Planet Interactive Fiction

June 17, 2019

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Fay Ikin, “Asteroid Run: No Questions Asked”

by Mary Duffy at June 17, 2019 04:42 PM

Captain! You have limited resources, a desperate crew, strange cargo and a company man is aboard to spy on you. Will you deliver your secret cargo to the Asteroid Belt on time? You and your crew will get rich or die trying! Cargo runs between Earth, Mars and the Asteroid Belt are commonplace, but deadly. You’re the captain of a merchant vessel, but this time, your contract has a twist: don’t open the cargo, don’t get in the way of its handler, and don’t ask questions. Deliver to Vesta Station. Asteroid Run: No Questions Asked is a 325,000-word interactive science-fiction novel by Fay Ikin. I sat down with Fay to talk about her first time writing IF, and the challenges thereof.

Asteroid Run is your first foray into interactive fiction, but you’re a fiction writer otherwise?

Despite being a scientist, I’ve always loved creative writing too. I’ve completed several novels–I’d love to get them out into the wider world one day–and I co-wrote mods for for the videogame Baldur’s Gate II with my now-wife (the author of Blood Money). When Hannah started writing her game, seeing behind the scenes of writing interactive fiction was just too tempting, so I had to join her!

What were some of the bigger challenges of writing the game?

From a personal perspective, it’s the challenge of balancing writing this huge, complex game with real life! We have a young child at home, and I also work full-time (as a teacher, and then in education management) so getting enough brainpower to be both creative enough to write, and alert enough to code properly, has sometimes been tough. I’ve also discovered I’m a little too ambitious for my own good: I’ve had to be ever-vigilant about branching too wide or too early, as when the game got too unwieldy it was tricky to pull things back together.

Have you read a fair amount of IF? What games did you enjoy or draw from in writing Asteroid Run?

The first IF I ever read was Choice of Romance back in 2013, and I’ve been a fan of CoG ever since. I actually find that if I’m in the middle of a project, reading fiction (interactive or otherwise) in similar genres gives me a little too much awe and interference, so there are a bunch of sci-fi CoG games that I am champing at the bit to play now Asteroid Run is finished: Rent-a-Vice, I, Cyborg and the Martian Job, here I come!

Outside of COG games, one of my biggest inspirations was actually Failbetter Games’ Sunless Sea. The intimidating emptiness around your ship, the feelings of isolation pushing you to keep your crew close: delicious! I asked myself, “This game, but in space? Let’s run with that.” And yes, I’ve greatly been enjoying Sunless Skies too!

Are you a fan of hard sci-fi? What other genres interest you?

I’ve been a sci-fi nut ever since I sat in front of the TV watching Star Trek: Voyager as a kid! Hard sci-fi has actually been one subgenre it’s taken me longer to get into: books devoted more to the ships than the people is less my thing. I prefer sci-fi that spends time with its characters and setting, and uses technology as the vehicle for plot and characterization, so for me: Star Trek, Farscape, Killjoys, Firefly. I’d be remiss not to mention Asteroid Run‘s biggest inspiration, The Expanse.

I love full-on space operas, and cyberpunk too. Outside of sci-fi, I do enjoy fantasy and urban fantasy, especially in tabletop and computer RPGs! Anyone else hyped for VtM: Bloodlines 2?

Do you have a favorite NPC that you liked writing best?

Ooh, I enjoy so many of them. I particularly liked writing characters where their drives and goals can clash with the MC’s: the sleazy suit, Victor Palladino, has to be one of my favorites. He’s just such a bad dude, but a bit of a silver fox too. I have to say, my favorite moments to write were scenes showcasing your crew’s interpersonal relationships: there’s an option for everyone to give each other holiday presents, and thinking about who would give each other what was such a blast. Found families are the best!

Emily Short

Graham Nelson on Open-Sourcing Inform 7

by Emily Short at June 17, 2019 02:41 PM

This past weekend was NarraScope, a genuinely excellent conference about interactive storytelling in many shapes and forms. It was fantastic, and my one complaint is that there was so much good content that I was forced to miss a lot of things I would have liked to see.

(I livetweeted as much as I could, and I’m grateful to other attendees who did the same from other talks. The #NarraScope stream on Twitter contains a lot of notes about all the things discussed there.)

Graham spoke about Inform 7’s current state of progress, and for those who either weren’t able to attend NarraScope at all, or who chose to do one of the other excellent things going on at the same time, we’ve posted the slides and notes from that talk.

And if you’re curious about the previous time he spoke about I7: https://emshort.blog/2018/06/10/notes-on-the-direction-of-inform/

The People's Republic of IF

Narrascope Day 1 Trip report

by Angela Chang at June 17, 2019 02:41 AM

You find yourself outside on a sunny Friday afternoon. The notification on your phone tells you that it is Friday, June 14th, 2019. Almost 6:30 pm and you’re rushing to make sure you’re early for the first day of Narrascope. You hustle into the Stata, and are greeted by the friendly people at the registration booth:

Registration: Justin and zarf

After much polite greeting, you take the badge, the gender pronoun flag, and the awesome swag.

You stop to chat at the Game Workers Unite booth to express solidarity with the lifeblood of the gaming industry. You’ve gotta fight for your rights=, ya know!
You look around at the smiling attendees at registration. There are so many familiar and famous faces. You’re glad you’re here.
You take selfies with a whole bunch of people, like this one with Jake.
You go to a workshop with Brandon Desilets “Teach Lamp.” You really wish you could clone yourself so that you could also attend “Twine Untangled” with Chris Klimas and Stuart Moulthrop or “Make Lamp” with Anastasia Salter and Judith Pintar.
After milling about after the workshop, you decide to follow some friendly folks for some chillaxing over dinner and margaritas at Naco Tacos.
As you celebrate into the wee hours on the first night of Narrascope, you wish you could go back in time and experience that joy of finding this creative tribe again.

More pictures here,

sub-Q Magazine

Experimenting in IF

by Katherine Morayati at June 17, 2019 12:42 AM

Experimenting in IF

When was the last time a piece of interactive fiction blew you away with the fact that it was even possible? What was the last game where you thought, “I can’t believe that was made in _______?”

Parser interactive fiction has a long, if currently stagnant history—something between a tradition and a parlor game—of mangling the standard text-adventure format to recreate Space Invaders or Sokoban or Super Mario Bros.-style platformers. Twine, too, has plenty of experiments, from creating elaborate in-game spy puzzles to glitching out Hugo’s House of Horrors.

But you don’t have to want to make a flashy gimmick to make innovative IF. Nor do you need to be an expert hacker—coding skills certainly help, but are more learnable than you probably think they are. What you do need is a certain level of determination (perfectionism and stubbornness also help), and a desire to break things for fun and innovation. A few tips on how:

Start with a story or game idea, not with a platform.

I have never sat down and thought, “I’m going to make an innovative piece of IF.” Nor have I thought, “Now I’m going to make a Twine,” or “I’m going to try Ink now.” Or rather, I have thought these things—and it went nowhere. It’s like thinking “I’m going to use a stove today” without a recipe: All you do is burn gas.

More subtle, but often more pernicious, is that a platform is only as good as the ideas you bring to it. When you think “I’m going to make a parser game,” you start designing around a platform’s limitations—or probably just what you think are its limitations—and not around an idea. And people respond to ideas, not tools.

So ask yourself: In an ideal world, if you could magically make your finished story appear, what would it do? How would it progress? How would it be structured? This stage is just brainstorming. Some of what you envision might be impossible. Some may not be the greatest way to tell your story. Some of it might get tossed out for scope. But more than you think will be possible, and maybe even easier than you expected.

Figure out how “breakable” your system is.

Of the more common non-commercial IF platforms:

  • Some platforms, like Texture or ChoiceScript, are relatively limited. The system does one set of things, and if you want to do those things, that’s great. But if you want to do other things, you’re out of luck.
  • Twine is theoretically very customizable with CSS and JavaScript; however, some story formats make this much harder than others. On the easier end of the axis is Snowman, explicitly designed for those familiar with code. On the other end is Harlowe, where it’s possible to incorporate JavaScript (most of Human Errors does), but it requires digging through many files of deliberately undocumented code.
  • There is a lot going on in Inform 7 just out of the box, and it’s versatile enough that you can theoretically work in it for years without ever touching some of its features. (I tend to use scenes and text substitutions often.) If something really seems impossible, and you can’t figure out any way around it, you can dip into Inform 6, the more traditional programming language behind the scenes. Finally—and much of this is new—you can add multimedia, tooltips, and even JavaScript code directly within Inform.
  • Platforms like Ink and Undum, being open source, are as customizable as you have spare time and desire to disembowel someone else’s code.

Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Your ideas, of course, can be anything you can imagine. But the mechanics to implement those ideas are often fairly simple: tracking a few variables, triggering a few lines of code. Even something as simple as tweaking the default CSS can make your story appear far more innovative than it would otherwise.

Remember, you’re not tinkering for tinkering’s sake—you’re doing it to get your story to work the way you want it to work. And chances are, someone else has also wanted their story to work that way. If you want a certain text effect, is there a macro or an extension to do that for you? If you want to track how often a reader interacts with a particular passage, or has “seen” a piece of text, or has moused over something, JavaScript examples abound.

Often, you can just look directly at what others have done. CSS code on websites can be viewed via most browsers’ Inspect Element feature, Twine stories can be loaded into the online editor, and many parser games have their source code available. Obviously, the idea here is not to plagiarize others’ work. But it can help you see that a lot more is possible than you may have thought.

Test even more thoroughly than the thorough testing you were already planning.

The more you experiment, the more you delve into things your system might not be designed to handle. Plan for this. Sometimes this can mean adding fail-safes—if you’re tinkering with a passage manually via code, are you loading the right thing? If your game has a finite amount of text, is it possible to run out, and have you provided a buffer of extra text and/or a way to generate more?

Do extra testing on your custom mechanics, of course, but also test the story as a whole, thoroughly. When you break one thing, other things tend to break as well. (An example: Inform 7 executes an unexpectedly huge number of rules when processing commands. Any one of those rules can be the thing that, purely hypothetically, makes your story crash instead of ending.) It’s a bit of extra work, but you’ll never know when it might be worth it.

The post Experimenting in IF appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

June 15, 2019

Emily Short

Mid-June Link Assortment

by Mort Short at June 15, 2019 02:41 PM

Events

download.jpgThe Narrascope games conference is currently taking place in Boston, MA, June 14-16.  Both Graham Nelson and I are there and speaking; I’m on a panel about Bandersnatch, and Graham is updating people on the current status of Inform.

NarraScope is also the Boston IF Meetup for the month of June.

ICCC 2019 takes place on June 17-21 in Charlotte, NC.  The event is in its tenth year and is organized by the Association for Computational Creativity.

logo_CIS_front.pngFor those interested in the IEEE Conference on Games (CoG)June 30 is the deadline for early bird registration.  The conference itself will be August 20-23 in London.

July 2-5 will be the ACM IVA Conference, taking place in Paris.  IVA 2019’s special topic is “Social Learning with Interactive Agents”.

July 13 will be the next meeting of the Baltimore/DC IF meetup (there is no meeting in June due to NarraScope). The discussion will center around The Missing Ring from the 2019 Spring Thing competition.

July 16-17 is set for the symposium Ludic Literature: The Converging Interests of Writing, Games, and Play. The two-day event is funded by the Scottish Graduate School and takes place in Glasgow, UK.

icon.pngThe SIGIR Conference is taking place in Paris from July 21-25.

DiGRA 2019 is being held August 6-10 in Kyoto.

New Releases

Final_Export_Text_01_Square.pngBack in October, I mentioned that the folks at StoryFix Media were working on a project called The Pulse. That game now has a release date right around the corner, and will be available on June 25 on Google Play.

The Pulse was written by Christopher Webster, developed by Gareth Higgins and Arthur Lee, with original score by Auto/Reflex. Check out the trailers here and here.

Electric Sleep, a recent release from a small team including artist Matthew Weekes (Kynseed, Freedom Planet) and Jack Sanderson-Thwaite (theatre writer with Bristol Old Vic) is currently available on Steam.

Rock Paper Shotgun gave it a very positive review in April, and GameGrin followed suit with a 9/10 rating.

Announcements, Articles, & Links

This interview with Hannah Powell Smith, on plotting, Choice of Games, and writing about ghosts.

A little more backstory on the development of Return of the Obra Dinn (and how it nearly didn’t happen.)

The possibility of further Black Mirror episodes à la Bandersnatch.

The IF Technology Foundation has published its report on accessibility in IF tools and games, with recommendations for how to make IF experiences work better for more people.

Playing Text-adventure Games with an AI by Prithviraj Ammanabrolu records some new experiments with TextWorld.

Crowdfunding

Ninepin Press is publishing a story told on those folded fortune-teller toys, funded via Kickstarter. This is the same press that did The Family Arcana, a story told on a deck of cards.

June 14, 2019

Renga in Blue

Before Adventure, Part 6: The Public Caves (1973)

by Jason Dyer at June 14, 2019 10:41 PM

HAVE SHOES ON THEIR FEET
AND SOMETHING TO EAT
WOULDN’T IT BE FINE
IF ALL HUMAN KIND
HAS SHELTER
HI THERE
************* TO GET TO THE UDDER SYDDE

WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO DO NEXT? MOVE
TUNNELS LEAD TO:
1 ‘OUTSIDE OF YOU’
2 ‘PIPPIN TRIPPING’
3 ‘SPACEMEN AND OTHERS FROM AFAR STAR’
4 ‘OUTSIDE OF YOU’
5 ‘CAN’T DIG TO THIS ONE !’
6 ‘ADDENDA, ADDENDA, ADDENDA !!!’

The last we saw of the Caves series by Dave Kaufman was perhaps a little underwhelming. The game generated a set of “caves” in tree format and challenged you to escape, but it was arranged in a manner that didn’t provide any challenge.

However, Mr. Kaufman wasn’t quite done yet, and according to the date on the source code, returned to the Caves in August 1973.

PCC Nov. 1973. “The ‘Public Caves’ are ever-expanding and forever changing. Each visit, the graffiti is different; new tunnels have been dug and new caverns added. New names have appeared and there is always someplace new to explore!”

One of the issues (perhaps, the only issue) with both Caves and Wumpus passing into adventure-game territory was the sameness of the rooms. The Public Caves does away with that. Each new room is built by a visitor who names it, each room has “graffiti” that the visitors can add to.

PCC Nov. 1973. While a touch confusing to read, this is showing an actual gameplay transcript.

The system is very clunky (although to be fair, the first of its kind). You must type WRITE, MOVE, BUILD, DIG, or OUT in full to do a command. WRITE lets you add to the text of a room. MOVE gives a list of adjacent rooms; if only one room is adjacent, you are moved there automatically. BUILD lets you make a brand-new room that is linked to your current room, and DIG lets you make a new tunnel into an existing room (which requires you type the exact name of the existing room you’re thinking of).

You can only BUILD once and DIG once per visit. This does not seem to be due to the technical limitations of the system, but as a sort of social engineering: encouraging people to contribute as a mass group, rather than having one person dominate and write a lot of content at once.

During the weekend that this post is going up, a version of The Public Caves will be live at the conference Narrascope. (I typed the 1973 source code and compiled it with QBASIC, so it runs under DOSBox.) The plan is to take what is collaboratively built and make it accessible to everyone. I will modify this post after the conference is over and include a link to play online.

(Incidentally, the Narrascope setup is using a batch-file loop, so it’s not hard to quit and return to make more rooms, but I’m guessing that was true of the original game as well.)

Now, is this an adventure game? This post is part of “Before Adventure” so I guess I’m still waffling, but mainly on a technicality: it’s a system for creating a world but doesn’t come with one. (Of course, it’s possible to render the screenshots above as the start of a world, so if you consider the November PCC article part of the source code then that objection is taken care of.) The other question is if adventure games need puzzles. A fair number of definitions require them, like:

Adventure games focus on puzzle solving within a narrative framework, generally with few or no action elements.
adventuregamers.com

or

a video game in which the player assumes the role of a protagonist in an interactive story driven by exploration and puzzle-solving.
Wikipedia

although the mention of “puzzle solving” is more to distinguish the mechanics from, say, that of an action or strategy game. If you want to get technical, you could say there is an “narrative/exploration genre” but there needs to be some puzzle element added on to be a full “adventure game”. To which I say: fair enough. Game genre definitions can be useful for identifying what techniques work in which settings (see: Quarterstaff having a bad time when RPG and adventure elements clash) and isolating exploration games may even be useful in finding things adventure games can’t do that exploration games can (like having the audience itself make all the content).

But whatever this game’s designation, it gets tantalizingly close to a new era, and it seems like that’s worth celebrating. To paraphrase Stanley Kubrick, the universe may be dark and devoid of meaning, but that just means we get to create our own light and meaning to bring to it.

June 13, 2019

Renga in Blue

For Those Attending Narrascope

by Jason Dyer at June 13, 2019 10:41 PM

Narrascope is starting tomorrow in Boston (June 14th, 2019) and goes through the weekend.

NarraScope is a new games conference that will support interactive narrative, adventure games, and interactive fiction by bringing together writers, developers, and players.

I am on the wrong side of the country to go, but if you happen to be attending, I have arranged something special (thanks to Andrew Plotkin for help setting it up!)

Specifically: there is an expo room that is showing demos over the weekend.

Amongst the live demos there will be a historical exhibit with a game that has not seen the light of day since the 1970s. One could plausibly make the claim it is the first adventure game ever made. It predates both Wander and Adventure.

I’ll also be finishing my Before Adventure series soon after so y’all who can’t make it will get a chance to try the game out.

