Planet Interactive Fiction

October 20, 2021

Zarf Updates

The apprehension of the Outer Wilds

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at October 20, 2021 02:07 AM

It's easy to talk about the brilliant puzzle design of Outer Wilds. It's a metroidvania of pure information. It runs about five layers deeper than you expect even after you realize how deep it runs. You begin as a naive newt; you can explore in any direction; and when you have all the pieces of the story, you also know what the game's goal is, and how to get there.
One hears less about the game's thematic unity. But as much thought went into the story's symbolism as its puzzle structure. They're both necessary and they build on each other. Outer Wilds wouldn't be compelling if it were just a barrel of puzzle mechanics. So let's look at the flip side.
I already wrote the non-spoiler review. This is the spoilery discussion. Seriously: all the spoilers for Outer Wilds. Do not read this post until you've finished original game and the Echoes of the Eye expansion!

So. The signifier of Outer Wilds -- the original game -- is the eye-of-the-beholder. The whole story revolves around the mysterious Eye of the Universe. On the mundane side, everyone has lots of eyes. (The Nomai have three; you have four because you wind up seeing more than them.) And of course the entire game is about observation. You aren't there to change the world -- all changes are rolled back every 22 minutes anyhow. You're there to perceive the world. Your progress is marked by what you see and read.
The theme of perception reflects up to the final goal -- "a conscious observer has entered the Eye" -- and down to individual game mechanics. Your tools are the camera-drone, the flashlight, and the radio receiver with bonus magnifier. Most Nomai machinery is hands-free, operated by a marble that follows your gaze. Quantum rocks respond to your seeing or not-seeing them.
When it comes down to it, everyone else is an observer too. Hearthians presumably build houses and cook dinner and raise kids, but the dominant industry of your pocket home is the space program. Your rocket seems to be the culmination of civilization (even before you learn about the supernova). Even more so the Nomai, science nerds of the first water. They build observatories and space probes and laboratories. They build spaceships, but only so they can fly around and discover cool stuff.
But perception is not the whole of reality.
Compare Outer Wilds with The Witness, another game whose principle is pure perception. As I've written, The Witness is aggressively coy about your identity and your place in its world. It refuses to commit to even being a world. Does the witnessed island have a history or a future? All you know for sure is what you see and what you can follow with your eyes.
Outer Wilds, in contrast, swells to bursting with history. You don't see it at first, but the more you do see, the more it... well, it haunts you. The game is haunted to hell and gone and from every direction. This is the deeper principle, which gives the Outer Wilds its impact: everything you perceive is the ash of a hidden history. You see that history through a glass, and its future reflected in the time-loop's opaque mirror. But both are present -- quite unlike The Witness's enforced distance.
I'm told that Derrida coined the term "hauntology". Not the study of haunting, but the ontology of the haunt -- the existence of what no longer exists. Outer Wilds, balanced as it is between observation and the haunted, concerns the perception of what cannot be perceived. I suppose that should be "epispectremology". But that'll never catch on. Stick with hauntology.
(Or perhaps the term which refers to both perception and spookiness: apprehension. I'll bet a dollar that's written on a whiteboard somewhere in the developers' office.)
The hauntology begins in plain sight (unseen) with the threat of "Ghost Matter". Invisible, deadly, overtly-named, evaporating over geological time: Ghost Matter raises specters of history. What was different in the past? What stemmed from that cause? What happens when the Ghost Matter is gone? You do not yet know. Moving on, you encounter a rock that moves, or perhaps fails to stay still, when unobserved. This is an uncontexted mystery, not yet connected to even the outline of a story. But as the game labels it: "extremely creepy."
Then you forget your questions, distracted by the immediacy of a rocket launch and worlds to explore. But the questions linger.
What you explore, you soon realize, is a Nomai graveyard. Their ruins and their bones far outweigh the system's tentative Hearthian foothold. It's easy to forget the Nomai are ghosts, as you read their chatty enthusiastic nerd-journals and imagine yourself walking among them. But when you turn around, they're all aeons dead. Sooner or later you'll discover why.
So the Nomai haunt you; and you haunt their ruins. But your fellow Hearthians are also ghosts in their way. They breathe, but their world is about to burn. If you know the future (and you do) they are already dead -- shadows on the wall. You know what they are going to say in response to any question. On top of that, the other Outer Wilds explorers have all given up exploring. Stranded, marooned, or merely on break, they all share a complacent passivity. Even Gabbro, aware of the loop, shows no interest in investigating the circumstances of his fate. You are the only one in the system who acts alive.
Or do you? As we said before, you are a silent observer. Your footprints, if you leave any, are immediately wiped away. You are a specter in all but name.
As you fathom the Nomai secrets, more webs of haunt swim into view. The inescapable blank-eyed Nomai mask that watches your life flash before your/its eyes -- what could be more Gothic? The quantum moon, as indeterminate as its smaller cousins. Lurking at its pole, the Nomai elder, caught out of time like a fey Schrodingerian thought experiment.
And then you realize: you are dead, to begin with. The great Nomai experiment does not prevent your death(s). Only your memories are sent back in time; they overwrite and destroy the mind of previous-you. So you haunt your own body, or you are possessed by the iterated Christmas spirit of your impending doom -- take your pick.
Lurking at the end of everything is the Eye of the Universe, the ultimate or original phantasm, waiting for time to wind down. The entire cosmos is haunted by the Eye's signal -- "older than the universe" -- a spectral whisper from something lost billions of years ago. The Nomai heard it and were haunted by it for the rest of their cultural existence, trying futilely to pin down the Eye. If you succeed where they failed, you plant your own ghost-seed of melody to haunt the next cycle of eternity.

Now we reach Echoes of the Eye. Again, if you haven't played the expansion, stop reading here; it's tremendous spoilers time for that.
Echoes is where this post began. Because the Giants are straight-up in-your-face candle-bearing Lyke-Wake-dirgeful spooks. When I first saw them, I said "This game is hella haunted."
(I see people use different names for the aliens introduced here: the Elk, the Owls, the Strangers. I settled on "the Giants" and I'll stick to that.)
I said that the signifier of Outer Wilds is the observing eye. Echoes inverts that. Twice!
The inverse of the observing eye is the projecting ray: the light that casts a (false) image. The Giants' technology is activated by focusing light on it. Their Wheel (and their story) is full of image projectors and film reels and hallucinations. Their sunny windows are, if you look carefully, digital display screens.
The other inverse of the observing eye is the blinded eye. The Giants' symbols (and your signs to find them) are the eclipsed sun and the extinguished flame. Their secrets are revealed by plunging into darkness. You will spent much of the game stumbling through gloom with a lantern that barely illuminates your feet.
(A second-order symbol: the Nomai write in literal branching dialogue. Whereas the Giants communicate in filmic images -- cut scenes, as it were. This doesn't tie directly to the themes of observation and obscuration, but it sure makes sense in game-design terms, doesn't it? I think it's one reason the Nomai feel so present as you read their texts, whereas the Giants remain impersonal shadows on the cave wall.)
This thematic stuff isn't sprinkled on like, like symbolism on a high-school essay. You can't plunge through the game and ignore it. It must sink in. It's how the doors work, and the secret doors, and the hidden passages. It's how you find the Stranger in the first place. It's the story of the Giants themselves. They heard the song of the Eye, but when they peered into it, they saw only the projection of their own fears. The end of the universe approaching in fire and ash -- the same truth you've been facing all along -- but the Giants saw a threat. And in their blindness, they blinded the Eye.
From the beginning, they preferred mirage to truth.
And the hauntology of the Giants? Surely I hardly need spell it out. Your first glimpse of them is decaying corpses holding spirit-fire lanterns. If you look farther, you might see them walking -- but not alive.
The Giants are everything haunted about Outer Wilds, only bereft of its campfire-warmth. They are haunted by the Eye of the Universe. They are haunted by the memory of their homeworld. They retreated into a dream of that home; they haunted that dream until they died; oblivious, they haunt on. Their symbols are illusion and the eclipsed sun. The occult, you see.
You haunt the world of the Giants. You discover them haunting their own afterlife. And then, of course, you die. Only as a ghost can you meet the Giants on their own terms.
This aye night, this aye night, every night and all
For the world only has this aye night left.
Fire and flet and candlelight
"Flet" is home, by the way. Hearth and home and candlelight; the Giants cling to them. Or to their cast shadows. If your wits are nimble and light, you can get there by candlelight... But it's an eerie light, no warmth to't, and the fire smells of drowning.
And Christ receive thy soul.

October 19, 2021

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Jeffrey Dean, Vampire: The Masquerade—Parliament of Knives

by Mary Duffy at October 19, 2021 08:02 PM

The undead Prince of Canada’s capital city has disappeared, and his second-in-command, Eden Corliss, wants you to find out why. You’ve been loyal to Corliss since she Embraced you and made you a vampire, but this could be your chance to take her place. Vampire: The Masquerade — Parliament of Knives is a 600,000-word interactive horror novel by Jeffrey Dean, based on “Vampire: The Masquerade” and set in the World of Darkness shared story universe.

I sat down to chat with Jeffrey about the project and his familiarity with the property. Vampire: The Masquerade — Parliament of Knives releases next Thursday, October 28th. You can play the first three chapters or wishlist it on Steam now!

This is the third World of Darkness universe game Choice of Games has published, and what I love about it is how it differs so dramatically from both Night Road and Out for Blood. Can you talk a little about why this was the Vampire: The Masquerade story you wanted to tell?

I’m absolutely fascinated by vampire politics and the nature of these creatures hidden in the dark, controlling the world’s economies and politics while fighting each other as much through social slights as physical attacks. When we were discussing pitches, I immediately gravitated to ideas more focused on a high-born vampire who would be brought low by a series of events and be given the choice of how to shape the future of the city’s Camarilla.

My past work for Choice of Games, the “Werewolves” series, is generally pretty story-heavy with less focus on stats, and I wanted to continue that style here. Because of that, Vampire: The Masquerade — Parliament of Knives differs from the other two games not only in subject matter, but in game design as well. I cut the stats to the essential 9 attributes in an effort to lean into the medium’s strengths as a story-teller while still allowing for fully customizable characters. My goal was to keep readers’ eyes on the text and not worrying about checking their character sheet before every choice for a more organic experience.

What’s your personal history with “Vampire: The Masquerade?”

My very first experience with “Vampire: the Masquerade” was during my freshman year in university. It was a very intense LARP that threw me in the deep end of a politics-heavy Camarilla campaign full of intrigue, action, and back-stabbing. It was pretty intimidating, to be honest, but they hooked me up with a core book and within a few nights I was forming alliances and backstabbing Council members like I’d been doing it my entire unlife. After that I was hopelessly hooked. In the years since, I’ve played in campaigns where I was able, and when it wasn’t, I still kept up with the material the same way one might with a favorite book series.

What surprised you most about working on a licensed property in the sense of a world you were bringing your writing to, rather than inventing yourself?

I’m not sure I’d use the word surprised, but the biggest adjustment was the additional oversight and the amount of research I ended up doing. I tend to write very off the cuff; I’m what some authors would call a ‘pantser.’ I’ve often joked that my characters tell me what they want to do and I roll with it, so I had to rein them in a little bit with this one. Canon World of Darkness material for Ottawa (and Canada in general) is pretty sparse, but it still needed to be accounted for, so I designed my characters’ back history with that in mind.

Which of the NPCs in Vampire: The Masquerade — Parliament of Knives did you most enjoy writing?

I was surprised by this one, but the Nosferatu Primogen, Michel Bouchard, was a joy to write. He’s a vulgar, irascible monster who has no hang ups about killing whoever he needs to as long as it gets him what he wants. But if you ally with him, you’ll find in the latter half of the story that he’s a more complicated and vulnerable creature than he lets on. For whatever reason, he just sprung onto the page whenever I was writing him like he knew what he was doing before I typed it.

You’re an American living in Canada, and I know Ottawa gets a bad rep even amongst Canadians as being boring, but I actually think it’s a beautiful city. What of your knowledge of the place informed the writing in the game?

Ottawa is beautiful! I don’t think I’ve heard many people up here call it boring; usually that’s reserved for Oshawa, which I’ll admit sounds pretty similar. (Sorry, Oshawa readers!) I spent a week in Ottawa with my partner not long before writing my pitch and I fell in love with it, so when I was encouraged to pick a Canadian city for my setting, I decided pretty quickly. I used a combination of my experience walking through the city, my pictures, research, and street-view for my descriptions. I used several real-world buildings, streets, parks, and suburbs for my scenes, many of which should be recognizable in real life. I also used my home city of Kitchener in one of the endings as well, which was fun to add in.

What are you working on next?

Next up is to get my butt moving on Werewolves 3: Evolution’s End, before my readers start camping outside my house with pitchforks! But seriously, I’m looking forward to delving into the werewolf side of the supernatural spectrum again!

October 15, 2021

Wade's Important Astrolab

IFComp 2021 review - The House on Highfield Lane by Andy Joel

by Wade ([email protected]) at October 15, 2021 10:23 AM

The House on Highfield Lane or The House... on Highfield Lane if you believe the punctuation on the cover image – and which in any case I shall now on refer to as House – bills itself as 'horror without the horror'. I would probably bill it as a mystery, fantasy and sci-fi parser adventure, which ironically covers all the major genres minus horror and romance. The PC is sassy teenaged Mandy who, fresh from school one afternoon and still done up in its accoutrements, finds herself compelled to enter this house in her neighbourhood after finding a letter addressed to its occupant. Wide-ranging, puzzly adventure game shenanigans ensue in a steampunk-leaning environment. There are big-small spatial gags, some quirky NPCs, a Frankenstein-styled laboratory and creepy silver-faced background folk who always manage to run away.

The House on Highfield Lane cover art

Summary

House took me a bit over two-and-a-half hours to complete. I spent more than an hour just exploring and fiddling with things without managing to solve any puzzles, though thoroughly in the mood all that time and not with any sense that I wasn't getting anywhere. I then turned to the provided invisiclues webpage for help, and used it a fair bit from them on because of time pressure, thinking (in vain as it turns out) that I might be able to get through the game in less than two IFComp hours.

House induces curiosity and enchantment, demonstrates interesting and sometimes challenging design, and is a great first outing for the latest iteration of the Quest authoring system. Indeed, it's the best-implemented Quest game I've ever played, though still not perfect in this regard (though what game is?) House is kind of hard, though, in a complex way. I don't mean that the puzzles are all complex. I mean that what's hard about it is complex to tease out, and has a nature I suspect will fall quite differently across different players, as might its third person narration. Ultimately, I loved the atmosphere of House, and quite liked the puzzles in spite of my troubles with some of them and the invisiclues.

P.S. The heroine swears A Lot! Mostly with the two most common rude words. I'm not going to say them because this blog is not a home to filth.

WEIGHTY CRITICAL DISCUSSION SECTION

I found the key joy of this game to be its development of a prolonged atmosphere of unyielding mystery. There's a derangement of reality at work that reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, as do Mandy's flip reactions to this reality. And like in Alice, there's a sense that there is some overriding meaning behind the weirdness. That's mandatory in this kind of game to prevent the feeling you're just solving a bunch of arbitrary puzzles.

The prose is narrated in third person present tense –

"Conscious that dust is about ninety percent dead skin, Mandy decides not to study it too closely."

– which is one of the less common viewpoint choices adopted for IF. I think the first way this choice helps House is that it gets the player through the unreality barrier faster. The game starts with what is arguably a lot of unexplained weirdness. My initial sense of separation from Mandy (she's not 'You' or 'I') helped me accept the lack of explanation. Once inside the house, Mandy quickly runs into some major discrepancies of physical scale and geography. Perceiving Mandy in the third person helped me appreciate the scale of theses scenes visually, as if I really was standing back and seeing a film frame of a relatively tiny girl in a room hundreds of metres high. Over time, Mandy's flip comments on the situation brought out her personality, and made me feel closer to her.

Returning to the topic of the game's puzzle challenge: That the first relevant puzzle entry I looked up in the invisiclues after playing for close to 70 minutes was named for an object I hadn't yet seen or heard of speaks to the difficulty of writing comprehensive invisiclues. This event did worry me, though. Was I really so out of touch with this game? Or had I missed some fundamental mechanic?

Fortunately, neither case applied, but I would say House's puzzles lean hard for a variety of reasons. First, some of them are old-school-styled, involving a lot of mechanical experimentation and repetition (rotate the object, look outside, see if anything happened. If it didn't, rotate the object again, check again etc. And have the idea to do all this experimentation in the first place). Second, this game is rich with interesting objects that seem like they'd help solve multiple puzzles, but usually only one solution is acceptable. I could think of several objects I possessed that could very feasibly be used to catch another falling object, amongst them a giant floppy hat and a magically embiggened chamber pot, but the game didn't have any programming in place for these attempts. The solution to this particular problem involved roping in an NPC I didn't even know I could communicate with, since he didn't speak when spoken to. Teaching players all the ways they can interact with NPCs in your game is vital for any game. Since the base level of game content here is solid, I don't see it as a great omission that House didn't have heaps of alternate solutions in place already, but I do see it as a necessary site for improvement when a game is at this level.

