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Planet Interactive Fiction

Tuesday, 28. May 2024

Renga in Blue

Transylvania: Slowly Its Outline Changes to That of a Decrepit Old Man

(Continued from my previous posts on this game.) I remember playing this for hours when I was younger. With every move toward a new screen the eerie scratching of the Apple disc drive would scuff along making a sound that added to the suspense! It had to as the game had no sound effects and […]

(Continued from my previous posts on this game.)

I remember playing this for hours when I was younger. With every move toward a new screen the eerie scratching of the Apple disc drive would scuff along making a sound that added to the suspense!

It had to as the game had no sound effects and no music. This somehow made it even spookier. Every screen rendering (slowly) before your eyes as if some creepy phantasm was programming it just for you.

Via the Retroist, 2015

So my “waterfall” prediction of an easy chain of puzzles was essentially correct. I was misunderstanding a message in one of the rooms.

You can see this coffin by doing EXAMINE on the cart, but because the coffin did not respond to any of my actions (OPEN, MOVE, GET, etc.) I thought perhaps it was just scenery. Since I was out of things to try I gave it another go, and then it finally occurred to me that maybe the wagon was considered a location, and I could ENTER WAGON.

Grr. This likely wasn’t even intended as a puzzle.

Opening the coffin reveals a corpse, some hungry mice, and a silver bullet. You can placate the rats with bread and carry them around.

The silver bullet was what I had been waiting for with the werewolf. LOAD PISTOL and then SHOOT WEREWOLF:

Comparing the two deaths (werewolf and vampire) I still would say the werewolf is slightly more difficult to wrangle, since you only need one item (the cross) for the vampire, and showing crosses to fend off vampires has about as much mythological heft as shooting werewolves with silver bullets does.

Getting back into the game, the mice in hand meant I knew where to take them next. The cat will chase after the mice if you drop them down:

Fortunately, the witch never shows up. I think.

The broom I’ve found no use for (even when attempting to SWEEP every room in the game) but I was able to test my theory about the weak acid revealing the stump’s message.

The knocking teleports you in a cave, I assume the cave previously blocked by rocks. (I think this means the door is never unblocked, although you see it in this picture.)

Again following the waterfall, I could get the flies with the flypaper. Before taking them over to the next logical place (the bullfrog) I tried reading the book.

Trying to take the book teleports you out of the cave. It just a couple steps then to feeding a bullfrog some flies:

Again quite direct, even telling us where to go next. Is this game about to fall? Heading to the goblin and saying the magic word causes the goblin to drop the key and run screaming.

I was then able to take the key over to the locked grate and open it, finding an elixir underneath.

And there the waterfall finally ends. The book suggests the sequence SHAKE ELIXIR, POUR ELIXIR, CLAP HANDS, and all three actions work but get NOTHING HAPPENS in the place I’ve tried it — the statue and the sealed sarcophagus. My guess is we need an open sarcophagus and then it will work?

I’m close to out of options though. Other than the elixir I still have yet to use the shiny ring from the castle, and the broom from the witch hut. I tried every verb on my list on both the sarcophagus and statue to no effect, and I’ve tried everything I can think of with the ring. I did make one other discovery, in a log cabin that I previously could get nothing to happen…

…but I haven’t gotten anything more than this to happen. (The head is incidentally not in the text description.) I suspect I’m just looking for one more waterfall and then I’ll be at the end of the game, but it is of course possible there will be a last surprise.

PC-98 Japanese version as sold by Starcraft, via Mobygames.

Sunday, 26. May 2024

Renga in Blue

Transylvania: The Death of a Vampire

(Continued from my last post.) So I need to emphasize: the structure of this thing is very odd, even taking the span of all videogames from 19xx to 2024 inclusive. Very shortly after writing the last post I killed the big antagonist of the game (at least in a plot sense), the vampire. That’s supposed […]

(Continued from my last post.)

So I need to emphasize: the structure of this thing is very odd, even taking the span of all videogames from 19xx to 2024 inclusive. Very shortly after writing the last post I killed the big antagonist of the game (at least in a plot sense), the vampire. That’s supposed to happen near the end of your game. The only comparable game I can think of from the All the Adventures Project so far is Castlequest.

You can take the wooden cross (lying out in the open)…

From this room, with the colorful gravestone description.

…and SHOW CROSS (a perfectly natural action) to get a blast of sunlight.

A STREAM OF BLINDING LIGHT ESCAPES FROM THE CROSS.

It only takes a little thought to try bringing it to the vampire — you just need to not be holding the garlic. That seems to be the hard part of the whole thing (someone who hoovers up all the items just might not know the vampire is there!)

With the vampire dead, you’re able to take the shiny ring that previously had a barrier. (I have no idea what it does.) Another blocked place also opens up. There’s a ladder at the top of the stairs in the castle.

The ladder is not described in the text. I was making the incorrect assumption there would be nothing graphics-only (since the original game was just text). The ladder shaking happens if the vampire is still alive.

Up the ladder is a sarcophagus which just might have our princess, but it is “hermetically sealed”. Magic, then?

And that’s nearly all the progress I’ve been able to make, except I pushed the gravestone and found a locked grate. I assume that’s where the goblin’s key goes.

Being stuck, I made my verb list.

There’s enough verbs that in this situation I generally want to just play “normally” and only consult back in special circumstances. I will at least observe:

  • It is possible to SAY in a freeform way so there’s surely a magic word somewhere.
  • SEARCH and EXAMINE have been failures nearly everywhere (“YOU SEE NOTHING UNUSUAL” except for at the creepy statue). TURN seems to map to the same word, oddly enough, suggesting that another (hypothetical) secret will involve that physical action.
  • You can PET as a verb, but the black cat doesn’t allow it (“SORRY – YOU CAN’T”).
  • In terms of movement, JUMP is noteworthy (it asks for a direction) and I haven’t gotten FLY to be recognized but that makes me wonder if we’ll pick up the capability somewhere.

I’ve tried various random things like: feeding the cat bread, moving some giant rocks blocking a cave next to the stump…

I have to wait for an opening where the werewolf isn’t around to test a random action like this. Here he showed up the next turn.

…throwing the flypaper in various places (but not every place yet, the werewolf makes this slow), and trying every word in my entire verb list on the statue while wearing the ring.

I’m not ready for hints yet. I might be if this game had more dubious coding. Also, the fact that the vampire-killing is so simple make me think that somehow all the puzzles are simple, and I just haven’t hit the “waterfall” yet (where the thing you get from puzzle A lets you solve B, which lets you solve C, which lets you solve D, etc.)

This is a good time to stop and admire the graphics.

Here, let’s compare and contrast:

Let’s be fair: Time Zone had the graphics pumped out and a ludicrous rate, and Transylvania’s author did the graphics over 11 months. So there’s a little more care and love. But it’s still interesting to poke at the specifics.

Both at least attempt at some kind of stylization on the stairs. I would call Transylvania’s geometric shift and slight asymmetry elegant; it conveys the darkness of a long-decrepit castle. The Time Zone picture tries to convey something similar (with an old Pyramid) but it comes off more as a glitch than intentional.

The Transylvania art also tries to convey contrast with light and dark, with the coffer having both lights and shadow. The Time Zone art has no light contrast at all. (This may have been somewhat a result of the tools: Penguin’s graphic tools were likely more advanced than the ones used by On-Line Systems. At the very least, the Penguin graphics seem to have a wider variety of “colors” to pick from, color including intermixed texture possibilities.)

I’m also impressed at how image maintains the 3D structure even with the shadow over it, and the color used at the front.

I have long been the opinion that you can have “good graphics” at every pixel level; it is possible to adopt a style that works within the constraints. While early graphical art often looks janky, we need to consider not only the skill of the artist, but the time they had (production time was very fast back then) and the tools. The Tarturian rendered its graphics as literal lines of BASIC; the authors made a tool for generating them, but there were still hard technical limits to how good they could make a face.

The finest art of the Apple II era.


Transylvania (1982)

(Jimmy Maher was able to interview today’s author, Antonio Antiochia, in detail. Check that link if you’d like more detail.) Antonio was a 13-year old in 1979 who was at Eastern Michigan University, where his father worked, and was playing with computer terminals in a lab. He found he could access games with a guest […]

(Jimmy Maher was able to interview today’s author, Antonio Antiochia, in detail. Check that link if you’d like more detail.)

Antonio was a 13-year old in 1979 who was at Eastern Michigan University, where his father worked, and was playing with computer terminals in a lab.

A picture of a computer terminal from Eastern Michigan University circa 1978, via the Aurora ’78 yearbook.

He found he could access games with a guest account and came across Adventure, but due to a lack of any starting instructions was unable to get anywhere. (Jimmy mentions in the comments to his post it might have been Wander instead, because of the lack of a tutorial to start. However, Wander was a lot rarer and there were enough ports of Adventure a rogue one could have the instructions cut off.)

The game still stuck in his head and he was able to return later and make progress all the way to the end. He was then out of adventures to play, and while he was already a capable programmer at age 13, he wrote his own on paper rather than on computer.

I came up with dozens of adventure plots in my spare time (and a few other games), drawing their outlines, their maps, etc., based on a wide variety of themes (a bit heavy on the fantasy genre) — simply out of the joy of creativity and discovery. It was cool.

Antonio later learned about Scott Adams games on home computers and the Ann Arbor Community High School Computer Club, so become a regular there. He wrote his own game on an Apple II (Land of Ghaja, now lost) and distributed it the club, then later followed with Transylvania. These were essentially private games.

Rather like with Magic Mirror getting Mr. Antiochia hooked up with a publisher happened by accident. In 1981 his father was calling Mark Pelczarski to order supplies (the store Micro Co-op) when Mark mentioned starting a publishing company (Co-op Software, but eventually Penguin). The elder Mr. Antiochia mentioned his son had written an adventure game, and Mark said to “send it in”.

The game was text-only in BASIC. Since not-yet-Penguin were to be known mostly for their graphical software, it seemed wrong to publish without graphics, but Mark was able to give his own software (including not-yet-released portions) to Antonio. Antonio then spent nearly a year making graphics, and the package of BASIC + graphics + assembly language provided by Penguin was put together into Transylvania.

There are incidentally later versions, like a Macintosh black and white version, a “high res” Apple II version, and a larger version with more puzzles published by Polarware. I’m sticking with the 1982 original.

The story begins at midnight, as we have been tasked with the King to rescue the Princess Sabrina, “in the clutches” of a “murderous Vampire”. We have 5 hours.

Reading the stump is a puzzle, as it is “covered with sediment and too fuzzy to read”.

The map is quite open. I was able to get to what I suspect is at least 80% of it from the start, possibly more. There are no locked doors. The puzzles seem to be gating the ability to pick up objects and find information, rather than get into locations.

The note says that Sabrina dies at dawn.

Here’s the first part of the map:

Wandering the map results in a lot of activity, both in terms of sounds and in terms of danger. There might be a “grim chuckle”, or an owl, or the sound of bats.

After a set number of turns (I think?) you start to get chased around by a werewolf. If you pause without running while a werewolf is the room you will die. Sometimes it leaves the trail, but not much. (The closest we’ve had to that effect is Masquerade.) You might additionally get picked up by an eagle and dropped in a random spot, which suggests to me the author was familiar with Hunt the Wumpus in addition to Adventure.

Here both are happening simultaneously.

There’s a “small hut” which is clearly a witch’s house, where a black cat hisses at you if you enter and doesn’t let you take either of the items (a broom and some weak acid; I’m guessing the latter helps with reading the stump).

Of items that can be grabbed just lying around, there’s also a garlic clove, a wooden cross, a stale loaf of bread, and a flintlock pistol in various locations (the latter two in an “Old Frame House”), although the werewolf being present means you can’t pick up an item if it is around.

(Also, the gun is not loaded. I’m guessing we find a silver bullet somewhere for the werewolf.)

For non-movable characters / antagonists, there’s a bullfrog, a goblin with a key (there must be at least one locked thing somewhere) and a admittedly unsettling statue.

Trying to break the statue didn’t work, but maybe I need a particular tool.

The werewolf is restricted to this part of the map, because there’s a castle area to the north that is the domain of the vampire instead.

If you are holding the clove of garlic the vampire doesn’t show up at all.

Other than that you can encounter some flypaper (I assume for obtaining a bribe for the bullfrog) and a shiny ring in a coffer, although the ring is protected by a “mysterious barrier”.

I have some ideas I need to test, but the presence of the werewolf makes testing require multiple “runs” (there’s enough time to grab the wooden cross, for instance, but then you have to ignore some other things). This means even if there are no fancy daemons or timers the game isn’t 100% trivial to solve. Mind you, there is an overall timer — death by dawn — so it is possible the timer plays into other events.

Fingers crossed for good progress next time!

There’s a sailboat you can hop into, but it leads you back to “home” and you can’t go home without Sabrina.

Friday, 24. May 2024

Renga in Blue

The Adventure Game: Escaped!

(Continued directly from my last post.) It was a number of things coming together. I’d seen the very original computer game called “Adventure” back in 1977, which was played on mainframe computers (on which my son worked). Then we got involved with a team playing Dungeons and Dragons. I needed a new imaginative idea to […]

(Continued directly from my last post.)

It was a number of things coming together. I’d seen the very original computer game called “Adventure” back in 1977, which was played on mainframe computers (on which my son worked). Then we got involved with a team playing Dungeons and Dragons. I needed a new imaginative idea to replace Vision On which I had been making for some 10 or more years, when I heard The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the radio and was knocked out by it! So I met up with Douglas Adams and outlined a general idea to him in the hope I could get him to write it up, but unfortunately he had just agreed to write the TV version of Hitch-hiker … and though he liked the idea didn’t have the time. So I just went at it myself, trying to combine all of the above.

— Interview with Patrick Dowling speaking about the origins of The Adventure Game, via an interview at Off the Telly

I managed to finish the game, although there were parts I didn’t fully comprehend.

Replica Drogna currency for the planet Arg, from TheZeroRoom on Etsy.

First, watering the plant in the opening room.

The screen above comes from typing WATER PLANT at the start. Of course, being able to do so requires knowing the verb WATER works (and I can assure you it is very rare compared to “POUR WATER” or the like) but even then it failed in a cryptic way, by asking “How?”. For some games — like the Scott Adams ones — this is a prompt for another parser action. That is (to compensate for it being a two-word parser), you might respond with

WITH TUBE

indicating the thing we do the action with, and that resolves the “how”. Alternately, the command itself might have needed rephrasing, like possibly WATER PLANT WITH TUBE. That wasn’t the case here either.

Here, “how” should be interpreted as “there is no way to do the action you are thinking”. This requires visualizing the game like the author does. The tube and the plant should be thought of as in separate places to the extent that you can’t just tilt the tube over or grab it (TUBE is not a recognized noun, even). Both are fixed in place.

This reflects the television show occasionally have this sort of locational puzzle, where you need to do an action (involving some science trick) which brings together distant things in a room, or at least manages what might first seem an impossibility. For example, the first episode has a ball with a clue that rises to the top of a cylinder if all the players are standing in particular places:

This is showing the aliens explaining the puzzle.

The proper resolution is to put weight down in a spot to substitute for a person.

So the right way to visualize the plant puzzle is as “here’s some water, here’s a plant it needs to be brought to, now bring them together”. I at least guessed something like this early.

In the room to the north (the one with the computer asking for 1 drogna and the closed door requiring 12 drogna) there’s also a button, and pushing the button causes an uninflated balloon to appear. This gave me the idea to fill the balloon with water and use it as a water balloon, but my attempts at FILL BALLOON and the like came to naught (they were technically off my verb list already, but with a parser this dire anything is possible).

I finally came back around to trying WATER PLANT again — even though it had already failed — and was surprised when it worked.

I was so surprised it took me some effort to realize I was doing the implicit actions of filling the balloon, bringing it over, and squeezing. Most adventure games would require the steps in between. As is, the setup is so convoluted I am only 95% certain everything I said above is correct, but at least I’m through the puzzle, and have claimed my 12 drogna “peice”! (You need to refer to it as “12 drogna”, not “piece” or “peice”.)

Now, there’s a matter of not being able to INSERT anything in the computer room (see above). The right thing to do is either PAY COMPUTER (to activate the MZ-80K) or PAY MACHINE (to activate the door opening). In neither case are the nouns described that way in the text, so another vibe I need to roll with is that the game is happy to freely modify how a noun should be referenced from how it initially gets described. That is, (as imaginary examples) you might find a BROOMSTICK that needs to be referenced as a STICK or an APPLE II that needs to be referenced as a COMPUTER.

Paying the computer first:

The computer types out the following: WHAT IS YOUR NAME?

Giving your name, and then trying to type something random has the computer give exactly what sort of prompt it needs.

