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Planet Interactive Fiction

Tuesday, 27. February 2024

Renga in Blue

Avon: Every Inch a King

I’ve finished, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not dead. Read my prior posts on Avon before this one. Last time I had left off in town, near the fringes of two mazes. First, though, I needed to visit a beach: You are on a rocky beach at the estuary of some mighty river. A road […]

I’ve finished, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not dead. Read my prior posts on Avon before this one.

Via Acorn Electron World.

Last time I had left off in town, near the fringes of two mazes. First, though, I needed to visit a beach:

You are on a rocky beach at the estuary of some mighty river. A road leads to the northwest.

Rather like Zork III, you’re supposed to wait. There’s no cue or clue to this.

> wait
OK.
> wait
OK.
> wait
OK.
In the distance, there is drifting a large wooden chest.
> wait
OK.
There is a large wooden chest drifting a few yards offshore.
> wait
OK.
There is a large wooden chest bobbing about in the waves at your feet.
> open chest
What e’er it be, ’tis wondrous heavy, but you wrench it open straight. If the sea’s stomach be o’ercharged with gold, ’tis a good constraint of fortune it belches upon you.

O most potent gods! What’s here? A corse! Shrouded in cloth of state, balm’d and entreasur’d with spices.

She is alive, she moves. You manage to help pull her out before the chest is again pulled away from you by the waves.
Her name is Thamis, and she leaves you the spices in gratitude before departing to seek her lost family.
There is a large wooden chest drifting a few yards offshore.
You are on the beach.
There are exotic spices here!

That’s supposed to be Thaisa, daughter of King Simonides, who in the play Pericles is rescued by some fishermen and brought back to life.

There’s not really great reason to wait here nor reason to expect something is coming, except for the severe lack of red herrings in Phoenix games. (Although remember that cloud? That is a red herring, and I think perhaps the first I’ve ever seen in one of these.)

This makes the puzzle painful but not impossible; however, there’s a moment that’s even worse. You can keep waiting for another effect.

OK.
A small wooden chest is washed up at your feet.
> get chest
OK.
> inv
You are holding:
A ten times barred-up chest.

The chest (via Richard II) will foil being opened, you have to deal with it later.

ROSALIND maze next:

You are in the forest of Arden. High on a nearby tree there is fixed a piece of paper bearing the name ROSALIND.

This doesn’t sound so bad when I describe it, but in practice it was hard to spot what’s going on. For the majority of the “gimmick” Phoenix mazes (all of them, in this game) I’m used to some sort of random generation aspect that resets upon exiting the maze. Here the maze is generated only once, so it is possible to leave and come back.

The gimmick is then that if you are in a room marked “ROSALIND” you are on the right track, otherwise you are off of it. If you meet ROSALIND again, you’re back to the first room of the appropriate path.

The next part is kind of arbitrary (…sort of a common attribute for this last leg of the game) but you find a sleeping man and can say MORTIMER to wake him, the word the starling has been saying in the cage. You don’t need the starling after this point and can go back and get the tame shrew.

Suddenly the starling croaks “Mortimer!”
You are in a clearing in the forest of Arden.
There is a sleeping man here.
> MORTIMER
The cry of MORTIMER! arouses the sleeping man; in the undergrowth you hear a disturbance and see a green and gilded snake, which was waiting to wreath itself about his neck, slip away with indented glides. The man is grateful to you for waking him in so timely a fashion and says “Should you ever be in the tavern, call for my friend Parolles!” He then loses himself in the forest.

The name is randomly generated but thankfully the game does not bust saves here.

After this comes the fog maze, which I’ve already talked about. I should mention that, structurally, entering here is a one-way trip, which means the whole business with the teleporting basket/treasures needs to be utilized before this point because otherwise you’ll hit your inventory limit. As you’ll see, you still need two of the treasures, and it is hard to predict which two.

You are in the middle of a drooping fog as black as Acheron (sic).
It is impossible even to see the ground.
> w
>From the gloom there comes a voice which you seemingly recognise as that of the poor tormented creature that lived in the hovel, although in the fog you see nothing. He leads you for a while and then stops at (he says) the very brim of a cliff whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confined deep. You then hear him no more.
You are in the middle of a drooping fog as black as Acheron (sic).
It is impossible even to see the ground.
> jump
You fall forward, with your eyes shut. After a while you open them to see…

You are at the foot of a high cliff, at whose dread summit you can now see a creature above all strangeness. Methinks his eyes are two full moons; he has a thousand noses, horns whelk’d and wav’d like the enridged sea: it is some fiend. Therefore, thou happy father, think that the clearest gods, who make them honours of men’s impossibilities, have preserv’d thee.
The valley you are in leads down to the east towards a Brave New World.
There is a longbow here.

All this is incidentally a King Lear reference. This is the part where the Earl of Gloucester is depressed and wants to commit suicide, but Edgar (his oldest son) tricks him in disguise (as “Poor Tom”) by taking him to what he says is the top of a cliff, but is really the bottom. Gloucester faints, and Edgar (now in a different disguise) acts like Gloucester fell down the cliff and was saved by the gods, who didn’t want him to die yet.

Then comes the house where I can shoot the arrow (this was correct)…

> shoot arrow
Let your disclaiming from a purposed evil free you so far in our most generous thoughts, for you have shot your arrow o’er the house and hurt a brother.

…and the constable, who is simply zeroing in on the fact you have a weapon (the longbow). You need to leave it behind to go in. Before showing that, a side trip:

You are at a dead end, the only exit being to the north.
There is a fretful porpentine here.

To get the pointy beast, we need to be carrying one of the treasures. I’ll give you the full list and see if you can figure it out.

There is a pair of yellow stockings here, made of silk and bearing the name Malvolio!
There is a diamond necklace here!
The Plantagenet crown is here!
There is a miniature portrait of the lady Portia here!
There is a gold ring here!
There is a sceptre here, which shows the force of temporal power!
A pearl is here, left by a base Indian, though richer than all his tribe!
There is a figured goblet here!
There are three thousand ducats here!
There is a scroll here.
There is a bracelet here!+
There is a ten times barred-up chest here.
There are exotic spices here!
There is a topaz here!
There is an antique viola here!
There is a signed copy of the Iliad here!
The Boar’s Head Drinking Trophy is here!
There is a furred robe here!
There is a valuable Touchstone here!
There is a piece of agate here, carved into the likeness of Queen Mab!

Some Shakespeare productions go all-out with Malvolio’s yellow stockings; they double as porcupine protection when used on the hands.

With the aid of Malvolio’s yellow stockings you succeed in grasping the porpentine. It then fastens itself to your shoulder.

Utah Shakespeare Festival, David Pichette in Twelfth Night.

Returning to the main track:

> e
You are in what appears to be a tavern, although it is quite deserted. There are various exits, apparently sealed off, but also a small archway to the west and a larger one to the east.

This is where you can use the word from the forest, and the ten-times barred chest gets resolved.

A man in courtly dress enters at your summoning, to whom you explain the nature of your Adventures in Arden. He sees that you are carrying a barred chest, which he opens for you. Inside there is a sapphire! The courtier hands you the jewel from the ten-times barred up chest, and goes.

Moving on, I found I had already defeated another obstacle (“a mighty Colossus lying here, evidently slain by a
poisoned arrow”) and was able to grab a “highly-inflated bladder which appears to have been used as a balloon at some Twelfth-Night party.”.

Trying to move on I was stopped by Lady Portia, and I expect everyone else playing this game was too:

You pass the lady Portia, who asks you what you did with the ring. If you had known the virtue of the ring, or half her worthiness that gave the ring, or your own honour to contain the ring, you would not then have parted with the ring. In fact you were best to cut your left hand off and swear that you lost the ring defending it.

At least it is a direct reference to the end of The Merchant of Venice! The gold ring is the other treasure you need to keep rather than send forward with the magic basket.

Reloading and returning with the gold ring in hand leads to the final two obstacles.

You pass the lady Portia, who notes approvingly that you still have her ring with you.
You are in a street. To the west lies the colossus, to the north there are some rather unexciting streets, and to the east lies a gorgeous palace, outside which there stands a watchman. He is thin, for watching breeds leanness, leanness is all gaunt. For some must watch, while some must sleep: so runs the world away.

I solved the watchman first, but that’s the actual end of the game, so let’s head north:

> n
You are in a network of streets: they lead NE, NW and S.
> ne
You are in a network of streets: they lead NW, SW and S.
> nw
A goldsmith passes you in the street and greets you as Arthur of Ephesus, and tells you that he has made a chain for you in accordance with your orders. Although you feel that you are part of some great comedy of errors, the goldsmith insists on leaving the chain with you.

(This is using the same name given earlier at entering Brave New World. The gold chain confusion happens in the play Comedy of Errors.)

If you then leave through the streets, the goldsmith realizes his error and gets his chain back. You are instead meant to explode the balloon to scare him away from his residence. This could have been absurd on the level of a bad Discworld puzzle, but we’re also down to the end of the game, and the balloon is the only unused object, so–

> explode bladder
You manage to rupture the bladder by striking it against the quills of the porpentine. It explodes with a loud

>> BANG <<

which makes the porpentine look even more fretful, and pieces fly in all directions.
There is a noise of general alarums and excursions, and the goldsmith rushes up, agitatedly muttering something along the lines of "Burglars! Gunpowder! Hoist with my own petard!"
He then runs into his shop to investigate, carefully re-locking the door behind him.

To get by the watchman, you just then hurl the poor porpentine.

You grab the porpentine, despite its prickliness, and hurl it at the watchman. The creature darts its quills fretfully at him, and he struggles to shake it off. You seize on the opportunity to dash past him, just evading a falling portcullis, and run down a passage to find that…

You have arrived at the palace. There is a formidable array of courtly characters here, some, such as Portia, King Richard and Thamis, known to you, and others, such as Coriolanus, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who are NOT dead) and Silvia (who is she?) previously unknown. They congratulate you on staying the course.

There is a diamond necklace here!
The Plantagenet crown is here!
There is a miniature portrait of the lady Portia here!
There is a sceptre here, which shows the force of temporal power!
A pearl is here, left by a base Indian, though richer than all his tribe!
There is a figured goblet here!
There are three thousand ducats here!
There is an Egyptian vase here!
There is a bracelet here!
There are exotic spices here!
There is a topaz here!
There is an antique viola here!
There is a signed copy of the Iliad here!
The Boar’s Head Drinking Trophy is here!
There is a furred robe here!
There is a valuable Touchstone here!
There is a piece of agate here, carved into the likeness of Queen Mab!
You are holding:
A sapphire.
A golden chain.
A laundry basket.
A gold ring.
A pair of yellow stockings.
A shrew in a cage.

You scored 425 points out of a maximum of 425.
You are entitled to the title King, aye, every inch a king!
You may now return to the twentieth century confident of your own prowess!

Of note: as far as I can tell, there is only one ending, no matter your point score. Arriving without having sent over any treasures, for instance:

You scored 255 points out of a maximum of 425.
This entitles you to the title Thane of Cawdor.

This means to beat the game you technically just need to get the shield via stabbing (the whole ghost scene in summer I believe you can skip), get the gold ring and stockings from Lady Portia (requiring solving the Spring variant of the puzzle with the frog toe and the knights), handle the man in the hovel (which requires getting the word from Ariel), and make it through the end sequence with the colossus and porpentine. Being able to skip treasures is not unusual — even Acheton allowed a few missing — but this is the first time I’ve seen the end text otherwise be unchanged.

Theoretically, this means the game can be approached a different angle in terms of fairness — if a puzzle is really tough to solve (I give the crown to finding the second chest at the beach) it can be discarded as merely optional to the whole enterprise. One could even think of the extra treasures as “post-game content” akin to the challenge levels of modern games.

To close things out, I’m going to clip some portions of reviews and comment on them.

Sinclair User, December 1989.

You don’t have to know much about Shakespeare to play the game, because although the situations come from the Bard of Avon’s well-known plays, the solutions are the usual adventure stuff; get newt’s eye, put in cauldron, pick up torch, and like that. To some extent this makes the whole thing pointless; it’s just a series of Shakespearian references splodged together, without actually testing your knowledge or appreciation of the works; a bit like someone reeling off lots of jokes but forgetting the punchlines.

This is from ’89 when the commercial version of the game came out, and makes a fascinating contrast with modern norms (and the spirited debate in the comments of these posts). The reviewer here was upset that Shakespeare trivia knowledge is not required. The “fax box” also says it is a game that it is a “Text only adventure that may help with your Shakespeare” which suggests the reviewer approached it sincerely as an educational game!

Modern norms have the dependence on outside knowledge in adventure games as an anathema (Graham Nelson in his Bill of Rights puts the concept at number 16, “Not to need to be American”.) There’s really two questions here: 1. just how dependent is the game on knowing Shakespeare, really? and 2. how bad is outside knowledge in the first place as a game design move?

For point 1, as I’ve already observed a few times, knowing Shakespeare at least helps with some aspects conceptually. Knowing that Cassandra is in reference to the gift of prophecy, for instance, can help realize she is warning you about deadly maze obstacles. (But again, it isn’t necessary, and I personally only found out about this particular reference after solving the puzzle.) I think what is more interesting (in a game-design-theoretic sense) is how familiarity with Shakespeare helps not so much solving a puzzle actively as much as parsing what is going on with the language. Consider the nourishing meat pie

You are on a moor. The ground is black here, as though scorched. The only path leads to the north, but there is a hovel to the southeast.
There is a nourishing meat pie here.
> get pie
OK.
> eat pie
Although the cheer be poor, ’twill fill your stomach. You eat of it with pleasure until a man dressed as a cook enters and reveals to you that two of the ingredients in the pie were named Chiron and Demetrius. ‘Tis true; witness his knife’s sharp point… I’m afraid he stabs you.

I immediately realized the reference to Pies Made of People, but imagine someone who was not familiar with Titus Andronicus. The text is not terribly explicit about what “Chiron and Demetrius” even refers to and the line after switches action in an almost abstract way. All this is simply a simplification of Titus’s lines in the original play:

Why, there they are, both bakèd in this pie,
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
’Tis true, ’tis true! Witness my knife’s sharp point.

Later, at the cliff (the one at the fog where you jump), I admit I was somewhat overwhelmed by the language and had simply tried JUMP because it was the typical adventure-game thing to do at cliffs, but a less canny player with the same confusion might get stuck for longer. I haven’t seen King Lear, so I didn’t know the reference until I looked it up.

Regarding question 2 — how bad is having the references, really? — I’m not so sure they’re terrible in this context. This isn’t like a traditional fantasy that suddenly expects you to recognize the rules of cricket. The fact we’re being subjected to a blizzard of Shakespeare references is given up front, and I had genuine fun learning about characters I didn’t know and scenes I didn’t remember. I think the idea of a game being intentionally past its bounds is not intrinsically terrible as long as the “educational” part is telegraphed.

Now on to some modern takes! I’m referring to the reviews via the IFDB page.

In reference to the puzzles:

…the ones in the last of the three structural sections of the game appeared to overuse the “try a random object in a random situation and see what happens” kind of approach (at least, to me) but most of them were logical and elegant.

— Valentine Kopteltsev

I put “solve” between quotation marks because there are very few actual puzzles in Avon. There are many unannounced death-traps, a lot of riddles where you get only one chance and you must have found a clue beforehand (no lucky guesses!) and a few easy mazes.

— Rovarsson

Two very different takes, here. Logical and elegant, or “very few actual puzzles”?

Contrast with Murdac is useful here. In that game (for example), there was a moment where you revive a Frankenstein-type monster, use a plank to make a previously dangerous passage safe, then make sure to dive in an alcove out the way so it pushes forward until it busts through a physical wall that was previously a barrier. This involves holistic thinking about the entire map, the physical situation, and the items the player is carrying.

While I wouldn’t call Avon puzzles “self-contained” exactly, but in terms of physical space they tend to be isolated. The seasons makes for some continuity across time rather than space that needs to be accounted for; otherwise, they are structured via a web of references where you need to spot that, for example, a particular word causes a particular effect.

I think the latter part of the game (post-cliff) really does feel a bit like Just One Riddle After Another (although to be fair it made about 5% of my total gameplay). By contrast, the flipping between seasons was the wrinkle that really made me think of the game as an adventure game rather than just a sequence of puzzles, as I had to worry over (for instance) the fact that the toe of frog works to solve both a spring and a summer puzzle.

The approach is different; not worse, but different. For a player who likes to “inhabit” the worlds they are exploring — imagine they are physically lifting that lantern to read the words on the wall, and listen to the drip of water — I can understand why it might not come off so well. If you approach the text of the game a cavalcade of wordplay, it feels much more pleasant.

Or maybe I’m off–

The whole was a perfect exercise in mimetic immersion for me and I really felt I was in Shakespearean England when I played this.

— Canalboy

Not every game can and should have the same goals. Avon tried for something relatively unique (Graham Nelson did The Tempest, but that’s still a much different animal) and I feel like there’s some untapped corners of the game design possibility space coming out; essentially the classic “wordplay game” (like Counterfeit Monkey) being done by reference and allusion as much as by the simple fact one word anagrams into another.

Coming up: two short games, followed by a Dr. Who game that, oddly enough, does not originate from the UK.

Monday, 26. February 2024

Renga in Blue

Avon: Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Chihuahuas of War

(My prior posts on Avon are needed for this one to make sense. Start reading here.) If you were to quit, you would score 374 points out of a maximum of 425. So I am definitely closer to the end than expected. It turns out putting treasures in the basket gets them to somewhere Good […]

(My prior posts on Avon are needed for this one to make sense. Start reading here.)

If you were to quit, you would score 374 points out of a maximum of 425.

So I am definitely closer to the end than expected. It turns out putting treasures in the basket gets them to somewhere Good as the score increases. That doesn’t mean they all should go in the basket, though!

Some of the insights that follow came on my own, some came from hints provided by Morningstar in my last post (thanks much) and some came from a walkthrough (mainly when I was worried I was softlocking something due to saved game shenanigans again, although I looked up some other things while I was at it).

Rather than insight-sequence (where I explain the order I solved things, and where I got them from), I’ll do the puzzles in narrative sequence, starting with the farmer.

You are at the remains of a chicken farm. A fox has clearly visited this place and killed half the stock. The only way the farmhands will let you go is back to the west.
A farmer is standing here bemoaning the loss of his livestock.

“What! all my pretty chickens and their dam, at one fell swoop?” he mutters. “I asked my keeper, Puck, to get the fox’s earth seen to, but he went away saying that he’d put a hurdle round the earth in forty minutes (and that was hours ago.)”

I mentioned I had trouble even conceiving what to do here, and that was really the core of my problem. Was I supposed to find more chickens? Find Puck? Find a fox? Scare off the farmer and farmhands so I can get by? Do some funky magic word that causes the farmer to turn into a hat?

The answer is none of these, although the last question above was the closest. I need to warp back to the moment of entering the town with the drug squad:

A rather dull-looking constable appears, cries “HAVOC”, and lets slip the dogs of war. In fact, a small chihuahua appears and stands barking at you.
“Drug squad,” says the constable. “I must search you for certain substances.”
In fact he finds nothing prohibited and he and the dog slope off.

This keeps you from taking the season-warping potion to the north part of the map. I theorized maybe it was possible to slip the drug by, but what I should have been paying attention to was the summoning of the chihuahua. Specifically, it is done by the constable crying HAVOC. Back to the farmer:

> havoc
A small chihuahua appears, barking wildly. “Of course!” says the farmer, “that’s just what I wanted. I don’t think a hurdle would have kept the fox in anyway. A dog’s a much better idea. But I must reward you – take this touchstone – they say that it’s of great value to alchemists.”

So the basic question I should have been asking was: how do I get a replacement animal for guarding the remaining chickens? I likely would have happened upon the solution faster. I can see how that kind of makes sense with the text, but the Shakespeare layer was befuddling me.

This moment was fascinating in an abstract puzzle-solving-philosophy sense, but let’s move on: it turns out I was entirely done with Winter after this encounter (I know this with certainty from peeking at the walkthrough). I was also done, as I suspected, with Spring, so I could jump to Summer:

You are in a walled graveyard. For those making a return journey, the way out is to the west, as the eastern exit is blocked by impenetrable grass. However there is more graveyard to the north.

