Planet Interactive Fiction

July 29, 2021

Choice of Games

Vampire: The Masquerade — Out for Blood—Hunt the vampires that terrorize your town!

by Mary Duffy at July 29, 2021 02:43 PM

We’re proud to announce that Vampire: The Masquerade — Out for Blood, 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 20% off until August 5th!

Gather your allies to hunt the vampires that terrorize your town! Study their ways and exploit their rivalries, or you’ll become a vampire yourself.

Vampire: The Masquerade — Out for Blood is a 455,000-word interactive horror novel by Jim Dattilo, based on “Vampire: The Masquerade” and set in the World of Darkness shared story universe. 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’ve barely settled into your new home of Jericho Heights on the outskirts of Chicago, before discovering that vampires live in town. You’re struggling to start a new life, meet new people, and maybe even find love. But when your neighbors start disappearing, you’re forced to take action.

Take on the role of a vampire hunter to save your town from the influence of Chastain, a vampire more than a century old. When a group of young thin-blood vampires start a war with Chastain, will you choose sides, or hunt them all?

Gather your forces and sharpen your stake to take back the night!

• Play as male, female, or nonbinary; gay, straight, or bi.
• Choose from classic VtM attributes and skills to build out your character.
• Enjoy 17 character portraits.
• Meet an ensemble cast of dynamic characters each with their own skills.
• Romance other characters, either human or vampire.
• Hunt vampires, study their ways, or try to be Embraced.

We hope you enjoy playing Vampire: The Masquerade — Out for Blood. 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.

July 28, 2021

XTads etc.

XTads pre-beta 17 is out

by xtadsetc at July 28, 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.
  • Bug fixes.
  • Removed the File | Open Log Console menu item. It no longer worked properly, due to changing security measures for macOS inter-app communication. See Game development features for how to view logs now.

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.



July 27, 2021

Renga in Blue

Alkemstone: All the Clues

by Jason Dyer at July 27, 2021 09:41 PM

It has been a while since I’ve posted about the Apple II game Alkemstone (and some reading this might have arrived from elsewhere without seeing my previous posts) so a brief summary/recap:

Alkemstone was a game released in 1981 by the company Level-10 with a $5000 prize attached (later upped to $7500) where the titular “Alkemstone” was hidden somewhere in the real world, and the clues on where to find it were hidden inside the game. It was confirmed fairly recently by the lawyer in charge of certification that nobody has claimed the prize. The company that sponsored it is long defunct, and the object buried was not valuable in itself (you didn’t even need to extract it to get the prize, just explaining the location of the Alkemstone was enough), so solving the mystery is only of historical interest, but still — a 40 year old mystery nobody has cracked!

Picture from @deliciousgames.

Last year I did a playthrough of the game, which involved running around a maze and finding clues that flashed at irregular intervals on the walls, ceiling, and floor. I managed to extract quite a few clues, but I knew (because someone on Mobygames found a clue I hadn’t) that there were still clues I was missing. I just didn’t know how many.

May I present to you:

A ZIP file with every single clue in Alkemstone

To clarify, a reader (Andy Boroson) did some hacking at the game file itself and managed to extract the locations of the clues as well as a method of stopping the invisible-flashing-clue effect from happening. This led to him making a complete map…

… and the file of images above. They are given the numbers matching the map above; some of the sequential numbers clearly go together (even if they aren’t placed together on the map) so the numbers themselves may serve as a clue. There are 80 clues (84 listed, but one of them is blank, and likely removed some time during development; 3 are “special coded” to be findable at the same location, marked “00” on the map) and I managed previously to find about 3/4 of them, but some of the missing ones have what seem to be essential information, so it is quite possible it was not feasible to crack the mystery until now, the moment I post this.

The ZIP file preserves the screenshots in a complete fashion, so I’m going to survey them numerically and clip images together when possible. (That is, what shows up as separate clues I have merged into the same image, for compactness; again, if you need “clean” images, refer to the ZIP file.) Additionally, some of the text clues are stored as text, so I’ll just give those in text format.

Are you excited? I’m excited.

Just as a note ahead of time, the main guess/presumption based on the clues is that the treasure is hidden somewhere in Washington, DC. However, there is nothing I’d call certain confirmation on this. I will say it is near certain (based on a trio of clues I’ll get to last) that the treasure is in a public place somewhere, meaning it should be in an urban environment, not hidden in some random place in the wilderness.

When booting Alkemstone, this is the first thing visible upon entering the maze…

There’s no “hanging banners” style messages other than this one.

…which is certainly reminiscent of the Albert Einstein statue in Washington DC, which was finished just in time for it to be part of the game (1981).

#1 John F Kennedy
#2 Stonewall Jackson
#3 Zachary Taylor

The #1 and #3 clues are names of US Presidents, while the #2 clue is the name of a Confederate General. This suggests historical US sites rather than something dealing directly with the Presidency itself (like the numbers attached to each president).

#4 (on left)
#5 (on right)

Both suggesting wordplay, and #5 is new. There are multiple anagrams using the letters P, I, N, E, S so I’m not sure which one to prioritize, but I should point out the author’s previous game included an ambiguous anagram puzzle as well.


Bruecke is “bridge” in German but rata isn’t anything in German, but maybe it is wordplay leading up to that. (The Rs being lined up is intentional.)

#7 What You Don’t Do To Go
#8 (written as a fraction) DENVER / 10

Again not sure, although I have suspicion #8 is referring to Denver being the “Mile High City”, that is, the clue refers to a 10th of a mile. I haven’t had luck with zipcode or the like.

#9 Calentadora de dedos del pie
#10 Wo Adler sich sammeln

#9 is “toe warmer” translated from Spanish. #10 is “where eagles gather” translated from German.

#12 JOB
#13 TESS

The one and only puzzle I’m certain we have the real solve for. Roger Durrant pointed out that both names appear in the song They Call the Wind Maria from the musical Paint Your Wagon.

A way out here they got a name for rain and wind and fire the rain is Tess the fire’s Joe and they call the wind Maria

“JOB” is a “typo” but it may have just been an honest mishearing. (I don’t think it’s a clue, but you never know.)

#15 144

I theorized long that this possibly references the fact that with 12 zodiac signs you can pair them with another 12 to get 144 angles (there’s zodiac symbols elsewhere). However, I haven’t found any confirmers to put this guess at high confidence.

I also pointed out the War Memorial in Washington DC had a 12-arrowed floor that could be interpreted in a zodiac direction sense.


All 7 images appear in roughly the same spot when drawn, so there may be some relation.


Not quite in the same place as the previous clues, so might be distinct. Possibly hinting as to a time of year, that is, Easter (there are later references to this as well).


Hinting a place with a famous speech? Or perhaps a current place (at least current for 1981) where speeches can be made.

#25 BLACK OR WHITE They Are All The Same To Me

This is where the internal number I think is helpful — it certainly seems likely #24 and #25 are related, perhaps referencing the I Have a Dream speech?

#26 Don’t Smell The Salt
#28 Seemanns-warnung

#26 might mean avoiding the ocean. #28 is “sailor’s warning” in German. I’m not sure if #27 is connected.

#29 The First To Recognize The Second
#30 For Us It Is Already Here
#31 Of All This One Is Equal

Not sure on any of these.


More wordplay? I feel like there’s got to be word fragments being glued together at some point (“join” is a clue later).

#33 For the One You Seek The Two Are Known The Three Are There

Again not sure.


The two theories I’ve heard are a.) the signature of TS Eliot and b.) (courtesy Casey Muratori) a metal access panel.

#35 My first is sixth My second is content Followed by the rest Finally a child could play

One of those riddles indicating letters in positions, perhaps, or word fragments being mashed together? I could see “the rest” being the literal “day of rest”, either “sat” or “sun” depending on your theology.

#36 -CIDE

Another word fragment clue. If it is the same as #35, is SLIDE (“a child could play”) somehow tweaked to be CIDE?

#37 join

Again, internal numbering adds some information; this probably refers to #35 and #36, at least.

#38 Coat Of Blue

Possibly the Civil War song.


Look between the pillars?

#40 ONU

Another word fragment?

#41 To Start Anew

Feels very crossword-clue to me.


Bees tend to be popular in rebuses for the sound “-be-” getting put somewhere.

#43 Don’t Go When Winter Blow
#44 Warmer Than Others

Referring back to the potential Easter clue, this might refer to a time of year. Easter has to (no matter the year) land after winter. This also might be simply fitting in with rebus logic somehow (the fragment “apr”, for instance).


Redundancy with the child playing clue?

#46 GPI
#47 FTN
#48 pnijure
#49 BUSH

Not sure.


I’ve played with this one quite a bit (add the numbers on top, then divide, subtract then divide, etc.) without much luck.

#51 Nothing Runs Like A Deer / And It Is A Beaut

The “Nothing Runs Like a Deere” slogan has been around since 1972 for the company John Deere, but I don’t know if the intent here is a pun or something else.

#52 It’s Best To Rest

Another resting reference.


A word ladder? Don’t know what clue this indicates, though.


#55, #56

The best I could come up with here is a reference to the Battle of Wounded Knee, but I have no idea what that would indicate.

#57, #58

Is the first picture of a train or something else?

#59 It’s Not Right
#60 The road is clear But you may have to leave it To find your way

Is this referring to directions at the actual site, or literal wordplay still?

#61 KAMM

More word fragments, perhaps?

#63 Don’t Tread On Me

Another American History reference? All four words are written on separate lines so it could be the initial letters DTOM.

#64, #65

5 is the base? Don’t know what the deal is with those parallel lines on the 5 then, if that’s the case.

#66 This Is Almost The Age of AQUARIUS

Another day of the year reference?

#69 follow your nose / where taylor goes / but not too far / you’ll find a scar

The last clue may refer to some specific site involving Zachary Taylor, although it is unclear what.


This might intentionally be related to time rather than a misspelling of temperate.

#71 Wherever You May Roam There Is No Place Like Home
#72 a billion stars may show you the way

These (plus clue #81) might reference specific museums in Washington DC. The ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz are at the National Museum of American History, the stars might refer to Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory (or that might just be another astrology reference so the clue goes with #66 etc. instead).

#73 Large And Small – Can’t See Them At All
#77 After Awhile We All Pay The Price
#80 97914
#81 If You Want A Scene / Holocene and Pleistocene Might Do

#81 might be the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Finally, not with regular numbering, there are three clues in the same dead end (corresponding to the three walls). I’ll give the pictures this time:

Due to the status in the game, I suspect this is a meta-clue showing the structure of what is being solved for “Where I Live” is one set of clues, “Be Upon” is a second set, “A Thought of You” is a third set, and “How Far I May Go” is a fourth. All this is still guesswork, though.

While the “watch them play” feels most likely a park, it is possible this refers instead to “play” as in music; either way, not wilderness? (Although maybe you could stretch with a particular named rock monument.)

I’ve skipped some speculation from my previous posts, so if you’re looking for more inspiration, feel free to read those as well as the comments which include some more ideas. It’s fair to say the puzzle is still wide open at this point.

July 25, 2021

Renga in Blue

Madness and the Minotaur: The End

by Jason Dyer at July 25, 2021 10:41 PM

Well, I held up some dignity.

As usual for my end game posts: spoilers for absolutely everything, and you’ll want to have read the rest of the series first.

Via the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

I figured out two cheeses that were very important.

1.) Normally, if you save your game immediately before going into a room talking to the Oracle, you will always get the same piece of information. However, if you do an extra turn (going in an impossible direction, for instance) the random generator will “rotate” and the Oracle will give a different clue. You can repeat this process (restore save, run into a wall twice, go east, talk to oracle; restore save, run into a wall three times, go east, talk to oracle; etc.) in order to eventually pump the Oracle for all the possible hints. On the saved game I was using as my “final run” (no particular logic, I just decided enough was enough) I managed to extract these relations:

powerring: belrog
truthring: lightring and flute and akhirom
shield: dagger
lightring: powerring and rope and nergal
vial: talisman and mitra
skull: okkan
sword: rope
defeat satyr: sword and negral
defeat troglodyte: spellbook and crom
defeat sprite: skull and powerring
defeat minotaur: sword and shield and powerring
defeat scorpion: talisman and powerring
defeat nymph: flute and okkan

(The one monster I never saw a hint on was the nine-headed hydra, but it has its own special circumstances.)

Some of them cause dependency chains; for example, you can’t get the truthring without the lightring, flute, and akhirom spell; you can’t get the lightring in order to get the truthring without the powerring, rope, and nergal spell, and so forth. (Nergal isn’t an item, but a spell — that explains away my confusion last time, since it’s just a magic word and not a noun.) It would have been utterly impractical to play without the list above.

2.) Perhaps even more important than #1, the earthquakes that happen at random and block exits do happen based on time passing, but they are not inevitable. That is, there is some random chance at minute X that an earthquake will occur, and if you get unlucky, you can restore a save game from far enough back and find the next time minute X passes there is a different result (that is, no earthquake).

Despite a few workarounds (the powerring lets you just plow through blocked exits, for instance, and the spell CROM clears them out but it takes a while to get) this was the key that made the game playable. It is possible (as Voltgloss indicated in a rot13 hint) to “wait out” a blocked exit (they eventually “rotate” places based on further earthquakes), but the end result is often followed by yet another blocked exit immediately after, and it becomes too hard to track monsters that move around (and in the early part of the game, items can move around as well as long as the sprite is still alive).

Even with these extra edges to my game, playing was very difficult and intense. The main issue is that inventory capacity is very tight; in practical circumstances you can carry at most three items, but sometimes even two or one. Inventory is especially hard to juggle when a JUMP or just climbing up a staircase is necessary. For example, to get to the “escape room” where treasures are stored, you just need to go UP from the very first room of the game. I found a ruby out in the open, and carrying the ruby and only the ruby, I wasn’t able to make it up the stairs! I had to make a full loop around — as I mentioned last time, there’s a pit in the bottom floor that I mentioned last time that will go to a pit. Even then the JUMP at the end to the last location can be unsuccessful!

To make progress, the first thing I did was go after spells. I did, finally, manage to get the mushroom and food together after great effort. (Remember, this first step isn’t mentioned in the original manual, only the one for the Dragon! I’m not sure how anyone back in the day made any progress.)

Fortunately, as shown above, you get a “thread” to follow for all subsequent spells. To “activate” each spell requires bringing an item to a particular room and the previous spell; the rooms are all described as “crackling with magic” and are spread across the map almost entirely at random.

Green-marked places crackle with magic. I think it is always 1 room on the first floor, 3 on the second, and 4 on the third floor.

Getting to each step was essentially like solving a logistics puzzle. For example, Nergal requires a vial. The vial needed a talisman to get (and a previous spell I already had, Mitra) so I had to loop around, get the talisman, then take the talisman to the place I knew the vial was lurking (the minotaur lair) which only had one way out, down to the maze level. Then I tried to jump from the maze to the first floor, but I kept dropping the vial in the process. I ended up not quite having enough strength (it’s a deleting resource; it can be reduced by getting hit by monsters, failing jumps, and casting spells) so I had to leave the vial behind, grab some food, and loop back and keep my fingers crossed I could handle getting the vial to the first floor.

Once I finally managed it, I wasn’t done yet! I had been eliminated “magical crackling” rooms getting previous spells, but I still need to figure out the right one to take the vial to of the ones remaining.

Up to here I hadn’t gotten much use from the spells; they had been, in order, VETAN, MITRA, OKKAN, AKHIROM, NERGAL. I hadn’t gotten any of them to do anything yet! (I figured it out later, and they’re mostly very specialized — I’m getting there.) However, BELROG turned out to be intensely handy, because it forced a jump into working. This meant all the spots I had trouble navigating because I would drop an object trying to go in a particular pit or over a particular chasm I could just spell my way over.

Quick example: this portion on the northeast corner of the third floor map is only reachable by jumping over a pit, but the pit was such that I couldn’t jump over with nearly anything in my inventory. So I would have one essential item but be stuck in getting it to that area. With BELROG I could get it over no problem. The only downside is it eats up health.

BELROG was immensely helpful and made the actions after go a bit smoother. I managed to get CROM and then finally ISTHAR without too much trouble after. Despite me looking forward to CROM because of the earthquake issue (remember, CROM clears blocked passages) I ended up not needing it because of Cheese #2! ISTHAR, on the other hand, originally gave me a surge of joy — it teleported me directly to the forest where all the treasures go! But it stopped working, and I found it later it only gives a couple uses before being entirely gone (the spell does not “regenerate”).

Still, after ISTHAR, I had the full set of 8 spells, and each spell gave me 10 points, so I already had much more progress than from the 0 I had before. Next I wanted to take down the monsters; each of the monsters (except one, which I’ll get to) had a treasure, so I knew I had to take them down. I figured, even if I made no more progress, I couldn’t leave a game called Madness and the Minotaur without killing the minotaur.

I wanted to go after the sprite first, so I didn’t have to be paranoid about items being shifted around the map any more. (In practice, it didn’t happen much, I think because I was very tight and efficient as far as saved games go due to avoiding earthquakes.) This required getting the skull and powerring, both which fortunately only required spells to be in inventory (so I didn’t have to juggle the “required item tree”).

The treasure dropped lands in an adjacent room.

I wanted to tackle the nymph next, but the nymph required (in my iteration of the game) a flute, and the flute was in the room with the nine-headed hydra, and the hydra is unique amongst the monsters for pushing you out of the room when you try to enter. So I tried valiantly to handle the hydra (given I had no oracle hint) but failed enough to look up hints; there’s a fixed solution here.

That is, you’re supposed to use an action on a noun that is not present in the room the action is done in. This breaks one of the implicit adventure rules pretty hard, but given how tough everything else was, I couldn’t be disappointed.

Once I tired the hydra up I could go in, but even the walkthrough I consulted had me confused; it indicated you could STAB with the DAGGER, but that was unrecognized. Using the sword was futile, as shown above. I eventually resorted to trying every spell (I remembered the manual saying one of the spells could defeat monsters) and hit paydirt.

The NOTHING SPECIAL HAPPENS is a bug — that’s what the spell normally does, and the fact it worked here didn’t override the text.

The most difficult monster after was the minotaur. This was because three items were required (sword, shield, powerring) and remember the weight limit is extremely tight. I essentially had to max out to full health (with a mushroom) and race as fast as I could with the three items to the right spot. I failed the first time (an item gets automatically dropped when your strength no longer sustains your inventory) but managed it the second by optimizing my movements even tighter:

For my last monster, I was stuck longer than I should have been. I saved the satyr for last, which the oracle reported I needed the sword and negral spell for.

I baffled for a long time before realizing I had, in fact, killed the satyr — that’s the message when a monster doesn’t have an item. One of the six randomized ones (not including the hydra) has no treasure, so the satyr was skippable on the map I was playing. (I was fooled for a while thinking the Oracle was lying to me — the manual hinted that could be the case — but the Oracle can’t lie. I’m guessing it was a cut feature, since the truthring is an item that exists but does nothing mechanically in the game.)

So the next step would normally be to go find all the treasures … but I’m honestly fine stopping here. I’ve got a little loot (shown above), I’ve eliminated the threats, I got a full bevy of spells. I think I can call the expedition a success.

I did look up some of the treasures, and there is a little puzzle-solving involved. Unfortunately, the brutal inventory limit makes it very hard to experiment, and find things like:

  • there’s a parchment with music, and a flute; if you take them to a room where you hear “music” on the maze level, and play the flute, a ledge appears; with the rope you can get a treasure from the ledge
  • there’s a packrat with an item that it will give you if you are holding some other specific item; the specific item it wants you to be holding is randomized
  • there are two openable “crypts” that require all items dropped and the player to be at full strength, although one you can use for a powerring for (not the other!)
  • there’s an item in a random spot in the first level that can be found by turning the lamp on in a particular room (!?)
  • there’s some glowing rocks where an amulet appears if you cast OKKAN, which is used nowhere else (I solved this one, but never bothered to get the amulet on my “final save”)

Despite — or perhaps because of — the majority of the game being dominated by logistics — figuring out which route to get to the next item, juggling inventory, keeping enough saves to handle if an earthquake happens — this was distressing to play in a unique way, like the game came from an alien world with different ideas about “entertainment”. Oddly, the game can be forgiving in certain aspects; the food, for example, randomly appears somewhere else after you eat it, so you never “run out”; the lantern has a pretty forgiving oil timer, plus there’s an URN with extra oil and after you get the last spell POOLS OF OIL start randomly appearing (and if you use one up, another randomly shows up elsewhere). So the game tried hard to be “fair”. It also made every effort to make the mere act of traversing the map painful, and over half of my expeditions ended in failure as I couldn’t make it over a pit, or an item I expected to be able to take got stuck, or I just simply got confused in the maze.

In a design sense, the prominent question is: did any of the randomization work?

1D4E: 45 0B 38 80 ; AX, SCEPTER, MITRA
1D52: 23 7D 80 ; SPELLBOOK, CROM
1D59: 1D ; SATYR
1D5A: 46 3B 80 ; SWORD, NERGAL
1D5D: 44 2B 38 80 ; MACE, LIGHTRING, MITRA
1D65: 46 07 2A 80 ; SWORD, SHIELD, POWERRING
1D69: 44 0F 0B 38 80 ; MACE, VIAL, SCEPTER, MITRA
1D6E: 45 3B FF ; AX, NERGAL

The above is clipped from the source code. This indicates the different combinations possible for different monsters, and it does seriously change some of the sequences — just needing the ax and nergal spell for the minotaur would have meant I could kill him relatively early in the game, for instance, and not have to finesse with great difficulty in order to carry three items at once.

