area.
Then you pass through a major building, and the gates are thrown open on... a world. The valley. This is a game about a valley, remember? And the valley is enormous, wide open -- a puzzle shrine here, a puzzle building there, but primarily hills and rocks and waterfalls and trees and marshes. You've gone from Ico to Shadow of the Colossus.
That's not the usual adventure formula either, is it? I love open-terrain exploration, but coming from the Myst mindset, I suddenly wanted to wail: guide me! Show me a shiny beacon of goal in the sky! Where's the next locked door? Where am I supposed to solve?
Okay, no. Deep breath. You've got a map and you can see some nifty standing stones in the distance. You push forth and start learning the world.
The funny thing is that this is where the real puzzles start showing up. I might say they lean closer to the action-adventure model (Tomb Raiders, Princes of Persia) than to Myst-style puzzles -- but that's a thin and hazy line to draw. What I'll say for sure is that you spend your time discovering what's over the next hill, not how to open the next gate. The feel of Shadow of the Colossus dominates.
This is also where other genres start creeping in. You walk into a misty glen, and an evil red ghost jumps out and hoists your ass. Aiyee! You can't fight; running might or might not save you. Getting caught doesn't kill you, or even cost much health, but it knocks you back to home base and annoys the heck out of you. Could it be... the Frictional monster?
No, it's not full-on survival horror. The ghost doesn't show up often enough to dominate the game. But it adds a distinct touch of discouragement to your exploration -- which feels weird in a story-exploration game. Do you really want to go back to that glen? But what else is there to do? By definition, you want to visit everywhere on the map.
But you spend a little more time hunting for health-bushes.
The health-bushes also help with, or perhaps fail to excuse, some hurry-up-hurry-up sequences. Not puzzles, but areas where you have to do something while hot stone or toxic smoke slowly burns away your health. These are small and fairly simple -- but you can die. Dying means being kicked back to the last save-point, and perhaps redoing a fair amount of routine exploration. Again, this would be unsurprising in a Tomb Raider game, but it leaves one a bit out of sorts in an adventure game. (And, I must say, the Tomb Raider series has better autosave scheduling, for exactly this reason.)
On top of all of that, you come across optional puzzles, which are a whole different kettle from the main plot-goals. These are the sort of extra-achievement rewards which are common in action-adventure games and practically mandatory in CRPGs -- but I can't remember seeing them much in the Myst genre. They vary widely, from pure plumb-every-crevice exploration to thematic challenges to formal puzzles. (You'll groan when you run into the three different-sized beakers.)
I rather enjoyed this aspect of the game. The extra-ness of the puzzles allows the designers to push you outside your mental box a little. On the other hand, I solved maybe half of them and I don't intend to go back hunting for the rest.
Overall, my feelings are... mixed, like the game model itself. I admire the designers' intent to pick ideas from any source that suits their needs. They're not stuck on one set of design decisions just because Cyan tripped over them back in 1993. Want to throw in a boat ride? Okay, here's a boat ride. Health meter? Sure. Environmental puzzle sequence in a constrained underwater area? Have one. Aporia isn't afraid to do a lot of different things.
But I felt like the ground was shifting a little too often. Do I expect to spend this game exploring, not exploring, hiding, running, solving, optimizing, collecting... what? The mechanics never quite gelled. It's not that I dislike any of these genres, but you know how it is when your mouth is set for apple juice and you drink iced tea instead? Repeatedly.
Here I have deleted a snarky paragraph about Aporia's wordless-narrative model, because I've railed about that before. The presentation is, at least, interesting and distinctive. And it's neither annoyingly generic-and-vague nor annoyingly wall-of-text info-dumpy. So that's good. You'll have to live without my extended Steven Universe metaphor.
And here is where I explain that this is a design ruminations post, not a review. I like to write long posts about what's strange, unusual, or off-base about a game's structure.
This is not to say it's a bad game! Aporia is engaging; I had a great time playing it.
The visuals are particularly nice. You move through geography, from misty swamp to underground cavern to craggy moor, and each domain has a distinct texture: light, shadows, palette, haze, aural environment. Plus day, night, clear, and rainy variations of each environment! (Okay, not of the underground ones. Except when a shaft of sunlight or moonlight slants down a sinkhole, which happens surprisingly often, because... well, because it's awesome.)
This is not just graphical pizazz. It's part of what gives the game its sense of geographical expanse. As the atmosphere of the world changes around you, you feel that you've travelled a significant distance, even if it's really just a compressed jaunt over a ridgeline. I hate to bring in Shadow of the Colossus again, but that's the game that I think of as pioneering the trick. Aporia does it very well.
If this were a review, I would recommend Aporia, with warnings about falling into assumptions about what kind of game it is. I definitely want to see more adventure genre hybrids -- particularly if they're this beautiful, this imaginative, and this much fun to explore.
I just want designers to think more about how their mechanics fit together in the player's head. What does this toxic smog, this breath limit, this threatening ghost tell the player about their goal? Does it pull them forward or push them back from the kind of gameplay which will get them through the game? Ask that.

Web Interactive Fiction

FyreVM and IFPress Status

by David Cornelson at September 10, 2017 06:41 PM

It’s been about six months since I’ve worked on FyreVM-Web and the infrastructure for After the most recent developments with Vorple and the clear interest from the community for its progress, I paused to re-evaluate where I spend my time. I think at this point I plan to spend more time on writing than on tool development. This means the status of my tools is going to remain dormant until some nebulous future date.

As everyone knows, platform development is hard and the IF community is somewhat mercurial about shared interests. I tried to enlist a couple of people in helping on the UI side of things where FyreVM is concerned and they flatly replied (paraphrased), “Why should I spend time on this when Vorple is more mature.” OR “I don’t have any extra time for this.”

So at the moment, FyreVM-Web is going to the dust-bin…until I find some future fuel for it or if it gains interest from other capable front-end developers and designers.

On to writing, IF and other things. Cheers.

September 08, 2017


An Interview with Judith Pintar

by David Streever at September 08, 2017 05:54 PM

We’re pleased to share this interview with Judith Pintar, our newest board member at the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation. Judith has been involved in the interactive fiction community for nearly 30 years, and her insights into the past, present, and future of IF are fascinating.

(Note: This interview has been edited in the interests of length and clarity.)

David: How did you start playing interactive fiction? What brought you to the medium?

Judith: Like many of us, I grew up inside the Great Underground Empire, playing interactive fiction the way it was first played—with a group of friends, scratch paper, a pencil, a pizza, and no walkthrough.

David: I didn’t have a community for IF, it was all solo for me, but I had a similar experience with Myst—it was such a challenge and I loved working with my friends! We would really puzzle over everything together. Now I feel like a cheater because I’m always looking up the stumpers.

Judith: We’ve collectively gotten really lazy about puzzles. I play nothing without a walkthrough anymore. So, it’s all of us—maybe it has to do with the pace of leisure.

David: What got you started writing IF? Do you remember your very first game?

Judith: My first game—hmm, honestly that has been lost in the mists of time. My first full-length work was CosmoServe, which won the AGT contest in 1991. It was largely inspired by my experiences as a member of Compuserve’s Gamer’s Forum, where I used the handle Teela Brown.

What made CosmoServe unusual was the simulation. It starts out like a regular IF—you are a programmer in a messy office, but when you turn on your computer, the screen turns into a DOS environment. That’s the point at which players today stop playing. They have no idea how to run a program from a DOS command line. I never intended that to be a puzzle, but it became the hardest one. When you dial up to CosmoServe, it looks like what CompuServe looked like back in the day. In the original AGT version I was put in a screechy modem sound. I used to get emails from people telling me that they got confused whether they were actually online or not. Later in the game when a virus corrupts your in-game computer, which you find out by running the in-game CHKDSK, they freaked out thinking that it was happening to their actual computer.

David Malmberg released the final version of AGT as freeware and ran the last AGT contest in 1993, which I judged. That was the dramatic historical moment when AGT was eclipsed by TADS and INFORM. The IFComp took over as the AGT contest ended. That was also when, from the point of view of the IF community, I seemed to go poof from the world. What actually happened was that I went to graduate school, wrote a dissertation while having a baby, and got my first academic job while having another baby. I never stopped writing IF. While I was out of public circulation, I updated CosmoServe, contacted the IFDB and asked them to replace my game file with the new one. I was surprised by the response. I was told (by whom I wish I could remember) that I was welcome to upload a new version, but that the old version of CosmoServe belonged to history, not to me, and that I could not change it. It’s ironic (and fun) that I’m now on the board of the organization charged with the task of archiving that continuing history.

David: I’d really struggle with that in your position. I’m so used to being able to seamlessly update anything I put online. Was there anything really broken in the original?

Judith: No, it just hard to win because of time pressure. I took into account player feedback when I updated it. As soon as my kids started playing computer games (shortly after birth), I was back at teaching IF, though by then AGT was no longer being maintained, and I faced a conundrum. I had leftover loyalty to AGT, since I had been its defender and one of its public faces. I wanted to move on, but I didn’t want to feel like a traitor to my clan, so to speak. When Inform 7 was released, I saw a path forward. I fell in love with the language. I learned it by rewriting CosmoServe. The Inform 7 version is available to be played in not-quite-beta, here.

David: You’ve authored and co-authored IF; did you prefer one over the other? Does each have a pro/con that makes it unique?

Judith: I am really energized by the creative synergy of collaborative work. In terms of pure cognitive pleasure, though, there is nothing I enjoy more than the solo-work of coding complicated interactive narrative. To give you a quick example of what makes me jump out of bed in the morning, I’ve been working on a text-based poker game in which the player, as Alice, plays poker with the White Rabbit while falling down a well. The map is vertical; the player goes up and down while the White Rabbit is doing the same. The cards are randomly strewn throughout the well. The algorithm that helps the Rabbit to decide what card to take and what to drop is straightforward, but I also wanted the cards to fight with each other, to jump out or push each other out of the player’s hand. I wanted players to hear in the distance these dramas happening in the Rabbit’s hand too, a clue to what the Rabbit is holding. There is a narrative arc in this game that has to be revealed in order to win. The player will have to go looking for it deliberately by putting together particular poker hands. The code for this game was So Much Fun to puzzle out. The game (still being bug-tested) can be played here.

David: I’ll have to look at that after our interview. (Editor’s note: I did, and recommend it: It’s a parser-based Inform 7 work that’s very challenging but rewarding)

Most games have very traditional roles, but interactive fiction spans so many disciplines. How would you describe your role? Writer or programmer? The Storyteller? CEO? If you had to pick one job title, what would it be?