Finally, there may be a stylistic issue that obscured some of the game's numerous props, all those paintings and windows and pipes and levers and bureaus and drawers spread out all through the text. Most IF games cater to this angle of interpretive difficulty by using presentation systems or logic to set elements off; the exits, or prominent objects or geographical features, etc. House wasn't so great at this, presenting most of its prose in solid blocks, so I forgave myself for missing some stuff.

The lead character of Mandy isn't built out of personal details, but out of a lot of behaviours and attitudes players might recognise from girls in this age group. I especially like the way her cynicism for schoolwork is tempered by the occasional excitement she experiences whenever she realises she can apply something she learned at school to real life. Her frequent sarcasm makes her a good fit for the classic strain of sarcastic parser voice that also gets a workout in House.

This game is the maiden voyage for QuestJS aka Quest 6. QuestJS was developed by Andy Joel, author of House and current head of the Quest project, and is a JavaScript incarnation of the Quest engine. House is a great ambassador for the new Quest, which is what you want in a maiden voyage. In the first place, it's engrossing and well-implemented by any standards. Second, it's the best-implemented Quest game I've played to date. I've been playing Quest games for about a decade and they've always been a bit querulous. You could only play on PCs, playing online was too buggy, and the parser was flakey. House seems to have eliminated all these problems, and the standard of its parser is way up. Unfortunately my transcript was missing all my own typed commands, but this feels like an easy tech fix.

I feel I have to address the game's final riddle (no spoilers to the actual answer here, though if you want to know even less about the question than a measure of spoiler-safe info, stop reading now. Then again, wouldn't you have already stopped reading much earlier?)... it is, as a joke, pretty good. As a puzzle, it's probably terrible because it relies entirely on the player's own knowledge if they want to be able to solve it themselves, with the out that they will soon be given the answer if they can't. But they don't know there's an out coming when the riddle happens. And the game had previously enforced a PC/player knowledge divide in the opposite direction, with a riddle to which most players would know the answer but which they weren't allowed to solve until they had first made the PC research that answer in-game.

The kindest spin on all this is that the game adopts two opposite positions as a joke. Even then, I'd ask is it worth doing this when there's a high risk of annoying players on one or both occasions? Reviewer Bitterly Indifferent wasn't as indifferent as he generally claims to be in the case of the knowledge enforcement of the first riddle, as evinced by his linked-to review here. This type of enforcement was, coincidentally, recently discussed on intfiction.org in this topic. The upshot is that I don't think ending any game with this kind of riddle is a strong way to go out, and even in the case of this game, which at least gives you the answer if you can't get it, it will be received as an unrewarding ending by a subset of players.

October 13, 2021

Zarf Updates

Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at October 13, 2021 12:36 AM

I wrote my Outer Wilds review while halfway through the thing.
[...] And it's, I'm pretty sure it is, no I'm sure, it's incredibly clever.
Play this one. Don't wait for me to talk more about it.
-- my comments, June 2019
Then I never said any more about it. But what would I say? The awards and plaudits piled up; you knew that. Any specifics would be spoilers, and -- just this once -- spoilers really are verboten.
I replayed Outer Wilds last month, in preparation for the Echoes of the Eye expansion. Replaying was strange. I enjoyed revisiting all the familiar sights and refilling the log book. I unpacked the tiny solar system like a well-remembered toy. But it was hard to connect that to the original experience. The shock of the world transforming in my head, over and over. The cycle of seeing, exploring, understanding, and letting go of what I thought I knew. I missed that. Replay is not discovery.
Then I started Echoes of the Eye and -- it all came back. Only, of course, not. This was different. New beings; new worlds; new uncomfortable realizations. Nothing at all like the nostalgic realizations from last time!
(Memory is such a liar. No wonder people get hooked on remakes of the stuff they loved at age thirteen.) (By "people", I mean me.)
Anyway. The shock of your expectations exploding and the world rewriting itself in your head. That's what you want. Play Echoes of the Eye. If you haven't finished or started the original, that's fine. You can buy the expansion and play the threads in parallel if you want.
I will say that the "less fear" gameplay option was a wise move. (Not a spoiler -- the game mentions it up front.) I am entirely and vocally worn out with Amnesia-style "hide from monsters in the dark" gameplay. This isn't that but it's similar enough, and far enough from the "core" game of pure intellect, that I really stumbled. I switched to "less fear" and got through with no further trouble.
Mind you, "less fear" does not mean "spook-free". EotE is not a horror game, but it is hella haunted. Another post for that, maybe.
And, mind you further, "game of pure intellect" glosses over a lot. Outer Wilds demands a certain degree of controller-flying skill. It's the game's big flaw (and I say that while insisting that the game is flawless). Many people who would really enjoy the investigation are turned off the first time they wreck a landing or bounce off an airlock door.
I'd love an assistive mode for precision flying and jetpacking. It's a tough design problem. Perhaps unsolvable. Many of the game's secrets are about how you move, what you can try while moving. Some destinations are intentionally difficult because you're supposed to find an alternate path. It's hard to imagine how to convey those limitations and discoveries outside the existing mechanics of "try it and see". But it would be a big win if someone figured it out.
Anyway. If the flying is too difficult, park yourself on a friend's couch and insist that they handle the controller for you. They're not allowed to refuse. Tell them I said so.
Echoes of the Eye is over; I have found my way through. I can never experience that again. More like completely different from this, please.

October 08, 2021

The XYZZY Awards

XYZZY Awards 2020: winners

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 08, 2021 11:41 PM

Voting is complete on the 2020 XYZZY Awards, and the recipients of the Awards are as follows:

Best Game: Vampire: The Masquerade (Kyle Marquis)
Best Writing: Jolly Good: Cakes and Ale (Kreg Segall)
Best Story: A Rope of Chalk (Ryan Veeder)
Best Setting: Jolly Good: Cakes and Ale (Kreg Segall)
Best Puzzles: The Impossible Bottle (Linus Åkesson)
Best NPCs: Jolly Good: Cakes and Ale (Kreg Segall)
Best Individual Puzzle: Leaving the house in The Impossible Bottle (Linus Åkesson)
Best Individual NPC: tie: the parrot in The Magpie Takes the Train (MathBrush), and Kingfisher in Vain Empires (Thomas Mack, Xavid)
Best Individual PC: The doppelganger in Doppeljobs (Lei)
Best Implementation: The Impossible Bottle (Linus Åkesson)
Best Use of Innovation: The Impossible Bottle (Linus Åkesson)
Best Technological Development: Adventuron
Best Use of Multimedia: Crocodracula: The Beginning (Ryan Veeder, Harrison Gerard)

Congratulations to the winners!

October 07, 2021

Choice of Games

Two New Hosted Game! “Interstellar Airgap” by John Lance and “The Horror Behind the Walls” by Alex Ryan

by Kai DeLeon at October 07, 2021 03:42 PM

Hosted Games has two new games for you to play!

Interstellar Airgap

The country of Panwestia has conquered half the globe–and they’re not stopping. Backed by terrible interstellar weapons, the leaders are preparing to pull the trigger on the other half. Information exists that can bring the hegemon down, but to retrieve it? You’ll need to shoot for the stars.

It’s 40% off until October 14th!

Interstellar Airgap is a thrilling 220,000-word interactive science fiction novel by John Lance, 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.

  • Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, pan, or asexual.
  • Pilot a nimble ship through the infinite darkness of space.
  • Mastermind a brazen escape from an asteroid prison.
  • Work alongside those looking to dismantle the power structure–or crush their resistance beneath your heel.
  • Find romance with a reformed cop, a revolutionary firebrand, a forthright rocket pilot, a pacifist with a troubled past, or one of the most brilliant minds of their generation.
  • Experience more than a dozen unique endings, all with unique twists based on your companion and/or romantic partner.
  • Run away from a very scary bear!

Stay one step ahead on a galaxy-spanning heist!

The Horror Behind the Walls by Alex Ryan

The Horror Behind the Walls

The sun had set across the mountain tops, save for a single flicker that still glistened from a single peak. The locals know not to investigate. Not only because the German government has forbidden it, but also because those who do never return the same, if at all. The few known survivors, in-between their lapses of madness, speak of great stone walls that uphold a structure more imposing than any known today. Little does the world know, however, that these walls no longer serve their intended purpose of keeping intruders out, but rather, to now keep something in.

It’s 33% off until October 14th!

The Horror Behind the Walls is an immersive 34,000-word interactive horror novel intended to provide phenomenal imagery in every scene. From the author of The Aether: Life as a God, Alex Ryan, 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.

All you know is that someone, or something, has been calling to you. With hundreds of cases solved and thousands of spirits laid to rest, your name has become synonymous with the paranormal. Renowned as one of the world’s greatest private investigators, you are about to uncover a secret far more disturbing than any case you’ve worked on in the past. Night after night, nightmares have been sent across the world to plague your dreams. Something that’s been hidden away from a time long forgotten now beckons to be remembered. 

  • Play as a male, female, or nonbinary.
  • Track down the source of the nightmares that have haunted you.
  • Explore an ancient castle and traverse its labyrinth.
  • It is up to you to piece together the clues and discover what happened.
  • Uncover an ancient secret and determine how the story ends.
  • Survive the horrors and find a way to rid them from the world forever.

Uncover the truth and witness The Horrors Behind the Walls.

John and Alex developed their games 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.

October 06, 2021

Wade's Important Astrolab

IFComp 2021 review: The Spirit Within Us by Alessandro Ielo

by Wade ([email protected]) at October 06, 2021 09:36 AM

The Spirit Within Us is a parser-driven thriller with crime and mystery elements that opens with the injured and bleeding PC waking up in a bedroom. Amnesia-game-fearers need not fear per se; the amnesia is well justified and quickly overcome. The whole game plays out around this house setting in what feels like real time, and ultimately with an emphasis on realistic action.

The Spirit Within Us cover image

The author describes Spirit as psychological, but I found the prose too sparse and some of the content too vague for it to succeed at that level. It is evident English isn't the author's primary language and its use here is functional. The section of the game based in the house presents as an almost default set of IF content: a bunch of rooms, doors, fiddly doors, openable things and plain objects from daily life — sinks, toilets, boxes, etc. If it weren't for the timed interjections of the PC's returning memories and the few interesting book props, this phase could be a boredom challenge for the player.

The author wrote the game and its parser from the ground up using C. While that parser effects the basics, the game's needs have definitely outgrown it. My transcript shows I once entered seventeen commands trying to eat a pill from a packet of vitamins before I succeeded, and twenty-three trying to execute the last action required by the game. What to do was obvious, but I had to consult the walkthrough to get the right phrasing.

The story that is revealed and the violent situation that grows out of it in light of the player's explorations and recollections are more compelling on paper than in the game. They're particularly filmic, as well. I've seen a lot of thriller and horror films make good use of the "waking up in a messy and potentially violent situation" scenario when they're also withholding some information from the viewer. Spirit is in this terrain, but unfortunately doesn't have the prose detail to sell it.

There's also a health timer element for the PC that induced a bit of unintentional amusement for me. The PC starts losing hit points from his injuries as soon as the game starts, and the player has to keep finding enough food and supplies to keep them up until the end. This mechanic does seem to be well balanced in terms of raising player stress levels while not being too savage under the hood. I finished the game without dying on my first play, and with plenty of health left, and this only took me about twenty-five minutes. (I acknowledge that geographically, I had good luck during my playthrough. After I'd made the whole map in my head, I could tell I'd fluked the ideal direction to explore in on a couple of occasions.) But the amount of time I'd spent rummaging around for food – fruits from gardens, leftovers from kitchens et al. – seemed to be too great a portion of the game experience. It's the major mechanical feature atop the find-and-use puzzles and some semi-randomised combat.

From the epilogue, I learned that the author's stated intention was to create a game with some moral challenge/choice. But again, the psychological content wasn't evident enough during play to make it clear I was making any moral path choices, at least in terms of my choosing them against apparent alternatives. If an action seems the obvious one needed in a game, I will take it. I don't come to these games to test my own morality, and I know this a difference between me as a player type and some other player types out there. Certainly the ending text I received was of the kind to indicate what the other endings might be compared to the one I got, but I'm not interested in replaying to see them.

I like the kind of story and situation this game presents, but its sparseness of writing and implementation mean the story doesn't really land, or with the right impact. The game's title is also too vague, in retrospect. I'd still say Spirit may be of interest to players who like a game with a bit of contemporary grit. And its mystery remains a little abstract, which is to say, I have questions about the backstory and I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to. This situation could just be due to the limitations of the prose. Even if it is, the particular degree of vagueness where the details have ended up is not a bad one.

October 05, 2021

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2021: Goat Game

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 05, 2021 09:42 PM

Goat Game is a tightly-crafted piece about complicity and corporate careers, the difficulty of effecting change, and how this intersects with how you relate to people. The characters are all anthropomorphic goats. There isn’t really any reason for or against … Continue reading

October 04, 2021

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! “Rain King” by Marvin K

by Kai DeLeon at October 04, 2021 04:42 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Rain King

In an alternate future where medieval laws coexist with scientific and technological advancements, a revolution is boiling. Personal reasons will force you to be at the forefront of it. Your place in this world is a simple yet powerful role, granted to you thanks to your haunting past and the current political situation in the empire. A long war threatens the autocracy of your ruler and soon you will find your life thrown upside down, engaging in an emotionally fueled conflict you never wished to be part of. As you dig deeper, you will find untold truths.

It’s 33% off until September 30th!

Rain King is a 50,000-word science-fiction interactive novel by Marvin K. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Inside this unique world you will have to deal with a lot of characters, each with their own goals and mentality. They might be part of your plan, or you theirs. Decisions will have to be made. Power or catastrophe might be the consequence. Your true nature will be exposed in this game of philosophy, drama, action, faith, death, family, friendship and love. As you forge your own prism of reality you might watch it shatter to pieces. After all, truth is but a fly caught in a web of lies.

  • Play as male or female; as gay, straight, bisexual, or asexual.
  • Explore a fantastical world reaching the limits of human advancements but being far from an utopia.
  • Make allies that would give their life for you and try to manipulate and win the favor of your acquaintances.
  • In retribution change your life and that of the biggest empire on the planet.
  • Try not to get deceived. Choose which truths to believe.
  • Help and care for others or think about your own life and let them die.
  • Choose your arsenal and unleash your inner demon in the action sequences.
  • Follow your heart and fall in love or use your admirers’ feelings for your own purposes.
  • Open your eyes and find a meaning to it all.

As you forge your own prism of reality, you might watch it shatter to pieces.

Marvin 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.

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2021: The Last Night of Alexisgrad

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 04, 2021 03:42 AM

The Last Night of Alexisgrad is a choice-based game for two players. This is an unusual but venerable format – the first I’m aware of is the Duel Master series, first published 1986, which were sold as boxed sets of … Continue reading

October 03, 2021

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2021: The Mermaids of Ganymede

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 03, 2021 05:42 AM

This game is not in any way a reference to Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan; rather, it’s a straightforward space-adventure story that has, y’know, actual space mermaids in it. It’s divided into chapters; each chapter takes place in a different … Continue reading

Wade's Important Astrolab

IFComp 2021 review: Dr Horror's House of Terror by Ade McT

by Wade ([email protected]) at October 03, 2021 04:46 AM

I always start an IFComp season with a horror game, since horror is my home turf, mentally, spiritually, fan-wise and way-of-life-wise. This year I chose to go with the parser game Dr Horror's House of Terror (DHHoT) by the redoutable Ade McT.

(Link to ballot page with links to game: You might need to be registered with IFComp to see it? Search for 'house of terror' at https://ifcomp.org/ballot) 

I didn't finish DHHoT in two hours and, as far as I can tell, I was a long way from finishing. This outcome alarmed me, as I'm one of those people who seeks to avoid really long games in IFComp (re: the rules; you must lock your vote at the two hours of play mark.). I was given fair warning: the game is labelled "Longer than two hours". However, with my horror chutzpah I'd thought, "I bet that time label overestimates the duration and underestimates my great skill levels." I did not find the label to be an overestimation. I did not find my skill levels to be great, but they were sufficient.

Summary!

In this comedic horror adventure with a surfeit of exclamation marks, you play an actor of questionable skill appearing in the new vampire flick for Mallet Studios. After incensing the film's director, you find yourself embroiled in supernatural life-or-death shenanigans all over the studio backlot. The game is lively with dialogue and NPC action, solid with mostly mechanical puzzles, and has a deft light touch over an underscore of the uncanny that grows out of its highly varied studio settings. Implementation is very good but not great (there are a lot of omissions of inconvenience, and I feel more actions could have been implemented) and I didn't totally understand the mixed-up time aesthetic as a choice. Overall, an engaging long form puzzler with some extra juice for folks who appreciate the films referenced and the luvvie world. The playtime is three hours plus, and how much plus I don't know yet.