This puzzle was about the grass. Here I was stymied by the grass and any verbs I attempted were rebuffed to the extent I suspected this puzzle needed to be solved “from the other side”, so to speak, but no, I had already had the means to solve this, and it was totally reasonable. I needed to make a stop here when I was being an ass:

Feeling a bit of an ass, you munch your way through the barrier of long grass and succeed in clearing a path through it. You are outside a disused chapel (to your east). There is newly-made track back to the west.

This just yields a treasure (a pearl), but still counts as progress.

Lady Portia and the caskets, 1892 engraving.

Then I prodded more at the puzzle where you get warm and melt after Lady Portia’s final gift. Morningstar’s hint led me to think the toe of frog (which allows swimming) helps with cooling off, and indeed it does: swimming will cool you off. But the problem is, the toe of frog only works on one season, and I needed it to survive the knights (from Spring). So was I solving the knights problem wrong?

After laborious testing I finally buckled to the walkthrough (in fact, this is the puzzle I wondered about softlocks so it caused me to break open the walkthrough in the first place) and found out, you could go to the river and —

> wash
You wash your face and feel much cooler as a result.

This is my nomination for worst puzzle in the game. Note that only WASH, alone, by itself works, or WASH FACE. However, there’s no reason to suspect that a face wash does the trick, since you just “feel warm” as you are dying. So really the only reasonable thing is to somehow type WASH alone, because … ???

I don’t know. Through all of the Phoenix games I’ve felt like while I have had to occasionally guess the verb (see Hezarin and shouting) I’ve never had to worry about phrasing in general; the parser has generally been well-behaved. This violation stung rather like the dagger being plunged into King Duncan.

As far as I can tell the puzzle doesn’t even make a good Shakespeare reference! Yes, the line about “melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew” is from Hamlet, but it doesn’t constitute a strong enough connection to really justify the puzzle existing in the first place. Why does finding the third treasure cause us to start melting? I still don’t know, and that’s after reading the walkthrough on the section (which was provided by the company Topologika itself to people reviewing the game).

With that taken care of, and another peek at the walkthrough to be sure, I had essentially everything prior to the capitol (with Cleopatra, the shrew, the Rosalind maze, etc.) resolved. I’ve gotten a smidge farther there as well but I think the narrative will be best all in one go, after I’ve finished the game, which I predict will be with my next post.

Friday, 23. February 2024

Renga in Blue

Avon: Sleep, the Ape of Death

(Avon posts in order are here.) This post is mostly intended to lay out exactly everywhere I’m stuck (for my benefit just as much as yours) although I have made some small progress, including to a new area. I will officially declare this the threshold if people want to drop full on spoiler hints, but […]

(Avon posts in order are here.)

This post is mostly intended to lay out exactly everywhere I’m stuck (for my benefit just as much as yours) although I have made some small progress, including to a new area.

I will officially declare this the threshold if people want to drop full on spoiler hints, but please do so in ROT13 (unless you are “playing along” and have not checked hints, in which case feel free to use plaintext). I’d still like to hit my goal of finishing by the end of February.

But first, that progress I mentioned–

Romeo and Juliet at the balcony, Illustrated London News (1855), wood engraving.

Last time I had leaped off a balcony to my doom, but I hadn’t tried it (as Matt W. suggested in the comments) while holding the bat wool. Seemed logical enough:

You are on the ground floor of Dunsinnin. There is an exit to the north and some steps up.
There is a sceptre here, which shows the force of temporal power!
> get
OK.
> u
You are on the first floor of Dunsinnin. There is a balcony to the south
(Soft! what light through yonder window breaks?) and some steps down.
> s
You are on the balcony of Dunsinnin, which looks out over Birnham wood. The only (apparent) way to go now is back to the north.
> jump
As you leap off the balcony the bat’s wool begins to grow, taking the form of a giant bat, to which you clutch desperately. On the bat’s back you do fly, getting an Ariel view of the wood. After a while you land and the bat’s wool regains its former state.
You are standing on a flat plain. From here it seems that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances to the north, south, east and west.

Regarding the scepter (or rather, “sceptre”), it has more attached to its treasure description than normal.

> look
You are in a cell, which clearly belongs to some holy man, as you can tell from the religious decoration of the room. The only way out is by a door to the northeast.
Is this a dagger you see before you? Yes, I believe so.
There is a bat’s wool here.
There is a dog’s tongue here.
There is a diamond necklace here!
There is a large laundry basket here.
There is a miniature portrait of the lady Portia here!
There is a gold ring here!
There is a nourishing meat pie here.
There is a sceptre here, which shows the force of temporal power!
There is a figured goblet here!
There is a shield here.
There is a clerical collar lying discarded here.
There is a piece of paper here bearing the word “TEABAG”.
There is a topaz here!
There is an antique viola here!
There is a signed copy of the Iliad here!
The Boar’s Head Drinking Trophy is here!
There is a furred robe here!
There is a piece of agate here, carved into the likeness of Queen Mab!

(This is not every treasure I’ve found, but a lot of them. The likeness of Queen Mab also feels suspicious but not as much as the force of temporal power.)

Phoenix games have not shied away from having a treasure also be a utility item, but this game (seemingly) hasn’t gone that route. I still have fair certainty the scepter will be used in the future. Perhaps it will be used to go to the future? My maximum score (so far) suggests I really am missing a whole section of game, which might be a fall season for the grand finale section of Avon. (Are there any notable fall scenes in Shakespeare, though?)

Another breakthrough involved the Undiscovered Country, which I’ve finally waded through. I had a “scroll” from the capitol that I always suspected was connected with the mazes…

> read scroll
The scroll bears the following message:
‘By indirections find directions out.’
> read scroll
The scroll bears the following message:
‘What do you read, my lord? Words, words, words.’
> read scroll
The scroll bears the following message:
‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.’

…but I hadn’t apparently tested reading the scroll while in the Undiscovered Country itself, as the scroll text changes.

> read scroll
The scroll bears the following message:
‘When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.’

This gives fairly transparent directions for each direction to go.

> read scroll
The scroll bears the following message:
‘Then westward ho! Grace and good disposition attend your ladyship!’

There are two exceptions, one being a text for “BACK”. (“You yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if, like a crab,
you could go backward.”) BACK is an understood verb in the game, but it isn’t a common one, and I’m still unclear what actual action is being undertook here (are we walking backwards, maybe?) Of course, this game has been halfway in wordplay-world where actions aren’t meant to always be literal, but rather perhaps punning.

The other exception you’ll see in a moment. After enough successful moves you find the princess Imogen from Cymbeline, a play I knew nothing about. (Set in very early Roman Britain, ~10-14 AD, involving the vassal king. The 2014 movie changes the premise: “For years Cymbeline, King of the Briton Motorcycle Club, has maintained an uneasy peace with the Roman Police Force.”)

You are in the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns. There are paths in various directions.
The princess Imogen is here. Sleep, the ape of death, lies upon her.
On her wrist there is a valuable bracelet!

We can steal the bracelet just like the play and walk away. Alternatively, we can kiss and/or wake Imogen, either before or after taking the bracelet.

> kiss imogen
One kiss! Rubies unparagon’d, how clearly they do’t! You notice, on her left breast, a mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops i’ the bottom of a cowslip.
> wake imogen
The princess wakes with a yawn and wanders away with the bracelet.

The kiss description in particular is colorful enough to be suspicious, as is the fact taking the bracelet gives you no points. I think I’m missing some puzzle juncture here (it comes straight from the play, though), but I’ll list it out when I give my full Unsolved Report.

To get out from the princess encounter, you need to follow a special scroll message.

The scroll bears the following message:
‘I am but mad north-northwest.’

It’s not “go north, then go northwest”. It’s as one single command. I have never, ever seen this in a text adventure before.

> nnw
You are on the bank of a river which flows from the north and disappears over a waterfall. There is also a maze of paths to the southeast.

Cymbeline, Act II. Iachimo steals a bracelet from the sleeping Imogen. Art by Samuel Begg from the late 19th century.

Before my Unsolved Report, I need to mention I snuck by one of the other mazes, the one in the fog. This was a matter of order of operations; after you have dealt with the hovel (where you say FATHOM which was obtained from Ariel) you get an encounter there.

From the gloom there comes a voice which you seemingly recognise as that of the poor tormented creature that lived in the hovel, although in the fog you see nothing. He leads you for a while and then stops at (he says) the very brim of a cliff whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confined deep. You then hear him no more.

You can then jump down to a completely new area! It first asks you for a name, which knowing Phoenix has to be an exact particular name or you softlock.

> jump
You fall forward, with your eyes shut. After a while you open them to see…

You are at the foot of a high cliff, at whose dread summit you can now see a creature above all strangeness. Methinks his eyes are two full moons; he has a thousand noses, horns whelk’d and wav’d like the enridged sea: it is some fiend. Therefore, thou happy father, think that the clearest gods, who make them honours of men’s impossibilities, have preserv’d thee.
The valley you are in leads down to the east towards a Brave New World.
There is a longbow here.
> e
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them…
Since you are fast achieving greatness, what name would you wish to go under?
Arthur
O Arthur, Arthur! Wherefore art thou Arthur?
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Thank you.
You are at the edge of the Brave New World. To the east you see a high house with a small opening in the wall, to the west a steep valley, and to the south a track.

The track goes to a dead end with a “fretful porpentine”, the house is a little more cryptic.

You attempt to enter the house, but a constable seizes on you as a potential trouble-maker and bundles you out again.

I’m very puzzled what the best approach is. Maybe there’s a name we could have picked to avoid trouble-maker status? Or some item from our vast array of treasures would prove our respectability? Or maybe some action way back in a previous season marked us for a softlock right at this moment?

You can also (given the longbow, plus the arrow you can get right before the maze) shoot an arrow, but I’m again mystified, in this case even how to parse what happened.

> shoot arrow
Let your disclaiming from a purposed evil free you so far in our most generous thoughts, for you have shot your arrow o’er the house and hurt a brother.

That’s everything new, so let’s do the updated meta-map.

I can confirm now (or at least be 95% sure) I’m not missing any region to the south. The Rosalind maze may hide a new area, and I suspect the Brave New World section goes farther (maybe a lot farther). I still haven’t broken 200 and the maximum score is 425.

WINTER PROBLEMS UNSOLVED

Just the farmer and the chickens. I don’t have a single iota which direction to go on this puzzle.

Also possible: you can sneak by the drug-sniffing dog with the phial, meaning you can enter the Eastcheap town in a different season (and get back over to the main part of the game via some other method, as the town is usually only accessible in winter).

I am extremely skeptical there’s a way past the bear, but I should list it just in case.

SPRING PROBLEMS UNSOLVED

Nothing really? You need to eat the toe of frog in order to swim (allowing you to survive the knight attack) and the effect seems to only last through spring, meaning it is tempting to suggest it gets used elsewhere; there’s a beach in the town past the capitol, for instance, which has nothing there, suggesting it is a possible embarking point or final destination.

Speaking of the capitol, spring is during the Ides of March so you get stabbed; my suspicion is you simply have to wait until summer, but again I want to mention the event just in case.

SUMMER PROBLEMS UNSOLVED

Surviving getting the third treasure from Lady Portia (I still turn warm and melt upon winning the last contest). There’s a decently long timer suggesting you can get pretty far across the map while affected.

Does the sleeping princess lead to anything useful other than the treasure she wears?

I’m still unclear what the starling does (“Mortimer” which it says does get recognized as a magic word, though) and I also haven’t found a use for the shrew.

The Rosalind maze is still unsolved, and I haven’t been able to do anything once in the Brave New World area past the fog maze.

ANY-SEASON PROBLEMS UNSOLVED

There’s technically some “impenetrable” grass at the graveyard which is present in all seasons.

You are in a walled graveyard. For those making a return journey, the way out is to the west, as the eastern exit is blocked by impenetrable grass. However there is more graveyard to the north.

It has resist my attempts to the extent I think it comes into play as an exit rather than entrance (for instance, maybe the Brave New World area loops back and exits here).

The cloud that might be a whale, camel, or weasel still presents nothing useful. It comes from a scene in Hamlet…

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius: By the mass, and ‘tis like a camel, indeed.

Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.

Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or like a whale?

Polonius: Very like a whale.

…and maybe it is just for color … but knowing this author, everything is important.

Thursday, 22. February 2024

Gold Machine

Project Updates

Where have I been? It’s been a while since I’ve updated any of my projects. My series on Trinity has been dormant. My other big effort, live blogging the development of a game for this year’s Spring Thing Festival, is stalled. What in the world has been going on? It’s no secret that I’m disabled; […] The post Project Updates appeared first on Gold Machine.

Where have I been?

It’s been a while since I’ve updated any of my projects. My series on Trinity has been dormant. My other big effort, live blogging the development of a game for this year’s Spring Thing Festival, is stalled. What in the world has been going on?

It’s no secret that I’m disabled; I’ve said so on this blog. I don’t usually like to talk about it, though. Some of you have been in touch, though, to check on me. I really appreciate that! The truth is that my symptoms made the holidays very challenging, and it just hasn’t been possible for me to do this work. Typically, writing about games (and writing games) brings me a lot of joy, but I simply haven’t been able to do anything productive for a while.

Good news: I’m feeling better these days! My first new work in months is a new episode of my long-dormant podcast, Gold Microphone. It’s the beginning of a series of episodes on Trinity and other narrative games. Posts regarding Trinity will resume here shortly, as well. More Trinity than ever! Please look forward to it.

For those of you have been following my live-blog of Inform 7 development over at my other blog, Top Expert, I’ll try to get an update posted soon to discuss the state of the project. Losing all of this time has really messed up my project plan, but I want to find a new path forward. Stay tuned!

And now, for something completely different: I’ll probably be experimenting with gameplay videos for more current commercial games. I know that won’t be for everybody, but perhaps some of you find them interesting. These won’t be high effort, elaborate pieces, as I am trying to be mindful of workload. More news soon.

The podcast should be available on all major platforms. If it isn’t on your platform of choice, let me know and I’ll get it added. Here’s a direct link to the source (Spotify bought Anchor, my original host, a while back):

Thanks for your patience! And thanks again to everyone who reached out. That means a lot to me. More soon,

Drew

The post Project Updates appeared first on Gold Machine.


Choice of Games LLC

Our Hosted Games Hidden Gems Are On Sale!

The 2024 Hosted Games Hidden Gems Sale is here! You’ve cast your votes and chosen five underrated games that haven’t (yet) gotten the attention they deserve! These “Hidden Gems,” selected by a highly scientific poll conducted on our forums, are on sale this week! Pick them up for discounts up to 40% off until February 29th on the platform of your choice–Android, Androi

The 2024 Hosted Games Hidden Gems Sale is here!

You’ve cast your votes and chosen five underrated games that haven’t (yet) gotten the attention they deserve! These “Hidden Gems,” selected by a highly scientific poll conducted on our forums, are on sale this week! Pick them up for discounts up to 40% off until February 29th on the platform of your choice–Android, Android Omnibus app, iOS and iOS Omnibus app, the website, and on the Amazon Android Marketplace! Relics II: The Crusader’s Tomb is also available on Steam.

Relics II: The Crusader’s Tomb
The Gray Painter
Donor: A Vampire Victim’s Tale
The Day After Ever After
Tudor Intrigue


Wade's Important Astrolab

Spring Thing 2024 - Wade Clarke Roblox game prize information

I'm listing here the details and conditions of a prize I'll be offering for Spring Thing 2024: a custom Roblox game based on your Spring Thing entry.If you choose this prize, here's what happens:I'll try your Spring Thing game. If I decide it's possible for your game, I (maybe with help from my nephew) will build a simple Roblox game based on your entry, or at least the first room or a prominent th

I'm listing here the details and conditions of a prize I'll be offering for Spring Thing 2024: a custom Roblox game based on your Spring Thing entry.

If you choose this prize, here's what happens:

I'll try your Spring Thing game. If I decide it's possible for your game, I (maybe with help from my nephew) will build a simple Roblox game based on your entry, or at least the first room or a prominent thing from it. We have a lot of Roblox building experience between us.

Qualifiers for this prize: I say "game" loosely! It will probably be an environmental toy you can walk around in. But you never know, it might have an objective to reach, or health, or a time limit, or a baddie chasing you, or a physics joke. It might be a reproduction of a location. We'll try to make something of charm based on your game, spending a week max to do so.

If you don't know Roblox, it's free to join, and the game will be pretty G-rated and explorable by anyone on Roblox at any time (which, there being millions of Roblox games, will mostly be you and people you let know about it. Plus the odd random visitor.) You'l be able to share a link to the game wherever/however you like. People only need to have a Roblox account to visit it.

* If you pick the prize, and I try your game and decide I can't produce something satisfying based on it within a week, don't be offended. Roblox suits some things and some subject matter a lot more than others. I'd let you know my decision quickly so you can pick another prize instead.


Zarf Updates

Download the whole IF Archive

I help run the IF Archive. I have for, oh, about 25 years now. It's not a demanding job. Mostly the server just runs itself. We have a cadre of volunteers who file the games and write up the descriptions. (Thank them!) Occasionally we change ...

I help run the IF Archive. I have for, oh, about 25 years now.

It's not a demanding job. Mostly the server just runs itself. We have a cadre of volunteers who file the games and write up the descriptions. (Thank them!)

Occasionally we change out some of the underlying server configuration, like when we started using a CDN for load balancing. But that's, like, once every few years.

Low maintenance is great. However, it means that we don't respond to feature requests very quickly. Or at all, sometimes.


Here's one we've never had a good answer for:

Dear IF Archive: I would like to download all your files so I can play all the games. How do I do that? Love, Suzie.

(Simulated request on closed track. Real-life Suzies may vary in their IF enthusiasm.)

When people ask this question, we mostly shrug and point at web-scraper tools. It's not hard to find all the files by browsing the folders. Or you can look at Master-Index.xml, which lists every individual file in easy-to-parse form. (Well, "easy" -- that's 13 megabytes of XML right there. Sorry, I hadn't heard of JSON at that point.)

For a while in the early 2000s we allowed a few people to use rsync to copy the Archive files and offer mirror servers. However, this was a serious hassle (early-2000s Linux firewall config? Not friendly) and it never entirely seemed worth the trouble. The CDN is much easier.

But then, how hard would it be to shove all the files into one big package and make that available for downloading? Disk space is cheap.


Long story short, on an experimental basis, we did that. The documentation is here, but it's short so I'll just play you the chorus.

If you want to download everything on the IF Archive in a single massive chunk, use this URL:

https://iftf-ifarchive-download.s3.amazonaws.com/ifarchive-all.tar.gz

That's 30 gigabytes, no foolin', which is why I haven't made that a hyperlink. If you grab that puppy, it should be on purpose. (And I don't particularly want automated web crawlers to grab it either. I mean, they will, but I'm not going to encourage them. AWS download cost is pennies but the pennies add up.)

That 30 GB file is updated weekly. It will grow over time, of course, but it's hard to say how fast.

Availability is subject to future review, as they say. It's an experiment! We'll see how the AWS fees stack up against utility.

I realize that very few of my loyal readers will have need of this feature. The number of people who web-scrape the Archive out of personal interest (rather than, you know, being a web-scraper bot) is probably countable on a grue's molars. But if that's you, feel free to try this new one-stop freebie.

Speaking of which: Would it be useful to have another download link for recent files? Say, all files touched in the past 30 days. That wouldn't be too hard to arrange.

Wednesday, 21. February 2024

Renga in Blue

Avon: I Wish You All Joy of the Worm

I feel like I am both closing in on victory and getting farther away from it, insofar as the last remaining puzzles seem to be stumpers indeed. Not quite succumbing to hints yet but probably next time if I can’t push any farther. First, a fairly straightforward bit of progress, applying the dagger (previously used […]

I feel like I am both closing in on victory and getting farther away from it, insofar as the last remaining puzzles seem to be stumpers indeed.

Not quite succumbing to hints yet but probably next time if I can’t push any farther.

From a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest, where Ariel and Prospero discuss Ariel previously being trapped in a pine.

