Planet Interactive Fiction

May 24, 2020

Zarf Updates

Subcutanean and variations thereof

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at May 24, 2020 07:03 PM

I have now finished reading two of Aaron Reed's Subcutanean. This is not a game; it is a novel generated from an algorithmic framework that allows every printed copy to be a different text. Thus it partakes of some aspects of game design (procedural generation, unique reader experience) but not others (no interactivity or player agency). This is interesting!
(I've read recensions 10881 and 10966, in case you're keeping track.)
Before I go winding off down corridors of theory, I should say that Subcutanean is an excellent short horror novel. Orion (or Ryan, or Ry) lives in an amorphous post-college group house, trying to figure out his crush-or-friendship with-or-on his housemate Niko. Then the two of them discover a hidden stairway leading down into the house's basement. The house shouldn't have a basement and "amorphous" shouldn't be this literal. Doors lead out into corridors, corridors lead to more doors, a sense of unreality begins to grow. And then the two start to catch glimpses of other explorers -- people who look like alternate versions of themselves.
The world of Downstairs starts creepy and gets creepier, and it reflects the uncertainty of Orion's headspace. The social world of queer-and-out is as hard to navigate as any psychogeographic underworld; Niko is the partner Orion doesn't know how to explore with. Then it all goes wrong -- wronger -- and I'll let you find out how it wraps up. Which may not, of course, be exactly how it wrapped up for me.
When I (or Aaron) says "a novel where no two copies are the same", you might imagine two structures. Either:
  • A branching story with two or four or sixteen different outcomes. Like a classic CYOA book except that the choices have been pre-selected for you at random. Or:
  • A traditional novel with a set storyline, but a lot of incidental details chosen at random. They turned left or right, they were startled by a screech or a burst of sparks, the carpet was beige or brown.
Subcutanean is neither of those. Or rather, it has bits of both: some details are randomized, and the story has a couple of significant variations of the climactic scene. (I saw two, anyhow.) But the overall shape of the story is under fairly firm control, and the details that vary aren't always the incidental ones.
The work is more interested in how the narrator can vary. Orion may be more laconic or more voluble; he may be an optimist or a pessimist; he may prefer slang or avoid it. He may be the sort of person who gets awkwardly drunk at parties or the sort who stays awkwardly sober. These choices are maintained throughout the text. Particular events may be inserted or omitted, or key details changed; but the system tracks these so that later scenes can reflect them back. Perhaps with an added sentence, perhaps with just a well-placed "again".
Aaron has documented this design and its hiccups in a development blog -- well worth a look either before or after you read the book. No spoilers.
The goal, obviously, is to create a text that reads as a coherent narrative, with all the large-and-small-scale push-and-flow that a traditional novel would provide. It doesn't always work perfectly; I ran into an obviously repeated anecdote in version 10966. But on the whole it's successful. (Aaron has done at least one round of bug fixes since then, so the problem I found may have been eradicated from future versions.)
I have to admit my bias here: I have a lifelong obsession with the Unbounded House of Many Doors. If you've played any amount of my work you realize this! Subcutanean is exactly what I want, except with an accelerating curve of wrongness and decay, which is not where I usually take it. Also, of course, the ramifying underground space calls back to a long history of much-loved games, from Wumpus and Adventure through to KR0 and the future.
As I said, the book shares some aspects of game design in a non-interactive context. Really, most narrative games have pieces that work like Subcutanean. A single NPC response is a non-interactive text -- a sentence or paragraph -- whose content varies depending on the prior history of your session. It's easy to focus on your immediate interactive choices: choose a dialogue option, get a response. But really, that response could be influenced by lots of factors, overt or invisible, random or contingent.
Subcutanean is that experience with the "invisible" and "random" knobs turned up and scaled to novel-length. You never make a choice; the text is printed and fixed. But then, in Heaven's Vault, not much of the narrative variation depends on choices you know you're making. And of course the book involves all the game-design problems of keeping a variable narrative experience within the intended bounds.
Subcutanean also produces that quintessentially game-ish response which I mentioned in my Heaven's Vault post. When you finish, you immediately want to start again and see how different it could have been. "I've seen the covers, now I can open the book." Happily (though also through necessity), the book is short enough to do this without feeling bogged down. Maybe I'll read a third copy pretty soon.
We are left with the question of whether Subcutanean is the only procgen novel that could be written. Sometimes an experimental narrative so perfectly marries form and content that it's hard to imagine what else could be done with the idea. The Monster at the End of This Book, for example. Or take Jason Shiga's Meanwhile. If you're going to iterate through variations of a narrative, learning more each time, you almost need time machines, memory loops, and the threat of total narrative collapse. (Outer Wilds is an interesting comparison here -- a very different story which is nonetheless drawn into many of the same tropes.)
So if you're going to write about variations of a narrator, do you need to set it in an infinite branching space with the growing threat of utter alienation? Surely not, but some of the choices do feel kind of inevitable.
Others were unexpected. Subcutanean plays with the idea of playing by its own rules. You want to believe that every version of the book is narrated by an Orion, one of the infinite number exploring the interconnected Downstairs. If I were writing such a story, that's absolutely what I'd do! But Aaron's book doesn't. Or maybe some subset of the texts do, but not the two I read: the rules of Downstairs aren't quite consistent between them. It's upsetting.
But then, it's horror. Your certainties are supposed to come unmoored.
It doesn't have to be horror. I hope more authors take on this sort of structure. Subcutanean doesn't have to be the only one. Narrative design is no longer an abstruse mysterious field; lots of writers have dabbled in both static and dynamic prose. I'd like to see the variation-novel become an established form. Get on it, folks.

May 23, 2020

Zarf Updates

Compiling for the Z-machine version 3

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at May 23, 2020 01:34 AM

The Inform 6 compiler has been pretty stable for the past several years. It's still in active use as part of the Inform 7 toolset, but the I6 compiler hasn't changed much.
However, I've put in a few I6 updates over the past week. Exciting news? Maybe not for most of us, but these changes are important to people who are trying to write really old-fashioned Inform games.
Let me go back to the old days. (Jangly harp transition...) In 1979, when Infocom ported Zork to personal computers, they designed the famous Z-machine platform. It went through a couple of iterations, but by 1982 the "version 3" Z-machine was firmly established as Infocom's workhorse.
The V3 machine was tightly constrained in some ways. For example, it could only support 255 objects (counting rooms, items, scenery, NPCs, and the player!) But this was deliberate; it was intended to run on some really tiny computers like the TRS-80 and Commodore 64.
Infocom games got larger and more sophisticated, but they kept on stuffing them into V3. The Zork trilogy, Enchanter trilogy, Hitchhiker's, Planetfall... it wasn't until AMFV in 1985 that they had to design a V4 Z-machine. And even then they kept using V3 for any game that fit.
Mind you, the Infocom people didn't say "V3" and "V4" back in the day. They referred to V3 as "ZIP". V4 was "EZIP", for "Extended ZIP". Then "XZIP" (V5) came along in 1987, and "YZIP" (V6) in 1989. These updates allowed more objects and more content. They also added a parade of new features: bold/italic text, expanded status window, sound, timed input, and finally graphics.
But this only underlines that V3 was Infocom's standard technology. You used V3 unless you had some specific need for one of the larger, fancier platforms.

Jump forward (jangle jingle) to the "modern" era of 1993. The Z-machine has been reverse-engineered; we have open-source interpreters that support all versions. Graham Nelson releases Inform, a compiler which can generate Z-machine game files.
Inform let you write games for any version, but in practice, your choice was between V3 and V5. (V1/2 were too antiquated to bother with. V6 was a headache for reasons I won't get into here. And V4 was like V5 minus a few features; if your game outgrew V3, you might as well go straight to V5.)
But among Inform users, unlike Infocom, it was V5 that emerged as the "standard platform". If you look at the games/zcode directory on the IF Archive, there are over 300 .z5 games and just five .z3 games!
The reasons are obvious. Everybody had modern Mac/PC machines which could run the largest Z-code games with ease. Authors felt free to put more scenery, more detail, more responses into their games. In that atmosphere, the V3 limit of 255 objects really pinched. And the other V5 features were nice to have around. Most games didn't need sound or timed input, but bold and italic text always look good. Why not build your game on V5 and have all the amenities available, just in case?
(Then, in 1995, Graham Nelson's Jigsaw overflowed V5 and he had to invent V7 and V8 in a hurry. But never mind that.)
So Inform's V3 compiler code was barely ever tested after the mid-90s. And we know what happens to untested code: it breaks. A couple of bugs crept in and nobody noticed.
That is, not until 2020 (jingle bloop). A couple of projects are now working on Z-machine tools for retro machines. MetroCenter '84 and PunyInform are Inform libraries optimized for size; Ozmoo and Pitch Dark are Z-machine interpreters which run on the C-64 and Apple 2.
Running on that classic metal means embracing all the memory limitations which we forgot about in the 90s. Every object and every byte counts. V3 is once again the order of the day. And presto -- the bug reports started rolling in.
Okay, only two bug reports. The fixes were a couple of lines each. Now Inform 6 can compile V3 games again!
While I was in there, I added a feature which could be of additional help. I6 games can now contain "static arrays", whose data goes into ROM rather than RAM. (Yeah, the Z-machine has ROM and RAM. I'm simplifying a bit but that's the idea.)
Static arrays may not be a lot of help. I first considered this idea when I was working on Hadean Lands -- a game which was originally planned for the "limited hardware" of the iPhone. (This was back when mobile phones didn't have gigabytes of memory.) I knew HL's alchemy system would require a lot of data and I thought that putting it into ROM might be worthwhile. But, long story short, it turned out not to be. So I didn't do it. Until now.
(Before you ask: yes, Hadean Lands is written in Inform 7, and it uses the Glulx VM rather than the Z-machine. The I6 compiler is still part of the toolchain and the concept of static arrays applies equally well to Glulx ROM and RAM.)
So there's your history lesson of the week. I could have tweeted "Inform 6 bugs fixed", but this is more fun to read, I hope.

May 21, 2020

Renga in Blue

Raaka-Tu: Finished!

by Jason Dyer at May 21, 2020 08:41 PM

In the end, all you need to do is find five treasures from the temple, escape with them outside, and head back to the starting room; your score will double from 25 out of 50 to 50 out of 50. There is no victory message so you have to invent your own.

I ended up looking up two hints; one I regret checking, the other I do not.

From Mobygames.

The first thing I figured out from last time was the gargoyle. To give some context, here is what fighting the gargoyle is like. (I have added the > marks for clarity.)


There’s one item I didn’t mention, a candle, because I hadn’t played with it yet.


If you stay nearby the “sweet scent” after you light it, eventually you fall over and die.


The candle works on the gargoyle equally well! So you just need to light the candle, drop it with the gargoyle, leave for a bit, and wait.


Past the gargoyle is a treasure, a GOLDEN CHOPSTICK.

The second thing I solved in a meta-way. The manual mentions you can PUT THE —- UNDER THE —-. This implied to me UNDER worked as a preposition, so LOOK UNDER was a possible action.

I remembered the sacrificial altar from last time (where I fought the snake) seemed suspicious.


The passage leads outside; since I had three treasures (the golden chopstick, a golden idol from the altar room, and the gold ring from last time that caused teleportation) I knew I just needed the last two in order to win.

Here is where I got horribly stuck. The hint I don’t regret checking at all is that there’s a hidden gem randomly placed somewhere on the map, so you have to EXAMINE ROOM in each and every room until you find it.


The manual does not mention EXAMINE ROOM is even possible. I’ve seen it once before in Temple of the Sun, but there it was a command in the instructions and there are enough hidden objects it doesn’t take too long for the command to be useful. With Raaka-Tu I only found the gem after examining nearly every room in the game.

The “good” puzzle is at the vault, which I mentioned last time, but I’ll repeat the description of here:


Pulling the lever opens a trapdoor which kills the player via burial in gold dust. I tried various ways of moving the lever only briefly, or throwing something at it, but it does make some sense the lever wouldn’t react in that way (it’s meant to be a trap, after all).

Remember, our goal is simply to escape with the fifth treasure. What should you do? Assuming you’ve read this far, you know enough to solve the puzzle, so I’ll provide my map of the inside of the temple to give you time to think about it.

The lever is described as jeweled. The lever itself is a treasure. You can just take it!