Judith: Storyteller. Before I wrote IF, I was a professional storyteller, performing for children as an artist-in-residence in schools, and for drunk adults in festivals, renaissance fairs, and comedy clubs. I never memorized my stories, which were different every time I performed them, tailored for each audience. I really missed the improvisational and interactive aspects of performance when I wrote my stories down. You see what’s coming here. IF fixes that problem. IF offers the spirit of a live storytelling performance, without the drunks.

My interest in collaborative authoring, and crowd-sourced IF began with SOGGY, but I have been a teacher of IF nearly as long as I have been an author. During the 90s I taught AGT as an artist-in-residence in middle/high schools. Since it was released, Inform 7 is now my language of choice for teaching parser-based IF. I teach other sorts of interactive narrative, through Twine. Besides authoring their own games, students in my Game Design course at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign contribute to an ongoing collaborative IF that takes place inside a sprawling campus-based game world. Each semester the students build upon the work of the students before. They learn to code by fixing the bugs in the code that came before them. You can play the intentionally incomplete, a la Minecraft, ongoing buggy Quad Game here.

David: I can see why you were drawn to IFTF; there are a lot of parallels to your work as a professor, and as a storyteller.

Judith: It’s not immediately obvious to people how my creative work and my academic work fit together (at least, it’s not obvious to academics looking at my vita). But it all makes sense to me. I am a sociologist of science and technology, which means I’m interested in the entangling of society and culture with technology. Most broadly I study collective narrative. I have approached this in the ways that communities remember traumatic war experiences, and in how science becomes culture. I am quite comfortable teaching in the Informatics Program at UIUC, where all my interests converge. I direct the Electronic Literatures & Literacies Lab, which is intended as a place for cross-disciplinary collaboration.

David: Just as albums and IF used to have feelies and have lost them with the shift to full digital, do you see any other future-proofing that we’re missing in interactive fiction?

Judith: That’s a great question. I had a conversation recently with Jerome McDonough who studies digital preservation at the iSchool here at UIUC about his work on archiving “intangible culture,” especially as it relates to games and their technologies. I asked him if CompuServe Gamer’s Forum, as an episode in the history of online gaming, could be archived. He said no, that the old BBS experiences are gone without a trace, lost worlds. We might be able to preserve the system an old game was played on, but we still lose some of the experience. It’s what I said at the beginning of the interview. Infocom games were played by groups of people, with pizza and pencils. How do we archive that?

Obviously we want to archive games and the technologies used to run them. But do we have to, do we want to, can we archive the experience of playing the game. Is the game the same without the feelies? Is the game the same without the community? Is the game the same without the contemporary popular culture? Is the game the same without having played other games first? How do we preserve those intangible things? Or do we just need to let them go?

David: I think that’s all part of why you’re here, right? You have such an impressive background in the field, and you have these great insights into the future of interactive fiction and the importance of archiving. Why did you join the Foundation board? Do you have any specific goals?

Judith: The announcement of the launching of IFTF came across my feed in the usual way, and it seemed to me to be a natural and important development. When I was asked to join the board I was delighted to support its dual mission of preservation and promotion. We want to ensure that that IF (its technologies, tools and games) survive as a living art form and that IFTF, as the guardian of that legacy, is a rock of stability, regardless of who is on the board.

I am happy to take my turn serving the IF community, having been part of it from the beginning. In terms of what I personally bring to the IFTF, I think my interests in digital inclusion, in broadening the use of IF languages and tools (Inform 7, Twine but also other emerging platforms) into the social sciences among other areas, and the development and archiving of IF pedagogical materials, may be two areas in which I can contribute. Other things will emerge unpredictably.

David: Having covered archiving the past…what’s the future of interactive fiction, in your opinion?

Judith: I do think that all kinds of writing are going to become more interactive—nobody thinks twice about hyperlinks, so why can’t branching become ubiquitous too? I see interactive narrative influencing how people think, how they collaborate, how they write papers and reports. I also see AI becoming a more central feature of IF in ways that Emily Short envisions. And of course Twine will be taught to kids at the same time that they learn to write, while Inform 7 will become the first programming language of choice. I see a future where IF authors get well paid for what they do!

My personal IF projects focus on developing collaborative IF environments. Minecraft for IF, that’s what I’m after. I’m going to start looking for grants for “The Illinois Map”. (Editor’s note: Preview this at and scroll down to the Illinois Map.) It’s going to be an open-ended interactive history of Illinois virtual learning environment, where people can learn to program Inform, can contribute code, bug-test, do research, or write and edit text, on hundreds of short historical simulations written in Inform, the best of which are incorporated into “the map”. A player will be able to travel from downtown Chicago today to Springfield when Lincoln lived there, find him in his law office and have a chat. The map expands in both space and time. The website will have a community aspect, with forums, and tutorials, and statuses, and levels of participation, and guides for teachers, etc… I’m starting the process of looking for grants, but I’m moving ahead even if I don’t find funding. My students have already produced content.

Also on the pedagogy end of things, I’m also prototyping a kind of IF game that teaches Inform as the point of the game (though it’s entwined with a narrative as well). I’ve finished my first iteration of the idea. If you win the game, you are awarded with a text file of Inform code that you can cut and paste into Inform. (Editor’s note: See it at

David: Shades of CosmoServe, in a way! We’re getting into future territory and circling back around to the past. I’m noticing though that, even in just your work, there is a lot of open territory in the future.

Judith: Yes! I believe there’s room to stretch out in multiple directions. What Chris Klimas is doing with narrative form is different from what Emily Short is doing with AI, and different again from what I’m doing with collaboration. I think it’s a really exciting time to be writing IF. Not that I think the classic forms will go away—not at all! IFTF is on top of that. But I do believe that IF’s influence on other sorts of writing and games and yet-to-be-discovered creative genres is going to grow.

And of course we’re going to be talking to our IFs, and not typing. I just had a vision of someone on a long biking trip playing your biking IF while they ride…. Now you have to write it! If you get stuck, drop me a line. (Editor’s note: Judith got me to reveal that I have an always on the backburner work in progress about bike racing early on in our conversation.)

David: Thank you for the offer and for this interview. I’m excited for your role at the Foundation and your future work in IF.

September 06, 2017


IntroComp 2017 Results Announced

by Hanon Ondricek ([email protected]) at September 06, 2017 02:47 AM

Direct from their website:
We would like to express our very sincere gratitude to everyone who took the time to download, play, rate, and leave feedback for this year's introductions. We would also like to say thank you and congratulations to all the authors!

Here are the results:

1st Place Sherlock Indomitable, by mathbrush
2nd Place Onna Kabuki, by Victor Ojuel
3rd Place The Adam and Eve Project, by Brian Kwak

Honorable Mentions*:
Duckman by Wade
Yukon Yelena by Wing
Prizon by Wes Lesley
Playing with the White Dog by Elizabeth Bernhardt
Good for Nothing by Katalina
The Wishing Wood by Elizabeth Bernhardt
The Sentence Editor by fishandbeer
You Just Might Feel Something by Devin Raposo

*listed in random order

September 05, 2017

Emily Short

Interactive Storytelling for Video Games (Josiah Lebowitz/Chris Klug)

by Emily Short at September 05, 2017 08:41 AM

Screen Shot 2017-06-14 at 9.36.06 AM.pngLast seen on this blog because Chris Crawford panned itInteractive Storytelling for Video Games: A Player-Centered Approach for Creating Memorable Character and Stories.The main body text is written by Josiah Lebowitz, but with interleaved commentary and examples written by Chris Klug.

This book is aimed at relative beginners, starting with a chapter on video game history and then three more chapters on basics of story in general (a point it has in common with a few other how-to-write-games books I’ve surveyed in the past). Each chapter ends, in textbook fashion, with a short list of questions for the student to ponder for later.

And, inevitably, there is a detailed breakdown of the hero’s journey, the references to Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, the examples from Star Wars. However, despite Crawford’s shade, they’re pretty up front about recognizing when they’re talking about standard tropes and clichés, and discussing them as such with the reader, as well as recognizing how those elements are most commonly applied in games. Klug makes a pitch for why the Refusal of the Call phase of the monomyth is important — something I would agree with (though grudgingly, since I wish people were in general less hung up on mapping every game to this formula). (See also Skolnick’s remarks on the Refusal of the Call.)

In some places, though, Interactive Storytelling for Video Games does get pretty dogmatic about things that I would like to hope are flexible. For instance:

…video games tend to focus on fighting and strategy, exploration, puzzle solving, or some combination of the three. These types of external conflicts are far easier to portray in a game-like fashion than the more internal emotional conflicts that are often the focus of things like romance and sitcoms. Therefore, a “proper” game story needs to support a large amount of external conflict. (44)

Though the book does go on to acknowledge the existence of dating sims, flow games like Flower, and other low-conflict types, the book categorizes these as non-ideal story types and emphasizes that “though dating sims are very popular in Japan, they’re rarely, if ever, released overseas.”

Elsewhere, they get similarly dogmatic about procedural generation:

I do not believe “random” content creation is capable of anything deep and interesting. (120)

…though possibly the issue here is the lack of nuance referring to “random” creation: a good PCG system is often expressive because of how it presents the consequences of the designed or authored rules of generation, which is arguably no longer simply random.

In addition to these strong statements, the book tends to give generalized advice (“it’s okay to use some clichés as long as you change them up,” “your characters should be believable,” “it’s good to care about your characters,” etc.), without going as far into specific techniques as I might have preferred.

Or take this line, which condenses a fairly advanced art into a shrug: “Writing lines for NPCs or in-game books usually isn’t too hard — just start with the subject and work from there.” (136) Admittedly I wouldn’t go quite as far as Evan Skolnick’s claim that only professionals should be allowed to write dialogue, but this goes way too far in the other direction.

The main gain for me, especially in the early sections, came in the form of the case studies of games I hadn’t had a chance to play myself: the DS-only The World Ends With You, a dual-protagonist fighting game with fashion-based power-ups which sounds frankly fantastic; ARG-like elements in the Earth and Beyond MMO; a number of Japanese visual novels and RPGs that I haven’t had a chance to play.