First, a fairly straightforward bit of progress, applying the dagger (previously used to stab a king):

You are in the enchanted forest.
There is a pine tree here, from which a continuous melancholy howling emanates.
> cut tree
You hack at the pine tree, which splits. A spirit flies out, apparently imprisoned here a dozen years ago by the foul witch Sycorax. In return for its freedom it tells you that it has some power over the many other spirits around here and recites “Full fathom five thy father lies” to you. This, it says, may ward you against other powers. It then goes hence with diligence (after all, it needs pine no longer!)

I wasn’t thinking of The Tempest specifically (although certainly knowing something is “trapped within” would help) but rather just running through ye olde verb list again. I usually don’t associate a dagger with tree-cutting so the action did not occur to me normally.

I tested each of the words said by Ariel and found that “fathom” was recognized as a magic word (even though it did nothing in particular). Testing around in various places I found it was useful in springtime, at the hovel:

> s
You are on a moor. The ground is black here, as though scorched.
The only path leads to the north, but there is a hovel to the southeast.
There is a nourishing meat pie here.

> se
You attempt to enter the hovel, which is gloomy and sinister-looking, but you run out in terror when you hear maniacal laughter and the words “Fathom and half, fathom and half! Poor Tom!”
> fathom
A poor demented being rushes from the hovel, gibbering:

Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still, Fie, foh and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.

           and then vanishes over the moor.

This left a “figured goblet” (a treasure) available in the hovel for me to take.

I also had some progress with Cleopatra.

You are on the barge. Various attendants are busily rushing hither and thither (and back again). There are steps down to the hold and to the north are the docks.
The Queen of Egypt is here. On a burnish’d throne she sits. Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety.

Nearby in a shop was an Egyptian vase, and it seemed like the two went together, but a snake came out and caused Death before I could tote one to the other:

Disturbed by the motion, an asp emerges from the vase you are carrying. I wish you all joy of the worm. Poor venomous fool, it is angry, and dispatches you.

The snake doesn’t wiggle out right away, and you can take a little bit of action still before it activates. So I ended up just dropping the vase after moving one room, then picking it up again, and repeating the process until I made it to Cleopatra. This was an odd puzzle in a physical-reality sense — it seems like dropping the vase would make the snake more likely to come out rather than toting it to its destination all in one go — but I realized the programming underneath seemed to be cued to simply consecutive turns held, hence the solution.

> THROW VASE
An asp tumbles out of the vase. It fastens itself to the queen’s breast and with its sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate of life at once unties.

> LOOK
You are on the barge. Various attendants are busily rushing hither and thither (and back again). There are steps down to the hold and to the north are the docks.
There is an asp squirming here.
There is an Egyptian vase here!
The Queen of Egypt lies here, dead, but she looks like sleep as she would catch another Antony. On her breast there is a vent of blood, and something blown; the like is on her arm. It is an aspic’s trail.
> D
You are in the hold of Cleopatra’s barge. It is damp and you can hear the creaking of timbers and the scurrying noises made by rodents.
There is an exceptionally tame shrew sitting here looking lost.

You can’t just take the tame shrew along without some help, but nearby there’s a cage with a starling.

You are at the end of a wharf. The only way out is to the northeast.
There is a cage here, containing a starling.

Sometimes the starling croaks “Mortimer”. That’s a reference to a character from one of the historical plays (Henry IV, Part 1), who is in prison at the time of the story. This suggests you should let the bird out. The bird actually stays in place, suggesting there is a useful place to deposit the creature, but I haven’t found where that is yet.

With the cage in hand we can pick up the shrew. We can let the shrew out anywhere we like and pick it up again, but I haven’t found a use yet for the shrew either.

While I was hanging out at the wharf I tried CLEAN HANDS (I still had bloody hands, recall you get them in summer if you kill the king in the winter) and it worked. I happened to be carrying the dog’s tongue which works (the game says you clean yourself off with the tongue).

This is needed because I also found the scene where bloody hands are a hinderance. If you go back to the mansion with the caskets, there’s one room, a dining hall, which is empty in winter and spring, but filled in summer.

You are in a palatial dining hall, which is set as for some great banquet. All the seats are taken except for the one at the head of the table. There are archways to the east, southeast and south.

You are unable to sit down with bloody hands. (Too self-conscious.) With them cleaned via being in an area with water + holding the dog’s tongue, you can get one of the most colorful scenes of the game (so far).

> sit
You sit down to the feast. To your horror a ghastly vision appears and shakes its gory locks at you. It is the ghost of the Scotsman you have so foully slain! You stand and address this shadow, this unreal mockery, which only you can see. This displaces the mirth of the guests, who stand not upon the order of their going, but go at once. The ghost then avaunts and quits your sight, melting into the wall to your northeast.

Now the Wood comes into play.

> ne
You find yourself able to pass through the northeastern wall as though yourself a ghost.
You are in Birnham wood. There are paths in various directions but the whole wood seems to be moving about.

At the milestone from before, if you want a little an opening appears to the southwest. At a later wooden post the same thing happens.

Suddenly the trees part to reveal a path to the southwest.
You are in Birnham wood. There are paths in various directions but the whole wood seems to be moving about.
There is an old milestone here.
> sw
The trees move and the path to your northeast is blocked once more. You are in Birnham wood. There are paths in various directions but the whole wood seems to be moving about.

Go into the woods deep enough and you find a building with a mysterious scepter.

You are at the centre of the wood. To the south is a cottage which probably belongs to a retired criminal, for it bears the name Dunsinnin.
> s
You are on the ground floor of Dunsinnin. There is an exit to the north and some steps up.
There is a sceptre here, which shows the force of temporal power!

Also, you can go to the balcony and jump off and die. For reasons.

> u
You are on the first floor of Dunsinnin. There is a balcony to the south
(Soft! what light through yonder window breaks?) and some steps down.
> s
You are on the balcony of Dunsinnin, which looks out over Birnham wood.
The only (apparent) way to go now is back to the north.
> jump
You throw yourself off the balcony and methinks I see thee, now thou art so slow, as one dead in the bottom of a tomb.

With that resolved (mostly) I turned my attention back to the weird circumstance with the caskets. Last time I had found two clues: a “password” delivered by a jester and a name written on a letter. The syllables GO (for gold) SI (for silver) and LE (for lead) were mixed amongst the names, and even though I tried what I thought was the most logical thing (taking the first two syllables and using them as a guide for which caskets to open) it didn’t work.

I was foiled by two things. One is that if you save your game after receiving the password/name but before opening the caskets, the pattern no longer works, and you have softlocked the game. There’s a clue to this but I only realized in retrospect (it will still be important later):

> save
How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds makes ill deeds done!
Game saved.

(Yes, you’re supposed to realize that “the sight of means to do ill deeds” is the “you lost” message.)

I also had one time I did the sequence where I did not save and I still had the issue (I was thinking of Hezarin which intentionally corrupts your save file in similar circumstances). After enough prodding (including some testing from people in my comments) I tried the combination again and it worked. With a password of Goselida:

> open gold
The casket is empty. Shielded from your view, the Lady Portia performs a rearrangement of the contents of the caskets and invites you to open a second casket.
Choose again. Which casket will ye open now?
silver
You open the second casket, which contains a miniature portrait.
The lady Portia picks up her caskets and leaves, murmuring “Sweet, adieu.”
A maid then enters, invites you to try your luck again later and withdraws again.
You are in the lady’s boudoir.
There is a miniature portrait of the lady Portia here!

Bah. Maybe I had some sort of autosave on? Or an interpreter bug? Either way, relying on the meta-interface here is extraordinarily dangerous and bound to run into issues that have nothing to do with the player’s thought processes.

I racked up the second treasure (a gold ring) through similar circumstances but I was stumped after. Deciding to test something else, I went from a save file at the forest, moved myself over past the Capitol to where the Egypt area is, and saved my game.

Upon saving my game, I got the “sight of means to do ill deeds” message. Uh oh!

Somehow, between one save game and the other, I had run across a clue. It wasn’t that many rooms, so checking step by step, I realized I should have been paying more attention at the Capitol:

You are in the Capitol, a large building filled with people in white togas, who are listening to the famous orator Legosinius. For the less patient, there are exits to the west and southeast.
There is a scroll here.

Legosinius (groan). Making a beeline to the caskets and then trying LEAD and GOLD worked, yielding some of Malvolio’s socks (?). However, after this happened (if I took or left behind the socks) I started to die:

You feel very warm.
You are on a long east-west track.
> e
You feel very warm.
I’m afraid that your too too solid flesh has just started to melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!

You should have died hereafter.
You scored 131 points out of a maximum of 425.
Once more into the breach, dear friend?

In addition to that baffler, the farmer with missing chickens, and three mazes (Undiscovered Country, Rosalind, and the fog), I’ve also got the odd bit here and there which might be meaningful, like a cloud which changes between a weasel, camel, and whale (no idea, no verb I’ve tried has worked). And of course instead of searching for puzzles I might simply try using my unused items everywhere (like bat wool, the last witch ingredient, and the tame shrew). Still, I’m not even technically halfway in terms of points, so I suspect there’s a whole new chunk of game yet to be prodded at.

Monday, 19. February 2024

Zarf Updates

The grandmasters

The Hugo Award mess continues to be worse than expected. I'm not going there. Instead, let's talk about an award that everybody is happy about. A couple of weeks ago, SFWA announced they were naming Susan Cooper as a Grand Master of Fantasy ...

The Hugo Award mess continues to be worse than expected. I'm not going there. Instead, let's talk about an award that everybody is happy about.

A couple of weeks ago, SFWA announced they were naming Susan Cooper as a Grand Master of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Properly a "Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master", but I was a Cooper fan before I ever heard of Knight so allow me the unadorned title.

(Footnote: I am a SFWA member but I did not contribute to this honor. It's a juried award.)

I was absolutely delighted to hear the news. I've loved the Dark is Rising series since I was a kid. Since the series was nearly brand-new, come to think of it. I couldn't have read them any later than 1980, and Silver on the Tree was 1977. Of course they felt like a foundational part of the literary landscape, like Narnia and Middle-Earth and Star Trek and everything else older than Me Right Then. Well, they were and they are.

I've come back to the series now and again. See my comments on how The Dark is Rising might work as a game. (Weirdly, because it's a weird book by modern fantasy conventions.) There was also a BBC radioplay a couple years back which I thought was quite good. (Except for the title music, which sorry no.) And I'm not the only one who will always have, somewhere safe in memory, the image of great wooden doors on a snowy hill.

But, as I read the news and smiled, I grimaced as well. You may remember that Patricia McKillip died just a couple of years ago. McKillip has received many honors, including the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. But she was never declared a Grand Master, even though she was a grandmaster, and she will not be: that award is not given posthumously.

In fact, the Grand Master Award, as originally conceived, was given to no more than six (living) authors per decade. In 1995 this limit was changed to no more than one per year.

As of last year, SFWA has a separate honor, the Infinity Award, given to writers who died before being recognized Grand Master. The first Infinity Award went to Octavia Butler. I have no doubt that McKillip's name will appear on that list someday. But I don't think this solves the problem.


Problem? Yes, I say there is a problem with the Grand Master award rules. A demographic problem, not just a "my favorite author didn't get it" problem.

For years I've described the award criteria as: a living author who has been writing SF, influentially, for forty years. That's not the actual rule; it's not written down anywhere. It's just my thumbnail of what SFWA seems to consider Grand Master territory.

Let me do a quick chart of recent Grand Masters:

  • 2024: Susan Cooper (writing for 59 years)
  • 2023: Robin McKinley (42 years)
  • 2022: Mercedes Lackey (37 years)
  • 2021: Nalo Hopkinson (25 years)
  • 2020: Lois McMaster Bujold (35 years)
  • 2019: William Gibson (38 years)
  • 2018: Peter S. Beagle (58 years)
  • 2017: Jane Yolen (47 years)
  • 2016: C. J. Cherryh (40 years)
  • 2015: Larry Niven (52 years)
  • 2014: Samuel R. Delany (52 years)
  • 2013: Gene Wolfe (48 years)
  • 2012: Connie Willis (34 years)

(Yes, these spans are quite subjective. I'm picking the author's first influential work, or when they started publishing stories regularly. Susan Cooper apparently wrote a short story called "The Ring" when she was twenty but I'm not counting it.)

Thus, a range, but 40-45 years on average. I won't run farther back, but the very first Grand Master was Heinlein, awarded in 1975, writing for 36 years at that time. So it seems pretty consistent.

Only, if this goes on --

I mean, what happened about 45 years ago? Terry Brooks, that's what happened, with The Sword of Shannara. The same year, Stephen Donaldson. Also Piers Anthony getting into pop fantasy (as opposed to his earlier New Wave SF). All three, by no coincidence, in paperback from the newly-imprinted Del Rey Books. Which is to say: the start of the Big Damn Fantasy Just Went Mainstream era.

By 40 years BP, fantasy is in full swing. (The Colour of Magic, Jhereg, The Mists of Avalon, The Anubis Gates, Tea with the Black Dragon, Alanna, and The Dragon Waiting -- all 1983.) And it's not like sci-fi is slowing down in that period. The same publishers are handling both and they figure (correctly) that the more people get into either genre, the better both will sell.

Conclusion: right now, the Grand Master is being given to people who started writing SF/F when a whole lot more people started writing SF/F.

Does it really make sense that only ten children of the 1980s deserve to be called Grand Masters?


Certainly a lot of the Big Fantasy Boom is trash. Nobody much claims that Brooks or Donaldson or Anthony are literary highlights. Mind you, Anthony was a genuine young hotshot for a few years before Xanth. And I will throw down for Donaldson having a real point behind all the guilt and clenching.

Anyhow, of course, a lot of 1940s, 50s, and 60s SF was also trash, burnished in memory. One job of the Grand Master award is to honor the stuff you loved as a kid, the stuff that shaped your reading life and the lives of current writers your age. (Consider why this award is given by a writers' organization!) Looking back and saying "Um, yeah, it was forty years ago and I see the problems now" is not a disqualification.

You could argue that only the ten best writers of the decade should be called Grand Masters. I don't agree. The 80s were a Cambrian explosion in the field: more books, more approaches, more styles, more kinds of people writing. I call that more great stuff. No sliding scale required.

(The SF/F field was still predominantly white at that point, but a lot more women started writing -- a fact that the Grand Master rolls are already firmly cognizant of. Someone else will have to write up the succeeding diversity explosion of the 2010s when 2055 rolls around.)

I say that if we try to recognize these people at a rate of one per year, we will fall behind and never catch up. That means authors dying faster than we can honor them.


But, of course, I need to back this up with data. Can I name more than ten writers per decade who I would call Grand Masters of the field? Well, sure.

I won't exhaust you with a chart of every SF/F writer of a certain age. Or even every author in my collection. (I'm smug enough about my collection as it is.)

But, of authors who started writing in the 1970s, you are considering at a minimum Terry Pratchett(*), Diana Wynne Jones(*), Patricia McKillip(*), Tim Powers, Anne Rice(*), Mary Gentle, Diane Duane, John Varley, Greg Bear, Orson Scott Card, and George R. R. Martin.

(Asterisks mark writers who are no longer with us, but I'm including them because they had that solid 40-year career.) (I'm using the same handwavy definition of "started writing", sorry, it's an approximation.)

(Yes, GRRM is a 70s writer, and was on his way to grandmaster status even before Wild Cards. Never mind the recent dragony stuff.)

And then you have to give some thought to Spider Robinson, George Alec Effinger, and John M. Ford, who weren't prolific for very long but had a hell of an impact. I mean, you could say that of Susan Cooper too.

Writers starting in the 1980s? Don't get me started, oops there I go: Bruce Sterling, James Morrow, James Blaylock, David Brin, Raymond Feist, Barbara Hambly, L. E. Modesitt, Megan Lindholm (Robin Hobb), Steven Brust, Tamora Pierce, Sheri S. Tepper(*), Charles de Lint, Guy Gavriel Kay, Melissa Scott, Michael Swanwick, Philip Pullman, Walter Jon Williams, Tom Holt (K. J. Parker), Iain M. Banks(*), Tanya Huff, Neal Stephenson, Dave Duncan(*), Greg Egan, Kate Elliott, C. S. Friedman. Sure, you could narrow that list down, but then you could add more names to it. (Glen Cook! A. A. Attanasio! Lawrence Watt-Evans! Somtow Sucharitkul! Ellen Kushner!)

I'm not even pretending to have complete candidate lists. Just the people I'd argue for, or who are prominent or influential enough that I think other people would argue for them. Minus the many I've forgotten.

So. I think that makes the point. More than ten grandmasters per decade. The field only gets more crowded from there. Someone who's making the rules, take note.

(Footnote: I did a lot of ISFDB digging, but I may have missed some qualifications or death dates. Apologies if so. I know you're all eagle-eyed trivia noters and will correct my mistakes in short order.)

Sunday, 18. February 2024

IFTF Blog

Announcing IFTF Grant Recipients

In September 2023, we opened our grant program for the very first time. The program exists to disburse small amounts of money in support of projects that serve the interactive fiction community. Since then, half a dozen Grant Advisors have reviewed each submission, providing their recommendations to the grants committee, who ultimately selected four projects to fund. We are happy today to announce

In September 2023, we opened our grant program for the very first time. The program exists to disburse small amounts of money in support of projects that serve the interactive fiction community. Since then, half a dozen Grant Advisors have reviewed each submission, providing their recommendations to the grants committee, who ultimately selected four projects to fund. We are happy today to announce our first batch of funded projects through this grants program!

Interestingly, we saw great diversity in the projects submitted, which altogether touch on the very different areas of interactive fiction. Thank you to everyone who submitted their ideas! Below, you can learn about the awarded projects and the people behind them.

iOS Test Device for Parchment – Dannii Willis

Dannii Willis is the main developer of Parchment, a web interpreter that lets users read and play through interactive fiction on the web. Dannii will receive $500 in funds to purchase an iOS device, allowing him to more accurately test how Parchment functions on the iOS version of Safari, as well as test Parchment’s accessibility in UserVoice. An iOS-native device will help Dannii run these tests and iterate faster than with other tools, in service of supporting iOS users in the community and those who rely on iOS accessibility features.

Teaching Indonesian Authors to Write IF – Felicity Banks

Novelist Felicity Banks will receive $1,000 to fund an IF workshop for 10-20 English-speaking writers in Indonesia at a writing festival next year, focusing on Twine and ChoiceScript. Felicity knows Indonesia well and is experienced in such workshops, especially for raw beginners; the funds will cover necessary travel requirements. Her project is inspired by the benefits that diversity brings to the IF community, and she intends to serve Indonesia’s vibrant writing community by helping them participate by introducing them to the medium and planting a seed towards a budding Indonesian IF community.

Writing with Inform Audiobook – Ryan Veeder

Based on his experience helping blind users get started with Inform 7, Ryan Veeder saw an opportunity to translate “Writing with Inform” documentation into an audiobook format, thereby making it more accessible to the wider IF community. While assistive technology like screen-reading software can help users who rely on it, it often fails to accurately represent the specific punctuation use and other formal considerations that are critical to Inform 7 code. Therefore, Ryan will receive $400 to start producing a few chapters of Inform 7 documentation in a bespoke audiobook format, to demonstrate the utility and feasibility of such a resource.

Improvements to Pre-Existing IF Research – Brian Rushton

Brian Rushton is a prolific chronicler of the history of IFComp and the XYZZY awards, and is the most active reviewer at the Interactive Fiction Database. Based on the positive reception his writing has earned in the community, Brian wants to fill in the years missing from his history and touch up existing research. He will receive $500 to devote his time toward continuing to write the history of IFComp and the XYZZY awards from about 2016-2022, as well as revising and editing other essays to be more professional, along with standardized and uniform citations. The resulting work will be disseminated for the community’s benefit.

It’s inspiring to see the variety of projects proposed in this cycle, each of which serve the IF community in different ways. We thank all applicants, and we’re excited to see how the awarded projects develop! And we would also like to thank this year’s Grant Advisors, who volunteered their time to review the projects and formulate a recommendation for IFTF: thank you very much to Grim Baccaris, Kate Compton, Emilia Lazer-Walker, Juhana Leinonen, Colin Post, and Kaitlin Tremblay!