I think the fact BREAK LEVER doesn’t work isn’t quite fair, as the verb is unrecognized (although HIT LEVER works), but — I’d still give this puzzle a thumbs-up rather than thumbs-down.

As I said before, there’s no winning screen; to end, you just find the random jungle spot you started at and type SCORE.


Including the lore from the manual about leading a team of anthropologists, the player character was oddly amoral (I mean, moreso than usual). The original goal was to find a lost tribe for “research” but the actual plot of the game involves sneaking in and stealing their goods, including a golden idol. If we point to the group’s use of human sacrifice as justification, then why isn’t the plot to try to stop them, or get some authorities involved?

The setting attempts to mitigate the story being a generic treasure hunt, but I’d argue the plot exposed the weaknesses of relying on treasure hunts. We’ve had some decent stories in the mold now (Zork II likely the best) but the form which could previously be put out without pretense starts to seem outdated when more substantial plot and character are required. There was still some juice left in the idea, most prominently in Infocom’s game Infidel (1983, by Michael Berlyn and Patricia Fogleman) which leaned into the amorality as an essential part of the main character. (Incidentally, if you haven’t played Infidel, and ever plan to, do not read anything about it — not Jimmy Maher’s essay, nor even the Wikipedia page — until you’ve tried it.)

“Limit thy powerful greed” does make me think Arnstein was thinking — at least in a minor way — along the same lines as Berlyn.

The back cover of the game, from Figment Fly. I’d like to know who the artist is but they aren’t listed in the manual.

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Journey into Darkness by Jonathan Clark

by Kyle Guerrero at May 21, 2020 04:42 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Embark on a Victorian adventure that begins in the heart of London and takes you across the world in a race to obtain a fabled jewel with mysterious powers. Navigate the deadly river Mjaa Nto and twisted jungle paths where danger lurks beneath the surface and around every corner.

It’s 30% off until May 28!

Journey into Darkness is a challenging 50,000 word interactive fantasy novel by Jonathan Clark, 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 eight full-size color lino-cut illustrations and six smaller handmade stamp illustrations within this text adventure.

Will you beat your rivals to the prize? Can you fight off the dangers along the way? Will you find the right path and the knowledge you need to succeed or will you succumb to the darkness?

  • Play as male or female.
  • Travel to exotic locations.
  • Solve the puzzle of the one true path.
  • Fight monsters and other horrors.
  • Endure the sarcasm of your traveling companions.
  • Awaken an ancient cosmic horror.

Jonathan Clark 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.

New Hosted Game! AI — Aftermath by Ivailo Daskalov

by Kyle Guerrero at May 21, 2020 04:42 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Unleash your psionic powers and help your eternal lover in their quest of preventing the imminent AI apocalypse!

It’s 30% off until May 28!

AI – Aftermath is a 36,000-word interactive science fiction novel by Ivailo Daskalov, 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.

You must set out on a mission of saving the world from an imminent apocalypse caused by malevolent AI activity. Along the way, you’ll meet your lover, and help them choose who they are in this incarnation. Together, convince the forces of heaven and a beautiful fairy being to help you in your mission.

  • Play as male or female, gay or straight.
  • Rediscover your eternal love.
  • Choose between his/her four aspects.
  • Wield psionic powers.
  • Recover from the traumas of AI wars.
  • Change the timeline to a better one…or not.

Ivailo Daskalov 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.

May 19, 2020

Renga in Blue

Raaka-Tu: Limit Thy Powerful Greed

by Jason Dyer at May 19, 2020 10:41 PM

Since last time, I’ve attempted to raid the temple of Raaka-Tu.

I’ve mostly died in creative ways.

From Figment Fly.

The game does a good job of advertising its traps ahead of time, but still having you fall in them nonetheless. There have been three so far. Here is the first:

If you stop to examine the door you can find the words DO NOT ENTER on it, and the rug is described rather oddly as spanning the entire room, so: not a shocking death? JUMP OVER RUG gets the same result; I suspect it is not possible to get by here at all.

The second trap is even more clever, in that it’s fairly obvious at first…

…in fact, the transcript above is for demonstration purposes, because a statue pointing a bow and arrow at a particular door is a strong enough warning for even me, your humble correspondent who blunders into everything.

If you drop a coin in the slot, the bow-and-arrow turns to face the west door; now the east door is safe but not the west.

The “Triangular Room” has the trap.

Here’s the clever part: notice the “T-Shaped Room” / “Grey Stone Walls” / “Round Room” that repeat shape on the map above. The second Round Room has a gold ring. If you pick up the ring, you get teleported to the first Round Room without any indication it happened. Then if you try to proceed as if nothing changed by going west, north, and east, you walk right into the Triangular Room, and get shot by the arrow that now points at the west door!

You can incidentally make your way past the issue by dropping the gold ring and picking it up again — it teleports you back. This reminds me of the truly awful puzzle from Arnstein’s Haunted House which leveraged a lack of feedback when going in a direction that wasn’t recognized; Arnstein managed to redeem the same idea in a way that makes much more sense.

The third trap involves a vault.


The door has a nice physicality to it — it closes behind you when you enter, and you have to re-enter to exit. (It also gives a hint as to what the trap is.)

There’s definitely a big danger sign on this one but to find out what’s happening, the lever still needs to be pulled.

I’m reminded of how good interactive fiction comedy is often participatory, not just telling a joke but having the player do an action that’s part of the joke. (A good example would be the opening of Mystery Fun House which coaxes the player into thinking a FIVE DOLLAR BILL is money.) The same idea applies here; there’s enough of a hint as to what’s going on with the traps that after each death I felt like I deserved it.

I haven’t made much more progress, unfortunately. I fought a serpent and won (just using a sword and a randomized battle system) and fought a gargoyle and lost (trying to use the sword again; even with save states I was getting torn apart).

Nepal is one of the places where human sacrifice did historically happen, and in modern times they still have a (controversial) festival where they mass sacrifice animals.

I’ve also found a lamp that says “something is written” on it, but when I try to read it I find the lamp is too covered with tarnish. RUB LAMP gets


No hints yet, though (not even ROT13), but I’ll inquire next time if I’m horribly stuck.

Emily Short

Mailbag: Courses of Study

by Emily Short at May 19, 2020 02:41 PM

I want to dive into narrative design. [Professors at a game program] say that it’s possible for them to teach graduates on how to be indie developers. That made me laugh, I don’t really believe their tales. Yet I doubt which faculty should I choose in order to gather some useful skills. There are some options for me: philology, journalism and linguistics. Which one would be more useful? I quite like them all, I guess, and I can’t make it clear.

I’ve redacted the identifying details of the program in question, but it isn’t one where I happen to have personal knowledge of the teachers or graduates, so I can’t speak to that.

That said: I wouldn’t assume that the faculty have nothing to offer on game design. It may be a good program. In my experience, the only real way to learn this kind of craft is to do a lot of work in the space, but the guidance of teachers can be helpful with that, and so might the company of other students. A lot depends on how you naturally learn best and how much you like your education to be autonomous or directed.

It’s true that if your aim is specifically to become an indie developer, it’s very hard for any course of study to guarantee that you will have a secure career afterward. But that’s just because indie game development is a very difficult and precarious space, not because what you would learn would be valueless.

However, if you are inclined to self-teach narrative design topics and prefer to get a strong grounding in more traditional academic subjects, that’s also a solid approach, and I know many developers including myself who started out that way.

Writing games is an art and a mode of communication. An education in other subjects can help prepare you to have something meaningful to say.

I can’t tell you what is best for you here. But I would suggest you think about the question not as “which of these traditional subjects has the most bearing on games?” but as “which of these traditional subjects will most help me think about the problems I care about? which will most help me find true answers to my questions? which will give me an ethical groundwork on the issues that matter to me?”

Post Position

Post Hoc, An Online Art Show

by Nick Montfort at May 19, 2020 12:57 AM

Please enjoy Post Hoc, a show I’ve put together with generous contributions from a baker’s dozen artists and eight writers. There was no pre-established theme for Post Hoc, which was prompted by our inability to get to IRL galleries and museums. Artists were simply asked for digital images, any digital image they considered an artwork. (Several works in the show do have other manifestations.) The work in the show is all from 2020. I solicited 1000–1200 character responses to each piece.

Agnieszka Kurant   response by Mary Flanagan

Christian Bök   response by Paul Stephens

Daniel Temkin   response by Craig Dworkin

Derek Beaulieu   response by Amaranth Borsuk

Forsyth Harmon   response by Simon Morris & Valérie Steunou

Lauren Lee McCarthy   response by Daniel Temkin

Lilla LoCurto & Bill Outcault   response by Fox Harrell

Olia Lialina   response by Mary Flanagan

Manfred Mohr   response by Craig Dworkin

Mark Klink   response by Daniel Temkin

Renée Green   response by Paul Stephens

Sly Watts   response by Fox Harrell

Susan Bee   response by Amaranth Borsuk

You can scroll through the entire Post Hoc show as a single page. However, you’ll only see the images at their original size, and be able to read the responses, if you go to each post individually.

Risk Management [Europe]

by Agnieszka Kurant at May 19, 2020 12:51 AM

Risk Management [Europe]
Agnieszka Kurant
800px × 794px JPEG


The Library of Babel – Hexagonal Drawing in English

by Christian Bök at May 19, 2020 12:49 AM

The Library of Babel – Hexagonal Drawing in English
Christian Bök
828px × 828px JPEG



by Daniel Temkin at May 19, 2020 12:47 AM

Daniel Temkin
800px × 457px JPEG


Cabaret #7

by Derek Beaulieu at May 19, 2020 12:46 AM

Cabaret #7
Derek Beaulieu
600px × 547px JPEG
of 8″ × 8″ Letraset on Paper


May 18, 2020

Renga in Blue

Raaka-Tu (1981)

by Jason Dyer at May 18, 2020 09:41 PM

Raaka-Tu, otherwise known as raäka-tū, was published by Radio Shack for their TRS-80 and CoCo computers. It’s from Robert Arnstein, who we’ve seen before (Haunted House, Pyramid 2000, Death Dreadnaught) and who we will see again (Bedlam, Xenos).

For now, let’s travel to … Nepal?

You never thought that your Ph.D. project would send you to a remote corner of the world, but the research grant came through! You and your team of anthropologists began in India, sailing up the River Ghaghra where it departs from the Ganges. Last night, you entered Nepal on the river, but were forced to come aground when navigation was made impossible by the twisting, narrow stream.

I had some whiplash from the plot here; there’s some effort to put forth a real setting yet the scholarly work is Indiana Jones-like. The player character wants to find the “lost tribe” of the Khazhadim.

The old woman is seated beside you, where she unfolds an unbelievable story about the god Raaka-Tu and his temple of sacrifice. The woman tells of the treasure kept in the temple, the hideous monsters Raaka-Tu employs, and the Khazhadim who serve Raaka-Tu and guard his temple.

Rather than doing anthropologist things, we’re raiding a forbidden temple for treasure? What?

Look, fine: an attempt was made to frame the story somewhat in a real location, and it did lead to some rad cover art.

Via Figment Fly. The CoCo version has an entirely different cover, but I’ll save that for another post.

Arnstein shows some programming chops, for the system now understands indirect objects. Yes, the author of Haunted House has moved on to a four-word parser. (Having had practice helps!)

You start in a jungle maze…

…but fortunately not a rather large one.

MAZE STATS: Uses the Woods “all different” room trick of slightly altered room names. Only three connections are “normal”. The start location is a “sink” room that can be reached in more ways than any other room. Just repeating GO WEST will eventually get out no matter what the location in the maze. Most likely it was meant to be atmospheric rather than difficult.

Past the opening jungle is the outside of the Raaka-Tu temple, where guards rotate in a pattern and you can get shot if you’re not careful.

The “try again” and immediate restart with no prompt is novel. I can’t think of another text adventure example up to 1980 offhand.

The guards have some randomness to them, so you genuinely have to pay attention to their movement messages and not just hope you get lucky. (You want to wait until they disappear around a corner.) Eventually, you can find a coin on the ground and a wall with ivy that you can climb.

I’m going to stop here — I’ve made a little more progress, but I want to get a larger chunk before I write about it. I can say there are enough deathtraps I’m reminded of Death Dreadnaught.