A good percentage of the book is focused on what the authors call “player-driven storytelling,” which they define as

a player-driven story is one in which, through their interactions, players can alter the story in significant ways… in some, the player’s impact on the story may be fairly minimal or limited to a single important decision; in others, the player may be given an enormous amount of control over the story’s progression and outcome. (119)

In other words, it refers to what Stacey Mason calls diegetic agency. When they come to analyzing the structures that support this kind of experience, though, the discussion is relatively simplistic, with suggestions like “you may also need to think about how the player can interact with the world and characters.” Well, indeed.

Or the suggestion that having multiple endings to a game may make it impossible to have any particular theme to your story, concluding, “Perhaps it may be true that the interactive medium may not be the place to deliver a powerful theme. I don’t think we’ve come to any solid conclusion either way.” (160) There’s more sophisticated discussion in the IF community and elsewhere about the rhetorical force of narrative structures, and so this hand-wave doesn’t (in my opinion) really prepare the reader very well to choose how to approach these topics.

Quite a few of Chris Klug’s notes throughout the book amount to “I’m not sure we can actually do anything interesting with this yet” or “the jury is still out on whether this is any good” — and while I have no objection to people raising reasonable cautionary notes, I think there’s more evidence to answer some of these questions than the book takes into account.

Another example: “branching path stories tend to require players to complete most — if not all — of their different branches before they can fully understand the story.” (201). This is true for certain genres of project, especially the type of visual novel that has a “true ending” unlocked only when you’ve seen all the others. The case studies here suggest that the authors are working heavily from a subset of the possible types of branching story games.

The authors also don’t go into structures for delivering dynamic story with a lot of diegetic agency other than pure simulations like The Sims or open-world RPGs like Fallout 3. They also tend to assume that a very open story means a very undefined protagonist, whereas it’s possible to choose more focused stat ranges for a particular protagonist.

The final chapters of the book concern a debate over the value of player-driven storytelling, followed by a survey by the authors, about which games players found most pleasing from a story perspective. They conclude: “…interactive traditional storytelling [i.e. without diegetic agency] is the most popular game storytelling style among players, reflected by both their stated preferences and their favorite game stories. Second, in general, the more player-driven the storytelling style, the less popular it is among players.” (277)

So, overall: there are some decent observations here and there about topics such as why it’s not very compelling to let the player play each of three or four game endings in a row — though from my perspective this is not new information. And the case studies provide additional example material for thinking about these problems; in particular, they skew enough towards Japanese storytelling games and visual novels that they may provide a useful starting point for readers who aren’t as familiar with the non-western traditions here. And the writers are clearly really interested in the problems of freedom, agency, and story (choose two, as Andrew Stern wrote years ago).

At the same time, the book doesn’t really get that deep into either the range of narrative models that can support high-agency stories, or the expressive power of doing so: what can this or that structure communicate thematically? How does the variation range you make available for your protagonist become part of the message of your story?

September 04, 2017

The People's Republic of IF

September meetup

by zarf at September 04, 2017 03:41 AM

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

(The date was chosen a couple of weeks ago, I just forgot to post here. Sorry!)

September 02, 2017

Zarf Updates

Late Mysterium news roundup

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at September 02, 2017 01:44 AM

Mysterium was the weekend of August 5th in Orlando. I didn't go, and I had trouble with the Twitch stream so I couldn't watch the presentations either. Happily, the team has gotten the videos up on Youtube, so I've been able to catch up on the Cyan Q&A.
Every year Rand Miller makes himself available for a chat with the fans. This year he was joined by Ryan Warzecha and some of the other art and production people at Cyan.
These Q&A sessions generally don't produce earth-shaking announcements, but there's usually a few interesting bits of company background and hints of what's to come. I've transcribed the niftiest; you can watch the whole 90-minute video if you want. Just remember that it was recorded a month ago.
First, egoboo for the old-school IF crowd:
Q: What games have influenced your game-making the most?
RM: They're old games. ...I think probably games like Zork. ...It was those early text adventures, because I felt like I was going to another place. The graphics there might even be better.
There were of course many questions about Obduction.
Q: (Material which was planned for the game but cut in production:)
RM: Kaptar had some other areas in it that were visually going to be pretty stunning, and a cool puzzle associated with it. But it was easy to cut, we didn't need it. ... That puzzle is going to find its way into something we do in the future.
RM: One thing that wasn't done as well as it could have been ... the Villein control panels. Originally it was going to be a real training exercise to go through those panels, learn the digits, learn the elements of how that numbering system worked, learn that they could be both individual digits and combined digits. Until at the very end, you were going to have to put all that together in this massive puzzle that you people should be very happy got cut. ... But it did leave a little bit of a [design] hole at the end of those control panels.
Q: What part of Obduction generated the most internal disagreement?
RM: Oh, that's an easy one: the Russian box. The Russian box changed over time, ... but RAWA [Richard Watson] and I stumbled on that and we're like yeah, we're doing that. In the "big bucket of ideas", everyone else would have dumped that one out, and I had to pull rank to keep that one in.
RM: The idea was that you'd come up to this box and you'd be so discouraged [by the complexity] you'd be like "I'm not even going to try this." And then later on, you'd inadvertantly do something with it and it basically just gets crushed. We thought that would be very satisfying.
(The box mechanism wound up not being totally destroyed in the released version, because it was part of an Easter Egg sequence. This was another design flaw, most fans agree.)
Q: Was there outside funding for the Obduction PS4 port?
RM: Yes.
Q: (Xbox port or other ports?)
RM: Anything's possible... but nothing firm.
Q: (Linux?)
RW: No, not at this time.
RM: The big problem with Linux... it would be for one specific variation of Linux, because there's so many SKUs, it's hard to QA that.
Q: Will there be supplemental materials like books or comics?
RM: No, probably not.
Q: (How are Obduction sales?)
RM: As you can tell, it's been enough to keep Cyan going. ... Which is fine, I don't think we're expecting to make some huge profit on every project as long as we can keep going and keep trying a little bigger. ... Obduction sales have not been quite what we had hoped for.
RW: It keeps us going and now we're going to be coming out on PS4, another SKU that will help us.
RM: We look at Obduction in some ways like another Myst, where there's a slower burn. ... We haven't sold as much as the big dogs like Firewatch or The Witness, but we've done better than some of the ones lower down the ladder.
I note in passing that the PS4 version of Obduction shipped this week, but the PSVR feature is stuck in certification hell with no ETA.
Q: (On the fate of the Myst TV series, about which RM made optimistic but noncommital comments last year:)
RM: We've had a weird year with the TV series. We're probably not up as high as we were before. Some things have slowed down and fallen through. So don't hold your breath.
And finally, the big question:
Q: Do you know what you're going to work on post-Obduction?
RM: Yes. In fact those guys [the art team] know what they're working on already. We're pretty small and there's a lot of room for wiggle, but the art team are already working on something new. ... The current stuff they're working on is not Myst-related or Obduction-related. It's a whole new IP that I think we're pretty excited about. ... We'll see what happens. Actually I will tell you one more thing...
RW: No he won't.
RM: ...We had some big meetings about this next project, and what we decided is that one of the features of this next new project is ... we're going to reveal almost nothing about it until it ships.
RM: If we did a Kickstarter for this next thing, we're going to make a video that goes, "We're not gonna tell you what this is. You're going to have to trust us on this one." ... This title lends itself really really well to that. You don't want to know anything about it when you play it.
So that's simultaneously exciting and frustrating.
On to next year and, apparently, a complete lack of news until some kind of game appears.

September 01, 2017

The Digital Antiquarian

Games on the Mersey, Part 1: Taking Scousers Off the Dole

by Jimmy Maher at September 01, 2017 03:41 PM

Once upon a time, the BBC played host to a half-hour current-affairs program called Commercial Breaks, which endeavored to document innovative businesses and emerging markets in Margaret Thatcher’s new, capitalist-friendly Britain. In April of 1984, Paul Anderson, one of the program’s stable of directors, began to shoot an episode about the computer-game industry, as seen through the eyes of Liverpool’s Imagine Software and Manchester’s Ocean Software. These two Northern software houses, each situated in a city that had been struggling mightily in recent years, had been specifically chosen to drive home the point that the craze for microcomputers and computer games was a national one rather than just a hobby of posh Londoners. Computers were transforming the way British youth from the Shetland Islands to Cornwall spent their free time, and computer games could earn those entrepreneurs who were successful at selling them millions of pounds. This, went the message from Thatcher on down, was an area where the new Britain stood poised to excel.

Whether by chance or design, the two publishers chosen for the program could hardly have been more different. Ocean was a quietly shipshape little operation, run by a balding fellow named David Ward who looked and talked more like an accountant than a brash entrepreneur. No matter: Imagine had brashness enough for both. The company’s absurdly young management and staff had been all over the tabloid media for months with their exotic sports cars, their extravagant claims about the money they were raking in, and an anti-establishment take on capitalistic excess worthy of rock stars.

Paul Anderson thought he was making a light documentary about an emerging business sector. But what he would end up with, at least for the part of the program devoted to Imagine, was something else entirely. Some fifteen years before Anderson started shooting his program, Michael Lindsay-Hogg had begun making a documentary about Liverpool’s four most famous sons as they went into the studio to record their latest album. Meant to show the Beatles’ triumphant return to playing together as a live band, the prelude to a major tour, Let It Be had instead wound up chronicling their demise for all the world to see. Now, sent to Liverpool to document the life of a vibrant young company, Paul Anderson would similarly wind up shooting its death, capturing for posterity on videotape the first notable instance of a game studio with a line of credit longer than their common sense imploding in spectacular fashion.

Yet what would follow said implosion would be in its way even more remarkable than all the excess and foolishness that had led Imagine to such an unhappy ending. For out of the ashes of Imagine Software would be born one of the most iconic British game makers of the latter 1980s and 1990s. Psygnosis, the direct heir to Imagine, would take an owl as their logo, but a better choice might have been a phoenix.


Back in 1961, one Brian Epstein had run a record store on Great Charlotte Street in downtown Liverpool, just blocks from where Imagine’s sprawling offices would be located 22 years later. Hearing his teenage customers talking more and more about a local beat group called the Beatles, Epstein finally made the ten-minute walk to the Cavern Club to hear them play a lunchtime concert one gray November day. Smitten immediately, he took on the role of the Beatles’ manager, bringing order to their chaos and transforming his four leather-clad proto-punks into the cheeky but lovable Fab Four that would go on to conquer the world.

For a few brief years thereafter, Liverpool had taken an unlikely place at the center of international pop culture, with Londoners suddenly trying to perfect Liverpool accents instead of the other way around, with teenagers from all over the world descending on the city en masse to see the place that had spawned their four youthful gods who still walked the earth. But the good times, alas, didn’t last for very long.

