Planet Interactive Fiction

February 23, 2019

The People's Republic of IF

February meeting Post Mortem

by Angela Chang at February 23, 2019 04:41 AM

PR-IF meeting 2/21/2019 Welcome to the "The Matrix"

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Thursday, February. 21st. Nickm, adri, jmac, zarf, dan, and anjchang (not pictured) interacted with various feelies and viewed a translated demoscene piece.  Warning: what follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories: Check out the photos

Narrascope will be awesome. June 14-16, 2019 on MIT’s campus. Rooms confirmed.

Zarf- Python drag and drop engine / Verbs discussion
Adri going to narrative summit gdc
Adri playing Night in the woods
Zarf Nebula nominees category for narrative with 3 Choice of Games titles incl Bandersnatch Black Mirror and 3 more…
Nick will lead the discussion of the Black Mirror Viewing Party & Discussion Group May 2 5-7pm in room e15-341
Nick literary seminar, literary translation. 4/26 at 1pm
He’ll be talking about the translation project from polish demoscene

Taper 3 call is extended until Mar. 1st. Make a 3kB or less HTML5/Vanilla JS digital literary work. Challenge to try to fit an interactive narrative in 3KB or less. Code golfing welcome.

Nod to Adam Thornton and Twitter hacking feats

We played Pippin barr let’s play ancient Greek punishment (also see type version)

If workshop talks by jmac and anj yesterday went well. anj’s takeaway was play more talk less. Kids at the library started playing Snack Time, A Sleeping Princess, Tales of The Traveling Swordsman, Bronze. anj played 9:05 and Dreamhold independently.

V and A games exhibit mentioned. Recommendation to go see it for:
Robin Baumgarten’s Line wobbler
Robert Yang, Clara Fernandez video interviews
Recent Trope Tank Visitor Ed Fries, Halo 2600 inventor, porting and game choices discussion
Restoring pre microprocessor games

Next we played a Polish translation by .habib joulo. Hellboj h-prg, hypertext style piece
Pouet.net/prod.php?which=77198


Spring thing reg deadline by Mar 1

Oral poetics at the trope tank
Crazy chain (played at dinner)
Mornington crescent… Absurdist game
It me three #metoi

Bangbangcon May 11-12, 2019 in NYC
b0rk, recode group, Julia Evans

February 22, 2019

Renga in Blue

Gargoyle Castle: Stuck

by Jason Dyer at February 22, 2019 11:40 PM

I haven’t written a “stuck” post in a while. This is because a lot of my latest points-of-stuckness were accompanied by reasons to think the game was playing unfair, so I resorted to hints / walkthroughs / poking at source code / etc.

Even though Gargoyle Castle hardly has an expansive or intelligent parser, and even though I’m still missing 4 of the needed 10 treasures, I’m not quite giving up yet. Part of this is because I was able to leverage the trash-on-the-floor-deducts points trick (I mentioned it in my last post about this game) to my advantage.

Specifically, if I dump every item I can find into one room (with a few in my inventory), I have a deduction of 9 points, and there are 9 items in the room. So it appears I have found every object in the game, and all that remains is to transform them into treasures somehow.

This isn’t absolutely the case — maybe a treasure object gets “created” somewhere — but that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the game. Also, the ability to reference “non-objects” in room descriptions is very limited; in the “throne room” there is a plaque that’s readable

>READ PLAQUE
GLOWING LETTERS SAY DROP TREASURES HERE AND SAY SCORE.

but otherwise, I haven’t found any instance like this in the game.

Here is the complete object list:

an unrolled scroll
a lighter
a faintly lettered cloth
a bottle full of polish
a coiled rope
a mound of trash
a garden trowel
some greenish ice
some glowing coals
an antique shovel
a tulip bulb
a lit flashlight
an open funerary urn
some very, very heavy armour

You can turn the “greenish ice” into “thawed water” using the coals. I’m not quite unthawing it yet because the hot coals can be carted around with the funerary urn, suggesting that maybe it’s important to the thaw the water somewhere specific. (After the water thaws, the coals become cold and can be carried around without any help.)

I can try to PLANT BULB but anywhere I’ve attempted it gives me the message “I DON’T HAVE EVERYTHING I NEED.” This is while holding the trowel, shovel, and thawed ice.

Also, here are the treasures I’ve found, in case any come into play:

a huge ruby
a complete Gutenberg bible
a shimmering ring
a crystal bird locked in a cage
a Tiffany lamp
a platinum smoking pipe

Here are the verbs that seem to work, although this may not be a complete list. (Note that ATTACK and HIT and similar words are unrecognized.)

GET, DROP, PUT, BURN, OPEN, CLIMB, READ, EAT, REMOVE, LIGHT, RUB, SCREW, COVER, TIE, PLANT, DIG, POLISH, MELT, UNROLL

Finally, I should note I seem to be able to visit the VICIOUS GREEN AND PURPLE GARGOYLE that killed me last session, as long as I’m wearing the heavy armour. I am able to pick it up and walk around with it. I haven’t been able to get any reaction out of it yet.

You’re welcome to post theories or even spoilers, but mark which is which, and use rot13 to encode spoilers; I’m going to try struggling a bit longer.

February 21, 2019

Renga in Blue

Treasure Hunt: The True Map

by Jason Dyer at February 21, 2019 11:40 PM

I first wrote about Treasure Hunt 4 years ago. For this post, you don’t have to know much about it (although you’re welcome to read or re-read the original posts) other than it was a game from 1978 with a freeform map that only gave room numbers (as opposed to compass points or some other indicator of direction). It was very hard to figure out if there was some kind of regular arrangement, but I suspected there was. It was, after all, based on Wumpus, itself based on a dodecahedron shape (just squashed on a plane):

squash

Not knowing the shape beforehand, beating Treasure Hunt required making a full map, which looked random as I drew it but had some tantalizing features, like “rings” of rooms linking to each other.

The full map I made -- click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

I made a few attempts to turn the map into something regular, and even inquired with the author himself (Lance Micklus) who couldn’t help.

Enter the commenter Peter, who just posted this yesterday. As he describes it, it’s a “very regular design, consisting of a number of interlocking circles on two levels.”

Wow!

If you’re the type interested in resolving mysteries, there are a few more recent ones:

1. How do you open the safe in Haunt? The author thought it had something to do with the wine area, but he didn’t exactly remember.

2. What’s the answer to the third riddle in the Ringen section of VikingMUD?

3. Is there a way to get to the island in Marooned or is the game too buggy to make it there?

February 20, 2019

Renga in Blue

Gargoyle Castle (1980)

by Jason Dyer at February 20, 2019 10:40 PM

I am constantly surprised by what keeps coming up in these games. From a distance, the adventures of this era blur together, and might as well be one mass of guess-the-verb puzzles and questionable spelling. Up close, especially after playing enough of them, it starts to be easier to pick up on unique ideas and clever finesses. Every one of the creators was human and wanted to make something that included their own vision, even if there was a lot of copying going on.

I was hoping for a quick knockdown from 1980 with an obscure TRS-80 game by an author (Kit Domenico) who only has two games to his credit (this one and Ice World War from 1981). I figured Gargoyle Castle would be simple and wouldn’t have much to say about it. This was reinforced by the game being another treasure hunt (find the 10 treasures and win, attain glory, etc.)

The very start also seemed straightforward:

TAKE BIRD is a fail — the bird flies away. Ok, that’s at least predictable. I then tried to go WEST and got trolled hard, and then things started to get very unusual.

After recovering from ignominious death via the very first room exit, I noticed the “points for sloppiness”. What’s that about?

It turns out not only do you get positive points for storing treasures in a designated area, as usual (10 points each) you get deducted points for non-treasures that just happen to be lying around. After some experimentation, any “non-treasure” item causes a 1 point deduction while lying on the ground, unless it’s in the “Pit of Garbage” room.

In other words, to get a full score you need to properly discard of trash. The only game I can think of off the top of my head with a comparable idea is Sub Rosa, 35 years later in 2015.

The general effect has been for me to keep caring about every object in the game, even after it’s been used to solve a puzzle. Nice bit of continuity, that.

I marked the “opening area” in purple.

Structurally, Gargoyle Castle starts with a small area that opens up fairly soon after to the entire map. The opening segment gave enough structure I didn’t feel weirdly aimless like in Ghost Town.

The puzzles seem to be more along the lines of “converting ordinary items into treasures” than “beat obstacles and scoop up the shiny things in the rooms that follow”. For example, you find an “OLD BOOK” and an “EMPTY BOOKCOVER”. If you then “COVER BOOK” the book is now a GUTENBERG BIBLE and officially becomes a treasure. (I’m pretty sure none of the real Gutenberg Bibles have covers so this was slightly silly, but the puzzle still gives a good idea of the sort of conversion going on.)

I switched from a TRS-80 emulator to a TRS-80 MC-10 one once I realized I needed to save my game (the emulator linked here, I find it more stable for saving games to tape than any of the black-and-white emulators).

This structure is leading me not to necessarily wonder “what puzzle would this thing solve” but “which two things could be combined?” or “which thing could be converted after some act into a treasure?” For example, there’s a “mound of trash” in one room — is there some nugget of treasure hidden within, and if so, how do I find it? Even though an “antique shovel” isn’t considered a treasure is there a way to make it one (it is, after all, an antique). Does a tulip bulb combine with anything?

One other curious aspect: you can dig a hole anywhere outside. Not only that, but in each case, it makes a new room that you can go down in. There are not that many outdoor spaces, so this wasn’t a giant leap, but this is literally the first text adventure I’ve played where you can dig essentially anywhere that would be reasonable.

Of course, one of the holes led to another ignominious death.

I’ve found 6 out of the 10 treasures, and I’ve been having fun so far, so hopefully the fun holds out for the last 4? The “exploration of object interactions” emphasized over “exploration of space” really does make the game feel like something different.

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 40 new game entries, 27 new solutions, 33 new maps, 1 new hints, 1 new clue sheet

by Gunness at February 20, 2019 02:16 PM

Image
As of today, CASA has been online for exactly 20 years. Most of the hobby sites of that era have closed down since then, so I think it's worth remembering. If anyone was holding out for some magic overhaul of the entire site, I'll have to disappoint you, but I've written a brief piece to commemorate the occasion. Thank you one and all for creating one of the most comprehensive adventure sites on the net!
Contributors: iamaran, Strident, Garry, Vran, Mousey, Sylvester, Gunness, urbanghost, jgerrie, impomatic, Mark, nimusi, Ross, dave, Alex, Dorothy, rpettigrew, auraes, Kozelek

February 19, 2019

Renga in Blue

Ringen: Digital Archaeology

by Jason Dyer at February 19, 2019 09:40 PM

I have occasionally heard the word “archaeology” applied to the rescue and documentation of old games. (This very blog is even mentioned in a book titled Retrogame Archaeology.)

I’m not going to quibble; however, if I think of “real” archaeology, I think of exploring and digging in sites that may have other things built on top of them, and where the entirety of the original is not recoverable but where inferences can be made based on that which remains. So far, nothing I’ve done (like helping preserve Wander or Journey) has been like that. It’s been more like finding some secret book in an archive and placing it on display.

Playing Ringen is the closest to archaeology I’ve done. It was translated and ported to a MUD, where expansions and additions were made, so trying to work out what Ringen from 1979 was like is necessarily uncertain.

There’s enough clues I can make some guesses, so let’s give it a try.

VikingMUD (based on the more general LPMud codebase) has a variety of built-in verbs that have to do with combat and social interaction. You can attack monsters or wield and unwield equipment; you can form parties with other players and DEFEND them from attack; you can smile, wave, comfort, and so forth, and the general effect is to produce an effect other players in the room can see.

This is essentially different than the standard text adventure model, where verbs are more universally related to object interaction. In such a model, if you can RUB RING, you can try the verb RUB on any item in the game (and may get an unhelpful response, but it’s still clear the verb exists as an action).

You can do puzzle use of verbs in the LPMud, but they’re specific and custom to a room (or object), not universal across the game. The game might allow UNLOCK DOOR in a room specifically oriented for it, but UNLOCK anywhere else will get a response of “What?” (The only comparable games I’ve played are the Wander ones, like how in Aldebaran III there’s a BRIBE verb that exists while in jail.)

The fact all verbs are custom means, in practice, that puzzles reliant on verb-object interaction are heavily curtailed. One hurdle is technical difficulties. Suppose the game author wanted the player to WAVE FEATHER. WAVE is a social verb and expects to be used in that fashion (WAVE AT FRIEND) so the desired format may not even be parsed correctly.

Additionally, in a game design sense, an act like WAVE FEATHER in a specific spot would be too hard for the player to come up in practice without heavy text-hinting. There is an early spot in the Ringen portion of VikingMUD with this kind of text hint:

Long road. You are walking along a hard and flat path through the Hollin forest.
There is a big sign here saying something important. An old root of a tree.
There are two obvious exits: east and west
A wicked woman with her nose stuck in (he he) the tree-stump
The woman says: If you aid me, I’ll reward you, I promise!
>PULL WOMAN FROM TREE
You try to pull her out, but you fail!
You’re simply not strong enough!
The woman says: If you aid me, I’ll reward you, I promise!

Note that only this very specific phrasing (PULL WOMAN FROM TREE) is even recognized. I suspect the solution simply involves raising the “strength” statistic of my character. This happens to also be the first quest given in the Adventurer’s Guild in the game.

1: Witch quest (unsolved, 59)
2: Orc Slayer (unsolved, 69)
3: Forgotten Word (unsolved, 82)
4: Bright boy (m/f) needed! (unsolved, 82)
5: A girl and her teddybear (unsolved, 94)
6: Quest for the murderer (unsolved, 97)
7: Sheriffs key (unsolved, 98)

These facts combined together suggest to me the task here was designed solely for the MUD system. That’s not to say it’s impossible this scenario didn’t appear in Ringen (maybe there was no “strength check” and the action automatically worked?) but it feels very MUD-specific.

The ogress with the riddles who I mentioned in my last post probably also wasn’t in the original game. The character is most likely Fuithluin (with a misspelled name?) who didn’t appear in known Tolkien lore until the Book of Lost Tales in 1983. Ringen was made in 1979.

This leaves the dragon puzzle, which I’ll quote the full context of:

You have entered a big hall. On the walls hang some faded flannel carpets, and there is a huge wall-to-wall carpet on the floor. The air is filled with a stinching smell of sulfid, and thick smoke streams out of an opening in the northern wall. There are two additional openings in the western and eastern walls, though not as frightening as the one in the north.
There are three obvious exits: east, north and west
>n
You are in the dragons lair!
A dragon, fifty yards long, lies here sleeping in a huge room. Fire and sulfur streams out of its big nostrils as it breathes. It grunts and stirs asleep, but if you value your life, you should not disturb it. Instead of passing it, consider retreating slowly to the south, through the opening. It looks like there is an opening northwards too, behind the dragon, but I do not advice you to try to go there!

There are two obvious exits: north and south

The dragon fums with rage and sends a cload of fire towards you.

You’re blown back into the big hall!

You are badly hurt as you hit the cold wall…
It did not even open its eyes, so it is evident that it has a very keen sense of smell.
It is impossible to pass the dragon now, so I propose you find a way of fooling its nose, that is, if you really want to pass.

In a text adventure, I’d be tempted to find some mud I could roll around in, or masking perfume to wear, or even somehow capture the smoke smell from the big hall. There aren’t any manipulatable items in Moria I’ve been able to use, and the verb >RUB is considered a social one (that is, it wouldn’t normally be overridden by a bespoke puzzle use).

(Also, of all the puzzles, I’d really like to know the solution to this one, so if anyone knowledgable happens to be stopping by, drop a line in the comments?)

Taking out the puzzles, that leaves the geography: what was part of the original game? My source indicates the game was expanded in addition to translated.

The general layout does feel more MUD-like than adventure-like. What I mean is that there are portions of the map that look like this:

It’s not the presence of a dead end here that’s at issue as much as how long the path leading to it is. This is perfectly normal layout in MUD design, because you might have some jockeying with monsters where having nine rooms of space to maneuver is genuinely different than just two. Additionally, social interaction means that “plain” locations may become important, as the players create their own meaning.

However, this is still a shot-in-the-dark guess; the expansions made when the game was translated may consist only of adding rooms “along the edges” and not making hallways longer or the like.

Other than that, I would guess the “main rooms” are essentially like their originals. This one in particular (which I’ve quoted before) feels much more adventure-like than MUD-like due to the reference to the main character’s feelings:

You are standing by the window. You have a majestic view over the scenery from here. From this spot high up in the mountain you can see past mountains and valleys out in the free, and the clear full moon shines upon the landscape. Southwards the Misty Mountains extend, and to the west there are the grassy plains of your homeland. (Sniff!) You cannot squeeze yourself through the window, but there is a hole in the floor here, and a spiral staircase in the south end of the room.

The lore details also strike me as someone trying to “write from a book” so to speak. For comparison, here’s a portion of the first fully extant Lord of the Rings-based adventure (LORD, from 1981, made in Finland but written in English):

You are now in the great living-room. On one wall, there hangs the picture of Old Took’s great-grand-uncle Bullroarer, who was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfiabul’s head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down in a rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same moment.
There is an exit to the east. Delightfull odours can be smelled from the western end of the room.

(Text courtesy Juhana Leinonen, who was at the Finnish Museum of Games and sent some pictures; the game isn’t available anywhere else at the moment.)

I’m closing the case on this one for now. I have a lead on a contact so I may write about this game more in the future, but I’m happy at the moment to flee to the comfort of single-player gaming.

Emily Short

Bandersnatch (Netflix)

by Emily Short at February 19, 2019 06:40 PM

Screen Shot 2019-02-09 at 5.10.20 PM.png

If you work in interactive narrative at all, there was a period recently where you could not go anywhere without people asking your opinion of Bandersnatch, Netflix’s branching-narrative episode of Black Mirror.

Because I am ornery and/or busy and/or was sick part of the relevant time, I didn’t watch it then. Still, I was aware that IF folks felt

  • annoyed that people were treating this as massively innovative when there are tens of thousands of works, produced over the past fifty plus years, exploring the possibilities of interactive story, including quite a lot specifically of interactive film if we’re narrowing the gaze to just that
  • disappointed that a lot of the choices were kind of basic
  • weary at the prospect of yet another Author’s First Interactive Work about free will vs chance, fate, and external control — this theme being (for obvious reasons) not exactly new in the interactive narrative canon
  • excited by the hope that this meant big commercial possibilities for interactive story
  • like ignoring Bandersnatch and playing more Cragne Manor

I have now watched, and here is my opinion, now that no one is asking.

The short version: I found Bandersnatch slightly more satisfying than a lot of my friends did, perhaps because I happen to have landed on an ending that is, I gather, rare.

At the same time, I had various criticisms of it. Some amount to “this is a first interactive work by someone new to the possibilities, and it’s designed for an audience that is also not particularly literate in interactive fiction, and I guess that’s to be expected.” Others are more serious issues with the messages and themes.

Long version below the fold.

The core story involves a young man named Stefan who is trying to make a computer game version of the eponymous Bandersnatch. The book he’s replicating is a beloved choose-your-own-adventure-style novel by the (criminal, deceased) Jerome F. Davies. Meanwhile, Stefan has been traumatized by the death of his mother in a train crash — a crash for which she would not have been present if she hadn’t been delayed by his search for a stuffed rabbit. (Am I the only one who felt a faint echo of Donnie Darko here? Evidently not.)

