Planet Interactive Fiction

July 21, 2017

Choice of Games

Length and Coding Efficiency

by Adam Strong-Morse at July 21, 2017 07:41 PM

As part of our support for the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels, we will be posting an irregular series of blog posts discussing important design and writing criteria for games. We hope that these can both provide guidance for people participating in the Contest and also help people understand how we think about questions of game design and some best practices. These don’t modify the evaluation criteria for the Contest, and (except as noted) participants are not required to conform to our recommendations–but it’s probably a good idea to listen when judges tell you what they’re looking for.

If these topics interest you, be sure to sign up for our contest mailing list below! We’ll post more of our thoughts on game design leading up to the contest deadline on January 31, 2018.

One of the most consistent patterns we’ve noticed in how players receive our games is that players prefer longer games. Because of that preference, 5% of the score in the contest is based on length and coding efficiency. In today’s blog post, I’m going to discuss what we mean when we talk about length and how coding efficiency fits in to the same category.

At Choice of Games, we use two measures of a game’s length. The first measure is very straightforward—total word count. Take all of the scene files, run a word count tool, and you get a measure of the total length of the code that the author wrote. For these purposes, we don’t distinguish between pure code (e.g. *choice, *if, etc.) and the text that is displayed to the player. Total word count is a useful tool, but it’s also limited. It can’t distinguish between a mostly linear game, where every player will see most of the words in the game on every playthrough, and really bushy games where every playthrough is very different. For that, we use average playthrough length: how many words does a player read on average on a single playthrough of the game. Our standard method for measuring average playthrough length is to run about 100 randomtest playthroughs set to verbose mode—so randomtest prints out everything a player would see—and then divide the total word count of the 100 runs by 100 to produce an average.

We have a clear minimum for length based on both total word count and average playthrough length that we aim for: we aim to have all of our games have a total word count of at least 100,000 words and an average playthrough length of at least 20,000 words. That’s also the minimum length for the contest. We also find that, in terms of reader reception, the longer the better—that’s why there isn’t an upper limit or even guideline. To put those into context, in traditional fiction, a 20,000 word piece is a long short story or a novella, and 100,000 words is a reasonable length for a novel. In other words, we’re looking for works that have total word counts comparable to novels and average playthroughs similar in length to a novella.

We also look at the ratio of the average playthrough length to the total word count. Here, the sweet spot is about a ratio of 0.2 to 0.4. A ratio of 0.2 would be, for example, a 100,000 word total length game with an average playthrough of 20,000 words. If the ratio is much lower than that—for example, an average playthrough of 20,000 words for a game with a total word count of 200,000—that usually indicates that the author is spending lots of time and energy on content that only a fraction of the readers will ever see. That typically produces a game that feels very bushy, but that feels short despite representing a very large investment of the author’s time and energy. Conversely, a game with a very high ratio of average playthrough length to total word count (for example, a game with a 60,000 word average playthrough length and 100,000 total word count, a ratio of 0.6) generally is a game where player choice doesn’t affect much. Most games feel exactly the same, because a majority of each game is exactly the same regardless of player choices. That’s deadly in interactive fiction. As a result, we want to see a ratio that’s in between, that indicates that player choices matter but also that the author isn’t reinventing the wheel for every possible outcome, writing an epic novel that feels like a short story.

These length standards can’t be applied purely mechanically. Some games are written in a way where the average playthrough length given random choices is much longer than the average playthrough length a human player actually encounters. “Traps” or loops that a randomtest playthrough gets caught in that an actual human player would avoid can cause misleading average playthrough length numbers that require some adjustment. The most notable examples are games that include “are you sure?” choices, which we generally discourage as a matter of style anyway, or puzzles. For some games, we have to make an adjustment in the functional average playthrough length to take that sort of thing into account. Total word count isn’t affected by coding like that, but coding efficiency makes a big difference to total word count.

The core point of coding efficiency is that two different blocks of code can have radically different lengths, but produce the same results. For example, let’s imagine that we have a variable that records whether a character uses male pronouns (“he” etc.), female pronouns (“she” etc.), or neuter/enby pronouns (“they” etc.). The game then includes a 500 word paragraph that uses the character’s pronoun twice. One author codes this as:

*if (pronoun=”he”)
Blah blah blah he blah blah blah. He blah blah blah…
*goto NextBit
*elseif (pronoun=”she”)
Blah blah blah she blah blah blah. She blah blah blah…
*goto NextBit
*else
Blah blah blah they blah blah blah. They blah blah blah…
*goto NextBit

A different, more capable author codes this using the ${variable} syntax:

Blah blah blah ${he} blah blah blah. $!{He} blah blah blah…

These produce exactly the same results from the perspective of a player, yet the first example is 1500 words or so in length, whereas the second example is 500 words in length. The second version results in a much lower total word count but is in every practical way superior: it’s easier to read and understand, it’s less prone to error, and it allows edits to be used in each context without requiring making the same change multiple times in different places. The difference is all about coding efficiency.

Likewise, sometimes filling in a variable isn’t sufficient—but if a *if is limited to a single sentence, the rest of the paragraph doesn’t need to be copied. Compare this version of code:

*if Injured_leg
You hurry across the plaza. Each step sends a shooting pain up from your knee, but you wince and force yourself to keep moving. You know that you need to find and defuse the bomb soon, before the afternoon rush fills the area with innocent civilians.
*goto FindtheBomb
*else
You hurry across the plaza. You know that you need to find and defuse the bomb soon, before the afternoon rush fills the area with innocent civilians.
*goto FindtheBomb

with this version:

You hurry across the plaza.
*if Injured_leg
Each step sends a shooting pain up from your knee, but you wince and force yourself to keep moving.
You know that you need to find and defuse the bomb soon, before the afternoon rush fills the area with innocent civilians.
*goto FindtheBomb

Both versions produce the same output, but the second version is much more efficient. In general, any time you find yourself copying a large block of text and repeating it unchanged or only lightly changed, you should ask yourself whether there’s a better way.

Many other examples of coding efficiency also exist beyond filling in variables. It’s common to have text that should appear the first time the protagonist meets a character. By putting that in a *gosub structure, the text can appear once in the code for the game, but be used appropriately from multiple different possible points. The code for that might look like this:

You enter the room and see a woman in a severe black suit near the bar.
*if (met_angela = false)
*gosub MeetAngela
Angela approaches you and blah blah blah.
As you enter the subway car, Angela Northrop catches your eye.
*if (met_angela = false)
*gosub MeetAngela
Angela holds out a thumb drive. “You’ll want to look through this.”
*label MeetAngela
*set met_angela true
You recognize Angela Northrop from the photos in the case file you studied, but this is the first time you’ve actually seen her in person. The file said that she is 5’6”, but she looks taller in person—something about her posture, or perhaps it’s more about her facial expression. Blah blah blah…
*return

By putting the reused text in a *gosub, we reduce the number of errors, allow for faster editing, and make the ChoiceScript code easier to read and understand. In some cases, we can even use the *gosub_scene command to reuse code or text that can show up in multiple different scenes—something that’s particularly useful when there are events that can trigger in multiple scenes such as needing medical care for injuries, or finding out about a big reveal, or meeting a character who can be introduced at multiple different times.

Even efficiency has its limits. Sometimes the effort to create efficient code creates incomprehensible code and introduces errors. If efforts to make your code more efficient start making it hard to read or make you wonder what you’re trying to do, you may want to consider using a little judicious cut-and-paste instead. Nonetheless, within reason, efficient code is faster to write, faster to debug and edit, and generally smoother. As a result, when we consider the total word count of a game, we’ll adjust our evaluation based on efficiency. A really efficient 100,000 word game may contain more actual content than a really inefficient 125,000 word game, and the actual content contained is our main focus.

The Digital Antiquarian

A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 6: Total War

by Jimmy Maher at July 21, 2017 04:41 PM

Howard Lincoln and Minoru Arakawa

Henk Rogers returned to Moscow on March 15, 1989, under very different circumstances from those of his first visit of a month before. Then he had officially been a tourist, a complete unknown to ELORG with no right to do business in the Soviet Union; now he had a meeting with Nokili Belikov and his fellow bureaucrats scheduled prior to his arrival. Then he had traveled alone; now he brought with him an American named John Huhs, a lawyer and fluent Russian speaker with no experience in videogames but heaps of experience brokering complex international deals with insular non-democratic countries like the Soviet Union. Then he had been working, ostensibly at least, as a free agent, trying to secure the handheld rights to Tetris for his own Bullet-Proof Software so he could license them on to Nintendo; now he was working as a more direct proxy for the Japanese videogame giant, hoping to broker an agreement in principle to license the North American console rights to Tetris directly from ELORG to Nintendo. If he could achieve that goal, Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln of Nintendo of America, two of the three most powerful people in videogames (the third being, of course, Nintendo’s overall president Hiroshi Yamauchi), were willing to drop everything and join him in Moscow for the final signing.

When Rogers walked into his meeting with Belikov, he threw Nintendo’s eye-popping offer for the console rights down onto the table without preamble. In addition to a generous royalty, Nintendo would guarantee that ELORG would make at least $5 million from the deal when all was said and done. If, in other words, royalty payments didn’t reach $5 million within a certain time frame, Nintendo would make up the difference out of their own pocket. This was big money by almost anyone’s standards, but in the context of the Soviet Union of 1989 it was an astronomical sum. The offer was intended to turn Belikov’s head, and in this it succeeded magnificently. Previous negotiations had dwelt on relative nickels and dimes: $50,000 here, $100,000 there. Nintendo’s offer elevated the discussion to another financial plane entirely. It was so much more generous than Belikov could have imagined in his wildest dreams that he was highly motivated to get an agreement finalized before cooler heads in the West prevailed. And this, needless to say, was just what Arakawa and Lincoln had intended.

As their initial offer testifies, Arakawa and Lincoln wanted those Tetris rights very, very badly. While their actions were partially motivated by their firm belief that Tetris was one hell of a game that deserved as wide an audience as possible, this was hardly the sum total of what was driving them. Nor did even the profits they expected the game to rake in fully explain their generosity. Unbeknownst to Nikoli Belikov, Alexey Pajitnov, or anyone else in the Soviet Union, the Tetris rights were about to be tossed like the mother of all live grenades into the greatest war the American videogame industry had ever known. The combatants were nothing less than the two most legendary trademarks in videogames. It was the architect of the first great videogame craze versus the architect of the second: Atari versus Nintendo.

The roots of the conflict ran deep. Forbidden from entering the console market by the agreement which had split the old Atari into two companies in the wake of the Great Videogame Crash, Atari Games had tried to content themselves with building standup arcade machines while Nintendo breathed life back into the supposedly dead North American console market. At last, unable to resist that exploding market’s allure any longer, they had formed their Tengen subsidiary to make console games of their own in 1987.

Whatever their personal feelings toward the company, Tengen had known that Nintendo was the only game — or, rather, the only game console — in town. They had thus signed a contract to become an authorized maker of games for the Nintendo Entertainment System in January of 1988. Tengen was limited, like most such licensees, to five games per year, which were to be manufactured by Nintendo at the times and in the quantities Nintendo chose. Therein lay the first concrete bone of contention between the two companies.

When Tengen delivered their first finished games to Nintendo in June of 1988, Nintendo ordered far fewer to be manufactured than Tengen had requested. They pinned the need for the reduction partially on overoptimism on Tengen’s part and partially on a worldwide microchip shortage they claimed was forcing them to scale back all cartridge production. To say the least, their licensee wasn’t convinced. A livid Atari claimed they could have sold ten times as many game cartridges as Nintendo deigned to provide them with, and openly suspected malice aforethought in Nintendo’s whole production-allotment process. Atari decided that in order to thrive again in the console market they must break Nintendo’s stranglehold on the manufacture of cartridges.

The key to breaking through on that front, they realized, was to break the lockout system employed by the NES. Nintendo’s ability to control their captive market without running afoul of antitrust laws hinged on this patented and copyrighted combination of code and circuitry, which prevented unauthorized cartridges from working on the console. If Atari could develop a lockout-defeating technology from scratch, making no use of any of Nintendo’s schematics or documentation, their lawyers believed that they would be legally in the clear to produce their own Nintendo games in whatever quantity they desired, and without paying Nintendo the customary licensing fee.

Unfortunately, reverse-engineering the lockout system was a tall order; it was by far the most advanced piece of a game console that was otherwise years out of date in purely technical terms. At last, they decided to cheat.

The code that operated the lockout system had been registered by Nintendo with the United States Copyright Office, an act which had required Nintendo to send to the Copyright Office a copy of the code. There it was kept under lock and key, inaccessible to third parties — except under one condition: if the code should become the subject of litigation, both sides were entitled to a copy. In other words, had Nintendo accused Atari of violating their copyright on the code, Atari’s lawyers would have been able to request a copy in order to defend their client.

Nintendo had not done any such thing. Nevertheless, Atari filed an affidavit with the Copyright Office in connection with legal proceedings allegedly about to get under way, for which a copy of the code was needed. The affidavit indicated that the code was “to be used only in connection with the specified litigation.” Failing to do their due diligence in verifying Atari’s claim, the Copyright Office complied, providing a copy of the code to be used in a legal case which didn’t exist. Not coincidentally, Atari’s ongoing efforts to reverse-engineer Nintendo’s lockout system finally bore fruit shortly thereafter.

On December 12, 1988, Atari Games filed suit against Nintendo, charging them with monopolistic business practices. “Through the use of a technologically sophisticated ‘lockout system,'” the complaint claimed, “Nintendo has, for the past several years, prevented all would-be competitors, including Atari, from competing with it in the manufacture of videogame cartridges compatible with the Nintendo home-videogame machine. The sole purpose of the lockout system is to lock out competition.” The complaint went on to make note of Nintendo’s stranglehold on the supply of third-party game cartridges: “The impact of Nintendo’s conduct has been to block any competition in the manufacturing market for videogame cartridges compatible with the Nintendo machine.” Atari asked for a staggering $100 million in damages.

On the same day they filed their lawsuit, Atari announced that they would start manufacturing and selling their own Nintendo games, without involving Nintendo at all or paying them anything at all. Tengen shipped new, unauthorized versions of their three extant Nintendo games — Pac-Man, Gauntlet, and R.B.I. Baseball — using their lockout-defeat technology. And they soon announced another four unauthorized games — Super Sprint, Rolling Thunder, Vindicators, and Tetris — which were to be released in May of 1989. Even more so in its way than the lawsuit, Atari’s decision to start making unauthorized games for the NES was the shot heard round the industry.

The  conflict between Nintendo and Atari was a deeply personal one. Whatever Niontendo’s real or alleged legal sins, Atari, barely half a decade removed from their glory days, resented them most of all as the usurpers of what they regarded as their rightful crown. For their part, Arakawa and Lincoln had known Hideyuki Nakajima, Atari’s president, for years, had imagined there was a bond of mutual respect that would prevent him from ever taking a step like this. When Atari had signed on as a Nintendo licensee, they believed they had shown Nakajima exceptional deference, freely divulging, as Lincoln would later put it, “the crown jewels of our business.” In their eyes, then, Nakajima’s declaration of war was a personal betrayal.

It was also nothing less than an existential threat to Nintendo’s entire business model. If Atari got away with this, other publishers would inevitably find their own ways to defeat the lockout system — who knew, maybe Atari would even sell their stolen secrets to them — and the walls around Nintendo’s carefully curated and absurdly profitable videogame garden would be demolished. That scenario must be prevented at all costs. Largely thanks to Howard Lincoln, Nintendo of America already enjoyed a reputation for ruthlessness when their interests were challenged. Now, Arakawa told Lincoln to stop at nothing to quell Atari’s uprising. Atari had opted to go to total war with, in Lincoln’s colorful diction, “a tiger who will skin you piece by piece.”

Nintendo’s legal response to Atari was swift, multi-pronged, and comprehensive. On January 5, 1989, they filed a counter-suit alleging breach of contract (for reneging on Tengen’s existing agreement to sell authorized Nintendo cartridges) and trademark infringement (for printing the Nintendo logo on Tengen’s unauthorized packaging). More audaciously, the suit alleged that Atari had violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known in law-enforcement circles as RICO and normally applied to gangland money-laundering operations, in setting up Tengen as essentially a shell corporation with the intention of defrauding Nintendo. Another suit, filed on February 2, accused Atari of patent infringement of the NES lockout system.

But the courts were hardly the only weapon which Nintendo, the company which for all intents and purposes was the American game-console industry, had at their disposal. They took to calling the major retailers, telling them that selling products “which infringe Nintendo’s patent or other intellectual-property rights” would have dire consequences for their supply of official Nintendo hardware and games. “Companies would not carry our games because there was pressure from Nintendo which could jeopardize their business,” says Nakajima. “Even the big companies like Toy ‘R’ Us couldn’t stand up to them.” Atari executive Dan Van Elederen imagines the way a conversation between a major retailer and Nintendo might have gone: “You know, we really like to support those who support Nintendo, and we’re not real happy that you’re carrying a Tengen product. By the way, why don’t we sit down and talk about product allocations for next quarter. How many Super Marios did you say you wanted?” “If a retailer carried Tengen games, their Nintendo allocations would suddenly disappear,” remembers one retail buyer who was caught in the crossfire. “Since it was illegal, there were always excuses: the truck got lost, or the ship from Japan never arrived.” Tengen was slowly but methodically squeezed out of retail.