May 15, 2020

Emily Short

Mid-May Link Assortment

by Emily Short at May 15, 2020 08:41 PM


May 16 will be the next meeting of the Baltimore/DC IF Meetup, online at 3pm.

May 17 will be the next meeting of the Seattle/Tacoma area IF Meetup, online at 2pm PDT.

The weekend of May 29-31 was originally supposed to feature NarraScope as a live event in Urbana-Champaign, IL. Unsurprisingly, NarraScope has been moved to a virtual-only model (you can read the full statement here). Due to the changed format, the event is now free to anyone who wants to register, although donations are welcome from those who have the income and wish to show support.

More recently, a schedule of events was released, featuring a full slate of workshops and seminars. For those curious about recent developments with Inform 7, Graham Nelson is leading a seminar on Thursday, May 28, at 5:00pm (GMT+1).

The Oxford and London Meetup currently has nothing concrete scheduled.

June 6 is the next meeting of the SF Bay Interactive Fiction Meetup.


cover_small-1Spring Thing 2020 is finished! Winners were announced earlier this month, with three titles taking home a “Best in Show” award for 2020: 4×4 Galaxy by Agnieszka Trzaska, Hawk the Hunter by JonQ, and JELLY by Tom Lento and Chandler Grover. All the entrants are still on the main site and available for play, if you didn’t have time to try them all before the contest ended.

New Releases

promo408-1Choice of Games has released another title as of just a few days ago. A Squire’s Tale, by Benjamin Appleby-Dean, is a 152,000-word interactive medieval fantasy, set in 14th-century England. The author shares some of his inspirations and behind-the-scenes info in this recent interview.


Meanwhile, Signs of the Sojourner is now available: I wrote about the demo version some months ago, and was intrigued then by what the mechanic allowed the game to express. After writing that up, I was asked to do a small portion of the character writing myself — so I’m no longer an entirely neutral party on this project.

The Digital Antiquarian

The Shareware Scene, Part 3: The id Boys

by Jimmy Maher at May 15, 2020 06:41 PM

On December 14, 1990, Scott Miller of Apogee Software uploaded the free first installment of his company’s latest episodic game. He knew as he did so that this release would be, if you’ll pardon the pun, a game changer for Apogee. To signal that this was truly a next-generation Apogee game, he doubled his standard paid-episode asking price from $7.50 to $15.

Rather than relying on the character graphics or blocky visual abstractions of Apogee’s previous games, Commander Keen 1: Marooned on Mars was an animated feast of bouncy color. Rather than looking like a typical boxed game of five to ten years earlier, it looked quite literally like nothing that had ever been seen on an MS-DOS-based computer before. In terms of presentation at least, it was nothing less than computer gaming’s answer to Super Mario Bros., the iconic franchise that had done so much to help Nintendo sell more than 30 million of their videogame consoles in the United States alone.

Yet even Miller, who has been so often and justly lauded for his vision in recognizing that many computer owners were craving something markedly different from what the big game publishers were offering them, could hardly have conceived of the full historical importance of this particular moment. For it introduced to the world a small group of scruffy misfits with bad attitudes and some serious technical chops, who were living and working together at the time in a rundown riverfront house in Shreveport, Louisiana. Within a few months, they would begin to call themselves id Software, and under that name they would remake the face of mainstream gaming during the 1990s.

I must admit that I find it a little strange to be writing about humble Shreveport for the second time in the course of two articles. It’s certainly not the first place one would look for a band of technological revolutionaries. The perpetually struggling city of 200,000 people has long been a microcosm of the problems dogging the whole of Louisiana, one of the poorest states in the nation. It’s a raggedly anonymous place of run-down strip malls and falling-down houses, with all of the crime and poverty of New Orleans but none of that city’s rich cultural stew to serve as compensation.

Life in Shreveport has always been defined by the Red River which flows through town. As its name would imply, the city was founded to serve as a port in the time before the nation’s rivers were superseded by its railroads and highways. When that time ended, Shreveport had to find other uses for its river: thanks to a quirk of Louisiana law that makes casinos legal on waterways but not on dry land, residents of northeastern Texas and southern Arkansas have long known it primarily as the most convenient place to go for legal gambling. The shabbily-dressed interstate gamblers who climb out of the casino-funded buses every day are anything but the high rollers of Vegas lore. They’re just ordinary working-class folks who really, really should find something more healthy to do with their time and money than sitting behind a one-armed bandit in a riverboat casino, dropping token after token into the slot and staring with glazed eyes at the wheels as they spin around and around. This image rather symbolizes the social and economic condition of Shreveport in general.

By 1989, Al Vekovius of Shreveport’s Softdisk Publications was starting to fear that the same image might stand in for the state of his business. After expanding so dramatically for much of the decade, Softdisk was now struggling just to hold onto its current base of subscribers, much less to grow their numbers. The original Softdisk and Loadstar, their two earliest disk magazines, catered to aged 8-bit computers that were now at the end of their run, while Big Blue Disk and Diskworld, for MS-DOS computers and the Apple Macintosh respectively, were failing to take up all of their slack. Everything seemed to be turning against Softdisk. In the summer of 1989, IBM, whose longstanding corporate nickname of “Big Blue” had been the source of the name Big Blue Disk, threatened a lawsuit if Softdisk continued to market a disk magazine under that name. Knowing better than to defy a company a thousand times their size, Softdisk felt compelled to rename Big Blue Disk to the less catchy On Disk Monthly.

While the loss of hard-won brand recognition always hurts, Softdisk’s real problems were much bigger and more potentially intractable than that of one corporate behemoth with an overgrown legal department. The fact was, the relationship which people had with the newer computers Softdisk was now catering to tended to be different from the one they had enjoyed with their friendly little Apple II or Commodore 64. Being a computer user in the era of Microsoft’s ascendancy was no longer a hobby for most of them, much less a lifestyle. People had less of a craving for the ramshackle but easily hackable utilities and coding samples which Softdisk’s magazines had traditionally published. People were no longer interested in rolling up their sleeves to work with software in order to make it work for them; they demanded more polished programs that Just Worked right off the disk. But this was a hard field for Softdisk to compete on. Programmers with really good software had little motivation to license their stuff to a disk magazine for a relative pittance when they could instead be talking to a boxed-software publisher or testing the exploding shareware market.

With high-quality submissions from outside drying up just as he needed them most, Vekovius hired more and more internal staff to create the software for On Disk. Yet even here he ran up against many of the same barriers. The programmers whom he could find locally or convince to move to a place like Shreveport at the salaries which Softdisk could afford to pay were generally not the first ones he might have chosen in an ideal world. For all that some of them would prove themselves to be unexpectedly brilliant, as we’ll see shortly, virtually every one of them had some flaw or collection thereof that prevented him from finding gainful employment elsewhere. And the demand that they churn out multiple programs every month in order to fill up the latest issue was, to say the least, rather inimical to the production of quality software. Vekovius was spinning his wheels in his little programming sweatshop with all the energy of those Shreveport riverboat gamblers, but it wasn’t at all clear that it was getting him any further than it was getting them.

Thus he was receptive on the day in early 1990 when one of his most productive if headstrong programmers, a strapping young metalhead named John Romero, suggested that Softdisk start a new MS-DOS disk magazine, dedicated solely to games — the one place where, what with Apogee’s success being still in its early stages, shareware had not yet clearly cut into Softdisk’s business model. After some back-and-forth, the two agreed to a bi-monthly publication known as Gamer’s Edge, featuring at least one — preferably two — original games in each issue. To make it happen, Romero would be allowed to gather together a few others who were willing to work a staggering number of hours cranking out games at an insane pace with no resources beyond themselves for very little money at all. Who could possibly refuse an offer like that?

The id boys: John Carmack, Kevin Cloud, Adrian Carmack, John Romero, Tom Hall, and Jay Wilbur.

The team that eventually coalesced around Romero included programmer Tom Hall, artist Adrian Carmack, and business manager and token adult-in-the-room Jay Wilbur. But their secret weapon, lured by Wilbur to Shreveport from Kansas City, Missouri, was a phenomenal young programmer named John Carmack. (In a proof that anyone who says things like “I don’t believe in coincidences” is full of it, John is actually unrelated to Adrian Carmack despite having the same not-hugely-common last name.) John Carmack would prove himself to be such a brilliant programmer that Romero and Hall, no slouches themselves in that department by most people’s standards, would learn to leave the heavy lifting to his genius, coding themselves only the less important parts of the games along with the utilities that they used to build them — and they would also design the games, for Carmack was in reality vastly more interested in the mathematical abstraction of code as an end unto itself than the games it enabled.

But all of these young men, whom I’ll call the id boys from here on out just because the name suited them so well even before they started id Software, will be more or less important to our story. So, we should briefly meet each of them.

Jay Wilbur was by far the most approachable, least intimidating member of the group. Having already reached the wise old age of 30, he brought with him a more varied set of life experiences that left him willing and able to talk to more varied sorts of people. Indeed, Wilbur’s schmoozing skills were rather legendary. While attending university in his home state of Rhode Island, he’d run the bar at his local TGI Friday’s, where his ability to mix drinks with acrobatic “flair” made him one of those selected to teach Tom Cruise the tricks of the trade for the movie Cocktail. But his love for the Apple II he’d purchased with an insurance settlement following a motorcycle accident finally overcame his love for the nightlife, and he accepted a job for a Rhode Island-based disk magazine called UpTime. When that company was bought out by Softdisk in 1988, he wound up in Shreveport, working as an editor there. The people skills he’d picked up tending bar would never desert him; certainly his new charges at Gamer’s Edge had sore need of them, for they were an abrasive collection of characters even by hacker standards.

These others loved heavy metal and action movies, and aimed a well-sharpened lance of contempt at anything outside their narrow range of cultural and technical interests. Their laser focus on their small collection of obsessions would prove one of their greatest strengths, if perhaps problematic for gaming writ large in the long run, in the way that it diminished the scope of what games could do and be.

Yet even this band of four, the ones who actually made the games for Gamer’s Edge under Wilbur’s benevolent stewardship, was not a monolith. Once one begins to look at them as individuals, the shades of difference quickly emerge.

Like Wilbur, the 25-year-old Wisconsinite Tom Hall was a middle-class kid with a university degree, but he had none of his friend and colleague’s casual bonhomie with the masses. He lived in a fantasy world drawn from the Star Wars movies, the first of which he’d seen in theaters 33 times, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels, which he could all but recite from heart. At Softdisk, to which he’d come after deciding that he couldn’t stand the idea of a job in corporate data processing, he ran around talking in a cutsey made-up alien language: “Bleh! Bleh! Bleh!” He was the kind of guy you either found hilarious or were irritated out of your mind by.

The 21-year-old Adrian Carmack also lived in a world of fantasy, but his fantasies had a darker hue. Growing up right there in Shreveport, he had spent many hours at arcades, attracted not so much by the games themselves as by the lurid art on their cabinets. He worked for a time as an aide at a hospital, then went home to sketch gunshot wounds, severed limbs, and festering bedsores with meticulous accuracy. Instead of a cat or a dog, he chose a scorpion as a pet. He’d come to Softdisk on a university internship after telling his advisor he wanted to work in “fine art” someday.

Still, and with all due respect to these others, the id boys would come to be defined most of all by their two Johns. The 22-year-old John Romero was pure id, a kettle of addled energy that was perpetually spilling over, sending F-bombs spewing every which way; David Kushner, author of the seminal history Masters of Doom, memorably describes him as “a human exclamation point.” The not-quite-20-year-old John Carmack was as quiet and affectless as Romero was raucous, often disturbingly so; Sandy Petersen, a game designer who will come to work with him later in our story, remembers musing to himself after first meeting Carmack that “he doesn’t know anything about how humans think or feel.”

Yet for all their surface differences, the two Johns had much in common. Both were brought up in broken homes: Romero was physically abused by his stepfather while growing up in the Sacramento area, while Carmack suffered under the corporeal and psychological rigors of a strict private Catholic school in Kansas. Both rebelled by committing petty crimes among other things; Carmack was sentenced to a year in a boys’ detention center at age 14 after breaking into his school using a homemade bomb. (The case notes of the police officer who interviewed him echo the later impressions of Sandy Petersen: “Boy behaves like a walking brain… no empathy for other human beings.”)