However, the randomization essentially set a “strategy game” background, as the “adventure game” parts — like the layout of the map itself, and some of the puzzles — were fixed. The overwhelming difficulty of the game makes it hard for me to evaluate how successful it really was. I could see with some nudges to a lighter difficulty the system being more successful. There’s at least one more chance to try out the idea, as there was a follow-up game to Madness and the Minotaur. Quoting John Gabbard again (I quoted him back at my first post):

The first program I wrote for Spectral was Keys of the Wizard. I use the term “wrote” very loosely, because the underlying code was from Madness and the Minotaur and most of the “writing” I did was in the form of map changes, dictionary changes and room descriptions changes. There were a few code changes and additions that changed the way battling creatures worked, and that gave a few of the creatures the ability to “catch your scent” and follow you, but it was mostly Madness code.

So, we’ll see if Keys of the Wizard holds any redemption for the ideas. I can say personally this game made for a weary week and I’m glad for the time being to put myself to more traditional pastures.

Zarf Updates

Kickstarter boost: of pawns & kings, Blue June

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at July 25, 2021 05:20 PM

I back a fair number of story-game kickstarters. Usually I blog about them when the game ships and I've had a chance to play the complete game. But today I'm pushing a couple of projects which are still crowdfunding.
(I have no connection with these games except that I saw them on Kickstarter and said "hey, that looks cool.")

of pawns & kings is a point-and-click set in a lush 3D-rendered environment. A boy goes off into the wilderness to discover what happened to his grandfather. The author cites Monkey Island, Riven, and Labyrinth as inspirations. I just wanna run around that jungle and mess with puzzles.
There's a demo, but honestly I backed it on the strength of the KS intro video, which bubbles with enthusiasm.
The project has a week to go and is only at 27%. I say this is a shame.

Blue June is a 2D point-and-click about a girl pulled into a nightmarish dream version of her school. Stylized but atmospheric.
The project is in its last 24 hours and is 75% funded. Give it a push.

July 24, 2021

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Jim Dattilo, Vampire: The Masquerade—Out for Blood

by Mary Duffy at July 24, 2021 01:42 PM

Gather your allies to hunt the vampires that terrorize your town! Study their ways and exploit their rivalries, or you’ll become a vampire yourself.

Vampire: The Masquerade — Out for Blood is an interactive horror novel by Jim Dattilo, based on Vampire: The Masquerade and set in the World of Darkness shared story universe. I sat down with Jim to talk about his experiences writing interactive fiction and the particulars of writing about the supernatural.

Vampire: The Masquerade — Out for Blood releases Thursday, July 29th. You can play the first three chapters of the game now.

You’re the only author to write for all three of our labels: A Wise Use of Time for Choice of Games, the Zombie Exodus series for Hosted Games, and All-World Pro Wrestling for Heart’s Choice. This is, however, your first time writing for a licensed property. Tell me about how your experience has varied writing for those different publishing labels.

Writing for Hosted Games is a far more open and unstructured approach to developing games. For the most part, you work directly with your beta testers or readers on an ongoing basis. You can make wild changes even after you start a project. Though I often outline scenes ahead of writing them, I can make changes based on feedback or scrap whole sections if I want to take the story in a different direction.

When writing for Choice of Games or Heart’s Choice you work directly with an editor and sometimes multiple editors that take a closer look at the game during the writing process. It’s more important to stick to the outline, since you’ve already spent time with your editor working out the entire story from start to finish. That’s not to say you can’t deviate from these plans, but you’ve already gone through rounds and rounds of discussion before you begin the first line of code.

That’s not to say one method of writing is better than another. Hosted Games allows you more freedom throughout the development process, but you can easily get derailed or sidetracked. You can second-guess yourself or allow feature creep, in which beta testers make suggestions and you keep adding to the project and push back your timeline farther and farther.

You’ve collaborated in the past with another author to write (for instance) All World Pro Wrestling. What was the “collaboration” of working in someone else’s story universe like for you?

Both challenging and rewarding! My friend, David, had a series of books all based in his wrestling universe but did not understand the program we use to develop choice-based stories. It took me a while to read through his series, learn all the characters, and understand what he hoped to achieve with the story. On the other hand, David had to change his mindset to creating choice out of a linear story. In the end, I believe the game is a success, and it’s given David the interest in learning how to code so that he can continue writing more stories for Heart’s Choice.

What surprised you about writing for a licensed IP?

I’ve been a fan of the World of Darkness for decades, all the way back to the first edition, so this was an exciting opportunity and I was completely freaked out from the start! I realized that the WoD team will provide consistent feedback on all of my writing which was both exhilarating and frightening. Even though I have played Vampire: the Masquerade for so long, I obviously don’t know the rules and setting as well as the people who developed the universe. I’m sure there are many fans who know more about the game than I do. So there’s always that worry that you’re going to write something that strays from the books. And as someone who has played for so long, you tend to homebrew and develop your own rules that fit your gaming crew. Often you don’t even remember you made those things up.

Having said all of that, I also had the benefit of hundreds of books for inspiration and access to the WoD team. To be able to bounce ideas off of them was invaluable. They provided feedback and made suggestions that made the game feel more authentic and real. It was incredibly fulfilling to receive notes on each of my chapters and at times even see their excitement in my choice to use certain lore of the game.

This is a really interesting cast of NPCs. What would you like players to know about the characters in Vampire: The Masquerade — Out for Blood?

Diversity was a key to the cast in a number of aspects. I wanted to show how a number of people from different walks of life could come together to battle a common foe. It can be a single mother who is vice principal of the middle school, or a young man who works for his family’s accounting firm. It can even be a teenager who realizes the supernatural threats in town. Jericho Heights is a small town, but it showcases exceptional people who step up to defend the place they call home.

It was also important for me to include a main character with a mobility impairment. As someone who has used a wheelchair for most of my life, I wanted to provide representation for a hero like me. I can’t share all the details about this character due to spoilers, but I wanted to explore a character that appears on the surface to be at a huge disadvantage fighting against vampires but in fact has adapted to be a major advantage to the rest of the group.

Vampire: The Masquerade — Out for Blood is also an interesting departure for our Vampire: The Masquerade games in that the PC is in fact, not a vampire. What was it about that side of the story that made you pitch this? I’m thinking of course, about your PCs’ relationship with the supernatural/monstrous in say, Zombie Exodus.

I’ve always been drawn to the concept of a normal person battling against the supernatural. I’ve been fascinated with the role of a hunter ever since reading books like Dracula and Salem’s Lot and movies like Fright Night. I love the setting of a small town stalked by a vampire and how a group of citizens join together to battle this supernatural foe. When you play as a vampire, you have clear power over mortals but you’re also a creature of ego, greed, and callousness. Mortals need to work together in a coordinated fashion, often selflessly, to battle the odds. Those are the stories I enjoy sharing with others.

Have you been a tabletop roleplayer or LARPer in the past? What do you think about the intersection of interactive fiction and roleplaying?

I have been playing TTRPGs for the past 30 years. I actually signed up for my first LARP just before COVID hit! I was excited to role play a live session as a Malkavian therapist to the Kindred, but all sessions were cancelled due to the pandemic. Since then, I’ve moved all of my games onto virtual tabletop. I’m excited to see Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition recently launching on Roll20. Playing online over Discord with dice rollers, maps, and images has made it so easy and immersive that I’m finding it difficult to fit all of the games I want to enjoy into my busy schedule.

One of my goals with writing interactive fiction is to allow players to role play their specific characters. The difficulty is always balancing how much choice to provide vs. the complexity of the game. I want to give a wide variety of options that pushes the boundaries of immersion despite the limitations of the medium. As game developers we can only code so much.

What are you working on next?

I’m going to spend most of my focus on Zombie Exodus: Safe Haven though I will be collaborating on several secret projects. Over the past five years I’ve worked on no less than two titles at one time and now I want to put the majority of my effort into the game I started with.

July 23, 2021

The Digital Antiquarian

The Dig

by Jimmy Maher at July 23, 2021 04:42 PM

As you would imagine, a lot of the things you can do in a comedy game just don’t work when trying to remain serious. You can’t cover up a bad puzzle with a funny line of self-referential dialog. Er, not that I ever did that. But anyway, it was also a challenge to maintain the tone and some semblance of a dramatic arc. Another challenge was cultural — we were trying to build this game in an environment where everyone else was building funny games, telling jokes, and being pretty outlandish. It was like trying to cram for a physics final during a dorm party. It would have been a lot easier to join the party.

— Sean Clark, fifth (and last) project lead on The Dig

On October 17, 1989, the senior staff of LucasArts[1]LucasArts was known as Lucasfilm Games until the summer of 1992. To avoid confusion, I use the name “LucasArts” throughout this article. assembled in the Main House of Skywalker Ranch for one of their regular planning meetings. In the course of proceedings, Noah Falstein, a designer and programmer who had been with the studio almost from the beginning, learned that he was to be given stewardship of an exciting new project called The Dig, born from an idea for an adventure game that had been presented to LucasArts by none other than Steven Spielberg. Soon after that bit of business was taken care of, remembers Falstein, “we felt the room start to shake — not too unusual, we’d been through many earthquakes in California — but then suddenly it got much stronger, and we started to hear someone scream, and some glass crash to the floor somewhere, and most of us dived under the mahogany conference table to ride it out.” It was the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which would kill 63 people, seriously injure another 400, and do untold amounts of property damage all around Northern California.

Perhaps Falstein and his colleagues should have taken it as an omen. The Dig would turn into a slow-motion fiasco that crushed experienced game developers under its weight with the same assiduity with which the earthquake collapsed Oakland’s Nimitz Freeway. When a finished version of the game finally appeared on store shelves in late 1995, one rather ungenerous question would be hard to avoid asking: it took you six years to make this?

In order to tell the full story of The Dig, the most famously troubled project in the history of LucasArts, we have to wind the clock back yet further: all the way back to the mid-1980s, when Steven Spielberg was flying high on the strength of blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. During this period, many years before the advent of Prestige TV, Spielberg approached NBC with a proposal for a new anthology series named Amazing Stories, after the pulp magazine that had been such an incubator of printed science fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. He would direct the occasional episode himself, he promised, but would mostly just throw out outlines which could be turned into reality by other screenwriters and directors. Among those willing to direct episodes were some of the most respected filmmakers in Hollywood: people like Martin Scorsese, Irvin Kershner, Robert Zemeckis, and Clint Eastwood. Naturally, NBC was all over it; nowhere else on the television of the 1980s could you hope to see a roster of big-screen talent anything like that. The new series debuted with much hype on September 29, 1985.

But somehow it just never came together for Amazing Stories; right from the first episodes, the dominant reaction from both critics and the public was one of vague disappointment. Part of the problem was each episode’s running time of just half an hour, or 22 minutes once commercials and credits were factored in; there wasn’t much scope for story or character development in that paltry span of time. But another, even bigger problem was that what story and characters were there weren’t often all that interesting or original. Spielberg kept his promise to serve as the show’s idea man, personally providing the genesis of some 80 percent of the 45 episodes that were completed, but the outlines he tossed off were too often retreads of things that others had already done better. When he had an idea he really liked — such as the one about a group of miniature aliens who help the residents of an earthbound apartment block with their very earthbound problems — he tended to shop it elsewhere. The aforementioned idea, for example, led to the film Batteries Not Included.

The episode idea that would become the computer game The Dig after many torturous twists and turns was less original than that one. It involved a team of futuristic archaeologists digging in the ruins of what the audience would be led to assume was a lost alien civilization. Until, that is, the final shot set up the big reveal: the strange statue the archaeologists had been uncovering would be shown to be Mickey Mouse, while the enormous building behind it was the Sleeping Beauty Castle. They were digging at Disneyland, right here on Planet Earth!

The problem here was that we had seen all of this before, most notably at the end of Planet of the Apes, whose own climax had come when its own trio of astronauts stranded on its own apparently alien world had discovered the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand. Thus it was no great loss to posterity when this particular idea was judged too expensive for Amazing Stories to produce. But the core concept of archaeology in the future got stuck in Spielberg’s craw, to be trotted out again later in a very different context.

In the meantime, the show’s ratings were falling off quickly. As soon as the initial contract for two seasons had been fulfilled, Amazing Stories quietly disappeared from the airwaves. It became an object lesson that nothing is guaranteed in commercial media, not even Steven Spielberg’s Midas touch.

Fast-forward a couple of years, to when Spielberg was in the post-production phase of his latest cinematic blockbuster, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which he was making in partnership with his good friend George Lucas. Noah Falstein of the latter’s very own games studio had been drafted to design an adventure game of the movie. Despite his lack of a games studio of his own, Spielberg was ironically far more personally interested in computer games than Lucas; he followed Falstein’s project quite closely, to the point of serving as a sort of unofficial beta tester. Even after the movie and game were released, Spielberg would ring up LucasArts from time to time to beg for hints for their other adventures, or sometimes just to shoot the breeze; he was clearly intrigued by the rapidly evolving world of interactive media. During one of these conversations, he said he had a concept whose origins dated back to Amazing Stories, one which he believed might work well as a game. And then he asked if he could bring it over to Skywalker Ranch. He didn’t have to ask twice.

The story that Spielberg outlined retained futuristic archaeology as its core motif, but wisely abandoned the clichéd reveal of Mickey Mouse. Instead the archaeologists would be on an actual alien planet, discovering impossibly advanced technology in what Spielberg conceived as an homage to the 1950s science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet. Over time, the individual archaeologists would come to distrust and eventually go to war with one another; this part of the plot hearkened back to another film that Spielberg loved, the classic Western The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Over to you, Noah Falstein — after the unpleasant business of the earthquake was behind everybody, that is.

Noah Falstein

The offices of LucasArts were filled with young men who had grown up worshiping at the shrines of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and who now found themselves in the completely unexpected position of going to work every day at Skywalker Ranch, surrounded by the memorabilia of their gods and sometimes by the deities themselves. Their stories of divine contact are always entertaining, not least for the way that they tend to sound more like a plot from one of Spielberg’s films than any plausible reality; surely ordinary middle-class kids in the real world don’t just stumble into a job working for the mastermind of Star Wars, do they? Well, it turns out that in some cases they do. Dave Grossman, an aspiring LucasArts game designer at the time, was present at a follow-up meeting with Spielberg that also included Lucas, Falstein, and game designer Ron Gilbert of Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island fame. His account so magnificently captures what it was like to be a starstruck youngster in those circumstances that I want to quote it in full here.

The Main House at Skywalker is a pretty swanky place, and the meeting is in a boardroom with a table the size of a railroad car, made of oak or mahogany or some other sort of expensive wood. I’m a fidgety young kid with clothes that come pre-wrinkled, and this room makes me feel about as out of place as a cigarette butt in a soufflé. I’m a little on edge just being in here.

Then George and Steven show up and we all say hello. Now, I’ve been playing it cool like it’s no big deal, and I know they’re just people who sneeze and drop forks like everybody else, but… it’s Lucas and Spielberg! These guys are famous and powerful and rich and, although they don’t act like any of those things, I’m totally intimidated. (I should mention that although I’ve been working for George for a year or so at this point, this is only the second time I’ve met him.) I realize I’m really fairly nervous now.

George and Steven chit-chat with each other for a little bit. They’ve been friends a long time and it shows. George seems particularly excited to tell Steven about his new car, an Acura I think – they’re not even available to the public yet, but he’s managed to get the first one off the boat, and it’s parked conspicuously right in front of the building.

Pretty soon they start talking about ideas for The Dig, and they are Rapid-Fire Machine Guns of Creativity. Clearly they do this a lot. It’s all very high-concept and all over the map, and I have no idea how we’re going to make any of it into a game, but that’s kind of what brainstorming sessions are all about. Ron and Noah offer up a few thoughts. I have a few myself, but somehow I don’t feel worthy enough to break in with them. So I sit and listen, and gradually my nervousness is joined by embarrassment that I’m not saying anything.

A snack has been provided for the gathering, some sort of crumbly carbohydrate item, corn bread, if I remember correctly. So I take a piece – I’m kind of hungry, and it gives me something to do with my hands. I take a bite. Normally, the food at Skywalker Ranch is absolutely amazing, but this particular corn bread has been made extra dry. Chalk dry. My mouth is already parched from being nervous, so it takes me a while before I’m able to swallow the bite, and as I chomp and smack at it I’m sure I’m making more noise than a dozen weasels in a paper bag, even though everyone pretends not to notice. There are drinks in the room, but they have been placed out of the way, approximately a quarter-mile from where we’re sitting, and I can’t get up to get one without disrupting everything, and I’m sure by now George and Steven are wondering why I’m in the meeting in the first place.

I want to abandon the corn bread, but it’s begun falling apart, and I can’t put it down on my tiny napkin without making a huge mess. So I eat the whole piece. It takes about twenty minutes. I myself am covered with tiny crumbs, but at least there aren’t any on the gorgeous table.

By now the stakes are quite high. Because I’ve been quiet so long, the mere fact of my speaking up will be a noteworthy event, and anything I say has to measure up to that noteworthiness. You can’t break a long silence with a throwaway comment, it has to be a weighty, breathtaking observation that causes each person in the room to re-examine himself in its light. While I’m waiting for a thought that good, more time goes by and raises the bar even higher. I spend the rest of the meeting in a state of near-total paralysis, trying to figure out how I can get out of the room without anyone noticing, or, better yet, how I can go back in time and arrange not to be there in the first place.

So, yes, I did technically get to meet Steven Spielberg face-to-face once while we were working on The Dig. I actually talked to him later on, when he called to get hints on one of our other games (I think it was Day of the Tentacle), which he was playing with his son. (One of the lesser-known perks of being a famous filmmaker is that you can talk directly to the game designers for hints instead of calling the hint line.) Nice guy.

The broader world of computer gaming’s reaction to Spielberg’s involvement in The Dig would parallel the behavior of Dave Grossman at this meeting. At the same time that some bold industry scribes were beginning to call games a more exciting medium than cinema, destined for even more popularity thanks to the special sauce of interactivity, the press that surrounded The Dig would point out with merciless clarity just how shallow their bravado was, how deep gaming’s inferiority complex really ran: Spielberg’s name was guaranteed to show up in the first paragraph of every advertisement, preview, or, eventually, review. “Steven Spielberg is deigning to show an interest in little old us!” ran the implicit message.

It must be said that the hype was somewhat out of proportion to his actual contribution. After providing the initial idea for the game — an idea that would be transformed beyond all recognition by the time the game was released — Spielberg continued to make himself available for occasional consultations; he met with Falstein and his colleagues for four brainstorming sessions, two of which also included his buddy George Lucas, over the course of about eighteen months. (Thanks no doubt to the prompting of his friend, Lucas’s own involvement with The Dig was as hands-on as he ever got with one of his games studio’s creations.) Yet it’s rather less clear whether these conversations were of much real, practical use to the developers down in the trenches. Neither Spielberg nor Lucas was, to state the obvious, a game designer, and thus they tended to focus on things that might yield watchable movies but were less helpful for making a playable game. Noah Falstein soon discovered that heading a project which involved two such high-profile figures was a less enviable role than he had envisioned it to be; he has since circumspectly described a project where “everyone wanted to put their two cents in, and that can be extremely hard to manage.”

In his quest for a game that could be implemented within the strictures of SCUMM, LucasArts’s in-house point-and-click adventure engine, Falstein whittled away at Spielberg’s idea of two teams of archaeologists who enter into open war with one another. His final design document, last updated on January 30, 1991, takes place in “the future, nearly 80 years since the McKillip Drive made faster-than-light travel a possibility, and only 50 years since the first star colonies were founded.” In another nod back to Spielberg’s old Amazing Stories outline that got the ball rolling, an unmanned probe has recently discovered an immense statue towering amidst other alien ruins on the surface of a heretofore unexplored planet; in a nod to the most famous poem by Percy Shelley, the planet has been named Ozymandias. Three humans have now come to Ozymandias to investigate the probe’s findings — but they’re no longer proper archaeologists, only opportunistic treasure hunters, led by a sketchy character named Major Tom (presumably a nod to David Bowie). The player can choose either of Major Tom’s two subordinates as her avatar.

A series of unfortunate events ensues shortly after the humans make their landing, over the course of which Major Tom is killed and their spaceship damaged beyond any obvious possibility of repair. The two survivors have an argument and go their separate ways, but in this version of the script theirs is a cold rather than a hot war. As the game goes on, the player discovers that a primitive race of aliens living amidst the ruins are in fact the descendants of far more advanced ancestors, who long ago destroyed their civilization and almost wiped out their entire species with internecine germ warfare. But, the player goes on to learn, there are survivors of both factions who fought the apocalyptic final war suspended in cryogenic sleep beneath the surface of the planet. Her ultimate goal becomes to awaken these survivors and negotiate a peace between them, both because it’s simply the right thing to do and because these aliens should have the knowledge and tools she needs to repair her damaged spaceship.

This image by Ken Macklin is one of the few pieces of concept art to have survived from Noah Falstein’s version of The Dig.

