Planet Interactive Fiction

January 24, 2020

"Aaron Reed"

Subcutanean: Generating the Final Books

by Aaron A. Reed at January 24, 2020 10:42 PM

After a long development process, earlier today my custom Python script finally generated and rendered the first Subcutanean that will be printed and delivered to a customer. Here’s the moment in all its Terminal glory:

What’s going on here? Kind of a lot. Let’s break it down, shall we? (Or if you need more context first, here’s a gentler introduction to the Subcutanean project.)

This is a custom book for a Singular Subcutanean backer (supporters at this level pledged for a book that included a unique piece of content based on a prompt they provided). In the command at the top, I’m setting the output format to PDF, and using the --set option to manually turn on the particular bit of prose written for this backer. The --gen option sets the “seed generation” for this render, which is basically a fancy way of indicating “the first digit of the seed.” All Indiegogo backers will receive Generation 1 books, meaning their seed’s first digit will be 1; after fulfillment that generation will be retired and no subsequent books will ever again have a seed beginning with that digit.

Each seed generation has its own persistent counter to ensure no book is ever regenerated with the same seed. At the top you can see it retrieving the next seed and getting 10012. (Yes, there were 11 screw-ups and tests before everything was 100% ready to go. You don’t want to know what the counter’s at for the seed generation I designated for testing…)

You can then see the book from seed 10012 being generated twice, the first time marked “prelim.” Why twice? It’s to do with the End Matter items and LaTeX PDF formatting. You might recall one of the campaign’s stretch goals was unlocking different pieces of “End Matter” that can optionally appear at the end of the book. Because keeping each print book a fixed number of pages makes the logistics easier at the printer, books that are shorter than the maximum length have extra space, which can be filled up with things like an About the Author page, Backer Thanks, alternate scenes, and so on.

(The max length is actually 239 pages, by the way, which is the length if every single variant text uses the longest possible version… pretty statistically unlikely but possible. The also-unlikely shortest possible version is 209 pages. Because of how randomness and bell curves work, the vast majority of books end up in the range of 221–227 pages; the rare seeds producing books longer than 232 pages, the fixed size I decided to use at my printer’s, are skipped over if the target output is for print.)

To fill the extra space with End Matter, though, I need to know how many pages I have to play with after the book’s been completely generated, typeset, and rendered… and by far the easiest way to do that is to just do the whole thing once without the End Matter, check how many pages there were, then do it again with the addition of End Matter bits you know will fit. That’s what you see going on in the screenshot.

For each pass, the system reads an input of raw .quant files to parse — the file “full-book-manifest.txt” lists each chapter file in order. (During authoring and testing, it was often much quicker to just render the particular chapter I was working on.) The bit about “confirms” ties to my system for validating variant texts: in this case, no text has changed, so nothing needs to be re-confirmed.

Collapser then renders out a version of the whole book unique to the given seed, and does it pretty quietly if there are no errors. By the time the “vars” line you see next shows up, it’s all done: this is showing how all the named variables got set for this rendering. (There are also several hundred more unnamed variables for smaller variation throughout.)

Collapser then turns this version of the book over to the renderer, which in this case is for PDF output. This first converts the raw text with its generic markup to LaTeX, including adding a bunch of setup at the beginning with print specifications, the title page, and so on: then triggers a command line LaTeX compiler to render the generated .tex file to PDF. Finally, a different program is called that can get statistics on a PDF, and it checks for a wide range of possible output errors or unexpected results, and also returns a page count.

In the final steps of the “prelim” phase, you can see the program checking how many extra pages it has to work with (in this case, for a 225 page version, 7) and selecting a few End Matter items to fill up that space. The whole process then happens again, but this time with those End Matter items manually appended in. At the very bottom you can see a 231 page PDF has been rendered: the last step is to add 1 page of padding to reach the desired page count of 232.

Whew! Each one of these steps has been a journey to get right. It’s all running smooth as clockwork right now, although remind me to never upgrade anything on this laptop ever again.

If you haven’t ordered your own copy of Subcutanean, you have a couple more days left to put in a pre-order on Indiegogo before they’re closed. This is your very last chance to get a Generation 1 book! The books will go on sale to the general public some time in February with a new generation.

Scrolling through versions of the opening of Subcutanean, rendered to plain text this time.

Renga in Blue


by Jason Dyer at January 24, 2020 09:41 PM

Hezarin has definitely exceeded Acheton in difficulty, and while I don’t think it quite has hit the Quondam threshold, it’s gunning for it hard.

The commercial release of Hezarin was in a “double game pack” with The Last Days of Doom, a science fiction game which is third in the Doomawangara trilogy. Picture via Museum of Comptuer Adventure Games.

I wanted to tie up loose ends on the “Fountain Room” portion of the map. In particular, there was a section with a rope bridge and a “Minotaur Lair”.

You are on the south side of the rope bridge. The bridge sways unexpectedly below your feet, and it is all you can do to maintain your balance in this precarious position above the raging torrent. The bridge continues uninvitingly to the north, whilst to the south is a shelf of rock offering firmer footing.


You are on a shelf of rock high above a seething underground river. On the
rock wall at the rear of the shelf is blazed in letters three feet high:
Passages lead southeast and southwest, and a frail rope bridge spans the gorge,
disappearing into the darkness.
A pearl necklace is lying here!


You are in the minotaur’s lair. Passages lead in several directions.


[… this is another “random” maze …]

Your compass is spinning like a demented top.
OK I think this is the way …..

You are in the minotaur’s den. The ground is littered with straw and old bones. A dark for is just visible in the gloom in the corner of the room; it appears as yet to be unaware of your presence.

>kill minotaur

You move toward the dark form in the corner, and discover to your relief that it is only a statue. Obviously the statue is far too heavy to move.

This is what the map around the minotaur area looks like at first, although there’s a hidden area.

The minotaur statue fake-out was amusing but I was clueless how to proceed. I did have this poem scrawled on a different part of the map…

Not the making of the beast
And Adventurer’s despair
But the taking of the beast
In the Minotaur’s lair

…but I admit to needing to check hints here (and multiple times for what followed). Before I get to that, I need to mention a magic item:

A three foot black rod with a rusty star on the end lies nearby.

Yes, this is getting a cameo from Adventure. WAVE ROD has a somewhat different effect from the original game:

As you wave the rod it emits a loud WHOOOoooosh, like the sound of a firework being let off, and clouds of black smoke issue forth from the end. You suddenly feel distinctly queasy; your limbs no longer respond to your commands, and you collapse to the floor. When the smoke clears you find that you have turned into a frog.

This is useful getting into a small crack and finding a treasure (a fly that you can eat in frog form, but it turns out to be a jeweled treasure rather than a real fly so you spit it out). Making it back to the Fountain Room and typing DRINK WATER is sufficient to change back to human form.

I was happy enough to have figured this out, but I didn’t make the connection between the rod and the poem. The first two lines refer to the froggificaiton of our hero (“the making of the beast”). The second two lines mean the rod has a different effect when waved at the statue.

As you wave the rod the statue shudders and begins to emit a terrifying creaking sound. The surface ripples and begins to shrink in upon itself, as if it were being sucked in by some unseen force. You are unable to turn away and watch, spellbound as the statue grows ever smaller. Finally all that remains is a tiny statuette, a fraction of the size of the original. The statuette is lying on a previously invisible trapdoor.

Any attempt to open the trapdoor was stymied; the game said it was bolted on the other side. So what was the purpose of all this, then? Was this trapdoor only going to come up again much later?

I had previously tested out CUT BRIDGE (with the vorpal sword in hand) because it was described as wobbly, but the right action was to cut the rope while standing on the bridge.

With one slash you cut right through the bridge, and you are forced to hang on for dear life as the bridge plummets towards the far canyon wall. Just as it appears that you are about to bash your brains out at high speed you notice a dark opening in the gorge wall, which fortunately you appear to be heading straight for. As the bridge is brought up short you let go and hurtle into the cave. When you have recovered sufficient compsure to look around you discover….
You are in a secret cave underneath the minotaur’s lair. A large stalactite forms a pillar in the centre of the cave running from floor to ceiling. and other smaller ones grow nearby. To the north is a 60 foot drop down to a narrow ledge, while a winding tunnel leads south. There is a rope bridge hanging outside the cave entrance.
There is a large stone here, made of a strange black substance.

Oho. This led to a treasure (a silver tiara) and allowed me to unbolt the trapdoor and get back up to the Minotaur Den, but I was now trapped. The key was to untie the remains of the rope bridge and re-tie them down farther at the secret cave.

OK. You fasten the bridge to the stalactite.


You shinny deftly down the bridge, jumping the last few feet down to the ground You are on a narrow east-west ledge just above a fast flowing river. The ledge quickly peters out to the west. A rope bridge dangles down from the cave above, ending about 15 feet above your head.

If you try to go west, the ledge ends; if you try to go east, you lose your balance and fall in the river … unless you’ve reduced your inventory as much as possible (basically, a light source and your treasure-holding bag; fortunately the vorpal sword counts as a treasure). This puzzle wasn’t illogical, but there was no textual indication the possessions were causing the imbalance.

The ledge is followed by some steps which lead to an area I’ve seen before, from the other side.

You are on a large landing. Two close set doors decorated with scenes of brave Adventurers fighting huge lions, exit northwest and northeast. The only other exit is down the steps.

Here’s a map of my earlier visit of the same place just as a reminder:

This is from the first underground cavern of the game and shows the north side of the lion and leopard rooms.

Previously the rooms were separate, but looking from the south side they are “close set”, so trying to OPEN DOOR results in a disambiguation prompt.

Which door do you wish to open (left or right) ?

Let’s try typing RIGHT.


As you open the door a large and ferocious lion leaps out. Against his superior bulk and razor sharp claws you stand no chance…..

No, maybe LEFT?


>As you open the door a large and ferocious leopard leaps out. (Obviously the painter of the murals only knew how to do lions.) Against his superior bulk and razor sharp claws you stand no chance.

I will be revealing the final result after the picture, but you (yes, you, the one reading this right now) might want to stop and think how you’d solve this one; you technically have enough information to solve the puzzle.

The Hero Overpowering a Lion. Picture via Thierry Ollivier at the Musée du Louvre. (Image permission is for non-commercial use only.)


You yank open both doors simultaneously, barricading yourself in the triangle so formed. As you do so two large and ferocious animals leap out, and the noise of their combat reverberates throughout the caves. Obviously they had not eaten for days. Eventually the noise ceases and you feel confident enough to close the doors. The bodies of the big cats lie in pieces around the landing, obviously quite dead.

Just for emphasis, yes, you have to type something entirely different than what the prompt tells you is an option. This is meta at the level of answering the rhetorical question about fighting a dragon in Adventure.

The Digital Antiquarian

Master of Orion

by Jimmy Maher at January 24, 2020 05:41 PM


Given the shadow which the original Master of Orion still casts over the gaming landscape of today, one might be forgiven for assuming, as many younger gamers doubtless do, that it was the very first conquer-the-galaxy grand-strategy game ever made. The reality, however, is quite different. For all that its position of influence is hardly misbegotten for other very good reasons, it was already the heir to a long tradition of such games at the time of its release in 1993. In fact, the tradition dates back to well before computer games as we know them today even existed.

The roots of the strategic space opera can be traced back to the tabletop game known as Diplomacy, designed by Allan B. Calhamer and first published in 1959 by Avalon Hill. Taking place in the years just prior to World War I, it put seven players in the roles of leaders of the various “great powers” of Europe. Although it included a playing board, tokens, and most of the other accoutrements of a typical board game, the real action, at least if you were playing it properly, was entirely social, in the alliances that were forged and broken and the shady deals that were struck. In this respect, it presaged many of the ideas that would later go into Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. It thus represents an instant in gaming history as seminal in its own way as the 1954 publication of Avalon Hill’s Tactics, the canonical first tabletop wargame and the one which touched off the hobby of experiential gaming in general. But just as importantly for our purposes, Diplomacy‘s shifting alliances and the back-stabbings they led to would become an essential part of countless strategic space operas, including Master of Orion 34 years later.

Because getting seven friends together in the same room for the all-day affair that was a complete game of Diplomacy was almost as hard in the 1960s as it is today, inventive gamers developed systems for playing it via post; the first example of this breed would seem to date from 1963. And once players had started modifying the rules of Diplomacy to make it work under this new paradigm, it was a relatively short leap to begin making entirely new play-by-post games with new themes which shared some commonalities of approach with Calhamer’s magnum opus.

Thus in December of 1966, Dan Brannon announced a play-by-post game called Xeno, whose concept sounds very familiar indeed in the broad strokes. Each player started with a cluster of five planets — a tiny toehold in a sprawling, unknown galaxy waiting to be colonized. “The vastness of the playing space, the secrecy of the identity of the other players, the secrecy of the locations of ships and planets, the total lack of information without efforts of investigation, all these factors are meant to create the real problems of a race trying to expand to other planets,” wrote Brannon. Although the new game would be like Diplomacy in that it would presumably still culminate in negotiations, betrayals, and the inevitable final war to determine the ultimate victor, these stages would now be preceded by those of exploration and colonization, until a galaxy that had seemed so unfathomably big at the start proved not to be big enough to accommodate all of its would-be space empires. Certainly all of this too will be familiar to any player of Master of Orion or one of its heirs. Brannon’s game even included a tech tree of sorts, with players able to acquire better engines, weapons, and shields for their ships every eight turns they managed to survive.

In practice, Xeno played out at a pace to which the word “glacial” hardly does justice. The game didn’t really get started until September of 1967, and by a year after that just three turns had been completed. I don’t know whether a single full game of it was ever finished. Nevertheless, it proved hugely influential within the small community of experiential-gaming fanzines and play-by-post enthusiasts. The first similar game, called Galaxy and run by H. David Montgomery, had already appeared before Xeno had processed its third turn.

But the idea was, literally and figuratively speaking, too big for the medium for which it had been devised; it was just too compelling to remain confined to those few stalwart souls with the patience for play-by-post gaming. It soon branched out into two new mediums, each of which offered a more immediate sort of satisfaction.

In 1975, following rejections from Avalon Hill and others, one Howard Thompson formed his own company to publish the face-to-face board game Stellar Conquest, the first strategic space opera to appear in an actual box on store shelves. When Stellar Conquest became a success, it spawned a string of similar board games with titles like Godsfire, Outreach, Second Empire, and Starfall during this, the heyday of experiential gaming on the tabletop. But the big problem with such games was their sheer scope and math-heavy nature, which were enough to test the limits of many a salty old grognard who usually reveled in complexity. They all took at least three or four hours to play in their simplest variants, and a single game of at least one of them — SPI’s Outreach — could absorb weeks of gaming Saturdays. Meanwhile they were all dependent on pages and pages of fiddly manual calculations, in the time before spreadsheet macros or even handheld calculators were commonplace. (One hates to contemplate the plight of the Outreach group who have just spent the last two months resolving who shall become master of the galaxy, only to discover that the victor made a mistake on her production worksheet back on the second turn which invalidated all of the numbers that followed…) These games were, in other words, crying out for computerization.

Luckily, then, that too had already started to happen by the end of the 1970s. One of the reasons that play-by-post games of this type tended to run so sluggishly — beyond, that is, the inherent sluggishness of the medium itself — came down to the same problem as that faced by their tabletop progeny: the burden their size and complexity placed on their administrators. Therefore in 1976, Rick Loomis, the founder of a little company called Flying Buffalo, started running the commercial play-by-post game Starweb on what gaming historian Shannon Appelcline has called “probably the first computer ever purchased exclusively to play games” (or, at least, to administrate them): a $14,000 Raytheon 704 minicomputer. He would continue to run Starweb for more than thirty years — albeit presumably not on the same computer throughout that time.

But the first full-fledged incarnation of the computerized strategic space opera — in the sense of a self-contained game meant to be played locally on a single computer — arrived only in 1983. Called Reach for the Stars, it was the first fruit of what would turn into a long-running and prolific partnership between the Aussies Roger Keating and Ian Trout, who in that rather grandiose fashion that was so typical of grognard culture had named themselves the Strategic Studies Group. Reach for the Stars was based so heavily upon Stellar Conquest that it’s been called an outright unlicensed clone. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable achievement for the way that it manages to capture that sense of size and scope that is such a huge part of these games’ appeal on 8-bit Apple IIs and Commodore 64s with just 64 K of memory. Although the whole is necessarily rather bare-bones compared to what would come later, the computer players’ artificial intelligence, always a point of pride with Keating and Trout, is surprisingly effective; on the harder difficulty level, the computer can truly give you a run for your money, and seems to do so without relying solely on egregious cheating.

It doesn’t look like much, but the basic hallmarks of the strategic space opera are all there in Reach for the Stars.

Reach for the Stars did very well, prompting updated ports to more powerful machines like the Apple Macintosh and IIGS and the Commodore Amiga as the decade wore on. A modest trickle of other boxed computer games of a similar stripe also appeared, albeit none which did much to comprehensively improve on SSG’s effort: Imperium Galactum, Spaceward Ho!, Armada 2525, Pax Imperia. Meanwhile the commercial online service CompuServe offered up MegaWars III, in which up to 100 players vied for control of the galaxy; it played a bit like one of those years-long play-by-post campaigns of yore compressed into four to six weeks of constant — and expensive, given CompuServe’s hourly dial-up rates — action and intrigue. Even the shareware scene got in on the act, via titles like Anacreon: Reconstruction 4021 and the earliest versions of the cult classic VGA Planets, a game which is still actively maintained and played to this day. And then, finally, along came Master of Orion in 1993 to truly take this style of game to the next level.

Had things gone just a little bit differently, Master of Orion too might have been a shareware release. It was designed in the spare time of Steve Barcia, an electrical engineer living in Austin, Texas, and programmed by Steve himself, his wife Marcia Barcia, and their friend Ken Burd. Steve claims not ever to have played any of the computer games I’ve just mentioned, but, as an avid and longtime tabletop gamer, he was very familiar with Stellar Conquest and a number of its successors. (No surprise there: Howard Thompson and his game were in fact also products of Austin’s vibrant board-gaming scene.)

After working on their computer game, which they called Star Lords, on and off for years, the little band of hobbyist programmers submitted it to MicroProse, whose grand-strategy game of Civilization, a creation of their leading in-house designer Sid Meier, had just taken the world by storm. A MicroProse producer named Jeff Johannigman — himself another member of the Austin gaming fraternity, as it happened, one who had just left Origin Systems in Austin to join MicroProse up in Baltimore — took a shine to the unpolished gem and signed its creators to develop it further. Seeing their hobby about to become a real business, the trio quit their jobs, took the name of SimTex, and leased a cramped office above a gyro joint to finish their game under Johannigman’s remote supervision, with a little additional help from MicroProse’s art department.

A fellow named Alan Emrich was one of most prominent voices in strategy-game criticism at the time; he was the foremost scribe on the subject at Computer Gaming World magazine, the industry’s accepted journal of record, and had just published a book-length strategy guide on Civilization in tandem with Johnny Wilson, the same magazine’s senior editor. Thanks to that project, Emrich was well-connected with MicroProse, and was happy to serve as a sounding board for them. And so, one fateful day very early in 1993, Johannigman asked if he’d like to have a look at a new submission called Star Lords.