Structurally, it’s sort of a time-cave/gauntlet mashup. The branches can lead to rather different interpretations of reality, and some of them produce death/failure pretty early on; however, if you reach an early bad ending, the story automatically encourages you to rewind, in a way that feels like it’s still part of the same overall experience. Stefan wakes over and over again, from things that might be bad endings or might be dreams, in the manner of Groundhog Day. (We don’t have to rewind all the way back to Stefan’s birth, as in Life After Life.)

I won’t try to re-summarize the entire structure given that other articles have already detailed how to reach the major endings and which endings are most significant.

There’s a lot to appreciate about Bandersnatch. It’s acted well, in a way that reminds me how much is lost from video games with good-but-not-great CGI performances. The production is smooth and glossy, and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way: when the story restarts from the beginning because you’ve reached a suboptimal conclusion, Bandersnatch automatically recaps everything that has happened up to your next meaningful choice point, in a way that recapitulates the conventions of television (appropriately! this is interactive TV!) and feels very accessible. A lot of craft has gone into making this an experience that a television viewer could experience without too much sense of alienation.

Then there’s the portrayal of 1980s gaming Britain. This fits at the nexus of two things I know reasonably well (1980s IF, the UK) but I didn’t directly experience them in combination, and I enjoyed the pairing as both familiar and strange. Carl Muckenhoupt read the British-80s-game-scene portrayal as a bit condescending; I read it more as self-deprecating, as a lot of representations of the recent past tend to be on British TV.

Possibly the choice of setting made me more tolerant than perhaps some other IF fans would be with the couple of narratively vacant choices like what music to listen to. They seem to exist to get the viewer used to making choices early in the story, and to prove that there are perceivable consequences for those choices, without the risk of screwing anything up in an important way. But for me, they also drew my attention to the aesthetic details of this particular setting.

So while I share the view that “which breakfast cereal do you want” is a pretty dull choice to lead off with, I was maybe a little more willing to find value in that than some other viewers.

*

Here’s something else I did like: a choice framed as a puzzle challenge, but that actually functioned to test the audience’s interests.

At one point (or more than one point, depending on how you play), you can direct Stefan to the basement, where his father has a safe with a hugely ornate keypad lock. You can choose between two combination words to enter. Both of the words are thematically resonant in some way; neither has been unequivocally established as the Right Answer.

So the question is, what are you expecting to find in these drawers? What combination do you think the father would use to lock up his safe? Who do you think he is, and what do you think he’s up to?

And it’s this that determines what you see afterward, and what is “actually” inside.

*

There are an assortment of issues, both structural and thematic. Others have pointed out how inconsistent the piece is, how it doesn’t seem able to make up its mind about what it wants to explore. Different endings of the story are about radically different things, from the nature of grief to the more grotesque aspects of contemporary entertainment. These segments are presented with different degrees of self-awareness, and arguably none of the themes really has room to breathe.

There is a point in Bandersnatch that invites you to tell the protagonist about Netflix, which feels like the world’s very worst product placement because it’s mandatory, participatory placement… of a product you’ve already bought. Ew.

I mean, I get the idea. I’m supposed to be startled that I the player am an actual character in the story. But I’ve seen this gag a lot of times before, a lot a lot. Even before interactive fiction, even before computers; before If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler cast the reader as a character; before play-going audiences had to clap for Tinkerbell. There are jokes in Aristophanes where the characters on stage notice those dolts sitting in the theatre. It’s not a new gambit.

So what stands out about it is the Netflix self-promotion.

Follow the story down that road, and you soon reach a choice about whether you wouldn’t like to see your entertainment with a bit more action than you’ve seen so far. Your options are “Yes” and “Fuck yeah.” My desired response was “No, I have experienced uncountably many generic fight scenes and I don’t find them especially revealing or engaging or fun, please show me more about people talking to each other.”

I was out of luck there, though. Face-kicking ensued.

*

Abigail Nussbaum writes about the story’s portrayal of mental illness as both likely violent and a prerequisite to creative success. I share the dislike of this pairing, and I’d recommend a viewing of Nanette for anyone who thinks it’s worth being mentally ill in order to be creative. Perhaps this was less an intentional decision than it was the effect of recasting Lovecraftian tropes about madness-inducing tomes into 1982.

Maybe paradoxically, I did in fact rather like the sequence where Stefan goes to visit Colin, another game-maker who alone seems to be aware of the alternate pasts of the story. Stefan says he’s blocked on his game. Colin tells him (I paraphrase): “You’re in the hole… you’re in a fight with your own head,” and then offers him help.

The help turns out to be LSD, and it goes off into a hallucinatory sequence that ends badly, perhaps because we can’t show people doing drugs on TV without being punished for it.

What I liked, though, was the bit before that: the casual, comradely acknowledgement that being in the midst of a creative project can be hard and confusing, and that what Stefan is experiencing is not unique.

*

My final ending was the one in which the protagonist manages to rewind time to the day in his childhood when his mother died; find a stuffed bunny without which he refused to leave the house; and join his mother on the crashing train, where he dies. It turns out that he was just remembering/imagining this sequence while actually grown up in his therapist’s office, but remembering it causes his death in the modern day as well.

According to the ending-analyses I linked above, this is the most difficult of endings to reach, but from my perspective it is also the most emotionally resonant. Young Stefan’s stuffed bunny was taken from him, in different versions of the story

  • the better to control him and create a memory of trauma as part of a government experiment
  • because the stuffed bunny was “sissy”
  • because his grandfather thought it was overly permissive to let him have the stuffed bunny (probably also for gender-related reasons)

and the consequence of this deprivation is that he loses his mother, is estranged from his father, and becomes (maybe) the pawn of government control.

To undo this feels like the healing of an old wound. That wound consisted not just of his mother’s death, but of the social/paternal/governmental pressure to be a certain kind of person, to give up his stuffed bunny, to lose the more connected and perhaps the more female-coded parts of himself.

This I found more truthful than any of Bandersnatch’s other questions about whether we do or don’t have free will. We do, I believe; but we are all, also, products of the culture in which we grow up. Our conditioning makes some options seem impossible, or makes them completely invisible to us.

Stefan never has the option to connect meaningfully with Colin, his game-writing idol, in a way that would have really helped him out of the maze. Stefan never has the option to talk open-heartedly with his father, or to make real progress with his therapist. Stefan is always limited by a loss he suffered long ago.

*

This could have been a stronger piece of work, and it could have made stronger use of the power of interactivity, if it had been written with more experience of interactive affordances, and for an audience with greater interactive literacy.

There’s a tendency for critics from other media to see interactive works as gimmicky, and I think it’s partly because a first interactive work rarely succeeds in escaping the author’s surprise at the nature of his new medium. Common for such pieces to circle around what does it mean to give the player some level of control over where the story goes? and how does that reflect our own levels of choice in the real world? — even though there is much more that interactive stories can communicate.

At the same time, people good at television made Bandersnatch, and that does give it some important strengths. It may reach and intrigue viewers who might never have considered any of the other forms of interactive narrative.

The People's Republic of IF

January Meetup: Post Mortem

by Angela Chang at February 19, 2019 05:41 PM

January 2019 PR-IF meetup

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Wednesday, January. 16th. Zarf, adri, heflin, nickm, dan, noah, jake, and anjchang interacted with various feelies and viewed a C64 piece.  Warning: what follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories: See more pictures here.

Reality of interactive fiction story f Train by Brenda rpmero
Mystery hunt
Tunnel by sofian audry
Baba is you beta testing by Jake
Zarf Judy Dan Noah nickm Jake anj Cynthia adri dominique Luna
Adri on a panel this Saturday
Dominic Inform 7 on flathub pull request
Nick at demo party, 64 byte configure alphabit written with shifty. X reg for color and frwq Check out his blog
Proposal for narrascope closes in two days
Noah wants to know contacts for event spaces in Berlin
Early February Boston FIG talks, fig learns is more educational

Topics of discussion:
anjchang played minima pico 8 by feneric
Zarf played some games for a IGF festival
Watch me jump, a small Japanese style interface from play to interactive piece. Minimal conversation steering reads like a dynamic play. Good character tension.
Nick’s last Spring IF class happened
Tech support themed games discussed
Bandersnatch. Was prototyped in Twine
Sam Borovs Board game
Get lamp choices spin access court
Scumvm now includes a z machine interpreter
Mystery 3 or Myst 4 in ScummVM
Nintendo Wii emulators on ScummVM
Tipped off Robbie Barrat’s code AI used somebody else’s code, signed by Shirin
Taper #3 Due Feb. 18th: Seeking Minimal Literary Artworks
We have an If Fiction visitor from Berkley Public library, for a workshop in February
Banksy reference to self shedding art
Meanwhile
My secret hideout
Aaron Reed’s table top role playing games
Game Feb businesses
Jake idea game about sheep hands-on training be automation
Mother three industrialization
Dwarf Fortress
Origin
Authenticity

anjchang will be giving a Intro to IF workshop at the Berkley public library for the local community on Feb 20.

Also a shout-out to Jmac, who will be speaking for the IFTF on Feb 20

Next PR-IF Meeting is Thursday, February 21, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233. See you there!

February 18, 2019

Renga in Blue

Ringen: Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

by Jason Dyer at February 18, 2019 06:40 PM

The opening graphic when logging into VikingMUD.

I managed to find a torch and do a little mapping, this time with the actual names of places attached.

I didn’t find anything that remarkable, but here’s some of the scenery. Upon entering the main complex:

This must once have been the main junction in the Mines of Moria. There are exits everywhere. Westwards there is a rough opening which leads to the top of a wide stairway. To the north and south there are wide openings. To the east, there is a small round hole, which may be 6 feet (2 meters) wide, but it is still small when compared to the other exits. In the floor, just near your feet, a steep shaft leads down into the deep. Small steps have been made out of the rock, but it looks dangerous all the same. A steep spiral staircase rises from a corner of the room.
There are five obvious exits: down, east, north, up and west

After a bit of exploring:

You are standing by the window. You have a majestic view over the scenery from here. From this spot high up in the mountain you can see past mountains and valleys out in the free, and the clear full moon shines upon the landscape. Southwards the Misty Mountains extend, and to the west there are the grassy plains of your homeland. (Sniff!) You cannot squeeze yourself through the window, but there is a hole in the floor here, and a spiral staircase in the south end of the room.

I found King Durin’s Hall, but it was already raided.

King Durin’s Throne Hall! It is said that the King of the Mountains used to keep his court here, before the trolls took over almost all parts of Moria, and made it uninhabitable for dwarfs and humans. By the western wall there still is standing the grand throne of the King, but no one is ever here. To the south is a portal to a smaller room, and to the east a wide passage.

I also ran across an ogress who wanted to pose riddles; I declined as I was still mapping at the time.

You’re in the rat trap. Left-overs lie scattered on the floor and hords of small mucky rats run to and fro. West there is a white-clothed opening of pentagonal cross-section, but a little down to the south, there is a square door. On the door there is a little yellow sign:
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
There are two obvious exits: south and west
>SOUTH
This is the dwelling of the ogress. It is a dark cave with a crackling fire-place in a corner of the room. The walls are covered with soft carpets, and the only exit is to the north, where you came from.
There is one obvious exit: north
An old wicked ogress
>
The ogress turns her hideous face into a grotesque grin.
The ogress asks: Are you prepared to answer three difficult and fatal riddles?

I found the eastmost point of Moria and the exit, which is a little more ignominious than you might imagine.

The corridor ends! The corridor gets aborted here, due to a peculiar looking wall. There is a shimmering curtain in the north wall.
There is one obvious exit: west
a bulletin board (7 unread)
>
examine curtain
It is the exit out of the Mines, since it is not finished. Just enter it, and you will end up in the village.

Indeed, testing the curtain, it leaves the whole Ringen area. In case you are curious about the bulletin board (a built in system for the MUD) …

Thread: YEAH!!!

FIRST!!!

lol

… you aren’t missing anything.

Finally, I suffered death by bat.

The Bat Cave. Up under the roof there hangs thousands of small vampire bats. The floor is covered with bad-smelling excrements, and it is an intense vapour here. Some of them beasts moves and and wheezes load. I would higly recommend you to get out of here, or else you would end up being a non-volantary blood-donator.
There are four obvious exits: east, north, south and west
a big bat
a bat
a bat
a bat
a bat
You notice Big bat approaching you with murder in its eyes.
You notice Bat approaching you with murder in its eyes.
You notice Bat approaching you with murder in its eyes.

I actually managed to run away before all my hit points were gone, but later on when mapping I came back to The Bat Cave from a different way (without realizing the exit went that direction!) and was thusly slain.

I was then without a torch, but I had a suspicion that I could visit the ogress of riddles even in the dark, so I went back with a “guest” character and found her dwelling was lit. I was then challenged to what turned out to be Tolkien trivia.

The ogress turns her hideous face into a grotesque grin.
The ogress asks: Are you prepared to answer three difficult and fatal riddles?
>say yes
You say: yes
The ogress says: Thank you, here comes the first:
Round it is, made of purest gold.
A creature covets it more than anyone other.
The Lord of Darkness. What is his name?
>say Sauron
You say: Sauron
The ogress says: Excellent! Here’s the second:
A dwarf made The Great Western Gate.
What was his name?
>say Narvi
You say: Narvi
The ogress says: You know your things, I hear.
Now to the last, and decisive riddle:
Deep in the Mountains, in the heart of Moria.
Ogress and witch, what is my name?
>say Fuithluin
You say: Fuithluin
Ogress says: Wrong, so wrong fool!
Ogress says: Hmm, what should the punish be? Hmm… What?! Do I not have the
mushroom?
Ogress says: This must be your lucky day. I can’t transform you to a toad,
yet…
Ogress says: Out, out! You miserably fool!

That last one’s pretty obscure and only from the Book of Lost Tales (ogres don’t come up as a topic in the main Lord of the Rings books, and they get only a passing mention in The Hobbit). I’m fairly sure my answer is correct but I haven’t been able to find any alternate spellings. Anyone have an idea? I may be wrapping this one up soon even if I can’t resolve this puzzle (or the dragon one I mentioned last time) just because there’s not really a “quest” to solve in order to escape Moria.

February 15, 2019

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! The Paths to Greatness by Andrew Kenneth Specter

by Rachel E. Towers at February 15, 2019 06:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Your boring village life is interrupted one day when you are abducted and forced into the service of a mysterious and powerful Emperor and his army. Will you find friendship, love, or rebellion on this journey? It’s 33% off until February 22nd!

The Paths to Greatness is a 175,000 word interactive fantasy novel by Andrew Kenneth Specter, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

It’s up to you whether you defy the Emperor, or help him accomplish his goals, despite the devious plan he has in store for you.

• Play as a man or woman and be gay, straight, asexual, or aromantic.
• Romance your mentor, fellow apprentice, or the Emperor himself.
• Travel across a vast lake in order to stop an uprising.
• Participate in and win the fighting tournament, and then get ready for the ball.
• Take fate into your own hands with one of more than fifteen endings.

The path to greatness is waiting…

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

New Hosted Game! Tudor Intrigue by James Young

by Rachel E. Towers at February 15, 2019 05:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Enter the court of Henry VIII of England, and lead the country through the reformation. Politics, religion, love, and war in 16th Century England. It’s 33% off until February 22nd!

Tudor Intrigue is a 175,000 word interactive historical novel by James Young, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

• Play as a nobleman or noblewoman.
• Change the religion of England.
• Mary the King.
• Make alliances and maneuver in court.
• Take part in high stakes trials.
• Seize the Crown for yourself.

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

The Digital Antiquarian

Ultima VII

by Jimmy Maher at February 15, 2019 05:41 PM

From the time that Richard and Robert Garriott first founded Origin Systems in order to publish Ultima III, the completion of one Ultima game was followed almost immediately by the beginning of work on the next. Ultima VI in early 1990 was no exception; there was time only for a wrap party and a couple of weeks of decompression before work started on Ultima VII. The latter project continued even as separate teams made the two rather delightful Worlds of Ultima spinoffs using the old Ultima VI engine, and even as another Origin game called Wing Commander sold far more copies than any previous Ultima, spawning an extremely lucrative new franchise that for the first time ever made Origin into something other than The House That Ultima Built.

But whatever the source, money was always welcome. The new rival for the affections of Origin’s fans and investors gave Richard Garriott more of it to play with than ever before, and his ambitions for his latest Ultima were elevated to match. One of the series’s core ethos had always been that of continual technological improvement. Garriott had long considered it a point of pride to never use the same engine twice (a position he had budged from only reluctantly when he allowed the Worlds of Ultima spinoffs to be made). Thus it came as no surprise that he wanted to push things forward yet again with Ultima VII. Even in light of the series’s tradition, however, this was soon shaping up to be an unusually ambitious installment — indeed, by far the most ambitious technological leap that the series had made to date.

As I noted in my article on that game, the Ultima VI engine was, at least when seen retrospectively, a not entirely comfortable halfway point between the old “alphabet soup” keyboard-based interface of the first five games and a new approach which fully embraced the mouse and other modern computing affordances. Traces of the old were still to be found scattered everywhere amidst the new, and using the interface effectively meant constantly switching between keyboard-centric and mouse-centric paradigms for different tasks. Ultima VII would end such equivocation, shedding all traces of the interfaces of yore.

These screenshots from a Computer Gaming World preview of the game provide an interesting snapshot of Ultima VII in a formative state. The graphics are less refined than the final version, but the pop-up interface and the graphical containment model — more on that fraught subject later — are in place.

For the first time since Richard Garriott had discovered the magic of tile graphics in his dorm room at the University of Texas, the world of this latest Ultima was not to be built using that technique; Origin opted instead for a free-scrolling world shown from an overhead perspective, canted just slightly to convey the impression of depth. Gone along with the discrete tiles were the discrete turns of the previous Ultima games, replaced by true real-time gameplay. The world model included height — 16 possible levels of it! — as well as the other dimensions; characters could climb stairs to other floors in a building or walk up a hillside outdoors while remaining in the same contiguous space. In a move that must strike anyone familiar with the games of today as almost eerily prescient, Origin excised any trace of static onscreen interface elements. Instead the entire screen was given over to a glorious view of Britannia, with the interface popping up over this backdrop as needed. The whole production was designed with the mouse in mind first and foremost. Do you want your character to pick up a sword? Click on him to bring up his paper-doll inventory display, then drag the sword with the mouse right out of the world and into his hand. All of the things that the Ultima VI engine seemed like it ought to be able to do, but which proved far more awkward than anticipated, the Ultima VII engine did elegantly and effortlessly.

Looking for a way to reduce onscreen clutter and to show as much of the world of Britannia as possible at one time, Origin realized they could pop up interface elements only when needed. This innovation, seldom seen before, has become ubiquitous in the games — and, indeed, in the software in general — of today.

Origin had now fully embraced a Hollywood-style approach to game production, marked by specialists working within strictly defined roles, and the team which built Ultima VII reflected this. Even the artists were specialized. Glen Johnson, a former comic-book illustrator, was responsible for the characters and monsters as they appeared in the world. Michael Priest was the resident portrait artist, responsible for the closeups of faces that appeared whenever the player talked to someone. The most specialized artistic role of all belonged to Bob Cook, a landscape artist hired to keep the multi-level environment coherent and proportional.

Of course, there were plenty of programmers as well, and they had their work cut out for them. Bringing Garriott’s latest Ultima to life would require pushing the latest hardware right to the edge and, in some situations, beyond it. Perhaps the best example of the programmers’ determination to find a way at all costs is their Voodoo memory manager. Frustrated with MS-DOS’s 640 K memory barrier and unhappy with all of the solutions for getting around it, the programming team rolled up their sleeves and coded a solution of their own from scratch. It would force virtually everyone who played the game at its release to boot their machines from a custom floppy, and would give later users even more headaches; in fact, it would render the game unplayable on many post-early-1990s machines, until the advent of software emulation layers like DOSBox. Yet it was the only way the programming team could make the game work at all in 1992.

