Planet Interactive Fiction

February 24, 2020

Renga in Blue

Zork II: Old Haunts

by Jason Dyer at February 24, 2020 09:41 PM

I’ve made progress, but it hasn’t felt like great progress insofar as it’s been puzzles I remember from Zork mainframe (or in one very special case, when I last played Zork II back in the 1980s). I’m stuck on what seem to be all the “new” puzzles.

Here is an update on both.

Part of the Zork 2 manual. From the Infocom Documentation Project.

First, a few comments on the Wizard

The Wizard of Frobozz is like the thief from Zork I (and mainframe); he can appear anywhere to antagonize you.

A huge and terrible wizard appears before you, as large as the largest tree! He looks down on you as you would look upon a gnat!
The Wizard draws forth his wand and waves it in your direction. It begins to glow with a faint blue glow.
The Wizard, in a deep and resonant voice, speaks the word “Float!” He then vanishes, cackling gleefully.
Slowly, you and all your belongings rise into the air, stopping after about five feet.

There’s a large variety of spells, large enough I’m not sure I’ve seen them all. In addition to Float as shown above, there’s Fence, Freeze, Filch, Float, Fear, Ferment, Feeble, Fantasize, and Fireproof.

Most of the ones above are self-apparent — Filch steals an item, for instance — but I’m not sure what Fantasize does, and Fireproof actually helps the player. (I think? I’ll bring it up again when I talk about the dragon.)

The Wizard draws forth his wand and waves it in your direction. It begins to glow with a faint blue glow.
The Wizard, in a deep and resonant voice, speaks the word “Freeze!” He then vanishes, cackling gleefully.
Your limbs suddenly feel like they have turned to stone. You can’t move a muscle.

I can understand why the Wizard is here — the thief was such a strong aspect of the first game it would have felt wrong to have some sort of replacement — but I find the thief stronger in a ludic sense. You can engage the thief in combat any time you like; there’s a constant sense of danger but it’s a consistent danger. Sometimes when the thief appears he does nothing, but there’s still the feeling like he’s scouting you. The wizard also sometimes does nothing — usually via a misfired spell — and it comes off as comedic.

To put it more directly, if the wizard fouls up my game, usually I just restore a recent save, because I know I’ll likely get through on a second encounter; I never contemplated doing the same for the thief.

I still anticipate the possibility of an interesting showdown, especially based on the scene from dying:

This was not a very safe place to try jumping.

**** You have died ****

Now, let’s take a look here… Well, you probably deserve another chance. I can’t quite fix you up completely, but you can’t have everything.

Room of Red Mist
You are inside a huge crystalline sphere filled with thin red mist. The mist becomes blue to the west.
You strain to look out through the mist…
You see a small room with a sign on the wall, but it is too blurry to read.

Room of Blue Mist
You are inside a huge crystalline sphere filled with thin blue mist. The mist becomes white to the west.
You strain to look out through the mist…
You look out into a large, dreary room with a great door and a huge table. There is an odd glow to the mist.

I have found a blue sphere in the game; it starts in the “large, dreary” room as described above and so the death scene is seeing from the other side.

Room of White Mist
You are inside a huge crystalline sphere filled with thin white mist. The mist becomes black to the west.
You strain to look out through the mist…
A strange blurry room is barely visible.

You follow a corridor of black mist into a black walled spherical room. As you enter, a huge and horrible face materializes out of the mist.

“What brings you here to trouble my imprisonment, wanderer?” it asks. Hearing no immediate answer, it studies you for a moment.
“Perhaps you may be of some use to me in gaining my freedom from this place. Return to your foolish quest! I shall not destroy you this time. Mayhap you will repay this favor in kind someday.” The face vanishes and the mist begins to swirl. When it clears you are returned to the world of life.

I honestly don’t remember what’s going to happen, but I suspect that I’m going to find a black sphere sometime and release whatever is inside — and the only thing around with a power level to match would be the Wizard of Frobozz himself.

The first puzzle I solved

Southeast of the Carousel I wrote about last time is a riddle room

Riddle Room
This is a room which is bare on all sides. There is an exit down in the
northwest corner of the room. To the east is a great open door made of stone.
Above the stone, the following words are written: “No man shall pass this door
without solving this riddle:

What is tall as a house,
round as a cup,
and all the king’s horses
can’t draw it up?”

I remember this puzzle quite distinctly from mainframe Zork — even the time and place I solved it — because I wrote about the riddle, and the room that followed it in detail.

Circular Room
This is a damp circular room, whose walls are made of brick and mortar. The roof of this room is not visible, but there appear to be some etchings on the walls. There is a passageway to the west.
There is a wooden bucket here, 3 feet in diameter and 3 feet high.

I won’t go into detail again here, although this time I needed to pour water in via a teapot; I used the bottle from Zork I last time. It felt like an echo of an alternate past.

There is now a puddle in the bottom of the wooden bucket.
The bucket rises and comes to a stop.

This is followed by a robot you can command via ROBOT, GO EAST and the like (there’s fortunately a paper that gives exact parser directions) and I used to turn off the Carousel. (I don’t remember much from when I played this 30+ years ago but I do know it took me a long time to turn off the Carousel.) Also nearby:

Tea Room
This is a small room containing a large oblong table, no doubt set for afternoon tea. It is clear from the objects on the table that the users were indeed mad. In the eastern corner of the room is a small hole (no more than four inches high). There are passageways leading away to the west and the northwest.
There is a large oblong table here.
Sitting on the large oblong table is:
A cake frosted with red letters
A cake frosted with orange letters
A cake frosted with blue letters
A cake frosted with green letters

Eating the green cake lets you shrink and get into a “pool room” and find a flask with poison gas (no idea what to do with it yet) and some candy (which I’ve bring up again later). Eating the blue cake lets you grow big again.

The second puzzle I solved

On the opposite corner of the map from the riddle room I found the Bank of Zork.

Again, I wrote about this one in detail, but rather much less fondly than the well puzzle. The big difference between the mainframe and commercial versions is an extra paper added as a hint.

The paper is barely readable. You can only make out “… valuables are completely safe … advanced magic technology … impossible to take valuables from the depository … either teller’s … Many customers faint … teller pops in … seems to walk through … walls …”

It still suffers roughly the same problem as the original.

> N
Safety Depository
This is a large rectangular room. The east and west walls were used for storing safety deposit boxes, but all have been carefully removed by evil persons. To the east, west, and south of the room are large doorways. The northern “wall” of the room is a shimmering curtain of light. In the center of the room is a large stone cube, about 10 feet on a side. Engraved on the side of the cube is some lettering.

You feel somewhat disoriented as you pass through…

Small Room
This is a small, bare room with no distinguishing features. There are no exits from this room.

Namely, that while the curtain is a clearly prompted item and “ENTER CURTAIN” is a logical player command (and if the player just tries to go NORTH, the response “There is a curtain of light there.” nudges in the right direction) there is no equivalent help trying to go back the other way around.

You can’t go that way.

This is absolutely the standard response on any invalid direction; one the player most likely has seen many times by this point. In order to get back out, you need to ENTER SOUTH WALL. I realize the idea was to enforce the player really “solving” the puzzle, but I’m still unclear as to the functional difference of walking into a wall intentionally versus accidentally.

Jason Scott commented (back in 2011 when I wrote about this) that he had footage of Dave Lebling apologizing for the Bank puzzle.

Okay, at least there was an improvement attempt. Apology accepted.

The third puzzle I solved

I don’t want to write about it yet. It needs its own post. (For those familiar with the game: it’s the Oddly-angled Room area.)

Things I am stuck on

Having cleared out the puzzles I could do (basically by already knowing the answers) has led me to 135 out of 400 points and total stuckness.

Southwest of the Carousel is a room I can’t open.

Guarded Room
This room is cobwebby and musty, but tracks in the dust show that it has seen visitors recently. At the south end of the room is a stained and battered (but very strong-looking) door. To the north, a corridor exits. Imbedded in the door is a nasty-looking lizard head, with sharp teeth and beady eyes. The lizard is sniffing at you.

> give candy to lizard
The guardian greedily wolfs down the candy, including the package. (It seemed to enjoy the grasshoppers particularly.) It then becomes quiet and its eyes close. (Lizards are known to sleep a long time while digesting their meals.)

Northwest of the Carousel is an Ice Room I can’t get past. An equivalent room in Zork mainframe was solved via a torch which doesn’t exist in this game. (I’ve tried making a torch, but no luck.)

Ice Room
This is a large hall of ancient lava, since worn smooth by the movement of a glacier. A large passage exits to the east and an upward lava tube is at the top of a jumble of fallen rocks.
A mass of ice fills the western half of the room.

Close to both the Ice Room and Bank is a dragon.

> n
Dragon Room
A huge red dragon is lying here, blocking the entrance to a tunnel leading north. Smoke curls from his nostrils and out between his teeth.
Your sword has begun to glow very brightly.

> attack dragon with sword
Dragon hide is tough as steel, but you have succeeded in annoying him a bit. He looks at you as if deciding whether or not to eat you.
The dragon continues to watch you carefully.

> attack dragon with sword
You’ve made him rather angry. You had better be very careful now.
The dragon continues to watch you carefully.

> attack dragon with sword
That captured his interest. He stares at you balefully.
The dragon tires of this game. With an almost bored yawn, he opens his mouth and incinerates you in a blast of white-hot dragon fire.

**** You have died ****

Having FIREPROOF active (via the Wizard) makes one immune to the dragon here. It still doesn’t help in getting by, though.

East of the Carousel is a garden with a unicorn.

North End of Garden
This is the northern end of a formal garden. Hedges hide the cavern walls, and if you don’t look up, the illusion is of a cloudy day outside. The light comes from a large growth of glowing mosses on the roof of the cave. A break in the hedge is almost overgrown to the north. A carefully manicured path leads south. In the center of a rosebed is a small open structure, painted white. It appears to be a gazebo.
There is a beautiful unicorn eating roses here. Around his neck is a red satin ribbon on which is strung a tiny key.

The unicorn bounds away if I try to approach. I suspect the key goes to the lizard room.

South of the Carousel is a menhir.

Menhir Room
This is a large room which was evidently used once as a quarry. Many large limestone chunks lie helter-skelter around the room. Some are rough-hewn and unworked, others smooth and well-finished. One side of the room appears to have been used to quarry building blocks, the other to produce menhirs (standing stones). Obvious passages lead north and south.
One particularly large menhir, at least twenty feet tall and eight feet thick, is leaning against the wall blocking a dark opening leading southwest. On this side of the menhir is carved an ornate letter “F”.

I managed to get an explosion off (using a brick with a string that happens to have been in mainframe Zork) but the game just says:

The explosion appears to have had no effect on the menhir.
The room is cluttered with debris from an explosion. The walls seem ready to collapse.

You can do an explosion in any room in the game. I haven’t found it useful, even on the ice wall. (Rather colorfully, the room really does collapse after a few turns and you can no longer enter — it’s like using the bomb in Spelunker where you can cause permanent change to the geography of the map.)

I don’t otherwise have a lot to work with.

lamp, sword, brick, string, teapot, grue repellent, matchbook, letter opener, newspaper, mat, blue sphere, violin, pearl necklace, bills, portrait, cakes, club, steel box, flask

I suspect I’m stuck on something simple that will break a couple puzzles open once I figure it out, but Infocom itself advertised Zork II as “Advanced Level”, so I may just be overly hopeful.

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Lee Williams, Ironheart

by Mary Duffy at February 24, 2020 02:42 PM

Pilot and customize a giant iron war mech in this alternate medieval history! In 1182 AD, the Papacy, the Caliphate, and the Mongols are at war, and they all have mechs–hulking war robots, powered by energy from mysterious “skystone” meteorites. Our story begins in the far future, on a space mission to intercept a comet that can open wormholes through space and time. When your ship and the crew are sucked in and thrown backward through time, you awake from cryogenic suspension in 1182–at the height of the Third Crusade.

Ironheart is a 250,000-word interactive novel by Lee Williams. I sat down with Lee to talk about his game, the Crusades, and why work-in-progress sharing works. Ironheart releases this Thursday, February 27th. 

Tell me a little about how you came to be writing for Choice of Games.
Like most good things that happen to me, I fell into it unexpectedly. I’ve been writing professionally for almost twenty years and a couple of years back I worked on a project with Gavin Inglis, who’d previously written a couple of excellent COG games, (For Rent: Haunted House and Neighbourhood Necromancer), and he recommended that I pitch some concepts. I was already a fan of the franchise so I followed his advice and here we are!

What drew you to this period of history for the subject of a game of interactive fiction?
I’ve always been fascinated by the Crusades and, in a broader sense, by all places and times where different cultures have rubbed up against one another with such dramatic results, seismic activity along the fault lines of history. It isn’t the conflict that interests me so much as the exchange of ideas and the ways in which the peoples and cultures involved were changed and often enriched by the contact.

The Crusades were vastly more complex than the simple clash of East and West that is often portrayed and I hope I’ve managed to capture some of that in Ironheart. Although I try to avoid having any sort of message or agenda in my writing, I think it’s worthwhile to reflect on this in a time when our own global politics seem to be increasingly polarised.

What was the most challenging part of writing Ironheart for you?
As I was writing, I was conscious of being tugged two ways: on one hand, I love the period and want to make it feel as authentic as I can, but on the other hand, my game has giant mechs in it! I tried hard to hit a sort of swashbuckling mood that could marry the setting and the silliness together and I just hope I’ve been successful.

How did you like working on it in a semi-public way, as a posted WIP on the forum?
I usually write in a complete vacuum so this was a new experience for me and I loved it. The forum was a really helpful source of feedback and encouragement and I made huge changes to the early chapters of the game in response to requests and suggestions from players.

I think it’s especially useful for interactive fiction to be developed in this way since player agency is such a large part of the experience. If I were writing a traditional novel, a reader could say “Oh, I wanted the main character to be more like this” or “I don’t think the main character would have done that” and I could simply dismiss their concerns with a lordly wave of my hand and say “Pshaw! It’s my story and my character, I know how it should be!” In interactive fiction, however, you can’t treat the player/reader like that–they’re in control of the protagonist and if they want to do something and can’t, that’s a fault you have to address.

(I wouldn’t really say “Pshaw” anyway. I had to check how to spell it and I’m not brave enough to try pronouncing it in conversation…)

Did you have a favorite NPC you liked writing? I think Tonzo will be a fan favorite.
He’s probably mine too. They say write what you know so a fool was easy! I especially enjoyed writing his interactions with Guillaume, his elderly master; they seemed like a natural double-act.

To be honest, I enjoyed writing all the characters. The structure of a COG game was really healthy for me as a writer because there’s an expectation that you cover every path a reader might care to take and this means writing a whole range of disparate characters. It forcibly broadens your focus and that’s really invigorating!

What are you working on next?
I’ve recently been able to take on enough writing work that at the start of 2020 I made the decision to step down from my other job, as a special educational needs co-ordinator in a local school. So it’s all clear horizons at the moment, exciting and terrifying in equal measures!

One of the reasons for my change of career was that I’d moved into a more administrative role and missed working with young people, so I’m hoping to marry the teaching and writing together by working on some educational games, with a particular focus on games designed to help children with emotional and behavioural regulation. I think there’s a lot of untapped potential for good in this area.

I also have a couple of collaborations on more traditional video games underway, and I’d love to write something else for Choice of Games in the future. ChoiceScript is a beautiful, flexible language and it’s been an absolute joy working on Ironheart.

Links to all my projects can be found on my website:

XTads etc.

XTads pre-beta 11 is out

by xtadsetc at February 24, 2020 12:42 AM

XTads is a TADS 2/3 interpreter for macOS (version 10.12 Sierra or higher). It’s a GUI application, with native macOS look and feel. Game output is text-only, with partial support for HTML features.

In this version:

  • Improved support for HTML TADS features.
  • Performance improvements.
  • Bug fixes.

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



February 21, 2020

The Digital Antiquarian

Myst (or, The Drawbacks to Success)

by Jimmy Maher at February 21, 2020 06:41 PM

Robyn Miller, one half of the pair of brothers who created the adventure game known as Myst with their small studio Cyan, tells a story about its development that’s irresistible to a writer like me. When the game was nearly finished, he says, its publisher Brøderbund insisted that it be put through “focus-group testing” at their offices. Robyn and his brother Rand reluctantly agreed, and soon the first group of guinea pigs shuffled into Brøderbund’s conference room. Much to its creators’ dismay, they hated the game. But then, just as the Miller brothers were wondering whether they had wasted the past two years of their lives making it, the second group came in. Their reaction was the exact opposite: they loved the game.

So would it be forevermore. Myst would prove to be one of the most polarizing games in history, loved and hated in equal measure. Even today, everyone seems to have a strong opinion about it, whether they’ve actually played it or not.

Myst‘s admirers are numerous enough to have made it the best-selling single adventure game in history, as well as the best-selling 1990s computer game of any type in terms of physical units shifted at retail: over 6 million boxed copies sold between its release in 1993 and the dawn of the new millennium. In the years immediately after its release, it was trumpeted at every level of the mainstream press as the herald of a new, dawning age of maturity and aesthetic sophistication in games. Then, by the end of the decade, it was lamented as a symbol of what games might have become, if only the culture of gaming had chosen it rather than the near-simultaneously-released Doom as its model for the future. Whatever the merits of that argument, the hardcore Myst lovers remained numerous enough in later years to support five sequels, a series of novels, a tabletop role-playing game, and multiple remakes and remasters of the work which began it all. Their passion was such that, when Cyan gave up on an attempt to turn Myst into a massively-multiplayer game, the fans stepped in to set up their own servers and keep it alive themselves.

And yet, for all the love it’s inspired, the game’s detractors are if anything even more committed than its proponents. For a huge swath of gamers, Myst has become the poster child for a certain species of boring, minimally interactive snooze-fest created by people who have no business making games — and, runs the spoken or unspoken corollary, played by people who have no business playing them. Much of this vitriol comes from the crowd who hate any game that isn’t violent and visceral on principle.

But the more interesting and perhaps telling brand of hatred comes from self-acknowledged fans of the adventure-game genre. These folks were usually raised on the Sierra and LucasArts traditions of third-person adventures — games that were filled with other characters to interact with, objects to pick up and carry around and use to solve puzzles, and complicated plot arcs unfolding chapter by chapter. They have a decided aversion to the first-person, minimalist, deserted, austere Myst, sometimes going so far as to say that it isn’t really an adventure game at all. But, however they categorize it, they’re happy to credit it with all but killing the adventure genre dead by the end of the 1990s. Myst, so this narrative goes, prompted dozens of studios to abandon storytelling and characters in favor of yet more sterile, hermetically sealed worlds just like its. And when the people understandably rejected this airless vision, that was that for the adventure game writ large. Some of the hatred directed toward Myst by stalwart adventure fans — not only fans of third-person graphic adventures, but, going even further back, fans of text adventures — reaches an almost poetic fever pitch. A personal favorite of mine is the description deployed by Michael Bywater, who in previous lives was himself an author of textual interactive fiction. Myst, he says, is just “a post-hippie HyperCard stack with a rather good music loop.”

After listening to the cultural dialog — or shouting match! — which has so long surrounded Myst, one’s first encounter with the actual artifact that spurred it all can be more than a little anticlimactic. Seen strictly as a computer game, Myst is… okay. Maybe even pretty good. It strikes this critic at least as far from the best or worst game of its year, much less of its decade, still less of all gaming history. Its imagery is well-composited and occasionally striking, its sound and music design equally apt. The sense of desolate, immersive beauty it all conveys can be strangely affecting, and it’s married to puzzle-design instincts that are reasonable and fair. Myst‘s reputation in some quarters as impossible, illogical, or essentially unplayable is unearned; apart from some pixel hunts and perhaps the one extended maze, there’s little to really complain about on that front. On the contrary: there’s a definite logic to its mechanical puzzles, and figuring out how its machinery works through trial and error and careful note-taking, then putting your deductions into practice, is genuinely rewarding, assuming you enjoy that sort of thing.