As Emrich himself puts it, his initial impressions “were not that great.” He remembers thinking the game looked like “something from the late 1980s” — an eternity in the fast-changing computing scene of the early 1990s. Yet there was just something about it; the more he played, the more he wanted to keep playing. So, he shared Star Lords with his friend Tom Hughes, with whom he’d been playing tabletop and computerized strategy games for twenty years. Hughes had the same experience. Emrich:

After intense, repeated playing of the game, Tom and I were soon making numerous suggestions to [Johannigman], who, in turn, got tired of passing them on to the designer and lead programmer, Steve Barcia. Soon, we were talking to Steve directly. The telephone lines were burning regularly and a lot of ideas went back and forth. All the while, Steve was cooking up a better and better game. It was during this time that the title changed to Master of Orion and the game’s theme and focus crystallized.

I wrote a sneak preview for Computer Gaming World magazine where I indicated that Master of Orion was shaping up to be a good game. It had a lot of promise, but I didn’t think it was up there with Sid Meier’s Civilization, the hobby’s hallmark of strategy gaming at that time. But by the time that story hit the newsstands, I had changed my mind. I found myself still playing the game constantly and was reflecting on that fact when Tom called me. We talked about Master of Orion, of course, and Tom said, “You know, I think this game might become more addicting even than Civilization.” I replied, “You know, I think it already is.”

I was hard on Emrich in earlier articles for his silly assertion that Civilization‘s inclusion of global warming as a threat to progress and women’s suffrage as a Wonder of the World constituted some form of surrender to left-wing political correctness, as I was for his even sillier assertion that the game’s simplistic and highly artificial economic model could somehow be held up as proof for the pseudo-scientific theory of trickle-down economics. Therefore let me be very clear in praising him here: Emrich and Hughes played an absolutely massive role in making Master of Orion one of the greatest strategy games of all time. Their contribution was such that SimTex took the unusual step of adding to the credits listing a “Special Thanks to Alan Emrich and Tom Hughes for their invaluable design critiquing and suggestions.” If anything, that credit would seem to be more ungenerous than the opposite. By all indications, a pair of full-fledged co-designer credits wouldn’t have been out of proportion to the reality of their contribution. The two would go on to write the exhaustive official strategy guide for the game, a tome numbering more than 400 pages. No one could have been more qualified to tackle that project.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Emrich did one more great service for Master of Orion and, one might even say, for gaming in general. In a “revealing sneak preview” of the game, published in the September 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World, he pronounced it to be “rated XXXX.” After the requisite measure of back-patting for such edgy turns of phrase as these, Emrich settled down to explain what he really meant by the label: “XXXX” in this context stood for “EXplore, EXpand, EXploit, and EXterminate.” And thus was a new sub-genre label born. The formulation from the article was quickly shortened to “4X” by enterprising gamers uninterested in making strained allusions to pornographic films. In that form, it would be applied to countless titles going forward, right up to the present day, and retroactively applied to countless titles of the past, including all of the earlier space operas I’ve just described as well as the original Civilization — a game to which the “EXterminate” part of the label fits perhaps less well, but such is life.

Emrich’s article also creates an amusing distinction for the more pedantic ludic taxonomists and linguists among us. Although Master of Orion definitely was not, as we’ve now seen at some length, the first 4X game in the abstract, it was the very first 4X game to be called a 4X game. Maybe this accounts for some of the pride of place it holds in modern gaming culture?

However that may be, though, the lion’s share of the credit for Master of Orion‘s enduring influence must surely be ascribed to what a superb game it is in its own right. If it didn’t invent the 4X space opera, it did in some sense perfect it, at least in its digital form. It doesn’t do anything conceptually new on the face of it — you’re still leading an alien race as it expands through a randomly created galaxy, competing with other races in the fields of economics, technology, diplomacy, and warfare to become the dominant civilization — but it just does it all so well.

A new game of Master of Orion begins with you choosing a galaxy size (from small to huge), a difficulty level (from simple to impossible), and a quantity of opposing aliens to compete against (from one to five). Then you choose which specific race you would like to play; you have ten possibilities in all, drawing from a well-worn book of science-fiction tropes, from angry cats in space to hive-mind-powered insects, from living rocks to pacifistic brainiacs, alongside the inevitable humans. Once you’ve made your choice, you’re cast into the deep end — or rather into deep space — with a single half-developed planet, a colony ship for settling a second planet as soon as you find a likely candidate, two unarmed scout ships for exploring for just such a candidate, and a minimal set of starting technologies.

You must parlay these underwhelming tools into galactic domination hundreds of turns later. You can take the last part of the 4X tag literally and win out by utterly exterminating all of your rivals, but a slightly less genocidal approach is a victory in the “Galactic Council” which meets every quarter-century (i.e., every 25 turns). Here everyone can vote on which of the two most currently populous empires’ leaders they prefer to appoint as ruler of the galaxy, with “everyone” in this context including the two leading emperors themselves. Each empire gets a number of votes determined by its population, and the first to collect two-thirds of the total vote wins outright. (Well, almost… it is possible for you to refuse to respect the outcome of a vote that goes against you, but doing so will cause all of your rivals to declare immediate and perpetual war against you, whilst effectively pooling all of their own resources and technology. Good luck with that!)

A typical game of Master of Orion plays out over three broad stages. The first stage is the land grab, the wide-open exploration and colonization phase that happens before you meet your rival aliens. Here your challenge is to balance the economic development of your existing planets against your need to settle as many new ones as possible to put yourself in a good position for the mid-game. (When exactly do I stop spending my home planet’s resources on improving its own infrastructure and start using them to build more colony ships?) The mid-game begins when you start to bump into your rivals, and comes to entail much jockeying for influence, as the various races begin to sort themselves into rival factions. (The Alkaris, bird-like creatures, loathe the Mrrshans, the aforementioned race of frenzied pussycats, and their loathing is returned in kind. I don’t have strong feelings about either one — but whose side would it most behoove me to choose from a purely strategic perspective?) The end-game is nigh when the there is no more room for anyone to expand, apart from taking planets from a rival by force, and the once-expansive galaxy suddenly seems claustrophobic. It often, although by no means always, is marked by a massive war that finally secures somebody that elusive two-thirds majority in the Galactic Council. (I’m so close now! Do I attack those stubbornly intractable Bulrathi to try to knock down their population and get myself over the two-thirds threshold that way, or do I keep trying to sweet-talk and bribe them into voting for me?) The length and character of all of these stages will of course greatly depend on the initial setup you chose; the first stage might be all but nonexistent in a small galaxy with five rivals, while it will go on for a long, long time indeed in a huge galaxy with just one or two oppoenents. (The former scenario is, for the record, far more challenging.)

And that’s how it goes, generally speaking. Yet the core genius of Master of Orion actually lies in how resistant it is to generalization. It’s no exaggeration to say that there really is no “typical” game; I’ve enjoyed plenty which played out in nothing like the pattern I’ve just described for you. I’ve played games in which I never fired a single shot in anger, even ones where I’ve never built a single armed ship of war, just as I’ve played others where I was in a constant war for survival from beginning to end. Master of Orion is gaming’s best box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get when you jump into a new galaxy. Everything about the design is engineered to keep you from falling back on patterns universally applicable to the “typical” game. It’s this quality, more so than any other, that makes Master of Orion so consistently rewarding. If I was to be stranded on the proverbial desert island, I have a pretty good idea of at least one of the games I’d choose to take with me.

I’ll return momentarily to the question of just how Master of Orion manages to build so much variation into a fairly simple set of core rules. I think it might be instructive to do so, however, in comparison with another game, one I’ve already had occasion to mention several times in this article: Civilization.

As I’m so often at pains to point out, game design is, like any creative pursuit, a form of public dialog. Certainly Civilization itself comes with a long list of antecedents, including most notably Walter Bright’s mainframe game Empire, Dani Bunten Berry’s PC game Seven Cities of Gold, and the Avalon Hill board game with which Civilization shares its name. Likewise, Civilization has its progeny, among them Master of Orion. By no means was it the sole influence on the latter; as we’ve seen, Master of Orion was also greatly influenced by the 4X space-opera tradition in board games, especially during its early phases of development.

Still, the mark of Civilization as well can be seen all over its finished design. (After all, Alan Emrich had just literally written the book on Civilization when he started bombarding Barcia with design suggestions…) For example, Master of Orion, unlike all of its space-opera predecessors, on the computer or otherwise, doesn’t bother at all with multiplayer options, preferring to optimize the single-player experience in their stead. One can’t help but feel that it was Civilization, which was likewise bereft of the multiplayer options that earlier grand-strategy games had always included as a matter of course, that empowered Steve Barcia and company to go this way.

At the same time, though, we cannot say that Jeff Johannigman was being particularly accurate when he took to calling Master of OrionCivilization in space” for the benefit of journalists. For all that it’s easy enough to understand what made such shorthand so tempting — this new project too was a grand-strategy game played on a huge scale, incorporating technology, economics, diplomacy, and military conflict — it wasn’t ultimately fair to either game. Master of Orion is very much its own thing. Its interface, for example, is completely different. (Ironically, Barcia’s follow-up to Master of Orion, the fantasy 4X Master of Magic, hews much closer to Civilization in that respect.) In Master of Orion, Civilization‘s influence often runs as much in a negative as a positive direction; that is to say, there are places where the later design is lifting ideas from the earlier one, but also taking it upon itself to correct perceived weaknesses in their implementation.

I have to use the qualifier “perceived” there because the two games have such different personalities. Simply put, Civilization prioritizes its fictional context over its actual mechanics, while Master of Orion does just the opposite. Together they illustrate the flexibility of the interactive digital medium, showing how great games can be great in such markedly different ways, even when they’re as closely linked in terms of genre as these two are.

Civilization explicitly bills itself as a grand journey through human history, from the time in our distant past when the first hunter-gatherers settled down in villages to an optimistic near-future in space. The rules underpinning the journey are loose-goosey, full of potential exploits. The most infamous of these is undoubtedly the barbarian-horde strategy, in which you research only a few minimal technologies necessary for war-making and never attempt to evolve your society or participate in any meaningful diplomacy thereafter, but merely flood the world with miserable hardscrabble cities supporting primitive armies, attacking everything that moves until every other civilization is extinct. At the lower and moderate difficulty levels at least, this strategy works every single time, albeit whilst bypassing most of what the game was meant to be about. As put by Ralph Betza, a contributor to an early Civilization strategy guide posted to Usenet: “You can always play Despotic Conquest, regardless of the world you find yourself starting with, and you can always win without using any of the many ways to cheat. When you choose any other strategy, you are deliberately risking a loss in order to make the game more interesting.”

So very much in Civilization is of limited utility at best in purely mechanical terms. Many or most of the much-vaunted Wonders of the World, for example, really aren’t worth the cost you have to pay for them. But that’s okay; you pay for them anyway because you like the idea of having built the Pyramids of Giza or the Globe Theatre or Project Apollo, just as you choose not to go all Genghis Khan on the world because you’d rather build a civilization you can feel proud of. Perhaps the clearest statement of Civilization‘s guiding design philosophy can be found in the manual. It says that, even if you make it all the way to the end of the game only to see one of your rivals achieve the ultimate goal of mounting an expedition to Alpha Centauri before you do, “the successful direction of your civilization through the centuries is an achievement. You have survived countless wars, the pollution of the industrial age, and the risks of nuclear weapons.” Or, as Sid Meier himself puts it, “a game of Civilization is an epic story.”

We’re happy to preach peace and cooperation, as long as we’re the top dogs… er, birds.

Such sentiments are deeply foreign to Master of Orion; this is a zero-sum game if ever there was one. If you lose the final Galactic Council vote, there’s no attaboy for getting this far, much less any consolation delivered that the galaxy has entered a new era of peaceful cooperation with some other race in the leadership role. Instead the closing cinematic tells you that you’ve left the known galaxy and “set forth to conquer new worlds, vowing to return and claim the renowned title of Master of Orion.” (Better to rule in Hell, right?) There are no Wonders of the World in Master of Orion, and, while there is a tech tree to work through, you won’t find on it any of Civilization‘s more humanistic advances, such as Chivalry or Mysticism, or even Communism or The Corporation. What you get instead are technologies — it’s telling that Master of Orion talks about a “tech tree,” while Civilization prefers the word “advances” — with a direct practical application to settling worlds and making war, divided into the STEM-centric categories of Computers, Construction, Force Fields, Planetology, Propulsion, and Weapons.

So, Civilization is the more idealistic, more educational, perhaps even the nobler of the two games. And yet it often plays a little awkwardly — which awkwardness we forgive because of its aspirational qualities. Master of Orion‘s fictional context is a much thinner veneer to stretch over its mechanics, while words like “idealistic” simply don’t exist in its vocabulary. And yet, being without any high-flown themes to fall back on, it makes sure that its mechanics are absolutely tight. These dichotomies can create a dilemma for a critic like yours truly. If you asked me which game presents a better argument for gaming writ large as a potentially uplifting, ennobling pursuit, I know which of the two I’d have to point to. But then, when I’m just looking for a fun, challenging, intriguing game to play… well, let’s just say that I’ve played a lot more Master of Orion than Civilization over the last quarter-century. Indeed, Master of Orion can easily be read as the work of a designer who looked at Civilization and was unimpressed with its touchy-feely side, then set out to make a game that fixed all the other failings which that side obscured.

By way of a first example, let’s consider the two games’ implementation of an advances chart — or a tech tree, whichever you prefer. Arguably the most transformative single advance in Civilization is Railroads; they let you move your military units between your cities almost instantaneously, which makes attacks much easier and quicker to mount for warlike players and enables the more peaceful types to protect their holdings with a much smaller (and thus less expensive) standing army. The Railroads advance is so pivotal that some players build their entire strategy around acquiring it as soon as possible, by finding it on the advances chart as soon as the game begins in 4000 BC and working their way backward to find the absolute shortest path for reaching it. This is obviously problematic from a storytelling standpoint; it’s not as if the earliest villagers set about learning the craft of Pottery with an eye toward getting their hands on Railroads 6000 years later. More importantly, though, it’s damaging to the longevity of the game itself, in that it means that players can and will always employ that same Railroads strategy just as soon as they figure out what a winner it is. Here we stumble over one of the subtler but nonetheless significant axioms of game design: if you give players a hammer that works on every nail, many or most of them will use it — and only it — over and over again, even if it winds up decreasing their overall enjoyment. It’s for this reason that some players continue to use even the barbarian-horde strategy in Civilization, boring though it is. Or, to take an outside example: how many designers of CRPGs have lovingly crafted dozens of spells with their own unique advantages and disadvantages, only to watch players burn up everything they encounter with a trusty Fireball?

Master of Orion, on the other hand, works hard at every turn to make such one-size-fits-all strategies impossible — and nowhere more so than in its tech tree. When a new game begins, each race is given a randomized selection of technologies that are possible for it to research, constituting only about half of the total number of technologies in the game. Thus, while a technology roughly equivalent to Civilization‘s Railroads does exist in Master of Orion — Star Gates — you don’t know if this or any other technology is actually available to you until you advance far enough up the tree to reach the spot where it ought to be. You can’t base your entire strategy around a predictable technology progression. While you can acquire technologies that didn’t make it into your tree by trading with other empires, bullying them into giving them to you, or attacking their planets and taking them, that’s a much more fraught, uncertain path to go down than doing the research yourself, one that requires a fair amount of seat-of-your-pants strategy in its own right. Any way you slice it, in other words, you have to improvise.

We’ve been lucky here in that Hydrogen Fuel Cells, the first range-extending technology and a fairly cheap one, is available in our tree. If it wasn’t, and if we didn’t have a lot of stars conveniently close by, we’d have to dedicate our entire empire to attaining a more advanced and thus more expensive range-extending technology, lest we be left behind in the initial land grab. But this would of course mean neglecting other aspects of our empire’s development. Trade-offs like this are a constant fact of life in Master of Orion.

This one clever design choice has repercussions for every other aspect of the game. Take, for instance, the endlessly fascinating game-within-a-game of designing your fleet of starships. If the tech tree was static, players would inevitably settle upon a small set of go-to designs that worked for their style of play. As it is, though, every new ship is a fresh balancing act, its equipment calibrated to maximize your side’s technological strengths and mitigate its weaknesses, while also taking into careful account the strengths and weaknesses of the foe you expect to use it against, about which you’ve hopefully been compiling information through your espionage network. Do you build a huge number of tiny, fast, maneuverable fighters, or do you build just a few lumbering galactic dreadnoughts? Or do you build something in between? There are no universally correct answers, just sets of changing circumstances.

Another source of dynamism are the alien races you play and those you play against. The cultures in Civilization have no intrinsic strengths and weaknesses, just sets of leader tendencies when played by the computer; for your part, you’re free to play the Mongols as pacifists, or for that matter the Russians as paragons of liberal democracy and global cooperation. But in Master of Orion, each race’s unique affordances force you to play it differently. Likewise, each opposing race’s affordances in combination with those of your own force you to respond differently to that race when you encounter it, whether on the other side of a diplomats’ table or on a battlefield in space. Further, most races have one technology they’re unusually good at researching and one they’re unusually bad at. Throw in varying degrees of affinity and prejudice toward the other races, and, again, you’ve got an enormous amount of variation which defies cookie-cutter strategizing. (It’s worth noting that there’s a great deal of asymmetry here; Steve Barcia and his helpers didn’t share so many modern designers’ obsession with symmetrical play balance above all else. Some races are clearly more powerful than others: the brainiac Psilons get a huge research bonus, the insectoid Klackons get a huge bonus in worker productivity, and the Humans get huge bonuses in trade and diplomacy. Meanwhile the avian Alkaris, the feline Mrrshan, and the ursine Bulrathis have bonuses which only apply during combat, and can be overcome fairly easily by races with other, more all-encompassing advantages.)

There are yet more touches to bring yet more dynamism. Random events occur from time to time in the galaxy, some of which can change everything at a stroke: a gigantic space amoeba might show up and start eating stars, forcing everyone to forget their petty squabbles for a while and band together against this apocalyptic threat. And then there’s the mysterious star Orion, from which the game takes it name, which houses the wonders of a long-dead alien culture from the mythical past. Taking possession of it might just win the game for you — but first you’ll have to defeat its almost inconceivably powerful Guardian.

One of the perennial problems of 4X games, Civilization among them, is the long anticlimax, which begins at that point when you know you’re going to conquer the world or be the first to blast off for Alpha Centauri, but well before you actually do so. (What Civilization player isn’t familiar with the delights of scouring the map for that one remaining rival city tucked away on some forgotten island in some forgotten corner?) Here too Master of Orion comes with a mitigating idea, in the form of the Galactic Council whose workings I’ve already described. It means that, as soon as you can collect two-thirds of the vote — whether through wily diplomacy or the simpler expedient of conquering until two-thirds of the galaxy’s population is your own — the game ends and you get your victory screen.

