Planet Interactive Fiction

June 25, 2017

Adventure Blog

Our interactive story, Strayed, is out on Google Play.

June 25, 2017 01:41 AM

Strayed is an interactive story about a lonely drive through the woods and one small mistake. Download Strayed on Google Play here.

June 24, 2017

The People's Republic of IF

July meetup

by zarf at June 24, 2017 05:40 PM

The Boston IF meetup for July will be Wednesday, July 12, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

Emily Short

Strayed (Adventure Cow)

by Emily Short at June 24, 2017 09:40 AM

Strayed.png

Out today for Android is Strayed, an interactive fiction game by Adventure Cow. It includes writing by Gavin Inglis (known around here for Hana Feels, Eerie Estate Agent, several Fallen London stories):

You’re only fifteen miles from home; but those fifteen miles are a lonely road through woods drenched in mystery, that many locals dare not enter. Rain batters your windscreen; your radio reports an aggressive beast, lashing out against passers-by; and there is something — something — waiting on the road ahead. Your decisions will matter in this game; perhaps more than you think.

As this is currently an Android release, I haven’t had a chance to play it myself.


Adventure Blog

Strayed, our interactive story, is going to be released tomorrow!

June 24, 2017 01:41 AM

image

Ever had a lonely night where everything seems just a little bit off? Imagine driving through darkened woods, alone but for the thrum of the engine and the scratching sounds of something - you’re not quite sure what - in the back. What happens depends entirely on you.

Strayed is an interactive story for Android, about a lonely drive through the woods and one small mistake. We’ve been working on it since June of 2016 - can’t believe we’re finally going to release our baby into the world!

Strayed will be hitting Google Play tomorrow (June 24th, 2017) - follow us to be notified as soon as it does! Give the game a shot if you’re in the mood for something eerie and atmospheric, and remember to review us on the Play Store. Every single download and rating really helps.

June 23, 2017

Post Position

June 22, 2017

Aniamosity

NPC Goals

by aniamosity at June 22, 2017 05:41 PM

When I first started using Quest, I had an idea for a game that I called “What Will Be”. It was loosely based on a story I had started writing but never finished, involving a group of people brought together by government forces for (initially) unknown purposes. It was going to be a parser game, and I wanted it to have multiple autonomous NPCs. It was during my attempt to create the infrastructure for this game that I first came up with the idea of “goals”.

A “goal” is conceptually similar to its real life counterpart, though expressed in terms of the game world: a goal is, roughly speaking, a desired world state. Perhaps it’s an NPC wanting to be somewhere. Perhaps it’s a door being opened or an object given. The idea would have to be extended to more internal things as well (e.g. speaking to another character with the goal of conveying information), but I figured I’d get to that once I got the more mundane situations out of the way. Trying to bite off too much at once can lead to either indecision or madness.

I chose some initial goal situations to implement. They were these:

  1. An elevator
  2. NPCs getting from point A to point B in the game world (a three story building, in this case), including riding the elevator and using key cards to enter rooms.
  3. An initial scene where an NPC leads the PC to a meeting.

With respect to number 1, I seem to have this thing for elevators. Perhaps it’s because they have straightforward, well-defined behavior but with multiple parts (e.g. the car itself, buttons, doors, lights). And NPCs moving around and pursuing agendas was something I really wanted as well.

My first stab at code for goals had a form which I realize now was incorrect. I’ll briefly describe it and then get into where that led me, which is to where I am today.

A goal had three main pieces:

  1. a “try” action,
  2. an “achieve” action, and
  3. code to work out whether either of those was possible (Can the goal be achieved? Can the world be changed – can I try – in order to create the conditions where the goal can be achieved?)

If the necessary conditions for a goal existed, then the goal could be achieved. A goal had behavior when the goal was achieved. It might be an NPC transitioning to a new room. It might be some other change in world state.

If the world conditions were not such that the goal could be achieved, then there was code to try to get the world into that state. And the “try” section had conditions as well.

Let’s give an example.

An NPC wishing to enter the elevator would acquire an “enter elevator” goal. The conditions for entering the elevator were that the NPC had to be in the elevator foyer, and the elevator doors had to be open. In that case, with those conditions satisfied, the “achieve” action moved the NPC into the elevator car.

If the doors were not open (but the NPC was in the elevator foyer), the NPC had an action to try to change the world to achieve the goal: pushing the elevator button, if it wasn’t already lit up.

So we have this:

  • achieve condition = NPC in foyer and door open
  • achieve behavior = NPC moves into elevator
  • try condition: NPC in foyer and elevator button not pressed yet
  • try behavior: press elevator button

If the NPC was in the foyer and the button was already pressed, the NPC had nothing to do. It effectively “waited”. Once the elevator showed up and the doors opened, the NPC could achieve its goal by entering the elevator.

The elevator itself had two goals: “close door” and “arrive at floor”. The close door goal’s achieve behavior was to close the elevator doors. The one for the “arrive at floor” goal was to open them. So they were mutually exclusive goals, with mutually exclusive conditions. The “try” action for “close door” was to count down a timer set when the doors had opened. When it reached zero, the doors could be closed. The “try” behavior for the “arrive at floor” goal was to move the elevator to a floor that has been requested by an NPC or PC.

If the elevator doors were closed and no buttons were pressed (either inside or outside the elevator), it did nothing.

The initial “lead player” sequence was a complex mix of path following (both to the player and to the target room) as well some canned dialogue meant to coax the player to follow. There was also a “hold meeting” goal sequence, which was really canned and really unsatisfying to me.

What I found most unworkable about this method of doing goals was the need to manually string them together. For example, any path following (move from A to B) was explicitly programmed. There was nothing in the NPC that decided on a room or worked out how to get there. Plus, I wanted it to be possible to “interrupt” an NPC’s goal chasing. They might be heading to their room, but if you started talking to them, I wanted that goal to be put on hold (if it wasn’t too pressing) to take part in the conversation, with moving toward their room to resume once the conversation was over – unless some other more pressing goal had come up. The key here is that each step along the way in path following needed to be its own goal, to be evaluated and next steps considered at each turn.

To the extent that it worked, it worked nicely. But something wasn’t right with it.

Fast forward to my work with ResponsIF, and I found myself once again trying to implement an elevator. For one thing, I already had done it in Quest, so it was a sort of known quantity. The other was that if I couldn’t implement that, then I probably couldn’t implement much of anything I wanted to do.

Right away, I ran into the same problem I had had before with the Quest “goal” code: I was having to program every little detail and hook everything together. There was no way to connect goals.

After much thought, I had a sort of epiphany. Not only did I realize what needed to be done, I also realized why that original goal code seemed awkward.

First the original code’s flaw: the “try” and “achieve” sections were actually two separate goals! For example, the “enter elevator” goal included not only that goal but the goal that immediately preceded it. In order to enter the elevator (the desired state being the NPC in the elevator), the doors had to be open. But the doors being open is also a world state! And the “try” code was attempting to set that state. Strictly speaking, they should be two separate goals, chained together. I had unconsciously realized their connection, but I had implemented it in the wrong way. And that left me unable to chain anything else together, except in a manual way.

In this case, we have a goal (be inside the elevator) with two world state requirements: the NPC needs to be in the foyer, and the door needs to be open. Each of these is a goal (world state condition) in its own right, with its own requirements. In order for the NPC to be in the foyer, it must move there. In order for the doors to be open, the button must be pressed. I’ll break this down a bit in a followup post, to keep this one from getting too large.

So what needs to be done?

What needs to be done is to connect the “needs” of a goal (or, more specifically, the action that satisfies a goal) with the outputs of other actions. We need to know what world state an action changes. And there is where we run into a problem.

“Needs” in ResponsIF are just expressions that are evaluated against the world state. The game designer writes them in a way that reads naturally (e.g. ‘.needs state=”open”’), but they are strictly functional. They are parsed with the intent of evaluating them. There is no higher level view of them in a semantic sense.

In order to have a true goal-solving system, we need to know 1) what world state will satisfy goals, and 2) what world state other goal actions cause. The goal processing methodology then is, roughly, to find other goals that satisfy the goal in question. Then we iterate or recurse: what conditions do those goals need? Hopefully, by working things back enough, we can find actions that satisfy some of the subgoals which are actually able to be processed.

It’s a bit more complex than that, but the first coding addition needed is clear: we have to be able to hook up the effects of actions with the needs of other actions in a way that the code can do meaningful comparisons and searches and make connections. We need to be able to chain them together. Once we have a way to do that, then the code can do itself what I had been doing by hand before – creating sequences of goals and actions to solve problems and bring to a life a game’s overall design.

Choice of Games

Avatar Of The Wolf — Hunt down the killer who murdered the Wolf god!

by Rachel E. Towers at June 22, 2017 02:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that Avatar Of The Wolf, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 25% off until Jun 28th!

Hunt down the killer who murdered the Wolf god! As Wolf’s last avatar before his assassination, will you revive your god, take revenge on his killer, or destroy the pantheon and bring about a new order?

Avatar of the Wolf is a 135,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Bendi Barrett. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

In a savage land where the gods manipulate mortals like pawns on a chess board, Wolf’s divine power controlled you and protected you. But since Wolf’s death, the eyes of Hawk, Spider, Bear, Gazelle, and Eel are upon you. The embers of Wolf’s power still burn within you; your remnants of divinity threaten to topple the pantheon.

Forsake the gods and join the Rising Sun, a heretical sect that defies divine rule. Embrace the anarchic, self-serving ethos of Spider and her seductive avatar. Obey Wolf’s feral impulses and slaughter your enemies as head of the last Wolf enclave, or forge a lasting peace without spilling a drop of blood.

The gods are fading. Will you hasten their demise or harness their divine power?

• Play as male, female, or agender, straight, gay, bi, or asexual.
• Discover the secret behind the disappearance of Wolf, your patron god
• Take up the mantle of your savage missing god, or strike out on your own path
• Receive the blessings of the Spider, Bear, and Eel gods… by force, if necessary
• Ally with the followers of Wolf or join up with the god-hating Rising Sun
• Convince the head of the Wolf enclave to recognize your superior power or lead alongside them
• Choose to survive peaceably in this brutal world, without taking a single life
• Impress the pantheon of animal gods, reject their rule, or usurp them altogether

We hope you enjoy playing Avatar Of The Wolf. We encourage you to tell your friends about it, and recommend the game on StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter, 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.

Emily Short

In Case of Emergency (A Door in a Wall)

by Emily Short at June 22, 2017 09:40 AM

icoe-cube-min

I’ve been hearing about A Door in a Wall for a while, and reading the rave reviews they get from escape room and immersive theatre review blog The Logic Escapes Me. This month, we decided to hire them to run a game for the London IF Meetup — one of their smaller pieces, suitable for 15-25 players rather than being performed in a whole pre-set house. They sent out a facilitator who gave the story background, MC’d, scored and awarded prizes at the end; and a suitcase full of clue and puzzle items. Our 20-odd group divided into teams of 1-4 people apiece, and we were off.

Conceptually, this is more in the escape room space than the feelies space. There are a few puzzles that are totally overt about being puzzles and have no story explanation — something that’s often true in escape rooms as well. And there’s not a lot of extraneous world-building. A handful of escape rooms have elements that are just there to flesh out the world — Oubliette played with this — but this particular piece was more streamlined.

At the same time: because there’s a human MC there to read the players’ interpretation of events, it’s possible to make the ultimate puzzle solution more abstract than you could easily get away with in traditional IF. This is a game that basically just asks, “okay, given all this evidence, what happened?” and requires the players to explain in their own words. So the story is the goal of the exercise, even if most of the intervening steps are highly puzzle-focused.

The coolest aspect for my tastes was how, at a couple of different points, in different ways, the game escaped (what I assumed were) its natural boundaries and drew in elements from what one might rather have considered the real world.

Overall: not too difficult, possibly because we tended to have 3-ish person teams of fairly seasoned puzzle solvers. Individual puzzles were also for the most part not too tricky to work out. There was a good mix in terms of puzzle style/required activity. As in a good escape room, you want different kinds of tasks at which different participants will be likely to excel. But it’s also more laid back than an escape room, and allows you to have drinks and mill around during the game — which is definitely more suitable for some social circumstances.

Some of the puzzle/clue items are intentionally consumables and provided with lots of duplicate copies, too, which is helpful when there are so many people each trying to understand the game.


Tagged: A door in a wall

Adventure Blog

June 21, 2017

Emily Short

Chris Crawford’s Encounter Editor

by Emily Short at June 21, 2017 08:40 AM

Yesterday, Chris Crawford put up a post with the following plea:

I’m asking everybody to consider an important post I have made at erasmatazz.com/library/intera…. There’s 25 years of work hanging on this.

He also emailed me the same message directly. So I had a look.

The basic premise is as follows: Chris’ long-running Storytron system, designed to make interactive storyworlds, needs a lot more content in order to show off its hypothesized strengths. In particular, it needs content that feels handcrafted to some degree, to go with the procedural descriptions of characters gossiping, falling in love, and fighting. Or, as Chris puts it,

After many years of trying, I have learned the hard way that the procedurally intense interactions provided by the Storytron technology lack the color that most people expect from traditional storytelling. There’s a repetitive, mechanical feel to those interactions, and while they are dramatically more intense, more significant, they are like the skeleton of the story, the core elements, in need to fleshing out with muscle and skin. That’s the purpose of Encounters. They provide a more data-intense form of interaction that is shallower in dramatic significance, but more colorful.

To build this, he created an encounter editor. The Encounter Editor lets people design encounters that:

  • are locked or unlocked by certain prerequisites consisting of other encounters
  • start with a description of a meeting with another character
  • let the player make a choice in response
  • provide several possible reactions for NPCs, including some variable-based probability around which of those reactions they’re most likely to choose

In other words, the encounter bears a strong resemblance to storylets in StoryNexus. The editor looks like this:

Screen Shot 2017-06-21 at 8.15.50 AM.png

It’s a little more constrained than StoryNexus about how prerequisites work — they can only depend on what other encounters the player has run into, not on the whole range of variables in the world state.

Conversely, there’s a more math-y approach to reactions, which are now not a stats-based roll against some threshold, but can instead be based on a blend of multiple character stats. (You could achieve something like this in StoryNexus given that you can write in equations to describe thresholds for story outcomes, but in practice one usually doesn’t; it’s very hard to get players to understand complex requirements in SN, which lowers their sense of agency over the whole situation.)