I never — and this is after finishing the game — found any phrases the computer recognized. The computer was even giving messages like I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHERE which is exactly the thing it asked me to type.

Nevermind that: I could PAY MACHINE in order to open the bars to the west (“Right,the bars slide apart”), and pass through. The bars slide shut behind you but there’s a button in a random spot later you can push that will cause them to open again; this allows later access to the computer, but since I never found a use for the computer it didn’t really matter.

This is the complete map for the game. The first thing encountered past the bars is a random green button with a strange result.

This seems to serve no purpose other than if you go north in a dark section up to where the “monster” is you get “evaporated”.

A brief primer on evaporation: it was introduced in the television show during Season 2, as a new “end game” called The Vortex. Players would move from place to place on a triangle grid avoiding an invisible (to them) enemy that was made via computer generated graphics, and if they hit the enemy, they were “evaporated” and had to “walk the galactic highway” to escape as opposed to just leaving. The video below starts about 30 seconds before an evaporation:

I admit I don’t understand the “strategy” of this game, given the enemy is invisible. This seems like just a lottery? It is important past the theoretical because to escape the MZ-80A version of The Adventure Game, you also need to pass through The Vortex (with identical rules). Evaporation in the TV show doesn’t kill you (they needed to accommodate those five-year-olds), evaporation in the computer game does.

But that comes later. For now, we entirely ignore the dark section and go to the south instead.

Keeping in mind this was based on an educational show with math puzzles, I figured while there might be a code for the safe somewhere, it was equally likely the game meant for you to brute force list the different permutations of ABCD (as a math exercise) and go through each one. Brute force worked fairly quickly:

Playing the arcade game is just a matter of ignoring the computer so you can save your 1 drogna for the game instead.

OK…It isn’t a game at all,really.A camera is located nearby and you can see a dark passage,a huge,hairy monster and you can see BOX.

This was highly deceptive, as you’ll see in a moment. Heading west from the arcade gets a riddle:

Going further you meet a robot who wants to play chess. You have to beat it to pass, but there’s no trick, it’s just a matter of playing multiple times until you win.

Off a side passage from there is a storeroom with a button (that opens the bars at the start), a torch, and a “dissintergrator”.

You can only refer to it as a GUN. I was never able to use it.

Going back to that message about the monster and the BOX — I tried taking my torch over to the dark place and lighting it, but none of the verbs I came up with worked. I wasn’t able to shoot the monster with the gun either.

I eventually found that the box is not at the monster at all but a side room, but you can only see it if you are holding a torch. It’s truly the weirdest of implicit actions — I guess the torch is providing light but makes no indication of such?

This room was originally empty. There’s no indication otherwise the torch is doing something.

Pushing the red button just kills you. The box can be opened to find a 1000 drogna piece. And that is that.

Regarding the safe at the arcade game that had the key, that goes to a “grandfather clock” in another side branch back at the chess-playing robot.

And a little bit further someone is taking fares back to Earth, and the 1000 piece works. I have no idea if the 6 also gets used somehow, everything is implicit action.

Now, to escape, we have to go through what this calls the EVAPORATION GAME.

This was incredibly finicky and I suspect the emulator might have been bugged. Sometimes I picked a kosher direction and it didn’t work. In between moves the “evporators” would move, and sometimes then I would get a turn back, and sometimes the game would just lock up in an endless loop.

Eventually, by sheer luck, avoiding both the evaporators and the crash (equally deadly) I made it to the end and won everything.

Cryptic things I never worked out:

  • how to use the computer
  • how to use the gun
  • if the safe had another intended method of opening other than brute force
  • what the whole point of getting the key from the safe and finding the 6 drogna piece was
  • why pressing the green button makes the monster hostile, and if there’s any way to escape when it is non-hostile

Even when I knew what verbs I should stick to, the parser felt like wading through mud, because so many of the nouns were either not recognized or were described in ways that required me to guess what their “parser equivalent” was (like the gun). The torch was especially cryptic and I only worked out what the game’s intent was after the fact.

The one thing this had going for it is atmosphere; it really did feel like I was on Arg rather than a generic planet. The game might have been stronger had it done more with the game show elements: multiple characters, science puzzles with multiple solutions, and cryptic alien hosts that would sometimes give hints to make sure shooting ended in time. (Ian Oliver, producer: “Many of the ‘hints’ from Chris the butler and company were issued in desperation – we had to be out of the studio by 10pm come hell or high water.”)

This was a little too ambitious for what was likely someone’s first adventure game. Even an advanced parser wasn’t strictly necessary — you can just subsume a lot of action under USE — but there needed to be proper feedback when and why things don’t work, implicit actions needed to be described when they happened, and nouns needed the in-game text to match the name the players use. However, the NPCs required to match the show likely would have strained even Infocom’s resources.

(One last bonus anecdote from TV production before I check out: two of the series were recorded in a studio with no air-conditioning, and because of the structure of the game allowing the players to explore anywhere at any time, it meant most of the sets needed to be lit. On a normal production only one would be lit at a time. This led to the place being more sweltering than normal during a summer shoot.)

Next up: Transylvania for the Apple II. I know some of you have been waiting for this one. It’s finally time.

Thursday, 23. May 2024

Choice of Games LLC

New Heart’s Choice Game! Love Undying: A Kiss Before Dawn

We’re proud to announce that Love Undying: A Kiss Before Dawn, the latest in our “Heart’s Choice” line of multiple-choice interactive romance novels, is now available for iOS and Android in the “Heart’s Choice” app. You can also download it on Steam, or enjoy it on our website. It’s 33% off until May 30th! Since 2009, the team behind Choice of Games has cre
Love Undying: A Kiss Before Dawn

We’re proud to announce that Love Undying: A Kiss Before Dawn, the latest in our “Heart’s Choice” line of multiple-choice interactive romance novels, is now available for iOS and Android in the “Heart’s Choice” app. You can also download it on Steam, or enjoy it on our website.

It’s 33% off until May 30th!

Hunt your prey as a vampire on windswept Victorian moors! Who will capture your unbeating heart?

Love Undying: A Kiss Before Dawn is a 190,000-word interactive romance novel by Lauren O’Donoghue. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

After an angry mob forced you from your European home, you fled to England in search of a fresh start. The Cornish village of Boscawen is bleak and beautiful, quiet enough to hide in—or so it seems. Danger lurks everywhere on these clifftops, from the vampire hunter who has followed you across continents to the local coven of vampires to the suspicious local nobles. When a young village man is murdered, tensions rise even higher and allegations begin to fly: if you are not careful, you may be accused of the crime yourself.

And yet even here, you may find potential friends—or perhaps someone closer. For a century you have walked the earth alone, but now your solitude may come to an end. Who will capture your immortal heart?

Will it be your familiar, Adrian Florescu, who has attended you for years? He is slender, chestnut-haired, bespectacled, intellectual and loyal and unfailingly polite. Feeding upon someone is an intimate act—will you deepen that intimacy even further? Or perhaps silver-haired Father Alvarez, the village priest with dark determined eyes, dedicated to improving the lives of those in his care. A vampire and a priest: can such a match ever succeed? Then there is Jowanet Reed, with flaming red curls and a lush figure. She is the leader of the local coven, with more than a hundred vampires at her command. What would it feel like to submit to someone even more powerful than yourself? Or Nathalie Sylvain, bold and dangerous, small and proud, with close-cropped hair and strong arms. She is a vampire hunter whose family has pursued you for generations—will the heat of your rivalry kindle a different kind of spark?

From elegant society soirées to humble village meetings, you must navigate your new environment, choose sides in simmering feuds, and define your future. Will you try to blend in peacefully with your mortal neighbors, or conspire with your fellow vampires to overthrow the established order and rule openly as creatures of the night? Do you wish to atone for a century’s worth of vampiric deeds, or will you revel in the hunt for the rest of your long unlife? Your actions will decide whether you have found a place of safety, or merely another viper’s nest.

  • Play as male, female, or nonbinary; gay, straight, bi, or asexual.
  • Romance your devoted familiar, an altruistic priest, a powerful vampire leader, or even your sworn enemy.
  • Exercise self-restraint, or give in to your vampiric urges and go on a bloodthirsty rampage.
  • Renovate your new home, investing in a library, game room, or an occult chamber full of magical equipment.
  • Solve a murder—or try to frame one of your enemies for the crime.
  • Create new vampires to join you in eternal unlife; or spend the rest of your days trying to escape the creature that you have become.

Find passion that will last an eternity!

Since 2009, the team behind Choice of Games has created high-quality interactive novels in all genres. Now, our new Heart’s Choice label puts romance at the center of the story, and you at the center of the romance. Heart’s Choice games contain no graphics or sound effects, so we can focus on the story. Every game is filled with vivid, fully developed characters and complex narratives that respond to your choices.

How will you find your happily ever after?

Wednesday, 22. May 2024

Dave's Interactive Fiction Musings...

Separating Thoughts

IF C# Platform moves...

In order to have a place to focus the design and development of my parser based IF platform in C#/.NET, I’ve opened a publication at https://sharpee.plover.net/.

My other IF ruminations will remain here.


Renga in Blue

The Adventure Game (1982)

Originally the program was aimed at the 11 to 16 age group, but we get fans as young as five. I think they like to see people get evaporated. — Ian Oliver, producer for the TV show The Adventure Game, from Micro Adventurer November 1983 The Adventure Game (1980-1986) was a British gameshow where contestants […]

Originally the program was aimed at the 11 to 16 age group, but we get fans as young as five. I think they like to see people get evaporated.

Ian Oliver, producer for the TV show The Adventure Game, from Micro Adventurer November 1983

The Adventure Game (1980-1986) was a British gameshow where contestants were tasked with escaping from the planet Arg. It’s essentially an early lo-fi version of The Crystal Maze, and if that doesn’t ring bells, just think of it as a series of escape rooms.

It wasn’t filmed “live”; the article linked above discusses 3 hours being filmed for each (half-hour) episode. Being made for children, it was intended as educational, and so a lot of time gets spent setting up real physics and math problems. The lead, Patrick Dowling, previously worked on The Great Egg Race, a competition with a series of engineering tasks, named after a vehicle powered by a rubber band that transports an egg.

The various mechanisms (at least in the 1980 season which I was sampling) get explained before the players go through them, and there’s a lot of emphasis on players talking through their thought process.

A scene from the first episode, explaining a puzzle involving clown doors.

The guests tended to be two “show business personalities” and one “guest” (that is, someone not used to TV) and the showrunners would sometimes customize puzzles based on the guest’s personal knowledge to make them more comfortable.

One of the common elements through episodes is a colored floor of shapes called Drogna that the players need to logically step through. It was later turned into a game for the BBC Micro.

Contestants from the first episode solving the Drogna puzzle.

They sometimes played an adventure game on a computer as part of the obstacles. Season 1 used a HP 9845 workstation while later seasons used a BBC Micro.

The above is from Season 1 Episode 3, with Maggie Philbin, Moira Stuart, and James Burke (of Connections fame). Yes, that’s an automap in 1980, meaning the innovation can be found by either making a game for children or making something that will make sense over television.

THERE ARE THREE EXITS E,S AND W AGAIN

THERE’S AN UGLY GREAT TROLL DEMANDING FOOD – HE WON’T LET YOU PASS
FISH
HE’S GETTING VERY, VERY ANGRY.
SPRAY
HE’S GETTING VERY, VERY ANGRY.
CUCUMBER
HE SAID ‘CUCUMBER? YUK!’ AND THREW IT AT YOU.

In the above segment, they’ve passed by some spam sandwiches and attempted to give their cucumber sandwiches instead. They go back for the spam sandwiches but don’t run across the troll again, eventually going in another direction. Going that way they encounter an ADDER, and rather than interpreting the ADDER as a snake, they are supposed to use the SUBTRACTOR they are holding.

STOP! THERE’S AN ADDER IN THE MIDDLE OF THE TUNNEL.
SUBTRACTOR
OH GOOD – THE ADDER IS NOW SUBTRACTED AND HAS VANISHED.

It looks like there might be some control on the part of the showrunners of the adventure game portion as it is going on or at least creative editing. (That is, the game might not be “fully playable” in a real sense — remember this isn’t live.)

We know at least one of our authors (Brian Howarth, see Arrow of Death Part 2) was influenced by the show, but our interest today is in a program made by Kuma for the Sharp MZ-80A that places the player as a contestant.

Via Sharpworks on Twitter. The MZ-80A was the “follow-up” to the 80K and comes with a proper keyboard.

We saw Kuma once before with the game Quest / Fantasy Quest by John Wolstencroft; this game has no author given and may have been “in-house”. It gets a mention in KUMA’s August 1982 catalog but doesn’t stick around for long. Strident suggests some kind of licensing issues (maybe because of the release of Drogna in ’83) although Sharpworks suggests the game was a “rush job” and withdrawn for quality control issues.

I know, at least, the game is supposed to be cryptic and hard.

I might say “I’ll try my best to solve honestly before succumbing to the lure of the walkthrough” except the game is ridiculously hard to control, even compared to some of the legends we’ve seen on this blog so far.

That’s a truly unorthodox verb list, and even knowing the verb that seems to fit an action doesn’t necessarily help. For example, you might think, given the direction on the sign, the next step is to WATER PLANT but the game just asks “How?” and TAKE TUBE has the game respond “TUBE?” (that is, it doesn’t recognize the noun). I tried WATER PLANT WITH TUBE and variants, also with no luck.

The only thing I’ve been able to do is SAY MYNAME to go to the next area. (The game actually instructs you to “speak” your name, yet SPEAK is not a recognized verb. There should be a name for this phenomenon, maybe “disjoint instructions”?)

The introduction said we have one Drogna “peice” already, but I have been unsuccessful in using it, even with USE (USE DROGNA: “What for?”). TYPE at least gets a response…

…and PRAY gets “OK….I’ll pray for you!” (Who puts an easter egg verb in a list of only 9 of them?)

I’m hoping there’s some basic communication norm I’m missing and things will start to go more smoothly after, but I don’t have faith anything about this game will be smooth.

(Also, thanks to Ethan Johnson for helping identify the HP computer used in the first season of The Adventure Game.)

Tuesday, 21. May 2024

Renga in Blue

Strange Adventure: Don’t Launch the Missile Next Time

I’ve finished the game, and my prior posts are needed for context to read this one. Before reaching the finale, I’d like to mention two other historical tidbits on the author. First, a number of people associated with CHROMAtrs — including the author himself — show up in this thread. A “Chuck Sites” who seems […]

I’ve finished the game, and my prior posts are needed for context to read this one.

Before reaching the finale, I’d like to mention two other historical tidbits on the author.

First, a number of people associated with CHROMAtrs — including the author himself — show up in this thread. A “Chuck Sites” who seems to be speaking from personal knowledge mentions

South Shore was lucky to get Robert French to write ChromaBasic. At Thirteen he could program circles around anybody. And he could type unbelievably fast too.

and a StevenHB, who actually worked for South Shore (the company that sold the hardware) adds

I worked with the author of CHROMA Basic, who was a (shockingly) young student from Kentucky.

with Robert French himself chiming in:

Wow, I just ran across this web page by accident. I’m the “shockingly young student from Kentucky” that StevenHB referred to above. I was 14 when I wrote and sold Chroma BASIC to South Shore, and I still remember it well. I also remember writing a Pacman-equivalent and some other games.

In the mid-80s Robert French’s other “big” TRS-80 product was a BBS system he called The French Connection.

I mention it not because the context will help with understanding Strange Adventure — it doesn’t really, other than being another showcase for our author’s machine language skills — but rather to dissuade any future historians from accidentally mixing up the program with a much more famous BBS. One of the very first personal BBSs (from 1979) was also called The French Connection, and was run out of California by an infamous con artist named Stephen Cohen. It was intended as a dating service. His shenanigans include posing as “Tammy”, who would not only keep the interest of lonely men but also extract their money (subscriptions were $18 a month).

My guess is Robert French was not aware of any of this when he named his BBS software.

Back to the game! Continuing from last time, I had vaporized a rock into rock dust (see above) and I was stuck on a “tiny hole” where the HELP command claimed some kind of hidden switch.

I pulled open the source code to solve the puzzle. First I checked the BASIC code to find the room itself:

17000 RO=33:PRINTB1$;” YOU ARE IN A SMALL ROOM. THERE IS A “;:IFAI=0THENPRINT”TINY”;ELSEPRINT”LARGE”;
17010 PRINT” HOLE AT YOUR FEET.”;:IFAI=0THENPRINT
17015 PRINT”THERE IS A PASSAGE TO THE EAST.”

It looks like the hole changes from TINY to LARGE when the variable AI is something other than 0, so I traced next where the value of AI gets changed.

156 AI=1:POKETR+NO,34:A=0:RETURN

Fine, where does line 156 get called? I traced it back to line 151, which seems to trigger when you drop an object, and specifically

IFRO=33ANDNO=7THEN156

That is, if the room number is 33 (the small room with the tiny hole) and the item we are dropping is 7, the flag changes.