Indeed, one of the overarching design themes of Master of Orion is its determination to minimize the boring stuff. It must be admitted, of course, that boredom is in the eye of the beholder. Non-fans have occasionally dismissed the whole 4X space-opera sub-genre as “Microsoft Excel in space,” and Master of Orion too requires a level of comfort with — or, better yet, a degree of fascination with — numbers and ratios; you’ll spend at least as much time tinkering with your economy as you will engaging in space battles. Yet the game does everything it can to minimize the pain here as well. While hardly a simple game in absolute terms, it is quite a streamlined example of its type; certainly it’s much less fiddly than Civilization. Planet management is abstracted into a set of five sliding ratio bars, allowing you decide what percentage of that planet’s total output should be devoted to building ships, building defensive installations, building industrial infrastructure, cleaning up pollution, and researching new technologies. Unlike in Civilization, there is no list of specialized structures to build one at a time, much less a need to laboriously develop the land square by square with a specialized unit. Some degree of micro-management is always going to be in the nature of this type of game, but managing dozens of planets in Master of Orion is far less painful than managing dozens of cities in Civilization.

The research screen as well operates through sliding ratio bars which let you decide how much effort to devote to each of six categories of technology. In other words, you’re almost always researching multiple advances at once in Master of Orion, whereas in Civilization you only research one at a time. Further, you can never predict for sure when a technology will arrive; while each has a base cost in research points, “paying” it leads only to a slowly increasing randomized chance of acquiring the technology on any given turn. (That’s the meaning of the “17%” next to Force Fields in the screenshot above.) You also receive bonuses for maintaining steady research over a long run of turns, rather than throwing all of your research points into one technology, then into something else, etc. All of this as well serves to make the game more unpredictable and dynamic.

In short, Master of Orion tries really, really hard to work with you rather than against you, and succeeds to such a degree that it can sometimes feel like the game is reading your mind. A reductionist critic of the sort I can be on occasion might say that there are just two types of games: those that actually got played before their release and those that didn’t. With only rare exceptions, this distinction, more so than the intrinsic brilliance of the design team or any other factor, is the best predictor of the quality of the end result. Master of Orion is clearly a game that got played, and played extensively, with all of the feedback thus gathered being incorporated into the final design. The interface is about as perfect as the technical limitations of 1993 allow it to be; nothing you can possibly want to do is more than two clicks away. And the game is replete with subtle little conveniences that you only come to appreciate with time — like, just to take one example, the way it asks if you want to automatically adjust the ecology spending on every one of your planets when you acquire a more efficient environmental-cleanup technology. This lived-in quality can only be acquired the honest, old-fashioned way: by giving your game to actual players and then listening to what they tell you about it, whether the points they bring up are big or small, game-breaking or trivial.

This thoroughgoing commitment to quality is made all the more remarkable by our knowledge of circumstances inside MicroProse while Master of Orion was going through these critical final phases of its development. When the contract to publish the game was signed, MicroProse was in desperate financial straits, having lost bundles on an ill-advised standup-arcade game along with expensive forays into adventure games and CRPGs, genres far from their traditional bread and butter of military simulations and grand-strategy games. Although other projects suffered badly from the chaos, Master of Orion, perhaps because it was a rather low-priority project entrusted largely to an outside team located over a thousand miles away, was given the time and space to become its best self. It was still a work in progress on June 21, 1993, when MicroProse’s mercurial, ofttimes erratic founder and CEO “Wild Bill” Stealey sold the company to Spectrum Holobyte, a publisher with a relatively small portfolio of extant games but a big roll of venture capital behind them.

Master of Orion thus became one of the first releases from the newly conjoined entity on October 1, 1993. Helped along by the evangelism of Alan Emrich and his pals at Computer Gaming World, it did about as well as such a cerebral title, almost completely bereft of audiovisual bells and whistles, could possibly do in the new age of multimedia computing; it became the biggest strategy hit since Civilization, and the biggest 4X space opera to that point, in any medium. Later computerized iterations on the concept, including its own sequels, doubtless sold more copies in absolute numbers, but the original Master of Orion has gone on to become one of the truly seminal titles in gaming history, almost as much so as the original Civilization. It remains the game to which every new 4X space opera — and there have been many of them, far more than have tried to capture the more elusively idealistic appeal of Civilization — must be compared.

Sometimes a status such as that enjoyed by Master of Orion arrives thanks to an historical accident or a mere flashy technical innovation, but that is definitively not the case here. Master of Orion remains as rewarding as ever in all its near-infinite variation. Personally, I like to embrace its dynamic spirit for everything it’s worth by throwing a (virtual) die to set up a new game, letting the Universe decide what size galaxy I play in, how many rivals I play with, and which race I play myself. The end result never fails to be enjoyable, whether it winds up a desperate free-for-all between six alien civilizations compressed into a tiny galaxy with just 24 stars, or a wide-open, stately game of peaceful exploration in a galaxy with over 100 of them. In short, Master of Orion is the most inexhaustible well of entertainment I’ve ever found in the form of a single computer game — a timeless classic that never fails to punish you for playing lazy, but never fails to reward you for playing well. I’ve been pulling it out to try to conquer another random galaxy at least once every year or two for half my life already. I suspect I’ll still be doing so until the day I die.

(Sources: the books Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay, Designers & Dragons, Volume 1: The 1970s by Shannon Appelcline, and Master of Orion: The Official Strategy Guide by Alan Emrich and Tom E. Hughes, Jr.; Computer Gaming World of December 1983, June/July 1985, October 1991, June 1993, August 1993, September 1993, December 1993, and October 1995; Commodore Disk User of May 1988; Softline of March 1983. Online sources include “Per Aspera Ad Astra” by Jon Peterson from ROMchip, Alan Emrich’s historical notes from the old Master of Orion III site, a Steve Barcia video interview which originally appeared in the CD-ROM magazine Interactive Entertainment., and the Civilization Usenet FAQ, lasted updated by “Dave” in 1994.

Master of Orion I and II are available for purchase together from I highly recommend a tutorial, compiled many years ago by Sirian and now available only via, as an excellent way for new players to learn the ropes.)

January 23, 2020

Choice of Games

Sky Pirates of Actorius–Infiltrate a pirate airship crew!

by Mary Duffy at January 23, 2020 02:42 PM

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

Please note this is a special, omnibus-only release for mobile.

It’s free to win, and $4.99 to turn off advertisements and delay breaks, discounted to $2.99 until January 30th!

Infiltrate a pirate airship and foil the captain’s plans! Can you survive the greedy crew and ruthless officers and disrupt their schemes in time? You’ll hunt merchant vessels, and seek lost treasure while undercover as a sky pirate!

Escape to the skies above the world of Empyrean and command a brutal crew of pirates in search of plunder, glory, and high-tech booty!

Sky Pirates of Actorius is a 37,000-word interactive adventure story by Kyle Marquis, 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.

No one on land, sea, or air can stop Captain Krayl as he plunders the great city of Actorius—no one except you. Trained by the Actorian Air Guard, with a clockwork animal companion that not even your commanding officer knows about, you must infiltrate the crew of the pirate airship Falling Angel. Your orders: learn Captain Krayl’s true plans and stop him at any cost.

But far from your commanding officer and surrounded by treasure and opportunity, you will have to decide where your true loyalties lie. If you can deflect Captain Krayl’s suspicions, please your handlers back home, and keep the crew from turning against you, glory awaits you: promotion back in Actorius, fame and riches as a sky pirate, or even the Falling Angel itself. But step carefully: everyone wants something, and everyone here will kill to get it.

• Play as male, female, or nonbinary.
• Fly aeros in deadly dogfights against merchant vessels and enemy pirates.
• Stay loyal to the Actorian Air Guard or betray them for glory, treasure, or friendship.
• Outwit spies and rival agents in shady ports of call.
• Command your clockwork animal companion to help you fight, fly, and spy.
• Use cunning and misdirection to balance the conflicting demands of captain, crew, and your secret mission.
• Hunt for buried treasure in the metal jungles of the Deep Tech.

We hope you enjoy playing Sky Pirates of Actorius. 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.

January 22, 2020

Zarf Updates

Meanwhile 1.1.0 on Steam, Itch, and Mac App Store

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at January 22, 2020 11:15 PM

I've posted an updated version of Meanwhile for Mac, Windows, and Linux. All versions have been updated on Steam and Itch.IO. (The iPhone/iPad version was updated last month.) And now, for the first time, the Mac version is available on the Mac App Store!
This is a very minor update. The only differences are that I've updated the Unity framework to Unity 2018.4, and the Mac version is now properly signed and notarized. You shouldn't see any differences in play.
(If you do, or if you have any trouble running the new version, please let me know!)
Meanwhile is Jason Shiga's classic choose-your-own-path comic book about mad science, global catastrophe, and happiness. 2020 is the tenth anniversary of the hardback publication of Meanwhile, and the ninth anniversary of the interactive app version! I'm really happy to still be supporting this excellently brain-bending comic after all these years.

Renga in Blue

Hezarin: The Crowd Are Delirious, the Judges Can’t Believe It

by Jason Dyer at January 22, 2020 10:41 PM

If you ask an adventure fan what the worst gameplay situation is in their favorite genre, you might get a reasonable answer like “moon-logic puzzles” or “pixel hunting”. While it’s a rare scenario, for me the absolute worst is “having the correct solution to a puzzle, but the game refuses to recognize it as such causing hours to be wasted”.

I finally narrowed down my troubles with the pits/jumping puzzle (the one with the vial and magic word “WOZX” at the end).

Just as a reminder, this is a long dark east/west corridor where a map (hidden in a broken lantern) indicates the locations of pits, and you need to JUMP at the right positions. I had trouble getting back because one of the pits then moved, making jumping back impossible. I assumed this aspect was a puzzle.

It appears I was caught by the game’s “we really *really* want to make sure you’re using the map” mechanism which broke my runs. I finally dug into the hints and was mystified when there didn’t seem to be anything I didn’t already know, so I made another go from a fresh start and made it through (the pit isn’t supposed to move at all on the way back, if things work properly you can just retrace your steps).

For the aid of any Future Readers who hit this post via search result, here was my process.

1.) I finished the first section of the game all the up to where you go in the hole and get blasted to the next section, and saved my game before going in.

2.) After getting blasted, I made a beeline for the long dark corridor, stopping at the “fork” right before. Then I opened my broken lantern and only then read the map.

3.) I used the map (note the pit locations randomize for each game) to figure out when to go EAST and when to JUMP. After making it to the end (and scooping up the vial you get as a reward) I did the same steps but backwards with WEST and JUMP. (Paranoid addition: if you try this and mess up, don’t reload your game directly; quit out the program first, then go back in and reload. I cannot say for sure whether this helped, but my experience was bad enough I went nuclear.)

4.) Only after making it out of the dark did I save my game again.

This was obnoxious to the point I can declare it likely the lowest point of the entirety of Hezarin (even though I’m only 1/4 of the way in!) Fortunately, the gameplay got a lot more enjoyable after that, so let’s pretend none of that happened and pick up from there.

Look, let’s be distracted by this weird title screen! Via the RISC OS version. Alex’s name is spelled Ship in the manual and Shipp on this screen.

Now, when I say much more enjoyable I do still mean an old-school mindset is required. Structurally, this game is open world with one-way gates. That’s both helpful and stressful.

A “structural map” of the game. It’s quite possible there are more connections I haven’t found yet, but functionally, the one-way trips currently make it so I can’t use a item in a later area in a previous one. Even if it turns out a loop is possible (I’m fairly certain returning to the opening is needed, because there’s a whole castle I skipped where I think Arijith is) it puts some restrictions on what can be used to solve a particular puzzle.

Most of the puzzles in the “first underground region” are entirely solvable before moving on (this is helpful), but it is quite possible to softlock the game by missing some item or clue (this is stressful). It’s quite easy, for example, to miss wiffinweed (an object in the first outdoor area), which is definitely required for the second outdoor area (I will discuss why a little later).

After finally getting the vial, I might have been stuck again were it not for a comment by solar penguin who observed that the secret word next to the vial (WOZX) spells something upside down (XZOM).

The vial starts to glow faintly, then as if it had won some unseen combat against the laws of nature it suddenly bursts forth with a brilliant light, temporarly dazzling you.

The vial counts as a light source, but it also has a special property that triggers in another area; if you go down in the elevator by the Fountain area, you find a sort-of-maze where dragons roam (“Dragon underground” on the structural map).

Your vial is glowing with a green light!

You are in a large chamber whose walls glow bright ping. Passages lead north, south, northeast, southeast, and southwest.


Your vial is glowing a sober shade of grey!

You are in a large chamber whose walls glow bright green. Passages lead north, south, northeast, southeast, northwest and southwest.

This involves a set of color-coded rooms; the vial glows the color of the room you’re supposed to go in. If you go in the wrong room a dragon melts you. At the end of the rooms is a rainbow room.

You are in a large chamber whose walls pulsate with multicoloured spots.
Passages lead northwest and southwest.
There is a huge firestone here, pulsating with inner life!
There is a suit of asbestos clothing lying in a crumpled heap on the floor.

Once you get the asbestos clothing you can take on a dragon.

As you enter the cavern you notice a large dragon napping in the centre of the chamber.
The dragon opens a beady eye and snarls “How am I meant to get any beauty sleep with all these Adventurers traipsing around?!”
There then ensues a long and epic battle. The dragon almost manages to burn through your asbestos suit when once again your trusty vorpal blade comes good, and the duel culminates with the beheading of the beast.

The elevator that went down to dragons goes up to some “shifting halls”, random rooms with random exits…

This is the hall of achievement. Inscribed on vast wooden plaques surrounding the room are the names of all the former successful Adventurers. You read for some time, but do not recognise any of the names.


This is the hall of perseverance. All who find this room receive due reward. A small clerk hurries in and hands you a package before hurrying out again.

…a “bear” who I can’t even get a reaction from…

You are in a large bare room with exits northwest, south and east. The eastern exit has ‘ENTRANCE TO THE SHIFTING HALLS’ written above.
There is a large bear here.


The bear seems amiable enough, though you are unable to force a way past him.

…a “Morlock” who kills me…

You are in a darkened room piled high with rusting machinery. The only exit lies to the west.
A coral ornament is lying on the ground!
A shadowy figure flits to and fro between the junk, always keeping well out of reach.

>get ornament

As you move towards the Morlock, it pounces and slits your throat.

…and an Inn with other adventurers, which makes this game 10 times livelier than Acheton, Philosopher’s Quest, and Quondam combined.

You are in the Adventurers’ Bar. The place is a hive of activity, filled almost to capacity with hordes of thirsty Adventurers. Scantily clad serving wenches shuttle back and forth with huge steins of frothing ale, and the room is a hubbub of laughter and merriment. Everybody is far too busy drinking to take any notice of you.
A lone, haggard Adventurer strides in from the moor and says: “Shrik yabba wa remmin da dabas! Heks takking Gremlins yekka do pontwers! Yo skibble-weed da polins kerwirligurls.” I think he is trying to tell you something, but the point goes over your head, and eventually he lopes off to the bar.

There’s also a Vault nearby where you can deposit items, which is curious since I already have the bag which counts for getting points from treasures. I suspect (only 60/40 though) if you deposit enough treasure in the vault you get some special item.

The Inn has a door leading outside.

Exploring just a little leads to some Hezarin Gremlins surrounding you and stealing (some of) your stuff. This is where I needed the “wiffinweed” I promised I would get back to. You might note from the comment at the Inn (if you mumble a bit and say the adventurer’s words out loud) that gremlins dislike wiffinweed. Holding it was everything needed to solve the puzzle.

The ground around you boils with frenzied activity, and hundreds of tiny holes appear. Out streams a veritable horde of Hezarin Gremlins, intent on doing as much mischief as they can! They crowd around you then suddenly one shrieks “EEK! He’s got wiffinweed! He’s got wiffinweed” and they zoom off into the distance at high speed. One of them is in such a state that he leaves all his belongings behind.

From here I found three significant branches:

1.) The Evil Moors of Hezarin.

You are wandering in a bleak and extensive area of moorland. The hillsides are a mixture of thick purple heather and sparse gorse bushes which scratch you at any opportunity. A chill wind howls eerily around the tors and vales and a demoralising drizzle hangs in the air.

If you walk in far enough you see some pillars laid in a curious manner.

You’re in the centre of an ancient circle of huge monoliths, the focal point of which is an arrangement of three stones in the middle of the ring. The three stones consist of two pillars and a flat irregular slab set between them and lying on one of its long edges. The two pillars are oriented along a northeast-southwest axis.

(The orientation of the pillars is randomized, so I’m sure that’s some sort of hint.) Unfortunately, hanging out in the moors eventually brings death via either evil wolf or banshee. I don’t know if it’s due to too much time elapsing, me not having the right magic item, me not taking the right geographic movements, or a combination of all three.

While struggling up a particularly steep hillside you stumble across the grisly remains of some poor unfortunates. Even as you ask yourself the question “What did this?”, a howling Banshee confronts you, first scaring you out of your wits and then sucking out your soul.

2.) The Wild Wood.

If you are not carrying a torch, the trees to the southwest will let you in the Wild Wood.

You are in the wild wood: a dark and mysterious forest seemingly with a will all of its own. Branches pluck at your clothing and scratch your face, and the roots appear to grab at your feet trying to trip you up. Although you never see them move, the trees appear to shift position constantly, so that it is impossible ever to retrace your exact steps.

You can CLIMB TREE and SNIFF (not SMELL, only SNIFF [*]) to get oriented and eventually find some witches.

You are on the edge of a small clearing. In the centre is a large cauldron smelling of various nasty and unpleasant ingredients. AA group of witches are squabbling round the cooking fire:
“It was your turn to bring the maggots!”
“I brought them last week! Anyway we can do without the maggots! What about the dead rats?”
“They’re not decayed enough. We’ll have to use spinach instead. Pass me the dragon’s head.”
“I haven’t got a dragon’s head!
“Could have fooled me dearie, hee, hee, hee!”
“Fishcakes! It won’t work properly without a dragon’s head. We’ll just have to use lots of spinach.”

You may recall from my dragon escapades I did manage to behead a dragon, and the witches were willing to trade the dragon head for teleportation “somewhere which could be in your interests” which turned out to be a small extra underground area.

A boulder blocks passage to the west, taking the “topaz bracelet” to the east results in a slab blocking the way out, and leaving deposits the player back in the Inn area. I haven’t tried talking to the witches and getting teleportation again, so it may be a one-trip-only deal.

3.) River Surfing

I am so astonished I figured this one out on my own. There’s a river that you can go in for exactly one turn before a wave wipes you out.

Some way up the river you may see what you think is a wave starting to form…but is it?

While doing an unrelated part of the game the thought popped up “what if I could surf the wave?” I noticed the “plank” in my inventory. Previously I had visualized it as rather small and thin (it came from a treehouse) but if it was a little larger than my visualization it would work as a surfboard (failure to visualize as the author intended has been long one of my nemeses).