June 12, 2019

Renga in Blue

Crystal Cave (1980?)

by Jason Dyer at June 12, 2019 10:41 PM

I should’ve known better.

I wanted something strictly traditional to trudge through, so I poked through my game list and came across Crystal Cave, a game from an unknown year and an unknown author but one that was made by modifying the original Crowther/Woods source code to Adventure. We have access to it because Kevin O’Gorman ported it to C in the late 80s from UNIVAC FORTRAN, of all things.

Boy howdy, did it break “traditional” in half.

(Year and author unknown-ish — I found someone asking about it in March 1984. 1980 is a decent educated guess. I also have a strong suspicion who the author is and may even be able to verify 100%, but I’ll get into that in a later post.)

If UNIVAC is ringing a bell, you may have heard about it as being the world’s first commercially sold computer. Here’s a spot from an educational video (1950-1952ish) explaining how the keystrokes on the keyboard are turned into electrical impulses.

By 1980 (or so) our code in question was running on a UNIVAC 1100, which had at least moved past vacuum tubes. It was still bulky.

Image from the public domain.

We’ve certainly seen many variants of Adventure now:

This isn’t like any of those. This is a brand-new game which just used the original source code as the base for writing a text adventure. There are very few elements unchanged (most notably, the dwarves seem to be identical to original Adventure).

The port I was playing gave me warning: while the game has some similar elements to Adventure it very intentionally deviates from them in their use, almost like a running joke. Acheton (1978) played with this idea a bit …

You are standing in the depression.
There is a 3×3 steel grate set in the ground nearby.
The grate is open.
> d
You fall into a well. The water is icy cold, and you rapidly die of hypothermia.

… but Crystal Cave grabs the idea, runs with it, vaults over the wall with it, lights it on fire, does an arts-and-crafts project with the remains, then lights it on fire again just for good measure.

You are standing before a barn at the northern end of a road. To the east is a pasture. To the west and north are woods. There are well-worn paths in several directions.
A Boy Scout compass is lying nearby.
>in
You’re in the barn. It has been converted to quarters for spelunkers.
There are electric lights, and a number of mattresses strewn about.
There are some keys on the ground here.
There is a shiny brass lamp nearby.
Your wallet is here, containing 1 dollar in change.
There is a shower here.
There is a cola machine in one corner. The instructions read:
“DROP CHANGE HERE TO GET A COLA.”

Here’s the start. Nothing too unusual so far, except the standard-issue bottle you get at the start of the game comes out of a cola machine.

Where things get odd is upon arriving to the caves:

You are at a stream exiting from a cliff. A sign says:
“CRYSTAL CAVE PARKING LOT.
PLEASE FOLLOW PATH BESIDE STREAM
NORTH TO CAVE ENTRANCE.”

> n
You are at the mouth of the cave.
Ranger Rick cautions you not to take or break anything in the cave.
The gate is locked, and guarded by a Ranger. A sign says:
“PAY RANGER FOR ADMISSION”.

> pay ranger
You are inside the entrance. A stream exits here. A path runs beside the stream.
The gate opens easily from the inside. A sign says:
“PERSONS LEAVING MUST RE-PAY TO REENTER”.
There is an ancient indian pot here.

Let’s back up to be clear: the opening is designed like a realistic visit to an actual National Park. (Except the reference to Ranger Rick suggests you’re talking to a raccoon, but that never gets spelled out.) The opening section is filled with realistic cave features. Like here …

You are in a long flat room, sloping along a trench in the floor. There is a hole in the ceiling, but you can’t reach it.
There are gypsum flowers here.

… or here:

You are at the intersection of three passages. One rises slightly, one drops rapidly.
There are helictites on the walls.

If you try to touch any of the features, they break and Ranger Rick shows up to chastise you.

The ceiling is covered with soda-straw stalactites.

> get stalactite
There is a Ranger behind you! He says:
“I told you not to take or break anything! Don’t do it again!”
You’re at clock shop.
The ground is covered with pieces of broken soda-straws.

Hence, as what I’m sure is a shock to adventurers everywhere, there are many “items” at the start that you must actively avoid taking and are there purely as realistic cave scenery.

This section is fairly extensive (it took me several hours) and the author clearly did some research; it takes a bit of a puzzle-solving leap (where it helps to know something about caves!) to break into the “inside section” where there are actual treasures you can get and dwarves and a dragon and so on; I’ll save that for next time.

My map of the “realistic” portion of the caves. The east side includes a lake with a boat. You can attempt to sneak into the far west side using a rope but Ranger Rick kicks you out.

IFTF Blog

Accessibility Testing Project report now available

by Jason McIntosh at June 12, 2019 05:29 PM

As chair of IFTF’s Accessibility Testing Project, I am pleased and proud to announce the publication of its report to the IF community.

This report summarizes the work and research performed by the project since its launch in 2016. It includes the two games (one Twine, one Inform) that we concocted to test IF platforms’ accessibility fitness, and the survey responses that we received from dozens of players with disabilities who took these games for a spin on a variety of assistive-technology setups.

Most importantly, it lists fifteen recommendations to IF’s creative community for improving the accessibility of future work, both in terms of individual games and the software used to create and present them. These recommendations base themselves on Accessible Player Experiences, a thoroughly researched set of guidelines and design patterns recently published by The AbleGamers Foundation. We believe that these recommendations could help make IF games more accessible not just to players with disabilities, but to the entire potential audience for interactive fiction.

AbleGamers partnered with IFTF on the publication of this report from the start, and we extend our gratitude to it for its invaluable assistance — as well as to all the accessibility consultants and IF experts who volunteered so much time and attention towards this project, and all the players who responded so thoughtfully to our testing surveys.

IFTF plans to keep the report permanently available at http://accessibility.iftechfoundation.org. The report’s publication concludes the work of the Accessibility Testing Project, hence its move on our programs page to a new “Past Programs” section. We hope that this report sparks discussion and inspiration within the community about ways to make interactive fiction available to as many players as possible.

Zarf Updates

Notes on recent games: big narrative

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at June 12, 2019 01:49 AM

Observation

You are the system AI of an LEO space station which has just gone wrong. The surviving astronaut reboots you. Fix the problems.
This feels rather old-fashioned, for a couple of reasons. Narratively, you're on rails; Emma gives you tasks and you carry them out. You have enough leeway to hunt around the station and collect notes -- journals and logs in a very classic environmental-storytelling mode. But the next task is always clear. Your only real narrative choices are how exhaustively you want to hunt journals.
As for the mechanics, the basic navigation model is simple. You can switch cameras in each space station module, and switch to new modules as they come online. You can connect to any station device visible on camera; you can report anything you see to Emma. Later, you get to steer a floating drone. Pretty much everything else you do in the game is a matter of "connect to a device, figure out its controls, do what Emma asks." Or "Figure out its controls, see a problem, report it." You wind up using most devices twice or more, so you get the sense of learning a toolkit, but it doesn't really have systematic mechanics that build on each other.
So that makes Observation sound pretty dishwater, doesn't it? But the game works really well! It's a series of crises -- as you would expect from a barely-functional space station -- and the sense of urgency carries you right on through all the mini-quests and button games. All of which are fun. They may not have a deep narrative or mechanical basis, but you feel good when you get something right and Emma gasps in relief. Reporting a problem may be a matter of selecting a trouble spot and pushing a button, but Emma seizes on your intel and advances the plot, and there's your sense of agency.
Furthermore, being on rails fits your narrative role. You are, after all, only a computer. Your NPC partner is doing the real work of fixing the station. You're taking care of all the background mechanical stuff that Emma either can't reach or can't spare the time for. You've always got a job to so. It's a simple trick, but as I say, it works really well.
If I have a real complaint, it's that the puzzles involve too much searching around with the slow-and-grindy camera controls. When I got stuck, it was always because I'd failed to find one critical switch or sticky note. The only way to advance was to keep panning around. It's a dense environment, but it's mostly space-station clutter; it's not that much fun to explore.
(A couple of scenes move outside the station, and the view is stunning -- but it's also a much larger environment and it's really easy to get lost.)
So I can't say that Observation pushes any boundaries. But everything it does is so engaging and nicely constructed that I don't care. It's a terrific experience. Recommended.

Close to the Sun

It is impossible to talk about this game without mentioning Bioshock. On the one hand, that's a problem. On the other hand, it's an easy problem to ignore. Monumental Art Deco follies are awesome; we've played in them before Bioshock; why not play in some more?
Plus, the pitch is "Bioshock without zombies", which gets me up out of my chair dancing. I didn't mind the combat in Bioshock; it's a gun game. But that wasn't what interested me. I was there for the environments, narrative, and puzzles. Close to the Sun is all those minus the gun. Great!
Well, pretty good. I mean, it's fine. I mean...
For a start, it doesn't seem to have much to say. Bioshock starts with a thinly-veiled Ayn Rand declaiming the glories of personal liberty; and the game was about free will and liberty. CttS gives us an alt-history Nikola Tesla declaiming the glories of pure scientific genius, and somehow it comes to exactly the same thing. You have giant gilt rooms inhabited by extremely rich people. This Tesla is an extremely rich power magnate, hounded by resentful Edison terrorists -- which is a nice bit. But there's no take here. Except for portraying Tesla as kind of a clueless lunatic, which comes off as watered-down reality and a watered-down Cave Johnson, both at the same time.
The story involves running around the dead ship looking for your sister-the-scientist. There's the expected sisterly banter on the radio, plus Tesla diatribes and a few other characters. The characters never really came to life, though. At least as far as I got.
For all my gripes, it's a perfectly playable game with kickass visual environments. Some kind of time-fracture story is building up, which has potential. I'm perfectly willing to play through such a game. However -- I didn't finish CttS. At a certain point you get chased by a lunatic with a knife. (The Whitechapel killer, of all the really-not-Art Deco figures.) You have to run away or get messily stabbed. I tried running away six or eight times. Five times in a row, I tripped over a low barrier because the "vault" button refused to work. Then I gave up.
I wanted to like CttS more, but there just didn't seem to be much meat on the bones. Observation did more, quicker, with less dialogue.

Zed

And now, the awkward bit where I like a game, I recommend a game, but everything I have to say about the game is negative.
First, unsetting the expectations. When Zed launched its Kickstarter in 2016, it billed itself as a puzzle adventure. The pitch invoked Myst early and often. (Underscoring that, Zed wound up being published by Cyan.) But development is hell, as we know, and the final release has evolved into something a lot more Gone Home than Myst.
That's fine, as long as you don't walk in jonesing for puzzles. Walking sims are great. My complaint is that Zed spends much of its (short) length walking through well-trodden territory. It's a symbolic exploration (check) of someone's life (check) laden with loss, regret, and nostalgia (check) and affairs with hot young grad students. No, wait, that last bit is a different genre. This one is an artist being screwed over by Hollywood.
And the play consists of finding symbolic objects that trigger memories. Find all four in a scene and you can go on to the next. Repeat until sentimental ending symbolic of new beginnings.
None this is bad, but we've seen it before. A lot. Even more so on the psychological-horror side of the walking-sim fence. Zed doesn't go the horror route, but the techniques are still familiar.
In theory, Zed explores the life of an artist suffering from dementia. I say "in theory" because that aspect seems barely present in the narrative, and not at all in the gameplay. I have not lived through the hell of a parent or loved one falling into dementia, but I have friends who have. They talk about progressive inevitable loss: loss of memory, loss of ability, loss of the person they once knew. Every remnant you find is a tiny miracle -- and crushing, because it's got an expiration date.
Zed isn't about loss. It's about memory, yes, but your experience is the opposite of loss: you build someone's complete life. Everything you find is crystal-clear. Winning means finding it all.
Okay, this is a hard problem. I'm not saying Zed had to tackle the experience of loss this way. But it feels like a missed opportunity that it didn't even try.
(The obvious comparison is Stephen Granade's Twine game Will Not Let Me Go, but I'm embarrassed to say that I've never played through it. It's the right comparison anyhow.)
Okay, enough negatives. Zed is a visual treat -- large, striking, vivid environments, wildly varied and each appropriate to its theme. If you are a VR enthusiast, I'm sure you will enjoy wanding through them as much as I enjoyed the old-fashioned flatscreen experience. The voice acting is lively and convincing. It avoids the cliche of walking-sim monologue narration while still staying focused on the protagonist's voice; a good trick.
And the story pulls together solidly at the end. It's a genuine and moving conclusion.
And I've still spend four times as long complaining about Zed as I've spent praising it. It's good, you should play it. I just wish there was more for me to buy into, rather than just to watch.

Outer Wilds

(Not "Outer Worlds", an unrelated and as-yet-unreleased game.)
I haven't finished Outer Wilds. I'm still working on it. I'm not going to write much, because it's not the game I thought it was when I started. And it's not the game I thought it was half an hour later, when the (SPOILER) started. So I'm probably still wrong about what game it is.
But it is 100% adorable, with banjos, marshmallow roasts, and spaceflight among St-Exupery-sized planets. It's also deeply nerdy. And it's, I'm pretty sure it is, no I'm sure, it's incredibly clever.
Play this one. Don't wait for me to talk more about it.

June 11, 2019

Renga in Blue

Mount St. Helens (1980)

by Jason Dyer at June 11, 2019 11:41 PM

Via Google Maps and US gov’t satellite data.

On March 20, 1980, northeast of Portland, over the state line to Washington state, a series of earthquakes began at Mount St. Helens.

This was followed on March 27 by a pair of explosions, forming a crater at the north face; the volcano, previously dormant for over 100 years, began to spew ash.

Minor earthquakes and intermittent eruptions followed in the weeks after. The crater, in the meantime, expanded.

By April 30, the governor of Washington had signed an executive order creating “red” and “blue” zones of danger.

The Spokesman-Review, May 1, 1980.

While nearly all people were evacuated from the red zone, hundreds of scientists, campers, hikers, and curiosity seekers stayed in the blue zone five miles away. It wasn’t far enough.

Public domain photo from USGS.

On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens exploded. The geologists Keith and Dorothy Stoffel were in an airplane above when the event happened.

From our viewpoint, the initial cloud appeared to mushroom laterally to the north and plunge down. Within seconds, the cloud had mushroomed enough to obscure our view … The pilot opened full throttle and dove quickly to gain speed. He estimates that we were going 200 knots. The cloud behind us mushroomed to unbelievable dimensions and appeared to be catching up with us. Since the clouds were billowing primarily in a northerly direction, we turned south, heading straight toward Mount Hood.

Robert Payne, Mike Hubbard, and Keith Moore were fishing, sixteen miles northwest.

Hubbard: We could see half a mile of ridgeline. The cloud suddenly loomed over the ridge as a wall. It didn’t continue up but flowed down through the forest toward us. The front was a thousand feet high—boiling, gray, turbulent, coming very fast.

I dropped my pole and ran down the bank. I looked back and already it was almost on us, a hundred yards back. Bob ran just behind me, and I glimpsed Keith forty yards back running from the river into taller timber. Just ahead of me was a huge maple tree, four feet in diameter. I dove in behind it, Bob dove in, and it turned black.

Payne: It enveloped us, pitch black and indescribably hot. Thunder like heavy artillery close by lasted ten seconds—trees coming down, I think. Then came heavy rumbling and thunder from the mountain, and lightning in the cloud. A fierce wind knocked me back onto Mike. It lasted half a minute. It was like Navy boot camp when we jumped into water with fire on it, but this much hotter and longer.

Venus Dergan and Roald Reitan were camping 30 miles away.

As they scrambled to the car, a lahar from the eruption was speeding down the river towards them—hot mud from the volcano that had been cooled by the river until it was the temperature of bath water. Upriver from their campsite, they could see a train trestle holding back a mass of mud and debris. Their car wouldn’t start and they watched as the mudflow hit the train trestle, unleashing the debris that quickly engulfed their car. They climbed to the roof, the mudflow picking up the car and sweeping it upriver. Dergan and Reitan were thrown into the river, which had quadrupled in size, as their car drifted away like a boat.

All the people mentioned above survived, but not everyone did; in the end, 57 people died.

A month later, Victor Albino decided to write a game based on the events (originally, it appears, for the Commodore PET). In March 1981 it landed in the magazine SoftSide for the TRS-80.

Victor writes:

“Volcano” is an TRS-80 educational adventure game requiring at least 16K memory.

As one of the snow-capped jewels of Washington’s Cascade Range, Mount St. Helens ruled with majestic silence for 123 years. Then on Sunday, May 18, 1980 at 8:32 a.m., it erupted in a mammoth fury which paralyzed much of the Pacific Northwest.

Despite these elements and the odds, almost 200 people were saved from the mountain by brave crews in rescue helicopters. This program, based on actual eyewitness accounts, recreates the experiences related by these survivors.

If you had been one of those present near the mountain that Sunday morning, would you have managed to survive?

The TRS-80 version of the game is fairly serious about the educational angle, even giving a volcano diagram and a glossary of terms.

I’ve merged two screenshots here, with the four lines of text and the image that followed it.

The game is also the first “pure” choice-based game written for a computer that I know of; that is, it could be rendered strictly as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book.

There is no “world state” or “inventory” because every wrong move you take will kill you. Under Sam Kabo Ashwell’s taxonomy, it’s a deadly gauntlet.

Here is the result of choice #1:

Choice #2:

Choice #3 (the correct one):

This is three screenshots merged into one.

I’m guessing you get the idea — by the end you get rescued by helicopter (depending on which version you’re playing, with a little animation to go with it).

If you’d like to partake of this unique piece of computing history, this link will play the TRS-80 version online, or you can download the 1980 Commodore PET version here.