At same time, though, there’s just not a whole lot of there there. Certainly there’s no deeper meaning to be found; Myst never tries to be about more than exploring a striking environment and solving intricate puzzles. “When we started, we wanted to make a [thematic] statement, but the project was so big and took so much effort that we didn’t have the energy or time to put much into that part of it,” admits Robyn Miller. “So, we decided to just make a neat world, a neat adventure, and say important things another time.” And indeed, a “neat world” and “neat adventure” are fine ways of describing Myst.

Depending on your preconceptions going in, actually playing Myst for the first time is like going to meet your savior or the antichrist, only to find a pleasant middle-aged fellow who offers to pour you a cup of tea. It’s at this point that the questions begin. Why does such an inoffensive game offend so many people? Why did such a quietly non-controversial game become such a magnet for controversy? And the biggest question of all: why did such a simple little game, made by five people using only off-the-shelf consumer software, become one of the most (in)famous money spinners in the history of the computer-games industry?

We may not be able to answers all of these whys to our complete satisfaction; much of the story of Myst surely comes down to sheer happenstance, to the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings somewhere on the other side of the world. But we can at least do a reasonably good job with the whats and hows of Myst. So, let’s consider now what brought Myst about and how it became the unlikely success it did. After that, we can return once again to its proponents and its detractors, and try to split the difference between Myst as gaming’s savior and Myst as gaming’s antichrist.

Rand Miller

Robyn Miller

If nothing else, the origin story of Myst is enough to make one believe in karma. As I wrote in an earlier article, the Miller brothers and their company Cyan came out of the creative explosion which followed Apple’s 1987 release of HyperCard, a unique Macintosh authoring system which let countless people just like them experiment for the first time with interactive multimedia and hypertext. Cyan’s first finished project was The Manhole. Published in November of 1988 by Mediagenic, it was a goal-less software toy aimed at children, a virtual fairy-tale world to explore. Six months later, Mediagenic added music and sound effects and released it on CD-ROM, marking the first entertainment product ever to appear on that medium. The next couple of years brought two more interactive explorations for children from Cyan, published on floppy disk and CD-ROM.

Even as these were being published, however, the wheels were gradually coming off of Mediagenic, thanks to a massive patent-infringement lawsuit they lost to the Dutch electronics giant Philips and a whole string of other poor decisions and unfortunate events. In February of 1991, a young bright spark named Bobby Kotick seized Mediagenic in a hostile takeover, reverting the company to its older name of Activision. By this point, the Miller brothers were getting tired of making whimsical children’s toys; they were itching to make a real game, with a goal and puzzles. But when they asked Activision’s new management for permission to do so, they were ordered to “keep doing what you’ve been doing.” Shortly thereafter, Kotick announced that he was taking Activision into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. After he did so, Activision simply stopped paying Cyan the royalties on which they depended. The Miller brothers were lost at sea, with no income stream and no relationships with any other publishers.

But at the last minute, they were thrown an unexpected lifeline. Lo and behold, the Japanese publisher Sunsoft came along offering to pay Cyan $265,000 to make a CD-ROM-based adult adventure game in the same general style as their children’s creations — i.e., exactly what the Miller brothers had recently asked Activision for permission to do. Sunsoft was convinced that there would be major potential for such a game on the upcoming generation of CD-ROM-based videogame consoles and multimedia set-top boxes for the living room — so convinced, in fact, that they were willing to fund the development of the game on the Macintosh and take on the job of porting it to these non-computer platforms themselves, all whilst signing over the rights to the computer version(s) to Cyan for free. The Miller brothers, reduced by this point to a diet of “rice and beans and government cheese,” as Robyn puts it, knew deliverance when they saw it. They couldn’t sign the contract fast enough. Meanwhile Activision had just lost out on the chance to release what would turn out to be one of the games of the decade.

But of course the folks at Cyan were as blissfully unaware of that future as those at Activision. They simply breathed sighs of relief and started making their game. In time, Cyan signed a contract with Brøderbund to release the computer versions of their game, starting with the Macintosh original.

Myst certainly didn’t begin as any conscious attempt to re-imagine the adventure-game form. Those who later insisted on seeing it in almost ideological terms, as a sort of artistic manifesto, were often shocked when they first met the Miller brothers in person. This pair of plain-spoken, baseball-cap-wearing country boys were anything but ideologues, much less stereotypical artistes. Instead they seemed a perfect match for the environs in which they worked: an unassuming two-story garage in Spokane, Washington, far from any centers of culture or technology. Their game’s unique personality actually stemmed from two random happenstances rather than any messianic fervor.

One of these was — to put it bluntly — their sheer ignorance. Working on the minority platform that was the Macintosh, specializing up to this point in idiosyncratic children’s software, the Miller brothers were oddly disengaged from the computer-games industry whose story I’ve been telling in so many other articles here. By their own account, they had literally never even seen any of the contemporary adventure games from companies like LucasArts and Sierra before making Myst. In fact, Robyn Miller says today that he had only played one computer game in his life to that point: Infocom’s ten-year-old Zork II. Rand Miller, being the older brother, the first mover behind their endeavors, and the more technically adept of the pair, was perhaps a bit more plugged-in, but only a bit.

The other circumstance which shaped Myst was the technology employed to create it. This statement is true of any game, but it becomes even more salient here because the technology in question was so different from that employed by other adventure creators. Myst is indeed simply a HyperCard stack — the “hippie-dippy” is in the eye of the beholder — gluing together pictures generated by the 3D modeler StrataVision. During the second half of its development, a third everyday Macintosh software package made its mark: Apple’s QuickTime video system, which allowed Myst‘s creators to insert snippets of themselves playing the roles of the people who previously visited the semi-ruined worlds you spend the game exploring. All of these tools are presentation-level tools, not conventional game-building ones. Seen in this light, it’s little surprise that so much of Myst is surface. At bottom, it’s a giant hypertext done in pictures, with very little in the way of systems of any sort behind it, much less any pretense of world simulation. You wander through its nodes, in some of which you can click on something, which causes some arbitrary event to happen. The one place where the production does interest itself in a state which exists behind its visuals is in the handful of mechanical devices found scattered over each of its landscapes, whose repair and/or manipulation form the basis of the puzzles that turn Myst into a game rather than an unusually immersive slideshow.

In making Myst, each brother fell into the role he was used to from Cyan’s children’s projects. The brothers together came up with the story and world design, then Robyn went off to do the art and music while Rand did the technical plumbing in HyperCard. One Chuck Carter helped Robyn on the art side and Rich Watson helped Rand on the programming side, while Chris Brandkamp produced the intriguing, evocative environmental soundscape by all sorts of improvised means: banging a wrench against the wall or blowing bubbles in a toilet bowl, then manipulating the samples to yield something appropriately other-worldly. And that was the entire team. It was a shoestring operation, amateurish in the best sense. The only thing that distinguished the boys at Cyan from a hundred thousand other hobbyists playing with the latest creative tools on their own Macs was the fact that Cyan had a contract to do so — and a commensurate quantity of real, raw talent, of course.

Ironically given that Myst was treated as such a cutting-edge product at the time of its release, in terms of design it’s something of a throwback — a fact that does become less surprising when one considers that its creators’ experience with adventure games stopped in the early 1980s. A raging debate had once taken place in adventure circles over whether the ideal protagonist should be a blank slate, imprintable by the player herself, or a fully-fleshed-out role for the player to inhabit. The verdict had largely come down on the side of the latter as games’ plots had grown more ambitious, but the whole discussion had passed the Miller brothers by.

So, with Myst we were back to the old “nameless, faceless adventurer” paradigm which Sierra and LucasArts had long since abandoned. Myst actively encourages you to think of it as yourself there in its world. The story begins when you open a mysterious book here on our world, whereupon you get sucked into an alternate dimension and find yourself standing on the dock of a deserted island. You soon learn that you’re following a trail first blazed by a father and his two sons, all of whom had the ability to hop about between dimensions — or “ages,” as the game calls them — and alter them to their will. Unfortunately, the father is now said to be dead, while the two brothers have each been trapped in a separate interdimensional limbo, each blaming the other for their father’s death. (These themes of sibling rivalry have caused much comment over the years, especially in light of the fact that each brother in the game is played by one of the real Miller brothers. But said real brothers have always insisted that there are no deeper meanings to be gleaned here…)

You can access four more worlds from the central island just as soon as you solve the requisite puzzles. In each of them, you must find a page of a magical book. Putting the pages together, along with a fifth page found on the central island, allows you to free the brother of your choice, or to do… something else, which actually leads to the best ending. This last-minute branch to an otherwise unmalleable story is a technique we see in a fair number of other adventure games wishing to make a claim to the status of genuinely interactive fictions. (In practice, of course, players of those games and Myst alike simply save before the final choice and check out all of the endings.)

For all its emphasis on visuals, Myst is designed much like a vintage text adventure in many ways. Even setting aside its explicit maze, its network of discrete, mostly empty locations resembles the map from an old-school text adventure, where navigation is half the challenge. Similarly, its complex environmental puzzles, where something done in one location may have an effect on the other side of the map, smacks of one of Infocom’s more cerebral, austere games, such as Zork III or Spellbreaker.

This is not to say that Myst is a conscious throwback; the nature of the puzzles, like so much else about the game, is as much determined by the Miller brothers’ ignorance of contemporary trends in adventure design as by the technical constraints under which they labored. Among the latter was the impossibility of even letting the player pick things up and carry them around to use elsewhere. Utterly unfazed, Rand Miller coined an aphorism: “Turn your problems into features.” Thus Myst‘s many vaguely steam-punky mechanical puzzles, all switches to throw and ponderous wheels to set in motion, are dictated as much by its designers’ inability to implement a player inventory as by their acknowledged love for Jules Verne.

And yet, whatever the technological determinism that spawned it, this style of puzzle design truly was a breath of fresh air for gamers who had grown tired of the “use this object on that hotspot” puzzles of Sierra and LucasArts. To their eternal credit, the Miller brothers took this aspect of the design very seriously, giving their puzzles far more thought than Sierra at least tended to do. They went into Myst with no experience designing puzzles, and their insecurity  about this aspect of their craft was perhaps their ironic saving grace. Before they even had a computer game to show people, they spent hours walking outsiders through their scenario Dungeons & Dragons-style, telling them what they saw and listening to how they tried to progress. And once they did have a working world on the computer, they spent more hours sitting behind players, watching what they did. Robyn Miller, asked in an interview shortly after the game’s release whether there was anything he “hated,” summed up thusly their commitment to consistent, logical puzzle design and world-building (in Myst, the two are largely one and the same):

Seriously, we hate stuff without integrity. Supposed “art” that lacks attention to detail. That bothers me a lot. Done by people who are forced into doing it or who are doing it for formula reasons and monetary reasons. It’s great to see something that has integrity. It makes you feel good. The opposite of that is something I dislike.

We tried to create something — a fantastic world — in a very realistic way. Creating a fantasy world in an unrealistic way is the worst type of fantasy. In Jurassic Park, the idea of dinosaurs coming to life in the twentieth century is great. But it works in that movie because they also made it believable. That’s how the idea and the execution of that idea mix to create a truly great experience.

Taken as a whole, Myst is a master class in designing around constraints. Plenty of games have been ruined by designers whose reach exceeded their core technology’s grasp. We can see this phenomenon as far back as the time of Scott Adams: his earliest text adventures were compact marvels, but quickly spiraled into insoluble incoherence when he started pushing beyond what his simplistic parsers and world models could realistically present. Myst, then, is an artwork of the possible. Managing inventory, with the need for a separate inventory screen and all the complexities of coding this portable object interacting on that other thing in the world, would have stretched HyperCard past the breaking point. So, it’s gone. Interactive conversations would have been similarly prohibitive with the technology at the Millers’ fingertips. So, they devised a clever dodge, showing the few characters that exist only as recordings, or through one-way screens where you can see them, but they can’t see (or hear) you; that way, a single QuickTime video clip is enough to do the trick. In paring things back so dramatically, the Millers wound up with an adventure game unlike any that had been seen before. Their problems really did become their game’s features.

For the most part, anyway. The networks of nodes and pre-rendered static views that constitute the worlds of Myst can be needlessly frustrating to navigate, thanks to the way that the views prioritize aesthetics over consistency; rotating your view in place sometimes turns you 90 degrees, sometimes 180 degrees, sometimes somewhere in between, according to what the designers believed would provide the most striking image. Orienting yourself and moving about the landscape can thus be a confusing process. One might complain as well that it’s a slow one, what with all the empty nodes which you must move through to get pretty much anywhere — often just to see if something you’ve done on one side of the map has had any effect on something on its other side. Again, a comparison with the twisty little passages of an old-school text adventure, filled with mostly empty rooms, does strike me as thoroughly apt.

On the other hand, a certain glaciality of pacing seems part and parcel of what Myst fundamentally is. This is not a game for the impatient. It’s rather targeted at two broad types of player: the aesthete, who will be content just to wander the landscape taking in the views, perhaps turning to a walkthrough to be able to see all of the worlds; and the dedicated puzzle solver, willing to pull out paper and pencil and really dig into the task of understanding how all this strange machinery hangs together. Both groups have expressed their love for Myst over the years, albeit in terms which could almost convince you they’re talking about two entirely separate games.

So much for Myst the artifact. What of Myst the cultural phenomenon?

The origins of the latter can be traced to the Miller brothers’ wise decision to take their game to Brøderbund. Brøderbund tended to publish fewer products per year than their peers at Electronic Arts, Sierra, or the lost and unlamented Mediagenic, but they were masterful curators, with a talent for spotting software which ordinary Americans might want to buy and then packaging and marketing it perfectly to reach them. (Their insistence on focus testing, so confusing to the Millers, is proof of their competence; it’s hard to imagine any other publisher of the time even thinking of such a thing.) Brøderbund published a string of products over the course of a decade or more which became more than just hits; they became cultural icons of their time, getting significant attention in the mainstream press in addition to the computer magazines: The Print Shop, Carmen Sandiego, Lode Runner, Prince of Persia, SimCity. And now Myst was about to become the capstone to a rather extraordinary decade, their most successful and iconic release of all.

Brøderbund first published the game on the Macintosh in September of 1993, where it was greeted with rave reviews. Not a lot of games originated on the Mac at all, so a new and compelling one was always a big event. Mac users tended to conceive of themselves as the sophisticates of the computer world, wearing their minority status as a badge of pride. Myst hit the mark beautifully here; it was the Mac-iest of Mac games. MacWorld magazine’s review is a rather hilarious example of a homer call. “It’s been polished until it shines,” wrote the magazine. Then, in the next paragraph: “We did encounter a couple of glitches and frozen screens.” Oh, well.

Helped along by press like this, Myst came out of the gates strong. By one report, it sold 200,000 copies on the Macintosh alone in its first six months. If correct or even close to correct, those numbers are extraordinary; they’re the numbers of a hit even on the gaming Mecca that was the Wintel world, much less on the Mac, with its vastly smaller user base.

Still, Brøderbund knew that Myst‘s real opportunity lay with those selfsame plebeian Wintel machines which most Mac users, the Miller brothers included, disdained. Just as soon as Cyan delivered the Mac version, Brøderbund set up an internal team — larger than the Cyan team which had made the game in the first place — to do the port as quickly as possible. Importantly, Myst was ported not to bare MS-DOS, where almost all “hardcore” games still resided, but to Windows, where the new demographics which Brøderbund hoped to attract spent all of their time. Luckily, the game’s slideshow visuals were possible even under Windows’s sluggish graphics libraries, and Apple had recently ported their QuickTime video system to Microsoft’s platform. The Windows version of Myst shipped in March of 1994.

And now Brøderbund’s marketing got going in earnest, pushing the game as the one showcase product which every purchaser of a new multimedia PC simply had to have. At the time, most CD-ROM based games also shipped in a less impressive floppy-disk-based version, with the latter often still outselling the former. But Brøderbund and Cyan made the brave choice not to attempt a floppy-disk version at all. The gamble paid off beautifully, furthering the carefully cultivated aspirational quality which already clung to Myst, now billed as the game which simply couldn’t be done on floppy disk. Brøderbund’s lush advertisements had a refined, adult air about them which made them stand out from the dragons, spaceships, and scantily-clad babes that constituted the usual motifs of game advertising. As the crowning touch, Brøderbund devised a slick tagline: Myst was “the surrealistic adventure that will become your world.” The Miller brothers scoffed at this piece of marketing-speak — until they saw how Myst was flying off the shelves in the wake of it.

So, through a combination of lucky timing and precision marketing, Myst blew up huge. I say this not to diminish its merits as a puzzle-solving adventure game, which are substantial, but simply because I don’t believe those merits were terribly relevant to the vast majority of people who purchased it. A parallel can be drawn with Infocom’s game of Zork, which similarly surfed a techno-cultural wave a decade before Myst. It was on the scene just as home computers were first being promoted in the American media as the logical, more permanent successors to the videogame-console fad. For a time, Zork, with its ability to parse pseudo-natural-English sentences, was seen by computer salespeople as the best overall demonstration of what a computer could do; they therefore showed it to their customers as a matter of course. And so, when countless new computer systems went home with their new owners, there was also a copy of Zork in the bag. The result was Infocom’s best-selling game of all time, to the tune of almost 400,000 copies sold.

Myst now played the same role in a new home-computer boom. The difference was that, while the first boom had fizzled rather quickly when people realized of what limited practical utility those early machines actually were, this second boom would be a far more sustained affair. In fact, it would become the most sustained boom in the history of the consumer PC, stretching from approximately 1993 right through the balance of the decade, with every year breaking the sales records set by the previous one. The implications for Myst, which arrived just as the boom was beginning, were titanic. Even long after it ceased to be particularly cutting-edge, it continued to be regarded as an essential accessory for every PC, to be tossed into the bags carried home from computer stores by people who would never buy another game.

Myst had already established its status by the time the hype over the World Wide Web and Windows 95 really lit a fire under computer sales in 1995. It passed the 1 million copy mark in the spring of that year. By the same point, a quickie “strategy guide” published by Prima, ideal for the many players who just wanted to take in its sights without worrying about its puzzles, had passed an extraordinary 300,000 copies sold — thus making its co-authors, who’d spent all of three weeks working on it, the two luckiest walkthrough authors in history. Defying all of the games industry’s usual logic, which dictated that titles sold in big numbers for only a few months before fizzling out, Myst‘s sales just kept accelerating from there. It sold 850,000 copies in 1996 in the United States alone, then another 870,000 copies in 1997. Only in 1998 did it finally begin to flag, posting domestic sales of just 540,000 copies. Fortunately, the European market for multimedia PCs, which lagged a few years behind the American one, was now also burning bright, opening up whole new frontiers for Myst. Its total retail sales topped 6 million by 2000, at least 2 million of them outside of North America. Still more copies — it’s impossible to say how many — had shipped as pack-in bonuses with multimedia upgrade kits and the like. Meanwhile, under the terms of Sunsoft’s original agreement with Cyan, it was also ported by the former to the Sega Saturn, Atari Jaguar, 3DO, and CD-I living-room consoles. Myst was so successful that another publisher came out with an elaborate parody of it as a full-fledged computer game in its own right, under the indelible title of Pyst. Considering that it featured the popular sitcom star John Goodman, Pyst must have cost far more to make than the shoestring production it mocked.

As we look at the staggering scale of Myst‘s success, we can’t avoid returning to that vexing question of why it all should have come to be. Yes, Brøderbund’s marketing campaign was brilliant, but there must be more to it than that. Certainly we’re far from the first to wonder about it all. As early as December of 1994, Newsweek magazine noted that “in the gimmick-dominated world of computer games, Myst should be the equivalent of an art film, destined to gather critical acclaim and then dust on the shelves.” So why was it selling better than guaranteed crowd-pleasers with names like Star Wars on their boxes?

It’s not that it’s that difficult to pinpoint some of the other reasons why Myst should have been reasonably successful. It was a good-looking game that took full advantage of CD-ROM, at a time when many computer users — non-gamers almost as much as gamers — were eager for such things to demonstrate the power of their new multimedia wundermachines. And its distribution medium undoubtedly helped its sales in another way: in this time before CD burners became commonplace, it was immune to the piracy that many publishers claimed was costing them at least half their sales of floppy-disk-based games.