However, going out with the plank and typing SURF kills you.

Good idea: badly executed. Too bad.
Oh dear, you seem to have terminated your existence.

I had to rely on outside knowledge a little; what does surfing look like? Well, sometimes you KNEEL on the board.

Yes, it is! Rearing up its great green bulk and bearing down on you like the four horsemen of the apocalypse.


Now you’ve virtually overshadowed by this, arguably the best breaker of the millennium. What about it?


You hold the plank out in front of you and throw yourself flat out on it.
Perfect timing! The wave curls and breaks around you, and before long you’re out there standing up, sitting down, hanging ten and doing handstands… the crowd are delirious, the judges can’t believe it, who is this man? Now he’s sure to win the Hezarin Surf Festival. Even the Death-Defying Dwarf who’s been practising all year for this event at his home camp near Poohsticks bridge must be out of it now.. but wait.. Oh no! This can’t be true.. Yes, he’s gone – WIPE OUT.. We can only hope that he’s washed up somewhere safe….

Holy hijinks that worked. Doing all this lands the player (sans all inventory except anything being worn) in a new area, with a temple.

You are standing before a huge building which flares white in the brilliant sunlight. When you look closer, you realise that its walls, stairs, columns, turrets, steeply pointed domes and finely carved flying buttresses are covered entirely in highly polished ivory.

Within the temple you can randomly run across a.) acolytes wearing white robes b.) an acolyte wearing a red robe and c.) two guardians. There’s also a way to wander around the back and grab a white robe as a disguise.

If you have the white robe on you can sneak by a.) and b.) Later you can get a red robe and sneak by a.) and c.) There is some randomness here in who you meet and I think the gameplay really is meant to have a little luck thrown in, but eventually, I managed to get a ceremonial dagger and close to an inner sanctum.

You are in the antechamber to the main sanctum. Identical doors are opposite each other in the east and west walls, and in the north and south ends of the room are stone water troughs set into the floor.


As you pass through the doorway the ground apparently starts to burn beneath your feet, and as you cry out in agony two Guardians appear and despatch you instantly.

I’m not sure how to get past the “fire floor”, but since I don’t have any method for escaping the temple area yet, there likely is a way.

[*] How did I know to SNIFF? The parser is unique in that rather than “it only understand the first three letters of a word” (common in 1980s games) or “it only understand the first six letters” (an Infocom standard) it will interpret a word correctly as long as the initial letters map to a unique part of the game’s vocabulary. In my comments, Voltgloss discovered “Z” alone led to the game asking about zirconium. Early in my gameplay I went through every two-letter combination from “AA” to “ZZ” (I was kind of stuck, ok?) and managed to ferret out some odd nouns and verbs in the process, including SNIFF and KNEEL. Not SURF, alas; I just had to summon thinking of that one from the void.

The People's Republic of IF

January 2020 Meeting Post Mortem

by Angela Chang at January 22, 2020 07:41 AM

January 2020 PR-IF meeting

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2020. Zarf,, Jake, anjchang, and dan welcome Sara @saragettel (dan’s honored guest). Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories: Check out the photos.

Recap of 2020 Mystery hunt puzzles, picture puzzles , name of , Michael Bay’s Editing Bay
Jake’s favorite One with album covers that had pieces cut out– DDR — karaoke
Dan’s favorite – OX – 12 page pdf X’s and
Dollhouse Tour, 3D objects from different angles
Chess game, conversation between people
BAPHL should be next, check back on the calendar
There was a text adventure in this year’s IAP mystery hunt
And then an actual text adventure ( Wizards puzzle)
Ryan Veeder once wrote a Mystery Hunt IF puzzle

In the works
Dan released a short fiction and art zine — about sleep — check it out!
Dan’s working on a game still
Jake game done from a jam in collaboration with others
Jake’s been Reading a lot about -parser interaction and how parsers might do more to handle when the player throws a tantrum
Sarah and Dan are through Hadean Lands

Discussion about interactive theater
Zarf went to a cool Club Drosselmeyer – Nutcracker dance with WW2 theme burlesque
Caroline Murphy
Dan and Sara had gone to Carnivale di Obscurita, a 1890s circus demonic burlesque.
A Harry Potter themed one existed too
need to cause effects that are clear from the actions the player took
Greater Good Interactive theater performance play about faculty of a public school,
The latitude society
Waiting rooms” pennies as currency

December 2019 Meeting Post Mortem

by Angela Chang at January 22, 2020 05:41 AM

December 2019 Pr-IF meeting

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on, Tuesday Dec. 10, 2019. , , , and welcomed back @skeleton_hugs (Reed). Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories: Check out the photos.

The group played Tethered on the Ah Machine
“drool if you are inside an avalanche buried in snow– that can save your life someday!” on the commodore 64

Zarf mention — David Whiteland Sherlock Holmes Escape Book .
–Choice based pattern in a really interesting way
–Only correct puzzle end if you have solved all previous puzzles correctly
–printed in the UK, available through Powell’s

GPT2 discussion

Invocations by zarf demo
First verses from canonical text
Second verses wrote
Fields of words
Boom time the announcers test
Desert starve sandwich
French eat one egg an ouef
IF advent calendar

Ryan Veeders if exposition due by leap day

On the next day, Naomi and anjchang attended nickm’s Interactive Narrative Class presentations. Lots of fun stuff we hope to see again at IFcomp or out in the world somehow.

Also, Naomi is doing a podcast “about two space thieves getting in trouble. a lot.” Check it out!

January 21, 2020

Emily Short

Pacing Storylet Structures

by Emily Short at January 21, 2020 10:41 PM

In my recent writing about storylet narrative design, I’ve talked about

I’ve also, at other times, written about how I design for pacing in Twine games and parser IF games (in terms of puzzles, maps, and story blockers).

I use similar methods when working out the large-scale design for a storylet project to do the following things:

  • Represent the story concept from start to finish
  • Distinguish sections of content that are fairly open and player-controlled from sections that are fairly tight
  • Distinguish sections that reuse shared parts of the storylet world from sections that are unique to just this narrative arc

Sometimes storylet passages can be very linear indeed — essentially a straight progression from one storylet to the next.

Alternatively, they can be highly freeform, with a bunch of randomly selected story beats that can advance the player’s goals, move them backwards, or cause/alleviate menaces.

With those things in mind, I make a high level chart that represents these different types of storylet cluster. This is how I might graph out a classic attack-the-Bond-villain sort of storyline:

  • Square elements represent shorter set pieces — single storylets or linear progressions
  • Square elements with knobbly outlines indicate passages where the player can do multiple actions within a single storylet and has the option to decide when to exit:
    • “gear up” lets the player choose how much to spend before deciding she has enough gear to proceed
    • the confrontation scene is a risk scene, where more the player tries to gain, the more likely she is to fail
  • Round-edged “Wheel” structures represent sections of gameplay where the player is working with a partially randomized deck
    • the red menace wheel specifically represents something the player must do to recover from failure — providing a soft gameplay punishment if you push your luck too far and get caught or harmed by the villain, but not preventing you from moving forward completely
  • Rhombus “aftermath” elements there are like the squares, but they’re in more of a hurry. These represent storylets that lead straight one into the next with minimal player freedom to create a sense of acceleration towards what will be a cliff-hanger

A lot of the pacing elements common in other types of interactive story apply here. Areas where the player has a lot of freedom tend to feel less intense; more linear, constrained sections are good for climactic moments. Alternating the two keeps the experience from feeling too stale.

There are also some pacing choices about how the design uses elements from other stories or from the game’s system, however.

“Cost” elements require the player to bring in resources from somewhere else. They’re typically slowing features, because if the player hits that point, doesn’t have enough resources, and wants to get them, she may go play another piece of the game for a while before returning here.

That’s good at the very outset of the storyline, and it also works in the cost-linked choice storylet, where the player is deciding how much she wants to pay, in the moment, to increase her odds of winning in that confrontation to come. In that context, I’m effectively asking her to set some mechanical stakes of her own and place a bet about how much an easy success later is going to matter to her.

Meanwhile, the purple “travel” wheel is also using a consistent travel mechanic that turns up lots of places in the game. If this is told via actual storylets, there might be a little bit of customization to make it tell this journey rather than a different generic one — but essentially the player is following a pattern she already knows well. If not, I might be relying on a non-storylet travel mechanic in the game.

Putting this travel segment right before the big confrontation gives us a little time to build anticipation and create a sense of occasion — after the stakes for this particular story have already been set. It wouldn’t have been so satisfying as the first step of the story, though. The story’s up-front hook needs to be new content.


January 20, 2020

Emily Short

Counterfeit Monkey Puzzle Chart

by Emily Short at January 20, 2020 10:41 PM

This is a chart of the puzzles in Counterfeit Monkey. It used to be linked from a blog post on the puzzle design, off-site, but it’s no longer at the endpoint of that link.

Instead, let’s put it here. I swear I have a good reason for doing this right now and it is genuinely not just because my blog gets the most traffic if I tweet a colorful diagram.

Don’t look too closely at the fine print if you’re planning to play and haven’t yet.

The People's Republic of IF

November 2019 Meeting Post Mortem

by Angela Chang at January 20, 2020 07:41 PM

November 2019 Pr-IF attendees

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on, Tuesday Nov. 12, 2019. Zara. Heflin, holborn, anjchang .were in attendance.  Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories: Check out the photos.

Zara. Heflin, holborn, anjchang
Beta testing fenwicks ferret game
Matt Snyder’s If advent calendar project

IF judging
Lmk Afterparty recommendations by Zarf
Oxenfree was awesome

Manifold garden
Typerider — what anj is playing.

Tying strategy game
Marrow ask

Mutazione. Gardening and small town gossip

Oobles. Dance battle
Heavens vault

$8600 for IFcomp fundraising goal

Get donations in
Inform 7 out with a new Mac build

Next inform release anticipated

Subcutaneous Aaron Reed horror novel procedural generated. Indiegogo

Subq doing a jam about short if
1000 words or less on 15th

Adventures and wordplay in Chicago happened

Costume quest

Tiffany Chen cards if oeces
Leona feeds the cranberry bog. Catcher story

New version of curveship
Python 3 and Javascript demo

Zarf Catalina update for electrode



Demos last this weekend Narrazcope

Invocations by zarf
First one from canonical text
Second he wrote
Fields of words
Boom time the announcers test

Desert starve sandwich
French eat one egg an ouef

IF advent calendar

Ryan Veeders IF exposition due by leap day

Nick showed off some student pieces for PR-iF

Nick on sabbatical
Pr-if will be under construction for Spring term

See you at the next meeting tomorrow, Jan 21st, 6:30pm, in 14E-304. Same building, up the stairs one floor and then back.

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Kyle Marquis, Sky Pirates of Actorius

by Mary Duffy at January 20, 2020 06:42 PM

Infiltrate a pirate airship and foil the captain’s plans! Can you survive the greedy crew and ruthless officers and disrupt their schemes in time? You’ll hunt merchant vessels, and seek lost treasure while undercover as a sky pirate! 

Escape to the skies above the world of Empyrean and command a brutal crew of pirates in search of plunder, glory, and high-tech booty! 

Sky Pirates of Actorius is a 37,000-word interactive adventure story by Kyle Marquis. I sat down with Kyle for a short interview about writing short games. Sky Pirates of Actorius releases this Thursday, January 23rd. 

Since this is a short short game, how about a short short interview?
This is a tie-in game for Empyrean. Tell me a little about how it came about.

The original plan was to make Sky Pirates a spoken-word Alexa game, but I always wanted to return to the world of Empyrean. I loved the “secret identity” element of Empyrean, and with a shorter game, I wanted to focus even more purely on that: in Sky Pirates, you’re infiltrating a criminal gang, and everything hinges on your ability to please the crew while hiding your identity from the pirate captain and keeping your superiors back home happy. It’s a delicate, high-tension balancing act.

What’s the challenge in writing short? I would have guessed that for you, it’s almost impossible, given the length of Empyrean, Silverworld, Pon Para.

Balancing brevity with clarity is hard, especially for an unfamiliar setting like in Sky Pirates. Everyone knows what a goblin is, or what a Corvette looks like, but what’s an “aero,” exactly? But I have a trick! It’s to let the text of the choices help players understand what’s possible. Even if the player doesn’t pick the option, “I want to see if I can look inside the captain’s cabin,” the player understands that this is a world where captains have cabins, and can use that to imagine what sort of story they’re in.

There’s really a certain kind of genius in writing short. That so mis-attributed that I have no ideas of its true origin quote “If I had more time, I’d write you a shorter letter.” I think you see it in games like Choice of the Dragon, which tips the scales at 33,000 words.

What’s next for you?

I can’t tell anyone! Right now I’m working on a secret urban fantasy project with a popular licensed property. I’m up to chapter 4 now and having a blast—I’ve never written a game set in the modern world before, and it’s a pleasure to write in my natural voice instead of shaping the prose around genre assumptions and the requirements of a faraway world.

But I do love faraway worlds, and fortunately I’m returning to the Three Nations soon in Pon Para and the Unconquerable Scorpion, the sequel to Pon Para and the Great Southern Labyrinth. That’s more than halfway done already. And if Sky Pirates does well, I’d like to write more mini-games in some of my other settings—maybe a murder mystery in the alt-history Byzantium of Silverworld, or a bard’s adventure in the Sublunar World of Tower Behind the Moon.

January 19, 2020


Storytron Winter 2020 Update

by Bill Maya at January 19, 2020 04:42 PM

Photo by Beth Solano on Unsplash

I’ve been busy with other projects over the past months but Storytron has always been in the back of my mind. For some reason I cannot let it go. Here’s what I’m planning to do with the software in 2020.

First, I’m going to migrate the SWAT v1.3 code to a JavaFX application starting with the Encounter Editor.

Yes, you are correct, the Encounter Editor was currently not part of the original suite of SWAT editors, but integration into SWAT was part of last year’s development plan. After some thought, I think put encounters up front will make it easier for authors with limited programming skills to get started and create something within their first fifteen minutes (look at how popular tools like Twine, Ink, and ChoiceScript have become). In the near future, perhaps you’ll be able to fire up the encounter-centric version of SWAT, type some text for a few encounters, flip a few switches and set some sliders, click the Action button, and it’s “Fade In, Act One, Scene One.”

This approach appeals to both the writer and the programmer sides of me. It’s also the direction taken by Crawford in his fourth attempt at interactive storytelling, though that project appears to be on hiatus for now.

JavaFX is a software platform for desktop, mobile, and embedded systems built on Java. As a graphical user interface library it is intended to replace Swing and it has a number of improvements over the that library — improved event handling, property support, CSS skins, more consistent controls, animations, and support for modern touch devices. Apps that use JavaFX also look a whole lot better than apps that use Swing.

Second, I’ll be redesigning the Storytron web site now that I’ve got control of the domain. Once it’s up and running I’ll continue my Storytron writing there. I might also have a section for historical Storytron stuff. I’ll probably leave this Storytron publication on Medium online and point to the new site from here once it’s ready.

Third, there is still a Storytron Slack group online and I’ve decided to open it to any who wants to join (I’ve reactivated all the old existing accounts). I figure this can be a place where people who were or are interested in Storytron can join to ask questions or just say “Hi.”

If you want to join the Storytron Slack just send an email to [email protected] and I’ll send you an invite.

Fourth, the other two ideas I was mulling over, figuring out how to create non-interactive stories with SWAT v1.3 and seeing what old code (Tale-Spin, Minstrel) and new frameworks (Windrift, Tracery) can teach me about story and narrative, are shelved for now.

That’s it for now. I’ll try to give quarterly updates like I’ve done in the past though I make no exaggerated promises (I’ve also created an #updates channel in the Storytron Slack).

Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash

Storytron Winter 2020 Update was originally published in Storytron 1.0 on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Renga in Blue

Hezarin: Seen Only Once by Gilgamesh, Who Saw All Things

by Jason Dyer at January 19, 2020 06:41 AM

THE SCORPION-MEN OF THE MOUNTAINS OF MÂSHU. Source. Stopped on his quest to find immortality, Gilgamesh must first plead his case to the scorpion-men that guard the mountain, then pass through in darkness for twelve days.

Last I left off on sort of a riddle.

As you take the torch it suddenly flares bright green, and you see a face solidify
in the flame. The face turns to look at you, and pronounces in a solemn chant:
The face then turns away from you, and as it fades so the colour of the flame returns to normal.

I’ve only half-resolved it. Immediately after this room is the Fountain Room that the SKCITSHOOP magic word leads to, and any items that fall in the river also land here. This means you can go to the main Poohsticks bridge and toss most of your inventory, and then find it again upon reaching the Fountain Room.

To the southeast of the Fountain Room, there’s a small bag. It seems to be the “destination room” for any treasures; you can FILL BAG and the only thing that will go in are treasures, and your score goes up once they’re placed in the bag. I’m still unclear if finding them is optional.

A bit east of where the bag is there’s a long stretch of dark smoke-filled rooms — 13 rooms worth. This is what the WAY TO LIGHT/IS THROUGH THE DARK refers to. Additionally, THAT WHICH IS NOW DARK/WAS NOT ALWAYS SO seems to refer to the broken lantern; I had already discovered if you open it there’s a map.

So there’s two pits in the dark hall; if you just try to keep plunging ahead you’ll eventually fall, but if you stop at the right points and JUMP you will leap over the pits instead. At the end there is a Brimstone Cavern.

You are in a long tunnel filled with choking black smoke. It is impossible even to see your hand in front of your face.


You are in a small subterranean cavern, whose only exit is to the west. A large pit filled with bubbling magma casts and eerie red glow over the surroundings, providing sufficient light for you to make out a small word etched at your feet.
There is a small vial here, with decorative (but unreadable) runes etched over the entire surface. The vial is filled with clear water, which shimmers and sparkles in the light.

The word says ‘WOZX’.

Getting back is a problem, though — the pits seem to move so that there are two in a row at the far west end. This makes them impossible to jump over. I’m guessing the way out is entirely different than the way in (and no, WOZX doesn’t work).

I should add I discovered a very nasty bit of meta-game business (before entering the dark hall the first time) involving the save-game feature. If you save nearby there’s a sound of the earth being swallowed up, and the pits move, potentially in such a way it is impossible to jump through them. Again, this is before getting through the first time via jumping; it’s almost comically evil for a game that lets you undo other mistakes.

I was severely stuck enough I went back to previous puzzles. In particular, with the crystals and orcs section…

You creep past the monster, and reach for the crystal, but as you touch it, it emits a bell-like chime, waking the orc. You whirl around just in time to counter its wild leap for your throat, and the orc impales himself on your sword, the blade sinking deep into his soft underbelly. Sword, monster and chain vanish with a loud crack.

…I had killed three out of four orcs, but the last one refused to let me sneak in. The cabinet where I originally got the vorpal sword had another item, even though it looked like it had nothing.