Emily Short

Mailbag: Knowledge-driven Dialogue in Inform

by Emily Short at June 11, 2019 06:41 PM

I am doing my first steps in Interactive Fiction and your work has helped me a lot. I have been working on an idea, that requires dialogue based on “knowledge”, in other words, the character and the NPCs will initiate dialogue in order to fill out their gaps in knowing the other person. Firstly, I was wondering if Inform7 can do something like that, and if it can which dialogue system would be the best to serve as a basis. Secondly, I was wondering if Inform7 can implement AI, without falling back to Inform6. Thank you in advance and most importantly, for your work in the community! Sorry for the annoyance of my question but I was kind of lost among the many different dialogue systems that are out there…
[and then on confirmation that the asker was okay with a mailbag post]:

First of all let me clarify that I am not asking for mentorship, with this question. More like pointing to the right direction, if there is such a direction. There is a strong chance that there is not something similar implemented, so in this case, don’t let me take your time.

My question is if there is a dialogue system in Inform7 (or in some other framework) , that is based on knowledge of a predefined set of data. For instance the protagonist to be able to query for any one of that data and to store that information in such a way, that the next answer to reveal even more data. Or the knowledge itself to enable the protagonist to make more specific questions. The answer I would like, is not how to implement such a system, of course, but only a reference of the type  “have a look at this extension of Inform7” or “there is no such thing implemented” or “there is no such thing, but you could draw inspiration from this”. Nothing more than that! I have thought of a potential implementation, treating data as things that are visible or not, and the knowledge to be treated as “possession” of those things, but I am not certain it is the right approach.

First of all, re. the Inform 6/7 question: Inform 7 is a full programming language, and you do not need to drop to Inform 6 to code behavior. In the early years there were things that were hard to express in Inform 7, especially mathematical things or elements that accessed files or manipulated on-screen behavior, but most of those elements do now have an Inform 7 wrapper available. Occasionally people still choose to insert Inform 6 chunks inside an Inform 7 program for various reasons, but it isn’t required.

Likewise, when you say “to implement AI,” this is such a big and fuzzy question that it’s hard to answer without more of a breakdown.

Inform 7 is good — and indeed much better than Inform 6 — for handling rule-based decision-making and firing off character interactions within the model world; the main issue here is performance if you’re driving a large number of characters or asking them to plan over complex world state. The rule-based aspects of Inform 7 in fact have influenced other approaches to game AI in larger game applications, as Elan Ruskin discusses in one of his GDC talks.

For other AI approaches, you’d have to do quite a bit more work; for instance, it isn’t really designed to make use of any natural language processing methods outside of its own rich and complex parsing mechanism, and if you wanted to do something that for instance tried to guess what the player meant by words that weren’t in the game’s dictionary but might be similar to ones that were, you’d more likely use some kind of special pre-processing layer or a call out to an external script, because it doesn’t provide ways to e.g. access WordNet or a word2vec model. Likewise, it’s not designed to plug together with SpaCy or Google NLU or any of the external tools that have come into being over the past decade+ to help interpret the semantic structure of a piece of input. It might be interesting to explore how that would work, but that doesn’t exist currently.

Inform plus machine learning is a slightly more interesting point of conversation, because the TextWorld project exists, and there are researchers who are exploring how to use an Inform-based world model as a sandbox environment for training ML agents to solve a text-based game.

That’s different again from the idea of an ML agent designed not to solve an IF game but to be a companion or competitor within an IF game, for the sake of enhancing the player’s experience. There are relatively few IF games in which it would even really be meaningful to talk about a competitor character within a game, because most IF doesn’t have mechanics designed for competitive play (though Kerkerkruip might work). My old game When in Rome 2 also featured an NPC with dynamically selected characteristics who might work counter to the intentions of the player, and it was possible in some cases to be bested or even killed by this creature, if you went up against a clever one and it got resources ready faster than you could.

Now, on to the main question.

Most of the approaches I know of in Inform handle knowledge progression as a (nonphysical) kind of unlocking. They are tracking what the player knows so far in order to determine what next information could be made available, but this doesn’t provide an abstraction level beyond the individual dialogue lines themselves.

Eric Eve’s Epistemology is designed to track what the player knows, which can unlock topics of conversation; this can be used with the rest of Eric’s conversation extensions as well, if appropriate. This handles the case that the player has learned about a new topic in conversation; it also allows for the possibility that the player sees things in the surrounding world and is reacting to those.

The Threaded Conversation extension I wrote (but that is now maintained by others) has a general-purpose concept of prerequisites on conversation, and this can be used to track factual knowledge known as well as specific previous dialogue utterances.

This approach is not the same as having a complex database of knowledge or of the relationships between knowledge, so that the system might automatically have characters progress from discussing say candy to discussing related topics (cake, halloween). My game Glass explores that concept a bit by implementing a network of related conversation topics and ways to pathfind and transition between these.

The older (and not particularly well-received, I have to admit) game Best of Three has a character who is implemented to have a tree of inferences he can make, and he’ll ask questions in order to try to unlock facts lower in the tree so that he can prove the inferences higher up in the system. The aim here was to create a character who seemed to intentionally pursue topics that the player might not want to reveal.

Another way of organizing information for conversational knowledge-seeking is with the concept of frames — the idea being that in order to achieve various conversational goals, the contents of the frame need to be filled out. This is useful for transactional interactions like travel booking, where you need the booking agent to keep dynamically asking questions about the flight you want booked until they’ve established dates and times of both outbound and return trips, the departure and arrival cities, class of travel, etc. I don’t know of any Inform extensions that explicitly attempt to handle the frames concept, though it’s possible someone’s built something somewhere. (For more about AI knowledge representation in general, Knowledge Representation and Reasoning is a few years old and fairly chewy but outlines a number of different approaches.)

Finally, part of what we’re doing on Spirit AI’s Character Engine (which, admittedly, is well outside the Inform ecosystem) is to focus much more on dialogue and knowledge, with more primary support for databases of knowledge, characters who know which pieces of knowledge have been mentioned in recent interactions, and the ability for characters to pursue particular interaction goals, or interpret “tell me more about X” sorts of inquiries. So that’s an alternative space where I’m working with some of this.

Zarf Updates

Notes on recent games: nifty little experiments

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at June 11, 2019 03:26 AM

Fugue in Void

Expectations count. When you fire this up, it opens with a langorously slow zoom into an abstract monochrome worldscape. I stared at it. I wiggled the joystick. I went and got a glass of water. It was still zooming. It was pretty, but, like, was the game broken? I killed the process.
Then I looked back at the Steam page, which says: "The game starts with a 10 minute intro." Geez, if I'd known that... To be clear, this is my fault for projecting my expectations onto the work. I should have been willing to say "What is happening is the thing that is happening" and then settle back to watch.
Anyhow. This work will make more sense if you view it as coming from the demoscene rather than the indie game world. (I have no idea if the creator knows this.) The noninteractive opening would be at home in any demoparty. The body of the work has the mode of a walking sim (with slivers of game trope) (pressure plates open doors), but it remains a piece about visual experience rather than world interaction. Specifically, a world of overwhelming concrete architecture, abstract sculpture, and blown-out visual contrast. The style has turned up before (e.g. NaissanceE) but I enjoyed being able to take it in without annoying platforming goals.

Mountain

Not a recent game, of course. I picked up the iOS version this month for no particular reason.
The followup Everything rather eclipsed Mountain, because Everything is larger (by definition!) and also has structure to make a gaming audience feel at home. But Mountain offers as much charm for its size. I have never before said "Why, yes, I do sometimes feel like a mountain floating in the void, trying to serenely meditate on the universe, and then a washing machine or a stapler or something flies out of the void and sticks to me, you know what I mean?" But now that you ask, the answer is yes, I do. It's a remarkably cogent question considering that the game asks it nonverbally. And it's reassuring to consider that the stapler will quietly decay. Someday it will be gone, even as more objective noise flies out of the void towards me.
I left the game running for a while, and when I came back, the mountain was gone. Now I've started over, and I have to keep the tablet nearby and take a look now and then. Well played. Hey, look, there's cake.

Alt-Frequencies

A game about radio stations with a genuinely awesome interface gimmick. You listen to broadcaster audio tracks in real time, flipping channels at will. Your only mode of interaction is to record a clip from one station and then play it as a "listener call-in" to another station. This gives you a broad range of action without the awful pit-traps of free text or speech input. Nice clear authoring model, too. And fully voiced for both game outputs and player "inputs"!
To keep the script under control, it's a time-loop game; you get three minutes on every channel and then the world resets. The writers decided to make the story about the time loop -- a natural (perhaps inevitable) interplay of form and content.
The problem is, there's no room to set up an actual conflict here. It's a vague "public debate about the time loop". Newscasters say politicians are for and against it, talk-radio hosts discuss dissent, pop DJs mention the upcoming vote. Conspiracy jocks insinuate that the loop has already started (which of course it has). But there's no actual debate. It's an unsubtle Brexit riff, but Brexit shorn of racism, nationalism, health care, banking, and the Irish border -- i.e., nothing about Brexit at all, nor any other current issue.
So it's fluff, yes, but by the same token it's broadly-drawn and a lot of fun to listen to. The voice talent are all having a great time. It's an easy play-through; very short overall, and the script gives you plenty of nudges about what you should be doing. Very much worth a run just to see how the gimmick plays.
(Big bonus points for supporting accessibility for visually impaired players.)

June 10, 2019

Renga in Blue

Kadath: So Black as to Be the Colour of Space Itself

by Jason Dyer at June 10, 2019 11:41 PM

This game ended up around 2 hours long; if you’re interested in trying it, the Commodore 64 version is fine (link to play online). As far as *if* you should play it — if the idea of playing the first gamebook-form computer game appeals to you, or playing the first Lovecraft game in any form, then yes, try it out.

Cover via ISFDB; after this point are complete spoilers.

I. On the pentagonal map trick

Last time, I mentioned each main room of the game has five exits, and when you enter a room you specify where you go by a number (1, 2, 3, or 4) where the numbers represent the exits clockwise.

It worked for this game, but it wouldn’t work generally.

The map above is partial, but more or less represents my own game mid-play. I had mapped out the “Domed Narrow Band” room, “Two Bands” room, and “Domed” room. I just added the “Damaged” room and tried another exit, which brought me back to the “Domed” room.

But: where in the Domed room did I just arrive? There’s already a known connection (to the “Domed Narrow Band”) but I had no idea where the new passage is relative to the known one; that meant I couldn’t merge my new passage with what was there. In other words, the “known passage” could have been any number from 1 to 4. Figuring this out involved a lot of error and redraws of my map.

The author clearly knew his map was confusing and amplified the effect. You might go through a passage to a room and find there is a door to the left and a door to the right going back (that weren’t mentioned before) to find only one of them goes back to the original room … or even find *both* of them go back to the original room, but one of them is to a different exit (so the numbers 1 to 4 now correspond to entirely different places).

In fact, I’m fairly sure my current map is far off from the real one, so I’m not going to reproduce the whole thing here. It turns out the winning sequence is short so I just needed a sequence that worked, rather than thoroughly understanding how everything connected.

II. So far

The game gives “progress reports” at regular intervals, and one more report when you die.

This was, in essence, akin to a “Story So Far” type update where a game gives you a running narrative of what’s happened so far if you restore a saved game file. (I most recently saw this in Heaven’s Vault, but it’s very rare in general.)

The reminder of days remaining serves to keep the tension up, and the mention of what items are found serves as fairly strong hints.

III. Instant death

There are no shortage of places to die. Some of them require you to actively take the final plunge.

Where could so many bones have possibly come from? Maybe I should get closer and check it out?

Some of them are a little more arbitrary.

I went the wrong direction.

IV. How inventory is handled

You’ll occasionally find an item; the game will either prompt if you want to take it with you, or in some cases if there’s more than one item, which one you want to take.

The “which item to take” complication keeps the puzzles from being too simplistic … but only barely. My first time through I had taken the sphere. Later I found an “AMORPHOUS BLOB” where my only option was to run away, and the game frets over my lack of a weapon. So … return to swap the sphere for the dagger, come back, and then I could use the dagger on the blob.

V. On winning

The start of the game states you need to

find and return the Eye of Kadath

invoke the Elder powers

destroy the Gate

The “story so far” bits helpfully fill in when you’re ready, so it’s just a matter of going to the right location and … typing?

This felt weirdly like a trivia quiz, but I suppose the effect was better than having everything done automatically. Having to type the chant was a nice touch, except my first time through I messed it up because my emulator’s apostrophe button was a different-than-usual key, causing the universe to be destroyed. (Little did we realize humanity’s fall would be due to keyboard mapping.)

This game was just the right length to get across the Lovecraftian sense of dread and confusion without overstaying its visit.

VI. On the gamebook connection

My main question by the end was (and still is) “where did Gary Musgrave get the idea for this?”

While there are many gamebooks that came before, Kadath doesn’t resemble any of them that closely (and I hope the numerous re-inventions I mentioned in my short history attest to the fact it’d be possible to be writing in 1979 while still unaware of all of them). Primarily, the choice books before that point had each numbered section as a plot-point but not as a physical location in space, and the idea of returning to prior locations in loops would be doubly weird. If anything, he may have been familiar with the Tunnels and Trolls games, but even those emphasized forward progress and were more into RPG elements than puzzles.

In other words, this may have represented yet another re-invention of the gamebook form. Cave of Time (the first Choose-your-own-Adventure) wasn’t out until July of 1979, the same month this game was released. Could this have been made immediately after the author saw Cave of Time (assuming, of course, he saw it in the first place)? While possible, it seems too heavily morphed from the CYOA concept to be a rush job.

We have seen some menu-based adventure games: Treasure Hunt (1978), Quest (1978) and Mines (1979) all qualify. Even if Mr. Musgrave hadn’t played them, it wouldn’t be too complex a leap from menu-based adventure as a concept to a game with more active plot choices, attempted atmosphere writing, and choices involving an inventory.

There’s also some element of text simulation-narrative games, yet another genre I haven’t written much about. Compare the march of time to that of, say, Camel (link to play online).

You have travelled 0 miles altogether.
What is your command? 2
Your camel likes this pace.
You have travelled 9 miles altogether.
What is your command? 3
Your camel is burning across the desert sands.
———-W A R N I N G———- Get a drink
You have travelled 23 miles altogether.

Alternately, note how in early versions of Oregon Trail you have to type BANG correctly while hunting. Compare this to the ending of Kadath where you have to type the chant. (I never verified if the typing was timed, but the game did indicate you needed to hurry.)

Whatever the original source of creativity, I appreciated this game was rescued from the depths by being ported off the Altair. If you’re wondering when the first “straight CYOA game” for computer happened (that is, one designed specifically for computer that only goes from node to node, with no inventory or the like), we’ll need to return to 1980 and a famous disaster that killed over 50 people.

Z-Machine Matter

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward Podcast

by Zack Urlocker at June 10, 2019 09:42 AM

BBC Charles Dexter Ward

Somehow a random internet search landed me upon the BBC Case of Charles Dexter Ward podcast. This is possibly one of the best adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft's stories I've encountered. It's like a cross between NPR's serial, the X-Files and good ol' HPL himself. BBC Radio 4 produced this 10 episode adaptation and it is completely worth binging on. I listened to the first 5 episodes on a long drive and I found it riveting. 

It's a modern adaptation that uses the podcast format to good effect. It starts as a simple "locked room" mystery being investigated by two podcast journalists. They run a show called (wait for it...) Mystery Machine, replete with requests for funding. This show is so good, it actually had me reaching for my wallet. From there, it expands to a broader tale of madness, occultism, conspiracy, underground tunnels, murder and evil librarians.

I won't go into the details except to say it is completely updated to the 21st century which gives it a verisimilitude that makes it much creepier than most HPL adaptations. The production is top notch and you feel like you are listening to a smalltime investigative podcast recorded via iPhone; you're hearing their discoveries as they are happening with phone calls, audio clips, interviews etc. It's a format that invites you into the scene so that you really feel a part of it. Hopefully there will be a second season which continues the story.  

I love the 1930's charm of the HPLHS Dark Adventure Radio Theater adaptations, but this is a uniquely modern twist on classic Lovecraft. (And of course, both are very worthwhile.)

June 09, 2019

Zarf Updates

A more complete collection of Infocom sources and game files

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at June 09, 2019 08:49 PM

A followup to my discussion of the Infocom source release a couple of months ago...
I've just spent a couple of weeks gathering up every version of the source code and the game files that I could find. Jason's GitHub collections are excellent, but they are an edited extract from one source: the so-called "Infocom Drive". They omit some published variations, beta-tests, and so on.
For years, the IF Archive has had another collection of Infocom game files (though not source code): the patches collection. But these were in an annoying encoded format, in order to dodge the legal problems with archiving commercial games.
I figure that those legal problems are well out the barn door now. It's time to have every Infocom game file variation in one place, indexed and easy to download. So here they are:
I've tagged everything with the release number and serial number, where known. Plus tags for whatever other info we've got: "alpha", "beta", "mac", etc.
Research and enjoy!

June 07, 2019

The Digital Antiquarian

Day of the Tentacle

by Jimmy Maher at June 07, 2019 04:41 PM

Although they didn’t know one another at the time, Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer both found themselves at a similar place in life in the summer of 1989: just out of university and uncertain what to do next. Both saw the same unusual advertisement in the newspaper: an advertisement for programmers who could also write. Both applied, both were shocked when they were called out to George Lucas’s beautiful Skywalker Ranch for an interview, and both were fortunate enough to be hired to work for a division of Lucas’s empire that was still known at the time as Lucasfilm Games rather than LucasArts. It was quite a stroke of luck for two innately funny and creative souls who had never before seriously considered applying their talents to game development. “If I hadn’t seen that job listing,” says Schafer, “I would have ended up a database engineer, I think.” Similar in age and background as they were, Grossman and Schafer would remain all but inseparable for the next four years.