As usual for an Ultima, the story and structure of play evolved only slowly, after the strengths and limitations of the technology that would need to enable them were becoming clear. Richard Garriott began with one overriding determination: he wanted a real bad guy this time, not just someone who was misguided or misunderstood: “We wanted a bad guy who was really evil, truly, truly evil.” He envisioned an antagonist for the Avatar cut from the classic cloth of novelistic and cinematic villains, one who could stick around for at least the next few games. Thus was born the disembodied spirit of evil known as the Guardian, who would indeed proceed to dog the Avatar’s footsteps all the way through Ultima IX. One might be tempted to view this seeming return to a black-versus-white conception of morality as a step back for the series thematically. But, as Garriott was apparently aware, the moral plot twists of the previous two games risked becoming a cliché in themselves if perpetuated indefinitely.

Then too, while Ultima VII would present a story carrying less obvious thematic baggage than the last games, that story would be executed far more capably than any of those others. For, as the most welcome byproduct of the new focus on specialization, Origin finally hired a real writing team.

Raymond Benson and Richard Garriott take the stage together for an Austin theatrical fundraiser with a Valentines Day theme. Benson played his “love theme” from Ultima VII while Garriott recited “The Song of Solomon” — with tongue planted firmly in cheek, of course.

The new head writer, destined to make a profound impact on the game, was an intriguingly multi-talented fellow named Raymond Benson. Born in 1955, he was a native of Origin’s hometown of Austin, Texas, but had spent the last decade or so in New York City, writing, directing, and composing music for stage productions. As a sort of sideline, he’d also dabbled in games, writing an adventure for the James Bond 007 tabletop RPG and writing three text-adventure adaptations of popular novels during the brief mid-1980s heyday of bookware: The Mist, A View to a Kill, and Goldfinger. Now, he and his wife had recently started a family, and were tired of their cramped Manhattan flat and the cutthroat New York theater scene. When they saw an advertisement from Origin in an Austin newspaper, seeking “artists, musicians, and programmers,” Benson decided to apply. He was hired to be none of those things — although he would contribute some of his original music to Ultima VII — but rather to be a writer.

When he crossed paths with the rest of Origin Systems, Benson was both coming from and going to very different places than the majority of the staff there, and his year-long sojourn with them proved just a little uncomfortable. Benson:

It was like working in the boys’ dormitory. I was older than most of the employees, who were 95 percent male. In fact, I believe less than ten out of fifty or sixty employees were over thirty, and I was one of them. So, I kind of felt like the old fart a lot of times. Most of the employees were young single guys, and it didn’t matter to them if they stayed at the office all night, had barbecues at midnight, and slept in a sleeping bag until noon. Because I had a family, I needed to keep fairly regular 8-to-5 hours, which is pretty impossible at a games company.

A snapshot of the cultural gulf between Benson and the average Origin employee is provided by an article in the company’s in-house newsletter entitled “What Influences Us?” Amidst lists of “favorite fantasy/science fiction films” and “favorite action/adventure films,” Benson chooses his “ten favorite novels,” unspooling an eclectic list that ranges from Dracula to The Catcher in the Rye, Lucky Jim to Maia — no J.R.R. Tolkien or Robert Heinlein in sight!

Some of the references in Ultima VII feel like they just had to have come directly from the slightly older, more culturally sophisticated diversified mind of Raymond Benson. Here, for instance, is a riff on Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin’s landmark work of first-person journalism about racial prejudice in the United States.

It’s precisely because of his different background and interests that Benson’s contribution to Ultima VII became so important. Most of the writing in the game was actually dialog, and deft characterization through dialog was something his theatrical background had left him well-prepared to tackle. Working with and gently coaching a team consisting of four other, less experienced writers, he turned Richard Garriott’s vague story outline, about the evil Guardian and his attempt to seize control of Britannia through a seemingly benign religious movement known as the Fellowship, into the best-written Ultima ever. The indelible Ultima tradition of flagrantly misused “thees” and “thous” aside, the writing in Ultima VII never grates, and frequently sparkles. Few games since the heyday of Infocom could equal it. Considering that Ultima VII alone has quite possibly as much text as every Infocom game combined, that’s a major achievement.

The huge contributions made by Raymond Benson and the rest of the writing team — not to mention so many other artists, programmers, and environment designers — do raise the philosophical question of how much Ultima VII can still be considered a Richard Garriott game, full stop. From the time that his brother Robert convinced him that he simply couldn’t create Ultima V all by himself, as he had all of his games up to that point, Richard’s involvement with the nitty-gritty details of their development had become steadily less. By the early 1990s, we can perhaps already begin to see some signs of the checkered post-Origin career in game development that awaited him — the career of a basically good-natured guy with heaps of money, an awful lot of extracurricular interests, and a resultant short attention span. He was happy to throw out Big Ideas to set the direction of development, and he clearly still relished demonstrating Origin’s latest products and playing Lord British, but his days of fussing too much over the details were, it seems, already behind him by the time of Ultima VII. Given a choice between sitting down to make a computer game or throwing one of his signature birthday bashes or Halloween spook houses — or, for that matter, merely playing the wealthy young gentleman-about-town in Austin high society more generally — one suspects that Garriott would opt for one of the latter every time.

Which isn’t to say that his softer skill set wasn’t welcome in a company in transition, in which tensions between the creative staff and management were starting to become noticeable. For the people on the front line actually making Ultima VII, working ridiculous hours under intense pressure for shockingly little pay, Garriott’s talents meant much indeed. He would swoop in from time to time to have lunch catered in from one of Austin’s most expensive restaurants. Or he would tell everyone to take the afternoon off because they were all going out to the park to eat barbecue and toss Frisbees around. And of course they were always all invited to those big parties he loved to throw.

Still, the tensions remained, and shouldn’t be overlooked. Lurking around the edges of management’s attitude toward their employees was the knowledge that Origin was the only significant game developer in Austin, a fast-growing, prosperous city with a lot of eager young talent. Indeed, prior to the rise of id Software up in Dallas, they had no real rival in all of Texas. Brian Martin, a scripter on Ultima VII, remembers being told that “people were standing in line for our jobs, and if we didn’t like the way things were, we could just leave.” Artist Glen Johnson had lived in Austin at the time Origin hired him to work in their New Hampshire office, only to move him back to Austin once again when that office was closed; he liked to joke that the company had spent more money on his plane fare during his first year than on his salary.

The yin to Richard Garriott’s yang inside Origin was Dallas Snell, the company’s hard-driving production manager, who was definitely not the touchy-feely type. An Origin employee named Sheri Graner Ray recounts her first encounter with him:

My interviews at Origin Systems culminated with an interview with Dallas Snell. He didn’t turn away from his computer, but sort of waved a hand in the general direction of a chair. I hesitantly took a seat. Dallas continued to type for what seemed to me to be two or three hours. Finally, he stopped, swung around in his desk chair, leaned forward, put one hand on his knee and the other on his hip, narrowed his eyes at me, and said, “You’re here for me to decide if I LIKE you.” I was TERRIFIED. Well, I guess he did, cuz I got the job, but I spent the next year ducking and avoiding him, as I figured if he ever decided he DIDN’T like me, I was in trouble!

Snell’s talk could make Origin’s games sound like something dismayingly close to sausages rolling down a production line. He was most proud of Wing Commander and Savage Empire, he said, because “these projects were done in twelve calendar months or less, as compared to the twenty-to-thirty-month time frame that previous projects were developed in!” Martian Dreams filled six megabytes on disk, yet was done in “seven calendar months!!! Totally unprecedented!!” Wing Commander II filled 15 megabytes, yet “the entire project will have been developed in eight calendar months!!!” He concluded that “no one, absolutely no one, has done what we have, or what we are yet still capable of!!! Not Lucasfilm, not Sierra, not MicroProse, not Electronic Arts, not anyone!” The unspoken question was, at what cost to Origin’s staff?

It would be unfair to label Origin Systems, much less Dallas Snell alone, the inventor of the games industry’s crunch-time culture and its unattractive byproduct and enabler, the reliance on an endless churn of cheap young labor willing to let themselves be exploited for the privilege of making games. Certainly similar situations were beginning to arise at other major studios in the early 1990s. And it’s also true that the employees of Origin and those other studios were hardly the first ones to work long hours for little pay making games. Yet there was, I think, a qualitative difference at play. The games of the 1980s had mostly been made by very small teams with little hierarchy, where everyone could play a big creative role and feel a degree of creative ownership of the end product. By the early 1990s, though, the teams were growing in size; over the course of 1991 alone, Origin’s total technical and creative staff grew from 40 to 120 people. Thus companies like Origin were instituting — necessarily, given the number of people involved — more rigid tiers of roles and specialties. In time, this would lead to the cliché of the young 3D modeller working 100-hour weeks making trees, with no idea of where they would go in the finished game and no way to even find out, much less influence the creative direction of the final product in any more holistic sense. For such cogs in the machine, getting to actually make games (!) would prove rather less magical than expected.

Origin was still a long way from that point, but I fancy that the roots of the oft-dehumanizing culture of modern AAA game production can be seen here. Management’s occasional attempts to address the issue also ring eerily familiar. In the midst of Ultima VII, Dallas Snell announced that “the 24-hour work cycle has outlived its productivity”: “All employees are required to start the day by 10:00 AM and call it a day by midnight. The lounge is being returned to its former glory (as a lounge, that is, without beds).” Needless to say, the initiative didn’t last, conflicting as it did with the pressing financial need to get the game done and on the market.

Simply put, Ultima VII was expensive — undoubtedly the most expensive game Origin had ever made, and one of the most expensive computer game anyone had yet made. Just after its release, Richard Garriott claimed that it had cost $1 million. Of course, the number is comically low by modern standards, even when adjusted for inflation — but this was a time when a major hit might only sell 100,000 units rather than the 10 million or so of today.

Origin had first planned to release Ultima VII in time for the Christmas of 1991, an impossibly optimistic time frame (impossibly optimistic time frames being another trait which the Origin of the early 1990s shares with many game studios of today). When it became clear that no amount of crunch would allow the team to meet that deadline, the pressure to get it out as soon as possible after Christmas only increased. Looking over their accounts at year’s end, Origin realized that 90 percent of their revenue in 1991 had come through the Wing Commander franchise; had Wing Commander II not become as huge a hit as the first installment, they would have been bankrupt. This subsidizing of Ultima with Wing Commander was an uncomfortable place to be, and not just for the impact it might have had on Lord British’s (alter) ego. It meant that, with no major Wing Commander releases due in 1992, an under-performing Ultima VII could take down the whole company. Many at Origin were surprisingly clear-eyed about the dangers which beset them. Mike McShaffry, a programmer and unusually diligent student of the company’s financial situation among the rank and file — unsurprisingly, he would later become an entrepreneur himself — expressed his concern: “The road ahead for us is a bumpy one. Many companies do not survive the ‘boom town’ growth phase that we have just experienced.”

Thus when Ultima VII: The Black Gate — the subtitle was an unusually important one, given that Origin had already authorized a confusingly titled Ultima VII Part Two using the same game engine — shipped on April 16, 1992, the whole company’s future was riding on it.


Classic games, it seems to me, can be plotted on a continuum between two archetypes. At one pole are the games which do everything right — those whose designers, faced with a multitude of small and large choices, have made the right choice every time. Ultima Underworld, the spinoff game which Origin released just two weeks before Ultima VII, is one of these.

The other archetypal classic game is much rarer: the game whose designers have made a lot of really problematic choices, to the point that certain parts of it may be flat-out broken, but which nevertheless charms and delights due to some ineffable spirit that overshadows everything else. Ultima VII is the finest example of this type that I can think of. Its list of trouble spots is longer than that of many genuinely bad games, and yet its special qualities are so special that I can only recommend that you play it.

Inventory management in Ultima VII. It’s really, really hard to find anything, especially in the dark. Of course, I could fire up a torch… but wait! My torches are buried somewhere under all that mess in my pack.

Any list of that which is confusing, infuriating, or just plain boring in Ultima VII must start with the inventory-management system. The drag-and-drop approach to same is brilliant in conception, but profoundly flawed in execution. You need to cart a lot of stuff around in this game — not just weapons and armor and quest items and money and loot, but also dozens of pieces of food to keep your insatiable characters fed on their journeys and dozens or hundreds of magic reagents to let you cast spells. All of this is lumped together in your characters’ packs as an indeterminate splodge of overlapping icons. Unless you formulate a detailed scheme of exactly what should go where and stick to it with the rigidity of a pedant, you’ll sometimes find it impossible to figure out what you actually have and where it is on your characters’ persons. When that happens, you’ll have to resort to finding a clear spot of ground and laying out the contents of each pack on it one by one, looking for that special little whatsit.

Keys belong to their own unique circle of Inventory Hell. Just a few pixels big, they have a particular tendency to get hopelessly lost at the bottom of your pack along with those leftover leeks you picked up for some reason in the bar last night. Further, keys are distinguished only by their style and color — the game does nothing so friendly as tell you what door a given key opens, even after you’ve successfully used it — and there are a lot of them. So, you never feel quite confident when you can’t open a door that you haven’t just overlooked the key somewhere in the swirling chaos vortex that is your inventory. If you really love packing your suitcase before a big trip, you might enjoy Ultima VII‘s inventory management. Otherwise, you’ll find it to be a nightmare.

The combat system is almost as bad. Clearly Origin, to put it as kindly as possible, struggled to adapt combat to the real-time paradigm. While you can assemble a party of up to eight people, you can only directly control the Avatar himself in combat, and that only under a fairly generous definition of “control.” You click a button telling your people to start fighting, whereupon everyone, friend and foe alike, converges upon the same pixel as occasional words — “Aargh!,” “To arms!,” “Vultures will pick thy bones!” — float out of the scrum. The effect is a bit like those old Warner Bros. cartoons where Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner disappear into a cloud of arms and legs until one of them pops out victorious a few seconds later.

The one way to change this dynamic also happens to be the worst possible thing you can do: equipping your characters with ranged weapons. This will cause them to open fire indiscriminately in the vague direction of the aforementioned pixel of convergence, happily riddling any foes and friends alike who happen to be in the way full of arrows. In light of this, one can only be happy that the Avatar is the only one allowed to use magic; the thought of this lot of nincompoops armed with fireballs and magic missiles is downright terrifying. Theoretically, it’s possible to control combat to some degree by choosing from several abstract strategies for each character, and to directly intervene with the Avatar by clicking specific targets, but in practice none of it makes much difference. By the time some of your characters start deciding to throw down all their weapons and hide in a corner for no apparent reason, you just shrug and accept it; it’s as explicable as anything else here.

You’ll learn to dread your party’s constant mewling for food, not least because it forces you to engage with the dreadful inventory system. (No, they can’t feed themselves. You have to hand-feed each one of them like a little birdie.)

Thankfully, nothing else in the game is quite as bad as these two aspects, but there are other niggling annoyances. The need to manually feed your characters is prominent among them. There’s no challenge to collecting food, given that there are lots of infallible means of collecting money to buy it. The real problem is that those means are all so tedious. (I spent literally hours when I played the game marching back and forth from one end of the town of Britain to the other, buying meat cheap and selling it expensive, all so as to buy yet more meat to feed my hungry lot.) The need for food serves only to extend the length of a game that doesn’t need to be extended, and to do it in the most boring way possible.

But then, this sort of thing had always been par for the course with any Ultima, a series that always tended to leaven its inspired elements with a solid helping of tedium. And then too, Ultima had always been a little wonky when it came to its mechanics; Richard Garriott ceded that ground to Wizardry back in the days of Ultima I, and never really tried to regain it. Still, it’s amazing how poorly Ultima VII, a game frequently praised as one of the best CRPGs ever made, does as a CRPG, at least as most people thought of the genre circa 1992. Because there’s no interest or pleasure in combat, there’s no thrill to leveling up or collecting new weapons and armor. You have little opportunity to shape your characters’ development in any way, and those sops to character management that are present, such as the food system, merely annoy. Dungeons — many or most of them optional — are scattered around, but they’re fairly small while still managing to be confusing; the free-scrolling movement makes them almost impossible to map accurately on paper, yet the game lacks an auto-map. If you see a CRPG as a game in the most traditional sense of the word — as an intricate system of rules to learn and to manipulate to your advantage — you’ll hate, hate, hate Ultima VII for its careless mechanics. One might say that it’s at its worst when it actively tries to be a CRPG, at its best when it’s content to be a sort of Britannian walking simulator.

And yet I don’t dislike the game as much as all of the above might imply. In fact, Ultima VII is my third favorite game to bear the Ultima name, behind only Martian Dreams and the first Ultima Underworld. The reason comes down to how compelling the aforementioned walking simulator actually manages to be.

I’ve never cared much one way or the other about Britannia as a setting, but darned if Ultima VII doesn’t shed a whole new light on the place. At its best, playing this game is… pleasant, a word not used much in regard to ludic aesthetics, but one that perhaps ought to crop up more frequently. The graphics are colorful, the music lovely, the company you keep more often than not charming. It’s disarmingly engaging just to wander around and talk to people.

Underneath the pleasantness, not so much undercutting it as giving it more texture, is a note of melancholy. This adventure in Britannia takes place many years after the Avatar’s previous ones, and the old companions in adventure who make up his party are as enthusiastic as ever, but also a little grayer, a little more stooped. Meanwhile other old friends (and enemies) from the previous games are forever waiting in the wings for one last cameo. If a Britannia scoffer like me can feel a certain poignancy, it must be that much more pronounced for those who are more invested in the setting. Today, the valedictory feel to Ultima VII is that much more affecting because we know for sure that this is indeed the end of the line for the classic incarnation of Britannia. The single-player series wouldn’t return there until Ultima IX, and that unloved game would alter the place’s personality almost beyond recognition. Ah, well… it’s hard to imagine a lovelier, more affectionate sendoff for old-school Britannia than the one it gets here.

The writing team loves to flirt with the fourth wall. Fortunately, they never quite take it to the point of undermining the rest of the fiction.

Yet even as the game pays loving tribute to the Britannia of yore, there’s an aesthetic sophistication about it that belies the series’s teenage-dungeonmaster roots. It starts with the box, which, apart from the title, is a foreboding solid black. The very simplicity screams major statement, like the Beatles’ White Album or Prince’s Black Album. Certainly it’s a long way from the heaving bosoms and fire-breathing dragons of the typical CRPG cover art.

When you start the game, you’re first greeted with a title screen that evokes the iconic opening sequence to Ultima IV, all bright spring colors and music that smacks of Vivaldi. But then, in the first of many toyings with the fourth wall, the scene dissolves into static, to be replaced by the figure of the Guardian speaking directly to you.


As you wander through Britannia in the game proper, the Guardian will continue to speak to you from time to time — the only voice acting in the game. His ominous presence is constantly jarring you when you least expect it.

The video snippet below of a play within the play, as it were, that you encounter early in the game illustrates some more of the depth and nuance of Ultima VII‘s writing. (Needless to say, this scene in particular owes much to Raymond Benson’s theatrical background.)