Detail!

Geographically, this game can be viewed as a series of hubs. Most of the hubs are sets for different horror films. These sets riff on the production styles of both the 1930s/1940s Universal horror films and 1960s/1970s British Hammer films, and on the classic monsters that appeared in both studios' films. The hubs have self-contained puzzles as well as elements that help you solve puzzles elsewhere. So even though the map isn't huge, this style of puzzle construction takes a lot of work to tackle. The environment quickly goes from being gated to semi-gated to open, meaning you may have to explore everything in the open area before you can work out what puzzles there are and what tools might help solve them all. I should point out there's a hint file with the game that I didn't use. I felt the difficulty was about right for me and that I'd be more satisfied going without.

The surface tone of DHHoT is initially light, and the humour is very perceptive of the world of dry-witted British luvvies, all these actors constantly caught up in the preciousness of their work and the gossipy connections of thespian life. This lightness becomes darkly funny as the game pushes you into a confused reality, the adjacent film sets and their different worlds being quite disorienting. The monsters may be real and the actors may not be acting, but even as the latter realise this they're still speculating on how life's going back at the Old A, or the prospects of the chap who went to Brazil to appear in "If you like it, Missus".

When there is gore, it has a slapstick silliness about it that fits the overall lightness. The creepiness of the game is in the reality gulf depicted in its cloistered studio world. Your actor pals are largely oblivious to the nature of the weird, trapped life they're leading, and your'e the only one who notices the grisliness of some of the studio props (or not-props). Still, your PC takes goings-on at least half in their stride, and they have to, narration-wise, or the game would be entirely bogged down in reactions to every strange occurrence. It's solid with prose already for a game of this pitch.

At first I assumed DHHoT was set in the 1960s or 1970s, based on the kind of typical-for-Hammer vampire film Mallet are making in the opening scene. But then I came across a keypad-locked door and security cameras. After that, I encountered the elaborate set for a werewolf film which definitely seemed to be a version of Universal's famous backlot from the 1940s, and not something Hammer could or would have done in the 1970s. The game also distracted me every time it mentioned the name of the character Blake Lively, a contemporary female actor in reality but a male Laurence Olivier-type playing a vampire in this game. It may be that the author christened him thus primarily for the sake of the joke of having Blake Lively's name on the cover of the game, and I have a sneaky admiration for that kind of commitment.

I ended up concluding that DHHoT is set in no particular real time. Its reality is constructed out of anachronistic ideas related by theme that the author wanted to put into this world. I actually wish it was set in a particular time and place, because that would have made its specific references resonate more strongly with me. People who don't know this turf as well as I do, and those who've grown up in the postmodern maelstrom of the 2000s, will probably not notice or care about this.

After a few hours, I had cleared one-and-a-half hubs and explored another two. There were hubs I hadn't even entered yet. So that speaks to the ultimate volume of this game.

September 29, 2021

Key & Compass Blog

New walkthroughs for September 2021

by davidwelbourn at September 29, 2021 07:42 PM

On Tuesday, September 28, 2021, I published new walkthroughs for the games and stories listed below! Some of these were paid for by my wonderful patrons at Patreon. Please consider supporting me to make even more new walkthroughs for works of interactive fiction at Patreon and Ko-fi.


Captain Cutter’s Treasure (2021) by Garry Francis

In this game, you play as Jim, a tavern worker who wakes up in the broom closet. You soon learn that, years ago, the pirate captain, Cutter, had his former crewmates (including your boss, Harold) hide a treasure for him, and now he wants it back. Return the treasure by sunset or else Harold’s daughter, Brenda, will suffer the consequences.

This game was an entry in PunyJam #1 where it took 1st place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


J’dal (2012) by Ryan Kinsman

In this adventure game, you play as a young black woman named J’dal, born on the other side of the sunset. Everyone else here is white. You, Dad (who adopted you years ago), the experimenter Stolas (who Dad met when turnside), and the thug Roderick have been hired to find an artifact hidden in the mine west of town. They need you for your superior night vision.

This game was an entry in IF Comp 2012 where it took 16th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


Kook U (1997) by sbfaq

In this silly but very rude game, you’re the Network Administrator at Kook University. It’s your job to restart the Network whenever it’s down, but Dean F. L. Uffy also demands that you stop the USENET Abuse by six terrible students or else you’re out of a job!

Content warnings: profanity, drug use, comedic deaths and murder, references to illegal forms of pornography, and horrible poetry.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


Danny Dipstick (2021) by Garry Francis

In this small game, you play as Danny Dipstick, a dork who’s had no success picking up chicks at the local nightclub, but tonight will be different. With your neighbour’s advice, you will fix your problems, you will talk to a nice girl, and you will get her phone number.

This game was an entry in ParserComp 2021 where it took 13th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


Eight Miles High (2014) by Josh Giesbrecht (as “Lambert Lambert”)

In this short choice-based game inspired by a song lyric, you play as someone who arrives at an airport, then takes a limo to some street. You’re not sure where you are and it’s hard to focus in all this rain.

This game was a participant in the first ShuffleComp event.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


Sohoek Ekalmoe (2020) by Caleb Wilson

In this short story, you play as a plant called Sohoek Ekalmoe, “one who sunders the paving stones”. Your enemies cast you into this deep shaft a year ago, but now it’s your season to grow.

This story was written for NarraScope 2020.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


Chipmonk (2019) by Jason and Luke Swanson

In this small simple adventure, you play as a monk named Chip, equipped with your trusty katana. Your quest is to kill the dragon known as The Destroyer. You begin in the cave entrance.

My walkthrough and map

September 28, 2021

Renga in Blue

Arrow of Death Part 1: Finished!

by Jason Dyer at September 28, 2021 09:41 PM

(Reading my prior posts on this game is necessary for this one to make sense.)

I didn’t have much left to go before finishing. Really, with the exception of the rather strange last puzzle, everything was a matter of figuring out the parser.

First off, only 5 minutes after I made my last post, I realized that while holding the log I could GO FLUME and the ride would begin. I assumed you sat down the log and got on it, which seems reasonable, but I guess not. This leads shortly to a beach with a cliff, which you can climb to find a mighty eagle.

With the sighting of Feathers I realized this was the second “ingredient” in my Arrow of Death; I had the arrowhead already, and with feathers I just needed the shaft. However, I was completely and totally unable to interact with either the eagle or the feathers other than — rather unhelpfully — I could kill the eagle with my sword, causing it to disappear.

Frustrated, I went back to the other part I had verb trouble with — the chained slave — and once again found immediate success. I tried FREE SLAVE which instructed me to CUT his CHAINS, so I suppose it’s a really firm sword I’ve been toting around.

Once you free the slave he will follow you. Heading up to the boulder that had me stumped, trying to MOVE BOULDER told me that I received some help, and it opened up a cave.

That’s all that was in the cave. Nothing magic or even new information — I already knew I needed feathers! I spent a long time trying to SEARCH CAVE and the like but even the noun CAVE wasn’t recognized.

Bouncing around futily trying to examine things for the nth time, I went back to the eagle and tried another crack at extract feathers. Here I was saved by my “verb list” procedure I had gone through earlier…

…and I realized, off of my “rare” verbs in the far right column, that PLUCK worked. (I first added it back when playing Vial of Doom and later used it in Ulysses and the Golden Fleece. It has shown up in no other games so far.) PLUCK FEATHERS not only put feathers in my inventory but got the Eagle to fly me to a new area.

And then … I’d like to describe some fabulous adventures here, but it seems like the author ran out of space, or gave up? There’s a brook you pass by…

…there’s a hut with a dead dwarf that has a silver medallion…

…a lot of random grassy locations with nothing…

…and a Cellar with a MASTER FLETCHER. I assumed that after collecting the shaft for the arrow I would be returning here.

Finally, past a marsh, I encountered a willow, and immense parser frustration.

The Guardians of the Willow are the final obstacle for the game, but I have no idea what they even look like! They prevent the action CUT WILLOW without any details. All I know is I was able to take the silver medallion I just got a few minutes before, and throw it; they chased the medallion, distracted.

Guardians
Chase Medallion!

Then I was able to CUT WILLOW and get the last piece of the Arrow, and the game ended, informing me to continue the story in Part 2. Not even a scene returning to the Fletcher and assembling the arrow, booooo.

CONGRATULATIONS!!
You can now make the Arrow
See ARROW OF DEATH (Pt.2)

I think the one thing this game emphasized for me is just how solid the original Scott Adams games are. Now, I had legions of complaints, of course, but I never felt like I was in a scenario where an item was in the room description that couldn’t be referred to, or where I circled for an hour finding the right verb rather than using any kind of logical reasoning. (They had their own, unique problems, mind you, but just not in implementation.) I do strongly get this was possibly Brian Howarth doing the ports from his original TRS-80 games in haste, really wanting to get back to writing new games.

At least the slightly askew ZX Spectrum graphics grew on me. They’re not traditionally pretty, but they’re trying their best. As an aside, I tried out the Z-machine z6 conversion using Frotz, and it lets you see the room description and room graphic on the same page as you play; it made the static nature of the graphics seem a touch more sensible, as I never had a situation where I would read text and then switch to graphics to see a scene that did not resemble the text much; having them both delivered at the same time made the issue feel less irritating.

An example. There’s supposed to be a chained slave here, but I’m honestly not sure what I’m looking at.

I confess this just wasn’t as strong as The Time Machine, and at least Golden Baton had a memorable ending. I’ll just save overall judgment until part 2, I suppose, but that will have to wait until sometime in 1982; I’ll keep with the ZX Spectrum for when I get back to the worlds of Howarth, and his first game that was written solely for the Scott Adams database system.

The People's Republic of IF

September Meeting Post-Mortem

by Angela Chang at September 28, 2021 01:41 PM

September 2021 PR-IF meeting courtesy of Zarf

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Monday, September 20, 2021 over zoom.  KaySavetz  (Eaten By A Grue), Zarf,  Hugh, Stephen Eric Jablonski,  Dana, NickM, Hilborn, welcomed newcomer Steve Washington (@esaevian). Thank you Zarf for providing the chat transcript below:

EctoComp 2021 has been announced: https://itch.io/jam/ectocomp-2021-english

Trope Tank is still hoping to get set up this month. MIT has set up a “Tim Ticket” system for campus visitors, so it might be possible to have an on-campus meeting in Nov or Dec. We’ll see.

(Footnote from Zarf: Even if this is possible, I am thinking we should stay with zoom meetings through the end of the semester. We can re-evaluate for January.)

NM is working on a new Curveship (JS) release — focusing on narrative style rather than parser-style IF.

Nick Montfort to Everyone: Curveship-js 0.4 coming soon!

Hopefully some version will be fun to develop & create stuff with before long

Adam Sommerfield posted about an abandoned attempt to work on a Deadline sequel with Dave Lebling and Marc Blank.

https://intfiction.org/t/cancelled-project-spiritual-successor-to-deadline-witness-etc-may-be-of-interest-to-someone/52525

Hugh set up a repository and did some very quick map sketches for this:

https://gitlab.com/jkj/39years

Talked a bit about different detective game models.

Kay Savetz to Everyone:

Puny Inform v3.0 is out — https://twitter.com/FRamsberg/status/1440011822313185280

https://github.com/johanberntsson/PunyInform/releases

Experimental work adding WebAssembly output to the Inform 6 compiler:

https://intfiction.org/t/inform-6-says-hello-webassembly/52399/12

This is very preliminary; not much of the I6 class system is implemented yet.

Emily Short ran a Seltani jam: https://emshort.blog/2021/08/22/seltani-jam/

Zarf was the only person who contributed anything, but we had about a dozen people show up for a Seltani tour.

Zarf’s post about the new experiment:

https://blog.zarfhome.com/2021/09/a-plenitude-of-alchemical-domains.html

Andy Baio posted about a lesser-known Jason Shiga interactive comic, Hello World:

This uses a split-page system to track game state and permit a “menu” of different choices in each state.

Also mentioned Knock Knock (Zarf showed off his copy).

Zarf also showed Adventure Games: Playing the Outsider(Aaron Reed, Anastasia Salter, John T. Murray).

Ryan Veeder’s Mud Warriors has been ported to GameBoy:

https://intfiction.org/t/the-release-of-ryan-veeders-mud-warriors-on-gameboy/52534

Screenshots:

Gameboy emulator:

https://www.bannister.org/software/kigb.htm

Zarf Updates

Recent narrative games: summer 2021 edition

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at September 28, 2021 02:26 AM

Lake

A game about taking a vacation. You take two weeks off from your high-stress software company job (in 1986, it's eight-bit stuff) in order to drive a mail truck. You have just enough scheduling to optimize your route, just enough scenery to learn the roads, the radio has just three songs on rotation, and sometimes you need to whip a three-point turn at 40 mph. Which is all we ever wanted out of GTA, right?
Really, the truck-driving is there to pace out a bunch of meet-the-neighborhood story threads. Follow through whichever ones you want. It's basically a dating sim with 80% less dating. (Some dating if you want to go there.)
And it works because the game itself is a vacation. You take a few days off off from playing flashy, world-saving, tower-jumping, monster-smashing, brain-busting games. You putter around in a truck! There are no stakes! You can't win or lose!
This is kind of brilliant, and also kind of self-defeating. What the game conveys is that none of this matters. But it's supposed to be a story about a grounding, self-discovering moment: you return to your home town, connect up with old friends, meet new people... figure out what's important. But it's so low-stakes that I couldn't feel very involved. Even when I was driving off with the hot video-store owner. "Summer fling, don't mean a thing..." Sorry, Angie.
Well, it's a charming ride, the writing is fun, the sunrises are lovely, and I really did appreciate the break.

The Artful Escape (of Francis Vendetti)

It's... it's the world's easiest platformer, except you're on a psychedelic Bowie head-trip and playing power chords makes you sail through the sky. Sometimes there's a little Simon-style chord-following challenge under the glittering neon speaker-stacks of space. Again, very easy. Who cares? It's a gonzo sci-fi rock opera experience. It's not about the music; it's about the light show. (The narrative nods at this.)
It's also about the heavy-frame glasses, so it has my vote.
My only complaint here is that the story gets unnecessarily salty about folk music. The protagonist is trying to escape his folk roots to become a glam star. I get that. This is mostly framed as personal expression and self-discovery and it's fine. But a bit at the end sneers about "the dreary taint of folk music" (or some such phrasing) with no pushback. It was -- sorry -- a sour note. Especially since the sound track features quite a bit of soulful folk. (Luke Legs doing the title and main-menu tracks.)
That's a footnote, though. Playing this is like injecting album covers directly into your ocular nerve. Do it.

Psychonauts 2

I don't have a lot to say about this -- it's a big release; people have said plenty. But I really appreciated how much the story centered consent, concensus, and teamwork.
The original game, after all, was basically about gate-crashing people's heads and using their hangups as an amusement park ride. The adventure-game form practically mandates this sort of ego-trip approach. But P2 makes an effort to break away from it. The first big story arc has Raz jumping into someone's head to "fix a problem" -- which causes a big problem, and then he has to fix it. And then he apologizes! And for the rest of the game, whenever Raz needs to head-dive, there's a line where he asks permission. It's a small thing, but the writers went there, and it makes the game shine.
Similarly, the big cast of background characters all get their moments of storyline and their moments of heroism. The game is about Raz, but in the story, sometimes he's the sidekick.
Also appreciated: the generous easy-mode options. I turned on "invincible" for most of the boss fights. Made it a better game -- for me. You do you.