And of course the math here involves floating point arithmetic rather than integers, because in Crawford’s view floating point is required to express the concept of nuance in interpersonal relationships.

The system also provides some basic name/pronoun replacement, and requires that every encounter have an antagonist. So it’s inherently more relationship-focused than storylets, because it focuses the writer on the variables controlling the interaction with another character, rather than player-v-world state.

The final major point is that all this is designed to plug into a Storytron world, with (I assume? it’s hard to know without playing a sample) other processes mediating the characters’ variable states, and a fuller palette of verbs. Crawford has written elsewhere that a good storyworld requires a hundred or more verbs to work.

Or, as he says:

The ultimate goal of the Encounter Editor is to have lots of people like you writing Encounters that we will include in the final game. There will be no payment of any kind for your services. This entire project is a non-profit community effort in which NOBODY gets paid. We have been getting some money from a Patreon group, but so far it’s not enough to provide a month’s pay for a decent programmer. But hey — we’re starting a revolution here, and we got no room for no stinkin’ capitalists!

With this in mind, Crawford’s prospective writers are instructed to read the enclosed two novels (one in PDF form, the other in Pages and ominously titled “Novel Draft 13”) in order to get up to speed on the background of this story world so that they can begin contributing story elements that will go into a gameplay context that they can’t actually directly experience themselves. As far as I can tell, the  names of Crawford’s characters are in fact baked into the tool, so you couldn’t use it to build anything else.

The PDF novel is 230 pages long and begins with the sentence “Once upon a time there was an ordinary nebula.” Considering that it starts with this astronomical grounding, 230 pages is really on the trim side; the novel spends twenty pages on moons, continents, and extinction events before you get characters. It’s not a hook-y read, and in particular it doesn’t perform the key mission it has in this particular context: to get prospective writers excited about writing for this universe. What is there (cool setting? inciting incident? unrevealed mystery?) to get my mind spinning about the narrative possibilities?

If it were me doing this, I think I’d provide either a starter piece of game (as I did with Alabaster), or else something akin to a short RPG manual: something designed to communicate the key setting and story hook, and to lay out the meaning of the core stats.

Curiously, Chris’ manual goes into relatively little detail about how stats are to be understood. There’s a good/bad stat, but how is “goodness” measured in this universe? Not stated; potential writers should presumably share this value intuitively. Honesty is separately measured, so presumably honesty and goodness are not the same. Are they orthogonal? Maybe they could be, but many people’s value systems would describe honesty as a form of goodness. If I were trying to work with this myself, I’d probably use honesty to describe truth-telling and interpret “goodness” to mean something more like empathy, since it’s possible to be an empathetic liar or an honest sociopath. But that’s a construction I’d be placing on the instructions, not included in the actual document.

This may sound like a bit of pedantry on my part, but it’s actually centrally important, when trying to build story systematically around a set of stat mechanics, to understand what those stats mean and why they’re vital to the story you’re telling.

So, in short: salience/QBN-style approaches are useful and under-explored in IF, and it would be good to play with more systems that use them. (I’m not completely sure how these encounters are triggered; it’s possible that the selection of the player’s next encounter is controlled by the system rather than the player.) And embedding salience/QBN content in a more generic simulation is an approach with some history, and which might produce further interesting results. It feels like it’s not a million miles off from something like Black Closet, for that matter.

Whether this particular exercise actually gets the uptake Chris hopes for is another question. The results may say more about specific skinning and marketing choices than about the conceptual merits of a relationship simulator with embedded storylets.

 


June 20, 2017

Renga in Blue

Pyramid of Doom (1979)

by Jason Dyer at June 20, 2017 10:40 PM

Let’s finish with Scott Adams for 1979!

Except, well, this isn’t Scott Adams, but rather the only game ever made by Alvin Files. Alvin had worked out how the Scott Adams Adventure system worked, and wrote a game on his own. He sent it to Mr. Adams, and after minor tweaks, it was released as Scott Adams Adventure #8.

This is one of those early-difficulty games: the are four desert rooms, a small hole I can enter, and I have no idea what to do to get the game started.

The style of starting with a tight area containing a difficult puzzle can work on occasion. Christminster is a text adventure from 1995 with a very devious timing puzzle in the first four rooms. Once solved the resolution is glorious. (On the other hand, it caused some people to quit playing.)

I wrote a level set called A Quiet Place for the game DROD where I made the first room high-pressure just as a way of throwing down the gauntlet — if someone couldn’t beat it, they were best off playing some easier levels first. Also, the tight pressure was a thematic device throughout (as the Youtube video I just linked explains, “everything wants me dead. Immediately.”)

To pick a less obscure (and only slightly less relevant) example, the first boss of Dark Souls is legendary for being extremely difficult. That is, extremely difficult for someone approaching the game as a standard RPG button masher; the repeated deaths are intended to train the player that yes, you might need to dodge and aim your attacks to win the game. By the end, the player has either quit or undergone a sadistic sort of tutorial which sets the tone for the rest of the game.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’s really the case here that the puzzle is supposed to be classically “difficult”; the resolution may end up being just silly and frustrating. (The difficulty overall of the game is advertised as “Moderate.” Savage Island, which will come in 1980, starts with a small difficult section but is “Advanced” and clearly intended to challenge the player.)

I’ve got access to:

  • A canteen, and water
  • A shovel
  • A flashlight
  • A tiny key, which I found by digging in one of the desert rooms.
  • A stone; READ STONE tells me “Confusing. Part appears missing.”; taking the stone causes “the sound of machinery” and a “door with large keyhole” to appear.
  • In the same place as the stone I can DIG to make a hole, and then enter the hole to find a tiny locked door. The tiny key unlocks the tiny door (again causing “the sound of machinery”) and that’s the point I’m stuck. I can’t get any more machinery sounds and the door is too small to enter.
  • There’s also a “small nomad” that appears not long after starting the game who follows the player around, but I haven’t found any use for him yet. Other than TALK NOMAD (which ends up being fruitless) I can’t interact with him at all. I suppose maybe he’s small enough to fit in the door, but this isn’t an Infocom game where I can say >NOMAD, ENTER DOOR.
  • Oh, and finally, there’s a sign that states “He who defiles to tombs of Egypt shall surely perish!” Not likely useful, but when I’m this stuck I’m willing to try anything.

I’d be willing to take hints, but if you post one, ROT13 format only please. I’m going to keep at this for a while yet.


Emily Short

feelies.org and other odd recollections

by Emily Short at June 20, 2017 09:40 AM

Tonight (June 20), the London IF meetup is going to play In Case of Emergency, a game delivered mostly through the format of physical props.

The prospect of this has me thinking again about narrative told through objects, a topic I sometimes come back to here: everything from the work of the Mysterious Package Company through to the story-in-a-suitcase designed by Rob Sherman.

Infocom, of course, had its tradition of “feelies,” part copy-protection device and part souvenir, distributed with games: these consisted of printed manuals, letters, evidence dossiers, coins, pills, letters, and whatever else they could think of. Wishbringer came with a plastic glow-in-the-dark “stone” which represented the eponymous magic object of the game, and let me tell you that when you are eight years old a glowing plastic rock is pretty special. Jimmy Maher frequently mentions them in his Digital Antiquarian writeups on these games. For a while in the 90s there was a tradition of sending people feelies as a reward if they registered shareware interactive fiction, but shareware also died out as a way of distributing IF.

This captured my imagination, and for Savoir-Faire, I made a limited feelie run just for people who pre-ordered via rec.*.int-fiction:

feelies02

It consisted of some supposedly historical documents and some modern ones:

  • a customized-to-the-recipient letter about the history of the objects, from a modern professor at the University of Pennsylvania (where I was at the time supposed to be finishing my PhD, but was actually procrastinating with projects such as this one);
  • a reprinted pamphlet about the Lavori d’Aracne, the magic system in the game;
  • a letter from one of the game’s characters to his daughter, sealed with sealing wax and designed not to be read until the end of the game; and
  • a scrap of paper carrying what was supposedly a magic machine design by another character:

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 11.09.36 PM.png

By the standards of, say, Punchdrunk, these weren’t impressive objects (you can see a scan of the full set in this PDF), but given my skills and abilities at the time, they were the best I could do. The pamphlet was based on some reprints I’d found of little etiquette manuals from the late 18th and early 19th century. The letter was handwritten with a fountain pen that I bought for the purpose — an expensive investment given my grad student poverty — and I tried to school myself in contemporary handwriting styles, though as you can see, I am not destined for a career in forgery any time soon.

As for the machinery design, for the very earliest purchasers, that was written on actual period paper that I bought from an online ephemera reseller, and I’ve always felt slightly bad that I tainted real 18th century paper, a limited resource no doubt salvaged from some antique desk drawer, with my very much 21st-century scribbling. (Later on, I handwrote on more boring paper, and later still I digitized and printed the thing with a suitable font.)

The drawings were not very uniform, either. I had the notion that the note scrap ought to look weathered, and I experimented with tearing and even burning the edges of the paper, but some of these effects looked better than others, and eventually I stopped fooling with them. Also, of course, if you are not a trained draftsperson and you make a dozen or more copies of the same freehand picture, it’s likely to come out pretty different from one to the next. (As you can see, the two examples pictured above are not the same at all.) Even the wording of the letter tended to vary slightly as I thought better of different cases.

*

For City of Secrets, I did a similar thing but on a more ambitious scale. The game had been commissioned and initially intended as a semi-commercial release, and I wanted to deliver some of that experience to the community, even if I couldn’t exactly duplicate the full effect.

And that meant not only coming up with a manila envelope’s worth of doodads (as I had with Savoir-Faire), but a whole packaging solution:

  • a box with box art
  • a custom-printed CD with the game’s name and logo on it
  • a digitally printed glossy full-color map of the city
  • a tourist brochure
  • a train ticket (punched) documenting the PC’s travels prior to the beginning of the game
  • a help card with some guidance about how to play, and
  • a small satin pouch containing a plastic bag of a magical powder.

The whole business, from the cardboard boxes to the printing to the CDs, ran me about $700, which I did not recoup (or expect to recoup) from what I charged for copies. It was basically Kickstarter reward fulfillment before Kickstarter existed.

feelies04a

Some of the tasks that went into this:

Getting a CD burner that worked, and software that would toast successfully; fretting over the ruined CDs, when I didn’t have that many to spare. The inside cover of the CD box contains the same passage of the Odyssey that I much later used as the basis of Endure.

Designing, planning, and ordering the maps, for which I had to send in a CMYK Photoshop file, only I didn’t have professional-grade Photoshop, so I had to get a favor from a good friend to make it for me. I also had to teach myself about options in digital printing; fortunately for me, Indigo presses were the new hotness at the time, which meant that you could get short runs of glossy color printing for (relatively) cheap.

Designing the train ticket and using scrapbooking craft scissors to cut the shaped corners, as well as a scrapbooking punch to punch out the used destinations. Designing the postage stamp for mailing the tourist brochure, and using (different) craft scissors to cut faux-perforation stamp borders into it, and then some rubber stamps to put a cancellation mark over the whole thing.

Making the boxes — I couldn’t afford professionally printed full color box art, with their high minimum order numbers and expensive prototyping. So for those I got standard white cardboard boxes and printed off a large sticker that I wrapped around them. Less good, but again, the best I could manage in the circumstances.

Buying black, white, and gold satin and velvet remnants, and sitting on the floor of my living room with my sister, my perennial partner in crime, hand-stitching each of the little pouches. There are loads of places online to buy favor bags, usually intended for weddings, but the ones I could afford I felt looked wrong, and the ones that looked right were out of budget. Each one needed to be adorned with white and/or black satin ribbon (and again, not every one is identical) and a punched oval label; and inside, a tiny plastic ziplock of magic powder.

The powder was the item into which I put the least expense, effort, or consideration of the whole business. My father had a bottle of expired Chinese five-spice that he wasn’t using any more. I doled it out among all the recipients. It looked and smelled interesting, and wasn’t toxic, which satisfied my ambitions for that item.

I don’t have any bigger or better pictures here of those feelies because I also don’t have any remaining copies of those feelies. Sooner or later, they were all sent out, even the spares. And in a way, it was a relief that they were.

*

For a while, I was also working on a project that was, for lack of a better term, feelie-led. At the time, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab was producing a series of perfumes called Carnaval Noir. (I don’t think this is even still available.) It included evocatively named scents like Bed of Nails, Kunstkammer, and Medicine Show.

So I dreamed up a game based on these locations: the protagonist is a circus performer with the ability to enter a deep trance at will, and she has done so in order to fool someone who was trying to murder her that she was actually dead. When she awakes — on the bed of nails — she has to figure out what led up to this point. I had the idea that I would finish this game and distribute it in a limited edition with samples of each of the perfumes. Projected audience size, maybe about five people? But it was fun to work on. I didn’t finish due to the impracticalities of the project and how much else I had going on. I do still really like the idea of a game whose textual descriptions would be underscored by particular scents, though.

*

I wasn’t alone in the feelie-obsession. A few of us started up a quixotic project, feelies.org, to distribute feelies for a variety of amateur IF games. The games themselves remained freeware, but if you wanted an associated gadget, booklet, map, or pack of photographs, you’d go to feelies.org and place the order. Some others in the community helped build the website and hook up the ecommerce aspect. But the orders would come to me, then I’d get your items out of my closet and mail them to you, because I was running fulfillment on this operation. In some cases, I fabricated the objects on demand.

feelies03aWe offered a range of things: feelies for Losing Your Grip, Fallacy of Dawn, Necrotic Drift, Arrival, and a few others. In some cases, we were essentially reprinting feelies that had been designed for shareware-era games. But when we were doing something new, working with other authors to come up with suitable feelies for their game world was also a lot of fun.

For a while, ambitiously, I assembled a bunch of paper and ink samples so that prospective feelie-makers could look at a sampler set and get an idea of what they could use for their own feelies. I bought more stamps and craft scissors, nominally for the greater good, but largely because I wanted them. I haunted websites that resold ephemera; one of these, the bizarre Manto Fev, still exists, and if you want a vintage Bingo card or a postcard from Ohio ca 1943, now you know where to look.

I was not as swift about sending things out as I should have been, sometimes, because it turned out to be more of a pain than I’d expected to have to go to Kinko’s and the post office on random unpredictable days. I wasn’t charging anything for fulfillment, because the whole thing was meant to be a community exercise, but of course the buyers had spent the cost of purchase and reasonably expected their feelies to show up in at least vaguely the same time period as if they’d ordered anything else online. People were for the most part patient with this; a few sent me salty email about it.