Fine, which item is 7? From the machine code part I turned, with this section

SIC JEW ROP LAM BOT KEY RIN BOAT RUB LAS BAT PIL

The SICKLE is item 1, so counting from there, the RIN is 7. The ring?!? Why the ring?

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve done it. I have found, after hundreds of games, the most absolutely pure piece of moon logic ever in an adventure game, and yes, this one deserves the name of “moon logic”.

The diamond ring drops into the room below.

The dragon does not block your way (nor stop you from taking the ring) so you can just be on your way if you want, and my first time through I did that, because this puzzle is rather difficult. Not “pure moon logic” this time, just rather tricky. Rather than plow in the order I solved things let’s just get this puzzle over now.

Examining the dragon has the game say THE DRAGON IS JUST THE KIND OF DRAGON YOU MEET EVERY DAY. The HELP indicates the dragon might be sleepy, and that refers back to the NOTE from early in the game: DEAR JOHN, SLEEP WELL. GOOD NIGHT, MOTHER. I tried SAY GOOD NIGHT (SAY GOOD also works) and the game claimed nothing happened, meaning it understood the word GOOD, even though it doesn’t represent a takeable object of any sort. I also, separately, had tried to DROP PILLOW (one of the treasures I had) but also to no effect. You need to combine the actions: DROP PILLOW, and then SAY GOOD NIGHT.

Not moon logic! Not the greatest of puzzles, either — there should always be an indicator if you have half of a solution so you know you are on the right track — but not completely arbitrary either.

The bag can incidentally be used to scoop up the rock dust from earlier, which is otherwise too fine to pick up.

Proceeding onward, there’s another area with some *HONEY*, and a crack. I was able to open the crack but only because I had previously extracted the verb list, and this is how I found WI stands for WIDEN.

Probably the only time we’ll see a game that requires this verb.

The room past the crack has some *SPICES*. With the honey and spices in hand we can go out of the cave (from a western exit) and find ourselves blocked by a bear. If you throw the honey he eats it and is still hungry (and of course being a treasure that is a bad thing). The spices scare the bear off:

Past the bear is … er, whoops!

HELP informs us our decision to push the button earlier may not have been wise.

Even given the trolling, I admit I loved this moment. I anticipated already that blowing up a rocket with an unseen missile seemed unlikely to be helpful, and the game already had shown the HELP command (which encouraged pushing the button) to be a bit of a trickster.

This is true of the very first room. Climbing the tree gets you eaten (by the tree).

Re-doing everything and passing by the button:

Here the game switches to sci-fi setting.

There’s a “mysterious puddle of water creeping around the room” early on that you can destroy by throwing the sponge from earlier in the game. Close to that is an experimental lab with a flask, which gets used right away when you hop in another side room and have the door seal shut behind you.

You eventually find a teleporter which leads to an engine room, and can start the engines, then go back to a control room to launch, and have the entire rocket blow up.

For whatever reason the self-destruct system has also been activated but only triggers upon launch (or maybe it is a long enough timer it takes travel into space for it to be meaningful); that can be taken care of with another button.

If you try to go back out the airlock, things don’t go well, as you’re in orbit.

For some reason this spelling made me laugh.

The teleporter has been redirected to the planet you are orbiting, instead.

To get anywhere on the icy surface you need to throw the “rock dust” for traction, and yes, that’s very easy to miss if you weren’t ready for that. (Back at least a saved game slot! At least the game has saving!)

Notice how, in a real-universe sense, we have completely stranded ourselves on a single island on a faraway planet with only our 9 treasures to keep us company. Maybe dragon eggs are edible.

I admit I appreciated the near-twist to the ending, and felt like it matched the general theming of the HELP command with attitude and other troll-like events. I realize, in an absolute “do I recommend this” sense, the answer is quite definitely no, and if I came up with a rating system (perhaps with a clever acronym, someone want to make one up for me?) this would score near the bottom on essentially every metric, but that’s not really the point of me playing this kind of game in the first place. Usually there’s something interesting and different and memorable in even the most out-there of games, and being given wrong advice by what normally is a meta-command surely qualifies; even the snarky narrator of the Infocom version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy didn’t go that far. The closest I can think of a similar trick being pulled is the Ice-Pick Lodge game The Void, and given the company responsible is mostly famous for Pathologic, this clearly dives into territory only explorable by avant-garde Russians and fast-typing 14-year-olds.

Monday, 20. May 2024

top expert

[italic type]I, Thief[roman type]: an Inform 7 Work in Progress

A Project Announcement For many months, I’ve been referring obliquely to a work in progress I’ve called my “cave game.” As long ago as Spring Thing 2024, I’ve jokingly referred to a “Zork Zero II.” FL: So you are still keeping up with developments, after all. If you made another game, would it be like […]

A Project Announcement

For many months, I’ve been referring obliquely to a work in progress I’ve called my “cave game.” As long ago as Spring Thing 2024, I’ve jokingly referred to a “Zork Zero II.”

FL: So you are still keeping up with developments, after all. If you made another game, would it be like Photopia?

DC: Yes and no. I would not try to imitate it, because that would fail. I cannot imitate or otherwise make the "next" Photopia, because I cannot imitate its transformational context. So far as a new game goes, I've had an idea in my head since before Repeat the Ending was finished. Maybe someday. I'd like to do something closer to the Infocom games. A fan fiction, maybe [laughs]. A sequel to Zork Zero! [laughs even harder].

furthermore:

7/8: If you would prefer a game with minimalist sensibilities...

8/8: You might enjoy my next game, Zork Zero II.

and:

7/10: What's that? You don't think Repeat the Ending is "realistic"?

8/10: Who says real life is supposed to be realistic?

9/10: If you'd like to experience my take on inventory management, please look forward to my next game.

10/10: Zork Zero II.

…and so forth. I’m happy to announce that I was only half joking. My next project is called I, Thief and is a fan-made prequel to Zork I.

Features of I, Thief

I hope you will look forward to it! Here is a planned list of features and characteristics:

  • While fans of the old games will enjoy callbacks, no experience with Zork will be required to understand the story.
  • Companion fan-fiction pieces for young adult audiences, inspired by the Tor What-Do-I-Do-Now books, will give new players a friendly introduction to the world of the game, as well as game hints and clues. Read the first episode here!
  • Play as the Emperor’s Second Spymaster, wielding the lethal powers of darkness itself!
  • Learn about the development of the game by reading posts about Inform 7 on my blog, Top Expert.
  • I, Thief will be the second game in the Entropist trilogy, sharing characters and themes with my first game, Repeat the Ending.
  • In the tradition of classic Zork games, resolve a baffling time paradox to secure the future!
  • Planned for a Spring Thing 2025 release.

Choice of Games LLC

Heart’s Choice Author Interview—Lauren O’Donoghue, Love Undying

Hunt your prey as a vampire on windswept Victorian moors! Who will capture your unbeating heart?  Love Undying: A Kiss Before Dawn is an interactive romance novel by Lauren O’Donoghue. It’s entirely text-based—190,000 words and hundreds of choices—without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination. We sat down with Lauren to talk about her wo
Love Undying: A Kiss Before Dawn

Hunt your prey as a vampire on windswept Victorian moors! Who will capture your unbeating heart? 

Love Undying: A Kiss Before Dawn is an interactive romance novel by Lauren O’Donoghue. It’s entirely text-based—190,000 words and hundreds of choices—without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination. We sat down with Lauren to talk about her work and her process.

Love Undying: A Kiss Before Dawn releases this Thursday, May 23rd. You can play the first two chapters for free today!

You came to ChoiceScript having written your own interactive fiction in the past. Tell me about your interest and experience in the form.

I first became interested in interactive fiction more than a decade ago now, around the time that the first version of Twine (open-source IF software) was released. I’d always had an interest in writing games, but until then it didn’t seem like an accessible pursuit for me—seeing the things that DIY writer/designers like Christine Love, Anna Anthropy and Porpentine were doing with text-based games opened my eyes to the possibilities of the form. I played around with different IF tools and ideas back then, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I developed my first full-length game (Ataraxia). I wasn’t expecting how many doors it would open for me—since then I’ve developed text-based games for clients including the University of Leeds and Barnsley Museums, and have given a number of talks to students and industry professionals about writing interactive fiction. The flexibility of the form is so appealing to me—you can do just about anything you set your mind to, unrestrained by traditional notions of linearity and structure. Increasingly, too, with so many open-source tools geared at non-coders available, just about anyone can—and should!—be making their own interactive fiction.

Why did you choose to pitch a supernatural romance with Heart’s Choice as your first foray into ChoiceScript?

I first decided to apply to write for Heart’s Choice after seeing Rebecca Slitt’s fantastic talk “Choosing Your Happily Ever After: Choice and Agency in Romance IF” at NarraScope 2022. As a writer I’m really interested in rules—the challenge of creating work within set parameters. Rebecca talked a lot about the tropes of the genre, and what players expect from a romance game (HEA endings, etc.), and it immediately got my mind racing. What kind of stories could I tell within this structure? How could I make them compelling for as wide a variety of players as possible? When I was invited to pitch, I developed a supernatural romance concept because I’d never written anything in that genre before and I was excited to try something new. The idea for Love Undying really clicked when I decided on the Victorian setting—I write a lot of historical fiction, and combining my interest in that genre with a new, supernatural element was really fun for me.

What about the kind of design mechanics we favor did you find interesting, or perhaps struggle with?

The main difference between working in ChoiceScript compared to my previous games (developed mostly in Twine) was getting used to the structure. I had to take a step back and think, okay, how do I bring in variety and replayability when players will (for the most part) be experiencing the same events in the same order? It forced me to think outside the box a bit, which I really enjoyed. The stats-centric mechanics were much more familiar to me, and I think my favourite part of working with ChoiceScript was finding subtle ways to make the static text responsive to player choices—I wanted every playthrough to feel really unique and personal, and things like the ChoiceScript multireplace feature allowed me to create variety and texture in a really elegant, easy-to-implement way.

What other fictional pursuits of yours can you share with our readers?

As well as text-based games I also write short and long form fiction—a lot of my published work is available online for free, and there are links on my website laurenodonoghue.neocities.org (graphic design is not my passion, as you will see!) An upcoming publication I’m really excited about is Lucifers, a novelette about the 1888 Bryant & May matchgirls’ strike, that is being published as a chapbook by Blue Cubicle Press in July.

You’re now at work on a doctorate, I believe? Tell me how that’s going and what you’ll be working on for your dissertation.

I am indeed! I’m doing a PhD in Creative Writing, which is an interesting beast, as the bulk of my thesis is practice-based—in my case, a composite novel about the hillside town where I grew up. Each chapter is set in a different historical period, the stories linking together across time in a shared space. The project is allowing me to explore a lot of ideas and themes that I’m really passionate about—landscapes, social history, labour, belonging. I’m just coming to the end of my first year, and it’s been an absolute pleasure and privilege so far. My supervisors are incredible, and I already feel like I’ve grown so much as a writer. Doing a PhD gives you the freedom to play with ideas, to try things, succeed, fail, explore, interrogate your own practice, to ask yourself not only what you’re writing but how and why.

Any favorite IF you want to share or highlight as inspiration?

Absolutely! The following pieces of interactive fiction have all really inspired me and my work, and they’re all available online for free at the time of writing:

  • Digital: A Love Story – Christine Love (2010)
  • c ya laterrrr – Dan Hett (2017)
  • Tonight Dies The Moon – Tom McHenry (2015)
  • Myriad – Porpentine (2012)
  • Arcadia – Jonas Kyratzes (2012)
  • Lucid – Caliban’s Revenge (2022)
  • Heat From Fire/Fire From Heat (NSFW) – Anna Anthropy (2021)
  • Neurocracy – Joannes Truyens and Matei Stanca (2021)

And I also have to mention a few of my all-time favourite games from Choice of Games and Heart’s Choice:


Renga in Blue

Strange Adventure: Press the Button to Fire Missile

(Continued directly from my last post.) So I unstuck myself from the parser issues, had reasonably smooth sailing, then ran into more parser issues. The first thing I tried was test something Voltgloss theorized, that HELP was not just a “meta” verb but an essential one. We’ve had, for instance, absolutely essential information given by […]

(Continued directly from my last post.)

So I unstuck myself from the parser issues, had reasonably smooth sailing, then ran into more parser issues.

The first thing I tried was test something Voltgloss theorized, that HELP was not just a “meta” verb but an essential one. We’ve had, for instance, absolutely essential information given by the HELP command but not by the “proper in-universe” portion of the game.

Having tested enough times, I’d say it is more the traditional meta-shtick, although the game does a pretty good job of customizing the message for the location.

Typing HELP here says THAT SAND MIGHT COME IN HANDY.

Trying to go east and typing HELP again, though, indicates otherwise:

This is enough to indicate to me this is a “you got trapped” gag, not an actual puzzle.

Up next is the second hole, with the magic word AYUDAME. I was unable to get out of the hole while holding the rope, as I was trying things like THROW ROPE and the like, and just going UP didn’t work. The key was simply to be going UP while holding the rope and the game would let you use the rope automatically (mind you, I not sure what specific action the avatar is really taking).

From the HELP in this room, which led me to suspect I simply needed the right verb and the magic word was saved for later.

I had already marked on my map there was a tree where an attempt at using CLIMB failed because I lacked climbing equipment. With rope in hand I immediately tested CLIMB again (this time, not UP — yes, the parser is inconsistent) and was able to find an oil lamp hanging out on the top of the tree. Where they often tend to be found.

The result of trying HELP here. This is honestly where the flavor of the game is, it’s otherwise fairly straightforward sci-fi-fantasy blend.

The magic word AYUDAME, incidentally, I started testing in each and every room, marking as I went, before hitting paydirt in an entirely random place: the front of the cave immediately after getting bitten by leeches.

I knew I next needed to resolve the antiseptic bottle (the one where OPEN and APPLY and so forth didn’t work), and finally resorted to poking open the source code (or rather, in this case, the machine code file that needs to be run before the BASIC one). Here’s what I’ve come up with (this includes some information from later in this play session).

NO, SO, EA, WE, UP, DO, (directions)
GE, (get)
DR, (drop)
CH, (chop)
TH, (throw)
CL, (probably clean?)
SP, (spray)
RE, (read)
EX, (examine)
SAY, (say)
PU, (push)
SH, (shoot)
WI, (don’t know)
SM, (seems to be also open?)
OP, (open)
LI, (light)
UN, (unlight)
SAV, (save)
HEL, (help)
IN, (inventory)
SC, (score)

So the bottle is simply a spray bottle!

This is hence not so much guess-the-verb as guess-the-visualization.

Using the key (and making sure I had a lit lamp) I was able to find and enter two locked doors in the cave. One led to a TRS-80 with the message PRESS THE BUTTON TO FIRE MISSILE.

The other contains the actual button to fire the aforementioned missile. The funny thing structurally is I pushed the button first and found what it did after.

No idea where the rocket is and what happens if you don’t destroy it.

Exploring around a little more I found a rock with the message DING-A-LING; saying DING revealed a *ring*, one of the treasures. I also came across a bigger rock blocking my way, some oars, and a boat at an underground lake.

Historically, text adventures have been awful at boat control, and this game is no different. I had already dumped the verb list and nothing seemed close to helping, until I finally realized the boat was portable enough I could just pick it up, and walking NORTH into the lake while holding the boat was considered equivalent to using it.

Just a bit past that are a LASER PISTOL, some BATTERIES (needed to operate the pistol), and a *SOFT PILLOW* (another treasure).

I was able to to take the pistol back to the large rock blocking my way and shoot it.

Now, though I’ve found myself stuck in the room immediately after.

HELP gives a message about there being a hidden switch in the hole, but I have no item that seems to help with the cause of pushing it (or at least none that the parser will recognize; you’d think the sickle has a long end so you could flip it around to push whatever’s in there). Given how arbitrary the magic word use was I suspect I’ve missed a hidden object and I need to comb back over the rooms I’ve been in.

From a Jan. 1983 Micro 80 ad for CHROMAtrs.

Saturday, 18. May 2024

Gold Machine

New Episode: Graham Nelson’s The Craft of the Adventure

Further ruminations on Trinity and design craft. The Craft of the Adventure by Graham Nelson is a foundational work of game design craft. It’s a fantastic point of departure for conversations about interactive fiction. There are two versions of this text, with major differences between them. Topics discussed: In the next episode, the discussion of […] The post New Episode: Graham Nelson

Further ruminations on Trinity and design craft.