Both found escape from their circumstances through digital means: first via videogames at the local arcades, then via the Apple II computers they acquired by hook or by crook. (Carmack’s first computer was a stolen one, bought off the proverbial back of a truck.) They soon taught themselves to program well enough to put professionals to shame.

Romero got his games published regularly by print magazines as type-in listings, then parlayed that into a job with the disk magazine UpTime, where he became friends with Jay Wilbur. After that, he got a job as a game porter for Origin Systems of Ultima fame. Meanwhile Wilbur moved on to Softdisk while Romero was at Origin. When Romero found himself bored by the life of a porter, he came to Shreveport as well to join his friend.

John Carmack, being more than two years younger than Romero and much more socially challenged, brought a shorter résumé with him to Shreveport when he became the only id boy to be hired specifically to work on Gamer’s Edge rather than being transferred there from another part of Softdisk. He had mostly sold his games for $1000 apiece to a little mom-and-pop company near his home called Nite Owl Productions, who had made them a sideline to their main business of supplying replacement batteries for Apple II motherboards. But he had also sold one or two games to Jay Wilbur at Softdisk. Finding these to be very impressive, the id boys asked Wilbur to deploy his considerable charm to recruit the new kid for Gamer’s Edge. After a concerted effort, he succeeded.

Gamer’s Edge was far more than just a new job or a workplace transfer for the young men involved. It was a calling; they spent virtually all day every day in one another’s company. Pooling all of their meager salaries, Wilbur rented them a rambling old four-bedroom house on the Red River, complete with a Jacuzzi and a swimming pool and a boat deck which he soon complemented with a battered motorboat. It was an Animal House lifestyle of barbecuing, skiing, and beer drinking in between marathon hacking sessions, fueled by pizza and soda. Wilbur — in many ways the unsung hero of this story — acted as their doting den mother, keeping the lights on, the basement beer keg filled, the refrigerator stocked with soda and junk food, and the pizza deliveries coming at all hours of the day and night.

Inside the riverfront house in Shreveport. John Carmack sits near center frame, while John Romero is to his left, mostly hidden behind a pillar.

For the first issue of Gamer’s Edge, the two Johns agreed to each port one of their old Apple II games to MS-DOS. Romero chose a platformer called Dangerous Dave, while Carmack chose a top-down action-adventure called Catacomb. They raced one another to see who could finish first; it was after losing rather definitively that Romero realized he couldn’t hope to compete with Carmack as a pure programmer, and should probably leave the most complicated, math-intensive aspects of coding to his friend while he concentrated on all the other things that make a good game. For the second issue, the two Johns pooled their talents with that of the others to make a completely original shoot-em-up called Slordax: The Unknown Enemy. So far, so good.

And then came John Carmack’s first great technical miracle — the first of many that would be continually upending everything the id boys were working on in the best possible way. To fully explain this first miracle, a bit of background is necessary.

Although they were making games for MS-DOS, the id boys had little use for the high-concept themes of most other games that were being made for that platform in 1990; neither complicated simulations nor elaborate interactive movies did anything for them. They preferred games that were simple and visceral, fast-paced and above all action-packed. Tellingly, most of the games they preferred to play these days lived on the Nintendo Entertainment System rather than a personal computer.

Much of the difference between the two platforms’ design aesthetics was cultural, but there was also more to it than that. As I’ve often taken pains to point out in these articles, the nature of games on any given platform is always strongly guided by that platform’s technical strengths and weaknesses.

When first looking at the NES and an MS-DOS personal computer of 1990 vintage, one might assume that the latter so thoroughly outclasses the former as to make further comparison pointless. The NES was built around a version of the MOS 6502, an 8-bit CPU dating back to the 1970s, running at a clock speed of less than 2 MHz; a state-of-the-art PC had a 32-bit CPU running at 25 MHz or more. The NES had just 2 K of writable general-purpose memory; the PC might have 4 MB or more, plus a big hard drive. The NES could display up to 25 colors from a palette of 48, at a resolution of 256 X 240; a PC with a VGA graphics card could display up to 256 colors from a palette of over 262,000, at a resolution of 320 X 200. Surely the PC could effortlessly do anything the NES could do. Right?

Well, no, actually. The VGA graphics standard for PCs had been created by IBM in 1987 with an eye to presenting crisp general-purpose displays rather than games. In the hands of a talented team of pixel artists, it could present mouth-watering static illustrations, as adventure-game studios like Sierra, LucasArts, and Legend were proving. But it included absolutely no aids for fast animation, no form of graphical acceleration whatsoever. It just gave the programmer a big chunk of memory to work with, whose bytes represented the pixels on the screen. When she wanted to change said pixels, she had to sling all those bytes around by main force, using nothing but the brute power of the CPU. All animation on a PC was essentially page-flipping animation, requiring the CPU to redraw every pixel of every frame in memory, at the 20 or 30 frames per second that were necessary to create an impression of relatively fluid motion, and all while also finding cycles for all of the other aspects of the game.

The graphics system of the NES, on the other hand, had been designed for the sole purpose of presenting videogames — and in electrical engineering, specialization almost always breeds efficiency. Rather than storing the contents of the screen in memory as a linear array of pixels, it operated on the level of tiles, each of which was 8 X 8 or 8 X 16 pixels in size. After defining the look of each of a set of tiles, the programmer could mix and match them on the screen as she wished, at a fairly blazing speed thanks to the console’s custom display circuitry; this enabled the smooth scrolling of the Super Mario Bros. games among many others. She also had up to 64 sprites to work with; these were little 8 X 8 or 8 X 16 images that were overlaid on the tiled background by the display hardware, and could be moved about almost instantaneously, just by changing a couple of numbers in a couple of registers. They were, in other words, perfect for showing Super Mario bouncing around on a scrolling background, at almost no cost in CPU cycles. Freed from the heavy lifting of managing the display, the little 6502 could concentrate almost entirely on the game logic.

The conventional wisdom of 1990 held that the PC, despite all its advantages in raw horsepower, simply couldn’t do a game like Super Mario Bros. The problem rankled John Carmack and his friends particularly, given how much more in tune their design aesthetic was with the NES than with the current crop of computer games. And so Carmack turned the full force of his giant brain on the problem, and soon devised a solution.

As so often happens in programming, said solution turned out to be deceptively simple. It hinged on the fact that one could define a virtual screen in memory that was wider and/or taller than the physical screen. In this case, Carmack made his virtual screen just eight pixels wider than the physical screen. This meant that he could scroll the background with silky smoothness through eight “frames” by changing just two registers on the computer — the ones telling the display hardware where the top left corner of the screen started in the computer’s memory. And this in turn meant that he only had to draw the display anew from scratch every eighth frame, which was a manageable task. Once he had the scrolling background working, he added some highly optimized code to draw and erase in software alone bouncing sprites to represent his pseudo-Mario and enemies. And that was that. His technique didn’t even demand VGA graphics; it could present a dead ringer for the NES Super Mario Bros. 3 — the latest installment in the franchise — using the older MS-DOS graphics standard of EGA.

I should note at this point that the scrolling technique which John Carmack “invented” was by no means entirely new in the abstract; programmers on computers like the Commodore 64 and Commodore Amiga had in fact been using it for years. (I point readers to my article on the techniques used by the Commodore 64 sports games of Epyx and particularly to my book-length study of the Amiga for more detailed explanations of it than the one I’ve provided here.) A big part of the reason that no one had ever done it before on an MS-DOS computer was that no one had ever been hugely motivated to try, in light of the types of games that were generally accepted as “appropriate” for that platform; technological determinism is a potent force in game development, but it’s never the only force. And I should also note a certain irony that clings to all this. As we’ll see, John Carmack would soon toll the death knell for the era of bouncing sprites superimposed over scrolling 2D backgrounds. How odd that his first great eureka moment should have come in imitation of just that classic videogame style.

Carmack first showed his innovation to Tom Hall, the biggest Super Mario fan of all among the id boys, late in the afternoon of September 20, 1990. Hall recognized its significance immediately, and suggested that he and Carmack recreate some of the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3 right then and there as a proof of concept. They finally stumbled off to bed at 5:30 the following morning.

A few hours later, John Romero woke up to find a floppy disk sitting on his keyboard. He popped it into the drive, and his jaw hit the floor when he saw a Nintendo game playing there on his computer monitor. He went off to find Jay Wilbur and Adrian Carmack. They all agreed that this was big — way too big for the likes of Softdisk.

In one 72-hour marathon, the id boys recreated all of the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3, along with bits and pieces of those that followed. Then Wilbur typed up a letter to Nintendo of America and dropped it in the mail along with the disk; it said that the id boys were ready and willing to license their PC port of Super Mario Bros. 3 back to the Nintendo mother ship. This was a profoundly naïve thing to do; virtually anyone in the industry could have told them that Nintendo never let any of their intellectual property escape from the walled garden of their own console. And sure enough, the id boys would eventually receive a politely worded response saying no thank you. Given Nintendo’s infamous ruthlessness when it came to matters of intellectual property, they were probably lucky that a rejection letter was all they received, rather than a lawsuit.

At any rate, the id boys weren’t noted for their patience. Long before Nintendo’s response arrived, they would be on to the next thing: an original game using John Carmack’s scrolling technique.

For some time now, John Romero had been receiving fawning fan mail care of Softdisk, not a usual phenomenon at all. His gratification was lessened somewhat, however, by the fact that the letters all came from the same address near Dallas, Texas, all asked him to call the fan in question at the same phone number, and were all signed with suspiciously similar names: “Byron Muller,” “Scott Mulliere,” etc.

It was in fact our old friend Scott Miller. His attention had been captured by Romero’s games for On Disk and Gamer’s Edge; they would be perfect for Apogee, he thought. But how to get in touch? The only contact information he had was that of Softdisk’s main office. He could hardly write them a letter asking if he could poach one their programmers. His solution was this barrage of seemingly innocent fan mail. Maybe, just maybe, Romero really would call him…

Romero didn’t call, but he did write back, and included his own phone number. Miller rang it up immediately. “Fuck those letters!” he said when Romero started to ask what kind of prank he thought he was pulling. “We can make a ton of money together selling your games as shareware.”

“Dude, those old games are garbage compared to the stuff we can make now,” said Romero, with John Carmack’s new scrolling technique firmly in mind. They struck a deal: Miller would send the id boys an advance of $2000, and they would send him a brand-new three-part game as soon as possible.

The Gamer’s Edge magazine, which just six months ago had seemed like the perfect job, now fell to the back burner in light of the riches Miller was promising them. Since they were making a Nintendo-like game in terms of action, it seemed logical to copy Nintendo’s bright and cheerful approach in the new game’s graphics and fiction as well. This was Tom Hall’s moment to shine; he already seemed to live every day in just such a primary-colored cartoon fantasy. Now, he created an outline for Commander Keen, blending Nintendo with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and old science-fiction serials — the last being perfect for an episodic game.

Billy Blaze, eight-year-old genius, working diligently in his backyard clubhouse, has created an interstellar spaceship from old soup cans, rubber cement, and plastic tubing. While his folks are out on the town and the babysitter is asleep, Billy sneaks out to his backyard workshop, dons his brother’s football helmet, and transforms into… Commander Keen, Defender of Justice! In his ship, the Bean with Bacon Megarocket, Keen dispenses justice with an iron hand!

In this episode, aliens from the planet Vorticon VI find out about the eight-year-old genius and plan his destruction. While Keen is out exploring the mountains of Mars, the Vorticons steal his ship and leave pieces around the galaxy! Can Keen recover all the pieces of his ship and repel the Vorticon invasion? Will he make it back before his parents get home? Stay tuned!

Commander Keen

When Miller received the first Commander Keen trilogy in the post barely two months later, he was thrilled beyond his wildest dreams. He had known that the id boys were talented, but this… he had never imagined this. This wasn’t a throwback to the boxed games of yore, wasn’t even on a par with the boxed games of current times. It was something entirely different, something never seen on an MS-DOS computer at all before, as visually striking and technically innovative within its chosen sphere as any of the latest boxed games were within theirs. Just like that, shareware games had come of age.

All of Apogee’s games together had been earning about $7000 per month. Commander Keen alone made $20,000 in the first month of its availability. It caused such a stir online that the established industry took a casual notice for the first time of this new entity called Apogee with this odd new way of selling games. Computer Gaming World magazine even deigned to give Commander Keen a blurb in the new-releases section. It was “of true commercial quality,” they noted, only slightly condescendingly.