Invisbility cloak taken

Wrr. I admit only being on the alert to this from seeing a reference in the big list of potential hints in the manual to invisibility. (There’s a list of questions with numbers, and you can type HELP (number) to look up a particular hint. I have yet to use them other than this indirect hint I just mentioned.)

This invisibility cloak is enough to defeat the last orc (who tears away the cloak in the process, so you can’t use it elsewhere). From the four orcs I got four crystals that merged into a crystal key. I was then able to unlock the box I’d been toting around (remember it was the first thing I found underground) and was confronted by some serious plot:


You take hold of the crystal key and turn it once. There is a quiet click and the box begins to hum gently. As you turn the key again there is a loud “CRACK” and brilliant shafts of light flash and fade. When your eyes and ears recover, you realise that you are listening to some unearthly voice telling of great feats of bravery from a forgotten past.
“…….and so the casket was lost, and the panels spread around the globe. Your task now, as the opener of the cask, is to find the four panels of light and restore the cask which by its power will aid you in your final struggle with the Darkness which controls the world.
You must journey to lands beyond the ken of living folk. To Mashu, the mountain of the setting of the sun, seen only once by Gilgamesh, who saw all things. You must journey to places far: from wild wood to evil moor, from chilling marsh to unseen sanctum. Fare well, be strong, let not your heart quail. For with the working of your deeds will your quest succeed or fail. With this the voice fades and dies, and you are left in silence, the box open in your trembling hands.


From here I got stuck again until I realized in a room to the west of the Fountain with some grey doors…

You are in a small square room with a polished floor. A pair of featureless grey doors, with no visible handles or keyholes, are set back into the western wall, and are closed firmly together. There is a word written in coloured lights above the doors. The only other exit is to the east.


The word is “G 1 2 3”

…that while efforts to OPEN DOOR and the like are rejected, I could just GO ELEVATOR.

The doors slide open revealing a darkened room. You step gingerly through. You are in the lift.
There is a bottle of vintage wine nearby!

I haven’t mapped the other levels, but I’m guessing there’s a lot more open now for me to work on, in addition to a lot more ways to die.

You are in a large chamber whose walls glow bright pink. Passages lead north, south, northeast, southeast, and southwest.
A large dragon is napping in the centre of the chamber.
The dragon opens a beady eye and snarls “How am I meant to get any beauty sleep with all these Adventurers traipsing around?!”
He then incinerates you with a short burst of flame, but if it’s any consolation he had to count 8,000,036 sheep before he managed to fall asleep again!

January 17, 2020

Renga in Blue

Hezarin: Such Earthly Considerations Seem Worthless Trifles

by Jason Dyer at January 17, 2020 03:41 AM

I always try my best to cajole my game-playing sessions into a narrative form, but vast puzzle-fests like this can be … maybe not anti-narrative, exactly, but they pull in some sideways-diagonal direction which makes my job harder. The story is painted by lore and place as much as the events that happen.

About 30 yards ahead the river disappears over a magnificent waterfall, at least 1000 feet high, which is illuminated by powerful arclamps high out of reach. A fine mist hangs in the air, quickly soaking your outer garments, but the sheer impressiveness of the falls makes such earthly considerations seem worthless trifles, and you venture right to the edge of the falls.


I discussed a marsh where HOLD TWIG gave a pointer to the right directions (“The twig twitches sporadically, and comes to rest pointing in a southerly direction.”); what I didn’t mention was this was cojoined with a bad parser issue. When HOLD TWIG is used anywhere else, the game acts in a very different way:

You’re already holding the small forked twig.

This is extremely deceptive parser practice; essentially the verb means an entirely different thing (and behaves the same as TAKE) when it is not being used as a puzzle. Even though both uses are “fair” in a grammatical way, there’s no reason for a player to think the verb will suddenly mean something different just because they’re in another location.

Something similar happens with CLIMB while in the hall of torches.

The tunnel levels out here for a while, and the going is a bit easier.

The tunnels continue dead straight for several miles, and you are forced to rest every now and then.

This is interpreting CLIMB the same as UP in the location. However, there’s a different use of CLIMB, where you can CLIMB WALL:

Your Adventurer’s training stands you in good stead here, and you are able to make full use of the plentiful hand and toe holds available to you. You are perched several feet below the lowest of the torches. Above you the wall becomes smooth and featureless, and you are unable to progress further.

A wall isn’t even mentioned in the room description; you just have to suppose it is there. Urrrgh.

After this you can JUMP and get one of the torches. The torch falls to the ground and goes out, but a bright green light briefly appears and the torch lights up again. This resolved my issue last time with a lack of light.

Lighting up the darkness to the south leads to an open area with an east and a west section; let’s start with the east.


I mentioned the plot is to defeat Arijith, and grabbing treasures is somehow part still part of the game, but there’s one other paragraph from the intro I was saving for when it became pertinent:

RUMOUR HAS IT that the Ruling Council of Hezarin, an omniscient body that works in mysterious ways, foresaw the rule of the old tyrant and crafted a magic device, in the form of an old panelled box, which could be used to overcome him; but over the passage of time the box has been lost and the secret of its use forgotten. Other sources say that Arijith himself has consigned the box to a secret location deep in the bowels of the earth, and has woven dark spells and set hidden traps so that no ordinary man may chance upon it…

I admit I thought the moment of pertinence would come MUCH later, but the very first thing I found upon exploring the underground with a torch was:

You are in a small, musty room. There is a large vent set into the eastern wall, and a corresponding one facing it.
There is a box here. The box is locked.

I don’t know for certain if it’s the box, but given the two-word parser isn’t great with adjectives, I think it’s likely the Big Fooble is here in the open early. Figuring out how to use it, then, is the great mystery.

While we’re in this part of the caverns, I should also note some “fun” doors leading to grumpy cats:

You are in a small room. To the south is a large door, decorated with scenes of brave Adventurers fighting huge lions. The only other exit is to the northwest.

As you open the door a large and ferocious lion leaps out. Against his superior bulk and razor sharp claws you stand no chance…..

a music room with a “bonger”

As you walk in through the door you are greeted by the hideous clash of long out of tune clarinets, bassoons and a euphonium.
The room is covered with scenes of people playing various instruments, some of them very odd. The only exit is to the south.
Lying on the floor here is an object which I find myself unable to describe as anything other than a ‘bonger’.

and a pipe where I can use the wheel I found in the rubbish heap to turn it on. Turning it on results in the room with the box being filled with black smoke. (I don’t know if this is useful or just a trap for players who didn’t get the box first.)

This activates something on the west side of the starting underground map, so let’s turn over to that:

The “Poohsticks” bridge is over the same river you can jump into from aboveground to get the magic word SKCITSHOOP.

There’s a curious cabinet where FILL CABINET gets an interesting response:

The passage ends here in a small chamber, hewn out of the bedrock. A large display
cabinet has been mounted on the west wall.
The cabinet is empty.
>fill cabinet

Sorry, only members of the Council are allowed to fill the cabinet.

If you leave there’s a BANG sound, and if you come back you find there’s a “vorpal blade” inside. This implies that The Council of Hezarin is helping you from afar.

You can use the vorpal sword to slay some orcs:

The passage comes to a dead end here. Chiselled into the otherwise blank wall at the far end of the passage is a small alcove, which contains a sparkling crystal.
There is a large orc, sleeping fitfully, chained to the wall of the passage below the alcove.
>get crystal

You creep past the monster, and reach for the crystal, but as you touch it, it emits a bell-like chime, waking the orc. You whirl around just in time to counter its wild leap for your throat, and the orc impales himself on your sword, the blade sinking deep into his soft underbelly. Sword, monster and chain vanish with a loud crack.

although there’s four orcs in total, and I haven’t been able to do anything with the last one.

Finally, there’s a small hole. If you go in you get stuck. If you haven’t turned the pipe valve from the eastern part of the caverns yet, the hole fills up with water and you eventually drown. If the pipe has been turned on, the result is different:

You are stuck in the hole. The water is up to your nose. Below, you can feel the pressure slowly building up.

Just as the water reaches your nose the pressure finally because too great. With a loud >>POP<< you shoot out of the hole like a cork out of a champagne bottle, execute a graceful triple somersault and crash heavily into the wall of the cave. When you recover sufficiently you discover that you have sustained only minor bruises after all, though they do not feel so yet.
You are on a small ledge above a large, water-filled cavern. Steam curls from the surface of the water creating intricate patterns. A dark tunnel exits north.
There is a wooden torch mounted on the wall here.


As you take the torch it suddenly flares bright green, and you see a face solidify
in the flame. The face turns to look at you, and pronounces in a solemn chant:
The face then turns away from you, and as it fades so the colour of the flame returns to normal.

This leads to an entirely new and large section. I haven’t done much mapping further so I’ll save discussing it next time. I have already worked out what the chant is referring to, but I’ll save discussing that for next time too, other than me pointing out the green glow has occurred twice now: once for picking up the torch after it briefly went out, and once for the poem/hint. This suggests to me the torch is another avenue the Council of Hezarin is using to help.

January 15, 2020

Emily Short

Mid-January Link Assortment

by Emily Short at January 15, 2020 07:41 PM


Narrascope.jpegJanuary 17 is the deadline for proposals for Narrascope 2020.

January 19 is the next meeting of the Seattle/Tacoma Interactive Fiction Meetup, playing Matt Wigdahl’s Aotearoa in honor of its 10th anniversary.

January 21 is the next Boston Interactive Fiction Meetup, in room 14E-304 at MIT.

The Oxford/London IF Meetup next convenes January 29, when I will be talking about (and leading some workshoppy exercises around) storylet-based narrative design.

January 31Feb 3, Ryan Veeder is running the first of three events in his Exposition for Good Interactive Fiction. This one is a short jam for Inform 7 games. There are a number of rules about how to participate, so please do check out the fine print.

February 1 is the next meeting of the SF Bay Interactive Fiction Meetup.

February 8 will be the next meeting of the Baltimore/DC Interactive Fiction Meetup, discussing Mike Spivey’s Sugarlawn.

February 15-16, Rob Sherman is running an interactive fiction masterclass at the British library. This is a paying event; tickets here.

Screen Shot 2020-01-14 at 6.19.15 PMMarch 20-22 in Toronto is Breakout Con, a conference on boardgames and tabletop RPGs. Some great narrative designers are scheduled in as guests.

NarraScope will be May 29-31, in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.


The Gaming Like It’s 1924 jam runs through the end of the month, and celebrates works that recently entered the public domain. There’s a whole list of possibilities in there that you might enjoy.

dyfuYq.png       springthing-logo.jpg

If you plan to enter Spring Thing 2020, you have until March 1, 2020 to declare your intent to enter. Spring Thing is a long-running competition for interactive fiction that welcomes longer games than IF Comp can accommodate, and features a “back garden” section for games that are unfinished, commercial, experimental, or where the author just wants to opt out of the competitive aspect of the competition. The games themselves will be due March 29.


Here is a detailed flowchart of Bandersnatch, worked out by Vladimir Panteleev. If you’re curious about how it’s structured, this piece has you covered.

download.pngThe finalists for the Independent Games Festival were recently announced, with the awards scheduled to take place at GDC on March 18. Andrew Plotkin has been on the judging panel for a number of years, and shares his thoughts about some of the nominees here.

This video has some interesting design insight about Disco Elysium. I am told. I haven’t actually watched the video all the way through myself, because I haven’t played the game yet, because I need to borrow a Windows machine. That’s all being looked into and taken care of. I hear the video’s interesting, though.


YarnSpinner is a tool, in line with Twine or ink, that can be used to write and manage branching dialogue for games. It has now had a 1.0 release, and is available for free, though users are encouraged to support its Patreon.


January 14, 2020

Renga in Blue

Hezarin (1981)

by Jason Dyer at January 14, 2020 11:41 PM

In 1978, Adventure and Zork arrived at the Phoenix mainframe at Cambridge University, and a small group of mathematicians made a custom language designed specifically for writing their own text adventures. So far we’ve seen Acheton (1978), Philosopher’s Quest (1979) and Quondam (1980). (While the first two had surviving mainframe source code that received modern direct ports, Quondam only exists as a port for the BBC Micro.) Each successive game tried to outdo the previous in terms of difficulty, culminating in Quondam actively describing items in a deceptive way and having a save-game feature that killed the player.

Hezarin backs up from this pattern a bit, and is outright nicer in places.

Drawing yourself up to your full height, you leap fearlessly out into the ravine, executing a perfect swallow dive, and smashing your head open on the boulders beneath.
Would you like to pretend you hadn’t done that?

Alright, but be more careful next time!

Yes, that’s a selective feature that lets you UNDO a turn. Mind you, the game is still known as extremely long and difficult (it has a whopping 1100 points possible, not quite as many as Acheton but still up there).

Hezarin was originally made in 1981 by Steve Tinney and Alex Ship, but that source code is lost; fortunately, it received ports by Jon Thackray in 1990 to MS-DOS as well as the Acorn Electron.

From the Electron version. Mobygames also claims there are Amstrad CPC and Amstrad PCW versions but I haven’t been able to verify this with any primary source.

Being a port means there are almost certainly some changes, but we’ll just have to cope with what’s available. The MS-DOS version is quite easy to get to (here’s a link to play online) so that’s what I’m using.

Now, a confession: I’ve beaten this game before. However, it was quite a long time ago (15 years or so) and fairly early on I started leaning very heavily on a walkthrough, with the result being I remember almost nothing other than the basic plot (you have to stop a tyrant/wizard/all-around-bad-guy named Arijith) and the fact things start out on a relatively expansive aboveground section. There’s also treasures to collect (appropriately marked with a ! symbol) but I don’t know if they’re required to defeat the game’s nemesis or just optional points.

Here’s the starting map, but I’ll need to describe a little of what’s going on.

Some of the “diagonal” connections (NE/SE/SW/NW) have been omitted because they made the map confusing to read.

If you head off north far enough you end up in a forest:

You are struggling through the undergrowth of a dark forest.
You are somewhat uncomfortably located near the top of a tree in the forest. Branches keep scratching at you, picking your nose and poking you in the eye. The view is completely curtailed by the dense foliage.

South is a marsh:

As you proceed the mist thickens and the ground underfoot becomes soggy and wet. Strange shapes loom in the mist ahead of you, and you are rather relieved to find that htey are merely the stunted, blackened remains of trees. The mist has now become a real pea-souper, and with some trepidation you turn back and attempt to retrace your steps.
You walk for seemingly hours before realising that you have hopelessly lost your bearings, and you decide that hte best thing to do is to sit it out until the ist rises. After a brief wait the mist suddenly rolls back, and you find…..
You are lost in the marsh.

West is an endless plain:

You are perched on an outcrop of rock in the middle of a weed ridden field. To the north you can see the dark, dark green of the forest canopy, while to the east and south a hotch potch of fields prawls across the countryside. To the west a featureless plain stretches to a horizon which is broken only by a solitary shimmering peak.
You are in a large field out which rises an outcrop of glistening white limestone. To the north lies thick forest, to the west an apparently infintie plain, and to the east a thick hedge.
You are on an infinite and entirely featureless plain. The sun beats down on the parched grass and a heat haze shimmers on the horizon.
You are on a featureless plain.
You are on a featureless plain.

(I quoted a little extra at the start there to note the “solitary shimmery peak” seen from the outcrop — I don’t know if it’s possible to reach or just a red herring.)

Rather than just trying to add every connection I cut the map off in each direction. The forest and swamp, in particular, are “random” mazes. As far as I can tell, the best you can do in the forest is wander, pick up a manhole on the way, and eventually get booted to one of the main rooms. The marsh is normally deadly but I found a “forked twig” where if I did HOLD TWIG I got helpful directions

The twig twitches sporadically, and comes to rest pointing in a southerly direction.

On the way out from the marsh, I found a treasure

There are some garnets here!

so that’s puzzle #1 down, out of ….? (A lot.)

In addition to the manhole and the garnets I’ve found a brass wheel, a plank, a broken lantern (with a map).

I’ve found two ways to get “underground”. In one method, I fall into a river, see a magic word (“SKCITSHOOP”) and then SAY SKCITSHOOP to teleport into a Fountain Room adjacent to multiple rooms that are dark.

You are in an immense hemispherical chamber with exits in most directions. Dominating the cave is a massive stone fountain from which columns of water jet up almost to the ceiling before spraying back into the ornamental pool beneath. Light filters in from a hole in the roof, and refracts in strange fashions inside the water columns, sending dazzling blobs of colour scampering across the cavern walls. The floor is covered in a springy moss-like substance, which hampers walking, especially as watching the psychedelic kaleidoscope is making you dizzy and nauseous.
It is pitch dark.

In the other method, I go down a passage with magical torches until they cut off appearing.

You are at the top of a long tunnel which dips steeply down to the south, while to the north the passage quickly turns round on itself and is lost to sight. The walls and floor are perfectly smooth, as if the passage has been constructed by melted away the offending bedrock, and it is difficult just to keep your balance.
High up, a row of torches cast a dim flickering light along the tunnel.

(…down a few rooms…)

The line of torches comes to an abrupt end here. To the south the passage widens into a large cavern, while to the north the passage continues up for a short way before leveling out.
It is pitch dark.

Either way, my enemy here is darkness. I don’t have a light source. I’ve tried GET ALL in various dark rooms I’ve poked at (remembering that Philosopher’s Quest put a lamp in a dark room) but no luck. There’s not even a LIGHT OR EXTINGUISH or BURN verb available so I suspect magical shenanigans will be required.


IF Archive improvements for the holiday

by Andrew Plotkin at January 14, 2020 11:24 PM

I like to put in a bit of tinkering time on the IF Archive over the winter holiday. Last year it was Cloudflare and index improvements. This year, we’ve launched a new feature: metadata!

I know metadata isn’t exciting to everybody. But as it happens, the IF world has collected a lot of it. If you visit IFDB, you’ll see all sorts of data associated with every game: author names, publication dates, language, dev system, and so on. Also a link to the IF Archive, for games that are stored there.

This is great for browsing IFDB, but the links were all one-way. If you had an Archive link — or if you were browsing through an Archive directory — you’d just see title, author, and maybe a version number. No link to the IFDB entry…

Until now. Take a look at, for example. You’ll see that most of the game entries now have an “IFDB entry” link. This closes the loop between IFDB and the Archive.

This doesn’t just apply to playable game files, by the way. In the solutions directory, walkthroughs have an IFDB entry link to the game they describe. Same goes for source code packages in the games/source directory.

Of course, there’s a lot of work left to do. I said most of the games had IFDB entry links. I extracted these links from an IFDB dump. But for various reasons that didn’t give us complete coverage. Over the coming months we’ll be adding more links.

I also hope to import more of IFDB’s data and make it directly visible on the Archive index pages. That way, the crowdsourced efforts that support IFDB will benefit both sites.

We have other Archive improvements planned, but we’ll talk about those when they’re closer to fruition. Until then, enjoy our spicy metadata references.

Emily Short

Mailbag: Statefulness without a Parser

by Emily Short at January 14, 2020 08:41 PM

Hi Emily, I appreciate the content you create to further the IF community.