The Craft of the Adventure by Graham Nelson is a foundational work of game design craft. It’s a fantastic point of departure for conversations about interactive fiction. There are two versions of this text, with major differences between them. Topics discussed:

  • My next game
  • Microsoft studio closures
  • Famously bad puzzles in Zork II
  • General discussion of The Craft of the Adventure (1995 version)
  • Problems with creating narrative urgency in Trinity and A Mind Forever Voyaging

In the next episode, the discussion of The Craft of the Adventure continues, with an emphasis on the second, Designer’s Manual 4 edition.

The post New Episode: Graham Nelson’s The Craft of the Adventure appeared first on Gold Machine.


IFTF Blog

2023 Grant Report: “Writing with Inform Audiobook” (Ryan Veeder)

Ryan Veeder is a 2023 IFTF grant recipient who recently completed his project and reached out to share it with us, and we are absolutely blown away by the effort and love put into this project, which can be found by clicking here. Screen reader technology, while helpful, can fail to accurately render the specific punctuation use and other formal considerations that are critical to learning code. R

Ryan Veeder is a 2023 IFTF grant recipient who recently completed his project and reached out to share it with us, and we are absolutely blown away by the effort and love put into this project, which can be found by clicking here.

Screen reader technology, while helpful, can fail to accurately render the specific punctuation use and other formal considerations that are critical to learning code. Ryan’s experience helping vision-impaired users get started with Inform 7 inspired him to create spoken-word documentation for this popular language for creating parser interactive fiction.

We spoke with Ryan about the triumphs and challenges of his project:

“Putting the audiobook together was more fun than I expected. Anyone who’s familiar with Writing with Inform remembers the friendliness and cleverness in its narrative voice, but only when I started recording did I realize that voice was really a character that I’d get to perform and interpret.”

In addition to honing his voice performance, Ryan also discovered that, “as I recorded these sections, it dawned on me very, very slowly that I hadn’t included the examples in my outline—and the examples contain a lot of the most useful (and most entertaining) material! So, just when I thought I was almost done, I realized there were 42 more tracks I needed to record.”.

“I’m very grateful to IFTF for the opportunity to pursue this project. Discovering Inform through the documentation was a huge thrill for me thirteen years ago, and it’s really exciting to think I can help provide that same thrill to a broader audience.”

-Ryan Veeder

We love cheering the successes and sharing in the lessons of our grant recipients, and we’ll continue sharing them here as they come. If you’re interested in participating in our grant program, keep an eye on this blog for updates on this year’s grant application period.

Friday, 17. May 2024

Zarf Updates

My quick photo tagging app

I spent a couple of weeks in Italy and took a lot of photos. I mean, some photos. A lot for me. I'm not much of a photographer. (My dad took a lot of photos.) Upon coming home, I realized that searching my photo folder had gotten to be a nuisance. ...

I spent a couple of weeks in Italy and took a lot of photos. I mean, some photos. A lot for me. I'm not much of a photographer. (My dad took a lot of photos.)

Upon coming home, I realized that searching my photo folder had gotten to be a nuisance. It was just a directory of 1800-ish images. The only metadata was the creation date. Can't we at least have some kind of text tag system?

But how do you apply tags? Suddenly this was a design problem.

Interrupting my own narrative with a TLDR: I wrote a photo tagging app, but it's not documented or supported or anything. So you probably shouldn't try it. If you want to, great! Here's the repo. But this is a for-me project.

And this blog entry is a "what have I been up to?" post, not a project announcement.

Okay, where were we? Right, photo tagging systems.

I asked around and got a couple of reasonable suggestions:

  • Apply Mac filesystem tags in the Finder.

  • Try DigiKam, an open-source cross-platform photo management app.

  • Keep notes in a text file.

None of these felt right. DigiKam is ponderous; it does ten thousand things, of which I only care about one. I didn't want to swing that kind of mass around. (Yes, I use GnuIMP for trivial image edits, but that's different. Ahem.)

As for Mac Finder tags -- sure, I'm using a Mac already. But I'd need a way to export that data to some portable format. File metadata is fragile. (Someday this Mac will die. My next machine will probably be another Mac, but...) So there's still a design problem.

Anyhow, I have my Finder windows pretty stripped down by default. Rearranging the UI for photo-tagging would impinge on the rest of my carefully curated desktop experience. Change sucks.

Text files? You know I love text files. My financial records for my gamedev business are a big text file. (Okay, and three spreadsheets. But mostly the text file.)

Problem is, photos aren't text. I want to see the pictures and the tags together in one window.

So it seems like it's time to build a thing.


But what to build it in? Platforms? We got platforms!

  • Mac native app? (Swift? ObjC?)
  • Python and some kind of UI toolkit?
  • Command-line Python?
  • HTML/JS and Electron?
  • HTML/JS and a web server app?
  • C++/KDE? (Or GTK, or...)
  • Rust?

Believe it or not, I gave serious consideration to all of these systems. They all could be made to work. My train of thought about the tradeoffs:

While I have a lot of iOS app experience, it's quite out of date these days. Anyhow MacOS is fairly different at the UI toolkit level. I'd be learning a lot -- that's both a pro and a con! But I don't have much need for Mac app coding (which is why I've never tried it) so the positive is pretty limited.

Also, again, what if my next computer isn't a Mac? Linux people have been telling me for fifteen years that MacOS was becoming too locked-down to seriously use. I'm sure they'll be right any minute now.

Python is my favorite quick-project language, but I've never built a UI app in it. I don't even know what the UI toolkit options are. I see someone built an FAQ site on the subject. Of course there are too many options and my brain shuts down.

Rust is even worse on the UI front. I admit that I didn't give this option serious consideration.

C++? I suspect it's the most popular GUI-app language, so the toolkits must be infinite. (Including many of the same ones that Python supports. C++ can also bind to the native MacOS UI.) I only mentioned KDE above because I know GnuIMP uses it. (EDIT: Whoops, it uses GTK, thanks Daniel Smith for the note.) I'm sure this path would work out okay, but I bet it would also be bulky. C++ is heavyweight, well-established UI toolkits are heavyweight, it's just going to be a lot.

Command-line Python seems like a dead end, since I said "I want to see the pictures and the tags together in one window." But MacOS has a QuickLook feature that opens a temporary display window for any file. Maybe I could commandeer that for browsing images? A search for "macos command line quicklook" brings up some discussion, mostly about the qlmanage tool. Promising! But browsing images one at a time doesn't seem ideal. I want to scroll through lots of them.

HTML is a great way to browse images. Its UI model is primitive, even after all these years of web apps, but I don't need much beyond checkboxes and input fields.

However, the road to an HTML app forks right on your doorstep. Are you installing a web service or building an Electron app?

I've used Electron before, notably for the Lectrote IF interpreter. I know how to make it go. It's cross-platform and well-supported. The two big disadvantages are:

  • Electron is enormous. An app download runs nearly 100 MB. (160 MB for a universal Mac app, but I'm off of Intel these days so I don't need universal.)

  • Electron has pretty regular code churn. My last Lectrote release was September, using Electron version 24; the latest is 30. And you do have to adjust your code every few versions. (Some kind of Lectrote bug turned up when I tested Electron 25 or 26. I'll have to upgrade and deal with it someday.)

On the up side, once you build an Electron app, the binary remains very stable across OS upgrades. At least that's my experience. But I hate fossil code, and I don't really want to come back in five years and discover that I need to rebuild my photo system from more-or-less scratch.

What about the web service? Installing and running a web server is a headache. Installing server-side scripts is another headache, with as many options as the UI toolkit world. Python? Perl? PHP? What's CGI look like these days? (Complicated, turns out.)

But here's where things get circumstantial. I've already worked through most of these headaches. I spent a couple of months this winter building a new admin interface for the IF Archive.

A screenshot of the Archive admin web app. It shows listings for a couple of recently-uploaded Twine games, with buttons labelled "Zip", "Move", "Rename", and "Delete". The private IF Archive admin tool.

This isn't publicly available -- it's meant for Archive volunteers, who need to move files around and edit metadata on the regular. It's very Web-1.0, as you can see.

Behind the scenes, this admin tool is a Python app running in Apache via the WSGI interface. (Like CGI, but modern and Pythonic.) And I developed it on my home Mac! Which means I already have the WSGI Apache module running, and I know how to configure it.

I've even written a tiny app framework for making web apps. Currently tinyapp is just a directory in the admintool repo, but now that I've used it twice, I suppose I need to split it out into a separate project. Here's a minimal example of tinyapp:

from tinyapp.app import TinyApp
from tinyapp.handler import ReqHandler
from tinyapp.constants import PLAINTEXT

class han_Home(ReqHandler):
    def do_get(self, req):
        req.set_content_type(PLAINTEXT)
        yield 'Hello world.\n'

appinstance = TinyApp([
    ('', han_Home),
])

(This is modelled on Tornado's web-app API. I've used Tornado in the past, but not with Apache or WSGI. For simple projects it was easier to start from scratch.)


Doing this server-side (as opposed to a desktop app) has another circumstantial advantage. I have a house media server -- a Mac Mini on a shelf. It runs Apache. Why not move my photo collection there? There's no particular reason that those files need to take up space on my desktop machine. Sure, I browse them sometimes, but the photo app will be good for browsing.

Okay, so I have a plan: Apache/WSGI/Python back end, HTML/JS/jQuery front end.

(HTML forms were fine for the Archive admintool, but this is going to have a more dynamic UI. Select a checkbox, update a bunch of image tags. Search, filter, enter text with tab completion. jQuery is an old friend for that stuff.)

So all that remains is to draw the rest of the owl!

A screenshot of the photo web app. It has a column of photo thumbnail images and a large list of text tags. Credit to William Reimann for those interestingly carved rocks. The watercolor sheet shows natural pigments collected by Hanna Bernbaum. The glowy disc thing is an tech/audio project by Steve Pomeroy. The photo in the lower right is the southernmost Alp by Lake Garda -- Monte Pizzocolo, I think. And the flowers in the upper left are purple deadnettle.

I don't have much to say about the photo app itself. It shows a bunch of image thumbnails and tag checkboxes. It stores the tags in a SQLite file. Also JSON and plain greppable text, so that if the app completely rots I'll still have the raw tag data.

Here's the source. I named it "Phogg", more or less following my blog generator project, "Bloggor".

(I could have named it "Phoggor" but that just didn't sit right.)

Phogg is a tidy little project. 700 lines of Python, 800 lines of JS. Of course I'm just exporting the code-bulk to my regular web browser! Modern web browsers are the kaiju of the software world. (The guys who named "Mozilla" had no idea what they were invoking.) But we've all become numb to that.

Like I said, I have about 1800 images. (More if I decide to download all of my dad's Italy photos.) It's not a huge collection as photo collections go, but I worried about performance. <img loading=lazy> turned out to be a good idea. Also, I added some code to downscale images into thumbnails, which I store as static files. This adds an extra step when importing photos, but it's worth it.

The only surprise was that formatting 1800 timestamps with Python's datetime module was a detectable drag. I used the older time.strftime() instead. It's not as smart about timezones, but I don't have good timezone data on these photos anyhow.

Features not yet implemented: undo/redo. Gotta take a look at this repo.


And that's what I've been doing the past week. The initial commit was seven days ago, so I feel pretty good about the time investment.

Can you use Phogg? Feel free -- at your own risk. I haven't written up much in the way of install instructions. I'm not accepting change requests. I made this for my own use.

Fun, though!


Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian

Riven

Sometimes success smacks you right in the face. More often, it sneaks up on you from behind. In September of 1993, the brothers Rand and Robyn Miller and the few other employees of Cyan, Inc., were prototypical starving artists, living on “rice and beans and government cheese.” That month they saw Brøderbund publish their esoteric […]

Robyn and Rand Miller.

Sometimes success smacks you right in the face. More often, it sneaks up on you from behind.

In September of 1993, the brothers Rand and Robyn Miller and the few other employees of Cyan, Inc., were prototypical starving artists, living on “rice and beans and government cheese.” That month they saw Brøderbund publish their esoteric Apple Macintosh puzzle game Myst, which they and everyone else regarded as a niche product for a niche platform. There would go another year before it became abundantly clear that Myst, now available in a version for Microsoft Windows as well as for the Mac, was a genuine mass-market hit. It would turn into the gift that kept on giving, a game with more legs than your average millipede. It wouldn’t enjoy its best single month until December of 1996, when it would set a record for the most copies one game had ever sold in one month.

All of this — not just the sales figures themselves but the dozens of awards, the write-ups in glossy magazines like Rolling Stone and Newsweek, the fawningly overwritten profiles in Wired, the comparisons with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and Michael Jackson’s Thriller — happened just gradually enough that it seemed almost natural. Almost natural. “It took a while for it to hit me that millions of people were buying this game,” says Robyn Miller. “The most I could really wrap my head around would be to go to a huge concert and see all of the people there and think, ‘Okay, this is not even a portion of the people who are playing Myst.'”

The Miller brothers could have retired and lived very comfortably for the rest of their lives on the fortune they earned from Myst. They didn’t choose this path. “We took salaries that were fairly modest and just put the company’s money back into [a] new project,” says Rand.

Brøderbund was more than eager for a sequel to Myst, something that many far smaller hits than it got as a matter of course within a year. But the Miller brothers refused to be hurried, and did not need to be, a rare luxury indeed in their industry. Although they enjoyed a very good relationship with Brøderbund, whose marketing acumen had been essential to getting the Myst ball rolling, they did not wish to be beholden to their publisher in any way. Rather than accepting the traditional publisher advance, they decided that they would fund the sequel entirely on their own out of the royalties of the first game. This meant that, as Myst blew up bigger and bigger, their ambitions for the game they intended to call Riven were inflated in tandem. They refused to give Brøderbund a firm release date; it will be done when it’s done, they said. They took to talking about Myst as their Hobbit, Riven as their Lord of the Rings. It had taken J.R.R. Tolkien seventeen years to bridge the gap between his children’s adventure story and the most important fantasy epic in modern literary history. Surely Brøderbund could accept having to wait just a few years for Riven, especially with the sales figures Myst was still putting up.

Cyan’s digs reflected their rising status. They hadn’t even had a proper office when they were making Myst; everybody worked out of their separate homes in and around Spokane, Washington, sharing their output with one another using the “car net”: put it on a disk, get into your car, and drive it over to the other person. In the immediate aftermath of Myst’s release and promising early sales, they all piled into a drafty, unheated garage owned by their sound specialist Chris Brandkamp. Then, as the sales numbers continued to tick upward, they moved into an anonymous-looking former Comfort World Mattress storefront. Finally, in January of 1995, they broke ground on a grandiosely named “Cyan World Headquarters,” whose real-world architecture was to be modeled on the virtual architecture of Myst and Riven. While they were waiting for that building to be completed — the construction would take eighteen months — they junked the consumer-grade Macs which had slowly and laboriously done all of the 3D modeling necessary to create Myst’s environments in favor of Silicon Graphics workstations that cost $40,000 a pop.


Cyan breaks ground on their new “world headquarters.”

The completed building looked very much apiece with their games, both outside…

…and inside.

The machines that made Riven. Its imagery was rendered using $1 million worth of Silicon Graphics hardware: a dozen or so workstations connected to these four high-end servers that did the grunt work of the ray-tracing. It was a far cry from Myst, which had been made with ordinary consumer-grade Macs running off-the-shelf software.

And the people who made Riven


There were attempts to drum up controversies in the press, especially after Riven missed a tentative Christmas 1996 target date which Brøderbund had (prematurely) announced, a delay that caused the publisher’s stock price to drop by 25 percent. The journalists who always seemed to be hovering around the perimeter of Cyan’s offices claimed to sniff trouble in the air, an aroma of overstretched budgets and creative tensions. But, although there were certainly arguments — what project of this magnitude doesn’t cause arguments? — there was in truth no juicy decadence or discord going on at Cyan. The Miller brothers, sons of a preacher and still devout Christians, never lost their Heartland groundedness. They never let their fluke success go to their heads in the way of, say, the minds behind Trilobyte of The 7th Guest fame, were never even seriously tempted to move their operation to some more glamorous city than Spokane. For them, it was all about the work. And luckily for them, plenty of people were more than willing to move to Spokane for a chance to work at The House That Myst Built, which by the end of 1995 had replaced Trilobyte as the most feted single games studio in the mainstream American press, the necessary contrast to all those other unscrupulous operators who were filling their games and the minds of the nation’s youth with indiscriminate sex and violence.

The most important of all the people who were suddenly willing to come to Spokane would prove to be Richard Vander Wende, a former Disney production designer — his fingerprints were all over the recent film Aladdin — who first bumped into the Miller brothers at a Digital World Expo in Los Angeles. Wende’s conceptual contribution to Riven would be as massive as that of either of the Miller brothers, such that he would be given a richly deserved co-equal billing with them at the very top of the credits listing.

Richard Vander Wende.