They spent the first weeks of that time working intermittently as play testers while they also attended what their new colleagues had dubbed “SCUMM University,” a combination technical boot camp and creative proving ground for potential adventure-game designers. Schafer:

A group of us were thrown into SCUMM University, because all of the LucasArts games used SCUMM [Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion]. The four of us were messing around with it, writing our own dialogue. They gave us some old art to work with, so we were just writing goofy stuff and joking around, trying to make each other laugh. I think LucasArts was watching us the whole time, and they picked me and [Grossman] out and said that they liked the writing.

Grossman and Schafer were assigned to work as understudies to Ron Gilbert on the first two Monkey Island games. Here they got to hone their writing and puzzle-making chops, even as they absorbed the LucasArts philosophy of saner, fairer adventure-game design from the man most responsible for codifying and promoting it. In early 1992, shortly after the completion of Monkey Island 2, Gilbert announced that he was quitting LucasArts to start a company of his own specializing in children’s software. He left behind as a parting gift an outline of what would have been his next project had he stayed: the long-awaited, much-asked-for sequel to his very first adventure game, 1987’s Maniac Mansion. The understudies now got to step into the role of the stars; Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle became Grossman and Schafer’s baby.

Times were changing quickly inside LucasArts, keeping pace with changes in the industry around them. After first conceiving of Day of the Tentacle as a floppy-disk-based game without voice acting, LucasArts’s management decided midway through its development that it should be a real technological showpiece in all respects — the first adventure game to be released simultaneously on floppy disk and CD-ROM. Along with X-Wing, the first actual Star Wars game LucasArts had ever been allowed to make, it would be one of their two really big, high-profile releases for 1993.

It was a lot of responsibility to heap on two young pairs of shoulders, but the end result  demonstrates that Grossman and Schafer had learned their craft well as understudies. Day of the Tentacle is a spectacularly good adventure game; if not the undisputed cream of the LucasArts crop, it’s certainly in the conversation for the crown of their best single game ever. It achieves what it sets out to do so thoroughly that it can be very difficult for a diligent critic like yours truly to identify any weaknesses at all that don’t sound like the pettiest of nitpicking. The graphics are as good as any ever created under the limitations of VGA; the voice acting is simply superb; the puzzle design is airtight; the writing is sharp and genuinely, consistently laugh-out-loud funny; and the whole thing is polished to a meticulous sheen seldom seen in the games of today, much less those of 1993. It’s a piece of work which makes it hard for a critic to avoid gushing like a moon-eyed fanboy, as Evan Dickens of Adventure Gamers did when that site declared it to be the best game of its genre ever made:

The 1993 CD “talkie” version of Day of the Tentacle is a perfectly flawless adventure, the rarest of rare games, that which did nothing wrong. Nothing. There is no weakness in this game, no sieve. Stop waiting for the “but” because it won’t come. This is the perfect adventure game, the one adventure that brought every aspect of great adventures together and created such an enjoyable masterpiece, it almost seems to transcend the level of computer games.

Of course, there’s no accounting for taste. If you loathe cartoons, perhaps you might not like this game. If you prefer more serious plots or more rigorously cerebral puzzles, perhaps you won’t love it. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine very many people not being charmed by its gloriously cracked introductory movie and wanting to play further.

One of the few negative things I can say about Day of the Tentacle is that it’s more fun than it is truly innovative; it doesn’t break any new formal or thematic ground, being content to work entirely within a template which LucasArts and others had long since established by the point of its release. It remains at the end of the day a slapstick cartoon comedy, always the lowest-hanging fruit for an adventure-game design. Within that template, though, it executes everything so well that it’s almost annoying. This is the cartoon-comedy graphic adventure perfected, serving as the ultimate proof that much of what is sometimes forgiven or dismissed as “just the way adventure games are” is really the product of poor adventure-game design. Most of the problems that so many players consider to be intractable ones for the genre simply don’t exist here. The puzzles are goofy but always soluble, the dreaded sudden deaths and dead ends are nonexistent, and pixel hunts aren’t a problem amidst the game’s bright, clearly delineated scenes.



Day of the Tentacle‘s predecessor Maniac Mansion stood out from other adventure games in 1987, as it still does today, for allowing the player to select her own “party” of three characters, each with his or her own special skills, from a total of seven possibilities. The result was an unusual amount of replayability for the adventure-game genre; every possible combination of characters was capable of solving the game, but each would have to do so in a different way. Although this made Maniac Mansion a much more interesting game than it might otherwise have been, it was all nightmarishly complex for the game’s designer Ron Gilbert to map out. He would later state that only sheer naivete could ever have prompted him to expose himself to such pain — and, indeed, his first statement after finishing the game was, “I’m never doing anything like that again!” He held to that resolution throughout the rest of his time at LucasArts; his 1990 game The Secret of Monkey Island was at least as good as Maniac Mansion, but it owed its goodness to its writing, humor, art direction, and puzzle design, not to a similar formal ambition.

Against Gilbert’s advice, Grossman and Schafer first envisioned Day of the Tentacle operating along the same lines as Maniac Mansion, with another group of a half-dozen or so kids from which to choose a team. But the escalating cost of art and sound in the multimedia age played as big a role in nixing those plans as did the additional design complications; the two soon settled for giving the player control of a fixed group of three characters — which, they didn’t hesitate to point out, was still two more than most adventure games.

As this anecdote illustrates, Day of the Tentacle was never overly concerned with aping the details of its predecessor. Certainly if you play it without having played Maniac Mansion before, you’ll hardly be lost. Grossman:

We really couldn’t imitate the style of the original in the way you normally would with a sequel. Too much time had passed and the state of the art was radically different. We stopped thinking of it as a sequel almost immediately and just did our own thing, slathering our own personalities on top of that of Maniac Mansion.

Grossman and Schafer did reuse those elements of the earlier game that amused them most: the mad scientist Doctor Fred and his equally insane wife and son; the rambling old mansion where they all live; a memorable gag involving a hamster and a microwave; a pair of wise-cracking sentient tentacles, one of whom became the centerpiece of their plot and provided their sequel with its name. But of the kids the player got to control in Maniac Mansion, only Bernard, the über-nerd of the bunch, shows up again here. (Not coincidentally, Bernard had always been the favorite of the original game’s players, perhaps because of his range of unusual technical skills, perhaps because — if we’re being totally honest here — he was the teenage archetype who most resembled the typical young player.) Notably, Dave, the oddly bland default protagonist of the earlier game — he’s the only one you have to take with you, even though he’s the dullest of the lot — doesn’t show up at all here. In the place of Dave and the other kids, Grossman and Schafer augmented Bernard with two new creations of their own: a bro-dude “MegaBreth” roadie named Hoagie and a terminally nervous medical student named Laverne.

The story here does follow up on that of Maniac Mansion, but, once again, it doesn’t really matter whether you realize it or not. Five years after his previous adventure, Bernard receives a plea for help from Green Tentacle, informing him that Purple Tentacle has drunk some toxic sludge, which has instilled in him superhuman (supertentacle?) intelligence and a burning desire to enslave the world. Now, Doctor Fred has decided to deal with the problem by killing both tentacles; this is an obviously problematic plan from Green Tentacle’s perspective. Bernard convinces his two reluctant pals Hoagie and Laverne to head out to Doctor Fred’s mansion and stage an intervention. In attempting to do so, they unwittingly help Purple Tentacle to escape, and he sets out to take over the world. And so, just like that, we’re off to save the world.

It doesn’t take Day of the Tentacle long to introduce its secret puzzling weapon: time travel. Doctor Fred, you see, just happens to have some time machines handy; known as “Chron-O-Johns,” they’re made from outdoor port-a-potties. With his plan for summary tentacle execution having failed, he hatches an alternative plan: to send the kids one day back in time, where they’ll prevent Purple Tentacle from ever drinking the toxic waste in the first place. But the time machines turn out to work about as well as most of Doctor Fred’s inventions. One sends Hoagie back 200 years instead of one day into the past, where he finds Ben Franklin and other Founding Fathers in the midst of writing the American Constitution in what will someday become Doctor Fred’s mansion; another sends Laverne 200 years into the future, when Purple Tentacle has in fact taken over the world and the mansion is serving as the dictatorial palace for him, his tentacle minions, and their human slaves; and the last time machine leaves Bernard right where (when?) he started.

You can switch between the kids at any time, and many of the more elaborate puzzles require you to make changes in one time to pave the way for solving them in another. In some instances, the kids can “flush” objects through time to one another using the Chron-O-John. On other occasions, a kid must find a way to hide objects inside the mansion, to be collected by another kid two or four centuries further down the time stream. “It was really fun to think about the effects of large amounts of time on things like wine bottles and sweaters in dryers,” remembers Grossman, “and to imagine how altering fundamentals of history like the Constitution and the flag could be used to accomplish petty, selfish goals like the acquisition of a vacuum and a tentacle costume.” Of course, just like in Maniac Mansion, it doesn’t pay to question how the kids are communicating their intentions to one another over such gulfs. Just go with it! This is, after all, a cartoon adventure.

Hoagie’s part of the plot coincidentally shares a setting and to some extent a tone with another clever and funny time-traveling adventure game that was released in 1993: Sierra’s Pepper’s Adventures in Time. Both games even feature a cartoon Ben Franklin in important roles. Yet it must be said that LucasArts’s effort is even sharper and funnier, its wit and gameplay polished to a fine sheen, with none of the wooliness that tends to cling even to Sierra’s best games. The inability to die or get yourself irrevocably stuck means that you’re free to just enjoy the ride — free, for instance, to choose the funniest line of dialog in any conversation without hesitation, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be able to do it over again if it all goes horribly wrong. “The player is never, ever punished for doing something funny,” wrote Charles Ardai, the best writer ever to work for Computer Gaming World magazine, in his typically perceptive review of the game. “Doing funny things is the whole point of Day of the Tentacle.”

Although Grossman and Schafer were and are bright, funny guys, their game’s sparkle didn’t come from its designers’ innate brilliance alone. By 1993, LucasArts had claimed Infocom’s old place as makers of the most consistently excellent adventure games you could buy. And as with the Infocom of old, their games’ quality was largely down to a commitment to process, including a willingness to work through the hard, unfun aspects of game development which so many of their peers tended to neglect. Throughout the development of Day of the Tentacle, Grossman and Schafer hosted periodic “pizza orgies,” first for LucasArts’s in-house employees, later for people they quite literally nabbed off the street. They watched these people play their game — always a humbling and useful experience for any designer — and solicited as much feedback thereafter as their guinea pigs could be convinced to give. Which parts of the game were most fun? Which parts were less fun? Which puzzles felt too trivial? Which puzzles felt too hard? They asked their focus groups what they had tried to do that hadn’t worked, and made sure to code in responses to these actions. As Bob Bates, another superb adventure-game designer, put it to me recently, most of what the player tries to do in an adventure game is wrong in terms of advancing her toward victory. A game’s handling of these situations — the elses in the “if, then, else” model of game logic — can make or break it. It can spell the difference between a lively, “juicy” game that feels engaging and interesting and a stubbornly inscrutable blank wall — the sort of game that tells you things don’t work but never tells you why. And of course these else scenarios are a great place to embed subtle hints as to the correct course of action.

Indeed, Grossman and Schafer continually asked themselves the same question in the context of every single puzzle in the game: “How is the player supposed to figure this out?” Grossman:

That [question] has stuck with me as a hallmark of good versus bad adventure-game design. Lots of people design games that make the designer seem clever — or they’re doing it to make themselves feel clever. They’ve forgotten that they’re in the entertainment business. The player should be involved in this thing too. We always went to great lengths to make sure all the information was in there. At these “pizza orgies,” one of the things we were always looking for was, are people getting stuck? And why?

The use of three different characters in three completely different environments also helps the game to avoid that sensation every adventurer dreads: that of being absolutely stuck, unable to jog anything loose because of one stubborn roadblock of a puzzle. If a puzzle stumps you in Day of the Tentacle, there’s almost always another one to go work on instead while the old one is relegated to the brain’s background processing, as it were.

And yet, as in everything, there is a balance to strike here as well: gating in adventure design is an art in itself. Grossman:

We were very focused on making things non-linear, but what we weren’t thinking about was that it’s possible to take that too far. Then you get a paralysis of choice. There’s kind of a sweet spot in the middle between the player being lost because they have too much to do and the player feeling railroaded because you’re telling them what to do. People don’t like either of those extremes very much, but somewhere in the middle, it’s like, “I’ve got enough stuff to think about, and I’m accomplishing some things, and I’ve got some new challenges.” That’s the right spot.

Day of the Tentacle nails this particular sweet spot, as it does so many others. It could never have done so absent extensive testing and — just as importantly — an open-mindedness on the part of its designers about what the testers were saying. It’s due to a lack of these two things that the adventure games of LucasArts’s rivals tended to go off the rails more often than not.

In addition to the superb puzzle design, Day of the Tentacle looks and sounds great — even today, even in its non-remastered version. The graphics are not only technically excellent but also evince an aesthetic sophistication rare in games of this era. The art department was greatly inspired by the classic Warner Bros. cartoons of Chuck Jones — Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile. E. Coyote and the Road Runner, etc. One day near the beginning of the project, the entire team made a field trip to sit at the feet of the 80-year-old Jones for a day and absorb some of his wisdom. Warner Bros. cartoons were always more visually skewed, more manic, and more deviously subversive than the straighter, more wholesome reels of Disney, and both the visuals and writing in Day of the Tentacle consciously mimic their style. Just as in the cartoons, there isn’t a straight line or right angle to be seen anywhere in the game. Everything, right down to the font in which text is printed, is bent, leaning, crooked, a fun-house world viewed through a fish-eye lens.

The art team, the unsung heroes of Day of the Tentacle. Standing from left to right are Lela Dowling, Sean Turner, Larry Ahern, and Peter Chan. Kneeling in front are Jesse Clark and Purple Tentacle. One additional artist, Kyle Balda, wasn’t present for this photograph.

Peter Chan, one of the artists on the team, notes that Grossman and Schafer “really trusted us and just let us go to town with what we believed would look best. If anybody on the art team had a good idea or suggestion, it was considered.” Here’s Schafer, speaking in an interview at the time of the game’s release, and obviously somewhat in awe himself at what LucasArts’s animators have come up with:

The kids have all kinds of grimaces and gestures and facial twists and contortions while they’re talking. They smile and their mouths open bigger than their heads and their tongues can hang out. They don’t just stand there. They blink, tap their feet, sigh, and even scratch their butts.

As soon as a character appears, you laugh, and that’s really important. You stare at the main characters for about thirty hours when you play the game, so they’d better be entertaining. With Bernard, as soon as you see him walking around for the first time, before he even says or does anything, you laugh. He walks goofy, he talks goofy, he’s even entertaining when he stands still. Walking Hoagie around is like piloting a blimp through a china shop, and Laverne is fun just to walk around because she seems to have a mind of her own — like she might do something dangerous at any moment.

The sound effects are drawn from the same well of classic animation. LucasArts actually bought many of them from a “major cartoon house,” resulting in all of the good old “boings” and “ka-pows” you might expect.

Tamlynn Barra in the production booth at Studio 222.

And the voice acting too is strikingly good. LucasArts was better equipped than almost any of the other game studios to adapt to the brave new world of CD-ROM audio, thanks to the connections which went along with being a subsidiary of a major film-production company. The actors’ dialog, totaling more than 4500 lines in all, was recorded at Hollywood’s Studio 222 under the supervision of a LucasArts associate producer named Tamlynn Barra. Although still in her twenties at the time, she had previously worked with many stage and video productions. She was thus experienced enough to recognize and find ways to counteract the most fundamental challenge of recording voice work for a computer game: the fact that the actors are expected to voice their lines alone in a production box, with no other actors to play off of and, too often, little notion of the real nature of the scene being voiced. “Getting the actors into character is very difficult,” she acknowledged. “Half the studio [time] is spent cueing up the actor for the scene.” And yet the fact that she knew she had to do this cueing was in a way half the battle. In contrast to many other computer-game productions — even those featuring a stellar cast of experienced actors, such as Interplay’s two contemporaneous Star Trek adventuresDay of the Tentacle has an auditory liveliness to it. It rarely feels as if the actor is merely reading lines off a page in a sound-proof booth, even if that’s exactly what she’s doing in reality.

Jane Jacobs, who voiced the Irish maid found inside the present-day mansion, performs before the microphone.

Unsurprisingly given LucasArts’s connections, the voice actors, while not household names, were seasoned professionals who arrived with their union cards in hand. The most recognizable among them was Richard Sanders, best known for playing the lovable but inept newscaster Les Nessman on the classic television sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. During their initial discussions with Barra, Grossman and Schafer had actually suggested Les as the specific role model for Bernard, whereupon Barra made inquiries and found that Sanders was in fact available. He really was a perfect fit for Bernard; the character was “a bit of a stretch” for him, he said with a wink, because he was used to playing “more manly sorts of roles.”

Barra found the other voice talent using a process typical of television and radio productions but not so much of computer games: she sent sketches and descriptions of the characters out to Hollywood agents, who called their clients in to record audition tapes of their impressions. Then she and the rest of the development team chose their favorites. Many another game studio, by contrast, was recruiting its voice talent from its secretarial pool.