Likewise, a possible explanation for Myst‘s longevity after it was no longer so cutting-edge might be the specific technological and aesthetic choices made by the Miller brothers. Many other products of the first gush of the CD-ROM revolution came to look painfully, irredeemably tacky just a couple of years after they had dazzled, thanks to their reliance on grainy video clips of terrible actors chewing up green-screened scenery. While Myst did make some use of this type of “full-motion video,” it was much more restrained in this respect than many of its competitors. As a result, it aged much better. By the end of the 1990s, its graphics resolution and color count might have been a bit lower than those of the latest games, and it might not have been quite as stunning at first glance as it once had been, but it remained an elegant, visually-appealing experience on the whole.

Yet even these proximate causes don’t come close to providing a full explanation of why this art film in game form sold like a blockbuster. There are plenty of other games of equal or even greater overall merit to which they apply equally well, but none of them sold in excess of 6 million copies. Perhaps all we can do in the end is chalk it up to the inexplicable vagaries of chance. Computer sellers and buyers, it seems, needed a go-to game to show what was possible when CD-ROM was combined with decent graphics and sound cards. Myst was lucky enough to become that game. Although its puzzles were complex, simply taking in its scenery was disarmingly simple, making it perfect for the role. The perfect product at the perfect time, perfectly marketed.

In a sense, Myst the phenomenon didn’t do that other MystMyst the actual artifact, the game we can still play today — any favors at all. The latter seems destined always to be judged in relation to the former, and destined always to be found lacking. Demanding that what is in reality a well-designed, aesthetically pleasing game live up to the earth-shaking standards implied by Myst‘s sales numbers is unfair on the face of it; it wasn’t the fault of the Miller brothers, humble craftsmen with the right attitude toward their work, that said work wound up selling 6 million copies. Nevertheless, we feel compelled to judge it, at least to some extent, with the knowledge of its commercial and cultural significance firmly in mind. And in this context especially, some of its detractors’ claims do have a ring of truth.

Arguably the truthiest of all of them is the oft-repeated old saw that no other game was bought by so many people and yet really, seriously played by so few of its purchasers. While such a hyperbolic claim is impossible to truly verify, there is a considerable amount of circumstantial evidence pointing in exactly that direction. The exceptional sales of the strategy guide are perhaps a wash; they can be as easily ascribed to serious players wanting to really dig into the game as they can to casual purchasers just wanting to see all the pretty pictures on the CD-ROM. Other factors, however, are harder to dismiss. The fact is, Myst is hard by casual-game standards — so hard that Brøderbund included a blank pad of paper in the box for the purpose of keeping notes. If we believe that all or most of its buyers made serious use of that notepad, we have to ask where these millions of people interested in such a cerebral, austere, logical experience were before it materialized, and where they went thereafter. Even the Miller brothers themselves — hardly an unbiased jury — admit that by their best estimates no more than 50 percent of the people who bought Myst ever got beyond the starting island. Personally, I tend to suspect that the number is much lower than that.

Perhaps the most telling evidence for Myst as the game which everyone had but hardly anyone played is found in a comparison with one of its contemporaries: id Software’s Doom, the other decade-dominating blockbuster of 1993 (a game about which I’ll be writing much more in a future article). Doom indisputably was played, and played extensively. While it wasn’t quite the first running-around-and-shooting-things-from-a-first-person-perspective game, it did became so popular that games of its type were codified as a new genre unto themselves. The first-person shooters which followed Doom in the 1990s were among the most popular games of their era. Many of their titles are known to gamers today who weren’t yet born when they debuted: titles like Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Half-Life, Unreal. Myst prompted just as many copycats, but these were markedly less popular and are markedly less remembered today: AMBER: Journeys Beyond, Zork Nemesis, Rama, Obsidian. Only Cyan’s own eventual sequel to Myst can be found among the decade’s bestsellers, and even it’s a definite case of diminishing commercial returns, despite being a rather brilliant game in its own right. In short, any game which sold as well as Myst, and which was seriously played by a proportionate number of people, ought to have left a bigger imprint on ludic culture than this one did.

But none of this should affect your decision about whether to play Myst today, assuming you haven’t yet gotten around to it. Stripped of all its weighty historical context, it’s a fine little adventure game if not an earth-shattering one, intriguing for anyone with the puzzle-solving gene, infuriating for anyone without it. You know what I mean… sort of a niche experience. One that just happened to sell 6 million copies.

(Sources: the books Myst: Prima’s Official Strategy Guide by Rick Barba and Rusel DeMaria, Myst & Riven: The World of the D’ni by Mark J.P. Wolf, and The Secret History of Mac Gaming by Richard Moss; Computer Gaming World of December 1993; MacWorld of March 1994; CD-ROM Today of Winter 1993. Online sources include “Two Histories of Myst” by John-Gabriel Adkins, Ars Technica‘s interview with Rand Miller, Ryan Miller’s postmortem of Myst at the 2013 Game Developers Conference, GameSpot‘s old piece on Myst as one of the “15 Most Influential Games of All Time,” and Greg Lindsay’s Salon column on Myst as a “dead end.” Michael Bywater’s colorful comments about Myst come from Peter Verdi’s now-defunct Magnetic Scrolls fan site, a dump of which Stefan Meier dug up for me from his hard drive several years ago. Thanks again, Stefan!

The “Masterpiece Edition” of Myst is available for purchase from

Choice of Games

Choice of Games’ The Magician’s Workshop by Kate Heartfield is a Nebula Finalist

by Mary Duffy at February 21, 2020 05:42 PM

We’re proud to announce that The Magician’s Workshop is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Game Writing Award–and it’s on sale this week!

Last year the renowned science fiction and fantasy awards added a game writing category, and Choice of Games authors M. Darusha Wehm (The Martian Job), Natalia Theodoridou (Rent-a-Vice), and Kate Heartfield (The Road to Canterbury) were finalists, alongside (winner) Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, and Santa Monica Studio’s God of War.

This year, Kate Heartfield has again been named a finalist for her game The Magician’s Workshop, and we’re celebrating by putting it on sale until February 27th! The game is on sale on Android, Steam, and the Choice of Games Omnibus app on iOS.

The Nebula Awards take place at the end of May: watch this space and keep your fingers crossed for our finalist!

Our Hidden Gems Are on Sale!

by Mary Duffy at February 21, 2020 05:42 PM

Thanks to a very scientific poll conducted on our forums, we’re proud to announce that our “most underrated” games, aka the hidden gems, are on sale until February 27th!

Pick them up on the platform of your choice–Android, Android Omnibus app, iOS and iOS Omnibus app, Steam (where applicable), the website, and on the Amazon Android Marketplace! 

Choice of Games Titles: $2.99 USD EACH!
Avatar of the Wolf
Cannonfire Concerto
Sixth Grade Detective

Hosted Games Titles:
Divided We Fall now $0.99!
Elemental Saga: The Awakening now $1.99
Marine Raider now $0.99
My Day Off Work now $2.99
The Saga of Oedipus Rex now $2.99

February 20, 2020

Renga in Blue

Zork II (1981)

by Jason Dyer at February 20, 2020 05:41 PM

In 1980, Infocom sold the TRS-80 version of Zork I through Personal Software (it didn’t sell very well). By Februrary 1981, they released an Apple II version, also through Personal Software (it did much better).

By mid-1981 Infocom was preparing to release Zork II (they signed a contract in June) but Personal Software’s VisiCalc spreadsheet software hit such big sales that they decide to drop publishing games entirely. This led the founders of Infocom to decide to become their own publishers. By the end of the year they had released Zork II in time for Christmas.

The manual for Zork II gives credits to Marc Blank and Dave Lebling. It includes some of the material cut when Zork mainframe was ported to Zork I, but is still very much its own game, most notably for replacing the thief antagonist with the Wizard of Frobozz. From the back of the package:

As you explore the subterranean realm of Zork, you’ll continually be confronted with new surprises. Chief among these is the Wizard himself, who’ll constantly endeavor to confound you with his capricious powers. But more than that, you’ll face a challenge the likes of which you’ve never experienced before.

It begins right where Zork I left off, at the ancient barrow.

Inside the Barrow
You are inside an ancient barrow hidden deep within a dark forest. The barrow opens into a narrow tunnel at its southern end. You can see a faint glow at the far end.
A sword of Elvish workmanship is on the ground.
A strangely familiar brass lantern is lying on the ground.

I appreciate the “old friend” feel of having the lantern and sword awaiting.

Path Near Stream
The path follows the south edge of a deep ravine and heads northeast. A tunnel heads southwest, narrowing to a rather tight crawl. A faint whirring sound can be heard in that direction. On the east is a ruined archway choked with vegetation.

Carousel Room
You are in a large circular room whose high ceiling is lost in gloom. Eight identical passages leave the room.
A loud whirring sound comes from all around, and you feel sort of disoriented in here.

Here I reach my first quibble with Zork II compared to Zork I — I really dislike this room. Trying to leave sends the player in a random direction.

You’re not sure which direction is which. This room is very disorienting.

This is the southern end of a formal garden. Hedges hide the cavern walls and mosses provide dim illumination. Fantastically shaped hedges and bushes are arrayed with geometric precision. They have not recently been clipped, but you can discern creatures in the shapes of the bushes: There is a dragon, a unicorn, a great serpent, a huge misshapen dog, and several human figures. On the west side of the garden the path leads through a rose arbor into a tunnel.

The opening of Zork I had a wide airy space, the iconic house, a slow entry, and an intriguing mystery with the trap door being locked behind the player. The RNG spinner here is essentially the first element of Zork II, and I don’t think I’m too fussy in saying it’s less compelling.

Still, I remember Zork II being fine otherwise, but it’s been a long time since I’ve played, and while no doubt some puzzle solutions are identical to Zork mainframe (which I do mostly remember thanks to me writing about it) I’m likely in for some surprises.

Downward to danger!

Choice of Games

Zip! Speedster of Valiant City–Use your speedster powers to battle villains!

by Mary Duffy at February 20, 2020 03:42 PM

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

It’s free to win, and $4.99 to turn off advertisements and delay breaks, discounted to $2.99 until February 27th! Turning off ads also unlocks special content!

Please note this is a special, omnibus-only release on mobile.

Use your speedster powers to defeat the superpowered Sloth and save the day, all while tracking down a deadly new weapon threatening your city! There’s no room for error in the hero business, not even for the fastest person in the world. One tiny mistake against your deadliest foe threatens to end your career and plunge your city in chaos.

Zip! Speedster of Valiant City is a 48,000-word superpowered interactive novel by Eric Moser. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

As a superpowered hero, you’ve beaten the Sloth before, but this time he’s finally gotten the upper hand (claw?) and he’s aiming his deadly new device right at the innocent citizens of Valiant City. It’s up to you to stop him and his terrible machine before time runs out!

  • Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, or bi.
  • Use your speed powers to battle an array of superpowered foes.
  • When facing especially tough decisions, use your limited supply of Juice to run even faster.
  • Focus on your struggling relationship with your romantic partner or flirt with a new hero.
  • Train your snarky sidekick to prepare for battle with the Sloth, or leave her to make her own mistakes.
  • Unleash your powers to run for mayor, land a lucrative endorsement deal, or run your enemies out of town.
  • Destroy the Sloth’s machine, learn how to disarm it, or even convince to Sloth to give up his criminal scheme.
  • Paying to turn off advertisements (or buying the whole game on Steam) will also unlock a special power boost feature!

Are you fast enough to thwart the Sloth’s scheme and save the day?

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

Zarf Updates

Randomness with temperature

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at February 20, 2020 02:49 AM

If you've messed around with neural net packages, or even read about them, you've probably encountered the idea of a "temperature parameter". This is usually described as some kind of chaos level. If the temperature is low, the algorithm is boring and sticks close to the source material. If the temperature is high, the algorithm can jump wildly in unexpected directions.
I think this is pretty cool -- no pun intended. It seems like it would be useful in all sorts of systems! For example, in a storylet-based narrative structure, you might want a temperature parameter in the selection engine. Lower temperatures mean the player gets storylets that are highly relevant to recent events. Higher temperatures mean the player gets a more random selection, more prone to non sequiturs and topic shifts.
In AI research this is called the softmax function (or "softargmax" if you want to be even nerdier). You can find lots of example code, but it's usually meant to run in the context of an AI algorithm. I couldn't find a version that worked on a weighted list of options.
So I wrote one. Here it is in Python 3. (Attached at the end of this post, or see this gist snippet.)
The underlying math is not complicated. You have a bunch of options, each with a weight (base probability). You take the probabilities, divide by the temperature, run them through exp(), and then normalize. The result has the two properties we want:
  • As the temperature approaches zero, the highest-weighted option approaches 100% likelihood. (The randomness "freezes out" into a deterministic choice.)
  • As the temperature approaches infinity, all options become equally likely. (The wildest, lowest-weighted outcome is just as likely as any other.)
I do a little more work to ensure a third, common-sense property:
  • If the temperature is 1.0, then the likelihood of an option is roughly proportional to its weight.
So if you put in options weighted 2, 3, and 5, at a temp of 1.0, they'll have probabilities of about 20%, 30%, and 50% respectively. (Not exactly that, because the math doesn't work that way. But close enough to feel right.)
Here's a chart showing the probabilities for a range of temperatures. These are the results of calling weighted_choice([ ('A', 2), ('B', 3), ('C', 5) ], temp=T) with various values of T.
TempOpt AOpt BOpt C

#!/usr/bin/env python3

import math
import random

def weighted_choice(ls, temp=1.0, verbose=False):
"""The argument to this function should be a list of tuples, representing
a weighted list of options. The weights must be non-negative numbers.
For example:

weighted_choice([ ('A', 0.5), ('B', 2.0), ('C', 2.5) ])

This will return 'A' roughly 10% of the time, 'B' roughly 40% of the
time, and 'C' roughly 50% of the time.

The temperature parameter adjusts the probabilities. If temp < 1.0,
the weights are treated as extra-important. As temp approaches zero,
the highest-weighted option becomes inevitable.

If temp > 1.0, the weights become less important. As temp becomes high
(more than twenty), all options become about equally likely.

Set verbose to True to see the probabilities go by.
count = len(ls)
if count == 0:
if verbose:
print('No options')
return None

values = [ tup[0] for tup in ls ]
origweights = [ float(tup[1]) for tup in ls ]

if count == 1:
if verbose:
print('Only one option')
return values[0]

if temp < 0.05:
# Below 0.05, we risk numeric overflow, and the chance of the highest-
# weighted option approaches 100% anyhow. So we switch to a
# deterministic choice.
if verbose:
print('Temperature is close to zero; no randomness')
bestval = values[0]
bestwgt = origweights[0]
for ix in range(1, count):
if origweights[ix] > bestwgt:
bestwgt = origweights[ix]
bestval = values[ix]
return bestval

# Normalize the weights (so that they add up to 1.0).
totalweight = sum(origweights)
adjustweights = [ val / totalweight for val in origweights ]

# Perform the softmax operation. I throw in an extra factor of "count"
# in order to keep the behavior sensible around temp 1.0.
expweights = [ math.exp(val * count / temp) for val in adjustweights ]

# Normalize the weights again. Yes, we normalize twice.
totalweight = sum(expweights)
normweights = [ val / totalweight for val in expweights ]

if verbose:
vals = [ '%.4f' % val for val in normweights ]
print('Adjusted weights:', ', '.join(vals))

# Select according to the new weights.
val = random.uniform(0, 1)
for ix in range(0, count):
if val < normweights[ix]:
return values[ix]
val -= normweights[ix]
return values[-1]

February 19, 2020

Renga in Blue

Adventure in Murkle (1981)

by Jason Dyer at February 19, 2020 05:44 PM

Micro-80 was a magazine published in Australia (from Goodwood, a suburb of Adelaide) starting in December 1979.

The System 80 and Video Genie mentioned on the cover are both TRS-80 clones.

Each issue endeavored to give source code for a selection of programs that would work on 4K and 16K models. The April 1981 issue (cover above) had an adventure game by Graeme Moad titled either Adventure in Murkle or An Adventure in Level I depending on where in the magazine you looked; I went with the more distinctive title. (It’s hard to find and I originally thought I was going to have to type it in, but this collection from New Zealand has it.)

I’ve discussed games with low memory requirements before — Haunted House was in 4K by being split into two parts — but we never had one that entirely fit in 4K. So I was very, very surprised upon booting the game up to find not only is an adventure that fits in 4K, it’s a graphical adventure that fits in 4K.

Now, you might quibble that the animation above and screen below don’t represent “graphics” — it’s just drawing things with ASCII characters — but I wouldn’t call it just “text” either.

In order to fit, the game simply jettisons the parser. All commands are given via numbers. 0 = HELP, 1 = NORTH, 2 = SOUTH, 3 = EAST, 4 = WEST, 5 = LOOK, 6 = OPEN, 7 = GRAB, 8 = READ, and finally 9 = DIG. (I think the commands may have been intended to be displayed on the bottom but I was having an emulator error; in my play experience I could see them by just hitting ENTER but only temporarily.)

Now, having said all that, this is neither long nor a shining hidden gem of a lost game, but again, we’re working with 4K here. It’s essentially just a maze.

I initially didn’t quite understand it was a standard maze — the trees are randomly placed in each forest room, so my early attempts to draw where they landed were stymied and I assumed I was supposed to navigate somewhat at random.

Picking action #8 (READ) reveals that the sign says “DANGER — DO NOT OPEN DOOR.”

After about half an hour of flailing I buckled down and mapped the thing, albeit having to use “reference directions”; for example, once I found a particular place where going west led to the building shown above, I assumed if I encountered a room where going west led to the building that I was dealing with the same room.

As small as it looks, this was quite a difficult map to make, and I had to check the source code after I was done to make sure I was accurate.

After realizing I likely had the full map, I tested LOOK around until I found a shovel.

Then tried the shovel in every room I could find

then took the key back to the building with the “Do Not Open” sign. Upon opening it, the game said


and ended with this screen:

And … that’s it! That’s the only ending. Did we just die? Mission: Asteroid kind of had a bad ending but it was only an unintentional coding error, here it’s clearly quite intentional.

This could potentially be the first “forced bad ending” adventure. I think given this was essentially just a trifle, the author didn’t feel obliged to clarify further. It reminds me of how Nellan is Thirsty had the first mini-map because it was written for children and the author didn’t feel obliged to force navigational difficulty; in this case, there’s so little room for plot the author just made do with what he could fit and perhaps accidentally innovated in the process.

February 18, 2020

Emily Short

Mailbag: Development Process for Storylet-based Interactive Fiction

by Emily Short at February 18, 2020 08:41 PM

I’ve been a fan of your site and writing since 2009. Two of your older articles have been nagging at me recently — the one about writing prose for IF, and the other about your drafting process (with examples from Metamorphoses and Bronze, respectively).

I have been wondering how they would look updated for writing prose/process for storylet-based designs. I’m having a bit of a difficulty transitioning from the static fiction mindset, with all its attendant shortcomings in the IF context (text not bite-sized enough, difficult to decide on salient information , too much linearity, etc.)

If you had to address these two articles’ topics today, how would it be different? 

This is asking for an update to two articles, and so I’m also going to split out the response.

This piece will focus on the process side rather than the prose question. If you’re writing a game using storylets, how do you plan it, and how do you stay on track through executing it?

I’m also going to put a health warning on this. When I wrote articles in 2009, I was writing for a community of hobbyists creating freeware text-based games. I now write for a broader audience, on the basis of a lot more experience in the game industry.

So to be clear: the process description that follows is intended for an individual or small studio.

Storylet structures are used by many commercial video games — even if they’re not calling the structure by that name. If you’re working on a studio project with a significant team behind it, then that team will most likely have its own tools, design strategies, production schedule, and possibly pipelines for animation and VO. All those things place constraints on how this process can work, and the answers tend to be highly bespoke to studio needs. (I consult! But it’s well outside what can be covered in a mailbag post.)

Finally, what follows is a general discussion based on a range of different work: Failbetter are my current employers, and the work I’ve done for them certainly influences my process here, but what follows is not a description of their approach per se.