I’m curious what games or platforms stand out to solve some of the issues you listed in your parser article 9 [years] ago.

I’d like to create a text heavy game with detailed world state and want to research the projects that handle these situations the best. Specifically UI driven interaction from the player. 

[I then asked for confirmation that the writer would like to see this handled as a mailbag post.]:

I’d love to see a follow up on how you feel things have changed. From the perspective of a “traditional” game developer IF seems stuck in an award state [sic] of being too gamey for readers and not enough mechanics for gamers. It’s a hard problem to solve as most people aren’t writers, programmers and designers , that’s a lot of skill sets to tackle.

I’m not quite sure what “an award state” is, but maybe “an awkward state”? I disagree, though. “Not enough mechanics for gamers” or not, games from 80 Days to Choices and Episode to the works of Choice of Games to Failbetter’s entire oeuvre are making enough money and attracting enough attention to support quite a few small to medium studios. And that doesn’t touch on the audio IF, the visual novels, the interactive film, etc., etc., etc. Interactive fiction, broadly drawn, is doing fine. And I know quite a lot of traditional game developers who think so, too.

But okay, let’s set aside that part of the question. The question is about how to do UI for a game with a lot of world state and a lot of text, but without a parser.

Many IF tools in the last decade have been trying to solve a different set of problems. ink is designed for use in commercial-sized branching story games, but it’s designed for a branching menu type of player experience. Texture binds the user more tightly to the text, rather than more tightly to the world model. Windrift focuses on presentation. Dialog is still designed for parser-based play, and is looking at different ways of handling the coding, rather than different ways of handling input.


Of course, there are some exceptions. Robin Johnson’s Versificator is about exactly this issue. Detectiveland and other recent games in the Versificator system present options to the player as links, but keep an inventory and quite a bit of world state around, allowing for fairly complex and sophisticated puzzles.

There’s quite a lot going on in the page layout of a typical Versificator game, so it can be a little overwhelming, and I don’t know how well the system plays with screenreaders. (Possibly just fine — I simply don’t know.) But as a way of handling what is essentially a parser-style world model with no typed verb guessing, this is one way to solve the problem.

Another standard approach is to mark up the text of a game with links associated with the in-game objects, with a result that can look a little more like a conventional Twine game. Quest and Inform + Vorple can both be used to build experiences of this kind.

Re: Dragon uses Inform to drive gameplay that uses hypertext paradigms some of the time and some of the time a simulated inbox:

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 9.23.43 PM

Meanwhile, here’s a sample scene from a Quest game (Victorian Detective 2), where we see options associated with specific objects:

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 9.59.16 PM.png

Then there’s Wunderverse, which seemed to be trying to solve this problem. I haven’t heard anything about it significantly developing in the past few years, and the apps on the app store have very very few reviews, but it was trying to deal with the question of a parser-esque world model as well.

Insignificant Little Vermin was an IF Comp game from 2017 that had text and a menu system tied to a detailed combat model. It was a demo of the Egamebook system, which apparently tracks a spatial representation of the world in some degree of detail.

Moving further afield, Character Engine also does UI for otherwise open-ended experiences, though its focus is dialogue mechanics rather than small-object manipulation. My talk Conversation as Gameplay gets into some of the details of how I approached one particular game.

In fact, there is a whole category of posts on my blog that looks at works that somehow straddle the line between parser and choice-based interfaces. There’s quite a lot in there.


So there are some tools and examples. I have also a little advice from a higher-level theory perspective, which may or may not be useful.

Which is: if your game has many many affordances, then the challenge is to let the player efficiently search the possibility space for affordances she can use.

A parser allows the player to type anything without going through subsidiary layers, so it’s fast, but it doesn’t guarantee that what has been typed will be a valid affordance, so the experience may be frustrating.

Games like The Sims tie menus to objects in a physical world, so you’ve got clusters of affordances: things you can do with a TV, things you can do with a stove, things you can do with a bathtub, and so on. That’s one way of indexing things, and Quest is doing something similar by attaching verb menus to individual objects in the game text.

Much older menu system games attempted similar things in the 1990s, though sometimes these were organized verb-first rather than noun-first:


But if we think of this as fundamentally an organization-and-search problem, we might also reach for some familiar search UX paradigms. In particular, people are very used to Google-style search bars where you can type keywords, get suggestions, and see a list of options after the search has been committed. An Earth Turning Slowly explores that idea a bit, but one could do a lot more with it.

Zarf Updates

2020 IGF nominees: adventure plus

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at January 14, 2020 03:17 PM

We come to the last post. Maybe it should have been the first post. These are the games that are closest in shape to the classic adventure game... at first glance. But each one of these games climbs out of that shape and strikes out for the horizon. We'll see explorations of dialogue structure, explorations of narrative variation, fourth-wall games, interactivity tricks, topics far beyond the golden-age puzzle-hunt.
I'll confess that most of my favorite games of the IGF fall into this group. Then again, I've already said that the groups are a bit arbitrary.
  • Observation
  • Sunless Skies
  • Jenny LeClue - Detectivú
  • Afterparty
  • Mutazione
  • Over the Alps
  • Heaven's Vault
By the way, as I wrap up this review series, remember that I didn't play everything. I've commented on 29 games this week (!) but there are still scads of narrative nominees that I'm interested in trying. Night Call, Tales from Off-Peak City, Falcon Age, Guildlings, ... I could keep flipping through the list. And I will. Except more games keep coming out...
(Note once again: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of most of these games. I bought Sunless Skies, Heaven's Vault, and Observation. I played Over the Alps in my free trial month of Apple Arcade.)


I wrote this up back in June; you can read my detailed comments from that post.
The summary is that Observation is a fairly on-rails first-person adventure game with a hacking twist. You are the AI of a space station in the middle of a disaster. The surviving astronaut is fixing things, but needs your help. Lots of digital interfaces and camera views. And journals, obviously.
"On rails" sounds like a criticism, but really it fits the game nicely. You're not in charge, after all. You're the sidekick! The human gives you jobs; you do them. The story happens around you, and you are the agent of change, but you're not the protagonist.
It's fun, and the plot takes you on an entertaining arc of space weirdness. I liked it.

Sunless Skies

Enormous sprawling followup to Sunless Sea. I put a lot of hours into this and had a great time. The original game (and Echo Bazaar / Fallen London before it) let you bathe in endless tropey vignettes, a delightfully textured mashup of louche Victoriana and Lovecraftian goo. Sunless Skies goes back and reconstructs the tropes into questions: what is the horror of the Victorian worldview? What is the counter-narrative? How do we let the player navigate the height of the colonial era?
To be sure, it's still a big pile of vignettes with no defining narrative arc. It's got lots of narrative arcs: little tasks, medium-sized background goals, big chewy quests that you can adopt as your run-through aspiration. The game will keep you busy for as long as you care to chase them.
What's new, what the earlier games didn't have, is narrative theme. As I said, the setting raises questions, and the story arcs let you approach those questions. You can support the Queen or undermine Her reign; you can work for or against the Empire. But you will understand that Queen and Empire are points of view, insistent and pervasive, but not universal. The Khanate and the Dead are outside; revolution and the colonized are within. Within each of these frames, smaller tensions: corporation and rebellion, gentry and servant. To a degree, you can shift each of these balances. Not far enough to destroy the entire system. The world as a whole is... obdurate? That may be the point, or it may just be the nature of this kind of storylet game.
I played for a couple of weeks, finished a bunch of major area quests, achieved my aspiration (Wealth), and put the game down. I'm sure there's lots of stuff I haven't seen, but I don't feel a need to come back to it.
(Note that I played the original release, post-early-access but before any of the content expansions.)

Jenny LeClue - Detectivú

Rhymes with "Nancy Drew" but with a cartoony/comedy style. The design is quite sharp. The search-a-scene mechanics are simple but have a couple of different interactions, so you have to pay attention. And then you get a "connect the pieces of evidence" UI for deduction. Nothing that hasn't been done before, but it's well thought out. The mechanics are used consistently across several types of scenes (examining a person, reading a letter, walking around a room, etc) so you feel like you're learning and applying detective skills.
The story is framed as a mystery author writing the protagonist's story, which, okay, it's more clever than it is deep, but the game gets some mileage out of it.
The one obvious flaw is the pacing: it's pretty draggy. Exploring and dialogue both just take a lot of clicks to get through. I got into the rhythm and it didn't bother me much, but I felt like I spent three or four evenings on a two-evening game. And then it winds up with a cliffhanger and a "to be continued". I'm afraid I reacted with a wince rather than a sense of anticipation.
Pacing aside, the game is fun and very playable. But I felt like it never really knew what it wanted to be. It wavers between goofy and dark. There's a murder, sure. There's a mad-science tilt to the story (foreshadowed from the start, that's not a spoiler). It's not purely a kids' story, but it doesn't do that much with the adult characters. Nor do you really engage with the frame, the mystery-author-writing level.
I felt like it wanted to be compared with Night in the Woods without doing the work to get there. The protagonist is mouthy and fun, but the "flawed hero" feels pretty pro-forma -- her relationship problems are kind of pasted on. The material is there (her mom, her best frenemy, her missing dad) but it doesn't have a lot of weight compared to the mystery hijinks. So it's a goofy mystery game, but with all these emotional overtones that don't pay out.
Mind you, this may come together better in the sequel-completion.
Anyway, I've written a lot of complaints, but the upshot is "fun and very playable". It's funny, there's plenty to do, you solve crimes.
(Also, I liked the lock-picking UI.)


It is difficult to talk about Afterparty without comparing it point-by-point with Oxenfree, the previous game from this studio. This is unfair; I think the games have different goals even if they share a lot of techniques.
So. You are two odd-coupled college grads in Hell. Lola is cynical, defensive, and awkward; Milo is a sad sack and double-awkward. Hell, turns out, is a party zone. And also a zone of eternal punishment, but the game takes the Good Place tack of not really showing that part. Some damned souls dangle from lampposts here and there, but it's more of a day job than anything else. Demons dish it out, sinners take it, and when they're off shift they head for the bars together and get smashed. Which is mostly what you do in this game.
This is an old-school adventure game, really, minus the puzzles. It's got the iterated fetch-quest structure, except that at any given time, you're not hunting objects in a landscape of environmental obstacles. You're looking for people (or demons) and talking to them. Okay, there are some drinking and dancing mini-games in there too, just for variety. But mostly it's dialogue.
Unsurprisingly, the dialogue is great -- endlessly snarky, witty, sharp, and cheerfully willing to use the fourth wall for a footrest. All the voice acting is spot on, and there is lots of it. I said you are a pair of characters. You steer Lola or Milo around and the other follows. Who is "in front" switches fluidly, and you barely notice, because they are in each other's pockets regardless. It's Oxenfree's walk-and-talk (this is the comparison I cannot avoid) as characterization à deux.
Not just Milo and Lola, of course. Hell is full of people (and demons) standing around, strolling, waiting in line, getting on with their (after-) lives. Quite a few of these conversations are audible as you pass by. Might be relevant to your current quest; might not be. Plus all the folks you approach directly; plus the bartenders you order drinks from. On top of that, social media.
The difference between the classical adventure game and the modern type is the breadth of the narrative space. I've only played through Afterparty once, so I don't have much sense of how much variation it supports. (As I wrote about Heaven's Vault: after the first run-through, you've seen the covers; now you're ready to open the book.) It's clearly a lot, though. There are obvious choices in the mid-game where you pursue some goals while ignoring others. There's an obvious climactic scene with significant end-game choices. And there's lots of little callbacks and reiterations of your moment-to-moment decisions, to reassure you that the game is paying attention.
(This must add up to a stunning amount of recorded dialogue. I'd be surprised if I've heard a third of it in one run-through.)
Where the game falls down somewhat is momentum. In a sense, a comedy about Hell is inevitably a low-stakes game. The worst thing that can possibly happen already has! And it's not that bad! Oxenfree's creepy cosmic horror/ghost story was nail-bitingly compelling (this is the other necessary comparison), but all Afterparty offers you is the dangling opportunity to drink Satan under the table. And maybe escape Hell, but come on, how likely does that sound?
The basic structure of chasing demons from bar to bar is sound, but the actual walking is kind of tedious. It's a perfect backdrop to the running dialogue, but when you finish that and need to hike to the next plot point, things slow way down. Worse, you may not even know where the next plot point is. Traditional adventure games reward you for peering in every corner (a paperclip! a shard of glass! surely these will come in handy!) Afterparty doesn't have those puzzles, so you sometimes have to explore for no better reason than "someone on this island must know the answer to my question".
I also have some quibbles about the way the game communicates the stakes of your choices. But that's going to have to be a separate essay; this has already gotten quite long enough.
My complaints are minor, because the writing really is that hot and I was perfectly willing to chase it all night. The story turns serious at the right point; I think it lands itself well. (There are a couple of major endings with many variations, and yes, they all fit the story.) The voice actors are terrific and the incidental music is pretty great too. (I see you, dance-club remix of O Fortuna!) It may not stick in my head the way Oxenfree did, but it's a thoroughly enjoyable ride.


This game is a hug and a half!
You are a teenager off to visit her grandfather on a remote island. The after-effects of a long-ago meteor impact have affected the inhabitants: there are troll-people, cat-people, mushroom-people... But this is not a survival game or a zombie game. It's all about small-town gossip and gardening. I decided I was in love when I got to the gardening and there was a "transplant" button.
The focus is resolutely personal. Okay, there's an underlying thread about the ecological balance of the island which you wind up fixing. But the body of the game is entirely about the people (of whatever body type) in this little village. Their stories filter through as you get to know them over the course of a week. They have history and tragedies and loves and regrets and kindnesses and some of them play smashy guitar music. Everybody's voice is unmistakeable. The protagonist filters through as well. Your dialogue choices are frequently "make a joke" or "be serious" -- this is now my favorite example of light-touch characterization via dialogue mechanics. And of course you react to everybody, and interact with everybody, which has its own weight. (Don't forget to read your journal; it's not just a hint mechanism.)
The art is stylized but sneakily dense. There are little touches of animation everywhere, and little visual details as well. (My favorite was a smashy guitar lost under the floorboards of the town pub.) It's a startlingly beautiful game once you start to pay attention.
Like Afterparty, this has the form of an adventure game without the puzzles. Mostly you go around talking to people, following up narrative threads -- or not, as you like. These are interspersed with explicit goals, which pace out the story. Various people want various plants cultured, and grandpa is teaching you some unusual gardening skills.
Unfortunately, while the gardening is central to the story, it doesn't have much weight in the game. The island is full of plants; if you succumb to your adventurer-nature and pillage every seed in sight, you'll find the garden mechanics pretty trivial. I wish they had required a little more involvement -- either depth of play or regular attention. (Once you've grown your Ti berry or whatever, you can ignore that garden thereafter. Going back has no further value. That's rather a thematic hole, isn't it?)
Nonetheless, the game holds up perfectly well as a small-town character-focused narrative. Nobody's trying to kill you, nobody's a horrible person, and the world isn't ending. Or it has ended, a long time ago -- the seas rose, a meteor fell, and the gas stations have been overrun by jungle -- but people made it and everything is basically okay.
Appreciate that. We need more of it.

Over the Alps

It's 1939 and you're a good old-fashioned British spy. Menacing Germans, hapless Italians, guns, chases, blueprints, and twelve kinds of transport because that's what Jon Ingold is into. (Does Heaven's Vault have a hot-air balloon? It must have one somewhere.)
It's nice (and instructive!) to see a Inkle-style game done as a short story, rather than an overstuffed multidirectional epic. The basic structure of locations separated by travel is familiar, but the sequence of locations is mostly fixed (with some jumping and skipping) and you get a choice of just one or two routes at a time. I don't think you can fail, but if you screw up too badly, your superiors may have to bail you out, and then you look like a chump.
There's a simple economy of diversions (throwing the people on your trail off your scent) and footprints (you leave a trail and they catch up). Slow routes mean more time for chance (either of the above), whereas fast routes risk bad outcomes. And, of course, you have a reputation which shifts -- along with the opinion of your fellow travellers and nemeses -- as you interact with them.
I'm explaining this stuff because the game doesn't. It tries to smoothly and wordlessly introduce all its concepts on the fly. I'm afraid this didn't really work for me. I was halfway through before I had any idea what the footprint and diversion symbols meant, or how they applied to the travel reports that kept appearing (and disappearing before I could quite put together what they said). The location screens have a confusing combination of "tap a building to investigate it" (active buildings are subtly marked, except when they're unmarked) and "tap the compass icon to travel". And I really wish the map would highlight meaningful route choices as choices.
UI complaints aside, the game is short, charming, well-written, and invites at least a couple of replays to scope out its range. It probably doesn't need more than that. I hate to call it unambitious. Its biggest problem is that if you like Over the Alps, you probably can't stop talking about Heaven's Vault.

Heaven's Vault

You want a summary? An incredibly ambitious exercise in player agency. The game tracks everything you do, large decisions and small, and synthesizes them into a seamless narrative. You will always feel like you followed the plot, discovered the secrets, and figured out the hidden truth. Except there's no single plot or hidden truth. I've played through it twice and I'm pretty sure I've found at most a third of the hidden secrets.
Play it. No, not everybody loved it the way I did. The protagonist is opinionated and easy to get annoyed at. The pacing is unhurried and, judging by comments I've read, easy to get annoyed at. But even if you don't love it, you need to experience it as an example of broad-form adaptive storylet narrative.

January 13, 2020

Zarf Updates

2020 IGF nominees: interactive storybooks

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at January 13, 2020 04:16 PM

Ever since Device 6, we've had this notion of a game category, but there hasn't been a label for it. I've started saying "interactive storybook"; I doubt that will catch on, but it's what I've got. It's characterized by text with whimsical interactions. No full simulated environment. Often puzzles.
Then there was Gorogoa, which is the same thing except wordless. So I say "interactive picturebook". That's broader, of course -- you could count Plug & Play, maybe even Hidden Folks. I'm willing to be fuzzy about it.
Quite a few of these this year! Here are my favorites:
  • Arrog
  • Song of Bloom
  • Alt-Frequencies
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. Except Alt-Frequencies, which I bought and reviewed earlier in the year.)


  • by LEAP Game Studios & Hermanos Magia -- game site (not yet released)
A short interactive picturebook about stars, rain, and capybaras. Mostly wordless, mostly monochrome.
This is at its best when it's asking you for little thematic interactions -- click to light a star or blow away a cloud. It bogs down when it throws you into puzzles. These are also thematic, and never difficult, but I felt like I was being kicked out of the story to figure out some puzzle mechanics.
And yes, my world is full of unapologetic puzzle storybook games. I've played Fool's Errand and Gorogoa and everything in between. I've written games like that. I love 'em. But there's a certain texture to the feast-of-puzzles game. You have to set the table. Occasional interactions and an abstract storyline (not obviously about puzzles or mystery-solving or anything) don't set that up.
I don't know, it's a subtle thing. I shouldn't make a big deal of it. The animations are all charming and I'm a fan of capybaras. The story is kind of impenetrable, but that's way better than the big clanging symbolism of too many wordless narrative games. I'll take it.
(Note: The web site is not yet live. I understand that Arrog was initially released on Humble and will be in general release soon.)