Then we moved some of the things we were doing to automatic fulfilment (for instance, CafePress or Zazzle for posters or printed work). But the feeling of doing this wasn’t quite the same, because a one-off promotional object is not nearly as entertaining as a dossier of differently sized, shaped, and colored items painting a rich picture of a particular world.

Eventually, the guilt about struggling to keep on top of this project outweighed the guilt of closing up shop, and I did so.

*

Obviously, all of that activity was very impractical; the closest I’ve come in quite a while was putting together a custom copy of San Tilapian Studies as an IF Comp prize. And I’m well aware that the recipients probably did not feel as strongly about the feelies they received as I felt about making them.

But I also look back on that activity a little wistfully. One, I like doing complicated projects and figuring out the logistics of something I’ve not done before. And I like paper crafts, even if I’m not very good at them. I rarely have any real excuse. (Ridiculously ambitious Christmas present wrappings, sometimes. That’s once a year though.)

And two, there was something about feeling a level of personal connection with my players: that I had made this game, and the accompanying things, specifically for them, like baking a cake.

*

Also on this website: a bunch of probably-now-outdated advice about how to create feelies, how to make maps and hire artists and all the rest of it.


June 19, 2017

The XYZZY Awards

Awards voting, round 1

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at June 19, 2017 05:41 PM

The first round of XYZZY Awards voting for the best interactive fiction of 2016 is open; the ballot is open to anyone with an interest in IF. You can go here to login, then here to vote; you use your IF Comp login (if you haven’t got one, or you’ve forgotten it, you can register or reset here.)

First-round voting will remain open through July 4, with the second round starting shortly thereafter.

As previously, in the first round you can nominate up to two works in each category. (You can’t nominate the same thing twice in the same category).

A polite reminder: you’re not allowed to vote for your own game, and canvassing for votes – for purposes here defined as ‘any action which results in a large number of people showing up specifically to vote for a particular game or slate of games’ – is strongly discouraged, and may result in votes being discarded.

Renga in Blue

Adventureland Special Sampler (1979)

by Jason Dyer at June 19, 2017 04:40 PM

(You may wish to read my series on the original Adventureland before this post.)

The manual informs us:

“SPECIAL SAMPLER” Never tried ADVENTURE? This special inexpensive sampler complete with 3 Treasures is a cut-down version of our large Adventureland. Guaranteed to supply hours of enjoyment: Try an ADVENTURE today!

Somewhat less kindly but still accurately, R. Serena Wakefield calls it “An abbreviated version of the full Adventureland, probably one of the first examples of crippleware in history.”

In essence, it is Adventureland with a.) no dragon eggs b.) the fish is just a normal fish, not golden and c.) the lamp is removed so the part of the game where you are supposed to go underground just cuts off.

This experience might be very disorienting as an introduction to adventure games, because many of the things that are part of the main game are left in! Previously essentially game items are now red herrings. There is flint and steel, skeleton keys, a bottle of water, mud, swamp gas, and the dragon from the original game (without the dragon eggs).

Even stranger: the opening part of the game has you climb a tree to find the skeleton keys, then chop the tree down and enter the stump. In the regular game, if you chop the tree down first, you hear something falling in the swamp; there’s a definite signal something “went wrong”.

TIMBER. Something fell from the tree top & vanished in the swamp

However, since the skeleton keys just open the door to the dark area, they are entirely useless in this game! So the signal that the player did something bad is misleading.

While many games genres have demos, even today, adventures never seemed to pick up on the trend. (I believe some of the Myst games had demos, but those are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head.) It’s just too hard to figure out where to cut. Also, one of the primary aspects of an adventure is to seed information and items in the early phases of a game where their presence may just be confusing in a demo.

Anyone recall any other particularly prominent adventure game demos?

EDIT: Some demos mentioned in the comments:

Space Quest 6 demo (This one is essentially a new mini-adventure to go alongside the regular one.)

Full Throttle demo (This includes 3 separate sections from the regular game.)

Mini-Zork (This was released relatively late in Infocom’s history, 6 years after Zork I.)

Day of the Tentacle Demo (Not exactly a demo, more of a preview video.)

Secret of Monkey Island demo (Also apparently a mini-adventure, as opposed to part of the regular game.)


Zarf Updates

Tough mobile puzzle games

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at June 19, 2017 03:16 PM

Monument Valley 2 shipped, and needs no net-boosting from me. It was mentioned in Apple's WWDC keynote; that's max visibility in ten seconds.

I played MV2, and indeed it was as lovely and finger-satisfying as the original. But, like the original, it wasn't particularly puzzle-intense. Once you locate all the movable objects on the screen, move them, and see how they match up, you've done most of the job. Which is fine: the creators are clearly aiming at the general audience, not at puzzle fiends.
So, the question: what recent puzzle games are as pretty and whimsical as MV2, but will also melt your brain out your ears?



Cosmic Express has a deceptively simple-looking mechanic (the kind we all seek!) You lay out a train-track; the train moves around, picking up cute aliens and dropping them in boxes. Or "homes", but I dare you to think of them as anything but package deliveries after the first few levels.
The system is entirely deterministic. Aliens take the first available train car and debark at the first matching box. That makes the game sound simple. Well, so does a description of a Rubik's Cube. Running the train past all the things in the right order, constrained by the grid, can be inordinately tricky; and there are often several possible "right orders" to try. Most ideas you have are either nearly possible or nearly impossible, which is a delightful balance to discover in a game.
Plus, Cosmic Express has a lot of levels. I didn't count, but over a hundred. A few mechanics variations are deployed with deadly efficiency, and then (if you manage to clear the universe) some of the levels flip into extra-hard mode with a bonus constraint. The game took me a month of dedicated fussing to finish, and I never did solve most of the extra-hard levels. So that definitely meets the "melt brain" criterion.

Yankai's Triangle was a stylish but not-very-interesting geometric puzzle game which appeared last year. The mechanic was a familiar color-matching puzzle livened up by unbounded nesting, but it didn't take long to start feeling same-ish. The designer (local Boston dev!) has now followed up, and raised the bar, with Yankai's Peak. This has an entirely new and quite enchanting mechanic, in which pyramids push other pyramids around in a physics-feeling (but grid-constrained) way.
The game isn't large -- I spent about a week finishing it -- but some of the levels require a lot of thoughtful experimentation. The mechanic isn't quite intuitive, so learning it is part of the challenge; and then you have to figure out the variations which appear with each new set of levels. So it has more of a mystery-box feeling than the usual grid-based puzzle game. I was also pleased by the ending, which is a bit more mechanically satisfying than the usual "100%" or "You walk off into the sunset" puzzle wrap-ups.
I have a few quibbles with the UI (do you really want to use uncomfortable jitters to indicate that a piece is in the right spot?). I'd also say that the mechanics could have supported many harder puzzles -- it could have rivalled Cosmic Express -- but again, you pick your difficulty for your target audience. Overall this is a winner.
(I don't know if the designer intends to continue the series with "Yankai's 5-Cell", but I'm all there for it...)

Euclidean Lands (nice title!) is a clever puzzle where you walk around on Rubik's Cube, positioning yourself to backstab goons. It's attractive and it's got the three-axis geometric wackiness which makes the Monument Valley series so wonderfully disorienting.
Unfortunately, Euclidean Lands goes way too far, at least for me. It has boss levels where you cannot rotate the cube-world freely. Instead, the world rotates itself every time you move, based on the direction of your motion. This spikes the difficulty of those levels way up. Maybe I could have adjusted if it had gone there in a smooth curve, but by scattering the autorotate levels into a generally low-stress sequence, the game threw me right off the horse. Plus, you can make fatal mistakes (goons attack on sight) and there's no undo! So experimentation is even more painful than you might expect.
Full marks for brain-melting, but trying to work through the hard levels is frustrating, not fun. That's a problem. I tossed the game halfway through.

Raster Prime is another mystery-box -- no instructions; you have to experiment until it says "yay". I like those, but it means I can't go into detail without spoiling the game.
On the down side, it has a pixel-art style, which I am generally tired of. (I do appreciate that the pixels are cut on the bias -- that's a distinctive twist.)
And while the mechanic gets harder in later levels, it doesn't get harder in an interesting way. The clues are just harder to parse, and (I think) sometimes ambiguous. You wind up trying each puzzle several times; if it doesn't say "yay" you're not sure whether you interpreted the clues wrong or just made a mistake. The result is less fun than it should be, and I gave up before finishing the game.

Finally, I have to mention 4D Toys, which isn't hard in the puzzle sense because it's not a puzzle game. I mean, it's not a game, it's a sandbox full of four-dimensional geometry. It's got a basic intro to the subject (much like the deft Fourth Dimension app a few years ago), but mostly you just fling 4D shapes around the screen and see how they bounce off each other. If you didn't understand that 5-cell comment earlier, here's your chance!
This will either be boring or set your head on fire, depending on whether you think 4D shapes are worth thinking about. I am a fan, of course. I discovered several shapes I didn't know about, like the duocylinder and its extruded edge, the "tiger". Flinging around the 5-caltrop and seeing how it comes to rest was also enlightening.
UI quibbles: I really wanted gestures to rotate an object on its other (non-obvious) axes. You can do two- and three-finger twists to rotate an object the normal ways, but to make it go the other ways you have to bonk it into things, which is clumsy and unsatisfying.
Now we just have to wait for the author to finish Miegakure. Remember that? Yeah.

Strand Games

Magnetic Scrolls Original Games Source Code Recovered!

by hugh at June 19, 2017 01:28 PM

Here we have possibly the only surviving backup tape of the source code to 30 year old historical game data being put into an oven and baked!

Have we gone raving mad? Have we totally lost it? What is this insanity?

The dish is: Baked tapes! Done nicely in your normal kitchen oven. Cook at 45C for 8 hours, take them out, wait to cool then server them (in your server, of course) to hopefully make a good source.

No, we're not quite totally crazy (yet). Amazing as it seems, this is the wa...

June 18, 2017

Zarf Updates

The combat-free environmental-survival MMORPG

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at June 18, 2017 09:57 PM

Seltani was built, to some extent, on ideas I'd tossed into a 2008 blog post. Myst Online had just been cancelled (early 2008). I was interested in how such a game -- an MMO puzzle-exploration-adventure -- might have been built without MOUL's technical or scaling problems.
Neither the 2008 post nor Seltani really addressed the question of what players would do in such a game. (Neither did Cyan, of course.) I pretty much threw that problem into the "user content" bucket. People will build stuff and then explore each other's stuff! Well, I'm very happy with Seltani's world-writing model, but this is clearly not enough to feed an active fan-base.
So. This weekend I hung out with two friends who got to comparing their Guild Wars characters. (They're not serious about Guild Wars, but, you know, they raid.) I don't know the game, so their conversation was a cheerful torrent of opaque terminology, but I got to thinking about the depth of MMORPG mechanics. That's a genre which keeps the players coming back, right? It's not a solved problem: most MMOs fail. But we know it's a solvable problem.
This is the MMORPG formula, as I understand it:
  • A deep combat system with lots of options. (Different kinds of attack and defense, different character specializations with synergies.)
  • Long chains of equipment upgrades which require players to go out and complete many different kinds of tasks.
  • Big fights that require lots of well-equipped players to cooperate over an extended interval.
But does any of that make sense in a social, non-combat-oriented scenario? Spoiler: yes.
Consider that the Myst stories included the notion of dangerous Ages -- toxic worlds, ice worlds, airless worlds. (Myst Online only showed this tangentially. You could discover, but not really use, the heavy-duty D'ni environmental suits meant for exploring such death-worlds.) Let's try to adapt the MMO formula to this concept of exploring hostile Ages.

You link into an Age which is cold: hundreds of degrees below zero. You are standing in a small bubble of warmth, a pocket garden growing around a geothermal spring. But if you move more than a few feet away, you start to freeze. After five seconds, you "die" (panic-link out).
You can search around a Maintainer Age to find a parka. This lets you survive in the cold for fifteen seconds. You can walk far enough to see another hot spring in the distance. But you can't reach it. You need to explore other worlds to find better winter gear. With enough stuff, you can move far enough to reach the second hot spring (40 seconds away). There are now more target areas to reach. Some of them can be reached in under 40 seconds, which opens up more of the map. Others require higher-rank winter gear: full-body suits, face masks, electric warmers.
This all fits the structure, right? Gear has stats. (Multiple stats: what temperature can you survive, and how long can you survive it?) Gear improves in steps, each shifting a new range of challenges from "impossible" down to "difficult" and then "easy". You can find gear in remote locations, or collect resources to buy it, or (in some cases) collect resources to craft it. You can choose a tactical balance between cheap one-shot items (disposable hand warmers) and expensive permanent upgrades (aerogel long-johns). (With perhaps an in-between grade of clothing which works for a few days and then wears out.)
What about the MMO part? Players could specialize. One team member digs through snow drifts, another lugs a portable heat radiator, another keeps running back to base for hand-warmers and fresh batteries. In a larger "raid", you might need several groups manning stashes of gear and keeping paths clear along a lengthening trail into the unknown.
It's not just a reskin of Guild Wars. You have no direct analog of the damage-absorbing "tank" role. (Pause to imagine an ice-tank, sucking all the snowflakes out of the air in a ten-yard radius... no.) But you can set up mobile roles, support/buffing roles, and "DPS" workhorse roles. It should work out.