Identify Goals

These might be all sorts of things, including but not limited to

  • narrative design goals: “give the player agency over the protagonist’s career”
  • atmospheric, setting, or genre goals: “capture the mood of 1990s Seattle”
  • pacing goals: “make sure the player always has something to do”
  • platform or technology goals: “provide an experience that feels good in VR”
  • commercial goals: “provide a structure that can be extended in future downloads” or “provide good reasons for the player to spend on in-game content”. (Be careful with that last one: it’s ruined many a good game design.)

I rarely start design work on any kind of project without writing the goals at the top of the page for reference. (Sometimes this gets into a formal discussion of Design Pillars, if you work at that kind of studio. Sometimes it’s just personal guidance for oneself.)

Create high-level outline of the story arc(s).

This can vary a lot, because sometimes I’m creating something that’s meant to be a single storyline, with at most a little capacity for side quests or interactions with other stories (such as BEE, or one of the Exceptional Stories for Fallen London).

At other times, I’m building more of a story world with different elements taking place at different scales. In that case, I might start by outlining a couple of example stories that I want this universe to be able to produce.

To outline a story in this context, I

  • give a name to the progress quality (or qualities) I’m using
  • figure in the key story moments I definitely want to see in the story
  • come up with some secondary or subordinate beats that might happen in some playthroughs

Identify recurring patterns and design structures that support them.

Does the player travel through a landscape of randomized vignettes? Live through a number of years with a repeating pattern of festivals and events? Hang around having a conversation until they’ve asked about every topic that interests them, then move on? Explore a fascinating new territory?

These patterns are about gameplay as well as fiction. Do I want the player to gather resources via one activity and spend them to unlock advancements somewhere else? Repeat actions, failing over and over, until they start to succeed? Craft items by combination? Push their luck and take risks? Gradually establish a positive relationship with a particular character as opposed to others? Struggle over a difficult choice, having the opportunity to change their mind many times before committing to a final decision?

Often when I’ve found these patterns in my stor(ies), I’ve already got some experience with a structure that will accomplish what I want.

If not, or if I want to test the feel of a variant, then I might prototype and iterate on that section of play.

Sometimes I do that electronically.

Sometimes, if I’m really not sure yet exactly what I want to get out of the pattern I’m getting, or if I want the design to be especially fiction-led, I’ll do it as a paper prototype, writing storylets down on note-cards and putting stat ranges on them, then playing through a few cycles with those storylets, then editing my stats again, and so on.

Somewhere around here I might also do some pacing diagrams, and/or a spreadsheet list of all the storylets I need to build and the qualities that they will have. Sometimes both. The pacing diagram helps me think as a designer; the spreadsheet list is often important if I’m coordinating the project with a team.

Refine the system of qualities (especially if building something large, ongoing, or designed for multiple contributors)

That is to say: make sure the qualities I’ve defined are fungible enough to carry meaning between many different stories or segments of story.

If there’s actually an economy of qualities — as there is in Fallen London, where players can get qualities that represent inventory in one area and sell them in another — consider the balance of that economy, how much time is invested in achieving particular qualities, etc.

This is the area where storylet design is, I think, genuinely most different from many of the other kinds of narrative design discussed on this blog.

A great virtue of the storylet structure is its openness and modularity, its capacity to include new material written after the fact or even interlock meaningfully with other stories written by other people.

But this does ask that the designer do all the “what stats go with my themes?” thinking you’d expect when building, say, a Choice of Games piece (quoting from their guidelines for “creative stats, consistently applied”):

  • Are the skills balanced, with no single skill being much more useful than the others?
  • Do the stats communicate something about the game’s theme?
  • Do the stats track story effects in useful and interesting ways?
  • Are there meaningful secondary stats which track against the player’s goals?

…plus some of the narrative abstraction thinking you need for a story-rich tabletop RPG.

A quality like “Personal Growth” or “Dramatic Tension” or “Ennui” is way more transferable between different stories — but way less evocative — than a quality like “Number of Times You Fed the Chameleon.”

The trick here is coming up with qualities that feel resonant and expressive, that let you reward the player for one thing and unlock something different-yet-related in a totally other storyline. This can be hard! I love it.

If the player never sees the qualities themselves — if they’re entirely hidden — you can do a bit less of this work. But it’s still non-zero: you are still looking to identify the core concerns of all the stories you’re planning to tell in this world, and how gains and losses in one aspect might transfer to elsewhere.

This Project Horseshoe paper on Everlasting Narrative talks a little about developing interesting symbolic vocabulary.

Implement what remains of the through-line

First the qualities, starting with the progress qualities; then the storylets themselves that get the player all the way through the main story; then any additional elements. This might be a more or less elaborate piece of construction, depending on whether I need to create whole new structure, or am using existing structures with new content, or am instead making something fairly linear.

Iterate, complicate, add easter eggs

Things I expect to do during iteration and expansion:

  • Make sure that there’s enough guidance for the player about how to proceed
  • Add extra story branches
  • Refine the pacing
  • Revise prose
  • Add easter eggs that play off things in other related stories

Typically, though, there’s a lot less to do at this stage than there was when finishing a parser IF game for which a spine had been finished.


I intentionally put this at the end rather than the beginning because I wanted to talk about the design thinking rather than start with a bunch of programs. However, if you want to play with these design concepts yourself and you don’t have the benefit of your own tools engineer who can put something together for you, there are a couple of freeware tooling options.

  • Josh Grams has built an elaboration of Twine that offers a number of storylet features . This is still under some development, as I understand it, but has advanced to where parts of it are usable and documented with tutorials. I have not used it, but I suspect it may be the most accessible solution for people without any code experience or who find Unity daunting.
  • ink is the tool of choice for a lot of mobile and non-mobile text-rich games, and it plugs nicely into Unity. There are assorted ways to make a gameplay front end trigger storylets that are then defined in ink.
  • Alternately, you could do something similar to the ink/Unity pairing I just described, but with Yarn/Unity.

Either of the latter two solutions will likely require you to think about some additional management of qualities in the Unity/C# layer, because you’ll be rolling your own interface.

I do not currently know of a really full-functioning storylet system that is free, beginner-friendly, and at the same time robust and proven enough to sustain a full-size commercial game.


February 17, 2020

sub-Q Magazine

Interview with George Lockett

by Stewart C Baker at February 17, 2020 08:42 PM

George Lockett is a London-based writer of fiction and video games. His short fiction has appeared in such places as Fireside Magazine, The Colored Lens, and Making Monsters: A Speculative and Classical Anthology. He has written for and consulted on a variety of other interactive projects, including VR, AR, and narrative video games. George is the author of Growing Pains, one of the winners of our 2019 game jam and featured in our February 2020 issue.

This interview was conducted over email in February of 2020.

George Lockett

Sub-Q Magazine: You wrote this game as part of our 2019 game jam, which had a theme of environment. Can you talk a bit about your process, and how you approached the theme–and the really tight wordcount?

George Lockett: I experimented with a few different ideas for the theme before settling on the one that appealed most: someone tending a garden and, essentially, talking to the plants. Somehow, this led me to ‘an ASCII plant made of words’ from which some advice would emerge depending on the choices the player had made.

Having landed on this core conceit, I worked backwards into the ‘why’. Why is this person in the garden, and why are they tending this plant? The feel I had in my head was one of intimacy and tenderness – something that felt small and human. From there, I landed on the image of someone grappling with a relationship that has recently ended.

Aside from the wordcount, my key constraints were technical. I consider myself reasonably proficient in Ink, and I know enough CSS to do basic styling, but doing anything more advanced with the JavaScript would be like throwing octopuses at a dartboard. I might be able to achieve something with a lot of trial-and-error, but more likely it would just be messy and confusing for everyone involved.

Most of the actual writing and coding was fairly routine. However, there is one key design question that I faced which bears mentioning: finding the right words for the plant.

I wanted the piece to have several endings, reflecting how the player chose to engage with the memories of their relationship. Each storylet the player completed would nurture the plant and cause it to grow another letter. Thus, the plant’s message would appear gradually over the course of the playthrough. I wanted the player to be considering this emergent phrase, trying to guess what the plant was saying, in its slow, botanical way, before the message was complete.

The practical constraint of this was that the different ending messages needed to have the same starting letters – suggesting a range of possible sentiments that wouldn’t become clear until there were enough letters for the phrase to ’emerge’. The theoretical-but-impossible ideal for this would be a set of words that were identical up to the last letter, the appearance of which would dramatically change the meaning. But that doesn’t really work in English. So, I looked for something that would best approximate that.

I experimented. FORG -ive/-et seemed like it might work, but that raised other problems. The plant’s message is meant to be reflective of the player’s decisions. I also didn’t want the plant’s already-grown letters to ‘mutate’ into new letters mid-way through. This meant that FORG would lock the piece’s ending message after only five decision points, with many more to follow before the player reached the end of the game. This meant that the final message could well clash with the player’s own perception of their choices.

I opted to use the same initial word (FORGIVE), and provide significant variation with the word that followed.

sub-Q Magazine: Is there any gardening going on in your life right now, either at your home or in an allotment?

George Lockett: I’m actually not much of a gardener! I am fortunate enough to have my desk situated next to a set of big glass doors onto a garden, but my powers fall more into the domain of squirrel-wrangling.

Our local squirrels are regular visitors, and welcome distractions from writing.

This is Lennie:
a squirrel sits on a table outside a window

She has never given me relationship advice. At least, no good relationship advice.

sub-Q Magazine: You were a contributing writer for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. Notice any interesting differences in the experience of writing a large game as part of a team, versus writing a short game like this one by yourself?

George Lockett: There was less of a difference between the two than you might expect! Though I think that’s a quirk of the development of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine.

I wrote many of the ‘vignettes’ – the small, (generally) self-contained stories that the player encounters on their journey. There were several constraints provided by the wider project, but Johnnemann Nordhagen – who led the development of the game – gave us a huge amount of creative freedom.

Each of the vignettes had to have a specific ‘mood’ that was discernible to the player (‘funny’, ‘thrilling’, ‘scary’, etc.), and needed to conform to one or more of the game’s topic tags, but within those, we had an extremely broad remit. The vignette writers were given a set of art to draw from, which we’d discuss and divide up based on what we each liked most. Sometimes, a piece of art had a specific reference point behind it – generally a city or a specific urban legend or myth – but most were left to us to run with.

This was fantastic. We were given a sensible scope with a lot of artistic freedom to delve into the different weird things that interested us.

sub-Q Magazine: Do you have anything coming up soon that you’d like our readers to know about?

George Lockett: I’ve not got anything upcoming that I can talk about just yet, but if you like Growing Pains, you can find more of my work – mostly short fiction – on my website.

I’ve got a few more IF pieces in the pipeline that I hope to release in the next few months, so keep an eye on that page or my Twitter account for more about those.

The post Interview with George Lockett appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Renga in Blue

The Secret of Flagstone Manor: Finished!

by Jason Dyer at February 17, 2020 06:41 PM

The game had two clever moments left before the ending.

Both moments felt simultaneously like advances in storytelling and steps back in game design. The game design issue has an easy fix, but it’s something that hadn’t been invented yet when this game was written.

I haven’t been able to find any physical copies of Flagstone, but here’s their logo as printed on The Gambler (a poker game they later published). From sairuk on Twitter.

Last time I predicted I was stuck on what was intended as “easy” puzzles; this was mostly correct. I mostly wasn’t applying MOVE to enough things.

Either here…

There’s writing on the wall behind the cobwebs.
It says: “The second is 8”.

…or moving a bed, finding a can opener…

I see something.

…or moving a chest, finding a rope.

The other thing I missed was I only slept in bed once; I generally was dying before reaching the third day, or resetting and consolidating my previous actions. Eventually, I did finally get round to a second sleep, where I had a dream informing me to leave the wine bottle in the study overnight.

Doing so led to an empty bottle as shown above, but no other apparent effect. Finally, I realized that PRESS PANEL (which previously didn’t work) now had an effect; a secret panel opened to a new area.

I think the intent is that the ghost of Arthur Flagstone (who you’ll meet in a moment) came up to drink the wine, somehow unlocking the panel in the process. I’m not that entirely makes sense plot-wise because the ghost is also the one who kills you if you sleep without locking your door (and you hear chains clanking the first night, so you know he’s out there). If I stretch hard enough I could imagine the ghost accidentally triggering something while they’re indulging their post-death affection for alcohol.

The mouse grabs the cheese
and disappears into a small hole.
I hear a click.
The wall moves aside.

Here’s the aforementioned ghost. The combination lock puts together information found throughout the Manor:

  • “The first is 3” from a paper hidden in a painting
  • “The second is 8” from cobwebs
  • “The third is 7” from a book

You need to have eaten some garlic before approaching the door. Otherwise, the ghost kills you for trying to enter (there’s a hint in a diary that Flagstone hates garlic breath).

Past the ghost is the only treasure of the game.

If you try to take the gold bars out, the ghost goes into overdrive.

The ghost, outraged at seeing me with his gold,
overcomes his dislike of garlic… and THROTTLES me!

This moment is what I meant about an advance in storytelling being accompanied by a step back in gameplay.

The idea of the ghost being so protective of his wealth even after death was oddly human; that it was accompanied by a previous puzzle solution being ignored made it more powerful.

In a gameplay sense, this was a cheap shot; the game gives the impression the player is protected, when suddenly they aren’t — but I don’t think this event would be as effective any other way. A more modern “rewind to the previous mistake” (either automatic or with an UNDO command) would dance around the problem neatly, but that particular innovation wasn’t invented yet (except for maybe in Hezarin).

Speaking of cheap shots, here’s what happens if you try to PULL RING:

A large stone crashes from the roof… and CLOBBERS me!

Ow. But! … this is again a clever moment of plot, because the right solution is to tie a rope, step outside the room (requiring leaving the gold bars, temporarily) and pull the rope. This breaks the roof which turns out the be the flagstone from the very first room of the game.

This is what the flagstone looks like at the very start. I thought at the time perhaps it was meant as just an atmospheric red herring.

This sort of return-in-importance is especially rare for the TRS-80 games of the time; I can’t think of another example offhand.

The Secret of Flagstone Manor was a strong start for a prolific adventure-writer. I’m looking forward to trying more of the Brian J. Betts library, but we have to wait until 1982 before we reach any.

In the meantime, let’s investigate another candidate for First Australian Commercial Text Adventure Game, one I thought was going to be mundane but ended up shocking me.

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Eric Moser, Zip! Speedster of Valiant City

by Mary Duffy at February 17, 2020 12:41 PM

Use your speedster powers to defeat the superpowered Sloth and save the day, all while tracking down a deadly new weapon threatening your city! There’s no room for error in the hero business, not even for the fastest person in the world. One tiny mistake against your deadliest foe threatens to end your career and plunge your city in chaos. Zip! Speedster of Valiant City is a 48,000-word superpowered interactive novel by Eric Moser. I sat down with Eric to talk about his commitment to writing superpowered heroes.

This is your first Choice of Games title, but not your first ChoiceScript game. Tell me a little about the Community College Hero series.

Just a little? Okay, here’s my elevator pitch to potential new readers!

The Community College Hero series, published by Hosted Games, follows the exploits of young adults who are students at essentially a “community college for people with crappy powers.”

There’s lots of action, and plenty of tough choices for the player to make, but I focused primarily on character development and humor, two elements that I think carry most stories. If I’m not invested in the characters, whether it’s in a movie, book, television series, or ChoiceScript game, I lose interest. For me, humor grounds a story in reality; it doesn’t feel authentic when the ass-kicking hero growls their dialogue and never cracks a joke.

And when you find yourself laughing with characters, I think it’s easier to find yourself crying too, because the attachment has been built; it’s real. Players have emailed me telling me how the series brought them to tears, and I can assure you that is a very humbling thing to hear.

Anyway, I really leaned into the idea that even heroes who can’t lift buses or shoot laser beams from their eyes would still need training to control their abilities…but they may not need the very best training. Mediocre training will do just fine! So, we find ourselves at Speck Community College, in the fictional town of Speck, Nebraska, with questionable professors, rookie heroes, and distrustful locals. The school hopes to ease students into their training, but when a new villain targets the school, the kids have to grow up fast!

The series starts with Community College Hero: Trial by Fire, and continues with Community College Hero: Knowledge is Power.

How did you stumble onto writing ChoiceScript games?

I have no idea! I remember loving so many of the earliest ChoiceScript games, like the Heroes Rise series and Choice of the Star Captain, but I don’t remember what made me decide to take the plunge to become an author.

Until Trial by Fire was published in 2015, I had never published any creative work, so it’s not like I knew what I was getting into. I remember spending most of 2013 and 2014 typing scenes on our living room computer after my kids went to bed each night. It was a painstaking process, and I relied heavily on the support of my wife and encouragement from the folks on the Choice of Games forums. If you’re reading this, but haven’t checked out the forums, I’d encourage you to do so. There are tons of resources for aspiring writers and discussion threads for players to share their experiences about their favorite ChoiceScript games.

What’s the deal with you and superpowered heroes?

Stories about superpowered people can fall into all sorts of genres and can convey all types of themes, so there’s a lot of flexibility there as a writer that appeals to me. I guess I include the powers because I like the trappings, but also, I like the idea of exploring how powers could intersect with our existing societal expectations and institutions.

For example, in Community College Hero, the school requires students to study Hero and Enemy Law and Liability, which can be shortened to HELL. I’m an attorney by trade, and I think there’s a ton of potential to really dig into how the law would have to adapt if people were to start developing powers. I mean, who would insure these people? Who pays for all of the collateral damage? Either the government steps in, or an entire new area of insurance is created. Now some people might be yawning at this point, but I’m like, “I want more of this!” I wish I could have explored the legal aspects even more than I did. Maybe one of these days, I’ll write a superpowered legal thriller.

There’s a lot of thematic freedom, too, in writing superpowered stories. Community College Hero has a lot of coming of age elements, combined with some fish out of water aspects as well.

With Zip!, I switched things up. In this story, I wanted to explore the life of an established hero, perhaps even one past their prime. Thematically, it was a natural fit to make the character a speedster, because no one can outrun their mortality, not even the fastest person in the world. I included some midlife crisis messages in Zip!, as well as themes about keeping up with progress and knowing when to pass the torch to the next generation. These are things we grapple with more as we age, and much of it really hit home with me. I hope players feel the same way, even if you’re one of the people still waiting for others to pass the torch.

Zip! is part of a new thing we’re trying: publishing some shorter games like Choice of the Dragon, which are free with ads. What’s the secret to writing a short but engaging game?

For me, the key word is engaging. For Zip!, I really wanted readers to live the story. By this, I mean there is very little ‘telling.’ This game is almost 100 percent about the ‘showing.’

Your character is constantly on the move, pursuing various goals, but always aware of a looming showdown that could be your last. There’s a lot of dialogue, much of it banter, all designed to develop the characters and further the plot. The story only covers a few days. I chose this tight timeframe to help build tension and stress the sense of urgency. There just wasn’t room for extraneous material.

I used a smaller cast of characters to give each more time to breath. I think I succeeded in doing so, but I’m pretty sure that one character in particular will be a favorite of players. I won’t say who!

Lastly, the vast majority of choices directly affect your progress toward your goals, and in turn, affect the different endings. So, while there may be fewer choices when compared to a standard Choice of Games release, virtually all of the choices are important, which I think will ramp up the tension for the player from the very start.

I love this Sloth villain. Tell me a little about his genesis. 

I love him too! I’ll watch what I say to avoid spoilers, but I’ve always thought that the best villains are the ones with legitimate grievances but who then adopt entirely disproportionate measures. It’s like you identify with them, and on some level, you might even root for them, but then they go and do something too extreme, and you’re like, “Oh, why did you have to do that? You lost me there!”

But yeah, I wanted to create the perfect villain for the player’s speedster, and thus the Sloth was born! I was inspired by Aesop’s fable, The Tortoise and the Hare, and the exploration of matching speed against persistence. Being fast doesn’t make you invincible. All it takes is one wrong move by the hare, and the ‘tortoise’ might just end up on top!

What are you working on next?

I wish I could write these games full-time. It’s always a struggle to choose the next project. I have at least half a dozen fairly well-developed story ideas in my head (or on spreadsheets), a few of which I’ve mentioned to Choice of Games staff.

For 2020, my priority is absolutely to finish All Things End. I want to give my Community College Hero characters the sendoff they deserve and give the players the endings they desire! But I might have time for a side project this year. In that case, I’ll likely continue work on Talon City, a legal thriller set in a city of anthropomorphic birds, or draft a follow-up to Zip!, assuming that players enjoy this one!