Song of Bloom

A puzzly storybook. I really liked the interaction model: it presents itself as a minimal tap-to-continue comic book, but then you find clues on secret bits you can tap, draw, or otherwise fiddle. These unlock new branches in a tree of possible action paths. Each branch is quite short, but contains more clues for more branches, so you're constantly starting over and finding new spaces to explore.
The interactions themselves are the usual "try anything and everything" selection, but with a satisfying range of styles and presentations. Every scene is novel and fun to play with. Although multi-touch input was weirdly underused -- did the authors think that was too out-of-the-box? In a tablet game? Which hit the inevitable gyro-sensor and volume-button scenes? (I usually find those annoyingly immersion-breaking, yes, I'm looking at you, The Room 1.) (To be fair, in this game, they were adequately clued.)
Regrettably, the narrative this toy is wrapped around is utterly bland. It's the kind of vague political/spiritual statements ("We could see the signs") which might serve as the thematic core of a story, but are not in any way a story themselves. No voice, no character, no bite.
I bogged down on an unclear clue late in the game. Slept on it, picked it back up, took another look. Turns out I had not understood the overview diagram correctly, so I was missing clues! A genuine metapuzzle-solving moment. Once over that hump, I reached the end in short order.
I will grant that the ending is not vacuous. The work is meant as a statement, and the closing line carries it there. My complaint stands, however -- the text is absolutely generic, distanced, and unaffecting. Poetry can do more than this.


This doesn't really fit into the "interactive storybook" model. It's closer to the "lost phone" idea, except that you're listening to your radio. And they're all call-in shows. You can't speak, but you can record a clip from one show and deliver it to another. The hosts respond appropriately. This is extremely clever! And I'm dropping it into this post because I couldn't find a better place.
I played Alt-Frequencies back in September; you can read my comments from then. The summary is that this is short, lightweight, and a lot of fun -- the voice actors are having a great time. It doesn't really manage to be about anything, despite a gimmick of time loops and a Brexit-ish public policy debate. So: fluff, but you might as well enjoy it anyway.

January 12, 2020


IFComp’s survey wants to hear from you (and so does NarraScope’s CFP)

January 12, 2020 11:04 PM

The Annual Interactive Fiction competition has released its annual survey, asking all its participants — whether judges, authors, or interested observers — for their thoughts on how well the 2019 IFComp went, and ideas for improving the competition in time for 2020’s event.

If you have a few minutes to help IFComp, please do fill out the survey before January 31, 2020. We would value your thoughts very much!

On that note: NarraScope 2020’s Call for Proposals remains open through January 17. It welcomes pitches for panel discussions, 30- and 60-minute presentations, and five-minute lightning talks.

NarraScope will consider just about any topic related to narrative-based games in all their forms, digital and otherwise. If you have (or develop, in the next few days!) an idea for a presentation, discussion, or short event that you can share with our annual gathering to study and celebrate playful interactive stories, we hope you’ll pitch it to us.

This year’s NarraScope will happen at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on May 29-31.

Zarf Updates

2020 IGF nominees: topical games

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at January 12, 2020 05:40 PM

For your consideration: games that are engaged with the times. An arbitrary boundary, yes? Every narrative game is about something or it wouldn't have an audience.
These four games raise their social issues more explicitly. So I declare them a group. But, understand, the groups are somewhat arbitrary and I did a lot of juggling. Lionkiller and Divination almost wound up in this post -- they're certainly both political and politically aware. Go back and read about those games in the context of these four.
  • Eliza
  • Adventures With Anxiety!
  • Forgotten
  • American Election
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. Except Eliza, which I bought earlier in the year.)


A visual novel about life in the tech industry. The gimmick is that you play the part of a therapy chatbot. You're not the AI; you're the human gig worker who comes in to read lines off the AI teleprompter, so that the clients get fake human interaction with their machine-generated therapy.
I don't think this terrible business plan is intended to be taken seriously. It's a way to riff on a whole pile of real-world tech-industry issues. Gig work, data privacy, AI tech hype, overfunded startup-bros, crunch time, agree-to-the-terms-of-service checkboxes, workplace sexual harassment, billionaire nerds whose utopian schemes reek of the SF novels they read when they were thirteen. Every one of these issues is worth a long public discussion. But I'm afraid the game doesn't manage to dig deeply into any of them. It's a pile of challenging questions and a "what do you think?"
Same goes for the characters. They're not badly written, but they're all static: "The One Who..." I think the only character arcs are the therapy clients, who each show up two or three times with their little situational progress reports. Unfortunately, the protagonist is no exception with her persistent anomie. Yes, she's coming out of a three-year bout of depression, but the point is that she doesn't seem to come out of it. Your game choices seem to always boil down to "sure" vs "eh, maybe, I guess" -- until the end, which throws you a high-stakes "What do you care about? What will you do with your life?" question in order to wrap everything up.
On the up side, it has good solitaire. (Zachtronics games always have solitaire.)
Eh. I'm coming down hard on this game, but that reflects its high ambitions. It's solidly written, solidly acted, and has a top-notch polished presentation. It wants to be socially relevant, and it is socially relevant. I'm just left cold by the way sets up its interactive rhetoric. It wants to be completely unbiased, leaving its stance entirely up to the player. But the result is that the text never takes any kind of stance itself, which leaves the protagonist unappealingly indecisive and vague.
A strong story-focused game that I suspect other people will like more than I did.

Adventures With Anxiety!

Short, smart choice-based cartoon about what it says on the carton. This falls squarely into the "personal but good for you" category, which is hard to get right. This one wavers just a little into the sunshiney-bullshit mode; but only a little. Most of it comes off as honest. It's not pretending to be autobiography, but the hurt is recognizably from the author's veins. So you can trust it, or at least I felt I could trust it.
The cartoon style and animation are impeccably hilarious, too.


A first-person vignette about dementia.
The tropes of disorientation are very familiar from games of psychological horror. The world changes behind your back; you blink and are somewhere else; conversations are discontinuous and nonsensical. To express the all-too-real experience of Alzheimer's in these tropes is an obvious idea in retrospect -- but I've never thought of it, even when considering other games on the subject. (See Zed, Will Not Let Me Go, etc.) An insightful design.
The game offers a position of calm acceptance. The grief and frustration and anger are implied, but you aren't forced to act through them. That's a design choice; there's room for more games on this subject. Nonetheless, this is a worthwhile take in its simplicity.

American Election

Oof. Hard to play, as the content warnings correctly warn.
This is both very specific and a blank canvas, which is interesting. The story is about Donald Trump and the people around him. But Truman Glass is not Donald Trump. He's drawn from a palette of Trump, and the Trumps of people's imaginations. You (as the player) have some indirect influence, through your choices, on which Trumpian attributes and flaws he expresses. But Glass is never specifically Trump. For one thing, he's way more eloquent.
On the flip side, Abigail Thoreau is not the generic Trump supporter or Trump opponent. She is a person with a specific story: someone who became a Glass campaign manager despite many apparent conflicts of position. But, again flipping, she is not a person with a clear arc of viewpoint. You choose her reactions and her backstory, moment by moment through the game. But it's hard to create her as a consistent person. I could never shape a character whom I agreed with, or strongly sympathized with, for even as long as a full chapter. She's not paralyzed into a single flawed mold -- you have many choices -- but all your choices are bad. Or else you're whittled down to one choice, which is worse.
That's on purpose, I'm sure. The story is a stream of failures, inadequacies, wrenched assumptions. Nothing you do is going to work out well. So you're never going to express a whole and satisfying Abigail. I suppose that's the point; the game is life in America over the past five years (or going back twenty or more, if you like). A relentless series of blows.
It does this very well. Twists of phrase bite; mirrored images echo. It hurts. You could fairly call it melodramatic. But I guess political despair is like political satire: you can't actually exaggerate reality any more. The only lie American Election tells is to say you can't look away, can't hide in your pretending-to-be-normal life. (As we do for months at a time, to survive.) This game doesn't have those times.
So. More a scream than a story. The events don't hang together. There's probably a range of story possibilities I didn't see; maybe that makes a more coherent shape, I don't know. (I'm certainly not going back to replay it.) In some ways it reminds me of Eliza; a blizzard of issues and a "what do you think?" Except in this case, not having a good answer is the right answer.
If you can tolerate it, it's worth a run-through. The author can't be screaming into the void. We can't all be.

January 11, 2020

Zarf Updates

2020 IGF nominees: puzzles

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at January 11, 2020 05:16 PM

Now a quick break from narrative games. I enjoy puzzlers as well as story-based games. Of course plenty (most?) story games have some kind of puzzle element, but there's also the Portal-ish genre -- puzzle games with some kind of story element.
Both evolved from an era where we didn't distinguish the two genres so much. Didn't treat them as ends of an "adventure game" spectrum, anyway. Yes, I oversimplify; there have been pure-puzzle and pure-narrative/hypertext games since videogames began. But now we can talk about a cohesive Portal-like category: long sequences of puzzles iterating on a rich mechanic, depicting an immersive first-person environment but not much relying on the physicality or history of that world as a place. Think Talos Principle, Xing, that sort of game.
(I won't get into The Witness, which plays coy about the physicality and history of its island world! It rather deliberately walks both sides of this category boundary.)
Anyway, we got a fine selection of puzzle-focused games. Here are some notable examples.
  • Manifold Garden
  • Alucinod
  • The Sojourn
  • Kine
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played a free review copy of Kine. The others I bought and played on my own.)

Manifold Garden

Gravity-shifting puzzle game. That's old hat at this point, but this pulls out one new trick: the world wraps. Okay, two tricks: there are occasional (fixed) portals.
We've been playing in wrapped 2D (torus) game worlds since Asteroids, but this is the first first-person 3D torus world I've run into. You can see around space. This is mind-blowing to begin with, and then you realize you can fall around as well -- jump into the abyss and fall down out of the sky. And since it's a gravity-shifting game, you can do this in any direction.
It would be really easy for this game to be impossible. In fact, the designer has done a stellar job of making it graspable and explorable. The spaces are mind-expandingly vast but (by definition!) they're not infinite. Stretches of repetitive geometry are broken by interesting features, which are always meant to focus your attention. And heck, if you want an overview of an "infinite" space, just jump and fall through it for a while. Landing doesn't hurt.
The path of scenes is not strictly linear -- you sometimes return to an area to finish it off -- but I never went very far off track. (I think there are some optional side branches, but I didn't manage to open any of them. Hard mode if you want it, I suppose.) I often felt disoriented but I never felt lost.
(I should note that other players have had mixed experiences. I've seen people complaining about going off track or accidentally backtracking.)
The puzzles explore the mechanics well, without undue busywork or repetition. The game knows what it wants to do, does it, and gets out. I finished in three or four sittings.
I saw some discussion (twitter thread, Naomi Clark) about whether the game's glorious mind-expanding spaces really deserved its fussy block-stacking puzzle action. I can sympathize with that complaint. I don't mind me some fussy block-stacking, but it's not exactly apropos, even with gravity tricks. The puzzle elements that fit thematically were the idea of falling vast distances to go "uphill" and sending streams pouring around the geodesics of the world.
That aside, I have only two minor quibbles:
The stream-diversion mechanic is not obvious, particularly if you didn't look at the controls and notice that the left/right triggers rotate the cube you're holding. I'd have been much happier if you diverted a stream by dropping a cube on the stream's edge.
Second, the game is called "Manifold Garden", but the only manifold is the 3-torus. Okay, plus some cut-and-paste portals. But nothing non-orientable? Not even any skewing? Come on, change it up a little.
(Unless the extremely trippy denoument scene got into some hyperbolic geometry? I couldn't tell. It looked like just kaleidoscope tricks, but I could be wrong.)
This thing is damn near perfect as a puzzle game, and it's visually stunning to boot. Highly recommended.


Gravity-shifting puzzle game. As a bonus, the title sounds like "Dracula" spelled backwards.
The game is extremely clean and minimalist -- there's practically nothing in it but shiny floors and shiny walls. A few elevators and crates and pressure plates, just to acknowledge that yes, the gravity mechanic can be applied in those directions. No narrative beyond throwing in some creepy human silhouettes.
It suffers somewhat from the designer fixée of "we must wrap up with a big puzzle finale". Most of the game alternates between constrained puzzle areas and expansive walk-through vistas -- a good balance. However, the endgame has a couple of very large puzzle areas which I thought were just too much to deal with. They bogged down the experience when it should have been accelerating to the finish line. This will be a matter of taste, of course.
I enjoyed the thing overall; it's a solid puzzle experience. But it didn't take me anywhere really new. As for the visuals, it does its one trick really well, but I wanted something, anything to constrast with "infinite sterile plastic". (The point where everyone fell in love with Portal was when the walls cracked, right?)

The Sojourn

A sterling example of the Portal/Talos genre: a bunch of 2D grid puzzles laid out in an extremely shiny 3D environment, dusted with a barely detectable hint of narrative.
The puzzle model is really quite good. It's a this-world/that-world gimmick, and the first few levels might not seem that deep. But the game adds more ways to jump worlds as you progress through. It winds up playing with a pretty intricate bag of tricks. The core levels are relatively tractable; if you want your brain to ache, try 100%-ing the bonus levels.
I'd say that it overstays its welcome just a bit -- I would have been happy with 20% fewer (core) levels. But again, that will be a matter of taste.
It's extraordinarily pretty, albeit in the repetitive way you get when the point is the puzzles. The various warpings, rays, and sparkles you encounter as you move between worlds help keep the environment from getting stale.
Oh, but that terrible impulse to add a Universal and Spiritual but definitely Vague and Nonspecific narrative element! There's a whole sequence of tableaus of wisdom or light or reason triumphing over war and greed and ignorance. Or, at least, a protagonist person triumphing over people with swords and moneybags and blindfolds. And then all the level rewards are little spiritual fortune cookies. Maybe they're Objectivist fortune cookies; they have that smell. You're supposed to feel smug about how you already knew this stuff. And it's all so incredibly shiny and symbolic.
Could be worse, I suppose; could be poetry.
It's a perfectly fine batch of grid puzzles in a pretty environment. If that's what you want, you should play it. Just, maybe, we could have a character or a voice next time?


This one isn't first-person. (I have a visceral thing for first-person games, but I'll play the other people too!) It's a rolling-block puzzle game where the blocks are these funky shapes that shift back and forth when you push a button. Stick out an arm to lift yourself, push off a wall, or shove another block.
That is the raw-bone description of this game, but "funky" is the key word there, because it's all goofy musical instruments trying to make it big on the Big Stage and everything is in a constant state of jazz. And they give each other lip as they roll around. Frankly it's adorable.
The music track is of course a big part of this. (Don't dare call it "background music"!) The appropriate instruments are constantly going at it. The honking and tapping of your game moves blend in -- not seamlessly, but it's jazz, right? It works. Solve a level with a sting and a fill; move on to the next. I was bouncing in my seat.
The puzzle mechanic is on the edge of arbitrary. The shapes of the "instruments" aren't all that connected to their identity. The rolling rules have some annoying one-way-ness to them, and you have to think about block orientation in a somewhat tedious way. But the puzzles take those rules an awfully long way, so I guess it all proves worthwhile. I've played through a lot of the puzzles (maybe half? if I'm reading the map right) and I am able to navigate around the state space if I work at it. "Solvable if you work at it" is what puzzle designers aim for.
The world is pleasantly thematic without being slavishly thematic. The grid is made of speaker stacks and records and music stands, but sometimes also photocopiers and office furniture, because musicians gotta pay the rent, right? And then sometimes also an equalizer board or a dance floor or a stage. I won't say it's a deeply integrated or physical world, but they keep changing the theme up. And, again, adorable.
Delightful to play, delightful to listen to.

January 10, 2020

The Gaming Philosopher

Three uses of enemy difficulty

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at January 10, 2020 11:13 PM

In this post, I will be talking about the design of games that feature (a) increasing character power, (b) variation in enemy difficulty and (c) a choice about which enemy to confront when. This design is common in computer roleplaying games: as you adventure, your character become better at whatever it is you need to do to overcome the enemies (often fighting); there are weaker and stronger

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Street Jam: The Rise

by Mary Duffy at January 10, 2020 03:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

The circuit calls for a new king and you’re ready to answer them! Will you overcome all odds and become the new ruler, chief of police, a gang leader, or end up six feet under?

It’s 33% off until January 16!

Street Jam: The Rise is a violent 370,000 word interactive adult novel by Tevin Betts, 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.

Content Warning: Ableist insults; problematic depictions of race; transphobia; rampant chauvinism; fat shaming; poor depiction of neurodivergents; forced sexual activity; description of narcotic distribution, including to minors; child abuse. Reader discretion is advised.

In one of the biggest metropolises in the world, you are a new street fighter looking to hit it big, be it for cash, fame, or the cops. Choose from a variety of unique backgrounds and use your skills to rise from nothing to everything. There will be blood, death, and more…all surrounding you as you clear out club after club in this story, inspired by the criminally underrated Def Jam series.

Will you be an honorable and merciful fighter who wins with their skills? Or a murderous scheming cheater who wins by shooting up the streets? Or even an ambitious undercover officer who wins by using the police force? Your personality will affect your journey as much as your wins.

Find love or lust with over eleven characters, settle a rivalry that has been going on since elementary school, fight in several distinct styles, and change both the city and the circuit forever. Whatever you do, remember, actions always have consequences, no matter how small they may seem at first.

  • Play as male, female, non-binary; cis or trans; gay, straight, asexual, or aromantic.
  • Fight your way through rich, poor, crazy, wrestling, and karate clubs across the city.
  • Fourteen unique backgrounds including military, detective, rapper, a sports star (with four distinct sports options), stripper, and more for unique experiences.
  • Choose your proficiency in six different attributes including brute strength, intelligence, charisma and more to become a wrestler, martial artist, or another type of fighter.
  • Use the police, your gang, money, or your own skills to defeat the brawlers and challenges in your way.
  • Get with an experienced older woman, a hot and chilled out young man, a muscular amazon and more for love, or just fun.
  • Settle a grudge that has been going on for years with a bloody vendetta or forgiveness.
  • Rock an entire city and become the biggest fighter in the entire world.

Tevin Betts 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.

January 09, 2020

Emily Short

Casual Games and Storylets: Or, How to Make Game Mechanics Express Choice

by Emily Short at January 09, 2020 10:41 PM

Lily’s Garden is here offering us two storylets: the story about clearing weeds and the story about trimming the hedge. Despite how it might appear, there’s actually some character and narrative advancement associated with each of these options.

In a recent post about storylet-based narrative design, I briefly suggested that even games like Lily’s Garden could be understood as a case of storylet-based design: there’s just a level of casual gameplay between elements of story.