We have lots of distinct environmental conditions, so we need lots of different kinds of gear.
  • Cold: As described above. Clothing, full-body suits, portable heaters.
  • Heat: Water bottles, stillsuits, water-cooled underwear, aluminized suits for walking near lava.
  • Bad footing: Crampons, spiked boots, climbing ropes and axes. Shovels to dig through snow or sand barriers.
  • Toxic atmosphere: Face masks (depending on whether the air is low-oxygen, toxic, or corrosive). Oxygen supplies and recyclers which last for some period of time.
  • Vacuum: Requires a full pressure suit, plus the oxygen supplies and recyclers.
  • Radiation: We're not going to simulate real, gonna-die radiation poisoning. But we can invent fantasy-science effects which require custom countermeasures -- pills, magnetic shields, iridium-foil hats.
  • Darkness: A low-level challenge, since flashlights are cheap. There's still a distinction between your basic flashlight, a helmet light, and a portable spotlight or floodlight which can illuminate a whole area.
  • Intense sunlight: Various grades of filter goggles. (Sunglasses are not eclipse-grade!) How about auto-adjusting goggles that take ten seconds, or one second, to react to changing light conditions?
  • General utility: Gear which lets you run faster, climb faster, push through more obstructed terrain, survive more punishment. These improve your performance in all environments.
(Naturally, the full D'ni Maintainer suit is never available. That would be god-mode.)
Once the player has collected some gear, we can invent custom challenges:
  • Combined threats. Imagine a cold, ice-riddled world with blinding sunlight alternating with clouds of toxic smog.
  • Clearing rubble in a landslide. (This is an old idea on the list of replayable Myst-style tasks. Works well as a team job, too.)
  • A group of players must climb an ice mountain. Scouts climb a sheer pitch, set bolts, and lower ropes for the rest of the team. Ropes must be manned and periodically reset in the unstable ice. Temperatures drop precipitously at night, so the team must summit by sunset (on a sixty-minute day-night cycle).
  • A group of players must hack their way through a fast-growing fungus forest. Machetes are good, chainsaws are better, fungicide sprays are great. Everyone needs filter masks because of spores. Again, a large team is needed to keep paths clear all the way from the start point to the target.
  • Work your way across a magma pool, spraying water or dropping refrigerant bombs to freeze segments of the surface. Dress to avoid heatstroke, and, oh yes, the pool explodes in a lava spray every twenty minutes.
  • Garden raid! Plant enough space-peonies to make an entire field bloom the same color at the same time. The soil is dry and must be watered, but the plants hold water with their roots -- for a few minutes. So a group can work their way across the field, leaving reserve members to keep the backfield from drying out too fast. The plants flower in a red-blue-purple-white generational cycle, so everybody needs to coordinate and plant the right colors to keep the field in sync. Watch out for space slugs.
Again, the point is not just to invent a group task. We want a task which a group of people can whale on every Tuesday night, because the blow-by-blow mechanics are both fun enough to be satisfying and fussy enough to require careful attention. Newcomers will need to work their way around the world, gathering the best common gear, before they can join the large "level cap" events. The rewards for beating these are "legendary" gear; they make these events easier and also give you access to extra reward areas.
(As a matter of principle, we should never hand out an Age link as a reward for beating a high-level event. Every player, even newcomers, should be able to visit every Age! You may be stuck at the starting hot-spring, or -- for really nasty worlds -- stuck inside an insulated observation pod. But you can link in, look around, and dream of leveling up enough to explore the whole Age.)

I am of course describing a big-budget game. These deep mechanics trees require big dev teams; there's lots of custom code, lots of world-modeling, lots of art support for the various outfits and special effects. Cyan never had the resources to build this game. But it's still fun to speculate about design. I don't know if anyone will ever build it, but I think there's a workable niche for the full-scale combat-free environmental MMO.
Is anything close? "Survival games" are a growing Steam niche, and many of them are multiplayer. I haven't played any of them. I get the impression that they lean competitive (players or teams in conflict) rather than cooperative. They also tend to emphasize the overall hostility of the world, putting you on a permanent knife-edge of survival. MMORPGs usually have safe hubs surrounded by ranked challenges. That's what I'm aiming at with this environmental design: challenges which you jump into after a period of preparation and planning. Failure means you need more gear and more practice, not a gravestone and a new character.
The co-op board games Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Island have exactly the kind of challenge mechanics I'm looking for. You have a variety of player roles and limited time to succeed or die. You just need to fit the player abilities and equipment into a game-wide mechanics framework.
I can't mention co-op MMOs without bringing up A Tale in the Desert. (Still going! Although under new management, and I sense that the game structure has ossified.) ATITD has a wide variety of non-combat multiplayer events. It was never particularly about exploration, but if we want our game to have an economy of craftable resources, ATITD is a great model.
Further examples?

Adventure Blog

In the woods, you are not alone.Strayed, our strange little...

June 18, 2017 01:41 AM



In the woods, you are not alone.

Strayed, our strange little interactive story, will be released into the world on June 24th, 2017. 

June 16, 2017

The Digital Antiquarian

Tales of the Mirror World, Part 2: From Mainframes to Micros

by Jimmy Maher at June 16, 2017 04:41 PM

The BESM-6

Seen from certain perspectives, Soviet computer hardware as an innovative force of its own peaked as early as 1968, the year the first BESM-6 computer was powered up. The ultimate evolution of the line of machines that had begun with Sergei Lebedev’s original MESM, the BESM-6 was the result of a self-conscious attempt on the part of Lebedev’s team at ITMVT to create a world-class supercomputer. By many measures, they succeeded. Despite still being based on transistors rather than the integrated circuits that were becoming more and more common in the West, the BESM-6’s performance was superior to all but the most powerful of its Western peers. The computers generally acknowledged as the fastest in the world at the time, a line of colossi built by Control Data in the United States, were just a little over twice as fast as the BESM-6, which had nothing whatsoever to fear from the likes of the average IBM mainframe. And in comparison to other Soviet computers, the BESM-6 was truly a monster, ten times as fast as anything the country had managed to produce before. In its way, the BESM-6 was as amazing an achievement on Lebedev’s part as had been the MESM almost two decades earlier. Using all home-grown technology, Lebedev and his people had created a computer almost any Western computer lab would have been proud to install.

At the same time, though, the Soviet computer industry’s greatest achievement to date was, almost paradoxically, symbolic of all its limitations. Sparing no expense nor effort to build the best computer they possibly could, Lebedev’s team had come close to but not exceeded the Western state of the art, which in the meantime continued marching inexorably forward. All the usual inefficiencies of the Soviet economy conspired to prevent the BESM-6 from becoming a true game changer rather than a showpiece. BESM-6s would trickle only slowly out of the factories; only about 350 of them would be built over the course of the next 20 years. They became useful tools for the most well-heeled laboratories and military bases, but there simply weren’t enough of them to implement even a fraction of the cybernetics dream.

A census taken in January of 1970 held that there were just 5500 computers operational in the Soviet Union, as compared with 62,500 in the United States and 24,000 in Western Europe. Even if one granted that the BESM-6 had taken strides toward solving the problem of quality, the problem of quantity had yet to be addressed. Advanced though the BESM-6 was in so many ways, for Soviet computing in general the same old story held sway. A Rand Corporation study from 1970 noted that “the Soviets are known to have designed micro-miniaturized circuits far more advanced than any observed in Soviet computers.” The Soviet theory of computing, in other words, continued to far outstrip the country’s ability to make practical use of it. “In the fundamental design of hardware and software the Russian computer art is as clever as that to be found anywhere in the world,” said an in-depth Scientific American report on the state of Soviet computing from the same year. “It is in the quality of production, not design, that the USSR is lagging.”

One way to build more computers more quickly, the Moscow bureaucrats concluded, was to share the burden among their partners (more accurately known to the rest of the world as their vassal states) in the Warsaw Pact. Several members states — notably East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary — had fairly advanced electronics industries whose capabilities in many areas exceeded that of the Soviets’ own, not least because their geographical locations left them relatively less isolated from the West. At the first conference of the International Center of Scientific and Technical Information in January of 1970, following at least two years of planning and negotiating, the Soviet Union signed an agreement with East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria,  Hungary, Poland, and Romania to make the first full-fledged third-generation computer — one based on integrated circuits rather than transistors — to come out of Eastern Europe. The idea of dividing the labor of producing the new computer was taken very literally. In a testimony to the “from each according to his means” tenet of communism, Poland would make certain ancillary processors, tape readers, and printers; East Germany would make other peripherals; Hungary would make magnetic memories and some systems software; Czechoslovakia would make many of the integrated circuits; Romania and Bulgaria, the weakest sisters in terms of electronics, would make various mechanical and structural odds and ends; and the Soviet Union would design the machines, make the central processors, and be the final authority on the whole project, which was dubbed “Ryad,” a word meaning “row” or “series.”

The name was no accident. On the contrary, it was key to the nature of the computer — or, rather, computers — the Soviet Union and its partners were now planning to build. With the BESM-6 having demonstrated that purely home-grown technology could get their countries close to the Western state of the art but not beyond it, they would give up on trying to outdo the West. Instead they would take the West’s best, most proven designs and clone them, hoping to take advantage of the eye toward mass production that had been baked into them from the start. If all went well, 35,000 Ryad computers would be operational across the Warsaw Pact by 1980.

In a sense, the West had made it all too easy for them, given Project Ryad all too tempting a target for cloning. In 1964, in one of the most important developments in the history of computers, IBM had introduced a new line of mainframes called the System/360. The effect it had on the mainframe industry of the time was very similar to the one which the IBM PC would have on the young microcomputer industry 17 years later: it brought order and stability to what had been a confusion of incompatible machines. For the first time with the System/360, IBM created not just a single machine or even line of machines but an entire computing ecosystem built around hardware and software compatibility across a wide swathe of models. The effect this had on computing in the West is difficult to overstate. There was, for one thing, soon a large enough installed base of System/360 machines that companies could make a business out of developing software and selling it to others; this marked the start of the software industry as we’ve come to know it today. Indeed, our modern notion of computing platforms really begins with the System/360. Dag Spicer of the Computer History Museum calls it IBM’s Manhattan Project. Even at the time, IBM’s CEO Thomas Watson Jr. called it the most important product in his company’s already storied history, a distinction which is challenged today only by the IBM PC.

The System/360 ironically presaged the IBM PC in another respect: as a modular platform built around well-documented standards, it was practically crying out to be cloned by companies that might have trailed IBM in terms of blue-sky technical innovation, but who were more than capable of copying IBM’s existing technology and selling it at a cheaper price. Companies like Amdahl — probably the nearest equivalent to IBM’s later arch-antagonist Compaq in this case of parallel narratives — lived very well on mainframes compatible with those of IBM, machines which were often almost as good as IBM’s best but were always cheaper. None too pleased about this, IBM responded with various sometimes shady countermeasures which landed them in many years of court cases over alleged antitrust violations. (Yes, the histories of mainframe computing and PC computing really do run on weirdly similar tracks.)

If the System/360 from the standpoint of would-be Western cloners was an unlocked door waiting to be opened, from the standpoint of the Soviet Union, which had no rules for intellectual property whatsoever which applied to the West, the door was already flung wide. Thus, instead of continuing down the difficult road of designing its high-end computers from scratch, the Soviet Union decided to stroll on through.

An early propaganda shot shows a Ryad machine in action.

There’s much that could be said about what this decision symbolized for Soviet computing and, indeed, for Soviet society in general. For all the continuing economic frustrations lurking below the surface of the latest Pravda headlines, Khrushchev’s rule had been the high-water mark of Soviet achievement, when the likes of the Sputnik satellite and Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space had seemed to prove that communism really could go toe-to-toe with capitalism. But the failure to get to the Moon before the United States among other disappointments had taken much of the shine off that happy thought.1 In the rule of Leonid Brezhnev, which began with Khrushchev’s unceremonious toppling from power in October of 1964, the Soviet Union gradually descended into a lazy decrepitude that gave only the merest lip service to the old spirit of revolutionary communism. Corruption had always been a problem, but now, taking its cue from its new leader, the country became a blatant oligarchy. While Brezhnev and his cronies collected dachas and cars, their countryfolk at times literally starved. Perhaps the greatest indictment of the system Brezhnev perpetuated was the fact that by the 1970s the Soviet Union, in possession of more arable land than any nation on earth and with one of the sparsest populations of any nation in relation to its land mass, somehow still couldn’t feed itself, being forced to import millions upon millions of tons of wheat and other basic foodstuffs every year. Thus Brezhnev found himself in the painful position, all too familiar to totalitarian leaders, of being in some ways dependent on the good graces of the very nations he denigrated.

In the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev, bold ideas like the dream of cybernetic communism fell decidedly out of fashion in favor of nursing along the status quo. Every five years, the Party Congress reauthorized ongoing research into what had become known as the “Statewide Automated Management System for Collection and Processing of Information for the Accounting, Planning, and Management of the National Economy” (whew!), but virtually nothing got done. The bureaucratic infighting that had always negated the perceived advantages of communism — as perceived optimistically by the Soviets, and with great fear by the West — was more pervasive than ever in these late years. “The Ministry of Metallurgy decides what to produce, and the Ministry of Supplies decides how to distribute it. Neither will yield its power to anyone,” said one official. Another official described each of the ministries as being like a separate government unto itself. Thus there might not be enough steel to make the tractors the country’s farmers needed to feed its people one year; the next, the steel might pile up to rust on railway sidings while the erstwhile tractor factories were busy making something else.

Amidst all the infighting, Project Ryad crept forward, behind schedule but doggedly determined. This new face of computing behind the Iron Curtain made its public bow at last in May of 1973, when six of the seven planned Ryad “Unified System” models were in attendance at the Exposition of Achievements of the National Economy in Moscow. All were largely hardware- and software-compatible with the IBM System/360 line. Even the operating systems that were run on the new machines were lightly modified copies of Western operating systems like IBM’s DOS/360. Project Ryad and its culture of copying would come to dominate Soviet computing during the remainder of the 1970s. A Rand Corporation intelligence report from 1978 noted that “by now almost everything offered by IBM to 360 installations has been acquired” by the Soviet Union.

Project Ryad even copied the white lab coats worn by the IBM “priesthood” (and gleefully scorned by the scruffier hackers who worked on the smaller but often more innovative machines produced by companies like DEC).

During the five years after the Ryad machines first appeared, IBM sold about 35,000 System/360 machines, while the Soviet Union and its partners managed to produce about 5000 Ryad machines. Still, compared to what the situation had been before, 5000 reasonably modern machines was real progress, even if the ongoing inefficiencies of the Eastern Bloc economies kept Project Ryad from ever reaching more than a third of its stated yearly production goals. (A telling sign of the ongoing disparities between West and East was the way that all Western estimates of future computer production tended to vastly underestimate the reality that actually arrived, while Eastern estimates did just the opposite.) If it didn’t exactly allow Eastern Europe to make strides toward any bold cybernetic future — on the contrary, the Warsaw Pact economies continued to limp along in as desultory a fashion as ever — Project Ryad did do much to keep its creator nations from sliding still further into economic dysfunction. Unsurprisingly, a Ryad-2 generation of computers was soon in the works, cloning the System/370, IBM’s anointed successor to the System/360 line. Other projects cloned the DEC PDP line of machines, smaller so-called “minicomputers” suitable for more modest — but, at least in the West, often more interesting and creative — tasks than the hulking mainframes of IBM. Soviet watcher Seymour Goodman summed up the current situation in an article for the journal World Politics in 1979:

The USSR has learned that the development of its national computing capabilities on the scale it desires cannot be achieved without a substantial involvement with the rest of the world’s computing community. Its considerable progress over the last decade has been characterized by a massive transfer of foreign computer technology. The Soviet computing industry is now much less isolated than it was during the 1960s, although its interfaces with the outside world are still narrowly defined. It would appear that the Soviets are reasonably content with the present “closer but still at a distance” relationship.