Congratulations again to our first batch of funded projects, and keep an eye out for our next grant cycle!

Saturday, 17. February 2024

The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction

February meeting (online)

The Boston IF meetup for February will be Friday, February 23, 6:30 pm Eastern time. We will post the Zoom link to the mailing list on the day of the meeting.

The Boston IF meetup for February will be Friday, February 23, 6:30 pm Eastern time.

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


Renga in Blue

Avon: This Great Gap of Time

(Click here to catch up on my Avon posts before this one.) So I resolved two puzzles from last time during summer, resolved (probably) one during spring, and made headway on a puzzle that spans all three seasons and might be one of the most cryptic in the game. The general theming was: what object […]

(Click here to catch up on my Avon posts before this one.)

So I resolved two puzzles from last time during summer, resolved (probably) one during spring, and made headway on a puzzle that spans all three seasons and might be one of the most cryptic in the game.

The general theming was: what object from one Shakespeare play could be used to help with a dilemma from another?

From PcwWiki.

I was still stuck on the Puck/farmer dilemma, which I’m starting to suspect is resolved via some sort of wordplay.

You are at the remains of a chicken farm. A fox has clearly visited this place and killed half the stock. The only way the farmhands will let you go is back to the west.

“What! all my pretty chickens and their dam, at one fell swoop?” he mutters. “I asked my keeper, Puck, to get the fox’s earth seen to, but he went away saying that he’d put a hurdle round the earth in forty minutes (and that was hours ago.)”

This he repeats, over and over again, trying to understand the tragedy.

(Incidentally, the words “chicken”, “puck”, “dam”, “hurdle”, “fox”, and “girdle” are not understood, so none play a part in resolving the puzzle. Not like it is shocking, really, given how many things have been resolved in a lateral way.)

That was the last “winter area” puzzle (I think) but I decided to wallop a bit more on spring and summer. I started going with the assumption that if a location was unimportant in two other seasons, it had to be important in the third. There was a battlefield with Richard III muttering about the winter of our discontent; it seemed like I needed to return to the battlefield later, and indeed, in summer, I found the “kingly hunchback” crying about his kingdom for a horse.

Hogarth showing his friend David Garrick as Richard III. Via the Met.

If you’ve been paying attention in my previous posts, you may already know the resolution for this dilemma.

You are on Bosworth field. There is battle raging all round you. The only safe way out is to the north.
A kingly hunchback is fighting here. Hopelessly outnumbered he cries “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Your appearance on the scene, complete with ass’s head causes his enemies to flee in terror.
The king thanks you, removes the ass’s head from you and departs. You find that he has left his crown under a nearby bush.
You are on Bosworth field. There is battle raging all round you. The only safe way out is to the north.
The Plantagenet crown is here!

So you get your head turned into an ass in Midsummer Night’s Dream-land, then utilize said ass-head to help Richard III. Makes sense.

Another object I hadn’t messed around with yet was the meat pie. I always am hesitant to test eating things in games (it often makes the food disappear and softlock the game), but here I needed to be hesitant for another reason:

There is a nourishing meat pie here.
> get pie
OK.
> eat pie
Although the cheer be poor, ’twill fill your stomach. You eat of it with pleasure until a man dressed as a cook enters and reveals to you that two of the ingredients in the pie were named Chiron and Demetrius. ‘Tis true; witness his knife’s sharp point… I’m afraid he stabs you.

That’s the pie made out of people! (See: Titus Andronicus.) I didn’t think much of this scene yet, but later, while off the computer, it suddenly struck me that the meat pie would solve an entirely different dilemma: the merchant who wants a pound of flesh. In the play (Merchant of Venice) this results in a dramatic court scene as Shylock tries to get his pound of flesh, but here, we already have the flesh pre-cooked:

As you pass the moneylender’s premises, their owner comes out to greet you. Scenting business, he offers to lend you 3,000 ducats until you next meet, the security to be a pound of flesh.
Three thousand ducats. ‘Tis a good round sum.
Wilt thou borrow it from the moneylender?
yes
The moneylender gives you the money and goes back into his establishment.

You are at the docks. Roads lead to the north, southwest and southeast.
To the south is a barge; its poop is beaten gold, purple the sails
and so perfumed that the winds are love sick with them.
> drop ducats
OK.
> inv
You are holding:
A scroll.
A meat pie.
There’s the smell of blood upon your hands.
> n
The moneylender accosts you as you pass, saying “I would have my bond.”
Since you do not have the ducats, the moneylender demands a pound of flesh from you. Fortunately you are able to persuade him to accept that disgusting pie you were carrying: he takes it from you and then he leaves.

For my third puzzle, I was trying to resolve (in Spring) being attacked by knights.

You open the door and enter the house.
The door slams behind you and you hear sounds of a key turning in the lock.
You are in the kitchen of a small house. There are several doors leading from it, all of which appear to be locked.
There is a letter here, addressed to Mistress Golesind and signed
‘Thine own true knight,
By day or night,
Or any kind of light
With all his might,
For thee to fight,
John Falstaff.
> wave trophy
Nothing of great import happens.
Suddenly the door opens and several knights armed with swords rush in. They brand you as an intruder and promptly slay you.

I did a little structural solving first and realized there was no way to really attack the knights directly, so I needed to hide. One laundry basket (from The Merry Wives of Windsor) later:

Do you want to get into the basket?
YES
You are in the basket. It is a very tight fit and you are unable to move your hands.
Do you wish to spend any more time cooped up in the basket?
YES
Suddenly you hear sounds of people entering the room. They pick up the laundry basket, with you inside it, and carry it off. After a while there is a mighty SPLOSH! and you are tossed into the river.
Unfortunately the current is too strong for you and you are swept under and drowned.

Well, that’s not quite it, but I already got one magic power from the witches, maybe swimming? The frog toe seemed promising but holding had no effect.

I baffled for a while, but if you’ve been paying attention to my little playing quirks, you might realize the problem. I hadn’t tested eating the frog toe before getting tossed in the river.

The frog’s toe that you ate gives you tremendous swimming ability: the torrent roars and you do buffet it, with lusty sinews, throwing it aside. You are able to struggle to land, narrowly escaping being swept over a waterfall.

Voila! Unfortunately, going through that whole sequence seemed to yield me nothing. The letter in the building can’t be picked up (you only have one turn that must be used going in the basket). So maybe the information is important?

I realized that the name Mistress Golesind sometimes changed (like Mistress Legosind) and I also compared it with passwords I had been getting from Yorick the Jester way back at the graveyard (like SILEGODA). Maybe it is supposed to be

SI/LE/GO/DA = silver/lead/gold/??

LE/GO/SI/ND = lead/gold/silver/??

That is, these match the materials of the caskets. Back in the mansion, we were offered to open two caskets, remember; it turns out this offer is given in every season. Since we are offered two caskets per season, we can open six caskets.

This suggests opening the caskets in order as given by the password and the name, concatenating the six materials (SI + LE + GO + LE + GO + SI), but my testing this yielded no treasure. (You get a smoothed ice, a perfumed violet, and a painted lily, but this seems to happen if you just guess randomly.) So I’m not sure what to do here. I feel like I’m missing something. Yes, you can mash up DA and ND to get D AND, but from there …?

> OPEN GOLD
The casket is empty. Shielded from your view, the Lady Portia performs a rearrangement of the contents of the caskets and invites you to open a second casket.
Choose again. Which casket will ye open now?
LEAD
You open the second casket, which contains a perfumed violet.
The lady Portia picks up her caskets and leaves, murmuring “Sweet, adieu.”

That’s essentially everything for now, except one bonus thing. I found if you go back in the graveyard in summer (where you meet a live Yorick in winter) you can find a Yorick skull. Then you can go back to the witches, who will happily trade the rest of their items for the skull. This means you can get the last two items (wool of bat, tongue of dog) instead of just one of them! (Or maybe the skull is really what you need, the game is willing to be that evil.)

The gravedigger scene in Hamlet, from a Wentworth engraving in 1870.

Friday, 16. February 2024

Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian

The Rise of POMG, Part 3: Competition and Conflict

While the broth of Ultima Online was slowly thickening, not one but two other publishers beat EA and Origin Systems to the punch by releasing graphical persistent virtual worlds of their own. We owe it to them and to ourselves to have a look at these other POMG pioneers before we return to the more […]

While the broth of Ultima Online was slowly thickening, not one but two other publishers beat EA and Origin Systems to the punch by releasing graphical persistent virtual worlds of their own. We owe it to them and to ourselves to have a look at these other POMG pioneers before we return to the more widely lauded one that was being built down in Texas. They were known as Meridian 59 and The Realm.


Meridian 59 was inspired by Scepter of Goth,[1]The first word in the name is often spelled Sceptre as well. a rare attempt to commercialize the text-only MUD outside of the walled gardens of online services such as CompuServe and GEnie. After a long gestation period on a mainframe of the Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium, it was ported in 1983 to an IBM PC/XT, to which were cabled sixteen modems and sixteen phone lines, one for each of the players who could be online at any given time. A company called InterPlay — no, not that Interplay — franchised the software out to operators in at least seven American cities. These franchisees then charged their customers an hourly fee to roam around inside the world. The business model worked surprisingly well for a couple of years, until InterPlay’s founder was sent to prison for tax evasion and his company went down with him.

During the fairly brief window of time that Scepter of Goth remained a going concern, a pair of brothers named Andrew and Chris Kirmse fell in love with the incarnation of it that was run out of their hometown of Fairfax, Virginia. Not yet teenagers when they discovered it, they never forgot it after it disappeared. In the summer of 1994, when Andrew had just earned his bachelor’s degree from MIT and Chris had just finished his junior year at Virginia Tech, they set about bringing something similar to life, albeit this time with a top-down graphical view of the world rather than scrolling text. By the end of the year, they felt they had “the foundation of a game,” as Andrew puts it.

A very early version of the game that would evolve into Meridian 59. At this point, it was known as Blackstone.

Then, like so many other young men of their generation and disposition, they found their productivity derailed by a little game called DOOM. “I spent the early part of 1995 playing DOOM II to the exclusion of all else,” admits Andrew. As soon as he had finished all of the single-player levels, he and a friend started to make a DOOM-like engine of their own — again, just as about a million other young programmers were doing at the time. But there was a key difference in Andrew’s case: he didn’t want to make a single-player game, nor even one oriented toward the one-and-done online deathmatches that were all the rage at university campuses all over the country. He rather wanted to combine DOOM with the persistent online game which he and his brother had already begun — that is to say, to make a DOOM that took place in a persistent world.

Andrew and Chris Kirmse cleared their schedules so that they could spend the summer of 1995 in their parents’ basement, figuring out whether it was possible and practical to make the unholy union a reality. With the Internet now entering the public consciousness in a big way, it was a no-brainer to move the game there, where it would be able to welcome far more than sixteen players without requiring a warehouse worth of modems. A handful of other young dreamers joined them as partners in a would-be company called Archetype Interactive, contributing art, world designs, and even a modicum of business acumen from locations all over the country. Like Kali and for that matter DOOM itself, it was the very definition of an underground project, springing to life far from the bright lights of the major publishers, with their slick “interactive movies” and their fixed — and, it would turn out, comprehensively wrong — ideas of the direction mainstream gaming was destined to go. At first the Archetypers wanted to call their game Meridian, simply because they thought the word sounded cool. But they found that the name was already trademarked, so they stuck an arbitrary number at the end of it to wind up with Meridian 59.

By December, they had a bare-bones world with, as Andrew Kirmse says, “no character advancement, no spells, no guilds, no ranged weapons, just the novelty of seeing other people walking around in 3D and talking to them.” Nevertheless, they decided they were ready for an alpha test, several months before Ultima Online would reach the same milestone. They fired up the server late one evening and went to bed, and were thrilled to wake up the next morning and find four people — out of a maximum of 35 — poking around in their world at the same time. Andrew still calls the excitement of that moment “the high point of the entire project.” They redoubled their efforts, roping in more interested observers to provide more art and expand upon the world and its systems, pushing out major updates every few weeks.

In an testament to the endearingly ramshackle nature of the whole project, the world of Meridian 59 was built using a hacked DOOM level editor. Likewise, much of the early art was blatantly stolen from DOOM.

The world went into beta testing in April of 1996. The maximum number of concurrent players had by now been raised by an order of magnitude, but Meridian 59 had become popular enough that the Archetypers still had to kick people out when they needed to log on themselves to check out their handiwork. Among the curious tire-kickers who visited was Kevin Hester, a programmer with The 3DO Company. Founded by Trip Hawkins five years earlier with the intention of bringing a “multimedia console” — don’t call it a games console! — to living rooms everywhere, 3DO was rather at loose ends by this point, having banked on a future of digital entertainment that was badly at odds with the encroaching reality. But Hawkins’s latest instincts were sounder than those of a half-decade previous: he had now decided that online play rather than single-player multimedia extravaganzas was the future. He jumped on Meridian 59 as soon as Hester brought it to his attention, putting together in a matter of days a deal to acquire the budding virtual world and its far-flung network of creators for $5 million in 3DO stock. The Archetypers all signed on the dotted line and moved to Silicon Valley, most of them meeting one another face to face for the first time on their first day in their new office, where they were thrilled to find five servers — enough for five separate instances of their virtual world! — just waiting for them to continue with the beta test.

It had started off like a hacker fairy tale, but the shine wore off quickly enough. Inspired by the shareware example of DOOM, the Kirmse brothers had expected to offer the game client as a free download, with the necessity to pay subscription fees kicking in only after players had been given a few hours to try it out. 3DO vetoed all of this, insisting that the client be made available only as a boxed product with a $50 initial price tag, plus a $15 monthly subscription fee. And instead of being given as much time as they needed to make their new world fit for permanent habitation, as they had been promised they would, the Archetypers were now told that they had to begin welcoming paying customers into Meridian 59 in less than three months. Damion Schubert, Meridian 59‘s world-design lead, claims that “3DO was using us to learn about the business of online gaming,” seeing their very first virtual world as a stepping-stone rather than a destination unto itself. Whatever the truth of that assertion, it is a matter of record that, while the Archetypers were trying to meet 3DO’s deadline, the stock they had been given was in free fall, losing 75 percent of its value in those first three months, thereby doing that much more to convince the accountants that Meridian 59 absolutely, positively had to ship before 3DO’s next fiscal year began on October 1.

An aesthetic triumph Meridian 59 was not.

So, the game that was officially released on September 27, 1996, was not quite the one the Kirmses had envisioned when they signed the contract with 3DO. To call it little more than a massively-multiplayer DOOM deathmatch with a chat system grafted on would be unkind but not totally unfair. Its pseudo-3D engine would have looked badly outdated in 1996, the year of Quake, even if the art hadn’t been such a mismatched grab bag of aesthetics and resolutions. Meridian 59 evinced none of the simulational aspirations of Ultima Online; this was not a world in which anyone was going to pass the time baking bread or chopping lumber. For lack of much else to do, people mostly occupied themselves by killing one another. Like Ultima Online, the software permitted player-versus-player combat anywhere and everywhere; unlike Ultima Online, there were no guards patrolling any of the world’s spaces to disincentivize it. A Meridian 59 server was a purely kill-or-be-killed sort of world, host to a new war every single day. Because there was no budget to add much other content to the world, this was just as well with its creators; indeed, they soon learned to lean into it hard. Activities in the world came to revolve around the possession of guild halls, of which each server boasted ten of varying degrees of splendor for the disparate factions to fight over. If you didn’t like to fight with your fellow players more or less constantly, Meridian 59 probably wasn’t the game for you.

Handed the first-ever full-fledged massively-multiplayer online role-playing game, 3DO’s marketers chose to… write non-sequiters about latex. This might be the worst advertisement I’ve ever seen; I literally have no idea what joke it’s trying and failing to land. Something about condoms, I presume?

Luckily, there were plenty of gamers who really, really did like to fight, as the popularity of DOOM deathmatches illustrated. Despite its dated graphics and despite promotional efforts from 3DO that were bizarrely inept when they weren’t nonexistent, Meridian 59 managed to attract 20,000 or more subscribers and to retain them for a good while, keeping all ten of the servers that were given over to it after the beta test humming along at near capacity most of the time. 3DO even approved a couple of boxed expansion packs that added a modicum of additional content.

But then, in late 1997, 3DO all but killed the virtual world dead at a stroke. Deciding it was unjust that casual players who logged on only occasionally paid the same subscription fee as heavy users who spent many hours per day online, they rejiggered the pricing formula into a tangle of numbers that would have baffled an income-tax accountant: $2.49 per day that one logged on, capped at $9.99 per week, with total fees also capped at $29.99 per month. But never mind the details. Since the largest chunk of subscribers by far belonged to the heavy-user category, it boiled down to a doubling of the subscription price, from $15 to $30 per month. The populations on the servers cratered as a result. Meridian 59‘s best days — or at least its most populous ones — thus passed into history.


The other graphical MMORPG to beat Ultima Online to market had a very different personality. Sierra’s The Realm was the direct result of Ken Williams’s musings about what an “online adventure game” might be like, the same ones that I quoted at some length in my last article. After trying and failing to convince Roberta Williams to add a multiplayer option to King’s Quest VII, he went to a programmer named David Slayback, saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do something like our adventure games, that was Medieval themed, and allowed players to swap items with each other, buy weapons, and attack monsters?” Slayback then took the ball and ran with it; as Ken himself acknowledges, that initial conversation was “the limit of my involvement creatively.”

The original plan was for The Realm to become a part of America Online, the great survivor of the pre-Web era of commercial online services. That deal, however, fell through. Meanwhile Sierra was itself acquired by an e-commerce firm called CUC International, and The Realm seemed to fall between two stools amidst the reshuffling of deck chairs that followed. A beta test in the summer of 1996 did lead to the acceptance of the first paying subscribers in December of that year, but Sierra never did any real promotion beyond its own customer magazine, making the client software available only via mail order. Still, by all indications this virtual world attracted a number of players comparable to that of Meridian 59, perhaps not least because in its case buying the boxed client entitled the customer to a full year of free online play.

The Realm stands today as a rather fascinating artifact, being the road largely not taken in the MMORPG space. In presentation, aesthetics, and culture, it has more in common with Habitat, an amazingly early attempt by Lucasfilm Games and America Online’s direct predecessor Quantum Link to build a non-competitive graphical space for online socializing, than it does with either Meridian 59 or Ultima Online. This world was very clear about where its priorities lay: “The Realm offers you a unique environment in which to socialize with online friends (or make some new ones) and also gives you something fun to do while you’re socializing.” It was, in other words, a case of social space first, game second. As such, it might be better read as a progenitor to the likes of Second Life or The Sims Online than something like World of Warcraft.

Each player started in her own house, which she had to fight neither to acquire nor to defend. The interface was set up like one of the point-and-click graphic adventures that had been Sierra’s bread and butter since the mid-1980s, with the player guiding her avatar in the third person across a map made up of “rooms” that filled exactly one screen each. The graphical style too was right out of King’s Quest. None of this is terribly surprising, given that The Realm was built using SCI, Sierra’s venerable adventure-game engine.

Although there were monsters to fight and treasure to collect, player-versus-player combat was impossible. Even profanity was expressly forbidden. (“This includes ‘masking’ by using asterisks as part of the word,” noted the FAQ carefully.) The combat was also unusual in that it was turn-based. This choice, combined with the way that The Realm off-loaded an unusual amount of work to the player’s local client, meant that Sierra didn’t have to spread it across multiple servers; uniquely for this era, there really was just one Realm.

All of this attracted a dramatically different clientele from that of Meridian 59; many more women hung out in The Realm, for one thing. Interior decoration and fashion trumped murder and theft in the typical range of pursuits. Beth Demetrescu wrote in Sierra’s magazine InterAction about her own first days there:

As with all newbies, I started in my house. I was a poor, hungry, fashion faux pas. After I got out of my house, moved about six screens, and was lost in my hometown, I encountered HorseWoman, whose biography said she was an eleven-year-old. She took me to her home, gave me decent clothes, and taught me about basic communication, navigation, and combat. This was my first experience with the warm, welcoming community of The Realm.