All of it led to an end result that feels today like it’s come unstuck from the time which spawned it. Certainly my own feeling upon firing up Day of the Tentacle for the first time in preparation for this article was that I had crossed some threshold into modernity after living in the ancient past for all of the years I’d previously been writing this blog. This impression is undoubtedly aided by the way that LucasArts steered clear of the approaches that generally date a game indelibly to the mid-1990s. Just to name the most obvious dubious trend they managed to resist: there are no digitized images of real actors shoehorned into this game via once cutting-edge, now aesthetically disastrous full-motion-video sequences.

Yet the impression of modernity encompasses more than the game’s audiovisual qualities; it really does encompass the sum total of the experience of playing it. The interface too just works the way a modern player would expect it to; no need to pick up a manual here to figure out how to play, even if you’ve never played an adventure game before. (The sole exception to this rule is the save system, which still requires you to know to press the F5 key in order to access it. On the other hand, keeping it hidden away does allow the game to avoid cluttering up its carefully honed aesthetic impression with a big old disk icon or the like.) Polish is a difficult quality to quantify, but I nevertheless feel fairly confident in calling Day of the Tentacle the most polished computer game made up to its release date of mid-1993. It looks and feels like a professional media production in every way.

The most telling sign in Day of the Tentacle of how far computer gaming had come in a very short time is found on an in-game computer in the present-day mansion. There you’ll find a complete and fully functional version of the original Maniac Mansion in all its blocky, pixelated, bobble-headed glory. This game within a game was inspired by an off-hand comment which Grossman and Schafer had heard Ron Gilbert make during the Monkey Island 2 project: that the entirety of Maniac Mansion had been smaller than some of the individual animation sequences in this, LucasArts’s latest game. Placed in such direct proximity to its progeny, Maniac Mansion did indeed look “downright primitive,” wrote Charles Ardai in his review of Day of the Tentacle. “Only nostalgia or curiosity will permit today’s gamers to suffer through what was once state-of-the-art but is by today’s standards crude.” And yet it had only been six years…

Ardai concluded his review by writing that “it may not hold up for fifty years, like the cartoons that inspired it, but I expect that this game will keep entertaining people for quite some time to come.” And it’s here that I must beg to differ with his otherwise perceptive review. From the perspective of today, halfway already to the game’s 50th anniversary, Day of the Tentacle still holds up perfectly well as one of the finest examples ever of the subtle art of the adventure game. I see no reason why that should change in the next quarter-century and beyond.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of July 1993 and September 1993; LucasArts’s newsletter The Adventurer of Fall 1992 and Spring 1993; Play of April 2005; Retro Gamer 22 and 81; Video Games and Computer Entertainment of July 1993. Online sources include Dev Game Club podcast 19; Celia Pearce’s conversation with Tim Schafer for Game Studies; 1Up‘s interview with Tim Schafer; The Dig Museum‘s interview with Dave Grossman; Adventure Gamers‘s interview with Dave Grossman.

A remastered version of Day of the Tentacle is available for purchase on GOG.com.)

June 06, 2019

Emily Short

Return of the Obra Dinn (Lucas Pope)

by Emily Short at June 06, 2019 10:41 AM

Return of the Obra Dinn is probably already familiar to you if you follow indie narrative games at all: winner of both the Grand Prize and Excellence in Narrative at the most recent IGF, the creation of Papers, Please designer Lucas Pope. I’m only getting to it now because I’m seriously behind.

The game puts you in the role an an insurance inspector, trying to work out what happened to everyone who used to be aboard a ghost ship. Thanks to a supernatural pocket watch, you’re able to revisit the time-frozen moment of death for every body you find, allowing you to explore one disturbing tableau after another to figure out who died, in what sequence, and why.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a very good game, one that achieves spectacle, surprise, and even some comedy within its confines. It’s worth playing with as little spoiler information as possible, so I’ve put less than usual above the fold. More design thoughts follow below, but they assume you’ve either played the game or read enough of a synopsis to be able to follow references.

Return of the Obra Dinn is one of those games that commands respect even when it’s making choices I wouldn’t have made. There are a bunch of nitpicks and style disagreements I could list: finding the final identities becomes laborious and fiddly; the system sometimes demands precision about modes of death when it was hard for me to guess what was intended from the scene; I wanted the pacing to pick up at a couple of points.

Finally, in terms of plot revelation, the mid-game offers you a sequence of de-escalating monsters — showing you the vast Kraken first and the mermaids last. The crab-riders sequence is the slackest portion here, narratively. The Kraken has the merit of terror and surprise, and I was appropriately gobsmacked when I first came up on deck and saw the tentacles sticking out of the water. And the mermaid sequence, meanwhile, is much more interpersonally intense, with a complicated set of allegiances and motives to understand, and the implication of some underlying fantasy lore.

But the crab-riders section is the place where I most pulled away from the game world, feeling restive about how long the story was taking, and losing confidence in its internal logic. When viewed in forward chronological order, the story does benefit from the escalation — the mermaids come in, then something else moderately bad happens, then the Kraken arrives — but the crab bloodbath isn’t doing as much work as the other sections, narratively speaking.

Contrast, here, the Murder section. There is much less nasty spectacle than when the crab-beasts are roaming the ship, but there’s still a lot to see. The execution by firing squad is perhaps my favorite moment in the game. We’ve spent so long at this point poring over the picture of the execution that it is breathtaking to have the scene come to life; to find the artist and see him from the outside for the first time; to discover that reality is both more and less legible than the artwork that showed it. And then the rest of the section is meaty, full of information about who has done what, and what kinds of people they are.

None of those reflections significantly diminished how much I respect this game, though. Return of the Obra Dinn commits to a few systemic design choices and then adheres to them with true discipline.

One: core mechanic. You will wander around the ship; you will find physical remains, you will use your pocket-watch to view the scene in which that being died, and you will then record the identity of the deceased, the method of death, and the identity of the killer.

That’s it. Anything that does not belong to this mechanic has been abstracted away so naturally that you might not really notice its removal. There are locked parts of the ship that become available over time, but this is metered by how many discoveries you’ve already made. Pope doesn’t clutter up the game with unnecessary locks and keys, for instance, as a more literal-minded designer might have done.

Two: the ship is both setting and main character. In the course of unraveling the mystery, you will develop a highly robust mental model of the Obra Dinn: its physical dimensions, its strengths and vulnerabilities, its resources, the damage it took over time; the people who lived aboard it, how they related to each other, how they spent their time, what their duties were. Some reviewers have complained (justly) that you don’t get to know individual characters very well; it’s possible to guess at the motives of a few of them, but the reasoning often appears in quite broad strokes.

The ship’s complement as a totality, however, we can understand fairly well. At the beginning, our crew is curious, varied, diverse. The early deaths are due to accident and illness, things that might happen to anyone at sea. But then factions begin to act on less noble motives — greed, superstition, cowardice, vengeance, an insatiable desire for pretty shells. The ship turns on or destroys the people who are most other, in the process losing access to their knowledge and insight. The captain makes a series of bad choices about whom to trust and what to do.

It is a collective rather than an individual tragedy, the narrative of a compromised and damaged group.

See also:

June 04, 2019

Emily Short

Storytelling in Video Games: The Art of Digital Narrative (Amy Green)

by Emily Short at June 04, 2019 02:41 PM

Starting in mid-2017, I’ve used the first Tuesday of the month for reviews of books about game writing, and occasional books about other writing in general.

As of now, I’ve gone through about two dozen — including everything from self-published Kindle ebooks about interactive fiction to acclaimed classics of screenwriting advice — and that doesn’t count the books I read, or started to read, and decided they were just too unhelpful to cover on the blog at all.

I feel like this project is drawing to a natural close.

While there are a handful of good writing books left unreviewed on my shelves or my ebook collection, I’ve talked about pretty much all the ones that had a strong bearing on interactive work; and I’m finding there are diminishing returns on reading more of the same. But it’s been useful for me, seeing what is out there, and I hope it’s been helpful for some of you as well.

So I’m shifting process a little. I’ve started instead to cover academic work that might interest IF authors and narrative designers — trying to make it a little more accessible and curate some of the stuff that might not be easily found. (My article on Max Kreminski’s work is part of that).

StorytellingInVideo

Today’s book, meanwhile, is a piece that straddles the line. The title, Storytelling in Video Games: The Art of Digital Narrative, sounds like it could easily belong to authorial how-to piece. But this is a piece of scholarship in digital narrative, rather than a craft guide, a speculation on experimental narrative creation, or a how-to book about getting on in the industry. The subtitle “Studies in Gaming”, is an important clue here. After a general introduction on why her topic is important, Green goes on to look at concepts of agency, immersion, and worldbuilding; and then to dig into how different long- and short-form games deliver their narrative experiences. She ends with a chapter on games studies in the classroom.

Green is interested in talking about how game narratives work, but from the perspective of a critical reader. She covers Firewatch and Everybody’s Gone to the RaptureFar Cry Primal and Fallout 4 — and any number of others — via Baudrillard and Benedict Anderson. The rest of the time, much of the text consists of summaries of the various games and their features, and some the critical insight about them as games is pulled in the form of quotes from game critics.

Relatively little of her own critique struck me as new information, and — ironically — in some cases her desire to communicate the emotional impact of things like complicity and immersion produced descriptions that to me felt both hyperbolic and obscure. For instance, she writes about the climax of Last of Us:

Screen Shot 2019-01-27 at 10.05.11 PM.png

I puzzled a little over this — is she claiming that the player is more embodied or more present in the narrative here than at other, less tense moments previously? — but I think she means that at this point in the story the player, enacting the protagonist’s grim choices, cannot escape feeling both complicity and an intimate physical awareness of the acts.

I found myself pulling away from this book, and I think I’m just severely not the target audience. Going via Tzvetan Todorov to conclude that stories need an opening hook and that Last of Us has one — this feels like coming up with an itinerary that includes two hours on the Eurostar but the only destination is my corner shop.

For someone who comes from a humanities academic background but who knows relatively little about games, it might be a different story; though I’m afraid probably few people who meet that description are reading this blog with any regularity.

sub-Q Magazine

Once Upon a Time in the Age of Fable

by Anya Johanna DeNiro at June 04, 2019 01:42 PM

I wanted to talk a bit about a singular and peculiar pre-Twine, choice-based game that came out in 2006 called Age of Fable. Even now there’s not anything (that I’ve found!) particularly like it.

Screen shot showing gameplay, a black and white illustration of a troll carrying a club, and character stats from Age of Fable 

The FAQ for the game also points to this indeterminate, fluid history. The text describes the game as an “RPG” but then a “gamebook”—not entirely the same thing! And this is borne out in the gameplay. The character creation involves 12 different attributes, and with a randomly generated character, you are often at the mercy of attribute checks, which happen nearly every page. There isn’t really any opportunity to alter a roll or add bonuses to things that are really important for you to accomplish, like you can in some RPGs. But at the same time, this is far more robust than even most online gamebooks. And if this had been released as a Choice of Games story, it would be considered irrevocably broken.

But there is something beautiful and haunting in the half-brokenness of this game. Though there are winning endings, according to the FAQ, in about twenty plays, I don’t feel like I’ve ever gotten close to one. But that rarely seems to be the point. It’s truly a game of exploration and using the huge lapses of plot, time, and space to create the feeling and texture of living inside of a fable. The writing is evocative and full of small moments of levity, and the choices presented to you have, at times, a staggering amount of breadth. This is where the craft of Age of Fable really shines—horizontally, not vertically.

 Of course this occasionally does have the feel of classic gamebooks like Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! series—both in their original gamebook form and in the later, exquisitely fleshed out mobile games published by inkle. But there are some key differences. In Sorcery!, the pacing is indeed jagged, but the narrative arc always seems to keep the larger story from going off the rails. In Age of Fable, there are no rails. Not really. There are recurring locations, but upon entering the main city of Karrakara, each time it feels as if the city is starting anew, with all the props and scenes hastily put back in their place.

Although I haven’t dug into the code of the game, the recurrence of locations feels capricious, which gives the whole game an uncanny, rather eerie feel between that of a “cave of time” style CYOA and a more artistic game that allows you to follow whims or make a series of illogical choices and not (necessarily) die. The art direction also lends to this feeling of unreality. Almost every page is illustrated, as are character avatars, but these are taken invariably from public domain(ish) images of works of art, or at least as a free game in 2006 would understand this. These can range from Renaissance art to watercolors to Internet-era fantasy art, but there is rarely consistency from one choice to another.

But the fact that this was, in all likelihood, a necessary-feeling design choice when the state of browser gaming was much, much different than it is today is beside the point. The jarring visuals manage to blend together once in a while, and the constraints of a rather touchy RPG make the whole endeavor even more absurd. Wherever you are, turn around and head toward the hills, or the ocean, or the desert, or Karrakara. Are you on a quest? You might be. But then again, maybe not.

But keep clicking anyway.

The post Once Upon a Time in the Age of Fable appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

June 02, 2019

The People's Republic of IF

May 2019 meeting Post Mortem

by Angela Chang at June 02, 2019 03:41 AM

 May 2019 Pr-IF meeting

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. Judy, Zarf,, nickm, anjchang,, Kevin Gold welcomed Yaron (from Brandeis). Check out more photos here

Attendees at narrascope over 200+
Registration ended on Friday May
Zarf recommends Heaven’s vault. the choice based narrative plays well. Recap is smooth and based on what you know.
Can you be misled by recap?
Mental rewiring in a game
Report from systems conference — Bandersnatch discussion
What ending doesn’t matter so much as how you get there
Anj workshop- played Mrs. Pepper’s Nasty Secret — 5-6 old kids had problem with compass directions
Baba is you
Zarf making a map for Narrascope
Vice wrote up synchrony
@party coming up
Terminal time by Michael Mateas
9:05 by Adam Cadre
Motivation based endings Stanislavian
Must tour
May 22 expected taper 3
Exapunks. Programming games
Astrologaster funny Shakespearean roleplay
Dating simulation
Interrogation
Gargoyle
Heavy rain noon narrative elements
Need people to link github binaries for infocom games

No June meeting. Check us out at Narrascope!

April 2019 meeting Post Mortem

by Angela Chang at June 02, 2019 01:42 AM

April 2019 meeting post mortem

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. Zarf, dougorleans, nickm, anjchang welcomed Kevin Gold, a familiar face resurfacing to talk about volunteering at Narrascope. Yay Kevin! Check out more photos here.

The big topic: Jason Scott does infocom games on GitHub tweet
Activision and Infocom walk down memory lane, the disc company history
Copyright discussion — Code takedown vs. Monetary damage
Piece decode copyright discussion
SW is considered a literary work
first copytrighted software a was a COBOL program for stopping distances
Zil compiler, no code
Historical sources is the name of the repository
Excited to see what people can do with it — code studies, bug fixes, reintrepretations
Myst imagery 25th anniversary coming up 3D
No copyright protection for typography presentations
Nick mentions Sebastian Bartlett’s work on arcade game ROMs and study of reverse engineering binaries

SW engineering ideas psychonometric complexity
Disassembly to machine code
Zarf approach graph complexity. Object property grab
Can you pet the dog?

Kevin. “Meaningful” complexity is the hard part
Kevin mentions Node Al 2013 example
Indiana Jones temple of doom. You need the manual. Complexity is in the head
Nick Barnstorming exploit in 2600 tool assisted speed run
Complexity is how they signify
Doug. External knowledge of world require can AI solve that
Space Quest 4– knowledge needed to avoid being impregnated by alien kiss by wearing a trash can on head– delayed effect

Spring 2020 Trope tank space changes mentioned
Bldg 14 renovation in spring 2020
Openness to the community is important
Summer 2020 meetings may move
Narrascope tours vs bringing things over discussion
Dweblings tour of the tunnels is highly regarded
Jason Dyer bringing material to Narrascope
Narraascope sponsorship report
Emily passed along a link to twine neural net groupings of spring thing entries, style, subject, structure
Zack Whalen ELO presentation on nanogenmo computer-generated novels
Anonymous games are identifiable, plagiarism!
Neural net generation for Hadrian lands foray mentioned
Can AI learn to write a program?
Tender buttons Gertrude Stein attempt at Inform natural language mentioned
Probabilistic-context free grammars
Sofian Audrey’s For the sleepers
open close quotes — AI can learn to do this

April issue Leonardo mentioned article on Ranking Internet Artists   (pdf)
Magic cards text and illustrations
Ross Goodwin. Word.Camera
Word image
Doodle to neural network style mapping
No copyright on 3d models

–apologies for the late post. May’s post will follow along shortly.- anj

June 01, 2019

sub-Q Magazine

Dukes and Dumbledore: Truth and Canonicity in Stories

by Sharang Biswas at June 01, 2019 01:42 PM

When JK Rowling unceremoniously announced that beloved wizard-headmaster Albus Dumbledore was gay, the hundreds of fans packing Carnegie Hall apparently all fell silent—before bursting into applause [1]. Most fans, myself included, rejoiced. The Potterverse was gay! It was only later that I realised that my reaction was a little peculiar. Nowhere in the text does Homo-dore actually come up. If you squint really hard, you might notice a rainbow spark or two in the seventh book’s biographical entries about Dumbledore, but the series is actually entirely devoid of any overt mentions of queerness (a bit odd in a world where you can literally transform your genitals via magic potions, but there you have it).

Why had a few stray words that Rowling had let slip in response to a fan question so changed my outlook of an entire world—a fictional world, a world constructed in the imagination, but a world nonetheless. Dumbledore never really talks about his sex life in the books; I could have just decided for myself that he was gay and basked in my own version of the Potterverse, but no, hearing the author declare unequivocally that Dumbledore was gay—that made all the difference.