Despite their success in shareware and the big checks that started coming in the mail from Apogee as a result, the id boys continued to make games for Gamer’s Edge throughout 1991. Betwixt and between, they provided Miller with a second Commander Keen trilogy, which did every bit as well as the first. No one could ever accuse them of being lazy.

But making a metaphorical name for themselves outside of Softdisk meant that they needed a literal name for the world to know them by. When they had sent their Super Mario Bros. 3 clone to Nintendo, they had called themselves “Ideas from the Deep.” Deciding that was too long-winded, they became “ID” when they started releasing games with Apogee — short for “In Demand.” The only one of their number who cottoned onto the Freudian implications of the acronym was Jay Wilbur; none of the other id boys knew Sigmund Freud from Siegmund the Norse hero. But when Wilbur explained to them how Freud’s id was the seat of a person’s most basic, impulsive desires, they were delighted. By this happenstance, then, id Software got a name which a thousand branding experts could never have bettered. It encapsulated perfectly their mission to deconstruct computer gaming, to break it down into a raw essence of action and reaction. The only ingredient still missing from the eventual id Software formula was copious violence.

And that too was already in the offing: Tom Hall’s cheerful cartoon aesthetic had started to wear thin with John Romero and Adrian Carmack long before they sent the first Commander Keen games to Scott Miller. Playing around one day with some graphics for the latest Gamer’s Edge production, Adrian drew a zombie clawing out the eyes of the player’s avatar, sending blood and gore flying everywhere. Romero loved it: “Blood! In a game! How fucking awesome is that?”

Adrian’s reply was weirdly pensive. “Maybe one day,” he said in a dreamy voice, “we’ll be able to put in as much blood as we want.”

In September of 1991, the id boys’ lease on their riverside frat house expired, and they decided that it was time to leave the depressing environs of Shreveport, with its crime, its poverty, and its homeless population who clustered disturbingly around the Softdisk offices. Their contract stipulated that they still owed Gamer’s Edge a few more games, but Al Vekovius had long since given up on trying to control them. The id boys decamped for Madison, Wisconsin, at the suggestion of Tom Hall, who had attended university there. He promised them with all of his usual enthusiasm that it was the best place ever. Instead they found the Wisconsin winter to be miserable. Cooped up inside their individual apartments, missing keenly their big old communal house and their motorboat, they threw themselves more completely than ever into making games. Everyone, with the exception only of Tom Hall, was now heartily sick and tired of Commander Keen. It was time for something new.

Whilst working at Origin Systems in the late 1980s, John Romero had met Paul Neurath, who had since gone on to start his own studio known as Blue Sky Productions. During their occasional phone calls, Neurath kept dropping hints to his friend about the game his people were working on: an immersive first-person CRPG, rendered using texture-mapped 3D graphics. When Romero mentioned it to John Carmack, his reply was short, as so many of them tended to be: “Yeah, I can do that.”

Real-time 3D graphics in general were hardly a new development. Academic research in the field stretched back to well before the era of the microchip. Bruce Artwick had employed them in the original Radio Shack TRS-80 Flight Simulator in 1980, and Ian Bell and David Braben had used them in Elite in 1984; both games were among the best sellers of their decade. Indeed, the genre of vehicular simulations, one of the most popular of them all by the late 1980s, relied on 3D graphics almost exclusively. All of which is to say that you didn’t have to look very hard in your local software store to find a 3D game of some stripe.

And yet, according at least to the conventional wisdom, the limitations of 3D graphics made them unsuitable for the sort of visceral, ultra-fast-paced experience which the id boys preferred. All of the extra affordances built into gaming-oriented platforms like the NES to enable 2D sprite-based graphics were useless for 3D graphics. 3D required radical compromises in speed or appearance, or both: those early versions of Flight Simulator were so slow that it could take the program a full second or two to respond to your inputs, which made flying their virtual airplanes perversely more difficult than flying the real thing; Elite managed to be more responsive, but only by drawing its 3D world using wire-frame outlines instead of filled surfaces. The games-industry consensus was that 3D graphics had a lot of potential for many types of games beyond those they were currently being used for, but that computer hardware was probably five to ten years away from being able to realize most of it.

John Carmack wasn’t that patient. If he couldn’t make true 3D graphics run at an acceptable speed in the here and now, he believed that he could fake it in a fairly convincing way. He devised a technique of presenting a fundamentally 2D world from a first-person perspective. Said world was a weirdly circumscribed place to inhabit: all angles had to be right angles; all walls had to stretch uniformly from floor to ceiling; all floors and ceilings had to be colored in the same uniform gray. Only interior scenes were possible, and no stairways, no jumping, no height differences of any kind were allowed; in this egalitarian world, everything and everyone had to stay permanently on the same level. You weren’t even allowed to look up or down. But, limited though it was, it was like nothing anyone had ever seen.

“You know,” said John Romero one day when they were all sitting around discussing what to do with the new technology, “it’d be really fucking cool if we made a remake of Castle Wolfenstein and did it in 3D.” With those words, id’s next game was born, one that would make all the success of Commander Keen look like nothing.

The original Castle Wolfenstein.

Written by Silas Warner, one of the Apple II scene’s early superstar programmers, and published by the long-defunct Muse Software, Castle Wolfenstein was an established classic from 1981, a top-down action-adventure that cast you as a prisoner of the Nazis who must escape, preferably taking his captors’ secret war plans with him. It remains historically notable today for incorporating a significant stealth component; ammunition was scarce and your enemies tough, which often made avoidance a better strategy than confrontation.

But avoidance wasn’t the id boys’ style. Very early on, they jettisoned everything beyond the core theme of the original Castle Wolfenstein. Wolfenstein 3D was to be, as Romero put it, “a totally shocking game. There should be blood, lots of blood, blood like you never see in games. When the player gets really low in health, at like 10 percent, he could run over the bloody guts of a dead Nazi soldier and suck those up for extra energy. It’s like human giblets. You can eat up their gibs!” In other words, Tom Hall’s aesthetic vision was out; John Romero and Adrian Carmack’s was in. “Hey, you know what we should have in here? Pissing! We should make it so you can fucking stop and piss on the Nazi after you mow him down! That would be fucking awesome!”

In early 1992, the id boys came face to face with the gaming establishment for the first time thanks to Wolfenstein 3D. They sent an early demo of the game to Sierra, and that company’s founder and CEO Ken Williams invited them to fly out to California and have a chat. Sierra was one of the three biggest computer-game publishers in the world, and was at the forefront of the interactive-movie trend which the id boys loathed. King’s Quest VI, the upcoming new installment in Sierra’s flagship series, would be so weighted down with multimedia that most reviewers, hopelessly dazzled, could spare only a few sentences for the rather rote little adventure game underneath it all. Williams himself was widely recognized as one of the foremost visionaries of the new era, proclaiming that by the end of the decade much or most of the Hollywood machine would have embraced interactivity. A meeting between two more disparate visions of gaming than his and that of the id boys can scarcely be imagined.

And yet the meeting was a cordial one on the whole. Williams had been quick to recognize when he saw Wolfenstein 3D that id had some remarkable technology, while the id boys remembered the older Apple II games of Sierra fondly. Williams took them on a tour of the offices where many of those games had come from, and then, after lunch, offered to buy id Software for $2.5 million in Sierra stock. The boys discussed it for a bit, then asked for an additional $100,000 in cash. Williams refused; he was willing to move stock around to pay for the Wolfenstein 3D technology, but he wasn’t willing to put his cash on the table. So, the negotiation ended. Instead Williams bought Bright Star Technologies, a specialist in educational software, for $1 million in cash later that year — for educational software, he believed, would soon be bigger than games. Time would prove him to be as wrong about that as he was about the future of Hollywood.

Not long after the Sierra meeting, the id boys left frigid Wisconsin in favor of Dallas, Texas, home of Scott Miller, who had been telling them about the warm weather, huge lakes, splendid barbecue, and nonexistent state income tax of the place for more than eighteen months now. One Kevin Cloud, who had held the oft-thankless role of being the id boys’ liaison with Softdisk but also happened to be a talented artist, joined them in Dallas as a sixth member of their little collective, thereby to relieve some of the burden on Adrian Carmack.

After making the move, they broke the news to Softdisk that they wouldn’t be doing Gamer’s Edge anymore. Al Vekovius was disappointed but not devastated. Oddly given how popular Commander Keen had become, the gaming disk magazine had never really taken off; it still only had about 3000 subscribers.

And so Softdisk Publications of Shreveport, Louisiana, that unlikely tech success story in that most unlikely of locales, finally exits our story permanently at this point. Nothing if not a survivor, Vekovius would keep the company alive through the 1990s and beyond by transitioning into the next big thing in computing: he turned it into an Internet service provider. He was bought out circa 2005 by a larger regional provider.

Wolfenstein 3D

This screenshot of the Wolfenstein 3D map editor illustrates why the game’s name is a misnomer: the environment is really a 2D maze much like that of the original game, albeit shown from a first-person perspective. At bottom, the engine understands just two dimensions rather than three.

If the id boys were worried about how Scott Miller would react to the ultra-violence of Wolfenstein 3D, they needn’t have been. Apogee had already been moving in this direction with considerable success; their only game to rival Commander Keen in sales during 1991 had been Duke Nukem by Todd Replogle, whose titular protagonist was a cigar-chomping Arnold Schwarzenegger facsimile with a machine gun almost as big around as his biceps. When Miller saw Wolfenstein 3D for the first time, he loved the violence as much as he did John Carmack’s pseudo-3D graphics engine. He knew what his customers craved, and he knew that they would swoon over this. He convinced the id boys to make enough levels to release a free episode followed by five paid ones rather than the usual two. On May 5, 1992 — the very same day on which the boys had handed the final version to Miller — the free installment appeared on Software Creations, Apogee’s new online service.

As it happened, Paul Neurath’s Blue Sky Productions had released their own immersive first-person 3D game, which had spent roughly five times as long in production as Wolfenstein 3D, just two months before. It was called Ultima Underworld, and was published as a boxed product by Origin Systems. It boasted a far more complete implementation of a 3D world than did id’s creation. You could look up, down, and all around; could jump and climb ledges; could sneak around corners and hide in shadows; could swim in rivers or fly through the air by means of a levitation spell. But Ultima Underworld was cerebral, old school — dull, as the id boys and many of their fan base saw it. Combat was only a part of its challenge. You also had to spend your time piecing together clues, collecting spells, solving puzzles, annotating maps, leveling up and assigning statistics and skills to your character. Even the combat happened at a speed most kindly described as “stately” if you didn’t have a cutting-edge computer.

Wolfenstein 3D, by contrast, ran like greased lightning on just about any computer, thanks to John Carmack’s willingness to excise any element from his graphics engine that he couldn’t render quickly. After all, the id boys really only wanted to watch the blood spurt as they mowed down Nazis; “just run over everything and destroy” was their stated design philosophy. And many others, it seemed, agreed with their point of view.

For, while Ultima Underworld became a substantial hit, Wolfenstein 3D became a phenomenon. It made $200,000 in the first month, then kept selling at that pace for the next eighteen months. It was, as Scott Miller would later put it, a “paradigm shift” in shareware games. Whatever that elusive “it” was that so many gamers found to be missing in the big boxed offerings — immediacy? simplicity? violence? id in the Freudian sense? all of the above? — Wolfenstein 3D had it in spades.

The shareware barbarians were truly at the gates now; they could no longer be ignored by the complacent organs of the establishment. This time out, id got a feature review in Computer Gaming World to go along with the full-page color advertisements which Apogee was now able to pay for. “I can’t remember a game making such effective use of perspective and sound and thereby evoking such intense physiological responses from its player,” the review concluded. “I recommend gamers take a look at this one, if only for a cheap peek at part of interactive entertainment’s potential for a sensory-immersed ‘virtual’ future.”

Yet, as that “if only” qualifier intimates, the same magazine was clearly bothered by all of the gleefully gory violence of the game. An editorial by editor-in-chief Johnny Wilson, the former pastor who had built Computer Gaming World into the most thoughtful and mature journal in the industry, drove the point home: “What are we saying when we depict lifelike carnage in a game where the design is geared for you to kill nearly everyone you encounter?”