For better or for worse, this pared-down but still ambitious vision for The Dig never developed much beyond that final design document and a considerable amount of accompanying concept art. “There was a little bit of SCUMM programming done on one of the more interesting puzzles, but not much [more],” says Falstein. He was pulled off the project very early in 1991, assigned instead to help Hal Barwood with Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. And when this, his second Indiana Jones game, was finished, he was laid off despite a long and largely exemplary track record.

Meanwhile The Dig spent a year or more in limbo, until it was passed to Brian Moriarty, the writer and designer of three games for the 1980s text-adventure giant Infocom and of LucasArts’s own lovely, lyrical Loom. Of late, he’d been drafting a plan for a game based on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, the franchise’s slightly disappointing foray into television, but a lack of personal enthusiasm for the project had led to a frustrating lack of progress. Moriarty was known as one of the most “literary” of game designers by temperament; his old colleagues at Infocom had called him “Professor Moriarty,” more as a nod to his general disposition than to the milieu of Sherlock Holmes. And indeed, his Trinity is a close as Infocom ever got to publishing a work of high literature, while his Loom possesses almost an equally haunting beauty. Seeing himself with some justification as a genuine interactive auteur, he demanded total control of every aspect of The Dig as a condition of taking it on. Bowing to his stellar reputation, LucasArts’s management agreed.

Brian Moriarty

Much of of what went on during the eighteen months that Moriarty spent working on The Dig remains obscure, but it plainly turned into a very troubled, acrimonious project. He got off on the wrong foot with many on his team by summarily binning Falstein’s vision — a vision which they had liked or even in some cases actively contributed to. Instead he devised an entirely new framing plot.

Rather than the far future, The Dig would now take place in 1998; in fact, its beginning would prominently feature the Atlantis, a Space Shuttle that was currently being flown by NASA. A massive asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. Humanity’s only hope is to meet it in space and plant a set of nuclear bombs on its surface. Once exploded, they will hopefully deflect the asteroid just enough to avoid the Earth. (The similarity with not one but two terrible 1998 movies is presumably coincidental.) You play Boston Low, the commander of the mission.

But carrying the mission out successfully and saving the Earth is only a prelude to the real plot. Once you have the leisure to explore the asteroid, you and your crew begin to discover a number of oddities about it, evidence that another form of intelligent being has been here before you. In the midst of your investigations, you set off a booby trap which whisks you and three other crew members light years away to a mysterious world littered with remnants of alien technology but bereft of any living specimens. Yet it’s certainly not bereft of danger: one crew member gets killed in gruesome fashion almost immediately when he bumbles into a rain of acid. Having thus established its bona fides as a serious story, a million light years away from the typical LucasArts cartoon comedy, the game now begins to show a closer resemblance to Falstein’s concept. You must explore this alien world, solve its puzzles, and ferret out the secrets of the civilization that once existed here if you ever hope to see Earth again. In doing so, you’re challenged not only by the environment itself but by bickering dissension in your own ranks.

This last element of the plot corresponded uncomfortably with the mood inside the project. LucasArts had now moved out of the idyllic environs of Skywalker Ranch and into a sprawling, anonymous office complex, where the designers and programmers working on The Dig found themselves in a completely separate building from the artists and administrators. Reading just slightly between the lines here, the root of the project’s troubles seems to have been a marked disconnect between the two buildings. Moriarty, who felt compelled to create meaningful, thematically ambitious games, became every accountant and project planner’s nightmare, piling on element after element, flying without a net (or a definitive design document). He imagined an interface where you would be able to carry ideas around with you like physical inventory items, a maze that would reconfigure itself every time you entered it, a Klein bottle your characters would pass through with strange metaphysical and audiovisual effects. To make all this happen, his programmers would need to create a whole new game engine of their own rather than relying on SCUMM. They named it StoryDroid.

A screenshot from Moriarty’s version of The Dig. Note the menu of verb icons at the bottom of the screen. These would disappear from later versions in favor of the more streamlined style of interface which LucasArts had begun to employ with Sam and Max Hit the Road.

There were some good days on Moriarty’s Dig, especially early on. Bill Tiller, an artist on the project, recalls their one in-person meeting with Steven Spielberg, in his office just behind the Universal Studios Theme Park. Moriarty brought a demo of the work-in-progress, along with a “portable” computer the size of a suitcase to run it. And he also brought a special treat for Spielberg, who continued to genuinely enjoy games in all the ways George Lucas didn’t. Tiller:

Brian brought an expansion disk for one of the aerial battle games Larry Holland was making. Spielberg was a big computer-game geek! He was waiting for this upgrade/mission expansion thing. He called his assistant in and just mentioned what it was. She immediately knew what he meant and said she’d send it home and tell someone to have it installed and running for him when he arrived. I decided at that moment I would have an assistant like that someday.

Anyway, when we were through we told him we had a few hours to kill and wondered what rides we should get on back at the theme park. He said the E.T. ride, since he helped design it. It was brand new at the time. His people said that he was really crazy about it and wanted to show it off to everyone. One of his assistants took us there on a back-lot golf cart. We didn’t have to get another taxi. We didn’t even have to stand in line! They took us straight to the ride and cut us in the line in front of everyone, like real V.I.P.s. Everyone had to stand back and watch, probably trying to figure out who we were. All I remember is Brian with the stupid giant suitcase going through the ride.

But the best part of the whole thing for me was [Spielberg’s] enthusiasm. He really likes games. This wasn’t work to him to have to hear us go on about The Dig.

Brian Moriarty’s version of The Dig was more violent than later versions, a quality which Steven Spielberg reportedly encouraged. Here an astronaut meets a gruesome end after being exposed to an alien acid rain.

But the bonhomie of the Universal Studios visit faded as the months wore on. Moriarty’s highfalutin aspirations began to strike others on the team — especially the artists who were trying to realize his ever-expanding vision — as prima-donna-ish; at the end of the day, after all, it was just a computer game they were making. “I used to tell Brian, when he got all excited about what people would think of our creation, that in ten years no one will even remember The Dig,” recalls Bill Eaken, the first head artist to work under him. He believes that Moriarty may even have imagined Spielberg giving him a screenwriting or directing job if The Dig sufficiently impressed him. Eaken:

I liked Brian. Brian is a smart and creative guy. I still have good memories of sitting in his office and just brainstorming. The sky was the limit. That’s how it should be. Those were good times. But I think as time went on he had stars in his eyes. I think he wanted to show Spielberg what he could do and it became too much pressure on him. After a while he just seemed to bog down under the pressure. When all the politics and Hollywood drama started to impede us, when it wasn’t even a Hollywood gig, I [got] temperamental.

The programming was a complete disaster. I had been working for several years at LucasArts at that time and had a very good feel for the programming. I taught programming in college, and though I wasn’t a programmer on any games, I understood programming enough to know something was amiss on The Dig. I went to one of my friends at the company who was a great programmer and told him my concerns. He went and tried to chat with the programmers about this or that to get a look at their code, but whenever he walked into the room they would shut off their monitors, things like that. What he could see confirmed my worries: the code was way too long, and mostly not working.

The project was “completely out of control and management wouldn’t listen to me about it,” Eaken claims today. So, he quit LucasArts, whereupon his role fell to his erstwhile second-in-command, the aforementioned Bill Tiller. The latter says that he “liked and disliked” Moriarty.

Brian was fun to talk with and was very energetic and was full of good ideas, but he and I started to rub each other the wrong way due to our disagreement over how the art should be done. I wanted the art organized in a tight budget and have it all planned out, just like in a typical animation production, and so did my boss, who mandated I push for an organized art schedule. Brian bristled at being restricted with his creativity. He felt that the creative process was hindered by art schedules and strict budgets. And he was right. But the days of just two or three people making a game were over, and the days of large productions and big budgets were dawning, and I feel Brian had a hard time adjusting to this new age.

Games were going through a transition at that time, from games done by a few programmers with little art, to becoming full-blown animated productions where the artists outnumber the programmers four to one. Add to the mix the enormous pressure of what a Spielberg/Lucas project should be like [and] internal jealousy about the hype, and you have a recipe for disaster.

He wanted to do as much of the game by himself as possible so that it was truly his vision, but I think he felt overwhelmed by the vastness of the game, which required so much graphics programming and asset creation. He was used to low-res graphics and a small intimate team of maybe four people or less. Then there is the pressure of doing the first Spielberg/Lucas game. I mean, come on! That is a tough, tough position for one guy to be in.

One of LucasArt’s longstanding traditions was the “pizza orgy,” in which everyone was invited to drop whatever they were doing, come to the main conference room, eat some pizza, and play a game that had reached a significant milestone in its development. The first Dig pizza orgy, which took place in the fall of 1993, was accompanied by an unusual amount of drama. As folks shuffled in to play the game for the very first time, they were told that Moriarty had quit that very morning.

We’re unlikely ever to know exactly what was going through Moriarty’s head at this juncture; he’s an intensely private individual, as it is of course his right to be, and is not at all given to baring his soul in public. What does seem clear, however, is that The Dig drained from him some fragile reservoir of heedless self-belief which every creative person needs in order to keep creating. Although he’s remained active in the games industry in various roles, those have tended to be managerial rather than creative; Brian Moriarty, one of the best pure writers ever to explore the potential of interactive narratives, never seriously attempted to write another one of them after The Dig. In an interview he did in 2006 for Jason Scott’s film Get Lamp, he mused vaguely during a pensive interlude that “I’m always looking for another Infocom. But sometimes I think we won’t give ourselves permission.” (Who precisely is the “we” here?) This statement may, I would suggest, reveal more than Moriarty intended, about more of his career than just his time at Infocom.

At any rate, Moriarty left LucasArts with one very unwieldy, confused, overambitious project to try to sort out. It struck someone there as wise to give The Dig to Hal Barwood, a former filmmaker himself who had been friends with Steven Spielberg for two decades. But Barwood proved less than enthusiastic about it — which was not terribly surprising in light of how badly The Dig had already derailed the careers of two of LucasArts’s other designers. Following one fluffy interview where he dutifully played up the involvement of Spielberg for all it was worth — “We’re doing our best to capture the essence of the experience he wants to create” — he finagled a way off the project.

At this point, the hot potato was passed to Dave Grossman, who had, as noted above, worked for a time with Noah Falstein on its first incarnation. “I was basically a hedge trimmer,” he says. “There was a general feeling, which I shared, that the design needed more work, and I was asked to fix it up while retaining as much as possible of what had been been done so far — starting over yet again would have been prohibitively expensive. So I went in with my editing scissors, snip snip snip, and held a lot of brainstorming meetings with the team to try to iron out the kinks.” But Grosssman too found something better to do as quickly as possible, whereupon the game lay neglected for the better part of a year while much of Moriarty’s old team went to work on Tim Schafer’s Full Throttle: “a project that the company loved,” says Bill Tiller, drawing an implicit comparison with this other, unloved one.

In late 1994, The Dig was resurrected for the last time, being passed to Sean Clark, a long-serving LucasArts programmer who had moved up to become the producer and co-designer of Sam and Max Hit the Road, and who now saw becoming the man who finally shepherded this infamously vexed project to completion as a good way to continue his ascent. “My plan when I came in on the final incarnation was to take a game that was in production and finish it,” he says. “I didn’t get a lot of pressure or specific objectives from management. I think they were mainly interested in getting the project done so they could have a product plan that didn’t have The Dig listed on it.” Clark has admitted that, when he realized what a sorry state the game was actually in, he went to his bosses and recommended that they simply cancel it once and for all. “I got a lot of resistance, which surprised me,” he says. “It was hard to resist the potential [of having] a game out there with a name like Spielberg’s on it.” In a way, George Lucas was a bigger problem than Spielberg in this context: no one wanted to go to the boss of bosses at LucasArts and tell him they had just cancelled his close friend’s game.

Sean Clark with a hot slice. Pizza was a way of life at LucasArts, as at most games studios. Asked about the negative aspects of his job, one poor tester said that he was “getting really, really tired of pizza. I just can’t look at pizza anymore.”

So, Clark rolled up his sleeves and got to work instead. His first major decision was to ditch the half-finished StoryDroid engine and move the project back to SCUMM. He stuck to Brian Moriarty’s basic plot and characters, but excised without a trace of hesitation or regret anything that was too difficult to implement in SCUMM or too philosophically esoteric. His goal was not to create Art, not to stretch the boundaries of what adventure games could be, but just to get ‘er done. Bill Tiller and many others from the old team returned to the project with the same frame of reference. By now, LucasArts had moved offices yet again, to a chic new space where the programmers and artists could mingle: “Feedback was quick and all-encompassing,” says Tiller. If there still wasn’t a lot of love for the game in the air, there was at least a measure of esprit de corps. LucasArts even sprang for a couple more (reasonably) big names to add to The Dig‘s star-studded marque, hiring the science-fiction author Orson Scott Card, author of the much-admired Ender’s Game among other novels, to write the dialogue, and Robert Patrick, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s principal antagonist from Terminator 2, to head up the cast of voice actors. Remarkably in light of how long the project had gone on and how far it had strayed from his original vision, Steven Spielberg took several more meetings with the team. “He actually called me at home one evening as he was playing through a release candidate,” says Sean Clark. “He was all excited and having fun, but was frustrated because he had gotten stuck on a puzzle and needed a hint.”

Clark’s practicality and pragmatism won the day where the more rarefied visions of Falstein and Moriarty had failed: The Dig finally shipped just in time for the Christmas of 1995. LucasArts gave it the full-court press in terms of promotion, going so far as to call it their “highest-profile product yet.” They arranged for a licensed strategy guide, a novelization by the king of tie-in novelists Alan Dean Foster, an “audio drama” of his book, and even a CD version of Michael Land’s haunting soundtrack to be available within weeks of the game itself. And of course they hyped the Spielberg connection for all it was worth, despite the fact that the finished game betrayed only the slightest similarity to the proposal he had pitched six years before.

Composer Michael Land plays a timpani for The Dig soundtrack. One can make a strong argument that his intensely atmospheric, almost avant-garde score is the best thing about the finished game. Much of it is built from heavily processed, sometimes even backwards-playing samples of Beethoven and Wagner. Sean Clark has described, accurately, how it sounds “strange and yet slightly familiar.”

But the reaction on the street proved somewhat less effusive than LucasArts might have wished. Reviews were surprisingly lukewarm, and gamers were less excited by the involvement of Steven Spielberg than the marketers had so confidently predicted. Bill Tiller feels that the Spielberg connection may have been more of a hindrance than a help in the end: “Spielberg’s name was a tough thing to have attached to this project because people have expectations associated with him. The general public thought this was going to be a live-action [and/or] 3D interactive movie, not an adventure game.” The game wasn’t a commercial disaster, but sold at less than a third the pace of Full Throttle, its immediate predecessor among LucasArts adventures. Within a few months, the marketers had moved on from their “highest-profile product yet” to redouble their focus on the Star Wars games that were accounting for more and more of LucasArts’s profits.

One can certainly chalk up some of the nonplussed reaction to The Dig to its rather comprehensive failure to match the public’s expectations of a LucasArts adventure game. In a catalog that consisted almost exclusively of cartoon comedies, it was a serious, even gloomy game. In a catalog of anarchically social, dialog-driven adventures that were seen by many gamers as the necessary antithesis to the sterile, solitary Myst-style adventure games that were now coming out by the handful, it forced you to spend most of its length all alone, solving mechanical puzzles that struck many as painfully reminiscent of Myst. Additionally, The Dig‘s graphics, although well-composed and well-drawn, reflected the extended saga of its creation; they ran in low-resolution VGA at a time when virtually the whole industry had moved to higher-resolution Super VGA, and they reflected as well the limitations of the paint programs and 3D-rendering software that had been used to create them, in many cases literally years before the game shipped. In the technology-obsessed gaming milieu of the mid-1990s, when flash meant a heck of a lot, such things could be ruinous to a new release’s prospects.

But today, we can presumably look past such concerns to the fundamentals of the game that lives underneath its surface technology. Unfortunately, The Dig proves far from a satisfying experience even on these terms.

An adventure game needs to be, if nothing else, reasonably good company, but The Dig fails this test. In an effort to create “dramatic” characters, it falls into the trap of merely making its leads unlikable. All of them are walking, talking clichés: the unflappable Chuck Yeager-type who’s in charge, the female overachiever with a chip on her shoulder who bickers with his every order, the arrogant German scientist who transforms into the villain of the piece. Orson Scott Card’s dialog is shockingly clunky, full of tired retreads of action-movie one-liners; one would never imagine that it comes from the pen of an award-winning novelist if it didn’t say so in the credits. And, even more unusually for LucasArts, the voice acting is little more inspired. All of which is to say that it comes as something of a relief when everyone else just goes away and leaves Boston Low alone to solve puzzles, although even then you still have to tolerate Robert Patrick’s portrayal of the stoic mission commander; he approaches an unknown alien civilization on the other side of the galaxy with all the enthusiasm of a gourmand with a full belly reading aloud from a McDonald’s menu.

Alas, one soon discovers that the puzzle design isn’t any better than the writing or acting. While the puzzles may have some of the flavor of Myst, they evince none of that game’s rigorous commitment to internal logic and environmental coherence. In contrast to the free exploration offered by Myst, The Dig turns out to be a quite rigidly linear game, with only a single path through its puzzles. Most of these require you just to poke at things rather than to truly enter into the logic of the world, meaning you frequently find yourself “solving” them without knowing how or why.

But this will definitely not happen in at least two grievous cases. At one point, you’re expected to piece together an alien skeleton from stray bones when you have no idea what said alien is even supposed to look like. And another puzzle, involving a cryptic alien control panel, is even more impossible to figure out absent hours of mind-numbing trial and error. “I had no clue that was such a hard puzzle,” says Bill Tiller. “We all thought it was simple. Boy, were we wrong.” And so we learn the ugly truth: despite the six years it spent in development, nobody ever tried to play The Dig cold before it was sent out the door. It was the second LucasArts game in a row of which this was true, indicative of a worrisome decline in quality control from a studio that had made a name for themselves by emphasizing good design.

At the end of The Dig, the resolution of the alien mystery is as banal as it is nonsensical, a 2001: A Space Odyssey with a lobotomy. It most definitely isn’t “an in-depth story in which the exploration of human emotion plays as important a role as the exploration of a game world,” as LucasArts breathlessly promised.

So, The Dig still manages to come across today as simultaneously overstuffed and threadbare. It broaches a lot of Big Ideas (a legacy of Falstein and Moriarty’s expansive visions), but few of them really go anywhere (a legacy of Grossman and Clark’s pragmatic trimming). It winds up just another extended exercise in object manipulation, but it doesn’t do even this particularly well. Although its audiovisuals can create an evocative atmosphere at times, even they come across too often as disjointed, being a hodgepodge of too many different technologies and aesthetics. Long experience has taught many of us to beware of creative expressions of any stripe that take too long to make and pass through too many hands in the process. The Dig only proves this rule: it’s no better than its tortured creation story makes you think it will be. Its neutered final version is put together competently, but not always well, and never with inspiration. And so it winds up being the one thing a game should never be: it’s just kind of… well, boring.

As regular readers of this site are doubtless well aware, I’m a big fan of LucasArts’s earlier adventures of the 1990s. The one complaint I’ve tended to ding them with is a certain failure of ambition — specifically, a failure to leave their designers’ wheelhouse of cartoon comedy. And yet The Dig, LucasArts’s one concerted attempt to break that mold, ironically winds up conveying the opposite message: that sometimes it’s best just to continue to do what you do best. The last of their charmingly pixelated “classic-look” adventure games, The Dig is sadly among the least satisfying of the lot, with a development history far more interesting than either its gameplay or its fiction. A number of people looked at it with stars in their eyes over the six years it remained on LucasArts’s list of ongoing projects, but it proved a stubbornly ill-starred proposition for all of them in the end.

(Sources: the book The Dig: Official Player’s Guide by Jo Ashburn; Computer Gaming World of March 1994, September 1994, September 1995, October 1995, December 1995, and February 1996; Starlog of October 1985; LucasArts’s customer newsletter The Adventurer of Spring 1993, Winter 1994, Summer 1994, Summer 1995, and Winter 1995. Online sources include Noah Falstein’s 2017 interview on Celebrity Interview, Falstein’s presentation on his history with Lucasfilm Games for Øredev 2017, the “secret history” of The Dig at International House of Mojo, the same site’s now-defunct Dig Museum,” ATMachine’s now-defunct pages on the game, Brian Moriarty’s 2006 interview for Adventure Classic Gaming, and Moriarty’s Loom postmortem at the 2015 Game Developers Conference. Finally, thank you to Jason Scott for sharing his full Get Lamp interview archives with me years ago.

The Dig is available for digital purchase on


1 LucasArts was known as Lucasfilm Games until the summer of 1992. To avoid confusion, I use the name “LucasArts” throughout this article.

July 22, 2021

Choice of Games

Two New Hosted Games! “Dinosaur Island Escape” and “Pirates of Donkey Island”

by Kai DeLeon at July 22, 2021 01:42 PM

Hosted Games has two new games for you to play!