Which is weird.

“We prefer the imagined integrity of a metaphysical object to the stable version that we observe,” writes Espen Aarseth, referring specifically to our idealized notion of a “transcendental text” [2]. And apparently, authors have tremendous power over these psychic ur-texts, even though we as readers and film-goers construct much of the story in our own heads. The idea of “canon” in stories—that there’s one “true” version of a fiction, the fiction that “really happened,” and that it is controlled by the author—is potent.

Partly because we revere canon as the inviolable writ of an omniscient Author, we feel betrayed when the story deviates too much from what we expect or when beloved characters do things contrary to what our perspectives dictate. Game of Thrones fans, for instance, were so upset at HBO’s handling of the show’s 8th season that they started a petition to remake the season [3]. Again though, notice that the fans required another authored version of the story for it to be considered “real.”

The thing is, as Aarseth puts it, “textual integrity…is a cultural construct.” He continues to say “so is our notion of what constitutes a text itself—not only our conception of its function, but also what it appears to be made of and what conditions have to be met for us to acknowledge its existence.” [2] We create stories in our heads. Yes, they’re based on breadcrumbs authors may leave for us, but the experience of a story is a personal one. Evan Torner and David Jara go so far as to support “an understanding of fiction as a form of make believe and role-play.” [4]

This is somewhat true for all kinds of stories, even those we consider to be nonfiction. We love being told about the past, for example. Only if events are written down by someone are they crowned History, capital ‘H’ jaunty and gleaming. But the lines between history and mere story are blurry. Rebecca Slitt, partner and editor at Choice of Games, happens to have been a professor of history in a previous career. When I asked her how her academic training had informed her work with interactive fiction, she mentioned that what really helped her was the understanding that “historical narratives are always constructed by the person writing them and by the society in which that person lived.” Diving into her scholarly publications shows that her research echoes this sentiment. In her article, The Two Deaths of William Longsword: Wace, William of Malmesbury, and the Norman Past, Slitt writes about two specific chroniclers who not only dissent from the mainstream biographies of the second duke of Normandy but also deliberately shroud their assertions in historical doubt in order to protect themselves from backlash; to Slitt, “the question of historical accuracy versus invention is a thorny one.” [5]

I wouldn’t be writing this, of course, if games didn’t come into the picture. Games are funny when it comes to canon because we don’t simply consume the narrative in a game: we shape it (or at the very least, we feel like we shaped it). I’ve mentioned in a previous essay, Rituals, Cheating, and the Dream of Possibility, that my (and many folks’) tendency to give primacy to one version of events in a game, even though I’m aware of the directions into which the narrative might branch [6].  EA’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic famously boasted multiple endings [7] and while the series considers one of them to be “canon” with regards to sequels, I can’t help but think of “my” ending as the real one. More modern games go a step further and implement technology to import players’ choices and make them canon: your choices within Dragon Age: Origins[8] complex, branched plot carry forward into its sequels. Even on the IF front, titles such as Choice of Games’ Superlatives: Shattered Worlds [9] allow you to import data from its prequels.

In certain types of LARP, the idea of canon is flung even further out the window, what with each of the dozens of participants seeing only a small portion of the whole story tapestry, and that too is filtered through a backstory that only they know about (having imagined it themselves). In the first sequel to 2016’s New World Magischola, for example, in order to account for the various convoluted plotlines that players had created, designers Maury Brown and Ben Morrow were forced to introduce into the canon the idea that various alternate realities and timelines had come apart and tangled in on themselves [10].

In this new age of interactive media, the idea of canonicity might need to be rethought. Perhaps in the future, we’ll make multiple synchronous sequels to popular games, to account for various possible canons. Perhaps multiple endings in movies and TV will be a common occurrence, rendering our concept of visual fiction inseparable from interactivity. Perhaps mainstream academics will study how the various endings and alternate canons comment on and inform each other. Or perhaps, more simply, the fact that we each have our own version of a story—our own version of the truth, if you will—will allow us to examine our current truths with more a nuanced outlook.

The Truth Shall Make Ye Fred.

-Terry Pratchett, The Truth


Works Cited

[1]D. Smith, “Dumbledore was gay, JK tells amazed fans,” The Guardian, 2 October 2007. [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/21/film.books.

[2] E. J. Aarseth, “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory,” in The New Media Reader, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2003, pp. 762-780.

[3] L. Bradley, “Thousands of Angry Game of Thrones Fans Call on HBO to Remake Season 8,” Vanity Fair, 15 May 201. [Online]. Available: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/05/game-of-thrones-season-8-remake-petition-hbo.

[4] D. Jara and E. Torner, “Literary Studies ad Roleplaying Games,” in Role Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach, New York, Routledge, 2018, pp. 265-282.

[5]R. Slitt, “The Two Deaths of William Longsword: Wace, William of Malmesbury, and the Norman Past,” in Anglo-Norman Studies XXXIV: Proceedings of the Battle Conference , Woodbridge, 2011.

[6] S. Biswas, “Rituals, Cheating, and The Dream of Possibility,” Sub-Q, February 2019. https://sub-q.com/rituals-cheating-and-the-dream-of-possibility/

[7] C. Avellone, D. Karpyshyn and J. Ohlen, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Electronic Arts, 2003.

[8] B. Knowles, M. Laidlaw and J. Ohlen, Dragon Age: Origins, Electronic Arts, 2009.

[9] A. Ripley, Superlatives: Shattered Worlds, Choice of Games, 2019.

[10]M. Brown and B. Morrow, New World Magischola: Yuletide Escapade, Newbury Township, OH, 2016.


Sharang Biswas

Sharang Biswas is an award-winning game designer, an internationally exhibited artist, and a published writer based in New York. He has exhibited work at numerous museums, galleries, and art fairs including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and the Toronto Reference Library. He has designed curricula for the Museum of the Moving Image, created learning games for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and written about games, interactivity, and culture for publications including Kill Screen, Sub Q, ZAM and First-Person Scholar. His two food-based games, “Feast” and “Verdure”, have garnered numerous accolades, including an IndieCade Award and and IGDN Indie Groundbreaker Award. Sharang has lectured or taught courses on game design at various universities and cultural institutions including Dartmouth, Columbia Teacher’s College, New York University, The International Center of Photography, and the Museum of the Moving Image, as well as spoken at conferences such as Game Devs of Color, GaymerX, Living Games, IndieCade and Boston FIG Talks.

Sharang holds a bachelor’s in Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering from Dartmouth College and a master’s in Interactive Design from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He is the Experience Designer for The Medici Group, a consulting firm focusing on diversity and innovation.

You can find him on Twitter @SharangBiswas, his website https://sharangbiswas.myportfolio.com/ , or on his Itch IO page https://astrolingus.itch.io/

The post Dukes and Dumbledore: Truth and Canonicity in Stories appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Interview: Hannah Powell-Smith

by Natalia Theodoridou at June 01, 2019 01:42 PM

Hannah Powell-Smith makes narrative games about fantasy politics, flawed characters, and fraught relationships. Often, ghosts are involved. Find her work at Choice of Games, sub-Q Magazine, and hannahps.itch.io, and find her on Twitter at @hpowellsmith. Hannah is the author of our June story, “Dead Lake Crossing.”

This interview was conducted via e-mail in May of 2019.

Hannah Powell-Smith


sub-Q Magazine: “Dead Lake Crossing” is not your first piece in sub-Q. In fact, some of the themes that were present in one of your previous pieces, “Nine Moments in Fairyland,” recur here: a protagonist who is bound to an entity that captivates them in return; the very human appetites of inhuman figures. What is it about these themes that makes them compelling to you? Has the way you approach them shifted over the years?

Hannah Powell-Smith: I’ve been writing about ghosts in various ways for a long time, and keep returning to them. In a couple of trunked novels, I included ghosts that weren’t able to communicate and were more monsters to deal with than anything else. But in my Choice of Games game, Blood Money, I thought more about how ghosts and inhuman creatures might perceive the world around them, and their similarities and differences to the living. In “Nine Moments in Fairyland,” the fae creature is driven by the desire for possession and is just fascinated by humanity, while in “Dead Lake Crossing,” the ghosts are pulled to the living world’s energy. I enjoy exploring what might draw an alien or magical creature to a human host and mind.

sub-Q Magazine: Have you ever found yourself surprised by your own work or its evolution?

Hannah: My Choice of Games work in progress, Creme de la Creme, is much lighter in tone than most of my other work, which often leans towards sadness or bloodthirstiness. I wasn’t expecting to dive into a high society, finishing-school narrative, but I love the process of making relatively low-stakes issues (will you wear something traditional, fashionable, or revealing to the ball? Who will you dance with?) as tense and meaningful as life or death situations. I’m always up for writing complicated familial, friendly and romantic relationships, and this setting means I can bring that to the foreground.

sub-Q Magazine: Speaking of your interactive novels with Choice of Games, how did you find the experience of working on Blood Money in comparison to shorter IF? Most rewarding/most challenging aspects of longer interactive work?

Hannah: Longer-form plotting and pacing is the most challenging part for sure. Not only are you working to make the pace peak and trough at the right points, you’re also thinking about how the plot will look to someone who has played different paths or developed different relationships. It’s the same way for a shorter IF, but when it’s so much longer, it explodes and can become absurdly complex. At the same time, that’s part of the fun. I find it really rewarding to provide a range of experiences and explore different possibilities through playthroughs – and hopefully surprise and delight players even after playing multiple times.

sub-Q Magazine: Any games or IF you’ve enjoyed recently?

Hannah: I recently enjoyed Weyrwood by Isabella Shaw with Choice of Games, a Regency fantasy of manners with fae. Lord Winklebottom Investigates by Cave Monsters is a delightful point-and-click game about a Victorian giraffe detective. And Sunless Skies by Failbetter Games is just stunningly well-written and put-together.

sub-Q Magazine: What are you working on right now / what’s next for you?

Hannah: Creme de la Creme is my upcoming Choice of Games game about attending a finishing school and uncovering dark secrets while trying to claw back your family’s reputation. Unofficially, I call it my trash socialite game because all the characters are disaster aristocrats who are (largely) doing their best. I’m also working on a mobile YA urban fantasy game and some other work I can’t talk about at the moment … the freelancer way! I’m also eyeing up various game jams and wondering about cramming them into my schedule.

The post Interview: Hannah Powell-Smith appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

IFTF Blog

My recorded presentation about IFTF to PVD Geeks

by Jason McIntosh at June 01, 2019 12:58 AM

As noted earlier, I presented a short talk about IFTF at a technology meetup in Providence last February. I recorded it, and then immediately put it out of mind before actually sharing the recording — a realization that struck me only today, when I wanted to refer to the talk from another article, elsewhere on the web.

So, here it is, better late then never! Happily, little has become out-of-date in the intervening three months. Please pardon the handful of audio stumbles; as with all my presentations, I read from a script, and sometimes flub my lines. (Chalk it up to verisimilitude: it’s like you’re there!)

And let me drop a special greeting to the folks who traveled to Providence from as far away as New York, just to hear the talk and say hello. It was a good time! As for the rest of you, if you meet me at Narrascope, I can give you one of the stickers I promised to the crowd that evening in February.

May 31, 2019

Z-Machine Matter

Infocom Source Code and Resources

by Zack Urlocker at May 31, 2019 06:44 PM

Github screenshot
Last month, Jason Scott, Internet Archivist and director of the terrific Get Lamp interactive fiction documentary, posted an entire hard drive's worth of Infocom source code on GitHub. I thought I'd share a few observations and links to resources that might be helpful to others in exploring this code and the history of Infocom.

The GitHub repositories include the original ZIL source code to thirty classic interactive fiction games from the '80s: Zork, Planetfall, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and my personal favorites, the mystery stories Deadline, Suspect and The Witness. There are also unpublished fragments including the lost Hitchhiker's sequel Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Stu Galley's unreleased Checkpoint game, and an ill-fated tie-in to James Cameron's movie The Abyss.  

Deadline screenshotThe games are written in a defunct proprietary Lisp-like language called ZIL (Zork Implementation Language). Sadly, I'm not aware of any working compilers that can compile this code, though I understand There are efforts underway to redevelop a ZIL compiler and most of the Infocom games are now compilable. Which is cool since the Z-Machine is the basis of the underlying architecture and virtual machine code systems for games written in Inform.  Infocom published a manual for ZIL for internal use that is available online. Zarf has also posted a helpful article on ZIL. To me ZIL is kind of like assembly language (with (parentheses)), but the code is still fascinating.

The original MDL mainframe version of Zork (also known as Dungeon) was later translated into Fortran and then machine translated into C. These are higher-level languages than ZIL, but still hard slogging. Luckily, Zork was later ported to Inform6 and Inform7.

Some years ago Volker Lanz wrote and published equivalent version of Deadline in Inform6, but it requires an old version of Inform and as far as I can tell there's no compiled binary version of the game. Most likely the author was concerned that this might have been too close for comfort as copyright violation. It will be interesting to see if anyone translates any of these Infocom games into a modern equivalent in Inform 7. 

Scott had previously posted several Infocom file cabinets --digitized versions of Infocom printed materials including design documents, internal memos, sales reports, logo designs, photos, advertisements, etc which provide a fascinating glimpse into the internal operations of Infocom during it's hey day.

No one seems to have complained about the posting of the Infocom source code, but if it's of interest, I'd get it quick.

For those interested in the history of Infocom and the impact of it's games, I strongly recommend the well-written student research project The History of Infocom (PDF) as well as Jimmy Maher's excellent articles at The Digital Antiquarian.

And for further historical context, here's a link to the Infocom Documentary Scott released along with Get Lamp:

May 29, 2019

sub-Q Magazine

June 19 Table of Contents

by Stewart C Baker at May 29, 2019 08:42 PM

There’s a French term, l’esprit d’escalier (literally “staircase wit”), which refers to the experience of coming up with clever or insightful things to say hours after a conversation. For better or worse, the term perfectly describes many of my own social interactions.

Our games this month both consider a similar theme. In “Dead Lake Crossing,” by Hannah Powell-Smith, you travel across a wasteland at an ancestor’s behest, and “Replay” by Robert Dawson puts you in control of a device that gives you endless do-overs–but at what cost? Our cover, “Not Again!” by Laura de Stefani, portrays another all-too-relatable experience.

In our essays, Sharang Biswas examines the control (or lack thereof) authors have over their published work in “Dukes and Dumbledore: Truth and Canonicity in Stories.” We will also have an essay from Anya Johanna deNiro, on a topic to be announced shortly.

As a reminder: Patreon supporters and on-site subscribers get early access to all our content on the first of the month. We’re committed to paying our authors for their work, and subscriptions help us do that in a more sustainable fashion. We’re also committed to making great works of interactive fiction available to the public, so if you’re not a subscriber you’ll still be able to access all our content starting on the 15th of the month.

In mid-July, we’ll be running an original Twitter-based piece of Interactive Fiction from Nin Harris, with the same setting as her recent story “Dreams Strung like Pearls Between War and Peace”. (We’ll also archive the piece on our website after it’s run its course, if you want to check out paths that weren’t followed in our play-through, or if you don’t have Twitter.) This is something new for us, and we hope it will be an interesting experience for everyone involved, so keep an eye out for more news about that.

We hope you enjoy our games, essays, and art, and don’t forget to return to us in August for another issue!

The post June 19 Table of Contents appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

May 24, 2019

The Digital Antiquarian

The Last Works Before the Renaissance

by Jimmy Maher at May 24, 2019 05:41 PM

By 1993, textual interactive fiction was reaching the end of the unsettled, uncertain half-decade-and-change between the shuttering of Infocom and the rise of a new Internet-centered community of amateur enthusiasts. Efforts by such collectives as Adventions and High Energy Software to sell text adventures via the shareware model had largely proved unfruitful, while, with the World Wide Web still in its infancy, advertisement and distribution were major problems even for someone willing to release her games for free. The ethos of text and parsers seemed about as divorced as anything could possibly be from the predominant ethos in game development more generally, with its focus on multimedia, full-motion video, and ultra-accessible mouse-driven interfaces. Would text adventures soon be no more than obscure relics of a more primitive past? To an increasing number even of the form’s most stalwart fans, an answer in the affirmative was starting to feel like a foregone conclusion. Few text-adventure authors had serious ambitions of matching the technical or literary quality of Infocom during this period, much less of exceeding it; the issue for the medium right now was one of simple survival. In this atmosphere, the arrival of any new text adventure felt like a victory against the implacable forces of technological change, which had conspired to all but strangle this new literary form before it had even had time to get going properly.

Thankfully, history would later mark 1993 as the year when the seeds of an interactive-fiction rebirth were planted, thanks to an Englishman who repurposed not only the Infocom aesthetic but also Infocom’s own technology in unexpected ways. Those seeds would flower richly in 1995, Year Zero of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance. I’ll begin that story soon.

Today, though, I’d like to tell you about some of the more interesting games to emerge from the final days of the interstitial period — games which actually overlap, although no one could realize it at the time, with the dawning of the modern interactive-fiction community. Indeed, the games I describe below manage to presage some of the themes of that community despite being the products of a text-adventuring culture that still spent more time looking backward than looking forward. I’m fond of all of them in one way or another, and I’m willing to describe at least one of them as a sadly overlooked classic.


The Horror of Rylvania

The hiking trip across Europe has been a wonderful experience for two recent college graduates like yourself and your friend Carolyn. From the mansions of England to the beaches of Greece, you’ve walked in the footsteps of the Crusaders and seen sights that few Americans have ever seen.

Carolyn had wanted to skip the Central European nation of Rylvania. “Why bother?” she’d said. “There’s nothing but farmers there, and creepy old castles - nothing we haven’t seen already. The Rylvanians are still living in the last century.”