I soon found myself outside of the town fighting rats. There are plenty of large, ferocious beasts to fight, but for the time being, all I could handle were rats. I was really worried the first time one of these rats killed me, thinking I was going to get kicked out of the game and would have to log back on. Instead, I lost everything I was carrying, but I was found by wanderers who dragged me home to heal…

I learned of Realm weddings. BlueRose, the Justice of the Peace, often called the Lady of Love, conducts over half of the Realm weddings…

I have picked up several valuable things from the many Realmers I have encountered. Not only did I get important information on The Realm’s features and inhabitants, but I also learned from their example about The Realm’s vast, multinational community. These people are friendly and helpful.

The contrast with Meridian 59, where a bewildered newbie was more likely to be given a broadsword to the back of the neck than navigational and sartorial assistance, could hardly have been greater.

A wedding in The Realm.

All told, then, Meridian 59 and The Realm provided the early MMORPG space with its yang and its yin: the one being a hyper-violent, hyper-competitive free-for-all where pretty much anything went, the other a friendly social space that was kept that way by tight moderation. Nevertheless, the two did have some things in common. Neither ever became more than moderately popular, for one — and that according to a pretty generous interpretation of “moderately” in a fast-expanding games industry. And yet both proved weirdly hard to kill. In fact, both are still alive to this day, abandoned decades ago by their original publishers but kept online by hook or by crook by folks who simply refuse to let them go away — certainly not now, when the aged code that makes their worlds come alive can be run for a pittance on a low-end server tucked away in some back corner of an office or data center somewhere. Their populations on any given evening may now be in the dozens rather than the hundreds or thousands, but these virtual worlds abide. In this too, they’ve set a precedent for their posterity; the Internet of today is fairly littered with online games whose heyday of press notices and mainstream popularity are well behind them, but that seem determined to soldier on until the last grizzled graybeard who cut his teeth on them in his formative years shuffles off this mortal coil. MMORPGs especially are a bit like cockroaches in this respect — with no insult to either the worlds or the insects in question intended. Suffice to say that community can be a disarmingly resilient thing.



But we return now to the story of Ultima Online, whose makers viewed the less than overwhelming commercial acceptance of Meridian 59 and The Realm with some ambivalence. On the one hand, Ultima Online had avoided having its own thunder stolen by another MMORPG sensation. On the other, these other virtual worlds’ middling trajectories gave no obvious reason to feel hugely confident in Ultima Online‘s own commercial prospects.

This was a problem not least because, as 1996 turned the corner into 1997, the project’s financial well had just about run dry, just as this virtual Britannia was ready to go from the alpha to the beta stage of testing, with ten to twenty times the number of participants of earlier testing rounds. It wasn’t clear how this next step could be managed under the circumstances; the client software was by now too big to ask prospective testers to download it in its entirety in this era of dial-up connections, yet there simply wasn’t sufficient money in the budget to stamp and ship 20,000 or more CDs out to them. The team decided there was only one option, cheeky though it seemed: to ask each participant in effect to pay Origin for the privilege of testing their game for them, by sending in $5 to cover the cost of the CD. The principals claim today that 50,000 people did so as soon as the test was announced online, burying Origin in incoming mail; I suspect this number may be inflated somewhat, as many of those associated with Ultima Online tend to be in the memories of those who made it. But regardless of the exact figure, the response definitely was considerable, not to mention gratifying for the little team of ex-MUDders who had been laboring in disrespected obscurity up there on a gutted fifth floor. It was the first piece of incontrovertible evidence that there were significant numbers of people out there who were really, really excited by the idea of living out an Ultima game with thousands of others.

The original Ultima Online beta CDs have become coveted collectors’ items.

As the creators tell the story, the massive popular reaction to the call for beta testers was solely responsible for changing the hearts and minds of their managers at EA and Origin. Realizing suddenly that Ultima Online had serious moneymaking potential, they went overnight from passive-aggressively trying to kill it to being all-in with bells on. In March of 1997, they moved the MUDders from their barren exile down to the scene of the most important action at Origin, where a much larger team had been working on Ultima IX, the latest iteration in the single-player series. Yet it was the latter project that was now to go on hiatus, not Ultima Online. This new amalgamation of developers, five or six times the size of the team of the day before, had but one mandate: get the virtual world done already. After two years of living hand to mouth, the original world-builders had merely to state their wishes in terms of resources in order to see them granted.

Most of the conceptual work of building this new online world had already been done by the time the team was so dramatically expanded. Still, we shouldn’t dismiss the importance of this sudden influx of sometimes unwilling bandwagon jumpers. For they made Ultima Online look like at least a passable imitation of a AAA prestige project, in a way that Meridian 59 and The Realm did not. A high design standard combined with a relatively high audiovisual one would prove a potent combination.

With its isometric perspective, Ultima Online most resembled Ultima VII in terms of presentation. The graphics were by no means cutting-edge — Ultima VII had come out back in 1992, after all — but they were bright and attractive, without going full-on cartoon like The Realm.

Did all of this really happen simply because the response to the call for beta testers was better than expected? I have no smoking gun either way, but I must say that I tend to doubt it. Just about everyone loves a good creatives-versus-suits story, such that we seldom question them. Yet the reasoning that went on in the executive suites prior to this turnaround in Ultima Online‘s fortunes was perhaps a little more complex than that of a pack of ravenous wolves chasing a tasty rabbit that had finally been revealed to their unimaginative minds. Whatever else one can say about them, most of the suits didn’t get where they were by being stupid. So, maybe we should try to see the situation from their perspective — try to see what Origin looked like to the outsiders at EA’s California headquarters.

Throughout the 1990s, Origin lived on two franchises: Richard Garriott’s Ultima and Chris Roberts’s Wing Commander. To be sure, there were other games here and there, some of which even turned modest profits, but it was these two series that kept the lights on. When EA acquired Origin in September of 1992, both franchises were by all indications in rude health. Wing Commander I and II and a string of mission packs for each were doing tremendous numbers. Ultima VII, the latest release in Richard Garriott’s mainline series, had put up more middling sales figures, but it had been rescued by the spinoff Ultima Underworld, which had come out of nowhere — or more specifically out of the Boston-based studio Blue Sky Productions, soon to be rebranded as Looking Glass — to become another of the year’s biggest hits.

Understandably under the circumstances, EA overlooked what a dysfunctional workplace Origin was already becoming by the time of the acquisition, divided as it was between two camps: the “Friends of Richard” and the “Friends of Chris.” Those two personifications of Origin’s split identity were equally mercurial and equally prone to unrealistic flights of fancy; one can’t help but sense that both of their perceptions of the real world and their place in it had been to one degree or another warped by their having become icons of worship for a cult of adoring gamers at an improbably young age. Small wonder that EA grew concerned that there weren’t enough grounded adults in the room down in Austin, and, after first promising a hands-off approach, showed more and more of a tendency to micro-manage as time went on — so much so that, as we learned in the last article, Garriott was soon reduced to begging for money to start his online passion project.

Wing Commander maintained its momentum for quite some time after the acquisition, even after DOOM came along to upend much of the industry’s conventional wisdom with its focus on pure action at the expense of story and world-building, the things for which both Garriott and Roberts were most known. Wing Commander III was released almost a year after DOOM in late 1994 with a cast of real actors headed by Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame, and became another huge success. Ultima, however, started to lose its way almost as soon as the ink was dry on the acquisition contract. Ultima VIII, which was also released in 1994, chased the latest trends by introducing a strong action element and simplifying most other aspects of its gameplay. This was not done, as some fan narratives wish to state, at the behest of EA’s management, but rather at that of Richard Garriott himself, who feared that his signature franchise was at risk of becoming irrelevant. That said, EA can and should largely take the blame for the game being released too early, in a woefully buggy and unpolished state. The critical and commercial response was nothing short of disastrous, leaving plenty of blame to go around. Fans complained that Ultima VIII had more in common with Super Mario Bros. than the storied Ultima games of the past, bestowing upon it the nickname Super Avatar Bros. in a backhanded homage to the series’s most hallowed incarnation, 1985’s Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, whose unabashed idealism now seemed like something from a lifetime ago in a parallel universe.

Then, in early 1996, Origin’s other franchise went squishy as well. As the studio’s own press releases breathlessly trumpeted, Wing Commander IV was the most expensive digital game ever made to that date, with a claimed production budget of $12 million. The vast majority of that money went into a real Hollywood film shoot, directed by Chris Roberts himself and starring a returning Mark Hamill among a number of other recognizable faces from the silver screen. Wing Commander IV wound up costing four times as much as its predecessor and selling half as many copies, taking months of huffing and puffing to just about reach the break-even point. The interactive-movie era had reached the phase of diminishing returns; under no circumstances was EA going to let Origin make a game like this one again.

But what kinds of games should Origin be making? That was the million-dollar question in the aftermath of Wing Commander IV. After Chris Roberts left the studio to pursue his dream of becoming the latest George Lucas in Hollywood, Origin announced that his series was to be continued on a less grandiose scale, moving some of the focus away from the cut scenes and back to the gameplay. Yet there was no reason to believe such games would make many inroads beyond the hardcore Wing Commander faithful. Meanwhile Richard Garriott had pledged to repair the damage done by Ultima VIII, by making the next single-player Ultima the biggest, best one ever. But epic CRPGs in general had been in the doldrums for years, and the Ultima IX project was already showing signs of becoming another over-hyped, over-expensive boondoggle like Wing Commander IV. Exacerbating the situation was the loss of two of the only people at Origin who had shown themselves to be capable of restraining and channeling Garriott’s flights of fancy. Origin and EA alike felt keenly the loss of the diplomatic and self-effacing designer and producer Warren Spector, the first everyday project lead on Ultima IX, who decamped to Looking Glass in 1995 when that project was still in its infancy. Ditto the production manager Dallas Snell, a less cuddly character whose talent for Just Getting Things Done — by cracking heads if necessary — was almost equally invaluable.

Of course, one can still ding EA for failing to see that Richard Garriott was onto something with Ultima Online long before they did. In their partial defense, though, Garriott tended to propose a lot of crazy stuff. As his checkered post-millennial career in game development illustrates all too clearly, he has not been a detail-oriented creator since his days of conceiving and coding the early Ultima games all by himself. This has made his ideas — even his good ones, which Ultima Online certainly was — all too easy to dismiss.

Nonetheless, the potential of persistent online multiplayer gaming was becoming impossible to deny by early 1997, what with the vibrant virtual communities being built on the likes of Kali and Battle.net, in addition to the smaller but no less dedicated ones that had sprung up in Meridian 59 and The Realm. You’d have to be a fool not to be intrigued by the potential of Ultima Online in a milieu such as this one — and, again, EA’s executives most definitely weren’t fools. They wanted to keep Origin alive and viable and relevant as badly as anyone else. Suddenly this seemed the best way to do so. Thus the mass personnel transfer from Ultima IX, which was increasingly smelling like gaming’s past, into Ultima Online, which had the distinct whiff of its future.

It was a difficult transition for everyone, made that much more difficult by the fact that most of the people involved were still in their twenties, with all of the arrogant absolutism of youth. Both the project’s old-timers and its newcomers had plenty of perfectly valid complaints to hurl at their counterparts. Raph Koster, who had been told that he was the design lead, was ignored by more experienced developers who thought they knew better. And yet he did little for his cause by, as he admits today, “sulking and being very rude” and “behaving badly and improperly” even to Richard Garriott himself. From his point of view, the newcomers showed that they fundamentally didn’t understand online games when they wasted their time on fluff that players who needed to be captured for months or years would burn through in a matter of hours, such as lengthy, single-player-Ultima-style conversation trees for the non-player characters. Yet the newcomers were right to express shock and horror when they found that, amidst all the loving attention that had been given to simulating Britannia’s ecology and the like, no one on the original team had thought up a consistent system for casting spells, a bedrock of Ultima‘s appeal since the very beginning. Even today, one Ultima IX refugee accuses the MUDders of being “focused on minutia, what I would call silly little details that really added nothing to the game.”

When the two-month-long beta test finally began after repeated delays in June of 1997, the dogged simulation-first mentality of Koster and company faced a harsh reckoning with reality. Many of the systems that had seemed wonderful in theory didn’t work in practice, or displayed side effects that they’d never anticipated. Here as in many digital games, attempting to push the simulation too far just plunged the whole thing into a sort of uncanny valley, making it feel more rather than less artificial. For instance, the MUDders had made it possible for you to learn or improve skills simply by standing in close proximity to someone who was using the skill in question at a high level, on the assumption that your character was observing and internalizing this example of a master at work. But they’d also instituted a cap on the total pool of skill points a character could possess across all disciplines, on the assumption that no Jack of all trades could be a master of them all; just as is the case for most of us in real life, in Ultima Online you could be really good at a few things, or fair at a lot of them, but not really good at a lot of them. When a character hit her skill-point cap, learning new things would cause some of her other skills to decline to stay under it. In practice, this caused players to desperately try to avoid seeing what that baker or weaver was doing, for fear of losing their ability to hunt or cast spells as a result. Problems like these hammered home again and again the fact that any digital simulation is only the crudest approximation of a lived existence; in the real world, matters are not quite so zero-sum as instantly losing the ability to catch a fish because one has learned to cook a fish.

But the most extreme case of unforeseen consequences involved the aforementioned lovingly crafted ecology of virtual Britannia. To put it bluntly, the players destroyed it — all of it, within days if not hours. The population of deer and rabbits, the food sources of apex predators like dragons, were slaughtered to extinction by players instead. This was not done out of sheer bloody-mindedness alone, although that was undoubtedly a part of the equation. The truth was that deer and rabbits had value, in the form of meat and pelts. In a sense, then, virtual Britannia was becoming a real economy, just as its creators had always hoped it would. But it was an economy without real-world limits or controls, unimpeded by consequences which were themselves only virtual, never real; no one was going to go hungry in real life for over-hunting the forests and fields of Britannia. The same went for trees and fish and a hundred other precious resources that we of the real world usually make some effort to conserve, however imperfectly. With the simulation spinning wildly out of control, Origin had to start putting its thumb on the scales, applying external remedies such as magically re-spawning rabbits and trees, lest the world degenerate into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a deserted moonscape where roving bands of starving players were chased hither and yon by equally hungry dragons. People came to an Ultima game expecting a Renaissance Faire version of Merry Olde England, not a Harlan Ellison story.

Of course, the external corrections themselves had further knock-on consequences. By creating an endless supply of animals to hunt and trees to fell, Origin was in effect giving the economy a massive, perpetual external stimulus. The overseers were therefore always on the lookout for ways to suck gold back out of the world. Ironically, one of the best was to let players get killed a lot, since between death and resurrection they lost whatever money they’d been carrying with them. Thus Origin had a perverse incentive not to try too hard to make Britannia a safer, more friendly place.

Such collisions between idealism and reality were scarring for the MUDders. “This was a wake-up call for me,” says Raph Koster. “The limits on what we can get an audience to go along with, and how much we can affect the bottom line. A lot of people [on the development team] were emotionally hurt by the player killing.” (His wife Kristen Koster may have been one of them; she has never worked on another game since Ultima Online, and never spoken publicly about her time at Origin.) “Many of the tactics we would use on MUDs just didn’t work at a large scale,” continues Raph. “Players behaved differently. They were ruder to one another.” All of which is to say that Richard Garriott’s fondly expressed wish that the persistent quality of Ultima Online would serve to put a brake on the more toxic ways of acting out on the anonymous Internet did not come to pass to anything like the extent he had imagined.

At the same time, though, it wasn’t all destruction and disillusionment during that summer of the beta test. Some players proved less interested in killing than they were in crafting, becoming armorers and blacksmiths, jewelers and merchants, chefs and bankers and real-estate agents. Players cooked food and sold it from booths in the center of the cities or earned a (virtual) living as tour guides, leading groups of people on treks to scenic but dangerous corners of the world. Enterprising wizards set up a sort of long-distance bus service, opening up magical portals to shuttle their fellow players instantly from one side of the world to another for a fee. Many of the surprises of the beta period were just the kind the MUDders had been hoping to see, emerging from the raw simulational affordances of the environment. “[Players] used the ability to dye clothing to make uniforms for their guilds,” says Raph Koster, “and they [held] weddings with coordinated bridesmaids dresses. They started holding sporting events. They founded theater troupes and taverns and police forces.” The agents of chaos may have been perpetually beating at the door, but there was a measure of civilization appearing in virtual Britannia as well.

Or rather in the virtual Britannias. One of the most frustrating compromises the creators had to make was necessitated by, as compromises usually are in game development, the practical limitations of the technology they had to hand. There was no way that any one of the servers they possessed could contain the number of players the beta test had attracted. So, there had to be two virtual Britannias rather than just one, the precursors to many more that would follow. Both Garriott and Koster have claimed to be the one who came up with the word “shards” as a name for these separate servers, each housing its own initially identical but quickly diverging version of Britannia. The name was grounded in the lore of the very early days of Ultima. In Ultima I back in 1981, the player had shattered the Gem of Immortality, the key to the power of that game’s villain, the evil wizard Mondain. It was claimed now that each of the jewel’s shards had contained a copy of the world of Britannia, and that these were the duplicate worlds inhabited by the players of Ultima Online. Rather amusingly, the word “shard” has since become a generalized term for separate but equal server instances, co-opted not only by other MMORPGs but by administrators of large de-centralized online databases of many stripes, most of which have nothing to do with games.

Each shard could host about 2500 players at once. In these days when the nation’s Internet infrastructure was still in a relatively unrefined state, such that latency tended to increase almost linearly with distance, the shards were named after their real-world locations — there was one on each coast in the beginning, named “Atlantic” and “Pacific” — and players were encouraged to choose the server closest to them if at all possible. (Such concerns would become less pressing as the years went by, but to this day Ultima Online has continued the practice of naming its virtual Britannias after the locations of the servers in the real world.)

On the last day of the beta test, there occurred one of the more famous events in the history of Ultima Online, one with the flavor of a Biblical allegory if not a premonition. Richard Garriott, playing in-character as Lord British, made a farewell tour of the shards in the final hours, to thank everyone for participating before the servers were shut down, not to be booted up again until Ultima Online went live as a paid commercial service. Among fans of the single-player Ultima games, there was a longstanding tradition of finding ways to kill Lord British, who always appeared as a character in them as well. People had transplanted the tradition into Ultima Online with a vengeance, but to no avail; acknowledging that even the most stalwart commitment to simulation must have its limits when it comes to the person who signs your paycheck, the MUDders had agreed to provide Lord British with an “invulnerability” flag. As he stood up now before a crowd on the Pacific shard to deliver his valediction, someone threw a fireball spell at him. No matter; Lord British stepped confidently right into the flames. Whereupon he fell over and died. Someone had forgotten to set the invulnerability flag.

If Lord British couldn’t be protected, decided the folks at Origin on the spur of the moment, he must be avenged; in so deciding, they demonstrated how alluring virtual violence could be even to those most dedicated to creating a virtual civilization. Garriott:

It’s amazing how quickly the cloak of civilization can disappear. The word spread verbally throughout the office: let us unleash hell! My staff summoned demons and devils and dragons and all of the nightmarish creatures of the game, and they cast spells and created dark clouds and lightning that struck and killed people. The gamemasters had special powers, and once they realized I had been killed, they were able to almost instantly resurrect Lord British. And I gleefully joined in the revelry. Kill me, will you? Be gone, mortals! It was a slaughter of thousands of players in the courtyard.

It definitely was not the noble ending we had intended.

And while some players enjoyed the spontaneity of this event, others were saddened or hurt by it. When most characters die they turn into a ghost and are transported to a distant place on the map. Then they have to go find their body. So the cost of being killed is a temporary existence as a ghost. In the last three minutes of these characters’ existence, they suddenly found themselves alone, deep in the woods, unable to speak or interact with anyone else. The net result of this mass killing in retaliation for the assassination of Lord British was that not only were all of these innocent people slaughtered, they were also cast out of the presence of the creators at the final moment. As the final seconds trickled down, they desperately tried to get back, but most often failed. The fact that all of us, the creators and the players, were able to turn the last few moments of the beta test into this completely unplanned and even unimagined chaos was proof that we had built something unique, a platform that would allow players to do pretty much whatever they pleased, and that it was about to take on a life — and many deaths — of its own.