This sequence offers a rather extraordinary layer cake of meanings, making it the equal of a sophisticated stage or film production. We have the deliberately, banally bad play put on by the Fellowship actors, with its “moon, June, spoon” rhymes. Yet peeking through the banality, making it feel sinister rather than just inept, is a hint of cult-like menace. Meanwhile the asides of our companions tell us not only that the writers know the play is bad, but that said companions are smart enough to recognize it as well. We have Iolo’s witty near-breaking of the fourth wall with his comment about “visual effects.” And then we have Spark’s final verdict on the passion play, delivered as only a teenager can: “This is terrible!” (For some reason, that line makes me laugh every time.) No other game of 1992, with the possible exception only of the text adventure Shades of Gray, wove so many variegated threads of understanding into its writing. Nor is the scene above singular. The writing frequently displays the same wit and sophistication as what you see above. This is writing by and for adults.

The description of Ultima VII‘s writing as more adult than the norm also applies in the way in which the videogame industry typically uses that adjective. There’s a great extended riff on the old myths of unicorns and virgins. The conversation with a horny unicorn devolves into speculation about whether the Avatar himself is, shall we say, fit to ride the beast…

For all of the cutting-edge programming that went into the game, it really is the writing that does the bulk of the heavy lifting in Ultima VII. And it’s here that this early million-dollar computer game stands out most from the many big-budget productions that would follow it. Origin poured a huge percentage of that budget not into graphics or sound but into content in its purest form. If not the broadest world yet created for a computer at the time of the game’s release, this incarnation of Britannia must be the deepest and most varied. Nothing here is rote; every character has a personality, every character has something all her own to say. The sheer scale of the project which Raymond Benson’s team tackled — this game definitely has more words in it than any computer game before it — is well-nigh flabbergasting.

Further, the writers have more on their minds than escapist fantasy. They use the setting of Britannia to ponder the allure of religious cults, the social divide between rich and poor, and even the representation of women in fantasy art, along with tax policy, environmental issues, and racism. The game is never preachy about such matters, but seamlessly works its little nuggets for thought into the high-fantasy setting. Ultima VII may lack the overriding moral message that had defined its three predecessors, but that doesn’t mean it has nothing to say. Indeed, given the newfound nuance and depth of the writing, the series suddenly has more to say here than ever before.

Because of how much else there is to see and do, the main plot about the Guardian sometimes threatens to get forgotten entirely. But it’s enjoyable enough as such things go, even if its main purpose often does seem to be simply to give you a reason to wander around talking to people. In the second half of the game, the plot picks up steam, and there are a fair number of traditional CRPG-style quests to complete. (There are also more personal “quests” among the populaces of the towns you visit, but they’re largely optional and hardly earth-shattering. They are, however, often disarmingly sweet-natured: getting the shy lovelorn fellow together with the girl he worships from afar… that sort of thing.) The game as a whole is very soluble as long as you take notes when you’re given important information; there’s no trace of a quest log here.

While a vocal minority of Ultima fandom decries this seventh installment for the perfectly justifiable reasons I mentioned earlier in this article, the majority laud it as — forgive the inevitable pun! — the ultimate incarnation of what Richard Garriott began working toward in the late 1970s. Even with all of its annoying aspects, it’s undoubtedly the most accessible Ultima for the modern player, what with its fairly intuitive mouse-driven interface, its reasonably attractive graphics and sound, and its relatively straightforward and fair main quest. Meanwhile its nuanced writing and general aesthetic sophistication are unrivaled by any earlier game in the series. If it’s not the most historically important of the main-line Ultima games — that honor must still go to the thematically groundbreaking Ultima IV — it’s undoubtedly the one most likely to be enjoyed by a player today.

Indeed, it’s been called the blueprint for many of the most popular epic CRPGs of today — games where you also spend much of your time just walking around and talking to a host of more or less interesting characters. That influence can easily be overstated, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to the claim. No other CRPG in 1992, or for some time thereafter, played quite like this one, and Ultima VII really does have at least as much in common with the CRPGs of today as it does with its contemporaries. On the whole, then, its hallowed modern reputation is well-earned.


Richard Garriott (far left) and the rest of the Ultima VII team toast the game’s release at Britannia Manor, the former’s Austin mansion.

Its reception in 1992, on the other hand, was far more mixed than that reputation might suggest. Questbusters magazine, deploying an unusually erudite literary comparison of the type of which Raymond Benson might have approved, called it “the Finnegans Wake of computer gaming — a flawed masterpiece,” referring to its lumpy mixture of the compelling and the tedious. Computer Gaming World‘s longtime adventure reviewer Scorpia had little good at all to say about it. Perhaps in response to her negativity, the same magazine ran a second, much more positive review from Charles Ardai in the next issue. Nevertheless, he began by summing up the sense of ennui that was starting to surround the whole series for many gamers: “Many who were delighted when Ultima VI was released can’t be bothered to boot up Ultima VII, as though it goes without saying that the seventh of anything can’t possibly be any good. The market suddenly seems saturated; weary gamers, sure that they have played enough Ultima to last a lifetime, eye the new Ultima with suspicion that it is just More Of The Same.” Even at the end of his own positive review, written with the self-stated goal of debunking that judgment, Ardai deployed a counter-intuitive closing sentiment: “After seven Ultimas, it might be time for Lord British to turn his sights elsewhere.”

Not helping the game’s reception were all of the technical problems. It’s all too easy to forget today just how expensive it was to be a computer gamer in the early 1990s, when the rapid advancement of technology meant that you had to buy a whole new computer every couple of years — or less! — just to be able to play the latest releases. More so even that its contemporaries, Ultima VII pushed the state of the art in hardware to its limit, meaning that anyone lagging even slightly behind the bleeding edge got to enjoy constant disk access, intermittent freezes of seconds at a time, and the occasional outright crash.

And then there were the bugs, which were colorful and plentiful. Chunks of the scenery seemed to randomly disappear — including the walls around the starting town of Trinsic, thus bypassing the manual-lookup scheme Origin had implemented for copy protection. A plot-critical murder scene in another town simply never appeared for some players. Even worse, a door in the very last dungeon refused to open for some; Origin resorted to asking those affected to send their save file on floppy disk to their offices, to be manually edited in order to correct the problem and sent back to them. But by far the most insidious bug — one from which even the current edition of the game on digital-download services may not be entirely free — were the keys that disappeared from player’s inventories for no apparent reason. Given what a nightmare keeping track of keys was already, this felt like the perfect capstone to a tower of terribleness. (One can imagine the calls to Origin’s customer support: “Now, did you take all of the stuff out of all of your packs and sort it out carefully on the ground to make sure your key is really missing? What about those weeks-old leeks down there at the bottom of your pack? Did you look under them?”) Gamers had good cause to be annoyed at a product so obviously released before its time, especially in light of its astronomical $80 suggested retail price.

A Computer Gaming World readers’ poll published in the March 1993 issue — i.e., exactly one year after Ultima VII‘s release — saw it ranked as the respondents’ 30th favorite current game, not exactly a spectacular showing for such a major title. Wing Commander II, by way of comparison, was still in position six, Ultima Underworld — which was now outselling Ultima VII by a considerable margin — in a tie for third. It would be incorrect to call Ultima VII a flop, or to imply that it wasn’t thoroughly enjoyed by many of those who played it back in the day. But for Origin the facts remained when all was said and done that it had sold less well than either of the aforementioned two games after costing at least twice as much to make. These hard facts contributed to the feeling inside the company that, if it wasn’t time to follow Charles Ardai’s advice and let sleeping Ultimas lie for a while, it was time to change up the gameplay formula in a major way. After all, Ultima Underworld had done just that, and look how well that had worked out.

But that discussion, of course, belongs to history. In our own times, Ultima VII remains an inspiring if occasionally infuriating experience well worth having, even if you don’t normally play CRPGs or couldn’t care less about the lore of Britannia. I can only encourage all of you who haven’t played it before to remedy that while you wait for my next (and last) article about the game, which will look more closely at the Fellowship, a Britannian cult with an obvious Earthly analogue.

(Sources: the book Ultima: The Avatar Adventures by Rusel DeMaria and Caroline Spector; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin dated August 7 1991, October 25 1991, December 20 1991, February 14 1992, February 28 1992, March 13 1992, April 20 1992, and May 22 1992; Questbusters of July 1991 and August 1992; Computer Gaming World of April 1991, October 1991, August 1992, September 1992, and March 1993; Compute! of January 1992; online sources include The Ultima Codex interviews with Raymond Benson and Brian Martin, a vintage Usenet interview with Richard Garriott, and Sheri Graner Ray’s recollections of her time at Origin on her blog.

Ultima VII: The Black Gate is available for purchase on GOG.com. You may wish to play it using Exult instead of the original executable. The former is a free re-implementation of the Ultima VII engine which fixes some of its worst annoyances and is friendly with modern computers.)

Emily Short

Mid-February Link Assortment

by Mort Short at February 15, 2019 01:40 PM

Events

February 20 Jason McIntosh will be leading an IF playthrough and speaking about IFTF at the Providence Geeks meetup.

The next Boston IF Meetup will be Thursday, February 21, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

On February 23 the Baltimore/DC IF Meetup will look at Grimnoir and Cragne Manor.

February 28 unnamed.jpgis the deadline to apply to attend GAIA, a three-day event in Buenos Aires in November.  GAIA is being organized by GAIN and Game On!, and will have a cap of 20 attendees; confirmed key notes are Lorenzo Pilia from A MAZE./Talk and Play (Berlin) and Marie Foulston from Wild Rumpus/V&A Museum (London). More info can be found here.

March 2, I am running a workshop on using Spirit AI’s Character Engine for works similar to Restless. Sign up via the IF Meetup website.

March 2 is also the next SF Bay Area IF Meetup.

Games

February 8, I presented a keynote game by Porpentine at the V&A, as part of the Beyond the Console conference. I’ve been too exhausted to really do a thorough writeup of that for the blog, but for what it’s worth, here’s a tweet thread in which I talk about what the game was like and how it worked in a large room.

Lyndow-Final.jpg

Though I haven’t played myself, several friends are enjoying Eastshade, a game in which you travel a gorgeous Myst-esque space and look for places you might like to paint.

Meanwhile, Hanon Ondricek reviews Fhtagn!, an IF-adjacent game for 1-4 players that sounds a little similar to The Yahwg.

Other New Releases & Announcements

41CmZuyMtHL.jpg

If you were following the blog toward the end of 2017, you might remember a couple posts about Bob Bates’ parser IF Thaumistry: In Charm’s Way.  (I wrote a piece on it for PC Gamer, and also covered the more technical aspects here on my blog.)

Bates has another new release, although it isn’t IF in this case.  His fantasy novel The Ritual came out last month, and is available here on Amazon in both paperback and e-book formats.

Articles & Links

Matthew Handrahan on changing attitudes about writing’s importance in game design.

A Twitter thread, but a worthwhile read.  Failbetter Games’ Narrative Director Chris Gardiner sheds light on some of the consultations that went into Sunless Skies.

Lynda Clark on the British Library’s study on the topic of Emerging Formats.

If you were interested in past articles about TextWorld and machine-learning-based solutions to text adventures, you may also be interested in Playing Text-Adventure Games with Graph-Based Deep Reinforcement Learning, which proposes a method in which the agent develops a knowledge graph and uses that to make better action decisions when solving a game.

Preview of Heaven’s Vault from inkle studios.

And here’s an article on the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk and how they’re learning from games (though it doesn’t, admittedly, go terribly deep on what they think they’ve discovered in the process…). I’ve written about their shows and design practices in the past.

PyramidIF

FHTAGN!

by Hanon Ondricek ([email protected]) at February 15, 2019 06:00 AM


Fhtagn! - Tales of the Creeping Madness

Fhtagn!: Tales of the Creeping Madness is a roguelike boardgame-style interactive fiction adventure for 1-4 players drawing on Lovecraftian mythos with all the expected summoning of cosmic-horrors and depraved human sacrifice, but taking a slightly zanier turn at going gleefully full-evil than Weather Factory's stellar Cultist Simulator and Failbetter's Fallen London trilogy. There's a fart joke that goes on for a good number of clicks.

That aside, the mechanics of the game give the player(s) six rounds to bring about universal pain and destruction by exploring locations where events occur that toggle seven character traits up and down. Ideally, a player will build two traits high enough to fulfill a role in the climactic lunar-eclipse ritual and not fail their assumed task. Problem is, there are hints about which traits will grant success in any of eight roles, but nothing is explicitly spelled out.

Each round, every player visits a location on the map and chooses an adventure there. Only one character can occupy a location in each turn. Icons signal what traits will initially be affected in the location, but then there's a random encounter and a choice of two options which may pass or fail based on the character's existing stats. Visiting the University and reading tomes grants two knowledge and one insanity, but follow up events may take them right back just as easily. Usually, no encounter is a complete bust and players will improve at least one stat. I read the Necronomicon without sufficient knowledge and had my insanity increased by a whopping 10 all at once--which turned out to be a good thing in my current gameplay situation.



Six turns go fast--especially playing solo. Failure is inevitable at first--crash, burn, replay--carrying forward in roguelike fashion, capitalizing on what's learned in the next playthrough. While base encounters are predictable, the subsequent goings-on occur randomly. The only way to tip the odds is to keep playing since each finale grants "Elder Signs" which carry over and are a currency that can be spent to reveal what traits are required to complete ritual roles or learn what traits will succeed certain random encounters. With multiple players, anyone can choose to draw from the pool of Elder Signs when it's their turn. Playing solo, I failed five times before I collected enough Elder Signs to reveal enough info about one role so I could complete the ritual and gain a windfall of more Elder Signs. I'M DRUNK WITH FORBIDDEN KNOWLEDGE!

Luckily there's enough variation in the writing and encounter randomization that it's satisfying to find a groove to grind your stats in. In a multiplayer game, everyone is in the ritual together taking different roles, each earning a few Elder Signs for the general pool for failure, more for success, and lots for enough collective success at rituals to summon and please the Elder God.

The Steam version includes an editor for the community to submit their own quests and encounters and upload them to the workshop as mods. These can be imported to a game like deck booster-packs which are randomly incorporated into play. Each mod also has a checkbox so its card-encounters can be removed temporarily or permanently from the full game. The game has already been expanded with new Elder Gods to summon and new game mechanics, such as sacrificing one of the other players.

I thought Fhtagn! was a lot of fun. With great art and presentation backed by a high-energy big-band jazzy music score and future expandability, it's the kind of game I can boot up for a few rounds again and again. I don't know if this is what I'd drag out to play with a group unless I knew they would enjoy reading lengthy flavor text out loud. Right now it's couch-coop, but this almost screams for online play with voice chat, since I know more people online who'd enjoy the comedy of an extended fart joke during a dark ritual in heavy robes.

I received a free review copy of this game from the developer.

Available for Windows on Steam and itch.io.

February 14, 2019

sub-Q Magazine

Room Descriptions, Place, and Interiority

by Bruno Dias at February 14, 2019 05:41 AM

One of the things I always found enjoyable about writing parser fiction was writing room descriptions. It’s a very specific craft, and one that’s pretty unique to interactive fiction and game writing. In most fiction, it’s relatively rare that you can indulge in this kind of descriptive detail at length; parser games, on the other hand, are traditionally structured around such descriptions.

The location-driven structure of a parser story is a rigid framework that isn’t ideal for everything. As interactive fiction moved away from old adventure-game frameworks, parser fiction often shifted from structures built around location to structures built around time, scenes, or character. Traditional maps of interconnected rooms were often dropped entirely (Aisle, for example) or rethought to tightly integrate movement through space into movement through time or story (Photopia).

Hypertext fiction, not having the same mechanical lineage, rarely engaged with the idea of place in a similar way, though there are notable cases (see for example Howling Dogs). Characteristic-based narratives, with Fallen London as their main forebearer, often used place from a mechanical standpoint in text, treating it much more like traditional literary fiction does: as an ambient sprinkling of detail, rather than through the specific, regimented form of the room description.

This kind of small, evocative detail is flexible and can enrich pretty much any story, by situating a character’s actions and experiences in the specificity of their environment.

Still, I like room descriptions; I like the format and rhythm of taking a paragraph purely to situate the reader. Room descriptions have incredible expressive power within a very regularized form, which makes them a useful tool for narratives that have a big mechanical or procedural component. Voyageur is at its heart a machine for making room descriptions.

Place and description are thought of first as avenues of worldbuilding, and that word has connotations of elaborate fantasy, but worldbuilding is just as present in grounded stories as in fanciful or speculative ones. Even in realist fiction, the world of a story isn’t the world at large but a specific milieu, a specific slice of human experience. And one that inevitably expresses a viewpoint on the place it’s exploring.

This gets us to a much subtler function of place: Expressing interiority. In interactive fiction, it can often feel overbearing to give the protagonist an interior monologue. So we often convolute interior space into exterior space; introspection into perspective. A lot of interactive fiction requires some description of mundane objects, perhaps in more detail than strictly desired; in many cases, this can be an opportunity to describe the lens through which the viewpoint character views that mundane detail.

a compelling sense of place is achieved by making location a part of your storytelling, by situating your story in a space that is vital to that story and which reflects the themes of that story.

Whether it comes in asides, details, or full-on place descriptions, good writing about place is present and economic. The oldest room-description trick in the book is to elevate the environment to the status of subject, using verbs as part of the descriptive palette: The trees loom overhead. The house squats atop the hill. The smell of andouilles wafts in from the kitchen. Contrast with: The trees twist overhead; the house rises atop the hill; the smell of andouilles lingers in the kitchen. You can go too far with this kind of thing, of course, to the point of purple prose. But a good exercise is to look for verbs that don’t say anything specific about what the protagonist is seeing, that carry no semantic weight and only imply place-relationships between things; to be and to have are common culprits.

Ultimately, a compelling sense of place is achieved by making location a part of your storytelling, by situating your story in a space that is vital to that story and which reflects the themes of that story. Description in this sense is a tool for incredibly economical writing, one of the best ways of expressing what world your characters live in and what, in that world, matters most to them.

Exploring ways to find that sense of place outside the traditional parser story format is one of my ongoing interests in IF, and I hope it’ll become one of yours. After all, the where tells us so much about the who, what, and why of a story.


Bruno Dias
Bruno Dias is a writer and narrative designer based in São Paulo. His work has appeared in video game publications (Waypoint, PC Gamer), games (Where the Water Tastes Like Wine) and interactive fiction on Sub-Q and elsewhere.

The post Room Descriptions, Place, and Interiority appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Rat Chaos and the Preservation of Early Twine Games

by Anya Johanna DeNiro at February 14, 2019 05:41 AM

Welcome to 2019! I’m thrilled to have a regular column in sub-Q and get the chance to write about interactive fiction.

For my previous essays at the site, I’ve largely written about games from a slightly earlier period of the development of interactive fiction, from the late 90s to the mid-2000s, a period in which a lot of the tropes and tools of the field were established. I often focused on games that presaged important stylistic techniques or expansions of the breadth of interactive fiction, at a time when their impact might have not quite been realized.

“How we preserve our games just as important as how we play them.”

One thing I’ve realized, though—without making an appeal to nostalgia for its own sake—is the push and pull between “obsolescence” and “timelessness.” There are not always clear dividing lines between the two. How we preserve our games just as important as how we play them. And a parser game created with Inform has the same (more or less) consistent architecture as an Inform game from 1997. The latter should still be relatively accessible to find and play. On the other hand, Twine games from the the early years of Twine (say, 2009 to 2013) have sometimes been difficult to find. They were often hosted on sites whose URLs have lapsed as a part of a personal project, or a platform or venue that went belly up.

This brings us to Rat Chaos by Winter Lake (2012).