Needless to say, though, there were many others who contributed as well. By the time Cyan moved into their new world headquarters in the summer of 1996, more than twenty people were actively working on Riven every day. The sequel would wind up costing ten times to fifteen times as much to make as its predecessor, filling five CDs to Myst’s lone silver platter.

Given the Millers’ artistic temperament and given the rare privilege they enjoyed of being able to make exactly the game they wished to make, one might be tempted to assume that Riven was to be some radical departure from what had come before. In reality, though, this was not the case at all. Riven was to be Myst, only more so; call it Myst perfected. Once again you would be left to wander around inside a beautiful pre-rendered 3D environment, which you would view from a first-person perspective. And once again you would be expected to solve intricate puzzles there — or not, as you chose.

Cyan had long since realized that players of Myst broke down into two broad categories. There were those they called the gamers, who engaged seriously with it as a series of logical challenges to be overcome through research, experimentation, and deduction. And then there was the other group of players — a far, far larger one, if we’re being honest — whom Cyan called the tourists, who just wanted to poke around a little inside the virtual world and take in some of the sights and sounds. These were folks like the residents of a retirement home who wrote to Cyan to say that they had been playing and enjoying Myst for two years and two months, and wanted to hear if the rumors that there were locations to explore beyond the first island — an island which constitutes about 20 percent of the full game — were in fact true.

Riven was meant to cater to both groups, by giving the gamers a much deeper, richer, more complex tapestry of puzzles to unravel, whilst simultaneously being kept as deliberately “open” as possible in terms of its geography, so that you could see most of its locations without ever having to solve a single conundrum. “The two complaints about Myst,” said Rand Miller, “were that it was too hard and too easy. We’re trying to make Riven better for both kinds of players.” Whereas Myst allowed you to visit four separate “ages” — basically, alternative dimensions — after solving those early puzzles which had so stymied the retirees, Riven was to take place all in the same dimension, on a single archipelago of five islands. You would be able to travel between the islands right from the start, using vehicles whose operation should be quite straightforward even for the most puzzle-averse players. If all you wanted to do was wander around the world of Riven, it would give you a lot more spaces in which to do so than Myst.

Of course, while the world of Riven was slowly coming together, the real world wasn’t sitting still. Myst had been followed by an inevitable flood of “Myst clones” from other publishers and studios, which, in lieu of a proper sequel from Cyan, did their best to pick up the slack by offering up their own deserted, 3D-rendered environments to explore. None of them was more than modestly successful; Activision’s Zork Nemesis, which may have done the best of them all, sold perhaps 150,000 copies, barely one-fiftieth of the final numbers that Myst put up when all was said and done. Meanwhile the genre of adventure games in general had peaked in the immediate aftermath of Myst and would be well into an increasingly precipitous decline by the time Riven shipped in October of 1997. The Last Express, the only other adventure that Brøderbund published that year, stiffed badly in the spring, despite sporting prominently on its box the name of Jordan Mechner, one of the few videogame auteurs with a reputation to rival that of the Miller brothers.

Yet Cyan’s own games still seemed weirdly proof against the marketplace pressures that were driving so many other game makers in the direction of real-time strategy and first-person shooters. In June of 1997, the nearly four-year-old Myst was propelled back to the top of the sales charts by the excitement over the approaching debut of Riven. And when it did appear, Riven didn’t disappoint the bean counters. It and Myst tag-teamed one another in the top two chart positions right through the Christmas buying season. Myst would return to number one a few more times in the course of 1998, while an entire industry continued to scratch its collective head, wondering why this particular game — a game that was now approaching its fifth birthday, making it roughly as aged as the plays of Shakespeare as the industry reckoned time — should continue to sell in such numbers. Even today, it’s hard to say precisely why Myst just kept selling and selling, defying all the usual gravities of its market. It seems that non-violent, non-hardcore gaming simply needed a standard bearer, and so it found one for itself.

Riven wasn’t quite as successful as Myst, but this doesn’t mean it didn’t do very well indeed by all of the standard metrics. Its biggest failing in comparison to its older sibling was ironically its very cutting-edge nature; whereas just about any computer that was capable of running other everyday software could run Myst by 1997, you needed a fairly recent, powerful machine to run Riven. Despite this, and despite the usual skepticism from the hardcore-gaming press — “With its familiar, lever-yanking gameplay, Riven emerges as the ultimate Myst clone,” scoffed Computer Gaming World magazine — Riven’s sales surpassed 1 million units in its first year, numbers of which any other adventure game could scarcely have dreamed.[1]An article in the May 17 2001 edition of the Los Angeles Times claimed that Riven had sold 4.5 million copies by that point, three and a half years after its release. This number has since been repeated in numerous places, including Wikipedia. I’ll eat my hat if it’s correct; this game would have left a much wider vapor trail behind it if it was. Read in context in the original article, the figure actually comes across as a typo.

Riven was a huge hit by any conventional standard, but it didn’t have the legs of Myst. Already for long stretches during 1998, it was once again being comfortably outsold by Myst. Lifetime retail sales of around 1.5 million strike me as the most likely figure — still more than enough to place Riven in the upper echelon of late 1990s computer games.

Fans and boosters of the genre naturally wanted to see a broader trend in Riven’s sales, a proof that adventures in general could still bring home the bacon with the best of them. The hard truth that the games of Cyan were always uniquely uncoupled from what was going on around them was never harder to accept than in this case. In the end, though, Riven would have no impact whatsoever on the overall trajectory of the adventure genre.


Because Riven is a sequel in such a pure sense — a game that aims to do exactly what its predecessor did, only bigger and better — your reaction to it is doomed to be dictated to a large extent by your reaction to said predecessor. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine anyone liking or loving Riven who didn’t at least like Myst.

The defining quality of both games is their thoroughgoing sense of restraint. When Myst first started to attract sales and attention, naysayers saw its minimalism through the lens of technical affordance, or rather the Miller brothers’ lack thereof: having only off-the-shelf middleware like HyperCard to work with, lacking the skill set that might have let them create better tools of their own, they just had to do the best they could with what they had. In this reading, Myst‘s static world, its almost nonexistent user interface, its lack of even such niceties as a player inventory, stemmed not so much from aesthetic intent as from the fact that it had been created with a hypertext editor that had never been meant for making games. The alternative reading is that the Miller brothers were among the few game developers who knew the value of restraint from the start, that they were by nature and inclination minimalists in an industry inclined to maximalism in all things, and this quality was their greatest strength rather than a weakness. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes, as it usually does. Regardless, there’s no denying that the brothers leaned hard into the same spirit of minimalism that had defined Myst when the time came to make Riven, even though they were now no longer technologically constrained into doing so. One camp reads this as a colossal failure of vision; the other reads it as merely staying true to the unique vision that had gotten them this far.

While I don’t want to plant myself too firmly in either corner, I must say that I am surprised by some of the things that Cyan didn’t do with twice the time and ten or fifteen times the budget. The fact that Riven still relies on static, pre-rendered scenery and node-based movement isn’t the source of my surprise; that compromise was necessary in order to achieve the visual fidelity that Cyan demanded. I’m rather surprised by how little Cyan innovated even within that basic framework. Well before Riven appeared, the makers of other Myst successors had begun to experiment with ways of creating a slightly more fluid, natural-feeling experience. Zork Nemesis, for example, stores each of its nodes as a 360-degree panorama instead of a set of fixed views, letting you smoothly turn in place through a complete circle. Riven, by contrast, confines its innovations in this area to displaying a little transition animation as you rotate between its rigidly fixed views. As a result, switching from view to view does become a little less jarring than it is in Myst, but the approach is far from even the Myst-clone state of the art.

Cyan was likewise disinterested in pursuing other solutions that would have been even easier to implement than panning rotation, but that could have made their game less awkward to play. The extent of your rotation when you click on the left or right side of the screen remains inconsistent, just as it was in Myst; sometimes it’s 90 degrees, sometimes it’s less or more. This can make simple navigation much more confusing than it needs to be, introducing a layer of fake difficulty — i.e., difficulties that you would not have if you were really in this world — which seems at odd with Cyan’s stated determination to create as immersive an experience as possible. Even a compass with which to tell which way you’re facing at any given time would have helped enormously, but no such concessions to player convenience are to hand.

Again, these are solutions that the other makers of Myst clones — not a group overly celebrated for its spirit of innovation — had long since deployed. Cyan was always a strangely self-contained entity, showing little awareness of what others were doing around them, making a virtue of their complete ignorance of the competition. In cases like these, it was perhaps not so much a virtue as a failure of simple due diligence. Building upon the work of others is the way that gaming as a whole progresses.

When it comes to storytelling as well, Riven’s differences from Myst are more a matter of execution than kind. As in Myst, there is very little story at all here, if by that we mean a foreground plot driving things along. A brief bit of exposition at the beginning picks up right where Myst ended, providing an excuse for dumping you into another open-ended environment. Whereas Myst took place entirely in deserted ages, here you’re ostensibly surrounded by the Rivenese, the vaguely Native-American-like inhabitants of the archipelago. Rather conveniently for Cyan, however, the Rivenese are terrified of strangers, and scurry away into hiding whenever you enter a scene. The few named characters you meet, including the principal villain, are likewise forever just leaving when you come upon them, or showing up, giving speeches, and then going away again before you can interact with them. By 1997, this sort of thing was feeling more tired than clever.

Rand Miller, returning in the role of the patriarch Atrus from Myst, gives you your marching orders and sends you on your way in the introductory movie. Riven makes more extensive use of such scenes involving real actors than Myst, but it’s done well, and never overdone. The end result is about as un-cheesy as these techniques can possibly look to modern eyes.

The real story, in both Myst and Riven, is the backstory that caused these spaces to become the places they are, a backstory which you uncover as you explore them. And in this area, I’m happy to say, Riven actually does outdo its predecessor. Almost everything there is to find out about how the ages of Myst became as they are is conveyed in one astonishingly clumsy infodump, a set of books which you find in a library on that first island after solving the first couple of puzzles. These stop your progress dead for an hour or so as you read through them, after which you’re back to exploring, never to be troubled by much of any exposition again.

By the time of Riven, however, the Miller brothers had learned about the existence of something called dramatic pacing. Here, too, most of the real story comes in the form of books and journals, but these are scattered around the islands, providing an enticement to solve puzzles in order to acquire and read them. The Myst “universe” grew considerably in depth and coherency between Myst and Riven, thanks to a trilogy of novels written by the British science-fiction author David Wingrove in close collaboration with the Miller brothers during that interim. In Riven, then, you get some of the same sense that you get in The Lord of the Rings, that you are only scraping the surface of a world that goes much deeper than its foreground sights and sounds. “The Lord of the Rings is so satisfying because of the details,” said Rand Miller at the time. “You get the feeling that the world you’re reading about is real. Different but real. That’s how we go about designing.” Like Tolkien, the Miller brothers went so far as to make up the beginnings at least of a coherent language for their land’s inhabitants. This sense of established lore, combined with the improved pacing and better writing, makes Riven’s backstory more compelling than that of Myst, makes uncovering more of it feel like a worthwhile goal in itself. Instead of providing a mere excuse for the gameplay, as in Myst, Riven’s backstory comes to fuel its gameplay to a large extent.

And this starts to take us into the territory of the first of the two things that Riven does really, really well, does so well in fact that you might just be willing to discount all of the failings I’ve been belaboring up to this point. The archipelago is a truly intriguing, even awe-inspiring place to explore, thank not just to the cutting-edge 3D-rendering technology that was used to bring it to life, but — and even more so — the thought that went into the place.

Riven makes its priorities clear from the beginning, when it asks you to set up your screen and your speakers to provide the immersive audiovisual experience it intends for you to have.

The adjective “surreal” seems unavoidable when discussing Myst, so much so that Brøderbund built it right into their advertising tagline. (“The Surrealistic Adventure That Will Become Your World.”) Looking back on it now, though, I realize that the surrealism of Myst was as much a product of process as intention. The 3D-modeling software that was used to create the scenery of Myst couldn’t render genuinely realistic scenes; everything it churned out was too geometrical, too stiff, too uniform in color to look in any sense real. The result was surrealism, that forlorn, otherworldly, even vaguely disturbing stripe of beauty that became the hallmark of Myst and its many imitators.

But I would not call Riven surreal. The improved technology that enabled it, on both the rendering side — meaning all those Silicon Graphics servers and workstations, with their complex ray-tracing algorithms — and the consumer-facing side — meaning the latest home computers, with their capability of displaying millions of nuanced shades of color onscreen at once — led to a more believable world. The key to it all is in the textures, the patterns that are overlaid onto the frame of a 3D model in lieu of blocks of solid color to make it look like a real object made out of wood, metal, or dirt. Cyan traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to capture thousands of textures. The same visual qualities that led to that state being dubbed the “Land of Enchantment” and drew artists like Georgia O’Keeffe to its high deserts suffuses the game, from the pueblo walls of the Rivenese homes to the pebbly cliff-side paths, from an old iron tower rusting in the sun to the ragged vegetation huddling around it. You can almost feel the sun on your back and the sweat on your skin.

My wife and I are inveterate hikers these days, planning most of our holidays around where we can get out and walk. Riven made me want to climb through the screen and roam its landscapes for myself. Myst has its charms, but they are nothing like this. When I compare the two games, I think about what a revelation the battered, weathered world of Tatooine was when Star Wars hit cinemas in 1977, how at odds it was with the antiseptic sleekness of the science-fiction films that preceded it. Riven is almost as much of a revelation when set beside Myst and its many clones.



The visuals both feed and are fed by the backstory and the world-building. The islands are replete with little details that have nothing to do with solving the game, that exist simply as natural, necessary parts of this place you’re exploring. In a perceptive video essay, YouTube creator VZedshows notes how “the lived-in world of Riven lets us look at a house and say, ‘Okay, that’s a house.’ And that’s it. A totally different thought than seeing a log cabin on Myst Island and saying, ‘Okay, that’s a house. But what is it for?’ The puzzles in Riven melt into the world around them.”

Which brings us neatly to the other thing that Riven does remarkably well, the one aimed at the gamers rather than the tourists. Quite simply, Riven is one of the most elegantly sophisticated puzzle games ever created. This facet of it is not for everyone. (I’m not even sure it’s for me, about which more in a moment.) But it does what it sets out to do uncompromisingly well. Riven is a puzzle game that doesn’t feel like a puzzle game. It rather feels like you really have been dropped onto this archipelago, with its foreign civilization and all of its foreign artifacts, and then left to your own devices to make sense of it all.

Many of Riven’s puzzles are as much anthropological as mechanical. For example, you have to learn to translate the different symbols of a foreign number system.

This is undoubtedly more realistic than the ages of Myst, whose puzzles stand out from their environs so plainly that they might as well be circled with a bright red Sharpie. But does it lead to a better game? As usual, the answer is in the eye of the beholder. Ironically, almost everything that can be said about Riven’s puzzles can be cast as either a positive or a negative. If you’re looking for an adventure game that’s nails-hard and yet scrupulously fair — a combination that’s rarer than it ought to be — Riven will not disappoint you. If not, however, it will put you right off just as soon as you grow bored with idle wandering and begin to ask yourself what the game expects you to actually be doing. Myst was widely perceived in the 1990s as being more difficult than it really was; Riven, by contrast, well and truly earns its reputation.

Each of Myst’s ages is a little game unto itself when it comes to its puzzles; you never need to use tools or information from one age to overcome a problem in another one. For better or for worse, Riven is not like that — not at all. Puzzles and clues are scattered willy-nilly all over the five islands; you might be expected to connect a symbol you’re looking at now to a gadget you last poked at hours and hours ago. Careful, copious note-taking is the only practical way to proceed. I daresay you might end up spending more time poring over your real-world journal, looking for ways to combine and thereby to make sense of the data therein, than you do looking at the monitor screen. Because most of the geography is open to you from the very beginning — this is arguably Riven’s one real concession to the needs of the marketplace, being the one that allows it to cater to the tourists as well as the gamers — there isn’t the gated progress you get in so many other puzzly adventure games, with new areas and new problems being introduced gradually as you solve the earlier ones. No, Riven throws it all at you from the start, in one big lump. You just have to keep plugging away at it when even your apparently successful deductions don’t seem to be yielding much in the way of concrete rewards, trusting that it will all come together in one big whoosh at the end.

All of which is to say that Riven is a slow game, the polar opposite of the instant gratification that defines the videogame medium in the eyes of so many. There are few shortcuts for moving through its sprawling, fragmented geography — something you’ll need to do a lot of, thanks to its refusal to contain its puzzles within smaller areas as Myst does. Just double-checking some observation you think you made earlier or confirming that some effect took place as expected represents a significant investment in time. Back in the day, when everyone was playing directly from CD, Riven was even slower than it is today, requiring you to swap discs every time you traveled to a different island.[2]Some months after its original release, Riven became one of the first games ever to be made available on DVD-ROM. No game benefited more from the switch in storage technology; not only were DVD drives faster than CD drives, but a single DVD disc was capacious enough to contain the whole of Riven. In his vintage 1997 review, Andrew Plotkin — a fellow who is without a doubt much, much smarter than I am, at least when it comes to stuff like this — said that he was able to solve Riven in about twenty hours, using just one hint. It will probably take more mortal intelligences some multiple of one or both of those figures.