If Wilson thought id’s first 3D shooter was disturbing, he hadn’t seen anything yet. Their next game would up the ante on the violence and gore even as their first competitors jumped into the act, starting a contest to see who could be most extreme. Everyone working in games or playing them would soon have to reckon with the changes — distributional, technical, and cultural — which a burgeoning new genre, born on the streets instead of in the halls of power, was wreaking.

Crashing the halls of power: Tom Hall, Jay Wilbur, and John Romero in black tie for the Shareware Industry Awards of 1992.

(Sources: the books Masters of Doom by David Kushner, Game Engine Black Book: Wolfenstein 3D by Fabien Sanglard, Principles of Three-Dimensional Computer Animation by Michael O’Rourke, Sophistication & Simplicity: The Life and Times of the Apple II Computer by Steven Weyhrich, and I Am Error by Nathan Altice; PC Magazine of September 12 1989; InfoWorld of June 12 1989; Retro Gamer 75; Game Developer premiere issue and issues of June 1994 and February/March 1995; Computer Gaming World of August 1991, January 1992, August 1992, and September 1992; The Computist 88; inCider of November 1989. Online sources include “Apogee: Where Wolfenstein Got Its Start” by Chris Plante at Polygon, “Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Era of First-Person Shooters” by David L. Craddock at Shack News, Samuel Stoddard’s Apogee FAQ, Benj Edwards’s interview with Scott Miller for Gamasutra, Jeremy Peels’s interview with John Romero for PC Games N, Lode Vandevenne’s explanation of the Wolfenstein 3D rendering engine, and Jay Wilbur’s old Usenet posts, which can now be accessed via Google Groups.

The company once known as Apogee, which is now known as 3D Realms, has released many of their old shareware games for free on their website, including Commander Keen. All of the Wolfenstein 3D installments are available as digital purchases at

Choice of Games

A Squire’s Tale–Outwit the faeries to rescue the prince!

by Mary Duffy at May 15, 2020 10:42 AM

We’re proud to announce that A Squire’s Tale, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the “Choice of Games” app.

It’s 25% off until May 21st!

Battle evil faeries and traitors at court to rescue the prince of England! Can you resist the call of faerie long enough to complete your quest?

A Squire’s Tale is a 150,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Benjamin Appleby-Dean, 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.

The prince’s abduction has tipped the country toward civil war, and your Lady has been sent on a secret mission to recover him. Save the heir apparent, and you could finally earn your knighthood and leave your squiring days behind. But when your search leads you to a magical market in the middle of nowhere, your loyalties and your Lady are put to the test.

Will you join with the faeries, or deny their existence? Journey further from court and comfort, or seek to rationalize the impossibilities in front of you? As you hunt for clues and amass allies, you’ll master the knightly arts of music, combat, riding, and even falconry. Emerge victorious in the tournament, and you may even win a kiss. But stay focused on your quest—you’ll need all your skills to survive the tricks of Faerie and discover the truth behind the prince’s disappearance.

Do you trust the fair ones?

• Play as a male, female, or nonbinary squire.
• Romance a faerie, a squire, an alchemist, a dancer, or even your own Lady.
• Master the knightly arts of archery, chivalry, falconry, and more.
• Marvel at a world whose wonders depend on how much you believe.
• Battle in tournaments for glory, or duel after dark for blood.
• Uncover long-hidden family secrets.
• Visit a fourteenth-century abbey and ally with its prioress.
• Solve faerie riddles for future boons.
• Insult your enemies in rhyme!

We hope you enjoy playing A Squire’s Tale. We encourage you to tell your friends about it, and recommend the game on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, 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.

May 14, 2020

The Gaming Philosopher

[IF Comp 2019] Chuk and the Arena, by Agnieszka Trzaska

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at May 14, 2020 05:31 PM

This game is pretty clearly by the same author as Lux: we are navigating a map in a link-based system, collecting items, combining them in our inventory or using them on other items in the world, and solving puzzles. Typical parser activities, transposed to a link-based environment. But Chuk and the Arena works better than Lux, in part because its map is less complicated, and in part because

May 13, 2020

The Gaming Philosopher

[IF Comp 2019] Out, by Viktor Sobol

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at May 13, 2020 08:42 PM

There’s by a now a subgenre of games that are built around a single verb, with the most famous example probably being Chandler Groover’s Eat Me, in which all you basically ever do is... eat. Out belongs squarely to this group of games. You can finish it by typing nothing but “out” all the time, the standard parser command for leaving the room, container or vehicle you are currently in. Major

Renga in Blue

Atom Adventures (1981)

by Jason Dyer at May 13, 2020 08:41 PM

So, I ended up teaming up with Margaret Thatcher to beat Tom Thumb with a shillelagh that I looted off the dead body of Elvis Presley. How was your day?

The cover just says “Adventures” but the inside of the cassette liner gives the title “Atom Adventures” so I’m rolling with the more distinctive of the two. The Atom in the title is of the machine, the Acorn Atom. The Atom was the main rival to the ZX series in the early British computer market. Acornsoft was the software branch of the same company. (Veterans of my backlog may recognize their name from Quondam; they published the commercial version of that in 1984.)

That makes this another candidate for First Commercial Britventure (along with Planet of Death and City of Alzan) but I don’t know exactly when it was published. There are ads in Your Computer magazine from Acornsoft that seem to list their entire catalog, but I don’t see Atom Adventures in any of them, including in December.

Does this mean Atom Adventures came early in 1981, and Acornsoft already stopped selling the product later the same year? It’s possible, but adventures (even bad ones) sold pretty well in 1981, so I doubt it. (1981 is directly in the source code, so we at least have the year right.)

This is technically three games (Dungeon, House, Intergalactic); they all use a common interpreter and run relatively the same, so I thought it wise to group them.

The opening screen of Dungeon.

Nominally, what we have here is just wandering a map with a very sketchy combat system.

There aren’t any actions possible other than movement, attacking, picking up items and a SAY command that lets you use magic words. Various “monsters” wander a map. Sometimes they are neutral, sometimes they attack you, sometimes they attack other monsters, sometimes they drop items.

The three games are chaotic and hilarious and unsettling all at the same time.

For Dungeon (and the other two games) the goal is to simply gather enough treasures that the VALUE is high enough that typing VALUE at the “home” room wins the game.

The above screen is of Intergalactic, which starts with what’s marginally a puzzle (at least, it stumped at least one player). The puppeteer has a COMPUTER LOCK BREAKER; once you murder him/her/it, just holding the lock breaker lets you leave the opening room.

The map has a bunch of famous sci-fi locations, like Arrakis and Ringworld. Each “room” represents an entirely different “world”, so that Pern, Planet of the Fire Lizards and Holiday Planet Haven are one step away.

There are no other puzzles; the game is just navigating the map while murdering everyone in your path and taking their stuff.

The title of “most unsettling” must go to House, which might be a Spooky House or Wacky Inheritance story if it didn’t involve getting treasures via celebrity murder spree.

The room connections are “normal” but the wandering NPCs consist of


and the same behavior seems to apply to all of them, so you may have a peaceful Count Dracula and a Superman that immediately starts attacking you and then you find Lady Diana just wailing on Prince Charles.

Oddly, House is probably the best of the three games — the map is semi-coherent (it does feel like a house, albeit one with mazes in the cellar and upper floor) and the gonzo effect is at least original. In one of my playthroughs, Ronnie Raygun dropped a stash of heroin which counted as a treasure worth 100 points. There’s not much in the way of “strategy” although it is possible to die from combat.

This scene indicates that SAY OUT will teleport you to the starting area. The magic words are just for ease of transport.

If it weren’t for the blazoned title including “Adventures” and the fact none of these qualify as an RPGs or strategy games, I’d have quietly tossed these back on the discard pile. Still: if you remain intrigued and want to try Atom Adventures on your own, you’ll need an emulator (Atomulator is good) and the software installed to the right place (you can find instructions for that here).

May 12, 2020


The Pendragon Tales!

May 12, 2020 09:41 AM

Two weeks ago, we announced a writing competition for our upcoming narrative strategy game, Pendragon. As you gather the knights of the Round Table to cross England, they will sit beside the campfire and tell stories.

We opened a call for submissions of tales - courtly romances, ghost stories, adventures. We hoped we'd get some good ones - and we received over four hundred, amazing tales.

We've read them all. Several of them we've read twice. And now we're very happy to announce our selection - 23 tales from 23 writers (plus a couple by us). Some are professional game writers for Fallen London, Choice Of Games, Zombies, Run! and Over the Alps; one was a writer on Deus Ex; some have written independent games before; some are journalists; and for some this is their first writing sale.

We have an engineer, an archaeologist, a biochemist, a theatrical set-dresser and a theatre director. The oldest writer is sixty-two, the youngest is seventeen. One story is by a group of professional storytellers, Troubadour Tales, who regularly perform at heritage sites in the UK.

We have contributions from all around the world: Israel, Romania and Argentina, as well as Canada, the US and the UK. One submission was written by a non-English speaker using translation software.

Each on the list wasn't just good, but excellent. Each left us with more than we started with. Some are genuinely startling. Some are scary, some silly, and some are more profound than you might expect. We loved them all (and ended up with more than twice we intended.)

The Stories!

Here's the full list:

  • Death and the King, by Adrian Bourceanu
  • Avethorpe Grove, by Robin Todd
  • The Bramble, by Carl Muckenhoupt
  • Bitter Fruit, by Chris Kerr
  • The Shoemaker and the Thief, by Callico Harrison
  • Woe, by Christopher Pitt
  • The Town by the Lake, by Emma Kate Campbell
  • Three Jealous Daughters, by Enkei, Owner-of-all-Hearts
  • Playing The Maiden Fair, by Florence Smith Nicholls
  • To Be A Dragon, by George Lockett
  • Rust in Peace, by Harry Tuffs
  • The Dame Ragnelle, by ila
  • The Merchant's Tale, by Jasmine Osler
  • Sir Baudwin and the Chalice, by David E. Sky
  • Wilfred and the Serpent, by Mary Goodden
  • The King's Advisor, by Maya Hecht and Udi Becker
  • The Man Who Couldn't Fart, by Michael Kelly
  • The Faerie King's Bride, by OD Jones
  • The Parchment, by Peter Dudasko
  • The Spear Rhongomiant, by Rebecca Zahabi
  • About Names, by Rodrigo Agosta
  • Bethan and Sir Thew, by Samuel Partridge
  • The Waymaker's Grave, by Shelly Jones
  • The Knight of Pies, by Thomas Martin
  • The Lost Soul, by Troubadour Tales

A dying king cheats Death, and yet Death wins. A knight defends his name well beyond the bitter end. A tale of a bloodthirsty hound goes wrong. A giant's plan to save his soul is befouled.

There are tales of ghosts, fairies and shaggy dogs, mixed with cautionary tales, Celtic and Arthurian retellings, and a song.

When you play Pendragon, the stories you encounter will depend on who's in your party to do the telling, and other things - where have they camped? How is the journey faring? A cheerful tale might follow a victory; a sad tale might follow a defeat.

Some will no doubt be harder to find than others... but we can't wait for you to discover them all, when Pendragon launches later this year.

May 11, 2020

Renga in Blue

Stoneville Manor (1981)

by Jason Dyer at May 11, 2020 11:41 PM

Welcome to Stoneville Manor. The dream mansion can be yours, all yours, once you have obtained the deed. To get the deed, you need only open the safe. To open the safe you need only… Well, we’ll let you find that out for yourself.

Stoneville Manor is another type-in, this time originally in Applesoft BASIC. Shockingly, this is not a spooky house story, but just a wacky inheritance story (see: The Mulldoon Legacy, Hollywood Hijinks).


It appears to be Randy Jensen’s only game.

Despite requiring a full 16K of space on the Apple II, the game is quite minimalist.

While I got most of the way through with the Apple II version, I had to switch to the PC version to finish, so the screenshots will change right at the end. I suspect a typo in the source code but I didn’t have the motivation to diagnose it, and the PC version is nearly the same besides.

Going south leads to a WOODED AREA with TREES. Typing CLIMB TREE leads to a flashing


message followed by landing the player in the hospital.

This strikes me as even more minimalist than Scott Adams.