After more than two and a half years, during which the face of the games industry around it had changed dramatically and its own importance to its parent company had been elevated incalculably, Ultima Online was about to greet the real world as a commercial product. Whether the last minutes of its existence while it was still officially an experiment boded well or ill for its future depended on your point of view. But, as Richard Garriott says, the one certain thing was uncertainty: nobody knew quite what would happen next. Would Ultima Online be another Meridian 59 or The Realm, or would this be the virtual world that finally broke through? And what would it mean for gaming — and, for that matter, for the real world beyond gaming — if it did?



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 Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online by Wes Locher, Postmortems: Selected Essays, Volume One by Raph Koster, Online Game Pioneers at Work by Morgan Ramsay, Through the Moongate, Part II by Andrea Contato, Explore/Create by Richard Garriott, MMOs from the Inside Out by Richard Bartle, and Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings by Ken Williams; Sierra’s customer newsletter InterAction of Spring 1996, Summer 1996, Spring 1997, Summer 1997, Fall 1997, Summer 1998, and Fall 1998; PC Powerplay of November 1996; Next Generation of March 1997.

Web sources include a 2018 Game Developers Conference talk by some of the Ultima Online principals, an Ultima Online timeline at UOGuide, “How Scepter of Goth Shaped the MMO Industry” by Justin Olivetti at Massively Overpowered, David A. Wheeler’s history of Scepter of Goth, “How the World’s Oldest 3D MMO Keeps Cheating Death” by Samuel Axon at Vice, Andrew Kirmse’s own early history of Meridian 59, Damion Schubert’s Meridian 59 postmortem and its accompanying slides from the 2012 Game Developers Conference, and Gavin Annand’s video interview with the Kirmse brothers.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The first word in the name is often spelled Sceptre as well.

Thursday, 15. February 2024

Choice of Games LLC

Our Hidden Gems Are On Sale!

The 2024 Choice of Games Hidden Gems Sale is here! Shhhhh! It’s our super secret special sale!  Thanks to a very scientific poll conducted on our forums, we’re proud to announce that our “most underrated” games, aka the Hidden Gems, are on sale all week! Pick them up for discounts up to 40% off until February 22nd on the platform of your choice–Android, Android Om

The 2024 Choice of Games Hidden Gems Sale is here!

Sixth Grade Detective

Shhhhh! It’s our super secret special sale! 

Thanks to a very scientific poll conducted on our forums, we’re proud to announce that our “most underrated” games, aka the Hidden Gems, are on sale all week! Pick them up for discounts up to 40% off until February 22nd on the platform of your choice–Android, Android Omnibus app, iOS and iOS Omnibus app, Steam, the website, and on the Amazon Android Marketplace!

And check out our newly updated Hidden Gems Steam bundle

Pon Para and the Unconquerable Scorpion
Nikola Tesla: War of the Currents
Sixth Grade Detective
Cliffhanger: Challenger of Tomorrow
The Superlatives: Shattered Worlds

Wednesday, 14. February 2024

Post Position

Poetix

February 14 is Valentine’s Day for many; this year, it’s also Ash Wednesday for Western Christians, both Orthodox and unorthodox. Universally, it is Harry Mathews’s birthday. Harry, who would have been 94 today, was an amazing experimental writer. He’s known to many as the first American to join the Oulipo. Given the occasion, I thought … Continue reading "Poetix"

February 14 is Valentine’s Day for many; this year, it’s also Ash Wednesday for Western Christians, both Orthodox and unorthodox. Universally, it is Harry Mathews’s birthday. Harry, who would have been 94 today, was an amazing experimental writer. He’s known to many as the first American to join the Oulipo.

Given the occasion, I thought I’d write a blog post, which I do very rarely these days, to discuss my poetics — or, because mine is a poetics of concision, my “poetix.” Using that word saves one byte. The term may also suggest an underground poetix, as with comix, and this is great.

Why write poems of any sort?

Personally, I’m an explorer of language, using constraint, form, and computation to make poems that surface aspects of language. As unusual qualities emerge, everything that language is entangled with also rises up: Wars, invasions, colonialism, commerce and other sorts of exchange between language communities, and the development of specialized vocabularies, for instance.

While other poets have very different answers, which very often include personal expression, this is mine. Even if I’m an unusual conceptualist, and more specifically a computationalist, I believe my poetics have aspects that are widely shared by others. I’m still interested in composing poems that give readers pleasure, for instance, and that awaken new thoughts and feelings.

Why write computational poems?

Computation, along with language, is an essential medium of my art. Just as painters work with paint, I work with computation.

This allows me to investigate the intersection of computing, language, and poetry, much as composing poems allows me to explore language.

Why write tiny computational poems?

Often, although not always, I write small poems. I’ve even organized my computational poetry page by size.

Writing very small-scale computational poems allows me to learn more about computing and its intersection with language and poetry. Not computing in the abstract, but computing as embodied in particular platforms, which are intentionally designed and have platform imaginaries and communities of use and practice surrounding them.

For instance, consider the modern-day Web browser. Browsers can do pretty much anything that computers can. They’re general-purpose computing platforms and can run Unity games, mine Bitcoin, present climate change models, incorporate the effects of Bitcoin mining into climate change models, and so on and so on. But it takes a lot of code for browsers to do complex things. By paring down the code, limiting myself to using only a tiny bit, I’m working to see what is most native for the browser, what this computational platform can most **essentially* accomplish.

Is the browser best suited to let us configure a linked universe of documents? It’s easy to hook pages together, yes, although now, social media sites prohibit linking outside their walled gardens. Does it support prose better than anything else, even as flashy images and videos assail us? Well, the Web is predisposed to that: One essential HTML element is the paragraph, after all. When boiled down as much as possible, there might be something else that HTML5 and the browser is really equipped to accomplish. What if one of the browser’s most essential capabilities is that of … a poetry machine?

One can ask the same questions of other platforms. I co-authored a book about the Atari VCS (aka Atari 2600), and while one can develop all sorts of things for it (a BASIC interpreter, artgames, demos, etc.), and I think it’s an amazing platform for creative computing, I’m pretty sure it’s not inherently a poetry machine. The Atari VCS doesn’t even have built-in characters, a font in which to display text. On the other hand, the Commodore 64 allows programmers to easily manipulate characters; change the colors of them individually; make them move around the screen; replace the built-in font with one of their own; and mix letters, numbers, and punctuation with an set of other glyphs specific to Commodore. This system can do lots of other things — it’s a great music machine, for instance. But visual poetry, with potentially characters presented on a grid, is also a core capability of the platform, and very tiny programs can enact such poetry.

I’ve written at greater length about this in “A Platform Poetics / Computational Art, Material and Formal Specificities, and 101 BASIC POEMS.” In that article, I focus on a specific, ongoing project that involves the Commodore 64 and Apple II. More generally, these are the reasons I continue to pursue to composition of very small computational poems on several different platforms.

Tuesday, 13. February 2024

Renga in Blue

Avon: The Dread and Envy of Them All

(Continued directly from my previous posts.) My first discovery since my last session was that if I drink the season-changing portion at the Friar’s Cell where it starts, then any items there are safe. I had drunk the potion there right away so had it mentally “discarded”, but I had an intuition later I hadn’t […]

(Continued directly from my previous posts.)

My first discovery since my last session was that if I drink the season-changing portion at the Friar’s Cell where it starts, then any items there are safe. I had drunk the potion there right away so had it mentally “discarded”, but I had an intuition later I hadn’t actually tested the room properly. I hadn’t been carrying any treasures because I didn’t have any yet.

A demonstration:

You drink the potion. Presently through all your being there runs a cold and drowsy humour and your eyes’ windows fall like death. In this borrow’d likeness of shrunk death you continue and then awake much later as from a pleasant sleep to see…

You are in a cell, which clearly belongs to some holy man, as you can tell from the religious decoration of the room. The only way out is by a door to the northeast.
There is a phial here, containing a potion of mandragora.
Is this a dagger you see before you? Yes, I believe so.
There is a diamond necklace here!
There is a large laundry basket here.
There is a shield here.
There is a clerical collar lying discarded here.
There is a piece of paper here bearing the word “STANDARD”.
There is a topaz here!
There is an antique viola here!
There is a signed copy of the Iliad here!

The Friar’s room after thus became my home base to stash treasures, even though it doesn’t seem to be the Final destination, wherever that may be. (The laundry basket seems like it ought to hold items for you, but things put inside disappear. They might disappear somewhere useful, but I haven’t work out where that is yet.)

While this was no guarantee yet, the natural gravity of the potion to the room near the hub led me to try to focus on the winter village and see if I could resolve as much as possible without thinking about a season change.

Falstaff statue at Stratford Upon Avon. Photo CC BY 3.0 by Tanya Dedyukhina.

The first puzzle to fall was the drinking contest. I ran across the solution semi-accidentally. I decided eating the bread (the bread where you get locked in the gaol when trying to escape after taking it) might cause an interesting effect, although I wasn’t anticipating it being the full-on deciding factor. Behold:

You and Sir John Falstaff enter into the drinking contest. Your training (eating a loaf of bread) stands you in good stead. “O monstrous! but one half-pennyworth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack!” gasp the spectators, as you drink Sir John under the table.

The landlady, one Mistress Quickly, calls for a celebration, that anyone should take from Sir John the drinking championship of Eastcheap. A case of the finest Malmsey is carried in from a nearby room and you all carouse merrily. Eventually you are pushed into the street in a state of intoxication, where you awake to see that…

You are in Eastcheap. The Boar’s Head Inn lies to your north, the road from the town runs south here, and the street goes east and west here.
The Boar’s Head Drinking Trophy is here!

The half-pennyworth of bread line is from Henry IV, Part 1. I must add I have been very impressed with the author’s ability to shift between Shakespeare plays at will and with very disparate elements still have them make sense together. (The only other game, or rather puzzle we’ve seen this at, is with Cain’s Jawbone, where you had a portion of text that deceptively incorporated bits of Oscar Wilde in order to be confusing as to what character was speaking.) Phoenix games always have had respectable prose but I was worried putting a grandmaster like Shakespeare up might make everything seem weak in comparison; rather, the amalgam becomes something quite readable and new.

As explicitly mentioned in our victory, the “finest Malmsey” has been used, which means our entree into the back door should now be safe.

You are in a storeroom attached to the Boar’s Head Inn.
The only apparent exit is to the south.
There is a wooden spear firmly attached to the wall here.

The spear, being fixed in place, did not seem terribly useful. I ran through my verb list just to see if anything seemed handy. I’ll pause and give you a chance to spot it.

We’re supposed to SHAKE SPEAR. Ha ha. Ha ha ha. (I didn’t really solve it as much as brute force go through my list, but I realized right before I hit enter that this command had to be right.)

> SHAKE SPEAR
A secret panel in the wall slides away, revealing a passage
to the north.
You are in a storeroom attached to the Boar’s Head Inn.
There is an exit south and a secret passageway north.
There is a wooden spear firmly attached to the wall here.
> N
You are in a dark and dusty cellar, whose only exit is back to the south. On the wall is written
KING LEAR WILL SELECT ONE GIRL.
There is a piece of agate here, carved into the likeness of Queen Mab!

Now I discovered once again I was unable to save, which I once again took as a hint. The line about KING LEAR WILL SELECT ONE GIRL must be usable now in such a way that it is a puzzle which of the three that Lear wants you to pick from is correct.

“To which of my daughters, Regan, Goneril and Cordelia, shall I leave the largest share of my kingdom?” demands the king.
GONERIL
“Let it be so,” says the king, who evidently agrees with your judgement.

Your diplomatic acquiescence with the king’s will brings you a reward: “Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear; robes and furr’d gowns hide all.”

This lands you a robe as a treasure.

Goneril has the word ONE in it. Another playthrough gave the clue KING LEAR SPEAKS IN ANGER (pick Regan, an anagram of anger). I’m not sure what Cordelia’s clue is.

This meant I had two of the puzzles down, but I was now stuck in the village because of the stealing bread. I baffled over this a long time. There’s a sign you can see before getting arrested…

You are in the entrance to the town gaol; a large sign here bears the words “IF MUSIC BE THE FOOD OF LOVE, PLAY ****”.
For the righteous, the only exit is back to the north.

…but I had no idea how to fill in the blank (the Twelfth Night quote is “play on”).

Getting arrested takes away all your inventory, so I figured the solution had to be some sort of obtuse command.

You are in a cell in the town gaol. Somebody is whistling “Rule Britannia” outside. There are NO exits right now.

Messing about with the parser, I found that “rule” was an understood verb. (I tried “sing rule” and it got me “You will be able to rule when you become king.”) On a whim I tried a command that was more a statement than a designated action:

> RULE BRITANNIA
Quite so.

As you no doubt know, Rule Britannia is part of a masque called Alfred, written by Thomas Arne (1710-1778). The words were written by James Thomson (1700-1748), and begin

When Britain first at Heaven’s Command
Arose from out the azure main…

Alfred was first performed in 1740 in the presence of the Prince of Wales. Wagner later said that the whole English character could be expressed in the first eight notes. Wagner’s own music was rather more expansive in style.

A little like asking WHAT IS A GRUE? in Zork. Testing out the various words that got mentioned:

> ALFRED
I don’t understand that!
> ARNE
Your cry of ARNE brings the gaoler who is delighted at finding one who recognizes his musical tastes. “We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage. If music be the food of love, play ARNE!”

You join in with him in various ballads, namely settings of “Where the bee sucks, there suck I”, “Under the greenwood tree”, “Blow, blow thou winter wind”, and “When daisies pied and violets blue”. He is then only too happy to give you your freedom.

Groan. But at least I’m through! And I just have the pesky farmer to deal with in the winter town, and I am truly deeply baffled about it.

A farmer is standing here bemoaning the loss of his livestock.

“What! all my pretty chickens and their dam, at one fell swoop?” he mutters. “I asked my keeper, Puck, to get the fox’s earth seen to, but he went away saying that he’d put a hurdle round the earth in forty minutes (and that was hours ago.)”

Still, I managed to hurdle some things I did not expect, so maybe it will fall as well. I’m still leagues away from wanting to ask for help, at least.

This was the charter, the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain;
Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves;
Britons never will be slaves
The nations not so blest as thee,
Must in their turns to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends.

Sunday, 11. February 2024

Renga in Blue

Avon: Spirits From the Vasty Deep

(Prior posts on Avon here.) Clear progress, and also the distinct feeling I’m sinking deeper. To start with, let me mention a location I neglected last time near the ice floe: You are at a cliff edge. A sign here says: “YOU CAN CALL SPIRITS FROM THE VASTY DEEP. BUT WILL THEY COME WHEN YOU […]

(Prior posts on Avon here.)

Clear progress, and also the distinct feeling I’m sinking deeper.

Scene from Hamlet. Michael Goodman again, from an early 19th century printing of Shakespeare.

To start with, let me mention a location I neglected last time near the ice floe:

You are at a cliff edge. A sign here says:
“YOU CAN CALL SPIRITS FROM THE VASTY DEEP.
BUT WILL THEY COME WHEN YOU DO CALL FOR THEM?”
The only way to go is back to the northwest.

I can’t say there’s one distinct “magical” place but it felt like if anywhere needed a magic word it’d be here, so I tried my various selections and found BRANDY (obtained from Hamlet’s ghost-father) summoned a treasure.

A spirit emerges from the vasty deep, sees your clerical collar, and recognises (as it thinks) its master, the local priest.

“Good Sir Topas, they have laid me here in hideous darkness. The house is as dark as ignorance, though ignorance were dark as hell,” it moans, “but this shall advantage thee.”

“I wish to buy my freedom,” it continues, and, depositing a small object in front of you, the spirit vanishes.
You are at the edge of the vasty deep.
There is a topaz here!

Notice how merely holding the clerical collar (which helped save me from strangulation last time) was enough to solve a secondary puzzle. That seems to be a common thread, with “passive” puzzle solving. However, there are so many parts of the game where I am clueless I appreciate a few puzzles being auto-solved.

Jumping back to where I left off last time, there was a “Moorish gentlemen” who told me to “Go and see my agent, who lives near here” and that “The name is written in code on this paper. You’ll be recompensed.”

I had ASTHMA my first time through; on a second playthrough the paper said OVERSEAS.

I intended to save afterwards, but the game didn’t let me. I took this to be a clue. I decided the use of the paper must be immediately after finding it, and it must be the kind of situation where save-abuse would make the puzzle “too easy”; that is, we’re looking at some way of expressing the answer which involves choosing from a small number of options (rather than so many that it would be impossible to solve the puzzle without realizing the code). This is what led me shortly after to:

You are in Illyria Court. The main street is back to the west, but there are directions to various residences, as follows:
North: Olivia
Northeast: (Sir Andrew) Aguecheek
East: Fabian
Southeast: (Count) Orsino
South: Malvolio.

I realized this fit the prompt; only five choices, and even though a wrong one kills, with only five it’d be an easy save-restore cycle. Based on the author’s previous games (particularly Hamil) I took the message to be a literal cryptogram. OVERSEAS, based on the message length, can only change to Malvolio.

> S
Ah! Othello must have sent you!” says the occupant of the dwelling you enter. “You deserve some sort of recompense for the perils you have been through. But go quickly now!”
You are bundled hastily out into the street, and look about you to see…
You are in Illyria Court.
There is an antique viola here!

Unfortunately, my remaining Eastcheap issues (like the drinking contest, the chickens, and the king splitting his kingdom, the bread-stealing scene) have so far gone unresolved. If I knew for certain the town wasn’t reachable other than in winter, I’d have an easier time, but if there really is a sneaky way to get in (bypassing the drug squad) and potion-warp to spring that could indicate one or more of the puzzles above can’t be solved in the current season.

I did solve one more winter issue, way back at Lady Portia with the caskets. I mentioned that nearby there was a realistic statue of a woman; I noticed, noodling around with seasons, that statue disappears post-winter, so any puzzle has to be resolved in winter.

Given none of my items seemed helpful, I decided to noodle with making a verb list, which I hadn’t done yet. For this game testing is just a matter of typing the verb, if it is understood the game asks (supposing as an example the verb “smash”) “smash what?” If not understood, the game says “I don’t understand that!”

KISS turned out to hit paydirt:

> kiss statue
O! she’s warm. If this be magic, let it be an act lawful as eating. You perceive that she stirs. ‘Tis the lady Hermione, long supposed dead. She drops a necklace of diamonds at your feet and then she leaves.

Oho! We are starting to rack up treasures (the viola and copy of the Iliad and the topaz all count) but I haven’t found a good place to put them yet. This is especially troubling because changing seasons causes them to disappear (I guess laying around for two months is bait for thieves, eh?)

I reached the point I decided I needed to noodle around with seasons some more — note how finding out the statue disappeared helped me solve the puzzle, so information later can help with winter — and I realized, after warping to spring, that I still had some potion left. (Somehow I thought the phial disappeared with the treasures.) So I tried the potion again and…

There is a calendar here, which gives the date as June 24th.

…yes, we can also go to summer. This changes the map yet again.

First off, this resets the witches (again), so you can now get a third item from them. I still haven’t found a use for the non-newt items.

The most obvious thing to me was to try first was to head to the forest which had a Midsummer Night’s Dream reference in the text (“swifter than the moon’s sphere”).

Suddenly … a charm is thrown!
O monstrous! O strange! Thou art changed! Bless thee! Thou art translated!

To put it bluntly, you seem to have had an ass’s head put on you.
You are in the mystic wood.

OK, fair. Nothing has come off the assinating as of yet, other than it looks funny in inventory:

> inv
You have an ass’s head on you, and are holding:
A toe of frog.
A laundry basket.
A shield.
A dog-collar (which you are wearing).
A dagger.
There’s the smell of blood upon your hands.

Note the last line, where our murder of King Duncan to obtain the shield has not gone unpunished. Out, damned spot!

> clean hands
I’m afraid that all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten these little hands. Maybe something else will, if you can find what it is.