Liverpool had always been a rough-edged working-class city, but life there after the breakup of the Beatles in 1970 got harder for many of its inhabitants than anyone could remember. Britain as a whole had a very rough go of things during the 1970s, a decade marked by constant strikes, runaway inflation, and breakdowns of basic services like shipping, garbage collection, and power production. And as the country went, so went Liverpool, only with all the negative numbers multiplied by five or so. A moribund national economy meant a dramatic slowdown in the import and export of goods, any port city’s lifeblood. The advent of containerized shipping meant that thousands of dock-working jobs — relatively good-paying, unionized jobs — disappeared. Unemployment soared, and whole districts of the city filled up with dead-enders resigned to life on the dole, while huge swathes of the dockside area turned into a no man’s land of empty warehouses and rusting equipment, inhabited only by the homeless and the rising criminal class. Parts of Liverpool came to resemble a war zone.

In this environment, heaps of Liverpool youth still dreamed of using rock and roll as a means of escape, resulting in a local music scene that was as vibrant in the 1970s as it had been back in the 1960s — even if it no longer dominated the international charts like it once had. Yet music alone could hardly cure what ailed the city — not anymore, not this time. Liverpool’s next Brian Epstein would have to take a different tack.

Bruce Everiss

In 1978, another young businessman opened a shop of his own very close to where Epstein’s NEMS record store had once stood. Trailing Silicon Valley’s famous Byte Shop by less than three years, Bruce Everiss’s Microdigital, located on Dale Street in the heart of Liverpool, was by some accounts the first specialized computer retailer anywhere in Britain. In the beginning, Everiss mostly sold the handful of build-it-yourself kit computers that were the only models available from British manufacturers; for the well-heeled, he imported a trickle of pre-assembled but expensive Commodore PETs from the United States. Much of his business was conducted via mail order, feeding the needs of hobbyist hackers all over the country.

Everiss was very aware of the problems plaguing his hometown, and had founded Microdigital with the intention of doing something about them. A committed backer of Margaret Thatcher from well before her ascent to prime minister in 1979 — in temperament and rhetoric he was a veritable prototype for Thatcher’s school of New British Entrepreneurs — his personality reflected a somewhat odd mixture of businessman and social crusader. For all of Liverpool’s well-documented problems, the city was also home to major electronics manufacturers like Plessey and Marconi, while the computer-science departments at institutes like Liverpool University and Liverpool Polytechnic were among the most respected in the country. Microdigital could be a bridge between the worlds of big business and academia and that of the street — the working-class heart of Liverpool.

Like so many of his fellow Liverpudlians, Everiss too took the legend of the Beatles to heart. Yet he did so in a more tangential fashion, seeing what had happened during the 1960s more as metaphor than blueprint. He believed the emerging computer industry could be to the Liverpool of the 1980s what music had been to the town of the 1960s. Seeing computers as a way off the dole for Liverpool youths with few other prospects, he made community outreach one of his shop’s most important missions, donating equipment to worthy causes like the computer courses that were run out of the Victoria Settlement, a local youth charity. Those same youth were always welcome in his shop, allowed to hang out there, learn a bit about programming, and play with computers they couldn’t possibly afford. An inveterate scenester, Everiss was fostering a real computer scene in Liverpool to go along with the city’s long-established musical tradition. And Ground Zero of this burgeoning computer scene, its version of the Cavern Club, was his little shop on Dale Street. The hangers-on there who showed the most potential could hope to become his employees.

Mark Butler was one of these lucky ones, an unusually personable “cheeky-chappy salesman type,” after Everiss’s description. He eventually became the shop’s day-to-day manager, freeing up his boss to focus on strategy.

Dave Lawson

One day in the summer of 1979, a curious 19-year-old named Dave Lawson wandered into the shop. Like non-musical Liverpool youths from time immemorial, he had gone to sea two years before, joining the merchant navy as the only other obvious escape from the workaday drudgery that was the lot of so many of his peers. But life at sea hadn’t agreed with him either, and he’d found himself back in his hometown and rather at loose ends: living with his parents, working odd jobs, and hitchhiking around Western Europe whenever his finances allowed. When he saw an advertisement for a Nascom kit computer in Electronics Today, it spoke to him for some reason he couldn’t entirely explain even to himself. Instead of hitting the road again with his meager savings, he carried it in to Microdigital and walked out with his first computer. He took to it like a natural. He claimed it took him a week to learn machine language: “I didn’t bother with BASIC. I couldn’t see the point.” He became a regular at Microdigital, meeting Mark Butler there for the first time while playing a game of Star Raiders on one of the shop’s computers. “Good game,” said Butler. “I’m going to write one much better,” said Lawson. Everiss too was soon very aware of this new kid, who struck him as “very intense and very bright.”

Microdigital seemed successful enough on the surface, but, in what would be a common theme throughout Everiss’s business history, the shop never managed to make much if any money, doubtless thanks not least to all the extracurricular scene-building activities. Everiss sold it in July of 1980 to Laskys, an electronics chain with shops across Britain and Western Europe that had heretofore specialized in high-end stereo equipment; now, seeing a similar demographic of young men with money on their hands uniting the audiophile and computer-hobbyist markets, they were interested in branching out into computers as well. As part of the terms of sale, Everiss was required to stay on as a general manager for two and a half years. Over the course of that period, Laskys spread the Microdigital name across the country, first in the form of kiosks in existing Laskys shops, then as free-standing shopfronts of their own. A proud Scouser, Everiss was thrilled to be able to say that this expanding nationwide enterprise had its roots in humble Liverpool.

But Microdigital wasn’t the only enterprise that was growing as a direct result of Everiss’s efforts. Exactly one year after Laskys purchased Microdigital, a couple of Oxford University scions named Tony Baden and Tony Milner moved to Liverpool with their company Bug-Byte, the first British software publisher truly worthy of the name. They set up their new offices just around the corner from Everiss’s shop. Drawn to that location as much by Liverpool’s growing national reputation for being a well of self-taught programming talent as they were by the cheap rents, Bug-Byte grew to twelve employees within a year of their arrival. These had an average age of 19, and virtually all of them, along with many of the free-lance programmers whose games Bug-Byte churned out by the handful, were recruited from the floor of Everiss’s shop. Indeed, the two Tonys themselves fell under the sway of Everiss, who had big ideas about the future of consumer software, as he did about so many things. Just as the record collection of most music fans was worth far more than the stereo used to play it, he expected the software industry soon to dwarf the market for computer hardware.

Sometimes Everiss’s translations from the world of music to that of computer games could be almost literal. Taking the role of Bug-Byte’s marketing consultant, he convinced them to upgrade their packaging, fashioning full-color inlays for their cassette-based games that made them at a glance indistinguishable from a new pop album. The two Tonys came to sound like echoes of their marketing advisor, talking endlessly about “presentation” and “advertising” — and, one can’t help but notice, very little about the contents of the cassettes being presented and advertised.

Thankfully, Bug-Byte had recruited some very talented programmers from the Microdigital scenesters. The standout among them was none other than Dave Lawson, who established a reputation for being able to ingest whole the design of a new computer — of which there were many coming down the pipe in those days — and expel a playable game for it in a staggeringly short period of time. When the Commodore VIC-20 reached British shores in late 1981, he was there with a Pac-Man clone called VIC Men, the first third-party game to be published for the machine in Britain. (That game, alas, had to be pulled off the market when Bug-Byte received threatening legal notices from Atari, the holder of the rights to Pac-Man on home computers.) When the BBC Micro started shipping in early 1982, Lawson was there with a simplification of the old mainframe classic Star Trek which he called Space Warp, the first third-party game for that platform. And when the Sinclair Spectrum, the machine destined to become the heart of the British mass market for computer games, appeared shortly thereafter, Lawson made plans to welcome its arrival with a Space Invaders clone called Spectral Invaders. After the first thirteen Spectrums which Sinclair shipped to Bug-Byte all proved dead on arrival — quality control was not one of Sinclair’s strengths — a frustrated Lawson sat down with the machine’s technical manual and wrote his game’s code out by hand. He then typed it in when he finally got a functioning Spectrum, finding that it worked with only minimal alterations. Of such feats are coding legends made. Shortly thereafter, he produced one of the Speccy’s biggest early hits: Spectres, a witty twist on Pac-Man in which an electrician has to lay down light bulbs in the maze instead of eating dots therefrom in order to banish those pesky ghosts.

But Lawson wasn’t happy with the royalties he was getting from Bug-Byte, and so he and his friend Mark Butler decided to strike out on their own as Imagine Software in the fall of 1982. His first time out as an Imagine programmer, Lawson came through once again. Indeed, many will tell you that Arcadia, the first game Imagine released, was the best game they ever released. Another space-shoot-em-up for the Spectrum, this one was more frenetic, more intense, and had better graphics than anything Lawson had done before. “I’d buy it just to watch the graphics,” wrote one reviewer.

Meanwhile Everiss too was getting frustrated with Bug-Byte. The two Oxford boys who had the final say there were far more conservative at bottom than he was. They insisted on going everywhere in the tailored suit and tie of traditional British businessmen, a stance that immediately signaled their difference from the scruffy kids of the Microdigital scene who worked for them. And they balked at Everiss’s more outlandish ideas about populist marketing, like his scheme to hire a slate of sexy models — never mind the cost! — to star in a newspaper-and-television publicity blitz.

By the time the contract binding him to Laskys ran out, Everiss was itching to find a full-time gig with a software publisher who would give him carte blanche to implement all of his ideas about consumer software as the music industry of the future. The nascent Imagine Software, founded by two talented kids whom he knew well and who were accustomed to taking their instructions from him rather than the other way around, seemed just the ticket. Imagine seemed a blank slate waiting for his signature. In January of 1983, he joined the infant company, which at that point still sold Arcadia only via mail-order.

That Imagine shared a name with the most famous song by one of Liverpool’s four most famous sons was no accident. Interestingly, it was Lawson, ostensibly the introverted coder of the trio, who had come up with the name, and, indeed, who was most fond of explicit comparisons with the Beatles in general. But Everiss, for this part, had little trouble embracing Lawson’s vision of turning the company into pop culture’s next Beatles, all the while “taking Scousers off the dole.” No one would ever accuse these two young men — or their third partner Mark Butler — of dreaming small dreams.