A third theater of battle was the press, which the combatants used to lob statements back and forth, jockeying for advantage with the public and especially with the American political establishment, many of whose members had long expressed concern at their country’s longstanding trade deficit with Japan. Atari tried to frame a folksy narrative of a domestic upstart just looking for a fair shake against the calculated malfeasance of a shifty-eyed foe from the Orient: “Let’s say you buy a Ford, and the company says, ‘If you buy a Ford automobile from us, you have to buy Ford gas.’ That’s not the way business is done.” Nintendo replied by claiming — being partly if not entirely truthful about their motivations — that they had put their controls in place to keep the junk games that had done so much to precipitate the Great Videogame Crash of 1983 off the market this time around: “It was the only way we could ensure that there would be consistent, quality software.” Hoping doubtless to curry favor, some American publishers who were closely identified with Nintendo parroted this company line, among them Acclaim Entertainment: “Nintendo is trying to make this into a category, not a fad, where videogaming becomes another part of our entertainment life.”

But the majority of the American software industry stood — tacitly at least — with Atari. Indeed, Atari’s cause was increasingly becoming that of the American software industry as a whole — by which I mean many companies that had never heretofore made console games at all, that had concentrated on the less volatile home-computer market. Yet in recent months, in the face of a Nintendo market that had gone from nothing to three times the size of the total American market for computer games with incomprehensible speed, it had been hard for the computer-game publishers to resist the lure of the other side. Most of those who jumped into publishing agreements with Nintendo were frustrated by the same restrictions and policies that so infuriated Atari. The whole enterprise seemed consciously engineered to let them make some money but never too much — and certainly to keep them from ever making a truly iconic Nintendo game to rival the likes of Super Mario Bros.

The Software Publishers Association, the traditional American software industry’s biggest lobbyist and trade group, left no doubt where it stood on the question: “The SPA believes that Nintendo has, through its complete control and single-sourcing of cartridge manufacturing, engineered a shortage of Nintendo-compatible cartridges. Retailers, consumers, and independent software vendors have become frustrated by the unavailability of many titles during the [1988] holiday season, and believe that these shortages could be prevented by permitting software vendors to produce their own cartridges.” The SPA warned ominously and to some extent presciently of what the walled-garden philosophy of software marketing could come to mean if it spread further: “We don’t want any computer company to get the idea that what Nintendo is doing would be acceptable in the computer business. Software is an intellectual property that thrives in an unrestricted environment.”

That said, few companies were willing to attract the attention of the Nintendo tiger by stating their views too stridently or too publicly, much less by taking the sort of aggressive action Atari Games had opted for. There was, however, one notable exception.

On January 31, 1989, the other Atari — the home-computer company run by Jack Tramiel and his sons — filed their own suit against Nintendo, asking that the latter be forced to pay the towering sum of $250 million in damages. At issue this time was Nintendo’s policy of requiring that many licensees not port their games to other systems for two years from the date of their first appearance on the NES. This policy, Tramiel’s Atari claimed, was an abuse of Nintendo’s near-monopoly of the videogame market and thus a violation of antitrust laws. Atari Corporation’s claim to being an aggrieved party in the issue was perhaps debatable; Tramiel’s company produced mostly hardware, not software, and its main strategic focus was its ST line of computers, whose most successful games tended to be dramatically different in character from those which sold best on the NES. It was, in other words, hard to imagine that the lack of hot Nintendo-style games on the Atari ST was a primary reason behind its lackluster North American sales. But Jack Tramiel had a long history of using the courts as business competition by other means, and, gauging the political mood in the country with respect to Japanese imports, he thought he smelled blood in the water here.

So, it was now the two Ataris against Nintendo — the past of videogames against their future, one might say. Thematics aside, the two Ataris made for some very unexpected bedfellows. Each part of the old, monolithic Atari felt that they were the only part truly worthy of carrying the name’s legacy onward. To put it bluntly, the two companies “don’t like each other,” admitted Atari Games’s Dan Van Elderen. But, as they say, the enemy of my enemy…

Isolated in Moscow, Nikoli Belikov was unaware of this dramatic backdrop to Nintendo’s generous offer for the Tetris console rights. From his perspective, the only thing preventing the negotiation from moving forward immediately was the promise which he had made to Kevin Maxwell to give Mirrorsoft an opportunity to bid on the rights. Thankfully, the Russians hadn’t heard anything at all from Mirrorsoft since Maxwell had departed Moscow over two weeks ago.

On the same day that Henk Rogers first presented Nintendo’s offer, Belikov fired off a telex to London, saying that ELORG was about to sign a deal for the console rights to Tetris and that, in accordance with the arrangement he and Maxwell had arrived at, Mirrorsoft urgently needed to send their own best offer — if they wished to make an offer at all, that was. He gave them exactly 24 hours to do so, an intentionally impossible time frame. When the deadline expired, Belikov considered himself to have done his legal duty. Now nothing lay between him and a deal worth at least $5 million.

When word came to Arakawa and Lincoln from Rogers that an agreement for the console rights looked very possible, they scrambled to secure the visas and airplane tickets they needed to come personally to Moscow. This latest round of Tetris negotiations offered not just the opportunity to secure an all-but-guaranteed massive hit for Nintendo, but also that of taking away an all-but-guaranteed massive hit from Atari. Neither Arakawa nor Lincoln was an especially forgiving man, and they relished this opportunity with their every last fiber of vindictiveness. Their preparations for their journey smacked more of a spy thriller than a typical business trip. The comings and goings of two men such as them within what was once again a multi-billion-dollar American videogame industry hardly went unobserved even when the industry wasn’t racked by total war. On the contrary: their every statement, action, and, yes, movement was closely scrutinized for clues to what Nintendo might do next. Arakawa and Lincoln thus felt compelled to slip away in the dead of night, telling only two of their closest confidants where they were going and why.

They arrived in Moscow on Sunday, March 19. As befit the sense of occasion that surrounded their visit, Henk Rogers forewent the taxis that were his usual mode of transportation around Moscow in favor of picking them up at the airport in a big black Mercedes he had managed to rent at an exorbitant price. The two huddled in the back seat, jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, and marveled at the Mirror World outside the windows, which Lincoln said reminded him of the mean streets of old black-and-white gangster films. Their self-appointed chauffeur, feeling himself by comparison an old hand with Moscow life, merely smiled and nodded. At the hotel, Arakawa and Lincoln were given a room with a single bed, a disconnected stove, and a refrigerator without a door. Don’t complain, Rogers told them; it can only get worse.

Whatever their other prowesses as negotiators, Arakawa and Lincoln weren’t gifted with Henk Rogers’s all-but-irresistible charm. Arakawa was reserved, stoic, even shy among new people, while Lincoln, who looked every inch the corporate lawyer he was, made the most of his native suspicious nature as Nintendo’s attack dog, willing to challenge every point and question every assertion in trying to secure for his company every possible advantage. Alexey Pajitnov, for one, sensed the change in the atmosphere around the table as soon as they all entered the conference room the next day.

Still, it was fascinating in a way to watch Belikov and Lincoln, two sly old foxes with far more in common than the gulf of culture, language, and politics that lay between them might suggest, sniff one another out. Lincoln questioned Belikov long and hard about the previous deal with Stein and the potential trouble it might present. Belikov, meanwhile, notwithstanding the incredible offer that lay on the table, pressed relentlessly for further advantage, persisted in testing every boundary. Apparently not understanding how unique Tetris was, he seemed to see game design as a commodity amenable to the typical Soviet model of mass production, proposing that Nintendo and ELORG set up a joint subsidiary to crank out many more games. Apparently not understanding that the key to Nintendo’s control of their walled garden was their ownership of the means of production of game cartridges — the very thing they were fighting so savagely to maintain far away in the United States — he proposed that the Tetris cartridges be manufactured by ELORG in the Soviet Union, a recipe for quality-control disaster if ever there was one. Then he proposed that ELORG make actual Nintendos in the Soviet Union for sale behind the Iron Curtain. The most surreal moment of the talks came when a cosmonaut trooped in to pitch an idea for plastering the Nintendo logo all over Soviet rockets; when the Soviet Union embraced capitalism, it seemed, it really embraced capitalism.

Another bizarre incident hearkened ironically back to that earlier pivotal instant when Henk Rogers had produced Bullet-Proof Software’s “pirated” Nintendo Famicom version of Tetris to gasps all around the conference table. Wanting to demonstrate how adept his people were at this consumer-electronics thing, one of the Russian bureaucrats reached under the table and came up with a Soviet knockoff of a Donkey Kong standalone handheld game which Nintendo had released back in 1982. In its Soviet form, it was bereft of any acknowledgment of its origins — and bereft of any agreement to pay Nintendo royalties for it. Under normal circumstances, such a thing would have set Howard Lincoln into a paroxysm of enraged threats. But today, managing to see the bigger picture, he swallowed hard and held his tongue with difficulty.

To be fair to Belikov, many of the kookier ideas that he was forced to pitch likely didn’t originate with him. In this era of perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev had tasked the masterminds of his nation’s economy, so long accustomed to looking inward to quotas and five-year plans, with looking out, with finding areas where the Soviet Union could compete with the other members of the community of free nations Gorbachev was intent on joining. Computer software had always seemed like an area with real potential in this regard, responsive as it seemingly was to the country’s long tradition of mathematical excellence. And now here was the Tetris deal. As a game rather than a more “serious” piece of software, it perhaps wasn’t the completely ideal vehicle for Soviet software’s coming-out party, but it would do. As soon as that $5 million figure started to spread through the Soviet bureaucracy, Belikov’s negotiations over what had heretofore been regarded as a silly little game — a minor transaction at best — took on a dramatically higher profile. Lots and lots of people with lots of different agendas were now trying to muscle their way into the room with these foreigners who so evidently had more money than sense. Lincoln batted away each crazy proposal as politely as he could, and kept trying to steer the discussion back to the deal that was already on the table.

Alexey Pajitnov in his Moscow apartment.

The atmosphere was warmer that evening when Rogers, still playing the role of chaperone and tour guide, located the only sushi restaurant in Moscow and took Arakawa, Lincoln, Pajitnov, and Nintendo’s legal consultant John Huhs out for dinner there. Pajitnov was skeptical of the notion of eating raw fish, but soon got with the program — at least until he popped an entire ball of wasabi into his mouth just ahead of his companions’ urgent warning cries, nearly causing his head to explode. Back at the Pajitnov family apartment, Arakawa gave the children a prototype Game Boy with a prototype of Tetris in the cartridge slot, telling them that they were now quite possibly the first people in the entire Soviet Union to own a Nintendo product. Pajitnov still stood to gain absolutely nothing from this game that so many others were now confidently expecting to earn them millions, but he did appreciate the attention and respect he was shown by the Nintendo delegation, so different from Robert Stein and the ELORG bureaucrats who did little more than tolerate his presence at the negotiating table. And he took Henk Rogers at his word that someday soon he would find a way to get him his financial due — if not with Tetris, than with the next game he designed.

A contract giving Nintendo exclusive worldwide-except-for-Japan console rights to Tetris was signed on March 22, 1989, alongside another giving the Japanese rights to Rogers, thus fully legitimizing in the eyes of ELORG the Bullet-Proof version of Tetris that had started this whole ruckus. Two heavyweight bureaucrats, the head of the State Committee for Computer Systems and Informatics and the head of computer research at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, came out to witness the signings, which were conducted with some pomp and circumstance. To commemorate the occasion, Rogers, who in his standard inimitable fashion was now wheeling and dealing on the Moscow black market like a native, presented Arakawa and Lincoln with tickets for that evening to the Bolshoi Ballet. Much to their amazement, Mikhail Gorbachev himself showed up for the performance — and took a seat that was worse than theirs. That was Henk Rogers for you.

From being the property of Robert Stein in their totality barely a month earlier, the rights to Tetris had now been sliced and diced into a whole pile of discrete parts. The computer-game rights lay with Mirrorsoft in Europe and, through Mirrorsoft, Spectrum Holobyte in North America and Bullet-Proof Software in Japan. The arcade rights lay with Atari Games in North America and Europe and, through Atari, Sega in Japan. The worldwide handheld rights lay with Bullet-Proof, who planned to use them to let Nintendo bundle a copy of Tetris with every Game Boy sold when the new gadget came to North America in four months or so. And now, as a product of this latest round of negotiations, the non-Japanese console rights belonged directly to Nintendo, the Japanese console rights to Bullet-Proof.

This, anyway, was the new world order according to ELORG and Nintendo. But there was soon trouble from the parties whose earlier deals had been retroactively voided, just as Rogers had warned Belikov there would be the previous month.

On the morning of March 22, even as the contract-signing ceremony was about to get under way, a belated response had finally arrived to the telex which Belikov had sent to Mirrorsoft six days before. In the message, Jim Mackonochie of Mirrorsoft, adopting a posture of bemused confusion, said that Mirrorsoft didn’t need to bid for the console rights because they already possessed them. His obvious intention was to pretend that the disastrous meeting between Belikov and Kevin Maxwell had never happened, and to hope that thereby the old status quo would be allowed to reassert itself. But he learned that that most definitely wasn’t a possibility later the same day, when Belikov sent a reply stating that the console rights had never been Stein’s to license to Mirrorsoft, and that those selfsame rights had in fact just been licensed to Nintendo. To rub salt into the wound, Belikov also dropped the bombshell that the handheld rights already belonged to Henk Rogers.

The Mirrorosft camp’s response was predictably swift and aggressive. Evidently not recollecting how well his last decision to shove Mackonochie aside had gone, Kevin Maxwell jumped personally back into the fray the very next day with a telex telling Belikov he was “in grave breach twice over of our agreements with you.” Having apparently remedied the ignorance that had led him to call the Bullet-Proof Tetris a pirated version on his last trip to Moscow, he wrote that “we already hold the worldwide rights to Tetris on the Nintendo family computer. Indeed, we have been marketing it accordingly, [through] Bullet-Proof Software in Japan since January 1989.” But he was willing, he graciously conceded, to come to Moscow to meet once again with Belikov and learn from him “how you intend to remedy your double breach of our agreement.” Should Belikov refuse to invite him to such a meeting, he warned of legal and political — yes, political — consequences.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Robert Maxwell. The latter was so chummy with the Kremlin that questions would later surface over whether he had acted at times as a Soviet spy.

He wasn’t just blowing smoke. His father, Robert Maxwell, was an absurdly well-connected man, the ruler of a communication and publication empire that spanned the globe and that had placed him on a first-name basis with countless current and former heads of state. When told by his secretary that “the prime minister” was on the phone for him, legend has it that Maxwell would ask, “Which one?” His Rolodex contained the home address and phone number of one Mikhail Gorbachev, just as it had Gorbachev’s predecessors Yuri Andropov, Leonid Brezhnev, and Nikita Khrushchev.

After the Nintendo delegation returned home from Moscow and it became clear to Kevin Maxwell that Belikov had no intention of granting him his mea-culpa meeting, he went to his father to explain what the Russians had done to him, eliciting a desk-pounding fit of rage: “They won’t get away with it! Rest assured of that!” Robert Maxwell wrote directly to the highest levels of the Kremlin, issuing a thinly veiled threat to the many investments he was making into Gorbachev’s new Soviet Union: “We attach high importance to our excellent commercial relations with the Soviet government and many leading agencies in the fields of information, communications, publishing, and, indeed, pulp and paper production. We face the prospect of all this being jeopardized by the unilateral action of one particular agency.” Nice economy you’re building there, Gorbachev, ran the subtext. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it — and all because of one silly videogame.

Maxwell contacted the secretary of state for trade and industry within Britain’s own government, pushing him to place the Tetris issue on the agenda for an upcoming summit between Margaret Thatcher and Gorbachev. Alexey Pajitnov’s little game of falling shapes was now threatening to impinge on agendas at the highest levels of international statecraft. In late April, Maxwell flew to Moscow to meet personally with Gorbachev, ostensibly to discuss his growing number of publication ventures within and on behalf of the Soviet Union. But he brought up the issue of Tetris there as well, and claimed that before he left Gorbachev assured him that he would personally take care of the issue of “the Japanese company” for him.

In actuality, though, Gorbachev did little or nothing, presumably judging that Maxwell wouldn’t really blow up deals potentially worth billions in the long run over a videogame-licensing spat. Still, plenty of others within the Soviet government — among them many representatives of the hard-line communist order that was at odds with Gorbachev — wanted an embattled Belikov to back down and give Maxwell what he wanted.

When Howard Lincoln returned to Moscow about a month after his first visit for a follow-up meeting, a tension that verged on paranoia was palpable around the conference table. Belikov spoke of “calls from the Kremlin, calls from people who never before knew we existed. Many of them have shown up to examine our records and to question us on this deal. We have told them we have done the right thing. We have stood up to them, but we do not know what will happen.”  There were even rumors that the KGB had been put on the case to dig up dirt on Belikov and his colleagues at ELORG, rumors of bugs in telephones and men in descriptly nondescript trench coats trailing people through the streets. Belikov had hired a pair of personal bodyguards for protection.

He clung to a simple but potent line of argument against his persecutors: Gorbachev had said that producers in the Soviet Union needed to have a degree of economic freedom, needed to make decisions in response to the market rather than a hidebound bureaucratic class. That was what perestroika, the buzzword of the age, was all about. He, then, was just doing perestroika. Nintendo had offered ELORG a better deal, and he was bound — duty-bound by perestroika, one might say — to take it.

Howard Lincoln’s son Brad plays Tetris with Alexey Pajitnov.

Helping Belikov stay strong was the fact that he and Howard Lincoln had gone from cagey adversaries to something approaching friends. In the months after signing their deal, Belikov arranged for Lincoln and his son to take a private tour of Star City, the heart of the Soviet space program. He took Lincoln on a traditional Russian fishing trip — “traditional” in this case indicating much more vodka-drinking than fish-catching. He felt a bond with Howard Lincoln and also Henk Rogers, two men who had talked straight to him and treated him as an equal, that he most definitely didn’t feel with Robert Stein or the Maxwell clan. He felt that Lincoln and Rogers had been in his corner, so he would stay in theirs. Crusty old bureaucratic knife fighter though he was, his sense of loyalty ran surprisingly deep.