Your reaction to Riven when approached in “gamer” mode will depend on whether you think this kind of intensive intellectual challenge is fun or not, as well as whether you have the excess intellectual and temporal bandwidth in your current life to go all-in on such a major undertaking. I must sheepishly confess that my answer to the first question is more prevaricating than definitive, while my answer to the second one is a pretty solid no. In the abstract, I do understand the appeal of what Riven is offering, understand how awesome it must feel to put all of these disparate pieces together without help. Nevertheless, when I approached the game for this article, I couldn’t quite find the motivation to persevere down that road. Riven wants you to work a little harder for your fun than the current version of myself is willing to do. I don’t futz around with my notebook too long before I start looking out the window and thinking about how nice it would be to take a walk in real nature. I take enough notes doing research for the articles I write; I’m not sure I want to do so much research inside a game.

Prompted partially by my experience with Riven, I’ve been musing a fair amount lately about the way we receive games, and especially how the commentary you read on this site and others similar to it can be out of step with the way the games in question existed for their players in their heyday. I’m subject to the tyranny of my editorial calendar, to the need to just finish things, one way or another, and move on. Riven is not well-suited to such a mindset. In my travels around the Internet, I’ve noticed that those who remember the game most fondly often took months or years to finish it, or never finished it at all. It existed for them as a tempting curiosity, to be picked up from time to time and poked at, just to see if a little more progress was possible here or there, or whether the brainstorm that came to them unbidden while driving home from work that day might bear some sort of fruit. It’s an open question whether even folks who don’t have an editorial schedule to keep can recapture that mindset here and now, in the third decade (!) of the 21st century, when more entertainment of every conceivable type than any of us could possibly consume in a lifetime is constantly luring us away from any such hard nut as Riven. As of this writing, Cyan is preparing a remake of Riven. It will be interesting to see what concessions, if any, they chose to make to our new reality.

Even in the late 1990s, there was the palpable sense that Riven represented the end of an era, that even Cyan would not be able to catch lightning in a bottle a third time with yet another cerebral, contemplative, zeitgeist-stamping single-player puzzle game. Both Richard Vander Wende and Robyn Miller quit the company as soon as the obligatory rounds of promotional interviews had been completed, leaving the Myst franchise’s future solely in the hands of Rand Miller. Robyn’s stated reason for departing brings to the fore some of the frustrations I have with Cyan’s work. He said that he was most interested in telling stories, and had concluded that computer games just weren’t any good at that: “I felt like, you know what? It’s not working. This whole story thing is not happening, and one of the reasons it’s not happening is because of the medium. It’s not what this medium is good at.” So, he said, he wanted to work in film instead.

The obvious response is that Cyan had never actually tried to tell an engaging foreground story, had rather been content to leave you always picking up the breadcrumbs of backstory. Cyan’s stubborn conservatism in terms of form and their slightly snooty insistence on living in their own hermetically sealed bubble, blissfully unaware of the innovations going on around them in their industry in both storytelling and other aspects of game making, strike me as this unquestionably talented group’s least attractive qualities by far. When asked once what his favorite games were, Richard Vander Wende said he didn’t have any: “Robyn and I are not really interested in games of any kind. We’re more interested in building worlds. To us, Myst and Riven are not ‘games’ at all.” Such scare-quoted condescension does no one any favors.

Then again, that’s only one way of looking at it. Another way is to recognize that Riven is exactly the game — okay, if you like, the world — that its creators wanted to make. It’s worth acknowledging, even celebrating, as the brave artistic statement it is. Love it or hate it, Riven knows what it wants to be, and succeeds in being exactly that — no more, no less. Rather than The Lord of the Rings, call it the Ulysses of gaming: a daunting creation by any standard, but one that can be very rewarding to those willing and able to meet it where it lives. That a game like this outsold dozens of its more visceral, immediate rivals on the store shelves of the late 1990s is surely one of the wonders of the age.



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


Sources: The books The Secret History of Mac Gaming (Expanded Edition) by Richard Moss, From Myst to Riven: The Creations & Inspirations by Richard Kadrey, and Riven: The Sequel to Myst: The Official Strategy Guide by Rick Barba; Computer Gaming World of January 1998; Retro Gamer 208; Wired of September 1997; Game Developer of March 1998. Plus the “making of” documentary that was included with the DVD version of Riven. The sales figures for Zork Nemesis come from the Jordan Mechner archive at the Strong Museum of Play.

Online sources include GameSpot’s old preview of Riven, Salon’s profile of the Miller brothers on the occasion of Robyn’s departure from Cyan, VZedshows’s video essay on Myst and Riven, and Andrew Plotkin’s old review of Riven.

The original version of Riven is currently available as a digital purchase on GOG.com. As noted in the article above, a remake is in the works at Cyan.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 An article in the May 17 2001 edition of the Los Angeles Times claimed that Riven had sold 4.5 million copies by that point, three and a half years after its release. This number has since been repeated in numerous places, including Wikipedia. I’ll eat my hat if it’s correct; this game would have left a much wider vapor trail behind it if it was. Read in context in the original article, the figure actually comes across as a typo.

Riven was a huge hit by any conventional standard, but it didn’t have the legs of Myst. Already for long stretches during 1998, it was once again being comfortably outsold by Myst. Lifetime retail sales of around 1.5 million strike me as the most likely figure — still more than enough to place Riven in the upper echelon of late 1990s computer games.

2 Some months after its original release, Riven became one of the first games ever to be made available on DVD-ROM. No game benefited more from the switch in storage technology; not only were DVD drives faster than CD drives, but a single DVD disc was capacious enough to contain the whole of Riven.

Zarf Updates

Microsoft cancels next surprise hit game

Dateline May 7th (or May 2, or Apr 12, or Mar 28, or...) Microsoft shocked industry observers today by announcing the cancellation of its upcoming unexpected hit game. The title was still in production, and would have been launched with little ...

Dateline May 7th (or May 2, or Apr 12, or Mar 28, or...)

Microsoft shocked industry observers today by announcing the cancellation of its upcoming unexpected hit game. The title was still in production, and would have been launched with little fanfare, but would have blasted its way to the top of the charts as next season's surprise bestseller.

"Of course we don't know which game the hit would be," commented the team's (ex-) lead designer. "The next Arkane Austin game? The next Tango Gameworks? Alpha Dog? I guess now we'll never find out."

Microsoft executives insisted that the upcoming hit might not have been a Microsoft title at all. "For all we know, the surprise success might have been coming from Take Two or Electronic Arts. Or Sega. Or one of those Embracer acquisitions. Any of them! I mean," one executive added with a nervous cough, "Not any more. Obviously."

With the week's layoffs out of the way and the risk of a breakout success safely neutralized, Microsoft's remaining developers have settled back to work on their roster of sure-fire sellers. With its new focus on reliable, brand-tested IP and safe genres, the company can be certain that the only surprises in the next few years will be surprise failures.

Thursday, 16. May 2024

Choice of Games LLC

33% off Choice of the Vampire

Choice of the Vampire is 33% off until May 23, including its two game-length DLCs, The Fall of Memphis and St. Louis, Unreal City. Slake your thirst—without becoming a monster! Blessed with the blood-soaked gift of immortality, will you tend the flock of humanity—or twist it to your whims? When a brash young country clashes with a brash young vampire, who will come out ahead? Choice of the Vampire

Choice of the Vampire is 33% off until May 23, including its two game-length DLCs, The Fall of Memphis and St. Louis, Unreal City.

Slake your thirst—without becoming a monster! Blessed with the blood-soaked gift of immortality, will you tend the flock of humanity—or twist it to your whims? When a brash young country clashes with a brash young vampire, who will come out ahead?

Choice of the Vampire is an epic interactive novel by Jason Stevan Hill. It’s entirely text-based, 900,000 words and hundreds of choices, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination. 

Announcing St. Louis, Unreal City four years late

If you hadn’t heard about St. Louis, Unreal City, well, you’re not alone. We quietly made it available to the public in 2020, but we’ve never officially announced it until today.

With the turning of the century, St. Louis sits at the navel of the United States. The elite of the city celebrate by throwing the party of all parties—the 1904 World’s Fair. Every vampire who is any vampire will be there!

As your character concludes their first century of unlife, they must navigate the waters of industrialization and urbanization. But a monster roams the Missouri countryside, hunting vampires. Will the vampire court of St. Louis tear itself apart even before he comes for their heartsblood? And how can this unreal city look to the future when the specters of the past refuse to stay dead?

It took four years to get ready to make this announcement

It took a long, long time to prepare for this announcement, because Choice of the Vampire is one of the most complicated games we’ve ever published, offering an unprecedented variety in the type of vampire you can be.

For example, when you first become a vampire during the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, you can choose from a dozen wildly different human backgrounds. You can be a Choctaw interpreter, a French landowner, a Free Person of Color, an ordained priest, an Irish laborer, a Yankee entrepreneur, and many more.

Your choice of background affects the entire rest of the game, as you live through a hundred years of American history. Each background engages differently with the Civil War, Reconstruction, the liberation of Haiti, the Exodusters, Cuba, lynchings, and vodou. Your character may or may not be literate, may or may not speak English, French, German, Latin, Spanish, or Choctaw.

Furthermore, you might have been turned into a vampire by one of six different vampires, each with their own unique background, and, besides that, you might decide to kill your maker in the first five minutes of the game, or flee New Orleans entirely, playing an alternate version of the first part of the game in the village of St. Charles.

This complexity affects every part of the game; the longer the game gets, the more complex it becomes.

Initially, we thought we’d “soft launch” the St. Louis DLC, fix up any bugs that users reported, and do a a proper announcement a week or two later. Well, here we are, four years later, and we’re finally ready to announce it.

We can’t say that a game like this will ever be truly bug free, but we think it’s ready for you now.

If you’ve never played it, we can’t wait for you to try it. If you’ve played before, we invite you to return to one of the most replayable games we’ve ever made.

Tuesday, 14. May 2024

top expert

let’s make IF: more about time.

a prefatory note. Welcome, or else welcome back! As many of you already know, I am a relative beginner to Inform 7. Some of you might be, too. That’s great! We can be beginners together. My primary purpose in writing this blog is to make introductory content. It can be intimidating to start out with […]

a prefatory note.

Welcome, or else welcome back! As many of you already know, I am a relative beginner to Inform 7. Some of you might be, too. That’s great! We can be beginners together. My primary purpose in writing this blog is to make introductory content. It can be intimidating to start out with Inform, so I thought I’d carve out a space for newcomers like us to learn more about it. I love Inform 7; I think it’s great fun. There may be better ways to do anything that I do here, but sometimes making something that works is more than enough. My message is this: Inform is for everyone.

Let’s make IF!

other options.

If you’ve been reading this series for a while, you might be wondering: what about scenes? Scenes are used extensively in my other project, Marbles, D, and the Sinister Spotlight, and I’ve written about that here. What are they? Scenes are a way to sculp a sort of temporal geography in a game. They begin and end based on certain conditions, and, while they are happening, we can customize action processing or printed output.

fire is a scene. fire begins when play begins.

the burning house is south of relative safety.

instead of going south from relative safety when the fire is happening:
	say "No way. I'm not going into a burning house."

And yes! Inform keeps count of passed turns (though it insists upon calling them minutes) within scenes, making it easy to have a countdown (or “count up,” in this case).

the ramshackle barn is a room. it is in the disaster area.

collapsing barn is a scene.
collapsing barn begins when play begins.
collapsing barn ends when the player is in relative safety for the first time.

when collapsing barn ends:
	say "Whew, that was a close one!".

before doing something when collapsing barn is happening:
	if time since collapsing barn began is three minutes:
		end the story saying "uh-oh.".

every turn when collapsing barn is happening:
	let the escalating danger be time since collapsing barn began;
	say "[if escalating danger is zero minutes]The floor wobbles beneath you.[otherwise if escalating danger is one minute]The ceiling shakes above you.[otherwise if escalating danger is two minutes]You are running out of time. The barn is about to fall on your head![otherwise]This condition should never occur. What an embarrassing turn of events!".

I think it’s clear that there is a higher up-front cost for this approach. Assigning a number to a group of rooms can be done in two lines of code. Using phrases like “countdown of the location” allows us to write general code that works in specific ways that are relative to the state of the game world. It’s efficient, and the examples from last time are pretty easy to understand. Why would we ever use scenes for this type of thing?

Scenes don’t, out of the box, do things that we couldn’t do with a bunch of custom variables and rules. This is stated explicitly in the Inform 7 documentation. However, because they are a core feature Inform 7, we have a lot that’s already built for us. They also are well suited to what is arguably Inform 7’s greatest strength, readable code. “Every turn when collapsing barn is happening” is not just easy to read; it’s easy to imagine. Still, we could just as easily change our “countdown” to some other named value if it helped us make sense of a simple number that varies.

It is great giving a value to every room, but we’ll need to do some more work–things we didn’t consider last time–to contain things. If only four rooms in the game need a countdown, we’ll need to think about the implications of assigning one to every room. Do we create a region, put the four rooms inside of it, then name the region in our every turn rules? The scene approach requires more setup but our code is far less likely to escape its confines. Giving a value to everything and checking it every turn is “big” code.

Obviously, we always want Goldilocks code. We want it to be perfectly sized, but sometimes one has to pick their poison.

The greatest selling point of the scenes strategy is this: scenes are organized–with links–in the project index. This is very powerful and is a great help in a large project. It’s hard–and my own experience with Repeat the Ending can attest to this–to keep track of a bunch of loose values. RTE is 152k words! If only I had understood scenes at the time.

A screenshot of the Scenes Index from the Inform 7 development environment for Windows. It lists all scenes in the project, with links to their beginnings and endings within the source code.

While there will always be occasions where a simple number value makes more sense, I am growing more and more enamored with scenes lately. I like that I don’t have to remember a lot of number values or global states. It’s harder to get started with them, but it is worth it end the end. I’ve written quite a lot about them, but I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.

In my current project, the “cave game,” there is a whole lot of collapsing and counting and exploding going on. I’d like the opening to be very exciting, with tension but without frustration. I’m not sure if I can pull that off! There are several rooms–more than those used in our sample code. Let’s get a count of those rooms, which are all in a region called “greater earthquake territory.”

gting is an action applying to nothing.

understand "gt" as gting.

carry out gting:
	let room count be 0;
	repeat with place running through rooms:
		if place is in greater earthquake territory:
			say place;
			say line break;
			increment room count;
	say "total rooms: [room count]";
	say "[line break]".

This should get us names and count of every room in my “greater earthquake territory” region via a *GT* command. Here’s the output:

>gt
Button Room
Engravings Room
Damp Passage
Junction
Endless Stair
Creepy Crawl
Royal Hall
Great Door
total rooms: 8

So, with the current options under discussion, we’d have either eight countdown values or else eight scenes. Or… would we? Let’s jot down some requirements:

  • eight sequentially connected rooms.
  • this is a one-way trip; once the player moves, they cannot go back.
  • after the player has been in one of these rooms a certain number of turns (3?), something happens (death? probably nothing so serious, but something).
  • dramatic, environmental text should print every turn (less/more?) to keep pressure on and make the danger visible.
  • there may be a couple of “solace” rooms in the middle that do not collapse, but there should still be some flavor text printing after turn processing.

That’s a lot to do! Now, I do need to take care not to share too much, as this is a competition piece, but I think I can at least share some coding ideas next time. I’ll share a concept for tracking turns in a series of rooms, with some kind of non-death event when a specified amount of time elapses.

etc.

What else is going on? This may be the last post here for the week, as I would like to make some progress on Trinity. Some of you–quite reasonably–have wondered what is happening there. That would include a Gold Machine post, as well as a podcast about both versions of Graham Nelson’s “The Craft of the Adventure.” Here’s hoping! I have a post about Victor Gijsbers’s The Game Formerly Known as Hidden Nazi Mode in the oven, too.

I’ve also been streaming non-IF titles on twitch and porting them over to YouTube. I’ve completed a full walkthrough of From Software’s Elden Ring and have begun streaming Arkane Austin’s (RIP) Prey. The Elden Ring series is also up at YouTube.

I’ll probably do a formal project announcement for the “cave game,” title and all, in the near future.

next.

this place is coming apart!