Again, I haven’t had the upshot yet (I assume somewhere we’ll find smelling like blood leads to our demise).

Since it is no longer the Ides of March, it is safe to pass through the building where we got stabbed (to the east of the magic forest area), leading to a whole new map section:

My assumption is this area cannot be accessed outside of summer, but maybe we could get here in winter if the bear is somehow manageable. The season gimmick adds the extra complexity that — even given there are no red herrings — some obstacles may be unpassable, and the way to “solve” the puzzle is simply to use a different season.

You are in the Capitol, a large building filled with people in white togas, who are listening to the famous orator Golesinius. For the less patient, there are exits to the west and southeast.
There is a scroll here.
> get scroll
OK.
> se
You are in the centre of a prosperous Southern town. To the northwest is the Capitol and there are roads to the south and east. In the distance you can see the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces and the solemn temples – such stuff as dreams are made on.

Going east from here gets you pummeled by the slings and arrows of fortune, but if you have a shield you can survive.

As you pass down the street a sudden volley of slings and arrows crashes against your shield. You carry on walking, to avoid further outrageous fortune.

The scroll from the Capitol incidentally rotates through a few messages, like “By indirections find directions out.” I suspect this might be a hint for one of the two mazes immediately after. Heading north gets you into a wood (with a paper marked ROSALIND)…

You are in the forest of Arden. High on a nearby tree there is fixed a piece of paper bearing the name ROSALIND.
> n
You are lost in the forest of Arden.

…going east instead goes into fog.

You are in the middle of a drooping fog as black as Acheron (sic).
It is impossible even to see the ground.
> w
You wander about in the fog and eventually blunder over a cliff.

They seem to be entirely distinct mazes right next to each other, and both of them of the “gimmick” variety. Dropping items doesn’t work at all the fog — the game explicitly says you can’t see the ground — and items don’t persist if you drop them in the forest.

Heading south into town there’s a shop with an Egyptian vase, and a barge with the Queen of Egypt.

You are on the barge. Various attendants are busily rushing hither and thither (and back again). There are steps down to the hold and to the north are the docks.
There is an Egyptian vase here!
The Queen of Egypt is here. On a burnish’d throne she sits. Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety.
> n
The Queen does not want you to leave the barge.
“O! never was there queen so mightily betrayed!” she claims. Her attendants bar your exit, but you yourself rather feel that here is your space and that kingdoms are but play.

You also can get bothered by a moneylender:

As you pass the moneylender’s premises, their owner comes out to greet you. Scenting business, he offers to lend you 3,000 ducats until you next meet, the security to be a pound of flesh. Three thousand ducats. ‘Tis a good round sum.
Wilt thou borrow it from the moneylender?

I haven’t tried promising the pound of flesh yet.

That’s enough new events for the moment. Just to recap, we now have three seasons: winter, spring, and summer. Passing through them is one-way. Some events are only available in particular seasons; for example, the statue of a woman and Yorick (the jester) are only available in winter, and the scene where you’re trapped in a kitchen and get attacked by knights only happens in spring. (In summer, the room is locked up again.)

Looking at the meta-map…

…one town seems to be winter-only, and one town seems to be summer-only, with the central area mostly open during all three seasons. There may still be some chunks missing; I highly suspect there’s a way to get past the Undiscovered Country at the river, for instance, which could open up a new section to the south.

Is fall a season too? I’m not sure; the potion does definitely vanish after two uses, so if there’s an extra method of warping time one more time it requires an item later. Honestly, everything’s complex enough to keep track of as it is.

Saturday, 10. February 2024

Renga in Blue

Avon: With This Regard Your Currents Turn Awry and Lose the Name of Action

Since last time I have focused on trying to map everything out, before deciding what items / people / events go together to form solutions. I managed to stumble across a few solutions anyway. First, a zoomed-out view showing everything I’ve seen so far: The center, as mentioned last time, is a stage, immediately adjacent […]

Since last time I have focused on trying to map everything out, before deciding what items / people / events go together to form solutions. I managed to stumble across a few solutions anyway.

Postcard that came with the Topologika version of Avon. Clockwise from the upper left: Hall’s Croft, Mary Arden’s House, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

First, a zoomed-out view showing everything I’ve seen so far:

The center, as mentioned last time, is a stage, immediately adjacent to a scene with three witches. (You incidentally get a second choice of item returning at the change in season, so I’m now 99.9% sure an eye of newt is the correct starting choice. Still not sure on the second, where the choices are toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog.)

Going east from the stage arrives at what I’ll call the forest area:

There’s a dagger and a laundry basket hanging out in the open that are easy to obtain.

You are on an east-west path, with a side passage to the north.
Is this a dagger you see before you? Yes, I believe so.

The laundry basket, curiously, prompts you to put items inside or to go inside yourself. You can then hide while inside and then repeatedly get prompted if you want to leave yet or not. I tried the laundry basket hiding on the nearby bear and it didn’t work. No luck with the dagger either:

You are on a bare and hostile moor. There is more moor to the south, a path to the west and a large building to the east.
There is a ferocious bear pursuing you!
> throw dagger
You fumble, and the dagger falls at your feet.
The bear pursues you, catches you and tears out your shoulder bone.

The “large building” is the Ides of March place I mentioned last time (although I’ve only visited in spring); to the south there’s a moor I’ve also only visited in spring, with a meat pie and a curious hovel.

You are on a moor. The ground is black here, as though scorched. The only path leads to the north, but there is a hovel to the southeast.
There is a nourishing meat pie here.
> se
You attempt to enter the hovel, which is gloomy and sinister-looking, but you run out in terror when you hear maniacal laughter and the words
“Bless thy five wits! Tom’s a cold. O! do de, do de, do de.

There’s also an enchanted forest with a mysterious pine, but I suspect we might need to warp to midsummer for something to happen.

You are in a magical wood. It feels as though spirits do wander here, swifter than the moon’s sphere. There are paths to the east and southeast.
> e
You are in another part of the forest. There is music in the air, marvellous sweet music. There are paths off to the west and southwest.
There is a pine tree here, from which a continuous melancholy howling emanates.

Finally, there’s a battlefield (see the winter of our discontent comment from last time) and a graveyard with a worm and a fellow of infinite jest. (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.”)

You encounter the king’s jester, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy, alas greatly aged. He entertains you awhile and then totters away, wheezing “Don’t forget: the password is Golesida!”
You are in a walled graveyard. For those making a return journey, the way out is to the west, as the eastern exit is blocked by impenetrable grass.

Going back to the stage hub and going south arrives at what I’ll call the river area:

There’s a river you jump in (and die going over a waterfall) if you feel so inclined, and a bearded Scotsman.

You are on the bank of the river, which flows towards you down an unclimbable gorge and continues eastwards.
There is a large bearded Scotsman here, carrying a shield.
> swim
You leap into the angry flood.
Unfortunately the current is too strong for you and you are swept under and drowned.

For a less suicidal but more homicidal route, you can just try killing the Scotsman using the dagger from the forest area.

> kill scotsman
Confusion now hath made its masterpiece! With a gasp of “O, treachery!” the Scotsman dies. Thou hast played most foully.
You are on the river bank by the gorge.
There is a large bearded Scotsman here, brutally slain.
There is a shield here.

You can pick up the shield, which I haven’t found a use for. I’d expect some stronger reaction otherwise (like a group of angry Scotsmen gets revenge a few turns later) but maybe it is a much-delayed sort of thing.

Other than that, there’s the Undiscovered Country, which starts out seeming like it might be a maze.

> se
You are in the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns. There are paths in various directions.

If you check the map, you’ll see all four cardinal directions (N/S/E/W) lead back to the previous room. If you take all four, you’ll land in a new “Undiscovered Country” with no exits.

With this regard your currents turn awry and lose the name of action…
You are at the bourn of the undiscovered country, from which no traveller returns!

Going back to the stage and heading west to what I’ll call the Portia section

…there is, first off, that calendar and potion of sleep which changes the season to spring. There’s a building to the west that is closed off in winter but can be entered in spring, but with an unfortunate demise shortly afer:

You open the door and enter the house.
The door slams behind you and you hear sounds of a key turning in the lock.
You are in the kitchen of a small house. There are several doors leading from it, all of which appear to be locked.
There is a letter here, addressed to Mistress Legosind and signed
          ‘Thine own true knight,
          By day or night,
          Or any kind of light
          With all his might,
          For thee to fight,
          John Falstaff.
> e
You can’t go in that direction!
Suddenly the door opens and several knights armed with swords rush in. They brand you as an intruder and promptly slay you.

To the northwest there is a larger building including a “very realistic life-sized statue of a woman” (I have not been able to get any verbs to do anything) and an encounter with Lady Portia.

You are in a spaciously furnished chamber, which is clearly the boudoir of some elegant lady. Luxurious tapestries line the walls, the pile on the carpet is even deeper than that in most Adventure games, and there is a four-poster bed in one corner.
There are exits to the east and north.
There are three caskets here: one of gold, one of silver and one of lead!
The elegant lady who owns the apartment invites you to open a casket.
> open lead
The casket is empty. Shielded from your view, the Lady Portia performs a rearrangement of the contents of the caskets and invites you to open a second casket.
Choose again. Which casket will ye open now?
gold
You open the second casket, which contains a piece of smoothed ice.
The lady Portia picks up her caskets and leaves, murmuring “Sweet, adieu.”

Portia’s from The Merchant of Venice. She is bound by a curious will from her father where suitors who want to win her hand in marriage try to pick a casket (gold, silver, or lead); picking the correct one yields Portia’s portrait.

RANDOM PERSONAL TRIVIA: The first time I ever saw The Merchant of Venice was in 2004, the Al Pacino version (full video here). I was completely unfamiliar with the play, so much so I had no idea if it was categorized as comedy or tragedy. In the court scene where Shylock tries to get his pound of flesh I didn’t know if it was going to end in a bloodbath or not.

Heading back to the stage once more, and going north with a slight northwest turn, is a small area which I’ll call the Birnham wood.

Nothing much here at all, just a “milestone” in one of the locations.

You are in Birnham wood. There are paths in various directions.
There is an old milestone here.

My suspicion is this will only become important at season number 3, but I may just have the wrong verb to get the milestone to do something.

Heading northeast from the witches goes past an ice flow (which melts, remember, in spring), into the town of Eastcheap. Since the ice floe is a chasm in spring I haven’t seen the town in spring.

You are at the southern edge of a thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice – an ice floe, no less. There is a path back to the SW and a track north over the ice.

Note that you also have an odd encounter here:

A rather dull-looking constable appears, cries “HAVOC”, and lets slip the dogs of war. In fact, a small chihuahua appears and stands barking at you.
“Drug squad,” says the constable. “I must search you for certain substances.”
In fact he finds nothing prohibited and he and the dog slope off.

If you try to bring the season-changing potion in, that gets confiscated. So this prevents you from jumping over the chasm the easy way to check the town in spring. This means either

a.) the town just can’t be visited in spring at all

b.) the chasm can be jumped over, or there’s some alternate route to the town

c.) the drug squad can be outwitted, you can go to the town in spring, and then make it back to the stage by some other means

The most immediate encounter in town is with Falstaff, who is having a drinking contest.

You are in the Boar’s Head Inn, a place of great merriment. A large fat man called Sir John Falstaff is challenging all-comers to a drinking contest.
Do you wish to join the drinking bout with Falstaff?
yes
You are not able to compete with such a seasoned campaigner as Sir John Falstaff, and are soon thrown out of the tavern into the street, where you awake to see that…

There’s a side door you can try to enter the tavern but you get bonked on the head by a wine casket and die.

Nearby there’s also a Moorish gentlemen who kills you (“thou art to die”), unless you are wearing a clerical collar you find lying around the town:

A wild-eyed Moorish gentleman jumps at you from the shadows with a cry of “Thou art to die!” Fortunately the clerical collar you are wearing protects you from being strangled and you are able to break free.

The Moor is very apologetic, and mutters about someone called Des the moaner who once beat him at Reversi by cheating. “Go and see my agent, who lives near here,” he says. “The name is written in code on this paper. You’ll be recompensed.”

He runs off, shouting “Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur! Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!”
You are in a particularly dark cul-de-sac at the end of Eastcheap. The only way out is back to the east.
There is a piece of paper here bearing the word “ASTHMA”.

There’s a gaol (which you can land in by trying to leave town with a bread from a baker, no idea if this is a trap or needed to win)…

The guards arrest you as you attempt to leave the town, claiming that you stole a loaf of bread from somebody. You are sent directly to gaol (& do not collect 200 pounds.)
You are in a cell in the town gaol. Somebody is whistling “Rule Britannia” outside. There are NO exits right now.

…and a series of five houses all which have deathtraps. I’m not understanding this section at all.

You are in Illyria Court. The main street is back to the west, but there are directions to various residences, as follows:
North: Olivia
Northeast: (Sir Andrew) Aguecheek
East: Fabian
Southeast: (Count) Orsino
South: Malvolio.
> n
The occupant of that particular dwelling is not at home. However they have left some mantraps for unwelcome visitors; a hit, a very palpable hit!

Still going! Lots and lots of scenes and everything non-linear! There’s a scene with the king and the daughters (as mentioned last time), and across from that is a farmer who has lost his chickens.

You are at the remains of a chicken farm. A fox has clearly visited this place and killed half the stock. The only way the farmhands will let you go is back to the west.
A farmer is standing here bemoaning the loss of his livestock.

“What! all my pretty chickens and their dam, at one fell swoop?” he mutters. “I asked my keeper, Puck, to get the fox’s earth seen to, but he went away saying that he’d put a hurdle round the earth in forty minutes (and that was hours ago.)”

This he repeats, over and over again, trying to understand the tragedy.

Finally, there’s a curious maze of sorts. It’s not really a maze in the normal sense; it acts like the haunted house in Murdac (I think) where you have to take a path north between NE and NW choices, and sometimes the choice is deadly, and when the choice is deadly you get a cryptic warning:

You are in a maze of mountain paths. There are exits to the northeast, northwest and south.
Is this a dagger you see before you? Yes, I believe so.
> NE
Cassandra runs past you, raving:
“Lend me ten thousand eyes, and I will fill them with prophetic tears!”

A death scene for good measure:

Cassandra runs past you, raving:
“Behold, distraction, frenzy, and amazement, Like witless anticks, one another meet.”
You are in a maze of mountain paths. There are exits to the northeast, northwest and south.
> NW
Some loose rubble falls on you, and you die with the words of Cassandra in your ears:
  “Look! how thou diest; look how thy eye turns pale;
  Look! how thy wounds do bleed at many vents…”

Head to the north enough times in a row safely and you can pick up a copy of the Iliad, which counts as a treasure with a ! mark. I got to it randomly without really figuring out the puzzle entirely, so that might be that. (Going south is always safe, so you can skedaddle to the exit once you make it north.)

From the play Troilus and Cressida, as drawn by Michael Goodman. Cassandra received the divine gift of truthful prophecy but also the divine curse she would never be believed.

One more encounter: a lake with a fisherman. I was already holding a worm when I entered, so I inadvertently solved a puzzle.

There is an angler fishing here. He seems to be having little success.
The angler looks up as you enter, seizes the worm from you with a cry of glee and starts to fish. In no time he has hooked a massive trout. In gratitude he decides to share the fish with you and promptly grills it over a fire that he lights. You have taken your first bite when…

The ghost of some dead king (possibly Hamlet’s father) appears.
“A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm,” he declaims reproachfully. “A king may go progress through the guts of a beggar.”

The angler flees in terror. The ghost melts away, saying:
“From me you will inherit spiritual powers. The word that will prove effective to you in these matters is BRANDY.”
You are by a small lake. Moonlight shines down encouragingly. The town itself is to the north.

That’s a hefty chunk and even if I could keep going I decided I needed to report in. I haven’t used any of the magic words I’ve been racking up (golesida, brandy, asthma) so I expect I can make headway elsewhere.

Friday, 09. February 2024

Renga in Blue

Avon (1982)

Dr. Jonathan Partington returns, completing a trilogy of work he made in 1982. Avon is part of the whole series of games from Cambridge mainframes, including Acheton (1978) Brand X / Philosopher’s Quest (1979) Quondam (1980) Hezarin (1981) Hamil (1982) Murdac (1982) with Hamil and Murdac being Partington’s (he was also one of the trio […]

Dr. Jonathan Partington returns, completing a trilogy of work he made in 1982.

Via PcwWiki.

Avon is part of the whole series of games from Cambridge mainframes, including

Acheton (1978)
Brand X / Philosopher’s Quest (1979)
Quondam (1980)
Hezarin (1981)
Hamil (1982)
Murdac (1982)

with Hamil and Murdac being Partington’s (he was also one of the trio of authors on Acheton). I’ve gotten used to their particular quirks and rules, such as the possibility of a softlock if you do things in the wrong order. Frankly, within the confines of accepting the Phoenix norms, Murdac is one of the best classic treasure-hunt adventures I’ve played, so I was looking forward to Avon.

Avon has its own atmosphere due to being heavily drawn from Shakespeare. The setup is “you’ve fallen into a Shakespeare-based world, now get out”.

One day, after watching (or perhaps reading) too many Shakespeare plays, you find yourself wandering around a wondrously enchanted land. Here they use a richer language than is usual and you come across scenes which may remind you of certain Shakespearean plays.

How you are going to return successfully to the present day is something that you will have to find out for yourself but it may be worthwhile to keep any valuables you come across.

The general effect is not that of typical fantasy (that is, not like Hamil or Murdac). I wouldn’t call it “surrealism” as much as “tilted realism” where characters and objects and plot blur and swap places; it almost feels like one of the Andrew Schultz wordplay-based games or the Shake a Tower section of Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It. Consider the opening room:

You are standing on a flat plain. From here it seems that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances to the north, south, east and west.

The text gives the appearance that the players of the world are also the same thing as the exits.

The introductory help incidentally claims

An exhaustive knowledge of the Shakespearean canon is not necessary, as in most cases just the problems rather than the solutions are pinched from Shakespeare.

but given I’ve already used Shakespeare knowledge to aid in one puzzle (as I’ll get to), this might not entirely be the truth.

Speaking of Phoenix mainframe norms, immediately to the north of the starting room the game pulls out a similar “pick your item” trick to Brand X / Philosopher’s Quest.

The Three Witches of Macbeth, via an 1836 engraving by Busse.

You are on a wild heath. So foul and fair a day you have not seen. A path leads off to the south, there is a forest path to the northwest, and a chilly wind blows down a path to the northeast.

What are these so wither’d and wild in their attire? They should be women but their beards forbid thee to interpret that they are so.
The witches are prepared to give you one of the following objects:
An eye of newt.
A toe of frog.
A wool of bat.
A tongue of dog.
Which object will you take?

I think the right pick here is eye of newt. This is because not long after the start of the game, the world goes dark

It is growing dark… too dark to see with the naked eye.

but if you have the eye of newt, it provides light (“Fortunately the newt’s eye provides a dull illumination.”) Philosopher’s Quest had a trick where you could get two items but I don’t see any such loophole here. I may be missing something, though; for one thing, Philosopher’s Quest had an alternate way to get one item as long as you didn’t pick it! So I’ll keep with getting the eye but will remain suspicious in case a situation really seems like it could use some frog toe.

Just to the west of the starting stage is a calendar turned to January 6, and just off of that is one of the coolest gimmicks of the game.

> w
You are in the market place. To the east there seems to be some kind of stage, and there are dwellings to the northwest (large), west (medium-sized) and southwest (small).
There is a calendar here, which gives the date as January 6th.
> sw
You are in a cell, which clearly belongs to some holy man, as you can tell from the religious decoration of the room. The only way out is by a door to the northeast.
There is a phial here, containing a potion of mandragora.
> get mandragora
OK.
> drink mandragora
You drink the potion. Presently through all your being there runs a cold and drowsy humour and your eyes’ windows fall like death. In this borrow’d likeness of shrunk death you continue and then awake much later as from a pleasant sleep to see…

That’s the potion intended to cause Juliet to have the appearance of dying, but really go to sleep for two days. Here, it affects quite a few more than two days, because if you go back and look at the calendar, it has now changed to March 15th.