Dinosaur Island Escape by Chris Viola

Dinosaur Island Esape

Dinosaur Island Escape (DIE) is a 84,000 word interactive puzzle based-open world novel written by Chris Viola, where you attempt to escape the deadliest place on Earth. It’s entirely text based, and powered by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Explore an uncharted island filled with prehistoric predators that see you as nothing more than a free meal. Solve mysteries, uncover secrets, and explore this open world in a unique way. The sandbox style of the game, combined with the chance to build your own statline and dozens of different items to find and invent gives you the chance to have a new experience every time you play.

  • Play as a male, female or non-binary; gay, straight, lesbian or bi.
  • Find multiple ways off the island, allowing for a different adventure each play through.
  • Be the center of a love triangle while your current partner and an attractive stranger fight over you.
  • Fight dinosaurs with a katana, run from them with your blazing speed, fight them in hand to hand combat, shoot them with a rifle or sneak by them with unmatched stealth.
  • Explore an abandoned city, a vast castle, a mountain range, and a vast beach. Survive jumping off a waterfall, sinking in quicksand and a facing a giant crocodile.
  • Save civilians in a race against the clock to stop pterosaurs from destroying your home town.

Will you die a violent death, survive by the skin of your teeth, or uncover lost secrets and bring them back for the world to see?

Pirates of Donkey Island by Gilbert Gallo

Pirates of Donkey Island

A terrible curse ruined your royal wedding, placing your soul into your pirate grandfather’s body. To lift it, you must lead a crazy crew through countless hilarious challenges in this adventure inspired by Monkey Island and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Pirates of Donkey Island is a funny, 79,000 word interactive swashbuckling novel by Gilbert Gallo, 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.

A gorilla gentleman, an undead rocker, a fast-aging Voodoo crone, and a ridiculous spokesman. These will be your only companions in the most incredible journey of your life. Every member has a peculiar story, and their experiences/interactions will help you determine your final, authentic self.

After dozens of insult-sword fighting duels, grog contests, and rigged wheels of fortunes, you will eventually look at life from an entirely different perspective.

With your crew’s help, you’ll discover the truth about your hated pirate grandfather. Will you then embrace your cursed condition or fight against your doom?

  • Decide your main character’s body and orientation during the game. Will you end up being male, female, or non-binary? Gay, straight, or asexual? It’s up to you to decide.
  • Live the cursed swashbuckler’s life! Will you look for a way to lift your curse or enjoy your damned existence until the afterlife?
  • Find romance with a hairy, mighty gorilla or spend your life together with a zombie. Or will you prefer to date a venerable, wrinkly, and toothless lady?
  • Lead a motley crew of cursed people and use their incredible powers to uncover the Cursed Caribbean’s mysteries.
  • Engage your opponents in hilarious insult-sword-fighting duels!
  • Will you cherish your crew members as a respected leader, or will you betray them for gold, selling their souls to Davy Jones?

Stop waving your sword like a feather duster and sail the Cursed Caribbeans to discover the ultimate treasure: your true self!

Chris and Gilbert 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.

July 20, 2021

The People's Republic of IF

June Meeting Post-Mortem

by Angela Chang at July 20, 2021 04:42 PM

June 2021 Pr-IF Meeting Zarf, Team Anjchang, Carrington, Dana, Stephen, NickM, Hugh, and Kay.

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Monday, June 21, 2021. Zarf, ,KaySavetz and Carrington (Eaten By A Grue), NickM, Stephen Eric Jablonski, Hugh Steers, and anjchang welcomed newcomer Dana Freitas. Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories:

Check out Dana’s Spring Thing entry, Hand of God, made in Twine!

Parser comp deadlines soon

IFcomp kicking off in July, there will be rule changes, previews of things.

Dana is working on a summer project called Salvation.

Hugh reported on a work in progress.

Zarf working on Inform6 compiler, better notifications.

Carrington working on KansasFest work in PunyInform.

A build tool to produce output for PunyInform

Angela and Nick reported that Taper #6 is out at The call to the next issue is also out, due in August.

Plans for rogue-like celebration, Zarf working on something

In the fall, looking forward to planning Narrascope

IFTF has 9 people on it now! Check out the blog post.

Hugh put forward a proposal about publishing knowledge related to Interactive Fiction. Nick talked about publishing in academia, adventure games, narrative design. Dana talked about codifying knowledge by not having competing standards, Kay sent a link

Joseph Weizenbaum’s source code for Eliza is now public:)

Twining, a New book on Twine by Stuart Moulthrop. Open access book free download

Stuart wrote an essay about it

July 19, 2021

Zarf Updates

Mysterium 2021 report

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at July 19, 2021 04:12 AM

Another Mysterium has come and gone. It was online again this year. I took lots of notes! But if you want to go directly to the goods, check out the Mysterium Youtube channel.
Some highlights:
Rand Miller doing a live let's-play of Myst. Not all of it, just an hour's worth of running around with off-the-cuff directory's commentary. This was Myst Masterpiece Edition (1999, still slideshow-style but improved resolution). Favorite bit: all the trees on Myst Island were rendered as perfect cones with a foliage texture. But when you look at screenshots, you see that the silhouettes are a little bit fluffy. Why? Because Rand loaded them up in Photoshop and smeared all the edges with the thumb tool. CGI magic!
Of course the big upcoming news is the Mac/PC/VR port, which is due "third quarter" -- which is to say, by the end of September. They did an hour-long State of the Union report on that.
(Panel, Youtube.)
  • No date yet, but they stand by the "third quarter" estimate.
  • Linux is not a current target.
  • Rime will not be included. Hannah Gamiel: "The hope is to bring Rime to this version eventually but it's one step at a time."
  • No option for node-based navigation. Again, they might add it later.
  • Unlike recent RealMyst versions, the Ages will not have day/night cycles.
  • They're being careful about accessibility. They're avoiding red/green palette distinctions. You can turn on subtitles for both dialogue and audio puzzles (which includes background audio cues like water flowing in Channelwood).
  • Unreal 5 features look cool but have not made it into their working pipeline. (Eric Anderson commented that Unreal's nanite geometry is not yet compatible with VR, so they can't use it.)
  • "Why Myst again?" Because there's a generation of gamers who are used to modern graphics. A lot of them aren't interested in old or retro stuff. But they might try an all-updated modern version. Eric Anderson: "Not the way it looked, but the way we remember it looking."
They had to redesign some of the game mechanisms to be VR-compatible. (This version will work on both VR and flatscreen, but it's the same layout in both, so it all has to work.) For example, all doors are sliding doors! You can't swing doors in VR without hitting people in the face. No controls on the ground; everything has to be reachable between waist-height and shoulder-height. (Some VR supports crouching, but not all.)
The upcoming version will look much nicer than the Oculus Quest port that shipped last December. More detail, more foliage, more texture. The Quest is a fairly limited platform; PCs can push way better graphics. Although they don't have to! The artists say they've gotten much better at designing environments that work with a wide variety of graphics settings. (The Steam page lists super-high graphics requirements, but that's only for PC-VR. Flatscreen PCs will have more moderate requirements.)
Interestingly, they say they can now "design high and optimize down". If you look at Cyan interviews after Obduction, they bemoan the mistake of designing for high-end PCs and then trying to trim the models down for VR. When Firmament was announced, they said "VR first!" But at this point they have more optimization experience and better tooling.
I've been somewhat snarky about the fact that Quest shipped first and every other platform has had to wait. Having seen direct comparison screenshots between Quest and PC, I can see why it took extra time. Also, as they pointed out, the Quest version went from a proof of concept in Dec 2019 to shipping in Dec 2020 -- that's really a compressed timeline. They could not focus on multiple platforms for Myst and also keep the Firmament pipeline moving. So that's the story there.

Speaking of Firmament: The status report is "going great". They are extremely enthusiastic about the story. Target date is late next year. End of report.

No mention at all of Starry Expanse, the 3D Riven remake. The people involved in that project are reportedly still at it, but under NDA.

Chuck Carter talked about the reconstructed Selenitic Age that he's working on as a hobby project. No screenshots to show off yet, sadly. This will be released for free; he estimates a year and a half, so early 2023.
He says the Age will be twice as large as the "real" Selenitic Age, with ruins containing hints at more Myst backstory. The atmosphere will be darker, hotter, and more oppressive. This is not intended to be Myst canon; rather, it's concepts that Carter developed as his personal take on Myst lore. (Cyan now has a "Myst expanded universe" label for recognized-but-not-canonical works. This project may wind up under that.)
Tidbit: this is actually Carter's second attempt to reconstruct Selenitic. The first attempt was done in Bryce3D. Sadly, those images are lost.
(By the way, he says "Selenitic" was named after the mineral selenite. I always assumed it was supposed to be "lunar" because of the meteor impacts.)
(Presentation, Youtube.)

Vincent Weaver's Apple 2 demake of Myst is now fully playable. Have I really not blogged about this before? He's presented pieces of it at KansasFest. It's the entirety of Myst on three Apple floppies, using Apple lo-res graphics. That's 40x48 pixels, friends. Of course the game is highly compacted: simplified animations, summarized journals, reduced navigation nodes. Only a few sounds. (The digitized link sound is a significant chunk of the RAM budget!)
Weaver has done some dithers into other Apple 2 graphics modes, so you can see how it would look with fancy-ass hi-res graphics. Unsurprisingly, the hand-pixelated lo-res graphics are the best. (At least until you get up to IIgs modes.)
He wrote an experimental vector graphics library which would be able to display hi-res images without using much more space. But it's really slow and wouldn't support the more intricate graphics needed for puzzles.
(Presentation, Youtube.)

Philip Shane's Myst documentary is still underway. Shane shared a few clips of source material, filmed at Cyan's office and at GeekGirlCon 2018.
They are planning to host a permanent archive of fan memories and stories of playing Myst. They showed a preview of that web page (designed by Elana Bogdan). Naturally, it's an explorable library -- delightfully overengineered.
The archive will go public when the documentary launches, but contributors will be able to see it earlier. Contributing to the library was a Kickstarter reward level, but you can still donate to the project and qualify if you want. (It's the $75 level -- it says "via video recording" but they will also accept written stories.)
(Presentation, Youtube.)

Geez, what else? I know I'm rambling on here. There was a panel of original Myst Online developers followed by a panel of the volunteers who now support the fan contribution efforts. The most interesting details there were about the early history of the Uru project. Most of this is well-known in the fan community, but I had never heard it all laid out.
Cyan launched into their original "DIRT" project right after Riven shipped. This was "D'ni In Real-Time" -- that is, in a fully navigable 3D engine. (Immensely ambitious in 1997!) DIRT was conceived as a single-player game. You would start on the surface, make your way down the Great Shaft, and then explore the D'ni city. The developers mentioned concepts for puzzles like repairing a "scarab" earth-moving machine to unblock a tunnel.
This was the period when Cyan acquired Headspin Technologies for their 3D engine (thence called Plasma). They started modelling the Descent level, followed by Teledahn. (See this post for a link to an early Descent demo. No scarab, I'm afraid.)
However, at some point -- 1999 or 2000 -- Cyan got the idea of making this an MMO. (The panellists recalled Rand Miller standing up to pitch the company on the idea.) The project was now "MUDPIE", for "Multi-User DIRT..." (the rest of the acronym is fuzzy; they just wanted to call it MUDPIE.) At this point they jettisoned the Descent sequence and replaced it with the New Mexico opening and Relto book.
(The cavern area of Descent was later remodelled into the Age of Eder Gira. The Great Shaft was teased in the Uru: Path of the Shell expansion and then unveiled in all its glory as the opening of Myst 5.)
The concensus of the original developers was that, first, it was a dream job and a time of miracles, and then it ended. (I was much reminded of Infocom implementors reminiscing!) And also, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Eric Anderson: "I'm so grateful for the fact that we didn't know any better. [...] Those experiences wouldn't have happened if we'd had an ounce of wisdom."
On the fan side, the maintainers promise that "Descent is coming!" To MOUL, that is. No promises about dates, but they're working on it.

I haven't hit everything, but this post is quite long enough. Enjoy!
Next year's con will be in-person in Denver. I'm not sure if I'll get there -- I have a lot of cons to get back to next year -- but I will keep up on the news.

Renga in Blue

Madness and the Minotaur: Frustration

by Jason Dyer at July 19, 2021 01:41 AM

I’m going to say this is my second-to-last post on Madness and the Minotaur. Next will come fire or glory. Which is more likely?

As this will be relevant later, here’s Nergal, Mesopotamian god of plagues, war, and death. Picture by Neta Dror, from the collection at The Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

95% chance fire. I still haven’t gotten the first spell yet, that is, the first thing the game needs you to do.

I did, at least, managed to put the jigsaw puzzle of the map mostly together. I realized, from last time, that I didn’t need to “teleport” to the maze level from the 8 by 3 block I mapped out if I shifted things over a bit, and had the “slide down a row” effect happen on the edges.

It didn’t quite make an 8 by 8 map like it was supposed to, but I took the guess I had part of the map wrong (due to randomness or just confusion) and indeed, once I fixed my small error, I came up with a complete 8 by 8. Behold.

In other words, I was mapping the fourth level all along, so the two parts connected! I was also able to make it to a “great forest” that connected directly to a pit:

I’m passing on discussing the other 8 by 3 chunks of the maze, which are all similar to the first one I mapped with a few random teleport exits; I’m not sure if it’s worth deciding the exact logic since the main thing required is to visit enough rooms to find all the items.

I already had the Great Forest mapped: it’s the place where the treasures go, and is directly over the starting room! So this is where you can loop from the fourth floor back to the first floor relatively reliably, assuming you can make it through all the squares without being stopped.

It’s that “assume” that is a giant conditional there. I lucked out on my traversal, but sometimes when testing out the maze I have my passage stopped by a room of “strong magic” and I’ve been completely stuck.

I was originally wondering what kind of system the game has for preventing impossible scenarios. Now I’m thinking that, more often than not, the game presents impossible scenarios. Let’s consider my current dilemma, which I know from Manual #2: finding a mushroom and food, and getting back to the first level to find a room “crackling with energy” which should have the first spell.

The food seems to always be on the first level, and the mushroom on the third. Here is one attempt at getting the mushroom:

The enchanted aura is technically helpful — it is supposed to heal you — but it also teleports.

I keep getting stymied for one reason or another; there are two “direct routes” passages from floor 1 to 3 (where you can go straight down twice) but often (on my random reroll of the map) they are both blocked, and any longer route usually has either magic or some monster (like a hydra) that prevents getting through.

The two I circled are mostly straight paths to the mushroom area. The one to the right is one-way, so it requires getting back up a different way.

I have managed to get both food and mushroom, but then found I couldn’t get back to the first level; for example, one time I took the route starting from the Large Empty Hall circled above (where I can’t go back the same way) and found myself completely blocked in.

I may still be missing some exits, but given this is all happening on the very first puzzle, what’s to stop the same issue with happening for any of the others? And what should I be doing after, anyway? Remember, puzzle solutions are randomly generated. I can ASK ORACLE on the spare chance the oracle appears…

I have no idea what the “Nergal” is. The only definition I’ve seen is the god shown on the top of this post. Is it a statue of Nergal, maybe? I can’t imagine we are toting around a literal god. It might just be a made-up name for an undescribed magic gizmo, of course.

…but that’s only one of multiple puzzles, and importantly, there doesn’t seem to be any logic to the connections. I took a bunch of new game starts and made a beeline for the gazing pool in the northwest, which indicates what is required to “solve” getting the spellbook.

skull and flute
mushroom, goblet, belrog
powerring and nergal
pendant and crom

It may be it is possible to deductively reduce some puzzles based on other puzzles, like Clue; it may be possible to leverage saved games to be near and oracle and somehow get different clues at each ASK ORACLE; it may be there is no good method to figuring things out at all. The main issue is I’m expecting an adventure game to have some sort of consistent inner physics, either real or magical, and this breaks that to such an extent I’m just not finding the experience that enjoyable.

But maybe things will improve if I can just solve one thing. (Technically … I did! There’s a shield on the wall on the first level that is “too high” to reach. One time I was able to take it anyway, and I realized after some elimination that it was from carrying the dagger. The dagger doesn’t always work for that, though. In one universe, you could imagine reaching up with the point of the dagger just high enough to reach the wall, but in another, you can’t do that for no apparent reason, nothing described by the game itself, anyway.)

Another failed attempt to escape with the mushroom.

July 18, 2021

Emily Short

The Uncanny Deck: Co-authoring with GPT-2

by Emily Short at July 18, 2021 05:41 PM

Artbreeder landscape, developed as an image of Booknesford, from Annals of the Parrigues. Angry citizens threw the last of the Parrigues from the cliff in order to execute her.

Many years ago, I started writing a fantasy story. In the story, there was a culturally important game you could play with friends, which was usually mostly a bit like poker.

The thing was, every once in a while you would draw some totally weird extra card that had never been in the pack before. The Steward of Hearts. The King of Arrows. Both suits and ranks were open to change.

In the story, this was the work of prophetic spirits.

I never finished writing the story because I was really less interested in the plot than I was in the deck itself — the idea of a set of symbols that was mostly known and constrained and human-made, but had an occasional dose of the uncanny.

To me, that dose of the uncanny is also part of the appeal of working with AI — the way it can, at its best, introduce elements that feel both significant and unexpected.

Over the past year or so, I’ve worked on and off on making a text generator that describes fortune-telling cards; where the deck has its own definite imagery and set of meanings; where the generator usually stays approximately on form; but where you sometimes find a card you would not expect at all.

The rest of the article goes a little bit into what I’ve done, what it produces, and why I find this an interesting way to write with a machine.

If you’d like your own experimental output from it: through this weekend (until early July 19), I’m supporting this fundraiser by generating tarot card readings or new Parrigues-style towns with this generator. If you’d like your own, donate any amount, then ping to let me know what you’d like. (More about that offer on Twitter.)

Now, the article:

Concept art for the Duchess of Salt, as rendered with ArtBreeder. Salt is associated with age, preservation, archiving, patterned work; while the Duchess is associated with the Venom principle.

This starts with the Parrigues Tarot. Initially I was just using a tagged generative grammar like the one I used on Annals of the Parrigues, but this time I was producing described number and face cards (Ace to Seven; Duke, Duchess, Ducal Personage, Innkeeper, and Ghost) in five suits (Salt, Venom, Beeswax, Mushroom, and Egg). The Major Arcana, meanwhile, were much more hand-authored. Thematically, it was sharing the ideas from Annals of the Parrigues, because I find those ideas useful to think with.

Definitely not a conventional Tarot deck even at the outset, but I did get the grammar to the point where it was building output I enjoyed and found interesting on a regular basis.

At some point, though, I definitely reached the point where the grammar development approach felt limited. It was a good bit of work to add any more new elements to the deck’s vocabulary — and I increasingly felt like I was fiddling around the edges of the system anyway, adding bits and bobs that would only rarely be seen.

I wanted to expand the expressive capacity of the system in directions that would be more surprising and less effortful. And I also wanted the project to acknowledge the way that these iconographic systems are never just one person’s invention.

CLIP image generator attempting to illustrate a card about a person wearing a wreath of rosemary.

So this was the point at which I turned to machine learning models.

What I wanted out of the system wasn’t necessarily an easy fit for GPT-2, on the face of it. Language models that are heavily trained on loads of internet text tend to be good at quickly learning certain kinds of question-answering tasks and related challenges, where you’re giving them a pattern that they can reproduce and flesh out based on their internalised sense of the English language (and whatever facts they have embedded in there).

That meant that I could fairly easily train a GPT model to create outputs that structurally resembled the card-description pattern I had: ask for an image of what it looked like, and some lines of interpretation about it. And doing that might even cause the system to use some of its own prior training about Tarot — of which there is clearly quite a bit.

But it takes more training data to tune it to remember deeper associations and themes — like “salt is associated with archiving” or “venom is associated with drugs and bright colours.” It would have been a demanding exercise to write enough training data by hand to communicate all that — but, of course, the grammar generator meant I had training data available on demand.

To reinforce the theme ideas, but keep the generator from getting too completely stuck on the standard cadences of the Parrigues Tarot, I also fed it the entire text of Annals of the Parrigues as well.

The resulting generator frequently makes things that look a lot like the output of my grammar-based generator, like:

Five of Eggs: A figure no more than a quarter of the way up a vast staircase that ascends with endless zigzags through parklands and follies and abandoned statues and the ruins of churches and then to graveyards and then into copses where the old gods were worshipped and then into a rockbound wilderness. The fiture is looking for the President of the World.

GPT generator on the Five of Eggs

But sometimes it will spontaneously pop up a combo of rank and suit that don’t exist in the original — just as I hoped from the fantasy version of the deck. “Ghost” is a rank in the original corpus, but “Butterflock” is not a suit there:

Ghost of Butterflock: The Ghost of Butterflock represents a threat to the Querent that has yet to be addressed. It may be a living bein gthat has a permanent and irrevocable impact on the way the world is, or whether that worls is possible at all.

GPT generator with a Ghost card… but not in any known suit

Because it’s an ML model it can also be prompted for things like that explicitly — I can ask it for a description of, say, The Six of Lollipops and see what happens. (The same applies to new town names, if I want to get back a description of a Parrigues-style town.)