Monday, 13. May 2024

Renga in Blue

Strange Adventure (1982)

Robert S. French is another one of the teenaged computer experts (like Stepka with Castle Fantasy, and Goodman with Building of Death) that wrote one adventure game amidst their tech-savvy early life and went on to prominence in a field other than games. In Mr. French’s case he has his name on 18 different patents […]

Robert S. French is another one of the teenaged computer experts (like Stepka with Castle Fantasy, and Goodman with Building of Death) that wrote one adventure game amidst their tech-savvy early life and went on to prominence in a field other than games. In Mr. French’s case he has his name on 18 different patents related to parallel computing and now works at SETI in astronomy research. His most recent paper he lists as Orbits and Resonances of the Regular Moons of Neptune.

From Robert’s own web page he lists this period — prior to starting a Bachelor’s in Computer Science at MIT — as working at Various Companies from Louisville, Kentucky.

Implemented accounting and inventory software for several companies. Managed a small programming department at a mail-order company. Developed a new BASIC interpreter that was sold with the ChromaTRS color graphics board for the TRS-80. Developed dozens of utilities and games for the TRS-80 that were sold commercially. Developed some of the first shareware for the Amiga, including a well-regarded Mandelbrot set exploration system. Tutored students in programming concepts.

There were a number of “color conversions” for the basic black-and-white TRS-80, including one from a company in Canada sold in 1979, although the most prominent was ChromaTRS, which started being sold for Model I and Model III computers in 1982.

French’s contribution was writing CHROMA BASIC. From the manual:

CHROMA BASIC is a new program for use with a CHROMAtrs (T.M.} COLOR ADD-ON. Included in the CHROMA BASIC program are many, easy-to-use, graphics commands that can either be written into any Basic program or used independently.

His heavy familiarity with machine code interfaces explains a bit of technical oddity to today’s game, Strange Adventure, rather optimistically entitled Adventure #1 (there was no Adventure #2). In order to run it you need to first run an assembly language file which stays in memory (and seems to handle some parser aspects) before loading a BASIC file to run the game. You also need to crank the memory to 64560 when prompted for “Memory Size”. (I needed help from the trs80gp Discord group to puzzle this out, and George Phillips — one of the trs80gp co-authors — worked out the issue. Thanks!)

Regarding the “American Software Co.” label, Mr. French sold some other software by this name, mainly arcade clones.

It is, as the instructions say, another treasure hunt with asterisks around the names of treasures. This time there’s more than one, and the first one is in the very first room of the game.

Typing GET JEWEL has the game respond I DON’T SEE IT HERE which isn’t a great first impression. You’re supposed to GET SICKLE and then CHOP TREE.

THE JEWEL HAS FALLEN OUT OF THE TREE.

And that’s the only treasure I’ve seen so far. I’m stuck pretty early, in one case almost surely on a parser issue, with other puzzles I’m not sure. Here’s the lay of the land so far, zoomed out:

There’s a “jungle path” that passes through, marked in green; you start on the far east and there are “branches” along the way.

The first branch has a crowbar and a sponge out in the open, and a cryptic note.

This area also has some quicksand that doesn’t kill you right away, so it might be a puzzle, or it might just be a time-wasting trap.

I haven’t fully caught the vibe yet which option (ignore, or it is a puzzle) I should expect.

The next area has traffic you can kill yourself on…

…and then there’s a dead end. You can drop down a hole to find a rope (and no verb I’ve tried lets me use the rope to get back) and a magic word on a wall.

I have yet to try this in every single room, but I worry the game might be coded so you have to see the word before it works.

Finally, trying to go farther west forces you to cross a stream with leeches. The leeches bite you and after enough time the bites become infected and you die.

Fortunately, there’s a cave just past the stream with with SOLARCAINE ANTISEPTIC that ought to work. Unfortunately, no verb I’ve tried has worked for using the bottle. What I did discover is that the verb is a two-letter parser; that is, if you type DRINK BOTTLE the game turns it into DR BO, thinks you meant DROP BOTTLE, and the bottle now appears on the screen, confusing someone (like myself) who didn’t realize the parser limits yet). And yes, I realize the antiseptic ought to be applied topically, but I haven’t found a command that actually does that.

Also, if you go deeper into the cave and try to do any command, you trip over a rock and die, presumably due to lack of light.

My attempt at making a verb list at the moment is consequently an absolute mess:

I can tell easily, for instance, that WEAR is being parsed as WEST and RESET is being parsed as READ. However, I’m not clear about “CL” — the game gives a vague response, so it might be CLEAN (especially given the sponge) but maybe it is CLOSE instead? I’ll have to keep investigating. “SM” on any object I’ve tried says that the object is not a door, but is SMASH the most logical verb then? I could of course plunge into the source code but I’m not at that level of desperation yet, even though I have the nagging feeling the bottle solution might involve an unmentioned noun (that is, something like CURE BITES even though the BITES aren’t given as a specific target).

Sunday, 12. May 2024

Renga in Blue

Magic Mirror (1982/1983)

Back in the early 80s, Mike Taylor was just wanting to buy a copy of Skramble from Terminal Software for the VIC-20. It was one of the many, many, clones of the arcade game Scramble. When he wrote in to order, he also mentioned “in passing” if they’d like to see the adventure game he […]

Back in the early 80s, Mike Taylor was just wanting to buy a copy of Skramble from Terminal Software for the VIC-20. It was one of the many, many, clones of the arcade game Scramble.

When he wrote in to order, he also mentioned “in passing” if they’d like to see the adventure game he had written. Indeed they did, and yes, all the companies in the UK was publishing tapes like a blizzard.

By our definitions, this was written as a private game (1982) that was published almost by chance a year later (1983). We probably should come up with a word for this, as it is different from a purely private game (like Danny Browne’s work) and a purely commercial game (The Mask of the Sun). The best example of this middle-state is Softporn Adventure which was written for friends, and the content meant the author had a great deal of failure trying to get the game to market before it got picked up by On-Line Systems (and eventually transformed into Leisure Suit Larry).

This was heavily influenced by Scott Adams (which could run on a memory-expanded VIC-20), rather than Crowther/Woods Adventure (which could not), and the author notes:

…it’s interesting to see how many conventions I unconsciously adopted from Scott Adams – things that I didn’t even recognise as being stylised until years later when I played very different games such as the original Crowther/Woods Adventure.

No lore to speak of this time:

The object of the game is to retrieve the Magic Mirror from wherever it might be in the programme’s landscape.

This kind of qualifies as a Treasure Hunt, but with only one item.

Also, this isn’t quite the bare-bones unmodified VIC-20; as the tape art indicates, 8K of expansion memory is required. This is still quite minimal and less than a standard TRS-80 game, and room descriptions are correspondingly succinct.

Just to give the main gimmick straightway, the general structure of this game seems to be an item relay. That is, the game passes through a series of “biomes”, there is an inventory limit of five, and a series of puzzles where you have to reckon with the fact you need to move more five items from biome to biome. This doesn’t sound glamorous to the modern gamer, but the puzzles are otherwise fairly straightforward, so it’s what makes the game have sufficient density to be satisfying. (The very last puzzle is not of the same type and is just mean, but we’ll get to that.)

The game starts out in “your residence” and is reminiscent of Pirate Adventure starting in your apparent. There’s some hidden passages (like the one above) but the objects and rooms are minimal enough the secrets are generally meant to build atmosphere rather than be puzzling.

You can collect a BOOK, MEDAL, SWORD, KEY, AQUALUNG, and shiny TORCH, as well as find a Storeroom that indicates STORE THE MIRROR HERE. That is six items and we’re already hitting our item limit issue; to go to the next area you need to go out a window, but you can’t immediately go back again.

You instead need to find a LADDER at a rose bed, bring it back to the window, and then you can CLIMB LADDER back up to where the house is to get the sixth item.

In what I’ll call the “garden area” you can also find some SPECTACLES in order to read the BOOK which tells you a useful magic word is ZONK. The SPECTACLES and BOOK are no longer necessary at this point, and the ZONK word works if you are holding the torch.

I had tested ZONK before picking up the torch, leading me to this scene later.

You need to do some guess-the-verb and FOLLOW PATH in order to get to an area with a pond, and a swamp with some WHISKY. To recap our item situation, we’ve got an AQUALUNG, MEDAL, SWORD, KEY, and TORCH, but WHISKY would bring our items up to six. Thinking perhaps I could loop back later I went forward with the five items, wearing the aqualung and jumping into the pond.

Unfortunately, this drops you at a “damp semidark chamber” (see lower left of the map above) where you can’t go back up again, so it’s another one-way trip, and this time, there’s no way of going back up. You can only move forward into darkness (see torch scene) to a stream which you can swim, followed by a chasm which you can jump.

Keeping with the general theme, jumping over the chasm with too many objects breaks your neck, so you have to carry two things — the torch and one other item — over by ferrying back and forth.

I found a “drunk ogre” on the other side and realized I needed that whisky after all (GIVE WHISKY just causes it to disappear, no description even of what happens, you can use your imagination). This is next to a “narrow tunnel” with a large rock hiding a canoe in one direction…

…and a deep lake in the other direction, which the canoe automatically gets used on (it’s too deep for swimming).

I was stumped here for a while; going out in the canoe seems to cause you to get stuck (see above) and I ended up dragging out my verb chart.

I didn’t need to go all the way to solve the puzzle, but here’s the complete chart for reference. LISTEN tracks as LIST or INVENTORY, while the words like SWING are being interpreted as different verbs; SWI stands for SWIM.

The majority of the game’s verbs require a noun, including, rather puzzlingly, LOOK. In order to show a room description you need to LOOK AROUND. This made it so the right command, WAIT (just the one word) was off my radar, but I went through typing it anyway and found out the canoe was steering itself:

I found a manhole up high on the other side and realized I needed the LADDER from way back at the house. The problem was the pond was a one-way trip! I realized — given THROW was a verb, I could THROW items while next to the pond and they’d go in, and I could find them on the other side. This allowed me to redo the whole section — in multiple rounds — carrying over the WHISKY, MEDAL, SWORD, KEY, LADDER, AQUALUNG, and TORCH, eventually picking up the CANOE as well ferrying them all over to the manhole.

The ladder disappears under you as you go up the manhole, so this is another item check. What you need still is the SWORD, MEDAL, and AQUALUNG. (You also still need the ladder! … and yes, it disappeared … we’ll get back to that.)

There’s a “pink palace” with a guard that will take your MEDAL as a bribe.

This leaves open the palace which has a pool. If you have the aqualung worn, you can dive through the pool and make it back to the lake near the start, so we’ve found a way to loop back to the opening of the game.

The exit from the Courtyard is what goes back to the pond at the garden area.

Other than that, there’s a mean dwarf (KILL DWARF with the sword)…

…where you can find an AXE just afterwards. You can then take the axe over to an “impenetrable forest” and CHOP FOREST to expose a new route.

This leads to the *MAGIC MIRROR*! With the mirror in hand I could then jump back to the pond, go back to the house at the start…

…and realize I didn’t have my ladder any more to reach the window. Drat.

It turns out the ladder has re-materialized back at the rose bed where you first found it. I was just visiting everywhere in a futile attempt to see if I could get something new to happen with the MIRROR (you can’t rub it, or wave it, or anything). So you can take the ladder after all, make your way back in the house to the Storeroom, and then, find one last nasty surprise:

LEAVE (which worked in Zodiac on a breakable object to indicate “set down gently”) gets the same smashing result. I was able to THROW the mirror (!) and it safely landed, but no winning condition, so I assume I hit a bug.

A winner is me?

I needed hints for this very last puzzle. Every other hidden object in the game has been associated with another object, but once — and only once during the game — it turns out you need to LOOK NAME-OF-ROOM to find an object. Back in the cellar (which has a sword) you need to LOOK CELLAR to find a second item.

With the box at the Storeroom, you can safely drop the mirror.

Even with that final stumble, I found this enjoyable out of normal proportion for a minimalist game with no real “daemons” or other complexity which are usually needed to make difficult puzzles. The item-juggling took over sufficiently as a mechanic that I was engaged with the world beyond a simple apply-key-to-lock hunt, and out of the VIC-20 library this honestly was much more playable than Bruce Robinson’s work.

The author happens to be a longtime reader of this blog, so if I could ask some questions:

1.) Other than Pirate Adventure, what other Scott Adams games lent specific inspirations?

2.) Did the concept of shuffling items as a primary mechanic come from some Scott Adams moment in particular?

3.) Did you think at all about the possibility of publishing the game before the offhand mention to Terminal Software?

I was going to hit another reader-made game next. As of this writing Andrew Plotkin’s game Inhumane is listed at CASA Solution Archive as being written in 1982, so I had it queued up. However, reading the details, I found it was an Infidel parody, and since Infocom’s game Infidel wasn’t out until 1983, I knew something had to be wrong. The real release year is 1985 1984. So we have to pass by, but possibly Andrew is not upset about the game getting kicked far down along the queue (this was written when he was very young).

I still would like one more “breather game” before I take on my next monster, so I’ll try to find something random that will fit for next time.

Friday, 10. May 2024

top expert

let’s IF: further thoughts on space and time

where were we? Those of you have been following this content since the tumblr days probably remember some posts about rooms collapsing based on timers. This isn’t hard to do; as always, it’s the details that challenge us. It’s easy to tell inform that a thing, or kind of thing, has a value associated with […]

where were we?

Those of you have been following this content since the tumblr days probably remember some posts about rooms collapsing based on timers. This isn’t hard to do; as always, it’s the details that challenge us. It’s easy to tell inform that a thing, or kind of thing, has a value associated with it. In my old examples, it was as simple as this:

a room has a number called countdown.

We can set a default value for every room:

a countdown is usually three.

The countdown can decrement every turn, and when it reaches zero, that can be used to trigger something. In those earlier discussions, I stressed the importance of considering when the countdown number changes. Because Inform has an “every turn” rulebook built in, that is an easy enough place to start.

every turn when the countdown of the location is not zero:
	decrement the countdown of the location.

We’ll have to add something else for when the countdown is zero. We want to make sure both down fire in the same turn (that is, decrement to zero and immediately do whatever is meant to execute on turn zero). I’d marry the two in a single rule:

every turn:
	if the countdown of the location is not zero:
		decrement the countdown of the location;
	otherwise:
		end the story saying "game over".

This will only let one or the other fire. I don’t like it very much, though, because I’d like to qualify “every turn” in some way. Such nonspecific rules can lead to unexpected behavior.

Note that kind of vagueness will almost certainly not lead to a performance problem. My concern is that I want to avoid unhelpful debug information from RULES ON output. Over the course of a game, that output can become quite busy! Fortunately, we’ll have a chance to whittle things back in a moment.

sidebar: i don’t want to have rooms collapse, why should i care about this

Now and again, a critic will assert that “interactive fiction” (in the narrow sense of a product sold by Infocom in the 1980s) is “not really fiction.” I find such claims a little reductive–fiction is not necessarily a cascade of events–but I do grant that parser games often lack urgency or momentum. Time in those classic games is usually just a kind of expendable resource. In Zork I and II, the batteries in the lamp last a set number of turns. While that sort of design does require player efficiency, it hardly ever feels urgent from turn to turn.

On the other hand, in other games, the passage of time affects the game world visibly. There is the earthquake in Zork III, in which one passage closes and another opens. In both cases, the change is irreversible. This potentially game-breaking event has upset players over the years, but changing the world rather than an object (the lamp’s batteries, in our examples) was a momentous innovation. In Enchanter, the world deteriorates with each passing day. The nights grow longer, and enemies are emboldened.

These are effective ways to complicate the player’s apprehension of the game world. The lamp could be handled in a very similar way.

every turn when the lamp is lit:
	decrement the battery life.

We could make things more dramatic by printing ominous warnings when the battery life reaches certain thresholds.

All the same, this design, while encouraging efficiency, will not necessarily create suspense moment-to-moment. Perhaps a protagonist has only a moment or two to tell a love interest their true feelings, before that person is gone for their life forever. That might be done with a timer. A fuse could be lit. A tank might fill with water. Any event that is brief and localized might be handled with a simple countdown.

just when is when: thoughts on action processing and timers

A lot happens in action processing. In fact, the whole game happens during action processing! Because an Inform 7 world can be complex with many moving parts, games process rules sequentially (any possible exceptions are beyond the comprehension of we mere mortals!). Even rules that appear to have no particular priority (instead rules, for instance, are all in one rulebook) will often be processed according to their place, top to bottom, in the source code. If you have a decent-sized game (60k words, perhaps), you will not want to figure out where rules are situated within your source code.

For this and many other reasons, you will spare yourself a generous helping of heartache if you write rules that are a) specific and b) thoughtfully situated within action processing.