Anyone interested in my projects can visit my website,, for more information.

February 16, 2020

sub-Q Magazine

Author Interview: Ann LeBlanc

by Hal Y. Zhang at February 16, 2020 04:42 AM

Ann LeBlanc is a writer and gardener currently surviving the Long Winter in the Boston Area. She edits and writes for The Spectacles, where she talks about books and stories she loves. She is the author of the 2019 game jam-winning game, The Coffin Maker.

This interview was conducted over e-mail over January and February of 2020.


sub-Q magazine: I love the different people and stories in The Coffin Maker, and how they come together—regardless of your class or wealth, everyone meets their end in a coffin. How did the idea come to you?

Ann LeBlanc: The primary aesthetic inspiration for The Coffin Maker was Florence and the Machine’s “My Boy Builds Coffins” which I was listening to while writing a different story. The lyrics informed both the character of the coffin maker—who is almost entirely subsumed by their craft—and the thematic underpinning of death and funereal rites as equalizer.

I’ve been writing a lot about death lately, and I don’t know why. It certainly hasn’t been purposeful. In some ways, my recent works’ focus on death scares me because it forces me to confront the way in which the frightening realities of the world are infiltrating my craft.

I am so terribly afraid, and I think in some ways that my writing is a way to tell myself and my readers that everything will be ok. Several people have mentioned to me how hard it is to get a ‘good’ ending in The Coffin Maker, but I think in some ways all the endings are good. Either the elites are convinced to help the city, or the revolution comes and wipes away the coffins altogether.

The primary inspiration for the world and the approach to climate change was Arkady Martine’s article “Everyone’s World is Ending All the Time”.
Denialism has been extensively explored by SF&F, so I wanted to take a different approach. In The Coffin Maker, everyone knows the Long Winter is coming. Survival is possible, but life will be cold, hungry, desperate. The coffins—which are functionally similar to cryogenic chambers—allow the elites to sleep through the Long Winter. And if they can do that, then why would they care about collective efforts to make the winter more bearable?

sub-Q magazine: The descriptions of each coffin are sharp and vivid, as are the consequences against the backdrop of revolution. Were you inspired by any specific historical events? How did you decide on the choices and outcomes in the narrative?

Ann LeBlanc: The tight word-count requirement (1000 words across all play-throughs) helped to shape the way I handled the outcomes. Originally, I was over-ambitious and wanted to have the choice of coffin affect each of the characters’ endings. Halfway through writing the story, it became clear that wasn’t going to work within the word-count.

But I also realized that choice of coffin would only really matter 50 years later, when the Long Winter ended and the occupants would emerge. So in a way, which coffin to give to each character is a false choice. What really matters is whether you give a coffin or not. Who do you allow to escape the troubles of the present day?

Giving coffins to the rich and the powerful robs them of any incentive to aid society in the here and now. They’ll hoard their resources so that when they awaken at the dawning of spring they will retain their privileged position, having escaped the consequences of their exploitation of the commons. And yet, maybe society would be better off if they were out of the way for 50 years?

The question is different when applied to a dying widow. Is the world better off with her working alongside her fellows, or does the coffin maker have a duty to mercy? And for someone already marginalized, what sort of mercy is waking up alone in 50 years?

The widow’s daughter seems to be a favorite with readers. I think she’s both a bit of a Greek chorus, and the real protagonist of the story. I’ve already promised one of my Viable Paradise friends that I will write a sequel centering her character.

For all of the characters, the ending is often less about their personal outcome and more about how their life and death affect their loved ones and society at large. None of them are solitary figures—all exist within the web of the urban community.

sub-Q magazine: As someone who writes both non-interactive and interactive fiction, how does your work process differ between the two? For a story idea, how do you decide whether to take it down the interactive route?

Ann LeBlanc: I think one commonality between short stories and interactive fiction is the importance of choice. For short stories, it can be quite challenging to portray a full character arc in just a few thousand words. One way to do this is to focus on a singular dilemma and the protagonist’s choice—which often happens at the end of the story.

For me, what sets interactive fiction apart is its ability to make the reader complicit. By offloading the choice(s) to them, they are now partly responsible for whatever wonderful or terrible things happen in the narrative. This complicity can help the reader feel more connected to both the characters and the plot. It’s lovely when a reader gets to the end of a piece and gasps, “What have I done?” You don’t get that with non-interactive fiction as much.

I’m also deeply in love with multiple endings. Writing a good ending for a short story is incredibly hard. With interactive fiction, I can explore multiple endings not just to escape the burden of choosing one, but as a way to explore the central themes of the story.

sub-Q magazine: You edit and write for The Spectacles, a speculative fiction review site. What is the best part of deeply engaging with a work? What’s a piece of fiction you enjoyed recently?

Ann LeBlanc: One of my favorite pastimes is ranting with my reader friends about books we love. My series “What I Loved About…” is a way for me to do that on the internet, and to specifically focus on a specific part of the story I thought was well done—whether that’s a craft technique, work, characters, etc. It’s very much inspired by Jo Walton’s excellent “What Makes this Book So Great” series, which is now available in book form.

Recently, I absolutely loved Alexandra Rowland’s “A Conspiracy of Truths” and “A Choir of Lies“. Both are some of the best books I’ve read about the power of stories and the responsibility of the storyteller. The first book is one of the best uses of a story within a story, and it does an incredible job of showing the ambiguous consequences of each story told. The characters are all absolutely amazing, and the settings of both books do very cool things with queer world-building. Also the cover art is gorgeous—well worth searching for in the bookstore.

The post Author Interview: Ann LeBlanc appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

February 15, 2020

Emily Short

Mid-February Link Assortment

by Emily Short at February 15, 2020 12:41 PM


February 29 is the next London IF Meetup. We’ll be playing and discussing games with trans protagonists.

March 5, “Game Over,” the radio play I wrote about indie game development, is being rebroadcast by BBC Radio 4 at 14.15 (or 2:15 PM, for those of us still keeping time in the US fashion). This is a chance to catch it if you didn’t hear it the first time around and you’re interested. Sometimes the Radio 4 website also hosts the programs from that month for streaming.

March 7 is the next meeting of the SF Bay Interactive Fiction Meetup.

NarraScope organizers will be May 29-31, in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

Podcasts, Articles, Videos, etc

The excellent Anna Megill, Lead Writer at Massive, talks about writing for video games.


If you plan to enter Spring Thing 2020, you have until March 1, 2020 to declare your intent to enter. Spring Thing is a long-running competition for interactive fiction that welcomes longer games than IF Comp can accommodate, and features a “back garden” section for games that are unfinished, commercial, experimental, or where the author just wants to opt out of the competitive aspect of the competition. The games themselves will be due March 29.

February 14, 2020

Renga in Blue

The Secret of Flagstone Manor (1981)

by Jason Dyer at February 14, 2020 07:41 PM

Brian J. Betts is most famous for a series of C64 games with distinctive character graphics published by his one-man outfit Mountain Valley Software (based in Victoria, Australia), but he started in 1981 with a bog-standard TRS-80 game.

Given the weirdness of what I’ve played lately, I could use some bog-standard. This does have the possible distinction of being the first commercial text adventure from Australia, with the caveat there is at least one other candidate from 1981 we will get to (similar to how Planet of Death might be the first commercial text adventure from the UK).

The parser is in a Scott Adams style, up to the point I suspect the author was referring to the original source code.

The death screen, for instance, is identical.

Upon entering the manor, you find a suit of armor with an axe. This is what happens when you TAKE AXE.

I really haven’t emphasized enough the “family tree” that’s been happening with codebases around this time. Creating both a world model and a real parser with that understands verbs and nouns as independent entities is a non-trivial problem; some authors just didn’t bother with a parser (see: Quest, Dante’s Inferno).

Once various adventures had their BASIC code printed in magazines — or authors just read through BASIC source code straight off commercially sold copies — it was now easy to avoid starting from scratch. So while Betts clearly was borrowing from Adams, this was not only standard practice at the time but somewhat advisable for a beginner getting started.

The big difference here while the code likely borrows from Adventureland or Pirate Adventure (the two readily available in BASIC) the primary design inspiration seems to be The Count.

Now, I’m not just meaning this game is in the Spooky House family, but there’s a day-night cycle. It’s isn’t too long in when darkness starts falling. I originally thought this was a tight time limit (if darkness falls, the axe fellow mentioned earlier chops you up), but the intent is for you to find the bed and SLEEP which causes time to move on to the next day. (If nothing else, it’s good for atmosphere; if you forget to lock the door behind you when going to bed, someone strangles you in the night!)

There’s also no treasures so far. I don’t have whatever instructions the game came with so I don’t know what the goal really is, but since I’ve found lots of items but no *TREASURES* I suspect the objective is to defeat a spooky enemy of some sort.

The gameplay mostly consists of finding secrets.

  • There’s a library, with a lamp you can TURN causing the bookcase to move, revealing a “Hidden Cellar” with a skeleton and some garlic. The library also has a book on Ghost Stories with the note “the third is 7”.
  • There’s a lounge with fireplace and firewood and lighting the fire (with matches from another room) reveals a “Hidden Room” with cobwebs and a ladder.
  • There’s a dining room with a “small panel” where PRESS PANEL reveals some keys. The keys let you in two locked doors (including the previously mentioned bedroom).
  • There’s a “portrait of old Arthur Flagstone” where “The eyes are watching me.” Finding a KNIFE in a nearby clock and using CUT PAINTING causes a scream, revealing a piece of paper which says “the first is 3”.
  • There’s a study with a DESK that has an ASHTRAY and a LARGE PANEL. I suspect the LARGE PANEL can open just like the smaller one did because there’s a custom “How?” message when I try to OPEN PANEL, but this is one place I’m stuck.

Notice the “It’s getting dark.” messages. That means I need to head up to the bedroom soon if I want to live.

The only other lingering puzzle I have is a CAN I can’t open. I get the intuition this is supposed to be an “easy game” yet I’m stuck just as much as I would be on a hard game. It doesn’t help there’s likely a secret passage I haven’t unlocked yet but I have no idea where it is (that is, I’m missing a so-called “secret puzzle” which I’ve written about before).

The game is online here if someone wants to take a look. If anyone is inclined to drop hints, please use ROT13 encipherment. Despite the game coming off as a clone of other Spooky Houses, the day-night atmosphere alone is enough to hook me in a little longer before I start resorting to hints.

February 11, 2020

Emily Short

Mailbag: Breaking into Writing for Voice UI

by Emily Short at February 11, 2020 12:41 PM

Dear Emily,

[personal information redacted] I have been following your articles for a long time and I decided to write to you because I am stuck: I would like to expand my skills in the game design field but at the same time I started to get interested in voice applications. I have read that writers and copywriters can make a great contribution to the development of VUI, so that they can understand the language and the context in which conversations take place. I saw that you managed to combine these two areas – game narrative and natural language programming – so I would like to ask you where I can start if I wanted to take this career path? What skills should I focus on? I’m looking for courses on platforms like Coursera and Udemy, but it’s not clear to me what criteria I should consider for the choice. Except for HTML, I don’t know the development software that are proposed, all I know is that I am interested in understanding how an editor, who deals with finding the best plot structure for a story or making characters believable, can contribute to the development of an Avatar or a dialogue flow, for example. And if companies are interested in this type of profile.

I definitely wouldn’t want to discourage you looking into natural language processing if you think you’re interested in it: it’s a fascinating field, and currently under lots of demand.

I didn’t approach the subject with Coursera or Udemy myself, so I don’t know the offerings there very well, but I would imagine that there are introductory courses that would explain a lot of the basic ideas and tools. Another way in would be to look through the resources listed here.

It’s also possible to play with transformer-based language models using Google colab notebooks. These models take a huge amount of skill, data, and computation time to build, but once they’ve been trained, they can be used in a range of applications. For instance, this notebook by Max Woolf will let you experiment with a trained GPT-2 model, which has applications both in generating text and in creating machine translations (among other things).

Then there are also sites such as where groups doing active research regularly post their progress, sample code, or trained models. You would need a good grounding in the basic concepts in order to make sense of these.

That said, you might not need all of those skills even if you were building your own voice-based system from scratch.

There are a number of commercial APIs that would allow you to do intent and entity recognition (very simply, what does the user want to do, and to what objects?) using their NLP tools: Google’s DialogFlow, Facebook’s, Microsoft’s LUIS, and others. CognitionX is a company that (among other things) tracks developments in the chatbot space, and they have a news feed with a steady stream of related information.

It’s when you want to expand beyond or improve upon commercially-available NLU functions that you start to need these skills. And learning them well is likely to take a few years of effort. Many people who do this professionally have come out of a graduate-level program that focuses on this subject matter, or at the very least have done some bootcamps or a great deal of self-directed learning. While I managed and collaborated with computational linguists and specialists in natural-language-focused machine learning, I am not fully trained in that area myself.

And you certainly don’t need all of that to accomplish what you’re asking about: “how an editor, who deals with finding the best plot structure for a story or making characters believable, can contribute to the development of an Avatar or a dialogue flow.”

Writing or editing content for a voice-driven system does not necessarily require you to understand the inner workings of speech-to-text methods or named entity recognition.

I have a vested interest because until a couple of months ago I was working at Spirit AI on Character Engine, which is designed to help people without extensive NLU understanding write character content. There are a range of studios working in this general space. Earplay publishes voice-based games. Tom Hewitson runs a London-based company that does development in this space.

You might also be interested in last year’s NarraScope talk on “designing games that listen” or any of these talks from an IF meetup on interactive audio. I’ve also written a little bit about the general challenge of adapting interactive narrative for different media.

So the way I’d recommend engaging with this is to try out some of the games that have been written this way, as well as looking at what creators have said about the tools and process of building those experiences. If that still seems like an area where you might be interested in working, you could look for work with one of these companies and learn the specific toolset that they use to create content. Almost certainly you will not be required to invent the tech stack yourself.

February 10, 2020

Zarf Updates

Numinous/Cyan announces Area Man Lives

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at February 10, 2020 09:21 PM

It's been a busy weekend for me. (Did I mention that NarraScope 2020 is now open for early registration?) However, I have to catch up on new Cyan announcements too.
Numinous Games and Cyan Ventures have announced that they're publishing Area Man Lives. It's a VR-only mystery set in a small-town radio-drama world.
AML is a new take on an unfinished Numinous project called Untethered from a couple of years ago. Untethered was announced as an episodic VR experiment in late 2016. (It was an exclusive for the Google Daydream, a VR headset which made no impression on my memory or, I expect, on anybody else's.) Funding dried up a couple of years later and Untethered was shelved after delivering just two episodes.
Now they've hooked up with Cyan's publishing arm to rebuild the project for Quest, Rift, Vive, Index, and probably other VR sets. It's scheduled for this year -- presumably as a complete game, not episodic.
The game site is up, along with an in-character KQVR Radio site. (Which mentions a contest, and Cyan is never averse to a few ARG-ish shenanigans, so you might want to start poking around.) The press release is also good for a grin.
This announcement resonates with a couple of notes in the current indie game scene. The quirky-small-town setting immediately calls Kentucky Route Zero to mind. KR0 was also episodic, and its interludes included a VR experiment and a community broadcast studio. But it looks like AML has an entirely different tone and take on Americana, of course.
I'm more interested in the VR-only aspect of the project. As I've said, VR doesn't do that much for me. I've been to a couple of VR parties and tried some games but I've never felt the urge to buy a headset.
The modern VR boom (or bubble, depending) is now five-ish years old. All this time it's been a niche market. "Premium VR games" ship for both headset and flatscreen because there are so many more flatscreen gaming machines out there. I'm not talking about the undeniably popular VR-rhythm genre (Beat Saber and clones), but the adoption of VR into established genres like adventure gaming. Cyan's recent projects -- Obduction, Zed, and the upcoming Firmament -- have made the decision to support flatscreen. So did the KR0 interlude I mentioned. I played them all on my regular Win10 box. Thus, I haven't had any reason to buy a headset. And that's why I never played the original Untethered episodes.
Is that now (finally, some would say) changing? I've heard that the Oculus Quest is the first VR headset that's sold enough units to actually count as a market rather than a market niche. I noticed that Fireproof Games announced a new VR-only game in their The Room series, which I love. Half-Life is getting a VR-only title. And so on.
As you might expect, my feelings are mixed. Do I have to buy new hardware to experience games that don't feel any different (to me) than a flatscreen version? (Except that my head is sweaty and I can't drink.) That's not a gaming revolution; that's just forcing me to dehydrate and subsidize the hardware companies. It's forcing me to subsidize Facebook, if the Quest is the model that wins out. That's real close to handing the keys to your gaming revolution to the face of actual real-world evil.
On the flip side, I've always loved game design that's tightly wrapped around its UI affordances. That's what was great about The Room series: it perfectly imagined the first-person adventure game built for touchscreen. The interactions are exactly those you want to perform on an object before you that you can touch; its puzzles are those you want to solve with those interactions; its environment is that which suits its puzzles.
The hand controllers of modern VR are a new affordance. I'm sure you can build a game around them. I'm interested in these new games. But, again, the headset is expensive and unpleasant for no benefit. (For me, playing at home.)
Maybe we should be thinking about separating the controller and headset. Could someone make a twin-handset controller that plays VR games on a regular Windows box? I suppose Facebook/Sony/Valve have enough platform lock-in to prevent that. Oh well.
Anyhow, this has drifted pretty far from the original announcement. Look, new game coming from Numinous/Cyan! Late 2020! Or maybe 2021, because schedules drift! I might play it! Or maybe I'll wait and see if they change their mind about the VR-only.

The People's Republic of IF

February meeting

by zarf at February 10, 2020 01:41 AM

The Boston IF meetup for February will be Wednesday, February 26, 6:30 pm.

The Trope Tank is undergoing renovation through the spring semester. Therefore, the meeting will be in room 14N-417. Same building, one floor up.

February 07, 2020

The Digital Antiquarian

The Deal of the Century (or, The Alliance of Losers)

by Jimmy Maher at February 07, 2020 06:41 PM


= ?

I think [the] Macintosh accomplished everything we set out to do and more, even though it reaches most people these days as Windows.

— Andy Hertzfeld (original Apple Macintosh systems programmer), 1994

When rumors first began to circulate early in 1991 that IBM and Apple were involved in high-level talks about a major joint initiative, most people dismissed them outright. It was, after all, hard to imagine two companies in the same industry with more diametrically opposed corporate cultures. IBM was Big Blue, a bedrock of American business since the 1920s. Conservative and pragamatic to a fault, it was a Brylcreemed bastion of tradition where casual days meant that employees might remove their jackets to reveal the starched white shirts they wore underneath. Apple, on the other hand, had been founded just fifteen years before by two long-haired children of the counterculture, and its campus still looked more like Woodstock than Wall Street. IBM placed great stock in the character of its workforce; Apple, as journalist Michael S. Malone would later put it in his delightfully arch book Infinite Loop, “seemed to have no character, but only an attitude, a style, a collection of mannerisms.” IBM talked about enterprise integration and system interoperability; Apple prattled on endlessly about changing the world. IBM played Lawrence Welk at corporate get-togethers; Apple preferred the Beatles. (It was an open secret that the name the company shared with the Beatles’ old record label wasn’t coincidental.)

Unsurprisingly, the two companies didn’t like each other very much. Apple in particular had been self-consciously defining itself for years as the sworn enemy of IBM and everything it represented. When Apple had greeted the belated arrival of the IBM PC in 1981 with a full-page magazine advertisement bidding Big Blue “welcome, seriously,” it had been hard to read as anything other than snarky sarcasm. And then, and most famously, had come the “1984” television advertisement to mark the debut of the Macintosh, in which Apple was personified as a hammer-throwing freedom fighter toppling a totalitarian corporate titan — Big Blue recast as Big Brother. What would the rumor-mongers be saying next? That cats would lie down with dogs? That the Russians would tell the Americans they’d given up on the whole communism thing and would like to be friends… oh, wait. It was a strange moment in history. Why not this too, then?