While Belikov was weathering the storm unleashed by Robert Maxwell upon Moscow, Arakawa and Lincoln were left to deal with the issue of Atari, Mirrorsoft sub-licensee of the Tetris rights, in the United States. It seems safe to say that they relished their situation far more than their Soviet partner did his, not least because because it afforded them the luxury of going on the offensive in yet one more way against their bitterest enemy. With delicious satisfaction, Lincoln drafted a cease-and-desist letter that was sent to Atari on March 31, saying that the console rights to Tetris belonged to Nintendo rather than to Tengen, and that the latter thus needed to give up their own plans for Tetris if they didn’t wish to spark another legal battle in the ongoing war. He knew, as he would later put it, that Atari “would go nuts” when they received the letter. On April 6, Nintendo announced via an official press release their plans to release their version of Tetris for the NES that summer. Atari took the bait, suing Nintendo for infringing on their licensing deal with Mirrorsoft on April 18. They honestly believed that the rights they had licensed from Mirrorsoft were perfectly legitimate — “There was no inkling that we were in the wrong,” Tengen head Randy Broweleit would later say — and they had no intention of lying down for Nintendo. Quite the contrary. Having engulfed so much of the American videogame industry already, it hardly surprised anyone that the war between Atari and Nintendo had now sucked Tetris as well into its maw.

The Tengen Tetris, running in this version’s unique cooperative mode.

Ironically, the version of Tetris which Tengen was finalizing against the will of the game’s designer was by far the best version of the game that had yet been created. Indeed, plenty among the Tetris cognoscenti will tell you that the Tengen Tetris still stands among the best versions ever created, far superior to the versions Nintendo was preparing in-house at the time of its release. Tengen had assigned Ed Logg, creator of iconic arcade games like Asteroids, Centipede, and Gauntlet, to head up a team that wound up spending three person-years on the project, a rather extraordinary amount of time in light of what a simple game Tetris really was. Under Logg’s stewardship, Alexey Pajitnov’s core design took on a much more polished look than it had enjoyed to date. The pieces were no longer solid blocks of color, but were given texture and a pseudo-3D appearance that made them look more like falling blocks than falling abstractions, harking back to the physicality of the pentomino puzzles that had inspired the game. Logg also added a head-to-head competitive mode to the game, and an innovative cooperative mode in which two players could work together to clear away lines. And he made the speed of the falling shapes increase slowly and subtly the longer you played, instead of taking a more noticeable, granular leap only when you went up a level. Whatever you could say about the circumstances of its creation, taken purely on its own terms it was truly a Tetris to be proud of.

It needed to be great. Tengen was counting on this game becoming an unstoppable force that would bust right through the blockade Nintendo was erecting around their lifeline to retail. The launch was as lavish as they could make it, beginning with the game’s unveiling at Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room restaurant. As that location would imply, the line of marketing attack developed by Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte was employed once again by Tengen. In their hands, though, it came to read a little tone deaf, being amped up with far more testosterone than the game destined to go down in history as the very personification of a non-violent, casual puzzler really had need of. “It’s like Siberia, only harder,” ran one tagline. “It’s the nerve-wrackingest mind game since Russian roulette,” ran another. A third said it should only be played by “macho men with the first-strike capability to beat the Russian programmers who invented it. If you can’t make the pieces fit together, an avalanche of blocks thunders down and buries you weaklings!”

But, overheated rhetoric aside, Tengen clearly saw the potential of Tetris to expand the Nintendo demographic beyond boys and teenagers, buying full-page spreads in such mainstream non-adolescent publications as USA Today. And, now that they controlled the means of Nintendo cartridge production, they weren’t going to be caught out by any shortage on that front. They ordered an initial production run of fully 300,000 Tetris cartridges, at an expense of $3 million.

The Tengen Tetris was released on May 17, 1989. It took Nintendo exactly eight days to sue in response; in combination with Atari’s earlier suit against Nintendo, this latest legal salvo meant that each company was now accusing the other of making or planning to make what amounted to a pirated version of Tetris. While American courts tried to sort through the dueling lawsuits, American gamers faced the prospect of deciding between dueling versions of Tetris on the NES, each claiming to be the one and only legitimate version.

Alexey Pajitnov’s little game of falling shapes, having already sparked a bewildering amount of international intrigue, had found yet another role to play as a coveted prize in the greatest war the American videogame industry had ever known. Nintendo and Atari were both willing to use every resource at their disposal to ensure that Tetris belonged to them and them alone. All of the conspiratorial maneuvering that had taken place in Moscow the previous February and March was about to be put to the test. Did all of the rights to Tetris belong to Robert Stein to sub-license as he would, as Atari claimed, or did Stein possess only the computer-game and arcade rights, as Nintendo claimed? It must now be up to a court of law in the United States to decide.

(Sources: the books Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff and The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman; the BBC television documentary From Russia with Love; Hardcore Gamer Vol.5 No.1; Nintendo Power of September/October 1989; The New York Times of February 3 1989 and March 9 1989.)


Comments

what will you do now?

The Periwink

by verityvirtue at July 21, 2017 11:41 AM

by Jedediah Berry (Twine; IFDB; play here)

[Time to completion: 15-20 minutes]

viewgame.pngCaption: line drawing of a flower

You are a groundskeeper on the last day on the job. The majordomo demands it be so. But you have one last task…

The Periwink brings the player through surreal, toothy, quietly alive landscapes, somewhat like a pastel-hued Porpentine work. The monuments in The Periwink are not neutral or even benign, but if you treat them right, they will return the favour.

As groundskeeper, the viewpoint character knows much more about the perils of each monument than the majordomo, which forms a foil to his casual arrogance. But the groundskeeper also knows a lot more than the player – hence, while the player may have control over the PC’s actions, the first-time player cannot guess at the motive or implications of those actions.

The horror here is understated; the writing, a pleasure to read. For someone who loves rambling around alien landscapes, this was a delectable treat. A similar, albeit shorter, game would be vale of singing metals.


Tagged: ECTOCOMP 2016, exploration, Jedediah Berry, Twine

July 20, 2017

Lab of Jizaboz

These Dreams

by Jizaboz ([email protected]) at July 20, 2017 05:33 AM

Getting time to work on the DPRK game again lately has been nice. I've had to bug Roody yet again for assistance lately, but he's always happy to help with Hugo related issues.

 I've been focusing on the 2nd PC of the DPRK game over the past few months.. random stabs at the story and code. Taken many steps back when starting to code and realizing I don't even have a proper flow for the event written yet, but that's part of what makes creating games like this so fun; play-testing and adding things that are not implemented yet, testing them, and repeating the process. The third PC won't take too much longer finish up, but tying all three PCs together with decisions made by each, inventory changes, etc will take a while to clean up. The "alpha" test was released some time ago, and I plan on releasing the "beta" around November of the year..

 Not getting my old interactive dreaming Inform7 project properly updated with all the graphics window and other fancy screen effects extension stuff basically shit me out of IntroComp this year. I was a bit disappointed but will shoot for next year. This is worth revisiting..

 It's really neat that my friend Ifran told me about the "modern IF scene" around 2008-2009.  I'm still really thankful to be introduced a new world of "text games" I figured only existed in my own head and a very select few of others back then and before then. I've met some really cool people along the way both on the internet and off.

 I've also got ideas about creating some sort of dream share API or website lately..

Yukihiro Takahashi ("It's Gonna Work"): "I had a dream. You gave me a sign.. and put me on a new track."

July 19, 2017

Renga in Blue

Aldebaran III: Finished!

by Jason Dyer at July 19, 2017 11:40 PM

Wayne Barlowe’s rendition of our hero.

Last time I was supposed to find a “xyller”, “yangst” and “zwerf” as well as deliver 15 credits to “The Rep” who runs the government.

The next obstacle was a bridge, where only one item could be carried across at a time; at the other end of the bridge was a graveyard which doubled as a maze. All three of the quest items were hidden there, where I had to dig the objects out by shovel.

Also, the graveyard included a completely optional scene with a vampire, which feels like it was ported in from an entirely different game.

You’re inside an ancient crypt of oddly familiar design. It is dark and gloomy here with cobwebs hanging from every wall. Although there are no religious articles visible there is a large black coffin sitting on the ground. There are doorways to the east and west.
OPEN COFFIN
The lid seems to give a little …
and then springs off as a small bat escapes from the coffin.
You hear footsteps approach from behind you …

In any case, once attaining the necessary items, it’s required to cross the bridge again. However, you can’t leave the xyller alone with the yangst, or the yangst alone with the zwerf; otherwise bad things will happen:

As you watch, amazed, the yangst turns a muddy, opaque brown and starts to spin, rolling toward the zwerf which, in turn, melts into a green, viscous fluid and starts seeping into the ground!

The yangst is now spinning madly and rolls over traces of the zwerf which seem to boil away on contact!

After the last trace of the zwerf has been vaporized the spinning yangst slows to a stop and resumes its alabaster translucency.

After safely crossing the bridge, I found the subway tokens I had to leave behind stolen. (I had to induce this — they were in the room description, but picking them up resulted in an empty inventory.) They *seemed* to be necessary to get out of the area.

You’re on a street of gleaming white plasmeld. There is not a spot of dirt anywhere. A lovely building of slightly alien design is visible to the west and a bridge is visible to the east. There is a gate set in the wall with a small slot next to it.
You notice a fleck of dust fall from the sky only to be deposited in a hidden chute by mechanical hands.

The “mechanical hands” are a clue.

DROP DIRT
An alarm sounds and mechanical hands roughly grab you while they swiftly clean up the mess and then drop you back on the subwalk platform.

No, “dirt” isn’t otherwise an object. This is one of those Adventure-did-it-better things; items or even characters in Aldebaran III might be usable without them being separated as items in the game. While commands can be tagged to specific objects, a lot of them are coded directly into the rooms.

Another quick example; when going WEST from one room, this occurs without warning:

You’re in jail, the warden has taken your keys away, (natch), so you can’t get out…

You can BRIBE your way out of the situation, even though it’s not obvious from the description above that the warden or anyone else is hanging around to give money to:

Fortunately you’re a slick talker and get away with a very small bribe, (and your keys).

Here’s the actual source code:

#99 In Jail
You’re in jail, the warden has taken your keys away, (natch), so you can’t
get out…
help m=Nope
bribe v<6.1 m="You don't have any credits to bribe anyone with…"
bribe 21 v-6.1 t+keys m="\
Fortunately you're a slick talker and get away with a very small bribe,
(and your keys)."

Back to the main gameplay: after escaping the “clean” area into the subway, it’s only a few steps away to the Rep, and the conclusion to the game:

You are in the presence of the Rep.
GIVE XYLLER
“My Xyller!”, he exclaims.
GIVE YANGST
“My Yangst!”, he crows.
GIVE ZWERF
“My Zwerf!”, he coos.
GIVE CREDITS
“You Terries aren’t so bad after all”, admits the Rep as he flicks a switch that cuts the power to all the androids that were leading the uprising, “Why don’t you stay for dinner?”. Which, of course, you do.”

I’m not sure why this cover is so gritty compared with the rest.

I think we sometimes take for granted how good the 350-point Crowther and Woods Adventure really is. As a starting point for the text adventure genre it established a vocabulary of verb-noun interaction that led later imitators to have some grounding. Nearly every action involves a reasonable use of an object that the player can see, and the interaction with characters like the dwarfs is limited in a way that suited the parser.

It may have started a penchant for light source timers, treasure hunts, mazes, and general fantasy randomness, but at least it was (and still is) quite playable as a game.

Aldebaran III is hard to play because it demands actions from the players out of a possibility space that is too large. The ambitions for character interaction got overextended. With *very* specific commands you can get some interesting conversation, like

“Want, want, want! You Terries never talk about anything else!”

(Terry = Terran = Earthling)

but in general characters come across as brick walls.

It feels skeletal. Many rooms in the source code don’t get used.

#328 Police Headquarters

#329 Stellar and Park Place

#330 Stellar and Alabaster

#331 Stellar and Zero

#332 Stellar and Laser

#333 Stellar Street

#334 Crystal City Information

The overall impression is one of failed ambition. While I appreciated the humor and ideas of Aldebaran III, but I can also understand why it fell into obscurity.

BONUS READING: Nathan P. Mahney played and wrote about this game back in April, and he discusses some things I passed over (like some ruffians who I never met, and a bit with the board game Go).


IFTF Blog

Another bottle in the rack

by Jason McIntosh at July 19, 2017 08:13 PM

Last night, pursuant to IFTF’s new stewardship of the IF Archive I began setting up the Linode VPS that will serve as the new ifarchive.org server. As with all IFTF purchases, donations from the IF community pay for this machine. So, now as ever: thank you. I quite look forward to seeing it online and serving the public at the core of a reinvigorated Archive.

I want to tell you about the new machine’s name, and why we named it so.

While we don’t invest heavily in classic-IF iconography for IFTF projects, we do like to keep a candle lit here and there in recognition of bedrock-level work. Take IFTF’s logo, for example: we came up with a design that could be read as either a hypertext game’s node-graph, or a text adventure’s map of connected rooms. We juggled various stick-and-ball patterns around, and when I noticed that this one looked a bit like the edge of a white house with a mailbox next to it, in profile, we knew we had to keep it.

Similarly — though out of public view — I two years ago let myself name IFTF’s very first server lantern, after the single most iconic inventory-item from Zork. (This is the organization’s general-purpose machine, managing our mailing lists, our website, and this blog, amongst other things.) Last year, when it came time to build a new machine to serve IFComp, we decided to roll along with the “stuff you pick up at the beginning of Zork” theme, and named it sword.

In a stunning coincidence, it happens that the IF Archive team, pre-IFTF, had also named its server “lantern” — albeit following the delightfully more specific naming scheme of Zork light sources. Regardless, the fact obliged us to choose a new name for the new machine. I turned back to the list of early-game Zork stuff, and… the choice was obvious, really.

And that’s why the new, under-construction IF Archive server, destined to preserve and share IF work of all sorts for many years to come, bears the name bottle.

textadventures.co.uk

Quest 5.7

by pixiemusingsblog at July 19, 2017 12:40 PM

At long last, Quest 5.7 is officially out. It has been on the web server for a couple of days, and beta-testers have had access to the desktop version for some time, but as of now it is officially here!

Alex has been developing Quest since 1998, and this is the first release since he handed over the reins, so firstly I want to wish Alex well, and to thank him for bringing Quest to this point. I would also like to thank him for help over the last few months with getting Quest 5.7 ready.

I would also like to thank Luis for his work on the server; I know this has been a learning experience for him, as it has me, and I appreciate the effort.

I have tried to achieve a number of objectives in this version, and as a result there are a lot of difference. That said, it is just Quest, so all existing games should run fine, and any game you are currently creating can be opened in the new version – you will just find there are new options available.

One thing I wanted to do is make it easier to customise the user interface. Up to now that has required some technical expertise, and for users on the web version has been very limited. Now there are numerous extra options in the GUI, new functions (JS.setCss, JS.setCommands, JS.setCustomStatus and JS.setPanes) for the more adventurous, and for the expert the inituserinterface script can be accessed by both web and desktop users

There is now a comprehensive system for handling clothing. Money has been implemented similar to health and score, but with options for how to display it. Objects can be given a price, facilitating an economy in games. Text can be added to an exit; this will get printed when the exit is used, so now you can easily describe the player’s trip from one location to another.

Many more changes are described here:

http://docs.textadventures.co.uk/quest/quest5_7.html

If you have looked at the Quest documentation recently, you may have noticed changed there too. This is a work in progress, driven in part by the types of questions people ask on the forum. There is a huge amount you can do with Quest, which is one of its great strengths, but does mean a huge amount of documentation to cover it, and that then leads to issues with how to find it! Hopefully we are getting there.

 

The Pixie


what will you do now?

Oxygen

by verityvirtue at July 19, 2017 06:41 AM

by Benjamin Sokal (parser; IFDB)

showimageCover art: “Oxygen”, with the ‘O’ encapsulating the rest of the word; the O is coloured half red and half blue

The premise of Oxygen is simple – no tricks, few puzzles, mostly choices. You, a lowly technician, have the unenviable task of deciding who on board the Aegis mining station will get oxygen from the slowly leaking tanks.

This is a resource management game in which you decide how oxygen supplies on a spaceship are to be diverted. You have three moves each time to decide. Tension comes from the fact that the ship is, literally, divided: striking miners on one side, and “the establishment” – the captain and the rest of the crew – on the other.

The initial section was very fiddly for me, because I have lots of trouble visualising mechanical solutions, so I followed the walkthrough for that. The bulk of the story is mechanically much simpler, though.

Oxygen’s story is largely linear, with just a few major branches; so far, none of the endings I’ve found are exactly happy. Your position as a tech notwithstanding, you ultimately must choose where you stand – with the miners or with the leadership – and either results in the destruction of the other (or both). It was heartening to see the PC change from lazy and over-ambitious to actually taking a stand.

Oxygen reminded me of Stephen Granade’s Fragile Shells: both are set on a spaceship, with mechanical puzzles. Fragile Shells, however, focuses on solving mechanical puzzles, while highlighting the relationships between NPCs and the PC.


Tagged: Benjamin Sokal, IFcomp 2010, parser, setting: space

July 18, 2017

Adventure Blog

Strayed: An Interactive Story Launch Postmortem

July 18, 2017 10:41 PM

Last month, we released Strayed, a short, entirely text-based interactive story. We’ve received quite a few reviews so far, which we’re very grateful for.

Here’s the good news: the reviews almost universally praised the quality of the writing, which successfully created the dark, suspenseful atmosphere we were going for.

And here’s the interesting news: almost every review mentioned a certain feature - the fact that Strayed underlines parts of the text that have been influenced by the player’s choices. There was a diverse range of reactions to this.

There were three main reactions.

1. Confusion. It seems that most players didn’t understand what the underlined text was for until we explained it on our social media. This held true for even those who liked the feature.