That, you’d insisted, was exactly why Rylvania was a must-see. The country was an intact piece of living history, a real treasure in this modern age.

If only you hadn’t insisted! As night fell, as you approached a small farming village in search of a quaint inn to spend the night, the howling began. A scant hundred yards from the village, and it happened...the wolves appeared from the black forest around you and attacked. Big, black wolves that leaped for Carolyn’s throat before you could shout a warning, led by a great gray-black animal that easily stood four feet at the shoulder. Carolyn fell to the rocky path, blood gushing from her neck as the wolves faded back into the trees, unwilling, for some unknown reason, to press their attack.

If she dies, it will be your fault. You curse the darkening sky as you cradle Carolyn’s head, knowing that you have little time to find help. Perhaps in the village up the road to the north.

The Horror of Rylvania marks the last shareware release from Adventions, a partnership between the MIT graduate students Dave Baggett and D.A. Leary which was the most sustained of all efforts to make a real business out of selling interactive fiction during the interstitial period. Doubtless for this reason, the Adventions games are among the most polished of all the text adventures made during this time. They were programmed using the sophisticated TADS development system rather than the more ramshackle AGT, with all the benefits that accrued to such a choice. And, just as importantly, they were thoroughly gone over for bugs as well as spelling and grammar problems, and are free of the gawky authorial asides and fourth-wall-breakings that were once par for the course in amateur interactive fiction.

For all that, though, the Adventions games haven’t aged all that well in my eyes. The bulk of them take place in a fantasy land known as Unnkulia, which is trying so hard to ape Zork‘s Great Underground Empire that it’s almost painful to watch. In addition to being derivative, the Unnkulia games think they’re far more clever and hilarious than they actually are — the very name of the series/world is a fine case in point — while the overly fiddly gameplay can sometimes grate almost as much as the writing.

It thus made for a welcome change when Adventions, after making three and a half Unnkulia games, finally decided to try something else. Written by D.A. Leary, The Horror of Rylvania is more plot-driven than Adventions’s earlier games, a Gothic vampire tale in which you actually become a vampire not many turns in. It’s gone down in certain circles as a minor classic, for reasons that aren’t totally unfounded. Although the game has a few more potential walking-dead scenarios than is perhaps ideal, the puzzles are otherwise well-constructed, the implementation is fairly robust, and, best of all, most of the sophomoric attempts at humor that so marked Adventions’s previous games are blessedly absent.

That said, the end result still strikes me more as a work of craftsmanship than genius. The writing has been gone over for spelling and grammar without addressing some of its more deep-rooted problems, as shown even by the brief introduction above; really, now, have “few Americans ever seen” sights advertised in every bog-standard package tour of Europe? (Something tells me Leary hadn’t traveled much at the time he wrote this game.) The writing here has some of the same problems with tone as another Gothic horror game from 1993 set in an ersatz Romania: Quest for Glory IV. It wants to play the horror straight most of the time, and is sometimes quite effective at it — the scene of your transformation from man to vampire is particularly well-done — but just as often fails to resist the centrifugal pull which comedy has on the adventure-game genre.

Still, Horror of Rylvania is the Adventions game which plays best today, and it isn’t a bad choice for anyone looking for a medium-sized old-school romp with reasonably fair puzzles. Its theme adds to its interest; horror in interactive fiction tends to hew more to either H.P. Lovecraft or zombie movies than the Gothic archetypes which Horror of Rylvania intermittently manages to nail. Another extra dimension of interest is added by the ending, which comes down to a binary choice between curing your friend Carolyn from the curse of vampirism, which entails sacrificing yourself in the process, or curing yourself and letting Carolyn sod off. As we’ll shortly see, the next and last Adventions game perhaps clarifies some of the reasons for such a moral choice’s inclusion at the end of a game whose literary ambitions otherwise don’t seem to extend much beyond being a bit of creepy fun.


The Jeweled Arena

You let out a sigh of relief as you finish the last paper. “That’s the lot.”

“Good work, ma’am,” says Regalo, your squire. “I was almost afraid we’d be here until midnight.”

“Don’t worry, Regalo, I wouldn’t do a thing like that, especially on my first healthy day after the flu. In any case, Dora wants me home by eight. The papers look dry, so you can take them to Clara’s office.”

As Regalo carries the papers to the adjoining office, you stand up and stretch your aching muscles. You then look through the window and see a flash of lightning outside. It looks like quite a storm is brewing.

“I’m beginning to think my calendar is set wrong,” you say as Regalo returns. “Dibre’s supposed to be cool, dry, and full of good cheer; so far, we’ve had summer heat, constant rain, and far too many death certificates. Perhaps this storm will blow out the heat.”


“I hope it blows out the plague with it, ma’am. I’ve lost three friends already, and my wife just picked it up yesterday. No one likes it when the coroner’s staff is overworked.”

“It doesn’t help that Clara and Resa are both still sick. If we’re lucky, we’ll have Resa back tomorrow, which I’m sure your feet would appreciate. I presume Ernando and Miranda have already left for the day?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Now I’m really worried. The only thing worse than being the victim of one of Miranda’s pranks is going a day without one of her pranks -– it usually means you missed something. Perhaps she decided to be discrete [sic] for a change.”

“I didn’t get the impression her sense of humor was taking the day off, but I don’t know what she did. It can wait until tomorrow. Is there anything else you need me to do before I leave?”

Written by David S. Raley, The Jeweled Arena was the co-winner of what would turn out to be the last of the annual competitions organized by AGT’s steward, David M. Malmberg, before he released the programming language as freeware and stepped away from further involvement with the interactive-fiction community. Set in a fantasy world, but a thankfully non-Zorkian and non-Tolkienesque one, it’s both an impressive piece of world-building and a game of unusual narrative ambition for its time.

In fact, the world of Valdalan seems like it must have existed in the author’s head for a long time before this game was written. The environment around you has the feeling of being rooted in far more lore and history than is explicitly foregrounded in the text, always the mark of first-class world-building. As far as I can tell from the text, Valdalan is roughly 17th-century in terms of its science and technology, but is considerably more enlightened philosophically. Interestingly, magic seems to have no place here, making it almost more of an alternative reality than a conventional fantasy milieu.

The story takes place in the city of Kumeran as it’s in the throes of a plague — a threat which is, like so much else in this game, handled with more subtlety than you might expect. The plot plays out in four chapters, during each of which you play the role of a different character. The first chapter is worthy of becoming a footnote in interactive-fiction history at the very least, in that it casts you as one half of a lesbian couple. In later years, certain strands of interactive fiction — albeit more of the hypertext than the parser-driven type — would become a hotbed of advocacy for non- hetero-normative lifestyles. The Jeweled Arena has perhaps aged better in this respect than many of those works have (or will); it presents its lesbian protagonist in a refreshingly matter-of-fact way, neither turning her into an easy villain or victim, as an earlier game might have done, nor celebrating her as a rainbow-flag-waving heroine, as a later game might have done. She’s just a person; the game takes it as a given that she’s worthy of exactly the same level of respect as any of the rest of us. In 1993, this matter-of-fact attitude toward homosexuality was still fairly unusual. Raley deserves praise for it.

Unfortunately, The Jeweled Arena succeeds better as a place and a story than it does as a game, enough so that one is tempted to ask why Raley elected to present it in the form of a text adventure at all. He struggles to come up with things for you to really do as you wander the city. This tends to be a problem with a lot of interactive fiction where the puzzles aren’t the author’s primary focus; A Mind Forever Voyaging struggles to some extent with the same issue when it sends you wandering through its own virtual city. But The Jeweled Arena, which doesn’t have a mechanic like A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s commandment to observe and record to ease its way, comes off by far the worse of the two. Most of the tasks it sets before you are made difficult not out of  authorial intention but due to poor authorial prompting and the inherent limitations of AGT. In other words, first you have to figure out what non-obvious trigger the game is looking for to advance the plot a beat, and then you have to figure out the exact way the parser wants you to say it. This constant necessity to read the author’s mind winds up spoiling what could have been an enjoyable experience, and makes The Jeweled Arena a game that can truly be recommended only to those with an abiding interest in text-adventure history or the portrayal of homosexuality in interactive media. A pity — with more testing and better technology, it could have been a remarkable achievement.


Klaustrophobia

You are standing at the top of an ocean bluff. Wind is whipping through your hair and blowing your voluminous black cape out behind you. You can hear the hiss of the surf crashing far below you. Out towards the horizon, a distant storm sends flickers of lightning across the darkening sky. The last rays of the setting sun reflect red off the windows of the grey stone mansion to the East. As you turn towards the house, you catch a glimpse of a haunting face in one of the windows. That face, you will never forget that face......

> wait
The surf and cliffs fade from sight............


You awake to find yourself in your living room,lying on the couch. Your cat, Klaus, is chewing and pulling on your hair. Static is hissing from the TV, as the screen flickers on a station long off the air. You look at your watch and realize that it is 3 AM.


You must have fallen asleep on the couch right after you got home from work, and settled down to read the newspaper.

I noted earlier that the Adventions games are “free of the gawky authorial asides and fourth-wall-breakings” that mark most early amateur interactive fiction. That statement applies equally to The Jeweled Arena, but not at all to Carol Hovick’s Klaustrophobia. The other winner of the final AGT competition, its personality could hardly be more different from its partner on the podium. This is a big, rambling, jokey game that’s anything but polished. And yet it’s got an unpretentious charm about it, along with puzzles that turn out to be better than they first seem like they’re going to be.

What Klaustrophobia lacks in polish or literary sophistication, it attempts to make up for in sheer sprawl. It’s actually three games in one — so big that, even using the most advanced and least size-constrained version of AGT, Hovick was forced to split it into three parts, gluing them together with some ingenious hacks that are doubtless horrifying in that indelible AGT way to any experienced programmer. The three parts together boast a staggering 560 rooms and 571 objects, making Klaustrophobia easily one of the largest text adventures ever created.

Like the Unnkulia series and so much else from the interstitial period, Klaustrophobia is hugely derivative of the games of the 1980s. The story and puzzles here draw heavily from Infocom’s Bureaucracy, which is at least a more interesting choice than yet another Zork homage. You’ve just won an all-expenses-paid trip to appear on a quiz show, but first you have to get there; this exercise comes to absorb the first third of the game. Then, after you’ve made the rounds of not one but several quiz shows in the second part, part three sends you off to “enjoy” the Mexican vacation you’ve won. As a member of that category of text adventure which the Interactive Fiction Database dubs the “slice of life,” the game has that time-capsule quality I’ve mentioned before as being such a fascinating aspect of amateur interactive fiction. Klaustrophobia is a grab bag of pop-culture ephemera from the United States of 1993: Willard Scott, Dolly Parton, The Price is Right. If you lived through this time and place, you might just find it all unbearably nostalgic. (Why do earlier eras of history almost invariably seem so much happier and simpler?) And if you didn’t… well, there are worse ways to learn about everyday American life in 1993, should you have the desire to do so, than playing through this unforced, agenda-less primary source.

The puzzles are difficult in all the typical old-school ways: full of time limits, requiring ample learning by death. Almost inevitably given the game’s premise, they sometimes fail to fall on the right side of the line between being comically aggravating and just being aggravating. And the game is rough around the edges in all the typical AGT ways: under-tested (a game this large almost has to be) and haphazardly written, and subject to all the usual frustrations of the AGT parser and world model. Yet, despite it all, the author’s design instincts are pretty good; most of the puzzles are clued if you’re paying attention. Many of them involve coming to understand and manipulate some surprisingly complex dynamic sequences taking place around you. The whole experience is helped immensely by the episodic structure which exists even within each of the three parts: you go from your home to the bank to the airport, etc., with each vignette effectively serving as its own little self-contained adventure game. This structure lets Klaustrophobia avoid the combinatorial explosion that can make such earlier text-adventure epics as Acheton and Zork Zero all but insoluble. Here, you can work out a single episode, then move on to the next at your leisure with a nice sense of achievement in your back pocket — as long, of course, as you haven’t left anything vital behind.

Klaustrophobia is a game that I regard with perhaps more affection that I ought to, given its many and manifest flaws. While much of my affection may be down to the fact that it was one of the first games I played when I rediscovered interactive fiction around the turn of the millennium, I like to believe this game has more going for it than nostalgia. It undoubtedly requires a certain kind of player, but, whether taken simply as a text adventure or as an odd sort of sociological study — a frozen-in-amber relic of its time and place — it’s not without its intrinsic appeal. Further, it strikes me as perfect for its historical role as the final major statement made with AGT; something more atypically polished and literary, such as Shades of Gray or even Cosmoserve, just wouldn’t work as well in that context. Klaustrophobia‘s more messy sort of charm, on the other hand, feels like the perfect capstone to this forgotten culture of text adventuring, whose games were more casual but perhaps in some ways more honest because of it.


The Legend Lives!

A pattern of bits shifts inside your computer. New information scrolls up the screen.


It is not good.

As the impact of the discovery settles on your psyche, you recall the preceding events: your recent enrollment at Akmi Yooniversity; your serendipitous discovery of the joys of Classical Literature – a nice change of pace from computer hacking; your compuarchaeological discovery of the long-forgotten treasures that will make your thesis one of the most important this decade. But now that’s all a bit moot, isn’t it?

How ironic: You were stunned at how *real* the primitive Unnkulian stories seemed. Now you know why.

David Baggett’s The Legend Lives! is the only game on this curated list that dates from 1994, the particularly fallow year just before the great flowering of 1995. The very last production of the Adventions partnership, it was originally planned as another shareware title, but was ultimately released for free, a response to the relatively tepid registration rate of Advention’s previous games. Having conceived it as nothing less than a Major Statement meant to prod the artistic growth of a nascent literary medium, Baggett stated that he wished absolutely everyone to have a chance to play his latest game.

Ironically, the slightly uncomfortable amalgamation that is The Legend Lives! feels every bit as of-its-time today as any of the less artistically ambitious text adventures I’ve already discussed in this article. Set in the far future of Adventions’s Unnkulia universe, it reads like a checklist of what “literary” interactive fiction circa 1994 might be imagined to require.

There must, first and foremost, be lots and lots of words for something to be literary, right? Baggett has this covered… oh, boy, does he ever. The first room description, for the humble dorm room of the university student you play, consists of six substantial paragraphs — two or three screenfuls of text on the typical 80-column monitor displays of the day. As you continue to play, every object mentioned anywhere, no matter how trivial, continues to be described to within an inch of its life. While Baggett’s dedication is admirable, these endless heaps of verbiage do more to confuse than edify, especially in light of the fact that this game is, despite its literary aspirations, far from puzzleless. There’s a deft art to directing the player’s attention to the things that really matter in a text adventure — an art which this game comprehensively fails to exhibit. And then there are the massive non-interactive text dumps, sometimes numbering in the thousands of words, which are constantly interrupting proceedings. Sean Molley, reviewing the game in the first gush of enthusiasm which accompanied its release, wrote that “I certainly don’t mind reading 10 screens of text if it helps to advance the story and give me something to think about.” I suspect that most modern players wouldn’t entirely agree. The Legend Lives! is exhausting enough in its sheer verbosity to make you long for the odd minimalist poetry of Scott Adams. “Ok, too dry. Fish die” starts looking pretty good after spending some time with this game.

And yet, clumsy and overwrought though the execution often is, there is a real message here — one I would even go so far as to describe as thought-provoking. The Legend Lives! proves to be an old-school cyberpunk tale — another thing dating it indelibly to 1994 — about a computer virus that has infected Unnkulia’s version of the Internet and threatens to take over the entirety of civilization. The hero that emerges and finally sacrifices himself to eliminate the scourge is known mostly by his initials: “JC.” He’s allegedly an artificial intelligence, but he’s really, it would seem, an immaculate creation, a divinity living in the net. An ordinary artificial intelligence, says one character, “is smart with no motivation, no goals; no creativity, ya see. JC, he’s like us.” What we have here, folks, is an allegory. I trust that I need not belabor the specific parallels with another famous figure who shares the same initials.

But I don’t wish to trivialize the message here too much. It’s notable that this argument for a non-reductionist view of human intelligence — for a divine spark to the human mind that can’t be simulated in silicon — was made by a graduate student in MIT’s artificial-intelligence lab, working in the very house built by Marvin Minsky and his society of mind. Whatever one’s feelings about the Christian overtones to Baggett’s message, his impassioned plea that we continue to allow a place for the ineffable has only become more relevant in our current age of algorithmization and quantization.

Like all of the Adventions games, this one has been virtually forgotten today, despite being widely heralded upon its release as the most significant work of literary interactive fiction to come along since A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity. That’s a shame. Yes, writers of later text adventures would learn to combine interactivity with literary texture in more subtle and effective ways, but The Legend Lives! is nevertheless a significant way station in the slow evolution of post-Infocom interactive fiction, away from merely reflecting the glory of a storied commercial past and toward becoming a living, evolving artistic movement in its own right.


Perdition’s Flames

*** You have died. ***

All is dark and quiet. There is no sensation, no time. Your mind floats peacefully in a void. You perceive nothing, you feel nothing, you think nothing. Sleep without dreams.

All is hazy and gray. Sensation is vague and indistinct. Your mind is sluggish, sleepy. You see gray shapes in a gray fog; you hear distant, muffled sounds. You think, but your thoughts are fleeting, disconnected, momentary flashes of light in a dark night. Time is still frames separated by eons of nothing, brief awakenings in a long sleep.

All is clear and sharp. Sensation crystalizes from a fog. You see, you hear, you feel. Your mind awakens; you become aware of a place, and a time.