OPUS: Echo of Starsong

A visual novel mashed up with several other genres: abstract puzzle, adventure game, Out There-style space puttering. The visual novel is on top, and I'm not saying that just because all the dialogue is floating heads with a range of facial expressions. (Plus the infamous Giant Sweat Drop of Fluster.) All the exploration and puzzles and minigames are there to pace the big dramatic romance plot.
When I say they're pacing, I don't mean they're extraneous or slapdash. Every piece of the game carries its share of the narrative. You get walk-and-talk while you explore. You get bits of worldbuilding and history from every random encounter. You get NPC banter in the email screen that hands you quests. You get tragic space girlfriend music out of the puzzle system. The designers have clearly thought through their narrative design in intense detail, and then polished the heck out of everything, too.
(I will raise one tiny quibble, just because it was such an uncharacteristic oversight. If your story does a "one year goes by" timeline skip between chapters -- with plot consequences -- you can't put me back in the same ship with exactly the same amount of fuel, scrap, hull damage, and cargo. That's a Voyager-level writing goof. At least throw some money and gas in the tank to show that the offscreen year was a working year.)
On the up side, the game seems to use a full-fledged storylet system for its encounters. Each location (aside from the big adventure-y areas) has just a handful of exploration choices. But some of them are contextual; for example, crappy jobs that will hire you for pin money if you're broke. If your ship is badly damaged, you might run into a repair truck in flight. Stuff like that. It's not ostentatious but it does a lot of the game's balance work.
Anyway. Everything is about the story, so how was the story? Eh, it was fine. Space Boy and Wise Parental Guardian meet up with Space Girl and Orphan Kid Sister. Then, big spoiler here, Wise Parental Guardian dies because George Lucas said so[*]. It's a romance. There's shouting and pining. It all leans heavily on tropes. There's plenty of story, but the characters have roles rather than personality as such.
The game does better with backstory. The Thousand Peaks is a big messy solar system filled with lost ancient ruins, and also more recent ruins because of the Big War. You scout the ancient ruins for artifacts and lumen energy (what the Big War was fought over). I was originally skeptical -- it seemed like a re-run of Heaven's Vault minus the cool linguistics. But the game eventually won me over through sheer weight of detail. There's dozens of asteroids and space stations and ruins and spaceships and factions, each with its own glimpse of the world. Even a one-paragraph description or one-choice side-quest conveys its own angle. It slowly adds up to a dense web of history which left me kind of awe-struck.
Points for sharp use of the frame story, too.
I know it's faint to praise the worldbuilding when the story doesn't entirely measure up. I enjoyed playing, though! There's nothing wrong with relaxing into the tropes and mouthing along. That's half the TV I watch. (No, I'm not admitting which shows.) If I wasn't all that caught up with the characters, I still had fun fussing with the map and the puzzles and the economy -- which is what they're for. And the narrative craft really is top-notch.
[* Footnote: Did George Lucas say so? I've seen at least one account that Obi-Wan was not killed off because of a Campbell obsession, but because Lucas expected to introduce Anakin Daddy Skywalker in the sequel, and having two Wise Parental Jedi Knights would be redundant! No, I don't remember where I read this. Yes, there were so many Star Wars drafts that probably everything was true once. Large Luke says "Never mind".]

September 27, 2021

Renga in Blue

Arrow of Death Part 1: The Edge of an Awesome Precipice

by Jason Dyer at September 27, 2021 10:41 PM

(Continued directly from my last post.)

The VIC-20 Digital Leisure version of Arrow of Death Part 1, which was cut by the author into 8K, half the size of the original. Howarth was “persuaded somewhat against his will” into doing the arrangement and “felt he was cheating the people who were buying the games”. (Source.) Source from Gareth Pitchford, picture via @AgentReyes2 on Twitter.

A bit of progress over last time. I carefully re-re-re-checked each room and found that in the opening courtyard in the game if I did LOOK COURTYARD I would find a rope. This happened in the Kitchen as well (with a hook) but rather frustratingly, the actual syntax doesn’t even work elsewhere: LOOK THRONE in the Throne Room gives an error-type message, the same as LOOK VAULT in the Vault. It came off as a pointless bit of bad UI — someone could easily have “trained” themselves that the syntax didn’t work at all before finding any items — moreso than a well-hidden secret.

I was able to use the rope with the hook and attach them together, put the hook in at the top of the ledge, climb down to the armor, tie the armor up, and then drag it up by pulling the rope back at the top of the ledge.

This let me go into the dark cave (shown above, even before it gets revealed in the game) with armor on, and able to survive walking into darkness. After some thought, I retrieved the orb that showed the cave and rubbed it again while inside the darkness, and it lit up showing a serpent. Multiple whacks of my sword were sufficient to take the serpent down, and I was able to retrieve an arrowhead after the fight. I assume this is a piece of the titular Arrow.

Nearby the cave location in the TRS-80 version is this precipice. It doesn’t serve any puzzle-solving purpose so I can understand why it was cut from the more minimal remake, but I still liked the cinema of it.

I thought I’d have opened up more areas by solving what I did, but I was at a dead end. Another combing through all the rooms, and this time, while in the forest and frustrated…

…I decided to try out the hint that the beggar had earlier (“when all seems lost, WAIT”). I assumed previously this clue meant WAIT was intended to be tried out in some location that felt like a dead-end (like the Cave which had the serpent) but apparently it was really intended for the forest. Using WAIT teleported me to a new location, where there was a riverbank and a barge with a ferryman. The Ferryman held his hand out — and the amulet I found off the Messenger had a picture of a barge — so I GAVE AMULET which was sufficient to get passage.

This led me to a new area with a ruined forest, a chained slave in a clearing (who can’t talk to or interactive with via any verbs I’ve tested, an apparent dead end at a rock wall, some toadstools, a large boulder (I’m not strong enough to carry it), a “cookhouse” for some giants, and a giant building.

If you try to enter the giant building you “trip” and give yourself away to giants living within.

The “cookhouse” has a cauldron with broth. You can take the toadstools and POISON CAULDRON (not any verb referring the toadstools themselves, which would be the usual thing) leave, and then somehow in the interim between leaving the cookhouse and going to the main giant building the giants have quaffed the poison so you can safely walk in.

This leads to an upper level with a log and a log flume. Any attempts to drop the log on the flume and ride it or otherwise get it moving have been denied by the parser.

So to summarize, I’m stuck on:

a.) the log/flume part, which may just need the right verb to get the two to do anything together

b.) the chained slave part, which may just need the right verb to interact (I don’t otherwise have a key or something helpful in breaking a chain)

c.) a heavy boulder, which I might assume I need to enlist a giant for except I knocked them out already (was that a mistake?)

d.) and a dead-end rock wall which I again have found no luck with

At least progress is progress, but it is frustrating knowing what might be stopping is getting the right phrasing (POISON as a verb took me a while, for sure).

The People's Republic of IF

August Meeting Post Mortem

by Angela Chang at September 27, 2021 01:41 PM

August 2021 PR-IF AttendeesAugust 2021 PR-IF Attendees

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on  Tuesday, August 31, 6:30 pm. Zarf,  Hugh (StrandGames),  DanaCarrington (Eaten By A Grue), NickMStephen Eric Jablonski,  Josh Grams,  anjchang, and Dan Boris welcomed newcomer Kathryn Li.


IFComp submissions open. Now you can vote on the games Real problem is voting against others.

publicity for ifcomp?

taper#7 submissions deadline moved sept. 15th

In-person meeting update– covid protocols are stringent and lab space issues at the moment

kay reading monsters!

zork zero!

Inquiring minds want to know “What will be next” for Eaten By A Grue?
Maybe–Works that happened by the authors after they left infocom?
Zork_the_undiscovered_underground
infocom.xyz is still up–it’s not the original infocom
Retron77 machine
Activision/Infocom discussion history
Inspired by Adventure
When Atari came up with Atari VCS, they didn’t expect it to be such a huge hit for decades. No concept of DRM back then. No 3rd party games for the system- it was all inhouse.
David Crane and “Chess for atari maker” -no royalities, no salaries
Four people just left and founded Activision, solved the problem of how to program ATARI VCS.
Rob Fulop did that with iMagic. After that people started doimg stuff without having the insider background, by reverse engineering the chip!
ET was the worst video game ever but then others fixed the bugs.

Check out GrueScript:a tool for creating point-n-click parser-like text adventures/interactive fiction. See the announcement here https://intfiction.org/t/announce-gruescript/52104

Twining: Critical and Creative Approaches to Hypertext Narratives Book is out
https://www.fulcrum.org/concern/monographs/ms35tb924

A History of Adventure Games Book is out
https://bookshop.org/books/adventure-games-playing-the-outsider/9781501385827

EmilyShort game jam in seitani on September 19th
https://www.meetup.com/Oxford-and-London-Interactive-Fiction-Group/events/280273311/

Cyan released a VR game called Myst, reimagining Myst in 1993. It’s very very pretty

Josh grams reports that Stacey Mason just finished her PhD. It’s called “Exquisite Corpse” He’s been attending the #fortnightfictionjam she hosted. Josh and others made the Exquisite Poem Generator — Check it out!

Staceys new game about narrative things was mentioned, but might not be available yet

Carrington workimg on a game in PunyInform. A bug if you create a verb and an object with a life routine, verbishness disappears somehow. Zarf says verbs should take precedence. Could be a scope or version problem (debug vs release)? V3 compiler.

September 24, 2021

The XYZZY Awards

XYZZY Awards 2020: final round

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at September 24, 2021 11:42 PM

The results of the first round are complete; congratulations to our finalists! Voting is now open for the second and final round, and will remain open through October 3rd.

The XYZZYs use your IF Comp login; if you need to register an account with the Comp, or you’ve forgotten your account details, go here. You can log in here (you’ll get kicked back to the front page, but you are in fact logged in) and then vote here

(Anyone may vote, but you are asked not to vote for your own work, or to organise voters to support a particular game or slate thereof.)

The finalists of the Awards are as follows:

Best Game

  • The Impossible Bottle (Linus Åkesson)
  • A Rope of Chalk (Ryan Veeder)
  • Tavern Crawler (Josh Labelle)
  • Vain Empires (Thomas Mack, Xavid)
  • Vampire: The Masquerade – Night Road (Kyle Marquis)

Best Writing

  • Jolly Good: Cakes and Ale (Kreg Segall)
  • Limerick Quest (Pace Smith)
  • A Rope of Chalk (Ryan Veeder)
  • Scents & Semiosis (Sam Kabo Ashwell, Cat Manning, Caleb Wilson, Yoon Ha Lee)
  • Stuff of Legend (Lance Campbell)

Best Story

  • Electric word, “life” (Lance Nathan)
  • The Impossible Bottle (Linus Åkesson)
  • Lore Distance Relationship (Naomi “Bez” Norbez)
  • A Rope of Chalk (Ryan Veeder)
  • Stuff of Legend (Lance Campbell)
  • Tavern Crawler (Josh Labelle)
  • Vain Empires (Thomas Mack, Xavid)

Best Setting

  • Ascension of Limbs (AKheon)
  • The Eleusinian Miseries (Mike Russo)
  • The Impossible Bottle (Linus Åkesson)
  • Jolly Good: Cakes and Ale (Kreg Segall)
  • The Magpie Takes the Train (MathBrush)
  • A Murder in Fairyland (Abigail Corfman)
  • A Rope of Chalk (Ryan Veeder)
  • Shadow Operative (Michael Lauenstein)
  • Vain Empires (Thomas Mack, Xavid)

Best Puzzles

  • The Eleusinian Miseries (Mike Russo)
  • The Impossible Bottle (Linus Åkesson)
  • JELLY (Tom Lento, Chandler Groover)
  • A Rope of Chalk (Ryan Veeder)
  • Sage Sanctum Scramble (Arthur DiBianca)
  • Seasonal Apocalypse Disorder (Zan, Xavid)
  • Stuff of Legend (Lance Campbell)
  • Vain Empires (Thomas Mack, Xavid)

Best NPCs

  • The Impossible Bottle (Linus Åkesson)
  • Jolly Good: Cakes and Ale (Kreg Segall)
  • The Magpie Takes the Train (MathBrush)
  • A Rope of Chalk (Ryan Veeder)
  • Stuff of Legend (Lance Campbell)
  • Tavern Crawler (Josh Labelle)

Best Individual Puzzle

  • Cow tipping in Seasonal Apocalypse Disorder (Zan, Xavid)
  • Following the cat through the forest in Stuff of Legend (Lance Campbell)
  • Leaving the house in The Impossible Bottle (Linus Åkesson)
  • Registering the game in Crocodracula: The Beginning (Ryan Veeder)

Best Individual NPC

  • Kingfisher in Vain Empires (Thomas Mack, Xavid)
  • The parrot in The Magpie Takes the Train (MathBrush)
  • Sassy Britches in Stuff of Legend (Lance Campbell)
  • Sister in Lore Distance Relationship (Naomi “Bez” Norbez)

Best Individual PC

  • The Demon in Vain Empires (Thomas Mack, Xavid)
  • The doppelganger in Doppeljobs (Lei)
  • Elizabeth Boldan in Sense of Harmony (Scenario World)
  • Ichabod Stuff in Stuff of Legend (Lance Campbell)
  • Magpie in The Magpie Takes the Train (MathBrush)
  • Open Sorcerer in A Murder in Fairyland (Abigail Corfman)

Best Implementation

  • 4×4 Galaxy (Agnieszka Trzaska)
  • The Impossible Bottle (Linus Åkesson)
  • Limerick Quest (Pace Smith)
  • The Magpie Takes the Train (MathBrush)
  • A Murder in Fairyland (Abigail Corfman)
  • A Rope of Chalk (Ryan Veeder)
  • Several Other Tales from Castle Balderstone (Ryan Veeder)

Best Use of Innovation

  • The Cursèd Pickle of Shireton (Hanon Ondricek)
  • The Impossible Bottle (Linus Åkesson)
  • JELLY (Tom Lento, Chandler Groover)
  • A Murder in Fairyland (Abigail Corfman)
  • The Prongleman Job (Arthur DiBianca)
  • Sense of Harmony (Scenario World)
  • Shadow Operative (Michael Lauenstein)

Best Technological Development

  • Adventuron
  • Dialog

Best Use of Multimedia

  • Babyface (Mark Sample)
  • Congee (Becci)
  • Crocodracula: The Beginning (Ryan Veeder)
  • A Murder in Fairyland (Abigail Corfman)
  • Present Quest (Errol Elumir)
  • Sense of Harmony (Scenario World)
  • Shadow Operative (Michael Lauenstein)

Renga in Blue

Arrow of Death Part 1 (1981)

by Jason Dyer at September 24, 2021 09:41 PM

From Mobygames.

Previous Brian Howarth games: The Golden Baton, The Time Machine.

This is, as far as I can find from records, the last of the Mysterious Adventures to have a unique TRS-80 version. Just as a reminder (or if you haven’t read my prior entries) the original TRS-80 versions were rather more verbose than the later versions, which were re-written (and later, freshly-designed) to run using the Scott Adams database system. This led to some scenarios where it was easier to solve a puzzle on one version of the game than the other; I simultaneously ran the BBC Micro and TRS-80 versions and hopped back and forth when I was stuck.

I’ll do relatively the same here, but with more emphasis on the minimal version, for two reasons:

1.) Since Part 2 (coming in 1982) will be the ultra-minimal style, I’d rather have my Part 1 gameplay be somewhat comparable.

2.) Due to the recent passing of Sir Clive Sinclair, in his honor I wanted to play this game using the ZX Spectrum version of the game.

By playing on the ZX Spectrum I also can show graphics, but since I have yet to show ZX Spectrum graphics on this blog and not everyone has yet experienced the joys, I need to explain: they look strange for a technical reason. Here, for example, is the title screen for one of the best of the ZX Spectrum games:

This screen does a good job hiding the tech problem, but if you look at the “S” you may notice there is a portion where the white “bleeds over” into the yellow.

Zoomed in. I’ve circled the relevant spot.

This is because, on any given 8 by 8 tile on the ZX Spectrum, only two colors are allowed. So you could have white on black or yellow on black but not white, black, and yellow all the in the same area. This led to lots of clever and not-so-clever tricks of mitigation, and on some games it is clear the authors just gave up and let the colors go wild.

Screenshot from the academic paper Arcade Colour, Illustration and Attribute Clash 1979 – 89 if you want to read about the effect in more detail.

I give all this intro to avoid confusion. I gather my older European audience is just used to this and are waiting patiently for the main show to start, but I assure you for someone not raised on such graphics it looks like there might be some sort of graphical error. Here is the first screen to Arrow of Death Part 1:

This is why, for example, the black lines to the right have interruption around the white, since there’s a portion that is set to show only yellow and white.

The story picks up from The Golden Baton, where the magical gizmo in the title which brings magical prosperity was returned (by yourself) to the Palace of Ferrenuil. An evil spell descends on the kingdom and the Baton, which had previously “shone with a brilliance far surpassing that of ordinary Gold” has now become “dull and tarnished” and and anyone nearby now feels “an almost tangible feeling of hatred for living, growing things.”

The king’s sorcerer, Zardra, tries to study the baton, but has been missing for three days, and there have been screams and flashes of lightning from the castle.

You return to the palace, with a messenger, and the plot picks up — with an interesting jump hinting at a hidden event — at the Courtyard of the palace, with the messenger dead for some unknown reason:

The “text description” screen and graphics screen are separated where you can switch by hitting ENTER, just like many games at the time. The interface “locks in” to either one or the other in such a way that the way to play with graphics is to “peek into” the graphics window at each step to see the new room, then switch back since there isn’t enough information without the text. Another odd side effect of this is that there is a death graphical screen, but you almost have to pre-setup to see it, by switching to the graphics window, typing a command (on an unseen object, location exit, etc.) and have the death occur. It’s weirdly like playing blindfolded. In Saigon: The Last Days there was sufficient text with the graphics to get what was going on, plus you would see the graphics initially upon entering a room.