That means that at the start of the game, the season is winter, but you can change it to spring. (This is the puzzle I mentioned where knowing the reference helped understand it.) This causes some of the rooms to be different. For example, there’s an ice floe that you can pass over during winter to get to a large section of rooms to the north, but by spring, that ice floe has melted.

Or you can have more subtle interactions, like with Richard III:

> s
You encounter a kingly figure, sadly rather hunchbacked. He mutters that it now is the winter of his discontent, and hobbles off. You are in a field. The ground is in tip-top condition, should anybody ever wish to fight a battle here. You can retreat northwards.

This meeting does not occur if you arrive at the field in spring. However, what you can do in spring is get yourself stabbed:

As you enter the building, you realise with a shudder that it is now the Ides of March. There are cries of “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” and you are stabbed by several men in togas. With a cry of “Hate, you brute?” you give a reproachful look at the nearest of your assailants and expire.

Karl Theodor von Piloty, 1865, The Murder of Julius Ceasar.

I have no idea what this building is like in winter, because if I try to approach in winter I get chased (and killed) by a bear. Of course the bear only shows up in winter because it is from The Winter’s Tale.

A savage clamor!
Well may I get aboard! This is the chase.
I am gone forever!

He exits, pursued by a bear.

(That’s from the actual play, not the game.)

One last general observation about the game is that this seems to have “scripted scenes” far more than most Phoenix games except maybe Hezarin. I’m reminded of the ICL game Quest which randomly has you pick between Basil Wolstegnome and Maria Gnomesick at a Gnome of the Year show; here, you are asked, King Lear style, to decide which daughter gets a kingdom:

You are in a gorgeous palace. A King here is arguing with his courtiers as to the best way to divide up his kingdom. As you arrive, they decide to ask your advice, Heaven knows why.
“To which of my daughters, Regan, Goneril and Cordelia, shall I leave the largest share of my kingdom?” demands the king.

I have yet to resolve this issue; I went with Cordelia and the king was displeased:

“Mend your speech a little, lest you may mar your fortunes.” says the king, who evidently disagrees with your decision. “Hence, and avoid my sight! Vassal! Miscreant!”

In fact, I have yet to resolve much in the way of puzzles at all, and I even still have a few question marks on my map, so I’ll report back next time with a full accounting of all environs. I will say (based on the back cover of the commercial version of the game referring to “three dates”, see image at the top of this post) it is likely that we’ll have at least one more season to warp to and cause all the rooms to change, meaning this game could be very long and deep indeed.

Thursday, 08. February 2024

Choice of Games LLC

Fall in love with Heart’s Choice’s new look!

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, we’ve added a whole bouquet of new options to our iPhone/iPad app and to our Android app, to help you find stories with exactly the features you’re looking for.  It’s easier than ever to find your Happily Ever After in Heart’s Choice!

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, we’ve added a whole bouquet of new options to our iPhone/iPad app and to our Android app, to help you find stories with exactly the features you’re looking for. 

  • An expanded chili-pepper scale gives more detail about every game’s spice level, starting with a mild and sweet 1-pepper and going all the way up to extra-hot 5-pepper erotica.
  • New search features let you filter by spice level, player-character gender, and romance-option gender.
  • “Similar to” suggestions help you find more games just like the ones you already love!

It’s easier than ever to find your Happily Ever After in Heart’s Choice!

Wednesday, 07. February 2024

Renga in Blue

Toxic Dumpsite: The Most Unfair Adventure Game Puzzle Ever Made

Sure, hyperbole, but not by much. I did beat the game, so make sure you’ve read read my previous posts about Toxic Dumpsite before this one. The puzzle I was stuck on last time was, weirdly enough, fair. Maybe it needed some design finesse but… …just as a reminder, I had found a vending machine […]

Sure, hyperbole, but not by much.

I did beat the game, so make sure you’ve read read my previous posts about Toxic Dumpsite before this one.

The puzzle I was stuck on last time was, weirdly enough, fair. Maybe it needed some design finesse but…

…just as a reminder, I had found a vending machine with a coin underneath. Doing SHAKE MACHINE led to a rattling sound and the “all right” message made me think the rattling was referring to the coin. But no, SHAKE still gets the sound, and as mentioned last time, inserting a coin gets it stuck.

However, it dislodged whatever happened to be stuck by a little nudge, so that SHAKE MACHINE again gets it out.

That’s a key. I then immediately tested it everywhere, find it fit in the keyhole next to the window, and turning the key leads to a click.

This unlocks the “control” room downstairs, but before going down there, I should mention while stumped I also managed to find a shovel. LOOK UNDER worked (without documentation or prompting); what about other prepositions?

And no, SEARCH or any other verb does not find the shovel. It has to be LOOK BEHIND.

There isn’t anything intrinsically unfair about including prepositions in searches, but it has to be documented in some way they’re going to occur, especially because they were almost unused in text adventures at this time. I admit my mental logic probably ran along the way the author wanted — I thought that file cabinet is big, I wonder if anything is behind there — but I can still recognize the game is asking for a command without teaching it exists. Text adventures have the unique attribute of “technically anything in English works” but in practice as commands get rarer and rarer they need to be treated uniquely, like you have a platformer where the Z key does something essential but the game doesn’t bother to mention it and you’re just supposed to hit every key on the keyboard trying.

Moving on, with shovel in hand (and the control room unlocked) I headed downstairs, and found the control room was just a message with a single button.

The button unlocks a second door marked “TRANSPORT”.

Just to the left is a button you can push to activate the cart; then pushing the pedal will lead you deeper in the mine, where you start to have trouble breathing.

Curiously enough, the “trouble breathing” isn’t really a timer as you might expect — it means if you try to go too far deep then you die from lack of oxygen, but otherwise the “trouble breathing” state simply hovers around without consequence. Usually for one of these games when something that indicates the player’s medical condition is getting worse triggers, that’s automatically a timer that needs to be beaten.

Further in there is a purple button that can’t be reached. This will be important shortly.

You can then go in the mine, where the lantern (which I assume has been providing light through the whole transport section) is too faint to see in the darkness. You can still DIG (with that shovel from behind the file cabinet) and get an item that your player takes, then leave safely.

If you try to go deeper into the mine, that’s when the lack of oxygen kicks in:

The hammer is described as lightweight which I assume is intended as a hint it can’t be used to break things (like the Office door upstairs which is still unlocked, and is a red herring at the end).

I was horribly stuck enough here that I decided I had enough and needed to poke at a walkthrough, and here we hit the puzzle of the title.

Allow me a brief side mention of a much more recent game, +=3, by Carl de Marcken and David Baggett. Going by the ifdb description:

This one-puzzle game was Dave Baggett’s response to a discussion (flame war?) in rec.arts.int-fiction and specifically to Russ Bryan’s claim that there could be no puzzles which are logical yet unsolvable.

I remember some discussions from rec.arts.int-fiction (the Usenet group) being indistinguishable from flame wars back in the day, so maybe it was both. Here’s the opening (and only) room.

On the Three Troll Bridge

You are standing on a rickety wooden bridge. A burly Three Troll blocks your passage north, across the bridge.

Something is ticking.

In any case, +=3 was essentially a thought experiment: how could you make a logical unsolvable puzzle? Now, as a one-puzzle game, you may want to skip down a bit farther to avoid my spoiling it (I’ll drop a picture of a floppy disk to mark when it is safe to come back), as I’m about to cut and paste in the walkthrough.

Ready?

This “game” is meant to illustrate the fact that “logical” and “simple” puzzles can be made arbitrarily difficult to solve. In this particular case, the puzzle exploits an assumption that experienced text adventure players will make — that things that aren’t listed in one’s inventory aren’t actually manipulable game objects.

>give shirt to troll
>give shoes to troll
>give socks to troll
>n

The solution is perfectly logical and simple. If you were standing on a bridge with a troll who clearly wanted you to give him something, and you had nothing to give him, what would you do? You’d give him the shirt off your back, of course.

Note that if you say “examine me”, you’ll see that you are in fact a clothed human. (If you’d have been naked, the game certainly would have pointed this out, right?)

Everything explicitly mentioned in this game except the troll is a red herring.

I don’t think the game really illustrates anything about logic and simplicity as much as that it is far too much to expect the player to refer to objects that aren’t listed as there (and why can’t our player have boots, instead of shoes)?

All that preface was technically a hint for the puzzle: how do you press the purple button? All the information needed is in my prior posts (or at least all the information needed according to the game itself).

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

So way back at the chest next to the starting room…

…we can REMOVE NAIL WITH HAMMER.

There is no nail in the description, and even being given a “wooden” chest, there is no reason to assume it uses nails rather than, say, screws. The only feasible way to solve the puzzle seems to be to focus entirely on the hammer and what it might be used for, and given that nothing is breakable, come up with the use of pulling nails instead, and try to guess where a nail might be and take the leap of faith.

Weirdly enough, the game was well coded and there was clearly some creativity poured into this, especially given the lack of historical precedent; it’s just the game design effect was a miss. The author likely saw the Med Systems games like Deathmaze but definitely hadn’t seen the Japanese Mystery House, so this concept of a tight 3D environment was all his, and I appreciated the novel ways of stretching what turned out to be a tiny map. I’m especially curious if the graphical elements are what led the author down the road of including preposition-searches; looking at the file cabinet as a graphic did give me the primal urge to peek behind it in a way I’m fairly certain I would not have experienced with text.

Maybe the other game in the two-pack (Spook House) will go better now that I know the author’s tendencies, but I’m going to take a breather before trying it, and instead go to a game series I know very well: the Phoenix mainframe series, and the ultra-hard British game Avon.

Monday, 05. February 2024

Renga in Blue

Toxic Dumpsite: Instructions Unclear

Since last time I got unstuck by figuring out I was missing something on the interface, only to get stuck again quite soon afterwards. Voltgloss helped in the comments and I was able to make a micro-piece more of progress. Just plunging through that hint sheet is starting to look tempting, but maybe pausing to […]

Since last time I got unstuck by figuring out I was missing something on the interface, only to get stuck again quite soon afterwards. Voltgloss helped in the comments and I was able to make a micro-piece more of progress. Just plunging through that hint sheet is starting to look tempting, but maybe pausing to write will help break things through.

So it had always occurred to me that it might be possible to look in alternate directions, but I checked the manual carefully and this is all it had to say about movement. N/S/E/W as well as F/B/L/R work as I describe — you only can move with them, and if you run into a wall or a closed door the game just says you can’t go that way.

However, if you TURN NORTH or TURN SOUTH you actually change your facing. This is not in the documentation. (It turns out the arrow keys, which the manual indicates are equivalent to F/B/L/R, do allow for turning, if being used while holding the shift key.)

The storage room has a book you can see facing south which contains a “credit card” where one side says “Mine 1A”. The north side has a chest (as shown) with a lantern.

The furnace room has a message on the north side…

…and if you face the door leading back to the hall to the west, you can see a button. I do not do what the button does.

I should add it isn’t 100% obvious you should check the door facing the hall — that is, looking back the way you came — but the view of the message on the wall shows the button to the left. This let me know I was supposed to turn more. This differs from Mystery House II (MSX version) where all views were narrowly only of the environment directly in front.

Having done all that, I was still stuck.

I had to plunge all the way down the hints Voltgloss gave to find the command SHOW CARD. I don’t think that square is supposed to be a camera, I think it is supposed to be the cardboard with the message, and the camera is just hidden (this is because there’s another spot later where the card works, and no square).

I still don’t have access to much, but I also don’t think (due to the graphics and needing to have graphics for multiple views) this is a large game.

I haven’t gotten into the “Offices” yet but the doors are marked with what is inside.

To the north there’s a snack machine and another distinctly unfair moment.

First off, if there’s any way to push one of the particular three green buttons (as opposed to just PUSH GREEN) then I don’t know if I’m doing it right or not. Both PUSH GREEN 1 and PUSH GREEN BUTTON 1 give a click sound, but the game also accepts commands like READ BOOK 1 indicating it is just ignoring the later stuff in a command.

Shaking the machine reveals a sound, but I was heavily stumped until, via instinct, the game’s picture, and experience in Graham Nelson games, I tried LOOK UNDER MACHINE, revealing a hidden coin.

I checked later, and SEARCH doesn’t work — it has to be LOOK UNDER. The manual once mentions LOOK INSIDE but no clue that LOOK UNDER works, and I can assure you this is a very rare command to cause a unique effect in this era.

You can insert the coin in the machine but none of the green buttons do anything. I still strongly suspect this might be where I’m stuck on forward progress, as I’m pretty much empty on things to do elsewhere.

For example, there’s a locked file cabinet to the east. There doesn’t seem to be any potential shenanigans possible without a key. There’s also a guard post with a window next to a keyhole, but again no key.

You can also step out to a platform to the west, turn around, and SHOW CARD while facing the door, which causes it to work like an elevator.

The lower floor just consists of two locked rooms, and the SHOW CARD trick doesn’t work on either.

I would guess this is where the shutoff lever is hiding.

It is faintly possible the author is being too clever with the parser. The manual gives “CAREFULLY EXAMINE THE BOMB” as a possible command and LOOK UNDER is parsed as its own command. Maybe there’s some sensible syntax to press a green button but it only works ordered as a very particular sentence; most games of this era would let you PRESS 2 or the like.

I’m still happy to take ROT13 hints on anything at the moment.

Sunday, 04. February 2024

Renga in Blue

Toxic Dumpsite (1982)

As far as the “classic” Scott Adams goes, they’re taking a break throughout 1982; the first six of the Adams games were converted to graphical format, but I’m not replaying games just because they add graphics. However, Adventure International was still selling at a brisk rate through the year, including some products by high school […]

As far as the “classic” Scott Adams goes, they’re taking a break throughout 1982; the first six of the Adams games were converted to graphical format, but I’m not replaying games just because they add graphics.

However, Adventure International was still selling at a brisk rate through the year, including some products by high school student Roger Jonathan Schrag. One of them, Arex, is a Qix variant of sorts that looks genuinely well-programmed.

Maybe his adventures are the same way, but I could only get a little bit of the way into Toxic Dumpsite before being stumped. It, along with the game Spook House, were sold as a “double feature” in a single game package; both feature TRS-80 graphics.

As the manual states:

Something’s gone very wrong at the Toxic Dumpsite where life-threatening nuclear wastes are treated and buried. The entire plant will explode like the Fourth of July in less than 30 minutes unless you can avoid the many traps and protection systems, find the right controls and shut the plant down in time.

The 30 minutes is counted in real time. If you step away from the keyboard and come back 30 minutes later the explosion will have happened.

(This is, in a way, very bad and not bad at all. Very bad in that real time and typing don’t always mix, not bad at all in that when I play games on a modern emulator with save states I can usually beat any time limits handily.)

You start with a note in your hands — it seems like you’d be briefed about this information beforehand?

Other than that, you start in a series of three rooms: the entrance, a storage room, and a room with a furnace.

Trying to head north or south from the entrance leads to locked doors (I assume one of the locked doors was simply the way we came in). I’ve tried many verbs and actions on the doors and the furnace with no luck. So I’m stuck on the game right away.

I’ve tried every verb on this list on the furnace.

There is a hint sheet for the game but I know if I check it this early I’ll have very little resistance for checking hints later. If someone would like to deliver a hint in ROT13 in comments, though, I’ll take it that way.

Having an extremely hard opening puzzle doesn’t mean the game will be dire — Subterranean Encounter started the same way — but it certainly doesn’t give a good first impression.

Saturday, 03. February 2024

Reviews From Trotting Krips

For a Change by Dan Schmidt (1999)

For A Change by Dan “He’s Right, You Know” Schmidt(1999) Rating: ***1/2 The Review… Yes, this is all very well and good, but you see, it is I who is primarily responsible for this game, and if it wins anything, then certainly I will be the one there to take the credit. It was a long time […]

For A Change by Dan “He’s Right, You Know” Schmidt(1999)

Rating: ***1/2

The Review…

Yes, this is all very well and good, but you see, it is I who is primarily responsible for this game, and if it wins anything, then certainly I will be the one there to take the credit.

It was a long time ago.  A simpler, more innocent age.  1997, if I remember correctly.  I met a guy on a server designed for the playing of the ancient Oriental board game Wei-Qi, or “go”, as the Japanese call it.  You know how those Japanese love to name things after squares on a Monopoly board.  But anyway, this guy was a kindred spirit.  Our wicked senses of humor played off each other like peanut butter and jelly.  We owned that place. And so it was that when I discovered the resurgence of IF, and mentioned my interest in the art, it was not upon deaf ears that my overtures fell, for he too had fond memories of the eerie glow of a computer screen, as it danced against our bedroom walls at midnight, describing in so few, but so powerful words, the south side of a nondescript white house somewhere in a forest clearing.

That guy’s name was Dan Schmidt.

Shortly after, we both set about to learn the tools of the trade and put our considerable creative powers to the test with this reborn avocation.  His first game, which I spent more than a couple hours testing and commenting on, was an unfinished, unreleased game called “Kitchen”.  The object of “Kitchen” was to make a glass of icewater on a hot, dry day.  While not lacking in imperfections, it contained more than a single brilliancy, none of which I’ll describe explicitly here (in case he wishes to reuse those great ideas in a future game), except to say that the final scene involved a hilarious parody, which required of the player a passing familiarity with those infamous Mentos ads.  It was a good game.

In the meantime, I wrote Apartment F209.  But enough about me.

With that initial burst of passion behind him, he (like so many others, including your humble narrator) drifted away, back into his go, back into his chess, and finally, it seemed, back into real life.  We’d lost one of the great ones. Two, some would say.

[Excuse me, I hate to interrupt, but are you ever planning to actually review the game that this is supposedly a review of?]  So glad you asked.  I have no fucking idea.  I’m riffing here, leave me be.  Please do not force me to lay the smack down.

But then it was another lazy, crazy day of summer (or whatever the hell season it was) when the ruffled, dog-eared pages of my old Inform 6 manual called to me once again from the box in which it’d been sequestered for far too long.  So once again, I wielded the palette and the brushes, and called upon my old friend Dan Schmidt to join me for inspiration. Slowly, but with unmistakable inertia, he rose again from oblivion to fall into the front rank.  This time, I created Annoyotron, and unbeknownst to me, in the background, Dan created For A Change.

Round two to Mr. Schmidt.

The ultimate triumph of the game might be that towards the end of development, he added one hint to the hint system which, before you even start playing the game, turns it from a daunting, tiresome-looking chore, into an absolute blast. In effect, he says, “This game uses lots of weird words and gimmicky verbs and stylized descriptions and all that crap, but it’s basically a regular, old-timey text adventure!”  And that, it is.

Inanimate objects are described using animate verbs.  Physical movements are described as emotions.  Tactile response represented as tones or colors.  In short, the game talks funny.  After my first round of beta testing, I told him that the game took me the prescribed two hours, but the first hour was wasted because I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on.  I felt like the game was smarter than I was.  All this odd wordsmithing certainly meant that I was just not getting it.  But then a magical thing happened, and I realized that I was just supposed to do regular old Infocom-type adventure stuff.  And from then on, there was no looking back, and it really was one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had playing an adventure game in quite some time.  And miracle of miracles, I actually finished a game… for a change.

This is an “accidental adventure”, in that you are given a goal (however obscurely stated), but to reach that goal, you must simply solve a number of superficially related puzzles, none of which have anything to do with the goal itself, but all of which move the plot along until you do have an opportunity to accomplish the goal, and then everyone’s happy and we can all go home.  I do not count any of this as negative, as the puzzles themselves are clever and perfectly logical, without being overly challenging or frustrating, and they all fit well into the abject, mind-twisting surreality of the environment.  (“Lie Establisher”, indeed.  What is this guy on?)

If the game has faults, they lie in the gimmickry of the presentation, which borders on the ridiculous at times, while never quite stepping too far over the line.  And for one of the very few times I can remember in my IF experiences, I didn’t want it to end so soon.  But the two hours were up, and that is what the IF Competition desires.  So, my loss, the Comp’s gain.  You can’t please all the people, or however that goes.

But anyway, my point to this whole review is that, this game wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for me.  What was that?  Oh, you’re quite welcome…