Purely as a side-effect, because the text of Annals of the Parrigues was included in training, it can also produce descriptions of towns — though again sometimes straying from the constraints of the original grammar. For instance, the original Annals of the Parrigues doesn’t have a “Children” category. It does have a New Conniswittle town, but the GPT-based model has taken a disturbing twist on that, by adding a section on the local child population:

New Conniswittle: The Sun Lies Black on the Ocean — the Calm Before the Storm

New Conniswittle lies on the very edge of the ocean, deep in the Isthmus of Garonne. The population are spread between two and three villages, living side by side in the same houses…

Children: If one gets too close to a single, very tiny child, the child will immediately seize on the offending individual, and force them away from the source of the sun. Avoid such encounters.

GPT generator, asked for a town description

This model also allows for a different cadence of co-authorship than the grammar generator of Annals of the Parrigues. There, if I wanted to add somethng to the text, I needed to put new nodes and expansion structures into the grammar, and then see what they would do — a loop requiring some minutes of work. And if the system created a text I almost liked, there wasn’t really any way to edit or fix it.

The GPT-model, by contrast, affords two kinds of interaction with its output, one much faster and the other much slower. The slower interaction is to re-train the entire model to incorporate new data; that’s necessary if I want to, for instance, introduce a new common feature of its card descriptions. If, say, I wanted card descriptions to potentially include a paragraph about the card’s age and previous owners, that would need new data and retraining — and depending on how I approached it, that data might need to first be introduced to the generative grammar, then a bunch of generated examples produced, then those examples fed into the training process.

The fast iteration, though, is much more like interact with a human writer who just needs a lot of editing. GPT produces new text in response to a prompt, a few lines or a paragraph of text. It then adds more text that it finds most probable to follow from that introduction.

That means that if the GPT produces something I almost like, but not quite, I can keep the bit I did like and use it as a prompt again, perhaps with a new random seed.

Interacting with it that way gets me to examples like this, where the italic text is generated by the model, and the non-italic text is added by me to prompt additional information. The model introduces the ideal of the Fancy Dining restaurant that will make use of guest-provided foodstuffs; I responded in a way that prompted an example.

The model suggests that the tuna fish is displayed on a pedestal for the Duchess of Unthinking Insects; I think it was not unreasonable of me to wonder who exactly she might be.

Lower Silesse
Coffee and Salt — The Spokesman’s Ladder…

Fancy Dining: The food in this place is bad, but the proprietors at the restaurant Giant Hokkaido Pork appear delighted to make use of the amenities that we bring to their tables.

One day we asked them to prepare a freshly-caught tuna for consumption with chocolates. After that the tuna would not die of asphyxiation, so the chef decided to display it on a pedestal in honor of the Duchess of Unthinking Insects.\footnote{In local belief, the Duchess of Unthinking Insects is associated with celibacy and cold indifference to procreation. We suppose that the Duchess must be to blame for the delicacy of these tuna preparations, as they were made with methods that make the tuna unreasonably fresh.} With the pedestal of tuna displayed at the centre of the table, we instead dined on dried mouse meat and putrescent root.

GPT generator, with some very strange ideas about fine dining

Drilling into the more surprising output like this is fun, and produces text sequences that are very unlike the tuning data. But it also gets further from what the model was trained to do. If I want the system to be able to consistently produce a lot of commentary on specific-yet-Parrigues-appropriate dining experiences, I’d eventually want to re-train it.

So interacting with this model as a collaborator is all about pushing it just to the edge of its comfort zone. And asking just what it meant about those Unthinking Insects.

July 16, 2021

The Digital Antiquarian

And Onward to 1995…

by Jimmy Maher at July 16, 2021 04:42 PM

No new article this week, folks. Sorry about that! It’s the usual story of a five-Friday month and a chance for me to catch my breath. I’ll have one for you next week.

In lieu of a proper article, some administrative announcements, plus a taster of what will be coming down the pipe in the months to come:

The especially attentive among you have doubtless noticed that we crossed the border into 1995 with my last piece. That means a new slate of ebooks for 1994, the year just finished. As always, their existence is thanks to Richard Lindner. In fact, he’s been extra busy this time: we’ve also put together an ebook gathering all of the Infocom articles, something a number of you have asked me for from time to time. It begins with Will Crowther and Don Woods’s Adventure, that necessary prelude to the Infocom story, and continues all the way through my relatively recent series on the resurrection of the Z-Machine and Graham Nelson’s creation of the Inform programming language for making new games in the Infocom spirit; that seemed to me an appropriately hopeful note to end on. You’ll find Richard Lindner’s email address inside all of the ebooks. If you enjoy them, please think about dropping him a line to thank him.

In other news, I did one of my rare podcast interviews a few weeks ago, with the nice folks from The Video Game History Foundation. The subject was the game-content controversy of the early 1990s and the three enduring institutions that came out of it: the Interactive Digital Software Association (now known as the Entertainment Software Association), the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, and the E3 trade show. I’m definitely a better writer than I am an on-air personality, but perhaps some of you will enjoy it nevertheless.

The coverage to come in the immediate future will be quite graphic-adventure-heavy, as we’re now getting into the genre’s last big boom. Rest assured that I haven’t given up on other genres; they’re just in a slight lull.

  • My next article will deal with The Dig, LucasArts’s second adventure game of 1995 — and what a tortured tale that one is!
  • Then we’ll move on to a very eventful and profitable era at Sierra, with special coverage reserved for the second Gabriel Knight game.
  • This was the year when the Interactive Fiction Renaissance really took flight, with the very first IF Competition and a downright stunning number of other big, rich games released. If you’re an old-school Infocom fan who hasn’t yet tried these games, you might just find yourself in heaven if you give them a chance, as they’re very much in the Infocom spirit, and written and implemented every bit as well.
  • We’ll continue to follow the story of Legend Entertainment in some detail, looking at both of their 1995 releases.
  • We’ll find time for The Dark Eye and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, a couple of moody, artsy adventure games with some very interesting personalities behind them.
  • We’ll look at some more attempts to bring full-motion-video interactive movies to the masses, with unusual and sometimes risque subject matter: titles like Voyeur and In the First Degree.
  • We’ll dive into the short and rather disappointing history of Boffo Games, a partnership between Steve Meretzky and Mike Dornbrook that brought us Meretzky’s final adventure game.
  • We’ll backtrack a bit to cover the story of New World Computing and the Might and Magic CRPG franchise, which will set the stage for frightfully addictive strategy game Heroes of Might and Magic.
  • We’ll examine McKenzie & Co., a noble if somewhat confused attempt by a new studio called Her Interactive to make an adventure game that “girls will love!”
  • The big non-gaming story waiting in the wings is that of the World Wide Web, which began breaking into the public consciousness in a big way during 1995. I’ll try to do it justice via a multi-part series that will be slotted into all of the above… somewhere.

If you have a favorite game from 1995 that isn’t listed above, don’t panic. I always shuffle things around a bit for the sake of storytelling. I promise, for example, that Blizzard Entertainment will get their due a little later, as will the debut of Microsoft Windows 95, a truly momentous event in the history of both computer gaming and consumer computing as a whole. Of course, I’m always interested in hearing your suggestions of topics you think would be interesting, although I can’t guarantee that I’ll act on all of them. (Those I decline to pursue are generally the ones which I just don’t feel I have the requisite background and/or level of passion to turn into good articles. Believe me, it’s not you, it’s me.) And if you have a line on a valuable historical source — or if you happen to be one yourself — I’m always eager to hear from you.

And now for my obligatory annual fund-raising pitch: if you like what I do here and haven’t yet signed up to become a Patreon supporter, please think about doing so (assuming of course that your personal finances allow it). Your support will help ensure that this project can keep going for a long time to come. The same naturally goes for The Analog Antiquarian, this site’s alternate-week counterpart. (We’re nearing the end of the Alexandria story there, and will soon be making a brief sojourn in Rhodes before tackling the long arc of China’s history.)

Thanks so much for reading and helping out in all the different ways you do. See you next week!

Zarf Updates

I see they called it Steam Deck

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at July 16, 2021 01:06 AM

I wrote about Valve's rumored portable a couple of months ago, when the rumors surfaced. Now we see the thing! It is called the Steam Deck.
The point is that the Switch is super-duper-popular, but it only runs Switch games. The iPhone is super-duper-popular, but it only runs iOS games. Your regular gaming PC isn't portable, but it can run all games (except for a few console exclusives, but whatever). Fill the gap.
I don't have any particular clue, but this seems like an obvious winner move on Valve's part. In my earlier post I talked about wanting a portable device for quickie games -- puzzlers, micro-roguelikes, small narrative games. That's what this is. I'm not going to play giant immersive adventures on it. I'm going to play little things while I eat lunch.
Possible pitfalls for the Steam Deck? It's not cheap. It's heavier and bulkier than the Switch. The battery life can't possibly match Apple's vertical engineering. Valve is trying to support every possible game interface (thumbsticks, trackpads, touchscreen); at least one of those will probably suck. (Cough cough trackpads.) The GPU can't melt tungsten blocks, which means the noisy people will hate it. And Steam needs to trim their storefront down into something that makes sense to casual players on a small screen.
Doesn't matter. The wide-open Steam ecosystem is the selling point. I think that will be sufficient. As I said, I will go out of my way to make sure Meanwhile is a joy to play on it.
"But the Steam Machine flopped!" Okay look. The Steam Machine -- a custom Linux gaming box -- had no selling point over a "regular" Windows gaming box. It had fewer games. The hardware wasn't inherently better or cheaper. You saved the cost of a Win10 license, but that's marginal. As a replacement for the (huge, established) "buy a PC" gaming market, the Steam Machine had no leverage.
The Steam Deck is a new market. It's not a replacement for anything. There is no established line of Windows-compatible gaming portables. People who want that form factor have either a Switch or nothing, and this has way more games than the Switch. (I'm sure you'll be able to stick an Itch.IO client on it too.)
Also, Linux portability is way past where it was in 2015. Valve's developer page says that "most [Windows] games work out of the box" thanks to Proton. (Proton is basically WINE tuned for Steam games.) Developers will have to test on Linux, but Valve is betting that a burgeoning Steam Deck market will push most of them into it.
As I said, it's a smart move. If it works, it sets up a world where Windows and Linux are equivalent gaming platforms -- developers will support both and players just won't care. Then Valve will be in a position to relaunch the desktop Steam Machine. Right? No more MS tax, no more MS ads in the start menu, no more MS redesigning the UI every few years. Just two thumbsticks and a screen that plays games.
So, anyhow, yeah. I'm going to preorder a Steam Deck tomorrow. Maybe it'll all fall down again, but it's my fun-money. And Meanwhile will be well-tested on it, at least.
(I'll make sure Hadean Lands runs too. But a seven-inch screen with a virtual keyboard might not be ideal for parser IF. I'm still working on redesigning the parser model from the bottom up, sorry...)

July 15, 2021

Emily Short

Mid-July Link Assortment

by Emily Short at July 15, 2021 09:41 PM


Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that over the last year and a half, a lot of these posts have been signed “Mort Short” rather than “Emily.” This is because, for a lot of the pandemic, I haven’t had the time and energy to guarantee that the link assortment would happen on time twice a month.

But knowing how much it mattered to me to maintain the community support, my brother stepped up to help draft and schedule posts. He worked with me to keep the load as light as possible: often I’d forward him email or point him at items of interest online, and he’d pull together event dates, images, links, and summary text for me to review before it all went live.

He’s now stepped back again for the time being, but I wanted to acknowledge the kindness.


July 28 is the next meetup of the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction.

July 31 is the deadline to vote in ParserComp. There are a bunch of people currently writing reviews of these games.

August 7 is the next SF Bay interactive fiction meetup.

Programming Languages and Interactive Entertainment is a 2-day workshop running alongside the AIIDE conference. Paper submissions are due by August 12, and the event itself will be October 11-12. This workshop also has a “conversation starters” track, where people are encouraged to submit materials to spur discussion groups. Demos of languages are also welcome. If you’re working on a domain-specific language for interactive fiction development, this might be a place to share what you’re working on.

September 1 is the deadline to register as an author for IF Comp, and the games themselves will be due September 28. This year, unusually, there is a move so that authors participating in the competition may also act as judges: this rules change may not be permanent, but it’s an experiment this year to help accommodate the growing number of authors and make sure games are getting enough voters.


Here’s a fun interview with inkle about the development of Overboard!


I know I’m constantly linking these, but Aaron Reed’s series 50 Years of Text Games continues to be excellent, and is now up to 1996 with Andrew Plotkin’s So Far.


Mr Pages, from the Mask of the Rose art (Failbetter Games)

This month, I also published a blog post on Failbetter’s blog about character behaviour development for Mask of the Rose.

The game is built in ink, and doesn’t have the programmatic sophistication of something like Versu. But Mask does have its own notion of a social model, used to resolve how characters respond to the player and whether they’re willing to do as you ask.

That response-resolution plays out in the immediate performance as well as the long-term outcome. Even where the lines of dialogue don’t change, the system’s ability to distinguish between “hesitant cooperation” and “happy cooperation” may feed into character expressions and pacing of delivery (since we can do things like automate a brief pause).

These are nuances that could be scripted by hand, in theory, but in practice we just wouldn’t have time to do it.

Books and Games

Not new in general, but new to me: this week I came across A. M. Sartor’s illustrated interactive work, including a couple of hauntingly-depicted poems and storybooks.

Choice of Games

Pugmire: Treasure of the Sea Dogs—Will you be a good dog, or a scurvy sea dog?

by Mary Duffy at July 15, 2021 03:42 PM

Pugmire: Treasure of the Sea DogsWe’re proud to announce that Pugmire: Treasure of the Sea Dogs, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the “Choice of Games” app. It’s 25% off until July 22nd!

Will you be a good dog, or a scurvy sea dog? In this swashbuckling furry adventure, when nefarious pirate cats murder your mentor and steal the famous Corgi pearls, you’ll chase the cats across the seas to fetch and recover the treasure!

Pugmire: Treasure of the Sea Dogs is a 100,000-word interactive nautical tail by Eddy Webb, 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.

“Be a good dog. Protect your home. Be loyal to those who are true.” — The Code of Man

Dogs, cats, and other uplifted species have inherited the world, untold centuries after the Ages of Man have ended. Now, in the kingdom of Pugmire, you are a recently graduated member of the Royal Pioneers of Pugmire, a group dedicated to traveling the more hazardous parts of the world to protect dogs in need, recovering lost knowledge and artifacts, and hunting down dangerous criminals. But when your trustee and patron Padraig Corgi is murdered by a dark wizard, and his family’s treasured pearls stolen, it’s up to you to recover the pearls and avenge his death!

You’ll travel with fellow pioneer Sonya Pyrenees, a fearless warrior who has turned her back on her family’s heritage in order to fight evil abroad, and Damian Borzoi, a ne’er-do-well ex-lover of Padraig’s who wants revenge while having a good time…ideally with someone else’s money. Together you explore the ruins of Earth with sword or spells in your paw!

As you strike out and make a name for yourself, and for your family, can you navigate the tense post-war politics between your kingdom and the enemy city-states of the cats? Will you embrace or reject the dogs who have cast off the leash of civilization? Are you a good dog, and will others see you as one?

• Play as male, female, or nonbinary; gay, straight, aromantic, or polyamorous.
• Explore a future-fantasy world of uplifted dogs, cats, birds, and others.
• Navigate the politics of both the kingdom of Pugmire and their rivals, the cats of the Monarchies of Mau.
• Choose any breed of dog you like, as well as from one of eight distinct callings.
• Sail on the Acid Sea, keeping your ship afloat while avoiding sea monsters and pirates.
• Fight or outsmart demons, zombies, and the kraken.

A pawesome adventure awaits!

We hope you enjoy playing Pugmire: Treasure of the Sea Dogs. 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.

Renga in Blue

Madness and the Minotaur: The Third Dimension

by Jason Dyer at July 15, 2021 12:41 AM

I’ve got a little better grip on the overall map, although I’m not done sorting it out yet.

I used this isometric drawing tool.

Blue parts represent “normal” rooms, grey rooms are the Maze where every room looks alike.

I made a guess (after the four maps from my last two posts) that the structure matched the image above, but when I got into one of the 3 by 8 layers by entering from a “small library” on the first floor I found myself confused and worried there was teleporting between floors or my concept was wrong altogether.

The passage marked “random” is what I’m referring to — it always seems to go to somewhere in the maze, but after some testing one of the consistent rooms was a room with a scepter, so that was the starting point I used. On one of the other random starts I found a goblet that I knew later was on the same floor, so I think that the teleporting on this exit really does only happen within the first floor, not between floors.

The map strongly resembled a 3 by 8 block without any barriers, and where every exit went up or down. I found out from testing that going up or down four times looped back to the room I started in, so I think the maze just wraps around.

However, it wasn’t quite a 3 by 8 block, and it certainly didn’t just loop east-west; going west repeatedly did not go back to the scepter. I puzzled for quite a while and found the author had just done a slight perturbation.

The green room is the scepter room, the exit to the northwest goes to a maze room on the bottom floor, and the west and east do wrap around.

One slight twist was all it took for me to be puzzled for over an hour. What I find interesting about this setup (other than it not matching any other maze we’ve looked at for All the Adventures) is how, from the author perspective, this seems like a minor change. I expect the author misestimated the level of difficulty. In practice, the small “offset shift” made it easy to become confused and made the maze quite difficult, a little like navigating a moebius strip.

Having said all that, I’m still not totally sure I have the floor mapped right, because of one slight detail: when entering the small library immediately before entering the maze, the game does a long pause; the sort of long pause that indicates something is being fiddled with from behind the scenes. Is the maze slightly tweaked before entering? Is the pause just from randomizing the south exit? Is there some other obscure technical reason for the pause? I still find it possible that everything I think I know is still wrong.

One last detail: it is easy to get confused reading the description since it recurs so often. Do you see that there’s no north exit? Remember that room descriptions just repeat if you can’t go a particular way, so it is possible to visually miss the lack of north, try to go north, add an entirely wrong space on the map, and go on a completely impossible tangent.

July 13, 2021

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Eddy Webb, Pugmire: Treasure of the Sea Dogs

by Mary Duffy at July 13, 2021 08:42 PM

Will you be a good dog, or a scurvy sea dog? In this swashbuckling furry adventure, when nefarious pirate cats murder your mentor and steal the famous Corgi pearls, you’ll chase the cats across the seas to fetch and recover the treasure!

Pugmire: Treasure of the Sea Dogs is a 100,000-word interactive nautical tail by Eddy Webb, author of Ratings War. I sat down with Eddy to talk about transferring the world of Pugmire to interactive fiction, and of course, pugs! Pugmire: Treasure of the Sea Dogs releases this Thursday, July 15th. You can play the first three chapters today.

I love the Pugmire world. Tell me how it came about, its origins, and all about the TTRPG this game comes from.

I’m glad you like it! That always means the world to me when I hear it.

The short version of Pugmire, for those who don’t know, is that it’s our world, but in the distant future. Humanity has gone… somewhere… and uplifted animals altered by technology are left behind to pick up the pieces. They view their mistaken archeology through a fantasy lens, so it’s kind of “Lord of the Rings” meets “Planet of the Apes,” but with dogs and cats.

The world partially came because, as a TTRPG designer, I knew I eventually wanted to make a fantasy game, but a lot of fantasy games are heavy on lore dumps or reliance on knowledge of other fantasy games. The other part came from a time when I was walking my two pugs at the time (Puck and Murray), and I started comparing their contrasting personalities to Dungeons & Dragons classes. When I got back home, I started playing with the idea of how far I could take that analogy. It turns out, quite a distance!

I did write and publish a short story in the world, but the editors asked me when the TTRPG would come out, so I quickly pitched the idea to my friends at Onyx Path Publishing, who eagerly greenlit the idea. It went on to a successful Kickstarter in 2015, it’s been reprinted a couple of times, and now there’s even a version in Japanese! I made the TTRPG to be familiar to fans of D&D, but also easy to approach for new gamers. So if people love the world in “Treasure of the Sea Dogs,” there’s a lot more to find at!

How does Treasure of the Sea Dogs fit into the larger canon of Pugmire?

As I started work on this novel, I was also working on the first big supplement for the TTRPG, “Pirates of Pugmire.” So as that book evolved, I went back and adjusted the novel to fit seamlessly into it. For example, the two central characters of Pirates of Pugmire (Sabu and Pally) have significant roles in this novel, and some small details in the novel get mentioned in PoP. I naturally had to take a few small liberties to make an interesting Choice of Games title, but I tried hard to make it as seamless as possible.

What inspired your anthropomorphic creatures? Is there a pug in your life? Can I see a picture if so?

There were two pugs in my life who were very inspirational during the initial creation of the game, and even get referenced in the novel. Murray, our black pug, appears as Seneschal Murra Pug, and his brother Puck briefly appears at King Puckington Pug. Luckily, the cover artist for the novel (Claudio Pozas) has also worked on a lot of Pugmire books, and I was able to hire him to make Pugmire-ized versions of them for my own personal use. They have both since passed on, but I’m always happy to share pictures of my boys!

This is a real departure from Ratings War, which I feel is one of our really underrated Choice of Games titles. Tell me what you’ve learned about narrative and choices since writing that game.