They unquestionably had a hot game on their hands in Arcadia, but a hot game alone wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to fulfill the trio’s ambitions for Imagine; that would depend on marketing, distribution, and image-making at least as much as it would the games themselves. Everiss recognized that the key to making a mass-market phenomenon of computer games was getting them from specialty shops like Microdigital into the mainstream High Street shops. In the Britain of the 1980s, this latter could mean booksellers like WH Smith, consumer-electronics chains like Dixons, even chemists like Boots, all of whom had set up computer kiosks in some of their locations to commemorate 1982, the government’s official and much-hyped Information Technology Year. Continuing the obsession with presentation and packaging that had marked his association with Bug-Byte, Everiss made sure that Imagine’s games wouldn’t look out of place in such environs. Then, using all the insights he had acquired as a retailer, he worked the phones relentlessly to get them onto the shelves in all three of the aforementioned chains. He also called up toy shops, newsagents, and corner shops, offering them freestanding spinners of games they could simply take out of the box and stand up by the door. “Most said get lost, but some would say yes,” he remembers. When those who did say yes started to turn a tidy profit, even the naysayers began to ring him up to change their tune. In small towns and villages all over Britain, Imagine games, sold from such humble locations as these, were the only ones immediately available to school-age punters during much of 1983. It would take some months for the rest of the industry to catch on to Everiss’s tricks. And by the time the competition did start duplicating his inroads into rural Britain, Everiss had hired people who spoke French, German, Italian, and Spanish, and set them to work getting Imagine’s games into stores on the Continent.

In their advertising, Imagine was unquestionably the class of the British games industry.

In advertising as well, Imagine set new standards. Stephen Blower, an artist and friend of the core trio, set up an ostensibly independent advertising agency called Studio Sing to manage the company’s public relations, in return for a 10-percent stake in Imagine proper. They would buy six-page spreads at the center of magazines like Computer and Video Games which popped off the page like nothing else between the covers. Almost from the moment that Everiss came on board, the name of Imagine was inescapable in the trade press. “They can only be described as having exploded onto the market,” wrote the magazine ZX Computing.

But that was just the trade press. In keeping with his mass-market ambitions, Everiss wanted to make the name of Imagine Software just as popular in the tabloid press. And the fuel that the tabloids ran on was personality. Newspapers were increasingly full of generic stories of teenage computer geniuses who were making good money out of their bedrooms writing games. If he could give the tabloids a single specific, memorable personality fitting that mold, someone they could really latch onto as the symbol of his generation, Everiss knew that Imagine would be rewarded with a deluge of exactly the sort of press they craved. Yet Dave Lawson, the one person at the company who most obviously fit the role, didn’t relish the prospect, said he was still too busy coding games to take on the full-time job of being the face of Imagine. Meanwhile the more extroverted Mark Butler was, like Everiss himself, a businessman rather than a coder, and that stubborn fact rather took the shine off the prospect of using him for the part. So, Bruce Everiss the would-be Svengali still lacked his star; he was a Brian Epstein without any Beatles of his own. Fine, said Everiss. If he didn’t have a coder star to hand, he would simply have to invent one. Enter one Eugene Evans.

Evans was yet another of those kids who hung around Microdigital, working the occasional Saturday when the shop needed an extra pair of hands, playing with the computers and goofing off when it didn’t. Only 16 years old, he’d learned a bit of coding, but was far from brilliant at it; mostly he just liked to play the latest games and chat about them with the other blokes. Still, Everiss thought he had a certain something that made him perfect for the central-casting role of Teenage Hacker. He was articulate, he was funny and easy to talk to, and he was, at least as Everiss remembers it, “far better looking than David and Mark.” Everiss thought he saw similarities to the young John Lennon — the perfect mascot for a Liverpool company trading under the name of Imagine.

As an artificial persona of Everiss’s creation, the Eugene Evans the media came to know was in reality more Monkee than Beatle. Nevertheless, he played his part to perfection. With Everiss’s tireless publicity machine and his own considerable charm behind him, Evans was suddenly everywhere in 1983, a human-interest story everyone scrambled to cover. Everiss coached him carefully to convey the desired message of the working-class Scouser made good. After growing up in a council house, went the narrative, talent and hard work had made him an unexpectedly wealthy and increasingly famous young man, of the sort who gets stopped on the street. “I’ve been recognized from my picture,” he said. “People have said, ‘I saw you in the paper. It’s nice to see someone getting somewhere.’ I started as a tea boy in a computer shop and you can’t start from much lower.” Stories abounded in the press about how, despite his earning thousands of pounds every month, Evans’s bank wouldn’t let him have a credit card or even a proper checking account because of his age. So, said the articles, when he went out to buy hundreds of pounds worth of hi-fi equipment he had to pay for it all in cash — and in £5 notes at that, for reasons that were never clearly explained but somehow served to make the story sound even better.

Eugene Evans in the Lotus he couldn’t drive.

But the Eugene Evans stories the press loved most all had to do with his car. It seemed that he’d bought himself a brand new Lotus, but, being too young to drive, couldn’t do much with it other than enjoy looking at it in his driveway. Asked years later about the topic, Everiss claimed that the car really did exist — but admitted that it “belonged” to Evans only on lease. This anecdote, as we’ll soon see, would come to serve as a metaphor for much of what went on at Imagine.

For his part, Evans seemed less concerned about the car than he was with being accepted by Imagine’s crew of real hackers. When not out giving interviews, he tried earnestly to live up to his press by writing games. The results ranged, in Everiss’s words, from “tolerable” to “a travesty.” A natural with the media he perhaps was; a natural programmer he most definitely was not.

When the computer magazines would visit Imagine, the articles and especially the photographs would wind up taking on the aspirational character of a gentleman’s lifestyle magazine. Here, Mark Butler takes his racing bike for a spin. The caption for this photo in Crash magazine describes him as Imagine’s “millionaire founder.”

If Butler and Lawson resented this poseur, they never made it obvious. It did make a certain perverse sense to have Imagine’s coder star be someone who didn’t actually do a lot of coding, thus freeing up the real coders to do what they did best. And besides, Butler, Lawson, and Everiss all had more than enough to keep them entertained as they threw themselves with enthusiasm into a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption. “The money means nothing to me,” Lawson dutifully claimed, as artistic types are expected to do in these situations. “It’s the satisfaction of being the best.” Maybe that was true — but the things he bought with the money, like the £34,000 Ferrari Mondial that he started driving to work, certainly seemed to have their appeal. Butler opted for a BMW 735i and a customized racing motorcyle, while Everiss went with a Ferrari 308 GTS. “We are a dynamic industry,” said the latter, “so we all drive dynamic cars.” Imagine took to handing out new cars as rewards for finishing tricky projects on time, the way other companies might give a gift card for a fancy restaurant. Their parking garage was soon filled with Ferraris, Porsches, and Lotuses, prompting many in Liverpool to joke that Imagine alone had managed to double their town’s population of exotic sports cars in a matter of months. To this day, when people who were around the British games industry back in the day think of Imagine, the cars tend to be the first image that comes to mind.

Yet Imagine’s taste for excess went far beyond the cars they drove. They leased an entire floor of a newly renovated building on Sir Thomas Street, colloquially known around Liverpool as “the Glass Tower,” for what they proudly referred to as their “world headquarters.” Programmers, seeing the tales of Eugene Evans in the tabloid press and even from time to time on the telly, flocked to the place in search of their share of all that filthy lucre. Imagine’s legend was already becoming such that the reality could be disappointing. A typical job seeker was one Chris Butler:

There was a TV Eye program on them where they claimed that Eugene Evans was earning 35 grand a year. And I thought, “Oh, yeah, that’ll suit me,” so I wrote off to them, and they said, “Yeah, yeah.”  So I went up there and said, “What kind of salary are you going to offer me?” And they said, “Five grand.” I could get more by working in a bank in Southend.

Butler didn’t take the job, although he would go on to a career programming games for other companies.

But a lot of programmers did accept jobs, along with a support staff of secretaries, artists, salespeople, and PR reps, ballooning Imagine’s employee roll from two at the beginning of 1983 to more than 100 by the beginning of the following year. Most of the support staff knew nothing about computers or computer games. Indeed, the old dream of using computers to take Scousers off the dole seemed rather in danger of getting drowned under a deluge of degreed professionals. Yet the core trio claimed they had no choice but to start bringing in such folks. They considered themselves to be building a new form of popular media, not a technology company, and thus to need their growing collection of degree-holders in fields as diverse as business management and psychology; the latter group were there to study players in the hope of “producing more playable, more addictive games.” Some of the schemes that were hatched were kind of hilarious. “Imagine was looking at alternative input devices,” Everiss would later claim, “including electrodes to monitor brain waves and thus allow thought control of games.”

Imagine continued constantly to drive home their preferred parallels with the field of pop music during the 1960s, claiming as stridently as ever that they would foster the British Invasion of the 1980s. In a sentence that reads like it was dictated to him by Everiss, a wide-eyed young journalist from the popular Spectrum magazine Crash wrote that “Bruce Everiss and Imagine have created an awareness first in Liverpool and now throughout the world about British games software.” While the part about Liverpool was certainly true enough, that business about “throughout the world” was an eyebrow-raising assertion indeed, given that nothing Imagine made had yet been exported any further than Western Europe. But then, to hear Imagine tell the story Britain alone seemed to have more than potential enough for now. Everiss predicted that a Speccy game — presumably one from Imagine — would sell 1 million copies in Britain alone before the end of 1984, in keeping with an overall market he expected to double in size each year for the foreseeable future. “It’s the new mass market,” he said, summing up in those five words Imagine’s entire business strategy. He believed the most dangerous competition for Imagine would come not in the form of the other existing software publishers but, predictably enough given Imagine’s fixation on the music industry, in that of the record companies who must inevitably decide sooner or later to jump on this new bandwagon. “The record companies are experiencing a big drop in sales because more and more young people are becoming bored with pop and turning to games on home computers,” he said, in a comment which had to strike even the most fervent computer boosters as smacking more than a little of wishful thinking.

Proud Liverpudlians Mark Butler and Dave Lawson

And yet, if Imagine was telling the truth about their business perhaps Everiss’s claim wasn’t so outlandish. The numbers that came attached to Imagine’s claims of success were astronomical, dwarfing those of any other British software house. They claimed to have earned £6 million in their first six months. The core trio of Butler, Lawson, and Everiss, said trio themselves claimed, were each worth £10 million by the end of 1983. And many of Imagine’s employees, to hear the same three gentlemen tell the tale, weren’t far behind.