Taking the messenger’s amulet, it is only a few steps in to encounter Zadra and the Baton. Trying to interact with the Baton kills you. Talking to ZARDRA quickly results in his name description becoming ZARDRA (dead):

He gasps and says:
Magical Arrow…Destroy ZERDON..!
He Dies!

Despite there not being that extreme a difference in plots, I found this opening more engrossing than The Golden Baton’s — just the minor action at the start makes the difference — which threw out a bunch of undigested lore before the quest for the Foozle. Here, I’m guessing the Arrow is the Foozle, and then in Part 2 we’ll need to shoot it in the right direction.

Despite the Baton being deadly on even trying to LOOK at it, it is otherwise safe to explore the castle, and I racked up a few items both secret and not-secret:

  • a hook in a Kitchen (the room was otherwise empty, I had to LOOK KITCHEN, just LOOK wouldn’t do it)
  • a suit of armour (wearable)
  • a sword hidden in a secret passage (enterable by turning a Coat of Arms multiple times)
  • a pillow hiding a purse with coins (the pillow can be cut open with the sword)

The Kitchen, with the hidden hook. None of the items shown can be referred to.

The Coat of Arms, which can be turned to open a secret passage. The graphic is entirely static.

There’s a beggar outside the castle, where if you give the coins you get a Glass Orb and a Note.

When all seems lost.. WAIT!

I’m stuck fairly shortly after that.

I can make my way to a “ledge” and climb up, although the armour is too heavy to go up. There’s a cave up top (findable via rubbing the Glass Orb) but entering it is death:

AARRGGHH!!
Serpent eats me!

I suspect either a.) there’s some way to shuttle the armour up, in which case it might protect against serpent-eating or b.) some sort of serpent-repellent or c.) a light source I’m missing. There’s also the ever-classic-for-me d.) I missed a room exit but the game is very tight so I doubt I made a mistake, but it wouldn’t be the first time.

If I get stuck for much longer I’ll break out the TRS-80 version for comparison purposes. If nothing else sometimes approaching in a fresh context can help my brain unlock new puzzle-solving ideas, kind of like how if I’m editing a text it helps to switch devices to prevent my eyes from skipping over typos.

September 20, 2021

Zarf Updates

A plenitude of alchemical domains

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at September 20, 2021 12:03 AM

This weekend was Emily Short's Seltani jam, which was a pleasant morning hangout and went off without a hitch.
(I'm writing this a week in advance, by way the way. If it went off with a hitch, I'm going to have did some hasty editing last night!) (Nope, was fine. Low on jam content, but plenty of people interested in the tour.)
My contribution was Mutuai Minor. This was a fix-up of two unrelated interaction concepts:
  • Upstairs: a mutable location (an island, or hill, or ridge, in an ocean or desert or ice-plain...) which requires five cooperating players to fully control.
  • Downstairs: an alchemy lab where you can make several colors of ink, and then color a model world.
At this point you fix me with a Vulcan eyebrow and say, "Really, Zarf, alchemy? Haven't you done alchemy to death?" Yes! I have done it to death, and yet I keep finding new and interesting angles. Or new angles, anyway. To convince you that they're interesting, I'm going to compare three different approaches.
(This post will have partial spoilers for The Dreamhold, Hadean Lands, and the alchemy lab in Mutuai Minor.)

My first alchemy game was The Dreamhold (2004). The game involves several sorts of magic, but towards the end there's an alchemy lab:
You stand in a chamber built of massive squared stones. The only exit is a plain doorway in the north wall. Shelves line the east side of the room; the opposite wall is painted with an elaborate mural. Between them, a worktable -- a single heavy granite slab, cluttered with the tools of your work.
In the center of the worktable is a complex apparatus of mirrors and lenses. The table also contains an empty flask, a wooden basket, a leaden jar, and a scrap of paper.
> READ PAPER
You have the formulation of the necessary ink scrawled here: "Winter lithontree resin, and sea-blood corundum -- equal by mass -- combine -- ensolve by exposure to (2 pulses) month-aged noonlight." Easy enough to repeat. The hard part was gathering those substances.
It turns out that these three ingredients are the entire stock of the lab. You have lumps of golden resin, a jar of blue corundum dust, and a machine that will zap your mixture with a pulse of light.
(Historical trivia: I lifted the blue corundum, blood of the sea, from Meredith Ann Pierce's A Gathering of Gargoyles. Soaking ingredients in moonlight or noonlight is a trick from Diane Duane's Young Wizards series.)
Of course, the game leaves you to experiment. Once you've played around for a while, you figure out the two big rules:
  • The flask can contain one substance or a mixture of several. You can always add more blue dust or more gold resin.
  • Adding a substance does not cause a reaction. Hitting the mixture with a pulse of light causes the reaction.
Because it's based on mixtures, drawing a diagram is a difficult. But, to simplify somewhat, the important operations are "light", "add dust and then light", "add resin and then light." This gives you a fairly simple diagram:

That's if you play in expert mode. In beginner mode, the "equal by mass" requirement is dropped, so the triple arrow is simplified -- gel always turns to ink.

Either way, it's a pretty simple puzzle. It's just meant to carry one scene of a large game. But it turned out to be a lot of fun to play with.
In fact, I wound up adding two more optional reactions for the sheer joy of it. You can throw a fire berry or an ice berry into the flask, which lets you create a few more substances. So that's two more diagrams like this one. They weren't a huge expansion -- just messing around, after all, not connected to any puzzle. But some.
What worked about this scene? I'd say it was the experimentation. The diagram is pretty dense. You've only got two ingredients, after all. Whatever you've got in the flask, you can try adding dust or resin (or nothing) and seeing what the light does. Something will probably happen!
(You're going to ask what happens if you zap a mixture of dust and resin and a third substance. Answer: the light reacts with the resin and the third substance, leaving the dust for next time! Cheesy, I know. But the puzzle has already mooted the idea that two zaps in a row have distinct effects.)

This lab scene was the seed of Hadean Lands (2014). I wanted to capture the joy of messing around with reactions, and then expand it into a full-sized game. (And take full advantage of an auto-goal system -- but that's a different post.)
HL's alchemy chart is much much larger than the one in Dreamhold. Here's the first recipe you find:
"FOR THE CLEANSING OF BRASS TARNISH: Prepare an atmosphere of fiery principles. Place a brass token within the bound, and seal it. Speak a word of essential nature, so that the properties of brass may be evoked. Compound the atmosphere with a resinous note. Then intone the Lesser Phlogistical Saturation to complete the token's investment. Place token directly on tarnished item."
And here's that bit of the alchemical system:

This diagram has quite a different shape. Each ritual is a chain of steps; you have to get each step right. This spell has one possible substitution -- figuring that out is an early puzzle. But other than that, if you make a mistake, you've entered a "junk" state and there's no way back.

The game's narration supports this model:
> PUT PIN IN BOUND
You put the brass pin into the workbench bound.
> SAY SEALING WORD
You take a breath, trace the bound in your mind, and intone the simple sealing word.
The arc begins to glow orange around the brass pin.
> SAY WORD OF ESSENTIAL NATURE
You intone the word of essential nature. The metallic nature of the brass pin rises to the surface.
> SAY BINDING WORD
You intone the elementary word of binding, but it echoes hollowly. There is nothing else in the arc to bind the brass pin to.
The game hints that that last command was a mistake. It also hints that you should add a second item to the bound, but in fact that's a mistake too. No binding ritual starts this way. You need a different recipe for that.
HL's alchemy, complex as it is, doesn't really capture Dreamhold's sense of joyful experimentation. It's a sparse web of narrow paths. In a few key moments, you must make an intuitive leap outside the box. But the bulk of the spellcasting is following recipes.
To be clear, I think HL is a fun game! The fun consists of:
  • Figuring out what the recipes mean;
  • Figuring out what the resulting spells do;
  • Then, when you've mastered those, untangling the complex dependencies. Spell X requires ingredient Y which you get from spell Z. But then spell Q also requires ingredient Y, and you only have one dose of Y, so maybe there's an alternative to casting X...?
The casting of the spells is atmospheric, I hope. But it's not the core experience of the game.

In the years since, I've compared these games in my head. They're at opposite ends of a scale: prescriptive to exploratory. Right?
Or maybe they're both missing something. Have you ever made caramel sauce? You heat sugar syrup until it's turning brown, you know, almost burning, not quite, that first little wisp of smoke, and then you dump in the cream and stir like a monkey. Then simmer some more until it's the right thickness.
Yes, there are recipes with candy thermometers. But that's what they're approximating. It's imprecise! It's all squinting at the color and jockeying the burner and waiting just long enough, but not too long. Cooking by feel.
(The cliche says that cooking is by feel but baking is precise. This is nonsense. Precise measurement is how you learn the feel when you start baking. And, I admit, it's how you get repeatability. I enjoy nonrepeatable baked goods, but that's just me.)
So this is what I tried to pull into the Mutuai Minor lab.
This room is set up with rows of workbenches and Bunsen burners. A rack of fountain pens sits on a stand up front. You also see a small architectural model in an alcove, with a neatly printed note tacked by it. The exit is up the stairs.
Your burner is off. You could turn it to low heat or high heat.
Your flask is empty.
You could add solvent, powder, or sap.
The note lays out the goal, an unsubtle riff on the Dreamhold lab:
"The workstations are stocked with pure solvent, powdered galla leaf (yellow), and renadi sap (green). Should be enough to get you started on a variety of inks. Try heating the powder slowly in solvent, for a start."
Here's a partial diagram:

This has yet a different shape from the earlier diagrams. Why?

  • Seltani allows timed events. (The games above are entirely turn-based.) A mixture on the burner may change color and consistency over the course of thirty real-time seconds, and then burn.
  • The flask only contains one substance at a time, but there are hidden variables: temperature, concentration, a couple of others. Adding an ingredient always causes a reaction, but you might not be able to see it.
The result is lots of looping and branching arrows. Reactions may fail, succeed, or not succeed yet. And the difference between success and failure may be hidden! For example, you can set the burner to high, low, or off; but the temperature lags a few seconds behind that. You have to estimate that in your head. Or again: heat causes the mixture to reduce. You can see some changes, but some stages of concentration are unmarked.
I've tried to build in some familiar kitchen intuition. All reactions go faster at high temperature. But a hot liquid solution doesn't get hotter -- it simmers. If you let it boil dry, then the temperature will shoot up; soon the flask glows red. (Do not try this with real kitchenware.)
Furthermore, the temperature lag gives you a few seconds of carry-over cooking after the heat is off. So you might need to turn the heat off before the mixture looks done. (If this sounds unnecessarily fussy, read Alton Brown on scrambled eggs.)
What if you don't trust your sense of timing? Same answer as cooking with a cranky stove burner: jockey the heat on and off to get slow reduction. Dilute with driblets of solvent if you think your mix is too close to burning.
I've left many of the variations for players to discover. But my aim is to get people swapping this sort of "by feel" recipe. "Put in two drops of sap, then turn it to high for just a second while you throw in the powder. Then kill the heat and add more solvent while it cools to prevent curdling."
(The system is entirely deterministic, by the way. Nothing is random, aside from slight timer wobbles caused by net delays.)
If you're not familiar with Seltani, the easiest way to visit Mutuai Minor is to log into the site as a guest. Then visit this link. Hit "Enter the Cavern", select "Mutuai Minor -- Gallery Atrium" in the right column, and then hit "Touch the page" at the bottom.

Have I exhausted this theme? Don't be silly.
The Mutuai ink lab relies too much on guesswork. If I were redoing it, I'd put in a lot more subtle changes of color, texture, and smell. I think the hidden variables are important, but they should be hidden in a mass of sensory detail; the learning process should be all about figuring out which changes are important. Would that be "camouflaged variables" rather than "hidden variables"?
Mind you, I'm not saying that every game needs to feature arcane caramel sauce. The original Dreamhold lab was entirely satisfactory for what it needed to be. Plenty of games out there use deterministic, one-step-at-a-time crafting recipes. It depends on the rest of the game's mechanics! Very often, the gameplay revolves around finding rare ingredients. In that case, you want the recipes to be deterministic and foolproof. Do you want to see your hard-won vial of gorgon-venom ruined because you let the potion cook a few seconds too long? Of course not.
(It's not a coincidence that Dreamhold and Mutuai feature unlimited supplies of reagents, and HL lets you easily retry rituals from the start. I hate when gameplay is constrained by the fear of running out of stuff.)
The cooking metaphor might also be limiting. It's great for a three-ingredient mise en place, but would it support a larger game? You might want to explore more metaphysical or thematic recipes. Imagine rituals in which ingredients respond thematically to additions of Fate or Soul or Revenge, rather than "like a stove burner". (Jeff Howard has been simmering a project along these lines for years.)
Of course there are aspects of cooking we haven't even touched on. What about a game where you have to refine a recipe? Find cheaper substitutes without losing effectiveness. Make the recipe more reliable and easier to scale up. Teach it to people -- it's not a recipe unless it's reproducible! Maybe this is too fussy for a game. But then you might say that about the caramel.
I'll stop here. Feel free to grab the saucepan and run with it.

September 19, 2021

Renga in Blue

Saigon: The Final Days: The City Was Dying

by Jason Dyer at September 19, 2021 07:41 PM

Suddenly, we were over Saigon, but I couldn’t recognize it. The huge cloud was still overhead, and the lightning added a witches’ brew flavor to the ghostly, blacked-out city. I could see Tan Son Nhut airport only when the lightning flashed. There were several tires scattered throughout the town. More artillery and mortar. More desperate voices on the radio. The city was dying.

— Leader of an A-7 assisting with the final evacuation of Saigon in 1975

I made it to the end. If you haven’t read it yet, you should go to my previous post for context.

From Mobygames.

With “made it to the end” I will say I relied on hints quite a bit, enough so that I’m not going to call out every instance. Let’s just say there were a large number of instances where the parser did not want to cooperate, and one instance where an object I assume is meant to be revealed by LOOKing I could not for the life of me make appear, even after I knew from a walkthrough it existed.

Continuing from before, I was stuck in a scenario where I was penned in by a machine gun nest with a booby trap, a minefield, and a checkpoint. I found a rock I could climb letting me loop back around, but nothing else. Remembering past Pearson games, I tried LISTEN every and found (at a location right before the checkpoint) that there was a whirring sound to the west, past some bushes. Still, I found no way to barge into the bushes or get over, and I even pulled up my old verb chart and tried every single word on the bushes just in case.

It is here I first broke down and checked hints, and found out I had been struck by a case of scene scripting.

You see, if you find the rock and loop back around, nothing has changed. However, if you go listen to the whirring first, and then loop back around to the machine gun nest with the radio:

THE BODY IS GONE..
A MACHETE IS HERE.

I think the intended script is that there is a man at the checkpoint that looks like they’re holding the same machete, and you can attract their attention and then flee over the rock so the man investigates, avoiding the minefield but setting off the booby trap. I in fact tried to implement this exact plan (run into the checkpoint, then run back out) but there was no indication that this was going on, and if you stand next to the checkpoint and just wait, nothing happens. It is as if the authors (Jyym and Robyn) had a script in their minds but the world-universe wasn’t fully coded to implement it.

Moving on with the machete, I was able to chop away the bush and hop onto a waiting helicopter just a bit farther along (how the Vietnamese soldiers didn’t notice the helicopter, I don’t know).

This is essentially true, there were large numbers of refugees trying to get into the last days of the evacuation. Evacuation had proceeded all the way through the year but logistics made it slow to implement.

This would be a short game except the helicopter gets downed by rocket fire and crashes. You wake up “PARYLIZED” and the only way to undo this is to use the verb MOVE. (Other verbs which imply motion do not help.) Finally you awake and meet a friendly person, Ming Li:

Out of context the yellow color is kind of shocking (yellow stereotypes of Asians, I mean), but it is the base cover of everyone, including non-Asians.

She offers some food (which has something crawling in it) and then after eating she offers to help you escape. This leads through a sort of “cutscene” where she takes you past the crashed helicopter, then a secret series of caves, then finally pulls a chain to reveal a rope ladder so you can climb up to the main city.

There, you run across soldiers chasing an “escaped prisoner” and shooting. Ming Li dies in the crossfire.

Here I got stuck again for a bit. There’s a warehouse with a door I was able to break down with my machete, and a soldier wanting a pass.

There was a door behind the door (see above) and I was unable to refer to it or see anything new, so I moved on and found that there’s a second pull chain revealing a rope ladder on the top, even though there is no way (as far as I can tell) to see it in the room description. The intent is to re-trace the steps you did before with Ming Li, although it is quite possible to just wing it and map out the underground section, falling into pits along the way.