Reasonable contentment with the status quo would continue to be the Kremlin’s modus operandi in computing, as in most other things. The fiery rhetoric of the past had little relevance to the morally and economically bankrupt Soviet state of the 1970s and 1980s.

Even in this gray-toned atmosphere, however, the old Russian intellectual tradition remained. Many of the people designing and programming the nation’s computers barely paid attention to the constant bureaucratic turf wars. They’d never thought that much about philosophical abstractions like cybernetics, which had always been more a brainchild of the central planners and social theorists than the people making the Soviet Union’s extant computer infrastructure, such as it was, work. Like their counterparts in the West, Soviet hackers were more excited by a clever software algorithm or a neat hardware re-purposing than they were by high-flown social theory. Protected by the fact that the state so desperately needed their skills, they felt free at times to display an open contempt for the supposedly inviolate underpinnings of the Soviet Union. Pressed by his university’s dean to devote more time to the ideological studies that were required of every student, one young hacker said bluntly that “in the modern world, with its super-speedy tempo of life, time is too short to study even more necessary things” than Marxism.

Thus in the realm of pure computing theory, where advancement could still be made without the aid of cutting-edge technology, the Soviet Union occasionally made news on the world stage with work evincing all the originality that Project Ryad and its ilk so conspicuously lacked. In October of 1978, a quiet young researcher at the Moscow Computer Center of the Soviet Academy of Sciences named Leonid Genrikhovich Khachiyan submitted a paper to his superiors with the uninspiring — to non-mathematicians, anyway — title of “Polynomial Algorithms in Linear Programming.” Following its publication in the Soviet journal Reports of the Academy of Sciences, the paper spread like wildfire across the international community of mathematics and computer science, even garnering a write-up in the New York Times in November of 1979. (Such reports were always written in a certain tone of near-disbelief, of amazement that real thinking was going on in the Mirror World.) What Khachiyan’s paper actually said was almost impossible to clearly explain to people not steeped in theoretical mathematics, but the New York Times did state that it had the potential to “dramatically ease the solution of problems involving many variables that up to now have required impossibly large numbers of separate computer calculations,” with potential applications in fields as diverse as economic planning and code-breaking. In other words, Khachiyan’s new algorithms, which have indeed stood the test of time in many and diverse fields of practical application, can be seen as a direct response to the very lack of computing power with which Soviet researchers constantly had to contend. Sometimes less really could be more.

As Khachiyan’s discoveries were spreading across the world, the computer industries of the West were moving into their most world-shaking phase yet. A fourth generation of computers, defined by the placing of the “brain” of the machine, or central processing unit, all on a single chip, had arrived. Combined with a similar miniaturization of the other components that went into a computer, this advancement meant that people were able for the first time to buy these so-called “microcomputers” to use in their homes — to write letters, to write programs, to play games. Likewise, businesses could now think about placing a computer on every single desk. Still relatively unremarked by devotees of big-iron institutional computing as the 1970s expired, over the course of the 1980s and beyond the PC revolution would transform the face of business and entertainment, empowering millions of people in ways that had heretofore been unimaginable. How was the Soviet Union to respond to this?

Alexi Alexandrov, the president of the Moscow Academy of Sciences, responded with a rhetorical question: “Have [the Americans] forgotten that problems of no less complexity, such as the creation of the atomic bomb or space-rocket technology… [we] were able to solve ourselves without any help from abroad, and in a short time?” Even leaving aside the fact that the Soviet atomic bomb was itself built largely using stolen Western secrets, such words sounded like they heralded a new emphasis on original computer engineering, a return to the headier days of Khrushchev. In reality, though, the old ways were difficult to shake loose. The first Soviet microprocessor, the KP580BM80A of 1977, had its “inspiration” couched inside its very name: the Intel 8080, which was along with the Motorola 6800 one of the two chips that had launched the PC revolution in the West in 1974.

Yet in the era of the microchip the Soviet Union ran into problems continuing the old practices. While technical schematics for chips much newer and more advanced than the Intel 8080 were soon readily enough available, they were of limited use in Soviet factories, which lacked the equipment to stamp out the ever more miniaturized microchip designs coming out of Western companies like Intel.

One solution might be for the Soviets to hold their noses and outright buy the chip-fabricating equipment they needed from the West. In earlier decades, such deals had hardly been unknown, although they tended to be kept quiet by both parties for reasons of pride (on the Eastern side) and public relations (on the Western side). But, unfortunately for the Soviets, the West had finally woken up to the reality that microelectronics were as critical to a modern war machine as missiles and fighter planes. A popular story that circulated around Western intelligence circles for years involved Viktor Belenko, a Soviet pilot who went rogue, flying his state-of-the-art MIG-25 fighter jet to a Japanese airport and defecting there in 1976. When American engineers examined his MIG-25, they found a plane that was indeed a technological marvel in many respects, able to fly faster and higher than any Western fighter. Yet its electronics used unreliable vacuum tubes rather than transistors, much less integrated circuits — a crippling disadvantage on the field of battle. The contrast with the West, which had left the era of the vacuum tube behind almost two decades ago, was so extreme that there was some discussion of whether Belenko might be a double agent, his whole defection a Soviet plot to convince the West that they were absurdly far behind in terms of electronics technology. Sadly for the Soviets, the vacuum tubes weren’t the result of any elaborate KGB plot, but rather just a backward electronics industry.

In 1979, the Carter Administration began to take a harder line against the Soviet Union, pushing through Congress as part of the Export Administration Act a long list of restrictions on what sorts of even apparently non-military computer technology could legally be sold to the Eastern Bloc. Ronald Reagan then enforced and extended these restrictions upon becoming president in 1981, working with the rest of the West in what was known as the Coordination Committee on Export Controls, or COCOM — a body that included all of the NATO member nations, plus Japan and Australia — to present a unified front. By this point, with the Cold War heading into its last series of dangerous crises thanks to Reagan’s bellicosity and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States in particular was developing a real paranoia about the Soviet Union’s long-standing habits of industrial espionage. The paranoia was reflected in CIA director William Casey’s testimony to Congress in 1982:

The KGB has developed a large, independent, specialized organization which does nothing but work on getting access to Western science and technology. They have been recruiting about 100 young scientists and engineers a year for the last 15 years. They roam the world looking for technology to pick up. Back in Moscow, there are 400 to 500 assessing what they might need and where they might get it — doing their targeting and then assessing what they get. It’s a very sophisticated and far-flung organization.

By the mid-1980s, restrictions on Western computer exports to the East were quite draconian, a sometimes bewildering maze of regulations to be navigated: 8-bit microcomputers could be exported but 16-bit microcomputers couldn’t be; a singe-user accounting package could be exported but not a multi-user version; a monochrome monitor could be exported but not a color monitor.

Even as the barriers between East and West were being piled higher than ever, Western fascination with the Mirror World remained stronger than ever. In August of 1983, an American eye surgeon named Leo D. Bores, organizer of the first joint American/Soviet seminar in medicine in Moscow and a computer hobbyist in his spare time, had an opportunity to spend a week with what was billed as the first ever general-purpose Soviet microcomputer. It was called the “Agat” — just a pretty name, being Russian for the mineral agate — and it was largely a copy — in Bores’s words a bad copy — of the Apple II. His report, appearing belatedly in the November 1984 issue of Byte magazine, proved unexpectedly popular among the magazine’s readership.

The Agat computer

The Agat was, first of all, much, much bigger and heavier than a real Apple II; Bores generously referred to it as “robust.” It was made in a factory more accustomed to making cars and trucks, and, indeed, it looked much as one might imagine a computer built in an automotive plant would look. The Soviets had provided software for displaying text in Cyrillic, albeit with some amount of flicker, using the Apple II’s bitmap-graphics modes. The keyboard also offered Cyrillic input, thus solving, after a fashion anyway, a big problem in adapting Western technology to Soviet needs. But that was about the extent to which the Agat impressed. “The debounce circuitry [on the keyboard] is shaky,” noted Bores, “and occasionally a stray character shows up, especially during rapid data entry. The elevation of the keyboard base (about 3.5 centimeters) and the slightly steeper-than-normal board angle would cause rapid fatigue as well as wrist pain after prolonged use.” Inside the case was a “nightmarish wiring maze.” Rather than being built into a single motherboard, the computer’s components were all mounted on separate breadboards cobbled together by all that cabling, the way Western engineers worked only in the very early prototyping stage of hardware development. The Soviet clone of the MOS 6502 chip found at the heart of the Agat was as clumsily put together as the rest of the machine, spanning across several breadboards; thus this “first Soviet microcomputer” arguably wasn’t really a microcomputer at all by the strict definition of the term. The kicker was the price: about $17,000. As that price would imply, the Agat wasn’t available to private citizens at all, being reserved for use in universities and other centers of higher learning.

With the Cold War still going strong, Byte‘s largely American readership was all too happy to jeer at this example of Soviet backwardness, which certainly did show a computer industry lagging years behind the West. That said, the situation wasn’t quite as bad as Bores’s experience would imply. It’s very likely that the machine he used was a pre-production model of the Agat, and that many of the problems he encountered were ironed out in the final incarnation.

For all the engineering challenges, the most important factor impeding truly personal computing in the Soviet Union was more ideological than technical. As so many of the visionaries who had built the first PCs in the West had so well recognized, these were tools of personal empowerment, of personal freedom, the most exciting manifestation yet of Norbert Wiener’s original vision of cybernetics as a tool for the betterment of the human individual. For an Eastern Bloc still tossing and turning restlessly under the blanket of collectivism, this was anathema. Poland’s propaganda ministry made it clear that they at least feared the existence of microcomputers far more than they did their absence: “The tendency in the mass-proliferation of computers is creating a variety of ideological endangerments. Some programmers, under the inspiration of Western centers of ideological subversion, are creating programs that help to form anti-communistic political consciousness.” In countries like Poland and the Soviet Union, information freely exchanged could be a more potent weapon than any bomb or gun. For this reason, photocopiers had been guarded with the same care as military hardware for decades, and even owning a typewriter required a special permit in many Warsaw Pact countries. These restrictions had led to the long tradition of underground defiance known euphemistically simply as “samizdat,” or self-publishing: the passing of “subversive” ideas from hand to hand as one-off typewritten or hand-written texts. Imagine what a home computer with a word processor and a printer could mean for samizdat. The government of Romania was so terrified by the potential of the computer for spreading freedom that it banned the very word for a time. Harry R. Meyer, an American Soviet watcher with links to the Russian expatriate community, made these observations as to the source of such terror:

I can imagine very few things more destructive of government control of information flow than having a million stations equivalent to our Commodore 64 randomly distributed to private citizens, with perhaps a thousand in activist hands. Even a lowly Commodore 1541 disk drive can duplicate a 160-kilocharacter disk in four or five minutes. The liberating effect of not having to individually enter every character every time information is to be shared should dramatically increase the flow of information.

Information distributed in our society is mainly on paper rather than magnetic media for reasons of cost-effectiveness: the message gets to more people per dollar. The bottleneck of samizdat is not money, but time. If computers were available at any cost, it would be more effective to invest the hours now being spent in repetitive typing into earning cash to get a computer, no matter how long it took.

If I were circulating information the government didn’t like in the Soviet Bloc, I would have little interest in a modem — too easily monitored. But there is a brisk underground trade in audio cassettes of Western music. Can you imagine the headaches (literal and figurative) for security agents if text files were transported by overwriting binary onto one channel in the middle of a stereo cassette of heavy-metal music? One would hope it would be less risk to carry such a cassette than a disk, let alone a compromising manuscript.

If we accept Meyer’s arguments, there’s an ironic follow-on argument to be made: that, in working so hard to keep the latest versions of these instruments of freedom out of the hands of the Soviet Union and its vassal states, the COCOM was actually hurting rather than helping the cause of freedom. As many a would-be autocrat has learned to his dismay in the years since, it’s all but impossible to control the free flow of information in a society with widespread access to personal-computing technology. The new dream of personal computing, of millions of empowered individuals making things and communicating, stood in marked contrast to the Soviet cyberneticists’ old dream of perfect, orderly, top-down control implemented via big mainframe computers. For the hard-line communists, the dream of personal computing sounded more like a nightmare. The Soviet Union faced a stark dilemma: embrace the onrushing computer age despite the loss of control it must imply, or accept that it must continue to fall further and further behind the West. A totalitarian state like the Soviet Union couldn’t survive alongside the free exchange of ideas, while a modern economy couldn’t survive without the free exchange of ideas.

Thankfully for everyone involved, a man now stepped onto the stage who was willing to confront the seemingly insoluble contradictions of Soviet society. On March 11, 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was named General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the eighth and, as it would transpire, the last man to hold that title. He almost immediately signaled a new official position toward computing, as he did toward so many other things. In one of his first major policy speeches just weeks after assuming power, Gorbachev announced a plan to put personal computers into every classroom in the Soviet Union.

Unlike the General Secretaries who had come before him, Gorbachev recognized that the problems of rampant corruption and poor economic performance which had dogged the Soviet Union throughout its existence were not obstacles external to the top-down collectivist state envisioned by Validimir Lenin but its inevitable results. “Glasnost,” the introduction of unprecedented levels of personal freedom, and “Perestroika,” the gradual replacement of the planned economy with a more market-oriented version permitting a degree of private ownership, were his responses. These changes would snowball in a way that no one — certainly not Gorbachev himself — had quite anticipated, leading to the effective dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the Cold War before the 1980s were over. Unnerved by it all though he was, Gorbachev, to his everlasting credit, let it happen, rejecting the calls for a crackdown like those that had ended the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968 in such heartbreak and tragedy.