As you can likely predict, the parser of this game is terrible. It can help to approach with a different philosophy of gameplay; imagine playing a Dodgy Old Game akin to playing Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Heads or Tails of It. In that game (by Infocom) you sometimes needed to type exact phrases to indicate spoonerisms or proverbs in the text. From the sample transcript for that game:

Your foul mood requires a more specific strategy.

You do a slow roll off the left side of the bed, which in this case is actually the right side of the bed since the right side of the bed is awash in a sea of jagged glass and alarm clock parts.

So, for Dodgy Old Games, think of actual communication is a puzzle of sorts. For example, to get your inventory in Stoneville Manor, you have to type TAKE INVENTORY in full, and no, that isn’t in the instructions. It’s a fun extra challenge, and here I am with my smiling face and slightly twitching eye. FUN. WE’RE HAVING FUN.

I formulated this Nord and Bert connection before reaching Stoneville Manor, but this first puzzle feels very close to something from that game. I was stuck for a while until I decided to use sheer willpower.


Ah, medicine by fiat. It doesn’t work for the game itself


so we’ll just have to play normally from here.

The game is structured around having three “hidden areas”, each which contain a number. When all three numbers are applied to the safe in Stoneville Manor, the safe opens and you win the game. Here’s the map without the hidden areas:


There’s quite a few items laying about both inside and outside Manor Stoneville. In the library of the manor there is a BOOK with explicit instructions:

All of these items indicated are out in the open. It’s just a matter of going and finding the “appropriate place” to launch, which is helpfully labeled with a sign.


Then you can use INFLATE BALLOON or BUILD BALLOON and all the steps required in putting the thing together just happen.

After flying, you land on a plateau with a shack, and inside the shack is a table with the first number.


(The number is randomized, so you can’t just skip doing this altogether on a second playthrough.)


To be able to get to the underwater area, you first need to get inside a VENT system in the manor. The vents appear in multiple locations; if you try to go in while holding an item, the game claims SOMETHING IS TOO BIG. If you try to go in holding nothing, it claims YOU WEIGH TOO MUCH.

The solution here is a local store with some JOGGING SHOES. I guessed some exercise would be involved, but I needed hints to find the one and only way of communicating it:

The vent leads down to a wine cellar with a burlap bag containing a snorkel, and a serval (a wild cat kind of like a leopard). I’ll come back to the serval with AREA #3 in a moment.

With the snorkel, and a swimming mask and inflatable raft that are out in the open, you can dive in the lake to find an underground tunnel.

The bat is just a random environmental effect that only happens sometimes when entering the room, it’s not a “real” thing you can refer to. Environmental effects elsewhere include a “primate” in the trees, a frog jumping over water, a maid with a pack of bloodhounds, and a butler holding sticks of dynamite. The latter two I assume are supposed to be former staff that are now hunting the treasure.

The lake also has a trout, which you can catch with a fishing net, which lets you get to…


You can feed the trout to the serval, which lets you get to another part of the wine cellar with a goblet and the third number.

With the third number, you can find the safe (behind a picture, of course) and enter in the numbers. (Their order is also randomized, but there aren’t that many combinations to try.)

The will is inside…

…and no, this wasn’t a great game. The author had some grand ideas but the implementation was incredibly rough; it’s likely everything was custom-made from scratch. Here’s a sample of source code to illustrate what I mean:

We now have a giant passel of languages customized to write text adventures, but in 1981, technical issues — like not even bothering to interpret a verb and noun separately — were still a major barrier.

Honestly, the bit in the hospital was the most creative part; what if the whole game were like that, leaning into the weirdness?

Stoneville Manor was on one of those “let’s grab some BASIC games, sell them, and hope nobody cares we don’t own the rights” compilations for C64.

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Benjamin Appleby-Dean, A Squire’s Tale

by Mary Duffy at May 11, 2020 08:42 PM

Seize victory for your Lady in medieval England! The crown prince has gone missing, and only you can rescue him. But can you resist the call of faerie long enough to complete your quest? A Squire’s Tale is a 152,000-word interactive medieval fantasy novel by Benjamin Appleby-Dean. I sat down with Ben to talk about medieval fantasy and the inspirations for his game. A Squire’s Tale releases this Thursday, May 14th.

I love the medieval fantasy setting of this game. Tell me a little about the world of A Squire’s Tale.

A Squire’s Tale is set in a hopefully-accurate version of 14th-century England. The country was in a constant state of unrest and rebellion due to the unpopular reign of Richard the Second—the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt had been followed by expensive and unsuccessful wars abroad, and he was barely clinging to his throne at the time of the story. The collective upheavals of the time also led to more equality among men and women due to the labour shortages, and many other medieval norms were frequently broken—priests openly took mistresses or common-law wives, and same-sex couples faced less persecution than they later did under the Tudors.

It’s also a time when the very idea of knighthood was being reinvented—many of the older chivalric ideas were seen as having died with Edward of Woodstock (the famous Black Prince), and knights and jousting were on the cusp of becoming a kind of formalized play-acting.

Most of the characters I’ve written about here were real historical figures—although I had to invent Lady Catherine D’Arundel and Prince Bertram for the sake of the plot!

I tried to write the fantastic elements of this story based on how people of the time would have perceived them, rather than more modern ideas of Faerie—most medieval tales of otherworlds are anarchic and socially disruptive, or downright surreal. Alchemy was widely accepted and even practiced by the Church, and what we think of as the supernatural was seen in a much more everyday, matter-of-fact light.

This is your first piece of interactive fiction, but certainly not your first publication. Tell our readers a bit about your background as a writer.

​I’ve been writing for about ten years now, and have had two novels published through Wild Wolf—a contemporary horror story (Lamplight) and a coming-of-age fantasy novel (The Stickman’s Legacy). All of my work is set in the same fictional world—sharp-eyed readers might notice a few places and background characters shared between my novels and A Squire’s Tale, despite the difference in time periods!

I also write occasional poetry, and published a short collection last year.

I have a particular interest in LGBTQIA+ fiction, especially where the identity of the characters isn’t a major focus of the plot—I’m a firm believer in incidental representation, and it’s one of the things that first drew me to COG. I’ve dabbled with game development on a number of occasions as a hobby, but this is my first time releasing anything interactive to the public—I’m very excited (and a little nervous) to see how it goes!

What did you find most surprising about the process of writing a branching narrative game?

​​​​I found coming up with balanced, compelling choices at every stage of the game to be surprisingly challenging—especially when it came to avoiding dead ends and “wrong” choices. I was also pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to hide things in the narrative—most of the choices and consequences in A Squire’s Tale should be fairly obvious, but I’ve added a couple of well-hidden secrets for anyone who cares to go looking…

What’s your experience and background in playing games? Do you have any favorites in the COG canon of games?

​I’ve probably spent rather too much of my life playing games—from the Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf gamebooks of the 1980s to the more modern digital worlds of Silent Hill, Baldur’s Gate, Portal, Life is Strange, and so on. I’m fascinated by the possibilities of storytelling in a more interactive medium—the way you can use player awareness of their own role within the story, for instance, or using environmental details to tell a story rather than explicit narrative. Nowadays I tend to play a lot more independent or low-budget titles rather than big releases as I think a lot of the more interesting games writing is coming from smaller developers—Night in the Woods and Heaven Will Be Mine are among my recent favorites.

​My favorite COG title is Heart of the House​—I’m a huge fan of traditional ghost stories, and I love the decaying, Shirley-Jackson-esque atmosphere and the slow descent into surrealism as the player becomes lost in the architecture.

Where did the idea for A Squire’s Tale come from?

The main inspiration was one of my favorite poems—Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” with its lyrical, decadent merchants and their wares. The same kind of Faerie Market occurs in passing in a lot of fantasy literature, but I wanted to write something where it was more central to the story—asking what kind of people come to sell at the Market? What brings them there, and what are their own stories and backgrounds?

I also read a number of Victorian medieval romances when I was younger—The White Company, Sir Nigel, Ivanhoe and so on; and although they’re badly dated as novels, I liked the idea of doing something set in the same period. The 14th century was a time of enormous historical change—the oncoming transformation of chivalry, the social upheavals that followed in the wake of the Plague, the subsequent Peasants’ revolt, and the multiple attempts to unseat Richard II. What better time for a mysterious group of travelers to show up, offering to sell people all the answers they’re missing?

What are you working on next?

I actually have several projects going on at present—I’m working on a children’s book set in the same fantasy realm as A Squire’s Tale, as well as my own traditional ghost story for a more adult audience. I also have a couple more ideas for interactive fiction if A Squire’s Tale does well enough!

May 10, 2020

The Gaming Philosopher

[IF Comp 2019] Planet C, by Mark Carew

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at May 10, 2020 07:07 PM

Planet C is a colony simulation game in which you have to generate enough food and power for a colony of 2000 people while keeping pollution in check. That last element doesn’t make too much fictional sense – how could such a small colony generate climate change, even if they were using the worst sources of power in the world? – but we can easily suspend our disbelief. The story is told in

[IF Comp 2019] Skies Above, by Arthur DiBianca

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at May 10, 2020 05:17 PM

Arthur DiBianca has been building up a sizeable oeuvre of well-regarded puzzle parser games. I played only one them, The Temple of Shorgil (2018), but have been given to understand that it was quite typical of Arthur DiBianca’s games. It was a limited-parser puzzle game based around a central puzzle mechanic that is developed in all kinds of interesting ways. Bonus points for very solid

[IF Comp 2019] Arram's Tomb, by James Beck

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at May 10, 2020 12:08 PM

When you see this game -- the title, the cover art, the introduction -- you have a pretty good idea what you're getting into. Very traditional dungeon crawling, but as a choice-based experience. To be frank, everything about Arram's Tomb also suggests that it will deliver a rather unsatisfactory experience: it is all so clichéd that the characters are even called by their classes. And the image

May 07, 2020

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Wayhaven Chronicles: Book Two by Mishka Jenkins

by Kyle Guerrero at May 07, 2020 02:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Two months have passed since the bloody showdown with Murphy. Wayhaven has returned to its peaceful routine, and you’ve returned to your less-than-thrilling job as detective. But with your new role as human liaison to The Agency—an organization that governs the supernatural—things should be far from dull.

It’s 30% off until May 14!

Along with the job comes Unit Bravo, the team you are learning to live with on a more permanent basis. And with one of them comes the continuation of feelings that were just beginning to be explored…

But an altogether different presence is rolling into Wayhaven, cloaked in striped tents, blazing lights, and clouds of cotton candy.

Immerse yourself in Wayhaven Chronicles: Book Two, a 788,000-word continuation of your supernatural story, where you can grow the romance you began, meet old and new characters, decide how to handle the new situations you’re thrown into, and experience the thrill of the outcomes of those decisions—as well as what they may bring in the future!

  • Play as female, male, or non-binary; play as straight, gay, or bisexual.
  • Continue your unique and lasting romance with one of the four vampires of Unit Bravo.
  • Build on your character by deciding key factors in their development.
  • Grow and define friendships and relationships from Book One, as well as those introduced in Book Two.
  • Will you gain a new ally, make peace, or turn against the new supernatural situation that has arisen?
  • Enjoy the freedom of a playstyle which suits you, whether through personality, stats, or choices.
  • Immerse yourself in a world rich with characters, story, lore, and—most importantly—fun!

The Carnival has arrived. Prepare for the ride.

Mishka Jenkins 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.

May 06, 2020


Storytron is Moving to the Web

by Bill Maya at May 06, 2020 03:42 PM

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I’ve decided to leave Java behind and move Storytron development to the web.

When Storytron was open-source back in 2018, I stuck with Java because the plan was to make the original code better and build on what we had. In the back of my mind was Joel Spolsky’s advice about the Things You Should Never Do when working with a legacy code base.

This original plan morphed into creating a new JavaFX application, which would give us a better user interface and architecture scaffolding to build on and move over some of the old SWAT Java code as needed (see Slack’s when a rewrite isn’t).

This plan changed again when I decided to use the old SWAT Java code for reference purposes only. This pivot, and a comment from Chris Conley, made me question whether I should continue with Java as the programming language for Storytron.

I’ve got nothing against curly bracket/semicolon imperative languages like Java. I’ve used them for over twenty-five years as a full-time software developer. I’m sure Java was the right choice back in the 2000’s but in the 2020’s there are probably better options.