I mostly remembered the way to go. The section had gone by fast enough I hadn’t made a map.

Backtracking you can find the helicopter again — which you had no time to interact with before — and some binoculars, a wallet (containing a pass) and a revolver. (There’s also VC soldiers in a ravine you need to stay away from.)

Oddly, even though there is a dead US soldier here, you can’t take their uniform (blood soaked or something, I suppose). There is one down in the cave whose uniform you can grab, though.

Heading back and using the pass, I ran into a South Vietnamese soldier who wanted something to help escape.

The uniform works here; then he clears out and allows you in a plaza with refugees.

Before proceeding farther, though, I wanted to loop back to deal with the warehouse. A walkthrough told me there were some WIRES. Maybe it’s easier to get them mentioned in the text-only version? In any case, they can be removed with the pliers from all the way back at the start of the game (they had been used already to undo a snap).

Inside the warehouse is dark, and there’s heavy breathing to the south. If you try to proceed, things explode and you die. The binoculars (which have night vision) let you see a figure.

The right action is then to blast with the revolver. There’s a shovel, dog tags, and a parachute left behind. (The dog tags say A.K.C. REGISTERED and the parachute I never found a user for even though I toted it to the end of the game.) The shovel turns out to be immediately useful … but you have to backtrack a second time to where the helicopter crashed.

The soldiers are gone. Yet another invisible trigger happened, although I don’t know where. A dirt mound is left behind, that you can dig with the shovel and find a corpse in a body bag.

You need to remove the body bag and take it with you, because this is still an adventure game. Ugh. (It’s also very easy to miss this, and the bag isn’t used until the end of the game, so it’s bad both in a player-doing-distasteful-stuff sense and a puzzle sense.)

Speaking of the player doing distasteful things, the next destination is back to the plaza with refugees, where on the south side there is a South Vietnamese soldier with a tank. He warns you to leave. It’s revolver time:

It’s plausible to happen, at least — in the later stages of the Vietnam war there was the practice of “fragging” where soldiers murdered officers they didn’t like, usually with grenades. This still feels like Escape from Traam where you randomly kill a human even though they aren’t actively stopping you.

If you then wait a beat, the refugees come in a mob and tear you apart. Maybe this should be the canonical ending. But assuming you want to continue after blasting one of your allies for no good reason, you hop into the tank, and drive it all the way through a wooden wall into a river.

Swimming to shore you can find a large crowd around a “game” being played where two people put their hands on a “mark”, a cobra is released, and whoever moves their hand off the mark first loses. The winner gets $1000. The loser might be dead from the cobra.

This whole process seems randomly specific, but I don’t know the source. The closest I can think of is the Russian Roulette in the 1978 movie The Deer Hunter.

You can go back in and volunteer to play, winning $1000. However, as you will see in a moment, you need $2000, and if you play a second time, the snake bites. So you need to come back with an edge.

Specifically, not far nearby (after climbing up a pipe and a ladder) you can find this soldier, who wants a bribe in order to pass. If you offer the $1000 he says it isn’t enough.

After this scene (and only after this scene, because narrative railroading) if you talk to a guard at blocked off courtyard…

…he will ask (after doing TALK twice) who sent you? The answer is MING LI.

This takes you into a courtyard with more refugees which doesn’t seem too helpful; there’s a locked door to the south. LISTEN mentions a VOICE IN YOUR HEAD, and you have to LISTEN VOICE and Ming Li will speak to you from the dead:

KEEP THE BOX… KEY IN DEPTH

Key in depth is a cue to go back in the river (the one you swam out of, GO RIVER and the like don’t work, you have to JUMP, because why would communicating anything in this game be easy) and DIVE where you can find a RUSTY KEY. The RUSTY KEY can go back to the courtyard to unlock the door and find an apothecary with a box and some “ampules”.

The ampules automatically spill on your hands. I kept the box through the rest of the game but I don’t know what it does — probably prevents something bad I never saw.

The substance on the hands turns out to be snake repellant, which lets you win the cobra game a second time for another chunk of money. Bribe in hand you can shoo away the soldier past the ladder, and then almost be done with the game…

…and here’s where the body bag comes in. Drop the bag, climb on in, and wait: you’ll be loaded on.

I’m guessing you’ve noticed in my tone I was not impressed with this one. I mean, kind of? Certainly in a raw rating-number-of-stars way, I’d give it pretty low for the clunky parser and tank scene alone. (Not counting the random mystical voice, the vague undercurrent of racism, the premise being ahistorical, etc… ) The art also isn’t helping matters, but the very original 1981 version of this is text-only, so I’ll give that a pass.

In a way, though, I am flabbergasted by the ambition. Go back at my All the Adventures list and look for games that try to be this audacious with plot. The “Interactive Fiction” series like Dragons of Hong Kong, I suppose, but those were meshed firmly in genre. This game really tried to blend classic adventure style with tragedy. People die unexpectedly by gunfire or rocket fire, people you get to have actual conversations with. The main character does odious things to survive; not remarked upon, but given the effort put into the refugees reaction to the murder, it at least is an intentional touch.

Almost nobody, in this era, was actively trying to create adventure game art. They were still getting used to their bearings and copying old formats. (There were still some beautiful strokes, mind you, and I deeply appreciate all of them.) So despite my feelings for this game, I recognize it as historically interesting. Furthermore, we aren’t done with the Jyym/Robyn Pearson duo yet! They even have another game for 1981 (The Institute) which I have heard is very good, so there’s still something to look forward to in their development.

September 17, 2021

The Digital Antiquarian

Shannara (or, Bookware Mark 2)

by Jimmy Maher at September 17, 2021 04:41 PM

Book publishers, book authors, and booksellers first discovered computer software in 1983. Spurred by the commercial success of early text adventures like Zork and The Hobbit and by the rhetoric surrounding them, which described the new frontier of text-based digital interactive storytelling as the beginning of a whole new era in literature, publishers like Simon & Schuster, Addison-Wesley, and Random House made significant investments in the field, even as authors from Isaac Asimov to Roger Zelazny signed on for book-to-text-adventure conversions. Meanwhile B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, the two largest bookstore chains in the United States, set aside substantial areas in their stores for software. (Ditto W.H. Smith in Britain.) Those shelves were soon groaning with “computer novels,” “interactive novels,” and “living literature.” Well-known books in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, along with mysteries, thrillers, horror novellas, comic novels… all became computer games. Even the venerable likes of William Shakespeare, Hans Christian Andersen, and Robert Louis Stevenson appeared in shiny new interactive editions. A future American Poet Laureate wrote a text adventure, and Simon & Schuster came within a whisker of buying Infocom, the king of what the latter now preferred to call “interactive fiction” rather than mere text adventures.

This era of “bookware” was as short-lived as it was heady. In 1983, contracts were signed and groundwork was laid; in 1984, bookware products began reaching the public in large numbers; in 1985, with only Infocom’s adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy having lived up to its maker’s commercial expectations, book publishers began nervously formulating their exit strategies; in 1986, the last stragglers reached the market almost unremarked and bookware passed into history. With computer graphics and sound rapidly improving, game makers now set off to hunt the chimera of the interactive movie instead of the interactive book. It seemed that bookware had been nothing more than an exercise in faulty metaphors.

But then, exactly one decade after the beginning of the first bookware boom, it all started up again, as many of the same big names from last time around woke up to the potential of computer software all over again. Instead of parser-driven text adventures, however, they were now entranced by the notion of the CD-ROM-based electronic book: a work of non-fiction or fiction that was designed to be read non-linearly, for which purpose it was strewn with associative hyperlinks, and that incorporated photographs, illustrations, diagrams, sound effects, music, and video clips to augment the text wherever it seemed appropriate. In the face of all these affordances, some believed that the days of the paper-based book must surely be numbered. The big book publishers themselves weren’t so sure, but were terrified of being left behind by something they didn’t quite understand. “Everyone knows this business [of multimedia CD-ROMs] is potentially enormous,” said Alberto Vitale, Random House’s hard-driving CEO. “But what kind of shape it will take, how big it will actually be, and how it will evolve remains a very big question mark.” Laurence Kirshbaum of Warner Books was blunter: “I don’t know if there’s the smell of crisis in the air, but there should be. Publishers should be sleeping badly these days. They have to be prepared to compete with software giants like Bill Gates.”

The book publishers coped with the uncertainty in the way that big companies often do: by throwing their weight and money around in an attempt to bludgeon their way into continued relevance. And none of them did so more energetically than Alberto Vitale’s Random House. In 1993, they signed a high-profile deal with Broderbund Software to produce multimedia versions of Dr. Seuss’s classic children’s books, sending the smaller company’s share price soaring from $3.75 to $41 and sending a sum of money “well into the seven figures” to the late author’s widow. They also invested in Humongous Entertainment, a publisher of children’s edutainment founded by the Lucasfilm Games veteran Ron Gilbert, to create a series of “Junior Encyclopedias.” They formed their own software-distribution arm, under the tech-trendy portmanteau appellation of RandomSoft, to move the products of their partners and friends into bookstores. And, in the summer of 1994, in a deal that represented the most obvious throwback yet to the previous era of bookware, they invested $2.5 million in Legend Entertainment.

The investment didn’t come out of the blue: the two companies had worked together before. In 1991, Legend had sought and acquired a license to make a pair of games based on Random House author Frederick Pohl’s Gateway series of science-fiction novels. That deal had been followed by two more, to make games based on Piers Anthony’s Xanth series and Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Death Gate series. Legend, in other words, had been making bookware games for Random House on their own initiative since before the latter even knew they wanted such things. Now that that realization had dawned, Random House’s investment would serve to bind Legend closer to them and ensure that more of their books could become well-executed games. They already had a first candidate in mind: the bestselling Shannara series of high-fantasy novels.



The Sword of Shannara, the first book in the series, had appeared in 1977, one of the early heralds of a post-Dungeons & Dragons boom in fantasy fiction that would soon cause the fantasy genre to utterly eclipse its traditional sibling genre of science fiction in sales. The author of the 700-plus-page epic was Terry Brooks, a 33-year-old attorney who had spent the last ten years working on it intermittently in his spare time. The very first novel to be published by the new science-fiction and fantasy imprint Del Rey Books, it was a huge success right from the start; it sold 125,000 copies in its first month and became the first fantasy novel to make the New York Times bestseller list for trade paperbacks. But at the same time, it was savaged by even much of the genre-fiction establishment as little more than bad Lord of the Rings fan fiction. The prominent editor and critic Lin Carter, for example, pronounced it “the single most cold-blooded, complete ripoff of another book that I have [ever] read.” From a further remove in time, the J.R.R. Tolkien expert John Lennard can describe it only slightly more kindly today as “the first of a number of overt imitations of The Lord of the Rings that are, however popular, manifestly inferior works, but testify to the taste for [the] high and extended fantasy epic that Tolkien created.”

As Lennard’s recent dismissal of Shannara suggests, the combination of big sales and deep-seated critical antipathy has clung to the series right to the present day, as has Terry Brooks’s status as Public Offender #1 in the rogue’s gallery of Tolkien ripoff artists. Shannara is, the scoffers say, a simulacrum of the surface elements of The Lord of the Rings — warriors and wizards, magical swords and apocalyptic battles — without any of its thematic depth or philosophical resonance, a charge which even Brooks’s fans must find difficult to entirely refute. On the other hand, the same description applies to thousands of other works of fantasy in book, movie, and game form, so why single this one out so particularly? Brooks himself was and is by all indications a decent sort, who loves his work and has few illusions about his place in the literary pantheon. “I don’t have any desire to write the great American novel,” he said in 1986. “Why experiment with something that’s an unknown quantity when I’m comfortable working with fantasy?” He noted forthrightly in 1995 that he wasn’t exactly catering to the most refined literary tastes: “I think you are most intense in your reading habits when you’re in your teenage years. Magic is ‘real,’ your hormones are raging, and you’re more open. When I’m writing, I’m always writing to that group of people.” For all that I may have no personal use for the likes of a Terry Brooks novel at this stage of my life, I and every other critic should keep in mind the wise words of Edmund Wilson before rushing to condemn his books too lustily: “If other persons say they respond, and derive from doing so pleasure or profit, we must take them at their word.”

Brooks himself was not a gamer in 1994, but his twelve-year-old son was: “I enjoy watching him,” he said at the time. He hit it off wonderfully with Bob Bates of Legend at their first meeting, and was excited enough to describe this partnership as the potential beginning of a whole new, trans-media era for the Shannara series: “I like the idea that I will continue to write the books and others will work on projects which surround the timeline, characters, and settings I’ve established.”



It sounded like an excellent plan to everyone involved. But alas, Shannara‘s computer debut would turn into a “troubled” project, the first of that infamous breed of game in Legend’s relatively drama-free history up to that point. It was plagued by communications problems and a mismatched set of expectations on the part of Legend and Corey and Lori Ann Cole, the game’s out-of-house design team. But, having talked at length to both Bob Bates and Corey Cole about what went down, I can confidently say that no one involved is angry or vindictive about any of it today; “sad” would be a more accurate adjective. Everyone involved was genuinely trying to make his or her own vision of Shannara into the best game it could possibly be. And, as we’ll see in due course, the end result actually succeeds pretty darn well in spite of itself.

The Coles first came to work with Legend due to a pressing lack of in-house designers capable of taking on the Shannara project. At the time the Random House deal was consummated, Bob Bates was working on an “ethics training game” for the American Department of Justice, an odd but profitable sideline from Legend’s main business of making adventure games, while Steve Meretzky had recently moved on to start his own software studio. Of the three trainee designers who had made Gateway a few years before — a project consciously conceived as a sort of designer boot camp — Glen Dahlgren was finishing up Death Gate, Mike Verdu was in the planning stages of a non-licensed game called Mission Critical, and Michael Lindner was planning a sequel to the non-Legend game Star Control II. Programmers were in similarly short supply. Legend was a company with more food on its plate than it could eat, which was definitely better than the opposite situation, but a problem nonetheless. They wanted very much to please Terry Brooks and Random House by making a great Shannara game in a timely fashion, but they just didn’t have the bodies to hand to do so. So, they decided to look for outside help.

Bob Bates had met the Coles for the first time before Legend even existed, at a dinner hosted by Computer Gaming World editor Johnny L. Wilson during the late 1980s. He liked them personally, and was pleased for them when the Quest for Glory series which they were creating for Sierra did well. He started to talk seriously with them about doing a game for Legend in early 1994, when their future with Sierra was looking more and more uncertain in light of that company’s push into bigger-budget interactive movies starring real actors. Within weeks of that conversation, the worst happened: Quest for Glory V was cancelled in its early design phase and the Coles were told that their services were no longer required by Sierra.

Thus when Random House strongly suggested that Legend make a Shannara game, it seemed like kismet to everyone concerned. Not only were the Coles highly respected adventure-game designers, but specialists in the fantasy breed of same. Still, the source material initially “gave us pause,” admits Corey.

Both Lori and I had read The Sword of Shannara in college, and we weren’t impressed. We considered it a blatant Lord of the Rings copy. Sad to say, we enjoyed both Raymond E. Feist and David Eddings more than Terry Brooks.

However, we decided to keep our minds open and reread The Sword of Shannara. My revised opinion was that the first one-third of the book was a blatant ripoff, but after that, the book delved into new territory and became its own work. We went on to read The Elfstones of Shannara [the second book in the series] and agreed that it had merit. Our belief is that Brooks started out as a beginning writer thinking the way to make a book as successful as The Lord of the Rings was to essentially write the same book. But as he went along, he developed his own authorial voice and became a much stronger writer.

Terry Brooks gave the Coles his all-important nod of approval after they met with him and showed themselves to be familiar with his work. “There’s the matter of losing control,” he conceded, “but when I talked to these folks and realized how much they cared about the books and the characters, I felt better.” The Coles proposed slotting an original story between the first and second books in the series — for here there was, as Bob Bates puts it, “a generational gap”: “the hero of the second book was the grandson of the hero of the first book.”

The hero of the Coles’ game, then, would be the son of the hero of the first book. The game would take place about ten years after said book’s conclusion, casting the player in the role of Jak Ohmsford, son of Shea. (The Ohmsfords and their fellow residents of the bucolic Shady Vale are the equivalent of Tolkien’s hobbits of the Shire). Jak would learn from the wizard Allanon (Gandalf) that Brona (Sauron) was feeling his oats once again and was up to no good. The quest that followed would take Jak and the party of companions he would acquire across the length and breadth of Brooks’s well-developed if less than breathtakingly original fantasy world, at minimal cost to the continuity of the extant novels.