You are on a boat.

Last but far from least, we come to the real jewel of this collection, a game which I can heartily recommend to everyone who enjoys text adventures. Perdition’s Flames was the third game written by Mike Roberts, the creator of the TADS programming language. While not enormous in the way of Klaustrophobia, it’s more than substantial enough in its own right, offering quite a few hours of puzzling satisfaction.

The novel premise casts you as a soul newly arrived in Hell. (Yes, just as you might expect, there are exactly 666 points to score.) Luckily for you, however, this is a corporate, postmodern version of the Bad Place. “Ever since the deregulation of the afterlife industry,” says your greeter when you climb off the boat, “we’ve had to compete with Heaven for eternal souls — because you’re free to switch to Heaven at any time. So, we’ve been modernizing! There really isn’t much eternal torment these days, for example. And, thanks to the Environmental Clean-up Superfund, we have the brimstone problem mostly under control at this point.”

As the game continues, there’s a lot more light satire along those lines, consistently amusing if not side-splittingly funny. Finishing the whole thing will require solving lots and lots of puzzles, which are varied, fair, and uniformly enjoyable. In fact, I number at least one of them among the best puzzles I’ve ever seen. (For those who have already played the game: that would be the one where you’re a ghost being pursued by a group of paranormal researchers.)

Although Perdition’s Flames is an old-school puzzlefest in terms of categorization, it’s well-nigh breathtakingly progressive in terms of its design sensibility. For this happens to be a text adventure — the first text adventure ever, to my knowledge — which makes it literally impossible for you to kill yourself (after all, you are already dead) or lock yourself out of victory. It is, in other words, the Secret of Monkey Island of interactive fiction, an extended proof that adventure games without deaths or dead ends can nevertheless be intriguing, challenging, and immensely enjoyable. Roberts says it right there in black and white:

Note that in Perdition’s Flames, in contrast to many other adventure games, your character never gets killed, and equally importantly, you’ll never find yourself in a position where it’s impossible to finish the game. You have already seen the only “*** You have died ***” message in Perdition’s Flames. As a result, you don’t have to worry as much about saving game positions as you may be accustomed to.

I can’t emphasize enough what an astonishing statement that is to find in a text adventure from 1993. Perdition’s Flames and its author deserve to be celebrated for making it every bit as much as we celebrate Monkey Island and Ron Gilbert.

Yet even in its day Perdition’s Flames was oddly overlooked in proportion to its size, polish, and puzzly invention alone, much less the major leap it represents toward an era of fairer, saner text adventures. And this even as the merciful spirit behind the humble statement above, found buried near the end of the in-game instructions, was destined to have much more impact on the quality of the average player’s life than all of the literary pretensions which The Legend Lives! so gleefully trumpets.

Roberts’s game was overshadowed most of all by what would go down in history as the text adventure of 1993: Graham Nelson’s Curses!. Said game is erudite, intricate, witty, and sometimes beautifully written — and runs on Infocom’s old Z-Machine, which constituted no small part of its appeal in 1993. But it’s also positively riddled with the types of sudden deaths and dead ends which Perdition’s Flames explicitly eschews. You can probably guess which of the pair holds up better for most players today.

So, as we prepare to dive into the story of how Curses! came to be, and of how it turned into the seismic event which revitalized the near-moribund medium of interactive fiction and set it on the path it still travels today, do spare a thought for Perdition’s Flames as well. While Curses! was the first mover that kicked the modern interactive-fiction community into gear, Perdition’s Flames, one might argue, is simply the first work of modern interactive fiction, full stop. All of its contemporaries, Curses! included, seem regressive next to its great stroke of genius. Go forth and play it, and rejoice. An Interactive Fiction Renaissance is in the offing.

(All of the games reviewed in this article are freely available via the individual links provided above and playable on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux using the Gargoyle interpreter among other options.)

"Aaron Reed"

More Readable Project Files in Character Engine

by Aaron A. Reed at May 24, 2019 04:42 PM

Best of Both Worlds: Flexible Project Files in Character Engine

Anyone designing an authoring tool for a dynamic system faces a particular dilemma: IDE or DSL? That is, should you make an integrated development environment that provides an abstracted authoring interface into the underlying data, with high-level features and visualizations tailored to working with that particular data, or design a domain-specific language, a specification and compiler for authoring content in your system purely as lines of text?

Each approach offers advantages and drawbacks. A DSL can be used in the writer’s environment of choice, including powerful third-party text editors that may bring decades of design iteration and developer expertise to bear. On the other hand, a DSL can feel much more like programming, perhaps locking out non-engineers from content creation (whether through legitimate skill barriers or mere intimidation). IDEs can be much more user-friendly, but also risk growing overly complex as more and more features are added, and may be more difficult to keep up to date with a changing system. DSLs can offer more power, but IDEs generally make that power easier to deploy.

Authoring in Inke’s pure-IDE Inklewriter (left) vs DSL Ink (right, running in mini-IDE Inky)

Previous interactive narrative systems have used a variety of approaches. Inkle first offered the more IDE-like Inklewriter, but later discontinued it to focus on the easier-to-maintain (and more powerful) DSL, Ink. Twine’s graphical editor for creating nodes, or the in-house Telltale Tool used to create that studio’s narrative games, are each more IDE-like. Inform 7 is a DSL coupled with a powerful IDE with features for automated testing, release packaging, and diagnostics.

When we started designing the authoring tool for Spirit AI’s Character Engine several years ago, we had a number of discussions about the best approach to take. We settled on an IDE in part because one of our key missions is opening up the creation of complex interactive characters to writers more broadly, not just writers with coding experience. The tool has incorporated a few DSL-like conventions from the beginning, though: most notably, a “screenplay” view where authors can sketch in the bulk of their content by typing conventional-looking dialogue, and wait until they’re ready to step out of a creative flow to go back and modify these nodes to make them more dynamic and procedural.

Character Engine Authoring tool Plot View lets you create lines of dialogue just by typing, then go back later to add conditions, effects, procedural text tags, and other details.

A limitation of some IDEs is that their native file formats are not (or not easily) human editable. Authors who do have some programming expertise might find themselves wanting to create custom automation shortcuts, generate batches of similar content procedurally, or create special high-level commands that can be mechanically translated into the system’s native format — things that are all easier to do with a DSL than an IDE. This kind of automation has not previously been possible with Character Engine, but we’re happy to announce that in our upcoming Release 11 we’re switching to a new project format that will make it more possible to achieve these kinds of advanced workflows.

Specifically, our project format is changing from the single-file compressed .aiproj format to a folder with plain text files called a .sheaf. Written in the human-readable TOML format, the .sheaf format provides a number of advantages. It makes it easier for multiple authors to collaborate on the same project via version control, since each authoring change can easily be seen in a diff. It’s now possible to make small edits directly within the .sheaf, outside the context of the authoring tool (although you’ll still want to use the tool for day-to-day editing). But we’re especially excited about the possibility this opens up to integrate writing for Character Engine into more complex authoring workflows.

Example of an authoring update to a .sheaf project in a version control tracker, showing a change where a line had its text edited and a tag removed.

For instance, say you wanted to author a large number of lines with a complex set of preconditions and state-change effects. There were a few ways to achieve this previously — you could put all of these tags in a reusable Fragment used by each line, for instance — but sometimes there was no alternative but to duplicate large numbers of effects and conditions by hand. With the .sheaf format, you could create your own custom marker (say, a comment like #SpecialLine) and use a find/replace tool across the sheaf files to replace this with the full set of tags and conditions you wanted to appear. Other possible uses: automatically generating or importing large numbers of topics or knowledge model entries, project-specific validation (if, say, your scenario requires that each line spoken by Simon must transition to a line spoken by Jerry), or even just running your project through a language- or project-specific spell checker before committing an update.

We’re also working on a standardized Python library for manipulating .sheaf data — although this will not appear in Release 11, since we want to thoroughly exercise it internally before making it public. But we’re hoping when this comes out, it will make it even simpler to procedurally modify .sheafs to your heart’s content.

Sometimes the best solution to the IDE or DSL question is to offer the flexibility to choose whichever approach is best for your current needs. We’re hoping the new .sheaf format is another step towards continuing to make Character Engine useful in a wider and wider variety of scenarios and workflows.

The new format is just one of several new features in Release 11, which will launch in the next few weeks. Look for the official release announcement soon!


More Readable Project Files in Character Engine was originally published in Spirit AI on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Zarf Updates

Heaven's Vault: design ruminations

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at May 24, 2019 02:29 AM

I've played through Heaven's Vault twice now.
At the end of the first run, I had this distinct thought which I had never put into words before. I wrote:
What's the word for when you finish a story, and now you can really start to discover the story? Because, on the second run, the boundaries and spaces of what you can do will be distinguishable from "what I just did". It's this feeling of "I've seen the covers, now I can open the book."
Jon Ingold immediately shot back "archeology", which was on target, but not really the answer. If you are interested in games, you read a game for its interactive structure. That's distinct from reading the story. But in a well-designed game, the interactive structure is part of the story. Or vice versa. They support each other. That's the idea I was trying to get at: the story can't have its full impact until you understand the game mechanics, and you can't fully understand the mechanics until you've run through the story a few times and kicked the boundaries.
This is true of all games; you always think about how else your session might have gone. But it's not always such a present truth! Many games make their boundaries pretty clear on the first run-through. You've already felt your way around the walls, you might say, in the course of making your way to the exit.
I'm not describing games that we think of "linear" vs "nonlinear" (those weakest of game descriptors). When I played through Night in the Woods, I spent my story time talking to Bea. I could have hung out with Gregg instead, and it's clear that would have led to a different story. But I also had a good sense of how it would be different. I might yet replay the game to see those Gregg conversations, and to see any of a number of other story variations. I wouldn't expect to it to be a different game.
Finishing Heaven's Vault was very different! I had the overwhelming sense that I didn't know what kind of game it was yet. I didn't know which of my choices were vital; I didn't even know which of my actions had been choices. And so I started the game over. (Not immediately, but after a break of a couple weeks.)

As it happens, my second HV run-through felt quite similar to my first.
I don't meant it was a disappointment! For one thing, I had a much stronger grasp of the alien language. (The game allows you to keep your translation dictionary across runs. This is a well-chosen, if unsubtle, enticement for those odd people who don't get obsessed with game design questions at the end of round one...)
I don't even mean that the story played out the same way the second time. I visited locations in a different order. I explored many of those locations from different angles. I made a couple of brand-new (-to-me) discoveries. And, to tick the most obvious box, I chose a different "final ending" and changed the fate of the Nebula.
On the other hand: I visited all the same locations, and met all the same people (minus one extra, plus one surprise). I was heading to the same final destination all the time. In broad arc, I was playing the same game. Only every single detail was different, or potentially different.
In some sense Heaven's Vault telegraphs this. It's told in flashback, after all! The first scene you see is the final chapter: under the eye of a watchful god, you and your robot discover a sealed vault.
So you know that this is your final destination. Every possible variation of the story will lead there. You know that you will arrive with the robot. No story branch can end with your death, or the robot's disappearance or destruction. The game has to be about ordering and details.
(But I didn't think about that until the second run-through...)
What the game does best is care about these details, these large-or-tiny variations. You see this most clearly when you fire up a game-in-progress. It opens with a text summary -- a rundown of what you've done so far. Every reviewer praises this feature, but it's not easy to explain how stunningly smooth this summary is. It's not just a bullet-point list of everything you've done. That would be excruciating and unboundedly long.
No, what HV gives you is the story so far. It's the high points; no more than five lines, and they have arc. "You are searching for X, but you've also found Y, which has put you on the trail of Z." Cause and effect. The distinction between "and" and "but".
Furthermore, everything is described in terms of what you know. A location might be "an undiscovered Holy Empire site" or "a Holy Empire garden" or "a Holy Empire mausoleum", depending on whether you've explored it, what you've found, and what you've deduced. One site wound up with completely different descriptors in my first and second run-throughs, because the protagonist discovered slightly different evidence and then came to entirely different conclusions about what had occurred there.
This application of your game history is not just for the opening summaries, by the way. It extends through the entire design. Everything is described in terms of your present knowledge: map labels, navigation choices, references in dialogue. When you leave a site, your character reflects (out loud) on what she's done there and what she might do next. When you arrive in a familiar location, such as your university, she might comment on the tasks she expects to do there -- but only later in the game, when you've built up habits!
It's all powered by the same history-tracking engine, which stores and contextualizes everything from the broad arc of play to the moment-by-moment arc of a conversation. I mentioned the difference between "and" and "but"? You can see this when you're working through one of the linguistic challenges. "This word is right, and this other word is also right." Or: "This word is right, but this other word is wrong." To generate those sentences, HV needs to track successes and failures within the challenge. And the same, at macro scale, for the entire game.

I said my two run-throughs were similar. In some ways I tried to make them as different as possible. I looked at location X before location Y, instead of after. I took different tacks when overcoming certain difficulties. I drank heavily instead of abstaining in the bar.
But I didn't alter my basic approach to play. I was methodical, as I am in most games. I tried to search every location thoroughly, find every artifact, and read every inscription before I left. So it is not surprising that I found the same locations and made most of the same basic discoveries. It was all of the locations, so it was the same list! If I'd taken a hastier and more headstrong tack, I would have had a very different gameplay experience. A journey to the same ending, but with more gaps; no doubt filled by guesswork, perhaps with a very different final perception of how the world had gotten there.
(Less correct, you say? Based on less data, to be sure. But this is archeology: always guesswork in the end. There are always gaps. We'll never know the complete history of the Nebula, no matter how many times we play or how many wiki pages we fill.)
Nonetheless: two play-throughs, even two thorough play-throughs, are two different experiences. And it was striking (the second time!) how many differences derived from small changes of my focus or small differences in timing.
On one moon, I poked around exploring while the robot examined a device. Then, feeling done, I decided to leave. That was in the first run-through. Second run-through: I poked around exploring for a few minutes longer. Hey, says the robot of a sudden, just noticed something about the device! Which led to a question, which led to a conversation, which led to another trip, which led to a revelation that I'd had no clue about in my first session.
This revelation was one of the high dramatic moments of the session. Everything that followed was cast in the new terms that I had discovered. It was what the story was about, at least in part. And yet this moment was so easy to miss! In the first session, I blew right past it; I never knew there was anything to miss.
It wasn't even a choice, from my point of view. The game never presented a menu selection between "explore the moon for eight minutes" vs "explore the moon for ten minutes". It was just a thing I happened to do. And there were several more choices I had to make in order to stumble across this particular plot thread. I happened to ask person X about the robot's discovery, and then suggest plan Y...
If you frame this HV story line as a puzzle, a challenge for the player with story as the reward -- it's a blatantly unfair puzzle. Frame it as an achievement and it's even worse. "Stand here for N minutes, doing nothing, with no feedback"; players reach for their pitchforks.
HV has a few scenes with traditional adventure-game puzzles -- but only a few. To frame it as a puzzle game is just a mistake. You really have to view the game as a big bag of things the player might do. Some of these require patience and methodical search. Some require fiddling with mechanical controls and platforms. Some require treating NPCs in certain ways, or not treating them in other ways. Most require some combination of circumstances which you can't reasonably plan for, in your first game session or any other.
But if any given goal is so "unfairly difficult" to achieve, why play? Because the game isn't about all the stuff that you fail to notice. It's about the one thing you do notice. There's such a density of goals that you are very likely to achieve some of them. Whatever revelation or dramatic moment you reach -- that's what the story is about! ...For you; in that session; do you see? The history-tracking engine is able to seamlessly describe your particular discovery as the arc of the story.
That is to say: you're going to do something, indeed, a great number of things. You'll do the things that suit you as a player: exploring, or searching, or puzzling, waiting, negotiating, flirting. Something. And you'll find some astonishing secret. And whatever you find will be a reward for whatever you did.
This is hard to describe, isn't it? It sounds like a tautology when I say it. And yet I've never seen it done like this.
I grew up with puzzle-fest adventure games. Games that challenge you to do every single thing, and unlock the ending when you do it. Or to make a choice, and unlock the one ending (out of several) which is determined by that choice. Then we had the choice-based style and visual novels, which had branching structure all the way through. Lots of explicit choices, with implicit consequences, and variations of each chapter as you progressed.
More recently, we have the heap-of-side-quests game, like Sunless Skies or Inkle's previous hit 80 Days. In those games, you find a grab-bag of parallel micro-stories in a large universe. As in HV, the micro-stories you find follow what you happen to do; you have no hope of discovering or experiencing them all.
But HV goes beyond that bag-of-quests format. The story threads don't spread out into a haze of disparate starbursts. Every thread is part of the story of the Nebula; they all work towards that final chapter in the vault. And any handful of them make a story. I won't say they're all equally satisfying, but they all feel like plausible middles to that ending. There, that's my tag-line for the game. Forget multiple endings; we've entered the era of games with multiple middles.

Speaking of endings, this blog post probably ought to have one.
You understand that I am, necessarily, talking out my ear. I claim that the real value of Heaven's Vault is all the stories that I've never seen -- that I can't even tell where I missed seeing them. I've only played it twice! How could I even know?
Well, I recall Jon Ingold commenting that nobody can see more than 30% of the game content in a run-through. I know, it's cheating to believe what the designer says, but it fits with my experience. As I said, I've seen a couple of major revelations. I've also seen a few mysteries that I tried to plumb and couldn't. In my sessions, they were mysteries of the past, the lost foundations on which the story rests. But I have no doubt that some path leads down there.
Beyond that, I trust in probability. If I found a couple of treasures by unlikely chance, how many are there to find?