As I thought that through, I was also leery of falling into the trap that a majority of your younger, inexperienced software developer’s make, a knee-jerk gut-level reaction that, if only they could start with a blank slate and throw away all this crap legacy code they were saddled with, they could do a much better job than the previous guy. I’ve had that same thought, especially when getting more and more frustrated trying to understand someone else’s code, digging through it to try and decipher how it works and find out which line is causing the bug I’m trying to fix. It’s not fun.

Java is an okay language, either the first or second most popular programming language for the past twenty years. But if I abandoned it what language would I choose? Python? C#? Ruby? Dart? Julia? Rust? Go? There are no shortage of programming languages out there, each promising to be a silver bullet, each with their own baggage.

Taking a step back, I came up with some criteria to help with my decision. In no particular order:

  • Web — It’s should run in a browser. This reduces the friction towards getting started. Type a URL, click a button, and Voila!
  • Market Share — It should be relatively popular. A significant number of people using a language and the potential for continued use in the future translates into documentation, upgrades, support, hands on keyboards, etc.
  • Platforms — A storyworld should run on multiple platforms. While people might develop storyworlds on the web, they might not want to play them in their browser. We should support storyworld play on other devices — iPhone, Android, Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, and so on.
  • Interest — This one is purely personal. It’s got to be a language that I’ve used in the past AND that I’m interested in using again.

Here’s a snapshot of my software development experience.

30+ years of software development

At a glance you can see that there are an equal number of programming languages that I could classify as “retired senior citizens” and an equal number of “middle-aged contenders.”

║ Retired ║ Contenders ║
║ Objective C ║ Java ║
║ THINK Pascal ║ Python ║
║ Clipper/dBase ║ C# ║
║ HyperCard ║ Elm ║
║ Visual FoxPro/FoxPro ║ Phoenix/Elixir ║
║ Omnis 7/Omnis Studio ║ JavaScript ║

I ranked each of the six contenders against my initial criteria using a very subjective scale of 1 to 5.

║ ║ Web ║ Market ║ Platforms ║ Interest ║ Average ║
║ Java ║ 1 ║ 5 ║ 2 ║ 1 ║ 2.25 ║
║ Python ║ 1 ║ 5 ║ 3 ║ 1 ║ 2.50 ║
║ C# ║ 3 ║ 3 ║ 5 ║ 3 ║ 3.50 ║
║ Elm ║ 5 ║ 2 ║ 2 ║ 2 ║ 2.75 ║
║ Phoenix/Elixir ║ 4 ║ 2 ║ 2 ║ 2 ║ 2.50 ║
║ JavaScript ║ 5 ║ 4 ║ 3 ║ 2 ║ 3.50 ║

The two languages that rise to the top are C# and JavaScript. I’ll look at those in greater detail in a future post.

Storytron is Moving to the Web was originally published in Storytron on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

A Scenes-First Design for Storytron

by Bill Maya at May 06, 2020 12:42 PM

Scene Editor Mock-Up for Storytron 2

Below is my design and notes for a scene editor that I was considering for Storytron 2 when I thought that a scenes-first approach was the way to go.

Before I started coding I realized that there were better tools out there (Ink and Twine to name two) that could do what I was proposing. Not wanting to reinvent the wheel, I decided to abandon my “scenes-first” approach and focus on something more “ Storytron-like.”

In this design a scene in Storytron 2 has these criteria:

  • It is text-based
  • It is an interaction between two principal actors, a protagonist and an antagonist
  • One of the actors is the protagonist of the storyworld

At a later date other rules could be added such as allowing other actors to witness a scene, allowing more than two actors to be principals, or allowing the protagonist to be only a witness to a scene between two other actors. But for now let’s limit ourselves to the three criteria listed above.

To create a scene we’ll need some sort of scene editor. We could use a generic text editor, like was initially outlined in the original anecdote documentation for the failed Siboot 2.0 project, but even that method was superseded by a dedicated encounter editor. Yes, a text editor could be used at some point to experiment with the format for a saved scene list but creating more than one or two scenes that way is a laborious process, prone to error. So a dedicated editor is the goal.

Version 0.1 of the scene editor will have the following functions:

  • As an author, I want to be able to create a new scene
  • As an author, I want to be able to delete an existing scene
  • As an author, I want to be able to edit a scene’s introductory text
  • As an author, I want to be able to see all the scenes I have created in a scene list
  • As an author, I want to be able to save my scenes in a JSON scene file so I can continue my scene editing at a later date
  • As an author, I want to be able to load a JSON scene file into the scene editor so I can continue editing my scenes

You wouldn’t be able to do much more with this version of the scene editor than create new scenes, edit existing ones, save the entire group of scenes to a file, and load them back into the editor for editing.

Version 0.2 of the scene editor could have the following functions:

  • As an author, I want to select one scene in my scene list as the starting scene
  • As an author, I want to be able to reorder my scenes in the scene list
  • As an author, I want to be able to “play” my scenes in the order that they appear in the scene list
  • As an author, I want to be able to “step forward” through my scenes one by one while playing them
  • As an author, I want to be able to “step backwards” through my scenes one by one while playing them

Playing the scenes means simply display individual scene introductory text in the same area where you edited that same text (in Play mode the text is read-only). Stepping backwards or forwards displays the text from the previous or next scene in the scene list.

This limited interactivity doesn’t add much drama but it does provide us with a basic mechanism for moving between scenes, one that will eventually be controlled programmatically via player choices.

Additional features will need to be added to the scene editor to make is useful for interactive storytelling purposes. Things like:

  • The ability to specify actors for a scene (which means we’ll need an Actor editor with a Protagonist checkbox)
  • The ability to specify scene prerequisites, i.e. scenes that must take place before the selected scene can be played (maybe scene list order can help with this)
  • The ability to specify scene disqualifiers, i.e. scenes that must not take place before the selected scene can be played (maybe the scene list order can help here too)
  • The ability to enter LGBTQ+ text variables into the introductory text
  • The ability to enter variable protagonist and antagonist names into the introductory text
  • The ability to exclude certain actors as protagonists or antagonists
  • The ability to create protagonist scene choices that are select-able when playing a scene
  • The ability to edit antagonist emotional reactions, i.e. “feelings,” for each options (which means we’ll need a personality model and personality editor)
  • The ability to specify earliest and latest “day” parameters for each scene (though what’s a “day” and do we even want to introduce this type of restriction)
  • The ability to create antagonist reactions to a protagonist choice (how many?) and allow an antagonist to choose a reaction programmatically

This list of potential features comes from the old Storytron 1.0 encounter editor and all of them might not be migrated over to the scene editor.

A Scenes-First Design for Storytron was originally published in Storytron on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

May 05, 2020


What Will Crawford’s Next-Gen Interactive Storytelling Tech Look Like?

by Bill Maya at May 05, 2020 09:42 PM

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David

Basically like Twine or Ink.

Below is a summary I wrote based on several of Crawford’s posts on his web site outlining his new approach for interactive storytelling (links at the end of individual paragraphs point to his original posts).

I posted this summary to Crawford’s invitation-only discussion group on October 17th, 2019 because I had several questions and wanted to make sure my interpretation was correct before commenting further.

I never heard anything back.

I’ve read all the previous material related to 4th-gen encounters and I want to make sure I understand the approach before commenting further. Here’s what I took away from the original posts, which I’ve linked to below.

A standard language system, i.e. set of abstract verbs, cannot be used to manage human behavior but could be used for statements of perception. A detailed encounter system, combined with this standard language system, could result in a workable interactive storyworld. (link)

A system solely based on encounters has an inherent problem of player “fatigue.” In a game of 50 turns, with 100 encounters and 1 encounter/turn, the player will lose interest after three plays (the assumption is that the player loses interest when they see 1/2 of the encounters twice). The solution is to decrease the length of the game, reducing mimesis and satisfaction, or increasing the number of encounters, which is labor-intensive.

The labor involved in the latter approach could be mitigated by having two types of encounters, those that focus on character-specific interactions and those that expose the backstory with limited character interaction. (link)

To further reduce the effort, an existing encounter could be duplicated and modified so the second encounter becomes a distinct experience, related to but separate from the first (internally, both encounters use the same calculations). (link)

The original Storytron attempted to use abstract verbs assembled into a directed graph but it failed to find a level of abstraction that was algorithmically accessible while providing a rich dramatic experience.

A set of 4th-gen encounters by themselves have no story arc so they need to be structured to illustrate to the player that events have consequences and player choices influence subsequent events. This will be done by having player choices alter personal relationships by adding three pValues of the Antagonist towards the Protagonist to the existing encounter turn number, prerequisites, and disqualifiers. (link)

The Le Morte D’Arthur sketch will consist of three acts.

  • Act 1. Will introduce the player to the social, economic, and military situation of 6th-century Britain. Expository in nature, there will be little direct interaction between characters. During this act the question motivating the player’s actions will be “Is it better to be feared than loved?” There are 200 encounters in Act 1 but the player will see only 20 of these 200 encounters during each game played.
  • Act 2. Contains more complex character interactions and the player will spend 3/4 of the total game time in this act. The Storytron “battle cluster” verbs will be recycled and there will be a total of 400 verbs in this act (Note: the term “verbs” is used extensively in describing the 2nd Act. I’m not sure if this is intentional or the term “verbs” should be replaced with “encounters.”)
  • Act 3. Medraut revolts against Arthur and the characters choose sides. Encounters in this act are character-specific and there are no female characters in this act (I guess Gwenhwyfar doesn’t get to go into battle with her man like Pepper Potts does). The number of characters in this act remains to be decided, 16 seems like too many and 7 seems like not enough. Also, in addition to the three standard personality traits, a character’s military strength and prowess will be tracked. (link)

I’ve got a couple of questions:

  1. Is my understanding of this 4th-gen encounter-based approach correct?
  2. How are the individual encounter responses created? Are they verb-based, driven by inclination scripts, or are they manually created like in the old Encounter Editor?
  3. How does this 4th-gen encounter design tie into the other 4th generation components proposed?

What Will Crawford’s Next-Gen Interactive Storytelling Tech Look Like? was originally published in Storytron on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Is Trust & Betrayal Crawford’s Legacy?

by Bill Maya at May 05, 2020 07:42 PM

Back in June of 2019, after Storytron had been open-sourced and we were making slow but steady progress, I received this email from Crawford.

I’ve been developing a concept for the last few weeks and I’d like to get your thoughts on it. This is the first draft of a sketch of the idea. I solicit your suggestions and criticisms.

There was a PDF attached to the email outlining this “new” concept. You can see the contents here.

I was shocked but should have expected this sort of grandstanding. I interpreted it as a feeble attempt to derail our Storytron efforts.

My reply:

There is already a community out there dedicated to interactive storytelling (I met many of them two weeks ago at NarraScope). This group has created many tools over the years, tools that Storytron could learn from. The code for many of them is available. Some, like Twine, are already open source while others, like Inform 7, soon will be.
I have no faith in the waterfall, top-down approach that you are proposing, especially with you in charge. Your attitude of “I will write,” “I shall require,” and “I will not authorize” is the antithesis of open source (but it does not surprise me). You might attract a younger following based on your past history and charisma but setting yourself up as arbiter of what is right and what is wrong will drive more people away than you realize.
The six components you outline already exist in one form or another in the open sourced Storytron software, however crude or complex their current instantiation might be. Your efforts would be better spent helping us make this existing software better rather than fragmenting our efforts by pursuing some boondoggle. If you can’t code anymore you could help with the wikis. Or you could come up with redesigns for existing editors or submit designs for new ones to the Google Group. But whatever you do it would be as an individual contributor because, when it comes to the open sourced Storytron, you are not in charge (no one is).
Best of luck. I am going to focus my efforts on making Storytron better.

I also posted the proposal to the Storytron Google Group for comment. You can see that conversation here.

Nothing much came of this whole thing. There’s a companion page on Crawford’s site that hasn’t received updates in quite a while and yet another Le Morte D’Arthur project focused on encounters that started up back in September of 2019 and appears to have stopped as of January 2020.

The whole incident did leave me with an extremely bad taste in my mouth and extinguished whatever admiration I had for Crawford. I briefly stopped work on Storytron but re-started soon after — The ideas behind the technology were more compelling than the frailties and foibles of the man that came up with them.

Is Trust & Betrayal Crawford’s Legacy? was originally published in Storytron on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.