The Coles were friendly with a fellow named Bob Heitman, who had worked for years at Sierra as one of the company’s best software engineers, until he had left with Sierra’s chief financial officer Edmond Heinbockel and Police Quest designer Jim Walls to form Tsunami Media, a somewhat underwhelming attempt to do what Sierra was already doing. (Tsunami was also another player in the second bookware boom, creating a pair of poorly received games based on Larry Niven’s Ringworld series.) Now, Heitman had cut ties with Tsunami as well and set up his own software house, which he called Triton Interactive. Between them, the Coles and Triton should be able to make the Shannara game using Legend’s technology, with only light supervision from Bob Bates and company — which was good, considering that Legend was located in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Chantilly, Virginia, the Coles and Triton three time zones away in rural Oakhurst, California. The project began in earnest in the fall of 1994. All parties agreed that the Shannara computer game would be finished within one year — i.e., in time for the Christmas of 1995 — for a budget of $362,000.

The problems began to crop up on several separate fronts soon after the new year of 1995. Heitman could be abrasive; Corey liked to say that “some people do not suffer fools gladly, but Bob Heitman doesn’t suffer them at all.” Bob Bates, whom Heitman may or may not have considered a fool, was unimpressed with his counterpart’s shoot-from-the-hip way of running his development studio. Following a visit to Oakhurst in February, his assessment of Triton’s performance was not good:

1) No one is really taking charge of project management.

2) The animation requirement is up to 60 man-weeks, and they haven’t been able to hire any artists yet.

3) One background artist we supplied simply isn’t producing.

4) They’re not segmenting text from code, so there’s a big localization problem coming.

5) Internal personality problems are plaguing the team.

Bob Bates was also worried that Triton might use the software technology Legend was sharing with them in other companies’ projects, and almost equally worried that other companies’ code might sneak into Shannara with potential legal repercussions, given the chaos that reigned in their offices.

With tempers flaring, the Coles stepped in to try to calm the waters. They formed their own company, which they called FAR Productions, after Flying Aardvark Ranch, their nickname for their house in Oakhurst. Officially, FAR took over responsibility for the project, but the arrangement was something of a polite fiction in reality: FAR leased office space from Triton and continued to work with largely the same team of people. Nevertheless, the arrangement did serve to paper over the worst of the conflicts.

Meanwhile Bob Bates had other issues with the Coles themselves — issues which had less to do with questions of competence or even personality and more to do with design philosophy. The Coles had enjoyed near-complete freedom to make the Quest for Glory games exactly as they wanted them, and were unused to working from someone else’s brief. They wanted to make their Shannara game an heir to their previous series in the sense of including a smattering of CRPG elements, including a combat engine. Bob Bates, a self-described “adventure-game purist,” saw little need for them, but, perhaps unwisely, never put his foot down to absolutely reject their inclusion. Instead they remained provisionally included — included “for now,” as Bob wrote in February — as the weeks continued to roll by. In July, with the ship date just a few months away, combat was still incomplete and thus untested on even the most superficial level. “This would have been a good time to drop it,” admits Bob, “but we did not.”

While the one source of tension arose from a feature that the Coles dearly wanted and Bob Bates found fairly pointless, the other was to some extent the opposite story. From the very beginning, Bob had wanted the game to include an “emotion-laden scene” near the climax that would force the player to make a truly difficult ethical decision, of the sort with no clear-cut right or wrong answer. The Coles had agreed, but without a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of Lori, the primary writer of the pair. Considering Bob’s cherished ethical dilemma little more than a dubious attempt to be “edgy,” she proved slow to follow through. This caused Bob to nag the Coles incessantly about the subject, until Lori finally wrote a scene in which the player must decide the fate of Shella, the daughter of another character from the first novel and a companion in Jak’s adventures. (We’ll return to the details and impact of that scene shortly.)

But the ironic source of the biggest single schedule killer was, as Corey Cole puts it, having too few constraints rather than too many: “A mentor once told me that the hardest thing [to do] is to come up with an idea, or build something, with no constraints.” Asked by Bob Bates what they might be able to do to make the game even better if they had an extra $50,000 to hand, the Coles, after scratching their heads for a bit, suggested adding some pre-rendered 3D cut scenes. “If I had known then what I found out by the end of the project,” says Corey, “I’d have said, ‘No, thanks, we’ll finish what we started.’ I ended up sleeping at the office, since each render required hand-tweaking and took about four hours.”

Still more problems arose as the months went by. The father of the art director had a heart attack, and his son was forced to cut his working hours in order to care for him. Another artist — the same one who “simply isn’t producing” in the memo extract above — finally confessed to having terminal cancer; he wished to continue working, and no one involved was heartless enough not to honor that request, but his productivity was inevitably affected.

Legend had agreed to handle quality control themselves from the East Coast. But in these days before broadband Internet, testing a game of 500 MB or more from such a distance wasn’t easy. Bob Bates:

All development work had to cease while a CD was being burnt. Then it was Fed-Exed across the country, and then we would boot it. Sometimes it just didn’t work, or if it did work, there would be a fatal bug early in the program. The turnaround cycle on testing was greatly reducing our efficiency. By the time testers reported bugs, the developers believed they had already fixed them. Sometimes this was true, sometimes it wasn’t.

On October 2, 1995, about five weeks before the game absolutely, positively needed to be finished if it was to reach store shelves in time for Christmas, Bob Bates delivered another damning verdict after his latest trip to Oakhurst:

* There is no doc for the rest of the handling in the game. [This cryptic shorthand refers to “object-on-object handling,” a constant bone of contention. Bob perpetually felt like the game wasn’t interactive enough, and didn’t do enough to acknowledge the player’s actions when she tried reasonable but incorrect or unnecessary things. Lori Ann Cole, says Corey, “felt that would distract players from the meaningful interactions; she refused to do that work as a waste of her time, and potentially harmful to her vision of the game.”]

* The final game section is not coded.

* Combat is not done.

* Lots of screen flashes and pops.

* Adventurer’s Journal is not done.

* Too many long sequences of non-interaction.

* Too many places where author’s intent is not clear.

* Map events (major transitions) are not done.

* Combat art is blurred.

* Final music hasn’t arrived from composer.

As Bob saw it, there was only one alternative. He flew Corey Cole and one other Oakhurst-based programmer to Virginia and started them on a “death march” alongside whatever Legend personnel he could spare. Legend was struggling to finish up Mission Critical at the same time, meaning they were suddenly crunching two games simultaneously. “The fall of 1995 was really enjoyable at Legend,” Bob says wryly. “We coded like hell until the thirteenth of November. We hand-flew the master to the duplicators and the game came out Thanksgiving week. Irreparable damage [was done] to the team. We have not worked together since.” The final cost of the game wound up being $528,000.



The scale of Legend’s great Problem Project is commensurable with the company’s size and industry footprint. The development history of Shannara isn’t an epic that stretches on for years and years, like LucasArts’s The Dig; still less is it a tale of over-the-top excess, like Ion Storm’s Daikatana. Shannara didn’t even ship notably late by typical industry standards. Still, everything is relative: as a small company struggling to survive in an industry dominated more and more by a handful of big entities, Legend simply couldn’t afford to let a project drag on for years and years. In their position, every delay represented an existential threat, and outright cancellation of a project into which they’d invested significant money was unthinkable. For those inside Legend, the drama surrounding Shannara was all too real.

But the Shannara story does have an uncommon ending for tales of this stripe: the game that resulted is… not so bad at all, actually. It’s not without its flaws, but it mostly overcomes them to leave a good taste in the mouth when all is said and done. In the interest of being a thorough critic, however, let me be sure to address said flaws, which are exactly the ones you would expect to find after reading about the game’s development.

One might say that Shannara is at its worst when it’s trying to be a Quest for Glory. Lacking the time and resources to make the game into a full-fledged CRPG/adventure hybrid, but determined not to abandon what had become their design trademark, the Coles settled for a half-baked combat engine that’s unmoored from the rest of the game and ultimately, as Bob Bates noted above, rather pointless. With no system of experience points or levels being implemented, you earn nothing from fighting monsters, even as the whole exercise further fails to justify its existence by being any fun in its own right. There are the seeds of some interesting player choices in the combat engine, but they needed much more work to result in something compelling. Legend’s last-minute solution to the problem during that hellish final crunch was to dial the difficulty way, way back, thereby trivializing the combat without eliminating it. Such compromises serve no one well in the end.

In the name of fairness, I should note that Corey Cole offers a different argument for the combat being there at all and taking the form it does — one that I don’t find hugely convincing on the face of it, but to each his own:

The “pointless combat” is very much as planned in the design. It’s an anti-war point that fits closely into the Sword of Shannara zeitgeist, and which we reinforced in the game text: there are no winners in war (or in battle). The enemy forces are vast, and our hopefully realistic characters are not superheroes. Their object is to traverse the map while fighting as little as possible. When they do fight, it is risky and saps the party’s strength. Think of the hobbits vs. the ringwraiths atop Amon Sul (Weathertop). They had no chance. That’s Jak and Shella’s situation against the forces of Brona. The “win condition” is escaping with their lives.

I must confess that I struggle to identify much of an “anti-war point” in a series of books which revels in an endless series of apocalyptic wars, but I’ve only skimmed the surface of Terry Brook’s huge oeuvre. Perhaps I’m missing something.

Bob Bates’s own hobby horse — his big ethical dilemma — doesn’t fare much better in my opinion. Near the end of the game, Jak’s companion Shella is mortally wounded by an evil shifter.  (Shifters are Brooks’s version of Tolkien’s ringwraiths). If allowed to expire on her own, her soul will be claimed by Brona. Another of Jak’s companions can heal her using the magical Elfstones he carries, but expending them now will mean he can’t use them for their intended purpose of stopping Brona’s plans for world domination in their tracks. Jak’s only other choice is to kill Shella himself, then perform a Ritual of Release to free her soul; this is what she herself is begging him to do. It certainly sounds like a difficult choice in the abstract. Once again, though, a difference in design priorities resulted in a half-baked compromise in practice. In the finished game, saving Shella with the Elfstones results in a few screens of text followed by a game over — meaning that the ethical choice isn’t really a choice at all for any player who wishes to actually finish the game she paid good money for. The whole comes across as overwrought rather than moving, manipulative rather than earnest.

Yet neither the halfhearted combat nor the half-baked moral choice fills enough of the game to ruin it. Constrained though the Coles may have been from indulging in another of the delightful free-form rambles that their Quest for Glory series was at its best, they remained witty writers well able to deliver an entertaining guided tour through Terry Brooks’s world. And despite all the day-to-day problems on the art front, the final look of the game lives up to Legend’s usual high standards, as does the voice acting and the music by the legendary game composer George “The Fat Man” Sanger. If the puzzles are seldom anything but trivially easy — a conscious design choice for a game that everyone hoped would, as Corey Cole puts it, “attract many Terry Brooks fans who had no previous adventure-game experience” — they give the game a unique and not unwelcome personality: Shannara plays almost like an interactive picture book or visual novel rather than a traditional hardcore adventure game. With so little to impede your progress, you move through the story quickly, but there’s still enough content here to fill several enjoyable evenings.

Upon its release, Shannara approached 100,000 units in sales, enough to turn a solid profit. Although its impact on the market was ultimately less than what Random House and Terry Brooks had perhaps hoped for, its relative success came as a relief by this point to Bob Bates and everyone else at Legend, who had had such cause to question whether the game would ever be finished at all. Reviews, on the other hand, tended to be unkind; hardcore gamers looking for a challenge were all too vocally unimpressed with the game’s simple storybook approach. Computer Gaming World‘s adventure columnist Scorpia went on a rather bizarre rant about the fate of Shella, which she somehow twisted into a misogynistic statement:

I would not have minded had she died gloriously in battle; that is often the fate of heroes and heroines. What happens is: Shella is mortally wounded, but lingering on, and Jake — to save her soul — must kill her on the spot and perform a certain ritual. The only woman in the entire game, and she not only dies, but goes out a helpless lump.

I’ve heard that game designers are wondering how they can get more women playing games; if they keep presenting us with garbage like this, it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Far too many products these days have exclusively male heroes doing this, that, and the other; women are either nonexistent or mere adjuncts, at best.

While I agree wholeheartedly with Scorpia’s last sentence in the context of the times, the rest of her outrage seems misplaced, to say the least. Shella is never presented as anything other than strong, smart, and brave in Shannara, and she dies nobly in the end. Any number of other games would have made a more worthy target for Scorpia’s ire.

For my own part, I can happily recommend Shannara to anyone looking for a bit of comfortable, non-taxing fantasy fun. “In hindsight, we’re very proud of the game we made,” says Corey Cole. That pride is justified.


The inclusion of Terry Brooks’s novel in the Shannara box is a throwback to the olden days of bookware.

The graphics are bright and inviting.

There’s a seemingly free-form overland-movement view, although the places to which you can actually travel are always constrained by the needs of a linear plot. Monsters wander the map as well. You can attempt to fight or avoid them; most players will find the latter preferable, given how unsatisfying combat is.

The combat screen. There are the seeds of some interesting ideas here — the Coles could always be counted on to put some effort into their combat engines — but it’s poorly developed.

Shella and Jak keep up a nice, flirting banter throughout most of the game. Like so much here, their relationship has the flavor of a well-done young-adult novel. Belying the bad feelings that came to surround its making at times, Shannara never fails to be likable from the player’s perspective, a tribute to Corey Cole’s professionalism and to Lori Ann Cole’s deft writerly touch.


(Sources: the books Tolkien’s Triumph: The Strange History of The Lord of the Rings by John Lennard, Axel’s Castle: A Study of the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 by Edmund Wilson, and the post-1991 edition of Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks; Computer Gaming World of November 1994, November 1995, and March 1996; Starlog of June 1986; CD-ROM Today of June/July 1994 and January 1995; New York Times of September 11 1993 and May 22 1995; Newsweek of August 13 1995; Los Angeles Times of April 21 1994; Atlantic of September 1994. Most of this article, however, is drawn from an interview with Bob Bates and internal Legend documents shown to me by him, as well as an email correspondence with Corey Cole. My huge thanks go out to both of them for taking the time.

Shannara is not available for purchase today, but you might find the CD image archived somewhere — hint, hint — if you look around. I’ve prepared a stub of the game that’s ready to go if you just add to the appropriate version of DOSBox for your platform of choice and a BIN/CUE or ISO image of the CD-ROM.)

September 16, 2021

Choice of Games

Wraiths of SENTINEL—Dying made you the perfect spy!

by Mary Duffy at September 16, 2021 01:43 PM

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

It’s 33% off until September 23rd!

Dying made you the perfect spy! Will you use your phantom powers to defend the United States government, or overthrow it?

Wraiths of SENTINEL is a 250,000-word interactive novel by Paul Gresty 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 are a phantom being of supernatural energy, working as a covert intelligence operative for SENTINEL, a secretive government agency. Your unrivaled powers of surveillance can safeguard the freedom of the country; your paranormal wraith abilities will make the difference between being hunter and prey.

SENTINEL has tasked you to investigate the No-State Separatists, a ruthless band of domestic terrorists. Can you uncover a link to the extreme-right True Freedom Party? Your investigation will delve into the realm of political corruption, draw you into the spirit world, and bring you to the nexus of all reality itself.

As you’ll soon discover, the true threat to the nation is far closer than you’d ever imagined.

• Play as male, female, or nonbinary; straight, gay, bi, or beyond notions of mortal sexuality
• Investigate enemies of the state with two other wraiths, Marly and Zhou, as well as a range of field operatives and high-tech equipment
• Pursue romance with a fellow wraith, a sorcerer, or a medium
• Explore the cause of your own mortal death! What role did MetaHuman Inc. play in your demise?
• Go rogue! Escape detection by the best ghost-hunters in the world
• Return to your mortal, human life—or revel in the abilities you possess as a wraith, forever
• Prevent god-like power from falling into the wrong hands—or pursue that power for yourself!

The fate of the world is in your intangible hands!

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

The People's Republic of IF

September meetup (online)

by zarf at September 16, 2021 05:42 AM

The Boston IF meetup for September will be Monday, September 20, 6:30 pm Eastern time.

We will post the Zoom link to the mailing list on the day of the meeting.

September 15, 2021

Emily Short

Mid-September Link Assortment

by Emily Short at September 15, 2021 05:41 PM

Events

September 18-19, Emperatriz Ung is running a session for the Asian-American Writers’ Workshop called Prototyping Memory, A Game Design Approach To Nonfiction, about using Inform and IF techniques to reimagine setting, perspective, and structure.

The Oxford/London IF Meetup is currently running a jam for pieces written for Seltani, Andrew Plotkin’s multiplayer hypertext platform. We’ll meet and play through the submitted games on September 19.

If you’d like to contribute a game, you only need to build it on the Seltani system and then leave a comment on the Meetup page to indicate that it’s been submitted for play. And if we don’t get a lot of entries (people are busy and it’s hard to tell in advance!) we’ll still meet and play through some of the existing games on the Seltani system. You’re more than welcome to come and play with us even if you don’t have time or inclination to write anything.