The Elektronika BK 0010

Very early in Gorbachev’s tenure, well before its full import had even started to become clear, it became at least theoretically possible for the first time for individuals in the Soviet Union to buy a private computer of their own for use in the home. Said opportunity came in the form of the Elektronika BK-0010. Costing about one-fifth as much as the Agat, the BK-0010 was a predictably slapdash product in some areas, such as its horrid membrane keyboard. In other ways, though, it impressed far more than anyone had a right to expect. The BK-0010, the very first Soviet microcomputer designed to be a home computer, was a 16-bit machine, placing it in this respect at least ahead of the typical Western Apple II, Commodore 64, or Sinclair Spectrum of the time. The microprocessor inside it was a largely original creation, borrowing the instruction set from the DEC PDP-11 line of minicomputers but borrowing its actual circuitry from no one. The Soviets’ struggles to stamp out the ever denser circuitry of the latest Western CPUs in their obsolete factories was ironically forcing them to be more innovative, to start designing chips of their own which their factories could manage to produce.

Supplies of the BK-0010 were always chronically short and the waiting lists long, but as early as 1985 a few lucky Soviet households could boast real, usable computers. Those who were less lucky might be able to build a bare-bones computer from schematics published in do-it-yourself technology magazines like Tekhnika Molodezhi, the Soviet equivalent to Popular Electronics. Just as had happened in the United States, Britain, and many other Western countries, a vibrant culture of hobbyist computing spread across the Soviet Union and the other Warsaw Pact nations. In time, as the technology advanced in rhythm with Perestroika, these hobbyists would become the founding spirits of a new Soviet computer industry — a capitalist computer industry. “These are people who have felt useless — useless — all their lives!” said American business pundit Esther Dyson after a junket to a changing Eastern Europe. “Do you know what it is like to feel useless all your life? Computers are turning many of these people into entrepreneurs. They are creating the entrepreneurs these countries need.” As one glance at the flourishing underground economy of the Soviet Union of any era had always been enough to prove, Russians had a natural instinct for capitalism. Now, they were getting the chance to exercise it.

In August of 1988, in a surreal sign of these changing times, a delegation including many senior members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences — the most influential theoretical voice in Soviet computing dating back to the early 1950s — arrived in New York City on a mission that would have been unimaginable just a couple of years before. To a packed room of technology journalists — the Mirror World remained as fascinating as ever — they demonstrated a variety of software which they hoped to sell to the West: an equation solver; a database responsive to natural-language input; a project manager; an economic-modelling package. Byte magazine called the presentation “clever, flashy, and unabashedly commercial,” with “lots of colored windows popping up everywhere” and lots of sound effects. The next few years would bring several ventures which served to prove to any doubters from that initial gathering that the Soviets were capable of programming world-class software if given half a chance. In 1991, for instance, Soviet researchers sold a system of handwriting recognition to Apple for use in the pioneering Apple Newton personal digital assistant. Reflecting the odd blend of greed and idealism that marked the era, a Russian programmer wrote to Byte magazine that “I do hope the world software market will be the only battlefield for American and Soviet programmers and that we’ll become friends during this new battle now that we’ve stopped wasting our intellects on the senseless weapons race.”

As it would transpire, though, the greatest Russian weapon in this new era of happy capitalism wasn’t a database, a project manager, or even a handwriting-recognition system. It was instead a game — a piece of software far simpler than any of those aforementioned things but with perhaps more inscrutable genius than all of them put together. Its unlikely story is next.

(Sources: the academic-journal articles “Soviet Computing and Technology Transfer: An Overview” by S.E. Goodman, “InterNyet: Why the Soviet Union Did Not Build a Nationwide Computer Network.” by Slava Gerovitch, “The Soviet Bloc’s Unified System of Computers” by N.C. Davis and S.E. Goodman; the January 1970 and May 1972 issues of Rand Corporation’s Soviet Cybernetics Review; The New York Times of August 28 1966, May 7 1973, and November 27 1979; Scientific American of October 1970; Bloomberg Businessweek of November 4 1991; Byte of August 1980, April 1984, November 1984, July 1985, November 1986, February 1987, October 1988, and April 1989; a video recording the Computer History Museum’s commemoration of the IBM System/360 on April 7 2004. Finally, my huge thanks to Peter Sovietov, who grew up in the Soviet Union of the 1980s and the Russia of the 1990s and has been an invaluable help in sharing his memories and his knowledge and saving me from some embarrassing errors.)


Comments
  1. Some in the Soviet space program actually laid their failure to get to the Moon, perhaps a bit too conveniently, directly at the feet of the computer technology they were provided, noting that the lack of computers on the ground equal to those employed by NASA — which happened to be System/360s — had been a crippling disadvantage. Meanwhile the computers that went into space with the Soviets were bigger, heavier, and less capable than their American counterparts. 

June 15, 2017

These Heterogenous Tasks

Apocalypse Fuel, and early thoughts on Vorple

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at June 15, 2017 10:41 PM

Apocalypse Fuel, my Apocalypse World gang generator, is up to version 9 now. I’ve steadily been adding content to the thing for a while, but the additions between 8 and 9 are relatively modest.  The big difference is that it … Continue reading

Renga in Blue

Empire of the Over-Mind: Finished!

by Jason Dyer at June 15, 2017 09:41 PM

The Over-Mind is no more!

More than 1000 years ago there were a pair of planets, blue and red, hanging close in each other’s sky.

The blue planet was inhabited by the king Alcazar Rex, who ruled in peace with the help of four ministers: Gerald the Green, Rubin the Red, Byron the Blue, and Griffin the Gold.

Griffin was minister of the tax, and while the kingdom prospered, he worked constantly. One night, in a dream, he was spoken to by a dark angel. The angel spoke of a “tireless servant” in a “bright crystal city” in the form of a “smooth sphere of shining gold”.

Griffin found the city in his dream and located a golden sphere. Upon touching it, the golden sphere awoke:

I am Servant-Mind, to thee tireless slave.
The work of dull tasks forever I save.
Provide me the records kept in thy care;
Then I shall compute for each the fair share
Of taxes owed. Yet I can do much more:
Alcazar’s nation wastes goods by the score.
By my plans this will end. Thus shall it be,
If all confidence is given to me.

So it was done. The Servant-Mind gradually was given more and more information, and started to take over all the tasks of the kingdom.

Servant-Mind corrupted the ministers with false promises of power; as soon as the time was right, it declared itself Over-Mind and became a tyrant.

The Over-Mind summoned demons to protect itself; Alcazar Rex was unable to defeat them. The old king fled (via magical device) with his daughter to the red planet, where he built a tower and was able to live in safety.

With magical foresight, Alcazar cast a magic spell so his daughter would sleep, and the same for Griffin the Gold, now filled with regret. Griffin he put in a cave in order to be discovered by a stranger who would rescue the kingdom in 1000 years.

One implication of the plot is you can teleport between the two planets.

I mention all this to note that the the main enemy is, essentially, a static object. Here is the final showdown:

There are multiple ways to deal with the demons (including just shooting them, although you’ll need an ally for backup with that approach) but once the Over-Mind is alone you can pick it up and take it places. This results in a final dilemma of how to destroy it, as opposed to how to fight it (I’ll spoil the method how a little bit later).

. . .

While this is not one of the explicit goals of my project, I’ve mentally tallied along the way what I might consider “required curriculum” for a designer who wants to learn from studying interactive fiction. In addition to the original Adventure (for historical reasons) I’d tag The Count and Local Call for Death as having innovation that’s still relevant today.

Empire of the Over-Mind also belongs on the list.

Mind you, partly as a cautionary tale — anyone who claims compass directions became the norm in text adventures purely because of cultural inertia should try this game and see how often they find themselves going in circles because they accidentally went through a “wooden door” rather than a “trap door”. I did say in my last post the lack of compass directions gave an otherworldly feel to the game, but really, the negatives far outweigh the positives here.

But! The number of alternate solutions is really impressive. Take this late-game section, which is full of goblins:

It’s necessary to enter this area to get goblin ale, which helps protects against the pain the Over-Mind can inflict when you get close. However, you can enter by a.) using a climbing kit from above b.) using a pistol to blast in from the bottom or c.) teleporting in via a box which moves the player to random locations.

While there, you can deal with the many goblins via d.) using the PYRO spell word and summoning a flame salamander, who can help fight them e.) with a friendly dwarf ally, who also is talented at goblin-killing f.) by shooting them with a xenon pistol or even g.) evading them altogether.

As I came close the the end-game I experimented with a.) through g.) inclusive. I’m not even sure I’ve found every possibility; there are, for example, three stones whose use I was never able to discern.

There might even be more than one way to defeat the Over-Mind. I first tried using the black box to teleport to many different locations to find one that was deadly. In the end I used lava:

The Deluxe version (which I linked to at my first post) has some very different elements, so if you’d like to play the game yourself, I’d recommend that one; likely not much has been spoiled. According to the manual, the only thing that is really the same is the Poem of the Over-Mind itself.

(The entire map is shown above. Click for a larger view.)

Two last postscripts: I managed to finish without hints! I don’t know if you noticed how on longer games I invariably make a statement along the lines of “and then I had to get a hint” or “and then I found a map of the game” but in this case I did this one entirely on my own.

Also, the inventory system is designed so there is a difference between “carrying” and “holding”. You can “>HOLD OBJECT” to make OBJECT your current item. I was initially confused as to why >FILL WATERSKIN led to a message that I didn’t have the right object; I had to >HOLD WATERSKIN first before I could use it. It does make sense, it’s just very unconventional.


PyramidIF

By the CSIDE!

by Hanon Ondricek ([email protected]) at June 15, 2017 03:02 PM

ChoiceScript is a very easy language to write in. It is how all Choice of Games narratives are created. It is simple, powerful, and lets an author do more writing than coding to create an extensive choice narrative that can hinge on the powerful accumulation of stats that bend and alter the story and an individual player's game experience.

Right now, CoG publication is probably one of the most accessible and visible ways for choice-IF authors to actually get a game out to the public and get paid for it. Choice of Games commissions talented authors for their featured stories that fit within their specific inclusive "house style" framework they are known for and their audience expects, but anyone can submit an "indie" spec game to be hosted by CoG as long as it complies with a certain number of minimally sensible parameters with regard to length and content.

That said, writing a CS narrative that fans will want to play and shell out a few dollars for is an enormous task. An author is seldom going to whip out a CS masterpiece of any length in a matter of weeks or possibly even months. Most worthy titles are at least novella-length with regard to visible word count, and depending on how efficient the game and the choices are structured, it has been discussed that an author may find themselves needing to write upwards of three to five times the amount of prose than in a standard novel, most of it not used in any given play-through. There are smart ways to avoid such excess, but game designers needn't apply if they're not up to the task of writing at least 30,000 words including code, and possibly a lot more. (30k is the minimum length of a hosted game CoG will accept, word counts for epic games in the 300k-500k range are not unheard of.)

So you're up to the task, and now you need to get started in ChoiceScript. While authoring in CS is easy, the initial setup is not. In the past, authors had to deal with separate text files including the prose and connecting code and then running them through a compiler which only works in Firefox, and the compiling can be a tedious chore, making compiling and testing a thing that might only be done once a day. Plus the game must pass required automated testing routines provided by CoG that could be sometimes difficult to carry out and understand. I'm one of those curious people who loves to discover and learn new authoring systems, but the minute the directions use the words "run the included compiler" or "write your code in separate text files" I'm out.

The only way I had ever had a chance to experiment with ChoiceScript at all was by using a clever community-created editor that was available online. The thing that helped it click for me was being able to type code in one window and see it instantly compiled in the other. That little bit of WYSIWYG experimentation let me blunder my way through my newbie mistakes and begin to learn how CS works and fits together. It was a great idea for learning, but in no way full-featured enough to write an extensive work.

Text files on left, auto code coloring on right
Now, we have CSIDE (Choice Script IDE) which is a brilliant community-developed piece of work shepherded by Carey J. Williams (CJW on the CoG forums) over more than a year of testing and building from that original tiny CS editor into what I can only describe as "Microsoft Word for Choice Script". If you are familiar with the format and functionality of the Inform 7 IDE, CSIDE will be an easy glove to fit.

Instant playtesting
CSIDE manages all the files for a project, is a code specific color-highlighting CS word processor, allows instant compiling and playtesting, keeps a word count, spell-corrects, includes in-window help and tutorials for some advanced CS concepts, and simplifies many CS-specific tasks. At any time an author can run randomtest or quicktest to see the likely chances of each text fragment being encountered, export to an HTML file playable in almost any browser, and eventually produce a simple folder of files ready to email to CoG for review. A project can begin in CSIDE and it will manage all the individual text files and locations itself, or one can easily import all the pieces of an existing project at once.

While this is all pretty intuitive for people familiar with enclosed authoring environments and word processors, there may be a few minor adjustments required for a veteran CS coder to adapt to how CSIDE handles all the pieces of the puzzle, but the organization and benefits provided are well-worth a minor relearning curve or at least a look to see how it might be useful to an individual author's workflow.

I've only scratched the surface, but hopefully, CSIDE will become a valuable tool alongside Twine and Inform 7 to make the process of writing IF much easier.

You can download and try CSIDE from here for Mac and Windows. The program is entirely self-contained without any other pieces to download, and one can begin a project entirely within the IDE with the plus icon, or import multiple existing CS text files from the folder icon. Check out the help files under the question mark icon, and tutorials under the book icon.

Web version (requires a Dropbox account): https://choicescriptide.github.io/web/

--Hanon Ondricek

Addendum: CSIDE currently only runs on 64-bit architectures. For most people this is not a problem, but you may need to switch to a newer machine to run the program, or use the online version with your Dropbox account:

See post here:
We will not be officially supporting 32-bit releases. If the demand is there, we will try our best to provide one, but with such a small team, there has been a very hard limit to what we can effectively test and support. 32-bit architectures are on their way out, so it doesn't make a lot of sense for us spend time supporting them.That said, I understand that there will be cases where people simply don't have access to anything other than a 32-bit machine, and that should not mean that you have to go without the chance to use CSIDE. You have two options there: Either make use of the website version of CSIDE (which is near enough as fully-featured as the Desktop app), or contact me privately and I'll provide you with a 32-bit copy, with the understanding that it's not officially supported.



Emily Short

Mid-June Link Assortment

by Emily Short at June 15, 2017 09:40 AM

Events

June 15 in London (tonight) I am speaking at Strange Tales to introduce interactive fiction to the group there.

June 20, the London IF Meetup is gathering at the Eaton Square Bar to play In Case of Emergency, a mystery storytelling game assembled and run by A Door in a Wall. Atypically for our events, there is a small fee of £5 to participate.

June 28-30, I will be speaking at Gamelab XIII GAMES & INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT CONFERENCE in Barcelona, about artificial intelligence and games.