In addition to the inescapable Eugene Evans, a second carefully groomed media favorite was John Gibson. Another working-class bloke made good of the sort Everiss so loved to highlight, Gibson in earlier years had played in a rock band, driven a chemist’s van, worked as a social-security officer, and tried to make a go of it as a self-employed carpenter specializing in suspended ceilings. Mud, the band he had played with back in his school days, had later gone on to release the best-selling British single of 1974 among other hits. He’d been saved from a lifetime of stewing over that missed opportunity when he’d discovered computers, learned to program them, and come to Imagine to make games. Now, he drove to work every day in a Porsche. The press loved one anecdote in particular about Gibson: that he, being the only person at Imagine over thirty years old, was called “Granddad” by all his colleagues. “I can’t believe my luck,” he said, “especially at my age,” evidently feeling every one of his 36 years every time he climbed out of his Porsche in the Imagine parking garage.

John “Granddad” Gibson, posing for some reason as a World War II fighter pilot.

Gibson was unquestionably a better coder than Evans — Evans “can play the games I’ve written better than I can,” he once said noncommittally when an unsuspecting journalist served up a chance to compliment the latter’s skills — yet it was hard to fathom how he could be making so very much money from the games he churned out. The harsh fact was that Gibson’s games, as most of the teenage critics who bought them agreed, never really rose above the level of competent. His first, Molar Maul, was more notable for its bizarre theme — it stuck you inside someone’s nasty morning mouth, expecting you to ward off plaque attacks with toothbrush and toothpaste — than for its gameplay. The next, Zzoom, was just another shooter, while the third was the poorly received Stonkers, an attempt at delivering a strategic war game that was virtually unplayable in concept and horrendously buggy in execution, rather leaving one with the impression of a programmer and game designer completely out of his depth.

And as Gibson’s games went, so went those of Imagine as a whole. Butler, Lawson, and Everiss wanted the company to publish two new games every month, and their programmers worked hard to meet this goal. To help them, Lawson put together a state-of-the-art development system, in which programmers could do all of their coding on SAGE IV workstation computers, boasting 1 MB of memory and hard disks, instead of the tiny cassette-based machines the games must eventually run on. But if the workstations helped them to make games faster, they didn’t really seem to help them make games that were better than the competition in terms of anything other than their packaging and advertising. Even Lawson seemed to have grown a bit lazy after Arcadia, preferring to play the gentleman-about-town in his Ferrari and generally enjoy the good life rather than taking the time to make more games of similar quality. One Bruce Everiss quote was perhaps inadvertently telling: “Like pop records and tapes, games must have imaginative and colorful covers to attract sales. Almost as much time is spent designing the covers, packaging, and publicity materials as devising and testing the games themselves.”

In the summer of 1983, a new company with the linguistically tortured name of Ultimate Play the Game — possibly a play on Imagine’s favored advertising tagline, “The Name of the Game” — arrived on the scene with an initial spurt of four very impressive games in two months. These titles, whether taken separately or in unison, gave the lie to any lingering claim by Imagine to be the best maker of Spectrum games, full stop. Ultimate took exactly the opposite tack to that of Imagine in terms of public relations, replacing the latter’s ostentation with reclusiveness, and managing in the process to replace their rival almost overnight as the coolest name in Spectrum gaming. While Imagine continued to make a spectacle of themselves, Ultimate quietly delivered groundbreaking game after groundbreaking game from a secret location with a “Private: Keep Out!” sign posted on the door. Meanwhile Imagine’s games seemed to be getting worse over time rather than better, with embarrassing turkeys like Stonkers becoming more and more common.

One didn’t have to be an expert in financial forensics to sense that the numbers didn’t quite add up for Imagine. Their mediocre games had undoubtedly benefited greatly from the distribution inroads engineered by Everiss, but by late 1983 the competition had already done much to erase that advantage, at least in terms of the domestic British market. How could Imagine’s games possibly be selling in such quantities that they could afford to zip about in Ferraris while everyone else puttered around in Fords? When journalists did question them on specifics, the answers they received were never very satisfying. For instance, after Mark Butler made the incredible claim that 70 percent of all Spectrum owners had purchased a copy of Arcadia, Your Computer magazine asked how it could be that such an unprecedentedly popular game hadn’t been all that high in the industry’s official retail-sales charts for some time. Butler answered that this was because most of Arcadia‘s sales were made via mail order — a claim that stood in stark contradiction to Imagine’s other assertion that their Britain- and Western Europe-spanning retail network was one of the biggest keys to their allegedly ongoing success.

Such questions were getting put to them more and more as Imagine powered into the 1983 Christmas season, still only their first as a publisher to retail. Yet even now the trade press’s skepticism wasn’t too pronounced. These “journalists” were mostly just young men who loved games and the computers that played them; they were far from trained investigative reporters. And there remained the tangible proof of Imagine’s success all around them, in the form of fast cars, faster motorcycles, plush offices, and a bevy of well-coifed secretaries who seemed to have been hired on the basis of looks rather than skills. Something had to be paying for all this ostentation, right? To a large extent, the brash young lads of Imagine were living the dream they all shared. No one really wanted to burst the bubble — even if Ultimate’s actual games were a lot better.

But burst the bubble must. And when it happened, the result would be a spectacular crackup that still remains one of the most storied in the long history of games-industry excess, a veritable blueprint for the similar crackups to come. Enormous though the sums connected with Imagine’s failure seemed at the time, the money involved in those later scandals would of course dwarf that of this one. Still, Imagine’s story would have one delicious aspect even they wouldn’t be able to match: it would be captured on videotape.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Videogames Conquered the World by Rebecca Levene and Magnus Anderson; Your Computer of October 1981, August 1982, January 1983, April 1983, and December 1983; Computer and Video Games of December 1981, May 1983, and February 1984, and the 1984 Yearbook; The Games Machine of August 1990; ZX Computing of April/May 1983; Popular Computing Weekly of January 6 1983, March 3 1983, and April 7 1983; Home Computing Weekly of April 12 1983, May 17 1983, July 12 1983, and December 20 1983; CU Amiga of August 1992; Sinclair User of March 1984 and May 1984; ZZap! of September 1986; Your Computer of April 1983 and November 1984; Crash of March 1984; Times of London of August 16 1983. See also Bruce Everiss’s “A History of the UK Video Game Industry Through My Eyes,” parts 1 and 2. The Commercial Breaks episode on Ocean and Imagine is available on YouTube.)


August 31, 2017

These Heterogenous Tasks

Colonial Reform

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at August 31, 2017 04:41 PM

Two similar games came out at about the same time in 2015. Both involve a Conan Doyle or Verne-style exploration contest between members of a clubbish Royal Society-like organisation; you assemble a small team of adventurers and go on a series of … Continue reading

Emily Short

End of August Link Assortment

by Emily Short at August 31, 2017 10:40 AM


September 2 is the next meeting of the SF Bay area Meetup.

September 14, Hello Words meets in Nottingham to write IF together.

Also September 14 is the next meeting of the People’s Republic of IF in Cambridge, MA.

September 15-17 is Progression Mechanics, a Chicago-area conference on the changing medium of games and the business of the games industry. I will be speaking there.

October 14 in Dublin is a one-day course in writing for video games and interactive narrative, offered by Charlene Putney.

WordPlay, the annual festival of word-based games that came to London in 2016, is this year returning to its native Toronto on November 18. If you’d like to submit a game for inclusion, you have until September 30. Accepted games will be presented to the public, and submitting artists will receive an artist fee of $80 CAD.

If you’re going to be on this side of the water in November, you might be more inclined to attend AdventureX in London, November 11-12.

There’s one more month before IF Comp goes live: this is your opportunity to finish a game, if you’re working on one, or to contribute testing if you’re so inclined.

If you enjoyed my post about ASMR but felt that there wasn’t enough in there about, like, games, Bruno Dias pointed out this game that is about making ASMR videos.

New Releases

The Secret of the Chatter Blocks is a children’s IF piece originally prototyped in Twine but with an iOS-friendly front end.

Matthew Ritter of the Boon Hill cemetery simulator has a new game out called Dead Horizon, a short fantasy-western story paced by lightgun-style shooting matches with various villains. It’s now available on Steam and (If you play and are curious about the backstory of this world, there’s also some extra story material available from the menu.)

Vitaly Lischenko has made an Alexa skill to play classic IF. There is a demo video and a home page/source code.

Talks and Podcasts

Jeremiah McCall sends along a podcast where he talks about history teaching and interactive fiction — “and a host of other games and history ed topics, though mostly Twine.”

The talk I gave at Gamelab in Barcelona, about AI as Uncanny Mirror, is now available online. It’s covering a range of topics: a bit about what I’m doing now at Spirit, a bit about past projects including Versu, and the ever-vexed question of trying to make AI both sentient and obedient.

Talks from the GameDevsOfColorExpo are available online now.

Also available for viewing is this YouTube capture of the Procedural Generation Workshop 2017.

Especially recommended: here’s Nicky Case with a talk on Seeing Whole Systems. Nicky is the creator of Coming Out Simulator 2014, as well as some really fascinating work on understanding complexity by creating and testing simulations. If you too are interested in the juxtaposition of procedural rhetoric and narrative (interactive or otherwise), I recommend keeping an eye on Nicky’s work — perhaps, if you’re so inclined, via this Patreon account. Further, the talk mentions a sweet visualization tool Nicky created called Loopy:

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Renga in Blue has covered dozens of adventure games from the 1970s — all of them, the blog claims, though it seems possible that some obscure personal experiments might have escaped this accounting — and has thoughts about them, as well as a catalog of firsts.

Cat Manning writes about constrained, limited-parser games, with special attention to Lime Ergot and Take.

cwodtke writes about some core “big ideas” in game design. If you’ve been around industry game design for a while, a number of these will be familiar, 101-level concepts, but there may be a few that aren’t; and it links on to useful further background on several.

Strange Horizons has a long-form review of the storytelling choices in the tabletop narrative game T.I.M.E Stories. And speaking of that, SH is also in the middle of fundraising to pay for its next year of operation.

Jon Ingold writes about procedurally generated artifacts in inkle’s upcoming Heaven’s Vault.

Here is an article for Topic about female mentorship pairs; one of the mentors profiled here is Liza Daly (Stone Harbor, co-creator and commissioner of First Draft of the Revolution, et al).

And here is Tuukka Ojala on what it’s like to be a programmer who can’t see.