2. Appreciation. Our reviewer on IFDB graciously bumped our rating up a star after finding out that the underlining showed what choices affected.

3. Annoyance. In their review of Strayed, fellow dev @playangst found that the feature broke immersion for them, since the convention for dotted underlining in text is that it reveals supplementary text on hover or click.

We included the dotted underlining in Strayed mainly as an experiment, to see if players would appreciate being able to see the effects of their choices. Looking at the responses so far, and after some discussion on our social media channels, it seems that even if we were on the right track, our execution of the idea didn’t go over well - given that the vast majority of players didn’t even get what the underlining was for without external help. In the worst case scenario, players were even taken entirely out of the story.

How do we proceed from here?

I’m going to throw out a few ideas that may or may not be feasible.

1. Remove the feature entirely. The negatives far outweigh any positives. Players seem to enjoy exploring the consequences of their actions in a more organic way, instead of having the effects explicitly pointed out to them.

2. Make the feature an option in the menu. This would accomplish two things: players who want to see the effects of their choices will be able to do so, and having the option in the menu will inform the player of what the feature does.

3. Keep the feature, but have a short cryptic message pop up if you tap on underlined text, as a clue to what choice led to this outcome. So for example, if you tap on a section of text that describes the creature acting hostile, a short sentence would pop up with something like “You let your frustration get the better of you”. Could give players ideas on alternate paths to try, but could also be unnecessary and distracting from the story - and also difficult to implement.

4. Implement the feature in some other way. Fun fact: if I remember correctly, we also considered making the affected text a different colour, or italicizing it - in the end we went with dotted underlining as the least obtrusive option.

If you have any thoughts on this issue, or if you have any other ideas to help us improve Strayed or our future games, do let us know!

Strand Games

Magnetic Scrolls Pictures Enhanced for Remastering

by hugh at July 18, 2017 08:48 PM

The Magnetic Scrolls interactive fiction of the 1980's had pictures. This was a new thing! Interactive fiction - or text adventures back then did not (generally) have pictures; and those that did were usually quite poor.

The idea was that a picture worked like an illustration in a book, and would typically depict a specific point in the story. This, at first, seemed reasonable, but later on, as peoples' graphic expectations grew, people would complain that the pictures did not change when th...

Emily Short

Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames (ed. Chris Bateman)

by Emily Short at July 18, 2017 07:40 PM

Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames is an anthology collection from 2007.

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 8.13.35 PM.png

The list of contributors and subeditors includes a lot of familiar names: Richard Dansky, one of the major organizing forces at GDC Narrative summits; Rhianna Pratchett writing on the topic of video game player demographics and representation; Wendy Despain, who has edited at least two other game writing texts I’m aware of… actually, I’m going to stop listing, because almost everyone associated with this book is someone I’ve heard of before in some capacity, and it would just get awkward to go through the whole list. It’s pedigreed, is what I’m saying; and the group in question is professional game writers with a lot of cumulative experience in writing for AAA and AA games, industry contributors rather than primarily indies.

I’m actually on my second copy of this book: I bought it once before and then lost it, I think possibly in the process of a transatlantic move, and then got another copy of it for the purposes of this review survey. I remembered it being one of the more effective of its kind, even if it dates from a decade ago.

Several of the other books I’m looking at in this overview spend most or all of their time on basics of narrative in general, serving up standard Hollywood screenwriting instructions with a side of game examples, or else talking about the process of working as a game writer in a studio. Both of those topics are covered here, but rather more briefly. Stephen Jacobs covers The Basics of Narrative, dutifully running through the Hero’s Journey, the screenwriting advice of Syd Field, and the example of Star Wars and a few other hints from Aristotle’s Poetics. Refreshingly, Jacobs doesn’t treat either Joseph Campbell or Field with undue reverence, but points out that these are useful tools at most.

On the business of studio-based writing, there are some notes on that general topic in Richard Dansky’s introductory chapter; Ed Kuehnel and Matt Entin discuss approaches for getting team signoff and collecting appropriate phased feedback in their chapter, Writing Comedy for Videogames.

But the majority of the book is about topics unique to the confluence of story and game, not introducing the industry. In chapter 3, Writing for Games, Richard Boon introduces concepts like progress structure (how the game controls access to story beats), pacing, agency, and funneling (how the game guides the player back towards elements of the critical path). Though the terminology doesn’t always precisely line up with the terminology used in the IF community, these are all familiar concepts; and they lay the groundwork for a lot of the craft advice that comes later in the book.

In chapter 4, Mary DeMarle talks about Nonlinear Game Narrative and the inherent challenges of giving the player significant freedom; a basic coverage of linear, branching, and branch-and-bottleneck structures; and the difference between high-level plot and moment-to-moment experience of a story. She doesn’t hold out a lot of hope for significant plot variety, remarking

When attempting to construct stories for nonlinear games, the general goal is to integrate linear stories into nonlinear gameplay (accepting for the time being that nonlinear stories are expensive propositions…) (79)

Much of her other advice is likely to feel familiar, though: guidance about layering detail into different aspects of a gameplay experience; the focus on bringing critical details into unavoidable moments (like cinematics and unavoidable choice moments), while relegating less important details to environmental storytelling; methods of identifying which bits of your story could possibly be told in any sequence.

Chapter 5 sees Chris Bateman on directing the player:

In a game world, freedom can be seen as the capacity players possess to step away from the set path and define their own play and their own implicit story. At the furthest extreme of freedom, the player may be afforded so much autonomy that a conventional narrative can no longer be supported, and the role of the game writer ceases to be involved in story construction, but in a more complicated game design exercise beyond the scope of this chapter. (86)

In other words, Bateman breaks this chapter off right about where Chris Crawford would want to get started — on the construction of complex storytelling worlds in which authorial intention is abstracted into rules rather than presented through specific guaranteed plot beats.

Andrew Walsh’s chapter 6, on game characters, strikes a good balance between conventional narrative advice and acknowledging the special role of characters in games; Richard Dansky’s chapter (7) on cut scenes contains a range of observations that would apply to cut sequences in textual IF as well as in conventional video games.

Chapter 9 covers Writing for Licenses, looking a little bit at the business considerations that come into such a project, but also delving into how to be true to an intellectual property’s world, tone, and characters — a set of observations equally applicable to interactive fanfiction.

Some of the later chapters get into comparatively technical topics, such as preparing for localization, or Ernest Adams’ chapter on Interchangeable Dialogue Content. This chapter looks at how to write for voiceover that’s meant to be stitched together, for instance to produce dynamic audio of a sports commentary where different players’ names and score numbers might need to be swapped in.

At the high end, audio techniques have come along somewhat since this book was written. But not everyone has access to the latest cutting-edge technology in this space, and for others, the recommendations are instructive. Moreover, Adams’ description of how to prepare to write this kind of dialogue is also arguably relevant to the domain of procedural text generation in general:

To study the speech space of a sports game, you should do two things: listen to real sports matches and read the game’s rule book for events that the commentators should talk about… You will soon spot general categories of commentary that include interchangeable content… Try to find, or create, a category for every sentence spoken. If your word processor offers a highlight feature, assign a different color to each category, and then highlight every sentence that belongs in that category with the appropriate color. This will enable you to go back through the transcript quickly to find all the sentences that discuss related material and see how they vary from one another.

Finally, chapter 14, again by Chris Bateman, covers Dialogue Engines, a topic especially close to my heart. He divides these up into three categories: event-driven, where lines of dialogue are served in response to events in the game world; topic-driven, where the player has some ability to select areas of interest, e.g. by showing off topical items in an adventure game; and dialogue trees.

In parser IF terms, Bateman’s categories would break down like this:

  • NPC who randomly comments on your actions, as in A Day for Fresh Sushi: Event-driven
  • >TALK TO FRED: character-based topic-driven system, where the situation determines how Fred will respond
  • ASK/TELL dialogue such as >ASK BOB ABOUT THE PINEAPPLE: token-based topic-driven system
  • Menu-driven dialogue 1) “Bob, where is the pineapple? What did you do with the pineapple, Bob?” : dialogue trees

There’s no real equivalent in his categories for some of the hybrid topic/choice systems in play in parser IF — for instance the methods used in Threaded Conversation or in Eric Eve’s TADS 3 libraries, where the system can prompt the player with possible questions to ask but there is a model of topical relation between subject matter. Which is reasonable enough, as that kind of dialogue is not common in industry games and was not even all that well worked out in IF at the time the book was published.

Bateman concludes by talking a bit about attaching conditions and cases to dialogue lines, touching a bit on text substitution and branching options, but not particularly getting into salience models for dialogue selection, for instance. (Though, again, this book came out well before Elan Ruskin’s dynamic dialogue speech at GDC 2012: please note that I’m not criticizing the absence here, just pointing out an area where the book might not go as far as readers in 2017 might want.)

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Of the books on professional games writing I’ve encountered, this is possibly the best, and definitely in the top three. Most of my specific nitpicks about its content boil down to “in 2007, the authors did not talk about developments that occurred in 2012 or later,” which is fair enough. It won’t teach unusual narrative models or cutting-edge approaches to AI-driven dialogue, and it’s not mostly that invested in talking about what makes for a powerful choice (something of an obsession point for IF craft writing).

But the book does go into the known-and-proven aspects of video game writing in a lot of detail, while keeping an open mind towards more experimental or future-facing possibilities. It’s also been very well edited, so that it feels coherent and joined-up despite pulling together the work of many contributors; and the tone is consistently helpful and informative but not condescending.

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Finally, a few other books of possible interest that I’m not covering here in full.

Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing (ed. Wendy Despain) and Writing for Video Game Genres: From FPS to RPG (ed. Wendy Despain) are both collections of chapters from a range of experienced game writers, and I found some chapters more interesting or useful than others. The book on genres is arranged around the specific challenges of writing for particular game styles. Uniquely among the volumes in this list, it specifically acknowledges writing for interactive fiction as a relevant topic, with a chapter on parser IF contributed by J. Robinson Wheeler. It is, admittedly, from a somewhat earlier era of IF, and it doesn’t really speak to the current commercial landscape; it’s more likely to be interesting to you if you’re also in the market for, say, the IF Theory Reader.

Again: if you’re interested in paid work in IF writing, or hiring IF writers, that will be the subject of the July 19 London IF meetup.


July 17, 2017

Renga in Blue

Aldebaran III: Player as Conscience

by Jason Dyer at July 17, 2017 11:40 PM

I once discussed with the game Warp the idea of looking for the future in the past; that often “a work’s innovation is lost because the work itself is obscure or the implementation of a promising concept was badly done.”

The same can be said for works that were ahead of their time, but not so far ahead their ideas haven’t been replicated. Aldebaran III hints at a relationship between player and character that arguably doesn’t appear again until Infocom’s version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984) or possibly even Plundered Hearts (1987).

Unfortunately, in 1977-1978 the ideas were there but not the technology.

Last time I mentioned some notes which end with “(the notes continue, but your interest wanes)”.

You can keep reading:

READ NOTES
Page 2
The ruling species on Aldebaran III is a large, six “legged”, (actually “pseudopoded”), mammal with a roughly Humanoid torso and a perfectly spherical “brain-case” containing, in most cases, a brain the size of a filbert. (In a few, exceptional cases the brain is believed to be quite large. This increased “brain-power” has no effect on intelligence but is believed to provide the ability to alter body appearance at will.)

This continues (using more READ NOTES commands) all the way until past Page 6:

At this point the notes trail off into meaningless scribbles and, thinking back, you vaguely remember an interesting interlude with some rather illicit drugs and two stewardesses on the trip here … Ahhh … Anyway, going back to the beginning of the notes …

Let me be clear: this is a large infodump and not good game design. Still, this reflects the idea that the player is not just “role-playing” but is actually the “inner voice” of the character, forcing him to read through the notes that he wrote when clearly … distracted.

Somehow in the stories he is highly competent anyway.

This sort of plot demands quite a few characters, but the coding is so skeletal it’s hard to get anything at all to happen. For example, early on you encounter a bar:

You are in the dimly-lit Spaceport Bar on Aldebaran III, which appears to be nearly deserted except for you and the burly bartender whose eyestalks keep twitching suspiciously in your direction. A large sign hangs over the door to the south.
BUY DRINK
It cost 5 credits and tastes like kerosene but you slurp it down!
S
With an amazingly graceful movement for someone his size, the bartender leaps over the bar and blocks your exit while pointing at the sign!
READ SIGN
The sign says “Jsu Snarret POTE kirs meawed jokero quakonk!”
(obviously some local dialect).

It turns out you can do this:

BRIBE BARTENDER
The bartender solemnly folds your offering into his apron and leaves
something sitting on the bar.
Spaceport Bar
There is an electronic all-dialect dictionary here.

Upon which you can now use the >TRANSLATE verb:
TRANSLATE SIGN
Checking your dictionary you discover that the sign says:
“Due to new liquour law all Terrans MUST show papers before leaving!”

Showing papers results in a silly in-joke:

SHOW PAPERS
The bartender checks your papers and grunts in amazement.
You are in the dimly-lit Spaceport Bar on Aldebaran III, which appears to be nearly deserted except for you and the burly bartender who has brought you a drink, (on the house), after learning that you are a user of UNIX software.

but also means, separate from the bribe, you can also do this:

ASK FOR HELP
The barkeep feigns ignorance, but leaves something lying on the bar.
Spaceport Bar
There is a map here.

The map gives an important “secret word” where if you don’t have it you’ll get stuck on a conversation later. I’ll jump to that conversation in a moment, but first, note the improbability of coming up with BRIBE, TRANSLATE, and ASK FOR HELP completely unprompted. Not only that, but the bribery in order to get the dictionary has to happen *before* getting the map. Otherwise the game just gives the message “You can’t do that now.”

It’s like the author had a transcript in mind and coded it, but there wasn’t enough flexibility for all the parts to show up in actual play. This is not even referring to guess-the-verb, exactly; it’s more like the rules of adventure-play not being codified when it comes to character interaction to know some of the 100 possible reasonable actions that might be useful.

Later, you encounter a church:

N
As you pass through the door it silently swings closed. You’re in a magnificent seven-sided room with rows of pews in concentric heptagons facing the center. A door to the south is tightly closed. A small, gnarled native is standing in the center of the room and looking expectant.
TALK TO NATIVE
You can’t do that now.
ASK FOR HELP
“Why should I help you? I don’t even know who you are”, the native states.
House of Worship
SHOW PAPERS
“Papers can always be forged” he counters.
House of Worship

I have *no* idea how one is supposed to summon the next command without looking at the source code (as I had to do). Maybe it’s a reference to the stories? It’s the only way to make progress:

WHO ARE YOU
The man’s face turns purple with effort as he answers,
“My name iss Igna…
my name iss Ig…
Arrrrgh! I cannot lie here, my name iss … R. Nixon Shilth!, To defend yoursself, soft one!”
So saying, the man crouches as if to leap at you…
ATTACK MAN
As you battle with the man he starts to fade in and out and finally undergoes an amazing metamorphosis into a beautiful woman!

“Ignarp’s the handle”, she says, “Thanks for distracting Shilth while I regained control. I’m afraid I foolishly let him slip a Groaci drug into my prune juice which left me bound by a metamorph- dominance spell which I couldn’t break without a little distraction. I’d be glad to return the favor …”
You’re in a magnificent seven-sided room with rows of pews in concentric heptagons facing the center. A door to the south is tightly closed.
A beautiful woman is standing in the center of the room looking expectant.
ASK FOR HELP
I’d like to help you, whoever you are, but I’m not sure I should…

If you didn’t get the map earlier, you won’t know the the secret password. Even if you *did* get the map, it’s not all that obvious it applies here:

AXOLOTYL
So you’re Retief from the CDT? Perhaps you’d like to hear the story behind the Aldebarran anger at Terrans?
YES
Another day passes…
Mr. Shilth, whom you’ve already met, is interested in acquiring the grounds on which the Terran Embassy stands to subdivide into condominiums for vacationing Groaci Peace Enforcers. Because the land can’t be bought while the Embassy still occupies it, Shilth is hoping to have the Terran Embassy forcibly removed. Disguised as a native trader, he sold a set of “Native Art Objects” to your Ambassador Pouncetrifle. Unfortunately, the objects were stolen from the Rep’s Meeting Hall, the one truly sacred spot on Aldebarran III, which the thieves desecrated with obscene slogans. Ambassador Pouncetrifle learned of all this when he proudly displaying them at an Embassy reception. Naturally the Ambassador was imprisoned. After much verbal footwork the Ambassador convinced the Rep that the whole matter might have been a misunderstanding. The Rep graciously agreed that matters could be set to rights by the return of the objects and the payment of a token fine of 1,000 galactic credits. Shall I go on?
YES
The Ambassador paid most of the fine with the 985 credits he was carrying with him, (having expected to make further art purchases), and was released from confinement to gather the remaining 15 credits and the missing objects. Returning to the Embassy via Park Place the Ambassador made the mistake of trying out his Aldebarran-English phrase book on a native he believed to be participating in a quaint street fair. He has not been heard from since, but the deadline for returning the objects is only 29 days away and Shilth’s agents are reported to have stolen the objects again!
If you can find the missing objects and present them to the Rep with the final 15 credit payment he may be able to help avert the uprising.

The three objects are:
a pale Xyller
an alabaster Yangst
and a green Zwerf
They are rumored to be hidden in an isolated area near Pont St. Michel.

That’s about all I know about it.

I have found all three, and the process is a little absurd, and the Xyller will eat the Yangst if you leave them together alone. (I swear I’m not making this up.) I’ll get more into that in my next post (where I’ll hopefully have won the game as well).


July 16, 2017

Strand Games

How to Make Your Choice Game into an App with Brahman

by hugh at July 16, 2017 02:51 PM

If you've written a game in ChoiceScript, you can now run it under Brahman and turn it into a deployable product with a graphic UI for both desktops and mobile.