IntroComp is under new management but is still running this year, an opportunity to share the opening section of an IF piece with players and get feedback. Intents to enter are accepted through June 30, with the intros themselves to be due July 31.

July 1, IF Comp 2017 opens for intents-to-enter.

The British Library is running an Interactive Fiction Summer School as a weeklong course in July, with multiple instructors from a variety of different interactive narrative backgrounds. More information can be found at the British Library’s website.

July 6-9 is the convention of the national puzzler’s league in Boston; this is kind of peripheral to IF, but might be of interest to some readers.

July 13 is the next meeting of Hello Words in Nottingham.

Polar Jam continues through July 15, if you feel like creating some adventure IF and/or implementing a room with multiple SOUTH exits. (See also The Northnorth Passage.)

July 19, the London IF meetup will get together and talk about writing IF for money, with speakers on both side of the “looking to sell” and “looking to buy” divide.

August 14-17, Cape Cod, MA is the Foundation of Digital Games conference, including a workshop in procedural content generation. The PCG workshop has a theme this year:

What do our generators say about the underlying systems we have designed and the designers who create them?  Our theme aims to explore the biases inherent in PCG and the potential with which to subvert it.

Registration will continue to be available through August, but the ticket price goes up to “late registration” rates on July 4, so participants will save $100 by booking before that deadline.

Competitions

The XYZZY eligibility list for 2016 is now available. (Yes, this is a bit late in the year — often the XYZZYs are wrapped up in the first few months of a year — but the process is now coming together.) Now is the time to mention to the organizers any concerns you may have about things on or off the list before first round voting officially opens.

Fundraising

As already mentioned, PROCJAM 2017 is Kickstarting funds for supplies: reusable art, tutorials, documentation, and other features that support the event. Those who support the campaign for at least £10 will receive a mixtape of various procedural goodies, including an Annals of the Parrigues-related treat from me.

New Releases

ChoiceScript is getting a new IDE, providing authorship support in a centralized way. In fact, it might even be available already now. (I put these link assortments together in advance, but the announced date is June 15.)

Demon Mark is a new release from Choice of Games, focusing on Russian folklore.

Articles

Here’s an interview with Porpentine about her recent work.

Here’s a take on iOS games about archaeology. There’s a small amount of IF included, Choice of Games’ To the City of the Clouds, but mostly I enjoyed the survey and the general sense of WHY ARE WE SO MISUNDERSTOOD.

Atlas Obscura has a piece on the structures of the original Choose Your Own Adventures series, with lots of lovely diagrams made by ChooseCo itself, and interview input from Nick Montfort.

Christophe Rhodes wrote about the most recent Tool Innovation session at the London IF Meetup.

Kevin Snow writes about design choices in Southern Monsters, including how he responds to and handles failure states.

Hidden Folks is a very cool, though not IF-related, game about exploring an intricate environment, and there’s now a making-of series of articles in progress.

Other Things

Nick Montfort gave a presentation on computer generated books (as seen in NaNoGenMo). The slides are online.

Twine Garden is not new, but I wanted to point it out again: there’s so much cool stuff there.


June 14, 2017

Renga in Blue

Empire of the Over-Mind: Fascinating/Frustrating

by Jason Dyer at June 14, 2017 08:40 PM

I’ve played games with mixed thoughts before. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where the things fascinating about it were the exact same things that were frustrating.


Let’s take the map; here’s just a snippet:

Remember, there are no compass directions; you go places by the name of the connection. Not only does this make the map take a lot longer to make (due to having to label absolutely everything) but I had multiple cases where I had rooms that clearly linked in some close pattern but ended up on opposite parts of the map due to me having no idea which direction to go.

For example, here the “Oasis” and “Desert” link together. I clearly needed to orient the bottom section flipped up rather than down.

Still, the concept threw me into a sort of other-worldliness that ended up being appropriate for the game. Once I had sufficient mapping done, navigation gave me a singular feel which I haven’t experienced in any other adventure game.


Let’s backtrack to that 1,592 word poem. Clip below:

Alcazar buried his friend in the sand.
While he was digging, cold revenge he planned
Against Over-Mind. In a secret room,
He worked alone to seal Over-Mind’s doom;
Removed the enchantments, canceled the role
They had in giving Over-Mind control
Of the weapons, so that when completed,
By its own snares it could be defeated.
Then he shut the room with black iron cold,
And only his daughter the pass-spell told.

I bounced very hard off the act of reading the whole thing in one go, and in fact I still haven’t. It’s not even badly written (or at least, as bad as it could be) but I had to struggle through in small doses.

There are indeed some important hints within, including one which I needed for essentially the first puzzle.

But still — the process of returning to the poem to comb for more hints ended up feeling like I was playing an alternate reality game, searching for hidden messages. While this is technically true of many Infocom games that include “feelie” materials, they never quite elicited the same notion of cipher that the Over-Mind poem does.


The manual mentions multiple solutions to things, and it isn’t kidding. This is mainly because of roaming enemies.

The enemies are in the style of Lords of Karma, with the major exception that you have no working attack command. There is no sword or dagger or other weapon. (There’s a xenon blaster later in the game and the SHOOT command is recognized, but the blaster doesn’t work and I suspect it never will work.) [EDIT: I got the blaster working. It has limited energy, so the next comment about resource management still stands.]

The intent is to use magic items and allies you find on the way, both which are limited resources.

For example, there is, early on, a chance to summon a flame salamander. The salamander provides light and is fairly good at defeating enemies. However, the flame salamander can only be used once, and when it leaves, it takes one of your items with it. If it’s a useful item, it means you have lost the game, although because of multiple solutions it’s unclear what a useful item is!

I’ve done reloading and optimizing in a way that closely resembles Hadean Lands, except without the reassurance I can backtrack any mistakes. I’ve enjoyed the narrative feel that resulted, and the non-linearity, but it’s simultaneously annoying to not know if I’m in a “dead adventurer walking” scenario.


June 13, 2017

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Bendi Barrett, “Avatar of the Wolf”

by Mary Duffy at June 13, 2017 06:41 PM

Choice of Games’ latest release will be Avatar of the Wolf by Bendi Barrett. In a savage land where the gods manipulate mortals like pawns on a chess board, Wolf’s divine power controlled you and protected you. But since Wolf’s death, the eyes of Hawk, Spider, Bear, Gazelle, and Eel are upon you. The embers of Wolf’s power still burn within you; your remnants of divinity threaten to topple the pantheon.. Look for Avatar of the Wolf later this month, releasing on Thursday, June 22nd.

Tell me about what influenced your world creation for Avatar. What kind of a world is this set in?

The world of Avatar of the Wolf is a mishmash of mythologies pulled from Indigenous American to Afro-Caribbean to Greek cultures. I wanted to create a world where the gods had a very direct presence, and some of their human charges had different ideas about what that meant. The setting itself is a hardscrabble place with very basic technologies of agriculture and war making, where someone with a sword is as likely to kill you as a stray spirit. Nearly everyone in this world is struggling in some way, which I think makes the choices that the player has to make a bit more stark.

What sort of a story were you interested in telling in Avatar? What, if any, personal significance does this tale have for you?

In Avatar, I wanted to tell a story about faith and what it means to be faithful to something: a god, an ideal, a way of life. At the beginning of the game the player experiences this separation from the divine presence that has so far ruled their life and a large portion of the game is about contending with that loss or depending on how you see it—that sense of freedom.

When I was a kid, a counselor came to talk to my class. She told us that we could do anything we wanted, as long as we were willing to accept the consequences. That was mindblowing to me as a kid, and I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that statement all these years later. In some ways, this game is an expression of that idea: Do what you want—find peace, crack skulls, torch villages—but be ready to accept the consequences.

I particularly liked the pantheon of gods as characters in this game. Do you have a favorite character you enjoyed writing most?

I had a lot of fun writing the interplay between the gods. From the very beginning one of my mandates about the gods in the game was that I wanted them to be defined more by their approaches to problem-solving than by any particular sense of ethics or morality. I don’t know how good of a job I did with that, but it certainly helped create these lively characters to put into opposition (and sometimes collaboration) with each other.

Spider and her avatar were particularly fun to write. Spider is a crafty, self-interested goddess and her avatar—Aran or Ara—is a chaos-loving libertine who drops in to stir the pot every once in a while. It was a real pleasure writing dialogue for Ara/n. In some ways, they are the game’s Freudian id, suggesting that the player give in to bad behavior and upend the whole world just to see what will happen. It’s the furthest thing from the way I live, or even play games (I’m a habitual goody two-shoes) so it was kind of cool to be a bit rebellious with Ara/n and Spider.

What did you find challenging about the process of writing in ChoiceScript/our game design?

I think the most challenging part of the process was just doing it. The process and the design requirements of the Choice of Games model can be rigorous, but I think as I progressed I understood more and more why CoG games are made the way they are. It helped that pretty much every interaction I had with Jason (my infinitely patient editor) was pleasant and helpful. There were many, many times that I grumbled about an aspect of the CoG game design philosophy before later realizing that it was helping me create a much tighter, better game. I guess the challenge now that I’m thinking about it was trusting the process, maybe I am really a rebel at heart.

Are you a fan of interactive fiction in general? Any favorites you’d like to share? Which of our games do you enjoy, if any?

I’ve loved interactive fiction since reading those Choose Your Own Adventure novels as kid. I remember being really disappointed one summer when all the cool ones were checked out so I just kept reading the same two over and over.

When I first played Choice of the Vampire it was one of the coolest things I’d ever read. It was complex and well-realized and probably more than any other piece of interactive fiction, it made me think, “Yeah. Ok. I want to make stuff like this.”

I also loved Choice of the Deathless—though I had to stop playing it, because I discovered it right around the time I started my own game and didn’t want to accidentally crib any ideas from it.

I like a lot of Twine stuff, too, which can be so different and experimental. Even Cowgirls Bleed by Christine Love comes to mind and merritt kopas’s Conversations With My Mother. Those kinds of games led me to making weird little experiments myself like a black screen with the sound of crickets playing and the words: “Am I even here?” slowly blinking across the screen. That sounds crazy, I know, but its just another way of experimenting with narrative and different ways to convey meaning and get your point across. I like to think that those experiments help make me a better writer, though I’m sure that’s debatable.

What else are you working on right now?

Avatar of the Wolf has been the bulk of my writing life for some time, but I’m starting to work on a few new projects. A mentor of mine has been trying to get me to write a book for a few years now, which I’m just starting to think about seriously. And there’s always more Choice of Games if you’ll have me.

Short answer, Bernard Pivot-style Questionnaire:

Favorite color? Green.

Favorite word? Mezzanine.

What profession other than your own would like you like to attempt? Parkour runner.

Which would you not want to attempt? Rollercoaster mechanic.

Spring, summer, fall, or winter? Early summer, with a serious caveat against bugs.

The XYZZY Awards

2016 XYZZY Awards: eligible and ineligible games

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at June 13, 2017 05:41 AM

Very, very belatedly (mea culpa), here are the works of interactive fiction eligible for consideration in the 2016 XYZZY Awards – and the IFDB entries which aren’t eligible. (Many thanks to everyone who helped out with this.) If you have last-minute corrections before voting opens, please let me know!

Ineligible

Games can be considered ineligible for three reasons:

Not released as complete in the year under consideration. If a game isn’t listed as released in 2016, we don’t consider it. If it was released in 2016, but it’s presented as incomplete – it’s a demo, or a public beta, an expansion to an existing game or the like – it becomes eligible in the year that it’s completed. (We use best judgement, or ask the author, if a game is shown as ‘Chapters 1-3 of 4′ or ‘Book 1 of the Foo Trilogy.’)

The Aegis Saga – Blood
Abgesang: Der Tag der Toten
Choices – And Their Souls Were Eaten
Dragon Ninjas Lettuce – Preview
Dry Winter Alpha 1.0
The Empress’ Shadow
Forest adventures
The Frequently Deceased
Known Unknowns
Nono and the Rainbow Apple
Rule of Three
Scarlet Sails (post-comp)
Trapped
The Waltz that Moved the World
Zombienomicon TM Eisegesis

(A point I welcome debate on: in the past we have regarded Exceptional Stories – narratives released as bonus paid content for Fallen London – as not constituting distinct works, since they can’t be played separately from FL. Unless I hear otherwise I’ll continue this policy, but I don’t really like either option at present.)

Don’t exist. A lot of games are ephemeral – the author never uploads them to an archive, throws them up on their Dropbox, and Dropbox changes its settings and the game disappears. Or an author deletes all their philome.la games and vanishes into the night. Some IFDB entries are for games that never got published at all, or are written as tests. Regardless: if there’s no obvious way for the public to get a copy of your game, it’s not eligible.

- by Anonymous
Allison and the Cool New Spaceship Body
ARK – Space Colony
B. Nixon’s CE
Click Faggot
COMP1917: Hide and Seek
Hello? (Is the world dead?)
I am sorry for destroying the world
Jenga
The man in the white hoodie.
Moving Day
The Nature of Prejudice
Project Demon Storm
Relatos en la historia: la cuarta especie
Shape’s Quest
The Skazzin
Space Australia
Space station adventure alpha
Sub Way
Test
They Sleep
Treasure Hunt
The Unknown Alpha testing
The Veeder
Wandering Instants
WIP: Tech-Knuckle-Support
A Work in Progress

Not interactive fiction, even by a generous estimate. This is the least-used reason; the XYZZYs aren’t interested in defining what counts as IF. Sometimes, though, games show up in IFDB which have no focus on text or narrative at all.