It’s… well. A short game about a space captain, a talking rat named New Rat City and unleashing rat chaos. Take the ten or fifteen minutes to sift through all of its branches. What is so compelling about it is the imbalance with the abrupt endings that pepper the experience. These are not gimmicky; rather, they are almost like “mulligans”—do-overs that subliminally remind you that the right course of action is rat chaos. It’s only then that the true heart of the game reveals itself—the heartache of New Rat City that’s hiding in plain sight. The sketches that accompany the game further highlight the ravaged emotional state of New Rat City and this world.

This is one of those little masterpieces that was, indeed, created in a couple of hours. And with its black background with white text (which was pretty close to a house style for a certain type of early Twine game), its juxtaposition of the absurd and the intensely personal, and quick playing time, it became an important touchstone game. Lots of other Twine games would try to emulate its style, though the devil, as always, was in the details and was certainly Harder than It Looked. It (deservedly) won an XYZZY Award for Best Individual NPC and received glowing reviews. It had clearly struck a mark with players.

And it disappeared for awhile. I can’t think of another time when a XYZZY winner was simply not readily available online. Thankfully, someone re-uploaded another copy of it, but that disappearance gave me pause.

“Over the last 20 years, it’s been easy to get lulled into the security that everything ever made will last forever. But art from the margins has the greatest chance of slipping from our grasp.”

There are likely hundreds of early Twine games that might find themselves difficult to find very soon, and surely some have already been lost. Efforts have been made to preserve Twine games, particularly by the IF Tech Foundation. Over the last 20 years, it’s been easy to get lulled into the security that everything ever made will last forever. But art from the margins has the greatest chance of slipping from our grasp.


The post Rat Chaos and the Preservation of Early Twine Games appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Rituals, Cheating, and The Dream of Possibility

by Sharang Biswas at February 14, 2019 05:41 AM

The first time I took up a pencil and underlined a sentence in a novel, my hands shook. The line winked at me cheekily, sat smug and brazen under the typography. Outrageous and provocative, it wanted its own label:

Marks in a Novel
Biswas (2012)
Graphite on Paper

It chuckled.

One did not write in that kind of book. One wrote in notebooks, and perhaps textbooks—but only those specifically designed to be written in. I had been taught at a young age that books were sacred to the Goddess Saraswathi, Patron of Knowledge and Learning (majuscule included). One must never destroy a book, write in one, or even touch one with one’s feet. A book was to be read, ideally with reverence.

* * *

Above the lobby of the Public Theatre in Manhattan soars a fan of thirty-seven rigid metal blades, like the feathers of some sort of giant mechanical bird, each embedded with 3000-odd white LED lights. This is artist Ben Rubin’s The Shakespeare Machine, and each blade digitally contains the text of a complete play, and displays fragments of it in various patterns [1]. One moment each blade might show a different “You + Noun” phrase, creating a curious litany of insults and honorifics: “You King. You Fool. You Whoreson. You Sir.” At another time, they might each display a descriptor The Bard employed: “Rose-cheeked. Sharp-quilled. Wall-eyed.”

The first time I beheld the sculpture—because you really do behold, rather than merely see it—I lingered under it for a while, taking in its shape, exploring its space, scanning the words, delighting at the linguistic patterns and associations. Kate D. Levin, who commissioned the piece as Cultural Affairs Commissioner for New York City, said that it “reminds us how juicy and exciting language can be.” [2]

Notice that this text is not meant to be read, per se, the same way you might read a book. Of course, in their original form, neither were Shakespeare’s plays.

* * *

I didn’t matter that I’d read a certain ending. Reading it didn’t fix it in the personal story I was constructing in my psyche.

“READER BEWARE: YOU CHOOSE THE SCARE,” the book promised a 4th-grade me. It was one of R.L.Stine’s Give Yourself Goosebumps titles—I think it was Toy Terror: Batteries Included [3]—and it was my first game book. Naturally, as every game-book-lover can guess, I dug into the branched narrative with my fingers as much as with my imagination. Every choice-fork meant I’d place my finger on the page, and skip ahead to see which pathway I wanted to take. Sometimes, I did this three or four choices deep, my digits twisting and mapping out a convoluted, fleshy decision tree within the book’s pages. I didn’t matter that I’d read a certain ending. Reading it didn’t fix it in the personal story I was constructing in my psyche. Only releasing the held pages collapsed the waveform into one linear path, my “true” narrative.

I did this with every other game book I ever played. Because that is how I thought one must interact with that sort of text.

* * *

In his article Nonlinearity and Literary Theory, Espen Aarseth talks about how we use and consume texts differently [4]:

“A text includes a practice, a structure or ritual of use. Different practices adhere to different texts. We do not read Peanuts (the comic strip) the way we read the Bible.”

And while Aarseth, in this discussion, is talking about the mechanics of reading, the “algorithm, and choreography that conducts the script from the text to the mind of the reader” (such as my complex finger-dance for the Goosebumps game book), one can extend this argument to interpretation and comprehension, à la Marshall McLuhan’s famous maxim, “The medium is the message” [5]. Not only do we have different cultural practices for specific types of text, but different media inherently conjure different ways of reading. As an example, scholars Mary Flanagan and Geoff Kaufman proposed in a 2016 study that electronic and paper texts are absorbed differently by the brain, and promote different types of cognition using the information captured [6].

In most interactive texts, you rarely see all of the constituent parts in one go, and doing so is, moreover, unhelpful.

This means that “interactive fiction” is much more than a simple agglutination of two buzzwords. Somewhere along the line, something changes. A synergy emerges, a transfiguration that introduces wholly new aspects that neither mere “fiction” nor “interactive” can account for. Perhaps we even need a new verb; “Read” is far too limiting, and “play” doesn’t fit perfectly either.

Consider the fact that in most interactive texts, you rarely see all of the constituent parts in one go, and doing so is, moreover, unhelpful. As Aarseth puts colourfully puts it [4]:

“When we look at the whole of a nonlinear text, we cannot read it; and when we read it, we cannot see the whole text… The text, far from yielding its riches to our critical gaze, appears to seduce us, but it remains immaculate, recedes, and we are left with our partial and impure thoughts, like unworthy pilgrims beseeching an absent deity.”

It’s precisely this blind spot created by interactive fiction that prompts the all-too-familiar fingers-in-pages behaviour for game books, or repetitive play in digital IF stories. My desire for a specific outcome is so strong that I’m willing to “cheat” my way to it, breaking the “rules” presented by the experience. It’s worth noting that the very act of introducing more rules to the system (as opposed to the simple rule of “read from beginning to end” that’s implicit in regular-old linear fiction), by adding choice and decisions and page-turning or hyperlinks, we encourage people to “cheat”.

“Because they primarily exist as rule systems, games are particularly ripe for subversive practices,” writes Flanagan in her book Critical Play, further asserting that, “A great deal of pleasure for players can be derived from subverting a set of interaction norms… no matter how structured that play is.” [7] Of course, this raises questions about whether “cheating” is really “cheating” if the designer knows it’s going to happen, and even designs for it. I recall Choose-You-Own-Adventure books which included sections that were impossible to reach by following any of the rules or prompts. These Easter eggs revealed themselves only to the most ardent hunters, and only when they strayed from the prescribed paths.

But that’s all “ritual of use”, “algorithm” and “choreography”. What of the cognitive?

When I recently read/played (see what I mean about a new verb?) Kyle Marquis’s Tower Behind the Moon [8], I decided early on that I wanted to try and hit most of the different ending listed in the “Achievements” page.. However, although I played the game multiple times, my first run, where I ascended (descended?) to demonhood, will always be my “true” run. Perhaps it’s because “you never forget your first”, or because large swathes of the game remain the same over different run-throughs, or even because of what Aarseth calls the “metaphysical belief in a transcendental text” [4] that we all cling too.

Even so, though I elevated one path over others, the fact remained that I was aware of my options, and the consequences they would entail. In a compelling video-argument on PBS Game/Show, Jamin Warren contends that it’s often the illusion of choice that matters more than the presence or absence of choice itself [9]. Rather than cleaving to the image of a duped reader, however, and especially since many IF stories offer more than just illusion, I prefer to wax effusive about the dream of possibility.

It’s nice that the medium and genre of interactive fiction allows me to do that, to dream that there are other options out there, that the decisions I make have the possibility of ripening into something different but wonderful, and that it’s my own damn decision whether or not I scribble in pencil in a book.


Works Cited

[1] B. Rubin, Artist, The Shakespeare Machine. [Art]. The Public Theater, 2012.

[2] R. Cembalest, “The Thing’s the Plays: Public Theater’s New Shakespeare Machine,” 16 October 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.artnews.com/2012/10/16/ben-rubin-shakespeare-machine/. [Accessed 5 January 2019].

[3] R. L. Stine, Toy Terror: Batteries Included, New York: Scholastic, 1997.

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

[5] M. McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

[6] G. K. Mary Flanagan, “High-Low Split: Divergent Cognitive Construal Levels Triggered by Digital and Non-digital Platforms,” in Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, San Jose, 2016.

[7] M. Flanagan, Critical Play, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013.

[8] K. Marquis, “Tower Behind the Moon,” Choice of Games, 20 December 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.choiceofgames.com/tower-behind-the-moon/#utm_medium=web&utm_source=ourgames.

[9] J. Warren, “Your Choices DON’T Matter,” PBS Game/Show, 7 April 2015. [Online]. Available: https://youtu.be/fdAos7stz7A.


Sharang Biswas

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

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

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

The post Rituals, Cheating, and The Dream of Possibility appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

February 13, 2019

Emily Short

Mailbag: Adapting IF Skills to Adjacent Media

by Emily Short at February 13, 2019 12:40 AM

This is a follow-on answer to a previous mailbag post, specifically the part in which the questioner asks,

Would you have any thoughts on how to… improve the adaptive skills needed for bringing IF to newer formats and into audio?

I take this to mean not “how do I port an existing work to an interactive format” (which is also an interesting question), but “how do I do IF-like interactivity in formats other than text, especially audio?”

Key challenges for this, in my experience, center on these areas:

Output. Adapting how you communicate events (what just happened), state (what is true about the world or story currently, e.g. inventory or quest goals), and affordances (what can the player do now).

Different media offer different grouping of senses. For example, an audio piece lets you communicate events as they happen, but may not offer a secondary channel to communicate state at all — or may allow you to rely on some background noise or procedural music to help remind the player of a little bit of ambient information. A console game by contrast might use some visual filters to change how the scene looks when the protagonist is low on health — which means that medium can keep the health issues constantly in mind.

These differences can have a lot of knock-on effects to player experience. If the player is only going to be able to understand and manipulate the narrative in a satisfactory way if they’ve got access to a quest journal and a map, then interactive audio is the wrong medium for that story, and you may find you need to make pretty substantial alterations to the concept.

Input. How is the player communicating their choices, and what range of options does that realistically give you? Not All Choice Interfaces Are Alike is an article of mine that looks at some of these distinctions. The “Pressure” category is especially important in cross-medium adaptations: interactive film doesn’t always hold its pacing well if the player doesn’t make choices relatively quickly, which suggests using simple, consistent interfaces on a timer rather than complex choices that the player might need to re-learn each time. (But that’s just one possible solution.)

And, of course, study what, if any, work has already been done in the format you’re considering. Even for (relatively) newly created spaces such as VR and augmented reality, there’s some work out there that you can investigate. What worked? What’s been clumsy or unsuccessful?

For audio in particular, the odds are fair that you’re building for a platform like Alexa that uses spoken input, so there it’s useful to look at how other Alexa skill creators (even outside the narrative space) deal with cluing the user about options; responding constructively when the spoken input was not understood; and allowing for always-on default commands like “move on” or “next” to have some persistent functionality. Rosina Sound has done a fair amount of work in this area, and this talk by Nicky Birch covers some of the challenges.

State tracking. Some platforms really constrain how much world state you can preserve, which means that some IF methods aren’t feasible. Conversely, people who are brought in to write for interactive pieces in other media may have come from film, TV, radio, etc. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some terrific people who came out of conventional media, on projects like this. Often, there’s a bit of a learning curve to help them understand what interactivity might look like when it’s not just basically a CYOA book. It’s reasonable to expect that you may need to keep things simple, in this context — use variables sparingly.

Resource limits. Costs per branch of content go up if everything you add to the story has to be acted by live actors on a stage set for recording. This is the same set of considerations you’d get with AAA games, but the exact profile of the problem varies depending on the specific medium.

To create the desired amount of variation in the experience with limited resources, look at how you can break out the experience into multiple channels. Maybe you use the same film, but swap out the soundtrack to give it different significance in different situations. Maybe you have two audio tracks, one containing dialogue and the other containing the increasingly urgent ticking of the bomb, so that the conversation could happen in different orders but preserve the pacing indication.

Also, be aware of how resource limitations are going to affect the process of creation. If you’re used to text games, you may be accustomed to iterating a lot on the flow of text to get it right. Once you’ve spent a lot filming content, iteration becomes way more painful. Here you can do a certain amount with mockups, building Twine versions of the story to play through before you record something, etc.

At the same time, pay attention to how veterans of your other medium traditionally approach this problem. The idea of doing a table read for an interactive fiction might seem foreign, but it might be the right idea for an interactive piece that’s going to be acted.

Here are this blog’s archives on interactive film, audio, and theatre, though obviously I haven’t covered nearly everything in this space. I also recommend Brian Moriarty’s I Sing the Story Electric for coverage of some interactive multimedia projects that predate computer IF.

February 12, 2019

sub-Q Magazine

What the Heck is Interactive Fiction? A Guide for Authors.

by Stewart C Baker at February 12, 2019 09:41 PM

One question we commonly get when we invite people to write things for sub-Q is some variation on:

What the heck is Interactive Fiction?

And—let’s be real—it’s a pretty good question.

Searching Google for “what is interactive fiction” brings up lots of results; people have written whole books on the question. (If you want a whole book, try Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages or Jimmy Maher’s Let’s Tell a Story Together.)

But a lot of those posts are targeted at readers/players of Interactive Fiction (commonly shortened to IF), or scholars, or students, or people who want to learn about the whole history of IF. A number of others use terminology that is non-standard to authors, and which—as a result—confuse more than they clarify.

So why do we need another post to add to the mess?

Because this post is specifically for authors of fiction who want to branch out and try their hand at writing IF.

Basic Definitions

It’s part game. It’s part story. But what is it, exactly?

At sub-Q, we have a very broad definition:

Interactive Fiction is any story which cannot be told without interaction from its reader.

Since we’re an online magazine, that “interaction” takes the place of some kind of browser interaction: the reader clicks a link to make a choice; the reader types in a command which reveals some new aspect of the story.

Others in the IF community use different, or more specific definitions, but that’s ours and we’ll stick by it.

Here are some other common terms:

Comp – A game writing competition, usually just for works of Interactive Fiction. Sometimes features prizes.

Hypertext Fiction – Fiction which uses HTML or other web-based technologies for interaction.

Parser – A parser is a program which takes input from the reader/player and interprets (parses) it, making it possible for them to interact with the story. (Largely for historical reasons, some people define IF to only include works which use a parser.)

Gamebook – A printed book, where the reader makes choices that affect the story, usually by choosing which page to turn to after each section. Think the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books.

Game Jam – A game writing competition, usually hosted on itch.io. Sometimes features prizes.

Text Adventure – Sometimes used as a synonym for IF, again usually to refer to pieces written with a parser.

So how do I write IF?

Writing IF is a bit like writing any other kind of fiction, but because it’s interactive, there are also elements of game design: You need to have a plan for how the reader’s interaction will affect the game, as well as considering elements like plot, characterization, and so on.

Bruno Dias has written a whole series of essays for us that are entirely about techniques for writing IF. His 2-part series on narrative design for writers lays out the groundwork of what, exactly, you’ll need to think about when you’re writing IF. Other essays go into more detail on branching, merging, and more specific details.

Beyond the basics, a lot depends on the tool you’re using to create your piece of IF.

If you’re going to use a parser, you’ll need to think about layout of the story’s “map”; if you’re using hypertext and expect users to click on links, you’ll want to figure out how the reader moves from passage to passage; if you’re writing in choicescript you’ll need to determine whether the choices players make affect stats, and how to control what choices are available later in the game. And so on and so forth.

Here are some of the more common tools people use to write IF, in alphabetical order:

  • ChoiceScript – Proprietary language used by Choice of Games, works kind of like a virtual gamebook. (sub-Q has an agreement with Choice of Games allowing authors to publish choicescript works in our magazine.)
  • Inform – A parser which uses natural language for coding, instead of typical “programmer” type code. (Manuals available online.)
  • Ink – The scripting language used by inkle, available as Open Source for anyone to use.
  • Twine – Web-based tool for writing web-based interactive fiction. You don’t need to know any code to write in Twine. (With Twine, the theme you use will also change how you code.) Most of the games sub-Q publishes are written using Twine, so it’s a popular choice.

The huge amount of options for authoring IF is something that takes getting used to. The simplest approach might be to look through these, pick one that seems like you can handle it, and stick to that until you’re more comfortable with writing IF.

If you’re just starting out, and feel overwhelmed, Twine is probably the most accessible tool.

Emily Short has a post about the importance of choosing a tool when writing IF, which includes some other available tools.

Converting Fiction to IF

That sounds like a lot of work. Can’t you just take a piece of regular fiction and turn it into interactive fiction?

Sure. You can. And in fact, we’ve done just that with some of our published stories. (

Here are some hints, if you want to take this approach:

Pick a shorter story – Stories grow when you make them interactive.

Think about the choices your characters make – Find choices that would make the story turn out differently; these will serve as places where the narrative branches.

Think about how you display text on the page – Does all the text have to be there, in the order you’ve presented it? Can you give the reader the illusion of interactivity by pulling out extended descriptions and putting them behind links?

Think outside the page – Don’t get stuck in “X is in my story; X must be in the IF as well.” Can you pull descriptions from your story and use them as room descriptions in a piece of parser fiction, where the reader gets to direct a protagonist through the plot on their own?

A classic example of a piece of fiction adapted to IF in this way is Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The IF hits many of the same plot points as the novel, but is re-told using a parser. It’s definitely still Hitchhiker’s, but it’s definitely not the same as the novel. (And it’s infamously more frustrating!)

You can also see our post, Writing Interactive Fiction in 5000 Words or Fewer, for more suggestions..

Get Involved!

If you really want to write IF, the best thing to do is get involved with the community. (The same is true, for what it’s worth, of any kind of fiction writing!)

Here are some links to get you hooked in:

  • Narrative Games Discord – A chat server to talk about all things narrative gaming.
  • IntFiction forum – Online forum for the interactive fiction community.
  • Choice of Games forum – Online forum for Choice of Games writers and readers.
  • Twine Discord – A chat server for users of Twine
  • Itch.io – Online marketplace for independent video game creators. Check out the game jams!
  • IFDB – Online database of published works of IF, edited by users.
  • IFComp – Annual competition for works of IF.

Further Reading

If you’re still not sure what the heck this IF thing is, or just want to learn more, here are some good places to do that:

The post What the Heck is Interactive Fiction? A Guide for Authors. appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

February 08, 2019

Emily Short

Sunless Skies: Carillon, Sky Barnet, et al

by Emily Short at February 08, 2019 11:40 PM

Failbetter Games’ Sunless Skies is out, as of January 31, and I contributed: Carillon, a port in which Devils work to refine the souls that come their way; Sky Barnet, the gateway to the Blue Kingdom; and the Repentant Devil’s officer quest. There was also some nightmare content, a story that you can fall into if your terror grows too great.