Your game can then have:

  • User selectable fonts and sizes
  • Save games
  • Links and markup in the text
  • Improved picture presentation
  • New version update notification
  • A custom title page with effects & sound.
  • It's own colour theme.
  • A product logo.

The result is a complete product, ready to be deployed on the App Store(s) or...

Emily Short

High XP Women, Continued

by Emily Short at July 16, 2017 01:40 PM

CarrieI don’t follow movie marketing closely, and I’d describe myself as a less-than-avid Star Wars fan. Liked it as a child; had a Darth Vader lunch box; was disappointed by episodes 1-3; didn’t expect much from The Force Awakens.

But I love this poster from a character series for The Last Jedi. Some of that’s for superficial reasons — the classy design, the beauty and menace of that vibrant red, the lush high-collared cloak. I would love a cloak like that.

Some is sentiment; I was more sad about Carrie Fisher’s passing than I would have expected, and learned things about her that I hadn’t previously known. I am glad to have one more movie of hers to see.

But I love other things too. The poster doesn’t downplay, conceal, or apologize for the fact that Leia is an older woman in this shot. Her hand, her throat and mouth, are graceful without being fake-young. She wears bold jewelry. She doesn’t discard her femininity here in order to assume a role of power, but the adornment that she wears is also not sexualized. It reads to me not as “I have dressed like this to attract men,” but “I have dressed like this because it pleases me, and because I have in the course of my life earned a certain status.”

And her pose itself: chin up, looking outward. We can’t see her eyes — all of the posters in this series cut off the face before the eyes — but where many of the other characters have some kind of physical action pose, General Leia surveys and assesses. The mental action is hers, not the viewer’s alone.

Return_of_the_jedi_old.jpg

The red Leia poster says all those things on its own, I think, but it pulls those meanings in even more strongly if you compare where we came from.

I could write about the differences here but I feel like the contrast of those two posters is fully eloquent without my help.

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A lot of women I know, including myself, have to make a journey from object to subject. Indeed, for me it’s not so much a journey as a daily commute. I’m aware that there are consequences to how I present myself, and I have chosen to think about that rather than pay the price for ignoring it. But it takes work and judgment to balance that with one’s own perspective and preferences. It helps to have reminders to look outward.

Most of all, I feel like the red-cloak Leia poster and the behind-the-scenes trailer are hinting at things that I really want from this movie. Maybe I’m reading in too much. Maybe I’m not going to receive what I’m hoping for. But I deeply want to see more stories and art about older women of authority and power. I need those stories, not out of some kind of abstract accounting of representation numbers, but because I’m looking for teaching and inspiration about what I can become as I grow older, and pop culture is not offering much. I am not a mother, and I don’t plan to be. Portrayals of authoritative matriarchs are sometimes extremely cool, but they don’t help me with my future.

Instead I’m drawn to media about women at the top of their profession, in positions of management or authority. I watched The Good Fight with interest partly because of this: it’s a spin-off of the hugely popular The Good Wife, but focuses on the nearly retirement-age Diane Lockhart, a founding partner in her firm. There were a few things about The Good Fight where I thought its messaging a bit heavy-handed. But still, it hits some notes that resonated with me. Vulture writes up one of the key scenes thus:

There’s a lovely moment in all of this where Barbara asks Diane if she’s ever regretted not having children. I’m positive Diane must have had a similar conversation on The Good Wife that I’m not remembering, but it’s fascinating regardless, especially when she says she most regrets it when she thinks of Kurt. She wonders what a son of his would be like, and later, she calls him, but then quickly hangs up. My imagining of Diane has always been “childfree by choice, no regrets,” and it’s fun to be surprised by her after all these years, even if the moment is bittersweet. — Lauren Hoffman for Vulture

…but this doesn’t describe why I connected with this scene. What Diane says is that the work has always been both central and sufficient for her. She can imagine a road not taken, and feel a little curiosity or a little wistfulness about that. But the dialogue does not, to my mind, suggest she’s made a mistake. In contrast with a lot of common tropes, it acknowledges that a woman can have a vocation, can rise to the top of her field, can be her best and happiest self, can give the most that she has to give to the world, through her career. That can all be true even if you have a vague tug of feeling about the other possibilities if your life had turned out differently.

And I’m drawn to things about empathetic styles of authority, whether the role models in question are male or female. I feel like General Leia is a particularly interesting case to look at here. She chose not to train as a Jedi even though she has the potential. Instead, rather than depart for solitary training in an often-coercive ability, she has remained at the head of her community and applied her “Force strength” more in the form of increased intuition. Now, to some degree that plays into feminine intuition tropes, but still, I feel like there could be a great story here, not only about what she did but about why she did it.

I have no idea how much The Last Jedi is going to tell that story. But I can hope.


Adventure Blog

July 15, 2017

Emily Short

Mid-July Link Assortment

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

IF Comp intents to enter are now open, so if you’d like to write for the comp this year, you can sign up.

The next London IF meetup is coming soon, July 19, and will focus on writing IF for money — or hiring those who do.

August 14-17, Cape Cod, MA is the Foundation of Digital Games conference, including a workshop in procedural content generation. The PCG workshop has a theme this year:

What do our generators say about the underlying systems we have designed and the designers who create them?  Our theme aims to explore the biases inherent in PCG and the potential with which to subvert it.

Articles and Research

This week James Ryan’s Twitter feed has been a treasure trove of interesting links and images: he’s researching the history of procedurally generated text and has found a wealth of material going back decades.

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Sergei Mozhaisky has translated a couple of my articles into Russian. As I don’t read Russian at all, I can’t comment on the details, but they can be found here:

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Lyle Skains has a presentation on how readers respond to different types of links in hypertext narratives, which is likely relevant to Twine; though one of the things that struck me about the example is that it wasn’t immediately easy to see (as a reader) which types of links were which. I found myself wondering how much the effects observed in this study were due to the absence of conventions around hyperlink labelling in the literary hypertext community, as opposed to using different colors and a clear schema to distinguish between links that explore and links that move forward as in some of Porpentine’s work. Also worth looking at in this regard: Alice Maz’ Colorado Red, which distinguishes forward-moving links from tooltips for showing the narrator’s feelings about things in the text.

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Gillian Smith et al have published a report from the ICCC’s workshop on social justice and computational creativity, which looks at questions from implicit bias in machine learning to AI-assisted ways of interpreting the world around us to questions of access in related academic and technical fields. Her own paper for the workshop outlines some subjects for further thought in this area, including ethical deployment of machine learning in situations where the general public may not be aware they’re seeing the artifacts of AI. (And if you’re interested in this, see also Liza Daly’s essay Ethical Imperatives in AI and Generated Art.)

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ZedKraze reviews Will O’Neill’s Little Red Lie. The game is not a new release, but I only ran across it recently. 

Edit: I think I got the wrong end of the stick about the release date on this, possibly. Sorry about that! It seems like perhaps it is in fact reasonably new.

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IF Comp Prize Fund, and retrospectives

One of the new features of IF Comp this year is a cash prize fund. It’s still possible to donate other prizes, including books, games, toys, food, services in kind, and probably even (if you really want) separate prizes of money; but the intent of the fund is to make sure there are financial rewards distributed a bit more evenly than in the past and to more places.

Meanwhile, Chris Klimas has written an article looking back at the first ever edition of IF Comp, and Craig Locke is covering some games of IF Comp past as well.

AdventureX

AdventureX 2017 is currently on Kickstarter, raising funds to run November 11-12. It’s a two-day conference and demo floor that focuses on narrative games, including graphical adventures and various forms of IF. Last year I spoke; this year features a bunch of cool people including Jon Ingold. If you would like to speak or present, you can also find a presenter application here.

New Toys and Games

New on iOS is Silent Streets, which describes itself as “an augmented reality detective adventure,” with choose your own adventure elements, but also the opportunity to find important clues in your real-world environment, and unlock new events by walking using your GPS tracker. The game also provides voice acting, and writing from Richard Cobbett (of games journalism and Fallen London/Sunless Seas fame). About the design, Cobbett writes:

The nature of the game made for an interesting structural challenge, due to having to carefully balance the player’s likely mental bandwidth as they dipped in and out of the story, coming up with mysteries that allowed for lots of movement and interesting reveals that didn’t waste their valuable time, while still keeping the interactive element of being the one to solve the cases and complete bonus challenges to discover more than just the raw solution. Contacts for instance both allow the player to ask about the various things they’ve found, and act as touchpoints led by representatives of the different factions – the press, the police, the underworld.

Of things previously mentioned on this blog, this is probably closest to Jim Munroe’s Wonderland, which also features puzzles unlocked by walking. (And for the same reasons, I may not get around to playing, let alone finishing, this any time soon: while I walk around a fair amount, it’s often in contexts where I need a bit too much attention for my immediate surroundings to be immersed in a game. But your experience may be different, especially if your main walking context is not rush-hour London.) And of course there’s the well-established Zombies, Run!

Engadget also has a write-up of the experience.

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StoryNexus and quality-based narrative fans who recall Rob Sherman’s highly creepy Black Crown Project may be interested in this message from the author:

[The Black Crown Project has] been offline for over two years now, but last year the copyright reverted to me from Random House… I’ve compiled all of the material I have (including the game assets, notes, sketches and prototypes) and placed it into a Github repository for anybody, anywhere to do anything they like with, as long as they don’t try and commercialise it.

The archive is found here: https://github.com/bonfiredog/blackcrownproject

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screenshot-10

Morro and Jasp is a two-player conversation game where both players are selecting what to say next (so none of the conversation responses are selected by the system). Or, as they put it:

Morro & Jasp: Unscripted is a 2 player conversation/performance simulator, where (practically) every line is chosen by a player. There are 28k words of dialogue (and about 100 different endings) for playthroughs that last only a few minutes — the idea is that every session is radically different. It’s also a collaboration with theatre artists (the titular clowns), so there are really unique influences in the writing of it (including clown theory!)

The concept distantly reminds me of Dietrich Squinkifer’s masterpiece of awkwardness, Coffee: A Misunderstanding. This doesn’t have the players actually speak the lines that they’ve chosen, though, and presumably the effect is rather different. I am curious about clown theory, too.

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17776 Football is not exactly traditional IF, at least as far as I’ve played; it’s closer to dynamic fiction, with embedded images and video to help tell its story, and a few link-based elements.

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Caleb Wilson’s excellent and influential Lime Ergot now has a Spanish translation, thanks to Ruber Eaglenest.

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Wikitext: The Text Adventure is a parser style text adventure space that allows you to traverse locations defined by Wikipedia. I was able to make it start in Oxford and then wander the described space until I got to the street I live on, which was surreal. I doubt this works for every street — Oxford locations are probably a bit over-represented in Wikipedia — but still, a good time.

Ili.jpg

Ili is a narrative game now being kickstarted, mostly focusing on dialogue and negotiation rather than combat. The demo only works on Windows, so I haven’t had a chance to give it a shot, but the author writes:

Ili is an immortal being haunted by regret. Your aim is to guide Ili through her past and meet the ghosts from her past. While Ili is the game’s protagonist, you control most of her actions and act more like her spiritual guide. You are to help her say or do things that she would be too afraid to do by herself. The problems put in front of both you and Ili can be solved in different ways through talking. Do you intend to change the past? Or is it better to make peace with the past and to move on?

Ultimate Ending Books is a CYOA line I hadn’t heard of until just recently; don’t really know more about them than the website.

AlcoholIf you’re interested in procedural toys, you’ve probably already seen Inspirobot. If not, enjoy. I think it’s saying that I could live in a volcano if I had a couple cocktails first.


July 14, 2017

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! My Day off Work by Andrew J. Schaefer

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

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Your alarm goes off and you have a momentous decision to make – get up, or stay in bed? It’s your first big choice but far from your last.

My Day off Work is a 240,000 word interactive fantasy novel by Andrew J. Schaefer, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

You’ll have 24 hours to explore your world and the myriad treasures within it. Every decision opens new doors and closes others; every choice you make takes you to a new fork in the path. You might meet new friends, explore hidden rooms, or discover secret treasures. You could find yourself fighting a relentless killing machine, joyriding in a luxury sports car, or relaxing in a sleek lounge with the city’s movers and shakers while soothing the baby you’ve just agreed to watch.

No two games are any more similar than you want them to be. Compelling plotlines and funny asides keep things relentlessly entertaining. You might even learn a few things, but only if you want to.

It’s all your choice. Is that a light at the end of the tunnel? And is it the sun? Or an oncoming train?

• Enjoy your surprise day off work.
• Tackle tough choices like whether to get dressed, what to eat, and when to leave the house.
• Explore the myriad paths a bustling city has to offer.
• Look for hidden options, secret choices, and unexpected twists.
• Experience a different story every time, from tragic to provocative to hilarious.

Andrew J. Schaefer 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.

The Digital Antiquarian

A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 5: The Inflection Point

by Jimmy Maher at July 14, 2017 05:41 PM

Just a few weeks after the Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte versions of Tetris went on sale, Robert Stein received a telex to which was attached a Russian name he had never seen before in all his negotiating efforts. One Alexander Alexinko from a previously unheard-of state agency called Electronorgtechnica — more colloquially referred to as simply ELORG — was taking over the negotiations, which were now expected to proceed on a more formal basis. Any hopes Stein might have harbored that the Russians would just go away quietly, allowing him to reap all of the profits from Tetris coming back to Andromeda Software, were thus dashed. On the other hand, though, the very fact that the Russians were reaching out to him — just about the first proactive step he had ever witnessed from them in the previous eighteen months or so of dialog — could be a positive sign that some sort of legitimate, mutually lucrative deal was possible after all. Anything was better than the fractured, pointless discussions they had had to date.

As happened more often in the Soviet Union than its rulers might have cared to admit, the sequence of events which had brought Alexinko into the picture had had more to do with happenstance that any orchestrated shift in strategy. ELORG lived under the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Trade, where it was charged, like several competing organizations within the labyrinthine and turf-war-plagued Soviet bureaucracy, with overseeing the import and export of technology. In the past, the agency had carved out a niche for itself under this absurdly broad umbrella as the calculator kingpin of the Eastern Bloc, exporting knockoffs of American and Japanese models that were much sought-after by scientists and engineers — even if, as was all too typical of Mirror World technology, they didn’t always work quite right. But now, Perestroika was in the air, and organizations like ELORG were expected to take an entrepreneurial role in forging a new Soviet Union that was happy to trade with its former arch-enemies in the West. It was thus in search of potential products that might be viable in the West that Alexinko had come to the Moscow Computer Center one day. He was there to beat the bushes and see if any golden nuggets fell out. Games were about the farthest thing from his mind; he was interested in serious software, as befit the very serious government institution he worked for.

Then one day a personable member of the research staff named Alexey Pajitnov mentioned in casual conversation that he and, more recently and thus more pertinently, much of the management of the Computer Center had been negotiating directly with someone in Britain named Robert Stein over a game Pajitnov had created. Alexinko was shocked. A new era may have been dawning in the Soviet Union, but the old way of doing things died hard with a hardened bureaucratic veteran like him. To his mind, this unauthorized negotiation bordered on the scandalous or even treasonous. And when the researchers produced the paper trail of their confused communications with Stein, full of broad statements ripe for misconstrual, his shock turned into horror. Just as Pajitnov had been shoved out of the dialog and out of pocketing any potential profits from Tetris by his managers at the Computer Center some months before, now those selfsame managers were taken off the case by Alexinko. He would manage the discussions from here, he told them. His first step took the form of that initial telex to Stein.

It’s not clear whether Alexinko, isolated as he still was in so many ways in the Soviet Union even in the time of glasnost and perestroika, was ever aware that Stein had jumped the gun and allowed Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte to release Tetris without a clear agreement with the Russians. It is clear, however, that Stein at the very least made it plain to Alexinko that the game was well on its way to being released. In doing so, he turned what could have been a disadvantage into its opposite. This was exactly the sort of deal that the new Soviet Union was supposed to be making, exactly the sort that Alexinko was supposed to be brokering. Did he want to enjoy the credit for it, or did he want to put the brakes on it, prompting anger in at least two other countries that could very easily get back to his bosses? Stein could be very savvy at times, and this is a fine example of one of them.

Dealing at last with a motivated individual with the wherewithal to make things happen, Stein hammered out a deal with his opposite number with head-snapping speed, in marked contrast to all those previous months of fruitless back-and-forth. He visited Moscow again to put the finishing touches on the contract in February; he and Alexinko shook hands over a final draft on February 24, 1988. Alexinko explained that he just needed to get the contract approved by his superiors, then he would send it on to Stein for his signature. The Soviet bureaucracy still being the Soviet bureaucracy, it took a little longer than he had implied it would, but the deal was finally signed on May 10, 1988. Stein breathed a sign of relief, thinking he had gotten away with one. He had his contract in hand, everything was now legal and above-board, and Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte needed never know that their permission to release Tetris post-dated their actual release of Tetris by some months. Alas, though, whatever good feelings were in the air weren’t destined to stay around for long.

The first inkling of trouble came when the Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte versions of Tetris, filled with Westerners’ ideas of iconic Soviet imagery, finally made their way to Moscow. Alexinko was not at all amused by the tribute to Mathias Rust landing his private plane on Red Square, which appeared on the title screen before the game proper had even begun. What the Western media had reported as little more than an amusing human-interest story, the Soviet Union regarded as a national embarrassment. Rust had, after all, penetrated through the entire Soviet air-defense system to the very nerve center of the country flying nothing more advanced than a rickety old Cessna; Rust himself was still imprisoned in the Soviet Union, charged with terrorism. Pajitnov, for his part, took the Rust tribute in good humor, but was unhappy about portrayals of the Red Army in battle. He told Stein that he wanted Tetris to be “a peaceful game heralding a new era in the relationship between superpowers and their attitude toward world peace.” Stein dutifully took up the delicate task of requesting these omissions of Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte, who duly ponied up for some new graphics to replace the objectionable ones.