September 23-27 is the Game Devs of Color Expo, which is online this year — check out the awesome lineup of speakers here.

September 28 is the deadline to submit games to IF Comp; authors should already have signed up for this, however, so if you haven’t done so, you cannot enter now. (If you’ve missed the deadline and are sad about it, Spring Thing offers an alternate comp opportunity each year, so you may want to keep an eye out for the next time that opens for entries.)

IF Comp is also still accepting prize submissions and contributions to the Colossal Fund, which helps support authors and the IF Technology Foundation.

October 2 is the next meetup of the San Francisco Bay Area IF Group.

Roguelike Celebration runs online October 16-17, and is often a great place to pick up some talks on procedural generation of various kinds.

Also October 17, the Seattle IF Meetup will gather to play through some IF Comp games.

October 24, the London IF Meetup will do our IF Comp playthrough session.

Talks, Podcasts, and Articles

Jimmy Maher’s history of games has reached 1995, with an article on some of the grand IF written when the post-commercial amateur IF community was coming into its own. People curious about the history of IF may enjoy the read; newer fans of text adventures may also find a few recommendations for older gems they haven’t yet played.

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Hannah Nicklin has a marvellous collection of craft articles and workshop guidelines for improving your interactive writing skills, including a great set of instructions for improving your ear for dialogue.

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Logo with the words Game Arts Curators Kit

Over the years, interactive fiction and other narrative games have been shown in a huge range of public contexts, including conference expo booths and in museums.

The Game Arts Curators Kit is a new handbook on how to approach game curation and display, bringing together input from more than two dozen people with experience in that area, and currently available in wiki form. It covers everything from curatorial selection to setting up a venue to how to communicate with the game creators about the results of the exhibition if they weren’t able to be there in person.

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Readers interested in linguistics and natural language processing might enjoy this Lingthusiasm episode about a project to build machine learning models of African languages that aren’t currently well represented in machine translation solutions.

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Screenshot of Pestis Apotheca by Yanko Oliveira. An NPC is describing the symptoms of their illness. The player has selected one symptom, causing it to be highlighted. Conversation in Pestis Apotheca features a mechanic for listening, not just for speaking

Yanko Oliveira has written about Pestis Apotheca, a procjam game where you’re blending generated ingredients to cure the plague symptoms of generated patients.

One of several neat things the game does is feature a conversation system where you need to highlight the elements of a patient’s illness you’re planning to try to cure:

…I imagine it might be a bit like listening to a bug report: you want as much information as you can get, and you kind of automatically filter things out that you know are unrelated. This was easily represented by the mechanic of clicking certain words to highlight symptoms: unless you “actively listen” to the patient, you won’t uncover what they’re feeling.

Pestis Apotheca design discussion

Releases

A screenshot with the words Raccoon. Wrestle. Bribe.Ord. screenshot with two options for interacting with a raccoon

Seen via John Walker (@botherer) and his review, Mujo Games’ Ord. is an IF platform (containing multiple games) in which all descriptions and actions are limited to a single word.

Ord. has been around for a few years, and now the creators have released the toolkit for other authors who want to work with the system: you can create new Ord content using Google spreadsheets.

Ord’s guide for new authors makes clear that this a basic storylet system rather than a tiny-sized Twine variant: by default, Ord is randomly picking its next events from a pool of possibilities, rather than hard-linking to followup consequences. In fact, that guide offers a pretty good explanation of some real basics of storylet design: how to separate storylets into pools or groupings; how to make new storylets available or unavailable; how to create loops or hard links to create more structured areas within the storylet slurry.

Opportunities

Six to Start’s New Adventures are audio stories players experience while they run, jog, or walk. Players hear a short scenes of audio (1–3 minutes long) interspersed with songs from the music player on their phone. Each episode of a New Adventure features 6–8 scenes, and New Adventures can be standalone episodes (e.g. “The 13th Runner”) or multi-episode arcs (e.g. “Nellie Bly”).

Six to Start is currently accepting pitches to write audio pieces — not about zombies! — for inclusion in their New Adventures series. They pay for each stage of script development, and have a mentoring program for writers who have never previously written for pay. The pitching deadline is September 26.

Crowdfunding

Cover art for the Exquisite Corpse in Maggots' Keep

The Exquisite Corpse in Maggots’ Keep is a gamebook project in which the authorship of the project changes every time the player makes a choice.

Somewhat alarmingly, the reward at the $5K tier is your own actual coffin, which raises a lot of question about coffin sourcing and storage.

But for those who are (very reasonably) more interested in having a paperback or hardback book sans funeral furnishings, there are a bunch of handy tiers for that as well.

Remember August, meanwhile, is a narrative game played by email or physical mail, about connecting with an old friend who has become unmoored in time.

September 14, 2021

Renga in Blue

Saigon: The Final Days

by Jason Dyer at September 14, 2021 04:41 AM

Via Mobygames.

Jyym Pearson continues his busy pace for 1981 (previously: The Curse of Crowley Manor, Escape from Traam, Earthquake San Francisco 1906) and teams up with Robyn Pearson for the first time, with graphical work in a later port again by Norman Sailer.

I intended to play the Apple II edition, just like I did with Jymm Pearson’s prior games, but no Apple II port exists on the Internet, and possibly anywhere. Even though an Apple II port was advertised in a November 1983 ad, a full year later in a December 1984 issue of Compute! the ad takes off the mention of an Apple version while maintaining the Apple being listed on the other related games.

It seems odd that they simply “sold out” of Apple II copies given the other ones still being mentioned. Also note in both the original and new ad the screenshot is given specifically for the Atari version (and all the other screenshots are for Apple II). Maybe there was an unfortunate tech accident and the port just never happened?

The upshot is we are seeing Atari screenshots instead of Apple II ones, which seem to my eye to have muddier color, although that was perhaps intentional given the setting.

As the ad mentioned, the game is set right before the “Fall of Saigon” on April 30, 1975. The US has already been following Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy and all combat forces had been withdrawn by 1973 following the Paris Peace Accords. The action starts with you as a captured prisoner; this isn’t historically realistic as all captured POWs had been released with the withdrawal of combat forces, but 1981 was a year where conspiracy theories about POWs still in Vietnam were still rampant. (This formed the plot of the movie Rambo: First Blood Part II from 1982.) Mashing the theory together with some imagination allows the situation in the game.

Like the previous games, there’s a “text game” window that is entirely separate from the graphical one, and you can swap back and forth. Repeated use of LOOK is necessarily to be able to see everything, and the graphics will sometimes show something before the text does.

Exactly one turn in after starting, a mortar blows up the hut you were trapped in…

…and then you are thrust directly in the quirky world of the Pearson parser. You can LOOK to find a DEAD VIET CONG, then LOOK VIET CONG to find they are wearing a JACKET, then LOOK JACKET to find it has a pocket with a snap. Trying to OPEN SNAP says YOU CAN’T and trying to UNSNAP SNAP says THE SNAP IS STUCK! It is unclear why the message are different, and at no point is anything listed as a “visible item” (that’s only items you can pick up, so we are fortunately not needing to tote round a dead body).

Moving away from the exploded hut is a log by a stream, where PUSH LOG is sufficient to roll it into the stream and form a bridge.

The log isn’t mentioned in the room description without using an extra LOOK command, but since it is visible in the picture I started interacting with it anyway; this makes for one definite difference between playing this version and a text-only one.

Past the bridge is a machine gun nest, where hanging around for long enough gets you killed.

There’s some pliers there, which you can take back to the previously-unopenable-pocket on the dead person to get a grenade and a document which says CODE = WHITE XMAS. (In adventure gamer terms, this is perfectly normal. In a narrative sense by the standard of Vietnam War stories, this is utterly bizarre.)

The grenade is simply described as Russian. The way to use it is to PULL PIN and THROW GRENADE, and now I really need to grump a bit, because the pin is not described at all and the only way it gets acknowledged is that the parser intercepts the custom command PULL PIN (PULL doesn’t even work in other contexts!) I went through various permutations of ARM GRENADE before hitting the correct answer. This is one of those moments that would look perfectly normal on a walkthrough but didn’t work in practice, and again we hit the problem where a “cinematic” style author isn’t thinking carefully enough about the world modeling beneath.

Using the grenade you can blow up the machine gun nest, and then CLIMB up to it.

The radio music as reflected in the document. This was the actual code signal for evacuating Saigon. I don’t know if there’s some in-game ramification or if it is just here for atmosphere.

I tried to TAKE RADIO (I couldn’t) and MOVE RADIO (in case the code meant something) and was rather baffled when I was blown up by a booby trap. Heading back with a saved game, I found the body looked like it was on top of something, and MOVE VIET CONG also blew me up by booby trap. It didn’t make sense for them both to be booby traps, but I realize the parser was simply intercepting any kind of MOVE command as moving the body, providing another object lesson in how slight parser irregularities can cause radical confusion in interpreting the world universe.

Moving on (from possibly a puzzle, or might have just been a trap) you can find a minefield. I could step out into the minefield and have one turn with a mine underfoot before exploding, so it is possible there is some disarmament procedure, but again, I’m not sure; it might just be a trap.

Heading north away from the minefield is a three-room road leading to a Viet Cong checkpoint.

In the middle of the road there is a rock you can climb to get back to the river/log area, but it seems to be a one way trip. I suspected, briefly, that I could pop my head in the checkpoint, run back, crawl up the rock to hide, wait as the Viet Cong pass, and let them accidentally blow themselves up in the minefield, but trying to enter and exit the checkpoint just led to immediate death (as well as several other tricks I’ve tried).

I’ll save talking about the game’s depictions of Asians for when I’ve got farther in. Nothing as egregious as the Chinatown encounter in the last game, yet.

So, to summarize:

1.) I can blow myself up at the radio with a booby trap.

2.) I can blow myself up at the minefield.

3.) I can blow myself up get shot at the checkpoint.

I haven’t found any new items (I’m still toting around those pliers and the document, but that’s it) so I still strongly suspect the rock in the middle of the path is used somehow. The early part of Earthquake San Francisco 1906 had reasonable puzzles; let’s hope the same pattern holds here before things start getting ludicrous (or possibly all the puzzles will be reasonable…?)

September 13, 2021

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Paul Gresty, Wraiths of SENTINEL

by Mary Duffy at September 13, 2021 04:42 PM

Dying made you the perfect spy! Will you use your phantom powers to defend the United States government, or overthrow it? You are a phantom being of supernatural energy, working as a covert intelligence operative for SENTINEL, a secretive government agency. Your unrivaled powers of surveillance can safeguard the freedom of the country; your paranormal wraith abilities will make the difference between being hunter and prey. Wraiths of SENTINEL is a 250,000-word interactive novel by Paul Gresty, author of MetaHuman Inc. and The ORPHEUS Ruse. I sat down with Paul to talk about the evolution of his work for Choice of Games.

Wraiths of SENTINEL releases this Thursday, September 16th. You can play the first three chapters now.

This is your third game for Choice of Games, after The ORPHEUS Ruse and MetaHuman Inc, and we’re absolutely thrilled. Tell me about the world of Wraiths. Does it overlap with the worlds in your other games?

Wraiths of SENTINEL crosses over with MetaHuman Inc., for sure. That company appears in this game—and it’s still employing dark powers in the service of capitalism. Links to The ORPHEUS Ruse are more subtle, but there’s a tonal connection, for sure—the player’s own Possession ability is not unlike the body-switching metempsychosis of The ORPHEUS Ruse.

I’ll add that’s it’s a great feeling to be publishing my third story for Choice of Games. Thanks to everybody at CoG for their support throughout this process. Writing this game took a long time—like, a bonkers amount of time —and the patience of the CoG team was very much appreciated. Working with you guys is always a fantastic experience.

MetaHuman Inc. is one of the most popular games we’ve ever published, and thematically, I feel like Wraiths is a bit of a spiritual (pun intended!) successor to it. We’ve moved from the corporate world to government. What shifts in theme did you observe as you were writing?

MetaHuman Inc. is probably the piece of work that I’m most proud of having written. Even now, nearly six years after it was released, I still from time to time get messages from readers saying how much they loved it. That kind of thing really gives you a boost.

I think that government, and potential poor governance, is one of the themes of the game because it had been a rising concern in my mind for some time at that point—as it had for many people. Some of the game’s excellent playtesters mentioned that the game included some not-so-subtle parallels to Trump’s government. And I guess it does, but the roots of the game go back further than that. I’m English, and I was planning this game after six years of leadership by David Cameron, one of the more nakedly self-serving prime ministers the United Kingdom has had, and the installation of Theresa May as prime minister, despite a shocking stint as Home Secretary in which she eroded civil liberties and carried out some pretty evil attacks on immigrants. So my frustration with politics and governmental bodies was already running high.

The focus on surveillance, and of the potential for a government agency to overstep its mandate, absolutely stems from the documentary Citizenfour, detailing Edward Snowden’s disclosures concerning the overreach by the NSA, and various governments. It’s a rare example of a documentary that’s being filmed as the story takes place, rather than after the fact, and so you see the strange contrast between the humdrum and the incredible—you have shots, say, of Ed Snowden styling his hair while he’s listening to a radio show about whether or not he should be assassinated. I saw that film in 2015, and it terrified me more than any horror film—because the monsters in this case are real, and they are scrutinizing you. Human eyes might not be reading all your emails, but keyword-scanning bots definitely are, and that data can be made available to a lot of organizations as needed. Ever since I saw Citizenfour, I’ve put aside a budget every year for software and online services that protect and respect data privacy.

So, yes, a theme of the book is the constant anxiety of unseen eyes upon you, and the struggle to escape from that glare.

There’s a ton of things in Wraiths of SENTINEL I think of as “good clean RPG fun”—to me it’s very much a power fantasy in that respect. What kinds of powers and abilities does this PC have?

In Wraiths of SENTINEL the reader takes the role of a ghost, of sorts. And yet I very consciously wanted to sidestep existential questions such as the existence of an afterlife, or of “souls.” I wanted to avoid looking at ghosts from the perspective of any one particular religion or belief set. And so here there’s an almost scientific rationale for the presence of wraiths, and other ‘formerly alive’ beings. Every being that exists possesses a scientifically observable form of energy called “quintessence”; physical beings possess both a tangible form and quintessence, while beings such as wraiths are wholly comprised of this quintessence energy. Most “regular” living humans aren’t capable of perceiving quintessence, and so they can’t see wraiths at all. But once you understand the principles of this energy, it’s possible to calibrate microphones to detect wraith voices, say, or to fabricate special types of glass that will show their reflections.

That said, the player essentially has many of the classic ghost abilities. It’s possible to learn to manifest, so that you can speak to living beings for a short time, or even visually appear before them. You can learn a poltergeist ability to move objects around, or you can possess living people, or you can create havoc with electrical devices. Y’know, all those fun things that ghosts are rumored to do.

What do you think will surprise readers about this game?

I’m really happy with the range of outcomes that are possible in this game. Stylistically, it’s rare to be able to “fail” a Choice of Games title—the objective isn’t to beat the game, it’s more about the journey the player experiences as he or she traverses the story. And in Wraiths of SENTINEL in particular, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to fail to save the day. Some of the most fun parts to write were sections in which the player has to deal with the fallout of any inability to complete all of his or her objectives.

What else have you been working on/what are you working on next?

A few years ago I wrote The Serpent King’s Domain, the seventh book in the Fabled Lands gamebook series originally created by Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson. To my mind, the Fabled Lands books are the most innovative and replayable dead-tree gamebooks ever written, and it’s a joy working on that series. I’m now working on the next Fabled Lands book, The Lone and Level Sands.

XTads etc.

XTads pre-beta 18 is out

by xtadsetc at September 13, 2021 01:43 PM

XTads is a TADS 2/3 interpreter for macOS (version 10.13 High Sierra or higher). It’s a GUI application, with native macOS look and feel. Game output is text-only, with partial support for HTML TADS features.

In this version:

  • Improved support for HTML TADS features.

Also, the test game collection has been updated.

XTads is forever a work in progress. Bug reports and suggestions are always welcome – see contact info in the program’s About panel.

Executable: https://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/programming/tads2/executables/XTads-prebeta-18.zip

Source: https://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/programming/tads2/source/XTads-prebeta-18-src.zip

September 10, 2021

The XYZZY Awards

XYZZY Awards 2020: first round

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at September 10, 2021 09:42 PM

The XYZZY Awards, celebrating the interactive fiction of 2020, are open for first-round voting.

The XYZZYs are open-voting, and use your IF Comp login; if you need to register an account with the Comp, or you’ve forgotten your account details, go here. You can log in here (you’ll get kicked back to the front page, but do not adjust your set: you are in fact logged in) and then vote here

In the first round, anyone can nominate up to two eligible games in each category. (You are asked not to vote for your own work, or to organise voters to support a particular game or slate.)

First-round voting will remain open through the 21st of September (US-Pacific time).