I’m going to talk a bit more about those stories; this will be light on any actual specific spoilers, but it will touch on the general lore of Sunless Skies and the Fallen London universe.

Devils, in Fallen London, are intentionally ambiguous. The first Devils to appear in the game would try to romance you, but they were really only after one thing: your soul. (As a player in Fallen London, I once lost my soul by misclicking a button and agreeing to sell when I didn’t mean to.)

Later it emerges that they’re into some souls more than others. By the time I was writing for the Fallen London universe, they’d started to pick up a bit more lore about what they liked and wanted. One of my early stories, Secrets Framed in Gold, touched on that in ways I won’t spoil; a later story, Discernment, involved a Deviless who collects souls but is picky about the life experience of the donors. And of course, because it’s Fallen London, the lore keeps it a bit ambiguous to what extent souls matter at all, and whether there’s any objective reality to the Devils’ pursuit.

Grounded in that lore, Carillon is not a type of Inferno. It isn’t punishing people for specific sins or actions. It is instead a place where people can — often voluntarily — have experiences that will alter their habits, their self-image, and their relationship to the rest of society. (Society, here, includes rubbery squid creatures, stars, giant bees, and everything else in the chain of existence.)

I was particularly interested in exploring the ways people misunderstand and refuse to see themselves, or rely on input from outside to try to determine their own value. But the Devils aren’t there for your convenience, and their treatments may not do much for your self-esteem.

*

Sky Barnet is the entry point to the Blue Kingdom — and the Blue Kingdom is an afterlife, both bureaucratic and highly ritualized. Souls matter here, too, maybe, but the Devils aren’t the only ones meddling with them.

Sky Barnet gave me an opening to write about the moral meaning of mortality: what does it mean to be creatures who will die, and who have a finite amount of time? What does this indicate about the balance of working towards justice and working towards our own happiness?

*

Screen Shot 2019-02-03 at 1.54.18 PM.png

The Repentant Devil has his own storyline with several endings, and I won’t spoil that here.

Like quite a few of the officers in the Sunless verse, he can be romanced; and per Failbetter custom, sex scenes are meant to advance the story and the relationship, not just to function as a win condition or a collectible. Besides, “just write something you think is hot” approaches to sex writing are, ah, prone to produce embarrassing results.

Meanwhile, most characters in the Fallen London verse are monstrous in some respect, while the player character’s sexual characteristics are unspecified. Olivia Wood once did a whole talk about the challenges here, which I will link instead of merely paraphrasing it.

Because of all that, the seduction scenes in Sunless are often moments of connection or revelation about very unusual beings, only as explicit as they have to be, and packed into a fairly tight word limit. The combination of imaginative and technical requirements makes for something challenging but extremely fun to write.

*

As for the nightmares — well, about thirty years ago I had a series of vivid nightmares about something being extremely wrong with my body. The imagery never left. And now you can have it too. You’re welcome.

February 06, 2019

IFTF Blog

IFTF at Providence Geeks on Feb. 20

by Jason McIntosh at February 06, 2019 07:37 PM

I’ll be giving a short presentation about IFTF at the monthly Providence Geeks meetup at 6:30 on Wednesday, February 20, at the AS220 art space downtown. (IFTF’s connection with Providence extends only so far as the fact that its current president happens to live there — but he does, so there you have it.) This will happen at the AS220 main stage at 115 Empire Street.

I plan to host a group play-through of Admiral Jota’s well worn crowd-pleaser Lost Pig starting at 5:30, to entertain the early-birds. We’ll likely have examples of other modern IF on-hand to sample after the talk; I’m taking a cue from how the Boston IF crowd offers demonstrations at the local indie-games festival every year.

Because AS220 has closed its restaurant for renovations, visitors should plan to dine before or after the event, or bring their own take-out to enjoy on-premises. Providence Geeks will provide a pop-up bar.

February 05, 2019

Emily Short

Story (Robert McKee) and the Expectation Gap in Interactive Story

by Emily Short at February 05, 2019 07:40 PM

McKeeStory is one of a handful of screenwriting books that turn up constantly in the bibliography of game writing books. McKee himself gives courses — I’ve never been, but I hear they’re very good shows, whether or not they’re good advice. It’s advised at least as often as Save the Cat, and possibly more so.

It is also, I think, more applicable to non-cinema writing than Save the Cat: McKee is interested in structure, and he has a lot of formulaic rules to suggest, but he cares about content as well. At one point he has a speech about the need for emotional truth, and how this can only come from within the author.

There are aspects of the book that aren’t entirely to my taste. In support of his points, McKee often spends quite a while reprinting classic screenplays — he’s particularly enamored of Chinatown — with his own commentary interspersed. I did not generally find his comments to be that much more instructive than the original dialogue, undisturbed. And even when he’s not giving verbatim chunks of screenplay, he spends an awful lot of time summarizing the events of various movies you’ve probably seen. He’s also a bit grandiose with his rhetoric about the great imaginative work of writing.

Then, too, quite a lot of his advice belongs to the “add an appropriate amount of salt” school of recipe writing — warning that too little or too much of something will be bad, but offering no heuristics.

All the same, there is a lot of basic vocabulary about how plots are assembled and how scenes are designed, which this book introduces as well as or better than many another. Personally, I’d be inclined to go for e.g. Wonderbook instead, if you want an introduction to basic structure vocabulary, and you’re not specifically writing screenplays. For most purposes, Wonderbook is more varied and goes deeper than Story.

There are, however, a couple of points — the ideas of expectation gap and of internal subconscious conflict — where I think it’s interesting how those concepts carry over to interactive work.

One of McKee’s core concepts is “the gap”: the distance between the protagonist’s anticipation and reality, between expectation and result. Any scene where the protagonist gets exactly what they expect is a scene not worth shooting, he argues (and I think he largely has a point here):

Screen Shot 2019-01-27 at 7.46.23 PM.png

But this is an observation that is particularly tricky to carry over to choice-based fiction. In order to play, the player generally does need a goal for the scene. Meanwhile, the protagonist not getting what they want often reads as a reason to replay the scene, not a sign of dramatic progress.

To break that down a little further: I often think in terms of advancement, exploration, and idling moves for the player. Advancement moves are moves that push the story forward or commit to important decisions. Exploration moves are those that open new information for the player. And idling moves are those that consist of things like looking and taking inventory in a conventional parser game, or waiting in a real-time narrative, or clicking around UI indicators in a different sort of choice-based game. They often mean that the player is confused, or that they’re at a lull in the pacing.

A McKee-style expectation gap is easy to offer in response to exploration moves because the player is seeking more information, doesn’t know precisely what to expect, and is ready to be both surprised and gratified by finding something out.

And arguably a gap is unnecessary in idling moves because the player is not expecting to change anything or get anywhere. Idling moves are often extradiegetic anyway — not meant to be part of the main storyline. A lack of dramatic tension is okay if you’re not currently in the drama.

The gap gets trickier with advancement moves, where the player is trying to move the plot forward in some decided fashion. If you give the player an option and the result is not at all what the player expected, that feels like a lack of agency. If you give an option and the result is predictable, you’ve lost McKee’s gap.

Often, what you need is a “yes, but” reaction. The player’s choice succeeds, but there is a side effect or a cost that propels the story forward. The player’s immediate intention works, but it makes their ultimate goal even harder to achieve.

“No, but…” also works sometimes — your attempt failed but it’s changed the world in some other way, so it doesn’t feel like the author was simply ignoring the player’s choice. A game full primarily of “no, but…” consequences is going to feel like the protagonist is just bumbling through the plot, which may or may not be the desired effect.

When the “yes, but…” plays out in a painful way, you can get quite a strong audience reaction to it. In my own BEE, one of the sequences that hit players the hardest involved a trip to the hair salon.

(Spoilers follow, but it’s impossible to play a working copy of BEE right now. Alternatively, you can skip to the next section.)

The protagonist of BEE is a girl of about 11, being raised by broke and also rather conservative parents, and at one point another adult, as a treat, takes her to a nice salon to have her hair done professionally for the first time. Later, the player has the chance to ask for a return trip to the salon, and the mother is grudgingly persuaded, as a special treat. But the haircut costs a lot more than the girl realized on the first trip, and her mother winds up spending their hard-saved grocery money to cover it. Mom is humiliated in the moment and stuck in a difficult financial position afterward.

Throughout the story, the protagonist’s desire for independence and a grown-up self-image is in conflict with her desire to follow her parents’ rules and regulations, and the player runs into that dynamic in a lot of the choices. In the hair salon choice, it’s clear that she’s pushing for the independence side at the expense of the parental preference side… but within pretty well-understood and seemingly harmless parameters. The outcome is that the protagonist gets what she wants, but at a price she wouldn’t have been willing to pay if she’d known it in advance.

“Character is unexpectedly charged a hundred bucks at a fancy salon” is pretty low-stakes compared with a lot of situations in games, including many others I’ve written myself. But I got a disproportionate amount of player feedback about how much they’d been affected by that particular moment. I think a few things helped make this work:

  • The unexpected consequence didn’t rely on coincidences or accidents
  • The fact that it was unexpected illustrated something about the character and her problem: she’s starting to want to explore how adult women present themselves, but her mother is ill-equipped to guide her into that world. A richer mom could have afforded the salon, and a more worldly one would have at least known it was out of their price range
  • The player opted into the action, and opted in knowing that they were prioritizing the girl’s independence over family conformity. They just didn’t realize what they were risking when they did. It looked like the risk was damage to the relationship between the girl and her family, not between the family and the world

The first two points would have worked the same way in a non-interactive version of the story, but the third seems to have given it an extra kick for some players.

*

It might seem like introducing a chance of failure is another way to resolve the advancement move problem. If I attack a dragon expecting to kill it, and I miss my roll and die instead, does that count as expectation gap?

I’d argue that from a narrative perspective, the possibility of failure and the existence of those stakes is an important part of the choice framing to start with. But neither the “you die” nor the “you win” consequence fulfills the requirements of McKee’s gap. A savvy player expects that both victory over the dragon and death are on the table. Even choice/consequence pairs with an element of randomness or challenge still need the the plot to build on the win and loss states usefully.

*

Back to Story. McKee also advocates for characters who have a subconscious desire running counter to their conscious one. That’s easy enough — or, at least, within the parameters of ordinary writing craft — to do with non-player characters.

It can be trickier to imply or evoke that kind of internal conflict in a player character, especially if you’re trying to avoid telling the player how to feel. There are certainly ways to set up protagonist interiority: narration that steers us towards understanding the world in a particular way; characters who obviously sabotage themselves in their own activities; protagonists who don’t understand themselves as well as the player character does.

But getting the player to enact that conflict, to choose in a conflicted way, is more challenging.

A few games handle this by splitting the protagonist into effectively two or more characters, the conscious and subconscious self (or perhaps multiple drives), and then handing control of only one of those to the player. Perhaps the player drives the conscious goals while game mechanics of some kind enforce the unconscious ones: Depression Quest does this, ruling out choices that are impossible for reasons of mental health, no matter what the player might prefer to do.

And Shrapnel is an old and now not-much-played game by Adam Cadre in which the player can accept or veto the protagonist’s first dialogue impulse, but if you veto, you have no control over what the protagonist says instead. The protagonist’s subconscious level has intervened.

In games with heavier mechanics, it’s possible to use stats and resources to force the player to acknowledge the protagonist’s needs. In Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies, the player has a quantity of Terror that gradually rises, triggering nightmares and additional problems until they find a way to bring that terror down again. This kind of presentation treats the emotional self as a somewhat unruly aspect of being, one that clutters things up and gets in the way.

For the most part, though, those systems work best with inner needs that are pretty low on the Maslow hierarchy: it’s common to have systems that force the player to eat, sleep, and find shelter regardless of their other goals; it’s less common but possible to make the player manage the need for psychological safety or affection. It’s harder still to imagine how you’d have a game where the player’s need for artistic self-actualization is slowly ticking away in the background, but some of the Sims games (for instance) do approach some of this territory. (They just then aren’t all that narratively driven.)

It’s harder for me to think of games where the player is directing the subconscious urge of a protagonist while the game is directing the conscious or willed action — though Coloratura, with its alien that can influence the emotions of the human players, is arguably adjacent.

Other resources:

  • Bluebeard’s Bride, a tabletop RPG in which the players represent portions of the protagonist’s psyche.

The People's Republic of IF

February meetup

by zarf at February 05, 2019 06:41 PM

The Boston IF meetup for February will be Thursday, February 21, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

IFTF Blog

Introducing the IntFiction Forum committee

by Andrew Plotkin at February 05, 2019 05:44 PM

IFTF is pleased to announce that we are now in the process of adopting the IF community forum at intfiction.org.

I should say: the forum moderator team are pleased to announce this, in collaboration with IFTF! They already posted the news last weekend.

The forum is a long-standing center of IF community discussion. It’s been continuously active since August of 2006. Mike Snyder, who has hosted the server since the early days, is now stepping down as maintainer. Our very great thanks to Mike for the years, effort, and financial support he’s put into the system!

So now the forum will pass into the IFTF domain. It’s important to make clear what this means.

  • IFTF now has a IntFiction Forum Committee. If you look at that page, you’ll see five people listed as moderators, led by Dannii Willis. These are the same people who have been moderating the forum for the past few years.
  • You’ll also see my name and Chris Klimas on the committee. We are not forum moderators, and we will not be directly involved in moderation decisions or policy. We’re there to advise and to act as liaisons between the mods and IFTF.
  • IFTF will own the intfiction.org domain, run the server, and pay for hosting costs. (Supported by your donations, of course.)
  • The mod team will continue to maintain the software and deal with the day-to-day work of running the forum. As their post notes, they are considering switching from phpBB to Discourse. That was their decision, and they’re making all the decisions about how the new server will be organized.
  • The committee chooses its own members (as long as there’s at least one board liaison). So the committee, including both moderators and board liaisons, decides who gets to be a moderator.
  • IFTF will provide oversight, stability, and support as needed. Since the server itself is run by IFTF, it is protected by IFTF’s status as a registered nonprofit with legal resources and so on. The forum also gains the benefit of being operated by an organization, rather than one volunteer’s web hosting account.
  • The IFTF board has the ability to overrule the mod team. However, we intend to use that authority only for emergency situations. For example, if the mod team breaks down and is unable to make decisions; or if the moderators make decisions which put the forum in legal jeopardy.
  • The mod team has the ability and authority to run the forum software — banning or editing messages if necessary, and so on. The IFTF board liaisons do not have that authority.
  • To be clear: I set up the Linode instance, so I have root access to the machine, so in theory I have absolute power. However, I would not use that power unless the mods request it or if it’s required for emergency server maintenance.
  • The forum has a code of conduct, and IFTF has terms of service. (Including a privacy policy.) All will apply. They should be compatible (we’re checking with our lawyer to make sure).
  • Beyond the guidelines of the COC and TOS documents, IFTF’s policy is to not dictate the shape of forum discussion. Think of this as editorial independence. The forum will be an IFTF project, but the “owners” do not decide what’s on-topic for the forum, or how topics are organized, or what counts as interactive fiction. The moderators decide that. They should not need IFTF’s input unless they’re seriously deadlocked.

This last point is subtle. We’ve had quite a bit of discussion about who “owns” the new forum. But not the way you might think! I came into the discussion assuming that the mod team would be the “real owners”; they came in assuming that IFTF would be. It’s been a bit of a “you first” “no you first” situation.

My (personal) conclusion is that “ownership” is a terrible way to approach community resources in the first place. That’s why I’ve avoided the word in most of the above discussion. (Except for the domain; there’s a clear notion of who owns a given domain name.) Spelling out our explicit areas of responsibility is much more useful.

Ultimately, this is a joint project on behalf of the IF community. It exists because the mod team approached us and we saw that we could help. If it turns out that we can’t work together, the solution is not for the “owner” to force a decision on the “subordinate”; the solution would be to amicably separate.

Why am I going on at such length? I could have just said “IFTF is taking over the forum, yay, party hats for all.” Why all this introspection?

The forum is the first IFTF project which has really had to grapple with this question. After all, when IFTF adopted IFComp, the Comp was run by Jason McIntosh — IFTF’s president. When the IF Archive came on board, I was the director. When Twine got IFTF support, the association was managed by Chris Klimas, Twine’s creator, who is also on the IFTF board. It was taken for granted that each project would continue to operate within IFTF with the same values and vision as it started with.

The forum is IFTF’s first outside project, in that sense. Some of us board members have participated in the forum — I’m an active poster — but we didn’t build it. It’s important that IFTF be able to support the forum without changing what the forum is.

Look at it this way: IFTF now operates a bunch of IF community resources. (Most of the resources I thought of as crucial in the 1990s… although of course IF is a far bigger pond today.) This centralization is a strength; we have nonprofit status and a shared donation stream. But it could also become a problem. Any observer of centralized social networks knows how sour they can go.

IFTF has authority over the resources that it operates. This is necessary for a bunch of reasons, including simple legal liability and the kinds of emergencies I described earlier. However, we want each of these projects to continue thriving in its own way, according to its own values. For the forum, that means a policy of editorial independence.

The problem is not centralization, but dominion. If IFTF were consolidating power — if it were even perceived as consolidating power — it would lose the community’s trust. So we have to be careful to avoid that.

Even dictating the definition of “interactive fiction”, across all our services, would be a fatal mistake. We’re not the people who decide that. You are.

So yes: party hats for all. This is a good move. The moderators now have the opportunity to update the forum. We think you’ll like the upgrades. But at heart, we trust, the forum will remain the community center it has always been.

February 01, 2019

The Digital Antiquarian

Life Off the Grid, Part 2: Playing Ultima Underworld

by Jimmy Maher at February 01, 2019 04:41 PM

I rarely play or even see current games; the demands of this historical project of mine simply don’t allow for it. Thankfully, though, being a virtual time traveler does have its advantages. Just when I’m starting to feel a little sorry for myself, having heard about some cool new release I just don’t have time for, I get to experience a game like Ultima Underworld the way a player from its own time would have seen it, and suddenly living in my bubble is worth it.

It really is difficult to convey to non-time travelers just how amazing Ultima Underworld was back in March of 1992. To be able to move freely through a realistically rendered 3D space; to be able to walk up and down inclines, to jump over or into chasms, even to swim in underground streams… no one had ever seen anything like it before. At a stroke, it transformed the hoary old CRPG formula from a cerebral exercise in systems and numbers into an organic, embodied virtual reality. In time, it would prove itself to have been the starting point of a 3D Revolution in gaming writ large, one that would transform the hobby almost beyond recognition by the end of the 1990s. We live now in a gaming future very different from the merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood which was foreseen by the conventional wisdom of 1992. Today, embodied first-person productions, focusing on emergent experience at least as much as scripted content, dominate across a huge swathe of the gaming landscape. And the urtext of this 3D Future through which we are living is Ultima Underworld.

Given what an enormous technological leap it represented in its day, it feels almost unfair to expect too much more than that out of Ultima Underworld as a game. After all, Blue Sky Productions was working here with a whole new set of affordances, trying to figure out how to put them together in a compelling way. It seems perfectly reasonable to expect that the craftspeople of game design, at Blue Sky and elsewhere, would need a few iterations to start turning all this great new technology into great games.

But it’s in fact here that Ultima Underworld astounds perhaps most of all. This very first example of a free-scrolling 3D dungeon crawl is an absolute corker of a game design; indeed, it’s arguably never been comprehensively bettered within its chosen sub-genre. In almost every one of the many places where they were faced with a whole array of unprecedented design choices, Blue Sky chose the right one. Ultima Underworld is a game, in other words, of far more than mere historical interest. It remains well worth learning to overlook the occasional graphical infelicities of its fairly primitive 3D engine in order to enjoy the wonderful experience that still awaits underneath them.