But tensions between Stein and the Russians were continuing to grow. Alexinko was coming more and more to distrust his opposite number. Royalties for Tetris were supposed to be flowing to the Russians through Stein, their only direct contact in the West. Yet by the end of September they still hadn’t seen any money at all, even as Tetris topped many computer-game bestseller charts in the United States. Stein tried to soothe an impatient and suspicious Alexinko by explaining that these things took time, that the money would be coming eventually. Alexinko didn’t believe his excuses, started mumbling about modifying the contract to include a firm time frame on royalty payments, with penalties for late payments. It’s not clear today whether Stein really was still playing fast and loose with the Russians, or whether he was, as he himself claimed, at the mercy of Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte, waiting for his own royalties to filter through those companies’ accounting departments so he could send the Russians’ cut onward. What is clear, however, is that this pugnacious little Hungarian was once again rubbing everyone in Moscow the wrong way, raising hackles and raising suspicions.

And he was still overreaching himself in trying to keep the various Western interests placated. He licensed the arcade rights to Tetris to Atari Games in May, despite never having obtained those rights from the Russians. Putting the cart before the horse yet again, only after making that deal with Atari did he broach the subject of the arcade rights with Alexinko in Moscow, hoping to quickly get a deal that would once again keep his Western partners from realizing what a dangerous game he was playing. But Alexinko obstinately refused to even talk about the issue until he started seeing royalties from the computer-game versions — not even when Stein offered a $30,000 advance for the arcade rights in July. Soon Tetris arcade machines, made by Atari Games in the United States and sub-licensed by them to Sega in Japan, were pouring out of factories, without any form of agreement with the Russians, while Stein sweated it out and hoped the Russians’ isolation would keep them from noticing.

By the time it went into production, the arcade version of Tetris had already played a critical role whose importance wouldn’t become clear for many months. Atari took a prototype of it with them to an American arcade-industry trade show in June of 1988. There it was spotted by the two most important architects of Nintendo’s stunning American success: Minoru Arakawa, the president of Nintendo of America, and his right-hand man Howard Lincoln, who bore the official titles of Senior Vice President and General Counsel but in reality was all that plus much, much more. Neither had seen or heard about Tetris before encountering it that day in Atari’s trade-show booth. Both were immediately smitten by the Tetris Effect. Randy Broweleit of Atari’s Tengen subsidiary, who had a license to release five games per year on the Nintendo Entertainment System, was in the booth as well, and proved very forthcoming. He told Arakawa and Lincoln of the game’s unlikely origins in the Mirror World, and told how Atari had been able to acquire both console rights and arcade rights to the game from Mirrorsoft in Britain. Tengen’s Nintendo version for the North American market, he explained, would likely be coming out in May of 1989. In the meanwhile, a fellow called Henk Rogers had sub-licensed the Japanese Nintendo rights from Atari and would probably be releasing his version much sooner. Arakawa and Lincoln went away satisfied that Tetris, which they both recognized to be a natural fit on the Nintendo, would eventually be appearing for the console in both Japan and North America. Fair enough, then; on to other business. But then, several months later, the conversation with Broweleit and the demonstration of Tetris flashed back into the forefront of their minds in response to a new communication from Japan.

Deep in the bowels of Nintendo’s worldwide headquarters back in Kyoto, a team of 46 designers, programmers, and engineers were hard at work putting the finishing touches on a top-secret project with revolutionary potential: a handheld game console to be called the Game Boy. It would be a sharply limited device even in comparison to the less-than-technically-earth-shattering NES, with a tiny black-and-white 2.5-inch display that smacked more of a calculator than a conventional videogame. Clearly it wasn’t going to be possible to port Super Mario Bros. to the new gadget and call it a day. Therefore the call had gone out through Nintendo’s management ranks to keep eyes open for concepts which would work well on the Game Boy. This inevitably meant simple games, far simpler even than was the norm on the NES.

Tetris was perfect for the platform. It was as if Tetris had been made with the Game Boy in mind from the start — or as if the Game Boy had been made just to play Tetris. In this light, what Randy Broweleit hadn’t said to Arakawa and Lincoln on that day at the trade show was as important as anything he had said: he’d made no mention of handheld rights. Why should he? There wasn’t any market to speak of for handheld videogames at the time. If Nintendo had their way, however, that was all about to change.

Having heard from Broweleit that Henk Rogers in Japan had sub-licensed from Atari the rights to a Famicom version of Tetris, Arakawa and Lincoln decided he was the place to start in trying to secure the handheld rights. While Rogers’s Bullet-Proof Software was undoubtedly a tiny player even by the standards of the domestic Japanese market, much less the world videogame stage, he had bonded with Nintendo’s president Hiroshi Yamauchi — by no means an easy thing to do — over their mutual love of Go, and had acquired a reputation within Nintendo as an up-and-comer with potential. Rogers, who was close enough to Nintendo’s inner circle to be in on the Game Boy secret, was told that if he could get the handheld rights for himself then Nintendo would happily sub-license them from him. It didn’t take a savvy videogame veteran like Rogers long to recognize the synergy between the Game Boy and Tetris, and to recognize that millions and millions of dollars were potentially in such a deal for him. “If you’ve met Rogers, you know that he is capable of finding his way in the middle of any storm,” says Lincoln. “Telling him that we were ready to license from him was like showing red meat to a hungry lion.” Rogers reached out to Robert Stein on November 15, 1988, saying he’d like to discuss buying the worldwide handheld rights to Tetris. As a starting point for negotiations, he offered an advance of $25,000.

Nikoli Belikov circa 2004

Life by that point hadn’t gotten any easier for an increasingly addled Stein. In October, he had gotten word from Moscow that Alexander Alexinko had been taken off his case, to be replaced by one Nikoli Belikov. The change would not be to his benefit. If Alexinko had been a fairly typical example of the competent Soviet bureaucrat, Belikov was something else entirely, a man who had built a reputation for himself well before the era of perestroika as the consummate bureaucratic in-fighter, a master of the art of the well-timed back stab whom you trifled with at your peril. He was the sort of man who was put on the job to do an agency’s dirty work.

The conversation was soon verging on the openly hostile, as Stein and Belikov nurtured what had been from the first a pronounced dislike of one another. The fundamental impasse remained the same: Stein still hadn’t paid the Russians for the computer-game versions of Tetris that had been sold to date. “When I read [the contract with Stein], I felt very unhappy,” says Belikov. “It said the first payment should be made within three months. It was already October. I began to think what to do: how to force Andromeda Software to pay.” Yet even as he failed to pay the Russians Stein continued to pressure them to sign over arcade rights — and now, in the wake of Henk Rogers’s recent request, handheld rights. Understandably, Belikov wanted to see money from the deal that had already been signed before he signed another. “Andromeda Software sent me telexes asking to start negotiations for new licensing agreements,” says Belikov, “but my only reaction to these was ‘first honor the original agreement, then we can negotiate further.'”

Again, the reasons for Stein’s recalcitrance on this most critical of issues remain unclear. Had he really not yet been paid by Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte? Had he used the money for something else, perhaps to shore up his declining business, and thus no longer had it to give to the Russians? Or was he for some other reason simply refusing to part with it? He had happily accepted Henk Rogers’s $25,000, but continued to dither on producing the rights Rogers was after. The latter first grew impatient, then deeply suspicious. Something was wrong here. “He said he was going to go to Russia,” says Rogers. “He kept on saying that, but he wasn’t going.” With the Game Boy scheduled to ship in Japan in April of 1989, in North America in July, time was running dangerously short. At last, Rogers decided that if Stein wouldn’t go to Moscow for him, he would go himself. He would try to talk to these mysterious partners of Stein’s and see if he could negotiate a handheld deal for himself. In February of 1989, despite having no advance invitation or for that matter any official status whatsoever with ELORG, he bought a ticket for Moscow.

Rogers and Belikov weren’t the only ones sensing that Robert Stein wasn’t playing it straight. Mirrorsoft too had been inquiring about the handheld rights, perhaps envisioning a standalone handheld Tetris game, and had run into a similar pattern of delay and obfuscation, raising with them as well the question of what sort of relationship Stein really had with the Russians. The situation led Jim Mackonochie of Mirrorsoft to reach the same decision as Rogers: he would go to Moscow himself to see what was what. When he explained his plan at the next Mirrorsoft board meeting, however, he was overruled. Board member Kevin Maxwell, son of primary Mirrorsoft shareholder Robert Maxwell and thus not a man to be disputed, said he was going to Moscow for business anyway that February. He would meet with the ELORG people while he was there, he said in his confident way, and get everything sorted out.

In the United States, Phil Adam of Spectrum Holobyte had also decided to travel to Moscow himself, but was similarly shut down when he told the people back in London about his plans. Kevin Maxwell would take care of everything, he was assured.

The Chinese wall Stein had built between his partners in the West and his charges in Moscow was about to crumble. Yet Stein himself had hardly dropped out of the picture. While Rogers and Maxwell were making their plans, he finally arranged for his own trip to Moscow to try one more time to make his own deal for the arcade and handheld Tetris rights. All three parties would arrive within days of one another, none having any idea that the others were coming.

Henk Rogers in his Moscow hotel room, 1989

The first to arrive was Henk Rogers, primed to deploy the charm that had served him so well through his career to date. Rogers:

I did know I was going behind the Iron Curtain for the first time and I had no idea what I was getting into. I kind of knew how to deal with people who were not from my original culture. So, I was expecting to get off that plane and make friends. That’s not what happened. Everybody that I met was unfriendly and unhappy and grumpy. There was an information desk in the hotel. I asked them about ELORG. “Nope, I can’t find it.” No attempt at going any further.

The prevailing impression he had of Moscow can be summed up in the word “gray”: gray skies, gray streets, gray and unsmiling people. The television in his hotel room showed only gray snow, the radio played only gray static. Born marketer that he was, he was disturbed perhaps most of all by the complete lack of advertisements in the city: “Nobody was trying to sell you anything!” At last, he found a tour guide and translator who took him to the ELORG offices. In very un-Soviet fashion, he simply marched up unannounced and knocked on the front door.

Rogers in his Western naivete didn’t realize it, but he was actually putting his would-be negotiating partners in a very delicate position by doing so. Glasnost or no, the law still required that any meetings of Soviet citizens with foreigners be approved in advance by the state. Rogers himself was in the Soviet Union on a tourist visa, meaning that even discussing business on the trip was technically illegal.

As we’ve noted, though, Nikoli Belikov wasn’t your typical hidebound Soviet bureaucrat. He had meetings already scheduled in about a week with Robert Stein and this new, unknown quantity named Kevin Maxwell. He realized, as any savvy negotiator would, that a third party to play against the other two could be a very good thing to have. He talked briefly with Rogers that day, just long enough to tell him to come back the next day, by which time he could pull some strings to get an official meeting on the books. As a matter of courtesy, he also invited the original instigator all this chaos, Alexey Pajitnov, to attend what would turn into a solid week of negotiations.

When the next day came, Rogers found himself seated before a massive table much like the one that had greeted Robert Stein the first time he came to Moscow, inside a similarly forbidding room. Not allowing his stark surroundings to intimidate him, he launched into the sales pitch of his life. With most potential licensers, his cause would have been helped enormously by his being able to say that he enjoyed a close connection to Nintendo, by far the richest and most powerful entity in videogames, with 70 percent of the worldwide market at their command. He now realized to his shock, though, that Belikov and the rest of the Russians knew nothing about Nintendo or their enormous market clout. So, he took on the persona of a sort of consultant. He avoided the hard sell, treating the Russians more like confidants than potential marks, walking them patiently through the details of the Western videogame business in the way that Stein had never bothered to do, telling them in the process about this top-secret upcoming gadget called the Game Boy. Tetris, he said, would be the perfect game to sell millions of Game Boys — and Game Boy would be the perfect platform to sell millions of copies of Tetris. While it would perhaps be an exaggeration to say that Belikov took a liking to Rogers — he really wasn’t the sort of person to like anybody sitting on the other side of the table from him — he was favorably impressed by the contrast with Stein. When the day was over, Belikov told Rogers to come back again the next day, this time with a formal offer for the handheld rights to Tetris.

Henk Rogers and Alexey Pajitnov

Over the course of the meeting, Rogers had forged another relationship that would prove even more key to his future than the bridge he was building to the taciturn Belikov. Even before they were introduced, he had picked out Alexey Pajitnov; he was just so intrinsically different from the other unsmiling, gray-suited (of course!) bureaucrats sitting around the table. Rogers chatted with Pajitnov, something Stein had bothered to do in only the most patronizing of terms. “Finally out of all this dressed-in-suit business world, I saw a guy who really liked and understood the game,” says Pajitnov. “And somehow we liked each other, almost immediately.” Rogers calls Pajitnov “the friend I was looking for in Russia. We got together that night, started talking about game design, immediately jumped into [ideas for] Tetris II. We had stuff to talk about.” Bonding over vodka inside the Pajitnov family’s humble apartment, finding ways to communicate despite Pajitnov’s broken English and Rogers’s nonexistent Russian, the two formed a bond of friendship and trust that has endured to the present day. For Pajitnov, the key aspect of the evening was that Rogers “offered me nothing and asked for nothing” in relation to his game. Again, the contrast with Stein couldn’t have been more pronounced.

When a woozy Rogers stumbled home to his cold hotel room that night, he knew he had seen a side of Russian culture almost impenetrable to most Westerners — the warmer side that existed behind the closed doors of family life, the one that had nothing to do with politics and ideology. And he knew that, whatever else the next day might bring, he at least had Pajitnov in his corner. The problem, of course, was that Pajitnov had long since been forced to relinquish virtually all say in the fate of his own game.

Still, Rogers’s charm and his straightforward, very un-Stein-like manner were beginning to have their effect even on Belikov. Without much preamble on the next morning, Rogers and ELORG agreed to work on a deal giving Bullet-Proof Software exclusive worldwide handheld rights to Tetris. Steins’s Chinese wall had just crumbled to dust. After a few days of detail-ironing, on February 21, 1989, they signed the final contract. For Henk Rogers, it was the deal of a lifetime, one that was all but guaranteed to make him a very, very rich man. But his euphoria was short-lived.

A boxed copy of the Bullet-Proof version of Tetris, like the one that Henk Rogers showed Nikoli Belikov at a pivotal moment.

Wishing to show his new Russians friends and business partners an actual, tangible product his company had already created using the Tetris intellectual property, Rogers reached into his bag and pulled out Bullet-Proof Software’s Nintendo Famicom version of the game, which had been released in Japan the previous month and had already sold 130,000 copies. “We’re the biggest publisher of Tetris in the world right now,” he said proudly. But Rogers needed only take one look at Belikov’s face to realize he had made a serious error. He had simply assumed that, whatever else was going on with Robert Stein, his own Famicom version of Tetris, for which he had acquired the rights from Atari rather than directly from Stein, was entirely legal and above-board. But the Russians, it gradually became clear, had no idea that any commercial versions of Tetris beyond the Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte computer games existed. Belikov, from being on the verge of smiling five minutes before — a smile represented a veritable outburst of joy from him — was now loudly accusing Rogers of software piracy. “You are illegally selling something that doesn’t belong to you,” he almost shouted, pounding the table to emphasize his point. The conversation began to take on the tone of an interrogation.

The prospect of Mirrorsoft sub-licensing part of their rights had apparently never occurred to the Russians, and had conveniently gone unmentioned by Stein. A flustered Rogers struggled to explain; flustering Henk Rogers wasn’t an easy thing to do, but Belikov had managed it. He took the Russians through the fine print on the back of the box, through Andromeda and Mirrorsoft and Atari and finally to Bullet-Proof. It was all nonsense, Belikov insisted. As far as he had understood it, the rights shouldn’t go further than Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte. Rogers asked about the videotape of the Famicom Tetris which he had been required to submit for approval, the one that Stein had told him had indeed been approved by the Russians. No one at the table had ever seen any such thing. Rogers mentioned that Stein had also licensed Tetris arcade games that were now in service all over the world. Once again, the Russians knew nothing about that.

This marked a pivotal moment — perhaps the pivotal moment in the entire negotiation. For the Russians, it provided the first incontrovertible evidence of what they had suspected all along: that Stein wasn’t an honest broker. For Rogers, it threw all of his assumptions into doubt — and suddenly threw everything, namely all of the various rights to Tetris, into play. It seemed that much of what Stein had told his Western and Eastern partners alike was, as Rogers would later put it, a “sham.” As the conversation/interrogation continued, it became clear that the Russians believed they had licensed only the computer-game rights, not console rights, to Stein. Belikov produced the contract they had signed. Whether by intention or accident, its wording on the subject was vague: it granted Stein the rights for “the IBM PC and other computer systems.” It was unclear whether “computer systems” should include game consoles. On its face, the lack of clarification was far from inexplicable: the Russians at the time had had very little idea if any what game consoles were, and even Stein had spent his career immersed in the European market, where home computers dominated in digital entertainment and consoles were almost unheard of. It struck Rogers as clear that the intent of the Russians — and most likely of Stein as well at the time of the signing — had been to limit the license to personal computers. Still, when he had seen the opportunity to make more money licensing Tetris for consoles, Stein had opted for a broad interpretation of the clause. It was difficult to say which way it would go in a court of law. And as went living-room game consoles, so potentially went handheld devices. Was a Game Boy really any less or more a “computer system” than a Famicom? Or, to really a stretch a point, could even a standup arcade game be construed as a “computer system?” It was all so damnably unclear.