Indeed, when one looked a little harder, a partnership began to make at least a certain degree of sense. Apple’s rhetoric had actually softened considerably since those heady early days of the Macintosh and the acrimonious departure of Steve Jobs which had marked their ending. In the time since, more sober minds at the company had come to realize that insulting conservative corporate customers with money to spend on Apple’s pricey hardware might be counter-productive. Most of all, though, both companies found themselves in strikingly similar binds as the 1990s got underway. After soaring to rarefied heights during the early and middle years of the previous decade, they were now being judged by an increasing number of pundits as the two biggest losers of the last few years of computing history. In the face of the juggernaut that was Microsoft Windows, that irresistible force which nothing in the world of computing could seem to defy for long, it didn’t seem totally out of line to ask whether there even was a future for IBM or Apple. Seen in this light, the pithy clichés practically wrote themselves: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”; “any port in a storm”; etc. Other, somewhat less generous commentators just talked about an alliance of losers.

Each of the two losers had gotten to this juncture by a uniquely circuitous route.

When IBM released the IBM PC, their first mass-market microcomputer, in August of 1981, they were as surprised as anyone by the way it took off. Even as hackers dismissed it as boring and unimaginative, corporate America couldn’t get enough of the thing; a boring and unimaginative personal computer — i.e., a safe one — was exactly what they had been waiting for. IBM’s profits skyrocketed during the next several years, and the pundits lined up to praise the management of this old, enormous company for having the flexibility and wherewithal to capitalize on an emerging new market; a tap-dancing elephant became the metaphor of choice.

And yet, like so many great successes, the IBM PC bore the seeds of its downfall within it from the start. It was a simple, robust machine, easy to duplicate by plugging together readily available commodity components — a process made even easier by IBM’s commitment to scrupulously documenting every last detail of its design for all and sundry. Further, IBM had made the mistake of licensing its operating system from a small company known as Microsoft rather than buying it outright or writing one of their own, and Bill Gates, Microsoft’s Machiavellian CEO, proved more than happy to license MS-DOS to anyone else who wanted it as well. The danger signs could already be seen in 1982, when an upstart company called Compaq released a “portable” version of IBM’s computer — in those days, this meant a computer which could be packed into a single suitcase — before IBM themselves could get around to it. A more dramatic tipping point arrived in 1986, when the same company made a PC clone built around Intel’s hot new 80386 CPU before IBM managed to do so.

In 1987, IBM responded to the multiplying ranks of the clone makers by introducing the PS/2 line, which came complete with a new, proprietary bus architecture, locked up tight this time inside a cage of patents and legalese. A cynical move on the face of it, it backfired spectacularly in practice. Smelling the overweening corporate arrogance positively billowing out of the PS/2 lineup, many began to ask themselves for the first time whether the industry still needed IBM at all. And the answer they often came to was not the one IBM would have preferred. IBM’s new bus architecture slowly died on the vine, while the erstwhile clone makers put together committees to define new standards of their own which evolved the design IBM had originated in more open, commonsense ways. In short, IBM lost control of the very platform they had created. By 1990, the words “PC clone” were falling out of common usage, to be replaced by talk of the “Wintel Standard.” The new standard bearer, the closest equivalent to IBM in this new world order, was Microsoft, who continued to license MS-DOS and Windows, the software that allowed all of these machines from all of these diverse manufacturers to run the same applications, to anyone willing to pay for it. Meanwhile OS/2, IBM’s mostly-compatible alternative operating system, was struggling mightily; it would never manage to cross the hump into true mass-market acceptance.

Apple’s fall from grace had been less dizzying in some ways, but the position it had left them in was almost as frustrating.

After Steve Jobs walked away from Apple in September of 1985, leaving behind the Macintosh, his twenty-month-old dream machine, the more sober-minded caretakers who succeeded him did many of the reasonable, sober-minded things which their dogmatic predecessor had refused to allow: opening the Mac up for expansion, adding much-requested arrow keys to its keyboard, toning down the revolutionary rhetoric that spooked corporate America so badly. These things, combined with the Apple LaserWriter laser printer, Aldus PageMaker software, and the desktop-publishing niche they spawned between them, saved the odd little machine from oblivion. Yet something did seem to get lost in the process. Although the Mac remained a paragon of vision in computing in many ways — HyperCard alone proved that! — Apple’s management could sometimes seem more interested in competing head-to-head with PC clones for space on the desks of secretaries than nurturing the original dream of the Macintosh as the creative, friendly, fun personal computer for the rest of us.

In fact, this period of Apple’s history must strike anyone familiar with the company of today — or, for that matter, with the company that existed before Steve Jobs’s departure — as just plain weird. Quibbles about character versus attitude aside, Apple’s most notable strength down through the years has been a peerless sense of self, which they have used to carve out their own uniquely stylish image in the ofttimes bland world of computing. How odd, then, to see the Apple of this period almost willfully trying to become the one thing neither the zealots nor the detractors have ever seen them as: just another maker of computer hardware. They flooded the market with more models than even the most dutiful fans could keep up with, none of them evincing the flair for design that marks the Macs of earlier or later eras. Their computers’ bland cases were matched with bland names like “Performa” or “Quadra” — names which all too easily could have come out of Compaq or (gasp!) IBM rather than Apple. Even the tight coupling of hardware and software into a single integrated user experience, another staple of Apple computing before and after, threatened to disappear, as CEO John Sculley took to calling Apple a “software company” and intimated that he might be willing to license MacOS to other manufacturers in the way that Microsoft did MS-DOS and Windows. At the same time, in a bid to protect the software crown jewels, he launched a prohibitively expensive and ethically and practically ill-advised lawsuit against Microsoft for copying MacOS’s “look and feel” in Windows.

Apple’s attempts to woo corporate America by acting just as bland and conventional as everyone else bore little fruit; the Macintosh itself remained too incompatible, too expensive, and too indelibly strange to lure cautious purchasing managers into the fold. Meanwhile Apple’s prices remained too high for any but the most well-heeled private users. And so the Mac soldiered on with a 5 to 10 percent market share, buoyed by a fanatically loyal user base who still saw revolutionary potential in it, even as they complained about how many of its ideas Microsoft and others had stolen. Admittedly, their numbers were not insignificant: there were about 3 and a half million members of the Macintosh family by 1990. They were enough to keep Apple afloat and basically profitable, at least for now, but already by the early 1990s most new Macs were being sold “within the family,” as it were. The Mac became known as the platform where the visionaries tried things out; if said things proved promising, they then reached the masses in the form of Windows implementations. CD-ROM, the most exciting new technology of the early 1990s, was typical. The Mac pioneered this space; Mediagenic’s The Manhole, the very first CD-ROM entertainment product, shipped first on that platform. Yet most of the people who heard the hype and went out to buy a “multimedia PC” in the years that followed brought home a Wintel machine. The Mac was a sort of aspirational showpiece platform; in defiance of the Mac’s old “computer for the rest of us” tagline, Windows was the place where the majority of ordinary people did ordinary things.

The state of MacOS added weight to these showhorse-versus-workhorse stereotypes. Its latest incarnation, known as System 6, had fallen alarmingly behind the state of the art in computing by 1990. Once one looked beyond its famously intuitive and elegant user interface, one found that it lacked robust support for multitasking; lacked for ways to address memory beyond 8 MB; lacked the virtual memory that would allow users to open more and larger applications than the physical memory allowed; lacked the memory protection that could prevent errant applications from taking down the whole system. Having been baked into many of the operating system’s core assumptions from the start — MacOS had originally been designed to run on a machine with no hard drive and just 128 K of memory — these limitations were infuriatingly difficult to remedy after the fact. Thus Apple struggled mightily with the creation of a System 7, their attempt to do just that. When System 7 finally shipped in May of 1991, two years after Apple had initially promised it would, it still lagged behind Windows under the hood in some ways: for example, it still lacked comprehensive memory protection.

The problems which dogged the Macintosh were typical of any computing platform that attempts to survive beyond the technological era which spawned it. Keeping up with the times means hacking and kludging the original vision, as efficiency and technical elegance give way to the need just to make it work, by hook or by crook. The original Mac design team had been given the rare privilege of forgetting about backward compatibility — given permission to build something truly new and “insanely great,” as Steve Jobs had so memorably put it. That, needless to say, was no longer an option. Every decision at Apple must now be made with an eye toward all of the software that had been written for the Mac in the past seven years or so. People depended on it now, which sharply limited the ways in which it could be changed; any new idea that wasn’t compatible with what had come before was an ipso-facto nonstarter. Apple’s clever programmers doubtless could have made a faster, more stable, all-around better operating system than System 7 if they had only had free rein to do so. But that was pie-in-the-sky talk.

Yet the most pressing of all the technical problems confronting the Macintosh as it aged involved its hardware rather than its software. Back in 1984, the design team had hitched their wagon to the slickest, sexiest new CPU in the industry at the time: the Motorola 68000. And for several years, they had no cause to regret that decision. The 68000 and its successor models in the same family were wonderful little chips — elegant enough to live up to even the Macintosh ideal of elegance, an absolute joy to program. Even today, many an old-timer will happily wax rhapsodic about them if given half a chance. (Few, for the record, have similarly fond memories of Intel’s chips.)

But Motorola was both a smaller and a more diversified company than Intel, the international titan of chip-making. As time went on, they found it more and more difficult to keep up with the pace set by their rival. Lacking the same cutting-edge fabrication facilities, it was hard for them to pack as many circuits into the same amount of space. Matters began to come to a head in 1989, when Intel released the 80486, a chip for which Motorola had nothing remotely comparable. Motorola’s response finally arrived in the form of the roughly-equivalent-in-horsepower 68040 — but not until more than a year later, and even then their chip was plagued by poor heat dissipation and heavy power consumption in many scenarios. Worse, word had it that Motorola was getting ready to give up on the whole 68000 line; they simply didn’t believe they could continue to compete head-to-head with Intel in this arena. One can hardly overstate how terrifying this prospect was for Apple. An end to the 68000 line must seemingly mean the end of the Macintosh, at least as everyone knew it; MacOS, along with every application ever written for the platform, were inextricably bound to the 68000. Small wonder that John Sculley started talking about Apple as a “software company.” It looked like their hardware might be going away, whether they liked it or not.

Motorola was, however, peddling an alternative to the 68000 line, embodying one of the biggest buzzwords in computer-science circles at the time: “RISC,” short for “Reduced Instruction Set Chip.” Both the Intel x86 line and the Motorola 68000 line were what had been retroactively named “CISC,” or “Complex Instruction Set Chips”: CPUs whose set of core opcodes — i.e., the set of low-level commands by which they could be directly programmed — grew constantly bigger and more baroque over time. RISC chips, on the other hand, pared their opcodes down to the bone, to only those commands which they absolutely, positively could not exist without. This made them less pleasant for a human programmer to code for — but then, the vast majority of programmers were working by now in high-level languages rather than directly controlling the CPU in assembly language anyway. And it made programs written to run on them by any method bigger, generally speaking — but then, most people by 1990 were willing to trade a bit more memory usage for extra speed. To compensate for these disadvantages, RISC chips could be simpler in terms of circuitry than CISC chips of equivalent power, making them cheaper and easier to manufacture. They also demanded less energy and produced less heat — the computer engineer’s greatest enemy — at equivalent clock speeds. As of yet, only one RISC chip was serving as the CPU in mass-market personal computers: the ARM chip, used in the machines of the British PC maker Acorn, which weren’t even sold in the United States. Nevertheless, Motorola believed RISC’s time had come. By switching to RISC, they wouldn’t need to match Intel in terms of transistors per square millimeter to produce chips of equal or greater speed. Indeed, they’d already made a RISC CPU of their own, called the 88000, in which they were eager to interest Apple.

They found a receptive audience among Apple’s programmers and engineers, who loved Motorola’s general design aesthetic. Already by the spring of 1990, Apple had launched two separate internal projects to study the possibilities for RISC in general and the 88000 in particular. One, known as Project Jaguar, envisioned a clean break with the past, in the form of a brand new computer that would be so amazing that people would be willing to accept that none of their existing software would run on it. The other, known as Project Cognac, studied whether it might be possible to port the existing MacOS to the new architecture, and then — and this was the really tricky part — find a way to make existing applications which had been compiled for a 68000-based Mac run unchanged on the new machine.

At first, the only viable option for doing so seemed to be a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of a computer, containing both an 88000- and a 68000-series CPU. The operating system would boot and run on the 88000, but when the user started an application written for an older, 68000-based Mac, it would be automatically kicked over to the secondary CPU. Within a few years, so the thinking went, all existing users would upgrade to the newer models, all current software would get recompiled to run natively on the RISC chip, and the 68000 could go away. Still, no one was all that excited by this approach; it seemed the worst Macintosh kludge yet, the very antithesis of what the machine was supposed to be.

A eureka moment came in late 1990, with the discovery of what Cognac project leader Jack McHenry came to call the “90/10 Rule.” Running profilers on typical applications, his team found that in the case of many or most of them it was the operating system, not the application itself, that consumed 90 percent or more of the CPU cycles. This was an artifact — for once, a positive one! — of the original MacOS design, which offered programmers an unprecedentedly rich interface toolbox meant to make coding as quick and easy as possible and, just as importantly, to give all applications a uniform look and feel. Thus an application simply asked for a menu containing a list of entries; it was then the operating system that did all the work of setting it up, monitoring it, and reporting back to the application when the user chose something from it. Ditto buttons, dialog boxes, etc. Even something as CPU-intensive as video playback generally happened through the operating system’s QuickTime library rather than the application actually employing it.

All of this meant that it ought to be feasible to emulate the 68000 entirely in software. The 68000 code would necessarily run slowly and inefficiently through emulation, wiping out all of the speed advantages of the new chip and then some. Yet for many or most applications the emulator would only need to be used about 10 percent of the time. The other 90 percent of the time, when the operating system itself was doing things at native speed, would more than make up for it. In due course, applications would get recompiled and the need for 68000 emulation would largely go away. But in the meanwhile, it could provide a vital bridge between the past and the future — a next-generation Mac that wouldn’t break continuity with the old one, all with a minimum of complication, for Apple’s users and for their hardware engineers alike. By mid-1991, Project Cognac had an 88000-powered prototype that could run a RISC-based MacOS and legacy Mac applications together.

And yet this wasn’t to be the final form of the RISC-based Macintosh. For, just a few months later, Apple and IBM made an announcement that the technology press billed — sometimes sarcastically, sometimes earnestly — as the “Deal of the Century.”

Apple had first begun to talk with IBM in early 1990, when Michael Spindler, the former’s president, had first reached out to Jack Kuehler, his opposite number at IBM. It seemed that, while Apple’s technical rank and file were still greatly enamored with Motorola, upper management was less sanguine. Having been burned once with the 68000, they were uncertain about Motorola’s commitment and ability to keep evolving the 88000 over the long term.

It made a lot of sense in the abstract for any company interested in RISC technology, as Apple certainly was, to contact IBM; it was actually IBM who had invented the RISC concept back in the mid-1970s. Not all that atypically for such a huge company with so many ongoing research projects, they had employed the idea for years only in limited, mostly subsidiary usage scenarios, such as mainframe channel controllers. Now, though, they were just introducing a new line of “workstation computers” — meaning extremely high-powered desktop computers, too expensive for the consumer market — which used a RISC chip called the POWER CPU that was the heir to their many years of research in the field. Like the workstations it lay at the heart of, the chip was much too expensive and complex to become the brain of Apple’s next generation of consumer computers, but it might, thought Spindler, be something to build upon. And he knew that, with IBM’s old partnership with Microsoft slowly collapsing into bickering acrimony, Big Blue might just be looking for a new partner.

The back-channel talks were intermittent and hyper-cautious at first, but, as the year wore on and the problems both of the companies faced became more and more obvious, the discussions heated up. The first formal meeting took place in February of 1991 or shortly thereafter, at an IBM facility in Austin, Texas. The Apple people, knowing IBM’s ultra-conservative reputation and wishing to make a good impression, arrived neatly groomed and dressed in three-piece suits, only to find their opposite numbers, having acted on the same motivation, sitting there in jeans and denim shirts.

That anecdote illustrates how very much both sides wanted to make this work. And indeed, the two parties found it much easier to work together than anyone might have imagined. John Sculley, the man who really called the shots at Apple, found that he got along smashingly with Jack Kuehler, to the extent that the two were soon talking almost every day. After beginning as a fairly straightforward discussion of whether IBM might be able and willing to make a RISC chip suitable for the Macintosh, the negotiations just kept growing in scale and ambition, spurred on by both companies’ deep-seated desire to stick it to Microsoft and the Wintel hegemony in any and all possible ways. They agreed to found a joint subsidiary called Taligent, staffed initially with the people from Apple’s Project Jaguar, which would continue to develop a brand new operating system that could be licensed by any hardware maker, just like MS-DOS and Windows (and for that matter IBM’s already extant OS/2). And they would found another subsidiary called Kaleida Labs, to make a cross-platform multimedia scripting engine called ScriptX.

Still, the core of the discussions remained IBM’s POWER architecture — or rather the PowerPC, as the partners agreed to call the cost-reduced, consumer-friendly version of the chip. Apple soon pulled Motorola into these parts of the talks, thus turning a bilateral into a trilateral negotiation, and providing the name for their so-called “AIM alliance” — “AIM” for Apple, IBM, and Motorola. IBM had never made a mass-market microprocessor of their own before, noted Apple, and Motorola’s experience could serve them well, as could their chip-fabrication facilities once actual production began. The two non-Apple parties were perhaps less excited at the prospect of working together — Motorola in particular must have been smarting at the rejection of their own 88000 processor which this new plan would entail — but made nice and got along.

Jack Kuehler and John Sculley brandish what they call their “marriage certificate,” looking rather disturbingly like Neville Chamberlain declaring peace in our time. The marriage would not prove an overly long or happy one.

On October 2, 1991 — just six weeks after the first 68040-based Macintosh models had shipped — Apple and IBM made official the rumors that had been swirling around for months. At a joint press briefing held inside the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Francisco, they trumpeted all of the initiatives I’ve just described. The Deal of the Century, they said, would usher in the next phase of personal computing. Wintel must soon give way to the superiority of a PowerPC-based computer running a Taligent operating system with ScriptX onboard. New Apple Macintosh models would also use the PowerPC, but the relationship between them and these other, Taligent-powered machines remained vague.

Indeed, it was all horribly confusing. “What Taligent is doing is not designed to replace the Macintosh,” said Sculley. “Instead we think it complements and enhances its usefulness.” But what on earth did that empty corporate speak even mean? When Apple said out of the blue that they were “not going to do to the Macintosh what we did to the Apple II” — i.e., orphan it — it rather made you suspect that that was exactly what they meant to do. And what did it all mean for IBM’s OS/2, which Big Blue had been telling a decidedly unconvinced public was also the future of personal computing for several years now? “I think the message in those agreements for the future of OS/2 is that it no longer has a future,” said one analyst. And then, what was Kaleida and this ScriptX thing supposed to actually do?

So much of the agreement seemed so hopelessly vague. Compaq’s vice president declared that Apple and IBM must be “smoking dope. There’s no way it’s going to work.” One pundit called the whole thing “a con job. There’s no software, there’s no operating system. It’s just a last gasp of extinction by the giants that can’t keep up with Intel.” Apple’s own users were baffled and consternated by this sudden alliance with the company which they had been schooled to believe was technological evil incarnate. A grim joke made the rounds: what do you get when you cross Apple and IBM? The answer: IBM.

While the journalists reported and the pundits pontificated, it was up to the technical staff at Apple, IBM, and Motorola to make PowerPC computers a reality. Like their colleagues who had negotiated the deal, they all got along surprisingly well; once one pushed past the surface stereotypes, they were all just engineers trying to do the best work possible. Apple’s management wanted the first PowerPC-based Macintosh models to ship in January of 1994, to commemorate the platform’s tenth anniversary by heralding a new technological era. The old Project Cognac team, now with the new code name of “Piltdown Man” after the famous (albeit fraudulent) “missing link” in the evolution of humanity, was responsible for making this happen. For almost a year, they worked on porting MacOS to the PowerPC, as they’d previously done to the 88000. This time, though, they had no real hardware with which to work, only specifications and software emulators. The first prototype chips finally arrived on September 3, 1992, and they redoubled their efforts, pulling many an all-nighter. Thus MacOS booted up to the desktop for the first time on a real PowerPC-based machine just in time to greet the rising sun on the morning of October 3, 1992. A new era had indeed dawned.