Needless to say, this isn’t quite the norm among such radically pioneering games. Yet it is a trait which Ultima Underworld shares with the two great earlier pioneers in the art of the dungeon crawl, Wizardry and Dungeon Master. Those games too emerged so immaculately conceived that the imitators which followed them could find little to improve upon beyond their audiovisuals. Just what is it about this particular style of game that yields such success right out of the gate? Your guess is as good as mine.

Regardless, we really should take the time to look at Ultima Underworld‘s gameplay still more closely than we have up to this point. So, today, I’d like to take you on a little tour of the most groundbreaking game of 1992.


Ultima Underworld puts its most conventional foot forward first. After the conventionally horrid introductory movie, it asks us to create a character, choosing from the usual collection of classes, abilities, and skills. The only thing here that might bring a raised eyebrow to the jaded CRPG player is the demand that we specify our character’s handedness — the first clear indication that this is going to be a much different, more embodied experience than the norm.

As soon as we begin the game proper, however, all bets are off. This looks and feels like no CRPG before it. The grid has disappeared from its dungeon; we can move smoothly and freely in real time, just as if we were really inside its world.

Which isn’t to say that Blue Sky didn’t have to make compromises to bring this free-scrolling 3D environment to life using 1992-vintage hardware. I already discussed one of the compromises in my previous article: the use of affine texture mapping rather than a more rigorous algorithm. This allows the game to render its graphics much faster than it would otherwise be able to, at the expense of a slight wonkiness that afflicts the rendering engine in some situations much more than in others. The second compromise is even more obvious: the actual first-person view fills less than half of the total screen real estate. Simply put, fewer pixels to render means that the rendering can happen that much faster.

Wolfenstein 3D

Of course, virtually every game ever made is at bottom a collection of compromises with the ideal in a designer’s head. Blue Sky made these two specific ones because they weren’t willing to compromise in other areas. Two months after Ultima Underworld was released, id Software released Wolfenstein 3D, the other great 3D pioneer of 1992. It features a first-person view that fills much more of the screen than that of Ultima Underworld, and with a considerably faster frame rate on identical hardware to boot. But its world is far less interactive. Its levels are all just that — entirely flat — and it won’t even let you look up or down. These were compromises which Blue Sky wasn’t willing to make. A commitment to verisimilitudinous simulation is the dominant theme of Ultima Underworld‘s design. It would go on to become the attribute that, more than any other, distinguishes the games of their later incarnation, Looking Glass Technologies, from the “just run and shoot” approach of id.


In light of the ubiquity of first-person 3D games in the decades since Ultima Underworld, it’s worth examining Blue Sky’s approach to controlling such a game, formulated well before any norms for same had been set in stone. Unlike what followed it, Ultima Underworld‘s preferred approach uses the mouse for everything; this was very much in line with the conventional wisdom of its era, which privileged the relatively new and friendly affordance of the mouse over the keyboard to such an extent that most games used the latter, if they used it at all, only for optional shortcuts. Thus in Ultima Underworld, you move around the world by moving the mouse into the view area and clicking as the cursor changes shape to indicate the direction of travel or rotation.

Blue Sky’s control scheme is a little different from what we may be used to, but it’s not necessarily worse. In fact, the use of the mouse in lieu of the more typical “WASD” keyboard controls for movement has at least one rather lovely advantage: moving the mouse pointer further in a given direction causes you to move faster. The WASD setup, in which each key can only be on or off at any given time, allows for no such sliding scale of movement speed, forcing clumsier solutions like another binary toggle on the keyboard for “run.”

If you just can’t deal with Ultima Underworld‘s preferred movement scheme, however, there are alternatives — always a sign of a careful, thought-through design. You can click directly on the little gray movement buttons down there below the view window. Or, in what was something of a last-minute addition, you can actually using the keyboard in a way very similar to what you may be used to from more recent games. Here, though, the WASD scheme is replaced with SADX, with the “W” key serving as the run toggle. The difference drives some modern players crazy, but it really needn’t do so. Try to get used to moving using only the mouse; you might be surprised at how well it works. (It’s worth noting as well that even id wouldn’t arrive at the WASD standard for quite some time after Ultima Underworld and Wolfenstein 3D. As late as 1993’s Doom, they would still be mapping the arrow keys to movement by default.)

While left-clicking in the view window lets you move around, right-clicking allows you to manipulate the environment. The vertical row of icons to the left of the view window lets you choose a verb: “talk,” “take,” “examine,” “fight,” or “use,” with the topmost icon leading to the utility menu. If no icon is explicitly selected at a given point, the game intuits a default action when we right-click something in the environment. The end of the short video snippet above shows how elegantly this works in practice. We notice a message scrawled on the wall, and simply right-click it to do the most reasonable thing: to read it.


The video above gives a further taste of the interface in action. Note the ability, so conspicuously absent in id’s contemporaneous games, to look up and down as we move through the world and interact with it. This is accomplished via an exception to the mouse-centric approach. It’s only a little awkward: the “3” key shifts the view upward, “2” centers it vertically, and “1” shifts it downward. It would be at least a couple of years after Ultima Underworld‘s release before any other 3D engine would offer this capability.

This video also illustrates the game’s “paper doll” interface in action, as we pick up objects from the environment and move them into our inventory. The paper doll itself wasn’t new to Ultima Underworld; it had been pioneered by Dungeon Master and long since picked up by the main-line Ultima engines among others. This implementation of it, however, does Dungeon Master one better by living entirely on the main gameplay screen. Indeed, the game has no other screens, with just one exception which we’ll get to momentarily; its commitment to a mode-less interface is even more complete than was Dungeon Master‘s. This, one might even say, is the hidden benefit of that constrained view window. Everything that surrounds it is necessary; the view window might be small, but there is no wasted space anywhere else on the screen. Even what might seem, judging only from the videos above, to be small areas with no purpose actually aren’t, as further playing will reveal. The gray area to the left of the compass will tell us what magical status effects are active; the shelf to the right of the compass is where we will build spells using runes; the crystal at far left, just below the icon bar, shows our current attack strength, and is thus vital for combat. The fact that you aren’t constantly moving between screens does much to enhance the all-pervasive sense that you are there in the dungeon.

Equally important for this effect is a general disinterest in using numbers to represent the current status of your character — or, perhaps better said in light of the game’s commitment to embodiment, your status. While numbers do appear in places — especially if you go looking for them — they’re nowhere near as prevalent as they are in most contemporaneous CRPGs. Your health and mana levels, for instance, are represented graphically by the red and blue vials on the bottom right of the screen — this being another part of the screen you might have initially assumed to be decoration, but which is actually vital.

Later in the video above, we fire up a torch, shedding some welcome light on our surroundings and showing off the game’s advanced lighting model. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I must say, yet again, that no other game of Ultima Underworld’s era or for some time thereafter could match the latter.

Finally, we see something of the game’s physics model in action, as we toss a (useless) skull against the wall. Such kinetic, tactile responsiveness is a far cry from most CRPGs, even as the strength of your character’s throw is indeed affected by his statistics. Dungeon Master, that critical way station beyond Wizardry and Ultima Underworld, pioneered some of this more kinetic approach, but the free-scrolling environment here allows the game to use it that much more effectively.

In addition to the torch, we found in that first sack the game’s auto-map. Even as its presence as a physical object in the world emphasizes the game’s ongoing commitment to embodiment, this is actually the only place where the game’s commitment to its mode-less interface falters — but what a spectacular exception it is! I’ve cheated a bit with the screenshot above, choosing a point from much deeper in the game in order to show the auto-map in its full glory. It’s a feature that simply has to be here; the rest of the game, remarkable as it is, would fall apart without it. Cartography — making your own maps on reams of graph paper — had been a standard part of the dungeon-crawl experience prior to Ultima Underworld. Even real-time dungeon crawls like Dungeon Master had left mapping to the player. By removing the discrete grid, however, Ultima Underworld made this style of mapping, if not utterly impossible, at least far too difficult to be any fun even for the dedicated graph-paper-and-pencil crowd. An auto-map was as fundamental to its design as anything in the game.

But if an auto-map of some sort was essential, it certainly wasn’t necessary for its implementation to be this absurdly fantastic. Dan Schmidt, one of the Ultima Underworld developers, has said on several occasions that he considers the seemingly plebeian affordance of the auto-map to be the most impressive single thing in a game that’s bursting at the seams with unprecedented features. There are days when I find myself agreeing.

Whilst ditching the need for graph paper and pencil, Ultima Underworld preserves the foremost pleasure of CRPG cartography: that of seeing all of the blank spaces on your map filled in, enjoying the gradual transformation of the chaotic unknown into the orderly known. The map of each level is lovely to look at as it takes shape. You want to visit every nook and cranny on each one of the levels just to make it as pristine and complete as possible. You’ll even swim the length of the underground streams and lakes, if that’s what it takes to get them completely documented on parchment.

And there’s one final thing the auto-map does which few games — few games ever, mind you — can match: you can make your own notes on the thing, wherever and whenever you want to. Did you notice all of the text on the map above? I did that, not the game. Needless to say, the programming needed to accommodate this — which, incidentally, had already been completed by Doug Church and J.D. Arnold before the rest of the Blue Sky programming team even arrived — couldn’t have been easy. In terms of both design and implementation, Ultima Underworld‘s auto-map really is nothing short of spectacular.


In the video above, we move down the corridor from the game’s starting point. Notice again how we can move slower or faster merely by shifting the position of the mouse within the view window.

We find our first door at the end of the corridor. This door can be opened by a pull chain just beside it, but we rather perversely elect to close it again and then bash it open. Our ability to do so serves as a further illustration of Blue Sky’s commitment to simulation and emergence. The main-line Ultima games as well have doors of variable strength, but, as any dedicated player of those games quickly realizes, Origin Systems had a tendency to cheat in order to fill the needs of a plot that got steadily more complex from installment to installment: many doors — the plot-important doors — are indestructible. You need the correct key to open them, whose acquisition ensures that certain bits of plot are seen before other bits. (As Ron Gilbert once put it, heavily narrative-focused game design ultimately all tends to come down to locks and keys of a literal or metaphorical stripe.)

But Blue Sky, who don’t have the same sort of eleborate pre-crafted plot full of important story beats to worry about, never cheats. Any given door may indeed have a key which you can find, but, if you haven’t found the key, it is at least theoretically possible to pick its lock, to open it using a magic spell, or to simply bash it down. Mind you, doing the last may not do your weapon any favors; keen sword blades were not made to chop through wood. Here we have yet another example of the game’s focus on simulation, albeit one that may feel somewhat less welcome in practical terms than it does in the abstract when your poor misused sword breaks at an inopportune moment — like, say, in the midst of a desperate combat.


The game’s magic system is marked by the same sense of embodied physicality as everything else. Before you can cast spells at all, you’ll need to find a rune bag helpfully left behind by one of the dungeon’s unfortunate earlier explorers. For a long time to come, you’ll be collecting runes to put in it. You combine these runes into “recipes” — most of which are found in the manual — in order to cast spells. In the video above, we place two recently discovered runes into our rune bag and then cast a light spell which can serve as a handy replacement for a torch. (Note that it takes a couple of tries to successfully cast the spell, a sign of our character’s inexperience.) All character classes can use magic to a greater or lesser degree. Even an otherwise “pure” fighter will probably find simple spells that obviate the need to cart around torches or food to be very useful indeed. Thanks to magic, there’s no time limit on the game in the form of depleting resources; by the time you’ve scarfed up all the food in the dungeon, you’ll have long since mastered the “create food” spell.

The rune-based magic system is another aspect of Ultima Underworld that smacks of Dungeon Master (as is, for that matter, the flexible character-development system in which any character can learn to do anything with enough time and effort). But the Blue Sky team has denied looking closely to the older game for inspiration, and we have no reason to doubt their word. So, we’ll have to chalk the similarities up to nothing more than the proverbial great minds thinking alike. If anything, Ultima Underworld‘s magic system is even more elegant than its predecessor’s. Because you’re collecting physical runes, rather than mere spell recipes in the form of scrolls as in Dungeon Master, the sense that everything that matters to the game is an embodied thing in the world is that much more pronounced here.


It should come as no surprise by this point that Ultima Underworld‘s combat system is built along the same lines of embodied physicality. That is to say, you physically swing (or shoot, or throw) your weapon against monsters that are embodied in the same space as you. The video above gives a taste of this, in the form of a battle against a giant rat guarding some choice booty. (Ultima Underworld may be a breathtakingly original design, but some things in the world of CRPGs are timeless. Meeting giant rats as your first opponents is among these.)

Later battles will see you using the environment in all sorts of creative ways: shooting down upon monsters from ledges, blasting them with magic and then running away to recharge your batteries behind a closed door. You can also try to sneak past monsters you’d rather not fight, using not only your character’s innate stealth ability but your own skill at maneuvering through light and shadow. In fact, a sufficiently dedicated pacifist could finish Ultima Underworld while doing surprisingly little killing at all. One of the advantages of the simulation-first approach is that it really does let you play the game your way — possibly even in ways that the game’s designers never thought of.

But Ultima Underworld isn’t all emergent simulation. It does have a plot of sorts, albeit one that you can approach in your own way, at your own speed, and in your own order. You learn soon after arriving in the dungeon that you need to assemble a collection of magic objects. Doing so will occupy your attention for the bulk of the game.

This scavenger-hunt structure may be less innovative than most of the game, but it’s executed with considerable verve. Each level has its own personality and its own inhabitants, living in what feel like credible communities. Importantly, you don’t — or shouldn’t, anyway — indiscriminately slaughter your way through the levels. You need to talk to others, an element that’s notably missing from Wizardry and Dungeon Master. The dungeon’s inhabitants actually remember your treatment of them. An early example of the game’s relationship model, if you will, is provided on the very first level. Two tribes of goblins who hate one another live there in an uneasy symbiosis. Will you ally yourself with one or the other? Or will you try to thread the needle between friend and foe with both, or for that matter go to war with both? The choice is up to you. But choose carefully, for such choices in this game have consequences which you will be living with for a long time to come.

Regular readers of this blog are doubtless aware that I place a high premium on fairness and solubility in games. I’ve gone on record many times saying that a game which is realistically soluble only through a walkthrough cannot by definition be a good game, no matter what other things it does well. In this context, everything would seem to be working against Ultima Underworld. A bunch of MIT whiz kids, all freelancing without recourse to any central design authority, working in an insular environment without recourse to outside play testers… it doesn’t give one much hope for fair puzzles.

Yet, here as in so many other places, Ultima Underworld defies my prejudices and expectations alike. There are perhaps two or three places where the clues could stand to be a little more explicit — certainly no one should feel ashamed to peek at a walkthrough when playing — but there are no egregious howlers here. Take careful notes, take your time, and follow up diligently on all of the clues, and there’s no reason that you can’t solve this one for yourself. Sure, by modern standards it’s an absurdly difficult game. There is no quest log to keep everything neat and tidy for you, and, as a byproduct of its ethos of respecting and empowering its player at every turn, the game will happily let you toss essential quest items into a river, never to be seen again, without saying a word about it. At the same time, though, the utter lack of guardrails can be bracing. If you solve this one, you’ve really accomplished something. And, unlike so many of the games I’ve complained about on this blog, Ultima Underworld never feels like it’s trying to screw you over. It just won’t prevent you from doing so if you decide to screw yourself over.

Only occasionally does the commitment to simulation get in the way of friendly, fair design. To wit: after talking to a character once, trying to elicit the same information again often results only in some variation on “I already told you that!” Dan Schmidt, who was responsible for pulling all of the dialog together, told me that he believed at the time that this was only fair, another way of committing to verisimilitude in all things. Nowadays, I (and he) are more likely to categorize it under that heading of design failures known as “the designer being a jerk just because he can.” Given what a masterpiece Ultima Underworld is on the whole, it’s almost comforting to know that Blue Sky still had a few things to learn about good design.

On the other hand, I really love the way the design uses the game’s virtual space. There are a considerable number of quests and puzzles that span multiple levels in the dungeon, forcing you to retrace your steps and revisit “finished” levels. Another of Ultima Underworld‘s more unique design decisions in comparison with the dungeon-crawl tradition, this does much to give the game a holistic feel, making its dungeon feel like a living place rather than just a series of levels to be solved one after another.

The puzzles themselves are as mode-less as the basic interface. None of them pull you out of the game’s world: no riddles, no mini-games. Instead they work brilliantly within it. There are some wonderfully rewarding puzzles here, such that I hate to spoil them by saying too much about them. Following up on the clues you’re given, you’ll do things that seem like they couldn’t possibly work — surely the game engine can’t be that granularly responsive! — and be shocked and delighted when they actually do. In one fine example, you’ll have to literally learn a new language — okay, a limited subset of it anyway — via clues scattered around the environment. Sometimes challenging and often complex but never unfair, the puzzles will richly reward the effort you put into them.

Perhaps the best example of how the puzzles of Ultima Underworld are integrated into its environment is Garamon, a mysterious personage who often visits your dreams when you sleep. He at first seems like nothing more than a contrived adventure-game clue dispenser, but you gradually realize that he is a real — albeit deceased! — character in the story of the Abyss, and that he has something very personal he wants you to do for him: to give his body a proper burial so he can find peace. When you discover a certain empty tomb, and connect it with the figure from your dreams, the flash of insight is downright moving.

I could go on with yet more praise for Ultima Underworld — praise for, by way of example, its marvelous context-sensitive music, provided by the prolific game composers George “The Fat Man” Sanger and Dave Govett (also the composers of the Wing Commander score among many, many others). Yet I hesitate to cause what may already seem like an overly effusive review to read still more so. I can only hope that my reputation as a critic not overly prone to hyperbole will precede me here when I say that this game truly is a sublime achievement.

Ultima Underworld II

I have less — and far less that is positive — to say about the second and final Ultima Underworld game, which bears the subtitle Labyrinth of Worlds. In contrast to its groundbreaking predecessor, it’s a fairly typical sequel, offering as its only mechanical or technical innovation a somewhat larger view window on the 3D environment. Otherwise, it’s more of the same, only much bigger, and not executed quite as well.

The new entity that was known as Looking Glass Technologies — the product of the merger between Blue Sky Productions and Lerner Research — became a much more integral part of the Origin Systems family after the first Ultima Underworld‘s release and commercial success. The result was a plot for the new game that was also better integrated into the Ultima timeline, falling between the two games made by Origin themselves with their own Ultima VII engine in terms of both plot and release chronology. The new interest in set-piece plotting and Ultima lore does the sequel few favors; it rather straitjackets the sense of free-form exploration and discovery that marks the original. Instead of being confined to a single contiguous environment, Ultima Underworld II sends you hopscotching back and forth through its titular “labyrinth of worlds.” The approach feels scattershot, and the game is far less soluble than its predecessor — yet another proof of a theorem which the games industry could never seem to grasp: that a bigger game is not necessarily a better game.

The sequel was created from start to finish in less than nine months, nearly killing the team responsible for it. Origin and Looking Glass’s desire to get a second game out the door is understandable on the face of it; they had a hit on their hands, and wanted to strike while the iron was hot. This they certainly did, but the sequel reportedly sold less than half as many copies as its predecessor — although it should also be noted that even those numbers were enough to qualify it as a major hit by contemporary standards. Still, Paul Neurath, the head of Blue Sky and co-head of Looking Glass, has expressed regret that he didn’t give his people permission and time to make something more formally ambitious. In the future, Looking Glass would generally avoid these sorts of quickie sequels.