Looking for a way to demonstrate his good faith, Rogers did some hasty calculations, reached again into his bag to pull out a checkbook, and wrote ELORG a check for the $40,000 he estimated he owed to Atari for the copies of Tetris he’d already sold under the terms of the contract he’d signed with them. He could sort that out with them later. Right now, he knew, much more than $40,000 was at stake. Voluntarily handing over a check was just about the last thing anyone sitting around the table could ever imagine Robert Stein doing. It made a huge impression on the Russians, not least Belikov. “Forgive me,” Belikov remembers Rogers saying. “I didn’t know. I want to work with you.”

Rogers understood that the great danger presented by the contract’s vagueness brought with it great opportunity. Everything truly was now in play. And Belikov had something of the same feeling. The next morning, he asked Rogers whether he and/or his friends at Nintendo would be interested in submitting a bid for the worldwide console rights to Tetris. Absolutely, Rogers replied, but warned that “there will be trouble.” The contract between Stein and ELORG was vague enough that Stein could make a plausible case for his interpretation, and the likes of Mirrorsoft and Atari who stood behind Stein had plenty of legal resources at their disposal. But Belikov was already hatching a scheme to clarify the situation. Implying as much to Rogers, he told him to go home, talk to Nintendo if he needed to, and prepare a proposal within three weeks.

Rogers had now been in Moscow for about a week. Stein was to come in for his scheduled meeting that very afternoon, and Belikov wanted to make sure that he didn’t get a whiff of Rogers’s presence. Really, he told Rogers in no uncertain terms, I need you to leave now. “I didn’t [yet] understand who was working for whom,” says Belikov. “But I did understand that they must not meet.”

Robert Stein in Moscow, 1989

Stein had already arrived at ELORG as Belikov hustled Rogers out the door; he had been taken to wait in a side room to ensure that Rogers wouldn’t meet him on his way out. Belikov, that master of the bureaucratic double-cross, was about to paint his masterpiece.

Assuming his most peremptory posture, he dropped a document on the table in front of Stein, demanding that he sign it before anything else was discussed. When Stein asked what it was, Belikov explained that it was an amended version of the contract that had been signed between Andromeda and ELORG back in May of 1988. The amendments were to be, by the mutual agreement of the signing parties, treated as having gone into effect with the original contract, treated for legal purposes as if they had always been there. Belikov strongly implied that the amendments applied entirely to what had been the primary source of rancor between Stein and the Russians for months now, the issue of timely payment — or, rather, the lack thereof on Stein’s part. The Russians’ determination to resolve this issue struck Stein as, if hardly welcome, not unexpected in light of everything that had transpired. Indeed, Alexander Alexinko had been threatening to add language to the contract on exactly this subject for months before Belikov had arrived on the scene. Belikov was counting on this sense of plausibility. “I artificially increased the penalties for delayed payment,” he says. “I knew that they were unrealistic, but I had to concentrate his attention on these figures, which I was naturally ready to reduce.”

Stein took the amended contract back to his hotel room that night to read it over. As expected, he returned to ELORG the next morning in a huff, insisting that the proposed payment schedules and penalties were impossibly stringent. Belikov grumbled and duly agreed to a compromise figure, whereupon Stein signed his name to the new document.

The squabbles about payments had all been an elaborate smokescreen. The real point of the amended contract was a clause which Stein had, as Belikov had intended, entirely overlooked. It clarified “computer systems” as meaning “PC computers which consist of a processor, monitor, disk drive(s), keyboard, and operation system.” In signing the contract, Stein had just retroactively voided the deal which had given the console rights to Tetris to Atari (and, yes, passed those same rights further to Henk Rogers in Japan). And in the process, he’d cut himself out of the staggering amounts of money Tetris would soon be generating on consoles and handheld devices. An embittered Stein would later call Belikov “a son of a bitch”: “They made it so matter-of-fact — we would like you [to sign this] for the sake of bureaucracy — and I agreed because I was so focused on getting what I wanted I forget about watching what they wanted.”

The things that Stein wanted were the handheld rights, which unbeknownst to him Belikov had already signed away to Henk Rogers, and the arcade rights. Belikov rebuffed him in his usual non-committal fashion when it came to the former, telling him they’d talk about them later, but showed him a little mercy when it came to the latter. The arcade rights wouldn’t, however, come cheap: Belikov demanded a $150,000 advance, plus payment of all of Stein’s outstanding obligations for the computer-game versions of Tetris, with the late-payment penalties described in the amended contract, and all within six weeks. Still having no idea what he had done in signing the amended contract, Stein agreed to all this as well on the morning of February 24. He was then hastily bundled out of ELORG’s offices, thinking the Russians had driven hard bargains but that his trip had been at least a partial success in spite of it all.

Belikov needed to get rid of him, given that Kevin Maxwell was scheduled to arrive that very afternoon. He still had one more double-cross to pull.

Robert and Kevin Maxwell

Manifesting all of his father’s arrogance and authoritarianism without the same native business acumen, Kevin Maxwell was regarded as a troublesome dilettante within the Maxwell empire, with a tendency to meddle in affairs about which he had an imperfect understanding at best. It was all too typical of him to parachute down on a problem that was on the verge of being solved and take charge at the last minute, thereby to walk away with the credit from his father, whom he worshiped with a perhaps unhealthy ardor. Thus this meeting with ELORG. Maxwell seemed to expect that his name alone — his father was personally acquainted with Mikhail Gorbachev, and had been among the first Western financiers to invest in Gorbachev’s rapidly changing Soviet Union — would bring these Russian rubes into line. He walked into ELORG’s offices that afternoon oozing self-importance and condescension, but with very little idea of the particulars that he was supposed to be negotiating. The wizened old fox Belikov practically licked his lips at the sight of him.

Belikov threw the Bullet-Proof version of Tetris which Henk Rogers had left behind onto the table. “What’s this?” he asked. Maxwell said he had no idea, said it must be an unauthorized pirate version of the game. When Belikov showed him the fine print on the box, tracing the rights through Mirrorsoft to Atari and so on to Bullet-Proof, Maxwell stuck to his guns. Mirrorsoft hadn’t authorized any such release, he insisted more stridently than ever, having never bothered to research all of the side deals that had been made involving Tetris by that point. Ironically, this “pirated” version of Tetris was the only one for which the Russians had actually been paid what they were owed, thanks to the check Rogers had written a couple of days earlier. That irony wasn’t lost on Belikov. If the rights wound up disputed in court, he now had Maxwell on record admitting that a console version of Tetris which Mirrorsoft had in fact authorized — by extension anyway, through the deal with Atari — was illegitimate. It would add weight to the Russians’ claim that the console rights had never been Stein’s to license to Mirrorsoft in the first place.

But Belikov didn’t let on at this meeting that any disputes surrounded the deal the Russians had signed with Stein; better to let Maxwell find out about that later. On the subject of the handheld rights that were Maxwell’s primary goal, he proposed a quid pro quo: he would promise Mirrorsoft the opportunity to bid on the handheld rights as soon as they became available in exchange for the right to reprint a number of Maxwell Communications reference publications, such as Collier’s Encyclopedia, royalty-free in the Soviet Union. He made it sound like “waiting for the handheld rights to become available” referred to some irksome bureaucratic process that had to be finalized. In reality, of course, Mirrorsoft would be waiting a very long time, approximately forever in fact: those rights had already been purchased by Henk Rogers, and would never, ever be relinquished by him.

Belikov also promised Maxwell the right to bid for the console rights, offering to sign an agreement to that effect. Maxwell, either out of confusion or out of total ignorance of what rights Mirrorsoft already claimed to own, readily agreed. Since signing an agreement to negotiate on a set of rights carried the natural implication that one didn’t already possess said rights, Belikov now had Maxwell further on record as tacitly acknowledging that the console rights did not and had never belonged to Mirrorsoft.

A self-satisfied Kevin Maxwell walked out of ELORG on the same day he had first arrived like Neville Chamberlain leaving Munich, having signed away a whole pile of publication rights and tacitly admitted that Mirrorsoft’s contract to publish Tetris applied only to computer games — and all in return for a promise from the Russians to listen to future proposals.

Belikov, on the other hand, had more than earned the right to smile, having in the course of one rather extraordinary fortnight completely reshaped the state of Tetris as a commercial entity. He finally had Stein firmly on the hook to pay ELORG the royalties he owed, with penalties. He had licensed the arcade rights to Stein for a lucrative advance. He had tricked both Stein and Maxwell into acknowledging that their rights didn’t cover console versions, and he was awaiting new bids for those rights from Rogers and Maxwell that should be on his desk within a few weeks. He had licensed the handheld rights to Rogers on very good terms — a deal that, if Rogers’s optimism had any grounding at all in reality, could be by far the most profitable of all. He had even gotten paid by Rogers for the sales to date of the Japanese Famicom version Stein had apparently tried to slip past him, and had a promise from Rogers to continue to pay him for it while everything else got sorted out. No, it wasn’t a bad fortnight’s work at all.

Still, it wouldn’t be all smooth sailing from here. Powerful organizations had a vested interest in the previous status quo, and were hardly likely to take this sweeping realignment with equanimity. Alexey Pajitnov’s simple little game of falling shapes would cause much more international drama before all was said and done.

(Sources: the books Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff and The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman; the BBC television documentary From Russia with Love. Most of the images in this article are borrowed from From Russia with Love.)


Comments

July 13, 2017

Emily Short

Hatred (Richard Goodness)

by Emily Short at July 13, 2017 09:40 PM

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 8.42.34 PM.pngHatred begins as a piece about hate crimes, and about attitudes towards our current president. The story (rated R, it helpfully informs us) casts the 45th president of the United States in the role of both victim and presidential commentator in the death of Matthew Shepard, and in the Columbine Massacre. At one point it ascribes to our current president some words spoken by William Jefferson Clinton; the complexity of the sentence structure alone suffices as evidence for the misattribution.

All of this is framed as evidence in a trial of God.

Then the game gives way to a game-within-a-game, a supposed alt-right killing spree game. This is unpleasant — you go around stabbing people more or less just because they exist, enacting some kind of parody of anti-social justice mentalities, carrying out a school shooting of your very own. Even as parody, I find this world extremely hard to take, intentionally ugly and jarring. Knowing that it’s meant to be awful doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to inhabit.

Though, if you go to the library (possibly after killing the librarian for ten points) you find a long meditation on the parable of the Prodigal Son that includes this tidbit

And I’ve tried to remember that miracles are not when God does the work of the people, but when people do the work of God

…and which reflects the possibility of a different life from the rest of the story.

I won’t try to explain the remainder of the plot, which spans a couple of layers of framing narrative and game and game-in-game, so as to avoid spoilers. But the work asks, among other things, whether we have the right to hate people and things that themselves seem self-evidently evil; whether there is another response available and what that response might entail; whether it’s fair of God (assuming such a being exists) to put us in this bind. And it justly knocks the really facile answers here.

Do I recommend it? It’s about something more significant than most IF. It was also, at least for me, a pretty unpleasant play. I’m glad that I did, in the end, but your mileage may vary. For someone who doesn’t share the author’s political views, it may also read as simply petty, or perhaps weird and incomprehensible.


Renga in Blue

Aldebaran III (1977)

by Jason Dyer at July 13, 2017 08:41 AM

This is another game by Peter Langston using the Wander system. (For those who haven’t read about it yet, Wander is a system for writing text adventures originally from 1974, before Crowther and Woods Adventure.)

The first Wander game I played, Castle (original version 1974, current version 1978-ish) felt a bit conventional; without the oddness of the parser it’s not obvious it’s a “side branch” in the history of adventures. This is not the case for Aldebaran III.

Aldebaran III is based on the stories of Keith Laumer, and specifically his intergalactic diplomat Jame Retief. Hence, it’s the first adventure game where you are playing a well-defined character, rather than “yourself”.

You’re this guy, or at least Richard Martin’s imagining from the cover of Retief!

Keith Laumer was a diplomat himself (stationed in Burma) and consequently this is a bit like Ian Fleming and John le Carré going from working in intelligence agencies to authoring spy novels. His stories about Retief are satirical and contain jokes that are (apparently) funnier to those who have been in the real-life diplomatic corps.

Just Imagine …

You are traveling as First Under-secretary to the Ambassador for the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne, (CDT). Your direct superior, Mr. Magnan, has managed to duck out of the action and leave you as sole assistant to his superior, Ambassador Pouncetrifle. (The Ambassador is a classic bungler and would, if left on his own, mess things up badly.)

You have been sent to Aldebaran III where you are to avert an uprising against Terran nationals expected at the end of April.

The “Just Imagine…” is a strong cue that we are, in fact, roleplaying, a fact emphasized further by checking the papers we are holding:

READ NOTES
Page 1
Aldebaran III is an eighty-four percent earth normal planet which revolves around a brilliant red star, (Aldebaran, or Alpha Tauri). A III has an atmosphere consisting of 52% nitrogen, 26% helium, 20% oxygen and 2% other gases, (by volume). The period of revolution of A III is 18.628 Earth Standard hours which is expressed in local time as 24 hours. The axis of A III tilts less than a degree with respect to the ecliptic, (47.6′), providing virtually no variation in season and length of daylight, (sunrise is at 6:00 Aldebaran Standard Time, sunset at 7:00 p.m. A.S.T.).
… (the notes continue, but your interest wanes)

Note the last part “your interest wanes” — the character you are playing is bored, which is a good way even in modern games to avert having to write a lot of text for something that should be book-length.

The satirical approach to procedures from the original stories appears in the game, at least in this early encounter:

You are in a low-roofed customs building with long tables stretching between a door at the east and a door at the west. A large sign reads

+---------------------------------+
|    --> SHOW PAPERS HERE <--     |
|     --> PAY DUTY HERE <--       |
|  HAVE YOU ANYTHING TO DECLARE?  |
+---------------------------------+

in a dozen languages. A serious-looking customs official is eyeing you.

“Your papers, pleese”, lisps the official

SHOW PAPERS
“Hmm, a Terry” mumbles the official
“Have you anything to declare?” snaps the customs official

NO
“If you really have nothing to declare you may leave.”
Customs
W
“I don’t believe you’ve declared that credit card”, admonishes the official.
Customs
DECLARE CREDIT CARD
“Yes”, says the official sliding it down the counter and muttering to himself, “credit card — five credits”.

The parser is still as broken as Castle’s (I keep typing GET but the verb is unrecognized, it insists you use TAKE) but the main character still makes the experience feel weirdly modern.

I don’t know how long / difficult this is, I suppose we’ll find out next time!


July 12, 2017

Renga in Blue

Pyramid of Doom: Finished!

by Jason Dyer at July 12, 2017 06:40 PM

I’ve stored 13 treasures. On a scale from 0 to 100 that rates a 100. Well done.

So for the 13th treasure, I checked in a few of Voltgloss’s hints he provided on my last post. I had a hunch I was stuck on something not worth banging my head over.

I was not wrong.

Ok, what is it with early adventure games and goofy giant oysters? There was the one in Crowther and Woods Adventure that could be pried open with a trident (and only a trident), the one in Adventure 500 you just had to drop near water, and the one that waged mortal combat in Spelunker.

With this game, early on you find some “dried camel jerky”. There are some nearby starving rats who will gratefully eat it, and subsequently not attack you. I assumed that was that.

However, oysters like dried camel jerky … too?

WHAT SHALL I DO? FEED OYSTER
Oyster makes a slobbering noise
Visible items: Small Nomad, Pistol, Archway, Giant Oyster, * BLACK PEARL *

I can’t adequately express my state of mind about this puzzle so let me throw around some question marks: ? ???? ?? ?? ? ? ?? ? ? ???? ????

I mean (?), I guess a super-huge oyster (????) might eat something other than plankton (??), so this sort of (??????) makes sense (??).

No, no it doesn’t. But at least it was the last puzzle!

Progress update: I am shifting Warp, which I previously dated as 1979, up to 1980. I was always a bit tentative about it (I discuss the issue in my first post) because while the coding technically started in 1979 nobody outside the authors touched it until 1980. I also shelve HAUNT by John Laird (which has a copyright date span starting at 1979, but wasn’t really in a recognizable form until 1980) in that camp.

This leaves me with either 5 or 6 games to go to be entirely done with the 1970s:

1977

a3 by Peter Langston

1978

Library by Nat Howard
Tut by Peter Langston (this a binary arithmetic tutorial in the Wander system and may not be worth a post)

1979

Enchanted Island by Greg Hassett
Adventure 550 by David Platt
Adventure 501 by David Long

I might loop back and snag a few “supplemental games” which aren’t exactly adventures (like a full post on Hunt the Wumpus, and an obscure related game from the same year called Caves) but probably not until I’ve already started 1980.


Pyramid of Doom: Heart of the Phraoah

by Jason Dyer at July 12, 2017 03:40 AM

Last time, I had found a “throne room” with an “Iron statue of Phraoah” that killed me. There was a mural with the hint “Seek ye well the HEART of Iron” and trying to >TAKE HEART gave the message “Pharoah’s heart is red like yours, yet evil has darkened it!”

I have now solved this puzzle. Voltgloss mentioned in the comments this is the “defining puzzle” of the game. Since I’m going to spoil it, you should turn away now if you plan on playing Pyramid of Doom in the future.

I was stalled, and did my common procrastination tactic of browsing for more images to use in blog posts. Surprisingly, my act of procrastination broke open the case!

This is from the second catalog (1980 I believe) for Adventure International products. Specifically note the phrase “So, if you can’t seem to get out of the bog or locate the pharoah’s heart”. I assumed (via the somewhat deceptive parser response to >GET HEART) that the heart was in the throne room, but upon reading this comment I tried >GET HEART in an entirely different room and got the same message. It must be a hard-coded “hint”; and to be fair, while it led me astray at first, I wouldn’t have solved the puzzle without it.

So: considering the whole map, is there anything “darkened”? I did find a lump of coal in a fireplace, and had even tried using it in the throne room to no avail, but the word “darkened” suggested to me it could be cleansed somehow.

If you recall the pool of liquid that gave me trouble at the start of the game, I took the coal in the water and typed >CLEAN COAL.