Their goal now was to make a PowerPC-based Macintosh work exactly like any other, only faster. MacOS wouldn’t even get a new primary version number for the first PowerPC release; this major milestone in Mac history would go under the name of System 7.1.2, a name more appropriate to a minor maintenance release. It looked so identical to what had come before that its own creators couldn’t spot the difference; they wound up lighting up a single extra pixel in the PowerPC version just so they could know which was which.

Their guiding rule of an absolutely seamless transition applied in spades to the 68000 emulation layer, duly ported from the 88000 to the PowerPC. An ordinary user should never have to think about — should not even have to know about — the emulation that was happening beneath the surface. Another watershed moment came in June of 1993, when the team brought a PowerPC prototype machine to the MacHack, a coding conference and competition. Without telling any of the attendees what was inside the machine, the team let them use it to demonstrate their boundary-pushing programs. The emulation layer performed beyond their most hopeful prognostications. It looked like the Mac’s new lease on life was all but a done deal from the engineering side of things.

But alas, the bonhomie exhibited by the partner companies’ engineers and programmers down in the trenches wasn’t so marked in their executive suites after the deal was signed. The very vagueness of so many aspects of the agreement had papered over what were in reality hugely different visions of the future. IBM, a company not usually given to revolutionary rhetoric, had taken at face value the high-flown words spoken at the announcement. They truly believed that the agreement would mark a new era for personal computing in general, with a new, better hardware architecture in the form of PowerPC and an ultra-modern operating system to run on it in the form of Taligent’s work. Meanwhile it was becoming increasingly clear that Apple’s management, who claimed to be changing the world five times before breakfast on most days, had in reality seen Taligent largely as a hedge in case their people should prove unable to create a PowerPC Macintosh that looked like a Mac, felt like a Mac, and ran vintage Mac software. As Project Piltdown Man’s work proceeded apace, Apple grew less and less enamored with those other, open-architecture ideas IBM was pushing. The Taligent people didn’t help their cause by falling headfirst into a pit of airy computer-science abstractions and staying mired there for years, all while Project Piltdown Man just kept plugging away, getting things done.

The first two and a half years of the 1990s were marred by a mild but stubborn recession in the United States, during which the PC industry had a particularly hard time of it. After the summer of 1992, however, the economy picked up steam and consumer computing eased into what would prove its longest and most sustained boom of all time, borne along on a wave of hype about CD-ROM and multimedia, along with the simple fact that personal computers in general had finally evolved to a place where they could do useful things for ordinary people in a reasonably painless way. (A bit later in the boom, of course, the World Wide Web would come along to provide the greatest impetus of all.)

And yet the position of both Apple and IBM in the PC marketplace continued to get steadily worse while the rest of their industry soared. At least 90 percent of the computers that were now being sold in such impressive numbers ran Microsoft Windows, leaving OS/2, MacOS, and a few other oddballs to divide the iconoclasts, the hackers, and the non-conformists of the world among themselves. While IBM continued to flog OS/2, more out of stubbornness than hope, Apple tried a little bit of everything to stop the slide in market share and remain relevant. Still not entirely certain whether their future lay with open architectures or their own closed, proprietary one, they started porting selected software to Windows, including most notably QuickTime, their much-admired tool for encoding and playing video. They even shipped a Mac model that could also run MS-DOS and Windows, thanks to an 80486 housed in its case alongside its 68040. And they entered into a partnership with the networking giant Novell to port MacOS itself to Intel hardware — a partnership that, like many Apple initiatives of these years, petered out without ultimately producing much of anything. Perhaps most tellingly of all, this became the only period in Apple’s history when the company felt compelled to compete solely on price. They started selling Macs in department stores for the first time, where a stream of very un-Apple-like discounts and rebates greeted prospective buyers.

While Apple thus toddled along without making much headway, IBM began to annihilate all previous conceptions of how much money a single company could possibly lose, posting oceans of red that looked more like the numbers found in macroeconomic research papers than entries in an accountant’s books. The PC marketplace was in a way one of their smaller problems. Their mainframe business, their real bread and butter since the 1950s, was cratering as customers fled to the smaller, cheaper computers that could often now do the jobs of those hulking giants just as well. In 1991, when IBM first turned the corner into loss, they did so in disconcertingly convincing fashion: they lost $2.82 billion that year. And that was only the beginning. Losses totaled $4.96 billion in 1992, followed by $8.1 billion in 1993. IBM lost more money during those three years alone than any other company in the history of the world to that point; their losses exceeded the gross domestic product of Ecuador.

The employees at both Apple and IBM paid the toll for the confusions and prevarications of these years: both companies endured rounds of major layoffs. Those at IBM marked the very first such in the long history of the company. Big Blue had for decades fostered a culture of employment for life; their motto had always been, “If you do your job, you will always have your job.” This, it was now patently obvious, was no longer the case.

The bloodletting at both companies reached their executive suites as well within a few months of one another. On April 1, 1993, John Akers, the CEO of IBM, was ousted after a seven-year tenure which one business writer called “the worst record of any chief executive in the history of IBM.” Three months later, following a terrible quarterly earnings report and a drop in share price of 58 percent in the span of six months, Michael Spindler replaced John Sculley as the CEO of Apple.

These, then, were the storm clouds under which the PowerPC architecture became a physical reality.

The first PowerPC computers to be given a public display bore an IBM rather than an Apple logo on their cases. They arrived at the Comdex trade show in November of 1993, running a port of OS/2. IBM also promised a port of AIX — their version of the Unix operating system — while Sun Microsystems announced plans to port their Unix-based Solaris operating system and, most surprisingly of all, Microsoft talked about porting over Windows NT, the more advanced, server-oriented version of their world-conquering operating environment. But, noted the journalists present, “it remains unclear whether users will be able to run Macintosh applications on IBM’s PowerPC” — a fine example of the confusing messaging the two alleged allies constantly trailed in their wake. Further, there was no word at all about the status of the Taligent operating system that was supposed to become the real PowerPC standard.

Meanwhile over at Apple, Project Piltdown Man was becoming that rarest of unicorns in tech circles: a major software-engineering project that is actually completed on schedule. The release of the first PowerPC Macs was pushed back a bit, but only to allow the factories time to build up enough inventory to meet what everyone hoped would be serious consumer demand. Thus the “Power Macs” made their public bow on March 14, 1994, at New York City’s Lincoln Center, in three different configurations clocked at speeds between 60 and 80 MHz. Unlike IBM’s machines, which were shown six months before they shipped, the Power Macs were available for anyone to buy the very next day.

The initial trio of Power Macs.

This speed test, published in MacWorld magazine, shows how all three of the Power Mac machines dramatically outperform top-of-the-line Pentium machines when running native code.

They were greeted with enormous excitement and enthusiasm by the Mac faithful, who had been waiting anxiously for a machine that could go head-to-head with computers built around Intel’s new Pentium chip, the successor to the 80486. This the Power Macs could certainly do; by some benchmarks at least, the PowerPC doubled the overall throughput of a Pentium. World domination must surely be just around the corner, right?

Predictably enough, the non-Mac-centric technology press greeted the machines’ arrival more skeptically than the hardcore Mac-heads. “I think Apple will sell [a] million units, but it’s all going to be to existing Mac users,” said one market researcher. “DOS and Windows running on Intel platforms is still going to be 85 percent of the market. [The Power Mac] doesn’t give users enough of a reason to change.” Another noted that “the Mac users that I know are not interested in using Windows, and the Windows users are not interested in using the Mac. There has to be a compelling reason [to switch].”

In the end, these more guarded predictions proved the most accurate. Apple did indeed sell an impressive spurt of Power Macs in the months that followed, but almost entirely to the faithful. One might almost say that they became a victim of Project Piltdown Man’s success: the Power Mac really did seem exactly like any other Macintosh, except that it ran faster. And even this fact could be obscured when running legacy applications under emulation, as most people were doing in the early months: despite Project Piltdown Man’s heroic efforts, applications like Excel, Word, and Photoshop actually ran slightly slower on a Power Mac than on a top-of-the-line 68040-based machine. So, while the transition to PowerPC allowed the Macintosh to persist as a viable computing platform, it ultimately did nothing to improve upon its small market share. And because the PowerPC MacOS was such a direct and literal port, it still retained all of the shortcomings of MacOS in general. It remained a pretty interface stretched over some almost laughably archaic plumbing. The new generation of Mac hardware wouldn’t receive an operating system truly, comprehensively worthy of it until OS X arrived seven long years later.

Still, these harsh realities shouldn’t be allowed to detract from how deftly Apple — and particularly the unsung coders of Project Piltdown Man — executed the transition. No one before had ever picked up a consumer-computing platform bodily and moved it to an entirely new hardware architecture at all, much less done it so transparently that many or most users never really had to think about what was happening at all. (There would be only one comparable example in computing’s future. And, incredibly, the Mac would once again be the platform in question: in 2006, Apple would move from the fading PowerPC line to Intel’s chips — if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right? — relying once again on a cleverly coded software emulator to see them through the period of transition. The Macintosh, it seems, has more lives than Lazarus.)

Although the briefly vaunted AIM alliance did manage to give the Macintosh a new lease on life, it succeeded in very little else. The PowerPC architecture, which had cost the alliance more than $1 billion to develop, went nowhere in its non-Mac incarnations. IBM’s own machines sold in such tiny numbers that the question of whether Apple would ever allow them to run MacOS was all but rendered moot. (For the record, though: they never did.) Sun Solaris and Microsoft Windows NT did come out in PowerPC versions, but their sales couldn’t justify their existence, and within a year or two they went away again. The bold dream of creating a new reference platform for general-purpose computing to rival Wintel never got off the ground, as it became painfully clear that said dream had been taken more to heart by IBM than by Apple. Only after the millennium would the PowerPC architecture find a measure of mass-market success outside the Mac, when it was adopted by Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony for use in videogame consoles. In this form, then, it finally paid off for IBM; far more PowerPC-powered consoles than even Macs were sold over the lifetime of the architecture. PowerPC also eventually saw use in other specialized applications, such as satellites and planetary rovers employed by NASA.

Success, then, is always relative. But not so the complete lack thereof, as Kaleida and Taligent proved. Kaleida burned through $200 million before finally shipping its ScriptX multimedia-presentation engine years after other products, most notably Macromedia’s Director, had already sewn up that space; it was disbanded and harvested for scraps by Apple in November of 1995. Taligent burned through a staggering $400 million over the same period of time, producing only some tepid programming frameworks in lieu of the revolutionary operating system that had been promised, before being absorbed back into IBM.

There is one final fascinating footnote to this story of a Deal of the Century that turned out to be little more than a strange anecdote in computing history. In the summer of 1994, IBM, having by now stopped the worst of the bleeding, settling by now into their new life as a smaller, far less dominant company, offered to buy Apple outright for a premium of $5 over their current share price. In IBM’s view, the synergies made sense: the Power Macs were selling extremely well, which was more than could be said for IBM’s PowerPC models. Why not go all in?

Ironically, it was those same healthy sales numbers that scuppered the deal in the end. If the offer had come a year earlier, when a money-losing Apple was just firing John Sculley, they surely would have jumped at it. But now Apple was feeling their oats again, and by no means entirely without reason; sales were up more than 20 percent over the previous year, and the company was once more comfortably in the black. So, they told IBM thanks, but no thanks. The same renewed taste of success also caused them to reject serious inquiries from Philips, Sun Microsystems, and Oracle. Word had it that new CEO Michael Spindler was convinced not only that the Power Mac had saved Apple, but that it had fundamentally altered their position in the marketplace.

The following year revealed how misguided that thinking really was; the Power Mac had fixed none of Apple’s fundamental problems. That year it was Microsoft who cemented their world domination instead, with the release of Windows 95, while Apple grappled with the reality that almost all of those Power Mac sales of the previous year had been to existing members of the Macintosh family, not to the new customers they so desperately needed to attract. What happened now that everyone in the family had dutifully upgraded? The answer to that question wasn’t pretty: Apple plunged off a financial cliff as precipitous in its own way as the one which had nearly destroyed IBM a few years earlier. Now, nobody was interested in acquiring them anymore. The pundits smelled the stink of death; it’s difficult to find an article on Apple written between 1995 and 1998 which doesn’t include the adjective “beleaguered.” Why buy now when you can sift through the scraps at the bankruptcy auction in just a little while?

Apple didn’t wind up dying, of course. Instead a series of improbable events, beginning with the return of prodigal-son Steve Jobs in 1997, turned them into the richest single company in the world — yes, richer even than Microsoft. These are stories for other articles. But for now, it’s perhaps worth pausing for a moment to think about an alternate timeline where the Macintosh became an IBM product, and the Deal of the Century that got that ball rolling thus came much closer to living up to its name. Bizarre, you say? Perhaps. But no more bizarre than what really happened.

(Sources: the books Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh by Steven Levy, Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World’s Most Colorful Company by Owen W. Linzmayer, Infinite Loop: How the World’s Most Insanely Great Computer Company Went Insane by Michael S. Malone, Big Blues: The Unmaking of IBM by Paul Carroll, and The PowerPC Macintosh Book by Stephan Somogyi; InfoWorld of September 24 1990, October 15 1990, December 3 1990, April 8 1991, May 13 1991, May 27 1991, July 1 1991, July 8 1991, July 15 1991, July 22 1991, August 5 1991, August 19 1991, September 23 1991, September 30 1991, October 7 1991, October 21 1991, November 4 1991, December 30 1991, January 13 1992, January 20 1992, February 3 1992, March 9 1992, March 16 1992, March 23 1992, April 27 1992, May 11 1992, May 18 1992, June 15 1992, June 29 1992, July 27 1992, August 3 1992, August 10 1992, August 17 1992, September 7 1992, September 21 1992, October 5 1992, October 12 1992, October 19 1992, December 14 1992, December 21 1992, December 28 1992, January 11 1993, February 1 1993, February 22 1993, March 8 1993, March 15 1993, April 5 1993, April 12 1993, May 17 1993, May 24 1993, May 31 1993, June 21 1993, June 28 1993, July 5 1993, July 12 1993, July 19 1993, August 2 1993, August 9 1993, August 30 1993, September 6 1993, September 27 1993, October 4 1993, October 11 1993, October 18 1993, November 1 1993, November 15 1993, November 22 1993, December 6 1993, December 13 1993, December 20 1993, January 10 1994, January 31 1994, March 7 1994, March 14 1994, March 28 1994, April 25 1994, May 2 1994, May 16 1994, June 6 1994, June 27 1994; MacWorld of September 1992, February 1993, July 1993, September 1993, October 1993, November 1993, February 1994, and May 1994; Byte of November 1984. Online sources include IBM’s own corporate-history timeline and a vintage IBM lecture on the PowerPC architecture.)

Zarf Updates

Kentucky Route Zero: quick thoughts

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at February 07, 2020 04:05 AM

It seems pointless to write a full review or deep analysis. Practically everybody reading this has (long since) played at least some of KR0, or else decided (long since) that they're not interested.
I picked up KR0 a week ago, the day the final act launched. I've been avoiding the game and all spoilers since 2013. "I'll play it when it's done," I said; that's what I did. Now I'm seven years behind on the discussion and I don't expect to catch up. I'm sure someone has a theory about what the brick sandwich represents -- if the authors haven't explained it all in a developer interview. You don't need mine. Which is good, because I don't have one.
But I suppose I have to say something. If nothing else, to repay the honor the designers have done me with that riff in Act 3. (Which was a complete and delightful surprise, by the way. Did anyone tell me that was going to happen? Maybe, but it would have been 2014 and I would have done my best not to remember the spoiler.)
I will, then, talk about the pacing.
(This will not be spoilery, except in describing some of the ways the game will surprise you. Okay, I guess that's somewhat spoilery. I won't get into any details though.)
"Gameplay in Kentucky Route Zero is slow-paced," said the original Kickstarter in 2011. Easy to joke when the planned three-month episode cycle turned into a year, then two, then four. But I found that the writing and rhythm of gameplay was built for these long intervals. You're meant to absorb the strangeness, mull it, and then let it settle out. Take a breath and put it all aside. When you pick up the next act, the last one should be half-remembered, half reconstructed in memory. Do I know that character? Was his arm like that last time? Wasn't someone else telling this story? Maybe this was explained; maybe not; maybe it will be explained next time, in retrospect.
I played one act a night, plus one interlude, for a week. Plunging through all five in one day would have been like eating five ice-cream cones sequentially. The thought is absurd. Even spreading them out over a week is probably too fast, but then I am bad at names and had trouble remembering all the characters regardless. The effect is close enough.
(Oh, some of you long-time fans must have replayed the first four acts before jumping into Act 5. Maybe all in one night? But replaying is likely a different story.)
What about the writing demands such a slow pace? I have already mentioned the dreamlike shifts of situation and environment. The narration is enthusiastically fractured. The POV shifts from one character to another, to a recording, to the future, to onlookers who are never seen or mentioned again. (Or maybe they will be.) Scenes are shown out of order, effect before cause.
This adirectionality extends to the gameplay. The episodes are not shaped like miniature movies -- beginning, tension, climax, sequel hook. Rather, you journey through places until the act is over. You will not know, encountering a landmark, whether you will find a brief highlight, a significant encounter, or a scene that will fill the majority of the act.
It's not that you're expected to puzzle it out. (Although the story timeline is not, in the end, difficult to untangle.) Rather, you're expected to accept whatever comes.
I think that's the key. KR0 deliberately undermines the habit of expectation. To expect anything from the story is foolish; it will go somewhere else. You'll learn better. And impatience is even more foolish. After seven years, you really want to play a game that's over too soon?
Kentucky Route Zero is a wonderful lesson in how not to get stuck in your assumptions. Point of view? Narrator? Sequence? There's a traditional way, and then there are all the other delightful ways that people ignore. Try a few surprises.

February 04, 2020

Emily Short

Broken Places & Outer Spaces (Nnedi Okorafor)

by Emily Short at February 04, 2020 12:41 PM

Broken Places & Outer Spaces is a book about creativity and the personal voice that comes from really difficult things in life; from what Okorafor refers to as “the Breaking.”

In it, she talks about an operation that left her partially paralyzed; about the process of learning to walk again, about learning to write as a result of that, and about the changed abilities that she has lived with ever since; about the integration of her Nigerian heritage into her science fiction writing; about her vision of Africanfuturism; about her embrace of the cyborg as a symbol of a potential self that is both less and more than human.

As the TED symbol might suggest, it’s an inspirational piece rather than one dedicated primarily to craft. I’ve come to regard the TED brand a little the way I regard the Papyrus font: it’s not inherently terrible from the outset, but too many exposures have made me wary of the style — polished, digestible, self-consciously heartwarming.

Nonetheless, I very much liked this particular piece. In particular, the idea of the cyborg self resonates: the idea that one is either currently broken, or currently unequal to the tasks ahead, and therefore it’s necessary to become someone else. And not just to grow gently toward the sun, or to undergo some natural process of evolution, but to take responsibility for crafting oneself, to put time and effort, technique and willpower into redesigning oneself.

February 03, 2020

Post Position

Sea and Spar Between 1.0.2

by Nick Montfort at February 03, 2020 03:33 AM

When it rains, it pours, which matters even on the sea.

Thanks to bug reports by Barry Rountree and Jan Grant, via the 2020 Critical Code Studies Working Group (CCSWG), there is now another new version of Sea and Spar Between which includes additional bug fixes affecting the interface as well as the generation of language.

As before, all the files in this version 1.0.2.are available in a zipfile, for those who care to study or modify them.

February 02, 2020

"Aaron Reed"


by Aaron A. Reed at February 02, 2020 04:42 PM

0202-2020: Readings from my book in two parallel universes

My book Subcutanean is a horror novel where no two copies are the same, and in honor of its impending release — and the palindromic date of 02/02/2020 — I’m launching two bots, @subcutanean2160 and @subcutanean6621, that will perform readings from different versions simultaneously. Over the next few weeks, each will tweet the entire text of two different versions of Subcutanean: respectively, the versions generated from seeds 02160 and 06621.