Adliberum is a multi-player IF engine that is also available on Steam. This is the kind of thing that I would normally want to have more of a look at; the last few weeks have been comically over-busy, though. So I didn’t. Perhaps some of you will do so!

And along the same lines, Jeff Schomay writes about the ELM Narrative engine that he’s working on:

Here are the main points I’d like to share:

  • This tool is unique in that it uses a context-aware, rules-based system, similar to what I believe you have called a salience system.
  • A great strength of this tool is that it totally separates story logic, content, and presentation, making it possible to fully customize what a story looks like, or add interactive narrative to many different types of games.  I speak of this on my dev blog, and have some nice polished playable demos showing the variety of games the same narrative system can power.
  • I have a story starter to help people get started, and I am working on a visual editor with an exportable story data file as well.
  • I recently created an interactive story structure visualization tool for the unique graph-style nature of stories made with this tool.

You can read more about the tool at my dev blog., including a post on why I made this tool and what makes it unique, per your suggestion.


A longtime friend writes about viewing the totality of the eclipse (which, being in England, I did not get to do); and in recollection of his father, one of the first science teachers in my life.

Zarf Updates

Your load is too heavy: Zork deep reading

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at August 31, 2017 03:51 AM

This past weekend a screenshot went around Twitter (my part of Twitter at least!)

weight = num_items * Max_held_mult;
if( weight <= random(100) ) ?label8;
print "You're holding too many things already!";
move noun to player;
(-- @icculus, Aug 26)
The clear reading of this code (as the screenshot says) is that the inventory limit in Zork 1 is random, not a fixed number of items. Each item you pick up makes it more likely that you'll hit a "holding too many things" error. But since it's a random chance, you can just try again -- it might work next time.
This was passed around in a commentary cloud of "This game was unfair," "games in the 80s were terrible," and so on. (See this NeoGAF thread, for example.)
This is fascinating! I played Zork, as I played all the Infocom games, and I didn't remember this inventory detail. It felt dimly familiar when I was reminded of it, though.
Research time!

Is it true?

That's the first question, of course. Let's try it.
You are carrying:
A rope
A nasty knife
A brass lantern (providing light)
A clove of garlic
A lunch
A brown sack
A glass bottle
The glass bottle contains:
A quantity of water
A jewel-encrusted egg
A leaflet

>get sword
You're holding too many things already!

>get sword
It's true! It's true!
Here I'm playing Zork 1, revision 88, serial number 840726. This is by far the most common version you'll find today, because it was the version included on the Lost Treasures of Infocom CD. You can play it today on iOS (at least until iOS11 hits) or on GOG. Or I'm pretty sure you can find it with a web search.

But is it evil?

Well, that's a more complicated question.
If you look at the Twitter thread, you'll see that the code snippet is taken from this source code listing (wayback link from 2004). Let's look at a larger chunk of this file:
     if( parent(noun) in player ) ?label4;
weight = QueryWeight(noun);
if( (weight + QueryWeight(player)) <= Load_max ) ?label4;
if( ~~vb ) ?label5;
print "Your load is too heavy";
if( Load_max >= Load_allowed ) ?label6;
print ", especially in light of your condition.";
jump label7;
print ".";
return 2;
if( Verb ~= ##Take ) ?label8;
num_items = CCount(player);
if( num_items <= Maximum_held ) ?label8;
weight = num_items * Max_held_mult;
if( weight <= random(100) ) ?label8;
print "You're holding too many things already!";
move noun to player;
Here it becomes apparent that there are two independent limit tests when you pick up an object. First it checks the sum of your weight and the weight of what you're picking up. This is a constant test: the sum must be less than Load_max (100 pounds), or it displays the error "Your load is too heavy." (If you're wounded, the weight limit decreases.)
Then it checks the number of items you're holding. This is the randomized test, but there's a safety zone: anything up to Maximum_held (7 items) is safe. In fact, if you're carrying 7 items, the next TAKE command is safe. Beyond eight items, the chance of failure is num_items * Max_held_mult (N*8) as a percentage.
So this is already less evil than it looked at first. You can carry up to 100 pounds and eight items, but the item limit is soft -- you get some wiggle room on that.
More trivia:
  • Object weights range from 2 (the leaflet, matchbook, etc) to 55 (the gold coffin).
  • Weight is figured recursively -- objects in a container still count towards the weight limit.
  • Object count is not recursive, so you can work around the "too many things" error with careful sack-management.
  • Worn clothing is counted as weight 1. But there is no clothing in Zork 1, so this doesn't help you much!
  • The original MIT Zork/Dungeon game, the predecessor to Zork 1/2/3, did not have the item count check (randomized or otherwise). It only checked total weight.

So is Zork 1 evil?

Of course it's evil! There's a thief who can walk into the room and kill you! Or steal vital equipment from you and hide it in an inaccessible room! Your lamp dies after 385 turns! Evil, sheesh.
But that's not a complete answer.
Remember that we are looking at the dawn of computing gaming history. The very idea that a videogame should be fair, or even winnable, was hazy. It was perfectly normal for a game to just get harder and harder until it killed you. (Think Pac-Man, Asteroids, etc.)
The adventure genre has always presented itself as "solvable", but of course that is itself a subjective standard. Through the 1980s, we took for granted that solving a game took repeated attempts -- death after death, retry after retry, mistake after mistake -- learning (hopefully) a little each time. Today we say "masocore"; back then it was just the way games were. The thief was an annoyance. "Unfair" sequencing, like being able to accidentally destroy or lose a crucial object, wasn't even worth a blink.
(Jason Dyer has been going through the adventure games of the 1970s; there's also the Digital Antiquarian. Those blog series give an excellent introduction to just how arbitrary, buggy, and poorly tested a lot of those early games were. Remember, Infocom's canon stood out for being much better than the rest. Honest.)
The soft item count limit, taken as a game mechanic, wasn't unreasonable. In particular, you can't say it was a trivial annoyance whose only purpose was to make the player retype a command. Wasting a turn is a meaningful penalty in Zork. Your lamp is slowly dying; the thief is out there wandering. If you run into that "too many items" error, you've failed at inventory management. You should have paid more attention and put something in your sack first.
Was inventory management a good game design idea? Well, no. I thought it was annoying and tedious then; I still think so today. But it was part of the Zork ethos, and the item limit was part of the inventory system.

Are we really looking at the Zork 1 source code?

Excellent question! Always question hot takes you see on Twitter. The answer is "yes, sort of."
The Zork file we've been discussing is not the source code that Lebling and Blank wrote at Infocom circa 1980. Rather, it is a disassembly of the Z-machine game file that Infocom sold. (And which can be found on the Lost Treasures CD, etc.)
The Z-machine format was never published by Infocom, but it was reverse-engineered around 1990 and is now well understood. You can find tools which disassemble the Infocom game files (and Inform game files, for that matter). I use txd, found in the ztools package.
Run txd on the Zork 1 file, and you'll see... raw Z-machine assembly code. The txd output for the function we've been discussing looks like:
L0003: GET_PARENT      G76 -> -(SP)
JIN (SP)+,G6f [TRUE] L0007
CALL R0241 (G76) -> L03
CALL R0241 (G6f) -> -(SP)
ADD L03,(SP)+ -> -(SP)
JG (SP)+,G85 [FALSE] L0007
JZ L00 [TRUE] L0006
PRINT "Your load is too heavy"
JL G85,G86 [FALSE] L0004
PRINT ", especially in light of your condition."
JUMP L0005
L0004: PRINT "."
L0006: RET #02
L0007: JE G78,#5d [FALSE] L0008
CALL R0240 (G6f) -> L01
JG L01,G3b [FALSE] L0008
MUL L01,G3a -> L03
RANDOM #64 -> -(SP)
JG L03,(SP)+ [FALSE] L0008
PRINT "You're holding too many things already!"
L0008: INSERT_OBJ G76,G6f
If you compare this to the code above, you can see they behave the same. But the game file is compiled code. All the symbols -- the variable and function names -- have been stripped out.
So where did that original file, with its nice labels, come from? If you go back to the twitter thread, you'll see:
Holy crap, you pulled that literal code from my horrible, horrible decompiler output from the early 2000s!
(-- @allengarvin, Aug 27)
Allen Garvin started with that raw disassembly. Then he laboriously figured out what each line did, and gave every function and variable an appropriate label. (Not, of course, the same labels that the Infocom authors used!)
As Allen's tweet implies, we've been looking at a crude, early attempt. He has a much cleaner Zork 1 source file posted today:
if (parent(noun) notin player) {
weight = QueryWeight(noun);
if (weight + QueryWeight(player) > Load_max) {
if (vb) {
print "Your load is too heavy";
if (Load_max < Load_allowed) {
print ", especially in light of your condition.";
} else {
print ".";
return A_FAILURE;
if (action == ##Take) {
num_items = CCount(player);
if (num_items > Maximum_held) {
weight = num_items * Max_held_mult;
if (weight > random(100)) {
print "You're holding too many things already!";
move noun to player;
It does exactly the same thing, but it's much more readable, right? It's also recompilable Inform 6 source code.

What about the Zork 2 stuff?

In the swirling tweet-gyre, Jason Scott (noted Infocom historian!) wrote:
The main thing is, I am coming to the conclusion that what this really is Zork II's FUMBLE spell effects on you.
(-- @textfiles, Aug 28)
(FUMBLE is one of the curses that the Wizard of Frobozz casts on you. But the Wizard doesn't show up until Zork 2.)
Jason points out that the Infocom games re-used parser code all the time. It was a big chunk, essentially a library, and the Infocom authors copied and pasted it from one game to the next. (Remember that detail about clothing?) In fact, if you look a little farther down the original Zork 1 file, you'll see:
move noun to player;
give noun visited;
In fact the whole Zork 1 parser is studded with Zork2_deletion() calls. But, on the other hand, we've seen that the randomizer really does take effect in Zork 1. So Jason is right about re-used code, but wrong about the FUMBLE curse theory. (Sorry!)
So what's going here?
First of all, remember that Zork2_deletion is a label that Allen Garvin added. The compiled game file just has a do-nothing call to an empty function.
Why did Allen use that label? If you look at a disassembly of Zork 2, there's a very similar routine, but it has some extra code that can print the message "When you touch the [noun] it immediately disappears!" This has to do with the FANTASIZE curse, which makes you hallucinate fake objects.
It's pretty clear that both games (and probably Zork 3) were compiled with a common parser library. But the library was rigged a lot of special curse conditions which were only compiled in when building Zork 2. (#ifdef code, we'd say today.)
The randomized item limit was not one of these curses. It really did apply in both games.
Most of Infocom's games had inventory limits, but the form varied.
  • Enchanter: Weight and item limit, just as in Zork 1.
  • Zork 3: Weight and item limit, with a twist: "Oh, no. The [obj1] slips from your arms while taking the [obj2] and both tumble to the ground."
  • Lurking Horror: Weight and item limit, but not randomized.
And so on.
(Yes, I keep all the Infocom game files in disassembled form, to answer questions just like this. But no, I'm not going to go through and catalog the inventory limits in every single one.)