I’m glad that there are Ratings War fans out there! I still have a soft spot for that game, but I’ve learned a lot since then. For one thing I was never happy with the abrupt ending for Ratings War, so I worked hard on this to make sure the ending was more satisfying. Some of the beta readers had even more great insights, which helped refine that as well. But I also learned a lot more about how to make each choice compelling, even if they weren’t all deeply impactful. And I learned a lot from y’all! Choice of Games has really figured out what their audience likes and were able to articulate those details to me both at the start and throughout the process.

What else are you working on right now?

At the time I’m writing this I’m getting ready to launch the next big Pugmire Kickstarter for “Squeaks in the Deep”, featuring mice and rats, and there are a lot more Pugmire-related things happening in the background. I also do a lot of freelance work, most recently on the official Transformers TTRPG, as well as other tabletop games like Blackbirds and Trinity Continuum: Anima (a cyberpunk game that Ratings War fans might enjoy!). I’ve also been writing scripts now and then for Extra Credits, a YouTube show about game design. I try to keep everything I’m working on up at my professional website, so folks can head to and find everything I’ve worked on!

Renga in Blue

Madness and the Minotaur: The Two Manuals

by Jason Dyer at July 13, 2021 05:41 PM

As I alluded to in my last post, there are two manuals to this game, one for the original TRS-80 Color Computer version and one made a year later for the Dragon computers (for the European market, similar hardware to the Color Computer).

From World of Dragon.

I’ve already squeezed most of the juice out of the original manual except for a few tidbits:

  • The sprite (which I’ve met on the first floor) moves items randomly, but can’t do this in the “first floor room with music”. I have yet to find a first floor room with music.
  • JUMP can be reduced in effectiveness if you are carrying too much.
  • The lamp runs out of oil and is refillable.
  • The spell CROM can help if passages are blocked (and it is possible for an earthquake to block you in entirely).

However, the second manual includes different information! It reads as if the porters (Dragon Data Ltd.) decided the game was too ridiculously hard as-is and added some more pointers.

  • Spells are learned in rooms that “crackle with enchantment”. You learn the “first spell” by taking the food and the mushroom to the enchantment room on the first floor.
  • Actions, even important ones, can sometimes only randomly work, although important actions should only need repeating a few times.
  • Some passages will send you to random rooms “depending on circumstances”.
  • Monsters are killed by typing KILL MONSTER while holding the right objects (the object information comes from the Oracle).

There’s also a complete verb list; in addition to the standard ones there’s


The vast majority of gameplay centers around movement and getting items, so it’s good to know the exceptions like PLAY or TIE that might come up.

Having said all that, other than mapping part of the third and fourth floors, I still haven’t made much progress. Here’s what I have of the third floor:

Assuming everything is lined up the same as the previous maps, I’m missing the first row. Exits from the fifth row going south all led to a Maze (I think, all to the same Maze, but I’m not certain, so I haven’t mucked with that part of the map yet). I managed to make a full circle to a Lair of the Minotaur…

…but otherwise didn’t run across much. Going of a different direction rather than entering the lair led me to a room where magic kept pushing me out.

Usually when I’ve been told “a magic spell has pushed you back” I’ve been able to enter a room with enough persistence; trying to re-enter enough times and the magic doesn’t trigger. However, in this case, I tried many, many, times with no luck — I suspect a spell may be absolutely necessary to enter here (but possibly only on this random iteration of the map!)

It is also possible for magic to “greatly” push you, in which case you get teleported and not just pushed back, and usually lose an item while you’re at it.

Down from the minotaur lair I made it to a level that was just Maze, so I decided now was a good time to try mapping it (especially since I suspected I was dropped into a “regular” section and not randomly dropped somewhere).

The “long passage” to the right indicates things are likely a bit off, and the layout is made doubly weird by the southwest corner, where I realized when going south I wasn’t walking in a new location but rather teleported to an old one (I could confirm by dropping objects in those places and looping back around). More than that, the teleporting happens to at least two different rooms! The “depending on circumstances” from the manual about passages going to different places is coming to bite me here, since the circumstances as to why it goes to destination X vs. Y are very unclear; even if it turns out the choice is made by some object I’m holding, is that choice of object itself random, or is there some clear system of navigation I can use here?

Here the property wasn’t too painful, but on a later attempt to loop back to the minotaur lair I found one exit that had given me progress before suddenly teleported me instead.

That is, going east from the Dark Chamber normally is the path to the lair, but I got zapped to the maze instead for no apparent reason.

I decided before trying to finish my play session I needed to try getting the first spell, that is, getting the food and mushroom as suggested in the manual and finding the spell room on the first floor. I failed even at this.

You see, I first made reloaded my save game where I made it down to the maze with a mushroom. I had found that you could JUMP PIT in the northwest corner to escape, and after some more convoluted pathing ran back up to the first floor. I didn’t have the food yet, but it had already generated on the first floor so I’d figure it’d be an easy matter of grabbing it and finally getting a puzzle solved. No dice.

I had lingered too long mapping: now nearly every passage I tried was blocked! The earthquakes that had been happening as I was playing, in real time, slowly were closing the map off, and it was impossible to continue. The earthquakes mean that the game is completely real-time, not just semi real-time; that is, it isn’t just speed in individual rooms that matters (like outrunning the fog) but over the entire game. Typing fast is going to be required.

I took another run, this time grabbing the food quickly and making a beeline for the third floor (which seems to always be where the mushroom is) but then I couldn’t get out! This was a variant where I couldn’t enter the lair (for reasons I already explained) and another passage going up that seemed to be a straight shot to the first floor had a “strong magic” that kept pushing me out. I eventually could get to the first floor but not while also holding the mushroom (as the magic knocked it out of my hands).

Even using an explicit hint from the manual as to what to do first, I haven’t yet been able to accomplish the task! I’m still going to avoid looking at the walkthrough (I need to try mapping the stranger parts of the maze first) but I predict it will almost be inevitable at some point.

July 09, 2021

Key & Compass Blog

New walkthroughs for July 2021

by davidwelbourn at July 09, 2021 04:42 PM

On Friday, July 9, 2021, I published new walkthroughs for the games and stories listed below and at IFDB! 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.

(Yes, this is much earlier in the month than usual. I’m moving at the end of the month, and I don’t even have a new place to move to yet, so I wanted to get the month’s batch of walkthroughs out as early as I could so I’d have the rest of the month free for home-hunting and box-packing. Hopefully, I’ll find a new place and get back up and running without too much of a break, but it’s also possible I’ll fall off the grid and won’t be anywhere for a while. Wish me luck!)

Grooverland (2021) by Mathbrush

In this large fantasy puzzle game based on the works of Chandler Groover, you play as Lily Lee. It’s your 11th birthday and you’re the Queen of Grooverland for a day! The amusement park has set up several surprises just for you, and they’ve also given you a quest: find all the pieces of your regalia before sunset for your coronation in the Queen’s Castle. The Mirrored Queen and the Scarlet Empress are waiting for you.

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

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps

The Planet of the Infinite Minds (2000) by Alfredo Garcia

In this whimsical puzzlefest where science is magic, you play as a librarian leaving the funfair. There, a gypsy girl tells you a crackpot story about you both being Jah-cuez-ah, or the Infinite Minds, aliens who can do anything. But after an unconvincing demonstration of her power, she leaves and locks you inside her caravan! Bother. This is going to be an adventure, isn’t it?

This game was an entry in IF Comp 2000 where it took 19th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps

Jon Doe – Wildcard Nucleus (2019) by Olaf Nowacki

In this homage to James Bond, you play as Jon Doe, an MI5 operative. Your new assignment is to investigate the suspicious death of Edulard, an elderly scientist at Wildcard Inc and a secret informant. Your leads are the scarred and monocle-wearing Adolf von Bolzplatz, who is Wildcard’s CEO, and Edulard’s beautiful daughter, Valerie, who is engaged to Bolzplatz.

This game was an entry in IF Comp 2019 where it tied for 51st place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps

Martha’s Big Date (2008) by Mary Potts

This game is based on a fanfiction series written for Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. You play as Martha Jeraldine Kent, teenaged daughter of Superman, and you need to get ready for your big date with Troy.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Charming (2018) by Kaylah Facey

In this game, you play as a young witch practicing for her coming of age test in the Pentacle Chamber. Unfortunately, your ventus spell became a tornado and smashed up most of the room! How can you, the worst witch in West Witchington, fix the mess — and learn the required spells for the test — before midnight?

This game was an entry in IF Comp 2018 where it took 24th place. At the 2018 XYZZY Awards, it was a finalist in the Best Individual NPC category (for Arthur the cat).

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

In The House of Professor Evil: The HAM HOUSE (2006-2008) by S. John Ross

In this small silly game, you play as someone who wants to escape the house of Professor Evil, who now lies dead on the floor. He planned to make a ham rule the universe, but forget about him. You crave ham. How long has it been since you ate a really good ham?

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

A Pilgrim (2020) by Caleb Wilson (as “Abandoned Pools”)

In this tiny spooky game, you play as Absalome Pilcrow, an ancient of Panzitoum. You’re exhausted from a long day of walking and stop in a grove of poison pine. Perhaps you can sleep in the low building just off the path to the north.

This story was entered in the La Petite Mort English division of Ectocomp 2020 where it took 2nd place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

A Quiet Evening at Home (2010) by Ruth Alfasso (writing as Anonymous)

In this slice of life, you play as a homeowner returning home after a day of work. You have an urgent need to use the bathroom at first, but the rest of your evening is more relaxing. Exercise your hamster, make dinner, take out the trash, play with your laptop, then go to bed.

This game was an entry in IF Comp 2010 where it took 25th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Journey from an Islet (2001) by Mario Becroft

In this small game, you play as an adventurer. You have traveled long and far and have now fallen onto an island in the darkness before dawn. How will you escape from there and continue your journey?

This game was an entry in IF Comp 2001 where it took 12th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

July 08, 2021

The People's Republic of IF

July meetup (online)

by zarf at July 08, 2021 02:43 PM

The Boston IF meetup for July will be Wednesday, July 28, 6:30 pm Eastern time.

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

Note: Nick Montfort is checking into the possibility of returning to in-person meetups at MIT. This may be possible for September. (Our August meeting will defininitely still be online.)

We don’t want to lose track of our online friends, so we’re considering running both kinds of meetups in the future, perhaps alternating. What are your thoughts? Please let us know on our mailing list.

July 04, 2021

Z-Machine Matter

The Reincarnationist Papers

by Zack Urlocker at July 04, 2021 06:47 PM

Reincarnationist papers

Tech executive D. Eric Maikranz hit the jackpot with his novel The Reincarnationist Papers which was made into the film Infinite starring Mark Wahlberg. Maikranz self-published the novel back in 2009 with an innovative crowd-sourced reward to anyone who helped him land a film deal. By chance a copy of the book was discovered in a hostel in Nepal by Rafi Crohn, who worked at a Hollywood production company. After many twists and turns over ten years, it was turned into an explosive over-the-top sci-fi adventure. I first heard about Maikranz' publishing journey on the Bestseller Experiment podcast hosted by authors Mark Stay and Mark Desvaux

Maikranz's novel asks the question: "What if... you could live forever?" I mean, what could be more captivating than that?

The Reincarnationist Papers is a stunning and original first novel that exposes you to a fantastical world of people who live forever via reincarnation. You can't help but wonder how you would cope with the situations the narrator faces, whether it's his troubled life before he understands his reincarnations or the temptations of hedonism, lust and greed. If you liked Ken Grimwood's Replay, you will find this equally intriguing. It's a breezy summertime read, perfect for airport travel or hanging out at a beach.

Maikranz is working on a sequel, which will be a welcome follow-up to the slightly enigmatic ending. 

The book is published by Blackstone and is also available on Audible.

July 02, 2021

The Digital Antiquarian

Full Throttle

by Jimmy Maher at July 02, 2021 04:41 PM

The adventure makers at LucasArts had a banner 1993. One of the two games they released that year, Day of the Tentacle, was the veritable Platonic ideal of a cartoon-comedy graphic adventure; the other, Sam and Max Hit the Road, was merely very, very good.

Following a quiet 1994 on the adventure front, LucasArts came roaring back in the spring of 1995 with Full Throttle, a game that seemed to have everything going for it: it was helmed by Tim Schafer, one of the two lead designers from Day of the Tentacle, and boasted many familiar names on the art and sound front as well. Yet it wasn’t just a retread of what had come before. This interactive biker movie had a personality very much its own. Many soon added it to the ranks of LucasArts’s most hallowed classics.

Sadly, though, I’m not one of these people…

It’s easy — perhaps a bit too easy — to read LucasArts’s first post-DOOM adventure game as a sign of the changes that id Software’s shareware shooter wrought on the industry after its debut in December of 1993. Action and attitude were increasingly in, complexity and cerebration more and more out. One can sense throughout Full Throttle its makers’ restlessness with the traditional adventure form — their impatience with convoluted puzzles, bulging inventories, and all of the other adventure staples. They just want to have some loud, brash fun. What other approach could they possibly bring to a game about outlaw motorcycle gangs?

The new attitude is initially bracing. Consider: after a rollicking credits sequence that plays out behind over-driven, grungy rock and roll, you gain control of your biker avatar outside a locked bar. Your first significant task is to get inside the bar. Experimenting with the controls, you discover that you have just three verb icons at your disposal: a skull (which encompasses eyes for seeing and a mouth for talking), a raised fist, and a leather boot. Nevertheless, the overly adventure-indoctrinated among you may well spend quite some time trying to be clever before you realize that the solution to this first “puzzle” is simply to kick the door in. Full Throttle is a balm for anyone who’s ever seethed with frustration at being told by an adventure game that “violence isn’t the answer to this one.” In this game, violence — flagrant, simple-minded, completely non-proportional violence — very often is the answer.

But let’s review the full premise of the game before we go further. Full Throttle takes place in the deserts of the American Southwest during a vaguely dystopian future — albeit not, Tim Schafer has always been at pains to insist, a post-apocalyptic one. You play Ben, a stoic tough guy of few words in the Clint Eastwood mold, the leader of a biker gang who call themselves the Polecats. “The reason bikers leaped out at me is that they have a whole world associated with them,” said Schafer in a contemporary interview, “but it’s not a commonplace environment. It’s a fantastic, bizarre, wild, larger-than-life environment.” And indeed, everything and everyone in this game are nothing if not larger than life.

Ben, the hero of Full Throttle.

The plot hinges on Corley Motors, the last manufacturer of real motorcycles in the country — for the moment, anyway: a scheming vice president named Adrian Ripburger is plotting to seize control of the company from old Malcolm Corley and start making minivans instead. When the Polecats get drawn into Ripburger’s web, Ben has to find a way to stop him in order to save his gang, his favorite model of motorcycle, and the free-wheeling lifestyle he loves. The story plays out as a series of boisterous set-pieces, a (somewhat) interactive Mad Max mixed with liberal lashings of The Wild One. Although I’m the farthest thing from a member of the cult of Harley Davidson — I’m one of those tree huggers who wonders why it’s even legal to noise-pollute like some of those things to do — I can recognize and enjoy a well-done pastiche when I see one, and Full Throttle definitely qualifies.

Certainly none of this game’s faults are failures of presentation. As one might expect of the gaming subsidiary of Lucasfilm, LucasArt’s audiovisual people were among the best in the industry. They demonstrated repeatedly that the label “cartoon-comedy graphic adventure” could encompass a broader spectrum of aesthetics than one might first assume. While Day of the Tentacle was inspired by the classic Looney Tunes shorts, and Sam and Max Hit the Road by the underground comic books of the 1980s, Full Throttle‘s inspirations were the post-Watchmen world of graphic novels and trendy television: the game’s hyperactive jump cuts, oblique camera angles, and muddy color palette were all the rage on the MTV of Generation Grunge.

In fact, Schafer tried to convince Soundgarden, one of the biggest rock bands of the time, to let him use their music for the soundtrack — only to be rejected when their record company realized that “we weren’t going to give them any money” for the privilege, as he wryly puts it. Instead he recruited a San Francisco band known as the Gone Jackals, who were capable of a reasonable facsimile of Soundgarden’s style, to write and perform several original songs for the game. Bone to Pick, their 1995 album which included the Full Throttle tracks, would sell several hundred thousand copies in its own right on the back of the game’s success. All of this marked a significant moment in the mainstreaming of games, a demonstration that they were no longer siloed off in their own nerdy pop-culture ghetto but were becoming a part of the broader media landscape. The days when big pop-music acts would lobby ferociously to have their work selected for a big game’s in-world radio station were not that far away.

The Gone Jackals. Like so many rock bands who haven’t quite made it, they always seem to be trying just a bit too hard in their photographs…

Full Throttle‘s writing too has all the energy and personality one could ask for. If the humor is a bit broad and obvious, that’s only appropriate; Biker Ben is not exactly the subtle type. The voice acting and audio production in general are superb, as was the norm for LucasArts thanks to their connections to Hollywood and Skywalker Sound. Particular props must go to a little-known character actor named Roy Conrad, who delivers Ben’s lines in a perfect gravelly deadpan, and to Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame, who, twelve years removed from his last gig as Luke Skywalker, was enjoying a modest career renaissance in cartoons and an ever-increasing number of videogames. He shows why he was so in-demand as a voice actor here, tearing into the role of the villain Ripburger with a relish that belies his oft-wooden performances as an actor in front of cameras.

The sweetest story connected with Full Throttle is that of Roy Conrad, a mild-mannered advertising executive who decided to reconnect with his boyhood dream of becoming an actor at age 45 in 1985, and went on to secure bit parts in various television shows and movies. As you can see, he looked nothing like a leader of a motorcycle gang, but his voice was so perfect for the role of Ben that LucasArts knew they’d found their man as soon as they heard his audition tape. Conrad died in 2002.

But for all its considerable strengths, Full Throttle pales in comparison to the LucasArts games that came immediately before it. It serves as a demonstration that presentation can only get you so far in a game — that a game is meant to be played, not watched. And alas, actually playing Full Throttle is too often not much fun at all.

The heart of Full Throttle‘s problem is a mismatch between the type of game it wants to be and the type of game its technology allows it to be. To be sure, LucasArts tried mightily to adapt said technology to Tim Schafer’s rambunctious rock-and-roll vision. They grafted onto SCUMM (“Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion“), their usual adventure-game engine, a second, action-oriented engine called INSANE (“INteractive Streaming ANimation Engine”), which had been developed for 1993’s Star Wars: Rebel Assault, a 3D vehicular rail shooter. This allowed them to interrupt the staid walking-around-talking-and-solving-puzzles parts of Full Throttle with blasts of pure action. “We didn’t think it would fly if we told players they were a bad-ass biker,” says LucasArts animator Larry Ahern, “and then made them sit back and watch every time Ben did a cool motorcycle stunt, and then gave them back the cursor when it was time for him to run errands. With Full Throttle, I think the combination [of action and traditional adventure elements] made a lot of sense, but I think the implementation just didn’t live up to the idea.”

It most definitely did not: the action mini-games range from tedious to excruciating. Schafer elected to partially reverse LucasArts’s longstanding “no deaths and no dead ends” policy, sacrosanct since 1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island, by allowing the former if not the latter in Full Throttle. This decision was perhaps defensible in light of the experience he was hoping to create, but boy, can it get exhausting in practice. The second-to-worst mini-game is an interminable sequence inspired by the 1991 console hit Road Rash, in which you’re riding on your motorcycle trying to take out other bikers by using exactly the right weapon on each of them, wielded with perfect timing. Failure on either count results in having to start all over from the beginning. To be fair, the mini-game looks and sounds great, with electric guitars squealing in the background and your chopper’s straight pipes throbbing under you like a 21-gun salute every few seconds. It’s just no fun to play.

LucasArts sound man Clint Bajakian captures the sound of a straight-piped Harley. Full Throttle was the first LucasArts game, and one of the first in general, to have an “all-digital” soundtrack: i.e., all of the sound in the game, including all of the music, was sampled from the real world rather than being synthesized on the computer. This was another significant moment in the evolution of computer games.

The very worst of the action mini-games, on the other hand, is a rare moment where even Full Throttle‘s aesthetics fail it. Near the end of the game, you find yourself in a demolition derby that for my money is the worst single thing ever to appear in any LucasArts adventure. The controls, which are apparently meant to simulate slipping and sliding in the mud of a fairground arena, are indeed impossible to come to grips with. Worse, you have no idea what you’re even trying to accomplish. The whole thing is an elaborate exercise in reading the designers’ mind to set up an ultra-specific, ultra-unlikely chain of happenstance. I shudder to think how long one would have to wrestle with this thing to stumble onto the correct ordering of events. (Personally, I used a walkthrough — and it still took me quite some time even once I knew what I was trying to do.) Most bizarrely of all, the mini-game looks like a game from five or eight years prior to this one, as if someone pulled an old demo down off the shelf and just threw it on the CD. It’s a failure on every level.

The demolition derby, also known as The Worst LucasArts Thing Ever. No, really: it’s incomprehensibly, flabbergastingly bad.

All told, the action mini-games manage to accomplish the exact opposite of what they were intended to do: instead of speeding the story along and making it that much more exciting, they kill its momentum dead.

What, then, of the more traditional adventure-game sections threaded between the action mini-games and the many lengthy cut-scenes? Therein lies a somewhat more complicated tale.