So what is Subcutanean? It’s a horror novel with generative text that’s reassembled for each new reader. Created by award-winning interactive fiction writer Aaron A. Reed (that’s me), the book contains hundreds of places where words, sentences, even entire scenes can vary. Each copy is generated from a unique seed, and no two copies are ever quite the same. Early reviewers have had nice things to say:

“…manages to shatter all skepticism… pulse pounding, mind bending horror.” — HorrorNews
“not a gimmick… everything in this novel is deeper than it first appears.” — Carl on Goodreads

The plot concerns parallel universes, impossible architecture, and dangerous friendships. It’s scary, but it’s also a heartfelt story about coming of age and finding yourself. The project was successfully crowdfunded last year and ships later this month. You can still pre-order your own unique copy of Subcutanean on Indiegogo!

Tell me more about these bots! The bots will do synchronized “readings” of the next section of their respective books on a regular schedule: generally 12 noon PST on M/W/F, and 3pm PST on Sunday (with a few extra performances on launch day). Each reading will last between thirty minutes and an hour, depending on the length of the section. You’ll be able to watch their performances differ and drift across the course of the reading.

What else do I need to know?

  • The two bots live here and here, and you don’t need to be a Twitter user to view their posts.
  • You can scroll back through their previous tweets to catch up with the story so far: the oldest will be at the bottom.
  • If you use Tweetdeck, you could try adding a column for each bot to easily see the two stories unfold in parallel (even without following them if you don’t want your main feed to be cluttered). You can also add a generic “subcutanean” search column to see both bots as well as other chatter and traffic. (The project’s official main account is @subcutanean.)
  • Feel free to reply, quote tweet, retweet, or otherwise interact, during a performance or otherwise! (Though the bots will not respond to you.)

Enjoy, and find out how to get your own unique copy of Subcutanean here. You can also check out my design posts for a look at how I made this project happen.

Eamon Adventurer's Guild Online

Eamon is turning 40!

by Keith Dechant ([email protected]) at February 02, 2020 07:58 AM

We don't know the exact date the first version of the Main Hall and Beginner's Cave were created. This is largely thanks to the fact that Apple II's DOS 3.3 didn't keep timestamps on files, and authors didn't always record the dates in their file comments. Some knowledgeable people have done some research, and estimated that development on the first Eamon adventures must have begun in 1979. The first specific date we know for sure is January 30, 1980, the publication date of Adventure #3, Cave of the Mind, which is now 40 years ago!

In honor of the occasion, I thought I would take a look back at the history and how things have changed over the years.

The Apple II Era

1979-80: The first DOS 3.3 version of Eamon is released for the Apple II Plus. It supports 40-column text, all uppercase, and is designed to work on machines with 48k of RAM.

1984-1989: Eamon sees widespread distribution and over 150 adventures are published during this time.

1985: The Graphics Main Hall is released, providing a richer experience and several additional shops.

1985: Thror's Ring is the first adventure released with support for 80-column text.

1988: Tom Zuchowski releases v7.0 of the Main Program. This includes a small compiled program that drastically sped up monster and artifact search routines. It also introduces group monsters and revised combat logic that emphasizes Agility as a primary combat stat.

1990: Zuchowski begins converting several adventures to Prodos, intending to make them easier to play on the Apple //gs.

Mid-1990s: Authors continue submitting new adventures, even though the Apple II as a platform is in decline. Zuchowski also manages to locate a number of older adventures that had either languished on floppies since the 1980s, or had been started and never finished.

1999-2013 - Eamon Deluxe

This is a port of Eamon to MS-DOS by adventure author Frank Black. It has gone through several revisions over the years, and about 200 adventures have been ported. Frank upgraded most of the adventures, fixing bugs and broken room connections, as well as updating the command parser and some of the combat logic.

Frank also wrote some new content for several adventures, intending to make them a more unified storyline. Several NPCs could now appear in multiple adventures, if they survived the adventure where you first met them.

2017-present - Eamon Remastered

I had always dreamed of making an updated version of Eamon that could run in a web browser. In the 21st century, this seemed to be a good way to bring new players to Eamon and to keep alive all the hard work done by dozens of adventure authors.

The original Eamon was written in Applesoft BASIC, being a common, low-barrier-to-entry programming language in its time. So, it only made sense to use today's common, widely known language, JavaScript, for the rewrite. Data and file storage have also come a long way since the 1980s, and Eamon adventure data seemed a good fit for a relational database.

So, in December 2015, I started planning the rewrite of the game engine. This meant a major update in game features for some of the older adventures, which now all have the updated commands and combat logic that the newer Apple-based adventures and Eamon Deluxe had.

Since the official release of Eamon Remastered in February 2017, 34 adventures have been ported to Eamon Remastered. There is still a long way to go; there are currently about 275 total adventures, of which about 180 are actually playable on the original systems (a prerequisite to porting them) and are of good enough quality to be interesting.

The Future

There are still many things in store for 2020. I am currently working on a brand-new adventure titled Malleus Maleficarum. In this one, the adventurer joins a friend from the Guild to save her homeland from fanatics who are persecuting magic users.

Even more new content will be coming soon as well. The next project will be a port of Derek Jeter's unpublished adventure, The Treachery of Zorag, which Derek developed for Eamon Deluxe but which was never included in any of the Eamon Deluxe 5.0 releases. This is a large, complex adventure with lots of special effects and puzzles. It will be a great addition to the catalog.

Until next time, happy adventuring!

February 01, 2020

Emily Short

End of January Link Assortment

by Emily Short at February 01, 2020 12:41 AM


February 1 is the next meeting of the SF Bay Interactive Fiction Meetup.

February 8 will be the next meeting of the Baltimore/DC Interactive Fiction Meetup, discussing Mike Spivey’s Sugarlawn.

February 15-16, Rob Sherman is running an interactive fiction masterclass at the British library. This is a paying event; tickets here.

February 29 will be the next meeting of the London IF Meetup. We’ll be doing a shared gameplay session with a curated list of games — I’ll post a link as soon as the session information is up on the website.

Screen Shot 2020-01-14 at 6.19.15 PMMarch 20-22 in Toronto is Breakout Con, a conference on boardgames and tabletop RPGs. Some great narrative designers are scheduled in as guests.

NarraScope will be May 29-31, in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.


January 31Feb 3, Ryan Veeder is running the first of three events in his Exposition for Good Interactive Fiction. This one is a short jam for Inform 7 games, currently in progress: this one, intriguingly, has Ryan judging the beauty of the source code first, and then only secondarily making judgements concerning the quality of the game itself.

There are a number of rules about how to participate, so please do check out the fine print.

February 3 is also the closing date for the Green Stories interactive fiction competition, which looks for interactive stories about more sustainable futures.

If you plan to enter Spring Thing 2020, you have until March 1, 2020 to declare your intent to enter. Spring Thing is a long-running competition for interactive fiction that welcomes longer games than IF Comp can accommodate, and features a “back garden” section for games that are unfinished, commercial, experimental, or where the author just wants to opt out of the competitive aspect of the competition. The games themselves will be due March 29.

Also on the topic of competitions: the annual IF comp now draws upwards of 80 games a year. That’s a lot, and it’s stretching judging capacity a bit. The organizing committee would welcome input and discussion about how best to handle this.


If you’re into the more procedural side of narrative, the latest Dwarf Fortress release includes some very cool narration of simulated events. You may also enjoy reading others’ wild tales.

Articles and Podcasts

The Ludology podcast interviews Andrew Plotkin, starting from “what is interactive fiction?”

inkle’s podcast, meanwhile, recently covered the difficulty of dealing with fail states.

Mark Marino has been leading a code critique of a passage of Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and inviting participants to comment.


I gave a talk about storylet design at the London IF Meetup. The session was (atypically) recorded, and we’ll be able to share the recording when it’s been edited, but there is also a tweet thread about the event for those who are curious. The talk included a workshop component where the group brainstormed possible story events, worked out what the prerequisites and effects should be, and then collectively played through the resulting game.

January 31, 2020

sub-Q Magazine

Author interview: Monica Valentinelli

by Stewart C Baker at January 31, 2020 07:42 PM

Monica Valentinelli is an author and narrative designer. An industry veteran with almost twenty years’ experience, Monica has worked on dozens of hobby games and has told numerous stories for tabletop RPGs and supplements, card games, interactive fiction (or LitRPGs), miniature games, mobile games, and more. Find out more at

This interview was conducted via email in January of 2020.


sub-Q magazine: In addition to your game writing experience, Underwater Memories really makes it clear that you have experience as a musician as well. Can you talk a bit about how you think music affects players’ perceptions of games, or perhaps give us some of your favourite games with music?

Monica ValentinelliOne of the reasons why I like games with an interactive component is because they become an immersive experience. Music helps identify thrilling moments and motivates us to battle enemies, but it can also be a balm or highlight areas of tension by warning players time’s running out. When added to the story, the music becomes a tangible part of the experience and becomes clearly associated with that game. There’s a universe of 8-bit gaming soundtracks out there and I bet any arcade/Nintendo fan could identify which game was what based on the sound alone. When removed (outside of grinding), the mechanics are up front and center and the experience can be diminished if the sound doesn’t fit the game.

There are so, so, so many great soundtracks out there for mobile and video games like the sense of epic stakes in Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) or exploration and wonder in Journey (2012), but not as many that implement music as part of the core mechanic. In addition to music centric games like Rock Band (2007-2017), Eternal Sonata (2007) is a wonderful example of a game that blends classical music with the rules well. Often, you’ll find an outfit that employs buffs when worn like the Songstress dressphere in Final Fantasy X-2 (2003), but it’s not as common to find an entire game that embraces music as the primary mechanic.

Yes, before you ask, I would absolutely love to create a game that uses music and color as the core mechanic — and NOT classical, either. Tech and resources have always been my barrier to making this happen. I dream big, but I do what I can.

sub-Q magazine: Speaking of music, do you have any advice for game creators who may not feel the most competent when it comes to sound design and editing, but want to add sound to their games?

Monica Valentinelli: There’s a lot of technical jargon and expensive gear that can get in your way when you first start out. Sometimes, to figure out a direction the basics are your best bet. Instead of dumping money into gear, go for the freeware at first. Start by working with what you know. Replay the games you love and analyze their tracks. What is it about their sound that you love? That’ll help you figure out what you want — which is the hardest part. Then, start with the big stuff: Emotion. What feeling do you want to evoke? Why is a specific soundscape important to that scene? How do the soundscapes play off of each other? Work against each other? I’d add in sound effects after you find the soundscape that defines your game. You can layer effects with a little experimentation by using Audacity, which is freeware, or Logic Pro X.

If you’re still at a total loss for how to do this, reach out to artists you like on Soundcloud or one of the sites that hosts and offers public domain soundscapes like or Depending upon what you want, any musician who creates sound for film/TV could absolutely compose something for your game to fit your budget. Musicians are sound alchemists who can do a lot of really cool things by composing a melody that loops or tracks that layer at key moments to replicate movement. Don’t be afraid to reach out!

sub-Q magazine: What’s your favourite underwater memory (if applicable)?

Monica Valentinelli: I am in awe of the ocean: Its power, its creatures, its movement. All of it. But, it’s hard to recognize its beauty when you’re in it unless you surf, snorkel, or dive (which I’ve never done). For me, the next best thing are to visit the aquariums and zoos built with levels so you can see a cross-section of that environment or “walk” amongst the sharks and giant sea turtles. The turtles remind me of Urashima Taro from the Japanese fairy tale I loved as a kid. (And still do.) I’ve always wanted to visit that undersea palace. Maybe someday.

sub-Q magazine: One of the things that makes this game stand out to me is how it approaches themes of loss, grieving, and acceptance in a unique setting. It’s been great seeing it go through the stages of the game design process to completed product, so thank you for that! What’s coming up next for you that you’re excited to be working on?

Monica Valentinelli: Ah, NDAs and all that… Well, I’m working on two story-centric mobile games right now that I’m pretty excited about. I’m also taking the opportunity to pitch (again and again). This time, for a non-fiction book and a few comics. I love storytelling and the craft so much my work isn’t just centered around games; there’s so many stories everywhere I look I want to tell them all! Just trying to make some magic happen, like so many of us artists out there, to keep doing what I’m doing and have a life.

Outside of that, I’ve been outlining a Ravenloft 5th Edition campaign, finishing up two Scarred Lands 5th Edition piece, and am preparing to launch the Hunter: The Vigil Second Edition Kickstarter. Hunter 2E is a modern tabletop horror game I developed from Onyx Path Publishing where you’re committed to hunt the supernatural with your friends and family to keep your communities safe. How and why you hunt are where the interesting stories intersect in hunter society, because over time the darkness takes its toll — even for those who are extra vigilant and well-equipped.

The post Author interview: Monica Valentinelli appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Author Interview: Ken Liu

by Natalia Theodoridou at January 31, 2020 07:42 PM

Ken Liu is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also authored the Star Wars novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker. Ken is the author of our February story, “How to Build a Dragon at the End of Time.”

This interview was conducted over e-mail in January of 2020.

Photo © Lisa Tang Liu

sub-Q Magazine: I love the way “How to Build a Dragon at the End of Time” engages with our environmental theme by turning the idea of escapism on its head: here, the dragon, which one might see as escapist, becomes the means of our literal escape from a dying universe and the creation of a new one. But making the dragon is not a simple process. It requires building, assembling. Our materials demand reflection, balance, and thinking about the whole of what we are trying to create. It’s hands-on and, at the same time (as if there were any contradiction), poetic.
How do you escape?

Ken Liu: Thank you so much! It’s always such a joy to have one’s work understood deeply.

When I wrote this piece, I was trying to work through the idea of “environment” for myself. It seems that the way we think about the environment often falls into the trap of binary thinking: something is either part of “nature” or part of “artifice,” the environment or humanity, Other or Self.
Often, I use fiction as a way to have an argument with myself, to weigh ideas and see how they resonate against the heart.

So I set out to wrestle with the trap of binary thinking: the problem of how to “escape” the end of the universe presupposes that there is something doing the escaping and something to escape from—it’s how we frame so many disaster narratives. But as it turns out, “what’s in the dragon is also not in the dragon.” Building the dragon—an act of selection—necessarily also constructs the dragon’s environment—the negative selection. It’s a binary that collapses in on itself. We are also part of nature, the environment, the other-in-self-in-other; we cannot escape from ourselves; we have always been both problem and solution.

The result of my struggles to work through the infinitesimal patterns in the bamboo-of-existence was this piece of IF, which requires the player-reader to embrace balance by discernment, to eschew binary thinking by practicing it.

sub-Q Magazine: One of my favorite sentences in this piece was “Going forward requires pushing back.” Do you think that applies to other processes, in addition to dragon-building?

Ken Liu: I do. I think growth always requires examining where we come from and how we got here. To go somewhere new, to improve, to make progress—however one defines these concepts—require first that we accept the weight and gravity of our history.

sub-Q Magazine: Another standout for me was this: “It’s the fall that generates the force to uplift.” How does a writer fall?

Ken Liu: I think writing is about constantly failing.

Perfection is unattainable, and the stories that have moved me the most as a reader are not perfect stories: they are flawed creations that did something exceptionally well, with a sharp edge that cut through the veil of the quotidian to reveal something Beautiful and True underneath. But to hone such an edge necessitates the removal of material, the grinding away of aspects of experience that may be equally beautiful and true, but are distracting to the particular beauty and truth of this story. Every sharpened edge, when examined closely, is damaged, scarred, flawed.

Each beautiful story is thus also a monument to its own imperfection, and to dare to fall from the false promise of all-appealing grace is the most crucial act of every writer.

sub-Q Magazine: You have engaged with interactivity in literature before; for example, in “The Clockwork Soldier,” which is a non-interactive story that incorporates an interactive text adventure. What draws you to interactive fiction?

Ken Liu: A formative text for me is Milton’s Paradise Lost. As Stanley Fish pointed out a long time ago in Surprised by Sin, Milton’s epic can be understood as a kind of interactive text in which the reader is the most important character. The reader is constantly seduced by the text into advocating for the devil’s party, and the poem gradually builds power through these revelatory encounters that literally show the fallen nature of the reader.

After that, the interactivity of all narratives became a touchstone for my own aesthetic.
I think interactive fiction is still a largely underexplored medium. By fronting the agency of the player-reader, it has the potential to evoke powerful emotions that may be hard to achieve in less interactive narrative forms.

sub-Q Magazine: If you could make anything into a game, what would you choose?

Ken Liu: I’m very, very interested in VR and games, especially the potential for VR to allow us to experience the world viscerally from perspectives otherwise unavailable. Our proprioception can be extended and molded through VR in ways that have barely been explored. What would it be like to soar like an eagle? To dive like a whale? To slither through the grass like a snake? To race across the open plains on all fours like a cheetah? As full-body VR immersion becomes reality, I think there will be so many more interesting ways to play with our extended cognition and embodied minds.

sub-Q Magazine: Any recent games/interactive works that caught your attention?

Ken Liu: I loved GRIS, which I only got to play recently. I was especially amazed by how powerfully it evoked emotions by withholding and using color.

sub-Q Magazine: What’s next for you?

Ken Liu: My second collection of short fiction, THE HIDDEN GIRL AND OTHER STORIES, is being published by Saga Press on February 25, 2020. I’m also in the last phases of editing the conclusion of the Dandelion Dynasty, my silkpunk epic fantasy series. This is shaping up to be a busy as well as productive year for writing, after years of struggling on one project. I’m so grateful to all the readers who have supported me on this journey.

The post Author Interview: Ken Liu appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

January 30, 2020

Post Position

Sea and Spar Between 1.0.1

by Nick Montfort at January 30, 2020 08:12 PM

Stephanie Strickland and I published the first version of Sea and Spar Between in 2010, in Dear Navigator, a journal no longer online. In 2013 The Winter Anthology republished it. That year we also provided another version of this poetry system for Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ), cut to fit the toolspun course, identical in terms of how it functions but including, in comments within the code, what is essentially a paper about the detailed workings of the system. In those comments, we wrote:

The following syllables, which were commonly used as words by either Melville or Dickinson, are combined by the generator into compound words.

However, due to a programming error, that was not the case. In what we will now have to call Sea and Spar Between 1, the line:


does not accomplish the purpose of adding the Melville one-syllable words to the variable syllable. It should have been:

syllable = syllable.concat(melvilleSyllable);

I noticed this omission only years later. As a result, the compound or kenning “toolspun” never was actually produced in any existing version of Sea and Spar Between, including the one available here on This was a frustrating situation, but after Stephanie and I discussed it briefly, we decided that we would wait to consider an updated version until this defect was discovered by someone else, such as a critic or translator.

It took a while, but a close reading of Sea and Spar Between by Aaron Pinnix, who considered the system’s output rather than its code, has finally brought this to the surface. Pinnix is writing a critique of several ocean-based works in his Fordham dissertation. We express our gratitude to him.

The result of adding 11 characters to the code (obviously a minor sort of bug fix, from that perspective) makes a significant difference (to us, at least!) in the workings of the system and the text that is produced. It restores our intention to bring Dickinson’s and Melville’s language together in this aspect of text generation. We ask that everyone reading Sea and Spar Between use the current version.

Updated 2020-02-02: Version 1.0.2 is now out, as explained in this post.

We do not have the ability to change the system as it is published in The Winter Anthology or DHQ, so we are presenting Sea and Spar Between 1.0.1 1.0.2 here on The JavaScript and the “How to Read” page indicate that this version, which replaces the previous one, is 1.0.1 1.0.2.

Updated 2020-02-02: Version 1.0.2 is the current one now and the one which we endorse. If you wish to study or modify the code in Sea and Spar Between and would like the convenience of downloading a zipfile, please use this version 1.0.2.

Previous versions, not endorsed by us: Version 1 zipfile, and version 1.0.1 zipfile. These would be only of very specialized interest!

Incidentally, there was another mistake in the code that we discovered after the 2010 publication and before we finished the highly commented DHQ version. We decided not to alter this part of the program, as we still approved of the way the system functioned. Those interested are invited to read the comments beginning “While the previous function does produce such lines” in cut to fit the toolspun course.