While the second game is probably best reserved for the CRPG hardcore and those who just can’t get enough of the experience provided by the first one, the original Ultima Underworld is a must-play. Without a doubt one of the very best CRPGs ever made, it’s even more important for the example it set for gaming in general, showing what heights of flexibility and player-responsiveness could be scaled through the emerging medium of 3D graphics. The pity is that more developers — even many of those who eventually went 3D — didn’t heed the entirety of its example. Countless later games would improve on Ultima Underworld‘s sometimes wonky visuals by throwing out its simplistic affine texture mapping in favor of better techniques, and by blowing up its view window to fill the whole screen. Very few of them, however, would demonstrate the same commitment to what Blue Sky/Looking Glass saw as the real potential of 3D graphics: that of simulating an intuitively emergent world and placing you, the player, inside it. Whether judged in terms of historical importance or by the more basic metric of how much fun it still is to play, Ultima Underworld is and will always remain seminal.

(Ultima Underworld I and II can be purchased from GOG.com.)

sub-Q Magazine

Author Interview: Laura De Stefani

by Stewart C Baker at February 01, 2019 02:41 PM

Laura De Stefani is an All round artist who loves drawing on any support, sculpting and modelling. She likes to travel and go to game-jams. You can follow here here: https://twitter.com/Odris_Den, https://www.instagram.com/odris_den/, https://odris-den.itch.io/. Laura is the author of our cover art/game for February’s issue, “Fill the Void.”

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


sub-Q Magazine: Our theme for 2018 was love. What does love mean to you, and do you think that affected how you approached your game?
Laura De Stefani: Love for me is many things. It’s not just romantic love, but it’s a deep, compelling connection that bounds you to someone else, and makes you want the best for them. Love is the warmth of acceptance, is care, affection, worries sometimes. Love can happen between two strangers, between two friends, or lovers, or relatives. A stranger that stops their car to help you, completely for free, that’s love too.

This definitively influenced the game. The search for love is something we all struggle with: everyone need care and affection. But the very first source of love for you has to be you. Relationships come and go, friends change, validation from the outside world can be lacking, and if these are the only things filling your void, sooner or later you will find yourself empty again, begging, demanding, and basically being miserable.

There are A LOT of absolutely great, smart and loving people that don’t love themselves and are in pain for that. I wrote “Fill the Void” for them.

sub-Q Magazine: All the games for our jam were very short. What challenges did you experience trying to create something in such a constrained space?
Laura De Stefani: Actually, I really enjoy short stuff. I like to do short projects and read and play short games. I had this as a short interactive comic in my mind from the very beginning , so it hasn’t been that hard. I had to trim here and there to fit in the panel limit, and I could have said so much more given more space, but I enjoyed quite much the challenge.

sub-Q Magazine: What’s one thing you wish you’d known when you first started making interactive art?
Laura De Stefani: Something I wish I knew before? That you need a wide set of different skills: yes, there is writing and drawing, but there is also coding and design and teamwork (not in ths case). Usually artists tend to recoil from coding, but knowing how to do a little bit of everything gave me a much wider spectrum of possibilities to do art and to express myself. But I learnt it the hard way.

So, fellow artists: learn a little bit of IT. It’s HUGELY useful.

sub-Q Magazine: If you play a lot of games, what was your favourite new game in 2018? Anything coming out in 2019 you’re excited about?
Laura De Stefani: I loved the first chapter of Deltarune, and I can’t wait to play the next one! I don’t closely follow a lot of game news, but I heard a new Cuphead will be released. Yay!

sub-Q Magazine: What’s next? If you have any upcoming games, artwork, or other projects you want to talk about, let us know!
Laura De Stefani: My next project will be a visual novel spiced up with some minigames, playable on smartphone and tablet. The title for now is “the Pastry Cat”, and it wil be about a young cat that wants to chase his dream of becoming a pastry chef, fighting the stubbornness of his family and the obstacles of the school. 🙂

The post Author Interview: Laura De Stefani appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

January 31, 2019

The People's Republic of IF

Fall 2018 Interactive Fiction Final Class at MIT Trip Report

by Angela Chang at January 31, 2019 11:41 PM

Students with instructor Nick Montfort

On Dec. 11, 2018,15 projects were presented for the Fall 2018 Interactive Fiction Final Class taught by Nick Montfort. The projects were varied in aesthetic and depth, but here are some themes that were covered:

  • Nightmares
  • Different ways of dying
  • Blood
  • A dragon piece that asked the protagonist to retell their story and used metalepsis
  • Alerts and Alarms
  • Murder & Suicide
  • Weird memories
  • Tentacled aliens
  • Space Aliens and Space Travel
  • Escape Rooms 
  • Chess pieces in love
  • A satiric piece about generic game art 
  • Gender Identity
  • Fraud and Deception
  • False Imprisonment
  • Cross platform media (Instagram, Web, Twitter) stalking and perspectives on social media
  • Unread Emails (!!!)
  • Computer viruses and Tech Support Hell

Well played! Students demonstrated very interesting pieces that explored narrative variations in interesting ways.  We hope these students will continue their interaction fiction journeys to submit to IntroComp or ELO or IFcomp next year.

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Dragon Racer by Tierra Wright

by Rachel E. Towers at January 31, 2019 05:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Ever since you were a child, you dreamed of flying amongst other racers with your dragon, and so, when the chance came to become one, you leaped for it. But, things are not always so simple. It’s 25% off until February 7th!

Dragon Racer is a 420,000 word interactive fantasy novel by Tierra Wright, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Will you show all of those who doubt you that you have what it takes to ride with the greatest dragon racers? Will you form bonds with them, stronger than you ever thought possible, or will you use those around you to simply push your own agenda?

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, or bi.
• Name your dragon, and help shape his personality.
• Train your dragon in three different areas of racing.
• Fly you dragon in many different racing events.
• Learn the truth about your past and uncover the secrets of Abauruth.

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

January 25, 2019

"Dhakajack"

The 2019 French IF Competition

by Jack at January 25, 2019 04:42 AM

The theme for this year’s competition is screens.

This year, five games were entered in the French IF Competition. In the past, the comp has leaned towards parser-based works, but I think for the first time, Twine games predominated. The games are found on the main site for the French IF community along with a form to cast votes.

It may seem odd to review the games in English, but I can get my thoughts across easier that way and I think it will help expand the reach for these games that are usually played by the relatively small (but growing) francophone IF community. I’m also less likely to leak any spoilers this way. When I submit my votes, I plan to boil down these comments to hopefully intelligible French.

Escape Game

By Bryan

This Twine game was submitted by Bryan, who joined the French IF discord server earlier in the year and has brought a lot of enthusiasm to the group. I believe that this is his first game, and it’s a solid effort. Unlike some first time efforts that fall short because they are too grandiose and become overwhelmingly complex, this game lays out a premise, proceeds through some challenges, and concludes. Just learning a new system and producing a playable game is worthy of some applause. It is great to see new authors taking a stab at it.

The story starts right in without a lot of background, and you find yourself in a room full of screens. Immediately, a masked face appears and informs you that your only chance to escape is to answer some riddles; for each one correctly answered, you get a digit in a number that needs to be entered to unlock the exit. A couple wrongs answers, however, will unleash a knife-wielding maniac, who will make short work of you. It is sort of a traditional escape room, but lethal.

A series of riddles is a tough mechanic to pull off well. Players, particularly if they are playing alone rather than in a group, will often come up blank. If they’re not on the same wavelength as the author, some players may never solve a given riddle. Indeed, having tried some of these riddles and learned the expected answers, I don’t understand some of them. The conventional work around is to provide either some kind of progressive clues to help the player solve the riddle or to provide more than one path through the riddles. By allowing players to get a couple riddles wrong, Bryan effectively does the latter.

Answering one riddle after another would be pretty dry stuff if not for the back and forth dialogue between the player character and his sadistic, but entertaining dungeon master. The player can choose between cocky self-assured remarks or quivering in fear. It doesn’t much affect the course of the game, it adds favor and provides the player with a sense of control.

The game is not styled in a visual sense — it is more or less right out of the package Twine, but for a first game I think everyone would agree that it’s much more the writing and structure that matter. One place I would like to see the author invest more effort would be in soliciting proofreaders and testers. The beginnings of sentences need to be capitalized, they need to end with periods, and it would help to have more eyes checking grammar (if I can spot grammatical issues, I’m sure they were more glaring to native French speakers).

Regarding the story structure, most of the passages ended in one or two choices; I would have preferred a third choice where possible. Also, while I realize how scary it is to start branching, either that or some use of variables are needed to meaningfully payoff choices made in the game. Finally, the game ends a little abruptly — certainly, if you fail and die, but even if you succeed, there is nothing in the way of epilogue beyond that you escape and find yourself on a dark side street. I would have liked to see some explanation of why I was there and what it all meant; but of course, its the author’s prerogative to end the story as he sees fit.

So, I’m looking forward to Bryan’s next game, now that he will certainly walk away from this year’s competition numbering in the top five games. For the next one: a bit more framing story, puzzles that are more woven into the fabric of the story, and some rewards for the player having successfully negotiated the narrative.

Le Jour où la Terre Dégusta

By Yakkafo

I should mention that in the past of the French Comp, authors used to be required to enter under pseudonyms. That rule is no longer in place, but its still a common practice. I assume we’ll find out who “Yakkafo” is at the grand unveiling ceremony after the comp.

This is a fun game, which revolves around trying to understand space aliens who only communicate in emoji. That alone is worth a few points.

The game introduces you as Dr. Laetetia Duneuf, an academic philologist, who somewhat resents teaching a room full of students who seem more interested in texting on their phones and laptops. This not only checks the box for this year’s theme of “screens”, but introduces themes of electronic communication, social networking, and humans versus computers. Not bad for an opening scene.

The author takes a page from any number of movies — the military has sudden need of your expertise. Only you can figure out how to communicate with them… before it is too late. The willingness of the military to throw every nuke in the country at the space invaders is played mostly for laughs, but at least on the first few play throughs, it does add some tension.

The truth is, there is really no bad outcome for this game. There are multiple endings, some more surreal than others. Which path you take depends on what emojis you send in response to alien messages.

That brings up the issue of interface. This game has styling for color and fonts and a smart looking interface for picking from a limited list of emoji to send. The list has to be limited since I believe that the game provides commentary about every possible combination you send, and you have several chances to send a message. That’s a lot of writing, although some of the choices do re-converge.

Compose an outgoing message by clicking on possible choices of emoji.

One interesting choice the author made for this game was to disable the undo button. That makes a lot of sense, since otherwise you could lawnmower through the various combinations of emojis. It is not a long game, so playing through multiple times is not burdensome and it is fun to discover the alternative endings. Conversely, I appreciate that Bryan did not disable this feature in his game, as playing through a gauntlet of riddle choices repeatedly would have been less fun than having the option of backing out of a bad guess.

This game had an excellent sense of humor and was my second favorite in this year’s comp.

Panoptique

Cowritten by Hugo Labrande and Nighten Dushi

Illustrations by Nighten Dushi

Hugo has been busy. He’s run the comp for the last few years and has churned out articles and tutorials for the French IF site at a prodigious rate over the last year. He was also an early adopter of Vorple, and has produced a number of games written in Inform 6 plus Vorple. I believe that this current game is the first full game produced by anyone with the most recent version of Vorple, 3.1.

I would take some of the games in the comp to task for falling short in the art department: some of the cover art is just text. I don’t put as much emphasis on cover art and blurbs as some folks, but I do think it’s important and that not investing some effort on first impressions can have the effect of selling these games short.

In Panoptique, not only is there a painting on the cover, but one for each scene in the game. As the name would suggest, this game revolves around a panopticon. You are employed by the state to watch a bank of monitors and report any concerning behaviors that you observe. Simple enough. As far as I can tell, your commands are limited to switching from one monitor to another and writing reports.

The view on monitor 10.

But there is a little more to it. Initially, I just flicked back and forth between monitors. I didn’t see anything interesting, so I just continued to channel surf. That got me fired. Turns out the State doesn’t appreciate non-productive employees. On my next run, I over-compensated, reporting anything that I thought could lead to a crime or that didn’t quite smell right to me. Again, I failed my employee review.

There’s actually a lot going on in the game: each screen tells a story that evolves over time. I played through a bunch of times, but perhaps not that carefully. I think that there may be threads that run horizontally through the game as well. I recall seeing a flag appear in more than one location, for instance, and I have to wonder if there the events connect from one location to another.

The tone of this story, a surveillance state, and the way its puts the player in a position of complicity reminded me of games from recent IFcomps (e.g., Ostrich in the 2018 comp), where the player has had to redact documents or play the role of an informant in an authoritarian state. One aspect of this game that I felt was absent (intentionally?) was giving the player a way out. I suppose being fired from the job is one way, but I tried quitting and that did not work.

Finally, a word on Vorple. Hugo has written games and demos that put Vorple through its paces, but in this story, I think it is used mainly to place elements on the web page, particularly the art work. It’s an important demonstration that while Vorple opens up a long list of bells and whistles, it may be of most service to stories when employed subtly.

FireFly

by Indigo

What is it with English Titles? This year: Firefly, Escape Game, Night City 2020. Is this a general trend for games in the Francophone world? If they keep this up, I am worried that the Academie Francaise will may need to intervene.

When I saw this title, I wondered if this would be some kind of IF adaptation of the TV series by the same name, but thankfully it is not. Rather, it is something that appears on little blips of light on your heads-up display, like the little glowing summertime insects that people in my neck of the woods call “lightning bugs”.

In this story, you are an “enhanced” human, cybernetically enhanced and wearing power armor, kind of a cross between RoboCop and Starship Troopers. That’s about all you know at the start of the game. Almost immediately, you are plunged into the action when “terrorists” set off an explosion that wreaks havoc with your power armor.

This game is written in Twine, but the UI has really been polished: images, sound, delayed text, and other effects. After the explosion, your suit reboots, with command line information scrolling up in glorious old school green-on-black. I think this part is an intentional callback to RoboCop.

Hovering the mouse over the image of the armor will highlight various systems, like optical sensors.

That screen is replaced by a clickable image map of the upper portion of your power armor and game input then consists of clicking various modules. Your power main power systems have failed and your backup battery is running out of juice rapidly; you have only a few turns to figure out how to extricate yourself from the situation.

There’s a bit of a puzzle at this step, but skipping over it for spoiler prevention, you do manage to get up and running again, and have to make some choices about seeing your mission through. The game is not very long, but it does have some twists and turns, which lead to a new understanding about your world and your role in it. There is more than one potential outcome, but the game steers somewhat towards the preferable one.

I really appreciated the work that went into designing this game’s various interfaces; both it and Le Jour où la Terre Dégusta push the Twine design envelope.

NightCity 2020

by hoper

Explanatory material on the initial screen of this Twine game provides some interesting background — this game originally was a pen-and-paper game to be played by rolling actual dice. I think the comp organizers made a great decision in allowing this story to be ported over to Twine, which must have been a huge amount of work for the author.

Converting the story to Twine was not just a matter of creating a hyperlinked document, but implementing inventory, statistics, and a combat system in Twine, effectively producing a fun to play CRPG with a strong narrative.

Normally, I just want to launch into a game without a lot of preface, but in this case, it is worth reading the background material about how the original game came about, the rules for the pen and paper version, and about the game setting.

The game was written some time ago, in the heyday of William Gibson-inspired cyberpunk. The general flavor of the Sprawl and cowboys who jack their decks into the matrix would have been in the air. 2020 was a far distant date, rather than next year, but the story holds up. Played now, the dangerous dystopian city isn’t too far from a Marc Levy banlieue story, and the cybernetic enhancements still feel twenty years in the future.

The game starts with a relatively long block of text, which might be off-putting for players who are used to one or a couple paragraphs on most screens followed by choices. In general, text passages are longer in this game, but that is actually one of its strengths. This is more “interactive fiction” in the original sense — an electronic book, but its game play is none the worse for having a solid narrative.

I think the game’s origins as printed text come through in the strength of the writing, scene descriptions, character interactions, and overall integration of the various paths through the story. I have to imagine that this story was written and rewritten in a word processor, and that all that focus on the writing yielded a more satisfying story.

This is a very replayable game, and I spent hours on it. Firstly, because I kept dying. There is a learning curve, both with regard to initial strategy in equipping the player and in making choices as the game progresses. If you have ever complained that choices in a Twine game don’t seem to matter, this will cure you of that. Sometimes death comes very quickly, other times, it’s a slow attrition. After the first few deaths, I came to really appreciate the ability to save game progress.

I found the game challenging, but in that sort of Pavlovian intermittent reward way that I wanted to keep playing. Part of the difficulty is the extensive use of random outcomes in combat: some times the rolls are in your favor, some times not, but since your adversaries’ stats, their to-hit and damage and your ability to avoid damage all seem to involve some randomness, sometimes the combination of factors makes a scene unwinnable: you can rewind to a save point, but there is no way that you have enough ammunition or hit points (endurance) to prevail.

The adaptation to Twine takes advantage of some design features like selecting equipment by clicking checkboxes on a list. However, the implementation is just a little short of complete. In this example, you have a number of character creation points — it would take just a bit of javascript to make a counter show the remaining points to be allocated on this screen.

The game is almost entirely text, but there are a few illustrations, which must have been carried over from the original printed version. Stats are show in the collapsible panel on the left.

The options at the bottom of each page are probably verbatim from the original document, and it looks odd to see them written as referring to “turn to page 234”, where 234 is now a hyperlink. In one sense, it is quaint, but a little distracting. I think it would look better with a bit of styling as some kind of list.

Some of the formatting choices are also a little off. For example, alternating dialogue is often presented as bullet pointed text, where each bullet introduces a new speaker. This isn’t too far from standard usage, and it would only take a minor tweak to CSS to change those odd-looking bullet points into more familiar em-dashes.

I would love to see a post-comp version of this. There are some minor formatting issues and it could do with more proofreading (that said, there is a lot of text here, so the occasional typo is entirely forgivable). Some mechanics could use a little polishing, like better access to inventory items. In many battles, I wish that I could have injected myself with “dorph” as my action on a given turn.

But, these are minor criticisms. Like last year’s winner, the modern Hansel and Gretel story, this one successfully marries story and action without letting RPG mechanics detract from the flow. I considered this the best game of this year’s competition and think it would place high in any comp.

The post The 2019 French IF Competition appeared first on Dhakajack.

January 24, 2019

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Keeper of the Sun and Moon by Brynn Chernosky

by Rachel E. Towers at January 24, 2019 06:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

No one mentioned saving the world at freshman orientation, but you still can’t decide if the worst part of college is the essays or the demons. It’s 25% off until January 31th!

Keeper of the Sun and Moon is a 310,000 word interactive fantasy novel by Brynn Chernosky, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

You knew your school year was off to a rocky start when you were attacked by a gorgon. Whisked away to New World Magi Academy, you’re thrown into life at a college for supernatural in the midst of unprecedented turmoil in the city. There’s a war brewing between angels and demons in New Magi City—and the theft of the powerful celestial artifacts does nothing to abate tensions…

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, or asexual.
• Romance one of ten love interests, from a cute shifter to a snarky telepath.
• Experience life as one of seven unique species as you learn to control your powers.
• Choose your classes for each semester, from Telekinesis to Sigils and Runes.
• Discover the secrets of New Magi City, and become involved in the intrigue yourself.
• Delve into a forgotten mystery to uncover the secrets of the Dragon Massacre.
• Stop the artifact thief from taking control of the city, or aid them along the way.

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