Some parts of Full Throttle are competently, even cleverly designed. The afore-described opening sequence, for example, is a textbook lesson in conveying theme and expectation to the player through interactivity. It teaches her that any convoluted solutions she might conceive to the dilemmas she encounters are not likely to be the correct ones, and that this will be an unusually two-fisted style of adventure game, admitting of possibilities that its more cerebral cousins would never even consider. The first extended adventure section in the game sends you into a dead-ender town in search of a welding torch, a set of handlebars, and some gasoline, all of which you need to get your damaged bike back on the road after Ripburger’s goons have sabotaged it. The game literally tells you that you need these things and waits for you to go out and find them; it doesn’t attempt to be any trickier than that. And this is fine, being thoroughly in keeping with its ethos.

But threaded among the straightforward puzzles are a smattering that fail to live up to LucasArts’s hard-won reputation for always giving their players a fair shake. At one point in that first town, you have to trigger an event, then run and hide behind a piece of scenery. But said scenery isn’t implemented as an object that might bring it to your attention, and it’s very difficult to discover that you can walk behind it at all. In some adventure games, the ones that promise to challenge you at every turn and make you poke around to discover every single possibility, this puzzle might fit the design brief. Here, however, it’s so at odds with the rest of the game that it strikes me more as a design oversight than a product of even a mistaken design intent. Such niggles continue to crop up as you play further, and continue to pull you out of the fiction. One particularly infamous “puzzle” demands that Ben kick a wall over and over at random to discover the one tiny spot that makes something happen.

Do you see that thing shaped a bit like a gravestone just where the streetlight is pointing? It turns out you can walk behind that. Crazy world, isn’t it?

As time goes on, Full Throttle comes to rely more and more on one of my least favorite kinds of adventure puzzles: the pseudo-action sequence, where the designer has a series of death-defying action-movie events, improvisations, and coincidences in mind, and you have to muddle your way through by figuring just how he wants his bravura scene to play out. In other words, you have to fail again and again, using your failures as a way to slowly deduce what the designer has in mind. Fail-until-you-succeed gameplay can feel rewarding in some circumstances, but not when it’s just an exercise in methodically trying absolutely everything until something works, as it tends to be here. The final scene of the game, involving a gigantic cargo plane teetering on the edge of a cliff with a staggering quantity of explosives inside, becomes the worst of all of them by adding tricky timing to the equation.

It’s in places like this one that the mismatch between the available technology and the desired experience really comes to the fore. In a free-roaming 3D engine with the possibility of emergent behavior, the finale could be every bit as rousing as Schafer intended it to be. But in a point-and-click adventure engine whose world simulation goes little deeper than the contents of your inventory… not so much. Executing, say, a death-defying leap out of the teetering plane’s cargo hold on your motorcycle rather loses its thrill when said leap is the only thing the designer has planned for you to do — the only thing you’re allowed to do other than getting yourself killed. The leap in question is the designer’s exciting last-minute gambit, not yours; you’re just the stooge bumbling and stumbling to recreate it. So, you begin to wish that all of the game’s action sequences were proper action sequences — but then you remember how very bad the action-oriented mini-games that do exist actually are, and you have no idea what you want, other than to be playing a different, better game.

What happened? How did a game with such a promising pedigree turn out to be so underwhelming? There is no single answer, but rather a number of probable contributing factors.

One is simply the way that games were sold in 1995. Without its more annoying bits, Full Throttle would offer little more than two hours of entertainment. There’s room for such a game today — a game that could be sold for a small price but in big quantities through digital storefronts. In 1995, however, a game that cost this much to make could reach consumers only as a premium-priced boxed product; other methods of distribution just didn’t exist yet. And consumers who paid $30, $40, or $50 for a game had certain expectations as to how long it should occupy them, as was only reasonable. Thus the need to pad its length to make it suit the realities of the contemporary marketplace probably had more than a little something to do with Full Throttle‘s failings.

Then there’s the Star Wars factor. Many of the people who worked for LucasArts prior to 1993 have commented on what a blessing in disguise it was for George Lucas’s own games studio not to be able to make Star Wars games, a happenstance whose roots can be found in the very first contract Lucas signed to make Star Wars toys just before the release of the very first film in 1977. When another series of accidents finally brought the rights back to Lucasfilm, and by extension to LucasArts, in 1992, the latter jumped on Star Wars with a vengeance, releasing multiple games under the license every year thereafter. This was by no means an unmitigatedly bad thing; at least one of their early Star Wars games, TIE Fighter, is an unimpeachable classic, on par in its own way with any LucasArts adventure game, while many of them evince a free-spirited joie de vivre that’s rather been lost from the franchise’s current over-saturated, overly Disneyfied personification. But it did lead in time to a decline in attention to the non-Star Wars graphic adventures that had previously been the biggest part of LucasArts’s identity. So, it was probably not entirely a coincidence that the LucasArts adventure arm peaked in 1993, just as the Star Wars arm was getting off the ground. In the time between Sam and Max Hit the Road and Full Throttle, adventure games suddenly became a sideline for LucasArts, with perhaps a proportional drop-off in their motivation to make everything in a game like Full Throttle just exactly perfect.

Another factor, one which I alluded to earlier, was the general sense in the industry that the market was now demanding faster paced, more immediate and visceral experiences. And, I rush to add, games with those qualities are fine in themselves. It’s just that that set of design goals may not have been a good pairing with an engine and a genre known for a rather different set of qualities.

These generalized factors were accompanied by more specific collisions of circumstance. When studying the development history of Day of the Tentacle, one comes away with the strong impression that Tim Schafer was the creator most enamored with the jokes and the goofy fiction of the game, while his partner Dave Grossman obsessed mostly over its interactive structure and puzzle design. Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that when Schafer struck out on his own we got a game with a sparkling fictional presentation and lousy interactive elements.

Full Throttle was not made on the cheap. Far from it: it was the first LucasArts adventure to cost over $1 million to produce. But the money that was thrown at it wasn’t accompanied by a corresponding commitment to the process of making good games. Its development was instead chaotic, improvised rather than planned; Tim Schafer personally took on the titles of Writer, Designer, and Project Leader, and seems to have been well out of his depth on at least the last of them. As a result, the game, which had originally been slated for a Christmas 1994 release, fell badly behind schedule and over budget, and what Larry Ahern describes as a “huge section” of it had to be cut out before all was said and done. (Another result of Full Throttle‘s protracted creation was its use of vanilla VGA graphics, which made it something of an anachronism in the spring of 1995, what with the rest of the industry’s shift to higher-resolution SVGA; fortunately, LucasArts’s artists were so talented that their work couldn’t be spoiled even by giant pixels.) During the making of Day of the Tentacle, the design team had regularly brought ordinary folks in off the street to play the latest build and give their invaluable feedback. This didn’t happen for Full Throttle. Instead there was just a mad rush to complete and release a game that nobody had ever really tried to play cold. Alas, this is an old story in the history of adventure games, and a more depressingly typical one than that of the carefully built, meticulously tested game. The only difference on this occasion was that it hadn’t used to be a story set in LucasArts’s offices.

Still, LucasArts paid little price at this time for departing from their old ethos that Design Matters. Full Throttle was greeted by glowing reviews from magazine scribes who were dazzled by its slick, hip presentation, so different from anything else on the gaming scene. For example, the usually thoughtful Charles Ardai of Computer Gaming World gave it four and a half out of five stars even as he acknowledged that “its weakest point is its gameplay.” For all that this might strike us today as the very definition of judging a book by its cover, such formulations were par for the course during the madcap multimedia frenzy of the mid-1990s. Tim Schafer claims that the game sold an eventual 1 million copies, enough to make MTV seriously consider turning it into a television cartoon.

Many of those buyers remember Full Throttle fondly today, although a considerable number of naysayers with complaints similar to the ones I’ve aired in this article have also joined the discussion since the game was remastered and re-released in 2017. It seems to me that attitudes toward this game in particular tend to neatly delineate two broad categories of adventure players. There are those who aren’t overly chuffed about puzzles and other issues of design, who consider a modicum of obtuseness to be almost an intrinsic part of the genre, and who thus don’t hesitate to reach for a walkthrough at the first sign of trouble. This is fair enough in itself; as I’ve said many times, there is no wrong way to play any game as long as you’re having fun. I, however, don’t tend to have much fun playing this way. I consider a good interactive design to be a prerequisite to a good game of any stripe. And when I reach for a walkthrough, I do so knowing I’m going to be angry afterward at either myself or the game. If it turns out to be a case of the latter… well, I’d rather just watch a movie.

And indeed, that has to be my final verdict on Full Throttle for those of you who share my own adventure-game predilections: just find yourself a video playthrough to watch, thereby to enjoy its buckets of style and personality without having to wrestle with all of the annoyances. If nothing else, Full Throttle makes for a fun cartoon. Pity about the gameplay.

(Sources: the book Full Throttle: Official Player’s Guide by Jo Ashburn; Computer Gaming World of November 1994 and August 1995; LucasArts customer newsletter The Adventurer of Winter 1994/1995 and Summer 1995; Retro Gamer 62; the “director’s commentary” from the 2017 re-release of Full Throttle. Online sources include interview with Tim Schafer by Celia Pearce and Chris Suellentrop.

A “remastered” version of Full Throttle is available for digital purchase.)

July 01, 2021

IFComp News

IFComp 2021 Now Accepting Intents & Entries

July 01, 2021 05:42 AM

Hey, hey! It’s July 1, and that means a new Interactive Fiction Competition season has arrived. Now through September 1 at midnight Eastern, the competition website is open for authors to declare their intent to enter this year’s competition. Entries are due September 28th.

Returning authors will notice some updates to the registration form, such as the ability to define the system used to develop web-based games. Additionally, there is now a more formal way of designating co-authors, which will allow them to participate in the Miss Congeniality side contest (a special authors-only voting pool to rate the work of other authors in the competition).

We’re also going to try a big experiment this year! Many members of our community have expressed concern about the increasingly smaller author-to-judge ratio, as more and more of you have been entering as authors these past few years.  In 2021, we will allow authors to also be judges. Yep, you read right: everyone can vote on (almost) all the games. Authors won’t be able to cast a vote for their own games, but they’ll be able to vote on everything else, and the Miss Congeniality side contest will be unchanged. This rule will be reviewed after the 2021 competition, with feedback sought from the community, prior to permanent adoption.

So, if you’ve been itchin’ to enter, visit to register.

Zarf Updates

Daedalian Depths

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at July 01, 2021 02:58 AM

Interested in a puzzle book of classic form? Try Daedalian Depths by Rami Hansenne. A tribute and homage to Christopher Manson's archetypical, unsolvable Maze. But this one is solvable!
(I will avoid puzzle spoilers in this post, but I will repeat some information that the book explains directly in the prologue. I am also going to talk about the puzzle design in very general terms.)
If you remember Maze from 1985, you'll understand DD immediately. You start on page 1. Every page illustrates a Piranesian chamber filled with cryptic, metaphorical objects and signs. Certain doors are numbered. Choose a numbered door to travel to a different page. Watch out for trap pages!

(Yes, I blurred this image just enough to make some of the clues unreadable.)
The prologue lays out the rules:
Journey through the maze until you reach the final chamber. You will know it when you reach it. Here one last challenge awaits you: unlocking the portal to what lies beyond. The means to unlock the gate and escape the labyrinth can be found along the shortest path from the first room to the final gate, following only numbered doors.
You enjoy mapping, right? Course you do!
I found Daedalian Depths very approachable. I solved it in about three days of staring, mapping, and taking notes. That is: I'm sure I have found both the "shortest path" and the "means to unlock the gate". I haven't figured out every single clue on every page, but that's okay! There are multiple clues for each part of the puzzle.
For example, each page has at least two clues indicating the best exit to take. You don't have to understand all of them. But if you do, and they agree, you've got confirmation. Or you can work backwards: figure out how to interpret a clue by knowing which exit is correct. This isn't cheating -- it's more like a crossword, where every square has two clues crossing and you can work from one to the other.
You can also tackle the "shortest path" simply by mapping all the connections and searching. (I remember doing this for Maze as a teenager -- it must have been the first time I implemented a breadth-first graph search. In BASIC!) Of course this will go wrong if you miss a door, so you need to pay attention to the clues to verify your logic. And then there are further clues which will only make sense if you have the path right. Sorry, I'm being vague -- I'm just pointing out that the crossword analogy applies here too. You figure out the clues by following the path, and if you go off the path, the clues don't work, so you back up and look for what you missed. (And indeed this happened to me, and led me to discover an exit that I'd missed.)
Along the way I found some of the "means to unlock", but not all of them. Until I noticed something else, and then a bunch more stuff made sense, and pow! It all came together.

It's worth comparing DD with the original 1985 Maze. Chris Manson's book had a somewhat different challenge:
  • Find the shortest path from page 1 to page 45 and then back to page 1.
  • Discover the riddle hidden on page 45.
  • Solve the riddle, using the phrasing hidden along the shortest path. (Really more like a second riddle, with a final one-word solution.)
Step 1 worked the same as in DD. The exit clues in Maze were muddier and less redundant, but you could solve the maze by mapping. (And some graph search code.)
However, step 2 went off the rails. You were supposed to pick out objects and words, and read them as a sort of rebus. But this was basically impossible. There was so much stuff that you could pick practically anything and make it sound like a riddle-sentence. There were more clues that were supposed to help, but they didn't. And then of course step 3 was even worse, because there's stuff in every room along the way.
(If you want a full explanation of Maze, your best bet is the fan site Into The Abyss. I'd say that site way overanalyzes most of the pages -- too much clue-hunting is just knuckling your eyes in the dark. But the description of the core puzzle is clear, and seems to be more or less what Manson intended.)
Daedalian Depths avoids these flaws by (a) having redundant clues and (b) having consistent patterns of clues. You're not looking for a different thing in every room; you're looking for something that works across all the rooms. When you find it, it works everywhere.
On the other hand, DD lacks a final confirmation step. It doesn't need one -- as I said, I'm sure I found the right answers. I guess I'm a bit spoiled by the Mystery Hunt puzzle tradition. Those puzzles generally go like this:
  • Do a bunch of legwork. (Solving crossword clues, figuring out which Harry Potter book a bunch of lines refer to, identifying a list of song clips...)
  • Stare at the resulting spreadsheet until a clever insight arrives.
  • Do the clever thing with the data.
  • An answer comes out. (An English word or phrase.)
(Really, most Mystery Hunt puzzles have several stages, so you repeat steps 2 and 3 several times. And at least one of the "clever insights" is labored and you roll your eyes and say "Yeah, whatever, that part didn't make sense" and by the end your patience is worn out and you just want the flippin' answer. Mystery Hunt puzzles lean to the heavy side.)
It's important that the final answer be a recognizable word; that's your confirmation that you've solved the puzzle right. Ideally, the word is thematically connected to the puzzle, too. If you're solving a puzzle about the B-sides of pop 45 records, and the last stage gives the answer VINYL SIDING, you grin. If what comes out is VYNXL SNADDG, you screwed up somewhere.
(Sometimes the answer has to be a specific word to fit in with the metapuzzle, so you don't get that thematic connection. This can confuse the issue a bit. My Hunt team once came up with the answer COLONEL OX, and we sat around saying, um, is that a thing? Should we know who Colonel Ox is?)
(No, we'd screwed up somewhere. But Colonel Ox is now our team mascot. Moo.)
In this puzzle-writing tradition, you aim for a Clever Insight which flips the puzzle from impossible (cannot be solved even by brute force) to solvable (answer falls out with no need for guessing). This is harder than it sounds!
So let's put Daedalian Depths in these terms. I did indeed hit the moment where the final challenge went from "difficult" (I had only guessed pieces of it) to "solvable" (I knew where every piece was and confidently found the ones I'd missed). But there was no single answer that popped out and confirmed it for me. This feels like a gap, but again, that's just the tradition I'm used to.
In any case, I have solved DD. And nobody solved Maze at all. This puts DD way ahead, design-wise. (The original Maze prize contest ended with no complete winner. The publisher announced the intended solution, and then people got to work reconstructing how it was supposed to be solved.)
What else... I found DD's artwork to be a bit indistinct. It's lovely, but it's a mix of ink drawing and Photoshop ink-style filters. The latter makes textures which can dissolve into swirls when inspected closely -- which you will do lots of. The clues are generally clear, but picking out the clues from the background can require some squinting. (Manson's ink drawings were low-tech, but crisp and clear.) Also, some of Hansenne's detail is really tiny. If your eyes are elderly, you'll want your reading glasses or phone magnifier or Holmes-wannabe lens or whatever you use.
My only other quibble is that the book is written in first person. What's odd is that it starts in the traditional second person:
Now, off you go down the rabbit hole. Though whether to Wonderland or someplace altogether more sinister remains as yet unclear. Let the spectral touch of my authorial hand push you forwards towards...
1. ...a dilapidated room, partially reclaimed by flora. Slowly I awaken from a deep and tenebrous slumber. Somewhat dazed and without recollection of past events, I take in my peculiar surroundings. [...]
And the rest of the book is narrated as "I", not "you". It's an odd switch; I'm not sure it's ever justified. In an interview, the author wrote: "The story in DD is written from a first person perspective so the reader is placed front and center, rather than feeling like an outside observer." (Interview for Mazecast, June 6th.) But isn't that exactly what "you" accomplishes in gamebooks?
(Of course Maze is also written in first person. But that has the conceit of a sardonic and all-knowing narrator, shepherding a bunch of lost guests around his maze. You're not supposed to be him! DD is a straight narration.)
Yes, this is ultimately an artistic decision and I can't really argue with it. But I'm a second-person sort of player, dammit.
None of which detracts from my conclusion: Daedalian Depths is an attractive artifact, a satisfying solve, and a fine heir to the puzzle-book tradition.

I can't leave off without mentioning my own Maze homage: Praser 12. (Don't ask about the first eleven.)
This is an all-text puzzle which I wrote in 2008. I followed the writing style of Maze, but it's rather a different sort of challenge. It's more in the Mystery Hunt style; there's a final answer, an English phrase which (as the introduction implies) tells you where the treasure is hidden.
In retrospect, it's a little underclued and relies on awareness of some Hunt conventions. But people have solved it. Feel free to give it a try.

June 30, 2021

Reviews from Trotting Krips

Coming Out of the Closet by Mikko Vuorinen (1998)

by Bryan B at June 30, 2021 10:43 PM

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

So you play a guy who wears black leather jackets and nothing else, likes to hang out in cramped quarters with little, hairy dudes, and is ready to finally come out of the closet. No one understands the LGBTQIA+ community less than I do, but even I have a pretty good idea of what is actually going on here.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I wish I had a friend like Fip. Those lonely nights in the closet seem to drift on and on.

My Verdict:

This game is definitive proof one room adventures don’t have to suck.

Game Information

Game Type: Alan

Author Info: Mikko Vuorinen paved a truly unique path for himself in our hobby: he was the first Finn I know of to enter the IF Competition and contribute to the IF Archive and he is also among the relatively few developers who have created games using the Alan IF programming language. He may have never put out a perfect game, but I always enjoy Mikko’s work. His games are interesting, unique, funny, and often surreal. They stand alone and they stand out. We need him back and writing games again!

Download Link:

Other Games By This Author: King Arthur’s Night Out, Leaves, The Adventures of the President of the United States, CC, and more!

It’s funny how life works out sometimes. I never expected to end up reviewing — or playing — not one but two different one room text adventures in 2021. After all, they tend to not be my favorite type of interactive fiction which is something I’ve made very clear over the years. The journey that brought me to these dire straits began with me promising to write a review every month for RFTK this year…the hubris of middle age struck once again. Some men buy sports cars and begin inappropriate relationships; me, I make extravagant promises about how many IF reviews I’m going to write over a given time frame. Fast forward to June 29th: we’re less than 48 hours away from July 1st and I still have absolutely nothing to show for the month. I’ve successfully managed to spend more time worrying about what game I was going to review than actually playing IF. I could’ve worked my way through my Spring Thing backlog, but I didn’t. Plundered Hearts remained sadly unplundered. There are a couple of games from the last couple of comps I still want to review one day, but I had trouble mustering up the motivation to return to them. And so the clock ticked on and the days crept by.

On June 29th, I knew I had to do something. Giving up was clearly not an option. No children or impoverished, elderly ladies were going to be left uncontrollably weeping on my watch. There are few true heroes left in this world of ours, but I am one of them dammit and I had to act accordingly. With the limited time at my disposal, I knew I had to pick a relatively short game. “A one room joke game would probably do it,” I said to myself as a sickening feeling arose in my stomach. Had things truly come to this…again? I had even joked with Robb about reviewing another one room joke game this month because I was so incredibly sure I wasn’t going to actually be doing that. The more I thought about the situation the more my soul rebelled at the notion of reviewing another Amishville equivalent, and I felt myself coming to another mental impasse. Then inspiration struck: what if instead of reviewing a one room joke game I reviewed a one room NON-JOKE game? A one room non-joke game! I cackled with delight, I rubbed my hands together, my eyes grew glinty…and I got to work. It was, after all, about damn time.