Five pieces were excluded by this rule, four of them non-IF entries in the Imaginary Games from Imaginary Universes event, and one a graphical game:

A Game Played By Galaxies
The Interrogation
Our Bleak-Ass Writing Competition at the Ragged Verge of Spacetime
ShadowCast
shadow tactics

Eligible

“Do Not Meddle”
呃啊! Capybara
年獸文字冒險遊戲 | The Beast, Nian: A Chinese Text Adventure
κρύο
111 cm. de aprendizaje
1181
16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds
30 kilogrammes
500 Apocalypses
À la basse et au chant
The Adventures of Rogelio Price
AETERNAL
Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles
Aftermath
Alexander Systems
All I Do is Dream
All Your Time-Tossed Selves
The Anachronist
Another Day
Antropology
The Anxious Object
Area 51
Ariadne in Aeaea
Ash
At Anchor
Atrocitron
Awake
The barbarians are coming!
Barroom Brawl
Because You’re Mine
Before the Storm Hits
Best of Us
The Black Phone
Black Rock City
Blood Will Out
Blow Out the Candles
Bower of Blood and Thorns
A Brief Introduction To This Game
The Brigand’s Story
Bring Me A Head!
burning alexandria
Burning Temples
Cactus Blue Motel
Campus Row – Part 1
Cancel Cable Or Die Trying
Candle flames in windless air
Cannonfire Concerto
CASTLE DOOMENSTEIN
Cat Simulator 2016
A Checkered Haunting
Cheesed Off!
A Child Without an Eye: Chapter 1
Choice of Alexandria
Choice of the Pirate
ChoiceScript Interactive Tutorial
Christy
Cinnamon Tea
City of Dead Leaves
Coffee and Tea
Collision
Color the Truth
Commander
Como la Gente Civilizada | Like Civilized People
Compound Fracture
Congresswolf
Conversatio Nihilo
Countdown
Cryonix
The CryptoGame
The Curious Incident at Blackrock Township
The Daring Mermaid Expedition
Darkened Dreams
Darkest Words Soldado
Darkiss! Wrath of the Vampire – Chapter 2: Journey to Hell
The Day time stood still
Dead Man’s Hill
The Dead: A Story
Death at Hamsterley
Death’s Tomb
Deeper
The Depths Of Sarcasm
Der Tag an dem Emilia W. verschwand
Destination Unknown
Detectiveland
Dietro l’Angolo
Distance
Dr. Sourpuss Is Not A Choice-Based Game
Draculaland
The Dragon Diamond
Dragon Fate
Dream State Zero
Dreamland Revised
Dude, Where’s My Scapula?
Düstere Dickichte 1: Schurken-Alarm!
Edith’s Cats
Eh what drink did you order?
Eidolon GGJ2016
Eight characters, a number, and a happy ending
El asesino durmiente
Ember’s Diary
Enchanted
Endure
ENGINE MACHINE: The Deities of Time and Space
Enough
Entropy
Epitaph
Escape | 逃出去: A text adventure game for Chinese learners
Ethics AI: Don’t Freeze Edition
Euphoria
An Evening at the Ransom Woodingdean Museum House
Evermore
Evertree Inn
Evita Sempai
EyeMoon: Protect My Precious Vilg!!!
Fair
Fallen 落葉 Leaves
Famous Baby
Fantastic Backflip
Far-Out Space Freaks
FATHERHOOD SIMULATOR 2016
The Filmmaker
The Final Labyrinth of King Minos
The First Day
Flash in the Pan: ADHD Simulator
Flight of the Necrovoyager
Florida Road Trip
Foo Foo
Four Sittings in a Sinking House
Fourdiopolis
Fridgetopia
A Friend to Light Your Way
The Futographer
Gaia’s Web
The Game of Worlds TOURNAMENT!
Garbage Collection
Get Lost!
The Ghosts of Christmas ______
A Gift For Mother
A girl and a boy
The God Device
Going Home
A Good Wick
Grofast Industries
Guns of Infinity
Hand Washing Simulator 20XX
Hanferd Goes To Camp
Hanferd Meets The Wolfman
Hard Puzzle 3 : Origins
Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony
Hello Chagall
Her Majesty’s Trolley Problem
Heretic Dreams
The Hero Project: Redemption Season
Hill Ridge Lost & Found
A History of Publishing
Hollowed Weed
Home Open
Honeysuckle
The House Abandon
House of Lies
How to Win at Rock Paper Scissors
Howled House
A Hunger Games Prequel, by Connor
A hypertext night
I Didn’t Really Like It Before
i love gardening
I THINK I’LL STOP OFF ON THE WAY
The Ice-Bound Concordance
Iceweb
Images Across a Shattered Sea
Impetum Maleficus
In Good Company
Inside the Facility
Interstellar Pizza Brigade
Into the Dragon’s Den
Jenga
The Jinni
Jones N. Forebuts and the Secret of the Golden Butt
Juicing Simulator
Just Talk to Them
Killing the Hero
Kinsale Horror
Knight Moves
Korenvliet
Kotodama
L’Observatoire
La cuarta especie
La Missione di Kyle Remerook
Labour’s Letters Lost
Labyrinth of Loci
Ladykiller in a Bind
The Last Rites of Doctor Wu
Latch Trap
The Laughing Gnome
Le diamant blanc
The Legend of Blackbrook Village
Lethophobia
Letters
Li You’s Secret Admirer
Life with OCD
Lifestream
Light into Darkness
Literary Intelligence
The Little Lifeform That Could
The Locked Room
Lost Circus
The Lost Crypt
The Lost Heir 2: Forging a Kingdom
Low
The Lurking Beast Chapter 2
The Lurking Beast Chapter 3
The Lurking Beast
Machinations: Fog of War
Make Trump Great Again
The Mary Jane of Tomorrow
Mayfly
Mazurka – A Ghost in Italy
A Messenger Adventure
MetaQuest
Mhairie Sioux Escrivain and the Dracula of Hogwarts
A Midsummer Night’s Choice
Mighty Mage
Mind Games
Mirror and Queen
Miss Clemory & the Wall of Fire
The Missing T
The Monster In Me
Moonland
the morning after
The Mouse
Mouth of Ashes
Ms. Lojka or: In Despair to Will to Be Oneself
Murder Simulator (How To Get Away With Murder)
Mushrooms Red As Meat
Mustard, Music, and Murder
My Last Rodeo
Mystery!
Nadia’s Late
New Town New Me
Night House
Nights of the Arcane: Blacklam
No Quiero Verla
Noble crook
Nocked! True Tales of Robin Hood
Nono and The Rainbow Apple
Northern Powerhouse: Last Towns Standing
Not All Things Make It Across
Not Another Hero
November 9th, 2015 – Jan 26th, 2016
Odin City – Für Ruhm und Ehre
Open Sorcery
Open Up!
Orpheus and Eurydice
Out There Chronicles – Ep. 1
På loftet sidder nissen
PATHOGENS: An Interactive Zombie Survival Gamebook
The Periwink
Pink
Pogoman GO!
Point Blank Blank
The Poisoned Soup | 有毒之湯
Portcullis
Powers of Two
Predictions of a Strip Mall Psychic
Psychomanteum
Put A Sock In It!
The Queen’s Menagerie
Quest for the Traitor Saint
Rastros
Realistic Zork
The Realm
Reference and Representation: An Approach to First-Order Semantics
Relentless Drag
The Reveal
Rite of Passage
Rites of a Mailmare
Roberta Williams Eats a Sandwich
The Role of Music in Your Life
Room
Rough Draft
Saga of the North Wind
Save the City with Hatsune Miku from Zombies.
Scars
School 4
SCREW YOU, BEAR DAD!
The Sea Eternal
Seachange
Shady Brook
The Shape of Our Container
sheep here
The Shoe Dept.
Sigil Reader (Field)
The Silence of the Night
Silver Spooning: Close Encounters with Mr. Right
Sisters of Claro Largo
Six-sided Die: The Text Adventure
The Skull Embroidery
Skull-Scraper
The Skyscraper and the Scar
Sleepy Puppy’s Rest Quest
Slicker City
Smash Your TV
Snake’s Game
Sorcery Is for Saps
Sorcery! 4
Space detective
Space Pizza Delivery
Space Police
Space Poop
Space Princess Coronation
The Spectrap
Spellbound
Standoff
Star Yonza
Stars
Starship Adventures
stay | leave
Staying Put
Stealing the Stolen
Steam and Sacrilege
Stone Harbor
A Study in Porpentine
Stuff and Nonsense
Superhero Stress
Superluminal Vagrant Twin
Swag Simulator 2: #Based Baller
Swamp Castle
Swedish Dads
Synchronicity
Take
Take Over the World
Tangaroa Deep
Tao Through Space and Time
Teeth and Ice
Tentaculon
That Damn Elevator!
Thaxted Havershill And the Golden Wombat
Theatre People
This City Knows You
This is My Memory of First Heartbreak, Which I Can’t Quite Piece Back Together
Three Little Pigs
Three-Card Trick
The Thulheim Ritual
A Time of Tungsten
The Time Travelling Watch
TinyHillside
TinyUtopias Football Manager: Super Soccer Slam Edition
Tipelau
TL-MEGA-777-13
To Kindle A Light
To The Wolves
Toiletworld
Toiletworld Omega
Tokyo Wizard
The Tower and the Toucan
The Train of Life
Transplant
Traveling in a sueno
Tu Gutes Spiel
The Tunnel
The Twilight Zone – A Stop at Willoughby
The Twilight Zone – A Text Adventure
Ukraine Ghost Story
Un Aventure
Una noche en Darkadia
Underground Adventure
Underground Dungeon
A Universidade
Unreal City
The Unstoppable Vengeance of Doctor Bonesaw
Untie
Ventilator
VERSUS: The Elite Trials
Vesp
Violets
The Way Home
We Are Unfinished
Welcome to Pineview
What Fuwa Bansaku Found
What to Do When You’re Alone
Who Are You, Mr Cooper?
WhoDunnIt
Wisher, Theurgist, Fatalist
WitherOver
Workers In Progress: Special Edition – Progress Harder
Worldsmith
Xanadu – The World’s Only Hope, Part 2 – Revenge
The Xylophoniad
Yes, my mother is…
Yesterday, You Saved the World
You are standing in a cave…
You Matched!
You’re The World’s Most Successful Pickup Artist. Can You Have Sex With The President Of The United States?
Zigamus: Zombies at Vigamus

June 12, 2017

Strand Games

The Pawn by Magnetic Scrolls, Remastered & Released for Desktop PCs

by hugh at June 12, 2017 08:16 PM

This week we've released desktop versions of The Pawn Remastered on Itch.io. Versions are available for Windows, Mac and Linux.

These are playable now, but there are several requested features that we'd like to add. For example, people have asked for a game specific word completion in the text entry box. This is an excellent idea, and I'd like to add it.

The games have a built-in version check, so they will notify you if a new version is available. Once you have access to the Itch pag...

PyramidIF

Introcomp: New Website, Intents due June 30!

by Hanon Ondricek ([email protected]) at June 12, 2017 03:25 PM

IntroComp is one of the coolest low-key events on the IF calendar that hopefully will get a lot more attention this year with a snazzy new website and new management. This is the one ongoing competition that actively solicits unfinished IF works. It's a great way for new IF authors to get their feet wet if they've never finished a game and attempted a comp, or want some support and motivation to do so.

One major change this year is IntroComp is accepting any slice of an unfinished game as opposed to just the beginning; the website makes clear the "Intro" part of IntroComp now means you are "Introducing your game" as opposed to providing just the actual "intro" as required in years past. The website rules state authors may submit the middle or end of a game as well. There are also cash prizes with a catch: the author has to actually finish the game within one year and notify the Comp organizers to claim a prize.

Even if a submitted game doesn't win Introcomp, one of the coolest parts is voters are encouraged to provide constructive feedback along with their votes which is provided to the authors.

The only slight downside is works submitted to IntroComp are ineligible for IFComp, due to being a partially published work. However, Spring Thing is a good venue to show off a game that was partially developed via an IntroComp entry.

If you've got a long-unfinished game fragment kicking around, perhaps consider submitting it to IntroComp.

Intents to enter this year are due by June 30, and the "complete" game slice for the comp must be submitted by July 31.

See http://introcomp.org/ for more details.


IFTF Blog

Judith Pintar joins IFTF Board of Directors

by Chris Klimas at June 12, 2017 12:47 AM

We’re pleased to announce that Judith Pintar will be joining the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation’s Board of Directors.

If Judith’s name seems familiar, it’s because her experience in the interactive fiction medium spans decades. Her BBS satire game CosmoServe won the fifth annual AGT game contest in 1991— four years before the IF Comp was first held. (If you don’t know what AGT is, ask your parents.) She created several other AGT games in the 90s and now works in Inform 7.

Currently, Judith is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). There, she directs the Electronic Literatures & Literacies Lab, an academic community of digital humanities researchers and practitioners. She also teaches a course on interactive fiction at UIUC.

We’re very excited about the knowledge and experience Judith that brings to the foundation.

June 10, 2017

Renga in Blue

Empire of the Over-Mind: Three Novel Difficulties

by Jason Dyer at June 10, 2017 08:40 PM

The people (all two of them) have spoken, and I’m using the earlier rather than the later version. (The TRS-80 version, because the speedup on my emulator avoids both spastic blinking cursor and dropped keyboard input issues.) I do want to be clear I’m fine with “remake” versions, as long as the gameplay is essentially intact, and especially if the original author is involved.

However, despite the organized user interface of the 1986 edition as shown above, I find myself gravitating to minimal UI: just text and a parser.

A curiousity: the development of first-person shooters went from heavy background interface to gradually letting things go until it was (is?) considered admirable to have no interface at all. Text adventures underwent the opposite, gradually adding elements until arriving at the complexity of the interface below used in the Legend games.

Is more really more when it comes to a text game, though?

. . .

In any case, Empire of the Over-Mind introduced three novelties that make playing it more difficult than usual.

1.) The placement of items is at least somewhat randomized. In the first room of the game upon multiple reboots, I have found: a waterskin, a stick, a golden leaf, or nothing at all.

2.) The game comes with a 1,592 word poem that contains information required to beat the game. The original looked like this:

Thankfully, I have an ASCII version I was able to put on my phone for better readability.

Clever Servant-Mind had this long foreseen
And protected itself. Gerald the Green,
By false promise of power corrupted,
Had natural life vilely disrupted;
And, with the magic of a leaf of gold,
To animate or dispel he did hold
Control over plant and skull long dead,
To serve as sly traps for the sphere of dread.
Then for amusement at living man’s pain,
Servant-Mind had Gerald horribly slain.

I’m not going to do an intensive evaluation right now of Mr. Bedrosian’s skill at verse (maybe later), but it isn’t bad. At the very least the poem gives enough about the rise of the Over-Mind that it feels like an actual foe with motivations rather than Generic Baddie #295.

3.) There are no compass directions in this game. You have to state you want to go down a PATH or to a CLIFF or whatnot.

This makes me feel slightly uneasy and lost. On a couple occasions I accidentally went back to a previous location because I was confused, and there are some items meant as scenery that can’t be traveled to but it isn’t obvious until you’ve tested it out.

Still, while even original Adventure let you navigate by landmarks in some cases, they were only used in special cases; dispensing with compass directions completely is very rare for the era (I believe Battlestar does it in 1980, but I haven’t reached that year yet).