The result: a ruby. Ah!

Alas, holding the ruby, rubbing it, waving it, etc. seemed to not do anything to the pharaoh. I decided I needed to destroy it. I utilized a nearby pool of acid:

WHAT SHALL I DO? THROW RUBY
OK Ruby falls into pool of acid, burns up.

Checking back in the throne room:

I’m in a throne room
Obvious exit: DOWN
Visible items: Small Nomad, Chain hanging from ceiling, Chest, Wall Mural, Pile of Melted iron

Pulling the chain reveals a secret staircase, and after a little trouble, I was able to get up to 12 out of 13 treasures found. The only issue: is the 13th treasure the ruby that I melted in acid? I’m not getting that back.

I don’t know if that means I solved the puzzle in the wrong way, or if the ruby just “doesn’t count”. I’m still stuck on the other puzzles from my last post (the giant oyster and the purple worm) so unless both are red herrings, I’m missing something else important.

But, close! Hoping for a victory post next time.


July 11, 2017

Emily Short

The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design (Dille/Platten)

by Emily Short at July 11, 2017 01:40 PM

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 1.02.03 PM.pngThe Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design (Flint Dille and John Zuur Platten). This one is a few years old — first printing 2007, it looks like — but it’s still selling healthily on Amazon. Dille and Platten are pragmatic about what they do: commercial work for which they’re hired and which require a number of soft skills beyond simply being able to write. In the introduction, they describe themselves as craftsmen rather than artists — a point about which I actually have some sympathy — and a good bit of the book consists of introducing the essential facts about how video games are made. (Or were made in 2007, at any rate. But there’s a lot here that’s still true.)

In contrast with Skolnick’s book, Dille and Platten dive right in to narrative structure questions in an early chapter: they talk about “limited branching” and “critical path” structures that would correspond with gauntlet or friendly-gauntlet structures; “funneling narrative” which is essentially branch-and-bottleneck; and “open-ended,” which seems to mean “a story in which the designer hasn’t really planned for CYOA structure at all and the result is a time cave or an unfinishable mess.” They also include “nodal” stories where short stories or quests are organized around in-game locations.

In other places, they’re (like Skolnick) providing standard writing advice you’d find in any how-to-write-a-novel guide, translated into game contexts: the need for (and types of) conflict, establishing and raising stakes; the gameplay version of “show don’t tell,” which is “play don’t show”. In fact it probably pairs pretty well with Skolnick’s book; each covers a slightly different part of this arena.

From there, much of the rest of the book is about process: processes that support concept development, processes of communication, processes of getting hired and getting paid.

Several chapters of the middle of their book basically consist of templates: character templates, organizational templates, resource and reward templates, charts to fill out about the relationships between characters, and a lot more. Do you know your character’s purpose in the story? In the gameplay? His aspirations, addictions, occupation, and objective? His desires, loves, fears, roles, and skills? The emotions he expresses most often? His boss’ name, his nationality, his signature tic, his favorite food, his accent and dress style? Birthplace, locations visited previously, probable place of death? Hair color, eye color, hairline, facial hair, height, weight, body type, health level, tattoos and body modifications? How did this character lose his virginity? (Believe it or not, I’m leaving out a large number of items on this character template. If you want the full list, you’ll have to get your own copy of the book.)

This takes a lot of material that’s probably good to know and turns it into a checklist. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing probably depends on who you are as a writer and just exactly how you’re turning work out. If you’re doing 8-12 projects a year — as the authors of this book are — then having a streamlined approach to getting started probably is indeed pretty important.

And — also to be fair — they do acknowledge that you should focus on what’s relevant to gameplay, and that their sample template might not be the right one for every game. Though my template doesn’t match theirs (for some text-based games, I haven’t really bothered to work out the eye color of every character), I definitely do do exercises sometimes where I systematically list things about each character that anchor those characters more firmly with respect to the story. For Counterfeit Monkey, it was about how each character related to the resistance/conformity axis and how they dealt with the oppressive culture they lived in. For an upcoming Choice of Games project, it’s about what each side character most wants and most fears — and how the player’s actions might bring those outcomes about.

Figuring out what questions to ask for any given game or mechanic is probably actually the real art here; one of the conveniences of working in a series or mature brand is that it’s often clear what the distinguishing features are going to be for that work.

On the career side, Dille and Platten are freelancers, and they have solid advice to offer about how to do this: what is expected from the writer, what you need to deliver, what to write into your contract, when to start chasing an invoice, how to cope with criticism like a grownup. What to do when a client insists on a script change that you think is actively a bad idea. How to get yourself back into the headspace of a project when that’s proving hard. There are a lot of solid suggestions here.

The book does embrace wholeheartedly a certain games culture that isn’t my favorite. A number of their examples very much assume your basic square-jawed hero-who-shoots as a desirable character — indeed this bit probably tells you a good deal about where the authors are coming from:

When you play James Bond in a game, you’re presumably playing someone you would want to be. What heterosexual male wouldn’t want to be James Bond? In some cases, however, the player plays a character that is wildly different than he or she, like a guy playing Lara Croft. In that case, there’s a different relationship with the character. Lara is a girl; the player is a guy. Okay, so there’s something great about being able to control a woman (no man can hope to do that in real life!).

…and this constitutes about a third of what they have to say about the rich and nuanced field of player-protagonist relationships.

 


July 10, 2017

Zarf Updates

On the centralization of IF services

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at July 10, 2017 05:04 PM

Over the past year, we've turned IFComp and the IF Archive into IFTF projects, and we're in the process of figuring out how to support Twine as well.
You could reasonably ask, is this a good idea? Are we building a single point of failure for all of these community resources?
I have a short answer and a long one. The short answer is that this is what happens when the IFComp administrator, the IF Archive manager, and the lead Twine developer get together (with other folks!) to start a nonprofit. The volunteers behind the projects haven't changed.
But there is more to the answer.
Look back to 2014. The Archive had been sitting comfortably on a server at CMU for several years. However, due to people moving around, this was no longer going to be possible. We needed a new hosting solution.
Finding a reliable web hosting service is easy. (I use three different ones just for myself.) The hard question is, who is going to be responsible for it? Who pays the bills, who sets up the software, who answers the email when something goes pop? You'll note in that 2014 announcement that the server went pop just a couple of days after the move.
I could have said, "Look, I'll just host the thing myself." That would have been the obvious answer, right? I could have stuck it on any of my three hosting services and paid the bill. Would have worked fine. But I did not do that. Why not?
I had a notion -- perhaps not a well-formed notion, but a notion -- that everything should not land in my lap. I was fine being Decision Person for the Archive, but I wanted to do that as part of a team. Someone knows the software, someone handles the hosting service, someone deals with submissions. But different people, right? That way, if someone is run over by a tea-cart (or suffers a less drastic fate, like getting too busy to think about IF stuff) then the rest of the team can regroup.
I do not want to be the single point of failure.
Today, with IFTF, I've been trying to solidify this notion and turn it into an operating principle. Each project has a committee. Each committee has a charter. The charters are written with the assumption that the committee will outlast any single person. Jmac is not the owner of IFComp, he's the current committee chair. He doesn't have to run it for fifteen years (like Sargent did, all credit to Sarge for that).
The committees are backstopped by the IFTF Board of Directors, who are empowered to step in if the committee falls apart. That is, if the committee fails to do its job, as defined by the charter. And then the Board can keep functioning if someone leaves or resigns; that's covered by the bylaws. Yes, it's a rule-bound approach. We even run meetings by Robert's Rules! More or less. But the point of the procedure is to keep things steady.
No single points of failure. That is the long answer.
Because when you've seen a community evolve continuously over 25 years, you plan for transitions. I don't intend to go anywhere -- but I am thinking about what comes after me.
(And speaking of community evolution: this is your weekly reminder that IFComp is running a fundraiser for prize money! Our first fundraiser! We just broke $1000, keep it coming!)

Z-Machine Matter

Magpie Murders

by Zack Urlocker at July 10, 2017 03:22 AM

Magpie murders

I'd been looking forward to Anthony Horowitz's "Magpie Murders" since I first read about it in an interview in 2014. Horowitz is a prolific author and television screenwriter ("Agatha Christie's Poirot," "Midsomer Murders," and the classic "Foyle's War") and I've long been a fan. He's written two authorized Sherlock Holmes books ("House of Silk," "Moriarty"), a James Bond Novel ("Trigger Mortis") and a series of novels for young adults.

"Magpie Murders" is a book within a book, and both are excellent murder mysteries. The story kicks off in present day with Susan Ryeland, a book editor at London's Cloverleaf Books, getting a new manuscript from prized mystery novelist Alan Conway. It's the ninth book in their best-selling detective Atticus Pünd series, set in 1955 rural England. The book then switches to this straightforward murder story, filled with suspects straight out of a classic Golden Age mystery. Horowitz knows how to write a compelling pastiche! But just as the brilliant Pünd is on the brink of announcing the solution to the murder, the manuscript comes to an abrupt end. And now there's a whole different level of mystery for Ryeland to solve in order to find the missing pages that provide the answer. The present day mystery is darker and parallels the Pünd story in curious ways, with characters, places and complications in the 1955 story rippling into the present. I found Ryeland's present-day mystery to be more fast-paced and complex than the "inner" story, but both stories work well and they are intertwined like a crossword puzzle.

One of the stories hinges on, what might be called, a cupid stunt, which may leave some readers cold. Nonetheless, it fits well with the characters Horowitz has created. In a postscript interview, Horowitz spells out exactly what he thinks of his fictional author Alan Conway; as much as he loves the mystery genre, he does not always love the characters he creates. 

"Magpie Murders" is a delightful novel for fans of Golden Age mysteries and puzzle stories. I don't know if Horowitz really did provide all the clues necessary to solve the murder in the first three pages but he created a deuce of a whodunit.

Did you solve the mystery? If so, let me know in the comments below.

July 09, 2017

Key & Compass Blog

Scans! Scans! Scans!

by davidwelbourn at July 09, 2017 07:41 AM

300px-Gl-davidw

So, remember this image from GET LAMP by Jason Scott where I’m, like, holding all these binders of IF notes? Were any of you curious what all they could possibly contain? Well, I’m going to do my best to try to let you all see ’em all, if you want to.

Now that I have a scanner (which is already complaining of all the work I’m forcing it to do), I am compiling an index of my handwritten IF notes at plover.net/~davidw/scans/. You’ll get to see my penmanship from literally decades of IF playing. Written on whatever piece of paper was closest to me at the time. It’ll be like opening a time capsule or something. Explore the weird civilization that is me.


New game: Four Days of Summer

by davidwelbourn at July 09, 2017 07:41 AM

Small cover

I recently ran something called Speed-IF Potato Peeler on ifMud, and for it, I actually managed to write my first new game in ages: Four Days of Summer. It’s also my first published game in Inform 7. It’s a very silly game with 8 locations and I shamelessly put myself into the game as your sidekick NPC. So, brace yourself, dahlinks, there’s gonna be several references to other IF games in the game.

Now, I’ve uploaded a SpeedIF_Potato_Peeler.zip file to the IF Archive, but I need to wait for that to get processed and moved to their games/mini-comps/speed-if folder before I can properly add the game to IFDB and IFWiki. In the meantime, feel free to grab a copy of my game from my own site: plover.net/~davidw/fourd17.zip. That will include the .gblorb storyfile and the cover art .png file.

Assuming I get feedback after I create the IFDB page, I’ll probably be motivated to update the game to be a bit more juicy, more easy, and more forgiving. Even though I don’t think it’s that difficult a game now, I can tell that I’ve failed to provide sufficient direction in a few places. And currently, you can’t ask me about anything (because conversation is hard) and I likewise shied away from adding any events in the game. So once there’s a version 2, then I’ll likely release the source code for it. Because why not. It’s fun to peek behind the curtains. And maybe someone will tell me how to code things better.


Adventure Blog

Clementine Will Remember That: Indicators of Choice

July 09, 2017 01:42 AM

When we recently launched our interactive story, Strayed, we received some mixed feedback on a specific feature: the underlined text, which indicated that the story had changed due to a previous choice.

Due to the minimalism of the UI, some players were confused and had no idea what the purpose of the underlines were. On the bright side, players seemed to like it once they figured it out. A prolific reviewer on IFDB, MathBrush, even made a favorable revision to their review of Strayed!

I added another star when I found out the underlined text showed you what your choices had affected; I really like this in a game.

We’d love to hear your suggestions on how to improve this feature for future games, or examples of games that handled this kind of choice indicator well. 

July 08, 2017

IFTF Blog

IFComp, Original Recipe

by Chris Klimas at July 08, 2017 02:40 PM

One oft-mentioned fact about the IFComp is that it’s the longest continuously-running game competition on the Internet (that we know of, anyhow). It’s even older than Windows 95, believe it or not—discussions about the comp began on rec.arts.int-fiction, one of the main watering holes of the interactive fiction community, months before Windows 95’s August 15 release date. But what was that first comp like?

The rules were simpler—well, the rule was simple. Kevin Wilson, the first comp’s organizer, enforced just one: each game had to be completed in two hours or less. Sound familiar? It was originally suggested that games be limited to a certain number of rooms—tricky to imagine how this would have worked once non-parser IF was entered into the comp, of course, but the counterargument at the time was that limiting the number of locations in a game doesn’t necessarily cap its length. (Still true—just ask devotees of the room-escape genre.)

Though there were only twelve entries total—by comparison, there were 61 in 2016—they were managed in a a bit more complicated manner than in modern comps. Judging was split based on the development system used to create them: either Inform or TADS. So that first year, there were two first-place winners, two second-place, and so on. This split was due to concern that everyone judging wouldn’t be able to play games from both systems, as interpreters weren’t available for every platform and the computing landscape of 1995 was more diverse than it is now. To give you an idea, it was still possible to buy a Commodore Amiga in a store back then. This split was removed in subsequent comps.

Among the authors were some familiar names:

  • Stephen Granade, who would go on to run IFComp from 1999 to 2013
  • Magnus Olsson, who edited SPAG between 1997 and 1999
  • IFTF’s own Andrew Plotkin

The prize pool worked exactly the same way it has for the lifespan of the competition, with winners taking their pick of donated prizes in descending order. Some notable prizes:

Besides the IFComp site’s own page, SPAG’s coverage of the competition makes for good reading about IFComp’s inaugural year. You’ll find reviews of each entry— and of course, all the entries are still playable in modern interpreters, and in my opinion have aged well. My own favorites? The One That Got Away and Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents “Detective”. I’ve never been good at puzzle-y IF, you see…

Wade's Important Astrolab

La Crapule (The Villain) detective adventure game – new on the Apple II

by Wade ([email protected]) at July 08, 2017 09:39 AM

French parser-driven detective adventure game The Villain (La Crapule) was originally published on the Macintosh by Froggy Software in 1987. Thanks to Brutal Deluxe Software, it's just been released commercially for the Apple II in both English and French versions.

La Crapule Apple II title page
La Crapule Apple II title page
I haven't played The Villain yet. I'm very likely to, being both an Apple II head and an IF head, but Brutal Deluxe are mostly publicising the game in Apple II circles. That's why I figured I'd share its PR info here in my IF blog.

First, here come the press release and purchase links. For now, the game is being sold only on physical Apple II media. I asked Antoine of Brutal Deluxe if a digital (disk image) will be sold and he said probably, but that there is no definite plan. You'll also note that the press release promises that the game engine will soon be available separately:

"You sip your daily Kir in the dilapidated place that serves as your detective's office when the phone starts to ring. Your reputation as a detective has already crossed the boundaries of the Republic district, yet a little work would not harm your bank account.

The anxious voice of an elderly woman echoed in the handset: "Sir, I need your help, I am the Countess of La Fêlure, and my husband and I live in a manor house at the end of the town. We live there with our servants and our cousins, the Dumoulin de La Fêlure. I am really worried because my husband has disappeared for two days...

Would you like to go to investigate, please? As soon as you find my husband, wait for me in the living room and try to solve that mystery. I will be able to show myself generous!"

Of course you accept and you are on the way to the manor of La Fêlure to elucidate the mystery of the disappearance of the Count..."

La Crapule was writen by Jean-Louis Le Breton for the Macintosh only in 1987. It was released by Froggy Software, owned by Jean-Louis Le Breton. Jean-Louis is the author of the first Apple II adventure games in French and has released more than ten games through Froggy Software.

Brutal Deluxe Software is proud to make it available for the Apple II computer line in French or English with the agreement (blessing ;-)) of Jean-Louis. The first three signed copies by Jean-Louis will be auctioned on eBay. We have special offers for the KansasFest and Apple II Festival France attendees.

The game engine is powerful, you can enter a full sentence, eg. "I go north", "I talk to the Countess". There are more than ten rooms, plenty of characters, the dictionary is huge and the number of play hours is high.

The game engine development kit will soon be available through the same channel. Let your imagination wander to create your adventure games in text only or with pictures: from 40-col text, 80-col, GR, DGR, HGR (mono/color where supported), DHGR (mono/color where supported) to SHR pictures.

Get your own copy at http://www.brutaldeluxe.fr/store/

Jean-Louis Le Breton
Antoine Vignau & Olivier Zardini

The Google English translation of Froggy software's French wikipedia page says that their goal was to 'sell French, amusing, and out-of-the-ordinary games at a price of about FRF 150', and that the company's choice of Froggy as a name (an English word connoting Frenchness) was a deliberate one in the context of how Apple II software was sold and perceived in France in its day.

There are two YouTube videos showing the game starting up in the Sweet16 Apple IIGS emulator and a few commands being entered. One video is for the French version and the other for the English version. The game looks attractive but in terms of showing the quality of the parser or much gameplay, these 60 seconds videos are not very helpful. I figure their main purpose is just to show the tech of this Apple II version of the game:

Link to the French version video
Link to the English version video