Despite the title, Coming Out of the Closet isn’t actually a game about telling your closest friends and family, including and especially bigoted, murderous Uncle Randy, about your true sexual orientation. Instead, it’s actually about physically getting out of a closet that you’ve mysteriously become trapped inside. This is a small, one room escape game that can be finished in about ten minutes. It actually took me a bit longer than that because I first tried to play the game in 1999, gave up, interviewed Mikko Vuorinen for RFTK later in 1999 and got an excellent tip on how to finish the game directly from him, and then in 2021 finally got around to actually playing it again and won it in ten minutes. So, yeah, it’ll either take you ten minutes or twenty two years and ten minutes to finish. I will say it seemed pretty easy to me on the replay so I’m not sure what exactly was going on with me back in ’99 beyond I STUPID.

COotC is short, but it’s fun and satisfying. It might only last ten minutes, but it’s a good ten minutes. Since yesterday, I’ve been trying to put my finger on just what makes Mikko’s closet game so much more compelling than every single one room joke game I’ve ever played. I think its main advantage is that it is first and foremost a game. It knows it is a game, it wants to be a game, it is a game. It’s IF in miniature, but it is indisputably a text adventure that is clearly related to other text adventures we’ve played before. You have an objective, a really small game world to explore, objects to examine and manipulate, a puzzle to solve, and an NPC to befriend. It’s not completely unlike a mini and entirely closet-themed version of Zork when you really stop and think about it. The one room joke games on the other hand tend to be much more jokes than they are games. The descriptions are there not so much to create atmosphere or tell a story but to set up the punchline. They often lack basic elements you expect to see in text adventures such as functional parsers and objects. They aren’t just smaller, less detailed games — they’re barely games at all. Me, I like games.

Mikko Vuorinen games tend to be funny and surreal, and CLOSET.ACD does not disappoint. The humor here mostly comes courtesy of a garrulous closet gnome named Fip whose sudden appearance is also fairly surreal. There are also some funny and rather biting responses when you try to do things that aren’t going to be helpful. Just because I want to sit on a chest from time to time doesn’t mean I don’t have a life. Just because I want to get romantic with some shelving doesn’t make me a pervert. I’m a lonely dude trapped in a closet…a little shelf flirting was a perfectly rational response to my predicament and environment. And let’s be honest here, that shelving looked fantastic leaning up against that wall. The most surreal aspect of the game has to be the door. It goes without saying that if you’re trapped within a closet the closet door must have been locked or be barred in some way, right? That’s not the case in Coming Out of the Closet. The door looks as well-built as the next one, but it isn’t locked or barred. It’s just closed…you can open the door! That blew my mind when I found that out, but it’s not a bug or unintended behavior. If you try to actually exit the closet, you’re told, “You try to leave, but something stops you. You are not ready to come out of the closet yet.” It’s surreal, but it’s kind of annoying too. You thought you just had a door to open, but it turns you actually have to be ready and want to come out of the closet. Doors of wood and metal are one thing, but the doors that close off our minds are far more vexing to open. I suppose being told you can’t go through an open door is not really worse than suddenly encountering a force field, invisible magic barrier, or a more mundane type of exit blocker. I understand IF authors can’t necessarily implement a room in every direction. Sometimes you’ve got to block stuff off, particularly when you’re doing a one room game like Mikko here. Still, I always wonder what’s going on on the side of the barrier. I can’t help but try to climb over every fence and wall I come across. If that doesn’t work, I’ll even try tearing them apart with my bare hands and say, “No disassemble” in my best Deflated Johnny Five voice when I inevitably fail.

I always worry my rating scale fails when it comes to short games because of the way I compare all IF to all other IF regardless of a work’s length. For a one room game, Coming Out of the Closet probably deserves 1000 out of 10. The competition is just that bad, plus it is a fun, worthwhile, and memorable game in its own right. It just can’t give you hours of entertainment the way some other IF can. That’s OK — you can still totally enjoy Mikko’s writing and unique approach in a bitesized piece like this one. The few minutes I spent getting to know Fip were totally well spent. He’s a great NPC who is lots of fun to interact with. The parser is probably the game’s greatest weakness, but it seems to be limited by design. If you can look at or interact with something, it’s likely you’ll need to do something with it…everything else is extraneous and can be ignored. I didn’t find myself needing to guess verbs or constantly reword commands so there are definitely worse parsers out there. There’s only one real puzzle in the game which is fairly straightforward, but I enjoyed figuring out how to solve it (well, certainly more than Fip did anyway!). So what if it’s a little too short for true greatness? It’s just the right size for a few minutes of fun. (That line ended up sounding a lot dirtier written down than it did in my head.)

Simple Rating: 6/10

Complicated Rating: 29/50

Story: 5/10

Writing: 6/10

Playability: 7/10

Puzzle Quality: 6/10

Parser Responsiveness: 5/10

Emily Short

End of June Link Assortment

by Emily Short at June 30, 2021 05:41 PM


July 3 is the next SF Bay Area IF Meetup.

ParserComp closes for new entrants very very soon, and the games will be available to play and judge throughout July – so if you’d like to try some piping hot new text adventures, they’ll be available shortly. (If you’re curious about the how and why of voting, there’s an extended discussion of it on the intfiction forums.)

Recent Things

RockPaperShotgun has an article about Failbetter’s working process that also includes a bit about our forthcoming work and a few quotes of mine.

The Short Game podcast has recently covered a number of IF and IF-adjacent games – including inkle’s Overboard.

Aaron Reed’s excellent 50 Years of Text Games series continues, this time with an article on Patchwork Girl, a piece of classic hypertext. (If you’re curious about what I’ve written about it as well, that’s here.)

June 28, 2021

Key & Compass Blog

New walkthroughs for June 2021

by davidwelbourn at June 28, 2021 06:43 PM

On Thursday June 24, 2021, I published new walkthroughs for the games and stories listed below and at IFDB! 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.

The Impossible Bottle (2020) by Linus Åkesson

In this amusing but very puzzling game, you play as 6-year-old Emma Small. Dad’s making dinner and wants you to pick up your toys and find some things for the table before the Taylors arrive. But when you go to fetch the tablecloth, you instead find a handkerchief. What’s going on?

This game was written in Dialog and was an entry in IF Comp 2020 where it tied for 1st place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Poppet (2019) by Bitter Karella

In this fantasy game, you play as a rag doll named Poppet. You wake in absolute darkness which alarms you. You should be in Polly’s bed, ready to protect her, and you should never have slept. And you soon discover the house is in a severe state of decay. What happened? Where is Polly and her family? How long did you sleep?

This game was written in Quest and was an entry in IF Comp 2019 where it took 9th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

An Escape to Remember (2006) by the IF Whispers Team

In this multi-authored game, you play as an secret agent of some sort, holed up in this hotel suite for weeks, hoping that Maurice’s insider is for real. Then you hear the signal: a gong ringing three times. It’s time to move.

This game was created for IF Whispers 2 and is a collaborative ‘Chinese Whispers’ a.k.a. ‘Telephone’ style interactive fiction piece, written in Inform 7 by fourteen authors each of whom only saw the preceding section of the the game.

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps

Stuff of Legend (2020) by Lance Campbell

In this pleasant comedy, you play as Ichabod Stuff, and after a very bad day, you are now the former village idiot of Swineford. Dejected, you walk home to the Jackson farm. You need to find a new job. After discussing some ideas with Annabelle, you decide to become a knight.

This game was an entry in IF Comp 2020 where it tied for 8th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Mean Mother Trucker (2021) by Bitter Karella

In this comedic classic puzzlefest, you play as “Big Ester” Gruberman, a mean mother trucker. You’ve parked your truck in Desecration, Nevada, the last stop north of The Devil’s Taint, an infamous highway that snakes through the treacherous Spiketop Mountains. But before you make that dangerous run, there’s someone here you need to see.

This game was an entry in the Main Festival of Spring Thing 2021 where it was awarded three Audience Choice ribbons: Funniest, Best LGBT Characters, and Best Classic Puzzlefest.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

So I Was Short Of Cash And Took On A Quest (2021) by Anssi Räisänen

In this short game, you play as a new secret agent who, lured by the promise of easy money, agreed to deliver a very confidential envelope to someone in an upper-class house. So far, you’ve snuck into the kitchen via a side window. You don’t know who you’re looking for, but you were told further instructions can be found inside the house.

This game was a participant in the Back Garden division of Spring Thing 2021 where it was awarded two Audience Choice ribbons: Best-Smelling Chicken and Most Fun.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Take the Dog Out (2021) by Ell

In this short slice-of-life game, you play as a young woman in her home. You need to take your dog, Muffin, for a walk in the park. Now where did you put her leash?

This game was entered in the Main Festival division of Spring Thing 2021 where it was awarded three Audience Choice ribbons: Best Lil Fluffy Wuffy Dog, Most Lighthearted Game, and Best Short Game.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Quite Queer Night Near (2019) by Andrew Schultz

In this small surreal wordplay game, you play as someone who foolishly ate some Far Fight Marmite and, as a result, you were carried away to a Blight Blear Bight Bier. It’s really scary! Craft alliterative phrases that rhyme with other alliterative phrases to win your way back to safety and sensibility.

This game was an entry in the La Petite Mort English division of Ectocomp 2019 where it took 8th place. It’s also a sequel of sorts to Very Vile Fairy File which uses the same sort of wordplay.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

June 26, 2021

Zarf Updates

Narrative structure for dogs

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at June 26, 2021 02:49 AM

I reviewed Cloudpunk last month, but I only talked about the (awesome) visual design and (awesome) soundtrack. That's because, ahem, I played Cloudpunk back in 2020 when it launched. I had thoughts about the narrative design but I forgot to write them down. Oops.
But now I've finished playing through Cloudpunk: City of Ghosts! That's the full-size DLC -- what we used to call a "sequel". And now I'm all thinking about the narrative structure again. So I'm going to totally cheat and write the Cloudpunk post I should have written. I'll call it my City of Ghosts review, but that's just the cover story.
(Which is to say, this post covers both games.)
(Psst: I'm also going to get to Chicory: A Colorful Tale and An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. Don't tell anyone. It's a surprise. The surprise is dogs.)

Cloudpunk's great trick is that it's a package-delivery game. All you do is pick up and deliver packages. And refill your gas tank, and buy noodles; but that's between packages. It's a courier's life.
It works because the designers commit. There are no dialogue menus! Dialogue menus are the bedrock of narrative games, right? But when you make a narrative choice in Cloudpunk, you do it by delivering a package. Hand a lost item to its original owner or pass it to a fence? Drop a ticking package in a mail slot or a disposal chute? There's lots of dialogue -- these are fully-voiced games and you're practically always chatting away as you drive. But the dialogue supports and flows from your actions in the game world. It's not an additional action layer pasted on top.
Now, this design has consequences. Narrative choices in Cloudpunk are coarse-grained. That is, every choice is clearly defined as a pair of destinations; every choice is emphasized as a major story branch. It's not a branchy story, mind you -- it's a fork-and-merge setup. (Or, I should say: fork, merge, and remember for later.) My point is, it's not a dense cloud of low-level choices that accumulate. Menu-style dialogue is good at that dense cloud; visual novels and Choice Of games use that form. This is the other end of that scale: discrete delineated choices.
I say the designers commit, but they're not rigid about it. A strict interpretation would be a game where you have exactly one goal at any given time, with either one or two active map pins. Cloudpunk breaks that up with occasional surprises. A timed delivery here; an interrupted delivery there. A chase or two. The second game, in particular, enjoys spinning you into wild goose hunts to give the dialogue time to breathe. (Or, sometimes, rap.) And there are always a couple of long-term side quests in parallel with the plot. These let you break up the pressure of the storyline with a little package-hunting or map-roving, any time you so desire.
(Almost any time. If there's a timer ticking or a hijacker in your cab, you have to deal with that first. But, as I said, those are the exceptions.)
I should say a word for the voice actors, who are clearly all having a blast with their over-the-top bit parts. After all, the gameplay is largely about giving you something to do while the actors natter cheerfully in your ear. It wouldn't work if they weren't genuinely fun to listen to. Okay, the editing is sometimes a bit janky. (Different actors pronounce "Rania" and "HOVA" in so many ways that it becomes a running gag.) But the performances are always affecting, hilarious, or both.

But I was after the notion of committing to your interactivity. Let me follow that into a different game, and a different interactive gimmick.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale is about painting. All you do is paint. Okay, you also jump around on (not-quite-3D) platforms. And there's dialogue menus. So it's not as focused as Cloudpunk, but it's still oriented around a theme. The platforming is a metroidvaniesque chain of skills gained to open up the map; but all those skills are done with the paintbrush. And the dialogue -- well, people ask you to paint a lot.
Indeed, Chicory is about art and artists. How audiences react to artists; the pressure that expectations place on artists; what it feels like to want art, or resent it. Thus painting -- but the theme is deliberately looser. The conversation applies equally to writing, and (inevitably) to game design. The paintbrush is the story, not the theme. Is that sloppy? Thematic consistency is perhaps easier than game-mechanical (action-verb) consistency. But you want your game mechanics to have graspable ramifications in the game world, whereas your themes should ramify in the player's life. Let's say that the paintbrush is the key that unlocks the discussion.
(Cloudpunk's story is package delivery; its theme is the filthy tower of capitalism that teeters above the driver. A popular theme these days -- can't imagine why -- I've already contrasted Eliza and Neo Cab. Cloudpunk doesn't try to haul in game design, though. Not sure whether that's a missed opportunity or not. It's not like the game industry is short of gig workers... but I digress.)
It's not Chicory's paintbrush that's most memorable, anyhow. It's the game's... generosity. The game has a multitude of goals, small and large, but almost none of them feel like demands on your time. You can collect furniture if you want. You can color the landscape if you want. You can hunt packages or kittens or take art lessons or help random strangers with their party plans. If you paint a painting for someone, they're happy with it (and the game goes to some length to comment on your choice of colors and composition). But there's also a lot of "Would you like to paint something else?" "Would you like to help?" "Would you like to paint a new doughnut?" It's just a very agreeable game.
Even the metroidvaniesque map limitations take pains to feel like natural boundaries, not frustrations. You can't swim or climb cliffs; that's just how movement works. But (spoilers) when you can? Suddenly every river or cliff is an opportunity! There are lots; whole stretches of the map open up, and the areas you struggled to reach turn into playgrounds. The constraints are carefully placed, but it feels like a cycle of freedoms gained, not a sequence of chokepoints unlocked.

But I haven't mentioned the most important factor, which is dogs. Surprise!
In Chicory, you're a dog. Not a dog named "Chicory". (Chicory is a hare.) You pick your name. I was "Cherries". I don't know what happens if you pick "Chicory". I bet the game lets you do it and names the hare something else.
In Cloudpunk, you are a human, but your sidekick is an AI dog. An AI that is an artificial dog. I mean, it talks, but it talks like a dog would talk if it could talk without pretending to be a human. (How much talk would a dog would talk...?)
Logically, we must next discuss a game where you are a human, and your partner is a human, and everyone else in the universe is a dog. This game exists! It is called An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs.
Airport Dog Game is by Xalavier Nelson, and playing it is pretty much getting a blast of Xalavier Nelson in the face. The titular airports are full of pedestrian dogs -- "pedogstrians" -- who you can stop and chat with. Each one will say something that will make you grin for one reason or another. If I get started quoting dogs, I'll be here all day and still won't get across the effect of playing Dog Airport Game. Better to play it.
(To be clear, some of the dogs are cats. That's their business.)
Commitment: all you do is chat with dogs and get on airplanes. True, getting on airplanes is a little different in the future where dogs run things. Money is out of fashion; you just pick up a boarding pass or fifty. Then the dog at the gate wants something else. Maybe a ball, maybe a coffee, maybe an umbrella. Go fetch. The airport mall dogs are happy to give you stuff.
So, in a sense, all you do in Alien Dog Airport Game is collect items. Chatting and catching flights is the motivation, not the activity. Your inventory is the core of the game. On top of that, traditional dialogue menus! The game isn't stripped-tight like Cloudpunk.
But this stuff is clearly just pacing for the basic concept of chatting with as many dogs as possible. The plot doesn't depend on your dialogue choices. No deep conversation maps or resource economies. It's just enough mechanism to keep the dogs feeling lively. And there's a story arc which becomes clear as you chat with your girlfriend in various airports, and a bunch of side quests which turn up as you chat with dogs on the way to chatting with your girlfriend. It's very laid back.
Well, sort of laid back. The basic experience of airports (remember airports?) is feeling hurried and harried and tense and bored and convinced that you're going to miss your flight even though you left three hours early and brought four photo IDs. Alien Dog Airport feels like that. The clock is ticking and you can't find your gate. It's not cruel about it; you will not in fact miss your flight (unless you try hard). But it's not cozy.
(Cloudpunk feels cozy. Which is weird, because Cloudpunk's whole point is that the city of Nivalis is corrupt, filthy, and dehumanizing. It's wracked by inequality and exploitation and (android) racism and crime. Trash barrels flame in the alleys. Neighborhoods collapse into the ocean as you watch. But damned if it isn't homey. Wherever you go, people are strolling around, shopping, hustling to sell you an energy drink. You are in no actual danger of being mugged. You can fly anywhere. The HOVA highways are a bright endless tide of cheery antigrav zrrmmm -- no traffic jams, no angry honks. It's a rainy night but the buildings are all aglow. The music makes me young. I want to live there! It's an edge of dissonance that makes the game -- if Nivalis were actually miserable, you wouldn't play.)
(The dissonance is Chicory is that it's a simple cartoon game which is not a simple children's story. I will return to this point.)
(The dissonance in Alien Airport Game is that you happily walk up to total (dog) strangers and start a conversation. Nobody does this in real airports. If you do this, don't tell me because then I'll be scared of you.)
(Except once, in 2017, when we travelled to Kansas City for the eclipse. Waiting for our flight home, everybody in the airport was an eclipse tourist. Everybody! You could turn to anybody at all and say "So, did you get a good view?" and then talk about eclipses until your flight arrived. It was the most sociable airport I've ever experienced in real life. Try it in 2024.)

So why dogs?
For adults, dogs are a way to talk about kids. Or innocence, or honesty, or love, or any of the other things we project onto children. For kids, dogs are a fun way to talk about people -- which is to say, other kids. (Kids figure adults can take care of themselves. I know, it's hard to remember why.)
Or dogs can be a way to talk about actual dogs. But this takes a lot of work. Observation is a fine skill.
Cloudpunk takes the route of innocence. Camus is the eye and voice that needs never compromise. If you have to work with a slimeball, Camus says "I don't like him." If you're trying not to think about your past, Camus says "I miss home." You get entangled in Nivalis -- you have to -- but Camus doesn't. But then, Camus doesn't judge you for your choices either. The dog trusts you. Live up to it.
Dog Airport Currently Alien Game uses dogs as outsiders and observers of humanity. (The "aliens" are us, then.) The dogs have taken up human roles, but they are allowed to get it wrong, in order to understand our mistakes or just to make life more absurd. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of absurd here. "We don't have to sniff each other's butts. We can just walk away." Yeah, I quoted one. I'll stop.
Chicory has a broad (and broadly representative) cast of animal characters. You, the dog, are just another person; you don't stand out in that sense. You're young; that's characterization, not metaphor.
What the game does really well is speak to children, in the clear language of children's stories, while admitting to the deep sea of scary emotions that are everybody's life. Regardless of age. (Wandersong, the author's previous game, takes the same tack.) You can be scared of failure. You can resent people's expectations. You can be depressed and lash out and hide in your room and hurt your friends. Or your friends may do these things to you. Sooner or later they probably will! That's what Chicory tries to get at. And then what?
These three games have their own stories. They are not, at root, dog stories. Dogs are just the gimmick for this blog post. If there's a common theme, it's the importance of the little choices, the choices that don't gate the big plot. The choices that show who you are, you who experience the plot. Paint some trees. Give a construction dog some tools. Hunt down every kind of fast food in the city. Or do something else. Dog don't judge.

June 24, 2021

"Aaron Reed"

Patchwork Girl (1995)

by Aaron A. Reed at June 24, 2021 10:42 PM

It was the last talk of a long day. On the MIT campus in October 1997, an interdisciplinary symposium called “Transformations of the Book” was taking place, bringing together “classicists, Shakespearean scholars, technological wizards and lovers of all media” to explore how printed books were being challenged and changed by the digital age. The talks had begun just after lunch, and now it was coming up on nine o’clock as the final speaker took the stage: a woman in her mid-twenties. In her author photo she wore a sleeveless vest, a dense cluster of ear piercings, and an ampersand, tattooed on her upper arm. Her speaker bio noted that “she specializes in lies and digressions.” The talk was entitled “Stitch Bitch,” and began like this:

It has come to my attention that a young woman claiming to be the author of my being has been making appearances under the name of Shelley Jackson. It seems you have even invited her to speak tonight, under the misapprehension that she exists, that she is something besides a parasite… May I say that I find this an extraordinary impertinence, and that if she would like to come forward, we shall soon see who is the author of whom.
Well? Well?
Very well.
I expect there are some of you who still think I am Shelley Jackson, author of a hypertext about an imaginary monster, the patchwork girl Mary Shelley made after her first-born ran amok. No, I am the monster herself, and it is Shelley Jackson who is imaginary…

Continue reading at the home of my new blog series, “50 Years of Text Games.”

A screenshot of Patchwork girl showing multiple overlapping windows, some with text and some with a diagram of linked nodes.