In a simple countdown rule, consider when things should happen. Every turn rules happen at the very end of action processing. That means that the player will do whatever they were trying to do, then the number will change. However, you might the “zero event” (room collapse, romantic interest leaving for good, whatever) to happen BEFORE the player acts. I’ll break up our earlier rule:

every turn when the countdown of the location is not zero:
	decrement the countdown of the location.
	
before doing something when the countdown of the location is zero:
	end the story saying "game over".

Now, in reality, we probably wouldn’t want to end the player’s game for good. We’d probably want to reset the count and warn the player. Or some such thing. Or maybe the zero count would trigger a truth state that we could use to end the countdown for good.

But wait… last week, we had some “first before” rules. How will that effect things?

Quite dramatically, in fact. As a memory jogger, here is one of those rules:

first before xyzzying something with something magical when the player is tinert:
	if the second noun is in the location:
		try xyzzying the noun instead;
	otherwise:
		say the parser error internal rule response (E) instead.

Since we have “instead” at the end, if Inform processes this rule first, that will be the end of it; our other rule will never fire! Since we don’t want to get in a situation where we are troubleshooting our code spatially (locating its place in a sequence), we’ll need to reconsider our ordering. I think we’ll keep the timer rule as a before and move these other rules to “instead.” Looking at everything together:

instead of xyzzying something with something that is not magical when the player is tinert:
	say "The [second noun] is not a viable source of magic.".
	
instead of xyzzying something with something that is not magical when the player is not tinert:
	try assaying the player.

[and so forth]

before doing something when the countdown of the location is zero:
	end the story saying "game over".

Should we keep the “first” designations? It depends. If your systems are elaborate, you may find yourself needing to guarantee that specific rules fire first. Because of the scope changes we implemented last time, this may be especially important.

Ideally, though, we aren’t just doing a ton of “instead rules.” Overreliance on instead is a common beginner’s pitfall. It’s easy to see why. Instead rules usually work, but when things become complex, or when actions stop working, it can be hard to figure out which of fifty instead rules are shutting things down.

Drew’s thoughts on action processing (listed in the order that they are processed):

  • After reading a command: dark sorcery, pre-empting turn processing altogether. Use with caution!
  • Before: good for general rules, as before can be applied without specificity (“before doing something”). By default, permits action processing to continue.
  • Instead: used to stop or redirect actions that have made it through the before stage. Can also be used generally.
  • Check: used as a final evaluation before executing an action. Note that “check” is specific to an action. You can’t use phrases like “check doing something.” At this point, though, it is really too late for that sort of “catch all” processing.
  • Carry out: this is it! The player’s action is actually happening. This is also specific. Make changes to world state, give feedback, etc.
  • After: for a long time, I thought “after” was the final stage of action processing. It isn’t! That’s report (see below). Like before and instead, after rules can be applied generally. I like to use them for a scoring system (more soon!) based on this example from the documentation.
  • Report: another specific rule. It’s intended for feedback on completed actions, but I usually just do that in the carry out phase. If I need to append more code to an action for a narrow, specific situation, I might do it here.
  • Every turn: rules for the general machinery of the game world. It is best to use very specific constructions to avoid confusion.

People have different preferences, but I strongly encourage you to consider how you can use the entire turn in your code. It will help you troubleshoot problems and, ultimately, it will give you more flexibility while coding.

next

That’s it for today, but I don’t think we’re done yet. We’ll take a last look at time and urgency next time.


Renga in Blue

Escape from Colditz (Sharpsoft, 1981)

Not to be confused with the TRS-80 game. This was “lost media” at the time I was first writing about Sharpsoft but was rescued two months ago as discovered by redhighlander. I have it packaged with an emulator at this link and the easiest way to play is to load the third save state, noting […]

Not to be confused with the TRS-80 game. This was “lost media” at the time I was first writing about Sharpsoft but was rescued two months ago as discovered by redhighlander. I have it packaged with an emulator at this link and the easiest way to play is to load the third save state, noting that lowercase is required and it uses DELETE instead of BACKSPACE.

Before I go on with Sharpsoft (and the history of this game in particular) I should briefly give an early history of Sharp personal computers, because it’s a bit of a mess and I need a reference as much as you do.

Sharp has been around since 1912 although not starting in electronics; the founder, Tokuji Hayakawa, got his first patent for a snap buckle. Three years later came the Ever-Sharp Pencil (and the source of the eventual name of the company Sharp).

In the 1920s the company started in radio, and has had fingers in electronics ever since. Importantly, they were involved early with calculators, including (in 1964) the first all-transistorized desk calculator from Japan, the Sharp Compet CS-10A.

By the time they got involved with personal computers in 1978, they had been making calculators for over a decade, which helps to explain the keyboard on the MZ-80K.

From the Home Computer Museum in the Netherlands.

The K stands for “kit” — this was first sold as a kit computer although it started to be sold fully assembled in 1979.

From the people who I have read who have touched a real one, the keyboard is miserable to type on and feels like what would happen if a company used to calculator keys made a transition to personal computers. (Possibly also cribbing from the Commodore PET, but that doesn’t make things better.) You’ll also notice a lack of BACKSPACE which is why DELETE is being used instead for the same function in Escape from Colditz.

Sharp also put out a blizzard of computers in a very short time, which I feel again may harken back to their calculator roots a little, going by a quick product cycle. Riffing off the MZ-80K line is the MZ-80C, MZ-80K2, MZ-80K2E, and finally the MZ-80A from 1982 (being both a “new line” and ending the 80K line).

From a 1980 programming book for the MZ-80K.

There was also in 1981 a MZ-80B line offshoot that was for business computers; the Sharp X1 line (also launching in 1982, the same year as the 80A) was intended to have more powerful graphics, and was the line that eventually led to X68000, the only Sharp computer that “mainstream” retro-nerds tend to care about; it was analogously comparable to the PC-98 but more capable of handling “smooth scrolling” and arcade action.

To shorten things out…

1. first Sharp computer — 80K
2. next-gen continuation of 80K — 80A
3. business computer line – 80B
4. graphical line – X1

…with MZ-700 (that I played Secret Kingdom on) being a continuation of the 80A line, adding color.

The tape that was discovered for Escape for Colditz had copies for MZ-80K on one side and MZ-80A on the other. I played the 80K version. It must have been a later printing; the game was originally available in 1981 only for the 80K (the 80A wasn’t out yet).

Two sides of the same tape, via Sharp MZ Software Archive.

Regarding the publisher Sharpsoft, they have an ad in January 1981 Personal Computer World indicating they’d been around since 1980, although the absolute earliest they could have been founded was from the start of Sharp computers in the UK, the October 1979 launch at the Birmingham International Business Show.

We have an August 1981 contract with them via Terry Johnson for selling the software PrintPlot at £5.85.

There are many graphics utility programs but PrintPlot’s advanced features make it unique. Essentially, the program enables the user to plot a static graphics display directly on the screen using enhanced cursor facilities. Once complete, the program will automatically convert the display into a series of Print statements contained within a subroutine. When required, the program can be instructed to delete itself, leaving only the display subroutines which can be incorporated into subsequent programs.

The contract mentions 15% royalties, and proves they were contracting out rather than just cranking out all their own software. I’m guessing Colditz was picked up as another contract like the one with Dr. T. Johnson, but I don’t have an author associated (nor any names associated with Sharpsoft themselves). I will keep digging.

In the meantime, let’s break out the game! Which has us escaping from Castle Colditz (again). You can read the general historical background at that link; the shortened version is that Castle Colditz was an infamous Nazi POW camp considered “escape-proof” and a great deal of energy was put by prisoners into attempted escapes.

Note: LEFT, RIGHT, FORWARD, and BACK, not compass directions.

This time, oddly, we have a choice of equipment to start with. The Escape Committee consisted of POWs who did not attempt escape themselves but rather coordinated other escapes. The actual game effect is to be something akin to a gamebook (with the same unfortunate ramification of possibly softlocking the game before it even has started). You can carry a limit of four items.

I’m not 100% sure if the softlocking-on-start thing is true, because what this game is designed around is a short trek with a bunch of “alternate passages”, and some of the passages quite explicitly say what you need to pass through them. I made it through with a ROPE LADDER, a TORCH, some ANISEED (that’s for guard dogs, for some reason), and the CASTLE PLAN, which you can’t even leave the Committee room without taking.

Ideally — and I think this is what the author(s) were shooting for — you could pick any combination and find one unique route for passing through, then replay with a completely different set for a new route. In practice I don’t think it worked out, but I’ll be up-front and say my map isn’t comprehensive.

Before showing you the first part, I should mention one other unique “quality” to the game. The parser is a one-letter parser. It cuts off everything but the first letter of your command. I thought two letters was extreme, but it finally has been topped.

How does that even work for a parser, given T could be TAKE or THROW or literally any word starting with T? Well, the parser doesn’t actually do any verb-noun processing in the normal way; it takes the first letter of each word to form a combination. So GO UP gets turned into G U, GO DOWN gets turned into GD, GO FORWARD gets turned into GF, etc. which explains this part of the source code:

1010 A1$=”GUGDGFGBGLGR”:REM MOVES(6)
1011 A2$=”TMTSTLTTTITCTKTPTATRTUT1T2T3T4″
1012 REM TAKING EQUIPMENT
1013 A$=A1$+A2$+A3$
1014 A3$=”LMLSLLLTLILCLKLPLALRLUL1L2L3L4″
1015 REM LEAVING EQUIPMENT
1016 A4$=”SERHKQBHCPUALD”:REM OTHER COMMANDS

I’m not even sure what all of these things are, but LD is LOOK DETAILS (the equivalent of checking inventory plus getting a room description, although the game neglects to describe any objects sitting around in the room). KQ is KEEP QUIET, UA is USE ANISEED (fortunately this is prompted wholesale); fortunately this is prompted explicitly when it comes up.

If you try to go down through the window the game states YOU DON’T KNOW HOW FAR DOWN IT IS FROM THE WINDOW; this is the very first possible alternate route where maybe there’s a way through but I don’t know what it is. The game doesn’t like to react to active use of items.

From my first run of the game, trying to treat this like a “normal” adventure game with a real parser and responsive world model and so forth. Even though you need the plan to start I don’t think it gets used during the game otherwise.

Also, if you skip by testing out the window the game will complain that you should have tried out the window. This mixed messaging stumped me for a lot longer than you might think; it took me a while to realize that any items that I was using were going to trigger between rooms (the ones I got to work, anyway) and the only other commands I ought to worry about are explicitly listed when one of the random guards comes up.

More early blundering, even though if you check the help it mentions CLIMB as a possible word. You’re just supposed to GO UP.

Here’s an example of a random guard:

Aniseed only works on dog guards, but as far as I can tell it always works. If you don’t have the appropriate defusing-object, you’ll have to resort to one of the other options which doesn’t always work.

If you fail at a check, you’ll flee and drop your equipment. Usually this isn’t a problem, unless you happen to flee in a direction where you need an item to get back. (Mind you, this doesn’t always make sense, like the exit that requires a rope ladder, which you somehow can travel back through without said rope ladder.)

Because of all the parsing annoyances and general confusion the map took me a while to make, and I know this isn’t complete, but here’s my first part anyway:

Green marks the starting room.

The “chimney” is one of those one-way confusion spots. The game says you have to go down a chimney if you GO DOWN at the “Corner of Flat Roof” but I never got anything to work. However, you can GO UP from the other side just fine.

The bottom of the chimney. The door to the left requires a skeleton key to open from this side, but no key entering from the other side. This makes sense with some locks but not on a padlock.

Another alternate route was a building that looked close; any attempt to JUMP failed. I assume the game wants you to be holding a specific object, but I can’t confirm that.

My failed navigation meant the only route that worked for me was while holding the ROPE LADDER (where the game quite explicitly says you need the ladder; I didn’t have it but immediately restarted the game to pick one at the start).

Once past this I got to the second part of the map:

There are two passages that require a torch, which I happened to have, but there’s a route through one of the exits that doesn’t need a torch so it is purely optional.

Reaching victory gives a little bit of British patriotism music, so I’ve dropped it in video form.

The dread and envy of them all.

No, this is not a great game. It almost feels like — especially because of the parser — like someone described an adventure game to the author(s) and they tried to write one based on the description, rather than the usual familiarity with Crowther/Woods Adventure. I do appreciate their concept was interesting, even if they didn’t pull it off: adventure game more as a strategy game, with choices at the beginning affecting the gameplay overall. If this was done properly there’d be agonizing over options in a way we have enough information to make an thoughtful choice (should I get money for bribes, or the aniseed) and it truly would be possible to get through with alternate routes — but not in a way so bare-bones that only one specific item is required.

I do think the game is short enough it is fun to noodle with once you understand the limits of the parser, and maybe someone (one of you reading this, I mean) can discover a few lurking secrets. Here’s that download link again, and remember to load using the third save state. With the CPU set at x4 (from the Control menu) the speed is tolerable, although keep in mind this is a wonky late-70s keyboard so you shouldn’t try to type fast.

What Sharpsoft cases looked like at the time, via The Centre for Computing History.

Thursday, 09. May 2024

Choice of Games LLC

The Butler Did It is now on Steam, and it’s 30% off!

We are happy to announce that our Hosted Game The Butler Did It, by Daniel Elliot, is now available on Steam for the first time ever! To celebrate, you can buy The Butler Did It for 30% off until May 16th. Life in Port Terris is tough. There’s never quite enough to eat, nor quite enough work, and your friends have a nasty habit of being snatched up by the Constables and their bots. When the majordo
The Butler Did It — A Steampunk Tale of Manners and Mayhem

We are happy to announce that our Hosted Game The Butler Did It, by Daniel Elliot, is now available on Steam for the first time ever!

To celebrate, you can buy The Butler Did It for 30% off until May 16th.

Life in Port Terris is tough. There’s never quite enough to eat, nor quite enough work, and your friends have a nasty habit of being snatched up by the Constables and their bots. When the majordomo of a Great House offers you employment, a warm bed, and all the food you can eat, it’s a tempting offer. Never mind that the alternative is a long stay in the City Dungeons.

The Butler Did It is a 300,000 word interactive novel by Daniel Elliot—and a finalist in the Choice of Games writing contest—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.

It doesn’t take long to realize that things are a little bit off though, to say the least. At Coburg Manor, you’ll make friends, battle enemies, and uncover a mystery far deeper and stranger than you ever imagined.

• Play as male, female, or nonbinary; gay, straight, bisexual, or asexual
• An odyssey in steampunk, with a twist you’ll never predict
• Face foes both human and mechanical with your wits, sword, or skill with steam
• Expose a conspiracy that threatens the very fabric of your society, or choose to keep its secret
• Get to know a diverse cast of characters, and you just might find love
• Maybe end up on a spaceship?

Will you save your home from the strange apocalypse that its people don’t even suspect, or will you fall prey to madness, like so many of your friends?

Daniel developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.


Now you can save your playthrough of Royal Affairs!

In preparation for the upcoming release of Honor Bound, the newest game in the popular Crème de la Crème series, we’ve added the option to save your progress at the end of Royal Affairs. If you haven’t played Royal Affairs, download it today! If you have the game already, updating it will give you access to the new save feature. And don’t forget to wishlist Honor Bound on Steam! T
Royal Affairs

In preparation for the upcoming release of Honor Bound, the newest game in the popular Crème de la Crème series, we’ve added the option to save your progress at the end of Royal Affairs.

If you haven’t played Royal Affairs, download it today! If you have the game already, updating it will give you access to the new save feature. And don’t forget to wishlist Honor Bound on Steam!

The author, Harris Powell-Smith, has this to say about their upcoming game:

I’ve been working on Honor Bound for just over a year, and in that time I’ve written over 400,000 words on it! Making Honor Bound has been a wonderful adventure, moving the action away from Westerlin and placing the player character in a totally different role. Teran is a new culture for the Crème de la Crème series—although players of the Royal Affairs epilogue will have had a sneak peek—and it’s been lovely to introduce a new place and new characters while drawing on some familiar themes.

It’s been a lot of fun writing the player character as an adult in their late twenties or older rather than a teenager or younger adult. They’ve recently experienced hardship, and may have made mistakes that cost lives, but are returning to their hometown after a long time away. Throughout the game they can make connections with people from their past, turn towards new bonds on the horizon, or something in between.

I’ve also been enjoying the different kinds of agency the player character has—unlike in Crème de la Crème or Royal Affairs, they don’t have teachers telling them when to go to bed—along with their added responsibilities. It brings different kinds of stakes, and I love exploring that. Will they stray from the path their commanders want for them, or will they claw back their reputation? That’s for the player to choose.

Right now, I’m in the middle of writing various branches of a dramatic climax. The player’s actions have had consequences all through the game, but here’s where it all comes to a head. They might have made friends, forged intense romances, or alienated their community, made mistakes or kept a shining record…and all those earlier experiences feed into what I’m writing right now. This is my fifth Choice of Games story now, and drawing together so many threads and making earlier choices feel meaningful never gets old.