A very simple implementation looks like this, interspersing every level with a little bit of story wrapper. This has been a standard method from the days of Diner Dash on:

Gating story with casual game levels

Lily’s Garden does something actually a little different, which is to let you gather “stars” by playing levels and then spend them to open more storylets. The “source” in the image below is the casual gameplay. Often, there are two or three storylets available at a time, which means you can choose which of them to play next, but you do have to finish all of the storylets assigned to a given day before moving on.

This is an effective design choice for mobile free-to-play, for several reasons.

One, it gives the player a lot of freedom about how much of each type of content they want to consume at a time. If I don’t care about the story at all, I could just play endless casual levels and never unlock another storylet. Playing storylets does have a small mechanical incentive — it unlocks some gameplay rewards periodically — but the story-indifferent could still opt out, and the gameplay maximizer could choose to activate the storylets but skip all their content (another possibility).

On the other hand, if you do enjoy the story but want to save it up for a quiet moment when you can read it closely, you can stockpile a bunch of stars and then spend some coherent time reading through a whole sequence of storylets, creating a more coherent narrative experience than if the 1-1 relationship between gameplay and story content were rigorously enforced.

Finally, the player has a little option about the ordering of story consumption, but ultimately they do have to try all the storylets in a given day in order to end that day — which maximizes the value-per-content-unit of what they’re building.

Meanwhile, the storylets also almost always feature a little decoration mechanic, where the player is choosing what flowers to plant or which bench to install in some corner of the garden. That guarantees an aesthetic experience of perceivable consequence, as the gardens fill up with ornaments of the player’s choosing, though this aspect is largely decoupled from anything narrative.

Placing choice in the levels

There’s another set of possibilities here that’s mostly unexplored in my experience in casual games, and that’s using the casual level itself as a meaningful choice point, like so:

In this model, we look to the gameplay levels themselves to present choices to the player, which are then paid off by the selection of a follow-up storylet.

Those choices will feel different from choices that are offered directly as links or buttons — but that can actually be a good thing. Not all choice interfaces are alike.

And what kind of choice can we offer the player this way? Here are some of the standard moves in narrative games:

  • What do you decide to do? (Big decisions)
  • How do you do it? Paragon or Renegade? Wearing a dashing hat, or a cyberpunk helmet? (Protagonism, aesthetic)
  • What resources do you consume in the process? (Grasp / tactical)
  • How well do you succeed? (Challenge)
  • Why do you do it? (Reflective choice in advance)
  • How do you feel about it afterward? (Reflective choice after the fact)
  • Where is your focus? What do you care about, and what do you want to figure out? (Focus, exploration)

Some of these do map obviously to existing casual game mechanics. Like:

Level of success. Lots casual games have a tiered concept of success (usually with three possible outcomes), and record how well you did on the map of your play experience.

Galaxy of Heroes records how well you did in your battles, out of a possible three stars. You get fewer than three stars if any of your characters are killed in action. (No worries, though: because even in-fiction this is a story about simulated battles, no one ever stays dead.)
Wordscapes giving me in-game currency for knowing the word TUN.

Other games add some optional goals to a level, like the games in the Delicious Emily series where every level offers the chance to find a missing mouse. (The walkthrough for one of these games will give you an idea of just how much is going on here.)

Similarly, the Wordscapes puzzle game (and possibly others of its ilk — there seemed to be a very large number of identical-looking games on the iOS store) will assign bonus points for the discovery of rare words that weren’t on its list of requirements for that level. In this case, it’s just doling out reward resources, but it would be possible to track and respond to that bit of player difference in other ways as well.

While it’s a seriously challenging premium puzzle game and not in the same category, Opus Magnum also sets some good examples for how a game can find several different metrics for the player’s performance on a single level. How quickly does your machine work? How much space does it take up? How much do the resources cost to build it? One could imagine giving all of those outcomes a narrative significance.

Style/aesthetic. Stylist games let the player pick a look for a variety of customers, and give the player pretty significant control over how elements might combine.

For instance, in Super Stylist, I’ve been asked for an outfit that contains “anything pink” — but even with the very restricted catalog at the start of the game, I can interpret that in a variety of ways:

Decoration mechanics are also a common reward feature in games, with the player making those choices in the “story” segment of the process rather than in the gameplay section.

Matchington Manor — very similar to Lily’s Garden — has the player select new furnishings for the house you’re fixing up. I’m about to be forced to replace the portrait of the mustached gentleman with something more anodyne, like a vase of flowers.

Focus. Hidden object games replicate some of the effects of point-and-click adventures, though sometimes with a more abstracted, not-strictly-representational approach to the environment.

Fantastic Beasts uses a fairly representational approach to a hidden object game and also incorporates some crafting and clue-finding elements.

Tactics and grasp. Tactical RPG games and similar work offer the player lots of ways of solving a level. Galaxy of Heroes lets you build combat parties, mixing and matching characters from different eras of Star Wars, different factions, different alien races; it lets you play different combat tactics, as well. In the current implementation, that’s treated almost entirely as a series of mechanical choices rather than fictionally-significant ones. But one could easily tie some story in.

Galaxy of Heroes isn’t the style of game I most often picture if someone says “casual game,” but it is a free-to-play mobile game that’s been made as sticky as possible. (I have deleted it off my phone because it was a little too sticky for my tastes: I kept getting the urge to play it some more even though I wasn’t finding it a fully satisfying experience.)

Making a mechanic more expressive of choice

So there are various options already in this space. In all of the above cases, you could have a bit of choice framing before the level that tells the player how their input is going to be interpreted, and then branch based on what they’ve done, using metrics that the game already recognizes somehow.

Sometimes, though, we might need to find some additional choice-making potential in an existing mechanic.

Track cumulative choice between mechanically equivalent options.

In Bubble Island 2, I’m shooting raspberries into the sky to clear a path for a hot air balloon, and also to free golden keys.
  • In a time management game, does the player keep one customer group happier than another?
  • In a bubble-shooter, does the player shoot more of the red bubbles, more blue, or more pink?

This can be useful when the player might not have total freedom to pick a desired outcome every time they make a move, but where there is enough flexibility in the system that, over the course of a level, they can express a trend.

Three-way choices (or more) are possible too — these approaches can get structurally sophisticated. And the framing may give the player an incentive to play a level in a more difficult way than they’d otherwise need to — or even to replay an old level with fresh goals and strategies at their disposal.

Merge Town is an idle game where you click to get tiny houses that can then be merged into bigger houses.

Reskin inventively. “Choose whether to keep the businesspeople or the employees happiest in your time management level” feels like a decision that will fit right in to a tale about being a scrappy business owner.

It’s a bit less compelling to get “Pick red jewels if you think Rey and Kylo Ren are meant for each other, and blue jewels if you’d sooner see Rey romance a droid.” Unless part of the fictional framing of your story involves needing to covertly encode your meaning for some interpreter out there in the world… then you just might get away with it. But it’ll be more pleasing to reskin the jewels as something else — balls of force lightning?

Similarly, sometimes an existing mechanic could be dressed with a bit more variety, to create differentiation players can use to express further choice.

The houses in Merge Town don’t differ in anything except how progressed they are. But they easily could: buildings could have randomized colors or architectural styles, together with rules about what happens when they’re combined. Those elements could be handled as narratively meaningful.

Do more to interpret the meaning that’s already there. Rich possibilities exist in the word game space, where the player is choosing words to play, but the specific choice of word is often treated as irrelevant. Different words could score (based on their meaning) as gloomy/happy, say, communicating a different overall feel to the player’s performance of that level.

Word Town (below) actually already does more with theme than a lot of word games, since every level has some concept that links the winning words. But even there, the player can create words that aren’t on the “approved” word list — and this becomes a potentially interesting avenue for irreverence or other moods.

Similarly, a lot of game mechanics treat all failures as equivalent, and don’t necessarily distinguish gloriously/interestingly bad ones. That too could be material for some story branching.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve assumed that we don’t want — or aren’t allowed — to deeply alter the mechanics of the game.

There’s a great deal else to be said about matching mechanics to story — about how story events can be communicated through mechanics, about the way mechanics feel, about whether the naturally occurring rhythms of the gameplay match well with the types of events you’re evoking for the player. Shadowhand is a solitaire game that manages to feel like a swashbuckling duel. Signs of the Sojourner is a pattern-matching deck-builder that describes the social strain of talking to people you don’t know well. Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge uses the outward structure of a dance game to describe a socially awkward situation.

Finally, a cautionary tale about gating narrative elements based on gameplay features that haven’t been used for storytelling in the past.

The second game I ever released, Metamorphoses, was a text adventure that let the player solve puzzles in a bunch of different ways. Which solution you used was secretly a choice mechanism. A player who solves many of the challenges by turning objects into fragile material and breaking them starts to receive different protagonist-characterizing text than a player who resorts to more subtle methods, for instance.

No one noticed, because nothing in the game framed this as a choice for the player; nothing said “your personality will change depending on how you resolve the challenges in front of you.”

A few years later, I’d learned my lesson, and Damnatio Memoriae handles this much more overtly, by making it obvious that there are fictional consequences for some of the different solutions.


  • Toiya Kristen Finley has edited a book, Narrative Tactics for Mobile and Social Games, that gets more extensively into the question of story for the mobile space
  • Though I’ve cited a few in line, there are many many further articles on free-to-play mechanics in general and how they’re doing in the market, at Some of this stuff does feel very much like a dark art, locking into Skinner box effects to keep players around
  • Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money is apparently a triumph of storytelling in the idle game genre; Dave Rohrl offers a developer diary on it
  • Here’s some discussion of gacha mechanics

January 08, 2020

Z-Machine Matter

The Whisperer in Darkness Podcast

by Zack Urlocker at January 08, 2020 07:44 PM


The BBC has followed up their brilliant adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's Case of Charles Dexter Ward with a new podcast The Whisperer in Darkness. They've combined a somewhat obscure novella, brought it to modern day and mashed it up with a 1980 UFO sighting in rural England. The story works very well, though I don't think it quite reaches the same heights as their first podcast, leaving quite a few unanswered questions.

The story brings forward the two main characters Kennedy Fisher and Matthew Heawood, investigators from a fictional true crime podcast called Mystery Machine, as well as a couple of threads from the first series. There's a good chemistry between the lead characters and that makes for a marked improvement over the typical Lovecraft loner.  There's also a few well executed surprises that will have you jumping out of your ear-buds. That said, I didn't understand the purpose of bonus episode 9 at all.  (Spoiler alert: it's a noise loop with a disguised message.) All of that is explained in bonus episode 10.

Nonetheless, the podcast is well worth listening to and I hope they will continue with a third series that brings the story to Innsmouth and ties everything together.  This is great show for anyone interested in paranormal investigation. Kudos to the production team and writers for bringing Lovecraft forward in a compelling modern tale.

January 07, 2020

IFComp News

Please Provide Input to the Interactive Fiction Competition

January 07, 2020 10:41 AM

Hello, people who are fans of the IFComp! 

Please consider taking our post-IFComp19 survey:


January 06, 2020


The Caltrops Top 50 Games of 2010-2019: #29-21

by Ice Cream Jonsey at January 06, 2020 08:41 PM

We’re counting down the 50 greatest games of the decade, 2010-2019.

Previous entries:

Honorable Mentions: Part One
Entries #50 – 40
Entries #39 – 30

Below are #29 through #21.

#29 – POKEMON GO by Nintendo, 2016
Available on your phone in the app store.

This was a phenomenon. I attribute all the thinking a person does about a game to a game’s entire “rating” when trying to determine how good a game is. I hope that makes sense, I don’t know if it does, so I’ll try to explain. When I was a kid and we had maybe three computer games, I’d spend entire weeks thinking about how to get past certain puzzles in Zork. Not every moment of every week – in my middle school you had to also navigate your way around the future serial killers and other young failures, but those puzzles were on my mind. Similarly, you’re “playing” Pokemon Go from the moment you leave the house and go into the forest and throw balls at the Pokemons to when your parents have to pick you up, or until kids today finish cutting out the paper doll clothes for the guns they’re going to bring into school. Or whatever their days look like, not an anthropologist over here. I’m just a man that noticed that kids and adults alike were showing up late to school and work for this game and I’ve rated it accordingly.


Mischief Maker says, “Shadow of the Colossus meets Dark Souls meets Devil May Cry meets Magic Tower. It’s one of those games that shot for the moon and came close enough to be amazingly unique. With a team of up to 3 AI-controlled “pawns” by your side, fight gigantic mythological monsters ranging from Chimeras to Cyclopses to the titular dragon by climbing all over them and stabbing them in the weak spot. People complain that the AI pawns are dumb, but there’s actually a game system where you “teach” the pawns how to fight enemy types by building up their knowledge bar, and can give it a boost by actually demonstrating the technique (like throwing an explosive barrel into a Hydra’s mouth). Once the bar gets high, they get pretty crafty in a fight. Protip: play as a hybrid class.”

#27 – SHADOWRUN: DRAGONFALL by Harebrained Schemes
Steam Link

Mischief Maker says, “Not only the best Shadowrun videogame of all time, but a serious contender for one of the best plot-heavy CRPGs of all time. It may not examine the human condition very deeply, but when the time comes to throw a moral decision at the player, it always throws a curve ball.”

FABIO says, “I’ve never given a harder “fuck you” to any NPC than Luca.

I have to audition to impress this Chinstrap McGee, who may or may not pay me at the end depending on how hard I make him stroke his soul patch? I did the first mission out of sheer curiosity then told him to get the fuck out of the neighborhood.”

#26 – FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S by Scott Cawthon
Steam Link

FullofKittens says, “There are four-ish animatronic dummys that are out to kill you.

Two of them (the bunny and the duckling) rove around the building, and will occasionally walk to your office to see if they can get in. If they can (the door is open), then they’ll walk in and kill you. (They technically can only kill you when you put the camera down, so if you have it down when they “walk in” then it seems like your door button is jammed, and then you’ll get killed after you check the camera again.) The only way to stop them is to keep their respective door closed, but of course you can’t leave the door closed because that… wastes power(?). When they walk up to check if you’re available, they’ll hang out in the camera blind spot for a few seconds. If you see them there (by hitting the light), lock the door until they get bored and wander away. They are the most common encounter.

There’s a fox dummy hiding behind the curtain in Pirate Cove. He is picky about how often you check on him with the camera: on some nights, he will come for you if you never check, on some nights it’s if you check too much, and on some nights it’s got to be just right. You can tell he’s starting to think about coming down because he will part the curtain and start looking at the camera. If you check Pirate Cove and he’s not there, he’s coming straight for you: you have several seconds to close the left door. If you look at the hallway between you and him, he starts sprinting towards you and you will probably die, you have like one second to close the door.

Then there’s Freddy, who allegedly adapts to your gameplay, can teleport in past locked doors, and really can only be stopped by keeping him at bay via a combination of watching him watching you from the hallway and keeping the right door closed. Freddy is also the dummy that gets you if you run out of power. He doesn’t really start moving until Night 3 or 4 though.”

It was a phenomenon. The creator made 4 sequels in a year and eventually made a game, “FNaF World” that was unfinished and broken and he had to pull it. Which is a shame, the jump scares and sense of dread was so real in the first one.

#25 – GRAND THEFT AUTO 5 by Rockstar North
Steam Link

There is an unwarranted organizational arrogance in regards to storytelling at Rockstar for the story mode to their Grand Theft Auto games, considering that at best they are a 10th-rate imposter of MAD Magazine and at worst they are a collection of insipid young nerdlings who clearly aspire to make terrible films and Scarface posters. Nobody has ever needed to hear what a GTA game has had to say; they are incapable of saying anything meaningful in single-player mode. It would be forgivable if we could bypass cut scenes but we usually (always?) can’t.

We like these games because we get to rampage in beautiful cities. I tried multiplayer for GTA5, though, and it was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had on-line.

Part of this is because my friends are funny, but with all the chaos in a typical GTA5 game you can’t help but sit back and laugh when your friends are enjoying it with you. We went on a couple missions and even just hanging out in one of the character houses, before the mission began, it was great. They have set up a system where it really is just you and your pals, we didn’t have to bother with the miserable screeches of typical on-line players. Our avatars looked ridiculous, I loved it. Multiplayer is setup to allow me, a zero-day, zero-level newb, hang with my more experienced (at GTA5) team mates. A wonderful decision, I was a bit worried that I’d have to “level up” first, but those in charge realized that just because someone is zero-level at GTA5, they juuuuuuuuuuust might have been playing games in general since Combat.

In fact, I can’t recall any of the single-player problems in multiplayer. The missions made sense, had good pacing and were interesting. At one point I was driving a car and a friend was able to set a waypoint for us, which was great as I hadn’t done that on the PS4 before. That was handy! The entire system seems streamlined to allow the four of us to simply HAVE FUN. We only played for a few hours, but it’s a goddamn triumph.

An excellent addition to what has been a franchise that really made you say, “It’s a great game, but” before this. There’s no buts now.

(Christmas GTA5 also gave us this delightfulness.)

#24 – DEAD RISING 2 by Capcom Vancouver
Steam Link

bombMexico says, “Zombies streaming through the doors, whats the first thing you grab? If you said duct tape, you get points for trying. The answer is swordfish.”

(Thanks to IGN for the screenshot.)

#23 – UNDERRAIL by Stygian Software
Steam Link

I knew it was a good game but I had no idea what could be beyond the first couple of hours. Then SsethTzeentach came out with this video. In no order, this is one of the greatest YouTube reviews I’ve ever seen, this instantly sold me on getting the DLC or expansion or whatever for UnderRail, it made me put another few hours into the game and it’s the greatest commercial anyone could ever make for a game. I think the culture of video reviewing is a natural step in game reviews because so many written-word game journalists hate games or the hobby or their readers. This video is bursting with JOY. A vicious joy, sure. A macabre joy… but joy.

#22 – COUNTERFEIT MONKEY by Emily Short
Interactive Fiction Database Link

There was a game once, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, that gave you a T-removing machine. When you use it you can remove the letter “T” from things – a rabbit becomes a rabbi, that sort of thing. Emily Short took that mechanic, introduced a full-alphabet letter remover and seamlessly integrated it into an 8 hour text adventure. There is so much more going on in the game than just a fun text adventure toy to play with, there is real depth to the player character relationship with themselves (sic) and an entirely different world and reality to explore. This game is from an artist at the height of her powers and probably the one I’d give to a veteran adventure game player looking to try a text game for the first time in years.

#21 – WASTELAND 2 by inXile Entertainment
Steam Link

A Kickstarter success story, they screwed up the balance at the beginning for Wasteland 2 and didn’t exactly correct it for the very first patch. It eventually became one of the best RPGs of all-time with the Director’s Cut. One of the best “moving little dudes around the screen” tactic games, Wasteland 2 implemented a game design choice to have the player pick one of two maps or boards to “save” at the beginning of the game, letting the other one rot. That’s a ballsy decision, making it so that some percentage of your game will never be experienced by players on their first playthrough, but what the hell, it was their backers’ money. A worthy sequel to 1986’s original for home computers, there are fun squad-based tactics, decent writing and in-game decisions with consequences.