This post has gotten really long and I haven't figured out a conclusion for it. (Yes, you say, like so many other blog posts...) Well, try this:
Detail matters. And comparing different versions of the same file can be surprisingly interesting.

August 29, 2017

Zarf Updates

Using SkiaSharp in Unity

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at August 29, 2017 01:26 AM

For the past two weeks I've been trying to make SkiaSharp work inside Unity. It has been zero fun but I got it to work. Painfully and creakily, but it works. I suspect I'm the first person to do this so I'm going to document the process here.
Yes, this is for a game project. I'll let you know when it's closer to release.
Background: Skia is an open-source 2D graphics library from Google. It lets you fill and stroke vector shapes (polygons, circles, spline curves, text). 2D graphics features are easy for native apps and web pages, but Unity doesn't have any such feature.
(There's LineRenderer but that's very limited. No polygon fill, no true curves.)
Skia is a native library -- you can download compiled libraries for Mac, Win, Linux, etc. Then the Xamarin people created SkiaSharp, which is a C# wrapper for Skia. Problem solved, right? Drop the library into Unity, build Mac and Windows apps, go.
Nope. It was a headache. But I made it work, in a very clunky way.
UPDATE, SEPT 4: Many thanks to Marshall Quander, who read my original blog post and clued me into the right way to set things up. Or, at least, the less-wrong way. This post is much shorter now!
I'm not going to describe every blind alley. (See the end of this post for a taste.) Instead, I will give a recipe for creating a tiny Unity project which displays some 2D graphics. Follow along!

Orientation: the library files

SkiaSharp consists of two libraries. You will need both:
  • The managed library (compiled C# code). This is called SkiaSharp.dll.
  • The native library (compiled C++ code). This is called libSkiaSharp.dll on Windows, libSkiaSharp.bundle on Mac, and I guess it would be on Linux.
I have handily collected all the files you need here. Download and unpack it.
You now have these files:
  • managed/SkiaSharp.dll
  • native/mac/libSkiaSharp.bundle
  • native/win-x86/libSkiaSharp.dll
  • native/win-x64/libSkiaSharp.dll
  • RawImageDraw.cs

Where I got these files.

If you just want to make the demo work, skip ahead to the Recipe section. This is archeology.
You can download most of these files from SkiaSharp's nuget page. Hit Manual Download, rename the resulting skiasharp.1.59.1.nupkg file to, and unzip it.
Critical note: for Windows, you must use the native DLLs from runtimes/win7-x64 and runtimes/win7-x86. I spent days trying to get the one from runtimes/win10-x64 to work on my 64-bit Windows 10 machine. It would... not... load. Stick with the win7 versions.
The other critical note: for Mac, you have to rename their libSkiaSharp.dylib file to libSkiaSharp.bundle. This is clearly silly, since the standard OSX suffix for dynamically-loadable libraries is .dylib and has been forever. But Unity doesn't like that. .bundle works, so we go with that.
The managed/SkiaSharp.dll file is (essentially) the same one that nuget distributes as lib/net45/SkiaSharp.dll. As I said, this isn't really portable. The reason is that it tries to import libSkiaSharp.dll with that file suffix hardwired in. I had to build a new version which imports libSkiaSharp, without a file suffix. C# is smart enough to pick the right suffix.
But wait, you ask, what about SkiaSharp.dll.config? This is a config file from the nuget package which is supposed to paper over all those suffix problems. Yeah, well, that seemed to work for command-line C# builds, but I couldn't make it work inside Unity. So I'm ignoring it.

The recipe

Okay, on with the recipe. I am doing this on a Mac, in case it matters. (I hope it doesn't matter, but...)
  • Launch Unity 2017.1.0f3.
  • Create a new 2D project called SkiaDemo.
  • Select Edit / Project Settings / Player to open PlayerSettings in the inspector pane. Select the Other Settings subpane. Under Configuration, set Scripting Runtime Version to "Experimental (.NET 4.6 Equivalent)". Unity will then insist on restarting.
This is necessary because the SkiaSharp library is built for .NET 4.5. At least, the version that I got to work is, and I'm scared to change the recipe any further.
  • Select GameObject / UI / Raw Image. Unity will create a white square. In the hierarchy window, you'll see a Canvas object containing a RawImage.
If you don't see the white square, make sure you've selected the Game tab in the central window.
  • Hit Save and save your scene with the name Main (in the Assets folder).
  • Select the Canvas. In the inspector, set UI Scale Mode to "Scale With Screen Size". This isn't necessary but this mode makes the most sense to me.
  • In the bottom pane, switch to the Project tab. Select the Assets folder. Select Assets / Create / Folder to create a new folder inside Assets; name it SkiaSharp. Then create folders called x64 and x86 inside Assets/SkiaSharp
  • Copy managed/SkiaSharp.dll to your Assets/SkiaSharp folder.
  • Copy native/win-x64/libSkiaSharp.dll to your Assets/SkiaSharp/x64 folder. Select it in the bottom pane. In the import inspector, select the Platform Settings / Editor (Unity) pane, and set CPU to x86_64. Then select the Platform Settings / Standalone (⬇) pane, and uncheck x86. Then hit the Apply button.
  • Copy native/win-x86/libSkiaSharp.dll to your Assets/SkiaSharp/x86 folder. Select it in the bottom pane. In the import inspector, select the Platform Settings / Editor (Unity) pane, and set CPU to x86. Then select the Platform Settings / Standalone (⬇) pane, and uncheck x86_64. Then hit the Apply button.
  • Copy native/mac/libSkiaSharp.bundle to your Assets/SkiaSharp folder. Don't mess with its import settings. It's not necessary, and when I tried it I broke my Unity project entirely.
When you are adjusting the import settings, make sure you're adjusting them for the right file each time! It's easy to leave the wrong file selected. The Information section at the bottom of the inspector pane will show the one you're editing.
  • Copy RawImageDraw.cs to your Assets folder.
  • In the hierarchy window, select the RawImage component. In the inspector, hit Add Component; select Scripts / Raw Image Draw.
  • Pray sincerely to the .NET gods and hit the Run button. You should see:

The RawImageDraw.cs code draws these shapes and lines on a transparent background. (The dark-blue background color comes from the Main Camera component; the RawImage is drawn on top of that.)
Note that the triangle and semicircle are drawn in translucent yellow (50% opacity).
  • You should now be able to build Mac and Windows apps. Both x86 and x86_64 should work on both platforms. (Although all Macs are 64-bit-capable, and have been for the last ten years, so you can ignore Mac x86.)

The pain points

The big one: What about Linux? Sorry, the SkiaSharp project doesn't offer a compiled Linux library. (See README.) If someone builds one, let me know.
A second problem: Unity does some incomprehensible caching of libraries. Sometimes your app will refuse to run in the editor even though you have the right libraries installed. Sometimes it will run correctly even though you don't have the right libraries installed. (Even if you restart Unity!) This made writing this post very, very horrible. If you follow these instructions and they don't work for you, all I can say is that I sympathize.

Some more notes

  • To understand the Skia calls in RawImageDraw.cs, see the SkiaSharp reference docs.
  • I always draw into a Unity RawImage object. That is, I take the Texture2D created by the Skia render process and put it into a RawImage. You can probably do other stuff with that Texture2D, but I haven't experimented.
  • If you create a RawImage in your Unity project and then draw into it at run time, the player might see a flash of a blank white square. To avoid this, create a small transparent PNG in your Assets and set the RawImage to that texture.
  • Remember that the RawImage size is completely independent of the Skia canvas size. In this example, we render a 256x256 pixel canvas and then drop it into the RawImage, which is scaled to a percentage of your window size. (Because of the "Scale With Screen Size" canvas setting.) Choosing a canvas size is outside the scope of this recipe; I don't have any advice for you.
I hope this is helpful! And I hope it stays helpful for more than a few months! (I know how it is to find five-year-old programming advice on a blog somewhere which no longer works...)
Again, please comment or contact me if you have anything to add.

Old bad version

Don't follow the instructions in this last section. I am preserving my notes from my original attempt at making this work. I made it work, but it required hand-tweaking of your game packages after building. (On both Mac and Windows.)
Before Marshall Quander explained how to build the right managed library, I was building two SkiaSharp.dll files -- one for Mac, one for Windows. One of them linked to the native libSkiaSharp.dll library, one to the native libSkiaSharp.dylib library. In theory, a managed library is portable and you'd use the same one on every platform, but in practice I couldn't make that work.
Or rather, I thought of a way to make it work, but it would cost performance on every graphics call, and why bother? We're already going to have to install a different native library on every build. Might as well install a different managed library too.
To make life even worse, I couldn't even include both SkiaSharp.dll files in the same project. They conflicted at build time. Yes, Unity has import settings which are supposed to let you include separate Mac and Windows libraries such that right one loads on each platform. Guess what? They don’t work. You have to install just one set in your project and stick to editing on the same platform all the time.
In the course of getting that to work, I wound up putting both the Mac and Windows native libraries into nonstandard locations. The Mac library went into; the Win library went into SkiaDemo_Data/Mono. Why these locations? (Neither appears in a normal Unity-build app at all.) Basically, these were the first locations I found that worked. I was so worn out by the experimentation process that I just put a pin in that solution and moved on.
Of course, Unity wasn't putting the files in my special locations. (In fact Unity wasn't putting the Mac library anywhere, since it was a .dylib and Unity doesn't recognize those.) So I had to manually copy the files into place. I wrote a Python script to help with this, not that Python is particularly comfortable for most Unity developers.
Then I came up with a nice hack based on PostProcessBuildAttribute, which made the file-copying happen magically inside the Unity build process.
I was pretty pleased with the PostProcessBuildAttribute trick, in fact. But it's not necessary now that I've got everything else sorted out. Oh well. Maybe I'll use it for something else someday.